Wednesday, December 19, 2007

How to Predict the Academy Awards

The Academy Awards have long been a sort of joke to me. Even when you put aside the hackneyed speeches, the ridiculous clothes, and the creepy contest to see which dead people will get the most applause during that “In Memoriam” film they show, you still have to consider the awards themselves, which are almost always absurdly chosen. Gladiator? Forrest Gump? Crash? Were these really the best films of their respective years? Of course not, but to make this complaint is to fundamentally misunderstand the way the Academy Awards function as a social construct. See, while the various critics’ awards that come earlier in the season have sometimes been known to honor the best films of the year, the Oscars and their retarded cousin the Golden Globes usually give out awards to the most obvious choices-- that is, the easiest and least controversial films that have built up the most hype in the run-up to the ceremony. Undoubtedly the Academy, whose members include writers, directors, and actors(which means that hacks like Michael Bay and assholes like Alec Baldwin are voting), is strongly influenced by what has already been winning awards and what is getting the most media attention. Combine this influence with political correctness, the academy’s own partisan leanings, and the historical pattern of what kinds of films win and which don’t, and you’ve got a nearly foolproof algorithm for determining what will be honored as the best works of the year.

With this in mind, I offer some very early predictions of what will win at the Oscars this year. It is worth noting that no films have even been nominated for the Oscars yet, nor have I even seen the majority of my predictions. It’s simply not necessary.

Best Picture

Based on everything I’ve seen and heard about it so far, Atonement will be the winner of the award for Best Picture, even though it won’t win many others. This kind of safe, sophistic fare that’s in love with its own artifice always does well at the Oscars, especially when there’s no epic film like The Lord of The Rings or Braveheart around to steal its thunder. Mark it.

Best Director

No Country For Old Men will be nominated for Best Picture, but I simply don’t see a film that bleak and nihilistic winning it all at such a mainstream awards show. Hollywood generally leans toward more epic films or superficial message movies like Crash and Million Dollar Baby. That being said, I think the Coens will be rewarded for their technical prowess and receive the award for Direction. Fortunately, this one will be deserved.

Best Actor

Daniel Day-Lewis will more than likely win for the second time with There Will Be Blood, but this will probably be that film’s only award. That’s three awards, three films. I may be spreading myself a little thin here, but I don’t see one film making anything close to a sweep this year. Denzel Washington is a shoe-in for yet another nomination, this time for American Gangster, but this ain’t his year.

Best Actress

This is the category that I know the least about this year, and the one that I’m most likely to get wrong. Julie Christie is far and away the critics’ choice for Away From Her, but I have the sneaking suspicion that if Atonement actually wins for Best Picture then Keira Knightley might win Best Actress as well. If there were an actress in a major film who’d made herself look ugly for a role then this one would be a cinch (in image obsessed Hollywood the most daring thing a beautiful actress can do is play someone homely), but no such luck this year. Instead, I’ll bet on the recent trend of awarding older actresses and go with Christie.

Best Supporting Actor

Javier Bardem should and will win Best Supporting Actor for No Country For Old Men. If anyone manages to unseat him I guess it’ll be Casey Affleck, something I never thought I’d say a year ago when Casey was just the sickly-looking little brother of a mediocre actor. I still haven’t seen the films he’s supposedly so good in, so for now I still think of him as such.

Best Supporting Actress

Cate Blanchett for that dreadful looking Bob Dylan movie. A woman playing a man is just too novel of a concept for these people to resist. If anyone beats her it’ll be Amy Ryan for Gone Baby Gone. As I’ve seen neither film, I’ll rely on shock value to help Blanchett pull out the win. (By the way, this trend is something that feminists and other PC-obsessed people should be getting up in arms about. A woman is almost never awarded for simply giving a good performance at the Oscars-- there’s always a catch. She’s either the first black person or fat or old or playing a controversial role or had the audacity to look like a normal person. No matter how you spin it, it seems weird.)

Best Original Screenplay

Here’s the one I’m most sure of and the real inspiration for making this lame little list: Diablo Cody will win for Juno. Why? Because it’s exactly the kind of smart-aleck, kitschy script that always wins for Best Original Screenplay. As far as this category is concerned, the more gimmicky and “offbeat” the better. And people like the idea of a former stripper winning an Oscar, even if that little factoid has been shoved down everyone’s throat for the last two months. Mark it.

Best Adapted Screenplay

Generally as Best Picture goes so goes the Screenplay award, usually in the adapted category. Atonement will get this one then, unless there’s an unusually large contingent of Cormac McCarthy fans out there.

And I’ll stop there, because this is getting a little tiresome. But hopefully I’ve made my point. It’s generally hype, oddness and political correctness that guides what wins these awards, which are themselves just one very cleverly concocted advertisement for the movie industry. Is this shameful? Sure. But anyone who believes that a ceremony made by and for the Hollywood elite is not solely about money and publicity is being willfully ignorant. What is shameful is how many legitimately good artists, critics, and movie fans still go along for the ride. George C. Scott is the only star in recent memory to rail against what he called the “meat parade” of awards shows when he turned down his Oscar for Patton in 1970. In today’s world of cinema, where the studios are part of multimedia conglomerates and actors are owned in ways that put the old studio system to shame, we’ll probably never see such a display again.

And by the way, Ingmar Bergman will win the clapping contest.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (2007)

I went to see Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead with all intentions of liking it. Not only is it directed by Sidney Lumet, whose Network and Dog Day Afternoon are personal favorites of mine, but it also boasts supporting performances by the great Albert Finney, a running contender for “best living actor,” and Marisa Tomei, one of the more underrated actresses in American film. The film has received almost unanimously positive reviews, and has been hailed by many critics that I trust as a return to form for the 83-year-old Lumet.

All of these prejudices notwithstanding, I don't at all care for Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead, which seems to unfold in a melodramatic, convoluted and ultimately amateurish fashion. These criticisms seem astounding considering Lumet’s canonical status in the film world, but here he seems to be floundering and failing on many levels, from cinematography to pacing to character development.

The film stars Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke, two of contemporary cinema’s more notorious overactors, as Andy and Hank Hanson, a couple of brothers who decide to rob a suburban jewelry store in order to solve their respective financial woes. The catch is that this is no ordinary store: it happens to belong to their parents, painfully underdeveloped but competently played by Finney and Rosemary Harris. This far-fetched but intriguing premise fails to take shape, primarily because the film never succeeds in completely selling the viewer on the possibility that two so feckless characters as the brothers Hanson could ever concoct let alone attempt such an audacious scheme. Andy, for his part, is set up as adequately sleazy, with his faux tough-guy talk and his penchant for snorting cocaine on the sly and making visits to an upscale drug dealer’s apartment to be injected with smack. But he comes as far too self-absorbed to ever consider such a plan. As for Hank, he is in need of money to pay child support to his shrewish ex-wife (Amy Ryan) and prove himself in the eyes of his young daughter, but nothing in his character suggests that he could be capable of legitimately devious activity. Similarly, the film’s script, by first timer Kelly Masterson, does little to establish what, if any, animosity exists between Andy and Hank and their parents that would make the brothers want to use their family in such a way. Only three-fourths of the way into the film are we provided with a motivation for Andy’s behavior-- but at that point I didn’t really care anymore.

Which brings me to one of the major problems with Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead: the film, like many others these days, jumps around in its narrative time frame, showing different scenes out of order and from many different points of view. This is not necessarily bad in and of itself, as many films have used such a technique to their advantage, Kurosawa’s classic Rashomon being the exemplar. But when it is used merely as a stylistic flourish and not as a legitimate formal technique (Tommy Lee Jones’s disappointing 2005 directorial debut The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada comes to mind), it can ruin an otherwise interesting story. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead may very well have been a much more intense and dramatic film had Lumet and Masterson not opted for such an elaborate conceit, but as the film stands we get several scenes where motivation and explanation are given after the action that they trigger, a technique that does little to build narrative tension. It’s a lazy style that attempts to make individual dramatic touches and bits of camera movement and set design have greater impact by giving the viewer some kind of omniscient perspective on the plot, but it does so at the expense of the film as a whole, as several scenes appear to have been added merely for the sake of fitting neatly into this serpentine plot device. That such a style appears on its surface to be a sign of a carefully constructed script is no doubt a part of its appeal, but few films have used it to their advantage.

In the same way that it squanders a potentially interesting story idea, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead also misuses its excellent supporting cast. Marisa Tomei’s role as Andy’s unsatisfied wife Gina is the most egregious waste. While she holds her own as the object of Andy’s half-baked affections, there seems to be little for her character to do other than look alternately bored and upset. Gina is having an affair with Hank, a dramatic twist that doesn’t play out in any meaningful way until a exchange between the two brothers in the film’s final moments so absurdly melodramatic that it feels as though its been lifted from one of the many prime time crime shows currently being circulated on network television. Indeed, many of the film’s secondary characters seem to be stilted archetypes, at their best recycled from Lumet’s oeuvre of New York crime movies, at their worst from re-runs of NYPD Blue.

Unfortunately, in it’s worst moments Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead does play more like a TV show than a film, with the gratuitous sex and copious shots of a naked Marisa Tomei seemingly inserted to remind viewers that they’re watching a serious film and not an episode of Law and Order. I’ve heard reviewers compare its family tensions and epic falls to the rhythms of Greek tragedy, and I couldn’t disagree more. Good tragedy works on having believable, well-sketched characters and a tightly plotted story to create some kind of illumination, where even though the characters may lose everything we in the audience come away with some knowledge or understanding of human nature that we didn’t have before. Not only does Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead not provide much insight on why its characters lose out in the end, but the only thing it offers its audience in return for their pity is a shoddy mess of a story.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Days of Heaven (1978)

Terrence Malick is anything but a prolific filmmaker. Like Stanley Kubrick, his films are few and far between, but their originality and beauty is such that each one of them is its own special event. Since 1972, Malick has made but four films. I really enjoyed his first film, Badlands, which featured a young Martin Sheen as a dangerous teenager tearing up the dustbowl with his deadpan girlfriend (played by Sissy Spacek in maybe my favorite performance of hers) in tow. Days of Heaven was Mr. Malick’s second feature, and many have pointed to the troubles he endured while working on it as the main reason for the twenty-year gap before he made another picture.

Production problems aside, Days of Heaven is a beautiful film, a painterly portrait of migrant workers trudging through the dust-bowl, their hardships and troubles conjuring up memories of the Joad family of The Grapes of Wrath. In typical Malick style, the film is slow and lyrical, relying more on the scenery and subtle character interaction to propel the action rather than outright conflict and grandiose speeches. Malick has a philosophy degree from Harvard and is rumored to be very devout, and these metaphysical leanings show in his storytelling style. He employs a biblical rhetoric in telling the story, a kind of tragedy that seems reminiscent of a religious parable, right down to the plague of locusts that strikes in the film’s later stages.

The story is deceivingly simple. Richard Gere plays Bill, a Chicago factory worker who, after accidentally killing a man, takes off to the mid-west with his little sister Linda and girlfriend Abby, played wonderfully by Linda Manz and Brooke Adams. Abby poses as his other sister when they travel and work because, as Linda explains, “people talk.” The trio find work on a small farm on the plains, a barren wasteland of grasses with a stately mansion looming on a hill, seeming incredibly out of place in such empty territory. The owner of the mansion on the hill, who is never referred to by name and is simply listed in the credits as “the Farmer,” is dying of a rare stomach disease. He has watched Abby from afar and falls in love with her, wanting to take a wife to ease the pain of his last days. Bill has overheard a doctor declare that the man has less than a year to live, so when the Farmer proposes to her, he encourages her to accept, hatching the plan of inheriting the man’s wealth when he dies. As devious plans never properly come into fruition, the Farmer, played with an endearing kind of softness by Sam Shepard, lives on, his body seemingly rejuvenated by the love that he feels for Abby. The result is that a considerable strain is placed on Bill and Abby’s now secret relationship, and even though they live in greater luxury than they could have ever imagined, happiness has slipped further away than ever before.

The film is told from the point of view of the younger sister, Linda, who plays a negligible part in the dramatic heart of the story. She is an outsider to most of the action, taking it all in. Like Sissy Spacek in Badlands, she tells the story through narration, relating the events while adding in her own opinions on love and death, good and evil (“we’re all half angel and half devil”). The story is all a memory, and Malick’s lyrical style helps to recreate the feeling of reconstructing one’s life. There is little dialogue throughout most of the film. The characters instead speak in quick exchanges or looks, and the countryside, with its blood-red suns and mud-banked rivers, often hijacks the inertia of the plot in favor of more contemplative moods. Like a person recollecting years past, it is not what was said that is always remembered, but instead a look or the way the wind blew the grasses on a particular day. Such a style is often trying, but Malick has an artist’s hand, using his cinematography to evoke feelings and place suggestions in the viewer's mind.

Like all Malick films, Days of Heaven is slow and contemplative, leaving the viewer with many questions when the credits roll. It is not a perfect film--it sometimes focuses too much on style over substance, and the last ten minutes seem to weigh down the mood-- but it is a tale of such evocative beauty that Malick’s self-indulgence can be forgiven. It presents questions about the price one will pay for security, and whether or not love can flourish under any circumstances. It is a powerful film, and seeing as it lead the auteur to abandon cinema for two decades, one that should be carefully considered.