Awards Weekend

The Independent Spirit Awards are tonight, and I’m pulling for my friend Joel Clark’s film The Man from Reno.

Clark co-wrote the script with director Dave Boyle and co-writer Michael Lerman. Kickstarter. Shoe-string budget. Shoe leather capital. Bootstraps. (Add your own metaphor for pluck.) And they got nominated for a John Cassavetes Award, given to the best feature for under $500,000. They’re admittedly up against stiff competition in Blue Ruin, but they’ve already won by getting nominated.

The Cassavetes Award is the heart and soul of the Independent Spirit Awards. Without it, they would be like the Oscars for people who watch those other films too. Like the Oscars, the Independent Spirits seem like awards that are given out with way too much self-consciousness.

Joel Clark on the set.

Joel Clark on the set.

Clark’s next film is a psychedelic epic about Charles Darwin and Charles Dickens. He cast me in it as an astronaut at a cocktail party who abuses the humanoid house plants. (I just play one on TV.)

Ever since the Slumdog Millionaire Oscars a few years ago, when one of the Batman movies got shut out, the Academy has given out so many nominations, it’s like the NHL Hockey playoffs; most teams get in. Theoretically, you just have to get hot in the post-season to win an award. Or, there are so many nominees that the final award, more than ever, will be chosen on commercial grounds.

In 1975 the Best Picture nominees were Jaws, Nashville, Barry Lyndon, Dog Day Afternoon, and (the winner) One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. You’re probably familiar with tomorrow night’s. Boyhood better win, or possibly Selma, or it’s all a crock.

I’d heard that The Imitation Game was the likely winner for Best Adapted Screenplay, so I went to see it this week. So cheap. So much flimsily manufactured suspense. Every time midnight passed, and the Nazis re-scrambled their code, the team tossed their day’s work in the trash, and I kept wondering, “Aren’t they a little curious what yesterday’s messages said?” Then: “Oh my God, we should start deciphering codes by figuring out the smaller words first! Run! Run to the office! Don’t stop for security!” My friend turned to me and said, “Have these people never done a crossword puzzle?”

Go Man From Reno! Go Joel! Go!



My Calvary

The Village Voice gave its review of Calvary the ludicrous title “Brendan Gleeson Forces Us to Care About His Catholic Priest in Calvary,” which reads like a loosely translated American movie title in China. But it says volumes about the film’s appeal.

Beloved or at least forgiven by most critics, five minutes into Calvary, I felt like I was seven weeks late for the movie of the year. Written by John Michael McDonagh, it’s about an Irish priest, Father James, who hears a man come into a confessional. He announces that he was sexually abused as a child and hurt beyond repair, and that he plans to take his revenge by killing this particular priest in a week, on a specific day, not because he’s a bad priest, because he’s one of the good ones, and presumably that will make his gesture grander.

It’s all downhill from there. If not for its framing device naming the days of the week as they pass, we’d forget that there’s a date with a murderer pending, and the movie would lose all forward motion completely. Clumsy dialogue that leaves nothing to the subtext. Lack of complications: his attempts at problem-solving don’t beget more problems, they just quietly fail. Then there’s the daughter.

The fact that Father James had a daughter, and a wife who died before he took his vow of celibacy, seems like a lousy attempt to graft a subplot out of The Sweet Hereafter onto a story about a priest. If you’re going to make a film about a statistical outlier, then a part of me wants the film to be about that. Sure, give your hero a unique past, even a checkered past, but if he has a Grammy on his mantle for Best New Artist, then you’d better account for that with a little more than a scene of dialogue.

I Confess!

I Confess!

Such is the power of a great premise, and by “great” I mean, yes, full of intrigue – the confessional, a place where he’s obligated to listen and keep it to himself – but also speaking to a giant moral question of our time. What exactly have “good Catholics” done for the most vulnerable people in their very own communities? When are we going to start comparing them to a “banality of evil” checklist? A premise that viewers are hungry for will make those viewers lose their minds with appreciation. We all turn into screaming teenagers at a Beatles TV appearance. We lose our critical faculties.

Kenneth Turan put it nicely in a column he wrote recently about Boyhood, a film that, as a critic, he found himself in the lonely position of not liking enough to write about at first, because he didn’t want to spoil the party when everyone around him was gushing about it. “For me it was, at best, OK, a film whose animating idea is more interesting than its actual satisfactions.” I disagree, but I’m thrilled that that critic is still out there. It’s a particular kind of cross we carry, as artists or critics, when we don’t believe the hype about an artistic happening. Sometimes you carry the weight of speaking up, and sometimes you just drop it.


Believe all the hype about Boyhood. It’s a monument. While it’s perfectly consistent with the rest of Richard Linklater’s work, it’s like no other film I know. Watching it last night was like watching both The Last Picture Show and The Squid and the Whale all in one. It’s full of Texana, but also portrays the American family with such clarity for the first time. At two hours and forty minutes – and I am a downright crank about films taking too long – I was sorry to see it end.

Ellar Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater in Richard Linklater's "Boyhood."

Ellar Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater in Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood.”

Shot over 11 years with the same cast, it’s a testament to the principle of the “forward momentum” device that this film works as well as it does, since all it really has to go on is the artificial momentum of the looming milestones in its hero Mason’s life. In most scripts, when the suspense that results from some clash of characters is coming up too light, writers are advised to add some “forward momentum” in the form of an occasion: a road trip, a pregnancy, or ticking time bomb, or a birthday party that all the characters have to attend, or anything that characters can anticipate.

Linklater deftly saves most of these for the last twenty minutes of Boyhood, but it never feels like a gimmick. Minutes before it ends, Mason asks his father, played by Ethan Hawke, what it (growing up) is all about, and his father says something like, How the hell should I know? They’re talking about life but they could be talking about the film. Linklater’s few missteps seem like the result of a filmmaker who lost his nerve and needed to graft some more narrative over his wounded story, most notably in the form of an immigrant laborer who reappears years later to thank Mason’s mother for her parental advice. The exchange telegraphs what was already a clear narrative thread, that family and strangers alike dispense advice to the young, but the young have a knack for sifting through the good  from the bullshit. Like Slacker, but much more subtly, since you’re watching the haircuts and not listening to the rambling, Boyhood is about the good and bad advice a kid grows up with, and the fits and starts of learning to value a father’s advice in particular.

If Richard Linklater doesn’t get at least a Best Director nomination, then I will never utter the phrase “Academy Award” again in my life.