Oscar Nominations

There weren't that many surprises in the list of films nominated for the 2007 Oscars when Salma Hayek and some grey-haired suit took to the podium at an ungodly hour of the morning and read the lists off the autocue through sleep-glued eyes.

Perhaps the biggest story is the 8 nominations for Dreamgirls (which I saw this morning and was more or less impressed by), but no Best Film or Director nomination for Bill Condon, which limits its chances. Scorsese and The Departed got their long-anticipated nods, along with Mark Wahlberg for his hyperkinetic turn in Best Supporting Actor. Leonardo DiCaprio too got a Best Actor nomination but for a lesser film, Blood Diamond, which opens here on Friday. I'll post a review later.

Irish interest comes in the bedraggled form of Peter O'Toole, whose turn as an aged letch in Venus (which hasn't been screened for the press here yet) gets a nod after the actor accepted a lifetime achievement Oscar in 2003 with the hope that there was still time to earn one on his own. Veteran costumier Consolata Boyle also gets her first nomination for The Queen, and is in good shape to pick up a win.

Anyways, my predictions for glory on the 25th of February are below

Best Picture - The Departed

Best Director - Martin Scorsese

Best Actor - Forest Whitaker, The Last King of Scotland

Best Actress - Helen Mirren, The Queen (going on word of mouth, I've yet to see the movie)

Best Supporting Actor - Djimon Hounsou, Blood Diamond

Best Supporting Actress - Jennifer Hudson, Dreamgirls

Best Foreign Film - Pan's Labyrinth

Best Animated Film - Happy Feet

There's no shortage of commentary online, nor will there be for the next month. Movie City News has an extensive round-up, and a running score-card.

Tower of Strength

Babel, the third arm of a loose trilogy following Amores Perros and 21 Grams and similarly built around themes of cause and effect, sees Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu and his writing partner Guillermo Arriaga continue to connect and to challenge in this broad, daring and downright beautiful picture, which won the Best Director award at last year’s Cannes festival. The first thing we meet is the central hub around which this globalised story circles, a Winchester rifle – traded between Moroccan shepherds, the first of four seemingly unrelated but inextricably interconnected stories. A farmer named Abdullah (Mustapha Rachidi) buys the rifle to protect his herd of goats from roaming jackals. Although it is bigger than both of them, he gives it to his two young sons, Yussef (Boubker Ait El Caid) and Ahmed (Said Tarchani). Fooling around, one of them takes aim at a passing tour bus on the mountain pass, and fires.

The bullet hits Susan (Cate Blanchett) in the neck. She is travelling with her husband Richard (Brad Pitt), a vacation intended to bring them closer together after an unspoken rift. They have left their two young children, Mike (Nathan Gamble) and Debbie (Ellie Fanning) in San Diego under the care of their Mexican nanny Amelia (Adriana Barraza), a Mexican nanny. The third arm of the story has Amelia take the two kids across the border in her nephew Santiago’s (Gael García Bernal) car, to attend a family wedding, because she cannot find anyone else to look after them for the day. The fourth section of the narrative, again somehow related to each of the other stories, introduces us to a deaf mute Japanese schoolgirl, Chieko (the outstanding Rinko Kikuchi), an isolated, unhappy girl, estranged from her father and struggling to find somebody to connect with. In many ways, the Tokyo section of the film exists on its own, being more dramatically complete than the other sections and might have formed a film on its own.

The film is beautifully photographed. The sparkling megalopolis of Tokyo contrasts with the stark Moroccan mountain desert and the dusty border wasteland between Mexico and America in the empathic compositions of regular Iñárritu collaborator Rodrigo Prieto. Although the story is deliberately unwieldy and cumbersome, it is edited with a marvellous economy and seamless fluidity. There are more than a few jarring cuts, transitions between the stories that are initially obscure, but gradually come into focus as the viewer discovers more information. There is also a fine sense of space and time in the judicious use of sound and music. The acting performances are all exemplary. Pitt and Blachett are most familiar to Western audiences and both excel in making whole and actual characters that are carefully, but finely sketched. Pitt, looking tired and grey, shows considerable power and soul in what are frantic circumstances. Blanchett glows even as she pales from loss of blood. In the Mexican section, Barraza and García Bernal are outstanding, with the standout from the ensemble being the young Japanese actress Kikuchi, who has the most challenging role, explicitly themed and hampered by her handicap, but does wonderful things with it.

Babel is a complex, wide-ranging film that takes the central idea of alienation and isolation and draws it out beyond the limits of its extension. It is about the difficulties in communication, verbal and cultural, and how these differences are what create the gaps that exist between people and further, between those people and an oppressive, uncaring bureaucracy. The film is filled with juxtapositions and contrasts that underline the director’s ideas with tremendous facility and, by their transitory nature, lyrically communicate what are difficult cinematic concepts. The final resolutions of each of the four threads amount to an emotional endurance test, as each arc is stretched well beyond comfort into an area of intense dramatic flux. Iñárritu drags us through the emotional briars of his elliptical story in a harrowingly direct way, and although the film ends on what, in context, amounts to a moment of redemption, it is a small mercy, more a final exhalation of relief than a soothing coda. Not all films are happy entertainments, which is a good thing, by the way. Sometimes there is greater satisfaction to be found in a puzzling, challenging work that asks the viewer to think than in the jumping puppet shows that trot out the same few superficial stories, seemingly just to pass the time.

Smoke 'Em If You've Got 'Em

In 2002, a writer director named Joe Carnahan made an exemplary, but little-seen cop thriller called Narc, a shadowy noir exercise in reinvention that marked him down as one to watch. Unfortunately in Smokin’ Aces, much of that gritty potential goes to waste in what amounts to an over-produced, under-written re-thread of sub-Guy Ritchie crime comedy capers, a disappointingly familiar and excessively violent ensemble bloodbath built around the theme of exhaustion.

It says something about the film when the wafer-thin plot can be dispatched in two short sentences while listing the cast members that act it out might take up the remainder of the available space. Basically, a dying mafia boss has taken out a $1 million contract on the life of his former protégé, a Las Vegas magician turned mobster who has entered the FBI Witness protection programme. While the G-Men try and protect their witness, a small army of professional assassins descend on his lakeside hide-out in a race to be the first to kill the stool pigeon and claim the bounty.

Entourage star Jeremy Piven plays the sleazy magician, Buddy “Aces” Israel, trailed by FBI director Locke (Andy Garcia), and his agents, Messner (Ryan Reynolds) and Carruthers (Ray Liotta). The early part of the film is staged to introduce the seven or eight different squads of hit-men chasing the prize, a parade of characters that requires more concentration from the audience than the film merits. Chief among them are former cop Jack Dupree (Ben Affleck) and his cronies Elmore (Martin Henderson) and Deeks (Peter Berg), accompanied unawares by a gang of chainsaw-wielding neo-Nazi punks, a pair of urban assassins (singer Alisha Keyes among them) and so on, right up to the point where the viewer loses all track of who is chasing who and why.

Although the film is presented as an ultra-violent cartoon (It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World as re-imagined by Tarantino) the only sustained comedy comes from a couple of short scenes with Arrested Development’s Jason Bateman as a drunken, cross-dressing go-between. It is shortly after this momentary relief that the film begins to fall apart completely, with Carnahan piling on the high-decibel gun-battles as whatever passed as a story is forgotten, until a wholly unconvincing revelatory final act that messily attempts to shoehorn meaning into what was a frantic, excessively gory, bullet ballet. Tired and clichéd, despite heaps of visual invention and an admirable commitment to all-out action, Smokin’ Aces never delivers on its slender promise.

Heart of Darkness: James McAvoy and the Last King Of Scotland

“How's things?” says James McAvoy, stretching a hand in greeting and widening his eyes in a charming gesture of polite inquiry. Fine, I say, how are things going for you? “Relentlessly”, he says, and lets out an enormous sigh, a surprising displacement of breath from such a slight man. “Reee-lent-less-ly”, he repeats, collapsing sideways into the over-stuffed Dorchester couch, stretching out his syllables with another deep exhalation. For a moment, I thought he was going to sleep, but instead the actor launches unasked into a précis of the last five weeks of his life, time spent touring the world to talk to people like me about his new film, The Last King of Scotland, the latest in a lengthening line of ‘breakthroughs’, taking in film festivals in Toronto, LA and New York, a month and more of talking, shaking hands and more talking. It sounds exhausting.

The increasingly important Toronto festival, seen as a gateway to distribution in the US, was McAvoy’s first time at the kerbside of the busy intersection between cinema and commerce and he found himself surprised by it. He had three films being screened, including the one we’re here to discuss today, but he doesn’t know quite how to feel about that singular success. “I couldn’t really get involved in anything except my own stuff. There are just so many people running around chasing their own arses and chasing their own success – everyone is rather focused on their own thing, so you wonder what it is that they are doing. A festival is supposed to be a celebration, isn’t it? And yet its not a celebration, it’s just an extension of marketing. Great for the people of Toronto who get to see lots of great movies, but if you go there as an actor, you have no ‘festival’ which is a shame – my impression is that it’s a lot of work”.

He looks across the room at something for a moment or two and then returns with a blink to the conversation. It’s fair to say he looks a little distracted. The 27 year old, small-framed like most actors, is dressed in a black v-neck jumper and artfully distressed jeans, with a mop of floppy hair and dark circles around his eyes. McAvoy picks up a silver pencil from the table and starts twisting it in his fingers; drops it, picks it up, drops it again, and says something as his head is turned away from my microphone. Later, I decipher it as something about eventually running out of things to say. We’ve been talking for less than two minutes. I attempt to kick start the conversation again by asking him if he’s tired of being constantly called ‘an actor on the rise’. “Well”, he replies, visibly brightening, “I dunno really. I suppose I’ve always been a young actor, I’m a young man, but people can say things like that about you at any point in your career. I’ve been doing this for nearly eight years now and the fact that people are taking notice of me, now as opposed to when I was starting out, doesn’t really make me feel any different and doesn’t change the way I do my job. I’m honestly not bothered about what people say. If I’d been around for a week and then was called an actor on the rise, that might make a difference, but by now I’m quite used to people judging me, every night in a play, every time I’m on the telly”.

I look down at the few scribbled notes I’ve taken as he was talking. ‘Dark circles’. ‘Big sighs’. The word ‘fidgety’ is underlined twice. Now McAvoy is looking at what I’m looking at and I’m hoping he can’t read upside down. This all happens in a moment, and he politely breaks the silence with a line that probably sums up his last couple of months, expressed with the greatest weariness imaginable, “I think people think too much about actors”. Oh yeah? But if the right people are talking about you as a talent they want to work with, doesn’t that lead to better scripts, famous directors and new opportunities? “Honestly”, he replies, “up until very recently, I’ve just taken whatever it is I've been offered. People say to me, ‘oh, you've chosen such interesting projects’, and I say to myself, ‘take what you can get’. I've been lucky that most of those have been good choices, but that was never a conscious thing. I've gotten a little more choice, but it’s not that much choice, and with having a choice comes a certain amount of fear- you’re responsible for whatever it is that you are doing, so you have to be bloody good”.

Luckily for me, he kept talking and luckily for everybody else, he is bloody good in Kevin McDonald’s dramatic debut. The Last King of Scotland is the story of Idi Amin, the Ugandan dictator who ruled his country with a bloodstained fist throughout the 1970s. Based on Giles Foden’s award-winning novel of the same name, the film offers two indelible portraits: one of charming, psychopathic dictator who ravaged his country and the other of a self-serving pleasure-seeker who eventually finds enough courage to take a stand. The unconventional biopic examines a fascinating historical figure through the eyes of a fictional character by exploring the emotionally complex relationship that develops between the two men. Forrest Whittaker plays Amin with brute force and a childlike bluntness. McAvoy plays Nicholas Garrigan, a feckless Scottish missionary doctor who arrived in the country in 1971 on a whim, and quickly ingratiated himself into Amin’s inner circle, becoming his personal physician and as a result, living high on the hog. His character is a fictionalised amalgam of a couple of ex-patriot playboys that flitted from country to country around that time, making money and connections on the back of unimaginable oppression. How did McAvoy get the role? “I simply don’t know how they decided on me. Possibly, because I was the only Scotsman of the right age and experience to do it, and still cheap enough – I’m not being funny now – but a lot of the other Scottish actors mid-twenties to early thirties were all a bit too expensive. That was that”.

Location filming in and around Kampala took the actor to Africa for three months of 2004, an experience he has found difficult to shake off. “I had never been there before. My first impression was that this is poverty on a level I could have never prepared myself for. The media and news coverage of Africa is a great thing, but it supposes that we understand the world, and we don’t, really. We have an encyclopaedic, academic viewpoint, but we don’t actually know it. I knew I would encounter these things, but until you actually do, you just aren’t ready – physically, you know. I learned that pity is a completely redundant, cheap emotion. Saying to yourself, ‘oh that’s a wee shame’, means you can walk away and not actually connect with anything that’s happening in front of you, but walk away thinking you’re a good person. That means nothing”. To illustrate this point he tells me a couple of stories about the time he spent in Ireland preparing for his role in Damien O’Donnell’s Inside I’m Dancing, detailing the reactions he felt while working with differently-abled people that boiled down to the same cheap sentiment, something he didn’t like himself for feeling, and something he struggled to get over. “That’s not all that different from the first reactions I had to Africa. I couldn’t actually do anything until I got over this sense of pity. That was the first thing I went through. After that, the rest was all work for me. I literally worked in every single scene in the movie – fourteen hour days, six day weeks, for three months. I never got a day off. So, my only cultural experience was downtime spent eating and talking with the crew and a single night spent camping beside the Nile”. Later, McAvoy tells me he will return to Uganda to work with a group of actors and musicians led by David Oyewolo (who plays Dr Junju in the film) for a couple of weeks in the early part of 2007, detailing the work that they do and how it helps the local community. It is one of the very few times that he smiles.

When I ask him about Whittaker, his more experienced co-star, McAvoy is full of praise for the heavyweight actor. Between them they divide the lion’s share of the storytelling and the friendship that developed between the two men is palpable. “It’s an odd relationship – firstly because it’s between two men. They have a lot of love for one another and that always seems to make people uncomfortable, even if it’s not a sexual thing. The other thing is that the relationship between me and Amin represents very closely the relationship the British government and Foreign Office had with him. The ups and downs are the same; the key points in ours are the same as the historical key points in theirs. Amin wasn’t just a murderer; he was a sensation, a media-manufactured figure. Instead of telling the truth, that this guy was a demon, instead we heard that he liked to wear blue Stetsons and wearing kilts and, you know, what fun! All just to make the white man laugh”. He found himself wary of intruding on the older actor while filming, with Whittaker buried deep inside a complicated character. “Forrest isn’t exactly what you’d call a method actor, but he is when it’s necessary and appropriate and this was one of those times. It’s difficult to learn anything from watching him, because you just don’t want to mess him up. He’s living it; he’s trying to become someone, so he doesn’t need someone like me asking ‘er, sorry pal, how are you doing that’?”

McAvoy had a similar learning curve to negotiate with McDonald, the director behind the award-winning documentaries One Day In September and Touching The Void, slowly building a rapport and establishing the right approach to the material. “I thought his documentaries were really cool, but I had no reason to trust him. The only thing that gave me heart before we started was the fact that I wanted to portray the character differently to the way that the script portrayed him. I didn’t want Nicholas to be an innocent caught in the middle without realising where he is. That’s the way it was originally written and, for me that had to change. So we sat down and discussed those issues and made the changes and McDonald was great with that. He re-mastered the script and that process continued when we were in Uganda. But the simple fact that there was some agreement there meant we could go off together and do it. I had to trust him and, you know, he had to trust me. We could have gone out there and it could have been a disaster”.

We’ve been talking for a while now, and the actor’s breathable intensity has hardly dipped for a moment. He seems angry about the dark history raised in the film, and passionate about telling the truth as he discovered it for himself. Raised in a working class family in a tough part of Glasgow, I wonder if he is more politically charged now as a result of his experiences. “No, politically is the wrong word, but socially charged, definitely. I have an understanding now that what we have in the West is unbelievably privileged. The working-class chip on my shoulder is gone, and I have an entirely different perspective on what real hardship is. You have to be incredibly unfortunate in this country to be born with less of a chance than anybody in Africa”. We talk for another couple of minutes about the stark statistics that end the film, estimates of the dead, a roll call of devastation. McAvoy looks genuinely pained as I rattle out the numbers. The twirling pencil falls again from his grasp and he slides off the couch to pick it up. All he says is “yeah, yeah”.

The Defiant Ones

Right from the opening scenes of Clint Eastwood’s epic Flags of our Fathers, the viewer is dragged into the hell of the pacific War in 1945. Flares burst overhead as frightened soldiers scramble over the black rocks of Iwo Jima, a dot of volcanic land 300 miles south of Tokyo and the scene of one of the bloodiest battles in the entire conflict. An essential air base for the Japanese, the island is guarded by 20,000 soldiers, dug into tunnels dug in the mountain. An expeditionary force of 30,000 American GIs arrives, in an enormous fleet of battleships, to dislodge the enemy and move on to the mainland. Among these men are John "Doc" Bradley (Ryan Phillippe), a navy medic, Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford), Native American Ira Hayes (Adam Beach), their leader Sgt. Mike Strank (Barry Pepper), and a nervous teenager, Ralph ‘Iggy’ Ignatowski (Jamie Bell). The film focuses on those that would eventually raise the Stars and Stripes as a display of defiance, an event captured by Joe Rosenthal in an iconic photograph that would define the entire war for the American nation. What the public was not told is that the flag-raising was re-staged for the camera, and that the men, whose faces cannot be seen, might not be the same men hailed as the heroes.

Returned from the battlefield by their superiors, quick to realise their propaganda potential, three of the surviving young men are put to work selling war bonds to the public, advised by one cynical PR man that unless they can help raise $14 billion dollars, America will be bankrupt and will ‘have to give the Japanese whatever they want’. Re-enacting the event for the cameras, and seeing it everywhere from posters to postage stamps to ice-cream deserts, the men are hailed as heroes. The preening Rene delights in the attention, the stoic Doc reminds everybody that the real heroes are dead on the island while Ira the Native American falls further into sorrow and whiskey. The complicated narrative traces a line through three separate timelines – the initial assault on the island, the return to the US for the promotional tour and, rather less emphatically, the efforts, years later, of Doc’s son to write the story of his father’s wartime experiences, the book by James Bradley that the film is based upon. However, Eastwood and his regular writing partner Paul Haggis, concentrate in the later stages on the tragic character of Ira, who is returned to a life of poverty and discrimination once the glint wears off his medals. Regardless of the mangling effect they have on the narrative, these almost-silent scenes are immeasurably powerful. There is further, deep-felt sorrow in the conclusions that Eastwood draws around Doc, who dies in his bed an old man, surrounded by his family, and seems to despise himself for it. Although the war ended fifty years before, Eastwood makes it clear, with considerable cinematic skill and tremendous empathy, that the men that fought it never left it.

A war film, even one as unmistakeably anti-war as this one, uses blood and death as its currency, electrifying us with images of carnage. Eastwood, who has built a career on screen violence, employs all the technical skills that allow that reconstruction today, but throughout forces the audience to confront the carnage, holding his camera still, for long, unendurable moments on scenes of unblinking, graphic brutality. This is an intense and ultra-realistic war film, the initial assault on the black sand beach out-performing Saving Private Ryan (Steven Spielberg is one of the producers), but there is no exultation here. The director is more concerned with the way the truth can be manhandled to fit the circumstances, and the ghosts that live in dim remnants of memory, than he is in rattling his sabre. The effect is profound and deeply saddening. This is a film about the artificial creation of heroes, men made larger than life to fill a gap in the public consciousness, exposing the hypocrisy of the glad-handing US Administration and the manipulative media, as they both seize on any aspect of the men’s experience to further their agenda. The story of these six men must also be compared to the recent US military efforts to adapt the death in Iraq of the All-American Corporal Pat Tillman or the ‘rescue’ of Pvt Jessica Lynch for their own purposes, expediently changing the facts to suit their needs.

Although Flags of our Fathers shows flaws, they are minor defects; more instances of awkward storytelling than any core problem of philosophy or execution. Showing his dedication to and respect for the truth, Eastwood will revisit the battle in Letters From Iwo Jima, set to open early next year, where he will tell the story again, this time from the point of view of the Japanese. I cannot wait to see it.