The viewing public is understandably nonplussed by ultra-serious Oscar fare at the moment, as the numbers suggest. It's been a wonky year, to be sure. A small number of big budget pictures were more distinctive in their own way than what ended up being cheered by the Academy. With the exception of Slumdog Millionaire and Milk, I'm sure, as I've stated previously, that the Best Picture nominees are not well-deserved. Pity the voters. One year it's overwhelmingly indie, the next, it's The Dark Knight and Synecdoche, NY. Maybe Hollywood needs to start going to the movies.
Harping on the choice of nominees would be its own way of suggesting the perverse canard that such was ever different. As usual, I approach the Oscars as a springboard from which unrecognized work can widen its exposure. Last year was some kind of reveling nihilist apotheosis. It'll be awhile before we see that again.
Stephen Daldry has at least accomplished, along with his resident screenwriter David Hare, a movie that this time around didn't assault me with its own self-pity. The Hours was absurd. Julianne Moore was its saving grace. The Reader does not deserve, however, the various assaults against it. I fail to see how it's fodder for Holocaust deniers, except in perhaps the most determined and circuitous ways. You'd have to want that conclusion, because, by my count, Winslet's character suffers greatly, paying for her crime and the crimes of several others.
We get a story of a person who went to work for the Nazis because she could find no other work, is turned into a scapegoat by a ravenous German mob eager to purge itself of its own sins of inaction (or terrible action, one assumes), suffers, loses her freedom, and regains her humanity for a few brief years. Surely the notion of people swept into a tyrannical system is also subject for meditation? I failed to see at any point how the film shirked the horror of the Holocaust, and am in fact relieved I didn't have to see yet another Oscar-Baiting film consumed with the subject. There's room for Shoah and The Reader, but besides, this film is slight. It is exactly what Oscar likes: Stately, slightly scandalous, and tailored for a conclusion we all see coming. It's a statue in search of a statue.
It's hard to say why anybody thought this would be a big draw. In terms of marketing, the studios were nuts from the start. Getting Ron Howard to direct a story that doesn't require the pacing of Apollo 13 is a strange choice, artistically, and deserved failure commercially. The whole story strikes me as, well, a possible other side of the coin to All The President's Men. So, why not get a filmmaker, say, Stephen Frears, who knows how a Peter Morgan scripts works inside and out? Still, it's not as if the choices here don't work in some way, and I can't fault the movie too much, it being certainly entertaining.
I only wonder if we needed the extra fireworks for an event we can all see on DVD from thirty years ago. Langella and Sheen are wonderful to watch and listen to, and I surely walked away enjoying Nixon's company. Strange thing to imagine, isn't it? Still, this movie is minor league compared to Altman's Secret Honor, with Philip Baker Hall as Tricky Dick, drunk off his ass, all by his lonesome. Nixon is a figure we can attach a number of qualities and depredations to, depending on our mood. I hasten to add that Morgan's script is great. To my mind, for all its skill, the movie never completely justifies itself.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Defensive title, yes? Curiouser and curiouser. Here's another flick that may not have justified itself (or its running time). The difference is that Button spends its entire length trying very hard to bring that premise to a close. It can't, but I'm getting the premonition I've seen something that will be embraced for many years. It's a fascinating conceit to witness, even if you're in agreement with Ebert, creeped out at something fundamentally wrong.
For all the lambasting of Eric Roth for Gumping his Button script, you can't fault him for working in some of the same ideas. The two movies do stand alone, YouTube be damned, and I only thought of Gump when it was most glaring. Eric Roth does wish-fulfillment. The Academy has an outside chance of giving this one Best Picture because (and this is not so limited to the famous) everybody wants to get younger. I was not bored, not for a moment. I don't know what the hell it's supposed to mean, but it is quite an absorbing movie.
Stop now. I don't want to hear it. It all occurred to me while watching it, and I just don't care. This is an exhilarating, rich and kick-ass moviegoing experience. It's a cheer your ass off crowd-pleaser. I know it's all sorted out from the start, and clearly driven by artifice (I say it COULD HAPPEN), and that Charles Dickens lives in Bollywood and you don't like that. But I won't hear it. We are all Slumdogs now. Just accept it. This movie seriously bypassed whatever cynicism I could possibly have about storytelling, coincidence, and if-it-were-in-a-movie-I-wouldn't-believe-it-isms. For once, I say that's a testament to how well it's made. If only the Academy were nominating Loveleen Tandan, Danny Boyle's Co-Director for India (which I assume means the lion's share of the movie, right?), I'd have no cynicism directed toward it at all. WHAT? I don't CARE if you think it romanticizes Bombay's terrible poverty JAI HO JAI HO JAI HO JAI HO JAI HO JAI HO JAI HO JAI HO JAI HO JAI HO
Sean Penn is magic, and I defy the Onion for saying it would've been more artful if it had been more like Van Sant's Last Days or Elephant. Those movies examine inexorable paths towards death. As we see, Harvey Milk knew he was on that path at a certain point, but Milk is a celebration of total life. It's a great American film.