Dan in Real Life Director: Peter Hedges Writers: Pierce Gardner and Peter Hedges Producers: Brad Epstein and Jonathan Shestack Stars: Steve Carell, Juliette Binoche, Dane Cook, Dianne Weist, John Mahoney, Allison Pill, Brittany Robertson, Marlene Lawston
“I think a character in a comedy should not know they’re in a comedy.” -Steve Carell
Steve Carell has a gift I can only describe as the ability to fail to conceal his emotions from us. Time and time again in Dan in Real Life, a breezy but heartfelt comedy, his character, advice columnist Dan Burns, assures everyone around him that he is fine. And yet in his increasingly careless and selfish actions, his loss of grip on the daily demands of his life, and particularly in the anguish that sneaks around the corners of his face, we know that he is far from fine.
Dan is a widower with three daughters, and doesn’t talk much about his wife’s death, and that is key to this performance’s winning indirectness. Because the filmmakers give you just enough raw material to imagine how he needed to pull himself together for the sake of his daughters, and how after a few years that determined decency could end up as this – the patient surrender of a man who has decided that the rest of his life is for other people, not himself. What leaks through, breaking that easy grin, is a man suffering from the realization that he is still alive, and does still want things.
Despite this latent grief, his performance has a loose warmth to it that the movie shares; it is somehow slight about its own seriousness. It will sound like a belittling sort of compliment, but I say it to point out its rarity: this movie is just, plain, nice.
The story unfolds over a weekend get-together for the extended Burns family at a giant old house in New England. Headed by reliable charmers John Mahoney and Dianne Weist, this is a brood that sings together, plays together, and concerns themselves with each others’ problems to a fault. With all the brothers and cousins and wives it can get messy, but it’s in a convincing way, and the persistent togetherness of it has charm. Too many moviegoers would turn their nose up at the thought of watching a family that plans activities together with such gusto – but they do exist.
In the midst of this, Dan is dealing with a potential promotion for his column, and the adolescent heart pangs of his middle daughter, Cara. Cara is played by Brittany Robertson, and in her longing for the dashing Marty (Felipe Dieppa) she embodies with painfully hilarious abandon the desperation of first love. Fathers must go through a moment where they realize that infatuation has permanently altered their relationship with their no-longer-so-little girl, and Carell depicts this rising alarm like a man trying to reason with a geyser.
His family has known him long enough to give him a certain space for his feelings, but when he meets Marie (Juliette Binoche) in a bookstore, her sympathies are so directly tuned to his frequency that, the moment where she recognizes the grief he’s carrying, it’s like she’s been struck by a boulder. The line that accompanies this is exactly what it should be: “You don’t have to laugh”, she says, her voice suddenly choking.
The chance encounter that becomes sudden intimacy with a stranger sure looks like a path to new love, but the roadblock here is that Marie is already on her way to the Burns house – as the new paramour of Dan’s brother, Mitch (Dane Cook). Converted stand-up comedian Cook is a performer who clearly has an immense appeal to many, but no one in the movie business has seemingly cracked the code of it yet. He is accurate here without being particularly excellent, his Mitch is a tomcat trying to improve – charming, but still fully-capable of unconscious offenses. In a scene where he’s describing his adoration of Marie, we might be shocked by Dan’s petulant interjections. Later we’ll understand them better, which is a sign that director/co-writer Peter Hedges has given this story a thorough thinking-through and intends for us to pay attention all the way.
The movie jogs through a weekend of secret pleadings, misunderstandings, slammed doors, and the helpless discombobulation of Dan Burns, a man losing control of everything he’s had cinched up inside. It’s Carell’s ability to play these as moments of helpless expression, accidents of the moment, that underlines the movie’s own theme. This stuff never waits for your convenience. Bit by bit, he is expanding audiences’ idea of what he’s capable of as a comic actor, and it’s a pleasure to witness the evolution.
There are so many points at which Dan in Real Life could have turned into a forgettably-gauzy TV movie. Its characters and incidents are common, a little soft even, and yet are woven by the writers into something unexpectedly sturdy. This is not a great movie but it’s a thoroughly good one, right down to the open-hearted original songs by Sondre Lerche. I think it needs someone like Steve Carell at its center, a performer whose best asset is his own deference, his unassuming nature. He’s someone we could meet in real life; someone who, even in watching him screw up, we gain faith that he can navigate this real life, and maybe that means we can, too. How does a movie feel when it does that? It feels nice.
Originally published 8/12/07 Full review behind the jump
1408 Director: Mikael Håfström Writers: Screenplay by Matt Greenberg and Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewksi, based on the short story by Stephen King Producers: Lorenzo di Bonaventura Stars: John Cusack, Samuel L. Jackson, Mary McCormack, Jasmine Jessica Anthony
I admit to being partial to a good ghost story, because they are technology-proof. These days anyone can punch up something weird in a computer and have it murder some ingénue, or bring in the gore makeup crew for some hip dismemberment. But a good ghost story is the embodiment of some powerful emotional ideas. For one: death does not always end something’s influence on your life. Also: the most powerful kind of evil spirit is the kind that exploits our own weaknesses – our arrogance, our secret pains.
Stephen King has made a great deal of money from understanding the mechanisms of fear. One of my favorite passages in his writing comes from The Shining, as he describes a little boy in a dark pipe, listening to something come rustling towards him through the dead leaves; something unknown, reaching for him with bad intentions. There’s a scene in 1408, based on a more recent short story of King’s, which uses many of the same elements as that creepy scenario. Fewer authors have seen a busier post-“retirement” period than King, save perhaps Isaac Asimov, for whom death itself was barely an impediment to his publishing pace. But King’s latter days have seen him frequently going over familiar ground; at least he’s stealing from his own best work. This movie version of 1408 is a tightly-mounted and highly-competent ghost story which plays like a remix of some of his older hits.
It’s anchored by a harder-than-it-seems performance from John Cusack. In spite of the special effects, the filmmakers are smart enough to realize that the real foundation of this movie is going to be the innate intelligence and sincerity he supplies. For long stretches it is essentially a one-man show, featuring a man as abused by a single room as anyone since Bruce Campbell went up to that cabin in Evil Dead II. His success is the movie’s success, as well as the best argument for how reliable and experienced actors can serve genre movies; and why a good genre movie, like an old-fashioned ghost story, is something no one should be ashamed to enjoy.
He plays Mike Enslin – once a young writer of promise, now a traveling hack churning out cheesy “studies” of haunted houses across America. Why he has developed this spiteful relationship with the afterlife, and whether he indeed wants to find a real connection to the beyond, we will of course discover, because this is one of those movies where it matters that we know who we’re watching.
He receives a mysterious postcard from The Dolphin Hotel in New York, warning him about Room 1408. This is a room with a history that gets more ominous and gruesome the more Enslin reads about it. People go mad there; slit their own throats, gouge out their eyes, leap out windows. It’s said no one lasts more than an hour once they’ve checked in.
The hotel’s manager is Gerald Olin, played excellently by Samuel L. Jackson. He clearly understands that his job in this small role is to warm the crowd up for the big show, and he relishes that duty. Olin is a most capable hotel manager – diplomatic, personable, cultured, proud of his establishment. He even sees to it that Room 1408 gets cleaned, once in awhile, although there are strict rules (maids go in by twos, all doors stay open). He has given up trying to understand the room, he just works to keep it empty. But he sees in Enslin a man for whom every dissuasion just deepens his cocksure resolve.
He doesn’t believe the room is really evil. And we didn’t buy a ticket to watch him get talked out of it.
The room itself has the cookie-cutter bland livability one expects from a hotel suite – Mike makes snide comments into his pocket tape recorder about the paintings. Things start slowly – misbehaving plumbing, a clock radio that keeps switching on, a bed that seems to turn itself down. They don’t stay so subtle long.
What’s refreshing about 1408 is the way you can gradually discern that as malicious as this room is in imprisoning and tormenting Mike (I like the Sartre-esque “You Are Here” fire exit diagram, that shows the room surrounded by nothingness), it does obey certain rules. With spooks like those in the Grudge franchise, which have seemingly limitless abilities to assault their victims, one wonders why they bother creeping them out first. It’s childish. But this room, we think, cannot just murder you any time it feels like. Instead what makes it scary is that it openly intends to drive you to madness and death, and it’s very good at what it does, and it knows everything about you.
The screenplay is brisk enough to keep delivering scares while changing up their type regularly. 1408, that evil room, knows that the way to dismantle your sanity is not to just keep leaping at you, but to zig-zag. Play on the senses, then the nerves, then the memories. Tease with false hope, encourage despair, make you feel small and powerless. In this way, that Stephen King has done so effectively throughout his career, we recognize the universal gestures of abuse and project them against our own imaginations. The ghosts seem real, because the things they exploit in their abuse of us are so very, very real. A good ghost story, which this movie is, makes us both ponder our flaws, and jump in our chairs. I like that in my horror.
Charlie Wilson’s War Director: Mike Nichols Writers: Screenplay by Aaron Sorkin, based on the book by George Crile Producers: Gary Goetzman, Tom Hanks Stars: Tom Hanks, Amy Adams, Julia Roberts, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Om Puri, Ned Beatty, Ken Stott
Aaron Sorkin already knows what a strain it can be to dramatize the paper-pushing and horse-trading of politics, in his gilded TV drama The West Wing he had fictional President Jeb Bartlett quote sociologist Max Weber’s definition of it as “the slow boring of hard boards”. When politics are so subject to the bafflingly unsteady pulse of the electorate, and so opaque when it comes to connecting an action to a tangible result in the lives of the governed, political drama is too-easily subject to dues ex machina nudges in the direction of plot expediency. You can sure claim that such-and-such bit of canny glad-handing caused that bit of good or ill over yonder, but how do you sell it to the audience?
Sorkin is talented enough at this to know that the trick is to elevate the people involved, and let their passion for the system, and the play of their personalities, clear the road for all the legislative wonkery. This makes him the obvious choice to adapt Charlie Wilson’s War, the unlikely-but-true story of a playboy Texas Congressman who, with charm, savvy, and a few budget shenanigans, secretly orchestrated the arming of Afghan rebels in the 1980’s, so they could drive the Soviets out of their country, crippling their feared army and hastening the end of the Cold War. And many of the Sorkin trademarks are here – that peppy stop-and-hit-reset dialogue, those counter-melodic theatrical scenes that so satisfyingly click two seemingly unrelated ideas together in an instant, and his personal favorite theme: the brilliant underachiever and the daffy broad who demands greatness of him.
So why does Charlie Wilson’s War, with a Sorkin script, with the still-puckish Mike Nichols behind the camera, with Tom Hanks attempting the star power equivalent of Total Harmonic Resonance with Julia Roberts in front of it, and with always-exciting talents like Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams on drums and bass, somehow fail to pop? It shifts in and out of excellence like a microscope with a loose knob.
I wonder if it starts with Hanks. America’s Most Decent Actor is certainly an unexpected choice to play the Lufkin, Texas Representative known as “Good Time Charlie”, with his fondness for whiskey and women in hot tubs. Every so often Hanks puts this disarming little-boy expression on his face that says “I’m sorry I’m such a rascal, but what are you going to do?” And I rather like that, but his randy side looks more like camouflage than truly-committed licentiousness. Since a running subplot of the picture involves Wilson being named in an investigation into drug use (the prosecutor is some up-and-comer named Giuliani), this rare weak spot in his performance hobbles Sorkin’s attempt to do what I described above and sweeten the politics with personality. Then the subplot itself goes fizzling away, an abandoned dud.
What the picture does do very expertly is track how Wilson, with an advantageous combination of committee seats, and an understanding that his job is to give people what will make them happy, was able to push a few dollars at the Pentagon around and conjure up a secret war, with the help of a philanthropic Texas socialite (Roberts), an abrasive CIA agent (Hoffman), and an office of buxom assistants known, naturally, as “Charlie’s Angels”.
The socialite, ultra-conservative Joanne Herring, has the money to think she can change the world, and the free time to try. She also has a certain tendency to bring the Bible into her pleadings, which is one of two blatant places where Sorkin slots in his most beaten-to-death hobby horse about Christians with theocratic impulses. The movie leaves off-screen the most pivotal thing the real Herring did, which was to slip, coiffed hair and country club clothes included, into occupied Afghanistan with a film crew to document Soviet atrocities. Showing such zealous moxie rather than simply alluding to it might have made it more obvious why a star of Roberts’ stature is hanging around in this movie.
As it is, Wilson has a seemingly-more proactive partner in the CIA agent, Gust Avarkotos, who asserts that he must be good at what he does, because he’s too much of a coarse hothead to have ever been promoted for butt-kissing. Hoffman carries himself like a beat cop who measures everyone the same, no matter what their status, and expects to be lied to, but gets angry about it anyway. I like his explosive temper, and the way he leans back from the table and squints at important people, determined to demonstrate how unimpressed he is. It’s Avarkotos who helps formulate the nuts-and-bolts strategy – what weapons the Afghan rebels need to shoot down Soviet helicopters, and how the US could provide such weapons without it being too obvious where they’re coming from. This will involve getting recalcitrant Senators, paranoid Israelis, and xenophobic Pakistanis to cooperate and take action for a country that doesn’t look, at first glance, to be at the front line of anything. And it’s up to Charlie and his grin to make this all fit together.
The story itself is nothing short of amazing, how in the midst of a hardening bureaucracy full of reasons to take no action, these determined people, with seat-of-their-pants bravado, and the properly-timed use of a belly-dancer, effectively cancelled World War III and turned it into a no-show victory for our side. Anyone who hears that story is bound to think “that would make a hell of a movie.” Charlie Wilson’s War gets the names, dates, and places right, and provides charm and a couple of crackerjack scenes – one with a bottle of Scotch is Sorkin at his multi-tasking best. But the inglorious truth about politics is that even the politicians trying to do good in the world are usually in bland offices, far from the action. This movie has a charismatic hero in that bland office, but it sure leaves me feeling like I’m not getting the whole picture.
From the Archive - MOVIE REVIEW - The Simpsons Movie
Originally published 8/12/07 Full review behind the jump
The Simpsons Movie Director: David Silverman Writers: Screenplay by James L. Brooks, Matt Groening, Al Jean, Ian Maxtone-Graham, George Meyer, David Mirkin, Mike Reiss, Mike Scully, Matt Selman, John Swartzwelder, Jon Vitti, based on the cartoon series created by Matt Groening and developed by Matt Groening, James L. Brooks, and Sam Simon Producers: James L. Brooks, Matt Groening, Al Jean, Richard Sakai, Mike Scully Featuring the vocal talents of: Dan Castellaneta, Julie Kavner, Nancy Cartwright, Yeardley Smith, Harry Shearer, Hank Azaria, Albert Brooks, Marcia Wallace, Tress MacNeille, Pamela Hayden, Russi Taylor, Karl Weirdergott, Maggie Roswell
It’s startling, now, to look back on the first season of The Simpsons on television, with its crude animation and half-developed characters. This is what became one of the most enduring institutions in American popular culture? Back then, the problems the family encountered felt relatively grounded and authentic, and grew out of their lower-middle-class suburban world. Back then, Dan Castellaneta’s vocal performance as family patriarch Homer was little more than a Walter Matthau impersonation, right down to the way he answered the phone (“mmmmMYELLO?”) And back then, small-town schools sought to ban Simpsons T-shirts, because of one on which trouble-making pre-teen hooligan Bart Simpson mouthed the society-threatening phrase “I’m an underachiever and proud of it.”
Both America and The Simpsons have come a long way in 18 years; and it has been a study in how difficult it is for satire to stay ahead of a culture so determined to continue its downward trajectory. But just like Castellaneta’s Homer evolved through his inarticulate exclamations: “Whoo-hoo!”, “Mmmmmm…”, and the immortal “D’oh!” into a fully-realized ambassador of our deliriously anti-intellectual, attention-deficit, gratification-addicted times, the writers of The Simpsons have mastered a kind of fast food satire, which has through persistent smarts and unsparing mockery accumulated in hundreds of single-serving 22-minute chunks to create a moving portrait of American life that will do more to teach future generations about what we were than any sociology text.
In a way, The Simpsons Movie is as accurately-titled an experience at the multiplex as you’ll get this year. It is no more or less than The Simpsons, Matt Groening’s yellow-hued small-town Everyfamily, transitioning their routine to the big screen with all their virtues intact. If I were a lazier man I could end the review right there, because you are going to get what you get on the small-screen in a high-quality Simpsons episode, only with a quadruple-sized running time, some pleasing flourishes of scale made possible by the bigger canvas and budget, and a few choice exploitations of a PG-13 rating. But despite that I was a schoolchild suffering the insidious influence of that Bart Simpson T-shirt during its heyday, I shall not underachieve.
The script is the work of an all-star team of Simpsons writers, many of them veterans of the show’s heyday (encompassing, depending on whom you ask, roughly the third through eighth seasons, give or take), and the gags have a crisp pace and high hit-percentage worthy of that period. You could stand it against any favorite episode.
The story involves Homer creating an environmental catastrophe, which results in the whole town of Springfield being imprisoned inside a giant protective dome by corrupt government bureaucrat Russ Cargill (Albert Brooks). This serves as an elegant springboard into a fast-paced and consistently hilarious examination of just what Springfield, as we’ve come to understand it, is.
This little town, which according to the movie borders “Ohio, Nevada, Maine, and Kentucky”, and encompasses mountains, lakes, deserts, and the famous Springfield Gorge (they never did clean up that wrecked ambulance), which seems to grow and change layout and geography according to the needs of the ongoing study of humanity like the metropolis in Dark City, is nothing less than the brightly-painted amusement park caricature of our own collected excesses and vices. It is the inevitable end product of the forces that jab alternately at the fear and pleasure centers of our brain and then, while we’re drooling with delight, goes after our wallet and our freedom. It sees us as the fattened chattel of those who profit off giving us things that feel good and are really, really bad for us, like beverage companies and the Republican Party. It is awed by our ability to be outright hostile to good sense (when eternal do-gooder Lisa Simpson urges the town’s leaders to fight the dumping in the perilously-filthy lake, the newspaper headline reads “Annoying Girl Nags Town”).
But The Simpsons would never have staying power if they stooped to pedanticism, they happen to think the products of this culture are too cool and amazing to outright condemn. With all the fervency it mocks it also admires and celebrates; we produce such colors and varieties of madness in this great big country, and The Simpsons loves them all, and still professes a belief that, when it counts, we’ll try to do the right thing. With so many forces squeezing us towards mediocrity, we’ll still try to achieve greatness because that’s the dream we bought and we don’t have buyer’s remorse. As much of an irresponsible boob as Homer can be (and the movie provides him plenty of opportunities), he still loves his family, and will fight heroically through all the static life has injected into his brain to be there for them.
At the end of the day you cannot cut off Springfield with a dome, or leave it as the Simpson family tries to do when Homer is exiled by an angry mob. I think the reason why Homer inspires more angry mobs than any other resident of Springfield is that he is their citizen exemplar, the loudest and most delighted cow in the pasture. He isn’t just another passively-corrupted consumer, he’s enthused about his idiocy. To paraphrase a line from The Lord of the Rings - they love and hate him as they love and hate themselves. America cannot be without Springfield, and Springfield cannot be without Homer Simpson.
The filmmakers show a masterful sense for balance, letting the core family unit and their story hold the momentum of the plot and provide some poignant struggles (the greatest achievement of any American family is to keep working it out day by day), while still cramming two decades’ accumulation of supporting characters and background gags in around them. Merely listing the familiar faces from Springfield’s extended population would take up more space than the “Begat” section in the Book of Genesis, and to quibble over their assorted seconds of allotted screen time is a mug’s game. Everyone will get a moment or two with a favorite character.
I almost wish that The Simpsons had wrapped up its television run years ago – you can sense the exhaustion these days of whipping up new wacky scenarios, wedging in more celebrity guest stars, and fighting for viewer eyeballs against rip-off artists like Family Guy and the perpetual encroachment by the network into their own time with more commercials, more advertising messages and logos scrolling along the bottom of the screen. On the big screen, The Simpsons Movie fairly bursts with a refreshed sense of possibility and freedom. It is Song of Myself in whoopee cushion form, a dazzling roast of America by America, and in aiming its lovingly-poisoned arrows, it’s an over-achiever, and proud of it.
Exhaustive Oscar Talk - Because You Can't Get Enough!
The laziest writers on the Oscar beat woke up Tuesday morning and breathed a sigh of relief. Thank the Maker!, they cried, We get to write the Kevin O’Connell story again! For those of you who don’t know, Kevin O’Connell is a sound mixer who has become the Oscars’ Susan Lucci – this year’s nod for Transformers is his 20th nomination, and he has never won. This prompts a cutesy article every time he gets nominated, and that’s one less chunk of blank page editors the nation over need to worry about.
Because let’s face it, with Tuesday’s Academy Award Nominations announcement, there was a deluge of information, but that’s it for the next month. Other award shows will come and go – less so this year due to the strike – but until we find out who actually wins, just like in our Presidential primaries, there’s nothing to do all day but speculate and gas on and register silly, invariably-wrong predictions.
(And can I just note for the record how decisively the world did NOT end without a Golden Globes celebudrinky-fest this year? Apparently the only people heartbroken to not have the Globes – other than everyone who lost money – were the dingbats on E! and the people who fantasize in their bathroom mirrors about someday being one of the dingbats on E!)
But I think there’s actually quite a lot to learn from reading this particular set of chicken bones. Like – what an amazing year at the movies 2007 turned out to be! Here’s just one example of what I’m talking about:
Since 1936’s Awards, when the Academy settled on five nominees for most major categories, and introduced the Supporting Actor and Actress categories, we’ve had twenty annual slots to confer on actors for the performances we relish. Look at this year’s acting nominees – other than the three nods for Michael Clayton, there’s not another duplicate on the list. Eighteen different movies earned acting nominations, which hasn’t happened – EVER – in Oscar history.
I found two years, 1988 and 1992, in which there were seventeen, but those with long memories will recall that 1992 was regarded as a generational low-point in terms of roles for women. One sure looked like a shoe-in, but it was in The Crying Game (ZING!) For about three years there, they had to scrounge to come up with five roles in each female category – I mean, Holly Hunter was good in The Firm, but Oscar good? And remember who took home the Supporting Actress Award for that fateful year of 1992 – Marisa Tomei. For My Cousin Vinny.
It’s safe to say that those years represented not so much diversity as desperation. By contrast, this year we have amazing performances from all over the spectrum. In first-time nominees Hal Holbrook and Ruby Dee (for Into the Wild and American Gangster, respectively), we have our two oldest acting contenders in history (he’s 82, she’s 83), and Dee is competing with a 13-year old, Atonement’s Saorise Ronan. We have an oil wildcat versus a singing murderer, and a Boston drug dealer versus Bob Dylan. Right before our eyes the hunks of ER and 21 Jump Street have evolved into Oscar perennials. And if Ellen Page wins Best Actress for Juno (and she could well, I’ll do a little uninformed handicapping of my own below), she’d be the youngest Best Actress winner in history, just three days removed from her 21st birthday when it comes time for the Oscar after-parties.
You might well intuit from the above that I have a kind of Rain Man (Best Picture - 1988) relationship with the Oscars. I haven’t missed a minute of a ceremony since the awards for 1991, when The Silence of the Lambs became only the third movie in history to achieve the coveted Oscar Grand Slam – winning Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Screenplay (other two Grand Slammers – 1934’s It Happened One Night and 1975’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest). While Oscar and I rarely agree, I love them both as a magnificent suggested-viewing list (an amalgamated Netflix queue from a century’s worth of Hollywood’s best and brightest), and as a Rosetta Stone for reading the culture of the time as well as that culture’s sense of itself.
To put it bluntly, some Oscar-winners age better than others, and I find this endlessly fascinating. The half-silent version of All Quiet on the Western Front, which won for the overlapping period of 1929-30, is still a ghastly evocation of both the power of patriotic zeal and the horror that inevitably results when it is harnessed for the purposes of war.
Set that against the following year’s winner, a cornpone adaptation of Edna Ferber’s sprawling Western Cimarron with every bit of irony or subtext thoroughly squeezed out. Were those easily-bamboozled voters cryogenically-frozen only to be thawed out in time to honor 2001’s fraudulent A Beautiful Mind? And in 1996 Oscar had the kudos equivalent of a drunken one-night-stand, bestowing nine Oscars on The English Patient (including the Oscar for costumes. Costumes?!?!? He’s wearing khakis!) And sure, it’s a pretty hypnotizing piece of beautifully-photographed Heaving Sob, but with the perspective of morning-after contemplation, maybe nine Oscars was a little too extravagant a bit of pillow talk, eh?
There’s one statistic that’s particularly resonant for me this year. While just over 200 different directors have ever been nominated for Oscars, the fraternity of nominated screenwriters contains over 900 members. Part of this is attributable to there being two writing categories to one for direction, and that many writers work in teams, or are re-written by others in the long uphill-boulder-roll known as “script development”.
But I think this additionally reflects the virtues of the eternal competitive churn of screenwriters, who make no friends within the establishment and are always viewed as replaceable, whereas directors often build their own producing entities and are wined, dined, and worshipped. It is a much higher mountain to climb to become an elite director, but once you’re there you can make one turd after another for years before anyone calls you out. A writer’s time at the top has a terrifying uncertainty to it, you’re only as relevant as the last boner you gave a studio exec (in “the biz”, we call this “being good in a room”). This is rough on the monthly budget but it does keep fresh voices emerging. Where would Diablo Cody be if this whole crazy art form didn’t desperately, constantly need great scripts?
These nominations give me a hell of a lot to smile about, and I’m not the only one. It’s a day of pride for Pixar and Disney, not just because of the five well-deserved nominations for Ratatouille, but because Toy Story 2 co-director Ash Brannon and Tarzan co-director Chris Buck collaborated on the nominated Surf’s Up for Sony. This is a testament to the rich generation of talent that has emerged from Disney and Pixar’s shops and spread throughout the industry.
It was so disheartening to witness the later years of the Eisner regime at Disney, where breadth and ambition were giving way to belt-tightening, canned “sequels”, and the abandonment of the art of hand-drawn animation. It was terrifying to see just how quickly decades of good will and artistic quality could be strip-mined for a few bucks, and I have nothing but the highest hopes for Pixar founder John Lasseter’s new role within the Disney empire, trying to coax the genuine magic back.
The Coen Brothers are happy – not just because four of No Country For Old Men’s eight nominations have the potential to win them statues (their longtime editor, “Roderick Jaynes”, does not actually exist, and is a pseudonym for the brothers themselves); but also because they’re only the third directing team in history to share a nomination. Warren Beatty and Buck Henry split a nod for 1978’s Heaven Can Wait, while Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins won for 1961’s West Side Story. 2003’s City of God had a credited “co-director”, Kátia Lund, but only director Fernando Meirelles was credited on the nomination. The Coens have a considerable chance to be only the second directing team to win, and the first to be related to one another.
And George Clooney is probably happy with his own meticulousness as a filmmaker, which caused his new film as a director, the screwball sports comedy Leatherheads, to be delayed into 2008. With no other project to divide the affection the Academy has for him, more attention could be focused on the deserving Michael Clayton, which features his best acting work to date.
What’s remarkable about Michael Clayton is that even with Clooney starring, and a dynamite script by Tony Gilroy, whose Bourne-fueled box office track record just gets better by the year, the movie still needed outside financing for its modest $25-million budget. It was eventually provided by a Boston real estate developer. The unwillingness of the major studios to invest in anything that does not involve pirates or superheroes is not just an embarrassment, I believe in the long run it will be to their financial detriment, as they sacrifice diversity and forget how to make anything but tentpoles, and the tentpoles they are willing to invest in will cross the point of diminishing returns by becoming too expensive to profit from.
Michael Clayton, There Will Be Blood, Superbad and the new hit Cloverfield were each made for about $20-25-million. That’s a smart grown-up thriller with one of the biggest movie stars in the world, a tragically-epic period piece, a crowd-pleasing teen sex comedy, and an innovative monster movie homage, each creatively satisfying in their own way and all made for roughly the same amount of money. If I ran a small distributor and those were my four pictures for the year, I’d be celebrating a perfect blend of demographic appeal, art, and commerce, all for a combined budget that wouldn’t pay for half of Spider-Man 3.
In fact, let’s equalize those budgets. Say you had the choice to make Spider-Man 3 and nothing else, or to make the four movies I listed above PLUS 1408, 3:10 to Yuma, Hot Fuzz, Into the Wild, Juno, and Sunshine. Which investment do you think protects your financial downside better; you know, in case people don’t want another Spider-Man badly enough to cover that insane budget? Which choice do you think is better for the long-term viability of this art form?
But the studios let outside investors keep bigger and bigger pieces of the pie in order to have more money to pour into Spider-Man 3. What’s wrong with this picture?
Of course, the Oscars aren’t about money, except that it’s the only reason (other than flattering stars and directors) that studios deign to invest in these award-season campaigns. There’s still enough people out there interested in a good movie that the Academy Seal of Approval can measurably boost business.
There are a number of top contenders that I have yet to see, including Atonement, Away From Her, The Savages, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, I’m Not There, and others. In the next few weeks I’ll be remedying that as best I can in preparation for my annual 10 Best list, but in the meantime, here are my annual first impressions of the race in the eight most prominent categories.
Achievement in Writing (Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published) Atonement Christopher Hampton Away From Her Sarah Polley The Diving Bell and the Butterfly Ronald Harwood No Country For Old Men Joel Coen and Ethan Coen There Will Be Blood Paul Thomas Anderson
Early Front-runner: The night’s two heavyweights will have one of their first major showdowns in this category. This is a philosophical divide, whether you consider it the highest art of adaptation to capture the essential spirit of a work while giving it cinematic quality, as the Coen Brothers did with No Country, or simply to create a brilliant script regardless of how little it might resemble the source material, as Paul Thomas Anderson did with Blood. Noting the Academy’s recent tendency to spread the wealth, and the fact that the Coens have previously won writing honors (for Fargo), I’ll give the first-day edge to Anderson, previously nominated without winning for both Boogie Nights and Magnolia. Surprises most often happen when there are two equally-matched favorites threatening a split vote. With that possibility present here, I’d put my cover bet on previous winner Ronald Harwood’s masterful job conceptualizing how to put The Diving Bell and the Butterfly on the screen.
“It’s an Honor Just to be Nominated”: While much of the positive coverage of Away From Her had noted that it represented actress Sarah Polley’s first time out as a writer/director, her chances of a script nomination had not been highly touted. Actors make up the largest percentage of any profession when it comes to membership within the Academy, and have historically shown a soft spot for one of their own venturing into new creative horizons (see: Mel Gibson’s directing Oscar, Kevin Costner’s directing Oscar, Billy Bob Thornton’s screenwriting Oscar, and those two good-looking kids from Boston named Matt something and Ben somesuch). But with so much competition, Polley’s film will put most of its promotional efforts behind Julie Christie’s acting nomination.
Achievement in Writing (Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen) Juno Diablo Cody Lars and the Real Girl Nancy Oliver Michael Clayton Tony Gilroy Ratatouille Brad Bird, Jan Pinkava, Jim Capobianco The Savages Tamara Jenkins
Early Front-runner: Big Mo is definitely on the side of the quippy, cheery, character-rich work of Juno’s screenwriting rookie Diablo Cody, who has cannily folded her own made-for-talk-show-anecdotes career into part of the movie’s PR. The first round of Juno backlash didn’t get much of a foothold, and Fox’s platform release strategy means its box-office is still peaking; there’s a chance of people re-thinking the intense love for this movie in the next couple of weeks, but not much of a chance.
“It’s an Honor Just to be Nominated”: Many feared that the creation of the Outstanding Animated Feature award category, while rightly giving some primetime Oscar love to this thriving field, would effectively ghettoize animated features, hobbling their chances in other categories by providing a catchall category for people to dedicate their vote. The script for Ratatouille was exceedingly clever and heartwarming, but even if it was the best of the year, its odds would probably suffer.
Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role Cate Blanchett as Jude in I’m Not There Ruby Dee as Mama Lucas in American Gangster Saorise Ronan as Briony Tallis in Atonement Amy Ryan as Helene McReady in Gone Baby Gone Tilda Swinton as Karen Crowder in Michael Clayton
Early Front-runner: It’s the revelation of Amy Ryan versus the veneration of Ruby Dee, with Cate Blanchett’s uncanny drag act preparing to play spoiler. Early money probably looks at Ryan, who has much more screen time than Dee’s brief appearance, and whose tough challenge to our sympathies was the heart of Gone Baby Gone. But with Javier Bardem’s Supporting Actor Oscar all-but guaranteed, shutting out Hal Halbrook, the desire to honor a veteran performer could combine with cumulative respect for Dee’s long career in this nearby category. Add to this that American Gangster is one of the few big studio movies in play, and they were planning to stump big time for the picture, Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, and all the rest. So with her co-stars not in the running, there will be a lot of money to devote to a campaign centered around Dee.
“It’s an Honor Just to be Nominated”: It’s hard to call six nominations an underachievement, but Atonement just doesn’t seem to have caught on Stateside to the extent that had been predicted. Saorise Ronan’s odds of following in Anna Paquin’s tiny footsteps were fairly remote to begin with, and she has much more robust competition than the young Paquin did when she won for 1993’s The Piano.
Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role Casey Affleck as Robert Ford in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford Javier Bardem as Anton Chigurh in No Country For Old Men Philip Seymour Hoffman as Gust Avarkotos in Charlie Wilson’s War Hal Holbrook as Ron Franz in Into the Wild Tom Wilkinson as Arthur Edens in Michael Clayton
Early Front-runner: I would have argued for Javier Bardem to be running in the Best Actor category: he’s as close to a central character in No Country For Old Men as any of the three leads, and in terms of screen time he easily clears the threshold set by Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs. That’s another favorite factoid of the Oscar-obsessed – Hannibal Lecter is only on-screen in that film for seventeen minutes, but so dominated people’s impressions of it that Hopkins won for Best Actor, not Supporting. Anton Chigurh casts just as big a shadow over No Country, will be remembered as one of the Immortal Evils of the screen – and will win the Oscar.
“It’s an Honor Just to be Nominated”: For the moment it looks as if everyone who is not Javier Bardem is destined to be steamrolled, but with his 2005 win for Capote still fresh in the memory, and the general fizzling of affection for Charlie Wilson’s War, the ever-excellent Philip Seymour Hoffman will be the most steamrolled of all.
Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role Cate Blanchett as Queen Elizabeth in Elizabeth: The Golden Age Julie Christie as Fiona in Away From Her Marion Cotillard as Edith Piaf in La Vie En Rose Laura Linney as Wendy Savage in The Savages Ellen Page as Juno McGuff in Juno
Early Front-runner: One of the hardest categories to game. Cotillard’s performance was the first to be talked of as a shoe-in, but she carries the baggage of performing in a foreign language, and that the picture played itself out months ago. Julie Christie, now acting royalty, was the next Sure Thing for the tenderly-received Away From Her. But it’s all going to depend on Oscar’s attention span, because Juno is the Hot New Thing in every way, especially its newborn star Ellen Page. Oscar’s history is to favor young faces in this category, but is the 20-year-old Page’s too new to bump off Christie, who was 24 when she originally won Best Actress for 1965’s Darling? I’ll drape the leader’s jersey on Christie for the moment, but this one’s going down to the final hours.
“It’s an Honor Just to be Nominated”: All the Blanchett love is going to flow towards her nomination in the Supporting category; I think just about everyone recognizes that this is a party she’s going to be at many, many times in years to come. Meryl Streep, whose ability to scoop up nominations makes her the Jerry Rice of the Oscars, finally has a credible threat to her record.
Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role George Clooney as Michael Clayton in Michael Clayton Daniel Day-Lewis as Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood Johnny Depp as Benjamin Barker/Sweeney Todd in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street Tommy Lee Jones as Hank Deerfield in In the Valley of Elah Viggo Mortensen as Nikolai in Eastern Promises
Early Front-runner: We get to enjoy Daniel Day-Lewis on-screen roughly once an Olympiad, which tends to make him a front-runner almost before the movie is released. No Country and Blood will each score some big prizes before this night is over with, and this will be one category where the voters don’t have to split hairs between the two. I think that feisty oil man is going to face some stiffer competition from Johnny Depp than anyone’s talking about right now, since Depp is moving into the territory where one gets a “body of work” Oscar just from having been so damn good so many times (and making the studios so much money in the process). But this is Day-Lewis’s race to lose at the moment.
“It’s an Honor Just to be Nominated”: I used to also include an item called “Surprise Contender”, for that name no one expected to see, but it coincides with the name least likely to win so often that I’ve decided it’s redundant. This category’s surprise contender – Tommy Lee Jones in Paul Haggis’ little-seen In the Valley of Elah - won’t have much time to gain traction with so much competition.
Achievement in Directing Julian Schnabel The Diving Bell and the Butterfly Jason Reitman Juno Tony Gilroy Michael Clayton Joel Coen and Ethan Coen No Country For Old Men Paul Thomas Anderson There Will Be Blood
Early Front-runner: This is going to be the break-point for whether or not Oscar Night turns into a full-fledged Coens Love-in. It’s very possible that the prodigious brothers, who created H.I. McDonough, Marge Gunderson, and The Dude, will finally take this category. But a shared directing credit is so rare, that I think it’s going to be an unpredictable factor, there’s no way to know which direction it will push, but I’m going to lean towards thinking it may help tip the balance in the favor of the less technical but more operatic directing style of P.T. Anderson. If the Academy loved masters of technique so much, Hitchcock would have won (he didn’t). This category and Best Picture have split relatively often in recent years, and I think peoples’ increased comfort with that portends a possible split this year too, which is why I lean Blood in this category and, for Best Picture, well, read below…
“It’s an Honor Just to be Nominated”: First-time director Tony Gilroy has surpassed everyone’s expectations with the confident filmic execution of his already-superior screenplay. But when stacked against what each of his fellow nominees brings the table in their respective films, it’s tough to see him coming out on top.
Best Picture of the Year Atonement Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner and Paul Webster Juno Lianne Halfon, Mason Novick and Russell Smith Michael Clayton Sydney Pollack, Jennifer Fox and Kerry Orent No Country For Old Men Scott Rudin, Ethan Coen and Joel Coen There Will Be Blood JoAnne Sellar, Paul Thomas Anderson and Daniel Lupi
Early Front-runner: Taken in isolation, I’d say that There Will Be Blood would have the slight edge, given that we’ve all got oil on the brain these days and there’s an epic dimension to the picture that the Academy has traditionally favored. But in the broader context of the Academy’s pre-disposition for righting old wrongs, I think there’s going to be a lot of sentiment pushing the Coen Brothers’ way. They’ve been on the scene for over two decades now, yet it’s so rare that they make a movie everyone can agree on, and everyone’s agreeing about this one. This is a genuine two-horse race, with No Country taking a slight early lead.
“It’s an Honor Just to be Nominated”: I think that admiration for Juno is going to continue to coalesce around star Ellen Page and screenwriter Diablo Cody. Both will need the strongest possible push to win in their respective packed categories, and the competition in this category and the directing category is simply too much to strategically target. Also, Michael Clayton, by virtue of being a straight-ahead contemporary drama, the product of an original screenplay, and not a box office smash, seemed doomed to under-recognition. Kudos to the Academy hive-mind for shocking it out of potential obscurity, but I think this is as far as it gets.
I've been geeking out over Oscar statistics and trivia all morning, trying to put together my annual rundown/predictions based on the nominees. And you'll still get it, but I can't finish it today, hearing the news about the death of Heath Ledger. He was a talent blossoming before our eyes, and in spite of his Oscar nomination for Brokeback Mountain I believe his best work was still ahead of him, and I had been looking forward to enjoying him on screen for the next thirty years.
Such a waste. Such a terrible waste. Even if they aren't classified as such, I consider almost all drug-related Hollywood deaths to be suicides.
(All this wrestling talk will seem ridiculous to you, I know, but there’s a point to it, I promise –NT)
Wrestlemania VII, one of the annual pay-per-view wrestling spectacles staged by the WWE (then WWF), took place on March 24, 1991, at the height of the first Iraq war (remember, the one that ended?) Ever-cognizant of their audience’s mood, and ever willing to “go there”, the company had incorporated the war, and the chest-thumping U.S.A. Sis-boom-bah! fever it created, into its never-ending soap opera. Company headliner Hulk Hogan, who’d competed in the main event of five of the first six Wrestlemania’s (and made an interfering cameo in the other), would have the top of the ticket, here, too, and needed an opponent that would cast the battle of good v. evil in red, white, and blue.
So events leading up to Wrestlemania conspired to put the championship belt around the waist of Sgt. Slaughter, a military-themed former “face” (aka crowd favorite) who made a genuinely dangerous “heel turn” (becoming a bad guy) by putting on an Iraqi uniform, burning American flags on TV, and praising his good “friend” Saddam Hussein. As a national entertainment phenomenon wrestling was still very, very young, steroid trials and Internet fansites had not yet punctured the illusion of reality wrestlers called “kayfabe”, and many of the oldest and most fervent fans had come to it during its regional mud-show days. They still cared about it as if it was real. Some of them still believed it was.
The mid-to-late 80’s were both the WWE’s glory days and an amazing period of transition, as the characters got more cartoonish and the storylines more convoluted. “Kayfabe” was just about to break down for good. Looking back, I think Sgt. Slaughter knew that he was sticking his head in the lion’s mouth – people in those audiences weren’t just booing him, they wanted him dead. But it’s in the wrestler’s blood to try anything that might get him a good pop from the crowd.
Now that made for a dandy main event, and it drew the largest audience in the history of pay-per-view to that point. But to me (and yes, as a 13-year-old, I was still an avid fan) the highlight of that show came earlier in the evening. To cap a major feud, The Ultimate Warrior and Randy “Macho Man” Savage were fighting in a Career-Ending Match. The loser would (supposedly) hang it up for good. This immediately put an aura of importance around the match, because both of these wrestlers were former world champions and top draws, and that either of them might be finished in the ring was unimaginable.
The Ultimate Warrior was the face in this feud. He looked like a hair-metal rocker and had one of the looniest raps in wrestling history. Listen to this 30-second clip; I don’t know what the hell he’s talking about, but back then, the kids loved it:
Now, charitably speaking, his ring technique was not that great. Most of his matches involved him pounding his chest, shaking the ropes, and running around, occasionally running into his opponent and knocking him down. His ability to stay at a Wildman Freakout level of energy burn for long periods was pretty impressive, but his matches weren’t going to have a lot of fine detail to them.
By contrast, Randy Savage may have been the greatest all-around wrestler of all time. He had a well-refined persona, could play both face and heel, talked a great game (that man sold a lot of Slim Jims) and was one of the best ring actors working. I’m never going to win any arm-wrestling matches against grown men, but if I punched Randy Savage in the stomach, he could sell it like I’d blasted him with a shotgun. Nobody could take a beating like him, and that’s the key to pro wrestling – to sell the suffering so people invest in the victory. He and Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat worked one of the most dynamic matches in history at Wrestlemania III, but even when he was doing one of those time-killing squash matches on a weekend TV show, you could see him putting all his energy into it, trying to find a little something special to do.
Macho Man (then referring to himself as the “Macho King”), rode down to the ring at Wrestlemania VII on a throne with his manager/escort, former women’s champion Sensational Sherri. Now, everyone who’d followed Savage’s career knew that she was not the first woman in his wrestling life – that was his former manager/escort Elizabeth, “The First Lady of Wrestling”. Elizabeth, Savage’s real-life wife during his WWF years, was unique in that she was defined for audiences not by her own actions, but by her loyalty to Savage. Even during his heel days she accompanied him to the ring, held the ring rope open for him, and cheered him on. This gave her an unusual “Stand By Your Man” credibility with fans, and when she disappeared and Savage started parading around with Sherri the angry harpie, it deepened peoples’ loathing of him. As he entered the ring that day, people were throwing things at him. Remember that.
But who did the cameras just happen to find sitting in the audience, watching with concern? That’s right – Elizabeth. Just another little twist to add to the drama as the match began.
This was a heavy one, one of the best The Ultimate Warrior was ever involved in. They wailed away on each other for a good twenty minutes, both looking genuinely exhausted by the end. Sherri interfered frequently, trying to keep her meal ticket on top, and both wrestlers had the chance to inflict their signature “finisher” move on each other, each time to no avail, because that’s how much was at stake.
In the end, The Warrior got the pin, and the crowd roared, and Savage lay, spent, on the canvas. After the Warrior worked the crowd for applause for a couple of minutes, he left the ring, and his theme music faded out. And now Sherri climbed in the ring, spitting and screeching at the loser, tearing at his hair and kicking him for being bested. And then – oh, my droogies – Miss Elizabeth vaulted over the railing, ran up the aisle, and, leaving her usual demure manner aside for a moment, Took Out the Trash, chucking Sherri out of the ring to everyone’s applause.
So now Savage, delirious, still processing the end of his career, comes to his feet, with no idea who’s been hitting him. Elizabeth’s standing there, and (at least in storyline terms), no one knows how long it’s been since he’s seen her. Sherri’s at ringside, howling slander. Elizabeth’s just standing there, quivering, looking at the man she loves. And everyone in that arena is effing captivated, wondering what he’s going to do.
And after milking that agonizing tension just long enough, Savage steps forward and embraces her. His theme music, Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance, booms out of the speakers, and I shit you not, people are CRYING. This man – a half-hour before they had hated his living guts; and now, because he lost the fight, lost his career, but found his good woman, the waterworks are going.
These two really did love each other then, and Savage, who’d been wrestling a brutal schedule for over a decade, genuinely thought this was his ring farewell. It wasn’t real, but it was real enough for the people who wanted to believe it.
Think about that for a moment. This had transcended its architecture as a fictional sports league where steroid-ed behemoths whanged each other with chairs. Laugh if you want, but this had, in that moment, become the climax of a story about betrayal, and redemption, and love; and because it blended Savage’s performance talents with dramatic anticipation and tension, along with a third-act surprise (wait, who’s that in the audience?!?!), it created real, that’s-what-the-Greeks-called-it catharsis.
Don’t believe me? Check the tape:
Now, wrestlers don’t really know how to retire, so by the end of the year Savage had been “re-instated” and went back to business, but the point is, the audience responded in that moment because they shook off their cynicism and believed.
People want to believe. They starve for it, beg for it. They want to believe in a higher power, they want to believe in UFOs, they want to believe in karmic justice, in our capacity for good, in true love, in virgins in the afterlife. If you can give them that for a couple of hours – if you can stitch together a little poetry and a little music and some tricks of the light that are not real but simply a compelling enough illusion – they will adore you. They will beg for more. And as pro wrestlers, pill salesmen, and Popes all know: they will give you money.
Juno Director: Jason Reitman Writer: Diablo Cody Producers: Lianne Halfon, John Malkovich, Mason Novick, Russell Smith Stars: Ellen Page, Michael Cera, Jennifer Garner, Jason Bateman, Allison Janney, J.K. Simmons, Olivia Thirlby
No matter how many thousands of movies I’ve seen in my lifetime, I still have the capacity to be surprised, and I relish it. 2007 has been a splendid year at the movies, and filled with surprises, and to the list of surprises, and of great movies of 2007, I’m overjoyed to add Juno. It is a movie that transcends the preciousness of its style and the quirkiness of its various ingredients to become irresistibly whole, an inviting and human comedy that also contains the best of all surprises in 2007 – star Ellen Page.
Here is a young actress of uncanny honesty and preternatural instincts, who digs up every gem buried in the script by first-timer Diablo Cody and adds a few of her own besides. One of the great pleasures of movie-going is to see a star born before your eyes, and Page, a 20-year old who somehow synthesizes the troubled-girl hip of the young Winona Ryder with the sunny extroversion of the young Meg Ryan, may have won a few underground fans with her role in the thriller Hard Candy, but should catapult to an entirely-new level after this performance.
One can only imagine director Jason Reitman (who previously made the wickedly-smart Thank You For Smoking) watching the dailies of this movie and thanking the Gods of every major and minor religion that he got to play matchmaker for this actress and this role in this script. This is a tricky movie he’s making, a potential booby-trapped house of contradictory characters and provocative subjects laced with dialogue that is sometimes too arch and composed for its own good. But he, Page, and the rest of an impeccable cast venture forth with all love and no fear in telling the story of Juno McGuff.
Juno McGuff (Page) is one of those insufferable indie film names, and for the first five minutes or so of Juno you’ll be all but smacked in the face by some insufferable indie film dialogue, overtly hand-waving palaver of the type that always ties actors’ tongues in knots. But gradually you get to settle down, and watch what Page is doing, how within tiny spaces of behavior she can whip from intelligence to naïveté, from iconoclastic self-assurance to adolescent fear, and suddenly the words seem to relax into their proper rhythm, and let her take over.
The plot concerns the unplanned pregnancy that results from Juno’s first sexual experience, an afternoon whim with her longtime friend Bleeker (Superbad’s Michael Cera) that everyone who knows the two of them already understands was entirely her initiative. He adores her in that paralyzed way shy boys have, while she’s learning her feelings about him at a pace drastically inconsistent with her actions. Cody’s script has a knack for multi-track brains and self-deception in speech, and what’s so lovely about this movie is that Juno McGuff is not an unerring heroine but a girl with reckless impulses and a compulsive attitude towards independence. A girl with, physically and emotionally, much room to grow.
After some deliberation, she decides to carry the baby to birth and give it up for adoption. This means being the talk of her high school for several uninterrupted months, which is like a triple-dog-dare against her belief that she doesn’t care what people think. And it also means finding suitable parents, which she believes she has found in the Loring family.
Mark Loring (Jason Bateman) is a commercial composer and reluctant grown-up who thinks rock stardom is still in the cards, while his wife Vanessa (Jennifer Garner) yearns to be a stay-at-home mother but is missing the crucial element to that job. Garner is on a high-wire here, showing a desperate desire that is sometimes funny and sometimes heartbreaking. One of the best virtues of Juno is that every character is dignified with the chance to surpass our first impression of them, and that’s a double-edged sword for some but especially enriches Vanessa.
The movie observes the resulting havoc of the pregnancy with warmth and wit. Through all the sarcasm and temper, all the misunderstandings, these are characters with an abiding affection for one another, especially for Juno. In most teen movies parents are either in absentia or boobs, but Juno’s father Mac (J.K. Simmons) and step-mother Bren (Allison Janney) get to be clever and understanding and supportive, to have their own lives and opinions, and to know their girl very well for better and for worse. In so many movies about pregnancy the characters seem to be chronic amnesiacs, going into hysterics every other scene as if just realizing what’s going on. In Juno, once the shock wears off and reality swells like Juno’s belly, the pregnancy acts as catalyst, a chance for characters to evolve, and show their true selves, and win our hearts.
Reitman is, with only his second feature, secure enough to not inflict too much of himself into the picture. He brings color and pacing, and an eye for when an actor is creating a little bit of magic, and how he’s not supposed to interfere with that. This is a movie chock full of skips and asides and curlicues of language, they are drips of sweet frosting, and Reitman has already matured to understand that it is not his job to just squeeze those out, he must see to the cake.
This is such a generous movie, such a sweet one. Story-wise it isn’t doing anything new, what makes it so ultimately satisfying is the enthusiasm of a new generation of storytellers. The fresh faces of Juno, in front of and behind the camera, are like teenagers discovering what their bodies are now capable of, and giddily eager to do something with them. In movie-viewing-hours I’m old, Juno makes me feel young again.
Originally published 8/8/07 Full review behind the jump
Sunshine Director: Danny Boyle Writers: Alex Garland Producer: Andrew MacDonald Stars: Cillian Murphy, Rose Byrne, Cliff Curtis, Chris Evans, Michelle Yeoh, Troy Garity, Hiroyuki Sanada, Benedict Wong, Mark Strong
I think where people will misjudge Sunshine is to speak of it as a science-fiction film. But in this latest from Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, 28 Days Later), outer space in the future is merely the setting. In every way that matters, Sunshine is actually a deeply Christian film, and let me explain why.
Since the Sun is what provides us with heat and energy and light and atmosphere and nourishment, you can make a reasonable case that the Sun is a kind of God to us. And if every complex element on the Periodic Table can only be forged in the heat of supernovas, then we are all the stars’ children. As the late Carl Sagan once said: “If you want to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe.” So if the world is threatened by the loss of the Sun’s power – the loss of God’s gifts to us – it must be the sons of God that make a sacrifice for our salvation. And the sacrifice will not be a light one.
That is the underlying mechanism of Sunshine, and what gives it a force and awe that carries it over the bumps of a plot that turns out to be about less than meets the eye. While its situational conflicts reach a disappointing ceiling of ingenuity, emotionally it chooses to be about the limits of humanity: what we can be pushed to physically and psychologically; how the unbearable weight of a mission to save one’s whole species can grind on the emotions, and how no one can be unscathed when they’ve looked on the face of God. That is what lifts the film above matters of the flesh to be about something more eternal.
The story concerns the crew of the Icarus II on a mission to “re-ignite” the sun, which has faded enough to plunge the Earth into permanent winter. The ship, a long spire hiding in the shadow of an enormous mirrored shield, is strapped to a city-sized nuclear bomb made up of (I like this detail) all the fissible material left on Earth. If humanity survives, they might be better off without fissible things around. The first Icarus disappeared seven years before and nobody knows why. There will be no Icarus III.
The crew reminds me a lot of that from Ridley Scott’s original Alien, in that they are sweaty, and impatient with each other, and have been in isolation long enough that discipline has given way to a frayed pragmatism. Captain Kaneda (Hiroyuki Sanada) understands that when he gives an order the crew will respond like children told to clean their room, so he has adapted to become a reason-wielding consensus builder. His crew is international, and played by actors who are familiar but not household names – the filmmakers have a canny sense for putting interesting faces into counterintuitive roles. Michelle Yeoh, most famous to the West for action roles in Tomorrow Never Dies and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, here keeps her deadly legs stowed, playing a horticulturalist. She maintains the greenhouse, loves her precious plants, and sees her fellow humans’ survival through the intractable filter of available oxygen and the number of lungs breathing it. It’s a complex yet eminently-believable reversal of empathy and calculation, and Yeoh pulls it off perfectly. Cliff Curtis, a Maori actor who has made chameleon-like use of his dark complexion over the years to play cops and drug dealers and Middle Eastern sheikhs, is the ship’s psychologist, who is studying the impact of their proximity to the Sun and does not seem aware that he is turning into the canary in the coal mine. It is largely his job to convey to the audience the heat of the furnace they are in, the sheer naïve scale of their small bodies and hopes cast against this ball of holy fire so immense that nothing else seems to exist anymore.
And in what emerges as the central role, Irish actor Cillian Murphy (whom Boyle plucked from obscurity to star in 28 Days Later but is most known as Scarecrow from Batman Begins) plays Capa, the physicist; the one who can work the bomb. These are characters in a situation where the normal value of an individual human life has been drastically redefined by the perspective of what’s at stake. But even within the confines of their doom, where one life is so cheap, they understand that the life of the one who works the bomb is a little less cheap. Murphy is blessed with the ability to enthrall an audience from the moment he’s on screen – his divine features and bottomless eyes seem to wear all and hide nothing. If no one ever thinks to cast him as a tormented Jesus reluctantly meeting his destiny, at least he had the chance to play this role, which is a reasonable approximation.
Sunshine is more than the zero-g disaster flick a casual reading of its summary might suggest. Crises that emerge are not capricious outside threats but the tragically-inevitable foul-ups caused by our own imperfections. We must do the job though we are not worthy. Special effects are appropriately state-of-the-art and yet the movie resists the temptation to be impressed by them. Like all the works of man they pale in significance with that glowing Sun; most of the movie’s most memorable images are those that simply regard what the characters are up against.
It encompasses all ranges of suffering; fire and ice, assaults on mind and body, fast merciless deaths and slow unimaginable ones. Visually it moves from the stately to the frenetic with the confidence of the world-class filmmaker Boyle has become; at its best moments it plays like an audacious punk mash-up, the paranoia from John Carpenter’s re-make of The Thing injected into 2001: A Space Odyssey with transcendent results.
It may feel unfamiliar at first, since it does not smirk or condescend or fall prey to the usual gestures of the Michael Bay generation of filmmaking, but that’s not an obstacle for long. The type of storytelling Sunshine draws its power from has been around a couple thousand years longer.
There Will Be Blood Director: Paul Thomas Anderson Writer: screenplay by Paul Thomas Anderson, based on the novel Oil! by Upton Sinclair Producers: Paul Thomas Anderson, Daniel Lupi, JoAnne Sellar Stars: Daniel Day-Lewis, Paul Dano, Kevin J. O’Connor, Ciarán Hinds, Dillon Freasier
For a long time there’s no spoken words, we’re just watching this man – this determined, ingenious man – digging in the Earth. It’s rude and violent work, with pumps and picks and explosives, we see it cause him a broken leg and take the life of a colleague, while on the soundtrack discordant strings whine as if to give voice to the rape of nature. And yet there’s a thrill to watching Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) work, the pure and potent charge of seeing willpower transmute into raw power, wealth and influence.
When Plainview, the self-described “oil man”, finally speaks, it is with a voice coated in liquid confidence. He is not easily shaken, the man who has wrestled with the rocks. He pursues oil like a wolf tracking prey across miles of terrain, and the sureness with which he means to have it is seductive. As the central character of There Will Be Blood, Paul Thomas Anderson’s loose adaptation of one segment of Upton Sinclair’s muckraking early-20th century novel Oil!, Plainview is a mesmerizing figure, an animal of seemingly bottomless hunger who admits that it is not enough that he be sated, he must watch others starve.
Anderson’s film, far and away one of the best of the year, makes you feel like you’re strapped into the conditioning chair from A Clockwork Orange, eyes helplessly pinned open as you watch the savage perversion of ambition into destruction. At first it all seems so exciting, the idea of progress and prosperity, using the bounty of oil to transform a dusty farming community into a bustling town. Peoples’ standards of living improve, most especially Plainview’s. But there’s a dark side to his work that festers and grows, and we watch, transfixed, as it spreads its corruption around him.
Plainview travels up and down California with his “boy” H.W. (Dillon Freasier), who is not actually his son but someone he has calculated his own reasons to raise. He finds struggling communities where the black gold is seeping out of the ground, charms them with a speech about his personal expertise, and the self-starting ethic of his little “family business”, promises them water wells and roads and schools, and soon he’s got his trucks pulling in with drilling equipment while the big oil companies are still buying train tickets to come investigate.
It is invigorating, American enterprise, and that could be good enough. But what we see that it is not enough for Plainview, never enough. Dominance is not a means to success for him, dominance is the end itself. We see it in the way he talks to a farmer’s daughter (Sydney McCallister) while the farmer (David Willis) sits nearby, mutely subdued in front of the man who now owns his land. We see it in the way he spites that farmer’s son, a local fire-and-brimstone preacher named Eli Sunday (Little Miss Sunshine’s Paul Dano), who tries to assert his church’s role in the community by offering to bless the pump on its first day of operation. When Plainview watches Sunday’s sermons, full of shouting and quaking, it is not with reverence but grudging appreciation – a man with a great racket recognizing another.
That crackle that happens whenever the nakedly-mercenary Plainview and the opportunistically-pious Sunday share the scene is a testament to the young actor Dano and his ability to hold his ground with one of the greatest actors in the history of cinema. There Will Be Blood is Daniel Day-Lewis’ show, one of his finest performances, and yet it would build no momentum to its shocking conclusion if Dano were not as good as he is, able to embody the ebb and flow of their unspoken war for influence.
It means that we get to see Plainview’s weaknesses come into focus. He does not know how to forgive, only to punish and punish forever. We can see that he will never, ever forget a man who humbles him in the eyes of others even for a second; watch how he scuppers a deal that would set him up in riches for the rest of his days, by threatening to slit the throat of the man on the other side of the table. Is he angry at what the man was implying, or more purely that the man had found anything at all that could make him look bad? Watch as he re-encounters this man later, how his obsessive cruelty makes him pathetic, a man too determined to pick at scabs to consider that it might be better if he let go.
And in spite of his misanthropy he still needs someone – a companion, a disciple, someone to be a permanent admirer rather than competition – and we watch him trade one for another with callous immediacy. I think it’s no coincidence that what makes one companion an improvement on another is the ability to hear that hypnotic, rationalizing voice of his. And watch that tragic moment on a beach at night where Day-Lewis doesn’t even speak, barely even moves his face, but we realize what he has just confirmed about his new companion, and what he intends to do. That we know this from his stillness means the movie has us surely under its spell, and we will believe the ending that has been promised to us.
There Will Be Blood is a rare movie these days in so many ways – for its wide period vistas, its dreadfully methodical pacing, the beautiful grime and fire it shows and the terrifying passions of its central character, who is neither hero nor villain but an amoral and irresistible force of consumption. Anderson (Boogie Nights, Punch-Drunk Love), a mercurial filmmaker of nonetheless undisguised ambition, has made his best film here, a wild cinematic tone poem about a man who hollows his own soul with the same ravening speed that he does the Earth below him.
Originally published July 26, 2007 Full review behind the jump
Rescue Dawn Director: Werner Herzog Writers: Werner Herzog Producers: Elton Brand, Harry Knapp, Steve Marlton Stars: Christian Bale, Steve Zahn, Jeremy Davies, Abhijati 'Meuk' Jusakul, Kriangsak Ming-olo, Yuttana Muenwaja, Teerawat Mulvilai, Somkuan 'Kuan' Siroon, Chorn Solyda, Saichia Wongwiroj
“Death did not want him.” -Werner Herzog, narrating his documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly, about pilot and former POW Dieter Dengler
It was Jean-Luc Godard who wrote that the best way to criticize a movie was to make another movie. And it was writer/director/documentarian Werner Herzog who said: “Someone like Jean-Luc Godard is for me intellectual counterfeit money when compared to a good kung fu film.” Herzog is also known for driving actors to madness and being shot in the middle of interviews, but as I watched Rescue Dawn, an intensely beautiful and uplifting story of survival set in the pre-Tonkin days of the Vietnam War, I remembered Godard’s maxim, and thought: someone has finally answered Full Metal Jacket.
If Stanley Kubrick’s hypnotic mishmash from 1987 saw the Vietnam-era military as a vast machine for the crushing of petty individual humanity in a morally-ambiguous purgatory (which is how Kubrick saw everything, I suppose), then Rescue Dawn overthrows that conceit by spotlighting one man with enough will to resist it. It is a story about a German immigrant of questionable sanity, made by a German immigrant of questionable sanity, which becomes through blood and mud and suffering one of the more stirring celebrations of the American character you might ever see. It is about a man who does not succumb or surrender, but endures terrible experiences with invention, determination, and a kind of quirky faith in the thing he loves that allows him to look beyond the confines of his circumstances. No matter how hard fate may work to squash him, he continues to reassert himself, as if he can convince Death to give up trying.
When Dieter Dengler (Christian Bale) was young he watched out his window as planes strafed his village; and rather than run he decided to become a pilot. In a way this was the sign of a lifelong pattern; an urge to master whatever threatens him. He loves flying so much it seems like a talisman, the skills he learned while pursuing it all come to his aid when he needs them most.
Dengler is shot down while flying a secret mission over Laos; and before long is captured by guerillas. When separated from their individual national war machines, when it’s just man-to-man, prisoner to captor, they almost don’t seem to know what to do with each other. The guerillas shout at him, push him around and threaten him, tie him up in the village square, but there’s a nigh-invisible hesitance: they are supposed to hate him, but to look at him they’re not sure why. Maybe it’s because he always meets their gaze – he does not act like a captive.
Eventually he is deposited at a prison camp surrounded by a bamboo fence and miles upon miles of impenetrably thick jungle. Herzog is famous for the way he captures locations and wildlife; and this hot, buzzing, dangerous place with its snakes and giant bugs is a rich playground for his camera, and helps make up for a budget he’s clearly forced to squeeze for every last penny. With this authenticity of environment, you can feel it exerting pressure on prisoners and jailers alike.
Two other Americans are already there: CIA contractor Gene (Jeremy Davies) is convinced that secret negotiations are going to end this geopolitical dust-up any day now (he’s been in over two years), while soldier Duane (Steve Zahn) is so withered by seclusion and hopelessness that he has no fight of his own left, but hungrily borrows some of Dieter’s.
Since first winning the notice of audiences in Saving Private Ryan, Davies has made mumbly paranoia his stock-in-trade; the skeletal physique and Manson hairdo added here look unnervingly appropriate on top of what is not an unusual turn for him. It’s Zahn, normally known for comedy, that truly surprises. His Duane is fearful, passive, almost infantile. Dieter may be here with a plan to escape, but even taking Duane out of the jail might not be enough to save his decaying sanity. There’s a tenderness to their relationship; it’s revealing the way Dieter takes responsibility for Duane without ever treating him as less than a man.
Despite Herzog’s well-cultivated reputation for wildness this is not a difficult movie to watch. It’s a PG-13 movie, much of its violence is implied or viewed indirectly. It’s more interested in the simmering anger as the prisoners make their plans, and the guards realize no more food shipments are coming. It’s interested in the tolls taken on minds, and the details of a prison break in a prison where the only pieces of technology around are the guard’s guns and the prisoners’ chains; where a plan can be built around the procurement of a single nail.
And it’s most interested of all in Dieter Dengler, whom Herzog befriended and made a documentary about before his death, and just what empowered him to resist this ordeal. Even before he’s first put in the prison camp, he’s offered the chance to enjoy a gentler sentence by signing a propaganda statement denouncing the US and its military involvement in Asia. His refusal is automatic, and the reason is not political; he just could never disavow the country that allowed him to fly. There’s a totality to his sense of himself, like he has merged his identity with the thing that he does, and simply does not countenance anything that tries to come between them.
It falls on Christian Bale, who is smart to spend his Batman-earned bankability on projects like this, to embody this peculiar hero and convince us, and there’s an intelligence to his performance that closes the deal. In one scene he’s mistakenly fired upon by an American helicopter, and as he dives for cover he yells at them: “You idiots! You almost killed me!” There’s a precision to the way he articulates this line – it’s as if he’s affronted. Surely, they should have known that he’s not going to die today. It’s not something he has to reassure himself about, he just knows. Either he’s going to be killed or he’s not; “almost” just annoys him. Seeing the conviction Bale creates in moments like that, I was not at all surprised to learn that after the events of Rescue Dawn, one of the most emotionally-satisfying movies of the year, the real Dieter Dengler survived four more plane crashes.
News has just broken of a tentative deal between the studios and the DGA. Details of the deal have yet to emerge.
-If the terms on New Media are lousy, then we stay on strike, and the directors have played bitch again and will be out of work anyway.
-If the terms on New Media are good, it means the studios have caved to us, but their collective egos demanded that they give it up to the directors instead of to us directly, in order to preserve the writers=impossible to work with storyline they've been stroking themselves with. If this is the case, I can tell you that none of us will care looking like assholes, we'll know that it was our willingness to take the bullet that gave the directors the leverage to improve everyone's lot.
Details as I learn them.
Update: United Hollywood has the DGA's official announcement. My reading of it says that there's more than one thing in here to like. Precedent for distributor's gross is huge. I like the jurisdictional language. The promotional streaming windows have me nervous, as does some of the formulas, but far more educated people than I will be poring over these numbers in the next few hours, as I go to a movie followed by a reception. We'll see what the battlefield looks like when I get back.
Gone Baby Gone Director: Ben Affleck Writers: Screenplay by Ben Affleck & Aaron Stockard, based on the novel by Dennis Lehane Producers: Ben Affleck, Sean Bailey, Alan Ladd, Jr., Danton Rissner Stars: Casey Affleck, Michelle Monaghan, Morgan Freeman, Ed Harris, John Ashton, Amy Ryan, Amy Madigan, Titus Welliver
Since solidifying his grip on stardom in 1997 with roles in Chasing Amy and Good Will Hunting, Ben Affleck has appeared in 1998’s Oscar winner for Best Picture, Shakespeare in Love, as well as adolescent fare like Daredevil. He’s worked with directors from Kevin Smith to John Frankenheimer to John Woo. Although his stardom has peaked and waned, and his ratio of good movies to bad has not flattered him, one thing that is now clear is that, while working with all those filmmakers, he was taking notes. Stepping behind the camera for his first time as a director and only second time as a screenwriter, Affleck crafts a mature and confident dramatic thriller in Gone Baby Gone, a debut so staggeringly good as to make us wonder why he’s wasted all this time acting.
He has not played it safe, tackling one of the dense, morally-labyrinthine Boston crime sagas of Dennis Lehane, whose novel Mystic River challenged even a savvy veteran like Clint Eastwood. But Beantown is Affleck’s turf. Crowd scenes in movies often look subtly ridiculous, because professional background actors work hard to make themselves seen. Filling the backgrounds of Gone Baby Gone with real locals gives Affleck an additional layer of natural scenery, you get the feeling that when the camera stopped rolling, these people stayed right on that stoop. This authority of setting Affleck brings is essential in breathing life into this story’s wrenching twists. And he also happens to have a solid in with the perfect lead actor.
This is not just a breakthrough for Ben Affleck, reformed heartthrob, it is as much a revelation for Casey Affleck, sudden leading man escaping his older brother’s shadow. Patrick Kenzie, the private detective Casey Affleck plays, needs to embody a precise mixture of conflicting attitudes: a sense of having outgrown his upbringing but still possessive enough of it to not allow outsiders to judge, confidence in his own abilities tempered by an inborn chip-on-the-shoulder. Kenzie’s opening monologue talks about how it’s the things we don’t choose – like who we are born to and where – that define who we are. Casey Affleck the actor slips into this truth like old clothes, he doesn’t need a map to walk these streets.
Kenzie, partnered with his live-in girlfriend Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan), is used to catching deadbeats and bail jumpers. Keeping the neighborhood’s business in the neighborhood is simply what’s done, in his mind. But then he’s hired to work the kidnapping of little girl Amanda McReady (Madeline O’Brien), which will require him to navigate not just the media circus, but a police captain (Morgan Freeman) with painful personal experience in how badly these cases can go awry from the best of intentions. And then there’s the child’s mother.
Helene McCready (Amy Ryan) is not easy to sympathize with, and Ryan the actress asks for none in one of the year’s great supporting performances. Alcoholic, abrasive, delinquent, dishonest, drug-addicted, Helene is a roving hazard who, to this point, has largely treated motherhood as an occasional distraction to her social life. Her tears for the news cameras, and her hogwash story about being at home watching her favorite TV show during the kidnapping, seem part of an unspoken contract between victim and media, that they’ll all cooperate in showing this is as a morally-easy fairy tale with all the stock characters: angelic child, grieving and innocent mother, sinister kidnapper with who-knows-what in store for the child. Kenzie suspects more complexity.
He and Angie work the neighborhood, trying to chip away at the clannish silence. Sometimes they get into trouble because they’re across the table from drug dealers, sometimes it’s just because they’re asking questions in a bar where people don’t like their clean and smart faces. They end up in a partially-honest ad hoc partnership with police detective Remy Bressant (Ed Harris), a man who has asked himself – what kind of violence and rule-breaking is acceptable when done for the cause of protecting a child? His answer is “anything”.
Lehane’s plot, rendered with confidence in screenplay form by Ben Affleck and co-writer Aaron Stockard, shows an intimate understanding of the hysteria with which our culture treats children and the dangers they face. The dangers are real, but equally real is the way in which people take license to condemn others and ruin, even end, lives in the name of moral absolutism. Kenzie is a man in a position, time and time again, to ask himself “what is right?” The situations he is in, in his mind, have clear answers, just not easy ones.
Remember what he says at the beginning, remember his attitude about the place he lives and what he does within the community, and you’ll know what choices he will make, how he will reject every simple explanation, why he will proceed beyond the point when all seems resolved, because pride won’t let him leave a lie on the table no matter what it might cost him. This is the wholeness, the consistency, and the excellence of Casey Affleck in this role. Everything about him seems to respond by instinct, from the way his voice subtly changes color depending on if he’s speaking to cop or neighbor, to the way he knows when the situation demands a display of testosterone.
The other breakthrough performance in the movie belongs to Ryan, a two-time Tony nominee (most recently for playing Stella in a revival of A Streetcar Named Desire) who has been cutting her teeth on big and small screens for seventeen years, and yet as Helene McCready it’s as if we are seeing her for the first time. She is manically self-destructive, but not incapable of feeling, and cannot be denied her real tears and panic as reality sinks in. Without giving much away, I can say that moral puzzle box Gone Baby Gone is drawing us into would fall apart if Ryan were not as thoroughly excellent as she is.
It’s difficult for me to remember a crime story whose layers are as expertly concealed; that manages to propel you through one shock after another, constantly destroying illusions of the truth in search of the real thing. And it’s equally difficult for me, watching Gone Baby Gone, one of the year’s best films, to remember a story that better illuminates and dramatizes that old saying: once you save someone’s life, you’re responsible for them forever.
Movie reviews, travel photos, tales from Hollywood, and general snark. A haven for geekiness, because the Internet really hasn't blazed that trail yet. An emoticon-free zone. An exploration towards an understanding of our effed-up and beautiful universe. With root beer.