Show of Shows

Please, Oscar God…give us surprises. Any surprises. Anything.
Even if it means Crash winning the Best Picture Oscar, which I’d rather not see happen for a few reasons. At 4:45 pm Joel Siegel, sharing the black mike with his ABC co-commentators Leonard Maltin and Anne Thompson, said this is precisely what might happen.
Ladies, it’s okay with me. Crash is a very well crafted, socially resonant film. No, wait…March of the Homophobes!
That was an excellent CG intro with the classic scenes and characters all blended together in that CG sepia-tone dreamscape. Awesome work.
Billy Crystal, Steve Martin, David Letterman, Chris Rock, Mel Gibson. All declining to host the Oscar show…brilliant stuff. Halle Berry, George Clooney…”I just had the weirdest dream.” Starts things off with just the right note.
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Hello, Jon Stewart! The Death to Smoochy joke died. The Angelina Jolie joke died. A chance to see all your favorite stars without having to donate any money to the Democratic Party. Hmmm. Night of a Thousand Sweatpants?
Stewart’s first good one: “‘Good night and good luck’ — the line that Mr. Clooney ends all of his dates with.” Not all homosexuals are virile cowboys — some are effete New York writers. (Naaah.) Stewart to Spielberg: Schindler’s List, Munich…I can’t wait to see what happens next. Trilogy! (Too New York?)
“Bjork was trying on an Oscar dress and Dick Cheney shot her.” “ Walk the LineRay with white people.”
The classic western gay subtext montage — another brilliant bit. The pre-prepared film assemblies so far are really terrific so far.
Best Supporting Actor: George Clooney. Predicted by all the smart guys (myself included) within the last two or three weeks. Clooney: “All,right, so I’m not winning director.” Good one. “I’m proud to be out of touch” — great line!
The Tom Hanks bit about Oscar-winners speaking too long was….okay. The Ben Stiller green-screen, green suit thing was…okay. And the Oscar for special effects goes to the King Kong guys. This was kind of expected, right? No? Whatever.
Stewart: “Ben Stiller and his amazing green leotard — proof that he’s Jewish.” I’m a goyim from Fairfield County. Help me out here. Oh…it’s about the visual evidence of being circumsized.
Wallace and Gromit (which I didn’t feel like seeing because animation doesn’t exactly levitate me (which doesn’t mean…uhm, you know…that I don’t respect it), has won the Best Animated Feature Oscar, or whatever the precise name of this pain-in-the-ass award is.
Dressed-in-white Dolly Parton is performing the Transamerica song. Bathroom break!
Superb Diet Coke commercial. End of a date, give in to the feeling. I’m going to find out who directed and wrote and scored it.
(By the way, the coming week is going to be great because the first four episodes of The Sopranos are arriving on Tuesday on DVD….yes!)
The Live Action Short Oscar is presented by the great Luke and Owen Wilson, recalling how the great Bottle Rocket — starring these guys, written by Owen and Wes Anderson with development guidance by James L. Brooks, and directed by Anderson — began life as a 13-minute short. And the Oscar goes to…Martin McDonagh’s Six Shooter! (McDonagh wrote the mind-bending play The Pillowman, which I saw and loved last summer in New York.)
Sorry, but I missed the winner of the Best Animated Short Oscar. Bathroom break. I stayed to watch Dolly Parton after all.
Colleen Atwood has won the Best Costume Design Oscar for her work on the dreadful Memoirs of a Geisha. Excellent kimonos! Shit movie!
Russell Crowe announcing the Oscar for achievements in…actors imitating/inhabiting the physical attributes of famous people? I’m lost. But I enjoyed the comparisons and whatnot. I’d better start drinking coffee. I’m sorry for not being faster on the draw.
Will Ferrell and Steve Carell presenting the Best Makeup Oscar….with stains and white powder smeared all over their faces. Good bit! Carell: “Man, you smell really good too.” Ferrell: “It’s called Pineapple Bliss.” (No Oscar for Sith, please. Bad Sith…smack that bitch down!) Yes! The Narnia guys have won!
Stewart: “Cinderella Man…imagine the makeup needed to convince people that Russell Crowe got into a fight.”
Rachel McAdams needs to permanently die her hair brown. The ladies around me didn’t recognize her. “What’s she been in?” Uhhhm…The Notebook, Wedding Crashers, Red Eye. They were clueless. Blank-o.
Rachel Weisz has won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar! Totally predicted from Day One. Good for Rachel…totally deserved. Good lady. The credit, Dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves. No…that’s not right. What am I saying?
Lauren Bacall is doing okay at first, but begins to stumble a bit and is also, it appears, trembling a tiny bit as she introduces a montage of film noir clips. I don’t know what this is about. Too many people asking me questions, whispering…waiters hovering.
The mock political ads ads for Best Actress are great. Hilarious stuff.
A Note of Triumph: The Golden Age of Norman Corwin has won Best Documentary Short. I can add nothing to this fact. Nobody can.
Charlize Theron announcing the winner of the Best Feature Documentary Award, and of course the Penguins will win. And the Oscar goes to March of the Penguins. No. surprise. At. All.
Sandra Bullock, who co-starred in Speed 2, and Keanu Reeves, who was smart enough to avoid it, giving the Best Art Direction Oscar to John Myhre and Gretchen Rau for Memoirs of a Geisha. Another compensation-for-not-getting-better-reviews- or-making-more-money award.
Stirring montage of poltical anger, revolt and spitting-out-the-truth moments in respected films. Stewart: “And none of those issues were ever a problem again.”
Academy president Sid Ganis delivering a heartfelt eulogy/plea for the tradition of watching films in a big theatre with a big screen. The genius of the crowd.
Salma Hayek announcing the Best Original Score Oscar, which will most likely go to Brokeback Mountain…and it does. Everything is predictable. No surprises yet. (Is this an omen for a Brokeback Best Picture win? Like the HAL 9000 computer, my brain is saying, “I can feel it…I can feel it.”)
Chuck Workman‘s salute to big-screen thrills, scope, majesty. This is starting to feel like those early 1950s spots in movie theatres proclaiming the virues of theatregoing and the evils of television.
Stewart: “Oh, my God..we’re out of film clips! Send us film clips, please. Even if they’re on Beta.”
Eric Bana and Jessica Alba presenting the Sound Mixing Oscar, and again the prize goes to guys who worked on King Kong. (No women — sorry.)
Robert Altman‘s honorary Oscar tribute starts off amusingly and appropriately with Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin ad-libbing and overlapping each other’s lines as a way of explaining the system-rhythm of Altman’s life-like, loose-shoes dialogue.
Give it to ’em, Bob! Just a little! Altman takes the stage, standing trim and tall, and he goes all soft and kindly on us.
“I was really honored and willing to accept this award, even if I thought at first that it means it’s over. But it’s not over. I look at this award as a nod to all [things]. For me, I just made one long film.
“Making a film is like making a sand castle at the beach. Enjoy this beautiful structure, and you sit back and watch the tide come in, and the ocean just take it away. I’ve built about 40 of them, and I’ve never tired of them. No other filmmaker has gotten a better shake. I love filmmaking. It has given me an entree into the world and the human condition, and I’m forever grateful.”
He meant the words he said, and they were his and his alone. Let it go.
“It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp,” the song from Hustle & Flow , was vigorously performed, although the choreography seemed a
little all over the place. But damn! It just won the Oscar! Wanted to see it happen, didn’t think it would. Good stuff! The old farts no longer run it.
Stewart: “You know what? I think it just got a little easier out for a pimp.” And: “How come [36 Mafia, who wrote and performed the Oscar-winning song, are] the most exciting people here tonight?”
Another friggin’ King Kong Oscar…whatever…this one for Sound Editing. Every time the Kong guys win, it feels like the Return of Return of the King.
The Best Foreign Language Oscar will go to Tsotsi…been saying this all along, and it does. No surprise again, but hooray for director Gavin Hood!
Stewart: “Martin Scorsese, zero Oscars. 35 Mafia, one.” I’m getting the idea that Stewart isn’t much of a fan of 36 Mafia or “It’s Hard Out Here For a Pimp” or…
Hughes Winborne has won the Film Editing award for Crash. Is this a Best Picture omen? That HAL 9000 guy in my head is getting confused. He’s not sure if can feel it or not.
Hilary Swank is delivering the Best Actor Oscar, and for the last time I wish that Mr. Hoffman and Mr. Ledger could tie. It won’t happen…can’t happen. And the Oscar goes to Philip Seymour Hoffman. No surprise. Good man. Excellent moment. No barking. Hoffman’s tribute to his mom choked me up.
No surprises…no shake-ups at all…everyone following the script. I’m almost rooting for Crash to win. No, strike that.
John Travolta with too-dark, tennis-ballish short hair handing out the Best Cinematography Oscar, and…Dion Beebe wins for Memoirs of a Geisha? A surprise! Did anyone call this?
Jamie Foxx presenting the Best Actress Oscar, which of course was engraved with Reese Witherspoon’s name many weeks ago. And the Oscar goes to Reese Witherspoon. Hooray for that, and a pat on the back (“a very special thank you”) to director James Mangold. I teared up a bit with this one too.
And here’s Dustin Hoffman to present the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar. Brokeback has this sewn up, and the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar goes to Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana for their adaptation of Annie Proulx’s short story of Brokeback Mountain . Good, richly deserved, long expected.
And Uma Thurman hands the Best Original Screenplay Oscar to Paul Haggis and Bobby Moresco for Crash. Completely predicted, well deserved. Good work, hombres. (Whoops…Bobby Moresco’s thank-you sentiments were cut off by Bill Conti’s music before he could say them.)
Here comes Ang Lee’s Best Directing oscar, presented by Tom Hanks. Yup, it’s Ang Lee. Of course. Totally totally. Good good. Now there’s just one more…
Here we go — Tony Curtis vs. Brokeback Mountain!! Jack Nicholson, the presenter, sounds a tiny bit hoarse, and he just called Bennett Miller’s film Capotay.
And…oh my God…Tony Curtis wins! The Best Picture Oscar goes to Crash! Closet homophobes…yes! You’ve struck a blow for straightatude! Are you listening, Tony? John Wayne and Howard Hughes are alive and well.
No, seriously…congrats to the Crash crew, and it’s too bad the Academy and the Producers Guild wouldn’t let Bob Yari take the stage. And that’s it. I’m off to a party. More tomorrow.

Santa Monica Vibe

Saturday’s Spirit Awards felt like the Oscars, all right…but not nearly as much as tonight’s Oscar telecast will feel similar to the Spirits.
This was the year the Academy crowd gave in to the spirit of Santa Monica and said, “We get it, we’re going with it.” Because there was really nowhere else to go. Because the big studios weren’t interested in making Oscar-calibre movies that were quite good enough. (Even though they did manage this in a roundabout way, with Warner Bros., Universal and Sony’s indie “dependent” divisions funding Good Night, and Good Luck, Brokeback Mountain, The Constant Gardener and Capote).

Looking out from the parking lot in front of Shutters, the Santa Monica hotel where the IFP Spirit Awards after-party happens each year.

And I’d love to go with the spirit of these opening paragraphs, but already I’m losing interest. This is yesterday’s news and the Oscars are due to kick off only five hours from now and…all right, I’ll stay the course.
Brokeback Mountain, the odds-on favorite to take the Best Picture Oscar until the Crash surge of two or three weeks ago (is it real or is it Memorex?), won the Spirit Award for Best Feature while Crash won the prize for Best First Feature.
Brokeback director Ang Lee, totally favored to take the Best Director Oscar this evening, won the Spirit Award in this category.
Capote star Phillip Seymour Hoffman, the guaranteed winner of the Best Actor Oscar, took the same prize from the Spirits, and Capote screenwriter Dan Futterman, nominated for a Best Original Screenplay Oscar (but not favored to win), was handed the Spirit Award for Best Screenplay.
And Transamerica star Felicity Huffman, nominated for a Best Actress Oscar (although probably fated to lose this evening to Reese Witherspoon), took the Spirit Award for Best Actress.

Transamerca star Felicity Huffman, winner of the Spirit Award for Best Actress, chatting behind the tent with ABC network film critic Joel Siegel

Coby/Netflix DVD player, one of the offerings in the celebrity swag tent

But enough with the facts. Here’s how some of yesterday afternoon’s soiree played out, catch-as-catch-can.
It was delightfully sunny and blue-skied, for one thing. It’s always this way on Spirit Awards day in Santa Monica, as if the Gods are in league.
I was graciously given a table by the Spirits producers (apparently due to the tent being larger), which meant being able to schmooze with some of the nominees and the various journos, distributors and agents who attend each year. A very cool vibe and hassle-free access all around, although I didn’t get to talk to my hero, Werner Herzog.
The mood is always relaxed and come-what-may at the Spirits, along with a feeling of community cohesion, which is nice. Most of the time I’m alone and half-dressed and struggling with sentence construction in front of my laptop. The only thing I struggled with yesterday was finding the discipline to consume only one Cosmo- politan (which made me feel half-bombed anyway).

Factory Girl star Sienna Miller with director George Hickenlooper

For at least four hours (six hours if you count the after-party at Shutters, which finished me off socially for the next two or three weeks), life was a series of billiard ball clack-chats with Peter Sarsgaard, Vin Diesel, Our Brand is Crisis director Rachel Boynton, producer Cotty Chubb, N.Y. Times “Bagger”-san David Carr, my ex-boss Kevin Smith, Picturehouse chief Bob Berney, and Christian Science Monitor critic Peter Rainer.
Not to mention Arianna Huffington, Fur director Steve Shainberg, Paradise Now director (and Spirit Award winner for Best Foreign Language Film) Hany Abu Assad, Chicago Tribune guy Mark Caro, First Look distribution chief Ruth Vitale, N.Y. Daily News columnist George Rush, Factory Girl director George Hicken- looper and his star, Sienna Miller.
This isn’t very hard-hitting stuff, but jabber stories are allowable every so often.
My table in the big tent was so far to the rear that I couldn’t tell if it was really Sarah Silverman doing the opening monologue or not, but it was. If you watched the show it’s no secret that her routine was pretty damn funny.

The Paradise Now crew after their win for Best Foreign Language Feature. Director Hany Abu Assad is second from right. The other three play the three main roles, but I don’t know which names go with which actors…sorry. Anyone?

Our Brand Is Crisis director Rachel Boynton

No…not funny. Profoundly funny, nervy, brilliant. She was better than John Waters, better than Kevin Pollak in the mid ’90s. She was on it, riding it, ruling it. Wicked stuff.
Behind the monster tent are a series of mid-sized tents — a press hospitality tent with food and drink, a TV interview tent, a print and online tent for post-award interviews (hanging out in front of the entrance to this one was the place to be), an Entertainment Weekly tent, a celebrity swag tent, and two or three others.
I had to visit the swag tent. The goods were only for celebrity presenters, not winners. Publicist Erika Cosentino,who gave me a goodie tour, said the merch- andise was valued at about $36,000 bucks. Fuck! They were giving away Palm Treo 650s, Invicta watches, Netflix DVD players (which look like your standard- issue CD player with an embedded video screen), diamond bracelets, clothes, footwear, health spa visit coupons, etc.
I mentioned the $36 grand figure to Peter Sarsgaard, who’s apparently used to being gifted this lavishly. (He reportedly brought his goody bag on stage with him a while later.) Sarsgaard’s agent claimed that the value of swag is always inflated by the publicists. Producer Sam Kitt used the term “swag wranglers” to refer to the twentysomethings who pass the stuff out.

Brokeback Mountain‘s James Schamus (producer), Diana Ossana (co-screenwriter, producer) and Ang Lee (director) after winning the Spirit Award for Best Feature

Capote screenwriter Dan Futterman after winning for Best Screenplay

Documentarian Garrett Scott, who died a couple of days ago from a reported heart attack at age 37, won the Truer Than Fiction prize for his Iraq film, Occupation: Dreamland. His co-director Ian Olds accepted the award. (I heard yesterday that Scott’s death had something to with a “swimming pool” in his mother’s back yard. How does a 37 year-old guy who isn’t Chris Penn die from a heart attack?)
It was interesting to see the entire Crash team (including producer Cathy Schul- man and her arch-enemy Bob Yari) sharing a stage in the press tent. Schulman is suing Yari for alleged unpaid fees, and Yari, who wrote the check that allowed Crash to be shot, has been denied producer credit and is suing the Academy and the the Producers Guild over this call.
A fellow reporter told me after the fact that Yari was snarly about the fact that a reporter asked him about the general rancor that’s gone down among them. News of Yari and Schulman’s lawsuits are all over the trades and it’s in bad taste to ask for a comment?
Each and every winner came back to the press tent for five minutes of questions. It was all good and agreeable to listen to it and take notes from, but nobody said anything that dropped my socks.

Big tent revelers before the start of the show

Phillip Seymour Hoffman after winning for Best Actor

I shook this guy’s hand, that guy’s hand. I patted about 58 people on the back and called them chief, bro, pal.
I asked Hickenlooper, whom I consider an actual friend, if he would show me Factory Girl sometime this summer after it’s done. (He said he hopes to premiere his Edie Sedgwick biopic at the 2006 Toronto Film festival.) I told Diesel, whom I first met in ’98 or thereabouts, that I greatly admire his acting in Find Me Guilty, and the film in general. Blah, blah…this sounds like filler.
The Shutters after-event totally finished me off. I’m good for about six hours of this crap and that’s it. Bob Berney threw a Picturehouse party at the Four Seasons, and I don’t think I would have gone even if he’d invited me. I didn’t attend the Wein- stein Co. party at the Pacific Design Center, which I begged to be on the list for, or Bob Yari’s party at Crustacean in Beverly Hills.
I’ll be tapping out my live Oscar reaction stuff if nothing screws up technically at Hollywood’s Rennaissance hotel, where I’ll be watching the show from. Until that moment…

(l. to r.) Crash producer Mark Harris, producer Cathy Schulman, director-co-screenwriter-producer Paul Haggis, co-screenwriter Bobby Moresco, executive producer Bob Yari

A somewhat pretentious way to eat popcorn, but whatever works

Is It Crash?

Three or four weeks ago, the talk among Hollywood journalists about Crash nipping at the heels of Brokeback Mountain and maybe even surging ahead in the Best Picture race was about boredom. Nobody likes a locked-down situation and the tea-leaf readers wanted a horse race so they created one in their heads…or so I told myself.
Now I’m not so sure. One after another like falling dominoes, the prognosticators all seem to be saying, “It could be Crash, it could be Crash.” The horserace feels real, or at least real-er than before.

“So David Carr went for us, and then…what? He caved? You’re saying he changed his mind or…?”

I don’t know what’s happening, but I haven’t spoken to or read anyone in recent days who believes four-square that Brokeback Mountain is going to take the Big One. I think it damn well ought to and probably will, but even I’m starting to wonder.
Roger Ebert is an unqualified Crash admirer, but he’s also predicting it will win. Brokeback Mountain producer James Schamus told USA Today‘s Susan Wlosz- cysna that Crash “is a good movie, and a lot of people love it…there are always surprises.” Leonard Maltin is allegedly saying a Crash win is quite possible, or words to that effect. David Carr, a.k.a. “the Bagger,” predicted a Crash win two days ago then went into a spasm of “picker’s remorse.”
Maxim critic Pete Hammond gets around a lot, and what he said the other day put the fear of God into this Brokeback Mountain supporter like nothing else:.
“I keep talking to Academy voters, and whatever [Best Picture] nominee they voted for, it wasn’t Brokeback Mountain,” Hammond observed. “So either I’m talking to the wrong voters or there’s more of a horserace going on.
Brokeback supporters are hard to find, other than people like [Dreamgirls director] Bill Condon. This is unusual for something that’s supposedly so far in front…the support doesn’t seem to be there. I’ve talked to people who are very adamant about Crash . Maybe it’s just that the Crash supporters are talking louder…I don’t know.

“Don’t think at all about what might happen on Oscar night. It’s not what matters now. You know that but I’m telling you anyway.”

“One indicator against Brokeback is that it didn’t get an editing nominaton, which best Picture winners usually get. The last time a film won for Best Picture without an editing nomination was Ordinary People 25 years ago. And Brokeback isn’t nominated in the technical departments…all the tech guilds have gone elsewhere.
“So this could be a split year — Crash for Best Picture and [Brokeback‘s] Ang Lee for Best Director.”
If Crash has taken the prize, it will be due to three tipping factors. One, people genuinely admire it and feel it’s simply a better film than Brokeback Mountain, which is a perfectly allowable view. Two, they feel good about its moderately upbeat message about Los Angelenos (we’re all flawed and angry, but we have our good sides too) and its portrait of L.A. being a cohesive society (hah!). And three, latent homophobia (i.e., the World War II generation’s discomfort with that pup-tent scene, not to mention giving the organizational seal of approval to a gay love story).
Crash is a solid respectable drama (I’ve liked it from the get-go), but the reason it’s caught on in recent weeks, to some extent (and you can wiggle around but you know this is true), is because it’s the strongest alternative to Brokeback, and squeamish Academy members need a banner to congregate under.

Onlooker #1: “You and your cowboy pop-tent posse thought you had it locked…hah!” Onlooker #2: “Gloating is unbecoming, and it ain’t over ’til it’s over.”

Brokeback, Ang, James, Larry, Diana, Heath, Jake, Michelle, Anne, Gustavo, Rodrigo…pullin’ for the team! And remember that if you lose tomorrow, you still made a landmark film. But if the tide goes against you it’ll be because of the Joe Aguirre’s out there. I mean, let’s be candid about this.
I’ll run photos and sound clips from the Spirit Awards later tonight or tomorrow morning (Sunday, 3.5), along with my final calls. And I guess I’ll run some kind of live-comment thing in the main column as it’s all happening Sunday night.

Guilty Surprise

Sidney Lumet’s Find Me Guilty (Freestyle, 3.17) isn’t just about the rebirth of Lumet’s career (at age 82!) and that of his star, Vin Diesel. It’s also a kind of Damon Runyon-esque joyride — an ethnic-Italian, New York-attitude sociopath movie for those who wink at the bad guys and chuckle when they manage to maneuver their way around the law.
Maybe I’m jaded or I’ve just been Godfather-ed and Soprano-ed into submission, but I bought into most of it and felt pretty much delighted with the care that went into the making of it, and the final ambiguity of it. I was also a bit troubled by it. And yet fascinated.

Vin Diesel as Jackie DiNorscio in Sidney Lumet’s Find Me Guilty (Freestyle, 3.17)

Guilty is unquestionably a marvel of old-fashioned (i.e., ’80s-style) craftsmanship — Lumet’s superb direction, T.J. Mancini and Robert McCrea’s’s finely structured screenplay and skillfully pared-down dialogue, and Diesel’s inescapably charming, sincerely felt performance that puts him back on the road map. (Really — all those mixed memories of XXX and The Pacifier are out the window.)
Plus there’s Peter Dinklage and Annabella Sciorra’s superb acting. I genuinely feel that Dinklage, playing a shrewd mob defense attorney with a gift for persuasive oratory, is the first serious contender for Best Supporting Actor for the ’07 Oscar Awards (or at least the ’07 Indie Spirits). And Sciorra almost does here what Robin Wright Penn did last year in Nine Lives, and that’s really saying something.
But there’s some mucky-muck going on. Shot in late ’04, Find Me Guilty has had distribution troubles (it was shopped around and nobody bit) and is being sold the wrong way — the trailer tries to tell you it’s a jaunty mob-guy comedy, a kind of farce, and the music toward the end of the film tries to convey this also, and this feels like a sell-out to the moron trade.
Is everyone listening? Ignore the advertising. The advertising is dishonest.
It’s not without its amusements and gag lines from time to time, but Find Me Guilty is a fairly serious, rooted-in-reality court procedural about wise-guy morality, or the urban mythology about same.

It’s clearly Lumet’s best film since Q & A (1990), and before that Prince of the City (1981). It’s a tight, no-nonsense court drama that’s not about legal maneuvers or discovering evidence or doing right by the system and justice being served, but mob family values.
In a stuffed-manicotti way, Find Me Guilty is as much of a values-based entertain- ment as The Passion of the Christ, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, The Thing About My Folks and Madea’s Family Reunion. I’m serious.
There’s more time spent in a courtoom in this thing than in Lumet’s The Verdict, and for good reason: Find Me Guilty is about the longest-lasting federal criminal prosecution in history. From March ’87 to August ’88, 20 members of the New Jersey-based Lucchese crime family, each represented by his own lawyer, were brought to trial in Newark, New Jersey, on some 76 charges (dope smuggling, gambling, squeezing small businesses…the usual mob stuff).
The feds felt they had an air-tight case, but when the verdict came down…well, let’s not say. But I’ll tell you right now that some people are going to have a problem with this film because of the ending, and especially the tone of it.

Peter Dinklage

The Hollywood Reporter‘s Kirk Honeycutt has already voiced this reservation in his review from last month’s Berlin Film Festival. The community values espoused (or at least given a fair examination) by this film are, from a strictly law-abiding perspective, totally goombah and wholly corrupt. And yet what’s being said here is not without a certain resonance, a certain sincerity of feeling.
These values can be summed up by the words “don’t rat,” “don’t roll” and “family is everything.” I’m no goombah but I sympathize with these sentiments, so I guess that’s part of the territory.
I’m talking about the values of a group of bad guys (i.e., men who live outside the law and occasionally enforce their ethical standards by whacking each other) who ostensibly care for and someitmes “take care of” each other, and about one particular bad guy — Diesel’s Jackie DiNorscio — who stood up for certain things over the course of this trial …loyalty, friendship, togetherness…even if the reality of Italian crime ethics, going by everything I’ve heard, is that everyone rats out everyone else sooner or later and a lot of these guys are just full-out sociopaths, or are viewed this way by the majority. And yet Guilty isn’t an invented story.
This, for me, makes it absolutely fascinating because Lumet, Mancini, McCrea and Diesel are making a moral statement that they obviously have some kind of respect for, and in a serious way. Diesel does his courtroom buffoon routine for entertainment value at regular intervals, but otherwise Find Me Guilty is a fairly sober piece that asks you to grapple with who and what DiNorscio is, and what he’s really saying.

Sidney Lumet, Vin Diesel

The story points and much of the dialogue in Find Me Guilty are taken from court records and based on hard facts, so there’s obviously a kind of imbedded truth in what we’re seeing, but let’s face it — if you were to show this film to Tony Soprano’s crew they would eat it up like baked ziti.
But show this film to a group of straight-arrow law officials from outside of the New Jersey-New York corridor who haven’t seen other ethnically-correct mob movies, and some of them will undoubtedly say, “What the hell is this? Has Hollywood gone totally corrupt?” And yet it happened.
What’s really striking is that Find Me Guilty is pretty much the precise moral opposite of Lumet’s Prince of the City (1981), which is about the emotional agony that a corrupt cop puts himself through when he decides to tell the absolute truth and rat out his equally corrupt cop friends, and ends up despised and lonely and broken.
Find Me Guilty is about a wise guy who refuses to rat out his wise-guy friends, even when most of them shun him and treat him like a leper because of his court behavior, but who nonetheless holds to his own moral ethical course. I’m not going to spill the ending but this is not a movie that ends with the clanking of prison-cell doors a la Goodfellas.

Has there ever been a major-league filmmaker besides Lumet who has made two films about the same culture — the New York-area criminal underworld — with both (a) based on a completely true story about courts and prosecutors and defendants, (b) both grappling with almost the exact same moral-ethical issue, and yet (c) coming to almost the exact opposite conclusions about ratting out your friends?
There are no almost double features these days except at L.A.s Beverly Cinema and New York’s Cinema Village, but Find Me Guilty needs to be paired next year on a double bill with Prince of the City. And when that happens I’m going.
The more I think about this film, which at times feels like a close cousin of William Friedkin’s The Brinks Job, at other times like an earnestly intended moral fable, at at still other times like Prince of the City‘s sociopathic, wise-assed younger brother with a fuck-you-John-Law attitude….the more morally curious and unto-its-own- realm it seems.
I think this is why the distribution community passed — they don’t know what to make of it, and are a little afraid of how the average moviegoer (i.e., those over-30s who will be persuaded to give an old-fashioned Lumet film a shot in the first place) might react.

A dish of cheese ravioli

The hard truth is that Find Me Guilty will most likely tank on its first weekend, but it shouldn’t. It’s a quality thing all the way, it isn’t the least bit boring and is easily among the best of the year so far (alongside Why We Fight, Fateless, Totsi, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada and Neil Young: Heart of Gold).
There’s no denying that from a craft perspective Find Me Guilty is simply one of the Lumet’s best ever. Mancini and McCrea’s dialogue is sharp, honed, and perfectly seasoned. And his slightly fake-looking rug aside, Diesel is amazing. At times he seems to be just joshing around and more into charming the audience (along with the on-screen jury) that rendering a character, but it gradually seeps in that he’s really playing Jackie DiNorscio and capturing what made him tick and who he really was.
And the supporting actors…fuhgedaboutit. Dinklage (that very cool short guy from The Station Agent) delivers a pitch-perfect performance — an utterly believable incarnation of a fully-rounded hardball lawyer. Sciorra has only one scene with Diesel, in a tiny prison holding room, but the husband-and-wife vibe is dead-on with the old resentments and sexual current getting stronger and stronger — it’s a near-classic scene.
Also excellent are Ron Silver as the presiding judge, Alex Rocco as the viper-like head of the crime family being prosecuted, and Linus Roache as the steely-eyed, go-for-broke prosecutor.
There are fifteen or twenty other actors who are just as good — this film has been perfectly cast in the legendary Lumet-New York street guy tradition by Ellen Chenoweth and Susie Farris. Cheers also for the cinematography by Ron Fortunato, which is beautifully framed and lit all through.

Find Me Guilty is not as good or as interesting as Lumet’s two greatest New York dramas — Dog Day Afternoon and Serpico — because it feels a little too smug at times, a little too invested in trying to charm/amuse the audience with a yea-team finale (using swing music and that Louis Prima tune at the end really undercuts it…a Big Mistake), but it’s certainly in the same moral ballpark, delivers the same high-quality acting and has the same kind of precise and disciplined filmmaking chops that made Prince of the City a great New York drama.
I went in to last night’s screening expecting to see a movie with at least a few problems (given what I’ve heard about the distribution siutation), and I came out almost totally delighted.
Part of the satisfaction of this film is seeing that Lumet still has it together like he did 20 or 30 years ago. He’s been on the “over” list for the last ten years or so, but no longer.
I don’t think it’s a stretch to call Find Me Guilty one of the best films ever made by an 80-something director, which, in this light, puts it alongside John Huston’s Prizzi’s Honor and Robert Bresson’s L’Argent. And that’s good company.