Friday, February 22, 2008

Best Supporting Actress

Cate Blanchett, I’m Not There
Ruby Dee, American Gangster
Saoirse Ronan, Atonement
Amy Ryan, Gone Baby Gone
Tilda Swinton, Michael Clayton

Will win: I’m not even discussing Ruby Dee. I hope her invitation gets lost in the mail. Maybe we can recruit Stifler from American Pie to stop her at the door? “Oscars ceremony? What Oscars ceremony? Try the house down the street.” (And yes, I know she won at the Screen Actors Guild Awards. I’m trying not to think about this.)

In an odd coincidence, I think we can eliminate Saoirse Ronan and Tilda Swinton as well, even though theirs are the two films nominated for Best Picture of the four remaining candidates. Ronan’s nomination is welcome, but I doubt voters will be able to get past her age (for once, a 13-year-old is actually being played by a 13-year-old). The Academy has rewarded young performers with Best Supporting Actress honors before, most notably Tatum O’Neal for Paper Moon in 1973 and Anna Paquin for The Piano 20 years later. Still, I think Ellen Page will be stealing all of the attention this year as far as the young crowd is concerned, so Ronan gets the short shrift.

As for Tilda Swinton, she’s won on a few minor circuits (the BAFTAs, Dallas-Fort Worth, Kansas City), but I still don’t feel much buzz for Michael Clayton. Then again, I’m not quite sure how I’m gauging my perception of this “buzz” factor I keep talking about. It’s not as if I’m an industry insider. No sources close to a studio or an awards ceremony have ever called me to give me a scoop. Basically I’m about as well-informed about Oscar candidates jostling for position as Theo Epstein was about Ramiro Mendoza. Still, I visit several movie-related sites per day, I devour all awards-related content on IMDb, I read at least the headlines of all of David Carr’s and Michael Cipely’s stories at The New York Times, and no one seems to be saying or writing anything about Michael Clayton. So Swinton’s out.

This leaves Cate Blanchett chasing Amy Ryan. Ryan is the clear frontrunner, as she cleaned up on the awards circuit early in the season. However, she’s hit a few snags of late, and Gone Baby Gone seems to be losing a little bit of its luster. Meanwhile, Lady Cate has picked up some steam, winning awards from several major organizations, including the Chicago Film Critics Association, the Golden Globes, and the National Society of Film Critics. Blanchett also has the curious, potentially intriguing distinction of playing a man, which worked for Linda Hunt when she won Best Supporting Actress in 1983 for The Year of Living Dangerously. She can’t be so easily ruled out.

So, I think this comes down to which candidate voters will find more appealing, not simply their insular performance but how it relates to the context of their overall film. (Each movie’s lone nomination lies in this category.) As one of the six random Bob Dylans, Blanchett’s character is essentially isolated. Since none of the different segments of I’m Not There interacts with each other, one could make the argument that Blanchett’s performance is merely auxiliary – take her out of the picture and it doesn’t affect the rest of the scattered whole. (Coincidentally, this argument illustrates part of the reason I’m Not There is such a piece of crap, but we’ll get there.) But Ryan’s ravaged and ravaging mother is the most memorable character in Gone Baby Gone, and she is pivotal in driving the movie’s plot forward. (In case you couldn’t freaking tell, I’m a tad biased with each of these assessments, so take that for what it’s worth.)

Overall, I think Ryan just has too much firepower in her corner. Her movie is better, her role is more crucial, and her character leaves more of a lasting impression. Plus this gives the Academy the opportunity to congratulate itself for recognizing new talent (obviously, Blanchett is a household name at the Oscars, given that she’s the young Judi Dench and all), and voters just won’t be able to pass up the opportunity to pat themselves on the back.

Should win: O.K., so, Ruby Dee. Honestly, it’s nothing personal. I’m not even mad at her. Like Will Hunting, it’s not her fault. She’s a perfectly respectable actress (I really liked her in Do the Right Thing), and she’d never been nominated for an Oscar before, even though she’s been entertaining audiences since the Civil War. And that’s all well and fucking good. But if you want to give her a random lifetime achievement award, for Christ’s sake, give her a lifetime achievement award. Do not nominate her for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress when she’s on screen for less than 10 minutes. She has one memorable scene in the movie –that’s it, one. And it’s fine. The rest of the (short) time she’s on screen, she just totters around as further testament to the familial values held by Denzel Washington’s character. Don’t get me wrong, her performance in the movie is perfectly adequate. It is also perfectly unimportant.

I need to make this clear: Ruby Dee’s nomination for Best Supporting Actress is reprehensible. It’s up there with some of the most inexplicable decisions of all-time, like Isiah Thomas signing Jared Jeffries to a five-year deal, Terry Francona bringing Pedro out of the pen in Game 7 of the ’04 ALCS, and Dobby the House-Elf determining the best way to save Harry’s life was to bewitch a Rogue Bludger to incessantly attack him during the Gryffindor-Slyterhin match. There are several excellent candidates on the forthcoming Deserving list who were passed over because somehow the Academy’s members decided – as the result of either ruthless marketing, shady favors, or a newfangled, highly potent amalgamation of drugs – to randomly honor a sweet old woman just because she’s a sweet old woman.

(The worst part? The Best Supporting Actor and Actress winners are typically announced within the first 15 minutes of the Oscar telecast. So if the planets are freakishly aligned and Ruby Dee somehow wins, it’s going to absolutely ruin the rest of the ceremony. Jessica Alba and Rachel McAdams could start reenacting the opening scene from Briana Loves Jenna on stage, and I wouldn’t even notice. So yeah, I really hope this doesn’t happen. The first part, I mean. The second part would be fine with me.)

The remaining four nominees are all very good, although there’s no way in hell I’m voting for anything remotely related to I’m Not There, which finished in a dead heat with The Darjeeling Limited for “The New World Award” for utterly horrible movie that critics inexplicably adored. An attempted subversion of the standard biopic genre, the theory behind I’m Not There is that Bob Dylan was too versatile and discordant an artist to be effectively captured by a single actor. Therefore, director Todd Haynes decided to cast six different actors to represent Dylan at different stages in his life, both chronologically and musically. It’s an original, mildly clever idea.

One problem: The movie sucks.

Look, I don’t want to get into a huge discourse about I’m Not There, because I’d rather spend the majority of the Manifesto focusing on movies that I actually liked as opposed to the ones that made my eyes bleed. But the movie seems to be so beloved by critics that I need to at least say something. The basic problem with the film is that it possesses absolutely no narrative flow whatsoever. Scenes are presented in such a disjointed manner that we have no point of reference. One minute we’re watching Marcus Carl Franklin strumming an imitation of Woody Guthrie’s folk music, and then we’re suddenly in black-and-white listening to Ben Whishaw spout poetry, and then we’re in the Old West as Richard Gere mopes around as Billy the Kid (say what?).

Would I have been more appreciative of I’m Not There if I’d been more knowledgeable about Dylan himself going in? I don’t think so. Perhaps Dylanologists would be better able to place the various Dylans in their historical context, but so what? They’d still be watching six different figures acting out six completely different stories at six different points in time. And that’s the other key flaw in I’m Not There – the six Dylans are entirely static. There’s no character development, no evolution. And since there also is no connective tissue between the varying strands of the film, we’re left with an incoherent jumble of randomness. Dylan may be a fascinating artist, but slicing him into six misshapen pieces in no way constitutes a successful deconstruction of his character.

O.K., here it is, pure and simple: I’m Not There represents the most miserable time I’ve had at the movies since The Fountain. (Of course, that probably means I’ll get into another semi-violent email tussle with my buddy Brian, who liked The Fountain. Hell, he probably liked The Darjeeling Limited. I don’t even want to get into that movie, but honestly, all you Wes Anderson fans are fucked up. That’s all I have to say.)

My hatred for I’m Not There now adequately established, I’ll certainly acknowledge that Cate Blanchett is very good as Jude Quinn, one of the Dylans (she plays him during his electric Don’t Look Back phase). She’s completely unrecognizable; Blanchett is a beautiful Australian woman, and if I hadn’t known it was her going in, I’m convinced I would have thought the actor playing Jude was a man. Jude is hostile and bitter, and Blanchett supplies him with a quasi-permanent tight-lipped frown and a bored, disenchanted tone of voice.

But here’s my problem with the selection of Blanchett: If the Academy absolutely had to nominate someone from this wretched movie, it could have at least picked the best performer in the film. That would be the lovely Charlotte Gainsbourg, who plays … actually, I’m not sure who she plays. Her character’s name is Claire, and I think she’s married to the Dylan played by Heath Ledger – even though that Dylan is actually not a musician but an actor starring in a movie about a different Dylan who’s played by Christian Bale. (See, I told you this movie sucks.) Regardless, Gainsbourg is upset about something – I believe it involves a pending divorce – and there’s actual sadness in her performance. It’s essentially the only time I’m Not There features a character exuding any sort of emotion other than disgust or world-weariness. This is why the scenes featuring Gainsbourg are the film’s best – that is, they were the least likely to make me fall asleep.

Back to Best Supporting Actress. I think people are getting slightly carried away in praising Amy Ryan’s performance, even though I think she’s very good. It’s more how shocking her character is than anything. One of the intricacies of Gone Baby Gone is the way it slyly shifts standard archetypes; as far as Ryan’s Helene is concerned, we’re given what appears to be a stock character – the helpless single mother – only to then see her revealed as self-serving and almost vilely cruel. She feeds on her own self-pity, as if she feels the world has swallowed her dreams whole, and she’s justified in her acrimony. This leads to a shocking lack of remorse that makes bilious comments like “It’s really hard being a mother …but God made you barren, so you wouldn’t fucking know” all the more nauseating.

The challenge for Ryan, then, is to make Helene care deeply about her missing child without abandoning any of her deep-seated malice. For the most part she succeeds, and the scene where she breaks down pleading for Patrick to promise to find her daughter is both moving and credible. But I can’t help but feel that it isn’t Ryan’s performance that’s memorable so much as the character. Movie creatures as repugnant yet helpless as Helene are so rare that it’s easy to make reckless judgments regarding their actors. I don’t mean to diminish the quality of Ryan’s performance in Gone Baby Gone; on the whole, she’s excellent. I simply don’t think she was quite as good as the two remaining nominees.

And that’s where the trouble begins. See, in nearly all cases, when I first scan through the Oscar nominations, for each category I can quickly decide on my preferred winner. (Actual predictions take a bit longer to form.) Not so this year for Best Supporting Actress. I admire the work of both Saoirse Ronan in Atonement and Tilda Swinton in Michael Clayton so completely that I’m finding it impossible to pick one. I feel like I need to hire Anton Chigurh to toss a coin for me. Maybe he can pneumatize Ruby Dee while he’s here.

Alright, let’s focus on the good news first. These are two truly excellent performances. For Atonement, the 13-year-old Ronan seems to have approached her role as Briony with an astonishing degree of preparation. Briony is brilliant, and Ronan easily highlights both her natural intelligence and her artistic talents. But she is also, most crucially, still a child, and still in possession of a child’s imagination. Ronan consciously and consistently plays up the severity of Briony’s reactions – her employment of widened eyes, choked gasps, and a dropped jaw is almost vaudevillian. The excessive nature of Briony’s interpretations – as well as her youthful but highly cultivated imagination – hold enormous sway in Atonement’s story. Ronan is able to depict Briony both as a woman wise beyond her years but also as a slightly foolish child; this makes her nominally culpable for her actions and yet somehow also excusable for them. She is responsible for tearing these lives apart, yet she is initially unable to comprehend the weight of her own actions. It’s a performance of extraordinary poise, forethought, and execution, and its layered quality supplies the tragedy of Atonement with even greater depth.

There is nothing childish whatsoever about Tilda Swinton’s character in Michael Clayton. As Karen Crowder, a high-powered legal executive at a mammoth biotechnology corporation, she is polished, articulate, and well-respected by her male peers. She is also, it so happens, a complete wreck. When we first meet her, she’s boarded herself up in a bathroom stall, sweating, looking as though she’s about to vomit. (We aren’t informed of the reason for this until much later, at which point her terrified state of mind makes perfect logical sense.) Later, we watch her acting as the subject of a puff piece interview; she’s composedly delivering lucid answers, comfortably in the appearance of complete control. We then flash back to her that morning in her apartment and see her practicing, stuttering, rephrasing her answers to the simplest questions over and over again, desperate to get it right, to make it better, to ensure she belongs.

And so just as Saoirse Ronan brings a masterful duality to her role as Briony, so too does Tilda Swinton as Karen. She is competent and successful, yet she is also paranoid and feebly insecure. This causes her to enter a perilous downward spiral as the drama of Michael Clayton unfolds. She is so determined to validate her advancement that when Arthur starts mucking up the works, she makes a series of highly questionable, increasingly outlandish decisions, most notably engaging two bagmen to help clean up a mess. Yet we can accept Karen’s mounting desperation because Swinton has so effectively established her character’s diffidence. No reasonable executive would make any of the choices Karen makes in Michael Clayton, but Karen, for all her intellect and corporate dexterity, is far from reasonable.

This careful elucidation is all well and good, but the true allure of Swinton’s performance is the way she registers her awareness of her own character. Karen may have her flaws, but she is by no means daft – she is entirely conscious of her choices and their implications. I might be the first person ever to equate Michael Clayton to Return of the Jedi (which is, you know, sort of why I’m here), but I think Yoda could have given Karen some could advice: “Once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny.” Karen knows this. She knows from her first dubious judgment that she has descended into a vortex of moral oblivion. As such, Swinton has Karen take each next step downward with exquisite hesitancy, always phrasing instructions obliquely, never fully admitting her own deeds to herself. Swinton’s face is weirdly beautiful, yet in Michael Clayton it is always a flickering fixture of turmoil, a mixture of self-justification and self-loathing. Karen hates what she is doing, hates how she is responsible, hates how she can still proceed, but she does anyway – she has to, don’t you see? – because there’s that overwhelming need to prove herself, to belong. And so even if you’re unaware of the particulars, perhaps it is not so hard to understand how she ends up locked in a bathroom stall, sweating and shivering, too scared to face the light of day.

Speaking of tough decisions. As you can see, my regard for both of these performances is quite high. And while I’d like to take both, then I’d pretty much be declaring myself a communist. This is America – we’re all about winners and losers here. So I’ll take … Swinton.

And if you ask me again tomorrow, I might change my mind.

Emma Watson, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. One of the few unfortunate consequences of the fifth Harry Potter installment focusing so extensively on Harry’s brooding isolation is that it initially marginalizes the series’ supporting characters. The whole point of the first 45 minutes of the movie is that Harry feels completely alone; as such, we don’t get to spend much time with his closest friends, Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger. This is, of course, a travesty, because it is my paramount goal to spend as much time with Hermione Granger in any capacity possible.

Early on in Order of the Phoenix, I started feeling paranoid (and, like Harry himself, perhaps a little sulky) that director David Yates had consciously attempted to minimize Hermione’s overall importance in the fifth movie. Perhaps Yates feared, I thought to myself, numb with terror, that audiences would be so naturally drawn to Hermione that they would fail to pay proper attention to the internal struggle raging inside Harry himself. And damn, did I start to sweat.

But Yates is no fool. He understands that one of Hermione’s greatest assets as a character is her undying compassion, and given that one of the central themes of Order of the Phoenix is unity – only by coming together can Dumbledore’s Army stand a chance against Voldemort and his Death Eaters – it is the compassion of Harry’s friends that releases him from his self-constructed chamber of isolation. Once this turning point is reached, the film takes new flight, and Hermione returns as a fixture.

And thank God for that, for Emma Watson remains in this film as charming a screen presence as ever – beautiful, earnest, natural. During the movie’s opening act, she makes the most of what little screen time she has, emphasizing Hermione’s loyalty to Harry, and making visible her pain when that loyalty is rebuffed. When Harry finally bucks up, there’s a lovely moment when he approaches Ron and Hermione in the Great Hall and asks if he can join them. Watson doesn’t overplay her reaction, and she isn’t even given a line, but her eyes sparkle with warmth and acceptance, so pleased is she to have her friend back.

Furthermore, my misguided paranoia regarding Yates’ notion that Hermione might overshadow Harry as a character failed to acknowledge the delicate humility Watson employs as an actress. Hermione is a fun character to play, full of acid quips and exasperated glances, but Watson never abuses her showier moments. She recognizes that this is Harry’s story, and her primary role as an actress – similar to Hermione’s role as a friend – is to support it, not upstage it. She’s content to exist in the background of scenes as well as in the center. Such maturity is uncommon in so young an actress, and it gives her a winning grace.

Yet it’s always such a delight when she does take center stage. Five films into the series, Watson has attained such a comfort level in her role that she has made Hermione’s mannerisms – her constantly raised eyebrows, her frequent roll of the eyes, her casual insults of “Ronald” – entirely her own. Her comic timing is sharp as ever – watch her face when she accidentally introduces Luna Lovegood as “Loony” – and her chemistry with Rupert Grint’s Ron grows more and more natural and engaging (her “Do you ever stop eating?” line is priceless). Her inhabitation of her character is complete.

And there is something new in this film as well: For the first time she seems to possess the slightest glimmer of confidence. Hermione – despite being smarter, more talented, better-looking, and just generally more amazing than everyone else – has always been a paragon of modesty. But when Dumbledore’s Army starts training and Hermione is naturally pitted against Ron (“Don’t worry, I’ll go easy on you,” he tells her – good one), Watson allows a wry, knowing smile to cross her face before Hermione blasts Ron halfway across the room. It’s highly rewarding for us when we see that this splendidly talented witch – and the extraordinary actress playing her – is starting to realize just how awesome she can be.

And finally (I don’t mean to keep gushing, but this one’s important), there’s the “teaspoon” line. It’s a simple dialogue scene between The Trio. Harry has just slipped Cho Chang the tongue and is bewildered that this caused her to start crying. Ron – never the most perceptive young lad – is equally confused. Hermione – in a vaguely aggrieved, fantastically superior tone – fires off a laundry-list of reasons Cho might be emotionally upset. Ron, stunned, mutters, “One person can’t feel all that, they’d explode”. Hermione counters, bored: “Just because you’ve got the emotional range of a teaspoon …”

Now, up until that moment, the scene has progressed in near-perfect symmetry to its analogue in Rowling’s novel both in terms of dialogue and tone. But then – and whether this was improvisation on the actress’ part or conscious direction from Yates, we’ll never know – Emma Watson begins to laugh. It starts out as a quiet girlish giggle and then, encouraged by the two boys, quickly morphs into a full-bodied laugh, accompanied just as quickly by equally hearty guffaws from Harry and Ron. It’s a quietly triumphant moment, the endearing conclusion to the film’s second act. It’s the sound of happiness.

Keira Knightley, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End. And you thought I was done with her. Hardly.

O.K., to fully appreciate Keira Knightley’s performance in this third Pirates of the Caribbean installment, you need to trace the evolution of her character throughout the trilogy. In The Curse of the Black Pearl (which constituted her first real exposure on an international scale), she fashioned Elizabeth Swann as a seemingly prim and proper princess who unexpectedly showed a little bit of backbone (“You like pain? Try wearing a corset”), even if she generally remained on the sidelines. This made her progression in Dead Man’s Chest all the more intriguing – in addition to getting involved with the action (who can forget her no-look behind-the-back dual-plunge sword attack?), Elizabeth was suddenly cavorting with pirates, putting the moves on Capt. Jack Sparrow (“You’re going to want to know what it tastes like”), and just generally being blazing hot.

At World’s End signifies the conclusion of Elizabeth’s transformation (well, we can hope), and while the change in her character isn’t as large in magnitude as the shift that took place between the series’ first two movies, she nevertheless enters the film as a significantly different individual from when we last left her grieving in Tia Dalma’s swamp. If in Dead Man’s Chest she merely grew acquainted with the joys and perils of action, in At World’s End she’s in the full thick of it from the get-go – 30 seconds into her first scene and she’s holding a knife to a man’s throat. (Don’t worry, she doesn’t kill him – two throat-slashing movies is enough for one year, and besides, “an unexpected death’d cast a slight pall on our meeting”.)

This is not to suggest that she has altogether abandoned her womanly charms. One of the delights of the Elizabeth Swann character is the way the Pirates movies take a classical beauty, thrust her into a universe of rabble-rousers, and let her fend for herself. This is why the casting of Keira Knightley is so crucial. In adapting to her new surroundings, she employs her considerable versatility – she can play big or small, comic or epic, sarcastic or solemn – all while maintaining her extraordinary beauty. In At World’s End, she’s part of the gang now, and it is such a pleasure to watch this woman cavort with the big boys, to be one of the crowd and yet also to rise above it.

By the end of Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, Elizabeth has been crowned Pirate King of the Brethren Court – a far cry from the mild-mannered governor’s daughter who first saw the Jolly Roger deep within the fog all those years ago. As a prelude to the glorious maelstrom sequence, this new pirate monarch delivers a remarkable speech, calling her subjects to arms. To this point, Elizabeth has spent much of the movie on simmer, exchanging wry banter with Jack Sparrow or navigating her ever-rocky relationship with Will Turner, but it is here that Keira Knightley digs deeper and brings forth a fierce, elemental potency. Her stirring cry of “Hoist the colors!” might appear ludicrous on the written page, but she pulls it off with aplomb – no man in the world, pirate or no, could fail to follow this beautiful king into battle.

The speech itself focuses on freedom and triumph and the indomitable spirit of free will. It isn’t so much about the pirates’ battle as it is a celebration of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies themselves – their freewheeling adventure, their unapologetic mass appeal, their unfettered joy. Director Gore Verbinski is telling us why he makes movies. In having Keira Knightley deliver his message, he couldn’t have picked a better spokesperson.

Helena Bonham Carter, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. It says something about the macabre nature of Sweeney Todd that its most sympathetic character is the one who devises a plan to improve her ailing bakery business by grinding up Sweeney’s murder victims and cooking them into pies. But sympathy is exactly what Bonham Carter’s Mrs. Lovett engenders from us. Perhaps it’s her pitiful appearance – she’s ghastly pale, and shocks of frizzy black hair sprout from her head like dying cacti. Or maybe it’s her singing – a piercing soprano, Bonham Carter acquits herself the best of anyone in the cast to Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics and music, embracing the musicality of the production and thus easily suspending our disbelief when she breaks out into song. Or perhaps it’s her desperate efforts to gain Sweeney’s affection, which constitute this stark picture’s lone attempt at anything resembling true feeling. Regardless, under Bonham Carter’s supervision, Mrs. Lovett is the only character worth rooting for in this twisted tale, which may be why the scenes featuring her are when Sweeney Todd feels most alive, even when it’s in the midst of so much death.

Leslie Mann, Knocked Up. For the “Doorman!” scene, if nothing else. In fact, that scene – in which Mann spews insults at a doorman who refuses to let her into a club because she’s “old as fuck”, only then the doorman (Craig Robinson from “The Office”) actually apologizes to her with candor and remorse – is an excellent composite of what makes Knocked Up such an excellent movie. Mann’s Debbie has some funny lines, such as her advice on browbeating husbands (“you criticize them so much, they get down on themselves, and they’re forced to change”), but she also represents an inherent difficulty of motherhood, namely the requirement for a woman to sacrifice part of her past life. “I get worse-looking, and he gets better-looking, and it’s not fucking fair,” she grumbles about her husband (who is indeed played with easy handsomeness by Paul Rudd). Indeed it isn’t fair, and Mann presages this societal injustice with acute pain.

Nicole Kidman, The Golden Compass. Just perfect casting. The Australian beauty was simply destined to play the fabulous part of Mrs. Coulter, the magnificent ice queen who whisks the plucky young Lyra away with the promises of excitement and high society, only to reveal herself as a calculating agent of the chur–, er, the Magisterium. Mrs. Coulter is a fascinating literary villain because of her true dedication to her potentially misguided cause, and also her place in Lyra’s family. On the screen, Kidman furnishes her exquisite beauty and grace – it’s initially impossible for Lyra to resist such a cunning, lovely subterfuge. When Mrs. Coulter shows her true colors, Kidman does not play it as a rapid uncloaking of her nature but rather as a gradual progression, highlighted by sharp glances and flared nostrils. Later, in the stunning scene in which she slaps her daemon, the flash of fury on her face quickly dissolves to regret, and in doing so Kidman expertly reveals Mrs. Coulter’s polar qualities, both the rage and the love.

(Also, while The Golden Compass as a movie is admittedly flawed and is a pale shadow of the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings movies, I’m nevertheless disappointed it performed so poorly at the box office, thus ruining any chance of the two sequels being made. Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy is crazily ambitious and occasionally fails to maintain control of its themes, but it undoubtedly constitutes impressive, mature fantasy all the same. In adapting Pullman’s first novel, Chris Weitz does a nice job creating the detail of his elegant universe; he simply fails to provide the proper pacing. In a noble effort to include as much of Pullman’s material as possible, much of the filmed version of The Golden Compass feels rushed – scenes and characters aren’t allowed to breathe but simply announce their plot-point and move on. I’d like to think Weitz could have corrected this error in an adaptation of the slimmer, more character-driven The Subtle Knife; sadly, we’ll never know.)

Emily Mortimer, Lars and the Real Girl. Now here is a performance of pure, aching sincerity. The premise of Lars and the Real Girl – Ryan Gosling plays a disconnected, antisocial man who buys a lifesize doll on the Internet, names her Bianca, and totes her around pretending she’s his girlfriend – may be preposterous, but it’s executed with tenderness. Rather than shuns Lars’ apparent insanity, his community bands together to support him. But no one is more supportive, more affectionate, more loving than Mortimer’s Karin, who is married to Lars’ brother. In the movie’s early, pre-doll stages, so concerned is Karin about Lars’ lonely lifestyle that she insistently invites him to dinner, and when he rebuffs her, she literally tackles him until he changes his mind. Ordinarily such persistence might be construed as bullying, but Mortimer is so genuine and caring that it comes off as a slightly wild, panicked expression of fraternal love.

Then there’s a heart-wrenching scene much later in which Lars, suddenly and unusually frustrated, grumbles to Karin that she doesn’t care about him or Bianca. Karin, who is pregnant and who has supported Lars throughout his ordeal, finally flies off the handle at this stinging barb, unleashing a devastating diatribe. “Every person in this town bends over to make Bianca happy,” she shrieks, her voice cracking in anguish as she details the various ways the community has welcomed Lars’ faux girlfriend. “None of this is easy, but we do it – oh! – we do it for you!” That “oh!” in the middle is one of the most painful and powerful interjections I’ve ever heard at the movies. Mortimer’s tone is one of extreme frustration but still rings with absolute compassion. What’s most amazing about Mortimer’s performance in the scene is that I’d already seen part of it numerous times in the movie’s trailer (although they wisely omitted the “oh!”, allowing the monologue to pack much more of a punch), but even though I was prepared for it, I still found tears welling in my eyes.

(Speaking of that trailer, I need to discuss the Common here for a minute. I firmly believe the AMC Boston Common on Tremont Street to be the best movie theatre in Boston proper. It has 19 screens, all with stadium seating and surround sound. It is easily accessible both by car and by the T. Its projection quality is first-rate, its seats are comfortable, and even its smallest auditoriums house sufficiently large screens. I attended the Common precisely 70 times in 2007. It is undoubtedly my preferred venue to watch a movie. (Although the DTS has been flaking out way too frequently over the past six months or so. And don’t even get me started on the portable concession stand guy.)


It needs to do something about its trailers. Not the plot-revealing content of the trailers themselves – that isn’t the Common’s fault, it’s the vile marketing teams that make them, and I already yelled at them earlier. No, I mean it needs to eliminate the highly obnoxious practice of showing the trailer for a movie but never bringing that movie to the theatre. This happened repeatedly in 2007, for films such as Margot at the Wedding, Lars and the Real Girl, Sleuth, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (which the Common finally brought to town more than a month after the movie’s initial release date), and Lust, Caution.

What’s so infuriating about this is that the Common’s Gerald Henderson-like practice of tantalizing with trailers and then refusing to deliver the goods actually resulted in me missing several of these movies altogether. I’ll explain: There’s an independent theatre in Kendall Square that is infinitely poorer in quality compared to the Common. Its screens are tiny, it has no stadium seating, you can’t park for free, it’s in bloody Cambridge, and because it isn’t an AMC theatre, my girl Akemi’s beloved AAA discount tickets don’t work, so it’s actually 61% more expensive. I fucking hate watching movies at Kendall.

But of the aforementioned movies, I would rather have watched them at Kendall than not seen them at all (sorry, Dad, but not everyone can wait four months for the Netflix DVD to arrive). However, since the Common had shown trailers for them, I naturally assumed it was bringing them to town. Therefore, even though all of those movies played at Kendall, I didn’t see any of them there except The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (and that wound up being a mistake because it eventually came to the Common, only much later than anticipated). By the time I confirmed that the Common had betrayed my trust for the remaining films, the movies had vacated Kendall as well. As such, I had to go see Lars and the Real Girl in fucking Somerville, and I still haven’t seen Margot at the Wedding or Lust, Caution (which, as my buddy Vaughaniels pointed out, is going to leave a gaping hole in my Best Nude Scenes section later on, since it’s rated NC-17 and is supposedly full of Asian hotness).

I know I’m whining. I don’t care. I do not feel it’s an unreasonable request that a movie theatre not go back on its word and so brazenly stab its most loyal customer in the back. (And seriously, stop fucking carding me for R-rated movies. It’s no longer funny.)

So, I propose new legislation: If a theatre plays a trailer for a given movie, it is obligated to bring that movie to town for at least one week during its theatrical run. I don’t think I’m asking for much. I just don’t ever want to go back to Somerville.)

Anyway, between Mortimer’s touching performance in Lars and the Real Girl and her impeccable turn in Match Point two years ago, I am now officially a fan. Her next movie is a thriller with Woody Harrelson called Transsiberian. Yikes. Well, we shall see.

And that officially concludes the Big Six. Before we get to the remainder of the categories, I want to insert my usual interlude and briefly look ahead to the most intriguing films of the upcoming year. If this doesn’t appeal to you, well, you can blame my buddy Dave; he told me two years ago that he liked it, so I owe it to him to keep it coming. As you can see, I take any positive feedback that I receive very seriously. Negative feedback, not so much.

As the Manifesto is an ever-evolving document (at this rate, Skynet should be in charge of it within the next five years), we’re making two key changes this year. First, rather than simply selecting any movie that might appear to be mildly intriguing (thus resulting in a potentially gargantuan list), I’m limiting myself to 10 choices. This is partly because any good list should either be a Top Five list (in honor of High Fidelity) or a Top 10 list (in honor of the Commandments), and partly because I feel the need to atone for my inexcusable Top 13 list for Best Picture.

Second, in the past I’ve limited myself to movies being released in the upcoming summer. I’m not sure why I initially implemented the list that way – probably because A) I love summer action blockbusters, and B) I was too lazy to research films arriving later on in the year. Still, although a summer list might make sense if I published the Manifesto on a seasonal or even semiannual basis, given that it’s only released once per year, it seems foolish to exclude movies I’m openly excited about just because they’re being released after August. So fuck it, since I’ve restricted the total number of movies to 10 (which, for the record, was really fucking difficult – I’m already mad at myself for accidentally excluding Body of Lies and Revolutionary Road), I might as well include any film with a planned release date sometime in 2008.

Before I start, please note that this list is in no way intended to be comprehensive. First of all, I’m going to see a hell of a lot more than 10 movies over the next year – it’s not as if this collection represents some exclusive decathlon or anything. Second, while I’m vaguely knowledgeable about future releases as a result of being a movie freak, my sources of information are limited. To find movies, I’m basically just scanning through IMDb’s Now Playing feature, as well as various newspaper articles. It is all but certain that I will exclude several high-profile upcoming films not because I’m uninterested in them but because I’m simply unaware of them.

Also, nothing is a guarantee here (well, a few are, but whatever) – it’s possible some of these movies will be absolute bombs. It’s funny and a bit instructive to look back and see how fantastically wrong I can be about interpreting (or sometimes flat out creating) buzz. For last year’s list, I slotted Ratatouille in at #5, one spot below … The Invasion. Whoops.

Still, here’s hoping it’s a fairly serviceable guide and that it whets people’s appetites for the year that lies ahead. Without further ado, here are the Manifesto’s Top 10 Most Hotly Anticipated Releases of 2008 (projected release date in parentheses).

10. The Changeling (November 7). Clint Eastwood’s first movie since his Japanese-language Letters from Iwo Jima garnered a Best Picture nomination in 2006, this stars Angelina Jolie, John Malkovich, and the suddenly hot Amy Ryan. From what I can gather, Jolie stars as a mother whose son is kidnapped; when he returns, he seems, wait for it … changed. It sounds weirdly like an Invasion of the Body Snatchers type low-key horror movie, but I don’t see Eastwood digging into the supernatural. Regardless, given Eastwood’s extraordinary resurgence after the dawn of the new millennium – three of his last four movies have been relative masterpieces (Iwo Jima, Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby) – any new movie of his immediately achieves must-see status.

I’m also interested to see how he works with a high-priced talent like Jolie. Hilary Swank had already won an Oscar when Eastwood directed her to another one in Million Dollar Baby, but she was hardly a superstar. The only real big-time stars he’s worked with in his career are Kevin Costner (in A Perfect World, back when Costner was scorching) and Gene Hackman (in Unforgiven and Absolute Power). Jolie should be savvy enough to understand when a master’s in the room, but we’ll see.

9. Australia (November 14). Five years ago, Baz Luhrmann was all set to direct an epic about Alexander the Great, starring Leonardo DiCaprio as the conqueror and Nicole Kidman as, I don’t know, something. Then Oliver Stone swooped in and ruined everything; once his Colin Farrell vehicle died a deservedly gruesome death, Luhrmann had no choice but to shelve his pet project.

Now he’s back with his first movie since 2001’s Moulin Rouge!, about which I’m still bitter because he didn’t get nominated for Best Director. Nicole Kidman tags along – she plays “Lady Sarah Ashley” (ooh), an aristocrat who partners with Hugh Jackman (DiCaprio seems to be busy elsewhere) to protect a massive tract of land shortly before World War II and the bombing of Darwin. I have no historical knowledge of these events whatsoever, but if Luhrmann maximizes his potential, it sounds like this could be part Brokeback Mountain, part Cold Mountain, with a dash of The Painted Veil thrown in.

Luhrmann himself is a curiosity. This will only be his fourth feature. Of his first three, Strictly Ballroom didn’t interest me, Romeo + Juliet was impressive but flawed, and Moulin Rouge! was absolutely incredible. The parallels to Terrence Malick’s career are a tad frightening, so let’s hope Australia isn’t the Luhrmann equivalent of Malick’s The New World.

8. Burn After Reading (September 26). I generally omitted comedies from this list, since I’m kind of a putz and think they don’t have as long-lasting an impact as more serious pictures, but I didn’t have a choice here. The Coen Brothers’ latest comedic venture with George Clooney (who, in case you’ve forgotten, is awesome), its plot – two “unscrupulous” gym employees stumble upon a CIA agent’s secret memoirs – sounds like Enemy of the State filtered through The Big Lebowski. It also has a monstrous cast, including Clooney, Brad Pitt, John Malkovich (suddenly ubiquitous), and Tilda Swinton, along with Coen vets Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins. The Coens never make the same movie twice, but if I had to guess I’d say Burn After Reading will be in the screwball vein of Intolerable Cruelty. And that’s definitely a good thing.

7. Valkyrie (October 3). This one has a weird history. The story of a German officer’s failed assassination attempt on Hitler (shit, did I just ruin the ending?), Bryan Singer’s first non-superhero movie since Apt Pupil encountered controversy last year when the German Defence Ministry banned filming on location, allegedly due to star Tom Cruise’s adherence to Scientology. For whatever reason, the ban was eventually lifted (Katie Holmes, getting it done!), and filming proceeded as planned, except significant portions ultimately needed to be re-shot after some film was destroyed during chemical development. Throw in the fact that Cruise isn’t exactly America’s golden boy anymore, and Valkyrie is hardly a public relations home run.

That said, I really like its pedigree. Assuming Singer has recovered from the mediocrity of Superman Returns, he should steep this film in German history, altered or otherwise (remember that haunting opening shot outside the gates of the concentration camp of the first X-Men?). Screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie submits his first script since the overlooked The Way of the Gun. And Tom Cruise, for all his antics and sensationalism (although hasn’t that died down in the past few years?), remains a great fucking actor. He hasn’t had a truly memorable part since Collateral, but he was excellent as the everyman in War of the Worlds and more than serviceable in Robert Redford’s political mishmash Lions for Lambs. Here’s hoping his heroic role as Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg quells his naysayers once and for all.

6. WALL·E (June 27). The fascinating thing about Pixar is that it’s the one studio that possesses a public identity. You never hear people talk about “that new Focus Features movie” or get excited because “Screen Gems has a new film coming out”. Most viewers – myself included – don’t give a fuck which studio or subdivision is responsible for producing and distributing a movie; we just care whether or not the movie itself is actually good.

But Pixar is different. The computer-generated features that emanate from Disney’s signature partner are so distinctive and memorable that we’ve developed a unique set of expectations based entirely on the studio brand. We demand from each new Pixar Animation Studios release an inventive concept, exemplary technical skill, sophisticated humor, and fully realized characters. 2006’s Cars constituted a relative failure for Pixar because it only supplied the first two of these four traits – the film was original and beautiful, but it wasn’t quotably funny, nor were its characters particularly memorable. Cars was by no means a bad movie; it just happened to be the first Pixar movie I walked out of without a boyish “Gee whiz, that was awesome!” feeling in my stomach. The subsequent success of the splendid Ratatouille restored the public’s faith in the Pixar machine because it was a touching story as well as a technical marvel.

The problem with this mode of thinking is that not all Pixar movies are created equal –they differ not just in terms of their specific concepts but of their actual individual creators. Ratatouille is the product of Brad Bird, who also directed the magnificent The Incredibles. Cars, in contrast, was helmed by John Lasseter, a gifted filmmaker who unfortunately hadn’t made a movie since Toy Story 2. Lasseter was so focused on shaping Cars as a landmark visual achievement – which, by the way, it was – that he neglected to pay proper attention to its story and its characters. The result was a film that was deftly made but felt, for a Pixar picture, strangely uninspired.

My point is that if we’re attempting to gauge the relative appeal of an upcoming Pixar release, we need to do more than simply issue a blanket statement that, “Well, it’s from Pixar, of course it’ll be good”. We need to look at the actual production team. And the good news here is that WALL·E is the brainchild of Andrew Stanton, whose lone prior directorial credit just happens to be Finding Nemo. That movie, more so even than The Incredibles, represents to me the pinnacle of family-oriented entertainment. It is vibrant, warm, and hilarious, and it remains so every time I watch it.

And it’s because of this cinematic bloodline that I’m inclined to approach WALL·E with considerable optimism. I honestly don’t know much else about it: It’s been a pet project of Stanton’s for over 15 years, and the teaser trailer looks pleasant but doesn’t provide much information (although it does reveal the title character to be a boxy robot with adorable binocular-shaped eyes). Other than that, we’ll just have to go on faith. And if I’m putting my faith in the man who made Finding Nemo, then as Capt. Jack Sparrow said, I’m feeling rather good about this.

5. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (December 19). My father always used to mention F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story to me, probably because it’s one of the five stories he’s ever read (along with A Tale of Two Cities, Billy Budd, Traumnovelle (the Eyes Wide Shut book), and “Casey at the Bat” – seriously Dad, anytime you want to throw Harry Potter on that list, you go right ahead). Naturally, I’ve never read it because the men in the Beck family think reading is kind of lame and prefer to watch basketball and play Civilization, but the premise is intriguing: It’s about a grown man who begins to age backwards. That’s just a cool idea. I have no idea whether it will translate into a compelling movie, but as far as premises go, it’s up there with Stranger than Fiction and Groundhog Day.

The cast looks good: Brad Pitt plays the title character, and Cate Blanchett, Tilda Swinton, and Elias Koteas also have key roles (sadly, so does Julia Ormond). But what’s most intriguing about the movie is that the writer and director seem so mismatched for such fantastical material. The screenplay is by Eric Roth, who tends to favor politically charged material; his past scripts include Munich, The Good Shepherd, The Insider, and Ali. He also adapted Forrest Gump for Robert Zemeckis, but that seems to be the lone example of whimsy in his history.

Even more curious is that the director is none other than David Fincher, fresh off of illuminating terror with Zodiac. That film is steeped so thoroughly in the essence of fact that for Fincher to follow it up with a literary fantasy seems ungainly. Yet he’s an immensely talented filmmaker, and I’m confident he’ll approach the adaptation of Fitzgerald’s curious tale with the proper respect. But whether or not The Curious Case of Benjamin Button will go down as a curiosity or a vision remains to be seen.

4. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (May 23). Let’s just get this out of the way: They didn’t need to make another one.

But fuck it, why not? It’s not as if the first three Indy movies constituted a cohesive trilogy; similar to the James Bond franchise, they’re three disparate films that simply feature the same character. So what’s the harm in adding another chapter to the story? Just because it’s unnecessary doesn’t imply that making it signifies cinematic sin.

And please, don’t tell me that Spielberg & Co. are staining the quality of the first three movies just by the mere act of making a fourth. I’ve never bought into the theory that the addition of a lackluster installment in a film franchise risks damaging the worth of the previous pictures. The Godfather, Part III is a terrible (and terribly unnecessary) film, and it hasn’t exactly tarnished the memory its two predecessors. Likewise, the first three Indiana Jones movies will remain superior examples of whimsical wonder and boyish adventure, even if Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull qualifies as a disaster.

But I don’t think it will. First of all, this is Steven Freaking Spielberg we’re talking about here. With the exception of A.I., every movie he’s made in the past 15 years has been at a minimum entertaining (The Terminal, War of the Worlds) and at a maximum magnificent (Saving Private Ryan, Minority Report). The guy is more reliable than Chauncey Billups – he simply doesn’t know how to make a bad movie (you know, except for A.I.).

Furthermore, Spielberg and George Lucas having clearly taken the development of this movie seriously. It’s been in vague stages of production for over a decade, and Lucas notoriously rejected Shawshank Redemption filmmaker Frank Darabont’s draft of a screenplay. These guys want to get this right.

The casting seems excellent as well. Karen Allen – the only worthwhile female character in the first three films – is back, and she’s joined by Cate Blanchett. Ray Winstone and Jim Broadbent are two of the most reliable British character actors around, and Shia LaBeouf is a rising star. I’m a tad confused how John Hurt can be showing up as Abner Ravenwood, since he’s supposed to be dead and all, but maybe there’s a flashback.

As for concerns that the 65-year-old Harrison Ford can no longer handle the rigors of an intense action movie, I’m not too worried. First of all, Ford hasn’t been in a truly good movie since Clear and Present Danger, and that was 14 years ago (no, seriously) – something tells me he’s excited enough about playing Indy again to get himself into decent shape. Also, Spielberg is clever enough as an action director that he’s able to create compelling sequences without consistently relying on the physicality of his actors; who can forget Indy’s famous “duel” in Raiders of the Lost Ark, in which he lazily disposes of a master swordsman with his Colt .45? Whether or not Ford will be required to get vigorously involved in the action remains to be seen (I’m confident he’ll at least participate in a few dustups), but Spielberg should be able to craft an invigorating atmosphere regardless.

All in all, it’s been some time since I’ve approached the release of a movie with such a pleasant combination of anticipation and relaxation. If Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull fails to impress, I can simply go home, pop in my DVD of Raiders of the Lost Ark, and enjoy lines like “Truck? What truck?” in beautiful upconverted 1080p resolution. But if, as I expect, Spielberg and Ford team up to produce another exultant tribute to the spirit of adventure, then I’ll have another historic midnight showing at the Common to add to my collection.

3. Quantum of Solace (November 7). This one, on the other hand, has me a little worried. The reimagination of the James Bond franchise with last year’s Casino Royale was so completely successful that its follow-up is now burdened with the weight of extreme expectations. But if there was any fear that this Bond flick would revert back to the playful, breezily appealing nature of the Pierce Brosnan films, longtime producer Barbara Broccoli quashed it supremely by green-lighting the title. “Quantum of Solace” was the title of an Ian Fleming short story that, according to IMDb, had little to do with actual espionage. Its meaning refers to the “small degree of comfort that can exist between two people emotionally in a relationship”. So yeah, it’s not exactly the phrase you’d use to describe your standard shoot-‘em-up action flick.

Is there a danger that, by so actively refusing to conform to the previously established formulae of the Bond franchise, Quantum of Solace will subsequently become leaden rather than free-spirited? Possibly, but I think it’s a worthy course and well worth the risk. The sublime pleasure of Casino Royale was that it offered us standard, exciting action sequences while simultaneously subverting the stereotype of Bond’s character. It was one thing to watch Bond plow through a mortar wall; it was quite another to see him fall in love, contemplate retirement, and not give a damn about his martini. The movie’s splendid concluding scene – in which we finally heard John Barry’s classic Bond theme and Craig delivered the “Bond, James Bond” refrain for the very first time – constituted a bridge from this reimagined, emotionally volatile superspy to the unflappable 007 made famous by Sean Connery more than four decades ago.

The challenge of Quantum of Solace, then, is to continue Bond’s progression along that bridge while still making him a complex and worthwhile character. It should help that Broccoli has retained the entire screenwriting triumvirate of the previous film (Paul Haggis, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade), but the question mark is new director Marc Forster. Before helming Casino Royale, Martin Campbell had directed GoldenEye, a more straightforward 007 adventure that nevertheless qualified as one of the best films in the franchise’s history. Forster has an impressively varied resume, including several excellent films (Finding Neverland, Stranger than Fiction) and several well-intentioned but overrated ones (Monster’s Ball, this year’s The Kite Runner), but he has no action experience whatsoever. As such, I have my reservations.

That said, I think the choice of title of Quantum of Solace is a good sign. I admire movies that attempt to break free of convention (as long as their narrative remains accessible – ahem, Darren Aronofsky), and the current Bond team’s spirit of freshness is healthy and encouraging. It is unfortunate, of course, that the lovely Eva Green will no longer be with us, but a quick Google Image search of Olga Kurylenko suggests that she may turn out to be an able substitute.

2. The Dark Knight (July 18). I have to turn somber for a moment. I’m not qualified to eulogize Heath Ledger (and besides, no one can provide a better eulogy than the one A.O. Scott wrote shortly after Ledger’s death), but I was deeply saddened by his death. I do not believe he was a truly great actor, but I do think he had the potential to become one, and he provided us with several memorable performances, most obviously in Brokeback Mountain but also in Monster’s Ball and 10 Things I Hate About You. He will be missed.

(And then there’s what I wrote in last year’s Manifesto when discussing director Christopher Nolan: “Let’s face it, Batman’s boring. Now Nolan’s stuck making The Dark Knight, with Heath Freaking Ledger as the Joker (sorry, but I’m a tad skeptical on that one). I mean, here we have one of the most gifted writer-directors of the past 20 years, and he’s making a Batman sequel? How inventive can The Dark Knight possibly be?”

Right, so when I said I was skeptical, this totally isn’t what I meant. In the words of Jack Nicholson (who, wouldn’t you know it, also played the Joker), “well don’t I feel like a fucking asshole”. Seriously.)

But the question has to be asked: Will Ledger’s tragic death affect how viewers experience The Dark Knight? Certainly, I think so. It would be one thing if Ledger were portraying a regular character (as was the case with the slain Adrienne Shelly in Waitress), but as the Joker he’s supposed to be undeniably creepy. Consider one of the movie’s initial posters, which offers the hazy image of a white-faced Ledger painting the words “Why so serious?” in what may be his own blood. That’s creepy enough, but can anyone look at a poster like that or watch a scene featuring that character and not be thinking the entire time that the actor on screen is dead?

The follow-up question is unpleasant but also has to be asked: Is it possible that Ledger’s death might somehow intensify his character’s creepiness? Most people will argue that it will serve only as a distraction, that it will mitigate our ability to focus on the film. But if we’re already viewing the Joker as a disturbingly creepy screen persona, and then we’re subconsciously recognizing that the actor playing him is dead, couldn’t that result in Ledger’s performance in The Dark Knight possessing an even more queasy, visceral impact? I feel like an asshole for suggesting this, and I personally don’t think I’ll be affected that much one way or the other, but I do think it’s possible that The Dark Knight could achieve a more forceful catharsis as a result of Ledger’s death.

(See , this is one of the hundred reasons I can’t work for an actual newspaper. If I wrote that paragraph in a legitimate syndicated column, there would be a headline on IMDb the next day reading, “Beck glad actor died because movie now better”.)

Anyway, on to The Dark Knight itself. Obviously I’ve turned the corner, as my thoughts from last year’s Manifesto hardly equate to my current level of anticipation. Trust me, this has nothing to do with Ledger’s death. It has to do with the “trailer” I saw when I went to the IMAX showing of I Am Legend in December. I put “trailer” in quotes because I’m not sure it was an actual trailer – it seemed more like a full scene that’s designed to supplement the movie, and I doubt any of the footage will actually be included in The Dark Knight’s theatrical cut. It’s a simple depiction of a bank robbery, but it is staged with such vigor and alacrity that I was left breathless. The color, the sound, the sudden explosions of violence, the marvelous appearance of character actor William Fichtner – everything is executed with perfection. It concludes with Ledger muttering to a fallen adversary, “Whatever doesn’t kill you, makes you stranger,” a twisted smile playing on his lips.

Watching this scene, I became absolutely convinced Nolan could revitalize the Batman franchise. Actually, fuck “revitalize” – the Batman franchise has never been vital, so maybe he can just vitalize it. The key question, though is whether Nolan’s screenplay for The Dark Knight, which he wrote with his brother Jonathan, can add depth and shading to the character of Bruce Wayne. No Batman movie has been able to do this successfully, and while Nolan’s Batman Begins is easily the best of the bunch, it nevertheless fails to connect us with Bruce Wayne’s inner torments and desires. Jonathan Nolan didn’t contribute to that earlier screenplay, so perhaps his addition will help his tremendously talented brother finally elevate the Batman movies from enjoyable to indispensable.

Everything else is in place. The majority of Batman Begins’ ridiculously talented cast returns, plus Maggie Gyllenhaal upgrades Rachel Dawes (replacing the suddenly vacuous Katie Holmes, although I would have preferred either Rachel McAdams or Emily Blunt to take over instead – both were rumored), and Aaron Eckhart enters the fold as the villain Harvey Dent. I’m not sure whom Eric Roberts had to bribe to find his way into this movie – the guy can’t act and hasn’t been in a good movie since 1985’s Runaway Train – but Nolan’s such a magician, maybe he can transform Roberts into a credible screen presence.

(Honestly, this isn’t a movie cast, it’s a fantasy team. Look at these fucking names: Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Heath Ledger, Morgan Freeman, Gyllenhaal, Cillian Murphy, Fichtner, Eckhart, Gary Oldman. Sign me up.)

Then there’s this for IMAX fans (i.e., fans of awesomeness): The Dark Knight will include four action sequences filmed specifically in the IMAX format for maximum quality. I’m not sure specifically what that means, but it sounds hot.

Finally, what was the one movie Nolan indicated acted as a major influence on his creation of The Dark Knight? Heat. This guy is just the freaking man.

1. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (November 21). Honestly? They should just re-title it Harry Potter: The Prelude.

This is in no way a criticism of J.K. Rowling’s sixth novel. It’s excellent, and it’s probably my, well, second-favorite book of all-time. It’s just that now that I’ve read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, everything in the penultimate novel feels like setup. What you need to understand is that Deathly Hallows represents the culmination not just of the literary lives of Rowling’s characters but also 10 years’ worth of real-world storytelling. Over those 10 years, everything Rowling did – every offhand reference, every minor character, every casual snippet of magical history – found its true purpose and achieved its final, cathartic power in Deathly Hallows. As such, Rowling’s earlier novels now possess the distinction of brilliantly and painstakingly setting up this earthshaking tome of pure, undeniable conclusion.

Again, please don’t take this as a knock on Half-Blood Prince because it truly is a marvelous book. It’s funny, fast-paced, and considerably tighter than Order of the Phoenix. It also precisely balances more lightweight, romantic fare with the solemn consequences of Voldemort’s continuing ascension to power. And it features several moments of potency heretofore unequaled in the Harry Potter universe. I just can’t shake the feeling that as soon as the movie version of Half-Blood Prince ends, my reaction isn’t going to be, “Oh my fucking God, what a great fucking movie that was!” but something more like, “That was a great movie, now when the hell does the seventh one come out?”.

Still, great movies are great movies, and returning director David Yates has all the tools at his disposal to make this one as great as Order of the Phoenix. He also faces some of the same challenges, most notably the relative inaction of the book’s plot. Rowling’s sixth novel is brisk and streamlined, especially compared to the swollen, character-driven Order of the Phoenix, but it also contains a great deal of exposition, mostly involving the essential illumination of Voldemort’s past. Harry’s and Dumbledore’s frequent journeys into the Pensieve are informative, but are they cinematic?

After the way he handled Order of the Phoenix, I have complete confidence in Yates, but it’s going to be interesting to see how he delves into these expository scenes, not only visually (the Pensieve is such a brilliant construct, will he settle for a standard flashback or attempt something more formal?) but contextually. That is, Yates and screenwriter Steve Kloves (back after balking at the task of adapting Order of the Phoenix) must determine not only how to convey the information relating to the younger Voldemort but how much to relay to the audience. I expect they’ll eliminate as much extraneous material as possible; Kloves, who did a splendid job trimming the bulging Goblet of Fire into a taut action thriller, will need to utilize those same talents again here.

Now, I’ve heard whisperings that in order to counter the overwhelming darkness of the series’ final installment, Yates intends to actively lighten the mood for Half-Blood Prince and play up some of the cheerier, more romantic aspects of the story. I’m not convinced this is true, but if it is, it’s an unbelievably bad idea. Yes, the novel focuses a good deal on the romances; yes, the relationship between Ron and Hermione is alternately hilarious and heartbreaking; and yes, Ron’s two-word line of “I’m tall” on page 219 of Half-Blood Prince is unequivocally the single funniest line written by any author in any book in any universe. But even while Rowling is highlighting her characters’ romantic issues (Ron’s bumbling, Hermione’s exasperation, Harry’s self-doubt), she never removes her focus from the ever-pervading darkness that is spreading throughout the magical universe. One of the wonderful things about the Harry Potter novels (and their film adaptations) is that they provide us with uniquely imaginative tales of adventure and magic while still keying on universal themes of adolescence, friendship, and love. Rowling doesn’t need to take a timeout to hammer home these themes – they flow naturally from the fabric of her story.

If for whatever reason Yates doubts that he can successfully provide moments of levity while still keeping the atmosphere of Half-Blood Prince appropriately foreboding, he can reassure himself simply by re-watching his own film. Order of the Phoenix is tremendously funny in parts, but it achieves that comedy naturally and through its characters’ steely resolve. It does not need to actively focus on lightening things in order to make us laugh. We can only hope Yates recognizes this, for while a jocular Half-Blood Prince would undoubtedly be enjoyable, it would be nowhere near as rewarding as what Rowling’s novel deserves – a dark, focused exploration of the difficult times in the lives of these characters.

Those characters will all be played by the same actors, of course, and one of the automatic upgrades of Half-Blood Prince will be the increased presence of Dumbledore, thus guaranteeing further screen time for Michael Gambon. Shunting the headmaster to the shadows was the only course of action available to Yates for the fifth film, but now he should be able to fully exploit the talents of such a great actor. Similarly, the addition of Jim Broadbent as the hearty Horace Slughorn should be a pleasure. I’m also highly excited for a healthy dosage of Alan Rickman. Severus Snape is a far more important character in this installment than in either of the past two, and Rickman – who has thus far provided some of the series’ funniest moments (“It’s said to be nearly unbearable to witness, but I’ll do my best”) – should delight in finally gnashing his teeth.

(Oh, and by the way, Emma Watson’s in this one too. Warrants mentioning.)

And so come midnight at the Boston Common on November 21, I will undoubtedly be experiencing that exquisite mixture of excitement and fear, anticipating greatness but terrified of failure. What will the result be? We shall see. As with Order of the Phoenix, the creation of a stirring cinematic version of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is a true challenge. That’s the bad news. The good news: If David Yates brings the same level of thoughtfulness and craft he brought to Order of the Phoenix, then I should have nothing whatsoever to worry about.
Right then. Let’s get back to the Oscars.

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