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by Bill Gibron

20 Feb 2008


It’s bandwagon jumping time, and since Hollywood is about ready to hand out its own brand of bewildering backslapping, the 19-month-old SE&L figures it too can champion its own choices for award winners. Oscar might have the hoopla, the bags of swag, and all that staggering star power, but what the newly christened SEALS have is something the Academy can never boast – artistic integrity. Granted, the gray hairs in the group sometimes get it right – can’t argue with all their choices, Crash aside – and it’s possible that these new prizes will clash with conventional thinking. But when it comes right down to it, if Blockbuster Video, MTV, and The National Rolling (Down a Hill) Association can declare their preferences for the year’s trophy-deserving best, why can’t we?

That being said, we have to set up some guidelines. First and foremost, as joking Johnny-Come-Latelys, we will avoid the already nominated Academy entries. If it has already been pointed out by Oscar, we will let the Gold One have his glory and simply move on. After all, nothing smacks more of Tinsel Town tonsils to tushy than agreeing on who they feel deserves Best of Year recognition. Secondly, we will try to mine the ENTIRE previous 12 months in film. We won’t skip over efforts from January or March just because most of the cachet pictures wind up playing between November and December. And finally, this isn’t a competition. Other choices may be mentioned, but the SEALS don’t play the nomination game. Either you’re a winner, or you’re not.

So, without further ado, lame jokes from a PC host, or an interpretive dance number based around the choices for Best Song, here are the 2008 SEALS:

Best Film – Gone Baby Gone
Clint Eastwood was called some kind of GOD for turning Dennis Lehane’s novel Mystic River into a Method over-acting melodrama. In a perfect world, Ben Affleck’s take on another of the author’s South Boston whodunits would have been equally praised. Instead, Oscar more or less forgot about it. Too bad, really. This is the kind of engrossing, energetic cinematic tour de force from both sides of the camera that restores your faith in film. Long after the Coens and PT Anderson have gathered up their aesthetic and gone home, this will be the movie audiences return to again and again. In a year of great works, this is definitely the best.

Best Director – David Fincher (Zodiac)
It’s hard enough to capture the look of the ‘70s, let alone the predominant post-peace generation malaise. Now add in the biggest unsolved murder spree in California history, and the man who made his name with the classic serial killer saga Se7en, and you’ve got several impossible cinematic mountains to climb. Drawing on his own memories of the era, Fincher maneuvered all of these potential pitfalls flawlessly. This is Helter Skelter without the Mansion Family mania, a police procedural that dares to expose the flaws in a pre-technology system. Like a symphony in three parts, this director conducted the most memorable movie going experience of the year.

Best Actor – Emile Hirsch (Into the Wild)
It’s hard to play a real life individual, let alone someone with the wide-eyed idealism and neophyte naiveté of Christopher McCandless. Adding to the issue was the depressing manner in which this true story ends. Yet Hirsch, seen mostly in disposable comedies and off-title dramas, really responded to Sean Penn’s pointed writing and directing, creating a believable vagabond whose destiny seems painted in purely fatalistic colors. We root for this lonely and lost young man, but recognize how untenable his attempt really is. It makes Hirsch’s work all the more impressive.

Best Actress – Jodie Foster (The Brave One)
Thanks to a mostly illiterate critical community, Neil Jordan’s brilliant deconstruction of big city security was tagged a ‘female Death Wish. Nothing could be farther from the truth, and Foster’s electrifying performance proves that once and for all. This is the story of ethics pushed to the edge, of normal people taking the ‘concept’ of law into their own hands. While metered out unfairly, and with little consideration for the sacredness of the social order, we watch one woman melt down and rise up, phoenix like, packing heat and ready to reclaim her sanity. It marks another courageous, brilliant turn for the two time Oscar winner.

Best Supporting Actor – Paul Rudd (Knocked Up)
It’s hard to be the anchor when all around you is going gonzo, but Rudd, reserved and resplendent as the stereotypical post modern hen pecked hubby, was absolutely marvelous as Apatow’s amiable marital commentator. From the classic reaction to his wife’s constipation, to the moment his mushroomed brain discovers the variety of chairs in a Vegas suite, he stole scene after scene from a noted moment thief like star Seth Rogen. In the old days, before leading roles leapt over one category to secure a statue, this would be the celebrated performance. Sadly, it sits, unrecognized.

Best Supporting Actress – Michelle Yeoh (Sunshine)
Considering the massive scope of his movie (this is a sci-fi film about saving an entire GALAXY), Danny Boyle had his work cut out for him when it came to making the speculative stakes more personal. Luckily, he had a magnificent cast, including this Chinese icon as the starship’s resident botanist. If a single moment can sell a performance, it’s the instant that Yeoh recognizes that all the food in the interstellar garden has been destroyed. Her face, a combination of shock and sadness, literally breaks your heart. If cameo-sized stunts can earn Oscar nods (and gold), this more substantive turn should as well.

Best Script – Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg (Hot Fuzz)
Describing what this amazing action spoof does best is very difficult - deconstruct the genre, or eviscerate the stiff upper lip stereotype of the British people. More than just a collection of jokes, this is the kind of satire where levels of unexpected wit arrive in the most unusual and arcane of places. From the clipped clichés of the opening to the all out splatter fest at the end, Wright and Pegg prove they’re the heir apparent to Python level lunacy. And then make cracking good films in the process.

Best Documentary – Lake of Fire
Abortion is the ultimate non-debatable issue. No side is absolutely perfect and no position is wholly evil. While it was released in Canada in 2006, the film didn’t appear in American markets until October, 2007, making its unflinching look at the issue eligible for consideration. Always confrontational and never weak willed, Tony Kaye’s take on this material is honest, forthright, and resolute. This is not an attempt to make heroes and villains of those passionate about the topic. Instead, Lake looks at the fight as part of a broader social phenomenon, and a decidedly political one as well.

Best Animated Film – Beowulf
Forget cute cooking rats. Ignore the “Down with the Shah” darkness of one young gal’s life in Iran. And who really cares about surfing penguins. This is the real animated feat of 2007, a movie rich in atmosphere, bravado, and naked male fisticuffs. Robert Zemeckis managed to take the wheezy Nordic poem and transform it into a terrific visual feast, complete with a stellar turn by Crispin Glover as the big bad monster Grendel. For those lucky enough to see it in 3D, the amazing amount of detail in the film is more than eye-popping. Add in the increasingly realistic motion capture and you’ve got a great CGI achievement.

Best Foreign Film – The Orphanage
As with the documentary a few years back, the Academy is having to answer a lot of questions as to why certain films were not eligible for Oscar consideration. Whatever lame excuses they give, there will be none that justify the exclusion of this Gilliam-esque masterwork. Sure, it’s got a couple of plot holes, and director Juan Antonio Bayona borrows more than a little from his producer/pal Guillermo Del Toro. But in a medium desperate for a good old fashioned ghost story, this amazing movie delivers in big fat spooky handfuls. Spain submitted it. The AMPAS snubbed it. Therefore, it’s destined to be a classic.

Best Guilty Pleasure – Halloween 2007
Boy, was everyone - critics and fright fans alike - totally unfair to this revisionist remake. Partly out of respect for what John Carpenter did 30 years ago with his Hitchcock homage, but also out of an utter anti-horror bias, writer/director Rob Zombie took it on the chin and came out smarting (if only slightly - the film was a BO hit). In a year that saw another fine Hostel installment, Saw go for number four, and various upstarts try to re-envision the various monster legacies, this was the real movie macabre. It did everything right, including reconfiguring the focus away from Haddenfield and its populace, and still people panned it. Oh well, their loss.

by Bill Gibron

19 Feb 2008


Picking who will win the Oscars each year is like taking a trip directly into a fool’s paradise. Just when you think you’ve got a handle on who will win, the wacky members of AMPAS step in and screw everything up all over again. They’ve been known to make a mistake or two, and their decisions rarely have much to do with art or classicism. Still, if you’ve watched the talent train wreck for long enough, you learn a few lessons about forecasting the unfathomable. So while SE&L prepares its own annual Academy tie-in, here’s our shot are determining who walks away with gold come Sunday. We won’t confess if we get it wrong, but we sure will gloat if we get it right. Keeping score is optional. Let’s begin with:

Best Motion Picture of the Year
Atonement (Focus Features) A Working Title Production: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner and Paul Webster, Producers
Juno (Fox Searchlight) A Dancing Elk Pictures, LLC Production: Lianne Halfon, Mason Novick and Russell Smith, Producers
Michael Clayton (Warner Bros.) A Clayton Productions, LLC Production: Sydney Pollack, Jennifer Fox and Kerry Orent, Producers
No Country for Old Men (Miramax and Paramount Vantage) A Scott Rudin/Mike Zoss Production: Scott Rudin, Ethan Coen and Joel Coen, Producers
There Will Be Blood (Paramount Vantage and Miramax) A JoAnne Sellar/Ghoulardi Film Company Production: JoAnne Sellar, Paul Thomas Anderson and Daniel Lupi, Producers

What Will Win: Atonement
What Should Win: No Country for Old Men
This is the stretch, the pick that goes against the established thinking’s grain and suggests that Oscar has learned nothing over its last 20 years. Smacking of a Crash/Brokeback Mountain - Shakespeare in Love/Saving Private Ryan fiascos, this could very well be the old guards response to the Coen’s dark, desperate vision. Remember, the voting Academy is made up of aging ex-nominees, and the mock Merchant/Ivory quality of this British period piece fits right into their cinematic comfort zone.


Performance By an Actor in a Leading Role
George Clooney in Michael Clayton (Warner Bros.)
Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood (Paramount Vantage and Miramax)
Johnny Depp in Sweeney Todd The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (DreamWorks and Warner Bros., Distributed by DreamWorks/Paramount)
Tommy Lee Jones in In the Valley of Elah (Warner Independent)
Viggo Mortensen in Eastern Promises (Focus Features)

Who Will Win: Daniel Day-Lewis
Who Should Win: Johnny Depp
Call it a case of wishful thinking, but maybe, just maybe, Oscar will overlook Day-Lewis’ complete domination of the year end Best of’s (and abundant award show anointing) and chose the actor who actually did the best job of bringing his character to life. There’s no doubt that Daniel Plainview is a piece of work, but Depp took a huge chance by playing the overdone bravado of the Broadway legend as a small, sinister shell. It remains the most daring turn by any actor in 2007.


Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role
Casey Affleck in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Warner Bros.)
Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men (Miramax and Paramount Vantage)
Philip Seymour Hoffman in Charlie Wilson’s War (Universal)
Hal Holbrook in Into the Wild (Paramount Vantage and River Road Entertainment)
Tom Wilkinson in Michael Clayton (Warner Bros.)

Who Will Win: Hal Holbrook
Who Should Win: Javier Bardem
Just like the Supporting Actress category, the Academy has set up this contest to be about age, experience, and career accomplishment. Holbrook holds all the cards, especially when you consider that he’s just entered his 80s and is still going somewhat strong. Bardem may be the presumptive favorite (winning every other award imaginable will do that to one’s chances) but don’t be surprised if Monday’s headlines reflect a ‘happy trails’ vs. ‘what’s happening’ mentality.


Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role
Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth: The Golden Age (Universal)
Julie Christie in Away from Her (Lionsgate)
Marion Cotillard in La Vie en Rose (Picturehouse)
Laura Linney in The Savages (Fox Searchlight)
Ellen Page in Juno (Fox Searchlight)

Who Will Win: Ellen Page
Who Should Win: No One
The choices here are all suspect at best. Of the five, only one has any real buzz, and the backlash has already started to eat into Juno’s junk culture likeability. Page will probably pull it off, proving that previous statues to Helen Hunt, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Julia Roberts haven’t shamed the frequently misguided voters back to their senses. As for the lack of a “should”, see tomorrow’s SE&L awards for some guidance.


Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role
Cate Blanchett in I’m Not There (The Weinstein Company)
Ruby Dee in American Gangster (Universal)
Saoirse Ronan in Atonement (Focus Features)
Amy Ryan in Gone Baby Gone (Miramax)
Tilda Swinton in Michael Clayton (Warner Bros.)

Who Will Win: Ruby Dee
Who Should Win: Cate Blanchett
Dee’s blink and you’ll miss it turn paired up with Gangster’s lack of Oscar love could confuse this category even more than it already is, but long term talent plus tragedy (Ossie Davis died three years ago this month) usually means a little gold statue. And let’s not forget the overriding issue of race. One classic African American face up against a group of youthful Caucasians spells trouble for everyone else’s chances. If it was a question of real merit, Blanchett blows everyone else away.


Best Animated Feature Film of the Year
Persepolis (Sony Pictures Classics): Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud
Ratatouille (Walt Disney): Brad Bird
Surf’s Up (Sony Pictures Releasing): Ash Brannon and Chris Buck

What Will Win: Persepolis
What Should Win: Ratatouille
With the political poison of Iraq still thick in the air, anything dealing with the Middle East is bound to get undue attention. This doesn’t mean Persepolis is undeserving, just that it speaks directly to the Academy’s apologist mentality. And since Pixar has picked up a few of these babies along the way, the fascination French film has a very good chance of walking away with the win. The dudes from Surf’s Up should save some money and just stay home.


Achievement in Directing
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Miramax/Pathé Renn), Julian Schnabel
Juno (Fox Searchlight), Jason Reitman
Michael Clayton (Warner Bros.), Tony Gilroy
No Country for Old Men (Miramax and Paramount Vantage), Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
There Will Be Blood (Paramount Vantage and Miramax), Paul Thomas Anderson

Who Will Win: Joel and Ethan Coen
Who Should Win: Paul Thomas Anderson
Here’s the deal - if Atonement takes home the top prize, it will be because voters figured this award was enough for the sibling auteurs. They’ve got the DGA, the critic’s polls, and the forward momentum, so all seems ripe for a return to glory. But what Paul Thomas Anderson did was so brave, so beyond his typical ‘80s artifice as deconstruction that it’s hard to believe he actually made the movie. Just for that feat alone, he deserves the nod.


Achievement in Cinematography
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Warner Bros.): Roger Deakins
Atonement (Focus Features): Seamus McGarvey
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Miramax/Pathé Renn): Janusz Kaminski
No Country for Old Men (Miramax and Paramount Vantage): Roger Deakins
There Will Be Blood (Paramount Vantage and Miramax): Robert Elswit

Who Will Win: Roger Deakins - The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Who Should Win: Robert Elswit - There Will Be Blood
Elswit has the Cinematographer’s Society Award, while Deakins has the pretty pictures. Neither has one before, but the latter has the best chance, if only because he’s nominated twice. If he splits the vote, Blood will win. But Oscar is desperate to find a way of rewarding Andrew Dominik’s overlong character study, so don’t be phased if Deakins bucks the trend and takes home a trophy for bringing the Wild West back to beautiful life. 


Best Documentary Feature
No End in Sight (Magnolia Pictures) A Representational Pictures Production: Charles Ferguson and Audrey Marrs
Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience (The Documentary Group) A Documentary Group Production: Richard E. Robbins
SiCKO (Lionsgate and The Weinstein Company) A Dog Eat Dog Films Production: Michael Moore and Meghan O’Hara
Taxi to the Dark Side (THINKFilm) An X-Ray Production: Alex Gibney and Eva Orner
War/Dance (THINKFilm) A Shine Global and Fine Films Production: Andrea Nix Fine and Sean Fine

What Will Win: No End in Sight
What Should Win: SiCKO
Bush bashing has become a tradition at the Academy Awards, like Cher wearing bad Bob Mackie and facelift scars. While Michael Moore (previous President pariah) made the most important film of the year, No End is a playbook of bad policy decisions by the sitting Commander in Chief. It’s a wonderful film, and devastating in its message, so clearly it takes the night. But the wounded health care system - and those looking to take it down - could really use an Oscar boost.


Best Foreign Language Film of the Year
Beaufort Israel
The Counterfeiters Austria
Katyn Poland
Mongol Kazakhstan
12 Russia
What Will Win: Who Knows
What Should Win: Who Cares
Under the arcane system applied by the Academy, the best foreign films of the year didn’t even make it into the running. Therefore, we withhold a prediction out of protest.


Best Adapted Screenplay
Atonement (Focus Features), Screenplay by Christopher Hampton
Away from Her (Lionsgate), Written by Sarah Polley
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Miramax/Pathé Renn), Screenplay by Ronald Harwood
No Country for Old Men (Miramax and Paramount Vantage), Written for the screen by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
There Will Be Blood (Paramount Vantage and Miramax), Written for the screen by Paul Thomas Anderson
Who Will Win: No Country for Old Men
Who Should Win: No Country for Old Men
In keeping with our Atonement trajectory, the brothers will have to be happy with a double dose of Academy appreciation come the end of the evening. Taking home statues for directing and script will just have to suffice. Granted, they are without a doubt the best writers for film currently working, and their screenplays are always good for a quotable line or 20. And since they already own a similar accolade for Fargo, this will be further proof of their way with words.


Best Original Screenplay
Juno (Fox Searchlight), Written by Diablo Cody
Lars and the Real Girl (MGM), Written by Nancy Oliver
Michael Clayton (Warner Bros.), Written by Tony Gilroy
Ratatouille (Walt Disney), Screenplay by Brad Bird; Story by Jan Pinkava, Jim Capobianco, Brad Bird
The Savages (Fox Searchlight), Written by Tamara Jenkins
Who Will Win: Diablo Cody
Who Should Win: Brad Bird
Anyone who knows the story behind the Pixar hit would instantly jump to Brad Bird and company’s defense. Far beyond Cody’s stripper to scribe sentiment, the mind behind The Incredibles raised what was, in essence, a dead project from the cinematic grave. Taking the incomplete material left behind, he refashioned the film into one of 2007’s best. Cody will always be the Callie Khouri of this year’s model - Bird is the tested timeless talent.

by Bill Gibron

18 Feb 2008


We critics love to give Oscar the razz. After all, they get it wrong so many times that, inherently, we view it as an out of touch, deeply political body whose process allows art to die at the hands of studio artifice. Recognizing that the voting membership is comprised of all previous nominees, along with occasional invited inductees, the insular nature of the beast is pretty darn obvious. But there are other instances where the Academy bungles its business so badly that you have to wonder if senility hasn’t set in, a kind of all encompassing lunacy that adversely affects the aesthetic of the constituency. It’s the bungles that burn our biscuits the most, slights and celebrations that mock the very nature of film.

While the list could go on forever, and accommodate everyone’s personal favorite and/or fiasco, the fact remains that the Academy Awards are one of the better bodies of recognition out there. After all, it could be a lot worse - it could be the Grammys. And don’t go harping about the old studio system. This overview is confining its critique to the ‘60s through ‘00s.  As a result, this is far from definitive. Instead, it’s just an example of AMPAS’s fairly consistent brain farts. Let’s begin with:

Robin Williams beats Burt Reynolds and Robert Forster 1998 Best Supporting Actor


Having chalked up almost every pre-ceremony award between them, predictions had the Boogies Nights and Jackie Brown veterans in virtual tie for their first Oscar. On the night of the awards, both men looked confident, especially as the nominations were being announced. Then the former funny man, known for his hirsute hissy fits, rode Miramax’s Affleck and Damon express to a totally undeserving triumph. While Forrester mostly kept his composure, Reynolds will always be remembered for his now classic hurt puppy reaction.

Roberto Benigni beats Nick Nolte, Ian McKellan, and Tom Hanks 1999 Best Actor


Some slights are unconscionable. Others are apparently the work of Satan himself. And then there was this undeniable abomination, a clear case of mass hypnosis where seemingly sensible people went pie-eyed for a Mediterranean stereotype in badly broken English. And his Holocaust comedy was pretty awful, too. Still, something about this Italian scallion’s shuck and jive wooed the weak willed Oscar body, resulting in a devastating loss for real actors who gave actual performances. It remains one of the Academy’s dumbest decisions ever.

Ron Howard beats Peter Jackson and David Lynch 2002 Best Director


Rewarding a journeyman for transcending his workmanlike trappings is nothing new, but the Academy usually picks a better movie than the underwhelming A Beautiful Mind. After bestowing unwarranted golden kudos on the supreme hack of the screenplay, Akiva Goldsman, Oscar went one better and tossed former child star ‘Opie Cunningham’ a little mantle magic all his own. That Mind made mincemeat of Mulholland Dr. and the first of what would be three massive Tolkien treasures stands as proof that it was still business as usual, even in a new millennium.

Kevin Costner beats Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Barbet Schroeder, and Stephen Frears 1990 Best Director


The Academy has had a long history of giving first timers - especially actors - its directing love in comparison to established career filmmakers. Back in 1981, Robert Redford took home a statue for his work on Ordinary People. Nine years later, the Bull Durham star deconstructed the Western, and Academy voters went wonky. They ignored four other famous helmsmen to give the novice their notice. Dances with Wolves has its merits, but ‘89 was clearly the year of Goodfellas. Apparently, no one in AMPAS thought so.

Chariots of Fire beats Raiders of the Lost Ark 1982 Best Picture


In what many saw as a box office no-brainer, Steven Spielberg’s brilliant throwback to the Saturday matinee serials of the ‘40s was 1981’s clear fan favorite. By the time Oscar rolled around, the film racked up nine nominations, including Best Director and Picture nods. While his own personal fortunes were always suspect, there was no way Raiders would lose to Atlantic City, Reds, On Golden Pond, or some British film about runners. Thanks to a screenplay win early on, Chariots unseated the presumptive champion in typical underdog fashion.

Kramer vs. Kramer beats Apocalypse Now and All That Jazz 1982 Best Picture


Back when divorce was still a hot button social issue (the ‘70s was strange like that), Robert Benton’s family in crisis drama managed to walk away with several of the year’s statues. It was five for nine, snagging two for acting, screenplay, director and picture. Looking back, the movie makes for a fine character study. But when put up alongside Coppola’s Vietnam fever dream and Bob Fosse’s autobiographical binge, it seems like a less solid choice.

Rocky beats Network, Taxi Driver, and All the President’s Men 1977 Best Picture


It will always remain a surreal situation. While nominated for 10 total awards, it looked like Sylvester Stallone’s labor of love was about to be swept out of the ‘77 ceremony. Then, in one of the most unlikely upsets ever, John G. Avildsen won Best Director (beating shoe-in Sidney Lumet) and Rocky took home the top prize. While a fine film in its own right, the notion that it managed to trounce a trio of post-modern classics confirms the Academy’s occasional lose grip on motion picture reality.

The Color Purple Goes 0 for 11 1986 Awards


At this point in his career, Steven Spielberg was constantly referred to as the most popular, influential, and considered director not to win the big one (apparently, the East Coast bias against Scorsese was still in full force). So when he took on Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel about rural African Americans in ‘30s America, his eventual win (and several more for the film) seemed like a foregone conclusion. Spielberg even received the coveted DGA blessing, making him the presumptive favorite. In pure Oscar style, he wasn’t even nominated.

Pulp Fiction Goes 1 for 7 1995 Awards


Sometimes, the shortsighted nature of the entire awards process more or less mandates Academy missteps. Though many saw it as nothing more than an overreaching critical darling, Quentin Tarantino’s cult crime epic has gone on to be one of the most influential films in the recent history of cinema. Of course, it couldn’t beat the feel good flimsiness of Forrest Gump (that year’s Oscar sweetheart) and QT did get the conciliatory screenplay nod. He and his still remarkable film deserved much, much more.

2001: A Space Odyssey Fails to Get a Best Picture Nod 1969 Awards


While a sensibility soaked in Star Wars might argue about Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi meditation on man’s place in the cosmos, the truth is that the 1968 spectacle stands as a singular cinematic achievement. Yet, somehow, it failed to earn a Best Picture nomination. Clearly, the Academy thought Rachel, Rachel, Franco Zefferelli’s Romeo and Juliet, The Lion in Winter, Funny Girl, and eventual winner Oliver! were much more representative of the medium. Almost 40 years later, it’s clear which film remains the most iconic, and important.

by PopMatters Staff

17 Feb 2008


by Pablo Amor

Before I press the ‘play’ button of what seems to be an illegal recording (probably made by the projectionist of a north American cinema, early in the morning today) of the first Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (Steven Spielberg, 2008) trailer, I try to think how many times I’ll finally watch these 103 seconds until the movie is finally released worldwide on May 22nd, even if a second trailer comes up before that day (it will only add to the obsession…).

When I think that I’m ready, I close my eyes for a second, take a deep breath and finally press the button.

It starts… Wait a second! What is this landscape shot before the Paramount and Lucasfilm logos? Just a jungle, but not a very spectacular one (if this were some Lord of the Rings’ stuff, it would surely be much better looking) and…Hey!...this is not a very surprising transition, between the classic mountain peak of the Paramount logo and this kind of inverted view of a mappa mundi. I really hope this is not the actual transition in the movie, because it doesn’t measure up to the ones we have seen in the past trilogy: the real mountain peak in Raiders of the Lost Ark (Steven Spielberg, 1981), the engraving on the gong in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (Steven Spielberg, 1984), and the rock –no, not the so-called actor; an actual rock, made of stone– in the desert in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (Steven Spielberg, 1989).

As far as fans like me go (and there’s a lot of Indiana Jones’ fans out there), every new detail of the upcoming film is important. I recall the famous tagline ‘If adventure has a name, it has to be Indiana Jones’ which served as publicity for the second film. And today we have been blessed with three new taglines that will be part of our fanatic lives from now on (I wonder who is responsible for these…) and they are:

“He protected the power of the divine”
Hmm… Was John Waters one of the many involved with this project, before he died? Jokes apart, this is not right; it’s ultra complicated: it will surely please both Christians and Jews; and taking into account that the only figure we have seen until then is Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) dressed in Arab robes, the word ‘divine’ might be an opened invitation to Muslims as well; and, why not? For the same reason, welcomed are Buddhists and people from any other confessions everywhere. But the tagline skips the name of the famous box that we see on the screen, the Ark of the Covenant. Is this because, as rumored, the relics will play in important part in the plot of the new movie?

“He saved the cradle of civilization”
Ah! Wait a minute! Are they implying that the old village where the Sankara Stones were stolen, in deep India, is where human life started? (Coincidentally I read the other day that Lucasfilm has offices in Singapore, and that they’re doing really well…) Are they implying that we all descend from that Indian village that already had far too many children to feed? Ok, I get it. It is just another joke! Lucas, you bastard! What a twisted way for referring to the increasing number of westerners adopting oriental children (that may explain why we don’t get a single glimpse of Indiana taken from the Temple of Doom movie, just shots of Indian children running and being embraced by their ‘real’ parents).

“He triumphed over the armies of evil”
This is very straightforward stuff. Nazis were evil. That we already knew. Then I notice something: the order of the two following brief sequences taken from Last Crusade is inverted; first we get a glimpse of the famous sunset prior to the final credits, in which Jones Jr. has to hold Jones Sr. (Sean Connery) up on his horse, in a classic gesture between alcoholics; and then we see the hand of Indiana anxiously looking for a glass. Is alcohol the real evil, and not the Nazis? Is that why the character of Marion Ravenwood is showing up in the new installment of the series? Because she was the one that could drink endlessly in Raiders? Are we going to be shown the consequences of heavy drinking? Is the ‘crystal skull’ of the title a metaphor for sick liver?

Then, as a conclusion and comment on what’s to come, we are simply told that “On May 22nd… The adventure continue.” What? After so many years, you introduce the man in the hat with a mere “The adventure continues?” Just that, something that could have been either said of The Bourne Ultimatum or The Da Vinci Code?  Are you crazy, Spielberg? Was it David Koepp’s (the final script’s author) idea? We want to know…

There are simply too many questions.

And really, the new stuff, the first official images of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, won’t answer any. On the contrary, they will produce more.

The new material starts with something we have never seen in an Indiana Jones movie, and it’s the image of an USA flag. Is it some kind of reaction to the recent return of Rambo, as in this turbulent times, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg were trying to say ‘Hey, Sylvester, Indiana Jones IS the one and only national American hero’?

We also see a desert and a caravan of military vehicles, but it instantly dissolves to a scene that I already dare to consider anthological, one that is right now part of the mythical imaginarium of the series: In an aerial shot, we’re shown a car, surrounded by soldiers, and a hat –the kind of hat we know so well– lying on the floor; after being extracted from the boot of the car, only the booted feet of Indiana Jones are really visible to us, just before his hand clutches the aforementioned hat and before we see the shadow of the man putting it on his head (and the number 1B7731 painted over the U.S Army Ford car behind him; you, deciphers! get to work!).

And then, the first funny line (it seems that, between action and humor, Lucas & Spielberg have finally opted to make fun of Indiana): Ray Winstone’s character says “This ain’t gonna be easy” and Indiana Jones replies “Not as easy as it used to be”. It is not a joke per se, it’s more like the first example of the self deprecatory Indiana Jones that we will surely see, as Lucas had promised: confirmed, the issue of Harrison Ford/Indiana Jones’ age is included in the plot.

The next scene strengthens this theory, as Jones, taking hold of his whip, swings on the air… but fails to land on the jeep that Cate Blanchett’s character drives, in what happens to be the warehouse taken from the last scene in Raiders –the one in which the actual relics are kept hidden, presumably forever– and crashes instead into the following vehicle, in a slapstick solution that Ford sanctions with the line “I thought that it was much closer”.

So Frank Marshall said the truth as well: this movie will have a similar tone to the Last Crusade, where humor reigned. There’s one more sketch, and it closes the show, for now. In the middle of a stormy night, while in an ancient Maya or Aztecan temple, Shia Labouf simply asks “You’re a teacher?”, and Jones seriously replies, “Part time”, in a concise dialogue-driven joke in the same vein of the many we saw between Harrison Ford and Sean Connery in Last Crusade.

All in all, the trailer reveals three different locations or/and parts of the movie. It is clear that there will be something going on in some south American jungle and ancient temple; and that the Russians will get into the famous warehouse (or maybe is just another warehouse, as I don’t recall the one in Raiders having highways in between the piles of boxes), and there’s obviously Roswell, New Mexico, as we can read on some metallic surface to which some glasses (Dr. Jones’?) get mysteriously attracted due to some magnetic force.

And, of the three locations, only one is where the opening sequence (the equivalent to the temple ransacking in Raiders, the club scene and subsequent escape in Temple of Doom, and the Cross of Coronado chase with a young Indiana Jones in Last Crusade) takes place; it can’t be the warehouse, as that would imply that the Russians, led by Cate Blanchett, would appear in both the prologue and the central storyline of the movie; it can’t be the jungle either, for the same reason (there are scenes with Cate Blanchett, along with the rest of the characters); so it should be that part that takes place in Roswell, where Jones is accurately presented, in the way described before. But who knows, maybe the script is really full of surprises and unexpected twists; after all, Lucas has had plenty of time to come up with something truly remarkable…

Either way, and apart from having an introduction like the previous films, the trailer gives clues about some other kind of homages or similarities that may be central to the heart of a storyline that, for a start, includes previous characters like Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen). And these clues are, for example, the moment when Jones tries to push Cate Blanchett’s car out of the road (as he successfully does with a Nazi sidecar in the truck sequence from Raiders) or the brief moment where we see, from a subjective point of view, how some kind of debris is quickly approaching Harrison Ford, Karen Allen and Shia Labouf’s car, a similar peril to that in Last Crusade when one of the Nazi bikers manages to perch the front wheel of his vehicle upon the Joneses’ sidecar. And there is, again, a fight between Jones and some super villain, a part that Pat Roach (Chief guard in Temple of Doom and 1st mechanic in Raiders) would have surely played if he was still alive. And of course, there is a temple, there is a bunch of menacing natives and many reasons to run. And there is also a generous ration of tricky ancient mechanisms, like there’s always been in the series.

And all the way through the end of the trailer, we don’t get to hear a single new note by John Williams, but that’s right, as this moment, the first images of a moving Dr. Jones in almost 18 years, deserve no other musical accompaniment that his trademark fanfare. Yes, there’s some music we had never heard while we see the sequences from the previous movies, Indy’s past feats. But it can’t be John Williams’; it’s too vulgar, unspecific and out of place, it doesn’t belong to the saga, has nothing to do with its flavor.

And we neither get to see John Hurt -the rumored face of Abner Ravenwood, father of Marion–, I think…  Wait, have I missed something? Let me see the trailer again… Ah, yes; there he is: hidden in one of the passengers’ seats of the boat that Indiana Jones rides on the edge of the jungle. By the way, there is something in the visual perfection of that aerial shot that makes me suspect of some digital effectification; maybe Spielberg and Lucas have not really stayed true to his promise of not using them? The truth is that the last thing we see, before the trailer ends, is the actual Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull logo. And it really seems more like a 3D Studio model than an old style drawing…

PS: I have already seen the trailer seven times today. Still 97 days to D-day and counting…

by Bill Gibron

16 Feb 2008


Real life is not always compatible with ‘reel’ life. What this means is, not every true story can turn into a true work of cinematic art. For every pedestrian effort “based on…” someone or something that actually existed/exists, we get the rare gemstone that radiates beyond its ‘to tell the truth’ trappings. When it was announced that Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe would star in a film about the heroin trade in ‘70s Harlem, American Gangster became a potential instant classic just waiting for box office canonization. Of course, few knew the project’s already jaded history and near disintegration. Yet when the movie finally hit theaters last Fall, the precarious beginnings yielded a solid mainstream hit. For all its glitz and glamour however, Gangster has so far failed to become legend. As part of the new three DVD deluxe edition released by Universal, we begin to gain some perspective on how this potential epic missed the mark.

For those unfamiliar with the basic storyline, here is the breakdown. Frank Lucas, a low level hood from the Carolinas, was at one time the chief henchman for longtime NYC kingpin Bumpy Johnson. After the don’s untimely death, the apprentice vowed to create the same kind of classy, corporate like Drug Empire as his mentor. Realizing that buying directly from the source can cut down on the middle man, and increase the product’s (heroin) purity, he travels to Bangkok to meet up with an old military friend. They strike a deal with the locals, and soon, kilos of high grade opiate are making their way in the metal coffins of fallen Vietnam vets.

It’s not long before Lucas owns the streets, and he brings his entire family up from the South to help him out. He even has the mafia buying their Blue Magic from his organization. When his cop buddy gets involved in graft and dope, honest officer Ritchie Roberts decides to bring down whoever is pushing. Of course he must cut through massive corruption among his fellow policeman, a lack of real leads, and Lucas’ expertly planned process. All it takes is a tip, and a trail to follow, and both sides of the law are destined to butt heads. 

Sounds solid, right? It feeds the audience’s inherent love of crime and violence. And you’ve got Washington and Crowe near the top of their game as marquee matinee idols. So what went wrong? Why isn’t American Gangster the post-millennial Scarface, or a direct urban Godfather? For the most part, the fault lies squarely with director Ridley Scott. Not satisfied to pare the narrative down to its essential elements, what should be a tight little thriller becomes one of the most bloated individual character studies ever. Lucas has several siblings and they each get their moment in the escalating running time. As the leads, Lucas and Roberts get their own elaborated (and belabored) backstorys. Very little of the actual mechanics of the drug racket is revealed and the subtext is very light on understandable ethics. We never once see characters contrite or repentant for their acts, and attention getting monologues replace scruples as the main social statement.

As a result, Gangster goes wonky in ways that even an extended director’s cut can’t fix. If anything, the main body of the Lucas/Roberts relationship should have been boiled down to the police procedural, leaving much of the superfluous personal ‘flavor’ out of the mix. We don’t care about our drug lord’s kin (they are cardboard cutouts of clichéd types) and Roberts’ parenting issues are never interesting. Yet somehow, Scott thinks this makes his leads more endearing and easy to identify with. Instead of humanizing them, however, such sidetracks deter from what we are really most concerned about. What ultimately saves the experience, turning it into a memorable entertainment, is the high level of craftsmanship. It’s almost as if the filmmakers knew that by delivering quality technical and production merits, the interpersonal issues could be overcome.

Ridley Scott almost confesses to as much during the DVD’s audio commentary. While he is defensive and quite defiant at times, he (along with a separately recorded screenwriter Steve Zaillian) spends a great deal of time praising the individuals behind the look and feel of the film. Scott is typically a technical narrator, offering perspective on how artisans recreate the look and feel of different eras. He’s also a stickler for the foundational aspects of the film medium. So one has to read in between the kudos to get to the meat - and during the course of the discussion, we hear a few faint mea culpas. They’re not obvious, but they hint at a director realizing he may have taken the wrong track now and again. 

Of course, the one element here that tends to get lost in the glare of critical evaluation is why American Gangster got made in the first place. Without Scott, and his continuing connection to accidental A-lister Russell Crowe, this was a dead project. As Fallen Empire, the detailed and dense documentary on the film (included here as part of the extras) points out, the film was in the perpetual Hell of Hollywood’s development pipeline for years. Everyone from Don Cheadle to Benecio Del Toro was considered for the roles of Lucas and Roberts, respectively. Directors such as Terry George and, most famously, Antoine Fuqua, wanted to make this movie, but Universal continuously balked over budgetary concerns. Some have even suggested that Fuqua was the unfair recipient of some industry payback when his Training Day karma failed to carry over commercially to his decidedly odd take on King Arthur. That he was an African American filmmaker being replaced by a white Anglo Saxon added more fuel to the fire.

Indeed, one of the things DVD does best is provide creative and corporate context to the cinematic artform, and there’s no denying the power inherent in the American Gangster material. The chance to see Lucas and Roberts in person, discussing the era and their part within it, more than makes up for the lack of supporting evidence that everything in the film is 100% true - not that Scott and Zaillian don’t strive to convince us of the claim. Much of the aforementioned commentary track is taken up with point by point breakdowns on factual accuracies and fictional liberties, and yet very little mention is made of one Leroy “Nicky” Barnes. For those unfamiliar with the man, look up the nickname ‘Mr. Untouchable’ and you’re destined to find the New York Times Magazine cover story which crowned the drug lord with said moniker. Barnes claims that he was the real heroin king of Harlem (why anyone would want to argue over such a stature seems surreal) and a daring documentary released before Gangster seems to undermine much of what this dramatization has to offer.

Indeed, a main flaw in American Gangster is the underlying belief that we are getting a decidedly myopic and whitewashed view of this story. Lucas is referred to as “an illiterate Southern rube” by Barnes, and while such a putdown seems appropriate, considering their supposed street dealing rivalry, it makes the clean cut cosmopolitan version offered by Washington seem shallow at best, fake at the very worst. Gangster does pay the man lip service, offering Oscar winner Cuba Gooding Jr. as a clownish version of Barnes, but this doesn’t deflate the opposing positions. On the one hand, Scott and company argue that Lucas leapt into upper Manhattan, took the place of his mentor Bumpy Johnson, and single handedly rooted out the mafia in his African American neighborhood. Yet Marc Levin’s fact-based film of Barnes argues nearly the same exact thing - which goes to the very heart of the narrative.

In fact, one imagines that another way to make the film better was to simply remove the awkwardly righteous Roberts and stick with a Lucas vs. Barnes territorial showdown. While Crowe is fine in the role (though hardly believable as an American street cop), there is a hint of racial inequality in the personality he is given. Roberts is viewed as noble but flawed, married to the law as his personal life falls apart. He turns down bribes, refuses to keep thousands in unlaundered drug money, and basically makes his fellow officers uncomfortable with his ‘by the book’ bravado. He might make an intriguing yin to Lucas’ urbane yang, but the role is like subterfuge, undermining all the dramatic weight this story could hold. Toss in the fact that no one ever really pays for, or even addresses, the death of innocents at the hand of unrefined heroin, the destruction of Harlem, and the lingering poison that continues to possess the region some three decades later, and American Gangster becomes less than a classic.

Still, it’s hard to deny the inherent power in a group of well trained professionals doing some of their best work. Though it lacks the qualities that make something mythic (and the announced 18 minutes of added footage in the ‘director’s cut’ does little to change that), the film remains a genuine journeyman joust. There are times when Scott seems the perfect director for the material. He has always been proficient in producing period specific spectacle, be it ancient Roman (Gladiator) or completely imaginary (Legend, Blade Runner). He also has a wonderful way with actors, using his background in advertising to consistently put their best face forward. There are also moments when the Englishman is clearly out of his league. The various party scenes play like a white dude’s misinterpretation of Soul Train, and we never get a real feel of the Harlem community pre or post Lucas’ lamentable influence. It all stays the same - slightly sepia toned and CGI tweaked.

No one knows the real story about what happened to New York City’s black population during the late ‘60s through early ‘80s except the people themselves and the participants in their racket. Roberts may have indeed been a saint in slightly baggy street clothes, Lucas an amenable snake in the ghetto grass. And Barnes may have been both clown and competitor. But when one steps back out of the limelight glare given off by American Gangster, when they whittle away the superfluous moments of movie iconography and staged seriousness, it’s clear that, somewhere amidst the pomp and circumstance, someone is lying. What happened in real life just didn’t make it over into “reel” life. Perhaps if all the facts were presented, unfiltered and unadorned, we’d get a better handle on the truth. But as this otherwise stellar DVD of American Gangster suggests, accuracy is a lot like opinion - everyone has their own version.

DVD
American Gangster: Theatrical Version

American Gangster: Director’s Cut


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