The rest are in no particular order:
Mesrine, Parts I and II
The Killer Inside Me
Mother and Child
Toy Story 3
Scott Pilgrim v. The World
Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work
Aamir Kahn–3 Idiots
Vincent Cassel – Mesrine, Parts I and II
Casey Affleck—The Killer Inside Me
John C. Reilly—Cyrus
Annette Benning—The Kids Are All Right; Mother and Child
Tilda Swinton—I Am Love
Noomi Rapace–The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo; The Girl Who Played With Fire
Jennifer Lawrence–Winter’s Bone
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Helena Bonham-Carter—Alice In Wonderland
Jacki Weaver–Animal Kingdom
Dale Dickey–Winter’s Bone
Catherine Keener—Cyrus, Please Give
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Gerard Depardieu—Mesrine, Part I, Killer Instinct
Kieran Caulkin—Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
Ned Beatty–Toy Story 3
John Hawkes–Winter’s Bone
Mickey Rourke–Iron Man 2
Edgar Wright–Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
Rajkumar Hirani–3 Idiots
Michael Winterbottom–The Killer Inside Me
Eun-kyo Park, Joon-ho Bong, Wun-kyo Park–Mother
Rodrigo Garcia–Mother and Child
Michael Bacall, Edgar Wright–Scott Pilgrim v. the World
Mark and Jay Duplass–Cyrus
David Michod–Animal Kingdom
The movie has a darkly comic opening in which Jacki’s grandson Joshua Cody, played by newcomer James Frecheville, watches a game show while he sits beside a woman who has passed out, or so it seems. It’s not long before some EMT’s arrive and it turns out that the woman is his mother and has actually OD’d, with Joshua able to answer all the EMT’s questions with the sort of detailed answers about a mother a teenager shouldn’t have to know. And to top it all off, as the EMT’s take his mother away, Joshua finds it almost impossible to stop watching the game show on TV. The rest of the movie is equally funny and depressing in the same doses. Joshua is picked up by his grandmother Janine and taken to live with his uncles, a group of bank thieves that are high on the list of a special police section who have taken to just killing their perps when they get frustrated at not being able to convict them the old fashion way. The family members themselves are the sort Ma Barker would have loved: a drug addict; a sociopath who has the hots for underaged girls; a third who starts falling apart the minute he ends up in jail; you know—Mama’s boys all. Joshua has no choice but to get in over his head until he has to take control in a final scene that is as devastating as it is surprising and makes a perfect bookend to the opening.
Animal Kingdom is one of the best movies of the year. The ensemble cast is first rate (though Guy Pearce seems to be around for no other reason than that he’s Guy Pearce and he’s from Australia). It’s one of those where no one is likeable, but everybody is fascinating. The script, by the director David Michod, is sharp and mesmerizing and the story coagulates with tension. One could question a late scene in which Joshua decides not to turn in a corrupt cop, but take matters into his own hands (he doesn’t really seem to have the brains, but maybe the family genes are finally kicking in). But that’s the sort of objection that makes my friends annoyed with me, so I’m not sure I’d worry too much about it.
I found The American both incredibly fascinating and incredibly boring at the same time; an odd response, perhaps, but apparently when I tell my friends that, many of them are in full agreement. The fascination comes from the strong, but intensely quiet, so quiet it sounds like a foghorn, mood created by the director Anton Corbijn, who also made the wonderful movie Control about singer Ian Curtis of Joy Division. The American proves that Corbijn can work equally well in color and black and white. The fascination is also helped by the setting, a smallish Italian town built on a hill that is full of twisting and turning streets, odd thoroughfares and more than enough dark corners to please any director of film noir. Much of the film does little more than follow lead George Clooney as Jack/Edward, a paid assassin, as he wanders the streets waiting for his fate to meet him at any moment around the next corner. There’s one incredible shot of the city from above showing a town that looks like one of those mazes that mice are put into when they are experimented upon. Not long ago, I got into Italian giallo films and one thing that struck me is that they all had these incredible settings that were characters in and of themselves, as if the location was found first and then a story was spun around it spiderlike. I’m not so sure that the same thing didn’t happen here.
The reason I found it incredibly boring is that I knew exactly what was going to happen ages before it happened. The screenplay by Rowan Jaffe has almost no plot turn that isn’t a cliché and no twist that hasn’t been telegraphed by Western Union, with only one jolting moment at the end that took me by surprise. The plot follows Clooney as he is ambushed while taking some time off from killing people. He flees to Rome while his boss tries to find out who is responsible for what happened. He is given an assignment (one of those last assignments that one only sees in movies), to help a beautiful young assassin by making a weapon for her that she is to use on her next gig. Now, if you can’t tell what happens from those three sentences, you have no one to blame but yourself. The whole spy versus spy conflict is straight out of the John Le Carre and Graham Greene school of burnt out secret agent men. In fact, one conversation Clooney has with a prostitute in which he tells her she doesn’t need to fake an orgasm is quite close to a conversation that Richard Gere gives a prostitute in the movie The Honorary Counsel, based on a Greene novel, down to the prostitute claiming she isn’t faking an orgasm, she really feels it (which in the world of Greene means that a woman is in love; Greene always had a touch of chauvinism about him).
One could also have doubts about the world view inherent in this story. It’s a world in which a mysterious organization that is never identified gets away with murder on a regular basis. No one knows who they are and none of them are ever caught. The police are no more than a siren heard in the background. In other words, it’s one of those paranoid government fantasies that one only sees in movies like Enemy of the State and Shooter, in which some black ops organization has omnipotent power, but still can’t keep the liberals out of office. It may work dramatically, but it’s a little hard to take it seriously, especially in a country that couldn’t kill Castro when it wanted.
But Jaffe is trying to do more than make a thriller. He also wants to explore the nature of redemption of the existence of God in a world that seems cold and heartless, and I’m all for that. Clooney is rather good at these moody blues introspective roles and his worn out good looks help carry things along. It ends with Clooney’s death, but with his soul, symbolized by a butterfly, wafting up to heaven. I have to be honest and say though I like the idea, I’m not convinced that Clooney’s character earned his salvation or his place above. He promises the prostitute to take her away with him, but surely that’s not quite equal to all the dead bodies he’s left in his path.
Mesrine, Part II: Public Enemy #1 is even better than Mesrine, Part I: Killer Instinct. To recap, Vincent Cassel plays Jacques Mesrine, the John Dillinger of France whose career of crime lasted into the 1960’s and like Dillinger, he managed to get a reputation of being a Robin Hood without ever giving to the poor. Again, Mesrine is all Cassel, a sociopath with delusions of romance, and who was famous for being charming. And Cassel is even more charming in this installment, in spite of the fact that he is forty pounds heavier, sometimes shaves part of his head to disguise himself and has a ridiculous sideburn/mustache/beard combo (though in his defense, so did everybody in those days). It also has some of the first part’s faults, like a plot that doesn’t seem to think it needs to set up characters or situations as it jumps and weaves from episode to episode with a certain anarchic structure. It does falter a bit toward the end as the chase scenes get a tad redundant and Mesrine tries to justify his sociopathology by claiming to be a revolutionary who only targets banks in order to bring the government down (and I have the deed to the Brooklyn Bridge in my pocket); there are actually times when you think the film’s creators (director Jean-Francois Richet, writers Abdel Raouf Dafri and Richet, and Cassel himself whose baby this is) might actually be buying it. The supporting case is fine, though none can equal Cassel’s bulldozing performance like Gerard Depardieu did in the first part. Even Mathieu Amalric, one of my favorite French actors, gets left behind in Cassel’s wake.
Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work is one of the most brutally honest films I have seen about someone in which the person documented fully cooperated. Whatever else you might say about the movie, by the time it is over, you feel like you know Joan Rivers; really, really, really, really know her, warts and all (well, no warts, her cosmetic surgeon wouldn’t allow it, but you know what I mean). There’s one point where Rivers is readying herself (both physically and emotionally) to be roasted, terrified at what they are going to say, telling us and Kathy Griffin that she sure wouldn’t be doing this if she had enough money. What’s striking here is that this whole film is just one whole roast, hold the jokes. Nothing’s off limits here. Her husband’s suicide and her anger at him about it; her being blacklisted by NBC after she left Johnny Carson to do her own show; her desperate need to work (she’ll do anything, anywhere if you’ll just meet her price); her frustration at never being considered a good actress (for those of you who want to know what she might have become, you might check out the movie The Swimmer where she has a refreshing scene with the star Burt Lancaster). It’s all there. Rivers would probably call it a Brazilian bikini wax of a movie. The documentary, directed by Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg and which is the most successful one of the year so far, is riveting. It follows a year in her life where she has trouble getting work (her schedule is full of white spaces); opens a play in the Edinborough fringe and then takes it to London; does Celebrity Apprentice; and keeps up with her stand up. If you look up workaholic in the dictionary, her picture is next to the definition. The year is full of more downs that ups and you can feel her desperation, which, like the rest of her life, she is more than willing to show the audience. She wants to be loved and is not afraid to tell people that. I came away admiring and even liking Joan Rivers, but could I be in the same room with her? At one point, she has to fire her long time manager, Billy, because he keeps disappearing on her. We never find out exactly why, but it’s easy to see that it was probably due to burn out. When I talked to my friend Beriau about this, I told him that if he had left her years earlier, they could probably have stayed friends. Beriau was not so sure. As he said, one doesn’t leave Joan Rivers; how does one leave a whirling, dark vortex that sucks you in? He has a point. Thank God it’s just a movie.
Cairo Time has been compared to Brief Encounter, the staunch English film about two people who meet by chance at a railway station and consider having an affair, but never do. Though they have a point, it’s actually closer to Summertime, the Katherine Hepburn vehicle about a woman who goes to Venice, finds herself totally at a loss, and ends up having an affair with a man she meets. The reason it more closely resembles Summertime is that no matter what else it is, it really is no more than a travelogue disguised as a love story. There’s nothing wrong with that. Such a movie can be done well (like here or Summertime) and done badly (like Three Coins in a Fountain); but there are times when the sights and sounds of Cairo seem to be more important than the character’s journey. Patricia Clarkson steps into the shoes of Kate Hepburn here, playing Julia Grant, a writer who journeys to Cairo to see her husband who works for the U.N. and is overseeing a refugee camp in the Gaza Strip. Her husband, however, isn’t there to see her because there are complications at the camp. Instead, Julia spends her days drifting through this romantic city of the Pyramids trying to stand the heat and figure out how to spend her time since her reason for being there isn’t there. Into her life comes Tareq Khalifa (Alexander Siddig), a man who once worked with her husband, but has retired and now owns a café with the best coffee in Cairo. He takes it upon himself to show her some of the sights and help her fill up her days. The only sight Julia refuses to see are the pyramids, something she has promised to see with her husband. But as Julia and Tareq drift along, they also drift into becoming emotionally attached, not because Julia’s marriage isn’t working or there isn’t any passion left with her husband—it is and there is—it’s more because both are emotionally adrift and nothing seems to be stopping them. Julia nearly, but doesn’t, sleep with Tareq, but she does finally give in and commit emotional adultery by seeing the pyramids with Tareq. And of course, as in all tales of love affairs, just as they do, the husband returns. Unlike most stories like this, though, the husband never finds out what was going on behind his back. He goes with Julia to the pyramids, but she lies and says she has yet to see them. It’s a lovely story, though the driftiness of the plotline (written and directed by Ruba Nadda) tends to take over somewhere in the middle and the story slows a bit. But Clarkson, perhaps not quite as luminous as Swinton, is luminous enough and the movie overall is touching, if a bit minor.
I went with my friend Jim to see the Girl Who Played With Fire, the sequel to the hit The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (which I also saw with Jim). I came out thinking there must be something wrong with me because, unlike the rest of my friends and the critics, I liked it much better than the first. In the …Dragon Tattoo, I felt that the story didn’t start for about thirty minutes and that the mystery never made much sense. Here the story begins immediately and, though I have some doubts about the plot hanging together, I felt it worked much better and was more convincing than the first. Noomi Rapace is back as Lisbeth Salander, giving another intense and thrilling performance as “the girl”, a woman with a mild case of Asperger’s, but who is a brilliant computer hacker. She becomes the chief suspect in a triple murder connected to a story about sexual slavery being investigated by a paper who employs Mikael Blomkvist (also back and still played by Michael Nyqvist). There really is no mystery here because it soon becomes clear who really did it. The plot driving the story is Lisbeth and Mikael’s attempts to prove her innocence combined with an extra twist as to who the murderer is and what he has to do with Lisbeth. My friends didn’t like it because they felt there wasn’t enough of an emotional connection when it came to the characters, and they have a point. Lisbeth and Mikael don’t even meet up until the end (when Mikael finds her at a farm, though it’s unclear how he knew where the farm was located, but what’s a mystery without a few glitches between friends). There is something disjointed about it all. At the same time, I didn’t care. The mystery, Rapace’s performance, and a nice supporting job by Micke Spreitz as a man who can feel no pain, carried me all the way, even with the somewhat anticlimactic finale that is more set up for the next movie than it is an ending.
I say to some degree because the movie is not awful, in fact it’s a quite interesting and, in many ways, very well done. It is problematic and there are some serious issues about the director Vikram Javanti’s approach. But whatever the problems, at the same time, one didn’t care because the movie was carpeted, and wall to wall at that, with recordings and videos of the songs that Phil Spector either wrote, partially wrote or produced (both Spector and Javanti are a bit vague about credits, one of the problematics referred to). Spector rose to fame and wealth by producing a new sound, a melodic rock and roll style known for its hummability and beauty, all about teenage angst and the inability to find someone to love, or when one does, letting the emotion overwhelm you (To Know Him is to Love Him; You’ve Lost that Loving Feeling; Spanish Harlem; culminating with the great Rivers Deep, Mountain High, performed with flashes of lightning by the aforementioned Tina Turner). He also produced songs and albums for the Beatles, including Let it Be.
When the documentary is not focusing on the music, it is divided between a one on one interview with Spector himself, as well as scenes from his trial for the death of Lana Clarkson, an actress/waitress he picked up at a nightclub. It’s hard to know how to react to Spector himself. His name is perhaps euphoniously appropriate. He looks, if not a ghost of himself, a ghost of someone, equipped with a watery, lazy eye and a slurring voice. And he comes across as somewhat mad. He spends much of his time defending himself from attacks others have made against him his whole life; from not receiving the recognition he felt he should have (this from someone living in a palatial estate few of us could ever dream of owning and someone who has made more money that many of us could ever make, even if reincarnation was a reality); and from the charges of having killed Clarkson. Though Javanti does ask questions and leads the interview, he pretty much lets Spector have his own way. Probably not a wise decision on Spector’s part, because the more he tries to defend himself, the more unsympathetic he becomes and the madder he comes across; he would have been perfect for the part in Alice in Wonderland (and he could have provided his own hair pieces, though Spector claims he still has his own hair, a claim as preposterous as his innocence). To quote a couple of clichés, he’s like a train wreck in slow motion or a motor accident you can’t look away from. The more he claims he isn’t guilty, the more you want to put him in jail and throw away the key. It’s an absolutely fascinating self portrait of a sociopath, who, like so many sociopaths, are so sociopathic they don’t realize how sociopathic they appear.
Javanti was at the screening for a Q&A and his statements and responses to some of the questions do demonstrate the problematic areas of the film. In the film, when Spector is talking about the song To Know Him Is To Love Him, Spector says it was about his father who shot himself when Spector was four; Javanti pointed out afterwards that Spector’s father gassed himself in the garage when Spector was ten. These sorts of inaccuracies are never pointed out during the movie interview. Spector at times seems to claim he had more to do with the creation of the songs he produced than he did; Javanti never challenges it (nor points out the writers of the songs when he subtitles their names during the video sections). When someone in the audience congratulated Javanti on being fair in showing both sides of the trial, all I could think was, “were we watching the same movie”? Javanti stated that he believed that Spector might have been at fault, but it was never proven at the trial. Well, we in the audience don’t really have a way of judging that, really. Much of the court case is devoted to the defense’s attack on the angle of the bullet through Clarkson’s head, that since it went upward, that wasn’t the angle a bullet would go if someone else other than Clarkson was holding the gun. Javanti never shows the scenes where the prosecutors respond to this. More insightful, perhaps, to Javanti’s approach, is that during the interview Javanti asks Spector about a piano that’s in the room. Before Spector gets up, he has Javanti turn off the cameras, but in the film, it’s never explained why. At the Q&A, Javanti reveals that he through it was because Spector was not very tall and didn’t want anyone to know. A funny anecdote until you think, “Huh, maybe this is why the bullet went at an upward angle, because Spector was so short”. Add to that Javanti’s anecdote about Spector’s refusal to admit that he wears hair pieces, and it just seems that the documentary had a few too many glaring omissions. At the same time, it was fascinating. And there was all that glorious music.
Brotherhood is a movie that shouldn’t work, but does. It’s about two neo-Nazis who are gay and fall in love. It sounds like it should be a Mel Brooks film or on one of those lists about the worst movie ideas pitched to a studio. But the writers Nicolo Donato, who also directed, and Rasmus Birch, along with the two lead actors, Thure Lindhardt and David Dencik, work very hard to make the somewhat preposterous set up work. Lindhardt plays Lars, a Danish officer who is relieved of duty when he gets drunk and puts the moves on some of his men; the army believes he will never be able to recover the respect of those he commands. Through a friend, he ends up at a party for members of a neo-Nazi movement that has grown out of the conflict over the increasing number of immigrants moving into Denmark. This is the weakest part of the film. It’s never really believable that Lars would join the group, something he initially finds offensive. The head of the group appeals to his vanity by telling Lars they are in need of people as intelligent as Lars is (apparently the movement is a tad light in the brains department and the authors don’t do anything to prove otherwise), but it’s never quite clear why he becomes part of the group. However, the filmmakers somehow get you past this section and once they do, the story does grab you. Jimmy is a member of the group who is rehabbing a house at the ocean that will be used for meetings and out of town guests. He doesn’t like Lars, at first because of his anti-Nazi stance, but then because Lars rises too quickly in respect, even gaining membership before Jimmy’s brother does (whose drug addiction and slacknerness tend to work against him). Lars moves into the ocean house and helps Jimmy work on it, but the two find that they are attracted to each other and soon they do the deed. Talk about meet cute, and you’re right, you’ve guessed it. This is really a neo-Nazi, Danish Brokeback Mountain. But no matter what one makes of it, one can’t help but get all caught up in the predicament these two characters find themselves in. They can hardly reveal what is really going on to the others and neither of them know how to resolve the situation. And they have a point. Just how do you resolve a situation like this? Lars wants to take off, but, like the mob, you don’t just leave the Nazi party. And when Jimmy’s brother sees them in bed together and blows the whistle, the suspense becomes unbearable. Much of the success of this section of the movie has to be attributed to Dencik’s intense and searing performance. You shouldn’t feel sorry for him, he’s a Nazi for God’s sake, but he is so riveting in dramatizing the characters inner struggle, that your heart does go out to him. You even want these two to somehow find a happy ending. But it’s not to be as the story concludes with an action that is perhaps a bit too much The Postman Always Rings Twice for my taste. Lars and Jimmy are beaten up and told to leave town, but before they can, Jimmy is stabbed by a gay man he had set up and bashed earlier. He doesn’t die, but ends up in a coma he may never come out of. It’s shocking, but it’s a bit arbitrary. Still, it is heartbreaking.
Get Low, directed by Aaron Schneider and written by Chris Provenzano and C. Gaby Mitchell from a story by Provenzano and Scott Seeks, is one of those movies that you can tell the instant it stops working. Robert Duvall plays Felix Bush, a hermit who hasn’t left his home in forty years due to some incident that took place when he was younger. He’s come to the conclusion he may soon die, but decides he wants to have his funeral first and invites everybody far and wide to come and tell a story about him and to have a party. The backstory is a little unclear. Apparently, even though he hasn’t seen anyone for forty years, people have all these tales about him; one character even assaults him in town for something he did, but since the character wasn’t even born at the time Bush started the hermit thing, one has to wonder what Bush could possibly have done to him. In fact, what people know about him seems to be somewhat arbitrary, depending on when it best helps the plot. In the last third of the movie everyone comes to Bush’s place for his funeral party and…not one of them tells a single story; there’s no real party; and this is the moment where the movie stops working. Instead, Bush tells the story as to why he became a hermit. The problem here is that when he does, your reaction is, “so why did you become a hermit; I’m not sure I understand?”. The first two thirds of the movie are actually quite entertaining, but the last third is what might be called just a tad anti-climactic. It’s like the novel Heart of Darkness; it’s great until you get to the end of the journey and meet Kurtz and then it’s all somewhat of a letdown. Robert Duvall is a natural for this sort of thing and he is excellent. But the highlight of the film has to be Bill Murray as a cynical funeral home owner who finds something of a conscious along the way. His line readings steal the show. Also giving an effective performance is Lucas Black, the hero who is trying to just understand the ridiculous situation. Sissy Spacek is along for the ride, but she doesn’t really have anything to do, or at least anything worthy of a star of her caliber. It’s a beautiful movie to look with fine period feel to it all, but it just sort of runs out of steam at the end.