First things first: I see Dreamgirls tomorrow. I'm so excited I'm pissing myself.
Now then: The Indie Spirit nominations have pulled my focus toward two off-the-radar movies that are deeply critical of post-9/11 America. Ultimately, Land of Plenty is hopeful for the country. Sorry, Haters despairs for it. Both are on DVD and worth a look.
In Land of Plenty, written and directed by Wim Wenders (a German), the TV and character actor John Diehl plays a veteran chemically changed by violence -- first by the personal horrors of Vietnam and then by the collective trauma of Sept. 11. It's a delayed one-two punch that has pushed him into a paranoid myopia. Every day for him is a reconaissance mission to restore predictability (not necessarily "peace"). He cruises Los Angeles in a conversion van, aiming to ferret out Arab terrorists and destroy sleeper cells only he can see. Michelle Williams plays his niece, who enters his life unexpectedly and provides him some mental balm. Diehl's command performance was curiously overlooked by the Indie Spirit people (Williams' wasn't). His is the best male acting I've seen all year: showy, but modulated and affecting, funny without being condescending to the character's obvious illness. Diehl has a lovely speech near the film's end -- perhaps the most direct and least forced speech about Sept. 11 that the movies have given us so far. Diehl's character also happens to be the year's second most tricky to play.
The trickiest (perhaps not only of this year, but of all time) belongs to Robin Wright Penn, who plays a woman named Phoebe in the very low-budget Sorry, Haters. Phoebe...Phoebe...If I try to describe her, it will only spoil the movie. (Perhaps it deserves to be spoiled, though, for the sorely misguided and shocking turn it takes in its third act.) Phoebe is a faker and a liar. Unlike Diehl's character, who lives faraway from Ground Zero, Phoebe is a Manhattanite. Her 9/11 shock is ever-present both within and without, and compells her to wage her own campaign of justice against a sweet, innocent and unsuspecting Muslim cab driver. The duplicity she engages in for the sake of self-esteem is maddening. It's a movie that must be seen to be believed. Listen to the audio commentary and it's evident that Penn can hardly believe she agreed to do the movie. But! It is quite a feat for an actor to take a senseless, poorly conceived character and -- through her own reserve of talent -- turn her into something gripping and (dare I say it) believable. Writer-director Jeff Stanzler was inexplicably nominated by the Indie Spirit people for his mumbo-jumbo script. Stanzler comes across earnest and well-meaning in the audio commentary, but, well, you'll have to see the movie to understand my surprise. Penn was also nominated, and it is a testament to her magic.
UPCOMING: Dreamgirls. Plus, more thoughts on Apocalypto, and a reaction to the reactions. Plus the overlooked American Gun and the indomitable Marcia Gay Harden.