Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Great Films: Magnolia (1999)

Written and Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

It's hard to fit P.T. Anderson into any sort of box. Every time you think you've gotten a hold on him, he squirms away and does something completely different. His first film, Hard Eight, was a modest movie with tremendous performances. Boogie Nights was a magnum opus--and sort of a pornographic reworking of Goodfellas. He worked with Adam Sandler in Punch-Drunk Love, and crafted a modestly-scaled, but beautiful romance, and then waited another five years before re-emerging with Daniel Day-Lewis in the deliciously disturbed, monstrously epic There Will Be Blood. In the middle of those four movies, there was one movie that was more ambitious and more spectacular than all of them. That film is Magnolia.

The story of how Anderson wrote Magnolia is interesting in itself. At first, he has said that the entire screenplay was bred from one line of an Aimee Mann song ("Now that I've met you, would you object to never seeing each other again?". Yeah, that line), and then he said that the majority of his writing came when he was staying at a cabin owned by William H. Macy, terrified of going outside because of the danger of poisonous snakes. Whatever Anderson's muse may be, the result was something that nobody had ever seen before. Stories intertwined strangely, but why? Because of fate? Magnolia is kind of smarmy in that way, constantly winking at you while sit befuddled trying to figure out what it all means.

Nine characters living in San Fernando Valley, California all have their share of heartbreak, regret, depression, and more regret. Things are not looking up for any of them. There is Earl Partridge (Jason Robards in one of his best and final performances) who is dying of cancer, and his much younger trophy wife Linda (Julianne Moore) who fears he will die without realizing that she actually does love him. Earl's full-time nurse Phil (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is coaxed into calling Earl's estranged son Jack, who has now become a infomercial guru, guiding men in their efforts to pick up women, named Frank T.J. Mackey (Tom Cruise).

Earl is the former producer of a television game show, "What Do Kids Know?". The show is still a hit, and it's host Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall) is also dying of cancer, and hopes to patch up a shoddy relationship with his junkie daughter Claudia (Melora Walters). The show's success is soaring with the help of pre-teen whiz kid Stanley (Jeremy Blackman), whose intellect excels past most adults. A former whiz kid superstar Donnie Smith (William H. Macy) is now middle-aged and is struggling with his waning celebrity, and hopes robbing his place of employment will help him woo the love of his life. Unfortunately, his mid-level crime doesn't get past Officer Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly), who is a mediocre cop, but hopes that his run-in Claudia will be more than a chance happening.

There are even more characters in this film to discuss, including Stanley's vain, overbearing father Rick (Michael Bowen), a feisty reporter trying to pry the truth from Frank named Gwenovier (April Grace) and Jimmy's sense-of-worth wife Rose (Melinda Dillon). But it's those nine characters that I mentioned before that really hold most of the film's screen time. Their stories intertwine momentarily, but every single one of them is given their moment of ultimate grace. Sure, the film's running time--188 minutes--may seem to be really reaching to some, but its almost perfect for what Anderson is trying to achieve. Like all great films, Magnolia seems like it isn't long enough.

What's truly astonishing about Magnolia is its fearless bravura. It's circular plot spins around and around, and at times, we're convinced the film is about death, at other moments we're convinced its about life and love, and surely there are moments where the film's main inspiration seems to be fate. I'm not going to decide what Magnolia is actually about--that's a rather dubious thing to do--but the fact that it skirts around all of these themes yet never seems off-kilter or pretentious is quite impressive. Add to that, that P.T. Anderson also has the audacity to be innovative visually, maximizing the work of cinematographer Robert Elswit, capturing these characters in titillating close-ups, pans, and tracking shots that keep the movie in constant movement.

Magnolia has always been a misconceived film, many thinking that the film flounders in its ambition. Many will question certain sequences: one being all of the characters breaking into song to sing Aimee Mann's "Wise Up"; but the most dissected sequence in Magnolia is easily the movie's climax in which the city is brought to a standstill when frogs begin raining from the sky. The situation causes chaos, but the entire film has been chaos. One of the movies catchphrases is "Strange things happen all the time", and making frogs fall from the sky certainly stretches the audience's trust, but Anderson's ambition was always fearless.

And that cast. Oh my goodness, that cast. Cruise, Hall, and Reilly all give career-defining work, while Moore, Robards, and Macy are exceptional as well. With everyone in the film being as droll and depressed as they are, you'd think their accumulated sadness will get in the way of each other and become too much. It never does. They all create enough space and impact that it creates one of the greatest movie acting ensembles I have ever seen in films. Cruise went on to an Academy Award nomination (much like Josh Brolin recently getting the nom for ALL of the supporting players in Milk), and surely it must be difficult to single out any of these performances for recognition.

Magnolia is such a fine film, it is sometimes forgotten because of its zeal. Populist opinion seems to be that Anderson has "matured" since Magnolia, but as his filmmaking has become more and more anarchic and haphazard, it becomes obvious that Magnolia was only the beginning. Anderson has said--albeit a long time ago--that he thinks he will never make a film as good as Magnolia. I'd like to think that Anderson will always see it as a challenge, as if to say that he will always strive to make films as good. So far, I don't think Anderson has ever made a bad film, but Magnolia is truly the city on a hill. It is one of the beacons of 1990's filmmaking, up there with Fargo and Schindler's List.

Monday, February 23, 2009

The Oscars: A Review

Well, a big-time Slumdog sweep... almost. The only award it lost was Best Sound Editing which went to The Dark Knight. Other than that, it was pretty much Slumdog's night. Best Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Song, Score, Sound Mixing, and Editing. My big hope did not come true: Mickey Rourke's brilliant performance within The Wrestler did not take home the Best Lead Actor award; but it surely helps that it loses to such a fine performance from Sean Penn in Milk (it's really splitting hairs to choose between those two). Kate Winslet wins her first Oscar for The Reader--Ricky Gervais was right about Holocaust films. Penelope Cruz and Heath Ledger won the supporting acting categories. WALL-E won Best Animated Film, but that's all it was limited to, as Dustin Lance Black won Best Original Screenplay for Milk. For a full list of ALL the winners: click here.

As for the show itself, surprisingly entertaining. Hugh Jackman's opening number was spectacular and funny--though we seemed to never see much of him after that. He did well accordingly. I'm a big softie for the film clips at the Oscars, but I appreciate the way they showcased the acting categories, bringing former winners in to present each nominee. Something about this show felt pretty breezy, never too boring as is usually the case, and thank God Academy president Sid Ganis chose not to numb our brains with a long, arduous speech about nothing in particular. Overall, a great show to make up for the mediocre nominations.

That's all, now we're on to 2009. Surely, the end of next year will come with "Best of the Decade" lists. And you better believe I'm looking forward to that. It should be exciting.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Trailer Watch: Funny People

Is Punch-Drunk Love really good enough to make up for all of the mediocre films throughout Adam Sandler's career? Well, I'm willing to sit through millions of Clicks and Spanglishes if it means that there's even a small chance that it could be a Punch-Drunk Love or Wedding Singer. Sandler is a limited talent, sure, but he is a talent nonetheless, which is more than many people in Hollywood can say. Given the right vehicle, he can be spectacular, and Judd Apatow hasn't directed a bad film yet--quite the contrary.

Thoughts On An Oscar Day Morning

I realize as I go over my final Oscar predictions, that I didn't chose Milk for any of the categories. That's right, I predicted a Milk shut-out, and I didn't even realize it till afterward. The chances of that happening are probably pretty slim, but I'm going to stick by my picks.

As for what to expect tonight, I've read that Hugh Jackman will attempt to entertain us with song & dance numbers, while the show itself is going to be formatted like a story. Eh, I'm not so sure about this Oscar experimentation. The Academy rarely gets this kind of thing right. I like Wolverine as much as the next guy, but why pass up the perfect opportunity to get Ricky Gervais? That guy is pure live TV magic.

P.S. If you've heard the rumor about the winners being leaked to the media. Sid Ganis, president of the Academy, has come out and said that these were fake, even though the sheet had his signature at the bottom. Pretty interesting when you think of who they listed as the winners: Rourke, Winslet, Ledger, and.... Adams!? Amy Adams was great in Doubt, but this has seemed like a two-horse race between Cruz and Davis for a long time hasn't it? I guess we'll see what happens later tonight.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Final, Official, No-Bull Oscar Predictions

Here's who I think will win on Sunday. I will have a nice mixture of head and heart here:

Best Documentary: Man On Wire
Best Foreign-Language Feature: Waltz With Bashir
Best Animated Feature: WALL-E
Best Sound/ Sound Editing: The Dark Knight (it'll win both)
Best Visual Effets: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Best Original Song: "Jai-Ho" from Slumdog Millionaire
Best Original Score: Thomas Newman, WALL-E
Best Make-Up: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Best Costume Design: Michael O'Conner, The Duchess
Best Art Direction: Donald Graham Burt, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Best Editing: Chris Dickens, Slumdog Millionaire
Best Cinematography: Anthony Dod Mantle, Slumdog Millionaire
Best Original Screenplay: Andrew Stanton, WALL-E
Best Adapted Screenplay: Simon Beaufoy, Slumdog Millionaire
Best Supporting Actor: Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight
Best Supporting Actress: Penelope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Best Actor: Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler
Best Actress: Kate Winslet, The Reader
Best Director: Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire
Best Picture: Slumdog Millionaire

I don't have serious conviction behind these pics, they just seem to me like what is going to happen. Not many surprises and a near-sweep for Slumdog. Couldn't wait till Sunday, so here you go.

P.S. I realize as I go over my picks that I'm predicting that Milk will go completely unnoticed and shut out. Well, the chances of that happening are probably slim, but I'm going to stick with my picks anyway.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Oscar Front-Runners (and Who Should Be)


These are not Oscar predictions, those will be coming a week from today, on Oscar day. This is just a review of who is expected to win, and who should be.


Front-Runner: Slumdog Millionaire
This film has really captured a moment, it seems. At once thought to be released straight to DVD, it hit the festival circuit, and now its really the only substantial pick to win the coveted Best Picture award. It's a searing but sweet film, and has been heralded as the feel-good movie of 2008.

What should be: Milk
Gus Van Sant's film about Harvey Milk is incredibly endearing without being sentimental, it's totally unapologetic about its homosexual characters, but never becomes exploitative, and most of all, its lead by a performance from one of the most iconic actors of the past twenty years. One of the better biopics in a long while.


Front-Runner: Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire
Danny Boyle is more of a lock to win then the movie itself. His anarchic filmmaking style has produced some pretty harrowing pictures, so who knew it would fit so well with the sweet story of Slumdog. After winning the Golden Globe and the DGA, this is a foregone conclusion.

Who Should Be: Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire
This year's Best Director shortlist was truly uninspired: no Jonathan Demme for Rachel Getting Married and more importantly no Chris Nolan for The Dark Knight. Boyle simply has NO competition here, and is the most deserving of the pack.


Front-Runner: Sean Penn, Milk
I was watching I Am Sam the other day, and realized that if the Academy is willing to nominate him for that film, than the myth that "Sean Penn is too chilly for awards" is really a fabrication. Luckily, in Milk Penn is at the top of his game, with career-defining work. When a good percentage of the voters are residents of post Prop. 8 California, it's hard not to think Penn is not the favorite.

Who Should Be: Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler
Just a wondrous fusing of player and part, with a killer comeback story to boot. Even while attending every awards gala looking like a Rastafarian space alien, Rourke has been able to latch onto the sympathies of the people, and that is solely because his performance in The Wrestler is so incredible. He'll never get a role like this again.


Front-Runner: Kate Winslet, The Reader
Really, I think this category is pretty wide open. Anne Hathaway is a beloved young starlet, Meryl Streep is, well, Meryl Streep, and everybody seems to think Melissa Leo should win. I give the edge to Winslet because everybody seems to be rallying behind her this year. She's been around a long time, and has collected quite a few nominations in her day, this could finally be the correnation many want for her career.

Who Should Be: Melissa Leo, Frozen River
A great performance from a great film. Leo's struggling single mom, Ray Eddy, is a tribute to rough times many are facing today. Does she partake in a little illegal activity? Yeah, but for her family. Leo has a face that can express a thousand emotions, and to see her up against such heavy-hitters as Streep and Winslet, it's hard to even give her a chance. Watch out for the upset.


Front-Runner: Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight
This has been obvious for a while, now. I don't think I really have to explain why.

Who Should Be: Robert Downey Jr., Tropic Thunder
Calm down, calm down. Out of the five nominations, Ledger is the best, but I've always seen him as the film's lead. So, for argument's sake, I'll say Downey Jr., whose hilarious performance in Tropic Thunder not only makes you laugh, but completely destroys the vanity of Hollywood actors everywhere. A wonderful comic turn.


Front-Runner: Penelope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Actually, this is really a toss-up between Cruz and Viola Davis from Doubt, with neither of the two really edging out into front-runner status. I'll go with Cruz simply because she's a much bigger name in Hollywood, and also because of the "Woody Allen factor"; the guy is lucky when it comes to this category (remember what he did for Mira Sorvino).

Who Should Be: Marisa Tomei, The Wrestler
Another category where the nominations were sub-par--none of the ladies from Rachel Getting Married or Synecdoche, New York? Out of this group, I'd vote for Tomei. Though its not necessarily chalenging turf for her, she brings out the best in this lowly character. Playing a stripper in love with damaging pro-wrestler, the emotions and physicality of the performance are so transparent.


Front-Runner: Dustin Lance Black, Milk
These nominations were the most pleasant, kind of mish-mash of some very good screenplays. Alas, though, Black's script is the only one nominated for a film that is up for major awards. Milk is a big player, but this is probably the movie's only lock of the night.

Who Should Be: Andrew Stanton, WALL-E
It's the best movie of the year, by far. No animated film has ever won an Oscar for screenwriting, and I don't really see WALL-E bucking the trend. It's good to see it nominated, but I think many feel that Best Animated Feature is enough for this film.


Front-Runner: Simon Beaufoy, Slumdog Millionaire
The guy who wrote The Full Monty is now the front-runner for an Oscar. Cyclical, I guess. I'm not sure I really care for ANY of the screenplays nominated in this category, but at least Beaufoy's is pretty endearing. It's winning more to stack up Slumdog's awards, not necessarily because of merit.

Who Should Be: Peter Morgan, Frost/Nixon
Adapting his own stage play, Morgan does a great job at weilding a script that molds to well-known people into the pawns that express what the movie is trying to say. A wonderful job.


Front-Runner: Anthony Dod Mantle, Slumdog Millionaire
Again, another notch on the Slumdogmania belt. I could see Wally Pfister as a contender here, as well as eight time nominee Roger Deakins (how has he not won!?), but in the end anything having to do with Slumdog should be considered the most likely.

Who Should Be: Claudio Miranda, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
I know I've been harsh on this film, but even I can't deny that Miranda's beautiful cinematography is the highlight of the movie.


Front-Runner: Chris Deakins, Slumdog Millionaire
Slumdog should keep racking up awards in the technical categories, I think. Deakins won the American Cinema Editors award, which is really the only precursor for this category.

Who Should Be: Chris Deakins, Slumdog Millionaire
One of the best aspects of Slumdog is its great rhythm, and Deakins certainly has the most to do with that. Certainly, it has the most cuts, and that should count for something.


Front-Runner: Donald Graham Burt, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
It's harder to decipher a front-runner in categories where Slumdog isn't nominated, but I have to believe that Benjamin Button's thirteen nominations has to mean its a front-runner in at least one category.

Who Should Be: Nathan Crowley, The Dark Knight
Creating Gotham City has never been done as exquisitely. It is frequently made to look like a goofy make shift of the comic book. Here, its made into a modern dystopia.


Front-Runner: Michael O'Conner, The Duchess
It's strange when a movie is a front-runner in a category without having success in essentially any other category. That being said, O'Conner seems like the most heralded costumer from 2008.

Who Should Be: Michael O'Conner, The Duchess
There are a lot of things within The Duchess that are pretty well-defined, and the costumes are no different. An attention to detail and a pursuit of perfection combine to make perfectly-bloomed dresses and stuffy male wear.


Front-Runner: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
They made Brad Pitt look like he was ninety years old and like he was sixteen. Pretty impressive stuff, and certainly the most self-aware.

What Should Be: Hellboy 2: The Golden Army
I feel Benjamin Button has more to do with CGI than actual make-up, so that being said, I think Hellboy 2's collection of creatures and monsters are the most deserving of the group.


Front-Runner: A.R. Rahman, Slumdog Millionaire
I don't find anything partricularly memorable about this score, but alas, it's from Slumdog Millionaire which means that it has taken a step ahead of all other competetors.

Who Should Be: Thomas Newman, WALL-E
This score is almost as magical as the film itself. Combining various genres and tones, the music has a life of its own. Sure, the movie has many songs, particularly from Hello Dolly! but its the Newman music that stays with you the most.


Front-Runner: A.R. Rahman, "Jai Ho" from Slumdog Millionaire
It could really be either of the two songs from Slumdog Millionaire, I just picked "Jai Ho" because I remember it.

What Should Be: Peter Gabriel, "Down To Earth" from WALL-E
When they decided not to nominate Bruce Springsteen's beautiful song from The Wrestler it became slim pickens. I'll endore Peter Gabriel's WALL-E song, though. A sweet, catchy tune that adds to the films wonderful denoument.

BEST SOUND MIXING/EDITING (these usually go to the same movie)

Front-Runner: Wanted
I have no idea what I'm talking about when I talk about sound, so I'll say Wanted only because it seemed like a surprise to see the action film nominated for anything.

What Should Be: WALL-E
I just like that movie.


Front-Runner: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Old wrinkly babies, shrimp boats in war battle; this visual effects team had a lot to do. The Academy sometimes equates "the most" with "the best".

What Should Be: Iron Man
The best action film of 2008 if the criteria is pure exhilaration. You can't discount how the effects effected the film's breezy pace.


Front-Runner: Waltz With Bashir (Israel)
The Israeli film swept the awards in the Israel movie honors, but it has had an equal sweep at the foreign film awards here in America.

What Should Be: N/A
None of the films nominated have yet reached my area. Well, to be honest, Waltz With Bashir played for about a week, and I wasn't able to catch it.


Front-Runner: Man On Wire
The movie was lauded by most who saw it as a wondrous cinematic experience, and won nearly every award it could leading up to now.

What Should Be: Man On Wire
Werner Herzog's Encounters At The End of the World was what An Inconvenient Truth wanted to be, but I can't deny the power behind Man On Wire. An astonishing picture about vanity and beautiful performance art.


Front-Runner: WALL-E
Like most years, the Best Animated Feature category is a one-film race. I admire the point of this category, but what it does is give the Academy an excuse to ignore animated films, hoping this can make up for it all.

What Whould Be: WALL-E
The best film of 2008. If it doesn't win, expect a one-man riot by me.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Oscar Breakdown: Best Director



How does the man that made Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, and Shallow Grave create the feel-good movie of the year? It's puzzling, sure. Boyle has been notorious for his techno-style, energy-induced, almost anarchic style of storytelling. There are still fragments of the usual Boyle-isms in last year's Slumdog Millionaire, but its safe to say he may have mellowed out in his older age. Of course, for those unfamiliar with Boyle's films may see Slumdog Millionaire as a steroid-pumping, non-stop blow-by piece of cinema, and with its incredibly distinct style, it makes sense that Boyle has been collecting critics awards like teenage girls collect Jonas Brothers paraphernalia.

His work on Slumdog is truly inspired to say the least. Traveling into Mumbai (with the help of a 2nd unit director named Loveleen Tandan), Boyle attempts to capture the energy of one of the most trafficked areas in India. It pokes fun at Bollywood films--that great dance sequence--but never in a mean way. I sometimes worry when a filmmaker decides to capture a culture he has nothing to do with (you'll occasionally see something pretty messy, like Rob Marshall trying to express Chinese culture in Memoirs of a Geisha), but Boyle became incredibly intimate with this material, contracting young non-professional child actors from the area that create some of the warmest moments of the film. The film is seldom recognized for its rough aspects--what's Boyle without rough?--because its sweet moments that stay afloat in our consciousness.

Stephen Daldry, THE READER

Stephen Daldry is quite a lucky man. He enchanted audiences with his debut film, Billy Elliot, and got himself a Best Director nomination. He allowed three great actresses (Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore, Nicole Kidman) to give wonderful performances in a wonderfully crafted film entitled The Hours--and got another Best Director nomination. Now, his third film, The Reader was the big sleeper when the Academy Award nominations were announced, and he got another Best Director nomination. That makes him three-for-three for Best Director nods. Let's put this into perspective: Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, and Alexander Payne only has one; Richard Linklater and Jim Jarmusch don't have any at all.... And Stephen Daldry has three in three films.

Daldry makes incredibly droll films--and save for The Hours, incredibly boring films (and The Hours is only a treat because of those fantastic actresses). He tackles incredibly provocative material, but has the never-before-seen talent of making the material seem drawn-out and uninteresting. He makes films that incredibly self-award of their own quality, and they frequently are well lit and edited, they just lack emotional punch for the most part, because even subtlety has its moments of transparency. I won't knock Daldry for being nominated, he choose who gets nominated. The only thing I can pick on Daldry about is his average filmmaking.


David Finch has been a beloved filmmaker in many movie-lovers' circles. Se7en is a suspense masterpiece on par with The Silence of the Lambs, and Fight Club has become perhaps the most popular cult film of the late 90's. Then he made Zodiac last year, a film that many thought was the best film the filmmaker ever made. Of course, it was universally ignored come awards time, but they're trying hard to make up for this year. Benjamin Button was seen as a pretty large "event" at the movies: "Come see Brad Pitt look old! And Cate Blanchett!! Oh God, Cate Blanchett!!". Did it live up to the hype? Depends on how you look at it. The film got thirteen nominations overall, by far more than any movie, so that's good. Unfortunately, the film is seen as pretty mediocre thematically, so that's not too good.

History may not be kind to Benjamin Button, because it really does fumble its fascinating premise on more than one occasion. That, though, does nothing to effect how beautiful the film looks. Using breakthrough special effects, and fascinating cinematography by Claudio Miranda, Fincher does an exceptional job making the world seem fascinating, even if the characters are complete emotionless cyphers. It's the kind of movie that people try to convince themselves they enjoyed because they appreciate the filmmakers involved. Fincher's attempt to build upon Eric Roth's sloven screenplay is one of the main redeeming characteristics of Benjamin Button, and hopefully this isn't the last Oscar nod in Fincher's future.


It's incredibly interesting to watch Ron Howard's movies. He's made a good deal of great films like Splash, Cinderella Man, and Apollo 13, and won his only Best Director Oscar for A Beautiful Mind. He is the ultimate professional, and none of his movies will ever be bad because they're poorly made. He's skilled without being a perfectionist, and he is able to add warmth to his movies, without losing any of the edge. It's a testament to Ron Howard's popularity that Frost/Nixon was such an Oscar hit. I say "Oscar hit" because close to no one has actually seen the movie in the theaters, and given the material--David Frost's attempt to completely foil Richard Nixon during a television interview--I can see why few of the movie-going public (mostly teenagers) wouldn't be interested in seeing it.

Frost/Nixon was based upon a Tony-winning play, and brought in the play's two big stars to reprise their roles in the film. I really feel that the heart of Frost/Nixon is the monster two-headed performance by Michael Sheen (as Frost) and Frank Langella (as Nixon). Those two actors gel so well together, even when they're supposed to be antagonistic toward each other. Howard, always a swell director of major acting talent, does not disappoint in this aspect. There is major adjustment when coming from a stage play to the movie screen, and Howard guides the actors splendidly in creating performances that are beautifully subtle, and rarely escalating into the melodramatic, theatre-style of acting. It's always nice to see Howard at the Oscars.

Gus Van Sant, MILK

What an interesting career Gus Van Sant has had. He started as a promising independent filmmaker with such small films as Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho. In the mid-90's, he starts working more within the Hollywood studio system with films like and To Die For and Good Will Hunting (for which Van Sant also received). He made an embarrassingly bad remake of Psycho, and then retreated back into independent filmmaking, relying more on auteur styles in films like Elephant and Last Days. Now, Van Sant is back in the big leagues, directing Sean Penn in Milk. Many say it may be his best film, but how can you make that distinction when you have a man who has had so many distinctive stages within such a short career?

Van Sant's films certainly don't lend themselves toward award recognition, but its good to see it noticed here. His work with Milk is phenomenal. I don't wish to be presumptuous, saying that Van Sant's homosexuality brought him closer to the subject, but in post-Prop 8 America, the movie is totally unapologetic about its homosexual leanings. Sure, Penn is fantastic, but what Van Sant does that is so fascinating is develops a biopic that does a great job of creating a beautigul vigil to a beautiful civil rights leader, while still allowing other characters take the spotlight.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Trailer Watch: Inglorious Basterds

Uh oh, another grimy, inauthentic Brad Pitt accent. I also don't care much for the trailer's assumption that: "You've never seen war till you've seen it through the eyes of Quentin Tarantino". Last time I checked, Tarantino knows nothing about war that he hasn't learned from exploitation films. That being said, there is a certain careless whimsy in Tarantino films that can be intoxicating, and that seems very present here. It could easily be Tarantino's worst film, but I guess we'll see. Tarantino's vision never lent itself toward trailers, but more toward the big screen.

Oscar's Best Screenplay: Tale of Two Categories


I don't have the energy, or the enthusiasm to break down each and every nominee in the two screenplay categories, but I will do by my best to discuss all the nominees at once. It's literally night and day with these two categories, this year, for me, so let's jump in with some analysis:

With Best Original Screenplay, there are five scripts that I absolutely love. Probably no coincidence that only one of the films are up for Best Picture, Milk. Dustin Lance Black's screenplay is touching and informative at just the right moments and times, never overextending Harvey Milk as a character, but creating a ferocious monolith of Harvey Milk as an icon. Likewise, Mike Leigh's script for Happy-Go-Lucky focuses mostly on the development of one character, Poppy (DAMN YOU ACADEMY for not recognizing Sally Hawkins' beautiful performance). Leigh's script is funny and poignant, but never relents on its cerebral atmosphere. How much did Leigh actually write? Not much, I presume. He's infamous for utilizing improvisation, but it can't be forgotten how much he had to do with the development of the film's "plot" (that's a relative term with Leigh).

My name is Dustin Lance Black and I'd like to recruit you... into knowing who the hell I am.

But the meat of these nominations come from the other three nominees. First, there's Courtney Hunt's Frozen River, which could have easily settled for being a melodrama about white trash, but instead relies heavily on the nature of its characters. No character ever does anything surprising, but they never disappoint you with their decisions--that's a lot tougher than it seems. Then there's wordsmith Martin McDonaugh's screenplay for In Bruges, in which McDonaugh utilizes his skills as a playwright and translates it almost perfectly into a wonderfully realized film. Of course, those great performances don't hurt.

I'm Andrew Stanton, and I wrote a masterpiece of modern cinema, but people prefer the movie I made about fishies.

I don't think it'll surprise anyone when I say that the screenplay I'm most enthusiastic about in this category is Andrew Stanton's WALL-E. An animated film with only a handful of dialogue; how important could a screenplay have been to something like that? Well, for one, WALL-E's most appealing aspect is its love story, which is mainly a creation of Stanton's mind. But let's not forget the moments in the film that do have dialogue, because they're not cheapily written. The film's subplot about fat humans in space does not get enough credit for its clarity, and lack of pretension. It's a screenplay of beautiful subtlety and grace.

In the Adapted Screenplay category, it's a whole different story. I enjoyed Frost/Nixon and Slumdog Millionaire. Doubt's script is based on a Tony-winning play, so for that, it actually does a good job of not being particularly "theatre-y". These are all great screenplays, but none are really spectacular examples of wondrous writing, unless the criteria is long, arduos speeches which wouldn't work unless spoken by Philip Seymour Hoffman or Frank Lengella. Not to say that these scripts are unworthy, but what about Nicholas Meyer's Elegy script, or Snow Angels by David Gordon Green? No attempt at a splash move.

As for the other two nominees--The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and The Reader--it's almost a joke. The main problem that both of these films have is that there screenplays don't seem to get the point that there story is simply going on too long. Both films want so badly to be sincere and profound but these scripts make no attempt to earn it. Eric Roth, who penned Benjamin Button, relies on borrowing devices from his other Oscar winning screenplay (*couch* Forrest Gump *cough*), and hopes his name will gain the film recognition on its own--well, it worked. As for David Hare's work on The Reader, I'll admit I simply don't like the film, but I honestly find Hare's script to be uninspired.

"If I plagiarize MY OWN film, it's fair game, right?" -Eric Roth

Predictions for these and other categories, as well as the Oscar Breakdown for Best Director will be coming very soon.

Joaquin Phoenix: The New Mickey Rourke

I don't usually comment on non-movie subjects in this blog... but WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON WITH JOAQUIN PHOENIX LATELY!?!?!? First, he quits acting for life. Then he pops up doing freestyle rap songs in odd clubs (with his performances being filmed by Casey Affleck, no less). Now, he shows up on David Letterman looking like a rock & roll Osama Bin Laden, and talking less articulately than a grade school student. I smell one of two things. Either this is some quasi art project (remember how Affleck is documenting him), and Phoenix plans to show us all how foolish we were for taking this kind of stuff seriously. It could also be some thing else: Joaquin could the next talented young star to really fall off the face of the planet. He's had trouble with substance and alcohol abuse, and I fear that he's heading for Mickey Rourke-like career destruction. Rourke has taken decades to rebuild himself, but with Phoenix's history (his brother, River, died of substance abuse), I'd like to hope he'll be more careful in the future.

P.S. It's a shame that Phoenix has chosen to perform this charade as he's trying to promote Two Lovers. From all accounts, I've heard it's a wonderful film, but small films like these have trouble finding audiences when its star is up to antics like this. If I were an investor or producer, I wouldn't be too happy.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Michael Cera Flips Out

Too bad Cera's new film Youth In Revolt is being delayed from its original Feb. 20 release due to reshoots. It's hilarious, self-deprecating humor like this that keeps me coming back to Cera, even through a mediocre mess like Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist. Yeah.... this is fake and a recreation of the now-infamous set meltdown Christian Bale had on the set of Terminator Salvation. Too funny.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Oscar Breakdown: Best Leading Actor


Richard Jenkins, THE VISITOR

People really rallied behind this performance last year, to the point that its most loyal supporters were able to overtake the already rabid Oscar fan club inhabited by Clint Eastwood's performance in Gran Torino. Surely, Jenkins' nomination is pleasant in many ways, if only because Jenkins is a fine supporting actor who has pledged his time in small but memorable comedic roles in films such as There's Something About Mary and Flirting With Disaster. In Tom McCarthy's film The Visitor, Jenkins is finally given his opportunity to take on a lead role, and what a juicy role it is. Playing the clinically reserved widower, Walter Vale, Jenkins never lavishes in the melodramatic opportunities that the film opens to him, instead taking advantage of the subtleties of a very layered character.

The Visitor's biggest flaw is when it doesn't focus its sights on Jenkins. When Vale makes friends with two immigrants who were squatting in his city home, he's disturbed to find out how easily his friends can be taken out of the country. By the time this major plot point hits the story, the film's focus becomes muddled, but Jenkins stays consistent throughout. It is always a pleasure when films take advantage of actors not usually remembered--much like Melissa Leo in Frozen River--but this recognition of Jenkins is so much sweeter because there are so many who know who Jenkins is, if not by name. Jenkins went from the man in the background, and became the man in the spotlight. So, let's hope he gets more roles along these lines.

Frank Langella, FROST/NIXON

Playing people from popular American culture is a big 'A+' if you're hoping to win an Oscar nomination. Play Richard Nixon, while still reprising a role that won you a Tony award for, and you become the valedictorian of the Oscar contenders. After playing the notorious president on the stage, notable stage actor Frank Langella decided he would also like to play Richard Nixon in the play's big screen makeover. Watching Frost/Nixon, you are presented with a very obvious observation, and that is that Langella neither looks or sounds very much like Nixon. Isn't that a negative? Remember when you couldn't tell the difference between Jamie Foxx and Ray Charles? That single-handedly won him the gold statue, but in Langella's case he used his crafty veteran acting tactics to create something more rapturous than glorified mimicry.

Of course, it must be stated that Langella's brilliant work is matched by fellow actor Michael Sheen's performance as flamboyant television personality David Frost. In the American TV spots of Frost/Nixon, the film is promoted as David slaying Goliath, an underdog journalist bringing big shame to an insecure former president. That is not what the film is about at all. Surely David Frost eclipsed expectation when getting Nixon to admit wrongdoing, but the movie itself is about how these two men met mano y mano. The film itself doesn't really take a side, and with that Langella is able to make so much more of his Nixon character than a curmudgeon politician, and is able to formulate a sometimes ferocious, sometimes charming destructive icon.

Sean Penn, MILK

Milk is an incredibly beautiful film, not only for its modern relevance with gay rights issues today, but because of its relevance with all human rights struggles throughout history. Penn, playing Harvey Milk, does some of the best work of his career. The performance is neither fearful of the homosexuality, nor is it exploitative of gay culture. Nobody cries foul for Harvey throughout the film (except for the film's ending), and he's not lionized into legendary status, but the character is so charismatic and enrapturing that its a wonder to watch him on the screen. In Penn's Oscar-winning performance in Mystic River, you could single out several scenes that really got him the award. Not so in Milk, the performance as a whole works strongly despite its lack of real 'actorly' flash.

Milk has one of the very best ensemble casts of 2008, but not one of the great performances in the film touches Penn. I'll admit that I am not incredibly knowledgable on Harvey Milk as a historical figure--about ninety-five percent of what I know of Milk I learned from this film--but the way he dissolves into the role is fantastic. Penn, a notorious Hollywood badboy, does his job so well that you never question the sexual prowess of the character--kind of like the EXACT OPPOSITE of when Rupert Everett attempts to play a straight man. Penn is already seen as an iconic actor within his generation, but this performance, along with Dead Man Walking and Mystic River, is a true cornerstone to a career that may be seen as one of the best ever.


Supposedly, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is about a man who ages backwards. How come, then, is he born as an infant? Sure, he's all wrinkly and a doctor says he has the health of an old man, but he is still born as a baby, just ugly. It's things like this that make me scratch my head when I think of Benjamin Button. Surely, the work of director David Fincher is inspired visually, helped greatly by wondrous cinematography (dir. of pho.: Claudio Miranda) and top-notch special effects. But when I hear some say that Button is a rip-off of Forrest Gump (like its been accused of in this video) I feel doesn't give the either film proper justice, since Forrest Gump is an immensely entertaining film about those unexpected moments in life, while Benjamin Button is a gloomy, hum-drum film about death.

So, let's talk about Pitt. Like I did with Kate Winslet in the 'Best Actress' category, I'm going to talk about a 2008 Brad Pitt performance I enjoyed (why focus on the negative?): Burn After Reading. The Coen Brothers film has a screenplay lined with inept characters, but Brad Pitt's Chad Feldheimer is easily the most incompetent. As a gregarious gym employee who is intensely interested in useless CIA intelligence, Pitt encompasses an entire class of men who know nothing about life that isn't learned inside a locker room or on a bicycle. Sure, Chad meets himself with some very unfortunate circumstances in the movie, but even in his absence, the film is saturated by his presence.

Mickey Rourke, THE WRESTLER

Much has been said of Rourke's big screen comeback in The Wrestler. The film has made the once troubled actor an envied talent once again. Once so cherished as a young man in films like Diner and Angel Heart, Rourke became a story of warning: tarnished by drug abuse, mishandled career choices, and basically immaturity. His fall from grace was so far down that many forgot about his thespian talents, and that there were many who considered him "the next Brando". To be sure, the title of "next Brando" has never been placed upon the most accomplished actors, but Rourke seemed at times to earn it. Now, at age 56, Rourke is given another opportunity to flex his muscles--literally--and he comes through with the performance of a lifetime.

There are certain movie roles and performances that are so perfect that you can't imagine anybody else playing the part. Most actors are never given their one big role. Pacino got his Dog Day Afternon, and Nicholson got his One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest. Now, Rourke was given the perfect character and he rose to the occasion. Rourke not only gives the best performance in this category, but the very best performance of the year--and its not that close. There's a magic that forms when there is that perfect blending of player and part, and the magic of watching Rourke play Randy "The Ram" Robinson is intoxicating. Some may say that the character's resemblance of Rourke's actual fortune may have helped, but I say range has nothing to do with it. This is one of the best acting jobs I've seen in a while, and Rourke has earned his comeback.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Oscar Breakdown: Best Leading Actress



The Academy Awards really dropped the ball when it comes to their recognition of Rachel Getting Married. Nearly all of its stupendous cast, as well as Jonathan Demme's masterful direction, was left hanging out to dry. The one consolation, though, came with the announcement that the film's most important piece, Hathaway, was receiving her first career nomination. As Rachel's sister, Kym, Hathaway plays a struggling drug addict who's given a free weekend pass out of rehab to visit her family on her sister's wedding day. Family is a big theme, obviously, within this film, but the story's interesting aspect is how this entire family--which isn't exactly stable to begin with--focuses all of their attention on this one cog, whose erratic behavior and deep insecurity makes it almost impossible to spend time with.

In terms of the role, this is certainly an Oscar magnet. There's nothing that the Academy loves more than actors playing recovering addicts, except for young, beautiful women playing gritty characters (Charlize Theron in Monster; Hally Berry in Monster's Ball). Hathaway, though, doesn't settle for the contrived route. Instead she indebted Kym with so many idiosyncratic mannerisms and mood swings that she sometimes comes off as a bit of a sympathetic figure despite her sometimes horrid actions. This performance has seemed like a long time coming. Trained in theater and highly knowledgeable in literature, Hathaway has come a long way from The Princess Diaries, and Rachel Getting Married is her at her full potential.

Angelina Jolie, CHANGELING

The most puzzling snub at last year's Academy Awards was the mysterious absence of Jolie's incredible performance in the small, but breathtaking film A Mighty Heart. It's the kind of performance that draws Oscar traction--weepy, independent female lead--but in the end she was left in the dust. So one year later, she takes a role that is even more bait-y: still weepy, still an independent female, but this time we'll mix in a little Clint Eastwood magic and voila!, we have an Oscar nomination. I realize I'm coming off as smarmy, but this nomination is truly a retake for last year's blunder (as well as a chance to see Jolie and her main squeeze Brad Pitt walk the red carpet together). I guess I'm saying that I'm still disappointed that Sally Hawkins wasn't accepted into the shortlist.

But enough of that, let's talk about Jolie's performance. It's certainly a performance of 'actorly' mannerisms, where buckets of tears and melodrama can easily take the place of an actual character arc. Not that that's precisely Jolie's fault- she does make the most of her character. As Christine Collins, a mother of a kidnapped boy, she expresses the natural emotions that a mother would have if she'd lost her son, but the fun begins when the boy the police return isn't even her son. Jolie is given full opportunity to scream, throw dishes, and be enlisted in the occasional insane asylum. Perhaps if the film were a bit shorter and not so self-aware (actually referencing the Academy Awards within the film? Come on, Clint), it would have been more effective, and though Jolie does make the most of her chance, I still don't find it more than manufactured sentiment.


Is Frozen River 2008's "little movie that could"? There are a few films from last year that could make that claim, but none of them are of the thematic quality of Frozen River. As the story of a middle-aged woman's struggles to get her young boys a new home, it displays its characters so transparently that there is never a moment that seems unearned. As Ray Eddy, Leo digs her teeth into the role of a lifetime. Leo was never said to be a movie star, being known mostly for her spot work on television and the film 21 Grams, and I'm sure that was the only way filmmaker Courtney Hunt could rationalize being able to make this film for only $200,000.

Back to Leo, though. Many a film producer or studio head would look at her less-than-youthful face and turn a blind eye. What they don't understand is that there is so much more to be told with a face like that than any young woman's visage. It's a face that breaks hearts, and in River, Leo does just that. When Ray Eddy decides to help smuggle in illegal aliens, we don't question the ethics; we just look at her face and know that it is something she has to do. It's my favorite of the nominated performances, and the one that many consider to be the superior one. If enough people go into their ballots and say, "Well, Leo has the actual best performance," then I think there is much more momentum for a huge upset than people seem to realize.

Meryl Streep, DOUBT

Streep alluded to this fact as she won the Best Actress award at the SAG ceremony: she is almost unanimously considered to be the greatest living actress. Surely she has the pedigree: a record fifteen Oscar nominations, and probably more impressive is that it has never been more than four years between her nominations, meaning that she is seldom out of the social conscience. Now with the film Doubt, Streep shows that she is still the acting titan of legend. Playing the conniving, but insecure Sister Aloysius, Streep flexes her muscles and plays the harsh character with as much bite as needed. But probably more impressive is the fact that she relents, allowing the other actors to take center stage and grab the spotlight.

But let's not get carried away: the spotlight is always Streep's. Utilizing John Patrick Shanley's screenplay, Streep represents the self-conscious vanity and intolerance that is always present in the incredibly old school Catholic church. That being said, Doubt does not necessarily live up to "bad Catholic priests'" gimmick that it promotes itself with. If anything, the film devotes a good chunk of its time dissecting behaviors of the flawed but pious personalities. It's easy to get frustrated when Streep seems to get nominated for anything (at least this time it wasn't for Mamma Mia!), but it's the restraint combined with the intensity that really sneaks her in this time. Its amazing to see an actress as honored as Streep still being able to evolve further.

Kate Winslet, THE READER

I recently saw the Peter Jackson film Heavenly Creatures, which is most notable because of the fact that it was Kate Winslet's screen debut. At only eighteen, Kate Winslet was already fearless- was already adept at the balance between her innocent beauty and her ferocious ability- and it was obvious that she would be a great actress for years to come. Fifteen years and one Titanic later, Winslet has only solidified that pedestal that we placed her on so many years ago. With six career nominations and no wins, Winslet has already inspired the "when is she finally going to win one?" debate- even at the ripe age of 33. With Stephen Daldry's film The Reader, Winslet seems to have her best opportunity yet, and without a specific front-runner, she could certainly end up with that coveted Oscar.

Now, I have been a avid hater of The Reader. I don't care for its smugness, and its seemingly insensible use of the Holocaust to boost its prestige potential. Moreover, I didn't find Winslet particularly Earth-shattering in it. So I'm just going to talk about another Winslet performance from 2008 that I did love: Revolutionary Road. In Road, Winslet plays April Wheeler, a suburban housewife fed up with the mundane life that she and her husband Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio) have fallen into. She's willing to do anything, even move to another country, to escape the Hell she seems trapped in. There is no happy ending for April, nor a happy beginning nor middle for that matter, and Winslet never takes her foot off the pedal here, driving the dim, harrowing aspects of the storyline right into the minds of the audience. I would be happy to see Winslet win for The Reader on Feb. 22, but forgive me if I think she'll be winning it for her work in two films from 2008.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Coraline (***1/2)

Written for the Screen and Directed by Henry Selick


I grew up within a generation that owes a great deal of its culture to the film The Nightmare Before Christmas. Without that film, there would be no emo, and goth would have never become as conventional as it is today. I was never a huge fan of the film, but it was such a staple of those I know, and it frequently lends those same people to blurt (no kidding): "Tim Burton is God!". There's only one problem, Tim Burton had relatively little to do with Nightmare, and the film was in fact directed by animator Henry Selick, who comes back to the big screen with Coraline, his best film to date.

The film is based on the Neil Gaiman book of the same title, and tells the story of a young girl named Coraline (voiced by Dakota Fanning). Coraline and her family have just moved into a new home, because her parents wish to find a more peaceful place where they can do their writing. Their both nature writers, an occupation which is much more time-consuming than I ever imagined before seeing this film. Neither her mother nor her father pay much attention to her, and with no siblings, Coraline is frequently left alone to her own imagination.

While searching through her new, strange home, Coraline finds a small door by the fireplace, about big enough to fit an infant. Curious, Coraline opens the door, enters and falls into a seemingly wonderful world, where she's equipped with a brand new set of parents that not only devote loads of attention to her, but cook loads of delicious meals. Then, Coraline wakes up, and she's in her old room. Its just a dream. Back to the mundane, normal world of alienation. So, she goes through the door again, and thinks possibly about staying in this wondrous new world.

Well, there's only one problem, everyone who lives in this world has sewn buttons for eyes, and her new mother informs Coraline that in order to stay, she would have to have the buttons sewed into her eyes. Coraline refuses, naturally, and then her once nice, homely new mother evolves quickly into a wicked woman who not only refuses to let Coraline go, but captures her real parents as well. While trying to free herself, Coraline must figure out a way to save her two parents too.

I don't know how much of the film was effected by its 3D format--I wasn't even aware that it was 3D until I reached the theatre. To be honest, I don't really feel that its third dimension adds any extra whimsy or magic, but instead is probably something put in place to make the children more interested. Surely, like Nightmare Before Christmas, there are some truly terrifying aspects within this film that could easily turn the little ones off. If 3D is what gets people to go out and see it, well then so be it.

The magic in Coraline, though, is its pure faith in the imagination. Surely, most children are greatly adept at creating fantasy worlds of their own. I remember when I was young, all I had were toy cars, but I was able to create a wonderland of characters and setting with just those cars. Its something that kids are just known to do, and Coraline is an exuberant love song to those impressionable years. Its a testament to the voicework of Fanning (that girl makes me feel so useless with all she's accomplished in such little time), that Coraline comes off as a rather charming young girl, when she's meant to be annoying to almost everyone within the story.

Selick resorts back to stop-motion animation, though I doubt he took the arduous route he went through with Nightmare or James and The Giant Peach. Why go through all of that when you have computers? To the film's credit, it does not make much of its animation. With films recently like WALL-E and Waltz with Bashir, animated films are no longer meant to be just whimsical films with children. They can have great depth with their character development, and discuss themes much more adult than its target audience.

I feel this review written doesn't directly sound like the kind of rave you'd read for a three-and-a-half star film. Surely, Coraline is not a perfect film, but it is surely my favorite film in this short-lived year, and even though it doesn't push its frightening throttle as hard as I would have hoped it would, it really grabs a hold of its audience, no matter their age. I feel that there are many children who may be turned off by the dark material (that's what happened to me when Nightmare originally came out), but there is no doubt that Coraline is a beautiful cinematic experience.

Oscar Breakdown: Best Supporting Actress


Amy Adams, DOUBT

If Adams' nomination is any proof, Doubt was THE actor's movie of the year. Adams possesses one of the four acting nominations the film received. Sure, in terms of buzz, Adams was the one who was most vulnerable--particularly since her main competition was co-star Viola Davis. But let's just get this straight: there is nothing not to like about Amy Adams. Ever since the first time I saw her as the sweet, virginal Brenda in the highly-underrated Catch Me If You Can, I knew she was tremendous. From that to her astounding Oscar-nominated performance in Junebug, Adams has built a substantial career in just a few years. Oh, by the way, did I forget to mention the incredible job she did with the unbelievably light material in Enchanted?

Within Doubt, Adams plays Sister James, a woman who even in a nunnery seems overtly pious. She is the one who first makes the rumbling accusation of Father Flynn, only to wish she'd never made it moments later. For Adams, it's not necessarily a tough performance in terms of her range--she has played sweet and weepy before. It's the job she does providing this usually glum film with an unusually bright character. For the first two-thirds of the film, we really see the movie from her point-of-view. Do we follow the light in our hearts that suspends suspicion or do we listen to the logical answers? Her moral imbalance represents our imbalance in the entire Father Flynn whodunit.


Was Woody Allen's newest fil
m a real hum-drum, drawn-out piece of filmmaking that didn't really explore anything other than the same themes we've seen over and over again in his films? Well, I certainly think so. But there are certain things that Woody never loses, and that's his gift in dealing with actors. It's true in particular when talking about the Best Supporting Actress category, where he's won it for Dianne Wiest twice and also for Mira Sorvino (forgot about that, didn't you?). This year, it's Penélope Cruz who ends up being the beneficiary of the Woody Factor. Simply appearing in Allen's film assures critical attention, and glory be to those who take their opportunity and run with it; and boy, does Cruz run with it.

Sure, Cruz had a much better, and more stunning performance in another film from 2008, Elegy, but Cruz's work here leaves heads rattled. It's amazing how one film--Volver--has turned Cruz from an American mo
vie dish rag to a very much-respected actress in no time. With Vicky Cristina, Cruz embodies one of the usual Woody female archetypes: the woman so far off balance mentally that men can't help but fall in love with her. Cruz's Maria Elena is funny, suicidal, homicidal, and at her best sexy. Never really knowing what she's after, Maria Elena seems to only attract one thing consistently and that's chaos and mental torment. Cruz surely lives up to a "fiery Latina" stereotype, but not without first giving the character a soul and a vibrancy few other actresses could have pulled off.

Viola Davis, DOUBT

I think most everybody knew that Viola would end up here for some time--at least I did. Supporting acting categor
ies are interesting, because it is completely relative from case to case what is "supporting" and what is a lead. Davis' co-star, Amy Adams, was nominated in this category as well, despite spending a good percentage of her time on screen battling for a lead role. Where as, with Viola Davis, she's only given a handful of minutes and scenes to accomplish what she needs--and she hits a home run. Playing the son of the possibly molested boy, Mrs. Miller, Viola Davis is a complete powder-keg of emotion, grasping every line, sniffle, and snot bubble till it creates what is probably the greatest single-scene performance of 2008.

Outside of her stage work, Davis is not really a star, even if she does work frequently, but this role may change that. Despite it's Tony-winning pedigree, Doubt really stays in one solid direction in terms of its storytelling, that is, until Mrs. Miller emerges. When Sr. Aloyious (Meryl Streep) takes her to have a talk, only a sane person would conclude that La Streep would wipe the floor with a lightweight such as Davis, but not so. Not only does Davis steal the scene that she's in, it's almost as if Streep isn't even there. Streep, herself, will tell you that that is high praise indeed. It's a tough role to pull off, surely, but Davis does it so naturally, never going too haywire on the waterworks, and always allowing the emotions of the scene as a whole take center stage.


There are few things in Benjamin Button that aren't chilly and distant. The film itself is an exercise in alienating its audience with a story that is preposterous for the sake of being preposterous. Only one member of the film's cast was able to break through the movie's hard cast shell, and that was Henson. Henson, known before mostly for her impressive work in the film Hustle & Flow, is known mostly for her incredible blend of heart and soul. Of coarse, there are moments when her Benjamin Button character--a New Orleans rest home attendant--falls into parody, but since its all in the name of humor, it doesn't come off as offensive.

Benjamin Button's w
armest moments are when Henson is on the screen. Playing Queenie, the woman who finds and raises Benjamin, she fully embraces the role of the film's source of wisdom, while also being the only character that makes sense of the film's "life and death doesn't matter when you live" premise. There are a lot of things that happen in Benjamin Button that is unearned--that "Fate" sequence?; old Cate Blanchett?--but for sure, Henson earns every minute that she's on the screen. She doesn't earn her sincerity cheaply, through plot and script contrivance, but by doing something that few others in that cast were able to do: play into the subtle aspects of their character.

Marisa Tomei, THE WRESTLER

Its hardly difficult to remember the few years after Marisa Tomei won an Academy Award for her memorable, but low-brow role in My Cousin Vinny. She had gotten the curse. You know the one: where young beautiful actresses are thrown Oscars at an incredibly impressionable age, and they are not able to really build a consistent career after that. Geena Davis, Gwyneth Paltrow, Mira Sorvino and more recently Jennifer Hudson* are all trying to recover from this curse. Of coarse, Tomei didn't truly break the curse until 2001, nine years after her win, when she had the heart-breaking role in the film In The Bedroom. It won her a nomination, and she was no longer just a wasted Oscar win, but a substantial acting force.

Now, at forty-four, I don't think anybody really questions Tomei's ability as an actress, and now she has just received her third Oscar nomination. Some can say that her performance in The Wrestler is the best work of her career--I certainly would--but that is not exactly what sticks out about the role. Put back to back with her equally lusty role in Before The Devil Knows You're Dead last year, Tomei has turned herself in the most transparent actresses out now. Few actresses put themselves in such vulnerable positions and are still able to perform so brilliantly (to name a couple, Kate Winslet and Julianne Moore are masters at this). Across from a career-topping performance from Mickey Rourke, Tomei compliments him perfectly and gives The Wrestler a much-needed heart.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Oscar Breakdown: Best Supporting Actor


Josh Brolin, MILK

Last year, everybody said that Josh Brolin had "arrived". He had extensive roles in several pictures, including a misogynistic superior in In The Valley of Elah, and a corrupt, smart-ass police detective in American Gangster. But let's not get misguided as to what was truly Brolin's breakthrough: the lead character of the Coen Brothers masterpiece No Country For Old Men. The film was a stirring, perfect piece of cinema, and Brolin was the main star of it all. He embraced the main character of Lwellyn Moss, but come awards time, other heavy-hitters pushed him out. So, how does Brolin follow up that year? Well, for one, he does an exceptional job impersonating a disgraced president in W., but more importantly, he played Dan White in Milk.

To be fair, Milk is filled with a number of exquisite supporting performances to back up the main star, Sean Penn. Brolin, though, does a stupendous job of making the stage his whenever he's on the screen. White, a homophobic politician who would become the eventual assailant of Harvey Milk is a deeply disturbed man with twisted fantasies that interrupt the conservative ways he's been taught to believe all his life. Was Dan White a homosexual? Well, the film certainly leads you to believe so, but that is hardly the point. What Brolin is able to do with White--create a horrific, but still empathetic portrait of a strait-laced man breaking down--is masterful acting. After 2007, people realized that Brolin was much more than just a country boy with a sweet mustache. After Milk, they realized that he is truly one the best actors in the game today.

Robert Downey Jr., TROPIC THUNDER

Years from now, people may look back at this nomination and scratch their heads--the Academy actually recognized broad comedy? Interestingly enough, this nomination has seemed, now, to be a long time coming. Downey Jr., a true thematic chameleon since he first burst onto the scene, has had a much publicized roller coaster career. Constantly battling drug abuse and eventual jail time, nothing has ever prevented Downey Jr. from embracing his roles to their fullest potentials. No matter what he does in his own life, it's always a wonder to watch him up on the screen. Of coarse, his more successful film from 2008 was the comic book film Iron Man--a film in which its success is almost forgotten because of The Dark Knight. That film cemented Downey Jr.'s comeback, so what else for him to do?

How about a satire co-written and directed by Ben Stiller. That description alone certainly isn't something that screams Oscar nonination, but seeing is believing as Downey Jr. becomes a character so entrenched in vanity and self-congratulatory mannerisms, it's almost impossible not to laugh hysterically. As "five-time Oscar winner" Kirk Lazarus, Downey Jr. plays upon the bad-boy images of touted actors Russell Crowe, and the puzzling method acting of Daniel Day-Lewis, all while maintaining a certain objectivity as to point the finger at all actors. As Lazarus dyes his skin brown to play an African American character, nobody says a thing, except his black co-star. It's a performance of comedic genius, and an example of Downey Jr.'s unbelievable versatility and charisma.

Phillip Seymour Hoffman, DOUBT

Interesting piece of trivia: Hoffman is the only actor nominated this year who was also nominated last year as well. I point that out for two reasons: for one, Oscar noms usually tend to come in bunches for actors and having only one holdover is rare; also, because Hoffman has quickly emerged to a point in his career where he has become a default nomination. True, all of the principal actors within Doubt were nominated, but Hoffman has truly gained "best actor of his generation" status since his win for Capote in 2005. Not that I'm complaining, Hoffman has been a brilliant and versatile thespian since the mid-90's, riveting in such films as Magnolia and Happiness. On top of that, he has accomplished all of this with a physique that does not cry out movie star, and that is always to be commended.

But let's stick to Doubt, and Hoffman's Father Flynn. The movie itself revolves around the obligatory question: did he do it? In search of guilt, a nun goes through a unseemly means to prove her intuition that Father Flynn may have, in fact, sexually abused a child at a Catholic School. The casting of Hoffman is interesting, when you consider that Flynn's guilt is meant to always be up in the air, and Hoffman has a history of playing grimy figures. That aside, Hoffman brings great warmth to the character, inparticularly in the inpromptu scenes not directly involved with the film's mystery plot. Speaking with the young boys, laughing with the towns church cardinals, Hoffman creates a gregarious man who isn't afraid to defend himself in a boisterous manner. Doubt may flub in some areas of its story construction, but it never does with its actors, and Hoffman is no exception.


Is it a long-gone conclusion that Ledger will win the Oscar posthumously? Probably. It's a shame, since it seems like too little too late, especially after his loss for the tremendous, generation-defining performance in Brokeback Mountain. Win or loss, one thing is true: no other performance from last year has had a stronger effect on audiences and critics alike. In the Batman series, The Joker is a character that we as viewers feel we have already defined in our minds. Particularly, we know that he's a sadist, equipped with a wicked wit and an unquenchable thirst for mayhem. He was defined by the zany antics of Cesar Romero in the 1960's Batman televison program, and then encaptured by Jack Nicholson in Tim Burton's Batman. So like I said, everything we know about the Joker is pre-supposed.

Then, not only does Ledger do a great job in the role, but he revolutionizes everything we'd ever thought about the character. Adding an anarchic, self-loathing aspect to the Joker, this version is no longer fun, nor is he particulary fear-enducing. It's the length at which Ledger goes to express this Joker's anguish that makes him so compelling. Does he want total chaos? Well, the meticulous nature in which he orchestrates the said chaos is a complete contradiction of that. It is not chaos that this Joker wants, but he wants suffering. We don't know about the Joker's past, but Ledger expresses enough in his stream-of-concious monologues to know that he has lead a life of pain. All he wants from life is for the whole world to share his pain, and he is just demented enough to pull it off.


Michael Shannon has been kicking around the film industry for the last couple of years playing unsightly characters within harsh films such as Before The Devil Knows You're Dead and Bug, but when you cast a film with Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio, you expect them to own every scene that they're in. That's true, except for two scenes, and those are the two scenes that involve Shannon. Playing John Givings, a formerly brilliant mathematician, now deranged due to shock therapy treatment, Michael Shannon is flabergasting, ripping through his dialogue with such ferociousness that nobody else on the screen can be seen. Surely, it's a credit to screenwriter Justin Haythe that the character is so rich, but Shannon takes a character that can easily be seen as a sack crazy man, and makes him intricate to the story.

As the story goes, John therapy treatments may have effected his math skills and more or less his judgement, but it has not effected his honesty. Staring at the phony harmony in which Frank and Arpil Wheeler attempt to display their haggard marraige, John goes out of his way to expose them for what they are: a quixotic couple who will never fully grasps their ambitions. What Shannon does with the character is interesting, because he is supposed to be antagonizing for almost the entire time that he's on the screen, yet when he is there, there is no other character that seems more sensible. Brewing with agressiveness and an itch to start trouble, it's Shannon's miracle that John does not come off pithy or annoying. It's always fun to see an actor of Shannon's versatile ability, yet limited star appeal, get recognition.