Sunday, February 29, 2004

And the Oscar Goes to...(2004 Edition)

Most years, the company I work for has an Oscar pool. (Actually, we have a pool for damn near everything--Oscars, NCAA, Super Bowl, us, we're sick.) This year, though, for whatever reason, there was no Oscar pool. Just as well--I couldn't afford to jump in and swim anyway.

That doesn't mean, however, that I don't have picks to make.

Best Director. I have to admit that I never understood this award. I mean, wouldn't the guy (and all but three of the nominees in the history of the Academy Awards have been guys, including this year's sole female nominee) who directed the Best Picture winner be Best Director by default? No? Okay. Fine, then. So why can't this category at least mirror the Best Picture nominees? Why nominate Fernando Meirelles for City of God when he clearly has no chance of winning? (Besides...wasn't City of God released in 2002? Are the Oscars becoming as ridiculous and elasic as the Grammys?) What, was Seabiscuit directed by the horse?

Anyway. Peter Weir doesn't stand much of a chance--Master and Commander: This Title Is Too Damn Long is a fine movie, I'm sure, but it didn't do so hot at the box office and didn't win much at the other award ceremonies leading up to the Oscars. Clint Eastwood is hugely respected in Hollywood, and Mystic River has been said to be his best directorial effort yet; he already has a statue, though (for Unforgiven), so he's not likely. Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation was the best movie I saw in 2003, but this is only her second feature (after her stunning debut, The Virgin Suicides) and she'll likely get rewarded with the Best Original Screenplay award.

So, that leaves...Peter Jackson. He won't be getting Best Director for Return of the King, but for all three Lord of the Rings movies, which are really one really long movie chopped in three.

Best Supporting Actress. The Supporting Actor categories are usually hard to predict, and some of the most pleasant surprises happen down here, with longtime actors getting their due (Sean Connery, Jack Palance or Judi Dencsh) or younger actors getting the official establishment seal of approval (Angeline Jolie, Jennifer Connelly). This year? Hard to say. Marcia Gay Harden, Patricia Clarkson and Holly Hunter are all respected veterans. But this is Renee Zellweger's third nomination in recent years, and Hollywood just seems to love Squinchy McPinchface. But Cold Mountain got a pretty cold shoulder from the Academy (no Best Picture, Best Director or Best Actress...sorry, Nicole) and Squinchy's young--she'll get nominated again.

So the winner? Will be Shohreh Aghdashloo for House of Sand and Fog. Why? Because this will probably be the only time she gets nominated, and her performance could wring tears from a stone.

Best Supporting Actor. This is where a veteran is more likely to be rewarded for perseverance. That Ken Watenabe got nominated at all for The Last Samurai, whose previews never failed to make me laugh (itty-bitty Tom Cruise in Samurai armor...snerk!), will have to be his award. Same for Djimon Hounsou for In America, though he could pull off an upset like I think Aghdashloo will for Best Supporting Actress. And Benicio Del Toro already has one of these. So I think it comes down to Tim Robbins and Alec Baldwin. Robbins has been consistently good throughout his career--and vocally liberal. Will that hurt him in an America shifting significantly to the right? Or will his performance push those thoughts out of voters' heads? Alec Baldwin has always been underappreciated as an actor, perhaps because he's made some shitty choices in his career (I mean...The Shadow? The Cat in the Hat? The hell?) along with the good ones. And his now-former wife, Kim Basinger, has an Oscar that most reasonable people think she should give back. Flipping a coin now...

The silver 1964 quarter says...Alec Baldwin.

Best Actress. Naomi Watts? No Chance. Samantha Morton? Sorry. Keisha Castle-Hughes? You're kidding, right? Diane Keaton? Hmmm...intriguing. But unlikely, especially since she won for Annie Hall more than a quarter century ago. Charlize Theron hit all the notes the Academy loves in her performance in Monster--she shook off her glamour and beauty, gained weight, hid herself under repugnant makeup and sank so deeply into the role of serial killer Aileen Wuornos as to be entirely unrecognizable. Just the pictures of her scare the shit out of me. But some Academy members might kick back against the verdicts of some critics, like Chicago-based Roger Ebert and Richard Roeper (who many have told me I resemble--please stop), who've declared the performance one of the best in the history of cinema. Which gives Keaton a chance. And wouldn't it be nice for a female comedic performance to get one of the top awards, since they so rarely do? Yes, it would.

Still, it's Theron's to lose...and she will. To Keaton.

Best Actor. Ben Kingsley won this one 20 years ago. Jude Law is an Academy fave, but Cold Mountain will likely get shut out (unless Zellweger snags Best Supporting Actress). And the big buzz is going to Sean Penn for Mystic River and Bill Murray for Lost in Translation. Penn is acknowledged as the best actor of his generation--and as a world-class dick. Murray has a prickly reputation, too (and no, it's not just Lucy Liu who thinks he's hard to work with), but his subtle, sweet performance here deserves the top award. I hope he gets it. I really do.

But because both he and Penn are both so heavily favored, I think they'll split the vote and allow Johnny Depp to slip past and take the Oscar. No, his performance in Pirates of the Caribbean: This Title's Too Damn Long, Too wasn't the best of the year, or even of his career. But his turn as Jack Sparrow ("That's Captain Jack Sparrow), a cross between Hunter S. Thompson and a particularly soused Keith Richards, elevated Pirates from likeable diversion to excellent entertainment. Sure, Depp should have been nominated before now--for Edward Scissorhands or What's Eating Gilbert Grape or Ed Wood or Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas--but he'll win for Pirates of the Caribbean.

Best Picture. My thinking here is along the same lines as my reasoning for Best Director: Peter Jackson will win for the whole Lord of the Rings trilogy, not just Return of the King. I'd love for Lost in Translation to win here, but...the One Ring will rule them all.

So now it's time for me to settle in with a Reggio's pizza on the plate before me, two or three or five Red Dogs in the fridge and Ms. Christopher curled up at my feet--time for me to see just how far out of my ass my predictions are.

Oh...and Happy Leap Day, one and all.

Wednesday, February 18, 2004

Review: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919)

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari wasn't the first horror film by a longshot--numerous filmmakers had tried to scare their audiences, from the bullet-shaped spaceship Georges Melies jammed into the eye of the Man in the Moon in A Trip to the Moon to Thomas Edison's version of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein to several cracks at Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde. Nor is Caligari the best example of silent horror--many of the genre films of the following decade would eclipse Caligari in terms of story and shocks (especially Murnau's Nosferatu).

But no matter what you think of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, it probably qualifies as the single most influential film in the history of cinema.

Think I'm overstating? Not only did it shade the monster films, in both Germany and America, that followed it--The Golem, Waxworks, Phantom of the Opera, Frankenstein, Dracula (both English and Spanish versions), The Old Dark House, Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Mummy, etc.--but it continues to exert its influence to this very day in movies like Dark City and the first two Batman films (and most of Tim Burton's other films, too).

And there are plenty of movies in between that bear the mark of this early film example of German Expressionism, an art movement in which angles and perspectives are exaggerated to provoke emotional responses. The transfer of this artistic approach to film manifests itself in the form of interior sets with odd angles and painted-on shadows, characters lit from below (as if the lighting were emanating from the ground--or from Hell itself) and nightmarish scenarios in which evil is not merely a concept, but a tangible, living presence. (Such techniques also found their ways into non-horror films, especially the "film noir" crime dramas of the 1940s.)

The basic story: a couple of young students (Fredrich Feher and Hans Heinz von Twardowski) and the girl they both adore (Lil Dagover) go to a local fair and encounter Caligari (Werner Krauss), a hypnotist who keeps a somnambulist--a sleepwalker--in the enclosure of the title. The somnambulist, Cesare (Conrad Veidt), can predict the future, it's said, and when he tells one of the students that he'll only live until the following dawn, it turns out to be true. It probably doesn't help that Cesare helps his own prediction come true by leaving his cabinet (on Caligari's orders) and murders said student himself. While the surviving student looks for the killer, Cesare continues to kill and then kidnaps the girl, marching through dreamlike sets and pursued by angry villagers (the first of many, many such pursuits in cinema). Cesare falls over dead for no obvious reason, the girl is saved, and Caligari is revealed to be an asylum director obsessed with an ancient story of a hypnotist who controlled a somnambulist and used him to carry out evil deeds.

If this were all there were to the story, Caligari would be a nightmarish experiment and probably would hold up far better than it does. Unfortunately, this central story is bookended with the story of a young man (Feher, the surviving student in the story) committed to an asylum. This story explains the other, central story away as a delusion in the mind of the young man, thus robbing it of all of its power to confuse and frighten the audience and undercutting the possible comparisons that could be drawn to the recently concluded World War I.

This also qualifies as a dubious first in horror cinema, as many other movies, especially those of James Whale in the 1930s, would be re-edited, reshot and otherwise fucked with to make them more conventional and commercial.

Everything is safe and normal, you see--it's all the ravings of a paranoid mind and nothing more.

Still, you can't deny the power of the meat in the Caligari sandwich. Few other films convey the off-kilter look (even the title cards are distorted and angular) and logic of nightmares the way this movie does. (Orson Welles's adaptation of Kafka's The Trial is probably the closest, but even that film announces itself, through voiceover by Welles, that it's all a dream.) If only director Robert Weine hadn't been forced to tell us that this was a nightmare and nothing more, Caligari might have held up as a truly scary movie, instead of influencing countless movies with its visual style while reducing itself to a footnote and a curiosity to be sought out only by film students and horror-film completists--instead of being "just" a starting point for all the dreams and screams on the immediate cinematic horizon.

But The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari continues to fascinate, more than 80 years after its premiere in Germany, as a recent successful re-release on DVD amply proves. Caligari may not hold up as well as some of the film that immediately followed it, but without Caligari, they may not have followed at all.

Sunday, February 15, 2004

Review: Dawn of the Dead (1978)

At the end of George Romero's low-budget horror classic, Night of the Living Dead, it appeared that humanity had a firm grip on the whole flesh-eating zombie thing, chasing down and shooting the undead creatures and consigning their corpses to enormous bonfires.

But appearances, as they say, can be deceiving.

By the time Romero's Dawn of the Dead kicks in, it's all-out war between the living and the dead-and the dead are winning, by sheer force of numbers. (As a priest in the film puts it, "When the dead walk, senors, we must stop the killing or lose the war.") Four survivors--two TV station employees (Gaylen Ross and David Emge) and two National Guardsmen (Ken Foree and Scott Reiniger)--decide to make a run for it in a traffic copter and wind up in a suburban shopping mall, where the dead stumble through the department stores and the food court like...well, your average shoppers.

Romero takes a somewhat different approach for this sequel, going for intentional laughs and satire--aren't the zombies the ultimate consumers?--and presenting the ultra-violent proceedings in full color (as opposed to the stark black and white photography of the original). So full of blood and (literal) guts was Dawn, with heads exploding, arms being chopped off and bodies being ripped limb from juicy limb (all performed with stomach-churning conviction by special-effects wizard Tom Savini, who also has a small part in the film as a member of an evil biker gang), that it would have become the first movie ever to receive an "X" rating strictly on the basis of violence, unlike most movies receiving the "X"--or its modern equivalent, an "NC-17"--applied almost strictly for sexual content; Romero chose to release Dawn without a rating. (Just remember, kids: it's okay to show someone getting shot to death, but never okay to see a nipple--not even Janet Jackson's.)

But what saves this from being an unrelenting splatterfest is Romero's literate script, where the actions of the characters raise moral and ethical questions about rampant consumerism and what exactly constitutes "survival." At one point, bikers pin down a zombie and strip her of her jewelry (don't worry--they pay for it in the end), while others loot stores and trash the joint simply because they can. (How is this behavior that different from what we saw years later in the Los Angeles riots or the swarming of fans after sports championships? Not much.)

And Romero develops the characters well enough this time around that we care about their eventual fates and can't necessarily predict who lives and who dies (only to live again, if you call that living). It also doesn't hurt that the performances are uniformly more professional that in Night of the Living Dead, especially Foree, who projects cool and clam even when surrounded by scores of grasping hands and snapping jaws.

Even so many years later, when so many other films have equaled or exceeded the level of carnage exhibited in Dawn of the Dead, it still stands out as the rare sequel that, in its own way, equals the original, with enough frights and food for thought to make it a lasting success on the midnight movie circuit (where I caught it in 1982).

Dawn's only major flaws are its length (well over two hours and even longer on the "director's cut," which features some extended scenes, most of which don't add much) and its musical soundtrack, which goes from creepy (provided by co-producer Dario Argento's favorite group, Goblin) to annoying and insipid (canned music reportedly inserted by Romero himself, including one passage in that "director's cut" that was previously used in the opening credits for Monty Python and the Holy Grail).

Too bad Romero went on to make a third zombie film, Day of the Dead, which is as bad as the first two are good. Rumors have persisted for years of a fourth film in the series, but financing for a project sure to rate an "NC-17" is hard to come by. In the meantime, there are plenty of knockoffs, ripoffs and remakes--including Dawn of the Dead, opening soon at a theater near you. Expect a review here when the zombies are turned loose again....