Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Curious Case of Oscar snubs

Coming off last year’s all-time low television ratings, the Academy Awards looked to be set up this year for a perfect situation to turn its recent ratings slump around. One of the biggest Oscar contenders, “The Dark Knight,” was also a hugely popular film at the box office, garnering the second highest gross in motion picture history. That possible combination of popularity and prestige looked to be the recipe for big ratings.

However, the prestige didn’t really follow on Thursday, Jan. 22, when the Oscar nominations were announced, as “The Dark Knight” ended up with just one nomination in the major categories – that for the late Heath Ledger in the best supporting actor category. So despite huge audience and critical acclaim, combinations that worked for "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy and, of course, "Titanic," Batman will be largely looking at technical awards to possibly take home at the Academy Awards.

There was the thought by some in Hollywood that a strong showing by "The Dark Knight" could have provided a boost to Oscar's sagging ratings, as it would have provided a hugely popular film for audiences to root for – a race that would have lasted right up to the final award of the night. That's certainly not to say that the Academy should have rewarded the movie purely to grab a larger viewing audience. But the film was widely praised upon its release, and is the rare sequel that most felt surpassed its predecessor. It's a popcorn movie, to be sure, but one with a conscience and a brain.

Still, "The Dark Knight" managed to snag eight nominations, which is certainly impressive for a movie that only has one nomination in a major category. Leading the way was “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” with 13 nominations, followed by “Slumdog Millionaire” with 10.

The following is a roundup of some of the major categories and an early look at the prospects for some of the nominees on Oscar night, Feb. 22.

Best Picture
• “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”
• “Frost/Nixon”
• “Milk”
• “The Reader”
• “Slumdog Millionaire”
For many, the most notable aspect of this category is the omission of “The Dark Knight,” while “The Reader,” which didn’t have much buzz during awards season, got nominated. “Slumdog” has picked up a lot of awards in recent weeks, and would seem to be a slight favorite.

Best Director
• David Fincher, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”
• Ron Howard, “Frost/Nixon”
• Gus Van Sant, “Milk”
• Stephen Daldry, “The Reader”
• Danny Boyle, “Slumdog Millionaire”
The Academy has had a habit in recent years of nominating at least one director not helming one of the best picture nominees. But that’s not the case this year, with Howard the only nominee with a win under his belt.

Best Actor
• Richard Jenkins, “The Visitor”
• Frank Langella, “Frost/Nixon”
• Sean Penn, “Milk”
• Brad Pitt, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”
• Mickey Rourke, “The Wrestler”
Penn is the only former winner in this category, with Rourke as the comeback story, fresh off a Golden Globe victory. It could come down to these two for the Oscar, with Langella as a possible longshot contender.

Best Actress
• Anne Hathaway, “Rachel Getting Married”
• Angelina Jolie, “Changeling”
• Melissa Leo, “Frozen River”
• Meryl Streep, “Doubt”
• Kate Winslet, “The Reader”
The nomination for Winslet is a surprise only for the film in which she received it.
“Revolutionary Road” was the expected film for her nomination. She earned Golden
Globes for that film and “The Reader” as supporting actress. But the Academy clearly recognized this as the better of her two lead performances. Facing off against a strong group, including the ever-present Streep, this just might be Winslet’s year, after five previous nominations.

Best Supporting Actor
• Josh Brolin, “Milk”
• Robert Downey Jr., “Tropic Thunder”
• Philip Seymour Hoffman, “Doubt”
• Heath Ledger, “The Dark Knight”
• Michael Shannon, “Revolutionary Road”
Hoffman makes his second straight appearance in this category, but Ledger is the prohibitive favorite. The other candidates, which includes the rare nomination for an actor in a comedic role (Downey in “Tropic Thunder”), are in a tough spot. In competition with a well-liked, talented performer who died young, the odds would seem stacked against them all.

Best Supporting Actress
• Amy Adams, “Doubt”
• Penelope Cruz, “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”
• Viola Davis, “Doubt”
• Taraji P. Henson, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”
• Marisa Tomei, “The Wrestler”
This category may prove to be the toughest to call, as none of the actresses have been dominating during awards season. Tomei has won in this category before (“My Cousin Vinny”), with Cruz and Adams as previous nominees. Cases for and against any of the five could probably be made.

Best Original Screenplay
• “Frozen River”
• “Happy-Go-Lucky”
• “In Bruges”
• “Milk”
• “WALL-E”
As much of “WALL-E” is without dialogue, it’s a true testament to the visual storytelling that it snagged a nomination. That said, the “Milk” screenplay of Dustin Lance Black seems to be the favorite.

Best Adapted Screenplay
• “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”
• “Doubt”
• “Frost/Nixon”
• “The Reader”
• “Slumdog Millionaire”
With two of the nominees being adapted from the stage to the big screen (“Doubt” and “Frost/Nixon”), there’s a good variety to the material in this category. But unlike the original screenplay nominees, there’s no surprises here, with “Slumdog” or “Benjamin Button” possibly riding a wave of awards for their respective films.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Movie Review: "Bigger, Stronger, Faster"

Starring Christopher Bell
Directed by Christopher Bell

Official Web site

Taking its cues from Michael Moore’s style of documentaries, yet less polarizing and confrontational, writer-director Christopher Bell’s “Bigger, Stronger, Faster” is an entertaining and educational examination of steroids in America. But in tackling such a controversial subject, Bell chooses to delve into the highly competitive nature of Americans and why some choose performance-enhancing drugs to “gain an edge.”

Bell doesn’t approach the material from a naive and outside point of view. In fact, he readily admits to having used anabolic steroids himself in the past, while involved in competitive weightlifting. As the middle child of three, Bell interviews his two brothers, who were also into weightlifting, athletics and steroids. And while Bell regrets his use of the drug, his brothers have no problem continuing to do so on occassion, as younger brother Mark remains involved in weighlifting, while older sibling Mike is still desperately trying to establish himself on the pro wrestling circuit.

All three grew up in the 1980s, idolizing pumped up stars such as Sylvester Stallone, Hulk Hogan and Arnold Schwarzenegger. The fact that all his childhood heroes were seemingly on steroids is a true letdown for Bell, who questions that if they all used, what kind of mixed message does that send to today’s youth.

While the film isn’t able to get any of the aforementioned big three on camera for interviews, Bell is able to amusingly get close to Schwarzenegger during a campaign stop. But instead of being able to question the governor about performance-enhancing drugs, he gets to be a part of a photo-op that places him on the front page of the Los
Angeles Times.

As a first-time documentary maker, Bell shows an impressive amount of prowess with his varied and large amount of interview subjects. Ranging from medical experts, athletes (including track stars Ben Johnson and Carl Lewis), models and politicians, an extensive amount of information is thrown at the viewer. However, it’s to the film’s credit that it avoids getting bogged down into medical miniutae or an overly biased point of view. That’s not to say the film maintains a completely objective position. The mere involvement of Bell’s family, including his parents, makes his seeking answers a personal pursuit that goes beyond most documentaries.

While some may walk away still questioning the true health risks that anabolic steroids pose, the film makes clear that America takes a hypocritical position at times when it comes to dealing with the issue. Politicians put baseball players under oath in a congressional hearing for doping, but were among the many who cheered some of those same players’ exploits in their prime. The film points out that Congress spent more time on this hearing than they have on the Iraq war – and to what conclusion? Some of our sports athletes cheat? Shocking!

“Bigger, Stronger, Faster” doesn’t put the use of performance-enhancing drugs on trial, nor is that its intent. In fact, the film makes a point that the use of the term “performance-enhancing” is so overused, many likely don’t realize that they might be using some themselves. Stimulants (like caffeine), sedatives (beta blockers) and painkillers are all among them. So when it comes to competition in America, the documentary questions where we draw the line and what a level playing field even consists of anymore.

Grade: B+
(Rated PG-13 for thematic material involving drugs, language, some sexual content and violent images.)