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Movie Reviews: Oscar Actors Galore

February 23, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

I’m really trying to finish up reviewing all the Oscar movies I’ve seen before the telecast this weekend! I’ve decided to arrange them thematically, so after this entry (on the movies whose best chances for Oscar gold are in Best Actor or Best Supporting Actor categories), I’ll be doing an Oscar Actresses Galore, then a Screenplays Galore, Best Picture Best Contenders, and finally my slate of predictions. This is super ambitious, so we’ll see what happens.

Without further ado…

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2011)

Oscar Nominations: Best Supporting Actor (Max von Sydow), Best Picture

I read this book, finally, this fall. It’s not as good as Jonathan Safran Foer’s debut novel, Everything is Illuminated, but it’s one of the first real literary treatments of 9/11. As such, its publication was met with tons of cries of “too soon, too soon!” just like this movie itself has elicited. Personally, I don’t consider tragedies on a national scale as belonging to anybody; as much as it may make us uncomfortable, they are open to the entire population to treat in fiction if they so desire. Both book and movie are hugely sentimental (creeping over the border into mawkish, as far as the movie goes), but I don’t think that fact renders Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close a detestable enterprise. (Also, I don’t know why this movie is getting so much negative attention when other hacky movies have traded on 9/11 for years already.)

Having got that out of the way, here’s the story: there’s a little boy, Oskar. He’s precocious in a very New Yorky way; he probably reads the Times before he leaves home for fourth grade. His dad, as played by America’s Dad, Tom Hanks, is a witty, literate, jeweler who constantly constructs mysteries for the boy to solve, and adventures for the boy to take. He’s trying to draw the kid out of his shell a bit. (The family’s name is even Schell.) Sandra Bullock rounds out the Schell family as wife and mother, and she mostly smiles indulgently in the background. This is all flashback to what has happened before the opening scene, Dad Schell’s funeral. Oskar complains that the ceremony is stupid; they’re burying an empty casket. Dad Schell is missing, presumed dead in the 9/11 attacks. He had a meeting (for some reason) in the Twin Towers that morning.

Oskar misses his dad compulsively, destructively. His mom has sort of withdrawn into depression. Oskar spends a lot of time in his dad’s closet, touching things. One day he breaks a vase that has a key in it, in an envelope with “Black” written on it. Through some roundabout methods, Oskar determines that the key belongs to somebody named Black, that his dad always meant for Oskar to find Mr. or Mrs. Black, and that this adventure will conquer his grief. He copies down all 400-odd Blacks from the Five Boroughs’ phone books, grids up the city, and begins visiting strangers, who are all living, loving, crying, and grieving in their own ways. It makes for a pretty touching book, the way the world opens up to Oskar. In the movie, it’s just hard not to fear for this 9-year-old running all over New York City on his own. How does this kid not get hassled by gang town, or lured by predators?

Well, for part of the way Oskar has a companion. His grandmother’s “renter” (this is a long story). This is an old man played by cinematic legend Max von Sydow to whom Oskar finds it easier than usual to reveal his secrets and fears. Maybe it’s because the man has a trustworthy (familiar, maybe?) face, maybe it’s because he is mute and thus there’s no danger of him telling tales.

Most film critics have questioned this movie’s inclusion in the Best Picture race; there’s been a lot of chatter that it’s not worthy. It’s not a badly-made movie, but it’s not a particularly deep one. All of the complex matter-of-factness of Foer’s book—along with the depth and history of the story of Oskar’s grandparents, of course—is gone. Major character beats and overall messages seem to have been tweaked for easier digestion. Not to spoil too much, but the resolution of Grandma & Grandpa Schell’s story is too easy; the happy ending for one of the unhappier Blacks, Abby (played by Viola Davis) is made very easy. And the whole runner with Oskar’s dad trying to get him on the park swing is groaningly bad when it comes to fruition.

The characters are likeable enough, however. I really like the little boy; his name is Thomas Horn and apparently he was discovered on Jeopardy! Kids’ Week. Which is perfect for Oskar. He has an open, expressive face, and whether the kid had to do a lot of acting or not, his character has a real autistic quality to him, a bit shouty, a bit deaf to tone—also he vents his anger, grief, and frustration by screaming to beat the band—which matches how I pictured Oskar when I read the book. (Too bad they took out that detail of Oskar always dressing head-to-toe in white. That would have been pretty striking on film, given him an Angel of Mercy wandering the streets of New York kind of look.)

Tom Hanks is charming as always in his this-is-why-we-miss-him flashbacks. Viola Davis is lovely in a typically beaten-down role. This woman needs a role where she doesn’t have tragedy heaped upon her. And where she gets to be as glamorous as we know she actually is. Why doesn’t somebody make like an African-American Sex in the City or something? Sandra Bullock is very mopey in a role that sort of goes nowhere; even when her character becomes significantly more important in the last act, you don’t really believe it or care. Though I would be lying if I said I didn’t cry in that last scene between her and the boy, because I totally did.

Max von Sydow, who is nominated for Best Supporting Actor, is good, I guess. His character is mute and writes some messages on a notebook he carries with him; he also has ‘Yes’ tattooed on one hand and ‘No’ on the other—that’s straight from the book—and the result is that, as you may have guessed, von Sydow never speaks for the entirety of his part in the movie. He’s got a lot of quiet dignity and everything, but it’s hard not to feel that he’s being rewarded for being super old and carrying a lot of years on his face. He looks wise and pained because he probably is. Dude was in The Seventh Seal. I might think von Sydow had a shot, but for Christopher Plummer. Not only did Plummer give the best performance, but he’s old and past due for awards, too. He’s the whole Oscar package.

Speaking of…

Beginners (2010)

Oscar Nominations: Best Supporting Actor (Christopher Plummer)

The movie itself is likeable but cloying. It may have big name stars, and it may have had a relatively wide theatrical release, but it is indie to its core. “We are not conventional people!” is writ large every time Ewan McGregor and his on-again off-again ladyfriend Melanie Laurent (LOVE HER) do anything. He’s an artist, she’s an actress. He has a dog that he takes everywhere. No, everywhere. This is more or less explained by the fact that the dog was his dad’s and his dad is now dead. Loyalty to father, dog as substitute for father, etc. etc. What is not explained is why the dog occasionally looks at McGregor and then subtitles flash across the screen of what the dog is thinking. Or maybe it is explained: “Indie film! We are quirky.” We should just be glad that Zooey Deschanel passed. (You know she’s the first call whenever one of these things get made.)

Though they are both beautiful, the relationship between McGregor and Laurent is kind of a snooze. They meet quirky and get together. They are cute together. They seem connected. But they are both sad, insular loners. The closer they get, the more they want to disengage. This trope in movies tires me to no end. Do these people exist in real life, or have they been invented by popular culture? Like a special movies-only addiction to exploit: loneliness addicts. People who can be in a laughing, happy, compatible relationship but, rather than feeling tied to that spot, like “more of this, please,” run away instead. Pretending you are happy is one thing; people do that all the time, I am sure. But actually being happy and still running away from it? How do they manage it?

Psychologically they must be associating being happy with something negative. We don’t get too much explanation from Laurent about what her deal is. Something with her father, but I don’t remember. But McGregor is easy. He is afraid of commitment because of his parents: perpetrators of a multi-decade marriage that was, from day one, a sham. This is where Oscar nominee Christopher Plummer comes in. He plays McGregor’s father. He is amazing.

Plummer’s character’s story is this: as a youth (in the 40s? 50s? doesn’t matter, sometime repressive) he realized he was gay. He put that aside. He married a woman, had a son. He worked as an operator of an art gallery. He was respectable. Having waited patiently for his wife to die (of illness or old age, I forget), when she does, he comes out with a vengeance. He learns everything he can about what it means to be gay in modern times. He’s interested in everything: gay culture, gay politics.  He goes to bars, he goes to rallies. He begins seeing this weirdo played by Goran Visnjic. They cheerfully acknowledge that Visnjic’s “daddy issues” made the relationship happen. They’re both cool with it. (McGregor, not so much, but he’s trying.)

The movie opens after Plummer’s character’s death, but his story is returned to multiple times through flashback. The two stories progress side-by-side: in the present, McGregor dealing with Laurent and grief, and in the past, Plummer exploring the gay scene, weirding out his son, and then dying of cancer. Plummer’s character is vibrant onscreen for many reasons. He is funny and charming. He represents for us the throwing aside of societal pressures to be “normal.” This is especially heartening in a guy so old. To see what courage it takes, to say “even if I only have a few years left, they will be honest ones.” McGregor’s character’s grief works especially well because when Plummer is not in the movie, in the present day scenes, he is missed by us, too. We want him to have had more time. We want him to be there being awesome, TMI-ing McGregor and becoming enchanted with another aspect of gay culture. He is delighted to be introduced to “house music.” He never stops being delighted.

That’s how Plummer figures in the rest of the movie. We compare his exuberant life with the ennui of McGregor and Laurent. McGregor’s only outlet for his grief is this faces of sadness project he’s working on as a commercial artist. It is unwieldy and impractical for the contracted purpose. Laurent, being a runner awayer, learns about Plummer and admires him for his courage. She reads a personal ad he wrote and marvels that,“He never gave up” on trying to find a mate, trying to find happiness. It’s a bit simple, sure, but it’s lovely and effective.

(Question for Hollywood, or for the universe in general: why does Ewan McGregor only play sad sacks now? Who is offering these roles to him, and why is he accepting them? Does nobody remember Trainspotting-era McGregor? Dude is a firecracker when you let him be one.)

Three more films for review, ahead

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)

Oscar Nominations: Best Original Score (Alberto Iglesias), Best Adapted Screenplay (Bridget O’Connor & Peter Straughan), Best Lead Actor (Gary Oldman)

I went into this movie expecting a tangled web; I had heard from several sources that it was hard to follow. After it was over, I looked at the friend I went with and we were both like, “That was pretty clear, didn’t you think so?” Maybe it’s because we’re both fancy-pants scholars of narrative, or maybe critics et al are just exaggerating. As soon as I was able to match names to actors (it’s true that this isn’t the kind of movie where the characters don’t get those filmic nametags so you know which one is Smiley and which one is Esterhase—you know, the secretary answering the phone “Smiley’s office” or the character glancing at his mail so we can read his name on the envelope, and so on), I had no trouble keeping track of who was where, when in time this scene was happening (there is some jumping backwards and forwards), or who is pulling strings for who or why or what. You’ve got to pay a little bit of attention—no doing your taxes in front of this one—but it will reward you handsomely enough.

The narrative has a couple of different inciting events—there’s a Christmas party where Oldman’s character, Smiley, makes a personal discovery, and there’s an assassination attempt on one of their intelligence agents in Budapest. The story keeps returning to these two places in flashback, and letting us see new information each time. It’s slow in the best sense, meditative, quiet, careful. These characters are all spies, every last one of them, and they don’t do it the flashy way. They do it the way real spies probably do it, by being mild-mannered, hiding in plain sight, constantly observing and mentally filing things away. Oldman in particular fits this mold, being excessively muted at first. He is a retired intelligence guy, tasked with investigating four of his former colleagues and figuring out which of them is smuggling secrets to the Soviets. He takes on Benedict Cumberbatch (yes, that’s his real name) as an assistant and Cumberbatch does most of the legwork while Oldman sits back pulling strings. Finally, just when we’re starting to think his contribution to this movie has been severely overstated, Oldman delivers this amazing monologue about his counterpart in Soviet intelligence, a guy he dealt with once, many years past, and whom he fatally underestimated. It’s rueful, clever, wise, like a great anecdote told by your favorite history professor in college.

Oldman is definitely the star here. John Hurt is there and gone lightning fast. Ciaran Hinds is underused; Colin Firth seems underused although he and Oldman have a great interaction near the end. Cumberbatch is good; a balded-up Mark Strong is good. Tom Hardy has an interesting role that is minor but pivotal, and this is officially the first movie I’ve liked him in. The movie has a great feel, too. It’s set in the early 70s, and it’s got that very subtle retro feel to it, where it doesn’t hit you over the head with the 70s, but it’s definitely there, in the sideburns and the exceedingly orange décor. Every set in the film looks retro and amazing, especially the room where the high-level guys meet (see the pic above). The climactic reveal of the mole is good; and the last scene is kick-ass, a montage that resolves everybody’s situations set to this peppy cover of “Beyond the Sea” sung in French by Julio Iglesias. The internet tells me this recording is out of print, but my guess is not for long. (Weirdly, the Oscar-nominated composer for the film, Alberto Iglesias, is apparently no relation to Julio.)

Moneyball (2011)

Oscar Nominations: Best Editing, Best Sound Mixing, Best Screenplay (Aaron Sorkin, Steven Zaillian, Stan Chervin), Best Supporting Actor (Jonah Hill), Best Lead Actor (Brad Pitt), Best Picture

I’ve gone back and forth on this movie. It started out very slow, BO-ring. Brad Pitt as Billy Beane, a manager? recruiter? something? for the Oakland As, sitting in a lot of meetings and telling all the other guys how they are wrong, approaching things the wrong way, and money is an insurmountable obstacle to piecing together a good team. There are multiple scenes like this until Beane meets this kid played by Jonah Hill who is an economist and looks at baseball by numbers. And…then they do that, and that’s Moneyball, the concept.

The trailer and commercials made Moneyball the movie look like a comedy; it’s not. There are witty moments here and there, and once I was able to recalibrate my expectations (not a comedy; rather, a low-stakes grown-up drama) I liked it more than I expected to do. Director Bennett Miller (whose only other major film as director was 2005’s Capote, a stark, dour movie that I loved) keeps a tight rein on tone: the movie never veers off its course, going too wacky or too stagy or too anything. And even though the early parts were boring, they were narratively necessary to set up the more interesting second act, when the As’s season actually begins and the Moneyball technique is officially tested on a national stage.

Still, there’s a problem. I’m not sportsy at all—this is welldocumented. I have very little investment in the Magic of the Sport, America’s Pasttime in its Purest Form. But even so, the concept of Moneyball, at least inasmuch as I understand it, seems…unsportsmanlike. The objective seems to be to get guys on base, mostly by walking them, at the expense of letting any of them hit the ball, and even at the expense of actual defensive play when they’re on the field. (Why else would they be playing guys who are poor at their positions?) Again, I’m certainly not the person to cry about business having robbed the game of its poetry. But why would anybody care about it if it was actually like this? Maybe this technique is a means to an end: increase the winning stats, then get more money into the team, then get better players, then play more conventionally. But nobody in the movie ever says that.

On one hand, maybe it’s nice to see a sports movie that is so cynical about sports. (Still, we have Jerry Maguire for that, and that’s a much more enjoyable movie. And way funnier.) But on the other hand, Moneyball caves anyway: the As win their 20th consecutive game when one player hits an unprecedented home run, completely invalidating the entire basis of their technique. (Because, if the entire point of it was that they could predict everything that would happen on the field through their math, why would their greatest success, at least as framed by the script/movie, be the result of an anomaly? An impossible-to-predict event that just happened to happen?) And then after that, Beane gives another speech about how the romance of baseball still doesn’t mean anything.

And then Beane gets an offer from the Red Sox for all this money, and he’s still saying, “What’s the point?” It’s around here that I finally grasped the key to Pitt’s performance—his character is severely depressed! He’s having the worst of midlife crises. He’s been trying to make a mark on the game, and up to this point he’s failed (his career as a player was a bust, which we see in flashback) and when he finally does make a contribution, it’s one that he just doesn’t like. This makes for the weirdly underwhelming resolution of the film (on-field victories already forgotten), but it also allows Pitt to play one of the more complicated roles he’s maybe ever been given, and he does great things with it. Again, returning to the trailer and marketing, all the commercials positioned his character as this sort of upper-management loose cannon, Pitt fast-talking and charming. There is way less of that in this movie than you would think, but it works, because you see less of Brad Pitt the movie star and more of Billy Beane, regular guy trying to do something extraordinary.

Other good parts: I really liked how director Miller inserted animated statistical imagery in between scenes, showing record sheets of wins, where the As’s onscreen standings keep rising up above that of other teams. A nice way to bring some visual interest to the movie, and to illustrate the progress of the team. I loved how basebally everybody outside of Pitt and Hill looked (Pitt looks like Pitt; Hill looks like the economist that he is). All of their colleagues were old fat guys who looked like old fat guys, including one with a prominent hearing aid. And Philip Seymour Hoffman, as the As’s coach, looked amazing! He looked like he taught me sixth grade math! Chris Pratt is adorable as a player who has sort of lost his nerve. I also really liked Stephen Bishop as David Justice, although I couldn’t stop asking myself if the real David Justice was the one who beat the shit out of Halle Berry.

Also, the movie is co-written by Aaron Sorkin, which made me nervous after the debacle that was The Social Network (which I never got around to writing about, unfortunately, but the labored, arrogant dialogue drove me insane). But this may be the least Sorkiny Sorkin project he’s ever done. The people mostly talked like people. It was MUCH appreciated.

Final word: Best Picture, no. Best Actor—maybe. I would not be at all averse to a Brad Pitt win here. And what about Best Supporting Actor nominee Jonah Hill? The verdict: he is not interesting, he is not funny. Besides the fact that I don’t consider him as somebody who has got a lot of craft to his acting, the character he plays here is much too limited to even give him the space to give an amazing performance, were he able. The character has very little background and no personal growth. He is there to introduce the Moneyball concept, to be a human calculator for Pitt, for Pitt to demonstrate to him how he fires people. But where does Hill’s character end up that he wasn’t before? Right, nowhere. He stays still.

A Better Life (2011)

Oscar Nominations: Best Lead Actor (Demián Bichir)

This is one of the more enjoyable movies I saw during my Oscar watch. It’s got an interesting, sympathetic story, and it unfurls it with great pacing, believeable scenarios and realistic consequences. Why this has to be such a rarity in Hollywood, I do not know.

It’s about a Mexican guy, Carlos, living in southern California, an illegal alien who is working as a landscaper. His buddy, who owns the business, has decided to cash out and return home to Mexico. He’s going to buy a farm. Carlos can’t imagine why anyone would want to return to Mexico. The buddy offers to sell the truck, tools, and company name to him, so he can be his own boss and make some real money. The only real issue is that Carlos doesn’t have papers. No SSN, and a more immediate problem, no driver’s license. He agrees to buy the truck and borrows a bunch of money from a relative to do so. And then it all gets monumentally messed up.

Already there’s a political element to this story, but it’s to the movie’s credit that it indulges in storytelling, not ideology. The story doesn’t require you to “root for” Carlos amidst his technically illegal activities. It doesn’t matter whether or not you feel he is justified in pushing forward towards that “better life” in the way that he does. Carlos is not a political guy. He’s not interested in immigrant’s rights, he’s not out to scam the U.S. He just wants the opportunity to work and earn a good living, to get his son into a better high school than the gang-ridden one he currently attends, and to have maybe a little money left over for the kid’s soccer equipment.

Carlos’s principles are actually pretty square. He agonizes over taking the truck (which would require him to drive illegally. Being in charge of the business will also, presumably, require him to operate outside of the U.S. system of taxation, but whether or not he even knows that’s a thing is up for debate, because none of the characters ever mention it) and over accepting the loan from his sister (or sister-in-law, not sure). He wants to work within the system every way he can. He wants to get in that dusty truck and drive from house to house every day, shimmy up palm trees to trim them despite its dangers, and collect that hard-earned paycheck at the end of it. He wants to do everything the honorable way. There’s this great scene where Carlos and his son go hunting for Carlos’s cell phone, hunting down the guy who stole it, and find it on another guy, who bought it off the thief for $40. Carlos explains the situation and then takes out his wallet. Carlos’s son is all, “No way!” but Carlos wants to do everything right.

Whereas Carlos’s son, who is a teenager in the slums of  L.A., is looking at life from a different perspective. He’s beginning to get offers of a different kind. His girlfriend has got gang connections, which is established right away when she shakes down a kid who stiffed the son’s buddy on a drug buy. “Ask ANYONE who my uncles are,” she menaces. The kid’s idiot friend is constantly nipping at the heels of this girl’s relations, begging to be given jobs to do. They would certainly pull strings for the son, and it’s something his character needs to think about. Her family isn’t exactly rolling in it, but they’ve got money that he and his dad have not got, money for new clothes and gaming systems etc. The two lifestyles—mostly honest, hard-working near-poverty versus illegitimate, dangerous, moderately profitable gang life are the only two options facing these men, and they both come with extreme hardships.

I expected Best Actor nominee Demián Bichir to really knock me out in the lead role—he’s the underdog, he’s the guy who bypassed the Hollywood publicity machine and broke through to accolades he should have been too under the radar to get. I don’t know that he did, though. I don’t think he was too subtle for me; I felt like I was attuned to subtleties in other performances, like Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe (review coming soon), and Pitt in Moneyball. Bichir’s Carlos is very grave and dignified; he radiates protective love for his son and wistful longing for a life that he can’t quite earn. It’s a wonderful performance. But lots of wonderful performances happen every year. The real victory here as I see it is that a minority, non-American-born actor got nominated for a performance where, though he plays an illegal alien, he does not play a terrorist or drug dealer. Kudos to that.

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