Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Actress Games

One of the weird aspects of my movie fandom is that I end up really attached to actresses whose career struggles affect me on a very personal level. Not that I'm actually harmed, but I just want them to succeed SO MUCH, and when they take roles that will obviously not help their careers progress (hey, Rachel McAdams in Sherlock Holmes; talkin' to you, Jennifer Garner in The Odd Life of Timothy Green), it makes me so frustrated! I've joked before about how I just want to sit down with them and discuss their choices. Anyway, tonight, I was hurricane-bored, so I went on IMDb to check out what some of these women will be up to next year and beyond and see what kind of headaches I'm in for. Some of their schedules fare better than others.

Rachel McAdams
Last Good Role: You probably have to go back to The Family Stone in 2005. Since then, she's had a lot of roles that probably looked good on paper: Iraq War vet coming home, from the director of The Illusionist (The Lucky Ones); the Kelly MacDonald role in the State of Play remake; I could even see how the lead role in Morning Glory might have looked like a mainstream crowd-pleaser.

Excuse-Making: In Rachel's defense, The Time-Traveler's Wife was a very popular novel; who knew it would be such a non-event of a movie? And even if you get offered the worst role in a Woody Allen movie, you probably have to take it. And actually, The Vow was very watchable and she got to be around a naked Channing Tatum a good bit.

Coming Up: Well, she's in the new Terrence Malick movie, To The Wonder, but even Malick fans are calling that one a slow, ponderous bridge too far. And the new Brian DePalma film, Passion, which is supposed to be AWFUL, so that's two strikes right there. But in 2013, she's got About Time, from writer/director Richard Curtis. Yes, it's another movie about a time-traveling hero, and sure, Curtis didn't exactly make a splash with Pirate Radio, BUT he gave us Love, Actually and thus bought himself a lifetime of credit. AND, she'll star opposite Domhnall Gleeson, who is set to break out any day now. And she's currently filming A Most Wanted Man with director Anton Corbijn, based on the John LeCarre novel. Now, the few people who saw Corbijn's The American really respected it, and LeCarre adaptations are super hot right now, so there's good hope for this one.

Reese Witherspoon
Last Good Role: I mean, an argument could be made that her last good role was when she won the Oscar for Walk the Line. Just Like Heaven and Four Christmases were crowd-pleasers that pleased no crowds; Rendition was a giant bomb; This Means War got massacred by critics; and not even Robert damn Pattinson could make Water for Elephants happen (plus, as I said before, don't set yourself up for teenage girls to call you "that older lady who doesn't deserve Rob").

Excuse-Making: Penelope is underrated and Reese's cameo in it is kind of fun; Monsters vs. Aliens was a good little movie, even if voice work doesn't count in a study like this. I'm one of the very few people who thought How Do You Know had redeeming qualities, though I admit that Reese didn't exactly blow the doors off anything in it.

Coming Up: Reese has her own production company, so she's attached to a BILLION projects -- including The Beard, where she plays a beard to a gay dude -- but I'm limiting this to just the ones listed on IMDb proper. The best looking of these is Devil's Knot, the first non-documentary film about the West Memphis Three, directed by Atom Egoyan (returning to the theme of small-town tragedy that worked out so well for him in The Sweet Hereafter). Reese plays the mother of one of the victims and married to Alessandro Nivola, whose character eventually becomes a suspect (though I think that happened after the book Devil's Knot was published, so no idea if the film touches that). Reese heads a really rather dynamite cast here, including personal pet faves Collette Wolf and Dane DeHaan. Really looking forward to this. Less excited for: Big Eyes where, yes, Reese Plays a famous painter, but it's from the writers of Agent Cody Banks and the writer/directors of Screwed (though, fine, they also wrote Man on the Moon and The People vs. Larry Flynt and Ed Wood; but Screwed! With Norm McDonald!); and Wish List, which (good news) is directed by Bridesmaids' Paul Feig, but (bad news) is about how "life changes for a thirtysomething career woman when a coin she threw in a magic fountain as a girl finally reaches the bottom." The less said about Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus the better.

Jennifer Garner
Last Good Role: Garner has the most recent good role of all three women here, but it was still five years ago when she was Oscar-worthy (YES) in Juno. Whoever was running that Oscar campaign for Searchlight should be ashamed that they didn't make a bigger push for her. Since then, it's been the hugely regrettable Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, which will probably serve as rock-bottom for all the puff pieces written about Matthew McConaughey's career at year-end. Then two spectacularly bad decisions in taking role of an unsympathetic love interest in Ricky Gervais's smug The Invention of Lying and an unsympathetic non-love-interest in the Arthur remake. Then there's The Odd Life of Timothy Green which ... yeah.

Excuse-Making: Full disclosure: I have yet to see Butter, currently available on Video On Demand, but it is lighting absolutely no one on fire. I am an apologist for Valentine's Day, and I think Garner is perhaps the best part of that not-so-terrible movie.

Coming Up: Nothing. NOTHING! It's the greatest tragedy in movies today. I don't know whether she's taking a break from acting to raise her little Affleck-spawn or if she's being exceedingly picky or what, but there is not one project in the works for her, at least according to IMDb. Compounding this is the fact that her husband is going to be at every award ceremony this winter for Argo, probably on track to win Best Director, and she's going to be there, on his arm ... with nothing to promote. No project to transfer that bounce in visibility to. I guess it's not too late to sign on to SOMETHING in the next two months. But time's a-wasting, girl! Get on this!

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Four Score and Seven Years in Line

I got to see two pretty good movies tonight at the New York Film Festival, and it's nice to remind myself of how much my 20-year-old self would shit if he knew I'd be able to have nights like this.
First up was the Secret Screening, which everybody knew was going to be Lincoln, not that I wasn't holding out hope until the very last that it would end up being something riot-inducing like Breaking Dawn Part II or the one with Billy Crystal and Bette Midler. The situation at Lincoln Center was bedlam and stupid and we waited forever for them to seat anybody, and since I knew they were confiscating phones at the door, I left mine in my office, and the stark realization that I had NO WAY OF CONTACTING ANYONE IF I HAD TO made my blood run cold. But eventually we got seated, right in front of Scott Rudin, which was exciting even though he didn't threaten to break anyone's arms or anything. But Whoopi Goldberg DID come by his seat to say hello. Also, I was certain that the old lady who took approximately 20 minutes to walk past half our row to get to the bathroom was Joan Didion, but no one will back me up on this. Anyway, that was the celebrity portion of my evening.

Lincoln was ... interesting, which I mean as a compliment. It means well, and it tries to tell an American story that has calcified into legend in a way that engages the brain (in many ways it plays like an 1860s The West Wing, which will frustrate some viewers more than it did me) and the heart. The latter is only sporadically successful. I liked the way Spielberg balanced the passion of those seeking to abolish slavery while acknowledging that this was still a battle fought by white men whose concern for actual black people was outweighed by politics and a desire to end the war. It's a worthy avenue to go down, and the movie is strongest when it keeps this in mind.

But this is also the real world and a movie about Abraham Lincoln by America's preeminent crowd-pleasing storyteller, so obviously political strategy wasn't going to be allowed to stand on its own. Unfortunately, all the Lincoln At Home scenes fall flat, particularly the ones with a flailing Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Lincoln's son. Meanwhile, Sally Field gives a schizophrenic performance that maybe suits Mary Todd Lincoln if you want to be generous about it. She has one highly entertaining scene with Tommy Lee Jones, but everything else is dripping in melodrama. (Tommy Lee Jones, by the way, is the star of the show, serving Grumpy Old Man perfection and earning a mid-movie ovation from the audience. Supporting Actor nomination for sure, and he could even win in a weak field.)

If I haven't mentioned Daniel Day Lewis as Lincoln yet, it's because he's easily the fifth or sixth thing that stands out about the movie. It's a strong performance that carves out a well-defined Lincoln -- folksy storyteller, shrewd politician, unavoidably aloof on the home front -- and the voice becomes a total nonissue right from the beginning. It's also exactly as expected. It's a problem with the movie, too -- it's so certain of its own outcomes, both historically and narratively. Everybody in the movie acts with full knowledge of the historical import of their actions. Which is a fully supportable take on a time period where it's not that hard to imagine people would have an idea that they were living in legendary times. But if the audience is already fully aware of the result, the interesting part becomes the HOW, and too often, Speilberg feels the need to goose the WHAT of it. We can't possibly be asked to sit in suspense at the roll-call vote for the 13th Amendment as if we've all got our fingers crossed it'll pass.

After the Lincoln obstacle course, I stuck around for Sally Potter's Ginger and Rosa, starring Elle Fanning, a puzzlingly-accented Christina Hendricks, and Jane Campion's daughter who looks like my favorite girl from Bunheads. The movie is a pretty standard soap plot, glazed with some period-specific Cold War anxiety, but the performances (Fanning especially) pull it across the finish line. Also, I guess Annette Bening is just going to keep playing these broad, crowd-pleasing side characters until she decides to go for another Oscar, huh?

Saturday, September 08, 2012

Mid-Year Movie Report Card

Last year,I hopped onto my pal Nick Davis's tradition of throwing out his mid-year movie awards as he hits his 50th screening of the year. Nick's busy making me jealous at the Toronto International Film Festival right now, which means I'm getting my At 50 article out first. So enjoy this here appetizer, and do check out Nick when he hits you with the main course soon enough.

Top 10 Movies of 2012 (so far...) (and in alphabetical order...)

21 Jump Street: The best high-school movie in years and the funniest movie of the year so far. Great chemistry between Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum, with the both of them as likeable as they've ever been, and some really strong supporting performances. It's not like the post-modern take on vintage TV is a novel one, but Jump Street is never content to rest smugly on its laurels.

The Avengers: The two best superhero movies of the summer (this and, yes, The Dark Knight Rises) both delivered sufficient largeness on screen, something that precious few superhero movies of late have been able to do. Avengers took that a step further with some sharp character work and the most thrilling action scenes of the year.

Bachelorette: The streak of nastiness running right down the center of this acidly funny movie feels designed to shred any lingering sense of sentimentality about the wedding-themed female comedy. Mission accomplished. Kirsten Dunst is so perfect, and no one's ever gone wrong deploying Lizzy Caplan and Adam Scott in any capacity.

Beasts of the Southern Wild: Effective world-building and affecting moments of poetry, even when I kind of wavered as to whether the filmmakers were quite in control of some of the more runaway fantastical moments. Best music of the year, too, or haven't I mentioned?

The Cabin in the Woods: Pure fun from beginning to end, and a smart deconstruction of horror movies while still taking the time to give us a great ride. Not the scariest thing you've ever seen, but so, so satisfying.

Chronicle: My favorite discovery of the early part of the year, a low-gloss take on the superhero movie with a welcome focus on the characters rather than the powers. Forget about the first-person-filming device -- it's a framework but it doesn't define the movie. That's done by some killer performances (Dane DeHaan, I'm gonna make you happen) and a refreshing break from formula.

Damsels in Distress: Whit Stillman really does seem to exist outside of time, which you'd think would make this look at collegiate gender politics into something nightmarish and Tom Wolfe-y, but instead it feels like a fable about one of the more fabled experiences in American culture. He was always going to miss out on realism, so how about some singing and dancing? Greta Gerwig, Adam Brody, and Megalyn Echikunwoke are delightful.

The Forgiveness of Blood: Brilliant follow-up for director Joshua Marston, after 2004's Maria Full of Grace. This one shares Maria's unshowy immersion into a non-American culture with concerns that boil the political down to the deeply personal.

Hope Springs: The year's most welcome surprise, with an invigorating generosity of spirit to its characters and their lives and their problems that don't have pat solutions. Love is hard and marriage is harder, and time doesn't always make it easier, and this movie isn't ready to laugh that all off in an avalanche of old-people jokes. Dunderheaded music cues aside, come for some great lead performances by Tommy Lee Jones and Meryl Streep that hit each other at odd angles in a most satisfying way.

Take This Waltz: Ragged and unwieldy and not without some significant problems -- if you were to tell me the characters were too irritating for you to enjoy, it's not like I'd be able to blame you. But Sarah Polley goes to some unexpected places, and beautifully so. The last half-hour is a delightful surprise that kind of runs past where the usual endpoint of a movie like this and finds its way into some great observations about relationships and life and stuff.

Honorable Mentions: Moonrise Kingdom; Magic Mike; Friends with Kids


Dane DeHaan - Chronicle: For walking the line between genuinely sympathetic and opaquely dangerous, as he'd hinted at during his season-long run on HBO's In Treatment. He elevates a decently imaginative first-person superhero deconstruction into something more memorable.

Tristan Halilaj - The Forgiveness of Blood: For playing one of the year's best heroes without hiding the fact that he's walking in some seriously oversized shoes. His nonprofessional status helped play up his awkwardness, but he delivered a sympathetic and watchable character from start to finish.

Tommy Lee Jones - Hope Springs: For steering into the skid of his and Streep's contrasting styles, not backing down from his character angry core in order to soften himself for a rom-com audience, and for some seriously low-key comic timing within those parameters.

Adam Scott - Friends with Kids: For delivering yet another comedic crush object and holding up to Westfeldt's often pitiless turns of plot (that left turn into tearfulness at the end would have felled many an actor of Scott's caliber).

Channing Tatum - Magic Mike / 21 Jump Street: For proving my belief in his perfectly calibrated charisma 100% correct in Mike, and before that, for showing unexpected comedic chops (along with his quite-expected willingness to look a fool) in Jump Street, the year's best pure comedy.

Honorable Mentions: Jason Segel (Jeff Who Lives at Home); Robert Pattinson (Cosmopolis)


Emily Blunt - Your Sister's Sister: For proving in this (and The Five-Year Engagement; and probably Looper later this year) that she has the best co-star chemistry in the business, this time exhibiting a pitch-perfect sister relationship with Rosemarie DeWitt.

Kirsten Dunst - Bachelorette: For winning her way back into my good graces with an acidic outlook on bridesmaid duty and an uncompromising fidelity to a character who's more than just Head Bitch. Also, for every killer reaction shot in that final, breakneck half-hour.

Ari Graynor - For a Good Time, Call...: For forcing her way into a cap and gown and graduating from best friend/comic relief to comedic heroine, all the while keeping everything that made us love her on the sidelines. For flipping between exquisite raunch to relatable sweetness without ever screeching the brakes on the former. For the way she says "vadgebags."

Aggeliki Papoulia - Alps: For once again being the biggest weirdo for Giorgos Lanthimos. For finding a way to make a movie about people who step into the lives of dead people, for the benefit of their loved ones, somehow even more desperate and off-putting by getting to the empty core of her own character.

Meryl Streep - Hope Springs: For using every bit of Mannered Meryl until it was time to get good and real. I know we all agreed that after Oscar #3, we were all going to put Meryl away for a while, but I'll take this performance over a Doubt or an Iron Lady any day.

Honorable Mentions: Michelle Williams (Take This Waltz); Greta Gerwig (Damsels in Distress); Rosemarie DeWitt (Your Sister's Sister)
*Seriously, how great has this half-year been for lead actresses that I have to leave three amazing performances like these off the list?


Luke Kirby - Take This Waltz: For making me that attracted to a rickshaw driver. For taking the least sympathetic character in a film full of unsympathetic characters and wearing down the audience's defenses. He goes from being Bad Choices Personified to a risk worth taking.

Fran Kranz - The Cabin in the Woods: For diving down the rabbit hole of our culture's love affair with goofy stoners and coming out the other side with a real person. For handling the Joss Whedon quip-heavy style as well as anyone. For continuing my unlikely love affair with Topher from Dollhouse.

Matthew McConaughey - Magic Mike: For all the reasons everybody else has been saying. Truthfully, this whole Make Matthew Happen campaign is kind of outside my sphere of interest, but it's not like I can deny that he's been pretty great in movies this year.

Mark Ruffalo - The Avengers: For being best in a show in an uncommonly strong cast for a superhero movie. For ANY movie, really. All due respect to Eric Bana and Edward Norton, two fine actors, but Ruffalo got to the heart of Bruce Banner and gave the Hulk some stakes.

John Travolta - Savages: For overcoming all my exhaustion with the whole Travolta Thing and delivering a performance that was funny and really smartly calibrated. Something convinced him to hold something back -- in an OLIVER STONE MOVIE -- and those few degrees of control made his character's excesses all the more satisfying.

Honorable Mentions: Edward Norton (Moonrise Kingdom); Johnny Vekris (Alps); Michael Fassbender (Prometheus)


Annette Bening - Ruby Sparks: For drawing laughs from her very first breath onscreen and having the time of her life rolling around inside the Earth Mother trope.

Salma Hayek - Savages: For swallowing everything in her path in exactly the ways the movie called for. For juicing the chemistry between her and Blake Lively. For her flair with wardrobe.

Brie Larson - 21 Jump Street: For being an absolute star in the making. For embodying a high school girl who's neither demure trophy nor bitchy queen.

Samantha Morton - Cosmopolis: For being the only actor to render the wonky, circular garblings of DeLillo's monologues into something compelling.

Sarah Silverman - Take This Waltz: For taking the most predetermned character in the movie and making her surprising anyway, through force of her personality. For nailing the hell out of that "life has a gap in it" monologue.

Honorable Mentions: Anne Hathaway (The Dark Knight Rises); Megalyn Echikunwoke (Damsels in Distress)

Monday, August 20, 2012

Past Prologue: U.S. Open Highlights Through The Years (Part Two)

My very favorite tennis tournament of the entire year starts up next Monday, so my pal John and I have been running down our favorite and most memorable U.S. Open matches, at least as far back as we can remember.

Click here to read Part One at John's blog. Part Two is there for you below...

1991 Semifinal: Monica Seles (YUG) d. Jennifer Capriati (USA) 6-3 3-6 7-6

John: This was a big day for me, as even though I'd been to the Open countless times by this point, it was the first time I'd ever seen live action as late as the semis. What's more, there were two amazing matches on tap – in the first, a resurgent Martina Navratilova upset the top-seeded Steffi Graf in a nail-biting affair, 7-6, 6-7, 6-4. But that match paled in comparison to the second semi. Capriati had won two of the hardcourt warmup tournaments that summer, in one of them notching her first career win over Seles in a third-set tiebreak, and as such, I remember the palpable anticipation in the stadium as the two players took the court. Two of the hardest hitters ever (Seles is still my all-time favorite, while I'll maintain that Capriati is the most physically talented player in history), they came out with guns blazing, and although Seles took the first set 6-3 and went up an early break in the second, Capriati stormed back to take the second by the same score. The third set was an absolute dogfight, with more breaks than holds, that saw Capriati unsuccessfully serve for the match twice. This was one of the matches at which I remember people (including me) screaming at the top of their lungs by the end, which saw Seles reverse the result of their last meeting and win in a third-set tie-break to reclaim the No. 1 ranking. The loss took everything out of Capriati, but that only made it sweeter when she finally enjoyed Grand Slam success in the next decade.

1992 Semifinal: Stefan Edberg (SWE) d. Michael Chang (USA) 6-7 7-5 7-6 5-7,6-4
[Embedding disabled by YouTube, but here's the 3rd Set tiebreak.]

John: Much as with many of the top Americans of the time, Chang was someone I could never really get excited about (Jim Courier was pretty much the only exception from this era). Still, you had to admire the way he battled defending champ Stefan Edberg tooth and nail for four even sets. Edberg, who had barely survived his two pervious encounters against Richard Krajicek and Ivan Lendl, quickly found himself in a deep hole in the fifth set, serving at 0-3 and 0-40. Yet despite Chang's gritty fighting, you sensed that Edberg, with his dominating ability to rush the net, could easily come back if he stuck to the plan and executed. And so it proved – once he saved those break points, his confidence exploded, and Chang only won one more game. Chang still participated in the longest match in the Open Era, for which I hope he thanked the Lord Jesus Christ.  

Joe: One of the many reasons I love the U.S. Open above all other tennis majors is the tradition of Super Saturday, where both men's semi-finals and the women's final are played back to back to back (predictably, guess who hates it?). And in 1992, for whatever reason, I decided I was going to get the whole spectacle on videotape. Boy, did I manage to pick the right and wrong year, as Edberg-Chang went over five hours and my tape ended up running out about halfway through the Seles-Sanchez Vicario women's final that followed (sorry, Pete Sampras and Jim Courier, neither of whom I liked anyway! No room for you!). But what a match! Jesus freak or no (I somehow avoided that information), I was a huge Chang fan back then. I guess I really liked those baseline scrappers! His style and Edberg's were a great fit for long, athletic points, and nothing came easy for either player. Epic marathon.  

1995 Final: Steffi Graf (GER) d. Monica Seles (USA) 7-6 0-6 6-3

: Even for someone who wasn't a huge Seles fan, as I was, this had to be the sports story of the year – Seles not only coming back two and a half years after her brutal stabbing, but coming back as the No. 2 seed and possibly in form to contend for the title (and now a U.S. citizen). I had seen Seles play an exhibition against Navratilova a few weeks before, and told anyone who would listen how great she looked, but I could feel the doubts – I couldn't help but feel them too, at least a little, because the mental and physical task before her was just unprecedented. But Seles ripped through the field to reach the final and play Graf, the unwilling beneficiary of Seles's deranged attacker, a Graf "superfan." The quality of play was through the roof from the beginning, with both players connecting with jaw-dropping winners through a first set with no breaks. In the tie-break, Seles was up a set point and banged a serve down the middle she thought was an ace. Although it was slightly wide, her concentration broke, and Graf took the set, only to let down at the start of the second set and find it gone 6-0 before she could even blink. But after Graf saved an early break point in the third, it was Seles who couldn't quite hold her level, and Graf made one break stand up in a 6-3 win. But the image I remember most was Seles, after holding to 3-5 in the final set, looking up around the stadium in wonder, unable to believe that she'd made it all the way back. A win would have been even nicer, but that was the moment to savor.

1998 Semifinal: Patrick Rafter (AUS) d. Pete Sampras (USA) 6-7 6-4 2-6 6-4 6-3

John: Oh, how sweet this was. Rafter had won the title the year before in a surprise run; with his winning game, looks, and personality, he'd be a welcome champion, right? Well, John McEnroe immediately dubbed Rafter a "one-Slam wonder," while Pete Sampras, usually soporific rather than dickish, snitted following a 1998 warmup loss that the difference between him and Rafter was "10 Grand Slams." But Rafter didn't let any of that faze him, as he kept going to the serve-and-volley well and came back from two sets to one down to wear Sampras out, and a win over countryman Mark Phillipoussis the next day meant Rafter was no longer doomed to being a one-Slam wonder. (I could also talk about what a wonder he is in other ways, but I'll let the video do the heavy lifting.)

I cannot overstate how major my tennis crush on Patrick Rafter was. That gorgeous motherfucker. And a gorgeous style of play, too -- one of the few really effective serve-and-volleyers of his era. I fell in love with him during the 1997 summer hardcourt season, predicted him to win the '97 Open as a #13 seed (he did), and he would be my favorite men's player from then on. Everything John tells you about the Rafter-Sampras rivalry in '98 is correct, so watching Rafter get over on Pete, and to come from behind to do it, I was on cloud nine.

2001 Quarterfinal: Pete Sampras (USA) d. Andre Agassi (USA) 6-7 7-6 7-6 7-6
2002 Final: Pete Sampras (USA) d. Andre Agassi (USA) 6-3 6-4 5-7 6-4

Joe: John and I each came armed with separate Sampras-Agassi battles, and with both of them so close in time, we figured we'd combine. Andre Agassi was my favorite American player of all time. He was the guy who got me into tennis. He was the guy who differentiated my youthful sensibilities (Agassi! Capriati!) from my grandparents (Lendl! Edberg! Courier!). I rode every wave of his career, comeback after comeback -- his first wins at Wimbledon, the French, AND the U.S. Open all came at points when his career was "over"; how is that even possible?? He finally was able to get his shit together and remain a consistent Top 10 player, but despite some big wins, Sampras was always his bugaboo, particularly in Flushing. By the time the 2002 final happened, the wind was somewhat out of my sails when it came to Sampras-Agassi matchups. And that was because of what happened in 2001. By the time the 2001 Open started, Pete Sampras was on the way out. An unheard of #10 seed, he had just lost at Wimbledon in the 4th round to Roger Federer in that famous "changing of the guard" match everybody talks about. Meanwhile, Agassi was flying high, on a late-career resurgence, blowing through the early rounds, absolutely taking Federer apart in the 4th round, Andre was primed to FINALLY stand tall (uh, metaphorically, sorry Andre) over Pete Sampras. Hugely hyped primetime matchup -- a finals-worthy event at mid-week! And ultimately ... Andre couldn't break Pete's serve. That's what it came down to. Andre played some of his best tennis, but as one sportscaster said after the match, and I can't remember who it was, if Pete Sampras was playing his best tennis, Andre couldn't beat him. A sad truth I had to accept that night.

John: With my tepid-at-best interest in both of them, Sampras-Agassi was always a sister-kisser matchup for me. Yet the 2002 final was no ordinary occasion—Sampras and Agassi were both well past their prime, and they both must have sensed that it was their last best chance to take home another Grand Slam. Sampras had suffered an absolutely shocking loss to unheralded George Bastl at Wimbledon that summer, but as so often seemed to happen on the big occasions, he got the better of Agassi in a four-set victory. Sampras never played a tour event after this match, and even though he never did it for me, I have to respect that – so many players pay lip service to the idea of going out on a high note, but Sampras actually did.

2004 Quarterfinal: Jennifer Capriati (USA) d. Serena Williams (USA) 2-6 6-4 6-4

: You can talk about the amazingly high level of play or bemoan the fact that these two met so early all you want, but when it comes down to it, all people really remember about this match is the WORST LINE CALL IN HISTORY. As I said to Joe, given all Serena's notorious tirades about line calls over the years, it's hard to believe there was no loss of life after this doozy. It affected the result, too, and even though I was rooting for Capriati for serious, like Joe said with the Roddick-Nalbandian match, it was hard to feel clean while celebrating the victory.

Watching this match again recently really does nail down the true tragedy of that monstrously blown line call (called correctly by the line judge, then overruled by the chair) is that it forever obscures what was a phenomenal tennis match between two huge hitters. Capriati was the rare player on the WTA tour who could hit with Serena; besides her sister Venus, the only other player to defeat Serena as often as Capriati did was Justine Henin, and she did it through impish strategy and shot-selection. Capriati stood toe-to-toe with Serena and took advantage of every crack, including, yes, that indefensible line call. Perhaps it was tennis karma that bit Capriati in the semifinals against Dementieva, the first of two straight years that an epic Capriati-Lindsay Davenport final was foiled in the semis.

2005 Third Round: Davide Sanguinetti (ITA) d. Paradorn Srichipan (THA) 6-3 4-6 6-7 7-6 7-6

Despite -- or perhaps because of -- the absolute scarcity of footage of this match, it has grown in my memory to mythic proportions. I don't think I'm overrating it, but it's become so completely mine; I've yet to hear it mentioned by anyone, journalist or fan or whomever. It was practically an accident that I even saw it; one of those matches that only made TV because it was the last day-session match still on the courts, before the night session began. And then it kept going. And suddenly, USA Network was cutting away from the night match to revisit this battle between two unseeded, unheralded players. There was no real hook to the matchup: Sanguinetti was a graying journeyman while Srichapan something of an up-and-comer (though he'd never capitalize on his potential). The draw of the match, as it went on, was the sheer competitive level, with both men living and dying on every point, knowing that a spot in the second week at the Open could mean something huge. I can't remember if it was in the fourth set breaker or some time during the 5th, but after one particularly grueling rally at one particularly crucial juncture, both men looked across the net at each other, smiled, and just started laughing. Purely because of how great they were playing. For as much as sportswriters and broadcasters like to rhapsodize the "love of the game" angle in sports, it's criminal that no one would bother revisiting that moment just because one guy was Italian and the other was Thai and nobody knew them. That moment should be on every montage the Open ever shows, forever. As it is, it's only in my brain.

2010 Semifinal: Novak Djokovic (SRB) d. Roger Federer (SUI) 5-7 6-1 5-7 6-2 7-5

John: Although Joe and I have a lot of fond memories of the same matches, this is one of only two matches in this feature we actually watched together. To be more specific, we watched it at more than one sports bar, and we doublehandedly take credit for getting the second bar completely into the match with our incredibly loud and Djokovic-slanted cheering. Djokovic hadn't had a good result in a Slam since he'd won the Australian all the way back in 2008, and he'd lost to Federer in the U.S. Open three consecutive years before this encounter. Djokovic found a form that had eluded him for ages, but serving at 4-5, 15-40 in the fifth set, you figured he was done. Yet an amazing, possibly-eyes-closed swinging volley after a crazy rally, followed by another forehand winner, kept him alive, and after he held to 5-5, Federer quietly went away for the second of three straight years, which was good, because by then we'd shouted ourselves hoarse and had nothing left to give. Although Djokovic would lose to a year-dominating Nadal in the final, it was the bridge to his own year of historic dominance in 2011, the match that literally turned his career around. Couldn't have done it without you, Roger!

Everything the man just told you is true. I just remember that the people in that second bar were so bewildered at first that we would be cheering for Djokovic. We didn't look Serbian. Why else would we bother cheering for a guy who never, ever, ever got it done against Federer, and certainly not under the harsh Flushing sunlight? And despite waxing Federer in the 4th, it wasn't until that match-point down Houdini act that anybody (including, um, me) thought he could actually pull it off. And then he DID. Oh, did he ever.

2011 4th Round: Sam Stosur (AUS) d. Maria Kirilenko (RUS) 6-2 6-7 6-3

John: This was the second match in this feature I actually saw with Joe, and the first I saw with him in actual attendance at the U.S. Open. We settled in over at the Grandstand court in early evening to watch Stosur, long a Grand Slam disappointment, take on the fashionable Kirilenko, not necessarily expecting that much. What we got was a total barn-burner that included the longest tie-break in Grand Slam history, a 17-15 war that saw Kirilenko save five match points and level the match at a set apiece. Undaunted, Stosur righted the ship in the third set, and it's hard to imagine that this win didn't play a big part in her subsequent run to the title. It's a long trip back from Flushing Meadows on the train, but matches like this make it worth it.

Ever since that Connors-Krickstein match in 1991, I've wanted to attend matches at the U.S. Open. In 2007, I moved to New York City, and for four straight summers, I was thwarted in one way or another. Finally, last year, I made it, and it was everything I'd hoped it would be. I was always fascinated by the Grandstand court, that little addendum to Louis Armstrong Stadium -- literally in its shadow, during those mid-afternoon matches -- where during particularly competitive matches, the crowds from Armstrong would gather along the overhang to watch. Somehow, on the day we went last year, the day session matches went longer than the night session matches, and when the final match on Armstrong was over, people started gathering at the overhang, where the second set was approaching a tiebreak. What followed was the most epic breaker I've ever seen. I was already kind of a fan of Kirilenko and Stosur, and after that match, both women had earned my eternal devotion. That's the best thing about the Open: one match can make you a fan for life. John and I will be attending matches again this year, and if I can find my mini-Maria out on a court again, she'll be getting my full-throated support.

Note: I did not take this video. I was not courtside until the third set. But it is AWESOME.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: "Well It Can't Be Very Good for Your Eyes Anyway"

The Royal Tenenbaums, 2001

This is a submission for Nathaniel's "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" series at The Film Experience, a great series that I don't get to participate in as much as I should. But considering Tenenbaums is one of my all-time favorite movies, how could I not? I saw it on the big screen for the first time last fall as the New York Film Festival celebrated the film's 10th anniversary, and talk about a jewel box of stuff to look at, all the way to the edges of the screen. I know Wes Anderson takes a lot of shit for being so precious in his art direction, but it's what I love about him. Who ever said that cold and sparse was the only respectable way to kit out your movie?

This particular frame called out to be because it's not the usual Anderson Frame of either a character or object in dead center. I initially wanted a frame of Margot tapping her wooden finger on something, as it's my favorite running gag of the movie. But this shot is even better: the very picture of cocooned inertia, with Margot's bathroom crash pad (complete with mini-TV oh-so-safely tethered to the radiator) being invaded by interventionist Etheline. Only, as always, Etheline's best of intentions end up manifesting as concerned mothering, which only ends up allowing her gifted children to cocoon themselves further. Anjelica Huston is so perfect in this movie. Her dress and posture here are pure child-therapist, but her voice is so kind and accommodating. Of course she's going to let Margot move home. And then Margot's foot! Invading the frame, that one chaotic element that signals both physical danger (that precariously perched TV!) and emotional peril (not having the energy to get up and change the channel is a classic symptom of depression).

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Songs I Need to See Employed by SYTYCD Choreographers This Season, In Order of Likelihood

Song: "Bad Girls," M.I.A.
Ideal Scenario: Top 8 Girls group routine, choreographed by all-star Twitch
Likelier Scenario: M.I.A. = Bollywood still, right?

Song: "Skyscraper," Demi Lovato
Ideal Scenario: Yearning contemporary solo
Likelier Scenario: Yearning Stacey Tookey routine

Song: "Boyfriend," Justin Bieber
Ideal Scenario: Boy-Boy pair routine by returning choreographer Brian Friedman
Likelier Scenario: Boy-Girl pair routine by Tyce Diorio

Song: "Brokenhearted," Karmin
Ideal Scenario: Mandy Moore beaks out of her '80s milieu and devises a fun pair routine about, say, an OKCupid date
Likelier Scenario: Tabitha and Napoleon make "real" hip-hop fans even angrier than they already are

Song: "Let's Have a Kiki," Scissor Sisters
Ideal Scenario: Gayest group routine ever, by Travis Wall
Likelier Scenario: Jean-Marc Genereaux and France devise one of those delightfully dissonant cha-chas set to modern music

Song: "Beez in the Trap," Nicki Minaj
Ideal Scenario: Lil C' devises the show's first girl-girl krump routine
Likelier Scenario: NapTab pair routine somehow involving all-star Sasha

Song: "212," Azealia Banks
Ideal Scenario: Dave Scott choreographs his annual one routine and, as usual, blows the doors off the place
Likelier Scenario: Christopher Scott uses the song to assert his position as the show's preeminent hip-hop choreographer with the surname "Scott"

Song: "Girl Gone Wild," Madonna
Ideal Scenario: Something weird and insect-like from Sonya Tayeh
Likelier Scenario: "GGW" gets scrapped for a smooth waltz set to "Masterpiece"

Song: "National Anthem," Lana Del Rey
Ideal Scenario: Not sure, since "dreamily swaying" isn't a dance style yet
Likelier Scenario: Travis Wall helps the show strike its first blow for a national dance-based conversation about the political process

Saturday, July 07, 2012


History is made at night 9:30 AM on the upper west side of Manhattan: Savages is the first Oliver Stone movie I have ever seen in the theater, and that includes any repertory screenings of JFK, my #1 movie of all time. I'm not sure WHY I was so excited to see this particular effort, since it so clearly reminded me of U-Turn and I really hated U-Turn. Savages is just as junky and just as in love with the hazy lawlessness of the Southwest, but while U-Turn wallowed in weirdness for weirdness sake and a flailing series of double-crosses, Savages seems more comfortable just being what it is and letting its story play out. Which leaves room for all sorts of fun things, from hammy performances to -- and I'm just as shocked as you are -- likeable characters who you end up invested in without even realizing it. Looking at you, Ben the Botanist with the Heart of Gold; and Elena the Cartel Madam with the Also Heart of More Tarnished Gold.

Speaking of the latter ... Salma Hayek, you guys! You could tell from the trailer that she would be eating up all the scenery in sight, but I had no idea she'd be doing so in so many interesting ways. She screams, she preens (in some of the most inspired costume-based sight gags I've seen in a while), she rolls her eyes at empty-headed Americans while going to town on some fine dining. ( Make it happen, someone.) She's having an absolute ball on screen, and I honestly don't know why she's not getting the exact same kind of "Salma being Salma" kudos that Matthew McConaughey is reaping for Magic Mike.

As for the Blake Lively Situation, which appears to be a sticking point for critics of the movie, I thought she did exactly what you hire Blake Lively to do: play a gorgeous, naïve, kind of ridiculous in her ignorance of her own privilege girl who gets it juuust enough to make a move or two on her own behalf. This isn't great acting, but of all of the characters in the movie, she's the one who has to deliver the most ridiculous dialogue. All that voice-over -- that thick, gauzy voice-over about the best-laid plans of mice and polyamorous men -- and she gives it pretty much the right amount of dreamy self-seriousness. I'm not sure I'll be able to hear the word "wargasms" again without thinking of her.

The whole cast is pretty much up to the job. Benicio Del Toro has decided to embrace his creepy weirdness in a way he hasn't since, what, The Usual Suspects? And you know who I NEVER expected to enjoy in a movie again? John Travolta. You know who's kind of great in this? John Travolta! Okay, "great" is a relative term. But he clears some seriously lowered expectations by a LOT, sputtering the righteous indignation of an American law enforcement officer grown fat on kickbacks. If there's one area of the movie I'm willing to give Oliver Stone credit for deeper meaning -- and ONE only -- it's in this character. That really is the only deeper meaning happening here. Which is fine! I wanted junk and I got very entertaining junk. But if I see Stone on TV talking about how this movie is a shot across the bow of U.S. drug-enforcement policy or something like that, I'm gonna start frowning like a motherfucker.

I'll tell you what SHOULD be discussed, in deep philosophical terms, though: Aaron Johnson's hair. I was SO worried from the trailer that he'd be in dreads the whole movie and thus have his beauty diminished. But in the BEST NEWS of the whole afternoon, I found that the dreadlocks were only in flashbacks, and for the bulk of the movie, Johnson's working some rather luxurious surfer-type hair (albeit the type that you just know he's going to neglect into knotty awfulness again at some point). Really, let's talk about Aaron Johnson for a minute, huh? Because at this point, the Movie Crush Threat Level is red and blinking. Check out his character here. Ben is:

1) a smartie (he's a botanist!)
2) growing the best weed in, like, all of history, including the Inca and shit
3) a philanthropist, to the plays-soccer-with-African-kids degree
4) not all that judgy about how his best friend enjoys inflicting bodily harm on people
5) a sensitive yet enthusiastic lover
6) the kind of guy who gets REALLY messed up -- internally, feelings-wise -- when he gets called upon to shoot and (later) torture some bad guys to death, which shows he has a conscience.

And he's played by Aaron Johnson, who -- and where was THIS on all the posters? -- gets nakeder in this movie than he EVER HAS BEFORE. (Once again, I have to recognize one of my favorite emerging trends in movies, where the ingénue declines to show her breasts on film but her male costars are shaking it like the rent is due. Summer of Dudesploitation 2.0!)

Oh, one last thing: Emile Hirsch is in this movie? Rather briefly and certainly not worthy of being on the marketing (so good thing he wasn't), but I was struck by the fact that 3-4 years ago, Hirsch would have absolutely played the Aaron Johnson role. (The Taylor Kitsch role would have been played by Stop-Loss-era Channing Tatum or, like, Dane Cook.) And now he's reduced to playing Tech Support and wearing demeaning bicyclist clothes all movie. Shame.

Not a shame: Savages! Everything I wanted and much a little bit more!

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Spoilers Ain't Shit and They Ain't Sayin' Nothin' (But See "Cabin in the Woods" Before You Read This Anyway)

I normally don't care about writing "spoilers" about movies that have opened. I'm not going to sneak-attack people with them, I observe a proper Twitter grace period and am appropriately vague, but once a movie has opened, you either need to see it or not read about it until you have. And I'm not going to avoid writing "spoilers" in this post either. You clicked to read a post about Cabin in the Woods, so I'm going to talk about Cabin in the Woods.

But first I'm going to say this: see it first. Even if you're the type of person who can enjoy a movie perfectly well if you know what's coming. Even if you think you've already heard about the "secrets" behind this movie. Even if you think you don't care about whatever those "secrets" are. Because the thing with Cabin in the Woods -- and the reason so many of the advance critics and festival-goers were so diligent about clamming up before it was released, I think -- is that there isn't a "secret." Not one secret anyway. And not one that's sprung on the audience at the last minute, when they're not supposed to be expecting it. I remember I saw The Sixth Sense before I heard what the big twist at the end was. But I had heard for weeks that there WAS a twist. Nobody would reveal it, but you couldn't escape the chatter that there was something BIG at the end that you wouldn't see coming. So of course I watched the movie -- a movie I loved and still love -- constantly looking for what the twist would be. I ended up figuring it out not long before the end, and I guess I was proud of myself for putting it together (and impressed with the movie for making it hold up to scrutiny so well), but I also kind of wished I knew little enough to be truly surprised.

As I said, there is no one "twist" in Cabin in the Woods, so you're not going to spend the whole time looking for a gotcha, but I still think there is huge value in letting the movie go in all the directions it's going to go without knowing any of them. So I'll just say it one more time: see the movie, then come back and read about it. After all, if there's anything I know about the internet, it's that it is forever and not at all fleeting!

So about the actual movie: I was actually not sold on Cabin in the Woods in the first half hour. Big advance hype makes me nervous, and I've learned I especially can't trust hype on Mutant Enemy material, because people want Joss to succeed so badly that it distorts things. And at the outset, Cabin is so forthright about not being a horror movie so much as the deconstruction of a horror movie that I thought it would end up being a good joke that nonetheless would suck all the air out of the suspense required to make an actual horror movie. Like, "Yes, I see how you're pinpointing all the horror tropes and giving us a glimpse into just how much horror movies have to engineer human behavior so that the dumb hunks and slutty chicks end up doing exactly the wrong thing and are utterly unable to keep themselves from being slaughtered," but what's the point? Ultimately, I thought seeing behind the curtain would end up being a suspense-killing mistake because that curtain exists for a reason. But right at that 30-minute mark (or therabouts; when they're all in the basement and the diary gets read), the behind-the-curtain stuffs stops being a winky-jokey relief from the tension and instead becomes an element that enhances and complicates the tension. From there, a series of very clever decisions are made so that what results is an incredibly satisfying blend of horror and comedy. So let's get to bullet-pointing:

-- The drugs that make the college kids dumber: The joke is, of course, that characters in horror movies make the stupidest decision possible in order to keep the plot moving and get the meat-sacks where they need to be to maximize carnage. (For the record, Scream did this to great effect years ago.) In Cabin, this means the engineers of the carnage utilize various chemical whatsits that make the characters hornier, more reckless, and less intuitive to general survival instincts (the smart decision to all stick together, then, gets abandoned for the old "we can cover more ground if we split up" trope). The really smart thing about how this gets carried out is that we meet these five people before the drugs kick in. We can tell what types they're supposed to be (one look at Chris Hemsworth and Fran Kranz and you know they're the jock and the weirdo burnout, obviously), but they all exhibit enough characteristics of well-rounded, three-dimensional people that you end up caring about them. AND their devolution into "types" ends up being as much a commentary on movies in general as horror movies specifically.

-- The movie sweats the details. Good meta horror (the Scream franchise, Eli Roth's better stuff) endears itself to its audience because it proves that it's made by fans of the genre. The little things count. Maybe my favorite part of the movie lasts about a second and would be missed by taking an ill-timed glance at the popcorn bucket: after one of the kids dispatches a murderous undead creature with a dagger, the engineers emit a tiny electric shock, causing the girl to drop the weapon. Anybody's who's ever screamed at an idiot protagonist for dropping a gun or throwing a knife across the room in horror while there's still a totally excellent chance that more bad shit is on the way will know why I loved that so much.

-- It's more than just a framing device. Again, my concern was that we'd get the "real" stuff -- the cabin stuff -- and that the behind-the-cabin stuff would be winky comic relief. But gradually, the BTS stuff develops stakes, the lines start to blur, and pretty soon the divide ceases to exist. No ironic distance. It's still funny (the unicorn!) but there's no safe harbor to be found.

-- I'm not sure I'll laugh as loudly or as long at a movie all year as I did during the second look at the Japanese horror scenario.

If I'm going to quibble about anything, I'll quibble about the effects. This is a no-budget movie, and when it comes to presenting the ultimate rogue's gallery of nightmare creatures, that budget starts to show. I don't know what it is with Joss Whedon and giant snakes, but maybe he just needs to direct an animated movie called Snakey: The Snake That Ate Some Cities and get it out of his system, because every time he brings a giant snake into one of his live-action projects, it just looks video-gamey as hell. The general rule is that the more practical the ghoul, the better it comes across. That Hellraiser guy didn't even DO anything and he'll be haunting my nightmares.

But on balance, it's a BLAST of a movie. Fun and funny and scary and satisfying. Hemsworth looking foxy as hell before his extra Thor bulk. Jesse Williams looking foxy as hell by simply putting on some glasses. And of course my darling Topher from Dollhouse, who's really good at being weird and relatable at the same time. Plus lots of Whedon-friendly cameos, the most I've liked Bradley Whitford in literally years, and the most creative use of a bear trap I've seen in a movie ... ever? I'll say ever. It's just a fun movie, and an unexpected movie, and considering roar of praise I've been hearing about it for two months, that's a minor miracle itself. YOU BETTER HAVE SEEN IF BEFORE READING THIS.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

LowRes 2011 Movie Awards: The Top 10

The 2011 LowRes Movie Awards: 25 Amazing Moments / Best Trailers / Best Techs (Visual) / Best Techs (Audio) / Screenplays / Supporting Actor + Actress / Lead Actor + Actress / Breakthrough + Cameo + Ensemble / Top 10 Films

Runners-Up: #15: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy; #14: Shame; #13: Weekend; #12: Meek's Cutoff; #11: A Separation


#10 -- Rampart: The genre of Bad Cop Movies is generally not a favorite of mine. They either get caught up in the will-he-get-away-with-it plot mechanics or else they fall in love with the manly badness of the main character. Neither one of those things is an issue with Oren Moverman's Rampart, which takes a deep dive into the swirling murkiness of "Date Rape" Dave Brown without maintaining any illusions about him. Even better, every single character in Dave's life -- ex-wives, daughters, the brass at work, an informant, a lawyer who takes an interest in him -- brings a new dimension to the story. Of course, they all play a part in the grand paranoia of Dave's poisoned brain -- each one out to bring him down -- but Moverman doesn't make the mistake of leaving them flat. There's some chewy character drama in pretty much every scene, making for an awfully satisfying meal.

#9 -- Contagion: I know Contagion was supposed to be Soderbergh's designated popcorn movie this year -- a deadly disease flick filled with slumming A-listers and advertised with the horrifying/hilarious sight of Gwyneth's death mask. But the chilly, clinical style with which Soderbergh's handled this story of an apocalyptic plague has stuck with me for months, and in a weird way it's grown more and more thrilling in my memory. The luxury of being Steven Soderbergh, besides the fact that every actor working in Hollywood is lining up to work with you just because, is that you've amassed enough credit to be able to stick to your guns in the face of whatever the hell studios do to movies like this. Thus, Contagion got to be about how our institutions fail us for what boils down to the most human of reasons; about the mercilessness of nature and the fragility of man and how terrifying the clash of those things can be.

#8 -- War Horse: I've been kind of a wuss about liking this movie lately, and I'm realizing how silly that is. In a year when people are falling out over The Artist and Hugo and The Descendants, ain't no one got a leg to stand on when it comes to embracing naked sentimentality at the movies this year. And since this is my blog I'll go further to say that MY preferred naked sentimentality was the one that felt least like a crutch and the most in control of its own message. While The Artist had Uggie scampering all over town, with all the humanized agency of Lassie, wrenching "awwww"s of approval from an audience that has overidentified with the little creature, Spielberg had the discipline to make a movie ABOUT how humans write their stories onto these creatures, without actually committing to the dishonesty that the horse is doing anything but trying to stay alive. So much of this movie shouldn't work, but Spielberg has made a career out of it, so why are we surprised at the effectiveness of the pure fantasy of a no-man's-land meeting of English and German soldiers in order to cut the horse free from an unholy tangle of barbed wire? I also really appreciated his depiction of World War I, which has been slammed left and right for not being bloody enough. While I don't think Spielberg for one second lost sight of the brutality of the trenches, I really appreciated how -- after the merciless inhumanity of the battle scenes in Saving Private Ryan -- he decided to show us war through a different prism, this time through the faces of men who couldn't possibly be prepared for the horrors that lay just out of sight (in tall grass, on the other side of a quiet country hill, over the top of a trench). It's why I love that windmill shot so much. It's the hand of a sad parent giving you one extra second of preserved humanity before the horror gets in.

#7 -- Margaret: I suppose I understand why this movie took five years from completion to distribution, but I'm not sure I 100% side with Kenneth Lonergan on the issue. Watching the movie with knowledge of the battles that raged behind the scenes of edits and final cut, it's almost impossible not to find scenes and subplots, even whole characters (sorry, Jean Reno and Matt Damon) who could have been cut. A resulting leaner cut of the film would have been tighter, more palatable, an easier sell for audiences. Probably a better movie for having a tighter focus. But it wouldn't have been THIS movie, with all its tangents and jagged edges and big ideas. And that's definitely what makes Margaret special. Of course, there are dozens of messy, jagged movies out there, and this one wouldn't work without something compelling at the center, and Lonergan certainly provides that: one of the year's most challenging characters, played brilliantly by Anna Paquin and given a series of thorny relationships; plus an inciting event that was unrivaled this year in terms of unbearable immediacy. There are few avenues the film doesn't explore.

#6 -- Drive: This movie walked a very thin tightrope pretty much the whole way through, and the fact that it never fell off makes me love it immensely. Had Refn lost his nerve, or the final scenes fell flat, or Gosling took a wrong step, it would have crashed hard, but somehow, even with weaknesses like a weak Carey Mulligan character, it delivered exactly what it was promising. Unless you thought it was promising lots of car chases, I guess.

#5 -- Martha Marcy May Marlene: The twin debuts of Sean Durkin and Elizabeth Olsen were the story this season -- or they SHOULD have been if the movie had gotten any love during awards season. It's a bummer, because these are two serious talents. There's no better way to get me enthused about your movie than to wrap me up in tension so tightly I start to get neck pain. The movie fuzzes out at the edges until you're not sure what you're seeing, then snaps tightly into focus to show you something awful. Brilliant manipulation at work.

#4 -- Young Adult: I've always been on Diablo Cody's side, from Juno to Jennifer's Body to United States of Tara; she didn't have anything to prove to me. Jason Reitman, on the other hand, had some ground to make up. He mostly just stays out of the way of Cody and Charlize Theron here, but I have to give him credit for some improvements from Juno (the music is decidedly not intrusive; he gave a great sense of place without making the audience feel loaded down with tchotchkes). The Cody/Theron combo, however, is what made this so special. Without any concerns for cutesiness or redeeming qualities, they put out a frighteningly relatable story about going home again that hisses with vicious comedy.

#3 -- Higher Ground: Vera Farmiga's directorial debut does something great with a story about a born-again woman who wants SO much to truly feel her rebirth but who grows more and more certain of the absence of the divine in her life. This could have easy become something snide or preachy or -- on the other end of the spectrum -- toothless and weak. Instead, Farmiga asked some hard questions about faith in ways that were respectful, compelling, and most importantly entertaining. The deep roster of character actors give such a rich picture of this world, full of funny, honest, caring people whose beliefs clash and befuddle each other but ultimately we get a picture of intellectual curiosity and faith in a constant struggle for compatibility.

#2 -- Hanna: SO MUCH FUN, you guys. I had the best time watching this movie, remembering this movie, talking about this movie, watching it again. I've been a big fan of Joe Wright's movies, but who knew he had something this lurid and exciting in him? Perfect casting, from Saoirse Ronan's otherwordly, frightening child killer, to Cate Blanchett's otherwordly, frightening government hunter, to Tom Hollander's otherworldly, frightening Eurotrash odd-jobsman, to Olivia Williams's worldly, comforting hippie mom (curveball!). The bold visual style, snappy action scenes, and a fierce determination to pay attention to Hanna's humanity all add up to something thrilling and satisfying.

#1 -- Certified Copy: This movie is actually also so much fun, though it couldn't be more different than Hanna, obviously. But I am such a sucker for an intellectual exercise that layers itself with realistic, warm characters whose lives you've invested in. I could roll around in it for days. The are-they-or-aren't-they nature of the central relationship isn't beside the point -- digging into the conversations, the posturing, the way they're looking at each other is half the fun of the movie. Are these two married? Role-playing? Some kind of spontaneous exercise in committing to an improv bit? The questions of authenticity and the value found in copies are compelling but only because the characters flesh them out. The other half is the movie that's happening within those conversations, whether they're a put on or not. Juliette Binoche tells a billion stories with her face alone (and a hundred more with her bra straps), and whether there's a marriage or not, the story she's playing out is realer than real. In a year when Hollywood felt overly desperate to think warmly about the ways of the past, here's a movie that really asks us to engage with the stories we've been telling ourselves for decades. We become the stories we're telling.

Friday, February 24, 2012

LowRes 2011 Movie Awards: The Actors, Part 3

The 2011 LowRes Movie Awards: 25 Amazing Moments / Best Trailers / Best Techs (Visual) / Best Techs (Audio) / Screenplays / Supporting Actor + Actress / Lead Actor + Actress / Breakthrough + Cameo + Ensemble / Top 10 Films

Tom Hiddleston - Thor / Midnight in Paris / War Horse
Jake Johnson - Ceremony
Hunter McCracken - Tree of Life
Ezra Miller - We Need to Talk About Kevin
Chris O'Dowd - Bridesmaids

Big, big year for breakout performances, and not just limited to the child actors this time. Though it will be awfully interesting to see if McCracken's naturalistic, un-hammy performance proves to be a herald of a real talent or the product of Malick's careful filmmaking. And Ezra Miller appears to be one of those self-serious teens who end up becoming really great actors because they're working at it 24/7. He certainly brought all sorts of uncomfortable edges to his character that weren't built into the script (stop flirting with your mother!).

Meanwhile, it's always nice to get an import like Chris O'Dowd to remind us of how male love interests get to look like in other places. And while lumpy-faced Irishmen charm our women, we're bringing in angel-faced Brits to play our sneaky villains like Hiddleston did in Thor. I had Hiddleston marked down for this category for Thor alone, and brilliant bit work in the two Best Picture nominees only enhanced his case.

And then there's Jake Johnson, who currently has a sweet TV gig with New Girl, but he was so, so strong in Ceremony. Which I know you all haven't seen, but give it a go. It may not be your cup of tea as a movie (we've seen these over-verbal, self-centered 20-year-old characters wayyyyy too often these last ten years), but stick around for Johnson's hilarious and sad work on the periphery.

Nina Arianda - Higher Ground
Haley Bennett - Kaboom!
Jessica Chastain - The Help / Take Shelter
Adepero Oduye - Pariah
Shailene Woodley - The Descendants

Chastain's the no-brainer that you know about; I was maybe less than bowled over by what amounted to a lot of longing glances from behind curtains in Tree of Life, but she was so weird and delightful in The Help and then sympathetic and strong in Take Shelter. She's deserving of all the roles being thrown at her.

Nina Arianda is THE Broadway breakout star of the year, but I need to make sure people don't sleep on the promise she's also showing on the big screen. She was a crackling counterpart to Paul Giamatti in Win Win for a couple of scenes, but she really made a mark when it came to playing Vera Farmiga's sister in the wonderful (have you noticed I'm fond of it?) Higher Ground, effortlessly pulling laughs and blazing a path through her meager running time.

Both Oduye and Bennett announced themselves as big talents -- though they could not have arrived there via two more disparate projects than the critically-lauded, respectful Pariah and the crass, loathed, insane Kaboom!. Here's hoping both women will be given the roles to really make their mark (I'll say it again, Lionsgate: wrap up Haley NOW for Johanna Mason in the final two Hunger Games movies; she's perfect). I'm only slightly less bullish on Woodley, because as wonderful as she was in The Descendants (my favorite performance, easily), my only other data points on her are from abysmal work on an abysmal show like Secret Life of the American Teenager.

Adrien Brody - Midnight in Paris
John Forest - Young Adult
Gianna Giachetti - Certified Copy
Bill Irwin - Higher Ground
Allison Janney - Margaret

Once again, thanks to Nathaniel for giving me the inspiration for this made-up category. It helps separate true supporting performances from one-scene wonders, I'll say that. These performances vary from glorified extras (Giachetti as a chatty and oddly perceptive waitress) to one-scene wonders (Forest as the World's Happiest Cripple; Janney in a barnburner of an accident scene that kicks off the entire main plot), to parts that almost feel like featured cameos (Brody's performance as Dali pretty much IS a cameo, but it's delightfully entertaining; Irwin is more part of the patchwork of the story, but his churchy earnestness feels specific without being jokey). All five of them were secret weapons to their films' respective success.

Hanna: Saoirse Ronan, Eric Bana, Cate Blanchett, Tom Hollander, Olivia Williams, Jason Flemyng, Jessica Barden.

Higher Ground: Vera Farmiga, Joshua Leonard, Dagmara Dominczyk, Norbert Leo Butz, Donna Murphy, John Hawkes, Taissa Farmiga, Bill Irwin, Nina Arianda, Kaitlyn Rae King, Ebon Moss-Bachrach, Michael Chernus, Barbara Tuttle, Boyd Holbrook, Sean Mahon, Matthew Biltonen.

Rampart: Woody Harrelson, Robin Wright, Anne Heche, Cynthia Nixon, Brie Larson, Ned Beatty, Ben Foster, Steve Buscemi, Sigourney Weaver, Ice Cube, Jon Bernthal, Robert Wisdom.

A Separation: Peyman Maadi, Leila Hatami, Sareh Bayat, Shahab Hosseini, Sarina Farhadi, Ali-Asghar Shahbazi, Shirin Yazdanbakhsh, Kimia Hosseini, Merila Zarei.

Young Adult: Charlize Theron, Patton Oswalt, Patrick Wilson, Elizabeth Reaser, Collette Wolfe, Jill Eikenberry, Richard Bekins, Kate Nowlin, Louisa Krause, John Forest, Rightor Doyle.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

LowRes 2011 Movie Awards: The Actors, Part 2

The 2011 LowRes Movie Awards: 25 Amazing Moments / Best Trailers / Best Techs (Visual) / Best Techs (Audio) / Screenplays / Supporting Actor + Actress / Lead Actor + Actress / Breakthrough + Cameo + Ensemble / Top 10 Films

Michael Fassbender - Shame
Ryan Gosling - Drive
Woody Harrelson - Rampart
Peyman Moadi - A Separation
William Shimell - Certified Copy

Fassbender and Gosling were really riding parallel lines in 2011, weren't they? Both delivering multiple well-received performances en route to climbing the Hollywood ladder of success and recognition. Both getting critical acclaim for auteurist movies that audiences found alternatively riveting or pretentious. Both giving signature performances in said films as isolated, taciturn individuals tormented by inner/outer demons and carrying on complicated relationships with Carey Mulligan. Both the thinking person's sex symbol of the moment. Both ultimately turned down by Oscar voters. To me, Fassbender's was the performance of the year, at least among lead actors. Gosling is ever-so-slightly the beneficiary of a weakish year, but even though I may have found his character's nameless remove a bit writerly, he brings charisma like crazy and fills in a lot of the script's gaps.

For as much as I was cool on Harrelson's Oscar-nominated performance in The Messenger, I'm equally passionate about the work he does in Rampart. If only the buzz could have been flipped. He's monstrous in ways that are unnervingly typical. You get the terrifying sense that if you were ever in the same room as him, he'd have you bullied onto his side within minutes. And he modulates the performance so well depending on which characters he's in a scene with. Lots of avenues to drive down with this guy.

I was surprised to find out that Shimmel was an acting novice given how well he was able to keep up with Juliette Binoche as they dance their dance of shifting reality. And Moadi manages to shine among a VERY strong A Separation ensemble with a performance that gets to the pride and helplessness at the root of a good man who lies to himself so he can remain as such.

Runners Up: Jean Dujardin (The Artist); Paul Rudd (Our Idiot Brother); Tom Hardy (Warrior); Brad Pitt (Moneyball); Gary Oldman -(Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy).

Juliette Binoche - Certified Copy
Viola Davis - The Help
Elizabeth Olsen - Martha Marcy May Marlene
Anna Paquin - Margaret
Charlize Theron - Young Adult

As thin as the herd was among the lead actors, Best Actress is pretty well stacked, with former Oscar winners like Theron and Paquin digging into all-too-rare roles that were worthy of their talents, plus this year's possible Oscar winner in Viola Davis. I've wondered, in the months since I saw and had complicated reactions to The Help, if I'm more willing to throw accolades at Viola's performance because her character, Aibleen, so deserves accolades of her own. Maybe. That's a woman who's earned some good news. But Davis brought her to life, with notes of pride and anger and irreconcilable ties on both sides of a divided society.

I've probably bored you all to tears already with how much I loved Juliette Binoche in Certified Copy, from her bra straps to the well-worn soles of her shoes. (They do a LOT of walking on cobblestones in that movie.) She's perfection as so many of the film's most affecting scenes play out right on her face.

Olsen is another face that told a lot of story, even if that story was mostly in how much she couldn't tell. I'm still flummoxed at how she somehow didn't get the new-star breakthrough acclaim that a Rooney Mara or even the far inferior Felicty Jones got. Still, she's lined up years' worth of work thanks to the film's Sundance success, so she'll have plenty more chances. She's kind of in a position that Anna Paquin was in back when Margaret was made. Seriously, finally getting to see her work in Kenneth Lonergan's movie fills in some crucial career gaps and helps me really GET the whole Anna Paquin thing. As for the performance itself, t's a thrill to see her finally deliver a character so maddeningly confident in her own certainty.

My vote for a winner would go to my beloved Charlize, though, who broke open the flourescent tube that was Mavis Gary -- all harsh and ugly brilliance -- and released toxic fumes out to anyone who entered her orbit. She's savagely funny, remorselessly mean, and choking on her own mid-level success. She's got the audience's admiration and revulsion clenched inside the same fist, squishing them tightly until we can't tell the difference.

Runners Up: Tilda Swinton (We Need to Talk About Kevin); Michelle Williams (Meek's Cutoff); Adpero Oduye (Pariah); Vera Farmiga (Higher Ground); Kirsten Dunst (Melancholia).

LowRes 2011 Movie Awards: The Actors, Part 1

The 2011 LowRes Movie Awards: 25 Amazing Moments / Best Trailers / Best Techs (Visual) / Best Techs (Audio) / Screenplays / Supporting Actor + Actress / Lead Actor + Actress / Breakthrough + Cameo + Ensemble / Top 10 Films

Albert Brooks - Drive
John Hawkes - Martha Marcy May Marlene
Tom Hollander - Hanna
Joshua Leonard - Higher Ground
Corey Stoll - Midnight in Paris

Hey there, John Hawkes. Nice to see you once again atop my list of supporting performances for playing a creepy rural goblin man! Actually, kidding aside, the reasons I was so dazzled by Hawkes's turn in Martha Marcy were because of the crucial differences from Teardrop in Winter's Bone. Everything about Teardrop was intended to keep you away, while his cult leader in Martha Marcy is all spindly magnetism and sincere insincerity. He scared the shit out of me.

Corey Stoll stole (ugh) every single scene of his in Midnight in Paris, and even a few when he wasn't on camera and I was busy wondering when I'd see him again. Tom Hollander didn't have the "luxury" of an underwhelming movie around him, and even then he managed to make a dynamite impression as a pansexual Euro dungeon gnome who exists solely to stalk people with extreme creepiness and athletic apparel. And Albert Brooks tears into that most celebrated of Hollywood roles, the merciless crime boss with flair.

I think I'm happiest to be able to throw Joshua Leonard on this list, since I've had a soft spot for him ever since The Blair Witch Project and it's been nice to see him salvage a career that his castmates couldn't manage. He's really phenomenal as Vera Farmiga's faithful but empathetically limited husband in Higher Ground, particularly in scenes late in the movie where he's so disarmed by regret.

Runners Up: James Badge Dale (Shame); Christopher Plummer (Beginners); Jake Johnson (Ceremony); Shahab Hosseini (A Separation); Patton Oswalt (Young Adult).

Jeannie Berlin - Margaret
Rose Byrne - Bridesmaids
Dagmara Dominczyk - Higher Ground
Carey Mulligan - Shame
Amy Ryan - Win Win

I totally didn't see Jeannie Berlin's character coming, and I think the lion's share of Margaret's unexpected brilliance comes from the fact that she shows up and goes toe-to-toe with Lisa, challenging her in ways that cut through her eighteen layers of bullshit. This is hand-to-hand emotional combat and they're both fighting dirty even as they're ostensibly allies. She's prickly and impatient and so insanely New York I could smear her on a bagel.

Amy Ryan and Dargmara Dominczyk offer more traditional support to their respective lead characters, but they thankfully never fade into the background. Ryan, gifted by Tom McCarthy with an uncommonly rewarding role despite being "the wife," delivers a warm-hearted woman who is still holding onto just enough Jersey deep down to make her formidable. Higher Ground's Annika embodies a kind of free-spirited Christianity that Vera Farmiga's character desperately wants to attain, and Dominczyk delivers a woman worthy of such adoration.

Carey Mulligan was given a tough assignment, externalizing everything Fassbender was internalizing; making her face and limbs and tragic posturing match everything stuck inside her brother's slender, put-together frame. It'd be hard not to come across as a needy gargoyle, and I take it that's exactly what a lot of people saw in her, but I think I take better to open-wound characters like hers. That "New York, New York" elegy was a sensation.

Finally, I realize I'm stealing a nomination from the wonderful Melissa McCarthy and handing it to her beautiful, Australian co-star. Heartless, I know. But while McCarthy was quite funny, I was openly blown away by how Byrne stood toe-to-toe Kristen Wiig in the funniest scenes in Bridesmaids and didn't flinch. For an actress who isn't from the kind of comedy background her co-stars were, it was remarkable.

Runners Up: Janet McTeer (Albert Nobbs); Sarah Paulson (Martha Marcy May Marlene); Aasha Davis (Pariah); Anjelica Huston (50/50); Mary Page Keller (Beginners).