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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.

by Bill Gibron

19 Jan 2009


When the Academy Award nominations are announced this upcoming Thursday, 22 January, there is a distinct possibility that the five available Best Director slots will be taken up by filmmakers who have never been nominated before - or at the very least, have limited Academy cache. Unless someone like Ron Howard sweeps in and secures a slot for his over-praised (and under-regarded) Frost/Nixon, we could be looking at a list including Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight), David Fincher (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), Darren Aronofsky (The Wrestler), Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire) and Gus Van Sant (Milk). Now, technically the last name on this list got a previous nod for the Matt Damon/Ben Affleck vehicle Good Will Hunting, but 2008 may just go down as one of the strongest years for directors ever. Outside the normal Academy-possible names, there are dozens of efforts deserving of praise.

What about Jon Favreau’s work on Iron Man? Who would have thought that such a second tier comic book character would warrant such stellar first class treatment? Or how about Matt Reeves’ reinvention of the first person POV horror film with Cloverfield? The annihilation of New York by an alien monster never appeared more potent, or potentially terrifying, than it did in this early 2008 release. There was David Gordon Green’s delirious take on the stoner comedy, Pineapple Express, which followed another one of his fine small town Gothics, Snow Angels and Ben Stiller finally delivered on over a decade of promise with his stellar insider satire, Tropic Thunder. Between the work of newcomers like Andrew Stanton (WALL-E) and Courtney Hunt (Frozen River) and the returns to form for recognized winners (Jonathan Demme - Rachel Getting Married and Oliver Stone - W. ), it was a wonderful 12 months for the individual behind the lens.

Yet how cool is it that Fincher, Aranofsky, Nolan, or Boyce could walk away with a little gold statue? All have done amazing work, and have carved out a niche among film geeks and lovers of fine film. So what if each has had less than successful runs at the mainstream (only Nolan holds two certified hits - both of them Batman revamps). A critic would gladly take any effort by the mind responsible for Fight Club or Sunshine over a weak willed effort by some otherwise solid studio journeymen. While a dark horse could still stand out and claim one of these uncelebrated savant’s limelight, it’s clear that 2009 was the moment when the fringe finally found some industry acceptance. Heck, Benjamin Button is about to break the $100 million mark. That’s better than Fincher’s last three films combined.

So what makes this time different? Why are five filmmakers usually left for artsy fartsy plaudits (and little else) finally putting notches in their business model headboard? For Boyle, the answer was simple - think outside the UK box. While many of his movies were set outside the country, there’s been a distinct English flavor to memorable masterworks like 28 Days Later or Trainspotting. But with Slumdog Millionaire, the British maverick decided to concentrate on India as an actual character itself. That’s why Mumbai swings and swells with a kind of baffling Bollywood magic. Or what about Nolan? He’d been down the masked avenger avenue before. How could he possibly improve on his fan-favored ‘beginning’ for the man-bat. The answer, oddly enough, was seriousness. He took the often campy comic book material and made it into The Godfather for the graphic novel set.

For Aranofsky, it was a stylistic stripping down. The Wrestler often feels like a documentary discovered by a neophyte nostalgic for a bit of ‘80s sports showmanship. There’s none of The Fountain‘s fascinating flourishes, or Requiem for a Dream‘s big screen idiosyncrasies. Instead, it’s just performance capture, clear and simple. The same can’t be said for Fincher, however. Everything he’s learned about art design, costuming, detail, place, mood, tone, narrative, characterization, special effects, editing, scoring, pace, and inherent emotion has been whittled down and rendered resplendently with his indirect take on the F. Scott Fitzgerald short story. While he’s always been a meticulous filmmaker, Benjamin Button is like cracking open a time capsule loaded with eye-popping ideas and awe-inspiring images.

That just leaves Van Sant, and it seems unfair to minimize his efforts this time around. Milk was a major achievement, a biopic that dealt more with what a famous man stood for than what he did behind the scenes. By focusing on the political end of Harvey Milk’s life, and using his personal problems and predicaments as kind of a grateful Greek chorus, we came to understand the passions that drove him, and the positions which ended his far too short time on this planet. Allowing all of his actors the room to explore and extrapolate - especially the mesmerizing work of lead Sean Penn - the director once condemned for creating a shot-for-shot remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s seminal Psycho is now again poised to perhaps pick up his first real slice of cinematic recognition.

Naturally, there are foul winds blowing for this potential nerd nomi-nation. Ron Howard already has one of these glorified career cappers, and there’s enough of a generational gap implied to ignore the historical retrofitting of his take on the infamous ‘70s interview. Besides, when potential results indicator the Director’s Guild of America announced their group of five back on 8 January, Aranofsky was out and Opie was in - and the Oscars rarely waver from such peer mounted recognition. Still, there’s a chance at bucking the trend, something that surely allows The Reader‘s Stephen Daldry or Gran Torino/Changeling‘s Clint Eastwood to sleep at night. Even with Howard in, however, the trending tends to put Boyle as the man to beat. He already has a Golden Globe to shore up his chances.

Last year, Best Director honors were shared by Joel and Ethan Coen, yet there’s was also the first acknowledgement of the turn towards the outside - they themselves beat four first timers including geek god Paul Thomas Anderson, Tony Gilroy, Jason Reitman, and artist turned filmmaker Julian Schnabel. Oddly enough, DGA nom Sean Penn - Into the Wild - didn’t make the final Academy five. So there’s still hope that one of the familiar faces clogging up the film biz machine will be missing come 22 February. Until then, it’s fun to reflect on a year which saw so many wonderful films, and so many amazing directors finally making their mark. Let’s hope it continues throughout 2009. The artform clearly needs it. 

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