Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

2006 Film Round-Up, Part 1: The Oscars and the Year in Review

The Oscars telecast is at least two shows in one. The first show is entertainment, a television program where you can cheer your favorites, boo their rivals, remark on who’s looking great and make catty remarks about this year’s fashion wrecks. (“How can a woman that attractive be made to look that unappealing?”) For most viewers, it’s a mix of love and love-to-hate. The second show is about the nominations and winners of the awards. Of course these two shows overlap, but this year the division really struck me because the show was far too long and felt more bloated than usual, but I was ecstatic about several of the wins, so I really didn’t mind. Plus, if you’ve got a good group of like-minded folks, the mix is all part of the fun (and the Oscar drinking game worked well at the party I attended). I was happy to see one of my all-time favorite film composers, Ennio Morricone, honored with a special Oscar. Still, this was a great Oscar year because Scorsese finally won and Dreamgirls didn’t win Best Picture. (Dreamgirls is good but not great, and earned many nominations, but not Best Picture, despite the marketing blitz. The Departed isn’t Goodfellas or Raging Bull, but it’s an engaging and fun movie, and poor Scorsese shouldn’t always have to compete against himself!)

I was disappointed in DeGeneres. I’ve heard her deliver some great stand-up material in the past, and felt she played it way too safe. I want the host to make me laugh, not try to start a feel-good love fest. She did have some inspired moments, especially dropping off a script with Martin Scorsese and getting Steven Spielberg to take a photo of her with Clint Eastwood. Other than that — not so much, with no zingers out of the gate, the prime opportunity to do an actual set.

While some critics complain about the length of the award speeches, they weren’t that bad this year, and anyway, that’s not the thing that makes the ceremony feel so long. I do wish more people tried to be witty and entertaining. A backstage “thank you” cam for the winners was an inspired idea, to allow them to thank everyone on video while keeping the on-stage segment short. Still, I always feel bad for that second or third winner who doesn’t get to speak. For the Emmys, there’s a pre-decided speaker, and I wonder if the Oscars will formally move to this system. Personally, I’d like to have them have a set time that would be multiplied by the number of speakers, or have a slightly expanded time for multiple speakers, or a light that goes off when the first speaker’s time is up, or something. This will be a highlight in many recipients’ lives, and I hate to see anyone get stiffed.

Richard Roeper’s a decent critic, but he both plays up being an ass and just is one on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno for the annual Oscar wrap-up. He’s probably trying for cutting wit, but comes off as just snide and superior. This year, Roeper was ragging on spending any time on the “smaller” awards, and urged to eliminate them. Again, that’s not what takes the most time, and some of us give a great big damn about those. (Those who are nominated and those who win certainly do!) It’s bad enough some critics don’t consider the screenwriting categories "major," forming an essential part of "the big eight." (And good lord, as if actors don’t have large enough egos as it is!) My sound teacher used to say that back in his era, especially when the studio system was still intact, the greatest artists in movie-making were the soundies. Granted, there’s departmental pride there, but once you listen to some of their work, and learn how much effort went into it, you’ll hear his point (the work is easier now in the digital era, but it still takes skill, art and dedication). Cinematographers, editors and production designers give us the look and pacing of films. Together with the sound department, they’re often doing their job best when they’re not noticed. They deserve their brief prominent recognition versus being cast in the backroom. Similarly, the three short categories are a great testing ground as well as art forms in their own right, but the problem has been that so few people see the entries. Thanks to the internet, that’s changing. The issue is bringing more of the audience in, and that would be a wise commercial move by the Academy. If the audience can watch the shorts, or even vote on them non-officially, they’ll be much more invested.

What makes the show drag are commercials (not that that’ll ever change) and the special segments. I thought the Pilobolus silhouette segments were cool, as did the majority of folks at the Oscar party I attended, and they were quick. The sound effects chorus was also educational and entertaining. Al Gore had a funny bit. But the Will Ferrell-Jack Black musical number went on too long, and could have been trimmed or cut altogether. And then there’s the perennial montages.

The foreign language Oscar winner montage was a good idea, but I found it frustratingly hard to follow — and I’ve seen most of the films! While the cross-cuts from kiss to kiss was kinda cool, the montage should have proceeded chronologically, labeled clearly by year, or at least by country or even filmmaker. The entire point of the montage was to sell movies. It’s to introduce some great films to new audiences, or to show film buffs a clip of a film they’ve missed. Each segment should have been a mini-trailer, something to sell the film. Keeping it tight would be a challenge regardless, but when you have several films from Bergman, Fellini, Kurosawa and countless other gems to work with, how can you produce something that disjointed? Meanwhile, while Michael Mann’s a talented director, what the hell was up with his montage?

Other than that — Scorsese made it all wonderful, but most every other winner was very deserving. Helen Mirren's win was predictable but great, and veteran Alan Arkin was a nice win in a small upset. I was torn over Forest Whitaker versus Peter O’Toole, both turning in great performances in less brilliant films. Whitaker's role was flashier, but he was certainly deserving, and since O’Toole has a special Oscar already, I wasn’t upset (although O’Toole was clearly deflated). Jennifer Hudson was good in the enjoyable Dreamgirls, but Cate Blanchett was much better (although she already has an Oscar), as were Babel’s Rinko Kikuchi and Adriana Barraza. But Hudson's win was certainly defensible and no travesty. In acting, Brits and African-Americans continue to dominate. This was the most diverse year yet, but the diversity of nominees and winners isn’t really a groundbreaking issue anymore. That’s a great sign. As for other awards, as wonderful as Pan’s Labyrinth is, The Lives of Others is powerful, intelligent, and moving. As is normally the case, the screenplay nominations were good, and both winners were worthy. I was a bit disappointed that in Cinematography, Emmanuel Lubezki's daring, difficult and extraordinary camerawork in Children of Men lost, but Guillermo Navarro's winning work in Pan's Labyrinth is poetic and remarkable, so it's a matter of apples and oranges and hard to fault too much. The bigger issue is that Children of Men is a bleak but fantastic film that did not get as much support as it should have. Meanwhile, it's exciting that Pan's Labyrinth won three Oscars and seemed to have found an audience.

On this subject, as many have noted, this was the year of the Mexican filmmaker, with Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men), Guillermo del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth) and Alejandro González Iñárritu (Babel) all directing major, well-received films. All friends and in their forties, one of them remarked that in a sense, accidentally, they had released a set of films together that covered the past, present and future. Their energy, creativity and artistry is most welcome (or even needed). Keep 'em coming!

2006 also saw several good child actor performances, particularly Abigail Breslin in Little Miss Sunshine, Ivana Baquero in Pan's Labyrinth, and Jade Pinkett Smith in The Pursuit of Happyness. Breslin and Smith were also more smooth award presenters than many adults! (Breslin, all of ten years old, also gets style points for bringing a stuffed Curious George to all her award ceremonies.)

There were some weird coincidences in releases (although not as weird as the rash of films featuring cannibalism in the early 90s). What are the odds that two films would come out featuring magicians at the turn-of-the-century? What are the odds that Hugh Jackman and Scarlett Johansson would appear in one of them, and then also appear together in Woody Allen’s contemporary Scoop, which deals with... magicians? (I missed Scoop, which I suspect is not one of Allen’s best, but when I saw the trailer for The Prestige, the casting threw me momentarily.)

As for movie-going, everyone likely knows the big issue of the year: Cell phones, and the general poor state of audience courtesy. I love seeing movies in theaters, but I’ve lost count of how many critics, friends, and strangers I’ve heard remark on this issue in some form. Many people just don’t like going to the movies much anymore, for this reason. Nice home set-ups and Netflix are another cause, but why go the trouble of leaving the house and spending more money if it’s going to be a compromised or unpleasant experience?

I attended a film conference years ago when someone presented a great paper about similar issues back in the fifties, and it’s wise to remember the 'Decline of Western Civilization' and the inattentiveness of young adults have been bemoaned since at least Socrates’ time. Back in the fifties, the key outrage was teenagers making out in the back row. However, the big issue was people treating a public space as a personal space. That’s what’s hasn’t changed, but the new technology’s made it worse, and I do think the attitudes have grown worse. Young curmudgeon though I may be, I should make clear I don’t mind teenagers making out in the back row (as long as they’re not loud), I don’t mind people whispering to each other once in a while, and I can even deal with the occasional muttering or hearing-impaired elderly person asking whether all the people lying on the ground at the end of the battle are sleeping (I’m not making that up). I expect a film like Borat or Pirates of the Caribbean on opening weekend to have a raucous crowd, as I do for something like Spinal Tap on a college campus. That’s part of the fun. What seems rude to me is constantly checking one’s neon-bright PDA, or talking full volume and throughout a film. I had two of my worst film-going experiences in 2006 due to these factors, and the trend does trouble me. In one case, the PDA guy started yelling at the guy who dared to ask him to stop, and then yelled again at film’s end, the better to prove his masculinity and his right to do whatever the hell he wants. In the case of the talkers, it was constant and their response to the most polite requests to be quiet was an aghast “We’re not even talking that loud.” Granted, since the film was The Fountain, I wouldn’t begrudge a little “What the hell is going on?” chatter. But this was from the get-go, and not even about the film. Alas, even with a refund, or a refund and a free ticket, you’ve lost time. Unfortunately, the audience members who treat movie theaters as their private living rooms aren’t the ones watching their movies only at home. While great home theaters and services such as Netflix will continue to fuel home viewing, sadly, the other factor for the decline in movie attendance is rudeness. (And I would have enjoyed the movie, too, if it weren’t for these damn kids and their dog!)

In any case, on with the films. I’ve tried to avoid spoilers, and to include notices in bold about spoilers and slight spoilers (where a significant plot point is revealed). If you’d know it watching the trailer, I haven’t held back, but if in doubt, don’t read it.

(Also, if you're a fan of great cinematography or Ingmar Bergman, check out this earlier post, sampling Sven Nykvist's work. Nykvist, one of the all-time greats in the field, died last year after a long, fruitful career.

And speaking of soundies, here’s a fun NPR piece on foley artists, and a great 2003 NPR piece on the sound effects editing for Master and Commander.)

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