Friday, October 28, 2005

North Country. Solid or Shameful?

A conversation between Nathaniel (c'est moi) and Joe Reid over the Oscar chances, individual performances, and overall merits (or lack thereof) of Niki Caro's sexual harassment drama North Country.

The Passion of Josey Aimes

North Country | Directed by: Niki Caro | Written by: Michael Seitzman (inspired by a true story as chronicled in Class Action: The Story of Lois Jensen and the Landmark Case That Changed Sexual Harassment Law) | Starring: Charlize Theron, Frances McDormand, Richard Jenkins, Sissy Spacek, Woody Harrelson and Sean Bean

Nathaniel R: So, do you have time. should we discuss Erin Northovich [sic]?
Joe Reid: Go for it, i'm here --actually, it's funny, because Erin was on TNT all weekend - it's a very re-watchable movie, as it turns out

N: Yes. you know it was in my top ten list that year (2000). I love it unashamedly. It has a level of craft that is just amazing to me: gorgeous cutting, cinematography, everything.
J: It's fantastic, really. More of a star turn for Julia Roberts, obviously, than North Country was for Charlize

N: Well true. But before we get into our very different reactions I do want to alleviate any fears from readers that I'll be out for blood with Charlize. I think she's good in the film.
J: And it doesn't rely on as much "gimmick" as the Monster role does.

N: true. Although in terms of what the film needs from her, Monster is definitely the superior vehicle.
J: She's less impressive than Monster, I think, but it shows she can be a dramatic lead actress without having to gain weight / get ugly.

N: Yes. I always sort of liked her. I think she's quite good in that awful 'deal with the devil' Al Pacino movie, The Devil's Advocate.
J: I think she's as good as that movie requires her to be - which doesn't say much. That's one of those so-bad-it's-good movies, for me.

N: for me it's just so-bad-it's-bad
J: Heh

N: But I think she has a sort of commitment to it, in the Devil's Advocate, that's missing in the other performers. Like she's taking it so seriously that it almost feels like a different movie when she's onscreen. And I think she was also way better than her material in both of her Woody Allen outings.
J: I would agree. I enjoyed her in Cider House, I must say. I never thought she was a "bad" actress in anything but Bagger Vance , really.

N: I wisely escaped that one. So, when it comes to Norma Country I appreciated that she was giving it her all. I think she is far better than the material again. Though not award worthy.
J: I think she's nominatable without guilt, although I can't say as she'd be on my personal ballot. She's outshone by McDormand, for one, although many actresses would be. I think it's interesting to look back on 2003, because I think Theron has more promise as an artist than Niki Caro does; because this is the second straight movie that I find myself underwhelmed by her.

N: So you think Whale Rider, Caro's last film, was overappreciated?
J: Yes. Not so much that I find fault with it, I just thought it wasn't the huge revelation everyone else thought it was.

N: On this we agree. But I think we disagree on North Country.
J: See, I think the big thing about North Country is accepting it for what it is - and what it is is a story about building a case for the sexual harassment lawsuit . . . I think the film really needs to make the conditions unbearable, and as I was watching it i could see that it was gonna catch flak for being so blunt w/ its male characters, and it was, but in the end, that's pretty much necessary if you're trying to show why Josey would bring suit against her employer. I think where Caro ultimately falls short is the courtroom scenes, which are so cliched and uninspired. And that horris stand-and-deliver ending.

N: But it was just so purple in the setup scenes. I felt like the men should all be twirling moustaches and or wearing black hats. Even in the design elements of the film, like makeup, etc... it's so much kinder to the women. It's not that they are glammed up or anything. The women are still realistic but so many of the men are such grotesques that there were moments where I felt like I was watching a Terry Gilliam film. Only without the humor.
J: I think if I were in Caro's shoes, the one change I'd have made would have been to show a scene early on, showing what Jenkins says about how the men treat their wives and daughters at company picnics. For the contrast. But, again, I think to make the lawsuit seem not just plausible, but *necessary*, the mine has to become something of a horror show.

N: But why embellish so much? It's not that I don't believe the story. It's that it's so overbearing in its messaging that you start to think "does Caro (or her writer) think we wouldn't find it offensive enough if they just had excrement on the walls of their rooms and got beat up occassionally?" She overstates her case. Which is a good one already. And to make it even more problematic she bends over backwards to sanctify Josie. This woman can do no wrong. It's the most manipulated I've felt in the movie theater in a very long time. And for me the only saving grace was the performances. I felt like Theron wasn't content with being a saintly martyr which I liked. There is a toughness and a slight abrasiveness to her characterization that I don't feel the script calls for and that, given the evidence of her two films, that Caro would have encouraged either.
J: I agree that the acting bails North Country out in many instances. Mostly with regard to Theron, too, I think you've got that. Especially in the scenes with her kids, I think Charlize brings a lot of "flawed parent" to the role.

N: Yes. I know we're supposed to find the quiet scene with her son late in the movie as heartwarming but that to me was also a horror show. I felt. Wow, this kid is going to need therapy.
J: Yeah.

N: Richard Jenkins was also terrific as the dad. But the film fails him too.
J: Jenkins's arc isn't the most credible, I agree. The man is such a good actor, though, that you want to look past it.

N: I felt myself welling up at his big turnaround scene. The fact that I wanted to buy it even while hating what the film was doing was all Jenkins .
J: I have to say, though, I was somewhat in love with the cinematography and art direction.

N: Well they are quite good. It's just that what they're in service of is so useless to me. To me it's like one of those expensive looking historical social dramas. Take something that everyone agrees is awful. Make a black and white case for it. Overstate your case. Since everyone agrees and you aren't bringing any troubling edges to it, watch as the audience cheers. Blech!
J: Eh, I don't know if I would go that far. I think a lot of the time if a story is filmed the right way, it becomes worthy almost regardless of story. I don't think I needed North Country to tell me anything new about sexual harassment to be a good film. I thought it was remarkable in evoking a very specific and not all that distant time and place, which I think can be more difficult than it seems.

N: But why make Charlize's character such a saint. Why can't we present a flawed woman, as Charlize is willing to and STILL want to see her not abused. Even if she had been a total whore, as the townsfolk suggest, shouldn't she also deserve a harassment free workplace?
J: Agreed.

N: I feel like Caro doesn't trust the audience to understand this.
J: Agreed.

Nathaniel R: I guess my argument could made in regard to Good Night and Good Luck too, which I loved much more. I agree with the central message of both films. But even though GNaGL is onesided I think it understands the emotional intricacies of large social problems. I didn't even feel that North Country understood enough to even give us that. The Union scenes, for example. Having some knowledge of how unions work, that could have been amazing stuff and instead it's just everyone against this poor put-upon woman in every scene. There's not even any sense of gray area in the union scenes which there definitely should be.

What did you think of McDormand's character?

Joe Reid: I thought it was to McDormand's credit that she made her case for a nomination, for me, even before the ALS reveal. I thought she was absolutely spot-on as the one woman with a foot in both camps, trying to make a place for the women by sheer workmanship. Once the disease is revealed, the acting became secondary to the gimmick, which was a shame and no fault of hers. I still think she was fabulous and actually held back in the later scenes.

N: She's always good. I agree here. I guess my visceral anti-response to the film is feeling like all of these people are willing to go so deep and the film is just wading in a kiddie pool. Such nervy actors and the movie has no nerve.
J: I think the fact that the movie is based on this true story, maybe Caro felt she had a responsibility more to that than she did to the movie she was making.
I think if this is an original story rather than a true-life one, she might have at least been willing to think about going less broad.

N: Hmmm. it could also be the opposite problem. I guess reading the book would shed more light on it.
J: From what I understand, the book is every bit as harsh as far as the treatment of the women, but that the Josey character is a composite.

N: The big lawyer showdown in the courtroom? If I thought this was a good movie I would say it was the worst scene of the year in an otherwise good movie.
J: Yeah, that was actively bad. Ugh. I was absolutely on board up until that point.

N: and that still didn't ruin it for you?
J: Not really, no. I think maybe the fact that what I loved about the movie wasn't the story meant that a bad finale scene didn't taint, say, the acting or the production design.

N: for me it just confirmed my worst fears about the whole thing * shrug* but I am, personally, very affected by endings. They can be make or break for me.
J: See, I think a lot of times I've already formed my opinion on so much of the movie by the time the end come.

N: Well, I had too I suppose. We just fell on different sides. I promise never to make up sexual lies about you in a court of law though.
J: That means a lot, it really does.

Here's my question - why does Sissy Spacek take that role? There's so little to it.

N: Mortgage payments?
J: Hey, I'm assuming that check for The Ring 2 didn't bounce or anything.

N: Sissy it's time to choose between your homes! Only take one worthless role a year please.
J: I probably shouldn't be so hard on her. I think a woman of her age probably isn't swimming in these deep, attractive roles. Not a whole lot of In the Bedrooms for her, I don't think. Which is yet another reason for me to deeply resent that awful Home at the End of the World adaptation.

N: say no more.
J: Oh, but I should. Because: seriously. One of the better books I had read in a looong time. And it got fucked over.

N: Yes. the book is just heartwrenchingly good. The movie -dull as dishwater and sloppily choppy in its narrative.
J: And there was no heart to it! No soul - no deep feelings. That book was all these deep feelings and emotions.

N: If any book needed a miniseries rather than a film that was it. Those character arcs are so long and so intimate. Without a world class director and screenwriter and cast I think it was doomed. And it didn't have any of those things.
J: Well, and it's certainly not the easiest thing to depict in 2 hours - the intertwining and confusion between friendship and love and sex - but you'd think some filmmakers would have dived right in

N: To me that adaptation was like the 1st Harry Potter attempt --so concerned with being faithful that it's like checking off the scenes one by one and missing that the thing has to work as a movie.
J: So, okay, final thoughts on North Country? Anything you'd consider nominatable in any category? Oscars and/or Film Bitch?

N: Film Bitch: Can't say as I think it will survive any category. Good performances but top 5? Probably not. Oscars: I think Charlize has a very good shot though I wouldn't say she's locked. Nothing else I don't think. And when it comes to Frances. The weird thing is that I think the baity gimmick could undo her.
J: In what way? That it will cause people to overlook the performance?

N: In that her performance is really engaging but as soon as there's that baity reveal it feels like a gimmick. Maybe I'm overanalyzing but it seems too obvious as an Oscar gimmick simply because it's so  extraneous to the film. You don't need that entire storyline for the film to work. So it feels like a stunt. Even though McDormand is quite good. If her storyline had felt less like an add-on and more integrated, I think she'd be a sure thing. I don't know if I'm making any sense.
J: No, i understand. I just don't know if "gimmick" is exactly a bad thing when it comes to the Oscar voters. Who have liked a good gimmick in their day.
I think it makes for an easy way for critics and second-guessers to pooh-pooh the nomination if it happens, but I think voters might eat it up. For good or ill.

N: But the gimmicks they like are usually part and parcel of the entire film, aren't they? Maybe I'm just hoping. I get so tired of those Oscar crutches. I think North Country is the type of film voters might like but I can't see multiple nominations simply because I think the film will have a fast fade.
J: I know. Maybe it's just me severely underestimating the Oscar voters to even understand "integrated into the film" which I hate saying, because it makes it seem like I didn't like the performance, and I very much did.

N: I liked it too. But not for the reason an Oscar voter might. So what grade would you give this. I'm going to post this as the site's review.
J: I think on the blog I gave it a "B"; a grade I hate giving because it seems to milquetoast, to me. But it reflects the "good, not great" opinion I have of it.

N: Any hedging? or is it a solid B?
J: If I were to hedge, I'd hedge B-minus; see? You're talking me down! YOU should be the studio shill of the online Oscar community!

N: Ha Ha
J: [Feel free to edit that comment out. ]

N: Nah, that one we leave in I think.

Joe's Grade: B (B- with hedging)
Nathaniel's Grade: C-


Anonymous said...

That was a terrific, really entertaining "review" (by both critics, although I have to agree with Nathaniel on every point). You guys should do this thing more often!


Anonymous said...

Indeed. Jill and I used to do these frequently (did you steal the idea from us?), but we haven't done one for some time.

I'm surprised you weren't into the visuals of the film, which were just gorgeous. Chris Menges is a god. And since I hated MONSTER, to realize that Charlize was good was a big step up for me.


well it wasn't over coffee ;) it was less glamourous. just plain ol' internet chat.

tim r said...

Great job. I think both positions are valid (see Cinemarati discussion), though, like Joe, I end up giving the movie the benefit of the doubt. Gave it a B in Toronto which is likewise shading down to a B- by now.

NicksFlickPicks said...

I really enjoyed this conversation even though I still haven't seen the movie.

My Mom is contending with a temporary nerve disorder right now that is *nowhere* on the scale of ALS, but it's still giving her a lot of trouble moving and walking. I keep saying that the bright side of all this is that as a newly divorced woman who just started work at a non-profit crusading for women's rights, and who is still going to work while virtually crippled, she is Guaranteed the Best Actress Oscar sooner or later. I mean, she even lost weight and everything. Now I'm encouraging her to try an accent.

Joe R. said...

Also, Nick? Have her record an album or two. Couldn't hurt.

Anonymous said...

no more oscars for her before half of the other actors out there deserve just a oscar or a second one before Charlize....PLEASE!!!!