January 28, 2015

Oscars 2015: The Regulars

We are all aware of Meryl Streep's record 19th nomination at the Oscars this time. Clint Eastwood's nomination as the producer of 'American Sniper' is his eleventh in different categories. But are you aware of several multiple-times nominees who have worked behind the camera and have become legends in their own right? This post will introduce you to eight such Oscar regulars, all with more than seven nominations until now in their careers.

Eight Nominations:
  • Alexander Desplat (Composer): With eight nominations in nine years, this music composer is definitely one of the regulars at the awards, but hasn't won any. This time he is nominated for two films: The Imitation Game, and The Grand Budapest Hotel. Probability-wise he has good chances, but he has tough contender in first-time nominee Johann Johannsson who has scored for 'The Theory of Everything'.
  • Gregg Landaker (Sound Mixer): He won his first Oscar in 1981 for 'Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back'. The very next year he won for 'Raiders of the Lost Ark'. Doesn't he sound like a true legend? In 1995, he won again for 'Speed'. This year, he is nominated for 'Interstellar' and we must say he's got a very good chance of winning his fourth trophy!

Nine Nominations:
  • Hanz Zimmer (Composer): More well known than others in this list, he was nominated for the first time in 1989, for 'Rain Man'. He converted his second to a win with 'The Lion King' in 1995. Since then he has earned seven more nominations but no more win. Will 'Interstellar' end his wait of twenty years?
  • Diane Warren (Songwriter): A Grammy-winner, for the song "Because you loved me" from the movie 'Up Close & Personal' (1996), she was nominated consecutively for four years between 1997-2000. And then again in 2002. After thirteen years, this time she is nominated for the song "Grateful" from 'Beyond the Lights' and would be hoping to finally win her first Oscar.
  • Joe Letteri (VFX Artist): He has won four times already! For 'The Lord of the Rings - 2 & 3', 'King Kong' and 'Avatar' and gets nominated almost every year. This time he will be hoping for his fifth Oscar for 'Dawn of the Planet of the Apes'. I wonder if Oscar would still be exciting for him after all these years! 
  • Milena Canonero (Costume Designer): Her first nomination and win was for 'Barry Lyndon' in 1976. She was thirty then. Her filmography includes 'A Clockwork Orange', 'The Shining', 'Chariots of Fire', 'Out of Africa', and 'The Godfather III'. Talk about legends! Nominated after eight years for 'The Grand Budapest Hotel', she might just win her fourth Oscar.

Eleven Nominations:
  • Colleen Atwood (Costume Designer): She worked on 'Edward Scissorhands', 'The Silence of the Lambs', and 'Philadelphia' before earning her first nomination in 1995 for 'Little Women'. since then, she manages to get nominated almost every alternate year and has won thrice for 'Chicago', Memoirs of a Geisha' and 'Alice in Wonderland'. This year, she is nominated for 'Into the Woods'.

Twelve Nominations:
  • Roger Deakins (Cinematographer): Twelfth nomination, and still waiting for a win! The 65-year old legend has shot almost all Coen brothers' films. And there is more - 'The Shawshank Redemption', Martin Scorsese's 'Kundun', 'A Beautiful Mind', 'The Reader', 'Revolutionary Road' and 'Skyfall'. Will he finally win his first Oscar for Angelina Jolie's 'Unbroken'?

January 26, 2015

#1: A Bottleneck Called Casablanca

In this ten-part series I study the screenplay of ‘Casablanca’ by breaking it down to its several aspects. Click here and read from down upward for the entire series.

“I have already heard about this café, and also about Mr. Rick himself.”

Story Covered in Part 1: December 1941. The Second World War has forced thousands of Europeans to try to escape to the Americas. In the hope to find their exit through Lisbon, many are waiting, some endlessly, in the Moroccan city of Casablanca, still a part of unoccupied France. There are people from different countries, of varied age-groups, and of varied morality and intent. On the first day of our story, the local police get the news of the murder of two German couriers carrying important documents on the train to Casablanca. As a reaction to this, they start rounding up refugees, suspects or otherwise. CAPTAIN RENAULT, the French Police Prefect, informs the just-arrived German officer, MAJOR STRASSER, that they know who the murderer is and will be arresting him tonight at Rick’s Café. Rick’s is an expensive and popular nightclub where everyone goes – from the German soldiers to the French policemen and to the refugees dealing with black-marketers, to find means to survive and, if luck strikes, escape. The owner of this club is an American, RICK, aloof and nonchalant. And he hates Germans.

Step Outline:
  • Pg 1: A Narrator’s VO introduces the setting, followed by the first view of the city.
  • Pg 2-5: The police get to know about the murder of the German couriers and immediately get into action, arresting suspects of all kinds, even firing at them if need be. A EUROPEAN GUY smooth-talks an elderly Englishman, who is watching the pandemonium, and picks his pocket. The young Bulgarian couple, JAN and ANNINA BRANDEL, are among the refugees who hope to leave the city soon, as they spot an airplane in the sky. The plane swoops down a sign atop the building at the edge of the airport. That building is “Rick’s Café Americain”.
  • Pg 6-7: MAJOR STRASSER, the German Officer, alights from the plane and is welcomed by CAPTAIN RENAULT, the French Police Prefect. He assures the Major that they already know who the murder is and they will arrest him tonight at Rick’s. The Major has heard about this café, and its owner.
  • Pg 8-12: It is night. And Rick’s is overcrowded with people of all kind. Through their brief and secretive conversations we get to know that some have been waiting in this city endlessly. Others are trying to sell their belongings cheaply in order to survive. There are conspirators. And refugees illegally buying their visas from black-marketers. Even the staff is varied. The African-American SAM plays the piano, SACHA is the Russian bartender, CARL is a waiter from Germany, and ABDUL is the guard. RICK, the American owner, and our protagonist, never drinks with customers. He drinks alone, and does not allow Germans into the secret gambling room of his. As Rick throws a German out, who threatens him back, a nervous, thin man UGARTE enters.
Structure: The setting-up is very elaborate, and reading the first few pages is unsettling, with so many characters, much more than those I’ve mentioned in the Step Outline above. But taking time to do this is essential – we must know how it is in Casablanca. Also, watching these short scenes on the screen is not tiring at all, but cinematic. The protagonist enters very late, on pg 11, but on pg 8, the antagonist has mentioned him. Also, his café has been introduced even earlier.

The Character arc: We have just seen Rick. And we are aware that he is going to be a strong cinematic character.

  • The murder of the couriers has started the search of the murderer.
  • The Bulgarian couple is introduced as desperate refugees who aspire to leave urgently.
Tools Employed:
  • Opening Voice-over: Very briefly and very effectively it introduces the city and the title of the film.
  • Action kicks in quickly: With the news of the murders on the train and the subsequent arrests
  • Visual storytelling: Introducing Casablanca and Rick’s is definitely visual, especially with people from different ethnicity and cultures. At the beginning of pg 6, the first look at the café sign when the plane is landing is masterful, because not only it is a great introduction to the Café and its location, it is also a smart transition to the next scene of Strasser alighting from the plane.
  • Orchestration of characters: All with speaking parts are unique and colorful.
  • The spoken lines are already very charming, witty, and entertaining.
Conventions Broken:
  • The Protagonist should enter the film very early: Rick enters very late. But the pages before this have built him up, and his café. So although, he becomes visible on pg 11, he has “entered” the film much before that.
  • The Inciting Incident should be early so that the main plot gets kicked in as soon as the film begins: The writer is relying only on sub-plots to hold our interest.
  • The Image of the airplane on pg 5 is a symbol of hope and freedom. This plane will be playing a very important role in the climax.
  • Casablanca is like a prison. Refugees look wistfully at the plane, and later at Rick’s, secretly plan their escape or worry about their endless wait.
  • Rick’s Café is like USA itself, with representatives from all over the world, having a good time, finding hope, making money, and its owner – a snobbish capitalist.
  • Similarly, Renault represents Vichy, the puppet government of unoccupied France.
  • Major Strasser, the Nazi, has just reached Casablanca, implying the German expansion to new territories.
  • Also, Captain Tonelli, the Italian has been used on page 7 as an ass-licker to Major Strasser – clearly a political statement on Italy’s sucking up to Germany.
Standout scene: The scene leading to Rick’s entrance in which Carl informs some guests how it is not easy to impress Rick and he never drinks with customers. And then we see him, sitting alone, drinking, calm and composed, and stylish.

What is the audience expecting now: We are expecting the arrest of the murderer at the Café and are curious to know who he is. And we know Rick is going to be our hero. How, we do not know at all.

January 25, 2015

Studying the Finest Screenplay Ever Written

Ever since I watched the character of Robert McKee (played by Brian Cox) in the Spike Jonze film ‘Adaptation’ (2002) claim that Casablanca is "the finest screenplay ever written", I wanted to read the screenplay of this 1942 classic. I finally managed to do that in the third week of January. And it has inspired me to indulge in a detailed study of the script. I am very sure this is going to be an immensely fruitful exercise for me. If you have not watched the movie, I strongly recommend you to do so. And if you have, I hope this series will be enjoyable for you. For making the best use of this, you should read the screenplay by clicking here.

The method I have used to study this script is an adaptation of what Scott Myers suggests on his wonderful blog. I am thankful to him for this. And then I have modified it to suit my approach. I have broken the 126-page script into ten parts, each roughly 11 to 14 pages in duration. So my study of the script will be shared on this blog in ten different parts. I must also be thankful to Robert McKee whose observations on the film, in his book ‘Story’, have given me tremendous insight into it.

While discussing the events of every part, all major plot points will be marked in bold and all characters who are appearing for the first time in the film will be mentioned in CAPITALS. For the sake of this series, I am not taking ‘scene’ in its technical, literal sense. There are long sequences in one scene that I have broken down to different scenes in the Step Outline. On the other hand, there are short scenes that actually form one major scene – so I have clubbed them together.

A brief note on the historical backdrop of the film: The film is set over three days in Casablanca, Morocco, during the Second World War, December 1941 to be precise. The Third Reich (Led by the Nazi Germany, and supported by Italy and Japan) have occupied several parts of Europe, including the forced surrender of France eighteen months ago (setting of the back-story of the romantic pair of Rick and Ilsa). The unoccupied France, of which Morocco is a colony, is under the rule of Vichy, the French puppet government controlled by the Nazis. Several European refugees and Americans want to run away to the US through Lisbon in Portugal. But it is tough to reach Lisbon directly through Europe. Hence several of them reach Oran, which is the port city of France-occupied Algeria on the Mediterranean Sea and then travel to Casablanca and wait to find exit visas to Lisbon which is across the Atlantic from Casablanca, and not very far. Today, it takes 80 minutes to fly between these two cities. So, this film, set in Casablanca, brings to us characters from different parts of the world, of different allegiances and political affiliations.

I'm looking forward to your reaction to this series of posts!

January 19, 2015

Oscars 2015: Doubling the Cannon

Three days ago, I wrote a blog post on the top ten movies you must watch in order to make sense of the Academy Award ceremony on the 22nd of February. That list of ten movies is, of course, not representative of all awards and nominations. So here I follow up with this short post on ten more movies that you should watch after the first ten.
  • Gone Girl (Nominated for Best Actress) David Fincher definitely deserves much more than how the Academy has recongnized his filmography. And he is such an exciting film-maker that you can expect him to be back with a solid vengeance. In my opinion, 'Gone Girl' definitely deserved Best Picture and Screenplay nominations. But not it's down to Rosamund Pike to represent this movie. She has won multiple awards for her performance, but the fight for the Oscar is tough. Let us see what happens!
  • Guardians of the Galaxy (Nominated for VFX and Makeup & Hairstyling) At the box office, this film is unmatched by all other 19 films I have mentioned under this series. It might give a fight to 'Interstellar' for the VFX trophy.
  • Ida (Nominated for Best Foreign-language film and Cinematography) Despite its great performance at festivals and indie box-office, 'Ida' might most likely lose the Foreign-language trophy to 'Leviathan'. Watch this film anyway. Because it will most like not win the cinematography prize. And you will have better perspective about whoever wins it once you have watched this one because its cinematography is stunning! Read this post I wrote about its compositions a few weeks ago.
  • Inherent Vice (Nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay and Costume Design) The biggest reason to watch this film is its writer-director, Paul Thomas Anderson, who has earned his sixth nomination with this film. However, it seems he'll have to wait for his first win.
  • Into the Woods (Nominated for Best Supporting Actress, Production Design and Costume Design) Meryl Streep has been nominated for a record 19th time, more than any other actor or actress. However, it can be safely assumed that she won't have her fourth win this time. The film is directed by 'Chicago' director Rob Marshall.
  • Leviathan (Nominated for Best Foreign-language film) This Russian film had won the Screenplay award at Cannes. After the Foreign-language win at Golden Globes, its chances for the Oscar are really high and the only real competition seems to be in 'Ida'. This is the fourth film by director Andrey Zvyagintsev, who has debuted with the brilliant 'The Return' in 2003.
  • Selma (Nominated for Best Picture and Original Song) Despite being nominated for Best Picture, 'Selma' has not earned a single major nomination. This has happened for the first time in decades. However, it's very likely that it will bag the Original Song award.
  • Still Alice (Nominated for Best Actress) Julianne Moore definitely has a great chance of taking home the award in her fifth nomination, third for Best Actress. Also, she has been nominated after 12 years. So it must feel good.
  • Unbroken (Nominated for Best Cinematography, Sound Editing and Sound Mixing) Angelina Jolie's second film as a director, on a screenplay by the Coen Brothers! But perhaps the biggest reason to watch it is for its legendary Cinematographer, Roger Deakins, who has shot several films by the Coens, apart from 'The Shawshank Redemption', 'Kundun', 'The Reader', 'Skyfall' and 'Prisoners'. This is his 12th nomination without a win. I feel like rooting for him just for this reason alone.
  • Wild (Nominated for Best Actress and Supporting Actress) Will Reese Witherspoon throw up a surprise and grab her second Oscar? Chances are much less for Laura Dern whose nomination, first in 23 years, has surprised many. I want to watch this film for its director, Jean-Marc Vallee, whose 'Dallas Buyers Club' had pleased me a lot last year.

January 18, 2015

Must Watch Before You Die #43: The White Balloon (1995)

I love Iranian cinema, like most of you. However, this is the first Iranian film that I'm recommending in my series of must-watch movies. This should be a sign enough to suggest how seriously exclusive I want this list to be. But ten minutes into Jafar Panahi's debut feature, 'The White Balloon', and I knew this movie will make it to this recommendation.

It only improved. The screenplay by Abbas Kiarostami and the wonderful acting performances grip you unlike most films you are going to watch. And then their are little details of staging, and sound design, that showed to the world what Panahi was capable of. He won Camera d'or at Cannes that year, the highest award for a debutant director.

Why this film is a must watch? Because it will make you smile profusely. The pure innocence of the kids will make you forget the troubles of your own life. Because you can watch it again and again, alone or with family. It is only 80 minutes and hence you can watch it whenever you feel like. And of course, like most films from Iran, it has themes and symbolism that goes beyond the plot. The title of the movie itself is a big surprise! I won't talk much. You just have to watch it. NOW!!!

You can watch it by clicking here. Please do it soon. You never know when it goes off Youtube!

January 16, 2015

Top 10 at Oscars 2015

The Oscar nominations are out. This year is the year of indies, with several low to medium budget films dominating the short-lists. But what is going to be the topic of hot debate over the next few days is the list of movies that got snubbed by the Academy. 'Selma', for example, is the first Best Picture hopeful in decades that did not earn a nomination in any of the acting, writing, or technical categories. The screenplay of 'Gone Girl', Jake Gyllenhall's performance in 'Nightcrawler', and 'The Lego Movie' in the animated feature category are other major snubs. Another thing to note is that there is not a single movie this year with the Big Five nominations.

I've been watching the live coverage of the Academy Awards for its last three editions and I know that a lot of readers of this blog do the same, although it requires getting up at 6 on a Monday morning. Several others will watch the replay that evening and the awards will be a matter of furious debate over social media. (I remember how livid a lot of Leonardo fans were last year when he lost the Best Actor trophy to Matthew McConaughey; and some of them had not even watched 'Dallas Buyers Club' to know how amazing the winner was.) In order to really enjoy the award function and the debates that follow, you need to be aware of the movies that will be competing that day. Like in 2013, and 2014, I'm sharing with you the top 10 movies that you must watch to make your Oscar experience fruitful. You have got less than forty days to finish watching these. So, start rightaway.
  1. American Sniper (six nominations, including Best Picture and Actor): The Oscars sure love good ol' Clint! Snubbed completely by the Golden Globes, and earning only two BAFTA nominations, this biopic on perhaps the most lethal sniper in American miitary history is the 84-year young veteran filmmaker's fifth film to be nominated for Best Picture. Also, Bradley Cooper earns an acting nomination for the third consecutive year. The film releases in India today and I've watched the morning show.
  2. Birdman (nine nominations, including Best Picture, Director, and Actor): Each of the five films made by Inarritu over the last fifteen years, who is already a legend of our time, has earned at least one Oscar nomination, and a total of twenty-one! Talk about quality and quantity! PVR website says it releases in India on the 30th of January. My most eagerly awaited movie of this list!
  3. Boyhood (six nominations, including Picture, Director): My unconditional and obsessive love for this film is evident to the readers of my blog. You can click here to read my views on it. I have already watched it twice on big screen and if, after its most likely Best Picture win, it is re-released, I'll watch it again. I'm also super happy for Richard Linklater, the maverick maker of indies for more than twenty years, that he has a shot at Best Director. This once-in-a-lifetime-of-a-film headlines the success of indies in 2014, and is a pleasant reassurance that cinema has not yet exhausted all its great ideas!
  4. Foxcatcher (five nominations, including Best Director): Three films in almost ten years and they have earned as many as 16 Oscar nominations in total. What a career Benett Miller has set for himself. It is strange how this film could not make it to the Best Picture shortlist. Should release in India on the 30th of January.
  5. Grand Budapest Hotel, The (nine nominations despite none in acting categoires): It took eight films for the inimitable Wes Anderson to earn a Best Picture and Director nomination. This is one solid example why the Oscars need not be taken too seriously. However, this latest film by Anderson is absolutely delicious and gives us the assurance that despite operating in his own style, he has a lot more to offer. The film has aready had its run in India. But since it has earned most number of nominations (with 'Birdman'), we may find a limited re-release.
  6. Imitation Game, The (eight nominations, including Best Picture, Director, and Actor): Every year, through the award functions, I get introduced to filmmakers I didn't know about and this is one very important reason why I look forward to it. The Norwegian director, Morten Tyldum, started his career with TV and made his first feature film at the age of 36. In the next 11 years, he made three more films, and his fourth and the latest has catapulted him to the big league. It is also his English film debut.
  7. Interstellar (five nominations): Despite being an enthralling experience, the latest Nolan film fails to earn a Best Picture nomination. Honestly, I don't mind. It should win the VFX award, and perhaps one for sound as well. It is still running in theaters and you must watch it, preferably on IMAX. 
  8. Mr. Turner (four nominations): The veteran English filmmaker, Mike Leigh, who will turn 72 two days before the Oscar ceremony, has had seven nominations in his career so far, as writer and director. 'Mr. Turner', however, could not earn him any, or to its wonderful cast. With nominations for Cinematography, Production Design, and Costumes, it surely appears to be a visually stunning picture. Should release in India on the 6th of Feb. Must watch it, irrespective of its fate at the awards night.
  9. Theory of everything, The (five nominations, including Best Picture, Actor and Actress): When you are making a feature film on Stephen Hawking, you must do it well. And seems this one has done really well, the only film to earn both Best Actor and Actress nominations. Its director James Marsh has been a major documentary filmmaker as well and has won an Oscar for 'Man on Wire'. The film releases in India today.
  10. Whiplash (five nominations, including Best Picture): This is only the second feature by its 30-year old director, Damien Chazelle, who has also earned a writing nomination for the same. He must be proud of the illustrious company he is in and might just be the director to watch. All his films have music as their backdrop and this makes me particulary eager to watch 'Whiplash'. I have no clue about when it's going to be released in India. Any help would be gratefully appreciated.
There 91 nominations among feature films this year (not including, foreign-language films, shorts, animation, and documentaries) and the ten movies mentioned above cover 62 of them. They should also cover most of the 18 awards they are competing for. Hence this list should be good enough to for you. However, there is one major category that does not find representation in this list, the Best Actress. Even if you watch all the ten movies above, you'll miss out on four Actress nominees, and most likely the winner as well. I hope to come up with another list soon, for those who want to be pro at this year's Oscars. For starters, and for those who do not have a lot of time to watch movies, the list above should suffice.

January 02, 2015

Cinema 2014: My Top 10 Modern English Movies

I have thoroughly enjoyed the process of compiling these lists. If I keep doing it every year, after a decade or so it'll be really interesting for me to look back and trace the journey. 

Here is the final list, after my top ten lists on English classics and modern and classic Foreign-language filmsI'm gad I watched seven of these on the big screen.

For the present category, I have considered about 30 movies that I watched in 2014 for the first time, movie that are not more than five years old. 'Inside Llewyn Davis', 'A Serious Man', and 'Short Term 12' could be in this list if I had watched them for the first time in 2014.

So here is the final list:
  • Boyhood (2014/ USA) by Richard Linklater: My love for this movie must be more than obvious to the regular readers of my blog. I'm going to strongly root for it at the upcoming Oscars. This is also the only movie I recommended as a must-watch-before-you-die out of the 75 'modern' English and foreign films I watched in 2014.
  • Gone Girl (2014/ USA) by David Fincher: This post that I wrote as a reaction to this movie hints at what a revelation it was for me. One of the best screenplays in recent time. A brilliant modern movie.
  • The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014/ USA) by Wes Anderson: No one can do this except Wes Anderson. After this movie he has reassured us that he'll keep coming up with his own style of movies and still churn out seriously original material. And all the cameos were just wow!
  • Nebraska (2013/ USA) by Alexander Payne: This in my opinion was the Best Picture at the Oscars last year. But it didn't win. And it also didn't win too many audiences in our part of the world. But this stunningly shot B&W film says so much about life, and so interestingly, that it deserves multiple viewings.
  • Nightcrawler (2014/ USA) by Dan Gilroy: This must be called the surprise of the year. Everyone is talking about it. I'm glad I watched it on big screen. What a solid entertainer. I really hope Jake Gyllenhaal earns an Oscar nomination for this.
  • Nymphomaniac (2013/ Denmark) by Lars Von Trier: I unapologetically and unconditionally loved this two-part 330 minutes long movie by perhaps the most provocative film-maker of our time. What a brilliant commentary on the hypocrisy of our society!
  • Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012/ USA) by Stephen Chobsky: This was a beautiful, beautiful movie with some of the most endearing moments. Easily can be recommended to anyone. Perhaps this was one of the most special movie experiences for me this year.
  • Under the Skin (2013/ UK-USA) by Jonathan Glazer: I wish they had released this movie in India. Watching it on big screen would have been tremendous. Moody, haunting, seductive, mysterious, and a winning use of the medium. And that background score! Oh!!
  • Warrior (2011/ USA) by Gavin O'Connor: I had heard very good things about this movie that also features on IMDB-250 despite not being a commercial success. Absolutely loved its tale of a family coming together through a deep emotional and violently physical catharsis. 
  • The Wolf of Wall Street (2013/ USA) by Martin Scorsese: The energy and the madness of this movie makes it impossible to believe that it's made by the Master, one of the most senior filmmakers we have with us today. This also proves how young-at-heart Martin is. And of course, how dependable Leonardo is, all the time.
Honorable Mention: Dallas Buyers Club (2013/ USA/ Jean-Marc Vallee) for the performances and Only Lovers Left Alive (2013/ UK-Germany/ Jim Jarmusch) for the inimitable authorship of Jarmusch.