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Movie Reviews: Awards Season Presumptive Nominees

November 27, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

So we’re getting well into the fall movie season now, or more specifically the season when all the good movies come out so that you’ll remember them come Oscar time.

Last year I played major catch up after the Golden Globes in January. This year, I’m going to try to stay ahead of the game a bit more. Here are some of my recent awards-bait viewings.

50/50 (2011)

Likely nominations: for the Oscars, Actor long shot (Levitt), Original Screenplay probably; for the Globes, Best Actor for sure, Best Comedy probably, Screenplay probably

This movie probably has no shot at Oscar contention, but it’s got Golden Globes written all over it. It will maybe get a Best Picture nod (Comedy or Musical) but it’s in the bag for Joseph Gordon Levitt as a Best Actor (Comedy or Musical) nominee. That’s the thing about the Golden Globes: by separating comedy and drama offerings, comedic films and roles get attention that they just can’t sustain when the Oscars are all about the Holocaust and stuff. There’s not usually room for a movie that is about cancer but doesn’t use it for dramatic deathbed confessions and stuff. He still probably won’t win.

It’s going to get an Original Screenplay nomination at both shows, is my guess, even though the screenplay was the least remarkable thing about it. The story unfolded in a very by-the-numbers fashion. At one point I predicted that one of Levitt’s chemo buddies would be expiring very soon. One died in the very next scene. Before his climactic surgery, Levitt’s character seemed overly calm. I expected an explosive moment of catharsis. I got it. Still, it’s a movie where characters mostly talk to each other, and in a Hollywood that produces too many Transformers-type movies (remember 30 Rock? “Written by No One”), the Academy is always impressed by movies in which people talk to each other and it’s still crowd-pleasing.

And 50/50 was certainly that, incredibly enjoyable, definitely funny, due mainly to the combination of Levitt’s charming Everymanness and Seth Rogen’s classic raunchy dude humor. I know a lot of people are sick of Rogen, but here he is presented perfectly: as a completely secondary character, as the goofy friend to a much more centered and even-tempered guy. Levitt’s main character doesn’t have weird habits or tics, he doesn’t play it broad, but he’s still funny and likeable. He gets cancer, and then it continues to be funny for awhile, via head-shaving, companion dogs, cruising chicks while cancerous, and medicinal marijuana hijinks, among other things. It’s reminiscent of The 40-Year-Old Virgin in the best way (and I love that movie).

When it descends into darker moments, it’s effective, too, due to Levitt’s acting and also Anjelica Huston as his mother, who is described as being very pushy, but who doesn’t overplay the hand. She’s just a normal mom who calls a little too much, who wishes her terribly ill son would let her take care of him a little more.

It’s also helped by the fact that you know he’s going to survive. The story is autobiographical; the scriptwriter was working in Hollywood when he got cancer, was real-life friends with Seth Rogen, and wrote the movie when he recovered, enlisting Seth to play himself. (It’s not exactly the same: Rogen’s character has a different name and both guys work for a fictional NPR network rather than in Hollywood.)

The biggest problem with the movie is Anna Kendrick as Levitt’s shrink—psychotherapy is a recommended part of his treatment, because, of course, cancer is a Think Positive! Kind of disease. Kendrick is adorable as usual, and yet she offers the most cringingly ineffective therapy that I’ve ever seen.  The movie was really just setting her up to be an eventual love interest—we could all tell that from the first minute she was onscreen (she’s Anna Kendrick, among other reasons)—but I couldn’t help feeling bad that during the darkest period of his life he didn’t have adequate mental health care to see him through it.

The Ides of March (2011)

Likely nominations: Actor (Gosling) probably, Director (Clooney) maybe, more because he’s Clooney than because it was a directorial triumph, Adapted Screenplay (was a stage play), Supporting Actor maybes (Hoffman, Giamatti, Clooney long shot)

A good, sturdy behind-the-scenes-of-the-political-game movie, it fills the gaping hole that The West Wing left in many of us, for two hours at least. Bonus: Aaron Sorkin is not involved!

The story is set amidst the campaign of a Democratic governor, played by Clooney, who is prepping for the Democratic primaries in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Clooney’s hometown—he shot a lot of the film there.) His main challenger is also in Cincy, and both men are involved in trying to convince a sitting senator to endorse them. The rival candidate’s campaign manager, played by Paul Giamatti, proves quickly that he is not above a little bit of treachery, and he gives a great speech about how Republicans aren’t afraid to get dirty and Democrats only hold themselves back by trying to be above it all. Look at our current political climate and tell me that isn’t a little bit true. You can tell Barack Obama is the kind of guy who always turns the other cheek to bullies, and I think these days we all kind of wish he had just punched one square in the nose, just once to prove he would.

Anyway, Gosling is Clooney’s deputy campaign manager and he has stars in his eyes. He thinks they can win the thing without any double dealing. Almost immediately, his ego leads him into a trap in which the only two ways out are cover-up or scandal. And then the transgressions get darker and deeper, and the stakes all seem very high even though nobody ever votes in Democratic primaries.

The story is surprisingly rote for a movie that started as a play—usually those are pleasingly complicated, but this one went basically where you thought it was going to. The real draw is the slick production and the excellent performances. Surprisingly, charisma machine Clooney is one of the less impressive performers onscreen. Probably this is a generous act: he holds back in scenes with Ryan Gosling, to let Gosling build up his own movie star cache. And he’s got it in spades, that guy. His character is kind of all over the place—why he does what he does at certain moments is baffling—but the character is both reserved and intense, and charming at basically every moment. (Charming even though he’s kind of a douche.)

The most enjoyable work, though, is done by some of the character actors in more tangential roles. Giamatti is obnoxious and coarse without being hammy, and surprisingly shrewd when push comes to shove. Philip Seymour Hoffman, as Clooney’s lead campaign manager, is a great character—a classic slow-hand player who seems nonthreatening until he gets crossed and then he is resigned, direct, and merciless. (Also, with his roundness and his mop of blond hair Hoffman looks remarkably like my one-year-old nephew. Just as an aside.) I also liked Marisa Tomei, who is really building a niche for herself as a character actress these days, as a persistent little terrier of a reporter, with great hair and Tina Fey glasses.

Take Shelter (2011)

Likely nominations: Actor (Shannon), Cinematography maybe, Original Screenplay probably, Director long shot, Special Effects for sure, for the storms and the swarms

This one is quiet, intense, sometimes terrifying in an unnervingly realistic setting. It’s about a man who is either a. having apocalyptic premonitions or b. succumbing to hereditary schizophrenia. Neither option is a good one and it’s hard not to watch this guy slowly lose his marbles without thinking, “This is not gonna end well for anybody.” He becomes obsessed with building this storm shelter and you get the feeling that once the family is in there, none of them will get out of it alive.

The movie carries some striking, beautiful imagery. This man, Curtis, is always seeing storm clouds gather. He also sees birds flying in bizarre formations, and in one terrifying scene, the birds dive-bomb him and his daughter. I think a Special Effects nomination will be the prize here, although it won’t stand a chance against any of the Big Budget Extravaganzas it will compete against. (Probably Hugo will take that one. I haven’t seen it. But it probably will.) There are some unbearably tense moments, too, at first within Curtis’s dreams—he dreams the family dog attacks him, he dreams that people swarm his car and steal his daughter out the window, he even dreams that his wife is a threat. In that dream she stands in the kitchen like a zombie, sopping wet for some reason—he’s asking what’s wrong?—she won’t speak—she keeps glancing at a butcher knife on the counter—and the couple minutes of that scene are as nerve-jangling as any moment in a tension-building horror movie. And I just saw The Strangers a couple weeks ago.

It’s also one of those rare Hollywood glimpses into rural America. I guessed they were set somewhere in the prairie states until Curtis and his daughter visited the Elyria Public Library and then people started talking about Columbus, and I realized they were totally in western Ohio, that farmland I drive through on the turnpike when I’m heading to my parents’ place in Michigan. The family in the movie doesn’t have a farm, but their property is adjacent to a field of somebody’s crops. Curtis operates some kind of commercial drill. His wife, played by Jessica Chastain, stays at home with their daughter and sells needlepoint at craft shows. Even when they go out, they go to an oyster dinner at, like, an American Legion. Paper plates, folding chairs.

The real story of this movie will be the attention paid to the lead performance, by an actor called Michael Shannon. A quick glance at his IMDb page tells me I’ve barely seen him in anything although he’s worked steadily for 20 years. He’s a regular on Boardwalk Empire, which I don’t watch (maybe if HBO started streaming stuff). He was in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, which I barely remember. And then it’s movies and TV shows I haven’t seen, all the way backwards through time until 1993 when he apparently had a role in Groundhog Day. I haven’t rewatched the movie, but I think he might be the guy Bill Murray’s character talks into getting married. (Remember? He sends him and his wife to Wrestlemania?)

Anyway, this guy is in keeping with his environment, the stoic rural blue collar hero. On the surface, he appears to wear the same impassive expression from beginning to end. And yet, we can see his turmoil grow. He’s a big gangly dude, but he as the movie goes on he appears weakened, shrunk by his fears. In the absence of any powerhouse performances by actors, like Colin Firth last year—Big Name Actor in a Big Deal Performance—Michael Shannon has a good shot at an Oscar. (Although I haven’t seen either of those much-praised Michael Fassbender performances yet.)

The director of the movie, Jeff Nichols, was also the writer, so he will probably miss out on the director’s nomination. If he gets one, he won’t win. It’s a classic maneuver—if they can give the director best screenplay, they will give best director to someone else.

Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)

Likely nominations: Actress (Olsen), Supporting Actor (Hawkes), Original Screenplay probably, Director long shot (the director, Sean Durkin, is also the writer. See above.)

This one’s another indie movie—one of those movies I feel like I’ve been reading about for years, which has finally made it out of the festival circuit and onto public screens. It’s a sneaky, non-linear narrative which slowly plants clues about the main character’s history while we wonder what she’s hiding and whether she’s lying. That is, unless you’ve read a lot about the movie already, in which case you totally know exactly what the deal is and you wonder why in God’s name she won’t just tell her sister already. “I’m traumatized but I don’t want to talk about it.” A very tense movie.

Mild Spoilers Follow

This is a well-scripted movie, but one where interpersonal communication (or lack thereof) comprises the majority of the action, so, like most of these other movies it will stand or fall on the basis of its characters. They are all unlikeable (so viewers who need someone to “root for” are probably wise to skip). The brother-in-law character (played by Hugh Dancy) is just kind of a dick. The scene at the dinner table when Martha starts to poke at him about his disposable wealth and talking about how the real way to live is communal, noncommittal, drifting, existing. Has this guy never been to college? Doesn’t he know every young person goes through that selfish socialist phase? He must really hate her at this point (I can’t remember if this occurred before or after she walked in on them having sex) because there’s not a hint of indulgence in his dealings with her. “Where do you get off living under my roof necessity real world grown up responsibilities blah blah blah!”

The sister (Sarah Paulson) is a character I understand without particularly liking her, either. She’s trying to get pregnant, and in the heat of argument, Martha tells her, “You’re going to be a terrible mother.” It’s mean, but based on what we’ve seen of the sister it’s probably not wrong, either. She tries to rescue Martha, take care of her, get her to open up about what has clearly been a traumatic experience that she escaped from, but she (the sister) can’t keep herself out of it. It’s all, “Why won’t you open up to me?” “You hate me because our mom died.” “It would mean so much to me if you would trust me.” She’s clearly deeply insecure and she wants to be loved more than she wants to take care of somebody. This is maybe the only way the two sisters are anything alike—both are trying to right some wrong from their childhood by finding/building a family but  the sister has got too many walls up and Martha, when she was absorbed by the cult, didn’t have enough.

John Hawkes, as the cult leader, is mesmerizing, disturbing, and intense, as usual. The movie touches on little details that reveal how he manipulates his followers—he renames all the girls when they join up, which is how Martha becomes known as Marcy May—he praises them for ‘fitting right in’ and ‘finding your place so quickly’ and all of those things they want to hear. He just seems very friendly and welcoming, and if he was played by anyone other than John Hawkes we would assume he was a benign presence, but he is John Hawkes. Unfortunately, the characters in the movie didn’t see Winter’s Bone.  In a very effective scene—if an unsubtle one—he plays guitar and performs a song about an amazing girl called Marcy. He seems to know this one has got a stubborn streak—that she needs a little bit of extra persuasion. She’s crawling willingly into his bed almost before the last chord is finished. I think Hawkes is going to get nominated for Best Supporting Actor, and I thwink he’s going to win in a two-fer for this plus the performance he should have won for last year, in Winter’s Bone.

As for Elizabeth Olsen, she’s definitely good. I felt for her as a victim, but at the same time she’s also cold and brittle and self-destructive and self-defeating. She’s just the girl who would willingly, eyes-open, join a cult, and then, consequences be damned, escape from it in broad daylight. She has a beautiful, doll-like face (she’s less gnomish than her sisters) that suits the performance extremely well. I’m not calling her a master thespian yet (sometimes these starlets have beginner’s luck, see also: Kate Hudson in Almost Famous) but here she does the job ably and well.

The one major fault I had with the movie is the ending; I really wish that the narrative had resolved itself properly. Epecially because I saw it immediately after I saw Take Shelter, which also ended abruptly. Practically mid-sentence. I’m sure it’s very indie and artistic to build and build and build to a climactic moment and then cut to credits before anything actually happens but ARGHHH. I wanted MMMM to have an ending. It just sets up this very high-stakes situation—she has legitimate fears of reprisal from this cult she has abandoned—and it comes so close to delivering on it in a way that would be especially devastating, hurting her in a way that would also injure her sister and brother-in-law. It would have been depressing, yes, but it would have been so narratively appropriate.

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