Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Oscars: Where They Stand {Best Picture}

Best Picture

As we near the end of September the Oscar races are now officially starting to hot up (yay!), and after the Venice and Tornto festivities we now have a clearer idea of what might succeed and what will surely fail. Many hopefuls remain untouched, so as to those one can only guess.

We may as well start with the probable Best Picture winner, Joe Wright's stunning Atonement. A sweeping statement you might say, but one that carries with it the enviable confidence of Atonement itself. Yes, it is really that good, and I honestly think this is very nearly a done deal. It's epic, romantic, grand, and is above all successful in its hugely ambitious statement.

But let's treat this as the race it is. Venice finished a couple of weeks ago, giving the coveted Golden Lion to Ang Lee again, this time for his sumptuous-looking period romance, Lust, Caution. It's hard to know how valuable the Golden Lion is in terms of the Oscars. Worryingly for Lee his film was p
oorly received by the Italian critics, ranked lowest of all the in-competition films. And lest we forget foreign films have enough of a disadvantage when it comes to Oscar, without reviews scuppering their chances. Lust, Caution's NC-17 rating is in itself a suicidal move if it wanted to appeal to the Academy. I can't see many people flocking to see this kind of film in America, Ang Lee or no Ang Lee.

Venice was also kind to Kenneth Branagh's Sleuth remake, which is supposed to differ a lot (in a good way) from its predecessor. I'm dubious as to whether it can make the Picture lineup, since it is in effect a rejuvenation of a film popular with the Academy. It's also a very short film. Something we know AMPAS does not associate with the prestige of a Best Picture nominee. I think that Oscar are more likely to go for their man of the moment, Paul Haggis, brimming with buzz once again after his film about an Iraq soldier (In the Valley of Elah) got great reviews in Italy. It seems to be going for the AMERICA AMERICA AMERICA route -- one that's likely to appear very profound and meaningful regardless of whether it is or not.

Along with the triumphant Lust, Caution Toronto's winning picture, David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises should also face difficulty getting a BP nomination. AMPAS have historically ignored Cronenberg for their major awards, his films perhaps a little too heavy for mass institutional backing. Indeed Toronto helped to eliminate a couple of earlier-touted films, Cate Blanchett's second stab at Elizabeth I, The Golden Age, which received less than inspiring reviews, and Terry George's Reservation Road, received poorly and dead in this race now, along with highly-fancied Joaquin Phoenix.

Philip Seymour Hoffman was the man that Toronto hailed, for his performances in both The Savages, which is increasingly beginning to look like the indie comedy BP slot this year, with a distinct absence of comedies, and Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, Sidney Lumet's film about a bungled robbery attempt. The latter does not seem like Picture material, although Lumet does have an undisputed record with AMPAS.

Of the other Toronto hopefuls the main encouragement was for the Coen bros. latest crazy crime film, No Country for Old Men, which has fantastic reviews. Oscar loves the Coens but one would hardly call this type of film easy to take. Juno, a quirky film about a girl who gives her baby up for adoption, is also garnering praise, but will probably be too slight to feature on this kind of scale.

I don't have much hope for Once, however much everyone has loved it this year. It's just too small, and too indie without any showy sense of purpose, to get enough votes. Similarly I doubt Tim Burton, who has been royally screwed over by Oscar in his grand career thus far, will break through with Sweeney Todd, a typically dark and cartoonish Burton-esque story. For some reason films like this just aren't deemed credible enough.

As much as I admire Ridley Scott the American Gangster trailer hardly instigates a frenzy within me, and it certainly does not have baity themes to flaunt. But it does have a stellar cast, and is bound to be well-made. Gavin Hood and Susanne Bier have previous success with low-budget projects but now find themselves in bigger territory. The trailers look good (especially Rendition), but will they succeed? I'm reserving judgement for now.

But amidst this festival fever I can't help thinking that people are forgetting about Mike Nichols' Charlie Wilson's War, which was a favourite in the year's early months, and which boasts a confident release date and impressive list of cast and credits. Hard to know without a trailer but on paper, it's strong.

  • 1. Atonement (Lock)
  • 2. In the Valley of Elah (Very Likely)
  • 3. There Will Be Blood (Likely)
  • 4. The Savages (Maybe)
  • 5. Charlie Wilson's War (Maybe)

  • 6. No Country For Old Men (Maybe)
  • 7. Rendition (Maybe)

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Sunshine (2007)

Directed by Danny Boyle
Starring: Cillian Murphy, Chris Evans, Michelle Yeoh, Rose Byrne
Grade: A -

*Contains spoilers*

Six astronauts set out to implant a device in the Sun so that it does not die within the next century, in this action-adventure by Trainspotting director Danny Boyle. Hearthrobs Chris Evans and Cillian Murphy play the red-blooded males of the ship, who endure many trials and tribulations on their way to the perilous light source of our solar system.

The astronauts themselves all feel the burden of responsibility and are thus presented with the moral and ethical conflicts of being, essentially, soldiers going into battle. The group, even at their most disagreeable, all seem geared towards their given goal, instilling the journey with a heightened significance. It's almost irrelevant that they have little identity singularly, because they serve to represent a decision, a stance, a mission, that reflects that of war itself. As the crew progress on their journey things become increasingly unhinged, the six confronted with decisions that create resentment and unrest. Almost as if the spaceship itself be closing in around them there is a chilling inevitability about the crew and their mission. A vicious, palpable, nauseous tension in the air.

As a visual spectacle, the sight of space, and the Sun in particular, is nothing less than breathtaking. The aesthetic treatment of the celestial body throughout the film that of respect and authority, alluding greatly to nature's awesome power. It is with this idea then, of the Sun as a living entity, a beacon, a symbol of life, that the scale of the mission becomes intensified. As the ship grows closer to the sun the inhabitants alter -- they lose their individual voice, begin to possess some form of guilt. This can be attributed to Sunshine's continual idea of God as the sun, and questions of man versus nature that threaten to, and eventually do, erupt. Do we have a right to tamper with nature for our own means? Is their mission to cheat death or prevent it?

The final act of the film has fallen under a cloud of debate, as it admittedly carries with it much melodrama. The introduction of an additional character alters the tone of the film, and leads to a crescendo of action in the last few minutes. Up until then Sunshine had been both a glorious sci-fi adventure and a psychological thriller, but at the precise moment where the feel of the picture shifts, its themes of spirituality, horror, and adventure come together to create what is an exhilarating finale. I think it's fair to say that the suddeness with which this occurs allows some of what has taken place to be diluted and dismissed, however, the film retains both its blockbuster appeal and its spiritual subtext.

The mystery 'villain' introduced to us may at first appear familiarly archetypal, but the purpose behind the presence of this person, and what they represent, adds dimension to the character -- if indeed we can refer to him as a character. The man can be seen as God (the Sun's) messenger, strengthening the sense of 'battle' between nature and artificiality, or more fascinatingly as a personified product of the group's conscience -- their internal conflicts, their engulfing dread.

So when the time finally does come to save the day it's with, at first, sombre acquiescence, and then uplifting martyrdom, that Sunshine bows out. As a whole, it stands as a patiently-built, fine piece of sci-fi cinema, and a definite visual feast upon the eyes. It forces us to view the ship and its passengers on both a grand and smaller scale, giving us a fiercely entertaining time in the process, and must be congratulated on the large sucess of its provocative spiritual voice.