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Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Complete Tom McCarthy

Movies: The Station Agent (2003), The Visitor (2008), Win Win (2011)

Oscar Nominations: None for directing, 1 for co-writing Up (2010)

Continuing my look at the complete works of some directors, I'm now looking at a relatively new writer-director who's made a nice mark from just 3 movies-Tom McCarthy. My first instinct was to write that McCarthy directs naturalistic and realistic movies. Then I realized that his plots concern a dwarf who lives in an abandoned railroad depot, a wealthy man who ends up rooming with two illegal immigrants squatting in his luxury apartment, and a lawyer who ends up as a caretaker for the grandson of a man he swindled. On second thought, McCarthy makes movies with sitcom-like situations. He rarely shoots them like sitcoms, though, instead finding a quiet rhythm that carries the situations to their logical conclusions and takes the audience along all the way.

All three of his movies have charming performances by all the lead performers. I actually can't think of a weak acting link in any of his movies. It's important that the actors are good, because his movies are so much about relationships among the characters. I also like how he strives to look at the goodness in humanity, in many ways a polar opposite to Darren Aronofsky, who I last wrote about. In all of his movies, a person (or people) are gradually opened up by the interactions of those around them. He's especially interested in friendships that cross artificial boundaries of nation, race, age, and (in The Station Agent) size. If you're looking for a movie that will make you believe a little more in humanity without feeling manipulated, I'd recommend any of McCarthy's 3 movies.

Bonus Points: McCarthy is also an actor, must prominently playing the shady reporter Templeton on the fifth season of The Wire, the greatest TV series ever (no arguments please).

Here's how I would rank his movies:

1.) TheVisitor: The most serious of McCarthy's movies, and also the most moving. It's about an emotionally closed-off economist whose life becomes intertwined with two illegal immigrants who squat in his apartment. Richard Jenkins, an excellent longtime character actor, earned an Oscar nomination in his lead role. As wonderful as Jenkins is, he is matched moment for moment by the great Palesitian actress Hiam Abbass, who enters the movie as the mother of the young immigrant. (Slight spoiler alert) The movie doesn't end happily. There's a fair amount of anger in it, yet you are still left appreciating the connections that have been made.

Grade: A-

2.) The Station Agent: I just watched this movie again, and it really is a charming film. It takes a little while to warm up and hook the audience, but once it does it's wonderful to watch the characters interact. Peter Dinklage is an antisocial midget, Patricia Clarkson a grieving mother, and Bobby Canavale a food vendor displaced from New York. They all converge in a small New Jersey town and form a motley sort of family. Quiet, simple, funny, and very sweet.

Grade: B+

3.) Win Win: Win Win is currently out in theaters, and I think it might be McCarthy's most crowd-pleasing movie. That said, I think it's the only one of his movies where, at times, the contrivances get a little thick. As usual, though, the actors shine. Paul Giamatti and Amy Ryan are wonderful as the central couple. My favorites, though, are young actor Alex Shaffer who manages to be hilarious without ever overplaying his high school athlete character, and Bobby Canavale (also great in The Station Agent), who is absolutely hilarious as a divorced man reliving his youth through coaching high school wrestling. It's also topped off with his signature amounts of heart and humor.

Grade: B

Saturday, May 7, 2011

The Complete Darren Aronofsky

It's been two very quiet (OK, silent) months on the blog. To any faithful readers, I apologize for my absence. I always slow down quite a bit after Oscar season, and this has been a particularly busy time in other areas of my life.

Never fear though, I'm back with a new feature called "The Complete Directors" where I'll look at the films of directors who I've seen all (or nearly all) of their work. While I certainly have my favorite film actors and actresses, I tend to be more loyal and interested in a director's output. While even the best actors often make poor choices, many great directors hold at least some interest no matter the movie.

I'm starting with Darren Aronofsky, one of the most fascinating and singular directors working today. In each feature, I hope to give an overview of the director's work. After this, I'll do a ranking of their movies with some brief thoughts and clips of each one.

The Complete Darren Aronofsky

Movies: 5. Pi (1998), Requiem for a Dream (2000), The Fountain (2006), The Wrestler (2008), Black Swan (2010).
Oscar Nominations: 1 (Black Swan)

Darren Aronofksy is not interested in making you feel good. Exhilarated, yes. Riveted, yes. Disgusted, at times. While his limited output includes hyper-realism, psychological horror, and romantic fantasy, all his films share a view of the world which looks head-on at pain and suffering.

One common element in Aronofsky's films is that of manipulation of the body. It starts as early as Pi, where the lead becomes obsessed with a math sequence and begins digging into the flesh of his head. In Requiem, the seductiveness of drugs is portrayed in his fast-cut sequences, and then later the ravages are just as clearly seen. In The Wrestler and Black Swan, two very different athletes/artists are willing to manipulate their body for obsession, addiction, and personal acclaim. The juxtaposition of these two films is fascinating. While told in completely different styles, their stories (and even their haunting closing scenes) mirror one another in a sort of mirror-image meditation on warped masculinity and femininity.

Aronofsky is also a master at directing actors and forcing them to dig into pain in their performances. Think of Ellen Burstyn in Requiem for a Dream, Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler, and Natalie Portman in Black Swan. Each of these are among the most painful of modern performances and personal bests for each actor, and I get the sense Aronofsky works his actors hard. While his actors are astounding, there is always room for Aronofksy's flourishes behind the camera. He works relatively rarely (every few years) and seems passionate about what he makes. I can't wait to see what he comes up with next.

Here's how I rank his movies:

1.) Requiem for a Dream: Most anyone who has seen this movie will tell you it's one of the most sad and painful movies they've ever seen. Why then, have I seen it 3 times? And why could I watch it again right now? As a film lover, I'm so thrilled by directors who can connect us so deeply to the emotions of their characters that the pain can sometimes become transcendent. Requiem for a Dream, about 4 drug addicts, is just about perfect. It sucks you in, connects you to the characters, and breaks your heart. You'll remember the haunting score forever.

Grade: A

2.) Black Swan. I just rewatched this movie, and even if the surprises are lost the second time, it still holds up as a whacked-0ut, thrilling piece of moviemaking. There is literally not a moment wasted in this film. The mishmash between reality and fantasy (and who's to say which part is which?) is simultaneously fun, scary, and disturbing. In my opinion, the best movie of 2010.

Grade: A

3.) The Wrestler. This movie has so much pain in it, both physically and emotionally. Mickey Rourke's character of Randy "The Ram" is a washed-up wrestler trying to make it, and the movie, unusually realistic for Aronofksy, follows his life with documentary-like precision.

Grade: A-

4.) The Fountain. A movie I've only seen once and definitely need to see again. It's actually 3 stories at once, one set in the 16th Century, one in the present day, and one in the distant future. All 3 stories star the wonderful Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz (Aronofksy's ex-wife) and have a lush but painful romanticism. I'm not quite sure I can tell you what it all means, but it's really fascinating filmmaking.

Grade: A-

5.) Pi. I just saw this movie, and I'm glad I did as it gives a lot of insight into Aronofsky's early ideas. This one really seems like a film-school movie, in both good ways and bad. It's done with a lot of style and it tells an original story, completely focusing on the thoughts and actions of a mathematical genius who may be going crazy. There's some less-than-stellar acting, and I'm not sure all the ideas are fully formed, but it's really interesting to watch as Aronofksy's first film. I was especially interested in the echoes of other films, particularly the creepy subway ride which reappears in Black Swan and the drug-taking sequences which are echoed in Requiem for a Dream.

Grade: B-

That's all for my first installment of "The Complete...." Coming soon-Wes Anderson, Paul Thomas Anderson. I'll also take suggestions!