Sunday, February 24, 2008

Then again, what do I know?

Apparently I know even less than I thought I did. All those compelling reasons that made Julie Christie's Oscar an inevitability just disappeared in a puff of scented Gallic smoke. Despite the egg on my face, I'm delighted for Mlle Cotillard. She beat the odds - with a performance that deserves every accolade. May I now consider relations between the U.S. and France to be officially hunky-dory again?

PrognOSCARcations: Why Julie Christie Will Win

Well, If I wait much longer these won’t even qualify as predictions. ‘Cause the Oscars are almost upon us. The ceremony that looked for so long as if it wouldn’t be happening at all should be getting underway within a matter of hours. The long, long train of Oscar predictions is about to pull out of the station. So if I want to slap my own placard onto the back of the caboose, it’s now or never.
This year’s male categories (Actor and Supporting Actor) are almost universally considered to be locks . For Daniel Day-Lewis("There Will Be Blood") and Javier Bardem ("No Country for Old Men") respectively. No argument here. Not that either of them would be my choice. But both have attracted massive critical acclaim. And both performances have been perceived as singularly ballsy. Effectively neutralizing the danger both films initially faced of being relegated to art-house ghetto status. By now, mass audiences have been thoroughly wooed and won. Day-Lewis – if not the Olivier of his day – seems to be at very least its Paul Muni. In other words, his generation’s idea of what constitutes a great actor. His film appearances are rare enough to qualify as events; he’s famous for awesome amounts of preparation and commitment. And for disappearing chameleon-like into every role he plays. When he’s not filming, he’s basically M.I.A. Certainly no tabloid staple; his personal life pretty much stays just that. The actor emerges into public view every few years like some prodigious passing comet. Then –poof! Gone again.
Whether you like his TWBB performance or not (and most, it seems, do), there’s no denying it’s impossible to ignore. Big, plummy, grand or grandiloquent (depending on your viewpoint). It certainly seems to be a lot of people’s idea of great acting. And – no question about it – absolutely central to the film. He’s also won a lot of precursors and shone at the SAG and BAFTA ceremonies ( both widely televised). Gracious and unassuming with acceptance speeches that played very very well. What with the continuous affirmation all through award season, it’s now reached the point where a win for anyone else would undoubtedly ignite a firestorm of disapproval. Even George Clooney , who generally seems to have most of Hollywood eating out of his hand, is not going to be able to stop the Day-Lewis juggernaut.
Bardem’s even more of a lock. Not only is he part of a hugely acclaimed box-office hit. He’s generally perceived as the coolest thing in it. His character – Anton Chigurh, a kind of evil Energizer Bunny, has attained pop culture icon status. Something fan boys, geeks, yahoos and serious film buffs all seem to be buying into. It’s not a performance I’m particularly taken with. As I’ve said elsewhere, Bardem’s characterization is intense, but one-note – a sort of land-roving shark from "Jaws". But – for the vast majority of viewers – Bardem seems to have captured and combined the nasty cool of Hannibal Lector and the Terminator. And (apparently) that’s a good thing. Like Day-Lewis, Bardem’s dominated the precursors. And let’s not forget the man has an impressive resume. Long a superstar in his native Spain, he’s already delivered outstanding work in drama (Oscar nominated in "Before Night Falls" and (some felt) Oscar-robbed in "The Sea Inside") and comedy (check out "Boco a Boco", a Spanish film from ’95; he’s fantastic in it!). Bottom line: there’s no way JB’s going home empty-handed on Oscar night.
"No Country"’s also set to take picture and director. Its cool factor is substantial. And the Coen Brothers are widely regarded as overdue. 90% of the film operates as a gritty, kick-ass action thriller. As for the ending – well , some people actually do like it. And a lot more are saying they do. Because one’s response to it seems to be this year’s litmus test for sophistication and hipness. There’s no percentage in being the boy that says this emperor has no clothes. And of course "No Country" plays quite brilliantlly into the prevailing zeitgeist i.e. civilization as we know it is already waist-deep in a growing shit-storm and "you can’t stop what’s coming."
Supporting Actress is this year’s most wide-open race. At least four of the five gals concerned (Dee, Ryan, Blanchett and Swinton) have a strong shot at the trophy. But my guess is that Ruby Dee’s name’s the one we’re going to hear when the envelope’s opened . She’s the only nominee in this category who’s got a strong tide of industry sentiment behind her. An elderly, beloved veteran (who, surprisingly, has never been nominated). A woman whose artistic credentials are matched by a laudable life as a social activist and general class act. Let’s admit it – there are some who’ll simply consider it their civic duty to vote for Dee. Her name was nowhere to be seen in the year-end critics’ polls. But that didn’t stop her colleagues from giving Dee the SAG award. Of the nominees, she’s the only one whose victory would guarantee a standing ovation. An ovation I fully expect to see on Sunday night.
And finally there’s the Best Actress race. Julie Christie seems to be the front-runner. But unlike Day-Lewis and Bardem, she’s not considered a lock. Canada’s Ellen Page is 2007’s breakout star, playing the title role in "Juno", one of the year’s biggest box-office triumphs. It’s made more money than all the other Best Actress nominated pictures combined. Like Bardem’s Anton, Page’s Juno now has pop culture icon status tucked in her back pocket. She’s also tremendously likable. But I suspect Academy voters will feel 21 year-old Page can wait. She’s young, pretty, talented and probably swimming in A-list scripts right now. For her, the nomination will be her award – with a rain-check for a trophy sometime ahead.
France’s Marion Cotillard probably represents even stronger competition. Her jaw-dropping performance as singer Edith Piaf in "La Vie en Rose" has crashed gloriously through all the barriers foreign films generally face when it comes to Oscars. There’s very little you can say about her work without resorting to superlatives. She portrays the legendary entertainer from girlhood to death, capturing each phase of Piaf’s tumultuous life with power and passion. Watching her recreate the concert segments from the singer’s later years is like getting lost in some kind of sublime, delirious Piaf /Garland continuum. But Cotillard makes the off-stage moments just as mesmerizing. She has a quiet scene near the end sitting on a beach that ranks with the best work I’ve ever seen from anybody anywhere. Recent American TV exposure for Cotillard has alerted Academy voters to the magnitude of the actress’ transition – physical and emotional – in "La Vie en Rose". She’s young, fresh and pretty. Don’t count her out for the trophy. She recently beat out Christie and Page at (Britain’s) BAFTA’s; she also won top honors from the LA Film Critics a group that’s certainly geographically close to most Academy voters. But Oscar or not, Cotillard seems set for a bright bright future. Currently on her schedule are roles opposite Javier Bardem, Christian Bale and Johnny Depp.
As a matter of fact, I’m down with all five Best Actress nominees. The Academy choices are the same five I’d have picked. And that’s never ever happened before. Laura Linney ( who’s always good) is good again in "The Savages". She and Philip Seymour Hoffman play symbiotically squabbling siblings. And just placing Hoffman in a situation where he has to interact non-stop with Linney’s quiet brilliance, helps him create his own career-best performance. Still, the picture’s low on buzz and box-office. Linney’s (richly deserved) nomination is – among other things – an indication of how respected she is within the film community. But a Linney victory’s about as likely as seeing Dick Cheney and Condoleezza Rice co-hosting the Teen Choice Awards.
Most critics have dumped on "Elizabeth:The Golden Age" (Sorry, I liked it). But the Golden Globes, The BAFTAS and the Screen Actors’ Guild have all found it impossible not to honor Cate Blanchett’s performance – at least with a nomination. Blanchett seems to have pretty much assumed the default slot that once belonged to Meryl Streep. The thinking being that "If there’s a spot available, let’s give it to Cate; she always delivers". Personally, I wouldn’t go that far. But, let’s face it - Cate Blanchett gives good Queen Bess!
Still, I’d say there are a great many reasons why Julie Christie’s got this one in the bag.
(1) First of all, Christie’s work in "Away From her" is marvelous and memorable. Oscar-worthy without a
(2) She plays an Alzheimer’s patient, which means there’s a built-in emotional resonance to the role.
Especially as the vast majority of Academy members are probably baby-boomers (or older). This is an
issue that –one way or another many of them have had to deal with within their families. It’s true that
"Away From Her" presents a rather picturesque, poetic view of the situation, shying away from the
bed-pan realities and traumatic hysteria. Judi Dench’s "Iris" came at least a little closer to that. But the
sheer magnificence of Christie’s performance trumps anything in "Iris".
(3)Christie remains a symbol for her generation. And a great many Academy voters come from that exact
generation. She started as a free-spirited and bracingly beautiful icon of the Swinging 60’s. Her Oscar
win for "Darling" in ’65 was regarded as some sort of changing of the guard – an exhilarating sea-
change as it were. You could practically feel the fresh air as she swept up to the podium in a mini to
collect her award. A Christie victory this year will give Academy members a lovely echo of - not
just her halcyon moments – but their own as well.
(4) It doesn’t hurt that Christie seems to have lived her life with zest, intelligence, grace and dignity. She’s
always radiated an aura of independence and self-sufficiency. Even in the 70’s when she and Warren
Beatty constituted one of Hollywood’s golden couples. Christie also has a reputation as a committed
Liberal – and that plays well with a lot of Academy members.
(5) Her career has been exemplary. She made a quick and seamless transition from 60’s goddess to
respected actor. And she’s never been one for over-exposure. Preferring to lead her (undoubtedly
fascinating) life far from the spotlight. But her artistic choices have been interesting and varied.
The Academy has nominated her a couple of times since "Darling" – for the Altman classic "McCabe
and Mrs. Miller" in the 70’s and for the admirable "Afterglow" in the 90’s. But her resume’s also
peppered with quality titles like "Shampoo", "Heat and Dust". Heaven Can Wait" and "Finding
Neverland". Heck, she’s even played Hamlet’s mother (and quite impressively) in the Kenneth
Branagh version. And, let’s not forget. She’s Lara from "Doctor Zhivago". And that can’t hurt her.
(6) Julie Christie’s also a rather impressive role model – an actress who doesn’t seem too bothered about.
aging. Neither Botox nor cosmetic surgery appear to rank high on the Christie priority list. Yet we should
all be lucky enough to look as good at 66 as Christie does. A marvel of inner and outer beauty. A
pleasure to think about. And certainly still a joy to behold.
(7) Christie’s apparently given out signals that "Away From Her" may be her very last film. Talk about
going out on a high note. And an Oscar victory would only amp it up just that much more. Coming
42 years after her first Academy Award , it should make for a lovely last hurrah.

P.S. If I had a vote, my ballot would look like this:
Actor: Viggo Mortensen "Eastern Promises"
deeply and eerily immersed in his role – and ultimately moving.
Actress: Marion Cotillard "La Vie en Rose"
– a Christie victory will be sweet, no doubt – but I’ve got to admit
this year my heart’s with Cotillard.
Supporting Actor: Hal Holbrook "Into the Wild"
Supporting Actress: Amy Ryan "Gone Baby Gone"
-but that’s because my favorites in these categories
Philip Bosco "The Savages"
And Patricia Clarkson "Lars and the Real Girl"
weren’t even nominated.

P.P.S. Thanks, Ultimate Addict for the recent link. Very kind of you.

Friday, February 01, 2008


If there’s one word that can be applied to what I generally write on this blog, that word might be "unsolicited". Continuing in that onanistic vein, I offer something else no one’s asked for – my opinion of Todd Haynes’ film "I’m Not There". I might also add that it would be no stretch at all to label this opinion of mine as seriously uninformed. I’ve about as much knowledge and appreciation of Bob Dylan as I do of Sanskrit. I am not now – nor have I ever been a Dylan fan. Considering that I grew up in the 60’s – and not in Outer Mongolia – that might seem a little surprising. Add to that the fact that I spent most of my life working in a music store. The truth is Dylan and I seem to have occupied parallel but separate universes. For me, the early sixties were about puberty, girl group records (though that term hadn’t quite been hatched yet) and Motown. The Four Seasons and The Beach Boys joined the party. Then everything pretty much surrendered to the tidal wave of Beatlemania. I enjoyed having long hair, I liked the jewel and peacock colors and the whole mellow-yellow vibe of the late 60’s. The Vietnam War was below the border background noise. Sexual exploration and the suddenly limitless possibilities of life coupled with the youth to enjoy them - that’s what occupied center stage for me. Musically, any folk-ish inclinations I had were more than satisfied by Joni Mitchell and her feathered canyons. The psychedelic stuff was good when you were high. Otherwise, no thanks. The endlessly aggressive whir of grubby macho guitar gods was not my style. And – for me - listening to Bob Dylan’s hectoring off-key whinny was pretty much like sliding down a sixty-foot razor-blade into a pool of iodine. I realize this lays me wide open to charges of shooting the messenger without fully digesting the message. But what I did take in of that message struck me as a kind of inhospitable mix of the obvious and the impenetrable. Undoubtedly some of that impenetrability could’ve been unravelled with a microscopic study of Dylan’s life. But, frankly, I had no interest in going there. I still remember it took a slick studio-created neo-gospel group called The Brothers and Sisters to finally turn me on to the joys of "Lay Lady Lay". (I still love their version). As for latterday Bob Dylan – well, next to Sondheim, say, I saw him as – I don’t know - some sort of musical panhandler. Dylan generally stayed below my radar - occasional crabby caterwauling ,easily tuned out. I realize all this is more likely to erode my own credibility than to call Bob Dylan’s relevance into question. Which is as it should be. Bob Dylan’s work speaks to millions. I’m basically just talking to myself. But, hey, Todd Haynes’ film seems to suggest that relevance is - when all’s said and done – a pretty relative thing.
Now that I’ve seen most of the other big-buzz films of 2007, I thought I’d finally stop dragging my heels and make a duty call at the Dylan fest. ‘Cause I may not like Bob Dylan, but I do like movies. And director Todd Haynes ("Far From Heaven", "Velvet Goldmine") has racked up an awful lot of credit in my bank. As most people know, "I’m Not There"’s an unconventional stab at capturing shades of the Dylan persona - public and private - in film form. Or perhaps an exercise in demonstrating the difficulty of achieving that goal. A number of different actors play Dylan-inspired characters (none of them named Bob Dylan). Time lines are notably flexible; various levels of realism collide and mingle, jostling with scenes that are pure dream-state.
First of all, let me say that "I’m Not There" is a pretty absorbing experience – and it’s very good to look at. Cinematographer Edward Lachman uses black and white and color to equal – and exhilarating – effect.
A slow, tense pan over the faces of what I took to be coal miners lingers insistently in the memory. And in some of the other monochrome segments, Lachman and Haynes deliver images that are Fellini redux in the best possible way.
The various actors offer us a kind of Dylan-as-prism, reflecting aspects of art and humanity, inspiration and impotence. The kaleidoscopic approach allows the singer’s essence to emerge in, among other guises, a black child, a nineteenth century outlaw, a seriously conflicted folksinger and a film star whose coolness ebbs and flows. Only the Richard Gere sequence stumbles , with the actor playing an awkwardly skewed version of Billy the Kid. Heath Ledger portrays the movie star. But recent events make it difficult to form an accurate assessment of his contribution. Ledger’s presence alone conveys a poignancy that probably wasn’t there when the film premiered. But certainly the achingly romantic aura some of us project onto the sixties is palpably captured in the scenes of his whirlwind romance with a French artist. And that’s in spite of the fact that said artist is played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, she of the ever-admonishing look and presence. Gainsbourg looms over a great deal of footage like a disapproving storm cloud. Still, there’s nothing negligible about her – and she clearly means business. Whereas Julianne Moore’s narrative bits and bobs (as a kind of air-brushed Joan Baez) have the (I suspect) unintended feel of an SNL routine. The segments with talented Marcus Carl Franklin , guitar-toting eleven year old riding the rails, are affecting - tender and a little scary. The inner child whose enduring presence is crucial to any artist A tiny figure, feisty, forging on – often framed by ( but never lost in) misty mornings and green-gold vistas. Christian Bale, as folksinger Jack Rollins, deliberately confines the charisma to underground channels, registering best in the born again Christian segment. His gospel number, "Pressing On", delivered in a small chapel, made me remember Ronee Blakley’s Sunday morning hymn in "Nashville". There, Blakley was a beam of white light; Bale’s purity is more a work in progress, speckled and still struggling. Singer John Doe provides the actor with a wonderful vocal match, helping confirm "Pressing On" as the musical segment I liked best in the film. The most celebrated performance of the lot, of course, is Cate Blanchett’s. She’s Jude Quinn, representing the newly electrified Dylan, enraging old fans and butting heads with a growing celebrity and music press, all determined to badger Quinn into delivering digestible sound-bytes. First of all, let me admit that I’ve always had a problem with women playing men. Sometimes men can pull off the woman thing. To me that’s all about tapping into and projecting female gestures. With a woman playing a man, I think it’s more about subtraction. Success depends on suppression and eradication of the feminine essence. A very tall order. Even the best usually just wind up looking like extremely masculine lesbians. Having said this, I’d have to admit that all that’s largely irrelevant in "I’m Not There". The point of the cross-gender casting is not to convince us that Cate Blanchett ‘s a man. But rather to capture the utter strangeness of the figure Dylan presented in the mid-sixties. It’s Dylan as enigma. As insoluble but intriguing cryptogram. Injecting a level of gender ambiguity ‘s a legitimate tactic here. And I have to admit the gambit’s pretty effective. It never comes across as a gimmick – which has got to be considered an accomplishment. And if collaborating with Todd Haynes and company hardly qualifies as working without a net, you’ve got to give the actress credit for fearlessness. Cate Blanchett has a pretty impressive arsenal of acting skills. But she’s also got balls. The verbal sparring between Blanchett and Bruce Greenwood supplies the film with its most captivating stretches. Canadian-born Greenwood (as a BBC interviewer) summons up considerable British authority, accent and all. And he’s even better in some surreal moments, registering disorientation and panic. On paper, I’m sure it made sense, to also cast him as Pat Garrett in the Gere segment. A double nemesis to celebrities – to Billy the Kid in the nineteenth century, to Jude Quinn in the twentieth. But Greenwood’s ZZ Top look just adds to the general lameness of the whole Billy segment. Much of the episode simply comes across as a strained costume party – a sort of magical mystery tour sideshow. I don’t know if I actually saw sword-swallowers. But I do know there was a giraffe. All the sequence lacked was the mimes from "Blow Up" playing a round of invisible tennis. On the other hand, the sixties ambience in the Jude Quinn segments is a great success. The film nails the bunker mentality of the celebrity hotel room under siege – tension, boredom, sniping, chain-smoking at the edge of a live volcano . An atmosphere that could ignite creativity, but is more likely to murder it. I could’ve done without the fast-motion Richard Lester salute as Quinn cavorts with the Beatles. It thuds, I’m afraid. Still the bit only lasts a moment or two. Otherwise the period recreation works beautifully. I was there in the sixties and, for a great deal of this film, I was there again.
There are bleak elements in "I’m Not There". But the movie’s not a downer. Not covered in an oil slick of despair like "No Country for Old Men". It’s more about relativism. About fluid viewpoints. And the impossibility of pigeonholing or defining art or artists or lives. It’s about circularity too. (Richard Gere ends the film just the way Marcus Carl Franklin began it). And – although it probably helps - you don’t have to know a heck of a lot about Bob Dylan to respond to the picture. I’m proof of that. It’s enough to understand that he means a lot to a lot of people. Maybe "I’m Not There"’s about sparks. The kind that shoot into our lives from time to time. Not revelations exactly. Just sparks – that convince us, maybe just for a moment, that revelations are a possibility. "Im Not There" creates its share of sparks.