Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Oscars 2009: Shaking up the show

Well, that was certainly different. And overall, pleasant for a change of pace. No, not the outcomes, which were rarely in doubt - the show. Not everything worked, but points to first-time producers Laurence Mark and Bill Condon for trying to shake things up.


1. Hugh Jackman: The man wears a tux better than just about anyone in Hollywood. Also, he was utterly at ease on stage, which you don't generally see in Oscars hosts. So what if his two musical numbers were rather unremarkable? He sold them with pizzazz and charm to spare. And I'm still laughing at "'The Reader'...I haven't seen 'The Reader.'" (Frankly, my dear, you shouldn't bother - your dance was far better worth watching.)

2. Anne Hathaway: Can really sing. Who knew? And looked lovely - for once her makeup didn't make her look like a clown. And she seemed genuinely happy just to be nominated and praised by Shirley McLaine.

3. Making the Kodak more intimate - something to do with the stage, I think, which was so close to the audience that Hugh could (literally) sit in Frank Langella's lap. It added to the cabaret feel of the show, by no means a bad thing.

4. "Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto." With that closing line, the coolness quotient of the Japanese guy who won for Best Animated Short went up by 1000%.

5. James Franco and Seth Rogen. I haven't seen "Pineapple Express," but that comedy skit was damn funny.

6. The Ledger family's acceptance of Heath's award. Quiet and classy.

7. Danny Boyle doing the "Tigger bounce" for his kids when he accepted for Best Director. Adorable. While I may not be enamored of his movie, I'm totally happy for him. (Aside: doesn't he look a little like a jollier, less crazy Dennis Hopper?)

8. Kate Winslet's dad whistling to her to signal where he was in the audience. That was awesome. And a hell of a whistle.

9. Sean Penn staying true to his colors - yet showing humility. I actually missed his speech because my stupid DVR cut off the recording at Best Actress (yes, I should have known the Oscars would run over; yes, I'm a DVR novice), but as soon as I heard he'd won I knew he would (1) speak out against Prop 8, and (2) bootstrap other, totally gratuitous political commentary. Sure enough, he did both. Sean is Sean, and I kind of love him for his bleeding-heart earnestness. But he was surprisingly subdued (for him), and his comments came across as heartfelt rather than blustering. Though I'm sure half the country probably hates him more than ever. I also loved the self-deprecating observation about how he makes it hard for us to honor him. No question in my mind he deserved to win. At the same time, I'm a little sad that Mickey didn't get it.


1. The "Slumdog" sweep. No surprises there, just disheartening. The only award it didn't pick up was one of the Sound awards (forget which one), and it still got the other one. I ask again, what in the name of Mumbai is the big deal about this movie?

2. Having past acting winners come out and pay tribute to present nominees sounds like a nice idea in theory, but in practice, the speeches were uneven and many of them felt canned. Plus I didn't like the fact that they replaced the clips of the nominated performances. I love the clips! (Even if they don't often do a good job picking them.)

3. I love musicals, but that musical tribute was a bit of a hot mess. The cuts between songs were whiplash-inducingly abrupt (I later learned Baz Luhrmann had directed the sequence - figures). And do we really need Beyoncé, bless her heart, to perform at every Oscars show? Plus, if they wanted to give a shout out to the genre, they should have done it last year when there were more movie musicals that were actually good.

4. The dead people's montage: Epic fail. Queen Latifah sang well, but the camera was moving so much and at such a distance from the montage screen it was impossible half the time to see who was being honored. Except for Paul Newman, who of course closed it out.

5. Futile attempts to appeal to the teen demographic. I've now seen enough of Zac Efron, Vanessa Hudgens, Robert Pattinson, and Miley Cyrus to last several lifetimes. Please give them a rest for the next ten years, Academy? Please?


1. Jack Black and Jennifer Aniston: Worst Comic Pairing Ever. Could their lines have fallen any flatter? And for pete's sake, learn enough about French pronunciation not to butcher the names of the nominees. "LA MAY-ZAHN N PETTY CUBES" is not French, thanks.

2. Reese Witherspoon's dress: gack!

3. Whoopi in leopard print: double gack!!


1. Ben Stiller's impression of Joaquin Phoenix was pretty funny. It was also a little cruel - that is, if you believe, as I do, that Joaquin has seriously gone off his rocker. Guess a Christian Bale impression would have been bleeped to high heaven.

2. Overall fashion trends: As at the Golden Globes, the dresses were mostly tasteful and kind of blah; lots of neutrals and soft, fluffy folds and drapings. Loved Frieda Pinto's blue dress - I don't care if people think it was too old for her, it stood out from the pack. And she's so pretty. Old my foot. Also loved Melissa Leo's copper-colored gown. She just looked so poised and elegant.

3. Amy Adams' two-ton necklace, which I've seen referred to, rather hilariously, as the "Skittles necklace." It's a bit much, but it really made her eyes snap. (Speaking of which, for any L.M. Montgomery fans out there - wouldn't Amy Adams have made a perfect Anne of Green Gables?)

All in all, an enjoyable show, but not a barn-burner and still. too. long. And I'm not just bitter because of the DVR thing. Next time I'll remember to tack on that extra half hour.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Oscars Predictions Time

The Oscars are this Sunday, and I can't remember the last time I've been this unexcited about the competition aspect of the ceremony. First of all, the big winner of the night is a foregone conclusion: Adding to the pile of awards it's already amassed this season, "Slumdog Millionaire" is clearly going to take the big prize of the night. And it will most likely win every other Oscar for which it's been nominated (nine total, including Picture).

There's more suspense to be had in the acting races, it's true. Will Sean Penn edge past Mickey Rourke, who seems to have the momentum going into the homestretch? Will Kate Winslet, after being an Oscar bridesmaid five times, finally vindicate Ricky Gervais by landing the golden boy, that maddening tease, for her first Holocaust movie? Will dark horse Viola Davis overtake early frontrunner Penelope Cruz? Will Heath Ledger...nah, I'll stop there, that one's not in question. Just not.

And even if the main event - the ultimate crowning of "Slumdog" - is a nonevent at this point, there's still the show itself, which attempts another change in format and style, embodied in the choice of host. I don't think it'll do a thing for the ratings (they should've nominated "The Dark Knight" for Best Picture if they wanted those), but I have to admit I'm thrilled about Hugh Jackman, much more so than I would have been about any of the usual suspects. While he may not be a comedian, all reports indicate the "boy from Oz" is an entertainer extraordinaire. Will he sing? Will he dance? Will he take his shirt off? Um, probably not that last, but a girl can hope for all three anyway, can't she?

Anyway, here are my predictions for the winners. Too bad I was so uninspired I didn't even enter or start an Oscars pool. Watch me be right on everything for once.


Nominees: "Slumdog Millionaire"; "Milk"; "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"; "Frost/Nixon"; "The Reader"

Will win: "Slumdog." To quote the movie itself, it is written. Or it might as well be.

Ought to win: "Milk." Not without flaws, but easily the strongest movie of the five.


Nominees: All the directors for the above films - Danny Boyle for "Slumdog"; Gus Van Sant for "Milk"; David Fincher for "Benjamin Button"; Ron Howard for "Frost/Nixon"; Stephen Daldry for "The Reader"

Will win: Danny Boyle

Ought to win: Again, among this lot, Van Sant. He made "Milk" into something edgier and more poetic than the standard biopic it could have been, and gave plenty of breathing room for the rest of the cast to shine while still highlighting Sean Penn's incredible performance. Still, I'm ok with Boyle winning, more so than his picture - he makes some interesting stylistic choices with the material in "Slumdog," even if the movie as a whole didn't come together for me.


Nominees: Meryl Streep, "Doubt"; Kate Winslet, "The Reader"; Anne Hathaway, "Rachel Getting Married"; Melissa Leo, "Frozen River"; Angelina Jolie, "Changeling"

Will win: Winslet, by a hair, over la Streep. Not everyone may be enthralled by this specific performance from Kate (I know I wasn't), but most are agreed she's overdue for her Oscar.

Ought to win: I haven't seen "Frozen River" or "Changeling," but as between the other 3, I actually think Hathaway did the unthinkable and upstaged both Streep and Winslet. Her performance was truly a revelation.


Nominees: Sean Penn, "Milk"; Mickey Rourke, "The Wrestler"; Frank Langella, "Frost/Nixon"; Richard Jenkins, "The Visitor"; Brad Pitt, "Benjamin Button"

Will win: Total toss-up between Penn and Rourke, but as of post time, I give the edge to Rourke. Penn's already won an Oscar, and everyone loves a comeback kid.

Ought to win: This, too, is a toss-up, but here I give the edge to Penn for what I believe to be the best performance of his career. For once, he didn't overplay it; he let us see the hero, but also the flawed man underneath. That said, Rourke was splendid and I'll be very happy for him if he wins.


Nominees: Penelope Cruz, "Vicky Cristina Barcelona"; Amy Adams, "Doubt"; Viola Davis, "Doubt"; Taraji Henson, "Benjamin Button"; Marissa Tomei, "The Wrestler"

Will win: Cruz, though this is the category that can surprise...so don't count out an upset by Davis

Ought to win: Cruz was very good, but "VCB" was so slight a film it didn't really register with me. Davis was excellent in a small and to my mind, problematic, role (I never found her character in Doubt totally convincing, though she plays it well), but I think I was most moved by Tomei as "The Wrestler"'s female counterpart.


Nominees: Heath Ledger, "The Dark Knight," and...are the rest even relevant? Ok, ok: Philip Seymour Hoffman, "Doubt"; Josh Brolin, "Milk"; Robert Downey, Jr., "Tropic Thunder"; and Michael Shannon, "Revolutionary Road"

Will win: Ledger - his win is the only thing more certain than "Slumdog"'s win for Best Picture

Ought to win: I haven't seen "Tropic Thunder" or "Revolutionary Road," but I do think Ledger deserves this, posthumously or no.


Nominees: "Milk"; "WALL-E"; "Frozen River"; "In Bruges"; "Happy-Go-Lucky"

Will win: Probably "Milk," though "WALL-E" also has a shot

Ought to win: I won't opine on this one since I haven't seen 3 of the 5 nominees (shame!)


Nominees: "Slumdog Millionaire"; "Benjamin Button"; "Frost/Nixon"; "The Reader"; "Doubt"

Will win: Duh, "Slumdog"

Ought to win: Among this rather weak bunch, "Frost/Nixon," I think - it did a good job transferring a talky play to the rather different medium of the big screen. But really, I can't muster up much enthusiasm for any of these nominees


In addition to Picture, Director, and Screenplay, "Slumdog" is also up for Editing, Cinematography, Score, Song, Sound Mixing, and Sound Editing, and as I said, I predict it will take them all. Except maybe the sound awards, which could go to "WALL-E." Though "Benjamin Button" will be shut out of the majors, it'll likely pick up Art Direction and Makeup, and possibly Costume Design, though "The Duchess" seems too sumptuous to ignore in that last category. "WALL-E" will easily win best Animated Feature, "Man On Wire" will win Documentary, and I think "Waltz With Bashir" will edge out "The Class" for Foreign Film. I won't even bother to guess on the shorts - my recommendation if you're guessing is to choose the ones with the titles you like the best.

We'll see how I do! Stay tuned for my post-Oscars recap, Sunday night or Monday.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Talking, and lots of it, permitted in this "Class"

THE CLASS (Entre les murs)

directed by Lauren Cantet
based on the book Entre les murs by François Begaudeau
starring a lot of non-actors, including Begaudeau

There's a lot of talking in “The Class,” and most of it leads to no resolution. That’s the hallmark of a French film, and it may sound maddening to varying degrees, depending on your tolerance for dialogue that doesn’t directly advance the plot. But there’s no denying that this willingness to follow the natural ebb and flow of conversation tends to produce remarkably nuanced films with far more complex social and character dynamics than their American counterparts.

This quality crosses all genres of film, and “The Class” is a perfect case in point. In its broadest outlines, it follows a bright, dedicated young (white) teacher at a minority-heavy junior high school over the course of a year, focusing on his efforts to do right by his assigned crop of diverse, unruly students. Yet it stands out from the umpteen movies Hollywood’s turned out that fit that description, in that it contains not a single moment of schmaltz, false melodrama, or inspirational speechmaking. What it offers instead is a close-up view of one teacher’s day-to-day struggle to keep these restless, prematurely jaded adolescents in line and at least marginally invested in what he has to say. Nothing about “The Class” will move impressionable young viewers to rush into public school teaching; in fact, it will probably resonate most deeply with those who are already teachers in similar circumstances, especially those who have tried to “make a difference” and succeeded only partially—or not at all.

Director Laurent Cantet takes a documentary-style approach to the film, an adaptation of the book Entre les murs (Between the walls) by François Bégaudeau, which he based on his own experience as a teacher. Bégaudeau, who helped write the screenplay, also stars as the teacher-protagonist, François Marin, and proves a natural screen presence. The film was shot at a real school in Paris (though not Bégaudeau’s) using the actual students, who mostly played themselves or versions of themselves, and the script was in large part either improvised or discussed collaboratively with the students. This no doubt accounts for its authentic, unforced feel, and a fly-on-the-wall sense of really being in a classroom as an entire school year almost imperceptibly passes by. Indeed, if the film has a weakness, it’s how close that sense verges on claustrophobia, as the camera almost never moves beyond the walls of the school. But that, of course, is in some ways the very point of the entire exercise, as the original title of both book and film suggest, and serves only to underscore the fact that in real life, even the most motivated teacher can do very little about the forces that affect a student outside the classroom.

All this is not to imply that “The Class” is overly remote or cynical in its perspective. Quite the contrary, it’s far more thought-provoking, and its few emotional punches more effective, than a more sentimental film would be precisely because of its restraint. While some of the acerbic back-and-forth between Marin and his students is amusing, nearly every such exchange reflects the larger social and cultural frictions that extend outside the school and are never explicitly addressed. These frictions also play out among the students themselves, and not always in ways the casual viewer might expect or even immediately recognize. Even Marin himself is caught off-guard at times, and being only human, makes human errors that unintentionally results in serious problems for one of his most charismatic yet most troubled students, a powder keg named Souleymane. That narrative arc ultimately leads to a subtly affecting scene in which Souleymane is forced to act as a translator between his mother and the school disciplinary board—and which, without being in any way overplayed or overwrought, crystallizes all the tensions that the film has been quietly observing all along.

While there’s no feel-good ending either to Souleymane’s story or to Monsieur Marin’s year, the film concludes with a truly lovely last scene that shakes the kaleidoscope again and comes up with yet another view of the sociocultural mélange at their school, and one that carries a tinge of hope. For even as “The Class” refuses to paper over the gulfs that divide teachers and students, it also delivers a constant reminder that some people will always strive to bridge them.