Wednesday, February 27, 2008

BE KIND, REWIND


A review of Michel Gondry's latest, posted below and here. It's kind of a blast. (The movie, not the review. Though I hope the review is fun, too.) Enjoy!

BE KIND, REWIND

Great films often speak great truths, but they can also whisper beautiful lies. According to Michel Gondry, the beating-heart visionary behind Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Science of Sleep, those lies can be valuable, too. The heroes of Gondry's brain-teasing fantasias are dreamers and poets of the unreal: in Sunshine, Joel reshapes history through his backwards-spinning, selective memory, and in Science, Stefan lets his epic reveries invade and transform his waking life. Now, in Be Kind, Rewind, the writer-director's unabashedly goofy and spirited love letter to the cinema, a couple of working-class stiffs start churning out low-rent versions of beloved blockbusters, and end up igniting the artistic passion of their entire community. It's a fairytale of a fable—by remaking Hollywood, the amateurs remake their lives—but one that speaks to the importance of shared cultural experience, guerilla artistry, and the transformative power of the human imagination. "We dream, therefore we are," Gondry asserts, but to whom does the so-called Dream Factory really belong: the Suits or the teeming masses they feed?

Given his preference for in-camera effects and papier-mâché marvels over CGI wizardry, Gondry's an analog player in a digital world. Grooving on nostalgic affection for a half-imagined past, Be Kind, Rewind views our collective, movie-addicted present through the artist's own whimsical, Rose-tinted shades. In some anachronistic, alternate-universe version of Passaic, New Jersey – an urban small town where everyone knows everyone and the hoodlums just talk tough—Mr. Fletcher (Danny Glover) runs a VHS-only rental shop that, like most of the buildings on the block, hasn't seen much change in a solid decade. (Rush Hour 2 appears to be the most recent addition to the store's library.) Facing serious competition from the DVD-touting chains, Mr. Fletcher scurries off to rethink his business plan, putting in charge his employee and surrogate son, Mike (Mos Def). Things go well for about a day, until the bumbling Jerry (Jack Black) enters the picture. Having been zapped by electricity in a freak accident—the film’s bizarre, slapstick nadir—he becomes a walking magnet and subsequently wipes clean every tape in the store. Facing a small but very loyal and very impatient clientele, Mike concocts a novel (if hair-brained) fixer: he and Jerry will re-shoot the movies on video, playing all the parts themselves and crafting make-shift props out of cardboard, aluminum foil, and whatever the hell else they find lying around. First on the production schedule: a short but hilariously faithful take on Ghostbusters.

It's from this highly improbable dilemma-and-solution that Be Kind, Rewind springs to giddy, boisterous life. Much to their surprise, Mike and Jerry's home-movie homages prove to be big hits around town, and everyone wants to get in on the artistic action. A bustling neighborhood is united by a shared love of pop art—think Frank Capra's Block Party—and Gondry lets that infectious communal spirit run wild. Those who objected to the ramshackle plotting of the director's last film, the messy, painfully personal Science of Sleep, will find plenty more to gripe about with this new one. A music video veteran, Gondry seems largely uninterested in the traditional rhythms of narrative storytelling, the ups and downs of a well-balanced, well-paced, three-act narrative. He'd rather chase his muse wherever it takes him, be it a wonderful, one-shot mosaic of on-the-the-fly moviemaking, or the not-so-wonderful sight of Jack Black's magnetic, radioactive urine flowing down the sidewalk. As is often the case, Black proves both an asset and a liability: though the funnyman's wild-eyed enthusiasm—reigned-in and honed to hysterical perfection in School of Rock, and nowhere else—roughly aligns with Gondry's own, the actor's tireless antics also threaten to push the film over the edge into the realm of total anarchic silliness. What keeps it grounded is Mos Def. A restrained foil to the manic Black, he's a soft-spoken straight man with his own gleeful silly side, and, like Joel and Stefan before him, a hopeless romantic often stifled by his own insecurities. Perfectly matched, the two stars feel like opposite halves of Gondry's idiosyncratic whole, Black the unhinged id and Def the rational superego. Their chemistry is never more charming, believable, or laid-back then when they're out making their movies, which suggests that this may be the closest Gondry has come to depicting, however abstractly, his own creative process.

About those movies, though: were it nothing else, Be Kind, Rewind would still be remarkable as a showcase for the filmmaker's elaborate, imaginative art direction, his organic, all-natural special effects, and his sophisticated visual compositions. Seen only in snips and pieces, Mike and Jerry's mini-epics are nonetheless sheer marvels of expressionistic design, successful in both their low-rent mimicry and their flourishes of wild, hungry invention. (Never mind that it takes incredible talent and a lot of time to make something as fantastically cool-looking as these supposedly slapdash toss-offs.) It's telling that very few of the films remade by the duo are revered classics or fawned-over "masterpieces"; many are, in fact, fluffy distractions, potboilers, and genre larks of the last twenty years. This makes Gondry less of a highbrow Film Buff, more of a starry-eyed Movie Nerd, an unapologetic champion of popular (and populist) cinema. But it also speaks to the growing appeal of junk-art hybrids, of using established works as the found-footage raw material for headier and more challenging experiments. Could these worn-out crowd-pleasers find new life in shorter, messier form? Stripped of their visual artifice and reduced to their skeletal essences, could their visions emerge purer and more profound?

More relevant, perhaps, is the question of who, in this mash-up, remix, and sample-heavy age, owns the sounds, images and icons of our popular culture. Led by Sigourney Weaver, sleepwalking through in a power-suit, studio executives descend upon Mr. Fletcher's store, demanding that Mike and Jerry's unauthorized tributes be destroyed. It's a tired and conventional David vs. Goliath plot turn, one that balances the film curiously between its affection for Hollywood fare and its disdain for the money mongers who produce it. Really, though, this low-point for the dynamic duo—and for the film itself—is just a manufactured setback on the road to a feel-good big finish. In a development that would seem more cornball and contrived if it didn't have so much to say about the universal needs and desires of every culture, all of Passaic comes together to make one more film, a moving ode to the myths, exaggerations, and pure fabrications that have come to define their community. "The past belongs to us," says one of the town's most familiar faces. "We can change it if we want." Their movie is a fantasy, a delusion, a knowing act of historical revisionism—a boldfaced lie, in other words. But it's a useful, uplifting lie, and Gondry's choice to begin and end Be Kind, Rewind with Mike's endearingly quaint, black-and-white biography speaks volumes about the filmmaker's belief in better living through fiction. And of his own delusions, the useful lies that his work tells, none is worthier of believing in than the assertion that great art can tear down all boundaries between race, age, creed, and class. It's a romantic, utopian dream, conveyed not just through the film's cast of multi-ethnic, multi-cultural characters, but also via Gondry's most striking, symbolic image: black hands over white hands, fingers meshed together to create the keys of an imaginary piano. Strike those keys in unison, and the sound will be no whisper and no lie, but the loud-and-clear, wide-awake music of a brighter and better future.

Friday, February 22, 2008

OSCAR 2008: BEST PICTURE


Nominees: Atonement; Juno; Michael Clayton; No Country For Old Men; There Will Be Blood

ANDREW DOWD: They loom over the competition like Gods among mortals, two distinctive and distinguished triumphs of good ol' American auteurism. Born on the same spot in the sun-baked, Texas desert—Marfa, TX to be exact—these sprawling portraits of greed and violence on the western frontier differ vastly in tone and rhythm, but they share the same unwavering courage of their respective convictions. They're thrillers, downers, and heavy-hearted allegories, the both of them—sound and fury spectacles that definitely signify something. Ten years ago, or five even, there's no way in hell we'd be looking at a Best Picture race led by films as bleak, savage, and starkly poetic as No Country For Old Men and There Will Be Blood. That not one, but both of them slipped in (and as frontrunners, not dark horses!) is a testament to... what? The increasing influence of critics on the award season? The failure of more traditional Oscar fare like American Gangster and The Kite Runner? Or simply the overall quality of homegrown cinema, circa 2007? Whatever the reason, Oscar night will likely end with either Anderson's masterpiece of the Coens' taking home the big prize. Go ahead and call it, cause either way, we'll be looking at the greatest Best Picture winner since Annie Hall trumped Star Wars thirty years ago.

That is, unless my most naggingly persistent fear comes terribly true: that when faced with two daunting visions of The Evil of Men, voters will do as Roger Ebert has done, "follow their hearts," and lend their voices to the Little Indie That Could. If that happens, Josh, fetch me my cattle killer and bring along your bowling pin, cause we'll have some heads to pierce and some skulls to bludgeon. Honest to blog!

JOSH STAMAN: The frightening thing is that Juno, that little movie that could, did, and continues to, would quite possibly be a less controversial choice than the Coen Brothers' and P.T.A.'s respective cautionary fables of existentialism and capitalism. It most certainly has to be a lack of spoon-fed middle-brow fare because although 2007 featured a bevy of uncompromising successes, it's not as if 2006 didn't produce Children of Men, Pan's Labyrinth, or United 93, or The Squid and the Whale, A History of Violence, and The New World the year prior. As varied in quality as these films may be, they represent something that was on display this year in No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood, and also in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and Into the Wild, two very successful film replete with emotional draw and substantial enough fan-base to fool me into thinking them far stronger contenders than Atonement.

Atonement is the most successful failure of the Holiday season, and its seven nominations will compensate budgetary expenditures of Dunkirk-ian proportions; and though the carcass of Ian McEwan's beloved novel lives on the screen and in theaters, it certainly bears a striking resemblance to The English Patient in physicality if not Oscar success. Funny to think how the times had changed; were Ondaajte's novel adapted today, would its two-and-a-half hour running time be spent bedside with a scarred Ralph Fiennes, the swooning romance of which was spawned from Minghella's imagination? It's out, and so is Michael Clayton, that contradictory throwback to 70's cinema, thriving more on glamour, presence, and cool than ideas. Everything points to No Country for Old Men, but in spite of its flaws not because of its virtues. After mistakenly predicting Little Miss Sunshine last year I can't go with the superior Juno this year, but a No Country for Old Men juggernaut with a There Will Be Blood spoiler has me nervous that the envelope will reveal the winner to be…somehow American Gangster.

AD: That's an even scarier prospect than Juno winning. If write-ins were allowed, Ridley Scott's vapid crime epic would likely rack-up more votes than Atonement, a movie that's plummet from early-frontrunner status to hopeless underdog still has me scratching my head. Seven nominations is nothing to sneeze at, but what exactly killed the film's shot at the Big One? Built in the image of epics past—sweeping romanticism, period milieu, and grand themes writ large on the battlefield—Atonement is as typical in its Academy appeal as No Country and There Will Be Blood are atypical. Its failure in this awards season ultimately leads me to believe that the integrity and sheer artistic merit of this year's nominees comes down to a lot more than just the lack of traditionalist competition. (If that were all it was, Blood would be out, Gangster would be in, and Joe Wright would be clearing a spot on his mantel) Rather, what I'm seeing, one year after a crackerjack cops-and-robbers flick heisted the big prize, is a shift in the kind of movies that are winning Oscars. Suddenly, the critics have a real say, genre movies have a shot, and the weird and violent and "depressing" art picks are now running neck-and-neck—or, in this year's case, ahead—of the crowd-pleasers. It's enough to almost convince one that the Academy really cares about the state of our film culture. Should Blood pull an upset on No Country—itself a totally terrific choice for this totally terrific year—you can call me convinced.

JS: Well, I believe in the power of happy accidents. An Oscar victory for No Country for Old Men means that for some people, this is the worst lineup in Oscar history. An Oscar victory for There Will Be Blood would just simply be miraculous. I can't imagine anybody going to bed in March of '75 screaming Fuck, Godfather: Part II! Chinatown, bitches! I am so ridiculously angry that The Godfather: Part II won the Oscar over two slightly-better-movies-which-is-hard-to-do-because-the-one-that-won-is-the-second-
Godfather! God! I am livid! Had they seen The Conversation? Second-best Coppola movie this year, piece of shit!
But that is what we're looking at. Two masterpieces in the running. I know both you and I are for There Will Be Blood, but unless Juno pulls through with an upset win—which could happen because it doesn't try to jizz the evils of the world inside your brain (just inside Juno McGruff - stay tuned for Daughter of Juno: THEY WON'T STOP TALKING!)—we seem to be damned with No Country for Old Men winning the Oscar. You can't stop what's coming. Arthur Edens couldn't. Llewelyn Moss couldn't. Robbie Turner couldn't. Eli Sunday couldn't. And Juno McGruff sure couldn't. What's coming? This question: not "Will the Coen Brothers win an Oscar?" but "How many will they win?" It's enough to taper off fear of a McCain administration.

ANDREW
Prediction: No Country For Old Men
Preference: There Will Be Blood

JOSH
Prediction: No Country For Old Men
Preference: There Will Be Blood

Thursday, February 21, 2008

OSCAR 2008: THE OTHER CATEGORIES


Before we wrap up this annual charade with a stab at Best Picture, here's a brief look at most of the other categories, courtesy Josh Staman. His baffling affection for The Bourne Ultimatum and The Savages aside, I agree with nearly all of this.

BEST SCORE
Atonement is too overly literal in its "literate" score, typing voters' eardrums into submission, that it seems something like a foregone conclusion. Michael Giacchino's shameful snub for The Incredibles aside, Ratatouille whips up the right notes of whimsy and exhilaration that deserves the prize and in a just and justly delicious world would claim it.

Prediction: Atonement
Preference: Ratatouille

BEST SONG
Three songs from Enchanted feels akin to overkill, but, as many have pointed out by now, the interchangeability of the Dreamgirls triad last year couldn't transcend the power of outward ballad. When Guy and Girl take the stage and reenact "Falling Slowly" from Once, they will doubtlessly reunite again to claim the Oscar.

Prediction & Preference: "Falling Slowly", Once

BEST ANIMATED FILM
Ratatouille claimed more nominations than any film not nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, and though Persepolis is liberal Oscar-bait in addition to an incredibly acclaimed film, Brad Bird seems poised to claim a second Oscar and a third total for PIXAR.

Prediction & Preference: Ratatouille


BEST FOREIGN-LANGUAGE FILM
Shame of shames! Whether or not missing out on a nomination will end up working in favor of 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, it will doubtlessly be remembered long past this year's crop is forgotten. Though Beaufort represents Israel's best chance at the gold thus far, The Counterfeiters is Holocaust themed and it seems like this branch of the category isn't ready for a change of pace just yet.

Prediction: The Counterfeiters
Preference: Who gives a shit?

BEST DOCUMENTARY
Will the Iraq war docs cancel each other out? No End in Sight is the most damning treatment of the war to date and seems the likeliest winner in a year where Michael Moore's Sicko qualified as sleeper at best.

Prediction & Preference: No End in Sight

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY
Only this year could the beautiful, sun-drenched, tracking shot-happy cinematography from Atonement be viewed as underdog. Spielberg D.P.-Kaminski has two Oscars already and Deakins' two nominations seem bound to cancel each other out, leaving There Will Be Blood's Robert Elswitt, recently nominated for Good Night, and Good Luck and just this year having shot Best Picture-nominee Michael Clayton, the likeliest victor.

Prediction: There Will Be Blood
Preference: The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford

BEST FILM EDITING
When is a two-time Oscar nominee still a joke? When it's Roderick Janes, the Coen Brothers' pseudonym for editing Fargo, No Country for Old Men, and every film they've ever done. I'd say why argue with success but I'm not voting; the American Cinema Editor's Guild just honored The Bourne Ultimatum for making sense out of a million camera's worth of stunt photography and the respectability of the Bourne franchise should prevail into a rare win this year for a film that audiences flocked to regardless of critical adulation.

Prediction: The Bourne Ultimatum
Preference: No Country for Old Men

BEST ART DIRECTION
This category usually goes for epics, costume dramas, and musicals and this category has four. Elizabeth: The Golden Age is too much of a bomb, Sweeney Todd too much of a disappointment, Atonement too inside, and There Will Be Blood too outside. Were one to guess, then a nominal bet be placed on the colossal There Will Be Blood rigs and that seventh layer of hell that is Daniel Plainview's bowling alley.

Prediction & Preference: There Will Be Blood

BEST COSTUME DESIGN
Last year's triumph of Marie Antoinette over perceived front-runners The Devil Wears Prada and Dreamgirls was either baffling for its good taste or obvious for its penchant for period-fucking (heh). This year took us to three different periods in English history with Atonement, Elizabeth: The Golden Age, and Sweeney Todd, and, with a hair's width between them in this race, expect Keira Knightley's emotive green slip to score one of the few wins this night for Atonement.

Prediction: Atonement
Preference: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

BEST MAKEUP
The name Rick Baker ensures, among other things, the most ironically Oscar-nominated films in history. Last year's Click, and this year's Norbit, one of the most critically-reviled films in Oscar history. Now it has eight Razzie nods and an Oscar nomination. With Pirates of the Caribbean too heavily reliant on CGI, look for the respectable vote to go to La Vie en Rose – also, in a way, a vote for Marion Cotillard's performance itself – for taking us through decades in the life of Edith Piaf.

Prediction: La Vie en Rose
Preference: abstain.

BEST SOUND MIXING
I don't know what Kevin O'Connell does and because I can't isolate a single Oscar-nominated "sound" of his like I can the directing ebb-and-flow of a Martin Scorsese movie, I don't care if his streak keeps going, especially if he keeps making movies like Transformers. Although not a bad bet for the win, voters choosing between sound (Coen) and fury (Bay) will likely compromise with The Bourne Ultimatum.

Prediction: The Bourne Ultimatum
Preference: No Country for Old Men

BEST SOUND EFFECTS

An all-but complete toss-up between two Best Picture nominees, two summer blockbusters, and a PIXAR movie, all of which claim equal grasp on the prize. Sound Effects imply created sounds and I don't know what planet these craftsmen had to destroy to create the deafening metallic firestorm that fucked my ears during Transformers but I will give Michael Bay's blockbuster the slight edge over Bourne this round.

Will Win: Transformers
Should Win: There Will Be Blood

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS
This summer's biggest box office fiasco was Evan Almighty, an insanely expensive comedy sequel that nobody wanted… and it still managed to snag over a hundred million dollars. That makes The Golden Compass twice the failure of Evan Almighty, which really should be impossible; it's out, and so is Pirates of the Caribbean which got its due last year. A vote for Transformers is a vote for a healthy franchise, and sadly these robots are alive and well for a second go-around.

Prediction: Transformers
Preference: Did you know that the special effects in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which are among the best I've ever seen, were all done entirely in-camera? Does that mean that Ellen Kuras would win or Michel Gondry as well for conception? Because you just know that he had equal part in their creation. Sorry, I just started to think about a different world where beautiful tactile effects imperative to the fuller realization of a truly special film could win an Oscar. What was the question?

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

OSCAR 2008: BEST DIRECTOR


Nominees: Paul Thomas Anderson, There Will Be Blood; Joel and Ethan Coen, No Country For Old Men; Tony Gilroy, Michael Clayton; Jason Reitman, Juno; Julian Schnapel, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

JOSH STAMAN I really flubbed this year's predictions. Back in August when I was doing the Semester in L.A., I read about Juno in the trades and told the class that this movie was going to be huge. I was right; from the moment I saw the trailer, I told myself that this would be the sleeper hit of the Fall. For a while I was convinced that it would lock down four nominations: Picture, Actress, Screenplay, and even Director. Then it came up bupkiss at the Golden Globes, failed to secure a DGA nod, and the clencher? No Screen Actor's Guild nomination for Best Ensemble. And as The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and Into the Wild seemed to pick up momentum, I gave up on the chances of Juno. Show's what I know. To my credit, I'm still mystified about the Into the Wild shut-out and Julian Schnabel's Best Director win looked like a good indicator. Of the year's most auspicious directorial turns, in the eyes of the director's branch, Andrew Dominik, David Fincher, and Sean Penn can't hold a candle to the technical wizardly conjured by Jason Reitman. Nothing against the guy. Juno is certainly a strong step-up from Thank You for Smoking and he aligns the entire cast together quite wonderfully. That being said, I don't think he has a chance at winning. Neither does Tony Gilroy, whose strongest, most singular coup outside of writing the damn thing would seem to be convincing George Clooney - himself a fine craftsman - not to direct it himself. And while Julian Schnabel did manage to wrestle the Golden Globe away from the Coen Brothers and walk away with an impressive four nominations for his Diving Bell, a Best Picture snub is something Ingmar Bergman couldn't overcome (against the snuggling directorial wiles of James L. Brooks, no less!) and Schnabel is up against the kind of uncompromising talents working on epic scale that win Oscars. I speak of course of enfant terribles Paul Thomas Anderson and the Brothers Coen. When Martin Scorsese takes the podium with the envelope in his hand (and my goodness, how wonderful a moment will that be!), he will give the Oscar to talent worthy of his time and the calories expended from tearing the envelope open.

ANDREW DOWD Perusing this line-up is like playing a game of One Of These Things Is Not Like the Others. Really, who invited the kid with the box of Crayolas and the indie mix-tape to this swanky party? Dominik, Fincher, and Penn are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to worthier candidates: try telling me, Oscar, that Jason Reitman’s derivative, color-coordinated aesthetic and basic command of filmic language equals or surpasses the efforts of, say, Werner Herzog or Todd Haynes. You knew better last year, when you denied Dayton and Faris a chair at the Grown Ups table—is Juno really that much more of a directorial triumph than Little Miss Sunshine? It isn’t, but the fact that Reitman’s way out of his league here actually says more about the league than it does about Reitman. With the exception of Gilroy, whose Adult Contemporary style is right up the Academy’s middlebrow alley, this category is made up of the sort of Wild Card auteurs usually relegated to fifth-place, also-ran status. You say that Schnabel is facing competition of an Oscar-winning variety, yet I can’t remember the last time Best Director went to a visionary as fiercely ambitious and challenging as either Anderson or the Coen Brothers. The award usually gets handed out to a confident, tasteful craftsman like Joe Wright, but with the Atonement helmer not even on the ballot, expect this to be the closest round in the Country v. Blood title-fight. Not that close, though: No Country is the masterpiece that’s alluded Joel and Ethan all these years, and the whole damn world (including the PGA, the WGA, and, most importantly, the DGA) seems to have noticed. I’ll be glad to see the oddball siblings win for their sharpest, leanest, most poetic achievement—not to mention the first film they’ve officially shared directing credit on—but lo, my heart belongs to another. If a good director elicits the best possible work from his cast and crew, a great one unites every member of his team in favor of a single and singular vision. And it’s Anderson’s method and madness that stirs this Blood into frenzied, hypnotic motion.

JS I will go on record and say yes, Jason Reitman accomplished a stronger directorial coup with Juno than the Faris/Dayton duo did with Little Miss Sunshine if only because Juno is a movie and a trailer. I'm with you in my choice of Paul Thomas Anderson but, as we're bound to discuss later, there have been few Oscar contenders as uncompromising in vision as No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood. No Country may be a profound work but first and foremost it is a work of technical proficiency elevated to poetry whereas There Will Be Blood begins and ends with Paul Thomas Anderson's personal obsessions that he wrangled from Updike, refined in that brain of his, and put on the screen. He's not a great thinker and his films derive their strength more through convictions than thoughts but There Will Be Blood is some kind of modern masterpiece in a different way than No Country for Old Men and the rarer kind.

Just as last year Martin Scorsese was assured an Oscar for The Departed, and before that Ang Lee for Brokeback Mountain, and Clint Eastwood for Million Dollar Baby, this year the Oscar will go to an artist who knows exactly what they are doing. It will be the Coen Brothers or Paul Thomas Anderson. The Oscar will either go to an irreverent punk or two of them. The Writer's Strike is over. Jon Stewart is hosting. Martin Scorsese has an Oscar. And it's going to be a good night.

ANDREW
Prediction: Joel and Ethan Coen, No Country For Old Men
Preference: Paul Thomas Anderson, There Will Be Blood

JOSH
Prediction: Joel and Ethan Coen, No Country For Old Men
Preference: Paul Thomas Anderson, There Will Be Blood

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

OSCAR 2008: BEST ACTRESS


Nominees: Cate Blanchett, Elizabeth: The Golden Age; Julie Christie, Away From Her; Marion Cotillard, La Vie en Rose; Laura Linney, The Savages; Ellen Page, Juno

ANDREW DOWD The Oscars are a bit like a secret society: once you’ve been invited to the club, you’re a member for life. Lingering goodwill and insider nepotism is about the only explanation I can muster for a couple of the contenders in this year’s thinly sketched Best Actress race. Like award-season mainstay Meryl Streep, Cate Blanchett appears to have developed the nifty trick of getting nominated for anything and everything she’s in. How else can one rationalize her inclusion for Elizabeth: The Golden Age—a film few people saw and pretty much no one liked—when she’s already rocking a Supporting nod for her revelatory work in I’m Not There? By the same token, Laura Linney overcame a complete lack of Guild, critic, and commercial support to secure a nod here, filling in that last spot and confirming her status as the Academy’s placeholder of choice. She’s like Kate Winslet, another perpetual Oscar bridesmaid, but with less range and slimmer prospects.

Course, name brand appeal can only get you so far—Blanchett and Linney are just warming benches while their fellow nominees duke it out for the gold. It’s a spirited game of the Young, the Old, and the Foreign, with Ellen Page’s hipster tart going up against Julie Christie’s aged dementia patient and Marion Cotillard’s (supposedly) spot-on Edith Piaf. Once perceived as an even, three-way race, this category is but the latest victim of the media’s tail-wag-dog prognosticating—call someone a shoo-in or a “lock” enough times and it becomes indisputable fact, not an educated guess. I’d feel more guilty about continuing the trend if it wasn’t Christie, the lovely ace of this group, we were all (irresponsibly) sealing the deal for.

JOSH STAMAN Like you, I've yet to see Marion Cotillard's alleged tour de force. I'm in another country; what's your excuse, Worthless? You've seen Norbit but not La Vie en Rose? Way to be at least halfway educated for the Makeup category. You take that one.

I do not understand your vitriol towards The Savages. We'll get into that one later on but your disparaging comparison of Linney to Winslet is off-base. For every Clementine Winslet offers, there are at least one or two Dead Mommies from Finding Neverland. I remain a bit mystified that Linney failed to grab more precursor support as the role is so clearly tailored to her strong points. Revelation? Not at all, but who were you pulling for? Sadly, Black Snake Moan DVDs aren't a hit in the Academy retirement communities so out goes Christina Ricci; and Romanian Broad proved about as delightful a Hollywood conversation-starter as a Romanian Abortion. Angelina Jolie? Well, you didn't see that one either.

This is such an odd three-way race. Cotillard (by all accounts, Worthless) does the most acting throughout the most periods of aging. Benigni she ain't, though about as attractive near the end. And Ellen Page, I maintain, is the strongest underdog threat to stealing Julie's Oscar. There is nothing really working against her - not her age, as she makes twentysomethings look very professional; not the lightness of her role, as the role itself was enough to inspire four nominations; and certainly not the fact that her film has the most nominations. Ellen Page could win the Oscar. Then again, this coming from the guy who is predicting Hal Holbrook.

AD Who was I pulling for? Honestly, none of the scant seven or eight women mentioned in the media’s five month run-up to nomination day. If Christiana Ricci, Anjelina Jolie, and the admittedly outstanding Anamaria Marinca are the only “alternative” contenders you can think of, you just might be an Academy member. No, I didn’t see La Vie en Rose or A Mighty Heart, but I did see Black Book, Bug, Margot At the Wedding, Red Road, Regular Lovers, and Waitress—all films whose terrific female headliners deserved at least a chance of being nominated. But that’s not the nature of the beast, is it? If some half-wit, self-appointed Oscar pundit like David Poland or Tom O’Neil hasn’t scribbled your name down by early September, you can count yourself out of the race. Hell, even Linney deserved better: her more nuanced work was in the under-seen Jindabyne, and her tough supporting turn in Breach proved a more satisfying showcase for her dramatic and comedic instincts, albeit one less contingent on the shrill histrionics an Oscar nomination usually demands.

If you don’t understand my vitriol for The Savages, I don’t understand your affection for it—is it the “middle class whining” your responding to or the utter contempt for the elderly? The best thing I can say for Tamara Jenkins’ alternately hateful and saccharine movie is that it prompted me to re-watch Away From Her, a far more sensitive portrait of senior dementia and the lives it disrupts. Julie Christie makes palpable the horror of losing your mind and your identity, a struggle that ends with you emerging on the other side as someone else entirely. This makes her work here something of a devastating, dual performance. Christie’s inevitable win this year is a product of the same sort of Career Achievement sentimentality that made Helen Mirren so unstoppable last year. That having been said, it’s a performance that plays on the weight of history, one that actually relies on a degree of sentiment for a shared, romanticized past. I’ll happily applaud her victory, but my only gripe is that her on-screen counterpart, the rock solid Gordon Pinsent, didn’t make the cut over in the Actor category. Theirs was a dance, and it takes two to tango.

As for Page, she’s done, man, but she’ll be back—remember, once you’re in, you’re in for life. Until next time, her inevitable MTV Movie Award will have to suffice. It’ll look adorable on her coffee table next to that retro-cool hamburger phone.

JS Let's take a moment to appreciate Nicole Kidman's layered mannerism-free performance in Margot at the Wedding. The actress excels at playing cold fish and there isn't a colder fish in the sea (or in a Baumbach film, which is saying something) than Margot. A brilliant performance and the best the actress has given since Eyes Wide Shut in one of the most deliberately unpleasant and morbidly fascinating films of the year. Her micced brain fart alone should have warranted a nomination, but it's easy to understand why this performance went almost universally unheralded.

As a former volunteer in a nursing home (contempt for the elderly my ass!), I can tell you there is space enough in the world for the likes of Away from Her (the far superior film, yes) and The Savages. Both films occupy different mindsets in this universe and they're nonetheless valid. If I don't care for some of Jenkins' too on-the-nose choices (the 'Peter Pan' references; the way the film chooses to - how shall we say? - dispose of its elderly; lip-service to Brecht that's far more believable than Steve Carrel's Proust scholar in Little Miss Sunshine, I'll say though), I do approve of the middle-class whining if not the self-awareness involved because it paints a portrait of estranged siblings dealing with one of life's nasty boners, the script of which derives all of its momentum from power shifts that are not all that easy. I guess we'll take the initiative here to vent on our most substantial split of opinion this year. It's no Slums of Beverly Hills but the charming voice is alive and well in The Savages and I greatly enjoyed it.

Julie Christie does appear to be the most substantial front-runner of the race but comparing her to Helen Mirren makes me want to predict Ellen Page all the more. Mirren had no competition to speak of (though a just world would've seen Judi Dench or Penelope Cruz wrestle it from her), whereas Christie has won almost every award on the planet for a movie that has been on DVD since the fall for her incredibly subtle performance. These two points could see Ellen Page or Marion Cotillard steal it from her; I say steal, because no film this year derived its strength more from two performers matching each other note for note. I'm thrilled that Tommy Lee Jones was nominated for In the Valley of Elah but the slow burn of the year took place in Gordon Pinsent's mind. A nomination for Pinsent would clench it for me but Polley's deserving screenplay inclusion bodes better for Christie's chances; were she the only sole nominee in the lineup, then it would look far worse.

We forget one thing to consider: Julie Christie, legend as she may be, is weird. She's a weird foreigner who makes smart jokes nobody understands, forgets her age on national television, and has no intention of playing any kind of publicity game. Ellen Page plushy dolls will go on sale within the week. I predict Julie Christie; were she to win, she would make for the strongest Best Actress winner this decade. But I prepare for voters to be too charmed by the not-at-all-undeserving Ellen Page phenomenon, even though a win by anyone over Christie would provoke an eye roll of Margot-calibre proportions.

ANDREW
Prediction & Preference: Julie Christie, Away From Her

JOSH
Prediction & Preference: Julie Christie, Away From Her

Monday, February 18, 2008

OSCAR 2008: BEST ACTOR


Nominees: George Clooney, Michael Clayton; Daniel Day-Lewis, There Will Be Blood; Johnny Depp, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street; Tommy Lee Jones, In the Valley of Elah; Viggo Mortensen, Eastern Promises

JOSH STAMAN: One of the year's most pleasant surprises was the nomination of Tommy Lee Jones for In the Valley of Elah, a movie I didn't care for at all that threatened total implosion when held up to the light of Jones' beautiful performance. Save for Casey Affleck, no performer had a stronger year than Jones with this and one man-Greek choir Ed Tom Bell in No Country for Old Men. Jones is one of the most underrated performers alive with a persona of No Bullshit Dignity perfectly suited for comedy and tragedy. When viewed alongside the mad twinkle in Daniel Day-Lewis' best performances, the two almost threaten matter/anti-matter explosion. The fortitude with which Day-Lewis creates his palpable characterizations is unimaginable, almost unbearable; on the other hand, one cannot catch Jones straining for a second. Daniel Day-Lewis has the Oscar in the bag with no runner up in periphery, so allow me to extol the virtues (possibly superior in my estimation) of the class-act thirty years running that is Tommy Lee Jones by rooting for an upset.

ANDREW DOWD: Heavy-handed hectoring aside, I liked In the Valley of Elah a little more than you did, but we can agree that the film's value lies entirely in the heart-wrenching, lived-in gravity of Jones' performance. He elevates Paul Haggis' simplistic, anti-war screed to something approaching poetry, and he does so without any pandering, grandstanding, or award-mongering histrionics. Like so much of the actor's undervalued work, it's a master class in understatement. Still, while I'd love to see Jones get some long-overdue recognition, I can't play the defacto Lifetime Achievement game, and I'm forced to acknowledge that the aged pro is actually working at odds with the less-than-stellar material.

Daniel Day-Lewis, by contrast, is the material. It's funny you should mention straining. In There Will Be Blood, the method madman seems in constant danger of losing his cool, of letting his thin veneer of politeness and composure come crashing down around him. He eventually succumbs to his own base instincts in the film's gonzo, imminently quotable climax, but the true brilliance of Day-Lewis' commanding turn is the road to that regression—the struggle, behind those squinty eyes and that crooked smile, to keep his anger, hatred, and madness in check. It's one of the finest slow burns in cinematic history, and it's perfectly in sync with the movement of the work as a whole. If Jones kind of rescues his movie by transcending its mediocrity, Day-Lewis calibrates his every syllable and mannerism to the Paul Thomas Anderson machine, not working against or above the film but in total alignment with it. A vote for the oil baron is a vote for Big Bravado over Refreshing Restraint, but I know in my heart of hearts that Day Lewis' powerhouse performance is the greater (if less subtle) achievement.

JS I'm not interested in giving Tommy Lee Jones a Lifetime Achievement Award, just a second Oscar; and while his role was clearly less taxing than Day-Lewis', I don't see that as any less impressive. Every new performance by Day-Lewis is hailed as the Second Coming, in between which Jones gives one or two class acts that go unheralded but as just as impressive for their understatement. The only performance this year more beautifully understated than Tommy Lee Jones' in Elah was Tommy Lee Jones' in No Country...

Or perhaps George Clooney, the Movie Star of Our Time who is too cool to bother with the rules anymore. I'm not sure if an Ocean's 13 allows for a Michael Clayton or just another beach house - meaning that Clooney is at a point in his career where he can literally do film after film that exemplifies his specific Movie Star qualities (weary-yet-inextinguishable liberal cool), wows critics, makes its money back, and repeat. I don't know how many Movie Stars can sleep well at night but I bet Clooney can. That being said, I'm still waiting for a performance as lively, funny, and iconic as Jack Foley in that underrated slice of perfection that is Out of Sight. And seeing as how we're not exactly comparing apples to oranges, Viggo's sharper portrait of identity submersion was in A History of Violence, and Sweeney's singular obsession has nothing on the chipper myopia of Ed Wood.

AD When it comes to a more malevolent breed of understatement, I prefer Mortensen's eye-gouging Russian mobster to Depp's throat-slicing somnambulist. The former isn't afraid to get naked—literally and figuratively—for his art, while the latter lets a shock wig, killer black duds, and mounds of Victorian Goth make-up do the heavy lifting for him. Despite a bare-assed fight scene, a few baroque show tunes, and an epic, movie-closing vanity shot, all three of these Hollywood heavyweights are going decidedly low-key here, which makes them little more than sitting duck also-rans to the explosive, scenery-chewing Day-Lewis. Still, I'd have more sympathy for Viggo, Johnny, and George—fine actors, the lot of them—if I didn't think they were working well below their peak game potential. What you and I can agree on here is that this category could have used an out-of-left-field wild card, some young blood to mix things up. Not to beat a dead horse, but the Academy's nastiest prank was banishing the year's richest, prickliest, most fascinating performance—the one that rivals, in its own simmering, below-the-surface way, the fury of Day-Lewis'—in the Supporting Actor category. Grievances aired and Affleck love declared, I'm finished.

ANDREW
Prediction & Preference: Daniel Day-Lewis, There Will Be Blood

JOSH
Prediction: Daniel Day-Lewis, There Will Be Blood
Preference: Tommy Lee Jones, In the Valley of Elah

Sunday, February 17, 2008

OSCAR 2008: BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY


Nominees: Diablo Cody, Juno; Nancy Oliver, Lars and the Real Girl; Tony Gilroy, Michael Clayton; Brad Bird, Ratatouille; Tamara Jenkins, The Savages

JOSH STAMAN My favorite category! Revisionist history when you want it! When you need it! Now! Where the shamefully ignored get their comeuppance. Where the also-ran goes overdrive on the over-run, the over-stretched, and the over-wrought. Eternal Sunshine over The Aviator. Talk to Her over Gangs of New York. Almost Famous over Gladiator. That doesn't seem to be the case this year for Lars and the Real Girl, Ratatouille, or The Savages. So instead, the two other mainstays: movies out of the running for Best Picture by auteurs and movies out of the running for Best Picture by novelties. Your Matt & Ben's. Your Sofia's. Or if your movie has the feel of novelty itself like Michael Arndt's Little Miss Sunshine. And no movie felt more Sunshine and lollipops novelty than Juno...and it just so happens it was written by stripper/blogger/new Letterman-mainstay Diablo Cody. I think that's about all that needs to be said. Feel kind of bad for Tony Gilroy. Maybe he should stop NOT being a stripper/blogger/new Letterman-mainstay.

ANDREW DOWD What have they done to our baby, Josh? The category that once brought us such exciting winners as Pulp Fiction, The Crying Game, and Fargo is now home to the sort of Sundance-ready fluff the Academy seems to think is "edgy" or cool. Chief offenders are this year's trio of sitcom pilots, all penned by women and all riding the same Sunshine wave through shallow waters. If I ultimately prefer Juno to both The Savages and Lars and The Real Girl, it's mostly because I've developed a higher tolerance for hipster posturing than I have for smug, middle-class malaise and Capra-corn schmaltz. Juno is an intermittently charming distraction—funnier, warmer, and less obnoxious than its detractors have made it out to be—and its rapid-fire quips and zingers go down a lot smoother than the manufactured, candy-coated "zaniness" of Little Miss Sunshine. Still, the Diablo Cody hype machine is a disturbing product of incestuous politics: is it any coincidence that the same magazines that have touted this It Girl as a sure-fire winner are also the ones selling Ellen Page's cute-as-a-button face on their covers? (Guiltiest party: Entertainment Weekly, who have kept the Juno buzz alive throughout the season, now have Cody on their payroll. Hmmmm…) Hollywood likes the story behind Juno as much as it likes Juno, and Cody's fairytale ending won't be complete until she ascends that stage, glammed up like Pretty Woman, ready to have her too-cool-for-all-this cake and eat it, too. Me, I'd rather debate which of these future losers actually deserves the podium: Tony Gilroy, for his razor-sharp dialogue, or Brad Bird, for the delightful twists and turns of his animated farce.

JS I agree, Andrew. And if the state of Illinois and our turkey baster would align with the Fates, our dreams of having a baby would be realized and the result would look something like a Best Original Screenplay lineup, though most likely a cross between Remy from Ratatouille and Patton Oswalt himself. We've discussed The Savages elsewhere but I will say that with the exception of Lars and the Real Girl (which admittedly must read much, much better and isn't that bad), I'm a fan of all the nominated scripts, even Juno which is completely delightful and well-made. That Ms. McGruff has been crammed so far down our throats does not change the fact that the entire ensemble shines and that the script itself remains tight and funny from beginning to end. And to peddle backwards though the Juno phenomenon is a bit omnipresent; why shouldn't Diablo Cody be writing for Entertainment Weekly? I can't think of a single reason. I'm more inclined to read her thoughts than Stephen King's. The question I want to know is whether or not this Juno backlash is stronger than its juggernaut tendency, bitch? Will it extend to Best Actress? Hell, will it extend to Best Picture? And YES, this is a valid question in a year when Academy retirement patrons are asked to pick between No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood. She will win and only undeservingly in lieu of the other nominees, but Juno is a fine, funny picture that surpassed my expectations.

Between Tony Gilroy and Brad Bird, one is forced to ask what makes the Best Original Screenplay. Michael Clayton, I've decided, isn't really about corporate irresponsibility on the screen. On the page, it absolutely feels like the most important film of the year, but the viewing experience is more akin to jazz riff. For all the talk about a return to 70's filmmaking, there were fewer movies this year as outwardly cool and un-gritty as Michael Clayton and it is interesting to me that Tony Gilroy's actual verbiage (text and subtext) served almost as platform for Robert Elswitt's compositions, James Newton Howard's score, and the unheralded editing that assembled some of the most striking sequences of the year, especially Tilda Swinton's day-to-day preparations. And I've no doubt that the actual task of writing Michael Clayton was exhaustive, but when I ask myself about what best exemplifies this category outside of the underline-BEST script, I find myself looking more and more to Ratatouille, the oddest PIXAR film yet and how it furthered its narrative with the most unexpected of skips and jumps: Remy's ability to manipulate Linguini by his hair; the love angle played for French randomness; the Proustian relevance behind serving ratatouille. I know how Tony Gilroy went about writing Michael Clayton but I have no idea how Brad Bird whipped up such a fantastical concoction and how it managed to delight in so many different ways. Credit the animators for the most beautiful human and animal creations in computer animation history, Michael Giacchino's score for complementing image perfectly, and Brad Bird for masterminding the most dizzying visual compositions that PIXAR has attempted, but before anything else the idea that a feature length film about a rat who wants to cook could be made, should be made, and so appetizing at that.

AD Spoken like a true writer, with an eye for the process itself. I wish I could muster the same enthusiasm for the flyweight contenders in this washout competition, but at least you've convinced me of one thing: Ratatouille's magic begins on the page. While Gilroy boasts a refreshing refusal to talk down to his audience, Bird celebrates the artist in all of us, and I'd rather have my imagination stoked than my intellect stroked. In the year of the rat, I'm voting accordingly.

ANDREW
Prediction: Juno
Preference: Ratatouille

JOSH
Prediction: Juno
Preference: Ratatouille

Thursday, February 14, 2008

OSCAR 2008: BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY


Nominees: Paul Thomas Anderson, There Will Be Blood; Joel and Ethan Coen, No Country For Old Men; Christopher Hampton, Antonement; Ronald Harwood, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly; Sarah Polley, Away From Her

ANDREW DOWD It haunts me every year anew, a question: the Best Original Screenplay is the best original screenplay, but what, pray tell, is the Best Adapted Screenplay? When casting their vote in this 50-year-old category, are Academy members singling out the best screenplay that happens to be an adaptation or, in more specific terms, the best adaptation? If the latter is the case—though I suspect it may not be—this year's batch of pretty exceptional nominees offers an interesting range of approaches to tackling "material from another medium."

No Country For Old Men has to be the most faithful of the bunch. The Coen Brothers stick very closely to the specifics of Cormac McCarthy's novel, but they also manage to recreate the tone and atmosphere of the work, capturing the author's stark prose with their own stark imagery—it's a match made in medium-crossing heaven. On the other hand, Paul Thomas Anderson's script for There Will Be Blood makes something gloriously new out of something old and nearly forgotten; Upton Sinclair's Oil! is but a jumping off point for the writer-director, who takes small bits and pieces from his source material and shapes them into his own infernal invention. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly transforms a written memoir into a visual, inherently cinematic feast, while Away From Her comfortably expands a short story into a full-length and fully satisfying feature film. If there's a sore thumb in this group, it's Christopher Hampton, a previous winner for Dangerous Liaisons. Struggling to cram Ian McEwan's epic, decade-spanning story into a brisk two hours, the writer ends up with an awkwardly structured, two-act beast of a narrative. Atonement succeeds not because of its script, but despite it, and I'm left wondering why the hell they didn't go with Zodiac instead. At least that's an intentional mess.

JOSH STAMAN My goodness, does the screenwriter of Zodiac deserve something. If not a career-boosting nomination, than a xanax and a weekend in Barbados. Something to take the edge off. We're talking about a several year-long collaboration with David Fincher, Captain Type-A himself. Zodiac remains one of the sad tragedies of Oscar oversights.

Let's not forget that both Oil! and No Country for Old Men are among the most obscure of their respective authors oeuvres. Oil! is forgotten whereas No Country was denounced as mere populist page-turner. What makes the Best Adaptation? Quite simply, the best film...or rather the best film on page, in my mind. Where you can taste the meat on the page. That's why even though I prefer There Will Be Blood to a very slight degree, my choice for Best Adapted Screenplay is No Country for Old Men. Reading No Country is riveting and ultimately what you read is what you get. Reading There Will Be Blood is a different experience altogether and its success derives more from the marriage of Robert Elswitt's image, Daniel Day-Lewis' presence, Johnny Greenwood's music wed by Paul Thomas Anderson's gaul. Isn't that true of all films? Sure, but in a different fashion than No Country, which clearly derives its power at least initially from structural ingenuity.

Ironically, the most revered book or at least the most anticipated adaptation is Atonement by my measure the least successful adaptation, which is to say the stodgiest. By adhering to epilogual meditation strictly, the film fails to find its own footing. The first half is sure-footed brilliance, and the rest is rather all over the place. Blame Christopher Hampton or blame the studios who either would not budge or budget for running time or liberated touch, but the magic on the page does not reach the screen. The best adpatations add their own magic. Let the record show that in Rex Pickett's Sideways, Miles was a failed screenwriter and Jack has to persuade Maya to sleep with him; and F.X. Toole wrote Million Dollar Baby as two separate works. I don't doubt that Finding Neverland is very "faithful" indeed though. And I could care. Let us not forget the immortal words of John LaRoche: "Adaptation is a profound process. Means you figure out how to thrive in the world." What thrives and what doesn't... though in all fairness, a discussion for whether or not Adaptation. was an adaptation is for another time.

AD Since I'm guessing most voters haven't actually taken the time to read the nominated screenplays (I know I haven't) the "best film on page" is really anybody's guess. As with most categories, the Academy's just going to vote for the movie it likes the best, meaning that No Country is pretty much as unbeatable here as it is everywhere else. Me, I'm inclined to go with the movie that succeeds most heavily on the merits of its script alone. Having squandered no opportunity to praise either No Country or There Will Be Blood, I have to admit that both seem to owe most of their terrifying, bewildering power not to blueprint, but to aesthetic execution. They're triumphs of direction mostly, whereas Sarah Polley's Away From Her—the distant long shot of the group—plays like one beautifully written scene after another, with nary a single false note struck in the dialogue or the graceful movement of the narrative. And as someone who actually has read the source material (Alice Munro's "The Bear Goes Over the Mountain") I can confidently say that Polley manages to be faithful while still adding, as you might put it, her own magic. It might lack the structural precision of the Coens' work and the hilarious, vicious bon mots of Anderson's, but Away From Her thrives in this world on the strength of its delicately written words. Shit, I'd give it the prize for one exchange alone: Grant's come-on compliment to Fiona, prose reconfigured as spoken affection, a declaration of love to the direct and vague, sweet and ironic woman of his dreams. It's pure poetry, but I suppose it does lack the zing of "I drink your milkshake!" or "Look at that fucking bone!"

ANDREW
Prediction: No Country For Old Men
Preference: Away From Her

JOSH
Prediction & Preference: No Country For Old Men

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

OSCAR 2008: BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS


Nominees: Cate Blanchett, I'm Not There; Ruby Dee, American Ganster; Saiorse Ronan, Atonement; Amy Ryan, Gone Baby Gone; Tilda Swinton, Michael Clayton

ANDREW DOWD Remember when Critic Love didn't mean squat in Oscarland? Steve Buscemi, Bill Murray, and Lisa Kudrow do. Hard to believe it with this year's crop of critic-friendly contenders—lead by those two universally acclaimed, neo-western downers—but there was once a time when all the A.O. Scotts and Roger Eberts of the world couldn't will a nomination into existence, no matter how loud and unanimous their collective voices were. The critics voted one way, the Academy voted another, and not even waves upon waves of buzz and acclaim could guarantee a quirky, naggingly neurotic supporting player a place in the race. But things are a little different these days, post-Sideways, and no one's reaping the benefits more than Amy Ryan. The thirty-something's turn as a foul-mouthed, coked-up mother in Gone Baby Gone isn't really the sort of thing stuffy ol' Academy members usually go for, but with nearly every Oscar precursor swinging Ryan's way, who were they to argue? The gal's got the funny factor going for her, but it's gonna take more than good comic timing to secure a victory in this fiercely competitive category. Assuming Ruby Dee's surprise win at the SAGS was a sentimental fluke—her performance is shorter than Hal Holbrook's and not even half as essential—expect this to come to down a battle between Ryan's trailer-trash mama and Cate Blanchett's trash-talking, drag Dylan.

JOSH STAMAN And no drag that Dylan! My goodness, if high-profile buzz, internet leaks, and instant iconography were worth a damn, Blanchett's 'Jude' would be a lock and a deserving one. Blanchett is the category's class act, and the movie itself seems to orbit around her presence and snap to life when she first takes the stage, though it’s certainly in no danger of falling asleep beforehand.

However, this being the strongest lineup in at least a decade (no joke), there's really no telling, especially considering how critics lined up for Amy Ryan months after buzz dictated that Blanchett was an immortal lock. Now, she's in a four-way race, with Lil' Saiorse Ronan on the outs (odd, because her part has to be considered the most coveted of the nominees). Tilda Swinton has her claim as well, with a respected commercial-crossover in Narnia and her canonic, cross-edited preparation and third-act Clooney smack-down. She’s the kind of vet that has earned the prize on her own terms. On the other hand, nobody in the lineup gets the hozzanahs of slapping Denzel Washington in that sagging albatross of a contender American Gangster, due for a 3-plus hour DVD-release in which Ruby Dee might extend her performance by twice! There is absolutely no telling whether or not Ruby Dee's SAG win was a fluke but her performance is the most widely-seen and her standing as grand lioness of the lineup is undisputed. But is one scene enough? On the other hand, American Gangster grossed more than any Big 8 nominee by a fairly substantial margin and its SAG Ensemble nomination means there is love out there for that Almost Ran, and certainly for Ruby.

AD Is one scene enough? Sure. Just ask Judi Dench or Beatrice Straight. But that one scene’s got to be bigger, better, funnier or showier than Ruby’s aww snap moment in the bloated, blessedly forgotten American Gangster. Vanessa Redgrave’s five-minute, twist-punctuated monologue at the end of Atonement is more the Academy’s speed, but they opted instead to nominate her younger incarnation, the precocious little girl with the piercing blue eyes. Good for them.

Though this category is famous for its wild unpredictability, I’d wager it’s not as wide open this year as you’re making it out to be. Nurse Ratched aside, Oscar doesn’t get hot for cold fishes, meaning that Swinton should probably just be thankful for the nod. Alas, when it comes to female acting awards, voters tend to let their libidos make the call, meaning that the winner here will probably be one of the two ladies they’d really like to see naked. If I side with Blanchett for the win—in terms of both prediction and preference—it’s not just because I too wouldn’t mind catching the Aussie beauty in a state of undress, but also because her Jude is the year’s most joyous, electrifying riot act. Plus, I know my history: the last time Blanchett disappeared into a spot-on impersonation, she neatly trounced the critic fave for this very same award. Me thinks Amy Ryan will soon be joining Tilda Swinton and Virginia Madsen at the “it was an honor just to be nominated” table.

JS But really who would they rather see naked? Let's delve into that for a moment. I'm sure you can find something charming, vintage, and revealing of Ruby Dee floating around the Academy retirement homes. Then again, you could probably say the same for Saiorse Ronan. Tilda Swinton may be a cold fish but she's in the most beloved film of the category and she just won the BAFTA. I'm not entirely confident predicting her yet, but don't discount her so easily. In addition, let's not forget that Gone Baby Gone—a very solid movie—is likely to play very well on DVD. I'm not ready to predict Ruby Dee either, but my most nagging of thoughts is that the love it/hate it-factor makes I'm Not There the most atypical nominee. If you love or even like the movie (or sit through it, for that matter), I think Blanchett has your vote. On the other hand, that requires one sit through a half hour first. This race is far too convoluted for you and I to both agree on the winner that we both endorse and both be right. In lieu of conformity and an unprecedented second Oscar for Blanchett in three years, I'm going to predict Tilda Swinton as a bone tossed to Michael Clayton, a respected and overdue performer, and a throwaway part that she made credible, haunting, and haunted. In lieu of ink, I'll just pencil her in. Incidentally, my God would I love to pencil her in!

ANDREW
Prediction & Preference: Cate Blanchett, I’m Not There

JOSH
Prediction: Tilda Swinton, Michael Clayton
Preference: Cate Blanchett, I'm Not There

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

OSCAR 2008: BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR


Nominees: Casey Affleck, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford; Javier Bardem, No Country For Old Men; Philip Seymour Hoffman, Charlie Wilson’s War; Hal Holbrook, Into the Wild; Tom Wilkinson, Michael Clayton

JOSH STAMAN: The sheer number of leading performers strategically slumming it in supporting roles for awards jockeying has been out of control this past decade. Cate Blanchett is not supporting anybody in Notes on a Scandal. Ethan Hawke is not supporting anybody in Training Day. Jake Gyllenhaal is not supporting anybody in Brokeback Mountain. And Jamie Foxx is absolutely not supporting anybody in Collateral. There are at least twenty borderline examples I could continue rattling off, yet it bears repeating that never before has awards jockeying bared so little consideration to running time and filmic role as the delegation of Casey Affleck to supporting status for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. There is no conceivable justifying rationale, be it placement of character name in the title or that anybody could mistake his work in Gone Baby Gone as superior evidence of the actor's gift.

Both Andrew and I are in agreement that Casey Affleck gave the performance of the year in The Assassination of Jesse James… and that his placement in this category is ludicrous, so we will rule him out as there is no justification for this jockeying horseshit especially considering the rather weak competition for Best Actor this year. I toss it to Andrew for the best performer in this category who is not Casey Affleck.

ANDREW DOWD: I could waste some words on this category, I really could. I could wax poetic about 83-year-old Hal Holbrook, so warm, tender, and memorable in his mere ten minutes of screen time in the home stretch of Into the Wild. I could go on and on about the dependably terrific Tom Wilkinson, whose impassioned rants and ravings lend Michael Clayton—the man and the movie—a pulse, a conviction and a conscience. I could even give it up to Philip Seymour Hoffman, the hardest working man in IndieWood, whose hysterical tantrums are about the best reason to see Charlie Wilson’s War. I could talk about all the worthy contenders in this unusually strong field, but I’d be stalling. Fact is, there can be only one, and he is the man, the phantom, the awful specter of death personified. It’s rare that a performance this mythic also grooves on waves of blackly funny, very human personality. Javier Bardem’s bone-chilling work in No Country For Old Men transforms an allegorical figure into a compulsively watchable, flesh-and-blood monster. His presence felt even when off-screen, Anton Chigur is Cormac McCarthy’s singularly terrifying invention, but it’s the man with the silly choirboy haircut who breathes idiosyncratic life into him.

There can no stopping Bardem, whose award-winning destiny has been preordained since his skull-penetrating debut at Cannes. Not to spoil the suspense, but Josh has been saying otherwise for weeks. Come “friendo,” convince me that a lovely little cameo in the Movie That Oscar Forgot is going to topple the scariest and most iconic big-screen villain since Hannibal Lector.

JS I agree with all that you've said about the competition, an usually strong batch of nominees (although I'd argue that Tom Wilkinson's ranting and raving keeps us separated from what is essentially the Soul in Peril part; if this is the weak link, then this is a lineup for the ages) but it does all come down to Bardem and your claim that there can only be one. There's no denying the immediate iconic stature of Anton Chigurgh in the public lexicon, and yet I'd argue that of the three old men in No Country, his is the least impressive. Josh Brolin's damaged EveryMan or EveryVet has been woefully underrated and Tommy Lee Jones' One Man-Greek Choir almost undermines the film with gravitas that belie his character's incompetence. Bardem is fantastic but surface, whereas Hal Holbrook's beautiful third act appearance in Into the Wild is an entire lifetime in minutes at the man's autumnal crux when Alexander Supertramp wanders into his life, gives him reason to hope once again, and shatters his heart. The titular Lessons Learned would be bathetic excess if not for the heartbreak in every one of Holbrook's minutes. I'm not convinced the man can win (though he should) judging from the shameful exclusion of Into the Wild from major categories, but I can't imagine any voter whose had a father or had a son not casting his ballot for Holbrook.

Also, let it be said that Anthony Hopkins' role was supporting in a field of leads but minute-per-minute the most impacting, and the same can be said of Holbrook. Last year I predicted Alan Arkin until the final moments but as you will attest, Sir, I was the only one in at the party to correctly pick dear departed Grandpappy for the one. I'll do it again for Holbrook this year.

AD You can't stop what's coming. Not anymore than Arthur Edens, Robert Ford, or Alexander Supertramp could. Chigur always gets his man, and victory here is as inevitable as the icy clamp of death. But it's your funeral, so who am I to crash it?

Andrew
Prediction & Preference: Javier Bardem, No Country For Old Men

Josh
Prediction & Preference: Hal Holbrook, Into the Wild

Monday, February 11, 2008

Oscar 2008: Predictions, Preferences, and Pissy Shouting Matches


Courtesy of Josh Staman, the introduction to our second annual e-mail tag-team of the Academy Awards. Look for updates every day or two, with Josh and I tackling the major eight categories in what is sure to be an alternately affectionate and hostile affair.

On that note, taken with a whole ocean of salt, a prelude to the madness:

True love doesn't find you terribly often on this mossy whirligig we call the planet Earth. A kiss, a fuck, a missed opportunity, a girl with a white dress getting off a ferry you can't get out of your brain. 2007 was a year to fall in love with movies. And Mr. Andrew Alex Dowd. I love him. I love his body and his mind in equal parts. I won't discuss the parts of Mr. Dowd that I am so enamored with because they're not your business. Besides his uncanny mind for film, you don't have to spend any time thinking about the five and a half, white, medium-thick parts of Mr. Andrew Alex Dowd. This was the year we collaborated on a screenplay, had movie days long and sprawling, and ultimately said goodbye as I crossed the country in search of new opportunity only to wind up in a different continent altogether.

Yet our correspondences have remained almost queerly consistent and we both agree that 2007 was the most amazing year in almost a decade to be alone in the theater. That being said, it's a far more lovely experience being in the theater if you're sitting next to the illustrious physical temple of such tempestuous sensibilities that is Mr. Andrew Alex Dowd. Our top ten list shares no fewer than six entries, and would be seven if I thought it was fair to include Charles Burnett's masterful 1977 film Killer of Sheep. And to be fair, I have not as of yet watched Lake of Fire or 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days. Apparently neither have Academy voters. That being said, Mr. Dowd and I both have the two leading Best Picture contenders in the upper-echelons of our Top Ten lists. If it airs at all, this year's Oscarcast will prove to be the most artistic since Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather: Part II faced off against Roman Polanski's Chinatown.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
BEST ACTOR
BEST ACTRESS
BEST DIRECTOR
BEST PICTURE
THE OTHER CATEGORIES

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS, AND 2 DAYS


Between this review, my capsule for the CIFF, and the mention in my Year End, I have officially exhausted my resources on writing about this movie. But it truly is a gem of a film, bleak but deeply moving. New Yawkers can see it now. Chicagoeans can catch it this weekend. As for the rest of the country... well, there's always DVD.

My full review, posted below and here.

4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS, and 2 DAYS

It's been called a wave, but something with "neo" or "realism" in the title might be more appropriate. The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, 12:08 East of Bucharest, and now, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days—these are the celebrated films of the new Romanian cinema. Boldly naturalistic and steeped in the traditions of verité, these critical darlings and festival faves recall, with every unvarnished frame, the spirit of Vittorio De Sica and his canonized contemporaries. Yet look closer, and you'll see the real tie that binds two international film movements across fifty years of time and hundreds of miles of space. It's not just loose plotting and stark, unglamorous aesthetics that they share, but something richer and more intangible: a beating heart pumping the blood of social outrage. At their core, these are all political films, concerned, as were the Italian neorealists, with the plight of the downtrodden working class. Cristi Puiu's The Death of Mr. Lazarescu forged an endless, lumbering path through the tangled red tape of Romania's ailing health care system. Corneliu Porumboiu's 12:08 East of Bucharest raised and let linger uncomfortable questions about complacency, historical revisionism, and what constitutes a revolution. And here, at last, is Cristian Mungiu's 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, which takes dead aim at an oppressive government and the lose-lose situations forced upon those living under it. Taken together, the three films form something of a polemical trilogy—and, as the last chapter, Mungiu's effort paradoxically offers both the bleakest and the most hopeful vision of the culture it daringly savages.

In its epic long takes, natural lighting, and general lack of music or non-diegetic sound, 4 Months, which won the Palme d'Or at Cannes last year, staunchly adheres to the stylistic palette of its heralded predecessors. What's more, like its Romanian cousins, the film takes place over a single 24-hour-period, its perspective tightly locked on the daylong trials and tribulations of one or two face-in-the-crowd characters. The unlucky, unlikely star of Mungiu's insular narrative is Otilia (Anamaria Marinca), a young university student with a rather serious problem on her hands. It's 1987, two years before the fall of communism in Romania, and Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) is grappling with an unexpected and unwanted pregnancy. Frightened and (almost willfully) helpless, she shifts the burden of responsibility to Otilia, her roommate, who steps up to the task of arranging for her an illegal, backdoor abortion. Nothing comes for free or goes quite as planned, and by day's end, both women will have endured horrors they were scarcely prepared for. Yet it's Otilia, selflessly risking life, limb, and imprisonment to help her friend, who ends up sacrificing the most in the name of compassionate, unwavering devotion.

An episodic nightmare staged with you-are-there immediacy, Mungiu's harrowing drama immerses us in the hour-by-hour, moment-by-moment complications of its heroine's ordeal. As with Lazarescu, it's an exercise in compelled empathy: we see and hear only what Otilia does, sharing her awful experience, virtually feeling her suffering. There's an increasing absurdity to the various obstacles, misunderstandings, and traumatic consequences that she faces; hotel reservation mishaps and an untimely, uncomfortable family dinner suggest not just the folly of bureaucracy, but also the cruelly ironic hand of fate. Yet if 12:08 was a black comedy and Lazarescu was often mistaken for one, 4 Months is unlikely to inspire anything remotely resembling amusement. It's fear that drives the film, hanging over it like a dark cloud, passing quietly across Otilia's eyes as she soldiers through her personal Day From Hell. A pervading mood of deep anxiety colors every scene, fueled by dangers both overt (a coldly menacing, sleazeball doctor) and abstract (the constant, very real threat of getting caught). Mungiu even manages to ratchet up some genuine, white-knuckle suspense through telltale details like an uncovered pocketknife, a carefully "forgotten" ID, and the mere, unnerving sense that someone is trailing Otilia through the dark, trash-littered alleys she wanders through. This has to be some kind of first: neorealist polemic by way of dread-infused horror movie.

Lacking the marathon running time and tedious repetition of Lazarescu, and the unbalanced, two-act structuring of 12:08, 4 Months proves to be the most conventionally satisfying of the Romanian Trilogy, the most inherently movie-ish. Yet it's also the most disarmingly humanistic of the three, concerned less with scoring allegorical points than it is with paying tribute to feminine solidarity in the face of a repressive, patriarchal regime. "Pro-choice" in more ways than one, the film puts the power of action into its heroine's hands, letting her decisions shape the narrative. Unlike old man Lazarescu, who was an anonymous, passive non-character, Otilia is no helpless victim. As portrayed by revelatory newcomer Anamarie Marinca, she's resourceful, headstrong, and forgiving—a survivor and a freedom fighter. Marinca plays her as a woman swallowing all of her anger, fear, and vulnerability whole, burying it just long enough to get herself and Gabita through the longest night of their respective lives. It's a fierce performance—the personal and the political feverishly united in a lone, weary figure—and it lends the film an unmistakable feminist slant.

Otilia loses nearly everything by the exhausting end of 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days—her friendship and her relationship, her innocence if not her composure, her very faith in mankind if her not her sanity. Not even De Sica had the heart to leave his characters grappling with such a grim reality, yet there may be a sliver of hope in Mungiu's naggingly ambiguous coda. Political cinema has to be driven by the possibility—nay, the promise—of change. In Romania, Ceausescu's reign of terror ended when the young and the angry finally stood up against him. When Olivia turns to us in that final, lingering moment, is it resignation in her eyes or the fires of rebellion, burning faint but growing stronger? Maybe you have to lose everything before you can set the gears of revolution into inexorable motion.