Friday, January 14, 2011


Fellow Tree House Dwellers:

I sense the end of our time together coming fast, and if it were in my power I’d grant us all another three or four days in each others’ company and the free time during those days to sit down and knock out three or four more of these posts. They have been that enjoyable, to write certainly, but more so to read. Can I offer you all a standing invitation to reconvene here in the Tree House again next year? It would be my most humble honor to host this little party again and make it an annual event. For now, let me get a move on and tend to a little business before we all have to start sweeping the floor and tidying the joint up.

I have to agree with Sheila that the ultimate effect of The Kids Are All Right was somewhat less for me than, say, for Jim or any of the movie’s most eloquent appreciators. I liked it just fine, and the more I think about what has been discussed here in terms of the skill of the acting, the closer I come to agreeing that the five principal actors in the movie might just represent the year’s best ensemble. (They would have to contend, however, with the brilliant folks populating Another Year and Mother and Child.) My single favorite moment in TKAAR (Tkaar! Sounds like something The Beastmaster would shriek before going into battle!) has to be when Julianne Moore, who has been hired by Mark Ruffalo to landscape his house, stands outside in conversation with him and acknowledges that she can see the faces of her children in his. He rocks on his heels slightly and offers back a good-natured balk in response, which she imitates as the perfect illustration of her point. And Jason, I totally missed the name of Ruffalo’s restaurant, the cleverness and impact of which, as you said, would have been blunted had Cholodenko made more of a point of it. It is on me to pay closer attention, it seems.

Still, the movie seems less lived in to me than sitcom pat in both its setup and, acknowledging the real pain that can be felt between the two leads, its resolution. The kids and the adults will be all right, there’s little doubt, but I would have appreciated a little more jaggedness around the edges, especially in a scenario in which complicated sexual responses and sexual politics play such a central role. Everything in the screenplay is just a little too “on the nose,” as the expression goes. And is it just me, but did anyone think that Ruffalo’s character was treated a mite harshly, given the fact that it was not he who initiated the contact with heretofore unknown children which stirs in him familial yearnings he never knew he had? I’m willing to cop to gender prejudice as concerns this element of the movie if guilty, but it doesn’t feel as simple as that to me.

If we’re talking perceptive indie comedy directed and written by a woman and starring two dynamic and magnetic actresses in service to complex and unusually conceived roles, I’ll put The Kids Are All Right aside in favor of Please Give, Catherine Keener and Rebecca Hall any day. Nicole Holofcener’s movie is set, like Kids, in a relatively privileged world—Keener is a vintage furniture dealer whose business is built on scavenging the estates of the newly deceased and who patiently waits, with husband Oliver Platt, for her elderly neighbor to kick the bucket so they can expand their apartment into hers. Hall plays a gangly radiologist’s assistant, the granddaughter of the elderly neighbor, who strikes up an unlikely camaraderie with Keener’s insecure teenage daughter. Desperate for a connection to a daughter who finds her slightly ridiculous, Keener plies compliant or at least subdued behavior from the girl by praising her personality but inadvertently shoring up her insecurities as well, and casually buys her a $300 pair of jeans as a means of appeasement, probably neither wise parenting or much of an option for most of us in the audience.

But the movie, which is about the gulf between this woman’s intentions and the way they play out when other people mess up the mix, makes room for challenging the motivations of its characters, many of which would seem borne of the best intentions but often curdle when applied to real life. It offers up behavioral patterns in parenting and general social relations that are often uncomfortable and even enraging, but in context completely believable, and with a stunning lack of judgment. The film refuses to snap into relief and instruct you what to think when the last shot gives way to the end credits. Nicole Holofcener means to send you out of the theater ready to call her characters on the carpet, especially when it seems they’ve finally figured things out.

Jason, to extend the conversation re the “filmmaker’s intent” just a few sentences further, I’ll offer up a couple of anecdotes from my own experience this year that I think illustrate both sides on the canyon, as you put it, at least to my mind. In my first Armond White moment of this Tree House gathering, I had occasion to write a positive review of one of the year’s most universally dismissed movies, Jonah Hex, which I saw when it came out on DVD, several months removed from its disastrous reception and all the attendant conventional wisdom about it. The specifics of what I said aren’t important to the discussion here (though you can certainly click and read them if you so choose). I wrote about the movie I saw on the screen, and I think I did a fairly good job of illustrating my thoughts with evidence readily verifiable in the movie itself.

But in the days following the publication of that post I got an e-mail from a filmmaker who, in response to what I had written, asked me if I was aware that the movie was essentially the product of two different film crews and two different shoots, one involving the original filmmakers and another involving studio-hired personnel enlisted to try to salvage an ostensibly sinking ship. At first I felt like a slightly embarrassed dupe for having put myself behind a picture of such obviously conflicted origins. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that, as long as I was reviewing what’s in front of me I was on more or less solid ground. It seemed a bizarre notion to me that I should allow whatever foreknowledge I might have of a film’s production history (and I had none regarding Jonah Hex) to color my response to what’s on screen. As it was, I acknowledged in my review a certain wobbliness of tone in the picture which certainly could be attributed to such backstage shenanigans. But here I was ultimately comfortable in not having tried to read the filmmaker’s intent, or the Swiss cheese that was made of that intent in the final product, and as a result found myself open to the possibility of appreciating the movie far more than I would have ever expected, even if it was assembled by committee.

The other side of the coin, where I found myself in the position of one of those hypothetical “average” viewers we’ve been discussing here and there this week, happened late last year as well. I had an opportunity to see Film Socialisme at the AFI Film Fest this past November. I was there with a fellow film lover who is far more well-versed in Godard than am I, but we were both excited at the rare opportunity to see a late-period JLG film, especially this one, in a 1,000-seat auditorium with a packed house. (That just doesn't happen, like, ever.) The AFI host introduced the film and made a point of noting the size of the crowd and to not worry if it all got a little confusing-- the multilingual movie (French, Arabic, German, to name just a few languages heard in the film) wouldn't really be a Godard movie if it were fully digestible in one take, right?

He then talked about the movie's "Navajo English" subtitles which had been much buzzed about wherever the movie itself was buzzed about, beginning at last year's Cannes Film Festival. The subtitles, composed and approved by Godard, were apparently the filmmaker’s way of addressing the inadequacies of the spoken word (particularly English) to convey the meaning within the image and the way one image butts up against another and sometimes shares space with another. The "Navajo English" was apparently deliberately muddled and was often used in the film, according to our host, as a distraction or a way of subverting or otherwise confusing the viewer regarding the images and languages on the screen. In other words, Godard, rather than giving his film up to some faceless post-production house to be translated, well or badly, from the original languages, used the opportunity to add yet another layer of experience to the film he created.

So imagine our surprise, then, when the first five minutes or so unspooled (not an accurate description, as the movie was digitally presented, but you get my drift) sans subtitles of any kind, even over the German and Arabic languages that were being spoken. Wow, I thought, Godard really is fucking with us in this one, isn’t he, that rascal! Suddenly the lights came up, the host sheepishly walked out to the front of the auditorium and, to everyone’s astonishment, announced that the digital version made available to the AFI for this once-in-a-lifetime screening did not include Godard’s “Navajo English” subtitles!

Most of the audience went with it—I heard reports from some people whose French is good that it was still hard to follow, and impossible to do so when the languages shifted away from French to other tongues. My friend (who speaks French fluently) and I looked at each other with resignation and not just a little disgust, and we decided to leave. Sure, I could have stayed and pretended I was getting something out of it beyond the imagery, which, based on what I did see, must have been strangely beautiful. But I felt the subtitles in this case were absolutely part of the experience Godard intended, and as such I didn’t much cotton to sitting there and missing out on that experience. Life is just too short. (“I endured Film Socialisme sans subtitles and all I got was some crummy film crit street cred!”) Maybe that was the wrong decision, but I don’t regret it, and I am sure that when the opportunity comes to see Film Socialisme intact, on DVD, I will take advantage of it. But, really, I just couldn’t believe that such a blunder could slip by the QC at AFI, of all institutions. How’s that for relating to the “average” viewer and their inability or refusal to read images? (I copied and pasted this section on Film Socialisme from the comments thread where I posted it yesterday afternoon. My apologies for any déjà vu I may have induced in our unsuspecting readers.)

Okay, I’ve overstayed my welcome yet again, but as this is my last real shot before the Tree House gets shuttered up for the year I’d better get on with some of my own most memorable moments at the movies this year.

In the aforementioned Please Give, Kate (Catherine Keener) lives a life dotted with attempts to give back to the needy while tainted by guilt and a certain degree of emotional myopia regarding her own motivations. At one point in the film she attempts to volunteer at an athletic center for special needs kids. But she can’t see them as anything but poor victims of circumstance, not normal kids who simply want to be integrated into society without condescension. She gets one glimpse of a group of these kids struggling (but enjoying themselves) on a gymnasium basketball court and collapses, immobilized by guilt and misconstrued compassion, into a tearful retreat.

The moments leading up to a failed murder attempt become a heart-stopping visual symphony of panic and adrenaline-fueled disorientation. We literally have no idea which way is which, which end is up during this brilliant set piece from what has to be the most surprising movie of the year for me, Let Me In . Here is a remake that was derided as heresy when it was first announced and then acclaimed by some on sight (me included) as every bit the masterpiece as its predecessor, Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In. (Thanks to Matt Zoller Seitz for highlighting and annotating this scene for his video essay series “ Best Scenes of 2010.”)

All the light in the room dimming around Emma Recchi (Tilda Swinton) as she bathes in the quite literal glow of ecstasy brought on by her first taste of food prepared by the young man, her son’s best friend, who will become her lover, in I Am Love.

The compellingly feral vision of Olga Kurylenko’s Etain (see lead image above), a fierce tracker and warrior fueled by revenge, clothed in vaguely ritualistic fur, her penetrating eyes encircled by black smudges of makeup and streaks of war paint to contrast her ghostly pallor. She sits astride a horse which will carry this demonic, single-minded, strangely silent creature along on a violent pursuit of a league of bedeviled Roman soldiers in Neil Marshall’s tremendously entertaining Centurion. Marshal strips down and subverts our sympathies (we’re meant to relate to the bloody Roman conquerors who are the underdog protagonists) while invigorating the Ridley Scott Manual for Strenuously Aestheticized Period Action Drama with a bracing jolt of exploitation electricity and visual brio, a strategy which Kurylenko complements in the extreme.

From Toy Story 3, the final betrayal of our heroes by the spectacularly unredeemed Lots o’ Huggin’ Bear, leading up to the clasping of hands, lit by the orange glow of a fiery furnace, of a group of characters on their way to extermination, characters in whose fine company we, not unlike their beloved owner Andy, have spent the past 15 years. I knew they were going to survive, but it didn’t matter-- they thought they were goners. It’s a mark of just how masterful a piece of storytelling the movie is that such powerful emotion could override our own subliminal certitude that, nah, Woody and Buzz and company could never come to such a brutal end. And then we discover, after their narrow escape, that the truest tears were yet to come.

Lesley Manville’s sad, sorrowful, yet prideful Mary trying to keep on her best face, and failing miserably, when the son of her supportive (but not limitlessly patient) friends, a slightly younger man upon whom she has become fixated, arrives to dinner with a woman whom he announces as his fiancée: Another Year (Click the link for a brief clip.)

Also from Another Year, the merciless, mesmerizing close-ups of Imelda Staunton, beaten down and brutalized by a life of no specified detail, that open the film. Mike Leigh’s camera, unforgiving and perceptive under the guidance of longtime D.P. collaborator Dick Pope, provides a probing metaphor for the medical exam the woman is enduring, and for the psychological therapy which will be recommended to her. Perhaps Leigh intends this woman to be a signifier, a possible future for another bruised woman we will soon meet. Or perhaps he just loves the ashen contours of her sorrowful face. Staunton is seen in the film’s opening five minutes and never again, but her weary eyes and clenched jaw, hardly masking the crushing fatigue of her soul, are unforgettable.

Almost any random minute of Easy A qualifies as a memorable moment for me, because almost every minute features Emma Stone as Olive Penderghast, North Ojai High's heiress apparent to the spirit, if not the legacy or fate of Hester Prynne, and the entire movie is full to the brim with heart and effervescent, slightly acidic, but never mean-spirited comedy. But if I must be specific, I would nominate any of the scenes in which she interacts with her loving family (seen above settling in for The Bucket List). The group is composed of a buoyant, sharp-witted Stanley Tucci (Dad, a.k.a Dill), the slightly dazed but utterly sincere and charming Patricia Clarkson (Mom, a.k.a. Rosemary), Olive and her younger adopted brother Chip (Bryce Clyde Jenkins), who just happens to be African-American. (“Now, where do you come from, exactly?” Tucci inquires of the boy, a deadpan period at the end of one of the family’s kitchen-centric conversations.) This is one of those sitcom-derived units whose members never do anything but hang around the house and act, in this instance, as a ribald and hilariously unflappable sounding board for Olive’s increasingly complicated concerns. (They're all named after food too!) But they are also a believably loving and supportive band, the four of them, a lovely and refreshing rejoinder to the depiction of adults and family in the John Hughes universe (from which Easy A derives its primary template and context) as clueless and ineffectual at best, corrupt, cynical and deaf to the needs of young people at worst. In a very real way, Easy A is the best John Hughes movie ever made, better than any he ever made himself, and the calm, nimbly funny family at its core is a major reason why.

The dark green shadows of the Pennsylvania countryside, compressed by long lenses but never artificially smudged up or intended to represent the dingy landscape of the dead, never less than eerily beautiful yet still recognizably working-class, through which a monster threads its way at 77 miles per hour. Tony Scott finally finds the perfect subject for his motion-centric, hyper-caffeinated aesthetic—a runaway train—and makes his best movie, Unstoppable.

It all comes down to this: a piece of paper, a passed note amongst the rich and powerful, leads to a memoir scattered to the whims of the wind— a man walks past the camera, a car follows, then a ghastly off-screen thud and suddenly thousands of powerful words are reduced to ghostly confetti. The Roman Polanski of Rosemary’s Baby punctuates the unlikely and sinister pull of The Ghost Writer with a great nihilistic punch line that betrays not a thread of the brilliant thriller that has come before.

The Moment I Knew I Was Going to Love True Grit: Near the beginning of the film, Maddie (Hallie Steinfeld) persists in badgering the crotchety Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) while he sits in an outhouse. In a simple shot of the girl barking at a door that remains unopened for the duration of the scene, she insists that he’s had enough time to complete whatever endeavor he’s involved in, and Rooster shouts back at her, “There ain’t no clock on my business!” As befits the Coen Brothers’ humor, Rooster’s first “appearance” in the movie occurs completely off-screen from inside the shitter.

The floating lanterns that adorn the irresistibly romantic interlude at the center of Tangled, perhaps the year’s single most gasp-inducing 3-D moment.

Or not. What the hell is that strange, painted-green mound, and why is it trembling so? Ohhhhhh, shiiiiiiiiiiitttttt… Among many candidates, it’s gotta be the Poo Volcano from Jackass 3-D.

Or not. A man’s tallywhacker gets gobbled up by an especially cranky prehistoric pescado who then urps it back up so it can float straight into your lap. Two not-unattractive, surgically enhanced starlets rid themselves of their bikinis for a very special Sapphic symphony of underwater choreography. Lots of annoying spring break types being separated from their scalps and their digestive tracts. Screw Avatar. This is the 3-D movie of the year-- Piranha 3-D.

The Best 3-D Movie You Never Got a Chance to See in 2010: Joe Dante’s The Hole

The Year’s Best Sport: Ellen Wong in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

Shakicamicus in extremis ad absurdum: Cyrus

Most Gracious Subject of an Actor Playing Royalty Who is Every Bit His Master’s Thespic Equal: Geoffrey Rush in The King’s Speech

Most Emotionally Convincing Argument for Vigilantism: Harry Brown

Most Shattering Look: Rooney Mara, eyes brimming with tearful rage and disbelief, listening as Jesse Eisenberg’s bilious blog post concerning her in the aftermath of their breakup is read aloud near the beginning of The Social Network.

Loudest Silent Scream: Jennifer Lawrence, chainsaw in hand, in Winter’s Bone.

Kourtney Kardashian’s #1 Movie of the Year: Sex and the City 2 (It’s in People magazine, I swear! I couldn’t make this shit up!)

Worst Movie of the Year: Little Fockers (David Edelstein and Manohla Dargis stole my thunder!)

Finally, I could probably pretty easily write up a list of five male performances to put in all the year-end award slots, and I bet it’d quite closely resemble the list that everybody else is going to come up with. Jesse Eisenberg. Jeff Bridges. (But nobody saw that Johnny Depp Best Actor Globule nomination for The Tourist coming, though, did they?) However, around this time of the year you always hear about how there are never enough really worthy female performances to fill out a list of five potential nominees for the Oscar Meyers or the Golden Globules or whatever the hell award they’re handing out at the moment. Well, if there were ever a year to call the Academy Award prognosticators out on this predictable line of bullshit, it’s this one. How could any award show go wanting with this pool of potential Best Actresses to choose from:

Annette Bening (Mother and Child-- there’s my second Armond White moment!)

Annette Bening (The Kids Are All Right)

Catherine Keener (Please Give)

Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone)

Lesley Manville (Another Year)

Julianne Moore (The Kids Are All Right)

Chloe Moretz (Let Me In)

Hallie Steinfeld (True Grit)

Emma Stone (Easy A)

Tilda Swinton (I Am Love)

Kerry Washington (Mother and Child)

Michelle Williams (Blue Valentine)

And in the Supporting Actress category, the candidates are just as numerous and deserving:

Amy Adams (The Fighter)

Maria Bello (The Yellow Handkerchief)

Patricia Clarkson (Easy A)

Rebecca Hall (Please Give)

Mila Kunis (Black Swan)

Donna Murphy (Tangled)

Vanessa Redgrave (Letters to Juliet)

Olivia Williams (The Ghost Writer)

And my weirdo best supporting actress wild card, little Joei DeCarlo, who is charming as all get out, comporting herself like an elementary school cross between Wendie Jo Sperber and Ernest Borgnine in the genuinely crackers, hey-kids-let’s-all-try-out-for-a-show musical comedy Standing Ovation. DeCarlo stands out amongst a cast of heretofore unknown, starry-eyed tweeny-boppers in this oddball mix of Fame, American Idol and The Warriors-- just kidding, sort of—directed by no man’s idea of a stylist, Stewart (Mannequin II: On The Move) Raffill. I cannot rationally account for my enjoyment of this movie, but I’m pretty sure the streetwise (or at least crosswalk-wise) DeCarlo has a lot to do with it. Crown her now the princess of all she surveys!

Of those supporting actress hopefuls, Vanessa Redgrave and Patricia Clarkson seem like the clear standouts, though Mila Kunis’s lively contribution to that picture I like to think of as Blecch Swan (the inevitable Mad magazine parody title) shouldn’t be undervalued—like DeCarlo in Standing Ovation, she gave the grueling journey some unexpected comic juice and bad-girl appeal.

As for the lead actresses, Bening was truly transcendent in Mother and Child. Have any of you seen it? Does anyone agree with me that, as good as she is in TKAAR (Tkaar!), she’s better in MAC? (Mac!)
And I am especially and completely in awe of the magic conjured by Washington, Lawrence, Manville, Steinfeld, and most especially Michelle Williams in their respective movies this year, as well as being completely in love with all of them.

That said, only one actress this year made me believe that if she were to jump in H.G. Wells’ time machine, or Dr. Brown’s DeLorean, and travel back to the ’30s and Hollywood’s golden age of screwball comedy, she could be dropped, as is, straight into competition with the high-speed royalty of the genre for all the best and brightest roles, and I’ve little doubt she could hold her own. With Easy A Emma Stone proved she had the stuff real stars are made of. She’s no flavor-of-the-moment cutie pie; she’s a tart meringue who emerged from that unexpectedly rich teen comedy fully ready to take on all comers for now and the foreseeable future. Like her House Bunny costar Anna Faris, she’s built for the kinds of showcase vehicles that Hollywood forgot how to make 50 years ago. If someone decides to do a remake of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, there would be no need to go through all that messy auditioning and interviewing-- just give these women the ship and watch ‘em cruise. Just as Hollywood has always ignored great comedic performances in favor of all the heavy lifting that comes with drama, so too will it happen again this year. I’m not delusional; I have no expectation that this sassy, smart newborn star will get her due for this role. Make no mistake, I love Michelle Williams and her work in Blue Valentine without reservation and will be plenty happy if she manages to swoop in and steal the Golden Boy from that skinny kid with the feathers sprouting out of her back. But if I’m honest, this year my heart belongs to Emma.

Looking forward to your final summations, good people!













Peter Nellhaus said...

Other movies got credited in Easy A. Ya think it would have killed them to give a nod to Lillian Gish and Victor Sjostrom?

You want great performances by actresses, Dennis? Make a point of seeing Poetry and When We Leave when they get their respective theatrical runs.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

I agree, Peter. They should have credited Gish and Sjostrom, and I'm dismayed that they didn't (and that I didn't notice that they didn't). That said, at least they used the 1926 version (is it in the public domain?) and made a point of skewering, rather mercilessly, the Roland Joffe/Demi Moore bastardization.

I have heard great things about both of the films you mention, especially Poetry, and believe me they are on my radar. Now I just hope I don't get cramps crossing my fingers in waiting for them to actually show up in a theater near me.

Ed Howard said...

This has been a great endeavor, Dennis and everyone else. It's been lots of fun reading along, great job!

That Film Socialisme anecdote is heartbreaking; I can't imagine the stupidity involved in a screwup like that when the film has been so hard to see and there's this one chance to put it in front of a big audience. Of course, I would've stuck around anyway. It's not like the "Navajo" subtitles make it much easier to understand or follow, and even with full English subtitles it's often pretty elusive. But it's still a shame. Late Godard already doesn't get enough respect or attention, and it just gets worse if distributors carelessly erect even more barriers between audiences and his work.

Kevin Deany said...

Was that the 1926 version? I thought it was the 1934 version with Colleen Moore, which is in the public domain. But I could be wrong.

I loved "Easy A" too, one of the most pleasant surprises of last year. I've liked Emma Stone ever since I first saw in "Superbad" and its nice to see that promise being fulfilled.

Dennis, I've really enjoyed these Tree House postings. Thanks to you and everyone else for participating.

Marc Edward Heuck said...

I wrote at length earlier this summer about my very deep problems with the ending of THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT,which ultimately ruined my ability to enjoy the film or recommend it to others.

I am also in agreement that both MOTHER AND CHILD and PLEASE GIVE are head and shoulders much better family dramas thank KIDS. Bening in the former gets to explore many more complex emotions and reactions than her comparably one-note scold in KIDS. And GIVE presents an extramarital affair that, while seemingly ending without punishment or incident, does still haunt the characters and affect their behavior for the future.

One minor quibble on your assessment of PLEASE GIVE: the meaning of the jeans. It's a moment that made the movie for me, and I think you misrepresent it.
In an earlier shopping trip, Keener's daughter asks for the jeans, as they are the most comfortable and flattering to her complex figure, and her mother refuses, citing that they are too expensive, perhaps hoping that the cheaper pair she tries to foist on her will be the impetus to lose weight to fit into them, and in general trying to cite her belief that her money is better spent helping others who can't buy jeans in the first place.
By the end of the movie, each of them has learned more about the nature of money and charity. At the funeral for the cranky neighbor, her history of charitable works are cited to ballast a public image of a selfless woman, but Keener has initimate knowledge that she's a sour dissastified woman and her granddaughters have been wounded as a result..not to mention that all those strangers the woman supposedly helped are nowhere to be found at her service. Thus she realizes that good works for others done at the expense of her own family's happiness lose lustre over time. Meanwhile, Keener's daughter becomes cognizant of money and it's worth and how it can affect people for good or ill, she is no longer just a child who wants everything. So when they return to the shop, the child politely resists buying the $200 jeans, ready to make that sacrifice to help her mother, but the mother in turn knows that the jeans will make her daughter happy, and she can afford to buy them, so she splurges. It's a moment where they understand each other better, and you sense they will continue to improve.

Holofcener's moral, like the old saw goes, is charity begins at home. It is not an appeasement, since the child now knows thrift and is not expressing feelings of entitlement, and whether or not the gesture is an option for average parents as yourself is not at issue, as I certainly did not leave the theatre thinking that all parents should now buy any expensive article of clothing their child desires. It is the larger issue of how you express the significance of your family to them, that if you have the means to do so - through money or free time or kindness or patience - that should be given as much priority as you would if you were to provide similar gestures to a stranger.