Thursday, February 28, 2008

Ratatouille: Not Good for Cats

I gave Ratatouille a miss when it was on at the cinemas since all showings in Istanbul were dubbed in Turkish (as opposed to Sanskrit). Also, I don't particularly enjoy being at a movie theatre full of kids: they get into hysterics, I tell them to shut up, and then the children of the corn end up kicking my arse while their parents point and laugh.

Anyway, I finally saw the film on DVD a while back, and loved it. I have written about my extensive appreciation of the movie already, but I was going through some old photographs when I came across the one below. You see, my cat, Shmi, was watching it with me, and, for some reason, she started to get agitated at first, then terrified, and finally went completely postal. She got on top of the sofa, and began whining in that terrified cat-voice at the screen. I had to turn the film off, and watch the rest of it after she went to sleep. But before that, I simply had to take a picture of her. She's with my folks most of the year, which accounts for her Jabba-like derriere. She'll be 12 this year, even though she still thinks she's a baby. Freak.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Bite-Sized Thoughts on a Few Recent Releases

- Sweeney Todd: My main qualm is that the disparate elements of the production overshadow the film itself. Tim Burton and his idiosyncratic style are bigger than the story; Johnny Depp and his hair are bigger than the character, the sets and set-ups are bigger than the songs and the (incredibly lackluster) production numbers. It's self-indulgent, stylistic onanism disguised as quirky and dark.

I am a big fan of musicals. And I can't help but wonder how one can start with such a flawless musical as Sweeney Todd, and end up with this overbaked hodge-podge of a movie.

I also don’t know why I keep seeing films by Tim Burton, whose only film I truly enjoyed (and still cherish) is Beetlejuice. Then again, put Harry Belafonte on the soundtrack, and I’ll enjoy pretty much any film.

- La Vie En Rose: It goes on bloody forever, that’s the first thing. There is no subtlety nor is there any yearning for some sort of psychological truth – instead, we are left purely with length. It’s as if sheer length would make up for the film’s inherent vacuousness. The same illness ailed Jesse James/Robert Ford, too. “Let’s make it long and tedious, and people might think we are actually saying something when, in fact, we are wanking in their faces.”

It’s also filled to the brim with third-rate melodrama – if someone isn’t crying in any given scene (most of the time that someone is Piaf), then they are either screaming, or having a nervous breakdown. The focus is not on the music or Piaf’s genius, but instead on how hard everything was for her. It’s a made-for-TV Hallmark weepie punctuated with a Gray alien in a wig miming Piaf’s songs.

That Lady Luck sat me next to an elderly couple who sang along with the alien didn’t help matters, either…

- If Match Point was Crimes and Misdemeanours without the Cliff Stern/Halley Reed subplot, then Cassandra’s Dream is Match Point without the panache. Not just the panache, but without a sense of direction, story, and actually a point. “You can’t get away with murder even if you get away with murder.” So says Morality Sheriff Woody, without a sense of irony.

Looking back at Match Point, it’s not that it was a great movie so much as a welcome return to form for Allen – but that had a lot to do with the fact that virtually all his efforts after Bullets Over Broadway (barring, maybe, Mighty Aphrodite) were pretty, pretty, PRETTY bad. Cassandra’s Dream goes right back to that cycle of mediocrity – it has none of the ironic detachment or cinematic melody of Match Point. Just a dull movie waiting to be forgotten.

The film’s one redeeming feature is Sally Hawkins, who gives an incredible performance, even though her role is an East London stereotype seen through the eyes of a New Yorker. Incidentally, she was also very good in The Painted Veil – another lugubrious piece of crap.

- Ben Affleck does a solid job in Gone Baby Gone, but he should ease up on the literalness and extend his artistic vocabulary, because otherwise he runs the risk of turning into Edward Zwick: a perfectly competent craftsman with absolutely no flair whatsoever, and an increasingly dull body of work. That said, it’s a fine achievement for a first feature. Not only does Affleck have a perfect ear for all sorts of Bostonisms, he also feels at home with that most idiosyncratic of genres: the detective movie, and he shuffles things around a bit, too. Guess all that man-love from Jimmy Kimmel must have paid off.

What’s more impressive is that the film pretty much rests on Casey Affleck’s shoulders – even though he has ample help from a few veterans (especially Ed Harris does a great job), he has to carry the story forward, and he succeeds magnificently. Which is all the more impressive since his performance in Jesse James/Robert Ford is one of last year’s worst ones.

I am still working on my There Will Be Blood review, as well as a few other pieces.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008


It takes a while for the monster to appear in Cloverfield, but that’s OK, because up until then I was at an imaginary shooting range, picking up the yuppies on screen one by one, or, when I felt like it, en masse. I know these people, I thought, as I watched the party get under way. I know them very well. In fact, I am one of them.

I saw the film in one of those cinemas where they serve beer, and had a very pleasant experience. That I was drinking while watching people drink at a party most definitely increased my involvement. It would have been even more pleasant had the amative couple behind me been less interested in their sporadic, and rather noisy, bouts of tonsil tennis, but, looking back, it most definitely added to the experience, good or bad. Like my grandmother always said, “You haven’t seen a giant monster film until you have seen it with a couple going at it behind you.” I can only hope she wasn’t being euphemistic, god rest her soul.

The film starts off with a random guy, let’s call him Yuppie Prime, as he turns on a handicam and starts to film his latest conquest while she sleeps (the audience sees everything through this camera’s perspective – as everyone and their mother know by now). Anyway, it turns out that she’s not just a random girl, but his on-again/off-again girlfriend, his one true Yuppie Love, and they eventually decide on a day-trip to Coney Island. All of a sudden, the film cuts to a month or so later, and we find out that Yuppie Prime’s friends are using the camera to film his going-away party to Japan. The film keeps cutting back and forth between the party at a Manhattan loft and the ensuing events around the city, and the day trip to Coney Island. It’s an admittedly clever conceit, especially since we all know yuppies are fucking useless when it comes to working anything electronic. I know I am.

Anyway, there’s a party, and it’s a surprise, and happy, happy, happy. As in similar ones in real life, I couldn’t tell the beautiful people at the leaving do apart – but for a few faces whom I could recognize from TV. The girl, who explodes after she’s bitten by a parasite later on in the movie, was on The Class (she was also in the awesome teen-comedy Mean Girls). One of the random friends at the party played the annoying Kirby on Frasier, and even Jason Cerbone aka Jackie Aprile Jr aka Little Lord Fuckpants from The Sopranos’ third season has a blink-and-you’ll-miss (literally, a second and a half at the most) part (he’s too small to have cameos) as a police officer. But I digress…

Yuppie Love comes to the party with a date, probably not realizing that it’s her ex’s leaving do. Awk-ward. Yuppie Prime and Yuppie Love have a row, and she leaves, and everyone gets on the roof to celebrate. Or that’s what I think happens. Then there’s a huge explosion somewhere, and the crowd rushes out to the street in panic as the head of the Statue of Liberty is hurled across from the horizon like a particularly non-aerodynamic baseball and lands right there on the street. There is a nice sequence here as the camera picks up, along with a very quick shot of one of the monster’s legs, random disembodied voices: “That was huge,” “I can’t believe it,” and, my favourite, “It’s alive!” Yuppie Prime, Yuppie Bro, his girlfriend, the exploding girl, and the Seth Rogen-lookalike operating the camera, start legging it out of the city, and just as they get to the Brooklyn Bridge, Yuppie Prime receives a phone call from Yuppie Love who says that she’s stuck under rubble in her apartment. The bridge collapses, Yuppie Bro dies, and the rest of the posse decide to go and rescue Yuppie Love. And then they all die.

There’s a lot to enjoy, especially in the earlier sequences, and the film is innovative in its own way (though not, as some say, groundbreaking – there are conventional cuts a-plenty during the party scenes, and later as the posse arrive at the rudimentary military hospice). The sense of realism is well balanced with the sheer ludicrousness of a fucking monster attacking NYC. From what I understand, the Japanese had something to do with the creature. That’s a long way to travel just to eat yuppies. Then again, yuppies travel a long way just to eat Kobe beef.

What I did find annoying was the glib allusion to the tragic events of the 9/11 attacks. The filmmakers argued during the press tour that any connection was not only incidental, but also totally unintentional. I don’t know about that. The first thing that one of the characters questions right after the first explosion is whether this isn’t another terrorist attack – and that’s perfectly fair. The images that follow – skyscrapers collapsing into piles of rubble and smoke, the ensuing clouds of dust covering the entire street, paper from collapsing buildings floating in the air, widespread panic and confusion in the streets – are all lasting memories of that horrible day. The producers should have had the courage of their convictions, and come right flat out and admitted their intentions to manipulate the audience in order to underscore the threat. This was a huge problem I had with the execrable 300 and the risible Apocalypto, too – we are not stupid, even though we might spend our hard earned cash watching stupid movies sometimes. Cloverfield is not maliciously subtextual like those two pieces of shit, but it is dishonest in its own way.

Technically speaking, the film succeeds on two levels that are somewhat intertwined. The monster is not revealed at first, even while all sorts of shit is going down, and this is obviously a lesson learned from Jaws. Once brief glimpses start to appear, we only see bits of the monster – a leg here, a tail there, its jaw agape over the camera – SHIT!. This was the same concept behind Anish Kapoor’s enormous sculpture Marsyas, which was exhibited at the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern. It was so massive that one couldn’t grasp the whole installation all at once, and had to put the image together in one’s head. Similarly with the Cloverfield monster, we put the pieces together in our minds, and essentially come up with a grander, far scarier, design than anything on screen. Only at the end of the movie, as the heroes flee the city in a helicopter, do we get a final, authoritative glance at the creature.

And it’s rubbish. It’s just a very poorly designed monster – a cross between that hybrid baby from the fourth Alien flick, that worm thing from The X-Files, and Sloth from The Goonies. I couldn’t help but question the creature’s evolutionary path. What the fuck does it need an opposable thumb for? Ahh, I see – to pick up yuppies. It all makes perfect sense now.

Note: Quentin Tarantino once mentioned an idea he had of a similar premise to the film. It would be a romantic comedy set in the Toho Universe, with regular monster reports on the telly like weather reports. “Drivers can expect long delays on the Tanba IC as Mothra’s currently going apeshit over Kyoto,” and all that…

But I Prefer My Liquids Cold...

I hate those blogs where all people do is post links to YouTube clips, supplemented with internet acronyms and general hyperbole. Nonetheless, this is a film blog (more than anything), and the clip below is gold - if you will, liquid gold.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Just Ask Don Cheadle: Jimmy Kimmel is F***ing Ben Affleck

Earlier this month, one of the funniest skits of the past few years was unveiled on Jimmy Kimmel Live. Sarah Silverman, Kimmel's long-time girlfriend, announced to the world that she was, indeed, fucking Matt Damon.

It turns out Kimmel had one particularly saucy skeleton in his closet, too. He's fucking Ben Affleck!


Live blogging the Oscars... UPDATED

My hot water bottle is leaking.

Old-fashioned or not, I like to take a hot water bottle with me to bed. Not only does it keep me warm, it also makes up for my congenital defect of keeping a companion for longer than 17 minutes. As usual, last night, just before I went to bed, I tucked it in, like it was my own little green plastic baby, totally oblivious to the fact that the screw cap had started to give. I woke up around one to find myself in a puddle of lukewarm water, and couldn’t properly get back to sleep. This is all by way of saying I am not on my top form this cold, and unusually wet, February morning…


One thing before we start off – I am not sure how “live” this whole thing is going to be since my internet connection is acting up. There are a few wireless networks, but I don’t like latching onto other people’s internet connections without letting them know. Me and my morals… (Mind you, this one genius has called their wireless network “Battlestar Galactica RULEZ” – I bet you their password is Starbuck)


Only a few minutes to go until the ceremony. Hey, Kristin Chenoweth! I have only seen Pushing Daisies’ pilot, but it is a very good show. Not a fan of whimsy in general but that one makes it work. A lot to do with Bryan Fuller, and also a lot to do with Chenoweth, and Anna Friel.
Regis Philbin is making everyone nervous. He is talking to the dancers now, urging them not to fuck up, because half the world is watching them. Good on you, Regis.

Nice montage of all sorts of characters and scenes – The Terminator is driving the truck that’s delivering the Oscars. Very similar to the one from last year.

I love Viggo Mortensen’s beard. It’s glorious. And talking about beards, there is Kelly whatsherface. Ooh, snap!

Dorothy Hammill’s wedgecut – Tommy Lee Jones didn’t like that joke. Cheer up baby. It’s the Oscars.

This IS great; Jon Stewart’s rocking the house.

Sorry about the stream of consciousness – I never said this was going to be any good.


It’s Costume Design now. And Elizabeth: The Golden Age wins. I predicted that, so well done me. Alexandra Byrne did a great job with Hamlet, and even though I haven’t seen Liz II, I am a fan of her work – so far, so good…


These montages have been great lately. This one now is on the 80 years of the Oscars. And I can’t believe I am going to say this but My Heart Will Go On did not jar as much. That was a brilliant montage. People bitch about montages in general, but few realise how difficult they are to get right.

Phillip Seymour Hoffman is wearing the same suit he’s worn the past two years.

Animated Feature. It’s got to be Surf’s Up. Nope, it’s Ratatouille. Awesome. That is one incredible film. Brad Bird is running on a bit, and the music starts. Just let them talk!
The ubiquitous Katherine Heigl and her fake “I’m genuine – honest” schtick. She’s presenting the Make-Up award. I predicted Norbit, but it goes to La Vie En Rose. Oh well. Je ne regrette rien. Marion Cotillard looks to be genuinely happy for the make-up guys. I couldn’t get their names – sorry.

Amy Adams is singing Happy Working Song. That was a brilliant scene with all that vermin cleaning shit up. I love, love, LOVE Amy Adams. She has a great voice on her, too. She was championed by Roger Ebert in her work for Junebug two years ago, as was Ellen Page this year for Juno. Both films have quirky women, both are, essentially, called Junebug. Spooky, eh?


Visual Effects now. Ian McKellen was so NOT the right voice for Iorek Byrnison. This is going to Transformers, which was a surprisingly good little film.


The Golden Compass and a big CGI polar bear won. Oh, look at the geeks on the stage. My darling geeks. You shall inherit the earth.


Sweeney Todd wins art rirection. It also wins art direction. I love the way that lady says Tim Burton.


Supporting actor now. And another good montage on all past winners. Tommy Lee Jones winning for The Fugitive. He got on the stage that year, and said: “For everyone wondering, I am not REALLY bald.” Heh. And Cuba Gooding, Jr, and his truly great speech. I like shit like that, what can I say…

Casey Affleck, and force perspective is sandwiching him between Calista Flockhart and Cameron Diaz. Nice. But Javier Bardem is winning this.

Philip Seymour Hoffman – “...and I am never sick at sea.” That Aaron Sorkin, and his Gilbert and Sullivanisms…

“I am Siva – the God of Death.” That is a better catchphrase than the milkshake line, to be honest.

Javier Bardem wins. He speaks Spanish, and says something about Spain. El Pueblo unido jamas sera vencido, Javier. No nos moveran.


Oscar’s salute to binoculars and periscopes. Bad dreams – an Oscar salute. This is one great show this year.

Keri Russell presents the second nominated song. It’s half four in the morning. I have to leave for work in exactly two and a half hours. It’s going to be a particularly cheery Monday.
Anyway, the song is over. Can’t say I am a fan.

Owen Wilson’s presenting best live action short. Le Mozart des Pickpockets wins. A lot of non-Americans winning this year. That’s great.

Jerry Seinfeld as the bee from that film about bees – what was it called now – is presenting the best animated short. Peter and the Wolf wins. The announcer messes Susie Templeton’s name. She calls her Jackie Chan.

Best supporting actress now, and a montage of past winners. Alan Arkin presenting. Let’s hope for a surprise. I think Amy “I ain’t got no dayceaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa” Ryan is winning this. Ruby Dee, and the scene where she tells Denzel she will leave him. Fucking fantastic scene.
Tilda Swinton wins! That’s great. I loved Michael Clayton. What are you wearing, Tilda? That was a good speech, though.


Jessica Alba, her impressive body of work, and the technical awards.

James McAvoy and Josh Brolin presenting best adapted screenplay. The Coen Brothers are walking away with this one. Yep.

A little bit now on how the whole thing happens. I don’t want to do this again, but this is great. A friend of mine used to work for PwC. He had to do far less glamorous stuff than tallying the Oscar votes.

Kristin Chenoweth, like a hobbit with tits, sings the second song from Enchanted. She does a great job, but the song itself is not that great. I didn’t particularly like that sequence, but this production number is really good. Interesting range this year – the first song was bizarrely minimalist (getting rats to dance on cue must have been a problem), the second more conventional, and this one is rather huge.

A commercial break and I start getting ready for work. I really hope I can get to see the final award before I leave for work.

Judy Dench and Halle Berry! Heh! Seth Rogen and the Superbad kid. Best Sound Editing. Bourne Three wins. Per Hallberg – what a great name. A Swedish Jew, maybe? Best sound editing – does this go to No Country as I predicted? Nope – Bourne Three. I am getting these predictions wrong left, right, and centre…

Best Actress – Forest Whitaker to present it to Julie Christie. Please let it be her, and please let her go postal about something political… Wow! Marion Cotillard! Expect to see her in a third-rate summer blockbuster in 2009 – that Oscar opens doors… Good on her, though. That was a good movie.


The song from Once, which, strangely enough, you don’t want to hear again once you’ve heard it once.

Jack Nicholson presents a montage of all the best film winners of the past 80 years. The Greatest Show on Earth! Around the World in 80 Days! Ordinary People! So many greats…
Renee “Yo-Yo” Zellweger is presenting film editing. This might go to Bourne Three for a Bourne sweep, but I predicted Roderick Jaynes so I shall stand by that. Nope, it’s Bourne. Because the most amount of cuts is tantamount to great editing.

“Someone just took the lead in their Oscar pool based on a guess!” Oh Bruce, you catty so-and-so…

Nicole Kidman – she got there late. Special award for Robert Boyle.

Back from commercial, and Penelope Cruz is presenting best foreign film. I am a regular on the Four Word Film Review site, and one of my finest achievements, even if I say so myself, is my review for The Odyssey – Penelope, Cruise. Such wit, eh? Anyway, The Counterfeiters wins. And the director gives a good speech.
Patrick Dempsey presents the final song – the third one from Enchanted. John McLaughlin sings, Amy Adams and a bunch of other people dance. This was my least favourite song of the film. And the only thing I can think about right now is Monday morning traffic on the second Bosphorus bridge. Fun. Anyway, John Travolta literally waltzes in to present the award. Falling Slowly from Once wins. Even though I don’t like the song, I am glad it won purely for the novelty value. “Make art, make art.” Nice. “That guy is so arrogant.” Nicer.

I must now get ready for work. I will finish this up in a couple of hours from memory.

Please feel free to comment. Thank you for reading this ramble so far.

(Both photos I've used are from, by the way)



I managed to see the entire show after all. I even took a photo of myself right next to the telly as Denzel announced the best film winners, but I can’t upload it to Blogger for some reason. Maybe Blogger doesn’t accept fugly. Self-deprecation, thy name is Ali.

After I stopped doing the live blog, and packed up for work, Jon Stewart comes back on stage, and brings out Marketa Irglova, who was cut off with the music. Very classy move, and very touching. William Goldman has written about this before, and I totally agree with him: Don’t cut people off when they’re giving their speeches, make the show more self-indulgent. Also, this from Goldman again, they should let us know the vote tallies. It’d be a great water-cooler topic.

Robert Elswitt then comes on to win best cinematography for There Will Be Blood. I will post my review of the film later this week, but just a taste of things to come: it’s crap. Astute as ever, me…

The In Memoriam section did not feature Ulrich Mühe, Brad Renfro or Roy Scheider, even though Renfro died before Heath Ledger, and Mühe died in July.

When it was time for original score, which went to Dario Marianelli as I’d predicted (my predictions were 41% on the money, if you’re interested), I had already decided to shave and shower so I might have missed some stuff here and there. Anyway, he won – good. Then Taxi To The Dark Side won best feature documentary, and all I could think of was how great a title Taxi to the Dark Side could have been for Revenge of the Sith. Anytime anyone mentions the dark side of anything, I can’t help but think of Palpatine in Jedi, chewing the plastic scenery, going “Everything that has transpired has done so according to MY design.” Interestingly, a lot of people know that speech by heart. At least they think they do because when they get to the end, they always say “I am afraid the battle station will be quite operational when your friends arrive.” Actually, the line goes, “I am afraid the deflector shield will be quite operational when your friends arrive.” It’s attention to detail like that that makes me such a hit with the lay-deez.

Next up was Harrison Ford, who presented the best original screenplay award to Diablo Cody. Cody might not be a lady, but she’s all woman. And backlash my backside. The room erupted into applause when Ford called her name. She ended up giving a fairly run-of-the-mill speech, punctuated with sobs. Worse things happen at sea, luv.

Then Helen Mirren came on to give the best actor award, and it was some dreadful copy she had to read. Anyway, Daniel Day-Lewis won for the loudest performance in the history of film. “I’ve abandoned my boy – I’VE ABANDONED MY CHILD!” Oh, shut up.

Finally, best director went to the Coens, whose No Country For Old Men also won best picture. Everyone lived happily ever after.

I went to the gym during lunch, and this blast from the past was on VH1. Enjoy, and thanks for reading my self-indulgent odyssey. Please check back later this week for all sorts of reviews, and commentary. Cheers, ta, thank you very much…

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Run guns Forrest...

Charlie Wilson’s War starts with a wink at the camera by Aaron Sorkin. In a bathtub, surrounded by naked strippers, Congressman Charlie Wilson is pitched a prospective tv show described as “like Dallas, but set in DC;” and Sorkin likes the joke so much that he mentions it a few more times, and Mike Nichols indulges him. The film’s a seemingly pleasant affair, with unsettling, if not, at times, sinister undertones when one considers the current state of the world, and I liked it. It might have a lot to do with my being a great admirer of Sorkin’s The West Wing.

What I found most interesting was the way most of Sorkin’s signature rapid-fire dialogue was delivered by the more than capable actors, and framed and cut by Nichols, and his editors, John Bloom and Antonia van Drimmelen. Most of Sorkin’s director collaborators, including his business partner Thomas Schlamme, usually frame his dialogue in a two-shot as a walk-and-talk. In The West Wing (as well as in Sports Night and Studio 60), the better actors rise to the challenge and create a verbal tennis match with their repartee. In this film, however, Nichols prefers to use one-shots, and likes to cut back and forth between the characters, who never rise to Sorkin's bait, and, instead, deliver their lines in their own time and pace. It’s an apt choice for the film, and only distracting in an academic sort of way for the most devoted Sorkin aficionado, such as yours truly. Still, I can’t help but wonder whether some of the scenes, especially the first meeting of Tom Hanks’s Wilson and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s CIA agent Avrakatos couldn’t have been framed as a two-shot with a static camera, letting the dialogue tell the story without its being distracted by cuts every ten seconds or so.

Having said that, the film is entertaining. I especially enjoyed Hoffman’s acerbic secret-agent man, and Amy Adams and her gorgeous eyes, always gazing at Wilson, her boss, with a kind of longing mixed with pathos. The story itself doesn’t try to make too much of the connection between the current world events, and western involvement in the Soviets’ debacle in Afghanistan. Nonetheless, it’s impossible not to reflect on today’s world, especially near the end of the film when Ned Beatty’s evangelist congressman starts shouting “God is great” in front of a crowd of Afghanis, his support predicated on the fact that the enemy is the godless Soviet so any ally belonging to any religion is good enough. I was reminded of a scene from the last season of The Sopranos when Hesh’s daughter says that she supports the neo-con evangelists because they are great friends of Israel. “Just you wait,” replies Hesh, dryly.

Note: A lot has been made by the film's advertising campaign of how hugely instrumental Charlie Wilson was in ending the Cold War, to which my only reply would be "calm your bones, love."

Oscar Predictions

2007 was a great year for cinema – and I say that without having seen No Country For Old Men, which I shall rectify later this week. From seemingly small, intimate comedies, to magnificent yet flawed modern–day American epics, audiences experienced a vast array of brilliant films from Hollywood studios and independents alike. Paradoxically, however, we only have a few days to go till the Oscar Ceremony, and there are clear front runners in most of the major categories where such an embarrassment of riches should have produced more than its fair share of strong contenders. Having said that, there’s always at least one or two major surprises in even the dullest of Oscar ceremonies, and it is with that caveat that I offer my final predictions for this year’s Academy Awards.

Best Foreign Language Film:

That Persepolis is not among the nominees is a travesty. That The Band’s Visit was turned down is another (even dialogue in English is subtitled in the film). My awareness of the films in this category is murky at best. Since my original piece on the nominations, I have managed to see The Counterfeiters, but not Katyn or 12. Unlike a few weeks ago when I thought Beaufort was a contender, this is now between Austria’s The Counterfeiters and Kazakhstan’s Mongol. The latter has had a major marketing push in the last few weeks – and even if that hasn’t given it the edge, I think whimsy works in its favour. The irony would not be lost on the voters that the former Soviet Republic of Kazakhstan’s come up with a grand-sweeping epic spectacle in the tradition of Eisenstein’s Ivan The Terrible and Alexander Nevsky only a year after all that brouhaha about Borat. My heart also tells me the film will win but that might have a lot to do with the Turkic connection I feel with the Kazakhs. The Counterfeiters is the likeliest choice but still...

Prediction: Mongol

Best Animated Feature:

Surf’s Up’s inclusion is one of the more bizarre choices in the history of Oscar nominations. Maybe penguins are the modern-day equivalent of Meryl Streep – regardless of what they’re in, they’re bound to get a nomination just by showing up. Persepolis, a fine film, is too esoteric for this category. It would have been a shoe-in in the previous one, considering this year’s lack of a clear art-house faves like last year’s Pan’s Labyrinth or The Lives of Others. This is still very much Ratatouille’s award to lose, and rightfully so. It is the first of the modern animated films that is as complex as a great live-action film, if not more so. One of last year’s best film, it deserves all the accolades it’s awarded.

Prediction: Ratatouille

Best Documentary Feature:

When the nominations were announced, I wrote “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.” I still haven’t had a chance to see the other three films, but I stand by my original prediction. Another year, maybe last year or the next, and War/Zone, with its depiction of African children in, well, a war zone, could have tickled the voters’ liberal fancy, but this is an election year, and the last chance to jeer the outgoing chief. Let’s hope for some Errol Morris-like histrionics when they give out the award.

Prediction: No End In Sight

Achievement in Film Editing:

There’s a strange tradition that, more often than not, the film that wins this award also takes home the grand prize. Sure, such a generalization can be extended to include many other major categories, but this one seems to deserve it more so than the others. Besides, this year might very well buck that trend anyway. Into The Wild doesn’t stand a chance, but NCFOM, TWBB, and DBATB all had excellent film editing. Unappreciated by me, yet hailed by many others, Bourne Three (as three as the wind blows) also made the headlines with its on-the-surface ground breaking yet actually rather by-the-numbers editing, too. After all, we are talking about an award that once went to Black Hawk Down against Fellowship of the Ring, Memento and Moulin Rouge. So, this is between No Country and Bourne. Based on the general buzz, though:

Prediction: Roderick Jaynes aka The Coen Brothers - No Country for Old Men

Achievement in cinematography:

As I said before, 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. Having said that, this is a technical award, and you never know, voters might approach it more academically. I still think this is a three-way-split, with Janusz Kaminski as the dark horse.

Prediction: Robert Elswitt - There Will Be Blood

Best Original Song:

The three songs from Enchanted will cancel each other out – I like them all fine, but they are, nonetheless, all the same. When the nominations first came out, I thought one of them was bound to get an award, purely for the strong showing from the film, which I interpreted as a desire to award a beloved commercial flick. Once has got a lot of momentum now, though, and it’s garnered quite a bit of publicity following the shebang about its eligibility, and it might pull through. I can’t say I am a fan of the song (the last best original song winner that I really liked was Carly Simon’s Let The River Run, which is as awesome today as it was in ’88 – Dylan’s Things Have Changed is also aging well, especially in the context of the film).

Prediction: Falling Slowly - Once

Best Original Score:

Had Jonny Greenwod been nominated, he would have been the front runner. 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).

Prediction: Michael Giacchino - Ratatouille

Best Supporting Actress:

When the nominations first came out, I wrote “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), 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.” I am not so sure anymore. Watching the film again, Blanchett’s performance is the one that truly stands out, and her best actress nomination might not affect the voters: the Good Queen Bess sequel was just not well received. Ruby Dee is the obligatory veteran, and Saoirse Ronan the obligatory young ‘un, that the people like to patronise. They both gave very strong performances however (Dee is tremedous 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. Ruby Dee’s SAG win might work in her favour, but it might also be considered enough is enough. Michael Clayton, a solid studio vehicle, won’t be completely shut out, so Tilda Swinton also has a good chance of winning. So what to do? Well, the supporting categories are usually the ones where upsets are more commonplace so...

Prediction: Amy Ryan - Gone Baby Gone

Best Supporting Actor:

I couldn’t stand Casey Affleck’s finicky, fidgety and, finally, frivolous performance, where he seems to be channeling Giovanni Ribisi and Jeremy Davies, and he is in way over his head with the rest of the actors here. Hal Holbrook and Tom Wilkinson’s people have been working the town, I hear, but I can’t see either of them going the full distance. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s performance in Charlie Wilson’s War was the true stand-out of the show, and, without having seen No Country, my choice would be him. But the Javier Bardem tornado is unstoppable. He seems to have won every single award this season. I think, of all the categories, this one is most definitely settled. He will Javier Bardem and eat it, too.

Prediction: Javier Bardem - No Country for Old Men

Best Actress in a Leading Role:

This one is sealed. I can't see Ellen Page sneaking in past the force of nature that is La Christie.

Prediction: Julie Christie

Best Actor in a Leading Role:

Unlike Juno, which came out at the right time to become a hit, face the backlash, and then go into the final lap armed with a backlash-backlash, There Will Be Blood never quite managed to shake off the “good, but not that good” reaction it received from many, who seem to have a love-hate relationship with Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance. A month ago, and this was most definitely Day-Lewis’s award. I am not so sure now, and George Clooney might sneak in. It all depends on that final viewing before voters fill out their ballots.

Prediction: Daniel Day-Lewis

(Aside: I was watching Interiors the other day, and taking some notes for a Woody Allen retrospective I am planning on for early-March, when I switched over to my weekly torture session that is House [see previous post], and found myself doodling a combination of Daniel Plainview and Mr Punch. Hence the picture above. That it bears almost no resemblance to Plainview should be considered an homage to the fact that the film also bears no resemblance to Oil!)

Best Director:

Because The Diving Bell and The Butterfly received almost no major attention, there is a part of my brain that says Julian Schnabel might win this. But then the saner part prevails, and I realise that The Coen Brothers have got this one in the bag. Not just for No Country for Old Men, but for Fargo, and Miller’s Crossing, and Barton Fink, and Blood Simple, and The Big Lebowski

Prediction: The Coen Brothers

Best Original Screenplay:

I still stand by my original predictions when the nominations came out.

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

Best Adapted Screenplay:

To say that PTA adapted the screenplay for TWBB from a novel by Upton Sinclair is to use the verb “to adapt” rather liberally. Oil! is actually the only Sinclair book that I have ever read, and the film and the book could not be more different. That’s just an observation, though, and doesn’t have that much to do with the film’s chances of nabbing this award, which is still considerable. As in the previous category, Ronald Harwood, too, might edge in a win owing to Diving Bell’s poor showing in the nominations. That said…

Prediction: The Coen Brothers

Best Picture of the Year:

Some people are talking about a Juno sneak while There Will Be Blood and No Country For Old Men duke it out. I don’t see how that is possible since the latter is already so far ahead. A surprise in this category would be HUGE. OK, I admit - almost as huge as Rocky's dodging past All The Presidents’ Men, Network and Taxi Driver to win in 1977… That thought scares a lot of people, but I liked Juno, and still haven’t seen No Country so it doesn’t irk me as much. I am sure my position will change once I finally manage to catch No Country on Thursday.

So those are my predictions. Check back on Sunday night (Monday morning in Europe) when I will be covering this year’s awards with a live blog (at three o’clock in the morning my time). If my erratic internet connection decides to go all milkshake, then it will be “live-to-tape,” and I will post it first thing on Monday morning. I can’t wait. I can only hope it’s at least half as good as the genius that was the infamous opening number of the 1989 ceremony:

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

House of Pants

I don’t know why I do it to myself (not that – you perverts). Every week I watch it, and every week I vow never to do so again. Yet there I am, the next Monday, with a cup of tea in hand, curled under a blanket, waiting for this week’s installment of House.

There was a time I really liked the show – namely, around the first season. Looking back, that entire season is a deft series of wonderfully compact teleplays, bookended with “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” the famous chorus to which also serves to highlight the main theme of the show. It was formulaic even then, sure, but at least it had a certain panache to the way it told its stories. First of all, that’s what the show was about – the completely bizarre sets of ailments that plagued the patients (one of whom literally had the plague, I believe), and the way House and his cronies tried to solve the case. Character development was reduced to the purely Aristotelian conceit of the revelation of decision – habitual action, as they call it in the trade. The show had none of the usual vicarious indulgences for the audience in the form of inane dialogue between characters, which was no mean feat in a medium that’s usually defined by exposition. The one truly outstanding factor was Dr Gregory House, and literally everything centred around him. Now this is a fine line to tread because the central performance would have to be truly captivating for such an approach to succeed (case in point, CSI: Miami and David Caruso’s Horatio Crane, who is the antichrist), yet the producers had, in the unlikely Hugh Laurie the best man for the job (even though his accent is at times all over the place). Like Lost’s first season, House, too, had an incredible penultimate episode (Three Stories – brilliant beyond measure), and again like Lost, it suffered from a tremendous sophomore slump. But unlike that show, House has never recovered from the terrible two’s, and has instead kept on slumping. It’s somewhere around the earth’s core at the moment.

The first reason is this: the show can’t do sustained storylines. I wish the writers would face the facts and realise that, and just try to find another way to keep the show fresh. The end of the first season saw the introduction of House’s ex into the equation, and the show spent the first half of the season dealing with that. The more we found out about House, the less intriguing he became, naturally, and his acerbic wit less and less funny. The third season had the “cop-out-to-get-House” arc for the first ten or so episodes, and that, too, just dragged on ad infinitum (and ad nauseaum). And now the fourth season has House looking for new colleges, which is only marginally more interesting than the previous season’s arc. Who will he hire? Who will get fired? Who gives a shit?

If there was one thing that the second season managed to achieve (and I think there is actually only one thing), it was the organic, intrinsic development of the main characters, and their relationships with each other. The three doctors were much less intimidated by House, who, in turn, appeared far more confident in their abilities to not fuck up completely. That welcome development was summarily thrown out the window in the third season, and instead, all the characters ended up where they were at the beginning of the series. You can’t build characters and rekationships, and then just wipe the slate clean to inject the show with artificial drama.

Aside: The second season, and parts of the third season, were very much like Voltron. In the cartoon, the pilots never formed the damn robot until the very end of the episode as they got their asses kicked by the Robeast of the Week. And even then, they would be within inches of their lives before they decided to use Voltron's massive sword to cut the requisite enemy in half. It's the same in the second and third seasons. The colleges never used the lombar puncture until the last ten minutes of a particular episode, which sometimes worked, and sometimes didn't; but they used it every single week anyway. If I were them, I would lombar puncture the crap out of everyone in that hospital the moment they stepped into the building. I have no idea what a lombar puncture is (I don't particularly care).

The show has become repetitive and boring. I know my complaints are paradoxical, in that I said I preferred the episodic first season, yet now lament that the patient-of-the-week storylines are dull. But that has more to do with the show’s arcs, which always have me on the edge of my seat with ennui, and the cases, which seem to venture more and more into the downright bizarre and unbelievable. So now we have continuing storylines that no one cares about, and medical mysteries that are not really mysterious so much as ways for different guises for House to insult people. The thing is, ironic misanthropy works best when we don’t know anything about a character. Looking at House, and knowing all that we know about him, what he displays is not wit – it’s simply a ruse for more ratings.

Having said all that, come next Monday, I will be right there, in front of the telly, watching what Greg and his mates are up to. After four years, it's still a joy to watch Hugh Laurie, and, what can I say, I like Jennifer Morrison and Lisa Edelstein. They can puncture my lombar anytime.

On Frasier

I am currently toiling away on two essays, one on the evolution of the characters in Frasier, and the other on arboreal imagery as catharsis in The Sopranos. And that's not counting the regular updates I'm working on (the posts on taste I promised will start appearing by the end of next week). Anyway, going through some old writings on Frasier, I ran into a few thoughts, which I thought I'd share with you.

Now, for those of you who don't know me (and I don't mean just biblically), my love for Frasier knows no bounds (what The Sopranos is for television drama, Frasier is to me for sitcoms). I feel beholden to that obsessive passion to share my thoughts with you. Some of these points are a bit too inside, and I pray you indulge me.

On Shark Jumping:

I am a Frasier apologist, and even though Season 5 onwards is pretty much downhill until Season 11, I don't think the show ever jumped the shark. Jumping the shark is not a dip in quality, which the show obviously suffered from Season 6 onwards. It is rather a culmination of all those cynical attempts the show gets suckered into in order to try and lure/entice more viewers, or retain the already existing ones. As such, I don't see, for example, Roz's pregnancy as a stunt at all: it was an interesting choice to see how this emancipated, obviously single character would deal with having a kid. It was a secondary plot line anyway; no one got out of their way to see a Frasier episode because of a more prominent Roz storyline.

There is one possible "shark jumping" moment in the show's entire run; and that is Niles sleeping with Lilith. The episode itself is well handled, funny, and has a bitter-sweet ending, but I don't like the concept behind it. However, that is one single instance, and never really affected the show (it was briefly mentioned in the episode Star Mitzvah).

On the Fat-Camp storyline:

With regards to Daphne's fat camp plot line, one can't overlook the influence of the real world on any given show. Jane Leeves was pregnant, and the producers had to find a way out of it; and they took a road less travelled. It wasn't particularly funny, but diminishing returns had already been the trend of the show by then. It was not a milestone of shark jumping by any means: rather, just another sad instance of mediocrity in an already underwhelming season (compared to the better days). The problem was that when she got back from the fat camp, she turned into pod-Daphne, and became an insufferable bitch until Season 11. That was why their chemistry looked a bit off with Niles. They had perfect chemistry again in Season 11 once writers with at least a modicum of clue into the character started writing Daphne.

Frasier's Relationship with Martin:

In the rather underwhelming 7th season episode, Out with Dad, Martin ends up pretending he's gay in order for Frasier to score. It is a crappy episode, but arguing that the Martin of The Good Son would never have behaved that way is both a moot and an interesting point (I put the moron in oxymoron). Sure, the Martin we first met in 1993 would never have done what he does in the former episode. But that's the point. The character, as did Frasier and everyone else, grew thoughout the years, and a gesture like the one Martin does for Frasier at the end of the episode is intrinsic to his character's overall arc, as well as that of his relationship with Frasier. The Martin of the first episode could not even thank his son face-to-face for taking him in. But, having made his son wait for 11 years, Martin's thank you in Goodbye, Seattle was that much more meaningful and earnest than anything Frasier could have asked for. People did act differently in this show, but it was all a part of their character's growth.

On whether Frasier (the character) became more pompous as the series progressed:

Even though I can see arguments for the previous points I've recanted, I can't, for the life of me, see how one can draw a conclusion that Frasier's pomposity in the latter seasons outshone the former ones. He was always a buffoon, always a show off. Sure he knew a lot, but he thought (as did Niles) he knew much, much more than that. Just a case in point is The Crucible from the first season, where Frasier invites Martha Paxton, "the preeminent Neo-Fauvist," to his flat for a cocktail party where he intends to unveil his latest purchase, a Paxton, to his guests, whom he is trying to further impress by having the actual artist talk about the painting. Here's how the scene goes:

Frasier: Oh God, I've waited so long for this moment - I'm just going to stand back and let you describe your work - "Elegy in Green" in your own words. The way you insinuate the palette but never lean on it, you capture the zeitgeist of our generation.
It is the most perfect canvas it has ever my privilege to gaze upon. I mean, one can only imagine what inspired you to paint it.
Martha: I didn't paint it.
A murmur passes through the crowd.
Frasier: [fighting panic] Of course you didn't. You-you created it, you gave birth to it.
Martha: [walks to the painting] I didn't do anything to it - I never saw this painting before in my whole life.
Martin: [leans into Frasier's ear] And you thought I was gonna embarrass you!
Hell, the show's third episode, Dinner at Eight, is marked by Frasier and Niles acting like such arseholes at a favourite steak house of Martin's. He's an insufferable and immature buffoon later on in the season in Author, Author. What about Focus Group of the third season where he ends up burning an immigrant's kiosk (played by Tony Shalhoub - the immigrant, not the kiosk)? And the less said about his treatment of Martin's heartfelt present in Our Father Whose Art Ain't Heaven, the better. What I am trying to get at is that he was always a jackass, and even though it was accentuated further in some latter day episodes, I think that, too, was character driven. He was lovelorn, yet desperately wanted to be loved, and his pomposity was the only way to channel his frustrations (now that he and his father got along much better).

On the Farce Episodes:

I loved the farces when they were done right. Many of them were reminiscent of Moliere; and that is a spot on description of the better farce episodes like The Matchmaker (generally regarded as the best Frasier episode), The Innkeepers (Frasier acts like an arsehat in this Season 2 classic, too), The Two Mrs Cranes, Ham Radio, To Kill a Talking Bird, Merry Christmas Mrs Moskowitz, etc. The key to a decent farce is this: A woman is cheating on her husband. The husband walks in, the lover hides in the closet. Here's the kicker: the husband MUST get into that closet. It's a life and death situation; and, obviously, the wife cannot let him. There is the crux of any given farce. There is always a party involved who must do or say something, and another (maybe more) who must not let them for reasons the former does not know. Of course, there will be a surprise for the audience, too, when the whole thing's over (so we feel part of the whole shindig as well). The show's writers, and especially Joe Keenan and Christopher Lloyd, knew this, and made it work. There were times when the farce episodes did not work, like in the beloved (not by me) Ski Lodge, which just does not do it for me, but those were few and far in between.

My five favourite episodes in ascending order:

5) Episode 1.17 - A Midwinter Night's Dream

This is brilliant for showcasing, both for the first time and so brilliantly as well, the complete nonchalance that Daphne has towards Niles' sexual "non-advances" and histrionic desires. It also has such a great ending, showing a brilliant side to Frasier and Martin, as well as a beautiful production design. Frasier's all-too-familiar look at Niles following the episode's final line is still a sight to behold, after so many, many years.

Favourite Line:

Frasier: You're a complex little pirate, aren't you?
4) Episode 4.18 - Ham Radio

I love the farce episodes of Frasier, as do all Frasier fans I suppose but this one was one of the best. It has all my favourite supporting characters; Bulldog, Gil and Noel and they are all given such great material ("it keeps my coffee warm") to work with. The principals are great, too, of course but for me, Frasier and Niles are the centrepieces as you know that bottled up anger of Niles's is going to explode soon in the face of Frasier at his most domineering.

Favourite Piece of Dialogue:

Mel: I've done that accent both on Broadway and the London stage!
Frasier: Yes, well, perhaps, they have different standards than I have.
3) Episode 6.10 - Merry Christmas, Mrs Moskowitz

First of all, Amy Breneman is hot, hot, hot, so the gonads are doing some of the thinking here. Secondly, I have a fascination with everything Jewish and especially the humour that derives from that in sophisticated comedies. Finally, both those factors are combined in this wonderful farcical episode with, for me, Niles stealing the show when he is trying to be more Jewish than Jeff Goldblum. The road to the ultimate, painfully funny conclusion is both witty, and spectacularly silly.

Favourite Piece of Dialogue:

Helen: Who has a nice toast? Niles?
Niles: Oh, all right. L'chaim! Mazel tov! Next year in Jerusalem!
Frasier: Take it down a notch, Tevye.
2) Episode 1.19 - Give Him The Chair

Sure, it is not the funniest of episodes but it has one of the best writings of not only this particular sitcom but any TV show, ever! I have always loved Frasier for being able to go on for five-ten minutes without a belly laugh (out of the question for any other successful sitcom) but Frasier always managed it with aplomb; and in a show that values farce as one of its highest assets too. On paper, it would just scream out a balance problem but it works so well. This is a great episode, devoted mainly to Frasier and Martin's relationship, and Martin's speech is probably the finest the show has ever produced.

Favourite Piece of Dialogue:

Martin: Okay, I'll tell you what chair I want. I want the chair I was sitting in
when I watched Neil Armstrong take his first step on the moon. And when the U.S.
hockey team beat the Russians in the '80 Olympics. I want the chair I was
sitting in the night you called me to tell me I had a grandson. I want the chair
I was in all those nights, when your mother used to wake me up with a kiss after
I'd fallen asleep in front of the television. You know, I still fall asleep in
it. And every once in a while, when I wake up, I still expect your mother to be
there, ready to lead me off to bed... Oh, never mind. It's only a chair. Come
on, Eddie.
1) Episode 2.03 - The Matchmaker

As far as I am concerned, this is easily overall the funniest Frasier episode ever. I am not sure if it can be topped in a conventional sitcom. The episode starts promisingly with an obvious set up that one can see miles off, but that promise is fulfilled and then some with the scenes during the dinner party with Tom at Frasier's. I am not sure what is funnier, Frasier's earlier ignorance of the fact that he is on a date; Niles's taking the the piss out of his brother once he finds out or Frasier's childish embarassment at the end. Simply put: magnificent.

Favourite Piece of Dialogue (There are too many):

Frasier: Oh my God! Niles, do you realise what this means?
Niles: Yes,
you're dating your boss. You of all people should know the pitfalls of an office relationship.
Frasier: Yes, but he... he just never mentioned the fact he...
Niles: I'll call you tomorrow. But not too early, of course.
Other notable favourites:

1.24: My Coffee With Niles (For that beautiful ending to the first seson)
2.20: Breaking The Ice (Father-Son stuff turns me into a soppy goo)
2.23: The Innkeepers (A brilliant farce)
3.03: Martin Does It His Way (Honour Thy Father)
3.13: Moon Dance (Grammar's brilliant direction and the postcard gag!)
3.15: A Word To The Wiseguy (Niles acting tough - a sight to behold)
4.01: The Two Mrs. Cranes ("Now, now, Daphne. You are eating for two")
4.03: The Impossible Dream (I love Gil, what can I say?)
4.14: To Kill A Talking Bird ("Birds Today!" What a line - What a delivery!)
5.20: First Date (Niles and Daphne sitting in a tree and that song)
6.03: Dial M For Martin (It ain't paranoia if they're really after you!)
6.08: The Seal Who Came To Dinner (Go Keenan, It's Your Birthday!)
7.01: Momma Mia (The three of them watching the video at the end of the episode!)
7.10: Back Talk (The Revelation!!!!!!)
7.22: Dark Side Of The Moon (She loves him too!!!!!)
7.23: Something Borrowed, Someone Blue (Niles: “How do you feel about me?”)
8.14: Hooping Cranes (Frasier the Interpreter)
8.15: Docu.Drama (John Glenn in the booth!!!)
9.02: The First Temptation of Daphne (The Lizard Harness!)
10.06: Star Mitzvah (Noel is my hero!)
11.03: The Doctor Is Out (A welcome return to form)
11.23: Goodnight Seattle (“Though we are not now that strength, which in old days moved earth and heaven…”)

Monday, February 18, 2008

Ripe for a Remake: The Princess Bride

When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin. When Istanbul woke up yesterday morning from an equally disturbing slumber, she found herself changed into Greenland. And I don’t mean it in jest. Unusual weather (snow itself isn’t unusual here – snowstorms that would make a taun-taun think twice are) such as yesterday’s would compel regular people (read: those without a death wish) to stay in doors, and curl up on the sofa with a warm cup of chocolate and a thick book. Not me, though, I had errands to run, the most important of which was to take in Charlie Wilson’s War and Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.

I first had to travel halfway across the nival landscape to a friend’s place to feed their cat while they’re away. Not a problem – if I don’t count the half an hour I spent searching for the feline fiend, who, for some reason, had taken to hiding from me. Next, I had to switch my copy of House of Games with a new one as it won’t play on my DVD player. I had to get some food, too – again, no problem. But, by that time, what should have taken me an hour at the most had devoured the better part of my afternoon, and I had no energy left in me to go to the cinema. Thankfully, when I went back home, there were a few films on the telly that I had never seen before. The Princess Bride was one of them.

I only found out about The Princess Bride in the early nineties in Germany – until then I had not even known that it existed. If it had received a theatrical release in Turkey when it first came out, I didn’t know about it, or else cared. When friends started going on about the flick’s apparent awesomeness, my interest was piqued yet I never sought it out either in high school, or at uni, where quoting lines from the movie seemed to be one of the entry criteria (“No, I don’t want a peanut, but would you like a slap”). By the time I read about the film in William Goldman’s Which Lie Did I Tell?, it felt like I knew everything there was to know about it – the story, the jokes, the behind the scenes fun, the grosses, everything. So when I saw that the film was on yesterday, it was a great way to see what all the fuss was about without, literally, leaving the sofa (besides, the other option was The Doors, and I had no time to wallow in that mire).

It’s a good film, and I did like it. It has a quaint innocence that’s underscored by world weary sarcasm (the parachronistic gags are perhaps running commentary inserted by the Grandfather) – the charm comes from the way Rob Reiner devotes equal attention to both the fairy tale aspect and the comedy. As in This is Spinal Tap, the spoof never overshadows the story. It’s a nice little treat, perfect for a Sunday afternoon. Nonetheless, the film left me wanting – it would be unfair to call the production half-baked, but the film seemed to lack that final oomph, and the biggest reason was the way it was telling a much grander story than the one that had ended up on the screen. The visuals did not reflect the magnificence. Now what I am about to say will come as anathema, as blasphemy, to many of the film’s fans. But once they break the onerous shackles of nostalgia, even they would see that the film has summer blockbuster, maybe even franchise, written all over it. It’s a fine film, sure, but it has the potential to be so much more. The answer is simple: The Princess Bride simply must be remade.

I don’t believe that re-makes are intrinsically pestiferious. Nor are they – or sequels – commensurate with whore’s movies, as William Goldman argues in his typically irascible tone in many of his writings (David Bordwell has an excellent discussion on the history and merits of movie sequels here). The re-interpretation of an already-existing (and, at times, much lauded) work of art is not unique to American cinema. The practice is as old as human civilization itself, and encompasses all art. The Odyssey owes as much to the Epic of Gilgamesh as it does to the ancient tales of Asia Minor and Greece – in turn, Gilgamesh itself can be seen as the retelling of the Akkadian Atra-Hasis and the Sumerian Eridu-Genesis legends, both of which form the basis of all deluge myths. Shakespeare’s Hamlet or Goethe’s Faust are more modern examples. In Verrochio’s workshop where he was educated, not just Leonardo Da Vinci, but Boticelli and Perugino as well, were asked to do reinterpretations of existing works. In fact, reimaginings of classical themes and scenes form the basis of much of Renaissance art. Albeit less common, remakes can be found in contemporary painting, too: Last year’s Picasso exhibit at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art “included instances of American artists remaking, as new versions, particular works by Pablo Picasso, quoting passages of his paintings, or mimicking his style.” Covers are a dime a dozen in modern music, but keen listeners of Beethoven’s early work would find themes similar to Mozart, too. To quote from the aforementioned Picasso exhibit’s website, “a remake — by adapting, displacing, or just feeding off another film — not only generates something different and new, it reveals peculiarities of the original that we wouldn't otherwise see. Whether it is an homage or a travesty, a remake can be faithful to the original in changing it — or it can betray the original by imitating it.” In fact, as Matthew Gurewitsch wrote in the New York Times on April 4, 1999, and as today’s word of the day mailing from Dictionary.Com appropriately brings to my attention, “However we choose to define a classic, a sine qua non is that the material lend itself to reinterpretation in the light of changing circumstances.” So it can even be said that a classic is not truly a classic unless it can be (or is) reinterpreted.

Which brings us to why The Princess Bride needs to be remade. As I said earlier, the story is much more majestic than the film itself does it justice. It’s supposed to be a fairy tale, a grand adventure through many lands, an Odyssey of sorts, yet it feels like it was filmed in the emerald hills while the shepherds were keeping the flocks of sheep at bay – which they probably were. The scenery doesn’t have a commanding presence – and it should as this is a fairy tale, and the scenery is one of the most important parts of the story. Try to imagine the Lord of the Rings films without thinking of New Zealand…See, you can’t! The cliffs of insanity are not at all imposing, the soundstage where Westley duels Inigo too obviously a soundstage, the Prince’s castle, and its interiors, totally underwhelming. And the less talk about the risible sequences with the eels and the giant rats the better. Yet it’s not just what is lacking in the film that makes it deserving of a remake, but what’s already in it, too. The tongue in cheek, at times wonderfully meta humour, is currently very much a part of the pop culture zeitgeist. Just as getting involved in a land war in Asia is a bad idea still, so were swashbuckling action-adventure movies until a few years ago when Pirates of the Caribbean obliterated that particular axiom with panache.

Now imagine this. A visionary director, like Guillermo Del Toro, say, helming a page one remake of the story. While they keep what is great about the film – the characters, the humour, the heart – they completely overhaul the rest of the film. I am not just talking about better effects, which would be instrumental, but a rebuilding of the story from the ground up – a more fleshed out story, more formidable sets, luscious locations, new designs, etc.[1] The fact is The Princess Bride, however great it is, can be much better. They have the technology. They can re build it.

No – they SHOULD rebuild it. They owe it to the story.

[1] In fact, just as the original film is told as a bedtime story by the grandfather, this new version could be the director pitching the remake itself to an at-first oblivious studio exec. How’s that for meta!

Talk about mudflaps, my girl's got 'em...

From BBC News:

"There are women today with large bottoms who are embarrassed, so it's to say don't be ashamed - be comfortable."

An update, not necessarily about this particular subject, is coming soon.

Friday, February 15, 2008

A Matter of Taste: Prologue

(On his Scanners Blog, Jim Emerson started a very interesting discussion on taste. Inspired by the post, I will spend the better part of next week examining this topic. I will also review Cloverfield, Juno, There Will Be Blood, Sweeney Todd, Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead, We Own The Night and Charlie Wilson’s War. Below are my initial thoughts on the subject - comments at Jim’s site which I shall expand upon over the weekend.)

I remember it like it was yesterday even though it was almost 27 years ago. I was four years old, sitting at the table in my grandmother’s kitchen, as my parents discussed which film to take in that afternoon. The choices had already been narrowed down to two, Die Blechtroemmel (Best Foreign Film Oscar winner), or Clash of the Titans (where Harry Hamlin is guided in his magical quest by a mechanical owl). Now the films couldn’t be too different, and I recall my mother’s leaning towards the best foreign film Oscar winner, which usually means that the decision would be made soon.

To this day, I have not seen Die Blechtroemmel (and there’s a lot of sex in it, apparently, so damn you Harryhausen, and your captivating stop-motion effects which must have eventually enticed my parents), whereas I must have seen Clash of the Titans at least twenty times. We are all fastidiously forged in the crucible of experience, with nostalgia and the search for validation as fuel to the fire. As such there is emotional resilience in what we like, and how and why we like it. There are, of course, much bigger forces at work – that shape us, and our understanding of the world, too. And I suppose that’s where the class struggle argument fits in. Cultural snobbery, as I mentioned earlier, goes hand in hand in the modern world, at least among the self-described literati (I use the word extensively), with cultural slumming, with which the afficianado (by definition, of highbrow art) will rationalize their enjoyment of what they might perceive as the more plebian art of the lumpenproleteriat (this is not just particular to the upper and upper middles classes, but the petit bourgeois, too). The dismissal of critical opinion is the final step in this process. That, I believe, is the theoretical groundwork in a strictly dialectic way. But how does it work in practice? Easy.

“You know, I don’t usually go to these type of films, I prefer Mikhail Romm, and his somewhat ironic portrayal of socialist realism, but, well, sometimes you just want mindless fun, which is why I am now standing in line for High School High.”

I have no problems with people enjoying High School High. I do have a problem, however, with this rationalization process. It has three detrimental effects linked to the troika of points I brought up earlier:

1. It creates a hierarchy in art. As Carl Wilson says, and as Jim mentions, it “(divides) culture into highbrow, lowbrow and middlebrow.” This arbitrary classification (or de-classification, if you like – Ho-hum) is nothing but addle-brained reductivism. By definition, it instills in the enjoyment of art a specious “class struggle.” At its worst, people start feeling embarrassed for liking High School High, and others vindicated (or entitled) for liking Romm.
2. It automatically labels people who enjoy this lowbrow art, who enjoy it without the pretensions I mentioned earlier, to a sort of cultural leprosy. As such, the artificial distinction of the first point is solidified, and has a converse effect as well. Our man who loves his Romm so much will jest that he is slumming when he watches High School High, just as the person whose life revolves around Jon Lovitz’s afro in the aforementioned film will quip he’s “being artsy” when he runs into Nine Days in One Year, and finds himself enthralled by it.
3. Finally, it reduces everything into a false dichotomy of whether the work of art in question is worthy of critiquing or not. “Well, it’s just a (insert genre or the filmmakers’ names),” becomes a mantra in this case. But understanding why we like or dislike a work of art, or why someone else, a critic we like (or dislike), enjoys something we abhor helps in the quest to constantly challenge one’s self. Why we are where we are, why we like what we like, and how we got here (again points raised by Jim). In the big picture, it is irrelevant whether or not High School High is any good (it isn’t) just as it’s irrelevant whether or not Nine Days in One Year is any good (it is). There were two comments recently at The House Next Door regarding film criticism (linked to the earlier round of discussion we had a few weeks back); Ty Keenan said: "Frankly, at its best, criticism is a form of light therapy for both the critic and the reader." To which Matt Zoller Seitz replied: “True. Two of my favorite descriptions of criticism are from Pauline Kael, who in her 1995 collection Love Letters told people that were always asking her to write an autobiography, "I think I have"; and Walter Chaw, who in a House interview with Jeremiah Kipp, described film criticism as 1% savvy, 99% auto-psychoanalysis.” Who doesn’t want a piece of that? Even if it is about High School Bloody High.

This rationalization overshadows the story of our interests, how we got to where we are culturally. Clash of the Titans led me to Greek mythology, which led me to mythology as a whole, and then to languages and poetry and essentially the arts in general. This is very simplistic in purpose, for I must away soon (I am seeing Cloverfield, finally – but when I get home I will pop in The Seventh Seal because I am cultured), but I would like to explore this subject further. The fact of the matter is we don’t feel ashamed of our political, economic or sexual choices. We should not be ashamed of our cultural choices either.
More on this next week.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

“My son has an office on the right hand of Jesus”

The sixth season of Curb Your Enthusiasm finished here last week, and I had been mulling over a review/recap of it when Edward Copeland beat me to the punch with a DVD review of the season. I agree with Edward that the fifth season was mostly uneven, though our opinions differ as to that season’s finale, which I thought was terrible. Thank god it didn’t end up being the series finale like Larry David originally planned.

Among my real life friends (all three of them), I am universally alone in my unabashed enthusiasm for Curb Your Enthusiasm. The show had slipped under my radar in the UK, where Seinfeld has never been a hit (and had been condemned to the graveyard slot during its initial run), which, subsequently, meant that Curb’s launch never had the kind of in-built momentum as it had in the US. Incidentally, a pet peeve of mine is the way many Brits dismiss American comedy, especially sitcoms, as nothing more than workmanlike series of sappy family humour or frat boy-friendly histrionics (not that there’s anything wrong with that). But that’s an unfair simplification of a genre, which is most natural to American television, and in which it clearly thrives. In fact, it is British sitcoms that are generally dreadful, and The Office and The League of Gentlemen and Phoenix Nights, all of them sublime, are all but oases in the barren Sahara that is British television comedy.

Anyway, back on topic: Larry David is one of the great storytellers currently working in television. I’ve been watching the fourth season of Seinfeld these past few days – the break-out season, and the first one with an overwhelming arc ("The Jerry Show"). Although Seinfeld would use arcs in its later seasons, to varying degrees of success, The Jerry Show arc is the one that is closest to the way Larry David has fashioned all seasons of Curb Your Enthusiasm after its debut season. In fact, the clockwork precision of the second, third, fourth - and now the sixth - seasons, the way the episodes, and the overall arcs, inexorably lead to an ineluctable outcome, and yet still manage to be supremely surprising once they get there, is a testament to David’s perfect grasp of screwball and farce. The show’s cinema (or television) verité style and its indebtedness to such disparate influences as Moliere, Alan Ayckbourn, Phil Silvers, Mel Brooks, Joe Keenan etc only serve to highlight David’s tremendous achievement. The style complements the substance – the apparent haphazardness of the single-camera approach and the mainly improvised dialogue the yin to the yang of the plot’s labyrinthine machinations.

The main arc of the show’s sixth season finds The Davids’ “adopting” an African-American family who’ve been left homeless in the wake of a Katrina-like Hurricane. Fortuitously enough, they happen to be called The Blacks. It’s these too-on-the-nose set-ups that I love about David’s comedy. You know that something most awkward is going to happen with a combination like that – but you just don’t know exactly what. Leon Black, the up-to-no-good, plebian, loud-mouth nephew could usually be interpreted as an attempt to extend a show’s appeal to different demographics – but not in this one. Stereotypes are introduced in an off-handed way, and then subsequently demolished with the same ease. The second arc involves Sheryl dumping Larry when the latter prefers to deal with the TiVo guy instead of talking to his wife, who’s called him from her plane that’s seemingly about to crash. (There is so much I can relate to in that particular plotline – I’ve had an ex who used to call me only three-minutes before The Sopranos would start, and then complain that I wasn’t paying her any attention. Don’t make me choose between you and Tony, hon. Yes, I am a moron.) All the actors do sterling work – the veterans have grown into their roles, and you can see affectations, and lines coming to them naturally. Watch as Larry David tries to stay “in-character” after Jeff Garlin’s adlib at the Laundromat: “At home, I keep photos of all my dry cleaners on the wall.” The additions to the cast, JB Smoove (best. name. ever.), Vivica Fox, Ellie English are equally great.

And then there’s the finale – which comes completely out of left field, and is in such contrast to the general cynicism of the show that it’s not just an artistic non sequitur, but almost Lynchesque in its weirdness. Truly, truly a work of genius.

Postscript: The show had an 11.00PM slot here, which is now occupied by Californication. I suppose the thinking was that, sometimes, just before you go to bed, you want to see a bald man make a tit of himself. And other times, you just want to see tits. Fair enough.

Kali Ma Shakti Debut: Indy Trailer to Arrive Today

The teaser trailer for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (one truly graceless title) debuts in a few hours at Yahoo Movies, and the film's official site. There’s a bootleg version floating about, which I have no intention of watching. The official site says the trailer will have an international launch at the cinemas, so hopefully I will also catch it on the big screen sometime this weekend.

Don’t forget – Cerebral Mastication is hosting an Indiana Jones Blog-a-thon to coincide with the release of the new movie. Click here for details.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Pineapple Express Red Band Trailer

Judd Apatow is a very funny man. The 40-Year-Old Virgin is the funniest film of this decade, with Superbad's running a close second. Even when he fails to meet my expectations, as in Knocked Up, Apatow still manages to bring enough of the funny that I overlook his films' other problems (like his penchant for keeping his movies, on average, at a sprightly seven hours).

Judd Apatow is also a very busy man. His schedule, and seemingly overnight success following Virgin, has been compared to John Hughes' in the director’s 80's heyday, and, like Hughes, Apatow likes to have myriad projects at various stages of development simultaneously. Of his current slate of movies, Drillbit Taylor and Forgetting Sarah Marshall do not interest me in the slightest, even though I'll end up seeing them the weekend they open - though I am not sure I will be able to extend my patronage to You Don't Mess with the Zohan, an ostensibly by-the-numbers Borat knock-off, which sounds like a take-the-money-and-run kinda deal for Apatow.

However, I can't wait for The Year One, and Pineapple Express, an action/comedy written by Apatow, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, and directed by David Gordon Green, which is a combination just kerazee enough to work! Its red band trailer has been leaked to the interwebs, and, in only a minute and half, I counted quite a few references to Tarantino, the Coen Brothers, Hong Kong cinema, 80's action movies... So basically it’s like Hot Fuzz, but actually funny. Check it out:

Thanks to Timothy Sergeant for sending me the link.

I'm the Lord of the Flies


Interestingly, my IQ is also 24.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

"I can't deny the fact that, right now..."

In his recent post "Jack Nicholson explains the Oscars for you," Jim Emerson asked an interesting question: Have you ever been watching a movie and gotten the impression that the actor(s) are thinking more about Oscars than their characters?

Well, who hasn’t?

This point gets raised often during the awards season, and I have always had mixed feelings about it. It is not necessarily a bad thing per se – an actor’s thinking about an Oscar more than their character isn't, necessarily, tantamount to whoring, or selling out. Similarly, a bad performance(in a “weighty” film) can exist in spite of the actor’s genuine concentration in the character they’re playing, without their entertaining even the smallest thought of recognition (or validation). And then there are simply terrible performances where the actor doesn’t think about anything at all – I’m looking at you, Benigni.

For example, albeit a wonderful performance (and an even greater film), Peter Sellers’s turn as Chance in Being There fits the criteria of an actor thinking more about the Oscar than their character. From the same year, it’s always seemed to me that Sally Field, too, was more concerned with getting her hands round the golden statue than Norma Rae, the character. Whereas, what I perceive to be, Sellers’ pandering for a best actor nod does not bother me in the slightest, Sally Field’s does. Consequently, I have always been biased towards the actress – Places in the Heart doesn’t have a place in my heart, and she even spoils Mrs Doubtfire for me (as far as I’m concerned, if a film features a man in drag, then it's already done half the work). For me, this intentness on the Oscar is a relatively modern phenomenon going back to the seventies with Barbra Streisand in The Way We Were, or George Burns and Walter Matthau in The Sunshine Boys. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any examples from earlier (I’ve never seen Charly, so maybe Cliff Robertson? I don’t know).

I recently watched Gandhi for the first time in twenty years, and Ben Kingsley’s performance reeked to me of Oscar-bait. There is a Performance in every single scene with him – sometimes an actor just has to say the line, and do what he is told. As David Mamet says, the nail doesn’t have to look like a ship, it has to look like a nail. I know Stanley Kubrick argued that every single shot in every single scene of a movie had to communicate the essential truth and meaning of the film in question, but that was Kubrick. When one’s making a biography, a form not suited to drama in the first place, at times, one has to keep certain things simple. Including the acting.

The respective performances of four of the actors who made Edward Copeland's survey of Worst of the Best Actor winners also have "For Your Consideration" written all over them: Denzel Washington in Training Day, Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man, Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump, and AL PACINO (a name which, by law, has to be in ALL CAPS) in Scent of a Woman. In fact, it’s a given that an actor playing a drunk, disabled or plain old mental character has, on their mind, more than just the evocation of truth and beauty through their craft. They want that statuette, and they want it bad. Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot is the exception that proves the rule – Daniel Day-Lewis in Gangs of New York isn’t. Robert DeNiro’s lugubrious work in Awakenings, Jack Nicholson’s hammy and histrionic turns in The Departed and Ironweed, Sean Penn's fidgety performance in I Am Sam – in each case, the actor’s preoccupation with the Oscar overshadows their performance on the screen.

Almost all modern actors have done it one time or another: Sean Penn in Dead Man Walking, Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich, Brad Pitt in 12 Monkeys, John Hurt in Midnight Express, Warren Beatty in Bugsy, Vanessa Redgrave in Atonement, Ben Kingsley in Schindler’s List, Eddie Murphy and Beyonce Knowles in Dreamgirls, Morgan Freeman in The Shawshank Redemption, Danny DeVito in Man On The Moon (a performance I simply ADORE), Meryl Streep and Cher in Silkwood

Of course, my choices betray more about me than they do about the actors in question. Good or bad, we impose on all actors baggage that we bring along – which, admittedly, they’ve helped us pack in the first place. It’s just that sometimes that baggage pales in comparison to the actor’s lust for recognition.