Monday, October 15, 2012

A Sit-Down with Saint Joan

Tonight the 48th Chicago International Film Festival bestowed a Silver Hugo for Career Achievement on the actress Joan Allen, an Illinois native, Tony winner, co-founder of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, and three-time Oscar nominee.  With candor falling just shy of tact, CIFF executive director Michael Kutza conveyed how long he has wanted to give Allen this award.  Appearing at the end of a 90-minute career retrospective, he recalled a Steppenwolf anniversary celebration from years ago where he first seized on the idea of the film festival honoring one of that company's crossover stars.  "But Gary Sinise is mostly a TV personality by now, and so definitely not for us," Kutza publicly confided, before classifying John Mahoney as even more of a small-screen name and admitting, "Frankly, Malkovich scares me."

While staying all smiles, Allen manifested her signature knack for projecting multiple things at once—in this case, a sincere gratitude at being so warmly recognized and an element of perplexity at this abrupt if comically intended rundown of her close colleagues.  At least no one sitting in Screen 20 of the AMC River East could doubt Kutza's admiration for this consummate performer, or take issue with the formal language that came with the trophy: "For dazzling audiences with your radiant performances on stage and screen, whatever the character, genre, or budget."  Had this actually been engraved on the silver plating, I would have been able to read it. Showing up early to the ticketholders' line meant I snagged a first-row seat, from which I could literally spot the holes in the buckled straps on Allen's boots.

"Dazzling" and "radiant" indeed in all black, Allen came across as open and easygoing, while still giving something of a performance.  She happily offered production-side memories of every movie that the Chicago Tribune's Michael Phillips asked her about, while choosing adjectives carefully for subjects that might have required some diplomacy, especially before a large audience.  Most of all, she gave the impression of a cheerful and thoughtful Midwesterner, eager to chat but vigilant against oversharing or impoliteness, fond of her work and touched at the room-filling show of public affection, but rarely inclined to linger over past triumphs.  She admitted, for example, to not having seen Nixon (a Nick's Flick Picks favorite) since it premiered in theaters, and a wordless reaction to one of Phillips's questions suggests she hasn't screened The Ice Storm in a while, either.  Devotees like myself who have read a lot of Allen interviews may not have left with an embarrassment of new stories, and I don't know why the planners didn't schedule any time for an audience Q&A.  Still, the anecdotes ranged far and wide, even when they demurred from going too deep. And as loyal readers knew I would, I managed to get my question in anyway.

The funny, avuncular Phillips was, as ever, an ideal choice to moderate.  He has worked as both a theater critic and film reviewer, making him knowledgeable and enthusiastic about both of the arenas where Allen has achieved greatest distinction (though she has made memorable impressions on television as well, in projects like Michael Mann's truncated HBO series Luck and the 2009 Lifetime movie Georgia O'Keeffe, for which she was executive producer).  In fact, Phillips recalled visiting Chicago from the University of Minnesota in the early 1980s to see Allen and her Steppenwolf cohort in And a Nightingale Sang..., the play that eventually brought the actress to New York.  Meeting her after this performance "turned me into Don Knotts," Phillips confided, before charmingly if unintentionally failing to find the right adjective to capture her flexible, charismatic incisiveness on screen: "She's what I call an excellent working actor," he offered by way of introduction, "who's so... so...," and we all knew just what he meant.  The clip-reel that played before Allen's entrance evoked the longevity of her career across bigger and smaller parts, while still hewing closely to the best-known titles on her résumé—a greatest-hits framing to which the conversation mostly adhered.

Early topics included Allen's admission that it took about five years after her first film role (a small part in 1985's Compromising Positions) to feel that "the penny really dropped" in terms of comfort before a camera.  She described the boons of being a student at Eastern Illinois University, where the small size of the program allowed her to tackle during her early college years meaty parts like Nurse Ratched, Laura Wingfield, and even Linda Loman, however "ludicrously" age-inappropriate some of these were.  She also got rich educations in lighting, costuming, and scenic design, since the program was geared toward producing jack-of-all-trades theater professors to teach at other schools, and thus forced actors to know their vocation from many sides.  Phillips inquired, too, about the ethos and conversations in the early years of Steppenwolf, especially after Malkovich's breakout success in films opened a new route for Chicago actors into national acclaim.  Allen described this period as exciting but difficult for the company, with ambitious troupe members somewhat at odds with those who felt protective of the specific identity and talent base of Windy City dramatics. She remembers her own position as somewhere in the middle, glad for New York opportunities and (she wasn't too proud to add) New York paychecks, but more than contented with her lot as a member of a thriving Second City ensemble.

From here, Phillips advanced to questions about the first proper auteurs she worked with, Michael Mann on Manhunter and Francis Ford Coppola on Peggy Sue Got Married (both 1986). Using gingerly euphemisms about the former, which she remembers as "quite a shoot," Allen recalled Mann as a "very, very... driven" filmmaker who would make every day a 20-hour call if he could.  Still, she sounded fully sincere in praising his work with actors and his visual eye, even if "we'd make jokes when he'd switch a man's necktie for the twelfth time before a shot."  Going from Mann, who barely held rehearsals, to Coppola, who relished and even videotaped them, involved quite a leap.  A bigger jump involved getting used to an invisible director: "I remember Francis as one of the pioneers of watching on a monitor, not from behind a camera or near the actors.  So someone would yell 'Action,' and we'd be going, 'But where is he?'"

Around that time, Allen entered a period where her second- or third-tier parts on film and television suited her relative comfort in these media, even as she was headlining and winning major prizes for plays like Lanford Wilson's Burn This, which she played for almost two years, and Wendy Wasserstein's Tony and Pulitzer winner The Heidi Chronicles, where she anchored every scene.  Phillips skipped a lot of this supporting-actress journeywoman work in films like Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988, again for Coppola) or Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993) and moved to that mid-90s trifecta that marked many filmgoers' whiplash introduction to this quiet powerhouse: Nixon (1995), The Crucible (1996), and The Ice Storm (1997).  The audience saw short clips of the memorable scenes, respectively, where Pat first threatens to walk out on her petulant husband; where Elizabeth Procter is being hauled off to jail; and where Elena Hood charges her husband, in a rain-battered car, with knowingly taking them to a key party.  Among this group, Phillips actually started with the last in the sequence, naming Ice Storm one of his favorite films of the 1990s and "one of the most tonally complex pictures of that decade," a feeling Ang Lee apparently facilitated by keeping his actors off-guard.  Enlisting more euphemisms, or else just combing her mind for the mot juste, Allen remembers Lee as "gentle, yes," to use Phillips's word, "but... very... specific, also."  Adding, "I think he's maybe a little tougher than people think," Allen recalls him banning actors absolutely from seeing dailies of their performances. "'You don't know what you're doing, but I do,'" he'd insist.

Many readers, I imagine, would have longed as I did for more probing of Allen's less touted projects.  She was clearly thrilled when Phillips cued up a clip from Sally Potter's Yes (2004), calling that stylistically eclectic drama, written wholly in iambic-pentameter, "a movie that about 50 people saw," but one that she loved as both a working experience and a final product.  Clearly the film was new even for this savvy audience of festival-goers, who might have enjoyed seeing more Alleniana they didn't already know.

That said, Allen's recollections about her Academy-nominated turns in Nixon and The Crucible were among her most detailed and revealing.  In the first case, responding to Phillips's query about whether it was difficult to empathize with Plastic Pat, Allen avowed quite the opposite.  Reprising biographical details as though she had just researched the role yesterday, she feelingly reported that Pat Nixon lost her mother around age 13 and then nursed her father through the last stages of cancer at 17 or 18, pooling tuition money with her two brothers so that one of them maintained the household while the other two attended college at any given time. They rotated this arrangement until all of them finished.  Even so, Pat's acquaintances from youth universally described her as outgoing and "happy-go-lucky"; clearly she was both prepared for marriage to a man who would require lots of careful tending and yet emotionally transformed by that union.  Allen described as a cornerstone of her performance a story she heard from a White House consultant who spotted Pat one evening left alone by her husband, dancing by herself with arms outstretched to music that was still emanating from a just-finished state dinner downstairs. In the actress's words, "This was not a president like Mr. Obama, who has dinner with his family every night.  Or so we've been told."

As for crossing paths with Elizabeth Procter, Allen confessed it was a genuine first for her: "I kind of couldn't believe I was as old as I was, having worked so long in theater, and I had never seen or read The Crucible." Forced to audition for the part (indeed, to read many times for director Nicholas Hytner), Allen felt freed by her lack of pre-conceptions about a role that fellow actors kept describing as a trap: "I guess they felt she easily became kind of holier-than-thou, or too pious or something."  Unaware of choices prior interpreters had made, Allen simply made the choices that felt right for the script and found out later whether these were familiar ones—resulting in what I still consider a peak performance in a stellar career.  I would say the same of Daniel Day-Lewis's lead work in the same film, which may be no coincidence.  "People often ask, 'Hey, aren't you intimidated to work with actors like Anthony Hopkins?' or whomever, but I always feel like, 'No, they'll probably make me better!'"  This prospect, of course, works both ways, though as Phillips facetiously chirped, "It's a shame you've had to work with so many hacks!  I mean, Kevin Kline? Day-Lewis?"

Allen side-stepped a can't-win question about seeking good women's roles in Hollywood, holding to specific comments on particular roles and projects.  These ranged from humorous confessions (The Bourne Supremacy was rewritten so constantly throughout production that she didn't even bother bringing her script to the set) to more nervous admissions (she held out against taking Pleasantville, a movie she's now very proud of, because "if there was any typecasting in my work at that point, it was a little bit like, 'The Wronged Wife'").  She probably got her biggest laugh when answering honestly Phillips's probe about whether her 18-year-old daughter has a favorite among Mom's movies.  "Oh, I don't know.  She hasn't seen a lot of my work.  Probably Death Race?"  The event's peremptory wrap-up began here, with Kutza replacing Phillips onstage, Allen receiving her as-yet unengraved Hugo, and the audience realizing there would be no questions from the floor.

I, of course, take the view that God did not give me a larynx so that I could sit in Joan Allen's presence and not engage her in conversation.  Close friends will already know the pet question I was eager to pose after sidling up to her, while she amiably signed Upside of Anger posters and posed for iPhone snaps with beaming, seemingly speechless admirers.  Struck at close range by her uncanny luminescence (fawning to admit, but completely true), I thanked her for all her tremendous work, and I told her about the great response Bobby Fischer got from my college freshmen last year.  I also introduced her to the two new friends I had made while waiting in line, united by our adoration for Campbell Scott's Off the Map, a tender Southwestern memory piece with a never-earthier Allen, a heartbreaking Sam Elliott, and a Nick's Flick Picks favorite, The Wire's Jim True-Frost.  "Ohhh, Off the Map!" Allen cooed, hand going to her throat, with (to me) thrilling affection for a quiet little movie I really love, and which waited two years for its minuscule release. "Is there another movie that you're especially fond or proud of that isn't in the group you normally get asked about," I asked, "or that maybe didn't get the commercial shake you feel it deserved?"  She laughed and aimed those incredible almond eyes toward the ceiling for a moment. "Well, Searching for Bobby Fischer is certainly one of them. And Off the Map is definitely, definitely another. And the Sally Potter movie, which I was so glad he included," referring to the earlier exchange about Yes.  "That's probably the group."

What's wonderful about Allen is that "the group" is in fact so large. She's appeared in so many movies that make striking first impressions and pay such rich dividends on return visits that even 90 minutes is not enough to scratch the surface. Face/Off (1997) and Upside slid under the radar, as did When the Sky Falls (2000), her barely-veiled Veronica Guerin biopic that went straight to video in the U.S., despite her tough, involving performance.  We heard nothing about A Good Marriage, the Stephen King vehicle that will soon restore her to leading-lady stature, even if she doesn't necessarily aspire to that.  "The thing with The Contender," she stated near the end of her confab with Phillips, "is that even though I was recognized as a leading actress for that role, that's a very 'ensemble' film, which is one of the things I love about it."  One of the things I love about Allen is that she still perceives herself as a team player, even as evidence constantly reveals her as a cut above even her most distinguished company.

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Thursday, October 11, 2012

Love Will Never Do (Without These):
Fall and Winter 2012

Like everything else on this blog, this annual feature is a bit delayed, but at least I got here. Trust me; by this time next year, it'll be worth it!  In any case, it tickles me that 2.4 of you actually look forward to it, and I like having the list to update and consult later.  Plus, a perfect yearly capper to The Fifties, which are all about looking at the best of what's behind me.  So, here's this year's version of what I'm looking forward to (and not) for the last three months of the year.  And you know some middle-aged diva from when I was young always shows up to croon the categories at you, so...

Holy Motors - Pola X is one of my tip-top favorite movies; this seems even madder
A– - This shit is bananas, like Matthew Barney's lusty stab at Céline and Julie Go Boating. Melancholy undertow a surprise.
Amour - I'm in for any movie that truly looks at what most movies avoid. Viva Riva!
A - Perfectly shot Book of the Dead, showcasing partners more bonded to each other than to their child. Impeccably acted and cut.
Zero Dark Thirty - Bigelow had me at Strange Days. Scope, context fascinating.
B - Ace last act thrives on Bigelow's strengths. Previously halting, uneven in story, structure, style. Chastain iffy.
Wuthering Heights - I'd follow Arnold anywhere, especially into austere erotic folly
B– - Dour, statically self-regarding naturalism misses Brontë's pagan turmoil and eerie necrophilia until strong end.

Argo - Salivating over this is like hoping to date the Prom King. Obvious, but c'mon!
C+ - Proficient, minus The Town's tautness or Gone Baby's eerie peaks. Strong on period. Dodges complex engagement with its story.
The Loneliest Planet - Day Night Day Night wowed me. Still don't know the twist.
B - Bold, dilated minimalism as two-hour frame for two-second, bond-breaking outrage. Gutsy, well-shot, bit vague.
Sister - I'm a sucker for any euphorically reviewed film by a rising female auteur
B+ - Moving, unsettling parable of economic and emotional abandonment, without didacticism. Style closer to Denis than Dardenne.
The House I Live In - I trust this filmmaking team to elucidate a complex quagmire
B+ - Vivid, broad, pedagogically lucid. More coherent than prior Jarecki docs, despite repetitions and iffy spots.
Silver Linings Playbook - R.I.P. "The"? I'd been told this was bad. But no, I guess?
C+ - Acting from the gut. Writing from Jupiter. Direction highly erratic. Camera no help. Cooper easily MVP.
The Wise Kids - Queer-childhood microcinema that's been building buzz for a year
B - Perks of Being a Southern Believer? Can't claim much filmmaking finesse, but generosity of conception is remarkable
Las Acacias - Sounds pretty minimalist, but the Cannes '11 reporting was inspiring
Anna Karenina - Of all the season's go-for-broke visions, this one seems gutsiest
C - Ionlyhave140charactersforthissprawlingstorysosorryIhavetorushnotemycollap singwallsandunbeatablegownsshameaboutVronsky
The Central Park Five - I know enough to know I care, but details will all be new
B - A potent record of railroading, but again, the Five carry the narrative burden. Contexts, complicities vague.
Promised Land - I always want the last-minute schedule additions to be diamonds

This Is 40 - Trailer scores a lot of laughs in two minutes. Eager for Mann's big move.
D+ - Finally, a vaguely Albee-inspired marathon of Growing Pains! So cute that Apatow's actual daughters shot and edited it.
The Sessions - Computers didn't crash at Y2K, but Hunt did. Why? Welcome back.
C+ - Sympathetic, appealingly played across the board, but feels oddly truncated in almost every direction. Abrupt finish.
Skyfall - Apt use of Mendes' style-over-substance gifts? I even liked Quantum, so...
C+ - Breathtakingly handsome shots alternate with flat set-ups. First-half scenes all feel slumpy. In-jokey for fans. Missable.
Rust and Bone - To quote Helen Mirren, this movie sounds purple, and I like purple
B– - Audiard's gifts at rhythm and texture, stylistically and psychologically, pay richer dividends than script or theme.
Cloud Atlas - Despite bad Wachowskiing in my past, I'm sympathetic to ambition
C - Wachowskis persist in joining rhetoric of revolution with dictatorial, pacifying image-making. Hit and miss. Ambitious.
Lincoln - Hearing it's wonky has made me more eager, and War Horse surprised.
B+ - Old-Hollywood clarity and roundness, laminated by modern, Eastwoody, chilly introspection. Steady rhythm. Quiet authority.
The Bay - I'd have liked Rain Man or Bugsy more with open sores, rotting scapulas.
C - Compulsive viewing but full of bad writing, cheap tricks. Dumb frame story. Shots needlessly repeat. Et tu, Barry Levinson?
The Guilt Trip - Forget the Tiffany-lamp thing and the white mics. Babs is hilarious.
C - Rogen/Streisand chemistry disarms, though they sometimes switch on cruise control. Needed the guts of Hope Springs.
Les Misérables - I'll give Hooper stink-eye if I ever meet him, but I can be turned
D– - Cheap pomposity. Unspeakable direction. Not one story beat or actor really well-served. Utterly abstracted emoting.
This Must Be the Place - I hear My Sean embarrasses himself but I'll B there 4 him
B– - Euro Americana in Don't Come Knocking vein, but more winningly idiosyncratic. Uneven, but out on fun limb.
Middle of Nowhere - I'm so hooked on DuVernay's story, I'll see it no matter what
B+ - Unfolds with the impeccable ease of a beach read, but writing, acting, versatile lensing give it uncommon depth
Hitchcock - I'm more eager for Toby Jones, but casting is inspired. I loved Anvil!
D - Pop-colored warren of blind alleys and broad in-jokes. Utter hogwash, but tiny embers in Mirren, Johansson, D'Arcy perfs.
A Royal Affair - I wouldn't care if reviews weren't so strong, but since they are...
B - Pacing, camera could be defter, but rivals Lincoln in blending character portraits with complex historical critique.

In Another Country - I've never seen a Hong. Curious, though this one sounds iffy.
Sinister - Consensus is forming that this is really scary. Even Emily Rose got me.
F - Thankfully so laughable that the edge is dulled from its luridness. 100% miscalculated hackwork, from leads to locations.
The Impossible - No arc? All white people? Soulless tech exercise? Probably, but...
C+ - Verisimilitude impresses; moving moments. But one family's stamina and luck feel insufficient as window on tsunami.
Arbitrage - Gere playing a smug bastard, Sarandon a tetchy pill sounds very smart
B– - The opposite of innovative, but acted and mounted with conviction. A shrewd portrait of marrow-deep cynicism. Peak Gere.
Smashed - Sounds like late-90s ensemble pic with Faye Dunaway. In a good way?
C - Some keen observations in script and performances, but wobbly on the whole. Tone feels elusive. Overquick leap to last act.
On the Road - I had dreaded this, but so did friends who have filed happy reports
C+ - Prismatically shot and cut, but never feels multifaceted. Charismatically cast, but never fires the imagination. Fine.
Killing Them Softly - The trailer is insufferable, but Telegraph boys sprang for it
B– - Political, stylistic rhetoric dialed way up. Turgid valleys, hypnotic peaks. Prosaic baseline. Solid ensemble.
Seven Psychopaths - Still want to enjoy a McDonagh film like a McDonagh play
Butter - Probably bleak, but if we don't support Jen, we'll never see her Blanche
Django Unchained - Let's skip to the one where an '80s PWA kills Jesse Helms
C+ - Out of two frying pans (brazen voice, gutsy premise), into two fires (puerile bloodlust, QT's ever-duller images).
Flight - Oscar sites, NYFF programmers all excited. Why? Must be some reason.
C+ - Strong Denzel perf and cliché-testing idea about alcohol highs as mixed blessings. Still, full of crutches and cul-de-sacs.
Life of Pi - Ads worse than Killing Me Softly's. Ang and I don't always get along.
B+ - Quite beguiling, especially after a shaky first act. Defter and lovelier than Avatar, with a thornier idea at its core.
A Late Quartet - Sounds like small fry, but I hear Walken's good. Casually curious.
C– - Walken subtle, meticulous, and moving in a film that sadly inclines in all the opposite directions. Keener adrift.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey - I'm sure I'll end up here, but do I want to?
C– - 2D, 24fps, 41.9°N, 87.6°W: Splitting this tweet into three separate tweets but still no room to

Ginger and Rosa - Potter is quite erratic, but every word about Fanning is a rave.
The Intouchables - I keep postponing this. Literally no one has blamed me for it.
Paranormal Activity 4 - I missed 3, but I liked its predecessors. Time to revisit?
C+ - Series narrative getting sillier but scares still work. Handles logical transition to portable-screen setup.
Alex Cross - I've got time for Tyler Perry, but he's been plucking my nerves lately.
Hyde Park on Hudson - I could wait and watch Olivia Colman's bits on YouTube
F - Raise the Red Lantern remade as FDR dramedy? Camera, script, score, edits all wholly disordered. Humanoid cast.
Jack Reacher - I adored Ghost Protocol but I don't see lightning striking twice
Quartet - As a plot, "Maggie Smith in a beaded dress" often ends with me grumpy

The Details - If Linney's role is as fun as she's been saying. Still: Tobey problem.
C - Best scenes lift suburban weirdness to edge of delirium, and set old hands like Linney, Haysbert to fun new tasks. But.
The Man with the Iron Fists - If RZA's wit comes through. Still: grisly comedy?
Any Day Now - If The Gays get behind it. Still: dully earnest? Not an Alan fan.
Playing for Keeps - If it pulls off a fraction of a Jerry Maguire vibe. Still. Still!
The Other Dream Team - If I can read "spirit-lifter" reviews and not doubt them
Not Fade Away - If anyone thinks of one. thing. to sell me on besides Sopranos
Jack and Diane - If reviews pan out, and Juno agrees to a short break afterward
Wreck-It Ralph - If this gets How to Train Your Dragon notices. Still: cartoon.
C– - Clever conceits and creative potential of first half-hour explode into eyesores, excess, and sticky sentimentality.
West of Memphis - If (I'm sorry) I feel less played out of this media obsession

(i.e., early-year releases I'm still hunting)
Elena - Played Chicago at worst possible time for me. Back for one night in Oct.
A - Warmth and cold. Suspense and certainty. Western arthouse style merged with Ozu-esque themes and framing elements. Exquisite.
Post Mortem - No raves help, but Guy Lodge has been stumping for two years
B - Steady, muted accretion of Chilean political horror, intriguingly if unevenly joined to Lanthimos-style deadpan macabre
Trishna - I know. I heard you. You think it's pretty bad. But I love Winterbottom.
Polisse - Wesley Morris was gaga for it. Other reviews all over. I'm intrigued.
Goodbye, First Love -Also repeatedly eluded me. That Mia's a good egg.
The Forgiveness of Blood - Joe Reid and Criterion Coll. can't both be wrong
The Kid with a Bike - I'm not positive this is where I wanted Dardennes to go.
B+ - Taut, economical as ever. Strong kid's eye view. Thinner around adults, but Rongione great foil for de France.
The Color Wheel - One of those indie-indies with a vehement following.
B - Not to all tastes, arguably not even to mine, but I laughed a lot and jived to its raffishness. Risky ending works.
Whores' Glory - I mean, with that title... Plus, festival journos went to the mat.
Bernie - Hosannas for Black, rare MacLaine, McConaughey's big year. Oh, my!
C– - Many folks have really connected to this, but I didn't buy a moment of it, no matter how many "real people" it threw at me.
Your Sister's Sister - Shelton still can't stick landings, I hear. But, those actors!
C+ - Three spry, splendid actors animate a compelling-enough premise. Still, third act astoundingly non-existent.
Crazy Horse - Wiseman's this living legend, yet his films just vanish. Where is it?
Breathing - "From the man who starved in The Counterfeiters" actually sells me
Elles - Good actresses, but getting a Whistleblower vibe of intentions > results.
B - Lurid edits and over-agitated handhelds but Binoche's bourgeoise and two well-acted teenage hookers echo in intriguing ways.
Norwegian Wood - More old Venice news that I'm still chasing. Split opinions.
Footnote - Good reasons to heed the skeptics, but Ashkenazi's a selling-point
B– - Cedar's shallow, flamboyant direction tends to dull what's nervy and rich in his script. Strong actors. Strangling score.
Dark Horse - Since I loved Palindromes I can't trust tepid reviews of Solondz
Detropia - Ewing and Grady apparently knock another tough doc out of the park
B - Structure isn't the strong suit of this urban-downsizing documentary, but candor, sobriety, and imagery are all memorable.
Ruby Sparks - Honestly, I'm only in to see Bening having a laugh. Just say daNo.
D+ - Semicomic stab at critiquing male narcissism and creative labor suffers from rudimentary notions of both. Lumpy dough.
People Like Us - Honestly, I'm only in to see Pfeiffer startle Pine with real acting
C - Total dick takes baby-steps toward basic decency. Everyone claps. I'm amazed a joint like this clicks even a little.
Sound of My Voice - Slow-to-debut sci-fi noodle from the Another Earth team
B– - Richer, denser than Another Earth, but equally prone to implying space-time might be, like, WHOA. Uneven script.
Natural Selection - SxSW/Indie Spirit hit seemed to die on vine. Too "quirky"?
2 Days in New York - Loved 2 Days in Paris. Do I need to meet its plainer sib?
We Have a Pope - Sounds negligible, but I'm a Palme Competition completist
Mosquita y Mari - Lesbian features are so rare I try to catch them all. Returning?
Lola Versus - Gerwig made me such a believer recently that I'll join her anywhere
Rock of Ages - Word of mouth very discouraging, but still sort of fascinating
F - Tuneless, garish, not remotely fun. Nonstop travesties of mostly great pop songs the film neither spoofs nor respects.
Brave - I'm exhausted of Pixar. There, I said it. Also don't love Kelly Macdonald.
C - Not a farrago, but a dull cluster of missed chances. Story wonky, character designs off, limp songs. Who wants to be Merida?
Chicken with Plums - Not as sold on Amalric or Satrapi as most. Try two bites?
Savages - Joe Reid had a ball. Tim Robey had a near-death experience. Tiebreak!
C– - Stone's lurid, overripe style tends toward the graceless. Film's ideas and metaphors are blunt...but at least it has some?
The Amazing Spider-Man - Colin Low's vote for the performances might do it.

(i.e., postponed to next year)
Gravity - Six Seven years too long to wait for new Cuarón. Love that risk-taker.
Frances Ha - Everyone says this is rich and adorable, so of course we must wait
The Great Gatsby - It'll be pretty, but casting mystifies. Not eager for this at. all.

Parental Guidance - Quinnipac exit poll: "Which star emanated more self-love?"
Red Dawn - This year's Fame or The Thing: if I feel tempted, I'll see the original
Chasing Mavericks - Gerard Butler is surfing, I guess, and ... oh, who knows.
Fun Size - Is this aiming for Superbad or Hannah Montana? Either way: Nope.
The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Part II - Whole cast seems miserable.
Rise of the Guardians - I thought this was a sequel to Ga'hoole! A vacuole.

Atlas Shrugged, Part II - GOP moneybags won't pay taxes but will fund this?
Here Comes the Boom - Like Warrior but with more kicks to the groin, I'd bet.

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The Fifties for 2012: Picture and Director

This is the last stop for The Fifties. Thanks to everyone who read and commented, especially after I've been out of commission for so long, and don't be shy if you didn't! Thanks also to Tim Robey and Joe Reid who published their own versions of this feature in recent weeks. I haven't revisited their lists while I was posting my own, so as not to pilfer ideas, but they're great and distinctive run-downs.

Speaking of pilfering, I've decided to nick the Academy's new practice of having a flexible concertina for the number of Best Picture nominees, instilling the cutoff point where I feel it naturally falls, between 5 and 10. And so:

Best Picture
Beasts of the Southern Wild, for plunging into the kind of mythographic storytelling we celebrate in our novels but often deny our movies, and for absolutely nailing it;

Damsels in Distress, for returning from long absence and from diminishing returns of two prior movies with his warmest, most eccentric film, still very much his;

In the Family, for proving that low-budget regional films, the kind that get affirmative-actioned into lots of local festivals, can outrun much bigger dogs;

Magic Mike, for being not quite the movie advertised or expected, and being funnier, more incisive, more ambitious, and more heterogeneous than that one;

Miss Bala, for having the formal and technical wherewithal to tell a story of brute social machines with apt stylistic determinism, and for nailing it;

The Snowtown Murders, for being such a complete package I've cited it in every category, and for earning the immersion in sordidness that gives me qualms about it; and

The Turin Horse, for telling an overtly apocalyptic story, detailing a quotidian existence with uncommon texture, and asking if the latter entails the former.

Honorable mentions are honorable but don't feel mentionable: I graded A Simple Life the same as some of these nominees, but its staying power and degree of difficulty rank slightly below those of the movies I've listed; the same is even truer of Corpo Celeste. The only movie that's truly tempting to sub in here is 21 Jump Street, which only seems more eclectically, amiably, berzerkly accomplished on second viewing, and is such a welcome surprise inside such an empty-looking gift horse. Expect at least a re-grade.

Best Director
Justin Kurzel for The Snowtown Murders, for mastery of craft that still avoids an airless film-school feeling, and ratcheting up confrontational material without going for prurience;

Gerardo Naranjo for Miss Bala, for achieving deep, taut frames even as he plays menacingly with their borders, moves the camera brilliantly, and stays focused on the story;

Steven Soderbergh for Magic Mike, for his great, distinctive strength of immersing us in his characters while also subtly dramatizing his actors' relations to their characters;

Béla Tarr for The Turin Horse, for beating even Haneke at sustaining bleak preoccupations without just parodying himself, treating humanity seriously as a guttering flame; and

Benh Zeitlin for Beasts of the Southern Wild, for having such temerity, working with kids and water and magical realism and a raw nerve of recent cultural memory, and making it all click.

Honorable mentions include Patrick Wang for In the Family, Whit Stillman for Damsels in Distress, Ann Hui for A Simple Life, and Phil Lord and Christopher Miller for 21 Jump Street, for all the reasons listed above. Benoît Jacquot and Tony Gilroy adroitly manage two forms of palace intrigue for two different eras, diffusing unease across memorable characters in Farewell, My Queen and The Bourne Legacy.  And Paul Thomas Anderson (The Master) and Nuri Bilge Ceylan (Once Upon a Time in Anatolia) once again make me excited that they are alive and making tough, inimitable movies, even if I'll be more excited when they don't insert themselves quite so fussily between their images and their spectators.

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Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Fifties for 2012: Best Actress

My perennially favorite category, saved for second-to-last...

Best Actress
Greta Gerwig for Damsels in Distress, for gently suggesting that her archly chipper co-ed might be playing a role or just being herself, and making her deluded epiphanies matter;

Léa Seydoux for Farewell, My Queen, for maintaining the sly, neurotic reserve of a cat in a court painting, but coming to life when it counts, as in her last-act twists of fate;

Meryl Streep for Hope Springs, for refusing to flatter the wife as an exceptional diamond in the rough, playing a timid, unremarkable gal who deserves love, as do we all;

Quvenzhané Wallis for Beasts of the Southern Wild, for passing so fluidly among precious, pugnacious, and contemplative, entering fully into the youthful but old-souled métier of this movie; and

Deanie Yip for A Simple Life, for giving such an understated, transparent performance despite the field-day elements of this role, from gradual dementia to beatific dying.

Honorable mentions skip past critical favorites Rachel Weisz in The Deep Blue Sea, from whom I just didn't get much, and Michelle Williams in Take This Waltz, who makes a dubiously written character actively more irritating before pulling things together in more interesting ways toward the end. My runners-up are Ann Dowd in Compliance, who's never better than in her first 15 minutes or her last five, and does what anyone could with a jerry-rigged script; and Ariane Labed in Attenberg, for taking the character and her situations so seriously and soberly despite (and without shying away from) the bizarre mannerisms of the writing and directing. I got a lot of joy from Julia Roberts in Mirror Mirror and Jennifer Westfeldt in Friends with Kids and was impressed with what Linda Cardellini augurs for her potentials in Return, but none are quite Honorable Mentions.

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Monday, October 08, 2012

The Fifties for 2012: Best Screenplays

The writing categories almost always seem weakest to me at the 50 mark, and this year's no real exception.  Don't get me wrong: lots of really good work here. But maybe not enough great work.  Bring it on, fall season!

Best Original Screenplay
Whit Stillman for Damsels in Distress, for wit, for giving arcs to the few characters who need them without short-sheeting others, and for making every scene equally major or minor;

Patrick Wang for In the Family, for supplying backstory in deliberate steps, intriguing but just shy of coy, and for scripting big drama at modest volume, at Southern speed;

Reid Carolin for Magic Mike, for flexibility, spryness, and tone, putting solid muscle on the bones of that old cliché, "It's messy and multi-sided, just like real life";

Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola for Moonrise Kingdom, for setting up two molecules, one with kids who seem eager to be adults, one with adults who seem like kids, and figuring out how to bond them; and

Ercan Kesal, Ebru Ceylan, and Nuri Bilge Ceylan for Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, for a patient structure that slips inside many heads, working as a tense procedural and a study of the motives and mechanics of storytelling.

Honorable mentions to Alice Rohrwacher for the unusual and incisive coming-of-age in Corpo Celeste; and to Seth MacFarlane for the potty-mouth of a million funny colors in Ted, but also for a take on perpetual male adolescence that really works.  Honorable mentions to the honorable mentions include Athina Rachel Tsangari for trusting her odd instincts and generating unforeseen payoffs in Attenberg; Paul Thomas Anderson for his bold experimenting with unfilled mosaic in The Master, Jennifer Westfeldt for conceiving a great premise and good lines in Friends with Kids, even if her sense of an ending is still pretty off; and Vanessa Taylor for the bracing honesty of the best scenes in Hope Springs, shining through a directing job that I suspect flatters and short-sells her script in different ways.

Best Adapted Screenplay
Michael Bacall and Jonah Hill for 21 Jump Street, for its almost unnerving ability to clear four hurdles that fell almost everyone: Action-Comedy, High School, Dubious Remake, Bro-y Dick Jokes;

Lucy Alibar and Benh Zeitlin for Beasts of the Southern Wild, for vast, oracular ambition that still feels rooted in a six-year-old's mindset, and for avoiding the arc into disaster we've come to expect;

Benoît Jacquot and Gilles Taurand for Farewell, My Queen, for all the trigonometry of who's obsessed with what or with whom, for keeping the queen at bay, and for apt semi-veiling of palace protocol;

Joachim Trier and Eskil Vogt for Oslo, August 31st, for its most detailed and most even-handed scenes, like the addict's confession of suicidal thoughts and his meeting with his sister's partner; and

Shaun Grant and Justin Kurzel for The Snowtown Murders, for handling half-hour arcs in mere minutes, snaring us in the winch of missing what's happening, and in the trap of thinking we could escape.

Honorable mentions in this division are limited to Tracy Letts's adroit refitting of his own play Killer Joe, which just passes the smell test of is-this-art-or-is-this-sleaze, and keeps adding layers literally till the last edit; and Nick Cave's script for The Blandest Title in the World, which tries too hard with some characters (Pearce) and too little with others (Wasikowska, Chastain), but even in its substantially re-edited form works as a good evening yarn.

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Sunday, October 07, 2012

The Fifties for 2012: Best Supporting Actor

Probably the most off-the-map of my acting lineups, though I'm still more sanguine than some people about the Bongo King's chances to wind up on the big year-end rosters.

Best Supporting Actor
Simon Russell Beale for The Deep Blue Sea, for holding a steady flame under his character's uxorious devotion, but keeping his shame, disdain, and mystification simmering alongside it;

Daniel Henshall for The Snowtown Murders, for finding new variations and a bearish modesty inside the trope of the disarming, fatherly sociopath, slipping him quietly into the movie;

Noé Hernández for Miss Bala, for staying elusive in a film that can feel overdetermined, hinting he is the girl's best ally and worst threat, working some layered agenda;

Matthew McConaughey for Magic Mike, for embracing while expanding his persona, blending camaraderie and self-interest, fears about middle age and voluptuous delight in his body; and

Brian Murray for In the Family, for serving the character and the film by keeping complexity at a minimum, showing us a very savvy lawyer driven by straightforward decency.

Honorable mentions start with Steve Carell for dialing down so self-effacingly in Hope Springs but reading as sincere, intelligent, and interested rather than blank; Dwight Henry for balancing volatility, eccentricity, and adoration in such complicated proportions in Beasts of the Southern Wild; and Bruce Willis for tacitly and tenderly putting across the fully dimensional adult character that Moonrise Kingdom sorely needs, without signaling immediately that the character is headed that way. Philip Seymour Hoffman has galvanizing moments in The Master, several of them nicely underplayed, though the performance also comes outfitted with scenes and flourishes that don't fully cohere (though that's partly due to the script). Seth Rogen manages his anti-typecasting well in Take This Waltz, yet he too suffers for some of his writer-director's miscalculations, as in his indulgent montage of post-breakup grief.  And no, I didn't forget Michael Fassbender in Prometheus; I just wasn't that taken with him, or surprised by anything in his perfectly skillful performance.

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The Fifties for 2012: Best Ensemble Cast

Unlike Cinematography, this roster kept swapping candidates in and out, which I guess is what a great ensemble does anyway.  Meanwhile, I am running out of Snowtown images.

Best Ensemble Cast
Damsels in Distress, for selling that tricky Whit Stillman argot with bouncier comic élan than any of their predecessors, while keeping their hold on characters;

Friends with Kids, for capitalizing on the troupe's real-life bonds while switching up pair-offs and personas, gaining focus whenever most people are on screen;

Magic Mike, for making the Xquisite squad a memorable gaggle, involving the women in deceptively subtle ways, and nailing the lost art of directing extras;

The Snowtown Murders, for hiring the right pros, semi-pros, and amateurs to make this world believable, finely etched in crowded group shots and in quick inserts; and

Wanderlust, for such lively comic badminton among the whole commune, the horrid suburbans, the HBO higher-ups, and the newscasters, with barely a script.

Honorable mentions begin on serious notes with In the Family's plausible township of friends, antagonists, and (somewhere in the middle) relatives, and with Oslo, August 31st's kaleidoscope of old pals, nervous onlookers, irritated reacquaintances, and strangers from the blue. The actors in 21 Jump Street find laughs in every direction, though the script helps them out more than Wanderlust's does. Killer Joe might be full-on noxious without a charismatic cast keeping it so earnest, funny, and compelling, give or take Hirsch's wild turn.  In the wing of prestige imports, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia and A Simple Life never run out of articulate faces and agile performers, affording us broader and broader exposure to their pained communities-in-miniature, though you could say the same about the stranded band of men in that red-meat multiplex pic The Grey.


Saturday, October 06, 2012

The Fifties for 2012: Cinematography

This was by far the easiest lineup to assemble, rising like cream even above the worthy runner-ups:

Best Cinematography
Ben Richardson for Beasts of the Southern Wild, for seamlessly blending natural lighting and fantastical accents, pulling out detail even in quick-moving shots, making FX-heavy images work;

Mihai Malaimare, Jr., for The Master, for making 65mm more than a talking point, using it to galvanize the movie's preoccupations with captivating surfaces that feel impenetrable;

Gökhan Tiryaki, for Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, for fields of deep black streaked by dazzling pools of headlamp or flashlight illumination, and for granular detail in close-up or long shot;

Adam Arkapaw, for The Snowtown Murders, for injecting such Polaroid seediness into his typically vivid compositions and sharp edge-lighting, and using fluorescents to such advantage; and

Fred Kelemen for The Turin Horse, for the lithographic beauty of its silvers, greys, and blacks, for making air palpable, and for the impact of quotidian objects and textures.

Honorable mentions, as I say, trailed these field-leaders, but that's no discredit to work as good as Jakob Ihre's fluid camera movements and remarkable sensitivity to faces and social dynamics in Oslo, August 31st; Mátyás Erdély's muscular sequence shots and stomach-tightening play with depth of field and off-screen space in Miss Bala; Florian Hoffmeister's amber, ink, and indigo variations on Terence Davies's delicate house style in The Deep Blue Sea; Robert Yeoman's artfully two-dimensional, broad-palette storybook aesthetics in Moonrise Kingdom, with more warmth and subtle human detail than Anderson has attained since Tenenbaums; and Robert Elswit's characteristic elegance with color and composition, even amid frenzied sequences, in The Bourne Legacy.

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Wednesday, October 03, 2012

The Fifties for 2012: Best Arguments for Second Helpings

A new category with two goals: to honor movies distinctive and compelling enough that I'm curious to re-explore them, and to confess where my memories have gotten least reliable in one way or another, meaning these movies may be cropping up in fewer categories than they deserve to.

Best Arguments for Second Helpings
Attenberg, because I saw it almost 18 months ago, and since its oddness is so total and its landscape of feeling so mysterious that I wonder what I saw;

Corpo Celeste, because this barely-released Catholic coming-of-age tale from Italy really got me at last year's Chicago Festival but I recall few specifics;

The Master, because as sure as I feel that the reception has been overweening, the construction is so elliptical that I know it would shift shapes on me;

Moonrise Kingdom, because I had the most pleasant time watching it I've ever had at a Wes Anderson movie, yet I remember few of the scenes my friends mention; and

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, because I watched it in flagrantly sub-par conditions (on an Amtrak!) and it clearly deserves better, no matter my usual qualms about Ceylan.

Honorable mentions pretty much limit themselves to The Deep Blue Sea, because it makes me nervous how much thinner the production and the acting seemed to me than they did to almost every film critic I follow, and 21 Jump Street, because I was so disarmed by how funny and charming it was that I wonder if it's also even better than I thought it was.

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The Fifties for 2012: Best Supporting Actress

Some more great acting from the earlier part of the year.  My fifth choice involves a role so modest  that neither the film's publicity materials, its trailer, nor the long arm of Google Image furnishes a single shot of the actress in character.  In truth, she's already lost her spot to a performance I've subsequently seen from this year, but all the more reason to celebrate this selfless turn!

Best Supporting Actress
Carmen Ejogo for Sparkle, for reinvesting such nuance, glamor, and depth in the stock role of the swishy-hipped fallen angel, and for that dinner-table confrontation;

Louise Harris for The Snowtown Murders, for shading this unnerving, heartbreaking turn as a blind-eyed mom with expert skill, while maintaining an amateur's unfakeable transparency;

Diane Kruger for Farewell, My Queen, for giving this charismatic queen a reflex narcissism that's barely conscious of itself, while endowing her, too, with an astonishing delicacy;

Noémie Lvovsky for Farewell, My Queen, for her subtleties in the semi-backgrounded mezzo role of the lady in waiting, making her as fascinating as the women she summons or attends; and

Elizabeth Marvel for The Bourne Legacy, for her invaluable role in one of those ambiguously sinister encounters at which this film excels, cutting through the scene like dark glass.

Honorable mentions do not, for the record, include Anne Hathaway in The Dark Knight Rises, Amy Adams in The Master, Sarah Silverman in Take This Waltz, or Samantha Morton in Cosmopolis, all of whom attracted their passionate devotees.  I found the first two intriguing but inconsistent, never dispelling my sense of the laudably ambitious performers being miscast; the other two make an impression without, by my count, having all that much to do.  This hasn't been a banner category so far this year, which might make the Oscars interesting.  I quite liked Rachel Weisz in The Bourne Legacy, balancing the game and the haughty sides of her persona better than most of her roles since Constant Gardener. I wanted to spend more time with her, as I did the bayou teacher and the ambivalent birthday girl that Gina Montana and Kjærsti Odden Skjeldal sketch so briefly but memorably in Beasts of the Southern Wild and Oslo, August 31st, respectively. MyAnna Buring sure made the most of a potentially abrasive or unmemorable part in Kill List. In a different generic universe, the uproarious Kathryn Hahn and Michaela Watkins are magicians with their punchline characters in Wanderlust.  One of those ladies would qualify here with just another showcase scene or a slightly elevated degree of difficulty.

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