If I chose the winners

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

  • BEST PICTURE
  • [___] 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. 
  • DIRECTOR
  • [___] 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.
  • ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
  • [___] 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.
  • ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
  • [___] 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. 
  • ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE
  • [_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. 
  • ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE
  • [___] 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.
  • FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM
  • [___] 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. 
  • ANIMATED FEATURE
  • [___] 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.
  • DOCUMENTARY FEATURE
  • [___] 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. 
  • SHORT FILM – ANIMATED
  • [_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. 
  • ORIGINAL SCORE

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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

DESERVING OF MORE RECOGNITION: Chiewetel Ejiofor, Redbelt

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

Milk

Wall-E

Slumdog Millionaire

Frost/Nixon

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 

BEST DOCUMENTARY QUAGMIRE

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. 

Herzog’s curious ‘encounters’


Film Review: Encounters at the End of the World

Directed by Werner Herzog

Documentary, 2008 

Encounters at the End of the World is the type of film that will garner two different types of viewer. The first might see the film as nothing more than yet another nature documentary set in the frigid Antarctica continent. The film provides these folks a fix of scientific explanations pertaining to ice samples and global warming, stunning shots of the continent’s vast emptiness and it a glimpse into the unknown below the ice. There are even a handful of penguin shots thrown in for the obligatory post March of the Penguins ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs.’ 

The more observant filmgoer will see Encounters for what it really is, a documentary not so much about Antarctica but one that questions why mankind yearns to explore this planet taking some literally to the end of the earth. Herzog is interested in learning more about what drives living souls to travel into the unknown. 

For anyone familiar with the films of Werner Herzog, Encounters is any ways the film the auteur was destined to make. Herzog has always been fascinated by man’s perilous pursuit of enlightenment and as a filmmaker he has tested his own curiosities surrounding this world of ours. In Aguirre Wrath of God the protagonist (one of many daunting performances by Herzog muse Klaus Kinski) is on a suicide mission through the Amazonian jungles towards the mythical golden city of El Dorado. Fitzcarraldo documents the fictional account of a man’s dream of bringing the opera to the jungles of Peru and focuses on the mountain (literally pulling a riverboat up a steep hill) he climbs to bring his vision to life.

It is Herzog’s interest in mankind’s obsessive curiosity of the planet that draws him to Antarctica. In the introduction to Encounters Herzog narrates, “The National Science Foundation had invited me to Antarctica even though I left no doubt that I would not come up with another film about penguins. My questions about nature, I let them know, are different.” 

Encounters is about the people who live, visit and work in Antarctica. It is a common misconception that the only souls crazy enough to make the trek to the desolate continent are research scientists. What’s most striking about Encounters is that while many of the inhabitants of the few camps set up in Antarctica are there for the pursuit of scientific answers there are just as many average Joe’s simply there to catch a glimpse of the end of the earth. 

Along the way Herzog encounters a linguist working in a greenhouse, working on the continent simply to get away from a world where every minute a spoken language becomes extinct. There’s the former banker and ex-Peace Corps volunteer who now drives a mammoth snow bus that would seem right at home in a Mad Max film. The eccentric world traveler who can tuck herself into a small carry-on suitcase seems to be at the camp merely to quench a never-ending thirst to explore every end of the globe. What’s striking about Encounters is that for every stunning underwater scene or shot of the picturesque Antarctic skyline there is an equally fascinating interview with the people who call this place home. The “full time travelers and part time workers” as one inhabitant describes his peers. 

The trick of Encounters is that for the casual viewer the film is nothing more than a look at the natural wonders of Antarctica, with a timely message about global warming thrown in for political leverage. A closer look uncovers a film that is as much an ode to the world traveler as it is a nature documentary. 

For many of the people Herzog encounters along the way Antarctica is the last stop on what might be a seemingly endless tour of the planet. A possibly mentally scarred Balkan mechanic has a packed backpack, inflatable raft, and tent ready if a desire to explore arises.

Then there’s the film’s one penguin scene in which Herzog ties man’s internal desire to explore with the natural world. Rather than focus his time on the masse march of the penguins Herzog’s camera lingers on a lone penguin headed towards the far off horizon, a path sure to end in death. Why does this penguin walk alone into the unknown? A scientist posits that the penguin might have a chemical imbalance and does not realize its actions. It’s clear that Herzog believes that the penguin’s motives are more complex and relatable.

Encounters at the End of the World is one of the most unexpected and dazzling documentaries to see this year. Herzog has long had a unique, often poetic way of looking at the world that, when fleshed on in film, is unforgettable. His views of the continent’s natural wonders–the mesmerizing underwater scenes, the unforgettable sunset shots–and his discovery of the arctic region’s scientific offerings–new marine species, patterns in ice melt and an intriguing active volcano–feed the traditional documentarian mindset.  For some Encounters will be nothing more than another nature film in the wake of Planet Earth. And that’s okay. For others it will be the spiritual catalyst needed to awake the inner explorer in all of us.

 

 

 

 

Rourke Returns to the Ring


Film Review: The Wrestler

Directed By: Darren Aronofsky

If you look back at the last four years of leading actors you may notice a trend of performances that early on managed to secure a sweep of all major acting awards, often times despite the overall merit of the film. Jamie Foxx in Ray, Philip Seymour Hoffman in Capote, and Forest Whitaker in The Last King of Scotland, each won for their portrayals in decent but hardly perfect biopics. Last year Daniel Day Lewis turned in a masterful performance that towered high above the rest and was destined for glory at all major award ceremonies. While 2008 has a number of strong contenders a clear victor has already proved that this pre-award season Oscar hype trend is sure to be continued.

Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler was labeled, rather prematurely one might add, as the comeback role of the once great Mickey Rourke. To be fair to Rourke the actor’s most surprising “back in the spotlight” role came in 2005 as grizzled Marv in Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City. While not heralded as award caliber, Rourke turned in one hell of a scene stealing supporting performance in the highly stylized comic book film. What The Wrestler really captures is a deeply personal character study from an actor, who like the tragic, beat up wrestler he portrays, has had his share of highs and lows. To say that this is a career role is an understatement, in many ways it was the role Rourke was destined to play.

What’s striking about The Wrestler is that at its core its nothing more than an underdog sports film in the tradition of its boxing brethren Rocky or Cinderella Man, to name a few. It’s predictable–following the timeless formula of the tragic figure’s return to glory–but its clear that Aronofsky and Rourke understand this but don’t care. The film manages to be fresh thanks to Rourke’s turn as Randy “The Ram” Robinson and the fact that the film inhabits a world most people don’t really know anything about.

In interviews with Aronofsky the director has expressed that early on in his career he envisioned a film entitled The Wrestler, since the world of professional wrestling had never been covered seriously in film. It’s in this film’s fascinating content that The Wrestler is more than simply a vehicle for a great performance (for example the aforementioned Ray or Last King of Scotland) but rather one of the better films this year.

While Rourke’s The Ram once inhabited the mega stardom world of professional wrestling in the 1980s–as seen through the character’s aging fans, personalized action figure, early Nintendo game character–The Wrestler is more concerned about what eventually happens to the once great players in an industry that has since lost its way.

Professional wrestling has always been staged and because of this falls in the realm of entertainment rather than sport. While arguably as popular in the 80s and early 90s as other professional sports, ever since the mass realization of its choreographed nature–as seen in its name change from World Wrestling Federation to World Wrestling Entertainment–wrestling has since become more niche and as a result more gritty. Ram’s glory days of the flashing spotlights, colored spandex, and roaring battles at Madison Square Garden have long been replaced with elementary school gyms, hardcore wrestling moves involving glass, staple guns, and self-induced wounds, not too mention a body that has seen better days.

Besides The Wrestler’s goofy subject matter (and the film is quite funny at times) The Ram is no different than any other once famous athlete who’s been forgotten and tossed aside. But unlike the forefather’s of say basketball or football who are embraced with hall of fame inductions, endorsement agreements, and an overall carefree retired existence, The Ram feels the sting of failure and loneliness.

It’s fitting that he finds comfort in his weekly lap dance with an aging stripper (played equally well by Marisa Tomei, an actress who here also turns in a career high supporting performance) both are professional entertainers in an industry with no respect and both are stuck in aging, occupation hindering bodies. A separate movie called The Stripper could also be made and would be equally as tragic and engaging as The Wrestler provided the right star and filmmaker were on board.

Aronofsky tackles this film and the world of wrestling much like a documentarian might. The supporting cast is made up of primarily real-life wrestlers, each of whom play off Rourke as if he were their equal. Some of the film’s most fascinating scenes take place early on with the behind the crowd pre-match pow-wows in which the performers discuss their upcoming moves and end games much like musicians discuss their setlists. We as the viewer are being sucked into a world most of us never think about and this is the beauty of The Wrestler. We realize wrestling is fake, but beyond that we are clueless to the time and thought that goes into each performance, not to mention the toll the profession takes on its players both physically and mentally. In a field like wrestling, stripping or any other questionable career in entertainment it’s easy to forget the people behind the characters. 

Rourke has his share of tender, teary-eyed moments, most memorably in scenes alongside his estranged daughter whom he attempts to reconnect with. Still it’s his ability to flawlessly transform into The Ram that will no doubt seal the deal for Rourke come award season. His beat up, steroid fueled body (Rourke’s prior foray into the brutal world of professional boxing not to mention questionable plastic surgery procedures no doubt helped his physical transformation), his second nature facial twitches, his lonely mumbling, and his charming interactions with fellow wrestlers, deli counter customers and young fans all enable this successful portrayal.

According to early reports from The Hollywood Reporter Nicolas Cage was originally in line to star in The Wrestler. After watching Rourke come out of his hibernation with this performance it’s hard to imagine anyone else taking on this role, in fact the casting choices truly defined this film.

Rourke’s toughest competitor this year will be the mighty Sean Penn whose mesmerizing turn as Harvey Milk was also a career defining performance. Still the sacrifices endured for taking on The Ram make this role all the more juicy. 

The Wrestler is a rare success of a film, one that features an untouchable performance while also providing a compelling look into a world foreign to most viewers. If the criterion for a truly great film is being able to transport viewers away from their comfort zone into the unfamiliar and ultimately change the way we perceive the unsung world being portrayed, The Wrestler is a masterpiece. If great acting is shedding all common real life presumptions and misconceptions by completely absorbing the character, Mickey Rourke is this year’s acting champ. 

Revisiting ‘Baraka’


DVD Review 2-Disc Special Edition of Baraka

Few films are able to truly show our world for what it is better than Ron Fricke’s Baraka. From its mesmerizing beauty to its often-troubling complexities, Baraka is a universal masterpiece of filmmaking. To this end the film is essential viewing for any and everyone even remotely interested in the bigger picture

To appreciate Baraka one must appreciate the complexities of the world we inhabit. One must be able to be in total awe of its splendors while being equally as disgusted in its horrors. The film is a testament to how beautiful and how horrific this planet and those who inhabit can be and furthermore how despite our many differences people share the same common thread of being human.

The word ‘Baraka’ has various meanings and is a staple in a handful of global languages. Ron Fricke has often spoken of its Arabic and ancient Sufi roots, roughly translated to “the thread that weaves life together.” The daily grind of life–both at a natural pure level and man-made–is the film’s focus. The globetrotting editing, the fast time-lapse photography and the film’s depictions of humans as tiny parts of a vastly bigger whole offer viewers a glimpse at how immense but also how united this planet is. When it’s all said and done life is what ties this world together.

Shot over the course of 14 months at 152 locations of 24 countries, on six major continents, Baraka is also a traveler’s dream project–a hypnotic trek of the planet and its many cultures told simply through the marriage of motion pictures and music. From a cinematographer’s standpoint Baraka may be one of the finest photographed films ever made, revolutionizing preexisting large format motion picture technologies (the film was shot in the 65mm Todd AO format then transferred to 70mm print stock, resulting in extreme widescreen shots originally used for epic films of the 50s, 60s, and 70s).

Baraka was released in 1992 and has since then fallen into the depths of cult film status–unfortunate considering the film’s timelessness and international appeal for viewers. Its relevance today is marked by its recent re-release on DVD and Blu-Ray hi-def format, a technological feat that makes the film even more impressive than its past home video incarnations. For the first time ever the film was scanned at 8K resolution, a revolutionary digital transfer process designed solely for Baraka, which may end up becoming the standard for future hi-definition film releases. The scan, which supposedly took three weeks to complete (a post scan detailed digital restoration would take even more time), presents Baraka in the way the filmmakers intended–with an all-encompassing widescreen presentation and with just the right amount of color and image rejuvenation.

As for the hi-def format of the film (which, sadly this writer has not yet been able to experience) if ever there was a reason to invest in Blu-Ray–clearly the future of home video entertainment–Baraka is it. Supposedly the level of detail and vibrant color saturation makes the eye candy images of the Planet Earth hi-def series look like child’s play. But enough with the technology focused DVD marketing.

Much like watching a sunset Baraka has the ability to put the viewer in a trance the minute the film begins. It is also a film that resonates long after its initial viewing with those who have seen it rarely experiencing the film only once.

Opening with sweeping shots of the planet’s highest points at the Himalaya mountain ranges the film is then taken down to earth as we glimpse into the daily routine of the rare Japanese snow monkeys living in the moment. The camera closes in on the sole creature enjoying the nearby natural hot spring, simply being; living in a Zen like state. From the epic ceiling of the planet to the simplest of its inhabitants, before the film’s title shot in front of a perfect lunar eclipse, one gets the notion that Baraka is going to be a one-of-a-kind cinematic experience.

It should be noted that the film’s editing is as impressive as the photography with Fricke and team sporadically transporting the viewer all around the globe from frame to frame. Baraka does not feature any dialogue nor is it rooted with a traditional storyline. Besides the beautifully scored music the only natural sounds heard are those of certain tribal songs and the ambient sounds of nature. What’s striking about Baraka is despite the film’s non-traditional structure and flow a central narrative somehow emerges.

One moment we’re viewing a primitive aboriginal tribe perform a funeral ritual, ten minutes later we’re taken to modern day Tokyo, a bustling, densely populated metropolis world’s apart from the aforementioned primordial setting. Later as the camera surveys some of the planets most visually breathtaking sites–Western U.S. rock formations, Brazil/Argentina’s Iguazu waterfalls, the mount Bromo volcano range in Indonesia–the viewer is then transported to mankind’s uglier side.

The slums of Rio de Janeiro and the endless garbage dumps in Calcutta, India serve as reminders of the chaos that somehow balances out the harmony. From flourishing life in a remote Kenyan tribe where villagers dress in vibrant garments to the bleak realities of Cambodia’s killing fields, Baraka doesn’t shy from highlighting our planet’s lightest and darkest moments. 

Baraka carries a spiritual message as well and could be perceived as a bit preachy at times. Still, nitpicking aside, it’s hard to deny the film’s central messages. Being one with nature seen through the Tibetan monks in prayer, the hypnotizing dance of the Dervishes, or the elderly Japanese peering out at a seamlessly perfect rock garden is key to understanding the film. Throughout Baraka there are plenty of moments showing the planet’s chaos–from the densely populated streets of pedestrians and toy like cars, to the shots inside endless factories and sweatshops–and also its grandeur. Watching the film it’s easy to get blown away by just how immense life and this is very much its intention.


Film has always been a universal medium still there are very few films that should be essential viewing for all.
Baraka without a doubt fits the criteria as a must see film. Its scope reaches for beyond simple nature documentaries (while similar in terms of photographical achievement Baraka is far more important and ambitious than BBC’s epic Planet Earth miniseries) and somehow manages to be more impressive than its sister films, Godfrey Reggio’s Qatsi Trilogy–comprised of Koyaanisqatsi, Powaqqatsi, Naqoyqatsi–of which Ron Fricke first made his presence known as cinematographer for Koyaanisqatsi.

The recent DVD release of Baraka should have received more attention and praise than has been bestowed (apart from its notoriety among cineastes alike, Baraka’s foray into the Blu-Ray market should spark the interest of any and all people in the retail industry interested in selling this new technology) but alas its release was overlooked. Besides its crystal clear picture (which one would assume is even more stunning in hi-def), lush color saturation and digital soundtrack remixing (an entire essay could be written in praise of composer Michael Stern’s score for the film in conjunction with Lisa Gerrard, of Dead Can Dance and the Gladiator soundtrack), the two-disc special edition of the film features a fascinating behind the scenes making-of documentary. Chronicling the film’s extensive shooting schedule (which followed the lunar full moon cycle so as to ensure night shots were well lit) the mini-featurette provides fascinating insights into how Fricke and his crew selected and attained rights to film at the various sights. Interesting tidbits regarding the homemade camera equipment and time lapse system are also worth noting.

For those who have seen the film now is as good a time as ever for its revisit. For those who have yet to experience Baraka the film exceeds any and all written praise for its power lies in its ability to suck the viewer in.

It might be wishful thinking to hope that the new DVD release might also prompt the film’s return to theaters (a transfer to IMAX, a medium that Fricke worked with for his second feature film Chronos, would also be welcomed) but if ever there was a film to be seen on the big screen this is it.

It should also be noted that Fricke has supposedly been filming an unofficial sequel to Baraka called Samsara, which, according to a press release from the filmmakers at http://www.spiritofbaraka.com/samsara-press.aspx, will be released sometime in 2009. The film will continue Baraka’s tradition of spiritual undertones this time focusing its attention on the cycles of life on the planet. According to reports the filming has taken Fricke and his team to over 20 different countries and the film has been shot in a new 70mm HD format that subsequently “will be the ultimate showpiece for both the HD format and high-resolution digital projection, as well as standard film projection.”

Baraka is not a conventional Hollywood film and will not be the first film to jump off the shelf at your local video store still its an important piece of art transcends all prior conceptions of what films should be. The film has the almost mystical ability to draw you in unlike any movie-going experience before and after its release. While some may find its unconventional format distracting, it’s safe to say that those who experience it gain a new outlook on life and a newfound intrigue towards this planet’s cultural diversity.

 

 

 

 

A Worthy Redux?

Film Review: Ashes of Time Redux

ImageOne of the most highly anticipated films to premiere at this year’s Cannes Film Festival was Ashes of Time Redux, a forgotten Chinese swordplay epic from the great Wong Kar-Wai or Kar Wai Wong (so as not to offend those privy to the correct Chinese system of naming the filmmaker will simply be referred to as Wai in this piece). For fans of this international filmmaking giant the release of this fairly unseen early picture, restored and granted a big screen re-release, was reason enough to seek out the film. Unfortunately the film presents a bit of a dilemma for viewers and those familiar with Wai’s other works due in large part to an inconsistent storyline. 

A film “redux” is really nothing more than a fancy word for Director’s Cut. The literal translation means “to return to,” and in the case of Wai, to return to an early film that supposedly the director was never fully happy with upon its initial release.Ashes of Time is an important film, but not necessarily a great film and its recent redux may be nothing more than a wishful attempt to resurrect a doomed film. It excels in style and visual appeal but lacks when it comes to its almost incoherent plot. Is it a love story? Is it a tale of revenge? Is it a failed mix of both?  

Released in 1994, Ashes was Wai’s first truly epic film. It was also released six years prior to Ang Lee’s international sensation Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the film that truly brought Chinese wuxia style filmmaking–a highly choreographed mix of martial arts and melodrama that has since become its own subgenre in Hollywood–to a global stage. It’s hard to say if Ashes had any influence on Ang Lee’s masterpiece (one could argue that both filmmakers were bringing a longstanding Chinese cinematic tradition, dating back to the dawn of celluloid, to the modern playing field with their respective films) but both films clearly set out to accomplish the same feat: pay homage to Chinese folklore and martial arts, while also telling a compelling love triangle drama. Unfortunately Ashes main flaw is its desire to appease all these goals when it should have just been a flashy swordplay film. 

As Wai proved later on with his series of masterful existential dramas, the filmmaker is more apt to melodrama and human emotion than action. This is not to say that Ashes does not feature some stunning fight scenes (one involving a female sword master practicing against her own reflection on a pond stands out as one of the film’s finer moments), which it does, however, when the film attempts to deal with the human psyche Wai unfortunately loses the viewer. To make up for this though, Wai succeeds with painting a truly visually stunning backdrop for his actors to inhabit with the vast Chinese mountains and deserts never looking so beautiful and at times surreal.

Herein lies the dilemma with Ashes of Time and really, any of Wai’s earlier works. His unique color palette and use of natural light has the ability to wisp you away from caring about the plot holes or nonsensical dialogue. When the film’s final credits begin to role, however, the absence of central meaning or storyline returns to the subconscious.  
Wai’s films are an experience for the eyes and Ashes is no exception making the cleaned up and digitally restored Redux version that much more appealing on the big screen.

ImageMuch of Wai’s visual appeal can be attributed to his long-time Australian cinematographer Christopher Doyle who remains one of the most respected in his field–a sought after individual who besides helming the camera for the majority of Wai’s films has also worked with the likes of Gus Van Sant, the great Philip Noyce, M. Night Shyamalan, and Zhang Yimou’s wuxia masterpiece Hero (his work on DJ Shadow’s video for the song “Six Days” is also worth noting). The lush exterior shots are heavily saturated with the sand of the desert dunes appearing as the purist yellow one could imagine and the interior shots mixed with well-choreographed shadow play. 

The film also features a number of well-established players in modern Chinese and Hong Kong cinema including the great Tony Leung Chiu Wai as a blind swordsman (his scenes are some of the film’s best possibly paying homage to early Japanese Zatoichi The Blind Swordsman cinematic lore). Also present is the great Maggie Cheung who would later shine in Wai’s In the Mood For Love and its unofficial sequel 2046. Cheung’s performance in Ashes as a past lover living in the desert is worthy of mention despite being hindered by the choppy plot. 

Ashes of Time Redux is supposedly a slightly shorter version of the original film, a bit rare for director’s cuts that typically add rather than subtract from the films (see Apocalypse Now Redux, Terrence Malick’s recent Director’s Cut of The New World, and Cinema Paradiso: The New Version). The original film has long been hard to find on DVD with many versions being horribly transferred copies from substandard video releases. The original film stock was also supposedly in dire need of restoration, which might also have been the reason for the redux. 

Wong Kar-Wai is an important contemporary filmmaker and no matter how his earlier works compare to his more masterful current repertoire, they are still key chapters in his career as a filmmaker. Dogged down by a rather confusing storyline the ideal way to view Ashes of Time is as if you were looking into a kaleidoscope. You may not understand exactly what you’re seeing but the result is dazzling to the eyes. For those interested in this style the film’s to seek out are 1994s Chungking Express (ironically filmed as a way to get away from the tedious task of editing Ashes and released before in the same year), his masterpiece In the Mood For Love, and 2046. For die-hard fans of Wai Ashes is essential viewing and its Redux is best viewed on the big screen.

“Ashes of Time” is currently receiving a limited theatrical release. It is playing nightly at Chicago’s Music Box Theater through Thanksgiving. It will eventually be treated to a DVD release, ideally featuring both versions of the film for comparison. 

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.