Okay folks, ZA/UM has discovered, that this year's candidates for best pic mirror the candidates for best director exactly. For example: Stephen Daldry is nominated for best director while his "The Reader " is up for best film; the same goes for the pairings "Gus Van Sant/Milk", "Ron Howard/Frost-Nixon" etc. This, and the fact that I have, by chance and boredom, seen all these movies, presents us with the fantastic opportunity to review all five in one big, director-centered bundle.
So, as The Eve approaches, we give you part one of ZA/UM's Oscars ´09 review. Enjoy, but be warned! I have not stamped this as an official "PLAYER HATER" review, only because I really liked one of them (and some were OK). But as far as Oscar movies go (you know, the ones that hit the screen between October and December, right before the nominations, being mostly about the Holocaust and gay rights) it hasn't been a good year. 2008 we were spoiled by the double offering of "No Country for Old Men" and "There Will Be Blood", leaving an impression that Oscar movies need not be about the travails of the human spirit during the course of the XX century. This year, it's business as usual.
And one more thing: why "The Wrestler", Mickey Rourke's almost glorious vindication, was not nominated beats me. It was great stuff, brilliantly performed and Oscar material. And the absence of "The Dark Knight"? Well, we can all guess. I'm not going to professionally embarrass myself here by defending it as an Oscar movie. Bombastic Nolan pics do not need golden statue silhouettes on their DVD covers to sell and that's fine by me.
Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle)
There are two mildly disappointing films from two outstanding directors included in this year’s Oscars swindle. The first is Danny Boyle, a fantastically versatile filmmaker. During the last twelve or so years, after breaking through with “Trainspotting”, Boyle has defied the odds with everything he’s done. Only the 2004 children’s fantasy “Millions” has, this far, proved to be a complete misstep. Be it the brilliant first half of “Sunshine”, his fling with science fiction, or a complete re-imagining of the zombie-horror genre with “28 Days Later”, there’s only a sense of care and a lively color palette, that indicates these movies come from one and the same place - za/um Danny Boyle. And nothing much more. Which makes him a great trademark: want a film about anything, that’s 80 % guaranteed to be well-paced and entertaining? Go to Danny!
So, naturally, I was intrigued to hear he’s made a plot device - (one I myself imagined in 2004, in case you were interested (and you were not)) the “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” game show - into a movie. My version, I tell you, while you're still not interested, was supposed to be even more about class war, and definitely more about television game show criticism. And it didn’t take place in India. Where I must admit Simon Beaufoy’s script - adapted from the book “Q&A” - is superior to the one I never even started, is that they use the questions as a framing device, showing how, by serendipity, this underclass slumdog has come to know all the answers. He´s in the studio, he gets the question, cue: game show dramatic music, them blam! a colorful flashback to life in Bombay’s slums. It’s all pure luck you see, and this – although flimsicle – promises to be a delightful twist to the romantic genre. Which "Slumdog Millionaire" is, at it's core - a classical romance story. But then, why do I say it’s a disappointment?
Because it adheres to a very fixed, clever formula, you´d expect them to have fun with it. And during the first 30 minutes or so, they do. You could see the screenwriter giggle and dance around the room, coming up with one great scene about modern Indian life after another: how he knows the name of a famous movie star is by far the best. But then they suddenly find themselves, still in the confines of this simple trick, but now with the task of fleshing out a full movie, with like, you know, character development and stuff. It becomes traditionally saccharine and the whole Bollywood thing just wares out.
Yeah you guessed it, the film taking place in India means it’s one of those trendy Holly-Bolly mixes. It doesn’t help either, that our slumdog’s love interest ages into an underwhelming female lead (Freida Pinto). The rest of the cast fares better. The slumdog himself (Dev Patel) is especially lovable. The soundtrack, too, is the kind of hipster thing you’d expect from Danny Boyle, who’s, honestly, one step away from marrying Madonna by now. There’s M.I.A’s “Paper Aeroplanes” (sure to be a croudpleaser) and some original Indian movie flare, with great percussions and the like. But it just falls short. The last hour could have used a lot more ambition and personality and a lot less “classical movie magic”.
I guess it’s the “movie magic” that finally got the Academy aboard for a Danny Boyle movie. Luck (or destiny) being an integral part of the plot is always just another way to say The Plot is an integral part of the plot. And Hollywood is fond of the life-affirming possibilities of this device. Here it’s, of course, presented as Divine predestination – as a key character dies from a gunshot wound in a bath full of money, he whispers “God is Great”. It’s a good moment. But they’re kidding no one: “The Plot is Great”, he’s saying. And he’s wrong. The plot is durable, but it’s far from great. Oh yeah, and it’s crazy colorful too, the cinematography, all deep oranges, dark blues, with that appetising grainy quality to it. You won’t be pleased but won’t be able to stay away either, once you’ve seen the trailer. 5.5 / 10
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (David Fincher)
In case you were wondering who’s that second great director with a disappointing pic last year, that has – at last / naturally – gotten him noticed by the Academy, wonder no more! It’s Fincher. Whereas Danny Boyle is just entertaining, Fincher is grand. Okay, “Fight Club” is undergoing a dark curve in it’s trendiness, where it has now become sort of embarrassing to like it, while debut “Alien 3” is still criminally underrated. But consider “Zodiac”, his last, an obsessively detailed and authentic retelling of the San Francisco Bay Area killings in the ´70s. “Zodiac” accomplished everything a great crime thriller has got to accomplish. If you haven’t seen it yet, see it. If you’ve already seen it and weren’t that impressed, look again and look harder. It was petrifying, that’s how good it was. So Fincher has made himself a name as this dark, paranoid filmmaker, with an eye for effects and style and now his ready to go into his first fantasy picture. In “Benjamin Button” there are absolutely no serial killers. Yup. Fincher, with no serial killers. Scary isn’t it?
To be truthful, it doesn’t even feel like a Fincher pic. Imagine this quirky, dark fairy-tale type orchestral music playing, while some dude ages backwards through the XX century. It’s Tim Burton plus Robert Zemeckis, that’s what it is. It’s “Forrest Gump” goes “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”. And it’s also not a very good movie. So, for future reference, I suggest you cut this out of Fincher’s filmography and retain a better panorama of his work. That’s a “skip it” tip there, a “don’t even download it” jury decision.
The visuals are top notch, of course, the much hyped ageing effects are good, but they don’t save Kate Blanchett (who’s like 40 now) from making a complete tit out of herself, prancing around, en point. Aging effects or not, it’s still embarrassing to see a forty year old woman play a teenage ballerina. My opinion of her has lessened as of late. And while my opinion of that disgusting smirk Brad Pitt has decided to wear for the last decade or so, could not possibly get any lower, he proves to be as unsympathetic of a male lead as ever in this. There’s zero personality to his Benjamin Button, aside from the backwards aging, he’s a blank page, both performance-wise and the way the character is written. And if you expect to see a grand spectacle, World Wars and stuff, you will be disappointed. “Forrest Gump” does this trip through history thing much, much better. The WW2 part is pointless and before that, Tilda Swinton finds herself preparing bread from shit-crumbs as some lady in Russia for some unknown reason.
Which brings us to the heart of the matter. The whole backwards aging curiosity. Okay, so Pitt does a fairy-tale voice-over with a southern accent, accompanied by that ever-present fantasy score, which goes to force a kind of “something is amiss here, oddness is afoot” atmosphere on the viewer, but aside from being a little wrinkled as a child and dashingly handsome as a senior, there’s really nothing more to it. In F.Scott Fitzgerald’s obscure novel, from which the screenplay is adapted, Ben Button was born with all his memories and wits as well. Here he’s just a child. And while there’s Tim Burton fantastic babble about watchmakers and clocks that move backwards, it’s just not convincing at all. There’s nothing curious about this case.
Pic's attention to detail and lush, historic interiors, are of course a feast for the eyes. For an hour or so. Then the round, edgeless digitalism of it’s cinematography starts getting in the way. This is digital film making in it’s most regrettable. It would have at least been a set decoration eyepiece, with traditional camera-work and some slightly more revealing, natural lighting.
So, yeah, skip it. And if you´ve already seen it (which is more than likely) at least don’t suggest it to anyone else, okay. In the meanwhile, I’ll be expecting Fincher’s next, a movie called “Torso” – about, you guessed it – a serial killer who only leaves behind the victim’s torso. Alright! Serial killer! Torso! That’s more like it. 4.5 / 10
That's it for now, tune in later this week and witness ZA/UM go head to head with "The Reader", "Milk" and "Frost/Nixon", one of which was actually very good. And some of which was pleasant enough.