Dear Dana, Dear Stephanie, Dearly Departed Wesley,
Clearly, one of us is going to have to throw a grenade at some point because things are about to get frighteningly affable. I haven’t seen The Counselor, but I have completely trusted Wesley on all matters that lie on the border between American Gothic and kitsch ever since reading his take on The Paperboy; he’s clearly a guy who can spot the must-have item at the flea market. In addition, I heartily endorse Stephanie’s hearty endorsement of Dana’s hearty endorsement of Concussion, and I share (with delight!) Stephanie’s enthusiasm for the shrewdly creepy Dark Skies. I saw both of these movies on separate, lazy, must-avoid-writing evenings thanks to video on demand, and I would be remiss in failing to point out how large a part of my movie-watching year VOD has become. I know: We should see everything in a theater. But we don’t and/or can’t, and I’m grateful to have my options and horizons expanded no matter what the delivery system is. (Well, maybe not Gravity on an iPhone.)
I’m glad Concussion came up on the eve of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, because for the next 10 days, we’re going to be hearing a lot about what has heat, and what might be in the running for jury prizes or audience awards, and what’s at the center of a bidding war among distributors. Exactly a year ago, Concussion was at Sundance in the dramatic competition. It won no prizes, was talked and blogged, and tweeted about less than many of the other competition films, and was acquired by a division of the Weinstein Company, Radius, that gave it only the barest theatrical release. All of that turns out to have absolutely no correlation to the movie’s quality or worthiness, and is a welcome reminder that there are almost always treasures to be discovered among that overpacked festival’s underseen movies. Here’s to lack of buzz!
My own choice for a film that didn’t get the attention it should have (at least, not until too late in its run) is, in fact, one that Sundance rejected: Short Term 12, writer-director Destin Cretton’s honest, beautifully observed and acted drama about the teenage residents of a foster-care group home, and the early-20s staffers (Brie Larson and John Gallagher Jr., both doing deep, well-thought-through work) who try to run the place with kindness and care while they’re still figuring out who they themselves are. It’s hard to praise this movie without making it sound like the cinematic equivalent of a vegan gluten-free agave-sweetened hypoallergenic muffin (“Just ignore the texture and take a bite!”) because its virtues—earnestness, compassion, observational care, interest in a contemporary systemic challenge—can sound either documentary-like or medicinal, neither of which it is. In some ways, Short Term 12 reminded me of Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation in its ability to make you feel completely absorbed within minutes, invested in the outcome, and challenged as your sympathies shift among the characters. Cretton's refusal to take sides among his characters isn't a symptom of wishy-washiness but of a kind of generosity of perspective that keeps you on the alert and, not incidentally, makes for good drama.
One more reason I’d like to stick up for this movie: It’s not just directed, it’s written, which I (as a writer married to a writer) am going to postulate actually matters. To call a movie “humanist” these days can feel like damning it with faint praise, but I don’t think it diminishes the importance of the director to point out that the least interesting use of auteurism as an approach to watching films is its deployment as an excuse not to give a crap what a movie is actually about. Formalist mastery matters, but not to the exclusion of all other virtues, and “pure cinema” isn’t especially exciting to me if a director doesn’t have anything to say other than “Look how I can do what I can do!” I could beat up Nicole Holofcener, I guess, because sometimes her shots don’t match up gracefully and her camera is static, but give me a thoughtfully structured, honest, probing, discomforting, and funny script like Enough Said any day over unimpeachable technical control attached to an assembly-line plot or writing that feels like it came out of a story-structure seminar. (Another bonus that writing can provide: If you give actors interesting things to say and do, you will be amazed at how they rise to the challenge.)
Which brings us, in a roundabout way, to Captain Phillips. Stephanie, your evocation of what Tom Hanks does in the last 10 minutes is dead-on; I saw the film at a packed press screening before it premiered at the New York Film Festival, and that final scene, which was apparently improvised (so much for screenwriting, I guess!), reduced many in a theater full of hardened film journalists to tears. And I don’t mean a few stoic blinks; I mean ugly-cries and sounds like “Vvv-vv-[snort]-luggh-luggh-luggh!!”
In the first 10 minutes of Captain Phillips, I did not have high hopes for Hanks’ performance, with the Vah-mawnt accent and opening dialogue that I recall as sounding something like “The times they are a-changing! We live in an uncertain world! I guess it’s time to go to the airport now!” But after three viewings, I’ve come to admire both the movie and Hanks’ performance as expertly matched slow builds. Phillips, as this movie portrays him, is a methodical, careful, slightly dull man whose strength is his situational focus; he lives clearheadedly in the reality of whatever his options are at a given moment. Hanks’ work throughout the movie is modest, and very much in tune with Billy Ray’s strong (after that first scene) script and Paul Greengrass’ direction. He doesn’t get big monologues or a spectacular range of emotional beats to play. His characterization is steady; on a scale from 1 to 10, his histrionic range runs the gamut from 4 to 6. But I think what he’s doing is cannily laying the groundwork for that final, wholly unexpected moment, when the movie reveals itself as a study of ordinariness in the face of terrible fear. It takes extraordinary control to hold back that way, for that long. And it probably doesn’t get said enough: Tom Hanks is a very smart actor.
Oprah Winfrey vs. Cate Blanchett? I’m not taking sides! I love both of those performances, and one of my biggest ongoing fights in this season of protracted squabbling is my lonely campaign against the word overacting, which gets applied with hectoring frequency to women. Stop doing so much, ladies! All your big sloppy emotions and feelings and hand gestures are so scary and noisy and smeary and wet! I’m not exactly sure what overacting is other than a euphemism for poor directorial choices. When someone is accused of overacting, it usually means either that they’ve been given nothing believable to play or no guidance about how to play it. But whatever it means, I’m quite sure that Winfrey and Blanchett aren’t guilty. Yes, these are large, gestural, scaled-up portrayals of women who have a flair for (or perhaps an addiction to) self-dramatization. I love it when actresses go big and know they’re doing it—it’s a risky, highwire choice for them, one that courts the kind of derision that rarely attaches itself to men. (Nobody, for instance, is going to dismiss Matthew McConaughey thumping his chest and popping his eyes in Wolf of Wall Street as “camp.”) I think it’s also what Meryl Streep is going after in August: Osage County—she has a fine bead on that character as a woman who believes she is giving a lifelong performance—though she’s undercut by the movie’s fatal uncertainty and tonal inconsistency. And, on a much smaller scale, it’s what Alfre Woodard is doing magnificently in what for me were two of the most mesmerizing minutes in 12 Years a Slave.
Is it time for us to go there?