Sunday, February 15, 2009

my ballot

I may have been a tad harsh towards the Academy Awards the other day. Now that we're in the home stretch, the one week countdown has begun, I'm beginning to feel the symptoms of Oscar fever. You see, what those tricksters over at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences
do is, rather than announce which films deserve awards for achievement, they select a number of movies for each category and then make us wait several weeks until the winners are declared. Thus, an aura of suspense is established. I have once again fallen prey.

Of course, Alfred Hitchcock once said,
“There is no terror in a bang, only in the anticipation of it.” So I will maintain my position regarding the sedative qualities of the show itself (although I am intrigued to see what Hugh Jackman has to offer as a host; an interesting hire, to be sure). But I'm a sucker for the competition itself, and every time I glance over the list of nominees I feel the urge to grab a pen and start filling out my Oscar pool ballot. This year, for the first time, I'm going with the heart instead of the head. Though I have had considerable success anticipating who will win in the past, it makes me feel dirty when I have to put a check mark next to a movie like Gladiator just for the sake of winning a few dollars. In order to clear my conscience, I'm focusing this time on the pictures and performers I want to win... (for the full list of nominees, click here)

Best Motion Picture of the Year


I know that SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE will take the trophy, and that's alright by me, but I can't ignore my appreciation for Gus Van Sant's bold and significant film.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role

Sadly, I have not seen THE VISITOR or THE WRESTLER, so I don't have all the evidence I need to make a super informed decision. Sean Penn was great, but I prefer the subtlety of Langella this time 'round.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role KATE WINSLET (THE READER) Actually, I think she should win for REVOLUTIONARY ROAD. Her performance in that film, however, was snubbed. Not to worry. Her work in the nominated title is also spectacular.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role

Posthumous awards always depress me a bit. Is Michelle Williams still single?

Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role


I'm not her biggest fan, but she was good in VCB. Plus, I tend to lean towards anything Woody Allen.

Best Achievement in Directing
What a wonderfully envisioned and beautifully crafted film.

Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen


I haven't seen HAPPY-GO-LUCKY, and I hear it's really good. When done right, though, dark comedy is my favorite genre, and In Bruges is spot on.

Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published
This may be one of those rare cases in which the movie is as good as or even better than the book.

Best Achievement in Cinematography

There's tough competition in this category. As I mentioned before, THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON is a worthy adversary, and THE CHANGELING and The Dark Knight certainly hold their own. The Reader is a bit weak in comparison, but by no means shabby. The camera work and lighting in Slumdog just seems a little bit more ambitious, and it's flashy without being distracting. The technical work in this film really invigorates the narrative.

Although Costume Design is not the most exciting category of the evening, it is one that I feel quite passionate about this year. Button's sprawling scope, a story that spans several decades, poses a particular challenge, and every visual element, including the clothing, is authentically detailed.

Best Achievement in Visual Effects
If what I've heard is true, the elderly Benjamin Button is brought to us via motion capture technology and computer animation. He looks so real it blows my mind. But the transitions between practical effects and CGI in Iron Man seemed flawless to me, and it's not often that a summer release is able to deceive my eyes.

Best Animated Feature
I know I railed against this movie in a previous post, but there's no denying that its sophisticated animation out trumps the competition. Still, I would like to live in a world where a greater variety of animated films are made to challenge the notion that Pixar is next to godliness. Was RATATOUILLE really better than PERSEPOLIS?

Obviously I have left out a few categories, partially because no one gives a rip about Best Achievement in Sound Editing and/or Makeup, but also because I have (unfortunately) not seen a one of the Foreign Language films that are nominated. As for the ones I have committed to, well, I might be a tad reluctant to wager money on my selections, but I can rest a bit easier this year knowing that I have been true to myself (and the nominees that really should win).

Saturday, February 14, 2009

a nod to the oscars
I muse about this year's best picture nominees...

The other day it occurred to me that for the last few years I have really only watched the Oscars out of habit, perhaps even because it is expected of me. In my younger days it was a real event night; friends would gather at my apartment and we would fill out our own ballots, guessing the winners with a close eye on the Vegas odds. My famous nacho dip never lasted long, but the bar was fully stocked, and I would inevitably drift into a state of fuzzy headedness by the time the Best Picture category was announced.

Rather than having to be reminded who won the next morning, I watched the last couple of Academy Awards ceremonies stone sober, only to realize that I was better off when I was half in the bag (or better yet, two thirds). Harder drugs are recommended if you plan to abide those vapid red carpet interviews. Seriously, the whole thing's a yawn fest.

While my mind is not yet made up whether to watch this year's broadcast or not, I have managed to see the five films that are nominated for best picture, and in good time, which is not always an easy task in a city that won't run The Wrestler because we need to reserve screen space for The Pink Panther 2. To the Academy's credit, they generally nominate five movies that are
amongst the better films of the year, and over the past couple of weeks I have been exceptionally satisfied as a patron of the cinema:


I think Slumdog will take the award this year, and rightly so. It's better than three of the nominees, and just a bit more cohesive than the fourth. Apparently this film was nearly released straight to DVD, which would have been a shame not only in terms of limiting audience exposure, but also because director Danny Boyle's visual techniques are so vivid and exciting on the big screen. The picture has more than a handful of tragic moments, even scenes that are difficult to watch; ultimately, though, Slumdog Millionaire is tempered with themes of love, sacrifice, and destiny that should appeal to reluctant viewers. The film also ends with a Bollywood dance sequence that could put a smile on anyone's face.


My opinion of this film is a bit skewed due to the fact that I saw it very shortly after having read the book. The adaptation is very faithful to Bernhard Schlink's novella, both in plot and tone, but I feel as though the movie lacks some of the crucial details that define the characters' motives. The book is not one that easily lends itself to a cinematic treatment, and I am eager to hear the thoughts of others who have seen The Reader, both those who have read Schlink's work and those who have not.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention the extraordinary Kate Winslet. I can't say that it doesn't appeal to me to see her naked for a considerable portion of the film's first act, but what I really noticed was her performance. Between The Reader and Revolutionary Road, she has proven herself a force to be reckoned with, and is deserving of the attention that has been cast upon her this Oscar season.


"Life isn't measured in minutes, but in moments." The tagline to Benjamin Button reminded me that the movie is, in fact, several moments too long. You would think that a film chronicling the lifespan of a man who ages backwards have more interesting moments, too. It doesn't, really. And even if it did, Button would still suffer from the fact that screenwriter Eric Roth basically regurgitated the formula he used when he penned the script for Forrest Gump. Still, I wasn't surprised to see this film nominated for best picture; the Academy seems to have a soft spot for anything with an epic scale. From a technical perspective, Button does trump some of the competition, but its chances of winning in this category are severly hampered by its tendency to induce sleep.

Having said that, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button certainly rivals Slumdog Millionaire in terms of cinematography. I don't generally recommend a movie just because it looks good, but Button is really something to see. Also, the special effects will give Iron Man a run for its money, and I think it would be a shame if this picture isn't recognized for its amazing costumes. Benjamin may walk away with a couple of statues, yet.


I find it hard not to be a little bit critical about Frost/Nixon. For one thing, it seems like an easy movie to make: it's based on a play which was largely composed from transcripts of the actual Frost/Nixon interviews, and the bulk of it takes place in one room. It also seems a bit redundant given that video tapes, internet clips, and DVDs of the original broadcast are readily available, and quite intriguing to watch.

On the other hand, Frost/Nixon is compelling in its own right, and I think the dramatization of events is particularly helpful in terms of engaging viewers, like me, who did not live through Nixon era politics and the subsequent decade-or-so of heightened paranoia and disillusionment. And unlike The Reader, the tale of David Frost, underdog, is one that seems to cry out for narrative treatment. Of course, the film really belongs to Frank Langella whose interpretation of Nixon neither glamorizes the ex-president nor attempts to elicit our sympathies, but does provide some speculative insight into the nature and degree of his self-delusion. While, Frost/Nixon may not be as strong a contender in the Best Picture category as some of the other nominees, it is one of the more engaging films I have seen this year.


If I were a voting member of the Academy, this is the nominee that would make me hesitate before ticking the box for Slumdog Millionaire. It sounds strange to say so, given my general distaste for biopics, but the decision to limit the film's scope to the eight years during which Harvey Milk was politically involved with the gay rights movement and elected to public office was one that allowed director Gus Van Sant to avoid the kind of superficial portrait that I have come to expect from this type of movie.

In my opinion, Milk is a far more important film than Slumdog, not only because of its subject matter, but also in terms of the images we see on screen. Van Sant is not shy about including scenes of male sexuality, sometimes affectionate, other times far more carnal, and I can't think of another mainstream movie that portrays this kind of intimacy as authentically and unapologetically. I know a lot of people will be uncomfortable with these images, but I believe that visibility of this sort is a step towards humanizing people who belong to a highly oppressed and misunderstood minority, and whose rights are still inadequately protected.

Of course, a subject of this magnitude is not easily condensed into a two hour package. Nothing in the film seems to be dispensable, but it does feel a bit long, and there are a few scenes towards the end that appear to have been designed to facilitate a path towards the conclusion rather than mesh with Milk's established tempo. The acting is a bit hammy in some of these later scenes, too, a minor quibble given Sean Penn's otherwise stalwart performance as Harvey Milk (who, in all fairness to Penn, tended to be an exuberant figure himself).

Are these moderate criticisms enough to deny Milk a shiny bald man-statue? Well, it's enough to tip my own personal scale towards Slumdog Millionaire. Ultimately, though, I'm more interested in watching quality films than seeing who wins awards and who's wearing who. So while I may not watch the Oscar broadcast this year, I would like to thank the Academy for their viewing suggestions... It was an honor just to screen your nominees.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009


A myriad trusted critics, including the likes of Roger Ebert and A.O. Scott, have plunked WALL-E into their lists of the top ten films of 2008. According to, the latest Disney/Pixar release is amongst the top reviewed movies of the annum, garnering a 96% approval rating from some 200+ contributing writers. It was also a top-grossing film, fifth in the U.S. last year.

Now, I get the money thing; by and large, consumers are willing to throw wads of cash at products that are sentimental and shiny (never mind the fact that WALL-E's narrative is rife with anti-consumerist themes). And I understand the film's appeal to children, whose underdeveloped minds allow them to appreciate entertainment without it having to maintain coherent sense. What perplexes me, I guess, is the number of rational thinkers (read "critics") who were willing to take the intellectual leaps of faith that WALL-E's logical inconsistencies demand.

Before you accuse me of over analyzing children's fare or, worse yet, of suffering a stagnant imagination, let me explain some of my personal Pixar peccadilloes. First of all, Pixar’s creative team is known for injecting some pretty sophisticated humour into their films, a brilliant device that engages grown up viewers and increases the lifespan of their pictures (a child of ten can watch Toy Story in his/her teenage years and glean so much more). Since the writers, animators, and filmmakers strive to appeal as much to me as they do to mini-me, I have no qualms about assessing Pixar flicks as seriously as I would any other film.

And, certainly, some of their movies are more juvenile than others. Finding Nemo, A Bug’s Life just aren’t as sharp as the Toy Stories, Monsters, Inc., or The Incredibles. and To be fair, I consider the formers to be above par in the category of family films; they are simply less interesting to the part of me that likes the nutritious side of a Frosted Mini-Wheat. So forgive me if I hold WALL-E to a high standard.

Secondly, I am prone to childish wonderment. I can suspend disbelief when it comes to populations of sentient aquatic life and insects (Anthropomorphism or bust!), and I can certainly dial into past fantasies of toys coming to life and monsters under the bed. I have never seen Cars; can’t get passed the fact that if there are no drivers, there is no evolutionary reason for a race of vehicles to evolve. (Perhaps this is why I am more critical of the Transformers cartoon than I was at age eight.)

In the case of WALL-E, my issue is not one of premise. The film may smack viewers like you and me in the face with its all-too-obvious environmental messages, but I think the plot serves as an effective allegory for the younger crowd. No, for me the devil is in the details on this one; from beginning to end I just couldn’t get past the nonsensical “logistics” of WALL-E world. Par example:

1. Why is WALL-E the only remaining WALL-E unit in service? We see the mangled remains of his peers, but no coherent reason is given as to why they can’t recharge just as he does. Our WALL-E is frequently replacing his own burnt out appendages with parts salvaged from his former coworkers. For lack of any other evidence, I have to assume that the prequel will feature a murderous rampage sequence.

2. Whose idea was it to program a waste allocation droid to be curious? This robot equivalent of a trash compactor collects—and is fascinated by—such objects as an egg beater, rubber duckies, and bubble wrap. It’s as sensible as constructing a vacuum cleaner that wants to learn opera.

3. For that matter, why program a utility robot to feel emotion at all? Like fear… WALL-E makes C-3PO look butch. And the stupidest thing of all, integral to the narrative mind you, is that WALL-E falls in love with another robot. What is the point of gender coding your appliances? “Yeah, EVE’s primary directive is to probe the earth for evidence of sustainable life, and we’ve also given her mercenary capabilities in case she runs into danger, but she has a real soft spot for show tunes.” The mobile dumpster seduces EVE by screening scenes from Hello, Dolly! To what end? I used to bang pots and pans together when I was a kid… I doubt they ever received any sexual gratification out of it.

4. Now, the earth is covered with mounds of rubbish, so the humans take off on a space cruise leaving a squadron of Johnny-5’s to clean up by crushing the trash into cubes and assembling the blocks into columns. If so much as a bean sprout appears, mankind will return. But there will still be towers of garbage!!! “Yeah, this planet used to be a hole, but now that all of those oil drums and used tampons are stacked vertically, I think it’s kinda homey.” Launch the refuse into space and plant a frickin’ garden, people.

5. Which leads us to the physical state of Homo sapiens in the WALL-E universe. A cute expository gag details man’s evolution from Fred Willard to immobile butterball, but I think Darwin would be hard pressed to posit a survival of the fattest theory that would account for our newly acquired cartoon features.

Yes, if we relinquish the burden of walking in favor of hover-chairs, there will be a significant chance of weight gain; but the people in WALL-E look more like Barbapapa than that guy who had to have his trailer wall torn down on Jerry Springer.

6. Furthermore, the Willard character's video recording from some 700 years prior clearly informs the ship's captain that, "Due to the effects of micro-gravity, you and your passengers may have suffered some slight bone loss." Well, yes, and I'm not a doctor, but I have enough common sense to determine that if there are any muscles surrounding those ostio-toothpicks, they will have atrophied. Nevertheless, when these tubbies are thrown from their floating hammocks, they are able not only to support their own girth, but to traipse about with only the slightest bit of effort. The medicine practiced by Gregory House is more plausible.

And these are only six of the many things that make me go hmmm (In fact, several warrent a "What the-- ?!?"). I won't claim that I'm not a bit nit-picky, but my disbelief can only be suspended for so long when my intellect is being chided to the Nth degree. I also admit that there are probably more dire issues to discuss, like the position a friend of mine took when he wrote that: "In making a film that is ultimately cute and adorable and feel-good, Pixar has shown that it has the ability to make even the most pressing, important and dire issue of our time into fodder for mere escapism." Ultimately, though, I have too much trouble taking the film seriously enough to bother. I suppose if I had children, I would be more concerned with WALL-E's potential harm and/or foul. As it stands, I'm content to inhabit the role of curmudgeon. The critics can continue to play the wide-eyed fools.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

the not-top ten project
a series of posts in which an amateur film critic discusses ten movies he loves, in no particular order, that may or may not be his favorites.

entry #3: Casablanca

Narrator: With the coming of the Second World War, many eyes in imprisoned Europe turned hopefully, or desperately, toward the freedom of the Americas. Lisbon became the great embarkation point. But, not everybody could get to Lisbon directly, and so a tortuous, roundabout refugee trail sprang up - Paris to Marseilles... across the Mediterranean to Oran... then by train, or auto, or foot across the rim of Africa, to Casablanca in French Morocco. Here, the fortunate ones through money, or influence, or luck, might obtain exit visas and scurry to Lisbon; and from Lisbon, to the New World. But the others wait in Casablanca... and wait... and wait... and wait.

Having received a new DVD copy for Christmas and already watched it twice, it seems inevitable that Casablanca should be included in a list of movies that might possibly be my favorites. As I was telling a friend the other night, this is the one film that I can watch at any time, whether I feel like it or not. The moment it begins I am hooked, swept right in, and captivated all over again... And I have seen Casablanca a lot of times.*

I thought I would be a bit more reluctant to write about it than I actually am, though. The pretentious part of me feels like it's too obvious, maybe even redundant, to heap more praises upon such a popular, mainstream film. My insecurities make me question whether I am qualified to address a film about which so much has been said by critics, scholars, and loads of people who are far smarter than me.** And my nostalgic instincts urge me to revel in my feelings for Casablanca privately, rather than share them with anyone else.

Ultimately, it is my passion that inspires this love letter to Casablanca; whenever I see it, even think about the film, certain praises want to burst out of me (Wow. I think I just came a little). Okay, I'm on the verge of composing a sonnet right now, and no one wants that. So I will spare everyone by simply expressing some of my thoughts about the film in the more accessible literary tradition of "point form."

- For all of its indelible performances, famous moments, and oft-quoted dialogue, the first thing that comes to mind when I think about Casablanca is the Marseillaise sequence. I can't believe the number of times I've been choked up while watching this scene:

- I first saw Casablanca when I was 12 years old. I had to watch a classic movie for a school project, and I chose this film because I was intrigued by a cartoon that came enclosed in an old edition of Trivial Pursuit. It was a one-panel caricature of Bogie and Dooley Wilson with the caption, "Play it again, Sam." It hung in my locker all throughout high school.

- One of my fondest memories of the time I lived in Vancouver is the night I watched Casablanca on the big screen at a repertory theatre. It was enhanced by the atmosphere: an old cinema house with a balcony, and an ashtray at every seat.

- I know a lot of trivia, history, and behind the scenes stories about the film. This has never affected my being absorbed by the story.

-The minor characters in Casablanca are as interesting as their leading counterparts. Every role is well drawn, and the faces in this film are mesmerizing.

Mr. Leuchtag: Mareichtag and I are speaking nothing but English now.
Mrs. Leuchtag
: So we should feel at home when we get to America.
Carl: Very nice idea, mm-hmm.
Mr. Leuchtag: [toasting] To America!
Mrs. Leuchtag: To America!
Carl: To America!
Mr. Leuchtag: Liebchen - sweetnessheart, what watch?
Mrs. Leuchtag: Ten watch.
Mr. Leuchtag: Such much?
Carl: Hm. You will get along beautiful in America, mm-hmm.

- I'm not a huge fan of Ingrid Bergman, but I am addicted to her in this film. The precision with which her face is lit is a testament to the art of cinematography.

-I pray to the gods of cinema that Casablanca will never be colorized or remade. Rumors (a while back) that Madonna and Kevin Costner were to star were very distressing.

-In Roger Ebert's insightful DVD commentary, he addresses the debate about whether or not Casablanca is a "perfect" movie. He cites a couple of lines of clunky dialogue and a few unconvincing special effects as evidence that it is not, but I have never labored over these glitches. I love Casablanca, imperfections and all.

I could go on forever lauding Casablanca and reminiscing about the fond memories and life experiences I have that are intertwined with this picture. Suffice it to say, Casablanca does not fall into the ambiguous region in the category of "what may or may not be my favorite films"... We're in the midst of a beautiful friendship, I like to think. So I prefer not to be one who is fortunate through money, or influence, or luck. I'm not looking for an Exit Visa anytime soon.

* Second only in viewings to The Muppet Movie.
** Who would undoubtedly have phrased it "...than I."