Seeing the nominated films seems not to matter so much this year. A handful of films seem to have caught the eye, or fancy, or whatever, of the Academy members, and gotten the nominations and hype.
The Artist proves my point. It was a pleasant experiment in retro film-making. It plot was hackneyed, its actors attractive but hardly called upon to engage the audience in deep emotion, and its musical numbers brief and never breath-taking. Nevertheless, it has gained nominees for best picture, actor, supporting actress, director and screenplay. It’s as if the Academy is trying to prove that it loves the French when they pretend to be American?
The Help–a weak rendition of a weak novel–will compete with The Artist. It did command extraordinary acting performances by its almost unknown black actresses, but it added one for a rising white actress as if to balance the racial mix. The film also got a nod for best picture, of course.
And then there are nominations for other films that I found deeply flawed last year:
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy was so reserved that its plot was almost unintelligible, making the whole, long film boring.
Hugo was interesting but boring–a self-contradiction that often fits experimental films. This one is made by Martin Scorsese, and so pulls in nominations for best film and best director.
Rooney Mara (Rooney?) got a nomination for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which seems a nomination, really, to fill out the Best Actress category and to show that the Americans can do a better job on a Swedish thriller novel than the Swedish can. Take that, Noomi Rapace.
Well, enough kvetching. Here are my grudging choices in a year when I was never swept away by any movie.
Best Actor: George Clooney in The Descendants is the sentimental favorite, and my own as well. I think he acted even better in Syriana (2005), but his body of work (and very intelligent contributions in a number of spheres) make strong claims on an award this year. The same might be said of Brad Pitt. His work in Moneyball showed his capacity, though I would have nominated him for his acting in The Tree of Life. Actually, I really liked his work in Burn After Reading (2008).
Best Actress: This is a tough one, even though Hollywood is reported as already giving the Oscar to Viola Davis for The Help. My choice is Meryl Streep for The Iron Lady, an astonishing feat of impersonation — though Margaret Thatcher was probably never as human as Streep’s performance makes her. It is a very strong category this year, and I wouldn’t be outraged if any of the other nominees got the award. Except Rooney Mara.
Best Supporting Actress: Octavia Spencer will probably win for her fine work in The Help, though I would give the Oscar to Janet McTeer of Albert Nobbs. She made a remarkable contribution to the remarkable ensemble work of the whole cast, led by Glenn Close.
Best Supporting Actor: Christopher Plummer’s turn in Beginners as the octogenarian father who finally comes out after his wife’s death, wins hands down. Plummer fully deserves a statuette, and I say this despite my prejudice against the man who rejected his own success portraying a repressed father in the beloved Sound of Music (1965). I haven’t seen Nolte in Warrior Or von Sydow in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Still, my second choice would be Jonah Hill of Moneyball.
Best Picture: I haven’t seen enough of the leading contenders to have an opinion. I liked the ambition of A Tree of Life. Midnight in Paris will perhaps win for Woody Allen’s life’s work. Other nominees belong to “we had tos, because we nominated one of its actors for a best.” Or a sense that the category belongs to big, sweeping, weeping, films. That’s why I kept putting off War Horse and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.
From Mary Burgan. Email her at [email protected].
The over-determined deaths of troubled figures in the world of entertainment leave us with varying reactions. Their talent may have awakened our sympathy at a critical age of stage in our lives. We may have been struck by their art as revealing new reaches of imagination. Or we may just be fascinated by the extremes of their lives. When they die, though, the details of those lives tend to flood the public consciousness, demanding attention and interpretation.
The world of entertainment has just suffered the loss of one of its most sparkling stars, Whitney Houston, and already public efforts to interpret her life have started. Houston’s entire career is now put up for display in never-ending tributes, or exposés. She is seen as either a saint or a sinner: “She had the voice of an angel”/”She should have sobered up and gotten off drugs for the sake of her daughter.” I suspect that before long some screenwriter will attempt to sum up Houston’s life in a script, and some gifted actress will try to act out her triumphs and struggles before the camera. It will be good if that actress is as successful as Michelle Williams has been in portraying a public icon of the past in My Week with Marilyn.
Williams has been nominated for an Oscar for Best Actress for her portrayal of Marilyn Monroe on the screen. And rightly so. But I think that there are limits to Williams’ achievement–mainly due to a film script that takes an extremely narrow view by treating only the limited time when Monroe was working on a film in England with Laurence Olivier.
Kenneth Branagh plays Olivier as a stick figure who is set up as a foil to Marilyn. But he cannot carry the film, and neither can the other actors who wander in and out of the movie. Zoe Wanamaker’s turn as Paula Strasberg, Marilyn’s coach, wears thin with its insistence on the contrast between Marilyn’s “Method” acting and Olivier’s down-to-earth approach. Judi Dench appears from time to time to comment on things as Dame Sybil Thorndike, and Derek Jacoby appears, momentarily, as the Queen’s librarian. There is even a small role for Emma Watson, suggesting that the movie is a minor jobs program for refugees from the Harry Potter series. Eddie Redmayne does enact a sympathetic version of Colin Clark, the rapt young Oxonian who gets the job of watching over Marilyn during the week when her husband had gone back to America. But the young man’s following the golden girl around does not make for much of a plot.
Nevertheless, Michelle Williams manages Marilyn’s walk, talk, and gestures so well that her performance gives weight to a very slim movie. Her enactment of the movie star on the verge of a nervous breakdown is memorable. Williams uses the many close-ups given her in the film to convey a blend of innocence, unease, dependency, and sexiness. By the end of My Week with Marilyn the audience had some sense of the complex mix of neurosis and sweetness that made Marilyn Monroe a public icon.
Efforts to express such mixed impulses in the lives of public figures frequently fail. And there is something hokey about concocting a film version of a famous life when we have records of the stars themselves that do a better job. To really “get” Marilyn Monroe, the viewer needs to see Some Like It Hot and The Misfits. My Week with Marilyn can’t substitute for the real thing.
Likewise, The Bodyguard “gets” Whitney Houston better than any memorial pastiche can. I saw that film several days ago, and its presentation of a star under threat explains Whitney’s lasting appeal. Of course, the film has a contrived plot that the stolid Kevin Costner barely manages to make work. But Whitney steadies the show with a voice that soars, a physical image that radiates glamour, and a glint in the eye that beguiles. The star doesn’t die in The Bodyguard, but the film suggests a tragic curve in her life. She may kiss the hero in the end, but she cannot settle down.
Whitney Houston, like Marilyn Monroe, was inimitable. That’s why it’s best to let their images speak for themselves.
From Mary Burgan. Email her at [email protected].
Valentine’s Day is two days away. What to do? It’s never too late to plan a date to the movies, especially one with the right theme: romance and an incredible kiss.
The way to go on Valentine’s Day is to the movies! You can take your poopsie to The AFI theater on Colesville Road in Silver Spring to see one of their “Screen Valentines,” great romance movies from the past.
I took a look at the list of titles we’ve already missed and The Awful Truth with Carey Grant and Irene Dunne played this last weekend (February 3-5). But you can still catch The African Queen, coming up (February 10-13). Tickets are a dollar or two cheaper than those at a Cineplex.
You can find some of the great movie great kisses of all time online. For example, check out the Los Angeles Times Magazines’s “50 Classic Movie Kisses” or see video clips on squidoo of “The Best Movie Kisses of All Time.”
I don’t see too many movies at the mall that seem like heart thrillers — they are mostly guns and no roses. So, how about a cozy dinner at home with a movie kiss, and then…
With so many choices now through on-demand options and Netflix movies you can download from home, you’ve still got time to plan for the right movie. For example, See Notorious to see how director Alfred for Hitchcock found a way to avoid the censors by staging a three-minute kiss between Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman. There are also great kisses in Some Like It Hot, The Year of Living Dangerously and Dirty Dancing.
Or you could think of your own favorites. Then buy a bag of Hershey’s chocolate kisses and a bottle of Champagne, and settle in for some watching and smooching.
From Mary Burgan. Email her at [email protected].
Take my advice and go over to Georgetown to see Pina as soon as you can. It is one of the most original films of this year — or any year, for that matter!
Pina is a biographical study by Wim Wenders of the work of Pina Bausch, a German dancer and choreographer. I should note, though, that Pina’s art cannot be classified under one nationality. Hers is a world of many nationalities, and none is favored over another.
Don’t expect a straightforward story. Pina’s life and achievement — the two are one and the same–unfold almost wordlessly through motion, music, and abstract, stripped-down settings. As Wenders shows in his brilliant shots of the dancers in various of their collaborations, the movements they call forth from their well-trained bodies are expressive of the deepest desires and fears in human experience.
I was eager to see Pina because I became enchanted with the bits of Bausch’s choreography that were integrated into Pedro Almodovar’s wonderful film, Talk to Her, several years ago (2002 from ). Pina has less story than Talk to Her, or, rather, its story is less a narrative than the enactment of a range of feelings.
The film is really indescribable, so I won’t try to describe it any more, except to say that it’s important to watch Pina with all the openness you can muster. Be patient. Don’t force interpretation. Let the passion, sorrow, grace, wit, beauty, and wisdom of Pina’s choreography enrich your own sense of being in the world.
Pina has been nominated for an Oscar as best documentary film of 2011. Because it’s in 3-D, the film is only being shown in theaters that have the appropriate screening sites. AMC Loews Georgetown, is the only 3-D site in our area that has booked the film. Pina was sold out on its first weekend there, but it will only run at Georgetown for the next several weeks — until the audience runs out.
From Mary Burgan. Email her at [email protected].
The Oscar nominations are out and the last-minute scramble to see nominated-movies is on. Today Mary reviews the performanes of Meryl Streep and Glenn Close, both nominated for Actress in a Leading Role.
Many reviewers of The Iron Lady have been too hard on a movie that should deal more seriously with politics, since it’s about a politician. Or so they complain, But the film is far less concerned with political rights and wrongs than with a particular human life, that of Margaret Thatcher, recalled in vivid fragments through a mind beginning to fail.
Given that focus, the film must portray a consciousness that has become unable to discriminate clearly between past and present. The movie as written and directed gives Meryl Streep the opportunity to project this extraordinary, fluctuating state of awareness. It is hard to see how it could have done so while dramatizing political issues and events in anything like their real-life complexity.
Of course, Streep looks so much like Thatcher that the two images simply merge in the film. As a result I felt much more genuine empathy with Thatcher in The Iron Lady than I had expected, and while primary credit for that surprise has to go to Streep, I think the others involved in making the movie deserve credit for making it possible.
The script takes advantage of Thatcher’s famous take-no-prisoners language in her rise to power. There is delight in her forcefulness, even when the film has her enunciate non-politically correct statements, such as the on her decision to defend the Falkland Islands in 1982: “With all due respect, sir, I have done battle every single day of my life and many men have underestimated me before. This lot seem bound to do the same, but they will rue the day.” In Streep’s portrayal, Thatcher never merely speaks; she enunciates.
Special notice should go to Jim Broadbent, the British actor who portrays Denis Thatcher both as an easy companion and a comic inhabitant of Margaret’s senescent daydreams. His appearances are not so much justifications of Thatcher’s political decisions as occasions for witty or sentimental relief. In all, then, The Iron Lady managed to win over this resolutely liberal — “wet” in Thatcher language — viewer.
Glenn Close in Albert Nobbs
The interaction between inner and outer lives is a significant feature of Albert Nobbs, another film that gives a major American actress plenty of room to display her talent. In Albert Nobbs, the actress is Glenn Close. Like Streep, Close is nominated for an Oscar this year for a bravura performance that embodies the title character. But such a simplistic conception of Close’s role in Albert Nobbs, like Streep’s in The Iron Lady, neglects that fact that each film amounts to more than its title character.
Close does play the role of “Nobbs,” a diminutive, cross-dressed male waiter in late 19th Century Dublin, with an intensity that warrants her Oscar nomination. But that intensity is almost too much of a sad thing. The rest of the cast sustains the story’s interest, as Nobbs’ stunted life slowly modulates into something more than a mindless waste. It becomes tragic.
Albert Nobbs is less a self-indulgent star vehicle than a sensitive study of the ways in which servants in a marginal but pretentious Dublin hotel can finally pay homage to a life they barely knew. The film achieves this revelation through a number of fine performances — Mia Wasikowska as Helen, the flip chamber maid who eventually becomes the object of Nobbs’ affections; Pauline Collins as Mrs. Baker, the flirtatious but grasping hotel owner; Brendan Gleeson as an alcoholic resident doctor who has enough insight to summarize the import of the story, and Janet McTeer as a house painter employed for a day or so by Mrs. Baker
Nobbs has no idea who he/she is, but Hubert Page, another cross-dressing woman and self-acknowledged lover of women, is a fully aware and serves as a tough/tender liberator. It’s all very Irish and repressed, though there’s never a priest or nun in sight.
Albert Nobbs shares the brilliance of the story of The Iron Maiden, and not just because talented actresses spend themselves without stint in their roles. Each movie is more than a starring role.
It would be a shame to choose sides. Just go to see both.
From Mary Burgan. Email her at [email protected].
I wrote my last post about the 2011 movies on November 29, and although I am sure that Borderstan readers have already seen their share of award-ready movies, I should explain my silence.
Without indulging in too many details about the bodily conditions that put me out of commission this winter, let me say that a mid-October surgery on my lumbar spine led to a late December surgery on my thoracic spine. I now have a totally reworked total spine, with so much titanium holding my back together that I feel like a figure in an action movie. The only difference between me and a reworked Angelina Jolie is that everything hurts… and that my lips are not that full nor my glances that sultry.
So it’s back to the movies. I worry that I’ve been left out of the movie award scene since last October. They have been advertised and exalted while I was in the hospital, and I’ve actually managed to see a lot of them between my bouts with the surgeon, and I’ve been trying to catch up. Even so, the excitement of the awards season is not there. Is it me or them?
This Year’s Oscar Contenders
I’ve seen Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, The Artist, and The Descendants, but although each is an intelligent film, none left me with the excitement that I expect to feel for Oscar contenders. I hoped to get some of this excitement from Hugo, remembering how charmed I was with Up several years ago. I have a special weakness for children’s movies, and I was excited about the prospect of a Martin Scorsese film for children. I was relieved that there would be no gory Good Fella bodies suddenly appearing–that the population of actors in Hugo would be benevolent with one another.
But I found that Hugo was, well, boring. The figure played by Ben Kingsley slightly was menacing and never very cuddly; there needs to be one cuddly figure in a children’s movie, right? And I don’t need the endless wake-up spectral figures of a Harry Potter film to be entertained. But Scorsese seems to be wearing kid gloves in Hugo because the film really is an adult homage to films past. It reveres them too much, perhaps?
The same holds true for The Artist. It features two very attractive human actors and a scene-stealing dog. But there is no color and no sound, and the final result, for me at least, is the realization that modern movies in sound and color are wonderful. Film styles of the past were delightful, but I’m not convinced that they can carry a whole movie, especially one that adopts the familiar plot of a silent start losing his hold when sound comes in with a newcomer girl getting all the stardom.
And so the Oscar nominees have not earned much excitement from me. I like actors’ movies, so in what seems a lean year, I’d put my money for the final prize on ensemble films like The Descendants. It amazes me that a wonderfully intense film like Margin Call has just one nomination on the score board (for best original screenplay). I thought that was one of the best of the year.
The race is on. I haven’t yet constructed my list of personal winners. If you’ve done yours, how about sharing it with Borderstan readers? Just add it as a comment, below. Or wait until later and send it in. Anticipation is half the fun in the Awards Season.
From Mary Burgan. Leave a comment or email her at [email protected].
DC Shorts runs through Sunday, September 18 with films shown in seven venues, six in DC and one in Arlington. Attending one of the showings of DC’s current film festival, DC Shorts, will probably give you several reactions.
- The films are too short to be satisfying. Some seem so brief as to be an extended joke (El Torero y La Toro). Others are so well written and acted that they seem like studies for a longer film (Little Horses). Some are memorable. Some are expendable.
- They tend to be made by very young film-makers who are heroic in their efforts to to produce them. Despite their brevity, each film had a lengthy list of credits, and each represents cajolement, persistence, and credit card debt — faith, hope and charity.
- Because of the promise of these short cuts, the festival enterprise deserves to be supported. The venue I attended breathed of creativity and optimism as well as cinematic know-how.
You probably can’t see all the films in the crowded, eleven-day schedule of this festival. But if you can fit one grouping into your entertainment menu, you won’t be sorry. And if you’re lucky, you’ll hear some of the film-makers explaining what they’re doing and why.
Editor’s note: Mary Burgan writes for Borderstan as the Borderstan Movie Fan and has lived in the Dupont-Logan area since 1995. For the record, she is a strong supporter of bike lanes, public transportation and a myriad of environmental causes that will make our city and planet a better, cleaner place to live. She and her husband do not own a car and walk most everywhere. Borderstan would love to hear from you on any number of subjects related to the Dupont-Logan-U Street area, including bike lanes and laws. Got an idea for a column? Email us at [email protected].
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From Mary Burgan. Leave a comment or email her at [email protected].
Biking laws in the District need updating. The language of the District law seems designed to apply to special populations such as courier services, but there are not many rules for growing population of ordinary bike riders. The city has tried to meet the needs of ordinary riders by constructing bike lanes and establishing the Bike Share program but, while these measures have increased bike riding, they haven’t established better rules for the road.
For example, the north/south lane on 15th Street NW has created confusion for all parties. This is especially true at the intersection of 15th and P Streets, where the left turn lane signal for northbound cars is unexpected. Some cars ignore it. Others obey, only to be assaulted by loud honks from behind. Nevertheless the bike riders in that bike lane rely on cars, and pedestrians, obeying that signal.
The dramatic increase in bicycle traffic in the past two years is a wonderful contribution to the neighborhood and its environment, nobody doubts that. But the increase also calls for some changes in the old laws as well as new attitudes.
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From Mary Burgan
I have always wanted to be able to speak French. I’ve told myself that I’ll be ready to converse each of the few times I’ve landed in Paris. Then someone at the counter asks me a question and I panic and say, Parlez-vous anglais, s’il vous plaît?
That may be why I try to go to every French movie that comes out in America. I dream that if I go enough, I’ll master the language.
But mastering French is not the only reason to see French films. The best reason is that they are wonderful. I find French actresses–Deneuve, Huppert, Binoche, Béart, for example–extraordinarily beautiful and dynamic on the screen. (I can’t say the same about beauty for French actors because Montand, Depardieu, and Auteuil seem kind of homely and dull for my American taste. I make an exception for Alain Delon.)
In honor of Bastille Day on the 14th, I thought I would give a quick overview of French cinema — and give you my list of 10 French films that you should see.
I thought I had a great idea for this week’s movie review. I thought I’d write about Larry Crowne and Bad Teacher as samples of movies about teaching — the profession I spent my life pursuing. I knew that these current movies have done relatively well at the box office — they were 5th and 4th, respectively last weekend — even though they got mostly negative reviews. But I thought I could push out from them to a conversation about really good teacher movies.
We can have that conversation here, but first I have to say that my idea rated a D-. It’s not that Larry Crowne is unwatchable, but that it’s so mediocre that it’s only worth watching when it’s all that’s on the Lifetime network and you have insomnia and hope to be lulled to sleep. And then there’s Bad Teacher, which got some positive comments by those who dislike the sentiment of teacher movies like Larry Crowne. But Bad Teacher is so crude, mean, and vindictive that it makes Larry Crowne look like an enactment of Plato’s Symposium.
There has been a lot of controversy about Terrence Malick‘s new film The Tree of Life. Some critics call it “pretentious.” Others use words like “transcendent.” I am not going to use either word, but I will warn you not to go into the theater with a noisy bag of popcorn or a cough.
The opening twenty-some minutes are the quietest I’ve ever experienced, and the most solemn. You don’t want to be rattling paper as a family mourns the death of a son in stricken silence on the screen, or as an eerie flame flickers, signifying the beginning of creation.
My down-to-earth introductory remark will suggest that I am a skeptic about this controversial film, as I am. But if I won’t call it “transcendent,” I won’t dismiss it as “pretentious” either. Malick’s previous work — Badlands and Days of Heaven are my favorites — calls for a little more reverence, after all, and The Tree of Life has intrinsic value not only in its aspirations but in its achievements.
Woody Allen has at last stopped casting himself in the role of the hero of his films, and that makes for a gain — and a loss. He was never all that convincing as the romantic lead, and indeed his effort to be the lover in his earlier movies made some of us uneasy. But Allen’s presence in those movies also gave an ironic undertone to his romanticism. When the narrative took off into meditations on the everlastingness of love, there was always the bespectacled little nerd saying, “Yes, but what about death?” That was the charm of a Woody Allen movie.
Lacking that small nugget of perversity, Midnight in Paris is a light, diverting fantasy, just in time for summer. In the film a gifted writer, Gil Pender, burdened by his own Hollywood success and a beautiful but lame-brained fiancée, finds freedom in associating with the artists of 1920s Paris. They become available to him only if he manages to get free from his girlfriend’s loud and careless experience of Paris every night at midnight. Finding himself in an atelier like Gertrude Stein’s apartment, he meets another enchanted romantic, in the person of Adriana, a Parisian artist’s model played by Marion Cotillard. Of course, he falls into an impossible romance about her.
So I finally broke down and went to a box office hit movie on the last night of Memorial Day weekend. I usually try to see “serious” films so as to direct Borderstan readers to the finer things at the movie houses. But I went to see Bridesmaids.
I worried about the film’s vaunted raunchiness. I usually reject the masculine sexual hi-jinks in comedies about weddings like the Hangover series. I’m never that much amused by them, and I didn’t want to see a feminine version of the usual mayhem.
In a good wedding film, though, love conquers all, and the guests leave happy. That happens, with lots of laughter, for more than one member of the wedding in Bridesmaids.
But it is June, and Bridesmaids looked like the best of the many wedding movies around. I’d rather take an over-the-top comedy about ordinary women than the air-brushed agonies of rarified pre-wedding misunderstandings that seem to be the premise for movies like Something Borrowed or Jump the Broom.
To get some sense of Cave of Forgotten Dreams — a 2010, 3-D documentary just released, and now showing at the Georgetown Theater — check out the online interview with its director, Werner Herzog, at the Scientific American website (URL below).
The Chauvet cave in southern France had been sealed eons ago by a rock slide, and its contents were in a state of perfect preservation when discovered in 1994. Herzog says he felt as though he had entered “a time capsule.”
Animal footprints more than 20,000 years old looked as though made the day before. Equally startling was the superb lifelikeness of images drawn in charcoal on the cave walls. Herzog’s favorites are the lions’ eyes, hungrily focused on some (to us) invisible prey.
From Mary Burgan the Borderstan Movie Fan
Don’t miss Washington’s own international film festival, Filmfest DC. The Washington, DC International Film Festival begins this Thursday, April 7, and runs through Sunday, April 17.
A film festival is a wonderful way to sample offerings that may never be shown in commercial theaters. This year’s Filmfest offerings include concentrations on films from South Korea and from the Scandinavian countries. The festival also includes controversial treatments of such issues as Scientology, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and modern slavery.
But, it’s not all tragedy. For example, there are films for children, a number of grown-up comedies and a special film on Flamenco! You can get in for $11 a pop.
Theater locations at the AMC Mazza Gallerie, Avalon Theatre, Goethe-Institut Washington, Landmark’s E Street Cinema, Lincoln Theatre and Regal Cinemas Gallery Place.