Beyond the Multiplex

The Spirit Award nominations are in -- and they're indier than ever. Plus: Anthony LaPaglia and Isabella Rossellini, Lucy Liu and Chlo


Andrew O'Hehir
November 30, 2006 5:00PM (UTC)

With the major fall movies already on the market and the Christmas-week releases still to come, we've hit a relatively quiet patch on the film calendar. This week's dance card does include a serious-minded drama of urban life, starring Anthony LaPaglia and Isabella Rossellini, as well as a transglobal AIDS omnibus film featuring Lucy Liu and Chloë Sevigny. One of these movies is earnest and competent; the other is totally wacked out.

To the restless mind of the movie-biz maven, this dearth of juicy new morsels can only mean one thing: It's time to think about awards season! Relax, we're still months away from the Oscars or even the Golden Globes, not to mention the various other made-for-TV award spectacles of early 2007, but Film Independent just announced its nominees for this year's Spirit Awards, always a hot topic in Indiewood.

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Yes, I know, you're already confused. Until recently these were called the Independent Spirit Awards, but that first word has been dropped for 2007, partly in response to the controversies of the '06 awards season, when such Oscar-contending semi-independent films as "Crash," "Brokeback Mountain," "Capote" and "Good Night, and Good Luck" were among the ISA's nominees and winners. (In fact, all except the last of those films really are indies, using the most logical follow-the-money definition, but let's not get sidetracked onto that topic.)

Maybe losing the "independent" label has set the Spirit Awards' nominating committees free, because this is the most indier-than-thou list they've offered in years. In what has to be considered a major surprise, Pedro Almodóvar's "Volver" and Stephen Frears' "The Queen," two of the fall's big upscale hits (and both plausible Oscar contenders in various categories) were totally shut out. True, the best-feature category has "Little Miss Sunshine," the year's most successful independent release by far, but it also includes Aric Avelino's intriguing "American Gun," an interlinked narrative about the role of firearms in American life that was released last March but seen by almost nobody.

The other three best-feature nominees are certifiable critics' darlings: Ryan Fleck's "Half Nelson," Guillermo del Toro's "Pan's Labyrinth" and Karen Moncrieff's "The Dead Girl." I haven't seen the latter film yet, but Fleck's and del Toro's pictures -- the first a Brechtian study of a high school teacher battling drug addiction and depression, the second a blend of fairytale fantasy and Spanish Civil War saga, are certainly among the year's most ambitious and affecting works. (Both "Pan's Labyrinth" and "The Dead Girl" will open Dec. 29, just in time to qualify for 2006 awards.) Is it coincidence that all three concern, in part, girls or young women struggling with adolescence and its aftermath? You tell me.

If anything, this year's Spirit nominations seem devoted to resurrecting unjustly overlooked films, which is precisely what last year's awards seemed to avoid doing. Along with the surprise nod for "American Gun," an appealing, undogmatic picture that also garnered nominations for Forest Whitaker (as best actor) and Marcia Gay Harden (as best supporting actress), two virtually ignored depictions of the paranoid, post-9/11 American landscape won unexpected honors. Robin Wright Penn was nominated for her impressive scenery chewing as the neurotic, Islamophobic protagonist of Jeff Stanzler's "Sorry, Haters," and Michelle Williams was named for her ingenue role in "Land of Plenty," which for my money is Wim Wenders' best film since "Wings of Desire" but went virtually unreleased.

Stanzler also got a best-screenplay nomination for "Sorry, Haters" (basically an old-style grade-B psychological thriller with a contemporary twist), and Gabrielle Zevin was nominated (in the best first screenplay category) for "Conversations With Other Women," a nifty little two-hander for Aaron Eckhart and Helena Bonham Carter that drew almost no business. Other off-the-radar nominations included two (best first feature and best actor) for Ramin Bahrani's "Man Push Cart," which came and went quickly, and Elizabeth Reaser's best-actress nod for Ali Selim's "Sweet Land," a pretty heartland epic which has stiffed with big-city audiences.

Besides Whitaker in "American Gun" and Ahmad Razvi in "Man Push Cart," the other best-actor nominees are Ryan Gosling in "Half Nelson" (look for him at Oscar time too), Eckhart in "Thank You for Smoking" and Edward Norton in "The Painted Veil" (a Christmas-week release). The actress nominees, along with Penn, Reaser and Williams, are Shareeka Epps, the teen co-star of "Half Nelson," and Catherine O'Hara in "For Your Consideration." All you need to know about the best-director category is that Robert Altman was nominated, for "A Prairie Home Companion," less than a week after his death. (The other nominees are Fleck, Moncrieff, the duo of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris for "Little Miss Sunshine," and Steven Soderbergh for "Bubble," which was not nominated in any other category.)

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Then there are the unreleased films that just might get a crack at the marketplace with a little boost from the Spirits: Julia Loktev's mesmerizing terrorist drama "Day Night Day Night," a mini-sensation at Cannes, got two nominations, as did Goran Dukic's "Wristcutters: A Love Story." Nominations for the John Cassavetes Award (for films with budgets below $500,000) and in the foreign-language and documentary categories were dominated by pictures that paying audiences in this country haven't seen yet. Romanian director Corneliu Porimboiu's comedy "12:08 East of Bucharest" and the Argentine thriller "Chronicle of an Escape" were both at Cannes last spring. The cancer documentary "A Lion in the House" played at Sundance last year but nowhere else; the Filipino film "The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros" has primarily played at Asian or gay-themed film festivals.

All in all, it's a diverse and invigorating list. I've been gearing up to write a year-end column about 2006 as a down year for indie pictures, simultaneously commercially chilly and aesthetically low-wattage, but now I'm not so sure it's true. I could expend several outraged paragraphs detailing the perceived injustice of these nominations -- nothing for "Agnes and His Brothers" or "Bamako" or "Duck Season" or "Jonestown"? more and better nominations for "Sorry, Haters" and "American Gun" than for "Friends With Money" and "Shortbus"? -- but that's missing the point. Awards aren't supposed to confirm what we already think; they're supposed to challenge us, to open our eyes and make us think again.

"The Architect": Depressed suburbanites meet downtrodden city-dwellers, neglect to turn on lights
Speaking as a connoisseur of espresso-depresso cinema, I must say that I found Matt Tauber's worthy and conscientious new urban drama "The Architect" a little heavy on the depresso without enough espresso. This film is adapted from a play by Scottish writer David Greig, set in (one presumes) either Edinburgh or Glasgow, and the attempt to transplant it to North America may account for its sense of rootless anomie. The fine ensemble is headed by Anthony LaPaglia, Isabella Rossellini and Viola Davis, but all three of them seem bummed out about the glum, constricted, melodramatic narrative they're locked into.

Davis provides the most powerful performance here, which is especially impressive when you consider that her character, a Chicago public-housing resident turned activist named Tonya, verges on tooth-achingly virtuous black-lady stereotype for much of the picture. Tonya lives in an appalling housing complex designed years ago by Leo Waters (LaPaglia), a Le Corbusier acolyte who's unable to face the collapse of his towers-in-a-park dream into a crime-ridden nightmare zone. She wants Leo to join with the activists who want the towers razed and the site redesigned; he of course refuses.

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Tauber has to gradually bring this mismatched couple -- the arrogant white intellectual and the single-mom African-American striver -- back to some kind of meeting place. Meanwhile he makes clear that Leo's life in his lovely suburban home is no less dysfunctional in its own way than Tonya's existence in the towers. His wife (Rossellini, completely wasted) is drifting off into mental illness, his daughter is pursuing a potential career as a truck-stop hooker, and his teenage son is having a sexual identity crisis, aided by a poor kid from (of course) the very housing project that Tonya lives in.

It's a compact and symmetrical picture with all its plot points in the right places, but I never found it convincing in the slightest. Sebastian Stan has moving moments as Leo's son, and I almost wished the movie was about him (and his would-be ghetto lover, played by Paul James) rather than questing so formulaically for meaning on a larger scale. LaPaglia, an actor of considerable range and gifts, seems dyspeptic and unhappy throughout this role. May he choose better next time.

"The Architect" opens in New York, Los Angeles and other major markets Dec. 1. Also available on many cable systems via HDNet, with DVD release to follow.

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"3 Needles": People all over the world, contractin' HIV, rapin', killin' and actin' goofy
I guess treating a well-intentioned movie about the global AIDS epidemic disrespectfully is already offensive, but there's almost no way I can convey to you the weirdness and unpredictability of Canadian director Thom Fitzgerald's anthology film "3 Needles." I can't even exactly tell you that it's bad. Well, yeah, I can: It's pretty bad. But "3 Needles" is occasionally very effective and sometimes very funny, to go along with the moments where it's clueless or totally alarming.

Here's what we've got: Three not-really-connected seriocomic anecdotes about violence, cruelty, manipulation and criminal misbehavior, all illustrating the insidious ways people spread HIV to each other. In one, Lucy Liu plays an unscrupulous blood-bank operator in rural China, infecting entire villages with dirty needles. She's the heroine of this segment, more or less. She gets raped by soldiers when she's nine months pregnant (in one of the movie's opening scenes).

In another, Shawn Ashmore plays a Montreal porn star who suspects he's HIV-positive, so he steals blood from his dying father to pass the tests he needs to take to keep working. When his dad dies and his mom (Stockard Channing) learns the truth about her son's career and viral status, she buys a whopping new insurance policy, intentionally infects herself with HIV, and then cashes in the insurance so the two of them can live in luxury. This entire segment is played as zany comedy -- Dad's bilingual Quebecois funeral, and Mom's insistence on screwing skeezy guys without condoms -- right up to the moment when Ashmore's character meets a former costar in a restaurant and she accuses him of killing her.

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Then there's a section with Chloë Sevigny, Sandra Oh and Olympia Dukakis as a trio of cute, salty, kinda sexy nuns out of some '50s movie, on a mission in southern Africa. Some of this is played for laughs too, but there's also the dastardly plantation owner with lascivious designs on Sister Chloë and the local superstition that the way to get rid of HIV is to pass it along to a virgin, which in practice means raping little girls. It turns out that the super-well-intentioned doctors who pal around chastely with the nuns have all along been using dirty needles the locals scavenge from the garbage, repackage, and sell them over and over again.

It's impossible not to admire the breadth of vision and ambition at work in "3 Needles." Fitzgerald is unafraid of trying to combine hilarity with horrifying, jaw-dropping tragedy. It sometimes produces moments of unexpected power. It also produces a bizarre and fatally uneven movie, veering from black comedy to utter stupidity to maudlin religiosity, which seems to have been made in total defiance of both narrative conventions and emotional logic.

"3 Needles" opens Dec. 1 in New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago, Palm Springs, Calif., and San Francisco, with more cities to follow.

"Highway Courtesans": Inside India's "prostitute caste"
It wouldn't be right not to mention Mystelle Brabbée's extraordinary documentary "Highway Courtesans," shot over the course of nine years among the Bachara community of central India, where by tradition the oldest daughter (and often the younger ones too) support their families through prostitution. She follows three young women, the sisters Guddi and Shana and their vivacious neighbor, Sangita, as they grow up into this tradition (officially abhorred but still thriving in practice), turning tricks for truck drivers along the Delhi-Calcutta highway.

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What's amazing about this is not the unstinting, fair-minded portraits of these girls' lives, and the complex social and familial pressures that push them into "the profession" (as everybody calls it), although those details are captured in outstanding clarity. It's that Guddi dares to defy her parents and the tradition, seeks out an education, leaves the profession behind and begins to develop her own ideas about gender, society and her own individual future. Shana and Sangita seem conflicted about this metamorphosis, both proud of Guddi and a little abashed that they aren't following suit. Not many documentaries about poverty in the developing world are so hopeful; you can't help wondering what Brabbée's camera will find among the Bachara in another decade.

"Highway Courtesans" opens Dec. 1 at the Quad Cinema in New York, with more engagements and DVD release to follow.


Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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