Tuesday, January 27, 2004


Speculation that a triumph for Lord of the Rings III: The Return of the King at the Oscars on the 29th February will represent a triumph for fantasy films is misplaced and mistaken. There are only two things that the mysterious Academy cares about really, and they are worthiness and dollars. While LOTR falls well short of being worthy, it has had cash registers in cinemas all over the world singing chi-ching merrily for three years, and that is an achievement that the Academy may be eager to recognise and reward.

LOTR, as befits its epic status, dominates all discussion of the 76th Academy Awards. It is the elephant in the living room that cannot be ignored. The achievement of the Lord of the Rings trilogy is a considerable one, but it is one that is likely to dim with history. Will these Academy Awards stamp The Return of the King with the Academy's seal of approval while it's still relevant, or will the Emperor be revealed to be naked after all?

Best Supporting Actress
Shohreh Aghdashloo - HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG
Patricia Clarkson - PIECES OF APRIL
Marcia Gay Harden - MYSTIC RIVER
Holly Hunter - THIRTEEN
Renée Zellweger - COLD MOUNTAIN

Catherine Zeta-Jones' triumph last year as Best Supporting Actress was richly deserved. The movie Chicago rises or falls on the casting of Velma Kelly, who must be a star of sufficient incadescence for Roxie, and the audience, to bow down before; Mrs Douglas provided that in spades. Whether or not this year's winner will do the same is open to question, as An Spailpín hasn't heard of two them ever, and hasn't seen the movies of the other three.

Best Supporting Actress is a tricky one to call; not many will forget the shocked look on Lauren Bacall's face when Juliette Binoche won Best Supporting Actress ahead of Bacall for her role in The English Patient. Bacall was not only Hollywood royalty, but she had to put up with being directed by Babs Streisand in one of the worst pictures ever, The Mirror Has Two Faces. And her reward was nothing? Showbusiness is a cruel business.

While it's only ever a shot in the dark to talk about movies that I haven't seen, I'm picking plucky Miss Zellweger to win this one. Holly Hunter is one of these people that's often nominated but never really stands out, and Marcia Gay Harden won a few years ago for Pollock. So I'm picking Renée, but I wouldn't bet on this one under any circumstances.

Best Supporting Actor
Alec Baldwin - THE COOLER
Benicio Del Toro - 21 GRAMS
Djimon Hounsou - IN AMERICA
Tim Robbins - MYSTIC RIVER

As the Oscars are as much a popularity contest as anything, the theory goes that poor Alec Baldwin hasn't a snowball's hope in Hell. However, by this logic, he shouldn't even have been nominated, so who knows. Benicio Del Toro won a few years ago for his magnificent performance as a world-weary cop in Traffic, and he's meant to be hot stuff in 21 Grams too. As is Tim Robbins in Mystic River, but it's hard to know if Robbins' radicalism will endear him to or revulse him from the Academy. As such, my percentage play says to back Djimon Hounsou for In America. It's one of those sickly family movies that people feel good about themselves for supporting, and certainly feel better than they would if they had to sit through the damn thing. In America is outgunned elsewhere, so its representative should get the nod here.

Best Actress
Keisha Castle-Hughes - WHALE RIDER
Samantha Morton - IN AMERICA
Charlize Theron - MONSTER
Naomi Watts - 21 GRAMS

Whether it's due to Hollywood's traditional adherence to the Ugly Rule, which states that no greater sacrifice may an actress make than for a beautiful actress to appear ugly on film, or if the Chicago Sun-Times' critic Roger Ebert is right when he said that Charlize Theron's performance in Monster was "one of the greatest performances in the history of the cinema," so that's not a bad start. The fact that Ms Theron has not only finally spoken of her mother's shooting of her father, but has spoken of it to Barbara Walters on ABC, indicates that Ms Theron wants the Oscar v much indeed. She's racing favourite, and is a bit of shocker as she was thought of as just a pretty face before this. I hope she enjoys the hoopla while it lasts, and that it brings her more luck than it brought to Elisabeth Shue for her breakout performance in Leaving Las Vegas that never materialised into anything, but I am not betting on Charlize Theron to win the Oscar. Firstly, her price is unusually bad value, and secondly, I don't think she'll win.

Naomi Watts I haven't seen of course, but I was surprised to read a CV of 37 films in her filmography on the Internet Movie Database. Whale Rider is meant to be marvellous, but I'm not sure if enough people have seen it for Keisha Castle-Hughes to be raised to glory here - maybe if she was in Supporting Actress, where the Academy are more inclined to take a flyer. Samantha Morton I'm giving the bump for the same reason that I gave Holly Hunter the bump above, which leaves me with my own value for money bet for Best Actress. This is my value for money punt of the meeting - fill your boots while you may.

Diane Keaton has been around for a long time, long enough to be liked a lot by a lot of people. She's paid her dues, and she has pedigree, with two prior nominations, for Reds and a win in 1977 for Annie Hall. She's been politically active without ever pissing anyone off, and she represents a demographic that is under-represented in modern cinema but super-represented in the Academy - the aged. Put your money on Diane to claim her second Oscar in the shock of the night.

Best Actor

This is a tricky one to call. Sean Penn starts as racing favourite, due to a combination of what's meant to be a genuinely outstanding performance and the fact that he was overlooked for Dead Man Walking. However, Sean Penn is one of these irrascible characters who is hardly likely to appear on Letterman and do the bit of aw-shucksing necessary to win an Oscar. Hosting Saturday Night Live didn't do Jeremy Irons any harm in the early nineties, but Penn could cost himself the award if he doesn't play the game.

Ben Kingsley and Jude Law have the pedigree; Kingsley will always be Ghandi to a generation, and Jude Law is frightfully British don't you know - nothing impresses an American like a cut glass accent and a preference for cucumber over ham in one's sandwiches.

I don't think either of them will win it though. Johnny Depp ought to win it, as if Depp wasn't able to charm the audience in Pirates of the Caribbean that movie was dead in the water. The other thing that may put the Academy on Depp's side is that, even though he's a serious actor, he wasn't afraid to get involved in a project that was good old-fashioned fun (a lucrative money-maker for the Studio, with none of this faggoty "art" clouding the issues). On the debit side - Captain Jack Sparrow isn't exactly up there with Stanley Kowalski and The Dane, is he?

As such, by default and by popular acclaim, by being one of the funniest men in America without really trying for thirty years and more, Bill Murray wins the Oscar on his first ever nomination.

Best Director
Fernando Meirelles - CITY OF GOD
Clint Eastwood - MYSTIC RIVER

If any name other than Peter Jackson comes out of the envelope every bizarro middle-earth cyberspace posting board poster will know that the gig is finally up; it's a masterful technical achievement, but it's still just a kiddy movie. Jackson deserves Best Director - while An Spailpín shares William Goldman's doubts about the auteur theory of film-making the fact is that Peter Jackson not only put a ten hour movie on the screen but that he was a success doing it. Clint already got his directing Oscar for Unforgiven, Sofia is doing well to be nominated (no woman has ever won Best Director, you know), Peter Weir is another manifestation of Master and Commander's good showing at the nominations, and in another year Fernando Meirelles might have had a better shot. But Jackson deserves this one - anything less will be a travesty.

Best Picture

Here's where the story ends for Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. The majority reaction of most people leaving the theatre after three and half hours of movie was "is that it?" A cruel reaction to the culmination of a mammoth effort, but if people are promised Armageddon an apocalypse just won't suit them. If each episode of LOTR got a one third Oscar each year, then maybe the lot deserve one full one, but The Return of the King isn't a good enough picture to win Best Picture. Lots of rotten movies have won before, of course, but The Return of the King won't click it this time.

Mystic River fulfills the worthy criteria, but people aren't enthused by movies that are depressing. The admire them, but they can never love them. Lost in Transation is Murray's picture, and now that Murray has his Oscar there's no need to waste any more time on it. Master and Commander is still there of course, but nobody is quite sure how it got there in the first place. I can't see how Master and Commandercould be Best Picture, but I can see exactly how 2004 could be Seabiscuit's year.

Seabiscuit was released in the States back in the Summer; for it to be even remembered now in a fickle industry is an achievement. But Seabiscuit was a funny picture; lots of people went to see it to scoff, and they were giving plenty of chances. Jeff Bridges' has a really cornball speech at one stage, so bad I've managed to chase it out of my otherwise excellent memory. And despite all the ammunition that critics, cynics and corner-boys had, no-one could pull the trigger on Seabiscuit. It's just a lovely, lovely movie, and the backstory is one that was born for Hollywood: the heroism of the actual horse Seabiscuit, the heroism of Seabiscuit's jockey, Red Pollard and the really remarkable story of Laura Hillenbrand, on whose book the movie is based.

Seabiscuit is a movie that makes people feel better about themselves. The Academy will feel better about its many sins when it names Seabiscuit Best Picture at the 76th Academy Awards.

Thursday, January 08, 2004

The Smoking Gun

Not since Danny Ostler played at stand-off half for South Africa on the Springboks' tour of Great Britain and Ireland in the 1930s has anybody kicked for touch with the devotion of the current Irish Minister for Health, Mícheál Martin.

No politician really cares for making decisions, and Irish politicians in particular react with the horror a vampire before a crucifix at the thought of having to do so. For the length of his tenure as Minister for Health, Martin's stock response to any crisis, big or small, has been to commission a report. We can only assume that the carpet in Mícheál's office on Poolbeg St has a little mountain about the size of Kilimanjaro from all these reports being stuffed under it.

However, good and all as this strategy was at keeping trouble away from the Minister's door, his image as the White Knight of Fianna Fáil was beginning to recede as Brian Cowen began to loom large in the hearts of the faithful. What Martin needed was a stunt, some scheme that would be instantly popular but that couldn't possibly cost him votes. In the smoking ban, he thought he'd found it. Charlie Haughey pulled off one of his many masterstrokes by delivering free toothbrushes to schoolkids; Martin planned to emulate him by delivering clean air to everybody.

Nobody can protest that smoking is anything other than bad news.The Vintners did a lot of howling at the time, but their forebears did a lot of howling in 1868, when they presented a petition to the then Prime Minister of Great Britain protesting that the end of public hanging was going to ruin the drinks trade. As such, it was difficult to take them seriously.

However, Martin's sprint for the political high ground has run into some quicksand of late. Today's Irish Independent reports that, instead of the January 1st, 2004, start that the Minister initially spoke of, the start date has now been pushed back as far as April, as it becomes increasingly difficult to define what a workplace is, and how this smoking ban is to be enforced.

When reading of the difficulties that the Department of Health were experiencing in defining what exactly a workplace was - remember the excitement as we wondered if somebody could smoke in a hotel room, on the basis that it would foul the air of the chambermaids when they came to change the linen in the mornings? - An Spailpín has hit on a wizard idea to kill two birds with one stone. If, as I understand it, the publican is liable for someone smoking on his premises, then all landlords are liable for anyone smoking on their premises. This means that the next time you hear the landlord clumping up the stairs looking for his rent you should light up a gasper immediately. Once he enters (uninvited, of course) he is immediately liable for polluting his own air with your smoke, and must pony up before His Honour. This means that either the landlord goes broke, or you never see him again, either possibility a consummation devoutly to be wished.

This is the pickle that the Minister now finds himself in, as he tries to kick a cute political goal when he thinks everybody is looking the other way. And what's worst of all for the Minister, as he slowly sinks into the morass of legalisms he's covered himself in, is that he can't put Bach's Air on a G String on the stereo and spark up a Hamlet cigar to soothe his furrowed brow. It will teach him, as Fate has done to so many others, to be careful what he wishes for.

Friday, January 02, 2004

Gotta Sing! Gotta Dance!

That was an interesting poll that Channel 4 conducted to find the 100 Best Musicals of all time, as shown over the holidays. The results were nonsense, of course, but it is interesting to take a peek at who made the grade and who didn’t.

The first question that ought to be asked of course is what exactly is a musical? The first definition is any movie where songs are used to move the plot along, but then we get the tricky situation of Mary Poppins and The Rocky Horror Picture Show being watched by the same demographic. One can imagine a Rocky Horror fan digging Mary Poppins, on the basis that he or she is feeble-minded, but the idea of a kiddy at whom Mary Poppins is aimed catching Dr Frank-n-Furter in his glory has to lead a sensible person to believe that kiddy will grow up funny.

Grease came in at Number One in the poll, thus, I suppose, invalidating all subsequent results. The songs in Grease are admittedly good, but the story is rotten. And as for a thirty-year-old Ms Newton-John playing a teenage ingenue – no; not really.

The Sound of Music at number two is a further hammer blow to the poll’s credibility. The story is weak, and the songs are truly awful. Rotten, rotten picture.

I wouldn’t have even considered The Wizard of Oz as a musical, as I can only think of two songs from the movie, Over the Rainbow and Follow the Yellow Brick Road. I wouldn’t have thought that two songs did a musical make, but there you go.

West Side Story has fantastic songs and the story, lifted from Shakespeare who lifted it from somewhere else, is money too. The only problem is the ballet dancing Jets at the start of the movie – no matter what you do, you can’t exude menace as part of a pas de deux. Doesn’t happen.

Singin’ in the Rain is at Number Six, a movie that’s given me a lot of trouble over the years. Unlike Channel 4’s legion of Greasers, Singin’ in the Rain is considered the great movie musical, and it’s not hard to see why. The movie is set in Hollywood, and nothing is as fascinating to people who live and work in Hollywood as, er, people who live and work in Hollywood. Gene Kelly was a much better actor than he’s ever been giving credit for, as exemplified by his HL Mencken impersonation in Inherit the Wind. And the title song, and its accompanying sequence, is just marvellous.

That said, any movie that features both Donald O’Connor, the most annoying man since Danny Kaye, and that awful, awful, awful Good Morning song, is always going to carry a serious blemish on its otherwise beautiful face. Ah well.

I was glad to see Chicago come ahead of Moulin Rouge in the poll; in truth, Chicago could have won the thing out and it would have been hard to argue against. Certainly not as easy as it is to make a case against Grease. Anyone that saw The Mask of Zorro should have had an inkling that Catherine Zeta-Jones is a star – after her turn as Velma Kelly you realise that she is now the Queen of Hollywood Glam, and long may she reign.

The last point of interest in the poll is the presence of the famous musical episode of BuffyOnce More, with Feeling. Interesting to see it here, and one must suspect that the reason it’s there is that a lot of Buffy fans answer a lot of online polls. Their loyalty is sweet, but misguided.

An Spailpín bows to no man in his admiration of Buffy, and I applauded the musical episode, but it is a noble failure rather than the outstanding cross-genre success that hardline Buffy fans would claim it. Firstly, having the leads sing their own songs was misguided. If MGM could dub Ava Gardner, who was a fine singer, in Showboat, then Sarah Michelle and a few others should have been told that singing was a bridge too far. The only performers who impressed as song and dance women were Emma Caulfield and Amber Benson, the latter also lucky in landing the best song of the show, Under Your Spell. The final stiff of Once More was when Buffy and Giles crack wise about ‘eighties power ballads, and then launch into Into the Fire, an ‘eighties power ballad so unspeakable that it would have been laughed out of the German Eurovision voting. Easily the most frightening monster conjured in seven years of Buffy.

Anthony Lane on Lord of the Rings III: Return of the King

When Anthony Lane's film criticism for the New Yorker was anthologised last year into a very large tome called Nobody's Perfect, it was greeted with universal applause. This was unusual on two counts: firstly, journalists are generally a spiteful and bitchy tribe, and seldom speak well of their fellow practitioners until those fellow practitioners are either safely dead or decrepit; secondly, while they would be loathe to admit it, most people seem to think that any ass can sit in a cinema and belt out his thousand words of insight afterwards.

Lane disproves all. As a critic, he is unparalleled in his generation. Lane's great gift is that his criticism echoes the tone of the movie, and this is no better exemplified by his review of Return of the King, the final part of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Simply magnificent - so magnificent in fact, that, though no Tolkienista I, I may even go and see the picture.