Saturday, February 25, 2012
Under the wire
I have never in all my years cut it this close to Oscar Night on seeing best picture nominees. This means I have not had as much time to reflect, contrast, compare, and draw Venn Diagrams as I would like (WWI intersects with silent film intersects with fatherless boys intersects with Brad Pitt intersects with Jessica Chastain ....). This means I may recant this commentary shortly after I post it. Thank goodness nothing is permanent on the Internet.
I am finally ready for Sunday night. I have already fallen asleep through some of these.
Unlike last year's run, I did not like all of the films nominated for Best Picture this year. Some of them I actually made this noise during -- Ppffffttt -- but I can accept how they came to be nominated. I guess.
This year's slate of nine is no easier to navigate than the previous years' ten, but I guess the Big Slate is here to stay. And it ought to have more room for women's stories in. Apparently if you make 1 film that's nearly all women, it counts like 3.
The Year of Unhappy Man-Boys in Search of Lasting Meaning
9. Midnight in Paris
The Woodman ought to have something new to say by now. And I am not fooled by his casting of other people to play him, particularly if he is going to make them speak in precisely his cadence. There is a moment where Owen Wilson exits a bar onto the street, pivots to return to the bar and actually walks like Woody Allen. I kept expecting to see those brown corduroy pants. The fantasy world was a fun idea -- the rear view is always prettier -- but it was handled in such a sophomoric way: "Ernest Hemingway? Wait -- the Ernest Hemingway!?" Oh shut up.
Big ups to Mrs le'President for tweaking the French and the Americans in one character. We need Michelle Obama in more films.
8. Incredibly Loud and Extremely Close
So much went astray in this well-meaning ...fable? ( maybe?) is what I want to call it. When I was moved, I was very very moved, but when it was bad, it was... the rest of the time. I saw this a while ago. I am not sure where to begin. A 9/11 story - well, I am not a black-hearted bastard. That's very sad. But the "not-bloody-likely" aspects of the story were frustrating. And as I am sure I have said before, the tricks you can play with narrative in print are not easily mastered in film. "Show, Don't Tell" is still the best advice a screenwriter can take. I am not going to believe something just because you (or your V/O ) tells me so.
And, all right, I might be tired of autism as a narrative device. There you have it.
My on-line review said:
"The Boy with Elijah Wood's eyes is a natural.
Sandra Bullock is no Toni Collette, but once she is finally given her scene as Helpless Mom of Troubled Boy, she can deliver.
Tom Hanks does that thing he does."
If you would prefer this movie to be about an earlier war, and an earlier time... there is Hugo. Lonely boy, mysterious key, cranky old man. Hugo has the addition of a girl from the Anna Paquin school, and a Paris populated by British people. Enjoy leftover footage of Jude Law from A.I. talking to a robot. So the AMPAS chose to honor a Martin Scorcese story about a film academy that restores old films. I'm not surprised. I was more surprised to find some fairly dull writing on Brian Selznick's website. But then, it wasn't the Newbery he won.
The plot seems to be that Hugo wants his notebook.
The 3D did not give me a headache, as I feared, but I did find it distracting. The film's wide shots are much more dramatic and interesting than all the close-ups and floating pollen. I'll close by saying that kid gave me the full on willies.
6. War Horse
And speaking of creepy boys with fixations..... why not continue the theme? We're 4 for 4 already.
In the land of weak Spielbergian fathers, and hand-wringing Spielbergian mothers, some beautiful photography occurs, while John Williams plays to the second balcony.
This is the kind of film that used to be a sure-thing for Oscar bait. And it still might be. But the Academy has already rewarded Schindler's List, and that may work against Spielberg here. It really is lovely CINEMA, but borrowed rather unapologetically from other films, some of them his own. Horses film beautifully even when dirty, and No Man's Land has never looked more futile. I think we may be saturating ourselves on WWI already, and we have several years of Centennial left to go.
That boy is far too old to have a crush on his horse. If you've been lamenting that they don't make them like The Yearling anymore, here ya go.
5. The Artist
Ambitious, but not great. Don't fool yourself: behind all the throwback cinema and tap dancing, we're still working the same theme. The Artist brings the motifs of the lower four into the upper 5 by presenting a pouty man (with a beloved pet) into the world of silent cinema. He is not extremely loud, but his teeth are incredibly close.
This film is a lot of fun, and holds interest. I found the dog tiresome, but I'm a mean old bitch with no imagination. Berenice Bejo is delightfully charming, in that way that made us fall in love with Audrey Tautou. But what has she done for us lately? As long as you are immersing yourself in WWI (deliberately or by sheer force of cultural will) check out more pre-1920s film. There are a lot of surprises to discover.
4. The Descendants
If read as a comedy, it doesn't stand much of a chance at winning Best Picture; if read as drama, it is among the mainstream front-runners that may end up splitting the weighted voting methodology (I consider the others The Help, War Horse, and Moneyball). I predict that enough (perhaps most) voters will put all 4 of these up front, to where the order they are listed will start to become important. I think each will have its champions as #1, but no 1 has universal appeal in that way.
The Descendants is a good movie night. I don't think it will disappoint many, though I do think many will come out saying what they said about Sideways: what was all the fuss about? It's shortcoming is what a former editor of mine used to call being able to "see the craft." The writing, acting, cinematography, and even location scouting are all RIGHT THERE like a case study. Oh it's good stuff -- great in places, even. Just too obvious.
What it has going for it is Clooney. He is beloved among his peers.
The Aaron Sorkin slot. A fresh original story in another year. In this year it is the same story the other films are telling, only with sports. Baseball doesn't film very well, but this team found a way to capture it in its film form: slow and chatty, turning strangely without explanation, a little sad and it never ends like you think it should. I don't say a non-fan won't "get" this movie, you just may enjoy it more if you enjoy baseball.
Brad Pitt might actually be turning into Robert Redford.
2. The Help
Here's why I like The Help, in the face of its flaws. I may not have read this book, generally because reading in dialect hurts my head and distracts my attention from the narrative, and the opening of The Help reads too much like The Bobbsey Twins' Dinah. Instead I listened to it on audio on a long drive down the east coast and it kept me good company. Too many storylines, and a few places where I called BS.
The film version removes a few of those extraneous threads to streamline the story, and was a solid adaptation of the main story's beats, which I appreciated. The production design was thorough and genuine, and the direction took us through it subtly, adding to the believability of the world. Violet Davis is breathtaking no matter what she's in, and I wish more and more that Octavia Spencer had played the Rene Zellwiger character in Cold Mountain. I enjoyed meeting Jessica Chastain, who then showed up everywhere I looked this year; Bryce Howard broke out of her bird-bone shell character we usually see her play; and Emma Stone needs to stay with us for, like, ever.
[Movie idea: Bryce Howard and Christina Hendricks. get back to me.]
Bottom line: I was interested in The Help. It was about something that spoke to me -- not because I was a raised in the pre-New Frontier South (which I was not) or that my parents were (which they were) -- but because I am interested in the divisions that create Outsider culture within the sisterhood, and the occasional realization that gender is not a culture of its own, and that nuh-uh, darlin', you don't know me. Even in a room full of women, your class, race, status, profession, children, parents, and (don't deny it) even your marital status can put you on the outside of the power and influence of that very room. This is also what Bridesmaids is about. We will turn on each other as easily as we will pull together, and every day we make the decision to do one or the other.
But it is not my #1. And it almost hurts me to tell you what my #1 is, but you have deduced it by now.
1. The Tree of Life
Let me be clear. There is a snowflake's chance in L.A. this project wins Best Picture. But it was the most engrossing filmic experience I've had in some time.
People with whom I share film taste warned me they couldn't get through it. Specifically, they couldn't get through the first 30 mins. So you know what I did, Readership? I skipped the first 30 minutes. And I recommend you do the same. Watch the opening scenes, then when the dinosaurs come in, move forward - to about 35 minutes. It's beautiful stuff; it's just distracting and annoying, and underlining in heavy black marker what you are supposed to THINK and FEEL. Spielberg does this with a Williams score; Malick does it with the Hubble telescope. I have told you before: skip the opening of any Michener novel, read only the even chapters of The Grapes of Wrath, watch 2001: A Space Odyssey on double-speed. Don't apologize.
Now. Let's get to this film and the aforementioned Jessica Chastain. She is nominated for the wrong role this year, and that is too bad. We have seen this set-up before, and often times an actor will pitch for a Supporting nomination she is more likely to land that go against Streep and Close (neither will win in a year where they are both nominated, and we really ought to just grandmother them). Chastain won't win here either, because this is Octavia's year. For her own resume, she should have landed Lead Actress for The Tree of Life, in which she manages to convey a complete character while saying very little.
I could have formed this essay around the year of the Silent film - so many quiet performances told through camera, movement, faces and gestures. I should give the nominees more credit for that, though in too many cases they were not silent enough. Tree of Life's long opening sermon, which I have already recommended you skip, turned a lot of people off -- literally -- when the visual poem that follows delivers the same sermon much better. This is art-house stuff of the highest order. It will not explain itself to you and it will not to tell you whom to cheer for, or even why. It is not War Horse, though it is a story of a lost boy stumbling into manhood in hard and indifferent world while chasing the strange wild beast he loves but never understands.
Memories come in cinematic flashes like a slide show. This is how your life flashes before your eyes -- at low angles, through a haze, shapes and colors you remember vividly but can't place in the narrative arc of your own story. Strange things will catch your eye, sounds will stay lodged in your psyche, violent impressions will linger as if they happened every day, but maybe occurred only once. Or maybe they did happen every day. Or maybe they never happened at all. You just thought they did as you lay in a dark bedroom watching the moon pass by the window and listening to your parents fight. You never gave those fleeting moments a thought when they were happening, and now you can't get away from them.
The theology of The Tree of Life is heavy-handed. That probably turned a lot of people off too, who do not like to feel religion thrust on them. The Job story is hard to contemplate in any case, since it openly illustrates that God is messing with us, like a kid with a June bug on a string. This is fun exegesis to get into, because whether you believe in a planful God or a "here's the universe; let me know what you need" God, Job tweaks that world view. You have to examine what is says about either view, and what that story is doing in the Bible at all. If you believe in no gods, this much navel-gazing must get square on your nerves. He loves you all the same.
Here's another, less heady, review of the film from the country's great critic.
Prediction: not this film.
None of the bottom 4, though I think War Horse and Hugo will have a go in production categories. I honestly think the race is between The Descendants and The Help. It would be interesting to know if voting fell along gender lines. We never will. I am going to call it for The Descendents because it has been nominated throughout the awards season, but won little, with the exception of The Golden Globe. If Academy voters save their last vote for the neglected nominee, this could be an unexpected turnaround (see The King's Speech over The Social Network; Shakespeare in Love over Saving Private Ryan).
The Academy giveth... the Academy taketh away.
See you on Sunday.