Beyond the Multiplex

Where I'm laying my Oscar money. Plus: Dylan McDermott and Snoop Dogg take on Malamud, and Scarlett Johansson and Helen Hunt tackle Wilde.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published February 2, 2006 11:00AM (EST)

So the Oscar nominations are in, and everyone's saying it's a big year for "independent" films. As we count down toward March 5, the biz will be abuzz with palpable  wait, what was I saying? I seem to have passed out at my keyboard.

Oh, right. The Academy. Where do they find this stuff? I'm not talking about all the big-ticket nominees, which pretty much followed the script. For the record, I'm not buying the pseudo-conventional wisdom that "Brokeback Mountain" is a safe choice and will sweep up. Academy voters are old and stodgy, and liberal only in the sense that they vote for the presidential candidate they met at Barbra's house. What's more, they're still terrified of being described as a pack of pansy-lovers by the idiots on television. My money's on "Munich" or "Good Night, and Good Luck."

But when it comes to the categories where I have some alleged expertise, the foreign films and documentaries, we find a few surprises and a fair bit of the same old, same old. It's often been said that these awards are reserved for spinach movies -- you know, they're loaded with nutrients but don't taste so great. Actually, I like spinach pretty well, both at the table and in cinematic form. So do a lot of other people (more than critics usually admit), but the point is that the Academy has a reputation for rewarding movies that are startlingly earnest and dull, those that inform us, e.g., that war can be tough on small children, that learning to live with a disability can be hard, and that the Holocaust was a really bad thing.

Looking at the actual record, I don't think this is totally fair. Just looking at the last decade, Oscar voters have rewarded the following films: Nikita Mikhalkov's "Burnt by the Sun," Pedro Almodóvar's "All About My Mother," Ang Lee's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," Danis Tanovic's "No Man's Land," and the documentaries "When We Were Kings," "Bowling for Columbine," "The Fog of War" and "Born Into Brothels." Sure, there were some autopilot awards mixed in there as well (like the 1995 documentary "Anne Frank Remembered") and some completely forgettable foreign films, like 1997's "Character" or 2002's "Nowhere in Africa," but on the whole it's not a bad list.

I'll pick apart the documentary and foreign-language nominees a bit more attentively as we get closer to Oscar night, but let's get back to my main point: Where the hell do they get this stuff? Of the foreign films, three are unmistakably worthy choices: Yeah, Marc Rothemund's "Sophie Scholl -- The Final Days" is yet another Nazi-era drama, but a good one. Gavin Hood's "Tsotsi," which I just saw, is a devastating thriller about crime and redemption in Johannesburg's Soweto, clearly one of the movies of the year. And jaws dropped all over the film world at the nomination of Hany Abu-Assad's "Paradise Now," which dares to treat Palestinian suicide bombers as if they were human beings.

The other two nominees are unknown quantities at this point. "Joyeux Noël" is a natural -- a heartwarming saga of a famous World War I incident when opposing troops played a Christmas soccer match between the lines -- that supposedly brought Cannes audiences to tears. (Unless it was the quality of last year's Champagne vintage that did that.) And the Italian film "Don't Tell" is ... well, what is it exactly? As far as I can tell, it's the as-yet-unannounced English title of Cristina Comencini's drama "La Bestia nel Cuore" (literally "The Beast in the Heart"), which also at this moment has no scheduled United States release date.

Of course it's not fair to judge those two films without seeing them, but I can make the obvious comment that Arnaud Desplechin's "Kings and Queen," Jia Zhangke's "The World," Ingmar Bergman's "Saraband" and Wong Kar-wai's "2046" were not even nominated. When you look at the documentary category, Werner Herzog's "Grizzly Man" wasn't even on the pre-nomination short list of 15 films (!), and Eugene Jarecki's "Why We Fight," thanks to the Academy's abstruse and ever-changing rules, wasn't eligible for nomination in the first place.

In place of those, we have a widely criticized environmental documentary about Tanzania's Lake Victoria, "Darwin's Nightmare," and a film about a mayoral election in Newark, N.J., "Street Fight," which has played only at festivals and specialty venues. I haven't seen those, but I have seen "Murderball," "March of the Penguins" and "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room." Those are all obvious choices if not especially inspired ones, but personally, I'd pick all three of Herzog's documentaries released this year (the other two being "The White Diamond" and "The Wheel of Time") over any of them.

Before we move on to a brisk survey of this lackluster week in Indiewood, I should acknowledge all the heated and highly engaged responses to my non-Sundance column last week. Some of you suggested, more or less politely, that I was a creep for even caring about the commercial destinies of independent films, and several pointed out that I was an idiot for missing the 2004 grand-prizewinner "Primer" (which I hereby solemnly swear to watch).

I'll plead guilty to the second indictment, but will continue my Clintonesque waffling on the first one. Hey, I defer to no one in my film-snob desire to discover movies that normal people just don't know about; in the last year I would point proudly to my coverage of "Innocence," "The 3 Rooms of Melancholia," "Mail Order Wife" and "Turtles Can Fly." But Sundance once seemed like a place where really good films could chase the devil's candy: artistic legitimacy, cultural clout and a decent payday, all at the same time.

Still, the more I wrestle with this question, the more I suspect that the myth of Sundance is mostly just that. I'm sure there were great films there this year -- I especially can't wait to see Andrucha Waddington's "House of Sand" and Juan Carlos Rulfo's documentary "In the Pit" -- and I'm willing to bet that this year's big prizewinners (the drama "Quinceañera" and the documentary "God Grew Tired of Us") will be worthy works with limited audience appeal. What has been lost is a pure-hearted Sundance of the pre-BlackBerry, pre-goodie bag era, which perhaps never quite existed.

The fine folks at IndieWIRE (shameless plug: It's where I get my jones for movie news straightened out every morning) recently published an illuminating list of all the award-winning films from Sundance since 1985. Some years are genuinely memorable: The 2003 festival brought us "Capturing the Friedmans" and "American Splendor," and 1991 brought Todd Haynes' "Poison" along with Jennie Livingston's "Paris Is Burning" and Barbara Kopple's "American Dream."

But does anyone now reverberate to precious memories of "Girlfight" (a 2000 prizewinner) or "Troublesome Creek" (1996) or "Silverlake Life" (1993) or "Heat and Sunlight" (1988)? If that's you, I apologize. But I ain't digging them up and watching them again. The prizewinning drama at Sundance in 1999, supposed glory year of the indie revolution, wasn't "Three Kings" or "Being John Malkovich" or "Magnolia" or "Fight Club," but a film called "Three Seasons," by the young Vietnamese-American director Tony Bui. As I discovered when I went through the Salon archives, I not only apparently saw this movie, I reviewed it. Sounds like I liked it! A little comes back to me -- some pretty lotus-blossom imagery, and Harvey Keitel drinking coffee on the Saigon streets. But not much.

"The Tenants": Hear the one about the neurotic Jewish writer and the scary young black dude?
So I saw this movie called "The Tenants," which is based on a 1971 novel by Bernard Malamud and stars Dylan McDermott and Snoop Dogg. That combination might get your attention; it certainly got mine. The film, a debut for director Danny Green, isn't exactly bad and isn't exactly good. It's raw in some places and overcooked in others. The script by David Diamond is wildly uneven, but Mr. McDermott and Mr. Dogg (as the New York Times would put it) make a compelling combo, even when the movie they're in appears to be "Barton Fink" mixed with "The Shining" and "Do the Right Thing."

Part of me wants to give "The Tenants" some water and light, as if to let it grow a little. But the fact is that this paranoid racial fantasy of early-1970s New York doesn't understand what it's really about. It's a dark and aesthetically reckless film that A) won't get any significant distribution and B) will alienate most people who actually do see it. So right now you're saying, where do I sign up, right?

McDermott plays Harry Lesser, a lonely, misanthropic novelist who's the last legal tenant in an abandoned Brooklyn building the landlord wants to sell as a tear-down. But Harry won't leave until he finishes his atrocious-sounding book about the search for love -- and it turns out he's not as alone as he thinks he is. Down the hall is another writer, a scruffy African-American squatter named Willie Spearmint (Snoop) who's clickety-clacking his own enraged diatribe, which meanders through his own life of poverty and crime and indulges his increasingly demented anti-honky homicidal fantasies.

I haven't read Malamud's book, but it seems evident at a single glance that Willie bears almost no resemblance to a real person. Compared to him, Melvin Van Peebles' Sweet Sweetback character is an apostle of racial reconciliation; Willie's basically a demonic projection of all Harry's darkest (ha, ha) fears and blackest (ha, ha) self-hatred. Willie makes impossible demands on Harry from the moment they meet, and even when they seem to be friends it's clear that mutual distrust, bigotry and violence lie just beneath the surface. It's important to remember that Malamud was informed at least as much by Eastern European magic realism as by the actual racial politics of '70s America, and in that light Willie is something like a golem, invented by Harry as a way of destroying himself.

Still, as anybody who grew up in an American city in that decade can attest, black-white racial antagonism was a palpable factor in everyday life, and "The Tenants" really does capture that atmosphere, if in caricatured form. In the end, I think this movie is intellectually, politically, sexually and racially misguided -- but, hey, it has its moments! The best of those come when Willie and Harry are sitting on the floor smoking some killer hash-laced weed. Willie has invited his so-called friend to get high, and even coached him on blowing the awesome doob. But after a while he won't pass him the joint anymore, and just sits there amid his heightening buzz while Harry wiggles and whimpers ineffectually. That's this movie in a nutshell, without the axes, guns, chicks or high-minded talk about literature.

"The Tenants" opens Feb. 3 at the Empire 25 in New York. Other cities may follow.

"A Good Woman": On the importance of cranking out more or less satisfactory Oscar adaptations
Anybody adapting Oscar Wilde's plays into movies has to manage a number of somewhat contradictory tasks. Actors must be found who can deliver the great man's zingers with unsmirking good humor, yet who also can, as we film critics say, "command the screen." Pretty locations must be found, yet not so amazing that, in the Merchant Ivory tradition, they overwhelm the purported story. Finally, Wilde's plays are peculiarly and finely balanced between cynicism and romanticism, between the abyss of hypocrisy he sees beneath polite heterosexual existence and the genuine affection he feels for (some of) his characters, and some approximation of that must be attempted.

Let's give Mike Barker's "A Good Woman" credit for pleasantly photographing the Amalfi coast, for casting the marvelous Tom Wilkinson in the role of the sensible, humble and filthy rich aristocrat nicknamed "Tuppy," and for taking a few modest chances with the rest of its cast. Oh, and the zingers are pretty much intact. We learn that women are like sausages -- if you want to appreciate the final product, you're better off not witnessing the preparation. And that America is the first country to go straight from barbarism to decadence, without bothering to create a civilization. (Still one of La Wilde's best lines.) And that -- no, let's not spoil things further.

None of that conceals that this adaptation of "Lady Windermere's Fan," one of Wilde's finest plays, is little more than an agreeable time-waster. Casting Scarlett Johansson as the young, innocent and rather whiny Mrs. Windermere, and Helen Hunt as Stella Erlynne, the dodgy American adventuress with her eyes on the hunky and supremely rich Mr. Windermere (Mark Umbers), must have sounded like Interesting Ideas at the Time. Neither quite pays off. Johansson does her normal sulky routine, which is somehow much more galling in a 1930s character than a 2000s one, and makes her seem 12 rather than 20.

Hunt's always an engaging actress, and she's so deliberately all wrong for Mrs. Erlynne -- androgynous, cheerful, good-hearted and not the least bit sirenish -- that it has to be on purpose. Still, it means you keep hunting around the margins of this movie for some reason to care about it, and beyond the excellent Wilkinson, you won't really find one. Umbers is a lump of inanimate beefcake as Robert Windermere, and Stephen Campbell Moore indulges in all the worst kind of English theatrical hambone as the scurrilous Lord Darlington. This is one of those movies destined to be watched by family groups who can't agree on what to see: You'll all get a few chuckles, and then it's home for dessert.

"A Good Woman" opens Feb. 3 in New York, Los Angeles and other major cities.

Best local theater showing off-the-grid films? Nominations, please
Whenever I can, I try to plug the Pioneer Theater in New York's East Village, which is doing the movie gods' work on earth by playing all kinds of low-end indies and documentaries that won't get much chance at the American market, from the devastating docu about Colombian gang warfare, "La Sierra" to the groundbreaking horror flick "Zombie Honeymoon." This week, for instance, downtowners can check out Ricky Tognazzi's 1993 "La Scorta," a slick thriller with an unabashedly commercial sensibility and a streak of uniquely Italian fatalism. (It had a very brief U.S. release in '94, but I certainly never saw it.)

But here's my plea: Readers keep enlightening me about remarkable theaters, and theater proprietors, who are fighting the good fight against the Hollywood colossus in their own hometowns. Some of these I know about personally, in obvious places like L.A. and San Francisco, and others I'm dimly aware of, in Minneapolis or Chicago or Cleveland. But I definitely didn't know about the theater in Columbia, Mo., that programs undistributed films from all over the world, including Adam Curtis' quasi-banned docu "The Power of Nightmares." When I hear such things, I can't help it -- I feel hope.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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