Sunday, January 25, 2009

Checking out the Ocar Nominated Films

Good new movies are just like the buses at this time of year - a long time waiting for something good to show up, and then suddenly everything arrives all at once. We have the endless awards ceremonies to thank of course, but there does seem to be something wrong when my local PictureHouse has five screens showing nothing but oscar-nominated movies in the one week. If only one were faced with such tough decisions as to which film to see at your local cineplex all year round!

In an attempt to be more informed for watching the Academy Awards this year I decided NOT to wait for the shiny discs, most of which come out AFTER the awards ceremony, but actually check the films out on theatrical release. Alas, such is the poor memory of most that recent marketing machinations mean we're suddenly in a situation where most companies release films to the general public AFTER they're nominated, rather than months before, as used to happen. I can't help feeling that The Dark Knight (OK, I know it's fantasy which never does well, but even so...) and Christopher Nolan have seriously lost out because the film was released a few months ago rather than next month!

I saw Milk last week (and blogged about it here)
but used the weekend to catch up on three of its rivals.

Slumdog Millionaire

Slumdog Millionaire poster image

If my local cinema at Clapham is any measure of success Slumdog Millionaire looks like a slam-dunk for the 'Best Film' oscar. Two weekends running they've had to display "All performances sold out" even at 11am in the morning. Certainly if there were an award for 'Best Marketing' this film should win it. The decision to advertise the film as if it were a Mama Mia! 'feel good' movie is an inspired one, even if it totally misrepresents the film and the director is unhappy with the deception. Punters who will likely be shocked at the torture scenes that appear at the start of the film, but feeling beholden to stay to the end because they've already paid, will by the end feel they've been on a journey and seen a worthy film, even if it wasn't the one they'd been sold.

Personally, I thought Slumdog Millionaire was a very good film, but not an excellent one, and not one I'd give 'Film of the year' to. I liked the direction, whilst accepting that it may have been a bit too 'flash' in places for some, and there were some truly amazing shots of Mumbai and the slum area in the film. The young actors (or non-actors, as director Danny Boyle has indicated) are very impressive and the early scenes are moving and realistic. Unfortunately the later scenes in the story timeline, featuring the 'grown up' lead appearing on TV show Who Wants to Be A Millionaire? or being tortured are less successful. Dev Patel seems a nice enough chap, but this is a 'no acting really required' role for the most part, and it's scandalous that BAFTA have decided to nominate Patel for 'Best Actor', seemingly because of his nationality rather than any evidence from the film. Our hero has entered a TV competition purely to be seen and reunited with his childhood girlfriend. The trouble is there is no chemistry between Patel and his beautiful female lead, and I didn't believe in their 'life long love affair' for a second.

The story itself, described by director Boyle as 'a fable' is also too far-fetched to have any credibility. We are asked to accept that each question our hero is asked on the TV quiz show just happens to coincide with some obscure event that happened to our lead character on his life journey. This is silly enough as it is, but that they also happened to be asked in the correct chronological order to events in the lead's life, told as background between each question, is just ridiculous. Apparently this is carried over from the book the film is based on, but for me it just made the whole film's story ridiculous and contrived.

And I'm going to upset several Indian friends who are big fans of the film's composer A.R. Rahman, when I say that for me the music intruded far too often, and seemed to distract from, rather than enhance, the on-screen visuals. When music actually takes you out of the film, as it did on a couple of occasions here, there's something wrong.

None of this should stop you going to see the film. Like the execrable Mama Mia! it seems to have struck a chord with the general public, and certainly it's a MUCH, MUCH better film than the poorly-written and directed Abba spin-off. In many ways it marks a return to form for director Danny Boyle after the extremely disappointing, derivative Sunshine.

The Wrestler

The Wrestler promotiion

If I was slightly disappointed with Slumdog Millionaire, I was even more so with The Wrestler.

The 'low budget movie' warnings should have alerted me of course, and in fact if it wasn't for so many enthusiastic reviews about the film itself, and Rourke's performance as 'The Wrestler' of the title I would no doubt have given this one a miss. Which, given my lack of enthusiasm for the actor I should have done. I'm not sure if it's the excessive ego, the rudeness and bad manners, or a strong dislike of the yappy little dogs that he's obsessed with, but I find myself avoiding any interviews with this 'difficult' personality.

Most reviewers said this was a 'character piece' rather than a movie about wrestling, but Lord there's a LOT of tedious wrestling in the film, especially in the first hour. The 'trailer home trash' real life story has been done, to much better effect I think, a hundred times before I think, and even the cliched 'let's have no real start and no real end' approach to the film, which others are claiming is 'brave' seem cliched to the extreme. It's like one of those tedious documentaries about people fallen on hard times, with no real let-up or variation on a tired, well-known theme. I found the film hard work and it's one you'd have to pay me to sit through again. Yes, Rourke gives an incredible performance - but is reliving the events of your life and playing yourself REALLY an oscar-winning ACTING performance? Not for this viewer. And not, it seems, for most of the public. Despite the rave reviews, the cinema was almost empty where all other screenings were full and it has already switched to matinee performances only.

My money's still on Sean Penn in Milk for the 'Best Actor' winner, although he has some serious competition in the form of Frank Langella in ...


Frost/Nixon promotion

A 'talking head' movie is one I'd definitely avoid at the cinema - wait for the DVD instead. However, I'm glad I went to see Frost/Nixon before the awards ceremonies all kick off. The film, transferred from the London stage, was gripping, tense and beautifully acted throughout and whilst I kept thinking I was watching 'Blair vs Nixon' rather than 'Frost vs Nixon' because of Michael Sheen's over-familiar act, that didn't detract too much.

In many ways the film reminded me of Good Night, and Good Luck, a 'better' film in my view, but one shot in black and white which undoubtedly put a lot of potential viewers off. This more mainstream political drama is likely to prove more popular with the general public.

The direction from Ron Howard is perhaps a little pedestrian, but I think the material demands the sort of subdued subtlety that's in evidence here and the story plays to Howards' strengths rather than his weaknesses. But, ultimately, this isn't Howard's film or Sheen's - it's Langella's. As Nixon he gives a career-best performance of great subtlety and depth. I'd hate to be the voter having to choose between this performance and Penn's for the oscars this year.

So Who Should Win?

Personally, I think Milk deserves the 'Best Film' oscar - I found it more 'genuinely' moving than any of the other contendors. But I also think the subject matter (about an openly gay politician) means it hasn't a hope. I haven't seen Benjamin Button yet (not released in the UK until next month), but am already getting the sense from early critical reviews that I'll find it too contrived and sentimental to win me over. I suspect Slumdog Millionaire will win, and if so it certainly wouldn't be as ridiculous a result as a few years ago when Chicago won!

Saturday, January 17, 2009

'Milk' it for all it's worth

It's been a while since I last blogged, as the pressure of work, video, and preparations for new Microsoft certification exams seem to have taken over every available minute :(

But a bout of insomnia gives me a chance to blog about the excellent trip to BFI Southbank I made a few hours ago to see
Milk, the oscar-nominated film about the murdered San Francisco gay rights politician Harvey Milk who rose to fame in the 70's.

Milk promotion

Director Gus Van Sant's films can be a bit hit and miss for me, and I frequently seem to take a contrary view to the general critical response, so that for example while I loved Elephant (a sort of retelling of the Columbine massacre in a very smooth, free-form, poetic style) which the critics didn't seem keen on, I really disliked Paranoid Park which the critics loved, but which I thought was badly-shot, self-indulgent, 'arty' tosh.

Then of course there's the oscar-winning Good Will Hunting, which wasn't a bad film, but one that really didn't merit all the hype it received at the time of release.

Thankfully, Milk marks a return to form for the director after a series of independent 'art house' movies, as Van Sant moves back to a more mainstream style of filming, with a biopic that is individual, powerful, moving, incredibly well acted and couldn't have arrived at a more appropriate time given what's happening in California with Proposition 8.

The film opens with titles over archive black and white footage showing the police raiding and arresting gay men in bars for simply being there. This was a time when men could be arrested for the simple act of holding hands, and to a modern audience the footage, showing men in suits sat at tables covering their faces so as not to be caught on camera as the police barge in to arrest everyone, comes across as quite shocking. Manhandled and stuffed into police vans like sardines, it's quite incredible to think this is real-life footage from not that many years ago.

Despite the shocking introduction, the main theme of the movie is a celebration of one man's vision of hope, with Milk fighting for the rights of minorities and against injustice being kick-started by the murder of a gay friend on Castro Street in San Francisco. Perhaps unintentionally (the film was made before Proposition 8 came into being) the film also helps to show how placid and resigned we've become to losing such hard-fought rights in a time when there's far LESS homophobia about.

Proposition 8 shows that history, yet again, is doomed to repeat itself, and as actor James Franco (who plays Milk's lover in the film) and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black pointed out in the Q & A that followed tonight's screening, few people - even modern gays who live close to where these events happened - seem to know the story of Harvey Milk, America's first openly gay politician.

Black's screenplay is based on extensive original research by the author, and the film features some of the real life characters in Harvey's life at the time. He has written a wonderfully warm, personal script full of humanity and life that doesn't try to paint Milk as a saint, but as someone of good heart, not moved to politics, who just felt he'd done nothing good in his life by the age of 40 and rose to meet the demands of a situation that was so unfair that it demanded action. Milk has flaws: a sexual attraction to weak, unlikeable, mentally unstable men being perhaps the main one and the flaws are portrayed here in a way that makes the man far more real than the simple 'hero' he's often been painted as.

Director Van Sant has put together a clever collage of real life footage of events at the time, together with original dramatic scenes, but if the film is one man's show (it isn't, as ALL the cast, including Josh Brolin, Emile Hursch and the afore-mentioned James Franco give performances that make the characters seem real flesh and blood, not actors giving 'oscar winning' performances) it's Sean Penn's. Those used to seeing Penn play angry, violent characters are in for a shock, his performance as the amiable Harvey Milk is full of joy, humour and sly asides that make you totally forget Penn the actor, as you watch Milk the politician as if he were still alive today. Where I'd be rooting for an oscar win for the much under-rated (until he died) Heath Ledger, I'm now leaning more towards Penn for what surely counts as a career-best performance. And with a career as impressive as Penn's has been, that's no small compliment.

The screening tonight, at the BFI Southbank in London, advertised a post-screening Q&A session with director Gus Van Sant, covering his entire career, as part of the Guardian Talks series of events. As it turned out, we were treated to two Q&A's - the one advertised, and then an extra one concentrating specifically on Milk with Van Sant being joined by his screenwriter and one of his lead actors.

By all accounts Van Sant is a shy man, and he's certainly a quiet one, not naturally given to giving long answers to quite involved questions, some of which came from the audience, but most of which came from a professional on-stage interviewer. Nevertheless he held the audience for the 30 minutes he had on stage, intercut with excerpts from his earlier work. He was self-deprecating and told some amusing anecdotes, such as how he spent 6 years trying to persuade Universal to support his 'shot by shot' remake of Psycho before Good Will Hunting's awards success suddenly turned a studio's position of 'Not interested' to 'That's a fantastic idea'!

While dismissing critics opinions, particularly with regard to the highly controversial Psycho, he seemed to admit that in this particular case they might have been right, saying that the film made him realise that simply copying shots isn't enough to recreate something, and that Hitchcock himself was the main ingredient that made the original film work, an ingredient that was clearly missing from his own remake despite featuring an 'exact' copy of each original scene.

I was surprised, watching the Good Will Hunting film, to see Ben Affleck's brother Casey Affleck in the film, thinking him a very recent recruit to the world of film acting (he is sensational in Gone Baby Gone, The Assassination of Jesse James and Lonely Jim), but Van Sant revealed that actually the much-publicised relationship between himself and 'new to film' Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, came about through him knowing Casey.

I'm a big fan of James Franco's work (and NOT just because he's so pretty, although I'm sure that probably helps!) Perhaps best known as Peter Parker's best friend Harry (aka the son of The Green Goblin) in the Spider-Man movies, or as the front-man for the current Gucci "men's fragrence" magazine campaign, his best performances have been in movies like In the Valley of Elah, Pineapple Express or even the critically mauled Flyboys. He's an incredibly versatile actor, and gives another excellent performance in Milk.

So it's disappointing to report that in person he comes across as a bit of an inarticulate, rambling, empty head - at least if his long-winded, content-free replies to the couple of questions directed his way at tonight's Q & A are anything to go by. It seems to be the pattern with really good actors - I remember feeling the same way about a similar Q&A at the same venue with Cillian Murphy around the time Sunshine came out. It's best, I guess, to just judge actors on their work and perhaps only allow them the limelight when they're doing that work, to avoid the shattering of illusions!

So far as the film itself is concerned, it seems unlikely that Milk will win the BAFTA or oscar for 'Best Film', even though it's been nominated. Not because it's not worthy (I really believe it is), but because Slumdog Millionaire seems to be winning all the marketing campaigns, after a slow start where it looked like The Dark Knight (probably my favourite film of last year) was going to be a shoo-in.

Tomorrow (erm, later today), I shall be seeing Slumdog Millionaire, hoping that it's significantly better than director Danny Boyle's last film Sunshine, which proved to be a huge disappointment (by all accounts 'Slumdog' is a significant return to form, so fingers crossed), and on Monday I shall be seeing The Wrestler, if only to see if Sean Penn's most fierce competitor for the upcoming 'Best Actor' oscar Mickey Rourke (I'm not a fan based on his personality and previous work) really does deliver the performance all the critics are saying he does.

Expect my thoughts on these other oscar contenders to follow later this week. In the meantime I highly recommend Milk despite the subject matter perhaps appearing a bit too minority-oriented to be of interest. The film goes on general release in the UK next Friday: 23rd January 2009.