Tuesday, August 26, 2008

We Americans? Why? Nazis are bad; we're good.

Barbara Novak: Another ruse, Catcher? You know I have no interest in seeing you.
Catcher Block: But you know you have to, and you know I know you have to. I'm sure you know how things are at KNOW ever since your new NOW.
Barbara Novak: I have no way of knowing how things are now at KNOW. I knew how things were at KNOW before NOW.
Catcher Block: Then you should know now at KNOW things are a lot like they are at NOW, we have to interview every applicant for every job, and so do you or you'd be going against NOW's definition of discrimination and you wouldn't want the readers of NOW or KNOW to know that, now would you?

There are so many moments in Down with Love to... well, love. It was on the television last night and I didn't really intend on watching it (my sidebar shows you just how many other things I have waiting), but it pulled me in anyway. It's not even a guilty pleasure... it's a pleasure I want to shout out to the world and tell them what they're missing. It's so deliciously knowing, and so so funny. I haven't seen any of the Doris-Rock comedies it's so obviously based on, but I imagine that they can't be as much fun because they surely wouldn't have been allowed to be so hilariously blatant about the sexual connotations...

And isn't Renee Zellweger's unbroken expositionary monologue just the best?

Sunday, August 24, 2008

They Can't Take Their Eyes Off Each Other... Yuck

I've had a veiled interest in Nights in Rodanthe, which reunites Unfaithful co-stars Diane Lane (yay) and Richard Gere (ugh), ever since I predicted Lane in The Film Experience's Best Actress contest. That said, I clearly haven't been paying that much attention, because, after spotting the film's title on IMDb's homepage (although they replace "in" with "at"), I discover that it has a trailer and is released in just about a month across the pond (the UK has to wait until November, tragically). It looks completely conventional and the trailer gives away pretty much everything that's going to happen (seriously. Can you not even try and keep any mystery?), but it also has VIOLA DAVIS (as the no-nonsense best friend no less) and she's always reason enough to see a film. (It also has James Franco, Ann Veal (OMG) and the egg-headed presence of Christopher Meloni.)

But what the title of this post refers to is the fact that in almost every picture we have so far, Diane and Richard won't stop STARING at each other. Seriously.



They're even at it in the poster:

Diane lets the side down here, though:
My theory is it's because the cameraman is doing an impression of Richard dancing. At least he can laugh about it, eh?

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Victim's Gold Stars: Acting, Writing, Directing...

Yes, I realize it's the second half of August, and, yes, I realize I promised this about three months ago. But, um... better late than never, right? I had half of this post done three months ago, so apologies for the glaring differences in the writing. I just had to get this out, even if it took me a year. And I'm not the only one, anyway.

My top ten can be found here; I kind of feel as though I've extolled all of their virtues within, so no individual commentaries for them this year. But let it be known: they are all outstanding. And on with the show; no refunds, sorry.

Best Adapted Screenplay

Paul Thomas Anderson, There Will Be Blood
Operatic, powerful and alarmingly ambitious, Anderson's script may edge into self-indulgence but that just makes it all the more magnificent.

Beatrix Christian, Jindabyne
Delicate and low-key work, adapting an American short story to Australian full length with wondrous confidence, crafting engaging characters bound in a truthful setting.

Tracy Letts, Bug
Intimate and direct, Letts makes the stagey atmosphere work for his writing, amping up the claustrophobia in both stage direction and dialogue. Even when what the characters spout is perversely hilarious, it never loses its horrifying edge.

John Orloff, A Mighty Heart
Expands what could have been restricted to Marianne Pearl's story and makes it about the community around her too, which gives a wider, more reflexive angle on the true horror of the real events, unafraid to abandon its big coup of a star for as long as it necessary.

James Vanderbilt, Zodiac
It is by necessity discordant and off-putting in its rhythms, for this real life case is one that cannot prescribe to cinema's usual plotting system, and Vanderbilt makes it tense and compulsive in an unfamiliar way.

Best Original Screenplay

Diablo Cody, Juno
You know all the criticisms. But how many scripts create dialogue this witty, characters this truthful and surprising, and moments this fluidly expressive?

James Gray, We Own the Night
What seems- and has in some quarters been recieved as- a routine undercover cop story proves itself otherwise, mightily impressive in how it weaves complex, fascinating characters into a story that eschews both predictability and explosions.

Todd Haynes & Oren Moverman, I'm Not There.
This may the most abstract way of getting under someone's skin that's ever been attempted, but the kaleidoscopic personality of Bob Dylan deserves nothing less. The fragmentation coheres into a greater emotional connection that a familiar plot would, and it's funny, too.

Kelly Masterson, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead
A hysterical Greek tragedy in a modern setting. Somehow the bigness of the dialogue, the ambitious structuring and the inherent selfishness of Masterson's characters combine to create a film you can't take your eyes off.

Christian Mungiu, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days
Stripped down in the best way possible, Mungiu is a great contributor to the film's horrific realism, since what's not said speaks louder than what is. He crafts his characters slowly and confidently through the situations he puts them in.

Best Documentary

Deep Water
This tale of a disastrous 1968 round-the-world yacht race, in which amateur Donald Crowhurst faced isolation and diaster, is grippingly assembled and is even gracious enough to give room to the other entrants of the race, the bigger picture making for a fuller experience.

Lake of Fire
A lengthy and difficult film, but a necessary one that doesn't shy away from being graphic or opinionated about its topic of abortion. And on an aesthetic note, the black and white shooting is both a gorgeous and thoughtful choice.

No End in Sight
Direct and focused, this examination of the Bush administation's conduct in the early months of the Iraq War is superbly comprehensive and well-structured, providing an insightful narrative into a seminal period of modern history.

Best Non-English Language Film

Black Book (Zwartboek)
Lavish, sexy and exciting, Verhoeven combines his trademark vulgarity with a film that winds a personal journey into history, ending up with a surprisingly affecting film.

Dark Horse (Voksne mennesker)
Truly offbeat, this film's odd sensibilities work for it, providing hysterical moments of comic genius and a sweet love story.

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (4 Luni, 3 Saptamâni si 2 Zile)
Devastating, opinionated without shouting about it, and moving in a strong yet quiet way, this absorbing character study is an unforgettable experience.

Lady Chatterley
More expansive, you feel, than D.H. Lawrence's tale is usually allowed to be (probably because it was adapted from a less famous version of the novel), the film is a slow-burning, earthy and very engaging piece that is period only in the costume.

Lust, Caution (Se, jie)
Ang Lee winds you up in the enigmatic webs of 1940s Shanghai, lacing every part of the film with edgy nervousness, tangled feelings and bare stylization. If the last act takes the film a little off-track, it's compensated for by a fantastic central performance and Rodrigo Prieto's precise camerawork.

Best Supporting Actor

Michael Cera, Juno
I'll love him forever for George Michael Bluth, but Cera almost matches that magestic characterization here, exuding nervous warmth, appealing eccentricity and a certain quality that makes it entirely obvious why Juno got pregnant in the first place.

Hal Holbrook, Into the Wild
It's hard not to well-up at Holbrook's performance here, so soft is he in his timid gruffness and wistful longing after McCandless' free life, while simultaneously projecting a heartwarming need to protect.

Tony Leung, Lust, Caution
Almost a performance from a silent movie, so enigmatic and fascinating is Leung in his smoke-hazed observations and sudden sex-filled rages. As with Tang Wei's lead, you're never quite sure where you are with his character.

James Marsden, Enchanted
A gloriously madcap comic performance; hammy, if you like, in all the best ways, nailing the cartoon spirit of the character and stamping a vivid mark on the movie.

Steve Zahn, Rescue Dawn
Zahn is possibly more subdued than he's ever been, superbly crafting a performance with just a hint of his usual manic personality; the rest is filled out with sorrowful depth, a weighty resignation to his fate.

Best Supporting Actress

Cate Blanchett, I'm Not There.
A freewheeling performance; happily the closest in look and feel to the public perception of Bob Dylan, Blanchett aces the adrogynous comedy of the part, while remaining emotionally resonant and dangerously edgy.

Deborra-Lee Furness, Jindabyne
Fiercely powerful, Furness almost charges through this film, and yet her loud moments never feel gratuitous or selfish; she anchors them in an unsettled and stubborn woman who is just as conflicted as the nervy characters around her.

Jennifer Garner, Juno
Juno reserves its biggest character doozies for Mark and Garner's Vanessa, and Garner lays the foundations for the well of surprises in her initally frosty character from the off. You get the sense Vanessa is so straight-laced because she has to be, because to function otherwise would mean to face the disappointments. Garner is empathic but never sycophantic, a rich but measured performance.

Eva Mendes, We Own the Night
Mendes doesn't play this role in at all the way I expected: the boss' girl is not a gold-digging slut, or an adoring lapdog, but someone who genuinely cares about- nay, loves her man, astutely knows where his decisions might lead, and Mendes' really nails the concerned strength of her character.

Tilda Swinton, Michael Clayton
It's difficult to say anything original about Tilda Swinton; she even managed to get Oscar on her side. So only this: Swinton's Karen is perpetually on the edge, a businesswoman who knows right from the off she's headed for disaster, a ball of combustible nerves, and Swinton is magnetic to watch doing all this.

Best Director

Andrew Dominik, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
A bit florid, maybe, but his vision is commendable, crafting a mystical epic and drawing magnetic performances from his actors while ensuring they cohere with the feel of his picture.

David Fincher, Zodiac
Not so overtly stylish as we're used to, and that's a good thing. He still brings his skill in creating nervous tension and subtly powerful moments to the film, the unusual narrative line of the picture accentuated by his focused direction.

William Friedkin, Bug
Almost gloriously theatrical; Friedkin really goes for the intimate, powerful nature of the stage, allowing the insanity of the story to infect the picture as a whole to create an unforgettably frightening experience that etches itself on the psyche.

Todd Haynes, I'm Not There
Again, as ambitious as ever, Haynes slices his six Dylans into almost incomprehensible pieces and yet ultimately makes them cohere to produce a feeling that this abstract approach is the best way to make sense of the man.

Michael Winterbottom, A Mighty Heart
An actor's director, but also highly skilled with giving the film his trademark sidearmed approach; the film rarely proceeds in the expected way, but Winterbottom ensures that it never loses its way.

Best Actor in a Leading Role

Casey Affleck, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Affleck is possibly this film's strongest asset- his reedy, cracked voice, shifty eyes and weak, disturbingly pained smiles work to make you sympathize with Robert Ford, but also to unnerve and unsettle, and, perhaps most brilliantly, to lead you to examine both he and Pitt's Jesse James. It's technically exact work disguized by a tremulous, rich emotional core, and one of this decade's finest performances.

Jakob Cedergren, Dark Horse
Dark Horse is odd to say the least, but Cedergren is your connecting thread between all the bizarre attempts at refereeing footbal and elephant appearances, a slightly aloof, lazy and irresponsible young graffiti artist who is by no means excluded from all the madness within; but it is Cedergren, ultimately, who keeps you as spellbound as you are, keeps you interested in the characters rather than simply what they're doing, and gives the romantic thread that wins through the pull it gathers.

Daniel Day-Lewis, There Will Be Blood
Day-Lewis is so obviously showboating, but so is Daniel Plainview, and while the film is a tad too prone to give itself over entirely to what it recognizes as such an unreachable height, it still gives this infamous performer plenty of chances to carve in deep, textured layers that are still, even far inside, tinged with that rabid narcissism. He's wrenching *in* his showboating, truthful in his macabre tone, and beautiful in his unpredictability.

Joaquin Phoenix, We Own the Night
Phoenix continues to surprise, making this familiar role his own with a layered, distant performance that means you never really figure out what the character thinks or feels all the time, making the moments of raw emotion- whether it be sweaty panic, or delirious grief- all the more powerful when they arrive unexpectedly.

Michael Shannon, Bug
Naked both literally and metaphorically, Shannon is raw and direct, his stage performance seemingly in-tact for the big screen, for this is a daring yet perfectly calebrated performance, Peter's alarming paranoia meaning Shannon has to be magnetic while also giving space to his co-star in the tin-foiled room.

Best Actress

Marina Hands, Lady Chatterley
Hands is surprising in how open and personal she makes her performance, unveiling her repressed, anxious character with gradual steps, and I don't just mean in literally shedding her clothes. It is her silent moments that prove the most memorable, the film proving to be an interior view from her own head, so intimate and close do we feel to her. The film's rhythms ebb and flow with her, Lawrence's story translated into a painful yet fulfilling filmic experience.

Ashley Judd, Bug
Judd is just as bare and effective as her experienced co-star, as the film circles to see her as its centre. Judd makes her character's psychological descent as believable as it is bizarre, her mental journey laid out for us to be horrified witnesses too. When she spouts that ripe dialogue, your laughter is tinged with nervous horror, because Judd seems to believe every word of it.

Laura Linney, Jindabyne
Claire not only becomes an outsider but starts off as one, never looking comfortable around her tight-knit community, and as she becomes increasingly disengaged, her nerviness manifests itself as torrid anger and confused disillusionment. Linney really digs into this character, quiet but powerfully so.

Anamaria Marinca, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days
It's been said that one of the most difficult challenges in acting is playing someone inherently honest. While the law of late 1980s Romania probably wouldn't see her that way, both the film and the audience do, but Marinca never plays her as a saint: Otilia is simply a young woman struggling with the problems of those around her, perhaps a bit too timid to stand up to those she loves but never afraid of defending those. Ultimately, her simple, quiet performance will move you deeply.

Tang Wei, Lust, Caution
Simply one of the best debut performances ever given; Wei is an astonishing screen presence, the fascination while generous to her fellow performers, and with such understanding of the role she's playing, the lines between acting and being crossing all over the place. But Wei never loses an inch of her grasp on the character, always committed, brave and balanced.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Fox and the Child (Jacquet, 2008)

Before The Fox and the Child began, me and the five other people in the theatre were forced to watch several trailers for what looked like more of those crass, celebrity-populated animated movies. Through this, it’s clear at what market they’re trying (and evidently failing, says the size of the audience) to catch with this movie. But while it is indeed true that The Fox and the Child is, at least in its British incarnation, a movie for children, there’s little of the grossness or hollowness of the flagging trend of the aforementioned animations. By no means perfect, The Fox and the Child is a type of kid’s entertainment that doesn‘t seem to exist anymore- it’s gentle without being too naïve, slow without being sluggish, and moral without being patronising. Technically, there are problems to pick out- but for children, this seems almost a necessary entertainment, a fairytale that ends with an important life lesson, and an uncommon connection to the reality of the natural world of today.

The film is self-evidently not British, although with the gentle (and, dare I admit it, occasionally irritatingly precious) narration of Kate Winslet as the grown version of the girl (Bertille Noel-Bruneau) who is the only human on-screen for the entirety of the film, you could be forgiven for thinking so. But I don’t believe we have many bears in this country; and there’s also the rather terrible dubbing of the girl herself, who clearly isn’t saying what we’re being told she is. These are minor nitpicks, though, as are the occasional editing missteps (the most prominent being the sudden growth of a ladder, and then the difference between the night and morning the girl spends in the forest), and to dwell on them would be churlish. What is perhaps more problematic is the question of how the filmmakers achieved some of the footage we’re shown. One particular scene of the fox being chased by what I think was a bobcat is shown in such close, intimate detail that you have to assume it was constructed, and I suppose, if we don’t doubt any ethics here (which would surely be unfair), that the fact that I’m questioning it at all is testament to the superb assembly of such a moment. Undoubtedly the camerawork, at least when dealing with the animals, is outstanding- we get not only beautiful, varied shots of the fox(es), but of all sorts of animals from badgers to wolves to hedgehogs. Maybe preaching that wild animals cannot, and should not, be tamed, while using tamed animals to portray this is hypocritical, but I’m not an ethics committee and I can only assume that some of the French words that rose before me at the end told me that no animals had been harmed in the making.

Luc Jacquet, the director of 2005’s favourite documentary March of the Penguins, reportedly took the inspiration from a real-life story, and sometimes the story structure does feel appropriately rugged in its construction. That said, Jacquet seems to be doing everything he can do set it all up as a fairytale, since the girl seems, for most of the film, to be the only one in existence, and even though there are occasional flirtations with the grim reality of the wild world (poachers), for the most part it’s a bizarre love story between the girl and the fox- apt enough, given the title. And as such, it works. As I said, it’s not naïve about what happens to the girl who unwisely becomes obsessed with a wild animal, but nor is it entirely unromantic. Wildlife is beautiful, Jacquet is saying, but to be approached with caution. B-

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Oh, Sigourney...

I don't remember when I first became aware of Sigourney Weaver. You might expect it had something to do with the Alien series but somehow I don't think that's right- by the time I saw Alien I was already febrile about the prospect of seeing Sigourney kick the ass of that silvery metal monster. I believe I'd already witnessed her extraordinary work in Death and the Maiden (seriously- it'd probably be in my top ten performances by a lead actress, if I ever made that list) and fallen in love with her passionate movements, her bushy hair and her strange grimace of a smile. Feel for me when I say that the first thing I have a conscious memory of seeing Sigourney in is the mother-daughter (with, of all people, Jennifer Love Hewitt) con movie Heartbreakers- oh, I know I'd seen Holes before that, but I doubt I knew who Sigourney was and probably wasn't particularly enticed by her hard-ass Warden in that strange, Shia LaBoeuf platform of a movie. Oddly, I think Heartbreakers was what made me fall for her in the first place- it may not be much of a movie but it did give Sigourney the chance to play probably the most glamourous part she's ever been offered, and it's not hard to believe why Gene Hackman is so ready to swallow every false word she feeds him.

Anyway. Not only is Sigourney still sex-on-legs at the grand old age of 58, she's also proven herself to be a great actress. So shame be it that her three Oscar nominations- all three back in the 1980s, for shame- were for movies that don't take anywhere near full advantage of her considerable talents. Dare I say it, but Aliens is perhaps the movie in the series that demands the least of the woman- except maybe Alien³- given that James Cameron is more concerned with setting things on fire than actually creating tension. She's still strong, though, and it's the double-whammy of nominations from 1988 that concerns me most here. Her bitch of a boss in Working Girl, while looking super next to Melanie Griffith, is straightforwardly played and decidedly unadventurous (much like the whole movie).

But the only reason I can think that Sigourney was nominated for Gorillas in the Mist (oh, sorry: The Story of Dian Fossey) is that it's an early case of what's now the alarming 'biopic' trend. The film hardly does her any favours- what could be an interesting story is pushed to one side to make way for a pointless love story that's dwelled on far too much, not to mention the vague politics of the thing and some- understandably, given the time- terrible animatronics- but sadly, Sigourney never works to carve a character outside of the script, instead going with all the flat characterising moments. Dian is either a passionate, loving studier of gorillas, or a complete nutjob, the moments exemplifying the latter even more perplexing when you discover they're completely fictional. (I could go into a long tirade about why biographical portraits of people feel the need to fictionalize events when surely reality is just as interesting, but I won't- here it's just grating because it completely changes the character of Dian into something else.) Weaver plays it completely as you would expect- sudden, angry jolts of movement as she discovers a new horror, mad rolling of the eyes when she goes completely over the edge with some captured poachers, histrionic crying when her adopted baby of a gorilla is taken away from her. It's not terrible work, just mediocre.

And it's completely bizarre when you see that the Academy has ignored Sigourney ever since- not only for her outstanding performance in Death and the Maiden, but for her melting ice-queen in The Ice Storm, and her strong work as an autistic woman in Snow Cake. Most exciting on the horizon is her reunion with Aliens-director James Cameron in Avatar (also a return to space), but Oscar might loom with a role as gay-rights crusader Mary Griffith in Prayers for Bobby. Both are due next year, and hopefully Sigourney with re-take her place alongside Meryl Streep, fellow queen of 80's cinema (all they need is Kathleen Turner and they'll be all set!).