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January 20, 2012


I have covered a number of Hollywood films in previous sections, and a few phrases I've used will recur in the sections that follow on Hollywood productions: "a good film;" "a very good film;" "a serviceable film;" "excellent fill in the blank (performance[s], script, direction, cinematography, etc.);" "an enjoyable film." I often see Hollywood films that I like, but rarely do I see one that blows me away.

Hollywood makes good movies: actors turn in excellent performances and directors provide excellent direction. After all, they are consummate professionals in an industry town that's been honing its craft since 1906: actors, who have been refining The Method since Constantin Stanislavski and Lee Strasberg pioneered the technique in the 1930s and directors, many of whom have worked under the concept of auteur theory since Truffaut's advocacy in 1954. Millions are spent on production and promotion. For heavens sake, they should be good. But...

...rarely are they GREAT. The Wild Bunch, Mean Streets, The Searchers, The Third Man, Citizen Kane, Dr. Strangelove, The Great Dictator, Sunset Boulevard, not to mention foreign films such as The Seventh Seal, La Grande illusion, Andrei Rublev, The 400 Blows, 8 1/2.... These represent just a few of my top pick GREAT films, and admittedly they represent my biases. Yet we don't see even one film of this caliber come out of Hollywood each year, five years, even ten.

Furthermore, it is rare for the Academy to choose one of the best films for Best Picture Oscar for fear of failing to play it safe with an American audience that seems enamoured of mediocrity. As an exercise, I just went back an arbitrary ten years to find that the 2001 Best Picture was A Beautiful Mind. It's a good movie, interesting enough subject matter; one of those roles that has a built-in idiosyncracy/eccentricity for an actor to latch onto like Dustin Hoffman's autistic Raymond Babbitt in 1988's Best Picture winner Rain Man. Hold up Hoffman's performance in Rain Man to his immersive performance as Ratso Rizzo in John Schlesinger's brilliantly conceived Midnight Cowboy (for which, in 1969, AMPAS shocked by going out on a limb to award Best Picture). There is a thrilling risk-taking in Jon Voight's performance as well as Hoffman's that's missing in Rain Man. Midnight Cowboy is possessed of a raw grittiness. No mainstream movie today takes us to streets that mean. Even the garbage in the underpasses where the schizophrenic cellist of The Soloist takes shelter is clean.

For at least the past 30 years, a distinction has been made between Hollywood movies and independent films. Independent film arguably goes back as far as the '40s, but really came into its own with the 1969 production of Dennis Hopper's Easy Rider. The distinction has blurred over the decades as major studios have acquired indie production companies. The early '90s saw the buy-ups of major independent (oxymoron?) studios --Disney bought Miramax; Turner bought New Line Cinema, Fine Line Features, and Castle Rock. Still, "independent" continues to deliver more risk-taking and more challenging subject matter than mainstream Hollywood fare.

So I'm heading into the home stretch with a look at Hollywood's mainstream offerings for 2011; then to the indies and my favorite film of the year, which I am well aware, many people COULD NOT STAND!; and close with a look at the Academy's Best Picture nominees.

January 5, 2012


A couple more latecomer 2010 films I omitted from Part I...

Rachel Weisz turns in a strong performance in the Canadian director Larysa Kondracki's 2010 The Whistleblower. In 1999 Kathryn Bolkovac accepted a job in Bosnia as a United Nations peacekeeping officer and ended up in the U.N.'s Gender Affairs Office. Though her job was ostensibly to investigate rape, domestic abuse and sex trafficking there was a tacit understanding among her immediate superiors to turn a blind eye. Bolkovac ultimately unearthed a complicated, wide ranging and interconnected web of sex trade trafficking involving local police, U.N. peacekeepers (it's everything I can do not to put that last word into ironic quotation marks) -- everyone it seemed except for a couple of similarly principled individuals. Despite Bolkovac's efforts, we are left with the impression that the horrors this story chronicles will continue relentlessly, if not entirely because of man's inherent inhumanity to man, then for the sheer motivation of profit.

Kevin Spacey delivers a spirited performance as the ruthless power broker Jack Abramoff in George Hickenlooper's 2010 Casino Jack. Earlier in the year Alex Gibney had explored Abramoff's scandalous exploits in his documentary Casino Jack and the United States of Money, sifting through the corrupt politics that allow a schemer like Abramoff to operate. Hickenlooper's film, focused as it is on Abramoff, unfortunately removes much of the burden of guilt from Beltway culture.

This year's biopics attest to Hollywood's penchant for explorations of character over careful examinations of the historical record. Clint Eastwood's J. Edgar hinges on the man, and though events in the historical record are dutifully ticked off, they remain mere background to character study. It is to Eastwood's and DiCaprio's credit that in the course of exploring a man who was arguably a repressed homosexual, the film never deprives Hoover of his human dignity, but treats the relationship between Hoover and Clyde Tolson with respect and sympathy. In the beginning I was a bit offput by what seemed to me DiCaprio working too hard at the method, though I got over it as the performance progressed. The film's biggest flaw is the extent to which prosthetics become a serious distraction. They are employed only for the three main characters, Hoover and Tolson, and Hoover's lifelong secretary Helen Gandy. Especially jarring is the aging applied to Armie Hammer's Tolson. Nevertheless as a character study, the film is successful at exploring an enigmatic personality within the constellation of his intimates.

One of the worst films of the year is Roland Joffé's There Be Dragons. What was he thinking? The only good thing about it is that I didn't know much about the Spanish Civil War and now I know a teeny bit more. The film purports to tell the story of Josemaría Escrivá, the founder of the Roman Catholic Opus Dei who was canonized in 2002. I'm giving Stephen Holden of the NYT the last word on this one: "Clunk, clunk, squish. That is the sound of the dead language in Roland Joffé’s screenplay for There Be Dragon as it tramples his would-be epic of the Spanish Civil War into an indigestible pulp," he begins, and closes saying, "[It] belongs to a realm devoid of flesh and blood, where vacuous oratory reigns and religiosity passes for faith."

Lee Tamahori's The Devil's Double tells the story of Latif Yahia who had the misfortune to bear a striking resemblance to Saddam Hussein's notoriously evil son Uday. He is conscripted into acting as Uday's double, a situation that chafes his conscience and puts him in a position to experience up close and personal atrocities of which any of us would prefer to remain ignorant. Though the film is sometimes a little too glitzy, Dominic Cooper as both Yahia and Uday turns in a riveting and nuanced portrayal of two personalities that could hardly be more diametrically opposed.

Moneyball is the story of Billy Beane's transformation of the Oakland A's by retiring romantic notions of recruitment and replacing them with sabermetric principles. [Yes, I had to look that up.] Bennett Miller's film is servicable; Brad Pitt's performance is quite good. Hollywood has established a biopic formula that gets in the way of authenticity for me. European films portraying actual people usually feel more genuine.

In Machine Gun Preacher a boozing biker finds religion, goes to Sudan and builds an orphanage to rescue children kidnapped by the Lord's Resistance Army, which forces them into the commission of unthinkable atrocities. Based on real-life Sam Childers' exploits, Marc Forster's film glamorizes his story and violent tactics. A one-dimensional portrayal, it ignores suspicions on the part of some respected journalists that the orphange is a cover for arms dealing.

Though much of the script is fictional, Puncture is based on Paul Danzinger's 1990s Texas lawsuit to force hospitals to use retractable safety needles. Adam Kassen and Mark Kassen's film focuses on Danzinger's cocaine-fueled law partner who comes to the defense of a former ER nurse, now dying of AIDS after being infected by a needle puncture while trying to sedate a drug-crazed patient. Chris Evans turns in an excellent performance as Danzinger's self-destructing partner, but the film never quite loses a feel of inexperienced film-making. It is worthwhile, however, to get inside yet another sphere, in this case major hospitals, dominated by greed at the tragic expense of basic well-being.

Roland Emmerich's Anonymous is a stupid movie based on the stupid premise that Shakespeare could not have written the oeuvre. The concept rests on the elitist assumption that only a nobleman of great education, not some commoner, could have expressed such deep human insight and left such a profound literary legacy. Well, most every respectable literary critic says, "Hogwash," and so do I. This is all done with impressive sets and period costumes, but that doesn't make it any more plausible, and having Rafe Spall portray Shakespeare as a loutish buffoon made me wince every time the camera landed on him.

Now a British documentary filmmaker, Colin Clark was a starry-eyed gofer on the set of The Prince and the Showgirl in 1956. I didn't have high hopes for Simon Curtis's My Week with Marilyn, but everyone pulls it off. Some critics complained that it didn't capture the depths of Monroe's psychology, but I think that misses the point. It is Marilyn seen through the eyes of a naive 23-year-old, and it is, after all, only a week-long acquaintance.

Another film I had low expectations for was Cameron Crowe's We Bought a Zoo. I have gradually come to admire Matt Damon's work. (He was especially good in 2009's biopic of the self-deluded con Mark Whitacre, The Informant!) Benjamin Mee is a British journalist who bought a dilapidated zoo and chronicled the experience in We Bought a Zoo: The Amazing True Story of a Young Family, a Broken Down Zoo, and the 200 Wild Animals that Changed Their Lives Forever. Damon's Benjamin Mee is a widower who buys the zoo, he tells himself, to give his children a place to start over, but he really buys it to come to terms with his own grief. I have not been keen on Scarlett Johansson as directed by Woody Allen, but she puts in a lovely, authentic turn here as the head zookeeper. A nice ensemble cast rounds out a surprisingly satisfying little movie.