Clean-Up on Aisle September
(Getting this off before the weekend to clear some head space.)
I’ve spent the entire month having my mind torn apart by college and business deadlines alike, and the suffering seems to have been laid at the feet of – imagine this – film opinion and perspective. I haven’t gotten to a long-form review in some time, yet I have a back log of opinions awaiting some outlet – any outlet. And so today, in lieu of an Oscar column (though I do have some brief thoughts on the race), I thought I’d finally get to these films via short reviews. Apologies for truncating my thoughts in this manner, but it’s the only way I could get on the record before the maelstrom of October really kicks in (and indeed, as will be outlined later this month, the site is about to go through some changes).
But first…Oscar talk.
So I’m shaking things up in the charts this week. Questions are arising in my head that have heretofore been tucked away in the dark corners of my mind. Like is Julie Christie really assured a nod for what is the most sedate performance of the Best Actress contending slate? Can “Lust, Caution” make some power moves on more than a few categories, given relatively positive Academy response? Is “No Country for Old Men” getting too much prognostication play when, in fact, it’s simply a critical fave and not necessarily up the Academys alley?
But the biggest question of the moment - for me, anyway - seems to be what will happen to The Weinstein Company’s “The Great Debaters,” produced by Oprah Winfrey, directed by and starring Denzel Washington and, having been slated for a December 25 qualifying run, perhaps the film that will pop up onto everyone’s radars late into the game like “Letters from Iwo Jima” before it. “Hoosiers” seems to be the comparison of the moment. And the gears are already turning at the studio - be sure of that.
In any case, most of my ponderings can be assessed with the movement on the charts. Let’s get these brief thoughts out of the way, and then I can come to “Atonement” and “The Diving Bell and Butterfly” with reviews of substance later in the week.
“Lust, Caution” (***½)
Directed by Ang Lee
Absolutely one of the best films of the year, “Lust, Caution” might be Ang Lee’s most passionate artistic exercise to date. Tang Wei puts herself out there in a film debut that has to be considered one of the bravest performances of the year, while international star Tony Leung is stunning behind the veil of an unconcerned face, fire burning behind his eyes. The technical achievements across the board are rich and compelling, Alexandre Desplat’s trickling score taking top honors in this viewer’s opinion. Most surprising and important part of the equation: Focus Features understanding the thematic value of a number of risqué sex scenes and sticking with the NC-17 rating the MPAA handed the film. This one released over the weekend, so you can make your own mind up in due time.
“Michael Clayton” (***½)
Directed by Tony Gilroy
Another one releasing this past weekend, Tony Gilroy’s “Michael Clayton” is an interesting addition to 2007’s slate. Positioned as a thriller, wrapped in the wool of an ethical statement and yet something more personal and residual at its heart, the film showcases a fine, internalized performance from George Clooney. Tom Wilkinson is electric, if out of the picture too quickly, offering an opening monologue that tells the viewer to strap in. Gilroy is a fine first-time director, even if he has been more than privy to the Hollywood machine as a screenwriter. Equal parts Michael Mann and Sydney Pollock (the executive producer, who also stars), Gilroy’s directorial style is a penetrating one that will be fun to watch as he tackles more and more material. Check back Tuesday for an interview piece on Gilroy (who, given the state of the net surrounding his film’s release, is certainly making the rounds).
“No Country for Old Men” (**½)
Directed by Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
It’s a little difficult for me to buy what the Coen brothers are selling in “No Country for Old Men” like the rest of the critical community. It’s even more difficult for me to understand Oscar prognosticators anointing it with Best Picture potential when, while the critics are talking about it ceaselessly, the Academy members simply are not. In any case, two-thirds of “No Country for Old Men” is a great film, sporting a lead performance from Josh Brolin that is pitch-perfect. Javier Bardem is properly unsettling and outright sadistic as a serial killer traipsing about doing what he wishes, though the Coens spend a little too much time building the “he’s got the air gun again” sequence over, and over, and over again. Tommy Lee Jones, however, is the center of the film’s dishonesty and irritation. His is a fine performance, but the role here as in the Cormac McCarthy novel is an example of manifested ethos, yet the Coens seem to have bought into it far too much for their own good. What might have been poignant in doses comes off as bitterly unqualified for the most part, and ultimately, the film ends up achieving a fraction of what “Fargo” achieved eleven years ago. “No Country for Old Men” gets to be the bastard step child, as a result.
“Quiet City” (***½)
Directed by Aaron Katz
Any perceived bias aside (and indeed, I did not like the bulk of what Aaron produced when we were in college together), “Quiet City” is a wonderful snap-shot of life that balances the line of realism and fantasy breathlessly. Katz himself might not readily admit to the whimsical nature of his follow up to “Dance Party USA,” but he ought to embrace it nonetheless as it is a subtextual commentary on comfort, connection and desire. The director is working with real feelings and deeper meaning than David Gordon Green’s faux-Malickian hogwash, of that we can be certain. Where Katz has really lucked up (not to take credit away from the filmmaker, mind you) is in a magnetic portrayal from Erin Fisher that demands you fall in love with her from the start. Opposite Fisher, Cris Lankenau puts forth a depiction of buried angst doused in overly friendly nuance that is – shock and awe – believable and as far away from trying as a performance can get. The film is beautifully photographed by Andy Reed with interesting accompanying tunes from Keegan Dewitt throughout, but above all, “Quiet City” has convinced me, if no one else, that Aaron Katz will craft a real masterpiece in due time. Perhaps sooner rather than later.
“The Savages” (***½)
Directed by Tamara Jenkins
Phillip Seymour Hoffman is having a hell of a year in 2007. Two leading performances in “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” and “The Savages,” as well as an upcoming supporting turn in “Charlie Wilson’s War,” will go to great lengths to keep him in the spotlight for the next six months. It is in Tamara Jenkins’ measured look at dealing with an aging parent where Hoffman really gets to let the internal struggle boil, showing itself on the surface in ways much less fiery than his work on the Sidney Lumet film, but still as purposeful nonetheless. It’s Philip Bosco, however, who matches Tang Wei for bravery in “The Savages” by effortlessly portraying a man suffering from dementia and, in his few moments of clarity, dealing with the revelation that his children are placing him in a nursing home. The film is a delicate thing, perhaps not as emotionally sweeping as it might have been, but hitting a high mark regardless. Laura Linney offers another great turn, perhaps her best in a while, opposite Hoffman. Jenkins proves a steady hand and authoritative narrative style behind the camera. She’ll be one to watch.
Next week: The Oil Man vs. the Demon Barber?
Previous Oscar Columns:
10/01/07 - "Still Anybody's Game"
09/17/07 - "Post-Toronto Update"
09/10/07 - "Notes from the Eye of a Storm"
09/03/07 - "Launching the New Season"
08/03/07 - "August Update"
07/01/07 - "The Silence is Deafening"
02/26/07 - "Forging Ahead: In Contention's Year in Advance Oscar Speculation"