Monday, February 19, 2007


To: Dennis
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!),


Anonymous said...

TLRHB: We might be talking about "The Black Dahlia" 10 years from now? Mightn't we?

I thought I recalled you replying to Dennis' snub of De Palma's film here on this blog with a hearty "Oh, thank God!"

So what gives? Why do you think "we" might talking about a movie that you and Dennis both dimissed as overripe and lacking in focus, a botched attempt a supposedly easy commercial "winner" for De Palma, who you concluded (didn't you?) had blown it big time by never getting a handle on the source material?

Maybe you meant we'd be talking about how great a failure "Dahlia" was in 10 years' time?

Anonymous said...

That was a nasty little comment, wasn't it? If I sound like a frustrated "Dahlia" partisan (in the "pro" camp) who senses the slightest inkling of reconsideratin on your part, well, that's what I am, and what I'm hoping for.

I have to admit that, watching the film for a second time last week, this time on a 27-inch TV screen, I didn't have nearly the experience with the film that I had when I was immersed by Zsigmond's brilliant visuals on a huge movie screen. So maybe it's not you, but *me*, who's reconsidering ... except I'm not, really. I still like the film. But I'm more open to its weaknesses on second viewing, even while hoping that the things I like about it -- and there are many -- keep me returning to it.

Ten years from now, who knows what I'll think of the film?

The 'Stache said...

Christian — in the immortal words of Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca: "I was misinformed." Here's what happened: A while back on my blog, I admitted that a second viewing of Dahlia on DVD made the film much better for me, mostly as a visual experience. It still wasn't perfect, but I saw how it fit into the De Palma continuum and I enjoyed it more. What can I say? I reserve the right to change my mind. I also noted that I might need to see some films twice before trashing them. Can't make any promises on that one, though.

Anonymous said...

You're a bigger man than I, TLRHB! Thanks for the gracious response, and for exposing the fact that, following the De Palma blogathon, I haven't kept up with your blog. My bad. I have bookmarked Dennis' site, and Matt Zoller Seitz's site, and of course, I ought to bookmark yours as well, so I won't spout off like a nutcase.

It's great to hear that someone who knows so much about De Palma's work would see "Dahlia" as worthy of re-examination. I'm encouraged anew that my own second viewing experience isn't determinative, and that "Dahlia" is a film I'll need to come back to.

Now if I could just get and you ad Dennis to see "Babel" for the amazing accomplishment it is. :)

Seriously, I find myself frustrated by the repeated comparisons I keep reading between "Babel," a film of huge ambition and scale, to "Crash," which despite a few interesting ideas and performances, is the dud that every film writer I admire says it is.

But dangit, until I see "Babel" a second time, I can't justify my own reaction, which was one of being emotionally overwhelmed. And in that, I felt not manipulated, not cheated, not insulted. No, I felt ... grateful. The film was an emotional workout, but it felt earned, it felt honest, it felt real.

One thing that hasn't been much discussed about "Babel" is how it benefits from the "Three Amigos" scenario. "Pan's Labyrinth," arguably a superior film to "Babel," didn't get a Best Picture nod, nor did the widely admired "Children of Men" (about which I was a little less enthusiastic). All three films are major achievements in different ways, and I think a vote for "Babel" may, at least in some cases, be a vote for this trio of films. These Mexican filmmakers are *the* film story of 2006, and "Babel" is the biggest beneficiary of the building love for these guys.

Am I wrong?

The 'Stache said...

A vote for Babel is somehow a vote for the other two filmmakers? Possible. It doesn't sound likely to me, though. There are opportunities to reward Pan's Labyrinth and Children of Men in other Oscar categories. Maybe Dennis has some thoughts on that...

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Sorry for coming in late. Filthy, hungry children just won't wait...!

Personally, other than the fact that the three filmmakers are from the same country and are friends, I think a bit too much is being made of the Three Amigos scenario, at least in terms of what one movie does to illuminate the other. It's great that the spotlight is being thrown on a national film industry that hasn't traditionally drawn much respect, or even awareness, from the American film market. But I tend to think that a vote for Babel is a vote for Babel. I do think, as TLRHB suggests, that the other two movies will have opportunities to be rewarded, and I actually think each will be.

I wanted to chuck in my two cents vis-a-vis The Black Dahlia too. In addition to each being Brian De Palma films, what do Phantom of the Paradise, Dressed to Kill, Blow Out, Raising Cain, Carlito's Way and Mission to Mars have in common? Well, they are all Brian De Palma films that I was either lukewarm to or out-and-out misunderstood upon the first viewing, only to have the second viewing (theatrically or on DVD) reveal somthing new or shocking to me that made me reassess my feelings about it. The most radical example of the bunch would have to be Dressed to Kill, which I dismissed as a callow Hitchcock knock-off in 1980. It only took one more screening to convince me I must have been extremely cranky the night I saw it. And now, in 2007, I consider it an unqualified masterpiece. Now, Obsession, The Fury, Home Movies, The Bonfire of the Vanities and most emphatically Scarface are all De Palma movies that have not improved for me, no matter how many times I've seen them. So who knows how The Black Dahlia will go a little further down the track? One thing's for sure: With De Palma, it's always going to be fun finding out.

One last thing: Have either of you seen the new newspaper ads for Babel? Christian, as an admirer of the film, do these ads in any way reflect your experience with the movie? I'm not only talking about the ubiquitous "No Film Moved You More" statement-- if I was moved, I need to be reminded of it? I'm talking more about this new ad running the long quote from Newsweek's Sean Smith. It goes a little something like this:

"Every year I have a moment, sitting in a screening, when I REALIZE I'M WATCHING THE MOVIE THAT'S GOING TO WIN THE OSCAR FOR BEST PICTURE. I then spend the ensuing months second-guessing myself as critics enumerate the film's flaws, and pundits elaborate on why it can't possibly win. Even if the film becomes the front-runner, I talk myself out of my initial reaction. And then, almost always, it wins. The reason I think Babel will win Best Picture has nothing to do with what I think about it at all. It's because watching Babel, I felt the same rush I had watching American Beauty, Shakespeare In Love and Million Dollar Baby. I can't rationalize it. I can't quantify it. I can barely explain it. All I can tell you is that, as sappy as it sounds, those films-- and THIS FILM-- MADE ME FEEL AS IF MY HEART HAD EXPANDED."

(Bold and caps are not, incredibly, mine, but exactly as they appear in the ad.)

Maybe this is only running in L.A., where Paramount Classics figures this might actually translate into something-- what, at this late hour, when the voting is over, I don't know. But aside from what this blurb tells us about how Mr. Smith bobs on the waves of public and critical opinion, or about his skills as a prognosticator (nobody I know of has ever claimed they knew that Shakespeare In Love was going to win Best Picture, especially after having just seen it), does anyone smell a whiff of desperation about this? How about reaction against a last-minute Babel backlash? How about just flat-out embarrassment?

Anonymous said...

Dennis, I'm glad you mentioned Smith's blurb, which I'd seen in shortened form in the newspaper ad for "Babel" weeks before I caught up with the film. So, first off, I don't think it's *primarily* a late gambit to influence Oscar voters (although it is that, in some sense) but has been used in the "Babel" ad for some time now, even before Golden Globe nominations were announced, I think.

Anyway, what I had posted about that quote elsewhere was how I agreed with its bottom line in regard to "Babel," but was extremely uncomfortable in so doing. Why? Because my reactions to the other three films Smith mentions run from "it was clever, but I don't care if ever see it again" ("Shakespeare in Love") to "I despised it" (both "American Beauty" and "Million Dollar Baby," although the latter is superior to the former).

So, in this instance, I reluctantly count Smith as a "Babel" co-belligerent, embracing the idea that even a stopped watch is right twice a day. Something like that.

herecreepwretch said...


After seeing Letters from Iwo Jima exalted in so many top ten lists at the end of the year, I was wondering if everyone had seen a different movie from the one that arrived here in Tucson last month. Then I read this post and was assured: I'm not crazy (or at least that crazy...)

I also don't understand what I perceive as the cinephile backlash against The Departed. I find all your comments on this one right on as well. I didn't see it until the re-release last month, but I have to say that I didn't find Jack's performance as distracting or disruptive as I was led to believe it would be. But maybe that's just because nothing could really live up to all the invective that was heaped upon it.

Great post. Great discussion.

The 'Stache said...

Thanks. I don't dislike Iwo Jima at all. I just woudn't pickit over The Departed.