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Oscar, adjective. (UPDATED)

It’s Oscar night – the one night of the year when we can all look forward to four-plus hours of Hollywood celebrating itself with one overblown musical number, self-congratulatory speech, and poignant cutaway to Mickey Rooney in his nosebleed seats after another. This year, the field of Best Picture nominees was expanded to ten, signalling two things: 1) the Academy needs an excuse to include popular fare like District 9 in its marquee category, for ratings and marketing purposes; and 2) the Academy’s going to have its teleprompter writers working overtime thinking up pithy ways to (over)praise these ten nominees. In other words, expect flattering adjectives to abound in tonight’s telecast.

Recognizing this, we at Wipe have decided to offer our own version of “Oscar predictions”: instead of predicting the winners, we predict the adjectives mostly likely to be used on teleprompter screens in praise of the nominees (limiting ourselves to the Picture category, in the interest of brevity). And as an added bonus, we offer our own adjectives in response to the Academy. (I know what you’re thinking, but no, we’re not only out to piss on the Oscar parade.)

Call it our Oscar round-up – or “Wipe-up,” if you will.

The Ten Best Picture Nominees are:

Oscar says: “Heartwarming”

Wipe says: “Republican”

Oscar says: “No Holds Barred”

Wipe says: “Overdone”


Oscar says: “British”

Wipe says: “Pedo”


Oscar says: “Tender”

Wipe says: “Mushy”


Oscar says: “Soaring”

Wipe says:  “Clooney”


Oscar says: “Groundbreaking”

Wipe says: “Techno-horny”


Oscar says: “Unflinching”

Wipe says: “Unsubtle”


Oscar says: “Innovative”

Wipe says: “Techno-racist”


Oscar says: “Jewish”

Wipe says: “Philosophi-coen”


Oscar says: “Heartstopping”

Wipe says: “Heartpounding”

Check back after the ceremony to see how well we scored in our Oscar predictions!

*UPDATE: Stymied by the teleprompter! By our count, we only correctly predicted one adjective: presenter Charlize Theron used the word “unflinching” to describe Precious. Other than that, zilch. They didn’t even use “Jewish” to describe A Serious Man, which is baffling. Oh well, at least we all had fun, right folks? (But seriously, talk about a snoozer.)

-Wipe

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Overlord (1975)

Director: Stuart Cooper

Screenplay: Christopher Hudson, Stuart Cooper

World War II is possibly one of the most difficult subjects to aptly portray on film.  That’s not to say that it isn’t attempted again and again to varying degrees of success, but more recent fare such as Edward Zwick’s Defiance, Bryan Singer’s Valkyrie and Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds lean toward frivolity as a result of their historical inaccuracy and lack of depth.  It’s hardly surprising then, that of the monstrous offering of WWII films, only a small percentage can be viewed as anything more than cheap entertainment.

Perhaps it seems strange to fault a film for being nothing more than entertainment. Yet when it comes to depicting the horrors of World War II, film does indeed have a duty to uphold.  Historical accuracy is primary, but also needed are attempts at preserving the fragments and complexities that make up war.  Exploration of these aspects not only strengthens what we know of the war, but also creates the opportunity for an audience to consider perspectives beyond those typically framed by the standard war film.

For its part, Overlord is above and beyond the standard war film, playing out like a feverish dream and toying with the intimacy one might experience from secretly reading someone’s diary.  The film practically breathes, it’s so deeply entrenched in what it means for a young man to literally hand over his life to the state in a time of war.  Melding actual archival World War II footage into the film, Overlord riffs on neo-realism several decades after it was made fashionable by filmmakers like Roberto Rossellini and Kenji Mizoguchi.  The story follows Tom, a quiet 20-year-old, as he’s called up for basic training before ultimately taking part in the D-Day invasion of Normandy.

The film itself is pure poetry: from the direction, to the dialogue to the seamless integration of archival war footage alongside the brilliant camera work of cinematographer John Alcott.  All of it induces a powerful range of emotions: confusion, fear, love, innocence lost, helplessness and finally a morose acceptance of it all.  As Tom submits himself to the state’s will, he’s become what he’s trained to be: a soldier; an empty vessel designed strictly to complete an objective, come what may.

Though Overlord doesn’t investigate the war as a whole, it does a superb job of investigating a life – a single solitary life, and what it means to simply relinquish that life for what would be considered a greater cause.  In the process of this,  Overlord makes no judgements on these circumstances, but it does encourage its audience above all, to feel.

-mike

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Police, Adjective (2009)

Director: Cornelieu Porumboiu

Screenplay: Cornelieu Porumboiu

How debased has our sense of cinema and art become when we accept a scene in which a character reads flatly and repeatedly from a dictionary as some kind of revelation, or mark of filmmaking intelligence? This very scene is the “climax” of the tedious Romanian film Police, Adjective, directed by Cornelieu Porumboiu (12:o8 East of Bucharest [2006]), which has been garnering a baffling amount of praise since it took home Un Certain Regard Jury Prize at Cannes last May. Seldom have I seen a film this blatantly didactic (though not as incendiary as Marxist Godard, or as controversial as Haneke) and intentionally dull (though not half as provocative as Antoniennui, or as morbidly funny as Tsai or Aki Kaurismäki) set so many pulses racing in the critical community. (The film has a 100% rating from major critics at Rotten Tomatoes. Robert Koehler of Variety called it the “best cut movie ever.”) By what strange deformation of our senses have we convinced ourselves that profoundly unimaginative, literal-headed and dramatically nil movies are some kind of mind-blowing art?

Describing Police, Adjective is a tedious task in its own right. Under the bleak skies of Vaslui, Romania, a youngish plainclothes police detective, Cristi (Dragos Bucur), spends weeks monitoring a high school student he suspects of possessing and possibly dealing hash. The job of surveillance is depicted in the driest terms possible, with the camera framing Cristi in unexciting compositions simply walking behind the suspect for minutes at a time, observing him in the schoolyard as he gets high with friends, and later standing outside the teen’s house watching people come and go while sipping tea and smoking cigarettes. At the end of the day, the detective goes back to the precinct to fill out forms and file the day’s report, and we sit there with him and watch. Occasionally Cristi converses with his co-workers over trifling matters (such as whether one colleague is fit to join the precinct’s “foot tennis” club); at home, he banters with his wife (Irina Saulescu) over grammatical errors and the semantics of a god-awful pop song (which we are subjected to hearing three times in a row). Now this is cinema! Let me rephrase that: Now this is cinema?

I suppose we are to understand from Cristi’s boring, absurdly trivial case that police procedure is often a soul-sucking task, and that strict adherence to the letter of the law (especially in a country still recovering from a Communist police state) dehumanizes the individual, whether cop or citizen. Cristi himself is “torn” (probably too strong a word) between arresting the teen perp for the piddling crime of smoking a joint, and ignoring the law so as not to send a young man to jail for eight years for a crime soon to be out-of-date (i.e. once Romania inevitably adopts some of the Western countries in the EU’s laxer drug laws). This “crisis of conscience” suggests a moral centre to the film that is hardly convincing, given how disaffected Cristi seems (e.g., he wears the same sweater for days at a time; never betrays an emotion on or off the job, aside from mild irritation), and how resolutely the film refuses to engage with the characters except as objects of amused, detached observation. Porumboiu’s camera studies Cristi and others with about an equal amount of inquisitiveness as it does a handwritten police report–the director’s idea of absurdist comedy.

The aforementioned dictionary scene should be notorious by now for its dual crimes of interminability and horseshit obviousness. Framed in a sarcastic static shot (note the bowl of wax fruit in the centre of the composition), the smug chief of police (Vlad Ivanov, the abortionist from the far superior 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days [2007]) challenges Cristi to define what he means by “conscience” after the detective uses the word to excuse himself from arresting the teenage drug offender. Cristi provides a hesitant, commonplace definition (referencing a sense of feeling bad about doing something wrong), which the chief of police orders another detective to write on a chalkboard, while in the meantime the chief’s secretary goes to fetch a dictionary for the group. The police chief then has Cristi recite the dictionary definition of “conscience,” to show up how meagerly Cristi’s definition matches the “official” one. From there, Cristi is ordered to look up the words “law,” and then “police”–all part of the chief’s (and we might say Porumboiu’s) long-winded lecture on the difference between personal, ethical responses to words/concepts and the meaning of these words as sanctioned by the state. Without state-approved definitions of law, police, conscience, says the chief, there would be “chaos.”

We might have guessed this would be the chief’s point from the moment he orders the dictionary into the room. The scene is such a rudimentary illustration of the tyranny of the state, its law and language, over the complexity of human feeling that one marvels at how long it takes Porumboiu to get from point-a to point-b in the chief’s argument. (Is this rigour or lack of concision? On whose part–Porumboiu’s or the chief’s?) What perhaps bothers me most about the scene (aside from the leaden use of a dictionary as dramatic device), is Porumboiu’s deference to the chief as he bullies Cristi with insufferable, condescending rhetoric. (The chief is meant to be a funny guy I guess–but his suggestion that he is engaging Cristi in “dialectics” is simply perverse.) Porumboiu undeniably finds something charming in the chief (he’s the only character allowed a vivid personality in the film), just as Tarantino located his most charismatic character in the Nazi “Jew Hunter” Hans Landa of Inglourious Basterds (2009). The two directors clearly share a facile sense of irony, and a penchant for indulging assholes.

From what I can tell, I’m virtually alone in despising Police, Adjective. (Well, Armond White’s always good for an outraged pan of a consensus favourite.) New York Times critic A.O. Scott defends the film’s blah realism as “a hyperbolically blunt statement of an impulse that drives much recent Romanian cinema, away from metaphor and toward a concrete, illusion-free reckoning with things as they are.” To put it less kindly, Porumboiu doesn’t allow that there are imaginative (also illusion-free) ways to deal with reality, in life and in filmmaking–strategies to resist the limitations of our daily existence: the pettiness of bureaucracy, the doldrums of work, the so-called “tyranny” of language. Even when the characters play a game of foot tennis, the camera frames it in a static, defeated composition. Porumboiu’s too cynical to embrace art as a means to reimagine life; he fails to score the triumph of bitter, deadpan humour over workaday living that, for example, Kaurismäki does in the restive Match Factory Girl (1990). And you can forget about finding here any of the spiritual victories over mundane reality evidenced in Bresson’s masterpieces, even though Porumboiu cites Pickpocket (1959) as a key influence. In fact, Police, Adjective is finally about surrendering to “things as they are”–the final shot is a veritable diagram of Cristi’s capitulation. That Porumboiu thinks the grating irony of the upbeat dance music over the end credits is any substitute for a more measured retort to bureaucratic control simply confirms the director’s stunted cynicism, and his lack of imagination.

-Cam

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Why the hell are you shooting it in that?

Bear with me folks, I’m an old projectionist so this is what I daydream about when I’m not dawdling on about hockey or a hermetic life spent in the Seychelles. My column today concerns the importance of choosing the right aspect ratio for your future cinematic masterpieces along with a brief look at the advantages of shooting in film and digital. Hardly barn-burning stuff you may think, but stay tuned for porn and explosions!
(Please note: neither ‘porn’ nor ‘explosions’ will take place below.)

When to choose 1.85 : 1 Aspect Ratio
You want to tell an intimate story–for example the struggles of half-Job, half-schmuck Larry Gopnik in the Coens’ A Serious Man (2009). The story resonates with the Coens’ own Minnesota childhood and because Larry at no point fights a polar bear on top of the White House or saves the Third World, the film remains in the smaller, more appropriate ratio of 1:85 (aka “flat widescreen”). Another example is Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation (2003), which never stretches the borders of a 1:85 screen nor the demands of the viewer with its zeitgeisty romance, because if you expand the frame you’re also expanding the viewer’s expectations. The flat screen ratio has been adopted worldwide by filmmakers over the standard 1:37 that was once de rigueur for documentaries and fictional work grounded in reality, with 1:37/1:33 ratios still being used for certain projects (Alan Clarke’s  Elephant [1989] and later Gus Van Zant’s own version [2003] spring to mind with their particular unsettling realities).

Below is an example of a 1:85 widescreen ratio:

When to choose 2.39 : 1 Aspect Ratio
If you’re gonna do a “larger than life” film (see: Tarantino’s WWII fantasies in Inglourious Basterds [2009], or PTA fulminating against capitalism with There Will Be Blood [2007]), you don’t want your epic fighting for breathing room in the frame, hence the longer image of 2:39 to match a larger subject matter. The Man with No Name in Leone’s spaghetti westerns was an iconic character in an iconic setting, therefore The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) had to be shot/viewed in anamorphic widescreen–the alternative to a shoddy pan-and-scan world lacking perspective on the mythical gunslingers in the Wild West (via the high plains of Spain). This can also apply to gritty films with an immense worldview, say the international scheming of Syriana (2005), or the canonization of the 9/11 passengers in United 93 (2006). Soderbergh’s Traffic (2000) worked in 1:85 because it had common ground with the reality of cinema-vérité documentaries, but it also would have been entirely acceptable to have been shot/screened in anamorphic with its scope of characters and events.

Below is a 2:39 aspect ratio:

Film vs. Digital

Celluloid has existed for over three centuries, and along with persistence-of-vision remains the closest claim to alchemy that civilization has achieved. Digital is the steadily-popular method for filming blockbusters, indie flicks and everything in-between, for very good reasons: flexibility, durability, ease of shooting on set and transfer time in post-production. My thoughts on shooting film vs. digital go beyond the technical limitations and financial reasons behind both formats and towards the psychology of WHY you should choose a certain format. If celluloid and photography have deep roots in our history over the past 200 years and digital points to our present and future, should that thought process not apply to the format with which you choose to film a Mumblecore short, a 3-hour Custer bio-pic or any sci-fi extravaganza?

Michael Mann chose digital to bring John Dillinger’s brief life to screen in Public Enemies (2009) with the intention of immersing the audience in 1930’s Americana and it worked up until the slo-mo climax stretched the demands one could place on the format. Digital has yet to find a solution to its awkward appearance in slow-motion, and this undercut otherwise excellent reasoning for more period pieces to be shot digitally. Another offender is Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto (2006), which allowed the filmmakers an easier time of shooting in the Mexican jungles than 35mm film yet in any scene involving fast-cutting movement, digital ‘pixelation’ occurred–thus taking me right out of the realm of the Mayans. Now if pixelation were to occur in present day settings such as Mann’s Miami Vice (2006) or the futuristic Avatar (2009) I would readily except the digital look as a reflection of our modern times and the years to come. My point being if you want to capture the essence of the past perhaps you should put down the Red One camera and pick up a Super 35 camera with a fine grainy stock, and vice-versa if you’re making the next Terminator popcorn muncher.

There you go, those are my thoughts on the matters, I hope they can be of use to you.

Thanks to the images section of Blu-ray.com and dvdbeaver.com for the examples used above.

-B.A.S.

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