Thursday, October 25, 2012

Handicapping The Oscars With Contempt

Film fans have very carefully over the years turned one conversation into two, both about very different topics. One is, “What are the year’s best and most interesting movies?” The other, very different and more politicized question is, “What films are more likely to be Oscar contenders?” The latter suggests that, yes, the Academy tend to lean towards predictability more often than not. Which is why I’ve devised and revised a guide over the years as to what the Academy Awards committee looks for in regards to acting. These factors stand out, which I will grant with their own alphabetical assignment.

A - This denotes a performance based on a real character. Certain audience members find it easier to qualify a performance as good or bad if they have a very specific rubric to apply, usually based on leftover footage of the subject. The Academy cares little for the fact that these types of performances sometimes lean towards mimicry, or that the corresponding movies often aren’t very good, or even that the person being imitated is someone they would never know.
EX. Geoffrey Rush, “Shine,” Helen Mirren, “The Queen”

B - This designation is reserved for characters who are suffering and/or dying in a prolonged, difficult-to-watch manner, or suffering from a debilitating condition or handicap (see: Full Retard). It is also reserved for those struggling with some sort of social malady, most often homosexuality or racism. The Oscars rarely like gays and minorities unless they suffer.
EX. Daniel Day-Lewis, “My Left Foot,” Sean Penn, “I Am Sam,” Javier Bardem, “Before Night Falls,” Hilary Swank, “Boys Don’t Cry.”

C - If the role has ANY association with World War II. Nazis, move to the front of the line.
EX: Ralph Fiennes, “Schindler’s List,” Roberto Benigni, “Life Is Beautiful.”

D - If someone is nominated and the discussion is not around the performance or the film, but the performer behind it. Actors who have gone years without a nomination, or who have triumphed over some sort of First Class adversity, usually contribute to compelling headlines, which often catch the eye of voters. This also applies for non-actors suddenly shifted into the spotlight, or show business veterans who the industry deems “due” an Academy Award for career recognition.
EX. Anna Paquin, only ten when she won the award for “The Piano.” Christopher Plummer, never nominated before “The Last Station.”

E - This is reserved for cases in which the performance itself isn’t exactly thrilling, but benefits from exposure due to people rooting for the film. As an example, the Oscars have a long history of nominating a cast member from a well-liked movie so the picture can be recognized in as many categories as possible.
EX. Ian McKellan, “The Lord of the Rings,” Helena Bonham Carter, “The King’s Speech,” Berenice Bejo, “The Artist”

F - They like you, they really really like you. This is reserved either for performers who seem to annually draw nominations simply for tying their shoes, or big stars who generate goodwill on behalf of the industry. The political choice, sometimes known as the You’re Having A Good Year nomination.
EX. Meryl Streep, George Clooney, etc. Also, Robert Downey Jr. for “Tropic Thunder” in the year in which he also played “Iron Man.

G - Sex! More often for women other than men, but a nude scene can earn talk about how an actor is being “brave.” But it cannot be titillating, and the actor cannot appear to be enjoying themselves. Also, if a performer is recognized for subverting their own sexuality in some specific way. There is overlap with B.
EX. Jaye Davidson, “The Crying Game,” Kate Winslet, “The Reader”

H - Mostly reserved for supporting actors, but this letter is used to recognize flat-out villains. Bad guys usually have more morally-complex stories and greater opportunities for an extroverted, outsized, attention-getting performance that steals scenes from others.
EX. Heath Ledger, “The Dark Knight,” Al Pacino, “Dick Tracy,” Tommy Lee Jones, “The Fugitive.”

Handicapping this year’s potential nominees:

Day-Lewis is considered acting royalty, and he’s playing a beloved President. You really don’t get more Oscar-y than that, to the point where the award has been wrapped between his Presidential, shoe-making fingers since the role was announced. It’s up to everyone else to pry it away from him.

Phoenix recently spoke out about the Oscar campaigning process, which along with a yearlong departure from acting to document “I’m Still Here” effectively makes him a person of interest. It’s simply gravy that a brief scene reveals him to have fought in the Great War, and that the film’s suggestion is that it left him half-retarded.

It is a MAJOR Oscar score when an actor can stumble upon a subject both real and tragic, as Hawkes did as his handicapped onscreen avatar in “The Sessions,” the late writer who also once appeared in an Oscar-winning short film. Hawkes is an extremely well-liked character actor in Hollywood who worked his way up to critically-acclaimed, and now finally leading-man, status. The unexpected bonus is that the film deals with the character’s desire to lose his virginity, leading to “The Sessions” spotlighting overly-frank onscreen discussions and depictions of sex that are sterile, innocent, and wholly within the wheelhouse of the Academy bluehairs.

Two-time winner Denzel has more than his fair share of supporters in Hollywood, so anytime he wears a serious face in a half-decent movie, he’ll earn Oscar talk. This isn’t one of his better roles, but it represents a high degree of difficulty given the character’s debilitating addiction to drugs and alcohol. Great actors playing addiction puts a sexy face on a troubling subject, which always excites voters.

Jackman, a leading man for a consistent decade now, has yet to receive a nomination. Part of that has to do with the quality of work, though few would doubt he was superb in the otherwise-ignored “The Fountain.” Some of those people, who once scoffed at that film’s pretension, could still be in the Academy. The others, who understand the politics behind a Jackman nomination (the industry loved his hosting gig at the Oscars a couple of years ago) would happily endorse him, as he’s considered one of the industry’s good guys, an action hero who can sing, dance, emcee and spout adamantium claws. Also, he’s in “Les Mis.”

Fading fast from the race, it’s likely Murray and company pressed those Oscar buttons a bit too hard this time. A war-time President certainly sounds like exciting awards fodder. But the fact that he’s played by a guy Hollywood LOVES, and who has become an annual fixture in Oscar prognostications as if any former “SNL” cast members are owed Academy recognition, and it just seems a bit excessive.

Hopkins is acting royalty, and playing one of the all-time great filmmakers seems like a nice play for awards attention. But I’m still waiting on more advanced word before I bump him up in the rankings. He’s probably great, but Hopkins is one of those actors for whom greatness has become an expectation, not a surprise, and it’s probably cost him a second Oscar somewhere down the line.

Foxx overcame “In Living Color” to earn two nominations, and one win, in a previous year (“Ray” and “Collateral”), and for that, he’ll always be a contender. But he’s done a lot of forgettable work since then, so it’s not acknowledged that he’s one of Hollywood’s few justifiable Oscar winners. He’s also playing a slave, which means his race is in play, but it’s a decidedly non-tragic representation that may seem unfamiliar (and scary!) to some voters.

The role, and movie, are certainly nothing special, a 90’s-flavored potboiler where Gere plays yet another upper-class douchebag. But would you believe Gere has never been nominated for an Oscar? That alone makes good copy, as Gere is always been considered a reliable leading men who often allows supporting players to reliably grab the spotlight. The amount of “Finally!” headlines his nomination would generate is beyond quantifying.


Coming off an Oscar nomination for “Winter’s Bone,” the young Lawrence is extremely well-liked within the industry and is garnering the most attention among the cast of one of the more likely Best Picture frontrunners. So who cares if she’s playing Juliette Lewis circa 1995? She gets to be both attractive and mentally-damaged, which the more patriarchal members of the Academy just loooove. And even though it was a terrible film, the widespread public adoration for “The Hunger Games” led to first-half talk that she might be recognized for that movie in the Oscar race. Never underestimate someone attached to two lucrative franchises (“The Hunger Games,” “X-Men”).

Aw, it’s post-Katrina New Orleans (liberal guilt) but she’s so adorable (cheap seats) and black (liberal guilt again)! She would be the youngest winner of the prize, and while the film has supporters, it also has some seriously nagging detractors, suggesting the only way they can agree on anything is by praising the little girl at the center of the picture.

Marion, a previous winner, also benefits from a tenuous connection to the second biggest film of the year, “The Dark Knight Rises.” Here, she plays a woman with no legs, but she also faces her character’s sexual challenges head-on. Hollywood wants to make sex look unenjoyable, but they’ll totally root for it if it’s experienced by the handicapped.

She’s freaking dying, Academy! Give her the Oscar! Riva is fantastic as an expiring elderly woman in Michael Haneke’s confrontational film, and it’s tough to watch for anyone who has ever lost someone to Alzheimer’s. And if there’s anything the Academy loves, it’s stuff that’s hard to watch (see: Tracy Jordan). Riva’s also a first-timer in the Oscar race, giving her a freshness not shared by some of the other candidates. And hey, hard-to-watch nude scene alert!

A little reluctance plays into this nomination, as it’s hard to shake the fact that Knightley and company have done this sort of thing before. Of course, one could argue what’s keeping her from winning is the same thing that keeps getting her nominated - at such a young age, this ain’t her first rodeo.

When Mirren walks onto the Oscars scene, she walks onto it LIKE A BOSS. However, in this case Mirren could be overshadowed by co-star Hopkins, as “Hitchcock” is seen as something of a showcase piece for him. There’s also the suggestion that an actor of Mirren’s power is wasted in the role of the emotionally-abused wife in the shadow of a male legend.

Most voters probably haven’t seen it yet, and among them, there could be the suspicion that this is a genre thing. So people need to, one, see the movie, and two, forget that Watts is so good all the time that most voters ignore it. This isn’t seen as much of a performance film, though, but if it breaks through, she’ll be the most likely cast member to earn recognition.

Role to Hollywood glamour? Don’t wear makeup, and pick up an addiction. So it goes for Winstead, who takes on alcoholism in this indie. Few people expected Winstead, a geek favorite for roles in “The Thing,” “Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World” and “Live Free Or Die Hard,” to start trying some serious acting, but here she is, a possible career revival that could lead to… more comic book roles, if the rumors about the “Captain America” sequel are true. Unfortunately, the smallness of this movie could hold her back, as not only does she share most of her scenes with Aaron Paul and Nick Offerman (very good, but associated with smaller screens) but the picture barely limps to the eighty minute mark. Perhaps if they set it during World War II…

People who have seen “Compliance” absolutely HATE the character played by never-nominated Dowd, an unthinking restaurant manager who forces a girl to undergo an extended psychologically-abusive battery of assignments by order of a fake cop on the other end of the phone line. So the relatively unassuming Dowd actually comes across as quite memorable in the film, despite not being an extroverted character, and very much a believably absent-minded professional. The fact that you couldn’t pick her out in a crowd is a strength in a crowded field like this. The fact that no one has seen the movie is a decided negative.

No one liked this movie, and those who did quickly forgot about it. But never underestimate Meryl Streep.


A mortal lock, even if the qualities that make this performance more obviously Oscar-friendly seem mercurial. How much of Lancaster Dodd is based on L. Ron Hubbard? How much of this film takes place during World War II? And is Dodd really a villain? Hoffman’s got one Oscar on his mantle, and most expect he’ll have another couple more one day. Also, Best Supporting Actor is the ONE category where you can't win without an incredible performance, and guess what? Here's one.

DeNiro’s got the perfect double whammy - some still consider him an Oscar perennial, and others think he’s due, given that it’s been more than twenty years since his last nomination. It doesn’t hurt to remind an entire generation that this guy can act. His performance here is a gently-realized depiction of a long-suffering, undiagnosed OCD sufferer, meaning he gets to play a disease in a big Oscar movie, a golden opportunity. DeNiro’s got two of these awards already, but most rightly believe he’s the best thing about this probable Best Picture nominee.

Another former winner, Jones is playing backup to DDL in the Oscar machine that is “Lincoln.” Jones, who won for the silly “The Fugitive,” may rightly believe this sort of thing is beneath him and won’t campaign, but he’s one of the few actors that could pull off such a move and still be considered an industry fave.

The whole “Oscar nominated leading man” thing didn’t work for DiCaprio, so an outsized villain role was just what the doctor ordered. If “Django” is recognized by the Academy, his is the most likely performance to break through. DiCaprio keeps getting nominated for similar roles - alpha male toughies. The voters will appreciate the change-of-pace.

There was a point when McConaughey was considered one of the top leading men in Hollywood, but also something of a party-boy punchline who shied away from heavyweight acting. But as the distorted mirror image to the title character in Steven Soderbergh’s unlikely blockbuster, he turned heads, in a way which validates his recent experimental phase that saw him give excellent performances in this year’s “Killer Joe” and “Bernie” as well. His first nomination would be an acknowledgement of a career arc, and voters eat that up.

The nice way of saying this is the bullshit way -- Holbrook got an “almost dead” nomination for only a few minutes in “Into The Wild,” his first ever. Five years later, and the guy’s still around. Another “almost dead” nod is certainly a possibility, though no one has seen this yet.

Inspector Javert is a role tailor-made for Oscar consideration, and if “Miserables” scores nods in a bevy of categories, Crowe could be whisked into the top five. The voters know history -- Crowe’s Oscar-winning performance in “Gladiator” is probably the weakest of an incredible run of early-aught turns, some of which were never once noticed by the Academy. Everyone knows the guy’s got chops, and now he gets to sing. If Crowe is great in the role, people will notice. If he’s not, it’s certainly still possible he‘ll be nominated.

“Argo” is a likely Best Picture nominee, but the performances are mostly functional. If anyone is noticed, it would be former winner Arkin, who is playing a savvy Hollywood producer, and if there’s anything last year proved, it’s that Hollywood loves to honor it’s past. Complicating matters is the fact that, in a riveting true story, Arkin’s character is actually the biggest completely fictional element.

Also known as the Make-Em-Up. Brooks seemed like a frontrunner to win the Oscar last year, having grabbed a slew of critics awards for “Drive” until the Academy shut him out completely. He could be back as the standout performance in this film, though, again, no one’s seen it. Brooks is loved within the industry, however, and even critics of “Drive” acknowledge Brooks’ lack of recognition seemed like an oversight.

Christ, this shit again.


Hathaway’s character is dying of consumption, which is a plus. But she steps out of the narrative for a long time after the first act, which is a minus. But there’s another plus, that being Hathaway as someone the Academy adores, enough that she was able to deflect most of the criticism from her hosting gig. Also, Warner Bros. has a well-meaning Best Actress campaign in place for her in “The Dark Knight Rises,” which won’t hurt.

Again, the usual Oscar buttons are being pressed her, but in an unusual way. She has an off-putting nude scene, and another troubling sexual moment soon afterwards. Her relationship with Dodd is purposely unclear, leading some to speculate she’s playing his daughter. And she may or may not be a villain in this film, but Jesus Christ is she terrifying.

Field won thirty years ago, and most seem to forget she’s actually a two-time winner. Most would also assume that was some sort of typo, as Field, a legendary ham, seems to have conned her way into being credited as Acting Royalty. No matter -- as long as she’s not awful (not a sure bet), she’ll be riding the “Lincoln” nomination wave.

Bumping her to supporting reads like category fraud, but it also calls attention as to how stupid it is to structure and divide acting performances as if they were dinner plates. So whatever -- Hunt makes the “brave” move of being nude a whole bunch in this film, which is compounded by her being based on a real person, even if it’s someone for whom the voting bloc would be unfamiliar.

That fifth spot seems like a tough one in this category, though Bening quite literally is Movie Royalty, having been married to Warren Beatty for years. Here, she gets to booze it up and ham her way through this film, which just might be enough to get that nod.

The great Dame has yet to win, but she’s been so prolific, even in her older years, that voters are very likely to bow. Now, will they remember this film, which was a breakout hit in the spring? Hard to tell.

Weaver has about twenty lines in this film, and half of them are incidental filler. But if people like the picture, she could grab a nomination simply for reacting to the mental instability of Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence and Robert DeNiro. Nice work if you can get it.

Roadside Attractions is going to campaign for her, as they should. But she’s certainly overshadowed by the career-best work from Jack Black (seriously!) and the fact that her character is mostly absent from the second half of the film. Given that this is such a small picture, those odds might be insurmountable.

“Who is she?” will read the narrative. And she’s good, but there’s not much to her character, and not a lot of love for this movie. Perhaps she should have played her character with a hook for a hand.

If the picture is a huge favorite amongst the Academy, they’ll reach and pick on her. But all signs say she’s not going to have a role big enough for the final five.

Friday, October 19, 2012

More From NYFF

Noted chronicler of the human experience 50 Cent once made an observation regarding “Scarface,” claiming the hip hop world adores the excess-friendly De Palma film, but shut the picture off right before the end. To them, it’s a “Rise” film, not a “Rise & Fall” narrative, where they can celebrate the bad behavior of Tony Montana without acknowledging the immorality of it (and one can argue De Palma and screenwriter Oliver Stone barely do as well). In the hearts of the film’s biggest fans, Tony Montana is still snorting mountains of cocaine, still shooting up his enemies and still mangling that charming Cuban accent.

I thought of “Scarface” during Robert Zemeckis’ “Flight,” particularly when remembering the first sequence. After years of working on motion-capture animation, the first shot of a human in “Flight” is the sight of an out-of-focus bare breast contrasted with a buzzing alarm clock. As the camera stays fixed for what amounts to two or three minutes, we see two bodies in motion. The first is a nude figure of a mostly faceless woman, walking in and out of the shot in full frame, a sex object before she’s a person. The other is more familiar -- handsome movie star Denzel Washington, groggily on the phone as his female partner moves in and out of frame searching for various articles of clothing. We learn that he’s a pilot, and about to get into the cockpit two hours from now, despite clearly being hung over, chasing his morning sickness with more alcohol and a line of coke.

Let’s not be innocents here -- Denzel looks and sounds great in these scenes. The camera takes great pains to documenting the absolutely perfect physique of his bedmate, before a glamorous shot shows him stuffing that nose candy up his nostril, before cleaning up well enough to smooth talk everyone on the plane moments later. Your moral compass is shaky, and Movie Star Denzel, who has taken great pains to never look like he didn’t have any situation under control, is the reason. This is a hero’s introduction, cemented by the theatrics he pulls on the flight, as he manages an improbable landing tactic to save the lives of a hundred passengers when faulty equipment gives way. What we see, and what is later confirmed, is that the plane gave way to its own flimsy structure, not because of Hero Denzel’s inebriation. Let’s pause for a moment: This character spends his nights seducing women with impossible physiques, casually drinking and ingesting narcotics before saving a flight with hundreds of people, due to a maneuver later deemed borderline impossible by investigators.

Upon learning that the crash cost the lives of six passengers, including his shapely companion of the previous night (who has her own heroic moment during the flight as if to offset her existence as a piece of meat), he gives up the bottle. Upon meeting a beautiful user in the hospital, however (Kelly Reilly, quite good), he’s soon drinking as an act of defiance, defending his right to be his own person as an investigation yields blood tests that reveal his level of intoxication during the flight. Despite what he considers a heroic act (others as well), he could be taken to prison on manslaughter charges simply for getting behind the wheel that day.

At times “Flight” feels like the angry, prickly character pieces of the seventies -- at points the bureaucratic institutional anger of “The Hospital” surfaces, while Denzel’s own refusal to acknowledge a fundamental issue with his behavior recalls the jittery character work of seventies idols like Frederic Forrest and Warren Oates. “Flight” acknowledges the fundamental reasoning behind addictive behavior, in that it’s wrapped in lies -- Denzel’s Whip Whittaker indulges himself in a way that makes him retreat to his own selfish comforts, struggling to offering denial even as his skilled legal counsel (Don Cheadle) is able to torpedo the most damning evidence. But whither Denzel’s mannered, dignified seriousness? Or his sexual potency -- a third act disappearance reveals Kelly Reilly’s companion as a cheap plot device to allow both the tease of recovery and the suggestion that Whittaker really isn’t that bad in comparison. A moment that should shatter - Whittaker attending a colleague’s funeral, then begging a fellow flight attendant to lie to authorities - instead seems like a minor speed bump. Denzel don’t cry, yo.

When Whittaker hits his lowest lows, in strides John Goodman as his reliable drug hookup, lugging narcotics around in a tote bag like powerups in a video game. Zemeckis, who apparently just can’t keep a straight face, introduces this flamboyant cartoon with Rolling Stones songs blaring on the soundtrack, which is either weak subversion of a serious addiction narrative or a tonally questionable digression. This character also allows Denzel to never seem entirely down-and-out, with a quick bump and some various injections needed to perk him up immediately. Consider it a commentary on modern Hollywood, where superhero protagonists aren’t defeated, but are constantly upgraded, and rarely challenged. Perhaps this is Zemeckis’ subconscious admission that, in his years of working on facile diversions like “The Polar Express,” he’s part of this problem.

It’s hard not to give yourself to “Life Of Pi,” at once an unusually thoughtful children’s picture, a surprise until you see the words “Directed by Ang Lee.” This is the versatile filmmaker’s most visually ambitious film yet, a 3D pop-up book about the philosophical nature of survival and the struggle for religious identity. Lee paints in broad strokes, but that should not necessarily read as a critique in a picture like this, one with outsized superficial pleasures that obscure the ideas being backgrounded by chaotic spectacle.

Young Piscine, aka Pi, is a young Indian boy who keeps enough of an open mind spiritually that he embraces several different belief systems, which flummox his otherwise warmly-supportive family. They plead for reason and science, but Pi acknowledges their words while continuing to show that his faith remains a work in progress, not a stopping point. Said faith is challenged, however, when the boat carrying Pi’s family, and the family zoo, capsizes, leaving him stranded on a boat at sea with a small coterie of animals, later winding down to just one Bengal tiger. Basically your standard coming-of-age story.

“Life Of Pi” is both patient and lovely, carefully mixing in fantastical elements with more reserved, quieter exchanges between characters. Once he arrives at sea, the beats are exhilarating and unfamiliar, but paced carefully. This isn’t Harry Potter, your child will complain, as it’s CGI effects are not as excessive or desperate-to-please. Moreover, the lead actor is something of a non-entity, clouding the true motivations of a character with multiple beliefs. This results in long stretches of high-minded, somewhat edifying conversations on the test of faith. “Life Of Pi” is that rare thing, a sometimes dim but otherwise life-affirming story about faith that actually encourages an open debate, that actually tests the idea of spiritual re-awakening. The conversations with your child should be greatly rewarding for him and her.

Barry Levinson’s “The Bay” brought back memories of Brian De Palma’s underestimated “Redacted.” Here’s another old hand with several films under his belt trying his hand at new media storytelling. The found footage of this film has it’s own unsettling offscreen narrative -- what we’re watching, we’re told in a throwaway line, is the result of hundreds of recording devices consolidated by a single government program in one small town. Given the nature of the footage, probably illegally. As we’re told by a Skyping narrator in modern day, these are the collected disasters that ravaged a small bayside town in 2009, a truth we’re only now beginning to learn.

Despite the involvement of schlock experts Oren Peli (“Paranormal Activity”) and the Strouse brothers (“Alien Vs. Predator: Requiem”) as producers, “The Bay” seems more interested in the story of government mismanagement, which allows heavily polluted waters to mutate real-life parasites called Isopods into flesh-eating beasts that devour us from the insides, at horror-movie varying speeds. While these little beasties look like piranhas, there are no jump scares in this picture, only quietly-rotting flesh and decaying bodies. The horror lies in more mundane truths, like an emergency room filled with people being kept in the dark about their condition, or doctors being told that the day spent helping victims is likely their last. The film escapes boredom simply by switching from camera to security footage to Ipods and back, but the sensation Levinson is attempting is more akin to flipping channels on cable. Here’s some chaos. Here’s a dishonest politician. And now, here is the suffering of innocents. Maybe it’s all related.

There’s an even greater perception shift at the heart of the stick “Berberian Sound Studio.” The wonderfully-expressive Toby Jones is a sound mixer onboard “The Equestrian Vortex,” an unseen film that he’s led to believe is something a bit more innocuous than the occult thriller we can hear being projected. His memorable first encounter with an oily chain-smoking producer with a thick, handsome Italiano mustache (an actor whose name I can’t seem to find - he’s amazing) ends with him loudly assuming he was working on a film about a “girl who rides horses.” Oh, she rides, the producer shrugs over footage of a gooey murder, “She just doesn’t happen to be riding right now.”

As Jones’ brow continues to furrow assisting in what seems like a hostile work environment, the film contrasts the pleasures of an old-school sound studio with his distinct discomfort with what sounds like a nasty little giallo. To say the film drives him mad is both an exaggeration, and maybe inaccurate - the picture dissolves into a Lynchian dream world in the third act, where we aren’t sure exactly what’s reality, what’s fantasy, and what’s nightmare. Nor do we know exactly who’s experiencing it, and it’s preferable to think of director Peter Strickland as one of the silent deadpan sound technicians who go by the wonderfully-evocative name Massimo & Massimo. As they slam watermelons into wood to simulate crushed skulls, their silent bemusement and eerie, off-putting friendliness suggest they’re clearly in on the joke.

As I mentioned in my review earlier this week, any discussion of “Holy Motors” is bound to have a whiff of “dancing about architecture.” Leos Carax’s maddening madcap film could be viewed at any number of different vantages, and I fear my own limited vocabulary would not adequately display most of them. Denis Levant plays Monsieur Oscar, who seems like a wealthy office worker who gets into his limousine and essentially begins to play-act, wearing various disguises throughout a day-long trip through France given to him from a binder of assignments from… well isn’t that the billion dollar question? Some are as immersive as an elderly female beggar on the streets. Others, like a disapproving father confronting a dishonest daughter, are more mundane. Oscar’s dedication to these roles seems to waver, as if he tires of mimicking the human experience, and in a few of his job, the façade cracks, particularly when he sees a fellow performer. As he comforts a dying daughter, they both quietly share they must head out to another assignment immediately afterwards. A visit with a man who could be the boss, or a middleman, confirms that what Oscar does is not nearly in-demand as it once was.

The easy assumption to make is that Carax is discussing the movies, very specifically during a sequence where Oscar becomes a nattily-dressed zombie who traipses around a graveyard to the theme from “Godzilla” before kidnapping model Eva Mendes. But what to make of the end of that sequence, when Oscar licks the armpit of a blasé Mendes, who cradles him to sleep as he lies naked against her lap? Amusingly, Carax cuts immediately from this shot to a moment of Levant back inside the limousine, to further emphasize the surreal nature of this narrative -- perhaps what we’re seeing is only a portion of what is actually happening, like the moments where Oscar dons a motion-capture suit and is recorded performing martial arts and making love to a woman. Again, simulated reality is just one theory that doesn’t prove consistent with the rest of the film, loaded with aggressive musical sequences, bizarre non-sequitiers, and a final fifteen minutes that confidently doubles down on the oddity of this spectacle of a film. A must for cinema-lovers.

Michael Haneke isn’t so much a filmmaker anymore as much as he’s an experientialist. His acerbic insight provides “Amour” with it’s several moments of stomach-crushing sadness. Jean-Louis Trignant and Emmanuelle Riva are an elderly French couple who begin to come apart as one mate begins to succumb to the ravages of Alzheimer’s. Unfortunately, it’s a slow, brutal descent, and Haneke’s film is tough but tender in examining that these situations have no heroes and villains, and absolutely no easy choices. Lost in Haneke’s mischief in earlier films is the sense of human understanding, his idea of accurate human behavior, and “Amour” reflects that stronger than his recent pictures: in “Amour” you won’t see characters as much as you’ll see the mistakes you’ve made, the decisions you’ve regretted, and the people you’ve let down, whether that regret is legitimate or not. Conventional wisdom says not to blame yourself, but Haneke is one of the few filmmakers who depicts characters who understand that and yet cannot help but do it, succumbing to their human natures.

“Amour” also reflects Haneke’s peerless shot composition, and the couple’s expansive French apartment soon closes in like a vice on its inhabitants, it‘s hallways soon home to a hauntingly metaphysical pidgeon. Further complicating matters is a typically-excellent Isabelle Huppert as the doting daughter who seals her own fate when her concern becomes a wholly-separate issue for her father to navigate. Riva has generated awards-talk for her selfless performance as a lovely spirit in decay, though both Trignant and Huppert are All-World performers who have the more emotionally demanding roles, those being kind-hearted people who, like all of us, develop monstrous tendencies when truly tested.

The best performance I had seen during the NYFF, however, was from little-known Tadashi Okuno, the protagonist of Abbas Kiarostami’s “Like Someone In Love,” a playful follow-up to “Certified Copy” that again takes Kiarostami to an unfamiliar place, presenting his pet themes of identity and deception. Okuno plays an elderly translator who puts aside one night to take in a comely escort (Rin Takanashi), allowing her to flirt while he shyly prolongs intercourse with home-cooked meals, music and small-talk. The camera consistently moves between the both of them in long takes to emphasize the uncertain distance between the two, both of whom couldn’t be any more different. This tactic allows for Okuno’s amusing low-key irritation at the girl’s seduction attempts, and her somewhat bratty complaints about not receiving his companionship in bed.

This leads to a next-day complication when, driving her to school, he encounters her abusive boyfriend (Ryo Kase). When the boy assumes her elderly companion is her grandfather, he assumes the role, playing uneasy, quiet matchmaker for the two of them and attempting, somewhat unsuccessfully, to deflate the boy’s vain aggression and her timid uncertainty about the relationship. “Like Someone In Love” is funnier and sweeter than Kiarostami’s last, as the director grows looser and less experimental with each film, trading in his early formal restlessness for a newfound interest in re-shaping seemingly simple narratives. Though I confess to being so wedded to these three characters that a thunderclap of an ending left me shocked and disturbed more than anything I have seen this year, a provocative punctuation mark that provides as good a talking point as any film in the fest.

While Kiarostami, Assayas and Ang Lee were among those saluted this year, one former master was sadly relegated to the “Midnight Movies” designation, that being Takeshi Kitano. “Outrage Beyond” is the first overt sequel of Kitano’s career, coming after what was perceived as a commercial picture in the straightforward Yakuza drama “Outrage.” Considering Kitano’s filmography and the evolution of foreign distribution in America, it’s no wonder he’s gone more commercial, and “Beyond” is his most violent picture yet. Kitano returns as Otomo from the first film, where he survived a bloodbath to end up in prison, hiding away from those that would want him dead. But time has turned him into a free agent in demand, and a convoluted scheme by a jackass cop involves springing him out to tear down two warring families from the inside.

He only relents because, as he claims, “I am no longer Yakuza.” The code that he speaks of lovingly, the one his combatants have violated, no longer applies to him. It’s almost as if Kitano’s talking about the formalist straightjacket that complicated his earlier efforts -- now he’s free to make heads roll, but only on his terms. “Outrage Beyond” is unmistakably a Kitano film, from it’s quick-burst staccato gunfights to the lightweight humor that dots the premise, from undermanned underlings to hot shots destined to shoot themselves in the foot. Hopefully “Outrage Beyond” is exactly the gateway drug that helps fans seek out his earlier pictures.

Both “Camille Rewinds” and “Tabu” engage with the idea of going back to the past to reaffirm lessons about the future, although they go about it in entirely different ways. Written, directed by and starring fortysomething Noemie Lvovsky, “Camille” depicts a soon-to-be-divorced failed actress who drinks up a storm on New Years Eve and somehow finds herself sent back to the eighties, inside the body of her teenage self. Considering the pedigree of the NYFF, it’s a surprisingly broad, bubbly romantic comedy, as Camille attempts to right the wrongs of tomorrow from inside the body of a horny, frustrated sixteen year old. The movie eschews any special effects or trick photography, meaning Camille is seen fully acting her age, which greatly informs what we know about her more contemporary self as well -- turns out, there’s not much of a difference. If you blow, “Camille Rewinds” would topple over, but Lvovsky is a warm, bubbly presence who carries nearly every scene with her effervescent charm.

“Tabu,” told in austere black and white, tells the story of an elderly mess of a woman who has shocked her friends and neighbors by engaging in the sort of late-period misbehavior that marks a person with a death wish. It’s only an hour into the film when we’re told who this person is, as her lover recounts her earlier days as a rich white heiress in Africa. “Tabu” is playful, shot in a manner that suggests an old adventure film, the sumptuous photography at home capturing hunting misadventures as much as glamorous, fashionable tableau of characters laying about in the sun. Without the proper ability to intellectualize it, the picture consciously mimics a picture of the thirties, from it’s look to it’s impeccable casting, in a way that suggests a formalist experiment done with a sly smirk.

I received little enjoyment from the ingeniously-engineered “Deceptive Practices: The Mysteries And Mentors Of Ricky Jay.” Despite being a world-famous illusionists, Jay and the filmmaking team know a straightforward biography will not properly explain who he is as much as a poppy analysis of the more obscure magicians that shaped his craft. While it’s subject seems blustery and outwardly charismatic, while purposely, possibly arrogantly, remaining an enigma, the picture is turgid PBS-quality stuff, a timid way of illustrating larger-than-life subjects. More gratifying was the similarly straightforward doc “Casting By,” which analyzed the history of casting agents, and how it was turned into an art form by Marion Dougherty, who took the practice to the East Coast, where faces with “character” replaced the typical leading men and beach bunnies. “Casting By” doesn’t earn any style points, but it’s respect for Hollywood comes across, both in the sheer amount of talking heads (Al Pacino, Robert Duvall and Robert DeNiro, among others) but also in the rare early footage of teenaged versions of some of our more beloved actors. Most amusingly is the moment where Taylor Hackford, head of the DGA, comes across as a jackass who claims there should be no Academy Award for casting because the director has final say on that matter, to which John Sayles scoffs, claiming that every editor in Hollywood now has to return their Academy Award. As moral ambiguity goes, sometimes it’s good to have a bad guy.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

The New York Film Festival At A Glance

Cruel were the New York Film Festival programmers, scheduling Centerpiece premiere “Not Fade Away” a day after their screening of Olivier Assayas’ “Something In The Air.” Both films, powered by music of the sixties and seventies, seem to suggest coming-of-age during politically-troubling eras where disaster was intertwined with the birth of mainstream rock and roll. Both also reportedly skew heavily autobiographical, which complicates this comparison even further, as it suggests one artist specifically light years removed from the other, in this case David Chase, making his directorial debut with “Not Fade Away,” suffering in the transition from television.

It was Chase who helped remold post-millennial television by creating “The Sopranos,” a television series that elevated the form to something approximating actual art. Never feeling constrained by the one hour formats, Chase was able to create a body of work with that show that constantly tested the boundaries of it’s own seemingly earth-bound storylines, finding poetry in the mundane, pulling highbrow aesthetics from sometimes lowbrow stories and themes. But it appears that long-form storytelling may have been more suited to the filmmaker, if “Not Fade Away” is any indication.

Focusing on a shaggy-haired moppet who wants to be a rock star, Chase plays with ideas of ethnicity and iconography, casting a distinct shaggy-haired Bob Dylan-type (John Magaro) as a young man who thinks he can one day be a Mick Jagger. To hammer home the point inelegantly, the film begins, quite randomly, with a black and white flashback to an early meeting between Jagger and Keith Richards which lasts roughly two minutes. This moment, and the final-scene arrival of a narrator walking onto a pre-filmed sequence via green screen to summarize the film’s themes, suggests this was a beast wrestled with during post-production, a dragon Chase could not slay. The film is at once over-simplistic (garage band discovers how hard it is to succeed in show business) and overcomplicated, loaded with digressions like the establishment-fueled anger of the boy’s volcanic father (James Gandolfini), to the protagonist’s girlfriend, who struggles with a drug-addicted sister who vanishes from the narrative and is never spoken again.

There are enough honest details in “Not Fade Away” to suggest that a stronger focus and slacker runtime (the film tips over around two hours) could yield a more interesting tapestry. Compelling subplots are treated as buttons, with characters going out of their way to emphasize just how much social change is going on -- in a film with no black characters, name-dropping Martin Luther King Jr. seems like a cheap signifier more than actual character building. “Not Fade Away” feels like a broad canvas -- expected from someone who created “The Sopranos” but cramped, squeezed onto a narrow table, with the creases and tears showing. To say that this is the worst film I’ve seen thus far at the New York Film Festival is to also suggests it’s been an extraordinarily strong fest. But this is the worst film I’ve seen thus far at the New York Film Festival.

Again, perhaps distance from “Something In The Air” might be a blessing for the film. But it has no effect on Assayas’ time-in-a-bottle narrative about a group of politically-militant teens in late sixties France who flee after one misguided stunt puts a security guard in a coma. As the characters hitchhike through Italy, Assayas very carefully keeps that plot strand alive, further emphasizing the ramifications of their rebellious actions. You can change the world, but your mistakes will always remain at home, waiting. His camera is not judgmental, however -- this is dissimilar to Assayas’ explosive “Carlos,” which cast pity and light ridicule on it’s star terrorist, in that it’s characters are at once naïve and informed, exciting and banal.

When attending a film festival for guerilla filmmakers (who claim to provide cameras strictly for documentation, “not fiction”) one character complains why their straightforward pro-union documentaries cannot themselves have revolutionary narratives and style. The combination of answers he receives from others afterwards come from varying political perspectives, and it’s a question Assayas explores for the remainder of the film. The lived-in nature of “Summer Hours” returns, particularly during a single-shot through a mountaintop villa that tops the party sequence at the close of that film. It’s also scored by Captain Beefheart’s sinister “Abba Zaba,” and concludes with a borderline surrealistic house fire that suggests Assayas is a restless artist, one who must keep innovating to remain vital.

Each year, obscure film appreciators Exhumed Films stage Ex-Fest, dedicated to screening obscure beloved exploitation films within the paradigm of action, crime, sex and comedy. Within the next thirty years, a perfect fit for that showcase would be Lee Daniels’ gleefully schizophrenic “The Paperboy.” Daniels adapted Pete Dexter’s 60’s-set novel about shifty Death Row inmate Hillary Van Wetten in Florida and the lawyers who attempt to exonerate him, but instead focused on the stories within the margins, specifically the lead lawyer‘s brother, played by Zac Efron. Eroticized in his tidy whities, Efron has a sweetly affectionate relationship to only one woman, family maid Macy Gray (excellent), but soon his eyes turn towards Van Wetten’s flirtatious fiancée, a vamp personified by an over-the-top Nicole Kidman.

Though Daniels was known for directing Oscar favorite “Precious,” “The Paperboy” seems entirely like a product of it’s production company, Millennium Films. The company specializes in low-fi, fly-by-night productions that shoot in areas with extraordinarily compensatory tax situations, nabbing big stars with the promise of swift, hefty paychecks and quick shoots, before selling the international rights to various international regions for a pretty penny. Most of these films tend to be cheap exploitation, though many are straight-faced genre exercises lacking the sense of humor of Millennium’s predecessor, Cannon Films. “The Paperboy” captures that aesthetic by shooting in the swampiest, sweatiest areas of New Orleans, featuring a truly unusual collection of actors (as a murderous backwoods retard, John Cusack is memorably terrible) and indulging in grotesque cheap thrills, from a gruesome post-orgy sequence to the unforgettable visual of Nicole Kidman urinating on Zac Efron.

What makes Ex-Fest so memorable is the fact that most of those films were made in an earlier era, when there were no DVD’s and film schools for directors to learn how a movie is “supposed” to look, move and feel. As a result, what looks like “incompetence” in a more contemporary light, is actually a director learning as he goes to tell the story as he sees fit. Lee Daniels harkens back to that era with shoddy photography, sloppy, halting close-ups and clumsy natural lighting, possibly intentionally, possibly not. People who lean more modern have already spoken out about this “amateurish” style, but a more seasoned viewer, particularly one who has been to Ex-Fest, will recognize this as Daniels’ reckless rejection of décor, of the “accepted” way of telling a story, as “The Paperboy” quite intentionally goes off the rails. Surely no filmmaker this year will have the stones to transform their leading character as much as Daniels does to Matthew McConaughey’s crusading lawyer in the dizzying final half hour of this ridiculous, and ridiculously entertaining movie.

Speaking of ridiculous, Brian De Palma returns with one of his more academic De Palma-y efforts, the Sapphic thriller “Passion.” Rachel McAdams and Noomi Rapace play boss and underling of a major advertising firm, a position McAdams embraces with relish. When Rapace pioneers the rough form of a daring new ad, McAdams takes the credit, using BFF bromides and flirty come-ons to diffuse tension. What follows is ostensibly a remake of the French thriller “Love Crime,” though it’s impossible to mistake this as anything other than a wholly De Palma effort, with hypnotic split screen, dizzying changes in perspective, and an emphasis on the recorded image that sees him employing his aesthetics through viral video, camera phones and security footage.

The audience of critics laughed heavily throughout the screening I attended but upon speaking with them afterwards, it appears they had no idea this was intentional. This is classic De Palma, not necessarily new ground but a filmmaker deploying his old tricks with a welcoming wink. There’s a moment where a character gasps at a very old De Palma trope as if to say, “Oh, God, I’m in a De Palma movie, aren’t I?” and it’s a bracingly funny moment of self-reflection -- the final half hour shifts perspective every five minutes, twisting the viewer into a knot as to what the final outcome shall be. To not laugh would be to take this too seriously, which is probably a mistake.

You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet” and “Night Across The Street” both received showcases at NYFF, as the final films from international titans Alain Resnais and Raul Ruiz. The former begins with grandiose, canned orchestral horns and CG-animated medallions behind the film’s anachronistic title, spelled out in a font that suggests some sort of 30’s desert adventure. Shortly afterwards, the same shot of one of several actors floats by, in artificial shadow, facing away from the camera as they dramatically receive the news of the death of a colleague. If you know your French actors, it’s essentially a Franco-Justice League. Well, ok, maybe a Franco-Suicide Squad, the French Justice League appeared in last month’s “Little White Lies.”

The group, two separate generations of performers, are united at the friend’s estate, a playwright who penned an adaptation of “Eurydice” which every participant performed over the course of a few years. His last wishes involved those actors determining whether a more contemporary version of the play, a radical reinvention caught on tape and performed in an abandoned warehouse, passes muster. As the actors watch the newer production, their minds return to the original work, and soon both groups of actors are reliving those moments once again. The bulk of the film is performance, cutting back and forth between three separate groups reciting the playwright’s prose. Visually, it becomes a little repetitive.

But Resnais, who may or may not be working on another “final” film, seems to be suggesting, particularly through the title, that this play, and others before and after it, will continue to mutate, to be carried on through the ages, passed down and altered for each new audience. It’s a thought given extra weight when you consider Resnais an artist coming to terms with his place in the paradigm -- his work will fade into the slipstream of art, it will merge with the rest of the culture as even he fades away.

Morality was on Ruiz’s mind before he passed on, leaving “Night Across The Street” as his final work. The film follows an old man who may or may not be slipping into the afterlife, seeing the ghosts and memories of his time on Earth, usually as he reforms himself into the boy he once was. “Street” features sequences of characters merging in and out of the background, as if to suggest reality becoming far more malleable as final days tick away. Ruiz’s protagonist even shares screen time with a displaced Beethoven, who proves himself to be an obnoxious brute absolutely terrified of the contemporary world. I cannot recall how this elliptical film began or ended (though a séance was involved -- filmmakers always seem to know when they‘ll die), though a sequence where two characters crawl into the barrel of a gun as if it were a sewer drain will stick with me for it’s obtuse playfulness.

I struggled with “Araf - Somewhere In Between” for fairly unusual reasons. It’s a straightforward Turkish drama about young day laborers, both of whom are unfocused youngsters with reasonably sad dreams rooted in a universal longing. It’s literally with the introduction of a gun, however, when the film becomes something more propulsive and hard-to-watch, uniquely transitioning from a film about Third World ills into a Neo-Arthouse exploitation film. Near the film’s close, a metaphorical gun goes off, resulting in a sequence of appalling nastiness, one that overshadows the entire film thus far. I’m not sure the film recovered from that moment of shock as much as I’m not sure that I’ve recovered.

Much more full of joy is Noah Baumbach’s “Frances Ha,” which foregoes the filmmaker’s usual cynicism for a bracing sweetness. It should be clear for anyone following his work that he’s largely indebted to Woody Allen, and “Frances Ha” captures New York City in a woozy romanticism not seen since “Manhattan.” But Baumbach also seems like he’s become a follower of Andrew Bujalski and the mumblecore movement, creating a film that, hopefully, puts a button on that entire subgenre.

Borrowing that scene’s leading lady Greta Gerwig (who also co-wrote), “Frances Ha” takes a look at the broke post-graduate ennui of middling artists. But the film doesn’t fall into the self-loathing traps of the mumblecore films (or Baumbach’s recent miserablist efforts), with a witty script that allows each cast member to fire rat-a-tat lines of dialogue as a way of distancing themselves from the very real problems they are facing. For Gerwig, an exciting actress within her element, this allows her to experience fleeting moments of grace, like a “Modern Love”-scored traipsing across Manhattan streets, or a solo trip to Paris that’s both frustratingly anti-climactic and, in it’s own way, bizarrely romantic. It’s a gorgeous picture made of those small moments, the pockets of serenity found when one faces a life of no prospects, and it may be Baumbach’s greatest achievement.

The NYFF found space for two documentaries that seem to stretch the boundaries of non-fiction. “Caesar Must Die” tells us, with no narration, that the performance of “Julius Caesar” we’re watching happens to be put on not by professionals, but by prison inmates. “Caesar Must Die” is almost entirely Shakespeare’s play through constant rehearsals and performances, and it’s only briefly where we see these men in their true selves, defeated and resigned to a life behind bars. Similarly, “Leviathan” also hides it’s subject matter, working against itself consciously as a ninety minute you-are-there recreation of a fishing boat at see. Without context, the camera captures the heavy machinery of the boat as if they were tendrils stretching out to sea, a Lovecraftian nightmare accentuated by the endless rain and darker-than-black darkness that, we assume, is the sea. On Earth. Allegedly.

More straightforward, and nerdier perhaps, is “Room 237,” an OCD doc about the separate, sometimes bananas theories of a group of unrelated personalities who have spent countless hours pouring over Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining.” Without a single talking head, Rodney Ascher’s funny low-fi doc takes us through footage of “The Shining” to piece together the minute elements of the film that these theorists slave over in their own words. Some seem plausible within the framework of the film, others absolutely insane. But the validity of these ideas is not the point, but rather the lengths some will go to put together the puzzle that is a film in their minds. It’s not as if Kubrick, and particularly “The Shining,” was without his eccentricities, making analysis of the film that much more maddening -- why is Jack reading a Playgirl in the lobby of the Overlook Hotel? Why does the television they watch have absolutely no electrical outlet?

More coming soon…