Monthly Archives

December 2008

My Oscar Picks

Though nominations haven’t even been announced, I think the following actors are going to win Oscars come February 22, 2009. This is not based on counting how many nominations/wins they’ve racked up from other organizations; I’m going strictly by my opinions of their performances and feel confident about my choices. If you’re participating in an Oscar pool, feel free to steal my predictions. When you win, just send me 10% of your winnings!

Best Actor: Sean Penn for Milk. This is Penn as we’ve rarely seen him—smiling, vulnerable, in love, inspiring—instead of angry, grim or high. He brings Harvey Milk vividly to life and makes us feel the loss of the real man all over again.

2008_revolutionary_road_0131Best Actress: Kate Winslet for Revolutionary Road. I’ve liked some of her other performances better—Clementine in Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind, Sarah in Little Children—but this year has been light on female contenders so I think Winslet will finally get her little golden man for this harrowing performance.

2008_milk_010Best Supporting Actor: Josh Brolin for Milk. The film’s cast is very, very strong but, besides Penn’s, Brolin’s performance as Dan White is the one that stayed with me long after I saw the movie. It’s a beautifully nuanced portrayal of a man in conflict with himself and the changing world around him.

2008_vicky_christina_barcelona_001Best Supporting Actress – Penelope Cruz for Vicky Christina Barcelona. She is on fire in this film. She’s passionate, electric, crazy, and just uninhibited. When she’s on screen, you can’t watch anyone else. Considering the other actors include Javier Bardem and Scarlett Johansson, that’s saying a lot.

I’m not going to pick Best Picture because I’m not passionate about any of the contenders. There are some good films but none made me say, “Wow, I LOVE that movie!” I remember back in 1981, my favorite movie was Raiders of the Lost Ark but Chariots of Fire won. Chariots was respectable, but it didn’t blow my mind like Raiders did. In 1995, I admired the production values and talent involved with Braveheart, but I was rooting for Babe on Oscar night.

2008_in_bruges_011At least Raiders and Babe were nominated for Best Picture. My favorite film this year, with probably no chances for any Oscar nominations (though I was thrilled it received 3 major Golden Globes noms), is In Bruges, a film starring Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson and Ralph Fiennes that I saw back in January and has long been out on DVD. This movie is well-acted, brilliantly written, suspenseful, hilarious, twisted and most important (to me), it was damn entertaining.

What are your favorite films this year that you think have about as much chance of being nominated as Oprah has of being poor? Leave me a comment below.

Here’s hoping you’ve enjoyed yourselves at the movies this year and will have many good reasons to go to the theater next year.

COMING SOON: An evening with the director (Edward Zwick) and cast of Defiance (Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber, Jamie Bell, Alexa Davalos), and the stars of Revolutionary Road (oh, you know who they are).

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Scores and Snores

Sometimes, I’ll read a bit of entertainment news and think, “Say what?!!” but a friend will say, “That’s awesome!” Below is a sampling of items I read recently and I want your feedback on them. Vote below—Score! if you’re excited about it, Snore if you think it’s a bad idea—and see if you agree with other readers.

  1. [polldaddy poll=1191622]
  2. [polldaddy poll=1191629]
  3. [polldaddy poll=1191632]
  4. [polldaddy poll=1191664]
  5. [polldaddy poll=1191982]
  6. [polldaddy poll=1192412]
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Review of VALKYRIE

My pal Eric went to a screening of Valkyrie last night and turned in this review.

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Valkyrie is a tight, very well-acted thriller with a passionate performance from Tom Cruise as Col. Claus Von Stauffenberg. I couldn’t help, though, but wonder if maybe the film would have been better served by a different actor in this role, with Cruise staying on the sidelines as a producer. It’s not entirely his fault; he’s just not a talented enough actor to lose his innate All-American vibe. It made me feel as though Col. Stauffenberg was an American who had infiltrated Nazi ranks, which would be an entirely different movie.

2008_valkyrie_005Bryan Singer’s latest directorial effort is based on the true story of the 15th and final attempt by Adolf Hitler’s regime to assassinate him. Since most of us know how Hitler died, it’s not a spoiler to tell you that this attempt failed. With this in mind, it is surprising how much the script ratchets up the tension throughout the film to keep us on the edge of our seats while we watch the inevitable play out in front of us.

I say the script is compelling and not the filmmaker because, for me, one flaw keeps this movie from achieving the level of entertainment it deserves: the accents.

According to writer/producer Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects), who did Q & A at the screening I attended, Cruise showed up on set with a flawless German accent and a vocal coach to help him stay on track. Cruise opens the movie narrating in German with English subtitles, but after a few lines of hesitant-sounding German, he drops it abruptly and starts speaking English in his familiar, very American accent. Did the filmmakers, recalling their star’s accent trouble in Far and Away, decide to play it safe?

McQuarrie says the filmmakers had complete confidence in Cruise’s ability, but felt having the entire cast adopt German accents would be asking for trouble, since it would invariably sound uneven and the audience might focus on how much it resembles a Mel Brooks comedy. So, the actors were told to speak in their normal accents. But if we are to believe McQuarrie, then why didn’t David Bamber—a consummate K. BRANAGHBritish actor who portrayed Hitler with a focused, intimidating stillness and perfect German intonations—speak with an English accent? It’s also hard to believe that the other very talented British actors—Tom Wilkinson, Bill Nighy, Terrence Stamp, Eddie Izzard, Kenneth Branagh, Bernard Hill—wouldn’t have been capable of pulling off a convincing German accent. Their British-ness, in addition to Cruise’s Yank persona, forced me to constantly remind myself that the group trying to assassinate Hitler wasn’t part of an American-British coalition, but Germans desperately trying to wrest control of their beloved Germany from the hands of a monster.

Newton Thomas Sigel’s cinematography is top-notch; the costumes by Joanna Johnston are inventive, specifically the military uniforms, which are unique yet cohesive.

Rating: Okay

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Conversation with SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE Filmmakers

slumdog-gameshow

Last week, on the day it was chosen Best Picture by the National Board of Review, I went to a screening of Slumdog Millionaire (about a slum kid who goes on the Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire?) and Q & A afterwards with director Danny Boyle, cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, editor Chris Dickens, and composer A.R. Rahman. The movie has been in theaters for a few weeks (I held out for the free screening ’cause I’m cheap) so I won’t review it but will say you should see it if you haven’t already. Considering the recent terrorist attacks there, the movie is a life-affirming tribute to the hope and resilience pulsing through Mumbai. Some of the other Golden Globes Best Picture contenders can be more cerebral than warm but Slumdog is all heart.

The Q & A, moderated by director Taylor Hackford, offered interesting insight about the process of making this film. The following is not verbatim but I took notes like mad and here are the highlights.

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Hackford (Ray, An Officer and a Gentleman) introduced Boyle, Mantle, Dickens and Rahman to a standing ovation. I’ve been to a lot of screenings and this kind of reaction is rare, especially when there’s no big star on stage. It’s a testament to these men’s achievements in the movie.

Once everyone was seated, Hackford started by saying he first met Boyle in Helsinki when Boyle was shooting his first feature, Shallow Grave (a terrific little thriller; Netflix it). Then he asked Boyle, “You’d never been to India before doing this movie?”

“No. My dad served in the war, he was in Bombay. The British ruled [India] until ’47. In Britain in the ’60s and ’70s, there was a lot of racist humor on TV and my dad would say, ‘That’s not right.’ ” Boyle encouraged people to visit India because “it’s one of the most transformational experiences you’ll have if you go.”

Hackford asked, “Your perception of Bombay is extraordinary. To cast three actors for each lead role? How’d you go about that?”

“I hate in American television when a 29-year-old is cast to play a 17-year-old and then grows older to be 29. [In the script], the first stage was 10, then 16 then 25. When we got there, we felt they should be younger. [But] the 7-year-olds didn’t speak English. Our casting director suggested we change it to Hindi because it’s more authentic. Then we told Warner Bros. a third of the movie would be in Hindi and they were absolutely thrilled!” Boyle said jokingly. He said in fact there was a long moment of dead silence on the other end of the call.

“Each actor is so distinct, it’s extraordinary. They all had big ears; it’s fantastic casting. The game show host is oily, just perfect…It’s a very Dickensian story,” Hackford said.

“It’s based on a novel by an Indian diplomat [Vikas Swarup]. It’s called Q & A and it’s about a slum kid going on the richest game show. Simon [Beaufoy] adapted it very freely and created a love story to be the backstory. What he did with the love story was to stop the game show from being the spine for the film. The kid hijacks the show for his own ends. The company that invented the game show, [owned by] Paul Smith, sold the rights to it years ago but he kept a clause saying that he’d have the right to make any movie about the show for free. And we got that.” [Smith executive-produced the film.]

“Let’s talk to the other collaborators,” Hackford said, then addressed Mantle, the cinematographer. “Was this shot on film or digital? How did you keep people in the streets from waving at the camera?”

“If there were people behind our backs saying they’d be reprimanded if they did that, I don’t know,” Mantle replied. “I’m used to a calm, boring space to work in; this was totally opposite. Everything’s massive. We tried to be as discreet as possible. You can’t use a Steadycam, it’s too crowded to chase the kids [through the streets].” Mantle then talked about how new, small digital cameras had to be packed in dry ice (to prevent overheating) and camouflaged on his body, making him look like “a cross between Darth Vader and Buzz Lightyear.”

“You had fantastic close-ups and framing,” Hackford said. “They really help tell that story.”

“There’s a huge close-up in the beginning where Jamal’s being tortured,” Boyle said. “I was trying to hurtle people into the movie, make it subjective. You either leave with a migraine or you’re on board.”

Hackford asked about the transitions, “how to finesse the present and the past, with the flash forwards and flashbacks. Let’s go to Chris [the editor]. You’ve never worked with Danny Boyle before?”

“No, it’s my first time,” Dickens said. “This was a challenging film and that’s why I wanted to do it…A lot of flashbacks were written in the script. The love story was the spine, you keep going back to it so you know where you are…I also used the [game show’s] theme music; it’s very recognizable so you know where you are. Another mechanic is memory. It doesn’t work in neat blocks; it’s kinda jumbled up. It gives me freedom to go anywhere.”

Boyle interjected, “It’s basically a series of flashbacks, but you’d be exhausted if we used basic flashbacks…There are three sets of actors so you clearly know where you are. Usually these films have old people dying and it’s very moving but this kid is eighteen, he has the most beautiful girl and twenty million rupees. What could be better?”

“We took one question out because it wasn’t right. There are only twelve questions or something [on the show],” Dickens said.

“The question will be on the DVD,” Boyle said.

Hackford then addressed Rahman, the composer. “Did [Boyle] give you a rough copy of the film?”

“He gave me a script, which I never read,” Rahman said, to audience laughter. “He finally gave me a DVD. I thought it was fantastic, there’s so much hope in it. I started giving him ideas and he responded to it.”

Hackford commented that there’s fabulous use of sound in the movie then turned back to Boyle. “Did you cast the kids from the slums?”

slumdogmillionaire

“Two of them, the youngest ones. We put them in school,” Boyle said, to audience applause. “The girl is very bright, the boy is not quite as academic but he’s very good with crayons and coloring in.” Boyle went on to explain that money was put in a trust fund for them until they’re sixteen. “The children didn’t know how old they were because they didn’t know their own birth dates.” They were given dates and introduced to the tradition of celebrating birthdays and receiving gifts.”Now they love birthdays,” Boyle said.

Hackford asked how long the shoot was.

“We were there November, December, part of January,” Boyle answered.

Mantle said he had five cameras but not five operators, which was a problem. “A grandchild of Gandhi did second unit stuff for us and he was tremendous.”

Hackford asked. “Why did Warner Bros. step away from this?”

Boyle explained that he’d received sixty percent of his financing through Pathe’ in Europe and forty percent through Warner Bros. but “they had closed Warner Independent. So we showed it to Peter Rice at Fox, who thought it was wonderful.”

Hackford asked Boyle if, once he got to Mumbai, he ever thought he was crazy to try and make this movie there.

“Mumbai, like New York, grabs you by the throat and says, ‘You’ll never be the same again.’ There’s such energy, lots of poverty but none of it is abject. Everybody is trying to move forward towards happiness. I can’t believe I was allowed to make a movie in such a city, a third of it in Hindi.”

“A.R. Rahman has sold two hundred million cassettes [of music]. How did you end up working with him?” Hackford asked.

“It’s difficult to explain how famous A.R. is in India. We’d go to lunch and people would just point at him. [In Rahman’s score for the movie], you can feel the fusion of different styles—classical, hip hop, R & B, disco, classic Bollywood music. I promised him I’d mix it very loud because sometimes the score is very quiet and can’t be heard.”

At this point, Hackford opened up the questions to people in the audience. Someone asked, “How did you get the children to have such relationships, with them being untrained?”

“The middle child who played Jamal is incredible,” Boyle said. “He’d done a couple films before, he knew his marks. I had a lovely casting director, Loveleen Tandan, who worked with me all the time with them. I didn’t understand what they were able to grasp sometimes but [that boy] could grasp betrayal.”

“They seemed to have more life experience, been through more, but they were also green,” Dickens added. “They got better as they went along. In the beginning, they’d be giggling, not knowing cameras were rolling.”

An audience member asked, “How many of you got sick?”

“I lost eleven kilos [about 24 lbs.] but from running. I was never sick,” Boyle said.

Dickens said, “I gained weight. The food was so good and I was sitting down a lot.”

Someone asked what the film’s budget was.

“We raised eight million in Europe and five million from Warner Bros., though the producer said it cost fourteen million so I wonder what happened to that extra million.”

Another audience member asked Boyle to talk about how he’s always pushing the envelope in his filmmaking.

“I like taking risks,” Boyle answered. “If you get a chance, take a risk. You deserve it. Sometimes it doesn’t work but you should try.” He then recommended the Swedish film, Let the Right One In, saying it’s “very risk-taking.”

Someone mentioned that an M.I.A. song from the movie was nominated for the Record of the Year Grammy and Boyle said M.I.A. “had grown up worshipping A.R.’s music.”

Rahman said, “Danny wanted me to co-write a song…”

“The kids running through the slums in the beginning, that track of the movie,” Boyle interjected.

Rahman then said the collaboration involved him sending the temp to M.I.A. in New York and her sending it back to him via the Internet.

An audience member commented on how the two brothers in the movie went down such different paths in life and asked, “Do  you think it’s hereditary or experience?” [SPOILER AHEAD–skip to next paragraph if you don’t want to know]

“One of the things we changed was the brother committing suicide in the end,” Boyle said. “All the Bollywood actors said he’d never do that; he’d shoot the boss. The two brothers thing—that’s classic Bollywood: good brother, bad brother. The death of the mom marked them. Salim would use violence against other people so it could never be used on him again. Jamal had the grace to overcome that.”

boyle-on-location

Next, a man in the audience said he was surprised Boyle had never been in Mumbai since kinetic pacing is a signature of his films. “Did you have a pre-conceived notion of pace?”

“The feeling of that is in the script. When you get to the city, you can’t avoid it. The thing I loved was, the slums are not what you’d think. There’s cottage industry, enterprise—people don’t want to be portrayed as poor. I said, ‘But it has to be authentic,’ and they said, ‘Then don’t be pitiful about it.’ Westerners, we are so sleepy compared to them. There’s so much energy.”

Hackford concluded the evening by saying, “This film is an indie, there are no stars, but it reaches out and grabs you with its spirit. It communicates life because of the filmmakers, led by Danny Boyle. Let’s congratulate them.”

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Correct Answer for FROST/NIXON Script Giveaway

The correct answer was The Milton Berle Show so congrats to FFBUFF8, Greg in St. Louis, gary, Julianne and Nancy for getting it right! Your scripts have been emailed. Thanks to all for playing!

Coming up—a round-table discussion with the filmmakers behind Slumdog Millionaire.

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Nixon Trivia Question for Script Giveaway

If you’re on my subscribers list and are among the first 5 people to answer the following correctly, I’ll email you a copy of the Frost/Nixon script, written by Peter Morgan and adapted from his same-titled play. The movie opens in limited release this Friday, December 5.

Here’s the question:

Richard Nixon’s first scandal happened in the 1950s when he was the V.P. candidate on Ike’s ticket. He was accused of being secretly funded by a group of California businessmen. To address these charges, Nixon went on live TV to make his famous “Checkers” speech, which was scheduled after what popular show?

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Review of FROST/NIXON and Script Giveaway

 

When I told a few friends I was going to a screening of Frost/Nixon, they all asked, “Why?” I said, “Because I think it looks interesting.” They said, “Ugh, it’s two men talking. Boooooring.”

I’m happy to say it isn’t dull as dirt. Frank Langella, Michael Sheen and director Ron Howard make the film crackle with tension. Richard Nixon and David Frost’s duel is just a more verbal version of Jim Braddock and Max Baer’s fight from Howard’s Cinderella Man. Like that boxing match, you have a heavyweight sparring with an underdog who proves to be much more pit bull than anyone expected.

2008_frost_nixon_001A quick montage at the start of the movie fills in anyone who’s been living on Mars on the Watergate scandal and fallout, including Nixon’s resignation and Ford’s pardon. We see Frost watching the televised resignation speech, practically drooling over the audience it garnered. He decides to woo Nixon for an interview strictly for ratings at first. Soon, pressure mounts from his peers for him to elicit an apology from the former president. But Nixon is a formidable opponent, trained in public speaking and how to be “presidential” while Frost is disdainfully referred to by some as “just a talk-show host.” We see Frost training for his big fight by immersing himself in the minutiae of Nixon’s life while struggling to land financial backers for his show (Nixon’s fee alone was $600,000). This all leads up to the movie’s main event on April 22, 1977—the final day of interviews during which Frost would pin Nixon into a corner about his shady Watergate dealings.

Langella brings Nixon roaring back to life and thankfully does so without prosthetics. He relies on his talent to portray a man too proud to say sorry but too burdened if he didn’t. The actor does use that familiar guttural voice which calls to mind all the Nixon (and Jimmy Stewart) impressions I’ve ever heard. But it’s not Langella’s fault Nixon sounded like that and after a while I got used to it.

2008_frost_nixon_002Sheen’s performance, though, is my favorite in the film. As he readies his slingshot for his Goliathan opponent, we can see the insecurity and vulnerability beneath the perennial grin and slick TV-host veneer. Sheen actually made me wonder at times if Frost would be up to the task though I already knew the outcome. Universal Pictures has decided to submit both actors for Best Actor Academy-Award consideration and I hope Langella doesn’t overpower Sheen, who has the less showy but more difficult role.

Among the solid supporting cast, Kevin Bacon, as Nixon’s steely Chief of Staff Jack Brennan, was a head above the rest for me. You might be quick to label him a jerk until you glimpse the heart beating beneath the surface. Bacon made me feel that of the millions who were disappointed and hurt by Nixon’s Watergate involvement, Brennan was the one who took it hardest.

In bringing Frost/Nixon to the screen, writer Peter Morgan (who also wrote the play) and Howard were successful where John Patrick Shanley was less so with Doubt—opening up a play to make it more cinematic. Doubt the movie comes across like a filmed play (see my review here), but Howard said in the Q & A I attended that he was determined to have Sheen and Langella break the rhythm of the stage dialogue they’d already performed many times in London and on Broadway. He also employs a faux documentary style with lots of cross-cutting between scenes and interviews and archival news footage. Howard can sometimes be too safe for me but he does really sharp work here, taking a story whose ending is already familiar to a whole generation and making it compelling and fresh again.

(Limited Release, December 5)

Rating: Good

SCRIPT GIVEAWAY: On Wednesday, December 3, at noon PT, I’ll be giving away Frost/Nixon scripts. At that time, I’ll post a trivia question about Nixon and the first 5 subscribers who leave the correct answer in the comments section will be emailed a PDF version of the script. You have to be a subscriber to be eligible so even if you’re the first person to leave the correct answer but you’re not on the list, you will not get a script. I never spam so if you haven’t subscribed but want to participate in future giveaways, do it now!

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