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Monday, November 26, 2012

OSCAR RACE: Best Supporting Actor



Continuing my analysis of the Oscar race (or as I call it, I need to get a life), it’s time to focus on the supporting acting categories.  One would think that supporting categories, whether male or female, would be much more difficult to predict and in one way they are.  While there is only one, maybe two, leads in a film (per gender), every film is crowded with supporting since, by deduction, if you’re not one of the two leads, you only have one alternative—supporting.   At the same time, like most categories, the possible nominations actually, and perhaps surprisingly, tend to settle rather fast to usually little more than six, or on rare occasions, seven possibilities.

I’ll start with the Best Supporting Actor category or as I and a friend of mine call it, the Don Ameche Award, named after the win by that actor for his role in Cocoon, not so much for his acting skill (which was often considered a joke by critics and film aficionados, though he did get better as he aged, like fine wine and cheese), but as a career award (like James Coburn, Christopher Plummer, Jack Palance, Sean Connery, Martin Landau, Alan Alda).  At the same time, I’m being facetious.  This doesn’t happen as often as one might think, and most of these performances were very deserving.  But I believe someone once did a study and discovered that supporting actor winners on average were older than supporting actress winners.  In the supporting actor category, it helps to have paid your dues more than in the distaff side, where voters (mostly male) tend to like their winners young and up and coming (even to the point of being a bit too Humbert Humbert in their choices, perhaps?).

At any rate, the dust has started to settle and it looks as if the list is becoming fairly clear.   At the same time, predictions are a bit hampered here by some of the films not having opened yet, so the performances in those movies are still somewhat unknown quantities.

Alan Arkin for Argo to win.  This now seems pretty settled and it would take a lot to unseat his position.   He’s already won his career award for Little Miss Sunshine, but that probably won’t cause him any problems this time around.  It’s a tremendous performance, a masterpiece of comic timing, in a very popular movie.   At the same time, Argo may have peaked a bit too soon and I may be speaking a bit too early. 

Philip Seymour Hoffman for The Master.  The Master went totally over my head (and apparently, based on audience reaction, I’m not the only one).  Everything about The Master is a bit iffy when it comes to nominations just because it didn’t connect with viewers, including Oscars voters.  But everyone is still saying that Hoffman is a shoo in (some think he may even win, but I don’t see it yet).  A lot may depend on the campaign, since the movie has disappeared and may take a little doing to get people to remember it even opened this year (critics’ awards may help here).

Tommy Lee Jones in Lincoln.  He steals every scene he’s in and somehow breaths life into the somewhat stilted dialog.  Lincoln is coming along as a major contender against Argo for best picture with a success at the box office that exceeded expectations (Argo may now have peaked too soon), and Daniel Day-Lewis is almost certain to win best actor, which could give Jones’ nomination a boost.

Robert de Niro for Silver Linings Playbook.  It has now opened, been reviewed, is doing very well at the box office and no one has stopped saying de Niro is going to get a nom, so it seems that he will be included.

Leonardo DiCaprio in Django Unchained.  This is an unknown quantity as the movie hasn’t opened yet (apparently a story about a slave rescued by a bounty hunter with said slave now out to get revenge against the white men who abducted his wife is seen as the perfect choice for a Christmas opening).  What helps is that DiCaprio is a leading actor doing a supporting role, and this is always a plus when going for a nomination (and sometimes you win—Robin Williams and Renee Zellweger).   But until the movie opens, it’s hard to say.  This has caused some problems for Christoph Waltz.  The talk is he has been pushed to go for Best Actor (an unlikely nom at best), possibly to give DiCaprio a better chance.  But that’s mere speculation based on information I don’t really have, so do with it what you will.

Also possible is Dwight Henry, so deserving for Beasts of the Southern Wild, but it’s a very crowded category and he may get squeezed out; Russell Crowe for Les Miserables, too unknown a quantity right now; Matthew McConaughey for Magic Mike, and in a weaker year he might have a chance since he’s done so many movies this year and has worked hard to broaden himself as an actor, which translates as really paid your dues (which the voters like), but it looks like he won’t make it; anybody else from Argo—very doubtful. 

Sunday, November 25, 2012

THE SESSIONS



I think that if someone is disabled, they should at least have the decency of being bitter and angry.  But I guess that Mark O’Brien, the central character in writer/director’s Ben Lewin’s movie The Sessions, didn’t get the memo.   Mark, crippled by polio as a child and unable to breathe on his own for long periods of time, has, what some might term, a rather positive attitude toward life, attending college and becoming self-supporting as a writer.   He never reaches the highs (or, perhaps more accurately, the lows) of Annie singing Tomorrow or the Von Trapp kids singing Do Re Mi.  In fact, one of the funniest lines here is when Mark is asked if he believes in God and he says he has to, that life would be unbearable if he couldn’t blame someone for all the awful things that happen.  But Mark has somehow managed to achieve an equilibrium about life that I doubt I’d be able to achieve in similar circumstances.

But there is one aspect of his life he has yet to explore.  Now, one of the rules for screenwriters is that if you are going to write a story in a familiar genre, then you need to find a new perspective, a new twist, to justify the foray.  And Lewin has more than learned that lesson.   The Sessions is basically a story about a man losing his virginity.   So we’ve had the horny teenage film (boy, have we had the horny teenager film) and we’ve had the middle aged man going all the way film (The 40 Year Old what’s his name).  So what’s left?  The man encased in an iron lung losing his virginity film, of course.  I mean, it’s so obvious, the only thing surprising is that someone hasn’t thought of it before.

John Hawkes plays O’Brien with a constant wistful look in his eyes.  But no matter how sad he is, Hawkes has this quality in his performance that won’t let you feel sorry for his character.  And you find yourself doing exactly what everybody else in the movie does: you fall for him, you fall for him hard.  And he has an advantage that many of us don’t—he is able to write love poems (taking a note apparently from Robin Williams’ teacher in The Dead Poet’s Society who told his students that the only reason one writes poetry is to woo women—though I always wondered how that applied to Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman).

Helen Hunt plays Cheryl, the sex surrogate who is called in like Dudley Do Right to help O’Brien achieve his goal, and it’s a perfect, if somewhat standard, roll for her, a character who starts off cold and distant, not able to share her emotions, finding herself forced to come out of herself (the Katherine Hepburn type part).   William H. Macy takes time out from his over the top, hedonist of Shameless to play a down to earth, practical priest who can only enjoy his hedonism second hand.  The previews make one think he’s going to be a caricature; but in reality, he brings a very relaxed and every day quality to his performance.

The movie is witty and touching and laugh out loud funny.  The directing, though a little flat perhaps, doesn’t get in the way and gets the job done.  There is one oddity that should be mentioned.  For a movie that preaches sexual freedom and that one should be comfortable with one’s body and nudity, Lewin is actually a prude and a bit of a hypocrite.  He has no problem showing the women in full frontal, but when it comes to the men, he uses a metaphorical fig leaf in the form of a very, very, very carefully placed mirror.   In the end, it makes one wonder who’s really the more uncomfortable with sex, O’Brien or Lewin?

Saturday, November 24, 2012

FLIGHT



Flight, the new film from writer John Gatins and director Robert Zemeckis, has an incredible set piece near the beginning of the movie in which a pilot (Denzel Washington) is forced to crash land a plane in nightmare conditions by making it roll 360 degrees (flying upside down for awhile) and coming down on a field near a church about ready to do some Sunday go to meeting baptisms.  It’s an amazing technical feat (and not just the landing, but the filming as well) and it’s an exhilarating start.  When this section is over, the movie sets up an equally incredible enigma: Whip, the pilot, was drunk and had cocaine in his system when he performed this unbelievable stunt; but that wasn’t the cause of the crash.  And Whip’s handling of the landing was something that ten other pilots couldn’t have done sober.  So the whole movie seems more than ready to tackle issues and questions brought up by this fascinating conundrum.

And then the movie becomes…something else, something else entirely, and something that has nothing to do with either the crash landing or what sort of punishment should be given to a pilot who is able to make a miraculous landing (Gatins’ words, not mine) while drunk.   It actually becomes a rather routine, formulaic The Lost Weekend, The Days of Wine and Roses, When a Man Loves a Woman, Clean and Sober (fill in with your favorite film in the genre) story about an alcoholic.

Six people died in the crash and a huge number of people were seriously injured.  But is this their story or is the story about the crash and what it means?  No.  Believe it or not, all of this is chopped liver.  All of this is a macguffin, because the only reason for any of this, the only purpose for all these deaths, the only purpose of the crash, the only reason for all this destruction is so that Whip will start going to AA.

I’m not kidding.  I am totally serious.  And to back up this idea, there’s a ton of talk about God in the movie and whether everything is preordained or has a purpose, whether everything that happens is just part of an overall plan.  To be fair, all this mention of God at times tends to be a bit metaphorical in that whenever the big guy’s name is mentioned, He’s a stand in for all the unforeseen and uncontrollable things that happen in life, as when destruction from a hurricane is an “act of God”.   But still.

And it’s not that the movie is without its positive aspects.   But oddly enough, it’s not when the film focuses on Whip’s journey, but when it focuses on the issues related to the crash that the movie really comes to life.  Both Don Cheadle, as a long suffering lawyer, and Peter Gerety, as the owner of the airline, stand out as the few who really seem to understand what is really going on and that the meaning of the crash is the crash and that Whip’s journey is actually a hindrance and just getting in the way of the real issues.  When Gerety tells everybody off, I thought, finally, someone who really gets what it’s all about. 

Washington is fine as Whip, but he’s always a lot more fun when he’s playing anti-heroes like here, people you would not want to meet in a darkened alleyway.  Melissa Leo also makes her mark at the end because, like Cheadle and Gerety, she’s in a different movie.  The low point, though, has to be John Goodman as Whip’s connection.  Goodman is one of our finest character actors, but here, as in Argo and some other recent films, he’s been reduced to playing, well, John Goodman roles, and he deserves better.

In all fairness, I should point out that many in the audience around me were deeply moved.  But I just couldn’t join in.   For me, if truth be told, I was bit offended.  Here I thought that Leibnitz and the philosophy of “the best of all possible worlds” ended with Voltaire’s ruthless satire Candide.   But apparently not.  No matter how awful things are, no matter how many people die, no matter how much destruction there is, it’s okay, because there’s always a silver lining.   People can die, but their death has meaning because it helped someone enter a recovery program.  Really. 

Thursday, November 22, 2012

BEYOND THE HILLS, CAESER MUST DIE and CLANDESTINE CHILDHOOD



Three movies that are each countries’ entry in the foreign film category for the Academy Awards.

The Romanians obviously have issues when it comes to their health care system.   First, it was the powerful The Death of Mister Lazarescu wherein an elderly gentleman is shunted from one pompous doctor to another all the while trying to find someone who will take him seriously.  And now we have Beyond the Hills, the new film from writer/director Cristian Mungui, in which a doctor releases a young woman, who is showing uncontrollable fits and outrageous behavior of the mental illness genre, back into the hands of the priest and nuns who first brought her in because the doctor thinks they are more likely to be able to help her than he can (and cue Tubular Bells).  And when tragedy strikes, a doctor blames the Priest, who is then arrested. 

However, the health care profession is not really the central theme here.  Beyond the Hills is based on a true incident involving an exorcism which is more the centerpiece.   Voichita, the very lonely and often severely depressed aforementioned young woman, looks up her ex-girlfriend Alina who is now staying at a monastery cum nunnery run by the aforementioned priest (this nunnery is an interesting establishment unto itself in that it’s quite Medieval and not when it comes to religious belief, but in that the woman are joining not so much because they have a spiritual calling, but because they can’t find work or a husband).  Voichita wants Alina to leave and join her in Germany as they had always planned while growing up in an orphanage together.   Alina refuses, having found peace at the nunnery; but soon after, Voichita starts acting like Linda Blair and no one knows what to do.

Mungui came to prominence after giving us 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days, the devastating must see film about abortion and its illegality under Communist rule in Romania.  Beyond the Hills may not have quite the same tension as 4 Months…, at least in the beginning, which is a bit leisurely to say the least.   But once Voichita starts spiraling out of control and they decide to do an exorcism because they know of no other way to save her, there is no turning back.   It’s a riveting, dark and even devastating piece of filmmaking.

Again based on a true story, sort of, the Italian film Caesar Must Die grew out of a program for prisoners in which they perform a play.  Here, William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.  I must be honest.  I have no idea what the Taviani brothers (Paola and Vittorio of Padre padrone fame) are trying to do here.  It’s not a documentary.  It’s obvious that what is being filmed takes place after the production has had its last curtain call, everything is so carefully staged (in a very forced and unbelievable way most of the time), and the rehearsal process is not remotely realistic (even the scripts they use are in screenplay format, not Shakespearian play format).  We never get to know the prisoners or find out what any of this means to them or if it affects them in any way.  There doesn’t seem to be a moral to the story (except that criminals can be good actors, I suppose, though many would think that’s just being redundant).  We don’t even get the joy of Shakespeare’s dialog.  He’s actually listed as one of the writers for the movie along with the Tavianis, but I call shenanigans on that.   The excerpts from the play are not translated into Elizabethan verse, but into some sort of bastardized, everyday patois (even Et tu, Brute is subtitled into something like, And you, too, Brutus?).  The only really interesting aspect of the script for me is the locations the actors choose to “rehearse” (and I mean those end quotes with all sincerity) certain scenes (which, of course, in the context here, would not have been chosen by the prisoners, but by the Tavianis).  It might have been interesting to see Julius Caesar staged in a prison in which the convicts’ relationships were reflected by the play, or even to see a straightforward production of the play.  But alas, ‘twas not to be.  Many people loved it.  I was totally lost.

And again based on a true story, or at least inspired by true events in the director Benjamin Avila’s life, the Argentine film Clandestine Childhood opens with an amazing scene of a young boy witnessing a shoot out involving his parents that turns into panels from a graphic novel.  It’s an assault on the senses that one doesn’t soon forget.   If only the rest of the movie astounded us with as much originality and vibrancy.  But this technique is only used a couple more times in the course of the movie and instead the story jumps a few years and a slightly older boy is reunited with said parents in Argentina after growing up in Cuba where his parents had earlier fled and recently returned from so they could continue working against the government.  At this point, it all turns into a rather standard, coming of age, first love film, one that you’ve seen a million times before.  It’s sweet and effecting at times, but not that much more.  What’s surprising is how little tension is added to the central characters flailing for a girlfriend by the background situation he finds himself trapped in.  I suppose one could be somewhat comforted in the idea that life goes on even under totalitarian regimes, but I’m afraid that wasn’t enough for me.  In the end, a formulaic story is a formulaic story, no matter what form of government runs the country.  And in the end, rather than being deeply moved I found myself asking, what were these parents thinking smuggling their kids back into Argentina with death camping out on their doorstep?   Easy for me to say, I suppose, sitting here typing as I am without much danger of being imprisoned for life for political thought, but still, the thought did occur to me.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

THE ANGEL'S SHARE



The Angel’s Share, the new movie written by Paul Laverty and directed by Ken Loach, is kitchen sink meets Ealing comedy meets The Asphalt Jungle.  I’ve been told that’s a bit of a mash up, but it’s my story and I’m sticking to it.   The mood is as whimsical as the kilts everyone wears for a disguise (something may sound off there, but trust me, it works).   The structure is all over the place and would kill a cat (the real plot doesn’t start until almost halfway into the movie).   And the accents would drive ‘enry ‘iggins to drink (Loach often uses subtitles, but manages to make do this time round sans texting).  But in the end, I doubt you’ll be disappointed.

Loach is one of the leading filmmakers that focuses on the working class and the underprivileged.  He’s always shown a great deal of empathy for people who don’t have a lot of options and this movie is no different, though perhaps a bit more light hearted and feel good than usual.  The story revolves around Robbie (played by first timer Paul Brannigan who gives a first rate performance) who narrowly avoids jail after severely beating up a young man.   His girlfriend is pregnant and he wants to turn his life around, but he can’t get a job, his girlfriend’s father wants him out of his daughter’s life, and he’s made an enemy of his victim’s brothers who want to do some serious bodily damage to him in turn.   As punishment for his crime, he joins a group of characters (with the emphasis on “quite a cast of”) to do community service. 

His possible salvation comes in the form of whiskey and if you want to make jokes about the Scottish and their love of a wee bit of drink, it’s not what you think.  But how this all leads to Robbie discovering he has an expert’s nose for sniffing out quality spirits and a plan to steal a few bottles from a keg of whiskey so old that it gets sold for 1.2 millions pounds at auction, is something you’ll have to find out for yourself.   And don’t worry about whether you can get behind a group of criminals who are adding theft to their legal resume; one of the cleverest aspects of the screenplay is that you find it impossible to really tsk, tsk these people because anyone who would pay that much for whiskey not only can easily survive without a bottle or two, he actually deserves to be taken. 

THE OSCAR RACE: Best Actress, Part Duex



My analysis of the Best Actress Oscar Race, part duex.

My previous entry was a general analysis of the race when it came to Best Actress.  For this entry, let’s go directly to my list:

Jennifer Lawrence for Silver Linings Playbook right now has the lead to win even though the movie hasn’t opened yet.  At the same time, I hesitate to be definite here since the movie is still an unknown quantity.  But her nomination seems assured.  Probably what helps is that she has proven herself as an actress by getting a nomination for a small, independent film (Winter’s Bone), but also an actress that can make a ton of money (The Hunger Games), a double whammy.

Quvenzhane Wallis for Beasts of the Southern Wild.  This has been settled law for some time.  Not only did this eight year old munchkin give a marvelous performance, the movie is likely to get a Best Picture nom, a possible Best Director, a possible Best Supporting Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay nom.  And it’s still in the theaters.  I also can’t imagine any voter, no matter how Scrooge McDuck they are, who would want to give this fairy tale an unhappy ending.

Emmanuelle Riva for Amour.  This is also supposed to be almost a sure thing.  Though the Academy is more loathe to give career awards and noms to women than to men, Riva has been around since another amour film, Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959), one of the great films of all time.   Amour was also suppose to get a nomination for co-lead Jean-Louis Trintignant, but as the movies with strong male leads started pouring in, that was that.  Amour is suppose to be Michael Haneke’s most accessible film and is in the lead to win in the best Foreign Language category and may even get a Best Picture, Director and Screenplay nom.

Marion Cotillard for Rust and Bone.  A Hollywood favorite since winning the Oscar for La Vie en Rose, she is supposed to give a knock out performance.   The filmmaker Jacques Audiard is also responsible for such films as A Prophet and The Beat that My Heart Skipped and is fast becoming one of France’s leading directors.   However, this is still an unknown quantity.

Helen Mirren for Hitchcock.  It doesn’t really matter where she decides to run, this is the category that will most likely get her.  A superb performance helped by a strong possibility that her co-lead, Anthony Hopkins will also receive one.

Other possibilities:  Naomi Watts for The Impossible is getting some buzz, but it may be too little too late.  Keira Knightley in Anna Karanina just opened, but it didn’t get very good reviews and is not exciting anyone.  And Helen Hunt in The Sessions will probably get a supporting actress nom.

Which means, sorry Jessica Chastain.  You should probably start pushing for that supporting acting nom instead.

THE OSCAR RACE: Best Actress



It’s been awhile, but it’s time to return to my analysis of the Oscar race so far.  I’ve done Best Picture and Best Actor.  Now it’s time for the distaffs: Best Actress.  I’ll do this in two parts.

This year is what is known as a “weak year” for performances by women.  Now, it’s important to understand what the phrase means.  It doesn’t necessarily mean there’s an actual dearth of qualified performances by actresses.  Even in other years where the term “weak year” was used in this context, I had little problem coming up with more than enough candidates for my top five list, with overflow.  Of course, I tend to have end of the year lists made up of films that none of my friends have ever heard of (at least, that’s what they tell me). 

“Weak” here refers to the type of role that is considered the type that Oscar voters would consider worthy of a nomination.  That’s very vague.  Possibly even a tautology.  But generally speaking, performances in foreign films from countries that many Academy members never realized made films (unless the film broke out in some over the top way—or Cinema FrancĂ© as they’re more commonly known); very small indie films (unless there is a break out of some kind); and unknown names or newcomers (unless there is…, etc., etc.).  And this year, acne has had a better chance of breaking out than movies with female leads 

If this sounds somewhat misogynistic, you’re wrong.  It’s extremely misogynistic and just goes to show how shabbily actresses are treated by the filmmaking community ever since the studio system fell and the summer blockbusters became de rigueur.  Before this, more movies were made with female leads if, for no other reason, than that they were under contract and the studios couldn’t just let them sit around doing nothing.

And if you still don’t believe me, when was the last time you heard that it was a “weak” year for men.

There are two signs that suggest that this is a very “weak” year for actresses.   The first is that more actresses than usual are trying to decide whether they can move from pushing for a supporting nomination to pushing for a lead nomination.  These include Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty); Helen Mirren (Hitchcock); and Helen Hunt (Sessions).  In a strong year, all (except maybe Mirren) would probably vie in the supporting category where their large and important roles would have a better chance of getting a nom.  I understand that Chastain has already broken ranks and decided to go for the gold, which I think (as I will point out later), is quite possibly a misstep.

Note: Whether an actor ends up in supporting or lead categories doesn’t always have anything to do with whether that person is truly lead or supporting.  William H. Macy had more screen time than Frances McDormand in Fargo, but Macy was supporting and McDormand won the Oscar for Best Actress.  This happens more often than you might think.

Note 2: it doesn’t always work.  Kate Winslet pushed for lead for Revolutionary Road and supporting for The Reader.  The Academy shut out Revolutionary Road and put Winslet in the lead category for The Reader (though she was really supporting).  It all had a happy ending, though, as Winslet won that year.

Note 3: the Golden Globes make the choice of category for you.  There Winslet got a nom for Best Actress for Revolutionary Road and Best Supporting for The Reader.

The second reason you can tell this is a “weak” year is that an eight year old and two actresses from foreign language films are very likely to be nominated.  This will be the youngest nominee for best actress and the first time since 1977 (which, I believe, is the only time) when two people from foreign language films got nominated in the same year in the same acting category (Marie-Christine Barrault for Cousin cousine and Liv Ullman for Face to Face).   

Next entry: my list of nominees.