Sunday, February 25, 2007

Oscar Predictions

I have not the time or the will to make a detailed, in-depth analysis, so all I offer up here is my guesses on who will win, and, where I feel I can make the judgment, my personal winners.

Foreign Film
Film Editing
Animated Film
Art Direction
Costume Design
Original Score
Original Song
Sound Effects
Visual Effects
Docu Sh.
Animated Sh.
Live Action Sh.

The Queen
Martin Scorsese
Helen Mirren
Forest Whitaker
Jennifer Hudson
Eddie Murphy
Little Miss Sunshine
The Departed
Pan's Labyrinth
An Inconvenient Truth
Children of Men
Pan's Labyrinth
The Queen
"I Need to Wake Up"
Blood Diamond
Pirates 2
Pan's Labyrinth
Blood of Yingzhou...
The Little Matchgirl
West Bank Story

The Departed
Martin Scorsese
Judi Dench
Ryan Gosling
Adriana Barraza
Mark Wahlberg
Little Miss Sunshine
Children of Men
Abstain (only Pan's seen)
Abstain (only Truth seen)
Children of Men
Children of Men
Any (all B-)
The Good Shepherd
Blood Diamond
Pan's Labyrinth
Blood Diamond
Pan's Labyrinth

Since the broadcast is both in the middle of the British night, and on a channel I don't have access to, I won't be able to watch the Oscars... sadly. There is a highlights show that I will have to wait a week to see (due to being back at university), but obviously I won't be waiting that long to find out the winners. So I'll have my statistics up asap, as well some comments if anything truly surprising occurs.

Prediction Ratio: 14/24 (58%)
Winners here.

Brief Comments:

- I did rubbish. I like that.
- An resounding boo to Emmanuel Lubezki's loss in Best Cinematography... no movie matched Children of Men's expressive, groundbreaking work in this category, not even the eventual winner, Pan's Labyrinth (which had a dark, rich colour palette and was really excellent, but still...)
- I think my hesistancy in predicting Alan Arkin was wishful thinking... I just can't believe he won. Sigh.
- I can't feel too much animosity towards Babel's score win because I love "Deportation/Iguazu" too much... but goddammit, that isn't original! Pan's was robbed in this category.
- And joy to The Departed's four truimphs... all richly deserved and some (editing especially) a delicious surprise. Go Marty!

Thursday, February 22, 2007

The Many Talents of Toni

Toni Collette does more than just act. This is a revelation I have only recently come across. Stale Popcorn recently posted about this, but I've just become so obsessed that I had to echo him. I was shocked to find that her album with her band The Finish is actually available on British iTunes... so buy it if you can! My favourite is the song in the video above- their latest single 'Look Up'- but the entire album is truly fantastic. And now I just love Toni about ten times more, which I thought was wholly impossible. I'd love to show you the scene from The Sixth Sense when Cole tells his mom (Toni) what he can see... but, dangit, there isn't one online. So a screencap shall have to do. It's one of my absolute favourite tear-jerking moments ever.

- She wanted me to tell you...
- Cole, please stop...
- She wanted me to tell you she saw you dance. She said, when you were little, you and her had a fight, right before your dance recital. You thought she didn't come see you dance. She did. She hid in the back so you wouldn't see. She said you were like an angel. She said you came to the place where they buried her. Asked her a question? She said the answer is..."Every day." What did you ask?
- Do... Do I make her proud?

And now, given that it's a quarter past two in the morning and I have to get up at seven, I'm finally going to go to bed.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

A Not-So-Famous Second Take On Capote

After a bit of coverage around last year's Oscars, where Capote was a towering figure, no one really seemed to care when Douglas McGrath's unintentional-sister film Infamous was actually released, bar perhaps a bit of tittering when it was discovered that Toby Jones and new Bond Daniel Craig lock lips in one scene. Infamous is a lot more than that moment, although, sadly this lot is not worth a whole lot. I wasn't the biggest championer of Capote, but watching Infamous made me wonder why I wasn't more impressed by Capote's laudable subtlety and rich, downcast atmosphere- for Infamous, by contrast, overstates practically everything, and it's tone is rather more confused.

Where Capote purposefully eschewed focus on Truman Capote's Manhattan lifestyle, Infamous practically revels in it, casting an array of familiar faces as Capote's "Swans" and other friends. The disturbing descent of Capote's obsession with murderer Perry Smith (here played by Craig) does not make the same impact this time around precisely because Douglas McGrath always returns him to his New York home and companions- both worlds exist together here, nothing has been lost, as it was in Capote. An awkward interjection of later interviews with Capote's friends serves only to jar the film even further, and McGrath's direction often can't help being too obvious and pandering.

Nevertheless, there's some good stuff here. Toby Jones isn't nearly as good as Philip Seymour Hoffman was, but he still offers an interesting new riff on the character and is usually precise in his voice and mannerisms. Sandra Bullock is excellent as best friend Nelle Harper Lee- from her poignant readings of McGrath's often studied dialogue in the interview sections to her awkward plodding walk, Bullock captures Lee's uncomfortability with the situations she finds herself in while retaining a true sense of Lee's friendship with Capote. As for the Swans, only a virtually cameoing Isabella Rossellini truly convinces- Hope Davis seems far too modern, while Sigourney Weaver and Juliet Stevenson both demonstrate an unfortunate tendency to overact.

It's ironic, perhaps, that the film's best moment comes right at the start. Gwyneth Paltrow is Kitty Dean (read: Peggy Lee), singer at the nightclub Capote and Babe Paley (Weaver) are frequenting, and, after knocking a few verses of 'What Is This Thing Called Love' out of the park, she suddenly stops. The music stops, and Kitty sadly sings something acapella, making the entire club stop, transfixed. Kitty stops again, and gestures to the band to strike up again- she's back in the swing of the song again. Paltrow's gorgeous voice and point-perfect epitomization of the period almost ends the movie before it's started, and nothing in Infamous ever reaches the glorious highs of that scene.

And to prove my point, here's that moment (or half of it):

Monday, February 19, 2007

Oscars 2006: Best Actress

Here it is, the last of my posts on the Oscars' acting categories, and it's my favourite... Best Actress. After this, I'll be returning to my usual eclectic array of posts, which I'm sure you'll all enjoy.

Oscars 2006: Best Actress

5. Kate Winslet as 'Sarah Pierce', Little Children
I've yet to see The Holiday, but, after my frenzy of excitement at having four Kate Winslet movies in the space of three months, I was incredibly disappointed to see that all of them are distressingly worthless. Believe me, I'm just as distressed to see my favourite modern actress all the way at the bottom here. Her turn as alienated housewife Sarah Pierce is far better than her choppy role in All the King's Men, and there's not much wrong with it at all to be honest- it's merely proficient work, demonstrating Winslet's professional and committed work ethic, but the role itself is what's limiting here- like the others, Sarah is essentially destroyed in the awful climax, and there is literally nothing Winslet could have done to prevent it. Only a scene in a book group meeting gives Winslet the chance to shine as bright as she has done before.
Likelihood of win: 2%

4. Meryl Streep as 'Miranda Priestly', The Devil Wears Prada
Streep is on glacial form here, as cold as an Antarctic night, yet bitterly funny too, yet it's hardly one of her best performances. Of course, with Streep there's always an extremely tough curve to grade on, given her multitudinous superb performances, and Miranda Priestly just isn't one of her best roles. I'd happily sit through this film again, and again, if just for superb Emily Blunt, but many of Streep's caustic readings are hilarious too- and it is nice to see a bit of true comedy amongst this otherwise rather serious line-up (Cruz excepted).
Likelihood of win: 2%

3. Helen Mirren as 'Queen Elizabeth II', The Queen
I think, being a Brit, the experience of watching The Queen was rather different for me than the rest of the world, given that this is my monarch in my country presiding over me. The day- or rather, the morning after Diana died is one of my most distinct memories from an otherwise hazy time- I remember waking early on that August morning, turning on the tv and seeing my morning programmes interrupted by the news. Even at the age of nine, I was shocked and saddened. So The Queen, for me, was a fascinating look behind the scenes of a landmark memory, the political scene behind my childhood. And Mirren is, indeed, superb, and I have no qualms with her inevitable Oscar win- I just wasn't blown away by this work, as I was by numbers 1 and 2.
Likelihood of win: 90%

2. Judi Dench as 'Barbara Covett', Notes on a Scandal
I only saw Notes last week, and I think a performance as complex as Dench's needs some time to settle into my head, and so take this placement with a pinch of salt. Dench applies so much to what could have easily been a slim, villainized role- Patrick Marber's script paints with an exceedingly thin brush, and Dench, unlike co-star Cate Blanchett, totally eschews what Marber has given her to create a full, multi-layered character. Barbara does misguided, even cruel things, yet Dench recognises the deep loneliness and pain behind these actions, and every moment is driven by this. She realizes that Barbara is not really attracted to Sheba, but is so lonely she convinces herself of it. Every moment of this performance is filled with rich detail- the judgmental looks at her co-workers, the fiddling with her handbag strap, the movement of her pen. This is the best Dench has been in years.
Likelihood of win: 5%

1. Penelope Cruz as 'Raimunda', Volver
Penelope Cruz has reigned supreme at the top of this list for several months, until of course I finally saw Dench and started to err. But Cruz's performance is superb- her movie-star wattage finally mixed with her native language, allowing her to shine in both senses of the word. Assisted by push-up bras and posterior-padding, Raimunda is a sexpot, sure, but she's also a mother, and she's not really after men, at least consciously. Of course, the moment in Volver that sticks in most people's minds is the scene where Penelope lipsynchs to the title song, and, indeed, that is the moment of this performance that has haunted me the most- I love that, even though it's evident that she is mouthing, Cruz is utterly devoted to the moment, her mouth moving passionately and tears flooding from her eyes. It's a beautiful, perhaps transcendent moment, and the one that epitomizes this superb, unexpected performance.
Likelihood of win: 1%

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Oscars 2006: Best Supporting Actor

Oscars 2006: Best Supporting Actor

5. Djimon Hounsou as 'Soloman Vandy', Blood Diamond
Hounsou yells a lot in Blood Diamond, and he also cries a lot, but I don't really see how that gives him much character. Soloman Vandy is a empty vessel, and I think you could almost call him a plot device if the film didn't devote so much screentime to him. Soloman is the saint to the gunmen's sinners, the writer's- and Zwick's- way of assuring his audience that he's not, actually, racist, because look!, here's a nice black character, look, he's lost his family, look at him cry. The three roles that Hounsou has been acclaimed for- this, In America, and Amistad- have all had him playing virtually the same character, and, ironically, Hounsou seems to loose his grip on it a little more each time.
Likelihood of win: 8%

4. Alan Arkin as 'Grandpa', Little Miss Sunshine
I've talked about this before, but my basic issue with Alan Arkin's nomination is this- he wasn't even the most deserving supporting actor in the film. It's colourful work, sure, but rarely does it expand on that, and perhaps only in the scene they're sure to play on Oscar night- his final conversation with Olive, telling her that she IS actually beautiful. Arkin's playing of his character's love for his granddaughter is really quite moving, and the sole reason why I'm not more upset about this nomination than I would be otherwise.
Likelihood of win: 27%

3. Jackie Earle Haley as 'Ronnie J. McGorvey', Little Children
I hated Little Children, but that wasn't the fault of Jackie Earle Haley. His difficult role as a convicted sex offender is done no service by the script, yet Haley stays on the right marks for most of the time, most painfully in the excruciating date scene with a superb Jane Adams, where Ronnie tries desperately to hold tight onto a falsified image of himself, the person he wishes he was but can't possibly be. Ronnie's struggles with himself are ultimately dissected brittly by the shambolic ending, and I think that Haley looses his grip along with the slide, but for most of the film it's a challenging- for a mixture of reasons- role, well played.
Likelihood of win: 5%

2. Eddie Murphy as 'Jimmy Early', Dreamgirls
Eddie Murphy is the only major performer in Dreamgirls who actually forms anything resembling a character, perfectly aligning himself with the outrageous, unbalanced character he's playing, using his usual comedic excesses to mark out his musical numbers from the other performers', and revealing a crushed soul beneath it. Murphy is a firecracker in his numbers, yet he's just as commanding of the screen when he's sniffing drugs, or simply in the background- Murphy uses his unique facial expressions and vocal highs to add to his character, creating a tragic figure in a character you never expected to amount to much.
Likelihood of win: 45%

1. Mark Wahlberg as 'Dignam', The Departed
Wahlberg is a true supporting performance, and by this I mean that, after a bright start the script rather pushes him aside, leaving him fighting to get much screentime at all (until the final moments, at least) and having to combat the strange urges that Scorsese seems all too happy to indulge in Mr. Nicholson. Sure, Wahlberg's volatile, foul-mouthed officer isn't given much depth, but, not only is Wahlberg's delivery of some hilarious lines perfectly aggressive and quickfire, there's a deep-seated anger behind him that gently hints at something more. Scorsese doesn't persue this, and I'm glad: Wahlberg's Dignam remains the great unknown of the film, which makes the final moments all-the-more effective.
Likelihood of win: 15%

Coming next, and finally: Best Actress

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Oscars 2006: Best Supporting Actress

Oscars 2006: Best Supporting Actress

5. Jennifer Hudson as 'Effie White', Dreamgirls
I was thoroughly surprised, and, well, appauled, when I finally witnessed Jennifer Hudson's widely praised work in Dreamgirls, because I was struck by just how empty it is. Yes, Hudson may have a hell of a voice, and yet, even behind her singing I saw nothing: no emotion, no soul, no character. The character of Effie White is really the most easily humanized of the movie, given how sympathetic the script and, indeed, most of the other characters are towards her, even when her diva issues get her thrown out of the Dreams. But Hudson proves distressingly inept, concentrating everything on making her voice as loud as it can get and leaving her heart to beat elsewhere. Besides Helen Mirren, Hudson seems the person most assured of an Oscar, and personally, that's extremely depressing.
Likelihood of win: 80%

4. Cate Blanchett as 'Sheba Hart', Notes on a Scandal
I love Cate Blanchett. I have no qualms in saying so, and even her recent overexposure hasn't dampened this love. Her work in Notes on a Scandal is by no means awful- it's not even her worst of the year, thanks to the horrendous Little Fish- and yet there's something distinctly off about it. Blanchett seems to take the obvious choices all the time in the role of Sheba Hart, playing up her character's bohemian oddities and wispy affectations while still unfortunately retaining the strength of character that Blanchett has always made a defining trait. While the film sees Sheba through the eyes of Judi Dench's Barbara, the highlighting of the bohemian side of Sheba seems justified, but when Notes turns a corner and shares the narrative between the pair, you would expect Sheba's characteristics to become softened, yet Blanchett sticks to her guns. I do think that the quality of performance is somewhat undermined by Blanchett's mis-casting, but she didn't have to take the role.
Likelihood of win: 3% (given her win two years ago)

3. Abigail Breslin as 'Olive Hoover', Little Miss Sunshine
While the placement of both Hudson and Blanchett was easy (ie. at the bottom), I've become increasingly distressed over the exact ordering of the top three in this category, because I'm a big admirer of each and didn't really know which deserved to go where. So, really, take the ordering of these three with a pinch of salt: I love all three. Abigail Breslin is the precocious centre of Little Miss Sunshine, the charming little girl who wishes she was the titular character, but isn't. I think the nomination of child performers is difficult, because there's always those who moan about it, who either say that she was just playing herself, or, in the increasingly derided case of Dakota Fanning, she IS acting, but that means she's not playing a child any more. I think, to be honest, that, surrounded by experienced elders and demanding crew, that actually playing natural is rather difficult for a child, and yet Breslin remains utterly beguiling, never approaching the Fanning-arena of nobility, but remaining an innocent, devoted and charming little girl. Maybe it's not a magnificent performance- there are better ones in the movie itself- but it's entirely watchable, unreproachable and satisfying work.
Likelihood of win: 8%

2. Rinko Kikuchi as 'Chieko', Babel
There's the hook of playing a deaf-mute, I suppose, but to her enormous credit Kikuchi never lets this become her character's defining trait, instead pouring herself into the character's disaffected, lonely interior, her deafness an unfortunate barrier to what she longs for. The Japanese thread of Babel's four-pronged attack has been repeatedly called the most successful of them, perhaps because of the fact that it's so separate from the others- the ultimate connection seems entirely irrelevant by the time we are hooked into the story of Kikuchi, Innaritu's various tricks and techniques superbly engrossing the audience into her isolated world. Kikuchi never lets go of the fact that her character is a teenager, and one whose single goal seems to be sex- not connection, she has that with her deaf friends- and Kikuchi is totally aware of her character's rather desparately full frontal approach, keeping the disaffected reserve even in the scenes with her friends- Chieko is never totally comfortable, has never truly aligned herself with the world around her, which is so unwelcoming of her. Ultimately, Kikuchi's desperation is both unnerving and moving- in a lesser actress' hands, we wouldn't understand why Chieko is so driven to what she does, but Kikuchi makes every moment of Chieko's life a sympathetic and saddening experience.
Likelihood of win: 4%

1. Adriana Barraza as 'Amelia', Babel
For a long while into the Mexican strand of Babel, I was perplexed as to why, exactly, Innaritu was so focused on showing us this wedding, and why, exactly, Adriana Barraza's work was so admired, because she didn't seem to be doing anything. Babel is long, sure, but I think that the early, apparently irrelevant sequences of the film are ultimately purposeful for the state they lull you into- and when the rug is slowly, painfully pulled from under your feet, the experience is that much more devastating. Amelia's struggles in the film's second half are deeply upsetting, all the more for the way Barraza plays them- Amelia is not a woman in control, a woman who can properly comfort the children she is caring for, but a woman totally lost and confused, a woman devastated, a woman in fear. Her major abhorrent decision does not make us angry with Amelia, but even more empathic- she is totally defeated. And it is Barraza's devoted work that makes that feeling all the more upsetting.
Likelihood of win: 5%

Coming next: Best Supporting Actor

Friday, February 16, 2007

Oscars 2006: Best Actor

With a final viewing of Notes on a Scandal yesterday, I've finally seen the complete set of Oscars' acting nominees, and, as promised, here is the first of four posts on each of the four categories. Frist up, I've decided to tackle the leading men, and what will follow hence is my ranking of the five nominees, from worst to best (it's MY opinion, remember, before you get up in arms), with a short explaination on what I think of the performance. Also included will be the likelihood of each performance actually winning the award (again, totally my opinion- I am not responsible for any monetary loss you may incur). On with the show...

Oscars 2006: Best Actor

5. Peter O'Toole as 'Maurice', Venus
O'Toole is, for some reason, all-too-ready to pander to Hanif Kureshi's deplorable 'old-man' schtick, swearing like he's got tourettes and leering over the sympathetic Jodie Whittaker (in a much superior performance) without reservations. Oh, sure, he's devoted as hell to the script, but O'Toole is all surface, a creepy old man without the expected soul beneath it; an ageing, wizened actor who spends his time playing corpses and drinking with his actor buddies, who are almost as bad as he is. Occasionally Kureishi gives O'Toole a chance to shine, spinning a Shakespearean monologue in the fashion that only O'Toole can, but Venus is no more than a slapstick comedy than turns into a snooze, and O'Toole is happy simply to go along with that, never working to find anything beneath the surface.
Likelihood of win: 25%

4. Leonardo DiCaprio as 'Danny Archer', Blood Diamond
Make no mistake, had they nominated DiCaprio for the right film (The Departed), he'd be up there fighting with the leaders of the pack. But for whatever reason, it was deemed that this South African, apparently soulless diamond hunter was the role that Oscar wanted to reward DiCaprio for. To be honest, I see little wrong with this performance: it's proficient, mixing DiCaprio's trademark charm with a volatile side we've never really seen from him before (Gangs of New York, eat your heart out), and giving him the chance to struggle with an accent that I found strangely attractive. But the script never really gives DiCaprio much to chew on, too often choosing the route of action-thriller rather than character-driven drama. DiCaprio is fine, but there's nothing much to love about this performance: it's good work in a mediocre film that will soon be forgotten, although perhaps not as soon as it deserved to be.
Likelihood of win: 8%

3. Will Smith as 'Chris Gardner', The Pursuit of Happyness
I liked The Pursuit of Happyness more than I expected to, although I never expected it to be so bland: the whole thing is so lukewarm, like a bath that's perfectly easy to lie in but is neither hot nor cold enough to alert your body (what a strange metaphor). But I couldn't, to my surprise, deny the quality of Smith's work in it: he never oversells any scenes, as much as they are calling for him to do; he, unsurprisingly, has charming chemistry with real-life son Jaden; he combats Thandie Newton's required screeching with a heartfelt anger. The film itself is what really prevents Smith for being truly deserving, because it never gives him much chance to make a true emotional impact: the whole thing bubbles with something that you can't quite see, as if the emotion is there but someone didn't turn the heat up on it enough (okay, I'll stop with the temparature metaphors). It's quite strange that this was even nominated, because no-one seems to love it: it almost slipped in without anyone noticing.
Likelihood of win: 5%

2. Forest Whitaker as 'Idi Amin', The Last King of Scotland
I didn't much care for the film itself, but, like most of the world, I was so impressed with the performances that it raised my opinion of the whole thing several notches. And Whitaker, for all my admiration for McAvoy, Anderson, Washington, etc., is the best in the film: a terrifying, creepily charismatic Idi Amin, he doth make, always on the line between evil and good, a teetering man who's as unsure of himself as Nicholas Garrigan is. Idi Amin was responsible for the murder of hundreds of thousands of his countrymen, yes, and yet often Whitaker slips in a moment that suggests he does feel guilty, a bit, a touch paranoid, a tad fearful. Ultimately, The Last King of Scotland shows us Amin as unmitigated monster, yet, even in his last, gruelling scenes, Whitaker holds tight to the idea that Amin does, actually, have feelings inside of him, and that he is truly upset by this betrayal. It's a terrifying performance simply for how close it is to being a real, human person.
Likelihood of win: 60%

1. Ryan Gosling as 'Dan Dunne', Half Nelson
I intend to see Half Nelson again on a bigger, clearer screen, and perhaps I'll then appreciate the lauded visual sense of it, and pick up on what makes the film surrounding Gosling so appreciated. But even on the small, grubby copy on which I first encountered it, Gosling's performance was stunning: he effortlessly humanized what could easily have been a stock character, formed delicate duets with the various characters he encountered, made a man both selfish and sympathetic, struggling with his life while struggling to help the lives of others. Out of the five films in this category, Half Nelson is the only one that always feel like actual life, and Gosling is the living, breathing centre of it.
Likelihood of win: 2%

Coming next: Best Supporting Actress

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The Downside of Oscar

I'd like to talk to you, readers, about the elusive film that is The Upside of Anger. What's that, readers? You've forgotten it already? Well, that's understandable. It has been released everywhere. Except here. Yes, that's right, dear readers. Britian still hasn't been deigned worthy of recieving The Upside of Anger. The 11th of March will mark two years since it was first released in the USA, and yet, still, it hasn't turned up in Britain. I went to New York exactly a year ago and I held the DVD in my hands. I could've bought it. I wish I'd bought it. I could have watched it, enjoyed it, and moved on. But that's in the past. Unfortunately the film persists to live in the future. I first noticed that it was scheduled for released in December 2006, though I don't know if it was scheduled for a released previously. Then it moved to the end of January. January came, went, and no Upside was enjoyed. February 16th, you say? Nope. Perhaps the 23rd? No. Next month? No. According to the website of my local cinema (hardly a reputable source, but still) it will now be released on the 5th of May. I hold out little hope. Will I ever learn exactly what the upside of anger is? Because at the moment I am only experiencing it's downsides.

I don't pretend to know why the film is having these distribution problems. But I tend to think that it might have a little something to do with the lack of that little golden man. There was uproar when the gorgeous Joan Allen wasn't nominated at the Oscars for her performance in Upside, and I'd bet a lot of money that if she had got one, they would have released Upside in a flash. All but Felicity Huffman's Transamerica had been released in the UK by the time of the Oscars, and they promptly popped that one out on March 24th. Would a little film starring a TV star have been so quickly released had she not been Oscar-nominated? Maybe. I don't know, I'm not a distributor. But Oscar can mean a lot, and Joan Allen's lack of it meant her film got stuffed in a drawer and forgotten about. I doubt there's many besides me clamouring for it's release so long after it was the talk of the town, but my god, why can't they just put it quietly out there and let me sate myself? Why do they persist in pushing it away? And why, why can't this anger have an upside?

Sunday, February 11, 2007

A Miscommunication About Babel

Babel was a very strange experience for me. Having recently revisited both of director Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu's previous two features, Amores Perros (superb) and 21 Grams (dire), I didn't really know what to expect from his newest, multi-Oscar nommed epic, although I already knew that it was similar in it's structure of loosely connected narratives, and that it had already recieved a rather nasty backlash. Suffice to say, I was prepared not to like it, and, for quite a while through the film, I feared my suspicions were to be confirmed. Babel didn't seem to be saying much- it seemed to be rambling, filled with pointless scenes where culturally-specific music overlays jerky camera shots. However, as the film progressed, one of two possible things happened, and I'm afraid I can't tell you which it was: either a, it stopped doing those annoying things; or b, I stopped being bothered by them. I don't think- and I don't doubt that Innaritu might be slightly grieved by this- that Babel has anything particularly revolutionary or profound to say about miscommunication, or politics, or anything like that. I also don't think that his insistence on linking together the various threads is particularly important. Perhaps it was because I had already discovered how the four- and yes, there are four, not three- different threads all linked together, but I was not bothered by the slightly pandering way this was revealed- instead, I let the film's various stories affect me on their own terms, finding different levels of feeling and power within each one, and ultimately surprising myself by just how affected I was. I walked out of the cinema looking at the world differently, pondering how exactly I communicated with people, and, for all its fleeting failings, I have to say that Babel left me more affected than I ever expected. Grade: B

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Maybe their horses would have helped them?

I seem to remember hearing somewhere that All the King's Men was re-edited at the behest of studio heads- that might just be my imagination, but if it's true it would explain a hell of a lot. All the King's Men doesn't make sense, on any level. I mean, for one thing, I don't understand why all these talented actors- Sean Penn, Jude Law, Kate Winslet, Mark Ruffalo, Patricia Clarkson, et al.- signed up after seeing such a verbose and unsubtle script, but on a simpler level I could barely understand what was happening in the film. For one thing, every character excepting Penn and Law is so marginalized and choppy that their storylines never make sense, and the actors just come out looking like amateurs, although I get the feeling that there was perhaps a coherent performance in them all, but it just got cut up by furious studio editors. I assume that the original novel, by Robert Penn Warren, made some kind of linear sense, that it explored its various themes with gravitas and depth, and that it didn't seem to run all its threads into some kind of enormous entangled web. (I also take it that the first film made of the novel, in 1949, did the same, since it's so well regarded.) But this film doesn't make sense at all. I kept drifting off into reveries, remembering all the other films that these actors had been so good in, before realizing that, hey, I wasn't concentrating on the film- but then it just happened again. It doesn't help that Stephen Zallian's writing is so languid, so simultaneously grand and dull, and that is direction is so horrifically unsubtle- yes, Stephen, we heard the chandelier tinkle, we don't need to see it too- that you'd be surprised if the spider under your seat wasn't rolling his eyes. All the King's Men, thanks to some solid period recreation work, isn't really any worse than a film like Final Destination 3, yet, with a cast this good and a story this respected, it comes out looking a lot worse, because you weren't expecting that schlocky horror to be any good, but this... oh, dear. Grade: D+

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Things I Just Don't Understand

The very lovely Student Cinema association at my university today gave me another chance to see the delightful Little Miss Sunshine for a second time (thanks to them I'll also be giving The Queen and The Departed another go this week), and, while it didn't shine quite as brightly second time around, it still holds up very well as a warm, witty and inventive family comedy, cheerfully juggling potentiallly stereotypical characters and situations with a large slice of acerbic satire. But there's one thing about it I just don't get, and it's not really to do with the film itself- more the reaction to it.

Why, I ask you, is Alan Arkin the one who was nominated for Best Supporting Actor? His role as the coke-snorting, foul-mouthed grandpa is probably the most stereotypical one in this family, and, while it's really the script's fault for never really eschewing that, Arkin's commendations are limited to a couple of clever line readings. Much better, in my view, are the other two supporting men here- Steve Carell as Uncle Frank, the gay suicidal Proust scholar, and particularly Paul Dano as the silent Nietzsche-reading teenage son Dwayne. Granted, they are given more to do than Arkin is, and therefore their characters break out of the potentially stereotyped arena, but just watch them to see how much more deserving they were: Carell does so much with just his eyes- you understand why Frank wanted to kill himself, and why he probably still does, and, ultimately, how he moves past this stage. See how precisely he has down the character's minute details, too- the oddly hilarious way he runs towards the pageant building, arms rigid and back arched, halting suddenly at the automatic doors. And how he spins the various lines he reads, mixing his distinctive comic persona with the depressed character he is playing here.

And Dano, who at this point still gets my vote for the year's best supporting actor, plays the moody teenager down to a tee- it's remarkable how sour he manages to keep Dwayne's face when he's around his family, portraying so much through the tiniest raising of eyebrows or darting of eyes. Dano also understands perfectly the offbeat relationships he has with his family: exasperated by his mother (Toni Collette), slightly fearful of his step-grandfather, distant but protective of his sister Olive (Abigail Breslin), and annoyed at his step-father's (Greg Kinnear) ironic failure. When Dwayne finally speaks, it's an utterly shattering moment, but more for what Dano does to lead up to it: the galling horror of his face bleeds the idea that Dwayne has just had the floor vanish from under his entire existance. Dano is able to, at once, give the sense that Dwayne is both separate from and grudgingly within his family unit.

Breslin, Kinnear and Collette (who I seemed to remember having less to do) are also very good, and so I question again: why is Alan Arkin, easily the least impressive of this family of six, the one nominated? (I know Breslin is nominated too- deservedly, I think, although without currently having seen any of her fellow nominees.) I despair sometimes.


The other thing that I just don't get on this frustrating day of all days is a more difficult point. A friend loaned me the well-recieved Rwandan genocide film Shooting Dogs (to be released as either In Every Human Heart or Beyond the Gates in the US, both of which strike me as rather trite titles), giving it a hearty recommendation, and I finally steeled myself to watch it last night. It's a perfunctorily proficient film, rougher than it's obvious companion piece Hotel Rwanda and less afraid to show actual details (there are a couple of particularly nasty moments), and yet I found much of it distinctly lacking in impact. Why is it that these type of films always seem to feel the need to filter these tragedies through the gaze of Western white men seems the obvious question to ask, but personally what I found most difficult about the film was it's rather portentious sideline of religion (spoilers ahead)- when it becomes obvious that the Rwandans enclosed in the school (the film's main setting), the resident priest Christopher (John Hurt) finds the most important thing to do is give them all communion. (spoilers done) I would be perfectly fine with this angle if the film wasn't so eager to approve it so much- where's the religious balance, the lack of bias? But my major problem is this: when I told my friend I was rarely moved and unimpacted by the film, she asked me if I had no heart. Shooting Dogs (and Hotel Rwanda for that matter) belong to that distinct group of films that if you don't think they're good, you're a heartless monster. Nevermind the quality of filmmaking, or acting, or the quality of the script, then- if it's a fact-based movie where innocent people are killed and you dislike it, you're a bastard. Thanks for that.