Oscars 2007! Predictions and the Like…

This year’s Oscar race has no front runner, which makes the whole shebang a rather unique affair. In past years, there’s been upsets (Crash, Shakespeare In Love) and predictable winners (Return of the King), but any of this year’s crop could take Best Picture. Babel, The Departed, The Queen, Little Miss Sunshine, or Letters From Iwo Jima all offer different types of voters different types of excuses for voting them to victory. The Sunshine crowd might feel edgy voting for an independent dark comedy. The purists will undoubtedly flock to to Letters and Departed, both films made by timeless craftsmen. But I think The Queen and Babel, both pertinent international films, will rise to the surface and determine the outcome of a rather boring Oscar year (should have nominated Children of Men to make things messy and interesting). Like most film nerds who whine and gripe about unfair tactics and unworthy films, I’ll still be watching the behemoth awards show on Sunday night. It will inevitably be par for the course, so here are both my choices and my dim view of reality.Best Picture – Should Win: Letters From Iwo Jima (Clint’s film is a cut above the rest), Will Win: BabelBest Director – Should Win: Paul Greengrass (will be remembered for years), Will Win: Martin Scorsese (yes, it’s finally his year)Best Actress – Should Win: Penelope Cruz (astounding in Volver) or Helen Mirren, Will Win: Helen MirrenBest Actor – Should Win: Ryan Gosling (a genius performance), Will Win: Forest Whitaker (cringe)Best Supporting Actress – Should Win: Rinko Kikuchi, Will Win: Jennifer HudsonBest Supporting Actor – Should Win: The Cast of The Departed, Will Win: Eddie MurphyBest Adapted Screenplay – Should Win: Children of Men, Will Win: The DepartedBest Original Screenplay – Should Win: The Queen, Will Win: Little Miss Sunshine (no!!!!!!!!)And with that I will spare you any more extensive complaints. Here are my predictions (with a few notes) for the rest of the categories.Special Effects: Pirates of the Caribbean (the worst film of the year, fitting)Art Direction: Pan’s LabyrinthEditing: BabelDocumentary: An Inconvenient Truth (many of these are worthy, including the masterful Jesus Camp)Foreign Film: Pan’s LabyrinthCostume Design: Dreamgirls (although Marie Antoinette should get something)Cinematography: Children of Men, (Lubezcki will not be ignored again, his loss last year for The New World still hurts)Animated Film: Cars (Monster House should rule the day, but this is the Oscars)Makeup: Pan’s LabyrinthOriginal Music: BabelOriginal Song: An Inconvenient TruthSound Editing: Letters from Iwo JimaSound Mixing: DreamgirlsLive Action Short: West Bank StoryBest Animation Short: The Danish PoetAnother year at the movies.Update 2/26: The Oscars had a few upsets, but not many. I did alright in my predictions, but certainly not the best I’ve done in the past. There’s always next year. Total: 16 right out of 24.- GH

Stage Fright (Hitchcock, 1950)

Stage Fright is a strange Hitchcock film, technically superior, but drowsy and bland as a narrative. None of the characters, including Jane Wyman’s quaint amateur sleuth and Marlene Dietrich’s guilty actress, establish a connection with danger or suspense, or comedy (all Hitchcock themes). Instead, the film rests in a frightfully safe place in between, a common story with not much to say about anything dynamic in human nature or the psyche (strange for Hitch during this period). There’s a brilliant long take that starts the film off with a bang, a meandering swagger into a mansion, up a steep staircase, and ending on a dead body. Too bad nothing else in Stage Fright compares to this opening virtuosity.

Shut Up and Sing (Kopple, 2006)

Freedom of speech should never be questioned, no matter how radical or conservative the content. It’s one of the core elements our founding fathers deemed necessary, not tertiary. Since 9/11, freedom of speech has taken a drastic hit to the stomach, especially in the wake of the buildup toward war with Iraq in 2003 and the absurd popularity of George Bush. As thousands marched across the world attempting to quell this American military offensive in the Middle East, The Dixie Chicks were about to begin their latest tour in London. Made up of three spunky Texans, Natalie Maines, Emily Robison, and Martie Maguire, The Dixie Chicks were the most successful female band over the last eight years, with more success inevitably on the horizon. But in one moment, with one comment by lead singer Natalie, they found out personally how much freedom we’ve lost when it comes to speech. Addressing the excited British crown, Maines said she was “ashamed the President of the United States was from Texas.” Conservative groups in America got wind of the quote and used it to launch a devastating campaign of hate and scorn at the Chicks, pressuring fans and radio stations to boycott their music. In turn, the Chicks’ record sales plummeted. With Shut Up and Sing, veteran documentarian Barbara Kopple (Harlan County, U.S.A.) follows the women over the course of three years since the comment, both dealing with the immediate shift in their public image and the affects such changes would inevitably have on their personal lives. Kopple catches moments of great inner conflict with the Chicks, both as artists, parents, bosses, and human beings. Many questions arise – without the support of the country music base, what direction should their music head, and will they ever attain the same level as success? All three women find voices in Kopple’s intimate and friendly portrayal, an engaging look at the politicization of art in modern day America. Kopple shows the right wing response to the Chicks outlash as indeed reprehensible, and it’s to the Chicks’ credit they’ve stuck by their guns, and stuck together. When the thunder storm was raining down, The Dixie Chicks knew the ability to express their beliefs was non-negotiable, no matter the cost. These witty and beautiful women aren’t hardasses with an agenda. No, The Dixie Chicks remain artists with a dedication to their families and fans, and an undying love for the foundations of their country, Unfortunately, The Chicks had to realize freedom of speech was more an illusion than ever before. Thankfully, they decided to merge into a modern day reality not fixated on fear or mob mentality, but with a strength in self, the one thing that remains unstoppable in the face of adversity.

The Power of Nightmares (Curtis, 2004)

The wealth of knowledge in this epic three-part documentary on the parallel rise of the Neo-Conservative movement in America and the Islamic Fundamentalists in the Middle East is astoundingly comprehensive, yet completely critical. And for that, it’s a modern day masterpiece. The Power of Nightmares, as narrated by it’s writer/director/producer Adam Curtis, completes a timeline addressing the changing nature of leaders, ideology, and fear within our current political spectrum. Beginning with Levi Strauss in Chicago and Sayyid Kotb in Egypt during the 1940’s, the film charts the growing unrest between extremist ideals and left wing realities in the western world. Both men’s beliefs stemmed from a realization and hatred for the post WWII liberalism present in American society. When these ideologies failed (namely because of Vietnam, Watergate, the rise of the Shah in Iran), the Neo-Cons and Islamists who were born from Strauss’ and Kotb’s beliefs, began a long campaign to rid the world of such tyranny’s, using fear and violence to convince the masses their word rang the loudest. For the past thirty years, these two groups have grappled in their respective countries for the power to utilize mythologies and manifest destiny’s as tools for converting followers. The Islamists attempted to create fear, but used terrorism in countries like Algeria and Egypt to convince people the corruption and materialism of the west was killing civilization. On the other hand, the Neo-Cons felt and feel America is the rightful fighter of good in the world, combatting “evil” at every turn. As Curtis states, the Neo-Cons created fabricated myth, or nightmare scenarios, to make up reasons to rid the world of these evil states. First, the target was The Soviet Union, and when it fell, 9/11 provided another target, Al Qaeda. Amazingly, as illustrated in the second part of The Power of Nightmares entitled “The Phantom Victory”, Reagan’s administration (filled with Neo-Cons like Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz) aided the Jihadists in Afghanistan during the 1980’s to repel the Russian invaders, both claiming their own victory at the end of the campaign. These types of ironies abound in Curtis’ dissection of the similarities and differences between the two groups, and his critique is as scathing as it is enlightening, especially since we know the end result is the current situation in Iraq. The final segment, entitled “The Shadows in the Cave”, has the most impact simply because it covers the most familiar terrain. It shows the growing fear in America after 9/11 and Bush’s ultimate desire to invade Iraq, finishing what his father was unwilling to do a decade earlier. The distortion of Al Qaeda’s initial importance inexplicably gave that very group more and more power as the years proceeded. Some of The Power of Nightmares is alarming, a perfect example when one analyst astutely describes the Neo-Cons’ strategy: “If you build assumptions on top of assumptions, you can go anywhere.” It seems that the Neo-Cons have used these tactics with great force, and modern day Iraq is an example of the consequences. But the Power of Nightmares is also a fascinating history lesson, or more accurately, a lesson in how people are destined to repeat the mistakes of the past due to their ignorance, arrogance, and stubbornness. Both the Neo-Cons and the Islamists use fear and religious mythologies to gain power, and the world has let them both slip through the door. Curtis shows how both groups have imagined and preyed on the worst possible scenarios, causing a drastic transition of power because of fear and isolationism. One commentator perfectly describes the defining ideology that links them both – “A society that believes in nothing is afraid of anyone who believes in anything.” The dark effect of both the Neo-Con and Islamic Fundamentalist nightmares have reigned over the world with an iron fist, and The Power of Nightmares is a grand cinematic step toward lifting the fog of fear and letting in the light.

Suspicion (Hitchcock, 1941)

Cary Grant plays a charming dirt-bag money grubber and possible murderer and Joan Fontaine (she won Best Actress for this?!) plays his suspecting and rattled wife in this Hitchcock thriller. After a few close friends and family members get knocked off under mysterious circumstances, Fontaine’s Lina begins to suspect Grant’s Johnnie of meticulously clearing his way toward a fortune. Is Johnnie playing mind tricks on Lina to make her think she’s crazy, or is she making this all up out of fear and doubt? Good setup, but it’s forever before the film takes shape, leaving the viewer with countless scenes of Fontaine falling hopelessly into Grant’s arms after he’s lied to her for the hundredth time. Hitchcock is his usual brilliant self when it comes to master shot interiors, but the story is far too flimsy and the acting far to repetitive for any sort of lasting impression. Suspicion has little danger within it’s narrative corridors, more obsessed with the hidden psychological nuances than the actual breakdown of it’s protagonist. Even worse, Fontaine and Grant have little chemistry, so the words coming out of their mouths never ring true. It’s hard to believe Hitchcock made this film directly after his excellent American debut, Rebecca, also starring Joan Fontaine in a much more haunting and memorable performance. Suspicion, with it’s slow, fledgling plot and minor payoff, stands at the lower rung of Hitchcock films. But then again, it is Hitchcock, and he’s always a cut above the rest.

13 Tzameti (Babluani, 2005)

Dry, characterless, and unrewarding Neo-Noir. Bublani’s film is a France/Georgia co-production and it amazingly won an award at Sundance last year. 13 Tzameti attempts to be a brutal and shocking personal descent into hell, following an underground murder game based in Eastern Europe where the players all have one bullet, line up in a line, and spin the chamber. When each player cocks back the hammer and shoots at the man in front of them, the last man alive wins. The characters remain utterly lifeless so it never really matters who lives or dies. More a concept than a film, which is where “popular” independent film seems to be heading all over the world.

The Wrong Man (Hitchcock, 1958)

“You’ve had a lot of bad breaks that could happen to anyone.”- Vera Miles telling her accused husband Henry Fonda his plight is universal.

The irony in this quote brilliantly taps into the darkness and supposed randomness within the cinema of Alfred Hitchcock. His film The Wrong Man begins with an amazing sense of normalcy, where everyday life coincides with hard work and routine. When Henry Fonda’s every-man Manny Balestrero is accused of robbing a number of local liquor stores, his stasis and ideal life quickly shifts toward the horror of mistaken identity. Equally devoted to his roles as a father, a husband and musician, Manny is uprooted by these hurried accusations and thrown into a realm of doubt. Hitchcock’s restrained visual technique compliments the narrow scope of Balestrero’s POV, a hindered glance into a collapsing ideology. We see what he sees – a slow and scary descent into an existence without control or expectation. This progression marks a difference in style and tone from almost every other Hitchcock thriller. The Wrong Man is a sly and intelligent break toward an earnestness not often associated with Hitchcock’s work. Unlike the fantastical intent of many other Hitchcock hero’s, Balestrero’s situation is one based on a failure of memory of his peers, not out of spite or angst, but simply out of coincidence. Balestero’s resemblance to the real robber is frightening and one can see why the scared business owners felt like they were doing the right thing. However, the plight of this situation has ramifications that reach into the core of Balestrero’s family, causing his wife to go insane and his children to become increasingly non-existent. Hitchcock brilliantly simplifies Balestrero’s story down to the most personal level – a cringe, a prayer, or a smile at a validation of innocence. Only after all has collapsed does Hitchcock return his hero to a state of happiness and even then hardships remain supreme. While many of his other film’s harbor flashy pacing and glamourous chases, The Wrong Man is a disturbing and incredibly timely expose of rushed judgment and human error based with a sense of realism. While the film ends with a disappointing halt, the process is a complicated study of human nature attempting to regain some semblance of peace within normal life, a motif Hitchcock as successfully transmitted throughout his filmography.