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Pre-AA Rambling Thoughts

Saturday February 21, 2009

2008, to me, was just an OK year for films. The best ones I saw were documentaries, giving several 4 stars. (That's one of the reasons my highest anticipated event of the year is the 8 day AFI Silverdocs Documentary Film Festival held in mid-June in Silver Spring Maryland.) Looking back over my reviews of the past year, I only gave 2 narrative films 4 stars: "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" (CCBB) and the brilliant Swedish vampire film "Let The Right One In", which isn't even included in the nominee list! There were some standout performances, of course, but, overall, I wasn't bowled over by the overall crop of films I screened for 2008. That being said, here we are on the doorstep of this year's Hollywood extravaganza and, looking over the nominees, they generally got it right. Everyone and their mother are on record with their predictions, so here are my thoughts on who will win, who should win, who shouldn't have been nominated, and, in some cases, who was, unconscionably, left out in the cold:

BEST PICTURE
Who will win: "Slumdog Millionaire"
Who should win: "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
"Biggest surprise nomination: "The Reader" or "Frost/Nixon"
Biggest snub: "The Dark Knight"
"Slumdog Millionaire" is racking in the awards big time. It is certainly a rousing crowd favorite and, despite being an independent film made in India with a predominantly Indian cast, this one is a virtual lock for the top award. However, as I stated above, the only film of the 5 that got my top rating last year is Benjamin Button. Don't get me wrong. I wouldn't be disappoint if SM wins. It is a wonderful film that has it all: action, romance, and a great message at heart. However, the most satisfying time I had in a darken theater last year was witnessing the amazing journey of BB. A verrry close second is Chris Nolan's take on the Batman legend. However, Hollywood, for whatever reason, refused to recognize the comic book film despite it being one of the most brilliant film of its genre. It also had it all: wonderful story, tremendous action sequences, unforgettable performance (see Best Supporting Actor below), and fabulous production values. How it did not get a BP nod over at least 2 of the aforementioned nominees is beyond me. Most pundits will say its release timing (May) or its genre contributed to its snub. I say hogwash. It was a brilliant piece of film making that deserved to be recognized in the top category!

BEST DIRECTOR
Who will win: Danny Boyle
Who should win: David Fincher
Biggest surprise nomination: Ron Howard
Biggest snub: Christopher Nolan
It always amuses me when the Academy gives the BD prize to the person who didn't direct the BP winner. One is not separate from the other. This year, at least, the 5 nominees are directors of each of the 5 BP noms. Now, will they choose 2 different winners? Not this year. Danny Boyle is one of the best directors around and it will be no surprise, or disappointment, when he wins for Slumdog. However, keeping in line with my previous selection, if it was up to me, I'd have to give it to David Fincher for CCBB. And, snubbing Chris Nolan is a total joke (see above). Nominating Ron Howard?? Although a credible job, there was nothing extraordinary in the direction of "Frost/Nixon". However, at least they are consistent with the BP nom it received.

BEST ACTOR
Who will win: Mickey Rourke
Who should win: Sean Penn
Biggest surprise nomination: Frank Langella
Biggest snub: Michael Sheen
One of the toughest categories to pick. Overall, Sean Penn totally embodies the late San Francisco City Supervisor, Harvey Milk-to such a degree that, after a while you forget that you are watching one of the greatest actors of his generation. The subtlety and nuance that he brings to the first openly gay politician to be assassinated in office is mesmerizing and complete. Mickey Rourke? Well, although his acting is superb and he is totally convincingly in how he conveys this tortured soul, to me, he was Mickey being Mickey. The more complete performance is delivered by Penn. However, Hollywood LOVES a comeback story. And what better story is there than the down and out Rourke resurrecting a lost promising career with a performance where he truly leaves it all on the screen. Another factor to be considered is that Penn has a BA award for 2003's "Mystic River" (although this year's performance blows that one away). Also, liberal Hollywood tends to shy away from the controversial religious Right (note their overall snub of 2005's "Brokeback Mountain" in the major awards), despite what many are saying that they would like to bring attention to the recent California's Proposition 8 fight by selecting Penn's performance. I would have nominated Michael Sheen over Frank Langella as, I pointed out in my review, his was the more complicated and layered of the two. And kudos to The Academy for at least recognizing Richard Jenkin's remarkable performance in "The Visitor".

BEST ACTRESS
Who Will Win: Kate Winslet
Who Should Win: Kate Winslet
Biggest Surprise Nomination: Angelina Jolie
Biggest Snub: Sally Hawkins
Is this finally Kate's year? An emphatic "yes"! Although, I was initially torn between her and Meryl, I am resigned to the fact that, after 5 tries, the talented Ms. Winslet will accept and, judging from her extremely emotional Golden Globe acceptance speech, I can't wait until she does! Meryl gives one helluva memorable performance as the head nun trying to bring Phillip Seymour Hoffman down from the pulpit. It is one scary acting job that is at the core of "Doubt", however, give Kate her due and her first Oscar, while you're at it. Meryl's multiple winnings won't help her as the Academy members will surely keep in mind Kate's 2 standout performances ("Revolutionary Road" is the other) released back to back in December. And Sally Hawkins snub in "Happy Go Lucky" is totally disappointing. Her characterization of someone who looks at life's trials and tribulations with nothing but optimism was a treat to behold and should have been duly recognized. Finally, nice to see Melissa Leo nominated for her work in this year's Sundance Grand Jury prize winner, "Frozen River". Her resume since "Homicide" has been nothing but steady and sure. She may have had a better chance if the movie had stayed in theaters long enough for anyone to notice.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Who Will Win: Heath Ledger
Who Should Win: Heath Ledger
Biggest Surprise Nomination: Josh Brolin
Biggest Snub: Eddie Marsan
As I inferred back in May, they might as well "gently place" the Oscar in his casket. The biggest slam dunk of the year is also one of the most unforgettable performances of all time! And I cringe when I hear that the only reason Ledger will be honored is because he is no longer with us. Bull dung! He'd get it hands down whether he was able to accept it or not. That being said, I have no clue as to why Brolin (in "Milk") was nominated. His acting is capable but pedestrian. However, Eddie Marsan's acting as the hyperactive, edgy driving instructor in "Happy Go Lucky" was far more memorable and deserving.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Who Will Win: Amy Adams
Who Should Win: Viola Davis
Biggest Surprise Nomination: Amy Adams
Biggest Snub: Kate Winslet
Well, I flipped a coin and it came up Amy Adams. It wouldn't surprise me if any of the 5 actresses are declared the winner as this category is, by far, the toughest to handicap. So, I'm saying Amy Adams since "Doubt" will be shut out of the top awards despite receiving 4 acting nominations. However, although I admire Ms. Adams in all of her films thus far, I didn't think her performance warranted this award. Instead I'd have to say Viola Davis' 10 minutes on screen were the most powerful moments in the drama. And, brevity means nothing to the voters (remember 1998 when Judi Dench won for "Shakespeare In Love" with only 8 minutes of screen time?). However, it was curious that Kate wasn't nominated for "Revolutionary Road" since this is the category that would have fit perfectly for her.

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE FILM
Who Will Win: "WALL-E"
Who Should Win: "WALLE-E"
Almost as certain as Heath Ledger. Many are saying it actually should have been nominated for Best Picture.

BEST FOREIGN FILM
Who Will Win: "Waltz With Bashir"
Who Should Win: "Waltz With Bashir"
Biggest Snub: "Let The Right One In"
From what I've been reading it's between this and France's entry, "The Class". Having not seen any of the nominees, I'll say the animated feature film from Israel. The script is supposed to be amazing and given the liberal leanings of Hollywood, it seems like almost a natural. Now, as for the film I was most disappointed in not making the list, the wonderful coming-of-age vampire film from Sweden. I understand that it wasn't nominated by its country. I'm have no idea why but this film should have made the Best Picture list if it was up to me. Sad.

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
Who Will Win: "Milk"
Who Should Win: "Milk"
Biggest Surprise Nomination: "WALL-E"
The Academy has to award something to this wonderful film (assuming Penn doesn't win Best Actor). So here is the logical choice. The surprise is a script for the animation masterpiece that has virtually no dialogue. Not that it didn't deserve its nomination. An animation film that is truly unique and stands on its own.

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
Who Will Win: "Slumdog Millionaire"
Who Should Win: "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"
Biggest Surprise Nomination: "Doubt"
Chalk up another win for SM. However, I'd like to see CCBB win despite the backlash that it is a rehashing of "Forest Gimp". The script, to me, was flawless and beautifully matched the images on the screen. "Doubt" was adapted by John Patrick Shanley from his stage play. And, indeed, the film seemed more like a stage play than a movie.

BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE
Who Will Win: "Man On Wire"
Who Should Win: "Man On Wire"
Biggest Surprise Nomination: "Encounters At The End Of The World"
Biggest Snub: "Pray The Devil Back To Hell"/"Roman Polanski: Wanted & Desired"
This is another sure pick. The amazing documentary about Philippe Petit's daring 1974 high wire walk between the twin towers of the World Trade Center is one of the best films of the year-not just the best documentary. A close second would be the wonderful Katrina disaster doc "Trouble The Water". However, MOW is perfect in every way. It exactly captures an event in our past that will forever be etched in the brains of everyone who remembers it. And, it lovingly describes the incredible feat in a way that is as suspenseful as any fictional narrative film. Werner Herzog's documentary is somewhat of a surprise considering they snubbed the veteran's riveting documentary "Grizzly Man" back in 2005. Maybe that's the reason to nominate him this time around. It used to be that the Academy shied away from professional filmmakers in this category. It's nice that practice has changed, yet I would have rather seen these documentaries nominated in its stead: It's curious that Hollywood wouldn't at least recognize the Polanski doc-if only to bring attention to the injustice served upon the master filmmaker. Also snubbed is the great "Pray The Devil Back To Hell" about the Liberian Civil War and the Liberian women who fought to bring peace to their country.

Well, there you have it. I usually come in about 80% accurate on my overall picks covering the 24 nominations. Feel free to share you comments and let me know how you did. Now-ON WITH THE SHOW!

"Frost/Nixon" *** (122 minutes)

Sunday February 8, 2009

With exactly a week left until the AA's, I took in the last of the Best Picture nominees: director Ron Howard's homage to the confrontation between an Australian TV personality trying to make a serious name for himself, and a disgraced President. The famous series of 4 interviews held in 1977 is noteworthy for the fact that Frost got the stonewalling ex-president to stop stonewalling and admitting for the first time publicly that he committed criminal acts while in Oval Office.

What is really interesting is the behind the scenes maneuverings that led up to the dramatic moment. We witness first hand the inner workings of the TV industry and the fascinating confrontations that were taking place in both camps as each tried to get the upper hand.

Howard has gathered a terrific cast and the performances to match. Michael Sheen (so wonderful as Tony Blair in 2006's "The Queen") and longtime vet Frank Langella masterfully recreate their Broadway roles, with Frank garnishing the AA nod as Best Actor. However, I feel Michael got slighted as his Frost is the more compelling and textured. You first meet him as a sort of has-been exiled to Australia after a flubbed TV career in Britain and in The States. In order to resurrect his career, he goes extremely out on the limb and tries to land his prize fish by, ultimately, putting up his own cash to do it. Lacking credibility in the industry, he is turned down one by one by all the major networks with advertisers unwilling to back him.

It is at this point that he becomes desperate and the story turns somewhat into a thriller (backed admirably in this regard by composer Hans Zimmer's dramatic score). How this TV lightweight gets the results he needs is what propels the story in the 2nd act.

Various known personalities dot the film from Hollywood agent Swifty Lazar (Toby Jones) to TV newsman Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt) to columnist James Reston Jr. (Sam Rockwell). Even Diane Sawyer (played by Kate Jennings Grant) is present as someone who worked for Nixon at the time of the interviews. It was also interesting to see long ago child actor Patty McCormack (first seen in 1956's "The Bad Seed") as Pat Nixon.

The problem for me was trying to determine what was real and what wasn't. The crucial late night phone conversation between Nixon and Frost just before the final interview was undoubtedly fictionalized as were several of the side stories. However, screenwriter Peter Morgan (who also wrote the play) has infused enough real life drama into the script to keep you interested-even though you know how it will all turn out.

"Under The Sea 3D" ***1/2 (35 minutes)

Monday February 9, 2009

Temporarily off of the Academy Award trail to take in the 3rd in this underwater IMAX nature series. I didn't see the first two, "Deep Sea 3D" (made in 2006 and is the second highest grossing IMAX 3D film) or "Into The Deep 3D", so I don't have them to compare. However, on its own, this particular dip into the ocean is spectacular-especially in the 3D format.

In the confident hands of veteran underwater documentary director, Howard Hall, the locales he visits are concentrated in the Coral Reef Triangle (East Timor, Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, Philippines and Solomon Islands) and The Great Barrier Reef ( off the coast of Queensland in northeast Australia). There you are introduced to a myriad of unusual South Pacific marine life-and extremely up close and personal.

I was never particularly enthralled by the visuals of 2D underwater photography. However, in 3D, the effect is startling and immediate. You might actually jump out of your seat at the approaching school of sea snakes as they appear to head out of the screen into your face. Or marvel at the shots of sea turtles munching on a magnificent jellyfish. A number of segments are devoted to cuttlefish which have amazing camouflage capabilities and mating rituals. These are just a few of the exotic creatures and beautiful coral reef images that you will experience over the 35 quick minutes. You will actual crave for more.

The capable minimal, yet appealing, narration by Jim Carrey is handled with aplomb and should be understood by even the youngest audience members. And the soundtrack often changes to match the visuals-such as the graceful meanderings of a colony of sea eels as they anchor themselves in the sand and seem to be swaying to the music. And what would be more appropriate then a version of The Beatles' "Octopus's Garden" playing over the closing credits featuring a lovable swarm of sea lions?

Of course, there is the requisite reference or two to the negative ecological impact that the environment is having on the coral reefs and the delicate balance that may be impacted. But the points are made without the preaching and extensive gloom & doom dialogue of other more recent, similar docs.

The film will be appearing in select IMAX theaters over the coming months. This is the closest you'll ever get to these creatures without getting wet or decompressed!

"The Reader" *** (123 minutes)

Thursday February 5, 2009

On the Oscar trail again and next up is the thought provoking film written by David Hare, based on Bernhard Schlink's 1995 best seller (the first German best seller to make the N.Y. Times' Best Seller list). Director Stephen Daldry's third film follows his two previous impressive efforts, 2000's "Billy Elliot" & 2004's multi-Oscar nominated and winner "The Hours", and deals with two seemingly unrelated topics: coming-of-age and The Holocaust.

The non-linear tale opens in 1995 with middle age Michael Berg (Ralph Fiennes) looking and acting forlorn-especially to the lady he has just slept with and who is about to leave his apartment. It will take the film nearly two hours to explain his demeanor. He tells her he is about to meet his daughter whom he hasn't seen in some time.

A passing train catches his eye and the story flashes back to 1958 when Michael is 15 years old (ably played by newcomer David Kross). We see young Michael on a train and then on the street where he is stricken by scarlet fever. Happening upon him is 38 year old Hannah Schmitz (Kate Winslet) who befriends him. After he recovers, he returns to her apartment to thank her. Constantly referring to him as "kid", Hanna seduces the virgin and they begin having a summer affair. However, it ends abruptly when one day he finds her gone.

We learn the first of her two secrets during the weaker 2nd hour, when, eight years later, as a law student, he attends a trial of a group of women accused of allowing 300 Jews to perish in a church fire. Hannah is one of the defendants. However, her other secret may possible save her from extended jail time. He realizes this while watching the proceedings in the gallery-but will he intervene to help her?

On the surface, this is a morality tale we've seen over and over again in the cinema. However, there is much more going on here. Moral questions abound dealing with guilt and responsibility on both personal and collective levels. The decisions made by the principals are woven into the structure of the story-but the meaning and focus as to why these decisions may have been made are at the core of the script. There is way more here than a Nazi perpetrator getting her just reward. It's more about why people "go along" and take no action when the situation screams otherwise. As Hanna says during her trial, "What would YOU have done?" The answer is not as straight forward as you might think.

The first "coming of age" hour is the better half of the film and you will clearly understand why Ms. Winslet received her nomination for Best Actress. The depth and emotions she conveys to Hannah are subtle and profound.

Some have compared the film to last year's great "Atonement". Although not nearly as good as that one, its structure reminded me more of the outstanding "The English Patient". It is not surprising that the late Anthony Minghella (who won the Best Director award for it in 1996) was touted initially as the director. He is listed, along with the late Sydney Pollack, as two of the four producers-who both died during production. The film is understandably dedicated to both of these cinema icons. In fact, The Academy has relaxed its rules this year (the first time in nearly a decade) to allow more than three producers being credited for a Best Picture nominee.

"Milk" ***1/2 (127 minutes)

February 3, 2009

In 1984, Rob Epstein's documentary "The Times of Harvey Milk" received and richly deserved the Academy Award. Covering the assassination of this country's first openly gay politician, Harvey Milk in 1978, and the subsequent "Twinkie Defense" by assassin and fellow San Francisco City Supervisor, Dan White, the story has laid dormant for 25 years. Now, openly gay talented Director Gus Van Zant ("Drugstore Cowboy", "Good Will Hunting", "Elephant") revisits the scene of the crime with a beautifully rendered drama replete with some of the best acting talent around.

Let's start at the top with, arguably, one of the greatest actors on the planet, Sean Penn. Already an accomplished writer/director/producer, his performance as Harvey Milk is hands-down the most riveting and believable performance this year by an actor in a lead role. Will he win the Oscar for a second time (the first for "Mystic River" in 2004)? I'll present my Oscar thoughts on that in a couple of weeks.

Gus begins the docudrama showing Harvey putting his thoughts into a tape recorder in the event he is assassinated. The story shifts to 1972 when he was a researcher at Bache & Co. in New York and when he's about to turn 40. Admitting to a new lover that he hasn't done anything significant in his life, the tale follows a linear course as it chronicles his rise as a San Francisco's Castro Street camera shop owner (along with his partner Scott, wonderfully played by James Franco) to his election in 1977.

The film effectively relates the climate of the times by inserting actual news footage along with the staged set pieces to show how the Gay Rights Movement was continually being thwarted by the likes of Anita Bryant in Florida and the legislatures of many states who wanted to rid society of anyone who was gay. Reminiscent of Hitler's Germany, the discrimination this minority faced was unconscionable; and hard to believe that 30 years after Harvey was killed gay rights still have not been fully realized.

The director has infused the story, wonderfully written by first time screen writer Dustin Lance Black, with the actual characters that surrounded Harvey in real life. Along with Franco are wonderful turns by Emile Hirsch ("Into The Wild") who plays Cleve Jones, an unlikely recruit in Harvey's campaign circle, the always reliable Josh Brolin, who captures Dan White's paranoia precisely, and Mexican actor Diego Luna ("Y Tu Mama Tambien") who plays Harvey's lover after Scott leaves him.

Add a wonderful subdued soundtrack by oft AA nominated composer, Danny Elfman and the total is an amazing film documenting the murder that might have been the catalyst, as Harvey predicted, that brought a movement together.

"The Wrestler" ***1/2 (105 minutes)

Thursday January 29, 2009

Time to check out the myriad of Oscar nominated films that most seem to have come out within the past month (as usual). First off is the stunning new film by Darren Aronofsky-who was seen on the Golden Globe telecast lovingly flipping Mickey Rourke the bird during his well deserved Best Actor award speech. The director (who first made a splash in 1998 with the independent "Pi", winning the Sundance Directing Award), according to Mickey, is one tough director to work for-and didn't mind telling him that during the speech. But, in the end, Mickey, in my opinion has an excellent shot at coveting the AA in 3 weeks. His portrayal of down and out former wrestling star Rodney "The Ram" Robinson is one for the ages.

Most everyone knows the trials and tribulations bad boy Rourke has undertaken through the years. However, Aronofsky's faith in his ability convinced the talented, but troubled, star to put it all out on the screen. The result might just land the actor the top Hollywood award on his first try.

We first meet the 50ish wrestler plying his trade in a smokey minor league arena trying to make a buck. The wrestling scenes are among the hardest to watch in any film that I've ever seen (several people I was with were hiding their eyes during the proceedings). Our knowledge is that the performance is entirely scripted. Yes, the outcome is pre-determined. But what isn't is the brutal staging of the matches-complete with participants hiding a razor blade in their arm tapes to use on their own forehead to facilitate the bleeding.

Yes, blood is constantly spilled which will lead us to initially question why we plucked down our hard earned cash to take it all in. By the end, though, we have our answer. Rourke's character is as charismatic as any I've seen on the silver screen in many a moon. He's a loser who doesn't know anything in life but to ply his trade in the ring. He has pretty much screwed up everything else in his life outside of it. There is his daughter (played with the appropriate bitterness by Evan Rachel Wood) who wants nothing to do with him. There is the kindly stripper (played by Marisa Tomei, also AA nominated, who once again, as she did in "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead", displays her well toned 44 year old body sans clothes nearly throughout) who treats The Ram as more than a customer-but at arm's length. And, when he can't make ends meet in the ring because of an unexpected heart attack, he fails at mundane jobs because, after all, life isn't scripted. Oh, he tries to right the wrong with his daughter and, just when you think he's succeeded-he finds a way to screw that up as well.

All throughout you sympathize with this lovable loser-wishing and hoping that somehow, someway he can put it all together. Does he do it? No spoiler here. Just pluck down your cash to see an acting tour-de-force by an actor who just might be playing himself in the long run.