The perfect ending.

The 81st annual Academy Awards, for the film year 2008.  The nominations were announced on 22 January 2009 and the awards were held on 22 February 2009.

Best Picture:  Slumdog Millionaire

  • Milk
  • The Reader
  • Frost/Nixon
  • The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Most Surprising Omission:  The Dark Knight

Best Eligible Film Not Nominated:  The Dark Knight

Rank (out of 84) Among Best Picture Years:  #45

The Race:

The Festivals and the Summer:

The race began in a shadow before the previous years Oscars even had their awards ceremony.  Heath Ledger died in January of a prescription drug overdose while The Dark Knight was still in post-production.  Ledger’s role as The Joker was already being talked about for a potential Oscar nomination, but after his death the buzz continued to grow as everyone waited for what was certain to be the biggest film of the year.  When the film opened in July it shattered box office records and the reviews were overwhelmingly positive.  The bulk of the good press went to Ledger’s performance, but a lot also went to director Christopher Nolan, who seemed poised to break through into the Oscar race (he had been nominated for his screenplay of Memento in 2001).

With no major contenders coming out of Cannes (the best films suited to capitalize – Clint Eastwood’s Changeling and Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona – hadn’t gotten the requisite buzz to move into the Best Picture race), the only other film in the Oscar discussion at this point was Wall-E.  But while the newest Pixar film also had excellent reviews, its box office had been eclipsed by one weekend of The Dark Knight.  When the Venice Film Festival began in August, it didn’t look like the field was expanding much.  There was the new Coen Brothers film, fresh off their Best Picture win, but Burn After Reading seemed too odd for the Academy.  There was The Wrestler, but director Darren Aronofsky’s previous film, The Fountain, had been completely ignored by the Academy.  That left Rachel Getting Married as the only film with real Oscar buzz coming out of Venice.  Also from an Oscar winner (Jonathan Demme – his first film in 5 years), it also marked the best reviews of Anne Hathaway’s career and a full departure from her Princess Diaries days.  But like, The Wrestler, with its big comeback role for Mickey Rourke and the Woody Allen film, it seemed most likely to end up in the writing and acting categories than the big prize itself.  In the meantime, the continued critical and commercial success for The Dark Knight was only raising hopes that Ledger would be joined with multiple Oscar nominations for Nolan.

Toronto:

In 2007, Toronto had firmly established itself as the Oscar showcase, with 4 of the eventual nominees playing at the Toronto International Film Festival.  Rachel Getting Married and The Wrestler kept themselves in the Oscar race with their North American debuts while the film exploding with real buzz was Slumdog Millionaire, a film from director Danny Boyle about India while Happy-Go-Lucky, the new film from twice nominated director Mike Leigh also earned good press (also debuting was a new film called The Hurt Locker, ten months before its theatrical debut and a full year and a half before it would win the Oscar for Best Picture).

The Fall:

Though Slumdog had not yet opened, it was suddenly in the midst of the Oscar race.  But that was fine, as a lot of its competition was from films that also hadn’t opened.  There was Doubt, with Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams, from the hit play about a priest accused of abuse.  There was Frost/Nixon, the new film from Oscar winner Ron Howard.  There was The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, the adaptation of the Scott Fitzgerald short story that had been long in the planning stages with many directors and was finally being released with David Fincher and Brad Pitt teaming up again.  There was also Revolutionary Road, the re-teaming of Titanic couple Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, directed by Oscar winner (and Winslet’s husband), Sam Mendes.  And Winslet would potentially be competing against herself for the Oscar with The Reader, from Stephen Daldry, whose first two films had both earned him Oscar nominations.  And Milk, the long-planned biopic of Harvey Milk, from former nominee Gus Van Sant with Sean Penn in the starring role.  Yet, Slumdog, with a 14 November release, would beat them all into the theaters.  It would be a heavy final release sprint.  Slumdog opened small and slowly opened wider and wider, garnering great reviews and solid box office as it went.  And by the time the awards groups started the official season, it was all still guesses as to how good the films would be, if they could match up to the hype and go the distance.

The Critics Awards:

The National Board of Review began the season by giving Best Picture to Slumdog Millionaire.  But, in typical NBR fashion, they split the awards and gave Best Director to Fincher (they hadn’t given both awards to the same film since L.A. Confidential in 1997).  This was followed by the L.A. Film Critics, and they went with Wall-E for Picture and Boyle for Director.  But no one was quite sure that the Academy would go for an animated film when they had their own category, so it was Slumdog that really gained momentum.  Several films had been released now and they were all making good money in limited release, but one weekend of Benjamin Button beat all of them, and none of them could compare to Wall-E or the astronomical box office returns from The Dark Knight.  The New York Film Critics chimed in, giving Best Picture to Milk but Director to Mike Leigh.  Then the Boston Society Film Critics split Best Picture between Milk and Slumdog and gave their Best Director award to Gus Van Sant.  Then the Chicago Film Critics gave Picture to Wall-E and director to Boyle (while also giving Best Supporting Actress to Winslet for The Reader, sparking hope that Winslet could end up nominated in both categories).

The Golden Globes:

The Golden Globes suddenly shifted momentum.  The Dark Knight, which had won three critics awards for Ledger, and Milk which had won Picture and Director once, plus 4 awards for star Sean Penn were each nominated for their main performance.  While Slumdog, Benjamin Button and Frost/Nixon, which were widely expected to do well, were in with Picture, Director and Screenplay nominations, they were joined in both categories by The Reader and in Picture and Director by Revolutionary Road and in Screenplay by Doubt with all of the films but Slumdog earning at least one acting nomination and Doubt earning four (and Winslet in separate categories).  The Comedy category, meanwhile, was a competition between Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Happy-Go-Lucky, neither of which at this point appeared headed for the Picture race.  By the time of the awards, a month later, and Slumdog swept the awards, it was on a roll (with Winslet also winning both awards).

The Other Awards:

The Broadcast Film Critics Association, which was the new Oscar barometer, did nothing to clear up the momentum confusion.  Eight of the nine major contenders (Slumdog, Button, Milk, Frost/Nixon, Dark Knight, Doubt, Wall-E, The Reader) were in the Best Picture race with Boyle, Van Sant, Fincher, Nolan and Howard nominated for Director and Doubt replacing Dark Knight in the Screenplay race.  This almost killed Revolutionary Road‘s chances, which weren’t helped with subpar box office results.  Then came the guilds and a picture began to emerge.  For the first time since the Producers Guild began giving out awards in 1989, the same five films earned nominations from the PGA, the DGA and the WGA (and the American Society of Cinematographers for good measure).  It was looking like Slumdog, Button and Frost/Nixon would indeed be joined by Milk and The Dark Knight.  But the caveat was that the year before Into the Wild‘s good fortune at the guilds failed at the Academy in favor of Atonement, which had almost no guild support.

But then came the BAFTA nominations.  Slumdog, Button and Frost/Nixon were all in for Picture, Director and Screenplay again.  Milk was nominated for Picture, though not for Director.  But the final film was The Reader, with Director, Screenplay and Actress among its nominations (an ominous sign for Winslet that she could not repeat her Globe double win).  The Dark Knight had earned 9 nominations, but had been shut out of the three biggest awards.

On the eve of the Oscar nominations, it looked like Slumdog, Button and Frost/Nixon were sure bets in the major categories.  Milk was most likely in for Picture and was the only major contender that was an original screenplay.  That left the final slots open for The Dark Knight, or possibly The Reader, or maybe even Doubt or Wall-E.

The Results:  All five Best Picture nominees were also nominated for Director and their scripts.  But the big news was that The Dark Knight wasn’t nominated for any of them.  It had been pushed out in all three categories by The Reader.  The guilds had been over-ruled again.  Benjamin Button was in the lead with 13 nominations – the most since 2001.  But everything was breaking so hard towards Slumdog that it was hard to imagine anything else managing to push it aside.  Milk had 8 nominations and was expected to win Original Screenplay and probably Actor.  Because Kate Winslet was only in for The Reader, she was expected to win for that – the film’s best hope among its 5 noms.  Frost/Nixon also had 5 nominations and as it hadn’t won anything yet, its luck wasn’t expected to change.

Sure enough, following the nominations Slumdog started sweeping everything (even the box office – between the nominations and the awards it out-earned the other 4 nominees combined).  It won the PGA, DGA, WGA and SAG Ensemble and took home 6 BAFTAs including Picture and Director.  Once Oscar night began, Benjamin Button took home three early technical Oscars, Milk won Original Screenplay and Actor and Winslet won Actress.  But Slumdog won 8 of its 10 nominations (losing once to itself for Original Song); the only film that managed to beat it in any category was The Dark Knight in Sound Editing (though Ledger also won).

But, the year wasn’t really over.  Because, as a likely result of the Dark Knight snub, a new rule would come into play.

Danny Boyle does it again.

Slumdog Millionaire

  • Director:  Danny Boyle
  • Writer:  Simon Beaufoy  (from the novel Q & A by Vikas Swarup)
  • Producer:  Christian Colson
  • Studio:  20th Century Fox
  • Stars:  Dev Patel, Frieda Pinto, Anil Kapoor, Irrfan Khan
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Editing, Cinematography, Original Score, Sound, Sound Editing, Original Song (“Jai Ho”), Original Song (“O Saya”)
  • Oscar Points:  510
  • Length:  120 min
  • Genre:  Drama  (Romance)
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Box Office Gross:  $141.31 mil  (#16  –  2008)
  • Release Date:  12 November 2008
  • Metacritic Score:  86
  • Ebert Rating:  ****
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #1  (year)  /  #74  (nominees)  /  #26  (winners)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Editing, Cinematography, Original Score, Sound, Sound Editing, Original Song (“Jai Ho”), Original Song (“O Saya”)
  • Nighthawk Points:  490

The Film:  In the summer of 1996, I went to the theater to see Trainspotting.  I hadn’t seen Shallow Grave, so this was my first experience with Danny Boyle as a director.  And I loved it so much that I went back twice more.  One of the things I loved most was how the film came back around to the beginning.  So, in those closing moments, we again get those words “choose life” and we again see the film’s title scrawl across the screen.  I was reminded of that in the theater, watching Slumdog Millionaire, ending the only way it could, with Jamal walking across those tracks to Latika, finding her scar, pressing his lips to it, and then holding her in his arms.  But then it got so much better when that line slowly comes into view: D: It is written.

Which, of course, brings us back to the beginning.  We are watching as the screen informs us that Jamal, a chaiwala, is one question away from winning “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire”.  We are offered four choices: A: He cheated, B: He’s lucky, C: He’s a genius and D: It is written.

It doesn’t take us long to discover that Jamal didn’t cheat.  He’s lucky to be on the show in the first place, mainly getting in because he works at a phone company with someone who worked on the phone system and knows exactly when you need to call in to actually get through on the line.  He’s a gopher at the phone company, making enough to support himself in one of the largest cities in the world, the city in whose slums he grew up in before fleeing the darkness of those slums, only to return in search of his long lost love.

This is what we begin to find out in a truly magnificent way of showing us both how he knew the answers and how the life that began in the teeming slums on the wrong side of the river in Mumbai have lead so close to his destiny, not just on the show, but in his life.  And we very quickly discover that luck has nothing to do with it.  When the two biggest events of your childhood are that you jumped into a pile of human feces in order to get an autograph of your favorite film star (only to have your older brother trade it) and that your mother was killed before your eyes, there isn’t a whole lot of luck going on.  And when the one time you could be considered lucky, when you escape a horrible fate, also drives you away from the girl who has become the third musketeer to you and your brother, luck is hardly working hard for you.

There isn’t a whole lot of genius going on either.  Jamal can’t tell the police inspector who’s demanding answers from him who is on the 1000 rupee note (Gandhi), but he has learned lessons from his own life, all of which seem to provide a string of answers for him.  He is able to explain all of this to Irrfan Khan, the very talented Indian actor (from The Namesake and A Mighty Heart) who is harshly demanding answers from him, but is basically a decent fellow.  Not so decent is Anil Kapoor, the swarthy game show host who is not pleased at all that this lowly gopher has come so close to the grand prize on the highly watched show.  Both Khan and Kapoor provide great supporting performances and keep the film riveting.

But the key role is that of Dev Patel, as the adult Jamal (the three main roles – Jamal, his brother and Latika, the love – are played by three different actors and appropriately so, they are all given equal footing in the end credits).  He is energetic, smart, funny and desperate.  He is oh so desperate in his hopes to win the show because he wants to win the money to fund a new life for him and Latika.  After fleeing Mumbai until their teen years, Jamal and his brother return and they find Latika, but they also find another life of darkness and eventually Jamal is separated from his brother, who this time betrays instead of saving him, and flees with the girl he knows his brother loves more than anything.  But, through a string of circumstances, they find themselves reunited as adults and Jamal has his chance finally to find love.

Some films demand endings other than the easy happy one.  Joe Gillis needs to fall dead into the pool.  Rick needs to walk away from Ilsa and let her get on that plane.  Alvy needs to not end up with Annie.  But other films demand their happy ending.  They work better for it.  And so, as we move towards the end, as slowly learn that everything in Jamal’s life has lead to these answers, that this is indeed his destiny, we know what has to happen, we know that he has to win, that he somehow has to find Latika, that they have to have their happy ending.

And so we come again to that train station, late at night.  And Jamal seeing her, and running across those tracks to take her in his arms and as they kiss, up comes those words again, and they work so well because we have indeed seen that everything in Jamal’s life has lead to this moment.  D: It is destiny.

And that would be it, one of the most vibrant, fun, well-made films (the editing is first-rate as we move among the various stories and how Jamal keeps coming back to his image of Latika, the cinematography in the shots of the slums and the world of India is perfect, the music is alive and inspired) of the year.  The best film in a year with two excellent contenders (Milk and The Dark Knight).  And then, as the music comes up, as we read those words, we get something more.  We get one of the single best end credit sequences in the history of film.  We move through that train station, and interspersed with the credits (with them showing us the actors as they list them, which should be demanded by law) we get that wonderful dance number to the song “Jai Ho”, one of the single best original songs written for a film in the last 20 years.  And that stays with you and stays and stays.  It is written.

You gotta give em hope.

Milk

  • Director:  Gus Van Sant
  • Writer:  Dustin Lance Black
  • Producer:  Dan Jinks  /  Bruce Cohen
  • Studio:  Focus Features
  • Stars:  Sean Penn, James Franco, Josh Brolin, Emile Hirsch, Alison Pill, Victor Garber
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Actor (Penn), Supporting Actor (Brolin), Editing, Original Score, Costume Design
  • Oscar Points:  340
  • Length:  128 min
  • Genre:  Drama  (True Story)
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Box Office Gross:  $31.84 mil  (#89  –  2008)
  • Release Date:  26 November 2008
  • Metacritic Score:  84
  • Ebert Rating:  ****
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #2  (year)  /  #84  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Actor (Penn), Supporting Actor (Hirsch), Supporting Actor (Brolin), Supporting Actor (Franco), Editing, Cinematography, Original Score, Art Direction, Costume Design
  • Nighthawk Points:  445

The Film:  I first learned who Harvey Milk was through association.  My senior year in high school I read a book called And the Band Played On: Politics, People and the AIDS Epidemic by Randy Shilts.  The death of Harvey Milk hangs over the early pages of the book like a shadow.  It almost seemed like a prelude to what would be coming.  The gains that gays had made in San Francisco, gains that were high-lighted by the election of Harvey Milk as a city supervisor, began to dim when Milk was assassinated by his former fellow supervisor Dan White and then the shadows grew into the ever-increasing darkness of what was first called gay cancer and then eventually became known as AIDS.  And it turned out that Harvey’s death was the first of many in a long dark decade of loss.

That book had a profound impact on me.  In one college application, assigned to write about a book that had made a difference to me, I wrote about Shilts’ amazing chronicle of the first seven years of the AIDS epidemic.  And the epidemic seemed to show no signs of slowing.  Those were prominent years in the art about AIDS – within three years of the first time I read the book, Arthur Ashe’s autobiography came out (and his death, which shook me badly), we had “The Last Song” by Elton John, Philadelphia, Shilts’ third book Conduct Unbecoming (his first had actually been a biography of Harvey Milk called The Mayor of Castro Street – if you watched Milk, you really should read the book as well), about the issue of gays in the military, Jeffrey, and the most important: Angels in America.  And Angels in America actually brings us back to Milk.

Milk is the story of Harvey Milk, who died on November 27, 1978.  Angels in America is a fantasia on AIDS, taking place seven years later (with an epilogue sets another five years after that).  So what connects them?  Well, a common theme.  Harvey Milk, in spite of the prejudices he faced, in spite of how many times it took him to win just one election, in spite of the national views that seemed aligned against him, never stopped fighting.  He made tapes to be listened to in the event of his death by assassination, and his making of those tapes form the framing device of the film, as he narrates the story of his life.  But, look at that life.

He came west from New York in the seventies and found a city that had the same kind of machine politics.  Even the gay community had a kind of machine politics and the problem Harvey had wasn’t that he was gay but that he wasn’t the right kind of gay guy that the machine wanted to run for office.  But he kept pushing.  He found himself a life in the Castro, surrounded by friends, and his was such an outgoing, gregarious personality, that he kept expanding his inner circle, drawing in more and more people devoted to him.  There was Scott Smith, who Harvey went West with (played very well by James Franco in the first film that really showed what kind of actor he is capable of being).  There was Cleve Jones, the young political science major that Harvey inspired and who would, in those dark years after Harvey’s death, surrounded by so many other deaths, would be the man who would come up with the AIDS Names Quilt – one of the most touching, inspiring ideas to ever link groups of people together in their loss and grief, and whose presence would be one of the most prominent in And the Band Played On (played even better by Emile Hirsch, in a truly great performance).  There were enemies, to be certain, enemies like Dan White, the very straight-laced Catholic supervisor from the more conservative part of the city (in a performance from Josh Brolin so far from No Country for Old Men that it shows you just how much range he has).  But that only brought in more allies, like Anne Kronenberg (played very well by Alison Pill – hell everyone in this film is very good, it’s a magnificent ensemble film), who helped him finally win an election to the city’s board of supervisors.

As Harvey, one of several elected officials in one city, became a national figure through his opposition to Anita Bryant and the Briggs Initiative, he became a major leader in his city and in the gay community, reminding everyone that all men are created equal and that we can accomplish whatever we set our sights on.  But he was threatened by many and his personal life had become a bit of a shambles.  He was constantly faced with the threat of assassination.  And he was trying to deal with White, who had quit his position, but now wanted back in and was coming unhinged.

Faced with all of this, we have Harvey slowly speaking his narrative into a tape machine in a dark apartment (the performance by Sean Penn is further proof of what a magnificent talent it – this is worlds away from any previous performance he had ever given and he had already won an Oscar – he absolutely deserved this second one).  So, in the depths of darkness, faced with depressing aspects that could easily cripple another man, living a way of life frowned upon by most of the country around him, he tells his story, knowing full well that these tapes are designed to be heard only if he has been killed.  And what are the last words that he reads, the last words on film?  “Life, without hope, is not worth living. You’ve got to give them hope. You’ve got to give them hope.”  Which brings us back around to Angels in America, and that final epilogue, where one man with AIDS stands there, still alive, still filled with hope, in spite of the death that has surrounded him, the death that is staring him straight in the eyes.  And what does he say to us, staring straight into the audience?  “We won’t die secret deaths anymore.  The world only spins forward.  We will be citizens.  The time has come.  Bye now.  You are fabulous creatures, each and every one.  And I bless you: More Life.  The Great Work Begins.”

And so there we have it.  You’ve got to give them hope.  The world only spins forward.  And those notions were on my mind late in the film, when Scott Smith and Anne Kronenberg walk into City Hall for a memorial service for the slain mayor and supervisor and find almost no one there.  “Doesn’t anyone care,” Scott asks.  So they leave and they turn to head towards the Castro.  And then their faces are lit up with candles, the candles of thousands of people marching forward in memory of their fallen leader.  And then, just to show us this isn’t film hyperbole, we get a larger shot of the march and this isn’t film.  This is television footage from the actual march.  And then the film ends with those words of Harvey’s and I could barely hear them because I was still crying, crying that he begun the second those faces were lit up with the candles.  Because he died believing that you have to give them hope.

Harvey Milk believed you had to give them hope.  That was 1978 and he was about to die.  Tony Kushner wrote that the world only spins forward.  That was 1991 and AIDS was raging.  Justin Kirk spoke Kushner’s words on television.  That was 2005 and 13 states had just passed measures defining marriage as being between a man and a woman.  Sean Penn spoke Harvey’s words on screen.  That was 2008 and Harvey’s state of California had just banned gay marriage, effectively negating thousands of already preformed marriages.  Now it is late 2012.  We now have a President who believes in the right of gay marriage.  We have two states that have just passed amendments allowing for gay marriage, the first such measures to go before the people of a state for a vote and pass.  I have kept saying Kushner’s words for years now.  The world only spins forward.  And it looks like that is finally being borne out.  Because people kept Harvey’s words alive.  “Life, without hope, is not worth living. You’ve got to give them hope. You’ve got to give them hope.”

Kate Winslet finally wins the Oscar. Oh, and she gets naked. Again.

The Reader

  • Director:  Stephen Daldry
  • Writer:  David Hare  (from the novel by Bernhard Schlink)
  • Producer:  Anthony Minghella  /  Sydney Pollack  /  Donna Gigliotti  /  Redmond Morris
  • Studio:  The Weinstein Company
  • Stars:  Kate Winslet, David Kross, Ralph Fiennes
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Actress (Winslet)
  • Oscar Points:  230
  • Length:  124 min
  • Genre:  Drama
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Box Office Gross:  $34.19 mil  (#82  –  2008)
  • Release Date:  10 December 2008
  • Metacritic Score:  58
  • Ebert Rating:  ***.5
  • My Rating:  ***.5
  • My Rank:  #20  (year)  /  #276  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Actress (Winslet), Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography
  • Nighthawk Points:  100

The Film:  There is something to be said for a great film made from a great book.  Not just genre works, like the visionary worlds of Tolkien and Rowling coming so vividly to life, but works more established in the literary canon, like A Passage to India or The Grapes of Wrath.  To see such a great work come to life on the screen is a moving and rewarding experience.  Now, that being said, for most films, the original source material is something to grow from.  True, with any novel that gets adapted, there will be those who love it.  Certainly, no matter the literary qualities, or the qualities of the film, there were people flocking to The Help or Twilight because they wanted to see what they had imagined in their heads up on the screen.  Which brings us to The Reader.

Now, The Reader is not a great film.  It is a very good film made from a very talented director who is clearly a big favorite among the Academy (he’s directed four films – two of which were nominated for Picture and Director, another just for Picture and another just for Director).  It also has the Kate Winslet performance that finally broke through after years of her being the Oscar bridesmaid.  Here she was in her sixth Oscar nomination, finally winning the Oscar (which is incredible when you consider that she was still only 33).  The film clearly had big support among the Academy to overcome guild and big office favorite The Dark Knight, to oust it in all three big categories.  And that, combined with some extreme melodrama set around a serious tone meant that many considered it the weakest of the Oscar bunch (it was derided in one review as Schindler’s Lust).  But, to be fair, The Reader is a very good film, with a very strong cast, another great performance from Winslet (though I think she really should have won for Revolutionary Road – the stronger of her two performances), another excellent performance from Ralph Fiennes, first rate cinematography and a good overall look to the film.

But let’s get back to my first paragraph.  The source material.  The Reader is based on a novel by Bernard Schlink, an Oprah book that had become a big success because, well, because she could turn any book into gold.  But this is not exactly Steinbeck or Forster.  This gets back to the heart of the Alfred Hitchcock films.  Not only is it not necessary for a source novel to be good for the film to be good, it is often easier to make a good film from a bad book than it is to make one from an excellent book.  For one thing, you can often have more leeway in terms of changes made, but also because great prose can often be difficult to adapt, while turgid prose can be passed over through a larger focus on plot and dialogue (the easiest good books to translate are ones that are very heavy on dialogue for their tone – witness something like The Maltese Falcon or The Commitments).  The Reader is a schlock work, a piece of literary crap with a rather ridiculous revelation at the core of the story.  And while that does become the biggest problem in the film (the idea that this would be the overwhelming secret she would feel she needs to protect, given the other things that have happened in her life), there are other things which work around it.  The bad prose and stilted dialogue in the romance between the young man and the older woman are glossed over in great cinematic shots (involving, yes, Winslet naked, but there are a lot of films that involve that) and minimal dialogue.  We can watch their interactions rather than having to slog through it in the book.

So what exactly am I getting at?  Well, that between Winslet, Fiennes and the two gifted cinematographers (Roger Deakins and Chris Menges), this is a strong film.  It shouldn’t have made Best Picture, even in an admittedly weak year like this, but it’s still considerably better than two of the actual nominees.  It is a film with some problems, but whose core overcomes that.  The book is a melodramatic pile of crap; you should skip it.

This could have been so good instead of being History for Dummies.

Frost/Nixon

  • Director:  Ron Howard
  • Writer:  Peter Morgan (from his play)
  • Producer:  Ron Howard  /  Brian Grazer  /  Eric Fellner
  • Studio:  Universal Pictures
  • Stars:  Frank Langella, Michael Sheen, Oliver Platt, Sam Rockwell
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Langella), Editing
  • Oscar Points:  195
  • Length:  122 min
  • Genre:  Drama  (True Story)
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Box Office Gross:  $18.62 mil  (#120  –  2008)
  • Release Date:  5 December 2008
  • Metacritic Score:  80
  • Ebert Rating:  ****
  • My Rating:  ***
  • My Rank:  #38  (year)  /  #355  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  none

The Film:  Perhaps the problem is me.  Perhaps I know too damn much about Richard Nixon.  But I just couldn’t get past the decided upon style for this film.  You have to make decisions about your audience when you make a film.  And those decisions can have some consequences.  I watched Frost/Nixon, and I saw all these talking heads, all of them trying to give context to what was going to be happening, what had happened, what is happening, and I thought, No, Damn It, No!  You have to have some trust in your audience.  If you’re going to make a film about politics, about a historical political event, then you have to go into it thinking that your audience has some idea of what the hell your subject is.

This film lost me early on.  Because I know a hell of a lot about Richard Nixon.  Ironically, I didn’t know that much about the Frost/Nixon interviews because most of my reading has focused on Nixon’s presidency.  But I didn’t need these simplified plot reductions on the side.  This isn’t Warren Beatty’s Reds, where we have the witnesses to provide context that is now beyond living memory for almost everyone.

This easily could have been a 90 minute film and a dramatic one at that.  The first thing necessary would have been to cut all the talking head moments.  Just show your film – hell, use some captions if you need to.  But just trust in your subject matter, that you can handle it intelligently and that people will understand what you are talking about.  The next thing to do was to cut Caroline Cushing out of the equation.  It doesn’t matter that she was there, it doesn’t matter that she provides a female speaking role in a film that is almost completely devoid of them.  Her character is an unnecessary distraction, one that adds absolutely nothing to the film – she’s just eye candy for Frost to walk around with (this is not a harsh judgment on Rebecca Hall’s performance as Cushing – she does a perfectly fine job – it’s just that the role doesn’t need to be played in the first place).

Frost/Nixon is a wasted opportunity for dramatic filmmaking.  Look at All the President’s Men.  Look at how you let people in on the story with feeling the need to dumb it down.  This is a solidly made film.  It has a strong performance from Frank Langella as Nixon, another good performance from Michael Sheen (if he would stop wasting time in bad vampire franchises he might remember he does real people – Tony Blair, David Frost, Brian Clough – better than anyone else), a good score, and good editing.  Now, if they could have edited out all those scenes where the people feel the need to set the scene up or tell us how important it was, then maybe we could have a solid film instead of an attempt at a history lesson.

Wait. I think I saw this film. Oh yeah. It was called Forrest Gump.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

  • Director:  David Fincher
  • Writer:  Eric Roth  /  Robin Swicord  (from the story by F. Scott Fitzgerald)
  • Producer:  Kathleen Kennedy  /  Frank Marshall  /  Ceán Chaffin
  • Studio:  Paramount
  • Stars:  Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Taraji P. Henson, Tilda Swinton
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Pitt), Supporting Actress (Henson), Editing, Cinematography, Original Score, Art Direction, Sound, Visual Effects, Costume Design, Makeup
  • Oscar Points:  410
  • Length:  166 min
  • Genre:  Drama
  • MPAA Rating:  PG-13
  • Box Office Gross:  $127.50 mil  (#20  –  2008)
  • Release Date:  25 December 2008
  • Metacritic Score:  70
  • Ebert Rating:  **.5
  • My Rating:  ***
  • My Rank:  #54  (year)  /  #386  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Art Direction, Visual Effects, Costume Design, Makeup
  • Nighthawk Points:  65

The Film:  You need to understand who you have and what you can do with them.  Like, for instance, Superman and Batman.  Superman is the ultimate straight-laced role.  It’s a kind of Tom Hanks role – the everyman who really is all about truth, justice and the American way.  Superman is a man with the powers of a god who uses those powers to do good.  Then there is Batman.  Batman is a scarred man, someone who watched his parents’ murder and then focuses all of his rage into his other persona – the Dark Knight who beats bad guys into pulp.  So you have to cast these roles appropriately.  And thus we get to Brad Pitt.  In his best roles – 12 Monkeys, Fight Club, Ocean’s 11, Burn After Reading, Moneyball – Brad Pitt is somewhere very off of center.  There is something clearly wrong with him in those roles and he is able to channel that perfectly.  But then look at the blank spot he occupies on the screen in films like Se7en, Seven Years in Tibet or Troy.  He’s completely wasted in the role of the romantic lead or everyman.  Forcing Brad Pitt into the Tom Hanks type of role is a disaster.

And thus we get to The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.  What could be more of a Tom Hanks role, than the lead role / narrator in a film that is pretty much a copy of Forrest Gump, the film that won Hanks his second Oscar?  And Hanks, who was extremely effective (if overrated) in the role was well-suited.  Pitt, on the other hand, is terrible.  His accent never quite seems real, his narration is bland and boring and he simply never fits the role properly.  One could try to argue that there is nothing less ordinary than a man who ages backwards, but in fact, that’s exactly what the film tries to cover.  It has a very ordinary man in a role that should have been so much more than simply another traipsing through 20th Century history (right down to concluding with Hurricane Katrina, a completely unnecessary distraction).  Pitt is clearly a very talented actor.  But this is the wrong kind of role.  And so part of it is that David Fincher, who has worked well with Pitt (Fight Club) and not so well (Se7en) should have known better.  But let’s face it, the real fault here is with Eric Roth and his script.

Yes, this film is based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Forrest Gump was based on a novel by Winston Groom.  But both films have less in common with their source materials than they do with each other.  In Groom’s novel, Gump became a sort of everyman hero to the world through accidents.  But in the film he becomes an intricate part of history, bumbling from one important moment to another, as Roth clearly had seen both Being There and Zelig and wanted to combine them.  So we get to the Fitzgerald story, about a man who is born and ages backwards into youth.  But that concept and the name of the title character are the only things that carry over.  Everything else is created for the film.  Instead of a satire on late 19th Century culture, including the upper class society of the upper South (the story takes place in Baltimore, not New Orleans) and the Yale / Harvard rivalry we get another run through history.  What works as humor in the book is as played up as pathos in the film.

Which gets to the next problem with the film and this is the one that sent me over the edge.  After Pitt finally gets what he wants – Cate Blanchett in bed (which is creepy, when you consider that he’s an old man when she is a little girl, and he grows younger and hunkier while she grows older and hotter until the two finally reach a moment where that seems okay for them to hop into bed) and impregnates her, he then has to flee.  The agreement seems to be that she can’t raise the child and take care of him.  So he leaves her to it and goes off and wanders the world.  And when he returns she tells him that he was right to leave – that she couldn’t have done both.  Which is complete and utter bullshit.  He’s a fucking coward and she lets him out of it and then the script tries to pawn it on us as the right thing to do.  Because she actually stills ends up with the hardest part of him – as he grows out of maturity and into the darkness of old age (one of the choices made in the adaptation is that Benjamin ages mentally correctly – in the book he is born with knowledge and eventually retreats into the shell of being a baby and lacking understanding – in the film he falls into dementia) she is forced to care for him, after having to raise their daughter without him.  He should have stayed and they should have been in it together, but hey, who wants to watch Brad Pitt do that?  If it was just me getting upset over a decision I felt the characters shouldn’t have made that would be one thing.  Except nothing in the film or in the characters backs up the decision.  The characters didn’t make this decision.  The filmmakers did.

Which brings us to the question of how this could possibly be a *** film I’m describing?  I suppose because it is so well made on several levels that it makes it to that level with the huge gaps in the middle.  It has a very good performance from Taraji P. Henson and a strong supporting cast helping to overcome the gaping lack of anything like a lead performance (Blanchett is okay, but she has been much better).  It has good direction.  And on several technical levels – visual effects, art direction, makeup – it is incredible.  It does a magnificent job of painting a portrait of New Orleans over the course of a century.  It’s just too bad it’s such a mess when it comes to telling the actual story.

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