Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Shine a Light: Oscar’s Unlikely Nominees

It’s a funny thing about the Oscars, whose 2010 nominations were recently announced. I’m not one of those film critics who label great performances as Oscar worthy, since the nominations and awards are not a reliable barometer to gauge fine acting. If they were, Dustin Hoffman (Barney’s Version), Lesley Manville (Another Year) and Andrew Garfield and Arnie Hammer (The Social Network) would not have been passed over this year. Yet, I am not completely down on the awards either, for the various reasons I outlined last year. One of their virtues is that they shine a light on films that would otherwise not be seen by too many film-goers. I’m not referring, obviously, to The King’s Speech or Black Swan or even The Kids Are All Right, but about small movies, some from unlikely countries, that don’t have big-name stars, or a studio pushing the film or its actors with all the publicity that money can buy. Here are reviews of three of those smaller Oscar-nominated films, which, though not favoured, may win something on Hollywood's big night.

Lubna Azabal in Incendies
Incendies (Scorched) (Oscar nominee – Best Foreign Language Film):

Denis Villeneuve’s  French and Arabic-language Canadian entry, adapted from Wajdi Mouawad's play of the same name, is a powerful, chilling depiction of the ramifications of war and hatred and what people sometimes have to do to survive the worst that life can throw at them. Largely set in an unnamed Arab country, but obviously Lebanon, Incendies begins in Montreal, with the reading of a will to twin brother and sister Simon (Maxim Gaudette) and Jeanne Marwan (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) concerning their late mother Nawal (Lubna Azabal). The revelation that they have another brother, and that their father is alive, sends them, per Nawal’s instructions, on a journey to her homeland where they discover more than anyone should ever find out about their parents.

Villeneuve expertly juxtaposes Nawal’s turbulent and eventful past with the much more calm present as first Jeanne, and then Simon, accompanied by their mother’s notary and boss Jean Lebel (Remy Girard), leave Canada and are then forced to face up to the reasons that Nawal has sent them on their fateful journey.

It’s a revelation with its fair share of shocks and a belated recognition for Jeanne and Simon that their mother’s life was scarred by racism, violence and other things too painful for anyone to think about. The age-old story of war, and its destructive effects, is given a fresh twist in Incendies. But I’m glad I never saw Mouawad’s play as the secrets unveiled in the movie would not have had the punch that they did. Incendies is truly a scorching film, disturbing and genuinely shocking in an honest, non-exploitative way. In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, its main plot twists, hinging on two remarkable coincidences, wouldn’t ring true. But Villeneuve’s superb direction ensures that you won’t question what you see, nor will you forget it either. Incendies is a quietly explosive and indelible work of art.

Jacki Weaver in Animal Kingdom
Animal Kingdom (Oscar nominee, Jacki Weaver – Best Actress in a Supporting Role):

Right from the opening scene of this Aussie crime drama, as young JoshuaJ Cody (James Frecheville) sits watching television next to the body of his overdosed mother, you sense that you’re in for a grim time. Lost after his mother dies, J has no choice but to enfold himself in the embrace of his Melbourne family. But Animal Kingdom, like the world it evokes, is full of dangerous creatures that are as apt to kill you as not. In this case, those lethal animals are his family, notably his criminal uncles and their enabling mother, J’s grandmother, Janine. Those bad guys are a profane, violent lot who distrust women, other then their mum, but are sensing their life of crime – bank robbery and drug dealing – is coming to an end. But like any cornered animal, they will scratch and bite and kill if necessary.

Animal Kingdom is about how J gradually comes to see his family’s world, and how he realizes it’s not for him. That’s a provocative storyline, but the film, written and directed by David Michôd, doesn’t amount to much. By failing to spend anytime showcasing the criminal environment of his uncles, it’s difficult to have a reaction when their world begins to fall apart. (A few stills of them robbing banks over the opening credits aren't sufficient to the task.) Imagine if The Godfather didn’t paint in great depth the Corleone's world before setting the plot in motion, and you get some idea of the deficiencies of Animal Kingdom. Even the film’s compelling depiction of the city’s Armed Robbery Unit as completely out of control, and just about as evil as the crooks they’re hunting down, is lacking, since we don’t know why that state of affairs exists. Is it specific to Melbourne or all of Australia? And as the supposedly calm centre of the film’s storm,  the blank faced James Frecheville fails to deliver a compelling performance. His acting isn’t bad so much as it’s dull, a description which apples to the actors playing his uncles too: Ben Mendelsohn, Luke Ford and Sullivan Stapleton. (J narrates the movie at the outset, but for no clear reason that conceit is dropped early on.) But there are a few good performances in the film, including Guy Pearce (L.A. Confidential) as a cop concerned about J’s future, and Jacki Weaver who is truly scary as Janine ‘Smurf’ Cody, a woman who reminds one of Lady Macbeth and Livia Soprano, Tony’s Machiavellian mother. (She's mostly done theatre at home and the occasional high profile movie such as Peter Weir's Picnic at Hanging Rock.) With her smurf-like voice, placid demeanour and sly smile, Weaver keeps you watching, if only to see what she’ll do next. Kudos to the Academy for noticing her fine work on screen. It’s a shame that it’s in the service of an inferior movie.

Jennifer Lawrence in Winter's Bone
Winter’s Bone (Oscar nominee, Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Jennifer Lawrence – Best Actress in a Leading Role, John Hawkes – Best Actor in a Supporting Role)

Warned that if her meth-dealing father fails to show up for his court hearing she’ll lose her family home (which he put up as collateral), seventeen-year-old Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) sets off into the backwoods of Missouri to try to find him. But she encounters much more than she’s ready for, as the grim realities of his existence, which she has been ignoring her whole life, are forced upon her, forever shattering her innocence.

Though it's yet another stereotypical view of rural America – you know, the place without cell phones or even TVs – Winter’s Bone is ostensibly breaking new ground in its presentation of a permanently economically depressed and lawless way of life, where joining the army is the only honest way out, and where extreme kindness and extreme cruelty co-exist. But though that world view is intellectually interesting, Debra Granik's film is not, and her direction veers from inept to overstated to horror movie menacing.

I was too conscious of the movie’s obvious art direction – for example, the haphazardly piled furniture, the fallow fields, the cramped houses and sets that seemed staged rather than lived in. Nor did I buy the film’s simple story, written by Granik and Anne Rosellini and based on Daniel Woodrell’s 2006 novel. I don’t doubt that meth dealers trawl the backwoods of America (though no one seems to have any money to be able to afford to buy drugs), or that these supremely poor folk would have their codes and ways of life. However, Winter’s Bone is so intent on making its earnest points about poverty and class differences and the like, that it fails to breathe as a movie. It rarely feels authentic – a scene at a recruiting station where Ree tries to convince a kindly marine that she is cut out to enlist is especially flat – and the people populating its world are more character types than fleshed out creations, including Oscar-nominated neophyte Jennifer Lawrence as the plucky Ree, and nominee John Hawkes (best known as the Jewish merchant Sol Star in HBO's superb TV western Deadwood) as her tough but caring uncle.  

Like too many movies about rural America (Ballast, Wendy and Lucy), Winter’s Bone is underwhelming movie-making. If you want powerful, poetic or realistic movies with rural settings, check out George Washington, Hustle & Flow or Junebug. Up against those superior pictures, Winter’s Bone just doesn’t cut it.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto . Beginning Friday, he will be teaching a course on film genre this winter at Ryerson University 's LIFE Institute. For more information go to

No comments:

Post a Comment