Armchair Cinema – 2008

Best Picture

Slumdog Millionaire (Directed by Danny Boyle)
The Nominees: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Frost/Nixon, Milk, The Reader

The Dark Knight (Directed by Christopher Nolan)
My Nominees: Avatar (James Cameron), Crazy Heart (Scott Cooper), The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow), Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino), Knowing (Alex Proyas), Up (Peter Doctor and Bob Peterson), Watchmen (Zack Snyder)


When film historians look back at the movie year of 2008, they won’t find many red letter events. Two Thousand-Eight was a lackluster year at the movies and, thinking back on it, there are only two notable events that come immediately to mind. First, was the phenomenal success of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, propelled, in part, by the tragic death and brilliant performance of Heath Ledger. The other was Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, a tiny independent film that struggled to get made and then, against all odds, ended up the winner for Best Picture.

As a Best Picture winner, Slumdog Millionaire was something of an enigma. Like The Last Emperor, it contained no major stars, took place in a foreign country and was about the strange journey of one man’s life.  The difference is that while The Last Emperor featured a man who is unhappily trapped in his gilded cage, the subject of Slumdog is a kid who rises out of his poverty and finds wealth both financially and in his heart. The journey involves Jamal (Dev Patel), an Indian teenager who inexplicably ends up on his country’s version of “Who Wants To Be a Millionaire” and is tortured by the security staff when he gets within one question of the grand prize. The staff is suspicious of how a slum kid from Mumbai could have such vast knowledge so, during his interrogation, he reveals how his life’s journey has (apparently through cosmic circumstance) prepared him for the questions he has been given.

I liked Slumdog Millionaire, but I didn’t feel its greatness. I was moved by the love story, about how Jamal falls in love with his childhood friend Latika (played by the stunningly beautiful Frieda Pinto) and keeps her in his heart even through their years apart. Yet, the logic center of my brain had problems accepting the idea that Jamal would be given questions on the game show that just happen to correspond with all of the red letter events in his life. I realize that this isn’t the point, but it was an illogical element that I couldn’t overlook. I am sort of alone in my opinion of Slumdog Millionaire, which many critics thought was one of the best films of the year. More than one critic compared Jamal’s journey to that of Forrest Gump, but Forrest’s journey was driven by the whim of chance, while Jamal’s seemed driven by bizarre coincidence.

I think in a decade’s time, Slumdog will only be remembered as a curiosity while my choice for Best Picture will certainly stand as one of Hollywood’s rare homeruns. The Dark Knight is an enigma, one of those rare films like Star Wars or Forrest Gump or Titanic that employs a lot of special effects but contains a script that rises above the conventional Hollywood product and transcends its genre.

The movie was such a phenomenal success that many cried foul when it didn’t receive a nomination for Best Picture. The Dark Knight is more than just a summer popcorn movie. It is a superb work of imagination, drama, character and great storytelling. It is also a breath of fresh air after having slogged through a decade of overrated, half-wit Batman pictures – first from Tim Burton and then from Joel Schumacher – so I was thrilled that someone, namely brothers Jonathan and Christopher Nolan, had the intelligence to dig keep into the Batman psychology. The Dark Knight isn’t a freak show, nor an overblown toy commercial but a deep psychological drama about the nature of vigilantism and that tricky business of possessing a dual identity.

Part of what prepared me for The Dark Knight was the work that the Nolan brothers began in their previous film Batman Begins, which threw away the laser lightshow of the earlier films and got down to the business of exploring how and why Bruce Wayne created this bat persona in the first place. That movie explored his motivation in a logical sense by returning Batman to the film noir world from which the character has his origins. The beauty of The Dark Knight is that, having already explored the origins of the Batman character, Nolan can now build a story that is free of heavy introductory elements.

Having explored Batman’s personality in the previous film, The Dark Knight, for the most part, moves Batman just left of center so that the story can focus on the psychology of his chief adversary. This portrait of The Joker is more or less grounded in reality. Unlike previous incarnations of the character, in which he is an established fixture in Gotham City, this Joker seems to have no past. The film throws away the conventional approach to The Joker and attempts a new approach. We usually see him as a harlequin in clown makeup who has his own private mob of clown-faced goons and a bag of incendiary tricks.

In The Dark Knight, those elements are gone. The Joker drops into Gotham City seemingly out of nowhere. No one in Gotham City has any idea who this man is, and when the story is over we know next to nothing about him. What passes for a backstory is a running gag in which he threatens his victims with a knife while regaling various versions of the story about how he got the scars on his cheeks. Whether or not any of these stories are true hardly matters. We never find out anything about his background. We don’t know why he wears makeup or why he commits atrocities. What we come to understand about these things is born from a bizarre pseudo-philosophy that has less to do with truth than from the fact that, for the most part, he’s just yanking our chain.

Like Hannibal Lecter, this Joker’s effectiveness lies in how little we know about him. He has no bag of tricks, he hides his face behind a gastly smear of white, black and red makeup. He speaks with an unnerving Bugs Bunny voice and informs us that “The only sensible way to live in this world is without rules”. He is an anarchist. He doesn’t want money, or power, or even media attention. He wants to blow stuff up – real good.

As the police and the mob figures in Gotham City try to figure out this menace, Bruce Wayne’s butler Alfred (Michael Caine) offers a brilliant theory: “Some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.” That line stays in our minds and what we come to learn is that The Joker’s motivation is bred from the fact that he is excited to toy with Batman, whom he considers an equal. He creates a battle of good and evil with his arch nemsis because he sees the Caped Crusader as a worthy opponent. When the bat asks “Why are you trying to kill me?” the clown can’t believe his ears “I’m not trying to kill you. What would I do without you? You complete me!” That has been the point of the battle between Batman and The Joker from the very beginning.

That is the film’s great story arc but there is another thread brewing that is just as substantial. Commissioner James Gordon (Gary Oldman), working secretly with Batman but keeping it under wraps, helps the dark knight round up the key figures in the local mob, including an accountant that he must travel all the way to Hong Kong to retrieve. Gordon doesn’t know this vigilante’s identity and keeps their affiliation under wraps. He’s getting the job done, so why complain? This secret alliance helps the public image of District Attorney Harvey Dent who publicly makes a stand against Gotham City’s mobsters.

Dent’s role in the story creates a much deeper exploration of what corrupts a man’s soul. Dent is a do-gooder, a man who stands for truth and justice without ever really understanding what he is up against. When the invisible alliance between he and Gordon and Batman pin the mob to the wall, it opens the door for The Joker to begin his reign of terror. No one really understands The Joker or his motives. He is a loose cannon. He is unpredictable and when one of his bombs takes out Dent’s fiance, Dent himself has his own soul corrupted, he becomes embittered by his love’s death and by his own disfigurement which seems to represent the emerging of his own dark nature. Literally two-faced.

These complexities have always been at the heart of Batman both on the page and on the screen. The Batman villians have always had a deeper level, and there has always been a method to their madness. The Dark Knight is the first film the truely examines that madness. It presents both The Joker and Two-Face, not as cartoon villains but as men with deep emotional scars. The Joker is an enigma, operating within a pattern of anarchy that no one can understand nor predict. Two-Face is presented as a tragic hero, a very good man who gets into a situation that brings his darker nature to the surface. In effect, this returns the Batman saga to its film noir roots. The story is dark, its characters have deep emotional complexities and The Dark Knight explores that is a way no film ever has.

Best Actor

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

Mickey Rourke (The Wrestler)
My Nominees: Josh Brolin (W.), Benecio Del Toro (Che), Clint Eastwood (Gran Torino), Colin Farrell (In Bruges), Dustin Hoffman (Last Chance Harvey), Richard Jenkins (The Visitor), Frank Langella (Frost/Nixon), Sean Penn (Milk)


In the late 80’s when I saw Rob Epstein’s documentary The Times of Harvey Milk, I didn’t know much about its subject. I would have been surprised that an openly gay man could have been elected city supervisor of San Francisco if I hadn’t, like the electorate, been so charmed by the force of Milk’s personality. That film also helped me to understand why there was such of an outcry when he was murdered.

Watching Milk in the documentary, I kind of got the feeling that a biopic was inevitable. Yet, I wouldn’t have thought Sean Penn would have been the best actor to play Harvey Milk. Penn, one of the best actors of his generation, is an actor who is at his best playing paranoid, broken men in films like The Falcon and the Snowman, Carlito’s Way, Dead Man Walking, Casualties of War, Mystic River and the little-seen gem The Assassination of Richard Nixon. Based on that pedigree, I just wouldn’t have thought he would have been able to play the charismatic Harvey Milk.

Yet, I underestimated Sean Penn. As with all of his performances, he puts his whole heart into the role. Here he plays a man who doesn’t set out to make history but simply to change the injustices that he sees around him. He plays Milk as a man with an open heart and a bright personality but he is not saint. We see him as needy, a bit insecure and kind to a fault. Having seen The Times of Harvey Milk just before seeing this film, Penn does an amazing job recreating a man who was a pure original. Through his performance, we come to like Harvey and when he is shot we mourn the loss along with those thousands who march in candle lit vigil.

As for the Oscar, I find it hard to take anything away from Sean Penn’s hardworking performance. Yet, I must give props to Mickey Rourke, who gave the other great performance of the year and brought about one of the greatest comebacks of any actor’s career. Rourke began his career as an amateur boxer before turning to acting where he proved himself to be one of the brightest, most talented actors in films like Diner, The Pope of Greenwich Village, Rumble Fish, Barfly and Angel Heart. Sadly, his personal life got in the way and his career suffered. The parts got smaller and all through the 90s Rourke took roles of little signifigance. His life and career went on the downturn to the point that he was near suicide before, as he would confess to Barbara Walters, his life was saved through the love and devotion of his dog, Loki.

His career started on the upswing with the new century with noticeably better roles, like the jug-jawed Marv in Robert Rodriquez’s Sin City. His true comeback, though, came with Darren Arronoffsky’s The Wrestler, a story that is very close to Rourke’s own life. This is the best performance of his career and the best performance of Two Thousand-Eight.

Rourke plays Randy “The Ram” Robinson, a professional wrestler who was once a superstar but now, 20 years later, cannot see his best days in his life’s rear view mirror. Years ago, he filled sold-out stadiums but now performs at venues in High School gymnasiums around Elizabeth, New Jersey. His name has fallen off the map, where he once had his own line of merchandise like action figures, posters and T-Shirts, now he does personal appearances in conference rooms with little turn-out.

He is offered a chance to breathe some life into his career in a rematch of his most famous bout against fellow wrestler called The Ayatollah (played by real-life professional wrestler Ernest “The Cat” Miller) that sold out Madison Square Garden 25 years ago. Unfortunately, the hope of that rematch is sidelined when he suffers a heart attack. His doctor tells him he needs to find a new line of work and Ram doesn’t argue. We can see in these few opening scenes, the kinds of physical punishment that make up his profession. The wrestlers in the backstage area discuss their routines like dancers preparing for a show. They work out their strategies and whisper in each other’s ears during the match. Anyone above the age of six can see that this is all faked but how much rehearsal can come from climbing into the ring with a guy who’s gimmick is to puncture his opponent’s skin with a staple gun? How faked can it be when one man slams the other’s face to the floor? How easy is it to fake the impact?

What is astonishing about the wrestling scenes is that, for the most part, we can see that it is really Mickey Rourke performing the stunts. This is a very physical performance. We can see the pain on his face as his opponent throws him to the ground and smashes the back of his head with a folding chair. It is obvious that some special effects were employed to handle some of the tougher moments, especially in a brutal fight when The Ram takes on a man who assaults him with tacks, broken glass and barbed wire, but they are so brilliantly inter-cut with the scene Rourke did himself that you can hardly tell the difference.

Director Darren Aronofsky brilliantly fuses together the brutal moments in the ring with the bitter-cold reality of The Ram’s personal life.  After so many years in the ring, blinded by his own fame and self-indulgence, his personal life has withered to crumbs. Once, long ago, he had a wife. From this marriage, he has a daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood) who hates him so far beyond reason that she pretends that he doesn’t exist. His only close personal connection, outside of the wrestling circuit, is Cassidy (Marisa Tomei) a stripper at a local club called “Cheeques.” They connect because she, like Randy, works in an arena whose sole function is bilking people out of their money.

Whatever glory that Randy the Ram once had in his profession is completely missing in his personal life. He works part time in a grocery store stock room and begs his pencil-necked manager for longer hours. He lives in a ratty trailer that he can hardly afford and one night comes home to find that he has been evicted and is forced to sleep in the back of his truck – a Dodge Ram (get it?).

Having no personal connections outside the wrestling world, he tries to rebuild some form of relationship. Visiting Stephanie is a nightmare. She hates his guts and we understand why. Randy was caught up the life of being a superstar, of partying, of drugs, of groupies and was never there for his daughter. He tries (with Cassidy’s help) to reach out to her and for a brief moment it works and the two share a day together which, for Randy, becomes a confessional. “I’m an old broken down piece of meat and I’m alone”, he tells her with tears in his eyes, “And I deserve to be alone. I just don’t want you to hate me.” Their relationship starts to mend slightly and they agree to meet for dinner, but Randy’s immaturity catches up with him when he spends the night snorting cocaine with a groupie and misses their date. The little progress he has made with Stephanie is permanently severed.

He tries, also, to build some form of relationship with Cassidy in whom he confides his personal life. Cassidy (who’s real name is Pam) is approachable and intelligent and has a lot in common with Randy. She, like Randy, is working in a profession in which her age is beginning to catch up with her. She has dreams of the future, of moving to Trenton to have a better life for her son. She and Randy would seem perfect for each other but she sees through him and when he approaches her with romantic intentions she backs away. She can see that he is a nice guy but she can also see, through his disasterous relationship with Stephanie, the kind of heartbreak he is capable of creating.

We understand where she is coming from. Randy is a nice guy, the kind would wouldn’t mind having a beer with but not someone you wouldn’t want to spend a lot of time with. We feel for him but we also realize that almost all of his problems are there because he brought them on himself. And, to our surprise, he realizes and admits this. This is a performance that Rourke gives from the depths of his soul. There are a lot of painful moments in The Wrestler and one can only imagine – given the heartache in his personal life – how difficult it must have been to play a role so close to the bone. He plays a man who’s eyes reveal the depths of pain and regret, of irreparable loss. He realizes that his indulgent life in the ring has robbed him of a personal life, that the only passion in his life is a profession that will most likely kill him.

Having seen what Mickey Rourke is capable of as an actor, it is refreshing that he is able to bear is soul so fully in this film.  On the subject of his comeback he said “The old me wasn’t accountable or responsible for anything. There were no rules, and I didn’t fear any consequences or repercussions of any kind. I don’t want to go back to that dark place because this is my last chance, and I’m not going to get another.”  I believe he will.  If he can put his whole heart and soul on the screen for the world to see as he did in this performance, I am eager to see what other notes he has to play.

Best Actress

Kate Winslet (The Reader)
The Nominees: Anne Hathaway (Rachel Getting Married), Melissa Leo (Frozen River), Angelina Jolie (Changling), Meryl Streep (Doubt)

Sally Hawkins (Happy-Go-Lucky)
My Nominees: Shohreh Aghdashloo ((The Stoning of Soraya M), Anne Hathaway (Rachel Getting Married), Angelina Jolie (Changling), Melissa Leo (Frozen River), Meryl Streep (Doubt), Michelle Williams (Wendy and Lucy), Kate Winslet (The Reader), Kate Winslet (Revolutionary Road)


As the announcement of the nominees for the 81st Annual Academy Awards drew near, it was generally expected that Kate Winslet would get an Oscar nomination for her performance in Stephen Daldrey’s The Reader. Yet there was some confusion as to whether or not she would be nominated in either the lead or supporting category.

All through the award season she had consistently been given award after award for her work in the film but while BAFTA, The London Film Critic Circle and San Diego Film Critic Society gave her awards for Best Actress in a Leading Role, organizations like The Screen Actor’s Guild, The Broadcast Film Critics, The Chicago Film Critics Association and The Hollywood Foreign Press put her in their supporting category. When it came time for the Academy Awards, I think it was right to put her in the lead category because, really . . . who was she supporting?

Despite category, it was exciting to see this talented actress, and five-time Oscar bridesmaid, finally get some love from the academy. The Reader offered her the chance to play a character with notes we had never seen from her. She plays Hanna Schmitz, a middle-aged German woman who, in the summer of 1958, carries on a torrid sexual affair with a teenaged boy (David Kross) in exchange for having him read books to her. Then one day she suddenly disappears only to turn up years later on trial for Nazi war crimes. What is special about Winslet’s performance is that she uses her expressive face to reveal hidden dimensions. For the first half of the film, we don’t know that she was a Nazi nor that she was illiterate but her face tells us that she is haunted by her past. Hanna is angrier than any character that Winslet has played and probably has less dialogue, but that allows her body language to suggest what she cannot say.

My problem is with the film itself. When Hanna goes to trial and is accused of leading 300 Jewish women into a church that is then set on fire, she refuses to reveal that she is illiterate in order to be cleared of the charge that she falsified the report on the incident to push blame away from herself. The result is that she is given a sentence of life imprisonment. But why would she do that? Why spend your life in prison to keep from admitting that you can’t read or write? This makes no sense. Daldry’s film is heavy on plot but it leaves you with a lot of unanswered questions. Don’t get me wrong, I usually like Daldry’s work and The Reader featured the kind of somber tone that he brought to The Hours. I liked both films but I am not really willing to revisit either right away.

Mike Leigh’s films, on the other hand, are never heavy on plot. The forward momentum of his films have always been characters, created with loving care and so well-defined that Leigh has the confidence to free them of the riggers of an ordinary plot. This has been magic behind his previous films like High Hopes, Life is Sweet, Topsy-Turvey, Secrets and Lies and Vera Drake. Leigh’s characters always have hidden dimensions, hidden knowledge, hidden secrets. He loves women, I’ve noticed and devotes many of his best films to their lives. Secrets and Lies and Vera Drake are both films about women of closed-in lives who reveal themselves to be more than what is on the surface.

That is no less the case with Sally Hawkins in Happy-Go-Lucky, the story of a giddy, plucky, unendingly happy woman who only gradually reveals hidden dimensions about herself. Hawkins plays Poppy, the kind of over-joyed, curious, smiling soul for whom life is a party and the world is a curiosity shop. We enter her world, living in London and heading to a book shop on her bicycle. She has the kind of warm, sunny smile that is like watching the sun come out. She is the type that cannot tolerate a grump as in the opening scene when she meets a sullen book shop employee who refuses to speak to her. She makes jokes, small talk, side comments but he keeps bawking at her even when she makes jokes on her way out the door. We get a sense of her in the following scene when she discovers that he bike has been stolen and her only comment is “I never even got to say goodbye”.

Poppy’s world is simple and uncluttered. She lives in a small flat with her best friend Zoe, both are elementary school teachers, who occasionally go out at night to the club with friends. She is a slight little women, skinny with a sizable nose and a smile that stretches all the way back to her earlobes. She is pretty on the outside (with a striking resemblance to Sandra Bullock) but she also possesses a beauty that wells up from the inside. Listening to her, our initial response is to assume that she is an airhead. But as we pierce her heart-truth, as the film explores her more deeply, we see that she contains far more intelligence and far more caring dimensions than we might have initially thought. What we come to learn is that ultimately Happy-Go-Lucky is about the power of moving beyond first impressions.

Mike Leigh frees up Sally Hawkins’ performance by not locking Poppy into a plot. Leigh and Hawkins worked to shape the character and then let her be led by the sheer force of her personality. What we might call of plot are the adventures she has running to various people. Poppy has a way of looking deeper into the soul of her fellow human being in cases where most of us might have a more knee-jerk reaction. One example is Jack, one her students who is always getting into fights with his classmates. Rather than jerk the kid around and scream at him, Poppy chooses a more humane approach. She calls in a counselor and the three of them calmly talk to Jack and what is revealed is that the boy has a serious problem at home.

Another comes in a curious scene in the film’s center when Poppy, on her way home, hears a homeless man (Stanley Townsend) chanting to himself. Most of us would have turned and run the other way but Poppy tries to talk to him, listens to his chanting and tries to understand. He is surprised by her kindness and seems to calm himself just for a moment. She is as surprised as we when he reveals that he has too much pride to take that money she offers him.

The third takes up a little more time. After the theft of her bicycle, Poppy decides to take a driving lesson and this is where she meets Scott (Eddie Marsan), an angry little man who makes assumptions about Poppy based on her cheery attitude and “inappropriate footwear.” Poppy tries to disarm this unsmiling sulk with the force of her personality, to no avail. He is a pathologically devoid of any kind of humor and, we reasonably assume, most of us would have simply walked away but Poppy doesn’t give up that easily. She knows that Scott’s sorry attitude is no different than the difficult children she cares for in her classroom. He is a weird sort. He screams at her and gives her a method of remembering to check her mirrors by naming fallen angels (“Enraha!” he repeats). It would be impossible to learn from this man but Poppy sticks it out. Perhaps she can get to the root of what is wrong with him. The more lessons she takes, the more is revealed about his insecurity, his racism, his homophobia (he mistakenly thinks Poppy is a bisexual) and his paranoia filtered through bizarre theories like the one he reveals about the dimensions of The Washington Monument adding up to 666.

The final scenes between Poppy and Scott are mesmerizing as her correct reasoning about him and his misconceptions about her collide in a scene of astonishing revelation. What is amazing is that Hawkins plays the moment without ever making an attempt to step on this man’s ego. All through this film, she pulls off the difficult task of playing someone who is optimistically happy and tries to help with those around her buy listening, by empathizing, not by trying to solve their problems but by simply understanding. That’s a very difficult thing for any actress to pull off. We come into Happy-Go-Lucky with the assumption that we have met someone who is simply happy and nothing more. We leave the film with a profound respect for this woman who contains many more notes than we had initially thought.

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