Saturday, December 27, 2008

Review: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)

"Benjamin Button Astounds Visually Despite Narrative Flaws"

* * * 1/2 (out of 4)

D: David Fincher
W: Eric Roth (screenplay); F. Scott Fitzgerald (short story)
S: Brad Pitt; Cate Blanchett; Tajari P. Henson

"I was just thinking about how nothing lasts, and what a shame that is..."

            David Fincher, who has utilized a seemingly endless wealth of creative visual language in such varied meditations on the masculine condition as “Fight Club” and “Zodiac,” strips his soul bare and becomes an American art-house director of tremendous strength, grace, and complexity in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.”

            Devoid of the director’s usual gamesmanship and visual playfulness, “Button” announces itself a far more intimate and focused piece of filmmaking.  Lightly adapted from an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story by Eric Roth (“Forrest Gump”), the historical fantasy tells the life story of Benjamin Button, a man cursed to age backwards eighty years.

            Roth’s screenplay relies on an occasionally awkward and melodramatic framing device, and occasionally feels gimmicky in its structure, especially towards the end of the film, where the otherwise subtle film slips dangerously close to melodrama.

            However, Fincher makes a strong case for digital film to be taken seriously as an advancement in cinematic technology.  The marvelous visual effects seamlessly turn Brad Pitt from 80 to 20 without ever feeling intrusive, showing profound leaps in the dramatic capabilities of subtle and emotional use of computer graphics.

            Nothing feels misplaced in cinematographer Claudio Miranda’s exquisite photography.  “Button” feels designed based on a steady system of lines, and Fincher is careful to construct his film out of the shape of bodies, the space of a room, the direction and bend of lights, and – most importantly – the lines of faces.

            The lighting and framing of the film is so dynamic, so gorgeous that it is only amplified by Fincher’s notorious attention to detail, manifest in the sumptuous production and costume design.

            In this visual study of lines, the most important and the most explored are the intersecting lines of time and of lives.  Benjamin’s line runs parallel and conversely to his world, and the film ruminates heavily on the lifelong crisis of self this causes.

            In a film whose external aesthetics are so superlative, its real power rests on an internal exploration of character; “Button” is less a narrative and more a focused if fantastical character study revolving around death, decay and choice

            Brad Pitt, who remains rather underrated as a dramatic actor despite his immense superstardom, is nothing but transcendent as Benjamin.  With an aching sadness that reflects the weight of the world, Pitt’s subdued work is captive and commanding while emotionally hushed and complex.  While it would be easy to be lost in the sea of make-up, Pitt turns Benjamin into a lost soul.  He allows the complexities and personal crises of aging backwards to be understood and empathized with, making the fantastical character a complete emotional realization as opposed to a quirky and outlandish creation.

            The largest flaw in the film is Eric Roth’s screenplay, which contains alternate moments of dramatic beauty and conventional drama.  In equal doses, he operates on an unexpected level of simple depth, and also almost conventionally romantic to the point where several key moments feel forced or inescapably unnecessary against the rest of the work.  This tendency to feel both graceful and clunky is most frequent in Benjamin’s lifelong love affair with Daisy (a glowing Cate Blanchett, who also portrays her character from early 20s through her 80s).           

There is an inescapable and pervasive melancholy to the world of “Benjamin Button.” David Fincher realizes the more profound issues in the story have to do with death and time.  Dramatically the film is very much concerned with the concept of death and the intersection of time, the creation of short-lived opportunities.

            As it mounts momentum in its nearly three hours of runtime, “Benjamin Button” comes to be less a celebration of life and more a mourning for its transience.

            There may be moments that fall flat, that feel overly sentimental and constructed for narrative convenience more than anything else.  There are also moments where the film goes too far in trying tug into us, and that may rob it of some its quieter force.

            That said, the sheer aesthetic accomplishment, the drive and the dare and the ambition, the drama and the fantasy, the simultaneous complex and distilled emotions make “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” that supreme rarity in mainstream, contemporary cinema – a film worth soaking in, worth savoring, worth dissecting, and worth thinking about.

            There are increasingly fewer films that just seem to exist for us to pass through, films that provide meditations and problems without feeling the need to provide answers.  They exist as proof that the medium can operate as an art form.  Even at its most conventional and most uneven, most of its flaws can be forgiven, for “Benjamin Button” reminds of that special kind of elemental force.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Living Wonderfully

If you were to sample 1,000 people who have watched and enjoyed movies for years and chose them to pick 10 that are close to their heart, I'm confident that Frank Capra's "It's a Wonderful Life" would be on a majority.  Why is that?  Watching it, as I always do, right before Christmas, it's not particularly the cheerful movie the people like to think it is.  George Bailey's life, as wonderful as it ends up being, is assaulted continuously by the complications of the supposedly elegant American dream.  Here's what I've come up with though:

I don't think there is a movie that ultimately explodes with as much joy and exuberance for the happiness and perplexity of life.  The last ten minutes are so unashamedly sentimental and happy they're liable to turn a tear from the most cynical soul, and I think it's James Stewart's smiling face with his ideal family surrounding him that sticks with most people.

But in the strong analysis of the film I've read, it's just as interesting from an economic side.  The contrast between Potter and Bailey, while at its base is very archetypal, seems to embody so many of the ideas and discourses within the struggle for stability, especially the way it reverberates the Depression and WWII.

I think why it stands tall, not just as a Christmas film but as an American film, is because of how it magnifies what we think of as "the American character."  George Bailey gives his life for his family, he works hard, he falls in love, and yet he thinks his life is worthless.  We see, and he ultimately sees, that despite hardships it is his unwavering virtue that helps him survive.

This Christmas, with an economic recession on the tips of everyone's tongues and in the back of all presents, "It's a Wonderful Life" contains a poignant message for our times: it's NOT about the money, it's about who we are and how we live with what we have.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Nostalgia for the Nostalgic - "A Christmas Story" and the Holiday

Watching that timeless, over-viewed, and totally wonderful film again last night, I was so struck by how completely nostalgic the whole thing is.  I've often asked myself why this movie is so popular with just about everyone, and I think the most easy answer is that unlike maybe any movie ever made about Christmas, the soul of it is so pure and so innocent.  Making it a period piece, making it an adult reflection on childhood, setting it in Midwest suburbia, the world is cast as an ultimately feel-good zone where even family dysfunction seems not to matter so long as the light of Christmas is sneaking in, and when it DOES arrive all problems in the world are solved - even if the turkey is ruined.

The film's central narrative device - Jean Shepherd's voiceover - gives a distinctly literary vibe to the whole thing, as if an expert storyteller is crafting a wordy, over-the-top view of things.  I take "A Christmas Story" to be much more of a fantasy than most people probably do.  Shepherd's eloquence is complemented by a filmmaking style that is full of well-lit, almost glowing shots coupled with the child's viewpoint.  But I say it's a fantasy, and what do I mean by that?  Well simply, it's a fantasy of everything we WANT to remember Christmas to be.  Whether or not anyone's Christmas is actually as perfect (even regardless of all the things that go wrong) as this movie makes it out to be, we still cling to Christmas as that time in our youth when we were most in awe of the world, most excited of the possibilities of a man in a red suit breaking into our house, and I can't think of a better movie out since that has managed to find what's so warm and reassuring about that nostalgia and present it visually and in narrative.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Review: "Happy-Go-Lucky"




"Happy-Go-Lucky"

* * *

D: Mike Leigh
W: Mike Leigh
S: Sally Hawkins

Mike Leigh turns his sensitive camera in for this intimate character study of North London schoolteacher Poppy, who does her best to keep an upbeat and cheerful outlook on life.  She's played to perfection by Sally Hawkins, who does her best to make Poppy's sensibilities seem like lived-in qualities without going headlong into quirks.

With a broad smile, fast gesticulations, and a manic sense of humor uniquely her own, Hawkins is sublimely funny, always seeming out of place but doing her best to spread cheer to others, often with grating, awkward, and relentlessly amusing results.  The film is essentially plotless, moving steadily through episodes in Poppy's life with relative breeze.  Leigh alternately examines her family life, her struggle to obtain a driving license, her job as a teacher, dancing lessons, all with a kind of simplistic disdain that shows life itself as relatively uneventful - it is how we approach it that makes the difference.

On the surface, Leigh's film doesn't seem to be making very large artistic statements.  Many of the scenes unfold in wide sequence shots, with the camera being more a passive surveyor than an active motivator.  As such, it lets each performer in the ensemble develop their own cadences and responses, giving most sequences a realistic and improvised feel.  Leigh's writing is strong, as very few moments feel forced or calculated, and the sheer drive of the film comes out of this exact lack of narrative propulsion.

As funny, light-hearted, and smile-inducing as "Happy-Go-Lucky" is, Leigh ultimately gives his strength added emotional boost in its final minutes, threatening to strip Poppy of her joy through simple dissections and turns of character.  Hawkins delves headfirst into the challenge, hinting at a tragedy in characterization before turning the film ultimately back onto its amusing track.

The film asks: can we really be optimistic in a world that is so cynical, can we be romantic and care-free in a world with so much pressure and stress?  At times it seems almost impossible, and we almost wait for the moment Poppy will break down.  Leave it to Sally Hawkins to take this entire complex range on her fully capable shoulders; hers is among the most tender and revealing female performances of the year, and certainly one of the most unmistakably genuine.

The film moves rather slow at times, asking us to surrender ourselves to Poppy's tempo.  Doing so gives the most rewards, even at the film's more tedious and plodding moments.  It may occasionally delve into repetition, but it all feels handled with professionalism and originality.

"Milk" Overflows with Artistic Versatility and Passion





"Milk"

* * * *

D: Gus Van Sant

W: Dustin Lance Black

S: Sean Penn; Josh Brolin; James Franco

    It is hard not to watch Gus Van Sant’s consummate and probing look into the San Francisco gay rights movement, “Milk,” without thinking of the controversy over Proposition 8 this past election, and how 30 years later the same debates and ideas have reverberated across a country that clings to an idea of progress.

            Van Sant, who has spent the last decade doing wonderful, below-the-radar independent work, resurfaces with a vengeance.  He imbues the story of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man elected to public office in the US, with a brilliant balance of visual artistry and real historical prowess.

            Sean Penn’s beautiful performance in the title role runs beyond mimicries and quirks; he gives Harvey Milk such understated depth and a broad range of complex and often devastating emotions.  It may be the best performance Penn has ever given, and he draws with balanced shades of flamboyance and stark inner struggles of societal acceptance.

            The rest of the ensemble features terrific dramatic work from James Franco, Emile Hirsch, and Josh Brolin.  As Dan White, Milk’s chief ideological and political opponent on the San Francisco supervisor board, Brolin gives the film needed emotional juxtaposition.  Continuing his rise as a stunningly versatile actor, he gives White an impervious emotional sheet masked by intense rage, a politician unable to find personal or professional satisfaction.

            “Milk” is staged more like a docu-drama, with Van Sant and editor Elliot Graham mixing archival footage among the dramatic footage, giving the film a sense of place and also a necessary historical immediacy, coupled with the sharply articulated and thoroughly detailed screenplay by Dustin Lance Black.

            But why it is such a strong picture, why it transcends its bounds as either biography piece or historical rumination is that Van Sant makes every shot an expression of a distinct idea.  With gorgeous cinematography from Harris Savides, each sequence feels important and unique, utilizing various editing tricks, composition changes, and lighting strategies.

            In all its two hours, there is not a false note in the entire film because each moment is treated as totally important and vital.  Creativity and artistic impulse brim from each expertly coordinated camera movement and each sharply choreographed edit.

            While not enough praise can be given for the phenomenally affecting performances of every single actor in the film, it is ultimately Gus Van Sant’s souring passion that gives it its glorious heartbeat.

            Though a necessarily political film, and one that does sympathetically take the pro-gay political stance, “Milk” never feels burdened by its controversial ideologies.  Nor is it even a film about Harvey Milk so much as it is a film about the gay rights movement.  And even then, it is not so much a film about the gay rights movement as it is a triumphant, rattling cry for the rights of humanity and the power of individuals to shape the course of public thought.

            In that respect, “Milk” is a thoroughly American film, for it is not only about a significant moment in a turbulent time in our recent history, but it is also about the steadfastness of the unwavering American hero.  It is a masterful, artistic love letter to hope and perseverance.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

"Doubt" Leads Screen Actors Guild Nominees




Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role

Richard Jenkins for The Visitor
Frank Langella for Frost/Nixon
Sean Penn for Milk
Brad Pitt for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Mickey Rourke for The Wrestler

Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role

Anne Hathaway for Rachel Getting Married
Angelina Jolie for Changeling
Melissa Leo for Frozen River
Meryl Streep for Doubt
Kate Winslet for Revolutionary Road

Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role

Josh Brolin for Milk
Robert Downey, Jr. for Tropic Thunder
Philip Seymour Hoffman for Doubt
Heath Ledger for The Dark Knight
Dev Patel for Slumdog Millionaire

Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role

Amy Adams for Doubt
Penelope Cruz for Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Viola Davis for Doubt
Taraji P. Henson for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Kate Winslet for The Reader

Best Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture

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

Commentary:
After last year's bizarre and left-field nominations, these nominations are fairly safe and reflect the general consensus of thought.  I'd say that stems out of a lack of quality in the overall year, and a lack of movies that people feel passionately about.

"Doubt"'s five nominations does not surprise me at all; I would have been surprised if it had anything less.  I think all four of its acting noms are potentials for Oscar noms.  The film does not have the supporters it needs for a Picture nom (right now, let's see how the guilds play out).

"Benjamin Button" builds off its Globe surge to secure its nomination for Best Picture.  The acting nods could go either way, especially Pitt.  The Actor category seems fairly sewn up.  I can see Pitt or Jenkins getting dumped for Eastwood or DiCaprio, but that's about it.

I'm so happy Melissa Leo got the SAG nod, and hopefully she'll be in for Oscar.  Sally Hawkins is the outside threat to knock down one of these women (I'd bet on Jolie).

Supporting Actor again seems 4/5 locked up; Dev Patel is a weird nom since he's obviously the lead role in the film.  Michael Shannon or James Franco will probably usurp him at the Oscars, unless they really just don't get Downey's performance.

In Supporting Actress, Marisa Tomei will get nominated if the Academy likes The Wrestler, and Rosemarie DeWitt could get a nod if they love Rachel Getting Married.

The winners in the acting categories are far from locked up, but the noms seem pretty easy.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Currently Watching: "Greed" (1924)




Yikes.

That's about the only word that comes into my mind after finishing Eric von Stroheim's masterpiece.  The 1924 epic adaptation of Frank Norris's has become famous almost as much for its story than for its actual merit.  It's one of the many films - and one of the most famous - where the director and the studio clashed over final cut.  Von Stroheim spent unheard of sums to film the movie the way HE wanted to, ending in a 10-hour, extremely faithful adaptation.

It was seen once.

The studios asked him to re-cut.  He got it down to four hours.  The project was taken from him and cut by studio executives to 140 minutes, the version most readily available on video (the film has yet to be available on DVD).  The other footage was lost, destroyed in an incinerator by an MGM janitor.  In 1999, TCM used still photographs and a surviving shooting script to "fill in the blanks" and restore the film to 239 minutes, which is the version I watched.

There are few words that can possibly summarize "Greed."  It is such a personal, overwhelming statement on the frailties of the human condition, at once epic and intimate.  The simple change of fate with a woman winning 5,000 dollars has devastating effects for herself and the two men who love her.  The pace of the film starts a bit beyond slow, but Von Stroheim is faithful to his source while using the available film grammar of his time to its most proficient.

"Greed" is astounding to look at and beautifully performed.  It reminds us, especially now, of the foolishness of the economy, how cruel and unloving it can be.  "Greed" seems like a morality tale, with the titular "deadly sin" pervasively influencing each character into unspeakable acts of selfishness, but it is more of a sustained character study - what must have seemed a revelation in 1924.  The money influences the plot, but through the money the characters are continually forced to make choices - usually the wrong ones.

The last thirty or forty minutes of "Greed" are among the best I've ever seen.  The ending confrontation in the heart of Death Valley has become so quoted and so fondly remembered I'd rather not discuss it and encourage you to simply see it.  It all seems so simple, but it reaches so far into the core of our own potential corruption it's hard not to feel swayed and shaken.

Von Stroheim's career would forever be crushed by the remembrance of how MGM treated him.  Were "Greed" to survive in its 10 hour form it would be an entirely different experience.  As it stands, even at four hours, it feels like a funeral dirge in the best possible sense; the film marches slower and slower towards tragedy and towards a grave for each character.

Golden Satellite Winners

Picture Drama: Slumdog Millionaire
Director: Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire
Actress Drama: Angelina Jolie, Changeling
Actor Drama: Richard Jenkins, The Visitor
Picture Comedy: Happy-Go-Lucky
Actress Comedy: Sally Hawkins, Happy-Go-Lucky
Actor Comedy: Ricky Gervais, Ghost Town
Supporting Actor: Michael Shannon, Revolutionary Road
Supporting Actress: Rosemarie DeWitt, Rachel Getting Married
Foreign Language Film: Gomorrah
Animated: Wall-E
Documentary: Anita O'Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer AND Man on Wire
Original Screenplay: Thomas McCarthy, The Visitor
Adapted Screenplay: Peter Morgan, Frost/Nixon
Original Score: A.R. Rahman, Slumdog Millionaire
Original Song: Another Way to Die from Quantum of Solace
Cinematography: Mandy Walker, Australia
Visual Effects: Australia
Editing: Dan Lebental, Iron Man
Sound (editing and mixing): Richard King, The Dark Knight
Art Direction/Production Design: Australia
Costume Design: Michael O'Connor, The Duchess

Lots of Critics Groups

Southeastern Film Critics Association

Picture: Milk
Actor: Sean Penn, Milk
Actress: Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married
Supp Actor: Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight
Supp Actress: Penelope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Director: Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire
Original Screenplay: Dustin Lance Black, Milk
Adapted Screenplay: Simon Beaufoy, Slumdog Millionaire
Foreign Language: Let the Right One In
Documentary: Man on Wire
Animated: Wall-E

St. Louis

Picture: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Actor: Sean Penn, Milk
Actress: Kate Winslet, Revolutionary Road
Supporting Actor: Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight
Supporting Actress: Viola Davis, Doubt
Director: Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire
Foreign Language: Slumdog Millionaire
Documentary: Man on Wire
Comedy: Burn After Reading
Animated: Wall-E
Original, Innovate, or Creative Film: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Cinematography: Australia
Screenplay: Peter Morgan, Frost/Nixon
Music: The Visitor
Special Effects: The Dark Knight

San Francisco

Picture: Milk
Director: Gus Van Sant, Milk
Original Screenplay: Dustin Lance Black, Milk
Adapted Screenplay: Peter Morgan, Frost/Nixon
Actor: Sean Penn, Milk AND Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler
Actress: Sally Hawkins, Happy-Go-Lucky
Supp Actor: Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight
Supp Actress: Marisa Tomei, The Wrestler
Cinematography: The Dark Knight
Documentary: My Winnipeg
Foreign: Let the Right One In

San Diego

Picture: Slumdog Millionaire
Foreign Language: Let the Right One In
Documentary: Man on Wire
Animated: Wall-E
Director: Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire
Actress: Kate Winslet, The Reader
Actor: Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler
Supp Actress: Marisa Tomei, The Wrestler
Supp Actor: Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight
Original Screenplay: Tom McCarthy, The Visitor
Adapted Screenplay: Simon Beaufoy, Slumdog Millionaire
Cinematography: Slumdog Millionaire
Production Design: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Editing: Slumdog Millionaire
Score: Slumdog Millionaire
Ensemble: Frost/Nixon
Body of Work: Richard Jenkins

Sunday, December 14, 2008

New York Film Critics Online Gives Slumdog Mucho Love

Picture: Slumdog Millionaire
Director: Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire
Actor: Sean Penn, Milk
Actress: Sally Hawkins, Happy-Go-Lucky
Supporting Actor: Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight
Supporting Actress: Penelope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Cinematography: Slumdog Millionaire
Screenplay: Simon Beaufoy, Slumdog Millionaire
Documentary: Man on Wire
Foreign Language: 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days
Animated Feature: Wall-E
Score: Slumdog Millionaire
Breakout Performance: Sally Hawkins, Happy-Go-Lucky
Debut Director: Martin McDonagh, In Bruges
Ensemble: Milk

Top Films (alphabetical)
Che
A Christmas Tale
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Dark Knight
Happy-Go-Lucky
Milk
Rachel Getting Married
Slumdog Millionaire
Wall-E
The Wrestler

AFI Top Ten List

The American Film Institute's Top 10 List is one of the few lists each year really worth paying attention to.  In alphabetical order:

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Dark Knight
Frost/Nixon
Frozen River
Gran Torino
Iron Man
Milk
Wall-E
Wendy and Lucy
The Wrestler

Boston Film Critics Pick Wall-E, Slumdog

Picture: Wall-E and Slumdog Millionaire (tie)
Actor: (tie) Sean Penn, Milk and Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler
Actress: Sally Hawkins, Happy-Go-Lucky
Supporting Actor: Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight
Supporting Actress: Penelope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Director: Gus Van Sant, Milk and Paranoid Park
Screenplay: Dustin Lance Black, Milk
Cinematography: Christopher Doyle and Rain Kathy Li, Paranoid Park
Documentary: Man on Wire
Foreign Language Film: Let the Right One In
Animated Film: Wall-E
Film Editing: Chris Dickens, Slumdog Millionaire
New Filmmaker: Martin McDonagh, In Bruges
Ensemble Cast: Tropic Thunder



Saturday, December 13, 2008

Brief Review: "Transsiberian" (2008)

"Transsiberian" - * * *

Director/writer Brad Anderson ("The Machinist") stages his latest thriller on board the Transsiberian train where an American couple (Woody Harrelson and Emily Mortimer) become entangled in drugs, violence, and MORE when they cross paths with another traveling couple.

Anderson's stripped-down, handheld style gives the film a nice verite feel while still retaining some nice, subtle style.  Great nature shots contrast with the claustrophobia of the various train sequences.  The camera is able to capture moments very well, with capable editing support.

Screenplay is solid, building off many suspense standards into a pretty well-structured story.  At times, the plot moves a bit too predictably, and it may feel tired and unoriginal, but I see it as a film that tries to work more within its genre, knowing its restraints and its standards and using them to the advantage.

Best part of the film is Emily Mortimer, whose character degenerates into insanity and paranoia, a seemingly good girl whose missteps set up each turn of the plot in a way that would have made Hitch smile.  Anderson clearly knows what he's doing, and his genre film is clearly operating on multiple postmodern levels.  Strong production values help make it work, and the ensemble.

I know, I'm rambling a bit here and not in typical form.  Long week for me.  Just wanted to do a little write-up on this movie since I enjoyed it so much.  Very strong work I'm surprised did not get as much attention earlier in the year.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

And Now Things Get a Little Crazy: Golden Globe Nominations 2008


HFPA announces the nominees for this year's Golden Globe Awards in Film.  Nominees below, with category-by-category commentary:



Best Picture, Drama

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

Comments: I told you Frost/Nixon was going to play well with them.  And before the Internet collectively goes insane about "The Dark Knight" being on this Top 5 (which does seem a bit ironic considering how much the Globes love star-whoring) - Globes have not match 5/5 with Oscar for YEARS.  I don't think The Reader has the legwork to make it in this category, and it actually makes sense the Globes would go for it.  It's like when they nominated History of Violence and Eastern Promises - great picks, but it's just kind of that "moving outside the Academy" vote.  Button and Slumdog are LOCKS for Picture, with Frost/Nixon inching in (I still remain cynical about the whole movie).  Revolutionary Road gets the much-needed help I predicted it would.

Best Picture, Comedy/Musical

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

Comments: None of these really have a shot at the Oscar.  Mamma Mia will probably win, with a Happy-Go-Lucky upset a possibility.

Best Director

Danny Boyle for Slumdog Millionaire
Stephen Daldry for The Reader
David Fincher for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Ron Howard for Frost/Nixon
Sam Mendes for Revolutionary Road

Comments: Just re-read what I wrote for Best Picture, it's the same nominees.  Daldry will be the odd man out at Oscar, and this helps Mendes the most.

Best Actor in a Leading Role, Drama

Leonardo DiCaprio for Revolutionary Road
Frank Langella for Frost/Nixon
Sean Penn for Milk
Brad Pitt for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Mickey Rourke for The Wrestler

Comments: The Wrestler will become a performance movie and miss BP and BD.  I'm actually REALLY shocked Milk wasn't nominated for Best Picture or Best Director here, but the wealth of love from the critics (if the trend continues) should bolster it in Oscar's final five (especially if it gets Guild Support).  This GREATLY helps DiCaprio and Pitt.  Penn, Langella, and Rourke are now locks.

Best Actress in a Leading Role, Drama

Anne Hathaway for Rachel Getting Married
Angelina Jolie for Changeling
Meryl Streep for Doubt
Kristin Scott Thomas for I've Loved You So Long
Kate Winslet for Revolutionary Road

Comments: This is looking like the probably Oscar setup, although I think Jolie or Thomas might ultimately get dumped.  Winslet and Streep will duke this one out.  I bet on Streep.

Best Supporting Actor

Tom Cruise for Tropic Thunder
Robert Downey Jr. for Tropic Thunder
Ralph Fiennes for The Duchess
Philip Seymour Hoffman for Doubt
Heath Ledger for The Dark Knight

Comments: I'm not going to lie, I actually love the Globes Supp Actor category because it's always so bizarre and random.  Ledger should have no problem with a win here, and Hoffman and Downey help their Oscar chances.  I pray for an Oscar nod for Downey.

Best Supporting Actress

Amy Adams for Doubt
Penelope Cruz for Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Viola Davis for Doubt
Marisa Tomei for The Wrestler
Kate Winslet for The Reader

Comments: I think at least three of these women will get Oscar nods, but I won't say which.  Cruz is the early favorite to win, but don't underestimate Winslet.

Best Actor in a Leading Role, Comedy

Javier Bardem for Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Colin Farrel for In Bruges
James Franco for Pineapple Express
Brendan Gleason for In Bruges
Dustin Hoffman for Last Chance Harvey

Comments: The nomination for James Franco makes me almost like the HFPA again.  None of these guys have a shot at the Oscar, but how great that BOTH In Bruges actors AND Pineapple Express get on here

Best Actress in a Leading Role, Comedy

Rebecca Hall for Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Sally Hawkins for Happy-Go-Lucky
Frances McDormand for Burn After Reading
Meryl Streep for Mamma Mia
Emma Thompson for Last Chance Harvey

Comments: Hawkins will win and will stake her claim to be the Oscar crossover

Best Foreign Language Film

The Baader Meinhof Complex
Everlasting Moments
Gomorrah
I've Loved You So Long
Waltz With Bashir

Comments: The last three I think will get Oscar nods.  I have no idea who will win this (randomly picking...I've Loved You So Long)

Best Animated Feature

Bolt
Kung Fu Panda
Wall-E

Best Screenplay

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

Best Original Score

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Changeling
Defiance
Slumdog Millionaire
Frost/Nixon

Best Song

Down to Earth, Wall-E
Gran Torino, Gran Torino
I Thought I Lost You, Bolt
Once in a Lifetime, Cadillac Records
The Wrestler, The Wrestler

Noms were pretty well-spread.  Ben Button, Doubt, Frost/Nixon scored 5 each. Reader, Rev Road, Slumdog, and Vicky Cristina scored 4 each.

I may come back with a larger update and analysis later.  Despite the absence of TDK this is actually pretty much how I pictured the Globes going down.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

NYFCC Goes Crazy for "Milk", "Happy-Go-Lucky"

*NOTE: If you've been checking regularly, you'll note I haven't done any kind of write-up lately.  If you're not a USC reader, that's because I'm currently swallowed up in exam week.  I planned to do a Currently Watching for The Piano and The Hustler, but my week has been nonstop work.  These awards updates are about all I can muster.  I'll be done on Friday, and the blog should be much livelier for the next month.

On to the news though... New York Film Critics Circle breaks SHARPLY with LA (when this happens, it usually signals a pretty uncertain Oscar year).  Here are their winners:

Picture: Milk
Director: Mike Leigh, Happy-Go-Lucky
Actor: Sean Penn, Milk
Actress: Sally Hawkins, Happy-Go-Lucky
Supporting Actor: Josh Brolin, Milk
Supporting Actress: Penelope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Screenplay: Jenny Lumet, Rachel Getting Married
Cinematography: Anthony Dod Mantle, Slumdog Millionaire
Foreign Film: 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days
Animated Film: Wall-E
First Film: Frozen River
Documentary: Man on Wire

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

L.A. Film Critics Pick Wall-E

Picture: Wall-E
Director: Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire
Actor: Sean Penn, Milk
Actress: Sally Hawkins, Happy-Go-Lucky
Supporting Actor: Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight
Supporting Actress: Penelope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelone and Elegy
Screenplay: Mike Leigh, Happy-Go-Lucky
Foreign Language Film: Still Life
Documentary: Man on Wire
Animation: Waltz With Bashir
Cinematography: Still Life
Production Design: Synecdoche, New York
Music/score: Slumdog Millionaire
New Generation: Hunger

St. Louis Nominees

St. Louis Film Critics Association Nominees

Best Picture

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Dark Knight
Milk
Slumdog Millionaire
Frost/Nixon
Wall-E

Best Actor

Leonardo DiCaprio, Revolutionary Road
Richard Jenkins, The Visitor
Frank Langella, Frost/Nixon
Sean Penn, Milk
Mickey Rourke

Best Actress

Cate Blanchett, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married
Angelina Jolie, Changeling
Kate Winslet, The Reader
Kate Winslet, Revolutionary Road

Best Supporting Actor

Josh Brolin, Milk
Robert Downey, Jr., Tropic Thunder
Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight
John Malkovich, Burn After Reading
Michael Shannon, Revolutionary Road
Jeffrey Wright, Cadillac Records

Best Supporting Actress

Amy Adams, Doubt
Penelope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Viola Davis, Doubt
Taraji P. Henson, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Frances McDormand, Burn After Reading

Best Director

Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire
David Fincher, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Ron Howard, Frost/Nixon
Christopher Nolan, The Dark Knight
Gus Van Sant, Milk

Best Foreign Language Film

The Class
I've Loved You So Long
Let the Right One In
Slumdog Millionaire
Tell No One

Best Documentary

Body of War
Man on Wire
Pray the Devil Back to Hell
Shine a Light
Standard Operating Procedure

Best Comedy

Burn After Reading
Forgetting Sarah Marshall
Role Models
Tropic Thunder
Zack and Miri Make a Porno

Best Animated Film

Bolt
Chicago 10
Kung Fu Panda
Madagascar II
Wall-E
Waltz With Bashir

Most Original, Inventive, or Creative Film

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Slumdog Millionaire
Speed Racer
Synecdoche, New York
Wall-E
Waltz With Bashir

Best Cinematography

Revolutionary Road
Slumdog Millionaire
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Dark Knight
Milk
Australia

Best Screenplay

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

Best Music

Cadillac Records
The Dark Knight
Gran Torino
The Visitor
Wall-E

Best Special Effects

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Dark Knight
Iron Man
Speed Racer
Wall-E

Critics Choice Nominations - Milk and Benjamin Button Lead


The Broadcast Film Critics Association (or Critics Choice) announced their nominees this morning.



Best Picture

Changeling
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Dark Knight
Doubt
Frost/Nixon
Milk
The Reader
Slumdog Millionaire
Wall-E
The Wrestler

Best Actor

Clint Eastwood, Gran Torino
Richard Jenkins, The Visitor
Frank Langella, Frost/Nixon
Sean Penn, Milk
Brad Pitt, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler

Best Actress

Kate Beckinsale, Nothing But the Truth
Cate Blanchett, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married
Angelina Jolie, Changeling
Melissa Leo, Frozen River
Meryl Streep, Doubt

Best Supporting Actor

Josh Brolin, Milk
Robert Downey, Jr., Tropic Thunder
Philip Seymour Hoffman, Doubt
Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight
James Franco, Milk

Best Supporting Actress

Penelope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Viola Davis, Doubt
Vera Farmiga, Nothing But the Truth
Taraji P. Henson, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Marisa Tomei, The Wrestler
Kate Winslet, The Reader

Best Acting Ensemble

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Dark Knight
Doubt
Milk
Rachel Getting Married

Best Director

Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire
David Fincher, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Ron Howard, Frost/Nixon
Christopher Nolan, The Dark Knight
Gus Van Sant, Milk

Best Writer

Sim Beaufoy, Slumdog Millionaire
Dustin Lance Black, Milk
Peter Morgan, Frost/Nixon
Eric Roth, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
John Patrick Shanley, Doubt

Best Animated Feature

Bolt
Kung Fu Panda
Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa
Wall-E
Waltz With Bashir

Best Young Actor/Actress

Dakota Fanning, The Secret Life of Bees
David Kross, The Reader
Dev Patel, Slumdog Millionaire
Brandon Walters, Australia

Best Action Movie

The Dark Knight
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
Iron Man
Quantum of Solace
Wanted

Best Comedy Movie

Burn After Reading
Forgetting Sarah Marshall
Role Models
Tropic Thunder
Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Best Picture Made for Television

John Adams
Recount
Coco Chanel

Best Foreign Language Film

A Christmas Tale
Gomorrah
I've Loved You So Long
Let the Right One In
Mongol
Waltz With Bashir

Best Documentary Feature

I.O.U.S.A.
Man on Wire
Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired
Standard Operating Procedure
Young @ Heart

Best Song

Another Way to Die, Quantum of Solace
Down to Earth, Wall-E
I Thought I Lost You, Bolt
Jaiho, Slumdog Millionaire
The Wrestler, The Wrestler

Best Composer

Alexandre Desplat, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Clint Eastwood, Changeling
Danny Elfman, Milk
Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard, The Dark Knight
A.R. Rahman, Slumdog Millionaire


What This Means for YOUR Oscar Season!

- NO Revolutionary Road! COMPLETELY shut out!  I've been calling it a major bet for all the top categories since September.  Granted, BFCA can be weirder than the Globes, but they generally like to play it safe.  Rev Road NEEDS massive support from the Golden Globes to stay in the race.
- Milk is a lock in Picture, Director, Actor, and Screenplay noms.
- The Curious Case of Benjamin Button survives some internet rumors about it not playing well with critics.  The eight nominations here speak volumes and should carry over to a lot of Globes and Guild love, which = Oscars.
- The Dark Knight helps move into position as a big threat for nominations in the top categories.  Despite hard campaigning, it was debatable whether organizations would really go for it or not.  If this is any indication, it will be a big player.
- Slumdog Millionaire continues to move into the "critics' darling" position
- Frozen River will be an Actress/Screenplay competitor.
- I still say the jury's out on Frost/Nixon.  It will play VERY well to the Golden Globes, but I need to see it before I give an Oscar verdict.
- Robert Downey Jr actually stands a legitimate chance of being nominated for an Oscar.

I'm overall happy with these nominations.  The Revolutionary Road shafting is shocking.  When the Globes announce their noms on Thursday, we can couple them against these and get a pretty solid picture of where the race is headed.

Monday, December 8, 2008

TIME's Top 10

I promise I won't post EVERY top 10 list, just the ones from pretty respectable news sources so people can get a glimpse into what the critical consensus is becoming.  Here's Richard Corliss's:

1. Wall-E
2. Synecdoche, New York
3. My Winnipeg
4. 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days
5. Milk
6. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
7. Slumdog Millionaire
8. Iron Man
9. Speed Racer
10.Encounters at the End of the World

I think Corliss has lost it a little.  This is a weird list.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Washington, DC Film Critics Go "Slumdog"

Washington Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) helps move Slumdog into the "critics darling" position.

Film: Slumdog Millionaire
Director: Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire
Actor: Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler
Actress: Meryl Streep, Doubt
Ensemble: Doubt
Supporting Actor: Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight
Supporting Actress: Rosemarie DeWitt, Rachel Getting Married
Breakthrough Performance: Dev Patel, Slumdog Millionaire
Adapted Screenplay: Simon Beaufoy, Slumdog Millionaire
Original Screenplay: Jenny Lumet, Rachel Getting Married
Animated Feature: Wall-E
Foreign Language Film: Let the Right One In
Documentay: Man on Wire
Art Direction: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

New York Post's Top 10

Lou Lumenik (NY Post)'s Top 10 for 2008:

1. Slumdog Millionaire
2. Wall-E
3. Milk
4. A Christmas Tale
5. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
6. Iron Man
7. Revolutionary Road
8. The Visitor
9. Synecdoche, New York
10.Waltz With Bashir

Kyle Smith (other NY Post critic):

1. Slumdog Millionaire
2. Man on Wire
3. Seven Pounds
4. The Dark Knight
5. Four Months, Three Weeks, and Two Days
6. The Curious Case on Benjamin Button
7. Vicky Cristina Barcelona
8. Doubt
9. Rachel Getting Married
10.Funny Games

Saturday, December 6, 2008

IDA Awards

At the International Documentary Awards, "Man on Wire" and "Waltz With Bashir" tied for Best Doc Feature.  Both films use extensive recreations.

Roger Ebert's Top....20?

Oh, Ebert.  How I wish you would stop.  Really, I do.  As much as I respect him, there's little denying he's gotten a little weird since his surgery, throwing out 4-star reviews like mini Kit-Kats on Halloween.  This year, he CLAIMS there were soooo many good movies he refuses to do a Top 10 list.  So he just picks 20 movies he loves and refuses to rank them.  Maybe I just haven't seen the right movies this year, but what is he talking about?  His list is pretty stereotypical of what you would expect, and seems a bit bland and lacking balls.

Ballast
The Band's Visit
Che
Chop Shop
The Dark Knight
Doubt
The Fall
Frost/Nixon
Frozen River
Happy-Go-Lucky
Iron Man
Milk
Rachel Getting Married
The Reader
Revolutionary Road
Shotgun Stories
Slumdog Millionaire
Synecdoche, New York
W.
Wall-E

Friday, December 5, 2008

Currently Watching: "Inland Empire" (David Lynch; 2006)


As complex as David Lynch is, I've never been so frustrated by one of his films.

Inland Empire is shot on digital film.  It has barely any plot.  And it's three hours long.

Did I like it?  Of course I *liked* it.  David Lynch is one of the last great visual filmmakers.  Even with digital, the "bastard child of film," he still manages to be so sublime with his use of colors, motions, and compositions.  What I respond more in Empire is how TERRIFYING the thing is.  More than in ANY of his other films, this thing is boiling with dread.  The distorted close-ups, the random narrative, the PERFECT sound design that incorporates his surreal noises with harrowing music works and sustains the 3 hours.  I watched it in about 4 sittings, so I'm a little biased about the pacing, but it didn't seem to be very slow.

You could argue the film is about a negotiation between fantasy and reality, dreams, the distinction between the screen and our minds, a journey into our fears, a tale of redemption, a story about the loss of love, about mediated images, but you'd still come no closer to solving WHAT IT'S ABOUT.  Naturally, Lynch doesn't help.  But I don't think he needs to.

I could write endlessly about how damned frustrating this film is, but at the end it creates this odd feeling of catharsis; even if you don't know what it's about, that's almost okay.  Lynch is a painter, and with each edit, each stroke, he brings us a step further inside his vision.  No one will argue that Lynch is creative, that he's a visionary, but here he's doing unmistakably breathtaking things that defy the very logic of the cinema as a narrative medium.  I still see Lynch as a man who traces our experiences as humans back into our dreams, trying to work out psychologically what we experience and why.  "Inland Empire" scared me because I was afraid of what was going to happen, of where Lynch was going to take me, and what he was going to show me.  I *knew* I wouldn't understand it, and THAT'S precisely what makes it work.  Watching this film, if you let yourself be a part of it instead of writing it off as boring, makes you want to leave the room because of how ominous it is.

I congratulate him for that.  With a fearless, overwhelming Laura Dern really guiding the picture, Lynch has pushed the expectations for digital film, showing us what we can get out of films and how films can communicate our psyches and our fears.

Box office heats up over holiday season - The Mix

Box office heats up over holiday season - The Mix

Thursday, December 4, 2008

National Board of Review Picks "Slumdog"

Oh, the NBR.  They take so much pride in being THE FIRST critics organization to announce their best-of-the-year picks, and every year they instill so much hate across the internet because they always manage to somehow, somewhere be COMPLETELY random.  As far as critics go, they DO matter because they're first...they can help draw attention to a film that has little momentum, but in the end game they ultimately do very little to shape the overall picture.  With all that in mind...

NBR Awards 2008

Picture: Slumdog Millionaire
Director: David Fincher, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Actor: Clint Eastwood, Gran Torino (um, what?)
Actress: Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married
Supporting Actor: Josh Brolin, Milk (no Ledger? This is the big surprise...)
Supporting Actress: Penelope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Foreign Language: Mongol (seriously? I fail to get this movie apparently)
Documentary: Man on Wire (huzzah!)
Animated Feature: Wall-E
Ensembled Cast: Doubt
Breakthrough Actor: Dev Patel, Slumdog Millionaire
Breakthrough Actress: Viola Davis, Doubt
Directorial Debut: Courtney Hunt, Frozen River
Original Screenplay: Nick Schenk, Gran Torino (hm)
Adapted Screenplay: (tie) Simon Beaufoy, Slumdog Millionaire AND Eric Roth, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button 
Spotlight Award: Melissa Leo, Frozen River and Richard Jenkins, The Visitor

TOP TEN FILMS
(alphabetical order)
Burn After Reading
Changeling
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Dark Knight
Defiance
Frost/Nixon
Gran Torino
Milk
Wall-E
The Wrestler

Top Five Foreign Language
Edge of Heaven
Let the Right One In
Roman de Guerre
A Secret
Waltz With Bashir

Top Five Documentary
American Teen
The Betrayal
Dear Zachary
Encounters at the End of the World
Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired


Here's what I surmise: They love Clint wayyyyy too much.  But I'm actually thinking that Gran Torino may strike a deep, deep note with the Academy (at least with nominations).  As much as the conversation about it has been polarizing, it's interesting it gets this kind of recognition.

However, no Revolutionary Road or Doubt on their Top 10.  Interesting that they have both Clint's films and Defiance.  And I'm thrilled for seeing Burn After Reading here.

Interesting picks.


Jimmy's Trailer Park - The Mix

Jimmy's Trailer Park - The Mix

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Currently Watching: Faust (1926)

I've praised F.W. Murnau for years after seeing his "Nosferatu" and "Sunrise."  VERY few filmmakers from the 20s have impressed me aesthetically the way he has, and he has such a daring intimacy against his technological proficiency.

I finally watched Murnau's "Faust" for the first time after wanting to for years.  Even though I've been watching a lot of really intense classic movies from multiple countries and decades lately, this is one of the few that REALLY made me go "wow" and feel that adrenaline rush that comes only from seeing a great film.  I'm a bit biased, for Dr. Faustus is one of my favorite poems, and the adaptation didn't disappoint.  Murnau's film takes the poem's premise in a different direction, condensing while exploring the poem's themes and ultimately making for a bit more emotionally satisfying film as opposed to the ridiculously dark end of the poem.

From the first five minutes, Murnau's uses of exaggerated expressionism, superimpositions, multiple transitions and unexpected camera moves make this is a kind of gothic religious drama.  The images are the best thing about the film, as shot after shot overwhelms with a steady contrast between black and white elements, and using lots of distortions in location and face.  The first 30 minutes of the film are exhilarating to watch, with Murnau perfectly synthesizing his skills as visionary and storyteller.

I read some reviews online following my viewing where people said the middle was too long, lacking the intensity of the opening and closing acts.  I'll agree with that, but only because the beginning and end are SO good that anything in between would almost have to pale in comparison.  The story moves with deft pacing, alternately terrifying and comical, but always sneaking in unexpected imagery to help reinforce its themes.

The entire frame is taken advantage of here, and Murnau does terrific editing work to help keep his larger than life ideas from taking off.  This is a controlled project to rival Eisenstein in some sequences, but the middle feels a lot more freeform, expressing the protagonist's freedom with his power.  Camera moves are light and edits are sparse, letting the film more stage-like in its romantic interludes.

Excellent silent film from one of Germany's GREATEST directors ever.  Wish I could write more, but I'm far too burned out from school.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Independent Spirit Award Nominees

The Spirit Awards love standing well outside Oscar, honoring films that rarely get a chance to cross over to the big show. Many of their nominations are often very confounding given the breadth of indy work in any given year. Usually they don't effect the Oscars very much, but they can help an indy film get more notice and thus help an individual film's odds at nomination.

Frozen River leads with 6; Rachel Getting Married follows with 5.

Film

Ballast
Frozen River
Rachel Getting Married
Wendy and Lucy
The Wrestler

Director

Ramin Bahrani, Chop Shop
Jonathan Demme, Rachel Getting Married
Lance Hammer, Ballast
Courtney Hunt, Frozen River
Thomas McCarthy, The Visitor

First Feature

Afterschool, Antonio Campos
Medicine for Melancholy, Barry Jenkins
Sangre de Mi Sangre, Christopher Zalla
Sleep Dealer, Alex Rivera
Synecdoche, New York, Charlie Kaufman

Best First Screenplay

Dustin Lance Black, Milk
Lance Hammer, Ballast
Courtney Hunt, Frozen River
Johnathan Levine, The Wackness
Jenny Lumet, Rachel Getting Married

Screenplay

Woody Allen, Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Anna Fleck and Ryan Boden, Sugar
Charlie Kaufman, Synecdoche, New York
Howard A. Rodman, Savage Grace
Christopher Zalla, Sangre de Mi Sangre

Female Lead

Summer Bishii, Towelhead
Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married
Melissa Leo, Frozen River
Tara Riggs, Ballast
Michelle Williams, Wendy and Lucy

Male Lead

Javier Bardem, Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Richard Jenkins, The Visitor
Sean Penn, Milk
Jeremy Renner, The Hurt Locker
Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler

Supporting Female

Penelope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Rosemarie DeWitt, Rachel Getting Married
Rosie Perex, The Take
Misty Upham, Frozen River
Debra Winger, Rachel Getting Married

Supporting Male

James Franco, Milk
Anthony Mackie, The Hurt Locker
Charlie McDermott, Frozen River
Jim Myron Ross, Ballast
Haaz Sleiman, The Visitor

Cinematography

Maryse Alberti, The Wrestler
Lol Crowley, Ballast
James Laxton, Medicine for Melancholy
Harris Savides, Milk
Michael Simmonds, Chop Shop

Documentary

The Betrayal, Ellen Kuras and Thavisouk Phrasavath
Encounters at the End of the World, Werner Herzog
Man on Wire, James Marsh
The Order of Myths, Margaret Brown
Up the Yangtze, Yang Chung

Foreign Film

The Class (France)
Gomorrah (Italy)
Hunger (Ireland)
Secret of the Grain (France)
Silent Light (Mexico)

Robert Altman Award

Synecdoche, New York

David Lynch releases extensive box set - The Mix

David Lynch releases extensive box set - The Mix

Brief article I wrote on the new David Lynch: The Lime Green Box Set DVD

David Lynch releases extensive box set - The Mix

David Lynch releases extensive box set - The Mix

Brief article I wrote about the new David Lynch: Lime Green Box Set

Monday, December 1, 2008

Review: "Changeling" (2008)



















"Changeling"

* * *

D: Clint Eastwood
W: J. Michael Straczynski
S: Angelina Jolie; John Malkovich

Critics seemed decidedly split on Eastwood's latest.  Too bad I'm split with them.  At 141 minutes, you would think "Changeling" would have the ability to deftly develop its vast plotting, but the screenplay feels structurally weak.  I wouldn't mind it so much (see also my Australia review) if the film didn't pound so often for so much emotion.

I'll revise my opening statement: "Changeling" didn't hit me the way I wanted it to emotionally, as I think its gut shots feel too contrived.  The writer, even though he works off a true story (the film even avoids "based on..."), has problems switching acts without weird standstills.  That's okay, because Eastwood's style is as slick and nonexistent as his best recent work.  The editing is sublime and recalls a lot of the styles he employed in "Mystic River" to link mental conditions and interpersonal conflicts in the same sequence.  The cinematography, with its long shadows, gold and blue tints, is so evocative of neo-noir and utterly sublime.  I'll throw in another Australia reference here because it's the last movie I saw besides this: where Australia is primarily concerned with the fabrication and surface of the image, polishing it past the point of saturation, Changeling goes back in the opposite direction and lets the images speak for the tragedy underlying it.

In terms of filmmaking economy, Eastwood still stuns.  He continues to make his case as one of the last great narrative filmmakers.  I credit a lot of this to Angelina Jolie, whose grief spreads like wildfire.  She keeps Christine Collins a closeted, shy, devastated mother for most of the film, but there are a few key sequences where this quiet assuredness builds into a tempest.

I was actually surprised at how terribly sad this film became.  The trailer (as so many have been this year) was completely misleading, as the missing child stuff becomes more of a MacGuffin for the film's main exploration of a corrupt LA power infrastructure.  Naturally, the kid conflict provides the film its most emotional resonance, but the directions it goes are almost unfathomable and stomach-churning.  Only in the mental asylum scenes did I feel like the script and Eastwood were reaching, doing their best to try and shove emotion down our throat, for the rest of the film is pretty reserved.  Eastwood scores the film again, and comes up with a very pretty piano composition.

Stylistically more than substantively, "Changeling" is a triumph.  That it feels like it WANTS to be the other way is the only reason I'm a bit reserved in my praise.  And yet, watching it, I've come to a pretty awestriking conclusion: we keep praising Eastwood and congratulating him every time he turns out another capably made film, but do we REALIZE how dark these films are?  Look at how hopeless Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, Flags of Our Fathers, Letters from Iwo Jima, and Changeling end up.  Sure, they may be tearjerkers, but Eastwood is dealing with GRIEF and DEATH and the loss of everything GOOD and WHOLESOME.  His construction of 1930s LA is terrifying, like a jungle of predators gone mad with power.  This may be the first time in several films he seems concerned with what women think and feel.  Jolie, who has been so vocal about her feelings as a parent, seems perfect for this role, and her recent motherhood gives her an occasionally sublime edge for this part that would be sheepish or too overdrawn from many others.

I have to applaud Clint for this one, even though part of me still thinks it contrived and over the top in parts.  It doesn't meet his bar, but you would be hard-pressed to find a filmmaker so willing to delve so deep into our emotional condition and then protract it back into a societal commentary.

Annie Award Nominees - Kung Fu Panda Leads

The Animated Film Awards are usually pretty good indicators of how Oscar will eventually go (aside from 2006; Happy Feet ultimately beat Cars). What genuinely surprises me here is that Kung Fu Panda has 17 nods compared to Wall-E's 8. Really? Oh well.

Best Animated Feature

Bolt
Kung Fu Panda
$9.99
Wall-E
Waltz With Bashir

Animated Effects

Dr. Seuss' Horton Hears a Who!
Kung Fu Panda
Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa
Bolt
Wall-E

Character Animation

James Baxter, Kung Fu Panda
Philippe Le Brun, Kung Fu Panda
Dan Wagner, Kung Fu Panda
Jeff Gabor, Horton Hears a Who
Victor Navone, Wall-E

Character Design

Valerie Hadida, Igor
Sang Jun Lee, Horton Hears a Who
Nico Mariet, Kung Fu Panda

Directing

Sam Fell, Rob Stevenhagen, The Tale of Despereaux
Ari Folman, Waltz With Bashir
Tatia Rosenthal, $9.99
John Stevenson and Mark Osborne, Kung Fu Panda
Andrew Stanton, Wall-E

Music

Kevin Manthei, Batman: Gotham Knight
John Powell, Horton Hears a Who
Max Ritcher, Waltz With Bashir
William Ross, The Tale of Despereaux
Hans Zimmer and John Powell, Kung Fu Panda

(No Wall-E = CRIME)

Production Design

Ralph Eggleston, Wall-E
Paul Felix, Bolt
Tang Heng, Kung Fu Panda
Evgeni Tomov, The Tale of Desperaux
Raymond Zibach, Kung Fu Panda

Storyboarding

Alessandro Carloni, Kung Fu Panda
Ronnie Del Carmen, Wall-E
Joe Mateo, Bolt
Jen Yuh Nelson, Kung Fu Panda
Rob Stevenhagen, The Tale of Despereaux

Voice Acting

Ben Burtt, Wall-E
Dustin Hoffman, Kung Fu Panda
James Hong, Kung Fu Panda
Ian McShane, Kung Fu Panda
Mark Walton, Bolt

Writing

Jon Aibel and Glenn Berg, Kung Fu Panda
Etan Cohen, Eric Darnell, Tom McGrath, Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa
Ari Folman, Waltz With Bashir
Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio, Horton Hears a Who

(Not Wall-E? WTF?!)



I will say this much: The only time a Pixar movie LOST the Oscar for Best Animated Feature was Cars' loss to Happy Feet in 06.  Keep in mind, Cars is generally regarded as Pixar's weakest film.  Wall-E is, if I'm not mistaken, currently the best reviewed film of the year (yes, more than Dark Knight, Man on Wire, Slumdog Millionaire, and Milk).  Kung Fu Panda still made great box office and the critics mostly liked it (some frickin loved it).  Maybe for the second time we'll actually have a race in Best Animated Feature