Sunday, February 26, 2012

January/February 2012

      I can’t offer much in the way of appraisal on this year’s Oscar nominations since I’ve yet to see about 10 of the major nominees, but I can safely state that it was a lousy year for movies.

       I also can write without hesitation that the group of best actor nominees is the weakest collection in decades—maybe ever. And can someone explain to me why there are nine best picture nominees? I understand the rules, but if they have to have more than five, it doesn’t make a lick of sense to not have 10. It like a critic who could only come up with 9 films for his Top 10….actually, for 2011 that was a bit of a problem.

       Yet, the Academy still managed to leave off their usual share of deserving nominees, led by what was far and away the year’s best film, “Melancholia.” Lars von Trier’s audacious psychological examination of a small group of people dealing with a possible cataclysmic celestial event was the only great movie of 2011. And Kirsten Dunst was robbed of a nomination for her bravado performance as a deeply depressed newlywed in the film.

      Staying in the best actress category, I’m baffled how the Academy could have left off Jodie Foster, a two-time winner, for her intense role as a protective mother in “Carnage.”

      Among actors, Woody Harrelson seemed deserving of a nod for his performance as a out-of-control LAPD officer in “Rampart,” as was Patton Oswalt for “Young Adult” and Corey Stoll, playing a comic Ernest Hemingway, in “Midnight in Paris.”

     Needless to say, I was pleased with Woody Allen’s nominations—best director, best original screenplay and “Midnight in Paris” for best picture. I’m still waiting to read the reaction of all those critics who have been writing for more than a decade that Woody was done as a filmmaker. “Midnight in Paris,” while not in the same category as his masterful films of the ‘70s and ‘80s, will end up being the highest gross movie he’s ever made.

      This is the seventh time Allen has been nominated for both director and writer in the same year, an Oscar record. (That tops the legendary Billy Wilder, who he passed a few years ago for most screenplay nominations.) Allen now has 14 nods as a screenwriter and seven as a director.

      Speaking of old guys, it was also good to see Christopher Plummer and Max von Sydow score nominations as supporting players, both for mediocre films that they make watchable. 

       I haven’t seen many foreign films either, but when I finally make my list, at the top will be “Certified Copy” and last year’s Oscar winner (but a 2011 release) “In a Better World.”

        As for the English-language films of 2011, even though it’s nearly March, my Top 10 (along with other picks) is still a work in progress. Thus far, here’s what I thought were the year’s best:

        1. Melancholia  (Lars von Trier)
        2. The Descendants  (Alexander Payne)
        3. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo  (David Fincher)
        4.  Midnight in Paris  (Woody Allen)
        5.  Carnage  (Roman Polanski)
        6.  Super 8  (J.J. Abrams)
        7.  Win Win   (Thomas McCarthy)
        8.  Rampart  (Owen Moverman)
        9.  Young Adult  (Jason Reitman)
      10.  Moneyball  (Bennett Miller)

       Other, worthy films last year included “Contagion,” “The Guard” and “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II,” the finalé of the bloated, overhyped series that probably deserved a spot in the best picture lineup. 

CARNAGE  (2011)
     This deceptively insightful, slyly comical adaptation of the acclaimed stage play “God of Carnage” traps two upper-class New York couples in philosophical combat on parenting and other assorted topics.

      At least that’s the spark that brings these four talkative parents together, attempting to resolve an assault by the son of Alan and Nancy Cowan on the son of Penelope and Michael Longstreet. Turns out, these couples have more problems that bickering children.

     While the Longsteets (John C. Reilly and Jodie Foster) attempt to play the role of sophisticated, understanding hosts, the Cowans (Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet) just want to put an end to this uncomfortable discussion. Instead, it just goes on and on, from faux pleasantries to uncensored, political incorrect rants on gender roles, corporate responsibility and the ethical treatment of small animals. Every time the Cowans seem to be headed home, they get pulled back into the hot house fray. And because these four are so incorrigibly serious, the film is laugh out-loud funny, a biting comedy that shows upper Westside America as ridiculous, childish game players.

    Having not seen Yasmina Reza’s play, a hit in London, New York and Los Angeles, I don’t know how much she had to alter it for the screen, but except for a short opening, the film is all set in the Longstreet’s over-decorated apartment. To make a film in such tight quarters work you need a masterful director and the producers found one of the best: Roman Polanski. At 78, the still controversy magnet (three years ago, the Los Angeles district attorney tried but failed to extradite him to serve time for his 1977 sexual assault conviction) remains among the finest filmmakers in the world, showing it in “Carnage” by turning a four-person, one-set gabfest into dynamic, unrelenting cinema. Polanski knows just when to pull back and let the audience breathe and when to heat up the debate and intensify the discomfort. And, most importantly, he found the perfect cast.    

       Most surprising, for me, was Jodie Foster, giving her most compelling performance in 20 years as Penelope, a tightly wound, controlling woman who has created a world and personality that is bound for destruction. It’s surprising not because Foster isn’t a superb actress (with two best actress Oscars), but that she seemed to have given up on challenging roles that would push her to this level of excellent. Wearing little makeup and looking all of her 52 years, Foster rips into this character with everything she has and it is, at times, mesmerizing. It’s a crime that she was ignored by Academy voters.

     Then there’s Waltz as Alan, picking up right where he left off as the self-satisfied Nazi in his Oscar-winning role from “Inglourious Basterds.” Here he’s a slick corporate attorney who, much to his wife’s disgust, refuses to turn off his phone, taking calls every few minutes. It’s the funniest performance in the film as he nonchalantly offers brutally assessments of everyone’s motivations.

     Winslet as Nancy and Reilly as Michael have less complex roles but still have vivid moments and serve as perfect counterpoints to their spouses.

     I’m not sure why the film didn’t attract more accolades during the award’s season—in 1966, the not dissimilar, four-person slugfest “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” scored 13 Oscar nominations—but for my money it’s one of the year’s best. “Carnage” has enough unforgettable lines and exchanges to enliven 10 scripts.

A BETTER LIFE  (2011) and RAMPART (2011)
      In tone and style, these two films couldn’t be further apart, yet taken together they offer a depressingly realistic examination of life for the majority of those who live in Los Angeles: the immigrants from Mexico and Central and South America.

       When I first read the list of best actor nominees on the morning of the Oscar announcements, I did a double-take when I saw Demián Bichir’s name (misspelled on some Academy releases). How did an actor I’ve never heard of in a movie whose title I don’t recognize score an Oscar nomination? Even in all the hype leading up to the nominations, I never saw any mention of “A Better Life” or Bichir.

     Looking up the title, I recalled it being released, receiving uninspiring reviews and closing soon afterwards. Maybe because I didn’t expect much when I watched the DVD a few weeks later, I found “A Better Life,” despite its made-for-television veneer, to be an insightful and superbly acted picture.

    The film doesn’t have much of a plot, but instead focuses on a slice of life of the largely illegal hired hands who toil anonymously on hundreds of thousands of lawns across Southern California. And it succeeds by refusing to candy-coat the reality of that life or manufacture a hard-work-conquers-all scenario. With a straightforward approach by director Chris Weitz (“About a Boy”) and understated dialogue by screenwriters Eric Eason and Roger L. Simon, the film makes its points without turning into a liberal diatribe.

     Bichir’s Carlos, working dawn to dusk, is raising a teenage son who isn’t too interested in his father’s job and money worries. When Carlos is offered the chance to take over the gardening business of the man he works for, he borrows money from his sister and buys the man’s truck. From there, things go from bad to worse. The movie has its fair share of clichés, yet the understated, realistic depiction of these ubiquitous workers, who have become part of the fabric of Southern California society, makes “A Better Life” one of the essential films about L.A.  

    Bichir, who most prominently played Che Guevara in Steven Soderbergh’s two-part biopic “Che,” gives a richly textured performance as this frustrated laborer, bring a quiet authenticity to the role. I’m still a bit surprised that the performance earned an Oscar nod, even in what is clearly a down year. Yet I hope he wins—he’d probably be the least known performer ever to win the best actor Oscar.

        Another side of the life in L.A.’s minority communities is portrayed with dark, brutally raw stokes in Oren Moverman’s “Rampart.” Set in 1999 during the investigation into the biggest police corruption scandal in the city’s recent history, the movie follows disturbingly fanatical cop Dave Brown (an extraordinarily intense Woody Harrelson), a rogue officer out of step with a department attempting to clean up its image.

      Moverman, who worked with Harrelson in the equally memorable “The Messenger,”  and co-writer James Ellroy (“L.A. Confidential” and a half-dozen other pulp fiction novels set in L.A.) combine the frenetic pace of the last half of “GoodFellas” with a “Taxi Driver”-like sense of doom and violence to create a chaotic, disjointed, occasionally inexplicable ride along down the mean streets of the city.  

    Brown works in the same Rampart division (located in the middle of neighborhoods filled with recent immigrants) of LAPD that is being investigated in the corruption probe, which is no surprise. He adds to the department’s black eye when he’s caught on tape beating a Latino man who crashed his car into Brown’s vehicle.

       With a legal background, Brown knows all the right answers to stall internal affairs (including a no-nonsense assistant DA played with slick intelligence by Sigourney Weaver) yet can’t keep his bizarre home life from self destructing. While he seems to be the man in control when he’s on the job, at home Brown has become a minor player, living with his ex-wives, who are sisters (played by Anne Heche and Cynthia Nixon) and the daughter he’s had with each of them. He finds comfort (or something like that) with a defense attorney (Robin Wright) he hooks up with in a bar and trades conspiracy theories with an ex-cop (Ned Beatty) as the world closes in on him.

      The filmmaker packs a ton of plot into less than two hours, which sometimes makes the film seem more interested in shocking images than coherence. Yet the episodical, tightly edited style of “Rampart” pays off as it follows the self-destruction of Brown, who never stops deluding himself into believing he’s in the right. 

      It’s a wild, daring performance by Harrelson, who finds the perfect balance of biting humor and egotistical machismo. Not only is this character a racist, chauvinistic bully but he’s proud of it. There’s no redemption, no saving grace for Brown; he’s a powerful reminder that not everyone wearing a badge and carrying a gun is out there “to serve and protect.”

     Hollywood has been cranking out movies for two decade about twentysomething males who  refuse to grow up—see the entire careers of Adam Sandler, Vince Vaughn and Steven Carell—but rarely are the girls represented.

     The latest film from director Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody (they collaborated for “Juno”) follows the pathetic life of Mavis, a one-time high school beauty who hasn’t lost her looks (it’s Charlize Theron, need I say more) but hasn’t figured out the first thing about adulthood. She’s tasted some success as a ghost writer of a series of children’s books but, like her male counterparts, wakes up most nights with a hangover or in someone else’s bed.

     Her high school spirit is awakened when she receives an e-mail announcing the birth of the child of her former boyfriend from her hometown. With the simple-minded enthusiasm of a 16-year-old, she drives back home (from the “big city” of Minneapolis) to steal Buddy Slade away from what Mavis imagines is an awful life of fatherhood and living in a small-town.

      While she turns on the charm and school girl flirtation, Buddy (Patrick Wilson) is so involved in his new family that he barely takes note of her “stalking.” Who does notice is Matt (veteran TV actor Patton Oswalt), the film’s most interesting character who runs into Marvis her first night in town and quickly becomes her unlikely drinking buddy and confidant. Matt was ignored (and teased) by Mavis during their school days but she remembers him because he was famously beaten by bullies who thought he was gay. Left permanently disabled, Matt represents all the teens who remember high school as a nightmare that still haunts them. Yet Cody’s politically incorrect, profanely blunt script and a hilarious and heartfelt performance by Oswalt keeps Matt from becoming a figure of pity.

     Theron gives her best performance since her Oscar-winning turn as the serial killer in “Monster” (2003), turning the stunning Mavis into an ugly, petty, self-centered and nearly psychotic young adult.

   While the story could have used another subplot or two, “Young Adult” is really a character study of a generation who find themselves in a society that doesn’t require them to grow up, so they don’t.

     In a cinematic world where spies are depicted as sexy, athletic adventurers with physical skills that approach superheroes—Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hawke, Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne and Daniel Craig’s James Bond—George Smiley is about as exciting and imposing as a near-sighted, retired librarian.

      Yet this taciturn, bespectacled, trench-coat wearing British spy is the archetype of the men who were on the front line of the decades-long Cold War. John le Carré’s 1974 book of the same name, arguable the most revered spy novel of the 20th Century, follows Smiley’s return to action after being given the boot because of a bungled operation behind the Iron Curtain. Along with his mentor and boss, Control, Smiley leaves the Circus (le Carré’s sarcastic name for the British spy operation) in the hands of four colleagues, all suspected by Control of being the double-agent he’s sure has infiltrated the agency.

     When another source comes forward with info that confirms those beliefs, the Downing Street enlists Smiley to investigate those now running the agency.

     Gary Oldman, who’s been giving eclectic, memorable, but underappreciated performances since his breakthrough role as punk rocker Sid Vicious in “Sid and Nancy” (1986), is perfect as Smiley, a man who speaks only when necessary and seems so blandly ordinary that it’s a shock when he displays his razor-sharp deduction skills and bluntly direct interrogation methods. It earned him a surprising Oscar nomination, though I think it may represent a career achievement honor from the Academy voters. Yet this finely detailed performance is part of what makes “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” a disappointment.

    Every performance, every plot turn, even what passes for action scenes in this film are dialed down to such a snail’s pace that the overall effect is two hours of nothing happening. Even when the traitor is finally trapped by Smiley, it is presented in the most undramatic, elliptical manner that a viewer who blinks could easily be totally baffled by the final act.

       What earned le Carré’s book such praise—his refusal to over glamorize or overhype the process of espionage—has been impressively captured and condensed by screenwriters Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan. Yet what makes for a fascinating read turns into a sluggish, nearly inert motion picture.

    The six-hour 1979 television movie, one of the best every made, got away with the placing because it is so long and was shown in one-hour bites on the small screen. I re-watched the TV version a few months ago and it remains a masterful work, elevated by a brilliant performance by Alec Guinness as Smiley. While much of what Oldman does in the new version is very reminiscent of Guinness, Oldman takes a low-key role down at least another notch.

     For those unfamiliar with the story, the film may feel fresher and less plodding, but they also my get lost in the maze of minutia that is crucial to the unfolding of the plot. There are just too many scenes of Smiley sitting and staring, adjusting his oversized, ‘70s style glasses and then sighing.

    The acting, as one would expect, is all first rate, with Colin Firth, Ciarán Hinds, Toby Jones and David Dencik, playing the four Circus chiefs under the glare of Smiley’s investigation and John Hurt as Control. Also superb is Mark Strong (“The Guard,” “Body of Lies”) as a damaged agent who was caught in the middle of this game of chess between the Soviets and the British.

    Swedish director Tomas Alfredson has the austerity of the piece down pat, but he never is able to get the blood and guts of this spy tale flowing. 

     You’d have to be a rock not to be emotionally affected by the final act of this overwrought Sept. 11 drama. But the road to the payoff is excruciatingly long, led by an annoyingly pretentious young boy who truly tests the limits of sympathy.

     Nominated for a best picture, this contrived film, based on Jonathan Safran Foer’s bestseller, follows Oskar’s adventures as he attempts to find a lock that will fit a key that belonged to his father (Tom Hanks), who died on what the boy calls “the worst day ever.”

      Oskar (played by Thomas Horn) tramps around New York City as if he’s living in Mayberry, encountering such a cross section of considerate, interesting and diverse people that I half expected Mayor Bloomberg to have a writing credit. The boy’s metaphorical search to unlock his emotional response to the sudden loss of his father might have worked on the page, but on screen it feels manipulatively clever and painfully obvious.

     I knew I was in for a long haul during the opening scenes showing Oskar and his father engaging in intellectual battles and educational challenges—a relationship so balanced and stress-free that it could only happen in a Hollywood movie.

      And if the Sept. 11 tragedy wasn’t enough emotional baggage, the story throws in a World War II survivor who hasn’t spoken in years, to serve as a spiritual guild for the boy.

      Director Stephen Daldry (“Billy Elliott,” “The Hours”) and screenwriter Eric Roth (“Forrest Gump,” “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”) are as good as anyone in the business at constructing movies that Oscar voters love. In fact, this is the first feature Daldry has made that didn’t earn him a best directing nomination.

      The lone bright spot in this tear-soaked picture is 82-year-old Max von Sydow, whose performance as the above mentioned mute deserved to be surrounded by a better film. It’d be great to see this magnificent actor receive the Oscar, if only as recognition of his standing as one of the towering figures in the history of world cinema. Von Sydow has never stopped working since his debut in 1949, first as the cinematic alter-ego of director Ingmar Bergman and, since the 1960s, as one of Hollywood’s most distinctive supporting players.

     The only reason this picture was released in theaters was because it was billed as cult director Monte Hellman’s comeback. If you’ve never heard of this “legendary” filmmaker, don’t feel bad—he’s probably the most overrated indie director of the 1960s and ‘70s.

      His reputation is based on three pictures, “Ride in the Whirlwind” (1965), “The Shooting” (1966)—two Westerns starring a pre-stardom Jack Nicholson—and  “Two-Lane Blacktop” (1971), which features a great performance by Warren Oates.

    “Road to Nowhere” is just his second film in 30 years and the rust shows. The convoluted plot involves Mitchell (Tygh Runyan), a filmmaker working on a fictional film about a small-town scandal that is never fully explained. While Hellman shows conversations about the actual crime and numerous scenes from the film within the film, it was never clear to me what exactly happened, other than someone was killed and money disappeared.

    The only interesting aspect of the film is Shannyn Sossamon, a stunning actress who co-starred with Heath Ledger in “A Knight’s Tale” (2001), but has done little of substance since. Here she’s quite good, playing both the actress starring in Mitchell’s film and the woman at the center of the real-life scandal.

      Hellman and screenwriter Steve Gaydos (a longtime editor at Daily Variety) touch all the right bases to turn “Road to Nowhere” into a cult favorite—here’s seven simple rules for aspiring cult directors:

       1. Use non-actors (or actors that act as if they’re amateurs)
       2. Set the film in exotic locations even when it makes no plot sense. And try to make the title sound existential with words like “road” and “nowhere.”
       3. Keep the plot and dialogue as vague as possible and leave huge gaps in the plotline. This makes it easier for critics to create their own “meaning” for the film.
       4. At least one character has to be a filmmaker or wannabe filmmaker and, even better, set part of the film on a movie set.
       5. Make sure you show the main character watching old, classic movies on television and then have him comment on them. Referring to Hollywood history makes any film an instant cult classic.
       6. Hope that no one pays to see it, because if it becomes even a minor hit critics won’t be interested in “rediscovering” the film a few years later.
        7. Don’t make too many films; the more movies one of these “unappreciated masters” makes, the harder it is to explain away all the bad films.

        It probably doesn’t matter that the resulting product is an unwatchable mess. Ten years from now, Hellman devotees will be calling it the best film of the 2010s and articles will be written in Film Comment about the director’s keen insight into a cynical Hollywood and a corrupt American society. I can hardly wait.