Oscar Nominations 2012

With the announcement of the 84th Academy Awards Nominees this morning, I’ve prepared here a guide to the 9 nominated films for Best Picture plus a few more. I’ve seen them all except one, which I admit is somewhat unexpected, that’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. For some of the others, do click on the link in the title to read my full review.

Here are the 9 nominees for Best Motion Picture:

The Artist —  Riding high the waves in this Awards Season, and most likely to grab the top Oscar. Kudos to the filmmakers for taking a bold and contrary step to pay homage to the silent era of Hollywood. Audacious in its attempt at a black and white silent film in 2011, where CGI and 3D’s are the cinematic effects, a long way from the great advancement of sound. Sure it’s light and frothy, which makes me admire all the more the boldness and foresight of the financial backers. Actions do speak louder than words. 10 noms in all.

The Descendants —  Well acted, probably George Clooney’s best performance I’ve seen, a close Oscar contender with Jean Dujardin of The Artist for Best Actor. The idyllic setting in Hawaii shrouds conflicts among family members: between husband and wife, parents and children, and in the extended level, relatives when it comes to monetary gains and interests. A fine film from Oscar winning director Alexander Payne of Sideways fame. While there are interesting twists and turns, the ending is predictable. A close contender with The Artist for Best Picture.

The Tree of Life — I’m excited to see Terrence Malick’s existential epic included in the list.  The film generally draws two opposing reactions, like its premiere in Cannes, boos and applause. Ironically, those might well be the two ways the film portrays, two possible views towards life. Other noms: Terrence Malick for Best Director, and deservedly, Emmanuel Lubezki for Best Cinematography.

Midnight In Paris — It has been a long time since Woody Allen won a Best Picture Oscar (Annie Hall, 1977), glad it’s time again for a nod, even though its chance of winning is slim. As in a few other nominated movies on this list, nostalgia is key. An imaginary trip back to Paris during the literary and artistic golden age of Gertrude Stein, Hemingway and Picasso, an aspiring writer from California learns the notion of golden is only relative. What’s precious may well be the time at hand. Woody Allen also receives noms for Directing and Original Screenplay.

Hugo — Leading the Oscar nom counts with 11. Another homage to the cinema, or, the creation of the cinema dating back to the Lumière Brothers, but specifically to Georges Méliès, the French innovator of cinematic special effects. Interesting to see Martin Scorsese uses the modern technique of 3D to honor the pioneer Méliès. A visually stunning adaptation of Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret. Scorsese has proven to me that 3D doesn’t have to be synonymous with soulless gimmick. Heart-warming, beautiful film for everyone.

The Help — As Roger Ebert was labelled “a lackey for imperialism” after writing that he likes ‘Downton Abbey’, I must put in this Disclaimer: I have high respect for the courageous fighters in the civil rights movement, both on a societal level like Martin Luther King Jr. and those making personal steps like Rosa Parks. How I feel about this movie is strictly to do with the movie itself. Ok, here it is: I find it riddled with simplistic and contrived sentiments. The pool of major acting talents are morphed into caricatures. As I was watching, I felt they were all acting, not being. Can’t blame them, they were following a script and a director. Viola Davis nom for Best Actress, Jessica Chastain and Octavia Spencer for Best Supporting Actress. And the Oscar likely goes to Spencer.

The War Horse — Again, a Disclaimer here: I’m not against animals in movies… often, it’s the humans that leave much to be desired. Personally, I’m surprised that this is from Spielberg. Lacklustre storytelling, cliché moments and superficial characterization. The most natural and beautiful actor could well be Joey, the horse. The film is an adaptation of the children’s book of the same name written from the POV of the horse. Now, that sounds fresh and unique.

Moneyball — Can strike the heart of even non-baseball fans. A well paced and edited, engaging movie. The real story of Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane. It’s always satisfying when the underdog wins, David overcoming Goliath, especially when money is involved. Brad Pitt getting Best Actor nom, and Jonah Hill Best Supporting. Other categories include Editing and Adapted Screenplay.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close — The is the only one among the nine I have yet to see, for truly I did not expect it to be nominated for Best Picture. I’ve read Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel, the source material, with mixed feelings. And for it to be adapted into a film, much has to be done to interpret, alter, and display.  So, I reserve judgement on the film until I’ve seen it.

Other Nominees:

Meryl Streep for Best Actress in The Iron Lady — If you want historical accuracy, go see a documentary. But even there it depends on the POV of the filmmaker.  Director Phyllida Lloyd (Mamma Mia!) has conjured up an internal world of the only woman Prime Minister of Britain, Margaret Thatcher. Unless she comes to rebut the director’s view, who are we to argue against it? Let’s just go beyond the debates and appreciate the marvellous performance by Meryl Streep. This might well be her chance for a second Best Actress Oscar since Sophie’s Choice in 1983. Jim Broadbent always complements superbly.

Michelle Williams for Best Actress in My Week With Marilyn — Michelle Williams proves her amazing versatility here. I mean, after seeing Wendy and Lucy, Blue Valentine, can you imagine a more diverse role as Marilyn Monroe? She delivers convincingly. Kenneth Branagh gets the nom for Best Supporting Actor as Sir Laurence Olivier. And who’s that obscure chap that gets to spend a week with Marilyn? Why, he’s Eddie Redmayne, Angel Claire in Tess of the D’Urbervilles.

Gary Oldman for Best Actor in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy — Film scholar David Bordwell suggests that we see it as ‘a moving mosaic’. This film is made up of fragments of John Le Carré’s complex and massive work. So it’s better that you’ve read it first before watching. But if you’re like me, abandoning the book without finishing, you can still appreciate the overall atmosphere and the fine acting. Intricately weaving characters and time frames, the film’s intriguing ending has prompted me to go back to the book after watching it. CLICK HERE to read Bordwell‘s insightful review to help you through the Labyrinth.

***

CLICK HERE for a full list of Nominees.

Midnight In Paris (2011)

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A Woody Allen movie rated G? Yes, and maybe only in B.C. where I saw it in Vancouver yesterday. If you’re offering charming characters, lively performance from some talented actors, Woody Allen’s own clever screenplay inundated with witty dialogues, and have him direct in the backdrop of dreamlike Paris, the result is pure delight. You don’t need too much of anything extra, hence the MPAA PG-13 rating. And maybe because of that, clean and crisp, this is one of the Woody Allen movies I enjoy most for some years. And yes, this is the one with French first lady Carla Bruni in it, where Allen has to direct under the watchful eyes of the French President and his security personnel.

Gil (Owen Wilson) and Inez (Rachel McAdams) are engaged to be married. They take a trip to Paris with Inez’s parents John (Kurt Fuller) and Helen (Mimi Kennedy) for John’s business merger. While Gil and Inez first appear to be a romantic pair, we soon find them to be incompatible. Gil is an underachieved screenwriter from California, aiming to write his first novel. His dream of Paris is one of the golden age, nostalgically inhabited by the modernists, the artists and literati of the 1920’s.

However, his fiancé Inez fails to see his aspiration or potential, and the imagination that the cultural city can unleash in him. Rather, she falls for their American friend Paul (Michael Sheen), the intellectual snob whose self-importance drives him to snub Gil and even counter their museum guide (Carla Bruni) in the accuracy of her information. But Gil is more preoccupied with his midnight encounters, which ultimately transform him and change their individual paths. These experiences after midnight are just wonderful surprises for Gil, and me. Without giving too much of a spoiler, let’s just say it’s Woody Allen’s version of ‘Back to the Future’.

When I first saw the trailer, I had reservation about Owen Wilson being the leading man in a Woody Allen movie set in Paris. Would that be a miscast? Well, I’m proven wrong the moment he appears on screen. Wilson embodies the unassuming and delusional Gil, screenwriter from Pasadena, CA. He casts all of his previous film roles out of my mind and replaces with only this one of the moment, offering a performance that is impressively convincing. He leads a cast of wonderful actors, including the charming Marion Cotillard, veteran Kathy Bates, the versatile Michael Sheen, and a very dramatic Adrien Brody. And I won’t give away who is supposed to be who, I’ll leave that joy of discovery for you.

This is a movie for art and literature lovers, ideal for book bloggers and discussion groups. Allen has cleverly juxtaposed the modernists in the turn of the 20th century with their contemporary admirer Gil. We encounter all these iconic figures in the film: Ernest Hemingway, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, Cole Porter, Salvador Dali, T.S. Eliot and more… it’s so much fun to hear allusion to their works, and some of them utter lines that are their own but in the style and wit of Woody Allen’s.

What makes the movie gratifying of course is not just the visuals, people and places, but how the story leads. The twist towards the end is the pivotal revelation for Gil. While one can bask in nostalgia, one needs to embrace the present in order to fully live. As I watched the movie, I wanted to read the script and capture Allen’s ingenuity. As I left the theatre, I wanted to see it again.

~~~1/2 Ripples

To read my review of Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast CLICK HERE.

Jane Eyre (2011): Another Movie Adaptation

The perils of making a movie of a well-known literary classic that already has over 20 adaptations are: If you are faithful to your source, there bound to be scenes that look like you have just taken out from previous versions; if you are not, you risk accusations from the purists. On top of that, you will have to condense a relatively long story into two hours of screen time. So, why would anyone want to do such an arduous task? Hopefully there is an answer waiting when we come to the end of this post.

What would you do differently to appeal to 21st century viewers? A splash of defiance and independence from Jane could work. But still, even the smart and cerebral lines uttered by her we have all heard before, for they are written by Brontë. So what merits can a new adaptation claim?

Another way to retell an old tale to today’s audience is offering a fresh perspective. Here, director Cary Fukunaga (Sin Nombre, 2009) has effectively crafted a non-linear structure of storytelling. Even for those who have not refreshed their classics memory lately, the movie’s smooth time changes should not pose a problem, for they are quite well done. It begins with Jane running away from Thornfield, desolate on the moors, but fortunate enough to be rescued and cared for by the pious but stern St. John Rivers (Jamie Bell of Billy Elliot fame, 2000) and his sisters. Upon questioning, Jane’s abused childhood and her time at Thornfield are revealed through flashbacks. It picks up from the opening scene again about three-quarters of the way, and pushes towards the anticipated ending.

Mia Wasikowska (Alice In Wonderland, 2010) faces a huge challenge to portray a Jane that’s convincing, and has to be compared to so many who had attempted in the past. Now Mia is the young Australian actor who has turned down the coveted role of Lisbeth Salander in “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” trilogy’s English version, and opted for the role of Jane Eyre. In an interview, she reveals that it all started when she was reading Charlotte Bronte’s 1847 novel about two years ago. By Chapter 5, she talked to her agent on the phone and asked whether by any chance there was an adaptation in the works. She knew she had to be Jane. Not long after that she received the screenplay by Moira Buffini. Thus began this newest cinematic rendition of Jane Eyre.

As a 19 year-old at the time of production, Mia was the right age for the role. That’s when Jane leaves Lowood School and heads out into the world to seek her own destiny. Brontë offers us a heroine who has a firm grip of self-respect and moral direction despite an abused upbringing. This is the Jane that has captured the hearts of so many throughout the years and who still appeals to us modern readers.

So our protagonist meets her fate as she lands a job at Thornfield as a governess to Adele, the ward of the enigmatic Edward Rochester, played by Michael Fassbender (Fish Tank, 2009). Fassbender just may have replaced Ciarán Hinds as my favorite Rochester. At 34, he might not be old enough to be faithful to the novel, but his performance is captivating and convincing. The two make a visually compatible pair. However, I have one major issue: the romance seems too restrained that it almost fails to ignite, especially on the part of Jane. With a movie like this, of course we go not so much for the Gothic, but for the passion. I wanted eagerly to be enthralled. But what I saw was a passionate Rochester wooing a repressed Jane. It’s ironic that almost throughout the film I remained emotionally disengaged, albeit thoroughly enjoying the performance of both characters.

Ultimately it comes, the scene that captures my heart. After the disclosure of the dark secret and the wedding called off, Jane desperately tries to fight off her deep yearning and love for Rochester by refusing his advance and embrace. She literally has to run away from Thornfield to uphold her moral choice and escape from her heart. And finally, for those who long for a cathartic reunion of the lovers, the ending again teases us by offering a closure that’s a bit too short and swift.

Still another and probably most effective way to appeal to modern viewers is the visuals. Kudos to both the director Fukunaga and cinematographer Adriano Goldman. They have answered the frequently asked question of “Why make another movie adaptation of a literary work?” We love to roam in our own privately constructed imaginary world when we read. A movie is the visualization of that world. It is an artistic display of a filmmaker’s interpretation and private imagination. It may not match our own, but surely can still be an enjoyment if it is presented with cinematic beauty.

We see Jane running away from Thornfield, our destitute heroine determined to make the moral choice despite the yearning of her heart. The fragile figure pitted against the harsh and barren moors, or the overhead shot of Jane standing at the crossroads … all effective visuals to present the literary, and by so doing, augment our appreciation of it. Here, you can see your own imagination realized, or see what others have conjured up in their minds. The few scenes where we have the shaky camera must be mentioned also. Generally I’m not a fan of hand-held camera work, but here in the film, such jerky moments are effective in depicting Jane’s troubled soul and inner turmoil. The camera lens following her has become the portal into her agitated and unsettling state of mind. Just another way the literary can be effectively translated into the visual.

Yet another movie adaptation of Jane Eyre? Why not… and I’m sure, there are more to come. I appreciate a filmmaker’s attempt to display the visual artistry that can be extracted from the literary. Words and visuals, they can go hand in hand in this image-driven age. And hopefully through popular screening and the viral medium, we can give recognition to the source materials that have entranced us for so long, giving credits to both the author and the writing.

~ ~ ~ Ripples

The Namesake (2006, DVD): Movie Review

This is a sequel to my last post, Book Review of The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri.  These back-to-back write-ups form my second instalment for the Read the Book, See the Movie Challenge over at Ready When You Are, CB.

“If it weren’t for photography, I wouldn’t be a filmmaker.  Every film I make is fuelled by photographs…. Photographs have always helped me crystallize the visual style of the film I’m about to make.”

—Mira Nair

And photography has brought to life the poignant novel The Namesake.

This is a perfect match.  The Namesake film adaptation is privileged to be crafted in the hands of the accomplished director Mira Nair, and its screenplay written by the multi-talented Sooni Taraporevala.  Both born in India the same year, grew up and educated there, later both had attended Harvard.  After earning her Masters at NYU majoring in Film Theory and Criticism, Taraporevala moved back to India and pursued a successful career in photography and other artistic endeavours. Mira Nair went on to become an acclaimed filmmaker and professor of Film at Columbia University.  Nair and Taraporevala collaborated on several films that have garnered international nominations and awards, including Cannes, Venice, BAFTA, and the Oscars.

The pair could have been characters taken right out of Jhumpa Lahiri’s stories.  They must have known from personal experience the realities of Lahiri’s stories, the feelings of being transplanted, the quest for identity.  As a result, they have effectively brought into visualization the internal worlds of Ashoke, Ashima, Gogol and Moushumi.  It is interesting to hear Nair describe herself as “a person who lives in many worlds”.  Every immigrant is at least a bicultural being.  Our postmodern world has only made it more and more viable to navigate across boundaries and sustain multiple identities.  The Indian meaning of the name Ashima could well have spoken to such a modern day phenomenon: without borders.

From this perspective, Nair is the best person then to take what could have been just another “ethnic movie” to a universal plane.  She has created a colorful rendition of a human story for us to enjoy.  You don’t have to be Bengali to appreciate the Ganguli saga.  Elements such as love, marriage, parent-child relation, expectations, self-fulfilment and its obstacles, the search for one’s place in the family and the world, these are all situations we can relate to.   It’s just now the issues have been explored from a different frame, offering us an alternative perspective.

I have appreciated the quiet development of love between Ashoke and Ashima despite their arranged marriage.  Their intimate husband and wife relationship is sensitively played by Irrfan Khan (Slumdog Millionaire, 2008) and the model and award-winning actress Tabu, an excellent choice in casting.  I particularly admire Tabu’s gentle and elegant poise.  It’s interesting to see how the two exchange deep sentiments by wordless, nuanced expressions and body language.

The treatment of the story in the hands of a visual artist understandably would be quite different from its original literary form.  Instead of the sombre tone, Nair has given the story a lively adornment, sustained by animated characters.  Nair’s Gogol is a more outgoing young man than that from the book, and I’m fine with that.  Kudos to Kal Penn’s portrayal of  Gogol/Nick Ganguli, an interesting performance fusing youthful energy and wistfulness at the same time.

Yes, that’s Kal Penn of the stoner movies Harold and Kumar fame (2004, 2008, and coming 2011) A much more serious role here in The Namesake.  A lively Gogol is only natural and fun to watch, for he is an American born young man who just wants to belong.  So we see him being impatient with his father’s restrained and non-communicable composure, we see him playing air guitar to loud music in his room, we see tender moments when he teases his younger sister Sonia, or the natural comedic look on his face, culture shocked during his family trip back to Calcutta, and we see his romance with Maxine (Jacinda Barrett, New York, I Love You, 2009), the American girl who is so oblivious to the cultural baggage he is carrying.

But Kal Penn has earned his role.  He wrote to Nair earnestly seeking for the part, telling her that The Namesake is his favorite book and often times, he would use the pseudonym Gogol Ganguli to check in hotels.  Some method acting, who’d have known he’s in character all along.

The bonus with watching a DVD is of course the special features.  The Namesake is a keeper if you’re into the creative process of filmmaking.  My favorite featurette is The Anatomy of The Namesake: A Class at Columbia University’s Graduate Film School in which Nair and other crew members engage in conversation with film students about the making of the movie.  Other wonderful featurettes include Photography as Inspiration, and Fox Movie Channel interview In Character with Kal Penn.

Overall, a faithful adaptation of Lahiri’s book, offering an entertaining, visually inspiring rendition of a story deserving to be seen.

~ ~ ~ Ripples

Another Year (2010)

Update Feb. 10: Leslie Manville just won British Actress of the Year at the London Film Critics’ Circle Awards.

Update Jan. 25: Mike Leigh is nominated for an Oscar for Original Screenplay.

Update Jan. 18: Another Year is nominated for a BAFTA for Outstanding British Film of the Year, and Leslie Manville for Best Supporting Actress.

“Ah, look at all the lonely people.”

— ‘Eleanor Rigby’

Every DayAnother Year, film titles like these evoke the oblivious passage of time, and the human experiences that float down the stream of life. The kind of films we would find in art-house cinemas, not your fast-paced action or effects-generated spectacle.  Another Year would gratify one’s need for slow ruminations and offer one time to savour the dynamics among characters.  The film was on my ‘must-see’ list at the Calgary International Film Festival 2010, which ended last weekend.  It had met all my expectations and offered more.

What’s more is the excellent performance from a high calibre cast of British actors.  Their nuanced portrayals of characters convey emotions unabashedly, but in a deep, restrained and unsentimental manner.  That is what makes Another Year so satisfying.  I enjoyed it much more than director Mike Leigh’s previous title, equally acclaimed Happy-Go-Lucky (2008), in which Poppy (Sally Hawkins) the happy gal is just a bit too loud and even obnoxious for me.  While here in Another Year, Tom and Gerri are the happy couple whose relationship is one of mature, quiet and gentle bliss, compassionate towards themselves and others.

Framed in the passing of the four seasons, the film explores the realities of life: ageing, loneliness, death, love, marriage, friendship… Yet the occasional animated and humorous renderings of the characters allow a lighter way of handling the subject matters.

Gerri (Ruth Sheen) and Tom (Jim Broadbent) are a happily married couple living in London.  In the midst of the bustling city, they have their own plot of land close by their home where they work hard to grow vegetables. They bring home fresh produce to cook healthy meals and entertain guests.  Their vegetable garden is an apt metaphor for the love they cultivate in their relationship despite the busyness of everyday life. Tom is a geologist and Gerri a counsellor in a medical office. If there’s any pun intended here with their names, it would be for the very opposite effect that they are a harmonious pair whose relationship has attracted those less happy to cling on for stability and support.

Their usual dinner guest is Gerri’s office administrator Mary (Lesley Manville).  A single, middle-aged woman, emotionally fragile, alcohol dependent, and desperately seeking love and companionship. Her male version is Tom’s long time friend Ken (Peter Wight), equally miserable. A heavy smoker and drinker, Ken’s physical health mirrors his emotional state.

But why Tom and Gerri gather such damaged and dependent friends the film does not explain.  What we do see is a most gracious couple extending their lives to them. Through their interactions, we see the contrast. While we admire the almost perfect marriage, we ache for the singles, sad and lonely… as we see them in this film.  I trust the director is making a specific rendering and not a generalization on singlehood.  The contented Poppy (Sally Hawkins) in Happy-Go-Lucky (2008) is the best spokesperson for the single league.

Tom and Gerri have an adult son Carl (Martin Savage) who frequently comes home to visit his parents from a nearby town by train. When I saw the shot of a commuter train going past on screen, it flashed upon my mind the image in Ozu’s works.  That is one of the Japanese director’s signature shots, a train passing through, and his favourite subjects also being family, marriage, nuanced interactions.  I thought, if Ozu were an Englishman living today, this would be the kind of films he would make.  And lo and behold, I found this tidbit of trivia on IMDb: One of Mike Leigh’s top 10 films of all time is Tokyo Story (1953).

If one is to find fault with Another Year, it could be the very fact that Tom and Gerri’s marriage is just too perfect. But with all the ubiquitous dysfunctional families we see represented in movies nowadays, Leigh might have opened a window to let in some much needed fresh air. Tom and Gerri make an ideal contrast to what we have so sadly gotten used to seeing in films.

There are excellent performances from the veteran actors, but one stands out. Lesley Manville’s animated portrayal of the vulnerable Mary deserves an Oscar nomination. The most impressive shot comes at the end. Without giving it away, let me just say the ending shot lingering on her face and the ultimate fade to black is poignant and most effective. Of course, it’s acceptable to applaud after a festival screening. And so we did, appreciatively, a much needed channel for a cathartic response.

~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

Every Day (2010)

In the movie Shadowlands, there’s a line that goes like this: “We read to know we are not alone.”  I think it applies to watching movies as well.

I’m glad somebody thinks the every day family life worthy of movie material.  Nothing spectacular or heroic, nonetheless difficult and to some, a struggle.  This is especially true when it comes to the so called sandwich generation, adult children who needs to care for their elderly parents as well as their own children.  Caught in the middle, parents to both.  In the midst of daily challenges, there remains the key relationship, the meat in the sandwich if you will, that which is between husband and wife, and always, the bare essence of a person and his/her integrity.  Herein lies the ingredients of the story.

Screened at the Calgary International Film Festival last night, the indie dramedy stars Liev Schreiber and Helen Hunt as a NYC couple, Ned and Jeannie.  Their marriage faces a testing turn as Jeannie, driven by guilt and responsibility, brought her recently widowed father home to stay.  Ernie (Brian Dennehy) is not just any grumpy old man.  He is wheelchair confined, in ill health, and utterly bitter about everything and with everyone.  Jeannie is stressed out as she keeps pace just to live every single day.

Ned too has his share of problems at work.  As a scriptwriter for a seedy TV series, he has to meet the perverted demands of his boss Garrett (Eddie Izzard) to churn out scripts that are beneath his style.  To solve the problem he is assigned to work with a flirtatious colleague Robin (Carla Gugino) to rewrite something more daring and less boring.  Ned is tempted to do exactly that not only in his script.

And for their sons, they may look alright, but both yearn for direction and care just the same.  15 year-old Jonah (Ezra Miller) has just come out and is heading towards some risky friendship.  The younger one Ethan (Skyler Fortgang), though talented, has to deal with a defeating self-image. Amidst their own problems, Ned and Jeannie try to be good parents, loving yet setting limits, albeit finding a happy medium is hard to do.

Though not meant to be a serious film, it does touch on two thought-provoking questions implied by two unlikely characters.  From Robin the seducer:  Is a marriage finished when the ‘fun’ is over? Similarly from Ernie the bitter old man:  Should a life be ended when there is no happiness?

With subject matters as such, sitting through Every Day could be a gloomy ordeal.  But as a fusion of comedy and drama, it has come through to me as an enjoyable film. Written and directed by Richard Levine of the TV series “Nip/Tuck” fame, Every Day could seem episodic.  But the fast scene changes keeps the momentum going and the subplots clear.  Liev Schreiber is convincing as the family man in mid-life crisis.  Brian Dennehy is a veteran and spot on in his performance.  The boys are alright.  I have enjoyed Helen Hunt the most.  Her precarious roles of mother, wife, and daughter have resonated with me.  It has been three years since her directorial debut Then She Found Me.  I look forward to more of her works in the coming year.

Every Day premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in NYC this April.  During the Q & A after the screening, Schreiber mentioned that the film is “a simple story and simple stories are often overlooked.”  Somebody has to make simple films like this, and somebody has to watch them.  I was one of the lucky ones last night at the CIFF.

~ ~ ~ Ripples

Photo Source: myveronanj.com

The Savages (2007, DVD)

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After my last post I had to take some time to withdraw. That’s when solitude can work as a soothing balm, allowing the personal space for reflection. Whether sudden or expected, young or old, death affects us all. And some strike a deeper chord.

A couple of days ago I got hold of The Savages on DVD. I thought I was late in watching this highly acclaimed indie film, and writing a review two years after its release. But watching it, I was surprised by the coincidence; for alas, it’s about death and aging. It’s ever timely now. I wouldn’t have appreciated it as much if I’d seen it then. For now, I’ve the first-hand experience of caring for two aging parents, and with my mother being in the early stage of Alzheimer. Two years ago I would not have imagined this scenario. But as those who have cared for the old can attest, two months can make a lot of difference.

As baby boomers begin to pass the turnstile into midlife, they now have to face the hard fact about their parents, and preparing for the ultimate to befall. Herein lies the story of The Savages.

Wendy Savage (Laura Linney, Best Actress Emmy for John Adams, 2008; Love Actually, 2003) and her brother Jon (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Oscar Best Actor for Capote, 2005) live miles apart. Their childhood home had been dysfunctional. Their mother left them when they were still young, their father was neglectful and abusive.  Now as adults, they both have trouble committing to intimate relationships. Jon teaches theater at the University of Buffalo, while Wendy is a struggling playwright, working as a temp to make ends meet in NYC. Living apart from each other and their father, both strive to carve out some sort of meaningful existence with their life. Now they are brought back together by the tie of responsibility, reluctantly, in the caring for their ailing father (Philip Bosco). An old man who is afflicted with Parkinson’s related dementia, Lenny Savage is still fiery and intimidating.

Among the acclaims the film has garnered (AFI movie of the year, Golden Globes, Independent Spirit Awards…) are two Oscar nominations, one for Laura Linney for Best Actress, the other for Tamara Jenkins’s  Original Screenplay.  Both deserve the recognition hands down.  Unlike Sarah Polley’s impressive film Away From Her (2006) with Julie Christie as an Alzheimer stricken wife, The Savages looks at dementia and death from the point of view of the son and daughter, and delicately explores their conflicting emotions of having to care for an estranged father. The rebuilding of sibling relationship has also proven to be difficult, yet through the process, both find the experience to be worthwhile.

The Savages is classified as a comedy. The script is smart and funny. But it is dark and deadpan humor that marks its appeal. The reality of human failings is handled with care and sensitivity. Linney, Hoffman, and Bosco form a dynamic trio in portraying the tension of love hate emotions among family members.  Despite the past failings of their father and their present perplexities of how best to care for him, the siblings know where their duty lies. Screenwriter and director Tamara Jenkins has effectively explored the issues without sentimentality and imbued humor at the appropriate moments. As with all of life’s predicaments, a little dash of humor can offer the most direct perspective into our shared humanity.

The special features offer insights into the making of the film and into the mind of the screenwriter and director Tamara Jenkins. Of all the subject matters, she chose the caring of our aging parents. I’ve appreciated her intent: “The idea was to make you realize that you’re not alone, that you’re part of the human race, that we’re all going through this together.” She’s done a great job in doing just that.

~ ~ ~ Ripples

(photo source:  mtv.com)



Gran Torino (2008)

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Still planning for this Valentine’s weekend?  How about a date movie?  Wait, guys, don’t run away.  This one’s for you.

I hate to read movie reviews with the tag line “Bring tissues”.   Half of our demographics would clearly stay away.  But what with a movie entitled “Gran Torino” starring Clint Eastwood?  Will it scare away the other half?  I’m here to ensure you all girlfriends, wives and future wives, it’s safe.  You won’t be bombarded with ear-piercing explosions and car crashes, or gratuitous adrenalin pumping violence, but there are engrossing moments that both of you will find meaningful.

Clint Eastwood is Walt Kowalski, a hardened and critical old man who has just lost his wife.   Walt Kowalski is Dirty Harry in his 70’s.  He hasn’t lost any of his macho madness.  Adding oil to the fire, he is one growling racist, and he makes his feelings known to all who cross his path, specifically, his new neighbors, a Hmong family originally from Laos.

The 1972 Gran Torino Walt owns and treats with great care is what the teenager next door has to steal under coercion as an act of gang initiation.  That night begins the series of events  that change the lives of these two households.

What’s interesting to watch is how Walt Kowalski’s antagonistic fervor is diverted into a protective mode, when the teenagers next door are bullied by gangs.  Here the spirit of Dirty Harry rises to the occasion.  Taking the teenage boy Thao (Bee Vang) under his wings, he begins to connect and even come to treasure a bond that he subtly strives to build up.

Contributing to the otherwise simple storyline is the  internal exploration of Walt’s tormented inner world.  He encounters his nemesis in the young Catholic priest Father Janovich (Christopher Carley), who has promised Walt’s wife that he would come check on him after she’s gone.  The movie efficiently makes the best use of these two character foils.  The innocent and naive versus the disgruntled skeptic.  It’s gratifying to see how both of them change over the course of events.  And it’s utterly moving to watch the slow process of one man’s ultimate search for redemption in the context of a beleaguered society riddled with hatred and racism.

Eastwood is by far the most experienced actor here.  In contrast, the young ones pale in their performance.  However, this is in a way realistic, for who wouldn’t be intimidated by such a formidable neighbor.  And yet, the movie excels in its delivery of a message, or two, so poignantly, it catches you off guard.

The multi-talented Eastwood here directs, acts, and composes the music.  He has crafted a powerful and moving piece of entertainment.  If you’re not too critical about the language, or a few simplistic stereotyping, this is one movie that can certainly make your day.

~ ~ ~ Ripples


Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

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Updates:

Feb. 22:  Slumdog Millionaire just won 8 Academy Awards. CLICK HERE for the Oscar Results 2009.

Feb. 8:  Slumdog Millionaire has just won 7 BAFTA Awards including Best Picture and Best Director tonight in London, England.

Jan. 25:  Slumdog Millionaire has just won the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture.

Jan. 22:  Slumdog Millionaire just nominated for 10 Oscars including Best Picture. Click here to go to my Oscar Nominations Post.

Jan. 12:  Slumdog Millionaire just won 4 Golden Globes for Best Original Score, Best Screenplay, Best Director, and Best Motion Picture – Drama.

***

A. O. Scott in his 2008 year-end article and podcast on the New York Times website gives credits to movies that explore the element of hope. How fitting it is to start the new year by watching ‘hopeful movies’. In this turbulent time of ours, ‘Hope’ might just be the word of the year for us all.

Slumdog Millionaire not only explores the idea of hope, it builds its whole momentum on this element, and its fuel is none other than ‘love’.  The movie is a modern day fairy tale, an exciting concoction bubbling with fantastic visuals and sounds, a post-modern alchemy of culture, language, and place. But what unifies is the aspiration of requited love and shattered souls redeemed.

Directed by Danny Boyle (28 Days Later, 2002, Trainspotting, 1996) and based on Vikas Swarup’s award winning novel Q & A, which has been translated into 36 languages, the film has garnered high acclaims in film festivals. Just four months into its limited release, Slumdog Millionaire has already won 20 awards, and is nominated for 4 Golden Globes including Best Picture, and 2  SAG Awards, and is a possible contender for the Oscars.

Jamal Malik (Dev Patel) grows up in the slums of Mumbai, India. He and his brother Salim watch their mother killed by mobs. The two boys have to fend for themselves living on the streets. They survive the deplorable conditions with tact, style and grace, until Salim falls for the gang. Jamal has a childhood sweetheart Latika (Freida Pinto). In a heart wrenching episode, she gets separated from the brothers. Her fate seems to be sealed as a young girl on the street.

Years pass but Jamal’s heart still yearns for Latika. One thing that unites all Indians seems to be the popular quiz show “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire”. With his heart firmly fixed on reaching out to his long lost love  somewhere out there in the mass populace of India, Jamal gets on the show, hoping Latika would see him. Latika at this time is in the firm grip of a gang lord, her hope of freedom is dismal.

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Yet, screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, 2008 ) and director Danny Boyle gratify their viewers with some unexpected twists and turns, allowing us to savour an exhilarating end to the story. With their seamless, non-linear way of storytelling, framed by an upbeat musical score, they have turned what could be just another love story into a fresh and engrossing tale.

While the film features all Indian actors and some Bollywood stars, shot in Mumbai, many dialogues in Hindi with English subtitles, I don’t feel the cultural elements particularly stand out, drawing attention to themselves. Herein lies the success of the film. It has not led me to feel like I am watching something ‘foreign’ or ‘ethnic’, like some National Geographic features. The sense of place and subject matter, plus the amiable cast have all worked together effectively to transmit a universal appeal. The only Bollywood moment is when the end credits roll. Do stay for that.

Slumdog Millionaire evokes reminiscence of similar successful though lesser known titles like ‘Chop Shop’ (2007) and ‘Born into Brothels’ (2004), but on a grander scale, with an explicit message of hope and an unabashed resolution of requited love.

How satisfying! You’ll come out rejuvenated. The skeptic in you might say it’s only a movie, a fantasy too…  Mind you, not all fantasies end well. With some, the darkness can loom for days. Be good to yourself, start the year on a cheery note. Watch a ‘hopeful movie’. Love and Hope can sustain and triumph. As simple as that.

~ ~ ~½ Ripples


*****


The Best Movies of 2008

It’s that time of the year when film critics choose their ten best.  Here are a few of their lists.  Click on them to see the full content.

Breaking the top 10 tradition,  Roger Ebert has chosen 20 for 2008, because in his opinion, there are just too many good films this year.

A. O. Scott of the New York Times tends to agree, but still managed to pick his top 10 among the 650 films he has seen this year… incredible.

His colleague Manohla Dargis has also done the year-end cut from the hundreds she has seen.  Here’s her take on the ten best.  And while you’re there, click on the podcast where she and Scott discuss this year’s movies.

And finally, a Canadian perspective, represented by Johanna Schneller of the Globe and Mail.  I like how she puts it:  the 10 films “that I feel richer for having seen.”

What draws me to these lists is not so much about which movies get picked as the 10 best, but WHY they are selected, and HOW critics come around to that final decision after, I must suppose is a long, struggling process.  Imagine having had to pick 10 out of 650!

Comparing these lists, there are of course titles that are common among them, but not too many.  A few getting up on three of these lists but not all, like Rachel Getting Married, Milk, and Wendy and Lucy.  Only one film gets the nod from all of them and that’s Happy-Go-Lucky.  But for the rest, it seems like each critic has his or her own personal criteria when it comes to choosing what makes a good movie.  And I’m glad to see it this way.

Of course, there are theories, on film, aesthetics, and criticism, and then there are acting methods and execution criteria in camera works, lighting, sound, cinematography, editing, screenplay… it all boils down to one whole package, the final production.  And then there is also the receptive end of the movie, the viewer, and in this case, the critic, each bringing his or her own experience, sense of self, personal values and point of view.  And I’m relieved to see each critic pick what he or she feels is most affective and meaningful to him or her as an individual.

I’ve particularly enjoyed reading A. O. Scott’s year-end article in the New York Times entitled “In The Face of Loss, Celebrating Ties that Bind“.  Although not intended to answer the question: “What makes a good movie?”  Scott has inadvertently expressed his criteria.  When discussing a few movies that he thinks are well done, namely Doubt, The Reader, Revolutionary Road, and Frost/Nixon, he comments that they :

are impeccably acted, exquisitely production-designed excursions into the recent past.  And each one is a hermetically sealed melodrama of received thinking, feverishly advancing a set of themes that are the very opposite of provocative.

So, one criterion is originality, and not cliché treatment of subject or idea.

In the midst of our unsettling and troubled time, films could be manifestations of a collective predicament, and expressions of our hidden longings.  I’ve particularly appreciated Scott’s comment at the end of his article:

And while I am suspicious of easy affirmation or forced happy endings, I am nonetheless grateful for movies that, in spite of everything, investigate the possibility of hope.

Another criterion: good films are flowing conduit of hope.  I cannot agree with him more.  If you listen to the podcast on his webpage, you will hear him reiterate this point.

And on this note I end my post of 2008.  To all my readers, visitors, and fellow bloggers, may 2009 be a year of hopes abound and dreams fulfilled!

Happy New Year to All!

*****

 

Appaloosa (2008)

Yes, they’re still making westerns. The plots are still generic. Lawmen upholding the law in a lawless land. So what’s new?

What’s new is the fine tuning of characterization, the focus on internal conflicts and dilemmas, and the more stylistic and agile camera works, the music, and the slower, almost meditative pace of story development. I have in mind Open Range (2003), and the recent 3:10 to Yuma (2007).

… And at the Globe where the movie was screened, among the full house attendance at the Calgary International Film Festival, some enthusiasts even dressed western for the occasion.

Ed Harris has proved that he is versatile as an actor and director (Pollack, 2000), and now as a screenwriter. He is all three in Appaloosa. Based on the book by Robert B. Parker, Appaloosa is a typical western buddy movie.  Virgil Cole (Ed Harris) and his sidekick Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen, with Harris in A History of Violence, 2005) are two “itinerant lawmen”.  They are hired this time by the town of Appaloosa, as marshal and deputy, to get rid of the lawless rancher Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons) and his gang.  The twists begin to emerge when a young widow shows up in town.  Allie French (Renée Zellweger) is so alone, so vulnerable, that she has her eye on the tough marshal Cole as soon as she enters town.

The buddy duo has some adjustment to make with this sudden appearance of a third party.  With a woman in his life, Cole himself has become vulnerable and is soon confronted with the dilemma: woman or duty.  Well that’s just one of the several twists of the story, a plot that takes its time to unfold.

As much as I like Renée Zellweger, I find her portrayal of Allie French less than satisfactory. There is definitely a miscast here. It takes more than just acting to bring out the sly femme fatale persona… her look and demeanour just do not reflect the menacing shrewdness and seductive lure needed here. It is unfortunate that Zellweger is cast into a role that she simply does not look the part.

But the movie is still enjoyable just the same. It is slick, funny, clever, and entertaining. Overall the acting is superb, but it is Viggo Mortensen who steals the show. As the quiet, and very intelligent sidekick of Virgil Cole, Everett Hitch has been more than supportive of his buddy. He is Cole’s vocabulary teacher, attentive listener and counsellor, and at the end, fulfills what justice and honor require a man to do, something which Cole himself has neglected. Mortensen has delivered a most gratifying performance which I think deserves an Oscar nomination.

At the end, after twists and turns, the hero rides off into the sunset, a typical conclusion. But this time, we are reminded why we come to see a western to begin with.  Such is the kind of movies where honor and nobility of character is expected of the protagonist, and that the good still wins, and justice served.  How satisfying.  Maybe that is why they are still making westerns, knowing there is an insatiable yearning for such ideals which are beyond time and genre.

~ ~ ~ Ripples

Summer Hours (l’Heure d’été, France 2008)

September is International Film Fest month in several Canadian cities.  Kicking off was the prominent TIFF (Toronto, world’s largest FF), now’s the CIFF (Calgary), and later on in the month, the VIFF (Vancouver).  Last year I was able to catch a glimpse from each one of these events.  But this year I’ll just stick with Calgary.

Went to see French director Olivier Assayas’ (Paris, je t’aime, 2006; Clean, 2004)  Summer Hours last night, the only screening in Calgary.  Writing the script himself, Assayas has created a film so realistic that it seems like a docudrama.  The story is about three adult siblings dealing with the estate of their mother (Edith Scob), a treasure house filled with objets d’arts, from furniture to vases, paintings to artist notebooks.  It’s a visual delight for the art lovers in the audience, albeit the camera doesn’t stay long enough for us to savor… I’d love to see more close-up lingering shots of the notebooks.

What’s realistic of course is, while the objects can easily be passed on from one generation to the next, the emotions and sentiments associated with them cannot.  The eldest son Frédéric (Charles Berling) wishes to leave the house as is so everyone in the family can still stop by and cherish the memories, but his other two siblings think otherwise.  Adrienne (Juliette Binoche) works as a designer in New York and is soon getting married.  Jérémie (Jérémie Renier) works with a sports manufacturing company in China and is settled there with his family.  Though all appreciate the memories of their childhood home in France and the artifacts within, they have their own life to live and family to raise elsewhere.  Their decision of how to deal with their mother’s estate is a practical one, sell it.

The Musée d’Orsay in Paris is the honorable recipient of these personal treasures.  Actually, Assayas was commissioned by the Museum to create the film in celebration of its 20th anniversary.  Here we see the pathos of turning family heirloom into museum pieces, albeit handled gently and meticulously by the staff.  Herein lies the crux of the film.  Assayas has depicted the human side of objets d’arts that we see in museums, how they could have been everyday household items, a table on which notes have been scribbled and letters written, a vase that has held many cut flowers from the garden.  These have been objects used and enjoyed privately by families, but are now desensitized, hung or displayed in a public arena.  The personal and subjective experiences could never be captured by the public eye.

The last scene is a closure for the pain of letting go.  The teenage grandchildren have one last chance to enjoy the house and its idyllic setting as they hold a large party for their friends.  The young immerse themselves in loud music, dancing, doping, and dipping in the pond, unaware of the passing of one era to the next.  A brief moment of sadness takes hold of the oldest granddaughter, as she savors a lingering memory in the garden.  She is joined by her boyfriend for a brief reminiscence and the next moment, they quickly dash back to the house to rejoin the party.  Assayas has painted the poignant in a most subtle manner.

~ ~ ~ Ripples