Monday, February 28, 2005

Oscars '05: Post-mortem

To begin, it's become a tired affair.

It's strange that the worst show in recent memory was one in which almost every award went to someone who truly deserved it. But just rewards do not great television make. In fact, it was piss-poor television. The only surprises were the errant backstage noises that temporarily jarred presenters. Oh, and The Phantom. Scared the crap out of me. Beyonce was looking fine with all those diamonds singing "Learn to Be Lonely" and -- holy crap, it's a cloaked figure! Michael Medved?

But the best picture actually won best picture. That hasn't happened since...well, Schindler's List, I guess, in 1994. Clint, Hilary, and Morgan all deserved their awards. Charlie Kaufman finally won, though he inexplicably had to share the credit with Michel Gondry and Pierre Bismuth, who merely helped with the "concept" of "Eternal Sunshine." Cate Blanchett thoroughly deserved her award, and it was not just a consolation prize for "Elizabeth." Watching the clip during the presentation reminded me of how spot-on and dimensional her Hepburn was. Even Ryan Landreth won for the lovely animated short "Ryan."

It was ridiculous, though, that Landreth and other winners were confined to the aisles simpley because their categories weren't "high octane." This was presumably the highlight of Landreth's life -- and possibly Ryan Larkin's too -- and he had to do his thank yous from the seats.

Sidney Lumet's speech was gracious and satisfying: "What it comes down to is I'd like to thank the movies." Wonderful. But an honorary Oscar shouldn't represent the highlight of the telecast. Some final thoughts:

* Dustin Hoffman was drunk or sedated during the presentation for best picture, and Barbra Streisand acted like she needed to get drunk or sedated.

* The theme for 'Terminator 2: Judgment Day' played throughout the night. Why? The scores to 'Chinatown' and 'The Magnificent Seven' were also played, but that was to honor the recently deceased composers Jerry Goldsmith and Elmer Bernstein. Brad Fiedel, who scored 'T2," is not dead.

* 'The Aviator' scored the most wins (five) for any Scorsese pic ever; the runner-up is 'Raging Bull,' which won two in 1981.

* Why isn't the audience asked to hold its applause until the end of the In Memoriam tribute? The fluctuations in applause make the whole segment into a popularity contest for the dead. Shrill whistling and loud yippees for Brando, but nary a clap for screenwriter Mary Eastman. Unseemly, maudlin, pathetic, classless. Hold your goddman applause to the end, you bunch of Hollywood floozies.

* 'Ned & Stacy' alumni record: 1 for 2 (Charlie Kaufman won, Thomas Haden Church did not)

* Because all the technical nominees were brought onstage, there were often huge pockets of empty seats in the house.

* Frank Pierson thinks he's God. When he came on, he referred to the Kodak Theatre as a "tabernacle of talent," and assured the audience that his "sermon is going to be brief." Oprah was quick to assert that she is, in fact, God.

* After Pierson thanked the armed forces, the camera cut to a shot of Mickey Rooney, who was apparently drowning in his seat 30 rows back.

* Jorge Drexler sang his song when he accepted his award because the Academy didn't want him to sing it as part of the telecast; they wanted high-profile stars Antonio Banderas and Carlos Santana.

* The floor and ceiling video screens were cool.

* Renee Zellweger used to be cute and adorable. I don't understand what happened, or why she thinks she looks better now than she did in the 'Jerry Maguire' days. She needs to get in the sun and eat. Below is a photo from 'Jerry.' Find some shots of her from the Oscars and you'll see what I mean. Her eyes seem to have disappeared.

Sunday, February 27, 2005

Oscar '05: DZ Oscar Pool percentages

According to DZ Oscar Pool entrants, Hilary will be going home with Oscar number two, making her part of an elite club consisting only of Sally Field, Katharine Hepburn, Vivien Leigh, Ingrid Bergman, Glenda Jackson, Jane Fonda, Bette Davis, Olivia de Havilland, Luise Rainer, Elizabeth Taylor and Jodie Foster -- the only women ever to have one two best actress Oscars (though Hepburn won four). Not bad company, and Hilary does it before her 31st birthday (only Foster and Rainer did it younger, winning both before they turned 30).

That is, if history holds true. The winners on Oscar night are almost always the nominees who get the most picks out of all the DZ Oscar Pool entrants. Occasionally a longshot ruins the predictor -- only three out of 70 people picked Marcia Gay Harden in 2000, for example. But here are the top three pick-getting nominees among 48 ballots received (don't get confused by the periods -- they're just for spacing purposes):

ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY.....................................ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

58% Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind...............60% Sideways
19% The Aviator..............................................29% Million Dollar Baby
15% Hotel Rwanda...........................................10% Finding Neverland

SUPPORTING ACTRESS......................................SUPPORTING ACTOR

48% Cate Blanchett...........................................58% Morgan Freeman
25% Virginia Madsen.........................................19% Thomas Haden Church
13% Natalie Portman.........................................10% Clive Owen


67% Hilary Swank............................................75% Jamie Foxx
21% Annette Bening........................................13% Leonardo DiCaprio
6% Imelda Staunton / Kate Winslet........................6% Don Cheadle


69% Clint Eastwood.............................................50% Million Dollar Baby
21% Martin Scorsese............................................38% The Aviator
6% Alexander Payne...........................................10% Ray

No big surprises anywhere, though it's interesting that 'Ray' is the third-most vote-getter in the best picture category instead of 'Sideways,' which only one person in the entry pool picked to win the category. (But the 'Sideways' crew can always fondly remember their sweep of the Independent Spirit Awards yesterday -- the film won in every award for which it was nominated.) These results also suggest that there are no close races, the closest being best picture; in every other category, the leader is separated from second place by at least 23 percent.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Oscars '05: Predictions

I know why I do it. I just want an exciting show. That's why I always make outrageous picks, regardless of buzz. Maybe this year, I always think, things will be unpredictacble. Usually they're not (see the hobbit orgy last year). Sometimes they are ('The Pianist' and its three top victories the year before were exhilirating).

This year is the most interesting of the past five. The academy has an opportunity to give first Oscars to a number of passed-over filmmakers: Martin Scorsese (0 for 6), Kate Winslet and Morgan Freeman (both 0 for 3), 'Lemony Snicket' composer Thomas Newman (0 for 6), and 'Passion of the Christ' cinematographer Caleb Deschanel (0 for 4). There is also an opportunity to honor people who haven't been nominated as much but who seem to deserve an Oscar for the caliber of their work: Cate Blanchett, Charlie Kaufman, Annette Bening.

Then there are the "locks" drilled into the lead by the media: Hilary Swank, Jamie Foxx, the 'Sideways' scripters, 'The Incredibles.' People magazine's oversize publication Hollywood Daily slapped Swank and Foxx on its cover, confident and grinning, with the giant headline "CAN THEY BE STOPPED?"

Yes they can be, and yes they will be. That is my Oscar-picking philosophy this year. I'm always moderately successful with my predictions; last year was a boon -- I bulls-eyed the top eight categories. But that was then, when hobbits boxed out any surprises. This year, the show will be wet (California weather has taken a turn for the worse) and wild (Chris Rock's barbed one-liners will be the least shocking things).

Here are my picks, based on an absurd amalgam of counter-intuition, recklessness, and telepathy:

LIVE ACTION SHORT: 7:35 in the Morning. It's the shortest of the live action shorts, and the most memorable. Originally, I had forecasted a 'Little Terrorist' victory, but I switched to keep with my theme of surprising wins.

ANIMATED SHORT: Ryan. It's beautiful, it's moving, and it mentions the Oscars. The subject of the short was himself nominated for in Oscar in the '70s in the same category. 'Ryan' shows Ryan Larkin attending the ceremony, where animated cut-outs of Dustin Hoffman and Jane Fonda leer at his hippie garb.

DOCUMENTARY SHORT: Autism Is a World. Hey, it's an American University alumna. She's won before (in '93) and she'll win again.

DOCUMENTARY FEATURE: Super Size Me. Seems like an obvious choice, but this is a tough category. 'Super Size Me' was a box office bonanza and the type of people who normally don't see documentaries saw it. But 'Born into Brothels' and 'The Story of the Weeping Camel' tread more familiar documentary territory...

VISUAL EFFECTS: Spider-Man 2. Favorable reviews will vault it over 'Harry Potter.' And 'I, Robot'? I, don't think so.

MAKEUP: The Passion of the Christ. You were convinced, weren't you?

SOUND EDITING: The Incredibles. This category usually features a mix between animated and live action films, with the live action films winning usually. Not this time.

SOUND MIXING: Ray. Volume usually wins movies this award, but I'm confidant that voters recognized the deftness it took to put 'Ray' together. The film's sound is key, as sound itself was to Ray Charles, and the mixing of songs with story is seamless.

[*Side note: For those of you who don't know what these two sound categories mean, here is a cheat sheet. Sound Mixing is the recording and manipulation of real sounds. Sound Editing is the manipulation of fake sounds, or sound effects. For example, Leonardo DiCaprio's voice in 'The Aviator' is a sound mixing issue, while the elaborate sounds of the airplane wreck is a sound editing issue.]

FILM EDITING: Ray. This is a very difficult category to handicap. The editor's guild gave its award to both 'The Aviator' and 'Ray.' 'Collateral' would be a popular choice, though, and 'Million Dollar Baby' could sweep this up with its momentum. But the suave construction of 'Ray' stands out against the erraticism of 'The Aviator.'

ORIGINAL SONG: "Believe," from 'The Polar Express.' This category should be terminated. Occasionally, a song deserves to win. Eminem's "Lose Yourself" was integral to '8 Mile.' But Annie Lennox's "Into the West" -- which played over the end credits of 'The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King' -- beat out 'A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow,' which was the heart and soul of 'A Mighty Wind.' This category belongs at the Grammys, not here.

ORIGINAL SCORE: The Passion of the Christ. 'Finding Neverland' is the only best picture nominee to make this cut, so it's the safe bet. But expect victory no. 2 for Mel.

COSTUME DESIGN: The Aviator. No contest.

ART DIRECTION: The Aviator. The only true lock of the entire show.

CINEMATOGRAPHY: The Aviator. Tough one. This is the fifth nomination for revered cameraman Caleb Deschanel since 1983, when he was first nominated for 'The Right Stuff.' Bruce Delbonnel won the guild award for 'A Very Long Engagement.' 'House of Flying Daggers' has gotten inexplicably favorable reviews, but it was left out of the foreign language category, which indicates a lack of varied support. That leaves 'The Aviator' and its warped technicolor glory.

ANIMATED FEATURE: The Incredibles. Where did 'Shark Tale' come from? Someone tell it to go home.

FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM: The Sea Inside (Spain). Germany's 'Downfall' and South Africa's 'Yesterday' have had people talking, and 'The Chorus' has big ads in Variety, but 'The Sea Inside' is the most mainstream, and benefits from the positive buzz around unnominated Javier Bardem's performance.

ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Charlie Kaufman should already have two Oscars, but no matter. I can definitely see Mike Leigh winning here, simply because Leigh is obviously loved by the academy. And it doesn't help that 'Eternal Sunshine' has only one other nomination. But I get the feeling that everyone loves this movie, and it's a way to give an Oscar to director Michel Gondry, who is also credited as a screenwriter.

ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: Sideways. 'Million Dollar Baby' deserves to win, and has the best chance of beating 'Sideways.' But I believe this is the only category in which the academy will honor the film.

ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE. Sophie Okonedo. Now you see what I'm getting at. Virginia Madsen swept critics awards, Portman got the globe, Blanchett the SAG award. It's cliche to say that this category is fertile ground for upsets, but it's true. Okonedo gives a textbook supporting performance (unlike Portman), has a high-octane crying scene (unlike Madsen), and is part of a movie that is still gaining support (unlike Blanchett). People who don't want to have to decide between Blanchett's pedigree and Madsen's comeback will opt for Okonedo, a perfectly respectable and deserving choice.

ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE. Morgan Freeman. The only lock in the top eight categories. Many people are in Thomas Haden Church's camp, but is there really any contest? I mean, really.

ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE. Imelda Staunton. When a performer wins both the New York Film Critics Circle award and the Los Angeles Critics Association award, she wins an Oscar. Swank did it herself in '99 with 'Boys Don't Cry.' Holly Hunter in '93, Emma Thompson in '92, Meryl Streep in '82. Granted, each of those women won important industry awards after those victories, and Staunton has not. She was passed over for a Globe and a SAG award, while Bening won one and Swank both. But the support for 'Vera Drake' is notable, with its two surprise nominations for director and screenplay. 'Being Julia' cannot boast that kind of support. Granted, Swank deserves this award as much as she deserved the one for 'Boys Don't Cry.' Some voters will recognize this and vote for her. But two best actress awards before she's 31? Meryl Streep doesn't even have two. Some voters will recognize this and vote for Bening. But then some voters will dismiss this rematch and simply vote for Staunton, who everyone agrees deserves praise anyway. The "some" that vote for Staunton will just edge out the some that vote for Swank and Bening.

ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE. Don Cheadle. I resist being like everyone else in all respects, including this one. Surely you view this as a foolish pick, for who has ever been as sure a lock as Jamie Foxx? Everything falls his way: he has a Globe, a SAG award, two buoyant acceptance speeches at each, an eye-catching performance at the Grammys, and a film with seven nominations, including best picture and director. Ray Charles' death was expertly timed, and Charles makes for an Oscar-attracting celluloid character: a blind, womanizing druggie with exceptional talent. (The only thing missing, really, is alcohol and a limb.) Everyone loves Foxx, but more importantly: Everyone loves his performance. But because everyone loves his performance, voters probably threw another nominee a bone "just 'cause." I believe there were two modes of thought as academy members marked their ballots: 1) "Boy, that Jamie Foxx is a cocky bastard. He wants it too bad. He's too young and he'll get even more women if he gets an Oscar. I'm voting for Clint." 2) "Boy, that Jamie Foxx was awesome as Ray Charles. Best performance of the year. But since everyone is already voting for him, I'm going to vote for someone who deserves it just as much, like Don." If we were on the old Oscar schedule, 'Hotel Rwanda' would have all those nominations 'Ray' racked up. It would've had time to build momentum as 'Ray' lost it. I think this shift will manifest itself in wins for Cheadle and Okonedo. They are both respectable, deserving choices; but more than choices, they are alternatives to what has already grown boring: Jamie Foxx as a sure thing, and the battle between Madsen and Blanchett. It will be very interesting to see how the ceremony (and Foxx himself) handles a Cheadle win. Chris Rock has said that he doesn't care what happens -- Foxx is leaving with an Oscar. Don't you think that's the kind of assurance and inevitability that backfires?

DIRECTOR: Martin Scorsese. It is the ultimate irony. Scorsese will win his Oscar even though he knows everyone thinks he is not the most deserving.

PICTURE: Million Dollar Baby. I actually think 'Sideways' is a close second. But this year, for all its surprises, we will actually see the best picture actually win best picture. And plus, Clint gets an Oscar as a producer. So Marty has his Oscar, Clint has his, everyone is happy. Except for Foxx.

Concluding remarks: So the way I have it working out, three of the four acting winners are black, two are British (Staunton and Okonedo), 'Baby' only wins two awards (the least amount for a best picture winner, well, ever). Even I scoff at my choices, but I'd risk it just to look brilliant if it actually happens. Feel free to share your picks.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Happy birthday, Dakota Fanning

I've never seen any of her movies, but you can't ignore the only A-list 11-year-old in the world. In the past four years, Dakota has starred opposite Sean Penn, Denzel Washington and De Niro. Her next movie has her opposite Tom Cruise (in the upcoming 'War of the Worlds'). Has any other actress starred with all four of these heavy hitters? She also has an "Untitled Kurt Russell/Dakota Fanning Project" in the works. She plays Fern -- the 11-year-old's Hamlet -- in the upcoming 'Charlotte's Web.' Funny. When I was 11, I was eating paste. But I've never been bulimic or addicted to smack, which she is sure to be by 13.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

The crying game

It's become the trump card in movie talk. "Yeah, that movie was good, but this movie made me cry."

It's no good to say a movie's brilliant, or the best ever. For grizzled movie watchers -- those of us who aren't given to weeping at the more dramatic Glade plug-in commercials -- it says a lot if a movie makes us cry. In fact, the movies that have made me cry rank almost uniformally with my favorites. After all, that's what movies are supposed to do: move us. There is nothing more beautiful than when a movie gets under our skin so much that it forces tears. To have that lack of emotional control is exhilirating.

What follows is a list of all the movies that have ever made me cry, and my best guess as to why they did. Now, I'm not talking about a single tear, or tearing up slightly, or just feeling sad or overjoyed. I'm talking about crying, people. Show me any of these babies, and get ready for a disturbing sight. They are ranked in terms of how inconsolable they made me, starting with the most sob-o-rific first. Some I'm proud made me cry, others made me feel like a fool. Please comment on your own personal list as well.

1) WIT (2001). Toward its end, it features the most moving scene I've ever experienced in any medium ever. Mike Nichols directs this adaptation of Margaret Edson's play, with Emma Thompson starring as a hard-nosed, uncompromising literature professor.

2) MILLION DOLLAR BABY (2004). It features three characters that became more real to me than the seat I was sitting in. Why have you waited so long to see it?

3) HEART & SOULS (1992). My earliest memory of ever being overtaken by a movie. This movie was built to tearjerk. Look at its parts: Charles Grodin, Alfre Woodard, Kyra Sedgwick and Tom Sizemore as four people who are killed in a bus accident but are left stranded in this world, invisible to the living and inexplicably tied to a newborn baby, who grows up to be Robert Downey Jr. The movie is about finishing unfinished business, and the ghostly quartet uses Downey Jr. as a vessel to realize thwarted dreams, check in on children and right wrongs before they are ferried to the afterlife via David Paymer (who else?) as a nebbish grim reaper in a bus driver's uniform. Four lovable people getting a second chance after death? It's a veritable snotfest.

4) MONSTER (2003). I am still very grateful to this movie and its filmmakers. One of the finest, compassionate final sequences in movies.

5) ROCKY (1976). This isn't an attempt to fortify or redeem my masculinity. When I first saw it, I liked it throughout and was as invested in the final fight as anyone. But when Talia Shire tries to push her way through the crowd after the fight is over and Stallone is bellowing for her and she finally pushes her way into the ring, Bill Conti's score hits its final stride. Realizing at the very end that 'Rocky' had been a love story all along is one of my favorite memories of watching movies. Tears of joy.

6) REQUIEM FOR A DREAM (2000). Ellen Burstyn rung me out like a sponge. Watch the "I'm alone" scene at her kitchen table. You'll notice that the camera starts to drift as she talks about how empty her life is. It's because the cinematographer, Matthew Libatique, couldn't see through his tears. Needless to say, they kept that take.

6) WHAT DREAMS MAY COME (1998). It's a beautiful movie no doubt, but I'm slightly embarrassed to have cried at it. The second-chance-when-you're-dead thing gets me, though. Can't help it.

7) FOREVER YOUNG (1992). She's still alive and waiting for him! (Interesting note: J.J. Abrams, writer-creator of 'Alias," wrote the movie.)

8) SCHINDLER'S LIST (1993). It's not its horrors. It's seeing Schindler tell himself he could've done more. Watch Liam Neeson as he accepts the ring with his defenses up, drops the ring (and his defenses), and stands back up completely exposed.

9) CINEMA PARADISO (1989). I wasn't liking it until the end. And what an end.

10) YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (1974). Because it ended.

Conclusions? Music. All these films pack additional punch because of their scores. When I think back, the score is what I remember; it's what tips the emotional scale from wet eyes to wet cheeks. Henryk Gorecki's plaintive, hymnal piano in 'Wit' as Emma Thompson stares down the void. Clint Eastwood's spare guitar in 'Million Dollar Baby' as a shattering decision is made. BT's rock 'n' roll licks in the courtroom scene of 'Monster.' Clint Mansell and the Kronos Quartet underlining the virtuosity of 'Requiem for a Dream.' The lush, soaring strings of the late Michael Kamen's 'What Dreams May Come' score. It's the music that pushes us over the edge.

Would 'Young Frankenstein' be the same without its theme? Or "Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life," for that matter?

To the lumberyard!

Monday, February 21, 2005

Death Becomes Her: On guard, bitch!

DEATH BECOMES HER (1992) With Meryl Streep, Goldie Hawn, Bruce Willis and Isabella Rossellini. Written by Martin Donovan & David Koepp. Directed by Robert Zemeckis. Available on DVD from Universal.

And to think Meryl and Goldie almost did 'Thelma & Louise' instead of this brilliant, dripping piece of movie camp. It would've been fine to see them drive over a cliff, but I'd rather see them fall down the stairs, get shot through the belly, have a shovel fight, and spray paint each other's asses any day. Streep plays Madeline Ashton, a star of stage and screen who thinks vanity is next to godliness, and vice versa. Goldie Hawn is Helen Sharp, the woman who perpetually loses her men to Ashton. The story spans a good 50 years, through which Mad and Hel spar over Dr. Ernest Menville, a brilliant plastic surgeon (Bruce Willis, unrecognizable in his finest performance), and mortality itself.

The plot is perfectly cogent, but to get into its specifics here would take a color-coded flowchart. Both Madeline and Helen are obsessed with staying alive and staying young, and they find a potion that is advertised to do both. But there is one catch that presents itself too late: You live forever, but once your body gets killed (i.e. you tumble down the stairs/are blown wide open by a shotgun), you begin to, well, rot. This is one of the film's wonderful ironies; you drink from the fountain of youth so you never see yourself "fall apart," but then you actually fall apart.

Hawn was 47 and Streep was 43 when they filmed the movie, and their totally committed performances in a film about aging gracelessly is a testament to the pair's talent, work ethic and chutzpah. Streep rages through the movie like Joan Crawford on uppers, all shrieks and crooked eyebrows. Hawn plays a shrinking-violet-turned-venus-fly-trap, spending time either in a gargantuan fat suit or zombie-like blue contacts. Look beneath the hysteria, and both are parodying a part of their own images: Streep as the grande dame of acting and Hawn as the pert waif with loose lips. Even Willis has fun with his image by completely inverting it; anyone who dismisses his abilities should have a double bill of 'Die Hard' and 'Death Becomes Her,' portraits of macho assertion and snivelling submission.

The performances blaze, but the script is the fuel:

ERNEST: Where did you put my wife?
DOCTOR: She's dead, sir. They took her to the morgue.
ERNEST: The morgue?! She'll be furious!

Or this delightful exchange at Helen's book release party:

HELEN: Oh gosh, I'm glad you came. I didn't know if you would. I spoke to my PR woman and she said Madeline Ashton goes to the opening of an envelope. Oh, those people can be so cruel!
MADELINE: (simmering) Mmm.
HELEN: I fired her.
MADELINE: (pleased) Oh?
HELEN: Well, I almost fired her.

Watching it after many years, it's startling how much the film has to say -- about life, beauty, revenge, redemption and, yes, comedy. It's certainly not a message picture, but you can't deny the poignancy of the film's final scene, even if it is swiftly covered up by more cynicism.

Unlike its two main characters, 'Death Becomes Her' has not really lasted. It did decent business when it opened in 1992, won an Oscar for its head-spinning visual effects, and now doesn't even make it onto lists of guilty pleasures or cult favorites. I've met some people who are devout fans, but they also admit to knowing no one else who loves it. I'd advocate a re-release with audience interaction a la Rocky Horror, but I'd hate to think of the corresponding props and hand motions.

Saturday, February 19, 2005

Oscars '05: The shorts list

[The title cat of 'Lorenzo,' nominated for Best Animated Short.]

No matter how hard you've tried to keep on top of the big contenders, there are at least 10 films you haven't seen. And it's not for lack of want; they simply can't be seen. They are the small gems that round out the animated and live action short nominees. No stars. No theatrical releases. They're made and you can't see them, unless you stumble across one at a film festival or manage to find one floating around the Internet.

There is one option: squeeze yourself into the Academy's yearly screening for the public -- either in New York or Los Angeles -- which I did this afternoon. This year's five animated shorts and five live action shorts are a good crop of industrious filmmaking. There are virtually no heavy hitters in the bunch (no Pixar, though Disney is represented with 'Lorenzo') and only three are American (the animated 'Guard Dog' and 'Gopher Broke,' and 'Everything in This Country Must,' though it was filmed in Northern Ireland by an Irish cast and crew).

There is a kind of paradox with these types of films. They don't get released per se, so they aren't made to make money. Box office simply isn't in the equation, because most never see the box office. So they are made with heart, with wit, with courage, and with a sense of adventure and urgency that rarely comes through normal, run-of-the-mill features that sprout up at the multiplex every Friday. But there's the paradox. No one sees shorts. Here, then, is a run down of the Oscar nominees, for those of you wanting insight to guide your office pool picks:


The title character of Birthday Boy spends his days skipping around a small, deserted town in Korea in 1951. This nine-minute film is very quiet and its story is told from the simplistic perspective of a child who plays with soldiers but has no concept of the war that is altering his life frame by frame. The dialogue is in Korean, but 'Birthday Boy' is Australian.

Gopher Broke fills the belly-laughing spot usually occupied by Pixar and, yes, it does have the biggest laugh of any movie this year. One scrappy gopher tries to jack some vegetables from passing farm trucks but is always beaten to the punch by other animals. When he finally gets things to go his way, the situation goes udderly awry.

Prolific animator Bill Plympton was at the screening to represent his Guard Dog. With good humor, Plympton said how his previous nomination in 1987 in the same category made him hot property, though nothing substantial came of it. (IMDb says that he turned down a seven-figure deal to animate 'Aladdin' because anything he created became intellectual property of Disney -- a substantial deal yes, but you must admire his nerve.) 'Guard Dog' is a loud, violent, hapzardly-animated film about a zealot pooch dedicated to protecting his master, at any cost.

The most beautiful, slick entry of the bunch comes from the Disney folks but is decidedly un-Disney. Lorenzo sports characters animated in the Disney tradition, but these characters occupy scenery that is bohemian, burlesque and sadistic in tone. Lorenzo is a fat blue cat who enjoys eating shrimp inside while famished alley cats watch with wide eyes outside. Lorenzo is snapped from his luxurious perch when a villainous black cat puts a hex on his tail, which takes on a life of its own.

The winner, though, will be Ryan. I saw it in Telluride without advance warning and seeing it today reminded me how personal and compassionate it is, and how new and exciting its animation is. Animator Chris Landreth points his talents at a potentially uncomfortable subject: Ryan Larkin, a pioneer of animation in the 1970s who now panhandles on the streets of Montreal after debilitating battles with cocaine and alcohol. 'Ryan' is one artist's plea with himself and his idol to keep at it -- "it" being life, art, and everything in between. The film's greatness lies in its tone, which is elegiac rather than sympathetic, and its animation, which sees people as industrial rainbows marked with individual red-orange-yellow-green-blue-violet badges of courage. Landreth will win the Oscar for which Larkin himself was nominated in 1970. The award will be a testament to both.

[Chris Landreth's stunning 'Ryan,' nominated for Best Animated Short]


'Everything in This Country Must' and Little Terrorist both concern two peoples who share the same heritage but are embroiled in senseless feuds -- the Northern Irish and British in the first, the Indian and the Pakistani in the second. Both films show boths sides trying to heal even as new wounds are opened.

The strangest and most amusing of the bunch is the Spanish 7:35 in the Morning, but you can see for yourself via the link (though the video file's size is too small to see the priceless faces of the extras). Just one question: What good is a first impression if it's your last?

Two Cars, One Night is a delightful trifle from New Zealand. Two brothers are made to wait in the car as their parents go into a pub in Te Kaha, and one of the boys gets acquainted with a girl waiting in a car two spaces over. Shot in black and white, 'Two Cars, One Night' seems solely about the splendor of pre-pubescent attraction, though I got the feeling there was something deeper at work.

Andrea Arnold has cleaned up in the festival circuit with her cinema verite 'Wasp,' about a young mother juggling four young children and a desire to have a social life. Sounds petty, but 'Wasp' captures in striking detail the lives of the lower class in Great Britain and how, no matter what you do, life's a compromise.

It's tough to say which film will end up on top on Feb. 27. The makers of 'Little Terrorist' are campaiging (according to their Web site), the wonderfully brief '7:35' is just zany enough to pull off a win, 'Wasp' is comparatively well known, 'Everything' is intense and dramatic, and 'One Night' plays like an homage to classic cinema. Which will sit best with voting members? My favorites are '7:35' and 'One Night,' but I think 'Little Terrorist' will win because it is both topical and appealing.

[Ashvin Kumar's 'Little Terrorist' goes beyond borders.]

Friday, February 18, 2005

Oscars '05: Lifestyles of the rich & nervous

The hollow glitz of pre-Oscar mania not sating the urge? Pick up Steve Pond's new book The Big Show: High Times & Dirty Dealings Backstage at the Academy Awards, a decent primer for an enthusiast as the show of shows looms a week away. There isn't much dirty dealing delineated in the book, but the anecdotes are amusing and, occasionally, revelatory. You won't leave knowing who shtupped whom in the elevator on the way from the stage to the press gauntlet, but the book does a good job explaining how the show happens and why, starting from the maligned 1989 show with the Snow White opener to last year's Hobbitfest. Pond had exclusive access to all things Oscar through Premiere, and gives us a good look at the show's sheer recklessness, as the producer of this year's show tries to outdo the producer of last year's show. Read it, and the ceremony will definitely look different come Feb. 27. Read it, and you'll begin to see why producer Gil Cates opted for Chris Rock as a host, and decided to change the way awards are presented (from the seat-to-stage process to beauty-pageant-style lineup onstage for some categories). Pond's conclusion is that everyone behind the ceremony is interested in two things: ratings, and doing the show differently from every other show before it. Movies aren't really mentioned.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Binging on 'Sideways'

'Sideways' begins and ends with someone knocking on a door. Insert metaphor for life here. Lord knows every critic has. But I wasn't gobsmacked by the film when I first saw it back in September. When critics touted it as the second coming later that fall, I was gobsmacked by their gobsmackment. I finally saw 'Sideways' a second time last night, and now I understand, though don't necessarily agree, with the effusive reception.

Two hundred and sixty-seven movies were released theatrically in 2004. Most were gutter trash. After months of watching gutter trash, 'Sideways' provided a sliver of light, a breath of fresh air, for critics who were probably ready to stab themselves with their ballpoint pens. With no other savior in sight, 'Sideways' became the life raft. And it certainly deserves the title: It's a smartly acted, well-put-together movie reminiscent of the golden age of movies in the 1970s, when films were made for people first and profit second. I understand now. I don't understand what Virginia Madsen's character sees in Paul Giamatti's, even though Madsen beautifully conveys the need to desire someone, anyone, in those intoxicating eyes of hers. But why Miles? Perhaps the movie shouldn't hinge on that, but it does for me.

Regardless. "Rarely does a comedy come along that deserves to be taken seriously." That is what Fox Searchlight is plastering in black lettering over glossy burnished gold ads in Variety. It is the best assessment of the movie I've come across. 'Sideways' is funny, but it is informed by sadness and regret. Taking it seriously, for me, means something other than seriously considering it for awards.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Seems like old times

I watch 'Annie Hall' every Valentine's Day, and the ritual has become a kind of booster shot. The movie is like Cupid's arrow straight to the heart, a cocktail of love, regret, and hope that doesn't dare approach and analyze the concepts of love, regret, and hope. Rather, Woody Allen's story lets these concepts arise incidentally, so we're always focused on people rather than platitudes. It is simply, brilliantly, the story of two lovable people who love each other even as love fades. Each time I watch it, I am convinced there is nothing more to realize or discover and, each time, I am wrong. On the latest viewing, some new observations:

1) I used to understand why some people and critics were dismissive of Diane Keaton's performance, which is arguably just an extension of her real, la-dee-da self. There's no debate over the fact that she created one of the most memorable, endearing characters in movies, but she's never been given much cred for her technique or ability in that creation. Watching 'Annie Hall' this year, the one thing that jumped out at me was the character's maturation over the course of the film's 91 minutes. In the first scene, Annie is stumbling over arrangements to drive home from her first tennis match with Alvy. In the last scene at the cafe in Los Angeles, she is a worldly, well-adjusted, and cynical person -- able to express herself with newfound clarity. And we can see the heartbreak in Alvy's face as she offers a curt handshake in place of a hug. This is not the same Annie Hall. Keaton is able to play this change not only believably, but so subtly that we never stop loving her.

2) After Alvy and Annie have make-up sex, they lay in bed and are lit sparingly; they're almost silhouettes, with faint light illuminating the sweat on their bodies. Their dialogue is loving and conciliatory, and Annie suggests they never break up again. But listen to the rather loud, insistent ticking of the bedside clock. It's almost like the sound effect was amped up to give us the hint that this good thing isn't going to last.

3) The extensive use of film gimmicks is kind of unparalleled: split screen, voiceover narration, direct address to the camera, cartoons, subtitles, visual effects, conjuring real people out of thin air (the Marshall McLuhan scene when Alvy and Annie are waiting in line for a movie), and blissfully long takes (Allen holds on Keaton for two whole minutes as she sings "Seems Like Old Times" in a bar, perhaps my single most favorite shot in all of movies). No other film has used this many gimmicks in such a cohesive, unobtrusive fashion.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

'Yes' I said yes I will yes

Sally Potter's 'Yes' stood tall and defiant in a field of two dozen masterpiece wannabes at Telluride in September, and Sony Pictures Classics wisely picked up distribution rights to it recently. Its release is scheduled for June 24, a date that might KO any other serious drama's chances for big box office and critical praise. But as I told producer Christopher Sheppard in Telluride, this film will have legs for two reasons: 1) Joan Allen gives the greatest performance of her career, and the notices will propel people to see it. 2) 'Yes' is the type of risky, guns-a-blazing, ambitious opus that has become extinct in movies in the last 15 years. Potter employs cleaning ladies as a defacto Greek chorus, rhyming couplets as dialogue, and a story that aspires to the emotional scope of James Joyce's "Ulysses," all under the guise of a 21st-century domestic drama. Watch for it, read nothing more about it, then see it. It'll be a shot of oxygen in a suffocating summer.

Friday, February 11, 2005

Oscars '05: Imitation of life

The Oscars operate on momentum. When voting closes on Feb. 22, the likely winners the following Sunday will be those people and films that had the most buzz and the strongest word of mouth the instant ballots were due. Quality and deservability are usually second and third to momentum, though all three can coincide blissfully (the most recent example is Adrien Brody's win in 2003 for 'The Pianist').

Hollywood and the world believe Jamie Foxx to be deserving, to have the momentum, and to have given a quality performance in 'Ray,' which makes a Foxx victory on Feb. 27 the surest thing since Julia Roberts won best actress for 'Erin Brockovich' in 2001. But, like Roberts, Foxx is undeserving, though for different reasons.

What Foxx does in 'Ray' is amazing. He is Ray Charles. But that is precisely the problem. Foxx's work is deserving of praise, but it is not a performance. It is a precise and studied imitation, a parlor trick in the best sense of the word. He is deserving of accolades, but not an Oscar. Not when there are accomplished performances in his category.

There has been no real debate about this subject, yet 2004's releases -- under the umbrella term 'The Year of the Biopic' -- certainly prompt one. Which is better and harder to do: imitate a real-life person or create a character from thin air? Which is deserving of more praise and attention? Objectively, the answer is neither. Subjectively, I reserve more admiration for performance than imitation, or for those special instances when performance triumphs in a role that could easily have been imitation. Cate Blanchett is an example. Blanchett tackled the daunting task of playing Katharine Hepburn in 'The Aviator,' a choice she must have known would not provide for a middle ground. You'd either love her Hepburn, or revile it.

Reception for Blanchett's performance has fallen solidly in the former category. And I do use the word 'performance' deliberately. She took the celluloid Hepburn -- the Hepburn of the media, the clipped accent and forward manner -- and reinvented her. So what if Blanchett improvised and acted off a script that wasn't 100 percent accurate? After 'The Aviator,' we had gotten to know Hepburn as a character, not as a person lifted directly from life. Where 'Ray' pulled Charles from headlines and biographies, 'The Aviator' sewed a new Hepburn pattern that functions as texture, not truth. From texture comes performance. From truth comes imitation.

It's a silly argument, since watching movies is a subjective exercise. But I was 100 times more affected by Blanchett's Hepburn leaning despairingly outside Howard Hughes' screening room door than by Foxx's Charles having frenetic visions during heroin withdrawal. Why? What's more beautiful -- the blueprints used to build a house, or the house itself? Leonardo DiCaprio pulls off a similar feat. He looks nothing like Howard Hughes (just as Blanchett looks nothing like Hepburn), yet he makes the character his own instead of making his own the person. Liam Neeson and Laura Linney also transcend imitation as Alfred and Clara Kinsey, simply because their film allows for it. We see them not as icons going through well-publicized motions, but characters evolving before our eyes. 'Ray' allows only for Foxx's Charles to beat drugs, a battle that is surely courageous but not enough to constitute a good movie by itself. Johnny Depp, as real-life author J.M. Barrie in 'Finding Neverland,' also falls short, but for different reasons.

So there were those that fell under the weight of the biopic and those who transcended it. But the richest performances of the year were given by actors playing complete inventions. Annette Bening in 'Being Julia.' Clint Eastwood, Morgan Freeman, and Hilary Swank in 'Million Dollar Baby.' The cast of 'Sideways.' In these films, in these performances, we see cinema come to life, rather than life come to cinema.

Dances with Sharks

OPEN WATER (2004). With Blanchard Ryan & Daniel Travis. Written and directed by Chris Kentis. Available on DVD from Lions Gate Films.

'Open Water' was shot with $130,000 and made over $30 million at the box office after it stunned Sundance audiences last year, so it hardly needs help from me. But those who missed catching its wave when it was released in August should pick up the DVD (which includes worthwhile commentary by cast and crew, and an eyebrow-raising making-of feature). The sheer economy of the filmmaking is worth the price of rental: 81 minutes, spare story, real sharks, no stunt doubles, all shot on mini DV by a crew of two (Kentis and producer wife Laura Lau). The film's story is no secret -- a couple gets left behind on a scuba excursion and must combat the elements in the middle of the ocean. But where the story draws its fear from has been kept a secret, despite the thrashing, nightmarish trailers and ad campaigns. Sure, a pack of ghost-gray sharks circling under you is terrifying, but 'Open Water' taps into a deeper, more devastating fear that has nothing to do with multi-toothed fish. When that fear is articulated at the film's end, it is literally breath-taking.

Daniel Travis and Blanchard Ryan play couple Daniel and Susan in 'Open Water.'