Oscar nominations were announced Tuesday. I raise a tiny toast, a demitasse of delight about The King’s Speech.
I could also proliferate some prose about excellent talents doomed not to enter the magic circle of the Big O, including such actors as Giovanna Mezzogiorno (Vincere), Rachel Weisz (Agora), John Hurt (44 Inch Chest), and Patricia Clarkson (Cairo Time).
But that would only underline the old truth that movie critics have never been, and never will be, in the bosom of the Academy. Critically, we carry on:
It is delightful to hear Paul Giamatti put a sarcastic spin on words like “feminist approaches to fornication and adultery.” It happens in Barney’s Version, with Giamatti as Barney Panofsky, a caustic alcoholic and hack TV producer. He is like a Canadian update on Giamatti’s Miles, the wine-soaked San Diego writer in Sideways, merged with Richard Dreyfuss’s Montreal wheeler-dealer in The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. Ted Kotcheff’s 1974 movie was based on an early novel by Mordecai Richler, and this more-layered work derives from Richler’s final novel.
Barney is, like Duddy, a Jewish mensch vehicle for a small, driven, tragicomic actor. Dreyfuss went on to Jaws and other big deals, plus an Oscar (The Goodbye Girl, 1977). Giamatti, a character player who is often best when he broods, glares, and squirms (or, last week, provided one of the few adult highlights of the Golden Globes), fills a more specialized nook. Rich in sloppy emotions, Barney is often a loser, at times a fool, but Giamatti textures plot as real experience. He sustains the movie.
Barney gives up artistic slumming in Rome when his uncle gets him a Montreal job cranking out junky TV shows. A rebel fantastically devoid of cause, he hates the well-paid work. His fixation is women, first a screwy Roman sexpot (Rachelle Lefevre), then a hometown wow (Minnie Driver) who turns into Big Boss Lady precisely on their wedding date. The great love is Miriam (Rosamund Pike). Calm, bright, motherly Miriam seems just what Barney wants and will inevitably capsize: a cushioned nest from which to drink, gamble, flirt, watch pro hockey, and flub through fatherhood. His own dad is played as a broad wink by Dustin Hoffman, doing service similar to Denholm Elliott’s in Duddy Kravitz.
Smart casting can’t iron out every lump of this baggy story, but performance energy helps us swallow some rather fishy stuff about a possible murder. Michael Konyves was the primary adapter, Richard J. Lewis (from TV’s CSI) directed, and the movie lifts include a room trashing in debt to Citizen Kane and a suicide echoing La Dolce Vita. Giamatti, an odd star and a good actor, makes even the last scenes, suggestive of a suds drama about aging and loss, quite touching.
The Rite opens by quoting the late and some say saintly Pope John Paul II: “The Devil is still alive and active in the world.” Whatever your belief system, trash is certainly alive and active in movies. Mikael Håfström’s film, shot in the gloomiest Rome since the Dark Ages, relies fanatically on the almost papal acting authority of Sir Anthony Hopkins. As Father Lucas Trevant, a weary but vigilant exorcist, Hopkins gets to cram elements of Hannibal Lecter together with fragments of Max von Sydow’s Father Merrin in The Exorcist. He rallies the faith of a mortician’s son who has become a doubting priest (actor Colin O’Donoghue, who is like a smaller, blander Tony Perkins, which gives us some fuzzy little vibes of Psycho).
Of course, Trevant will briefly join Satan’s team, his face turning into creepy special effects as Hopkins’s acting is possessed by deviled ham. There are the old, dreary insinuations about female sexuality (a raped, pregnant girl writhes in diabolic agony) and nature (cats, bugs, frogs, a demon-eyed mule). The wasting of Ciarán Hinds, Alice Braga, and Rutger Hauer is sinful. There is a priestly touch of child abuse, though not of the kind that has made so many scandalous headlines. Saturated in Catholic symbols, the movie asks us to believe in God because it can gruesomely imagine the Devil. You might work up a scare, or you might simply ponder such theological questions as: Is Beelzebub ever called Bubba?
In suavely British tones, the writer Tariq Ali sneers about someone who refers to the Pakistani elite by evoking American founders such as Washington and Jefferson. But when Bhutto is over, we realize that the tormented nation does have its tragic Kennedys: the Bhutto family. The documentary centers on Benazir Bhutto, the elegant woman whose two progressive terms as Pakistan’s leader were aborted by military coups. In 2007, she was assassinated after returning from exile. We can also feel haunted by her father, the charismatic Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, whose reforms offended the military and led to his execution, and even by Benazir’s playboy husband, who proved his devotion with 11 years in prison.
Watching Benazir turn from a landowning family’s gangly teen into a tough, worldly, and brave politician — even something (in this Islamic context) of a feminist — is quite moving. Expertly assembled clips and interviews do not shy away from the carnage or the corruption. The arrogant military, and Pakistan’s huge security system that nurtured the Taliban nightmare, are odious. Uncle Sam is up to little good. Glimpses of such power cynics as Henry Kissinger do not bring to mind Washington or Jefferson.
Outside the Law
Algeria’s war for independence became docu-dramatic in The Battle of Algiers, only four years after President Charles de Gaulle cut Algeria free from “metropolitan France.” That classic’s dominant figure was a French colonel. Outside the Law offers a liberation epic from the Algerian-Islamic perspective, and although it takes place mainly in France, it often seems colonized by the American gangster films of Coppola and Scorsese. Some setups come, slightly rusted, from the old Warner Brothers’ tool kit.
Three brothers flee to France when their ancestral land is stolen by French settlers, and their strife with the police becomes politicized gang warfare, often venomously racial.