Posts Tagged ‘oscar’

Film: “Wild Tales”

May 18, 2015

This Argentinian film was Oscar-nominated for Best Foreign Film last year, and I recommend it, with reservations.

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Erica Rivas in “Wild Tales”

 The writer-director, Damian Szifron, has a jaundiced view of humanity, but is inclined to see the humor in how we pathetic creatures relate to each other. Of the six stories he tells, only one, the last, even hints that something else besides meanness and venality reside within the human breast. And even in that story, total disaster is just barely averted.

All of the tales are told from a comfortably successful middle-class perspective. The six stories are, in brief summary: the passengers in a plane discover a disturbing common element in their background; a waitress has dark memories from her past awakened by a customer; two drivers have a road-rage blow-up, like a Laurel and Hardy nightmare; a demolitions expert’s car is towed; a businessman discovers that his son is a hit-and-run driver; and, finally, a wedding celebration is totally demolished in a jealous rage.

While entertaining, I have to say the film falls short of the mark. The writing is clever, subtle and occasionally, brilliant. Szifron structures each tale skillfully, and has a good ear for dialogue, which is not lost in the subtitles. But, as the legend best put it, in comparison to death, which is easy, comedy is hard. And satire is doubly so, because the characters are not going to be particularly likeable. There’s simply no substitute for laughs, and I sat there, squirming, because they didn’t come.

I don’t think it’s the actors’ fault. The performances seemed skillful enough, but, with two exceptions, they weren’t comic performances. All too often we see close-ups of characters who look vaguely distressed, and even angry about their situation, but which seem too mild for the absurd chaos that suddenly confronts them. This was especially hurtful in the hit-and-run story, because it was the sharpest satire. The idea that the law is easily manipulated to let the guilty off, and punish the innocent, is certainly not new. And Szifron’s treatment doesn’t hold back; its as nasty as anything Billy Wilder would have dreamed up. But the acting, both in facial expression and gesture, never threatens to explode into the exaggerated, lashed-out desperation – the wildness, if you will – that pulls out the laughter from us.

Compare this with the performances in the Coen brothers’ Burn After Reading, a film that always makes me laugh. The two films are about the same in terms of the extremity of the situations and the stupidity and desperation of the characters. But Burn wins in laughs because the actors play it “straight”, which, in comedy terms, means they show us the most extreme human behavior in that situation.

This isn’t easy to do. But the Coens knew their clever script wasn’t enough, and they got their talented cast to go all out because farce is funniest when played for total panic; being too “real” is a loser. So even a stupid script, as in Neighbors, can get laughs when its director, Nicholas Stoller, kicks the performances up to that level, and doesn’t lose it by getting too fancy.

But I thought two actresses broke out of the pack because they added enough in terms of expression, or just plain comic shtick, to bring out the fun. Maybe they sensed that the director was just not getting their best stuff so they had to squeeze it in somehow. In the wedding story, Erica Rivas, as the bride, makes her dizzying shifts in mood totally believable, and funnier for it. Also, Rita Cortese, as a cook with a knowing touch with rat poison, is quietly hilarious.

Writer Szifron set a very high bar for his director – himself – but didn’t quite clear it. Based on the film’s reception, I know that’s a minority opinion. But there you have it.

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Film Review: Nebraska

December 25, 2013

Alexander Payne’s new film demonstrates the artistic virtues of modesty.  His last two films, as well made as they were, disappointed: with About Schmidt, a loose meandering narrative winds up woefully pretentious; but with his next film, The Descendents, a tighter focus didn’t help because the dramatic payoff was so weak. Finally, Payne discovers his strengths again. Nebraska benefits from its control of tone and structure, guiding us through a simple story of a son’s newfound connection to his elderly father. The modesty pays off because we become absorbed by believable characters who are presented in the simplest dramatic terms.  Bob Nelson’s script never hits a false note. The resolution of the story satisfies because nothing is falsely intensified for a cheap emotional payoff. We see that only one of its characters, the son, changes at all during the course of the film, which must have been a hard sell to producers because audiences have become so used to being spoon-fed the uplift of phony reconciliations.

The story concerns Woody, a feeble, elderly drunk (Bruce Dern) barely surviving with his scolding wife, Kate (June Squibb), on their farm. His son, David (Will Forte), a neer-do-well himself, is at least not self-destructive like his dad, but is only able to hold down a sales job he hates, and has no real relationships. When Woody mistakenly thinks he won a million dollars, he browbeats David into driving him to Omaha to collect his “winnings”. David does it to humor him, even though he dreads the moment when Woody learns the truth.  Along the way, they encounter the people that Woody knew from his past, a collection of aimless, mean-spirited losers who stayed in the town he had left years before. Dim bulbs all, with two exceptions: Ed (Stacy Keach), the dominant force in the town, who is even more mean-spirited, but cunning and dishonest enough to rule the roost, and Peg (Angela McEwan), Woody’s first girlfriend, who has stayed to run the town paper.

Filmed in black and white, with minimal camera movement, Nebraska shows the extent that people can become attached to the land, and how it diminishes them. The sky in the American plains is vast and oppressive; the land is barren, without promise. Why do they stay?   We get no clear answer to that, and a good thing too.  Any person of average intelligence could give a theory of about it – say, the need to be near family, the comfort of the familiar – but to have a character actually say those things would be fatal. Payne lets the story bring the audience to that conclusion, through the skills of his cast. There are a number of “Leo McCarey” moments. My favorite is when Kate visits the town graveyard and repeats, with absolute delight, every salacious bit of gossip she can recall about those buried there.

Whatever Bruce Dern’s Oscar chances, we already know it’s the role of his career. He is especially fine near the end, when he tells his son  what he wanted the money for. This speech forges a steel resolve in his son, leading to the film’s climax. Part of the film’s success is in seeing just how pathetic Woody’s “triumph” really is, but why it is so important to him anyway. But the most important character is David, who actually discovers new strengths in himself; nobody else discovers much of anything. Will Forte is certainly appealing, but only adequate in the role. He’s not “there” yet. He doesn’t yet convey the sense of someone being tested from within, so that David’s final gesture is fully prepared for, even as it surprises.


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