Sunday, January 25, 2009

And the Oscar goes to...

In lieu of the Oscar Nominations announced on Thursday (Jan 22, 2009), I have thought long and hard about who I want to win and who deserves an Oscar. I have mainly staked my focus on Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, Best Supporting Actor and Best Picture. After all, these are the only ones people really care about, right?

Actor in a Leading Role
Richard Jenkins - The Visitor
Frank Langella - Frost/Nixon
Sean Penn - Milk
Brad Pitt - The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Mickey Rourke - The Wrestler

This one was a tough call. Some credence must be given to Frank Langella and Sean Penn for playing two real people so excellently. It's tough making Richard Nixon seem like a sympathetic character when most of history portrays him as nothing but a crook. Yet, it is no easier playing a gay activist as a very heterosexual tough guy. Both performances are stunning though. The audience seems to forget they are looking at two actors playing their roles but rather seem to get a glimpse into history. With that being said, I picked Mickey Rourke because despite Langella and Penn's fantastic portrayals, it is Rourke that outshines the rest with his vulnerability and complete immersion in his character. It was like he was no longer acting, but just being (perhaps he was "being" since the movie seems to almost reflect his acting career). Ultimately, as a spectator that is what you want from an actor, true honesty in the character. Of course, I must acknowledge Brad Pitt and Richard Jenkins in their stellar performances, but I just don't think they hold a wick to Rourke's candle.

Actress in a Leading Role
Anne Hathaway - Rachel Getting Married
Angelina Jolie - Changeling
Melissa Leo - Frozen River
Meryl Streep - Doubt
Kate Winslet - The Reader

What can I say? Kate Winslet is a brilliant actress. In fact, all the actresses nominated did a wonderful job, but it's Kate's vulnerability in her portrayal that sets her apart. Every subtle emotion can be seen with just an expression of her face. She can express a thousand lines with just one glance and that is because she mastered actually feeling those emotions instead of acting them. What's more she portrays a Nazi prison guard so honestly that you can feel the humanity within that character. You want her to win the court case despite the atrocities. Lately it seems everything Kate does turns into gold and this performance is no exception.

Actor in a Supporting Role
Josh Brolin - Milk
Robert Downey Jr - Tropic Thunder
Philip Seymour Hoffman - Doubt
Heath Ledger - The Dark Knight
Michael Shannon - Revolutionary Road

If Heath Ledger had not been nominated, Michael Shannon would have been my pick. He excellently plays a man jaded to the point of insanity by the culture around him. I could sense his madness without coming across as stereotypical or shticky. And for that matter, Robert Downey Jr's hilarious farcical character was so lovable he outshone all of his cast members. Nevertheless, Heath Ledger's performance as the joker was so maniacal and so psychopathic that you never saw Heath Ledger the person in there at all. With that being said, he was never over-the-top. He played this malicious character subtly and so psychologically that you could believe there is a man this evil. My choice is not based on the fact that Heath is gone, but rather on the fact that he truly deserves it as an actor. He delved so deep into the Joker that he ceased being an actor.

Actress in a Supporting Role
Amy Adams - Doubt
Penelope Cruz - Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Viola Davis - Doubt
Taraji P. Henson - The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Marisa Tomei - The Wrestler

Viola Davis was golden in Doubt. She basically stole the scene from Meryl Streep and that is a very hard thing to do! Her screen time is probably less than ten minutes but her anguishing performance as a mother doing anything for her child, even accepting that he is a homosexual being molested by a priest, is the most memorable and most climactic moment of the film. The pain permeated from the screen and into every mother's heart that has had to deal with doing what's actually right and doing what's right for their child. This underrated actress deserves some recognition for a beautifully crafted portrayal.

Best Picture

This choice probably comes as no surprise to anyone. Slumdog's brilliance is incomparable. Danny Boyle, Loveleen Tandeen (co-director: India) and Anthony Dod Mantle (DP) bring a visually magnificent film. The slums of India never looked grander, not to mention as romanticized. Boyle and Tandeen manage to pull performances out of their actors that are truly heart-wrenching and you can't help but want to adopt one of those cute little kids. The storyline itself is original and unique in subtly tracing India's tumultuous history. The love story is never overdone and despite it's expected "Hollywood ending" the means of getting their are exceedingly creative. All the films nominated are, of course, excellent. The special effects of Curious are mind blogging as well as it's innovative plot. The Reader is exceptional in it's treatment of a very sensitive era that seems to be overdone and yet it does not feel that way in this film. Milk is gorgeously filmed (did you see that reflective whistle shot?), but also sympathetic in its portrayal of a history. And Frost/Nixon is so exciting and well-acted that you almost think you are right there helping Frost nail Nixon. In the end though it is Slumdog that captured my heart and I think it deserves the win.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Unresolved Feelings in Cinema Paradiso

After seeing Cinema Paradiso for the second time, I think I enjoyed it even more. As I mentioned in my previous post, movies with atypical endings always appeal to me. These endings do not necessarily wrap the plot up into a neat package. As David Bordwell puts it in his essay "Classical Hollywood Cinema: Narrational Principles and Procedures," the Hollywood "classical ending is not all that structurally decisive, being more or less arbitrary readjustment of that world knocked awry in the previous eighty minutes" (21). Most Hollywood films have made it a point to give its audience a nice pretty ending in order to satisfy, in my opinion, some cathartic need. We would all like to think that if a problem arose in our lives that it would be solved as easily as it is in most films. 

However, Cinema Paradiso presents us with the story of Salvatore Di Vita (Salvatore Cascio), or "Toto,"a little boy obsessed with cinema. He befriends Alfredo (Philippe Noiret), the town's only film projectionist, despite Alfredo's hesitation. We see the growth of this friendship through the years and Alfredo soon becomes a pseudo-father for Toto, who lost his actual father as a child. The story is presented to us as a flashback, but for the most part we do not see a clear cut problem that needs to be resolved by the end of the film. Instead we see Toto as a grown man (Jacques Perrin) remembering his experiences with Alfredo, particularly because Alfredo has died. Ultimately, there is no resolution to this "problem" of Alfredo's death.
Toto's life might have been "knocked awry" as Bordwell puts it by Alfredo's death, but that never gets resolved. Perhaps by the end, it has become even more awry with Toto feeling unsure about the life he has chosen to lead. Years earlier, Alfredo told teenage Toto (Marco Leonardi) to never look back, to never come back to their town of Giancaldo, because in the end the past will only hold you back from going forward. Toto never did go back and he never saw or wrote to Alfredo.  

Structurally, Alfredo's death was not the problem but the starting off point for the plot. By the end, we are not sure if Toto has accepted Alfredo's death, and thus in a way resolves his problem. The movie ends with Toto finally getting all the clipped love scenes that Alfredo had promised him when he was a boy. Their is closure for neither Toto nor for the audience. Alfredo died without seeing Toto ever again and Toto never saw him either. Most certainly, the ending is a bit gloomy. Yet, it seems fitting since other aspects of the film did not get wrapped up either, such as what happened with Elena (Agnese Nano). 

The movie veers from the typical Hollywood ending and leaves us with unresolved feelings. To me, this is more true to life. When someone important in our lives dies we often do not get closure. But I believe the movie ends in the way that it does with the clipped love scenes because ultimately the movie is  about the splendor of film and in leaving these clips for Toto behind, Alfredo reminds him of the bond they shared. 

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Film and Its Pretty Packages

According to Walter Benjamin in his article, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," film is all about the camera and that "the audience's identification with the actor is really an identification with the camera" (sec. VIII). This assertion that the audience is keen to the movements of the camera more so to an actor's performance intrigued me. As a theater enthusiast (and occasional actor), I have always thought that what grabbed me in a movie or play was the actor's performance. Yet, now I am beginning to reconsider this. 

I recently saw Doubt, a film adaptation of a play by John Patrick Shanley, and I commented to my mother that I although I enjoyed the film, adaptations of plays have to be treated differently cinematographically than any other type of film. Benjamin even says that "there is indeed no greater contrast than that of the stage play to a work of art that is completely subject to or, like the film, founded in, mechanical reproduction" (sec. IX). Because a play is written to work around the the problems of audience visualization, such as by complex staging or over-the-top acting (at least in comparison to film acting), this can be problematic in film which relies on the camera to give the audience its visualization. In a play, the audience's gaze can wander and take everything in, but in a film adaptation of a play the focus immediately is set by the camera onto the actors' interactions. This can prove to be dull especially since audiences are used to more fast paced cuts and displays of distinct images. Therefore,  I think it is important for a director and cinematographer to carefully plan how to bring a play onto a very different medium such as film, because it is possible to make great adapations. Plays turned into films, like The Laramie Project and Angels in America, worked beautifully because they were treated with film conventions rather than keeping theater conventions.

Mechanics aside, film for me is more than just how a camera moves or the quality of the sound. Film affects how I see the world in numerous ways. As Benjamin puts it, film "burst this prison-world asunder by the dynamite of the tenth of a second, so that now, in the midst of its far-flung ruins and debris, we calmly and adventurously go traveling" (sec. XIII). Movies always transport me to these other worlds that I might never get to experience in real life. I could be in London one minute fearing Jack the Ripper and then in a VW Bus driving to a beauty pageant. Movies let me explore on a far cheaper budget. Yet, movies have screwed me over, so to speak. They have made me believe that all of life situations have a happy ending. Prince Charming is indeed out there; back-up will come at exactly the right time, just before my head gets blown off by the villain; the bomb will be diffused with exactly one second left; and if kidnapped I will be found. I admit, I enjoy happy endings. After all, why do I need a reminder that life can be abysmal with a sad ending? Nevertheless, those movies lacking happy or concrete endings are refreshing because they are more realistic. At times you just want to blame movies for giving you these crazy expectations for life and so realistic endings can be comforting in the sense that life is not always wrapped up so easily. Movies like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Y Tu Mama Tambien, and Fight Club are some of my favorites because of their unconventional storylines but also because of their unconventional endings. 

When I first saw Fight Club at the tender age of 12, it really shook my perceptions of the world. Here was this cool and vastly different guy (wrapped in the gorgeous body of Brad Pitt), Tyler Durden, telling me that, "You are not special. You are not a butterfly or unique snowflake. You're the same decaying matter as everything else." Fight Club showed me the banality of consumerism and the freedom of accepting life for what it is, a harsh and sometimes unforgiving place with darkness all around. This is not to say that my whole world view changed after watching this movie, but I was still intrigued, especially after a lifetime of Disney movies and love stories. Fight Club was really one of the first movies that made me consider the merits of the weird and unconventional. Its assertion is that life is not always a neat and pretty package meant to be coped with by escaping into our mental caves, but rather embraced and explored for what it is. 

Ultimately, film will always be a form of escape for me because movies are, after all, fantasies: people we wish we could be, places we wish we could go, and things we wish we could do. Film enables me to see the world through a camera, but maybe someday I can see the real thing.