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!

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