Tuesday, February 24, 2009

'Slumdog' Snags Eight Oscars

Slumdog Millionaire brought its awards season winning streak to a victorious close by taking home eight Oscars including Best Picture at the 81st Academy Awards. There were no surprise winners of the acting or writing awards, but there were upsets in other categories. For a full list of winners, click here.

Hugh Jackman completed his first stint as Oscar emcee and for his hosting efforts, the man gets nothing short of high marks from me. With weaker talent at the helm, the opening number saluting the five films nominated for Best Picture with makeshift set pieces would have looked silly, amateurish, and downright embarrassing. In Jackman's hands, the show played like a hit Broadway musical. If the anipodean actor's performance is a sample of what's to come -- and he will be back for future Oscar ceremonies; you mark my words -- Mr. Jackman is poised to place himself in the company of Billy Crystal, Bob Hope, and Johnny Carson as a great Academy Awards show host.

The intimate feel of the evening proved a welcome change of scene, as did the return of the podiums. I don't know what imbecile decided to get rid of them 11 years ago, but it just looks and feels awkward to see a winner with no elevated surface on which to set their award in front of them. Anyone who has ever had to speak in public can tell you that the presence of a podium makes a speaking engagement so much easier. Depending on how tall you are, the platform covers as much as half your body and can be useful in concealing notes, deflecting scrutiny, and shielding the speaker from objects thrown by hostile audience members. Everyone who won an Oscar between 1998 and 2008 must have felt so naked standing up there with nothing to lean on. This year's winners were no doubt grateful for the return to form.

Having five previous Oscar winners salute each of the five nominees in every acting category was a wonderful touch. Playing clips of every performance is always thoughtful, but this gesture personalized each nomination. It would have been sublime had Clint Eastwood, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Redford, and Steven Spielberg presented Danny Boyle with the Best Director Oscar.

The most moving moment of the evening came when Heath Ledger was announced as best supporting actor for The Dark Knight. Ledger's was the first posthumous Oscar awarded for acting since Peter Finch won Best Actor for Network. When his father, mother, and sister took to the stage to accept the man's award, I was impressed by their restraint and resilience. All three family members spoke movingly of Ledger's talent, compassion, and dedication to his art while remarkably maintaining their composure. Had Ledger come from an Italian family, his relatives would have jumped and down in their seats, hugged and kissed each other down the aisle, and flooded the stage with tears of pride. Picture a guy like Paul Sorvino taking the stage upon hearing his departed son's name announced as the best supporting actor of the year: (gesturing to the screen upstage) "Look at my beautiful boy. There's my son. (blows a kiss to the screen) All my boy ever wanted to be was an actor." The Ledger family speech was quietly eloquent, and helped to certify the highest acknowledgement a late actor's work can receive.

Dustin Lance Black gave the finest acceptance speech of the evening, in my opinion. Upon winning the original screenplay award for Milk, the openly gay screenwriter fought back tears when speaking of his hope to one day get married. His timely words echoed the struggle for gay citizens to achieve equal rights across the nation, an effort marred by the passing of Proposition 8 in California last November.

Ben Stiller's hilarious parody of Joaquin Phoenix was responsible for the funniest award presentation of the show. His timing, facial expressions, and wandering off to watch footage of the cinematography nominees on the big screen behind him gave proof that his comic skills continually improve over time. It was a far cry from his embarrassing green suit presentation of the Visual Effects Oscar at the 79th Awards.

The biggest surprise of the evening for me was Departures upsetting Waltz with Bashir for the Best Foreign Language Film award. The acclaimed Japanese film about an unemployed cellist who answers an ad for what he believes is a travel agency, but is actually for a funeral home edged out Israel's animated favorite about the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. This was the biggest upset in the foreign language film category since The Lives of Others beat Pan's Labyrinth two years ago. Now that Departures has claimed the first Oscar for Japan since this category was created (three other Japanese films -- Rashomon, Gate of Hell, and Samurai, The Legend of Musashi -- received special honorary awards before the introduction of the best foreign language film category in 1956), director Yojiro Takita may very well be on his way to building a career as great as Kurosawa's.

For the first time in as long as I have been following the Oscars, I had the benefit of seeing three of the five films nominated for Best Animated Short before the show. My first instinct was to go with La Maison en Petit Cubes, but switched my vote after watching Lavatory - Lovestory on Youtube. (So much for that strategy!) This charming little film is an absolute delight and should have won the Oscar. Make time to see it here. Invariably, my predictions for the categories of Best Animated Short, Best Documentary Short, and Best Live Action Short account for my wildest guesses on the ballot. From now on, I'll have to make a point of seeing as many of the nominated films as I can on YouTube. Eventually, the maniac in me will find the time to watch every animated short, documentary short, and live action short that's ever been nominated for an Oscar.

As for my scorecard, I went 14 for 25. My all-time highest score is 20 out of 24 from 2004, the year Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King won Best Picture. My calls were tougher to make this year due to the fact that I (don't come unglued on me) didn't see any of the five films nominated for Best Picture. This was the first time I had gone in that cold for as long as I've been watching the Oscars. Honestly speaking, I'll be the first one to admit that this is inexcusable behavior for a movie blogger to exhibit. If this bothers you, be assured that the moment my schedule and budget allow capacity for regular moviegoing (whenever that may be), this blog will deliver all the benefits of a syndicated movie column. In the meantime, what you see is what you get.

The show was a vast improvement over last year's dull telecast, and the ratings prove it. Of course, if The Dark Knight had been nominated for Best Picture as it should have been, the Nielsen figures would have tied -- if not beaten -- the record for the most watched Oscar telecast in 1998, the year Titanic won Best Picture. Though some of the acceptance speeches were downright boring, the pace never dragged when the performers were in command. If I had to raise one quibble with the show, it would be the fact that the clips from upcoming 2009 movies that played over the end credits did not include scenes from The Road and Ashecliffe.

What were your favorite moments from the show? Would you like to see Hugh Jackman return as host? What changes would you make to the telecast, if any? As always, leave your comments below and speak your mind in kind.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Picking the Winners

With the start of the 81st Academy Awards just hours away, excitement for Hollywood's biggest night of the year is reaching a fever pitch. Stars will start to make red carpet arrivals any minute now and major news outlets will soon begin their coverage of the grand event. With many changes to the telecast that include the list of presenters being kept top secret for the first time and Hugh Jackman serving his first stint as master of ceremonies, the evening is shaping up to be a show of shows.

Just as I did last year, I will now unveil my predictions for each winner by category.


The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Reader
Slumdog Millionaire


David Fincher, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Ron Howard, Frost/Nixon
Gus Van Sant, Milk
Stephen Daldry, The Reader
Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire


Richard Jenkins, The Visitor
Frank Langella, Frost/Nixon
Sean Penn, Milk
Brad Pitt, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler


Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married
Angelina Jolie, Changeling
Melissa Leo, Frozen River
Meryl Streep, Doubt
Kate Winslet, The Reader


Josh Brolin, Milk
Robert Downey, Jr., Tropic Thunder
Philip Seymour Hoffman, Doubt
Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight
Michael Shannon, Revolutionary Road


Amy Adams, Doubt
Penelope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Viola Davis, Doubt
Taraji P. Henson, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Marisa Tomei, The Wrestler


Courtney Hunt, Frozen River
Mike Leigh, Happy-Go-Lucky
Martin McDonaugh, In Bruges
Dustin Lance Black, Milk
Andrew Stanton, Jim Reardon, and Pete Docter, Wall-E


Eric Roth, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
John Patrick Shanley, Doubt
Peter Morgan, Frost/Nixon
David Hare, The Reader
Simon Beaufoy, Slumdog Millionaire


Kung Fu Panda


James J. Murakami and Gary Fettis, Changeling
Donald Graham Burt and Victor J. Zolfo, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Nathan Crowley and Peter Lando, The Dark Knight
Michael Carlin and Rebecca Alleway, The Duchess
Kristi Zea and Debra Schutt, Revolutionary Road


Tom Stern, Changeling
Claudio Miranda, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Wally Pfister, The Dark Knight
Chris Menges and Roger Deakins, The Reader
Anthony Dod Mantle, Slumdog Millionaire


Catherine Martin, Australia
Jacqueline West, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Michael O'Connor, The Duchess
Danny Glicker, Milk
Albert Wolsky, Revolutionary Road


The Betrayal (Nerakhoon)
Encounters at the End of the World
The Garden
Man on Wire
Trouble the Water


The Conscience of Nhem En
The Final Inch
Smile Pinki
The Witness - From the Balcony of Room 306


Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Lee Smith, The Dark Knight
Mike Hill and Dan Hanley, Frost/Nixon
Elliott Graham, Milk
Chris Dickens, Slumdog Millionaire


The Baader Meinhof Complex (Germany)
The Class (France)
Departures (Japan)
Revanche (Austria)
Waltz with Bashir (Israel)


Greg Cannom, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
John Caglione, Jr. and Conor O'Sullivan, The Dark Knight
Mike Elizalde and Thom Floutz, Hellboy II: The Golden Army


Alexandre Desplat, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
James Newton Howard, Defiance
Danny Elfman, Milk
A.R. Rahman, Slumdog Millionaire
Thomas Newman, Wall-E


"Down to Earth" from Wall-E (music by Peter Gabriel and Thomas Newman; lyrics by Peter Gabriel)
"Jai Ho" from Slumdog Millionaire (music by A.R. Rahman; lyrics by Gulzar)
"O Saya" from Slumdog Millionaire (music by A.R. Rahman; lyrics by A.R. Rahman and Maya Arulpragasam)


La Maison et Petits Cubes
Lavatory - Lovestory
This Way Up


Auf Der Strecke (On the Line)
Manon on the Asphalt
New Boy
The Pig
Spielzeugland (Toyland)


Richard King, The Dark Knight
Frank Eulner and Christopher Boyes, Iron Man
Glenn Freemantle and Tom Sayers, Slumdog Millionaire
Ben Burtt and Matthew Wood, Wall-E
Wylie Stateman, Wanted


David Parker, Michael Semanick, Ren Klyce, and Mark Weingarten, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Lora Hirschberg, Gary Rizzo, and Ed Novick, The Dark Knight
Ian Tapp, Richard Pryke, and Resul Pookutty, Slumdog Millionaire
Tom Myers, Michael Semanick, and Ben Burtt, Wall-E
Chris Jenkins, Frank A. Montaño, and Petr Forejt, Wanted


Eric Barba, Steve Preeg, Burt Dalton, and Craig Barron, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Nick Davis, Chris Corbould, Tim Webber, and Paul Franklin, The Dark Knight
John Nelson, Ben Snow, Dan Sudick, and Shane Mahan, Iron Man

That's all you'll be reading from me today. I'll be back tomorrow with a post-show recap. In the meantime, I'll be enjoying a special Oscar dinner prepared by my wife. Each course will pay tribute to the five films nominated for Best Picture: sautéed button mushrooms for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (we'll eat them first and cook them later), East Indian garbanzo beans for Slumdog Millionaire, German potatoes and sauerkraut for The Reader, and frosted cookies for Frost/Nixon, with plenty of Milk to wash it all down.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

'Slumdog' and 'Milk' Win WGA Awards

The fictitious account of an East Indian game show contestant and the true story of a slain gay politician have nabbed top screenplay honors at this year's Writers Guild of America Awards. Simon Beaufoy was honored for his adaptation of best picture favorite Slumdog Millionaire, while Dustin Lance Black won original screenplay honors for Milk. According to Tom O'Neil, Slumdog Millionaire and Milk have the writing Oscars in the bag and I think he's absolutely right. For a complete list of winners at last night's event, click here.

Riot on the Set

The surfacing of an audio tape featuring Christian Bale's blow-up on the set of Terminator Salvation was the top movie news story last week. Though Bale has since apologized for his actions and several public figures have come to his defense, the story isn't going away anytime soon. Bloggers are criticizing Bale left and right, YouTube is currently bursting with hundreds of amusing remixes poking fun at the actor's tirade, and the incident will certainly return to headlines when Salvation hits theaters this May.

Though the scuffle could have turned out a lot worse (he never physically assaulted anyone), I'm resisting the urge to jump on the mockery bandwagon. Instead, I'm using his outburst as a reminder of colossal Hollywood temper tantrums of bygone years. Here now, for your viewing pleasure, is a list of my top ten movie set meltdowns of all time.

10. They Were Expendable - I start off this list by taking a trip back to the year 1945. America declared victory in World War II, the endearing melodies of big band jazz dominated the radio, and John Ford directed this solid adaptation of William L. White's novel. During a particularly tense day of shooting, Ford heaped a torrent of abuse at star John Wayne. Though Wayne was noticeably agitated, he dared not counterattack for fear of suffering a merciless humiliation in front of the whole set. When Ford noticed Wayne saluting incorrectly, Ford gave him the cruelest admonishment: "For Christ's sake, Duke. If you're gonna salute a man, do it right. Maybe if you'd had the guts to sign up and fight, you'd know that. Now that I think of it, I should've gotten a real veteran to play your part. At least he'd know what he was doing. What do you have to say for yourself now, you goddamn coward?" At that point, Wayne burst into tears and walked off to regain his composure. Seconds later, co-star Robert Montgomery made a beeline for Ford, placed his hands on the armrests of the director's chair, looked the old tyrant in the eye, and said, "Don't you ever talk to Duke like that. You ought to be ashamed." Ford ordered a break, everyone took a breather, and the day's work was finished without any further outbursts. Neither cameras nor microphones captured the incident live, so eyewitness accounts will have to suffice. For a nearly comprehensive portrait of John Ford, which includes his many run-ins with cast, crew members, and studio bosses, I highly recommend Scott Eyman's superb book Print the Legend: The Life and Times of John Ford.

9. Rumor Has It... - Kevin Costner's egotistical antics arguably ruined this not-quite sequel to The Graduate. While the film was shot during the summer of 2004, Costner repeatedly criticized freshman director Ted Griffin for his handling of scene set-ups in front of producer Paula Weinstein. The scuffle came reportedly came to a head when Griffin quietly but firmly told Costner to return to his trailer. Costner shot back, "I will not. Not until you change that lighting set-up like I told you." Overhearing the conflict, co-star Shirley MacLaine told Mena Suvari, "There was once a time actors respected their directors." This prompted an annoyed Costner to shoot back, "You keep out of this!" Best Director Oscar winners like Ron Howard, Robert Redford, and certainly Sir Richard Attenborough would have been more patient and understanding with Griffin. Apparently, Costner thought that he could use his Dances with Wolves Oscar (not to mention his movie star clout) as an excuse to run roughshod over the poor man. Unfortunately, his strategy proved successful, as Griffin was replaced by Rob Reiner and hasn't directed anything since.

8. The Shining - The late Stanley Kubrick is regarded as a demanding perfectionist by those who worked with him. Driven by a mad scientist's desire to craft the perfect film, he pushed his cast and crew to exhaustion and beyond, shooting dozens of takes per scene. Shortly after completing production on Spartacus, Kirk Douglas was asked by a reporter to give a summation of the acclaimed director. Douglas replied, "Stanley is a talented shit." Here, Kubrick loses his patience with Shelley Duvall while filming a tense action sequence in his adaptation of Stephen King's best-selling novel. This is one of the few scuffles included on my list that features the added bonus of video footage. If the fight seems tame, that's because it is -- compared to the next seven.

7. Easy Rider - Principal photography of this counterculture indy classic was anything but a feel-good road trip. While shooting a parade sequence in New Orleans during the spring of 1968, director/star Dennis Hopper regularly blew up at his crew for the crime of making suggestions on how to film certain scenes. Driven by drug-fueled paranoia, Hopper often let loose with extended fits of screaming which included many reminders that "I'M THE FUCKING DIRECTOR!". The original, ad hoc crew who worked on the test shoot captured several of Hopper's hotheaded histrionics on tape. When a proper crew was assembled, Jack Nicholson was brought on board not only to replace Rip Torn in the role of the alcoholic ACLU lawyer, but also to serve as a mediator between Hopper and anyone who triggered his temper. Peter Biskind enjoyably documents Hopper's heated exchanges with his collaborators in his indispensible 1998 read, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. Here is a clip from Shaking the Cage, the documentary that chronicles the making of the picture, where Peter Fonda recalls a scuffle between Hopper and camera operator Barry Feinstein. (The story begins at 7:42.)

6. Major Dundee - When a production team sets out to make a war movie, the challenge to be met is great. When the studio financing the film allows limited time and money, the pressure to succeed is stifling. When the director hired to keep the production on track happens to be none other than that irascible maverick Sam Peckinpah, tempers are bound to fly. That's precisely what happened on the set of this 1965 Civil War epic when Peckinpah infuriated leading man Charlton Heston. Nearing the end of a difficult day of shooting, a drunken Peckinpah ordered Heston to lead a regiment of Cavalry troops down a hill at a trot. With a precious few minutes of daylight remaining, Heston rallied his fellow actors and followed his direction to a tee. When he reached the bottom of the hill, Peckinpah yelled, "CUT! Goddammit, Chuck! That looked like shit! You came too slow!"
"You told me bring them down at a trot," Heston replied.
"The fuck I did, you goddamned liar," Peckinpah shot back.
Pushed to the brink, Heston snapped, wheeled his horse around, drew his Cavalry saber, and charged at full speed toward Peckinpah. Were it not for the fast-acting camera crane operator who lifted the belligerent filmmaker out of harm's way at the last second, the filmmaker's career could have been brought to an untimely end and would have been given his now-familiar nickname "Bloody Sam" for a different reason. David Weddle briefly recalls this episode in his definitive Sam Peckinpah biography, If They Move...Kill 'Em!

5. The Exorcist - I must confess to an act of cheating when citing this famous adaptation of William Peter Blatty's novel, for its making isn't responsible for one on-set ruckus, but several. In order to create the tense, possessed mood the story required, director William Friedkin did all he could to tyrannize his actors. While filming a scene where Linda Blair slaps Ellen Burstyn so hard that she falls onto her back, Friedkin quietly signalled special effects supervisor Marcel Vercoutere to grab hold of a wire connected to a harness fitted around Burstyn's midriff and yank it as hard as he could. With a thrashing tug, Burstyn flew off her feet, fell onto her coccyx, and screamed in agony. Seeing her face morph grotesquely, Friedkin ordered cinematographer Owen Roizman to zoom in for a close-up. A furious Burstyn then screamed, "Turn off the fucking camera!" (Everything that occurred in the scene up to that point appears in the film.) After admonishing Friedkin for continuing to film the scene instead of calling an ambulance, Burstyn stormed off to her chiropractor to begin treatment for a spinal injury that continues to bother her to this day. There were other instances where Friedkin slapped Father William O'Malley across the face without warning in order to achieve sadness for Jason Miller's death scene, (sorry to spoil the movie if you haven't seen it) discharged various firearms without warning to scare his actors, and expressed his disapproval of composer Lalo Schifrin's score by hurling the reel-to-reel tape recorder into the studio parking lot in a drunken fit of rage before exclaiming, "Get that fuckin' Mexican marimba music outta my movie!" (Schifrin was later replaced by Jack Nitzsche.) Most of these war stories are recalled in Fear of God: The Making of The Exorcist, the documentary made for the 25th anniversary of the film's release. Watch it here.

4. I Heart Huckabees - To say that Lily Tomlin went eye-to-eye with director David O. Russell while shooting this existential detective story would be a gross understatement. When the clip you're about to play made headlines in early 2007, I immediately asked myself whether she always flies off the handle on a movie set or if she saved her wrath especially for Russell. If the former is the case, I would pay top dollar for recovered video footage of Tomlin giving Robert Altman a piece of her mind on the set of Nashville. But I digress. (The footage in question begins 38 seconds into the video.)

3. Terminator Salvation - Claiming the newest entry on the list, here is the inspiration for this crack-up compilation. Christian Bale assails director of photography Shane Hurlbut for committing the unforgivable transgression of walking through his shot. No further setup is necessary. Listen to the full, four-minute rant here:

2. Fitzcarraldo - No list of this kind would be complete without at least one foreign film. Besides, Americans aren't the only ones capable of going completely berserk on a movie set. To prove it, here is the late Klaus Kinski blowing up at fellow cast and crew members during the tension-packed filming of this gripping masterpiece that arguably qualifies as the German equivalent of Apocalypse Now. When characterizing his working relationship with Kinski, director Werner Herzog is quoted as saying, "I had to domesticate the wild beast." If there is any exchange between the two that affirms those words, the following one is it. This clip is taken from Herzog's documentary My Best Fiend.

And finally, the award most unhinged movie set altercation of all time goes to...

1. Maidstone - Norman Mailer directed and starred in this forgettable drama about a famous movie director who makes a quixotic run for president. When the film's production neared completion, co-star Rip Torn expressed his unhappiness with Mailer's interpretation of the story by assaulting him with a hammer. In a move that predated Mike Tyson's disqualification match against Evander Holyfield by 27 years, Mailer retaliated by biting Torn's ear. The most outrageous part of the brawl lies not in the fact that it caused both men to lose a considerable amount of blood, nor in the fact Mailer's terrified wife and children ran in to break up the fight, but in the fact that the entire incident was caught on film by Mailer's crew...and later edited into the final cut of the film. Should you find yourself too cheap and lazy to snag a copy of the film from eBay or Netflix, take comfort, for here is my pick for the most infamous movie set meltdown of all time in its ten-minute entirety:

There are other dust-ups that have gone unmentioned. Among these dishonorable mentions that didn't quite make the list are Alfred Hitchcock calling Kim Novak "a goddamn fucking cow" for not putting forth her best effort on the set of Vertigo, Roman Polanski plucking one of Faye Dunaway's hairs while shooting Chinatown (Dunaway reportedly retaliated by urinating in Polanski's coffee cup) and Billy Wilder lambasting Marilyn Monroe for forgetting her lines on the set of Some Like It Hot.

Which Hollywood altercations are among your favorites? Have you ever worked as a PA on a movie set and borne witness to an ego-driven blow-up that didn't make headlines? Whatever the case, please leave a comment and tell me all about it.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Boyle Brings Home DGA Award

Slumdog Millionaire helmer Danny Boyle was honored as the best feature film director of 2008 at the 61st Directors Guild of America Awards last night in Los Angeles. This win places Boyle in the front-runner position for the Best Director Oscar, to be awarded three weeks from tonight. To date, the DGA has a 90% accuracy in forecasting the Academy Award winner for Best Director, as the guild has failed to predict the subsequent Oscar winner only six times.

Last night's DGA ceremony also honored the year's best directorial efforts in television, as well as a special honorary lifetime membership for Roger Ebert. Click here for a text of the moving acceptance speech written by Ebert and read by his wife, Chaz. For a complete list of winners, click here.