AICN-DOWNUNDER: Watchmen, Dean Spanley, butchered Oscar telecast...
Published at: Feb. 27, 2009, 9:06 a.m. CST by merrick
The world will look up and shout "Save us!"... and I'll whisper "No."
I'm sure you're not at all sick of the Oscars by now, so I'll talk about them a bit more. I correctly guessed seven out of eight in this column last week, although it was hardly a watershed moment given nearly all of the winners were odds-on favourites. The only risks I took were Taraji P. Henson for Best Supporting Actress (which, as I'm sure you now know, I got wrong), and Sean Penn for Best Actor (which I got right, but it was probably the safest risk possible).
The reviews of the night seem to be more predictable than the ceremony; regardless of the host's performance, they always tend to get exceedingly bad reviews. I thought Hugh Jackman was brilliant, and that opening dance sequence managed to be both funny and avoid easily-criticised excess in a time of economic crisis. Of course, the song mishmash was an embarrassing disaster, and I don't think crediting Baz Luhrmann at the end did him any favours. And the look on his face seemed to suggest he knew this.
On the other hand, I didn't see all of the ceremony. I foolishly watched the Channel Nine evening broadcast here in Australia, which was a massive cut-down of the live ceremony they played during the day. Can you imagine them doing this for any other show? Editing "Underbelly" down to half an hour and then protesting that it was played at midday, and shouldn't you have stayed home from work to watch it? Nine cut such unnecessary categories as Best Cinematography, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Original Screenplay, to mention only three. They even cut out Ben Stiller's shtick, all the Steve Martin/Tina Fey gags, and half of Jack Black and Jennifer Aniston's routine. You'd think that Nine would want to keep in the "entertaining to the masses" bits, but no, half the show was indiscriminately cut. Thankfully, we got to see Richard Wilkins at the beginning, spouting his usual drivel at passing celebrities, redefining the ill-informed question, shaming an entire nation and apparently not being aware of any of it.
To a text I received from a friend in India after the ceremony: "Go India!" True, go India, but I wouldn't get too excited. SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE is a film made by westerners for westerners; I'd suggest that SLUMDOG winning Oscars is no more a win for India than AUSTRALIA not getting any is a win for Australia. Although, I did consider that a win for humanity. On with the column!
I didn't think this would actually happen, but Cate Blanchett has continued her impressive charity work by signing on opposite Russell Crowe in Ridley Scott's excitingly-titled ROBIN HOOD. The script apparently stole everyone's attention with its unique take on the Sheriff of Nottingham being the misunderstood good guy, and Robin Hood being a bad guy, and something about them being played by the same guy, and... yeah, well, all that's been taken out. Not that it sounded that great in the first place, but when you remove the impetus for doing the film, why are you still doing it? So we can finally see a Robin Hood with Russell Crowe? Oh, good. It's about time. Anyway, my cynicism and unhappiness at Ridley Scott's recent career aside, this might be the most Australian non-Australian film since LA CONFIDENTIAL. Good luck, Cate.
AWARDS, FESTIVALS AND SCREENINGS
2009 Melbourne Queer Film Festival
This year's MQFF launched this week, presenting a look at some of the films that will be seen at this year's festival. Israeli filmmaker Nitzan Gilady is in town to present his documentary JERUSALEM IS PROUD TO PRESENT, about Jerusalem's decision to host the 2006 World Pride event. Other films include WHERE THE WORLD IS MINE, AFFINITY, and the awesomely-titled LESBANESE. The festival plays from March 18 to 29, and more info can be gleaned by visiting www.mqff.com.au.
2009 Audi Festival of German Films
The always-excellent German film festival is back for its annual storming of our borders, with its notable opening night film THE BAADER MEINHOF COMPLEX, which was nominated for Best Foreign Language film, but lost to a film NOBODY in my Oscar pool had picked. Sorry, where was I? Oh yes. Other films include the original JACOB THE LIAR (that the Robin Williams JAKOB THE LIAR was a remake of), East Germany's only explicitly gay film COMING OUT, and a screening of ONE, TWO, THREE, one of my favourite films; the 1961 Billy Wilder comedy starring Jimmy Cagney (set in West Berlin, hence its inclusion). The festival hits Sydney's Chauvel and Palace Norton cinemas from April 15-26, Melbourne's Cinema Como and Kino Palace from April 16-26, Perth's Cinema Paradiso from April 16-20, and Brisbane's Palace Centro from April 22-26. Apologies to Adelaide, and residents of German town Hahndorf. Sorry, it's the one thing I know about Adelaide.
EASY VIRTUE screening + Q&A with director Stephan Elliott
If you're Melbourne-based and interested in catching a screening of this film ahead of its March 19 release (you'll recall I really dug the film), you might want to come along to the Cinema Como in South Yarra on Wednesday March 4 at 7pm. The good news is that Stephan Elliott will be there to answer your questions personally. The bad news is that I'm moderating it. Either call to book ahead, or turn up and take your chances.
Is anyone else surprised by how well GRAN TORINO is doing? I liked it, but I never would have guessed at its continuing success on this list.
1. HE'S JUST NOT THAT INTO YOU
2. SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE
3. THE INTERNATIONAL
4. GRAN TORINO
5. ZACK AND MIRI MAKE A PORNO
RELEASED THIS WEEK
David Field shows grit can be behind the camera as well, I heart Lauren Graham, The Hoff dates The Thom, Gary Oldman plays a rabbi, and Oliver Stone makes a political sequel to his romantic comedy SINGLE U.
FLASH OF GENIUS
LAST CHANCE HARVEY
For those who have been following the debate about online embargoes for WATCHMEN reviews, I make the following important disclaimer: though I saw WATCHMEN in Australia, I reviewed it on a US-based website, and submitted via an English email server -- but did on the stroke of midnight (in Israel). Based on my calculations, this means the following review is 83% cleared to publish, so please stop reading before the last paragraph. Thank you.
Australian/NZ release: March 5
Before I get started, I'm going to give a very brief rundown for those who don't want to read the entire review: it's very, very, very good. Not a sublime work of perfection, but probably as close to brilliant as we're likely to get. 9 out of 10, verging on the high end of 9.
Now to the review proper. I'm afraid I have no deep, personal story about how "Watchmen" shaped my childhood. As a matter of fact, I didn't really read any comics until a couple of years ago when I became friends with some comic geeks who introduced me to the best of the genre. "Watchmen" was amongst them, and reading it was certainly the key moment when I realised that comic strips could be literature.
That said, I have no particular emotional tie to the source material. I didn't think we'd see it made into a film because I simply couldn't see how that story would be properly condensed without being either convoluted or a pale imitation of what made the book great. Director Zack Snyder and screenwriters David Hayter and Alex Tse deserve a lot of credit for managing to avoid both extremes. The film rockets along, and even the small moments feel exciting and dangerous. One of the reasons I've softened on TWILIGHT -- god, am I really name-checking TWILIGHT in a WATCHMEN review? -- is that TWILIGHT managed to create a real sense of place. It's not an easy thing to do, which is why we've seen the same version of New York in hundred of different films. WATCHMEN has a tremendous sense of place (but, unlike TWILIGHT, also makes the rest of the movie good as well), thanks to the unparalleled production design of Alex McDowell. Remember the other week when I was talking about non-directors being so good at what they do, they are essentially auteurs? (Thomas Newman in composing, Thelma Schoonmaker in editing, Charlie Kaufman in writing, etc...) I should have included McDowell on that list; the work he's done over his career, from THE CROW to FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS to FIGHT CLUB to THE TERMINAL, has been jaw-dropping, and THE WATCHMEN stands as a contender for his best work ever. It's truly stunning.
The casting, too, is largely brilliant. Billy Crudup's otherworldliness in portraying Dr Manhattan is neither over-the-top nor underplayed. It's such a perfect balance. The character could have been a parody, or they could have made him human and let his facade slip a little, but they didn't. They walked the line flawlessly; both in terms of FX and performance, Dr Manhattan is the standout of the film. Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Carla Gugino (even when her makeup makes her look like Stockard Channing), Malin Akerman, and especially Jackie Earle Haley are perfect in their roles. Haley is an inspired choice for Rorschach, and as with Comedian and Dr Manhattan, his character is not toned down at all to appeal to the masses. It's something I think I took for granted in the film, but as I write about it, I'm becoming aware of how many potential bullets this film avoided. It's actually quite remarkable how well they did it. The same goes for Patrick Wilson. I really dig Patrick Wilson, but I couldn't see him as Nite Owl. The casting just didn't fit for me. Boy, was I wrong. Wilson is unrecognisable; Nite Owl is exactly as he was in the book.
Matthew Goode as Adrian Veidt is very good, but I wish he was ten years older. There's nothing wrong his performance at all, but he's too young, too slim. This is a role that should have gone to a Jude Law or even a Tom Cruise; someone who still looks movie star immaculate, but looks like they've gone through the ringer a bit. This is one of the few roles that would have benefitted from Cruise's baggage. Still, Goode is... I don't want to make the nominative pun, but he is very, very surname. Just a tad miscast.
I'm glad I've been able to rave about the film for so much of the review. My tendency is, sometimes, to focus on the negative, even if that negative makes up an incredibly small percentage. As I said, I didn't realise how good the film is while I was watching it, because I expected it. I expected the Comedian to be violent and psychopathic; generally things only stand out when they're done wrong. So full credit to the 98% of the film that gets it right.
Zack Snyder really is the real deal, and the majority of his work in this is sublime. It's not perfect, however. For every The Times They Are A Chanin' montage, there's a sequence in Vietnam with Ride of the Valkyries over it. Really? Ride of the Valkyries? Is it a completely inappropriate homage, a lazy piece of direction, or a placeholder you forgot to change before release? It's a bizarre choice because it's so uniform and cliched, and stands out because the rest of the film isn't. And though I don't really love the use of the ramp-up, ramp-down style used to appropriate effect in 300, it doesn't overwhelm the film.
I am left to wonder how well this film is going to do. Not to be uber-cynical about it, but it's almost too good for the masses. I really don't know how it's going to play to people who haven't read the book and don't really know what to expect. Do people really want a big budget deconstruction of superheroes with moral ambiguity and unanswered questions? Even if it is as violent as this?
Make no mistake, the film is violent. There's violence, there's sex, there's naked Dr Manhattan. It really is truly impressive how much they've managed to keep from the book. Hat tip to Warners for not watering it down. Between this and the freedom they gave Christopher Nolan on DARK KNIGHT, DC properties might just have a chance to bounce back and rival Marvel.
Undoubtedly, this is THE comic book film of the year. I can't imagine the film being done much better than this, and even though I have minor quibbles, they are minor, and don't detract from what is a truly terrific film.
New Zealand release: February 26
Australian release: March 5
It's not uncommon -- in fact, it's extremely common -- for the meaning of words to change over time. Sometimes, however, words stay exactly the same and the world changes around them. Words like "charming" and "quaint" haven't really changed, but our society and its values have, and as such, those words have gone from being complimentary to pejorative.
With that in mind, I'd like to say that DEAN SPANLEY is a very charming, quaint film, and I mean that in a good way. Though, it must be said, that good feeling wasn't there when the film began.
I did not know what this film was about when I went in. More often than not, that's a bonus. In this case, it was essential. There is a fairly big... I don't want to say "plot twist", but I can't think of another way to describe it... The problem is that this twist is also the film's central idea, and I'd guess that 95% of the plot synopses for this film will spoil this twist. I shall not do so here, as the impossibility of what happens and how it transpires, and the discovery of it by the audience, is the film's supreme pleasure.
Here is the non-spoilery synopsis: Jeremy Northam is a man who, out of duty and tradition, pays a visit to his father every Thursday. His father, played by Peter O'Toole, is the sort of ornery, distant character you can't help but love (largely 'cos it's O'Toole), and the way these two men have dealt with the loss of their wife/mother and son/brother is extremely different. In an attempt to break the tradition, Northam's character insists that he and his father attend the lecture of an Indian holy man (Art Malik). Also at the lecture is a local businessman (Bryan Brown), and a Christian minister, Dean Spanley (Sam Neill). Northam, fascinated by Spanley, begins procuring the minister's favourite drink (with great difficulty, and with the help of Brown's character), to entice him to dinner, where Northam's character attempts to pick his brain about the world and his opinions.
I know, it sounds like the dullest film ever. And for some of you, it might be. But I'm coming up on six years writing for this site, and I assume some of you will have gauged whether I'm someone whose opinions you generally agree with, or someone with whom you never, ever see eye-to-eye. I know it's not as cut-and-dry as all that, but if you have found yourself agreeing with me a lot in the past, I urge you to see this film and not read anything more about it.
I wouldn't call it a tear-fest, but I teared up at least twice during the film. Also, someone should measure exactly how much better Peter O'Toole makes films simply by being in them. It's not just screen presence, or even a respect for the work he's done before; at age 77, he's honestly as good as he ever was. He's playing a man who feels that his best days are behind him, and he manages to disprove that notion as both a character and an actor. I could hyper-bol on for paragraphs and it would all be thoroughly restrained.
Director Toa Fraser (NO. 2) and screenwriter Alan Sharp (ROB ROY) do a tremendous job here. It is such an unexpected film, one that sneaks up one you beautiful, and will easily be one of the significant and great films of 2009.
- Megan Gale finally signs on to WONDER WOMAN, before discovering that the film is about one of Stevie Wonder's backup singers (who, concidentally, had magic Amazonian powers)
- WATCHMEN's Robert Wisden teams with Frank Langella, Anthony Hopkins, Dan Hedaya, Bob Gunton, and Philip Baker Hall in TOO MANY NIXONS
- Warner Bros announces plans to remake the upcoming NEVERENDING STORY remake