Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Oscars overview and some overdue reviews

I don't know if it was because the Hollywood writers' strike ended too close to the date of the ceremonies, but the 80th Academy Awards came and went with minimal fanfare. The mood of this year's Oscars was a bit subdued, from the proliferation of black gowns on the red carpet to the solemn video montages looking back on 80 years of Oscar history. Even host Jon Stewart's usually sharp, sarcastic humor was tempered with a sheepish kind of restraint, though it served him well. There were very few eyebrow-raisers throughout the program (although having Hannah Montana as a presenter is just offensive), and unlike last year, there were no real shockers among the winners, save for surprise wins for Best Actress (by John's darling Marion Cotillard for La Vie en Rose) and Best Supporting Actress (by Cate Blanchett's gaunt, ghostly doppelganger Tilda Swinton for Michael Clayton). My only major complaints: Transformers got shut out of the 3 awards it was nominated for (c'mon, Optimus Prime isn't enough for Best Visual Effects?!?), and my brother won our sibling Oscars betting pool this year by a very narrow margin, hmph.

With the Oscars over, I think it's high time I make the effort to write some belated reviews of some films that were up for (but did not necessarily win) some awards.

Because I have not seen La Vie en Rose (yes, John, I will soon, I promise!), I really thought Julie Christie was a shoo-in for Best Actress for her wonderfully nuanced but powerful performance as a woman suffering from Alzheimer's in Away from Her. In this movie, Christie gives us a prime example of fine acting by a veteran: not overdone, not theatrical, not self-conscious, and utterly convincing. Very often actors playing people afflicted with dementia end up doing a caricature that is either comic or cruel. Christie gives her character a grace and dignity that are moving to behold. Relative unknown Gordon Pinsent provides a solid supporting presence as the loving husband who is pained to see his wife's condition deteriorate so quickly that she forgets who he is entirely. There is a poignant beauty to Away From Her that makes this otherwise simple film memorable, and that's largely in part to the remarkable acting by the two leads.

Atonement was pretty much snubbed by the Academy (unless you count its win for Best Original Score), but I found that this film adaptation surpassed my expectations as an Ian McEwan fan. It's a huge challenge translating a McEwan novel into a movie, because he's such a master of words that his written descriptions can be more vivid than any visual interpretation. But thanks to pitch-perfect performances by a talented cast, McEwan's tale of passion, betrayal, remorse and tragedy was adeptly brought to life on celluloid. As is the case with most film adaptations however, the character development was a bit weak compared to the book's, but the deficiency was more than made up for by the heat generated between Kiera Knightley and James McAvoy (LOVE him), who play star-crossed lovers Celia and Robbie. The amazing on-screen chemistry they have is the kind that just can't be faked even by the best of actors, and together they made the infamous love scene in the library pulsate with urgency, raw emotion and sensuality. Of course no review of Atonement is complete without acknowledging the impressive performance of young Saoirse Ronan, who brought the meddling child Briony to life with startling vibrancy, so much so that even as she causes the separation of Celia and Robbie, it's difficult to vilify her completely. As far as film adaptations go, Atonement is not bad at all, and as a film by itself, it's actually pretty good.

I recently sang the Affleck brothers' praises for their work in Gone Baby Gone. Casey Affleck was a revelation in big brother Ben's directorial debut, and I was gratified to see that he delivered the same high-caliber acting in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. It's no simple feat outshining a star like Brad Pitt, but Casey succeeds with the kind of quiet, unassuming confidence that's more Damon than Affleck, showing why he received and deserved that Best Supporting Actor nomination. He depicts Robert Ford as an impressionable and unstable young man, whose hero worship of legendary bandit Jesse James (played by Mr. Pitt) becomes a twisted fixation that eventually leads him to kill his idol. Affleck's Ford is a bit creepy and seems to be perpetually teetering precariously on the brink of psychosis, but he also manages to be strangely sympathetic because of his vulnerability and fragile psyche. An underappreciated turn by underappreciated Sam Rockwell as Ford's older brother also contributes to the few strengths of this dreary, overly long movie. The plodding pace is hardly compensated for by the breath-taking cinematography, and the barely coherent plot is made murkier by dialogue mumbled in muddled accents. The Assassination of Jesse James reminded me why I'm not a fan of Westerns in general, and quite frankly, my only motivation for watching is seeing cute actors dressed up as cowboys.


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