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The Constant Gardener

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Academy Double Dip. | My Trouble with Oscar.

“‘After more than six decades, the Academy is returning to some of its earlier roots, when a wider field competed for the top award of the year,’ said academy President Sid Ganis. ‘The final outcome, of course, will be the same – one Best Picture winner – but the race to the finish line will feature 10, not just five, great movies from 2009.’” Most likely realizing that a nod for The Dark Knight last year would’ve doubled their television ratings, the Academy Awards pads out to ten Best Picture nominees.

Ten, really? I know I pick 20 movies for my review round-up every year, but still: most years it’s hard to come up with five or six worthy nominees, much less ten. It’d be better if they went to a system where “up to” ten movies were chosen, but not necessarily that many if the pickings were slim that year. In any case, maybe Hollywood needed an “Oscar Stimulus Package,” but given that it’s still the same people voting for the winners, I tend to think the Academy will probably continue to get it wrong most years regardless. Just looking at the past decade:

1999: American Beauty wins. Not a particularly poor choice by Academy standards, I guess, but the other nominees include a sop to the box office (The Sixth Sense) and by-the-numbers drek like The Cider House Rules and The Green Mile. (Only other worthy nominee: The Insider.) Meanwhile, many of the best and most groundbreaking films of the year — Three Kings, Being John Malkovich, Fight Club, The Matrix — are all overlooked.

2000: Gladiator. Terrible choice. The worthy nominees are Traffic, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and *possibly* Erin Brockovich. Chocolat makes the cut thanks to the Miramax machine. Left unnominated: Requiem for a Dream, Wonder Boys, O Brother Where Art Thou, and High Fidelity.

2001: A Beautiful Mind. A stunningly bad choice, and easily the worst of the five films nominated. The Oscar should probably have gone to In the Bedroom or Fellowship of the Ring, although Gosford Park and (tho’ I didn’t like it much) Moulin Rouge! are respectable picks. Left off the wheel: Mulholland Drive, Memento, The Royal Tenenbaums, Ghost World, Amelie, and Sexy Beast.

2002: Chicago — I never saw it, but not a particularly good year for film anyway. Gangs of New York, The Two Towers, and The Pianist all make sense as contenders. The Hours (another Miramax film)…not so much. Possible adds: The 25th Hour, Y Tu Mama Tambien, Far from Heaven, About a Boy.

2003: Return of the King runs away with everything, which is deserving but also feels somewhat dutiful after the previous two years. (FotR is easily the best film of the three, imho.) Most of the other nominees are well-chosen — Lost in Translation,
Master and Commander, Mystic River — with the possible exception of Seabiscuit. Other possibles include The Quiet American, Finding Nemo, Dirty Pretty Things, House of Sand and Fog, Monster, City of God, and L’Auberge Espagnole…but it’s probably more likely that extra nods would’ve gone to the heaps of middling Oscar bait that year, like Cold Mountain, The Last Samurai, or 21 Grams.

2004: Million Dollar Baby. A certifiable stinker, and arguably Clint Eastwood’s least-deserving movie of the decade. (Mystic River or Letters from Iwo Jima are closer to caliber.) It beats out The Aviator and Sideways, as well as Finding Neverland (Miramax) and Ray (never saw it). Off the board: Hotel Rwanda, Before Sunset, Garden State, Kinsey, The Assassination of Richard Nixon, Spiderman 2, In Good Company, The Incredibles, and — most egregiously — Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. If I had to guess, Closer and Kill Bill Vol. 2 (Miramax) might’ve snagged undeserving nods in a field of ten.

2005: Crash. Another woeful pick, it won over a respectable field of contenders (Brokeback Mountain, Capote, Good Night, and Good Luck, Munich.) That being said, Syriana and the best film of 2005, The New World, weren’t even nominated. Neither were Layer Cake, Ballets Russes, A History of Violence, The Squid and the Whale, Cache, Match Point, The Constant Gardener, Grizzly Man, Batman Begins, or The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. All these — and many others — were better than Crash.

2006: Scorsese wins a charity Oscar with The Departed, beating out worthwhiles Letters from Iwo Jima (the best choice of the 5) and The Queen, as well as more dubious picks Little Miss Sunshine and Babel. The best film of the year, United 93, isn’t nominated. Nor is Children of Men, The Lives of Others, The Prestige, The Fountain, Pan’s Labyrinth, or Inside Man. It’s reasonable to suspect that additional Oscar nods might’ve gone to the likes of The Last King of Scotland, Little Children, Notes from a Scandal, and The Pursuit of Happyness.

2007: No Country for Old Men — A fine choice. I’d say this year Oscar almost got it right…but the other nominees are still somewhat suspect. Michael Clayton, ok, There Will Be Blood, sure. But Atonement and Juno? I’d rather have seen The Diving Bell & the Butterfly, Zodiac, The Savages, Charlie Wilson’s War, In the Valley of Elah, The Assassination of Jesse James, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, & 2 Days, or my favorite film of the year, I’m Not There, get their due.

2008: Slumdog Millionaire (ugh) beats out Milk, Benjamin Button, Frost/Nixon and The Reader. Of those, Milk and F/N are solid, and ideally would’ve been paired with The Dark Knight, The Wrestler, Let the Right One In, and/or WALL-E. Other possibles include Man on Wire, Snow Angels, Waltz with Bashir, Vicky Christina Barcelona, Iron Man, and The Visitor…although it seems more likely Oscar would’ve gone with Gran Torino, A Christmas Tale, Doubt, Revolutionary Road, or Valkyrie.

So, to review, in only one of the past ten years (2003) did Oscar pick the movie i’d argue was actually the best that year, although even that one feels a bit de rigueur. (Admittedly, they came close in 2007 as well.) In six of those ten years (1999, 2004-2008), my best film of the year wasn’t even nominated. In four of those ten years (’01, ’04, ’05, ’08), a — to my mind, of course — certifiably lousy film won Best Picture. And in three other years — ’99, ’00, and ’06 — an at best middling movie won the top prize. Not exactly what you’d call a record of distinction.

Go Tell It on the Mountain.

The 2006 Oscar nominations are announced, with, to noone’s surprise, Brokeback Mountain leading the pack. Most of the major categories seem to be already locked up — Picture (Brokeback), Director (Ang Lee), Actor (Hoffman for Capote), Actress (Witherspoon for Walk the Line, barring a Huffman upsurge), Supporting Actress (Weisz, The Constant Gardener.) Of the Best Picture candidates (Brokeback, Capote, Munich, Good Night, and Good Luck), the only one I haven’t seen is Crash, but given its very mixed reviews, I’d be extremely surprised if it’s a better movie than Syriana or The New World.

Biggest snub? Jeff Daniels should be in Best Supporting Actor for The Squid and the Whale (William Hurt took his slot for A History of Violence.) Speaking of Supporting Actor, that category’s a two-man race between Clooney for Syriana and Paul Giamatti for Sideways. Giamatti’s been nominated for Cinderella Man, but many of his votes will be for the prior, passed-over film, just as Jim Broadbent won for Iris (over Ian McKellen as Gandalf) because of his performance in Moulin Rouge. Also, say what you will about Episode III, but it should be nominated in the visual effects category, even if Kong should win.

The most competitive of the major awards looks to be in the original screenplay division (Adapted will go to Team Brokeback, McMurtry & Ossana). If Clooney doesn’t win director or supporting actor, he could very well win here for GN & GL. Or, the academy might decide to reward a movie they otherwise overlooked: Syriana, Squid & the Whale, or Match Point. Hard to say — I guess I’ll go with GN & GL for now.

Golden Year.

As you probably saw, the Golden Globe winners were announced, with Brokeback Mountain (Best Picture, Director, Screenplay) and Walk the Line (Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, all on the Comedy-Musical side) cleaning up. (Other winners included Philip Seymour Hoffman for Capote, Felicity Huffman for Transamerica, George Clooney for Syriana, and Rachel Weisz for The Constant Gardener) With the exception of Weisz, no real surprises. I’d like to have seen Jeff Daniels take something home for The Squid and the Whale, but Phoenix was a fine choice too.

2005 in Film.

Happy New Year’s Eve to everyone..I’m celebrating in San Diego with old college friends and likely won’t update again until 2006. So, without further ado, here’s the 2005 movie round-up. Overall, it’s been a pretty solid year for cinema, and this is the first year in the past five where the #1 movie wasn’t immediately obvious to me. But, still, choices had to be made, and so…

Top 20 Films of 2005

[2000/2001/2002/2003/2004]

[Note: The #1 movie of 2005 changed in early 2006: See the Best of 2006 list for the update…]

1. Syriana: I know Stephen Gaghan’s grim meditation on the global reach and ruthlessness of the Oil Trade rubbed some people the wrong way, but I found it a gripping piece of 21st century muckraking, in the venerable tradition of Ida Tarbell and Upton Sinclair. True, Christopher Plummer was a mite too sinister, but otherwise Syriana offered some of the most intriguing character arcs of the year, from morose CIA Field Agent George Clooney’s ambivalent awakening to corporate lawyer Jeffrey Wright’s courtship with compromise. In a year of well-made political films, among them Good Night, and Good Luck, Munich, Lord of War, and The Constant Gardener, Syriana was the pick of the litter.

2. Layer Cake: If X3 turns into the fiasco the fanboy nation is expecting with Brett Ratner at the helm, this expertly-crafted crime noir by Matthew Vaughn will cut that much deeper. Layer Cake not only outdid Guy Ritchie’s brit-gangster oeuvre in wit and elegance and offered great supporting turns by Michael Gambon, Kenneth Cranham, and Colm Meaney, it proved that Daniel Craig had the requisite charisma for Bond and then some (and that Sienna Miller is no slouch in the charisma department either.)

3. Ballets Russes: Penguins and comedians, to the wings — The lively survivors of the Ballets Russes are now on center stage. Like the best in dance itself, this captivating, transporting documentary was at once of the moment and timeless.

4. Good Night, and Good Luck: Conversely, anchored by David Strathairn’s wry channeling of Edward R. Murrow, George Clooney’s second film (and second appearance on the 2005 list) couldn’t have been more timely. A historical film that in other hands might have come off as dry, preachy edutainment, Good Night, and Good Luck instead seemed as fresh and relevant as the evening news…well, that is, if the news still functioned properly.

5. Batman Begins: The Dark Knight has returned. Yes, the samurai-filled first act ran a bit long and the third-act train derailing needed more oomph. Still, WB and DC’s reboot of the latter’s second biggest franchise was the Caped Crusader movie we’ve all been waiting for. With help from an A-list supporting cast and a Gotham City thankfully devoid of Schumacherian statuary, Chris Nolan and Christian Bale brought both Batman and Bruce Wayne to life as never before, and a Killing Joke-ish Batman 2 is now on the top of my want-to-see list.

6. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire: As I said in my original review, I initally thought Cuaron’s Azkhaban couldn’t be topped. But give Mike Newell credit: Harry’s foray into Voldemortish gloom and teenage angst was easily the most compelling Potter film so far. Extra points to Gryffindor for Brendan Gleeson’s more-than-slightly-bent Mad-Eye Moody, and to Slytherin for Ralph Fiennes’ serpentine cameo as He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.

7. King Kong: I had this film as high as #2 for awhile, and there are visual marvels therein that no other movie this year came close to offering, most notably Kong loose in Depression-Era New York City. But, there’s no way around it — even given all the B-movie thrills and great-ape-empathizing that PJ offers in the last 120 minutes, the first hour is close to terrible, which has to knock the gorilla down a few notches.

8. Capote: When it comes to amorality for artistry’s sake, Jack Black’s Carl Denham ain’t got nothing on Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Truman Capote. I think it’d be awhile before I want to watch this movie again, but, still, it was a dark, memorable trip into bleeding Kansas and the writerly id.

9. Sin City: One of the most faithful comic-to-film adaptations on celluloid also made for one of the more engaging and visually arresting cinematic trips this year. I don’t know if the look and feel of Sin City can sustain a bona fide franchise, but this first outing was a surprisingly worthwhile film experience (with particular kudos for Mickey Rourke’s Marv.)

10. Munich: I wrote about this one at length very recently, so I’ll defer to the original review.

11. Brokeback Mountain: A beautifully shot and beautifully told love story, although admittedly Ang Lee’s staid Brokeback at times feels like transparent Oscar bait.

12. Lord of War: Anchored by Nicholas Cage’s wry voiceover, Andrew Niccol’s sardonic expose of the arms trade was the funniest of this year’s global message films (That is, if you like ’em served up cold.)

13. The Squid and the Whale: Speaking of which, The Squid and the Whale made ugly, embittered divorce about as funny as ever it’s likely to get, thanks to Jeff Daniels’ turn as the pretentious, haunted Bernard Berkman.

14. Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith: Thank the Force for small kindnesses: George Lucas put the Star Wars universe to bed with far and away his best outing of the prequels. The film flirts dangerously with the Dark Side, particularly in the “let’s take a meeting” second act, but for the most part Sith felt — finally — like a return to that galaxy long ago and far, far away.

15. A History of Violence: I think David Cronenberg’s most recent take on vigilantism and misplaced identity was slightly overrated by most critics — When you get down to it, the film was pretty straightforward in its doling out of violent fates to those who most deserved them. Still, solid performances and Cronenberg’s mordant humor still made for a far-better-than-average night at the movies.

16. Walk the Line: Despite the great performances by Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon, Walk the Line ultimately seemed too much of a by-the-numbers biopic to do the Man in Black full credit. But, definitely worth seeing.

17. In Good Company (2004): Paul Weitz’s sweet folktale of synergy, downsizing, and corporate obsolescence was too charitable and good-natured to think ill of any of its characters, and I usually prefer more mordant fare. Nevertheless, the intelligently-written IGC turned out to be a quality piece of breezy pop filmmaking.

18. The Constant Gardener: Another very good film that I still thought was slightly overrated by the critics, Fernando Meirelles’ sophomore outing skillfully masked its somewhat iffy script with lush cinematography and choice Soderberghian editing.

19. Primer (2004): A completely inscrutable sci-fi tone poem on the perils of time travel. Kevin and I saw it twice and still have very little clue as to what’s going most of the time — but I (we?) mean that in the best way possible.

20. The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe: The Chronic-what? Andrew Adamson’s retelling of C.S. Lewis’s most popular tome lagged in places, and the two older kids were outfitted with unwieldy character arcs that often stopped the film dead, but it still felt surprisingly faithful to the spirit of Narnia, Christianized lion and all.

Most Disappointing: The Fantastic Four, which I finally saw on the plane yesterday — One of Marvel’s A-List properties is given the straight-to-video treatment. From the Mr. Fantastic bathroom humor to the complete evisceration of Dr. Doom, this movie turned out just as uninspired and embarrassing as the trailers suggested. Runner-Up: The Brothers Grimm. Terry Gilliam’s long-awaited return wasn’t exactly a return-to-form. But, hey, at least he got a movie made, and Tideland is just around the corner.

Most Variable: Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: I still haven’t figured out how I feel about this one. I liked it quite a bit upon first viewing, but it didn’t hold up at all the second time around. Still, the casting feels right, and I’d be up for The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, provided they turn up the Ford-and-Zaphod shenanigans and turn down the forced Arthur-and-Trillian romance.

Worth a Rental: Constantine, Aliens of the Deep, Me and You and Everyone We Know, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Island, March of the Penguins, The Aristocrats,Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride, Jarhead, Sarah Silverman: Jesus is Magic, The Ice Harvest, War of the Worlds

Ho-Hum: Inside Deep Throat, The Jacket, Million Dollar Baby (2004), The Ring 2, Kingdom of Heaven, Unleashed, Mr. & Mrs. Smith,
Aeon Flux

Best Actor: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Capote; Eric Bana, Munich; Heath Ledger, Brokeback Mountain; David Straitharn, Good Night, and Good Luck
Best Actress: Reese Witherspoon, Walk the Line; Naomi Watts, King Kong
Best Supporting Actor: Jeff Daniels, The Squid and the Whale; George Clooney, Syriana; Brendan Gleeson, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
Best Supporting Actress: Maria Bello, A History of Violence; Tilda Swinton, The Chronicles of Narnia

Unseen: The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Bee Season, Broken Flowers, Cache, Casanova, Cinderella Man, Crash, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Grizzly Man, Gunner Palace, Head On, Hustle & Flow, Junebug, Match Point, The New World, Nine Lives, Pride and Prejudice, Serenity (although I watched all of Firefly last week), Shopgirl, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, Wedding Crashers

2006: Frankly, the line-up doesn’t look too exciting at the moment. Nevertheless, 2006 will bring A Scanner Darkly, Casino Royale, The Da Vinci Code, Flags of our Fathers, The Good German, The Inside Man, Marie Antoinette, M:I III, Pirates of the Caribbean 2, Snakes on a Plane (!!), Southland Tales, Superman Returns, Tristam Shandy, V for Vendetta, and X3.

Man of Constant Sorrow.


Next up on the Labor Day bill was Fernando Meirelles’ well-received The Constant Gardener, starring Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz in a sort-of action-romance-thriller-edutainment about the extreme shadiness of the Pharmaceutical Trust’s clinical trials in Africa. (Or, put another way, it’s The Limey meets Hotel Rwanda meets The Bourne Supremacy meets The Girl in the Cafe.) At its best, The Constant Gardener is a compelling travelogue and a resonant Soderberghian love story, anchored by a great performance by Fiennes and solid supporting work by Weisz, Bill Nighy, and others. (By the way, nothing screams “English conspiracy” quite like the presence of Gerard McSorley, who plays a pharmaceutical tough here. Between him and Pete Postlethwaite flitting in and out, this occasionally seemed like In the Name of the Father transported to Kenya.) But, Gardener also suffers some of the defects of Meirelles’ earlier film, City of God, namely an overreliance on shaky hand-held camera work and a plot that strains credulity often enough to detract from the overall experience.

So the upshot is this: Fiennes, the titular gardener, is a kindly and reclusive British diplomat in Kenya with an ill-defined job and a young new activist wife (Weisz), whom he met-cute (well, sorta) at a lecture he gave back in England and married after a whirlwind romance. When Weisz is found murdered on a desolate, unforgiving stretch of African road beside her colleague and possible lover (Hubert Kounde), Fiennes is forced to abandon the orderly and carefully tended confines of his mental garden and embark on a quest to discover both why she was killed and how she lived. Along the way, he finds that large pharmaceutical companies, the nemeses of his slain wife, have been rigging clinical trials and, worse, hiding the fatal side effects of their drugs by erasing the existence of poverty-stricken Kenyans who were administered them (How these fatal side effects were supposed to go over once these drugs went on the market is left unexplained.) Whatsmore, he soon finds his superiors at the embassy (Danny Huston, Nighy) have been steadfastly looking the other way, and that the global reach of Big Pharma isn’t above using strongarm tactics to ensure the truth never gets out…

The Constant Gardener is expertly acted and expertly put together, and it’s deserves the high praise it’s been getting — it’s easily one of the better films of this year so far. Nevertheless, I had nagging problems with the movie. For one, while I have no doubt that Big Pharma is up to many grievous misdoings in Africa (and elsewhere) in the name of the almighty buck, and I wouldn’t be surprised in the slightest if they have unctuous corporate flaks cooking books and crossing the palms of anybody it might help them to buy off, I had trouble believing that they were this kind of shady, with a seemingly universal intelligence capability and more agents than SMERSH. (Also, while I’m sure this type of trial-tinkering probably happens, the real pharmaceutical conspiracy — as others have noted — is how companies simply ignore medical crises in the developing world and attempt to ban the use of generic drugs in devastated areas.)

Also, while I could see how Fiennes’ character might be this clueless about his wife’s life-work if he had seemed more distracted during her lifetime, as played he’d have to be willfully oblivious to miss what’s going on. (Perhaps his almost-disturbing passivity is the point — the script seems to say as much at times — but I still felt it rang false.) Add an overdose of shakicam work (don’t sit too close) and some rather pointless action sequences (the late second act car chase, the bandit attack) and The Constant Gardener falls out of the top echelon of all-time-great films. But, in an otherwise down year for movies, Gardener is an adult, intelligent thriller and a believable romance that’s well above the mean and well worth catching.

Fleurs du Mal.

Ralph Fiennes goes Charles Bronson to avenge Rachel Weisz in the trailer for John LeCarre’s The Constant Gardener, directed by City of God‘s Fernando Meirelles.

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