Tuesday, November 22, 2011


Sometime in mid-September, I was a call-in guest on Jason O'Brien's Oscar-related podcast, and I posited that Michel Hazanavicius' tribute to silent movies called THE ARTIST was going to be the winner of this year's Best Picture Oscar. Everyone made fun of me, and thought me insane, and I agreed that it seemed quite wacky that a movie like this could bewitch so many in this digital age. I explained to Jason that I have a gift.

See, I have this bell. It's in my head. I can't explain how I got it--maybe it came from being an Oscar fan for 35 years. But it's there. And each year, when I see signs of the eventual Best Picture winner, that bell goes off. I started noticing this bell in 1982. I was 16 years old and I remember predicting the five Best Picture nominees that year; E.T., GANDHI, and TOOTSIE were easy to predict, but THE VERDICT and MISSING were adventurous choices. Still, I got them all right. This gave me confidence. And the winner was easy, if painful, to predict (I liked all four nominees more than GANDHI, but I knew Attenbourough's bio-pic would win).

I had a dream in the summer of 1992. It took place in January 1993, and I was leafing through an issue of VARIETY, and I was looking at an ad for Clint Eastwood's UNFORGIVEN, and the ad said that Clint's newest movie had gotten eight Oscar nominations. I was, at this point, convinced that the very unlikely UNFORGIVEN would win Best Picture. The film, of course, ended up with nine Oscar nominations, and was the winner of Best Picture, Director, Supporting Actor and Editing. I was creeped out by this prediction, in particular. I thought, at this point, I had a preternatural ability.

From this point on, the only time this bell of mine has failed me was in 2005, when I was sure Ang Lee's BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN would win the big prize. But CRASH famously dashed those hopes, and I was shocked. Still, after that, I knew that THE DEPARTED, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE, THE HURT LOCKER (the bell REALLY went off on that one), and THE KING'S SPEECH would win the Best Picture Oscar.

This year, when I saw the trailer for Hazanavicius' THE ARTIST, the bell went off big time. I let Jason O'Brien know of this first here. Yeah, I was mocked. But now that the movie is hitting full force, and is no longer a Cannes Film Festival rumor (where it was a frontrunner and eventually won Best Actor for its lead), it's turning out that I am correct. Yes, it's a silent, black-and-white movie filmed at 22 frames per second (making all of the action a little quicker than you might be used to) and, yeah, that might not seem like a sure bet awards- or box-office-wise. But THE ARTIST is a total crowd-pleaser, and the positive talk will gather. It's an exhilerating Hollywood comedy with sneaky dashes of melodrama. Moreover, it's a ridiculously beautiful look at moviemaking's past; it's filled with adoring references to a now-ancient form of the craft and it's impossible to hate.

THE ARTIST captured me immediately with its first scene where the hero, the dashing silent film star George Valentin, gloriously laps up praise after the premier of his new silent spy epic, "A Russian Affair." THE ARTIST's star, Jean Dujardin, won my imagined Best Actor vote almost immediately because his Valentin is so lovably, hilariously hammy (seriously, I was cackling all the way though the film's first six minutes---what a winning toothy smile Dujardin has). Also, on top of his smashing face and ebullient energy, he's got an indespensible sidekick: a Jack Russell puppy billed as "The Dog" but played by an amiable pooch named Uggie (who should win Best Supporting Actor this year). Uggie's precise, energetic showing here ranks as one of the cinema's great animal performances.

Being realistic, THE ARTIST doesn't go many places you don't expect it to go. The story--Valentin is a silent film actor left behind after the advent of sound cinema--is basically A STAR IS BORN crossed with a bit of SINGIN' IN THE RAIN--but its charm lies in its mastery of each composite of film art. The detailed art direction (by Lawrence Bennett), cinematography (by Guillaume Schiffman, who shot the film in the old-time 1:33 aspect ratio), closely-examined costumes (by Mark Bridges), editing (by Hazanavicius and Anne-Sophie Bion), tuneful scoring (achieved succinctly by Ludovic Bource), scripting, and yes, even the sound (which is used is always surprising ways), is absolute perfection.

Hazanavicius delivers this love letter to long-gone moviemaking complete with dazzling uses of period graphics, multi-layered montages, surprising digital effects (which bring the film into the modern era--this is a movie that firmly belongs HERE, at the death of 24 frames per second), and well-considered casting of nearly every person who appears onscreen (though there are perhaps unnecessary appearances by Malcolm McDowell, Ed Lauter, and Beth Grant--they get high billing but their arrivals are little more than cameos; the bit players are more noteworthy though, meanwhile, the amiable James Cromwell is cleverly cast as Valentin's steadfast chauffeur, harkening back to Cromwell's film debut as the driver in 1976's likeminded throwback MURDER BY DEATH). John Goodman, post-MATINEE, portrays yet another cigar-chomping movie mogul (and he's an expert at this), and Brazillian actress Bérénice Bejo is Dujardin's lively rival/romantic interest (she's dynamite). But, though I wish the film were slightly more moving in the scenes where it's meant to be, Hazanavicius' loving, playful direction bests everything. He's having fun with film and film history and, boy, yeah howdy, he does it so well. Though Malick's THE TREE OF LIFE is still the most astounding movie of the year, THE ARTIST remains a winner through and through.

Sunday, November 20, 2011


Like Alexander Payne's last three films, his newest is based on a book, this time Kaui Hart Hemmings' best seller called THE DESCENDANTS, and it has more of the circuitous feel of a novel than ELECTION, ABOUT SCHMIDT, or SIDEWAYS. All of Payne's movies deal with people who feel disconnected with their own lives, and here the focus is on Matt King (George Clooney), the pater familia of a clan sprung from Hawaiian royalty who, as a result of their inherited beachfront land, are set to become billionaires once the development deal is done. King's figurehead status--he represents the family's interests in the sale--disguises his dourly fractured family life. His youngest daughter Scottie (Amara Miller) is a tween brat. The older daughter Alexandra (a vital Shailene Woodley) is off at school, partying hard. And his wife is carrying on a secret life behind his back. But Matt is totally disengaged with all this. In the ersatz paradise of Hawaii, he is floating in a sea of numbers and is about to be jerked back into reality.

Clooney is already looking pretty hangdog as the film begins, his stylish grey hair looking finally like the product of stress. Things only get worse for him. First his wife lapses into a coma after a ski jet mishap. Matt gets blamed for the accident by his wife's cantankerous father (the always-welcome Robert Forster), who chides "If you had only bought her the boat she wanted, this wouldn't have happened." But Matt knows differently, because an exasperated Alexandra clues him in: Mom was having an affair. And so, as in all of Payne's films, we watch as a hero at last attempts to truly occupy a world they've allowed, through inattentiveness, to degenerate into vapitity.

Payne's movies always have an outrageousness that I've come depend on to commingle with their scripts' humanistic insights. But THE DESCENDANTS is never really off-the-charts hilarious or affecting; it's probably not even a comedy, though it's feels like it should be one (meanwhile, I was only moved once by the melodrama--when Matt withholds the truth about his wife from the chiding Forster). This is the director's first movie without his longtime screenwriting partner Jim Taylor, and I wonder if this is why it's the director's least lively film. THE DESCENDANTS is smart stuff, for sure, and there's a lot to like about its ruminations on respect and forgiveness--but it's not very fun. It's missing that raucous feel that permeates his other works; it turns out the most amusing character in it is Nick Krause's burnout teen, who's brought along on this ride by girlfriend Alexandra. (Krause--who makes this familiar archetype his own--and Clooney share the best scene in the film, a midnight tete-a-tete about personal tragedy that leads both to a shaky mutual admiration). There are always a lot of tears in Payne's movies, but this one asks us respond to heartfelt ones, while the director does crocodile tears a whole lot better.

The movie is solid and well-played (especially by Clooney, who delivers a terrifically harried performance), and I particularly liked the wryly overstated Hawaii feel to the art direction, and the stupendous collection of Hawaiian music injecting jolts of life into all this absorbing dreariness. But I would be lying if I didn't say that THE DESCENDANTS is a movie I respect more than love. It left me feeling not enervated and energized, as did CITIZEN RUTH and ELECTION, but instead rather uncomfortably blah (sort of like ABOUT SCHMIDT). Other than with one perfectly timed kiss, the movie just never seems to be taking any real chances and thus, for me, it's a mild disappointment.

Saturday, November 12, 2011


The grandiose opening to Lars Von Trier's newest cataclysm is an upfront shock (unlike most of his other films, which are loaded with climactic jolts). He and his able crew have crafted a nine-minute overture, set to Richard Wagner's urgently emotional prelude to TRISTAN UND ISOLDE, and in this sequence, the story you are about to see is told fully in drowsy, lavish tableaus that floor the senses (they sting even more upon the second viewing). But, first time around, the viewer has no ken; these stunning abstracts leave us unprepared somehow.

MELANCHOLIA peers into the pros and cons of depression. Von Trier, in his upheaval of a press conference at this year's Cannes Film Festival, admitted that he suffers from the disease. As a fellow in this respect, I can tell you that what one depressed individual may find funny is not something to which one who is not depressed can relate. And that's all I'm going to say about that sideshow.

It's seems clear to me, at least, that BOTH of Von Trier's lead characters here suffer from the same affliction. Justine (a transformed Kirsten Dunst) handles the challenge very differently from her sister Claire, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg (both actresses were child stars, which we all know can lead to some serious problems, and I wonder if this is what lead Von Trier to this pairing). Justine is a damaged butterfly; Claire is an overworked beetle. Over the course of the film, the onslaught of a looming companion planet, named Melancholia by soothsaying scientists, threatens our Earth's life. Maybe this is a reference to the pesky global warming debate--will it kill us, or will it not? But fear not, lovelies. This isn't a political film.

Justine's seemingly gilded marriage ceremony is troubled from the start. Flowing gown and all, she has to get behind the wheel of the stretch limo in which she and her husband arrive, attempting to navigate the winding road leading the ridiculously huge mansion where the reception's afoot. Depression is never easy; yep--that snaky road is a metaphor, and an apt one. The incipient celebration is studded with sapping drains on the luminous Justine's energy. She puts up a brave front, because the pressure's on, but her boss (Stellan Skarsgaard) leadens her with work challenges; Skarsgaard's newest assistant (Brady Corbett) sucks at her with a queerly lucrative desperation; her mother (Charlotte Rampling) smashes the party up with her caustic honesty; her lovable but wackadoo father (John Hurt) friskily pockets spoons and pesters the waitstaff for replacements, while forgoing patriarchal responsibilities; her inarticulate new husband (Alexander Skarsgaard) wants most to get on to the honeymoon duties; and Claire is on top of helping Justine navigate this rigamarole, even while Claire's husband (Kiefer Sutherland), from his lofty balcony of logic, sneers at all this cryptic madness.

Enough. It's too much already. Couple this with the upcoming onslaught of the planet Melancholia--which may or may not end the world--and, inevitably, the idea of happily-married bliss becomes absurd for Justine. MELANCHOLIA is split into two pieces, each named after the two sisters, and by midfilm, when the siblings are taking a galloping horse ride through the foggy countryside, past all the frivolous golf courses, Justine is the with-it one who notices treasured stars in the sky have disappeared behind that ever-approaching threat.

The second half of Von Trier's newest and possibly most accessible (but still resolutely strange) tale follows Claire as she tries to make more down-to-earth sense of Melancholia's approach. She has a young son to worry about, and father Sutherland is too bent on showing their boy the planet's progress--via telescope and a more illustrative homemade device--to even address the larger implications of this event; in fact, he denies any implications until it's too late. In the end, it is the seemingly delicate Justine who's a bulwark of strength, even though at the beginning of this episode she's so overfunked she can barely take a bath. As a treat, Claire cooks Justine her favorite meal--a homey meatloaf--and even this fails to cheer her. "It tastes like ashes" a crestfallen Justine says. For me, this was MELANCHOLIA's height; nothing says more about the experience of depression than being presented with a former joy, whatever it might be and then, because you just can't help it, feeling yourself spit that fleshly gift right back into the faces of people you love.

Being depressed is like feeling the world implode each and every day. Justine knows this, and she needs relief. But she also suspects--no, is certain--she's correct in feeling this way. You'd have to be crazy not to (maybe this IS a political film--it equalizes the 1% and the 99%). So it's not surprising Justine's the one best equipped to handle an end-of-the-world scenario; it's possibly the only time being depressed would actually be a plus. For "sane" Claire, the world ends before it really ends, and you realy feel sorry for her because she's tried hard to smooth out all of life's wrinkles. But for the more unfettered Justine--a once fresh-faced but now sunken-eyed goddess--this radically troubled globe deserves its fate, so saying a lyrical goodbye is not at all hard to do. There haven't been many movies made about depression so it strikes me as doubly pleasant that MELANCHOLIA gets the downtrodden spirit so artfully right without smushing your puss into a batch of whiny speeches. It's a puzzle, but what a kooky beauty it is, this blanket of misery.

Thursday, November 10, 2011


After more than a decade apart, star Antonio Banderas and now-legendary writer/director Pedro Almodovar have revived their longtime collaboration with THE SKIN I LIVE IN, Almodovar's lurid take on the horror genre (which owes a lot, by his own admission, to George Franju's EYES WITHOUT A FACE). Here, though, the story we may already know is infused with the director's never-dying fascination with gender identity.

Banderas plays a boundary-pushing plastic surgeon who has a river of madness running through his veins. His current obsession lies in his attempts to develop a brand of super-human skin made out of pig cells. Frankenstein-like, he works in secret in the basement of his sleek, steely compound on his newest creation, a commanding and wide-eyed woman named Vera (Elena Anaya), who's the jailed and tortured recipient of a six-year regiment of skin grafts.

Through a hazy, jumbled series of flashbacks, we're let in on a tragic series of events that lead to both the release of the doctor's incipient madness, while at the same time we're being imformed of his creation's monsterous angst. There are blue and silver touches of Cronenberg felt here, and at the same time, Mary Shelley's spirit is alive. But Franju's ideas are most powerfully at work in this movie. This could even be seen as a remake of EYES WITHOUT A FACE. After the screening at the NY Film Fest, the incredibly clever and funny Almodovar was upfront about this influence.

When you see Anaya with the mask and bodysuit (designed by Jean-Paul Gauthier), you'll know what I'm talking about (if you've seen EYES WITHOUT A FACE, which you should see before hand, if you haven't yet). Anaya's pasty-white mask is total Franju; meanwhile, the precise bodysuit is utterly both Gauthier AND Almodovar. The latter finds much room for many darkly-tinged laughs, particularly with Banderas's tiger-suited brother, played with zest by Roberto Álamo. And, perhaps not so naturally, there is some of the most bizarre and unsettling sex in a festival that has been filled with strangely sexual tales.

Almodovar's newest picture is perhaps a bit overlong by 10 or 15 minutes, but it is also campy and action-packed, and ultimately quite moving, most notably in its brave and incomprehensibly sad final scene (capped with a simple, memorable final line). Backed with perhaps the most energetic musical score of the year (a violin-infused violence by Alberto Iglesias), I didn't love THE SKIN I LIVE IN, but I respect it immensely. It's a sick movie that made me smile.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011


A total crowd-pleaser (with integrity), Simon Curtis' MY WEEK WITH MARILYN starts off in a slightly ponderous manner with Eddie Redmayne's wide-eyed, well-backed Colin Clark determined to wind his way into the British film industry. The film's smart economy allows this upper-class maven to land a job with Lawrence Olivier's production company at once, just at the right moment to allow him to meet his (and many other's) first big screen crush--a lady named Marilyn Monroe. She brings her resolutely American ways--learned at Lee Strasberg's Actor's Studio--to the UK, and this puts them on an inevitable collision course with Olivier's more traditional acting mores. Kenneth Branaugh's bluster as Olivier keeps us entwined in the first 20 minutes, as we follow his preparations for the filming of what would turn out to be his final directorial effort, 1957's THE PRINCE AND THE SHOWGIRL. But you can feel yourself waiting for the star of the show while watching MY WEEK WITH MARILYN. And the star does NOT disappoint.

The always remarkable Michelle Williams hooks us completely with her resolutely definitive version of Marilyn. She appears fleetingly in the first act, like a shy vision. But by the second act, she's found a friend and a flirtation in Redmayne's increasingly endearing Colin Clark (who wrote two memoirs about his unique relationship with the superstar). Williams is stunning in this bon-bon of a movie. I cannot dare to say what she has done, except to say that she shrinks the memory of any other actress who dared to portray Monroe on film. How do I know this?

Well, while at the New York Film Festival, I was lucky enough to view the movie while sitting next to a writer and actor who knew Marilyn well. He told me stories about being with her at the Actor's Studio, brushing up with her in a small-spaced clinch with her breasts pressing up against him. He admitted to having a crush on her much like Redmayne's Clark has in the film, and I could feel my now-elderly friend sighing with envy throughout the entire movie. He said he had met with Marilyn six times (including once at Elia Kazan's home), and that she remembered him and would wave to him anytime they were in the vicinity of each other. His ultimate review of MY WEEK WITH MARILYN is that Williams gets it all right--the insecurity, yes, but moreover the instantly recognizable sweetness of this little hurt bird that reveled in warbling and preening for the joy of every man. Though her difficulties on-set are portrayed, this is not a movie about her downfall; it's about her last chance at innocence (there's an insanely fine "date" scene with Monroe and Clark that erases all thoughts that, at the time, she was married to Arthur Miller).

MY WEEK WITH MARILYN is lithe and fast-paced. It's not a utterly fantastic movie--whenever Monroe is not on-screen, it feels like top-notch television fare--but it does contain a sparkling, supreme performance. It'll probably be a huge hit, which it deserves to be because of the captivating Williams. She is an actress who really seems she can do no wrong these days. Singing, primping, or depressed, Michelle Willliams portrays a perfect Marilyn Monroe.