Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Oscar Schmosker

I once heard the Academy Awards referred to as "Hollywood's opportunity to congratulate itself..." Since this is literally true, the apparently intended sarcasm cannot really be achieved without adding something like "... for spending $100 millions on idiotic flops, depicting ever more brutal, graphic and gratuitous violence, sensationalizing natural and manmade disasters, and trivializing the effects of poverty, genocide, crime, illness, insanity, racism and domestic strife by singling out isolated personal victories from the mass of ruined lives". (And if a Parrot can say that all in one breath you know it must be true.)

Oh. You thought Hollywood had suddenly turned socially conscious? Well, yes - you could say, it turned socially conscious Hollywood-style, by taking up social issues and giving us superficial solutions to them; the kinds of solutions that make good movies, of course. So and so rises from poverty through force of will and becomes a financial success sort of solutions. So and so saves hundreds from death and destruction through personal strength and cunning sort of solutions. Is that all? I suppose not; we have also a spate of the Highly Sensitive to Racial Disparities films and the Post-Colonial Post-Mortem films and the Gay People Are Basically Just People films, and I suppose plenty of others. And this socially conscious cinema comes not only in the explicit variety, but dressed up as parables about mutants and mice and zebras and superheroes and whatnot. (Though if there was a gay superhero film released recently I must have missed it.)

Okay, maybe this does not all fall on Hollywood. Maybe there are plenty of independent and international films that dance to these same tunes. Fine, I don't really care if the point can be circumscribed within a few square miles in Los Angeles or if it is a much wider phenomenon. (In fact, I have had an extremely difficult time finding lists of films made in Hollywood; Wikipedia has lists by studio, but they do not distinguish between films made, produced and directed there, versus those merely distributed by the studio.) Actually most of what comes out of Hollywood is still pure pap, forgettable junk that is the cinematic equivalent of fast food. Films aimed at children, superhero/sci-fi stuff, idiotic, formulaic comedies and romances. This mostly dross that I'm not interested in here, and neither is Oscar. What I'm really talking about is the complex of production and distribution companies, theaters, DVD manufacturers and advertisers (which could be read, "Sony, Sony, Sony, and Sony...", or "Disney, Disney... etc" but nevermind) which serves up to the Masses a handful of this total output , plus the occasional foreign or independent film, nationally and pushes it into the popular mind and ultimately that of the Academy, culminating in Sunday night's follow-up to Superbowl Sunday, the Academy Awards.

In fact, I don't have any objection to socially conscious cinema. The problem is that there seems to be a conception - and if I'm not mistaken it is more central in Hollywood than among other film cultures - that in order to make an important, relevant, meaningful film you have to take up one of these themes and work it out in this more or less formulaic way. In any case, this seems to be the message of the Academy, which probably represents Hollywood in the popular mind more than the studios themselves. And this means that any number of far better films will never win a "Best Motion Picture" award or much of anything else. Which hardly affects the history of film very much, it just makes the Academy more of a dog-and-pony show and less of a historical reference for critical judgment.

All that just by way of preface to my disgruntled review of some of the top Academy Award nominees this year:

The Queen: Why exactly did someone decide to make this movie? Because they thought it was really interesting how this long faded pseudo-monarchy responded to death of one of their ex-members? What a lapse in judgment. Nobody outside of England gives a crap about what these landed aristocrats think or how they react emotionally to anything. The subject matter seems about as distant from the popular consciousness as that of John Adams' opera Nixon in China; I mean, how can anyone stand watching a detailed study of emotional nuances in the meeting of a corrupt President and the engineer of the disastrous Cultural Revolution? Much less
see any significance in it (other than the purchasing Chinese non-interference in the war in Vietnam in return for trade agreements)? I really wonder what moves people to think that they can make hay out of this; probably they read some Shakespeare and figured, hey, why can't we make some great tragedy out of royal melodramas? These folks should be prohibited from reading anything earlier than Chekhov. So why all the fuss about The Queen then? Oh, yes, Mr. Frears, I do get the subtle take on the traditional aristocrats-floating-above-reality-while-the-empire-crumbles-beneath-their-feet theme, thank you, we really needed another one of those. Yes, it does put you in contention for the socially-conscious-movie-of-the-year award (aka "Best Motion Picture") because Di did a lot of charitable stuff that gained her a lot of public sympathy. (Not to mention the Clintonesque benefit of having your husband cheat on you with a woman less attractive than yourself.) La-dee-da, thanks, got all that. So what? The premise is stupid, the film is boring, the attempted heightening of tension through pictures of flowers and crowds at the palace gates doesn't really work, at least outside of the UQ (that's United Queendom for those of you who think the King has any importance at all). Okay, Helen Mirren. Again, so what? I can't get worked up about a performance in which the range of emotional attitudes is from uptight to upset. And everybody outside the UQ - in fact, outside England, period - thinks that the whole bit about British emotional restraint is just so hokey. You can't appreciate a movie like this unless you think there is some real conflict between virtues: stalwart emotional self-discipline on the one hand and true sympathy and compassion on the other. But you've got to be British and probably upper class to really see any virtue in the former. The whole emotional premise of the film is lost on anyone who doesn't really have an issue with shedding a tear or expressing solidarity with the pain of the multitude. In fact most people think emotional restraint beyond the maintenance of reasonable composure in the face of ordinary difficulties is a vice, not a virtue. Oscar Schmosker rates this film a B- at best; and that's only because the metaphor of the stag as Di (or something like that) gives it some aesthetic interest.

The Last King of Scotland: Well, I didn't see it. But I have to mention it here because it is so outstanding that TWO of the "Best Motion Picture" nominees have essentially nothing to do with the "motion picture" but with the performances of their leads. To which all I can say is, I love a good performance, but it does not make a great film or great art. I love to watch Jennifer Aniston on Friends reruns, she gives a lot of great performances, but no one is going to call these sitcom episodes great art. It seems the Academy has really lost its way if it is mistaking great performances for great films. Oscar Schmosker doesn't rate films he hasn't seen, but suspects that this one has more to say about Forest Whitaker than power, brutality, insanity, or other Important Themes.

The Departed: Saw it a while ago. Fine film, who can argue? But unfortunately, the theme of mob infiltrator becoming a bit too much like the people he is trying to send to jail was done brilliantly and definitively, IMHO, in Donnie Brasco. So I had the deja vu feeling already. Then, Goodfellas is certainly a better Scorcese gangster film, and there, let it be said, the brilliant performance by Joe Pesci does definitely lift this vehicle so far above most others in its class that this follow-up feels like a rerun, or also-ran, or... deja vu all over again. The other thing is that the idea of this cleancut kid being bred from childhood for a role as a police department mole, and remaining loyal to his harsh, ungrateful and unseemly mobster master through all of it, seemed so utterly fabricated that even if it were "based on a true story" I'd have a hard time believing it. (Some true stories are just not true in the way that can be utilized by a work of art.) So I had issues with both sides of this film. Was it erastz-socially-conscious formulaic fare? No, not really. Not terribly conscious of anything except the power of cellphones, an increasingly common plot device in contemporary film, which I hope we will get beyond fairly quickly. Certainly entertaining. Oscar Schmosker gives it a B.

Babel: Who accidentally nominated this for "Best Motion Picture"? It towers above anything else I've seen in the past few years on practically every level. Let's put it this way: the use of music in this film is better than the entire package in many other films. Dramatically it dances rings around most of the other contenders. If it occasionally tests our sense of plot integrity, the hunch that all the pieces fit together is ultimately confirmed. I still have a little difficulty understanding the focus on the daughter of the Japanese hunter who gave the gun to the guy who gave it to his son who shot... but anyway, there was brilliant parallelism in the growing sense of isolation of each set of characters. The ultimate redemption of some of them was in no case complete, and in some cases there was nothing that looked much like redemption; rather, what seemed like minor indiscretions spiraled into outright disasters; and the worst victims were of course the poor, the powerless, the people who live so close to the boundary of existence that a slight mistake means disaster, while comfortable middle class families can even flirt with death and yet ultimately recover. The ingenious use of music is not the only technical device that makes the film stand out even beyond its social and emotional depth; in fact, every cinematic element I can think of, from lighting and camera positioning to costume and staging, are employed in each of the film's distinct settings to give a real feeling for the cultural and physical environment as well as to remind one of the connections between characters and situations. Volumes could be written about this film; Inarritu is a genius. I'll stop here. Oscar Schmosker says A, maybe A+ if someone can explain to me a little better how the Japanese sequences integrate with the overall architecture of the story.

The Pursuit of Happiness: Touching, great acting, but nobody in their right mind is going to believe that this kid is so happy and accepting of the sudden and complete departure of his mother from his life. Sensitive father films are welcome, in fact, could someone please make one about sensitive parrot Dads? But I'm not buying the premise that this five (?) year old kid just says goodbye to his Mom and everything's fine hanging out in homeless shelters and railroad bathrooms with his Dad. Now as for the rest of the film, this is a great example of the American Dream story, up-from-poverty through force of Will (Smith), with a few gratuitous digs at hippies along the way (haven't seen one quite so biased against hippie counterculture since Joe). Every time things get to the point where total collapse seems likely, one of his lost scanners shows up and he manages to sell it and get back on his feet. (The evil hippies are big scanner thieves, you see.) In the end, good old cronyism and chitchat over beer turns out o be more important to business success than book learning or intelligence. Thus our Hero gets the stockborker job because he "played the game", not because he excelled at anything in particular. Call it realism if you want. I thought it was a good movie and a Fine Performance, but if there is a message here worth remembering or teaching your kids, I missed it. Oscar Schmosker says B, mostly for effort.

Dreamgirls: I walked out after about an hour, can I still review it? This is about as formulaic as the pop star genre gets. Nothing going on here except a fast-paced rise to stardom through native talent and unlikely breaks. Compared to Walk the Line, much less to older, better pop star rise-to-fame movies (The Doors, etc.) this is candy-coated popcorn with no prize at the bottom. Why this should have won the awards it did from some other film societies is beyond me. A feather in the Academy's cap that this was not nominated for "Best Motion Picture"; though they probably should be compelled to develop some new categories, like "Worst Pop Star Picture". Oscar Schmosker gives this a C out of charity.

The Illusionist: Well-made art film, sure fooled me (the plot twist, I mean; can't say much more in case you didn't see it yet). Naturally it is hardly nominated for anything. Easily a B+ in the Schmosker catalogue. See it before it makes itself disappear.

The Painted Veil: Extremely well-made art film, in the classic mould, and of course it's nominated for nothing at all. (Did more than a handful of Academy members even bother to see it?) One critic (can't recall who) quipped, "Even real Merchant Ivory films don't get Oscars". And your point is...? Sorry, but this is what filmmaking used to be about, and still can be; stories wih real emotional depth, great cinematography, top-notch acting, little or no artificial enhancement with the latest, greatest special effects technology, some real social lessons without phony morality plays, an almost total lack of gratuitous violence or grisly carnage, disasters of a slow and deadly sort without cheap-shot catastrophe sequences, a "lost era" feel without millions of bucks in artificial sets and costumes and Model-T's... need I go on? Okay, this one is a twice or thrice or five-times told story, the Somerset Maugham story having been cinematized several times before. I didn't see any of those. I saw this one. It is a fine film. Oscar Schmosker says A-, and see it before it gets old enough that people start to think it's "one of those Merchant Ivory films".

An Inconvenient Truth: Lots of charts and lots of arguments for the reality and threat of global warming. One can hardly avoid being moved to agree, even though many of the arguments are really pretty dubious. I especially doubt his claims about our ability to reverse the trend before a fairly catastrophic rise in sea levels. But the overall impact is what counts. As film, this is nothing, a lecture with a big projection tv and a lot of staging. Much more could have been done outside the lecture, other than promotional shots of Gore and his family. Everybody should learn from the message, but whether it is really necessary to see the film is another question. I wouldn't call this a great or even a good documentary; rather, an opportunity to build consciousness about an important threat that we might be able to mitigate somewhat if enough people in the right places were persuaded of it. Oscar Schmosker doesn't quite know what to do with this one; maybe a B- as film, and PG-13 as social service.

Night at the Museum: Look at the review sites and you'll see that this one gets a much higher rating from audiences than from critics. Many films do, but with this one I could see why. It is actually not as stupid as it sounds; in fact, it is a bit of an intellectual fantasy, having all these historical figures come to life and interacting with them to explore their psychology. The real-people portraits were not exactly the ultimate in emotional probing, but the whole thing hung together fairly well. Here special effects were used in a way that might be called "charming", in the good sense that might be employed in reference to the Star Wars films. The film is directed at kids but I would not hesitate to send an adult there for a bit of fun. When order is inally restored in the museum there is an uncanny sense of moral and intellectual satisfaction that for all its hokeyness is more solid than some of the bang-us-over-the-head denouements of more serious historical films. Oscar Schmosker says B+, not half bad.

Pirates of the Carribean: Dead Man's Chest, Flushed Away, X-Men III: Hey, do you think I have time to review every children's movie I've seen this year? No way. Mutants, rats, frogs, "the heart of Davey Jones"... the gross-out factor certainly has risen in PG films, helping kids acustom themselves to any future real horrors that might unfold (say tv coverage of a foreign war) and thus deaden themselves to the disgust this should generate. X-Men III has some definite virtues, e.g., interactive realignment of the Golden Gate Bridge... Also suggests some interesting social questions. If they invented a drug to "cure" something like e.g., homosexuality, would/should gay people take it? The recent experience with deaf-mutes at Gallaudet University suggests that members of a subculture often prefer to identify with it than integrate into the culture at large. XMen III suggests the same. But mostly, these movies are stocked with lots of unbelievable escapes from unbelievable dangers, and dubious underdog victories over the forces of evil. Compare Babel. It stands as this year's monument to film that avoids the pitfalls of ersatz-social-consciousness and cheap solutions to deep problems. Let's hope Oscar-not-Schmosker honors it appropriately.

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