No. 212 | February 9, 2011
Our theme this week
Top English-language films of 2010
Featured this week
(See Monday post for theme introduction)
Monday — Best Films of 2010 (#15 to #11)
Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, two excellent actors who just turned 30, give a couple of their finest performances in Derek Cianfrance’s raw and searing Blue Valentine. It’s a story of a couple told in present day and flashback, from their first meeting to final parting. The film opens with their young daughter standing in a field screaming for her lost dog, and it closes with her running after her dad, who walks away from his family life in a blaze of fireworks. There’s hardly a conventional shot in the whole works. The photography, like the characters, is off-kilter. The music, scored by Grizzly Bear, keeps us on edge. The movie is unpredictable, even volatile, and in the end, unforgettable.
(Blue Valentine at MAD: review)
The story in short, from my look at Winter’s Bone two weeks ago:
The search for the father is about the oldest story around. Telemachus, meet Ree. She’s a 17-year-old living in the dirt-poor hills of Missouri. She has a sick mother, a couple of younger siblings to care for, and a father nowhere to be found. Unless she finds him in a few days—dead or alive—her family will lose their home. The hunt is on. First-rate performances from Jennifer Lawrence as the fearless teen and John Hawkes as her uncle, Teardrop.
It takes money to make movies, but not a lot to make a good one—or even one of the best of the year. Winter’s Bone was made for a sum that would be rounding error for most Hollywood productions (less than the cost of those 30-second ads during the Super Bowl). The result is a taut, focused film about an implacable heroine in a land we hardly ever see at the movies, the Ozarks. It’s a fine, stirring picture from director Debra Granik. There’s a lesson there for Hollywood, though not one it’s likely to learn.
Roman Polanski made plenty of headlines last year, putting a lie to the idea that any publicity is good publicity. Still under house arrest at the time, Polanski released an especially good movie, though reaction at the time seemed as much a referendum on the director as on the merits of his film. The Ghost Writer stars Ewan McGregor in the title role, as the hired hand writing the memoirs of Adam Lang, a former British prime minister, and possible war criminal. Pierce Brosnan plays Lang, in a sterling performance. The ghostwriter uncovers dark secrets of Lang’s past, putting his own life in danger. Supporting performances from Olivia Williams, as Lang’s wife, and Kim Cattrall, as Lang’s assistant, add a dash of spice as Polanski lays on the intrigue. It’s a cynical view of politics, in ways, perhaps even paranoid, but with Tony Blair, the model for the Lang character, now the focus of an inquiry in London for his role in the Iraq War, some elements of the film may in time look prescient.
The Fighter is the true-life story of Micky Ward, a welterweight boxer from working-class Lowell, Massachusetts, whose greatest obstacle in pursuit of a championship is his own family. Micky’s half-brother, Dicky Ecklund, is the home favorite, a onetime pug hoping to make a comeback. The story is entertaining, but the real pleasure of the film is in the performances. Mark Wahlberg is Micky, the quiet center of the storm, with the three Oscar nominees providing the fireworks: Christian Bale as Dicky, Melissa Leo as the matriarch of the clan, and Amy Adams as the tough-as-nails girlfriend. Director David O. Russell is best known for his comic and off-beat works (Flirting With Disaster, I Heart Huckabees), and that sensibility is evident in a few scenes, but overall this is a more conventional work, and one of his most enjoyable.
No other film from last year haunted me as did Never Let Me Go. Based on the wonderful novel of Kazuo Ishiguro, the film tells the story of Kathy H., educated at the English boarding school Hailsham, where students live an idyllic existence while preparing for a special mission in life. Slowly, the children (and we) learn the role for which they have been selected, and the utopian dream turns into a nightmare. The film has been called science fiction, but don’t expect any special effects or whiz-bang gadgetry. It’s a quiet, unhurried film, uncommonly tuned in to the inner thoughts of its characters. What is it that makes people dedicate their lives, literally, to service of others? What allows them to accept an inherently unfair fate? In a way, Ishiguro’s eye, and the film’s, has its gaze on a class of society, perhaps more evident in Britain, whose circumstances offer limited freedom and opportunity. But the story has a deeper resonance. It’s a meditation on life, that too-brief time each of us is given, and the need for us to choose how to spend it. The film, I felt, came especially alive when Carey Mulligan, the adult Kathy, was onscreen. Never Let Me Go has much to offer, not the least a chance to see one of the great talents of her generation.
No. 133 | July 20, 2010
Our theme this week
Chick flicks—one guy’s take
The Bridges of Madison County was adapted from the 1992 novel by Robert James Waller. The book had generated a wide range of reaction from critics, much of it not very complimentary. The story, though, captivated the country. The novel was wildly popular, among the best selling books of the decade. A movie version was inevitable. Despite any faults found on the page, the story worked especially well on the big screen.
Clint Eastwood, who made some of his best films during the ’90s, directed and co-starred. For the female lead the studio wanted a young actress, but Eastwood preferred someone older. He prevailed, casting the actress he called “the greatest…in the world,” Meryl Streep. He was in his sixties, she in mid-forties—hardly the typical pairing for a Hollywood love story. Based on the result, there may be a lesson there.
Eastwood played Robert Kincaid, a National Geographic photographer visiting Iowa on assignment. Looking for directions one day, he stops by a farm and meets Francesca Johnson (Streep), an Italian-born housewife whose husband and children are off at the state fair. For four days, Robert and Francesca have a passionate, “once in a lifetime” affair. With her family due to return, Francesca must decide whether to leave with the stranger she just met or continue her mundane and lonely life on the farm.
It’s a beautiful film, heartbreaking at times. The performances are richly textured. Eastwood is sometimes underrated as an actor, and his subtle, quiet style is perfectly suited for the material. Streep gives one of her best performances. The real story is Francesca’s inner life, her longing, temptation, and torment, and watching Streep you can’t help but feel every joy and ache she experiences along the way.
No. 110 | June 3, 2010
Our theme this week
“Summer” movies (not soon playing at a theater near you)
They say there are no new stories. It’s probably true. Yet (500) Days of Summer is proof that there’s no end to how the old stories can be retold. Often, with a fresh new twist.
Every generation needs its own love stories (one reason they keep making them). This film probably will have a special resonance for people of a certain age. It’s a smart enough film, though, likely to appeal to people of almost any age, i.e., to anyone who’s known the joy and heartache of love. The narrator does say early on, “This is not a love story,” but don’t you believe it. It’s a story about love as it often is in the real world—intoxicating one day, frustrating the next. That may sound like the plot of a thousand romantic comedies, but you’ll see a thousand more before you find another that gets it as right as this.
Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Summer (Zooey Deschanel) are co-workers at a greeting card company. The “500 days” of the title refers to the span of their relationship, as they fall in love—or not in love, depending on who you believe. Those 500 days don’t pass in sequence. The film follows a non-linear narrative, and to good effect. It is Tom’s story that matters most. His point of view is what we see onscreen, and we understand why he’s fallen for the irresistible and enigmatic Summer.
The success of the film owes much to the two leads, both smart, attractive, and likable actors. Their enjoyment with each other is palpable, and their performances seem like a modern update to some classic screen couples of the past. Gordon-Levitt has all the makings of a huge star. Deschanel will be worth keeping an eye on too.
I won’t spoil it here, but the film ends on a last line about as good as anything in recent memory. The writing and timing are crisp throughout, and first-time director Marc Webb handles the material with a deft touch.
No. 45 | March 4, 2010
Our theme this week (theme introduction)
Film titles with two Oscar nominations for Best Picture
Romeo and Juliet (1936)
Director: George Cukor
Writer: Talbot Jennings; based on the play by William Shakespeare
Cast: Norma Shearer (Juliet), Leslie Howard (Romeo), John Barrymore (Mercutio), Basil Rathbone (Tybalt), Edna May Oliver (The Nurse)
Oscar Summary: 4 nominations, including Picture, Actress (Shearer), Supporting Actor (Rathbone); no wins
Romeo and Juliet (1968)
Director: Franco Zeffirelli
Writers: Franco Brusati, Masolino D’Amico, Franco Zeffirelli; based on the play by William Shakespeare
Cast: Leonard Whiting (Romeo), Olivia Hussey (Juliet), John McEnery (Mercutio), Milo O’Shea (Friar Lawrence), Michael York (Tybalt)
Oscar Summary: 4 nominations, including Picture, Director; 2 wins (Cinematography, Costume Design)
For never was a story of more woe
Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.
The Juliet of this tale is Norma Shearer, one of Hollywood’s biggest stars going back to the silent era. Her husband, for nearly a decade, was the legendary producer Irving Thalberg. Thalberg made Romeo and Juliet for MGM, spending double the original budget, and further straining his already-deteriorated friendship with studio boss Louis B. Mayer. Thalberg had earned his nickname the Boy Wonder for his uncanny talent for making box office hits, but this was not one of them. His film about the pair of star-cross’d lovers went on to lose a million dollars, and Hollywood shied away from Shakespeare for several years afterward. Shearer did earn an Oscar nomination, as did the picture, but the film was an especially sad landmark in her life. On the day the film had its premiere in Los Angeles, Thalberg died of pneumonia, at the age of 37.
Shearer was 33 when she made the film. Her co-star, Leslie Howard, was 42. That’s probably not the casting that Shakespeare had in mind. In the play, Juliet is 13. Romeo’s age is never stated, but he’s young (“Upon whose tender chin, as yet, no manlike beard there grew”). Even by Hollywood standards, the Shearer-Howard leads were a stretch.
Franco Zeffirelli cast two young actors whose combined age was about that of Shearer’s alone. Olivia Hussey was 15, Leonard Whiting 17 (give or take a year, depending on the source). Romeo and Juliet is the pinnacle of Zeffirelli’s film career. He got his start during the late ’40s as an assistant to Luchino Visconti on La Terra Trema, and his career has been one classy production after another—some of it Shakespeare (The Taming of the Shrew, Hamlet), much of it opera (La Traviata, Otello), and a notable TV miniseries (Jesus of Nazareth, with Hussey as Mary). His 1968 film won raves at the time and is one of the most highly regarded and popular screen adaptations of Shakespeare. Much of the credit goes to the young actors, who seem just right for their parts, natural fits for those lovers of Verona of long ago. The focus in the Zeffirelli film is the passion between Romeo and Juliet (not necessarily the case with other adaptations; see Baz Luhrmann). It’s a beautiful film to look at and listen to—one for the ages.
Beyond the final credits
She isn’t as well-remembered as some others from her time, but Norma Shearer was a huge star. Soon after she came to Hollywood, she co-starred with Lon Chaney in the first Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer production, He Who Gets Slapped (1924). By 1925 she was making $1,000 a week, and a lot more soon after that. She made the transition to talkies with The Trial of Mary Dugan (1929), and won an Oscar for The Divorcee (one of her six nominations). Her other notable films include A Free Soul (1931), The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934), Marie Antoinette (1938), Idiot’s Delight (1939), and The Women (1939). She was the inspiration for one of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short stories, “Crazy Sunday.” For his final, unfinished novel, The Last Tycoon, Fitzgerald based the character of movie mogul Monroe Stahr on Shearer’s husband, Irving Thalberg. Shearer retired from movies when she remarried in 1942.
“The only way to find the best actor would be to let everybody play Hamlet and let the best man win.”
—Humphrey Bogart (1951)
“If there’s one thing that actors know, other than that there weren’t any WMDs, it’s that there is no such thing as best in acting.”
—Sean Penn (2004)
“What does the Academy Award mean? I don’t think it means much of anything.”
—Sally Field (1980)
No. 41 | February 26, 2010
Our theme this week
Women directors of notable films from 2009
Notable 2009 film: Bright Star; nominated for 1 Oscar; selected to be shown “in competition” at Cannes.
It ought to come like leaves to a tree, or it better not come at all.
—John Keats (Ben Whishaw), on writing poetry, in Bright Star
In his brief life it came to John Keats as it came to few before him or since. The poet who died young, at the age of 25, expressed doubts whether anything he’d written in his few short years would ever be remembered. We know better than he knew then. In time his odes and sonnets entered the canon, and two centuries later his work is taught to schoolchildren, studied by scholars, and recited by lovers of literature. Keats, today, is one of the immortals of English letters.
Bright Star focuses on Keats’s last years, and especially his love affair with Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish), the teenage girl next door, whom director Jane Campion sees as a more heroic figure than many of Keats’s biographers do. Their romance is a story filled with passion, humor, and pain. The film’s title comes from the first line of a Keats sonnet—“Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art”—about the poet’s desire to be forever with his love. Jane Campion’s treatment, perhaps in a way, helps fulfill that wish.
Bright Star is just the second feature for Campion this past decade. Previously she made In the Cut (2003), a thriller with Meg Ryan as a New York City teacher involved with—and suspicious of—a detective investigating a series of murders. Earlier Campion had adapted Henry James’s novel The Portrait of a Lady (1995), starring Nicole Kidman as Isabel Archer. Her 1993 film, The Piano, was highly acclaimed. It starred Holly Hunter and Anna Paquin as mother and daugher in 19th-century New Zealand. Both won Academy Awards, while Campion herself earned two Oscar nominations, including one for directing (she was only the second woman to be nominated), and a win for original screenplay. Other honors for the film include a César Award and Palme d’Or (Campion was the first woman to win the Palme d’Or for a feature; she had won at Cannes previously for Peel, a short, in 1986). The Piano was one of three Independent Spirit Awards won by Campion. She won the first for her debut feature, Sweetie, in 1989. Campion was born in New Zealand and lives today in Australia.
Beyond the final credits
Jane Campion says she became acquainted with John Keats while working on an earlier film: “Meg Ryan’s character in In the Cut is a creative writing teacher. But that stumped me: I thought, ‘I just don’t know anything about this.’ On the way to work, she reads the poems pasted up above the seats on the New York subway and I realized I didn’t understand poetry either. So just to create a diversion and a delay, I picked up a biography of Keats. That’s where I found the answer; he said he wanted a life of sensations, not thoughts, and I understood that I was trying to photograph sensations. That came back to me when I was writing Bright Star.”