The online DVD rental company that I use tends to be bad at getting films to me in the actual order I want (I’m sure it’s the same with others, but I’ve only used this company). As such, seeing films when I would like to see them is difficult, and the multiple films that can turn up at the same time can be a strange selection. The three I wanted to briefly discuss all were nominated for this year’s Oscars, with only one going away unsuccessful, but all three quite different.
Alphabetically, we’ll start with American Gangster. Ridley Scott teams up with Russell Crowe for the third time (and Crowe teams up with Denzel Washington for the first time since the rather awful Virtuosity) for a period piece about a black gangster in Manhattan in the 1970s. As such, the film is about Washington’s character, Frank Lucas, and his ascent from being driver for Bumpy Johnson, the kingpin who ran Harlem before him, to smuggling heroin directly from the east Asia in the coffins of soldiers coming back from Vietnam and becoming the new Harlem kingpin. In doing so, he is hunted down by Richie Roberts (Crowe), who has been put in charge of a new taskforce to stop drug trafficking in New Jersey.
The film is well constructed, as you would expect from Scott, with a real feel of the time, and the actors (a great cast of recognisable faces) who populate even the smallest role do an excellent job. Based on a true story, the film has a resonance when people and events that we know intersect with the narrative (such as Roberts first becoming suspicious of Lucas at the Ali/Frazier fight in 1971, where he has better seats than the Italian mafia) and feels almost like an African American companion piece to Goodfellas, especially when Lucas is captured and turns evidence (although the film almost seems to try and make Lucas out as a good guy at the end when he does this, happily ignoring the murder and violence he committed to get there).
The strange Oscar link is that Ruby Dee, who plays Mama Lucas, was nominated for a Supporting Actress Oscar (which she didn’t win). I couldn’t tell what it was about her performance that warranted this, or why she was picked out from the rest of the cast, but the Academy does do strange things all the time.
The next film won a surprise Oscar for the well-deserving Tilda Swinton, even though she perhaps didn’t deserve it for her performance in the deserving Michael Clayton. This film is the directorial debut of the writer Tony Gilroy (Devil’s Advocate, Proof of Life, the Bourne films), who makes a very good job of evoking the films of the 1970s. Michael Clayton (George Clooney) is an attorney, a ‘fixer’ for a prestigious law firm, who is trying to help his friend and one of the firm’s leading attorneys (Tom Wilkinson) when he has a nervous breakdown while working on class action lawsuit for a huge agricultural products conglomerate. Tilda Swinton plays the lead counsel for the conglomerate, who is only taking on such a huge case for the first time, which causes her to take steps into darker territories in order to bring the case to a conclusion that will appease her bosses. We see her as an ordinary human being, anxious, sweaty, nervous, worried, concerned about her diliemmas.
The film is a well-constructed dramatic legal thriller, with good acting, a twisting plot, powerful men involved in conspiracies, money buying results and harking back to a different era of filmmaking. The cast is excellent and and you never feel as if you are watching somebody’s first attempt at directing a film. The only aspect of the film that causes me concern is the denouement: this involves Swinton’s lawyer character all of a sudden being very stupid in order to have the admittedly satisfying conclusion. Even though the film has demonstrated that she was a conflicted and anxious character, it beggars belief that she would all of a sudden completely forget everything she has learned in her successful career. Apart from that, a good film if not quite as good as the number of Oscar nominations would suggest (Gilroy didn’t deserve the directing nomination and the film didn’t deserve Best Picture nomination).
Finally, the quirky one of the bunch: Juno. Diablo Cody (great pen name) won the Oscar for original screenplay for this thoroughly charming and idiosyncratic comedy drama, her first produced script. The story is nothing new: Juno (Ellen Page) discovers she is pregnant by her friend Bleeker (Michael Cera); she originally thinks she will have an abortion, but decides to give it up for adoption to a young couple (Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner), a process that doesn’t run smooth, while her relationship with Bleeker changes and develops. The film is unique due to its voice: Cody’s writing vibrates throughout in the quirky dialogue, especially from Juno. Even though Juno is a 16 year old played by a 20 year old, she is mature for her years and funny, saying the sort of sharp things you always think of later in a funny and novel fashion (Page is great in the role, and deserved her nomination). The film feels like an indie but with an amazing cast (including JK Simmons and Allison Janney) and a good director (Jason Reitman is proving quite capable after this and the excellent Thank You For Smoking), so quirkiness is permitted, but I can’t remember a film with such a strong new voice. It’s funny, enchanting, touching, beautiful and thoroughly enjoyable.
Rating (for all three films): DAVE