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Oscar nominations will be announced on February 2.  We’re counting down to the big day by offering some hard-hitting analysis and incisive opinions on the toughest questions surrounding the nominees.  We tend to focus on the “major” categories (acting, directing, writing, picture), but let’s take a look at the artistic and technical categories.  What would you like to see happen in these lesser profile categories?

John: I Am the Grand Poobah of Smaller Categories

I’m having a hard time choosing just one hope for the smaller categories. The three I really care about, The Informant! and Avatar for Score and “The Weary Kind” from Crazy Heart for Song, are already probably nominees. So I’ll highlight a few that were noteworthy to me, all of which I thoroughly like but whose exclusion will not cause me extraordinary pain.

Depression Era” from stalled Hal Holbrook vehicle That Evening Sun for Song. It’s a simple, soulful folk tune from Drive-By Truckers front man Patterson Hood. The Song selection is sort of weak this year but this one stands out.

I’d also like to plump for one of Karen O’s tunes from Where the Wild Things Are for Song; “Hideaway”  and “All Is Love” are eligible. Beyond those mentioned above, some scores that made me sit up and take notice include those from The RoadPonyo, and The Secret of Kells, though I think the final one is ineligible for Score.

I love me some An Education so some recognition in Art Direction and/or Costume would be wonderful.

Finally, how about some love for The Brothers Bloom for the costumes? I didn’t enjoy all of the self-conscious quirky elements of the film, but I did enjoy the clothing, which did serve to develop the film’s offbeat characters.

And, oh yes, I can’t finish without whining again about the obnoxious sound in Star Trek.

Adam: What do tigers dream of? Oscar gold.

Since my Dracula’s Lament piece last year failed to sway the Academy (and yes, most Academy members read our blog), I’ve decided to tempt failure again and make my plug for “Stu’s Song” from The Hangover. Another Hangover piece you say? Yes. While I did thoroughly enjoy the movie, the reason I am picking it again is it is a no brainer for these types of posts – i.e. great movie that will get no love. I would pick Zombieland, but John is a Blog-Nazi and won’t let us pick something that has no shot at any kind of nomination…*cough* LAME *cough* *cough*.

Oh, right, “Stu’s Song”. Apparently humor and originality don’t factor into the nomination process for the Oscars. Like “Dracula’s Lament” last year, this was a hilarious song, well written, and original. What about it makes it unviable? I mean, it’s short, but why does that matter? The video just has clips from the movie, but that actually adds to the song. It’s in a comedy – and I think we have a winner. Once again the Academy shows it’s small-mindedness by completely overlooking a legitimate contender because it does not fall within their comfort zone. Well done.

[As John points out, don’t miss Helms’s tailoring of the song for Conan: http://incontention.com/?p=21285]

Jared: Destroy Visual Effects

I’m really happy John proposed we tackle this question, because I otherwise spend very little time thinking about these categories.  Part of it, I suppose, is that I tend to believe I’m appreciating a movie for its story, so I pay less attention to its visual or auditory approach.  I’m clearly not qualified to talk at all about some of these categories (for the sound categories, if you haven’t already done so, I’d urge you to check out the really cool stuff at SoundWorks Collection).  I’m the last person in the world to notice costume design, for example, but it strikes me as a little odd that so often the nominees are predominantly period pieces.

Anyway, I’m here to plump for 2012‘s visual effects.  Granted, I may enjoy Roland Emmerich’s movies a little more than the next guy.  But the point, I think, is that when you think Emmerich, you think of sh*t done gettin’ destroyed.  Unlike some other films likely to get nominated here, 2012 doesn’t have any sort of coherent storyline or fascinating turn of events.  No, in this disaster movie, you get exactly what you’d expect.  Nonstop, relentless, continuous destruction of every landmark (natural or manmade) imaginable.  But, to me, at least, it doesn’t get boring.  And kudos for that, in my mind, should be placed squarely at the feet of the visual effects crew.  Tasked with creating tons of scenes of destruction, they came through brilliantly, and it seems odd to me that their work could be diminished just because their movie was little more than the results of their efforts.

Brian: Single Man Deserves Recognition — Say What?

I can’t believe I am actually writing a mini-post in favor of A Single Man, considering I found it absolutely boring and pretentious (I rated it less than a 4 out of 10), but I’m pretty surprised to see that it is not expected to be nominated for either Art Direction or Costume Design. If fashion-designer-turned-filmmaker Tom Ford knows anything, it’s style, and his movie has lots of it. Colin Firth is quite particular about his shirts and suits — and while I didn’t enjoy Julianne Moore’s big OSCAR(!!!) scene, her apartment and outfit seemed apropos of both the character and the film overall. Maybe this is just Mad Men withdrawal, as both of them cover the same time period, and both have problems with pacing and that all important thing called “plot,” but I’d be pretty disappointed if Single Man got an Oscar nom for best picture, but was left out for what it did best: highlighting both the cool and the isolation of early 1960s America.

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I love me a good suburban malaise movie. I’ve lived in a variety of types of suburbs and now live in a city so I think I have a good handle on the pros and cons of suburban living. There can be a lot of interesting themes to mine there, not the least of which is that chase for the elusive “American dream.” That’s a broad subject to tackle though, especially for a viewer like me with a “quit yer whining” mentality.

But I really loved American Beauty so I thought Sam Mendes’s return to suburbia might be up my alley. Advanced word diminished my hopes, which even still turned out to be set way too high. The problem is that Revolutionary Road isn’t an effective portrait of the soul-sucking suburbs, it’s just a story of two tools in a bad marriage. They use the oppressive homogeneity of suburban living as an excuse for their crumbling relationship, a potentially interesting topic, but in the end they’re two pieces of work that shouldn’t be married to each other, if anyone, who just subject us to their yelling and whining for two hours. I’d be curious to hear if anyone else found themselves leaning towards one character or the other. I found myself sympathizing with him marginally more; he is a jerk but she’s truly unbalanced.

Revolutionary Road is billed to be this great acting movie, but to me it felt bogged down in its Serious Acting. Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio never felt real (she was a worse offender than him). Or perhaps the style of precise enunciation and showy emotion missed its mark for me; regardless I was not terribly impressed. Supporting Actor nominee Michael Shannon steals every scene he’s in, but he feels like part of a completely different movie. His character also managed to sap any sense of subtlety out of the film; what better way to hammer a point home than to have a crazy person just come out and say it explicitly?

Not all of it is bad, however. A lot of it is quite interesting from a technical or more cerebral standpoint (y’know, if you don’t bother with little things like plot or character). It’s fun to see a film throw itself so completely into its era, especially since 1950s America tends to get overlooked in film in favor of World War II on one side and the swinging 60s on the other. So the sets and costumes, both Oscar nominated, were interesting, as were all the little touches from the time period (like the serious amounts of liquor and cigarettes Kate Winslet manages to imbibe while pregnant, or the glimpses into the business world). And I will say it’s often effective in tone; if more people had seen it it could’ve been responsible for a measurable increase in marriage postponements. For a film with so many missteps it was impressively brutally bleak and mostly earned it.

I also really dug the ending. I wasn’t always fond of where the film leads but for where it does lead the resolution works very well. But then the very final scene killed my good will. If your film has to make an over-the-top, meaning-telegraphing final pronouncement, then make it ridiculously over the top like the absurd rat at the end of The Departed, not stupid and smug like In the Valley of Elah.

Maybe the American dream with its illusory suburban picket fence is just a formidable challenge to take head-on. One of my favorite suburbia movies of recent years isn’t really about the suburbs at all: Brick, a modern noir populated with detached youth and set among the sidewalk-free roads and empty big box store parking lots of the suburbs. Maybe suburban angst works best as a supporting character.

I don’t often get a chance to say it, but: John, you are absolutely right.  Don’t let it go to your head.  To briefly summarize, The Duchess is a conventional costume drama.  Read John’s post for further details on that front, there’s no point in me repeating what he said, but suffice it to say that if the spoof movies (e.g. Scary Movie, Meet the Spartans, Dance Flick) ever get around to doing these type of movies, they probably could just watch this one and do a pretty job on the genre.  I agree that The Duchess could have taken a number of potentially interesting different tacks, but instead decided to play the game as straight as possible.  Which I guess is good if you like your movies as low risk/low reward as possible.

I suppose I should come up with a few original points, huh?  Let’s see.  The movie co-stars Hayley Atwell, who took 2008 as the year to tackle the incredibly specific niche of “The Other Woman In Mostly Failed Oscarbaiting Costume Dramas” as she also fielded that role in Brideshead Revisited.  She’s rather fetching in both films, I thought.  But maybe more importantly, her characters generally added some flavor to the movies, no small feat given the general blandness of the two films.  Indeed, I could see the argument being made that The Duchess could have been more interesting had it focused on her character rather than Knightley’s.

The late, great Fire Joe Morgan blog had this thing about working food metaphors into their posts, so they could add the “food metaphor” tag.  I’m beginning to think I do the same with Starter For Ten.  But surely it is no coincidence that James McAvoy followed starring in that with having a doomed romance with Keira Knightley in Atonement and here Ms. Knightley has doomed romance with Dominic Cooper…who co-starred as McAvoy’s best friend in Starter For Ten.  Ha!  To me, Cooper’s facial features have a certain leonine quality which creep me out a bit, so maybe it isn’t surprising he keeps showing up in these third fiddle roles, but he sure seems to be getting some plum ones (see Mamma Mia!)

Otherwise, the film probably ended up with the Oscar nominations it deserved (Art Direction and Costume Design).  I’m a big Ralph Fiennes fan, and I did think he was pretty great here as the cold husband who just wants a male heir (and to be fair, he was promised Knightley would be good at pumping out a male baby, can you really blame the guy for wanting a contract honored?), but I don’t think he was snubbed, really.  I also like Keira Knightley, sure because she’s breathtakingly pretty, but also because she has actual range.  I’m not advocating Bend It Like Beckham 2, necessarily, but I hope she can add some more non-period films to her slate, maybe even something on the lighter side.

Oscar nominations will be announced on January 22. We’re counting down to the big day by tackling some tough questions and spouting some mad opinions. The final topic: What is your biggest hope for the nominations?

John: Give Jenkins the Recognition He Deserves

I loved me some Richard Jenkins in The Visitor. He did so much with a fairly restrained character without ever seeming one-note or bland. The film loses a bit when it meanders to other topics and characters, but when Jenkins is on the screen it shines. His journey from detached and solitary to a man reengaging with society is entirely engrossing. He’s never showy and he nails his character’s awkwardness and slow gain in confidence. I said last year that I loved Casey Affleck in Assassination of Jesse James for making his character absolutely perfect. It’s a sentiment I extend to Richard Jenkins. Of course that’s partly a writing triumph, but a great performance is what makes it transcend into something very special. I hope voters dig far into their screener pile to find this film released months ago. At this point Jenkins is very much on the bubble and it could go either way. If his name is announced tomorrow I will be very happy.

Brian: Don’t Forget Sarah Marshall

Any love for Forgetting Sarah Marshall. A screenplay is all I really ask for, but a best song nomination wouldn’t be out of the question. Goofy, charming, and sentimental — I’m consistently surprised by the staying power of that film on my Top 5 list.

Adam: Living and Dying With Dark Knight and In Bruges

If anyone is reading this blog at all they would have recognized my love for The Dark Knight and In Bruges (in fact, I saw In Bruges for the second time the other day and it definitely held up). I would love to see TDK sweep the nomination categories as well as the awards. And, it would be nice to see In Bruges get credit for its screenplay, art direction, cinematography, and supporting acting. The art direction & cinematography nods were added to my wish list after the second viewing. The choice of locations, camera angles, and shots are actually very well done. They enhance the story and feel of the movie so subtly that you might not even notice it the first time around, but their effects can not be overstated. I also (and I can’t believe I’m saying this) agree with Brian. A nod to Forgetting Sarah Marshall would be a nice addition to screenplay and song – but I won’t hold out hope.

Jared: Just a Genuine Surprise Would be Nice

Sure, I’m rooting for some long shots to receive nominations (some of which are probably obvious, none of which I’ll be so foolish as to jinx). Most years I’d be hoping not to see certain people get nominated, but I think the only film even sniffing the Oscars that I actively disliked this go round was Synecdoche, NY (with the caveat I’ve maybe three or four movies left to see). But my biggest wish for the Oscar nominations is for my picks to be pretty wrong and to see a good amount of surprises. Part of that desire, to be sure, is the selfish wish for some added excitement to this relatively mundane Oscar season. But I also think there are many nominees who seem to be in the mix just because everyone is resigned to the fact that they should be nominees. I’d love to see some wild cards in there, some picks which really excited people. Sure, preferably they’d be nominees I’d be excited about as well, but if Synecdoche sneaks into the screenplay category and I can bash it for a few weeks, that’d be OK.

That’s it from us. Here’s hoping for some happy Grouches tomorrow morning!

Oscar nominations will be announced on January 22. We’re counting down to the big day by tackling some tough questions and spouting some mad opinions. Today’s topic: We tend to look at what we call the big eight categories in picture, director, acting, and writing. But what about all those other categories, the ones on the second tier on the left sidebar? What are our wishes for nominees in the technical and smaller profile categories?

Jared: Give The Fall Some Visual Love

The Fall may be the most visually stunning film I’ve ever seen.  But don’t take my word for it, here’s someone who actually knows what he’s talking about, and how to express it, Roger Ebert: “Tarsem made one of the most astonishing films I have ever seen. It is all the more special in this age of computer-generated special effects, because we see things that cannot exist, but our eyes do not lie, and they do exist, yes, they really do.”  The only thing more incredible than the visuals in the film may be the fact that none of them were computer-generated.  The style in the lengthy story sequences is nothing short of breathtaking, and the “normal” half of the film shows Tarsem, Ged Clarke, and crew have extraordinary range.  Superlatives cannot do justice to the movie’s visual impact.  Sure, the film went bold where others have done an excellent job with a much more subdued style.  Still, it would be a travesty for The Fall to miss the Oscars.

Adam: “Dracula’s Lament” a Killer Tune

It seems the Academy mainly used a dart board for the selection of contenders for Best Original Song.  The only two in the top 5 contenders rank (in my mind) as songs worth of consideration – “The Wrestler” and “Jai Ho” from Slumdog Millionaire.  I would LOVE to see “Dracula’s Lament” (from Forgetting Sarah Marshall) in serious talks of nominees, but I feel as it is not to be.  Who says a rock/comedy musical number can’t be a serious Oscar nominee?  Can anyone honestly say that when the words “And when I see Van Helsing I swear I will SLAY HIM…AHH HA HA” without thinking “OSCAR”?  Jason Segel’s hilarious/moving song about how difficult it is being Dracula is matched only by its accompanying performance in the film.  How can you NOT nominate a song that comes with its own puppets?  How did Enchanted get 3 songs nominated last year and this doesn’t even warrant consideration?  They should nominate it for the sole reason of the awesome performance it would bring to the Oscars.

John: Kung Fu Panda a Rare Non-Pixar Home Run

Well the other two jerks are talking about my two favorite niche categories in Best Song and Best Art Direction. I’ll have a Song post up in a few days to expound on that as much as I want (expect some Jenny Lewis love) but let me turn to Animated Feature. WALL-E will win and one has to think Waltz With Bashir will grab the second slot (and with the buzz for Bashir maybe it could pull an upset?). But what will go into slot number three? Barring a foreign outsider it’ll be Bolt, Horton Hears a Who!, or Kung Fu Panda. I haven’t seen Waltz With Bashir but Kung Fu Panda was actually my favorite animated film of the year, even beating that cute Pixar robot. (See the list of eligible films here.)

Recent Dreamworks animated films have been too full of pop culture references without being clever or funny enough; Shrek the Third was absolutely putrid. But Panda bucks that trend. It’s genuinely funny – very funny – with an interesting story, great characters, and beautiful animation. I had an absolute blast watching it- it’s the epitome of solid entertainment.

Since I’m pulling together this post I give myself authority to make another pick. Slumdog Millionaire also deserves some love in smaller categories, but some seem so likely that it’s not worth going into them really in depth. Cinematography, certainly, for the way Mumbai comes alive in the film. AR Rahman’s score is lovely and delightfully different for an Oscar film. And let’s get at least one of the eligible songs, “Jai Ho” or “O… Saya” (featuring M.I.A.!) nominated for a fun Bollywood performance on stage at the Kodak Theatre. Maybe not as cool as Jason Segel’s puppets, but close.

That’s what we say. So all you lovers costume, sound, editing, and visual effects, what say you?

Apologies for the horrible title. If it goes on to win Best Picture God help us that headline will be everywhere.

Milk may be the best biopic I’ve ever seen. Admittedly the review of my memory for a better biopic was hardly scientific and this is an invitation to set me straight in the comments and for me to sheepishly agree, but for now I’ll call it the best in memory. It doesn’t fall into the usual traps even good biopics succumb to and it manages to be a message flick without being too preachy or heavy-handed.

From a plot standpoint I think Milk’s life naturally lends itself to an effective biopic. For one, it was short and the most influential times of his life spanned a remarkable short period. He only lived to 48, didn’t move to San Francisco until the age of 39, didn’t run for San Francisco supervisor until 43, and didn’t win until 47, and only served for 10 months. This all makes it easy to keep the film focused in both plot and theme without skimping on the details. For me it was a refreshing change of pace from films like Ray and Walk the Line which felt sprawling and thematically shallow because they had so much to cover over their subjects’ long lives. For this reason many biopics feel like a series of vignettes: in this scene the hero experiences childhood tragedy, in this one he let’s his demons overcome him, in this one he redeems himself, etc… Milk rarely feels like that, instead composing a continuous story. And of course, Milk’s life was dramatic and heroic and he fought for the tried and true ideals of freedom and equality.

The positives in Milk are not by all means inherent to the subject, however. Director Gus Van Sant imbues his film with a remarkable sense of time and place, putting the viewer not just into the life of Harvey Milk but also into his environment. As much as we’re experiencing a great man’s achievements we’re experiencing a period of upheaval in 1970s San Francisco. Again, this is rare for a biopic, which necessarily tend to focus more on their subjects than their settings. The cars and clothing change over the years in Ray, for example, but there isn’t the same depth in setting as there is in Milk.

Van Sant filmed mostly in the Castro neighborhood of San Francisco, even renting the space Milk’s camera shop used to occupy. It was made up to look like the old shop; security guards stationed there reported older residents walking by and getting moved to tears by the recreation.

Beyond that, the story is well told and the characters well developed. The pacing, the level of drama, and the tone always felt right on. And in a time when the gay civil rights movement is gaining attention and traction and Harvey Milk’s state is once again thrust into the spotlight, the message hits home without getting preachy (save, perhaps, that boy in the wheelchair). I found the interspersal of archive footage to be effective and not gimmicky and I loved the opening montage.

Sean Penn is terrific as the title character. He disappears into the role and I in turn lost myself in his performance. The man is simply one of those movie stars that you forget is a movie star when he is on the screen. I also really liked Josh Brolin as Dan White, Milk’s killer. The character is complex and off-kilter and the performance is skillfully and subtly unsettling. If I can agree with one point in Jared’s (I’m sorry to say) remarkably wrong-headed post is that I wish we saw more of White. He is an intriguing character and the film does a disservice to itself by suggesting White did what he did because he was gay. There is no evidence to suggest he was and Dan White’s warped mind was likely more fascinating than explaining away his motives with a false and simple reason. Thankfully there was no scene of him chowing down on Twinkies. (For extra reading, check out this story on White from earlier this year)

As to the rest of Jared’s argument, I know we saw the same movie because I saw it with him. I wouldn’t believe it if I hadn’t seen him there with my own eyes. I guess he wants more sense of context, but I’m not sure how that matters. Who cares how many gay people there were in San Francisco or how many supported Milk? How does that help a story about the man? The film does a remarkable job of developing its environment, but it’s still primarily about the man. I found the context provided and a simple knowledge of history to be more than enough context. Also you namechecked the wrong Brolin there, boss.

You’d have to think one of the supporting actors will sneak into a nomination, if not several. Brolin was my favorite, followed by Emile Hirsch and James Franco. Neither character was as fleshed out or challenging as Dan White, however. Diego Luna was the weak link in the cast, I think.

Elsewhere we can probably expect Best Picture, Director, and Original Screenplay nominations, all well deserved. As far as the technical categories, with those big nominations one would imagine Editing to follow. And, to throw a bone to Jared, art director Charley Beal was also the art director for the pilot episode of “Love Monkey,” so he must have been good.

Finally, does anyone know what the deal is with all the random little barbs directed at Dianne Feinstein? Amusing but strange.

I liked that Changeling has a sharp sense of time and place. I didn’t like that it didn’t have a sense of focus or pacing. I think where it unravels is when it tries to do too much; there are plenty of aspects to it that I found admiral but maybe there are just too many aspects.

The root of the story is the disappearance of Christine Collins’s (Angelina Jolie) son, Walter, in 1928 Los Angeles. Months later the LA police return to her a boy that she insists is not actually her son. She then campaigns to force the police to stop dragging their heels and look for her real son while the police fight her back viciously. It’s certainly an emotional story with Christine trying to keep it together while dealing with the loss of her son and seeking justice. I liked Jolie’s performance, which is generally not showy. Christine is a fairly grounded and very strong woman and even in dramatic moments Jolie plays her with some restraint. Of course there are scenes involving emotional outbursts and those mostly felt earned and genuine.

But the film doesn’t stay focused on Christine’s story. Deep into the runtime it takes an abrupt and dark shift to a farm east of the city. Jolie is offscreen for significant periods of time as the investigation into the farm unfolds. I’ll keep it vague until after the jump to avoid spoilers, but this subplot feels like part of a different film. It is still often effective taken on its own, but it’s too involved and developed of a subplot for a film that should really be focused on Christine Collins.

Then the film begins to feel like it’s spiraling out of control. It goes on for way too long, far past what felt like its natural climax. It’s frustrating because the film feels so promising for so long and each of the scenes and story elements usually works on its own, just to discover as the film unfolds that many are wasted.

From an Oscars standpoint, Jolie will likely get a Best Actress nod and it’ll be well-deserved. As I mentioned at the beginning, despite Changeling‘s thematic and story missteps, to its credit it creates a wholly enveloping and consistently interesting environment. Even during the times I felt the story slipping away from me I found something of interest in the setting. A Costume nomination could certainly be in the cards and I would love to see an Art Direction nomination. The sets and the props were my favorite part of the film. Just take in the architecture, trolleys, cars, and time-appropriate props.

Besides directing, Clint Eastwood also contributed the score, nominated for a Golden Globe. I think it succumbs to indie/artsy guitar plucking far too often, a trend I find ever more obnoxious. The Academy loves Clint, but maybe they’ll go for him for Actor in Gran Torino and shut him out for Changeling.

One weird note is that there is a completely superfluous scene about the Oscars in the film. Christine’s coworkers go out to listen to the 1934 Oscar radio broadcast while she hangs back and happily cheers when It Happened One Night is announced the winner (wouldn’t it be something if the audio used in the film is from the actual broadcast; the Academy jealously guards that footage). All I could wonder is if Eastwood was sucking up; at 130 minutes in I was just ready to go.

It won’t be getting Director or Picture nominations and it shouldn’t. Specifics and theories after the jump. Read the rest of this entry »

The thing about The Duchess is that it’s entirely conventional. It’s a genre pic that plays out exactly as you would expect, with the requisite lush art direction and costume porn. The heroine is trapped in a society that doesn’t permit her to marry the one she loves but her big personality allows her to make her mark on society. Normal stuff for bodice-rippers, but ultimately I think this conventional and competent film is pretty good for the genre.

The Duchess is significantly better than the dreadful Elizabeth series. It’s more engrossing and accessible than the usual Jane Austen adaptation. But I think there’s a limit to how much I can like this sort of movie without it taking some risks and trying something different and The Duchess does not. It’s solid and adequate but nothing new.

Keira Knightley plays Georgiana Cavendish, the Duchess of Devonshire in the late 18th century. Her marriage to Duke William Cavendish (Ralph Fiennes) is political with little personal connection between the two. William really just wants a male heir and generally ignores Georgiana otherwise. Her inability to produce an heir sours their relationship further, to the point of occasional physical and emotional brutality. Naturally there’s a strapping young man who captures Georgiana’s heart, Dominic Cooper’s Charles Grey. And you already know where this is heading: forbidden love, betrayal, a young woman rebelling against an aristocratic society that prevents her from determining the path of her own life.

I found the public Georgiana more interesting than her private dramas. She was a fashion icon of her time and a very vocal supporter and campaigner for the Whig party, making her a larger public figure than her husband. She was an intelligent woman fairly in tune with her society despite her place in the aristocracy. Maybe I liked these parts because they were a little different. I liked the political scenes more in Elizabeth too, but maybe just as a respite from the mind-numbing personal drama.

Knightley is getting some Best Actress buzz, which I guess is at least better than last year’s buzz for her role in Atonement. She’s gotten quite good at these period pieces and she is good here, though not spectacularly so. If she were to get nominated I would be okay with it though I’d be surprised if there weren’t five performances I end up liking more. Fiennes got even more buzz for his role that mostly required quiet seething punctuated by impressive rage and again I just found him fine. It just wasn’t that interesting. But now he’s going for Supporting Actor for The Reader so his role here will likely move to the back burner. Technical nominations in categories like Costume and Art Direction are expected and deserved.

In movies like this, the heroine generally gets married off to some man who she has little in common with. She’s a romantic, however, and pines after a handsome gentleman who, through class differences, she cannot be with. But she’s a smart woman and despite personal drama she makes her mark on the world. Often her mother is an important supporting character, a realist and strong matriarch who tells the heroine to buck up and get her head out of the clouds because she has certain duties to perform for her husband, country, and/or family. I want to see a movie about that mother for once. Why can’t the heroine be like pretty much every other aristocratic woman of the time and accept her role? Why can’t she understand the politics of marriage and use them in her favor? Why must she spend so much time brooding about love? It’d be nice to have a historical film where the woman can do her thing (lead her country, influence policy, head the royal court/her family, etc…) without spending much of the movie bemoaning her broken heart because, let’s face it, she probably doesn’t know anyone in her social circle who married for love.

I guess when it comes down to it, The Duchess is good assuming the restraints of the genre, but it never challenges those restraints, which I think limits its potential. I can’t help but compare it to Sofia Coppola’s unfairly-derided Marie Anoinette, which tried something different in terms of style, character, and plot. Not everything works in that film, but it’s always interesting and refreshingly different. The Duchess is already solid, I just wish it had some more interesting touches.

Why are all these posts concentrating on little categories like “Best Actor” and “Best Director” when what we all really care about is Art Direction and Costumes? In the course of seeing all of the films nominated for the big eight I ended up seeing most of the films nominated for all those other categories they hand out awards to in the middle 2 hours of the Oscar telecast. Since you obviously care about my make-up preferences, please, read on!

Best Song
“Falling Slowly” Once, “Raise it Up” August Rush, “Happy Working Song” Enchanted, “So Close” Enchanted, “That’s How You Know” Enchanted

For some reason I feel like I already covered this category. But since the Academy stupidly ignored my recommendations, let’s take a look at these inferior choices.

The clear winner for me is “Falling Slowly.” It’s the central song in the wonderful musical Once that embodies the heartbreak and loneliness of the main characters. “Raise it Up” is actually fairly offbeat and I imagine it works well in the film, schmaltzy as it surely is. Nothing against Enchated, but if one of its triumvirate wins it better be “That’s How You Know,” a clever take on the Disney fairy tale tune set in modern times. “Happy Working Song” is a cute but uninspiring ditty while “So Close” is a toothless and unmemorable love song.

Snubs: See my breakdown of the eligible songs to find about a dozen songs I liked better than all the non-Once songs. Read the rest of this entry »

I loved the style of Sweeney Todd but little else. It looks stunning, as Tim Burton flicks are wont to do. The sets are gorgeous in their dingy and gloomy splendor. The colors are vibrant, mostly dark but sprayed with red. Some of the scenes are so stylishly gruesome that they made me groan. The score is great. The Oscar nominations for Art Direction and Costumes are well-deserved.

And merely looking at all of this was enough for a while, but not entirely. The major problem is that Sweeney Todd is a musical but the songs just aren’t good. They have no melody, nothing to hum as you leave the theater. The music should be a style to tell the story but it’s just inaccessible.

I also didn’t really care about the story. It mostly just made me hungry for a meat pie. And to top it off, Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter aren’t very good singers. This would be fine if they merely had to compete with Alan Rickman, but all the children in the film can actually sing! It doesn’t serve the movie well that the supporting cast members blow the stars out of the water when given their chance to sing. Depp’s Best Actor is a pretty weak nomination. Except for the singing voice I liked him fine, but I wasn’t blown away.

So I’m glad I saw it because I’m a big fan of Burton’s style but I doubt I’ll go back for a second helping.

April 2019
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