Charlie Don't Surf

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Who the heck handled the crazy-people estimate?

Bill O'Reilly officially reverses course on Iraq on Feb. 20... with a typically elegant analysis of the situation:

"Now, it's a small little thing, but I picked up on it, because here is the essential problem in Iraq. There are so many nuts in the country -- so many crazies -- that we can't control them. And I don't -- we're never gonna be able to control them. So the only solution to this is to hand over everything to the Iraqis as fast as humanly possible. Because we just can't control these crazy people. This is all over the place. And that was the big mistake about America: They didn't -- it was the crazy-people underestimation. We did not know how to deal with them -- still don't. But they're just all over the place."

February 2003, Pentagon D Ring, Office of Special Plans:

Planner #1: Who was in charge of the Crazy-People Estimation? I think it's way low.

Planner #2: Dude, that number is just right. Invasion-ho!

Planner #1: I don't know. We officially estimate only seven crazy persons? Have you handled crazy-people estimates before?

Planner #2: Who knows? Only job I ever had was Republican Party chairman for Yoakum County, Texas.

Planner #1: Oh.

Planner #2: Is it the cocktail hour somewhere?

Friday, February 03, 2006

The Oscar nominations

Best Picture – I was happy to see all of these films nominated and I think they’re worthy. Perhaps the only dark horses were “Crash” and “Munich.” Munich probably deserves the honor, it’s a disturbing, nuanced, well-made film with an extraordinarily timely focus on the moral and personal price when a state adopts a policy of assassination. It might be the most grown-up film Spielberg has made. Because it did not provide the rah-rah celebration of Israel’s revenge for the Munich Olympics murders that many expected from Spielberg, it was roundly attacked when it was released in late December after months of secrecy. But the academy, which obviously loves Spielberg, saw through that campaign and appreciated the story on its own merits – good for them. Sure, I could have done without the scene where Eric Bana flashes back to the final horrifying moments of the Munich massacre (which his character didn’t witness) while he’s having rough sex with his wife – that was clumsy.

As for “Crash,” given only five slots I probably would have replaced Paul Haggis’ debut film with “The Constant Gardener” instead. Crash, for me, was a piece around which to hang an ensemble of excellent performances, but where does the multiple-thread story leave you? I have an annoying memory of the voice of Don Cheadle lecturing me in voiceover at the beginning and end. I also had problems with the scene in which Matt Dillon’s cop uses a traffic stop to feel up Thandie Newton and humiliate her husband (Terrence Howard, nominated for “Hustle & Flow”). To me, even if you’re the most racist, hateful police officer on the planet, you don’t endanger your own livelihood by doing something utterly gratuitous like that in front of your partner. Other people have disagreed and said they find the scene believable. I appreciate that this scene has a pivotal function in the movie – it pushes her husband over the edge, and sets up other events -- but I think if a screenplay must engineer a preposterous event to fuel the conflicts it deals with, your script has problems. Other than that – fine movie. Fernando Mereilles’ “Gardener” was better.

It looks like Brokeback Mountain’s year, and it’s a great movie, but my personal pick for the best film of 2005 would easily be “Capote,” which is just a stunningly well told and acted film -- all the more amazing since Bennett Miller basically came out of nowhere to direct it. More than just Philip Seymour Hoffman’s standout performance, it is a perfectly devised, gripping, sad, truthful film that wisely focuses on the specific series of events that led to Capote’s In Cold Blood.

Best Actor – No surprises here; the nominations for Hoffman, David Strathairn, Joaquin Phoenix and Heath Ledger could have been etched onto the tablet weeks ago. Terrence Howard took the remaining slot; people were talking about his performance as the pimp DJay in “Hustle & Flow” as far back as January 2005, when the film debuted at the Sundance Festival. Still, the film played for only a few weeks in DC, and I missed it. I did see “The Squid and the Whale” at Sundance, though, and walked out of the Racquet Club auditorium believing that Jeff Daniels would be a lock for a nomination in a year. I was a bit surprised and disappointed that he was not. If you see the movie, you’ll be bowled over by his work as an arrogant, comically pompous Manhattan novelist and academic whose best years as a writer are behind him, and whose wife (Laura Linney) has just left him for a doofus tennis instructor. Their two boys quickly become warped by the ensuing enmity between their parents and by their dad’s giant, flailing ego. The movie, alternately sad and hilarious, will awaken reactions in anyone who lived through a divorce as a child, but Jeff Daniels sells a difficult and largely unsympathetic character throughout. Just a tough year to get an Oscar nod, I guess. I also feel a little bad for Heath Ledger, who gave an exceptional, shaded performance and isn’t likely to get a role this good again. The excellent David Strathairn might not either -- but it’s obviously Hoffman’s year.

Best Actress – This is a slightly weak group this year, I think, with a sentimental favorite for many in Reese Witherspoon, who showed why June Carter was Johnny Cash’s salvation when he was trapped in his own ring of fire (sorry). It will likely come down to Witherspoon or Felicity Huffman, who apparently is phenomenal as a preoperative transsexual man in “TransAmerica,” but few people have seen it yet. Keira Knightley is sparky enough in “Pride & Prejudice,” but it’s way too early for her – what is she, 14? Where the heck is Joan Allen for her uproarious performance in “The Upside of Anger,” which I thought would make her a lock for her first Oscar win? Was it just released too early in the year? Charlize Theron has already won, and “North Country” was a box office disappointment, but everyone who saw it said she was excellent. We much enjoyed Stephen Frears’ WW2 period musical comedy “Mrs. Henderson Presents,” and I understand completely that under federal law, Judi Dench must be nominated every year.

Best Supporting Actor – This is an odd selection, frankly. Matt Dillon’s nomination for “Crash” is deserved, but I don’t really understand the choice of George Clooney for his sulky, betrayed CIA agent out for payback in “Syriana.” I can’t remember any memorable scenes beyond the one in which he confronts Christopher Plummer in a diner -- and almost all the performances in “Syriana” are diluted in memory by the film’s complex and hopscotchy narrative. It’s good to see an essentially underplayed performance recognized, but wasn’t Clooney better as the dependable Fred Friendly in “Good Night and Good Luck,” anyway? About William Hurt – I thought “A History of Violence” was great, and I think Cronenberg is among the most talented, subversive major directors out there -- but truthfully, Hurt’s character appears at the end of the movie for about four minutes before he’s dispatched to the hereafter. He came up with a fun Philly-gangster accent, but really. As for Jake Gyllenhaal, I think this has to be filed under the Brokeback-momentum phenomenon. I don’t find that he carries a lot of gravity as an actor yet. Their intense relationship in the film is convincing; it’s just more of Heath Ledger’s movie. A more fair accounting of 2005 might have placed Clifton Collins Jr. here instead of Hurt or Gyllenhaal – if you saw him as the killer Perry Smith in “Capote,” you may agree. Sadly, nobody’s ever heard of Clifton Collins Jr. Anyway, Paul Giamatti will likely win it for his good-hearted trainer in “Cinderella Man” – nice job, but it seems like the Academy is compensating for their unthinkable blunder in failing even to nominate him last year for “Sideways,” while recognizing lesser performances by two other people in that film.

Best Supporting Actress – This is actually a great group, with the exception of Michelle Williams, I think. She gives a nice performance as Ledger’s quietly bitter, neglected wife in “Brokeback,” but she doesn’t really have a lot of screen time, and has only one scene that can be considered powerful – when she finally confronts him about his fraudulent “fishing trips” one Thanksgiving after their divorce, and loses control. It looks like Rachel Weisz will probably win for her very flashy and emotional performance as the idealistic wife of a diplomat in “Constant Gardener,” a movie the Academy might want to acknowledge more than it has. That’s OK, but I have a soft spot for Amy Adams, who I got to talk with at Sundance after seeing her in “Junebug.” I don’t know how many people saw this funny little movie, about a big-city art gallery owner who brings his lovely English wife home to small-town North Carolina to meet his very unpretentious family, whom he hasn’t seen in years. Amy Adams plays his brother’s wide-eyed, pregnant wife, who’s just unbearably excited to see somebody new and sophisticated come into her narrow life. Her character could have been only comically pathetic in this story, and she’s definitely funny, but Adams brought out her dignity and loneliness too. She won a special award at Sundance for the part, and I hope she gets the upset win here.

Best Director – The nominations I might quibble with here are Paul Haggis for “Crash” and perhaps Spielberg, even though obviously I liked his movie. (Does Steven Spielberg really need another Oscar?) I enjoyed the smoky, austere style of “Good Night and Good Luck,” but I think the film’s impact is heavily indebted to David Strathairn’s solemn performance and the script’s tight focus on re-creating the original Murrow broadcasts, perhaps not so much to Clooney’s direction. (Clooney and Grant Heslov’s script is deservedly among the original screenplay nominations.) I might have preferred to see Woody Allen recognized for the beautifully constructed and haunting “Match Point,” which I saw last weekend and can’t seem to get out of my head, or Fernando Mereilles for “Gardener,” or even David Cronenberg. I suppose Ang Lee will win as part of the Brokeback wave, though my vote might go to Bennett Miller for “Capote.”

Best Documentary – Bit of a controversy here in that Werner Herzog’s “Grizzly Man,” which actually was seen by a lot of people and made money, isn’t here. Neither is the achingly funny “The Aristocrats.” I don’t know much about Marshall Curry’s “Street Fight,” but the other four nominees were all pretty high-profile this year, which is frankly unusual for documentaries in the U.S. I’ve seen two different versions of “March of the Penguins” and I think it’s extraordinary, certainly deserving of its acclaim and earnings (the second-highest grosser for a doc all-time, next to “Farenheit 9/11”). I haven’t seen “Murderball,” but I’ve read nothing but rave reviews from every critic who saw it – it was on many ten-best lists for 2005. I saw “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” and thought its digital-video look was a bit cheapy, but I enjoyed its very tart rendering of the scandal -- especially the segment on Lou Pai, the Enron executive who, in rapid succession, cashes in $270 million in stock, divorces his wife, marries a stripper, and watches his Enron division lose $1 billion. But the best of all of them might be “Darwin’s Nightmare,” about the shocking effects of the ravaging of a lake in Tanzania, where I lived from 1969-72. I haven’t seen it yet. But friends who saw Hubert Sauper’s movie at the AFI Silver’s Silverdocs festival (where it shared the top prize) or during its short commercial run here in August were absolutely floored by this film. Critics said it shows how “globalization” can wreak havoc upon an indigenous population, as Russians fly in planeloads of weapons instead of food, clothes or medicine, and locals are left to scavenge for fish-heads while their lake is emptied of perch for other countries. The penguin flick will probably win, and that’s OK; any year that produces so many good documentaries that actually get theatrical distribution is a great year. And I’m done.