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by Bill Gibron

22 Jan 2009


Wow…

Just…wow.

We critics LOVE to lambast the Oscars, arguing that they get it wrong so frequently that their annual misguided message to moviemakers and goers threatens to turn the 80 year old institution into a true cultural afterthought. Sure, there are always signs of life, or at the very least, a shift. Last year, the Academy gave the Coen Brother’s No Country for Old Men all the legitimizing love they could, while tossing some Paul Thomas Anderson affection toward There Will Be Blood as well. Heck, even Juno and Michael Clayton beat out several “prestige” pictures to walk away with a Best Picture nod. So when a film like The Dark Knight becomes one of the highest grossing commercial successes of all, there is always talk of some kind of industry recognition. Sure, popularity doesn’t always equal aesthetic importance, but with the vast majority of film reviewers agreeing on the unequalled mastery of Christopher Nolan’s post-modern masterwork, it seemed like an Oscar lock.

So what happens? Somehow, one of the slew of Holocaust oriented pics (albeit one that uses the senseless slaughter of millions of Jews as a sloppy psychological subplot) beats one of the best films of all time for Academy recognition. No other major awards entity has The Reader on its short list. Not the Producers Guild. Not the Directors Guild. Not the Screen Actors Guild. Only international entities like BAFTA (the British Oscars) and the Golden Globes (who cares) pegged the production for major year end consideration. Now, it’s not like The Dark Knight will go away unrecognized come 22 February. It has eight nominations to The Reader‘s five, and has a much better chance of winning its technical awards than the latter has of earning a single trophy for Best Picture/Director/Actress or Cinematography. Indeed, at the end of the evening’s festivities, Heath Ledger will more than likely earn only the second posthumous Oscar ever given, while areas like effects, art direction, and sound mixing could go the blockbusters way.

And let’s not forget the other surprises and snubs, both warranted and uncalled for, that manifested themselves this morning. Below are a few of the highlights from the annual festival of cinematic second guessing. As we move closer and closer to handing out those coveted little gold men, SE&L will go into a lot more detail about this year’s Academy Awards. It promises to be a very spirited and lively five weeks.


The Surprises
The Reader Gets Best Picture/Director Nods

This critic has made no bones about his hatred of this film. It’s not a personal anger, or something born out of the creative team involved. No, when dealing with the organized genocide of an entire race of people by an evil governmental entity Hell bent on taking over the entire world, there shouldn’t be a double standard, borderline pedophilic love story taking center stage. Daldry did nothing to warrant Best Director consideration (his work is just as pedestrian as it was in The Hours, and he got a nomination for that too. Must have compromising pictures of several AMPAS members), and the end result is confused and incomplete. This is destined to go down in Academy history as one of the worst Best Picture choices ever.

 

Winslet in Best Actress Category Only

Okay, this screws EVERYTHING up. Winslet was supposed to get her nod in the Best SUPPORTING Actress category as a less than subtle means of making sure she walked home with Oscar gold this year (she has five previous nominations, but no wins). Putting her here knocked out several strong candidates - including one major missing name listed below - while turning the entire race into a literal crap shoot. Depending on who you think did the better job - and all five turns were excellent - this may be the first year where the final decision is not so readily predetermined. Sadly, it looks like Winslet may be on the short end of the tally once again.


Doubt Stronger than Some Expected

By the time the pundits were through marking up their Year End excuses for self importance, John Patrick Shanley’s adaptation of his Pulitzer Prize winning stage play was getting just minor, peripheral consideration. Many had Viola Davis recognized for her single, sensational scene with Meryl Streep, but few had Amy Adams, or Shanley himself, getting a nod. With the additional attention given to the leads (including a sensational turn by Philip Seymour Hoffman), Doubt went from “no way” to nicely represented. And unlike The Reader, it deserves it.

The Snubs
The Dark Knight Out of Picture/Director Race

This is just a crime. It’s a scandal and a shame, pure and simple. Of the five films given Best Picture cred by the AMPAS, The Dark Knight surpasses at least three - the fractured Frost/Nixon, the epic but uneven Benjamin Button, and the cinematic travesty known as The Reader. The DGA knew this (no love for Daldry’s dreary romance). The Producers Guild got this right (taking Shanley’s Doubt over the Holocaust drama). And let’s drop the arguments about commercial success spelling doom for Nolan’s amazing movie right now. Titanic got its record breaking number of nominations. Jaws, ET, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Star Wars, and The Lord of the Rings (both The Fellowship of the Ring and The Return of the King) got Oscar acceptance. There is just no excuse for The Dark Knight not being among said roll call.


Happy-Go-Lucky? Not If You’re Sally Hawkins

She’s been the presumptive favorite since topping several year end lists. She walked away with a Golden Globe this past January, and has been heavily touted as one of this year’s nomination locks, what with other acknowledgements from such prestigious places as The Berlin Film Festival. So what happened? How did Hawkins go from predestined front runner to wounded wallflower? Blame the politics of studio shilling. Apparently, The Reader and Angelina Jolie have stronger PR people than Mike Leigh and his usually brilliant British aesthetic.

 

Bruce Springsteen’s Wrestler Tune Gets Nothing

After the fiasco two years ago, which saw Dreamgirls earn three unnecessary nod, and last time around, when
Enchanted also scooped up a trio of nominations (and no awards), the Academy claimed they were going to reconfigure the rules regarding how Best Song choices were made. Apparently, screwing up the system entirely was the solution. As a result, The Boss, this year’s Golden Globe winner (and current Oscar owner for Philadelphia) can keep his tuxedo in moth balls for the rest of the awards season. Sure, the actual nominations available for consideration are nothing to sneeze at, but were there really only three good songs this year? With two being in Hindi?


WTF?
Australia‘s Nomination/ The Duchess’ Pair of Nods

Guess there’s lots of back slapping neo-nepotism amongst the costuming and art direction cliques. Betcha Baz Lurhmann is happy!




Wanted Gets Some Tech Rec

Look, we loved this hyper fun and slickly stylized bullet ballet more than most, but it definitely didn’t deserve to walk away with two technical nods. Was it’s sound design and editing really that good? Or was the pool to choose from really that poor?




What’s With All This Love for Penelope Cruz?

Apparently, Oscar, like most men, thinks with his little Oscar. There is no other reason why this vacant waste of Hispanic space deserves an Academy Award - especially not for this subpar excuse for late in lifeless Woody Allen. She’s done better.


SE&L Satisfaction
Michael Shannon Gets Revolutionary Road‘s Sole Acting Acknowledgment

While this amazing movie deserved much more than three Oscar noms (the other two are for those old ‘anyone can earn them’ standbys, art direction and costuming), Shannon’s work definitely deserves the film’s only acting acknowledgment. Say what you will about the rest of Road‘s revisionist trip back to the sodden suburbs of the ‘50s, but this actor’s laser sharp Greek Chorus really put the whining Wheelers in their place.

 

WALL-E‘s Screenplay Shown Some Love

For most of the Summer, there was a push to see this fascinating CGI classic go the way of Beauty and the Beast as only the second animated film ever to be nominated for Best Picture. There was even talk of getting director Andrew Stanton a Best Director nod. Well, none of that came to pass, especially in light of what happened to a certain Bat-man. But WALL-E did walk away with six total nominations, including the lock in its own cartoon category. But the most surprising statement has to be the Original Screenplay acknowledgement. Apparently, someone in the AMPAS is paying attention.


The Documentary Category is Not a Complete Embarrassment - For Once

After years of screwing up something so easy as picking the best documentary from the previous 12 months, the Academy inched ever closer to quasi-redemption this year. There is not a bad pick among the five finalists, with three - Wire, Water, and Encounters - actually maintaining masterpiece status. In fact, who ever walks away with Oscar gold come 22 February, will be the cream of a really impressive crop.


by Bill Gibron

22 Jan 2009


As announced this morning here are the nominations for the 2009 Academy Awards (review links appear after a specific film’s first mention):

Best Picture:
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (review)
Frost/Nixon (review)
Milk (review)
The Reader (review)
Slumdog Millionaire (review)

Best Actor in a Lead Role:
Richard Jenkins - The Visitor
Frank Langella - Frost/Nixon
Sean Penn - Milk
Brad Pitt - The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Mickey Rourke - The Wrestler (review)

Best Actress in a Lead Role:
Anne Hathaway - Rachel Getting Married (review)
Angelina Jolie - Changeling (review)
Melissa Leo - Frozen River
Meryl Streep - Doubt (review)
Kate Winslet - The Reader

Best Actor in a Supporting Role:
Josh Brolin - Milk
Robert Downey Jr. - Tropic Thunder
Philip Seymour Hoffman - Doubt
Heath Ledger - The Dark Knight (review)
Michael Shannon - Revolutionary Road (review)

Best Actress in a Supporting Role:
Amy Adams - Doubt
Penelope Cruz - Vicky Cristina Barcelona (review)
Viola Davis - Doubt
Taraji P. Henson - The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Marisa Tomei - The Wrestler

Best Director:
David Fincher - The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Ron Howard - Frost/Nixon
Gus Van Sant - Milk
Stephen Daldry - The Reader
Danny Boyle - Slumdog Millionaire

Best Foreign Film:
The Baader Meinhof Complex - Germany
The Class - France
Departures - Japan
Revanche - Austria
Waltz With Bashir - Israel

Best Screenplay from Adapted Material:
Eric Roth and Robin Swicord - The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
John Patrick Shanley - Doubt
Peter Morgan - Frost/Nixon
David Hare - The Reader
Simon Beaufoy - Slumdog Millionaire

Best Original Screenplay:
Courtney Hunt - Frozen River
Mike Leigh - Happy-Go-Lucky
Martin McDonagh - In Bruges
Dustin Lance Black - Milk
Andrew Stanton Jim Reardon and Pete Docter - WALL-E (review)

Best Animated Feature Film:
Bolt (review)
Kung Fu Panda (review)
WALL-E

Best Achievement in Art Direction:
Changeling
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Dark Knight
The Duchess (review)
Revolutionary Road

Best Achievement in Cinematography:
Changeling
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Dark Knight
The Reader
Slumdog Millionaire

Best Achievement in Sound Mixing:
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Dark Knight
Slumdog Millionaire
WALL-E
Wanted (review)

Best Achievement in Sound Editing:
The Dark Knight
Iron Man  (review)
Slumdog Millionaire
WALL-E
Wanted

Best Original Score:
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button - Alexandre Desplat
Defiance - James Newton Howard
Milk - Danny Elfman
Slumdog Millionaire - A.R. Rahman
WALL-E - Thomas Newman

Best Original Song:
“Down to Earth”  from WALL-E - Peter Gabriel and Thomas Newman
“Jai Ho” from Slumdog Millionaire - A.R. Rahman and Gulzar
“O Saya” from Slumdog Millionaire - A.R. Rahman and Maya Arulpragasam

Best Achievement in Costume:
Australia (review)
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Duchess
Milk
Revolutionary Road

Best Documentary Feature:
The Betrayal (Nerakhoon)
Encounters at the End of the World   (review)
The Garden
Man on Wire (review)
Trouble the Water (review)

Best Documentary (Short Subject):
The Conscience of Nhem En
The Final Inch
Smile Pinki
The Witness — From the Balcony of Room 306

Best Achievement in Film Editing:
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Dark Knight
Frost/Nixon
Milk
Slumdog Millionaire

Best Achievement in Makeup:
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Dark Knight
Hellboy II: The Golden Army (review)

Best Animated Short Film:
La Maison en Petits Cubes
Lavatory — Lovestory
Oktapodi
Presto
This Way Up

Best Live Action Short Film:
Auf der Strecke (On the Line)
Manon on the Asphalt
New Boy
The Pig
Spielzeugland (Toyland)

Best Achievement in Visual Effects:
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Dark Knight
Iron Man

by Bill Gibron

22 Jan 2009


Today’s the day. By the time you read this, Forrest Whitaker and Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences President Sid Ganis will have announced the nominees for the 81st Annual Academy Award. Set to be presented on 22 February 2009, the coveted gold statue is considered the film industry’s highest aesthetic achievement. In celebration of this momentous day for film, we here at SE&L will offer up a special selection of material.

First, in honor of presumptive favorite Slumdog Millionaire, Farisa Khalid will present her take on this clever cross-culture fable. By noon EST, an actual list of all the names and categorical recognitions will be made available on the site (with links to reviews, where available). Finally, by mid-afternoon, we will offer commentary on the yearly debate over what Oscar got right (the surprises) and those films and creative individuals that definitely deserved better (the snubs). We’ll even look at the unnecessary nods and glad-handing hack acknowledgements that seem to spring up every year.

So stick with SE&L over the next 30 days as we offer regular looks at the obvious omissions (especially in the always dreaded documentary and foreign film sections), the inarguable no-brainers (the late Heath Ledger, we’re looking at you), and what this year’s picks mean to the always intriguing artform in general. While they don’t always celebrate the best in film, the Academy Awards are a lot like the much debated College Bowl Series. The final result may not reflect the absolute number one, but its existence sure does make for some lively discussion. 

by Farisa Khalid

21 Jan 2009


“Serendipity” originated in India.  The word derives from the old Persian name for Sri Lanka, and tells the story of three princes who went on a journey, always stumbling upon things that seemed inconsequential, but turned out to be important later in their lives.  These accidental discoveries led them to claim unsought rewards (marriage to beautiful princesses, wealth, land) as a result of their wisdom and reasoning.

It seems only fitting that the film that swept the Golden Globes this year, a film about India, should exemplify how Fate and the determination of an individual can overcome misery and despair. 

Following a few great European directors before him, like Jean Renoir (The River), Louis Malle (Phantom India), and David Lean (A Passage to India), Danny Boyle cleverly, chooses not to assume the role of an insider.  He sees India with Western eyes - eyes so sensitive to detail that his vision of India is an epic, modern poem of hope and perseverance set against a backdrop of burning colors, dust, and teeming humanity. 

Vikas Swarup’s novel, Q & A, is terrific source material. The story centers on a boy from the slums of Bombay (now Mumbai), abused, orphaned, forced to hustle and con to survive, who fortuitously lands as a contestant in India’s most popular game show, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and to the shock of the glib host and the rapt viewers, nails every question to pull himself out of poverty.

The story’s hero, Jamal Malik, tells us, “You don’t have to be a genius to get it right.”  For him, you learn by living.  Each question posed on the game show turns out to have significant meaning in Jamal’s life, and triggers a wave of memory, often rife with pain and realization, that leads him to pick the right answers.

Simon Beaufoy’s kaleidoscopic screenplay and Boyle’s imaginative direction bring these memories to life so vividly, that the imagery haunts you long after you’ve left the theater: 
scenes of young Jamal and his older brother, Salim, outracing corrupt petty policeman, with M.I.A.’s raspy, soulful voice pulsating in the background; the horror of the Mumbai riots, where mobs of Hindu fundamentalists tear through the slums and kill Jamal’s mother as a young boy painted in bright blue dressed as the warrior-god Ram stands by, passively observing the carnage; and, a truly inspired moment when the seven-year-old Jamal, trapped in an outhouse, learns of superstar Amitabh Bachan’s nearby visit, and literally, swims through shit to get his autograph.

Older Jamal is played with steely resolve by the talented British actor, Dev Patel. Patel’s angular, gaunt face and thin, wiry lips are wonderfully expressive; He has the look of a young man who’s lived far beyond his years. There’s a brilliant scene with the slick game show host, Prem Kumar, played by veteran Bollywood star, Anil Kapoor.  Kumar has just tried to give Jamal a tip-off to a crucial question.  It’s a casual act of sabotage that he thinks an uneducated “slumdog” won’t be able to resist.  But the interaction that ensues on the set of the game show between the complacent, insidiously evil host and the wise contestant ends up having all the charged suspense and quiet exhilaration of a stand-off in a well-made Western.

The soul of the film is the love story between Jamal and his childhood sweetheart, Latika.  Jamal’s relentless need to reunite with her and to keep her safe and happy is what motivates him to get on the game show in the first place.  Circumstance and poverty turns her into a gangster’s moll, and her attempts to escape are thwarted by the bad man’s ruthless thugs.  If millions of viewers tune in to see Jamal on the show, then perhaps Latika will be among them, and she can get out to reach him. She’s embodied beautifully by Freida Pinto, who possesses such innate grace and delicacy that she seems to glow from within.

Slumdog Millionaire is a brilliant, young man vs. the Establishment story.  It’s Dickens gone Bollywood.  Steven Spielberg, in his acceptance speech for the Cecil B. DeMille Award said that Hollywood needs to accept the fact that the future of entertainment is changing, and that we will begin to see more stories told with a greater diversity of people from different backgrounds and cultures.  Slumdog’s finale, an enthusiastic send-off to Indian movie dance numbers, is a glorious confirmation of that statement.

by Bill Gibron

20 Jan 2009


Vision is hard to come by in today’s ‘crank ‘em out and count the pennies’ Hollywood. Bankability and commercial viability often trump things like talent, imagination and artistry. Why make something daring when you can make dollars. There’s also a strange synchronicity between the two completely competent business extremes. Sometimes, a filmmaker has to trudge away in demographically determined limbo in order to get his or her chance to stand up and shine. Such is the case with Darren Lynn Bousman. Best known for turning the sensational suspense thriller Saw into a practical, money-making franchise, many dismissed him as a genre journeyman - capable of creating gruesome, horrific terrors, but not much else.

So imagine everyone’s surprise when, after leaving the lucrative series, Bousman’s first feature ends up a Grand Guignol Gothic musical featuring a cast including Sarah Brightman, Paul Sorvino, and Paris Hilton. Entitled Repo!: The Genetic Opera, this morbid modern take on the classical artform stands as one unique, spellbinding experience. Developed by composers Darren Smith and Terrance Zdunich, it began as a stage play. With Bousman’s support, a 10 minute financing “trailer” was cobbled together and taken around. When Lionsgate, the beneficiary of the filmmaker’s Saw support, gave the greenlight, it was an uphill struggle to get the film made, and then recognized. Now available on DVD, this ridiculously creative repugnant roadshow lives up to every ounce of its wild-eyed ingenious promise.

In Bousman’s more than capable hands, the not too distant future is a grim landscape littered with corpses. A plague has struck the world’s population, turning once healthy organs into failing blobs of flesh. Enter GeneCo and their genetically engineered replacement parts. Thanks to endless advertising, the work of company symbol/songbird Blind Mag, and the relentless pursuit of profit by founder Rotti Largo and his inauspicious children - sons Luigi and Pavi, and fame whore daughter Amber Sweet - everyone now has a second chance at life. But there’s a catch. Organ transplants are expense and most people must finance their necessary surgery. Make all your payments, and everything is fine. Miss one, however, and one of GeneCo’s Repo men will come calling…scalpel in hand.

From such a complex set up, Repo! then takes a traditional approach to its main narrative thread. Dr. Nathan Wallace is Largo’s foremost legal assassin, a man with a past he is trying to escape. His inquisitive teenager daughter Shilo longs to learn about her late mother, the blood disease that is killing her, and the reasons for GeneCo’s sudden interest in her well being. When Rotti finds out that he is terminally ill, he must determine who will inherit his corporate kingdom. But with Luigi’s outsized temper, Pavi’s perverse addiction to changing his face, and Amber’s overall obsession with surgery (and the illegal painkillers that make it all so easy to endure), he can’t see his own family running the business. Instead, he looks to Wallace, his late wife, and their frail offspring to continue on his legacy. But there’s a catch…

From the moment it begins, there is no denying one fact - this is a true opera. Almost all the dialogue is sung, and Smith and Zdunich avoid presenting a collection of pop songs for meatier, more intricate sonic structures. Repo! uses specific themes, repeated motifs, and other obvious classical tricks to take us into a world of heighten emotions and outrageous individuals. The last act denouement, set within the title arena, plays like a Puccino snuff film. Bousman relies on his actors’ talent to take us into an existence overflowing with of rotting death, familial backstabbing, and Marilyn Manson macabre. Such studied voices as Sorvino, Brightman, and Skinny Puppy’s Ogre are matched well by vocal novices like Alexa Vega, Ms. Hilton, and the always insane Bill Moseley.

Casting is crucial to this film, something Bousman discusses at length as part of the DVD’s available commentary track. In the detailed discussions offered, the director goes out of his way to praise each participant for their bravery and commitment to the project. Even without this information, such singular determination would be obvious. Sorvino and Vega are particularly effective, with Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s Anthony Stewart Head equally good as Shilo’s dad and Rotti’s main Repo man. Perhaps the most unsung hero of the entire piece is co-writer Zdunich, who essays the ethereal role of narrator/necromancer The Graverobber with a kind of instant onscreen magnetism that studio suits simply die for. One imagines he’ll be taking up residence in some casting agent’s reserve list before long.

With amazing performances, awe-inspiring visuals, endless reams of invention, and a true talent behind the lens, Repo!: The Genetic Opera should be a masterpiece, and it is…up to a point. Even the bloodletting and organ grinding add to the film’s overall feeling of scope and spectacle. No, the one element that feels slightly out of place (and less so once you’ve experienced the movie a second time) is the music. By avoiding the instant hook, the sing-along melody, or the instantly recognizable riff, the aural side of the production becomes initially awkward and obtuse. Tunes like “17” do stand out immediately, but it takes a while to get into the unique and sometimes struggling joys of “Chase the Morning” or 21st Century Cure.” Perhaps the best moment occurs when Brightman belts out the beautiful Italian aria “Chromaggia”, complete with requisite emotion. It brings the fascinating finale to an utter standstill.

The most memorable element of Repo!: The Genetic Opera however remains how startling impressive and visually imaginative it is. You have literally never seen anything quite like the images Bousman puts on the screen. From the corpse-strewn catacombs with their twisted limbs of agony to the freak show finish which seems lifted from an arthouse interpretation of Sid Vicious’ “My Way” video, this is pure cinematic showmanship from someone who understands the medium implicitly. Had he not had the success of the Saw films, one wonders if Bousman would have ever seen his fabulous fever dream come to fruition. Chastise them all you want, but those poster children for torture porn allowed something like Repo!: The Genetic Opera to see the light of day. The movies are much better for it.

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