Armchair Cinema – 2003

Best Picture

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (Directed by Peter Jackson)
The Nominees: Lost in Translation, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, Mystic River, Seabiscuit

City of God (Directed by Fernando Meiralles)
My Nominees: In America (Jim Sheridan), Lost in Translation (Sophia Coppola), Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (Peter Weir), Monster (Patty Jenkins), Mystic River (Clint Eastwood), Seabiscuit (Gary Ross), Thirteen (Catherine Hardwick), Whale Rider (Niki Caro)


At a time when Hollywood’s ambitions are depressingly low, Peter Jackson’s epic adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic The Lord of the Rings was kind of an enigma. New Line Cinema took a bold gamble that cost $300,000,000 and seven years from page to screen. It paid off and the trilogy became one of the most successful in history, garnering millions of dollars and a legion of fans that may not equal Star Wars in terms of money, but certainly equals in passion.

When it came to the academy awards, the trilogy was no less an enigma. All three films were nominated for Best Picture, but voters held out until Return of the King so they could reward the entire series. Boy did they ever, the movie set nearly every record in sight: tied for the most wins (11) with Ben Hur and Titanic; it won every award for which is was nominated. As a Best Picture winner, it trumped them all: It had the longest running time; it held the longest title (trumping Around the World in 80 Days); it was the second sequel ever to win (after The Godfather Part II); it was the first second-sequel to win; it was the first fantasy film to win; it was the most expensive film ever to win. And on and on.

I am always happy to see a good film gain a legions of admirers (as a Star Wars fan, I can relate). I like The Lord of the Rings films because they are a work of stunning vision and imagination employing the best production values to a story that is timeless. Jackson and his effects wizards created entirely new and magical places. But while I admire these epics, I am not among the series’ more ravenous admirers. I liked the scope of its canvas but I find the characters a bit stiff and I find the movie (especially this one), a bit drawn out. Return of the King takes so long to get where it’s going that I lost interest because the emotional involvement runs short of the running time. I was also impatient with the ending (there are six of them!!). While I realize that the book ended the same way, after sitting for three hours, I got a little impatient.

To be fair however, some viewers might get impatient with my choice for Best Picture, if only because it contains subtitles. Fernanado Meirelles’ bruising City of God is a work of bold vision, using camera tricks, not as a stunt, but as a tool to show the constant swirl of gang violence and decadence that is spread from one generation to the next.

Far from the tourist spots and the nightclubs, City of God takes place in a decayed section of Rio de Janeiro where few people have any money and the streets are patrolled by street gangs whose members begin their criminal careers almost as soon as they can walk. There are a series of symbolic shots in the beginning as we see a butcher killing and cleaning chickens.  It is representative of the view of human life in this community – easily disposed of and with the same degree of apathy.  When another chicken escapes we are taken on an amazing visual journey as a streetgang chases it through streets and down alleyways. The chicken will fight for it’s life but we understand that it has no hope for survival.  The chase ends when the gang ends up in a showdown with the police. Caught in the middle is Rocket, a good kid and our narrator, informs us that in this world “If you run, they shoot you – if you stay they shoot you”. As with that chicken, life on this street is a roll of the dice. You can run, but someone will catch you.

The city itself often looks like a forsaken desert and seems to consist of piles of boxes, blind alleys, chainlink fences and storefronts. It doesn’t seem to be very big at first but as the children grow up and become men who violently take possession of their world, the canvas seems to open up. By day, there is the blinding light of the sun washing everything out in a blaze of heat and light. Robbing stores and good citizens in the daylight happens fast and without mercy, reminding us that there is no fear. By night it is pitch dark and the fact that most of the characters are black allows them to hide in alleys and around corners sometimes for an ambush.

Rocket never seems to want to be part of the culture of guns and drugs and violence though it is impossible for him to associate with anyone who isn’t in some way affiliated. He wants to be a photojournalist and is often seen with a camera and we aren’t surprised when we find out later that it is stolen. He tells the story of the specific characters in specific detail. Meirelles’ genius is his ability to move back and forth in time to tell how certain events begin and then reverse and tells us the events that we didn’t see the first time around.

He informs us that in order to understand his story we have to go back to the beginning and we flash back to his younger days in the sixties. He was the younger brother of one of the gang leaders and knew it’s participants all-too-well. In these days before rap and the thug life, they were known by streetnames that were closer to Fat Albert than Boyz in the Hood, names like Carrot, Clipper, Shaggy, Steak and Fries and Melonhead. They can all be seen as misguided malcontents who commit crimes but none is inherently a bad kid. The exception, however, is Li’l Zé

We meet this kid – who grew up under the name L’il Dice – when he isn’t much older than 10. A gun-happy kid who associates himself with a gang of teenagers. He wants to be part of their crimes but he is only a meaningless participant. When the gang robs a brothel at gunpoint with a “no killing” rule, it ends with a shootout that happens off-screen. Later we see that it was Li’l Dice who murdered everyone with a gun that he can bearly even hold. His most shocking moment comes when he shoots a man in the head and there is a moment before a broad, proud, satisfied grin crosses his face.

We flash forward a decade and Li’l Dice has changed his name to Li’l Zé who, along with this friend Benny, have taken themselves from drug dealers to drug lords by eliminating nearly all opposition save for a dealer named Carrot.  Rocket has taken a somewhat more peaceful path, hanging out with a group of kids who’s chief activity is smoking pot.  He has also fallen in love but the girl he likes, he admires from afar because she is with someone else.

Something resembling peace falls on the community when Li’l Zé begins his empire.  His last roadblock to total power is Carrot.  Benny doesn’t want Li’l Zé to bother Carrot who is helping to keep the peace in the community.  But in this community, a peaceful settlement is merely a concept and the contention leads to violence bloodbath that leaves rival gangs on both sides aiming for one another.  What we get from these two gangs is that nearly everyone is a criminal, bullets are blind and death is a constant.  Rivalries happen in this particular world over the smallest thing.

What is most striking about these characters is that we do not only deal with them in terms of their crimes.  There are moments when we begins to visualize where they might be if they had a chance to do something with their lives.  The best is Benny, a bright kid with an outsized personality who is infused with so much charisma that we might imagine that he could be an actor.  Rocket is quieter, more introspective, in another circumstance we can imagine that he might be a great photographer or a cinematographer.  Yet they are surrounded by young man like L’il Ze and the frightening Knockout Ned who are so happy to be in the thug life that they treat street violence like a business.

Best Actor

Sean Penn (Mystic River)
The Nominees:Johnny Depp (Pirates of the Carribean: Curse of the Black Pearl), Ben Kingsley (House of Sand and Fog), Jude Law (Cold Mountain), Bill Murray (Lost in Translation)

Hayden Christensen (Shattered Glass)
My Nominees: Eric Bana (Hulk), Russell Crowe (Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World), Johnny Depp (Pirates of the Carribean: Curse of the Black Pearl), William H. Macy (The Cooler), Bill Murray (Lost in Translation), Ewan McGregor (Down With Love), Sean Penn (Mystic River), Sean Penn (21 Grams)


If you look at Sean Penn’s list of films and you’ll find an actor with a roster of performances that any actor would be proud of. Despite his media image and his famous elusiveness, Penn is one of the best actors of his generation. He is the rare actor who may occasionally star in a bad movie but never gives a boring performance. He specializes in playing emotionally damaged, frustrated men whose personal problems have twisted their lives into complicated knots, usually with fatal results.

Two of those performances earned him Oscar nominations, first as a death row inmate in Tim Robbins’ Dead Man Walking and then as jazz guitarist Emmett Ray, a lousy human being who’s fingers make heavenly music in Woody Allen’s Sweet and Lowdown. His first win, however, came for his heart-wrenching work as Jimmy Markam in Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River as an emotionally fragile man who suffers the murder of his daughter and then tries to find the killer before the police.

I liked all of these performances almost equally but my favorite work by Penn would come the following year as Sam Bicke, a paranoid wreck of a human being who’s madness leads to a plan to highjack a plane and crash it into the White House in Niels Mueller’s The Assassination of Richard Nixon.

I am choosing Penn’s performance in The Assassination of Richard Nixon for Best Actor in 2004 but I’m overlooking him here in favor of an actor who may have the potential to also be one of the best actors of his generation. No matter what Hayden Christensen does for the rest of his career, Star Wars will follow him wherever he goes. Billy Ray’s Shattered Glass, however, shows that he can be more than just Darth Vader. He is really going to have to work to break out of that image and Stephen Glass is a step in the right direction.

Based on a real-life journalism scandal at The New Republic magazine in 1998 in which one of its writers turned out to be making up fiction and turning them in as fact, Shattered Glass focuses on Stephen Glass, a smart, charming puppy dog of a kid who has the ability to hold his peers spellbound, regailing them with stories that seem too good to be true. We see him in the board room and around the watercooler at the center of a crowd of smiling listeners. It is hard not to like him, especially in a business in which those around him would choose to hitch their wagon to his.

His problems begin when two of his stories come under speculation when the hard facts become elusive. First he publishes a story about a gathering held by supporters of the Young Republics in a Washington D.C. hotel room who partied like Frat boys. A question arises about the validity of the facts including a mini-bar (and the information that the hotel doesn’t have one), but his fatherly supervisor Mike Kelly (Hank Azaria) believes in him and doesn’t pursue the story.

The other story is the one that destroyed him. He turns an article called “Hacker Heaven” about a 12 year-old computer hacker who broke into the computer system of a major corporation and was then hired by a company called Jukt Micronics to help them keep other hackers out. Glass reports that the kid ended up hiring an agent. It is with this story that makes a writer from Forbes Digital suspicious. He doesn’t think much of the elitist reporters of The New Repubic anyway and starts making phone calls to validate Glass’ story. But the phone numbers to the company lead only to voice mails and the website for Jukt Micronics looks suspicously made-up (its all text) the cracks being to form. Now under the new management of Chuck Lane (Peter Sarsgaard), who doesn’t know Stephen as well as Mike Kelly did, Lane wants to believe that the story is true and still sticks by his writer even when the fraud starts staring him in the face.

As Lane discovers that the Sunday afternoon Hacker’s Convention that Stephen reportedly attended turns out to be a fabrication (the building is closed on Sundays) and the restaurant where he claims to have had dinner turns out to have closed early on that day, Stephen comes apart emotionally. He tries to explain and justify his lies even when the truth becomes clear. What is amazing about Christensen’s performance is the way he isn’t afraid to look like a jerk. When caught in the headlights of his own lies, it becomes painful to watch. We’ve seen him charming his friends and co-workers and we can’t help but feel betrayed when the lies come into light. We as the viewer have become a participant in his charming nature and it is painful to watch when he is caught in the headlights.

What is special about Hayden Christensen is that he seems to shrink as the truth opens up. There’s a nervousness, an insecurity that bubbles up very often as he tries to protect his own fragile ego, he keeps saying “Are you mad at me?” and “It’s in my notes” and “I left that number at home” and “I didn’t do anything wrong”. There’s a childish quality in Glass that seems to crave approval and it feeds his intellect but when it comes to the showdown when it is time to fess up, he can’t face reality because he is afraid of disapproval.

When Lane finds out that Stephen has fabricated nearly 50 stories, he fires him and when Glass tells him that he will kill himself, Lane has had enough of the ruse. We like Stephen Glass but there’s empathy with Chuck because we feel as duped as he does. As I said, Christensen will forever be linked to Anakin Skywalker but I think he has other notes he can play. Here he seems kind of fearless, putting his ego to the side and playing someone who we like but can’t help being angry with.

Best Actress

Charlize Theron (Monster)
The Nominees:Keisha Castle-Hughes (Whale Rider), Diane Keaton (Something’s Gotta Give), Samantha Morton (In America), Naomi Watts (21 Grams)

Charlize Theron (Monster)
My Nominees: Keisha Castle-Hughes (Whale Rider), Scarlett Johannson (The Girl With the Pearl Earring), Scarlet Johannson (Lost in Translation), Diane Lane (Under the Tuscan Sun), Samantha Morton (In America), Uma Thurman (Kill Bill Vol 1 & 2), Naomi Watts (21 Grams), Evan Rachel Wood (Thirteen)


The best way to understand the astonishing physical transformation of Charlize Theron in Monster is to hold a movie marathon. Start with The Italian Job from early in 2003 in which Wally Pfister’s cinematography illuminates her beauty. Then chase it with Monster in which Toni G turns this ravishing beauty into an ungainly streetwalker. That’s the best way to understand the physical transformation because after Monster, it helps to view Nick Bloomfield’s documentary Aileen: The Life and Death of a Serial Killer. These three films are the best way to understand just how astonishing her performance in Monster really is.

We meet Aileen (called “Lee”) as she narrates her own story beginning with her childhood in which she was a little girl with wonder in her eyes but no love in her life. Sexual abuse was a frequent tentant in her life from early on and before she had become a teenager she was already turning tricks. The happy little girl from the opening frames of the film gradually begin to deteriorate and by the time we meet Lee as played by Theron, her face is shocking. Her face is plain, with no eyebrows but ruddy from frequent alchohol abuse, almost as if the cold wind of her life has blown any emotion or personality from her complextion. The corners of her mouth sag in a painful frown and we sense that it’s been like this for a very long time.

The movie is seen through the scope of Lee’s experience. Men, for the most part, are predatory. We understand that from the very beginning men have rarely approached her as anything but sexual anger. We can’t excuse her when she begins to let boys have sex with her but it helps us understand that it comes from a buried need to have some connection – and this seems to be the only one available to her.

As a teenager, she begins turning tricks and quickly her life spirals into a staggering series of johns and booze because the scope of ther existance and the limitations put on her by her past seem to limit her opportunities. God, in her fevered brain, doesn’t help, and she tells him that she’s down to her last five bucks and that if he doesn’t help her that she will kill herself. She enters a bar which she doesn’t seem to understand is a lesbian bar and meets Selby (Christina Ricci), an 18 year-old who has been sent to a family in Florida to “cure” her lesbianism. Lee makes it abundantly clear that she has no interest but begins to realize that Selby may be the first person in her life that isn’t approaching her for sex or forcing an egress. There’s a sweetness to Selby’s voice, a smile in her eyes that seems unselfish.

Confronted by the first meaningful relationship in her life, something in Lee begins to turn – or at least as much as it can for her. She misses her first date with Selby when she kills a john who attempts to rape her in the back seat of his car. She decides to give up prostitution. She and Selby move in together but they need money, so Lee attempts to get a legitmate job – which turns out to be a disaster as we see in interviews where prospects all but laugh at her. Out of options, Lee developes a plan, she tells Selby that she is going back to prostitution but she’s really going to use it as a trap to lure clients in and then kill them, stealing their money and their cars.

This distorted attempt to try and build a real life for herself and for Selby, we know, can only end in disaster. Lee’s mission to gain money and a temporary source of transportation gets more and more serious. The mission sounds easy but as the bodies continue to pile up things get complicated. She kills a man in the woods only to find out that he is a retired police officer, another man is a virgin and Lee doesn’t have the heart to kill him. Finally she arrives at a man who only wants to help her but when he spots her gun she realizes that she can’t let him live. Her circumstances deteriorate until the inevitable finally arrives.

There is a specific manner that Theron has of carrying herself in Lee’s skin. Her body jitters, it swaggers, unsettling. All of us have grown up learning the proper way to stand, to sit, to move, to smile but Lee seems to exist inside a mind that missed those lessons, her body always seems to be struggling with itself. We could excuse it if she were a drug addict but there’s something strange about her mannerisms that suggest that her mind never really settled on a personality. There’s an odd look about her, especially in her face. This is not a dig at Toni G’s make-up, which is phenominal, but there’s something about her face that doesn’t look right, it doesn’t seem to connect with the kind of look that we click to with our fellow human beings. She’s very uncomfortable and all of the social protocol’s that most people seem to share are absent in her eyes.

None of this would work if we could see Theron acting it out – we never see her acting. The language, the steady eyes, the body language all seem to flow naturally from a character that she instinctivly understands. She doesn’t play Lee so much as live in her skin. This is the story of a woman facing the first real love of her life and her pathetic attempts at having a normal relationship. What is most disturbing about Lee is that her life only really began to spiral downward after she found Selby.

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