AND THE RACE IS STILL ON FOR THE OSCARS


Below is an excellent little article from movieline.com on what may be the most vulnerable of the potential best picture nominees. I agree with his analysis except that I think it’s a pretty gone conclusion, even before now, that The Last Station and The Lovely Bones weren’t going to make it. Invictus is a hard call because everybody seems to buy into the myth that Eastwood always gets a nomination when in actuality he doesn’t. The list doesn’t include Up, which is vulnerable if people decide to only nominate it in the animation category. Nine is a hard call because I suspect that when an audience sees it, they like it; the problem is that they’re having a hard time getting an audience to see it; but that’s what screeners are for. In addition, I think Weinstein is part of this and the lesson is never count Weinstein out.

http://www.movieline.com/2009/12/the-5-most-vulnerable-best-picture-candidates.php?page=all

DOING THE RELATIONSHIP RAG: Reviews of Up in the Air, Nine and A Single Man


What, to me, is most amazing about Up in the Air is how well it works when, to be perfectly honest (and hopefully Jason Reitman isn’t reading this blog—who am I kidding, of course, he isn’t), the movie really doesn’t work. Even the people I know who saw it all say they enjoyed it, but that it doesn’t quite rise to an Oscar worthy movie, even though the buzz now is that it will win best picture. I think the problem is that the focus of the plot and theme are unclear and in the end, the authors (screenplay by Sheldon Turner and Mr. Reitman) contradict themselves as to what they are trying to say. It’s about a man who flies around the U.S. firing people for other companies. It’s also about a man who has created what he considers to be the perfect life for himself, one in which he has no commitments and no serious relationships (especially with his family, for some reason never really explained). These two aspects of the script really have nothing to do with each other; he could be flying for any number of reasons (selling aluminum siding among others) and he would be the same person. The firing people plot is written as if it was central to everything that is going on, but because it isn’t, the plot isn’t quite as emotionally involving as it might be. George Clooney plays the airport hopping everyman, Ryan Bingham. To other people, he’s suppose to come across as very happy and together; he’s even suppose to come across that way to himself. But to the audience, or at least to me, he comes across as one of the most unhappy and depressed people I’ve ever met, though very high functioning. He claims that airports and traveling is his home, but it’s unclear what he gets out of it that makes him feel that way (the only time he seems really happy is when he and his cohorts crash a convention; it’s only at this moment that I really see what he sees in traveling); he’s also a motivational speaker, but it’s unclear why since his stock speech should only motivate people to cut their wrists.. His own motivations are also unfocused. When he is informed that he will no longer be traveling, it’s unclear whether he’s unhappy for the reason he states, that there is a dignity to firing people in person (which could very well be true because Bingham is wonderful at his job, often destroying people’s lives only to help them rise from the ashes like a phoenix), or whether he’s unhappy because he may not make his goal of 10 million frequent flyer miles. The authors seem to want to have it both ways. They seem to want to have everything both ways. When Bingham starts an affair with fellow traveler Alex Goran (a wonderful Vera Farmiga, who may finally get her Oscar nomination her fellow thespians have been wanting to give her for some time), it’s obvious from the formulaic structure of the piece that she is married. It’s so obvious that even the fact that it’s not remotely believable that she wouldn’t tell him or would go home with him to his sister’s wedding for the weekend or that Bingham should have noticed a wedding ring tan line shouldn’t fool anyone watching. Though there is a formulaic air to the piece, it doesn’t quite go there. The implication of the story is that Bingham is going to be fired and get a taste of his own medicine, but the script never comes close to this. Instead, it contradicts its own message by having Bingham come to realize that he needs to be involved with others, but then have his hopes dashed when he finds out Goran is married. In other words, the authors are basically saying, sorry, we were wrong, Bingham was right all the time, it’s best not to have commitments. But as I said, it’s amazing just how enjoyable the movie is. The acting is first rate, including Jason Bateman as the oily villain, Bingham’s boss who foams at the mouth because the economy is continuing a downswing meaning more and more people are going to be fired; and Anna Kendrick, as Bingham’s student, who sees Bingham’s business for what it is and gets out while she still can. The dialog is incredibly witty and lovely to listen to. It’s solidly directed and sticks with one. It may be one of the best movies that doesn’t work that I’ve seen in some time.

It’s doubtful that a film like Nine (directed by Chicago’s Rob Marshall) could have an American director as the main character, mainly because Nine is about a director in anguish because he is not sure he has anything new to say and when it comes to American directors no one really expects them to say anything in the first place. Nine is very European in its philosophy, which is appropriate since it is based on Frederic Fellini’s film 8 ½ and the central character is based on the celebrated Italian director. I guess I’m going to be in the doghouse on Nine, because the buzz and most critical feedback on the movie has been rather negative, but I loved it and I don’t really know why people seem to dislike it so much. It’s about a director, Guido Contini, who is having a creative block. We should hate him. He’s nothing but a drama queen about it and most of his problems are his own causing. He keeps asking for pity when he doesn’t deserve it (he’s like the Orson Welles character in Me and Orson Welles). Yet I felt his pain and I so wanted him to come out of his funk. The director is played by Daniel Day-Lewis and many critics have also said he is the problem with the whole enterprise. But for my money, I think he got Fellini as filtered through the persona of Marcello Mastroianni picture perfect. The slouch, the chain smoking, the desire to do what’s right even while he’s in the middle of doing what’s wrong, the belief in God. It’s all there and for me, he just about holds it all together on his own. But he gets great support from Marion Cotillard as his long suffering wife; Judi Dench as his costume designer and surrogate mother; Sophia Loren, as his long suffering, now deceased real mother; Penelope Cruz as his mistress; Fergie, as a prostitute from the director’s childhood; and in the most exciting musical number, Kate Hudson as a member of the paparazzi who would like to bed Guido. The musical numbers often fail or succeed depending on the quality of the numbers (Kander and Ebb, who wrote the original music, tended to write tunes that sounded sort of all alike, no matter whether they were in Zorba, Nine, The Rink or Chicago). A Call from the Vatican and Follies Bergeres fall short, but Be Italian and My Husband Directs Movies get their job done quite well. However, the highlight of the musical numbers has to be Cinema Italiano, written directly for the film. It’s an early MTV type number in which Hudson suggests that Contini is often known more for style over substance. The screenplay, adapted by Michael Tolkin and Anthony Minghella, has more depth than the original book of the play, which is more pure farce from my memory. I think the audience liked the film as well. Once the movie was over and the credits were rolling, no one wanted to leave.



A Single Man, based on the book by Christopher Isherwood, is a lovely, lyrical tone poem about a man trying to come to terms with the loss of his lover. One of the most powerful and moving scenes comes early on. Colin Firth, as English college professor George, receives a phone call from the brother of his lover Jim informing him that Jim has died and the caller has to pretend that he doesn’t know that George was his brother’s lover when in reality he does and George has to pretend that he and Jim were only friends when they had actually been together for sixteen years. Firth is incredible here showing deep pain in his face, but careful composure in his voice. But the scene is key in a way that perhaps the director Tom Ford and writers David Scearce and the aforesaid Ford didn’t realize (or perhaps they did; every scene in the movie is very studied in a fashion photographer way, so perhaps this was intentional as well). The uncredited actor making the call is Jon Hamm, the star of the amazing TV series Mad Men. Mad Men also takes place during the same time period (A Single Man happens on the eve of the Cuban Missile Crisis as did one episode of Mad Men) and is every bit as carefully designed and photographed as is A Single Man. The two are full of both substance and style and have the ability to take one’s breath away with scenes that sneak up on you without warning. What is it about this period that is beginning to intrigue us? It was the prelude to one of the most profound changes in American history, but it seems that it is what is happening before the deluge than after it that is most fascinating to us today (see also Pirate Radio and An Education; though not American, it seems to be the same idea). George is considering killing himself (a subplot I don’t remember from the book), but first has to spend a drunken, emotional evening with his best gal pal Charley, a luscious, wonderful boozing Julianne Moore, as well as trying to figure out what to do with one of his students, Kenny (played by About a Boy and Skins’ Nicholas Hoult, but with a flat, unconvincing American accent that gets in the way of his acting) who keeps showing up for some reason. In the book (at least from what I remember), Kenny is very straight and has no idea George is gay (in the novel Kenny isn’t sleeping with his girlfriend because they don’t have a place to have sex, so George sets it up so that Kenny can use his place once a week); in the movie, Kenny seems out to get his professor in bed. I’m not sure the ending works for me; George dies, but not from suicide. It seems unnecessarily downbeat and I’m not sure what the author is trying to say with the irony. But still, it’s an emotionally involving movie that grabs you and won’t let go. Though Ford has been criticized for emphasizing style over substance in his approach to telling the story, the look over the ideas, I don’t agree. I found his studied direction to be one of the things that pulled me into George’s emotionally wrenching story.

JUST A COUPLE OF ARTICLES I RAN ACROSS RELATING TO BEST MOVIES OF DECADE


The first is a list of the most critically received movies of the decade from Metacritic.com (a rival to rottentomatoes). It’s a great list and should make you run to your Netflix listing. Pan’s Labyrinth came in first. It also divides them into wide releases as well as genres like musical and best comic book adaptation.

http://features.metacritic.com/features/2009/the-best-movies-of-the-decade/

This second is a great list. IFC.com list seven movies that pushed the boundaries of storytelling, movies that are a must see for all screenwriters who write according to books and classes. I haven’t seen two (No Rest for the Wicked and Tropical Malady), but intend to complete the list.

http://www.ifc.com/blogs/indie-eye/2009/12/storytelling.php

Also from IFC.com, the seven most influentical filmmaking countries of the ’00’s (and no, the U.S. is not on them). Right now, Korea and Romania (of all places) seem to lead with Argentina possibly no far behind.

http://www.ifc.com/blogs/indie-eye/2009/12/seven-countries.php

THERE’S COMPLICATED AND THEN THERE’S COMPLICATED: Reviews of It’s Complicated and Sherlock Holmes


In It’s Complicated, the author Nancy Meyers (who also directed) constantly uses the idea of French films as a metaphor for what is happening in her story. And she’s exactly right. The pitch line for this movie, a woman has an affair with her ex-husband who left her for a younger woman years earlier, is exactly the sort of thing the French, with their “oh, so adult” sense of relationships, would do. It would star someone like Catherine Deneuve as the wife and people like Daniel Auteuil and Gerard Depardieu as the ex-husband and the new boyfriend. It’s hard to say that the French would do it better; they have their hits and misses. But for me, It’s Complicated never does quite rise to its sophisticated occasion. Everyone works very hard, especially Meryl Streep as the wife who has become the other woman. She’s constantly laughing or flailing her arms or rolling her eyes; if a line isn’t working, then her body sure is. Alec Baldwin probably gives the best line readings of the leads, he seems so relaxed, though Steve Martin has some wonderful scenes being stoned. In the end, however, it’s John Krasinski as Streep’s future son in law who has the best double takes and gets the most laughs. It’s hard to say exactly why it doesn’t work as well as one would want. It has all the right ingredients. But perhaps the clever script isn’t quite clever enough and perhaps Meyers doesn’t quite have the right Gallic touch for the material. Perhaps Streep’s friends and her children are just a bit too much of a drag. Perhaps everybody’s just trying too hard. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps. I don’t know. It’s complicated.
Sherlock Holmes may on the surface be about the famous Victorian detective, but the movie, or at least the best parts of it, are about a straight married couple (Holmes and Watson) going through a divorce made all the more difficult because one is marrying someone else and the two are still in love with each other. Gee, this sounds awfully like the movie It’s Complicated. It’s not, though I would have to say that in many ways calling the plot to Sherlock Holmes complicated might be a very apt description. This was the part of the movie that didn’t really work that much for me. The evil plan put forth by Mark Strong’s Lord Blackwood has something to do with destroying both houses of Parliament with the eventual idea of taking back the American colonies which have been weakened by the Civil War. His ultimate goal is world domination, but exactly how reclaiming the United States would help him do just that is somewhat unclear, and therefore just a tad on the camp side (sort of like Lex Luther wanting to cause an earthquake and have California slip back in the ocean so all his new property will be beach front—actually that makes a little more sense). It also depends not so much on cleverness on Blackwood’s part, but on such dull plot twists as his taking the easy way out and bribing some jail keepers. But no matter; Blackwood’s plan may be a tad confusing, but the love spats of Holmes and Watson (played wonderfully by Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law) are very clear indeed. Eddie Marsan (having a good couple of years) also works well as Inspector Lastrade, but Rachel McAdams doesn’t really strike the right cord as a femme fatale, though it is fun to see how shy and uncomfortable Holmes gets around women. It’s heavily directed by Guy Ritchie, which works part of the time, but at others, gets a bit in the way. The uneven script is by Michael Robert Johnson, Anthony Peckham and Simon Kinberg. It’s not a disaster, but not as good as it could have been.

CAN’T WE ALL JUST GET ALONG: Review of Invictus


Invictus is well meaning and sincere, directed and written by people who have no trouble wearing their hearts on their sleeves. The L.A. Times here compared it to such classic biopics as The Story of Louis Pasteur and The Life of Emile Zola. I agree whole heartedly with the Times, but the problem I had is that the Times considered the comparison a compliment; I’m not so sure. All those films (what I and Jerry, my best friend in Chicago, call a typical Warner Brother’s biopic) are well done, often entertaining, with some great acting, as is Invictus. At the same time, they never really rise above what they are and there’s something a bit safe and stodgy about them as well. By the time this story of Nelson Mandela’s attempts to bring unity to South Africa by championing a rugby team came to an end (a sport only supported by the minority whites while Mandela was imprisoned by aforesaid whites), the only real impact I was left with were the incredible rugby scenes, a series of grueling, cruel gladiatorial matches. Where the rest of the movie got the job done, these scenes went for the juggler and succeeded. Morgan Freeman plays Nelson Mandela. It use to be James Earl Jones who always played God; somewhere along the way when people weren’t looking, the divine torch got passed to Freeman as if they were running for the Olympic Committee. Morgan’s good and one can feel just how tired and weary this man is. Matt Damon as the captain of the rugby team does very well with his South African accent, a distancing effect that seems to help him give one of his better performances. The screenplay by Anthony Peckham (who also penned the new Sherlock Holmes movie) covers all the bases and is a solid enough journeymen script. The direction by Clint Eastwood is the same. All in all, I recommend highly a movie on the same subject that did not get all the hoopla Invictus did: Endgame, a film first shown on BBC Contemporary and then was released to the movie theaters. It’s less ambitious in scope, but more successful in what it tried to do.

NEW YORKER’S TOP TEN FILMS OF 2009


In all my years reading the New Yorker under Pauline Kael, I don’t remember it every printing a top ten list, but times change. Here is David Denby’s list, a somewhat safe one from someone working for that inestimable mag. The honorable mentions seem very un New Yorkish (Invictus? Really?)

http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/tny/2009/12/denby-top-films-2009.html

FROM 3D TO 1D: Review of Avatar


Everyone says Avatar is based on/or inspired by Dances with Wolves, that drama about the white man (played by Kevin Costner) who goes to live with the “noble savage” right after the Civil War. I disagree. I think the inspiration is more Little Big Man in which Dustin Hoffman goes to live with the Native Americans and ends up involved in the Battle of Little Big Horn and General Custard’s ignominious defeat. Here the Custard character is played (just a tad over the top) by Stephen Lang and the Hoffman character is played by the appropriately named Sam Worthington (whose underplaying is very effective at times). Avatar is one of those movies that is critic proof. If every single review was negative, it still wouldn’t matter. Hell, even a major snow storm on the East Coast didn’t stop people from going out to see it. Avatar is brilliantly directed by James Cameron and the 3D is a marvel to behold. From a technical standpoint, the film can’t be faulted. It’s a beautiful, at times exquisite, example of film art. For me, the image I will remember are the flying sea anemones, delicate little flowers that float like dandelion weeds. And like the end of Titanic where Cameron is able to make you feel the horrific tragedy of that boat’s sinking, here he also is able to gear up the emotions of the audience when the solders go after the aborigines, killing men, women and children with no remorse. But though the technical aspects of the movie are 3D, sad to say the rest of it is rather 1D. The story is not particularly original enough to be involving (script also by James Cameron). It’s about a soldier with no legs who can control an Avatar, a genetic creature modeled on the natives of a planet that has a particularly hostile environment (probably a bit too hostile to believe that humanoid creatures could evolve as they have here). The locals live a satisfying, if not particular interesting life; Cameron does the usual job of making the natives noble and suggesting their way of life superior to the invaders (in the way that revisionist westerns tended to over romanticize Native Americans), though the new age religion of the locals is a bit hard to take seriously. And have you noticed that whenever someone does this, they never give up their house in Beverly Hills and go live on an Indian reservation? Worthington plays Jake Sully, the soldier with no legs, who can connect to an Avatar of his now dead twin brother. He gets legs and the corporation doesn’t lose money. His goal is to find a diplomatic solution to the corporation wanting to take over the planet and mine it for an element that can save a dying Earth. But Quaritch, Lang’s character (the Custard Avatar), wants him to report to him and tell him how they can most easily wipe out this primitive and inferior race. Guess what happens? No, really, guess. The rest of the acting is perfectly fine with Sigourney Weaver and Giovanni Ribisi coming off best. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that the script isn’t a great work of art. It’s not unusual for films that introduce new technology to come up short in other areas (The Jazz Singer with sound; Becky Sharp with color; The Robe with Cinemascope). It will be interesting to see whether other motion pictures will be able to use this technology with a more effective script.