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Sunday, May 31, 2009

It's Here- Supporting Actress Smackdown 1992

To regular followers of the blog, you'll notice my plethora of 1992 viewings over the past several weeks. Now, head on over to Stinkylulu's site and check out how other movie fans and I graded the performances....

Judy Davis, Husbands and Wives
Joan Plowright, Enchanted April
Vanessa Redgrave, Howards End
Miranda Richardson, Damage
Marisa Tomei, My Cousin Vinny

I'm very glad to participate in this Smackdown, as 1992 was an awakening year for me in my taste for movies and the Oscars. The 1992 ceremonies (held in 1993) were the first Oscars I can remember watching. As a 12-year-old at the time, I had seen few movies aside from Aladdin that were nominated, but I loved the spirit of competition present in the ceremony. By the next year, I was already watching religiously and had persuaded my parents to let me see the R-rated Schindler's List before the ceremony. A lifetime love (and obsession) began.

Now to the Supporting Actress race. It was definitely a shock when Marisa Tomei won, and there were even rumors of an error in reading her name. What do I think happen? Well, I think Joan Plowright and Vanessa Redgrave appealed to much of the same constituency and split the voters. Miranda Richardson, I think, was never really in the hunt because her movie was probably off-putting to many viewers. So we come to Judy Davis and Marisa Tomei. Judy Davis was terrific, respected, and should have won, BUT she was in a Woody Allen movie in the year of the Soon-Yi scandal. Perhaps the voters weren't quite ready to reward a performance in an Allen film, no matter the level of performance. So they were left with Tomei. A young, breakfout star. Check. A funny and scene-stealing performance. Check. Looks good while accepting the Oscar. Check. A strange choice at the time, but now that we have seen her performances in In the Bedroom, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, and The Wrestler, it seems the Academy has vindicated itself. As you'll see at the smackdown, it's not my choice but its certainly not a bad one.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Review Round-Up

Here are some quick thoughts on movies I've seen in the past couple weeks....

The Garden (2009)

This documentary follows a 14-acre community garden in South Central L.A. It was created after the L.A. riots, and was lovingly tended mostly by the Latino community. When the man who sold the land to the city wants it back, a backroom deal occurs which sells him back the land at a ridiculously low price. The movie pits the grassroots farmers and their defenders (who come to include numerous Hollywood celebs) against the shady financial dealings of urban politics. The struggle is moving, and it's a consistently interesting documentary. One flaw (which may not be the filmmakers' fault), is that we never really see or understand the man who got the garden in the first place. The movie also glosses over some of the internal politics of running the garden.

Grade: B

Wendy and Lucy (2008)

Filmmaker Kelly Reichardt, who made Old Joy (2006), returns with another minimalist tale of a drifter in the Pacific Northwest. Wendy and Lucy stars Michelle Williams as Wendy, a woman who has left Indiana and is traveling to Alaska with her dog Lucy. We don't get much back story on why she has traveling, but there is definitely the sense that there is more at stake than simply work. Much of the movie concerns Wendy's struggle to find Lucy when she is lost.

When I saw Old Joy, I appreciated the sense of disillusionment with modern America that Reichardt portrayed, but it also was so plotless that it was difficult to fully invest in the film. With Wendy and Lucy, I think Reichardt has really hit her stride as a filmmaker while making her point just as powerfully. The movie definitely won't appeal to those who bore of contemplative movies, but there is a sense of dramatic momentum and character development that I found riveting. Michelle Williams does a superb job in the title role, and all the supporting actors and actresses in small roles portray a true naturalism. The movie also ends with one of the most beautiful scenes I've seen in a long time. This movie was truly a miniature gem, and I can't wait to see what Reichardt will do in the future.

Grade: A-

Howards End (1992)
The last (and best) of my 1992 Supporting Actress screenings. The best movie of the Merchant-Ivory team (A Room With a View, The Remains of the Day). An absolutely superb cast (Anthony Hopkins, Emma Thompson, Vanessa Redgrave, Helena Bonham Carter) plays out E.M. Forster's drama of class conflict in early 20th-century England. The movies follows the intersections of the three families: the upper-class Wilcoxes, the artistic middle-class Schlegels, and the lower-class Basts. Forster's point, I think, is to show the ways that people of disparate ways are or aren't able to connect with one another. Some characters (such as Vanessa Redgrave's Mrs. Wilcox and Emma Thompson's Margaret Schelgel), have a natural sensibility to connection, while others, such as Anthony Hopkins' Henry Wilcox, are unable to see beyond their own circumstances. This movie is pitch-perfect and beautiful in its depiction of a world gone by, and also consistently dramatically compelling. A great film.

The great Vanessa Redgrave was nominated for Supporting Actress in the film. She opens the film in a great wordless title sequence, and appears in several more scenes during the first 45 minutes of the movie. She does a wonderful job at portraying an ethereal woman of great kindness and quiet passion. While she is gone for much of the movie, her presence lives on and continues to play an important role.

Grade: A

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

More Supporting Actress Screenings: My Cousin Vinny and Enchanted April

In preparation for StinkyLulu's upcoming blogathon, I watched two more of the nominated movies. If you'd like a view of the nominations, here is a montage put together by Alex from Alex in Movieland, another blogathan participant:

Enchanted April (1992)

Pleasant movie about four very different women in WW1-era England who regain some life while sharing an Italian villa. Frothy, entertaining, and a little poignant at the end. Not incredibly deep and the character arcs are a little thin, but fun to watch.

Joan Plowright was nominated for her role as the middle-aged dowager who (re)opens herself to life and friendship while at the villa. Plowright plays her role well, but it does feel she could do this role in her sleep. On another note, one of the leading roles is played by Miranda Richardson. After being somewhat disappointed by her work in Damage, I was very impressed by her portrayal here.

Grade: B

My Cousin Vinny (1992)

This movie has the mark of many late-1980s/early-1990s comedies: lazy directing, by the book cinematography, and a predictable plot. It follows Joe Pesci as a novice lawyer who goes down to Alabama to help out a cousin wrongly accused of a crime. Marisa Tomei joins him as his working-class, very New York girlfriend. The movie is fairly entertaining and the final courtroom scenes are quite funny.

At the time Tomei won the Oscar, many were appalled. Looking back, though, Tomei really does give a great performance. Perhaps her later performances in In the Bedroom and The Wrestler are influencing me, but I see the same fierce intelligence and empathy in this same role. While it is a broadly written role, Tomei rarely overplays it.

Grade: C+

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Woody Allen's Squabbling Spouses

Husbands and Wives (1992)

The next screening for my participation in StinkyLulu's Supporting Actress blogathon ( is Woody Allen's Husbands and Wives, a scathing account of marital discord among four middle-aged characters. I consider this movie to be his finest of the 1990s. The movie begins when Jack and Sally (Sydney Pollack and Judy Davis) announce to their friends Gabe and Judy (Allen and Farrow) that they are divorcing. This announcement, and the subsequent fallout, involves both Jack and Sally finding new partners and Gabe and Judy turning an intense eye on their own relationship. The movie is filmed in documentary-style, and the emotions it touches are often raw. It pokes and prods at the myriad of ways that relationships can go sour, and how they come to define a person's identity.

The entire central foursome does an excellent job, with the two actresses showing the most range and emotion. Judy Davis, who was nominated for Supporting Actress, does an extremely fine job of playing the prickly, intellectual, easily wounded Sally. She has several bravura and scathingly hilarious scenes in which she steals the movie. Allen excels at writing supporting female parts that allow for actress to shine (Penelope Cruz in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Dianne Wiest in Bullets Over Broadway). The movie can probably be technically considered a comedy, but probably the darkest "comedy" Allen has made. The emotions are rough and certain scenes are almost unbearably intimate.

Allen is probably the modern director who most puts himself on the screen, or at least portrays a similar persona in many roles. In Husbands and Wives, released just after the Soon-Yi affair was uncovered and he and Farrow broke up, this makes for some uncomfortable moments. Allen portrays Farrow's character as passive aggressive and conniving. He also portrays himself as a man who has a 20-year-old in love with him, yet refuses to consummate the relationship. In the end, the blame for the marital problems are placed at Judy's feet. A bit of alternate reality for Woody? Then again, Allen includes a scene where the young woman played by Juliette Lewis (his young student) criticizes his character's views of women and men in a novel. So Allen is self-aware enough to recognize his own flaws.

All in all, Husbands and Wives is essential viewing for any Allen fan.

Grade: A-

Friday, May 15, 2009

Michael Moore & Sicko (2007)

Sicko (2007)

Documentarian/provocateur Michael Moore brings his trademark style to the American health care system. Like most of Moore's documentaries, it is in turns revelatory, moving, and annoying. Like almost all his films, it is easy to critique ways that he could make it better.

The most powerful portions of the movie are the stories of the ways that the American HMO system screws Americans. The audio footage of Nixon enthusiastically endorsing a system that treats fewer patients is particularly chilling. It's hard to watch stories of patients refused treatment or given the run-around by the system and not feel shocked and appalled. Technically it's probably nothing I didn't know or suspect, but Moore picks some great subjects. This is the best stuff.

Where Moore falters is in showing the systems of other countries: Canada, England, France, and Cuba. As someone who agrees with him about universal health care, there is no doubt that I would prefer a Canadian or European system of universal care. I do question, however, whether showing rich British and French system and all they can afford is really the best way of making his point. What's the point, that people can be rich even with high taxes?? Not revolutionary. It would have been more interesting to see how the poor and working-class are treated in these countries, because I think this would show the importance of a universal system in a more poignant way. It would also have been interesting to see problems that universal systems have endured and how they solved these problems.

I did find Moore's visit to Cuba with 9/11 rescue workers who had been denied care very moving. The fact that a person can get a medicine for about $.05 in Cuba that would cost $120 in the US is appalling. It's hard not to be moved by people being treated with dignity.

So, Moore continues his pattern of documentaries. He preaches to the choir (including me) and we agree with him. He throws in enough questionable material for his detractors to criticize him. I'm hoping that one of these days he matures as a film maker and realizes that sometimes nuance can beat out the obvious.

Grade: B-

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Supporting Actress Blogathon & Review of Damage

I'm thrilled at the chance to participate in an upcoming blogathon at StinkyLulu's site ( I'm a long-time fan of his supporting actress blogathons, where he and guests look back at nominated Supporting Actress performances and critique them. I am even more excited to participate in 1992's blogathon, the year when Marisa Tomei beat 4 British thespians and spawned an urban legend that the wrong name was read (

So, in the next few weeks look for reviews of the following films that contain 1992 nominated supporting actress performances:

-Damage (Miranda Richardson)
-Enchanted April (Joan Plowright)
-Howards End (Vanessa Redgrave)
-Husbands and Wives (Judy Davis)
-My Cousin Vinny (Marisa Tomei)

and my first screening was......

Damage (1992)

I found Damage, Louis Malle's very serious and dramatic depiction of an erotic affair between a young woman and her fiance's father, fairly ridiculous in many ways. Little is given in the way of character development and, when it is given, it often feels patently false. The first hour consists of repeated scenes of Jeremy Irons and Juliette Binoche sneaking around and having trysts in various locales. The sex scenes are ludicrous and the characters' motivations and actions rarely believable. Jeremy Irons, who can be a great actor, also seems wooden and emotionless throughout the movie.

In my opinion the best part of the movie was Juliette Binoche, a great French actress (I love her later work in Blue, The English Patient, and Cache). While her character is drawn with broad sketches, she hints at layers underneath. I think the movie would have been much more interesting if it had been told from her perspective rather than Irons', but as in most films, male desire and psychology is given greater precedence.

Miranda Richardson was nominated for a role in which she was supremely miscast, the wife of Jeremy Irons. She plays the mother of 29-year-old actor Rupert Graves when she was (wait for it....) all of 34 years old. I could never buy that she was actually his mother. Nevertheless, she does her best with the role and has probably the movie's most emotional moment in a later scene.

I must admit that the movie was somewhat entertaining in a laughable way, but I don't recommend spending two hours of your time watching it.

Grade: C-