Monday, February 25, 2008

The 2007 Academy Awards: A Review


Congrats to No Country, Javier Bardem, and the Coens. It was their night more than anyone else's despite winning only four in an evenly-spaced award ceremony. All five of the Best Picture nominees won at least one award, though There Will Be Blood was the only other movie to win more than one, scoring two: one for Daniel Day-Lewis in the Best Actor category, and the other for Robert Elswit's cinematography. Tilda Swinton's surprise win in the Best Supporting Actress category for Michael Clayton was pleasant, and Bardem won his much-predicted Supporting Actor award. I didn't totally agree with Marion Cotillard's win in the Best Actress category for La Vie en Rose, but it was a joy to see her ecstatic happiness when she accepted it. All in all, I don't have much to say here. I was happy Diablo Cody won Best Original Screenplay for Juno, if only to rub it in the face of all of it's smug criticizers who are more pretentious than the film will ever be. Jon Stewart was funny, and in a night with so many Hollywood hard-hitters, even Glen Hasard and Marketa Irklova from Once were able to share in the joy when they won Best Original Song for "Falling Slowly". Great night, great movies, and now we start again and look forward to 2008.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Oscar Predix: Who Will/Should Win


In the stacked 2007, predicting the Oscars will prove to be as easy as, say, picking my favorite Beatles song, but alas, it is a necessary evil in the world of the obsessive movie snob. Some are pretty obvious, some not so much. What will follow are my true predictions to who will win, and who I'd give it to if I had the single, only vote.


No Country For Old Men. Yeah, There Will Be Blood was equally loved by the critics, but it's dark strangeness will put so many people off, as unforgettable as it is. Juno was the big-time box office hit, but the backlash against the film has been so hard, I can't see it coming out on top. With Michael Clayton and Atonement just being happy to be nominated, the stage has been set for No Country and the Coen brothers to get their gold statue.

No Country For Old Men. I can't think of a reason to describe why this is the film of the year which I haven't already said. Suffice to say, that if you saw it, there wouldn't be any discussion. Period.


Daniel Day-Lewis, There Will Be Blood. This is pretty locked up for the meticulous method actor. Other than Clooney's subtle turn in Michael Clayton, there is little to no competition.

Tommy Lee Jones, In The Valley Of Elah. The film is average, but Jones is outstanding. It's hard to pick him over Clooney or Day-Lewis, but what the decision comes down to is that Jones controls the dramatic emotion better than both of them. The simmering anger only explodes when it's supposed to, and for the rest of time, he keeps his cool.


Julie Christie, Away From Her. Christie, the English goddess, has been riding a wave of buzz since May when the film was released. Marion Cotillard is close behind her with her portrayal of Edith Piaf in La Vie En Rose, and Ellen Page could surprise everyone by winning for her enormously popular performance in Juno. That said, it seems obvious that Christie will have the upper hand and walk away with her second Oscar.

Ellen Page, Juno. For anyone who actually reads my blog, you will know that this is a change of heart for me, as I've supported every single aspect of the film Away From Her. That said, no other actress nominated dominates like Page (no, not even Cotillard, who owes credit to her make-up, not her ability) in her respective film. She has strong wit, and real emotion. It's the performance that will be remembered the longest.


Javier Bardem, No Country For Old Men. This is just a straight lock. No explanation or analysis needed. Unless Assassination of Jesse James fans catch Casey Affleck fever, this is the most predictable category.

Javier Bardem, No Country For Old Men. Every single characteristic of Bardem's Anton Chigurh is memorable: the stun gun, the oxygen tank, the haircut, the coin flip, "Friendo"--it all adds to what is already one of the greatest movie villains of all time.


Ruby Dee, American Gangster. This is where things begin to get interesting. Every single nominated performance has a true shot here. Cate Blanchett was the early front-runner, for her take on Bob Dylan in I'm Not There, but the film's title can be considered a summation of how the general public felt about the movie. Then Amy Ryan literally swept all of the major critics awards as the irresponsible mom in Gone Baby Gone. Now, there are rumblings since Tilda Swinton won the BAFTA award for Michael Clayton. That said, I think the Academy will settle on giving it to Ruby Dee for what was basically an extended cameo in American Gangster, rewarding her for her lifetime achievement.

Tilda Swinton, Michael Clayton. Right from the time that she's introduced, Swinton's Karen Crowder is a ball of nerves. She practices her television speeches religiously, and plans her schemes with such meticulous detail, it is only more damaging to her as she watches it all fall apart. Watch for a killer showdown between Clooney and Swinton at the end of the film which brings everything to a incredibly satisfying conclusion.


Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, No Country For Old Men. It's fair to say that they've got this award more locked up than Best Picture, since they've won the DGA award, which is always a fair prediction. Paul Thomas Anderson was finally recognized by the Academy, and Julian Schnabel's magical vision made The Diving Bell and The Butterfly spectacular, but I don't see either surmounting the Coens here.

Julian Schnabel, The Diving Bell and The Butterfly. This movie was made with such beautiful imagination and vision, and none of that would have been possible without the work of Schnabel. His chances seem low, with Diving Bell not being nominated for Best Picture, but one of the few things good about being snubbed, is that it never takes away from the beauty on the screen.


Diablo Cody, Juno. In an outpouring of witty dialogue and heartwarming characters, cult-blogger Diablo Cody created the most beloved little movie of 2007. The script has little to no competition, as it has been cherished since the film's premiere at the Toronto Film Festival.

Tony Gilroy, Michael Clayton. The script doesn't make you laugh or smile like Juno, but in the end, the effect is just as fulfilling. Gilroy has been a much-respected screenwriter for a very long time, but it isn't till now that he's getting the recognition that deserves. Truth is, Gilroy has probably the only slight chance of up-ending Cody at the ceremony.


Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, No Country For Old Men. The Coens actually have one a previous Oscar for screen writing, when they won the 1996 award for Fargo. That said, this is the first time they took the "adapted" route. Also, many feel that awarding the Coens is a way to award the beloved Cormac McCarthy, who wrote the book on which the film is based.

Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, No Country For Old Men. I was tempted to say Paul Thomas Anderson, cause I love his movies so much, but the fact is this: There Will Be Blood's main weakness begins with it's screenplay. That, plus the Coen's reworking of Cormac McCarthy is uncanny, tense, and actually has some smatterings of humor.


Roger Deakins, No Country For Old Men. It only helps that Deakins' biggest competition is, well, himself for The Assassination of Jesse James. Robert Elswit's widescreened tunnel view for There Will Be Blood has a shot, as well as multiple winner Janusz Kaminski's brilliant work in The Diving Bell and The Butterfly. That said, Deakins has been an Oscar bridesmaid five times before, they'll give it to him this time.

Roger Deakins, but surprisingly, for The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford. I just saw the film recently, and I was completely floored by the beauty of Deakins' work in it. The film itself is long-winded, but so very, very tranquil. Most of that credit goes to Deakins.


Christopher Rouse, The Bourne Ultimatum. Of course, this movie does have the most edits, so it's got that going for it. All in all, this film relishes itself in it's own editing technique more than any other film nominated, which is why it's the front-runner, despite going up against films like There Will Be Blood and No Country.

Dylan Tichenor, There Will Be Blood. I'd love to see 'Roderick James' win for No Country, and watch the Coens "accept it on his behalf", but that's mostly for a laugh. Tichenor's job at slowly pulling together this deliberately-paced film is something that shouldn't go unnoticed.


Sarah Greenwood, Atonement. This was a big, lofty picture, and films of that kind usually dominate awards like this. The recreation of Dunkirk, the beautiful Tallis estate, it's all there. And the Oscar's there too.

Jack Fisk, There Will Be Blood. Fisk does just as good of a job as Greenwood, but his job entitles him to do the exact opposite. While Atonement is sprawling and beautiful, Fisk creates a dismal dystopia from the 1920's. All the houses are creaking, but that giant oil well stands gloriously.


Jacqueline Durran, Atonement. Keira Knightley's green dress has already become the most famous costume since Audrey Hepburn donned a black dress as Holly Golightley in Breakfast At Tiffany's. Sure, Elizabeth: The Golden Age recreates Elizabethan England, and Sweeney Todd's costumes add to the already morose characters, but none of them have that green dress.

Jacqueline Durran, Atonement. Did I mention that green dress? To be fair, the work in the film is balanced throughout, be it with the soldier's soiled attire, to the stark white nurse uniforms.


Jan Archibald, La Vie En Rose. I can't see the Academy honoring Norbit (the nomination alone was baffling), and the third Pirates of the Carribean always had a luke-warm following. So, that being said, Rose wins by default.

Jan Archibald, La Vie En Rose. I didn't see the other two films, and don't plan to (Do you? Didn't think so). To be fair though, Archibald's make-up is the real star of this film, concealing the gorgeous Marion Cotillard in the body of the brash Edith Piaf.


Dario Marianelli, Atonement. Combining the typewriter keys to the blistering music was a smart choice on Marianell's part. He lost the last time he was nominated for his much superior work in Pride & Prejudice, so he'll get it this time.

Dario Marianelli, Atonement. I liked all of the scores nominated very much, but Marianelli's work, in all of his films including this, seems to stick with me. Still humming it in my head.


"Falling Slowly" from Once. Enchanted may have stolen three of the five nominations, but that really does nothing for the film, except cancel all of the nominations out. They'll give it to the rarely recognized indie gem Once.

"Falling Slowly" from Once. Come on, have you heard the song? If you have, you'll understand what I'm saying.

(Connecting them, cause I believe they'll be won by the same guy)

Kevin O' Connell, Transformers. Not that I know jack-crap about sound, but there is an interesting dynamic here. Nominee Kevin O'Connell has been nominated 19 times (NINETEEN!?!?!), and has yet to win one. He's like the Susan Lucci of the Oscars, except no one knows who he is. The Oscars like to give out these kind of back-patting awards, and I'll think they'll do here.

Skip Lievsay, No Country For Old Men. Well, I just said that I know jack-crap about sound, so my opinion on the matter should be moot, but there are moments in No Country where the sound is used so well (Llewelyn waiting for Anton in the hotel room). Anything that makes me understand the concept of sound is what I think should be considered the winner.


WHO WILL/SHOULD WIN: Transformers. Haven't seen any of the three nominated films, but this one has giant cars changing shapes, while the other two have pirates (Pirates of the Carribean) and talking polar bears (The Golden Compass). I'll go with the morphing automobiles.


Ratatouille. I think Persepolis may have won over more critics, but Ratatouille did the impossible by making everyone fall in love with the idea of a rat cooking food for human beings (there are never any health issues addressed in the film).

Ratatouille. It's a rat that cooks, how cute is that?


The Counterfeiters. Seeing as the three most popular foreign language films of the year (4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, The Diving Bell and The Butterfly, and The Lives of Others) were either disqualified or used a year early, this Austrian film becomes the front-runner.

The Diving Bell and The Butterfly. Yeah, I know, that's cheating. But, hey, I doubt any of the five nominated films showcase as much innovation.


No End In Sight. Michael Moore may be the most popular, though divisive, documentary filmmaker in the US, but his film Sicko was not nearly as applauded as this film which chronicles the mishaps after America's invasion of Iraq.

No End In Sight. It's another case of me not seeing any of the other films nominated, but I feel pretty good in my choice here. Charles Ferguson's film is truthful, and to be honest, very much needed for a country that tries to pretend that a war is not happening.

No End In Sight (****)

No End In Sight
Written, Directed, and Produced by Charles Ferguson


It's amazing how many Hollywood pictures have gone down the drain when they tried to tackle subject matter dealing with the War in Iraq. The opposite could be said, though, for documentary filmmaking. Ever since the notorious Michael Moore blew the whistle in his surprise hit Fahrenheit 9/11, there have been numerous documentaries that have taken different perspectives on the war. Three, in fact, have been nominated for Best Documentary in the 2007 Oscars. One of those nominated films, No End In Sight, displays the aftermath of the war with such clarity and honesty, it may go down as the best to tackle the subject matter.

Moore's Fahrenheit was admittedly a two-hour, biased campaign to bring down the Bush administration before the 2004 election. The "character" of George W. Bush is rarely in this film, though. In fact, his absence during all the events displayed in the picture is much more damning than any well-edited montage of interviews and mispronunciations that Moore could put together. What No End In Sight does so well, is allow the actual people who were there tell the stories themselves. And those stories aren't very good...

What the bulk of No End In Sight deals with is the numerous failed attempts the US made to restore Iraq after they'd invaded the country, and captured Saddam Hussein. On May 1st, 2003, President George W. Bush famously stood at a naval base with a giant sign that read overhead: "Mission Accomplished". As shown in the film, close to little had actually been accomplished, other than America once again flexing it's nonchalant muscles, and invading a malnourished country. Saddam was found, so what do we do now? Some left, some tried to stay and help, but the only sure thing is that the situation brought nothing but confusion to many people.

Today, many Iraqi families have been severely impoverished, while the streets are filled with dangerous militias. With the Shiites and the Sunis already warring, the destruction left by the American invasion did nothing but up the violent tension between the two. Most of the exclusive interviews within the movie are with people assigned the important job of trying to rebuild Iraq, despite limited resources or help from the US government. By the time of these interviews, close to all of these people have been dismissed from their positions, after their pleading and ideas on Iraq were ignored.

What this film does best is stand on it's own, with no links to particular denominations. Even the narrator, actor Campbell Scott, has a narration that is bland and suppressing. The interviewed individuals display their opinions: many are anti-American, many sad, but all simply baffled by how the situation has become so out of control. "There were 500 ways to do it wrong and two or three ways to do it right," said ambassador Barbara Bodine, a member of ORHA, a group created to think up ideas to rebuild Baghdad. "What we didn't understand is that we were going to go through all 500."

Their are spectacular stats presented: by the end of the war, it may end up costing the United States over $1.8 billion. There is fear instilled in the audience: with our invasion of Iraq, we have now empowered their biggest rival, the equally dangerous Iran. More than anything, though, what Charles Ferguson has done with his film is display a war on the screen that we expect (but don't get) from our own American media. As the public ignores Hollywood films addressing the war, and are content with news which would rather cover celebrity exploits as opposed to the rebuilding of Iraq, the middle eastern country is slowly disintegrating into a lawless nation where many American soldiers, to this day, are still being killed.

In the end, No End In Sight is a story of bad decision-making, inflated egos, and numerous sad endings. Like Fahrenheit, the film juxtaposes images of war and insurgency, with the faces of American political leaders back in Washington laughing, giggling, and rationalizing. It's comfortable for the average American to be apathetic to the situation in Iraq, and I don't deny doing it myself. What this film brings to the forefront, is our biggest fears. It shows the greatest horrors of a puzzling war, that we've tried to turn our back on.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Oscar Breakdown: Best Picture


Seeing as I've said about as much as I can about all of the five films nominated here, this 'oscar breakdown' post will be a little more succinct. The idea of the '5 Best Films of the Year' is a bit dubious. It varies from one person to the next what makes a great film. More than anything, 2007 has shown the ludicrous idea of one movie being the 'Best Picture' of the year. With the vast amount of great films in varying genres, surprisingly I actually have no problem with any of the five nominated films this year. There's always that one little mistake in the five, whether it be the result of a giant hype machine (Chocolat!?!?!?!?!), or something that is totally beyond explanation (Field of Dreams!?!?!?!?!?!), there's always that one. But this year, I awoke, saw the five films nominated, and to be honest, there was an almost a disappointment. After all, one of the main hobbies of a film snob like me is to complain about these kinds of things, and there was nothing to complain about. Then, as time passed by, I sat back and appreciated the Academy for getting it right.


Hyped as the romantic epic (the Titanic you could say) of the decade, instead, Atonement was a beautifully scaled picture, about a small girl's mistake, and the disastrous effects it has on a young couple in love. Filled with beautiful, long tracking shots, iconic costumes, and heartbreaking images, Atonement is definitely the prettiest film of 2007. It's use of differing cinematography and a combination and quick and slow editing bring the story to life. It also stars two of the biggest young stars (Keira Knightley and James McAvoy) as the doomed lovers, but the star of the film is stolen by the character of Briony (played by all three: Soairse Ronan, Romola Garai, and Vanessa Redgrave). The plot itself, can be described by Briony herself, in a line from the film: "It's about a young girl, who sees something which she doesn't understand, but she thinks she does." Briony's lifelong mission to atone for her sin is what drives the movie through it's beautiful landscapes, and her appearance late in the film, at a time when life has well passed her by, brings even more twists to the story.


In the past month or so, the "Juno backlash" has been coming hard and often. Complaints range from the pretentiousness of the dialogue, or the preposterous idea that nobody so young and in such a taboo situation would treat it with such casual wit. It is true that the film uses pregnancy more as a plot device than a focus, but that is because the actual focus is on Juno (Ellen Page) herself, not her unborn child. I'm sure there were moments of morning sickness and strange cravings in Juno's pregnancy, but the film's tight 91 minutes decides to turn it's eye on other things. Truly, I cannot sing enough praise for the work of the cast in this film, to take all the hurdling words and transform them into the most heartwarming film of the year. There is nothing Hallmark in the movie, like some have claimed, and if this film does seem pretentious, it is only because it is so much smarter than any other teen film to come out recently. It doesn't try to say "Teenagers like to have sex, and sometimes they get pregnant." Instead, the movie shows the mistakes we make, and how they can lead to life-altering realizations (clue: it's not only Juno).


I had a feeling for a while that this film would get snubbed at the Oscar nomination table, if only because it is so hard to appreciate a solid genre piece. Clayton is a legal thriller, and it does not attempt to trick you with plot twists or romantic sub-plots. Instead, it goes for the jugular, displaying corruption at it's basest level. The film succeeds where films like Syriana just leave the audience baffled, because this movie understands that a film that is this complex doesn't need to be that confusing. Of coarse, a grade A cast, and surprisingly superb work from debut director Tony Gilroy ultimately help. Clooney, already a Hollywood icon, and the most loved actor in Hollywood gives the performance of his career as the morally-misguided, emotionally-exhausted Michael Clayton. When you have a supporting cast the likes of Tilda Swinton, Tom Wilkinson, and Sydney Pollock and all of them giving wonderfully steady performances, it does nothing but further display the greatness of Clooney himself. From Gilroy's own script, Clayton is slick, tense, and overall, satisfying.


I've tried very hard to find a flaw in No Country, and to this day, I have yet to find one. That said, I know a lot of people who can, and there complaints usually have to do with the slow pace, the long passages of silence, and most particularly, the last act. But as far as I see it, none of those things are flaws, but instead, they further endear the picture to the level of a masterpiece. Created by those zany Coen Brothers, the film's meticulous attention to deal and cut-throat dialogue only add to the already tension-filled story about a welder (Josh Brolin), and his attempt to run off with $2 million in drug money, while a stungun wielding madman (Javier Bardem) is close on his tail. Many of those detracted by the film have passed it over as "serial killer movie", but no other serial killer movie that I've ever seen addresses the ideals of greed and fate so well. Twelve years removed from Fargo, it seemed rather unlikely that the Coens could ever make a film as astutely made, and with such beautifully nuanced performances. Luckily for us, we were wrong.


Somewhere deep inside the heart of Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), there is a sharp, jagged-edged love that rarely shows itself. We see it a couple of times, when he is with his adopted son, H.W., and once with a man of whom Daniel thinks is his brother. That's about all you get, though. For the rest of picture, Daniel paces around with his wide-brimmed hat, and does absolutely anything he can to get the riches he cherishes so badly. There Will Be Blood, another "magnum opus" from the mind of Paul Thomas Anderson, broke into the race late. It was released after Christmas, and with strong word of mouth and the inclusion of the seldom-working Day-Lewis, the film has quietly become the highest grossing picture in Anderson's career (just over $30 million). By sweeping some late critics awards in addition to Day-Lewis' dominance in the Best Actor campaign, the film grew, and is a popular pick for a dark horse winner. I loved this movie, whole-heartedly, and see Paul Thomas Anderson as the easily the best filmmaker of his generation (even if that generation includes Tarantino). Tackling universal themes of greed, religiosity, and family, the film promises blood, and we get it.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Oscar Breakdown: Best Actress In A Leading Role


This year's crop of Best Actress nominees are very intriguing. We all know the struggles it is for women to find roles competent enough to be nominated to begin with, but this year we have something interesting. We have one woman who is obviously at the prime of her acting career (Blanchett), an English cinematic queen with a long resume (Christie), and one very young woman who grasps one of the biggest breakthrough performances in recent memory (Page). These varying generations battling it out makes this category very intriguing for me. Added to that, we also have a nomination for two very dependable actresses, one American (Linney) and the other French (Cotillard).


The Golden Age is an awkward film that is as interesting as it is historically accurate (I don't exactly understand the title either, since it takes place during the times of the Spanish Armada and the plague). The one constant in a picture filled with annoyingly loose ends is Blanchett. Reprising her role as Queen Elizabeth I from the thrilling Elizabeth, there were false feelings that this sequel might be something near that--we were disappointed. Blanchett, though, still plays Elizabeth with enough fire and subtle beauty that we are able to watch the film without the explosion of anger. In this film, she is drowning in a sea of big, puffy dresses abd cake make-up, which makes the performance even more of a challenge, but Blanchett--who has worked quite a bit as of late--takes it in stride, and with a menacing sneer.

There is a foolish romantic subplot thrown into the film, between her and Walter Raleigh. Despite the hysterical idea that these two even dined with each other let alone were romantically involved, it's Blanchett's sincerity and honesty to the character that makes the entire idea somewhat appealing. Through all the face paint and costumes, her shining blue eyes still peak through to express regret, resentment, and probably most important, power. She has loud, lofty speeches that radiate throughout your mind, and a gaze that is at times endearing and other times intimidating. Truly, Blanchett is everywhere now, and we can see that people may have gotten sick of her. But if they have, it's for the wrong reasons, because in every role she has taken, she has showcased her immense talent and passion for the craft.

Julie Christie, AWAY FROM HER

For my money, despite Julie Christie's front-runner status, and the films surprise nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay, I still think Away From Her has been one of the more underrated films of the year. There are only a few films that I have ever seen (and none in '07), that so fluidly display rare human emotion as well as this movie does. The story is about Fiona (Christie) and her mental deterioration at the hands of Alzheimer's. Against the wishes of her loving husband Grant (Gordon Pinsent), she checks into a wellness center, where all the memories of their loving relationship begin to disappear. Christie, a legendary actress who has an Oscar for 1965's Darling, is the most heartbreaking aspect in a very heartbreaking movie, and she has basically trenched through every major award up to now.

The magic in Christie's work in the film is the way she creates a woman who's not there. By not there, I mean that she is like a vagabond who has inhabited this successful woman's body. There's a point in the film, where she can't remember the word 'wine', and that slowly progresses to her not even recognizing Grant when he comes by. The vague, painful look on Christie's face throughout the film is heart-melting. There are moments though, like regular Alzheimer's victims, where those memories come back, and her shifting in and out of consciousness is a chameleon move Daniel Day-Lewis would be proud of. When she whispers to Grant in front of the television "Don't they remember Vietnam..." we are filled with such meaningless hope, as she later recede into the many side affects of her Dementia.

Marion Cotillard, LA VIE EN ROSE

I could spend days talking about the tons of make-up Cotillard had to wear in this movie, but that does not give the performance justice. Playing the famous diva Edith Piaf, Cotillard physical transformation is so that I didn't even remember that I'd seen Cotillard in numerous other films. Cotillard, a beautiful French woman, de-glams for this role, even showing Piaf at her balding, fuzzy haired worst (how can you look like you're 80, when you're only 48? a combination of drugs and liver cancer never helps). The movie itself is scatter-brained, told in a non-linear way, I assume to intrigue the audience. The affect of that storytelling gets confusing a bit, but what we are never confused about is the astonishing effort Cotillard puts into the performance.

There are two scenes in particular that stayed in my memory. One involves the fantasy Piaf has that her lover is laying in bed with her just moments before she realizes that he has been killed in a plane crash. Another consists of Piaf pleading with her friend to let her perform despite her health issues, for if she can't she will lose all faith in herself. Both scenes require Cotillard to produce Banshee-like howls, but the result is something more than Pacino-esque screaming, but shrieks of human emotion. Cotillard must have gone through a lot for this role, because her life as shown through the film was so damaging, mostly from her own doing, but what the film and Cotillard remind us is that the beauty of Edith Piaf was in her magical voice and wonderful songs.

Laura Linney, THE SAVAGES

I was so elated when I discovered on Oscar nomination morning that Linney had made it on the shortlist for Best Actress. When I saw the film, The Savages, I came to a surprising conclusion: that Linney had supplanted Julianne Moore as my favorite modern day actress. She has worked just as much Cate Blanchett, even if the films are a little less noteworthy, but it is her work that has been more challenging, and for the most part, scathing. In Savages, she plays Wendy Savage, who, along with her brother John (Philip Seymour Hoffman), struggle with the guilt of having to put their dementia-plagued father (Philip Bosco) into a nursing home. What they discover is that there is no such thing as a de facto nursing home, just a place that makes it more comfortable to die.

Probably the biggest testament to how good Linney is in this film is that her co-star, the usually overpowering Hoffman, recedes and allows her to take control. The character of Wendy is interesting: she's an aspiring playwright who's currently writing something based on her troubled childhood, and in her spare time, she's has affairs with a fiftysomething teacher. Throughout the film, she has romantic issues. The idea of the affair is treated rather lightly in the film (the guy is actually a pretty decent fellow, despite being an adulterer) because it is just a further examination of those issues. The romantically confused woman reaching middle age is something Linney has tackled before (You Can Count On Me), but this film adds the extra ingredient of family, which is so much more universal.

Ellen Page, JUNO

Out of every character that I was introduced to over 2007, I didn't fall in love with any of them as mush as I fell in love with Ellen Page's Juno. The surprise blockbuster hit has been so successful because of Page, essentially. Her grasp of Diablo Cody's wordy script, and her ability to say those words with such fluidity and wit make the film irresistible. Any complaint about Juno's cleverness end with Page, cause no one can deny that she makes the role alive. All the while, never forgetting Juno is still a child where it all stands (remember with how much abandon she tries to beautify herself for Bateman's character), Page's performance is a response to all the brain-dead portrayals of teenage girls in films like Bratz or anything starring Lindsey Lohan. She's almost an anti-hero, for we adore her for her faults.

Despite her intelligence, the entire structure of the film's plot hinders on the biggest mistake in Juno's short life: getting impregnated by her effeminate boyfriend Paulie Bleeker. The process of pregnancy isn't really paid attention to the way it is in films like Knocked Up, but the film is not about pregnancy as much as it's about Juno's learning experience. Through her pregnancy she learns from Mark and Vanessa, the adoptive parents of her child. She learns from her father the virtue of wisdom. And later, she learns where her heart truly lies, culminating in such a charming, romantic scene between Juno and Paulie on the track at school. It's as satisfying a climax there is to a film this year, and in that one scene we see Page nail every word and every quirk in her speech. It's the most dominant performance of the five nominees, the funniest, and the most endearing.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Oscar Breakdown: Best Supporting Actor


For some reason, when an actor or actress is in a supporting role, they see to have more freedom to ham it up. What I mean is, that the main character cannot be on overdrive for an entire film, but the supporting roles cannot not be on overdrive, or else we'd barely noticed they were even on the screen. Which is why you have so many supporting roles that can dominate an entire picture. Think for instance, of Joe Pesci's ferocity in Goodfellas, and how you walk away remembering him more than anything else in that film. Also, think of last year's winner, Alan Alda in Little Miss Sunshine, and the powerful effect he has on the story, even after he's gone. Trying to do the best you can in the limited time given is what makes a supporting performance superb.


Despite the fact that you have to take a deep breath before you say it, after watching the film recently, it seems the title fits the flow of the film perfectly. Affleck, playing Robert Ford, is obviously not going to get higher billing than the other star of the picture, Brad Pitt, but there has been a lot of rumblings as to why Affleck was considered "supporting" if he's the main character. When watching the film, I think Affleck was absent from the screen long enough to make the nomination at least a bit sensical. But I can understand the rumbles, cause when he is on the screen there is nobody else there that matters more. Affleck's nomination comes after what was essentially his breakout year. First his big brother Ben starred him as the main character in Gone Baby Gone, and then he got universal praise for Assassination.

Robert Ford is such an interesting character. He worships the James gang, particularly Jesse. So large is his worship, he actually memorized a list of trivial attributes that him and Jesse have in common ("You're 5'8'' tall, I'm 5'8'' tall"). Then, slowly but surely, that worship turns to resentment, and that resentment leads to murder. Perhaps, you don't totally get the total grasp of Affleck's performance until the last half-hour or so, where he is the main character. Ford thought everyone would embrace him for taking down the most notorious criminal of the time, but instead they turned on him. They hated him so much, that the man who would eventually murder him was pardoned of the crime. It's tragedy at it's highest form, but Affleck tackles everything with subtlety and a creepy, menacing grin that never leaves his face throughout the film.


If I remember correctly, in my original review of No Country For Old Men, I described Javier Bardem's murderous Anton Chigurh as "the Terminator with less mercy". Having seen the film numerous times since then, that feeling has not changed. Bardem, a Spanish actor most known in America for his performance as the paraplegic in The Sea Inside, is unquestionably perfect for the role. In Cormac McCarthy's original novel on which the film is based, Chigurh is a mysterious character, with no physical characteristics described, and a name that doesn't connect with any particular racial group. Bardem, with his bob haircut and indistinguishable accent incorporates McCarthy's descriptions fully. He speaks in one calm tone, and essentially anyone who is unlucky enough to hear that unmelodious voice ends up dead within minutes.

It is Bardem who is the unrelenting tide that keeps the film in it's tense state, because he is completely impenetrable (truly, he has more of a case for a lead role than Affleck does). The story is about Llewlyn Moss (Josh Brolin), but Chigurh is the figure of death that will haunt our dreams. Equipped with a cattle stun-gun for blowing out locks, and a shot gun with some kind of beer can silencer, Chigurh's body count doubles and triples every minute he's on the screen. People say that Anton Chigurh is a symbolic representation of Death, but the hole in that argument is that it doesn't factor in the car crash in the end (spoiler, sorry). I'm more inclined toward the theory that Chigurh represents the unstoppable force of fate. Even he is not able to escape it. Symbolism and metaphor aside, the true genius of Bardem's performance is the small nuances that add up to create one of the greatest screen serial killers in recent memory.

Philip Seymour Hoffman, CHARLIE WILSON'S WAR

The interesting thing about the character of Gust Avrakotos, and Hoffman's portrayal of him, is that more than any other person, Gust was the single most important factor of the whole operation. Charlie Wilson was the face of the co-opt war that would eventually bring down the Soviet Union, but Gust was the mastermind. Gust, a chain-smoking alcoholic with a quick temper and a sharp tongue, sacrificed his role in the CIA to help the cause, and ended up very successful in the end. Hoffman, who is slowly shifting his career from useful supporting actor to dominant lead, presents Avrakotos with a lot of cigarettes, a lot of screaming, and a well-groomed mustache. I couldn't tell you if Avrakotos was as big of a personality in real life as he was in the film, but what Hoffman shows is that either way, it's more interesting if he is.

With two great lead performances in The Savages and Before The Devil Knows You're Dead, it seems the academy settled for Hoffman's most crowd-pleasing role of 2007 (though he had less than a chance in the lead actor category). That said, a performance that is "crowd-pleasing" is still a performance that is successful. As a whole, Charlie Wilson's War was a delightful film, that told a true story which is rarely told in the history books, but many were underwhelmed by it's lack of profundity. I think the film works best as a smart comedy, as opposed to the war drama many wanted. Hoffman has his helpings of hilarious dialogue ("Can we just take a moment to reflect on all of the ways that you are a douche bag?"), provided generously by screenwriter Aaron Sorkin. With Hoffman, we have an actor in his prime, who is finally being recognized regularly by Hollywood.

Hal Holbrook, INTO THE WILD

It's nearly two hours into the epic Into The Wild before we see Ron Franz. He's old, haggard, and willing to help the stranded Christopher McCandless. Like everyone else Chris has met on his journey, Ron becomes connected to him. Ron has lost his entire family, and lives alone awaiting the time when it is his turn to go. He is god-fearing man, who is not afraid of death, until he is given a new breath of life when he comes into contact with Chris. Holbrook, a veteran actor who was finally was given an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Franz, melts you heart with his performance. This is much more than a generous nomination for Holbrook's age (see Ruby Dee), but a realization that after all this time in a great actor's career, he can still give the best film performance he's ever given.

Franz, a stubborn old man, and Chris an equally stubborn adventurer, learn so much about each other. The two become so close, that Franz pleads with Chris to let him be adopted by Franz. It's one of the most heartbreaking scenes in all of the movies this year, as Chris leaves considering it, but never returns. As Chris moves from person to person on his journey north, he meets all kinds of people who discover his charm and love him, but it's only Franz who actually makes an attempt to teach him. McCandless' inner anger at family and society make him secretly bitter, a bitterness only Franz sees. "When you forgive, you love. And when you love, God's light shines upon you," Franz tells Chris as they sit together on a hill. Holbrook is the greatest part of a great film, and I don't feel any other actor could have captured this character so well.


It's quite a testament to the Clayton that it is the only film to have multiple acting nominations (three in all). That said, it is Wilkinson's Arthur Edens that gets the entire story undey way. The film opens in fact with a long, spiraling speech by Edens which causes two realizations for the audience early in the film: one, the Edens character is giving a speech we hope is not important since it is so scatter-brained we can't keep up with it; and two, the Edens character has gone completely mad. Edens, a formerly great lawyer, decides ambitiously to kick his anti-depressant medicine, and then figures to bring down his big-time corporation client by exposing their wrongdoings. How does he go about doing this? By getting naked during a deposition and running through a parking lot. Edens must be dealt with, the law firm concludes, Edens has gone off the deep end.

Wilkinson is in the category of those oh-so dependable British actors. He always excepts that hard supporting role which has the pressure of making the world of the film more believable. Try and think how good Shakespeare In Love or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind would have been without Wilkinson's riveting work in both. Clayton continues that trend, but this time Wilkinson is on a grander stage. He creates the figure of a crazed man, but at the perfect moment (in the alley, with the bag full of bread), he switches and composes himself. He will not stand back and be judged as a mad man, he will take charge and use his expertise to his advantage. This drastic shift in character is a lot harder than it appears, yet Wilkinson does it so swiftly. In a film filled with top-notch performances, Wilkinson separates himself among them as the heart of the entire picture.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Definitely, Maybe (**)

Written and Directed by Adam Brooks


Call it the Valentine's Day attitude inside of me, but I essentially liked Definitely, Maybe as much as you can like a two-star film. It was charming, the emotions swayed me, and it wasn't the kind of romantic film sap that thinks you're stupid enough to think it's real. Somewhat like my reaction to the surprisingly good Dan In Real Life. The only difference between those two films, though, is that Dan had the wonderfully sincere Steve Carell, who is an unbelievably underrated actor in his own right. This film is left with Ryan Reynolds who, despite giving his most mature performance of his career, still seems like he's wearing a suit too tight for him the whole film.

I like the idea of people going to see this during the Valentine's Day Weekend (if there is such a thing). It's a romance with subplots of family and children, and contains the wonderfully talented child actress Abigail Breslin. It's a film that is easily passed off as a "chick flick". I would disagree with that for two reasons. For one, the term "chick flick" is one of horrendous sexism, but also because this film totally and fully deals with the emotional feelings of a man.

That man is Will Hayes (Reynolds) who is coaxed by his young, precocious daughter Maya (Breslin) to tell her the story of how he met her mother, and fell in love with her. Will, whether out of boredom or fear, decides to tell Maya the story of the three true loves of his life. He will change the names of all the women, and never tell her which one is her mother exactly, so she can figure it out on her own. It's not the greatest job of parenting (Will and Maya's mother are about to be divorced), but we get sucked into the atmosphere rather quickly.

A majority of the film is told in flashback, and we meet all the women firsthand. First, there's Emily (Elizabeth Banks), Will's college sweetheart, who fears Will would change when he left to New York City to work on Clinton's presidential campaign. He goes to the world of 1991 New York City, where he meets a snappy copy girl named April (Isla Fisher), who will factor in a bit, later in the story. There is also Summer (Rachel Weisz), Emily's former college roommate, who is shacked up with an old, spirited, alcoholic college professor (a delightful cameo performance by Kevin Kline).

Throughout the film, Will weaves himself in and out of relationships with these three women, but also climbs the ladder in his job. He goes from being the guy who gets toilet paper and coffee for the Clinton campaign, to the head speech writer for the leading senatorial candidate of New York City. The setting of the early nineties does little to nothing for the film other than to crack sarcastic jokes about future notorious activities of Clinton, and other minor ironies ("You've never heard of Kurt Cobain!?" April tells Will). Will has a friend named Russell (Derek Luke), who is a puzzling character since we're not sure if he's the stereotypical silly, but earnest friend, or the black stereotypical silly, but earnest friend (one says "dude", the other says "yo"; Russell says both in varying tones).

There are things in the flashback which border on nonsensical, and things we hope are not included in the version he is verbally telling Maya. There is a conversation between Weisz and Kline which he should have no recall of since he wasn't in the room. And also, the film depends on highly remarkable events for the story to move forward--twice, Will tries to propose to one of the women, and twice the relationship is torn apart just moments before. The flashbacks become so swindling that we forget the story of Maya, who is the most intriguing aspect of the story. She's a young girl, who wants a story of love before her family crumbles, but instead we get more and more of the love triangles (or whatever geometric shape is applicable to Will's situation).

Ryan Reynolds is competent as Will, but I just can't shake the feeling that he was in over his head. Reynolds is earnest enough, and it's nice to see him trying something that doesn't require him to be a dumb college guy (Van Wilder, Buying The Cow). It's a man's role, and a brave one at that in Reynolds' case, and perhaps in a more fitting role, Reynolds can fit a bit better. In this, though, he relies a little too much on dashing looks and pouts. He's also upstaged by the 11-year-old Breslin, who counters her Oscar-nominated role in Little Miss Sunshine with a performance which is a little more kiddy, but still just as drawing. It's easy for a child's performance to be mistaken as great with the work of great editing, but Breslin didn't fool us twice.

Before the film started, I saw numerous trailers including those for films that I'm eager to see: The Other Boleyn Girl, Smart People, and Baby Mama. I remember all those trailers, and the anticipation I felt when I saw them, and I don't know if Definitely, Maybe had the same effect. It's a light film, with performances that are not particularly great, but honest. You can see that everyone who worked on it had fun with the light material, and because of that you do actually care about what happens to Will and Maya in the end. So, is it a particularly charming movie? Definitely. Should you go right out and see it? Maybe.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Oscar Breakdown: Best Director


Ah, Best Director. Or, as many others may call it, Best Picture, part. 1. It's true that sometimes this category gets misjudged because they confuse the two. Is there a difference between the best film of the year and the best made film of the year? I think there is. For instance, I believe Michael Mann makes some of the "best made" films of the last 25 years, though other than Heat, I can't see any of his films really being considered the best overall film of any particular year (that's something I'd have to go back and look over). That said, I was taken by pretty much every job the nominated directors did in 2007.

Paul Thomas Anderson, THERE WILL BE BLOOD

I am completely biased when it comes to P.T. Anderson, as he has probably been my favorite filmmaker for half a decade. Nobody today is more ambitious, nor does anybody make films as rich or intriguing, and I have been patiently waiting for him to make his masterpiece. I'm not so sure that There Will Be Blood is his masterpiece (Magnolia still holds that title for PTA), but what it did show was Anderson's continuing trend of creating incredibly interesting, sometimes polarizing, films. Anderson did two things for the first time here: one, he adapted the screenplay from a novel called Oil! by Upton Sinclair. Though the screenplay supposedly strays from Sinclair's novel by page 5, Anderson will be the first to say that Sinclair's muckraking spirit is all throughout the pages. The second thing Anderson did for the first time: a period piece. With the help of Jack Fisk's wonderful sets, Anderson recreates the world of the early twentieth century.

Much of the praise for this film has been bestowed upon the dazzling, but bruising lead performance by Daniel Day-Lewis, playing oil tycoon Daniel Plainview. Day-Lewis is the dominant force behind the picture, but he is still just a character in the world created by Anderson. The film's deliberate pace hearkens back to the films of Stanley Kubrick and Terrence Mallick. All of the usual PTA motifs are there, from the well-written speeches ("I've abandoned my child!!!"), the mind-bending score (by Radiohead's Johnny Greenwood), and long, languid takes that bring you evermore into the world he's created. Blood is Anderson's introduction into the world of big-time filmmakers, and he has definitely put himself in a class of one with the other filmmakers of his generation.

Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN

Among the nominations, the Coens are probably the closest to being Hollywood insiders. It's an exciting statement, because it only enlarges the appearance of all the new talent. That said, it is the Coens who have risen above the dust and created the most praised film of the year. The Coen Brothers have always been an acquired taste, with their wacky films ranging from the hilarious Raising Arizona to the highly stylized Barton Fink. Of coarse, they also made a little film called Fargo which could easily be called the best film of the last quarter century, but we're here to talk about their work in No Country. Just like Anderson, the Coens made a film that was polarizing, and again like Anderson, many were complaining about the film's puzzling ending. The difference though, is that NOBODY who saw the film questioned the Coens' unbelievable job in showing this world.

The film paces along, hardly a score to speak of, and long (LONG!!) passages of silence in between scenes of abundant dialogue. The movie hits every beat perfectly, every actor saying there lines at the best possible time. Of coarse, the entire film deals with being pursued: Llewelyn Moss is being pursued by Anton Chigurh, and they're both being pursued by Sheriff Ed Tom Bell. The tension built around these film-long chases is tantalizing. It helps to be aided by career performances by Javier Bardem and Josh Brolin, but what the Coens have done is beyond the great work of their actors. It's their film that has given these actors the chance to be great. The incredible focus on every meticulous detail is something usual in a Coen Bros. film, but No Country maximizes that approach to the point that they were able to create a perfect film.


Gilroy has spent much of his career as a somewhat journeyman in Hollywood. He's penned the scripts for numerous hit films such as Armageddon and all three of the Jason Bourne movies. So, it's a bit of a touching story: long standing screenwriter finally gets his crack at making his own picture, and wouldn't you know: the guy really knows what he's doing. Michael Clayton seems to stay fresh in my mind, probably cause I feel that it was the first of many great films that I saw in 2007. The first that kept me up at night, wondering when I was going to be able to see it again. Clayton moves and feels like a John Grisham-esque story, leveled in a world where lawyers live on the morality chain in notch between child molesters and elected officials. As it grows, and it's labyrinthine plot unfolds, we are later reminded of those deep law thrillers of the 70's ala All The President's Men.

The underdog tale of Gilroy is inspiring, sure, but not as inspiring as his actual work on Clayton. Buoyed by a cast of excellent, veteran actors Gilroy makes a film that is tense, smart, emotional, and thrilling, sometimes all at the same time. The film is amassed different shades of black, white, and tons of gray (particularly in George Clooney's hair). It's can't be said enough, that a director is judged on how competently he presents the world of his story, and in this world of muted souls and constant backstabbing, Gilroy shows a world filled with fancy suits and sparkling restaurants, but nobody to speak of on the inside of any of them. The film just consistently makes the correct moves. Clayton is not nearly as hard-hitting as No Country or Blood, but Gilroy makes sure that the effect is still the same.

Jason Reitman, JUNO

Out of the five nominations in this category, Reitman is the closest one to being a "surprise". Many elements of Juno have been praised from Ellen Page's wonderfully delivered performance to Diablo Cody's clever script, but Reitman was never particularly honored before he was named on the director short list. That said, Reitman, son of comedic film guru Ivan Reitman, started his film career with the loved satire Thank You For Smoking. The film was a modest hit, but Reitman's name was out there. Then he came across Diablo Cody's incredibly wordy script and turned it into the most beloved film of the year. Say what you want about Juno, about it's pithy dialogue or the way it deals with pregnancy, no other movie in 2007 had more characters that you wanted to hug.

It's easy to underestimate the contribution that Reitman brings to all of this, cause it is so hard to judge how well a director has done when dealing with comedy. But many must remember how brisk and free-flowing Juno was. Part of the fun of watching the movie was trying to keep up with the words, which raged like they were being fired from a shotgun. The other fun part was the wonderful balance of all of the characters. No character overstayed his welcome (though I would have loved to see more from Bleeker), and the way they all coast together into the wonderfully funny storyline is all the work of Reitman. It takes someone special to understand the concepts of comedic timing, and I'm sure that Reitman learned from the best.


Ah, for the first time in a long time it seems, I'm able to talk about one of my favorite films of 2007, The Diving Bell and The Butterfly. With it's breathtaking tale of humanity, and it's dreamlike approach, watching the film was one of the most transcendental experiences I'd had in a movie theater in quite a while. It's the incredible imagination of Julian Schnabel that brings everything in this movie together. Paired with Oscar-winning cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, Schnabel made what is probably the most wondrous film I'd seen since 2004's Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind with just as much innovation. But enough about how much I loved Schnabel's work, let's talk about the work itself.

The film, based on the true story of "Elle" magazine editor, Jean-Dominique Bauby, who suffers a stroke which leaves his entire body paralyzed except for his left eye. With his one eye, Bauby is able to blink out his life memoir and tell his story to the world, including family and friends who have a much harder time excepting his fate than he does. Schnabel's ability to show us Bauby's point-of-view is one of the most impressive things he accomplishes. Using irritatingly realistic POV shots, the paralyzed world of Bauby is brought to life. The other half of the film, though, is told in flashbacks in which Schnabel then holds back on the fancy camera tricks and captures the actors at work. Diving Bell begins it's story as a tale of pain and anguish, and though no circumstances change, what we are left with is a beautiful story of hope and the unwillingness to stop living. Schnabel's orchestrations all hit their target perfectly, and have us leaving the theater not only satisfied, but profoundly changed.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Oscar Breakdown: Best Actor In A Leading Role


Yes, I know that in the hierarchy of Oscar categories, I skipped Best Supporting Actor, but seeing as I am still yet to see The Assassination of Jesse James..., I feel it would be unfair to write about Casey Affleck's performance when I haven't seen it. And so, we move on to Best Actor. The most interesting aspect of the all the nominees in this category is the varying degrees of great acting we have in it. You have your subtly-controlled performance (Clooney), as well as your ferocious melodramatic performance (Day-Lewis), and one that is a little combination of both (Jones). For good measure, they also threw in a singing, throat-slitting barber (Depp), as well as Russian mafioso who's just as deadly with or without clothing (Mortenson).


No other actor today (not Pitt, not Cruise, not anyone) is more well-liked than George Clooney. His boyish charm, conniving grin, and dashing good looks send us back to the golden age, with the charismatic talents of Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart. And even though he has already won the Oscar (Syriana, 2005), it was fair to say that Clooney was never better than he was in Clayton. We don't actually see Clayton until a while has passed in the film, we first hear Arthur Edens' (Tom Wilkinson) pleading voice-over, and then we the stern Marty Bach (Sydney Pollock) trying to push a settlement through, and then we see Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton) sweaty in a bathroom stall. When we finally see Michael Clayton, he's calm, but brooding, sitting at a high-stakes poker table.

The magic in Clooney's performance can be summarized in his entrance. His life is caving in, with endless amounts of pressure coming from all angles: from his job, from his family, and from his independent business ventures. Yet, through it all, Clayton sits with every hair in place, and his nicest suits. Not that there isn't scenes when Clayton loses his cool, essentially every scene Clayton shares with Edens consists of Michael pleading his case. He knows his deranged friend, Edens, is up to something, but the powers that be might be too strong to protect either of them. As has been much publicized, Clayton is a fixer, he is paid by one of the most prestigious law firms in the country to clean up the messes left by lawyers and clients alike. In a movie filled with tense drama that slowly seeps through the surface, Clooney completely personifies everything that this thriller presents.


The first fifteen minutes of There Will Be Blood pass by methodically, as we watch Daniel Plainview (Day-Lewis) mining for gold, and later, for oil. These fifteen minutes are free of dialogue and begin the slow process of building Plainview's character throughout the next two and a half hours. In one of the most strangely compelling films of the year, many phrases have been chosen to describe There Will Be Blood--epic, depiction of greed, or attack of religiosity. At it's absolute base, though, the film is a character study, and as soon as we hear the rumbling voice of Plainview ("Ladies and gentlemen...."), we have become entranced by him. He's not particularly likable, but he is incredibly charming; his apparent scorn for humanity never stunt his ability as a salesman. The product he sells? Wealth.

Day-Lewis, a known chameleon, who's absolute dedication to his roles has prevented him from working often, transforms himself again. The more we learn about Plainview as the film goes on, the more and more we notice how Plainview's sanity is quickly disappearing. In fact, the film culminates with an uncanny scene in a basement bowling alley, where Plainview has his final showdown with his arch-nemesis Eli Sunday (Paul Dano). Sunday is a preacher who has spent most of his time in the film haggling Plainview for money, and pleading his case for the lord. Plainview's disgust with Eli's apparent spiritual fraudulence creates the main conflict of the film. Many have said that the final scene is inappropriate or eccentric, but what it also is, like Day-Lewis' performance, is unforgettable.


Depp, the sudden darling of the Academy Awards the last few years, has made a career with Tim Burton. It's strange the way certain actors have chemistry with certain directors, but through six films together they have created magic in films like Sleepy Hollow, Edward Scissorhands, and Ed Wood. But aside from all their synergy, many were still surprised to see Burton cast Depp as the blade-wielding barber in Sweeney Todd. Depp, an actor with no previous singing experience beforehand, was given the extreme pressure of having to recreate one of the most beloved characters of the theater stage. Not one to shy away from strange, dark characters, Depp stepped in with limited voice, and helped the audience discover something that we'd never realized before.

What we discovered was how interesting musicals can be when emphasis is placed on what the song is about, as apposed to how they sound. There are many loyalists who would forbid to accept this theory (what's the point of a musical if the music--which includes voices--isn't perfect?), but it did bring up a concept that was very interesting. Despite all the issues of the singing, Sweeney Todd is a character of extreme complexity. Todd is a man so obsessed with his feeling of vengeance, that it blinds him. It blinds him so much, that he is unable to realize the huge mistake he will go on to make at the film's conclusion (won't give it away), which ends in a truly Oedipus-like fashion. The performance is bleak but booming, strong though Depp never really explodes as much as we expect from a man who spends his days killing large amounts of people. It is a beautifully felt performance, one of many that only help to build the lagacy of the much-beloved Depp.


In a matter of a few months, Jones went from the favorite to win the Oscar, to the shockingly surprising nomination (who begrudgingly annoyed Into The Wild fans when he bumped out Emile Hirsch). Of the few who actually were able to see Elah, most of them walked out of the theater with two conclusions: one, that this was a film that was disorganized in the way it tried to deliver it's heavy-handed message; and two, that Jones probably gave the greatest performance of his career. Playing Hank Deerfield, a former member of the military who's trying to find out why his son was killed hours after he returns home from Iraq, Jones performs every action and every nuance perfectly.

A strait-arrow Red-stater, Deerfield is a man of routine and discipline, but even he is unable to control his spiraling emotions when he learns of the death of his son--we learn later that he'd also had an older son that died in combat. He goes on his own search to find out what happened to his son, when he feels the police work unsatisfactory, and that is where the story of the film starts to become hazed, but Jones' performance never lets up. He approaches every line and scene with such controlled power and brilliance, that we never question the actions of his character, even if they aren't the correct actions. Of coarse, many found it hard to appreciate a performance that carries a film out of the gutter, but those who took his performance at face-value saw with how much skill Jones was able to flesh out such a stock-type character.


In their previous collaboration, Viggo Mortenson and David Cronenberg created the incredibly underrated masterpiece A History of Violence. In their second film together, they tackle similar themes, though they do it in very different circumstances and settings. Mortenson portrays Nikolai, a mysterious, but ruthless driver, who is linked to a notorious Russian mafia. When a mid-wife (Naomi Watts) is trying desperately to discover the family of which a bastard infant belongs to, she comes rather unwillingly into contact with the crime family, and with Nikolai. For most of the film, we can never quite put our finger on Nikolai's motives. Is he interested in being with the mid-wife romantically? Is it his goal to climb the social ladder of the family? We don't know till the end, but in the meantime, Mortenson is able to build a character of more mystery than a Bob Dylan song.

Much has been said about the infamous "knife fight" scene, in which Mortenson drops trou and takes on two knife-bearing assassins completely naked. It is unquestionably the most memorable scene in the film, and one that was able to keep the performance fresh in the minds of academy voters. What is so impressive about the scene though, is not Viggo's "bare essentials", but his ability to stay collected as Nikolai. In a scene like that, it is easy to get caught up in unintentionally funny "hide the salami" sequences (like so many Austin Powers films, though in that sense it was meant to be funny). Instead, Mortenson allows it all--literally--to hang out. It's the sort of moment where the audience grows respect for the actor because of his unflinching ability. Appreciate it, Viggo. Perhaps next time, we can have that moment when he's wearing clothing.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Oscar Breakdown: Best Supporting Actress


It goes without saying that a year filled with such great films, such as 2007, will be filled with numerous great performances in the supporting actress category. This is usually the most overlooked of all the major Oscar awards, which is rather reasonable. When they aren't handing this award to young actresses that are destined to never be heard from again (Tatum O'Neal for Paper Moon or, I fear, Jennifer Hudson for Dreamgirls), they are giving it to crotchety old women so she can clutch the gold before she bites the dust (Ruth Gordon for Rosemary's Baby or Peggy Ashcroft for A Passage To India). Recently, though, when I think of Rachel Weisz's recent win for The Constant Gardener or Catherine Zeta-Jones for Chicago, it seems that things have been going well as of late.

Here are the five nominated actresses for Best Supporting Actress:

Cate Blanchett, I'M NOT THERE

Many, including me, were quite perturbed by Blanchett's double-nomination this year, but that is mostly jealousy (and hatred for her work in The Golden Age). Truly, her work in I'm Not There is a revelation. For the second time in only three years, Blanchett decided to tackle one of the most cherished icons of the 20th century. In 2004, it was Kate Hepburn that won her an Oscar, but this time around it's the mysterious Bob Dylan. She plays him with fried hair, black sunglasses, and an unstoppable case of the jitters. It's not that Blanchett becomes Bob Dylan, which is the usual compliment made to those who play icons well. It's that she sees deep into the soul of this character (named Jude) and plays it with such electricity, it makes everything else in the film seem morose.

Honestly, how can you become Bob Dylan, a guy who's spent as much time making great records as he did making his sure his identity was kept secret. Todd Haynes' I'm Not There was so ambitious, and I give it credit for that, but it's Blanchett, with her gimpy walk and sharp cheekbones that represent the most interesting aspect of that film. She plays the most recognizable stage of Dylan's career, his amphetamine paranoid moments in the 60's when he was able to produce Blonde On Blonde and attempted to deny his position in society as a social spokesman. What Blanchett does become is a thrilling interpretation with a stunning gaze that closes one of the most baffling films of 2007.


Dee definitely falls into the "she's old, let's give her one for the heck of it" category I was discussing earlier, but as she weaves her way slowly in and out of the terribly disappointing American Gangster, it isn't until the end that we realize that she may have been the heart of the film the entire time. In a film that was in desperate need of a moral center to back up it's heavy-handed message, Dee is certainly what we end up with, even if it does come a little too late. She's a shining light through a film layered from top to bottom with standard Hollywood storytelling and rip from any previous "gangster" picture ever made.

In her big scene toward the end of the film, when she encounters her thug son (Denzel Washington), I've picked apart that scene quite a bit. Her big line: "I never asked you where all this stuff came from, because I didn't want to hear you lie to me" smacks of insincerity (where was all this wisdom before, when times were good?). That, though, is the fault of the screenwriter Steve Zailian and director Ridley Scott. In fact, that faulty line does more to enhance her performance, because despite it all, Dee delivers it with such strength, and yet with such grace. Like she does with the film itself, she rises above it.

Saoirse Ronan, ATONEMENT

I went into Atonement excited to see two young actors that I love: James McAvoy and Keira Knightley. When I left the theater, though, the one performance I couldn't get out of my head was Soairse Ronan's portrayal of the precocious Briony Tallis. By far, the most complex character in the film, Briony is portrayed by three actresses in the film, but Ronan, as Briony at thirteen, is easily the most captivating. So captivating in fact, that director Joe Wright has said that the other two Brionys (Romola Garai and Vanessa Redgrave) took cues from Ronan's dailies and clips to see how they should portray Briony later in life. It seems Briony spends much of her prepubescent years manipulating adults. The only time we see her shaken is when she is forced to hang around kids her own age trying to rehearse her play. It's startling to see how dejected she becomes then.

Ronan is the first face we see in the film, typing relentlessly at her typewriter, putting the finishing touches on her new play. The play's topic: the futility of fleeting love. That alone shows a lot of Briony's character, but what is most telling is the way Ronan so subtly shows the complexities of what Briony is going through then. The sly smile she gives Robbie (McAvoy) of whom she has a secret crush, and the subsequent look of anguish she has as she realizes his feelings for her sister Cecelia (Knightley). There is a scene where she voluntarily throws herself into a dangerous stream in order for Robbie to save her, and her heart is crushed when Robbie is angry at her for doing so. "I wanted you to save me," she says. At this point, we know the terrible things Briony would go on to do, but watching her say that line, we almost feel sorry for her. There in-lies the magic of Ronan's portrayal.


In Gone Baby Gone, I was both impressed by Ben Affleck's terrific directorial debut and the lead performance by little brother Casey Affleck. The film, overall, though was left with numerous unanswered questions and an ending that seemed to go against the morals the film had built beforehand. The one constant through the film was the performance of Amy Ryan as the irresponsible mother, Helene McCready. Ryan, a Tony-nominated actress known for her performance as Stella in the revival of A Streetcar Named Desire, is truly a dominant force in the film, at times scathing, and at other times truly touching.

What set Ryan's performance apart, the reason she won all of those early critics' awards, is just how well she was able to capture something we all know so well. There are a lot of irresponsible parents in the world, but what is even worse than that, it seems, is an irresponsible parent who actually loves their child. That is the kind of woman that Ryan portrays perfectly in the film. Everything, from her cheap, thick mascara, to her outfits of jackets and jeans, to her rugged Boston accent come together to create one of the most compelling performances of 2007.


Swinton probably has the most unflattering movie introduction of the decade. She sits in a bathroom stall, her eyes filled with crazy nerves, and the armpits of her shirts filled with sweat. And so, Swinton's Karen Crowder is introduced. There are so many good performances in Michael Clayton, but Swinton's is probably the most subtle and conflicted. Playing a law executive at a corporation facing a billion-dollar class-action lawsuit, Swinton was finally able to break out of her "indie-queen" title, and was able to snag her first nomination.

Karen Crowder spends a lot of time on the outskirts of the story in Clayton, as our attention seems more fixated on Michael Clayton's own issues, but toward the end Clayton's issues begin to conflict with Crowder's issues, and that's when Swinton is able to truly embrace all the complexities in the performance. It all comes to a head when Crowder and Clayton have a showdown of wits to conclude the film. It is a scene showcasing two characters: one seeking moral redemption, and the other swiftly, and surely being destroyed. It is probably the best performance in a single scene of all the five performances, and the one that sticks with you the longest.