Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Midnight in the Tree of Life with Hugo the Artist and His Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close Descendants. Get the Help, We're Being Moneyballed!

And the Academy Award nominations are now out.

Not a lot of refined commentary from me about them as my opinions regarding the influences behind, and thus the merits of, the Oscars have declined sharply over the past decade or so. (The year Crash took "Best Picture" I didn't just throw in the towel, I set it afire and salted the ashes with uranium isotopes.)

However, albeit unasked for and risking my Good Guy rep by joining the movie-centric blogosphere's pathological drive toward attitudinal carping, here are some random thoughts as I look at that page.

Overall, what a tepid bunch of Best Picture choices. With the exception of The Tree of Life — the obligatory film tossed for public "it's art!" cred — there's not a truly interesting pick there. Some good movies, yes, even a very good movie or three. But not much that makes you sit up and go, "Oh, that's a choice that inspires confidence in the process!" Not a surprise, really, although I'm ever hopeful for more actual surprises to poke the inevitable obviousness, to zazz up the annual lassitude, to bring some disruptive interestingness to the repetitive parade. Instead, here's the final confirmation that 2011 won't be a year that looms large in my movie memory.

PREDICTION #1: The most entertaining thing about Oscar night will be Patton Oswalt's Twitter feed.

Speaking of interesting: Melancholia ... ?... Paging Melancholia ... I'm not certain that it's a "great" film, or even a good one in some godlike objective sense, but I am certain that it was one of the few films in 2011 that left me with some lasting impressions. It's not in any category at all and yet Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close made it to the Big 10? What the? Kirsten Dunst? Lars Von Trier? Not even just to class up the joint a bit more? To see if Von Trier will joke about Nazis again? No? Harrumph.

Probably just as well. Nooses would have to drop from the Kodak Theatre's chandeliers after Melancholia's interpretive dance number.

And Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close squeaked onto the expanded "Best" 10 list but Drive could not? Yes, I know: a "heartwarming" "issue" movie vs. a summer genre action entry. But as summer genre action numbers go, Drive rose above old stale formulas while Extremely Loud used them like Velveeta on mac & cheese.

No Tilda Swinton? Michael Fassbender? Shailene Woodley? Ryan Gosling? Albert Brooks? Vera Farmiga (for as either director or actor in Higher Ground)? Charlize Theron and/or Patton Oswalt for Young Adult? When was the last time an Oscar ceremony was better defined by who and what didn't get nominated? (Okay, easy answer: most of them for the past 20 years.)

Oh, I'd love to witness Albert Brooks' acceptance speech that magically manages to say "Thank you" and "Fuck you" without using any of those words.

Of course The Artist is there, given the confetti-cannon reception it has received and especially given Hollywood's penchant for both nostalgia-fantasy and licking its own nipples. I'm still lukewarm on it despite my sincere desire to be otherwise.

Likewise Midnight in Paris. I found both films enjoyable and charming in the moment, but neither is a movie that we'll be talking much about in ten years. Or five. Two? (That said, I'm such a lifelong fan of Good Woody that I have Midnight in Paris on Blu-ray. So, yes, I will be watching it again when the mood strikes as I know it will. Just call me full of wacky contradictions.)

And really, The Artist is also up for "Music (Original Score)"? Shame.

PREDICTION #2: The entire ceremony will be scored to Bernard Herrmann's "Scene D'Amour" from Vertigo. Kim Novak will strangle Billy Crystal with a rape whistle.

Speaking of Shame, I'm not upset that that movie is nowhere in sight, although one of my drinking game cues will be whenever a camera zooms in on Carey Mulligan.

I assumed Midnight in Paris would get a nom for Cinematography. Wait — it did for Art Direction. Okay, that's what I meant.

The Tree of Life gave me the most surprising and sincere positive emotional moments I experienced in a theater this last year. I think it's a remarkable piece of work, one that demonstrates film's equivalent of abstract expressionism, and the closest I'll ever get to being in an audience in 1968 that's alternately enthralled and perplexed by 2001: A Space Odyssey. It moved me in some subliminal ways that left me quietly observing, "Whoa. Where did that feeling come from?" And I love when a movie does that to me. 

But I'm still not settled on what I think of it as a whole, especially Sean Penn's part of it. I will see it again, and I'm just pleased that we had a film that bears rewatching through different lenses. Right now I agree with Christopher Plummer, who worked with Terence Malick on The New World — Malick could use the hands-on objective wisdom of a first-rate collaborator, a fully tuned-in screenwriter other than just himself. Someone whispering into his ear now and then. That opinion might change after subsequent viewings.

The Tree of Life is also there for Cinematography and Directing. I'd like to see it take at least one of those, followed by studios banking more on Malick so he makes more movies more often. But it's not up for Editing? Huh.

I wish mightily that Jessica Chastain had been nominated for that one rather than The Help. Pleased that she had such a good year, though.

You already know my love for Hugo. Whether it's "the best" or not is beside the point, as it should be.

Elizabeth and I saw Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy with Gary Oldman in attendance. He gave a warm Q&A afterward. I remember more about the Q&A than I do about his performance. That pretty much means he nailed George Smiley, doesn't it?

I smile and nod to see both Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo there for The Artist, though it was Bejo who made the bigger impression on me. Whether or not either wins, this probably means we'll see a lot more of both of them in the future and that's okay by me. I still think they (with Uggie the Dog) should take over the leads in the talked-out remake of The Thin Man.

Christopher Plummer vs. Max von Sydow: Glad to see the 20th century representin'. I love that it's 2012 and we have Rudyard Kipling from The Man Who Would be King up against the chess-playing medieval knight from The Seventh Seal. And neither has won Old Goldie before. It's Plummer's in a walk and hooray for that.

And yet, if that statue goes the other way, would the great von Sydow really want to cap his long, august career by finally winning an Oscar for a movie as aggressively ordinary as Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and as hackneyed as his role in it? It would be like finally giving one to Peter O'Toole for Thomas Kinkade's Christmas Cottage.

At the risk of being seen as a humorless contrarian shit (I'm only one of those three things), I'm relieved that Bridesmaids didn't make it to the final list. I am, though, tickled indeed that Melissa McCarthy did for Best Supporting Actress. My fondness for funny women is an eternal life-giving flame within me, so I enjoyed Bridesmaids. I LOL'ed, mainly because I loved Bridesmaids' cast — as I do in their individual work elsewhere too — particularly McCarthy and the supremely likable Kristen Wiig. (Oh, if only Kristen Schaal were there with them!)

But that screenplay really put me off with its achingly trite romance-paperback throughline between Wiig's character and Chris O'Dowd's banal stock love interest. It felt so false, so jackhammered in by some studio committee barely visible behind their tired old assumptions. It tainted the better stuff around it like a thin layer of old anchovies baked into the center of a fine spice cake. As far as I'm concerned, if O'Dowd's character and the romance subplot had been removed after the first draft — or, more realistically: if the rom-com angle had been approached from a fresher vector — the whole final movie would have been (for me) stronger, more memorable, and more in keeping with the "see, women can be raunch-funny too!" plaudits Bridemaids has received. But as it is, that part wrecks the "Girl Power!" vibe Bridesmaids' PR seeks to generate.

Wiig has said in interviews that she worked on the script for four and a half years. Billy Mernit, story analyst at Universal and convivial blogger, has said that he spent over three years giving notes on some eleven drafts of the project. Although some of the gags onscreen developed through improvs from the talented cast, and Apatow is known for his avoidance of studio notes, Bridesmaids felt like a product run through the Quisinart too many times by too many cooks.

It's likely that I'll feel better about it when I watch it a second time, which I surely will because I do like Wiig and her castmates so much. (Actually, that touches on why I'm not a "movie critic" and didn't wholesale enjoy it back when I occasionally was. With every passing year I'm more distrustful of absolutism, even my own.)

Oh, look. Bridesmaids is also up for Writing (Original Screenplay). Well, it is nonetheless heartening to see first-timers Annie Mumolo and Kristen Wiig on the list. I'm pleased that they're now on bigger radars as I'm looking forward to seeing more from them.

You don't have to see War Horse (I haven't) to know that it's the sort of emotive contrivance precision engineered like the President of Switzerland's watch to appear on this list. It'll be forgotten within 24 hours of the ceremony.

Ditto The Help, this year's The Blind Side.

I was dead certain that Contagion would place a contender in the Best Performance by a Virulent Mutant Bat-Pig Pathogen category. And the guy who said that single line after sticking his fingers in Gwyneth Paltrow's brain, where is he?

But seriously, folks — I was pleasantly surprised by the way Contagion's screenplay subverted its audience's long-conditioned expectations and found a narrative structure other than the over-familiar three- or five-act formula. Really, I think about things like that.

Iran's A Separation made it to the Foreign Language Film category. That may be my favorite inclusion of the whole bunch. Israel is in the same category for Footnote. I'm just naively romantic enough to fantasize about neocon wetdreams being dashed by the directors' handshake backstage.

Loved Rango both times I saw it. Need to see A Cat in Paris and Chico & Rita ASAP.

Puss in Boots? Only if strapped to a chair like Alex in A Clockwork Orange.

After what I've read about it, I'm unexpectedly interested in seeing Pina.

And all those shorts. Thank you, Scarecrow Video and all the new streaming movie sources that I added to my big-screen TV in 2011.

PREDICTION #3: Throughout the ceremony, for the third straight year the sexiest couple will be George Clooney and his tuxedo. Although Kristen Wiig with Melissa McCarthy after a few drinks at the after-party might just take the glory.