Ladies and gentlemen, ignore the indie feel of the trailer. Thanks to Juno, high school sports are quirky now. Nonetheless, let me introduce to you the first great movie of 2011.
Win Win has the same bare bones story as director Tom McCarthy’s earlier film The Visitor, when one person finds another on his doorstep. But this film’s more organic. McCarthy shows us the colourful characters within lawyer Mike Flaherty’s (Paul Giamatti) Garden State life. His daughter’s first word to the camera is ‘shit,’ his wife Jackie (Amy Ryan) is an upstanding citizen with surprises. He also coaches an incompetent high school wrestling team with his wacky colleagues (Jeffrey Tambor, Bobby Cannavale). This film’s visitor Kyle Timmons (Alex Shaffer) becomes the star of Mike’s wrestling team. The film can extract humour from banality especially with Kyle’s deadpan delivery. He says ‘Night, Jackie’ bringing laughs, and I wonder why other movies have to try so hard to be funny. The film’s first act is interesting enough on its own. I also feel as if with or without Kyle, this fictional Jersey’s continuum – its characters constantly in a quest for self-improvement, its middle class standing constantly threatened – would feel the same.
Thankfully, this movie also doesn’t have The Visitor‘s self-righteousness. Both Mike and Kyle’s mom Cindy (Melanie Lynskey) are neither portrayed as good nor evil, as both want financial rewards for being the guardian of Mike’s client who is also Cindy’s father. Lynskey is a contender in an insanely strong cast, agonizing about her Cindy’s father disinheriting her while tiptoeing between evil, manipulative daughter and disgruntled child, convincing Kyle of Mike’s deceit, saying the word ‘court’ with a perfect welfare-class inflection. It’s lovely to see someone as consistently good as her.
Cannavale, filling in the shoes of a showy, comic relief role, as his character Terry Delfino is the last person to join Mike as a wrestling coach. He transforms from Will’s barky boyfriend in “Will and Grace” and speaks with clarity and great timing, making himself the MVP of this film. From trying to keep Mike warm by climbing on top of him, telling Mike’s daughter not to get married to egging Kyle on as the latter confronts the former. a safer would movie would shut him up even in dramatic moments, but he doesn’t. McCarthy not trying to manipulate the film’s mood and tone, Terry’s presence adding to the film’s glowing naturalism.
Had the film ended one scene earlier, it would have felt too much like a back sell. Thankfully, it shows the Flaherty’s lives back to normal but living with compromises that always come with win-win situations. 4.5/5
Performances I learned about
What I actually found in common with the ‘best’ performances I’ve seen in movies since my earlier, iffier list in July is that these actors who play their characters as either scary or scared. I thought that was gonna make my list repetitive but it’s a pretty general conflict within a character anyway. Also, as much I loved a few performances released this year, this list mainly focus on my self-education (Although I didn’t major nor specialize, I took film classes in college, I’m not one of those) about films from the beginning of ever (but really 1947) up to the past year, for which I make a space to include an FYC or two for performances this year. again, I also wanna be a contrarian and ‘instructive’ – the more obscure and diverse a performance is, the better.
Stellan Skarsgard, Breaking the Waves (Lars von Trier, 1996)
The film complements Emily Watson’s well-praised debut performance as Bess McNeil with Skarsgard, who makes the pest performance of a ‘crippld’ man since Jimmy Stewart. He finds the balance of sincerity and good intention despite the manipulative nature of what he says, and this the centre of the misogyny that other bloggers have accused von Trier about in this film. Thing is, he airs his requests to Bess with neither overt meanness nor longing. His disability is also reflected before and after it literally sets him in the film’s plot. Let me explain. Skarsgard’s performance makes his character, Jan Nyman, very jaded and justly so. He treats the Bess’ Calvinist enclave with disgust but as an outsider, is aware that he cannot change it, letting everyone else do the moralizing. He tries to give Bess the redemption he deserves and doesn’t oversell it, showing us his awareness of the reality of his loss.
Liv Ullman, Autumn Sonata (Ingmar Bergman, 1978)
It’s a hard task stealing the show from Ingrid Bergman, and we almost think it wouldn’t happen with the woman’s piano skills. Eventually this film becomes Ullman’s, playing Bergman’s daughter. I thought she was in her twenties when she took on this role, and her braids and glasses might have had something to do with that. But Ullmann in her forties captures the youthful vulnerability of someone well, half her age. A character who hasn’t learned how to be an adult because of her mother’s tampering and image of superiority. What follows is an unforgettable primal scream, revealing that anything a mother can do to love her child might be engendering the opposite message. The film ends with her trying to get her mother back, but in just as repetitive as she’s learned. Never had a peace-offering been so poisonous, as Ullmann carefully hides a rage that we can still see.
Ryan Reynolds, Buried (Rodrigo Cortes, 2010)
The success of this film has been partly attributed to Reynolds’ comic timing, which yes, adds a flexibility to the role in a horror/thriller film. Other critics have also talked about how he conveys Paul Conroy’s lack of intelligence, but lack of sunlight and mobility, I can assume, with take away 1 or 61 of anyone’s IQ points. However, he also exhibits a physicality, a difficult attribute to convey in a claustrophobic film.We follow his every little move, like trying to get a signal from a Blackberry set in Arabic or working flashlights. He also bring is the emotional heft the film needs, outstandingly connecting with the offscreen characters. And yes, I admit, a reason Reynolds is on this list is because he renders the best reading of the sentence ‘You stupid fucking cunt!’ in the history of cinema.
Any Ryan, Gone Baby Gone (Ben Affleck, 2007)
Supporting actress schmupporting actress – Amy Ryan takes the reins in this movie. Ryan’s character is faced by many hurdles, the missing daughter who probably hasn’t been fed by her captors (really the latter is fine), the good cops and the bad cops who are convinced she’s involved in the crime despite her unbreakable shell. She’s also intelligent enough to add levels of moral judgment about her character, saying things that she believes is right but making the words clear enough to question her. She gets the ending she wants and becomes a scary form of human being impervious to change even in times of almost complete disaster. I try my best not to be one of those bloggers who have grievances when it comes to the choices the Academy makes, and who am I to judge Tilda Swinton’s performance that I’ve yet to see. Nonetheless, Team Amy.
Catherine Deneuve, Repulsion (Roman Polanski, 1965)
Blankness hasn’t been this scary in a woman or in any character until this film arrived. We might also wanna thank Polanski in this aspect of her performance, but she looks capably fashionable even as she’s as we say mentally breaking through the seams. That and the raving beauty is humble enough to look plain in comparison the her sister (Yvonne Furneaux). Not only do we see the rabbit head inside her purse and the unkept conditions of her and her sister’s apartment after the latter’s vacation do the vacuous stares make sense. Her bravery’s also commendable as she takes on the dream rape scenes, as she approaches them not with tears but with defenselessness and startled reactions, conveying how her character struggles against her body. She portrays a young woman with grievances against societal pressures about her sister’s boyfriend and her own oblivious boyfriend, but sadly didn’t learn how to scream out.
Deborah Kerr, Black Narcissus (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1947)
I considered it a personal achievement to have finished watching the film the past year, since Deborah Kerr as Sister Clodagh puts heart in what could be a cold, detached and stern female protagonist in Black Narcissus. Powell and Pressburger are known for their magical Technicolor visuals in their films, but the most delightful image it has is watching Kerr light up when she reminisces, romanticizing the decaying past that she was happy and content with. There’s also a bit of pain in her eyes as the film transforms her from context a to b, with the knowledge that her life in the British Isles won’t be the same. She’s not, however, necessarily a helpless young female, as she considers herself a mother and leader to the other nuns in the Indian mission, specifically looking out for Sister Ruth, sincerely caring about hers and everyone else’s health. And she’s got a little sense of humour as well, brought on by Mr. Dean.
Tatsuya Nakadai, Kagemusha (Akira Kurosawa, 1980)
Hey look, another double role! But really the titular Kagemusha gets invaded by his alter ego, Shingen Takeda, the medieval Japanese war lord whose life is surprisingly more precarious than the lower class man who’s supposed to impersonate him. Nakadai evinces the haunted feeling of being followed by the ghost – only appearing once in a dream – of a supposedly great man, who’s also chagrined by the warlord’s son. He somehow convinces us of a closer connection between the two disparate characters, of the integrity that has to be preserved in the old ways that oppress Kagemusha. When the thief becomes the warlord, he doesn’t put a dumb show. He even shows warmth while bonding with the warlord’s grandson. The actor perfectly captures the composed, arrogant ways of a noble man and the dishevelled thief who he was in the film’s beginning and end.
Joan Allen, The Ice Storm (Ang Lee, 1997)
Ang Lee’s more subtle than other directors who have made films about the suburbs. It is then a gift to have Joan Allen’s as Elena in his film to keep the trajectory from quietness to histrionics more interesting, like the different movements of mood within a real person within two days’ time. To a pastor, she talks about her daughter Wendy’s (Christina Ricci) freedom with such adult control. Her performance has many great moments, like the what-the-eff moment when she smells a different ‘aftershave’ from Elena’s husband Ben (Kevin Kline) as she tries hard to calm herself and the absolute fury as she throws her husband’s car keys to Allison Janney, vindictively including themselves to a ‘key party’ – look it up, kids. This movie reintroduced and made me love someone revered as ‘the greatest American actress after Meryl.’
Johnny Depp, Before Night Falls (Julian Schnabel, 2000)
When you start talking about a film, writing ‘Remember when Johnny Depp was still good?’ It’s totally ok to do that. Anyway, Depp, obviously a superstar by the early 90’s, in this film is given not one but two supporting roles as Bon Bon and Lieutenant Victor, and arguably Victor is two roles in itself, the compassionate stud of Reinaldo Arenas’ (Javier Bardem) fantasy and the homophobic oppressor in the film’s reality. The two bit parts are symbolic of the opinion of homosexuality in Cuba – either as a counter-revolutionary sore or an underground movement to be preserved. Depp uses subservience and camp, and embracing his characters as mirror images of the conflict within Arenas himself as well as the latter’s conflicts against authority. I also couldn’t recognize who Bon Bon was until I took a good look at her for 13 seconds, a feat in itself for an actor who’s in costume for more than half his career.
Christian Bale , Laurel Canyon (Lisa Cholodenko, 2002)
I’m probably the only monstrous human beings who see flaws within Christian Bale’s acting, the way he gets angry and yells like a hound and all. He does that here in this movie too, mind you. It’s refreshing nonetheless, that he spends 99% of the film being his most ordinary. That, however, doesn’t mean he’s not interesting as we watch him effortlessly confess his desires to make love to his coworker/extramarital love interest with sadness and other emotions and nuances I can’t put into words. He approaches lust and therefore sin with such gentleness and no violence, creating a character contemplating the sorrow of limitations. One of the film’s plots cover his character temporarily staying with his music producer of a mother (Frances McDormand) and her rocker boyfriend-of-the-year (Alessandro Nivola), giving us the impression that he’s always had to be the adult in whatever household he’s in, and it consistently shows.
Nicole Kidman, Rabbit Hole (John Cameron Micthell, 2010)
I’ve already talked about how Nicole Kidman as Becca Corbett does everything in this film except dance and stab. I also remember about her performance is that she could have brought down her character’s meanness, and in a way she does. What she offers is a defence mechanism and even a wry intelligence to the conventional ways of sorrow, and instead her Becca is looking for an alternative, learning how to suffer and cope on her own, allowing herself to feel other emotions to heal. Like when she goes back to Manhattan and try to get her job back at Sotheby’s, even if we just see her we sense how big she feels with the city and with the happiness she’s had and missed. Or allowing herself to be close to Jason Willette (Miles Teller), treating him so close like a son or nephew, letting us feel the waters she’s treading.
Jack Goes Boating
For the most part, the characters of Jack Goes Boating are passive to each other and to the events that happen to them. Our titular limo driver Jack (Philip Seymour Hoffman, who also directs) gets set up with mortuary secretary Connie (Amy Ryan) because his best friend Clyde (John Ortiz) is married to her co-worker Lucy. Jack’s first date with Connie happens in Clyde and Lucy’s shabby apartment, where she talks about being sexually harassed while her father’s in a coma. Her sexual misadventures are exposed to Jack just as she is aware of his inexperience. Jack misses a chance to get an application for a job at the MTA. This baby step towards a better job and life feels unambitious but nonetheless realistic. For some reason, after these short introductions out of the way, the first act of the film doesn’t feel neither like an introduction nor a build-up. It’s one awkward situation piled on top of another.
The final act of the film shows its off-Broadway roots, that everything else before it is just fluff, yet what we see is also an intense payoff. Clyde reveals secrets, which makes the other characters open up. Again, Jack uses Clyde and Lucy’s apartment, show off his newly acquired culinary skills, but instead people and things get smashed because of hashish. We see Jack’s compromises in becoming the perfect person and mate for Connie. Connie, in watching Clyde and Lucy’s relationship crumble, doesn’t have a eureka moment but does something with her life to survive and be sane, as if by common sense. Clyde realises his altruism goes hand in hand with being life support for other people instead of being a man of his own, which doesn’t seem like a consequence but simply a terrible fate for a man. Jack Goes Boating is not the most original tragedy, but its downward spiral is very effective.
Gone Baby Gone and Genre
Last Saturday, TCM was showing “The Searchers,” the king of all westerns that I can’t blog about for my own neurotic reasons. Fortunately I can tie it into a movie that was on Bravo Canada the night/morning after – Gone Baby Gone. It did come out in a year that overflowed with proper Western films. And both have missing children and gun-toting!
So is Gone Baby Gone a western? It’s not a noir because there are hardly if ever any child abductions in that genre. Noir’s a very adult genre, focusing on an underworld that only seeps into the domestic areas in one or two instances. Dorchester’s both an underbelly and a residential neighborhood, on the other than there’s a separation between those two worlds that the precedent in both genres show. And there’s not enough shadow in the movie. Conversely, There has been a school of thought that believes that the 1970’s urban landscape, particularly New York City, was the new frontier (There’s also a documentary about the post-1967 depiction of police in cinema which I can’t find that talks about this too. It was on AMC.). Our hero Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck) introduces the film by narrating about what that the people of Dorchester believe in, patriotism and family values, just like the old West. Dorchester in the 2000’s is a multicultural environment that’s a bit like the West. The film also has two bar fight scenes that involve guns, another thing it has in common with the genre. Yet it doesn’t have the newness nor the relatively hospitable feel nor the desire for purgation that the Western genre evokes. “It’s the things that you don’t choose that make you who you are, ” Patrick says, and he continues with “I’ve lived in this block my whole life, most of these people have.” The neighborhood can either only not change or decay, and we can say the same about its inhabitants.
And it’s easy enough to compare the characters of Gone Baby Gone‘s with that of “The Searchers.” Patrick is the Martin Pawley, our dutiful moral compass. Both are hybrid characters – they are despised in one society and is a stranger to another. Both are men infiltrating a seedy environment, believe in an idealized world with order, and can pistol-whip their enemies even though they don’t look it. Patrick’s more level-headed than Martin, but both are equally capable of making tactical mistakes with dangerous strangers. And Patrick’s more hesitant in killing criminals than Martin is.
His girlfriend Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan) is the domestic, moral yet brainwashed Laurie Jorgensen. Both represent the mainstream morality of their time. Both are equally prone to saying ruthlessly horrific things about the other characters and unhesitatingly condemn to those whom they think are beneath them. But obviously, Laurie will never jump into a quarry to try to save another woman’s child.
Remy Bressant (Ed Harris) is Ethan Edwards, both of whom are psychopaths who have suspicious origins and histories and are constantly abusing their powers under a badge. Both also have skewered worldviews – children might forgive, Mr. Bressant, but they don’t forget. Both also know their enemies like experts. Amanda MacCready is Debbie Edwards, both of whom fit better with those who have abducted them, who fit better in an idealized world that the protagonists are willing to destroy. Their return to their homes are open-ended, at least more so with Amanda’s. And Jack Doyle (Morgan Freeman)? Spoiler, but he’s a dop-pel-gang-er!
Helene MacCready (Amy Ryan, nominated for an Academy Award for the role) is a different animal, or at least someone who belongs to the Noir tradition. The scene where she recalls her daughter’s supposed last words has revolting implications. She’s irredeemable. The most horrifying thing about her character is that she’s only capable of promising change in times of crisis. When Patrick restores order for her benefit, she can’t even fake joy for this reunion, not even for the cameras. She leaves her daughter like she does every day, returns to her old, drug addled ways.
Also, both “The Searchers” and Gone Baby Gone tend towards deluded ethics based on wobbly rhetoric. The denouement of Gone Baby Gone, when Patrick finally confronts Amanda’s real kidnapper, he prattles on with a speech about that what’s better for the child is not right for the child. Both Patrick and the kidnapper try to speak on the child’s behalf, a dangerous thing to do. Patrick even speaks like this in front of Angie. In most of the film, I felt that its grit outweighs it sentimentality, but this scene makes both influences present, for better or worse. Both the kidnapper’s words and delivery seem more sane that Patrick’s idealism, or maybe Affleck (director or star) might be misguided during this particular stage of the character.
Lars just told me that Gone Baby Gone is the last of a series of four books in a series by pulp writer Dennis Lehane. Explains the speeches. And don’t mistake me, I like the movie. I would have loved it would those few scenes.