WINTER’S BONE (2010)
At the center of this intense, depressing slice of life in poverty-stricken Ozarks is an extraordinary performance by Jennifer Lawrence. Playing the stoic, determined 17-year-old daughter of a backwoods drug dealer who has skipped bail, Lawrence embodies the hopelessness of those growing up in this environment while creating a character who fearlessly risks her life to save her family.
The actress, still shy of 20 and resembling a young Renée Zellweger, gave an impressive performance last year as Kim Basinger’s rebellious daughter in the underrated “The Burning Plain,” but in “Winter’s Bone” she’s simply mesmerizing, establishing herself as the best young actress in film.
After Ree (Lawrence) learns that her father put up their house and property as bond, she ventures out to question her cousins, nephews and uncles scattered throughout the region about her father’s whereabouts. If he doesn’t show up for a court date, Ree, her mentally incapacitated mother and her younger siblings will be homeless.
But blood relations have a different meaning in the back country and she’s greeted by stern, hateful glares and undisguised threats from these meth-cooking, paranoid white trash. They’d rather see her family be put out in the cold than rat out her outlaw father.
Director and co-writer Debra Granik (“Down to the Bone”) has perfectly captured the look and attitude of these anti-social, vindictive people who, in recent decades, have replaced moonshine with meth as their source of income. About their only redeeming value is that they still produce some incredible folk music.
Ree gets some help in her search when her mean, but understanding uncle, known as Teardrop (unforgettably portrayed by John Hawkes) offers his influence and insight into what he believes happened to his brother.
The irony and power of this film comes from the depiction of the unimaginable poverty these people are living in yet how precious that world is to them. In one of the films few lighthearted scenes, Ree shows her little brother and sister how to hunt squirrels and then later how to skin and gut them. Yet, here is this teen who not only knows how to put meat on the family table (even if it is squirrel meat) but is taking on the role of a father, teaching the children how to provide for themselves in the future.
Granik and co-writer Anne Rosellini (adapting Daniel Woodrell’s novel) never let the urgency of the story take over the film; it’s the people and their world that makes “Winter’s Bone” such a memorable film, along with Lawrence’s heartbreak performance, one of the most affecting I’ve seen in years.
THE EDGE OF HEAVEN (2007)
This unassuming German film is both a perceptive study of a diverse collection of characters and a harsh political critique of life in Turkey. Writer-director Fatih Akin, a German born to Turkish parents, who made the superb “Head-On” (2004), weaves the lives of these characters together in the most unexpected ways, utilizing coincidences in a manner that comes off as completely believable, spiking the drama.
The intricately plotted script, which plays tricks with time to intensify the situations, begins its complex journey with an elderly Turkish man, who pays a middle-aged prostitute (Nursel Köse) to live with him. It soon ends badly when he returns from a hospital stay, accidentally kills her and then is sentenced to prison. Filled with guilt and anger at his father’s act of violence, the son (Baki Davrak), a professor at a German university, returns to his native Istanbul, determined to track down the prostitute’s daughter and provide for her.
At the same time all that is occurring, the prostitute’s daughter (Nurgül Yesilçay), an activist in a radical political organization in Turkey, is on the run from police and ends up in Germany, hooking up with a sympathetic college student (Patrycia Ziolkowska). Much to the displeasure of the German’s girl mother (played by the legendary German actress Hannah Schygulla), the women become lovers.
The acting is all first rate, especially Yesilçay as the tough, rebellious woman who finds friends in unusual places. Schygulla, who was an international star in the 1970s and ‘80s as director Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s muse in “The Marriage of Maria Braun” (1979) and the epic “Berlin Alexanderplatz” (1980), gives a moving performance as a mother who must accept that her daughter is more like her than she prefers. At first, her character doesn’t seem that important, but, as happens throughout this exceptional film, perspectives change and she emerges as a crucial figure.
“The Edge of Heaven” is a perfectly cut puzzle that speaks to the cross-cultural nature of contemporary Europe and the idea that we are all, in some way, responsible for one another. Also at its heart is the healing nature of forgiveness. For these characters, forgiving those close to them, in the face of horrific circumstances, turns out to be central to their salvation.
THE MESSENGER (2009)
and BROTHERS (2009)
Both of these desert war films examine the varied victims of the conflict, mostly those left behind on the home front. The wives, children and parents of soldiers along with the soldiers who must re-adjust to civilian life are the focus of this pair of well-acted, but mostly disappointing pictures.
Barely released in theaters (essentially to qualify for the Oscars), “The Messenger” provides a meaty, serious role for Woody Harrelson, earning him a supporting actor nomination, as career soldier Capt. Tony Stone, who notifies next of kin of the death of a U.S. combatant. Stone is a by-the-book but talkative officer who understands the gravity of his job. His new, unhappy partner is Staff Sgt. Will Montgomery (played with tight-lipped intensity by Ben Foster), a recently wounded soldier who considers the assignment as beneath his abilities, a clerk’s task. But, need I even say it, Will comes to appreciate the role of notifier, even taking the job too personality when he gets involved with a widow (the always superb Samantha Morton).
Foster, who gave a memorable performance as Russell Crowe’s hot-headed sidekick in “3:10 to Yuma” (2007), builds his character slowly and quietly, bringing a depth to Will not found in the film’s story. He’s the perfect foil for Harrelson’s Stone, who eventually reveals more than the macho/military posing he has down pat.
The heart of the film are the excruciating moments when parents and wives learn of the death of their loved one and the impact that has on the two officers. It’s an aspect of war well worth exploring, but this script, by director Oren Moverman and Alessandro Camon, doesn’t bring much originality to the subject.
“Brothers” was also positioned as Oscar bait, with a cast of young stars----Tobey Maguire, Jake Gyllenhaal and Natalie Portman----under the direction of top-line director Jim Sheridan (“My Left Foot,” “In the Name of the Father”), but it faded quickly. This isn’t a bad film, but like “The Messenger,” doesn’t have much new to offer to the rich legacy of home-front movies.
The plot beings in earnest when a pair of notifiers (it would have been perfect if Harrelson and Foster had made cameos) inform Portman’s Grace that her Marine husband Sam (Maguire), who had just returned to duty in Afghanistan, died when his helicopter was shot down.
A few weeks later, Grace receives a late night call from Sam’s irresponsible, just out of prison brother Tommy (Gyllenhaal), who needs her to pay his bar bill and save him from a parole violation. Finding himself surrounded by Sam’s and Grace’s two cute little girls and the alluring widow, Tommy becomes a model citizen and takes on the role of surrogate father for the girls. At the same time, the film switches to the desert hills of Afghanistan to reveal that Sam isn’t dead, but has been taken prisoner by Afghan rebels and is suffering horrific treatment.
The problem with “Brothers” is that Sheridan doesn’t have anywhere interesting to take the story once he reaches this point. Typical of Sheridan’s scripts (written here with David Benioff), the film is loaded with intense family arguments and discussions of what it means to be part of a family and a responsible adult. Part “Deer Hunter,” part “Coming Home,” the picture too often plays like a greatest hits reel. What emotional truth it pacts comes from the strong acting.
While I didn’t think Maguire was the right actor for Sam (he’s not believable as a brooding tough guy), Portman and Gyllenhaal create sympathetic, emotionally complex characters who bond over the memory of Sam. Another standout is Sam Shepard as the brothers’ ex-military, temperamental father, devoted to Sam but disdainful of Tommy. Shepard has become a master at finding just the right vocal tilt and physical mannerisms that quickly establish what his character’s all about. It’s one of this underrated actors finest performances.
There’s something about Ireland that lends itself to tales of mystic possibilities and romantic fairy tales. This version of the mermaid legend comes to life when a forlorn, solitary fisherman (a hangdog Colin Farrell) discovers a willowy young woman amidst the crabs when he pulls his net from the sea. While she doesn’t speak initially, she does sing, which seems to increase his catch tenfold.
He puts her up in a small dockside shack he owns and she soon becomes the object of speculation among the town’s folks. Most interested is the fisherman’s spunky, independent young daughter Annie (Alison Barry), who lives with his bitter, alcoholic ex-wife and suffers from kidney failure. She decides that Ondine (as they call the girl from the sea) is a selkie, a mythological creature that transforms itself from a seal to a human when searching for love.
While an expected romance blooms between Farrell’s Syracuse and Ondine (played mysteriously by Alicja Bachleda), it is the lovingly drawn relationship between father and daughter that elevates the picture to something more than a lark. Also adding to the depth of the film is the picturesque setting of Castletownbere---the home of the film’s director Neil Jordan---beautifully captured by cinematographer Christopher Doyle.
Jordan, one of the most interesting and eclectic filmmakers working today, is best known for “The Crying Game” (1992), but also has helmed such gems as “Mona Lisa” (1986), “The End of the Affair” (1999) and “The Good Thief” (2002). He usually imbues his characters with a lived-in, world-wearing angst and in this film Farrell fills the bill perfectly.
The 34-year-old Irish actor has fashioned an impressive career, staring with his intense soldier in “Tigerland” (2000) and including recent, superbly rendered performances in “The New World” (2005), “Cassandra’s Dream” (2007), “In Bruges” (2008) and in a small but key role in “Crazy Heart” (2009). In “Ondine,” his Syracuse has been dealt bad hands all his life, so he’s a bit confused as to how to deal with the good luck this girl he fished from the sea brings him. Farrell lets you see the character’s struggles and his indecisiveness.
The picture turns a tad melodramatic in the end as the true nature of Ondine is revealed, but writer-director Jordan never lets it drift too far from the magical nature of the story and its touching father-daughter bond.
YOUNG VICTORIA (2009)
Another movie about a queen of England is hard to get excited about considering how overexposed these women have been in the past dozen years.
Elizabeth I was portrayed by Cate Blanchett in “Elizabeth” (1998) and “Elizabeth: The Golden Age” (2007) and by Helen Mirren in the BBC 2005 miniseries, “Elizabeth I.” Elizabeth II, the current sovereign, was played by Mirren and earned her an Oscar, in “The Queen” (2006). Judi Dench also scored an Oscar as Elizabeth I in “Shakespeare in Love” (1998). There was also a BBC miniseries in 2006 from the BBC called “The Virgin Queen,” which starred Anne-Marie Duff.
Before she was Elizabeth, Dench portrayed Victoria in “Mrs. Brown” (1997) and in 2001, A&E Network produced a superb miniseries, “Victoria and Albert,” starring Victoria Hamilton as the young queen.
“Young Victoria,” released at the end of 2009, focuses on the palace intrigue right before she ascends to the throne and during her early days as monarch while Prince Albert courts her. Emily Blunt, best known as the harried assistant in “The Devil Wears Prada,” displays the right balance of steely authority and youthful vulnerability as the teenaged queen. Her battles with her mother (Miranda Richardson) and her controlling companion Sir Conroy (a memorable Mark Strong) are well played and make for good cinema, but much of the political maneuverings seem much ado about inside politics circa 1840.
Typical of a “queen” movie, “Young Victoria” is filled with sparkling supporting acting, including Jim Broadbent as the dying King William, Paul Bettany as Prime Minister Lord Melbourne and Rupert Friend as Albert.
Director Jean-Marc Vallée, whose 2005 film “C.R.A.Z.Y.” earned good reviews, takes full advantage of the regal setting and colorful costumes, but the script by Julian Fellowes, who won an Oscar for “Gosford Park,” fails to elevate the film above the subject’s crowded field.
This science-gone-bad picture poses interesting questions about the ethics of creating life in the lab and what exactly constitutes human life. At the same time, it plays out as a ridiculously melodramatic, B-movie thriller.
Adrian Brody and Sarah Polley play a pair of hip, cutting-edge researchers who have managed to splice genes of a variety of species to create a slimy but valuable form of life. The drug company they work for wants to cash in on the medicinal possibilities of these giant worm-like creations, but Clive and Elsa want to go one step further. Soon little Dren, part monkey, part antelope, part human, is leaping around the lab and aging rapidly.
Not only does Elsa grow way too close to the “experiment,” but Dren (superbly played French actress Delphine Chanéac), becoming a teenager a few weeks after birth, starts forming a wedge between the couple. The film goes places you’d never expect, which sometimes is a good thing, other times less so.
But throughout, Brody and Polley work well together as determined but misguided scientists, completely believable as brilliant scientists and emotionally conflicted humans. Since winning the 2002 best actor Oscar for “The Pianist,” Brody has yet to give a performance that made me think he was destined for a great movie career. He was good in the grungy time-travel film “The Jacket” (2004), as the detective in “Hollywoodland” and as record producer Leonard Chess in “Cadillac Records” (2008), but little more than an empty slate in higher profile roles in “King Kong” (2005) and “The Darjeeling Limited” (2007).
Polley has also failed to live up to expectations. Working in Canada since she was six, Polley was first noticed in the U.S. with her extraordinary performances as the victim of abuse in “The Sweet Hereafter” (1997) when she was 18. Since then she’s mostly worked in offbeat pictures, playing a young bride in Michael Winterbottom’s underrated “The Claim” (2000), a journalist who befriends a monster in Hal Hartley’s “No Such Thing” (2001) and as Sam Shepard’s unorthodox daughter in Wim Wender’s “Don’t Come Knocking” (2005).
She was excellent in these little seen films, but her biggest success has come behind the camera, directing Julie Christie as a victim of Alzheimer’s in the beautifully rendered “Away From Her” (2007). It earned Polley an Oscar nomination for her screenplay adaption in addition to Christie’s best actress nod. But Polley still needs that meaty leading role in a major film to establish herself as an A-list actress, if that’s even what she’s interested in.
In the final act, director Vincenzo Natali throws all the scientific and quite believable aspects of the story out the window and morphs the picture into a fantasy/horror mess. But there are enough interesting ideas and fascinating angles to “Splice” to elevate it above the typical sci-fi cautionary tale.
AUNTIE MAME (1958)
I’ve been avoiding this film for decades. Everything I’ve ever read about the picture convinced me it wasn’t my cup of tea. So I kept putting it off until it was the last best picture Oscar nominee in my lifetime that I hadn’t seen.
But, as with many things one avoids for years, it turned out to be less odious than I imagined. In large part, it is saved by Rosalind Russell, who plays Mame as a version of her classic screwball persona, part Hildy from “His Girl Friday,” part Sylvia from “The Women.”
Mame is an outspoken, fabulously rich widow who lives the decadent life as part of the 1920s New York theater crowd. Her parties are legendary, as are many of her friends (as her maid states the morning after a particular late night: “The first lady of the American stage is passed out in the upstairs room”).
But after 30 minutes of snappy one liners as Mame juggles raising and educating her nephew (dropped into her life after his parents’ death) while maintaining her jazz-age party lifestyle, the crash of ’29 throws a wet blanket over everything.
The film, just like the Great Depression economy, goes from bad to worse as Mame takes up with a boisterous but generous oil tycoon (Forrest Tucker) and they marry and travel the world. Most of the last half of this incredible long, tiresome picture deals with Mame’s nerdish secretary (game show maven Peggy Cass, who scored an unlikely Oscar nomination for the role) and the now grown, and snobbish, nephew (Roger Smith, who went on to playing Jeff Spencer in the TV show “77 Sunset Strip”) and his equally pretentious fiancé.
Enduring 2 hours and 23 minutes of “Auntie Mame” (it felt like 4 hours and 46 minutes) was painful, but Russell’s unabated energy keeps the film afloat. She earned a best actress nomination for the role and the colorful cinematography, by Hollywood veteran Harry Stradling, also was nominated.
What’s most shocking about the film’s best picture nomination is that it filled a spot that could have been taken by two of the greatest American films ever made: Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece “Vertigo” and Orson Welles’ brilliant noir “Touch of Evil.” It may be the most egregious misjudgment in Oscar history.