Thursday, January 31, 2008

Bootlegs: What to do? Part II

An exceptional quality of the internet is the unprecedented way with which it’s ushered in an era of global popular culture on a real-time basis. Anything that’s celebrated anywhere in the world instantaneously becomes a global phenomenon provided people are interested in it. Since that interest - or consent, as that most self-righteous of linguists calls it - is something that can easily be manufactured, it stands to reason that the global marketplace is of utmost importance to mainstream products of pop-culture, the only true core of which is the United States. In fact, that’s not an astute observation more than it is an undeniable fact that most Hollywood products - tv shows, or, more so, films - are tailored more and more with the global marketplace in mind. And it’s impossible for studios to keep tabs on their products, and control their release schedule to optimise income, when there is such an easily accessible nexus of piracy that is the interwebs.

Yesterday, I tried to outline how this is an ethical dilemma for someone, like yours truly, who is against the idea of piracy, but who is also a pop-culture hound. It is impossible to keep away from spoilers on shows like Lost or Heroes (even though the only spoiler for that show is that it’s rubbish) when their terrestrial premieres in the rest of the world are bound to be much later than in the US. A quandary exists for Oscar nominated films, too. As it currently stands, No Country For Old Men, There Will Be Blood and Juno, best picture nominees all, are not set to open in Turkey until late February, early March. Even if one manages to keep one’s innocence towards them for a while, that will be a hopeless feat come Oscar time. And it’s not just about the internet either. Even if one can avoid TV or newspaper reports, and tries to turn a blind eye towards features on said film on internet journals and blogs, there is always that one guy waiting in the wings to rub salt on the wound that is the films’ late release by spoiling them at most inopportune moments.

And people don’t even have to look hard for them anymore. Like I mentioned yesterday, there are shops galore all over Istanbul, not to mention other European cities, that sell pirated films, and do so with not only impunity, but apparent gusto (A pirate copy of Juno had a pitch-perfect DVD jacket presentation, with quotes from critics, technical aspects and, bizarrely, details of fictitious extras). The Thursday before I Am Messiah Metaphor opened in the US, for example, a colleague of mine had already seen the film on a bootleg DVD, which, apparently, was a top quality screener copy. Now that was not a film that I was anticipating with fervour, but No Country For Old Men is. When that film is only scheduled to open a month after the Oscars, the temptation to watch a pirated copy is all the more tempting. Even though I won’t have to do that (an upcoming independent film festival in Istanbul seems to have all three in its line-up), I can’t say that the choice to watch bootleg copies is a clear-cut case of black and white. While it must be mighty comfortable on that high horse, campaigners against piracy have to face the reality of the facts. You can’t create an instantaneous media event out of your product, only to keep the latter away from the global public. Not only is it morally dubious, it doesn’t make great business sense. Either the studios get into the piracy business, or they find a way to roll-out their films globally. The two options are not mutually exclusive.

(Sidenote: Even the eventual DVD releases pale in the rest of the world compared to the ones in the US. Not only are they technically inferior, but, most of the time, also lack all the extra bells and whistles. The classics, basically any film that was made before 1969, get hardly any releases in this country[Try to buy the complete catalogue of Ozu and see how far that gets you in Istanbul]. It’s extortionate to order them from the US, or even the UK. I bought the box sets of the first four seasons of The West Wing two years ago, and ended up paying half as much as I paid for the DVD’s at the customs.)

What makes a great sitcom?

A lot of things, really, and most are very obvious to recount. This morning, however, I realised one of the most important factors: a great theme tune. A drama doesn't particularly need one because the audience expects to feel the whole gamut of emotions. I hate the credit sequence for House, for example; in fact, that trend of morbidly detached credits, which started with Six Feet Under, is equal parts annoying and hilarious. Yet I enjoyed House's first season immensely (not so much the latter two, and the fourth is, so far, pure wank).

That's not the case for a sitcom where its only objective is to make people laugh, and the best theme tunes also give an idea of what to expect in the storylines. So you have "Thank You for Being a Friend" or "Moving on Up" or "Where Everybody Knows Your Name." They don’t have to be catchy tunes either – Frasier and Seinfeld both have minimalist theme tunes, yet both are equally memorable. Arrested Development’s was almost elusive, yet it stuck with the fans (all four of them). Of the recent crop of shows, 30 Rock and The Office have excellent theme tunes, too. You hear any of those, and you are well on your way to giggle at the kerazee shenanigans awaiting your heroes. Conversely, a crappy theme tune gets you off to a bad start to begin with, and it's very difficult to shake off that initial disappointment.

Case in point: Mad About You. I really should have loved this sitcom: it had Paul Reiser, who was an idiot but my kind of an idiot, it had Helen Hunt, who was hot, hot, hot (at least before Pay it Forward), it was loveably low concept and had a Seinfeld crossover episode, for god’s sack. But I loathe that show. This morning, as I was watching the last episode of the show's first season, I realised why: I can't fucking stand that fucking theme tune. It's depressing and annoying and it’s just plain bad. That show could have brought about world peace and proven intelligent life existed outside this solar system, and I still would have hated the living fuck out of it. Just thinking about it now makes me want to get baptised and convert to Catholicism (and practice the teachings of Cathol) only to then rush to the nearby church for penance.

And talking about great theme tunes:

Update (01/02/2008) - How could I have forgotten about this gem:

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Bootlegs: What to do? Part I

In a recent Answer Man column on Roger Ebert’s site, a reader raised an interesting point regarding bootlegs that got me thinking:

Q. After reading Jake Ochoa's question about Satyajit Ray's "The Apu Trilogy" and your comment about it being a hard-to-find masterpiece, I of course had to find it and see it. I don't know your feelings on file-sharing, but the entire trilogy is readily available on file-sharing sites such as [site names deleted]. I am tempted to defend file-sharing in this circumstance, but I'll only go so far as to say that this is a good option for those interested in seeing it, even if the video quality isn't terribly good.
Aaron Martin-Colby, Saunderstown, R.I.

A. It sure isn't, and the original U.S. videotapes are only good to fair. You can buy a DVD boxed set from for about $85 and watch it on one of those all-zone DVD machines, which start as low as $60. Kino, Facets or Criterion, are you listening?

I empathise with the bind that the North American fans of Satyajit Ray have found themselves in. But my dilemma goes deeper (doesn’t it always). Apart from blockbusters with simultaneous openings in 10, 000 cinemas globally, Turkey tends to get most films much later than their US releases. The wait is around 6 months for a studio film, and, if they are lucky enough to get a cinema release, independent films might take the better part of a year to make it to this side of the world. The same is true for TV shows, with the more popular fare tending to take 8-12 months to make it on Turkish telly, and the rest a good while longer. I am not an advocate of bootlegs, and I don’t understand how people can watch a movie recorded on a mobile phone! Still, there are grey areas, and I am not sure how to handle them.

The main reason I thought of the above question, and the issue in general, is tomorrow’s Season 4 premiere of Lost on ABC. Coming off the heels of an excellent season finale (in fact, the last 10 episodes were the best since the first season’s Exodus: Part II – and the way the show managed to find its form after such a lackluster first half to the season, not to mention the dreadful second season, is beyond comprehension), and thanks to the ongoing writer’s strike (which, according to reports, might very well end tomorrow), there is not another single TV event about which I am more excited. The show is hugely popular in this country as well, and the 4th season will debut here on 27th February. In the age of the interwebs, that is a very long time to wait. Keeping spoiler free will be impossible until then, and however much I try to stay away from news or reviews, there is bound to be that one arsehole behind me on the check-out lane going on about the awesomeness of the season premiere that I won’t help overhearing. It seems the best way out for a pop-culture whore like yours truly is filesharing sites.

But I don’t want to do that, and that’s not just because I have no idea how bit torrents or other file sharing sites work. Still, it wouldn’t be too hard to get my hands on a bootleg version, be it from friends, or from dodgy DVD stores about town. Aside: there is a large shopping mall in a fairly busy part of Istanbul, the second floor of which is filled to the brim with DVD shops flooding with bootlegs. Their conspicuousness extends beyond bravery to achieve a sort of Zen-like defiance against authority.

It’s a problem nowadays that various pop culture events have become so big that, thanks mainly to the internet, anyone trying to keep spoiler free will find it extremely hard to do so. An example is The Sopranos’ finale: even though I still hadn’t seen any of the sixth season, it was impossible to stay away from all the buzz that was raging around the interwebs once the finale had aired. I still haven’t seen the episode, but I have read all about it, seen clips on YouTube, and partaken in enough discussions that the actual experience of seeing the episode now seems bizarrely like a footnote (or an afterthought) to the event itself. Being part of a global information network means to take part in things as they are happening now. It seems perverse for any pop-culture event to become a real-time global phenomenon, such as Lost and all the bells and whistles that go with it, yet strictly insisting on national boundaries with regards to the latest product, which, in this case, is the season premiere.

More on this tomorrow.

Announcing the Indiana Jones Blog-a-thon May 16th - May 23rd

I mean, sure, we’re all beside ourselves with giddy excitement counting the hours till the Sex and the City movie opens, but before we are graced by that masterpiece-in-the-offing, the latest Indiana Jones film will hit theatres across the globe on May 22nd. Not a lot of people truly believed that a fourth film would ever get made, and the news coming from the production seem to indicate a direction that fewer still would have imagined the film would take (Karen Allen is back? And she looks hotter than she did in Animal House?). It’s been 19 years since the last film, and to put that in perspective, that is a longer gap than the one between Return of the Jedi and The Phantom Menace. None of the principals involved are the men they were 19 years ago. But, then again, it's not the years, it's the mileage. Isn’t it?

This blog-a-thon will celebrate all aspects of the Indiana Jones films. Feel free to write retrospectives or reviews. Maybe you think Tom Selleck would have made a better Indiana Jones? Go ahead, convince us. Or you could wax poetic about Richard Chamberlain’s Allan Quatermain films, or even The Jewel of the Nile. Or an essay on old-time Saturday morning serials. Even the TV series or the comic books are game. Anything to do with Indiana Jones: this is the blog-a-thon for you.

The blog-a-thon will run from May 16th to May 23rd to coincide with the film’s release. If you don’t have a blog, feel free to send me your contributions in Word format, and I’ll publish them here with your details. See you then.

Update (31/01/2008): Boy, oh boy, oh boy...

Monday, January 28, 2008

Random Musings from the Weekend

· I saw I Am Legend this weekend. Turkish cinemas have allocated seats, a practice I abhor, and I try to stick it to the man by sitting in whatever seat I damn well please. Power to the people! Anyway, it’s usually not a problem as I see films at relatively unpopular showings, and everyone sits wherever they want (most couples sit at the back for a few rounds of tonsil tennis, and one particularly vocal pair made the already lugubrious The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford all the more unbearable). It turns out the performance was almost sold out, and my usurping someone else’s seat threw the whole auditorium for a loop - so great was the mess that no one could pinpoint how or where it started. I should feel bad about it, but I don’t, because allocated seats are stupid.

So, I Am Legend: I liked it. Spoilers Ahoy – The deviations from the book were wise, especially the decision to do away with the lame “still-livings (in the book, there is a relatively harmless third-group of pseudo-zombies, who have retained some of their humanity, and not resorted to vampirism/cannibalism – Neville ends up hunting them, and, in their eyes, becomes a legend – hence the title).” I also enjoyed the “cancer cure becomes societal cancer” angle, and the more realistic portrayal of the vampires/zombies/mutants/whatjamacallits. Still, it would have been interesting to incorporate the luddite elements of The Omega Man, but that is a creative angle I would have liked to see explored, and should not be regarded as criticism. The flashback sequences are finely incorporated into the main narrative: in fact, not since the 1930s-1940s has the flashback been so elegantly used in mainstream American cinema (and television). These are good times for fans of the technique.

The film does have its fair share of problems, mind. Robert Neville, the eponymous legend of the title, is far too sane during the in-door scenes, which is relatively incongruous with his wacky eccentricities when he ventures out. I could buy that anyone would go a bit loopy faced with solitude of such great magnitude, not to mention the hordes of vampires lurking in the shadows, but I couldn’t do the same for the scene where Neville stumbles upon his own trap. Maybe one of the mutants/vampires set the trap? That is an even greater leap of faith.

Which brings me to the most jarring aspect of the film: Neville as messiah metaphor. The film is ridden with Messiah/Christ imagery, and that is even before the last 20 minutes: the possibility of the cure’s having to do with Neville’s blood, or his bringing his captive back to life, not monuments to subtlety themselves, are overshadowed once Anna and Ethan arrive at the scene. With the delicacy of a televangelist marathon, the film bombards the audience with heavy handed Eucharistic symbolism, and that is before Neville pays the ultimate price. As if that wasn’t enough, the final shots of the film show a community of survivors, who, over a truly terrible voice over by Anna, welcome her and Ethan into a seemingly idyllic paradise dominated by a church. Over the final credits, Bob Marley sings Redemption Song: because the previous 20 minutes were far too illusive. If it were up to me, I’d cut before Anna and Ethan make it to the camp, and have Highway To Hell play over the credits. You know, for shits and giggles.

(There is an inherent creepiness to the film’s final action sequence, where, essentially, hordes and hordes of mindless white mutants are hunting down a black man, and trying to burn his house down. I am sure it was not unintended.)

· VH1 had a “Three From One” theme this weekend, where they played three consecutive songs by one artist or group. I had it on in the background while I cooked, and it slowly dawned on me that my musical taste has started to mellow. I found myself enjoying the shit out of the trio of George Michael songs, namely Freedom ’90, Fast Love, and I’ll Be Loving You Always, and thank god I didn’t come across any Dido while I had the telly on, because enjoying that piffle would be unbearable. What next? James Blunt? They did follow George Michael with Eagles, Led Zep and the Stones, mind, so not all hope is lost.

· I revisited a few favourites: The Long Goodbye, Day For Night, and The Wicker Man. I hadn’t seen any of them for years – especially The Long Goodbye was an interesting experience. I found myself remembering entire passages of dialogue, which is doubly impressive considering I’d only seen it twice before. That says more about the film, than it does about my memory skills. I also saw Downfall for the first time since it was released. The film is bookended by documentary footage of Hitler’s secretary essentially saying she had no idea what she was getting herself into, but that she is full of regret. Such display of apparent honesty does not ring true. Being in such close contact with Hitler, she would have known about everything, including the Holocaust (Similarly, Leni Riefenstahl also claimed ignorance, but that, too, is dubious). In an otherwise confused essay on Philip Lopate’s books on American movie critics, Clive James has an insightful observation about the film, with which I am in total agreement: “Similarly, if you know too much about the movies but not enough about the world, you won't be able to see that Downfall is dangerously sentimental. Realistic in every observable detail, it is nevertheless a fantasy to the roots, because the pretty girl who plays the secretary looks shocked when Hitler inveighs against the Jews. It comes as a surprise to her. Well, it couldn't have; but to know why that is so, you have to have read a few books.

· Six seasons in and Curb Your Enthusiasm is as great as ever. The Tivo Guy, the episode where Cheryl leaves Larry is both funny, and, uncharacteristically, genuine and touching. It is one of the show’s best episodes. Conversely, one episode in, and I can safely say I won’t be watching Samantha Who ever again.

· I am enjoying Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. It’s a shame there won’t be a film version. Even though I haven’t even started the final book, I can safely say that Pullman’s trilogy is far more enjoyable than The Lord of The Rings, which I have never really liked in the first place (I do enjoy The Hobbit, though).

· I managed to catch the last ten minutes of Chaplin’s Limelight, which I must have last seen 15 years ago (maybe more). Anyway, here is the famous scene with Chaplin and Keaton sharing the same stage:

· I’ve been humming this since yesterday:

Laters, skaters...

Friday, January 25, 2008

Social Relevance? What Social Relevance?

When Sylvester Stallone announced in late 2005 that he would be jumpstarting his two “iconic” characters, the reception was lukewarm at best. As attested to by the obligatory, yet perfectly apt, headlines like “Aging Bull” or “Hambo,” the media did not hide their skepticism, and neither did the public. Yet, in the run up to the release of last year’s Rocky Balboa, Stallone, seemingly satiated with not only human growth hormone, but also a relatively large piece of humble pie, and not without the help of a publicity machine working at maximum intensity, managed the impossible. He turned the expectations around, and managed to come across as a forgotten star, who had learned his lessons, and whose only desire was to pay his dues: to the character that once made him famous, and the public who once adored him. Of course, this was half the battle – the rest depended on the film itself, which, surprisingly enough, came out OK (though not great, as many proclaimed at the time: hindsight, that most valuable of observational tools, comes in especially handy when judging yesteryear’s event films). But even before the final Rocky opened, Sly was hard at work filming the follow-up to Rambo III, where, his words, not mine, this war machine without a country would be forced back into action. This was a bad decision then, and it is a bad decision now, and whatever Stallone’s intentions, a new Rambo film is as incongruous now as John Wayne’s The Green Berets was in 1968.

Growing up in the early eighties, action movies never really invaded my conscience, which is not to say I was raised on a diet of Tarkovsky and Fassbinder, but early 80’s action cinema was not an oeuvre I was very fond of. An action film needed science fiction or fantasy elements to lure me in, or a sympathetic lead, like Arnold Schwarzenegger, and even then I only saw his pure-action films like Commando only once. As such, the Rocky and Rambo films were never life-changing events for me as they were for many contemporaries, and Sly was but a pallid comparison to Arnie. Thus, unburdened by fanboy nostalgia (both the blessing and the curse of all re-invented franchises), I could see the new Rocky and Rambo films as what they were: a faded star’s desperate need to get back in the game.

Nostalgia was obviously an important factor for Stallone also: like Jason waxing nostalgic about the good old days under the decaying stern of the Argo, Stallone, too, had languished for years beneath the fading glory of his two franchises. And, like Jason, I was sure he was destined to be crushed under the weight of the past, when Rocky Balboa came as a delightful surprise: mediocre at best, that film was a success considering the precipitous expectations its mere announcement had garnered. Also, at its heart, there was a metatextual penitence that gave the film an extra dimension of, shudder, genuine sentiment. It was Stallone’s way of saying to the audience: “Yo, I know I fucked up, but I’ve learned my lesson and it’s all good now and here is a story that proves it.” It was his Mea Culpa.

And now we have the new Rambo film, which is Stallone’s “J’accuse!” This time he is on the offensive: “Yo, you assholes. You left me in the jungle for all these years, yet I am still mental and look what I can do.” Yeah, we know - there was a reason we left you out there, chum.

Of course, the dichotomy can be regarded as intentional, with Rocky and Rambo as Stallone’s ying-yang twins. But that simply is not the case. Whatever Rocky and Rambo might represent of the human condition (and it is not that much), the former is a rags-to-riches(to-rags-to-riches) fairytale, whereas the latter is emblematic of serious real-life issues: veterans, wars overseas, imperial supremacy, alienation - with violence as the linking thread. The fact that the Rambo films had consistently managed to fail in their heavy-handed pontification while producing an on-screen bodycount to rival Pol Pot only highlights the despicability of bringing the character back now.

(Aside: The only successful time a modern-day movie star manages to highlight an inherent disunion in his career is Eddie Murphy in the two Nutty Professor films. As in Rocky Balboa, The Nutty Professor has Murphy almost apologizing for his loud-mouth on [and off] screen personality, and, literally, exorcising that demon. In the second film, his character realizes that without that unpleasant side to his personality, he is nothing but a blabbering buffoon – “I am what I am,” he seems to say. Stallone is not that genuine.)

The one thing Stallone doesn’t realize is that Rambo films have always been a joke. The supposed rawness of the first film is an urban legend; the unsubtle revisionism of the second now a self-parody, and the third… Well, the third cuts a bit too close to the bone these days. Even a cursory glance at all of that should have made Stallone realize how tasteless it is to revive a character that goes against the very ideals of human decency. That Stallone tries to comment on real world problems while body parts fly through the air like rice at a wedding is a testament to how truly out of touch with reality he has become. The US is fighting a war on two fronts, and neither is going very well. Global terrorism is still a genuine threat. The world is on the brink of recession. Basically, things are not going well. To have the audacity to plead the case (with big fuck-off machine guns, yo!) of a return to, and a delectation in, gung-ho values of the jingoistic eighties is mind-blowing in its short sightedness.

The basic counter-argument in these cases is always the same: these are mindless action films, and what’s wrong with a few disemboweled bad guys now and then. Of course, the answer is nothing (unless you have seen, literally, every single film ever made). But Rambo films are not mindless action, and this, according to the person in charge (I really can’t use the word auteur - but that’s mainly because I don’t know what it means). Ever since the second Rambo, Stallone has gone to the ends of the earth to mumble earnestly that they are about something. The gore is not the message – the message is the message. And what is that message? That the US army would have obliterated the Viet Cong if only those liberalistas in DC left them alone? That the US should have intervened directly in Afghanistan on the side of the (incredibly undemocratic) resistance risking the fine balance of the Cold War? That the US should act as the protector of the Lord’s Word in Third World Countries (even though the film makes an inane case for defending freedom from oppression, and not missionaries per se)?

This final so-called message is the most despicable of them all. According to Stallone, he found out about the plight of the Karen Christians from Soldier of Fortune magazine. He, literally, called them up, and asked them for a list of all the trouble spots in South-East Asia. The fact that he had to call up a bunch of nutjobs to find an oppressed people he could use as a flimsy excuse to up the on-screen bodycount does not worry me (though it is pretty base). The fact that he is so earnest about it does. Masquerading behind social relevance, Rambo’s only true intention is to blow shit up good, and as such, it reminds us why he belongs squarely in the 80’s. His fans lament that they don’t make ‘em like they used to. Yeah. Thank fuck for that.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Heath Ledger 1979 - 2008

He was one of the finest actors of his generation with a promise of greatness that mirrored, if not surpassed, James Dean's. I am reminded of a quote by Robert Graves, who said of Shakespeare: "Despite the fact that everyone says he's very good; he really is very good." So was Ledger. He will be missed.

Jim Emerson's touching tribute can be accessed here:

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Nominee, Nomina (Read to the tune of "Valderi, Valdera")

The nominations are in. And they are, for me, as good a stimulus as any to re-start this albatross that I call my blog. Think of this, and the following five or six posts, as a test run until the official relaunch (official? Oh, my…) early next month where I will be taking part in an upcoming blog-a-thon. I also have a few essays that I am working on (one of which, at a breviloquent 4347 words, has taken on a life of its own), and it looks like this new incarnation of the blog will be slightly more academic than before. I am nothing if not honest.

Before I get on with the nominations, and my subsequent predictions (which I reserve the right to change up until the day of the awards, if not afterwards), a caveat: I have not seen all the films nominated, and that’s not for a lack of trying. A few of the front runners are yet to open in Istanbul, and I simply refuse to watch bootlegs. Which means I won’t get to see No Country For Old Men until mid-March, and There Will Be Blood till sometime late next month. Away From Her and Juno are also a few months away, though it is not unheard of for distributors to move the releases forward in line with the Oscars. All this is by way of saying my predictions are based on what I have read, and, more so, what I have heard - and not just from the voices in my head.

The tagline for this year’s ceremony is “The One. The Only.” Chesney Hawkes would be proud (Those of you across the pond won’t get that joke, and those of you on this side won’t think it’s funny).

Best Foreign Language Film

"Beaufort" - Israel
"The Counterfeiters" - Austria
"Katyn" - Poland
"Mongol" - Kazakhstan
"12" - Russia

There are three upsets – two major and one minor. Firstly, the minor: Giuseppe Tornatore’s The Unknown was ignored, and probably rightfully so. The last decent film that Tornatore made was Cinema Paradiso, and even that most cherished of films is a long, blundering mess in its original form. The Unknown’s plot sounds the same as the director’s all other, celebrated, films where an outsider is befriended by a child. And if that wasn’t enough to tug on the proverbial heartstrings, said child suffers from a rare neurological condition. I want to shoot myself just writing about it. And I would have completely dismissed its being snubbed if not for a few Italian friends who have hailed it as the next Amarcord. Then again, their grandparents used to hail Mussolini, so what do they know…

The real story here is the exclusion of Persepolis and The Diving Bell and The Butterfly (they weren’t even shortlisted). Persepolis is all you’d want from a foreign language film: an innovative festival darling and critical hit (the film has generated relentless buzz) that might be a tad too difficult for the mainstream, yet deserving of that final push of an Oscar nomination to find a wider audience. Maybe the selection committee thought it a shoe-in for best animated feature (they were right)? And The Diving Bell and The Butterfly is an extraordinary film about an extraordinary man. Its omission is disgraceful, and most probably unfortunate in that the selection committee probably thought it was a shoe-in for best feature (they were wrong). (A lot of people are upset about the exclusion of 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days but that film, albeit superbly made, nonetheless lacked that final oomph, at least for me.)

Anyway, this is between Beaufort and Mongol. The former’s inclusion seems to have more to do with the controversy earlier this year surrounding The Band’s Visit, so, by process of elimination, The Counterfeiters wins. What? I never said this would make sense.

Best Animated Feature

“Surf’s Up”

Surf’s Up? You what?

Ten years ago The Simpsons Movie would have been a lock to win. But ten years ago there was no Best Animated Feature category, and the producers of the show were too busy being funny week in, week out to even seriously consider a feature film that would revitalize, albeit briefly, the moribund legend. It is a tremendous surprise that neither The Simpsons Movie nor Beowulf were nominated, and either of them being supplanted by Surf’s Up, a film only marginally better than Veggie Tales: The Movie, confirms that this is Ratatouille’s award to lose, and rightfully so. It is the first of the modern animated films (Toy Story 2 included – which, incidentally, doesn’t hold up all that well, technically or story-wise) that is as complex as a great live-action film, if not more so. For the non-believers among the voters, (of which there aren’t that many), the scene where the food critic is transported back to his childhood will be the one that clinches the deal.

Persepolis, which would have been the odds-on favourite to win in the previous category, is the outsider in this one. It’s unfair, but that’s life.

Best Documentary Feature

“No End In Sight”
“Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience”
“Taxi to the Dark Side”

I have only seen the characteristically hyperbolic Sicko (Michael Moore is probably the only person in the world who can wax lyrical about the NHS) and the bookish No End In Sight, which should win it if only for its “don’t let the door hit you on your way out” value.

Achievement in film editing

"The Bourne Ultimatum" - Christopher Rouse
"The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" - Juliette Welfling
"Into the Wild" - Jay Cassidy
"No Country for Old Men" - Roderick Jaynes
"There Will Be Blood - Dylan Tichenor

This one’s between Roderick Jaynes aka The Coen Brothers and Dylan Tichenor. Most of the time, the film that wins this ends up winning best picture, but this year might be different, which I shall come to presently.

Achievement in cinematography
"The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" - Roger Deakins
"Atonement" - Seamus McGarvey
"The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" - Janusz Kaminski
"No Country for Old Men" - Roger Deakins
"There Will Be Blood" - Robert Elswit

Another year, and Roger Deakins would have won it hands down for his work on “Jesse James,” but his votes will more than likely be split this time out. My money’s on Robert Elswit – an incredibly uneducated guess.

Best Original Song

"Falling Slowly" from "Once"
"Happy Working Song" from "Enchanted"
"Raise It Up" from "August Rush"
"So Close" from "Enchanted"
"That's How You Know" from "Enchanted"

I’m pissed off there are three songs from Enchanted, but no Ladies Choice, because Hairspray is fucking awesome: in fact, it is an infinitely better film than all recent musical adaptations, including the soporific Chicago and the insipid Sweeney Todd! Anyway, it looks like they really want to give Enchanted an award so I’ll go with, erm, Happy Working Song for its quirkiness. If Miss Misery didn’t win in 1998, then Falling Slowly won’t win in 2008.

Best Original Score

"Atonement" - Dario Marianelli
"The Kite Runner" - Alberto Iglesias
"Michael Clayton" - James Newton Howard
"Ratatouille" - Michael Giacchino
"3:10 to Yuma" - Marco Beltrami

This one is between Marianelli and Giacchino (the former has the edge). Either way, it’s going to one of the paisans (there are four of them, after all).

Best Supporting Actress

Cate Blanchett in "I'm Not There"
Ruby Dee in "American Gangster"
Saoirse Ronan in "Atonement"
Amy Ryan in "Gone Baby Gone"
Tilda Swinton in "Michael Clayton"

She was never going to win, however hip her playing Bob Dylan might have been (the novelty value of which has since kind of run off in the industry), but her nomination as best actress is the final nail in the coffin for anyone hoping to see the lovely Ms Blanchett with her fingers round the golden (easy now) statue. Ruby Dee is the obligatory veteran, and Saoirse Ronan the obligatory young ‘un, that the Academy likes to patronize. They both gave very strong performances however (Dee is tremedouns in the scene where he tells Washington’s Lucas that she would leave him), and, in another year, either could have won, and it would have been apt. Even though Tilda Swinton is brilliant, and the current odds-on favourite, the supporting categories are usually the ones where upsets are more commonplace so I am going with Amy Ryan.

Best Supporting Actor

Casey Affleck in "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford"
Javier Bardem in "No Country for Old Men"
Philip Seymour Hoffman in "Charlie Wilson's War"
Hal Holbrook in "Into the Wild"
Tom Wilkinson in "Michael Clayton"

Casey Affleck’s finicky, fidgety and, at the end, frivolous performance was bound to get nominated, but he is in way over his head with the rest of the actors in this embarrassment of riches. Hal Holbrook and Tom Wilkinson will work the town (the campaign for the latter has been in full swing for a while), but I can’t see either of them going the full distance. Philip Seymour Hoffman only seems to be there to make sure Tommy Lee Jones isn’t so that Javier Bardem can claim the award, which he will.

Best Actress in a Leading Role

Cate Blanchett in "Elizabeth: The Golden Age"
Julie Christie in "Away from Her"
Marion Cotillard in "La Vie en Rose"
Laura Linney in "The Savages"
Ellen Page in "Juno"

Laura Linney is the surprise here, and somewhere Keira Knightley and Angelina Jolie’s agents are ignoring their client’s calls right now. Ellen Page, cute as a button, might sneak in with a win, but I have a feeling this one is going to Julie Christie.

Best Actor in a Leading Role

George Clooney in "Michael Clayton" (Warner Bros.)
Daniel Day-Lewis in "There Will Be Blood" (Paramount Vantage and Miramax)
Johnny Depp in "Sweeney Todd The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" (DreamWorks and Warner Bros., Distributed by DreamWorks/Paramount)
Tommy Lee Jones in "In the Valley of Elah" (Warner Independent)
Viggo Mortensen in "Eastern Promises" (Focus Features)

Mortensen and Depp are seat fillers. Tommy Lee Jones has an outside chance, but Elah has become a bit of a distant memory for some. This one is wide open right now, but I think, in the end, Day-Lewis will drink your milkshake (it’s not a cliché until I see the film).

Best Director

Julian Schnabel - "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly"
Jason Reitman - "Juno"
Tony Gilroy - "Michael Clayton"
Joel Coen and Ethan Coen - "No Country for Old Men"
Paul Thomas Anderson - "There Will Be Blood"

Until the nominations were announced, it looked certain, more then than ever, that whoever won this would also win the best film. Now I am not so sure. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly deserved a very comfortable win, or, at least, a best picture nomination and an inside chance to win best adapted screenplay. As it stands, the latter award might end up being a bit too condescending. I have a feeling Julian Schnabel might win this – and for the best film of the year, in an exceptional year such as this one, to go home without a best director Oscar would transform the night from being regular Oscar-night crazy to it-rubs-the-lotion-on-its-skin crazy.

Best Original Screenplay

"Juno" Written by Diablo Cody
"Lars and the Real Girl" Written by Nancy Oliver
"Michael Clayton" Written by Tony Gilroy
"Ratatouille" Screenplay by Brad Bird; Story by Jan Pinkava, Jim Capobianco, Brad Bird
"The Savages" Written by Tamara Jenkins

Cody, if it’s her night. Gilroy, if it’s his.

Best Adapted Screenplay

"Atonement" Screenplay by Christopher Hampton
"Away from Her" Written by Sarah Polley
"The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" Screenplay by Ronald Harwood
"No Country for Old Men" Written for the screen by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
"There Will Be Blood" Written for the screen by Paul Thomas Anderson

This is a three-way tie between the last three films, but it will probably end up going to the Coens. Unless it goes to Harwood. Or PTA.

Best Picture

"Michael Clayton"
"No Country for Old Men"
"There Will Be Blood"

The exclusion of “Diving Bell” has thrown this most important category out of whack. The fact is that film will have to be honoured in some way, which will have a trickle down effect on the other four. It’s early doors to make any predictions, and even though that didn’t stop me in the previous categories, I must now exercise restraint. Any four of them might win, and I would not be surprised.