Beyond the Multiplex

Awards season begins. No, really. Plus: Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney make family dysfunction funny (no, really).


Andrew O'Hehir
November 29, 2007 5:00PM (UTC)

Let's see: Between the prospect of a nuclear-armed Pakistan descending into chaos and the tragic news that the movie version of Thomas Kinkade's painting "The Christmas Cottage" has been delayed until next Christmas, it's a tough week to get your head screwed on. But with the last leaves filling up the backyards and glassy-eyed shoppers filling the malls, it's time to think about the really important things in life. Like awards season!

As an equally cynical friend and critic said to me the other night, in tones of wonderment, it's time to crawl out on a limb and pronounce this a pretty darn good fall season for movies. (We were at a screening of Guy Ritchie's completely insane new movie "Revolver," and more about that next week.) And I still haven't seen most of the fall's so-called big movies, like Joe Wright's high-gloss adaptation of Ian McEwan's novel "Atonement," or Paul Thomas Anderson's much-anticipated Texas-oil epic "There Will Be Blood." Both of those are plausible Oscar nominees, to be sure, but where are the outliers, the surprises, the underdog little-miss-whoozits?

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That's not completely clear, but there's lots of contenders yet. As has become customary, the two rival indie-film awards, embroiled in a bicoastal cold war that almost nobody understands or cares about, have kicked off the season in highly confusing fashion. On Tuesday night in Brooklyn, N.Y., the indie umbrella organization IFP handed out its Gotham Awards, with Sean Penn's "Into the Wild" winning best feature and Michael Moore's "Sicko" best documentary. So there's two Oscar candidates up and running. (Full disclosure: I was a member of the committee that selected the Gothams' best-documentary nominees, but was not involved in choosing the final winner.)

Across the country earlier that day, Film Independent (which used to be the Los Angeles branch of IFP) announced the nominations for the Spirit Awards (which used to be called the Independent Spirit Awards). Coincidence? Oh, I'm so sure. Todd Haynes' Bob Dylan-influenced hallucination "I'm Not There" tops the Spirit list with five nominations, while Jason Reitman's "Juno," Julian Schnabel's "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" and Tamara Jenkins' highly entertaining family comedy "The Savages" racked up four apiece. (More on that last one below.) Also nominated for best feature are Michael Winterbottom's "A Mighty Heart" and Gus Van Sant's "Paranoid Park." ("Into the Wild," by the way, was ineligible for the Spirits because its budget was too big, while Van Sant's film is eligible even though it won't be released until March. It's hopeless trying to make sense of these things.)

OK, so now we've launched inflated Oscar hopes for a whole raft-load of indie filmmakers. It's a wide-open contest! Let the pointless horse-race speculation begin! As usual, the genuinely encouraging tidbits can be found by scrounging around the edges of the indie awards. Both organizations extended some love to Craig Zobel's "Great World of Sound" (and its magnetic star turn from Kene Holliday), nobly ignoring the fact that it drew approximately no real-world audience, as well as to "Frownland," the debut feature from one-time Museum of Modern Art projectionist Ronald Brownstein, which is shaping up as the year's best-loved undistributed film. I'm also gratified to see that the Spirits committee nominated Texas filmmaker Laura Dunn, director of the strange and moving real-estate documentary "The Unforeseen," for its Truer Than Fiction award, and Jennifer Baichwal's extraordinary film about photographer Edward Burtynsky, "Manufactured Landscapes," for best documentary.

Along the way I also learned that there is a new adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft's legendary horror tale "The Call of Cthulhu" making the festival rounds. Unlike Andrew Leman and Sean Branney's mock-1920s silent version (which is completely great), Dan Gildark and Grant Cogswell's "Cthulhu" has a contemporary setting, a gay central character and a supporting performance from Tori Spelling. Hello, producers of this film! I so completely cannot wait!

But I will have to. For now, in the name of Jiminy Christmas, we've got a lot to cover. Along with Tamara Jenkins' aforementioned "The Savages," we've got Jessica Yu's fascinating and unclassifiable documentary "Protagonist," a grueling thriller set during the Argentine military dictatorship of the '70s, British documentarian Robert Stone's meditation on the JFK assassination and its long hangover, and three major retrospectives of underappreciated world-class directors. Let's stop to shed a tear for the absence of "The Christmas Cottage" and, somehow, try to move on.

"The Savages" In the opening scene of Tamara Jenkins' long-awaited second feature (her debut film, "Slums of Beverly Hills," was released nine years ago), Mott Hupfel's camera bemusedly patrols the streets, ranch houses and recreation centers of Sun City, Ariz., the geriatric paradise on the sun-baked outskirts of Phoenix. There is controlled irony and gentleness in these shots, both a detached curiosity and a wistful sense that we all may wind up someplace like Sun City, and sooner than we think. It's one of those things you can't quite explain, but I immediately felt comfortable with Jenkins' vision, and felt like whatever was going to happen in "The Savages," she knew what she was doing.

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I wasn't wrong. While "The Savages" is a story about decrepitude and death, and chronicles a family whose wounds run too deep, it never has that claustrophobic, trapped-in-a-nightmare feeling of some dysfunctional family flicks. (Noah Baumbach's "Margot at the Wedding," while in many ways an excellent and serious picture, is a case in point.) For one thing, it's pretty damn funny, which means it nails the pretensions of its middle-aged, middle-class protagonists without making them seem like pathological monsters or insects nailed to a board.

Adult siblings Jon and Wendy Savage, played with wonderful chemistry by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney, must travel into the literal and perhaps metaphorical desert to help their estranged dad, Lenny (Philip Bosco), who is suffering from senile dementia and writing hostile messages on the bathroom walls in, you know, a certain medium favored by political prisoners. Actually, Lenny is something like a political prisoner, trapped within a body and mind that have turned unreliable. Bosco's performance is one of the most remarkable things in this movie. Lenny is a hostile old bastard whose moments of clarity are few, embittered and often humiliating -- he is chagrined to learn that Jon, a theater professor in Buffalo, N.Y., is not a "real doctor" but, as Wendy helpfully explains, "a doctor of philosophy." But in his sheer cussedness, his refusal to be nice or grateful or easygoing, Lenny is more recognizably a noble, struggling human being than 99 percent of the golden-age old people you see in movies.

At any rate, it's not clear whether Jon and Wendy are doing all that much better than Lenny. Jon is slowly cranking out a manifesto on Bertolt Brecht -- as Wendy observes, just the thing for the holiday season -- and gradually allowing his charming girlfriend to slip back to Poland now that her visa has expired. Meanwhile, Wendy is eking out a dead-end existence as a Manhattan temp worker and aspiring playwright, herself unable to escape a love-hate-sex relationship with an older married man (Peter Friedman). I must admit that Jenkins may be targeting a niche audience here, and I just happen to belong to that niche; let's just say that if you have any struggling academics in your life, then Jon and Wendy's argument over which of them has been rejected more times for a Guggenheim fellowship will be a gut-buster. Others are forewarned!

There's nothing fundamentally surprising about the story of "The Savages," but compared to a lot of family movies it's startlingly true to life. Jon and Wendy do their best to get over their bitterness about Dad and help him, and their best is better than nothing but frankly not all that great. (They move him to a mid-level Buffalo nursing home, and given the choice I might rather be sent into the desert alone with no water.) What makes the movie memorable is the precision of its tone, its finely calibrated combination of bitterness and warmth. Of course the acting is tremendous, and you'd expect nothing less. Linney's Wendy is fidgety, self-absorbed and neurotic, given to outrageous lies but also oddly competent at moments of crisis. Hoffman's Jon has buried his emotions deeply under his disheveled intellectual exterior and his evident self-loathing, but we know they're still down there somewhere.

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Jenkins never tries to explain the back story of the Savage family, but I really don't think that's a flaw. (Their mother is apparently still living but completely out of the picture.) As Edmund Wilson once observed about history, we know the kinds of things that happened, even if we don't know the details. Nor does she pretend that there's some way to redeem their relationship with Lenny at this late stage -- beyond, that is, struggling to learn something useful from a painful loss and moving onward as fractionally more thoughtful people. (Now playing in New York and Los Angeles, with wide national release to follow.)

"Protagonist" I'm not sure how I can sell you on Jessica Yu's documentary "Protagonist" without employing a whole string of adjectives and without making it sound either hopelessly pretentious or New Agey or both. Well, the fact is that Yu's film about four totally unrelated men and their struggles toward some version of responsibility and maturity is kind of pretentious, and is preoccupied with issues of selfhood one could certainly associate with New Age philosophy. It's also a highly original and at times thrilling use of the documentary medium, and one of the most revealing films about the troubled nature of contemporary manhood I've ever seen.

Actually, Yu (director of the equally fascinating "In the Realms of the Unreal," about outsider artist Henry Darger) was originally commissioned to make a film about the Greek playwright Euripides, of all subjects. So her interviews with her four male subjects are intercut with excerpts from Euripidean drama, performed by wooden-rod puppets modeled after Greek masks, and chapter headings drawn from Euripides' texts. Whether this high-concept frame really works is open to debate, but it does create a sense that these four men -- a martial-arts expert, a former bank robber, an ex-"ex-gay" minister and a reformed left-wing terrorist -- take part in a struggle that long predates the 21st-century crisis of masculinity.

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All of Yu's subjects are men whose lives have involved key moments of revelation and transformation, which could be described as central themes in Euripides. In some sense, each was at war with his true nature (or with fate, as the Greeks would say). Joe Loya grew up in an abusive Mexican-American family and became an especially sadistic bank robber, a path he now looks back on with remarkable clarity. As we see in if-you-don't-laugh-you'll-cry file footage, Mark Pierpont fought for years to repress his homosexual impulses, becoming a prominent figure in the evangelical movement's attempts to "cure" lesbians and gays. Hans-Joachim Klein rebelled against his father, a Nazi sympathizer, by becoming just as dogmatic in another direction, as one of Europe's most notorious left-wing revolutionaries of the 1970s. (To those who don't know much about the leftist-terror wave of that decade -- which is to say almost everyone -- Klein's story will seem especially strange and dramatic.)

In some respects the odd man out is Mark Salzman, Yu's husband (and a respected author in his own right), who perhaps is in the film to demonstrate that less dramatic lives contain these kinds of heroic transformations. Salzman never pistol-whipped a bank teller or hijacked an airplane, but in his account he spent years in the thrall of a cruel and small-minded martial-arts guru before leaving to strike his own path. Whether Yu can connect these four guys to Euripides in some meaningful way I'm not sure, but her film makes an oddly resonant and perhaps even liberating experience for men, and perhaps especially for women who are curious about them. (Opens Nov. 30 at the IFC Center in New York; Dec. 7 in Boston, San Francisco and Washington; and Dec. 14 in Los Angeles, with more cities to follow.)

"Oswald's Ghost" Does the world really need another film about the assassination of John F. Kennedy, which happened almost exactly 44 years ago in Dallas? I suppose the marketplace will make its own decision about that, but after dragging myself to see British filmmaker Robert Stone's "Oswald's Ghost" (no, he is not Robert Stone the acclaimed American novelist) I'll offer a qualified yes. Stone makes no effort to resolve the semi-unsolved crime, although he does lean strongly in a predictable direction. Rather, "Oswald's Ghost" is a thorough and systematic primer on how and why the JFK assassination became a generational obsession, and seemed to signal the demolition of at least one version of the American dream.

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Given that well over half of all Americans are too young to remember the event, this seems like a worthy cause, and Stone (director of a previous documentary about another generation-defining event, the kidnapping of Patty Hearst) handles it judiciously. He gives plenty of time to more reputable conspiracy buffs, like attorney Mark Lane and private investigator Josiah Thompson, while illustrating capably that New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison, portrayed heroically in Oliver Stone's "JFK," was a homophobic crackpot who poisoned all attempts to make sense of the case with his fanciful and paranoid theories.

Ultimately, Robert Stone clearly agrees with the late Norman Mailer (extensively interviewed here) that while it's tempting to discern larger operations of history in the JFK killing -- and one cannot conclusively rule out a conspiracy -- Occam's razor leads us back to one tormented individual in the end. But Lee Harvey Oswald's guilt or innocence or accomplices are not the point of the film; Stone is more interested in the fact that much about the Kennedy murder is now so shrouded in myth and mystification as to be permanently unknowable, and that that fact alone has gnawed away at the self-confidence of middle-class white America ever since. (Opens Nov. 30 at Cinema Village in New York, with DVD release and PBS broadcast to follow.)

"Chronicle of an Escape" This riveting thriller from Argentine filmmaker Israel Adrián Caetano was among the most celebrated pictures in competition at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival, where it was acquired by Harvey Weinstein and talked up as a potential award-winner (under the proposed title "Buenos Aires 1977"). Here we are a year and a half later, with the film reunited with its original title and basically dumped as a theatrical quickie and on-demand cable offering. Does Weinstein think that American viewers might not be super-interested in a movie about a quasi-fascist regime that sweeps people up on imaginary charges and has them tortured in secret locations? I'm only asking.

Anyway, Caetano's film fictionalizes the well-known story of Claudio Tamburrini, a soccer goalkeeper who was kidnapped by military-regime thugs and held for almost a year in a jury-rigged prison constructed in a mansion outside Buenos Aires. After enduring erratic bouts of torture and interrogation (and his torturers' equally loathsome bouts of sentimentality and religiosity), Tamburrini and several fellow prisoners engineered a complicated escape, stark naked, through a driving rainstorm. The film is taut and ruthlessly constructed, with odd flashes of humor and a white-knuckle pace. Rodrigo de la Serna ("The Motorcycle Diaries") gives a committed performance as Tamburrini, today a philosophy professor in Sweden. (Opens Nov. 30 at the IFC Center in New York, with other cities to follow. Also available via IFC In Theaters on many cable systems.)

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Africa's greatest filmmaker, Poland's overlooked genius and Italy's controversial hero New York moviegoers face an overload of underappreciated-great-director retrospectives this week, which might well lead to couch-bound paralysis. So the important thing to say is that any of these three tributes -- to Senegalese director Ousmane Sembène, Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski and Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini -- is totally worth your time, money and attention. All of these retrospectives may well reappear in other cities; I'll try to keep you posted.

Just in terms of world-historical importance, I'll point you at Film Forum's tribute to Sembène, who died earlier this year and was, in a completely literal sense, the father of African cinema. His 1966 "Black Girl," about a Senegalese maid who travels to France with her white employers, is believed to be the first African-made feature film of any note, and Sembène's succeeding eight films run the gamut from populist epic to strident anti-establishment satire, from modernist and indeed feminist outrage to Kafkaesque despair. All of Sembène's films have a characteristic bite and a politically informed anger, coupled with a refusal to surrender to cant or stereotype. My favorites include the 1968 "Mandabi," in which a money order sent home from Europe becomes more a curse than a blessing, and the ruthlessly funny 1974 "Xala," in which a 50ish Mercedes-driving fat cat is stricken with an ancient and humiliating curse. (Runs Nov. 30-Dec. 13 at Film Forum in New York; several of Sembène's films are available on DVD from New Yorker Films.)

Almost around the corner, at Anthology Film Archives, you can catch a tribute to Jerzy Skolimowski, a leading figure in the Eastern European new wave of the '60s and '70s who never found fame in the West. Skolimowski is best known, if at all, for his 1982 English-language drama "Moonlighting," with Jeremy Irons, but he also wrote screenplays for Andrzej Wajda and Roman Polanski, and directed several celebrated early films that have scarcely been seen outside Europe. His acknowledged classic is the 1970 "Deep End," and Anthology will also screen Skolimowski's Polish films "Identification Marks: None," "Le Départ" and "Walkover." Incidentally, David Cronenberg is a fan, and Skolimowski plays a supporting role in "Eastern Promises." (Retrospective runs through Dec. 5, with "Deep End" playing Dec. 6-12.)

Uptown at Lincoln Center, the Marxist-homoerotic-atheist-religious visions of poet, filmmaker and all-around heretic Pier Paolo Pasolini are on display. If Pasolini strove to reinvent film from the ground up in search of genuine and even shocking emotion, as is sometimes said, he may have succeeded. How watchable the results are is up to you, especially in the case of grueling pictures like the street-pimp saga "Accattone" or the notorious Marquis de Sade adaptation "Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom," which has fairly been described as a work of total negativity and hatred for the world. If Pasolini was widely regarded as a great cinema artist in the '60s, he's all but forgotten outside Italy today. In an aesthetic universe virtually strangling on faux authenticity, Pasolini's singular passion is badly needed. (Through Dec. 4 at the Walter Reade Theater in New York.)

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Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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