AMERICAN HUSTLE and THE PAST



I’m not sure what the biggest crime in the new, based kinda, sorta, but who knows how much on a true story movie American Hustle is: the ABSCAM scandal at the center of the plot or those awful, awful, what the hell were we thinking, fashions we use to wear at the time (some people may think that Michael Wilkinson’s designs are exaggerated for comic affect, but I tell you, they seem painfully close to the real thing to me).
I have to be honest, I did have some trouble with the film at first and for me the issue was Christian Bale in the lead as Irving Rosenfield, a con-man with a fake comb over (got symbolism?).  I have always had issues with Bale, and it’s really not his fault.  But I always felt he was trying way too hard to be Daniel Day-Lewis and he couldn’t quite carry it off.  Where Day-Lewis seems to disappear into his roles, Bale always seems to be saying, “look at me pretending to be someone not remotely like myself”.   And it’s always been a stickler to me when it came to his films.
I also don’t think it helped that the movie started with a rather loooooong introduction via voice over that just never seemed to stop.
But as the story gained traction and the supporting cast made their presences known, I forgot all about Bale’s calling attention to his talent as much as I forgot about Rosenfield’s comb over, which I think says a lot about both, actually. 
And such a supporting cast: Amy Adams as his girlfriend and partner in crime who revels in showing off her side boob as much as her rather convincing, fake English accent (well, it’s better than Irving’s hair); Bradley Cooper as an over eager government agent who, somehow, miracles of miracles, is the only one who looks good in the period clothes and hairstyles (and he’s a much better dancer here than in Silver Linings Playbook); Jennifer Lawrence, riotously hysterical as Irving’s bi-polar wife; Jeremy Renner as a corrupt, but well-meaning mayor with a pompadour that looks like it’s about to take over the world; and  in smaller roles, Louis C.K. as Richie’s long-suffering boss and Michael Pena as a fake sheik. 
If nothing else, American Hustle is one of the most deliriously entertaining movies of the year.   The screenplay by Eric Warren Singer and director David O. Russell has a fun, frantic 1930’s farcical feel to it.  It seems to revel in the amorality of it all; in the ridiculousness of the situations; and, perhaps most pleasurable of all, in the incredibly neurotic relationships of the characters until the whole thing feels like a Warner Brother’s pre-code movie starring James Cagney in the con-man lead; Carole Lombard as his partner in crime; Jean Harlow as his wife; Clark Gable as the government agent; and Warner Baxter in the cameo as the corrupt mayor.  Throw in a few character actors like Edward Everett Horton as the agent’s boss and Mischa Auer as the fake Sheik, and your back in the days of “more stars than there are in heaven”.
American Hustle also has some of the strongest and most interesting female characters in awhile.  In this, the movie also harkens back to the 1930’s in it’s portrayal of women as alpha females who attract men because they are alpha females (rather than today when alpha females are often ridiculed and put down by screenwriters) and in its portrayal of men who are as willing to make as big of emotional fools of themselves over women as the women are over the men.  And if anything, the women are far more in control of their emotions and destinies than any of the alpha males here.
It’s an attitude I feel is often missing from today’s rom coms (because no matter what else it is, American Hustle at the core is really a love story between two con artists).  Of course, Singer and Russell still had to go into the past to pull it off, but at least they didn’t have to go eighty years to do it.
And the film feels like a step forward for Russell whose last couple off films (Silver Linings Playbook and The Fighter), though entertaining, felt a big tame and familiar, even formulaic.  Perhaps there’s something about the story itself and the screenplay that took over.  Whereas the earlier films felt like standard tropes and familiar arcs directed with an anarchic, chaotic style, American Hustle feels like a story that is all anarchy and chaos directed in, well, an anarchic, chaotic style.  It refuses to let itself be put in a box and Russell didn’t force it, but let it be what it needed to be. 
The Past, the new movie by writers Massoumeh Lahidji and Asghar Farhadi, who also directed (Farhadi gave us the searingly intense A Separation), feels like a table with a leg missing.  It has three dynamic and powerful performances from Bernice (The Artist) Bejo, Tahar (A Prophet) Rahim and  Ali  (who has done a lot of other things, but I’m afraid I’m not familiar with him, but his hairpiece is far more convincing than Bale’s) Mosaffa in a sort of love triangle.  And their intensity carries the film for quite awhile.  But in the end, they are let down by a story that doesn’t quite hold up.
It took me awhile to figure out where things went wrong, but it happens about a third of the way through.  In the first part, the story gains a lot of tension as Ahmad (Mosaffa) comes to France to finalize a divorce with his wife Marie (Bejo), only to find out that she’s not only living with a younger man, Samir (Rahim), she’s pregnant by him, and Ahmad’s oldest daughter is virulently against the relationship for reasons she won’t say.
And then the movie takes a completely different turn and begins to focus not on Ahmad, but on the daughter and why she’s against Marie and Samir’s upcoming nuptials, all having to do with Samir’s wife who is in a coma after trying to kill herself. 
Now at first glance, this may sound like an interesting turn of the screw.  But the problem is that this part of the story has nothing to do with Ahmad.  By the time the movie is over, you even wonder why he’s in the story at all.   In fact, almost as suddenly as he arrives, he disappears from the story for a good while as the other characters grapple with secrets being revealed.
There’s only one possible dramatic justification for Ahmad’s inclusion in the story and that is to get his daughter to confess a secret.  But that’s not really enough of a justification for him to be a part of it all, and so the structure seems wobbly and the forward momentum slows down as you’re no longer sure where the story is going.
Farhadi’s previous film, A Separation, had a similar structure.  It starts out as a family having issues and then changes course when they hire a caretaker, but she gets thrown out of the apartment by the husband, has a miscarriage and the story becomes about what really happened.  But even there, the outcome of the story affected every single character.  Everybody in the film was inextricably linked to that one incident.  Here, Ahmad is more chopped liver and has nothing to really do.
The film is titled The Past and I’m not quite sure why.  At one point, Samir talks about the need to forget what has come before in order to get on with the future.  But that’s not really what the film as a whole has been about.  And when Samir has his speech, it feels tacked on, as if the writers had suddenly remembered what they had named their story, and now suddenly felt a need to justify it.

THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE



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The most tension filled moments, the ones crammed with the most conflict, in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, the sequel to, need we say it, but I guess, of course, we must, The Hunger Games pére, are not the violent back and forths in the reality TV series at the center of the story.  It’s actually watching accomplished and well respected actors like Philip Seymour Hoffman, Woody Harrelson, Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Plummer and Lenni Kravitz (even Josh Hutcherson) trying desperately to find a personality for their characters.  
The winner of these particular games?  Donald Sutherland, perhaps our most underrated actor today, an old pro who has been with us since his first role as a switchboard operator in a TV drama on the omnibus series Studio 4 in 1962 and has since graced us with strong performances in such movies as MASH, Klute, 1990, Fellini’s Casanova, Ordinary People (I could go on and on).  While all the others are frantically floundering (and very dispiritingly from an audience point of view, as far as I’m concerned) in the competition here, Sutherland inhabits the role of the despot President Snow with all the ease and casualness of putting on a morning coat and going outside for his daily constitutional.  You almost feel sorry for all the others; once Sutherland enters the scene, none of his opponents really stand a chance.
Of course, Jennifer Lawrence does come in for a strong second.  She’s as committed to the role as she was in the first in the series and she plays the role of Katniss Everdeen as if her life depended upon it as much as her character’s does in the games themselves.  And there’s something satisfying about seeing a representative of the older and the younger generations meeting on the field of battle, striving valiantly against each other.
But the pitiful plight of Hoffman, et al., may not be entirely their faults.  The screenplay by Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt doesn’t really provide the actors much to work with and the direction by Francis Lawrence seems more devoted to making sure the freeways don’t get backed up and the traffic keeps moving.  Perhaps the real tragedy in this movie is not what happens to the inhabitants of Katniss’s District 12 (and it sure ain’t pretty, that’s for sure), but that writers like Beaufoy and Arndt, both of whom showed solid talent for penning above average middle-brow movies (The Fully Monty, 127 Hours, Slumdog Millionaire, Little Miss Sunshine, Toy Story 3), may now be stuck writing below average tent pole blockbusters like this.  Once the games are over, will they be able to return to their roots, or will the President Snows of the studios trap them forever?  Only a sequel will tell.
The movie as a whole works a little less well than the earlier one.  Again, it all feels more outline than fully realized drama.  And gone is the bloom on the rose; there’s not really enough new here to warrant much excitement and the story drags too much of the time.  One reason for this is that the screenplay makes the same mistake as the earlier one; everyone involved seems to think that it’s what happens in the games themselves, who kills whom in what grotesque and savage way, that is the most interesting part of the conflict when, in reality, it’s the manipulation behind the scenes, the way the people watching the show can control events, the ratings, the efforts of Harrelson’s Haymitch and other mentors to try to win support for their favorites and determine the outcome, etc., that is the real source of suspense.  But alas, almost all of this happens off screen.  
And the authors have been trapped so to speak by the character of Katniss and what they need to do with her.  President Snow, along with Plutarch, the designer of the games (the aforementioned floundering Hoffman), need to turn her into a lean, mean fighting machine, someone so merciless in killing, the viewers watching the show will turn against this bastion of the newly fermenting rebellion.  But the only way to do that is to keep Katniss out of the action, make her incapable of killing someone because there’s no one around her to kill.  So in order to give her something to do, they throw arbitrary, non-human antagonists at her (a poisonous gas here, a few baboons there, a tidal wave or two for good measure, etc.).  The forward momentum really stops here as everything is on the same level of tension and the plot just doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.  And all anyone in the audience is really interested in at this point is the outcome.
And not just the outcome.  Everyone is also waiting, and more so, for the big twist.  Or to be more accurate, to find out if they are right about the big twist, which is not that much of a surprise since the whole thing is given away when Plutarch gives Snow some advice that is so ludicrously bad and Snow, completely out of character, actually goes for it.  The screenplay tries to finesse this by having the advice, like all the other interesting stuff, given off screen.  But if one wanted the rebellion to grow, Snow did the one thing that would insure it (take two former winners of the games from each district, people who have been promised they will never have to enter the games again, two people who are heroes and icons of their districts, people who everyone looks up to and worships, and kill them in front of everybody—it’s genius, I tells you,  genius; what could possibly go wrong with this scenario). 
I’m not sure that The Hunger Games ever made a lot of sense in the first place (and one could argue whether it’s really important that it needs to).   Where it is strongest is in its metaphors, the modern day referencing of current problems, especially the widening gap between the rich and the poor, and our Greek and Romanesque obsession with reality shows.   And when it does introduce something new, the rebellion itself with people willing to sacrifice themselves and bravely stand up to authority by holding up their three fingers as a symbol of the mockingjay, the movie is at its most emotional, even causing a fleeting catch in the throat and a near tear to fall at times. 
And the technical aspects are impressive and often steal the whole mess of a movie.   The production design (Philip Messina), art direction (John Collins, Adam Davis, Robert Fechtman) and set direction (Larry Dias) is everything one could hope for and often says more than the screenplay and characters do about their situation.  But I’m not sure anything can beat the wonderful costumes of Trish Summerville, with men’s designs influenced by Edwardian England and the women’s by Lady Gaga. 
In the end, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is probably a bit too critic proof at the moment.  Telling kids not to like it is like telling kids to not get a tattoo or not like Twilight (shudder); it just ain’t gonna happen.  Whether I think the movie works or not, or whether I even think it’s any good or not, seems pretty irrelevant in the great scheme of things.  And if I was honest, even after all the sub-standard comic book sturm and drang on the screen, I still want to know what’s going to happen in the third and fourth installment as they go Harry Potter on the final entry and split the final confrontation into two movies.    

Race for the Oscars 2012: Reevaluation of the Acting Races



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I’ve reevaluated my earlier picks for Best Picture and Director Oscars.  Now I’ll reevaluate my picks for Best Actor and Actress, Supporting Actor and Supporting Actress:
My original predictions for Actor were:
Daniel Day Lewis for Lincoln to win
Joaquin Phoenix for The Master
John Hawkes for The Sessions
Richard Gere for Arbitrage
Denzel Washinghton for Flight
My other possibilities were: Jean Louis Trintignant for Amour;  Hugh Jackman for Les Miserables; Bradley Cooper for The Silver Linings Playbook; Anthony Hopkins for Hitchcock; Bill Murray for Hyde Park on the Hudson.
Well, my first revision is obvious.  Gere is out (sorry, you’ll have to get your career nomination another year).  The others I’m keeping.  The only one I think who may have any danger is Joaquin Phoenix (who was at one time Lewis’s only rival for the win) because the reception of the film by voters hasn’t been that stellar, has been out of sight/out of mind for awhile, and he’s kind of pissed people off the last couple of years.  But I think he’ll make it.
Which leaves one opening.  Well, Murray is definitely out. That movie opened and didn’t make much of a connection with the public at all.  Trintignant, who was once a shoe in, is probably going to be pushed out due to competition (this is my biggest disappointment and I’m still asking for divine interference here).  Anthony Hopkins, though he gave an excellent performance, is finding that his film just didn’t make the impact it needed to in order to get a nomination.
That leaves Jackman and Cooper.  Cooper gave the weakest performance in his movie, but it is a Weinstein production and never count them out.  Jackman may depend on whether the movie crashes and burns when it opens.  Buzz is very divided right now.  There is the possibility of Phoenix and Hopkins are out and Cooper and Jackman are in. 
I am going to go for the following:
Daniel Day Lewis for Lincoln to win
Joachim Phoenix for The Master
John Hawkes for The Sessions
Denzel Washington for Flight
Hugh Jackman for Les Miserables.
Best Actress
My original list was:
Jennifer Lawrence for Silver Linings Playbook to win
Quvenzhane Wallis for Beasts of the Southern Wild
Emmanuelle Riva for Amour
Marion Cotillard for Rust and Bone
Helen Mirren for Hitchcock
Other possibilities:  Naomi Watts for The Impossible; Keira Knightley in Anna Karanina; Helen Hunt in The Sessions.
As you will have immediately noticed, I blew it big time here.  I didn’t mention Jessica Chastain as a serious competitor for two reasons.  First, at that time, ZDT was still too much an unknown quantity.  Second, it was unclear at the time that her role was large enough for the lead.  Apparently, it is.  Also, in this time, Rachel Weisz for The Deep Blue Sea is making a comeback.
So of the five above, if I put Chastain in, who do I pull out?  I will put out Helen Mirren for Hitchcock was a movie that everyone thought was going to connect with the voters, but it doesn’t seem to have.  I still maintain that Watts, Knightley and Hunt will be out for the same reasons I listed before (Watts is in a movie that is probably being shown too late to get enough votes; Knightley’s movie was not well received at all, to be polite; and Helen Hunt is a sure nom in the race for Supporting Actress).  Though Weisz is worthy, it’s just too little, too late.
The big question now becomes, who is going to win?  Jennifer Lawrence was a sure thing until ZDT opened. 
But my current predictions are:
Jennifer Lawrence for Silver Linings Playbook to win
Jessica Chastain for Zero Dark Thirty (right now, this is for personal reasons since I just saw the movie and was not imporess)
Quvenzhane Wallis for Beasts of the Southern Wild
Emmanuelle Riva for Amour
Marion Cotillard for Rust and Bone
.
Supporting Actor
My original predictions:
Alan Arkin for Argo to win
Philip Seymour Hoffman for The Master
Tommy Lee Jones in Lincoln
Robert de Niro for Silver Linings Playbook
Leonardo DiCaprio in Django Unchained
Also possible is Dwight Henry for Beasts of the Southern Wild; Russell Crowe for Les Miserables; Matthew McConaughey for Magic Mike.
What might strike you first is the absence of the name of Javier Bardem for Skyfall, even on the list of possibilities.  In my defense, no one was really including him as a possibility.  Now he’s doing better in other awards groups, so that does put a Gremlin in the works.
I still maintain my first four above.  The question right now is who is going to win.  De Niro is out for that.  So right now it’s a three way battle between Arkin, Hoffman and Jones.  Arkin had it in the bag, but Hoffman started creeping up on him.  But now Jones is creeping up on Hoffman.  Part of this will depend no how much of a following The Master really has.  But since right now I have no idea who is going to win, I’m going for Arkin.
Now, the only nomination above in danger is DiCaprio.  If anyone is not going to make it, it’s probably going to be him.  And in his place will be either McConaughey or Bardem.  There is a huge ground swell to give McConaughey a nom for all his hard work lately and because he was really well received in Magic Mike.  Bardem may make it because no actor has ever been nominated for a James Bond film before and the voters may find it a bit impish to do it this time around; and his performance was well received.
So my new list of noms are:
 Alan Arkin for Argo to win
Philip Seymour Hoffman for The Master
Tommy Lee Jones in Lincoln
Robert de Niro for Silver Linings Playbook
Matthew McConaughey for Magic Mike
Now last but now least, Best Supporting Actress:
My previous list:
Anne Hathaway to win for Les Miserables
Helen Hunt for The Sessions
Sally Field for Lincoln
Amy Adams for The Master
(I only had four at the time)
As for the other possibilities:
Maggie Smith for Best Exotic Marigold Hotel; Ann Dowd for Compliance.; Jacki Weaver for Silver Linings Playbook; Jessica Chastain for Zero Dark Thirty. 
Of course, remove Chastain immediately.  She’s going in the lead category.
It now looks like Maggie Smith is a lock for a nom for her brilliant performance in …Marigold Hotel. 
So, if someone else gets knocked out, I think it’s going to be Amy Adams for The Master.  It’s a movie the critics love, but did not connect with the general movie goer and possibly not the general voter.  If she is out, I would think that it’s Ann Dowd.  Jackie Weaver is out due to tough competition.
So my new list:
Anne Hathaway to win for Les Miserables
Helen Hunt for The Sessions
Sally Field for Lincoln
Maggie Smith for The Beast Exotic Marigold Hotel
Ann Down for Compliance (just to go out on a limb and be stubborn).
Next: Screenplay

SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK



Before the start of Silver Linings Playbook (which I and my friends saw at the wonderful Vista Theatre), my friend leaned over to me and said, “I can’t wait.  One more Django Unchained preview and we’ve got the whole set”.
Silver Linings Playbook, writer/director David O. Russell’s new upbeat film about downbeat subject matter (an appropriately bipolar approach to the thematic elements here perhaps), was probably not best served by its previews which advertised a movie that came across as a lighthearted romp of a rom com filled with stock characters and a formulaic plot (I almost became as depressed as some of the characters on screen at the thought of having to watch it).  Even the title conjures up nightmares of Shirley Temple, Pollyanna and Little Orphan Annie.   Though I can’t say the actual movie manages to completely avoid these issues, at the same time, for a rom com, it’s not really that lighthearted or even that funny with scenes that cut a bit too close to reality to entice laughter; the characters are far more complex that you might think; and the formula, well, yes, that’s a harder one to defend, though it must be said that Russell does some clever stuff here to make the medicine go down.   
SLP (as it’s acronymically known) starts out a bit wobbly.   I think for me that was due to Bradley Cooper (in the lead role of bi-polar and deeply, emotionally unstable Pat) being the first actor thrust upon us.  Cooper acquits himself well enough in the role.  He’s definitely not bad and at times rather good.  At the same time, his matinee idol looks and a somewhat bland, slightly monotone reading of his lines was not a good sign.  And when he acts opposite other superior thespians in the film, this flaw got magnified just a tiny bit.  At the same time, as the story goes on, Cooper’s performance does grow on you, as does his character.  He becomes more and more like Tyrone Power, Susan Hayward and even Joan Crawford, actors who substituted natural talent with hard work to such a degree that at times one couldn’t really tell the difference.
The real standout here is Jennifer Lawrence as Tiffany (as fragile as that glass, perhaps?), a remarkable actress who came to real prominence in her Oscar nominated role in Winter’s Bone (and then proved not only could she act, she could also make a ton of money in the soon to be franchise The Hunger Games).  She has something that most actors would die for, a pair of the most expressive eyes anyone could ever want, eyes that with a slight (very slight) flickering change of expression can careen from impudence, to pain, to fury, to wonderful comic timing (for some reason, this thought makes me think of the lines from Rebecca: “Most girls would give their eyes to see Monte!” “Wouldn’t that rather defeat the purpose?”).   And she has palpable chemistry with Cooper, which don’t hurt.
She’s backed by a well cast supporting set of players.  First, what is it about Boardwalk Empire anyway which seems to be the go to place now as the best television series to find the most talented fillers for smaller rolls (this time round Shea Whigham as Pat’s older brother).  But more to the point, Robert De Niro as Pat’s father (it’s been awhile since he’s had a role this worthy of his talents) scores as a man with his own pain, as well as OCD and anger management issues, while Jacki Weaver (the monstrous “And you’ve done some bad things sweetie, haven’t you?” matron in Animal Kingdom) uses a kewpie doll voice to match a face constantly filled with worry in the role of Pat’s mother.   In many ways, I think this is Russell’s real triumph here, the very accurate portrayal of people caught in the whirlwind of someone who is bi-polar, people who simply don’t know what to do, especially when the person who desperately needs help won’t help himself and even claims that he is fine and doesn’t need any help (and a sledgehammer wouldn’t convince him), people who can change from despair to euphoria and vice versa on the turn of a single line. 
The script does falter a bit after the half way point as Russell has to set up various plot points to force the ending.   This is where the formula charge has a certain validity.  The way everything works out, as well as how all the various plot points come together, is rather familiar and predictable with few surprises.  At the same time, Russell pulls some cleverness out of his hat here, especially in a scene in which everybody sets up a parlay bet, a scene so hysterically funny, so preposterous and ridiculous, you forget it’s covering up a formulaic turn in the plot and that in certain ways, it’s really not very believable.   
I also have a few other regrets here.  I strongly, and very pompously, suggest it would have been better if one of the best scenes, a montage of Tiffany and Pat dancing while in the background the haunting Girl From North County played in juxtaposition, probably came too early and would have worked a bit better closer to the finale.  And the final dance number is a bit disappointing since it was choreographed more by the editor than by dancer Mandy Moore (this is one of the downsides to the fall of the studio system—up until the 1950’s or ‘60’s, Lawrence and Cooper would have been rehearsing this scene for ages before the actual shooting so that it could done with only a few cuts—the difference in effect is a bit of a letdown). 
But at the same time Russell has created a deeply moving and often powerful movie here (one that, based on YouTube sensations staring the aforesaid director, makes one wonder whether part of the sensitivity here is due to some autobiographical element—but, of course, I really have no idea and would never venture to suggest such a possibility).  One can’t deny the effect the ending has on the audience.  It’s doubtful that few will leave disappointed. 

THE OSCAR RACE: Best Actress, Part Duex



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My analysis of the Best Actress Oscar Race, part duex.
My previous entry was a general analysis of the race when it came to Best Actress.  For this entry, let’s go directly to my list:
Jennifer Lawrence for Silver Linings Playbook right now has the lead to win even though the movie hasn’t opened yet.  At the same time, I hesitate to be definite here since the movie is still an unknown quantity.  But her nomination seems assured.  Probably what helps is that she has proven herself as an actress by getting a nomination for a small, independent film (Winter’s Bone), but also an actress that can make a ton of money (The Hunger Games), a double whammy.
Quvenzhane Wallis for Beasts of the Southern Wild.  This has been settled law for some time.  Not only did this eight year old munchkin give a marvelous performance, the movie is likely to get a Best Picture nom, a possible Best Director, a possible Best Supporting Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay nom.  And it’s still in the theaters.  I also can’t imagine any voter, no matter how Scrooge McDuck they are, who would want to give this fairy tale an unhappy ending.
Emmanuelle Riva for Amour.  This is also supposed to be almost a sure thing.  Though the Academy is more loathe to give career awards and noms to women than to men, Riva has been around since another amour film, Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959), one of the great films of all time.   Amour was also suppose to get a nomination for co-lead Jean-Louis Trintignant, but as the movies with strong male leads started pouring in, that was that.  Amour is suppose to be Michael Haneke’s most accessible film and is in the lead to win in the best Foreign Language category and may even get a Best Picture, Director and Screenplay nom.
Marion Cotillard for Rust and Bone.  A Hollywood favorite since winning the Oscar for La Vie en Rose, she is supposed to give a knock out performance.   The filmmaker Jacques Audiard is also responsible for such films as A Prophet and The Beat that My Heart Skipped and is fast becoming one of France’s leading directors.   However, this is still an unknown quantity.
Helen Mirren for Hitchcock.  It doesn’t really matter where she decides to run, this is the category that will most likely get her.  A superb performance helped by a strong possibility that her co-lead, Anthony Hopkins will also receive one.
Other possibilities:  Naomi Watts for The Impossible is getting some buzz, but it may be too little too late.  Keira Knightley in Anna Karanina just opened, but it didn’t get very good reviews and is not exciting anyone.  And Helen Hunt in The Sessions will probably get a supporting actress nom.
Which means, sorry Jessica Chastain.  You should probably start pushing for that supporting acting nom instead.

THE HUNGER GAMES


No matter what faults the movie has, and it’s not perfect by any means, it’s certainly entertaining and it does get you going emotionally (surprisingly so at times) while still being one of the uglier views of humanity I’ve seen lately. As anybody who hasn’t been on the moon for the last year knows, it takes place in a dystopian future where two teenagers, male and female, are chosen by lottery from twelve districts to participate in a televised contest to the death as punishment for a rebellion that took play more than seventy years earlier (presided over by Donald Sutherland, one of those actors who, like Michael Caine, is good in everything he does and who does just about everything he can). The heroine here, Katniss Everdeen, comes from the poorest district, an Appalachian mining town, and volunteers to replace her barely eligible younger sister; her father died in a mining accident and her mother has a habit of checking out emotionally. To paraphrase Birdie Coonan from All About Eve, she has everything but the bloodhounds snapping at her rear end. One should resent the filmmakers for pushing the underdog button so strongly here, but no, it works, possibly due to the strong performance of Jennifer Lawrence, who is now cornering the market on backwoods teenagers. The forward momentum never really flags until we get to the money shot, the battle royale that makes up most of the second half. It’s not dull and it gets the job done, but shouldn’t it have been just a bit more exciting? Not particularly well directed, it wasn’t always easy to know who was fighting who and what was at stake during various skirmishes; Lawrence spends a lot of time up a tree (both figuratively and literally) and almost always manages to survive by having someone else do her dirty work for her. But what is perhaps really missing here is what is going on outside the competition. The battle itself is pretty much a done deal; we know what’s going to happen there, it’s only a matter of how many variations on a theme the filmmakers can come up with. But it’s the citizenry’s reaction, what the television audience is thinking; it’s what is going on behind the scenes, the politics and infighting, that is really missing. And isn’t that what it’s really all about? No matter how many teenagers kill each other, the real story is the society that created such a nightmarish reality show. There are indications that there may be a ton of stuff left on the cutting room floor (to be included in the DVD release, I’m sure). Toby Jones, who has been in the Harry Potter series and played Truman Capote in the movie that didn’t star Phillip Seymour Hoffman, is shown quite often with Stanley Tucci, who plays the commentator (you know, Jeff Probst); yet Jones has maybe one line the whole movie; to paraphrase Ronald Regan in Kings Row, where’s the rest of him? There was one moment when Lawrence is cradling a fellow doe-eyed contestant; from the movie audience’s point of view, one gets choked up; but, oh, how I wanted it to cut to Tucci who would say, “Yes, folks, that is really touching, that is really sweet—what do you think will happen when they have to kill each other”. I also wondered where all the commercials were; American Idol doesn’t exist just because people like it; it exists to make a profit. Certainly special credit must be given to the screenwriters Gary Ross (who also directed), Suzanne Collins and Billy Ray for squeezing in an incredible amount of information and characters in such a short period of time (the whole thing might have worked better as a mini-series); they can’t do much more but sketch in things, but their damn good sketchers. The Art Direction and Production Design also deserves special recognition, though, as a friend asked me, what were all the kids doing on top of the Walt Disney Concert Hall during the climactic fight scene? In the end, the set up doesn’t give the filmmakers an exit strategy. There is no way the movie can have a happy ending, no matter who survives—the Hunger Games will continue on, a reality that the movie doesn’t capitalize on enough. For a similar type story, see Series 7: The Contenders, also about a reality show fight to the death.

THE WOMEN: Predictions for Academy Award nominations and awards: Actress and Supporting Actress


As is the case for most of the categories, most of the noms have pretty much already been determined and there’s little that can be done to stop the runaway train, outside one of the potentials being arrested as a child murderer. Annette Bening (The Kids Are All Right), Natalie Portman (The Black Swan) and Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone) are in with the in crowd, Lawrence especially after her award for Breakthrough Performance from the National Board of Review. However, the fight for who will actually win is between Bening and Portman. I believe the award will go to Bening, because, as the cliché has it, it’s her time. Portman has many supporters, but she’s still new to the whole awards thingy and I believe the Academy will want to make her earn a few more dues before giving her a statuette.

The final two spots are a bit up for grabs. Nicole Kidman will probably be number four for the Rabbit Hole, the best and most interesting work she’s done in some time, even if the movie is just an excellent okay picture. The only hesitation here is that the movie has yet to open, plus an additional caveat listed below.

As for the last spot, it’s between Leslie Manville for Another Year and Tilda Swinton for I Am Love. I believe that most people have now forgotten about I Am Love, which means that if the Academy is looking for another art house nominee to add to Lawrence’s nom, they will probably go for Manville, a movie that hasn’t opened yet. Manville won the National Board of Review, which can’t hurt, and Mike Leigh, who directed the film, has a pretty good track record in getting his actors nominations. Which means, poor Tilda Swinton. I’m not sure why Swinton is being so overlooked. She won an Oscar, for God’s sake, yet she can’t get no respect for Julia last year, and this year, it looks like it’s a no go for I Am Love. It probably didn’t help that her movie wasn’t the Italian entry in the foreign language category. It would probably also help if her movies were released later in the year. What may make the final determination here is the end of year critics’ awards, which might turn the tide in someone’s favor.

Julianne Moore is also in the “can’t get no respect” situation as well. Last year she was overlooked for a nom for A Single Man for some ungodly reason. This year, she may be left out in the cold for The Kids Are All Right. There’s some talk of pushing her for Supporting Actress, which may be her only hope. Sally Hawkins has a chance of getting an apology nomination for Made in Dagenham after not getting a slot for Happy-Go-Lucky, but though some people like her latest film, it’s not really getting the buzz. The same for Anne Hathaway in Love and Other Drugs; no one seems to really hate it, but no one is responding to it either. I think most people have forgotten that Secretariat has come out, which probably dooms Diane Lane (one of our most underrated actresses). Blue Valentine hasn’t opened yet, so it’s hard to say how Michelle Williams will do. She’s done an incredible job of making everyone forget she was ever in Dawson’s Creek, but I’m getting the feeling her chances will be hurt by the “do I really have to see one more film for Oscar consideration, and such a downer one at that” situation. At the same time, Weinstein is distributing the movie, and it’s never good to count a Weinstein movie out of the running. Noomi Rapace is also being touted for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, but she seems to be getting lost in the shuffle; what actually may not have helped is the releasing of all three movies in one year—voters may wonder which one they’re supposed to nominate her for or even forget that the first one was even released this year.

However, there is one possibility of a huge monkey wrench: Helen Mirren in the Tempest. She’s liked; she’s playing a part written for a man (and written by Shakespeare); and it’s the sort of part that, if it takes movie goers by storm, could get her a last minute nomination. If it happens, this may spell doom for Nicole Kidman.

At this point, the Supporting Actress is the most suspense filled because there is no clear front runner. The most definite nominees as of now are Helena Bonham Carter (a lot of fun in The King’s Speech); Melissa Leo (for The Fighter, which hasn’t opened yet); Diane Weist (wonderful, simply wonderful, in the Rabbit Hole); and finally Jacki Weaver, who seems a sure shot at a nom because of her National Board of Review win for The Animal Kingdom. My friend Jerry in Chicago thinks it will go to Bonham Carter who will be swept up in the wins for The King’s Speech and because some might consider it her time. I’m going to go for Melissa Leo because I think the Academy has been dying to give her an award ever since Frozen River and since she is a character actress and not a lead, there may not be enough possibilities in the future; it may be now or never. Though Diane Weist is very moving in Rabbit Hole, the nom is all she’ll get. And as for Jacki Weaver, who quite possibly deserves it, well, let’s face it, it’s an Australian Film, and the Academy is loath to give an acting award, especially a supporting one, to a film made outside of the U.S., unless it’s England (the Commonwealth doesn’t count).

For the fifth nomination, many names are being tossed about, but the two who have the greatest chance are Julianne Moore for The Kids Are All Right, if she is pushed for the position, and Hailee Steinfeld, for the unreleased True Grit. Right now, I’d say Steinfeld has the momentum, but it does depend on who well received the movie is.

FAMILIES! CAN’T LIVE WITH THEM, CAN’T KILL THEM. OR CAN YOU? : reviews of Life During Wartime, The Kids are All Right and Winter’s Bones


Ten years ago, the jaundiced writer/director Todd Solondz created a film called Happiness, in which nobody was happy. I had serious issues with the movie. Even though I greatly admired the writing and thought the acting was superb with inspired casting (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Louise Lasser, Ben Gazzara, Jon Lovitz…Jon Lovitz? Yup, that was him), it was about a group of people that Solondz seemed to be criticizing for their cruelty and viciousness toward each other, both on purpose and through sheer ignorance at how they were coming across in their interactions. The issue I had is that Solondz himself treated the characters with the same cruelty and viciousness they showed each other and the hypocrisy ultimately weakened the movie for me.

Solondz has now come out with a new movie, Life During Wartime. It has what is called a gimmick for its plot. It takes all the characters of Happiness and meets up with them ten years later. It has a second gimmick. None of the characters are played by the same actors that played them in the original film. This sounds like genius, genius, I tells ya. But for me, it didn’t quite do it. In fact, I really felt that everything that the first one had going for it was missing from this semi-sequel. What first struck me was the uninspired casting. Though all the actors got the job done more or less, only two really rose to the heights of the original cast: Paul Reubens in the Jon Lovitz part (the Lovitz character killed himself in the first movie, so Reubens is basically a ghost, or a projection on the part of the character of Joy, played by the fragile voiced actress Shirley Henderson, who can’t seem to resolve the various issues in her life) and Ally Sheedy in the Lara Flynn Boyle role (and who is so good, one wishes she would have had the role in the original as Boyle was the weakest performance in the movie). While the actresses who played the sisters in the original seemed like siblings, that they actually could come from the same parents, here they look like they could only be sisters through adoption (or to paraphrase Pauline Kael, they seem to have only recently become a family). Other characters, like Ciaran Hinds, the child molester, don’t even seem to be the same character, but a whole new creation on Solondz’s part. In addition, whatever one might have thought about the original, the over the top plotting (child molesting; murder and dismemberment; dirty phone calls; suicide; one’s first jism) really kept one riveted. Here, nothing that much seems to be going on. Because of this, what seemed to be a brilliant and highly original idea, just seems more a puzzlement. The major question now becomes not why people are acting the way they are in Solondz’s universe, but why Solondz wanted to visit this universe again.

Winter’s Bone is also about a family that isn’t very nice to each other. But they aren’t nice about not being nice like in Happiness, where the characters throw out backhanded compliments and barely veiled insults, delivering them through smiling mouths and condescending gazes. In Winter’s Bone, the families actually go the distance and kill each other if the situation calls for it. Well, it’s not the way my family would handle it, but who are we to judge, really? And from the perspective of these people, the death of the central character’s father in this stark and unyielding movie (the title seems a very apt description) was called for. Winter’s Bone revolves around Ree Dolly, a teenager not quite old enough to join the army without her parents’ permission, and who is responsible for her two younger siblings and a mother who is barely functional emotionally. Her father was arrested for dealing meth (the main crop in the area where economic decay seems to have left locals with few choices), but then went missing when he was released on bond. Now, if he doesn’t show up for the hearing, the bond is forfeited and his house and land go up for sale to pay the debt, leaving Ree and her family homeless. My friend Jim, who went with me, observed that if this had been a typical Hollywood studio film, the main character’s goal would have been to find out who killed her father. I think he may be right. But here Ree doesn’t care who killed her father, partly because she knows that trying to find that out could lead to her death; but more importantly, she knows that her father deserved what he got. He broke the code of the locals by turning state’s evidence and that is just something one doesn’t do in this backwoods area. Winter’s Bone is a fine movie, the sort of movie that keeps me going to the theater. The script (by Anne Rosellini and Debra Granik) and directing (by Granik) are as taught and stark as the environment. The acting is first rate with Dale Dickey as Merab, the powerful wife of the head of the family who killed Ree’s father, and John Hawkes as a relative who looks like he’s wasting away from his drug addiction, taking the highest honors. Both have faces that look like the harsh winter background that surrounds them. You’d certainly never be able to recognize any of the actors by their head shots. Jennifer Lawrence as Ree carries the movie ably on her back. Dickey is the one with not just the best line, but the line that might summarize the whole culture Ree grew up in: when Dickey takes Ree to find her father, they go to a lake where his corpse has been submerged. They are there to cut off his hand so Ree can prove he’s dead (which means he didn’t skip bond and it is no longer forfeited), so Ree has to lift her father’s arm out of the lake. When Ree drops the body back into the water after the amputation, Dickey asks her why Ree did that; they have to take both hands or the authorities will think the person only cut off one of his hands so he wouldn’t have to go to jail; it’s a trick the authorities have caught on to (how many times did it take for this happened until the authorities realized they were being fooled).

The family in The Kids Are All Right aren’t very nice to each other either. But their sniping and bickering rises out of their being a family for so long. It’s not that they dislike each other, it’s more that they’ve lived together for so long, they’ve forgotten how to be nice to each other (that and many writers consider families that don’t snipe to be inherently uninteresting). The Kids Are All Right starts out as a variation on Boudu Saved From Drowning, the classic Jean Renoir movie from 1932 in which a homeless person, Boudu, is brought home by the head of a bourgeois family and moves him in after which Boudu proceeds to seduce everybody and destroy their middle class assumptions. In The Kids Are All Right, Boudu is Paul, played by Mark Ruffolo, an organic farmer/restaurant owner who always looks like he’s shaking something out of his hair like dirt being shaken off the roots of the vegetables he’s raising. He enters a household headed by Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) and proceeds to seduce everyone. He convinces the son Laser (Josh Hutchinson) to drop a friend that’s leading down a wayward path; he convinces the daughter Joni (Mia Wasikowska) that it’s time for her to become more of an adult and wean herself away from her controlling parents; and he convinces Jules that she has talents and self worth in her own right and doesn’t need to exist only in the shadow of her spouse. The only one he has trouble seducing is Nic, but he gets her, too, eventually; though he gets her just as she realizes that he is a seducer, and his house of cards falls down. Now the movie begins to resemble Martin Scorcese’s version of Cape Fear in which De Niro tried to destroy Nick Nolte’s family, but in so doing, made them realize that there was something wrong at the core of their relationship and brought them closer together than they had been in some time. Here, Paul seduces and in so doing first destroys the family, but in doing so makes them realize that something has been wrong with the way things were for some time, and ironically they emerge stronger than they were before. Though The Kids Are All Right is intelligent and entertaining, there is also something about it that doesn’t quite work and that may be the character of Paul. It’s hard to know exactly how to feel about him at times and this ambiguity may be what’s throwing the whole thing off balance a bit. The key scene here is when Paul tells Jules that he loves her. This, to be ruthlessly honest, is not one iota convincing or believable mainly because his relationship with Jules is no different than any of his other relationships with women. Actually, from my perspective, Paul is almost as sociopathic as De Niro’s character in Cape Fear. He has sex with Jules, but while Jules has some sort of excuse (she is not getting the attention from Nic she needs and she is desperate for someone to tell her that she is worth something, anything), Paul has no such excuse. He seduces Jules for the same reason he seduces every other woman; he wants another notch on his bedpost (and his smirky, sly smile suggests that Jules being a lesbian is just icing on the cake). To prove just how evil he is, just look at the scene he has with Tanya (Yaya DaCosta), his fuck buddy, a woman who has clearly hinted (so clearly it was like hinting him over the head with a dirt clod from his garden) that she wanted to have a deeper relationship and even start a family; but when she asks if she can come over, he heartlessly accuses her of not wanting what he suddenly, out of nowhere, wants: a family. It’s cruel and heartless and shows someone who desperately needs to find a soul. But the question is, did the authors (Stuart Blumberg and Lisa Cholodenko, who also directed) do this on purpose; and if they did, to what purpose? It actually reads a bit like the character of Paul sort of got away from them and they weren’t sure exactly what function they wanted him to serve. At the same time, The Kids Are All Right. is very enjoyable and a real crowd pleaser with an independent film veneer. It’s the Little Miss Sunshine of the year, one of these films that tries to convince people it’s being daring with its subject matter as well as a challenge to its audience. It isn’t and it isn’t, but that’s one of the reasons it’s so popular. It makes people think it’s something that it’s not; it has its cake and eats it to.