Saturday, March 04, 2006

Talkin' Oscar Nominee Blues

The only major Oscar nominee I haven't written about (yet) is Walk the Line -- in part because I just saw the film in an old-fashioned movie palace. (If more theaters were like Richmond's Byrd Theatre, more people would go to the movies.) At any rate, I'll post something about the Johnny Cash biopic on Sunday. Bottom line: Conservatives who think Walk the Line is a defense of traditional values should think again.

I've already written about most of the year's high-profile Oscar nominees, and here's what I had to say:

March of the Penguins: "... a deadly dull slog -- like one of those old Disney True-Life Adventures, only without Uncle Walt's knack for storytelling."

Capote: "Philip Seymour Hoffman seems a bit ursine to play the elfin author, though director Bennett Miller ingeniously compensates by shooting Hoffman at a slight low angle and to the side (essentially the same way you see Hoffman in all the promo art). Dan Futterman's screenplay about the writing of In Cold Blood strikes me as quite good on a technical level, but Miller's direction is far too mannered for a story so grim and tawdry. When four people are murdered, two others are executed, a town is traumatized and a famous author loses his mind, one expects to feel some emotional impact; Capote, however, remains as serene and glassy as a mountain lake."

Good Night, and Good Luck: "I tend to see Good Night as a Sunday-school lesson for left-wingers, and if you're inclined to worship at the church of Edward R. Murrow, by all means don't let me stop you. For me, the film's best parts were the jazz songs by Dianne Reeves -- and it's a pretty sorry drama when the Greek chorus steals the show."

Munich: "... a fairly mundane, inert spy thriller with a few well-directed suspense sequences and a deeply questionable moral agenda."

Crash: "Million Dollar Baby screenwriter Paul Haggis has made a message movie about racism in America. To be fair, Crash is well-shot, with several good performances (most notably from Matt Dillon, Don Cheadle and rapper Ludacris). ... Alas, Crash tries to tell too many stories at once, and falls prey to the usual racial stereotypes: Vengeful, superstitious Middle Eastern immigrants; gangsta thugs and Buppie sellouts; racist White cops; saintly, long-suffering Hispanics; callous, privileged White elites. As bleeding-heart twaddle goes, this movie falls somewhere between Spanglish and Bowling for Columbine. ... Of course, the most interesting thing about Haggis's view of contemporary Los Angeles is that it includes no Gay or Lesbian characters. So much for realism."

Brokeback Mountain: "For most of the film, Lee seems content to exploit and subvert convention, while subtly teaching his audiences new and more humane ways to experience cinema. In the closing scenes, however, Brokeback Mountain careens into what for most American audiences will be emotional terra incognita, with grief too deep for words or tears. In a way, the film is designed to prepare us for these final moments, when we're compelled to identify with a form of love that most of us have been conditioned not to take seriously."

Friday, March 03, 2006

Krauthammer and Syriana

Here's Charles Krauthammer's column on Stephen Gaghan's film Syriana, from today's Washington Post. And here's what I wrote about the film, nearly two months ago.

By and large, I was more generous than Krauthammer. I don't believe, as Krauthammer does, that Syriana could have been scripted by Osama Bin Laden (not enough Qu'ranic verses, for one thing). I merely observed that Gaghan's screenplay "collapses in a tsunami of bullshit" -- an expression which I don't think you'll find in the august, family-minded pages of the Post.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Ash Wednesday

For your post Mardi Gras delectation, gentle reader, here's an essay of mine from two years back. Looking back on the thing now, I find it much too squishy: In particular, my inability to discuss abstinence strikes me as a serious shortcoming. Without abstinence, Lent is just a time to eat soup. But I agree more often than not with what I wrote back then, especially those paragraphs on Paul the Apostle.

Perversely enough, I've been spending this particular Ash Wednesday reading Ovid's Metamorphoses. You may make of that what you will.

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

My Stupid Oscar Column

If you're like most Americans, gentle reader, you probably didn't see any of the films nominated for Best Picture this year -- or for Best Actor, Best Screenplay, or any category other than makeup and visual effects. Some conservatives have claimed that this year's crop of box-office underachievers indicates that the Hollywood establishment has finally lost touch with the values of American moviegoers. They also argue that the box-office success of Narnia should have guaranteed it a much higher profile at this year's ceremony, and that conservative films are grossly underrepresented with the Academy. (I don't hear anyone making such populist arguments in favor of Revenge of the Sith, the top-grossing film of 2005, but Revenge is a liberal -- or rather, "liberal-tarian" -- film.) In any case, conservatives have taken up the predictable drumbeat that with the low box-office grosses and leftward drift of this year's Academy Award nominees, Hollywood no longer cares about audiences in middle America. Michael Medved is doubtless overjoyed to see that American audiences are rejecting Hollywood's left-wing agenda.

There's just one problem with this analysis: Audiences can't properly reject a film unless they have a chance to see it. We can say with certainty that American audiences rejected Ridley Scott's Kingdom of Heaven, Michael Bay's The Island and the Jamie Foxx action picture Stealth. These films all opened wide and disappeared quickly, simply because audiences failed to show up. (To be fair, Kingdom fared quite well abroad, especially in Europe; US box office constituted less than a quarter of its worldwide box-office receipts.) In contrast, this year's Academy Award nominees never saw much play outside urban arthouses, college towns, and a few suburban multiplexes. Narnia played on nearly four thousand screens during its opening weekend; Brokeback Mountain played on five screens (and broke the box-office top ten while playing in 62 theaters, something that hadn't happened in more than ten years). Of this year's five Best Picture nominees, only Brokeback managed to expand its domestic distribution to more than two thousand screens -- but only after the buzz had died down.

Most Americans in the heartland never had the chance to see Capote or Good Night, and Good Luck -- let alone truly offbeat fare like Transamerica, Junebug, or Woody Allen's Match Point. So no one knows whether heartland audiences would have rejected these films outright. But film distributors and exhibitors certainly believed that we would have, so they offered us what they thought we wanted -- flaccid, overstuffed popcorn movies like Fantastic Four, Batman Begins and Harry Potter 4. For most Americans, these tiresome films were the only game in town.

To my mind, the proper reaction to this year's Academy Award nominees would be something akin to rage. As it turned out, there was no dearth of good filmmaking over the past year, but most of it was deliberately withheld from a large portion of American audiences. Those low box-office tallies signify a rejection, all right -- but it's Hollywood's rejection of heartland audiences, not that audience's rejection of Hollywood.

And now, the nominees ...

2005 Academy Awards

Any self-respecting critic has to go through this particular mortification every year, if only because readers want to test just how connected to the zeitgeist one is. I suspect most of my own predictions will come out wrong. For the sake of length, I'll confine myself mostly to the "big" awards.

Best Actor: Philip Seymour Hoffman will win for Capote, even though it's not his best work. But I won't be heartbroken if Terrence Howard pulls an upset for Hustle and Flow, because I think he deserves to win. Missing In Action: Peter Sarsgaard gave two remarkable performances this year, one as a disgruntled Marine in Sam Mendes's Jarhead, and the other as a Gay screenwriter with long-buried rage in Craig Lucas's The Dying Gaul. His work in Dying Gaul certainly deserved an Oscar nod: In a film that hits more than its share of false notes, his performance consistently rings true.

Best Actress: It's generally conceded that Reese Witherspoon will win for Walk the Line. The others are just lucky to be here: Felicity Huffman's work in Transamerica -- an earnest little indie which comes across as an X-rated "Afterschool Special" -- failed to impress me. Charlize Theron was equally underwhelming in North Country. Keira Knightley is smart and fiery in Joe Wright's Pride & Prejudice; if Witherspoon doesn't win, she should. MIA: For The Dying Gaul, Patricia Clarkson gave what I thought was the second best performance of 2005. (And the best performance of the year? Read on ...)

Best Supporting Actress: All nominees in this category are excellent, and the inclusion of Amy Adams (Junebug), Catherine Keener (Capote), and Rachel Weisz (The Constant Gardener) shows remarkable attention and taste. The best of the lot is Michelle Williams (Brokeback Mountain), and unless Keener or Weisz pulls an upset, she will most likely win. MIA: Leanne Rowe is positively heartbreaking as the poor, doomed Nancy in Roman Polanski's Oliver Twist. But the year's best performance -- lead or supporting, male or female -- came from Robin Wright Penn as a very distraught, very pregnant housewife in Rodrigo Garcia's luminous Nine Lives. Penn has never done heavy dramatic work like this before, but it's a safe bet she'll do something like it again, and soon.

Best Supporting Actor: After George Clooney's borderline-obscene "Abramoff" wisecracks at the Golden Globes, Academy voters are probably fearing another Michael Moore-style outburst, and rightly so. Gyllenhaal's work in Brokeback Mountain is too controversial for Oscar; William Hurt's performance as a heavy in A History of Violence is flashy enough for a nomination but not substantial enough to win. Matt Dillon will probably get the award for Crash, though Paul Giamatti deserves it for Cinderella Man. MIA: If the Academy had to nominate someone in Syriana, Jeffrey Wright would have been a better choice than Clooney. Ian MacDiarmid merited a nod, too, for his deliciously theatrical turn as Emperor Palpatine in Revenge of the Sith.

Best Director: Brokeback Mountain is the top box-office draw among this year's nominees. Still, I predict Ang Lee's Gay Western will be almost completely shut out of this year's Oscars -- with a possible exception for Michelle Williams and a probable Oscar for the film score. A complete shutout will prove the worst of all possible worlds: Anti-Gay ideologues will still be upset that the film was nominated in the first place, while everyone else will wonder why it didn't win anything significant. I suspect Paul Haggis will win for Crash, but Ang Lee deserves this award for Brokeback.

Best Picture: Again, I think this award will go to Crash, even though I've already written that it's not particularly good. (Critics who find Paul Haggis's portrait of multicultural Los Angeles bracingly realistic still haven't explained why the film features no Gay or Lesbian characters. Well, can you imagine L.A. without them?) I doubt Brokeback Mountain will win, but I'll be overjoyed if it does.

Now, a few predictions for other awards:

Best Original Screenplay: Another strong category. I'm torn between the verite domestic drama of Noah Baumbach's Squid and the Whale and the noirish delights of Woody Allen's Match Point. Neither has a chance to win. The award will probably go to the comparatively facile Crash, much as I may wish it wouldn't.

Best Adapted Screenplay: Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana's screenplay for Brokeback is the frontrunner, and justifiably so. I'd prefer to see Dan Futterman win for Capote, if only because translating Gerald Clarke's biography to the screen was a much tougher task. As long as Tony Kushner does not win for Munich, I'll be happy.

Best Cinematography: The fashion-plate photography of George Clooney's Good Night, and Good Luck will probably win this award, though I would argue that The New World is more deserving. MIA: The cinematography of Capote ranges from sun-dappled Spanish villas to the monochromatic Kansas landscape, with a range of colors and ideas in between. Lajos Koltai's Holocaust drama Fateless also deserved a nod, if only for its creative use of digital grading.

Best Visual Effects: I could not care less.

Best Editing: This race is between The Constant Gardener and Crash. Crash will win, for hopping from one story to another like a teenager with ADD. But Constant Gardener should win, for using the power of montage to bend space and time (even though this film does nothing that Soderbergh didn't do years ago with Out of Sight). MIA: Revenge of the Sith offers taut fight scenes, and enough intercutting to make old D.W. Griffith proud. The New World creates visual rhythms that frequently work against the narrative proper, an unconventional but highly effective approach. Still, the Academy's most glaring omission here was Woody Allen's Match Point, which uses the mechanisms of editing to take subtle, nasty jabs at British culture (including a vicious swipe at Andrew Lloyd Webber's Woman in White).

Best Score: In Brokeback Mountain, Gustavo Santaolalla offers a traditional deployment of musical leitmotifs: Orchestrations are heavy on solo guitar work and relatively light on the strings. Of all the nominees, this one makes the greatest emotional contribution to the film. MIA: Stephen Warbeck's contemporary-minimalist score is just about the only reason to see (or hear) the film version of David Auburn's play Proof.

Best Song: Dolly Parton's "Travelin' Thru" is one of the few genuinely bright spots in Transamerica, and might actually win this category, especially if older Academy voters decide that one rap song per decade is enough. But "It's Hard Out Here For a Pimp" from Hustle and Flow deserves to win -- not for any musical complexity, but because, unlike the other songs on this list, it actually serves a diegetic, narrative function. MIA: Two songs from Brokeback Mountain -- "A Love That Will Never Grow Old" and "No One's Gonna Love You Like Me."

Best Animated Feature: Perverse, strange and deeply moving, Tim Burton's Corpse Bride was the best animated film of last year. Which is precisely why the more conventional Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit will probably win.

Best Documentary: The award should go to Murderball, but will go to the Disney-esque March of the Penguins instead. Unlike many critics, I was not particularly heartbroken to see Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man excluded from the list -- Grizzly Man is an indulgent bauble of a film, and Herzog's pretentious narration frequently veers into self-parody. MIA: David LaChapelle's Rize says more about Los Angeles and race in its first fifteen minutes than Crash does in nearly two hours.

Best Foreign Language Film: Most of these nominees haven't even been released in American theaters yet, and it's a safe bet none of them will ever play the heartland. From what I've heard, Sophie Scholl is the best of the lot, but at the moment the award looks like a dead heat between Tsotsi and Paradise Now. Still, South African oppression and poverty are so 1980s. My guess is that Academy members who don't want to endorse outright anti-Zionism by voting for Munich will voice their pro-Palestinian sympathies by giving this award to Paradise Now. MIA: Koltai's Fateless -- from Hungary -- is every bit the equal of (and in some respects superior to) Roman Polanski's similarly themed The Pianist. It cost the equivalent of twelve million American dollars, yet looks better than many films made for ten times that amount. (We Yanks are spending too much money on filmmaking, and in all the wrong ways.)

Food Porn

While I'm recovering from a slight case of blogger burnout, enjoy this motivational video from America's original fast-food burger chain.

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