Friday, March 19, 2010
2009 ACADEMY AWARDS
As much as I enjoyed seeing deserving winners Jeff Bridges, Kathryn Bigelow, Mo’Nique and “The Hurt Locker” take home Oscar gold, the show itself was as bad as television gets.
First, can someone tell me why Neil Patrick Harris, who has appeared in less than a dozen movies of little note, opened the show with a Tony Award Show type production number? It will go down with the Rob Lowe fiasco at the 1989 show as one of Oscar’s most embarrassing moments. It’s not that Harris wasn’t an adequate singer, but I would be willing to bet that there were 50 others in the Kodak Theater that night who would have been just as good and much more suited to be given a prominent spot on the Oscars. If you want a great opening number, how about dragging Meryl Streep or Shirley MacLaine up on stage or bringing back Hugh Jackman. Wasn’t Barbra Steisand in the house?
Then there are the co-hosts, Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin. Did they forget to show up for rehearsals? Weak jokes, bad timing and a general sense that they didn’t want to be there all contributed to a very slow, dull show when the award winners weren’t on stage. Martin and Baldwin’s attempts to do the “Oh, my god, there’s Matt Damon” routine failed miserably. They missed usually front-row star Jack Nicholson and instead were stuck with hammering on good-sport Streep and George Clooney, doing some kind of inside-joke attitude pose. It was sad. You could almost hear Bob Hope, Johnny Carson and Billy Crystal turning in their graves. (Sorry Billy, but there’s nothing in your career worth doing beyond the job you were born for: hosting the Oscars.)
Speaking of Mr. Nicholson, do the Oscar results even count if Jack’s not in the house? Someone needs to check with Price Waterhouse.
The Academy, in their collective wisdom, made the idiotic decision last year to move the Lifetime Achievement presentations to a private ceremony held in November. Thus, the March show was denied what would have been high points: Lauren Bacall and Roger Corman, two of the most interesting figures in film history, accepting their career awards; that was the real cost of adding five extra best picture nominations.
So tell me, what would you rather see: The same clips every TV station in America has been replaying since the nominations were announced or Bacall and Corman speaking about their long and colorful careers?
I was equally baffled by the special treatment given to director John Hughes, who died at 59 in August 2009. I’m impressed that he had an apparent lasting effect on his young actors---most of whom have had minor, forgettable careers since leaving his protection---but didn’t Robert Altman, Sidney Pollack or Ingmar Bergman, all directors who died in recent years, deserve similar treatment? Hughes made some amusing, smart pictures for a few years, but, in the scheme of things, he’s a minor director even in his own time.
But beyond all the lame attempts at putting on “a real big show” (I won’t even touch that embarrassing dance piece set to the nominated film scores), it was an historic Oscar evening, with a woman winning the best director Oscar for the first time and an African-American taking home a writing Oscar. Because screenwriters are rarely well-known people, I would have bet good money that a black writer had won at some point in the past 30 years. That may speak more to the unspoken racism of Hollywood’s elite than any scientific study could.
It’s less of surprise that so few female directors have been in contention for an Oscar, since it’s well documented that women are given few opportunities behind the camera. In my opinion, only three other female directors have ever deserved a nomination----Susan Seidelman for “Smithereens” (1982), Jane Campion for “The Piano” (1993) and Patty Jenkins for “Monster” (2003)----and Bigelow is the first who was worthy of the top prize. The point being that this isn’t an oversight by the Oscars, it’s an entrenched problem in Hollywood. While it should be beside the point in 2010 (but it clearly isn’t), “The Hurt Locker” is the greatest American film ever directed by a woman.
There was something ironic about Streisand, who certainly had imagined herself, at some point, being the first female director honored, handing the Oscar to a genuinely shocked and overwhelmed Bigelow.
For me, the most memorable moment of the 2009 Oscars was seeing Bridges step on that stage and raise his long-deserved best actor Oscar. Among the best and the most underrated actors of the past 40 years, Bridges displayed his down-to-earth, regular guy demeanor in his heartfelt acceptance speech. And, as hard as it is for me to say, Sandra Bullock also proved to be a breath of fresh air in her acceptance, humble and self aware that she was standing at a place no one ever expected her to reach.
I thought the testimonials given for the best actor and actress nominees were even better than last year, with all the performers having a close link to the nominees. I think it brings out the important fact that these are awards being giving by actors to fellow actors.
But the big question, I guess, is whether doubling the best picture nominees made the show more appealing to the masses. I doubt it; where people tuning in so they could see another clip from “District 9”? Let’s face it, “Avatar,” which would have been nominated if they had reduced the nominating list to two, was the big attraction. If that wasn’t obvious from all the jokes about James Cameron from Martin and Baldwin (and Ben Stiller’s humorous getup), did you notice that every time anyone mentioned “Avatar,” they inserted that it was the “most successful film of all-time.” Beyond the fact that it’s a bogus statement (it only reflects inflated movie prices), who cares. This is the Oscars, not the People’s Choice awards.
If the Academy really wants to appeal to moviegoers, why not change the rules and only nominated foreign-language films that have actually been released in this country. This year’s winner, Argentina’s “The Secret in Their Eyes,” is expected to hit U.S. theaters sometime in April. Last year’s winner didn’t show up in this country until May 29. What’s the point?
And, if they want the show to actually be entertaining, there’s only one thing they need to do: Get Billy Crystal off his couch. Or, if that fails, maybe Conan O’Brien will be still available this time next year. They need someone to goose this show back into the world of funny.
SHUTTER ISLAND (2010)
I never thought I’d write this about a Martin Scorsese film, but this psychological thriller is too ordinary to register the emotional impact it’s trying for.
Featuring an impressive cast, first-rate production values courtesy of legendary art director Dante Ferretti and Oscar-winning cinematographer Robert Richardson, and based on the best-selling novel by Dennis Lehane (“Mystic River”), “Shutter Island,” the fourth collaboration between the director and Leonardo DiCaprio, was constructed for greatness. Fifties paranoia, the legacy of draconian psychological practices and, in general, man’s inhumanity to his fellow man, are just some of the themes explored by Lehane’s novel; but all these threads on top of a plot-heavy script (very loyal to the book) seemed to have handcuffed Scorsese, resulting in a film that tries to do too much and never finds its focus.
DiCaprio plays Teddy, a troubled Boston federal marshal, circa 1954, who joins a Seattle marshal (a very subdued Mark Ruffalo) to investigate the escape of a patient from a mental institute located on Shutter Island, a ferry ride from Massachusetts.
In addition to Teddy own problems----struggling with the death of his family in a fire and his horrific memories of liberating the Dachau death camp at the end of World War II----nothing seems quite right on the island, from the fanciful story of the prisoner’s escape and the general creepiness of the place to the odd behavior of the head psychologist (Ben Kingsley) and others on his staff.
What we also quickly learn is that the film is less about a missing patient and more about Teddy desire to confront the man who he believes caused the death of his family and now is being held at the institute. This should have been more than enough to keep the movie interesting, but Scorsese and screenwriter Laeta Kalogridis insist on revisiting Teddy’s grizzly visions and dreams of his dead wife and Holocaust victims. It weighs down the movie to its breaking point.
The most rewarding aspects of “Shutter Island” are found in its fine supporting cast, starting with Max von Sydow, playing a particularly maniacal psychologist at the institute. The great Swedish actor has been working in film since 1949 and, at age 80, remains a scene stealer. Emily Mortimer and Patricia Clarkson as prisoners/visions of Teddy’s paranoid world, and Michelle Williams as his deceased wife, all give standout performances.
DiCaprio, in a difficult role, shows a resolve to make sense of this messed up man, but the character is too scattered, too ill defined, to lend itself to first-rate acting, or, it turns out, a first-rate film.
What made the book memorable was its extraordinary plot reversal near the conclusion of the story, yet the revelation doesn’t pack the same punch when it’s played out on film. By the time we get to that point, the viewer has been so inundated with psychosomatic trickery that nothing comes as much of a surprise.
IN THE LOOP (2009)
This British picture is as laugh out loud funny and bitingly insightful as any political satire I’ve seen since “Wag the Dog.” The script, which scored an Oscar nomination for Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell, Tony Roche and director Armando Iannucci, is jammed packed with off-handed cultural references---most of them uniquely British and delivered in concert with a string of profane adjectives.
Tom Hollander plays Simon Foster, an easily confused, dim-witted British cabinet minister who suddenly finds himself at the center of the debate over a U.S./British push for war in the Middle East when he’s quoted as saying “War is unforeseeable.” He reports to Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi, who also plays the character in the British TV series “The Thick of It”), an assistant to the prime minister who has the ability to creatively insult everyone in his path with lightning speed. With references to the White Stripes, Simon Cowell, Jane Austen, “The Lord of the Rings,” Beatle lyrics, Julie Andrews and “Harry Potter” just for starters, he leaves his targets dumbfound with his imaginatively profanities.
Meanwhile, in Washington, Foster’s comments attract the attention of Karen Clark (TV veteran Mimi Kennedy), a legislator who desperately wants to be part of the secret war committee, if only she can stop her teeth from bleeding. Anyway, she attempts to form an alliance with a war-leery general (James Gandolfini) and these pair of Brits. It reminded me, at least in spirit, of those great Ealing comedies of the 1950s with Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers: everyone puts out so much effort and ends up failing miserably.
At times, it’s not exactly clear what’s going on, but that’s beside the point. It’s all about how issues and people are manipulated to serve as leverage in the struggle for power and influence; no one really has a strong opinion or a good reason for anything, it’s just about landing on the right side when the decision is finally made. And like all great satire, there’s more truth in what’s being said than we could ever imagine.
Too often, the over-sized personality and under-sized physical stature of Mickey Rooney has resulted in him being undervalued as an actor. Of course, he’s more legend than actor: He made his feature debut at age 7, became a ubiquitous presence as a teen during Hollywood’s Golden Era, a regular on TV from the 1950s to the ‘80s and now is the spunky elder statesman (he’ll turn 90 later this year) of the first century of American cinema.
But along the way in an 83-year acting career, Rooney had given more than his fair share of first-rate performances, displaying acting chops---along with his natural screen presence----he rarely gets credit for. While in many of his roles he’s only asked to be energetic and naively sincere, when given the right role under the right director, Rooney could deliver an impressive, often Oscar-worthy performance.
Just to name a handful, there’s his spunky orphan in “Boys Town” (1938); the budding stage hoofer in “Babes in Arms” (1939) opposite Judy Garland; Homer, the telegraph apprentice who has to deliver to his mother the news of his brother’s war death in “The Human Comedy” (1943); the tough, determined young jockey in “National Velvet” (1945); a devoted boxing trainer in “Requiem for a Heavyweight” (1962); the inspirational horse trainer in “The Black Stallion” (1979); and, on television, as a heartbreaking mentally disabled man in “Bill” (1982).
He won an Emmy for “Bill” and scored Oscar nominations for “Babes in Arms,” “The Human Comedy,” “The Black Stallion” and the low-budget war film “The Bold and the Brave” (1956). And, he probably should have won something for his scene-stealing performance in “Pulp,” a British comic-thriller from writer-director Mike Hodges.
His legendary impersonation skills are in the forefront in his “Pulp” performance as Preston Gilbert, a famous movie star exiled to his native Malta, who has hired Michael Caine’s Mickey King to ghost-write his autobiography. Though the biographical details don’t match James Cagney, he’s clearly the model for Rooney’s performance. A scene in which he shadow boxes in front of the bedroom mirror, showing off the quick footwork of Cagney and preening in front of one mirror after another, is just one of the many simple, telling and amusing sequences in this forgotten gem.
Hodges, fresh from his much darker crime picture, “Get Carter” (1971), which also starred Caine, delivers an offbeat, sly comedy that’s part murder mystery and part satire, jabbing at both Hollywood actors and popular writers.
Caine’s droll narration carries “Pulp,” starting with the recorded transcripts of his cheap, tawdry novels heard while a shocked typing pool transcribes the book. All the plot points play out like goofy turns in a dime-story novel, including when Lionel Stander, playing a flunky for Gilbert, approaches Caine’s Mickey (clearly a cousin of Spillane) about helping the once-famous man write his autobiography. For no good reason, Mickey is sent on a wild goose chase----a bus tour of Malta where he’s expecting to meet the contact for this secret project. But the contact man turns up dead, or so it seems, and then, again for no good reason, Stander shows up to take Mickey to finally meet Preston.
Not much happens after Mickey and Preston meet; Caine holds forth as a cynical, reluctant co-conspirator in some unclear plot that’s happening around him. It’s an oddly structured comedy that works in that loosey-goosy style that was popular in the 1970s. Not unlike Robert Altman’s “The Long Goodbye” or Paul Mazursky’s “The Late Show,” “Pulp” never takes itself too seriously yet manages to be insightful and funny, in a large part, because of Rooney’s unbound energy and studied cleverness.
After this film, Hodges’ career went quickly downhill, bottoming out with a jumbled sci-fi parody aptly named “Morons From Outer Space” (1985), in which every character in the film is a moron. It wasn’t until 1998, with the sharply observed crime picture “Croupier,” that the director got back on track.
EVERYBODY’S FINE (2009)
While Robert De Niro has delivered so many astonishing performances over the past 35 years, he doesn’t do middle-age angst very convincingly. What has made De Niro such a special actor has been his ability to turn the outsider, the criminal, the troubled man into an emotionally complex, three-dimensional character. From Travis Bickle in “Taxi Driver,” Michael in “The Deer Hunter” and Jake La Motta in “Raging Bull” to Rupert Pupkin in “King of Comedy,” Dwight in “This Boy’s Life” and Ace Rothstein in “Casino,” his roles have rarely been Regular Joes.
In his latest, De Niro tries to tap into that side of himself, but it doesn’t translate well to the screen. Much like Jack Nicholson’s character in “About Schmidt” (a much better performance and film), De Niro’s Frank Goode sets out on a road trip to visit his grown children after the death of his wife.
Three of his four children offer up lame excuses to avoid spending time with him, in part to hide truths about their life he’s unaware of and also to keep their father from discovering the serious problems that are haunting brother David. The simplistic, by-the-numbers scenario makes most Hallmark TV movies seem complex. Every plot turn can be spotted a mile away.
Director Kirk Jones (he made the amusing British comedy “Waking Ned Devine”) has assembled a first rate cast (how hard is that when you sell it with De Niro attached?), but no one really stands out. Kate Beckinsale, Drew Barrymore, Sam Rockwell play the children and Melissa Leo has a small role as a trucker who gives Frank a ride.
The film, a remake of a 1990 Italian movie starring Marcello Mastroianni that was equally dull, drags on and on, but never reaches a satisfying emotional conclusion. Never once did I ever feel like these people were in any way related to one another.
But De Niro works steadily enough that there’s no point lingering over this film. Reportedly, the 66-year-old actor is scheduled to star in the bio-pic of football legend Vince Lombardi; now that’s a character De Niro could sink his teeth into.
THE LAST STATION (2009)
and BRIGHT STAR (2009)
As much as I like rag on Hollywood, there are still some people in authority who have read more than comic books, as evidenced by these two films about 19th Century literary figures released just months apart.
Leo Tolstoy, the larger than life godfather of Russian literature, author of “War and Peace” and “Anna Karenina,” and John Keats, who became, after his death at age 25, one of the most acclaimed poets of the British Romantic period, seem to have little in common. But the films made about them turn out to be quite similar. In both movies, the focus is on their final days, and, ironically, these famous writers are but supporting players to the women in their lives.
“The Last Station” revolves around the fight over the rights to Tolstoy’s royalties between his sarcastic, paranoid wife Sofya (an overwrought Helen Mirren) and the leader (Paul Giamatti) of the Tolstoy Movement, a cultish, pacifist, New Age-type group formed to promote the writer’s philosophy.
In the middle of this power struggle is Valentin, a young devotee of the movement, played by James McAvoy (“Atonement,” “The Last King of Scotland”), who joins the Tolstoy household as an assistant to the great writer (played by the scene stealing Christopher Plummer). For me, the squabble between these parties should have been an amusing secondary plot, but instead writer-director Michael Hoffman, best known for the comedy “Soapdish” (1991), makes it the heart of the film, pushing Tolstoy and the luminous performance by Plummer, off to the side. None of the other characters held my interest, save for a feisty, very modern young woman (Kerry Condon) who seduces the naïve Valentin and offers some reasonableness in the face of these characters’ blind devotion to Tolstoy.
But the principal reason to catch up with this film is for yet another “lion in winter” role for Plummer, who at 80 seems to be at the height of his acting skills. His Tolstoy is not unlike his hilariously bombastic character in another end-of-the-year release “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus,” but this is a more complex, interior performance that brings a stuffy legend alive. It’s busy and theatrical, in a good way, reminiscent of the later performances of Laurence Olivier; Plummer has that kind of room-filling presence.
“Bright Star” is a poem Keats wrote for the last love of his life, Fanny Brawne, a soulfully sincere young woman who isn’t afraid to speak her mind or shy about showing her feelings toward Keats (Ben Whishaw). Little-known Australian actress Abbie Cornish---she was also superb as the girlfriend on the run in “Stop-Loss” (2008)---dominates this story of their careful courtship and Keats declining health, creating a feisty, determined and thoughtful young woman, yet someone clearly a product of the 19th Century.
Beautifully paced and written by New Zealand filmmaker Jane Campion, “Bright Star” is this acclaimed director’s best film since “The Piano” (1993), which won Oscars for her script and the performances by Holly Hunter and Anna Paquin, and Campion’s first feature since the disappointing psychological thriller “In the Cut” (2003).
This film does a better job of portraying the creative process than “Last Station,” as we see Keats being inspired by nature and his feelings about Fanny as he write his masterful sonnets. But at the heart of both films is a love story and how these artists, almost in spite of themselves, endeared heartbreaking devotion.