Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Best Films I Have Never Seen Before: 42nd Street (1933)

42nd Street (1933)
Directed by: Lloyd Bacon.
Written by: Rian James & James Seymour based on the novel by Bradford Ropes.
Starring: Warner Baxter (Julian Marsh), Bebe Daniels (Dorothy Brock), George Brent (Pat Denning), Ruby Keeler (Peggy Sawyer), Guy Kibbee (Abner Dillon), Una Merkel (Lorraine Fleming), Ginger Rogers (Ann 'Anytime Annie' Lowell), Ned Sparks (Barry), Dick Powell (Billy Lawler), Allen Jenkins (Mac Elroy), Edward J. Nugent (Terry), Robert McWade (Jones), George E. Stone (Andy Lee).

42nd Street has for better and worse become one of the prototypical movie musicals. We can see echoes of this movie in most of the Astaire-Rogers pairings of the 1930s, and on through movies like Singin’ in the Rain and The Band Wagon in the 1950s, and even All the Jazz in the 1970s. If you wanted to look for the most clichéd movie musical in history, you couldn’t do much better than 42nd Street. It’s all here – the egotiscal director (Warner Baxter), trying for one final hit, the star (Bebe Daniels) who gets hurt right before the show, the young upstart (Ruby Keeler) who becomes a star, the chattering background dancers (including Ginger Rogers) and on and on and on. There aren’t many musical clichés that 42nd Street doesn’t exploit. The thing is, in 1933, they weren’t necessarily clichés, but because of the success of the movie, they now seem like it. The influence of 42nd Street cannot be overstated, and yet watching it today, after seeing everything that has come since, it does appear to be slightly cheesy. Sure, much of it still works, but not like it most likely did back in 1933.

The highlights of the movie are the musical numbers that take up the majority of the final third of the film. In the hour leading up to those numbers, we are treated to witty backstage banter, and numerous romantic entanglements. This part is clichéd, yet fun. Warner Baxter was never a subtle actor, and here, he’s perfectly suited for the egotistical Julian Marsh, who was once the finest musical comedy director on Broadway, but has squandered all of his money. He wants one last big hit before he retires. Luckily, he’s able to cast Dorothy Brock (Bebe Daniels), in the lead role for his new production, which means financing is secure because the exceedingly rich Abner Dillon (Guy Kibbee) is in love with her, and will give any amount of money to a show with her in it. But Dorothy is in love with Pat Denning (George Brent), her old vaudeville partner, who never did become a star, and is tired of mooching off of Dorothy. He meets Peggy Sawyer (Ruby Keeler), a young, talented chorus girl in the show, and the two flirt. Peggy also flirts with Billy Lawlor (Dick Powell), more of her age bracket. Observing all of this with wry smiles and witty comments are two aging chorus girls (Ginger Rogers and Una Merkel).

We know what is going to happen before the characters do. These early scenes are handled well by director Lloyd Bacon and his cast – which makes everything lighthearted and witty. Even the various love triangles don’t really provide much in the way of tension, because we can tell from the beginning who belongs with who. These are fine, but nothing all that special. They work, but are largely forgettable.

What isn’t forgettable are the musical numbers that mainly come at the end of the film. Choreographed by Busby Berkeley, who also supervised building of the massive sets, Berkeley created the modern movie musical numbers as we now know them. Intricately choreographed, and shot from above (so the chorus girls can make out various shapes, which of course wouldn’t work on stage, but are Berkley’s main innovation), the musical numbers – including “You’re Getting to Be a Habit to Me”, “Shuffle Off to Buffalo”, “It Must Be June” and the title song make up the backbone of the film – and are the main reason to see it. Although the numbers may strike you as clichéd now, in 1933, they were hugely innovative, and were the reason why the film was an enormous success for Warner Bros. The film is credited with saving the then struggling studio, as well as ushering in the modern movie musical.  If for no other reason, 42nd Street should be seen by film buffs to know how musicals started. True, the movie does not seem as good today as I’m sure it did in 1933. But that doesn’t mean there are not delights to be had in watching it.

What Each Film Needs to WIN to Win Best Picture

When I predict the Best Picture Race, I don’t necessarily look at the Precursors as much as some do. Sure, they are important. But what is MORE important, is what each film needs to win on Oscar night in order to Win the Best Picture Oscar. Remember, only THREE films in history have won the Best Picture Oscar and nothing else on Oscar night – The Broadway Melody (1928/29), Grand Hotel (1932 – it didn’t even get nominated for anything else) and Mutiny on the Bounty (1935). That’s 77 years people. And only five other films have managed to win the Best Picture Oscar and only one other Oscar – Wings (1927/28), All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), You Can’t Take it With You (1938), Rebecca (1940) and The Greatest Show on Earth (1952). Again, that’s 60 years. Both of those make the 23 year old Driving Miss Daisy exception (the last film to win Best Picture without a director nominated) seem relatively new by comparison. So, pretty much you have to win at least two other SUPPORTING Oscars if you want to Win the Best Picture Prize. And another thing to note, no film since Rebecca (1940) has been able to win the Oscar without winning at least ONE of – Director, Any Acting Award or Either Screenplay Award. So, one of those Supporting Awards has got to be a BIG one. So what does each film nominated need to do to win this year.

Amour – Win Foreign, Win Original Screenplay, Win Actress
The Chances of it Winning Those? Foreign is a mortal lock for Amour, so that’s not a problem. Original Screenplay is going to be a tight race, but, Haneke could easily take it. Actress is also tight, but Riva could take that as well.
Why It Needs Those: Amour is only up 5 Oscars this year, and Director is not likely to happen (although that would be AWESOME). The reason it needs to take both Original Screenplay and Actress, is because Foreign is not really a Supporting Award in this instance – no film has ever won both.
The Chances of it Actually Winning Best Picture: Approximately ZERO. It’s my favorite of the nominees, and would get my vote, but it could easily win all those Awards, and still not come close to winning Best Picture.

Argo – Win Editing, Win Score OR Sound Mixing OR Sound Editing, Win Adapted Screenplay OR Supporting Actor
The Chances of it Winning Those? Editing pretty much HAS to be a lock for Argo – it won a number of awards for it throughout the season, and when it lost it was to Zero Dark Thirty, which seems like an also ran at this point. I think Score OR Sound Editing are possible, but perhaps not probable. Still, I don’t think they’d hedge too much giving it one of those. Adapted Screenplay is tough – Lincoln has dominated the category all year, and it’s hard to see it losing there. Supporting Actor is a long shot, then again, since EVERY nominee in the category has at least one Oscar already, the Academy won’t feel too bad about throwing their support behind Arkin, if it means Argo can win Best Picture.
Why It Needs Those: Editing is a definite need, as is ONE of Adapted Screenplay or Supporting Actor – with Adapted Screenplay there being preferable. I think it needs either Score or Sound Editing, just to juice it’s stats a little bit. With no Director nominated, it needs help.
The Chances of it Actually Winning Best Picture: Pretty good actually. On nomination day, Argo seemed dead in the water, but the damn thing keeps winning everything in sight. Somehow people starting feeling sorry for Ben Affleck, and he’s on a role. That sympathy COULD extend far enough for the Academy to make some irrational decisions (like Screenplay or Supporting Actor) in order to award the film. We shall see.

Beasts of the Southern Wild – Win Adapted Screenplay OR Director, Win Actress
The Chances of it Winning Those? Virtually none. It has no chance at Adapted Screenplay or Actress, and without those, Director and Picture are no go’s.
Why It Needs Those: It only got nominated for 4 Oscars – you damn well got to win MOST of those if you’re going to win.
The Chances of it Actually Winning Best Picture: Less than Amour. I don’t think the film is winning any Oscar night – but don’t feel too bad – for a film this small, the nominations are the award.

Django Unchained – Win Original Screenplay, Win Supporting Actor
The Chances of it Winning Those? Decent. It’s a tight three way race for Original Screenplay, and Quentin won the Globe, which gives him a leg up. It’s a tight 5 way race for Supporting Actor, and Waltz also won the Globe, which may give him a leg up (although, I doubt that one).
Why It Needs Those: With no director nominated, few tech noms, and only one performance, it has to go perfect in the other majors to have a shot at winning.
The Chances of it Actually Winning Best Picture: Not good. The outpouring of sympathy for Ben Affleck is not something Quentin has received. If it wins those other Oscars, the Academy will feel they have been more than fair to the film, and it still won’t win Best Picture.

Les Miserables – Win Supporting Actress, Dominate Technical Awards
The Chances of it Winning Those? Decent. Hathaway is a lock, and Sound Mixing should be as well, and you can never tell with categories like Costume Design and Art Direction – not to mention Song.
Why It Needs Those: This was the path Chicago took to winning in 2002 – and with no Director or Screenplay nominated (like Chicago had), and no chance for Jackman in Best Actor, it’s the only hope the film has.
The Chances of it Actually Winning Best Picture: Not good. It could easily win 3 or 4 Oscar night, and go home empty handed in the Best Picture race. This film has no chance of actually winning.

Life of Pi – Win Director
The Chances of it Winning Those? Not bad. I have my doubts that the Academy will split Picture and Director this year, and once again give Spielberg a Director win for a film that DOESN’T win Best Picture. Then again, you could say the same thing about Ang Lee.
Why It Needs Those: The film has no Acting nominees, and has NO chance at screenplay. But it will probably win quite a few tech awards – Visual Effects, Sound, Cinematography, perhaps Score so all it needs to do is win Director, and it has a shot at the Big Prize.
The Chances of it Actually Winning Best Picture: Not good. Despite good box office, good reviews and 11 nominations, no one is actually talking about Life of Pi in the Oscar race. It feels like the type of film that wins a few tech awards, and nothing else.

Lincoln – Win Director, Win Actor, Win Adapted Screenplay
The Chances of it Winning Those? Very Good. Day-Lewis has Actor in the bag. Tony Kushner SHOULD win Adapted Screenplay easily as he has all season. Who else are they going to give Director to?
Why It Needs Those: It needs to hold off Argo in Adapted Screenplay – if it does that, I don’t see how it’s going to lose. It will most likely win a few other below the line awards as well (and perhaps Jones as a second Acting winner).
The Chances of it Actually Winning Best Picture: Very good. Despite all the Argo wins, I still don’t see a clearer, easier path for any film winning the Best Picture Oscar than Lincoln. Now if Argo wins the WGA award, I may change my mind – but even Affleck winning the DGA wouldn’t.

Silver Linings Playbook – Win Actress, Win Supporting Actor OR Adapted Screenplay
The Chances of it Winning Those? Good. Jennifer Lawrence seems to have retaken the lead for the Actress prize, and while Chastain or Riva could still pull it off, it’s looking more and more like Lawrence’s to lose. Supporting Actor is wide open, and if Daniel Day-Lewis can win his third Oscar, is anyone going to complain about DeNiro winning a third as well. Adapted Screenplay is a pipe dream though, so they really need DeNiro to pull it off.
Why It Needs Those: It’s not winning Editing, and I don’t see how it’s winning Director either. And because I think Adapted Screenplay is a long shot at best, it needs Two acting wins to have a shot.
The Chances of it Actually Winning Best Picture: Not good. Sure, Lawrence and DeNiro could both win – I can easily see that happening. But this actually pushing aside Argo or Lincoln? I don’t see it. Sorry.

Zero Dark Thirty – Win Original Screenplay, Win Editing
The Chances of it Winning Those? Decent. Original Screenplay is a tight three way race, and Boal’s work in the thick of it (although, probably slightly behind Django and Amour). The film has dominated the editing awards all season – and since ONE of the two editors for it is also nominated for Argo, the Academy could give him an Oscar AND someone else. Two for the price of one.
Why It Needs Those: The controversy surrounding the film means that for the Academy to truly show it love, it needs one of Boal or Bigelow to win – and since Bigelow isn’t nominated, it’s all on Boal’s shoulders. Chastain winning wouldn’t be enough.
The Chances of it Actually Winning Best Picture: Not good. It got off to a fast start, but unlike Argo, the lack of a director nominee pretty much killed this movie’s chances on nomination morning. The idiots who think the movie is pro-torture WON’T SHUT UP ABOUT IT.

The wild card in the race could well be the preferential ballot the Academy moved to when they switched from 5 to 10 nominees (and have kept it since they moved to the “floating” number). What this has shown us since it was adopted is that films with BROAD support trump those with PASSIONATE support. And out of all the nominees, Argo has the fewest (although not ZERO) vocal detractors. Perhaps it can pull off a victory, without the typical supporting prizes.

But for now, I’m sticking with Lincoln for the win.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

A Look Back at the Oscars for 2002: 10 Years Later

This year, I thought I’d do something different and look back at the Oscars from 10, 20, 30 and 40 years ago. I wish I could go back further, but I missed two Best Picture nominees from 1962 – and too many of the acting nominees. I have seen every film nominated for Best Picture and Director from 2002, 1992, 1982 and 1972 – and the majority of acting nominees (and all winners), so I figured what the hell?

To start things off, let’s look back at 2002. I have ranked the nominees for Picture, Director and All four acting categories in order from MY choice of what should have won, to the weakest of the nominees, and added in an overlooked one for each category (limit of one per film, because what would be the point of telling you that Punch-Drunk Love was overlooked in every category). Debate away.

1.    Gangs of New York.
Save it. I know Gangs of New York is a flawed film, and yet I don’t care. It was my favorite film of the year back in 2002, and while now, 10 years later, I may well lean towards Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch Drunk-Love or Spike Lee’s 25th Hour or perhaps even Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report as the best of the year now, Gangs is still my favorite of the nominees – and the ONLY one that I revisit on a regular basis. Yes, there are flaws, but the things that work about it easily tower over everything else nominated. I have taken a lot of heat over the years for my love of Gangs of New York, but I don’t care. I love it, flaws and all.

2.    The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
I may well be alone in thinking that The Two Towers is the best Lord of the Rings films, but I do. I think it’s because we don’t have to spend a long time setting everything up as they did in Fellowship, and don’t have the countless endings of Return of the King. Instead, we get all action – great battle sequences, and Gollum, who dominates the movie. This is seen by many to be the weak sister of the trilogy, but it’s always been my favorite.

3.    The Pianist
Roman Polanski’s The Pianist is, to me, his best late period work (I loved The Ghost Writer, but Ewan McGregor’s character knocks it down a peg or two). It is undeniably a personal story for Polanski, and one that he tells masterfully – especially in the near wordless half hour segment near the end of the film. And yet, like many Holocaust films, The Pianist starts to blend together in your memory with the rest of them. We seemingly get a similar movie almost every year, and even if Polanski’s film is one of the best, it still isn’t quite as good as something like Schindler’s List, which really does stand out. A great film to be sure, just not quite a masterpiece.

4.    Chicago (Winner)
Chicago is pretty much just pure fun. The staging of the movie – part as a “real story”, part as  staged musical numbers, works out remarkably well. And the film is also well cast – from Renne Zellweger as the fame hungry starlet, to Catherine Zeta-Jones as the real star, to Richard Gere as the fast talking attorney to Queen Latifah as the prison matron, and best of all John C. Reilly, as the put upon husband. The film is just plain fun. Not a masterpiece or anything, but a film I catch bits and pieces of on TV often, and still enjoy.

5.    The Hours
The Hours is a rather heavy handed movie, looking at the sad lives of three women, in three different time periods. But as heavy handed as it may well be, it is still effective in some parts. I know most love Nicole Kidman’s segment as Virginia Woolf the most, and its fine, but I’ve always preferred Julianne Moore’s segment. The Meryl Streep one is the weak sister of the bunch, but she saves it. There were a lot of deserving films out there who could have (and should have) taken this spot, but it’s still a good film.

Overlooked: Paul Thomas Anderson really started down the path that has led to There Will Be Blood and The Master with Punch-Drunk Love, an extremely odd film that flips Adam Sandler’s antisocial film persona on its head. It may well be the best film of 2002.

1.    Martin Scorsese, Gangs of New York
I don’t have much to add about this film other than what I said in the Best Picture segment, other than to say I do love some moments in Gangs of New York as much as anything Scorsese has ever directed – the opening scene for example is pure magic. No, it’s not his best work, but it’s still my favorite of the nominees.

2.    Pedro Almodóvar, Talk to Her
Personally, I prefer Bad Education among Almodovar’s films – that was the one where he pushed his style to the extreme, without ever quite tipping over as he has done in pretty much every film since then. But Talk to Her is a close second, masterfully directed by Almodovar, and an even better  written movie – which is why he deservingly won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar. I wish Almodovar would get back on track, as when he’s on his game, we get films like this.

3.    Roman Polanski, The Pianist (Winner)

Again, not much else to say about this one that wasn’t said in the Best Picture segment. Masterfully handled by Polanski – especially the final sequence. The early scenes are a little familiar, but he makes up for it. Polanski may well be a pervert and a rapist, but the man knows how to direct.

4.    Rob Marshall, Chicago
Rob Marshall has spent the last decade trying – and failing – to make a film as good as Chicago. He tried going serious with Memoirs of a Geisha, but was weighed down by the subject matter. He tried regaining his musical touch with Nine, and a few moments aside, failed. He tried going blockbuster with a Pirates of the Caribbean movie, and made us all miss Gore Verbinski. Perhaps this is as good as he’ll ever do. It is fine work.

5.    Stephen Daldry, The Hours
Poor Stephen Daldry, who has become one of the most hated directors on the internet, simply because his films keep getting nominated for Oscars when many think they shouldn’t. Personally, I think his best work is The Reader, but I don’t mind The Hours. No, it shouldn’t have been nominated, but that’s hardly his fault.

Overlooked: It’s impossible to feel sorry when the Academy overlooks Steven Spielberg since he is nominated so often, but his futuristic Hitchcockian thriller Minority Report really shows him at the height of popcorn film powers – and may not have the happy ending everyone complains about.


1.    Daniel Day-Lewis, Gangs of New York
I know there are some who pick on Day-Lewis’ performance here – he is too far over the top they say, his accent is wrong they say, but really, I don’t care. Day-Lewis’ Bill the Butcher is one of the best movie villains of the 2000s – a larger than life bad guy, who spews racist venom, and is a violent sociopath. He commands the screen, and makes everyone around him seem small by comparison. It is, for me, a great performance by Day-Lewis – the one that started his decade as the greatest actor in the world.

2.    Jack Nicholson, About Schmidt
From wildly over the top, to completely subtle. Nicholson is one of those actors who everyone loves, but is often criticized for just being Jack in every movie. No one can accuse him of that in his masterfully, understated performance in Alexander Payne’s About Schmidt – where he plays a widowed mid-Westerner who has to deal with the fact that he has pretty much wasted his life, and no one really likes him. It is a Nicholson at his very best – I would have much preferred the Academy waited five years to give him his third Oscar, so he could have won for this, instead of As Good As It Gets – as Jacked up a performance as he could give.

3.    Nicolas Cage, Adaptation.
Cage earns every bit of the criticism he receives for making so many horrible movies where his talent is completed wasted, and when he simply goes batshit crazy in one of his movies for no apparent reason. Yet, when Cage is given the right role – seemingly only a two or three times a decade – he can be better than just about any actor around. Here, given the dual role of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, who struggles to adapt an unadaptable book, and his twin brother Donald, who takes one of those screenwriting courses and thinks he knows every, Cage is brilliant. Along with his work in Leaving Las Vegas and Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call, New Orleans, this is the best work Cage has ever done.

4.    Adrien Brody, The Pianist (Winner)

Brody won this year for two reasons – Nicholson had three Oscars already, Caine had two, and Cage and Day-Lewis each had one, so there was no reason to award them again, and second, the late breaking support for The Pianist almost made the underdog win the whole shebang. Oh, and because Brody is pretty terrific in the lead role. Like the film itself, Brody gets better as the film moves along, and that wordless sequence, although a directorial masterstroke, wouldn’t have been as effective without his performance. True, Brody hasn’t really capitalized on the momentum the Oscar win gave him, but he delivered the goods at the time.

5.    Michael Caine, The Quiet American
The fact that Michael Caine is fifth on this list is not a shot at the performance – this is truly one of the strongest Best Actor lineups in memory. Caine is excellent as a British journalist in Vietnam in the 1950s. The film is a romantic triangle on one level – with Caine bitter when a young American steals his mistress, but is also a political movie about America’s involvement in Vietnam – which as we all know would grow in the coming years. Caine’s performance is quietly masterful in the film. Yes, I would have loved to see someone else nominated (Edward Norton in 25th Hour for example), but you won’t hear be complain too much about Caine’s nomination.

Overooked: Edward Norton was given the best role of his career by Spike Lee in 25th Hour. As a drug dealer with only 24 hours to go before he has to report for a long prison stretch, Norton is at his intense best, as he parties, but realizes that he has essentially wasted his entire life. A great performance by a great actor.
1.    Julianne Moore, Far From Heaven
Far From Heaven was probably the critics favorite film of 2002 and many were very disappointed it didn’t get into the top race. At the time I was hoping Moore would pull off the upset and win this award, but alas it was not destined to be (Moore remains one of the best actresses working right now without an Oscar at home). Her performance as a 1950s housewife, whose world is shattered when she finds out her husband is gay, and at the same time is drawn to an African American gardener, truly is the best performance of her career – and Todd Haynes’ tribute to the Douglas Sirk movies of the period is one of the most visually gorgeous films in a long time. It should have gotten more awards recognition.

2.    Diane Lane, Unfaithful
Sometimes great performances come from the most unlikely places. Diane Lane’s work in Adrian Lyne’s Unfaithful is a perfect example. On the surface, this is kind of an inverse of Lyne’s biggest hit Fatal Attraction, except this time things play out with far less bombast (which is probably why it wasn’t as big of a hit). Lane’s performance as the cheating wife is easily the best thing about the movie – it elevates the entire film. Too bad Lane has not been able to continue to get work this good since.

3.    Nicole Kidman, The Hours (Winner)

On Oscar night, everyone knew Kidman was going to win. There was just too much going for her – she was nominated the previous year (for Moulin Rogue) and lost, she was at the peak of her popularity as a movie star and celebrity, and she had a strong resume behind her. Not to mention the performance itself where she played a famous person (Virginia Woolf), who comes to a tragic end, and was a beautiful woman who “uglified” herself for the win. The Oscars sometimes make it easy to be cynical about these things, but Kidman’s performance really is quite good.

4.    Salma Hayek, Frida
As with everything that Julie Taymor directs, the visuals threaten to overpower everything else in the film. But Salma Hayek anchors the film, and keeps it from flying off the rails with her excellent performance as the famed Mexican artist. This was a passion project of Hayek’s, and it shows – she has never come close to being this good either before or since this performance, although part of that is the roles she chooses. Anyway, her performance her is excellent, and a career peak for Hayek.

5.    Renee Zellweger, Chicago
Renne Zellweger would eventually win her Oscar (the following year, for her god-awful performance in Cold Mountain), but much of the reason she won was because of her work here and in Bridget Jones’ Diary. She is excellent in Chicago despite the fact that she isn’t the strongest singer in the world – perhaps because she’s playing a character who isn’t the strongest singer in the world. Anyway, she’s fun in Chicago – at her perky best really – but I for one am kind of glad she doesn’t pop up in too many movies anymore.  

Overlooked: Perhaps the best performance of the year in this category was Isabelle Huppert for her brave work in Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher. As the sexually repressed teacher, who spirals dangerously down the rabbit hole into obsession, Huppert lets it all hang out, and delivers a raw, emotionally gut wrenching performance.


1.    Chris Cooper, Adaptation (Winner)
The one category I think the Academy got right this year! The strange thing about Chris Cooper’s performance in Adaptation is that he plays an admittingly weird character – and character many who read Susan Orlean’s book to be extremely strange – and yet in the movie version, he may well be the most normal person in the film. Compared to how crazy Charlie and Donald Kaufman get, or Streep’s Susan Orlean, Cooper seems downright normal. Cooper was a great character actor before Adaptation, and he remains one to this day – and far too often, these types of actors never win an Oscar. I’m glad he did.

2.    Paul Newman, Road to Perdition
The last great screen performance of a legendary career, Paul Newman is great as a mob boss, who makes the difficult decision to try and kill his surrogate son (Tom Hanks) in order to protect his screwup real son (Daniel Craig). Newman has never looked so old or fragile, and never seemed more vulnerable than he does here. I almost wish the Academy had not given him the Oscar for his average work in The Color of Money, and instead gave him this one.

3.    Christopher Walken, Catch Me If You Can
Christopher Walken so frequently whores himself out to any movie – no matter how low rent – that needs a crazy person, that it can be easy to forget just how good the Oscar winner can be in a normal role. In Catch Me If You Can, you plays an exceedingly ordinary man, whose son is the con man at the heart of the movie – and it brings him nothing but joy to live through his son vicariously. Walken’s role is small, but crucial to the movie – so much of the film is just a fun romp, that Walken helps to remind us that real people are involved. One of his best performances.

4.    John C. Reilly, Chicago
John C. Reilly had a great year in 2002 – co-starring in The Hours and Gangs of New York as well as getting his first (and so far only) Oscar nomination for playing the role of Renne Zellweger’s put upon husband. In many ways, this is the prototypical John C. Reilly role – lovable and lunk headed. There is no doubt what earned him this nomination however – his stirring rendition of Mr. Cellophane, which adds some real emotion to the film. It’s a fine performance, by a fine actor who will hopefully WIN an Oscar someday.

5.    Ed Harris, The Hours
Ed Harris is one of those great actors, who for whatever reason, has just never been given the role good enough to actually WIN him an Oscar. He has been nominated four times – this along with Apollo 13, The Truman Show and Pollock, which he directed himself, and is his best work to date. His role in The Hours is typical Oscar bait stuff – gay, dying of AIDS, suicide, etc but Harris elevates it. Not enough that he really should have been nominated, but he’s still quite good.

Overlooked: Probably the biggest surprise of Oscar nomination day was that Dennis Quaid was not nominated for Far From Heaven. Quaid seemed to have everything going for him – a solid career, a critically acclaimed role, in a critically acclaimed film playing a gay man (which the Academy continues to think brave for some reason). Yet, somehow Quaid missed the cut. That’s a shame because his work is quietly brilliant – and when he swears, it is among the most shocking moments of 2002. Perhaps it was because his co-star, Dennis Haysbert, was also great, so they split their vote. But Quaid should not only have been nominated – he should have won.


1.    Meryl Streep, Adaptation.
In my estimation, Streep’s work in Adaptation is better than two of her Oscar winning performances – Kramer vs. Kramer and The Iron Lady. And what’s more, it’s a different type of role for Streep – one that shows just how deft a comic actor she can be when she’s given the right role. Streep makes Susan Orlean into a fascinating character – completely different from the real one, but who cares? Her performance as an author in the midst of a mid-life crisis is both comic and touching – and some of the best work of her career.  

2.    Kathy Bates, About Schmidt
Bates became an unlikely movie star with her Oscar winning performance as the psycho in the Stephen King adaptation Misery. And she’s great in that movie. But she may well be even better in About Schmidt, as the mother of the man the title character is about to marry, Bates is a larger than life, Midwest creation, and she makes the most of her role. Her hot tub scene is all anyway talked about – and she is great in it – but the whole small performance leaves its mark. Bates is a great actress, and About Schmidt is one of her best performances.

3.    Julianne Moore, The Hours
While there is no doubt that out of Moore’s two 1950s housewives she played in 2002, this is the weaker of the two, I still think that Moore’s segment of The Hours is the strongest. She plays Laura, a woman with a husband she doesn’t love, a son she doesn’t understand, and really should have lived her life as a lesbian – if such a thing were possible in those days. More than the other women in The Hours, she is trapped by her circumstances, and just wants a way out. Moore makes her struggle real, in what could have been cliché. It is another wonderful performance by her.

4.    Catherine Zeta-Jones, Chicago (Winner)
I feel like I’ve spent a lot of time crapping on Chicago in this wrap up, and I don’t mean to. It’s a fine film, just not quite at the level of some of the others. The same can be said for Catherine Zeta-Jones’ performance as Velma Kelly. She nails it – she has the vocal and dancing chops, and the looks to give Velma the glamour that is required of the character. You can hardly find a fault in the performance, other than to say it just isn’t as good as some of the other nominees. Sorry.

5.    Queen Latifah, Chicago
Queen Latifah is pretty much perfect as Mama in Chicago. She only gets one chance to truly shine – When You’re Good to Mama – and she absolutely nails it. But ask yourself – when compared to the other nominated roles in this category, do you really remember her as much? I don’t. She is perfect for what the role required, and yet I cannot help but think she simply got swept into a nomination because of how much the Academy liked the film.

Overlooked: Miranda Richardson could hardly have had a more difficult role than the one she played so brilliant in David Cronenberg’s Spider. Her character pretty much exists in the demented mind of the story’s main character – whose memories of his mother and stepmother, as well as his new landlady, all start to meld together – and Richardson has to play all three. It is a brilliant performance, and one that should have netted her an Oscar nomination – if not the win.

Friday, January 25, 2013

The Best Films I Have Never Seen Before: Stolen Kisses (1968)

Stolen Kisses (1968)
Directed by: François Truffaut.
Written by: François Truffaut and Claude de Givray and Bernard Revon.
Starring: Jean-Pierre Léaud (Antoine Doinel), Delphine Seyrig (Fabienne Tabard), Claude Jade (Christine Darbon), Michael Lonsdale (Georges Tabard), Harry-Max (Monsieur Henri), André Falcon (Monsieur Blady), Daniel Ceccaldi (Lucien Darbon), Claire Duhamel (Madame Darbon), Catherine Lutz (Catherine).

Francois Truffaut’s Stolen Kisses moves with effortless grace, moving from comedy to harsh truths in the blink of an eye. Stolen Kisses is about love and lust, and how they drive everyone crazy to one degree or another. It is at perhaps Truffaut’s most dreamy and romantic feature – and one of his best.

Back for the third time is Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Leaud), who we first saw as a juvenile delinquent in 1959’s The 400 Blows, and then in the 1962 short Antoine et Collette, where he was obsessed with a girl who just wanted to be his friend. We first see Doinel in this film being dishonorably discharged from the army – apparently he had a habit of going AWOL – but Doinel doesn’t seem to much care. He goes straight from the army to the house of Christine (Claude Jade), his one time girlfriend. Her parents are happy to see him, but inform him Christine is away for a few days, but do arrange for Antoine to have a job as night clerk at a hotel. He doesn’t last long there – but he does catch the eye of a Private Detective, who gets Antoine a job with his firm. Antoine isn’t much good at that job either – some of the funniest scenes in the movie are his inept attempts at surveillance – but he tries hard. Eventually, he will be assigned to become a mole at a shoe store – the boss, who hires him, wants to know why everyone hates him so much. Antoine doesn’t really help matters by falling in love with the boss’s wife Fabienne (the great Delphine Seyrig). All this, while he continues in his quest to win back Christine.

Of course, Truffaut based Antoine on himself, and in Stolen Kisses, we see perhaps why Truffaut became a filmmaker – he was horrible at pretty much every other job he had. Antoine isn’t tormented by his family life, like in The 400 Blows, and he isn’t stuck in a cycle of unrequited love, as in Antoine et Collette, but he hasn’t really moved forward either. He signed up for the army because he thought it would fun and romantic – but ended up hating it, and running away. Antoine, in his way, is far too trusting. He gets fired from the hotel because he believed the PI’s story, which we in the audience knows is suspect. And as a surveillance specialist, Antoine fails, because he is far too forward – his marks make him right away, and grow uncomfortable with him following them. They end up losing him in a block or two.

But Stolen Kisses is really about love, and the crazy things it does to people. Antoine and Christine’s relationship is complicated. Like with Collette, her parents seem to like him more than Christine does. Because Antoine’s parents were so bad themselves, he seems to seek the approval of his girlfriend’s parents – trying very hard to make a good impression. But for much of the movie, Christine seems lukewarm to Antoine – not unlike Collette in the previous movie – and Antoine is simply a little lost. He goes to prostitutes, he falls in love with Fabiene, and when finally he has Christine, he isn’t sure he actually wants her. The theme of love making people crazy is seen throughout the movie – the magician’s lover who wants him tailed, and goes crazy when he finds out his lover is married, Fabiene being drawn to Antoine as well, and even down to the final shot, when a stalker confesses his love to Christine – who dismisses him as crazy. But Antoine understands this stalker – and that look on his face seems to suggest that perhaps he wishes he still felt that way. Of course, being infatuated from afar is easy – having a relationship is hard (and I believe that is what the next segment, Bed and Board is about).

Truffaut’s camera moves effortlessly around the streets of Paris. He doesn’t quite shoot it to look as romantic as Woody Allen in the recent Midnight in Paris, but he certainly does capture the magic and romance of the city – just not in quite the way we are accustomed to. I admit, it took me a little time to warm up to Truffaut, but now that I am hooked, I cannot wait to continue to explore his work. Stolen Kisses was masterful, and yet effortless. I hope the next installment is as good.

A Calm, Rational Look at This Year's Oscar Nominees: Part 2: The 2012 Crop

In part one, I went over the recent past – every year dating back to 2005 – to explain my feelings about the Oscar race. As is typical, I defined each year by their best picture nominees – and I will do so again for 2012. I argued that the rule change in 2011, that made a floating number of nominees between 5 and 10, where each film had to get at least 5% of the #1 votes resulted in a lineup devoid of the more interesting choices they made in the two years prior. I stand by that. But can the same be said of 2012?

If I’m being honest, the answer is both yes and no. The lineup this year is a strong one. And it did contain two films types of films they didn’t nominate in 2011 – a foreign film, Amour, and an indie darling Beasts of the Southern Wild. And yet, if I’m being even more honest, a film about aging and death like Amour plays well to the Academy’s aging base, and Beasts of the Southern Wild is the type of indie the went with in the past – even before expanding to more than 5 nominees. What is missing is a true blockbuster film. And given that it received 5 nominations and was
hugely critically acclaimed, could anyone argue that Skyfall would have looked out of place as the 10th nominee? And if you look the other way, at a auteur film like the Coen’s A Serious Man which got nominated in 2009, a 10th spot could have easily have gone to Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master – which got the love of the actor’s branch with three nominations – or Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, one of only two films nominated for its screenplay but not for Best Picture (the other, Flight, would fit in as well, but that is a more typical Oscar bait movie). I think any of Skyfall, The Master or Moonrise Kingdom would have fit in nicely with the field, and wouldn’t have “diluted” the honor of being nominated – but hey, that’s just me.

But here’s why I like this slate of nominees more than I did 2011’s. This year, you have 9 films nominated that got people talking. The “safest” choices nominated were Argo, Silver Linings Playbook, Life of Pi and Lincoln. But two of those films – Lincoln and Argo – made over $100 at the box office, and both have certainly stirred up debate – not just movie debate either, but real world debate about their politics and the history that they show. That’s a good thing. Life of Pi will likely also make $100 million (and is a HUGE hit worldwide), and has passionate supporters, and really is a call for religious tolerance, that has again spurred debate. Silver Linings Playbook may “just” be a romantic comedy, but it is a more flat out screwball comedy to be nominated than anything in recent memory. It may well be the safest of the choices – the most insular – but it also speaks to some on a profoundly personal level. You cannot argue with that.

The other five nominees are not as safe – and have inspired lots of debate, again outside the normally insular circles of the movie world. Is Beasts of the Southern Wild a quietly profound movie about childhood or a condescending one that as some have called it no more than “poverty porn”? Is Quentin Tarantino’s take on race relations in Django Unchained angry, brave and necessary, or exploitive of America’s own violent past and the people it seeks to “empower”? Is Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty a movie that endorses torture, or does it show, out of necessity, what America did during the war on terror, and let audiences decide if it was worth it? Is Les Miserables a moving musical that took a huge risk that paid off by having the actors sing live, giving the film a rawer, realer feel than most musicals, or is retrograde gender stereotyping with horrible singing ane even worse direction? And finally, is Amour a deeply humanist film about the lengths people go to for love, or the story of a man who insulates himself from the outside world out of shame and self-pity, before he lashes out at the one closest to him?

The films inspire debates, and passions, on both sides. Last year, I didn’t talk to a single person who passionately loved Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close or War Horse. There were a lot of respectful appraisals (like my own), but no one really seemed to love either. And no one really seemed to hate either UNTIL they got nominated for Oscars. Then all of a sudden, they were awful – the worst films ever nominated, etc. Last year, I didn’t understand how these two films made it into the Oscar lineup – something I cannot say about any of the nominees this year. They all have passionate supporters – and passionate detractors – and the debate they have inspired is refreshing.

But the debate can also be infuriating at times. I have never understood why some people feel the need to attach some sort of personal cause to films winning the Best Picture Oscar. The people who made the films, and the people in charge of the Oscar campaigns, sure – I get that. It’s their job. But many in the media – and many fellow bloggers – feel the need to separate themselves into teams, and spend more time lobbing bombs at each other’s favorite films, than actually discussing why they think “their” film should win. I’ll never understand why some feel the need to attack Lincoln on a daily basis. On the other side, I’ll never understand why some feel the need to praise Lincoln daily either - and lob bombs at whatever film (mainly Silver Linings Playbook) that may be able to overtake it in the race. Reading it is simply exhausting – I have no idea what it would be like to live this way.

Let me be clear here – I too root for my favorites to win every Oscar night. This year, if I had my way, Amour would win Picture and Director and Jessica Chastain would join The Master trio of Phoenix, Hoffman and Adams as acting winners. Other than Chastain though, and perhaps an outside shot for Hoffman, I won’t be seeing my favorites win. If I had to choose a second and third Best Picture choices, they would be Zero Dark Thirty and Django Unchained – two other unlikely winners. So I guess I’m on Team Lincoln – since of the “likely winners” that include Life of Pi, Argo and Silver Linings Playbook, it is clearly my favorite.

And yet, I won’t get too worked up if Lincoln loses. As more time passes, I increasingly try to look through the eyes of someone like me – who 50 years from now will good back and want to watch every Best Picture winner, just like I did. What will they see when they watch a Best Picture winner? No film since The Departed in 2006 won the Best Picture Oscar and was also my favorite of the year – although 2007’s No Country for Old Men was my number 2 film of the year, and 2009’s The Hurt Locker was number 6. None of 2008’s Slumdog Millionaire, 2010’s The King’s Speech and 2011’s The Artist made my top 10 list in their respective years, but I think all are solid choices. Why? Because I see someone like me watching all three of those films in 50 years and still admiring them – or at least enjoying them. I see them still enjoying the exuberance of Slumdog Millionaire, still admiring the performances of The King’s Speech and still admiring the nostalgia of The Artist. They may well, like me, think that something else among the nominees was better, and be mystified by some of the films that were not even nominated. But I can almost guarantee you they won’t be as bored and mystified as when they get to other years in Oscar history. My list of the worst Best Picture winners would include Gladiator, The English Patient, Chariots of Fire, Oliver, The Sound of Music, Tom Jones, Gigi, Around the World in 80 Days, The Greatest Show on Earth, Going My Way, Mrs. Miniver, The Life of Emile Zola, The Great Ziegfeld, Cavalcade, Cimmaron and The Broadway Melody. None of those films – nor even Crash – are anywhere near as bad as those 16. And none of the nominees from this year are as well. Looking back at Oscar history, there are many great films that have won the best Picture Oscar (All Quiet on the Western Front, It Happened One Night, Gone with the Wind, Rebecca, Casablanca, The Lost Weekend, The Best Years of Our Lives, All About Eve, On the Waterfront, The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Apartment, West Side Story, Lawrence of Arabia, Midnight Cowboy, Patton, The French Connection, The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Annie Hall, The Deer Hunter, Amadeus, Platoon, The Last Emperor, The Silence of the Lambs, Unforgiven, Schindler’s List, The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, Million Dollar Baby, The Departed, No Country for Old Men, The Hurt Locker). But add these great films to my list of awful ones, and you still only get slightly more than half the Best Picture winners of all time. Most films that win the Oscar are fairly mainstream, respectful, middle brow entertainments. We may wonder how Rocky could beat Taxi Driver, Network and All the President’s Men, or how Ordinary People could beat Raging Bull, how Dances with Wolves beat GoodFellas or How Green was My Valley beat Citizen Kane, but when you look at the films that did win, not in direct comparison to the other, acknowledged masterpiece, can you really say that any of them are “bad” films? They aren’t. They are very good – just not the masterwork the other one is.

The Oscars SHOULD be a fun time of year for movie lovers – a time when we all get together and discuss what we loved about the films we saw in the last 12 months. That is what I try to do each and every year – and for the most part, I succeed. I’m looking forward to this year’s Oscar ceremony – and I really don’t care who wins.

A Calm, Rational Look at This Year's Oscar Nominees Part 1: The Recent Past

Now that the dust has settled on 2012’s crop of Oscar nominees, I thought I’d look at them in a calmer, more rational manor than many pundits have so far. Unlike many, I don’t get heavily invested in who is going to win the Oscars each year – I used to, but 2005 and 2006 pretty much took it out of me. The reasons are varied, but relatively simple to explain. 2005 was the year of the great debate between Crash and Brokeback Mountain. That year, my favorite film was David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence, which wasn’t nominated, and my favorite of the nominees was Steven Spielberg’s Munich, which had no chance to win. There were only two films that did – Crash and Brokeback. Out of those two, I clearly favored Brokeback Mountain. It was in my top five for the year, and Crash didn’t break my top 30 – although I do not hate it as much as some do. I think it’s a fairly average film, with some fine performances. Yet, all season long, whenever I read about the Oscars, I read hyperbolic and vitriol filled pieces by Brokeback supporters. Ironically, while both Crash and Brokeback Mountain addressed social issues – race and homosexuality – and Brokeback did so in a subtle, humanist way that didn’t beat you over the head with its points, which is precisely what Crash did, the supporters of the two films were the exact opposite. “Team Crash” was just trying to make a case for the film that they loved. “Team Brokeback Mountain” pretty much threatened and bullied their way through the season, talking about how important the film was, and how “it had better not lose, or else you’re all homophobes”. It was an irrational response born out of passion, but still I was sick of it by the end of the season.

Yet, in 2006, I was back for more. This year there was no great debate between two films, no real backbiting and name calling, and The Departed ended up winning, almost by default. Before the nominations, everyone assumed Dreamgirls would win – and then shockingly, it didn’t even get nominated. This led to everyone scrambling, and while there were some who thought the other nominees – The Queen, Babel, Little Miss Sunshine or Letters from Iwo Jima – could pull it off, most correctly saw The Departed as the winner. This was a calm year – the kind I like – but it also fulfilled one of my greatest Oscar wishes – seeing my favorite director of all time, Martin Scorsese, finally win his Oscar. Since I became an avid film buff and Oscar watcher in the late 1990s, I had seen Scorsese come close to winning twice – in 2002 for Gangs of New York and 2004 for The Aviator – and he went home empty handed. Seeing him win made me indescribably happy – and took away one of my reasons for becoming so invested in the process.

The next few years I still followed the Oscars – hell I still follow them WAY more closely than any rational person does - but the passion for them just wasn’t there. I was happy in 2007 to see far and away the two best films of the year – There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men – dominate the awards, and again the season was fairly rational, and I liked that. 2008 was a cluster fuck though. Inarguably, no matter what system you use to judge these things, the two most acclaimed films of the year were The Dark Knight and Wall-E – which were also two HUGE box office hits. And yet, the Academy in their infinite wisdom went with a fairly standard, ho-hum Best Picture lineup – eventual winner Slumdog Millionaire, The Reader, Frost/Nixon, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Milk. The outcry that followed is pretty much the reason why we now have more than 5 nominees for Best Picture, to allow different types of films and not just typical “Oscar bait” to get nominated.

And the next two years, the process pretty much worked. 2009 had a fascinating mixture of 10 nominees – from the biggest blockbuster ever in Avatar, to other audience friendly films like The Blind Side, Up and District 9, to critically acclaimed box office hits like Inglorious Basterds and Up in the Air, to small indies like An Education, Precious, A Serious Man and your eventual winner The Hurt Locker. The system worked! You may not be a fan of all of these films (I’m certainly not), but the new system of 10 nominees was designed to get a more varied lineup, and that worked. 2010 played out much the same way. Blockbusters like Toy Story 3 and Inception, alongside critically acclaimed mainstream hits like your winner The King’s Speech, The Social Network, True Grit, The Fighter and Black Swan, and smaller films like 127 Hours, The Kids Are All Right and Winter’s Bone. The system was working – about the only thing you didn’t get was a foreign film in the lineup, but you knew if the right one came along, it could get in. The one problem with the system is that with 10 films nominated (or at least more than 5), they went with a preferential ballot system – meaning it wasn’t just vote for one film and whoever has the most votes win. It is a long, drawn out process, and usually leads to the most popular, consensus choice to win – even if it doesn’t have the most passionate supporters. You can argue that’s either a good thing or a bad one.

Last year though, in response to criticism that 10 films was too many and “diluted” the honor of being nominated (an idiotic notion), the Academy changed their rules once again. Now, there would be a “floating” number of nominees – no more than 10, and no less than 5. To get in, not only did you have to meet the same voting standards as before, but you also needed to secure 5% of the total #1 votes in the Academy. The result was certainly a mixed bag, and ended up being precisely what many feared the nominee slate would look like when they expanded for 5 to 10 nominees – that is, instead of just five typical “Oscar bait” movies being nominated, we’d get 10 (or is this case 9). The point of expanding the field, even if they never admitted I, was casting a wider net – getting a more varied slate of nominees.

2011 was certainly not the kind of year with varied nominees. The nominees included The Help, Hugo, your winner The Artist, Midnight in Paris, The Tree of Life, The Descendants, Moneyball, War Horse and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Gone were the mainstream blockbusters (although, to be fair, looking at the biggest money makers of 2011, it’s hard to imagine what they could have nominated. Rise of the Planet of the Apes?), and also gone were the kind of small indies that had squeezed in the past two years. As good as the 9 films nominated may well be, it is hard to deny that they all fit the typical formula for an “Oscar bait” movie – yes, even The Tree of Life, although it was more daringly done, thematically it fit in nicely with the rest. It’s hard to argue that some of the Academy’s more daring choices in the two years before this – films like District 9, A Serious Man or Winter’s Bone – were hurt this year by the insistence of getting 5% of #1 votes. Oscar voters like what they like, and this year like every other, they liked “Oscar bait” movies. In order for non-typical films to get in, you need to allow films that showed up on a lot of ballots, but lowered down the list, to get in.

I now find that I have gone far too much into the recent history of the Oscars than I planned to. So I will ended this post here, and come back later with a look at the 2012 nominees.

Movie Review: On the Road

On the Road
Directed by: Walter Salles.
Written by: Jose Rivera based on the book by Jack Kerouac.
Starring: Sam Riley (Sal Paradise), Garrett Hedlund (Dean Moriarty), Kristen Stewart (Marylou), Kirsten Dunst (Camille), Viggo Mortensen (Old Bull Lee), Tom Sturridge (Carlo Marx), Elisabeth Moss (Galatea Dunkel), Amy Adams (Jane), Steve Buscemi (Tall Thin Salesman), Terrence Howard (Walter), Alice Braga (Terry), Danny Morgan (Ed Dunkel), Coati Mundi (Slim Gaillard).

Jack Kerouac’s On the Road was published in 1957, and has since inspired several generations. The book somehow manages to be both romantic and cynical – romantic in hitting to the open road, either all by yourself or with your friends, and having “experiences” everywhere you go. Cynical in the way it looks at long term romantic love, and American society as a whole. You would think a book this popular and influential would have been made into a movie at some point in the last 55 years – but until Walter Salles decided to tackle it, no one else had. That’s probably because everyone thought that Kerouac’s style – a stream of consciousness – would be lost in any movie adaptation. And watching On the Road, you’d have to admit that the novel certainly loses something in translation. And yet, the movie is also endlessly fascinating. Kerouac’s novel that seemed so daring in 1957, when it hits screens in 2012, it seems nostalgic.

Sam Riley plays Sal Paradise, Kerouac’s alter-ego, who at the beginning of the movie hits the road from New York to Denver to see his friend Dean Moriarty (Garret Hedlund) in 1947. He doesn’t know Dean all that well, but there are others in Denver he does know, and Sal is tired of being a frustrated writer in his mother’s New York home, so decides to be a frustrated writer on the road. Over the next few years, he will crisscross the country – from New York to Denver to San Francisco back to New York to New Orleans all through the South, and eventually Mexico, often right alongside Dean and his young ex-wife Marylou (Kristen Stewart), and whoever else happens to want to go along for the ride. They drink, smoke and do drugs nearly constantly, will sleep with anything that moves -which are a specialty of Dean’s, who is an expert at making everyone fall in love with him. These two young men are trying very hard to fill the holes in them left by their absent fathers – Sal’s who died just prior to the beginning of the story, and Dean’s who was once a barber who became a hopeless wino on the streets of Denver, who is constantly searching in vain for. Eventually, we know, Sal will become the writer he wants to be – when he finally sits down and starts writing out everything that happens that we see in the movie – and Dean will eventually, well, Dean remains Dean – oblivious to the pain he causes everyone around him until it’s too late to undo that damage. In this version of On the Road anyway, it seems the basic journey is the one that has Sal go from enthralled with Dean to disillusion with him.

Riley’s Sal Paradise is mostly a passive presence in the film – always sitting back and observing everything, but hardly ever really getting involved. He loves Dean, may well be in love with Marylou, but he rarely vocalizes what exactly he is feeling to anyone. He is content to be along for the ride. The best performance in the movie belong to Garret Hedlund, who gets the best role in the movie as Dean, the ever charming, ever scheming Dean who does whatever he wants whenever he wants to do it. It’s easy to see why Sal is so drawn to Dean – he is the person that everyone loves, an expert at seducing women at the drop of a hat. Yet all these women – and a lot of men too – truly do fall in love with Dean. They know he will never love them back the way they love him, but they can’t stop themselves. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the sad face of Kristen Stewart, who is quite good as Marylou, who loves Dean when they are on the road together, but knows full well that when they reach wherever they’re going, he’ll be off again, leaving her along. Kristen Dunst plays Camille, Dean’s current wife, who sticks with him because of their children, but knows that even when he is with them, he is miserable. Even poet Carlo Marx (based on Allen Ginsberg), loves Dean, and wishes he would love him back. At least Carlo, unlike Marylou and Camille, is smart enough to stay mostly away from Dean. Hedlund does an excellent job of getting Dean’s lazy charm just about perfect.

The other two great performances are pretty much cameos – but Viggo Mortenson and Amy Adams as Old Bull Lee and his wife Jane, who of course are really William Burroughs and his wife. Mortenson is pretty much doing an impression of Burroughs, which is funny and tragic all at once, and Adams, normally so sweet and lovable, is mostly off her rocker – one time so high that she goes out to sweep a tree. You wish there was more of them in the movie, because they bring a weird energy to their scenes.

Director Walter Salles obviously loves road trip movies – his breakthrough was Central Station, about an old woman and a young boy searching for his father in Brazil, and he also directed The Motorcycle Diaries, about a young Che Guevara riding through South and Central America before he became a revolutionary. He and his cinematographer, Eric Gautier, capture the dusty charm and feeling of freedom of being on the road at the beginning of the movie – and also do a good job of making a moving car heading across the country feel claustrophobic by the end, when it is starting to lose its charm for Sal. The trip to Mexico, which is the last draw for Sal, feels like a fever dream, half seen, half remembered as things come crashing down around Sal and Dean.

This is probably the best version of On the Road that you could make – which probably points out why no one made it before now. It is a good film, but being forced to tell things in a linear fashion, full of “incidents” and cameos, and essentially ignoring the stretches of the book where Sal and Dean are apart, the film certainly loses something between the book and the film. And yet it remains a fascinating film – and a very good one at that.