RE: The opening volley
You had me at...a 28-inch pepperoni-sausage-and-mushroom pizza. (And I'm allergic to mushrooms!) But even with the delicious thought of a junk food pigout while watching emaciated actresses prowl the red carpet, I've been having conflicting thoughts about this year's Oscar-rama. At first, I told our blogging friend, Master A. Horbal, to lighten up and enjoy the glitz and glamour. It's silly, it's stupid, it's not to be taken seriously. But, of course, we do take it seriously. And as I think about what to say about the nominees, my overwhelming thought is: This is all I've got to work with?
I enjoyed many of this year's movies and performances but, quite frankly, I'm not sure that most of the movies or performances in this year's Oscars derby will be worth thinking about a second past the end of next Sunday's ceremony. And who is going to be talking about these films in five-10 years? I've got a sneaking suspicion that we may be talking about When The Levees Broke or Miami Vice or A Prairie Home Companion or Children of Men or Pan's Labyrinth a decade or so from now, or maybe even The Black Dahlia and Inland Empire. Think about it: It's only been a year and you never hear any conversation about Crash. Or Million-Dollar Baby. Or Chicago. Or Gladiator. Or A Beautiful Mind. And I think Babel, whether it wins or not, will suffer the same fate. These films may make the Academy feel ennobled or just feel good, but they don't linger in the mind.
Enough of the preamble. Let's start with the only interesting horse race of the evening: Clint or Marty? On a practical level, it's a lock for Scorsese after the DGA win. But I'm incredibly annoyed (and insulted for Scorsese) at the chatter that it's somehow a make-up award for past snubs. Martin Scorsese doesn't need your backhanded pity, folks. The Departed is a good, solid, genre entertainment, and the Academy doesn't recognize enough of them. And it's fitting that he should win it for a gangster movie, because that is where he had some of his first successes. This isn't a hoo-WAH! embarassment like Pacino winning for Scent of a Woman. People are going to be watching The Departed over and over again on DVD long after Babel is gathering dust on the Blockbuster shelves. I was shocked at how many people were in the theater after its post-Oscar nomination re-release. This is the kind of movie the Academy needs to acknowledge more often: They did it with The Silence of the Lambs and with Titanic, and I still think those are the two best choices the Academy has made in the previous decade or so.
As far as Clint, I truly believe Flags of our Fathers was a better movie than Letters from Iwo Jima. Don't get me wrong: They're both good movies. But I think the backstory of using the Iwo flag-raising as symbolism to raise money for the war effort and the devastating effect it had on all of the soldiers was just more involving and a story I hadn't seen before, especially in the present-day parallels that you can't help thinking about. (On a side note, Adam Beach's performance as Ira Hayes should not have been overlooked by the Academy.) As a feat of direction, Letters from Iwo Jima has many marvelous set pieces (the grenade scene is as harrowing as anything in Children of Men; the matter-of-fact shot of the flag on top of Suribachi is brilliant) and Ken Watanabe was TOTALLY SCREWED out of an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. But it's just too damn long and a bit too pokey. It has a nice message that we're all human on both sides of the conflict, and it's great to see it told from the other side, but that universal message is not particularly revelatory to me, and Eastwood doesn't give me any new shadings in the way he presents it. Basically, it's your standard war-film cliches (with subtitles): the common, noble grunts, the savage middle officers, the seeming hard-case who is really a coward and the sagacious commander who is loyal to his men and his cause but, alas, doomed. And don't try to desert, because you know what happens then. I love war movies, don't get me wrong, but this is just another one, when you come right down to it. And, Dennis, it just goes on and on and on.
On the other hand, The Departed is a marvel of energetic direction and pop storytelling. It's alive on the screen from the very beginning, with the shots of Boston's racial history and Nicholson's voice-over as he glides across the frame in shadows. Scorsese gets a helluva sparky script from William Monahan and amazing bench strength in the acting department (Matt Damon and Ray Winstone, always unfairly overlooked), and he knows what to do with them. He puts these elements together scene by scene in the service of his story, with the usual Scorsese flourishes of camera work, music (although a bit dated) and a joyous rhythm in its editing. This is a solid movie expertly constructed (much better than GoodFellas in my book) and that's why Scorsese deserves his Oscar for this film, not as a benediction for past glories. Granted, maybe it's an old man's gangster movie, like Eastwood's is an old man's war movie. But that's not necessarily a negative. He's not going to make Mean Streets again.
I also don't think Scorsese has been given enough credit for how he handled "the Nicholson situation." When Jack comes to play, ain't nobody gonna necessarily direct him. So, Scorsese had to figure out how to work Nicholson's surrealist dildo fantasies into the framework of the film, and he does it. Nicholson is never really convincing as a Boston hard-case (he looks more like a Hollywood bum), but he's eminently watchable, and Scorsese figures out how to make Nicholson float above the movie somewhat. Scorsese also works Nicholson's craziness into a believable scenario that helps him keep his goons loyal — and on edge. (I also liked the Witches of Eastwick on acid scene at the opera, with the cocaine orgy afterwards. Wasn't necessary, but it showed Scorsese bending the edges of the frame, looking for something different. I also thought the love scene set to Van the Man doing Pink Floyd was pretty sweet, too.) For me, "the DiCaprio situation" is still problematic, I never really believed him, or cared about his stress levels. But every time the film might drag just a bit, then Baldwin would start fucking your mother after Wahlberg fucked your father, and things would jump back on track. The film flits from fantasy to comedy to gripping drama and never loses its balance. The reason it never loses its balance: The director. Martin Scorsese. Who deserves the Oscar he will receive Sunday night.
But why do I get a feeling that you, my pal, the man with "Sergio Leone" in the title of your blog is not going for my Scorsese explanation? Explain yourself, please. Also, let's definitely talk Best Animated Film (Cars! Cars! Cars!) and Alan Arkin and Helen Mirren and Jackie Earle Haley and the head-scratching mystery that is Little Miss Sunshine, which for me is more mind-numbing than Babel because it had so much going for it and, in the immortal words of Peter Fonda in Easy Rider, blew it. And, yes, we must talk about Morricone. I've been listening to that two-disc Rhino anthology for days now, and it's amazing how fresh his best work still is. But he's also been phoning it in for a few decades now, and we ought to ruminate about that, too.
For Sergio and Don (ha!),
Monday, February 19, 2007