Thursday, August 14, 2014

Inner Strength



John Steinbeck once wrote, "I find out of long experience that I admire all nations and hate all governments." After viewing writer/director's John Michael McDonagh's latest film Calvary, you would imagine that the author of this work would change this statement to "I find I hate religion, but I admire the people that serve their life for its spiritual riches."

This is to state the obvious about this film - McDonagh is highly critical of the Church in contemporary Ireland and poses the belief that it has lost its influence on the masses. The opening scene in which a local man tells Father Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson) in the confessional that he was sexually abused by a priest when he was a young man is primary evidence of McDonogh's feelings about the hypocrisy of Church doctrine.

If McDonagh wanted to, he could have made this a hateful film about this sorry episode of this man's youth (as well as the shame it brought the Church and its followers), but the author is too wise to let it go at that. McDonagh makes this a story about the priest and how he deals with his flock, a group that respects the man, but not his office.

As the opening scene concludes, the parishoner (we do not see his face and only learn of his identity very late in the film) tells Father Lavelle that he will kill him. As the priest who abused him died years earlier, he believes that someone must be punished for these sins, so he chooses Lavelle as his target; he loves the irony of killing an innocent man.

Lavelle is told by the man that he will murder him in one week, which will allow the priest to put his life in order before then. This straightening out of his life for these next seven days is what this film is all about, as Father Lavelle encounters several locals and learns of their sordid lives and lack of respect for the Church.




During these few days, his daughter Fiona (Kelly Reilly, in an excellent, sensitive performance) comes back to visit (before he became a priest, Lavelle was married). She displays the bandages on her wrists, the result of a failed suicide. She needs her father now more than ever and he is there for her, even with a death threat hanging over his head.




Throughout the film, Lavelle has brief meeting with the locals; some of the encounters are more troubling than others, but all of them are serious. One of the most fascinating is with a wealthy man named Michael Fitzgerald (Dylan Moran, pictured above), who lives in a well-appointed mansion in the country. He is a cynic with a flippant attitude about life; everyone in his immediate family has left him, his wife and children, even the maid. While other locals mock Father Lavelle for his religious beliefs and realize there is little he can do about their sins, this character is a rich man who is soulless; this subplot is McDonogh's commentary on recent Irish history, as bankers helped ruin the local economy, while gaining monetary wealth on their own. 

Moran is superb, bringing an undeniable charm to his role; he's a louse, but given Moran's style, you almost feel sorry for him. Indeed near the end of the film, he confesses to Father Lavelle that he has a real problem and he'd like to meet with the priest. The people of Ireland, McDonagh seems to say, are adrift and have little meaning in their lives, even those who do have a bit of money.

All of this is presented amidst the spectacularly beautiful coast of County Sligo; this is a rugged land of craggy hills and rock-strewn seasides. No doubt director of photography Larry Smith will receive kudos for these shots, but his work on the entire film deserves praise. The harsh lighting of a prison, the deep primal hues of a pub and the dark blues of the inside of a church are all memorable images that Smith handles with equal aplomb. Smith was also the director of photography on McDonagh's previous film The Guard (also starring Gleeson); he knows how to bring across the message of the director's outlook in visual terms; Smith is a lensman worth remembering.





Earlier I mentioned the quality performances of Reilly and Moran; indeed the entire cast is first-rate (a tip of the cap here to McDonagh's work with his actors as well as to casting director Jina Jay). Especially memorable are Aiden Gillen (pictured above), a doctor who revels in telling Father Lavelle about the grisly details of his work; Orla O'Rourke, a married woman who flaunts her infidelities to Lavelle and David Wilmot, who portrays Father Leary, a timid soul who is no match for the flamboyance of Father Lavelle.

It is Gleeson, of course, who must carry the burden of this film, both literally and figuratively and he turns in a remarkable performance. He must be a pillar of strength, dealing with the problems of the others that inhabit his world, all the while dealing with past demons; he confesses to having loved alcohol "too much" in previous times and that history will come back to haunt him in a critical scene in the film. Gleeson is a large man - I would guess he must be at least 250 pounds, so he physically towers above everyone else in this work, but he is able to find subtle irony and humor in his everyday doings; one can imagine that he couldn't survive unless he did. He's especially moving in two scenes with troubled women: one with a visitor whose husband was killed in an accident and the other in a lovely scene - one of the few "normal" encounters in this work - during a seaside walk with his daughter. The film works on many levels, but it couldn't be believed without Gleeson's dynamic turn.

While there are a few moments of droll humor, this is basically a troubling film of souls who wander about without any real meaning in their lives. But this is a hopeful film at heart; near the end of the story, Father Lavelle says, "I think forgiveness has been highly underrated." Forgiveness, McDonagh seems to be saying, is our only salvation in this life.





Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Lauren Bacall


Lauren Bacall left us a few days ago; as one of my friends on Facebook wrote,"They don't make them like her any longer." True, how true.

She will forever be linked with Humphrey Bogart and while that's part of the aura that surrounded her, Bacall was a spark plug on her own, although she never sought out publicity, like too many of today's stars. "Stardom isn't a profession, it's an accident," she once said and she meant it. She was a fine actress, but you had to think she would have been a terrific school teacher, nurse, accountant or whatever profession she selected - and she would have been very happy with her decision and her lot in life.

I've read accounts of how she never left the house when Bogie was in his final few weeks. He was quite ill and had very little to look forward to, but there was Bacall, treating his every need. Maybe that's not such a big deal, as most spouses would take care of their loved ones. But for Lauren Bacall, it was about having her priorities in order. "I put my career in second place throughout both of my marriages and it suffered. I don't regret it. You make choices. If you want a good marriage, you need to pay attention to that. If you want to be independent, go ahead. You can't have it all." How wonderful an attitude and how different from some of today's leading ladies who have been divorced numerous times.

I think what I loved most about her what that mysterious quality. She wasn't the sex symbol that a Rita Hayworth or Betty Grable was, but she was more. That deep voice of hers was really something and I loved the slightly distant nature she maintained in her most famous performances with Bogart in To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep. If Bogie was going to have her in those films, he had to earn it. Her beauty was earthy and sophisticated and always subdued. She had a lot more to offer than what met the eye.

She acted in too few films, especially after Bogart died, but maybe that's only my opinion, me a film lover. I'm sure for Bacall, she opted for just the proper number of films and stage appearances (she won Tony awards for her roles in Applause in 1970 and Woman of the Year in 1981). "I figure if I have my health, can pay the rent and I have my friends, I call it 'content'" she once said. How many stars have been so humble?



Several years ago at a dinner, some friends and I were discussing celebrities and when one particular actor's name was mentioned, one of our group said, "Now there was a man's man." The person next to him said, "I wonder if there's such a thing as a 'woman's woman'? Maybe Betty Bacall?"

Betty Joan Perske, R.I.P.



Saturday, July 26, 2014

N.Y.P.D. 1968



Two films from 1968 - Madigan, directed by Don Siegel and The Detective, directed by Gordon Douglas - are Hollywood offerings that paint a city in decay, one in which the police department must mete out their special kind of justice. Their work is difficult, both mentally and morally and if they aren't exactly on the up and up, well, that's a by-product of living among the filth.

Today and for the past decade or so, New York City has enjoyed a positive public relations message - the city is vibrant, dynamic and beautiful. We know this wasn't always the case. Having never lived in New York City, I'm not someone who can tell anyone about the situation of the Big Apple back in the 1960s. My opinion was formed by newspaper articles, television reports and yes, films of that day. It wasn't a pretty picture.

Now of course, these films were meant to entertain, so the bad guys aren't just criminals, they're rather warped. In fact, most of the city dwellers in these films are a bit off kilter. Madigan tells a lieutenant that the criminal he is after "has peculiar sexual habits, to put it mildly." "Well so has half the population," notes the lieutenant. Speaking about a teenage girl who's a drug addict, Detective Joe Leland (Frank Sinatra) in The Detective tells his superior, "The whole town is crawling with kids just like her. Same age, all going the same route. Part of the great society."





Naturally these kids that Leland refers to aren't growing up in a paradise. Both films depict urban decay with streets cluttered with dingy tenement buildings, the insides of which are dominated by tiny apartments and dimly lit corridors. The police headquarters aren't much better; the offices are highlighted by dull green walls, often with peeling paint, while the oak desks and drab filing cabinets add little to brighten the atmosphere.








Interestingly, the rare instances of handsome living and working quarters are places where the ordinary city dweller is not seen. The opening sequence of The Detective happens in a posh apartment, complete with numerous art treasures, of a homosexual who has been beaten to death. In Madigan, the look of the police commissioner's office with its plush carpeting and expensive wood paneling is in stark contrast to the depressing nature of the working environment of the detectives.

But much in the way that the upscale apartment in The Detective is the scene of a variant lifestyle - and a brutal murder - so too the office of commissioner Anthony Russell (Henry Fonda) in Madigan is often the site for conduct unbecoming. Investigations of wire taps and slush funds are discussed here, away from the detectives. The deals that are made here, many of which are not by the book, are further signs of how the police do their job in the big city.

Is it any wonder then that the personal lives of these officers are screwed up? In The Detective, Leland meets Karen (Lee Remick), a beautiful woman who is at home at the theater as she is at a football game. Initially, their relationship is something out of a fairy tale, but it soon disintregates, as Karen starts to see other men. Likewise in Madigan, the title character has less than a storybook relationship, as he rarely sees his wife Julia (Inger Stevens), who endlessly complains about this to her husband. Later in the film, she herself will become passionate with one of her husband's colleagues as he's off chasing a criminal. Even commissioner Russell is not the upscale citizen he seems; he is carrying on an affair with a married woman.

Time spent at home for the policemen is very brief, as generally, it's to have a cocktail, sex or a nap (rarely do they have time to get several hours of sleep). In Madigan, there is one brief scene where we view Madigan and his partner Rocco Bonaro (Harry Guardino) use the cots installed in a small room upstairs from their offices. The police are constantly on edge here, as there is a new crime every day, so rest from their daily chores must be brief. Not surprisingly, the one good night's sleep that Madigan gets in this film is at the apartment of a lounge singer he accompanies home. Although he doesn't have sex with her, no doubt his sleep is peaceful, as he doesn't have to argue with his wife, at least for one evening.



Given this restless lifestyle, the detectives have little patience for the varied criminals they encounter. During a scene in a bar, Madigan accuses a man who looks like the criminal his partner and he are after. He looks a bit like him, but when Madigan realizes his mistake, he apologizes. The man is outraged and shouts at the detective, who immediately thrusts the man back into his seat. Watching this, you have to imagine that lack of sleep or not, Madigan has done something similar countless times. No one winds up getting hurt - except for their sense of pride - so in the end, Madigan and his colleagues can do what they want.

In The Detective, Leland does have the moral standards to question some of the police behavior, as in a scene where he tells another detective who is pushing around a suspect who is a homosexual to take it easy, saying, "these people are not murderers." In another scene, Leland tells a fellow detective to stop his interrogation of a suspect who has been forced to remove his clothes at the police department. "You son of a bitch. What kind of department do you think we're running here?" His attitude is at odds with his fellow lawmen, giving him the identity of a loner. Solving three homicides in one week, as is detailed in this story, may earn him a promotion, but his sense of trying to do the right thing drives a wedge between his colleagues and him.








At the end of The Detective, Leland has quit the police force, stating to his captain that "there are things worth fighting for and I can't fight them here." The last scene of Madigan has commissioner Russell and chief inspector Charles Kane (James Whitmore) discussing tomorrow's problems just minutes after the death of one of their detectives. Two conclusions that are different, but in reality, the message is the same - individuals will come and go through the ranks of the police department, but the questionable code that defines this body will remain intact. "If you bust me," Detective Curran (Ralph Meeker) tells Leland, "you'll have to bust half the department for being on the take." In this urban jungle that was New York City in 1968, the beat goes on.

Friday, July 4, 2014

An Early Capra Success



Before Frank Capra enjoyed great critical and popular acclaim with such films as It Happened One Night (1934), You Can't Take it With You (1938) and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), he had directed more than twenty feature films of various subject matter, from documentary-like studies to romances to comedies. One of his best early films, one of three he directed in 1931, was The Miracle Woman, starring one of his favorites leading ladies, Barbara Stanwyck.

With a screenplay by Jo Swerling (he would later write some additional dialogue for Capra's 1946 classic It's a Wonderful Life), adapted from the play "Bless You Sister" written by John Meehan, the film is about a female evangelist, loosely based on Aimee Semple McPherson, the famed celebrity preacher of the 1920s and '30s.

As the film opens, the title character, named Florence Fallon (portrayed with typical gusto by Stanwyck), steps up to the pulpit to deliver her minister father's last sermon before an overflow crowd at church. Her father has been ill for some time and is too weak to deliver his message of love and understanding.

However, Fallon has sad news to tell the church goers - her father passed away in her arms just a few minutes earlier. She then turns on them assembled, telling them they did not take the advice of her father - or God - and lead Christian lives. In a scene that most assuredly inspired John Huston and Tennessee Williams for the opening of their film The Night of the Iguana (1964), Fallon calls out the worshipers, threatening to name the adulterers among the group. The flock rush out of the church, stunned at what they are hearing.

A shady businessman named Bob Hornsby (Sam Hardy) approaches Fallon after this, telling her that with her knowledge of the Bible, she can have a career as a preacher, "as there is money in religion." Alone and uncertain of her future, Fallon agrees to work for him; soon she is preaching her sermons on nationwide radio.

We then meet the other main character in this story, a young blind man named John Carson (David Manners), who lost his sight in the war. He has now turned to writing music, but despondent over being rejected time and time again, he decides to commit suicide. Capra nicely depicts this scene, as when he opens his window to jump out, he hears a radio broadcast of Fallon, speaking about how man has a backbone and can make his own decisions, unlike the simplest creatures. Carson is inspired by this message and decides not to end his life.



Carson knows he must meet this woman who saved his life, so he attends one of her revival meetings. Fallon at one point walks into a cage filled with lions and asks the congregation if one of them will show their faith and enter in the cage with her. Carson is the one individual who does so; Fallon, who has never seen this man before, is impressed, especially as he is blind, yet she thinks nothing more than that, as she believes this will be the only encounter between them.


Thus the two main characters are brought together; both need someone in their lives, so they turn to each other. Fallon is especially touched when she learns that Carson chose not to end his life because of her words; knowing this, she starts to doubt herself, as she feels guilty about misleading the public who view her "miracles" on cripples, who in reality are nothing more than a trained band of actors hired by Hornsby.



Carson and Fallon start to see each other more often; during one scene in his apartment, he shows her his dummy named Al. Carson is a fine ventriloquist with a very funny act and Fallon loves his routine, which only endears him more to her. I love this interplay in the film, not only for its lighthearted nature, but also the deeper message of a man who cannot see needing an alter ego to talk for him. This is also a nice counterpart to the theme of a woman who speaks to the masses, yet in reality, talks to no one.

This leads to a lovely scene later in the film at Carson's apartment when he wants to profess his love for Fallon. He tells her that Al has something to say to her. But just after Al starts to speak Carson's heartfelt words, he stops. Fallon gets up from the table and Carson follows her; this is done in total silence, with no music and with a static camera. Capra filmed this as simply as he could, so the emotions when they embrace are devastatingly emotional. It's one of the most tender moments realized in any Capra film.

The film ends with a crowd scene that would be repeated to some degree in Capra's 1941 film Meet John Doe (interestingly enough, that film also deals with an individual who must pass himself off as someone he's not and starts to doubt his purpose in life). The truth and decency of humanity so often communicated in Capra's work are once again the redeeming qualities of the two main characters in this story. As the film ends, Fallon does not enjoy the fame she embraced for a short time, but she has done the proper thing and has found true happiness and redemption.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Directors on their Craft



"I am a typed director. If I made Cinderella, the audience would immediately be looking for a body in the coach." - Alfred Hitchcock



"There was always part of me that wanted to be an old-time director. But I couldn't do that. I'm not a pro." - Martin Scorsese


"My tendency as an actor was to correct people, was to say, 'What if we tried it this way? What if we tried it that way?' That's a terrible habit for an actor, but that's a good habit for a director. So I became a director." - David Mamet






"You do the best job you can. You take it step by step. It's hard enough to make a movie. If it works, that's great. If it means something beyond the moment to somebody, they can take it, and if it lasts through the years, we'll see." - Oliver Stone


"I can make a better living as an actor than I can as a director. Though I certainly would prefer to be directing movies."  - Sean Penn


"You know, I became a director out of necessity. I was writing comedies and I couldn't find anybody to deliver it correctly." - Albert Brooks





"The film of tomorrow will resemble the person who made it and the number of spectators will be proportional to the number of friends the director has." - Fran├žois Truffaut


"The kindest thing a director can do is to look with open eyes at everything." - Alexander Payne


"The only reason you make a movie is not to make or set out to make a good or bad movie, it's just to see what you learn for the next one." - Alfonso Cuaron





"If there's specific resistance to women making movies, I just choose to ignore that as an obstacle for two reasons: I can't change my gender and I refuse to stop making movies." - Kathryn Bigelow


"I have a feeling, a gut feeling, that I'll be making pretty good movies the rest of my life." - Paul Thomas Anderson


"For me, being a director is about watching, not about telling people what to do. Or maybe it's like being a mirror; if they didn't have me to look at, they wouldn't be able to put their makeup on." - Jane Campion





"A lot of the films I've made probably could have worked just as well 50 years ago and that's just because I have a lot of old-fashioned values." - Steven Spielberg


"The first work of the director is to set a mood so that the actor's work can take place, so that the actor can create. And in order to do that, you have to communicate, communicate with the actors. Direction is about communication on all levels." William Friedkin


"In the future, everybody is going to be a director. Somebody's got to live a real life, so we have something to make a movie about." - Cameron Crowe




"I believe that filmmaking - as, probably is everything - is a game you should play with all your cards and all your dice and whatever else you've got. So each time I make a movie, I give it everything I have. I think everyone should and I think everyone should do everything that way." - Francis Ford Coppola


"A good director's not sure when he gets on the set what he's going to do." - Elia Kazan


"I think it would be very boring dramatically to have a film where everybody was a lawyer or doctor and had no faults. To me, the most important thing is to be truthful." - Spike Lee





"A film is never really any good unless the camera is an eye in the head of a poet." - Orson Welles



"Usually when I'm making a movie, what I have in mind first for the visuals, is how we can stage the scenes to bring them more to life in the most interesting way, and then how can we make a world for the story that the audience hasn't quite been in before." - Wes Anderson


"Visions are worth fighting for. Why spend your life making someone else's dreams?" - Tim Burton



_______


To close, my favorite line ever from a director about making moves...






"The directing of a picture involves coming out of your individual loneliness and taking a controlling part in putting together a small world. A picture is made. You put a frame around it. And one day you die. That is all there is to it." - John Huston




Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Academy Awards - Look at the Bright Side


Let's face it - the Academy Awards ceremony, despite all its glitz and celebrity watching has become a pretty boring event for some time now. One of the reasons is that there are rarely any surprises in store when it comes to opening the envelopes and announcing the winners.

So the best advice I can give for making it through the broadcast - yes, I'll watch, though each year I tell myself not to - is to embrace the winners and enjoy some possible new trends. For example, it's pretty obvious that Alfonso Cuaron will win Best Director for his stunning work on Gravity (even though this is not his best film - that distinction goes to Children of Men); having won the Golden Globe and Directors' Guild Award, the Academy will certainly follow suit. So no surprise there, but at least we can look on this as a tribute to the filmmakers of Mexico, where some of the world's most dynamic cinema has emerged over the past decade. Of course, Gravity has nothing to do with Mexico, but perhaps the idea of a Mexican film director winning an Oscar will bring more attention to that country's film industry and even inspire some Mexican filmmakers to follow their dream, so that's a wonderful thing.

Likewise, Lupita Nyong'o appears to be a shoe-in for Best Supporting Actress; deservedly so, as her performance was heartbreaking. So perhaps her award will spur on other African performers to pursue a career (interestingly, although she is of Kenyan descent, she was born in Mexico City; quite a year for Mexico in the Oscars!).


Will this finally be the year that Alexandre Desplat wins an Oscar?


It seems to me there are only a few major awards (I'm not counting short subjects or documentaries here) where there is even a glimmer of suspense as to who will win. One of those is for Best Original Score. Here are the nominees:

The Book Thief - John Williams
Gravity - Steven Price
Her - William Butler and Owen Pallett
Philomena - Alexandre Desplat
Saving Mr. Banks - Thomas Newman

My analysis is that only one of these scores has no chance of winning and that's Williams' work for The Book Thief. This is a bit ironic, as Williams is, of course, the dean of film composers and one of the craft's greatest artists. But he won't win this year for two main reasons: first, very few people saw this film and for those that did, it was received poorly and secondly, everyone thinks of Williams as Steven Spielberg's composer - he's not about to win an Oscar late in his career for one of his minor works for another director.

Price has a chance for his score for Gravity, if only for the fact that this film will be one of the big winners on Oscar night; that often translates to an award. So it's possible, especially as this score is hard to miss - translation, it's a LOUD score, one that irked me and ruined a few memorable scenes. The Academy has screwed up so often in this category over the years (think of Jerry Goldsmith and Alex North and two other composers I'm about to mention) and you realize that excellence as far as a musical score often has little to do with awards; if a score is noticed (and it's difficult to miss this score), that's a major factor. So it's definitely possible for Price to win, but I think the Academy will look elsewhere.

So that leaves three scores and I think their composers all have very good chances to pick up their first Academy Award. For Her, Butler and Pallett composed a minimalist score that is very pretty and proper for the wistful, romantic tone of this film. I liked the score, especially as it did not call attention to itself, but as this is not a particularly "musical" film, I think the Academy will not give this score the award.

So interestingly, the Oscar comes down to two veteran composers, both of whom have been nominated on several occasions. The first is Desplat, who I believe is the finest film composer working today on a regular basis - I say regular basis, as 82-year old John Williams is understandably cutting down on his work schedule. Desplat, who has been nominated for six Oscars, has never won; this despite impressive scores for films such as The King's Speech, The Queen and Argo (for which he was Oscar-nominated) along with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 and Zero:Dark Thirty; these last two, absolutely brilliant scores, which were somehow not nominated.

Desplat reminds one of the Golden Age of Hollywood film scores, with lush strings and full orchestral accompaniment, a la great composers such as Franz Waxman, Alex North, Miklos Rosza, Jerry Goldsmith or John Williams. Yet one reason he hasn't won is that this type of score hasn't been recognized by the Academy as of late; think of the Oscar going to Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross for their electronic pulsations for 2010's The Social Network. So perhaps the Academy, in an effort to be more "hip" has decided to shy away from traditionalism for this category.

Yet, Desplat has another nomination and I think he may finally win, as his score for Philomena, is a beautiful piece of work, a sensitive score that brilliantly communicates the emotional tone of this film. It would be a bit ironic if he did finally win an Oscar for this score, as it is a quiet, subdued piece of work, unlike the grand scores he's composed in the past. It's quite possible that the voters did not notice this score (as opposed to the music in Gravity), so they could deny Desplat again.

That leaves Thomas Newman for his score for Saving Mr. Banks. Newman is from a family of Oscar-wining composers; his father Alfred won nine Oscars, while his cousin Randy has won two Academy Awards. Newman has been nominated eleven times without winning; a few of his nominations include his memorable scores for The Shawshank Redemption, American Beauty and WALL-E.

His score for Saving Mr. Banks is a gem, as he composed some of the loveliest melodies in his career. Especially memorable are his themes for Travers Goff as well as for the closing titles. This would be a well-deserved win for Mr. Newman.

Yet I just don't see him winning for two reasons. First, his score probably will be lost among all the songs from Mary Poppins in this film. Secondly, the recent controversy about Walt Disney will turn off some voters, so once again, I believe Newman will be denied.

So the Oscar will finally go to Alexandre Desplat and I will be thrilled! (By the way, why wasn't Alex Ebert nominated for his haunting score for All is Lost?)




I believe the only other major category where there is some doubt over the winner is for Best Original Screenplay. I'd love to see Bob Nelson (Nebraska) or Spike Jonze (Her) win; the former for his offbeat, charming script that features a lot of priceless small, everyday moments, the latter for his wildly imaginative script about a man falling in love with his operating system. Then there's the excellent script of Dallas Buyer's Club by Craig Borten and Melissa Wallack and of course, let's not forget that Woody Allen is up for his screenplay for Blue Jasmine; he's an Academy favorite and he's won for this category before.

But I think the award will go to Eric Warren Singer and David O. Russell for American Hustle for several reasons. It is an excellent screenplay, beautifully organized with numerous memorable characters. He's also an Academy favorite, as several of his films (The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook) have won Oscars. Also, this film is nominated for 10 Oscars this year, so you'd have to believe that the voters will not shut out this work, as most of the other nominees for this film will likely not hear their name called that evening as a winner.

So American Hustle will win the Best Original Screenplay in a close vote - this is almost always one of the most competitive categories with excellent nominations - but I'd vote for Spike Jonze for Her.


By the way, for the major categories (the part with very few, if any surprises):

Best Actor  - Matthew McConaughey - Dallas Buyers' Club (great performance from an actor just starting to realize his potential. He should receive the biggest ovation of the evening).

Best Actress  - Kate Blanchett - Blue Jasmine - I'm hoping for an upset here and will be cheering for Judi Dench in Philomena, but after a Golden Globe and a Screen Actors' Guild award, Blanchett will capture the Oscar.

Best Supporting Actor - Jared Leto - Dallas Buyers' Club - Another great performance and another wonderful ovation when his name is read.

Best Supporting Actress - Lupita Nyong'o - 12 Years a Slave  - discussed above. Just great work on her part.


Best Picture - 12 Years a Slave



Finally, a note about Best Cinematography, which will undoubtedly be awarded to Emmanuel Lubezki for Gravity. There would be more than a touch of irony in this award, one that has eluded the cinematographer on five other occasions. He will finally be recognized here for his work in a film that displays his lighting as well as technical prowess; in my opinion however, this is not his most beautiful-looking film in terms of pure visuals - that would be Tree of Life (directed by Terence Malick). However, this is a visually stunning film on many levels as well as being a very popular work with audiences and critics alike, so Lubeszki will finally win an Oscar. By the way, he was born in Mexico City - what a years for Mexican-born filmmakers!

Of course, this means that once again, Roger Deakins will not win an Academy Award; assuming this happens, this will be the 11th nomination for Deakins without an award. He is clearly one of the two greatest working directors of photography that have not won an Oscar; the other being Emmanuel Lubezki. This year, Deakins is up for the film Prisoners and his moody, nighttime photography - especially during a manic drive to the hospital in the pouring rain by one of the movie's principal characters - is brilliant. But few people saw the film and, well, he's up against Lubezki for the award. Wait til' next year, Roger (maybe). By the way, Deakins, who's turned in remarkable work on such films as The Shawshank Redemption, The Reader, Revolutionary Road, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (a textbook in cinematography and one of the most beautiful looking films of all time, in my opinion) as well as several films for the Coen Brothers, including O Brother, Where Art Thou?, The Man Who Wasn't There and No Country for Old Men has won several other awards in his career, the most prominent being the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Society of Cinematographers, the highest honor for a director of photography.

As far as the other nominees, I'd vote for either Phedon Papamicheal for his amazing black and white photography of Nebraska or Bruno Delbonnel for Inside Llewyn Davis. I think both of these films are more in line with great cinematography and I'd be happy to see either man win. But it will be Lubezki's time for an award and it's certainly overdue.






Sunday, February 9, 2014

Things I Loved in Cinema -2013



In my last post, I listed my top films for 2013. Now, a look back at a number of performances, lines of dialogue and other things I loved about last year at the cinema.

Lead Performances- There were many first-rate performances, but none as captivating as Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club. McConaughey stars as Ron Woodroof, a heterosexual man who became infected with the HIV virus in the 1990s and fought the government at every turn to bring in medication for his condition. McConaughey is the center of this film and we root for him, despite the fact that his character is a pretty mean S.O.B. How nice to see McConaughey take on serious roles over the past few years; we all knew he had great charisma, so it's a rewarding experience to see him deliver a rousing performance.

Another great acting turn was delivered by Chiwitel Ejiofor, as Solomon Northup in 12 Years a Slave; the actor brings a fierce, but quiet determination to the role. He's simply perfect.

Judi Dench was nothing short of brilliant as the title character in Philomena, the true story of an Irish woman who had her young son taken from her some fifty years in the past. Dench is so honest and so moving in this film in a manner that befits her simple character. She has had such a wonderful career and this role is a defining one.

Bravo also to Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street) and Bruce Dern (Nebraska); the former being the best thing (along with Jonah Hill) in this mess of a film and the latter giving a moving performance that is the highlight of a long career. A lesser actor could have really brought out the pathos in the role of Woody Grant, but Dern does a marvelous job realizing the strength and pride of his character.

One has to note the performance of Robert Redford in All is Lost as one of the three or four best from last year; this was a physically demanding role for the actor and he was up to it at every moment. Certainly his rugged image helped lend emotion to this role, but Redford turned this into a performance of minute detail; here was a man who was going through a life and death crisis, yet he kept to the work at hand.

Finally, a tip of the cap to Emma Thompson (Saving Mr. Banks) - is she ever less than excellent? (She was unfairly passed over for an Academy Award nomination) and Oscar Isaac for his natural performance as the title character in Inside Llewyn Davis. Without a strong performance from the lead, this film wouldn't have worked, despite the beautiful direction from the Coen Brothers. Isaac is definitely an actor to watch.




Supporting Performances - One need look no further than 12 Years a Slave to find two of the strongest supporting performances from last year. Lupita Nyong'o was heartbreaking as a slave who had to endure a much worse fate than her fellow captives. Michael Fassbender was unforgettable as the plantation owner who treated his slaves in a most degrading manner. In a role that could have been identified by emoting, Fassbender was a model of restraint.

Jared Leto gave the most sublime supporting performance of the year in Dallas Buyers Club, a quiet contrast to the explosiveness of Matthew McConaughey's lead. Leto's character, Rayon, a cross-dressing AIDS patient, may look pathetic, but Leto gives us a complex individual with quiet pride and a stubbornness to continue his fight. If he does win the Oscar, as expected, it will be most deserved.

Another film with two beautiful supporting performances was Nebraska; the two actors were June Squibb, as Kate (wife of Woody Grant, played by Bruce Dern) and Will Forte as David (Woody's son). Squibb has perfect comedic timing - she's hilarious - and Forte gives an empathetic and natural performance, playing off Dern's slightly crazed ways. Great acting is often about listening and Forte listens beautifully in this film; it's a shame he wasn't nominated for an Oscar.

Other notable supporting performances included Barkhad Abdi (Captain Phillips), Jonah Hill (The Wolf of Wall Street - such energy and humor he brought to the role!), Bradley Cooper and Jeremy Renner (American Hustle), Colin Farrell (a gem of a performance in Saving Mr. Banks) and of course, John Goodman (Inside Llewyn Davis - when will the Academy notice the brilliant work of this man?).




Cinematography - Alfonso Cuaron and his director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki continue to amaze; first it was 2006's Children of Men and now it's the mind-blowing sequences of Gravity (exactly how did they achieve the P.O.V. shot from within Sandra Bullock's space helmet?). These two continue to forge new paths visually; if nothing else, Gravity is the most remarkable visual achievement in many years and takes cinema to a new level.

Other marvelous achievements in cinematography in 2013 included Bruno Delbonnel (Inside Llewyn Davis); Phedon Papamichael (Nebraska - he actually shot grain to help achieve a more realistic black and white film look); Sean Bobbitt (12 Years a Slave- shot with film, not digitally - haunting images, many shot just before sundown); John Schwartzman (Saving Mr. Banks); Hoyte van Hoytema (Her); Barry Ackroyd (Captain Phillips), Roger Deakins (Prisoners) and Frank DeMarco and Peter Zuccarini (All is Lost).




Sequences - Just about any sequence from Nebraska featuring both Bruce Dern and Will Forte, especially the one at the railroad tracks where they search for Dern's teeth.

The impromptu dance between Amy Adams and Christian Bale at the dry cleaners in American Hustle.

The remarkable opening shot (10-11 minutes) of Gravity.

The final confrontation at the convent in Philomena.

Chiwitel Ejiofor trying to write a letter with the pigment from a blackberry in 12 Years a Slave.

The "Fidelity Fiduciary Bank" sequence, beautifully edited, from Saving Mr. Banks.

The "breakup" sequence on the steps in Her.

The opening sequence of Inside Llewyn Davis, in which Oscar Isaac performs "Hang Me, Oh Hang Me." The photography and direction immediately put the viewer into the mood and the times of the early 1960s folk movement.




Dialogue - A few of the best lines of the year:

"Everybody at the bottom crosses paths eventually in a pool of desperation and you're waiting for them." - Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) to Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), American Hustle

"I always wanted a brand new truck." - Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), Nebraska

"Do you mind if I look through your hard drive?" - the voice of Samantha, the operating system (Scarlett Johansson), Her

"Why would I do such work? Why would I kill people? I didn't have to. One word from me and they're all dead." - Ibrahim Sinik as himself in The Art of Killing

"Now you'll stay there until you learn the art of subtlety." - P. L. Travers (Emma Thompson) speaking to a large stuffed Mickey Mouse doll she has just put in the corner of her hotel room.