Director: Clint Eastwood

Cast: Angelina Jolie, John Malkovich

The Buzz: Nominated in Best Actress, Best Cinematography and Best Art Direction categories

The Run: Won Satellite Award for Best Actress

Changeling

Schizophrenia Of The Script

Clint Eastwood should have promoted Gran Torino at the Cannes instead of making so much fuss over Changeling. The Oscar probably wouldn’t have snubbed one of the better films of the year if he had done that. Perhaps he was too confident of Gran Torino. Whatever the case, Changeling definitely isn’t a glowing bullet point in Eastwood’s glorious and pretty consistent filmography.

Changeling follows one woman’s struggle to get back her lost child. No, wait. It follows a genocide case loosely based on real life incidents. No, no, no. It is a gut-wrenching courtroom drama that raises questions about the capital punishment. Whatever. Clint Eastwood is one of the best storytellers Hollywood has and it is appalling to see him failing in his first step. Eastwood’s films have always been backed by strong scripts and great performances, only faltering slightly at a directorial level. But in Changeling, he takes up a script that takes a pretty good idea, blows it up and zooms it to fantastical proportions. Not only that, when it goes it uncontrollable limits, it snaps. There is a start change in tone and plot. It is as if the film just rebooted for the better. And just when it seems like it can redeem itself, the courtroom drama comes up to give the final set of blows to the film. As a result, whatever Eastwood is able to do (no, I don’t mean the Cannes promotion!) isn’t enough to even make the film linger for a while.

Angelina Jolie’s performance is inconsistent and is perhaps the weakest contender for the Oscar this year. Perhaps Ms. Zelwegger could have done the role better. Jolie shuttles between aggression and sympathy unconvincingly. Something like a mixture of Wanted and Alexander. Having said that, I must also tell you that the period details are well captured. But then, isn’t all this usual to Hollywood?

Director: David Fincher

Cast: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Taraji P. Henson, Tilda Swinton

The Buzz: Nominated in Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Sound Editing, Best Visual Effects, Best Make-up, Best Original Score, Best Costume Design and Best Art Direction categories (phew!)

The Run: Won National Board of Review Award for Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay

Fast-Food Cassavetes

Life is still the same Box of Chocolates!

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a phenomenal idea. One that could have eternally made us rave about the magic of cinema. Only if Eric Roth had realized what the idea of a man who ages in reverse means. Only if he had not been so straight faced and stiff about it all. Man, why don’t they leave these things to Tim Burton?

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a great joke. A joke that could have generated an endless series of gags and surprises. Instead, Fincher goes in for the kitsch. Look, we have a man who ages in reverse. Quite extraordinary indeed. I hear that in Scott Fitzgerald’s short story, the lead character never learns of his plight and that he ages both mentally and physically in reverse. But in Roth’s version, Benjamin ages backwards physically and forward mentally. Also he becomes perfectly aware of the ramifications of his plight as he grows up. Great move by Roth I must admit. But it is never capitalized upon at all. I mean, there is no conflict between contradicting states of growth. Benjamin could have been replaced by a normal character (a la Forrest Gump) and the script wouldn’t have to change much at all. As a result the film becomes nothing more than a coming of age (or going!) tale of a normal mind. The physical state of Benjamin Button is never seems to be a concern for anyone in the film except the CG department.

Hollywood seems to have perfected the craft of storytelling without even letting the storylines catch up. Yes, Benjamin Button is eye-popping all the way, gorgeously designed and fantastically executed. But all this is like those high profile food items – mouth-watering when looked at, but never ever filling. I would have wanted to love the film. Only if the film hadn’t taken itself too seriously, sigh.

Director: Ron Howard

Cast: Michael Sheen, Frank Langella, Rebecca  Hall, Kevin Bacon

The Buzz: Nominated in Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor,  Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Editing categories

The Run: Won the Satellite Award for Best Adapted Screenplay

Frost/Nixon

Not Exactly A K.O.

Ron Howard returns after his much trashed film The Da Vinci Code (2006) and he returns quite well. He takes up the iconic face-off between David Frost and Richard Nixon following the latter’s impeachment and churns out something that could have been only possible in Hollywood. Seen Rocky? Seen Mudhalvan (Nayak)? Now cross them and voila!

Riding on two striking performances (well, Sheen’s is easily questionable), Frost Nixon is yet another underdog story from the industry that is surprisingly riveting until the third act. There is a sense of balance among the characters. The interview is the last chance for both of them to redeem their lost pride. A lot is at stake for both of them. All this is quite subtly done. Oh yes, please add a clause “till the phone call” to all the statements above. And after this notorious phone call comes the fear of all ordinary directors of Hollywood. The fear that their effort may go unnoticed by the audience. Ron Howard is no exception here and verbalizes and over-determines whatever he wants to say in the final act as if pointing out to the audience his directorial skills. It’s downhill all the way from this point. The showdown is so dumb to the point that it contradicts the point of the whole film so far. And Sheen’s cool attitude sums up to nothing at all. How I wish the film was handled by some veteran. 

But a few points do stand out in the film including Langella’s confident performance of the American president. Frost/Nixon does not pretend to delve into the truth or offer a fair trial to Nixon. It assumes that Nixon is guilty and concentrates on his conviction alone. And I feel that this is a good move. But best movie of the year? Come on, this must be the joke of the year!

Director: Darren Aronofsky

Cast: Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei

The Buzz: Nominated in Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress categories

The Run: Won The Golden Lion at Venice Film Festival, Golden Globe for Best Actor (Drama)

The Wrestler

Just Short Of The Championship

Mickey Rourke is the surprise contender for this year’s Leading Actor award and he does a great job. Very few actors would have actually accepted to do the wrestling scenes leave alone pulling it off with such might. There is a sense of humbleness to his performance – A sense of dejection as if he continues to exist without living. Something like Hulk Hogan meets Bill Murray.

The Wrestler follows (literally) the aging WWE champion Randy “The Ram” Robinson who is now almost washed up and his only tonic of life remains the cheers of the oblivious audience. He shuns responsibilities, hides under his wrestling name and fears life outside the arena. He stands in contrast to his love interest Cassidy, a stripper who does her work reluctantly and whose life begins only when she steps out of the club. Aronofsky’s direction is striking. We follow Randy like his manager, right behind him almost throughout the film (even during the fights) and suddenly we are made god as we detachedly observe Randy’s life from remarkable distance. As a result, we both empathize with Randy’s situation and mercilessly cheer at the massacre he is involved in. In essence, Aranofsky makes us guilty and hypocritical, never overtly demanding sympathy for its central protagonist. The wrestling matches move from fantastic to gruesome and then to shocking without any sign of artificiality. And that adds to the raw power of the film.

The approach of the film is visibly fresh. But unfortunately, Aronofsky treads a tried and tested path. I mean, how many times have we seen the aging sports man, who is a loser in personal life too, coming back against all odds to pursue what he does best? As a result, the riveting performances and execution cower under a predictable script, hence making the film just good and not great.

Director: Sam Mendes

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Michael Shannon

The Buzz: Nominated in Best Supporting Actor, Best Costume Design and Best Art Direction categories

The Run:  Won Golden Globe for Best Actress (Drama) 

 

Fast-Food Cassavetes

Fast-Food Cassavetes

No established director’s filmography seems to be complete without a familial drama. This year is the turn of Academy Award winning theatre director Sam Mendes. Revolutionary Road follows the happy married life of a couple, played by Leo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, gradually disintegrating to debris. The lead pair reunite 11 years after Titanic (1997), proving that if the iceberg doesn’t get you, marriage will.

First off, Revolutionary is damn riveting. You are hooked to the screen even if the dispute between the couple seems redundant and outright silly.  The performances are generally convincing but that’s strictly a matter of subjectivity (Imagine, both of them got nominations in the Golden Globe, snubbed by the Academy). But what hurts is Mendes’ heavy-handed execution of the plot. He seems to show us how empty the lives are and how fake their passions are – a theme that’s 50 years old. Mendes knows this and cleverly places his film in that era. But he derives the film rather than letting it evolve. Every scene exists not because they are beautiful by themselves, but because they are the cause to the next. Each one seems calculatingly placed in order to push forth the stale state of affairs. He cuts to the drama forcefully. One more. The Michael Shannon character is a consequence of Mendes’ supreme lack of confidence in his own direction. Where directors like Cassavetes and Antonioni left the audience on its own to grapple some meaning out of it all, Mendes safely verbalizes the lead pair’s opinions about each other through Shannon. And he hides this sham under the remarkable performance of Shannon and the unstable state of the character’s mind. 

I am still skeptic about the costumes in the film. The film seems to take place in the 1950’s. But I can’t believe that men still wore hats and blazers whenever they went out. Of course, this might have been researched before put into execution. But what if it wasn’t? Revolutionary Road still makes up for a decent drama for anyone willing to witness something shallow yet grave, depressing and absorbing. Kate and Leo, that’s why you shouldn’t carry on with acquaintances from journeys!