Thursday, February 24, 2011

Not Your Ordinary Oscar Picks

Oscar statuette in bronze. This is an early form of the statue before it is dipped in gold.
(Photo ©Tom Hyland)

The Academy Awards are this Sunday, so time for a few of my fearless picks. Actually over the past few years, it's become a little easier, especially for the major awards (Acting, Director, Best Picture) thanks to the slew of award ceremonies held before the Oscars. In fact, it's become a little boring in recent years, as we have witnessed the same person who won the Golden Globe and then the Screen Actor's Guild award claim the Oscar, so there's been almost no drama over recent times (the same has been holding true for the writing awards as well). There's nothing wrong with this, except to say that it's not as fun to watch the ceremonies when you know who's going to win.

Is there anyone out there who thinks anyone BUT Colin Firth will win Best Actor for his performance in The King's Speech? He deserves it of course, as he did a brilliant job putting life and breath into a famous historical character. It's just that the moment he wins will be a bit anticlimactic, as he's already won several awards for this performance. The only drama will be listening to his acceptance speech, so let's hope that Firth has an eloquent moment that's worthy of the film and this honor.

I am rooting for Geoffrey Rush for his supporting performance in the same film as I think he was absolutely brilliant in his portrayal of Lionel Logue, the king's speech therapist. I've never been that impressed by Rush's previous work; while good, I never thought he showed that much range. But in this film, he is a revelation and brings a nice touch of humanity and dry humor to this character and is a perfect foil as a simple man working with a royal subject; as with all great performances, I can't imagine anyone else in this role. I'm rooting for him, but all indications point to Christian Bale walking away with this award for his work in The Fighter.

So on with the Oscar picks and in keeping with my tradition, I'm only going to discuss a few categories, starting with:

So let me get this straight, the music branch of the Academy chooses only four nominations for this award and not five? And THESE are the four they came up with? Let me discuss these one by one:

"I See the Light" from Tangled
This is a forgettable, slightly sappy tune co-written by Alan Menken. While I don't go around humming his work every day (in fact, I can't recall the last time I hummed any of his work), the man did co-write some very good movie tunes, such as "A Whole New World" from Aladdin and "Colors of the Wind" from Pocohantas. This new song though is not in the same league as those award winners.

"We Belong Together" from Toy Story 3
After the wonderful songs Randy Newman wrote for the first two Toy Story movies, it's clear that his batteries weren't fully charged when he wrote this song. It's pleasant enough, like even the most minor songs from Newman, but this just isn't his best work. Only in a year like this could this song be nominated.

"If I Rise" from 127 Hours
This is just an awful song with a dreadful three-note bass line that drives me up the wall. I'd be shocked if this actually won.

"Coming Home" from Country Strong
This is a pretty good country song - not as good as the best songs that are up for awards at the Country Music Association event - but one that is a standout in this group.

By the way, given that only four songs were nominated this year, I have a choice for the fifth nominee. That would be "Home" from Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps, written by David Byrne and Brian Eno. It's got a haunting melody and I love the lyrics, which question the security of home for all of us:

Home - such a funny feeling
Home - no one ever speaking

This is, without question, the best song I heard in a movie in 2010 and in opening the picture, it sets the table for the message that the film delivers. If it were up to me, this would have won the Oscar for Best Song this year.

But it wasn't nominated, so I'm going with "Coming Home", as it's easily the best of the nominated songs. But will enough voters have heard this song?

The nominees are:

  • “Black Swan” Matthew Libatique
  • “Inception” Wally Pfister
  • “The King's Speech” Danny Cohen
  • “The Social Network” Jeff Cronenweth
  • “True Grit” Roger Deakins
All first-rate pieces of work (as opposed to the Best Song options)- the Cinematographer's branch did an excellent job. To me this is between three films, so Black Swan and The Social Network don't stand a chance.

The King's Speech is a very pretty film to watch and it will have its supporters; it could win if the film wins a lot of other awards. But I think it's only a third favorite. 

True Grit is another wonderful achievement from Roger Deakins, who is among the two or three finest directors of photography working today. It's also his ninth Oscar nomination and he's never won, so there might be some major support for him. But let's face it, as the awards are voted on by the entire Academy, how many people know the names of cinematographers? Still, as Grit has received a bundle of nominations, the voters may want to give the film at least one award, and this is the best possibility. I hope it does win, as it would be great for the Academy to finally honor Deakins for his remarkable career, ranging from The Shawshank Redemption to No County for Old Men and several other Coen brothers' films. 

My pick actually is Inception and it boils down to this: the Academy will honor this film with several technical awards, as they have faced much criticism for not nominating Christoper Nolan for Best Director for this film. So they'll find a way to award this work with several Oscars. Also, this would be sweet justice for cinematographer Wally Pfister, who should have won this award two years ago for his brilliant work on The Dark Knight (I still can't believe that he lost out to Slumdog Millionaire - go ahead, watch the two films again and tell me that the cinematography in Dark Knight isn't far superior to Slumdog.)

And finally for the award everyone is eagerly awaiting - Short Film (Live Action), the winner will be God of Love. Don't ask me why.

Monday, February 7, 2011

A Nightmare with no escape

In The Ghost Writer, Roman Polanski's taut suspense/mystery with political overtones, it's either raining, has just rained or looks as though it's about to rain - literally we never see the sun shining during the film. This visual mood is perfect for a story which takes us into a nightmarish setting of deception among various characters who must deal with others in their immediate environment as well as those in the outside world who feel the need to gain access to their private dealings.

The film is based on the 2007 novel The Ghost by British novelist Robert Harris, which told the story of a writer who was assigned to ghostwrite the memoirs of Adam Lang, a fictional British Prime Minister who had recently resigned. The character of Lang is clearly based on Tony Blair and the new ghostwriter must now take over the project of completing the memoirs, as the original writer died during the project. The question of whether his death was an accident or murder is one of the key plot details in this work.

Harris and Polanski have teamed to write the screenplay and it's tightly constructed, alternating between Lang, his wife Ruth and the ghost writer (whose name we never learn). The setting is a private island retreat in New England where Lang and his staff have holed themselves up for privacy's sake and where the new ghost writer must inhabit on a daily basis to complete the work (he can conduct interviews with Lang as well as work on the first draft, which was completed by the former ghost, yet he is not allowed to take the manuscript from the compound, for security purposes.)

The new ghost writer is a bit unsure about taking this assignment at first, but soon changes his mind, given the hefty fee he will receive. He believes as he is not a political man, he can ask Lang honest questions and find out what makes him tick. In one intriguing interview scene, he asks the Prime Minister about his college days at Cambridge when he performed in several student plays. He thinks this information will offer some charming insight for the average reader, but Lang wants no part of it, telling the writer:

"You know what the Times of London said the day I resigned? 'Kindly leave the stage.' So no, we won't dwell, if you don't mind, on my student days as an actor."

Clearly Lang desires to control every detail of his career and while the ghost writer understands this, he is clearly puzzled at what this man wants. The plot thickens when Lang's former Foreign Secretary accuses him on television of allowing conditions for torturing Islamic suspects accused of terrorism. Lang claims his innocence, but the writer starts to doubt that soon afterwards, given the discovery of a few documents and photos he found among the former writer's possessions.

As for Lang's wife Ruth (a superb performance of great subtlety by Olivia Williams), she too begins to question her husband's word, especially as she knows he is carrying on an affair with his secretary (portrayed with a nice matter-of-factness by Kim Catrall, who plays down her sexiness here). Ruth soon wonders if her husband had anything to do with the death of the former ghost after the new writer reveals a few recently discovered details.

The main theme as I see it in this film is that of being trapped:

1) Lang is trapped in his role as Prime Minister. He mentions to the ghost writer that he could not carry money around in his everyday capacities; instead he had to ask someone else to take care of the situation.

2) Lang is also trapped in his own political lies, as he puts on a brave face for the media, claiming no responibility in the current troubles he is accused of.

3) The ghost writer is trapped in a job he is not sure he wants, especially after unturning some crucial new evidence.

4) Ruth is trapped in a loveless marriage. She ultimately will be trapped in a lie concerning her former political career, as well.

5) All of them are trapped on the island compound. Lang cannot travel out of the country for fear of being deported; Ruth needs to stay with her husband and put on a brave face during the investigation and the ghost writer cannot take the manuscript from his working office.

This idea of being trapped is beautifully communicated in Polanski's direction. He combines with his cinematographer Pawel Edelman to give us images of the compound as a virtual prison, as we see the characters framed by the rigid geometry of the walls, windows and rooms. There's one particularly wonderful over-the-shoulder shot, as we see the writer watch Lang, standing just outside in the rain, clearly shouting on his mobile phone. Watching the writer watch Lang become a bit unglued is disarming and it's accomplished by Polanski with great simplicity.

That over the shoulder camera work is also on display in a particularly tense sequence late in the film when the writer is driving from a diplomat's home to return to the island compound via ferry transport. He is being followed and the camera movements here add an edginess that gives the scene its immediacy. Fans of Polanski will recall the many over-the-shoulder shots in the director's most famous film, Chinatown (1974) and this film recalls some of the same nightmares that J.J. Gittes experienced in that tale.

Polanksi's films are often walking nightmares for the main characters, who cannot escape the evil that surrounds them. Think of Rosemary as she discovers the chilling details of her son in Rosemary's Baby (1968), of Gittes discovering the horrible deeds of Noah Cross in Chinatown or of Szpilman in The Pianist (2002), who witnesses the cruel behavior of the SS during his time in hiding during the Second World War.

Even after the book is finished, Ruth is made aware that her former deeds have been discovered; she must live with that knowledge. In a final cruel twist of fate, even the ghost writer does not get to enjoy the relief he must feel upon completion of his work. There is no escape.


While The Ghost Writer was released in the spring of 2010, I am only reviewing it now for several reasons. One is that I initially watched the film aboard a plane ride home from Europe. Even given this atmosphere, I was moved by this work, but clearly, I wanted to view it again so I could take better notes and pick up on more of the film's subtleties. Now that I have seen it twice more over the past week, I felt I was ready to comment on the film.

But more importantly, I wanted to point out what I believe is a disgrace in that this film did not receive a single Oscar nomination. There are several contributors I believe could have and should have been singled out. First, the original score of Alexandre Desplat, whose work here is excellent. The score is haunting, with a certain Bernard Herrmann edginess to it, yet it's totally Desplat's own work, This score is clearly superior to the composer's music for The King's Speech, for which he was nominated for an Academy Award. It stands to reason as The King's Speech has been so critically praised with good (but hardly great) box-office numbers (as opposed to The Ghost Writer, which did poor business at the till) that's the film for which the composer would be honored.

At least three performances could have been honored in the supporting categories. As Lang, Pierce Brosnan is first-rate. Though too often known principally for his good looks, Brosnan is an accomplished actor and his performance here is among his finest to date. He combines an easy smile with a quick temper (both on rare occasions) to give us a politician who is proud yet a bit weary of all the attention he receives.

As his wife Ruth, Olivia Williams is outstanding, giving us a portrait of a woman who ruefully accepts her husband's affair(s) but quietly seethes inside at his callow behavior. She subtly brings together all the emotions of this complex woman; she has a sexy earthiness that allows her to enter into a man's private world, ever so quietly.

As diplomat Paul Emmett, who assisted both Lang and his wife in their climb to the top, Tom Williamson is a revelation. He communicates a lot with his body language, often saying more with a glance or a shrug than with actual words. He is careful not to let too much emerge from his personality, except for the fact that he is - shall we say - a bit reserved in how he operates. His character has only a few scenes, but it is a critical one in the story and Wilkinson is memorable.

As for other nominations, there is the taut, brilliantly organized screenplay co-authored by Polanski and Harris as well as the moody, fragile cinematography of Edelman, who also photographed Polanki's The Pianist along with Ray (Taylor Hackford, 2004). This is a cinematographer in complete control and one who suits the theme of pervasive moodiness of Polanski's work perfectly.

But above all, the nomination that was overlooked was that for Best Director for Roman Polanski himself. Polanski has delivered one of is finest films here, blocking his scenes with great care and moving his camera with great precision. There is a sense of unease that dominates the look and feel of The Ghost Writer; it's a theme that runs throughout the director's works and it's wonderfully communicated in this film.

So why no nominations for this film? Well, you could point to the fact that the film was released in the spring, a long time before other serious films aimed at award buzz. More importantly, you could point to the fact that the film did little business at the box office as previously mentioned; I'd think this latter reasoning makes more sense.

But it seems to me that the real reason that The Ghost Writer did not receive any Oscar nominations is quite simple - it's Roman Polanski. Given the notoriety of his situation of fleeing the US after pleading guilty to unlawful sex with a minor back in 1977, the Academy decided they wanted nothing to do with him anymore, especially given the publicity of his arrest in Switzerland in 2009 (and subsequent release by Swiss officials in 2010).

Now the Academy did honor Polanski with the Best Director Oscar for The Pianist, but his case had been out of the news for years at that time. Also that film dealt with the Holocaust, a sure-fire topic for Oscar glory. So by now, the academy probably believed they had done their good deed in awarding Polanski their top honors back at the 2003 ceremonies. These days, that good will is a thing of the distant past.

I say that as this year at the awards, films as diverse as The King's Speech, The Social Network and True Grit will battle for top honors. I have varying degrees of praise for these three works, but in my opinion, none of them are as finely crafted, deeply disturbing or as beautifully directed as The Ghost Writer.

P.p.s. A final point on the theme of being trapped? Obviously it's Polanski sitting in a Swiss jail as foreign officials decided his fate. Reportedly, Polanski finished editing The Ghost Writer from prison in 2009. Will he ever truly be freed from his own real life nightmare?

Thursday, February 3, 2011

A Pre "Speech" Success

This time of year when movie awards are a big part of the discussion on film, there's always the tradition of looking back on the work of certain individuals that are up for Oscars and/or other acclaim. It's certainly true with Tom Hooper, director of The King's Speech. Hooper just took top honors at the Directors Guild of America awards and suddenly everyone knows his name - you understand, he's the latest overnight sensation.

I took a look at his resumé and discovered he directed a little film called The Damned United last year; this a BBC production, so it was produced on a moderate budget. I decided to watch the film, given its highly favorable reviews and see what themes Hooper carried over into The King's Speech.

The Damned United is set in the world of English soccer - make that football, lads - and it's about the story of Brian Clough, one of the most successful and controversial team managers over the past 40 years. The film documents the triumphs and failures of Clough on and off the pitch and it's a nicely crafted look at the obsession of one man who will only do things his way.

The story revolves around Clough as manager of a second division team from Derby and how he takes them from the bottom of the standings to the top; as they win the division, they are promoted to the first division where they will battle the finest teams in the country. The club everyone wants to beat at this time (the mid 1970s) is Leeds and we watch Clough prepare his team for their matches with that foe.

The story is told not chronologically, but jumps from one stage in Clough's career to the next. The film opens in 1974 when Don Revie, the manager of Leeds leaves to take that position with the national team, which failed that year to qualify for the World Cup. As Leeds had won the FA cup, he was the first choice to take over the national squad. With his departure, Leeds needed a new manager and Clough, fresh off a 1973 championship with Derby, seemed to be the natural successor.

But Clough who is a proud, stubborn man, gets things off on the wrong foot by insulting Revie at an opening press conference. He claims that Leeds was a dirty team, that Revie had fostered that type of play from his squad and that their championships were, in effect, tainted. Clough tells his players to forget Revie and to listen only to him from that moment on.

But Leeds gets off to a slow start under Clough in 1974 and soon the players and management are at odds with Clough. How things are resolved is one of the main plot lines in the film.

Another is the wonderful relationship Clough has with his assistant at Derby, Peter Taylor. As self-consumed as Clough is, Taylor is self-effacing and easy going. Their contrasts in personality make for a great partnership and it is also at the foundation of their behavior when they are split up after the are fired from Derby (I won't go into the details of the rest of the narrative, but suffice it to say there are a few surprises.)

It's the personal struggle of Clough that lifts this film above the ordinary sports film. Hooper includes film clips of a few of the matches and they're neat to watch, but it's his in-the-face look at Clough's obsessive drive that hammers home the message here. This is not just win at all costs; rather it's win and do it my way. Clough could never stand Revie, so when he takes over Leeds, he has to change everything about their ways.

As Clough, Michael Sheen is marvelous, delivering a charismatic, quite natural performance. There's never a false moment and there's no emoting, even when he's rallying the troops. He keeps his head high, even at the darkest moments and he's never at a loss for words when insulting others (which happens often in this film). Clough is a remarkable man, one who never doubts he is in the right and Sheen plays him with the proper amount of bravado as well as a touch of subtlety.

Thus The Damned United served as a nice warmup for Tom Hooper and his work on The King's Speech . Both films deal with an historical British figure: Clough in United and King George VI in Speech and both are obsessed with overcoming a major hurdle in his life. Both also deal with the unusual friendships each man enjoyed: Clough with his assistant Taylor and the King with his speech therapist, Lionel Logue. Both man have their angry moments with their best friend, but each values their work and in the end, realizes how their success depends on that other ally in life.

Take a look at The Damned United when you get a chance. British football may be the subject, but the personal emotions are universal.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Artistry of Roger Deakins

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
Roger Deakins, Director of Photography

In my recent post on the Coen brothers' True Grit, I asked the question "Is there a more accomplished cinematographer working today?"I then went on to note the low light photography Deakins employed for this story and his desaturation of color in the outdoor scenes that perfectly suits the film's mood.

I also predicted Deakins would receive an Academy Award nomination for his work on True Grit; while hardly a bold estimate on my part, this has happened, making this his ninth Oscar nomination. He also received a nomination for his work on this film from the American Society of Cinematographers; he is one of five up for the society's Outstanding Achievement Award for the past year's films. He has won this award twice in the past for The Shawshank Redemption (1994) and The Man Who Wasn't There (2001). In February, he will be honored by the ASC with their lifetime achievement award.

Think about the films on which Deakins has been employed as Director of Photography and you can't help but recall the amazing visuals. A short list includes several remarkable movies from the Coens, including No Country for Old Men (2007) and 2000's O Brother, Where Art Thou? (he has been the regular cinematographer for the Coens since 1991's Barton Fink) as well as work for other directors including The Shawshank Redemption (1994 for Frank Darabont); Kundun (1997 for Martin Scorsese); A Beautiful Mind (2001 for Ron Howard) and Revolutionary Road (2008 for Sam Mendes).

No Country For Old Men

I've always been interested in cinematography and how these craftsmen work; I am a still photographer and have always been fascinated by visuals. I thought about attending film school at a prestigious university when I was young, but nothing ever came of it. So my expertise on cinematography is somewhat limited, as I have to rely on how the visual look of a film affects the way I react to it. As you would imagine, that reaction is quite strong; only music can match those emotions for me in movies.

Take a look at the image at the beginning of this post, for example. Could this image of Jesse James (Brad Pitt) be more iconic? We know of the near mythical accounts of James' life and instantly, we are given that identity in this one shot. Look at how James in his dark outfit stands tall against the muted browns and greens with an ominous, cloud-filled sky overhead (desaturation is a common visual in Deakins' works - it is on display throughout True Grit). It is as though this man is one against nature, a man who literally rises above nature, giving him a timeless quality, one that defined this man's actions against society. Clearly this image takes what we know about Jesse James and then surpasses those sensations.

Lest you think I am giving Deakins more credit than he deserves when I discuss this particular (or other images in his portfolio) as compared to the film's director, consider this excerpt from an article in the  January, 2011 issue of American Cinematographer magazine:

He (Deakins) has repeatedly stated that composition is the most critical part of the cinematographer’s job. “It’s much more important than lighting,” he toldAC. “The balance of the frame — the way an actor is relating to the space in the frame — is the most important factor in helping the audience feel what the character is thinking.”

This article is an excellent overview of Deakins' experiences as well as how he goes about his craft. I recommend it wholeheartedly; it can be found at this link.

Low light photography is a feature of much of Deakins' work; this is of course, in keeping with the themes explored by the Coens in films such as Barton Fink or True Grit or by Andrew Dominik in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007). The above photo, from this last film, is part of a brilliantly lit and photographed train robbery sequence that is among the finest moments of Deakins' resumé. You don't have to know exactly how he did it (he used a number of techniques to make the train and surrounding landscape appear brighter than they were during the actual shoot), but it is a mesmerizing visual moment that heightens the drama. While Deakins may have a few tricks up his sleeve (like any accomplished cinematographer), he uses them to aide the look and feel of the film and not to draw attention to his own talent.

Not every film Deakins has worked on has featured low light photography. Look at the above image from Revolutionary Road and note how he has used natural light in this shot (even going so far as to show two unlit overhead kitchen fixtures). Here the bright, sunny hues of this scene serve as an ironic counterpoint to the ever increasing marital problems of the main couple. It's a completely natural look and it's what director Sam Mendes wanted and what Deakins delivered.

For several years now, Deakins has authored his own blog, answering questions (often very technically oriented) about what sort of lens or light he used to achieve an image. Sometimes the answers are less technical, leaning toward his philosophy of lighting and framing a scene. Here is one of my favorite quotes from Deakins, in reply to a budding cinematographer asking him for advice:

"Study light and color - every painting, photograph, and film scene that makes you feel "I want to do that" - figure out how you might replicate it - not just light, but overall tone, saturation, color, and even composition. Look for the meaning or metaphor, look for the "story" in every scene - learn to think like an artist AND a technician."

The Roger Deakins forum can be found at this link. It's a fascinating site, especially for anyone interested in cinematography and Deakins is happy to share some of his secrets (he reveals, for instance, that the memorable scene of Rooster Cogburn giving Mattie a horseback ride under a star-lit sky in True Grit was so difficult to film that it had to be filmed both outdoors as well as on an indoor stage, using a green screen for certain closeups.)

Roger Deakins

Deakins' work has truly been among the very best in films over the past 25 years; I've written about a few of my favorites in this post, but there are many more I simply don't have room to mention, such as the marvelous tonal range of The Shawshank Redemption (various hues of blue, gray and brown) and the stunning black and white photography of The Man Who Wasn't There, which in reality was shot on color film and then printed on black and white stock.

Congratulations, Roger on your Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Society of Cinematographers - well deserved! Now wouldn't it be something if the Academy Awards finally recognized him with an Oscar for his sublime work this past year on True Grit?