Thursday, February 22, 2007

THE SLIFR-THLRB OSCAR CLUB: Notes on the Once and Future Queen and The Last King of Scotland


What an experience! The things we must endure to properly write this Oscar symposium. I can't say I've ever encountered many drunks in moviehouses. But your mention of time spent in grindhouses reminds me that if you haven't, you've got to look at the trailer for the new Tarantino-Rodriguez Grindhouse coming out in April. (You bet I have!-- Ed.)It's got me hoping that they're going to pull it off this time, and not repeat the folly of Four Rooms. The scene of Rose McGowan as a tough chick with a prosthetic leg that doubles as a machine gun has already got me giddy with excitement. And the banner poster now in the multiplexes is so cool that I just stood there staring at it for a minute, and wondering if I could bribe the management to sell it to me right then.

But I digress. As far as memorable audience interaction with a movie, I do recall going to see Oliver Stone's The Doors and we were barely past the 30-second mark before I heard the familiar pop-top sound of beer cans opening and a certain pungent aroma wafting across the auditorium. Seems sort of fitting for the Lizard King.

Well, this is going to be a wide-ranging conversation, isn't it? As I write this, I'm listening to Bruce Springsteen's guitar notes floating over the top of Ennio Morricone's strings on a new version of the theme from Once Upon A Time In The West. (I sense your envy!) This new album, We All Love Ennio Morricone, on Sony Classical, is an odd tribute. It's going to take me some time to digest it, but all Morricone fans are going to want to download at least some of these tracks. Yes, the Celine Dion song is as pop-bland as you'd expect. And the liner notes are frustrating, since they don't tell you what films some of these new "songs" are from. But it's sounding pretty good. Quincy Jones and Herbie Hancock team up for an loungey-jazz version of "The Good, The Bad and The Ugly" that's okay (since I first fell in love and still love Hugo Montenegro's old version, I don't have any purist feelings about interpretations.) Metallica does a cool metal version of "The Ecstasy of Gold." And there's Renee Fleming, Andrea Bocelli, Roger Waters...and Deodato! Yes, Eumir Deodato. It's been years since I thought of his version of "Also Spake Zarathustra." One nice aspect of this disc is that each song is linked with about 0-20 seconds of new music conducted and written by Morricone to give the entire production the feeling of a suite. It's quirky, but I guess a tribute to Morricone should be. What a week for the Man, eh? But the Dion song still worries me about the quality of Sunday night's tribute. I have yet another dream: that the Oscars use all Morricone music for cues throughout the evening. Wouldn't you like to hear whipcracks and whistles and operatic shrieks as the winners come on stage?

Okay moving on. I better clarify some of my feelings on the Best Animated Film before fanboy commenters start railing against me. You're absolutely right that animated film doesn't have to be just for young children. Part of my problem is that my four-year-old is in that in-between age where some of these animated movies are not appropriate, where they might be in a few years. So, my reaction was in part coming from that perspective. And, yes, I do not like horror movies. But my problem with Monster House is quite frankly my same problem with The Incredibles: a splendid first half-hour or so that turns into a standard, run-of-the-mill action movie with outlandish stunts, only this time they're animated. I mean, really, a giant rampaging house tears up the neighborhood and not one parent bothers to peek out a window? (I know, another metaphor on the disconnect between parents and children.) I feel like Spielberg and Zemeckis are just throwing out an animated variation of The Goonies meets E.T. at Todd Browning's house while Tim Burton hides under the steps, and I've just seen it too many times. If they'd made this movie as a live-action feature, critics would be tearing it up as derivative. It's getting more of a pass because it's animated, in my opinion. But it's far from terrible: I love the name Nebbercracker. And the carpet as a tongue, the chandelier as a uvula. Clever. But once it becomes a standard chase-BOO! movie, it becomes just that, I'm afraid. It doesn't have the heart of Cars.
Since you got into this a little, let me tell you about my reaction to The Last King of Scotland. I didn't expect to like it at all, but figured I needed to see it so we could yak about it. But I became immersed in the storyline and especially Forest Whitaker's performance (more on that in a sec). Then, after I left the movie, I thought: Uh oh, I'm not being politically correct here. But I don't want to submit my reactions to a PC cinema committee (and I'm definitely not saying you feel that way, either.) For me, this movie worked overall, even though I thought the whole wrap-up of the doctor and Entebbe was a bit much, as was the unlikely secondary thread of the doctor having an affair with one of Amin's wives. And, in retrospect, it seems pretty nervy to tell the story through such a character as dense to the world around him as this doctor. I kept thinking: Is this true? Did Idi Amin really have this young, white dimwit doctor as his adviser? But the acting and the characters kept me involved is all I can say, and at least they had Amin address the "white man in Africa" situation a couple of times. It's probably not a movie I'd see again, but I thought the director Kevin McDonald had an engaging visual style that drew me into the film, and while it wasn't a documentary on Amin's victims, it was never really supposed to be. It was based on a novel, and it was supposed to be a look at the charismatic sway of Amin. In that sense, especially through Whitaker, I thought the movie achieved its modest aims.

Plus, honestly, the only person you'll remember from that film is Whitaker. I think it qualifies as a starring performance in effect, if not technically. You can sometimes see Whitaker turning on the acting switches, but he really captures the larger-than-life megalomania and the insecurity underneath Idi Amin's hearty exterior. As a study of that peculiar aspect of murderous thug dictators, it's endlessly fascinating and quite an exercise in acting. It's a volcanic, mesmerizing performance and I soaked it up. I just don't see how the Academy can possibly ignore Whitaker. I also think Whitaker was robbed years ago when he wasn't even nominated for his performance as Charlie Parker in Eastwood's Bird. Despite his limitations at giving coherent awards speeches, I like the guy. He moves from episodic TV to indie movies without an egotistical sense that one is better than the other, and he's also been a director of at least one notable film-- Waiting To Exhale. I think the Academy likes him and it's his year.

And, yes, I wanted to root for Peter O'Toole, just because this is probably his last shot, and I thought he did a fine job of gruff charm and roguish tenderness in Limelight, er, I mean Venus. Sorry for being the contrarian so much here. But it was one of those British movies that seem to be processed through the Miramax heartwarming machine, stiff upper lip division, which I don't care for much, and his performance was just a faint outline of the O'Toole of old. He should have won for Lawrence of Arabia, Becket and The Stunt Man. It's too bad in a way, because wouldn't you have liked to see two stars of Bob Guccione's Caligula win the Best Acting trophies on the same night?
Which is a perfect segue to Helen Mirren, who gave the greatest female acting performance of 2006. On TV. As Jane Tennison in Prime Suspect: The Final Act, she once again got under the skin of the British inspector who has given up so much of her life to her dogged determination to put criminals behind bars and now finds herself in a jail of alcoholic blackouts, pending retirement and deep regrets. It is such a masterful, modern performance of depth and shading, of darkness in shadow, that I can't imagine her ever giving a better one. She deserves an Oscar for that alone, if it were eligible. Alas, as the Brits say. You can sort of tell the writers/critics/bloggers are starting to get bored with Mirren's "lock" on the Academy Award for The Queen (as they are with Whitaker's and Scorsese's.) But I think she deserves the Oscar for this role. I have problems with the movie — it's not one of Stephen Frears' best, and I'm a fan of his — but Mirren completely disappeared into the part. I quickly forgot she was Helen Mirren, and that doesn't happen often. I liked the way she made Elizabeth sympathetic, how she was fighting her own sense of propriety and wartime-bred, old-school English reticence and therefore misread the changing mood of the country on Diana's death (though, how you could have misread all those banks of flowers is beyond me). Mirren really is a marvel of silent acting, with an expressiveness in her facial gestures and mannerisms that fits Elizabeth perfectly. And a bit of Mirren's old saucy wench persona peeks out of Elizabeth's stiff hairdo every once in awhile for flavoring. If it has to be a boring "lock," this is a good choice.

As far as the other nominees: Judi Dench was just doing Judi Dench to me, with a little evil thrown in. Liked the movie, but it seemed she was just playing the same frost queen she always plays. Didn't see Penelope, because I have an aversion to Almodovar that I swear I'm going to work on in 2007. I do believe Kate Winslet is one of the finest actresses of our time — smart, fearless in her choices, a sexy, riveting presence on screen. She will be getting her Oscar one of these years. She was the best thing about the absurdly overpraised very special episode of Desperate Housewives known as Little Children. We tend to undervalue quiet performances like Winslet's in Little Children — she made her mopey housewife who turns to adultery totally understandable and, without any flash, brought out the good and selfish sides of the character. The movie's ridiculous plot turns left her character high and dry but Winslet is what stands out about the movie. I also was intrigued by Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada, because she so underplayed the fashion magazine boss from hell, whispering her way through the role with authority. And, yes, I agree that the star was Anne Hathaway. Actually, Anne Hathaway's haircut and outfits. I think Streep got the nomination for the few scenes where she sat without makeup and let a bit of Miranda's human wounds show. Plus, the soliloquy on cerulean was classic. I think she might have given Mirren a run for it if she'd amped up her character a bit more. But Meryl has enough Oscars already, doesn't she? It's Helen's year — and, needless to say, Mirren will be quite an improvement over the last Helen who won this award.



Anonymous said...

Poor Peter O'Toole, the Susan Lucci of the Oscars. I thought he should have won for Lion in Winter, personally. Even My Favorite Year would have been a good time for him to get a "pity Oscar." Is he the first actor to get a nomination *after* his Lifetime Achievement award?

Dennis Cozzalio said...

I can't remember for sure, but I think the Academy gave Paul Newman his "put him out to pasture" award a year or so before they gave him his actual Oscar for The Color of Money. As far as Peter O'Toole goes, even Susan Lucci eventually won... You know what I mean? I'm getting an O'Tooley kind of feeling in the final hours here... (Don't ask me to describe "an O'Tooley kind of feeling." Please.)

Anonymous said...

"Don't ask me to describe "an O'Tooley kind of feeling." Please."

I can only guess it has to do with consuming a lot of Scotch. :-)

Anonymous said...

I thought that pic of O'Toole was Willem Dafoe for a few seconds.

I agree that Whitaker should get the Oscar for his performance, though I didn't like the movie much, especially upon discovering afterwards that the POV character was completely fictious.

Admittedly I was, like TLRHB, immersed in the story, but I was troubled that we were supposed to feel so horrified by the... "ordeal" of the final ten minutes, after not seeing a single Ugandan victim. Not for PC reasons; it just was so gruesome (the first movie ever to make me feel ill) that it seemed to be trading shock value for sympathy.

But at the same time I acknowledge the movie's strict adherence to the character's blinkered point of view (perversely the only reason I liked the Marie Antoinette movie). So it very effectively conveyed the doctor's shock at his sudden treatment -- it's just too bad he didn't exist, which I think undermines the scene's (if not movie's) potency.

It reminded me of the similarly over-the-top experience suffered by Robert Carlyle at the end of To End All Wars. It likewise felt completely gratuitous, only it had the legitimate excuse of having actually happened.

The 'Stache said...

Well, we've gone from Anonymous to Nobody. Progress! But I have to admit to being a little confused about Dr. Garrigan, the Scottish character played by James McAvoy. A recent interview with Idi Amin's son, who now lives in Uganda, indicated that he "knew" the doctor. But another story (Wikipedia) says the character is loosely based on a Bob Ackles, a white man who started Uganda's first airline and both worked for Amin and was imprisoned by him. Sounds like Garrigan was somewhat shaped on Ackles. Actually, the more I think of it, I really do think McAvoy has been sort of unjustly overlooked, much as Anne Hathaway was in favor of Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada. Whether you like his character or not, McAvoy really is the star of the movie, and I thought he did a good job. I found myself caught up in his relationship with Amin, and it's Amin's reactions to him that fuel the movie. The same with Streep and Hathaway.