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Movie Reviews: Oscars Also-Rans

February 3, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

These are the Oscars Also-Rans: the movies I saw because I thought they were going to get some Academy love. They didn’t.

Young Adult (2011)

Unfulfilled Pretensions Toward Oscar Glory: multiple Best Supporting Actor nominations for Patton Oswalt, multiple Best Actress nominations, including at the Golden Globes, for Charlize Theron; two Best Screenplay nominations for past Oscar winner Diablo Cody (Juno, 2007)

Charlize lost the Golden Globe, which turned out to be her only real shot at major awards glory for playing the unrepentant mean girl Mavis Gary, which is a shame, because she does something great here with a role that seems far less complicated than it is.

In an interview with NPR, Young Adult scriptwriter Diablo Cody described how much Charlize did with this role without the benefit of makeup, comparing it to her previous Oscar-winning role in Monster, where she looked like this. The idea is that Theron didn’t have to work as hard to differentiate the Monster character from the Charlize Theron we’re all tired of seeing pitching Dior. She does this same thing in Young Adult, largely through posture, stance, expression, wardrobe, attitude. It’s especially visible because she swings back and forth. Every time we see Mavis on the prowl—chasing after her long-lost boyfriend, Buddy, now a married father, or just dressing to impress other past acquaintances—she looks like you expect Charlize to look. Stylish clothes, stilletos, cheekbones for miles. But when she’s alone—when, in other words, no one who cares is there—she slogs. Not just that she’s wearing T-shirts and sweats, that her hair is sticking out where she slept on it and yesterday’s makeup is smeared on her face, but that she is physically drooping, shuffling her feet across the ground instead of picking them up. This is a woman who has very little pleasure in life. She is severely depressed, which she may or may not know, and an alcoholic, which she absolutely does know, not that anybody she tells (including her parents) believe that any intervention is necessary. (Even when she is dressed to the nines, the movie takes pains to reproduce the effort she is putting into the act: makeup, manicurist, clip-in hair extensions.)

The best thing about Young Adult is Charlize—this character, and what she does with it. She’s funny, she’s sad. As viewers, we feel free to consider her a dismal failure at life—because in some ways she is—but then she glams up and we all sit there, “…Wow.” In fact, her beauty, and the resultant popularity, is a major factor in her arrested development. Pictures, plus other characters’ accounts of her, let us know that she never had a real awkward phase—that she is the prototypical girl who peaked too early. There’s more to Mavis than arrested development, though. She’s not just a delusional freak. At the “naming party” for Buddy’s baby, Mavis has a climactic explosion of emotional turmoil in which she reveals hidden depths—a past of disappointment and loss of which she is keenly aware.

The movie is built on contradictory ideas. Mavis truly believes that this bourgeois, small-town chicken wings wife-and-baby existence is too stultifying to sustain life. She thinks Buddy will be all too willing to run away with her, but Buddy is actually really happy with his wife, who is normal and cool and really nice to Mavis. But then, the movie also offers some reinforcement for Mavis and her lifestyle. Her hometown really is pretty bleak. It’s a dark, dark movie. Very funny, but not set up by Hollywood standards re: lesson learning. Cody plotted it especially to subvert typical romantic comedy expectations. Regardless of her charm or will or absolute certainty that she and Buddy are meant to be together, she is not getting him back. Nor is there a conveniently single handsome guy waiting in the wings to sweep her away when she humbles.

There is Patton Oswalt, who walks with a cane because in high school a bunch of jocks gave him a severe beating because they assumed he was gay. He’s so pathetic he was the victim of a hate crime for which he didn’t even fit the criteria. He and Mavis spend a few nights getting drunk together, while she details his plan for him and he tells her all the ways in which it won’t work. “One true pairing” never flashes over their heads. And despite what kind of plotting and/or romantic entanglements they might get into together, despite what parallel disappointments they may have suffered that have rendered them kindred spirits in adulthood, they are both just too screwed up to wander off into the sunset together.

Last word, on Diablo Cody’s script: people complained to NO END that Juno was insufferable because of its mystifying hipster dialect. I personally didn’t mind any of it save “Honest to Blog,” which is too stupid to exist. Young Adult actually makes veiled reference to this—I think—when we see that Mavis, who writes young adult novels, cribs her teen terminology from eavesdropping on actual teens conversing with each other. She is secretly lame: a grown-up who plays at knowing what the kids these days are into. Apology accepted, Ms. Cody.

P.S. Another little moment I loved: Mavis walks into a cheesy sports bar to meet former boyfriend Buddy, and waits for him. She is all glammed up with no real place to go and obviously wants to exhibit that she is too cool for the room. Deliberately shunning conversation with the plebes, she starts poking away at her cell phone. What is she texting? “asdlkjadsflkajdflkasdjflasj” P.S. I have done this.

Ahead: sci-fi, murderous teens, and sex addiction

Crazy, Stupid, Love (2011)

Unfulfilled Pretensions Toward Oscar Glory: Golden Globe-nominated for Best Actor in a Comedy, Ryan Gosling

This was a weird one, kind of a bi-polar comedy-drama. I watched Groundhog Day last night, so I know that it’s possible to seamlessly blend the two—but it’s not easy, and Crazy Stupid Love does it awkwardly at best. It stretches the humor too broad at points, but then elements of the impending divorce of the two main characters—played by Steve Carell and Julianne Moore—are a bit raw for humor. The plot sets it up this way: they’ve been married forever. Carell thinks they’re happy. Moore is having a crisis. She confesses that she’s had an affair and wants to split up, and Carell leaps out of the car that she is driving. The whole movie is like that; squandering what could be a minimalist, subtle comedy about sadness and growth, and pushing way too hard to make it funny and outrageous.

Carell, newly single, begins sitting in bars that are too trendy for him, drinking and sobbing to strangers. Ryan Gosling, playing the ultimate in slick, rich ladykillers, decides to mentor him in the ways of love ‘em and leave ‘em. (More like bang ‘em and hang ‘em. Or screw ‘em then screw ‘em! I could do this all day.) The whole idea of the plot is a bit discomforting: Carell learns a lot about objectifying women that he’s not sure he wants to know. But Gosling, in the grand tradition of on-screen lotharios, is destined to fall in love with a worthwhile woman, played by Emma Stone.

It’s better than the average romantic comedy—you know, the ones that have Anna Faris or Katherine Heigl in them—but it’s still kind of average in its own ways. Gosling and Stone are great and Carell and Moore are OK, though boring. But the other characters are pretty much all terrible. Marisa Tomei has a brief appearance as the worst kind of hysterical Woman of a Certain Age. She’s crazy funny, yes, but that the character exists at all is just kind of insulting. Emma Stone’s best friend, who I don’t believe is ever important enough to get a name, spouts some of the hackiest dialogue I have ever heard. Her entire function is to encourage Stone to be more of a slut and, I guess, to prove that Stone’s character has at least one friend.

There was one aspect of the movie that proved that its filmmakers were a bit clueless, a bit divorced from reality. There is a subplot in which a teenage girl, who is in love with a grown man, decides to prove to him what a grown-up she is by taking a naked picture of herself and sending it to him. This act kicks off certain plot actions, but mostly in a misguidedly comedic way, with the girl’s raging father getting involved, and whatnot. At no point does anybody acknowledge that being in possession of a naked picture of a girl who is a legal minor is kryptonite. That is officially child pornography, OK? They’re all kind of like, “Hey look at that” instead of going, “I need to get rid of this immediately! This picture is equal to five years in freaking prison and the rest of my life in a database of perverts.” I don’t know why I’m the only one acknowledging this. Get your heads on straight, Carell and company.

The movie does pull off one significant twist that does not feel contrived. (I do wonder why it needed to be a twist. I don’t know if anything was really earned by not disclosing that bit of information right at the beginning.) And it has at least one amazing scene which is fun and funny and sexy and romantic: when a determined Emma Stone goes home with Ryan Gosling. She has just broken up with her would-be fiancé and this cad hit on her once, and she decides she is going to have a one-night stand and enjoy it. But she’s sort of a goofball who, when she finds herself alone with this dude, can’t stop talking nervously and asking nerdy questions. Her reaction when he takes off his shirt is by far the most hilarious moment in the movie, just an explosion of profane disbelief. Eventually she starts to hit on something with her questions and she gets an actual honest answer from him, and pretty soon they have, all of his efforts to the contrary, made an honest-to-God emotional connection. It’s funny, it’s endearing, and it feels like earned character development. Maybe worth seeing the movie for that scene alone.

Hanna (2011)

Unfulfilled Pretensions Toward Oscar Glory: nominated for Best Action Movie by the Broadcast Film Critics Association Awards; nominated for Best Soundtrack/Score by the Chicago Film Critics Association and the World Soundtrack Awards; winner of Best Score per the Los Angeles Film Critics Association

A kick-ass action movie that just happens to star a teenage girl, Saoirse Ronan. She’s the one who was weird and ethereal in Atonement, and weird and ethereal in The Lovely Bones. Being weird and ethereal works for her here, too. Her life is not typical of a modern-day teenager: she spends the majority of it holed up in a cabin in the deep woods of Scandinavia with her father, played by Eric Bana, the two of them playing Survivor Man by hunting, withstanding the cold, and with him occasionally sneaking up on her with a weapon to see if she can escape his clutches. She is being trained for something, but the movie wisely rolls the information out nice and slowly. We get to know their  bizarre life of snowy deprivation without knowing what drew them there, and who they are hiding from; what happened to Hanna’s mother; why her dad is teaching Hanna to fight and stare down gun barrels; and, most importantly, why there is a radio signal that her dad wants to suppress and Hanna wants to let loose. We know that it is instigation, escalation of something. We don’t know what. For some time we don’t need to know. But the little clues keep dribbling in and eventually we get to place that last puzzle piece without even realizing we’ve done so. It’s really quite brilliantly paced.

They don’t spend too much time up there in the snow. It’s not too much of a spoiler to declare that Hanna does release the radio signal, and that both of them emerge into civilization then. Their plan involves parting from each other immediately and meeting up later in Berlin once they’ve met their secret objectives. They are both of them being tracked by a top-level government agent, played by Cate Blanchett in practical heels, a red bob, and a fairly convincing Southern accent. She is a cool customer, attempting to eliminate Hanna and her father and keep it under the radar if possible. She hires a Murder Man played creepily by BBC costume drama regular Tom Hollander, who tails Hanna while she bums around Europe, being both a cherubic super soldier and a blossoming teen all at once.

It’s a puzzling but amazing movie.  And for real, the action is top notch. Hanna’s escape from a government facility is better than anything you’ve ever seen Jason Bourne do.  As I said, Blanchett is a great villainess, while Bana is dynamic, intelligent, and looks great in a suit. The soundtrack is by the Chemical Brothers, pumping electronica that seems like it would be incongruous but is actually perfect. Every time a fight is about to happen, the music builds and builds and builds until PUNCH KICK POW. It’s awesome.

Another Earth (2011)

Unfulfilled Pretensions Toward Oscar Glory: multiple nominations from the Independent Spirit Awards, multiple wins at Sundance including Special Jury Prize; one of the National Board of Review’s Top Ten Independent Films; two Best Actress wins (from the Sitges-Catalonian International Film Festival and the San Diego Film Critics Society) for lead actor Brit Marling

This one was a long shot for any Oscar recognition—it was an indie film, created by unknown quantities, which got very little attention when it came out this past summer. I would never have even heard of it except that Brit Marling (who both plays the lead character and co-wrote the screenplay with her friend, screenwriter and director Mike Cahill) did the talk show circuit at the time and was cute and charming on Jimmy Fallon’s show. I made a note to remember the movie when it came out on DVD because one of my film and TV weaknesses is human drama with a sci-fi twist. This is why I despair at the ratings for Fringe every week (it’s totally getting cancelled at the end of this season; I’m preparing myself). I don’t like hard sci-fi—space battles and mythic monsters—but I do love when seemingly normal humans have to muddle their way through exceptional scenarios.

In Another Earth, there is…another Earth. Astronomers discover that what they thought was a large star is actually a planet, with all the same geographic specifications as our Earth. In a particularly Fringey development, the other Earth turns out to have doubles of the people on the main Earth. This, of course, allows the damaged main character, Rhoda, to ruminate on whether the Other Rhoda has made the same mistakes.

Rhoda made one big mistake in particular—one we see in the opening moments of the movie—and which comes to her leaving prison, after serving a sentence of several years, in the next scene. She goes home with her parents, turns her high school bedroom into a den of emptiness, and lets her parole officer place her in a janitorial position. The p.o. protests that Rhoda is educated and intelligent and they can do better, but Rhoda doesn’t want to have to talk to people. Mop jockey it is.

Still haunted by the accident she caused, she hunts down the one living victim, and then, when he answers his door, she pretends to be from a cleaning service doing one-time-only free consultations. His house is a depressive’s dump, so he lets her in, and later asks her back. She considers, and then reappears a week later with a bucket and some Lysol. She’s his cleaning woman now. They take small, tentative steps towards getting to know each other—he sees her inspecting his telescope, so he invites her to look through it at the Other Earth. He offers her some of his spaghetti dinner. Best of all, he asks her to join him in a bout of Wii boxing. It’s a relief just to see these two depressives get a little exercise, honestly. So they begin this tentative relationship of two damaged souls.

But in the background, the Other Earth is in the news. Scientists have finally managed to make radio contact and discovered the truth of the doubles. In fact, the scientist they’ve chosen to make verbal contact—on TV of course—finds that she’s talking to herself. They both remember eating strawberry ice cream at a particular event in her their parallel childhoods. People panic, though a guy on the radio counsels against attack: it would be “the perfect scenario for mutually assured destruction.” That line is the thematic connective tissue between the two Earths plot and the romance plot. They seem sweet and happy, but what he doesn’t know about her (because she’s just some random cleaning lady, right?) is going to tear them both up when it comes out. That part of the story is inevitable, but how it resolves it a relatively surprising. I don’t want to spoil the last shot of the film, but it made my breath catch in my throat. In hindsight, it was so inevitable. It’s the kind of thing that I should have been expecting because I’m not an idiot, but that…I don’t know, my mind hadn’t gotten there yet. But it’s the perfect pin put in place in the very last second.

It’s not a big and bold movie, nor even a devastatingly creative one, but it’s got its head on straight. The acting is beautiful and minimal, from Brit Marling as Rhoda and William Mapother as John, the survivor. (You may remember him from Lost as Season 1’s Creepy Ethan. Being a little creepy doesn’t hurt him too much here.) The tone is quiet without being flat, tightly and consistently all the way through. The music—by some hipster (probably) group from Brooklyn called Fall On Your Sword—is just right: poppy, but a little despairing, and full of sci-fi friendly clicks and zips and beeps. It is, in fact, otherworldly.

Shame (2011)

Unfulfilled Pretensions Toward Oscar Glory: Multiple Best Picture nominations (most of them from British or otherwise foreign organizations); multiple Supporting Actress nominations for Carey Mulligan; Best Actor nominations numbering in the double digits for Michael Fassbender, plus first-place wins from at least 5 different critics’ associations

This has been the Year of Fassbender. You’ve seen him if you saw any of these movies: Shame, Haywire, A Dangerous Method, Jane Eyre, The X-Men: First Class. (Although only those of us who saw Shame got to see alllllll of him.) He seemed to emerge out of nowhere, although I’ve since discovered that he played a pivotal role in arguably the best scene in Inglourious Basterds a couple years ago. Yeah, there he is! All those German guys looked the same.

His absence from the Oscar nominations last week was probably the biggest of the surprise snubs. He really had been sweeping the awards circuit in a way that seemed to leave no doubt. So what happened? Some people say that the subject matter of Shame was too risqué, that it made our notoriously puritan nation cringe a little bit. It didn’t seem to hurt Natalie Portman last year, though (her Black Swan was pretty naughty, yeah?). The LA Times thinks the nudity was the problem—not the fact of it, but because Oscar voters figured that maybe Fassbender had been blessed enough in life. My personal conspiracy theory is that there is a Clooney contingent out there in the Academy determined to weaken his competition. He’s basically a shoo-in for Best Actor now. It’s enough to make me root for Jean Dujardin to take the award come Oscar night. (Have you seen him, though? So charming! So French!) As much as I like Clooney—and I do—he’s done better work than The Descendants, he really has. I haven’t seen Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, A Better Life, or Moneyball yet, but when I do I can weigh in on Gary Oldman, Demian Bichir, and Brad Pitt, too.

Returning to Shame, my personal feeling is that Fassbender’s performance was amazing. He barely has any dialogue at all—he mostly jogs, rides trains, drinks alone, and, of course, has a lot of sex. Like, a lot. And he does a lot with the physicality of the character—you can look at him just standing there and know what an emotional weight he’s carrying, know that he’s full of suppressed rage. What I kind of don’t understand is why the people around him don’t necessarily see it. Like, why is the James Badge Dale character friends with him? What is he getting out of the relationship? Is Fassbender his wing man, the handsome friend who draws the ladies in, and then Dale hits on them with his hyper-loquacity and closes the deal? That seems to be their usual set-up (although at least one woman we see flirts with Dale all night and then screws Fassbender, the brooding one, instead). Fassbender also has a thing going with a co-worker (she was his co-worker, right? It was kind of unclear if she was the same woman from the office), an above-board romance that he is clearly competely unqualified to support, as we see when they have dinner and she valiantly tries to carry on a conversation with him. First he says nothing, then he says too much. He’s practically an Aspie.

Actually, that might not be too far off. There are some links to OCD and addiction, yes? If so, that’s what this guy’s got. His particular addiction allows him to still keep a pretty orderly house, and he does. What is clearly a massive library of porn is hidden away on his sleek laptop and in the backs of closets—and in a pot in his fridge? Did anybody see that? The scene where he’s throwing away all his porn, and he empties this pot from his refrigerator into the trash bag? Has he got porn hidden in a pot? Or is he just thinking, “Oh and this stew is really old too…” OR is he just a really smart neatnik addict who knows he won’t run out and retrieve his porn from the curb if it’s got last week’s leftovers all over it? Should I be spending time on this arbitrary question during one of the character’s major moments of turmoil? Probably not.

Anyway, his neat little damaged life is upturned by the entrance of his sister—who’s also nuts, in a different messy, needy way—back into his life and into his apartment. They have weird, weird interactions where they compulsively talk about their past and their problems without ever being specific for the benefit of those of us watching. The dialogue between them tends to be of the “you know what your problem is? I’ll tell you,” variety. The acting is so, so good, really, between Fassbender and Mulligan, but their exchanges as scripted and staged felt a bit trite. Maybe even a bit paint-by-numbers.

And then there’s the giggling problem. An AV Club article (this one serious) lays out a very convincing case for looking at Shame as a typical addiction story in the same vein as Leaving Las Vegas or Requiem for a Dream, and wishes aloud that the people—including certain reviewers—who are having a hard time keeping a straight face through the proceedings could try a little harder. Even in the theater where I saw it—my local art theater, a late-night Saturday showing, no doubt full of people who are no strangers to hard-hitting drama—there was still a lot of palpable discomfort. And every time a character would crack a joke (usually Mulligan), everybody would laugh with relief until things got weird again.

But here’s the thing. Movies have been making comedy out of sexuality for SO LONG. It’s strange and unfamiliar to see it taken so incredibly seriously. There’s one scene where Mulligan walks in on Fassbender while he works himself over in the bathroom. Anybody who’s seen Fast Times at Ridgemont High knows that that is a situation (that exact situation) that could be made hilarious. And so we all giggle nervously, including Mulligan, who responds to Fassbender’s question “Are you spying on me?” with laughter and banter, all, “Maybe I am!” until he lashes out viciously. And then we’re all shocked, taken aback, just as much as Mulligan is. Clearly the movie is meant to make us feel awful, and on that it delivers. It’s not particularly intellectual or revolutionary, but say this for it: it picked a tone and it stuck with it.

  1. Michelle
    February 4, 2012 at 3:13 pm

    I have a lot of movies to catch up with you… I did see Another Earth and I agree – I thought it was going to get some Oscar attention, too. Amazing scene with a guy playing a saw – how many movies have that?! This scene is on the composer’s website http://www.scottmunsonmusic.com/news/music-in-film-another-earth-soundtrack if you want to see/hear it again.

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