Monday, September 11, 2006

Why wait for the movie...

I went to two films this weekend, both dramas, which meant that I got to see the first wave of “For Your Consideration” Oscar contending previews. They look like an ominous bunch this year, nary a lighthearted one to be seen, although plenty of gripping ones.

In the way of Hollywood, we have some odd zeitgeist happening, or zeitgeists as the case may be, with several films mirroring each other in their peculiar topics. We have multiple entries in 50s Noir, African Turmoil, and Turn of the Century Magicians. We also have Good Cop/Bad Cop and Future and Historic Dystopian Societies.

Watch them all carefully, though. It’s easy money that these will be the films on Oscar’s list next winter.

First up, with rumbling soundtrack, is The Last King of Scotland. We see a fresh-faced young man spinning a globe and saying, “Wherever my finger lands, that’s where I’ll go.” A finger lands on Uganda and there was a palpable sinking feeling in the audience.

A man behind me made a noise like he’d been gut punched and the young person (not a child, but 20’s maybe) said “What?”

The man said, “Idi Amin.”

His neighbor asked, “Who?”

“Don’t you remember Idi Amin?”


The man just exhaled again.

“Watch,” he said.

The story is about the young man, a Scot, who cheerfully went off to Uganda to practice medicine, and was taken under Amin’s wing. The young man’s face looks familiar, but you probably won’t remember the last time you saw him. He was walking on his hind hooves as one Mr. Tumnus in the Narnia movie. His name is James McAvoy.

The preview gives us the gist of a naïve Westerner who is charged up, like the rest of Uganda in early days, at Amin’s verve, promises, and willingness to flip the metaphorical bird to the West.

Forest Whitaker, a criminally underrated actor, is totally riveting as Amin. He clearly understands that the way men become great tyrants usually begins with an overwhelming amount of charm. The death squads come later.

It was hard to watch, honestly. I was a child, born in ’69, when it all went down and yet there is a feeling of embarrassment and rage watching it. You realize all of this took place before CNN and 24 hour insta-news. Maybe it was easier to hide 300,000 dead people back then. We live in CNN land now and it did not help the Rwandans or the citizens of Darfur. The preview, really, is challenging us to witness the start of something we still have not finished.

The other Africa-themed preview is for Catch a Fire, set in South Africa in the 80s. The trailer actually makes a feint to the cheery early on. We see the fresh face of Derek Luke, teaching children to play soccer with the happy licks of Bob Marley’s “Could You Be Love” wafting in the air. I confess, shamefully, I thought we were in for some underdog Olympic soccer team type action until the nuclear power plant in the background blew up.

The mere presence of the nuclear power plant should have been the tip off. How many happy stories begin with a nuclear power plant on the horizon? In fact, I will now throw down the gauntlet and dare the filmmakers out there to give us a comedy with a nuclear power plant on the horizon. Step back, Matt Groening. Homer Simpson doesn’t count. If I have missed this comedy already in existence, please let me know.

The film is about terrorism in 80’s apartheid South Africa and the trailer tag line is: “In a country ruled by fear, all it takes is one spark for an innocent man to catch fire.” This sums up the gripping preview, which also gives us Tim Robbins as an evil suit. I love it when Tim Robbins plays bad. It’s like being mugged by a priest. You look at that sweet face and can’t believe he could do this, except that he is, apparently with glee.

Catch a Fire is directed by Phillip Noyce, who has given us some action potboilers like Clear and Present Danger, but also some pretty compelling social/political thrillers, like Rabbit Proof Fence and The Quiet American.

The last time we saw Clive Owen on a commuter train, he was checking out Jennifer Aniston’s gams. This time, in the trailer for Children of Men, we get to see him on a subway checking out the decline and fall of civilization.

The film is based on a book by P.D. James, who I confess is not my favorite British author. Usually James writes about depressed Brits killing each other, but in this story she gives us a depressed society killing itself. In the not so very distant future, women have stopped being able to have children.

It’s actually my favorite P.D. James book. I liked it, maybe because its premise promised an end to the possibility of future P.D. James books. (No depressed Brits. No depressed Brits killing each other. Work with me here.)

Clive Owen looks haggard, yet still hot, which he simply is, haggard or no. Julianne Moore plays his sexy mysterious past-come-back to talk him into saving the world. Best of all, we get Michael Cane as an aging hippie, which promises to be awesome/hysterical (New Word Alert- awesome-terical!), even if this is a serious picture.

Children of Men
is directed by Alfanso Cuaron. This means we get to see the most entertaining version of ‘from the director of…’ in the whole lot of trailers, since Cuaron is the man who directed Y Tu Mama Tambien and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. I imagine meetings of movie trailer editors trying to decide which film best represents what to expect from Children of Men, and then going home to cry.

The two films I went to see this weekend were The Illusionist and Hollywoodland, which I promise to dissect elsewhere. It was interesting to see the aforementioned zeitgeist pairing trailer for each one, namely The Prestige and The Black Dahlia.

I’ll be honest. Before seeing The Illusionist, I had my doubts about the feasibility of two successful films based on apparently the same topic: turn of the century magicians. After seeing The Illusionist and also the preview for The Prestige, I’m relieved to say they appear to be different, but both highly entertaining animals.

I can’t start here on The Illusionist or I wont be able to stop, but The Prestige features Hugh Jackman and (heavy sigh) Christian Bale as competing magicians with Scarlett Johanssan as the girl in the box. If at least one of those three actors do not turn you on, maybe it’s time to check your meds. There’s also Michael Caine, but not, unfortunately, as an awesome-terical hippie, so I will have to reserve judgment.

Hollywood has been trying to make a film about The Black Dahlia murder case for a very long time. The Dahlia was also known as Elizabeth Short, an unsuccessful actress who, in 1947, unfortunately became famous for being murdered in bloody, grisly fashion. The movie is based on the James Ellroy novelization of the crime.

It’s perhaps not a happy observation that society has finally reached a point where we can stomach and perhaps be entertained by the story of a brutal crime which was simply too much for anyone to tolerate or comprehend when it happened. The movie looks like a good solid noir that could give LA Confidential a run for its money.

In every group of previews, there are always one or two big dogs, of which The Departed is one. Martin Scorcese weaves a tangled web of police corruption starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Martin Sheen, Marky-Mark Wahlburg, and The Jack. It looks awesome. I’m not man enough to try to reduce it for you beyond good cop/bad cop/good criminal/bad criminal and Jack Nicholson. What more could you possibly want?

But we started this journey taking bets for Oscar nominees. After the trailers rolled there was one clear leader. All The King’s Men stars Sean Penn, Jude Law, Kate Winslet, Patricia Clarkson, and Anthony Hopkins. It was directed by Steven Zaillian, who wrote Scorcese’s last picture, Gangs of New York, as well as adapted Schindler’s List.

This group has, count them, 18 Oscar nominations and two wins amongst them. Throw in things like composer and cinematographer and you’re looking at 25 and four. None of that would matter if the movie looked like a dud, but the trailer sure doesn’t.

By the time Sean Penn was through his 60 seconds of pontificatin’, gyratin’, politicizin’ and whole hog scene devourin’ as the depression era politico for the common man, the audience was practically on its feet. I wanted to laugh, cry, applaud, and formant proletarian revolution. Not bad for a trailer.

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