Dear Branch Denizens:
(Or should that be "Dennisens"?) It's been a delightful conversation and I would love to do it again -- in a tree! Blogs and comments are great and all, but the tree -- and, of course, the company -- makes all the difference. Who knew that among Dennis's many talents was a knack for arboreal architecture? You give good tree house, Cozzalio!
Sheila, it's a joy to read an actor who knows how to write about acting. Nerdy? Heck, we blog about movies. If we weren't nerdy about them we wouldn't have much to say that would be worth reading. I'll take this opportunity to twist around the question of the hypothetical "average viewer" and ask, rhetorically, if you'd want to read criticism, or plain ol' reviews, by the "average viewer"? Or the "average reviewer"? I wouldn't. I can see it now: “Yeah, RIGHT. Like that would EVER happen.” (How did you manage not to laugh in the face of that lady who didn't understand The Filthiest Toilet in Scotland, by the way?)
Dennis, I share your enthusiasm for Nicole Holofcener's Please Give -- the most depressing comedy I saw this year (and I mean that as a compliment), with Another Year close behind. They do indeed feature, along with The Kids Are All Right, the most finely tuned acting ensembles of the year.
I'm pleased and surprised that we've found so much to talk about in The Kids Are All Right. I understand people's reservations about Paul's exclusion from the family at the end, but I see it as another transition -- not as a final judgment on his character. Joni is going off to college; things are going to change. She's a teenager, and she's aware enough to know that she doesn't know how she's going to feel with the passage of a little time. But of course Paul violated her trust, even if she doesn't understand all the complexities. She's not going to disown her mom, but she -- and all of them -- are going to need a break from Paul in order to sort things out. Joni has the most heartbreakingly penetrating line: "I just wish you were better." I don't think anything more needs to be said between them, for now. But who knows what might happen in a few months or a year?
Sheila, you mention wanting some of the scenes to "go on forever, so that I could keep watching everyone’s reactions and counter-reactions (and I certainly concede, Jim, that that could have had a lot to do with how these scenes were shot and framed)." Yes! So much of the comedy, and the humanity, of the film lies in little (and some quite big) facial expressions and body language -- not in dialog. (Annette Bening is the master of amazingly funny, hideous expressions. You don't know if Nic is exaggerating her feelings or how much she's aware of just broadly they are out there, playing across her face.)
One wee example: the thing Mark Ruffalo does with his teeth and tongue* -- kind of a forced smile/grimace/awkward inhalation all at once -- in Paul's first conversation with Joni and Laser (when the subject turns to local food) is inexplicably hilarious. He glances from Laser to Joni (he's starting to click with her) and there's a cut to Joni's reaction shot. That's when I knew I was falling in love with this movie. Lisa Cholodenko and her editor, Jeffrey M. Werner often cut away just on the flicker of a facial expression, so that it registers and is gone. It keeps you on the edge of your seat, looking for these moments, these throwaway clues as to what the characters are thinking or feeling. So many of the movie's best laughs created in the cuts, as you respond to something you feel like you caught almost by accident. I wonder how many of those "privileged moments" registered on the set and how many of them were discovered in the editing room. (How about that hesitant side-hug Paul gives Laser in the kitchen when he comes over for dinner? Paul steps up, turns his back to the camera. Cut.)
So, speaking of performances: What did you all make of Natalie Portman's in Black Swan? I had fun with the movie -- a gaudy drive-in exploitation horror flick set at Lincoln Center -- but I swear Portman wore the same expression (like she was afraid someone was going to hit her and she was going cry any minute) through the whole picture. Scene after scene after scene. I could see how it paid off (when she finally did get her Black Swan on it was such a relief!), but the whole time I wanted to say: "Can you just bring that down a notch, say about a hundred percent?" It reminded me of something coach Betty Buckley says about Sissy Spacek's Carrie in Brian De Palma's movie (to which Black Swan owes as much as it does to any of the other influences it wears on its leotard) -- something about how she feels sorry for her but sometimes she just wants to smack her. And Spacek allows Carrie all sorts of emotions -- not just a single face. She was nominated for a best actress Oscar, too.)
Anyway, with Black Swan ranking in NY Mag/The Vulture's critics' poll for the ten worst movies of 2010, Dennis Lim wondering if it's intended to be camp or just a "tawdry thriller" and A.O. Scott calling it the most misunderstood movie of the year, I'd love to hear what you have to say. Me, I'm leaning toward all of the above -- except I think the most misunderstood movie of the year is The Killer Inside Me. Or Inception.
If I may follow in Jason's and Dennis's footsteps (beautiful stuff guys, and Jason's description of the climactic shoot-out in "True Grit" as taking place in an amphitheater, or movie theater, is marvelous), I'd like to wrap up by citing what may be my single favorite movie-moment of the year, from Sweetgrass -- a nonfiction film "recorded by" (as it says in the credits) Lucien Castaing-Taylor and produced by Ilisa Barbash. A cowboy stands on a Montana mountaintop in the brilliant sunlight and calls his mom on a mobile phone: "Aw, it's miserable up here…" he says, his voice breaking. His knee is popping, his dog is all run out, his horse "is ribs and bones," the sheep are "just ornery," it never quits blowin' and his phone battery's almost dead… This guy obviously has the Harry Carey Jr. role.
At the beginning of the call, the movie cuts away from the cowboy and makes a slow, nearly 180-degree pan across the surrounding mountains. On the one hand, it seems to be an act of discretion to look away from him (even if the call is being recorded for the soundtrack). On the other, the craggy, majestic beauty of the mountains -- and the white cumulus clouds floating above them -- seem to undercut his tales of woe and I was tempted to laugh. (I did laugh.) Then, as the camera completes its pan, he says he's got to do something else with his life before he gets too old: "I'd rather enjoy these mountains than hate 'em." And I got a lump in my throat. Suddenly I empathized with his misery, which is only exacerbated by all the visual beauty that surrounds him. What a marvelous, unexpected breakthrough -- in a movie that's full of 'em. He steps out of the tangle of branches he calls his "phone booth" and talks gently to his exhausted Aussie Shepherd Tommy, ruffling his fur: "You need a drink of water, too?" I lost it. Cut to some other dogs -- big, white animals (Great Pyranees?) in the twilight -- feeding on the carcass of a sheep. Sweetgrass is the distillation of every cattle-drive Western you've ever seen, and it's tremendously moving, but it's not sentimental.
OK, that's more than enough. I'm gonna climb down now. Thanks for the use of the tree hall!
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* There's a bigger, more obvious teeth moment after Paul's faux pas with Laser regarding team sports -- and I think that makes this smaller, quicker one even funnier.
THE SLIFR TREE HOUSE #1: INTRODUCTIONS
THE SLIFR MOVIE TREE HOUSE #2: IS THERE ANYTHING GOOD PLAYING THIS WEEKEND?
THE SLIFR TREE HOUSE #3: A BLUE VALENTINE TO THE PERSONAL
THE SLIFR MOVIE TREE HOUSE #4: THE BELLAMY AWARDS AND DIFFERENT WAYS OF LOOKING AT MOVIES
THE SLIFR MOVIE TREE HOUSE #5: SO MUCH TO SEE, SO LITTLE TIME
THE SLIFR MOVIE TREE HOUSE #6: HUMAN SEXUALITY AND ANNETTE'S EYEWEAR
THE SLIFR MOVIE TREE HOUSE #7: MOMENTS TO REMEMBER
THE SLIFR MOVIE TREE HOUSE #8: ACTOR-NERD SOUNDS OFF (ELOQUENTLY!)
THE SLIFR MOVIE TREE HOUSE #9: WON'T YOU PLEASE GIVE IT UP FOR EMMA STONE AND THE ACTRESSES OF 2010!