If I chose the winners


 Oscar Night, 2009
Key: Will Win – X
 Should Win – O

  • [___] The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
  • [___] Frost/Nixon
  • [___] Milk
  • [_O_] The Reader
  • [_X_] Slumdog Millionaire
  • “Slumdog Millionaire” was the early underdog nomination
  • that remarkably gained momentum as more people have sought it out. Truly the one word of mouth nomination. But was it the best film of 2008? For that matter, were any of these decent but not masterful films the best of the year? “Benjamin Button” is burdened by a predictably whimsical story and an unnecessary present day deathbed storytelling editing choice. “Frost/Nixon” was a fascinating look back in history with two brilliant acting turns, but is this a film to revisit again and again. “Milk,” the uplifting contender here and a tie with “Reader” for best film of the lot, is probably “Slumdog’s” toughest competitor but “liberal” Hollywood has not been friendly to past films with a prominent homosexual focus (see “Brokeback Mountain”). “The Reader” is the one truly thought provoking film in the lineup, not to mention the most surprising and controversial. Naysayers are coining this film yet another emotional Holocaust drama. They clearly have not seen the film. What “The Reader” excels in is its ability to spark debate. Regret, shame, legal morality, love, are all themes woven together in this fascinating film. Winslet’s performance is worthy of her first Oscar prize, however, the most underrated turn was from relative newcomer David Cross. 
  • [___] David FincherThe Curious Case of Benjamin Button
  • [___] Ron HowardFrost/Nixon
  • [___] Gus Van SantMilk
  • [___] Stephen DaldryThe Reader
  • [_XO_] Danny BoyleSlumdog Millionaire
  • Fincher should have been recognized for “Fight Club” and
  • last years terribly overlooked “Zodiac.” Howard’s got his share of Oscars, Van Sant turned arguably the most personal film of the lot, Daldry’s nomination is most likely his prize, which leaves Boyle. It’s been wonderful watching Boyle mature as a filmmaker. His ability to jump from genre to genre should be recognized more and his vision of bringing the chaotic slums of India to the mainstream was ambitious but he delivered.
  • [___] Frozen River
  • [___] Happy-Go-Lucky
  • [___] In Bruges
  • [_XO_] Milk
  • [___] Wall-E
  • Dustin Lance Black is a name to get used to. His work on “Milk” and on the now fascinating HBO series “Big Love” shows a level of personal touch rarely spelled out on the page. A dark horse win for “In Bruges,” one of the better films of the year and a slyly dark comedy would be nice but is highly unlikely.
  • [___] The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
  • [__] Doubt
  • [___] Frost/Nixon
  • [_O_] The Reader
  • [_X_] Slumdog Millionaire
  • Adapted Screenplay will probably be another of “Slumdog’s” sweep later tonight but I would argue that again, “The Reader” is the most thought provoking story of the lot. One puzzling absent nomination is “Revolutionary Road,” a surprisingly faithful adaptation of a fiction masterpiece. 
  • [_O_] Anne HathawayRachel Getting Married
  • [___] Angelina JolieThe Changeling
  • [___] Melissa LeoFrozen River
  • [___] Meryl StreepDoubt
  • [_X_] Kate WinsletThe Reader
  • Winslet will probably take her first Oscar this evening after a stunning six prior nominations. Her win, while warranted, will be the “it’s about time” prize of the evening. Streep may be here toughest competitor (after all she’s Meryl Streep), however, for my money the strongest and most surprising performance of the group was from Hathaway who is quickly shedding her Disney princess actin roots and is evolving into one our most exciting rising actors. “Rachel Getting Married” did not receive enough credit this year and an upset by Hathaway would be just what this little movie needs to garner a wider audience. 
  • [___] Amy AdamsDoubt
  • [_O_] Penelope CruzVicky Cristina Barcelona
  • [_X__] Viola DavisDoubt
  • [___] Marisa Tomei,The Wrestler
  • [___] Taraji HensonThe Curious Case of Benjamin Button
  • This may be the toughest category of the night. All the actors shined and it’ll probably come down to Davis or Cruise. Tomei continues to turn in remarkably intimate performances in tough roles. Henson was probably the best part of “Button.” “Doubt” was an acting showcase but Cruz was dazzling as a high-maintenance, artist ex-girlfriend in Woody Allen’s most recent masterpiece. Cruz has parlayed through Hollywood for some time often with less than stellar results, however, when she’s on her native ground in Iberia her true talents come out.
  • [___] The Baader Meinhof Complex, Germany
  • [_XO_] The Class, France
  • [___] Departures, Japan
  • [___] Revanche, Austria
  • [_O_] Waltz with Bashir, Israel
  • Another tough one. “Bashir” and “The Class” were both remarkable pieces of cinema. “The Class” gives a new meaning to realism while “Bashir” took animation in an exciting and deep realm of possibilities (a reading of Joe Sacco’s graphic novel “Palestine” would be a perfect companion piece to this film). Either would be worthy but knowing the Academy, “The Class” will probably be the safest bet. 
  • [___] Bolt
  • [_XO_] Wall-E
  • [___] Kung Fu Panda
  • A category that was clearly created for Pixar. “Wall-E” could be in the Best Picture category but this sure-shot win will be enough.
  • [___] The Betrayal
  • [_O_] Encounters at the End of the World
  • [___] The Garden
  • [_XO_] Man on Wire
  • [___] Trouble the Water
  • A terrific lineup of docs this year. “Encounters” and “Wire” or so radically different but each films that will resonate long after tonight’s festivities. “Encounters” that speaks to a certain demographic of individuals, more specifically the adventurous souls. “Wire” is a one of a kind documentary/caper film about a one of a kind personal feat in human history. 
  • [_O_] La Maison En Petits Cubes
  • [___] Lavatory Lovestory
  • [___] Oktapodi
  • [_X_] Presto
  • [___] This Way Up
  • The first year I’ve been able to catch the Oscar Shorts before the festivities. Pixar’s “Presto” will probably prevail but look out for the beautifully imagined “La Maison” from Japan, a film that proves old fashioned animation techniques are still alive and well. 

If I chose the nominees

Thursday morning the nominations for the 2009 Academy Awards Ceremony will be announced. Normally the press release sends shock waves down the spines of anyone even remotely interested in the industry, however, after a fairly mediocre year of film (one in which the best films were rarely seen or put in the spotlight) it’s hard to say how big the Oscars will be this year. Unlike last year in which there were a number of sure fire wins (Daniel Day Lewis) and some extremely tight races for top prizes (Best Picture, Best Actress) this year’s lineup of possible contenders seems kind of uninspiring.

Sure this will undoubtedly be the year of Heath Ledger’s posthumous prize for The Dark Knight (hopefully the film’s sole prize of the night) and Mickey Rourke is ripe for a roaring comeback but other than that what is there to look forward to. Kate Winslet is one of the finest actors working today and has been nominated and passed over many times in the past. Will this be her year? Will she carry the burden of being nominated in two different categories (Julianne Moore was hindered by this curse in 2003 for a leading role in Far From Heaven, and a supporting turn in The Hours. She lost both)?

Wall-E was one of the most fascinating and prevalent films of the year (besides being a visual triumph of filmmaking, but does it have enough to clench a Best Picture nod? Will there be any love for some of the year’s top indies (many of which were the best films of the year, period) such as Rachel Getting Married, I’ve Loved You So Long, Happy Go Lucky, In Bruges, to name a few?

Overall this was a year of standout performances with very few solid films as a whole. Will strong, thought invoking character performances (Melissa Leo, Frozen River) best Oscar bait, star studded mediocrities (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) only time will tell.

The following is my list of the top contenders at this year’s Oscars if I were picking the nominees.  NOTE: Having not seen a handful of films, including Steven Soderbergh’s Che and Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy this list is subject to change.

Best Actor

Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler

Sean Penn, Milk

Brendan Gleeson, In Bruges

Richard Jenkins, The Visitor

Frank Langella, Frost/Nixon

DARK HORSE NOD: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Synecdoche New York


Still Haven’t Seen: Benicio Del Toro, Ché

Best Actress

Kristin Scott Thomas, I’ve Loved You So Long

Melissa Leo, Frozen River

Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married

Kate Winslet, Revolutionary Road

Sally Hawkins, Happy Go Lucky

DARK HORSE NOD: Kate Beckinsale, Snow Angels

DESERVING OF MORE RECOGNITION: Anamaria Marinca, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, Emily Mortimer, Transsiberian

Still Haven’t Seen: Michelle Williams, Wendy and Lucy 

Best Supporting Actor

Eddie Marsan, Happy Go Lucky

Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight

Michael Shannon, Revolutionary Road

Philip Seymour Hoffman, Doubt

Robert Downey Jr, Tropic Thunder

DARK HORSE NOD: Bill Irwin, Rachel Getting Married

DESERVING OF MORE RECOGNITION: Ralph Fiennes, In Bruges, John Malkovich, Changeling, Nick Nolte, Tropic Thunder, Jeff Bridges, Iron Man

Best Supporting Actress

Kate Winslet, The Reader

Marisa Tomei, The Wrestler

Rosemarie DeWitt, Rachel Getting Married

Francis McDormand, Burn After Reading

Penelope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona

DARK HORSE NOD: Samantha Morton, Synecdoche New York

DESERVING OF MORE RECOGNITION: Debra Winger, Rachel Getting Married 

Best Film

Rachel Getting Married



Slumdog Millionaire


DARK HORSE NOD: TIE Synecdoche, New York OR The Wrestler

DESERVING OF MORE RECOGNITION: 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (snubbed from last year), Let the Right One In

Best Director

Jonathan Demme, Rachel Getting Married

Gus Van Sant, Milk

Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire

Ron Howard, Frost/Nixon

Charlie Kaufman, Synecdoche, New York

DARK HORSE NOD: Darren Aronofsky, The Wrestler

DESERVING OF MORE RECOGNITION: Tarsem, The Fall, Werner Herzog, Encounters at the End of the World

Best Screenplay-Original

Charlie Kaufman, Synecdoche, New York

Dustin Lance Black, Milk

Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Woody Allen

Jenny Lumet, Rachel Getting Married

Philippe Claudel, I’ve Loved You So Long

DARK HORSE NOD: Andrew Stanton & Jim Reardon, Wall-E OR Martin McDonagh, In Bruges

DESERVING OF MORE RECOGNITION: Cristian Mungiu, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days, Joel and Ethan Coen, Burn After Reading

Best Screenplay-Adapted

Simon Beaufoy, Slumdog Millionaire

Peter Morgan, Frost/Nixon

Justin Haythe, Revolutionary Road

Eric Roth, Curious Case of Benjamin Button

John Patrick Shanley, Doubt

DARK HORSE NOD: David Hare, The Reader

DESERVING OR MORE RECOGNITION: John Ajvide Lindqvist, Let the Right One In 


Three surefire nominees for Best Documentary will most certainly be Man on Wire, Encounters at the End of the World, and Standard Operating Procedure. All three are radically different and brilliant in their own regards and this creates undoubtedly the toughest category race at this year’s Academy Awards. Man on Wire has been one of the highest rated films of the year and is the epiotome of what a quality documentary should be–gripping story, unusual subject, and flawless execution. Encounters is Werner Herzog at his finest, a fascinating look at man’s desire to explore their physical world, even to its extremes. Standard Operating Procedure is Errol Morris at his most intense and though provoking. Morris asks the question, is it possible to put a human face on acts of pure evil? Mark my words, the Best Documentary category will be the most gripping race to follow. 

When Kym Came Home

Film Review: Rachel Getting Married

ImageDaunting may be the most appropriate word to describe Jonathan Demme’s most recent film, Rachel Getting Married. The film is a painfully honest look at the modern marriage, the struggles with addiction–in regards to substance abuse and the addiction to resentment–the pitfalls of life in suburbia, and above all the binds of family. It is also one of the finest films of the year.

The film’s title pretty much sums up the surface of Rachel Getting Married since, yes, the picture is set around the matrimonial union of two seamlessly happy, cultured people. At its core though this is a film that shows the weight and pressures that this supposed joyous occasion has on a family with an emotionally draining past.

Anne Hathaway plays Kym, a deeply troubled but extremely courageous and gregarious middle child who is released from a stint in rehab to attend her older sister’s wedding. As the movie progresses we catch glimpses into her past life before sobriety, one comprised of eating disorders, substance abuse, and an unfortunate event (left unspoiled for sake of the film’s story progression) that would ultimately shape her life forever.

Kym is the film’s lead and Hathaway devours the role furthering her standing as one of the finer young actors working today, one who balances her big roles (Princess Diaries, Devil Wears Prada) with daring character study pieces (Havoc, and her bit role inBrokeback Mountain come to mind). She is the black sheep of a family that appears to be both successful and happy with life but deep down are tackling past demons, mainly revolving her wrong steps in life. What’s most frightening about Kym’s character is that she comes across as somehow relatable, almost as an extreme example of someone each and every one of us has crossed paths with at some time. She’s privileged, possibly spoiled, irresponsible, but at the same time trying to pull herself up in the face of those who look down at her.

Demme opens with Kym’s introduction as we see her nervously smoking outside the rehab center that has been her home for an undisclosed amount of time, waiting to be swept away to visually surreal wedding. Her father and stepmother joyfully embrace her, in many ways welcoming her back into the “real world.” As Kym mixes her witty sarcasm with casual family banter she exudes a subtle level of anxiousness as she’s about to face her older sister (soon to be whisked away by a fiancé she has yet to meet), her mother and the many other people who once inhabited her life.

Kym’s character is painted as troubled and scarred but also as courageous. It’s obvious that every day she’s well aware of her past and she realizes her return will undoubtedly prompt many judgmental eyes. Still she marches on. It is this courage that ultimately sets Kym apart from her family who each struggle to suppress their own hidden feelings and remorse, particularly Kym’s mother, played wonderfully by Debra Winger who if anything was underused in this film.

There is an interesting dueling dynamic in the suburban Connecticut mansion where the film is set. Rachel’s wedding is not your average “going to the Chapel, and we’re gonna get married” ceremony, but rather a new age gathering for countless artist friends of both the family and the couple. The wedding band is comprised of gypsy like classical guitar players and an avant-garde electric guitar/drums duo that perform a noise heavy rendition of “Here Comes the Bride.” The bridesmaids all sport non-traditional Indian saris while the musician groom Sidney (played by Tunde Adebimpe, the front man for the trendsetting art rock band TV on the Radio, most certainly not an actor but nevertheless a perfect fit for a fairly atmospheric bit part) favors an a cappella love song in lieu of the traditional exchanging of the vows. Even the wedding cake, which as we learn has hints of turmeric in its frosting, shows how small but believable the world these characters inhabit is. The film is clever introducing this larger than life gathering and then quickly bringing the characters back down to earth as we learn more about the crises brewing beneath the glamour. While unconventional in its presentation this is still the typical modern suburban family.

Both parents are remarried with the mother clearly removed from the family and not interested in being a part of a “traditional” family. Her few scenes in the film show the emotional toll an uncommitted mother can have on a family. The house is tucked away in the wealthy Connecticut woods creating what appears to be a safe little utopia for its characters. In fact the scenes away from the wedding and the home serve as reminders to the harsh reality of life as Kym attends AA meetings and, in the case of a crucial hair salon scene, confronts her dark and dishonest past.

Kym’s father (played wonderfully by character actor Bill Irwin, who according to IMDB.com is a regular on Sesame Street) juggles the kind of exuberance of a happily married father and lover of life with an obviously scarred soul. Second to Hathaway, Irwin’s performance as the grief stricken father trying desperately to give his daughter the wedding of her dreams, is the best of the film and in a perfect world would be enough to garner an award for most underrated performance of the year, if one such existed. A moment involving a plate late in the film involving a dish washer loading competition between father and soon to be son-in-law is the kind of scene that speaks volumes about who this father figure is without actually spelling it out for the audience through dialogue.

ImageWhile highly cultured and exuberant about all aspects of life–food, music, dancing, and even being the master of the dishwasher–Kym’s family is far from perfect and as the film unfolds we see just how unhappy, or better yet, tucked away in their own worlds many of the characters truly are. The mother is devoted to her career and new hubby, her father seems lost and full of regrets about his past decisions, both sisters, while different in many ways, feel abandoned, with Kym only starting to realize how hard her life is going to be as she matures and is haunted by her past.

Rachel Getting Married brings to mind past films dealing with family turmoil in the modern age: Ang Lee’s horribly underrated The Ice Storm, Robert Redford’s Ordinary People (a great film often scoffed at for being the film that robbed Raging Bull its deserved Best Picture Oscar in 1980), and most recently Alan Ball’s work for American Beauty and the brilliant television drama Six Feet Under. This small subgenre that these masterpieces inhabit is about uncovering the truth behind the tainted portrait of the perfect family.

An equally important aspect of Rachel Getting Married is in Demme’s unconventional cinematography choices for the film, primarily the film’s hand-held camera work, which at first creates a bit of a nauseating effect on the viewing (much like The Blair Witch Project only without the equally unsettling paranoia attributed to that film) but ultimately sucks the viewer into the world on screen. In one powerful scene at the rehearsal dinner in which Kym courageously but also selfishly stands up to toast her sister, the viewer is transported to the dinner table as the camera pans from guest to guest, each showing hints of embarrassment and awkwardness. The photography of this film is in the vein of the camcorder-wielding guest at all weddings. At times we, the viewer, are merely filmgoers watching from a distance while at other moments we become part of the wedding festivities.

It should be noted that Rachel Getting Married was written for the screen by Jenny Lumet who is the daughter of acclaimed filmmaker Sidney Lumet. The dialogue heavy original script is another awe-inspiring element to this film’s success and one would hope that this is the first of many more screenplays from newcomer Lumet, worthy of at least a Best Original Screenplay nod at this year’s Academy Awards.

Jonathan Demme has been a curious filmmaker to follow as he’s juggled various genres over the years. His many documentary credits helped lead up to Rachel Getting Married which at times feels very much like a home-video documentary about a family wedding. The guerilla filmmaking tactics employed in this film also makes it one of his most intimate cinematic experiences of his career.

Rachel Getting Married is not a happy film with many of the erupting tensions and crises that develop throughout the film do not get resolved. It is, however, an extremely honest look at the complications revolving a modern day family. While most viewers might not relate to the film’s more extreme elements–mainly Kym’s substance abuse and irresponsible nature–the majority of people can relate to that idea that family gatherings, even in the most idyllic settings, can be draining experiences that bring to life many dormant feelings and emotions. Whether or not this is the film’s central message–that being, the family dynamic is often complex and requires work and openness to prosper–is to be debated. One thing is for sure, this is not the light-hearted wedding film fare that the majority of America is use to but it is arguably the most startling and honest.

Rachel Getting Married is currently playing in select theaters for a limited time.

Fall Movie Preview

The Dark Knight fever is beginning to die down. Arguably the most anticipated and biggest film of 2008 has made its splash and now the question is, what’s next? Is there another upcoming film this year that will be as well regarded as The Dark Knight? Will Heath Ledger get those posthumous awards everyone is buzzing about? While financially the newest Batman flick will undoubtedly be the victor of ‘08 there are some intriguing films left for this year, especially before Christmas when the slew of Oscar bait films are unloaded. Here are ten fall films to look forward to.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona – Release Date August 15: Woody Allen found his new muse back in 2005 when he cast Scarlett Johansson in the sly, out of left fieldMatch Point. Since then she appeared in the less than desirable Scoop and nowBarcelona, which takes Allen and company to the Iberian Peninsula. Teaming up with recently applauded Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz (both native Spaniards), and the wonderful character actor Patricia Clarkson, this has potential to be one of the better comedies this year.
Hamlet 2 – Release Date August 29: Sure the title is just begging to be scoffed at but the one thing going for this comedy about a high school drama production of a sequel to a Shakespeare classic is the great British actor/funnyman Steve Coogan. This little indie supposedly features raunchy political incorrectness galore but also appears to stretch its message to the free speech debate. If anything just seeing what the writers came up with for a Hamlet sequel is enough to warrant a viewing.
Burn After Reading – Release Date September 12: How do you follow up an Oscar sweeping action drama about a psychotic killer and a money chase gone wrong? Why with a screwball comedy of course. The Coen Brothers have walked down this path before with the brilliant O Brother, Where Art Thou?The Big Lebowski, and even the admirable Intolerable Cruelty. This time the brothers team up yet again with George Clooney and Frances McDormand but also with the intriguing likes of John Malkovich, character actor J.K. Simmons, Tilda Swinton, and Brad Pitt. Little is known about the plot, which involves a computer disk with crucial CIA intelligence falling into the hands of nitwits but who cares, it’s the Coens. Nuff said.
ImageMiracle at St. Anna – Release Date September 26: There has been a lot of hoo-hah in the news lately regarding Spike Lee and World War II. The outspoken, controversial filmmaker had a lot of negative things to say about Clint Eastwood’s two Iwo Jima films not including an African American point of view. Now Lee has a chance to tell his side of the war. Anna is set in Mussolini’s Italy during 1944, a part of The War seldom chronicled on screen and from the trailers it appears to be about an all-black unit trapped behind enemy lines. With a staff including Derek Luke, John Leguizamo, the return of Lee regular John Turturro, and the up and coming Joseph Gordon-Levitt, this could be a fresh side to the overworked WWII genre.
Blindness – Release Date October 3: For those who have read José Saramogo’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel about a blindness epidemic sweeping an unnamed country you’ll know it is one bleak story to film. Saramago uses this hypothetical apocalyptic setup as a vehicle for discussing how we as people treat and view each other. The film adaptation was directed by the great Brazilian filmmaker Fernando Meirelles whose film City of God and The Constant Gardener were two of the finest of decade and has a promising cast including the always strong Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, Danny Glover and Gael García Bernal in a tasty villainous role. Whereas 2006sChildren of Men asked what would happen if we as people could no longer procreate, Blindness ponders how we would survive without the sense of sight, something we often take for granted.
Religulous – Limited Release Date October 3: This film was originally planned for a release last Easter. Then it was pushed back till the summer. Now it appears to be a fall release. While the scheduling crisis is a bit concerning, this satirical look at all major religions from political humorist Bill Maher, one of the few outspoken “rationalists” who isn’t afraid to make a splash, could be one of the bigger documentaries this year. With Borat director Larry Charles at the helm, this has the potential to be as big as The Passion of Christ, this time around with jokes. Whatever happens it’ll be interesting to see the reaction from the organized religion giants comedian Bill Maher takes on.
RocknRolla – Release Date October 31: After his pair of clever genre rejuvenating British Gangster films–Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch–it seemed that director Guy Ritchie might be the next Tarantino. Then he made a bomb with Swept Away followed by another bomb with Revolver. Only time will tell whether or not RocknRolla will be this slick filmmaker’s return to form. The one thing in its favor is the film’s cast, which includes new leading man Gerard Butler of 300 not to mention the great Tom Wilkinson (who appears to be in every movie these days), Jeremy Piven, Ludacris (who continues to prove he can act) and The Wire’s Idris Elba. Even if it bombs we can expect lots of guns, loud Brit pop music and fascinating British dialects that are foreign to American ears.
Changeling – Release Date October 31: Clint Eastwood directs Angelina Jolie and John Malkovich. Not a whole lot else is needed after that. Still this period piece/thriller about a kidnapping was a favorite at this year’s Cannes fest and will no doubt be just what Angelina Jolie needs to take the spotlight off her personal life and back onto her acting chops.
The Quantum of Solace – Release Date November 7: The title of the new Daniel Craig 007 flick is a bit curious but after the success of Casino Royale, which dealt with Bond’s beginning one can only expect Solace to be for the 007 revival what The Dark Knight is for the new Batman series. At least one can hope. Little is known about the plot (which is just fine) but the lead villain is the wonderful French actor Mathieu Amalric who wowed audiences with last year’s restrained performance as a paralyzed writer in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button – Release Date December 25: The idea of David Fincher directing a fantasy film based on a F. Scott Fitzgerald short story of a man who ages in reverse is not only puzzling but also terribly exciting. The trailer is already floating around the internet and the cast is ripe with talent. Fincher is a filmmaker who continues to surprise us with his maturation and from the looks of this film this should be yet another great to add to his canon.
Choke (September 26), Zack and Miri Make a Porno (October 31), Australia (November 14th), Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, The Road (November 26), Milk (December 5), Doubt (December 12)

Selling The Dark Knight

You’ve seen the scores of slick posters plastered around the city. You’ve watched and re-watched the three carefully crafted trailers and now, after almost of a year of nail biting and a piercing level of curiosity, the wait is over. This Friday audiences around the world finally get to head to the megaplex for the highly anticipated continuation in the revived Batman saga, The Dark Knight. There is really not much to say about this film that hasn’t already been said. The film is sure to be the hit of the summer and there is already posthumous Oscar buzz for the late Heath Ledger’s portrayal of The Joker.

Show me a person who isn’t excited to see Batman take on the new Joker and I’ll show you a liar. Not since that mysterious teaser trailer for Star Wars Episode One was screened prior to the film Meet Joe Black has there been this much built up hype and universal excitement for a film. Not only has The Dark Knight already garnered a number of favorable reviews, not to mention talk of Ledger’s possible Oscar Nod for a super hero film that isn’t in the technical category but it’s safe to say that sequel is in line to break the record for largest opening weekend in movie history. In other words, good, bad or just mediocre, Batman is going to open big.
While much of this anticipation could be the result of the film itself–after all who doesn’t want to see what Christopher Nolan and gang have in store for round two of this brilliantly resurrected franchise–most of the buzz surrounding The Dark Knight is the product of one of the most unique and fascinating marketing campaigns for a film, ever. The film’s now inevitable success will be a testament to the powers of what a keen promotion plan can do for a film and may just pave the way for the future of blockbuster hype building.
To be fair a film like The Dark KnightStar Wars, or most of the other blockbuster giants of the past decade generally do not require clever marketing. The word of mouth and notoriety alone is enough to reel in moviegoers. In the case of The Dark Knight, the film’s predecessor Batman Begins, which primarily introduced Batman’s story, left viewers with a hell of a cliffhanger for chapter two with that glimpse of Joker’s calling card. What the minds behind The Dark Knight decided to do was hype up the vision of the film’s villain instead of the film itself. Placing more emphasis on The Joker and less on Batman himself is clever because it enables Nolan to surprise viewers with what Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne/Batman character has up his sleeve.
This campaign started as far back when the casting of Heath Ledger as the Joker was announced. Speculation of who would play the sinister clown had already been swirling around the internet geek-o-sphere and the announcement of Ledger was not only baffling to most but also created a level of mystery behind what he would do with the character. While the casting of Ledger was supposedly based solely on his supposed knock out audition, and the intense level of serious method, it was also a smart move in terms of playing up the film’s shroud of mystery.
Months passed then came the viral marketing, or use of popular mediums for the masses, primarily the internet. The release of the Joker’s menacing mug shot, complete with ghastly cheek-to-cheek scars and clown makeup that would give Tim Curry’s IT character nightmares, was just what was needed to silence any qualms with the casting of Ledger. The bait was set.
What came next is what makes the marketing behind this film so unique. Rather than merely leak trailers and footage to the usual outlets–MySpace, Youtube, Aint it cool news. Etc.–the savvy PR minds created an intricate series of puzzles and reality based games for fans to dive into, all rooted around the Joker and his “Why So Serious?” tagline.
Whysoserious.com premiered featuring everything from global interactive scavenger hunts and word puzzles to hints about the film’s other major character, Harvey Dent. The clues all led to tasty little teasers about the film including film stills of the joker and his masked gang, promotional posters and even an eventual secret screening of the film’s first six minutes shown at select IMAX theaters all over the country (the same opening sequence was then shown prior to select Imax screenings of Will Smith’s film I Am Legend).
ImageWhen the first official trailer hit the web and theaters in December of last year giving wide audiences the first actual scenes with the Joker, hardcore fans and casual moviegoers alike were officially hooked. Then they made us wait. And wait some more.
Unlike other big budget success stories this year like Iron Manor the new Indiana Jones, both of which were shot and released in a short window of time and didn’t focus a lot of attention on marketing, Nolan and gang decided to hold back the film’s release thus creating even more widespread anticipation. Even before anyone had seen the film there was already a healthy level of legitimate suspense. Few films are able to pull off a stunt like this and after the handful of positive reviews chances are the suspense will pay off.
The final level of clever marketing came in the past month with Comcast, the now popular digital cable provider, giving users an entire free-to-view section dedicated to the film featuring behind the scene documentaries about the production and Chicago backdrop, all three trailers and one alternate never before seen trailer, and most curiously a series of scripted fake news reports from the fictional Gotham Tonight news program. Each ten minute fictional talk show featured interviews and reports that present viewers background information about various characters in the film including Lt. Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), crime boss Sal Maroni (Eric Roberts), and Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale). Rumors even sparked that the main anchor Mike Engel (played by Sixteen Candles alum Anthony Michael Hall) may become a character of importance in future Batmaninstallments.
Earlier this summer Six Flags Great America and Six Flags Great Adventures theme parks opened separate Dark Knight roller coasters. There was even a direct to DVD animated film series (in similar vein to the Animatrix series) from various acclaimed international animators who each directed a short dedicated to filling the storyline void between Batman Begins and The Dark Knight.

While stunts like this might seem a bit much for a movie about a superhero the marketing campaign was fairly ingenious by giving enough hints and tastes of what’s to come to lure in the average moviegoer while also giving hardcore fans the clever puzzles and payoffs to raise their anticipation to ecstatic. The marketing behind this film went beyond the traditional advertising ploys and Happy Meal product placement of yesteryears thus making the film less of a singular entity and more of a multiple medium, fully interactive movie-going experience.
What does all this mean for films? It’s no surprise that in the magical age of CGI comic book film adaptations are the next big thing but like any other cinematic fad there are always the standout films that must raise the bar high for what audiences should expect.Batman Begins took an action franchise and turned it upside down by focusing more attention on the psychology of its characters, while also giving us a brand new, darker vision of the Batman universe that was void of the camp found in its predecessors. Consider also that The Dark Knight was innovative in being the first film out of the Hollywood canon to utilize the 60mm IMAX camera for certain scenes, a feat may also pave the way for IMAX being more than just a venue for cool nature and concert flicks.
This summer’s other big success story Iron Man followed closely by spending as much time if not more on Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark character as it did on the man in the metal suit. And with hints in both Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk of the eventual Avengers film, we may be in store for yet another extensive viral marketing campaign from Marvel Films. In the age where computer technology has become such a staple element of blockbusters the true auteur must go behind simply wowing audiences visually.
On the eve of its official release The Dark Knight “experience” that has been created does just that. While we’ll have to wait a couple more days to find out if the payoff was worth all the time and attention it’s safe to say that in the post Dark Knight arena, the promotion and delivery of Hollywood films will head in radically different direction.

Global Hollywood

Last Sunday the 80th annual Academy Awards was broadcast to some of the lowest viewer ratings in recent years. The winners seemed predictable, save a handful of smaller technical categories. The gala’s emcee (the usually witty Jon Stewart) had his moments but overall brought more yawns than laughs and above all the festivities just seemed to be more of the same with very few memorable moments. 

A lot of factors may have played into the Oscar’s fairly mediocre outcome. Two months ago people were unsure if there would even be a ceremony after this year’s writers strike debacle halted previous award shows such as the Golden Globes. The high caliber of performances and films released in 2007 should have made the race all the more interesting but unfortunately so much had been written and hyped about the nominees that most major categories had been unanimously called by those covering the industry (exception might be made for the Best Supporting Actress win by Tilda Swinton, who herself seemed to be a bit jarred when her name was called).

Still the one thing that was most striking about the fairly uneventful evening was how much of a presence and force there was from International talents. If there was one particular sign of the times to take from the Oscars it was that now more than global cinema is beginning to best Hollywood, and rightfully so. 

In the acting arena two Brits, a Spaniard and a Parisian took the four major prizes. Many of the technical awards went to those whose foreign tongues kept their acceptance speeches short and endearingly awkward. Even both music categories were swept by those from overseas–Dario Marianelli’s moving score for “Atonement” and the Irish/Czech duo from the little movie that could, “Once.”

Now to be fair the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has always had somewhat of a global eye when it comes to gathering the nominees but more often than not there is a limit to its scope. Take for example the Best Foreign Language Film category, which this year had baffling results thanks to shameless disregard for a number of masterpieces. Now while I have yet to see this year’s victor, the Austrian Holocaust piece, The Counterfeiters, it’s hard to imagine it being a more powerful piece of cinema than Romania’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days

Here was a film coming out of what is now being called Romania’s own New Wave of filmmaking, that not only tackled the controversial issue of abortion but more impressively portrayed the way of life during a dark time for one of Europe’s most overlooked and forgotten countries. Set in the final years of Communist dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu’s reign, the film is not only a scathing look at the Romania’s former ban on birth control and abortion (a decree that caused a wave of underground, dangerous illegal abortions and subsequently a rise in overpopulated orphanages that plagued the country many years after the fall of communism) but also a portrait of how everyday life was under this regime. 

Still despite picking up the top prize at Cannes earlier this year, along with countless other important film festival awards it was ignored by the Academy. 

In past years I can think of a number of examples of foreign language films that were not only better than most films being released in Hollywood but were for the most part overlooked all together. Take last year’s Oscar gala. While the Academy finally bestowed some love for Martin Scorsese, they picked one of his more mediocre films. In fact of last year’s Best Picture nominees–The Departed, Little Miss Sunshine, Letters from Iwo Jima, The Queen, and Babel–none of the films were truly as masterful, in my humble opinion, as some of the international fodder that came out. 

Take The Lives of Others for example, which took the Best Foreign Language Film statue last year. This film (truly one of the best of last year) combined themes of the sly conspiracy political thrillers from the 1970s with a historical portrait of the paranoid and restricted life in East Berlin under the GDRs regime. The film was so well received that it is even garnering an American remake to be helmed by either Sidney Pollack or Anthony Minghella (it should be noted that The Departed was itself a pseudo-remake of a far superior thriller, Infernal Affairs, from Hong Kong). 

ImageThen there was Water, Deepa Mehta sobering end to her element trilogy that focused on India’s British colonial period in the 1930s and the commonplace of women being married off young and the questionable treatment of widows. The film was not so much a scathing look at India’s cultural roots but rather a portrait of what life was like in this part of the world, again a common theme among foreign films that truly sets them apart from the mainstream. 

In past years there have been rare moments where international pictures blew the competition away or was able to leak into the bigger prizes usually reserved for Hollywood films. Take Bernardo Bertolucci’s biopic of the last monarch of China, The Last Emperor sweeping the awards in 1988 (technically not a foreign language film, but most definitely not something mainstream Hollywood would put out). Everyone remembers Roberto Benigni taking Best Actor and Foreign Film for Life Is Beautiful. Or how about Spain’s Pedro Almodóvar snatching up the well-deserved Best Screenplay prize and a Directing nom for his film Talk To Her, which was not only snubbed from contention in the Best Foreign Language film category but was one of the year’s best and remains to this day one of the finest films to be released in the new millennium. 

This year was a great one for film, no question about it but what is most interesting and promising about the Oscar outcome is that perhaps Hollywood is beginning to open its eyes to an entire world of filmmaking. Every year hundreds of great films slip by the publics eye or are completely ignored because they are subtitled. What’s fascinating about many of these films is that they are often capsules of times not familiar to us, and worlds that are radically different to what we know. While Hollywood still has a ways to go until they truly honor the finest films from a global standpoint, 2007 was proof that perhaps they’re making strides in the right direction.

Oscar Night Approaches

Well it’s Oscar season again, the annual soirée of Hollywood shakers and movers all dying to take the stage for their extended acceptance speeches, and all the glory and recognition that comes with that little gold statue. Normally I avoid most major award shows. The Grammys have never really interested me since I’m convinced it’s more of a popularity contest than an actual polling for the best of the best in the music industry. The Emmys always seem to ignore the shows that truly matter (The Wire anyone?) instead honoring the ones that ten years from now will be forgotten (Ugly Betty perhaps). The Golden Globes are like Oscar/Emmys light and then there is the slew of ridiculous MTV awards, which hold no real merit but are rather arenas for mass celebrity whoring. When it comes to the Academy Awards I can’t help but closely follow the annual road to the red carpet. What can I say I’m a sucker for the Oscar race.

When it’s all said and done the Academy Awards aren’t that much different from the other popularity contest award ceremonies listed above. There is plenty of celebrity attention grabbing during the pre-shows and escapades down the flash bulb red carpet. Picking the winners and nominees has always involved a certain level of illogical politics. Individuals are often honored decades too late (take last year with Scorsese), certain masters are shamelessly overlooked year after year often doomed for the end of their career achievement award, and for some reason certain films can sweep the awards (remember how well received Titanic was? Try watching it today).

Still there is something about the Oscars that for me always keeps me coming back for more and this year is certainly no exception. In my opinion 2007 was one of the finest years for film this side of the millennium not so much because of the films themselves but because of the raw performances that carried them. 

Major contenders like No Country For Old Men and There Will Be Blood were undoubtedly very strong films, respectively, but each had flaws that, at least for me, keep them from becoming masterpieces. Still the stand-alone performances that were spawned from these films were some of the finest I’ve seen in recent years, which makes this a year of actors rather than filmmakers. 

Veteran master of the craft Daniel Day-Lewis locked down his nomination and probable win when he took on the role of oil man/power monger Daniel Plainview, an impressive performance that epitomizes truly awe-inspiring acting. With all due respects to the other contenders in the Best Acting Category–the wise Tommy Lee Jones, the bizarre but gifted Johnny Depp, the devoted to the role Viggo Mortensen and the popular favorite George Clooney–Day-Lewis’ commanding tour de force may be the finest showcase of true acting chops seen in a long time.

Ellen Page has earned the most buzz for her leading role in Juno, still people should rent Sarah Polley’s moving film Away From Her, which features the truly great leading lady role of the year by Julie Christie. Page is on her way to a promising career and while her role in Juno was something fresh I was much more impressed with her supporting turn as a psychotic, vengeful teenager in the indie sleeper Hard Candy (seriously rent this and watch as all preconceived notions of Page being a sweet little Canadian teenager go right out the window).

Powerful performances filled both supporting acting categories this year. On the actor side Javier Bardem seems to be the locked down nominee for his haunting take on Cormac McCarthy’s walking monster, Anton Chigurh in No Country, still one shouldn’t overlook the other stellar noms including my personal favorite, Casey Affleck in the shamelessly overlooked, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, seriously one of best films most people missed this year. 

Or how about Philip Seymour Hoffman for Charlie Wilson’s War who, like reserve wines and soft cheeses, seems to be getting better and better with age. Then there was the great Hal Holbrook who turned in one hell of a riveting performance in Into the Wild opposite the snubbed Emile Hirsch. 

On the supporting actress side Amy Ryan’s frightening take on the hard-lived Boston mother and druggie in the surprisingly good Gone Baby Gone would be my pick but all signs seem to be pointing towards Ruby Dee for her brief role in the fairly mediocre American Gangster. Here’s where politics get involved with Oscars. Dee is a veteran actress (and a damn good one) who has never won but honoring her for a bit role (seriously she’s on screen maybe 4 minutes total) in Gangster over someone like Tilda Swinton as the conniving businesswoman in Michael Clayton, Cate Blanchett (the new Meryl Streep) as Bob Dylan, or the young newcomer Saoirse Ronan in Atonement would be disappointing.

I’ve often thought that there should be a third acting category reserved solely for cameo and bit roles that, despite their limited time onscreen, end up becoming scene-stealers. For example, No Country featured a cast of greats but one of the finest performances in my mind came at the end when Tommy Lee Jones’ old sheriff pays a visit to his wheelchair stricken uncle/ex-lawman Ellis played wonderfully by the relatively unknown Anton Corbin. Or how about Swedish great Max Von Sydow’s small but crucial tear jerker performance in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, a film that like many others was snubbed from the Best Foreign Film category, another political flaw in the Academy’s selection of nominees. 

There were a number of stellar films to come from overseas that for some reason or another were disqualified from contention in the Best Foreign Language Film category. Besides Butterfly, which did garner a Best Directing nod for artist Julian Schnabel, other foreign tongue masterpieces were ignored. Among them Spain’s The Orphanage or Romania’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days, which took home the top prize at Cannes earlier this year (SIDENOTE: this film is truly a masterpiece and is only now getting a limited theatrical release but can be viewed on IFC OnDemand). How the Academy decides what qualifies and what doesn’t in this category will always baffle me, and it’s a shame because countless classics have been overlooked due to this hitch in the system.

As for as the final coveted Best Picture category it seems to be down between No Country and this year’s Little Miss SunshineJuno. I’ve always judged the best picture films on the merits of which movies I will revisit ten or twenty years down the road. Juno was a nice movie with a great screenplay (scribe Diablo Cody is a shoe-in for Best Original Screenplay) but was it truly the finest film this year? Jesse James was on par with No Country but nobody saw it. Despite critics who say Sean Penn strayed too far from the book, Into the Wild was one of the best films I’ve seen in a long time and will surely be revisited in the future. Eastern Promises was also a masterpiece for the bizarre Canadian director David Cronenberg but alas it too was snubbed from most major categories despite being just as violent as many others nominated. 

With Jon Stewart returning as host and a slew of great actors set to take the stage, not to mention the possibility of another Michael Moore “shame on you” acceptance speech slam at our current administration if he wins Best Documentary for Sicko, next Sunday’s ceremony should make for one interesting night celebrating film in 2007.

Film Review: The Last King of Scotland

Film Review:
The Last King of Scotland–R
Starring: Forest Whitaker, James McAvoy, Gillian Anderson
Directed by: Kevin Macdonald

Forest Whitaker (“Platoon,” “Bird”) has come along way since his cameo as the hard-hitting all-American high school football star in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” “The Last King of Scotland” marks the magnificent character actors’ 40th feature film and his performance is not only prime Oscar fare but one of the best of his career. This being said, the film itself, while being incredibly suspenseful and interesting, at times feels like nothing more than a vehicle for Whitaker to shine in his flawless portrayal of the former Ugandan dictator, Idi Amin.

Whitaker is no stranger to playing the role of scene-stealer. Throughout his career he has nailed some of the most noteworthy roles in brilliant films such as Jim Jarmusch’s “Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai” and Neil Jordan’s “The Crying Game,” to the more mediocre fare like “Phone Booth” or 1995s creature feature, “Species.” Whether the material is thick or thin, Whitaker somehow always manages to mold his multi-faceted roles into intriguing standout characters.

In “Scotland” Whitaker devours his role as Uganda’s former dictator and worldly monster down to the finest of details. Besides mastering the thick Central African accent, Whitaker fully embodies the almost bipolar aspects of Amin. When he is first introduced Amin is jovial and inspiring to both the naïve protagonist on screen, Nicholas Garrigan (McAvoy), but also to the audience despite our predisposed knowledge of the horror’s to come. As the film progresses and things fall apart, we see the darker side of Amin erupt on screen. This kind of stellar acting feat is what made us sympathize with past venomous celluloid characters such as Adolph Hitler in 2004s “The Downfall’s” or to an extent the fictional Dr. Hannibal Lector–through raw humanism and benevolence even the most horrific of characters can draw us in and toy with our emotions.

“Scotland” is based off a number of different personal accounts and stories about Amin’s brutal term as President of Uganda during the 70s. The young Garrigan is a brash, recently appointed Scottish doctor who decides he’s not cut out for the simple and trite medical practice of his father’s. Through a literally random choice he decides to move to Uganda and try something exotic and, according to him, “fun.” Not too long after he begins his aid work he is befriended by the recently appointed Amin, again through an act of shear randomness.

Amin, admiring the young doctor’s fearless and uncorrupted nature and impartiality to British/Ugandan politics, decides to hire Garrigan on as his own personal physician, a job that he accepts almost entirely on the latent prospect of a more glamorous and possibly exciting future. Garrigan has no real knowledge of the history of Uganda or Amin and as he moves closer and closer into Amin’s personal circle of trust and the chaos that surrounds him we watch his naïve nature slowly peel away.

McAvoy nails his performance as Garrigan but fails to truly leave us with any lasting impression of his portrayal. When it’s all said and done, one can’t help but wonder if some other young Scottish actor could have equaled or bested Garrigan. Ultimately McAvoy serves as nothing more than an aid/fuel for Whitaker’s immaculate adaptation of Amin.

“The Last King of Scotland” is worth seeing, if anything because of Whitaker’s performance. The film is an honest and sobering look into the tortured soul of one of history’s many depraved dictators. Similarly to 2004s “Hotel Rwanda,” which featured a stellar performance by Don Cheadle but was ultimately a fairly forgettable film, “Scotland” is an interesting look at one of history’s bleaker chapters but fails to present any awe-inspiring messages. The film may not leave as lasting impression on you as say other eye opening films like, “The Downfall” or this year’s highly overlooked Indian film, “Water,” however, come Oscar season one can only hope that Whitaker’s performance gets the nod he deserves.