Monday, 21 January 2008

Oscar Predix

Unfortunately, it's that time of the year again. Unfortunately, I always follow the deplorable Oscar race. So unfortunately, I'm gonna have to post these predix. This year's Academy Award nominees are guaranteed to look a little something like this:


* The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
* Into the Wild
* Juno
* No Country for Old Men
* There Will Be Blood

Alt: Michael Clayton


* Paul Thomas Anderson, There Will Be Blood
* Joel & Ethan Coen, No Country for Old Men
* Tony Gilroy, Michael Clayton
* Sean Penn, Into the Wild
* Julian Schnabel, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Alt: Tim Burton, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street


* George Clooney, Michael Clayton
* Daniel Day-Lewis, There Will Be Blood
* Ryan Gosling, Lars and the Real Girl
* Emile Hirsch, Into the Wild
* Viggo Mortensen, Eastern Promises

Alt: Johnny Depp, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street


* Cate Blanchett, Elizabeth: The Golden Age
* Julie Christie, Away from Her
* Marion Cotillard, La Vie en Rose
* Angelina Jolie, A Mighty Heart
* Ellen Page, Juno

Alt: Amy Adams, Enchanted


* Casey Affleck, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
* Javier Bardem, No Country for Old Men
* Hal Holbrook, Into the Wild
* Tommy Lee Jones, No Country for Old Men
* Tom Wilkinson, Michael Clayton

Alt: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Charlie Wilson's War


* Cate Blanchett, I'm Not There
* Catherine Keener, Into the Wild
* Kelly MacDonald, No Country for Old Men
* Amy Ryan, Gone Baby Gone
* Tilda Swinton, Michael Clayton

Alt: Saoirse Ronan, Atonement


* Brad Bird, Jim Capobiano & Jan Pinkava, Ratatouille
* Diablo Cody, Juno
* Tony Gilroy, Michael Clayton
* Tamara Jenkins, The Savages
* Nancy Oliver, Lars and the Real Girl

Alt: Judd Apatow, Knocked Up


* Paul Thomas Anderson, There Will Be Blood
* Joel & Ethan Coen, No Country for Old Men
* Christopher Hampton, Atonement
* Ronald Harwood, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
* Sean Penn, Into the Wild

Alt: Aaron Sorkin, Charlie Wilson's War


* Roger Deakins, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
* Roger Deakins, No Country for Old Men
* Robert Elswit, There Will Be Blood
* Janusz Kaminski, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
* Seamus McGarvey, Atonement

Alt: Eric Gautier, Into the Wild


* The Bourne Ultimatum -- Christopher Rouse
* Into the Wild -- Jay Cassidy
* Michael Clayton -- John Gilroy
* No Country for Old Men -- Roderick Jaynes
* There Will Be Blood -- Dylan Tichenor

Alt: American Gangster -- Pietro Scalia


* Marco Beltrami, 3:10 to Yuma
* Alexandre Desplat, Lust, Caution
* Michael Giacchino, Ratatouille
* Alberto Iglesias, The Kite Runner
* Dario Marianelli, Atonement

Alt: Clint Eastwood, Grace Is Gone


* 300
* The Bourne Ultimatum
* No Country for Old Men
* Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
* Transformers

Alt: There Will Be Blood


* 300
* Beowulf
* The Bourne Ultimatum
* Ratatouille
* Transformers

Alt: No Country for Old Men


* 300
* Transformers
* Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End

Alt: I Am Legend


* Atonement -- Sarah Greenwood & Katie Spencer
* Elizabeth: The Golden Age -- Guy Hendrix Dyas & Richard Roberts
* Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix -- Stuart Craig & Stephanie McMillan
* Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street -- Dante Ferretti & Francesca Lo Schiavo
* There Will Be Blood -- Jack Fisk & Jim Erickson

Alt: The Golden Compass -- Dennis Gassner & Anna Pinnock


* The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford -- Patricia Norris
* Atonement -- Jacqueline Durran
* Elizabeth: The Golden Age -- Alexandra Byrne
* Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street -- Colleen Atwood
* La Vie en Rose -- Marit Allen

Alt: Hairspray -- Rita Ryack


* Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End
* Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
* La Vie en Rose

Alt: 300


* "Come So Far (Got So Far to Go)" from Hairspray
* "Falling Slowly" from Once
* "Grace Is Gone" from Grace Is Gone
* "Guaranteed" from Into the Wild
* "That's How You Know" from Enchanted

Alt: "Do You Feel Me" from American Gangster


* 12 (Russia)
* The Counterfeiters (Austria)
* Katyn (Poland)
* The Trap (Serbia)
* The Year My Parents Went On Vacation (Brazil)

Alt: Beaufort (Israel)


* Persepolis
* Ratatouille
* The Simpsons Movie

Alt: Bee Movie


* Body of War
* Lake of Fire
* No End in Sight
* Sicko
* Taxi to the Dark Side

Alt: Nanking

Sunday, 20 January 2008

Lola Montès (Ophüls, 1955)

Lola Montès (1955) is something of a mixed bag. And I'm not entirely sure why that is? I'm too tired to go into specifics anyway, but I'm not "ga-ga-OMG-best-film-evah" with this like I am with Madame de..., Liebelei and Letter from an Unknown Woman. I think that has as much to do with my reception of the film - on a shoddy video + half-awake + only a single viewing - as the actual work itself. That said, the more I contemplate this, the more I admire it. Lola Montès is a continuation of the Ophülsian theme of the fallen woman, but it nonetheless stands out as an anomaly within his oeuvre. There are numerous reasons for this, but the most apparent one to me was the fact that instead of using the titular character as a vehicle with which to cross-examine the nature of love, Ophüls opts to tell a very different story - one with a peculiar celebrity spin on it.

Lola Montès as (im?)pure character is nothing less than fascinating - and yet one never truly sympathises with her plight in the same way that we do with Lisa Berndle and Madame de. Ophüls' stylizations here distance us from Lola Montès, and it's within this distance that the director creates a metaphysical world whereby he weaves a discourse that deconstructs the role of celebrity. The centrality of the circus within this narrative demands us to consider the relationship between performer and audience, and in essence this applies to Lola's own history and her controversial (and supposedly numerous) liaisons. Furthermore, the stage at the film's core emphasises the role of artifice in the film - a concept that Ophüls naturally exploits to its full potential.

As was the case with my viewings of Liebelei, I cannot even begin to imagine how resplendent this film initially seemed - particularly in terms of colour. I must've caught about a tenth of the film's glory when I watched it, which is a shame because the effect of a decent print makes a world of difference and could've bludgeoned my senses into submission simply through its colour palette (much like the restoration of Renoir's The River, for example). The much-discussed fluidity of Ophüls' camera here is a curiosity: whereas in his other films I perceived these movements to be motivated by a romantic desire on the characters' part to escape the restrictions imposed upon them by plot, in Lola Montès I felt none of this? In fact, I felt that the camerawork here often had the converse effect of further entrapping Lola within the decadent confines of her environments. Of course, it would take a second viewing of this film to comment on that more...

Before I get too carried away, allow me to pause and say that Ophüls' complex manoeuvres aren't always successfully reconciled with his story, and it's a discrepancy that isn't necessarily countered by his genius. The structure of the narrative is markedly uneven, most obviously in the lack of consistency re: our returns to the circus. And upon those seemingly random forays onto the stage, the ringmaster's commentary occasionally proves detrimental - as in the moments when he describes Lola's social ascendancy whilst the camera acrobatically follows her climb to a theatrical summit (although it's very uncharacteristic of Ophüls to treat his audience with such disrespect, so perhaps there are others force at work here?) Moreover, the story of Lola Montès itself does little to inspire our enthusiasm - her lifestyle in 1955 must surely have seemed tame, so what to make of it in this day and age?! As a result of this discord, Lola's struggle to love in spite of society's rigidities is rendered lifeless, and lacking in resonance.

However, if the story of Lola Montès - a character whose aforementioned struggle is so Ophülsian it hurts - comes across as uninspiring, then perhaps it's necessary to ask ourselves why this is. He's struck gold with these characters before, so why fail with this one? I notice that Roger Ebert's review takes issue with Martine Carol's performance: "...she comes across as wooden, shallow, not even very attractive." He's accurate, but I think he's also missed the point. Perhaps it's just my love of the guy shining through here, but anyone with a familiarity of his work knows that Ophüls is a terrific director of actresses - Danielle Darrieux, Magda Schneider... hell, this is the guy who even managed to utilize Joan Fontaine's errant brow to his advantage. What I propose is that Carol's prosaicism is intended, and is entirely befitting of the director's thematic concerns. Personally, I don't think it's a performance that's completely banal - there's poignancy in Carol's work - but even so, the fact that she so underwhelms as a character is surely part of Ophüls' commentary about the ludicrous nature of myth-making? Her vacant expressions constantly undermine the narrative's core creation of a sensual seductress - so effectively, she's a mirror and not an originator of the film's frivolous lust. Through Carol's intelligent performance then, the film assumes a feminist dimension that it might otherwise have lacked, forcing the audience to confront the frequent objectification of Lola, and drawing attention to our own expectations of sex and desire.

Lola Montès isn't a flat-out masterpiece, but I'd argue that this is perhaps an essential demonstration of Ophüls' directorial flair? His ability to overcome a somewhat cumbersome screenplay through his bold celebration of artifice is a marvel to behold, and his handling of wider themes is perhaps more astute than ever. The film's exploration of the relationship between performer and audience is something that I find particularly striking considering that this would be his last film, and the surprising finale is perhaps his most well-executed from all that I've seen to date. It's as heartbreaking as his greatest romances, but ultimately a scathing critique of our own needs as an audience. As the final word on the physical and moral decadence that permeates so many of his films then, Lola Montès is a fitting epitaph to an exceptional career.

And LOL, I think I convinced myself of my love for this whilst typing up those thoughts!

Tuesday, 15 January 2008

Liebelei (Ophüls, 1933)

Is Max Ophüls the greatest director of love stories ever? I'm starting to think so...

Those whose knowledge of this shamefully underrated genius is restricted to the American/French classics of his later career need to familiarise themselves with Liebelei - not simply because the film's influence on works such as Letter from an Unknown Woman and (the incomparable) Madame de... is ostensible, but also because it's a heartbreaking masterpiece in its own right. Thematically, this is pure Ophüls to its very core: the doomed love affair, disdain for the rigidity of social conventions, the climactic duel of misguided machismo... all these hallmarks of his oeuvre seem to originate from here. Stylistically, Liebelei predates the birth of his extraordinarily fluid camerawork but one nevertheless gets the sense of a master at work: the film brims with marvellous set-pieces and sequences, linked together by Ophüls' curious preoccupation with doorways and windows - as if to constantly augment the shared desire of both director and character(s) to escape and break free of the restrictions imposed upon them (specifically, upon the camera and upon love itself.)

It's when conveying these aforementioned restrictions that Ophüls' strengths as a director begin to luminesce his audience into submission. Of course, the characters' limitations are often explicitly referred to within the dialogue itself (Mizzi's reference to the unattainability of the "gold-braided" members of the military, for example), but in his acute juxtapositions and startling manipulation of music it's the director's magic that leaves the biggest impression. A particularly striking sequence sees the newly-coupled Christine and Fritz losing themselves to a passionate waltz in an unremarkable café - their surroundings underwhelm, but their love does anything but and it's one of the most enchanting moments in the film. As this scene quietly fades to black, the waltz on the soundtrack continues but morphs into something more grandiose and suddenly we find ourselves in the lavish ballroom of the Baroness - Fritz's former lover who's determined to maintain her hold on him. Now it's the turn of Fritz and the Baroness to waltz yet despite the same tune and a more magnificent setting, the affection is painfully absent. Through this simple parallel then, Ophüls effectively highlights the difference between his two filmic worlds and three of the relationships at their centre (it should be noted that the Baron's intense glare is an integral part of the latter scene's tone.) The concept of an idyll disrupted by the powers-that-be is one that surfaces repeatedly during the film: Christine and Fritz's initial walk home is followed by a confrontation with the Major, whilst the party that Theo and Mizzi arrange is interrupted by the Baron's questioning which subsequently seals Fritz's fate.

To return to the initially-discussed sequence for a moment, Ophül's' use of music as continuity here is typical of the way in which Liebelei takes us to the very roots of melodrama, and certainly the presence of music in the film is felt throughout - not just through Ophüls' impressive utilisations but also through its infiltration of the characters' lives: the opening scene at the opera emphasises its relevance as social ritual whilst Theo is seen to be an accomplished pianist. Most notably, Christine and her father are both musicians themselves and such apt professions in a film that often plays like the cinematic equivalent of a tragic melody does much to underline where the director's allegiances lie.

A distinct lack of music then, characterises the more painful moments within the film (through their association with the aristocracy.) Taking this into account, much of the film's final act is relatively chilling in comparison to what's preceded it: the fate of both the star-crossed lovers, Christine's devastating close-up etc. are all set into motion following Fritz's request that Theo stop playing the piano after the Baron inadvertently gatecrashes their soirée. The ease with which Fritz capitulates to the Baron during this encounter is unusual ("I am at your disposal") but maintains Ophüls' observations re: the power of social mores. What's especially stunning about this commentary is his decision to set the story in 1910 - something marked prominently in the film's introductory shot. Ophüls depicts a society dominated by an emotionally barren aristocracy, and governed by a militaristic regimen of codes and conventions (it's no coincidence that the role of the military is so marked here.) Yet from Liebelei's 1933 release right through to today, the audience is gifted with the benefit of hindsight - we are well aware that just four years later this Ophülsian portrait of society would abruptly collapse into irrelevance, and Fritz's painful submission is made all the more poignant with the knowledge that it was perhaps unnecessary. As if to emphasise this point, Ophüls allows for a clash between Theo and the Colonel that proves that it is possible to defy the system. By this point however it's too late for Fritz, and Theo's assertion that "every shot not fired in self-defence is murder!" subtly points towards the events of 1914 and questions whether or not Fritz could have survived WWI as a lieutenant, even if he had managed to successfully avoid 1910.

Liebelei's final act is tinged with sadness (and the finale itself is crushing) and yet to argue the same for the film as a whole would be disrespectful to Ophüls' vision. Too often, this most marvellous of directors has been unfairly maligned for his concern with subject matter that is considered too 'slight' in the world of film criticism. To this, I argue: how on Earth could one argue that love is a 'slight' subject? If anything, it is the most complex feeling of them all, and Ophüls' repeated success at engaging with the topic makes him perhaps even more essential than most (although his brand of cinematic style should render him thus anyway.) Ophüls is as timeless as his favourite issue, so despite the importance of historical context when discussing Liebelei and its tragedy, it's crucial to remember that the film is above all a brilliant meditation on love. The plethora of different relationships on offer here accentuates this: the lack of love between the Baron and Baroness, the affair between the Baroness and Theo, the frivolous nature of Theo and Mizzi's relationship (which forms the crux of the film's humorous counterpoint to its tragedy), and the intense and beautiful romance shared by Fritz and Christine. Although this final pairing makes us emotional wrecks, it's the love and not the sorrow that resonates the most. Liebelei strikes a chord because it's vision of love is nigh-on unrivalled within cinema. For a film made nearly ¾ of a century ago, it stands as a testament to Ophüls everlasting genius that the sleigh ride in the snow is possibly the most effortlessly romantic sequence that I've ever come across. When the film concludes in a similarly snowy field, with the distant voiceovers of Fritz and Christine whispering "I'll love you forever"... well, my eyes are welling up just thinking about it.