Monday, December 29, 2008

Gran Torino (**1/2)

GRAN TORINO
Produced and Directed by Clint Eastwood



**1/2

If anybody can play tough at the age of 78, it's Clint Eastwood. The man has spent the last forty years spreading out squint-inducing intimidation and that has made him a living legend in more ways than one. If that wasn't enough, in his golden years, Clint has become a first-rate filmmaker, with four Oscar statues to his name. And prolific at that, the man simply never seems to stop working, with two films being released within the last four months alone. Did I forget to mention that he also composes the scores to all his films as well?

So yeah, Eastwood has done more in his seventies than most people will ever do. He was already an icon as an actor, but it's these last couple of years with his work as a director and producer that has made him an absolute giant in film history. So all of this being said, every time Clint makes a film, it is an event. But he seems to have hit a snag as of late. His previous film, Changeling, won raves at Cannes but floundered with American audiences and critics. With his latest film, Gran Torino, Eastwood returns to the screen as an actor, and though he plays beautifully, it seems it has taken away from his job as a filmmaker.

Eastwood plays Walt Kowalski, a mean, racist Korean War veteran, whose wife has passed away, leaving him alone to sulk in his stubborn, grouchy stupor. His two sons can hardly stand being around him because his old school attitude is so contemptuous of anything progressive that he can't even spare emotion at his wife's funeral. All of Walt's family is just waiting for him to drop so they can scramble together all of his belongings, particularly his prized possession: a mint-conditioned 1972 Gran Torino--a car that his granddaughter has a hot eye for.

Walt is pestered by the community's young priest (Christopher Carley) to go to confession, because supposedly Walt's wife requested it, but Walt dismisses the matter. When he gets a new crop of next door neighbors, he's bothered to see that it is a large Hmong family. 'Why can't the small American towns be for Americans?' Walt thinks. He doesn't care much for his neighbors, nor does he care about any other foreign culture. He spouts off various derogatory phrases aimed at all races, religions, and sexual orientations, and doesn't care one way or another what anybody thinks about it.

His lifestyle is challenged when he is essentially forced into a relationship with the young boy from next door, Thao (Bee Vang). Thao is coaxed by his gang banger cousin to attempt to steal Walt's Gran Torino, but Walt is ready with his loaded rifle. Thao's family--particularly his sister Sue (Abney Her)--are so ashamed by Thao's actions, they do their best to make up with Walt. They invite him over for dinner, and (wouldn't you know) he accepts, and begins to learn about other cultures for a change. He befriends the family, but when the gangs begin to penetrate Thao and Sue's world even further, Walt finds it hard to suppress his usual violent urges.

It's not that Gran Torino is a failure as a film, it's just that while watching Eastwood's latest picture, I found this thought running through my head: "Well, yeah, this guy did make Blood Work AND Space Cowboys." Eastwood is showing a little laziness here. The level of filmmaking isn't anywhere near Unforgiven or Mystic River. His infamous laid-back film shoots are fine when you're working with professional actors like Sean Penn, Morgan Freeman, or Angelina Jolie, but here, dealing with mostly unknowns, the actors look like they could've used a much more sturdy hand behind the reigns, that would hold them more accountable. Most of the Asian-American actors (with the exception of Her), seem truly confused at what their characters are supposed to be doing.

Moreover, I understand the high-wire act that screenwriter Nick Schenk was trying to pull-off within this film, but it never truly finds the perfect balance. We see Walt's relatives, and they are nothing more than selfish people who ignore the old man. Then we hear Walt unleash tongue-lashings on various people that are so maliciously politically incorrect. So, is he a harmed man trying to prove his worth, or is he a mean curmudgeon who is planning to redeem himself? The movie wants him to be both, but it just doesn't work that way.

That being said, I've never seen Clint Eastwood have more fun on the screen than what he's doing here. We can see in his acceptance speeches that he is a rather charming man, but nearly all of his film roles contain him into one-note meanies (we'll forget about Every Which Way But Loose). Here, Eastwood truly grasps the character of Walt and fills him out so completely that we don't seem to care much that he isn't appropriately written. This won't be as remembered as his iconic performances within the Dirty Harry series or the "man with no name" films, but it certainly should be.

By the picture's end, Walt doesn't seem like much more than Dirty Harry: The Retirement Years. Truth be told, Clint is the last of the old school legends. He has the strut of all that John Wayne conservatism, but can still occasionally possess the gentleness of a James Stewart. I say those two particularly because they both shared the political and societal views that Eastwood has. Watching The Searchers for the seventh time the other day, I realized how much Eastwood owed to Wayne as the classic tough guy, anti-hero, but Eastwood is all we have left, and he's doing his best to make his impression even toward the end.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Mr. Black



Brad Pitt in this scene alone (from Burn After Reading) is head-and-shoulders better than he is in Benjamin Button.

Friday, December 26, 2008

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (**)

THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON
Directed by David Fincher



**

The short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button", is a good story, not a great one. It's a charming tale about a man born 5'8'', with the mind and body of an 80-year-old man, who grows younger and younger. Fitzgerald peppers the story with wit, and is an almost satirical statement about age and social classes. It is succinct and pleasant, but as David Fincer--a filmmaker I admire greatly--brings this story onto the big screen, he makes a film that is as laborious as it is ambitious.

In this version, Benjamin (Brad Pitt) isn't born as an old man, but as a baby with a lot of wrinkles (??). His mother dies in childbirth, and his father, horrified by the sight of him, places him on the steps of a retirement home. There, he is found by Queenie (Taraji P. Henson), a young woman who works in the home, and sees Benjamin as a miracle that she should take care of. She raises Benjamin as he gets bigger, but continues to possess the features of an 80-year-old man. Surrounded by many senior citizens, Benjamin is very much in his element, except that he is inexplicably beginning to grow younger.

The biggest moment in his life, is when he meets a young girl named Daisy. She is precocious, and is very much interested in Benjamin. Benjamin has feelings for Daisy as well, but his older appearance makes it difficult. By the time he is a teenager, Benjamin looks about 70, and begins to work on a tugboat, where he travels to different parts of the world, continuing to write to Daisy to explain his journey. While traveling he meets Elizabeth (Tilda Swinton), in which he experiences his first true romance, but it doesn't last very long.

He returns home in his late 20's, now looking like a man in his 50's, and finds Daisy (Cate Blanchett), now a woman and performing as a dancer on Broadway. Daisy is beautiful and still precocious, flirts with the much younger Benjamin, but her youthfulness finds little use for him. Then Benjamin reaches his 40's, and he's looks as much, and he and Daisy are finally within the same range. They finally experience the romance they both wanted for so many years, but as Benjamin gets younger, and Daisy gets older, life becomes difficult.

Fincher is a wonderful filmmaker. Both Se7en and Zodiac are masterful pieces of cinema that are either discarded as shallow horror, or completely ignored by the public altogether; and there are plenty of moments within Benjamin Button that showcase his masterful talent behind the camera, but he and screenwriter Eric Roth seem to have no idea what was so good about the original story to begin with. Why take a funny story about life, and transform it into solemn story about death?

The movie moves like molasses, and at times seems like it's doing so on purpose. As Benjamin grows younger, he is forced to face the tragic aspects of life through a very different window. We are meant to feel like we are living life with Benjamin, but last time I checked, all of us are moving forward in time. Eric Roth adapted this screenplay much in the way he adapted another screenplay, Forrest Gump. He is obviously a fan of tracking the timeline of his characters by referencing moments in history, but with Gump the moments go hand-in-hand with the story, and just seem dropped in for no reason in this film.

Brad Pitt has always seemed to like starring in long, strenuous storylines that have all to do with his own characters (Legends of the Fall and Meet Joe Black, anyone?). Pitt is good in this, but it's hard to judge a performance that is all CGI and make-up half of the time. Blanchett is fine as Daisy, who seems to be nothing more than a blank slate without any real character arc. The biggest boost of humanity within the film comes from Taraji P. Henson, playing the soulful, pious woman who raises Benjamin. She seems to be the only actor in the film who possesses the humor of the short story.

Benjamin Button is a cinematic achievement technically, but offers nothing in the form of a humane story. If I'm sitting in a theater watching a movie that seems twice as long as it actually is, then I hope that it at least has something to say. This film isn't really saying anything worthwhile, other than "It's sad when people I love die". Synecdoche, New York is a film from earlier this year that covers the same premise, but does it in a much more entertaining and original fashion. You could spend hours discussing the various themes in Synecdoche, but I doubt that anybody will walk out of Benjamin Button discussing anything other than how long and arduous it is.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Doubt (***1/2)

DOUBT
Written for the Screen and Directed by John Patrick Shanley



***1/2

There are few acting talents in American cinema as titanic as either Meryl Streep or Philip Seymour Hoffman, so to have the two going toe-to-toe within Doubt is a cinephile's dream. The film was written and directed by John Patrick Shanley, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Moonstruck. He hadn't actually directed a motion picture, though, since his underwhelming debut Joe Versus The Volcano, but this time around he has a more compelling premise and a much more compelling cast to guide his filmmaking.

The film is based on a Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning play, which was also written by Shanley. The story involves a Catholic church and school in Brooklyn around 1964. It had been only a year since President Kennedy's assassination, and the country was quickly progressing away from its stingy, puritanical ways and barrelling toward a time of free love and expression. The church is going through a change as well, with their new lovable, and free-thinking pastor, Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who preaches with authority, but also with enthusiasm, and a liveliness which captures the attention of the town and particularly the young boys at the school who see him as a mentor.

The school is run, though, with an iron fist by Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep), the head nun and principal of the school. Her fellow nun and ingenue Sister James (Amy Adams) is as happy with Father Flynn's easygoing style as Aloysius is suspicious. Aloysius is old school in the purest definition of the phrase, she hates the song 'Frosty the Snowman' because it preaches the pagan belief in magic, and can't stand ballpoint pens because they disrupt proper penmanship. She wants nothing to do with the open-minded Father Flynn, and distrusts his motives as his empathy attracts as many fans as her chilliness has brought enemies.

Her suspicions in Father Flynn runs wild when she is approached by Sister James. She tells Aloysius that Flynn had taken a young, black boy named Donald Miller (Joseph Foster) to the rectory and when Donald returned he had alcohol on his breath and acted strangely. Sister James knows that Donald's actions are suspicious but refuses to accept her worst suspicions, while Aloysius uses the minor accusation to begin her calculated destruction of the charming man. She even goes as far as to contact Donald's mother, Mrs. Miller (Viola Davis), but despite her persistence, she is unable to find solid evidence or a specific accusation.

The film is truly an actor's piece, with performances from Streep, Adams, Hoffman, and Davis that create characters with such bravura that the film's muddled themes are completely overshadowed. Sure, Shanley still has things to learn about film directing--for instance, how about a little subtlety, visually or thematically? The biggest issues stage-to-screen adaptations have are that there is a level of melodrama necessary in theatre that is hackneyed in film. Frost/Nixon was a film that made the transition perfectly, where Doubt uses it's veteran actors to pull off the brazen shouting matches with austerity.

Meryl Streep is possibly the greatest actress of all-time, which means all of her performances are measured on an unbelievable scale of expectation, and Sister Aloysius is not Karen Silkwood from Silkwood, is not Sophie Zawistowski from Sophie's Choice, and quite frankly, not Miranda Priestly from The Devil Wears Prada. What it is, though, is a solid performance from the most professional, talented, and mercurial actresses in Hollywood. She will get her fifteenth Oscar nomination for this role, and its a testament to her career that even her on her B game is still some of the best stuff of the year.

Most of the fire and ice throughout the picture comes from the secondary characters. Hoffman, living proof that character actors can be leading men if they're talented enough, performs a wonderful balancing act of witty charm and hidden irresponsibility. Amy Adams, an actress always undermined because of her illustrious beauty, is wonderful at portraying the back-and-forth suspicion the audience is mirroring most of the time. Viola Davis, her work constricted mostly to a single scene, is a powder keg of emotion. Streep is merely invisible when Davis is on the screen, and that is seriously saying something.

The film begins with an engrossing sermon by Father Flynn about the power of doubt. Various characters throughout the film are stricken with doubt; some feel they can overcome it, and some accept it as fact. I liked the way this movie allowed its characters to flow through their emotions, and didn't manipulate their actions or emotions by plot contrivance. Shanley cares a lot about these characters, which may explain his stunted visual growth (what's with all the Dutch angles?), but his pure love for them allows the actor's to live in the skin and perform beautifully.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

SAG Awards

This morning, we were previewed to the nominations of the 15th annual Screen Actors Guild Awards, and we once again reminded by this fact: actors seem to have puzzling taste when it comes to their own craft. There were a couple of curve balls thrown (though not as many as the Golden Globes), a few puzzling snubs, and a couple pleasant surprises. Let's jump right in with some analysis:

BEST ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE:

Richard Jenkins, THE VISITOR
Frank Langella, FROST/NIXON
Sean Penn, MILK
Brad Pitt, THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON
Mickey Rourke, THE WRESTLER

Penn, Rourke, and Langella essentially cement their Oscar nominations with this list. Those three should be rewarded come Oscar nomination morning. I'm surprised that the SAGs went with Pitt (which doesn't seem like much of an actor's movie) and Jenkins (who isn't a star), and skipped over Clint Eastwood for Gran Torino and Leonardo DiCaprio for Revolutionary Road. No real huge upsets or snubs here, and I predict Sean Penn to take the award home.

BEST ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE

Anne Hathaway, RACHEL GETTING MARRIED
Angelina Jolie, CHANGELING
Melissa Leo, FROZEN RIVER
Meryl Streep, DOUBT
Kate Winslet, REVOLUTIONARY ROAD

Melissa Leo pulls a shocker and wins a big nomination for the great unnoticed indie Frozen River, while the previous critics-awards stand-out Sally Hawkins was skipped over for her wonderful turn in Happy-Go-Lucky. Angelina Jolie, after seemingly falling out of favor in her campaign, has come back strong with Globe and SAG nominations. Meanwhile, Kristen Scott-Thomas's brilliant performance in the French I've Loved You So Long is beginning to flounder. Hathaway, Steep, and Winslet (much like Penn, Rourke, and Langella) pretty much guaranteed their Oscar nominations with the recognition here. Streep should take this award handily.

BEST ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE

Josh Brolin, MILK
Robert Downey Jr., TROPIC THUNDER
Philip Seymour Hoffman, DOUBT
Heath Ledger, THE DARK KNIGHT
Dev Patel, SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE

Josh Brolin's nomination helps a campaign that was nearly torpedoed by the Golden Globes, and Dev Patel gets nominated for a dynamic turn in Slumdog Millionaire (it seems to be a Timothy Hutton/Ordinary People situation with this guy--he's the central character of the movie, but his lack of star power seems to keep him in the supporting character). Downey Jr.'s hilarious performance in Tropic Thunder doesn't go away, and neither does Ledger or Hoffman. Other than Brolin, could you seriously convince yourself any of these performances aren't lead roles? I see Heath Ledger winning this one as a sentimental favorite.

BEST ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE

Amy Adams, DOUBT
Penelope Cruz, VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA
Viola Davis, DOUBT
Taraji P. Henson, THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON
Kate Winslet, THE READER

I've heard many say that the main source of warmth within the chilly Benjamin Button is the performance by Taraji P. Henson, and she finally is recognized here at the SAGs. Doubt's two supporting ladies, Adams and Davis, both squeaked out nominations, and their double-dip may have been what kept out Marisa Tomei's performance in The Wrestler. Cruz, winning mostly every critics award, gets another nonination, and Winslet gets her second nomination of the day within The Reader. I'm still not sold on Amy Adams getting the Oscar nomination, I see that attention swaying toward Tomei. I see Kate Winslet pulling a semi-shocker and winning this award.

BEST ESEMBLE CAST

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Doubt
Frost/Nixon
Milk
Slumdog Millionaire

Not really an impressive short list here. This is more of a Best Picture prediction line-up, rather than a list of formidable list of ensembles. Frost/Nixon had two wonderful lead performances, but no one else is truly too impressive, and Slumdog Millionaire's nomination seems to be granted based more on enthusiasm than merit. Milk does have a fabulous ensemble, no problems there, and if you nominate nearly every character in Doubt, it would seem contradictory not to nominate the ensemble as a whole. Benjamin Button doesn't really seem like an actor's film, so this nomination is puzzling, but I'll have to see the film come Christmas to see for myself.

COMING SOON BEFORE NEW YEAR'S:

Doubt
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Reader
Gran Torino

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Upon Second Viewing (Burn After Reading & Synecdoche, New York)


Recently, I was able to re-watch two films for which I'd had modest respect. The first was the Coen Brothers' Burn After Reading, which on the original viewing, I found it to be a hilarious, but marginal film, with very few redeeming characteristics, but to be seen as a rather light-weight piece of filmmaking. The second one was the incredibly divisive Synecdoche, New York, which I originally found interesting but incredibly over-ambitious (if there is such a thing). With each film, I found myself with a much richer movie-going experience.

Burn After Reading probably made a much more favorable jump forward in my mind. The film is so whimsical that, if not paying attention, can really seem to be mindless. Mindless from the Coens? Well, I figured if any filmmakers had the balls, and pull it off, it would be them. Truth be told, though, not only is it hysterical, but also a fairly damning document on the harrowing aspects of today's society: adultery, mindless sex, gruesome violence, incompetence, lies, etc. A perfect dissection of of Bush America. Plus, Brad Pitt's hysterical Chad is nothing to snuff at, either.

"Wait! This movie is actually a smart satire!? Shit, that's cool!" -Chad Feldheimer









The second film, Synecdoche, New York, is one that becomes a completely different animal the second time around. Upon first viewing, the audience has such a hard time trying to keep up with all the odd quirks, and the switching between fantasy and reality, that only the most patient are able to stick around to even finish it. Synecdoche is a film that MUST be watched twice in order to be understood (a natural flaw, but I digress), and once you finally are familiar with the plot points and moments, the film's half-brained, trippy style can become intoxicating. Charlie Kaufman at his most uncensored.

"You see, it's 'Synecdoche'; it means when a part represents a whole, or a whole represents part, or--whatever, this movie makes no sense anyway."






P.S. I know it's wrong to say you think someone should be nominated even if you haven't seen all the movies of the season, but it would be an absolute dream to wake on Oscar morning and find out that both Robert Downey Jr. (for Tropic Thunder) and Brad Pitt (for Burn After Reading) are nominated for Best Supporting Actor. Both hysterical, and higlights of the movie as a whole. Not to mention totally anti-Oscar.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Slumdog Millionaire (***)

SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE
Directed by Danny Boyle



***

Danny Boyle has made a career out of making films that are based purely on energy. Trainspotting perfectly captured the heroin-induced, techno-blasting lifestyles of a group of Scottish junkies. 28 Days Later was a film which used it's gritty filming technique to further emphasize the terror behind a mysterious, deadly virus. This type of filmmaking has become his staple, and he continues that trend with his latest film, Slumdog Millionaire, but this time, it's not too influence the helplessness of drug dependency, or create fear in a world of horror, but to speak toward the concepts of true love and destiny.

Slumdog is the tale of Jamal Malik (Dev Patel), and his journey toward 20 million rupees on the Middle-Eastern version of "Who Wants to Be A Millionaire". He is one question away from the ultimate prize, but how did he get so far? Jamal is an assistant at a telemarketing company, who has never had any formal education. He is from Mumbai, and watched his mother get murdered as a child, and has spent most of his life living as a lost orphan. How can someone with such little resources in life make it this far on the show?

As he is interrogated by a detective (Irfan Khan) hoping to find out how he has cheated, Jamal explains how destiny and luck brought him to his current position. You see, the film takes a Pulp Fiction-esque approach to the story-telling. We go back, we go forward, each step giving us further information about Jamal that we never knew before. With each moment we see in his life, we see Jamal receive the clues that would eventually help him on the game show.

But there is more to Jamal's appearance on 'Millionaire' than becoming wealthy. Truthfully, the guiding force behind Jamal's entire journey is his true love from childhood, Latika (Frieda Pinto). While moving through life without a home, the only person on his mind is Latika. So many things have stopped them from being together, and Jamal hopes that his appearance on the show will catch her attention. He hopes that the money will make him more than just a slumdog, but a respectable companion.

Perhaps the film's only fault is that it is energetic to a fault. All of the characters and actors are well-written, interesting, and sympathetic (even the bad ones), but Boyle's flashy direction (which has been getting much accord as of late) seems more interested in style than actually telling the story in a way that is actually functional. Many of Boyle's films are not unlike a techno song (Trainspotting proves this theory literally), all frills, but truly missing a central heart that can really draw the audience in.

I can't deny, though, that the film's off-the-tracks filmmaking can be intoxicating. Certain moments and sequences are shown so exquisitely, while still maintaining its mad-hat energy. Boyle certainly does an impressive job, with help from an Indian co-director Loveleen Tanden. You wonder how much creative power Tanden had (couldn't she been called 2nd Unit Director?), but I feel it necessary to give her credit as well. This film probably has the most distinct filmmaking style of the year, which is easy to be confused with the best.

Jamal and Latika are each played by three different actors at different ages, and all are effective in their roles. Dev Patel, especially, playing the oldest version of Jamal is like lightning trapped in a bottle. Jamal is a rough character to portray, since Boyle doesn't seem to care about investing interest in him, particularly in the beginning, but Patel grabs hold of the character with such a stranglehold that you are able to care about him. Irfan Khan, one of those brilliantly talented actors that no one has ever heard of, is wonderful in limited time as the intimidating, yet compassionate police inspector (watch Khan in the unbelievably underrated A Mighty Heart to catch one of the great unsung performances from last year).

The film can be uneven, but is boosted by a tremendously effective ending. It is incredibly aware of its own style--even down to a Bollywood-style dance number over the ending credits. The film won the People's Choice Award at the Toronto Film Festival, which is usually an honor that forecasts many awards in the future. It has won Best Picture at the National Board of Review, and seems headed toward a Best Picture Oscar nomination. I can definitely see why people have taken to this film with such a fervor, as it is quite a pleasant movie-going experience.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Globes Down Milk, Get Curious

Told you these guys were completely out of their minds. This morning came the announcement of the Golden Globe nominations, and as usual there were plenty of surprises: some pleasant, some shocking. Let's jump in with some analysis:






BEST PICTURE- DRAMA

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Frost/Nixon
The Reader
Revolutionary Road
Slumdog Millionaire

The biggest losers in this shortlist? Well, Milk to be sure. The brilliant biopic seemingly wasn't as impressive or relevant enough to make it one of the five best dramas of the year. Also, the year's biggest movie The Dark Knight was also left off. I'm not totally surprised by that one, but I'm sure there are a large group of Batman fanatics not particularly happy with that decision. I've only seen one of the nominated films (Frost/Nixon) though I plan to see Slumdog Millionaire first thing this weekend. Unfortunately, they decided to nominate mostly movies that people won't see till Christmas or January, which certainly makes it hard for a general audience members (like me), who can only see them when they decide to come around. EARLY-BIRD PREDICTION: Benjamin Button snags the award and solidifies itself as the Oscar front-runner.

"Sweet, Cate, this movie is totally getting an Oscar nom, now!"









BEST PICTURE- COMEDY/MUSICAL

Burn After Reading
Happy-Go-Lucky
In Bruges
Mamma Mia!
Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Not too bad a list here, though Mamma Mia! seems more like an obligatory musical choice (they couldn't go with Tropic Thunder which is still the funniest movie I've seen this year). Other than Mia! I was able to see all the films nominated, and I had modest enjoyment of most of them. I'm particularly happy to see recognition for In Bruges, which people had seemed to forget since it was released all the way in January. EARLY-BIRD PREDICTION: This seems like an easy win for the amazing Mike Leigh film Happy-Go-Lucky.

"We REALLY can't think of a better musical this year? Doesn't CADILLAC RECORDS count? Dammit."- HFPA member








BEST ACTOR- DRAMA

Leonardo DiCaprio, REVOLUTIONARY ROAD
Frank Langella, FROST/NIXON
Sean Penn, MILK
Brad Pitt, THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON
Mickey Rourke, THE WRESTLER

Milk's sole nomination comes here (they couldn't justify not recognizing Penn's work). Pitt pulls a bit of a surprise for Benjamin Button, which seems to be not much of an "actor's movie". The only surprise comes with Clint Eastwood not coming out with a nom for Gran Torino. DiCaprio's nomination for Revolutionary Road (and the film's nomination for Best Picture) has finally put that film back on track with it's Oscar campaign, though it still has some work to do. EARLY-BIRD PREDICTION: Despite ignoring the film, they give it to Penn. No real reasoning, that's just my hunch.

BEST ACTRESS- DRAMA

Anne Hathaway, RACHEL GETTING MARRIED
Angelina Jolie, CHANGELING
Meryl Streep, DOUBT
Kristen Scott-Thomas, I'VE LOVED YOU SO LONG
Kate Winslett, REVOLUTIONARY ROAD

Rachel Getting Married's one Globe nomination comes here with Hathaway's Best Actress nod. Jolie establishes some ground with her Changeling nomination, though I still think she has an uphill battle for an Oscar nom (why on Earth didn't they recognize her last year for A Mighty Heart!?!?!). Scott-Thomas finally gets something going, since she seems to be losing the critics battle with Sally Hawkins. Winslet and Streep both obvious choices. EARLY-BIRD PREDICTION: Revolutionary's rocky road gets a boost when they give the award to Winslet.

BEST ACTOR- COMEDY/MUSICAL

Javier Bardem, VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA
Colin Farrell, IN BRUGES
James Franco, PINEAPPLE EXPRESS
Brendan Gleeson, IN BRUGES
Dustin Hoffman, LAST CHANCE HARVEY

Bardem gets nominated for moping around and sleeping with beautiful women in Vicky Cristina Barcelona. The brilliant comic duo of In Bruges, Farrell and Gleeson, both get well-deserved nominations. Franco is the best and funniest part of Pineapple Express, so it's good to see him get recognized for that. I'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who's actually seen Last Chance Harvey, so Hoffman's nom seems more like the HFPA saying, "Uh, you're pretty awesome, and we have no idea who else to nominate". EARLY-BIRD PREDICTION: Logical thinking says that the two In Bruges nominations will cancel out, but who could they award on that list other than Brendan Gleeson?

BEST ACTRESS- COMEDY/MUSICAL

Rebecca Hall, VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA
Sally Hawkins, HAPPY-GO-LUCKY
Frances McDormand, BURN AFTER READING
Meryl Streep, MAMMA MIA!
Emma Thompson, LAST CHANCE HARVEY

The best part of Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Rebecca Hall, finally gets notice, while Sally Hawkins gets nominated for Happy-Go-Lucky. McDormand gets nominated for her whimsical portrayal in Burn After Reading--it's really more of a supporting role, but the Globes don't car much about catregory fraud. As for Streep and Thompson, [see Hoffman in Best Actor- Comedy/Musical]. Streep now has 23 Globe nominations. EARLY-BIRD PREDICTION: Happy-Go-Lucky is the only comedy film that is really building buzz, so Hawkins walks away with it.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

Tom Cruise, TROPIC THUNDER
Robert Downey Jr., TROPIC THUNDER
Ralph Fiennes, THE DUCHESS
Phillip Seymour Hoffman, DOUBT
Heath Ledger, THE DARK KNIGHT

This is certainly the most puzzling category. It's further proof that as much as the Academy hates Cruise (no win for Magnolia, no nomination for Rain Man), the Globes will literally nominate him for ANYTHING. His Tropic Thunder co-star, Robert Downey Jr. gets nominated for a much more hilarious performance. Fiennes gets a big surprise nomination for The Duchess (why don't people realize that this "supporting" talk Fiennes is getting should be for In Bruges?). The only two nominations people saw coming were Hoffman's priest in Doubt, and Ledger's iconic Joker in The Dark Knight (this was The Dark Knight's only nomination). EARLY-BIRD PREDICTION: To make up for ignoring the film otherwise, they give it to Ledger, posthumously.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Amy Adams, DOUBT
Penelope Cruz, VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA
Viola Davis, DOUBT
Marisa Tomei, THE WRESTLER
Kate Winslet, THE READER

The Amy Adams nomination for Doubt was easy to see, even though I don't think she'll get much recognition outside of this. Her co-star, Davis, seems to be ready for an Oscar nom, herself, as everybody says that her one scene seems to be the film's emotional high point. Winslet got a second nomination for The Reader, despite numerous claims that she is actually the lead role. Marisa Tomei continues her late-career renaissance as she gets nominated for her stripper role in The Wrestler. Penelop Cruz.... again. EARLY-BIRD PREDICTION: Cruz has been on an absolute tear in the early going, and I don't see it stopping here--she wins.

BEST DIRECTOR

Danny Boyle, SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE
Stephen Daldry, THE READER
David Fincher, THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON
Ron Howard, FROST/NIXON
Sam Mendes, REVOLUTIONARY ROAD

No Jonathon Demme, no Christopher Nolan, no Gus Van Sant. I think it's safe to say that this list, more than the rest, really sucks. They literally just copied and pasted the nominees for Best Drama, and put the directors on. No originality, very conservative choices. I don't have much else to say. EARLY-BIRD PREDICTION: Fincher gets his first award of the season for Benjamin Button.

BEST SCREENPLAY

Simon Beaufoy, SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE
David Hare, TRE READER
Peter Morgan, FROST/NIXON
Eric Roth & Robin Swicord, THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON
John Patrick Shanley, DOUBT

Another sucky list. The HFPA obviously decided that there was not one ORIGINAL screenplay worth commemorating, and once again, took a more conservative route. When you decide to not differentiate between Adapted and Original, you tend to leave out some excellant things (like Jenny Lumet's brilliant screenplay for Rachel Getting Married). EARLY-BIRD PREDICTIONS: They award Slumdog Millionaire not necessarily for its screenplay, but because of the valiant fight it's putting up so early this season.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

WALL-E in the West, Milk in the East

Last couple of days have seen the unveiling of the ultra important LA Film Critics and NY Film Critics Circle's choices for the best films, performances, etc. Out of all the critics awards that are handed over these strenuous months (and there are quite a few), these two are probably the most important, if what we're talking about is Oscar traction. So, what did we see from the two organizations? Was there simply a regurgitation of all the Oscar hopefuls (which all seem to be waiting till December before being seem by anybody)?

Let's begin with with the LAFCA, which came out yesterday. They honored the Pixar film WALL-E as the Best Picture of 2008. It was a pleasant surprise, as it is definitely the best movie that I have seen this year (though I'm still missing a lot), and most people are ignoring it on their buzz-worthy list because of it's "cartoon, kids movie" reputation. Best Actor went to Sean Penn for his recreation of the Gay Rights activist Harvey Milk in Milk, and Best Actress went to Sally Hawkins' beautiful performance in Happy-Go-Lucky. Penn was a welcome choice, but as Hawkins was beginning to lose her awards buzz, this gave her a rather large boost.

They gave Heath Ledger a posthumous Best Supporting Actor award for his demented Joker in The Dark Knight, while Penelope Cruz won another Best Supporting Actress award for Vicky Cristina Barcelona. They both seem to be the leading candidates in their respective categories. Best Director went to Danny Boyle for the suddenly awards-laden Slumdog Millionaire. Mike Leigh won for Best Screenplay (has he actually ever written one?) for Happy-Go-Lucky. The rest of the winners at the LAFCA can be seen right here.

Today, the New York Film Critcs Circle gave in their two cents, and named Gus Van Sant's Milk as the Best Film of the year. It's the first Best Film award, as most of the attention to the film was being directed toward the performances of Sean Penn and Josh Brolin. Speaking of whom, both Penn and Brolin won their second award for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor respectively as well. Sally Hawkins also won her second Best Actress award for Happy-Go-Lucky, while Mike Leigh won Best Director for that film as well.

The third acting repetition came when Penelope Cruz won, once again, for Woody Allen's Vicky Cristina Barcelona (Woody has always been like magic for supporting female performances). Jenny Lumet's screenplay for Rachel Getting Married won Best Screenplay, that film's only win over the two award sessions. WALL-E walked away with another award, but this time it was the Best Animated Feature prize. These are the first awards not to lavish Slumdog Millionaire with honors, but it did manage to grab the Best Cinematography award for Anthony Dod Mantle. The full list of winners can be seen right here.

What did we learn from the last two days? Well, the critics went down the much braver path, by choosing more artistic fare, such as Milk and Happy-Go-Lucky, as opposed to awarding more Hollywood, heavy-hitting, buzzed-to-the-max films like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button or Doubt. Over the course of the early awards, it seems clear that Revolutionary Road has gotten off to a pretty terrible start. It is important to remember, though, that the Academy Awards are not voted on by the critics, and while it's nice to see WALL-E win something other than the obligatory Best Animated Film award, it's probably not going to happen on Hollywood's biggest night. I'm just glad they didn't go conventional.

Tomorrow is a big day, as the Golden Globes unleash their nominations on the world. They are surprisingly a very good precursor to the Academy Awards, despite being completely out of their minds a majority of the time (SEVEN nominations for Best Drama? Really?).

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The Passion of the Clint

It's seeming more and more likely that I will be wrong when it comes to my Best Actor Oscar predictions. I have been a sole supporter of Brad Pitt's bid to get his second Oscar nom for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. I don't particularly know why I've supported that pick, but I guess it just seemed like a "nominateable" performance from a film which certainly looks "nominateable". But the tide has been changing, and now a new (well, not so new) horse has been thrown into the race, and that's Clint Eastwood. That's right, the filmmaker who has seen a renaissance in his career this decade is becoming a super strong contender to win his first acting Oscar for the film Gran Torino.

I wasn't too excited about Torino after finally seeing the trailer (truth is, I'm still not really that excited), but ever since it appeared the buzz for Eastwood has been building slowly and surely. The trailer poses the storyline as almost like a Dirty Harry 6: Retirement's A Bitch. Like he has in most of his recent screen performances, he snarls and growls, almost like WALL-E, except without any of the redeeming qualities. In a year where actors like Sean Penn, Frank Langella, and Mickey Rourke seem like locks, the on-the-fence nominations (i.e. Richard Jenkins, Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt) seem like the ones who will have to make space for Eastwood's career achievement nomination.



Guess which one has enough gravitas to credit an Oscar nom?

But really, as much as everybody loves Clint (and I mean loves Clint), doesn't it seem like the annual parade of recognition is a bit gratuitous? As fellow blogger, Nathaniel, stated in his blog The Film Experience, The New York Times is actually making a case that Clint deserves the award for simply never having won an acting Oscar. They seem to forget the fact that Clint has also won four other Oscar statues as a director and producer. I don't really know how you can make the case that Clint deserves more.


"Well, I guess as long as I'm here, I'll take a few more."
-Clint Eastwood







I should probably hold my complaining until after I actually see the film, but I wouldn't be surprised if all this worship turns into some serious backlash.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

GREAT FILMS: The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

GREAT FILMS: THE GRAPES OF WRATH (1940)
Directed by John Ford

Sprung from the mind of the literary genius John Steinbeck, during the depths of The Great Depression came a masterpiece which completely embodied the troubling times for many Americans. Beyond that, he wrote a novel so compelling and grand that few stories before or since have been as cherished or studied. That novel was The Grapes of Wrath. Sandwiched between his other classics Of Mice and Men and East of Eden, The Grapes of Wrath was a massive success, winning Steinbeck the Pulitzer Prize. Few filmmakers would have had the bravery or the pride to take on this immortal story, but John Ford, probably the most mythic of all American studio directors, was just the man to do it.

The film assembles what is easily one of the greatest ensemble casts in cinematic history. For the iconic character of 'Ma Joad', Ford recruited veteran actress Jane Darwell. Playing one of the signature characters in American literature, Darwell possessed the strong-minded Ma so fluidly, yet with such grace, that she was able to walk away with an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress when it was all done. For the shamed profit Casy, there is John Carradine. With his lanky limbs, and long face, Carradine's portrayal of the worn-down former preacher is a perfect characterization of one of the book's most important characters.

It's the film's main character though, Tom Joad, that guides the film along. For that all-important role, Ford was able to get an actor with whom he'd just worked with a year earlier in Young Mr. Lincoln. It was then very young Henry Fonda. Fonda, always the face of imminent wisdom and grace throughout his career, has his greatest screen performance in The Grapes of Wrath (did you really think his best work was On Golden Pond? Didn't think so). For the role of Tom, Fonda did not rely on his kind eyes or suave sensiblility, but instead dug into the deep, dark core created by Steinbeck.

That is probably what makes the film so great, it never eases up on Steinbeck's relentless narrative. Telling the stories of oppressed migrant workers during The Depression was never a stretch for Steinbeck, but none of his other books are as damning of the American system the way Grapes of Wrath is. Steinbeck knew that it was not the problem of the parts that caused the biggest economic meltdown in American history, but the problems of the whole. Most importantly, the people who ran it all, they were the ones who should be held responsible. Most would expect Ford, a respected studio filmmaker, to lighten up on Steinbeck's bitter portrayal, but he instead trekked on.

As we watch the Joad family--forced from their Oklahoma home by banks, and traveling to California in search for work--what we are really seeing is every American family. This was the vision that Steinbeck had hoped for, and that is what Ford delivered. The Joads are not from Oklahoma, as much as they are from the Heartland. As farmers, they are the life and blood of this country, the ones who work the hardest. The close-knit family also representing the strength of will in the hearts of all Americans. By machines and technology, they are whisked away from their home of decades--there is no need for their labor anymore.

At least, no need for it in Oklahoma, because there is plenty of work in California, where they're headed. Where they hope to find oppurtunity, they find nothing but more hardship. Not only is there not enough work to go around, but they also encounter extreme prejudice from those Californians who are scared of all the desperate 'Okies' stealing the work oppurtunity. American families pinned against American families, fighting for the right to eat that day. It was an ugly scene. Steinbeck based the novel on trips he took to visit the migrant workers during the mid-1930's. No other novel of his, though, represents the plight of the migrants more than The Grapes of Wrath, where he makes the case that the American government not only let them down, but made them inhuman.

But let's stick to the greatness of the film. John Ford won his second Best Director Oscar for this film. The combination of Ford and Steinbeck is a perfect storm of such magnificence, which has a rare chance of ever happening again. We have arguably the two greatest Americans ever in their respective professions collaborating together. Sure, Ford changed Steinbeck's storyline around here and there (including cutting out the brilliant, but controversial ending of the novel), but he still encompassed the rebellious spirit. The American will that lays within the hearts of characters pulsates, and the religious imagery that Steinbeck so strategically peppered throughout the story still speaks with much profundity.

The film of The Grapes of Wrath is culminated in two scenes. Both scenes have their place in the book, but are done much differently in the film. Ford, knowing the dramatic power of each part, places them in ominous moments in the film, where they can reach their optimum effect. The first scene is one between Fonda and Darwell. Tom hopes to sneak out and leave the family, before a crime he's committed incriminates all of them. Before he can leave, Ma stops him, and pleads with him to stay, in which Tom responds with his majestic "I'll be everywhere" speech, that still stands as one of the great monologues in movie history. The second scene takes place at the very end of the film: The Joad family, having gone through all they've gone through, drive on forward, while Ma explains to all of them "We're the people that live", exclaiming the tried and true spirit that kept so many American families going even during the darkest times.

The Grapes of Wrath that will always be relevant, as long as there are those people who have to fight every day just to keep the lights on. It's a testament to what is glorious about being an American. The idea of The American Dream has become so convoluted over the last century. It is not about making as much money as you possibly can, or becoming the most grandiose of powers. The American Dream is about getting by despite race, creed, sexuality, religion, etc. We are a country with a twisted, sometimes horrible history, but we have landmarks of grace and success. The Grapes of Wrath gives a small taste of what it means to struggle, and the strength it takes to survive it. After eight years of the Bush Administration and economical destruction seemingly coming down the pike, it'll be interesting to see if the American people still have the valor that people like the Joads had in even harder times.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Australia (***)

AUSTRALIA
Directed by Baz Luhrman



***

Lo and behold the most grandiose film of the year, Australia. It's been seven years since the last time we saw Baz Luhrman behind the camera. He's the man behind such sensory assaults as Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge. Those films, though larger than life, are still nowhere in size compared to Australia, which is meant to be Luhrman's grand opus, the film he's chosen to be remembered by. The film is an opus, clocking in at nearly two hours and fifty minutes, and luckily, the film is quite grand as well.

As the film opens, we hear the narration of a young Aborigine boy named Nullah (the debut performance from Brandon Walters). He tells the story of how he met Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman), and how she would go on to meet The Drover (Hugh Jackman). Ashley, a member of the rich English aristocracy, comes to Australia to meet with her husband, who lives in his ranch named Faraway Downs with a large group of Aborigines, including Nullah and his mother. Mr. Ashley has assigned The Drover to bring Sarah to him when she finally does arrive.

Lady Ashley is immediately turned off by the rock 'em, sock 'em atmosphere of the Land Down Under, and despises The Drover upon first meeting him. The Drover is a pretty ominous fellow, you see. His job is to drove cattle, but he plays by his own rules, and that's it. "No one hires me, and no one fires me," he says, and anyone who hears it knows that he means it. When Lady Ashley finally reaches Faraway Downs, she is greeted with the knowledge that her husband has been murdered by the Aborigne King George, and that the next biggest cattle breeder, King Carney, will gladly take Mr. Ashley's livestock off her hands.

At first, Lady Ashley is content with giving away the ranch, and being rid of the place, until one of Carney's men, Neil Fletcher (David Wenham) reveals a dirty secret about how the native Aborigine people are treated. Nullah is a "half-cross" as they say, meaning he was born after his mother slept with a white man, and because of this, he should be taken away, to be raised with the rest of the half-crosses. Lady Ashley, for the sake of what's right decides to keep the ranch, and with the help of The Drover, hopes that she can keep the business growing, and keep little Nullah out of harm's way.

Sure, the film's melodrama is almost as gratuitous as it is unapologetic, and sure, the film's delve into visual effects can be a little silly (Really, Baz? CGI cattle? Really?). I don't know if this is the Australian Gone With The Wind like Luhrman wanted it to be, and maybe that's why the film works. Seems to me, this film reminds me much more of those epic westerns of the 40's and 50's such as Red River or Giant, since those film's also took the time to tell the difficulties of raising a farm and cattle. In the background of all the plot, the film takes place at the beginnings of World War II, when Japanese threatened to attack the nearby border of Northern Australia, and you better believe explosions and battle scenes make an appearance.

The film's infamous production is almost as stirring a story as the film itself. After being pushed back for six months, principle photography took over nine months to complete, and then there were also emergency re-shoots just months ago to recover lost footage. The budget ballooned by over thirty percent to $150 million. In the editing room, Luhrman was said to have been juggling between eleven different endings, while getting continuous pressure from the studio to pick the one that was the most upbeat. With a rough cut running time of 196 minutes, he was then pressured to cut it down to the more manageable 167 minutes. All of this sounds like the recipe for one giant turkey of a film, but Luhrman salvaged what he needed, and came out with quite a captivating film.

Luhrman filled the cast to the brim with some of the world's most famous Aussies. Kidman and Jackman are both a romp in the film, neither seeming to take the film's overwrought, sentimental storyline to seriously, unless the scenes demands it. Kidman, especially seems content with playing a much lighter character than a film like this usually demands. It's the kind of performance that get Kidman-haters something to talk about, but it's just broad enough to fit the scheme of the film. Walters, playing what is essentially the film's main character, does a fine job as Nullah, even if I don't agree with Luhrman's endorsement, when he called Walters the "next great movie star" (can we please wait until these kids have released movies until we starting saying things like that?).

Australia will certainly turn off a lot of high-brow film lovers who scoff at it's broad appeal and exaggerated special effects. Luhrman has always been a filmmaker who has made divisive films. This is probably his least alienating picture, though, since it encompasses so many things including high drama, strong romance, frivolous action sequences and minor moments of comedy. The film's approach certainly isn't very subtle, but who said good movies always have to be? The film will keep you enthralled for every minute you're sitting in the theater, and isn't that all you want for your ticket?

Thursday, December 4, 2008

So Here We Go.....

The awards season has officially kicked off with the release of the National Board of Review awards. Truth be told, the NBoRs are never much to sneeze at in terms of Oscar traction, but by being the first of the group each and every year, it is essentially the season opener if we're thinking in sports terms.

The big winner, so to speak, was Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire taking home Best Picture. The crowd-pleasing film continues to wow audiences after it's big win at the Toronto Film Festival. Despite going against heavier material such as Doubt and prestige pics like Frost/Nixon (remember how much they adored the dark and pretigious last year?), it seems to be the consistent winner so far, early in the race. Best Director, however, was handed to David Fincher for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. The Fight Club director has always had a strong cult following, but has never had awards appeal, but he already seems like a lock for Benjamin Button.

The acting awards were well spread around. For Best Actress, the NBoR looked over Meryl Streep for Doubt and Kate Winslet for Revolutionary Road, to give it to the less illustrious Anne Hathaway for the beautiful Rachel Getting Married. For Best Actor, projected front-runners Mickey Rourke (The Wrestler) and Frank Langella (Frost/Nixon) were also passed over for Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino. The buzz for his career acheivement acting Oscar had to start somewhere, and the NBoR is the best place to start.

For Best Supporting Actor, they jumped off the Heath Ledger Dark Knight bandwagon, and gave it to Josh Brolin in Milk. Brolin, it's possible, will probably be given many awards as a blanket for all the brilliant supporting performances in that film. The one category that seemed to go according to plan was Penelope Cruz winning for her fiery supporting turn in Vicky Cristina Barcelona. The Original Screenplay award went to Nick Schenk for Gran Torino, while the Adapted Screenplay award was a tie between Simon Beaufoy for Slumdog Millionaire and Eric Roth for his extended take on the incredibly succinct The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

Other awards of notice were Dev Patel (for Slumdog Millionaire) winning for Best Breakthrough Actor Performance, while Best Breakthrough Actress Performance went to Viola Davis for Doubt. Best Directorial Debut went to Courtney Hunt for Frozen River (while Melissa Leo won the Spotlight Award for the same film, along with Richard Jenkins for The Visitor), and Best Animated Feature went to WALL-E. To round everything out, Best Ensemble Cast went to the cast of Doubt. The rest of the NBoR awards, including lists of the best films of 2008, best Foreign-Language film, as well as Best Documentary here's a link to see them.

The National Board of Review is not as big of an Oscar precursor as say the Golden Globes nominations next week, but don't scoff at the effect an early bid can have. I was most surprised by Eastwood's win, since I was thinking that the 'Career Achievement nomination' would be going to stage actor great Frank Langella. If the NBoR is any indication, the Best Actor shortlist will have to make room for both of them. Slumdog Millionaire has got the first jump on the awards season, but we'll see what happens as the next Oscar precursor awards (New York Film Circle awards, LA Film Association) all come next week.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Frost/Nixon (***1/2)

FROST/NIXON
Directed by Ron Howard



***1/2

Frost/Nixon is not the first film to showcase the most infamous president in American history, but its probably the best. Nixon is such a mystical figure in political folklore, as well as a physical representation of the phrase: "absolute power corrupts absolutely". Directed by television icon, turned filmmaking veteran Ron Howard, the audience is given a bird's eye view of the legendary interviews between David Frost and Richard Nixon which went about solidifying the former president's disreputable reputation.

The film opens with Nixon (magically captured by Frank Langella) while giving his resignation speech. With his stature tarnished by the Watergate scandal, Nixon escaped from the presidency, and then orchestrated the now famous "crooked deal" with incumbent president Gerald Ford who granted Nixon a pardon suspiciously quickly. The country celebrated the departure of the unbelievably unpopular president, but there were many who were bitter that he was given a virtual get-out-of-jail-free card. Commiting the biggest political crime in history, Nixon would never stand trial.

On the other side of the world, there is David Frost (again, magically captured by Michael Sheen), who hosts a talk show in Austrailia. He wants to interview Nixon for his show. Frost was never a man known for his political leanings, nor had he ever made devisive statements about Nixon. Frost was known as a womanizer, whose interviewees were mostly members of pop culture. So what does Frost want with Nixon? Ratings--big, glorious ratings. With the help of his producer John Birt (Matthew Macfadyen), he hires two crack investigators (Sam Rockwell and Oliver Platt) to give his interview bite. They want him to drive Nixon into the ground, but Frost's priorities seem to be a little more commercial.

Nixon agrees to these interviews, for more than one reason. For one, Frost promised a direct payment of $600,000, but more importantly, Nixon saw the flaky Frost as his ticket back into the respect of the American people. Many of his colleagues, including his cheif of staff Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon), tell him that his elloquence and intellectual ability can make mincemeat out of Frost's inquisition, and convince audiences that he is not the corrupted monster he was pictured to be.

The interview scenes are expertly executed, as the showdown between Frost and Nixon is the most captivating part of the film. Ron Howard, the lovable, Oscar-winning director, creates such an intense atmosphere when the two men sit in front of each other. The film manages to replicate the shocking interviews almost entirely, while still giving them more life and drama. Behind Frost were a group of men who desperately wanted to see Nixon brought face to face with his crimes, and when Frost delivers, both in the real thing and in this film, it is quite an exhilarating experience.

Sure, Howard decides to take the spectacular, theatrical way of telling the story, as apposed to a fly-on-the-wall, realistic approach, but it makes sense because the character of Nixon is always going to be something of high drama. What point does Howard have telling the story sensibly when not one man in it is sensible? Both Frost and Nixon were larger than life, and the film certainly represents them as so.

The film is based on the hit stage play of the same name by Peter Morgan. Morgan wrote the screenplay, and does a great job of taking away that long, stretched-out feel that most play-to-films have. The film has some of the most fluid editing of the year, with its 122 minutes flying by without seeming rushed. It posesses a visual style which switches between polished, scenic shots and long, steadicam movement but never seems uneven. It's a calling card of most Ron Howard movies that things are executed incredibly precisely, and Frost/Nixon is no different.

The reason those interview scenes are so captivating, is because Frost/Nixon possesses one of the greatest dual performances I've ever seen. So rarely have I seen two actors, playing entirely different characters, possess the skin of the ones they play so perfectly, while never once blinking in front of the other. Michael Sheen, also brilliant as Tony Blair in The Queen, captures the masquerading essence of David Frost so completely, while never becoming a true hero to root for. Langella, who one a Tony for the same role on the stage, doesn't necessarily look or sound like Nixon, but he really lives in it. He embodies the idiosyncracies of Tricky Dick; his clever sense of humor and the foreboding paranoia.

Other than a slow start, I loved virtually everything about this movie. Even the supporting roles by Rockwell, Platt, and Bacon are fantastic, distributing laughs and gravitas in equal measure. In an age where an incredibly unpopular president is about to depart the White House, this film is particularly relevant today. One of the beauties of American society, is that anyone, despite stature or rank, can be held accountable for their actions. Nixon (like another president we know) was a man who felt that the power of the presidency gave him rights that no other Americans had, gave him the power to break the law and cover it up. Frost/Nixon is a picture-perfect representation about the disintegration of that man.

Monday, December 1, 2008

December Oscar Predictions

BEST PICTURE

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Doubt
Milk
Slumdog Millionaire
The Wrestler

BEST DIRECTOR

Darren Aronofsky, THE WRESTLER
Danny Boyle, SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE
David Fincher, THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON
Christopher Nolan, THE DARK KNIGHT
Gus Van Sant, MILK

BEST ACTOR

Richard Jenkins, THE VISITOR
Frank Langella, FROST/NIXON
Sean Penn, MILK
Brad Pitt, THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON
Mickey Rourke, THE WRESTLER

BEST ACTRESS

Anne Hathaway, RACHEL GETTING MARRIED
Sally Hawkins, HAPPY-GO-LUCKY
Kristen Scott-Thomas, I'VE LOVED YOU SO LONG
Meryl Streep, DOUBT
Kate Winslet, REVOLUTIONARY ROAD

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

Josh Brolin, MILK
Robert Downey Jr., TROPIC THUNDER
Phillip Seymour Hoffman, DOUBT
Heath Ledger, THE DARK KNIGHT
Michael Shannon, REVOLUTIONARY ROAD

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Penelope Cruz, VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA
Viola Davis, DOUBT
Rosemary DeWitt, RACHEL GETTING MARRIED
Marissa Tomei, THE WRESTLER
Kate Winslet, THE READER

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

Dustin Lance Black, MILK
Joel Coen & Ethan Coen, BURN AFTER READING
Jenny Lumet, RACHEL GETTING MARRIED
Robert D. Siegal, THE WRESTLER
Andrew Stanton, WALL-E

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

Simon Beaufoy, SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE
David Hare, THE READER
Peter Morgan, FROST/NIXON
Eric Roth, THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON
John Patrick Shanley, DOUBT

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY

Roger Deakins, REVOLUTIONARY ROAD
Chris Menges, THE READER
Claudio Miranda, THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON
Wally Pfister, THE DARK KNIGHT
Eduardo Serra, DEFIANCE

BEST EDITING

Kirk Baxter & Angus Wall, THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON
Matt Chesse & Richard Pearson, QUANTOM OF SOLACE
Chris Dickens, SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE
Dody Dorn, AUSTRAILIA
Elliot Graham & Gus Van Sant, MILK

BEST ART DIRECTION

Briggite Broch, THE READER
Donald Graham Burt, THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON
Michael Corenblith, FROST/NIXON
Nathan Crowley, THE DARK KNIGHT
Catherine Martin, AUSTRAILIA

BEST COSTUME DESIGN

Lindy Hemming, THE DARK KNIGHT
Michael O'Connor, THE DUCHESS
Ann Roth, THE READER
Jacqueline West, THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON
Catherine Martin, AUSTRAILIA

BEST MAKE-UP

Judy Chin, SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK
Fionagh Cush, THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON
Peter Robb-King, THE DARK KNIGHT

BEST SOUND MIXING

Anna Behlmer & Andy Nelson, AUSTRAILIA
Ben Burtt, Tom Myers, & Michael Semanick, WALL-E
Chris Munro, QUANTUM OF SOLACE
Ed Novick, THE DARK KNIGHT
Mark Weingarten, THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON

BEST SOUND EDITING

Christopher Assels & Peter Staubli, QUANTUM OF SOLACE
Michael Babcock, THE DARK KNIGHT
Damian Candusso & Nigel Christensen, AUSTRALIA
Dustin Cawood, Teresa Eckton, & Al Nelson, WALL-E
Ken Fischer & J.R. Grubbs, IRON MAN

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS

Alexander Chaliovski, IRON MAN
Atsushi Imamura, THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON
Nathan Matsuda, WALL-E

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE

Alexandre Desplat, THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON
Danny Elfman, MILK
David Hirschfelder, AUSTRAILIA
Thomas Newman, WALL-E
Howard Shore, DOUBT

Best Original Song

"The Call" from THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: PRINCE CASPIAN
"Rock Me, Sexy Jesus" from HAMLET 2
"Little Person" from SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK
"Down To Earth" from WALL-E
"The Wrestler" from THE WRESTLER

BEST FOREIGN-LANGUAGE FILM

The Blind Sunflowers (Spain)
The Class (France)
Gomorra (Italy)
Maria Larrson's Everlasting Moment (Sweden)
O'Horten (Norway)

BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE

I.O.U.S.A. (dir. Patrick Creadon)
Man On Wire (dir. James Marsh)
Standard Operating Procedure (dir. Errol Morris)
They Killed Sister Dorothy (dir. Daniel Junge)
Trouble The Water (dir. Carl Deal & Tia Lessin)

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE

Kung Fu Panda
WALL-E
Waltz With Bashir

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Milk (****)

MILK
Directed by Gus Van Sant



****

The passing of Prop. 8 in California. The loss of Brokeback Mountain at the Oscars to the trivial Crash. All symbols that even in today's seemingly advanced society, there is still severe prejudice against the homosexual community. More than any other movement that has fought for human rights, the homosexuals are the ones that strike the most fear, because their is no skin color for gay. That fear has produced some of the most bigotry this country has ever seen, and it still resides in our country today. Yes, there have been many broken barriers over the last couple of decades, but in Gus Van Sant's new film Milk, he gives a look at the beginning, when there was the most need for a fight.

Van Sant tells the story of Harvey Milk (played brilliantly by Sean Penn), a gay activist in the 1970's who was elected city supervisor of San Francisco, becoming the first openly gay man ever elected to political office. Living forty years in the closet, Harvey's world is changed when he and his boyfriend Scott (James Franco) move to San Francisco, where homosexuals feel the most free to express their culture. They open a camera store, which is less of a store, and more of a gay congregation where many can come to visit and not feel ashamed of their orientation. Their place becomes the beacon of the homosexual community.

Not everyone is pleased with Harvey and Scott's new standing in the city. Angry religious figures, with the violent support of the police, begin taking the business of brutalizing gays into their own hands. Upset with the blind bigotry, Harvey decides to run for city supervisor. No one should have to live with hatred and dismissal of other cultures, Harvey feels. He runs on the campaign that all men are created equal, no matter what their sexual persuasion may be. He loses three straight years, and his new found political obsession drives a wedge between he and Scott (James Franco), but his forth time is a charm, and now Harvey has worked his way into the machine he'd spent so many years protesting.

Even after gaining his position, Harvey still had many battles to fight. He had to fight the growing influence of Anita Bryant (shown only in creative splicing of news video): a former Orange Juice provocateur, turned battler for Christian values whose campaign across the country enabled anti-gay laws in various cities. There was also the barrage from State Senator John Briggs (Dennis O'Hare), who fought diligently to get all homosexual teachers fired, along with any gay supporters. Harvey's biggest roadblock comes from his own county, in fellow city supervisor Dan White (Josh Brolin), whose own insecurity and fear produces a hatred for Harvey even he can't understand.

Throughout the film Van Sant strategically places real news video footage into the filmed pieces of the narrative. Not only does this help bring the audience to the time period, which was the 1970's, but it purposely puts us into the media circus created in this battle for human rights. The subject of an Oscar-winning documentary, The Times of Harvey Milk, Milk knew the advantage of the press. His first campaign photographed him with full beard and a ponytail. Knowing how this would handicap his chances at the election the second time around, Harvey cut them both off, and nearly duplicated himself into another political suit. Once again, proving that not all homosexuals possess a hippie style, but can look just like anyone else.

The film's incredible attention to historical detail is impeccable, down to the members of Harvey's political team. He constructs a super team of gay men, including the feisty Cleve Jones (Emile Hirsch), campaign manager Rick Stokes (Stephen Spinella), reliable do-man Dick Pabich (Joseph Cross), and the lesbian political strategist Anne Kronenberg (Allison Pill). No person is misrepresented or fabricated, if only because these people were as larger-than-life as they appeared. They were just a handful from the angst-filled gay community, and they were able to funnel that anger through Harvey. The film makes the point to show that Harvey had an effect--sometimes inadvertently--on many lives.

Gus Van Sant himself, is an open homosexual, though his films have never pandered toward homosexual sensibilities. He's an incredibly artistic filmmaker, known for his incredibly cerebral, small pictures, including the Palme D'or-winning Elephant and the painstakingly misguided Gerry. He has made the venture into Hollywood pictures, including the Oscar-winning Good Will Hunting and the puzzling shot-for-shot remake of Psycho. Milk may very well be his greatest achievement. It's personal in more ways than one, but speaks to so many audiences. Out of all of his films, this is certainly his least chilly and distant, and certainly his most triumphant.

But lets not get confused about where the film's main power source comes from, and that is the career-defining work of Sean Penn. A chilly, distant figure in his own right, Penn recreates one of the most heart-warming men of the Twentieth Century to the T. Penn has constantly battled with his own arrogant persona, but it has never stopped his growth as a brilliant actor. Milk is just another cornerstone to an well-established filmography, but it is also the most moving, the most unforgettable, and the most captivating.

There are numerous reasons why a film like Milk is relevant in today's society; maybe even more relevant today than then. Films like this must be seen, because they create a voice for all of those out there who only see certain cultures as a skin color, or a sexual orientation. Close-mindedness is brought on by those who are uneducated. The less you know about a group of people, the easier it is for some to hate it, to protest against it, to make laws which forbid it. Despite the fact that Americans frequently pat themselves on the back for the progressive-ism, we still have a lot of barriers to overcome. Harvey Milk is a man who fought to break those barriers, and even after his assassination in 1978, his work lives on.

Friday, November 28, 2008

I've Loved You So Long (***1/2)

I'VE LOVED YOU SO LONG
Ill y a longtemps que je t'aime
Written and Directed by Phillipe Claudel



***1/2

When we think of the great premiere films from directors, our minds automatically go to Citizen Kane for Orson Welles, Blood Simple for the Coen Brothers, and most recently Michael Clayton for Tony Gilroy. You can add I've Loved You So Long to that list, for the budding new French filmmaker Phillipe Claudel. Not only does the film boast exceptional cinematic skill unseen in most rookies, but it also holds a handful of iconic performances in the most emotionally bare film released so far this year.

We are introduced to Juliette (Kristen Scott-Thomas) as she sits at the airport, a cigarette is glued between her fingers. Her expression is automatically one of a woman who is carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders. Her sister Lea (Elsa Zylberstein) races into the terminal, and spots her. They have not seen each other in over fifteen years, but now, Lea is forced to give Juliette a place to stay. Lea is overjoyed to be with her sister after so long, but is still a bit timid, and fears the unknown. The truth is, she barely knows this Juliette; the one that had vanished for so long.

Lea's two adopted daughters are excited to live with their new aunt, ready to indulge Juliette in playing piano and tours of their rooms. But Juliette is reserved, finding life reinstated to the family harder to adjust to, after being away from it for so long. Lea's husband Luc (Serge Hazanavicius) is bothered by Juliette's presence--why should his home have to house this mysterious, and introverted woman? Through various meetings and off-hand comments, we learn where Juliette has been this whole time: in prison--for murder.

Slowly, but surely, Juliette begins to adjust to living with her sister's family. She gets along with her parole officer (Frederic Pierrot), who introduces his own personal problems in their in-depth conversations. She meets Michel (Laurent Grevill), one of Lea's co-workers, and is sucked in by his sense of humor, and romantic intellect. Life is starting to come back to normal, but as more and more details are revealed about her heinous crime, the more and more she is faced with her own life decisions. With Lea trying to help her sister come to grips with her tormented soul, Juliette debates whether or not she is willing to go through the pain true closure can bring.

I absolutely love the way this film unveils its intentions piece by piece. We are never told a piece of information at the wrong time, and there is never a moment when a character reveals something that seems insincere. The film moves at an intentional novel-like pace, which may put some on edge, but is the perfect way to tell this story. Few filmmakers would trust this technique (it's one of the most unpopular among audiences), but what is probably more surprising is that this bold decision was made by a filmmaker on his first film. Few would have been as brave as Claudel, in sacrificing audience convenience for austere narrative structure.

But lets not forget those wonderful performances. Scott-Thomas gives what is probably the greatest performance of her uneven career. Her Juliette is a character filled to the brim with caged demons, its amazing she was able to pull this off with such delicacy. She's a straight powder-keg of emotion, with the pain of the whole world sitting in her strained eyes--even her smiles seem fractured. Scott-Thomas has seemed to me, to always be an actress who depended on her radiance, but that is certainly not the case here, where she wears nothing but muted colors and allows the character to be completely de-glammed.

Popular in French cinema, but nearly unheard of in America, Zylberstein gives a wonderful supporting turn as Lea, the supportive, but persistant sister. She has to hold back a lot of frustration and a lot of dismay in order to retain her status as the cornerstone of that family. Both Pierrot and Grevill are pleasant in their smaller, more light-hearted roles, but most importantly, they add even more depth to Juliette, who uses them both to figure out how she will succeed in her reconstructed life. It's a successful ensemble, which I also credit to Claudel, who in addition to his superior use of visual motif, shows that he has talent handling actors as well.

I've Loved You So Long is a movie that is equally devastating and gratifying. The brilliance of Juliette's character arc is what guides the film, and the combination of Claudel's intelligent, self-disciplined directing, and Scott-Thomas's ethereal, understated portrayal brings it to its full fruition. I know that I'm biased toward small, personal films which depend more on character than plot, so this is the kind of movie that is tailor-made for someone like me. It is not a film that is well-defined by genre, because the power behind storytelling as exceptional as this is universal.