2007-08 Oscar Calendar

[Monday, December 3, 2007]

Official Screen Credits
Forms Due.

[Wednesday, December 26, 2007]

Nominations ballots mailed.

[Saturday, January 12, 2008]

Nominations polls close
5 p.m. PST.

[Tuesday, January 22, 2008]

Nominations announced
5:30 a.m. PST
Samuel Goldwyn Theater

[Wednesday, January 30, 2008]

Final ballots mailed.

[Monday, February 4, 2008]

Nominees Luncheon

[Saturday, February 9, 2008]

Scientific and Technical
Awards Dinner

[Tuesday, February 19, 2008]

Final polls close 5 p.m. PST.

[Sunday, February 24, 2008]

79th Annual
Academy Awards Presentation
Kodak Theatre

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September 29, 2006

Shrunken Griffiths role goes supporting in "The History Boys"

Tom O'Neil is claiming this as an exclusive, but the truth is most have been suspecting for some time that Richard Griffiths would go supporting for the reprisal of his Tony Award-winning role in "The History Boys." The role was shortened somewhat for the film version and so it was only a matter of time before something "official" happened. We've had Griffiths in our supporting charts for weeks now, and the only ambivalence about shoving him into the predicted five has been awaiting this very announcement. Well, we've got it now.

John Cameron Mitchell: The In Contention Interview


John Cameron Mitchell might be one of the few true artists working in the film medium today. In his much celebrated feature debut “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” the actor/director pealed his own creation from the stage and molded it into a cinematic experience that became one of the most accomplished films of 2001. His electric performance as a shafted transsexual (let’s say almost transgender) rock star reached new heights on celluloid, claiming a lion’s share of critical honors, while his efforts behind the camera announced the arrival of a promising new directorial talent.

Now with “Shortbus,” one of the best films of 2006 and undeniably one of the most thematically potent, Mitchell has found his groove as a speaker to the metaphors of primal and cultural humanity. Glaring through, yet paradoxically past the cardinal sexual characteristics we share as frail co-inhabitants of a wicked world, he has tapped into a method of creativity that reawakens the senses to a commercial medium’s true potential.

“It’s a film about the question we all have to ask of whether we’re going to be alone,” Mitchell explains with a staggering intellectual delicacy. “And sex is just one of the languages we use to not be alone.”

Indeed, if unsuspecting viewers make it beyond “Shortbus”’s riveting opening sequence, they will find a central nervous system of artistry that speaks to deeper truths than the most well-intended of artfully-minded cinema. A bona fide explosion of sexual expression that dictates the film’s themes in vivid detail, the scene climaxes with a puzzling moment Mitchell describes with measured confidence and candor.


“You meet James…who is sucking his own dick. It’s kind of comic but there’s this element of poignancy there, too. Who is someone in their 30s who would try that? Why is he trying to be self-sufficient at this point, to self-fertilize? And then burst into tears? That is my way of introducing the character. Sex can be used as metaphor.”

Therein lays the workings of Mitchell’s unique genius. It’s the standard assumption that inter-character relationships are meant to reveal and reflect the themes of a given film, but to comment upon the human condition through a character’s relationship with him or herself is another level of artistic thinking altogether. Such a motif abounds in “Shortbus”’s eclectic ensemble.

Mechanically, the film is a dissection of community, largely the result of collaboration and improvisation from amateur thespians. It looks at individual and group reality through the lens of sex, detailing an array of characters Mitchell is quick to admit ultimately represented various facets of his own personality.

“There’s a part of me that’s like a stalker,” he admits. “There’s a part of me that’s like a non-orgasmic woman who can’t connect. And I’ve had a part of me that feels like I’ll never be with anyone. But everyone sort of brought their own stuff to it and I just directed it.”

He continues: “We started working on it in 2003, which was when we had our website with our mission statement and our audition to send tapes. It was open call. We avoided agents. [We were looking for] people who could work in an improvisational way, who were smart, who were funny, who were charismatic in some way, a diversity of sexuality and gender.”


The result was a meaningful interface of creative input, one the director found quite different from the experience of his first major creation.

“‘Hedwig’ was kind of developed gig by gig,” he explains, “sort of a solo show with a composer. ‘Shortbus’ was through improv, borrowing a page from Mike Leigh and John Cassavettes. I’d love to work with a very tightly-honed script and very virtuosic actors next time. I’d like to do an opera some day. I’d love to write a novel, make an album. I like to work in a lot of different ways and I love to keep it diverse.”

Set in the culturally booming setting of New York City, “Shortbus” also makes light of our society’s post-9/11 consciousness. One line that sticks out is “You’re taking a picture of yourself at Ground Zero. Do you smile?” It’s a delicate stick and move that actually speaks modestly to what Mitchell describes as President Bush’s favorite weapon: fear. And wrapped up in the natural reaction to what has been considered by many to be an emotionally oppressive regime, Mitchell identifies another pitfall altogether.

“Cynicism seems to be the currency of the day,” he begins, “especially in such a weird, ‘Bush-whacked’ country. It’s like the only comfort some intelligent people have is cynicism, and certainly humor, but kind of a fatalistic humor where you’re powerless and you think nothing’s going to change, which is just as dangerous. I think there are incredible cultural critics today who point out the absurdity brilliantly – ‘The Daily Show,’ Steven Colbert – but the odd thing is there are not a lot of people presenting alternatives. Though our film has a very small audience and doesn’t provide solutions to problems, it provides perhaps a way of thinking that makes sense, which isn’t based on fear, and which is based on this understanding that we all ‘get it in the end,’ in many ways, and we’re all in the same boat.”

Through a delicate assembly of organic ensemble interaction, Mitchell makes his points of love and acceptance, emotional necessity and the power of discourse at every step of the way. From his vantage point, there is hope in community, however one chooses to define it.


“All of these characters are heroes, in a way,” he declares, “because they’re trying to connect. Those who don’t try, those who hide away behind their technology are ultimately not people I’d want to share a drink with. It’s like all this technology that is meant to connect us seems to separate us and just create another shield. The advantage of growing up a sexual minority is you can see there’s surface and then there’s what really is there. You understand metaphor at a younger age because you had to hide something. So art naturally is a refuge for sexual minorities, and all minorities, really, because you’re an outsider and you see it from the outside point of view: satire. Oscar Wilde, Dave Chappelle, all these people have an outsider’s point of view, which is the artist’s point of view.”

There is a murmur of concern in the already growing positive critical assessment of “Shortbus” that the film will struggle to find an audience. Leaving alone the effort a true independent film has to make to stay above water in this era of faux indie excursions fronted by “dependent” arms of major studios, the sheer sexual intensity of the film will keep many at arms length sight unseen. Mitchell seems to understand his film’s place, however, with somewhat minimal concern for his film’s ultimate fate in the vast marketplace.

“I try to have low expectations,” he offers. “There are some people who didn’t like ‘Hedwig.’ Some people won’t like this. Some people won’t like it because of the sex, and some won’t like it because it’s soft-hearted. It’s pretty warm and fuzzy compared to most films. But from my point of view it’s an awareness of gender and sexuality being things that unite and divide us and the humor that comes from that. It’s ultimately a boring thing, your sexuality – inherently neutral and kind of dull. It’s what you do with it that’s interesting.”

September 28, 2006



“Eye candy” at the movieplex is increasingly becoming more and more dazzling, attempting to attract an audience on spectacle alone. And of all the “technical” aspects of the filmmaking medium, the arena of visual effects is perhaps the only discipline upon which a studio would try to sell a film outright.

Visual effects work is also becoming more and more expensive, sometimes taking twice as long as physical production to implement. And yet, while the work of an entire team of individuals goes into creating the visual effects of a given motion picture, only four members of the crew are ultimately eligible to share an Academy Award nomination when the time comes.


September 26, 2006

Foreign Film Predictions

I've finally settled on a list of foreign language film predictions, which you'll find in the sidebar. No chart yet, but as always, check out Nathaniel's coverage of the race at The Film Experience for thorough analysis.

9/25 Oscar Charts


No column this week. Nothing to write about (other than more discussion on the brilliance of "The Departed") and not enough moving and shaking to really get into anything with meat on it. However, the real issue this week and last seems to be the generally overwhelming response to "The Last King of Scotland," a film Fox Searchlight is really starting to see as a Best Picture contender.

This is the other end of the spectrum from "Little Miss Sunshine," yes, but the typical PR machinery on Kevin Macdonald's searing effort thus far has been smooth sailing. When you've got Oprah raving about the film, Cate Blanchett shouting its praises to buddy Brad Pitt, guild audiences feeling shaken to the core from the emotional turbulence of the film, and, not to mention, a visual marketing scheme that seems built for Oscar ads (imagine all that orange and red throughout one of Variety's special issues this fall) - let's just say there's a lot of potential there.

Anyway, more next week. I'll leave you with the charts:

Main Category Charts
Technical Category Charts
Oscar Predictions Archive
"The Contenders"

Previous Oscar Columns:
09/18/06 - "Aftermath"
09/11/06 - "It's All Happening."
09/04/06 - "Aw, Canucks."
08/28/06 - "On Your Marks..."
08/14/06 - "Enough Foreplay!"
08/07/06 - "Don't Knock Masturbation; it's Sex with Someone I Love"
07/31/06 - "Old and New, the Oscar Season Approaches"

September 21, 2006

Finally, something on De Niro's "The Good Shepherd"

We're looking at a pretty solid trailer for Universal's supposed major Oscar candidate. As I've made mention of here, Eric Roth's screenplay is incredibly stale and flat with little reason to believe the material could be lifted off the page in any dynamic way. And trailers can, as we all know ("Pearl Harbor"), make films look much more fascinating than they are.

Test screening reviews on "The Good Shepherd" have been in line with my thoughts on the script, but ultimately, it is a powerful story that could be something special. But then there's that relocation of "Children of Men" to the end of the year, and not as much as a peep from those with vested interests in Oscar campaigns. I get nervous when no one's at least TRYING to spin me.




The 31st Annual Toronto International Film Festival was an exciting event that I thoroughly enjoyed covering for In Contention. Now we pick up the pieces and try to decipher the awards puzzle further. Many performances – from Peter O’Toole, Forest Whitaker, Kate Winslet, Penelope Cruz, Jackie Earle Haley, etc. – certainly have the makings of contenders in their categories and will get media exposure. But what of the technicians? Surely some of them are headed for nominations for their work on well-received titles from the festival, right?

Well, I wouldn’t personally bet on many.


September 20, 2006

"The Departed" (****)


One of the most artistically ruthless films to be produced in decades, “The Departed” is a spike of adrenaline straight to the heart of an audience desperately in need of such rambunctious filmmaking. A loose but paradoxically loyal remake of the Hong Kong thriller “Infernal Affairs,” the film is doused with a cast of familiar faces, each performer offering portrayals unique to anything in their respective repertoires. The script, tuned down to deafening perfection by screenwriter William Monahan, is as frenetic as director Martin Scorsese’s visual vernacular. And the atmosphere, molded by Scorsese as if he were twenty years younger, is as saturating and penetrating as one could hope for out of a freewheeling, balls-to-the-wall entry in the cops and robbers genre. This is truly one of the best films of the year.

Scorsese fell off his throne in the eyes of many when he began tackling epics like “Gangs of New York” and “The Aviator” in recent years. Some felt the fixture of 1970s cinema was chasing awards glory in earnest and therefore watering down his artistic capabilities. Still, those films have much more to offer than most viewers allow, affording dense portraits of 19th century America and the unraveling world of Howard Hughes respectively. But it admittedly goes without saying the director hasn’t been near the top of his game in well over a decade, and the worry was he might be slowing down. With “The Departed,” that line of thinking flies right out the window.

The story is one of deception and lies, the hardships of undercover life and the effect such particulars have on a human being. The heights Michael Mann was aiming for in “Miami Vice” in this regard are cleared with considerable comfort by Scorsese’s effort. Leonardo DiCaprio stars as William Costigan, a good kid from a working class family who hopes to make a difference in the Massachussetts State Police. But his superiors, Queenan (Martin Sheen) and Dignam (Mark Wahlberg), see through him immediately as just a kid playing the role of cop more so than living it. Undercover work in the Irish mafia, however, might be something up his alley. After all, deception seems to be one of his outstanding qualities.


Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon), meanwhile, is a young buck who was introduced to organized crime at an early age. Presented as a surrogate son to Irish crime lord Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson), Sullivan also rises quickly through the ranks of the Boston Police Academy. He is soon positioned as Costello’s mole on the inside, greasing the rails for the mob boss to live his evil and criminal life as he sees fit, without recourse or precaution.

As the film pushes forward at an unforgivable pace, each respective mole becomes cognizant of the other’s existence. The drama therefore introduces itself in the form of a race against odds (and in the most hair-raising of environments) for each to discover the other before their rapidly evaporating time expires. These are roles most actors spend a lifetime hoping to nail, but in “The Departed,” even the supporting elements are tough enough to chew and find significant flavor.

Alec Baldwin, for instance, continues to tap into a post-Kim Basinger era of confident, sleazy, yet somehow appealing portrayals as Ellerby, an officer in charge of the building case against Costello. Martin Sheen commands a father figure for DiCaprio’s Costigan with relative ease, while Mark Wahlberg sparks a curious foil to Sheen’s Queenan as a sharp-tongued Sergeant overseeing undercover operatives. Vera Farmiga adds another delicate and layered performance this year (along with work in Anthony Minghella’s “Breaking and Entering”) as Madolyn, a department psychiatrist who becomes involved with both Costigan and Sullivan. And Ray Winstone fits comfortably into the mold as Costello’s right-hand man Mr. French. But DiCaprio and Damon’s front-and-center portrayals are what the film hinges on.


Damon’s is a specific and moderately callous turn, one less merely villainous than it is antagonistic by necessity. DiCaprio’s performance as Costigan, meanwhile, might be his most accomplished to date, or at least closely rivaling his work in “The Aviator” two years ago. An actor consistently relegated to the “pretty boy” column, DiCaprio proves time and again that he is a performer capable of reaching certain emotional depths that others in his generation can’t quite claim for themselves. And though both of these performances are showcases for each actor, it’s still not enough to steal the show. If there is one thing audiences will be talking about regarding “The Departed” for years to come, it will be Jack Nicholson’s flagrant bloodlust and vicious insanity as Frank Costello.

Costello is the vilest of human occurrences, a truly despicable creature whose sole purpose in the world is to rail against the status quo and push his own boundaries as far as he can to get the maximum stretch out of life. As the character admits later on, “I haven’t needed the money since I took Archie’s milk money in the third grade. I haven’t needed p***y either, but I like it.”

Indeed, Costello is one of the true villains of the modern cinema, as morally filthy as he is fascinating. And Nicholson wallows in the role like he was born to wear it, savoring every feral gaze and relishing every blood-splattered grin. It might be his best work since “The Shining” 26 years ago, and a performance Academy voters are likely to eat right up like Ben Kingsely’s Don Logan in 2001’s “Sexy Beast.”


William Monahan’s erratic screenplay is enough to give anyone an anxiety attack, but Scorsese plays the thing like a fiddle. Utilizing a crew of usual suspects, the filmmaker finds the pulse of the tale in a hurry and never relents.

Thelma Schoonmaker deserves awards consideration for piecing together parallel narratives while still implementing the greatest of techniques scene after scene. Michael Ballhaus’s camera glides through each sequence and constructs time and space in a manner reminiscent of his work on “Goodfellas,” and most recently, Janusz Kaminski’s underappreciated efforts on Steven Spielberg’s “Munich.” And I can only hope theaters across the globe crank the volume up to the level it was at in the screening room on the Warner Bros. lot, because the soundscape of the film is as much a character in the tale as Costigan, Sullivan or Costello.

But the real story of “The Departed” has to be Scorsese’s reclamation of his former relentless ways. This is an effort that fills out a trilogy of sorts with “Mean Streets” and “Goodfellas,” further securing the director’s status as the greatest of urban film artists. What makes the accomplishment all the more appealing is the sense that Scorsese is a beast awakened, done with a slumber that appealed to some and still puzzled others. “The Departed” is crafted like he just recently discovered the medium of cinema and all its wondrous possibilities, fresh out of film school and desperate to express himself. It’s energizing just thinking about it.


And, like the best of Scorsese cinema, I expect “The Departed” could be largely ignored by the awards season outside of performance respect and potential craft consideration. But it really doesn’t matter what happens to the film in the approaching Oscar derby, does it? This is as hard boiled as filmmaking can get, and it proves a talented director still has more finesse and spirited determination than half the industry around him. So take note. An old dog can teach as many new tricks as he can learn.

September 19, 2006

Scorsese is on FIRE in "The Departed"

This should really go on The Blog, but screw it.

Jesus, the cars couldn't go fast enough on the way home. "The Departed" is a sharp jab to the sternum, an adrenaline rush that certainly has no equal in that regard this year, and I'd venture saying no film has delighted this much in ruthless artistic agression in decades. This is the jolt the greats of the 70s were riding high on. And it's just too easy to say this is Marty's best movie since "Goodfellas."

I've got to go - I don't know - sedate myself or something. I fell 10 feet tall and as if minutes are going by like seconds. I'll dish out a review tomorrow, after my brain goes through its inevitable withdrawal this evening and I begin to make sense of the night during tomorrow's already approaching artistic hangover.

What a film.

THINKfilm aiming for more than just Gosling on "Half Nelson"


Strong reviews for Ryan Gosling's amazing performance in "Half Nelson" are enough to give the actor serious consideration in this year's awards derby, especially with major players either taking their exits (Sean Penn, Ed Harris) or hoping to find traction in lesser products (Derek Luke). ThinkFilm has a major push in store for the actor, but the awards train doesn't look like it will stop there.

The team will also be hanging supporting actress hopes on Shareeka Epps, as well as the screenplay, written by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck. Worth mentioning here is that the duo's script is an ADAPTED screenplay, not an original. It was adapted to feature length from Boden and Fleck's Sundance award-winning short "Gowanus." Gosling did not appear in the short, though Epps did.

I think, with the right saturation, Gosling could certainly threaten this nomination. Other arenas might be a stretch, but it is most important for voters to actually SEE the film. Critical response is insular in and of itself and in cases such as this, it does nothing for a film other than install confidence in the studio pushing the product. So...it's a good start.

September 18, 2006

Jim Carrey going to CAA?


We don't cover a lot of breaking news around these parts that doesn't pertain to the awards season, but hey, exceptions are out there to be had.

As you know, actor Jim Carrey left his 15 year commitment with UTA on Thursday, following the disintegration of two of his higher-profile projects: Jay Roach's "Used Guys" and Tim Burton's "Believe It or Not." It isn't a shock that his departure would launch a frenzy to land the actor at one of the other fiercly competitive firms, and CAA might seem the obvious bet. Well, I don't know when we can expect an announcement, but I can confirm that Carrey has been meeting with agents at the monolith agency as recently as this evening at their soon to be vacated Wilshire premises (that new building in Century City looks like something out of the land of Oz). Anyway, more than likely, we're looking at another major get for a company that has a gruesome stranglehold on much of this town's talent.

As for Carrey's career prospects from here, it's probably a good idea to have jumped ship. It's true, he has had major box office success ("Bruce Almighty") and critical acclaim ("Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind") in recent years, but it's time for the actor to experience some sort of consistency, one would think. Carrey has and has had the chops to be a serious actor for some time. He'll always be a box office draw when the project is right, but the lack of prestigious material coming his way (or otherwise falling apart) is enough to make anyone reconsider their loyalties. UTA will always be the firm that launched his successful career. Perhaps his next representation can help take him to that next level.

Pass it on...



In the wake of a somewhat uneventful Toronto Film Festival, we take away from the festivities more in the way of buzz amongst various opinions than we do from actual awards bestowed. “Bella” snagged the People’s Choice award Saturday afternoon, but it doesn’t really speak to what we’re hearing elsewhere. In the end, Hollywood has successfully utilized the festival for the fall awards campaign – an industry of manipulation.

The biggest boost comes for actor Peter O’Toole, whose performance in “Venus” is largely considered lower rung for the infamous thespian, but still viewed as good enough to finally hand him an acting Oscar after seven misfires. O’Toole’s situation seems interestingly reminiscent of Paul Newman’s in the mid-80s. After receiving an Honorary Oscar in 1985, Newman took home the leading man win for one of his lesser turns in Martin Scorsese’s “The Color of Money.”

Next up is Forest Whitaker, whose earth-shattering portrayal in “The Last King of Scotland” had heads spinning in Telluride a full week before doing the same thing to festival-goers in Toronto. The film has been whispered as a personal favorite for many Toronto attendees, and deservingly so. Perhaps from here Fox Searchlight can feel out other arenas they might find recognition for the film.


A few films had a rough time, only one of them dying outright (“All the King’s Men”). “Bobby” was whispered as largely disliked by a bunch of people who didn’t commit anything to print, so we’re left with In Contention (positive), Emanuel Levy (positive), Tom O’Neil (positive), trade reviews (positive) and a sing-song recap (negative) for the film’s published reaction. From here, who knows where the road will take the film? It regardless has the potential to tap into the baby boomer set and fight its way, with Harvey Weinstein artillery, to a Best Picture nomination.

Elsewhere, “Volver” strangely found Best Picture buzz. Considering the film isn’t near the league of past foreign language Best Picture nominees, I think it’s a stretch to go that far. Though Penelope Cruz’s buzz has certainly spiked and she remains part of a fierce six-woman fight for a five slot race.

“Catch a Fire” also premiered, a film long-touted on this site as a Best Picture contender based on hopes for pedigree and subject matter alone. Well, the reaction was a positive one (and how couldn’t it be in that environment), but the film is a little too unraveled to be a real Best Picture possibility. Derek Luke’s fantastic portrayal has a fighting chance, but it’s an uphill battle that finally gives me the opportunity to look elsewhere for Best Actor potential.


All of this you know quite well. So what can we say from here?

I’m venturing some guesses in my predictions this week, laying a bet on Ryan Gosling, for instance, looking better and better as contenders like Sean Penn, Ed Harris and Derek Luke seemingly take their exits.

Ben Affleck gets a big surge of hope in the supporting actor arena, considered a threat in the race around these parts for the better part of two months.

And with a Best Picture lineup remaining interestingly elusive, maybe Paramount can slam three nominees home after all. “Babel” continues a route of raves that give (and have given) plenty of reason to bow to its potential in the big race.


Now, we await the next wave of films. “The Good German,” “The Good Shepherd,” “The Prestige” and “The Departed” all come knocking in the coming months. Who knows what they will do to affect the landscape, but I’m beginning to get the feeling the awards race of 2006 will be largely dependant on pre-season potential.

An Oscar season becomes about taking away more so than adding to the mixture. Though Toronto and Telluride have been somewhat uneventful, they have succeeded in removing elements from the canvas. This time of year really is about slowly revealing the picture underneath. So let’s see what gets pealed away next.

(I'd like to thank Gerard for his accomplished and unique coverage of Toronto. Now get some sleep, kiddo.)

Main Category Charts
Technical Category Charts
Oscar Predictions Archive
"The Contenders"

Previous Oscar Columns:
09/11/06 - "It's All Happening."
09/04/06 - "Aw, Canucks."
08/28/06 - "On Your Marks..."
08/14/06 - "Enough Foreplay!"
08/07/06 - "Don't Knock Masturbation; it's Sex with Someone I Love"
07/31/06 - "Old and New, the Oscar Season Approaches"

September 16, 2006

In Contention's Festival Wrap-Up


Telluride, Venice and Toronto have come and gone. Gerard wraps some things up today with thoughts on Toronto's movers and shakers as well as a personal look back.

It looks like "Bella" was the recipient of the People's Choice Award, which means nothing in the awards season scheme of things. Beyond that, no other award given really is worth talking about and Toronto has proven, once again, to be a buzz-starting (or killing) machine for a Hollywood community looking to gear up its Oscar campaigns. More people will continue talking about the buzz on Peter O'Toole, Penelope Cruz and Forest Whitaker than will be chatting up "Bella." Sad but true, this festival has been taken over by those with ulterior motives. I mean, a few sales took place, people. And no...one...seems...to...care. What a business.

Back tomorrow with a frsh Oscar column taking it all into account. In the meantime, here's a quick recap of the festival films we've looked at over the last couple of weeks:

"All the King's Men" (Kennedy **)

"All the King's Men" (Tapley **1/2)

"Babel" (Tapley ****)

"Bella" (Kennedy ***)

"Black Book" (Kennedy **1/2)

"Bobby" (Kennedy **1/2)

"Bobby" (Tapley ***1/2)

"Breaking and Entering" (Kennedy ***1/2)

"Breaking and Entering" (Tapley ***1/2)

"Catch a Fire" (Kennedy **1/2)

"Catch a Fire" (Tapley **)

"For Your Consideration" Part 1 and Part 2 (Kennedy ***1/2)

"The Fountain" (Kennedy **)

"A Good Year" (Kennedy **)

"Hollywoodland" (Tapley ***)

"Infamous" (Kennedy ***)

"The Last King of Scotland" (Kennedy ****)

"The Last King of Scotland" (Tapley ****)

"Little Children" (Kennedy ***1/2)

"Little Children"(Tapley **1/2)

"The Queen" (Tapley ***1/2)

"Shortbus" (Tapley ****)

"Stranger Than Fiction" (Tapley ****)

"Venus" (Kennedy **1/2)

"Volver" (Kennedy ***)

"Volver" (Tapley ***)

"The Wind That Shakes the Barley" (Kennedy ***)

September 15, 2006

"Catch a Fire" (**)


Phillip Noyce has made a relatively stealthy career of tackling political subject matter without being a blatant mouthpiece for the issues with which he sides. Endeavors like “Patriot Games” and “Clear and Present Danger” approached agendas from a more entertaining standpoint, both being based on Tom Clancy best sellers. Meanwhile, “The Quiet American” and “Rabbit-Proof Fence” were more specific and cultured in their perspectives of Vietnam and Australia respectively. Now the director takes on the South African atrocity that was Apartheid in “Catch a Fire,” a film that seems too boiled down and ultimately resembling the shell of something much greater.

“Catch a Fire” is the true-life story of Patrick Chamusso (Derek Luke), an oil refinery worker who witnessed a political awakening when his family was violated by government-sanctioned terror squads in 1980. Misunderstanding him as a political enemy, the government created in Chamusso what they wrongly feared he might have been from the start: a driven and violent opponent of their racist regime. Under the guise “Hotstuff,” Chamusso joined a legion of freedom fighters led by collaborator Joe Slovo and wreaked havoc on the refinery that once employed him. He was eventually apprehended and served ten years of a 25-year sentence, finally gaining passage back to his country when Apartheid disintegrated in 1991.

The story is obviously a grand and epic one, yet the screenplay by Shawn Slovo (daughter of Joe), seems to be aiming for much more majesty than it ultimately reaches. “Catch a Fire” actually feels like the first two acts of something larger and more cultivated, while various characterizations lie contradictory on the page.

Nic Vos (Tim Robbins), for instance, is an immediate paradox. Vos is presented as the anti-terrorist agent responsible for Chamusso’s apprehension. In the beginning, Slovo attempts to place a sympathetic face on Vos, a man who supposedly sees his prey as human beings above and beyond terrorists. Early scenes with his family reveal Vos as the diplomatic sort. But as the narrative moves forward, the screenplay takes the easy route and Vos winds up considered a two-dimensional “monster,” in the words of Luke’s narration in the denouement. The result is a rather unbelievable character all around.


Chamusso’s wife, Precious (Bonnie Henna), also feels ill conceived as a woman ultimately pitted against her husband and responsible for turning him into authorities. This honest and human frailty doesn’t come across, and a simple “I’m sorry” in the end, even matched with the power of Chamusso’s own personal apology for past wrongs and dishonesty, does not feel satisfying in the least bit.

Noyce does make a number of directorial choices that are interesting, however. There are many moments equally promising in majesty and purpose that feel like portions of another movie entirely, building suspense with creative editing and thematic resilience. He utilizes Ron Fortunado’s camera in specific and unique ways as well, capturing performances from striking perspectives with surprising style. But on the whole, the director’s creativity seems oddly stifled.

As for performances, Tim Robbins feels terribly miscast in an underwritten role, while Bonnie Henna handles her own half-baked responsibility with a delicate ease. But Derek Luke is the real shining grace of the cast, proving that he is still one of the cinema’s best-kept secrets, waiting for a pivotal role in a special project that will place him on the A-list. His layered and emotional portrayal of Chamusso lives and breathes on the screen as an efficacious representation, and likely the film’s solitary hope for film awards attention this year.

If anything can be said of Slovo’s debut screenwriting effort, it is that she does a fine job of presenting a political awakening and qualifying that transition throughout. Chamusso is a well-rounded character who has a very specific and thematic arc. But beyond her main character, the writer seems to push through the tale with reckless abandon, leaving a definite sense of want. The script is certainly a labor of love, being based on recollections passed to Slovo from her father (to whom the film is dedicated). But labors of love can all too often blind the artistic eye to further potential or necessary restraint. Such is the case with “Catch a Fire.”

September 14, 2006


The Toronto International Film Festival is hopefully clearing up the approaching film awards season. I’m at the festival right now, so stay up to speed on my thoughts as we continue to sort things out. This is usually the hour when some films fail, others stand out and awards watchers are charged with separating the hype from the reality.

As the madness continues around me, I thought I’d take a moment to step back from the festival and make mention of several candidates few seem to be considering this year – or at least not considering seriously. I strongly suspect a number of them could be major contenders in the technical races.

Here are ten.


September 13, 2006

Gerard gathers the buzz on the street in Toronto

It seems he's looking to "Away From Her" or "The Lives of Others" for the People's Choice award. Elsewhere, mostly positive stuff for "Babel," Forest Whitaker and Peter O'Toole.

Check it out: "Attempting to Get a Vibe"

Also worth mentioning, Bonnie Mbuli is apparently credited as Bonnie Henna in Phillip Noyce's "Catch a Fire." It seems to be a screen name she has adapted.

September 12, 2006

"Easily the best film of the festival."


Attempting to capture history on screen is something that is seemingly done all the time. Even when the result is something worthy of its subject and/or manages to entertain, seldom are such films original or any more effective than dozens of other historical dramas produced in any one year. When a movie comes along that actually does something different within this broad genre – while also managing to be gripping, suspenseful, powerful and socially relevant – it’s truly a treat to see. “The Last King of Scotland” is such a film.

Gerard on "The Last King of Scotland" (from Toronto)


September 11, 2006

It's All Happening


Things might be moving slowly up in Toronto for the festivalgoers, but some movement is taking place in the awards race nonetheless. Let’s run through the laundry list and get back to festival buzz.

So Clint Eastwood’s “Letters from Iwo Jima” gets December 2006 positioning after all. Great idea from an artistic standpoint, bad idea from an awards marketing standpoint. The thing is, “Letters” gets its domestic distribution out of Warner Bros., staring at a lone Steven Soderbergh black and white thriller for its awards destiny (which, on paper, seems like it should be enough). And Edward Zwick’s “The Blood Diamond” just doesn’t look like Oscar material. “Letters” isn’t set up with Paramount, so the decision isn’t really theirs to make. At the end of the day, an ambitious decision by one studio could be disastrous for both.

If either of Eastwood’s Iwo Jima films has a shot at a Best Picture nomination, it’s “Flags of Our Fathers.” A quick glance at the history of Best Picture nominated foreign language films will tell the tale there. “Letters” was just the insurance for as much, originally slated to drop in January, right in the middle of the awards flurry. Now, who knows what the double bill will ultimately yield? Maybe there will be no effect, but there is obvious vote-splitting potential with such a scenario.

Moving on, Peter O’Toole keeps receiving unanimous praise for his performance in Roger Michell’s “Venus.” We’re looking at a stone cold Best Actor winner, folks, because nothing else seems as novel in the year’s leading man race than finally awarding Peter O’Toole with a REAL Oscar. His stiffest competition will come from Forest Whitaker if the Academy has any real response to the brilliant “The Last King of Scotland,” but most likely Will Smith’s sentimental, aged performance as a burdened father in “The Pursuit of Happyness” will put up the most fight.


Next on the list, Ben Affleck took the win for Best Actor way over at the Venice Film Festival. His performance in “Hollywoodland” is his most accomplished to date, but this win still surprised the masses. Now we’ve got the makings of a campaign, and if the smart money stays on a supporting bid (which everyone seems to be on that page at Focus), then Affleck has a clearer trajectory than he did a week ago. The film has been well received on the whole, kind of a pleasant late-summer surprise for most.

Meanwhile, it’s all about the films. I feel like I’m seeing a good movie every other day lately, and that really is encouraging considering the final few big guns have yet to reveal themselves. Masterful outings thus far from Anthony Minghella, John Cameron Mitchell, Kevin Macdonald, Marc Forster and Stephen Frears, among numerous others, are making this a season worth becoming exhausted over; I really can’t say it enough.

Some quick commentary on the charts’ goings-on

Tobey Maguire is the big mover and shaker in the supporting ranks this week, catching a buzz wave recently, likely generated by publicists doing their jobs, but hey, where there’s smoke…


Also in the supporting chart, Ben Affleck gets re-upped to the predicted five. Now I’m wishing I’d have left him in there all along rather than pulling him back a week ago. Ah well, peaks and valleys, peaks an valleys.

Peter O’Toole, of course, also gets a big boost. And in lieu of the disastrous critical response to “All the King’s Men,” Sean Penn’s descent gives me the chance to move Jude Law up the Best Actor ranks as well. However, it’s difficult to expect the Academy to justly reward beautiful subtlety. And Penn has forced his way into a race before with a too-much performance in a critically panned film (“I Am Sam”).

Juliette Binoche explodes onto the Best Supporting Actress chart again this week, this time with reason. Her delicate and driven portrayal in “Breaking and Entering” is the stuff of awards glory. We’ll see how the campaign shakes out, as the Weinstein’s will have their supporting category hands full with “Bobby.”


The only chart that really seems to be firmed up is Best Actress. Those ten ladies look like what the category is down to, but it’s a fierce competition after that. I’d say my top six in the field are really down in the mud, with the other four ladies observing from the sidelines, waiting to make their move.

The only final thing to report, which went unmentioned beyond chart citations last week, is in the Best Original Song category. Paramount Vantage is pretty stoked about the Melissa Etheridge number, “I Need to Wake Up,” from the closing credits of “An Inconvenient Truth.” Meanwhile, the Weinsteins have high hopes for a Bryan Adams/Aretha Franklin ballad that will close “Bobby” (which is being screened as a “work in progress” at the Toronto and Venice Film Festivals). I’d expect both songs to join at least one of the original “Dreamgirls” numbers in the eventual lineup of tunes.

That’s all for now. Back to the festival. Stay up to speed with our Toronto coverage. Gerard’s feeling the pain this week, I have no doubt.

Main Category Charts
Technical Category Charts
Oscar Predictions Archive
"The Contenders"

Previous Oscar Columns:
09/04/06 - "Aw, Canucks."
08/28/06 - "On Your Marks..."
08/14/06 - "Enough Foreplay!"
08/07/06 - "Don't Knock Masturbation; it's Sex with Someone I Love"
07/31/06 - "Old and New, the Oscar Season Approaches"

September 10, 2006

Keep Track with Gerard

Hopefully you're all enjoying Gerard's Toronto coverage. So far all the buzz is on Peter O'Toole's performance in "Venus." The guy is heading for an Oscar. I think things might just be that firmed up.

Elsewhere, "Volver" and "The Wind That Shakes the Barley" have gotten positive notices from our writer. Not so much on Ridley Scott's "A Good Year."

And of course, we'll get a lot of reactions to "All the King's Men" tonight. I found some room to forgive it. David Poland constructed a curious pan that is more about what the film isn't than about what the film is. And Jeffrey Wells threw back a few glasses of champagne, marched into the screening and expected to stay awake. Not the most professional thing in the world to attempt to write up a review after viewing a film in that state, but hey, dislike is dislike, so chalk him up for a hater.

Stay tuned for more coverage of the fest here at In Contention.


"Breaking and Entering" (***1/2)


Anthony Minghella’s “Breaking and Entering” is one of the most sincerely penetrating films of the year. It’s most unique quality is the sense of legroom it provides, a healthy stretch of a film with deep breaths and drawn out considerations, as opposed to the typical anxiety of temperamental manipulation (which all film tends to be by nature). The film cannot be approached by the director’s past offerings, most of them over-reaching in their intentions and ultimately short of greatness as a result. “Breaking and Entering” is not a masterpiece, but it certainly treads such waters as an honest and tangible portrayal of mid-life confusion and crisis.

In the film, Jude Law stars as Will, a London architect and head of a somewhat unorthodox household. He lives with his girlfriend of ten years, Liv (Robin Wright Penn), yet they remain unmarried. The two are at that point in a relationship when the boredom of familiarity has finally given way to something else, something utterly lacking and altogether confusing. Together, Will and Liv have raised Liv’s daughter, Beatrice (Poppy Rogers), a behaviorally dysfunctional teenager very representative of the trauma Will and Liv’s emotional schism has imposed on the family.

Will’s company has recently set up new office space in a seedy district of London. After receiving a large shipment of computer components, the office is burglarized one night by a team of acrobatic youngsters. One such child is Miro (Rafi Gavron), a Bosnian refugee living with his mother, Amira (Juliette Binoche). Miro lost his father before fleeing his homeland, and his own story is not an unfamiliar one, one of longing and despair manifested in his getting himself into frequent trouble with the authorities. He now thieves for his dead father’s brother, perhaps to keep some sort of touch with his former, all but forgotten life.


Amira, meanwhile, is as sick with worry as one can imagine. Making ends meet as a seamstress, she frequently expresses disgust with Miro’s extracurricular choices, but overshadowing that disappointment is an unwavering love for her child. Binoche’s more playful scenes with Gavron are the emotional center of the film, representative of a spirited devotion and affection that seems missing from Will’s life, and a sham if ever apparent therein.

After a series of such robberies, Will begins staking out the building with partner Sandy (Martin Freeman) and an inquisitive prostitute, Oana (a humorous and insightful Vera Farmiga). He finally catches Miro in the act one night, and in chasing him he follows the boy to his home. There Will encounters, from a distance, Amira and her concern for her son. The moment is the beginning of an emotional whirlwind that will become increasingly confusing before clarity will be restored. Will ultimately engages in an affair with Amira, perhaps searching for love as he later will claim to Liv, but more likely discovering a void to fill, one he cannot seem to fill at home.

“Breaking and Entering” is an awakening experience. At its core, the film is about honesty. It is about being truthful to yourself, your needs, your desires, your love, your family and your impulses. Will is a man turned around and without direction. His confusion is not his fault, nor is it his family’s. It is our very nature to search out our boundaries and our limitations. It is also our very nature to seek assurance in where we find ourselves. In that light, “Breaking and Entering” has much in common with Todd Field’s “Little Children.” Both films speak to mid-life indecision and discomfort, and both films weave tales of lost souls finding their way back to their life roles.


Jude Law’s performance as Will might be the greatest performance of the year. It is a textured and nuanced turn that has a blistering emotional veracity. I would perhaps go so far as to call it his best work to date, but his is still a resume bursting with diverse portrayals throughout. In “Breaking and Entering,” however, Law has tapped into the leading man potential he has only threatened in efforts such as “Cold Mountain” and the phenomenal “Closer.”

Juliette Binoche is appropriately self-aware and headstrong in her performance as Amira. Driven yet still full of the youth she had ripped from her through tragedy, Amira is an extremely interesting creation and a vibrantly unique character. No one has carried across beautiful and tired so capably since Meryl Streep in “The Bridges of Madison County.” She also works quite beautifully off of the balanced anxiety and mother love of Rafi Gavron’s performance.

Elsewhere, Ray Winstone turns in a cheeky performance as investigating CID officer Bruno, while Martin Freeman’s brief stint as Sandy is further proof he deserves more roles with meat on them. Poppy Rogers has some integral scenes as Beatrice, but if there is a weak link in the cast, it pains me to say it might be Robin Wright Penn. Some may find her emotional recoil fitting and appropriate, but something about the performance feels as though the actress doesn’t fully understand her character. The work recalls Patrick Wilson’s ambivalence in “Little Children.”


The technical aspects of the film deserve accreditation of the highest order, most especially Gabriel Yared’s piano-infused original score and Benoît Delhomme’s subdued cinematography. Each element goes toward making the piece a truly unique experience, and certainly a unique Minghella experience.

“Breaking and Entering” really feels like Anthony Minghella’s most personal and convincingly sincere film yet. It boasts a lived-in quality making it feel like a story the writer/director has been playing over and over again in his head, perfecting every glance and sigh, tuning every emotional pitch to tonal superiority. From an opening shot bleeding subtext and sporting an initial narration more enlightening than most, it is a film and, more importantly, a screenplay, that commands respect and appreciation. In a year exploding with accomplished filmmaking, “Breaking and Entering” fits right in.

September 09, 2006

Affleck Back in the Oscar Derby


So apparently Ben Affleck has taken the award for Best Actor at the Venice Film Festival for his career-best performance as George Reeves in "Hollywoodland." Great news. The performance is one of the best of the year and a knock out when you consider the caliber of work the actor has put out for the past six or seven years.

I pulled my initial July punch recently and took the actor out of my Best Supporting Actor predictions, but this might be the jolt he needed to really jump into the game. And truly, anyone who hasn't been taking his chances seriously has been out to lunch because this is a hell of a show from the 34 year old Affleck.

The problem for Focus Features now becomes categorization. No doubt the studio is going to want to pursue a lead actor spot for Affleck, especially after this victory. But with "Catch a Fire" and Derek Luke to take care of, the smart money still lies on a Supporting Actor campaign. The idea from day one was that "Hollywoodland" is an Adrien Brody vehicle first. Prove it now, and don't get greedy...there's a real shot at getting Affleck in the door here.

Mini Reviews, Mid-Toronto

As the Toronto Film Festival charges forward, a few ends have been left untied here at In Contention. Basically, there are a number of films I’ve been meaning to comment on but have kind of stock-piled for a large exodus from my critical mind. This afternoon I thought I’d go ahead and clear the plate.

“All the King’s Men” (**½)


Robert Penn Warren’s classic tale of political corruption has long been considered a staple of American literature. And when you talk to political consultant-turned executive producer James Carville, you can feel his passion for a story he's always wanted to faithfully transfer to the screen. Robert Rossen’s somewhat free-wheeling stab at adapting the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel in 1949 was a triumphant experience for the times, but registers flatly in hindsight.

Writer/director Steven Zaillian’s version (premiering tomorrow night in Toronto) is much closer to the text than Rossen’s incarnation, yet it still leaves a number of elements to be desired. Performances stand out immediately as aspects half-realized, most especially Jude Law’s turn in the pivotal role of Jack Burden. Sean Penn’s wild mannerisms supposedly mirror former Louisiana governor Huey Long (on whom Willie Stark was based), but they seem to do him a disservice on the screen.

On the whole, in fact, the film seems to reflect Penn’s histrionics, conveying it’s themes with a sledgehammer, from striking (if beautiful) shots full of subtext to James Horner’s unforgiving (yet sure to be Oscar nominated) original score. However, fleeting moments of true visual artistry, combined with an insatiable respect for the written word present in Zaillian’s meticulous work on the page, offer the opportunity to forgive the film it’s otherwise self-stalling flaws.

“Fast Food Nation” (*½)


Eric Schlosser’s penetrating journalistic effort does not seem to work as drama. Adapted to the screen and directed by busy bee Richard Linklater, the film does a fine job of carrying across a number of the atrocities revealed in Schlosser’s account of the fast food industry, but the means are at times quite pedestrian coming from such an acclimated screenwriter.

Performances in the film range from reaching (Greg Kinnear) to self-aware (Ethan Hawke). However, Oscar nominee Catalina Sandino Moreno follows through on the promise of “Maria Full of Grace” with a subtle, powerhouse turn that will likely be overshadowed by the film’s various failures. If only she’d make more movies.

Schlosser’s novel may have been a New York Times best seller, but there are still plenty of people this information needs to reach. If the lacking film adaptation has anything going for it, it is that the medium offers so much more exposure than literature. If more and more people become aware to the sickening and typically criminal goings-on within an industry that deserves to die, then it really is all for the best.

“Half Nelson” (***)


Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s feature filmmaking debut is a slightly pretentious piece of work, but it at the very least retains a unique quality in both stylistic approach and thematic narrative that keep it highly interesting. For many it will be the indie experience of the year, but the film spirals into repetition and aimlessness far too often to be considered a stellar initial outing.

HOWEVER, Ryan Gosling’s performance as a flawed and directionless teacher is pitch-perfect – one of the year’s most exciting stories. Hiding on the periphery of major acclaim since a stirring turn opposite fellow budding star Rachel McAdams in “The Notebook,” Gosling really seems poised to be a commodity following what should be considered one of the finest performances of the year.

Holding her own opposite Gosling’s acclaimed portrayal is Shareeka Epps, a valuable find this year in the young actors’ crowd (along with “Akeelah and the Bee”’s Keke Palmer). Epps’s mixture of tenacity and world-weariness is nearly as explosive as her co-star’s recipe for brilliance, making for, ultimately, one of the most vibrant on-screen relationships of the year.

“Shortbus” (****)


I’d love to dedicate a full review to John Cameron Mitchell’s fascinating masterpiece, but I believe I’d do a disservice to it after spending 1,200 words qualifying the effort. There are few words to describe something so audacious, yet so artistically sound, and if anything is announced with authority by this film it is Mitchell’s undeterred understanding of a medium to which he is still quite new.

“Hedwig and the Angry Inch” was a colorful transition from the stage to the screen for Mitchell. His latest effort takes broad leads from his theater experience, actually, but it is inherently cinematic from the get-go. Ultimately a beautiful representation of love for love’s sake, the film works far below the surface. Once critical eyes make it past the graphic sexuality of the film, that desensitization becomes a specific point of intent for the filmmaker.

The story was sculpted by the actors as much as by Mitchell’s screenplay and the encouraged improvisations where characters are concerned really make the film an organic experience. Performances across the board are pretty much flawless, but Paul Dawson and Sook-Yin Lee truly steal the show. One of the best films of the year.

“Volver” (***)


Pedro Almodóvar lives in a world of his own design, and truly, thank God for that. In his latest, “Volver,” the auteur takes a dash of intrigue and a sizeable helping of feminine perspective (which he seems capable of tapping into at will) to create a colorful, entertaining, delectably scattered piece of work.

The film is ultimately about understanding the necessities of our lives and those ever-present holes that can only be filled by those we love and miss. But breaking it down further would be dishonest, as “Volver” works less in the mind than it does in the heart. Almodóvar paints a portrait of women dependant, yes. But strikingly, he does so in a manner that represents them less as weak than as heroines as a result.

Penélope Cruz offers a sexy and riveting portrayal, her finest outing to date (it seems a number of thespians are putting their best foot forward this year). Her sultry vixen sizzles on the screen, and yet she still conveys an everywoman for us to care for throughout. Filling out the up-front trinity, Lola Dueñas (as Cruz’s awkward sister) and Carmen Maura (as a mother eerily re-entering the lives of her daughters) make for a delicious ensemble in this, one of the more unique and unclassifiable film-going experiences of the year.

"Stranger Than Fiction" (****)


Marc Forster’s “Stranger Than Fiction” really ought to be referred to as Zach Helm’s “Stranger Than Fiction.” While the “Finding Neverland” helmer does a sensational job conveying the brilliant and elaborate story to the screen, it is evident throughout that the writer’s intentions are being taken care of. And thank God for that, because Helm’s creation is ultimately one of the most potent, meaningful and literarily astute pieces of screenwriting in the medium.

It might seem obvious that comparisons to Charlie Kaufman are in store for Helm and the resulting film. It is true that the screenwriter reaches for certain human and social truths via his creatively unorthodox approach, much like Kaufman has done in his most recognizable work. But Helm also tackles his themes in a paradoxically accessible manner that can speak to larger numbers and to even larger truths. With this debut feature, Helm has truly hit a grand slam.

In the film, Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) is an unspectacular IRS agent who lives each and every day by the book. He isn’t the sort to color outside the lines, if you follow. The world makes sense to him broken into a strict regimen inside his mind, a regimen that is so second nature it is almost appealing. He counts steps, brushes his teeth with a consistent amount of strokes each morning and keeps track of every second to spare via his handy wristwatch alarm. These peculiarities are hammered home through the educated, cheeky narration of some omniscient presence, and it seems like another simple tale of a man and his wholesome life. That is, until Harold becomes cognizant of the narration.


As it turns out, Harold is the main character in the latest novel from author Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson), whose voice provides the narration he hears day in and day out. Harold isn’t aware of this, of course. He just thinks he is losing his mind. The effect is merely annoying and diversionary for him to start, but Harold really begins to get nervous when the voice makes a passing comment on the foreshadowing of his “imminent death.”

In disarray, Harold seeks out the advice of a literary scholar, Dr. Jules Hibert (Dustin Hoffman). Dr. Hibert takes up the task of distinguishing what sort of story Harold is experiencing. Is it a comedy or is it a tragedy? Is he a specific figment of literary history or someone else? Is there a specific author behind the tale? Is Harold merely crazy?

Meanwhile, Harold has been given the task of auditing a feisty bohemian baker, Ana (Maggie Gyllenhaal). Discontent with “the man” and certainly not afraid to speak her mind, Ana is, if anything, Harold’s polar opposite: hip, tattooed, free-spirited and boisterous. He is, of course, immediately taken by her. And maybe he could do something about it if that pesky voice would just leave him alone. Or maybe hearing his seemingly aimless existence play out through mundane narration is the swift kick in the rear he needed to start living his life the way he wants to.


For much of the narrative, “Stranger Than Fiction” is about just that. It is about coloring OUTSIDE the lines and living life as you – not your schedule – see fit. When Harold meets Ana, he begins to find this perspective. And when he finally decides to do all the things he wanted to do in his life, “I want you” is all he can say to her that conveys what he really feels. It is a brief and ironic moment that cleverly speaks to the sexes’ tendency to play games through courtship. Who has time for such things – especially when your “imminent death” is upon you?

All of this is told parallel to Eiffel’s story. Suffering a terrible case of writer’s block and having been assigned an assistant, Penny (Queen Latifah), by her publisher, Eiffel can’t seem to figure out the best way to kill Harold Crick. She spends her days imagining automobile accidents and visiting hospital emergency wards, desperate for that spark of creativity that will ignite her novel’s conclusion. Eiffel is famous for killing people in her books, you see. More specifically, she is famous for killing people she has created as noble, admirable individuals you’d hate to see go. But perhaps the time has come for her to start doing things out of her typical order as well.

And that’s when “Stranger Than Fiction” treads breathtaking territory. What Helm’s screenplay does that takes it up a level in brilliance is present a third act that makes the film about something else entirely – something that almost flies in the face of the first two thirds of the story. It took two viewings to really grasp the importance of that shift in theme, and when it landed, it certainly had an impact.


In that final act, the film becomes a story about living for others as much as for yourself. Modest Christian symbolism, intended or otherwise, may or may not click with viewers (Eiffel sticks out as a deity capable of bestowing mercy on those who live unselfish lives), but regardless, Helm pieces together a story much denser than it would appear at an initial glance. Such is the mark of artistry that is welcome and rare.

The performances across the board are outstanding. Will Ferrell presents Harold Crick as his finest portrayal to date, as fittingly awkward as he can be moving. Maggie Gyllenhaal exudes a sexiness and charisma that plays fantastically off of Ferrell’s quirky charms. Dustin Hoffman seems born for the role of the dry-witted Dr. Hibert, and Emma Thompson’s hermitic author is at once peculiar and inspiring. Queen Latifah, though in something of a throwaway role, somehow still feels like the perfect choice for Penny.

Marc Forster, meanwhile, deserves a lot of credit for diversifying his directorial choices. He seems to be gravitating toward stories that have a certain warm center, which can be appealing or annoying (depending on the viewer). Helm’s screenplay is the most accomplished the director has worked with thus far, and he does a flawless job of putting the script on the screen without fuss and without unnecessary trademark.


“Stranger Than Fiction” will be about a number of different things for a number of different people. For some it will be about living life to the fullest. For others it will be about trusting your instincts and going after what you desire. For me, it is about recognizing the importance of the little things we encounter, day in and day out, that go toward creating the huge puzzle we spend most of our days trying to decipher. Life really is what happens when you’re making other plans.

September 08, 2006

Checking Out

I'm ducking out early today, but check back over the weekend for lots of reviews, short and long form, including John Cameron Mitchell's latest masterwork, Anthony Minghella's most accomplished outing to date, Steven Zaillian's uneven but purposeful literary adaptation and Marc Forster's home run (one I personally think Jeff Wells has missed the boat on), among others. Until then, keep an eye on Gerard's festival coverage, and enjoy the buzz!

September 07, 2006



Today marks the opening of the 31st Annual Toronto International Film Festival, which I will be covering for In Contention.

Every year, some films open here and fall flat while others start their expected Oscar campaigns. Still more start their runs out of nowhere. This is the hour when some films rise up, others fail and Oscar procrastinators are challenged with separating hype from reality. The technical races are no different from the so-called “major” races in this regard.

So let’s look at what I consider to be the ten biggest question marks of this year’s festival.

1. What is the fate of “All the King’s Men?”

This is possibly the biggest question mark of the festival. Despite having a star-studded cast and being the adaptation (by an Oscar winner) of a prestigious book, Steven Zaillian’s “All the King’s Men” has been significantly delayed and was rumored to have suffered a troubled shoot. That said, Sean Penn certainly seems to be reaching for Oscar in the trailer (it’s a role the Academy would eat up if the film is good), and two of Penn’s co-stars, Jude Law and Kate Winslet, will have other high-profile Oscar releases that could certainly help.


September 06, 2006

"Bobby" (***1/2)


Emilio Estevez’s third feature filmmaking endeavor is everything his prior work was not. It is both insightful and meaningful. It exudes passion and commands relevance. It represents a cross-section of a country battered and bruised, and emphasizes the beacon of light that hoped to usher it to greener pastures. Crafted with graceful devotion and blistering sincerity, “Bobby” is not merely one of the most personal films of the year. In a season curiously dedicated to themes of compassion and understanding, it is one of the most resonant film-going experiences politically inclined cinema can aspire to be.

I know nothing of the pain of loss experienced the day Robert Kennedy was assassinated at Los Angeles’s Ambassador Hotel. I’m a part of a generation that cannot fully grasp the utter shattering of hope that event must have lain at the feet of a country in desperate need of tranquil leadership. The memory is not mine to draw upon, but the change of the tide during those turbulent years, the late 1960s, forcibly molded the country we live in today. I am a byproduct of that result, and my generation is reflective in some way, however small, of that milestone era.

Estevez understood this as he set about constructing his film, one that really and truly feels as if it exploded from his heart and bled out onto the page. Set in the Ambassador on June 5, 1968, the story is conveyed through a sprawling, Altman-esque ensemble. Twenty-two characters serve to represent America at one of its most defining thresholds, all preparing in one way or another for Senator Kennedy’s speech the night of the year’s senate elections. Kennedy was infamously gunned down by Sirhan Sirhan in the hotel’s kitchen following his spirited and awakening address.


It would be a daunting task indeed to account for each and every character. An overwhelming cast fills out the bill in a manner that makes it nearly impossible to distinguish a standout. However, rest assured the actor/writer/director covered all bases, charting youthful aggression, elderly wisdom, minority rage and feminine anxiety amongst the numerous hot button issues of the day.

The speckled casting has caused many to wonder and expect half-baked representations, but rest assured, the work from Lindsay Lohan, Nick Cannon, Demi Moore and even the film’s director stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the likes of film awards regulars William H. Macy, Helen Hunt, Laurence Fishburne and Anthony Hopkins to form a truly organic ensemble. Before long, one settles into a state of watching characters, not actors. It really is something special and it was always the most obvious hurdle, one capably cleared. If pressed to pick favorites (and the subjectivity of the matter will command favorites more so than definitive stand-outs), I would say I was most taken by the performances of Cannon, Hopkins and Freddy Rodriguez. But beyond performances, what is much more interesting is how much Estevez obviously cared about his film’s subject.

This isn’t a director merely showcasing his abilities and constructing a wonderful piece of filmmaking like a skilled craftsman cranking out another successful product. This is a film with stitches that show and blemishes for which it refuses to apologize. It is an effort as flawed as it is successful, and those touches of imperfection make it all the more powerful as a representation of humanity and the good fight. Estevez is no auteur, and he does not always necessarily convey a riveting sense of artistry. What he does is allow his gut to do the work, and the effect is a rousing experience to say the least.


The editing of the film is of the highest quality, coming under the acclimated hand of veteran Richard Chew (“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “Star Wars”). Also, though Mark Isham’s iconic score takes obvious leads from Thomas Newman’s work on “The Shawshank Redemption,” it nevertheless lends an element of prestige to what is an important piece of filmmaking. Michael Barrett’s camera captures the peculiarities of every character as it floats throughout the scenery, and Julie Weiss’s costumes do the film a spectacular service that truly transports the viewer back in time.

I expect and hope to be talking about “Bobby” for many months to come, as it is a definite threat in this year’s Oscar race – a film that could literally go all the way. But regardless of awards and reactions, the question is still asked to this day: What if Robert Kennedy had ultimately become president of the United States? Where would the country be today? And most especially, how would the country be viewed in the eyes of the rest of the world? There are no answers to such queries, but “Bobby” goes to great lengths to perpetuate Kennedy’s lasting significance as a man of understanding – a true king in his time. Ultimately, the lively juxtaposition of his various speeches and audio clips dictating his rhetoric forty years later drive home the point viscerally as the narrative does so thematically. Ours is a nation built on the understanding and empathy that is as close to godliness as man can hope to be. Let us please learn the lessons of the past.

September 05, 2006


Jumping the guardrails here at “Page to Screen” this week, I thought I'd take a moment to offer reactions to a few screenplays I've been able to leaf through over the last year. I'm not usually keen on “reviewing” screenplays, but regardless I thought this could be a beneficial entry as I get my things in order and dive back into the actual PURPOSE of this column. Also Claes has designed a new layout for the column, which I’m loving. I hope you do as well.

Anyway, we’ll try to turn the corner next week here at “Page to Screen” and get back on track, but in the meantime, here is a look at four screenplays which look to dot the 2006 awards landscape:


September 04, 2006

Toronto Coverage Starts Thursday

It's starting to get exciting again. Gerard is already taking things in as the festivities gear up for Thursday's launch of the 31st Annual Toronto International Film Festival. Be sure to check out his coverage, which has already kicked off and will continue until awards are handed out in two weeks.


Aw, Canucks.


As Los Angeles sits like an abandoned wasteland and journalists try to decipher whether Warner Bros. is going to scoot Clint Eastwood’s “Letters from Iwo Jima” onto the 2006 schedule, Toronto is gearing up and ready to answer some questions…hopefully. The opening night presentation of “The Journals of Knud Rasmussen” is set to unveil Thursday night and as the festival commences, maybe some things will firm up. We’ll see which films go the route of “Hotel Rwanda” and which will fall the way of “Elizabethtown.” Another “Crash” could even turn up and explode onto the scene for next season’s awards derby.

Regardless of all else, one thing is certain. Hollywood has really learned to tame this beast, turning the attention of note toward Gala presentations that, more often than not, kick-start awards campaigns in earnest.

Here’s a preview:

Best Picture Hopefuls

“All the King’s Men” – Sony is still deciphering their awards palette, but the first litmus test will be for Steven Zaillian’s Robert Penn Warren adaptation, unveiling Sunday night. If the film proves to be a hiccup amongst the journalists in attendance, it’s only the first barrier as there are plenty of other go-to films in store. I’ll have a clearer opinion when I see the film here in town on Thursday.


“Babel” – Alejandro González Iñárritu’s film has played the festival circuit just right, and when the film screens before the crowd Saturday night, further critical approval might be the fuel needed to push it right through the film awards season. The Cannes presentation was met with exhilaration, though typical snobbery was present as well.

“Bobby” – There have been equally positive and negative test screening reactions to this Weinstein Company hopeful that precious few have seen, but the cat will be out of the bag next Thursday when Emilio Estevez’s ensemble drama finally plays before a significant amount of the press as a “work in progress.” The company is higher on this film’s awards potential than other films in their arsenal this year, and with absolute reason. But let’s see what the majority has to say.

“Breaking and Entering” – Playing the day before “Bobby,” next Wednesday, is Anthony Minghella’s contemporary Jude Law starrer. The Weinsteins have kept the enthusiasm on the film somewhat muted in the wake of “Bobby” being their prime Oscar horse, but if 2001 showed us anything, it is that they know how to shift focus in a hurry if need be.


“Catch a Fire” – No one who’s seen Phillip Noyce’s latest political potboiler has peeped a word about it from what I can discern. So the Sunday screening of this Focus Features hopeful will be all the tealeaves we can hope for. I’ve personally had a keen eye toward this Apartheid drama’s awards prospects for some time, but it’s all about the film in the end.

“A Good Year” – Fox is saying they don’t have major awards plans in store for this obviously pedestrian Russell Crowe romance. That might be the correct play this year, as dependant Fox Searchlight has a whopping slate and could use the extra funds. But if the critical community flips over Ridley Scott’s latest, all bets are off. We’ll know quickly, as the Saturday night screening is one of the earliest screenings of note at the festival.

“Little Children” – Todd Field’s latest has already stirred positive reaction from critics at Telluride and sits poised to potentially be the critical darling of the year (why, oh why?). The buzz will really begin on Wednesday, however, as Toronto is the true launching-off point for films with Oscar hopes.

Also Looking for Awards Love


“Copying Beethoven” – Now that this film finally has distribution, the campaign could be underway after Sunday's screening. If Ed Harris’s performance as Ludwig von Beethoven knocks them out of their seats, watch out for a determined Miramax/MGM campaign. If it withers away, expect to see it at the video store some day and think “Oh yeah, I remember that.”

“Infamous” – Most have written off this Truman Capote biopic, which screens next Friday, due to last year’s “Capote” stealing all of its thunder. Reactions out of Telluride have been mixed, though positive on the performances. At the very least the film will be a point of interest for legions of writers who still have that strange place in their hearts for the journalist and novelist.

“For Your Consideration” – One film that has to be an odd anticipation for studio heads and publicists sizing up their Oscar campaigns is Christopher Guest’s mockumentary of the process. Screening Sunday night, we might find an original screenplay contender on our hands. It’ll be a little while before I finally take this one in, but I personally can’t wait.


“Stranger Than Fiction” – Marc Forster’s latest has become Sony’s dark horse, a film that will likely end up deservedly playing like a champ to the critical community. This screening on Saturday night will surely announce the arrival of Will Ferrell’s more versatile acting talents, and it could put Maggie Gyllenhaal right back into the supporting actress race for her saucy turn as a bohemian baker with spunk. Rest assured, screenwriter Zach Helm will be a sought-after commodity when all is said and done.

“Venus” – Another part of Miramax’s lead actor-heavy line-up, Peter O’Toole’s buzz will increase or fall away after Saturday night’s screening. Talk began circulating a few weeks ago that the legendary actor had the chops in Roger Michell’s latest. Maybe the eighth time will be the charm. Or maybe it’s “The Final Curtain” all over again.

“Volver” – Already a rousing success at Cannes, Pedro Almodovar’s quirky and jovial latest from Sony Pictures Classics will pop up early. Screening Friday night, the event could put Penélope Cruz’s career-best performance and, to a lesser extent, co-stars Lola Dueñas and Carmen Maura back on awards watchers’ radars. Sony Classics spent a lot of money on Oscar campaigns last year, ultimately scoring a Best Picture berth for “Capote.”

Other Events to Consider

“10 Items or Less” – Could be the start of a lead actor push for Morgan Freeman.

“Alatriste” – Viggo Mortensen’s long awaited biopic.

An Evening with Michael Moore – Ever the salesman, expect Moore to use this opportunity to drum up interest in next year’s “Sicko.”

“Jindabyne” – Ray Lawrence’s latest, one of two Sony Classics Laura Linney starrers this year.

“Quelques Jours en Septembre” – Another 9/11 film, this time fictional in nature, that has received mixed reaction out of Venice.

“Rescue Dawn” – Werner Herzog transforms his own documentary, “Little Dieter Needs to Fly,” into a full-scale narrative.

“Snow Cake” – A performance film that could play well for Alan Rickman and Sigourney Weaver – or not.

“The Wind That Shakes the Barley” – Ken Loach’s Cannes stand-out hopes to find some more traction in the festival circuit.

And then, of course, there are the little films that could really stand out against the fray. “Bonneville,” “Candy,” “Cashback” (based on the Oscar nominated short of the same name), “The Last Kiss,” “The Magic Flute,” “Pan’s Labyrith” and “Seraphim Falls” could all stir talk for either this year or perhaps next year’s awards season. A personal interest is “Macbeth,” from Geoffrey Wright, director of “Romper Stomper,” but that aside, it’s all about the awards talk.

Be sure to check back here later in the week for Gerard Kennedy’s coverage of the festival.

Main Category Charts
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Oscar Predictions Archive
"The Contenders"

Previous Oscar Columns:
08/28/06 - "On Your Marks..."
08/14/06 - "Enough Foreplay!"
08/07/06 - "Don't Knock Masturbation; it's Sex with Someone I Love"
07/31/06 - "Old and New, the Oscar Season Approaches"

September 02, 2006

"The Last King of Scotland" (****)


Every so often a film comes along that is so celebratory of the filmmaking process and fresh in its approach to visually conveying a story that it creatively demolishes anything within earshot. “Metropolis” was an early example, as Fritz Lang opened up the world in front of the camera like no one before. Arthur Penn’s “Bonnie and Clyde” and William Friedkin’s “The French Connection” awakened the filmmakers of the seventies to new boundaries willingly crossed. And Quentin Tarantino brought unique and highly innovative ideas to light in the nineties when he unleashed “Pulp Fiction” on the filmmaking community.

Another such film has finally come along, and whether Kevin Macdonald receives the credit he deserves for melding the idiosyncrasies of documentation with the manner of narrative flow or not, “The Last King of Scotland” has become a landmark of ingenuity. In this viewer’s opinion, it is the best film of the year thusfar.

“The Last King of Scotland” was adapted from Giles Foden’s award-winning novel of the same name. Charting the chaotic journey of Scottish doctor Nicholas Garrigan, Foden unveils the sadistic regime of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in ways much less conventional than one would expect of such a tale. The fictional character of Garrigan was born out of the author’s many conversations with former Amin advisor Bob Astles, and the resulting tale is even, calculated and deliberately paced, very much a story meant for the page in its initial conception. The process of adapting the material to the screen could have gone a number of typical ways, but the choices made by Macdonald and co-writers Jeremy Brock and Peter Morgan are exhilarating if nothing else.


Scottish actor James McAvoy portrays Doctor Garrigan in the film. Following an extremely brief introduction, and an equally swift scene conveying Garrigan’s place as his father’s son, the recent college grad rushes off to a new place in the world where he can be of service. Anywhere but home will do, and the African country of Uganda becomes his new destination.

All of this is carried across in a number of beats, not even necessarily scenes, and Garrigan is off on his journey within five minutes. Lesser filmmakers would have taken inappropriate time establishing the character, meandering, before finally setting him off on his journey. Macdonald trusts the viewer to stay with him, and unveils the events of the narrative through the eyes of his protagonist better than the most seasoned of directors.

Garrigan soon settles into a missionary camp, providing health care for the few Ugandans willing to trust white doctors over village witch-doctors. The camp’s head physician and his wife, Sara (Gillian Anderson), could certainly use the help. Meanwhile, political upheaval is the consistent state of affairs, as former president Milton Obote is overthrown by the regime of Idi Amin (Forest Whitaker), a “fighter for the people” – or so he would initially be considered.


Following an automobile accident that is cleverly repositioned from its place in Foden’s novel, Garrigan and Sara are summoned to the aid of Amin. The president has sprung his wrist in the process of ramming his Maseradi into a giant bull. Amin is immediately impressed by Garrigan’s tenacity and strength of mind, and he later offers the doctor a position as his personal physician. So begins one of the most interesting relationships between two men captured on the page or on the screen in some time.

Garrigan is abundantly charmed by Amin, a man who can seemingly see right through those at his side. The depth of his personality clashes with the childish nature of his sensibilities to form a persona impossibly ignored. But the longer Garrigan remains drunk with the importance of his position (soon considered an “advisor” by Amin), the longer it takes him to wake up to his complicity in a disastrous regime that will have been responsible for the deaths of over 300,000 Ugandans before Amin would finally be overthrown in 1979.

Kevin Macdonald has made a name for himself as a documentary filmmaker for the better part of a decade. Most notably, 1999’s “One Day in September” won the Oscar for Best Documentary, a painstaking dissection of the 1972 Munich Olympics tragedy. 2004’s “Touching the Void” was one of the most acclaimed films of that year, blending dramatic recreation with first hand accounts of the treacherous ascent of Siula Grande by mountain climbers Joe Simpson and Simon Yates.


What the director does so brilliantly in his first foray into narrative filmmaking is draw upon his instincts as a documentary filmmaker. “The Last King of Scotland” is not shot like a typical narrative political thriller. The camera wanders frequently to various peculiarities in the scene, typically finding the motion of Amin’s hands, no matter how mundane the gesture. The usage of zooms and erratic camera movement recalls guerilla filmmaking above all else, and it really feels like we are watching true events unfold, not dramatic interpretations of them. Danny Boyle and “Dogme” regular Anthony Dod Mantle served as cinematographer.

The performances on the whole are fantastic, but the central tension and these two men’s effect on one another could not have been portrayed more succinctly. James McAvoy is outstanding, and Macdonald should be applauded for casting someone so little-known. One would expect a pseudo-star like Ewan Macgregor to be forced into such a scenario, but the right decision has been made and McAvoy holds his own opposite the most explosive on-screen incarnation of the year.

Forest Whitaker’s Idi Amin deserves a place in filmmaking history as one of the more vibrant depictions of the medium. One recalls the tagline of the film every moment he is on screen: “Charming. Magnetic. Murderous.” And when he enunciates each syllable of Garrigan’s name (“Nee-co-laas”), the chill rises up and down the viewer’s spine as it did when Sir Anthony Hopkins casually mentioned eating a man’s liver “with a side of fava beans and a nice Chianti.”


Gillian Anderson and Kerry Washington (as Kay, one of Amin’s wives) are suited to the production, though Anderson’s sudden exit from the film early on feels as unnatural as it is in the novel. It would have been nice to see more of her, and sporting a haphazard blonde hairstyle, she is sexier here than she has ever been. However, Macdonald and his writers do a nice job of blending other characters and circumstances from the book into these two women, which makes for a fascinating adaptation on the whole.

In fact, the biggest accomplishment outside of the style and innovation of the camera work would have to be the screenplay. Foden’s novel, as mentioned, is deliberately paced. But the writing team somehow made it much more electric and exciting, while at the same time combining various elements with the greatest of ease to make for a solid, swiftly-paced narrative. They utilize the Palestinian hijacking of an Air France flight in 1976, for instance, to its fullest effect as the climax of the film. The flight was infamously held at Entebbe airport in Uganda while Amin, a PFLP supporter, supplied the hijackers with extra troops and weapons. The event was the beginning of his downfall in the court of public opinion.

Ultimately, “The Last King of Scotland” can work above or below the surface. One could enjoy the film as a run-of-the-mill political thriller and be satisfied, taking nothing else away from it. On the other hand, the depth present in the seamless creation of the story lies in wait for anyone willing to notice. It really is a staggering initial narrative outing, and if this is the talent Kevin Macdonald has been incubating while documenting the real world, we can only consider ourselves lucky that he has finally crossed over into the imaginary world. He is truly an artist to watch.

"The Queen" (***1/2)


Stephen Frears is one of the most versatile working directors in the industry. With that versatility comes the inevitable misstep from time to time, sure. But also with it comes a high order of professionalism and a certain amount of confidence that can manifest the most precise of cinematic creations. “The Queen” is just such a film. Carefully calibrated and wound to a specific 103 minutes, it is a modest and fine hour for a director who has been cranking out work of the highest quality for over two decades.

“The Queen” tells the behind-the-veil story of the days following Princess Diana’s tragic death in August of 1997. As the world mourned the passing of one of the most important political figures of the 20th century, Queen Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren) and her family holed up in their Scotland compound, choosing to handle matters with restraint, dignity and in privacy. Newly appointed Prime Minister Tony Blair (Michael Sheen), with his sites set on modernizing the outdated government and bringing it back in touch with the people of the land, felt the decision to refrain from public access was detrimental to a country that desperately needed guidance and to share in the grief.

The “black sheep” opinion the family had of Diana was an unpopular stance to say the least. While they always saw her as a blight on the crown, the citizens of England saw her as the people’s princess, one of their own, and a woman unwavering in her desire to make the world a better place. Only a year divorced from Prince Charles (portrayed in the film by dead ringer Alex Jennings) when she died, Diana had endured public embarrassment after Charles’s well-publicized, long-term affair with Camilla Parker-Bowles. Diana herself admitted to her own extra-marital affair as well, but it goes without saying, the marriage was an unhappy one.


Hounded by the media and ultimately the most photographed person ever, Diana’s life was never her own. That turbulent year was perhaps the most difficult for her in that regard and it might be too easy to say the media killed her in the end. It may be more applicable to say the very nature of celebrity killed her, but regardless, even in death, she would rally the attention of a billion people who tuned in to view her public funeral (a festivity proposed by Tony Blair and fought against by the Royal Family).

The relationship established between Elizabeth and Blair is a delicate one, and certainly a dramatic one. It might be the oldest story in the book, but it is still one of the most relevant. The clashing of policies is something the world will struggle with until we are no longer the dominant species. Blair’s progressive ideas about leading with the people, not ahead of them, was outlandish to the Queen and, most especially, to Prince Phillip (James Cromwell). Those disagreements truly came to a head that week, and their focus was rightly on the well-being of William and Henry, two boys who lost their mother and should be shielded from the poisoning words of the media. But as they retreated, their country grew impatient and, ultimately, aggressively disappointed.

Dame Helen Mirren is absolutely irresistible in the role of Queen Elizabeth II (she ironically just won an Emmy for portraying Elizabeth I). Though it is not the powerhouse, Oscar-lock performance that shatters perceptions and announces itself with determination, it is nevertheless a collected and well-maintained turn. The stiff upper lip of the Royal Family really is carried across well in this regard. James Cromwell’s Prince Phillip is specific in his conservatism, while the humor of Charles’s paranoia provides a nice balance.


As Prime Minister Tony Blair, Michael Sheen does a capable job of conveying a political figure who would become increasingly controversial himself. Frears’s film hits a thunderous note in that light during a coda in which Elizabeth looks Blair square in the eye and tells him his country will turn on him, too, one day, “Quite suddenly, and without warning.” These are the delicate touches of meaning that go toward crafting an exemplary film. The screenplay was penned by Peter Morgan, who also co-wrote the amazing adaptation of Kevin Macdonald’s “The Last King of Scotland.” His work comes as a result of extensive interviews and information from discreet, informed sources inside the momentous event.

Stephen Frears does what he is best at in “The Queen.” He steps aside and lets the story tell it self. He has always been what I consider a “screenwriter’s director,” as he seems ever capable of letting the writer’s words play on the screen as they should. He never leaves a fingerprint, other than the strong scent of competence that can be found even in his lesser efforts. He also handles the material without fuss, getting out of dodge when the work is complete. You’ll never find a Frears film meandering or losing itself, and that’s a trait most directors never exhibit with such consistency.

Though it revolves around an event that occurred nine years ago, and prior to the post-9/11 environment we endure today, “The Queen” is very much a current piece of filmmaking. It is about the necessity for a leader to be in touch with his or her people. It is about respecting tradition while understanding the need to extinguish it all the same. It is about finding a balance and, if not maintaining that balance, at the very least striving for it at all costs. “The Queen” could be seen as quite applicable to our current domestic political environment, or it could simply be enjoyed as an airy, pleasant endeavor with no frills. But isn’t it the best of cinema that finds that balance?

Coming next week...


September 01, 2006

"Little Children" (**1/2)


Tom Perrotta’s novel “Little Children” is a visceral reading experience. A smart and casually brilliant work of fiction, the author’s characters exude a demand for understanding and compassion above all else in a narrative flow that is forgivably meandering. Todd Field’s adaptation (co-written by Perrotta) in the form of New Line Cinema’s film of the same name keeps these crucial elements in tact during a transition to the screen, but the end result is sadly nothing approaching the exuberance of imagining Perrotta’s world in one’s mind. Questionable directorial decisions and, at times, a tendency to follow too close to the tread of Perrotta’s novel (yet straying much too far when the need arises) ultimately hinder “Little Children” from the suburban poignancy it aspires to be.

The story is one of contained souls desperate for alleviation. Sara Pierce (Kate Winslet) is a mother of one, visibly bored with the life she leads. Spending afternoons at a neighborhood playground with other mothers, representing varying degrees of personality disorder, Sara is the most homely of the bunch but the most irreverent all the same. Her daughter, Lucy (Sadie Goldstein), humorously reflects her mother’s irreverence. Sara yearns for something more than the by the numbers set-up she has made for herself, along with husband Richard (Gregg Edelman), and this spark of disinterest makes itself visible in her consistent challenging of her acquaintances’ points of view, most notably lashing out intellectual artillery here and there on one of the typically bitchy, blonde-haired, blue-eyed sort.

Brad Adamson (Patrick Wilson), or the “Prom King,” as he has been dubbed by the troupe of housewives, is equally confused about his life having turned out so tedious and passionless. Having failed the bar exam twice and gunning for one more attempt in a do or die situation, Brad seems to be questioning not merely his desire to be a lawyer, but his desire to be who he is in any case. His wife, Kathy (Jennifer Connely), wears the pants in the family leaving him as the primary caregiver to an adorable son, Aaron (Ty Simpkins).A casual meeting of the minds between Brad and Sara will spark light in their lives they each had thought gone forever, each seemingly the answer to the other’s personal doubts and emotionally dire circumstances; Sara, the frumpy, bushy-eye browed scholarly sort, Brad the golden bodied, handsome former jock: a mismatch made in heaven.


Meanwhile, Ronald James McGorvey (Jackie Earle Haley, who is likely to garner Oscar buzz for his performance), formerly convicted of exposing himself to a young girl, takes up residence in this otherwise quiet community with his mother, May (Phyllis Sommerville). The news shakes the neighborhood to the core, the anger visibly presenting itself in the form of former cop Larry Hedges (Noah Emmerich), who frequently harasses the McGorveys and defaces their property with various forms of propaganda. Larry and Ronald have a delicate relationship, however, as a result, one reflective of the other’s inner turmoil in many ways, undoubtedly flawed humans each of them.

All of this could certainly be gleaned from reading any synopsis of Perrotta’s novel, and obviously, the makings of a brilliant film are quite apparent. But somewhere along the way, “Little Children” lost its freshness.

Todd Field’s directorial debut “In the Bedroom” in 2001 was a brooding dissection of the nature of revenge, hatred, anger and despair. It seems to be territory in which the director is quite comfortable, as he takes Perrotta’s novel to darker levels than even the author might have intended on the page. He builds layers into the characters that are vibrant, but at many times, rather unnecessary, and his adaptation (again, co-authored by Perrotta) ultimately takes the story to a place far too dreary for its own good. It is surprising that such an ending (which I dare not spoil) would have been deemed appropriate by the novel’s author, and the influence of Field’s darker tendencies seems to be the culprit of such a design.


In fact, Field makes a number of directorial decisions throughout that impede the process of the story’s conveyance. He chooses, for instance, to let his camera linger on his actors too long at times, capturing the awkward aspects of performance that are meant to be trimmed from a film product. He allows over-the-top characterizations to go undeterred, the most notable case being Noah Emmerich’s over-acting every scene when he very clearly has the ability to relay his character in much more appropriate ways. The most disastrous decision was to employ the usage of a third party narrator, essentially reading the words from Perrotta’s page in a low, ironic voice. Anyone will tell you narration is the mark of an amateur, sure, but the decision was made here to be somewhat humorous. The effect is a maddening sense that the film is a work in progress with elements to later be filled in to satisfaction.

The performances are, by and large, lacking in some form or another. Whether it is Patrick Wilson’s apparent lack of understanding his own character’s motives (some might think this works for the part; I would disagree), Phyllis Sommerville’s questionable histrionics or Jackie Earle Haley’s awkward self-awareness, the actors seem to have what it takes, but apparently lack the guidance to reach that plateau.

Jennifer Connelly threatens depth with her character, though a sub-plot involving Kathy’s mother was largely omitted which might have helped in that regard. Connelly is, as always, a beautiful and talented actress, but here she’s simply relegated to being a hottie. The role doesn’t call for much else.


Kate Winslet, however, is quite obviously incapable of poor acting. Her performance as Sara is one of her very best to date and one of the most believable characterizations of her career. Even surrounded by what feels like amateur night at a local acting theater, Winslet maintains a control over Sara that screams professionalism and artistry. She has to be considered one of the greatest, most fearless actresses of her generation.

Finally, Thomas Newman’s score is less derivative than normal, considering the source. The music works to the film’s favor, organic and apparent all the same. The cues recall his work in Sam Mendes’s “American Beauty,” in fact, a film of similar themes and characterizations.

This comparison to Mendes’s film will be drawn over and over again as critics begin reacting to “Little Children” in the coming weeks. However, while “American Beauty” ages quite poorly and never seems to retain the immediacy it boasted in 1999, it still remains something defining in a sub-genre that inherits a new entry every few years or so. “Little Children” fits this mold of suburban despair, its characters clenching to their youth, and it also brings more valid and insightful aspects to the table.


These are individuals discontent with their lives, but who travel hard and tiresome roads to discover they are in fact lucky to lead the subjectively boring existences they do. It’s a beautiful theme that seems to be of a piece with the majority of film product this year, if one were to thoroughly examine various entries. However, the film is still an uneven exercise in frigidity, something Perrotta’s novel could never have been accused of. Field is certainly an interesting director who is sure to continue creating unique character studies, but one can only hope that “In the Bedroom” was no fluke. “Little Children” is something of a sophomore slump that I would still venture to say will be embraced by the critical masses. It seems sometimes simply being unique is good enough, no matter how second-rate the artistry.

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2008 Year in Advance Predictions

UPDATED: 2/25/2008

Main Charts | Tech Charts

[Motion Picture]

“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”



“Revolutionary Road”

“The Soloist”


David Fincher
“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”

Ron Howard

Gus Van Sant

Sam Mendes
“Revolutionary Road”

Joe Wright
“The Soloist”

[Actor in a Leading Role]

Benicio Del Toro
“The Argentine”

Jamie Foxx
“The Soloist”

Frank Langella

Sean Penn

Brad Pitt
“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”

[Actress in a Leading Role]

Vera Farmiga
“Nothing But the Truth”

Angelina Jolie

Julianne Moore

Meryl Streep

Kate Winslet
“Revolutionary Road”

[Actor in a Supporting Role]

Josh Brolin

Russell Crowe
“Body of Lies”

Robert Downey, Jr.
“The Soloist”

Heath Ledger
“The Dark Knight”

Michael Sheen

[Actress in a Supporting Role]

Amy Adams

Kathy Bates
“Revolutionary Road”

Cate Blanchett
“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”

Catherine Keener
“The Soloist”

Carice van Houten
“Body of Lies”

[Writing, Adapted Screenplay]

“Body of Lies”

“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”



“Revolutionary Road”

[Writing, Original Screenplay]


“Hamlet 2”


“The Soloist”


[Art Direction]



“Indiana Jones and the Kingdom
of the Crystal Skull”

“Red Cliff”

“Revolutionary Road”



“The Dark Knight”


“Indiana Jones and the Kingdom
of the Crystal Skull”

“Revolutionary Road”

[Costume Design]

“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”


“The Other Boleyn Girl”

“Red Cliff”

“Revolutionary Road”

[Film Editing]

“Body of Lies”

“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”



“Indiana Jones and the Kingdom
of the Crystal Skull”


“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”

“The Dark Knight”

“Red Cliff”

[Music, Original Score]

“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”

“Indiana Jones and the Kingdom
of the Crystal Skull”

“The Soloist”

“Revolutionary Road”


[Music, Original Song]

coming soon

[Sound Editing]


“Indiana Jones and the Kingdom
of the Crystal Skull”

“Iron Man”

“Speed Racer”


[Sound Mixing]


“Indiana Jones and the Kingdom
of the Crystal Skull”


“The Chronicles of Narnia:
Prince Caspian”


[Visual Effects]

“The Chronicles of Narnia:
Prince Caspian”

“The Incredible Hulk”

“Iron Man”

[Animated Feature Film]


“Kung Fu Panda”


[Foreign Language Film]

coming soon

[Documentary, Features]

coming soon

[Documentary, Short Subjects]

coming soon

[Short Film, Animated]

coming soon

[Short Film, Live Action]

coming soon