Friday, December 30, 2011

FRIDAY SCATTER-SHOOTING: Gearing Up for an Exciting Oscar Season

* I get so tired of seeing top ten lists this time of year. They’re everywhere I look. Lists are tough things anyway, and part of me doesn’t see the point.

* The other part of me will have a top ten list out this Tuesday.

* George Clooney is good in The Descendents, and the frontrunner right now, but the film doesn’t work for me. I will be disappointed if he wins the Oscar. I am looking for new blood this year, perhaps in the form of Michael Fassbender.

* I salute Steve McQueen for sticking with the true vision of his film, Shame, despite the NC-17 rating. He didn’t edit a thing to appease the ridiculous MPAA. But I do think the rating and limited release will hurt the film’s Oscar chances. I can’t imagine McQueen and Co. care about that either.

* War Horse will be this year’s Gangs of New York and True Grit, a film that picks up 6 to 10 Oscar nominations and wins none. And deservedly so, because those other two films I mentioned are light years better than Spielberg’s mess.

* I had Leonardo Dicaprio and Meryl Streep slated as surefire Oscar winners this year for their dueling political biopics, J. Edgar and The Iron Lady. But neither film delivered the goods. The trajectory of these two pictures seems almost identical.

* I had higher hopes for David Cronenberg and A Dangerous Method for Oscar season. But any nomination would be a surprise at this point.

* The Tree of Life is the biggest critical darling this year, but I wonder how it will fare with nominations. Brad Pitt really should be considered for his role here, but instead his best shot is Moneyball. It reminds me of Kate Winslet getting a nomination for The Reader when what she really deserved was a win for Revolutionary Road.

* A silent film really does have a shot at winning Best Picture (The Artist). It’s been 85 years since that happened. Think about that.

* I would just like to say that last year, in my morning after article regarding last year’s Oscars, I said the following:

“As much as I feel the Academy Awards need to be progressive as far as choosing winners, the telecast must stop trying to trick up the hosting duties. Especially if they are going to get a spaced-out, disinterested James Franco and an energetic Anne Hathaway trying to compensate for Franco’s lazy, stiff delivery of absolutely everything. He didn’t seem drunk or high so much as he seemed sedated. And when Billy Crystal came out on stage, he went into his safe, yet effective and funny routine that he was known for so many years at the Oscars. It was like a breath of fresh air. Bring Billy Crystal back, Academy. You know you should. Of course, that means you probably won’t.”

I would officially like to take credit for bringing back Billy Crystal. Thank you and goodnight.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Young Adult


YOUNG ADULT: Charlize Theron, Patton Oswalt, Patrick Wilson (90 min.)

Young Adult is a title which means more than one thing. Like most of the characters and situations in the film, it is heavy on metaphor. It is the genre in which Mavis Gary, the antihero of our story played by Charlize Theron, writes her serialized novels. But it’s also a description of her stunted mental state. Mavis is a lonely alcoholic who moved from her small town where she was super prom queen to Minneapolis, where she shuffles around a messy apartment and usually passes out face first in her clothes. She is a bitter woman who never grew out of her bitchy high school attitude. And when she receives an email from her old high school flame, Buddy Slade, announcing the birth of his new daughter with his wife, Beth, she can think of only one logical plan. She must go back to her small town and rescue buddy from what is surely a miserable existence.

So here is Mavis, traveling back to the birthplace of her poor attitude where she ruled the roost as the most popular bitch in school. She hops in her Mini and listens to the mix tape Buddy made from her in high school as she rolls back into town, where the Chili’s and the Staples and the KFC Taco Bell hybrids make her cringe. Her and her Pomeranian shack up in a Hampton Inn and Mavis devises her plan to win back her beau. But first, she stops in a local dive for a quick drink or four, and runs into Matt Freehauf, a guy she graduated with played by Patton Oswalt. But Matt was a nerd in high school and Mavis doesn’t remember him even though their lockers were side by side. Alas, Matt was beaten severely in high school and is now handicapped and of course Mavis remembers him now. “You’re the hate crime guy,” she says offhandedly, “why didn’t you just say that?”

Mavis tells Matt her plan, and Matt adamantly tries to stop her from ruining Buddy’s life. For all her outward beauty, Mavis is ugly inside. Matt is the opposite of this, another example of the metaphors that are too heavy all the way through the picture. Matt and Mavis spark a genuine friendship and their banter is the best part of the film.

Mavis says most things offhandedly. She finally gets a one on one meeting with her beloved Buddy, who has quietly settled into middle age with his wife and child. Buddy seems happy to have his life, but Mavis doesn’t see it that way. Early on in Young Adult, Travis Bickle crept into my head and stayed there. This is Taxi Driver, or The Searchers, fashioned into an offbeat comedy. Although it isn’t all that funny because Mavis is truly, deeply disturbed. She is alone and confused and consumed by her own thoughts, and reaches out to try and save a person who doesn’t need or want saving. Sound like anyone we’ve seen before in cinema? The fact that Mavis is clearly mentally unstable takes some of the bite out of the humor.

The three central performances in Young Adult are all well crafted, and the screenplay from Diablo Cody doesn’t draw attention to itself, which is always a danger with a Cody script. Theron is at her best when her beauty is not the draw of her character. Mavis wakes up and shuffles about the same way each morning, hung over and her hair in shambles, although she does beautify herself by the time happy hour rolls around. Patton Oswalt continues to impress me as a real actor with distinguished depth in his performance. We need more of him. And Patrick Wilson as Buddy does his thing; Wilson always appears in movies without hurting or helping anything. He has potential, but he needs a meatier role here.

Young Adult didn’t leave an impression on me really. It simply… exists. Jason Reitman has always impressed me, and I think as a director he has his finger on the pulse of what makes a dramedy an effective narrative structure for character study. He does what he can with the material here, which is a fine story but not one with any inventiveness or need to be really. Performances will get a film so far, but without substance or a unique thought the end result will be lacking. Such is the case with Young Adult.

C+

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Artist



THE ARTIST: Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo, John Goodman, James Cromwell (99 min.)

I must admit, I have seen only a handful of silent movies. I have seen all your heavy hitters, your Phantom of the Opera, Nosferatu, Wings… I have never taken the time to dive deep into the catalogue of silent films. But I have seen enough about the history and the techniques of silent films to know the tricks of the trade. I imagine most people know about the title cards, the effects, and the importance of expressive faces. Then again, nothing would surprise me in this current landscape of moviegoers. I say all of this to say I do appreciate silent films for their history, and I appreciate and admire The Artist for its uncanny ability to tell a fresh tale in cinema’s oldest format. The Artist does a marvelous job of making an antiquated filmmaking style relevant, exciting, funny, and heartfelt. It would be easy for a film like this to fall into gimmickry and lose its way as a real story; The Artist never falls victim.

Jean Dujardin stars as George Valentin, the most famous silent film star in all of Hollywood, an actor with great expressive eyebrows and a wide smile who never goes anywhere without his companion and co-star, a Jack Russell terrier. Valentin is on top of the world when he discovers, through happenstance, Peppy Miller, an energetic young girl with stars in her eyes. After Valentin places a beauty mark carefully on her cheek one afternoon, Peppy begins to get more and more roles until she becomes the biggest female star in the land. It just so happens that sound in film has been invented right about this time, and Peppy has the pipes and the looks for talkies; George Valentin rejects this new technology.

As George rejects talkies, Peppy embraces them and becomes an icon. George spends all of his own money making a silent film which fails and leaves him with very little. His vacant wife (Penelope Ann Miller) divorces him and takes what is left, leaving him with a ramshackle apartment, prints of his films, and his Jack Russell. If that wasn’t enough, the stock market crashes and George is penniless. Peppy tries to help him, but his pride clouds his better judgment.

The Artist is about the rise and fall and subsequent rise of George Valentin. I don’t feel like I am spoiling anything by describing it as such. This is a classic tale and you know Valentin will find his redemption. The fascination here lies within the seamless execution of a silent film 85 years after Wings became the last of the lot to win Best Picture. People may be immediately turned off by The Artist being a silent film in black and white, but director Michael Hazanavicius fills the screen with wonderfully expressive personalities. Aside from Jean Dujardin commanding the screen as Valentin and Bérénice Bejo as a charming Peppy Miller, James Cromwell plays George’s chauffeur and friend, Clifton and John Goodman is the boisterous film producer, Al Zimmer, never without a cigar in his mouth. All of the actors have faces and expressions for silent film, on top of a certain familiarity that might help a wider audience embrace the picture if only they would give it a chance.

There are two scenes of sound, aside from the musical score throughout the picture. One is a nightmare sequence for George, and the other is the final dance number between George and Peppy. Both moments are vital for the story, and the final scene tells us even more about Valentin which might lead us further to understanding his position on the talkies. The Artist is no gimmick; this is one of the very best films of the year. I understand the apprehension of the modern moviegoer to avoid a silent film in 2011, but I implore you to have an open mind. You won’t be disappointed.

A

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Shame


SHAME - Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan: (99 min.)

There may have been a place in time where Brandon had sex for enjoyment. Most addicts have used their drug of choice, be it alcohol or drugs or sex, for recreational enjoyment at some point in the past. Before their addiction took over their life and began crippling their ability to socially function. This latter stage is where we meet Brandon, the subject of director Steve McQueen’s new film, Shame. Played with quiet intensity by Michael Fassbender, Brandon has a good job – not that the profession matters – a tidy apartment in Manhattan, and a carefully cultivated private life which allows him to indulge in his sexual addiction. Brandon doesn’t seem to have any hobbies or interests other than finding the next orgasm, and not because he wants to. He simply has to, to get his fix. Shame is a spellbinding examination into the mind of an addict, one whose addiction rules his life no matter what he tries to do to control it. It will stay with me for some time.

The opening sequence of the film is brilliant. We see Brandon invite a prostitute over before work, then masturbate in the shower before getting to the subway where he stares, hypnotized by the idea of sex, at a married woman on the subway. The intercutting of these events is compelling, and it tells us all we need to know about Brandon. No matter how good he may be at his job or how well he might get along with his coworkers, there is no way for him to escape his sexual desires for even a second. Even in the restroom at his office. His nights are spent looking at internet porn and seeking out that next orgasm. In many ways he is like a functioning alcoholic. There is the running joke about how many times a day a man thinks about sex, but this is something much more desperate and heartbreaking. Brandon does not enjoy his thoughts; he is simply overwhelmed by them. Even when he throws out his material – including his laptop – in an attempt to begin a real relationship with a woman, he cannot perform sexually. Emotions have gotten in the way.

We learn more about Brandon when his sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan) appears unannounced in his life and asks to stay at his apartment. It becomes clear these siblings share a sad past – explored only through one line of dialogue – that has caused them to react in different ways. Brandon has caved in emotionally, Sissy has gone outward. Brandon wants no emotional attachment, but Sissy needs any she can find. The end result of their pain may lead them to the same result through different emotional paths. This arrival of Sissy upsets Brandon’s meticulously-crafted world of feeding his addiction. Things reach a certain boiling point before both siblings act out in their own ways, and we follow Brandon as he spirals down into seedy satisfaction. What might be considered the climactic moments of the film stirred in me any number of emotions. I found myself watching a train wreck of human emotions in Brandon’s desperate search for a fix.

Of course I understand the true nature of valor in the grand scheme of things, but in a cinematic sense, Michael Fassbender delivers perhaps the bravest performance of his career, of anyone’s career for that matter. This is a film about addiction, but not one without introspection, and Fassbender’s sharp features and deep-set eyes display a range of pain and emotional vacancy at just the right times. The pairing of Carey Mulligan and her cherub-like features with Fassbender’s lean frame is a wonderful visual metaphor for these characters. The most touching moment in the picture involves Sissy doing the saddest, most melancholy rendition of New York, New York I have ever heard. Brandon’s single tear at the sound of Sissy’s outward projection speaks volumes about both characters. Much of the interaction between the siblings is served to show the way they stand on opposite ends of an emotional spectrum and scream for someone to save them. They could find salvation in each other, if only they would allow such a thing.

I use the word emotion quite a bit to describe Shame. And I don’t think there is a phrase more fitting. This is a deeply emotional film that stuck with me and still lingers in the back of my mind. Addiction is a cinematic staple, but sexual addiction has never been examined this closely. Exchange Brandon’s searches for an orgasm, for his fix, with a search for heroin and you have any number of plots to countless films in the past. Though very few films have been as compelling in their execution as McQueen’s. Shame is rated NC-17, and I can see why, though there are films out there which show violence and depravity on a much higher level of intensity than any sexual encounter here.

A

Monday, December 26, 2011

War Horse


WAR HORSE - (146 min.)

Throughout his long and successful career as an American filmmaking icon, Steven Spielberg has always saved room for those who came before him.  In 2001, AI, his collaboration with Stanley Kubrick became a visual homage to the late great auteur after Kubrick’s unexpected passing.  Spielberg’s finest suspense films, no matter how big the scale, all save room for the inspiration of Hitchcock.  War Horse, Spielberg’s latest war film, is a full-blown return to the grand epics of John Ford and Victor Fleming littered with tints of Frank Capra.  In this wildly uneven picture, Spielberg comes full force with the sap and the sweeping musical score, overreaching for every tear he can find from the audience.  But in between the moments meant to invoke sentiment, it is clear there is no better filmmaker out there when it comes to shooting a battle sequence.  I may sound a little hard on War Horse, and even doing this makes me feel like a grumpy jerk; that’s how sweet and good-hearted this film is. 

The film stars any number of human actors, but this is directly a story about Joey, the horse who is adopted at first by a poor farmer and raised by the farmer’s son.  Ted, the father (Peter Mullan), is a decent man who drinks too much to hide scars of war, and when he sees Joey at a town auction he spends entirely too much to boy him when what he needed was a plow horse.  Ted’s wife, Rose (Emily Watson) scolds him and fears losing everything.  Their son, Albert (solid newcomer Jeremy Irvine), an overly-earnest young man, promises to break in Joey and train him to plow the fields.  And thus an unbreakable bond between man and beast is formed and will carry the rest of the film, thank you montage sequences.
It isn’t long before World War I erupts across Europe and Joey is reluctantly sold to passing military troops.  The soldier who is to ride Joey into battle promises to watch him; Albert promises he will see his horse again.  This is one of many moments where I began to wonder the extent of horse-human relationships, and whether or not Joey even remembers Albert ten minutes later.  But I allowed myself to suspend these curiosities because this is a movie, ad a deliberate type of movie looking to stir certain emotions.  I opened my heart, so to speak.
And so Joey goes into battle and comes out of his first tour with a new horse friend.  He and his new friend, a black stallion, are found by a young farm girl living with her grandfather (the wonderful European actor Niels Arestrup) and they live for a while until the next troop of soldiers come through and take what they need.  This time, it is the wicked German army, and Joey is forced into grueling labor for the enemies.  This is where I was once again distracted, this time by the lack of German spken by these German soldiers.  They all seem to speak fluent English, without even a mix of German words.  I found this very hard to believe.  Was this all to avoid subtitles?  Because if so, shame on you Mr. Spielberg.
And so the story of Joey goes until the final grand battle, where things greatly improve for the film.  Spielberg, and his longtime cinematographer Janus Kaminski, are marvels when it comes to introducing audiences to the disorienting fog of war.  While the scenes here are decidedly less graphic than Saving Private Ryan for the sake of a holiday audience, there is still the feeling of being overwhelmed by all of the horrors and brutality of being stuck in the trenches .  In between the two lines is where joey find himself, alone, dirty, and tangled up in barbed wire.  The best scene in the film involves two opposing soldiers working together to free this “miracle horse.”
War Horse is a collection of inspirational moments as predictable as night and day, but I suppose that is part of the plan here.  Which maybe makes a critique of the film’s predictability unfair.  Spielberg is channeling those films of John Ford, the great Westerns with the sweeping landscapes and painterly skies.  And you cannot tell me that final scene is not a direct nod to Gone With the Wind.  But the exercise feels forced most of the time.  And outside of a few solid performances, none of the human actors feel all that genuine or seem too interesting.  Those battle scenes are thrilling, yet those sappy scenes in between which take up the majority of the picture are full of characters less interesting than the one with the long face.  
C+

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo


THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO - Daniel Craig, Rooney Mara (160 min.)

David Fincher’s adaptation of Stieg Larson’s bestselling novel The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo toes a fine line – perhaps a series of fine lines – better than I could have imagined.  I have read the novel, the first in a trilogy, but have never seen the 2009 Swedish film version.  Fincher’s task, in my opinion, was to trim the fat from the novel, make a slick thriller, and manage to keep the millions of fans of the book on edge even if they may know what lurks around every corner.  He succeeds as only a master could.  Fincher’s synthetic coolness and familiarity with genres of the depraved come together in this Swedish murder mystery with the precision and functionality of a watch from that very region.  This is a rarity in the world of book-to-film adaptations, where the film may serve the story better than the novel.
The film follows the book from the beginning, where we get two separate stories which will undoubtedly turn into one.  First is Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), an investigative journalist facing public humiliation after losing a libel case against a corporate heavy hitter.  Dejected, Blomkvist walks away from the financial magazine he works for despite the protests of his boss and casual lover, Erika (Robin Wright).  It’s about this time he receives a call from the attorney of the Vanger family, a well-to-do family of Swedish Aristocrats, Nazis, and scoundrels.  It seems the head of the family, Henrik (Christopher Plummer), requests that Mikael come to the Vanger family island to investigate the forty-year old murder of his niece, Harriet.  It was forty years ago she disappeared from the island amid the chaos of a bridge accident.  Henrik is certain she was murdered by a family member and implores Blomkvist to give the investigation a look.  He promises Mikael it will be worth his while.
Mikael takes on the investigation and begins meeting the members of the family, a rogues gallery to say the least.  This is a British country house murder mystery in the disguise of a progressively gothic noir mystery cloaked in sexual deviancy from all angles.  The island and the homes are mere yards from each other, but the cold isolation, and the tension of the family and the sketchy history make them all seem miles apart. 
As Mikael’s investigation unfolds, we are given a parallel story of Lisbeth Salander, a skilled freelance investigator for a security firm.  Salander is the best investigator in the company but she is, well, different.  A tragedy in her youth has made Salander socially inept, hiding beneath piercings, a black shock of angular hair, pale skin, and a wardrobe of barbed leather jackets and combat boots.  Terse and unfriendly, Salander’s body seems to wince with every movement under her leather clothing.  Rooney Mara disappears into the role of Salander and takes her characterization of this fascinating heroine all the way.  Even through the troubling scenes with her “guardian,” the roughest and most graphically unsettling scenes in the film.

Lisbeth did the background check on Mikael for the Vanger family, so naturally when Mikael’s investigation begins overwhelming him and the clues continually add up to loose ends, he requests an assistant and the family attorney knows just the person for the job.  This leads Blomkvist and Salander together in a scene in Salander’s apartment.  What is unsaid between the two might be just as important as the dialogue.  Salander notices Blomkvist’s relative ease around her; he is not frightened or uneasy.  The relationship between Mikael and Lisbeth is the most crucial dynamic of the story; in many ways the film hinges greatly on the chemistry of these two characters, worlds apart but somehow finding each other.  Craig and Mara have a spark together, a spark which rolls beneath the surface of a slick and often startling thriller.
This leads me to the plot, and the intricacies of a story so many readers already know.  Fincher pulls off something pretty bold here, managing to keep the plot turns and twists in check while still saving a place for a surprise to the fans of the novel.  It’s a deft touch and a testament to the wonderful directing of Fincher and – perhaps more so – to the cleverness of the screenplay by Steven Zaillian.  A few small details throughout the film are different from the book, including a relationship between Blomkvist and a family member on the island; this relationship felt a bit too much in the novel and, apparently, Fincher and Zaillian felt the same way.  Their addition by subtraction is one of a handful of wise choices.  Unfortunately, some of the fat from the end of the novel couldn’t be avoided once Blomkvist and Salander leave the island.

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and David Fincher feel like a match made in heaven.  This is a smooth and silky thriller with some graphic and disturbing undertones,  watched over by a director who is right at home in such a universe.  And back (from scoring Fincher’s The Social Network last year) are Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor.  Their score is prickly, sneaky, it gets under your skin.  Much like the powerful performance of Rooney Mara.  I look forward to the two other films.
A-

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol


MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE - GHOST PROTOCOL - Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner, Paula Patton, Simon Pegg (133 min.)

There must be a checklist involved in the birthing of these Mission: Impossible films.  There must be at least four exotic locales, at least three gimmicky technologies, and no fewer than two action set pieces that defy the laws of gravity.  This latest entry into the M:I franchise, Ghost Protocol, checks all these elements off the list, but it still feels genuine and doesn’t ever feel like a film that is going through the motions.  This is far and away the best film in the series since the original, ages ago in 1995.  The locales and the gadgets are a step above any of the previous films, and the action… well… these action set pieces are more fantastic and more breathtaking than anything I remember ever seeing before in any film.  If you have the ability to see Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol in IMAX format, I highly suggest you do so. 
 
Tom Cruise might have the easiest job here, as far as character development is concerned.  We all know and are comfortable with Ethan Hunt at this point, the skilled mastermind of an agent, capable of entering and exiting any situation regardless of how sticky.  And when we meet him here, Hunt is being broken out of a Russian jail for circumstances of which we are unsure.  I decided early on to not get bogged down in plot details, and I must beg you to do the same.  If you get caught up in the details and the intricacies of this plot, you are missing the bigger picture.  And the bigger picture is something you don’t want to miss.
The members of Hunt’s team are old and new.  There is Benji, the computer geek capable of hacking into any network in the world, played by Simon Pegg in some spot on comic relief.  Benji was a crucial character in the end of M:I III.  There is also some new blood on the team, first and foremost in Jane, played by Paula Patton.  Outside of the leads here I found Jane to be most intriguing.  Although Paula Patton may look just about identical to Rosario Dawson, I found her much more effective as an actress.  Jane is a very emotional agent, but one with an edge, and one who gets to show off her combat skills in a number of fight scenes.  The cast is inspired, including Tom Wilkinson as the secretary in a brief scene.
Hunt and his team are to track down a Russian criminal with aspirations for nuclear war.  They also manage to take on a newbie, Brandt, played by Jeremy Renner.  Renner is perfect for this role, balancing the smooth edges of Cruise’s Ethan Hunt with a rougher physique.  Brandt claims to be an analyst, but after things go awry in Dubai, it is clear through his fighting skills that Brandt is more than just a numbers cruncher.
Which leads me to the set pieces in Ghost Protocol.  First up is an explosion at the Kremlin in Moscow, breathtaking in its own right.  But the team then travels from Russia to Dubai, to India, and it is the set piece in Dubai that takes the cake for the action of the film, and for the franchise’s four pictures.  Hunt must infiltrate a mainframe from the outside of the world’s tallest building.  It has been noted that the adrenaline junkie Cruise opted to shoot these scenes himself, on the outside of the 130 story building.  And there is no doubt he did.  These scenes are some of the most overwhelming and vertigo-inducing action scenes ever captured on film.  The entire set piece in Dubai is the most exhilarating of the film, as Hunt must pursue the purchaser of nuclear codes first throughout the building, and then through an epic sand storm.  Director Brad Bird, moving from animation into live action for the first time, has the screws down tight on the action from start to finish. 
And now I must deliver a word of warning.  I feel like the Mission: Impossible brain trust has to quit while they’re ahead.  The gimmicks and gadgets in Ghost Protocol are highly unlikely in the real world, and that is just fine.  But I grew a bit concerned when Renner’s character donned magnetic metal underwear to float around in the mainframe of a computer.  The ante has to be upped every time out, and I think the next go round might push the gadgets over the edge into farcical territory.  The last thing we need here is another invisible car, a la James Bond in Die Another Day.
A-

Thursday, December 15, 2011

THURSDAY THROWBACK: Swingers (1996)

It’s funny the way movies change in our mindsover time.  The movies never change themselves; the film has been shot and the finished product will never be any different.  And yet, audiences change around the movie, and seeing a movie as a fifteen-year old will undoubtedly affect a person in a different way than when they see it a few years later or as an adult.  Films can be altogether different experiences from one year to the next.  Sometimes it’s better and more often it’s worse.  I can think of no better example, on a personal level, than the 1996 comedy Swingers.  I remember loving Swingers when I saw it because I thought it was cool.  I wanted to talk like those guys; I wanted to live their life.  But now, seeing it again, the coolness has faded into something a little more pitiful and the comedy is not so much in the deliberate humor as it is in the atmosphere in which these people exist.  I still greatly enjoy and appreciate the film, but on an entirely different level.
Our hero here is Mike (Jon Favreau), a downtrodden twenty-something living in Los Angeles with aspirations of becoming a comedian and an actor. Mike’s and his girlfriend split up some six months earlier, and despite moving across the country he has been unable to shake his feelings. Living in a ramshackle apartment, barely furnished, Mike spends his days talking about his ex and wallowing in his own depression. His closest friend, Trent (Vince Vaughn), is also an aspiring actor and is dead set on breaking Mike out of this funk. As the film unfolds, we find ourselves immersed in a world of twenty-somethings all discussing movies and their goals to become actors. They can see the bright lights, but they can’t get close enough to them. The quiet desperation of these characters is an element of the story I never fully comprehended when I saw Swingers as a teen. But now, as an adult, their desire adds an entirely different level to the narrative.

Trent – or “T” as he is affectionately called – drags Mike out of his apartment and off to Vegas in a first act that seems like a prologue to the film itself. It sets the stage in some great comedic moments. The two friends want to be high rollers, but their three hundred dollars doesn’t get them too far at the blackjack table (which happens to be a $100 minimum bet). They pick up a few waitresses working the graveyard shift and head back to the girls’ house, er, Airstream. T makes his moves on one; Mike pours his heart out to the other. This opening act is rich in character development and humor, and it is the greatest skill of Vince Vaughn which makes us comfortable with these guys immediately.  
The rest of the movie follows Mike, Trent, and their fluctuating circle of wannabe actor friends around various parties and coffee shops and nightclubs in LA.  They play video games at their friends house, a rockabilly boy named Sue (his dad was a big Johnny Cash fan) before making their fashionably late entrance into whatever party or scene is readily available.  The party starts at eight, so let’s eat dinner at ten and get their by eleven.  Midnight at the latest.  A running gag is that all the members of this crew take their own cars everywhere, arriving in a train of headlights. 
I took Swingers on a surface level as a youth.  These guys were cool and funny and I liked the way they said things.  Everything was “money” to me for a while afterwards.  But as an adult, there is a melancholy air floating around the comedy.  It enriches everything for me.  These guys are all trying their best to get that big break.  The screenplay from Jon Favreau is clearly told from personal experience, and that livens up a story that would otherwise ring false.  The irony here is that the film was the launching pad for Favreau, the director Doug Liman, and especially for Vince Vaughn, who would shape an up-and-down career around the motor mouth, cocky persona he creates with Trent.  Over the years, Swingers has changed drastically in my mind’s eye, from something of a throwaway comedy romp to a film about desire and desperation.  Because I know that, for the majority of these characters here, they will never get that big break for which they so greatly long.  

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

DVD REVIEW: Meek's Cutoff


We meet them first crossing a fairly wide river.  The men leading wagons drawn by heavy Oxen, nearly sinking below the river’s surface as they trudge along.  The women carrying baskets above their heads as the water raises past their waist.  They cross the river, and it is back to the harsh and unforgiving landscape of the Oregon Trail, where this small band of pioneers battle the onslaught of nature’s cruelest setting: nothingness.  There are three married couples, a child, and their leader, a grizzly-bearded enigma named Stephen Meek.  They are one of countless wagon trains that set out west in the 1800s on their way to finding the fortune they’ve heard about so many times.  But this land will not allow them to pass as easy as they would like.  Dissention grows among the travelers.  Some fear they are lost; others know they are.

Meek’s Cutoff is a meditative, deliberately isolated Western, a story about a journey that begins to test the will of those involved (and is now on Netflix Instant).  I still don’t quite know what to make of the film itself, except that it is quite brave in its execution and its dedication to simple observation.  These travelers have put their faith in Stephen Meek, played by Bruce Greenwood in a beard and hair that practically covers his entire face.  Meek boasts of his accomplishments and his knowledge of the unseen west, but many in the party begin to question his certainty.  The most suspicious of the travelers is Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams), married to Solomon (Will Patton).  Emily is certain they will run out of water before they find any more.  The other party members include William and Glory White (Neal Huff and Shirley Henderson), a younger couple, Thomas and Millie Gately (Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan), and a young boy, Tommy (Jimmy White).

But the biggest character in Meek’s Cutoff is the merciless landscape.  The travelers endure heat, cold, and barren isolation.  The wind blows consistently, throbbing against the soundtrack like an oppressive and unseen force.  Director Kelly Reichardt (who worked with Williams on Wendy and Lucy last year) shot the film in the narrow 1:1.33 aspect ratio, not in widescreen.  This squared-off vision pushes the cast away from the screen in the standard long and medium shots used throughout.  You can feel the desperate trek unraveling with every cumbersome step.  And the steps seem never ending.  As the men meet to discuss whether or not Meek is leading them astray, we stay with the women as they strain to hear the conversation.  This is a rarity in the genre as Reichardt focuses primarily on the women hidden deep beneath their bonnets and covered from head to toe in prairie dresses that look and feel like they must be a hundred pounds apiece.  The new perspectiveis perhaps the most interesting technique of screenwriter Jonathan Raymond.

The pioneers capture an Indian that had been stalking them for several miles, and his fate is divided among the group.  Meek lobbies to kill him on site, but Solomon uses a clearer head.  The Indian is obviously in good shape, is healthy, so he must know where there is water.  They try and coax help from the Indian, Meek with violence and the others with more diplomatic means of trade and favors.  The Indian brings about more division and truly exposes the inexperience of these white travelers.  But remember, this is no conventional western.  The Indian is calm, inward, and there is very little desire by Reichardt to show any developing lines of communication.  Because this would likely be the case.  These people are foreign to this man, and vice versa, and there is no existing line of trust.  Attempting to build communication patterns would prove to be fruitless because, without the trust, who knows what is true and what is a trap?

I found myself longing for a resolution to one or more of the conflicts in the end.  But the lack of closure also feels like the only true end to the story.  The performances hit their marks with precision, and not once was I not immersed in the plight of these characters.  Still, as I bat the events of this picture back and forth in my head, it feels lacking to my sensibilities.  I wouldn’t ask for a nice, tidy bow at the end of the film because the falsity of such an end would destroy everything that had come before it.  I would have been satisfied with an end to at least one of the means, however.  Meek’s Cutoff feels less like a narrative film in the truest sense, and more like a segment of historical text.  For this, I find no real reason in handing out a letter grade.  Any sort of grade would undercut the deliberate non-structure of the film itself.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Tree of Melancholia: Film Existentialism 2011


The meaning of life is not new territory for the movies.  As long as there has been cinema, so there have been films about our place in this infinite universe.  Consider the bleak division of society in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, or the exploration into the dawn of man and the evolution of the species in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001; existentialism can take many shapes and sizes in film, though most of the time such a subject lends itself to grandiose storytelling.  And while it has been around for ages, the meaning of life in film has never seemed as prevalent an examination as it does here in 2011.  And it’s clear to see why.  Things are not well across the planet, perhaps more so than any other time in our history.  Dare I say, we are sitting at a crossroads of the civilization and the existence to which we have all grown accustomed.  And two of the most unique films this year try and shine a light on where we sit as a society, where we came from, and where we are going. 

It is the duty of true art to reflect the current situation of the time from which it comes, and films are no exception.  Of course, the movies are escapism first and foremost.  But not always.  There is and will always be a need for humor and action and fright on a base level, where audiences can go to the movies and forget about the world outside for a few hours.  As much as we need Art House Cinema, don’t we also need Dumb and Dumber or Transformers?  I would argue they have their place, good or bad.  However, on occasion, it is necessary for films to take a closer look at what makes humanity tick.  Bold strokes exist in all forms of art, and in this visual medium it is the responsibility of those willing (and capable) visionaries to take a look at something more important and paint it with the brush of their imagination.  This year, two pictures stand on opposite ends of the spectrum of the human race.  While one examines our beginnings, another studies our end. 
Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life is a meditative exploration into the origins of life on earth, beginning with a wide focus, the widest really – the creation of the universe – and narrowing its focus all the way down to a single Texas family and a son searching for the meaning behind his own existence.  Malick’s film arrives at the conclusion that our lives are the only thing that matters.  To us.  From the origins of the universe, all the way down to the family unit, the way of nature and the way of grace shape what we know and understand about the world.  Without our own life experiences, we have no existence to speak of.  The Tree of Life takes the grandest of subjects and individualizes it in order to show the audience that we are all we know and all we will ever know.  Consider the final act, where Sean Penn’s character, the aimless son now grown into a philosophically lost man, finds himself wandering in a desert with all the people of his past.  He is confronting the ideas and the people who shaped his own life, and the very notion of such an overwhelming experience is the only thing any individual can fully comprehend.  The universe, as we see it individually, is made up of what we understand.  Nothing more, and nothing less. 
While The Tree of Life may celebrate our very existence, Lars von Trier’s Melancholia observes the end, and where we may be headed.  As optimistic and meditative as Malick’s film may be to many, von Trier’s film is equally nihilistic and bleak.  It is not an observation of the beginning of our world, but its total destruction, and how everything we cherish means nothing once the world no longer exists.  Our two guides through this end, sisters Justine and Claire (Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg), come to understand, in their own ways, that no matter how the universe takes shape through their own experiences they will meet the same end.  We all meet the same end, regardless of the form it may take, and von Trier’s idea here is to homogenize the past experiences of these characters into one complete range of human emotion.  Fear, anger, resentment and resignation exist as one arch in two people.  When the end comes, we all die the same way.  Melancholia shows us the apocalypse in an intimate setting, allowing us not to be caught up in the mass chaos of the world, the myopic instability of all religions battling against each other’s beliefs, but to truly consider the finality of such a catastrophe.  This destruction of everything we know renders everything we cherished – our lives and our ceremonies and our love – as meaningless. 
The Tree of Life and Melancholia serve as bookends to an expansive volume of existentialist films.  There have been films dealing with the origins of life, and even more studying the destruction of it all, but I would argue none explore these obtuse ideas with such clarity.  Von Trier’s vision of the end times is the counterpoint to Malick’s idea of the beginning, and vice versa.  Whatever questions arise with The Tree of Life, von Trier has answered with his own opinions.  Of course, that was not his intent as these directors were undoubtedly shaping their own films, one without the knowledge of the other.  But I would also argue it is no coincidence that these two very different, but very similar films, have both come out now, in the same year.  These are times of great uncertainty, and when a society is faced with unrest it is human nature to look inward and find out what anything, and everything, means in the end.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Melancholia


MELANCHOLIA: Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsboug, Kiefer Sutherland (135 min.)

I find certain delight when I see a film that is unlike anything I have ever seen before.  They come along once in a while, maybe five times a year in a good year, and the great uniqueness of these films restores my faith in the creative process.  In a time where Hollywood movies are churned out on a conveyor belt of unoriginality, looking to snatch the biggest payday possible before rocketing out to home video sales, seeing a film that is original and distinct is like a wonderful breath of fresh air.  Even if said film focuses on the end of the world. 
Lars von Trier’s Melancholia is the most captivating film I have seen this year, one of the most beautifully unsettling pictures I can remember.  I have seen where this film has been called a bookend to Terrance Malick’s The Tree of Life, one observing the origin of life while the other examines the end.  But I dare say this film affected me greater, and will stick with me longer.  It is just as bold as Malick’s film, and I can see the comparisons.  But make no mistake, this is a unique experience, and trying to tie it in with any other film would be doing it a disservice. 
Melancholia begins with an extended prologue, a ten minute slow-motion sequence set to Wagner’s morose Tristan and Isolde in which we see the two women of the story in situations we don’t immediately comprehend.  This is a bold stroke by von Trier before he settles into the story, told in two parts.  The first part, titled “Justine,” focuses on an all night wedding party at a lavish country estate which seems to double as a grand hotel.  Justine, played by Kirsten Dunst, has just been married to Michael (Alexander Skarsgård), and the two newlyweds are traveling in a stretched limo to the reception at the estate.  The estate is run by Justine’s sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and her astronomer husband, John (Kiefer Sutherland).  Once they arrive at the reception, it is clear this collection of family and close friends cannot rightly function with one another.  Something is seriously amiss.  Some of the guests are bitter, others distracted by their own needs, others possibly insane.  This includes Justine.
Justine’s estranged parents are the myopic and impossible Gaby (Charlotte Rampling) who doesn’t believe in marriage and sees everything here as a farce, and the aloof Dexter (John Hurt), who loves Justine but seems quietly concerned about her mental state.  Justine’s boss, Jack (Stellan Skarsgård), is trying to pull an ad slogan from her.  Justine appears first as a serene new bride, but her mood reveals itself as a façade.  She is the first person to spot Melancholia, a planet which we will soon realize is headed for an impact with earth and will destroy the planet, and her observation of the planet as a star in the distance seems to change her mood just as she walks into the reception. 
The entire first half is dedicated to showing the frivolity of such affairs.  Melancholia is headed for earth, so what does a cake cutting or a first dance matter?  This mindset slowly overtakes the ceremonial aspects of the wedding and Justine’s mental state deteriorates rapidly as she begins acting out, despite the best efforts of Claire and John to keep everyone happy and none the wiser.  I got the sense that the planet itself has begun to dissolve the mentality of these people, and as we go into the second part of the film it is clear the impending doom has begun to affect the characters.
Part two is called “Claire,” and focuses squarely on the arrival of Melancholia.  Justine has now deteriorated completely and cannot eat or function.  It seems she has become resigned to the fate of the world.  Claire has grown preoccupied by the planet, and is frightened.  John assures everyone that the planet will simply pass us by and be beautiful to see.  These three characters take on the three available reactions to such an event: fear, resignation, and denial.  Of course, Melancholia will impact with the earth and all will be lost, so it is von Trier’s decision to remain with these characters at this estate until the end.  There is no influence from the outside world, and this allows von Trier a certain artistic liberty.  The story is decidedly science fiction, but the lack of outside influence, news reports or presidential addresses or worldwide panic and fear, create a sort of serenity and introspection.  A film with different ideas would grow conventional.
Melancholia is about the final days of this world, and it examines an event in ways I have never seen on film.  While the second half may focus more on Claire, it is Justine’s story from the beginning.  And the way she looms as a presence, much like the planet itself, she haunts the picture like a ghost.  This is the finest, most daring work of Kirsten Dunst’s career.  This is not a film about the science of it all, but about the mood of these characters and their varying degrees of coping.  It is a film which commands a second and a third viewing.  I feel like discussing this film having seen it only once is the incorrect thing to do.  But I must get some thoughts and observations out.  Because the next time I see Melancholia I may feel something greater, something larger, something new.  This is the sign of a brilliant film.
A         

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Descendants


THE DESCENDANTS: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller (110 min.)

Matt King, our guide through Alexander Payne’s new film The Descendants, sets the stage through voiceover almost immediately.  King, played by George Clooney, tells us how it really is in Hawaii; “just because we live in Hawaii,” he says, “doesn’t mean we don’t have real problems just like everyone else.”  And Matt is having his fair share of problems.  He makes his living as a real estate lawyer in Honolulu, but he also happens to be the sole trustee of 25,000 acres of prime real estate which he plans on selling in a few days.  The sale is going to make him and his extended family very wealthy, but there is the moral conundrum of another piece of beautiful land being turned into a commercial Mecca of hotels and tourist shopping malls.

But Matt’s more pressing issue involves his own immediate family.  His wife, Elizabeth, has been involved in a boating accident and is in a vegetative state in the hospital, leaving Matt to tend to their two daughters.  But Matt was always “the backup parent,” and he and Elizabeth were on the cusp of a separation before the accident.  Their youngest, Scottie (Amara Miller), is a precocious ten-year old having trouble adjusting to her mother being ill.  Matt doesn’t know how to manage Scottie, so he gets their seventeen-year old, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) out of boarding school to help.  Alexandra is a troubled teen, full of resentment for both Matt and Elizabeth.  And she also happens to have an important bit of information about her mother.  She was having an affair.
This bombshell sends Matt into a downward spiral of anger and confusion as he tries to track down the man Elizabeth was seeing with the help of Alexandra, who demands her friend Sid, a dopey schlub played by Nick Krause, come along for the ride.  While they try and find this guy, who we soon discover is a realtor played by the long absent Matthew Lillard, Matt also travels around to family and friends of Elizabeth to keep them abreast of her situation.  Elizabeth’s father, Scott, is a cantankerous old man played by Robert Forster.  Matt clearly has his hands full emotionally and financially, and the film is a story of how he balances these plates in the air, trying to make the right decision at every turn.  And a twist in the second half of the film makes the decisions that much more difficult.
Alexander Payne is a gifted writer and director, and he knows how to handle families and men on the brink of breakdowns.  But The Descendants doesn’t know what to do with itself once all the chips are on the table and the story is set.  We know of the land sale and the affair, and we meet his daughters, but the story starts treading water in a heavy midsection.  I got the sense of a film straining to extend its running time, regardless of whether or not that was the case.  The trouble is, these problems and these events could have been absolved too quickly.  Instead, things are dragged out much too long.  Shots of Hawaii, of Matt staring and at a loss, the search for Elizabeth’s lover, they all feel stretched beyond their limit. 
That being said, the performances in The Descendants are wonderful and fitting.  Clooney has never been stripped down this way, showing a different type of vulnerability from his roles in Michael Clayton and Syriana.  I expect a worthy Oscar nomination.  And both daughters, Miller the younger and Woodley the teen, are excellent.  The decision to set this story in Hawaii also adds a certain texture unfamiliar to stories of this kind.  Everyone wears Hawaiian prints and shorts, spends their time in bare feet, but as Matt King tells us these are merely the elements of a culture.  It doesn’t mean these people are happy all the time, or more than anyone else in the world.
I liked The Descendants.  But I didn’t love it.  There are some strong emotional moments here, but consistency in the tone and rhythm upset the overall picture.  It is missing the sharp wit of earlier Payne films like Sideways and Election, or the awkwardness of About Schmidt, and it feels like a 110-minute film with an 80-minute story.
B-      

Friday, December 9, 2011

FRIDAY SCATTER-SHOOTING: Musical Resistance, Oscar Thoughts, and The Dark Knight Rises Goes Viral.

* I think my brain has some sort of chemical that creates a resistance to musicals. I fully understand the purpose of song and dance in a cartoon, like the Disney films, and I embrace that. Even Mary Poppins makes sense to me. But West Side Story? The Sound of Music? These are adult, linear narratives that are shot wonderfully and interrupted by singing and dancing. I recognize the greatness of something like West Side Story, but last night I found myself changing the channel in favor of The Last Boyscout.

* Because The Last Boyscout is better. You know it is.

* I still don’t see a Best Picture frontrunner out there. At least not in this Holiday season. If anything, the Best Picture for me came out in the spring. It’s Midnight In Paris.

* I think even if The Iron Lady isn’t a very good film, Meryl Streep will still rob someone more deserving of a Best Actress nomination. Same goes for Leo and J. Edgar. I guess it isn’t fair to say they don’t deserve it regardless of the movie’s overall quality. But I did.

* I see backlash on The Dark Knight from time to time. This is unwarranted nonsense in my opinion.

* And the viral marketing campaign for The Dark Knight Rises has kicked off and is in full force with set photos and all sorts of references packaged as different things. This is vague, but that’s how viral marketing works I guess. Either way, it is a little excessive and it may water down the final product.

* For example, do we need a 6 minute prologue to The Dark Knight Rises coming out now? I don’t think so.

* Of course, there is an easy way to get around all this viral marketing and go into the film as fresh as possible. Don’t pay attention to it.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

DVD REVIEW: The Help

Sometimes a film needs to use broad brush strokes in order to reach wide audiences. There are movies that exist to appeal to a very narrow demographic, but there are those movies where appealing to the masses is key. The Help is the latter, a touching drama that also manages to operate as a safe crowd pleaser. Dealing with such a prickly subject as racism in 60s Jackson, Mississippi opens so many doors to uncomfortable events. Violence, murder, hatred, disgust, and general depravity could be used to describe this time in America, and could be sharp and aggressive points in a film taking place in this era. The Help tends to skirt the tougher issues, opting to show us primarily the social divide between Southern Belles and their maids. There is disgusting behavior in The Help, but it is wisely kept safe enough for fans of the book and general audiences to enjoy a wonderful story without the inconvenience of squirming in their seats.

The film focuses on an outsider coming to understand the plight of the ultimate outsiders in Jackson, Mississippi. Emma Stone plays Skeeter Phelan, a kinky-haired tomboy in a sea of Southern socialites. Skeeter wants to be a journalist and a writer, and takes a job with a local newspaper writing about housekeeping tricks and tips. She lives among a world of stuffy women, led by the wicked and manipulative Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), a devious racist and an Ice Queen who goes out of her way to insult, humiliate, and control the black housekeepers who raise white children and take care of white households while their own lives go unnoticed. Hilly’s friend, Elizabeth, walks in Hilly’s shadow and has no time for her own child either. These bored housewives spend their time looking proper and playing bridge while the housekeepers take care of the ugly things in their lives.

Skeeter yearns to write something important, and as she completely disagrees with her peers, as well as her mom (Allison Janney) who is more concerned with her getting a date than anything else in the world, she decides to write a book about Jackson from the perspective of "The Help." She approaches Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis), who is apprehensive at first but is soon compelled to tell her story. Along with Aibileen, there is Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer), a housekeeper as outspoken and abrasive as Aibileen is calm and reserved. The Help then becomes a story about these two women, and they steal the show from the other actresses.

Enter Celia Foote, the wild card played by Jessica Chastain. Celia is a social outcast, a bit of a white trash ditz who isn’t “clever” enough to hate these black women. When she hires Minny to help her figure out how to be a proper housewife, Celia is too naïve to realize it is uncouth to sit with Minny and share lunch. Celia is a special enemy to Hilly, and once the pieces are set into place the film becomes a waiting game, where we wait in great anticipation to see these awful white women get their comeuppance. All the while, Skeeter is learning from these housekeepers and building up her own resentment towards her mother, towards Hilly, and towards the attitude of Jackson altogether.

The Help is a touching and emotionally engaging film loaded from top to bottom with magnificent performances. In an age where female performances are marginalized, here is a film where I could see three or four Oscar nominations. Davis and Spencer dominate the film as the two most prominent housekeepers, and Bryce Dallas Howard is quite good in what must have been a difficult role to play. Hilly is a monster, and Howard’s cold gaze is appropriately heartless.

The look of the film is pristine, and the camera unclouded. The Help is not without some flaws, including needing a little more time in the editing room here and there to tighten the focus, but overall I grew quite fond of the picture as the story unfolded. It may also play it a little safe, keeping the violence and the hate crimes off camera. Some fils would opt for sharper angles to the story, but in retracting its claws it allows the picture to appeal to a broader audience. Sometimes, this is not a bad thing.

B+

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

ACTOR PROFILES: Michelle Williams, The Best Young Actress in Town

If you were to turn back the clock to the heyday of the popular teen series Dawson’s Creek, I imagine listing which of the show’s stars would go on to have the most successful film career would not include Michelle Williams. At least not right away. There was the star, James Van Der Beek, and his girlfriend Katie Holmes. Then, of course, there was the popular best friend, played by Joshua Jackson. All three of these stars would have a career after Dawson’s Creek. But out of all the stars of the series, it is Michelle Williams who has transcended the series to carve out an early career challenging even the greatest of actresses. Williams could have easily taken the route familiar to nearly all young actresses, starring in romantic comedies and then attempting to branch out. Instead, after only a few bit parts in slasher pics and throwaway films, Williams began setting her sights on challenging work. And she has no intention, it seems, of changing her tune.

Born in a rural Montana town in 1980, Michelle Williams first gained notoriety on Dawson’s Creek playing Jen Lindey. She gained enough popularity to grab small parts in feature films, including Halloween: H20 and Species. Williams got work where work was available through the late nineties and into the 2000s, but her break came in 2005 when she was cast alongside her late husband, Heath Ledger, in Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain. Williams played Alma, wife of Ennis Del Mar, a cowboy who shares a lifelong romance with another man, played by Jake Gyllenhaal. In a film surrounded by such controversy, but one that was arguably the best and most acclaimed film of 2005, it may have been difficult for Williams to be noticed outside the central romance between Ledger and Gyllenhaal. But Williams showed audiences certain heartbreak. Alma knew about her husband’s romance, but as she resisted the temptation to confront Ennis she stood quietly at his side for the sake of their daughter. Williams’ quietly devastating role garnered a significant amount of attention and earned her her first Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress.

Williams would continue to star in little-seen films, in roles that would challenge her. In 2007 she starred in I’m Not There, the avant-garde meditation on Bob Dylan’s life and evolving career. In 2008, Williams endured personal tragedy as her ex husband, Heath Ledger, died unexpectedly after finishing his Oscar-winning role as the Joker in The Dark Knight. Rather than disappear, Williams continued to challenge herself and carve out her own niche in Hollywood. Later in 2008, Williams starred in the bare-bones production of Wendy and Lucy, a simple story about a wayward young woman with no home who loses her dog. The story is simple, but the performance from Williams is powerful. Wendy and Lucy was too small to be recognized by Oscar, but Williams did pick up a number of other nominations, including an Independent Spirit nomination.

2010 was another significant year for Williams’ evolution as a serious actress. Early in the year she starred in Martin Scorsese’s mind-bending thriller, Shutter Island, in a haunting role as Leonardo Dicaprio’s late wife. At the end of the year, Williams garnered the biggest praise of her young career, playing Cindy, the beaten-down, blue-collar wife to Ryan Gosling in Blue Valentine. The film was another controversial picture, skirting the deathblow of an NC-17 rating after some staunch lobbying by director Derek Cianfrante, and Williams’ performance was yet another devastatingly understated tour de force. She would pick up just about every nomination available, including her second Academy Award nomination.

2011 has been no different for Williams in that it’s been wonderfully diverse and challenging. She starred first in Meek’s Cutoff, a minimalist Western that is as small and independent as films can get. This holiday season, Williams plays Marilyn Monroe in My Week With Marilyn. Of course, in typical Williams fashion, her role as Monroe is not a straight biopic, but an examination into a specific place in time in the troubled starlet’s career. I suspect any number of nominations to come Williams’ way once again. Here is an actress who – in a Hollywood where skin, sex appeal, and romantic comedies are the direction the majority of actresses are forced to take – has created a career that will surely go beyond her sex appeal and into a long career the likes of Meryl Streep or Diane Keaton. When her looks begin to fade, Williams’ ability to deliver powerful performances will carry her, and define her as one of the greatest actresses Hollywood has to offer.