For Motion Picture Academy members, December means not only Christmas and Hanukkah, but the beginning of Oscar Season when we are inundated with the in-house DVDs of the year’s movies known as Academy Screeners. These discs technically belong to the studios that distribute them and are for “voting purposes only,” but no one, to my knowledge, has ever asked for them back. They are the great (perhaps only) perk of Academy membership.
In the past lending these screeners has been a ticket to sudden popularity with family and friends. No more. The producers have become extremely nervous about their precious product being pirated on the Internet and the discs are digitally watermarked, this year often wrapped in heavy security seals that make you think they were manufactured at NASA, not Technicolor. To show how serious it’s getting, one member, actor Carmine Caridi–who passed a few of last year’s screeners to a pal that were then uploaded–was just slapped with a $600,000 fine!
As you might guess, I’m not lending out any of mine this year. But I will post some of my bleary-eyed observations on the films here at NRO, so you can get an idea of how at least one of the approximately 5,800 Academy voters makes up his mind out of several hundred eligible films. But on the question of whether I see all the movies through, I refer you to the words of Dr. Johnson.
Kinsey: Bill Condon’s (Gods & Monsters) biopic of the pioneer sexologist certainly takes itself seriously. The film fairly screams “Oscar, please!” from the first frame, but is more of a lecture than a movie, resembling a gussied up version of those TV biographies you see on A&E. It also doesn’t contain a jot of humor, except for the inadvertent kind–as when the 52-year old Liam Neeson (Alfred Kinsey) is in bed with the 40-year old Laura Linney (his wife Clara McMillen), both supposedly having trouble losing their virginity. (“Did you forget the Viagra, dear?”)
Neeson has been touted as an early favorite for best actor. He’s skilled and hits his marks, but the movie itself is so dull, I’ll probably pass. Several projects about Alfred Kinsey have been kicking around the studios over the last decade and it is too bad that it was Condon’s version that got greenlit because some of the others were black comedies, a much more sophisticated (and entertaining) way of dealing with the subject.
The Woodsman: The not-yet-released The Woodsman is a true “indie sleeper” and unlike Kinsey makes you actually think about sex–it’s about child molestation. Directed by Nicole Kassell from a script by Kassell and Steven Fechter (who wrote the original play) it has a superb lead performance by Kevin Bacon. I hope Bacon, one of our most underappreciated actors, gets the recognition he deserves from this. Since Footloose–no, since Animal House–he’s been one of my favorites, but somehow has been overlooked as a leading man. (He practically stole Mystic River for me.)
Whatever the case, you can’t take your eyes off Bacon in The Woodsman, a film that is as disturbing as its subject matter. You want to turn away but you can’t. Bacon plays a molester just out of twelve years in prison, a man who repels you as you are praying that he be cured–a delicate balance extremely difficult to achieve. Kyra Sedgwick and rapper Mos Def also deliver fine performances. The script, although still a little bound to its theatrical roots, is worthy and Ms. Kassell’s direction is first rate. This one will be on my list, particular Bacon’s performance. See it when you can. Just don’t expect a “fun” evening.
Sideways: Sideways seems to be on just about everybody’s list as “indie of the year.” (It just received six Spirit Award nominations–the highest number.) While I admired the acting–Paul Giamatti (American Splendor) and the unknown to me Thomas Haden Church–and loved previous films of the director Alexander Payne and his longtime script collaborator Jim Taylor (Election), I am not as much of a fan.
The film is a kind of “road” version of As Good As It Gets, attempting to show us that relationships are about accepting others as they are, not about finding the mythological people of our dreams. Fair enough. In Jim Brooks’s movie, however, Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt may be as neurotic as all get out, but they don’t do actively bad things to each other. In Sideways, the men are dogs, Giamatti’s character stealing from his mother and Haden betraying his fiancé every way imaginable the week before their wedding. We are asked to forgive this in the end and I suppose I did, but it left a strange taste in my mouth. Payne and Taylor’s vision is darker than Brooks’s and too cynical for me. Still, the bemused parody of California wine snobs (who moi?) and the acting are worth the price of admission.
To be continued…