Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Best Actress Project: 2009

One of these women is not even nominated, but just shut up about it, okay? Another of these women will go home with an Oscar a week from today, on March 7. Theoretically, of course, more than one could be going home with Oscar—and if we miraculously wind up working that '68 groove and are witness to a Best Actress tie, just imagine the kiss that Bullock and Streep will be forced to exchange!

Anyway, amidst a flu, a writing deadline, the final week of an academic quarter, and my harrumphy status as a conscientious objector to this year's Oscars, this is all you're getting from me this week in terms of pre-Oscar coverage... but I tried to make it count! You were all so wonderfully voluble and spirited in your responses to yesterday's profile of the Women of 1944 that I sort of figured, why wait? These are so fun to write up, even when the fields leave a few things to be desired. (Note: Rankings slightly revised since initial posting.)

And speaking of desire: I think I have a strong idea of who will win my poll as the actress who should be copping this year's Academy Award. Still, I hope that as many readers as possible will seek out The Maid and Beeswax, the least-seen movies of those I have included on my personal ballot, despite being two really invigorating slices of funny-serious cinema, both of which give the DIY aesthetic a really great shake. Make sure to let me know, too, what I absolutely need to rent before I seal this year off. The Burning Plain and Lion's Den are already on DVD, The Private Lives of Pippa Lee bows this week, Séraphine drops later in March, and Cloud 9 will be out in April. I'm intrigued by all five, but go ahead, guide my hand.

P.S. While prepping this new addition to the Best Actress section, I noticed that I never added a poll for 2008, and though the currency of the questions has wilted, my interest in your answers has not!

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Friday, February 26, 2010

The Best Actress Project: 1944

It's been a while since the last Best Actress profile, and since I recently went on a big Best Picture-related tear through the movies of 1944, I found myself in a good position to review that starry field. On the pro side: five stellar actresses whose careers combine for 31 nominations and 7 wins. The winner is a solid choice by Academy standards, and at least one other nominee gives a certifiably iconic turn. On the con side: nearly everything else, including notably subpar work by two of the contenders.

I bowed out of 1944 with only a few truly choice titles left to come, and even fewer that feature female leads: happily, I have the Hitchcock/Steinbeck collabo Lifeboat to look forward to on a big screen in May, and Powell and Pressburger's A Canterbury Tale—which wasn't Oscar-eligible until 1949—on the same screen, two weeks previously. I have a strong hunch that Tallulah will slay the competition in the poll about whose work I should check out to possibly displace one of my five current favorites, but go ahead, prove me wrong. Or prove me right. I love that, too.

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Monday, February 22, 2010

Monday Reviews: Shutter Island and The Last Station

Trust me that I realize that my site would profit from more reviews and more quickly written ones, especially when I manage what for me is the unusual feat of seeing a major release with an opening-night Friday crowd. If you're looking to build attendance stats for your movie site, that's how you do it, but I trust it's obvious by now that I'm not a big traffic chaser. Still, I'd have loved to have had time this weekend to write up more of what I had to say about Shutter Island, and maybe I still will, but for now, it's high time to get cracking on stealing someone else's good idea—that is, following the recent cue of a critic I idolize and at least give you short glimpses of where I am with what I've been seeing lately. So:

A farrago, sometimes in a way that's easy to indulge, but you still wind up uncertain which makes less sense: the bonkers narrative we think we're watching (though we're never exactly fooled) or the climactic explanations. As if the gangrenous photography isn't off-putting enough, the disastrous marriage of over-plotting to self-undermining "suspense" becomes awfully hard to take. About two flat or wobbly performances for every solid one; only Clarkson remains fully unscathed, but Haley, Levine, Lynch, and Meryl's former detox roommate Robin Bartlett at least acquit themselves. Sadly, a horrible case of reverse-proportion mandates that the actors with the largest parts give the weakest performances, including yet another limp outing from DiCaprio, who's starting to seem Swankish: i.e., nearly irredeemable unless every single other element is working perfectly around him, which it certainly isn't here. Soundtrack lets us know how it would sound if you used an entire sequoia as the bow for your cello, and is overmixed and appallingly literal to boot, though I did like the death-crawl version of Dinah Washington's "This Bitter Earth" oozing over the final credits.

Production design is both over-elaborate and annoyingly unclear. One crucial location has been selected for maximal difficulty of access in case you’re a paranoid schizophrenic fugitive attempting to sneak in, but it sure involves a lot of trouble for other folks who need to get there, if only once. The worst kinds of red herrings, like a bad case of creeping palsy in a film whose conflicts should be cognitive, set in at exactly the most dunder-headed moments, as when a character is about to perform heroic acts of impromptu rock-scaling. Logical outrages aside, emotional claims verge on zero. Film finishes with a 10-minute sequence by a lakeside that manages to be gratuitous in the two worst ways: narratively unnecessary, since we already know what's happened, and supremely untactful, since it comes across as an exercise in killing off some kids and letting some actors over-emote their reactions to obscene events, dotingly repackaged as thrill-ride climaxes. But if you think that's bad, wait till you get to Dachau. Between the garish and cheap interpolation of the camps as backstory and the dada obsession with callow or meaningless citations of other films (by Powell and Pressburger, by Hitchcock, by Antonioni, et al.), I think we can assume that Scorsese is a Basterds fan. Which, from me, is no compliment, but at least Tarantino's movie has (misplaced, inconsistent, bloodthirsty) guts. Shutter's just got ghosts, including the specter of whatever this Cadillac cast and crew must have thought they were joining forces to make. D+

Intriguing to learn that Tolstoy was so explicitly deified in his own lifetime, to the extent that woodland communes of ascetic, self-sustaining disciples accumulated around his estate. That is, if this is even true: The Last Station is one of those relentlessly artificial and tedious arthouse dandelions that you entirely stop trusting, right around the time it decides that a cafeteria-quality romance between James McAvoy and Kerry Condon is as interesting as the deeper but oddly muffled dynamics between the Tolstoys, and that embarrassing boudoir talk between Mirren and Plummer is a merry substitute for facing the complex ties of ambivalent matrimony. Not for this movie to plumb the only interesting questions it ever raises, which are about those impromptu cults and about staying committed to a partner that no one else can stand. The film pushes its august performers into purple, bowdlerized versions of the subtler characterizations they'd surely have preferred to offer, and subsists on its own thin-gruel diet of overly literal dialogue, garish lighting, literal mustache-twirling, and on-screen captions that provide such odd cues as "Moscow, Tolstoyan Headquarters." James McAvoy makes off with one very sweet scene of tearful joy at being praised by a hero, all the more endearing since the praise is hardly unequivocal. Everything else amounts to endless shots of actors looking at each other, looking out windows, looking into windows, closing their eyes expressively, and looking yearningly out of frame. About ten minutes total feel remotely "historical." Whole film plays like a Garson-Pidgeon vehicle from the mid-40s, well after the Miniver good will had expired. D

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Monday, February 15, 2010

Monday Reviews: XXY

I have more quick reviews to add from all the back-catalog renting and revival-house haunting I've been doing lately, as well as a whole mess of unfinished business from 2009 to catch up on. (And if the phrase "a whole mess" in relation to "2009" conjures up the immediate association of The Lovely Bones... yes, I finally saw it, and yes, it's as jaw-droppingly, peculiarly awful as everyone short of Kris Tapley has already attested.)

For now, to prove that I'm not dead, I'm just tossing up the one full review I've actually finished in the last week, for Lucía Puenzo's flawed but promising debut drama XXY (2007), about an intersexed pre-teen in Argentina whose parents may or may not be planning a genital-correction surgery. Alex, the central character, may or may not have intuited this looming possibility; Alvaro, the son of the couple who have just been invited so abruptly to the seaside home of Alex's parents, may or may not feel erotic attractions toward Alex, and he may or may not understand those desires, either before, during, or after he acts upon them.

XXY, reviewed here, was one of the movies I recently listed as enticing titles from the just-finished decade that I wished I had caught at the time. Of course I harbor big dreams of searching out all the movies I cataloged in that "Backwards & Forwards" series, and of course this blog is nothing if not a repository of big dreams. I am reminded, all the time, of my first visit to the home of a very famous professor for whom I was a research assistant in college. She had a room in the top floor of her house where she had installed some old choral risers she'd found in a flea market, so she could arrange her little heaps of paper corresponding to all of her unfinished, barely commenced, or never-quite-begun projects and look at them all with pride, whether or not she ever managed to do anything with them. She called this room her Study of Lost Causes.

I have not yet buckled to internal pressure toward renaming this blog exactly that, and hopefully, as the weeks go by, I'll feel even less reason to give into that temptation. Keep hope alive!

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Monday, February 01, 2010

Monday Reviews: Hold Your Horses

Yes, even you, Henry. I've got 24 more hours to get on the ball, and a few more work tasks to push through before I can cast a fully critical eye on your Royal Highness. But I don't mind saying that my Top Ten of 1944 has shifted yet again. (Image c/o DVD Beaver, since my Criterion disc isn't cooperating with my laptop to produce my own screenshots.)

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