Just a suggestion, skip the excruciating banter between Chevy Chase and Paul Newman. This was the year of the Writer's Strike.
It's sad to say, but necessary: the internet and the 24/7 news cycle have largely robbed the Oscars of any sense of spontaneity. It's true that, for years, it hasn't been impossible to pick obvious winners, but lately the sense of foreordained outcomes have overtaken any sense of suspense and the unexpected upset is really a thing of the past (even if Meryl Streep beats Viola Davis this year). The Golden Globes, the SAGs, the DGA and Producer's Guild have all become staples of the "Award Circuit" and between their choices and gossip blogs and Deadline Hollywood... there's just no room for the weird left field lunacy that occasionally took hold (and surely, no streakers or Sacheen Littlefeathers, either). It doesn't make me love the Oscars less, it just makes me feel... old.
In any case, I'm heartened by the fact that this year's choices really do reflect much of the best of film this year, and the likely winners, too, tend to be good choices who deserve recognition. It's not hard to predict, but let's get to it:
Best Picture - Will Win: The Artist. Should Win: The Artist. Honorable Mention: My Week With Marilyn. There's a small, even accurate, subset of caring filmgoers (like my Mom), who have a point that The Artist is not quite all its ardent admirers make it out to be. I freely admit: it's a small film, with modest points to make about life, love, and film. But those modest points are, indeed the point - no film both revels so fully in film history and in the joy of both performing and just, well, living. That last is a point, I think, that a number of the competing films (Hugo, The Decendants, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close) kind of miss. Not the necessity of living life to the full, but the joy in it. The Artist is just too happy to ignore. And in another year, a lot of what distinguishes The Artist, right down to its admiration for old films and real stars, would be the reason to reward My Week With Marilyn.
Best Actor - Will Win: Jean Dujardin, The Artist. Should Win: Jean Dujardin. George Clooney has one. Otherwise, I think he'd get this (I still think he did, for Michael Clayton, for some reason). Brad Pitt doesn't need one. And after that, there's Jean Dujardin, with the best role for a guy this year, making the most of it. He had me at hello (unlike Tom Cruise ever did), but I think Dujardin's Oscar hopes were sealed once the final number began; all that... and he taps!
Best Actress - Will Win: Viola Davis, The Help. Should Win: Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady. Honorable Mention: Michelle Williams, My Week With Marilyn. Non-Nominated Choice: Kirsten Dunst, Melancholia. I hated The Help, but Davis is a great actress and about the only thing that saves the film from utter embarassment, and let's be frank, Oscar has a lot of work to do (still) recognizing actors of color. Still, this is one year when Streep's natural skills and star power went further than ever to make a memorable impact, and 17 nominations in 30 years do mean something. Even sadder, the failure to recognize Michelle Williams is getting to be a real failure on the part of the Academy. She's too good to keep ignoring. And finally, the real robbery victim is Kirsten Dunst, with her tour-de-force in Melancholia.
Best Supporting Actor - Will Win: Christopher Plummer, that movie where he pretends to be gay. Should Win: Kenneth Branagh, My Week With Marilyn. Overlooked: James Cromwell and John Goodman, The Artist. Plummer's never quite put it together, as a star, which goes a long way, I think, to explain why his generally good acting has never gotten an Oscar. I suppose then, pretending to be gay is as good as any reason to give it to him. I mean... that's totally believable, right? As opposed to, say, Branagh putting tons of colors into the desperate, petty, intelligent shades of Sir Laurence Olivier. Or the pure embodiment of decency and loyalty James Cromwell gives off with no words in The Artist, or the equally wordless brilliance Goodman conveys as a hard nosed, but softhearted, movie studio exec. Nope, gay it is.
Best Supporting Actress - Will Win: Octavia Spencer, The Help. Should Win: Berenice Bejo, The Artist. Nice Try, but No: Melissa McCarthy, Bridesmaids. Utterly Overlooked: Judi Dench and Julia Ormond, My Week With Marilyn. ... And here's progress: 73 years later, it's still brave to give a black woman an Oscar for Supporting for playing a maid. A sassy maid. A sassy southern maid. Oh never mind. All this so we can overlook the phenomenal part of Peppy Miller in The Artist. And while the masses and critics sing the praises of Melissa McCarthy (and I agree, she's great), that role isn't even the best thing in Bridesmaids. Meanwhile, Dame Judi Dench obviously can't win again... but how crucial is her underplaying as Dame Sybil Thorndyke in Marilyn? And how gloriously did Julia Ormond evoke Vivien Leigh? But never mind, it's all about maids this year, anyway.
Best Director - Will Win: Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist. Should Win: Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris. Honorable Mention: Asghar Faradi, A Separation. There's a lot of talk about rewarding Martin Scorsese for Hugo, but Scorsese is always and forever too needy and too desperate to be rewarded; and anyway, does the world need more children's films made for grownups? I think not. That said, Hazanavcius is a fine choice... but I'd be just as pleased if we recognized Woody Allen, just once more, for his sustained brilliance, especially as exemplified in a film as rich and satsfying as Midnight in Paris. And for real directorial insight, go see A Separation, and tell me any American director coud have managed anything that dense and deep.
Best Original Screenplay: The Artist. Shoud Win: Bridemaids. This could also go to A Separation, and another good choice woud be Woody Allen's writing for Midnight. But I'd mostly love it if we recognized Kristen Wiig and her cowriter for the real genius of Bridesmaids - the brilliant, startlingly honest script.
Best Adapted Screenplay: The Descendants. I didn't see it. And I'd be okay with all of the others... except the dreadfully boring adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
Best Foreign Film: A Separation. If only for its brilliant, wordless final shot as the credits roll. As bad as the characters feel, you'll feel worse. And yet, that's a good thing.
Best Costumes: Probably The Artist. If they give it to Sandy Powell (again) for Hugo, I'll scream. And if there's any justice, they'd give it to Arianne Phillips for W.E.
The rest... well, just give it a good guess. They really like The Artist, and they like to spread the wealth. That, plus the height of the cliff and the breath of the sea... and you should be able to figure it out for yourself. :)
A few years back, I finally caught A Cry In The Dark, the Meryl Streep movie where she plays Lindy Chamberlain, an Australian woman whose daughter was taken by wild dingoes. It's the "Dingoes Took My Baby!" movie. I'd avoided it in theaters, my own moment of Meryl overload - too many accents, too many weepy dramas, all of that.
That was silly - A Cry in The Dark is a fine film, and Streep is, naturally and predictably, quite good in it. It's also less deliberately tragic than some of her earlier efforts, more about the sensational trial Hemmings went through than the event itself.
What struck me more, and stayed with me, is how seamlessly Streep inserted heself into an ensemble cast, not being bigger than the film or her costars, but one of them, and part of the film.
Streep has had a fascinating career as America's Greatest Living Actress; it's an assessment that got made very early in her career, and the remarkable thing, really, is that she has lived up to that rep, pretty much unbroken, ever since. Yes, even with Death Becomes Her on her resume.
The other interesting thing, though, when I thought about it, is how Streep has made her name playing, in essence, smaller parts. Nearly every film she's made is an ensemble piece. She's rarely the sole, or central, point of attention. She's played wives and mothers, and committed professionals, most of them part of a group, a family, or a team. And that, I think, is what complicates her history as an Oscar nominee - her chances hinge on the strength of the ensemble, and how one takes the whole film. Which is why, for instance, she wouldn't win for A Cry in the Dark - she's the best thing in an okay film.
My point is, really, that Streep has redefined what it is to be a star, largely on her own terms; which, by now, it should be clear are pretty feminist. Streep is a proponent of women's lives and women's roles, and a woman's approach to making film and art. What's remarkable, really, is how she's been able to chart a course doing largely that in a business often aligned against anything of the sort.
All of which is why The Iron Lady may well be a breakout chance for Streep to win an Oscar (or not - apparently the Gods are smiling on Viola Davis). Playing Margaret Thatcher may well be Streep's first real turn in a "Great Lady" part, the central role in a film built entirely around her character. I don't think Streep has ever made herself the central star of a biographical picture, ever. But of course, The Iron Lady is not like other biopics. Directed by Phyllida Lloyd, The Iron Lady asks a question not usually asked of biographical subjects: what happens after the most important thing you've ever done?
The Iron Lady is a fascinating look at what it means to age, and to age out of the spotlight that once you held. Some have compained that the film is an injustice or an insult to Thatcher; I'd disagree. Lloyd hits the high notes of the Thatcher period in Great Britain, and doesn't give any easy answers about Thatcherism, either. But by showing an elderly woman dealing with what it means to be past your prime, Lloyd, and Streep, illuminate aging and confronting mortality with more light than I think I've seen in, like, ever.
Margaret Thatcher, of course, is a strong, indomitable figure to portray, and Streep goes at it with gusto. Thatcher was the first, and one of the few, women to serve in Parliament, the first to rise through the ranks of the Conservative (Tory) Party, and the first woman Prime Minister. Because she is a peer of Ronald Reagan and carried strong views, conservatives here and in England tend to lump a lot of what happened in the eighties into one big right wing ball. But Thatcher was very much her own creature. Her sense of conservatism was, to her, a kind of common sense. She grew up a grocer's daughter and believed, firmly, in the value of hard work and a sense of purpose. Her rejection of government ownership and social welfare came out of her belief that both things held back individual ambitions.
It would be easy to make a political biograpy of this; Thatcher herself did, over several volumes, discussing her time as Prime Minister. But Lloyd is more interested in the drive and ambition of the actual woman, the details that make a personal life. The film focuses on the support and care Thatcher got from her marriage; her husband Denys being her chief cheerleader and rock of support. When Thatcher's hotel was bombed by IRA separatists, she was in her suite of rooms with Denys, and her initial response wasn't about about strength or justice... it was trying to find her husband.
In the film, Thatcher is hauunted by the presence of Denys, still nattering aorund, offering advice, refusing to leave, even though he's already passed. This allows for a framing device that brings in flashbacks to Thatcher's rise and eventual success as prime Minister, and also to look at the questions of aging and dementia (which Thatcher's daughter has alluded to in interviews). But the film is not a tragedy, nor is Thatcher protrayed as simply weak and decaying in her senior years. Instead, we see Mrs. Thatcher ultimately apply to herself what she always believed: that there is no point to wallowing. One has to get up, get tough, and soldier on. In this case, alone.
This is great lady stuff, Katharine Hepburn stuff, and Streep, as usual, disappears into the role, carrying off not just the accent, but the sense of what it is to be such a commanding, determined presence. When she gives her doctor a long lecture on how one's hopes and beliefs becomes one's character, she is authoritative, yet also immensely human and true. One can debate the ultimate value or success of Thatcher's policies, but in another sense, we hold the debate on her terms: the world we have, post-Privatisation and after Thatcher ended or changed much of the social welfare structure of Britain, is a world that it is not nearly as apocalyptic as her worst critics insisted it would be. And that, in some sense, proves her right.
Lloyd hasn't delivered the sort of pure, unvarnished ode to Thatcher's commanding greatness that many wanted or expected, and there is, surely, a time and a place for that film. But this film, which captures and dissects what it is to age, and how we, as a society, determinedly look away from the hard parts of the final aspects of aging, is a remarkable, and worthwhile, effort. And I suspect, over time, the value of The Iron Lady will become clearer, and another Streep performance will get its due.
Or we could just give her the Oscar and get it over with.
When the subject of films comes up in my conversations, and I mention my love of them and the reviews I write, lots of people (strangers mostly) ask "So... what's your favorite film?"
Truthfully, I tend to say that I don't have one, or even a few; I've seen a lot of movies, and liked a lot (though certainly not all) of them. But I know myself and my likes well enough to know that the positive feelings for a film are often situational: it's where I was, who I was with, the way that film spoke to a particular moment or feeling I was in tune with at that time. I love sad movies most when I need a good cry. I really loved Truth or Dare when I saw it, but it was also the height of Madonna Madness, and I can't say that it truly holds up to what I thought at the time.
Still, when I say I "have no favorites," it's also a lie; I love movies, and I own a lot of the movies I love and I watch them repeatedly. I go out of my way to see and re-see certain films, certain stars, hear my favorite lines yet again. This afternoon, I caught the final dramatic courtroom denouement of Legally Blond, a film I still admire a lot, for those last lines of Elle Woods as she destroys the real murderer's fake alibi - "And as someone who's had, oh, thirty perms in her lifetime, shouldn't you be aware of the rules of perm maintenance?" Always makes me smile.
In that vein, I've decided, sort of, to stop lying: I'm going to try and make a regular habit of going back over the films I love and why. It's a way to push myself to more regularly write reviews, and also revisit the good stuff, and why it's good. It's also my way of being a better steward of film blogging: people I admire, like Self Styled Siren, who remind me to be passionate about the thing I love.
So first up: a film that speaks to the whole business of loving film - LA Confidential.
I've been sick for the past three days, hence no posting.
The Whitney thing keeps washing in and out of my head... one of my regulars at the coffee shop was at the funeral and called it devastating (he also went to see Aretha Franklin that night, where she paid tribute to Whitney. Also devastating).
In any case, while I gather some strength, here's one more, one I'd almost forgotten, probably her most flat-out jazz number, a big album cut on "Quiet Storm" and "Smooth Jazz" stations after Whitney came out. I loved this one.
There are two, maybe three reasons to go to a theater and see the Oscar nominated short films: a) you want to dominate your Oscar pool, b) you're a real film geek, and maybe c) if it's either this or that horror film with the guy from Harry Potter, is there really a choice?
I'm not proud; I have to admit that I've been dying to go to a theater and see the Oscar nominated short films simply because the Oscar pool at the party I go to (hi, Izzy!) is especially cutthroat, and I'll do anything to win. Artistry, shmartistry. I just need to pick the right winner.
Okay, seriously: this is my first year seeing the live action short films, and I have to admit... it was a preety great experience. They may not be the absolute best in short film, but I've seen five short, very entertaining and well made films in one sitting. And that's not at all bad.
Let's dispense with two of them straight off: Pentecost and Time Freak are charming, one-joke premises with snappy pay-offs. Pentecost is an Irish film that tells the story of a wayward altar boy who uses the incense burner as a hazardous weapon. And just when he seems to have learned his lesson and will get to end his penance in time for Liverpool to play in the championships (football, natch), he shows that he too can score a winning goal. Time Freak asks the loaded, yet poignant question... if you're geek enough and obsessive enough to build a time machine, would you go back in history... or simply try to fix yesterday until it was perfect?
But if I had to pick a winner (and I will), it makes more sense to focus on the longer, more complex efforts. Raju is a haunting tale about a German couple who adopt an Indian boy in Kolkata, only to have the father lose him ina crowded market the next day. in his desperate search, the father trips over the uncomfortable reailty that the boy may have been kidnapped for sale as an "orphan" and the film wrestles with the bigger questions of what it means to do the right thing. Ambitious and well made, I tend to think Academy voters won't overcome the depressing sense of loss that hovers over the film by the end.
My personal favorite is Tuba Atlantic, a Norwegian film with yet another jokey, farfetched presence: a dying man tries to reach out to his estranged brother, in America by finally making use of the invention they made as boys, a giant tuba capable of emitting a sound far enough to cross the ocean (their inspiration was Krakatoa, whose eruption could be heard 5000 miles away in Australia). Full of refusal to give in to death, and a murderous rage at seagulls, Tuba Atlantic takes a potentially dicey, difficult subject and never loses sight of lightness and laughter. And even the tuba provides a handsome payoff.
Still, I suspect that Academy voters may favor the even more obviously sentimental The Shore, a tale from Northern Ireland about estranged best friends reunited after many years and the possibility that one stole the other's girlfriend. Graced with a number of strong performers (the headliner here is Ciaran Hinds), The Shore ambles along at a modest pace, unfolding its charms in a gentle relaxed way. Time heals all wounds and true friendship aleways survives... and really, who can argue with that?
Tomorrow, hopefully... I'll have similar findings on the Animated shorts. Anyway, my suggestion: pick The Shore... but tell everybody else to pick Tuba Atlantic.
I have to admit I pretty much figured this year's Presidential election was foreordained as a Romney vs. Obama slugfest over the economy, with a predictable, if dismal, win for President Obama. And that's probably what we're still going to get. But how we get there, apparently, still matters.
If Romney has failed to exactly inspire the Republican base, the last couple of weeks haven't been entirely about him. What's changed, I thnk, is that Rconservatives have decided that they can't win on economic issues... and so they unpacked their favorite old trunk, the thing we often call "social issues."
Maybe it's age, maybe it's the sense that I've heard this song before, but my patience for euphemisms is pretty much gone. And so, I am tired of hearing about "social issues" when what people mean is "let's say awful things about blacks, gays and other minorities and see if Americans will give in to their worst instincts."
"Social Issues" is supposed to be about abortion, gay marriage, "family values" and the like, but really, it's about dressing up age-old prejudices and judgements about others without saying the ugly words. What's wrong with gay marriage? Something about men, women, tradition and procreation... since marriage equality opponents insist, all the time, that they don't hate gays. And what's behind the spate of new restrictive abortion laws and the brouhaha over Catholic charities and insurance coverage for contraception? Concern for life and religious freedom, not hatred of women or opposition to contraception, since that's what they keep telling us.
If there's a reason American conservatism has utterly failed to broaden its appeal, certainly in the past thirty years, it has a lot to do with just how negatve and unappealing their pitch has been. There's been virtually nothing positive that conservatives have had to offer, nothing but anti-this and opposition to that. Immigration, in fact, is a perfectly sensible issue that really does need reform, but it's become a "social issue" about the Mexican border and a specific group of undocumented immigrants because... well, "anti-Hispanic" isn't attractive, either.
It's not surprising, really, that conservatives have drifted back into this corner; an actual election about economic injustice and issues like health care would have been an interesting discussion, especially if the right had something to offer groups of people - especially in the working class - who have really been shafted, left and right, over time. But of course, Republicans have nothing to offer on jobs, housing, financial reform, or health care. All they have is an intense dislike for President Obama and anything he's done on those issues.
I'm not sure Mitt Romney really does have anything to offer, but to his credit, he's studiously avoided reverting to the social issues morass unless heavily pushed; it's not really the Mormon way (Orrin Hatch is a good example of this), and it's not Romney's style to appeal to people's worse instincts. So perhaps it's understandable that the "not-Romneys" of the primary season have found themselves forced to resort to the basest appeals to the base.
Of all of them, though, I suspect the real turning point was South Carolina and Newt Gingrich's win; Gingrich really had nothing to offer except boilerplate rhetoric built on right wing talk radio bromides, the familiar litany of how things are terrible and liberals are to blame for it. It's Gingrich who, rather skillfully, re-introduced the sham issue of insurance coverage for contraception. And Gingrich offered the kind of rhetorical cover that conservatives need to revert to "social issues" as their driving force - we're not clased-minded bigots... we're decent people looking out for America, and the Constitution.
Of course, Gingrich himself is a twice divorced Catholic convert who would, literally, say just about anything to win an election, and the dissonance between who he is and what he says just got more pronounced as his prominence grew. Rick Santorum, on the other hand, doesn't have quite that problem. Unlike almost any of the other conservatives who got big and flamed out, Santorum doesn't have to go to some of the ugliest places to sell his fealty to "social issues"; he's already been there (remember "man on dog"?). And so Santorum pitches himself as the populist voice of the unheard working (white) man (and we do mean men), and all of the "social" issues are covered as well.
I don't know if Santorum can actually ride this wave all the way to the Republican nopmination; it would be frankly hilarious if he pulls it off, but we (and he) can't possibly be that lucky. It's telling, though, that Romney and his team are, yet again, flummoxed by Santorum's success. He's the one thing they don't quite have an argument against: a true believer who thinks moderation is for wimps.
Either way, an election that revolves around the angry right renewing its worst calls against gays, pushing familiar virgin/whore/mommy lines about women's roles in society, selling familiar prejudices about blacks and hispanics... is an election held on familiar ground that they really can't win. There's too many of us, too few of them, and too many like me who are tired of listening to carefully chosen words meant to mask really hateful ideas and prejudices. None of it makes President Obama a better President, but it certainly makes clear the starkness of the choice. Which is a much easier election than the one about those pesky problems with jobs and housing and health care and such.
Okay, I wouldn't usually go there with this, but the past 36 hours I've been having YouTube trouble (and it's related to having FireFox trouble, but I'm back to using Safari), and I didn't see this thing when I first tried to find it. This is totally NSF... well, everywhere, or anything, but definitely NSFW, I think. If I was still drinking beer, though, I think I'd have to at least go buy a six pack of theirs. Or something.