Monday, November 12, 2007

Dangerous Minds

With Oscar Bait season upon us (best of luck to Sean, Jack, Meryl, Julia and all the other charter members), I finally caught up with a pair of films to befit the occasion--one that successfully copped the Best Actor prize last year, and another released earlier this year that may snag its female lead Best Actress. The fact that I couldn't care less about awardage doesn't alter the fact that I like both performances and admire both movies. I love one of them, in fact.

One wouldn't think of Idi Amin as an Oscar-winning role, but that's exactly who Forest Whitaker had to play (brilliantly, of course) to finally garner the attention he has long deserved. I remember first seeing Whitaker in The Color of Money, in a nifty scene where he hustled Paul Newman and established the persona--seemingly slow-witted yet actually devious--that he has kept fresh and varied in everything from The Crying Game to The Shield and now finally this film. The Last King of Scotland is riveting for much of the way. The director, Kevin Macdonald, uses hand-held cameras to keep the action intimate without overdoing the jitteriness; and James McAvoy plays his callow young doctor effectively: it's easy to see why being a dictator's personal physician appeals to him more than tending to the impoverished, and he generates sexual chemistry with actresses as diverse as Kerry Washington and Gillian Anderson. The movie started wearing on me a bit in the second half, beginning with a failed assassination attempt that's oversold as an explanation for Amin's growing paranoia. (Whitaker's performance had already suggested plenty of demons inside the man's head.) I think I'm also tired of the recent spate of whitey-abroad films in general. I dunno if the same story would be any more compelling from an African perspective (or if it would be budgeted), but I would like to see a creative filmmaker someday try.

I'm sorry I missed Away from Her when it appeared in theaters at the start of last summer. Having just caught up with it on DVD, I feel compelled to note a couple of things, hopefully without spoiling the film's surprises or unexpected bursts of humor: that Julie Christie, while in some ways miscast, brings so much genuine life to her role as a woman in the early stages of Alzehimer's Disease that she is immeasurably more moving than a cyborg like, say, Meryl Streep, would have offered the role; and that as a director Sarah Polley, at twenty-eight already one of my favorite actresses (The Claim, Guinevere, The Sweet Hereafter, etc.), proves that she is as authentic a presence behind the camera as she is in front of it. One scene, where the effects of Alzheimer's are conveyed metaphorically by the lights in a house going off one by one, is one of the most lyrical passages I've seen onscreen all year. Yet while Christie has received the spotlight, it is Gordon Pinsent, a veteran Canadian actor I don't recall ever seeing before, who anchors the film as Christie's husband, a retired professor who wonders if his wife is truly degenerating or if she's punishing him for his past transgressions. (The answer is, perhaps, both.) Polley is particularly lucky to have Pinsent to guide us through the early scenes, where she decides to juggle the timeframe (unnecessarily, I think) in the manner of her mentor, Atom Egoyan. And I can't decide if Polley's inability to resist an allusion to the Iraq War is out of place or not, but what the hell. This is a beautiful film.

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