NOTES ON THE OSCARS 2006
2006 had been another poorly attended year from your once faithful observer. . . for the usual reason of late that my DVD library gave me more pleasure. Only when the nominations were announced had I realized the full scope of my other-worldliness, having by that time watched only eight of the relevant movies. So I made for the big push, more than doubling my arsenal of Oscar contenders in just three weeks.
As for Best Picture, I think I was not alone in finding no clear favorite – nor any English language movie that I felt qualified for a nomination. There were two films, Children of Men and Notes on a Scandal, that I preferred to any of those nominated, and one, Pirates of the Caribbean, that I enjoyed more. In recent years I usually found one or two from Asia or Europe that would have qualified, but I'm behind on watching those as well. (I'll amend this post once I've seen them.) In particular there are some likely contenders from Asia, e.g. Kim Ki-Duk's Time, Hou Hsiao Hsien's Three Times and Bong Joon-ho's The Host. I rather liked Johnnie To's Exiled (a gangster film I enjoyed more than The Departed), but it still would not have received my Best Picture endorsement.
Possibly The Queen was the one nominated film least available to criticism, though I found its story, immersed as it was in recent political, somewhat sensational affairs, less of a "classic" movie. Time will tell. On the other hand, Babel was the one film of the bunch that had no business being there. I wouldn't even go so far as to call it a "failed good film" – It did have several well done stories taken by themselves: the acting was always compelling, as was scripting and production. But one of them, the one that took place in Japan, made no sense to me whatever in this context, the ownership of the rifle notwithstanding. For me, this was a deal breaker. Imagine Babel without it, and I think you'll agree: it would have been a much better film, perhaps even a good one.
Children of Men was one of the most inventive of the films I saw last year, even more so than Pan's Labyrinth (which I expected to win in the Best Foreign Language Film category simply because of the money spent promoting it as a fait accompli, and for no other good reason.) I think I could watch Clive Owen play just about anything. He is one intense dude – and always has my emotional attention as well as my intellectual understanding. The production design underscores the story's sense of desperation even more than the actors. A second viewing might persuade me otherwise, but some of it struck me as oddly under-rehearsed. Unhappily, Children of Men was not nominated in this category, but I thought I'd use the opportunity to comment and recommend it.
Ditto for Notes on a Scandal, which was a real kick in the pants watching the likes of such thesbians (no, that word is not misspelled) as Dame Judi and Ms Cate came to metaphorical blows. Its one weakness for me was that it didn't quite know where to stop. I felt its final minute or so tended to diminish the impact of the duel between the women in the much the same way that William Wyler's The Collector diminished the drama between kidnapper and victim by assuring us that it was only one of a long line of similar melodramas.
Little Miss Sunshine was more than a little troublesome for me. I admit to having my judgment about what constitutes child abuse affecting my critique of this movie, as film; but that said, I must also report having felt betrayed after what appeared to be its intent for the first several reels. Even though anyone who watched the news about JonBenet would have a good idea of what is in store for this family, the film itself takes little note until we arrive at the beauty pageant in the final act. Prior to that event, the narrative skitted along in semi-hysterical form, enjoying the fruits of your basic dysfunctional family. And then - wham! – we're hit with monstrosities that once were young children parading around as sex objects for the delight of what I took to be otherwise God-fearing Christians. You know the expression "It goes without saying" – well, in this context, the phrase doesn't do the discrepancy justice. Of course, young Olive does not fit the mould! No normal child would – or should. So to prop up this bemused, neurotic family as normal compared to the ersatz Nazis that pass for parents in the audience is like comparing a traffic violator to Charles Manson. The family getting on stage to support their daughter in the face of an unappreciative, shall we say, hostile, audience was done much more convincingly by Hugh Grant in About a Boy.
The Last King of Scotland is a decent, if unfocused, film. Its main claim is that it reminds us of Uganda and of its charismatic, paranoid dictator. Not having ever visited Africa nor knowing much about Idi Amin, I was nonetheless convinced of its time and locale. While the title character figures prominently – how could he not – the story is centers on Idi Amin's personal physician, a young man who, having graduated medical school in Scotland, spins a globe to decide where he shall go. His moral compass is equally rudderless. As a result, he is easily taken in by Amin and promises of status. I found the good doctor's affair with one of Amin's concubines a bit incredible, even if true. This guy is clearly not paying attention – at least not until he has a gun to his head. If we work harder than the screenplay, we can see the doctor as a metaphor for Western involvement in Africa and third world countries in general: well intended, but always looking out for an opportunity to fill our own pockets. And once we see the devastation to which we have become a party, we make a stand – of sorts – but by then it is too late to save the thousands of people who had become, and will continue to be, its innocent victims.
I haven't quite made up my mind about Letters From Iwo Jima. I certainly liked it better than Flags of our Fathers, whose emotional points struck me as forced, despite the sincerity of its protagonists. I need to see this film again to sort out certain of my distresses, but if you care to share my agonies for a moment, I'll try to present a draft of what is less than clear in my mind: In Flags, the Japanese had no faces, and that worked for me: the Marines needed to see the enemy as without humanity in order to kill them. Basic battle strategy 1A. And most of the time, in Letters, the Americans had no faces either, which also worked. But as soon as we see them up close and personal, everything changed, particularly when they observed or interacted with the Japanese. The difference between the two films might be characterized as that in Flags, the Americans win the battle, but at the cost of their soul. In Letters, the Japanese lose the battle but lose their very lives, though they come to see their enemy as war itself. If this was Eastwood's point in pairing these two stories, he diffuses it when the Japanese prisoners are killed by the Americans, a fact that is more or lost on the passing remaining Japanese. The only value in this scene is the heighten the suspense in the final moments of the movie as to the fate of the single Japanese soldier at the hands of the Americans, but it cheapens his point. I feel that Eastwood should have stuck with the Japanese all the time, never letting us into the heads of the Americans, though I agree that the treatment of the wounded American is key. But it works because there is so much interaction and discussion; later there is little or none, so I lost focus as well as conviction. Letters From Iwo Jima seems to come down to the wastefulness of war, which strikes me as a waste of an opportunity, this having been done well enough in All Quiet on the Western Front 65 years ago. A second viewing might lead me elsewhere.
There is something to seeing a movie a second time. Sometimes I find that my original complaints resolve themselves into the background. Other times I am clearer about the film's shortcomings. Most likely I'll be able to see the film in better perspective. Such is the case with The Departed, which I just watched on DVD, followed by its antecedent, the 2002 Hong Kong thriller directed by Andrew Lau, Infernal Affairs (which I had watched for the first time a couple years earlier, also on DVD. By the way, Infernal Affairs was so popular in Asia that it immediately spawned two sequels, the first of which I found to better than the original.)
I was particularly interested in the question of adaptation, since so much of the original film is simply lifted and transposed to Boston. But the differences are often smart, given the audience. The new film fleshes out character and motivation considerably. By contrast, Infernal Affairs seems to assume that its audience has the genre so much in their bones that set-up and character development can be offered in a few remarks and a glance or two, deliberately avoiding transitions to keep the audience in much the same dark as its characters. There is one brief scene, where Tony Leung (the DiCaprio character, let's call him) encounters an old girlfriend. In a matter of seconds, we learn that he had an aborted love affair while in deep cover some 6 or 7 years earlier – his was a much longer assignment than DiCaprio's – for which he barely has time to register regret before rushing to his next rendezvous with destiny. It's that kind of movie. There are a couple of extended moments of exquisite tenderness, such as when one of Leung's associates dies in his arms. The length and breadth of this scene stands out against an otherwise rapid-fire world of spilt-second life & death decisions.
On the other hand, The Departed gets into a couple of quagmires the more background it offers. Why, we might ask, does boss Nicholson trust DiCaprio so much, given that he knows he is an "ex" –police officer? Screenwriter William Monahan's way out of this question is to make Nicholson's suspicions a focal point of the drama, eventually requiring him to devolve into an emotional collapse. Monahan gets into even more trouble with the character of the police psychiatrist (played, rather appropriately like someone in way over her head, by Vera Farmiga.) She has an extra-office relationship with not one, but both of the moles. While this offers an opportunity to tease us with possibilities of a triple encounter, it not only stretches believability, it makes an idiot of the single female character in the film. Nor do I see any good reason to have a person with such serious boundary issues among this brew of otherwise clearly motivated characters. The role of a therapist is often to provide an arena for expression for the internal conflicts of its otherwise constricted characters, and so it does here. But Scorsese's very fine actors, DiCaprio and Matt Damon, make their feelings quite evident in their behavior throughout the film. As a result, the usual function of the therapist has been made redundant while unnecessarily splitting the narrative.
Except for extending character and making even more complex an already complicated plot, The Departed suffers in the comparison other departments as well, perhaps most surprisingly, given Scorsese's reputation and past record, the production design. Thanks to the always brilliant cinematography of Christopher Doyle (Hero, 2046, In the Mood for Love, Last Life in the Universe) Infernal Affairs has a muted neon look to it that simply oozes "underworld." By contrast, The Departed simply indulges in saturated color, while occasionally suffering from overlighting. I don't see how either supports the external drama or the internal agonies. Infernal Affairs is much tighter (and 50 minutes shorter), and refuses to be distracted by extraneous personnel or promises of sexual tension, even when Leung tells his psychiatrist of his assignment. Yet its laced with supporting characters that add dimension, place and credibility.
While I stood by my prediction that it would win Best Picture, I felt I was shakier ground. The film's strengths are obvious: a clever and intricate plot, with mostly believable twists; bravura performances from all concerned; a crackerjack finale; with interesting, if weakly articulated, questions of moral ambiguity.
Now I'm a fan of Forest Whitaker, always have been since he first stepped out of his soon to be trashed Z-28 in Fast Times, glaring and crunching his way through a victory for the Ridgemont High football team. I'm happy for him that he got a nomination for The Last King of Scotland, but I don't feel his performance as Idi Amin was not any more worthy than any number of others this year. I would even go so far as to say that his co-star (the actual lead in the film), James McAvoy, was at least as affecting. McAvoy was nominated for a BAFTA in the Best Supporting Role category, which struck me as politically calculated to give FW a shot at Best Actor (which he won, by the way). Speaking of the BAFTA, I was delighted that Daniel Craig was nominated for his James Bond – that had to be something of a first.
The challenge of playing a real-life person has always been part of the fascination for actors, but Oscar winners over the decades have far less often been of this ilk. From 1927-1969, I counted only eight, four of which were historical figures.* Six from 1970-2000. From 2000 to the present there have been already four winners playing celebrities, alive or only recently deceased, plus another three less well known persons prior to their incarnation of screen, plus several famous persons whose altered egos were nominated, but didn't win. In case you forgot: in the previous two years alone, we've had Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles, Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote, Cate Blanchett as Katherine Hepburn, and Reese Witherspoon as June Carter: all winners in their categories.
I have no objections to actors taking on biographical assignments and, where warranted, having their abilities to channel something about what we imagine as the essence of those celebrities applauded, even rewarded. But, to me, it's a little like my problem with term limits: it takes the pressure off the voter to critically evaluate the field. The Academy voter is being manipulated, as it were, by his or her own feelings of connection to or about a real person. If the actor successfully crosses the threshold for making that connection for us, the gratification from that and the feelings we have about that celebrity (monster or saint) commingles with their critical faculty and – bingo – a vote cast.
This year we had two front-runners: Helen Mirren as the present Queen of England and Forest Whitaker as the would-be king of Scotland: the Right Dishonorable Idi Amin Dada. I protest. But what of those nominated actors who created their characters out of whole cloth and a good script: The long suffering DiCaprio, and much longer neglected O'Toole, Dame Judi, the always reliable Misses Streep and Winslet, and the others? None of the actors, save Ms Meryl (for Sophie's Choice) have ever won this award, though Dench and Streep have won for Supporting.
All such carping aside, it looked like the Academy was all geared up to give the Best Actress Oscar to Helen Mirren, and perhaps no one was more deserving. She seems to have inherited the mantle of Most Goddame Brilliant Actress from Vanessa Redgrave (curiously missing from the Supporting list for her part in Venus, probably because she was so good, she herself disappeared instantaneously and completely – I mean, from the second she appeared on screen - a trick few can manage, not even Ms. Mirren.) While I think her win was deserved, I am of the belief that the voter would have been unconsciously influenced by memories of Diana. Ditto if the film had won for Best Picture.
As for Best Actor, my personal choice was Leonardo DiCaprio for his role in The Departed. I felt that with his performance as Howard Hughes in The Aviator, Leonardo had turned the corner of credibility in adult roles. Before then I found him to be nearly uncastable, his eerily beautiful looks being his own worst enemy, Gilbert Grape excepted. I imagined him to still be wincing over his not having even been given a chance to lose for Titanic, poor fellow. Of course, as you should be quick to point out, and for reasons passing understanding (I love that phrase, with the thanks to Aaron Sorkin) he wasn't nominated for The Departed; he was nominated for Blood Diamond. Without having seen this film, I thought that hurt both his chances for a win and The Departed for Best Picture, since a Best Actor vote has coattails and vice-versa. I bet the film would win despite this, but he wouldn't, even though many an actor has won for the wrong film in what you might say has become an Academy tradition. Good call, there.
Let's not say goodbye to this category without acknowledging Peter O'Toole, which the Academy finally did, honorarily, in 2003, having refused him an Oscar for the previous 40 years. Like Alan Arkin in Little Miss Sunshine, O'Toole played a dead man in Venus, or nearly – and I thought he did it better, if that's a qualification. In truth, I thought he was awesome just standing still, and I would have loved to see him win, if only for the speech.
(A digression: While researching actors playing real people, I came across this factoid: SPECIAL AWARD (1947) : To James Baskett for his able and heart-warming characterization of Uncle Remus, friend and story teller to the children of the world in Walt Disney's Song of the South. This is a movie that Disney has not yet released on DVD for fear of a politically correct backlash. I shall say no more.)
And while I'm touching on Supporting Actor, a category for which I had seen only three of the nominated films, I declared myself for Eddie Murphy, who was one of the only two reasons (the other being Jennifer Hudson) to bother seeing Dreamgirls, a noisome enterprise with some of the most arbitrary film editing and downright idiotic sound editing I've encountered in a long time. The word on the carpet was Alan Arkin, who could have played the role dead, which. as I mentioned earlier, he sort of was, and for which, he won. I had no objection, but I pulled for Eddie. Quelle dommage!
As for Supporting Actress, there's always the charm of having someone win who could be marketed as the youngest ever, but here I would object to Abigail Breslin. She was fine as far as she went, but didn't really connect emotionally with me – I gather I am an exception. (Anyhow, Abigail would lose out for youngest ever to Tatum O'Neal for Paper Moon by 5 months, if we count their age at the time of the award.) Any of the other actresses here would have been preferred. My personal choices were for either Adriana Barraza for her desperate portrayal of a quite literally misguided caretaker of two young children in Babel, or American Idol loser-come-Dreamgirl Jennifer Hudson. Cate Blanchett, as the object of Dame Judi's intentions in Notes on a Scandal, was breathtaking and, by my reckoning, the best in this lineup, but she found herself here only to give Dame Judi a shot at Best Actress. I was not amused. Anyhow, she won just a couple years ago for The Aviator in an uncanny portrayal of Kate Hepburn. Rinko Kikuchi was very good, if singularly one-dimensional, for her part in Babel, but I didn't see as how her character in any way "supported" the story.
Best Original Screenplay: Definitely not Babel, Little Miss, or Pan's Labyrinth – all of which have serious narrative problems. The Queen I thought most likely. Missed by a mile. Little Miss Sunshine. Hummmph.
Best Adapted Screenplay: As for its being a successful adaptation from Chinese to American audiences, I had to hand it to The Departed. But, speaking of hands, it's not a particularly original adaptation, its having been handily lifted so nearly exactly from the original movie, Infernal Affairs. (See my extended notes on the comparison between these two films above.) Notes on a Scandal, was nothing if not literate. I don't know the original incarnations of the other films. I predicted that if The Departed won here it would take Best Picture. Right on.
Cinematography: An award generally given mistakenly for art direction, as it might be here. Children of Men would be case in point, and could have win. Ditto, Pan's Labyrinth. I heard good things about Vilmos Zsigmond's work for The Black Dahlia, but my guess is that not enough voters saw it. I didn't. Pan's Labyrinth. No surprise.
Editing: I really don't know what Babel is doing here or anywhere except in the acting categories. Blood Diamond is known to me only by its trailer, which is why I didn't see it. Of United 93 I could go to my grave happy without having revisited the inspiration. Both Children of Men and The Departed were pretty neatly and thrillingly trimmed. I'll take either. More likely The Departed. And, sure enough.
Art Direction: My pick was Pirates of the Caribbean, though I thought Pan's Labyrinth had as good a chance. I don't know The Prestige. Should I? After Pan's Labyrinth won I realized that Pirates: The Black Pearl did not win in this (for which it wasn't even nominated) nor Best Makeup nor Visual Effects, so I was doubly disappointed.
Best Animated Feature: A lot of people really liked Happy Feet. I was not among them. I found it noisy. It also bothered me no end that the tap dancing didn't sync with the visuals. I was never convinced. Perhaps that was supposed to be part of the joke, but I didn't get it. Monster House was a much better and more intriguing movie, and though it struck me as an extended short subject I had no objection to its winning. I haven't seen it a second time, so I can't comment on its rewatchability, which I think is an important attribute of animated films. Cars had motivational problems, but it was characterful and appropriately boisterous – and those Pixar textures and colors just keep comin' at ya. It got my vote by default. Alas, riding the coattails of their win in the Best Documentary category the previous year, the penguins took home the gold.
Oh, yes, for Best Director, I predicted the Academy would give the Oscar to Marty and be done with it already. This was not based not on Scorsese's performance in this role but in a desire to get him off his long-suffering moaning about not having won after all his hard work.
And now, the films for 2007, please approach the line-up!
March 8, 2007
* Biographical roles:
George Arliss as Disraeli, Charles Laughton as Henry VIII (and Paul Scofield nearly four decades later as Hnery's nemesis, Sir Thomas More), Paul Muni as Louis Pasteur. Then began a number of then current figures: Spenser Tracy as Father Flanagan, Gary Cooper as Sgt. York, James Cagney as George M. Cohan, Susan Hayward as Barbara Graham. Almost no one from the late forties through the sixties. From 1970-2000, there are only George C. Scott as Patton, Jason Robards as Ben Bradlee and as Dashiell Hammett, Ben Kingsley as Gandhi, Tom Hanks as Andrew Beckett, Martin Landau as Bela Lugosi, I left out a few performances of non-fictional characters, such as Susan Sarandon's Sister Helen Prejean, that most voters would not likely have had a prior impression of. Add to these those characters that were once living but whose imprint on the public imagination is vague to non-existent, such as Nicole Kidman as Virginia Wolf or Adrien Brody as Wladyslaw Szpilman, or Charlize Theron as Cristina Peck. And these were just the winners. There were also Salma Hayek as Frida Kahlo, Leonardo DiCaprio as Howard Hughes, Ed Harris as Jackson Pollack, among others.