SEDUCED AND ABANDONED



Seduced and Abandoned is not to be confused with the classic Italian film directed by Pietro Germi that came out in 1964, but I doubt you’ll be fooled after five minutes into the picture.  No, this 2013 release is a movie that purports to make a statement on the state of filmmaking today.  At the same time, it’s also one of those movies where the filmmakers don’t realize that the statement they are making may not actually be the statement they are making.
The basic premise of this semi-documentary revolves around director James Toback and actor Alec Baldwin taking an idea they have for a movie to the Cannes Film Festival and seeing if they can get someone to fork over $40 to $50 million to make it (and no, before you ask, they are not punking anyone; they are quite serious).  When they don’t get the support they think they deserve, they then suggest that this is what is wrong with film financing today—no one is willing to take a chance and produce a work of art; they are only interested in the bottom line.
But let’s take a closer look at what is going on here.  A director with a small cult following, but who really isn’t that impressive a filmmaker (for anyone who wants proof of this, watch Toback’s movie Fingers and then watch Jacque Audiard’s French remake of it, The Beat that My Heart Skipped, and one can immediately see what I mean), takes an idea (not even a completed script, but the barest of bones of a gleam in a father’s eye) that is to star Alec Baldwin and Neve Campbell (Neve Campbell?  Really?) and pitches said idea to seasoned producers.  The idea? (And please try not to chortle and disrupt the audience members around you as I did):  Last Tango in Baghdad (I told you, no chortling), the story of two people, a war haunted U.S. agent and a liberal journalist, who meet for a series of sexual encounters in a hotel room in the war torn city.
No, I am not making this up—that’s the idea.  Actually, I’m being a bit harder on it that it deserves.  There’s nothing that wrong with the premise.  It’s perfectly serviceable and with the right screenwriter, there’s no reason it couldn’t be a good movie.  But for me, things start going off the road a bit the second they started pitching it as a Last Tango rip off.  In fact, the moments with the most humor in this faux-doc are the scenes Toback shows from that once, but no longer, scandalous movie—like Brando asking Maria Schneider to stick her fingers up his ass (at least they didn’t do the “pass the butter” scene); it’s unfortunate for Toback that Last Tango… hasn’t, unlike cheese, aged that well. 
The other issue is that Toback and Baldwin pitch this idea as if it were the most original and daring idea in the world, that they are going to break new sexual ground and create something really scandalous; a statement that could only be made by people who have never seen a movie like 9 Songs where you actually see, in pornographic detail, a man and woman have sex, including cum shots.  Now, are Baldwin and Campbell going to break new ground here by pulling a James Deen (no, not the actor, the porn star—notice the spelling of the name) and Joanna Angel?  Why do I suspect not?
So what do we have?  We have a second rate filmmaker, with barely an idea for a movie (and hasn’t been written yet), and an idea that’s not that original and with a lousy pitch, to star two non-bankable actors; and yet, Toback and Baldwin are shocked, shocked (in their very best Captain Louis Renault manner) that they can’t get $40 to $50 million in financing.  Hence, their conclusion that something is rotten in the state of moviemaking.  Meanwhile, I’m in the audience going, Uh, guys, you do realize that the only thing you’ve proven is that the guys out there financing films can smell a lemon a mile away?  In fact, rather than demonstrate that something’s gone wrong in France’s version of tinsel town, Seduced and Abandoned ironically suggests that the future of movies is in sound hands.
Which is too bad.  Because I actually think that Tobac and Baldwin are right.  In many ways, I agree with the basic premise presented here.  I do think that producers are too interested in the bottom line with little to no regard for the art of film (a huge change since the growth of independent film in the 1990’s).   It is just unfortunate that Toback and Baldwin have chosen a less than stellar example to prove it.
And they seem so behind the times.  They don’t explore how many contemporary filmmakers are finding money to make their films.  In fact, there are no contemporary filmmakers in the movie.  They interview Francis Ford Coppola, but not his daughter Sofia, who is one of the most exciting directors in film today (and seems to have less problems finding backing for her film than her father, or Toback).  They talk to Martin Scorcese, but not such up and comers as Shane Carruth, Benh Zeitlin or Martin McDonough, all of whom are making some incredible films.  The only contemporary artists they talk to are actors like Ryan Gosling and Jessica Chastain, all of whom have insightful things to say about what it’s like to be an actor today, but nothing about how to get a movie made.
There’s just something so false about the whole thing.  Not only does the movie they are promoting never seem quite real (it’s all so vague, one wonders how they ever got the time of day from any financier to pitch it), it starts out with Toback telling Campbell that she is in the movie and nothing will stop that from happening.  You know this scene is there for only one reason: so that at the first opportunity, Toback can make a satirical point by telling just about the first person he negotiates with that he will gladly jettison Neve for Jessica if they can agree upon a price.  But again, it feels so fake, it’s hard to take seriously. 
There is one other aspect of the film that gives a lie to Toback’s premise.  When they decide to scale back the film and make it about these two people meeting in New York after both have left the war zone, yet are still scarred by their experiences, and meeting for sex at that point, they suddenly get offers left and right for a $4 to $5 million dollar film.  Not only does the film now sound more interesting, Toback has found a way to finance his movie.  It’s not his original vision, no; but then again, his original vision wasn’t worth $40 to $50 million in the first place. 
Toback may be saying that these money men know how to make a profit, but nothing about art, but to be ruthlessly honest, I think he kind of unintentionally proved they knew both.

ZERO DARK THIRTY



There are some movies, we all have been there/done that, that are praised to high heaven by the critics and rapturously spoken about by fellow movie goers, but somehow leave you cold.  I’m afraid to say that this is how I felt about Zero Dark Thirty, writer Mark Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow’s new film about the search for Osama Ben Laden.  I really don’t get it.  I really don’t understand why everyone likes this movie as much as they do.
The movie centers around the character of Maya, a government operative who is obsessive in her hunt for the man responsible for 9/11.  And this is probably where the movie either works for you or doesn’t.  But for me, Maya is one of the least interesting characters I have come across in a major movie in some time.  She has no personality that I could tell, unless you consider bland and boring to be a personality; well, I guess it is, but I don’t think it’s a particularly dramatic one that can carry a movie.  And Jessica Chastain, who is one of the flavors of the month (ten points for anyone who can remember when that phrase was the phrase de jeur—or flavor of the month), doesn’t seem to have that necessary quality, that imperceptible something, to give the character what the writer didn’t in the way that actors like Katherine Hepburn, Bette Davis and even Joan Crawford could.
Maya is part cliché, part superhero, part saint.  She’s that character you’ve seen in dozens of films, the only one with the truth, the voice crying in the wilderness, who has to fight tooth and nail against the non-believers in order to make everyone else see the light.   She has some of the most ludicrous exchanges with her higher ups, especially one where she blackmails her boss, Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler repeating his bureaucrat Babbit role from Argo—at least he has an excuse for having no personality, it’s in his job description), into giving her support to follow one of her hunches (she does this by telling him that if he doesn’t, she’ll tell the government how he stopped her from going after Ben Laden—how I wanted him to tell her to go ahead, that if it didn’t hurt Bush’s chances for reelection, there’s no way it will cause him any problems).  The only scene that was even more uncomfortable to watch is the dressing down Mark Strong, as May’s boss in D.C., gives his minions—when he slapped his hand on the table, I had a very difficult time not giggling.  Perhaps the oddest moments here are when a character describes Maya and Chastain’s performance is totally at odds with the description (at one point she’s called at killer—yeah, right; and at other times, she’s described as worn and needing time off—all I could think is that I wish I looked so good for being so worn.)
Her character arc is structured like a Spiderman/Superman/Batman movie.  The first third is the origin story in which Maya gets bitten by a radioactive spider (here the Ben Laden bug) and vows revenge against the bad guys when her Uncle is killed by the bad guys in which she feels some sort of guilt (here, it’s the death of her co-worker).  The next section is the various evil deeds the super villain commits that no one can seem to stop.  And the final section is the super hero taking out the super villain.  Of course, this also shows part of the problem with the film.  First, there is no proof that the super villain is responsible for any of the evil done in the central section (people try to tell her that Ben Laden is no longer in charge of Al Qaeda, but she won’t listen).  And in the final section, she can’t actually participate in the final climactic fight.  So, in retrospect, I’m not convinced that this was the best structure to go for.
But finally Maya is also portrayed as Joan of Arc.  She is on a mission from God (at one point, she says she believes she was spared dying in a terrorist attack to bring Ben Laden to justice); she is the only one God is talking to; she has to convince the Dauphin (played here by James Gandolfini) to let her head the troops into battle; and when she does, the troops (led by Joel Edgerton’s Patrick) only have faith in the mission because she has faith in the mission.  All that’s missing is a burning stake at the end. 
However, in its favor, the movie does surround Maya with a strong supporting cast that does bring that something more to their roles.  The best performance is probably given by Jason Clarke as Dan, the torturer who is starting to realize he may be going down a dark hole he may not be able to find his way back from (he also gave the best performance in the moonshine drama Lawless).   Other actors also make their mark in even smaller roles:  Safe House’s Fares Fares; Edgar Ramirez (who played Carlos in the amazing Olivier Assayas series); mumblecore’s Mark Duplass; and Contagion’s Jennifer Ehle (she of the impossible high check bones)…in fact, almost anybody other than Chastain.
The most impressive moments in the script are not the interactions between the characters (which always feel a bit flat), but the moments that Bigelow excels in, scenes of high tension that often result in devastating violence (and even though you know that the scene is going to end in an explosion, that only makes the scene more nerve wracking).  And, of course, there’s the final tour de force of the assault on Ben Laden’s compound.  It’s in these scenes that one can see what the movie could have been.  But when there’s a vacuum at the core of the movie, as if feels like there is here with the role of Maya, it’s a little hard to make the movie work as a whole.
I can’t conclude a review of this movie without talking about the most controversial aspect of the film and that is the use of torture.  From my perspective, this is how torture is portrayed by Boal and Bigelow.  The first third of the movie is a series of scenes in which people are tortured or people are shown who have been tortured.  The torture is not posited here as something that had to happen, but as something that did happen.  In fact, at the end of this section, everyone realizes that all this torture has done nothing to stop Al Qaeda because the explosions and attacks just keep on coming.  The only thing the operatives get from the torture is a name that eventually leads them to Ben Laden’s compound.  But by that time, Ben Laden is a paper tiger, someone who needs desperately to be killed for symbolic reasons, but not for practical ones.  So, the movie basically says (though I’m not sure it realizes fully that this is its message), that all this money, time and effort spent on dehumanizing not just their fellow man, but the torturers themselves, did nothing to stop Al Qaeda, but did help the U.S. stop someone before he…well, did nothing, because Ben Laden was no longer doing anything.  And the question one has to ask oneself is whether all that torture was worth it if that was its only result.  I’ll leave that to you.
 

Race for the Oscars 2012: Reevaluation of the Acting Races



<!–[if !mso]>st1\:*{behavior:url(#ieooui) } <![endif]–>

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

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS OSCAR 2012



<!–[if !mso]>st1\:*{behavior:url(#ieooui) } <![endif]–>

Continuing my analysis of the 2012 Oscar race, it’s time to look at the Best Supporting Actress category.  This category has one of the same issues as the Supporting Actor category: for every lead in a movie, there are numerous supporting roles.  At the same time, as usual, it does look like the group is getting narrowed down to six or seven.
This category does have two unique issues this year.  One is that, unlike the Supporting Actor category, career noms are rare in the female categories (there are exceptions, like Lauren Bacall, Sylvia Sydney and Ann Southern).  The nominees are on average much younger than their male counterparts.
The other issue I wrote about in my entry on Best Actress.  This is a weak year for women, so some actresses have to make a decision whether to push themselves in the lead or supporting.  In a normal year, actresses like Jessica Chastain and Helen Hunt, and even Helen Mirren maybe, might have gone for a supporting nom.  But this year, they may be feeling that they might be able to get a lead nom (Jessica Chastain has apparently decided to go for it).   Also, Helen Mirren definitely has a leading role and a good chance of being nominated.
Now the list:
Anne Hathaway to win for Les Miserables.  This is actually a difficult prediction to make since the movie hasn’t opened yet, so it’s an unknown quantity.  But the buzz is so…buzzardly, that it seems like for now, this is what is going to happen.   She’s also a lead actress taking a supporting role (Robin Williams, Renee Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones).
Helen Hunt for The Sessions.  Pretty much a sure thing.  It’s an excellent performance that is really being pushed.  And the possibility of John Hawkes getting a Best Actor nom will only help her.
Sally Field for Lincoln.  Also pretty much a sure thing.  Like Hunt, it’s hard to see how this won’t happen.  It’s a strong performance in a movie that is doing better than people predicted and may, now that Argo has peaked perhaps too soon, actually win best picture.
Amy Adams for The Master.  As I’ve said before, the movie went over my head and I don’t really understand people’s ravings about Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams (I felt that it wasn’t their acting so much as their characters weren’t that well written).  But everybody seems to think this is a done deal.  But I suspect that the people behind the push for The Master may have to put some extra effort just to get the voters to see it since my impression was that it didn’t have that great a reception (except by critics, which may help turn the tide as the critics awards start dribbling in).
As for the other possibilities:
Maggie Smith for Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.  In many ways a surprise for me.  The movie kind of came and went.   But it’s Maggie Smith, who is one of the world’s finest actresses, and with the right push, they may be right.   There’s good buzz here.
Ann Dowd for Compliance.   I personally hope she makes it.  She’s great and it’s always fun when an unknown in a small movie makes the list (Melissa Leo in Frozen River and Richard Jenkins in the Visitor).  My friend says she may get the Jacki Weaver nomination (they are both character actors, older women, relatively unknown before their movies were released—Weaver got a nom for Animal Kingdom).   There is only one problem here and that is that Jacki Weaver may get the Jacki Weaver nomination.
Jacki Weaver for Silver Linings Playbook.  A popular movie and Weaver is very good so she may be dragged along with the other nominees.  Poor Bradley Cooper if she does, because he will be the only major actor in the movie not to get a nom.
There are other names out there, but as of right now, no one that serious.
However, something should be said about Jessica Chastain.  For awhile, she was assumed to be running in the supporting category for Zero Dark Thirty, then she changed to lead.  One issue here is that the movie hasn’t been released, so it is an unknown quantity.  What most people were commenting on, though, is what part could she have in a film about the killing of Bin Laden that could be a lead?  This may be a bit chauvinistic an observation, but we are curious.  And it does seem, as far as I can tell, that the Golden Globes have put her in lead (and they make the determination before the voting commences).  So we shall see whether Chastain has talked herself out of a nom or not.

THE OSCAR RACE: Best Actress, Part Duex



<!–[if !mso]>st1\:*{behavior:url(#ieooui) } <![endif]–>

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.