From the archives: February 2004

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Eleven for eleven

Sunday, 29 February 2004 — 11:05pm | Adaptations, Film, J.R.R. Tolkien, Literature, Oscars

That was the most predictable Oscar ceremony ever, but at the same time, entirely devoid of controversy. Most of the vitriol this year can be directed at the shortlisting stage, and was already covered in the previous post.

If there was one film to finally hit the eleven mark again, it was The Return of the King. The clean sweep was clear as soon as it took Adapted Screenplay, the one that was most likely going to hold a consolation vote. But in the context of rewarding the entire trilogy – for after all, it is one movie, only with a split release sequence – well done, Academy.

The big question is, what conceivable project will next hit the eleven mark, or even break it? This may not be as impossible as it seems, given that The Return of the King was a rare winner that received no acting nominations. The sweep, though, could be attributed to both the onus to compensate for the losses of the first two – something that should have been done from the start, and was three years in the making – and a weaker, less competitive field this year. Facing facts for a moment, if The Lord of the Rings was not in the running, it would be a much tighter race, with the well-crafted but just shy of worthy Mystic River taking the prize, but win counts maxing out at five or six. Needless to say, it would be indicative of a relatively sparse year. On the other hand, if that opened the door to Finding Nemo, I would not complain – until it failed to win, that is. But this is all idle speculation.

To hit such an astronomical nomination count, let alone a win count, you need to work with built-in epic material from the start. Ben-Hur, Titanic and The Lord of the Rings are all epic pageantry material. The Last Samurai, on the other hand, is not. It needs to be something that makes everything before it look small.

That said, the one to watch out for next year is Troy, not because it will get eleven Oscars or even eleven nominations, but because it is based on exactly the kind of source material that should poise itself for those numbers, from possibly the one cinematogenic storyteller bigger than Tolkien. But it doesn’t have ten hours to work with, now does it?

What we can expect in the film industry over the next few years is an influx of people trying to make the next Rings, like certain attempts to make the next Titanic (see: Pearl Harbor). The attempted-epic market already saturated itself this year, so let’s not see this trend spiral out of control.

The moment of the evening, of course, was Michael Moore in the midst of a “fictitious war” in the Pelennor Fields.

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Oscar the Grouch

Sunday, 29 February 2004 — 3:25pm | Film, Oscars

With the annual golden statuette announcement coming tonight, here is some obligatory pre-show analysis. For the most part, I will not be discussing predictions; there are other sites who do a far more comprehensive job of predicting Oscars within statistical and socio-political frameworks. As for my judgments on whom I endorse, keep in mind that there are a number of nominated films I have not seen, most notably City of God, House of Sand and Fog and, I am thoroughly ashamed to say, The Triplets of Belleville.

Actor (Leading): This really should go to Paul Giamatti for his note-for-note portrayal of Harvey Pekar in American Splendor, but that was one of a few barely-excusable shafts in the nominee pool. Of the contenders, Bill Murray should receive the prize. His career-best turn in Lost In Translation was subtle, believable, and full of the delicate nuance that was needed to put him on centre stage as an actor playing a washed-up actor.

Actor (Supporting): Tim Robbins. He takes his shivering, guilt-ridden character in Mystic River and runs with it. This calibre of performance should not go unrecognized.

Actress (Leading): Everybody is calling Charlize Theron for Monster, and not having seen that, it is quite impossible to comment. However, where Scarlett Johannson is in all of this is just baffling. Everything that works in Lost In Translation falls on the shoulders of her interaction with Bill Murray’s character. At the same time, it is a pleasure to see Keisha Castle-Hughes recognized for Whale Rider, in what is certainly one of cinema’s great child performances.

Actress (Supporting): Renée Zellweger’s delightful and goofy performance in Cold Mountain was a show-stealer, but was a source of some of the tonal inconsistency that kept the film from being something really amazing. Marcia Gay Harden, however, delivered the best performance of Mystic River amongst an already stellar cast, and in the psychologically crumbling manner characteristic of the entire film. Reward her.

Animated Feature Film: Yes, it’s true that I have not seen The Triplets of Belleville, but unless it’s an undisputed Citizen Kane of animation that revolutionizes the entire medium – and point this out to me if it is indeed the case – there is nothing in the world that should take this away from Finding Nemo, which was already shafted from its deserved spot in the Best Picture final five.

Art Direction: This is a strong category. The Lord of the Rings has yet to win it, having had the misfortune of being nominated beside the gorgeously-designed Moulin Rouge! when Fellowship was nominated. This is not, by itself, the rationale by which it should win. It should win on the grounds of visually emulating the most believable history in any film this year, despite not being a history. In a year without Rings, Master and Commander would have been the clear choice.

Cinematography: Where is Kill Bill, Vol. 1? If it was deferred on the grounds of not being a complete film, that would be acceptable, though Oscar has wavered on this point before (see: The Fellowship of the Ring). These are all strong contenders, however. Ignoring for a moment that my vote would go to the non-nominated Down With Love, I would favour the Depression-era yellows of Seabiscuit or the ocean blues of Master and Commander – leaning towards the latter, as the 1920s look has been done countless times before (the late Conrad L. Hall’s work on Road to Perdition being the most recently awarded, and only one year ago), while few nautical movies have achieved such a consistent tone and feel of being a grand, watery canvas in motion.

Costume Design: See “Art Direction”, word for word.

Directing: Any director who stages the entire Siege of Gondor with such frightening authenticity deserves not only eternal respect, but his first directing Oscar after three consecutive nominations. This statuette should reward vision, and Peter Jackson has shown himself to be a visionary.

Film Editing: Notably missing in action are Kill Bill and Hulk, 2003’s two showpieces of how to cut a film. That said, The Return of the King and Seabiscuit are both deserving for their own reasons. The latter’s transitions between motion picture and sepia still photography add a whole other level of flavour to the piece, and that is not mentioning the exhilirating racing sequences themselves. If Seabiscuit posts a win tonight, it should be in this category, though with the footnote of the two strongest contenders being out of the race.

Makeup: The Return of the King. Pirates is a fully acceptable second choice. Both films do the dead and zombified far better than actual horror movies.

Music (Score): Howard Shore’s work on The Lord of the Rings has been recognized, but the score to The Return of the King is a great listen, and one of the great symphonic scores. It is a distinctly fresh composition as well, not only building minor themes introduced very briefly in the first instalment and developing them to grandiose fruition, but having several thrilling cues to call its own, an exemplar being the Shelob sequence. However, Thomas Newman delivers a Celtic score in Finding Nemo that even upstages the work he did in Road to Perdition, and is one of the supports that make the movie the masterpiece it is. It should be noted that both composers have won in the past two years, and may fall shy of the podium on that account; this would be a shame.

Music (Song): Here is the worst omission of them all: “Here’s To Love”, Ewan McGregor and Renée Zellweger’s duet at the end of Down With Love, the kind of original musical number this prize was essentially created to award. This category has little legitimacy in the first place, but absolutely none if such clear winners are going to be consistently overlooked. As for the rest, it is a hard one to call, though I would not give it to The Return of the King. “Into The West” has the consonance of a fitting conclusion, but is musically weaker than “May It Be” and “Gollum’s Song” before it, largely due to harmonic oversimplicity.

Best Picture: The Return of the King, with the asterisk that for the real version comes out on DVD next year. Someone please tell me what any of the other four are doing here in Finding Nemo‘s place.

Short Film (Animated): I cannot comment on who should win, but the one to watch out for is Destino, the Walt Disney / Salvador Dali collaboration that went unfinished for decades until Roy Jr. resurrected it. The Michael Moore Moment of Oscar 2004 is what happens if Roy indeeds get the win, but Jim Hill explains it far better than I can.

Sound Editing: Three aquatic movies, all of which handle the ocean in a very unique and sonorous way, make this a close one to call. I’d go with Finding Nemo, for the whale.

Sound Mixing: The Return of the King.

Visual Effects: Incredible – The Matrix Reloaded and Revolutions got the Attack of the Clones backlash treatment. Let’s see The Lord of the Rings pull off a one-two-three in this category like Star Wars did twenty years ago.

Writing (Adapted): As biased as I am in favour of The Return of the King, and as likely as the tight and thematically cohesive Mystic River is to win this, this should really go to American Splendor – a movie about a movie about the life of a guy who writes a comic about his life, and done well. As far as concept screenplays go, it is this year’s Memento or Adaptation.

Writing (Original): Lost In Translation, though I would jump up and down in joy, or at least swim around in circles in joy, if Finding Nemo were to be recognized. In all seriousness, though, Lost In Translation is a piece that – as dependent as it was on the strength of its leads – had to start somewhere, and this is where its success begins.

I did not cover the Documentary, Foreign Language and Live Action Short categories, being grossly unqualified to comment on them this year. Stay tuned for a review – or more likely, a few brief remarks – about The Passion of the Christ… for which I am now late. Never mind – expect it later this week.

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It’s the most wonderful time of the year

Thursday, 26 February 2004 — 1:17pm | Studentpolitik

That’s right – the Students’ Union campaign season is well under way. Tuesday night’s Lister Hall election forum was a run-of-the-mill warm-up session, the highlight being Duncan Taylor’s solution to parking lot expansion (“a big laser”). Local uber-hack and reader of this weblog S. Murray “Steve” Smith has more extensive coverage of the forum in the first of his series of Candidate Report Cards, as well as reviews of the campaign literature going around.

Best Poster goes to incumbent Board of Governors Representative Roman Kotovych. Can you dig it?

I will likely post my final endorsements as soon as I am firmly decided on all races. That may not be the case until the Myer Horowitz forum on Monday.

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2003: Film in review

Tuesday, 24 February 2004 — 4:31pm | Capsule reviews, Film

Whenever reading year-end summaries, a lot of people seem to have this fetish for reverse enumeration. This only works some of the time, given that the best films of a given year are typically polar opposites in one respect or another. However, an impetus for a comparative ranking system still remains, for the purpose of honouring the very best pieces as being truly superior.

As a compromise, I will do this in tiers.

The oh-my-God-that-was-the-best-movie-ever! tier: Finding Nemo, The Return of the King. I openly admit to both these films bringing me to tears. In fact, I am proud of it. Both of them are pinnacles of modern cinema to be celebrated five, ten and a hundred years down the road. It should be noted, however, that the current theatrical edition of The Return of the King is subject to the same reservations as was the case with the two preceding instalments: the promise of a superior Extended cut on DVD. For this reason, it is impossible to weigh one of these two masterpieces over the other.

The heart-fluttering-in-love-and-excitement tier: Kill Bill Vol. 1, Down With Love, Lost In Translation. The first two – or one and a half, rather – are masterful emulations of style with note-perfect directorial precision, but on a more general level, are just oodles and oodles of pure fun at the movies. Both are celebrations of the art of cinema itself. Lost In Translation is a mood piece that, by some imperceptible magic woven by Sofia Coppola’s mad filmmaking skills, captures on a screen the exact feeling of being lost or just bored in a big foreign metropolis, and does so with admirable subtlety and grace. All three are worth treasuring, and while none of them will be right for everybody, they remain must-sees.

The also-pretty-good “honourable mentions” tier: Master and Commander, The Matrix Reloaded, Seabiscuit, American Splendor and X2: X-Men United. I will elaborate on my thoughts regarding Master and Commander and Seabiscuit in my hopefully-forthcoming Oscar analysis. Meanwhile, The Matrix Reloaded is the best of the trilogy (a view knowingly shared by few), and Splendor and X2 are the highlights of the post-Spider-Man renaissance of comics on film.

Then there are the slightly more special awards. Seeing as how there are no contenders for “Best Use of a Cow” this year, the conventional ones will have to do.

Biggest waste of my time: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and this is why.

Most crushing disappointment: The Matrix Revolutions, which botched the resolution of pretty much every good idea in Reloaded. Somewhere along the line, the Wachowskis must have thought emulating Star Trek: Voyager was a good idea. Never has a promising multi-film saga devoured its own head with such enthusiasm.

Most improved: X2, which sets a new world record for an increase in quality from the first instalment of a major franchise to its sequel. Everything that was wrong with the first X-Men – and believe me, it was a lot – suddenly got up and fixed itself. I suspect super mutant powers at work here.

Most underrated: Down With Love, the most inventive and polished romantic comedy of the year (Lost In Translation does not quite fall into this category), disappeared from cinemas with only $20 million in the bank and a mixed audience reaction. Apparently, most people just didn’t get it.

Most overrated: This one is a tough call. It’s easy to pick out Mystic River or Cold Mountain, both heavily awarded yet not included in my favourites above, but at a basic level they are still very strong pieces with some of the best ensemble acting in recent memory. It is tempting to pick on The Last Samurai for being the lacklustre movie it is, but it was never that universally praised to begin with. If one reads through the movie reviews of 2003 pumped out by professional critics and amateur audiences alike, the film actually least deserving of the degree of praise it has received is the original Matrix.

More ranting and raving will be coming in short order, though there is an election forum to attend in half and hour, and I need to go prepare some loaded questions for the candidates.

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The amazing disappearing year of 2004

Tuesday, 24 February 2004 — 2:19pm

First things first: Yes, I have seen Cold Mountain, Master and Commander, The Last Samurai and Lost In Translation, as opposed to a month and a half ago. What I did not do over the past month was post the hundred-strong Thailand/Singapore photo album. That will come; patience, little sparrows.

There are a number of reasons why I have decided to resume writing for this site, despite my firm insistence that it was a basic CSS layout experiment from its conception and is intended to be nothing more. The first is that at least three people have requested it offhand in the past three weeks. These people are commonly known as “geeks”, but I appreciate their readership regardless. Of course, if they would make themselves known by way of comments and annotations in response to the decidedly non-controversial things I say here, that would encourage the proliferation of this content.

The second is that the 2004-2005 University of Alberta elections for the Students’ Union Executive and the Undergraduate Board of Governors Representative are underway, and time willing, I intend to fortify this castle in the digital sky with parapets of insightful commentary and moats of extended metaphors. For the time being, this SU Webboard forum will suffice.

The Oscars are also quickly on their way, though this is one of those years where I am not terribly upset with the nomination shortlists. Some recapitulation of the state of film in 2003 is long overdue, but may finally come given that I have caught up on a lot of what I intended to see, and plan to ring in the new year by making this coming weekend’s The Passion of the Christ the first release of 2004 I bother attending.

Stay tuned, as I have all afternoon to kill, and will write like the wind – a wind with a pen. Or keyboard.

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