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Oscar Overview

Culturekiosque turns its attention to the Academy Awards with
reviews of the films up for Best Picture.
For more, see Nouveau's post-Oscar Night commentary

American Beauty

Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening

The Sixth Sense

Haley Joel Osment and Bruce Willis

Photo : Courtesy of Buena Vista
Pictures Distribution

The Insider

Al Pacino and Russel Crowe

Photo : Courtesy of Touchstone Pictures.

The Cider House Rules

Tobey Maguire and Charlize Theron

Photo: Courtesy of Miramax

The Green Mile

Electric Chair

Photo: Courtesy of Warner Bros.

NEW YORK, 14 March 2000 - American Beauty may seem like one more flick goofing on the suburbs. But throughout, the film shows more than we expected. Scriptwriter Alan Ball has provided dialogue and counterpoint that thread through the film's issues surely, and director Sam Mendes has found visual symbols that simplify his difficult questions.

The performers each find unanticipated depths in suburban icons: Spacey's Lester is surprisingly warm and thoughtful beneath his midlife crisis; Annette Benning finds the frightened girl inside Caroline's bitchy squalling; and Birch and Bentley are intriguing as teens nurturing their inner adults. In a truly standout performance, Allison Janney sketches Ricky's mother as a wife ossified by her husband's strict demands.

American Beauty is nominated for 8 Academy Awards; among those nominated, it is CK's pick for best picture.

(For more, see Culturekiosque film critic Jesse Gale's review of American Beauty.)

The Sixth Sense

By C. Antonio Romero

The Sixth Sense turned out to be an understated, smart and well-crafted tale of the supernatural with a surprise ending that was both completely consistent and yet not at all telegraphed. Nine-year-old Cole Sear, tormented by the unquiet dead, bonds with Bruce Willis' Dr. Malcolm Crowe, a psychologist renowned for his work with troubled children; together they work out the secret of his unbearable visions and how he will cope with them.

Willis does competent, understated work, and Toni Collette's fine work as Cole's mother earned her a Best Supporting Actress nomination. Every other aspect of the film - a smart script, and music and cinematography that do much to build and modulate the film's mood - comes together as well.

The real revelation in this film, however, is the riveting performance of Haley Joel Osment. Osment does not steal scenes so much as own them, allowing Willis and Collette to share the screen with him. Neither miniature adult nor sentimentalist prop (and certainly no "Annakin the Mannakin"), Osment is virtually flawless in creating the character of a bright child struggling to cope with a constant throng of menacing phantoms. (Ironically, Osment auditioned for George Lucas's recent space debacle but did not receive a callback - this rejection may well have saved his career.).

Writer/director M. Night Shyamalan clearly knows what a find he has in young Osment, and does all that he can to support him; beyond getting so much else right so that Osment can shine, he winks at the audience through a subplot about a schoolyard nemesis of Cole's who lectures him on the finer points of acting.

As good as The Sixth Sense is, it is not likely to take the Best Picture Oscar with American Beauty in the running. It is also unclear whether Osment can take home the Best Supporting Actor award at his age - some may reason that "if he doesn't win it this time, he'll get it someday" and slight him for no other reason. Culturekiosque will pick him for it anyway - and the Academy be damned.

The Insider

by C. Antonio Romero

The Insider surprised Culturekiosque's editors by appearing in the Best Picture list at all. To give credit where it is due, The Insider tackles difficult subject matter - both the story of a not-terribly-sympathetic tobacco company informant who loses everything, and the moral failings of CBS's news organization confronted with a clash between the truth and the bottom line. If it seems overlong to some, it tells a story that could not unfold adequately in less time, mostly honoring the complexity of its source material (though, curiously, it glosses over the specific revelations that could have lent the situation more moral urgency). And the cast (including Al Pacino and Best Actor nominee Russell Crowe, who brings some of his L.A. Confidential edge to whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand) turn in very solid performances, orchestrated by the capable direction of Michael Mann.

Unfortunately, Mann's fingerprints are all over more than just the film's direction and cinematography. At critical moments, he elects to overwhelm the actors and script, suffocating them under Hallmark-card sentimentality, an inappropriately throbbing soundtrack, and even a special effects sequence straight out of (and probably designed for) music video. In these moments, the film becomes unintentionally laughable, undermining the cast's fine work, his own direction and the story as a whole.

It's hard to imagine Best Picture or Best Direction going to a film with such serious flaws; and Russel Crowe, capable though he may be, is no Kevin Spacey this time out. (It would be interesting to see what Mann would be capable of deprived of the techniques he perfected on Miami Vice - he may well do better work with one hand tied behind his back.).

The Cider House Rules

by Jesse Gale

The Cider House Rules was one of the disappointments of the year. Although many lovely performances and pretty shots compose the picture, on the whole it seems overly determined to be heartwarming. The tricky questions in this film tend to be glossed with nostalgia, rendering them cute but not potent.

The Cider House Rules adapts John Irving's 1985 novel for film - or, more accurately, it adapts the novel for the film business. In order to create two likable hours, Irving and director Lasse Halstrom (My Life as a Dog), stripped the story of characters, situations, and eras. They also stripped the story of much of its poison, leaving a pretty but dim picture behind. But the film's prettiness is no small matter. The camera broods nostalgically and magnificently on the Maine coast; the cast are adorable and well-lit; the script offers an acceptable tragedy of love sacrificed. Visually, even emotionally, the film coheres. It is charming.

Unfortunately, it feels almost too charming. Without the agonized secrets and deceptions that infect the novel, the film's charming picture of the illegal abortion era seems inappropriately sanitized. The cast's cheery radiance feels strangely void. Nonetheless, some lovely performances peep through: Tobey Maguire is awkwardly agreeable; Charlize Theron sleepily seduces; and Jane Alexander, in an outstanding cameo-sized role, underacts to perfection. The film has the sweet seriousness of a junior class vice-president: it is inoffensive and well-intentioned. But does that mean it's good?

The Green Mile

by Lynda S. Nuss

The Green Mile is a nice little film, but it is hard to imagine what it is doing in this company. Frank Darabont does a credible job of adapting Stephen King's whopping six volume serial novel to the screen, and the result is a touching ensemble production, with Tom Hanks (reprising his role as Everyman as prison guard Paul Edgecomb) managing a ragtag collection of well intentioned misfits - prisoners and guards alike - on Louisiana's death row.

The novel, and to some extent the movie, is an extended meditation on time - time to develop trust, time to build relationships, time to understand, time to change, and most of all, the time that all of us spend waiting for death to inevitably take us away. But ironically, even though the movie weighs in at a butt-numbing 3 hours and 2 minutes, time is exactly what this movie does not have. Where Darabont grew The Shawshank Redemption (which this movie resembles) from a King short story, this time he has a six volume novel to pare down, and the seams show.

While some episodes come out nicely - Michael Jeter steals the show as a mouse-training Cajun - the resolution feels forced, and bits and pieces of other stories intrude to make you wonder what on earth they are doing there (is Gary Sinise's 5 minute part really necessary?). The result is a sentimental mishmash, redeemed by some good character portrayals but bogged down by some clumsy symbolism (longsuffering inmate John Coffey's initials are J.C.... OK, class, what does that stand for?) A nice little movie, yes, but hardly Oscar material.

Next:Nouveau's commentary on Oscar Night

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