Rightwing Film Geek

Oscar-bait season, part 1

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MONSTER (Patty Jenkins, USA, 2003, 7)

OK, Charlize Theron IS in full-beg “please give me an Oscar” mode, uglying herself up to play prostitute and serial-killer Aileen Wuornos. But just because you beg for something doesn’t mean you don’t deserve it (and I’ve thought Theron one of the better actresses among Hollywood hotties for some time; you can see behind her eyes).

This is a great performance, in no small part because it’s not all just Nervous Twitching Tics and Big Moments. Those tics becomes stronger later in the film, but by then her murder “career” is spinning out of control and the excuses Wuornos makes to herself for her murders are becoming thinner and thinner. She’s losing her grip, but in a believable arc.

monsterpair.jpgBut what makes the performance is how she inhabits the character’s body language earlier — Theron nails a certain sort of habitual swagger in the walk, and a bored look on her face while hooking. She’s just as believable sitting at a dive bar, soaked, drinking her last $5, and communicating one of the most difficult emotions to convey — dead-end tiredness. We don’t even need the line saying that she had decided to kill herself if God didn’t send her some future — in the person of lesbian Christina Ricci, who becomes her lover and eventually inspires her murder rampage. Ricci is … yawn … as terrific as always, though again in the underappreciated “straight man” … uh … role.

I do have one problem with this film though. In his panegyric to MONSTER (which he named the best film of the year), Roger Ebert says, “There are no excuses for what she does, but there are reasons, and the purpose of the movie is to make them visible.” I don’t agree. I think the film dances damn close to making excuses for Wuornos — not because reasons = excuses (clearly, that’s not necessarily so), but because MONSTER caricatures the messenger in the two or three places where it makes some pretty obvious moral points.

For example, there is a scene where Ricci’s custodian/aunt tells Ricci that lots of people have shit childhoods but don’t become hookers or junkies (amp that up quite a bit to apply to murder). But the aunt character is played throughout the movie as a hysterical, prudish harpie and this particular line comes 5 seconds after she uses the word “nigger” and immediately says “now, I’m not a racist.” Yeah, right.

Still, there’s too much to like here to dismiss the film. And one other thing — MONSTER does demonstrate definitively and unquestionably that Journey is awesome.

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January 26, 2004 Posted by | Uncategorized | | Leave a comment

Oscar-bait season, part 2

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THE HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG — Vadim Perelman, USA, 2003, 8

Four Decembers ago, I walked without especially high expectations into THE END OF THE AFFAIR, a bit of Oscar-bait that was respectfully reviewed but was a box-office bust and did poorly at year-end awards. It’s now half-forgotten, I’d say, but I will take to my grave that experience of one of the best films of recent years, a film that had me in tears for the whole second half, which I’ve now seen about 12 times, and to which I responded as personally as if Neil Jordan had made it for me, and me alone.

THE HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG is that same kind of movie — a stately, inevitable march through characters, neither good nor evil, but trapped by coincidence and circumstance until it spins into a fog-bound tragedy. HOUSE has a real novelistic quality — and I mean that as a compliment — like a Victorian gothic set in the present-day about the claims of two families on a house overlooking the sea.

hsf-arrest2.jpgJennifer Connelly inherited the house from her father, but the county has repossessed it for delinquent taxes — a point she disputes. But while her appeal is pending, the house is purchased by Ben Kingsley, an Iranian Air Force colonel under the Shah. His assets and family’s ability to keep up appearances are dwindling and he buys the home at repossession prices as an investment. There is a sequence early when Kingsley is shown working two menial jobs in rags, changes into gentlemen’s clothes for home, and curtly tells off a swanky-hotel worker who questions him because of his appearance. This is the opposite of the general American custom (dress up at work and down at home) and is one of many ways Kingsley, in a brilliant performance, creates a man from an honor-based culture without making him a petty tyrant.

And that’s part of the other truly special feature of this film — that it caricatures nobody, despite ample “culture-clash” opportunity. I saw Jean Renoir’s masterpiece THE RULES OF THE GAME on TV again recently with its most famous line “That’s the truly horrible thing; that everybody has his reasons” — and HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG is a film entirely in that spirit. The film has no heroes or villains, and lets the conflict play itself out, and not in ways you can necessarily predict.

One of the great pleasures of this film is that, even though you know unspecifically that it ends tragically (think the flashback structure of SUNSET BOULEVARD), it is one of the increasingly-rare films where the first 10 minutes basically doesn’t set up everything else that happens. There. Is. A. Plot. To. Follow. Huzzah!!!!

And yet … still … it wasn’t made for me, and me alone. The oooomph I got for END OF THE AFFAIR was missing (and both films use a similar strategy of repeated scenes; once before you know everything and once after). I didn’t have the same personal connection to the material. Oh, I understand in the abstract the emotions HOUSE wants to tweak all right and this is unquestionably a very strong film. In fact, I’m sure there’s somebody out there, someone whose life story it tells and who will react to HOUSE as I did to AFFAIR. This film is for him, and him alone. But he’s not me.

January 26, 2004 Posted by | Uncategorized | | 1 Comment

Fearless prognostication, part 2

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The Golden Globes were handed out last night (a complete list of the winners is here), and the two films that won Best Picture (unlike the Oscars, the Globes divide some of the movie categories into comedy and drama) were THE LORD OF THE RINGS: RETURN OF THE KING (drama) and LOST IN TRANSLATION (comedy).

Other key winners were Sean Penn (MYSTIC RIVER) and Charlize Theron (MONSTER) for best drama lead performances, and Bill Murray (LOST IN TRANSLATION) and Diane Keaton (SOMETHING’S GOTTA GIVE) for best comic lead performances. Peter Jackson won best director for the third part of the Tolkien trilogy, and Sofia Coppola won best script for TRANSLATION. These are all pretty much locks for at least a nomination.

I do hope, though, the supporting actor award given to Tim Robbins for MYSTIC RIVER was the result of the ballots being sent by mistake to The Deaf and Blind Academy giving out their Braille novel awards and that “Tim Robbins” in Braille forms the shape of a Playboy centerfold. That’s the only acceptable excuse I can imagine.

The Oscars have a tradition of ignoring or downplaying comedies (and rewarding the tic-ridden handicapped role — have I mentioned that I HATE Tim Robbins in MYSTIC RIVER?). One fact suffices to prove this: Cary Grant was nominated just twice — for PENNY SERENADE and NONE BUT THE LONELY HEART. Yes, the greatest film comedian ever got nominated for an orphanage tear-jerker and a Clifford Odets bit of cockney social consciousness. So most of the time, the Golden Globe drama winner has the advantage over the Golden Globe comedy winner. So, I’ll go out on a limb and predict that LORD OF THE RINGS 3.0 will win the Best Picture. Unless there’s pictures of Peter Jackson with a dead girl or a live boy — only in Hollywood, that might even improve its chances.

More seriously, all the extracinematic reasons that films win Oscars are pointing LORD’s way — it was the capper to one of the most commercially successful series of all time, and, unlike say THE MATRIX movies, it was a succes d’estime as well. Neither of the first two films got much love from Oscar (the first got 13 nominations, but only four victories in minor categories; the second got just six nods and two minor victories) — so voting for it becomes a way both to salute the whole trilogy and to make up for past snubs. There’s also not a clear alternative front-runner right up Oscar-bait Alley, like there was with CHICAGO last year. So my Magic 8-ball sez the man who made HEAVENLY CREATURES takes home the gold in a month.

Now, I have to *see* the damn thing.

October 2007 update: Never did see LOTR3. Don’t feel the slightest bit unfulfilled.

January 26, 2004 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | 1 Comment

Kerry, Kerry, quite contrary

Well, unless pictures show up within the next day of John Kerry in a state of undress in close proximity to a dead girl or a live boy, he’s gonna win New Hampshire. The various tracking polls have him anywhere from 13 to 23 points up, and in every one widening his lead over Howard Dean, not losing it. Two days before the primary, that’s close to bulletproof.

A Kerry win in the Granite State would change the historical calculus I relied on last week in saying “don’t count Dean out” — no candidate has ever won both Iowa and New Hampshire and not received his party’s nomination. Pre-vote front-runners like Dean have stumbled in one and recovered, but never both. A New Hampshire win makes Kerry the front-runner and the nominee presumptive — unless and until he does something Deanesque to blow that Dauphin stature.

Dean took my advice: he appeared on Letterman doing (which was pretty daggum funny) a Top 10 list, and also began his debate presentation with a self-deprecating reference to The Yell Round The World. This is why I am not a political consultant in my opinion. The moves didn’t go badly, exactly, they just haven’t drowned out The Yell. Dean looks like he’ll have to settle for a poor second place in New Hampshire, and as long as he’s known to the apolitical public as The Nut Who Lost It In Iowa, he’s toast. For the Vermont governor to rally, Kerry needs to do something equally nutty (hey … those photos) at a time by which everybody but Dean has had to depart.

Perhaps unfortunately for Dean — he’d profit the most from a multi-party open race — Wesley Clark and Joe Lieberman, who both decided to skip Iowa and concentrate on New Hampshire, aren’t picking up much, and the former is actually sinking, according to the polls linked to above. Maybe that appeal to the Michael Moore/”Bush is a deserter” bloc didn’t work for Clark. John Edwards is gaining some, but he’s still 10 points or so behind Dean. He’s not exactly skipping New Hampshire (to judge from his ad buys), but is trying to lie in wait to win in South Carolina and make it a Kerry-Edwards contest. It’s a gamble; it’s not a certainty that he wins South Carolina.

WARNING: All of this will be completely nonoperative within one week.

ADDENDUM: Or maybe it lasts less than a week. First of all, there was one factual error. Someone at work told me (and I confirmed it for a story) that in 1972 Democrat Edmund Muskie won both Iowa and New Hampshire, but the Mainer only won the latter by 9 points instead of the jillion points he was supposed to win by. Plus, the lasting image of Muskie in New Hampshire (the only thing *this* political junkie remembers about him certainly, 30 years later) became his breaking out in tears when discussing something or other. Not manly. Not presidential. And as close a precedent to the Dean yell as recent American politics offers. So I was wrong about “never,” but the overall point is unaffected (people who win both Iowa and New Hampshire have a stranglehold on the race.)

Second, there is one tracking poll (Zogby/MSNBC/Reuters) that has Kerry and Dean a statistically insignificant 3 points apart. Given Zogby’s very good track record, that would give one more pause than any other “outlying” poll. Still, robustness and consensus do matter in the very imprecise enterprise of polling. And the other tracking polls I know of (with one exception) have Dean gaining some Monday, but still leaving Kerry firmly ahead. UNH/Fox had Kerry’s lead at 11 points, down from 15 on Sunday; Suffolk/WHDH at 21, *up* from 16; Boston Globe/WBZ at 17, down from 20; American Research Group at 10, down from 18; and CNN-USA Today-Gallup at 11, down from 13. In addition, the new Marist survey (not a tracking poll) has Kerry up on Dean 37-24. So some pollsters will have egg on their face.

January 26, 2004 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | Leave a comment