Archive | November, 2011

It’s Happening: The New York Film Critics Circle Announces Its Picks for the Best of 2011

29 Nov

The movie awards season is now officially in full-swing thanks to the New York Film Critics Circle. The group voted and announced its selections for the best of 2011 this morning (Tuesday, November 29, 2011).

Here we go:

  • Best Picture – The Artist
  • Best Actress – Meryl Streep (The Iron Lady)
  • Best Actor – Brad Pitt (Moneyball and The Tree of Life)
  • Best Director – Michel Hazanavicius (The Artist)
  • Best Supporting Actress – Jessica Chastain (The Help, Take Shelter, and The Tree of Life)
  • Best Supporting Actor – Albert Brooks (Drive)
  • Best Screenplay – Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin for (Moneyball)
  • Best Cinematography – Emmanuel Lubezki (The Tree of Life)
  • Best First Feature – Margin Call (written and directed by J.C. Chandor)
  • Best Documentary – Cave of Forgotten Dreams (directed by Werner Herzog)
  • Best Foreign Film – A Separation (from Iran; written and directed by Asgar Farhadi)

Coming Soon: The Artist, starring Cannes Best Actor winner Jean Dujardin.

Any surprises? Well, given that The Artist won Best Picture and Best Director, I was a wee bit surprised that the NYFCC did not go all the way and award Best Actor to the film’s star, French actor Jean Dujardin. He won the Best Actor prize at the most recent Cannes film festival and is easily on-target for an Oscar nod. For those who aren’t in-the-know, The Artist is a black and white film about a fading Hollywood star during the advent of talkies.  Even though the director and its star are French, the movie was filmed on location in Hollywood. The movie is all but silent though there is some dialogue in English. The Artist has not yet opened in Dallas. My guess is that we’ll see it a little closer to the holidays. I can’t wait!  Barring Dujardin, I’d expected the Best Actor award to go to George Clooney in The Descendants. I’m not necessarily attached to either Clooney or the film, per se, but he certainly has momentum on his side. Maybe not.  I have yet to catch up with Brad Pitt’s Moneyball, but I will soon enough. Furthermore, my guess right now is that The Descendants and Steven Spielberg’s War Horse will be the leading Best Picture contenders once the nominations are announced.

I was surprised to see Meryl Streep as the Best Actress honoree mainly because advanced word on the biopic about former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher has not been so great though Streep herself is earning raves. Mainly, the movie is being taken to task for backing away from its leading character’s politics.   My gut instinct at this point tells me that Glenn Close (Albert Nobbs) and Viola Davis (The Help) are the women to beat for the Best Actress Oscar. Close’s film, years in development, tells the story of a 19th century Irish woman who successfully passes as a man for decades. It’s the kind of gimmicky role that tends to generate serious Oscar consideration–and Close does triple duty as actor, co-writer, and co-producer. Always a selling point with the Academy.

New York Film Critics Circle winners for Best Supporting Actress and Best Actor: Jessica Chastain (left) and Brad Pitt (right) in The Tree of Life. Both performers were recognized for multiple performances.

There’s no doubt that her performances in such disparate films as The Help and The Tree of Life, not to mention The Debt, helped establish Chastain as one of the most versatile, and most in-demand, actresses of the year, so good for her! She’s a likely Oscar contender, but for which film? She might very well end up splitting votes with herself. Yikes! I don’t think anybody will complain if Chastain wins an Oscar; however, even though it’s still early, I’m thinking that Octavia Spencer, also of The Help, has an excellent chance because her role is such a crowd-pleaser.  The truth is that Chastain and Spencer make a great comic pair in The Help.

I’ll give Albert Brooks credit for successfully playing against type in Drive–but what about Christopher Plummer in Beginners? Like Brooks, Plummer just scored an Independent Spirit nod for his portrayal of a senior citizen who comes out of the closet after his wife dies. The movie is really about how his grown son, played by Ewan McGregor, comes to question his own relationship choices after being raised in such a dysfunctional family. At any rate, Plummer is great, and he’s been getting Oscar buzz ever since his movie premiered during the summer. Speaking of the Independent Spirit awards, allow me to rhapsodize over my favorite supporting actor performance of the year:  Corey Stoll as Ernest Hemingway in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. I hope that Stoll’s indie nomination is enough to elevate his profile–and that he is able to maintain that profile during the onslaught of year-end award contenders and score an Oscar nod. Furthermore, the cast of Margin Call could be good for a few Best Supporting Actor nominations, starting with Kevin Spacey and Jeremy Irons, both of whom already have Oscars. Spacey for Best Supporting Actor (The Usual Suspects, 1995), and Best Actor (American Beauty, 1999); Irons as Best Actor for 1990’s Reversal of Fortune.

New York Film Critics Circle winner for Best Cinematography: Emmanuel Lubezki (The Tree of Life).

Finally, what a joyous thing for Emmanuel Lubezki to win Best Cinematography for Tree of Life. Lubezki is a four time Oscar nominee, and appeared to be the front-runner for 2006’s Children of Men. He lost to Guillermo Navarro for Pan’s Labyrinth. His other Oscar nominations are for The New World (2005), Sleepy Hollow (1999), and A Little Princess (1995).  In the case of the latter, I would have nominated him for the same year’s A Walk in the Clouds instead. Tree of Life is, if nothing else, majestically beautiful, but I’m not predicting an Oscar for Lubezki just yet.

Well, that about does it. I’ll be back later in the week with the National Board of Review winners and a full-length post about another personal favorite. In the meantime, I’m officially announcing that I will not be watching the Golden Globes on TV in January. After scathing reviews for host Ricky Gervais, the Hollywood Foreign Press has decided that all is forgiven, so Gervais has been asked to host for the third time. Well, that’s really more than I can bear. That’s my limit, but I can still write about the winners the following morning.

At any rate, thanks for your consideration…

New York Film Critics Circle official website:

http://www.nyfcc.com/

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Justice or Revenge?

22 Nov

Two films with major Oscar potential are hitting, are about to hit, or have just hit, theaters near you. The first is J. Edgar, a biopic about the late–and wildly controversial–FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover, starring Leonard DiCaprio and directed by the tireless, multiple Academy Award winner Clint Eastwood [1] ; the second is The Descendants with the always watchable George Clooney as a man who finds out that his comatose wife was cheating on him during the time leading up to her unfortunate turn. (No spoiler: this is all given away within seconds in the coming attractions trailer.) The Descendants is directed by Alexander Payne, and it’s his first feature film since the highly acclaimed Best Picture nominee Sideways in 2004. If neither of these suits your fancy, relax: it’s only November, which means there will be a stream of films positioned for Oscar consideration released between now and in the year, several of which will no doubt not reach the Dallas area until January or February 2012. Good times.

Prior to J.Edgar and The Descendants, there had only been a handful of movies that have attracted legitimate Oscar buzz. Unsurprisingly, the pickings were pretty slim among pre-Labor Day releases with the three most likely being Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life, Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, and the smash adaptation of Kathryn Stockett’s runaway best seller, The Help. These days, I wonder how this batch will stack up amid the year-end onslaught of highly publicized prestige pics. Malick’s film, which blew me away, overflows with its director’s vision and ambition, but it polarized the critics and earned back less than half of its production costs (at least domestically, that is). On the other hand, The Help has had a marvelous run since premiering in August: it opened in the number two spot at the weekend boxoffice, and earned back its production costs in the process. By the second week, it jumped to number one and stayed there for three more weeks. It held on to top 10 status for at least 11 weeks, and, as of this writing, is still playing in first run theaters this many months later. That The Help is still attracting moviegoers is a huge plus, but it must also hold up well in the minds of Academy voters.  Almost as astonishing in its own way as The Help‘s healthy showing is Allen’s critically hailed Midnight in Paris, which is still showing in select venues 25 weeks since it was first released, earning a none too shabby 55 million on a 17 million dollar investment. The downside is that Academy members typically recognize Allen for writing and directing though they are not as generous when it comes to Best Picture accolades. His last movie to be up for Best Picture was 1986’s Hannah and Her Sisters.  There’s also hope in some quarters that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, the final installment in the much beloved series, will be recognized by the Academy. Of course, under the Academy’s new rules, there’s almost no way to predict anything with any certainty in the Best Picture race because there could be anywhere from 5 to 10 Best Picture nominees instead of a fixed number of slots.

Illustration accompanying an Atlantic Monthly article about The Conspirator by Alex Hoyt.

There is one other movie that came out much earlier in the year that also deserves serious Oscar consideration, including nominations for Best Picture, Best Actress, and Best Actor.  That movie is The Conspirator, Oscar winning director Robert Redford’s [2]  fact based account of a little known chapter in American history: the trial of  Mary Surratt, the first woman to be executed by the United States federal government. Convicted as a co-conspirator in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, Surratt was publically hanged on July 7th, 1865. Okay, I’m not a history scholar, but I took all the required history and government classes in high school and college, and I had never even heard of Surratt until the release of this movie. Like most Americans, I was taught that an actor by the name of John Wilkes Booth shot President Lincoln during a production of Our American Cousin at the Ford Theatre in April, 1865.  Booth fled the scene and was eventually killed while hiding out in a barn in Virginia [3] , but I digress, so back  to Surratt’s fascinating story. Here are the bare facts: Mary Surratt was a widow who ran a boarding house in Washington D.C. Her son John was reportedly a Confederate courier–a spy, if you will–as well as Booth’s “right hand man,” and had even participated in a failed kidnapping plot prior to the president’s murder. Though never a paid guest in Surratt’s home, Booth was a “frequent” visitor. Furthermore, John Surratt suspiciously disappeared right before the assassination, thereby  incurring questions about his involvement in the crime. The theory is that the assassination of Lincoln, along with plans to kill Secretary of State William Seward and Vice President Andrew Johnson, was conceived within the confines of the Surratt home, and that Mary was complicit in its culmination. Per President Johnson: “She kept the nest that hatched the egg.”  The Conspirator posits that even if Mary Surratt had knowledge of the assassination, she should have been tried in a civilian court rather than at a military tribunal. Furthermore,  the evidence of her direct involvement was flawed, and, consequently, her execution was a huge miscarriage of justice.

I saw The Conspirator during its opening weekend back in April, and I was still thinking about it in August, so I sprang for the two disc collectible DVD.  Now, let me be perfectly clear about something. When I went to see the movie, I had only the vaguest idea about it. I had seen a number of excitingly edited TV spots, so I knew for certain that it was a Robert Redford film, and that it was about the Lincoln assassination. That was enough to intrigue me. As I watched it in the theater, I was caught up in the story, the sheer drama of it, as well as the realization that it was filmed in Savannah, Georgia–a city near and dear to my heart.  Months later, I found myself looking back in awe at the performance of Robin Wright as Mary Surratt. Oh sure, it’s one thing for an actor to craft a performance that grabs viewers viscerally and holds them in the moment, but it’s quite another thing to present a portrayal that sneaks up on a viewer’s consciousness and lingers there long after the closing credits roll. That’s the kind of greatness Wright achieves in The Conspirator.

The real Mary Surratt: there are no photographs of her wearing her veil in court since cameras were not permitted in the courtroom at the time; however, there are sketches of her with the veil all over the Internet.

According to the historians included on the DVD featurettes, Mary Surratt was something of an alienating presence in the courtroom. Naturally, anyone associated with committing what was surely the crime of the century was automatically vilified in the public’s mind, but something else fueled disdain. Oh sure, she was a woman on trial with a pack of men, but she also shrouded herself in a black veil as though masking her identity in order to escape scrutiny. This inscrutable quality is the key to Wright’s terrific performance. Surratt is a plain spoken woman, and Wright’s authoritative delivery reveals her as someone who measures her words carefully though she doesn’t back down from what she believes. Listen to the edge in her voice when she asserts to her skeptical, inexperienced attorney,  “I am a Southerner, I’m a Catholic, and a devoted mother above all else, but I am no assassin.” Additionally, her tone is unsparingly matter-of-fact when she explains how/why she ended up with criminals in her home. Mercifully, Wright doesn’t go overboard with the Southern accent. On the other hand, aside from ongoing concern for her son’s safety,  Surratt is not prone to huge emotional outbursts or pleas for sympathy, which does not bode well for Wright’s chances at this year’s awards derby.  Generally speaking, the Academy likes performances that encourage an obvious  display of talent, which is not necessarily the same thing as flat-out hamminess.  Even so, there are real flashes of genius in Wright’s portrayal of a woman who remains stubbornly unknowable: the steely gaze, the way she holds herself, including a telling tilt of the head, and, as noted, the impeccable, inspired choices in the way she speaks her dialogue, which probably doesn’t look lip smacking good on the page. I’m amazed that she is able to mine the straightforward language for such meaning.

No Wright doesn’t look exactly like Mary Surratt though she has been costumed effectively, but look closely because she seems to be holding her face almost identically to Surratt’s in the above photo.

The plain faced Surratt with her severe hairstyle and funeral wardrobe is far, far removed from The Princess Bride‘s luscious  Buttercup that Wright played back in 1987. The actress, a Dallas native raised in California, had already spent a few years on the Emmy winning daytime drama Santa Barbara (I freely admit to being a fan), ultimately earning three Emmy nominations herself, before she was cast as the heroine of Rob Reiner’s  storybook romp about true love (from the novel by William Goldman). Since then, Wright has balanced a passion for work in independent films with the occasional big studio production. Her resume includes three Independent Spirit nominations, the most recent being for Sorry, Haters.  Heard of it? No? What about Nine Lives, from Rodrigo Garcia, the acclaimed director of Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her? See what I mean? On the other hand, Wright has also earned Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild nominations for her work as Forrest Gump‘s beloved Jenny.

Wright in The Princess Bride: “Why do you build me up (Build me up) Buttercup baby)”

Her accolades also extend to SAG noms for She’s So Lovely (1997) and the TV mini-series Empire Falls (from Richard Russo’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel).  She even co-starred in Breaking and Entering, the final film of the late Oscar winning director Anthony Minghella (The English Patient).  I also have a soft spot for her performance in 1992’s The Playboys, in which she plays an unwed Irish mother, circa 1950,  who refuses to answer villagers’ questions about the identity of her baby’s father.  At the time, Wright had done little to suggest she was capable of such a complex portrayal, but she knocked my socks off though the performance was mostly forgotten by awards time.  Her Mary Surratt is in its own reserved, unglamorous way one of her most daring portrayals,  a towering achievement, and definitely worth a second look.  I honestly don’t know what this actress has to do to get the Academy’s attention, but playing a woman who allegedly conspired to kill a president surely warrants a second or third look. On the other hand, because Wright is all over the place this year, what with roles in such high profile releases as Moneyball and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,  the Academy might be impressed enough by her versatility to recognize her at last.

Left to Right: James McAvoy as Frederick A. Aiken, Tom Wilkinson as Senator Reverdy Johnson, and Kevin Kline as Edwin Stanton, Secretary of War. The movie also features fine performances by Danny Huston, Colm Meaney, Stephen Root, and Evan Rachel Wood.

In The Conspirator, Wright shares the screen with the astonishing James McAvoy as Surratt’s attorney, Frederick A. Aiken. Actually, the filmmakers have taken a little license with this part of the story in that Surratt actually had two attorneys: Aiken and John W. Clampitt; however, the decision to focus on Aiken is not entirely arbitrary. What is not in doubt is that Surratt’s lead council was actually a Maryland Senator named Reverdy Johnson though, as the movie portrays, Johnson thought better of being directly linked to Surratt since they were both Southerners. In theory, the choice of Aiken is brilliant strategy, and this also explains why McAvoy is perfectly cast. One of McAvoy’s greatest strengths as an actor is that he has the seemingly magical ability to allow whatever emotion he’s feeling to flood his face. His righteous indignation is right there at the surface, and that is necessary in order to understand this character because at the beginning of the film, Aiken wants no part of Surratt. He believes defending her to be a betrayal of his service to the union army–as well as all those soldiers who died defending the union.  Aiken accepts the case mainly because he isn’t in a position to say no to Johnson. Over the course of the story,  he comes to realize two things: that “reasonable doubt” exists regarding Surratt’s culpability, and that the trial is a full-tilt sham more designed to mete-out revenge rather than justice.  In spite of his earlier skepticism,  Aiken eventually  views the trial as an affront to the very things he risked his life trying to uphold. This makes for an interesting dynamic. Wright’s Surratt resigns herself to the idea of a trial that is doomed before it even begins while Aiken becomes a man on a mission. Here again, McAvoy’s ability to summon all of a character’s passions and frustrations to the forefront of his being gives the movie a real thrust, especially given the inevitable outcome. Keep in mind that Aiken’s closing remarks during his defense of Mary Surratt were once heralded as one of the greatest orations of all time.  Sure, you can go online and read the entirety of the summation, but film is a visual medium, so there simply is no way to put that across onscreen, word for word.  Some shorthand is needed, and McAvoy’s  artless abandon is a way to get at Aiken’s essence. Oh yeah, the Scottish actor does a more than credible American accent. Always a plus.

C.S.Lewis: “The Lion all began with a picture of a Faun carrying an umbrella and parcels in a snowy wood. This picture had been in my mind since I was about sixteen. Then one day, when I was about forty, I said to myself: ‘Let’s try to make a story about it’.”

Most Amercian moviegoers probably have no recollection of James McAvoy prior to his performance as Mr. Tumnus–the Faun–in the 2005 blockbuster adaptation of C.S. Lewis’s classic The Narnia Chronicles: The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. Of course, he was hardly recognizable as the handsome man he is, what with all that Oscar winning character makeup by Howard Berger and Tami Lane.  I loved, loved, loved, The Lion, The Witch, etc., but not necessarily because of McAvoy. He’s also known in this country for a couple of big budget action flicks: Wanted (with Angelina Jolie–and, no, I did not see it), and the recent X-Men: First Class. Also not my cup. Actually, my first taste of McAvoy’s true greatness as an actor came with 2006’s The Last King of Scotland opposite Forest Whitaker, who went on to Oscar winning glory for his portrayal of the late Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. Not to disrespect Whitaker, but this viewer thought that his colorful performance aside, The Last King of Scotland was really McAvoy’s movie.  The film was not so much an Amin biopic as it was a story about a young Scottish doctor who visits Uganda and ends up being commissioned as Amin’s phyician. Though McAvoy’s character is fictional, the movie is based on fact–and, more importantly, it is really the doctor’s story. The whole thing is seen through his eyes, and my guess is that McAvoy actually has more screen time than Whitaker; moreover, as in The Conspirator, McAvoy’s character experiences more emotional changes (than either Amin or Surratt). Of course, studio politics being what they are, Fox Searchlight, The Last King of Scotland‘s U.S. distributor, was never going to minimize Whitaker’s chances of an Oscar by pitting him against McAvoy for Best Actor, nor was there ever a chance that Whitaker, a respected character actor with a much higher profile  than McAvoy, would ever be promoted as a supporting player.  I am definitely familiar with the politics of Oscar campaigning, but that does not mean that I agree or endorse them.

James McAvoy in Atonement: he won the London Critics Circle Film Award for his portrayal of the long suffering Robbie Turner and was nominated for a host of others, including the British Academy of Film and Television Award, the European Film Award, and the Evening Standard British Film Award.

A year later, McAvoy did commendable work in Becoming Jane, another fictionalized account of a true story: that of Jane Austen’s “romance” with Thomas Lefroy–and the rocky road to becoming a writer. Also in 2007, McAvoy was simply magnificent as one of the star crossed lovers in Atonement. Though  the British period film received 7 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, McAvoy’s searing performance was overlooked by the Academy. Too bad. As I write in my last entry, the 2007 Best Actor Oscar was practically predestined for Daniel Day Lewis’s larger than life performance in There Will Be Blood, but I wish there had been room for Ryan Gosling (Lars and the Real Girl) and James McAvoy on the shortlist–especially over the canned theatrics of Johnny Depp in Sweeney Todd. In 2009, McAvoy held his own against the likes of Christopher Plummer, Helen Mirren, and Paul Giamatti in The Last Station; Mirren and Plummer were Oscar nominated for their performances as Leo and Sophia Tolstaya, respectively, while McAvoy eked out a Satellite nod for Best Supporting Actor. Besides the not entirely prestigious Satellite contest, McAvoy has scarcely been recognized in the U.S. during awards time. He has a Golden Globe nomination for Atonement (not bad), and, oh yes, an MTV Movie Award nomination for Wanted (in the category of Best Kiss), and is currently on the ballot along with the entire X-Men cast for a People’s Choice Award. Well, at least the people recognize his talent; meanwhile, he is a frequent nominee for film awards all over the United Kingdom and Europe.

I do not know that any actor/actress/director, etc, is ever overdue for an Oscar, but I do think that less demonstrably talented individuals than Wright and McAvoy have certainly been acknowledged by the Academy, but I digress.

Aside from the performances of Wright and McAvoy, why do I like The Conspirator so much? I’ll be frank. I like it because I think it screws with people’s heads. Of course, playing with an audience’s perceptions and expectations is no guarantee of greatness; however, I think a movie that prompts viewers to reconsider their notions of patriotism, justice, and revenge, is certainly worth celebrating. Obviously, a parallel with the treatment of the prisoners at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, a point made abundantly clear as director Redford allows the cameras to linger over the hooded heads of the other conspirators in their cells. The images could easily fit in with some of the photos from Abu Ghraib. Beyond that, there’s something interesting at work.  Some skeptics have argued that  James B. Solomon’s script errs by not making a bigger issue of slavery and its role in the Civil War.  It is true that slavery is pretty well ignored, yet I also think that most moviegoers, especially those who would even be inclined to watch The Conspirator,  know full well that the issue of slavery certainly played a part in the war–to what degree is not universally understood–and do not need to be reminded. As someone who minored in Human Rights Education, I find slavery and capital punishment equally abhorrent, which is one reason why this movie fascinates me so. There is evidence that the Surratts were slaveholders, so what I see in this film is that a woman who is implicitly a violator of human rights is railroaded and punished in yet a further violation of human rights. Whoah! I mean, my head was constantly swimming given all The Conspirator‘s layers of implications–and I think the “take away” is that this post 9-11, recession driven nation’s red state-blue state, Tea Party/Occupy Wall Street,  mentality has so polarized this nation–fueled in part by a desperately blood thirsty news apparatus and the very Internet that makes a blog such as this possible–that we need to be more cognizant about the fine line between justice and revenge. We don’t want another Civil War, and as I write this on November 22, we don’t want another assassination.

The Conspirator is the first release from the American Film Company, the mission of which is to produce “engaging movies for grown-ups based on great American stories.” A bio of company founder  and CEO John Ricketts adds that the AFC was “conceived” in order “to celebrate the extraordinary characters and events from American history.” The idea is for each film to be scrupulously researched in order to be as accurate as possible. In this particular case,  The Conspirator benefits from such experts as Fred L.  Borch III (a retired colonel and a legal historian for the U.S. Armed forces), Thomas R. Turner (Bridgewater College professor and editor of the journal, Lincoln Herald), Dr. James McPherson (Princeton University professor and Pulitzer Prize winner for Battle Cry of Freedom), and Melissa Jacobson (Diablo Valley College history professor). Additionally,  Kate Clifford Larson, author of The Assassin’s Accomplice: Mary Surratt and the Plot to Kill Abraham Lincoln), is featured on the movie’s website as well as the DVD documentaries.  Again, I’m not a historian, so I cannot attest to the movie’s veracity, but the visual documentation on the DVD shows that a lot of care has been taken in recreating the particulars of the story, such as the building surrounded on three sides by water that housed Surratt and the other prisoners, the thrown together courtroom, the makeshift gallows. Technically, the movie looks great–thanks to cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel, production designer Kalina Ivanov (an Emmy winner for the TV adaptation of Grey Gardens), and costume designer Louise Frogley. Of course, filming in a beautiful historic city such as Savannah helps.

Finally, I was struck by one thing I learned from the DVD featurettes, which is that the objections raised by Aiken during Surratt’s trial were “constantly” overruled.  The movie also gets this much right–staggeringly so, I would say–to the point that I wonder if Lincoln was the only victim of a conspiracy back in 1865.  I guess that’s the point: revenge is no substitute for justice.

Thanks for your consideration…

[1] Eastwood is a two-time winner for Best Director: 1992’s Unforgiven, and 2004’s Million Dollar Baby, both of which also won Best Picture, thereby ensuring two more golden statuettes for Eastwood as co-producer. He also directed and co-produced Mystic River (2003) and Letters from Iwo Jima (2006), which netted him additional nominations.

[2] Redford won an Oscar for directing 1980’s Best Picture winner Ordinary People; he also scored nods for directing and co-producing 1994’s Best Picture contender, Quiz Show.

[3] An alternative theory is that Booth escaped to Texas, working as a bartender by the name of John St. Helen in Granbury: http://www.granbury.org/index.aspx?NID=705

Atlantic Monthly article by Alex Hoyt:

http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2011/04/the-conspirator-heavy-on-history-light-on-heart/237388

Link to the American Film Company website with lots of notes and links to other websites, including the Surratt House Museum, with loads of historical info:

http://www.theamericanfilmcompany.com/

Even though there is plenty of material about The Conspirator on the AFC website, there is another site devoted exclusively to the movie, which includes a blog by Robert Redford:

http://www.conspiratorthemovie.com/

C.S. Lewis quote from On Stories: And Other Essays on Literature (p. 53):

http://tinyurl.com/89g43m2

Frederick Aiken bio with reference to the World’s Best Orations:

http://thisweekinthecivilwar.com/2011/04/26/colonel-frederick-a-aiken-biography/

Frederick Aiken’s defense of Mary Surratt:

http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/lincolnconspiracy/defenseofsurratt.html

Link to award winning short film about Surratt, The Killing of Mary Surratt:

http://www.watermarkfilms.net/surratt_.html

Double Feature

9 Nov

Indian summer is like a woman.

– The opening line of Peyton Place by Grace Metalious (1956)

Ryan Gosling (l) stars opposite George Clooney (r) in the political thriller The Ides of March.

Two of the hottest and hardest working young actors in all of showbiz right now have to be Zooey Deschanel and Ryan Gosling. Singer-actress Deschanel is enjoying quite a ride: she’s the star of New Girl, a popular Fox sitcom, she enjoyed minor box office success with August’s feature film Our Idiot Brother, her collection of Christmas tunes, recorded as part of her She and Him project with M. Ward, recently received a positive blurb in the pages of Entertainment Weekly, and she took a time-out to sing the national anthem during the World Series (which aired on Fox, but I digress). Meanwhile, how good is Ryan Gosling? He’s so good that bona fide superstar George Clooney felt comfortable enough to step back and play a supporting role while Gosling took center stage in the politically charged Ides of March (which Clooney also directed). Gosling actually has two much buzzed about films in release this fall: Ides of March and Drive, which captured Best Director honors for Nicolas Wingding Refn at the most recent Cannes film festival. Over the summer, Gosling and his well chiseled abs had women, and no doubt at least a few men, swooning in Crazy Stupid Love, which is now available on home video. Gosling even caused a stir when a homemade video of him breaking up a fight on a busy New York street popped up on the Internet.  As far as I know, Gosling has never confirmed that he is in fact the figure in the video though it doesn’t seem to matter. People believe it is him, and it contributes to the media’s current  fascination with all things Gosling.

Before Deschanel (center) starred in (500) Days of Summer, she appeared in All the Real Girls directed by Richardson’s own David Gordon Green (r). Interestingly, Deschanel’s co-star, Paul Scneider (l) also appears in Lars and the Real Girl with Ryan Gosling.

My fascination with Deschanel actually kicked-in two years ago when she co-starred with Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the titular Summer in 2009’s  (500) Days of Summer.  Oh sure, I’d seen her before in such movies as All the Real Girls (2003), Elf (2003), and Bridge to Terabithia (2007), but to be perfectly frank, I was never sure in some of those earlier films if I was watching Deschanel or Maggie Gyllenhaal, both of whom are second generation Hollywood and seem to specialize in playing women who are often just a little kooky or offbeat. Deschanel, by the way, is the daughter [1]  of famed cinematographer Caleb Deschanel (The Black Stallion, The Right Stuff, The Natural, and Fly Away Home) while Gyllenhaal, besides being the sister of heartthrob Jake, is also the daughter of TV director Stephen Gyllenhaal[2] and Oscar nominated screenwriter Naomi Foner (Running on Empty, 1988), but I digress. The truth is that Deschanel didn’t fully command my attention until the aforementioned (500) Days of Summer.

Besides the three films Gosling (r) has appeared in since mid-summer, he was seen earlier this year opposite Michelle Williams (l) in Blue Valentine, a late 2010 release that did not go wide until early 2011 in order to capitalize on Williams’s Best Actress nomination.

On the other hand, Gosling is not second generation Hollywood, yet he has had an unusual career trajectory.  He actually got his first big break when he was cast as a Mouseketeer in something like the umpteenth revival of Disney’s Mickey Mouse Club, being part of the same cast as Justin Timberlake, Britney Spears, and Christina Aguilerra. Eventually, he graduated to less juvenile fare and earned critical raves in The Believer (2001) as a, yes, Jewish Neo-Nazi, a fictional story reportedly inspired by the suicide of Daniel Burros, a former Klansman who killed himself after it was revealed that he was, indeed, Jewish. The Believer opened many doors for Gosling, and soon he was starring as a murderous high school student opposite Sandra Bullock in Murder By Numbers (2002). Gosling transitioned to traditional leading man–and made a huge impression on moviegoers–in 2004’s WWII era love story, The Notebook, based on the novel by Nicholas Sparks. Two years later, he scored a Best Actor Oscar nomination for playing a freebasing school teacher in the dreary Half Nelson. The following year, he gave an even more Oscar worthy performance in Lars and the Real Girl, but the Academy thought otherwise, and Gosling did not make the final cut.

I saw both Lars and the Real Girl and (500) Days of Summer in their original theatrical engagements. I loved them both, and they were definitely in my mind when I got the idea to start writing a blog. My original intent was to dedicate an entry to Deschanel’s somewhat undervalued performance in  (500) Days of Summer, more or less to be in sync with the whole World Series thing, and then pay tribute to Gosling’s superb work as Lars at a later time, but  after watching The Ides of March and Drive within a week of each other, I decided to jump on the whole Gosling bandwagon sooner rather than later. I had not planned to write about (500) Days of Summer and Lars and the Real Girl in a single entry until I re-watched them back to back and had my eyes opened to their thematic similarities. To wit, Lars and the Real Girl is about a grown man who treats a doll like a woman while (500 )Days of Summer is about a man who treats a grown woman like a doll.

Really real girl: Kelli Garner plays Margo, who pines for Lars from across the office. Garner can now be seen as Kate on the Pan-Am TV series, playing a top flight stewardess with a top secret agenda.

Gosling plays Lars Lindstrom, a shy, awkward young man who lives in his older brother’s garage apartment in a small town somewhere up north where almost every day is a winter wonderland. His brother and pregnant sister-in-law, as well as other community members (such as fellow parishioners), worry about him–not that Lars seems to notice. This troubled young man apparently suffered one too many childhood traumas, and it has left him much more vulnerable than he would like to admit, the result being trust and/or abandonment issues. Of course, Lars lacks many social skills. Not only does he not like to be touched, he still walks around with his baby blanket. On the other hand, he is able to hold down a job, some dull affair in which he sits in a cubicle and stares at a computer screen all day. It is through his Internet-porn obsessed co-worker  (Maxwell McCabe-Lokos) that Lars finds the girl of his dreams, that is, a woman who will never leave him, and, therefore, will never hurt him. Her name is Bianca, a gorgeous lifelike “love” doll.

Make no mistake, Bianca is no mere inflatable sex toy. She is a dark haired beauty with realistic glass eyes, lush lashes, a finely sculpted face, a smooth, touchable skin-like surface, and a “flexible” body. For Lars, it’s love at first sight. He even gives his doll a whole back story to help explain some of her deficiencies. For example, Bianca cannot walk because an accident left her an invalid.That’s why Lars carries her in his arms like a new bride or pushes her in a wheelchair. Furthermore, Bianca is an orphan like Lars, so he feels compelled to dote on her, to pay constant attention to her, and to love her. He takes her with him everywhere: the mall, parties, and even church.

Meanwhile, Tom Hansen, the character played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt in (500) Days of Summer, is similar to Lars with with a few key differences.  Like Lars, Tom has a job that doesn’t show a lot of promise. He actually majored in architecture in college, but he has yet to be offered his dream job, so he toils daily in a cubicle as a greeting card writer. He also has a snarky co-worker. The key difference is that while Lars is so afraid of allowing himself to have feelings for anyone or reaching out for affection, Tom is only too eager, that is desperate, to do so. The narrator explains that Tom’s lifelong obsession to find happiness and completion in the form of one true love “stemmed from early exposure to sad British pop music and a total misreading of the film The Graduate.” Just as Lars falls in love with his Bianca at first sight, Tom is immediately smitten with Summer Finn when he first glances at her across an office meeting room. The problem is that Tom never stops long enough to consider why he believes Summer is the one for him, nor does he ever allow himself to imagine that he might not be the right person for her.

In a brief prologue, the  narrator explains that (500) Days of Summer is most definitely not a love story, and he’s not being the least bit ironic. Oh sure, in many ways, the movie seems a lot like an Annie Hall style “nervous” romantic comedy as the audience follows Tom and Summer as they fast-forward and flashback through the rituals of courtship: a chance meeting in an elevator, the awkward talking points stage, the exhilaration that accompanies the discovery of mutual interests, the moment when sex moves from the realm of possibility to inevitability, the joy of dating–when it’s good–such as spending a day at IKEA, watching arty films, hanging out in a used book or record store, and lots of funny, clumsy, and delightful sex. The trouble is,  the whole thing is incredibly one-sided because Summer is ever only seen through Tom’s eyes.  Whereas Tom has plenty of scenes that take place without Summer’s physical presence, the audience always sees Summer as Tom sees her. She seems to not exist outside of his own imagination, a point made clear in a sequence in which it first appears that Summer is engaged in activity with Tom nowhere in sight; however,  the sequence is free of dialogue and framed in such as way as to be a likely projection of what Tom imagines Summer to be doing at that particular moment rather than the actual event itself.

When Tom says, “It’s official. I’m in love with Summer. I love her smile. I love her hair. I love her knees. I love this heart shaped birthmark she has on her neck. I love the way she sometimes licks her lips before she talks. I love the sound of her laugh. I love the way she looks when she’s sleeping,” the sequence is shot and edited to show that Tom has essentially objectified Summer to the degree that she might as well be a collection of doll parts.

I saw something on an Internet Movie Database discussion board that questioned whether Summer ever really existed, but I dismissed that idea without reading the post because I think there is wwwaaaaaaaaaaayy too much solid evidence to refute such a possibility. That noted, I was surprised to hear the director of the movie, Marc Webb, along with the two screenwriters, Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, in addition to star Gordon- Levitt, debate whether Summer is really having a conversation with Tom in one key scene, or whether Tom is more or less daydreaming. I think such a twist actually violates the film’s internal logic, so let’s get past all that nonsense. (I’d be cuirous about what Deschanel thinks about all of this, but she is absent from the DVD’s special features.)   I do think that Tom has idealized, and apparently objectified, Summer to the point that she’s almost too good or too beautiful to be real. In that regard, she’s a lot like Lars’s Bianca. Once again, I think it’s important to remember that the audience sees Summer from Tom’s perspective, and the director, the costumer (Hope Hanafin), along with the hairstylist  (Aaron Light) have performed a nifty trick on Deschanel, outfitting Summer in a variety of classic girlish outfits: blouses with Peter Pan collars and short puffy sleeves, flirty dresses with full skirts, a vintage cocktail dress or two, dainty purses, bows, and ponytails held in place with satin ribbon. Also, Deschanel’s great big blue eyes are framed by a dark fringe of bangs–and  look at that  retro style ponytail again. I swear it looks like Barbie’s from back in the day. Yep, she’s less a woman than an outdated representation of what Tom thinks a woman should be: beautiful, accommodating, seemingly incapable of betrayal, and without a single thought in her head.

There’s a twist, a kink, in the picture because as beautiful as she is, Summer is not good relationship material, and nobody knows that better than she does. From the beginning, Summer is unfailingly honest with Tom, explaining that she doesn’t believe in love, and that she isn’t looking for a serious, long-term commitment. Instead, she lives for the moment, and Tom, despite every reason to tread lightly, seemingly can’t help himself. He obsesses over her and tries to remake her in his own image of what ideal love is supposed to be; moreover, he can’t seem to figure out how she could possibly be unhappy.

Meanwhile, back in Lars’s hometown, there is trouble in paradise. At first, the people close to Lars are shocked and/or disturbed by his inanimate lady friend, but they also feel protective of Lars, and they see that having Bianca in his life has made a positive impact, so they slowly welcome her into their circle. One of the funniest scenes occurs when members of the church address the situation, and one woman, Mrs. Gruner (played by Nancy Beatty), speaks up and reveals that almost everyone in the group has a skeleton or two in the closet, so how is Lars different from the rest? That pretty much settles it, and soon Bianca is the most coveted gal in town. I won’t ruin some of the movie’s best gags. You need to see it for yourself; however, as Bianca’s schedule becomes more demanding, Lars goes from being selfless and giving to being jealous and possessive, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing because he has to learn how relationships work. Once again, Mrs. Gruner is there to set things straight with Lars: “Now, you listen to me. Bianca has a life of her own. No self respecting woman is going to be at your beck and call, mister, and the sooner you learn that, the better.”  Yes, it’s a good thing that Lars has reached out to Bianca in order to allow himself to care for something, but he also has to learn that he can’t control all situations at all times, and that loved ones should not be treated as possessions. In this way, Lars and Tom Hansen are a lot alike.

Ryan Gosling is so good in Lars and the Real Girl that it almost hurts. Watching him go through the huge range of emotional changes that Lars experiences, especially as the movie bounds toward its heartfelt conclusion, is something akin to watching a full grown man being born right in front of the audience’s eyes, so it’s disconcerting yet also joyous. What’s so great about this performance? Well, for starters, Gosling never breaks character. He’s utterly sincere from beginning to end without a hint of tongue-in-cheek smirkiness. Of course, the counter-argument to such a claim would be that he only does what any good actor would, or should, do. Yes, that’s true, but I do not think that just any actor would be able to commit to the part as fully as Gosling does. After all, I’ve seen good actors give less persuasive performances in less quirky roles. Another thing that astonishes me about this performance is how different Gosling is  from anything he’s done before or since. He’s miles removed from the characters in The Notebook and Half Nelson: voice, body language, facial expression–the works. Here again, skeptics might argue that Gosling is so different because the role is different, and that is how it should be–and as it would be with any good actor. Maybe, but there are plenty of good actors who almost always bring a spark of their own personae to a given role. It’s part of what transforms some good actors into great movie stars. Finally, the mark of a truly exceptional actor is one who is as good at reacting as acting. Look closely at Gosling’s face as he listens to his sister-in-law’s impassioned response to his pity party. Another frighteningly good exchange that demonstrates how “in the moment” Gosling is occurs when Bianca’s doctor (who’s really Lars’s doctor, after all), gently reaches for him, and the least little touch traumatizes him. By the way, that doctor is played by none other than the ever-reliable Patricia Clarkson, who offers some insight in a DVD featurette when she explains how Gosling was always ready to bring something extra, something completely unscripted, to almost every scene. Furthermore, as good as Gosling is at playing off the other actors, he also has to do a lot of acting with an entity that brings nothing to a scene. Plus, I dig his Roy Orbison inspired version of the golden oldie “L-O-V-E.”

In the Entertainment Weekly 2007-2008 awards season preview issue, Dave Karger proclaimed, “…for that fifth slot, we’re betting on RYAN GOSLING, a nominee for last year’s Half Nelson, who proved his range with his fancifully romantic lovebird in Lars and the Real Girl.” Unfortunately, despite nominations for a number of other high profile awards, Gosling was not among Uncle Oscar’s chosen five.

It broke my heart when Gosling wasn’t Oscar nominated for Lars and the Real Girl.  He seemed so close:  Golden Globe nomination, Screen Actors Guild Award nomination, etc.  Oh sure, there is almost no way any actor could have snatched the Oscar away from Daniel Day Lewis’s righteous performance as Daniel Plainmaker in Paul Thomas Anderson’s epic There Will Be Blood, and I’m good with that. Lewis’s performance is likely my all-time favorite Oscar winning leading male performance. Ever. That noted, Gosling was the only other performance by a male actor I saw in 2007 that was truly worthy of being nominated for an Oscar. Oh sure, some of the other nominees were fine, mainly George Clooney (Michael Clayton) and Viggo Mortensen (Eastern Promises). I also very much liked James McAvoy’s un-nominated turn in Best picture nominee Atonement, but I have special disdain for the Academy’s knee-jerk nomination for Johnny Depp’s serviceable work in Tim Burton’s big screen version of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. I’ve said it more than once, and I’ll continue to say it: Sweeney Todd is an opera, and an opera needs a real singer who can also act (that is,  a singer capable of singing in character) instead of a good actor who can merely sing well enough to not embarrass himself. That’s what Depp did, and that’s all he did, in Sweeney Todd, and that’s not worthy of consideration for filmdom’s highest accolades–not even in a big budget, big studio enterprise with a savvy marketing campaign. So there.

I don’t know that I ever really expected Zooey Deschanel to earn an Oscar nomination for (500) Days of Summer, but the movie was well reviewed, and it earned healthy returns at the box office[3] , so I held out hope that a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy would materialize; however, that did not happen. On the other hand,  the members of the Hollywood Foreign Press (the Globes’ parent organization) saw fit to nominate Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and that makes a certain amount of sense because Tom experiences more obvious emotional changes than does Summer. I totally get that, and, make no mistake, Gordon-Levitt is superb though I think Deschanel has the trickier role. After all, how easy can it be to play an enigma? Summer’s wide eyed beauty masks a lot hurt and confusion that she would just as soon ignore, and in this way she has more in common with Lars than she does with Bianca–even though her boyfriend treats her like a doll. Director Marc Webb puts the camera right up close on Deschanel’s face, and the actress thoughtfully shows the tentative woman-child behind the bewitching facade. Deschanel never forgets the key points from Summer’s childhood that the narrator addresses in the prologue: “Since the disintegration of her parents’ marriage, she’d only loved two things. The first was her long dark hair. The second was how easily she could cut it off and feel nothing.” Summer has had years to build a complex emotional armor that both easily lets her off the hook when it comes to relationships while also constraining her growth, and all that is there, just under the surface, in Deschanel’s portrayal.

(500) Days of Summer was nominated for many prizes during the 2009-2010 awards season, including a Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture Musical or Comedy, a People’s Choice Award, and a Writers Guild Award. Unfortunately, actress Zooey Deschanel was overlooked in most every contest. On the other hand, costumer Hope Hanafin was nominated for a guild award in the category of contemporary design. On the DVD, director Marc Webb explains that with one exception, the color blue was reserved exclusively for Deschanel’s character.

How much do I admire this performance? In 2009, it was second only to Sandra Bullock’s Oscar winning work in The Blind Side among leading actresses–at least in my book. I wasn’t thrilled by Meryl Streep’s broad impersonation of Julia Child in Julie and Julia, and I thought Precious newcomer Gabourey Sidibe, while emotionally affecting, was pretty much blown off the screen by her Oscar winning co-star Mo’Nique.  To clarify: once again, I was hardly surprised that Deschanel was overlooked by the Academy, but the fact that she was also overlooked as a Golden Globe nominee, and even an Independent Spirit Award nominee, is a little startling. Gordon-Levitt, to clarify, was nominated for both, and–once again–good for him, but I think his performance wouldn’t be as effective if Deschanel weren’t also at the top of her game. No, the most that Deschanel could muster during the 2009-2010 awards season was a Satellite nomination, which is like the Globes’ disreputable stepchild. Since I’ve already gone so far as to knock the Academy for nominating Johnny Depp in Sweeney Todd, I might as well go ahead and add that bestowing a nod upon Helen Mirren for her performance in the inconsequential The Last Station was joke–a bad joke. Mirren already has an Oscar for playing Queen Elizabeth II, and she’s better than the token nod she received for would-be prestige fare.

Though Gosling and Deschanel were overlooked by the Academy, their films were not completely forgotten during their respective awards seasons. As noted, Gosling scored a number of nominations from the various press associations as well as his peers in the Screen Actors Guild; meanwhile, Lars screenwriter Nancy Oliver attracted a bevy of laurels, including an award from the National Board of Review in addition to a nomination for the Writers Guild Award, and, yes, even an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. She lost to Diablo Cody for the overrated Juno. What’s so original about that?  Additionally, first time feature film director Chris Gillespie was nominated as Most Promising Filmmaker by the Chicago Film Critics Association. Likewise, (500) Days of Summer fared well in the awards derby. Besides the Globe and Independent Spirit nominations for Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the writing team of  Neustadter and Weber garnered the Independent Spirit Award and a Writer’s Guild nomination among other accolades; meanwhile, director Marc Webb earned the National Board of Review’s Spotlight prize.

Interestingly, both movies  were recognized among their respective year’s best acting ensmbles by the Casting Society of America. Yes, there really is an award for such a thing. Indeed, Lars and the Real Girls is exceptionally well played. Gosling is definitely front and center, but he’s not alone. The aforementioned Clarkson is quite amazing as the doctor who has to tend to Lars without him being quite aware of it–and how she engineers that is duly ingenious. Clarkson’s every line reading is infused with layers of meaning, and she makes it seem effortless. Other standouts include Emily Mortimer (as Lars’s well meaning sister-in-law), Kelli Garner (a smitten co-worker), and, again, the no-nonsense Nancy Beatty. Even Paul Schneider acquits himself admirably in the thankless role of Lars’s initially skeptical brother. The supporting characters in (500) Days of Summer are not as well defined as those in Lars and the Real Girl, but they all have their moments. First among equals is Geoffrey Arnend as McKenzie, Tom’s slobalicious friend and co-worker. The best of the rest includes Matthew Gray Gubler (as Paul, Tom’s longtime friend who delivers a wonderful monologue about true love);  Chloe Grace Moretz, (Tom’s precocious younger sister Rachel),  Clark Gregg (the optimistic company man), and Rachel Boston (a date who has little tolerance for Tom’s whining).

The fact that Deschanel and Gosling are enjoying such thriving careers shows that winning, or being nominated for, an Oscar is not the last word in Hollywood. On the other hand, trophies are nice objects to put on pedestals and admire–better a trophy than a woman, right?

Thanks for your consideration….

[1] Besides being the daughter of a famous cinematographer, Zooey Deschanel is also the younger sister of Emily Deschanel, one of the stars of the popular TV series, Bones. Her mother, Emily, is an actress, who appeared in the 1983 Best Picture nominee The Right Stuff.  Caleb Deschanel is a 5 time Oscar nominee. Check his profile on the Internet Movie Database:

http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0221042/

[2] Two of Stephen Gyllenhaal’s most famosu credits are the TV movies Paris, Trout (1991), and A Killing in a Small Town (1990). He won a Directors Guild Award for the former, and earned an Emmy nomination for the latter, which details the grisly saga of Candace Montgomery, the McKinney woman who used an ax to murder her close friend. The TV version was actually filmed in the DFW Metroplex. Check out Stephen Gyllenhaal’s filmography: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0350455/

[3] Per Box Office Mojo: (500) Days of Summer cost 7.5 million to produce and earned over 30 million at the U.S. box office, enjoying a healthy run of 19 weeks:

http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=500daysofsummer.htm

More links!

Entertainment Weekly reviews A Very She and Him Chrstmas:

http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,20538107,00.html

Southern Poverty Law Center report on “Hate and Hypocrisy” with background information on Daniel Burros, the man that inspired the movie The Believer:

http://www.splcenter.org/get-informed/intelligence-report/browse-all-issues/2002/winter/hate-and-hypocrisy?page=0,1

Entertainment Weekly‘s Dave Karger previews the 2007-2008 awards season:

http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,20170462,00.html

Casting Society of America website: http://www.castingsociety.com/index.php