Wednesday, February 01, 2006

You're a winner in my eyes, Maria

I really don't know what else to say about the Oscar nominations that were announced in the wee hours of Tuesday morn (ok, it was 8:30am here, but that's criminally early for a deep sleeper like me, k?) - everyone has already picked them apart better than I ever could. Needless to say, the results were fairly underwhelming, but I can't really complain (for the most part; see below) because I had a feeling that they'd be rather conventional this year, no surprises (I said as much in my predix). The biggest letdown was the Directors' category, which matched Picture 5/5 and did not feature any expected surprises like Cronenberg, Meirelles, or Wong. And although I liked Munich (how the hell did it rebound so well?), I was hoping that Spielberg would be snubbed to make room for a newcomer; does he really deserve yet another nomination? If the acknowledgment were for something truly great and transcendent like A.I., that'd be another story altogether.

And I'm just going to bitch about this snub one last time before putting it to rest (although I will forever remain hardened and bitter) - Maria Bello. Oh my dear Maria Bello. This was easily the best female performance of the year (yes, even above Joan Allen) and the Academy is going to look incredibly stupid and ignorant (Snubbed in favor of whom? Baity Frances McDormand??! Are you fucking kidding me?) in the months and years to come. This is worse than Paul Giamatti's snub last year for Sideways (and no, even if he's going to win for Cinderella Man, that doesn't make it all right, damn it!). I'm really buying Nathaniel's reasoning that voters were too intimidated by Bello's sexually dominant and non-submissive wife approach. Explicit sex is only allowed in this category if you're playing a prostitute, nor does she fit the weepy suffering spouse model (a la Jennifer Connelly). And before you point out that stunning dinner table scene at the end, you can read her expression in many ways - tears of defiance, mixed love/hate, disappointment, confusion - but not as a victim. Not only did she deserve to be nominated in this category, but to win it hands down, no contest, end of story, sorry you lose Frances.

I wrote these reviews during an uninspiring lecture today. Forgive me if they're sloppy, which they most probably are. I'm also trying to be more succint with my write-ups, but obviously that's not happening. Oh, and SPOILER WARNINGS for all:

The Constant Gardener (Meirelles, 05) C+ [Caught between wanting to dismiss it as overpreachy and also needing to acknowledge its noble intentions, I honestly can't make a conclusive statement about this so-called "thriller". Tackling the hypocricies and greed that drive the corrupt pharmecutical "relief" industry in Africa, where the (non-white) human body is made a ground for manipulation, this adaptation of John le Carré's novel has several impressive elements/sequences. The eliptical approach by the screenplay allows us to consider characters and situations from a prism-like lens, where several possibilities are offered for consideration (who is protecting whom? can we trust person x?). The film is a success in that the two-hour running time feels half the length - fast-paced and (sometimes choppily) twisty, it keeps the viewer easily engaged. Plus, Meirelles has assembled a fine cast to bring his vision to life; Ralph Fiennes is luminous as always (understated grief is more effective than breakdown city a la Naomi Watts in 21 Grams-o), and (likely Oscar-winner) Rachel Weisz is sensational as the ballsy humanitarian, whose presence is felt throughout the film even though she pretty much fades from the screen about an hour in. But primarily, the idea of a man trying to "find" and discover more about his late wife after she has passed is an incredibly moving one (the final scene between Justin and Tessa is more touching than all of Cameron Crowe's indulgent Elizabethtown, which similarly posited its protagonist as learning about his late father, post-funeral). Gardener may juggle several admirable themes/ideas, but the subtle approach to the love story is what makes us watch and invest in the story. The movie's failings? Foremostly, Meirelles's direction is needlessly overwrought (lookitme!!!) and ridiculously stylized in the worst moments. That leads to his questionable manner of capturing Kenya's native population - every man, woman and child is "seen" and their poverty aestheticized, but ultimately their voices are not heard (which results in a dehumanizing effect). This issue is a mountain unto itself, so I won't touch it right now. Even more exasperating is the film's last twenty minutes, where everything comes too neatly together and even the villains get their (dramatic) comeuppance. Optimistic? Yes. Realistic? Not particularly. It certainly moved me, in spite of my issues with it. So you can perhaps appreciate how I'm very torn here, very torn indeed. Interesting as a comparison piece to Darrell Roodt's 2004 film Yesterday, which tackles the AIDS crisis and overall lack of access to health care in South Africa.]

Ran (Kurosawa, 85) B+/A- [What I love about this director's re-workings of Shakespeare is that he does not worry so much about extracting plot material as he is honoring the core themes of these plays. In this King Lear imagining, Kurosawa envisions a medieval past where a god is absent; in the place of a loving, benevolent deity, only the forces of evil, betrayal and devastating irony are in play. The film is disturbing in its pessimism and bleakness, and although the bright colors of red, blue and yellow are strongly represented, they are dominantly employed in scenes of war, devastation and murder. Ran features some of the most shocking battle scenes ever committed to celluloid. In this respect, Kurosawa has opened up the text and made it a true epic, in every sense of the word (yes, in terms length as well, which I'll certainly address). One of the most satisfying changes from the original work (most notably, the Gloucester subplot is deleted) is how the wives of the Lord Hidetora's sons are given voices, especially Lady Kaede who skillfully exacts revenge on her father-in-law for having murdered her family and appropriating their land. Ran will delight Shakespeare nuts and non-fans alike with its expansive scope and stunning images (Hero's Zhang Yimou owes much to this film), but there are drawbacks. Kurosawa's handling of the Fool figure (a character who is more perceptive and wise than any other person in the play) is problematic, transforming him into an outright clown who throws tantrums when exasperated with Hidetora's descent into madness. The film's unrelenting length (almost three hours) is not justified; the final act falls into repetition more often than you'd believe. But these are small quibbles; Ran overall is a Kurosawa/Shakespare knockout (the masterpeice Throne of Blood is also a must-see).]

Last Days (Van Sant, 05) B+ [What a pleasant surprise. Gus Van Sant's final installment in his unofficial "Death Trilogy" ends the saga on a high note without repeating ideas from its excellent predecessors. Although many have pointed out the somber and depressing elements of this dreamy hypothesizing about Kurt Cobain's (called "Blake" here) final hours on earth, was it wrong that I read Last Days as an (intentionally) uproarious comedy? Rather than sit back in stunned silence (as with Gerry and Elephant), I found myself laughing at every other moment in this film. At first, I was disturbed about my reaction (inappropriate?), but as the movie went on, I figured that Van Sant was taking a tongue-in-cheek approach to both poking fun at as well as giving tribute to Cobain, the grunge movement of the mid-90s, as well as its passionate adherents. Van Sant strides a fine line between revering his subject while at the same time exposing his inner-workings and humanizing him to the point where we just see him as a crazy, smelly, non-sensical human being. But although Michael Pitt's brilliant, amusing performance has its entertaining moments, van Sant is more interested (at least to me) in driving home the vapidity and selfishness of Blake's idiotic band members and groupies, who are perpetually stoned and strung out. Blake is always shown separate from the rest of the group and despite the fact that can never express himself in speech with more than a mumble, there is a suggestion that he is operating on a creative level of consciousness much higher than his fellow "friends". The only way he can fully articulate himself is through his music, and sure enough, this is the only time he is coherent and direct. Also fascinating is a sequence where Blake is composing something that sounds suspiciously like a suicide note and in the background, several church (?) bells begin to ring together in tandem, possibly positing - if not salvation - the release from the pain and disappointment of this world. By the time we reach the end, we feel not sorry for Blake's demise (represented through a hilarious, bizzare effect), but rejoice in the fact that he is moving on to a greater, less demanding world where he can simply create, explore and be... without distraction and social pressure.]


JavierAG said...

re: Oscar. Sigh. Maria is also my best supporting actress of the year. (Rachel is Lead in my world). A horrible, horrible snub.

re: Gardener. Basically what I thought about the movie's strengths and weaknesses. But I'm just so glad that you saw it and were torn - clearly the sign that there's something very special about it (which I think there is).

re: Ran. "Hero" was my favorite movie of 2002 so I'll HAVE to check this out. I must see more Kurosawa.

when's your top 10 coming out? ;)

Ali said...

What other Kurosawas have you seen? This was only my third, but I can already understand why his reputation is as high as it is. If you loved Hero, you will definitely fall for Ran - every frame is perfect.

My top ten? Er, not for a while. Too often I jump the gun every year, only to regret inclusions after the fact (or when something better comes along on video). I still need to see several more films, but thank you for the interest. Anyways, I'm sure you know what will appear!

JavierAG said...

I've only seen some early Kurosawa. "Seven Samurai", "Throne of Blood", "Yojimbo". I admire them and everything, but wouldn't place them in my personal list of favorites. However, I am dying to see "Rashomon", which sounds just like my kind of film, and of course his late works, "Ran", "Kagemusha" and "Dreams". Should be fun :)

Nick M. said...

javierag: "Hero," aside from stealing Rashomon's narrative paradigm, has nothing to with Akira Kurosawa. The director, Zhang Yimou, of Hero even comes from a different country (China, not Japan).

Ali: What films by Kurosawa have you seen? You've seen Rashomon, right? RIGHT!?!

Oh, and what is your 2005 movie count? I broke 90 recently -- I think I only have a few to go.

Ali said...

Javier - Having seen little of Kurosawa myself, I look forward to hearing your thoughts in the coming months on those same titles. This year, my goal is to see his entire filmography (other directors I'd like to do the same for are my pal Bergman [halfway there], Woody Allen, Abbas Kiarostami and Shyam Benegal).

Nick - I'm sure Javier knows Zhang and Kurosawa originate from different countries. ;) Indeed, Hero shares little with Ran in terms of plot/subject matter, but I was only arguing that there are scenes in the Zhang film that seem to have been blantantly lifted from this Lear re-imagining. Watch it, and you'll know exactly what I'm talking about (namely the staging of the battle scenes).

I've seen 88 films from 2005 (I'll hit the 90 mark this weekend with Mrs. Henderson Presents, Downfall and maybe Kings and Queen). Some of those can be counted towards 2006, but I'm too lazy to separate them right now.

Er... um... have not seen Rashoman, but now I suppose I'll have to. The three I've seen - Yojimbo, Throne of Blood, and Ran. I have Seven Samurai on my computer - I should get around to watching it one of these days too.

JavierAG said...

Nick: Yeah, I kinda now a little about Zhang Yimou, him being one of my favorite directors and all ;)

Ali: Indeed, I hope to write some auteur retrospectives this year (Kurosawa included), given that my blog is somehow called "Auteur Lust" (!). Yeah, I should definitely write something about directors for a change, haha ;)

jesse said...

I hear ya on CONSTANT GARDNER... there's so much to admire, and yet's there's something almost undefinably unsatisfying about it.

I'm waiting for your thoughts on MYSTERIOUS SKIN. Not that I can say much, since it's been about two weeks since I've seen it and no comments yet from me...