Monday, February 26, 2007

Inside the Mind of an Academy Member

I had hoped to do a different kind of Academy Awards preview this weekend by asking a longtime friend/film editor/Academy member give the blog a little write-up on who he was voting for. Unfortunately, e-mail issues prevented me from getting this to you until now. My friend seems to have reverted back to his old APA-writing days and has given me a rundown not only of the Awards but every film he saw in 2006, which is fine, actually, because he always makes his point very well and is a wonderful writer. So here it is, every word of it, with the names removed in order to protect the innocent (and not get anyone in trouble). Enjoy!

So… here’s the secret about the Motion Picture Academy (officially, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences). Let me warn you, it’s a big one, so keep it to yourselves.

The secret is this – we don’t know any more than you do.

I’m in the Academy, and have been ever since a famous film composer and a well-known music editor signed my application form and sponsored my entrance into the Music Branch. The benefits of membership are mostly bragging rights, though every Saturday and Sunday they have screenings of just-released films at their fantastic screening facilities (for some reason, we almost never see a film before it comes out) and I get to sit among my peers and watch. I like it there because of those peers – it’s the only location, outside of Miami Beach bingo parlors, that makes me feel young.

After the movie is over, we all walk out to our cars and talk about the film we’ve just seen. And it feels just like anyone else talking. The same movie that engenders praise from one person will be derided by others, often in completely incoherent manner (“Uh… I don’t know. It seemed boring to me.”). We think we know more than The Average Person (we call them “civilians”) but there is never any consensus on anything. When I finished watching DREAMGIRLS, I heard people who said “I HATE movies like that” as well as those who felt uplifted and wanted to see it again. I fell closer to the first category (more on that later) but many of the viewers were no more articulate about what they liked and didn’t like than the crowd leaving the film at your local 20-plex.

We see ‘em and we like ‘em,or we don’t. It’s that simple.

That being said, HQ10 has asked me to talk about the Oscar races this year and, in doing that, talk about the films. I’m going to do more film talking than Oscar handicapping and, as is my wont, I’m going to discuss my reactions to the films in categories. These are my own personal categories, and there are four of them in:

1) Great and I’d Love To See Them Again,
2) Good – Flawed but Worth The Spent,
3) Fair – Please Make Sure I Don’t See These On Cable or Anywhere Ever Again, and
4) Poor – Excruciating, Puzzling and Downright Maddening All Wrapped Up In One.

This makes more sense to me than ratings or abstract criticism, and certainly more sense than predicting who’s going to win what at the awards this year. You can compare my notes to the actual winners, if you’d like but, frankly, I can’t think of why you’d want to engage in that futile exercise. I’m going to be miles off. I always am. I must like it that way.

Great and I’d Love to See Them Again
Oddly (and rarely) enough, most of the films that I considered great this year, ended up on the Oscar ballot, though not always in the categories that I felt they deserved. A criminal number of them were shoved into the Foreign Film category, guaranteeing that most of them will not win. However, for once, I feel One With The People (or, at least, the Academy People)

BABEL – As an editor, I can tell you that juggling this many stories in one film is fraught with peril. This film juggled most of those dangers very well, and though the Brad Pitt/Cate Blanchett plotline tended to be the weakest of the threads, it never brought the entire film down. As an aside, if you’d like to see a more masterful juggling act, I’d take at Alejandro González Iñárritu’s last film – 21 GRAMS. This one didn’t quite measure up to that high bar. For once, though, the Academy got it right – the two nominations for Best Supporting Actress were the right two women to get the nod. They really made you FEEL their stories and never for one minute did I feel they were “performing.” And, if it weren’t for the indominitable Thelma Schoonmaker, I’d go for Stephen Mirrione and Douglas Crise’s editing work on this one in a heartbeat.

BORAT – It was completely predictable that this film, one of the funniest, most astute films of the year, would be given an award – just not one that would require the Academy to acknowledge that there were actual performances in the film. Editing a documentary is much harder than putting together a scripted film, since you’re writing as you’re shooting and editing. This one looks like a happy combination of the two.

CHILDREN OF MEN – I don’t know why I was surprised how great this film was. Alfonso Cuaron is one of the most varied and interesting filmmakers working today. Still, the story about a future world in which women can no longer conceive, seemed rather slight when I first heard about it, so I kept on forgetting to see it. When I finally did, I was entranced by Clive Owen’s portrayal of a man who has lost more than he can comprehend. This character then took us on a tour of a world gone mad. It was inevitable that this film would be nominated for its cinematography. Its moody color palette and several complex, lengthy shots, obviously impressed the cinematographers (every craft nominates only within its own category only – it really IS true that a nomination means a lot to those nominated). What is wonderfully surprising is how the film’s editing and screenplay rose to the top as well.

THE DEPARTED – I know, I know. Scorsese has never won an Oscar and this is his year. That’s what I heard two years ago, when he was nominated for THE AVIATOR. The difference this time, is that THE DEPARTED is a good film – riveting, full of nuanced performances, great writing and top-of-the-line craft work. I’d have no regrets voting for this film and its overall creator. It’s Scorsese at the top of his game again.

LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE – You know, there’s virtually nothing that I can add to the discussion about this wonderfully funny little film. You’ve heard it all – low(er) budget, Sundance darling, two directors and a great cast. Fox Searchlight did an incredible job pushing the film in front of Academy members and I’m glad they did – it’s a film that deserves every accolade it can get. It’s just not fantastic enough to score my vote for best picture. Alan Arkin was tremendous in his role as the irascible grandfather in this completely dysfunctional family driving to a beauty pageant for those ugly duckling daughter (though so was Jackie Earle Haley and the rest of that strong category’s nominees), the screenplay was well crafted and avoided all of the clichés that it could have fallen into. That having been said, I’m not taking Abigail Breslin’s nomination seriously (if you want to see a fantastic performance by a kid, look at Ivana Baquero in PAN’S LABYRINTH). I’ll see this one again, I’m sure. I’m just more in love with other films.

PAN’S LABYRINTH – Perhaps my favorite film of 2006, this is a masterful combination of fairy tale and political story, a strong and focused stylistic tour de force. Guillermo del Toro’s imaginative film is about a young girl forced to choose between a torturous life in early Franco Spain, and a world of fauns and pixies and dangerous monsters. It’s infuriating to me that it was shoved into the Best Foreign Language Film, but Academy members aren’t that different from Regular People – a lot of them don’t like to read when they’re at the movies. Still, its nominations for Art Direction, Cinematography, Makeup, Music and Screenplay are all well-deserved.

THE QUEEN -- Poor Stephen Frears. He has spent most of his life making really interesting, powerful films, with actors who give performances that make that seem like real people. MY BEAUTIFUL LAUNDRETTE, THE GRIFTERS, HIGH FIDELITY, DIRTY PRETTY THINGS, and PRICK UP YOUR EARS are all superior works. And what does he get? To watch Helen Mirren pick up an Oscar, while nobody can figure out how to spell his first name (is it “ph” or “v”?). And then to be nominated, finally, for Best Director in a year when everyone (including myself) is saying that Scorsese is finally in the money. True, Best Picture wouldn’t be too shabby, but it is Frears work that is consistently in evidence in this fascinating film about a country on the borderline between two eras – traditional monarchial love, and modern democratic pragmatism. The nominated screenplay perfectly steps between these poles, and the cast is rich and powerful.

VOLVER – This is the second of my favorite 2006 films to be shoved into the Best Foreign Film category. Penelope Cruz, under Pedro Almodovar’s direction, is absolutely stunning in the depth of her understanding of this character – a married woman who is forced into a series of roles and decisions that are intensely troubling to her and from which she must break out. The film is filled with humor, intense emotion, and a series of incredible female actresses. This film deserved a Best Screenplay nomination, in addition to Cruz’s. Directing would have been great too.

WATER – I am thrilled that this film got nominated at all. It’s an incredibly powerful tale of a young teenage girl in 1938 India whose elderly arranged-marriage husband dies. She is then thrown into a home for widows, shunned by the community, and forced to live a life from which she can only dream of escape. A powerful set of performances, as well as a story which is compelling, drive this film.

STRANGER THAN FICTION (not nominated) – Will Farrell, Will Farrell. What are we going to do with him? He often shows flashes of actorly depth, but not enough to break him out of his comedy roles. And then a film like STRANGER THAN FICTION comes along and, while his performance in it is not a huge stretch from what we’ve seen before, it’s in the service of a very different type of story. And it works. The story, dubbed Charlie Kaufman-like by the moronic media, deals with a boring IRS auditor who, though seemingly flesh and blood, turns out to be the creation of a struggling book writer. And, as she writes the story, bringing him closer to his untimely death, he becomes aware of this and tries to undo the inevitable. Emma Thompson’s portrayal of the loony writer is incredibly fun to watch. Oddly, this is not the case with Queen Latifah’s puzzling role as a woman assigned to help Thompson over her writer’s block (that is what’s called a Stupid Writer Device). Dustin Hoffman has a lot of fun with his role as the wacky academic who helps Farrell discover his problem.

Good – Flawed but Worth The Time Spent
BLOOD DIAMOND – Why oh why, do films about black countries and black problems have to have white protagonists to “help” tell the story? (see THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND for a more egregious example of this). At least Leonardo DeCaprio does a great job of pulling you through the film, an exploration of the practice of using slave labor (enforced through violence) to harvest diamonds for sale on the world. Ed Zwick, the director, is always way too earnest for my taste market (see GLORY, THE LAST SAMURAI, LEGENDS OF THE FALL), and this film suffers from that trait in spades, accounting for a large portion of the film’s bloated 143 minute running time. But it’s often a powerful story, told with energy and involvement.

HALF NELSON -- Like several other films this year, this is a movie whose performances are better than the film. Ryan Gosling, as a heroin addicted teacher of poor black children, excels in this role and has, justifiably, gotten an Oscar nomination. There’re also some really realistic and involving views of his life outside of school. At times, the film threatens to break out into a totally involving, fascinating, view of a ruined life and more. And when it does, it’s wonderful. It just doesn’t happen often enough. The filmmakers tend to go for the easy image or plot point too often.

HAPPY FEET – It’s a complete coincidence that this film sits alphabetically on top of Al Gore’s environmental documentary. This animated film starts off as a fun romp with those cute penguins who seem to be taking over the entertainment industry (Coke was there first, as any filmgoer who arrives at a theatre’s advertised film start time will tell you). They’re fun to watch, well animated, and when one of them is born without the ability to sing (apparently all penguins are born with the ability to skip Julliard and go straight to Carnegie Hall, if they could ever get off the Antarctic continent), it turns into a societal problem even though that damned penguin can tap dance up a storm. You can fill in most of the rest of this predictable plot – he is treated as an outsider and shunned, until he finds out the Solution to their disappearing ice and is welcomed back in all of his ever-lovin’ Savion Glover-recorded, tap dancin’ glory. The part of the film that took me completely by surprise (and not in a good way) was how the last twenty minutes turned into a blatant political advertisement for Greenpeace (can’t all we species just get along??). If we could just stop melting all of our icebergs, the film tells us, and you can help cute penguins get along. Got it. Now I’ll go and turn off my air conditioning.

AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH – A less subtle, but more horrifying and successful, ecological polemic can be found in Al Gore’s Power Point presentation (actually, Apple’s Keynote, but let’s not sweat the details here) about the horrors and dangers of global warming. Like all documentaries pleading for social action, the film takes the position that It’s Not Too Late to do something about it, even though it glosses over what that something would be and how it change our lifestyles. However, if the film is weakest on the realities of what we’ll have to do to combat this warming, it is absolutely fantastically relentless about what a problem this is. It’s also the most fascinating time I’ve had watching power point slides ever. Every corporate presenter should have a scissors lift for emphasis.

NOTES ON A SCANDAL -- Here’s another contender for the Better Acting Than Filmmaking prize. Nearly every single person in this film is incredibly interesting and well detailed. But Judi Dench’s portrayal of a school-marmish tattle tale who becomes jealous of Cate Blanchett’s dalliance with an underage student (Dench isn’t jealous because of the boy; she’s really in love with Blanchett’s character) becomes more plain evil than complex, and she is stuck with playing scenes in which she says one thing and the camera lets us know that she means another. It’s the horror movie version of a British history novel.

(not nominated) – Jude Law can act, he really can, and this film is really good about stepping back and letting him do his stuff. The story, about a successful young British architect whose new offices are burgled several times, takes us into areas that become quite entrancing. Law initially blames the black cleaning staff, but then finds out that it is a local boy, son of a beautiful (of course…) Serbian immigrant, played by the well-known Yugoslavian actress Juliette Binoche. As he gets involved more and more with the woman, he begins to unravel much of the carefully constructed life that he has. Though the film takes too long to tell a simple story, the performances are quite captivating and make this well worth the time.

CASINO ROYALE (not nominated) – It’s a Bond movie without all of the falling out of airplanes and cool toys/gadgets that we’ve come to expect from 007. Still, it’s got character and is a good popcorn movie. Even though they don’t serve popcorn at the Academy. If you want popcorn, you’ve got to pay your $10 admission like everyone else at the 24-plex.

HOLLYWOODLAND (not nominated) – What made this worth viewing was not the story, per se, of how actor George Reeve went from being a wannbe actor in Hollywood, to being a successful television Superman, to being dead. No, it was the sense of time and place that it evokes. Hollywood in the 50s was a different place than it is now, or was in the 30s. The movie wonderfully portrays this sense of a culture in transition.

WORLD TRADE CENTER (not nominated) -- Happily surprising, this Oliver Stone film is way more than a simple story of several men trapped in the rubble underneath the trade center towers on 9/11. No, it’s a story about promises made, and the love of family, and the bonds between two policemen who got caught in circumstances beyond their making. I’ve worked for Stone and can tell you that he’s a permanently passionate filmmaker, who won’t anything go that he wants to show. So, I’m sure that this is his film, and well worth it it was.

Fair – Please Make Sure I Don’t See These On Cable
CARS – Pixar has to be one of the best storytelling companies in the animation business, if not in all of filmmaking. They rarely let the cutesiness of their characters overpower the story, and that is why they consistently deliver involving and successful films. This is one of their rare misses, though it still feels fun in several places. It’s an incredibly banal story – Owen Wilson voices a racecar who is way too impressed with himself. When he is stuck on an island, oops I mean small town, surrounded by normal people (oops, I mean cars), he learns the value of slowing down and enjoying The Real People (oops, I mean cars). It’s so predictable that it’s shocking, coming from Pixar and John Lasseter.

DREAMGIRLS – I know I’m supposed to like this. It has a good performances by Eddie Murphy and usually Jamie Foxx (who was waaaay better in person) and some stirring music. But I didn’t feel that the original Broadway show was that interesting either. And this is a faithful adaptation of the show, right down to the overly broad, over-the-top singing which always looks stupider on screen than from Row BB in the balcony of a Broadway theatre. “Opening up” a show, doesn’t just mean taking the songs and choreography off the stage and putting them on the street (or, if you’re really terrible, on a slab of butcher block or a café table, as in RENT). No, it means re-thinking everything – look at Bob Fosse’s CABARET or ALL THAT JAZZ. When Jennifer Hudson breaks into her show-stopping solo “Listen” (I think that’s the one – I was nodding out by then), it looks like exactly what it is – a faithful rendering of a stage performance, with cool camera moves and lighting. But no guts inside of it.

FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS – I haven’t seen LETTERS yet, so I can’t compare these two Clint Eastwood Iwo Jima films, but I can tell you that this one sent me under the chair. Flat, uninvolving, it makes sense the only nominations it could get were for sound editing and sound mixing (it DID have a lot of big explosions and cool rifle ricochets).

THE GOOD SHEPHERD – I don’t mind long films (the original 1900 is still one of my favorite films of all time), but when forty minutes of this film had passed and I was still watching plotted set-up, I got very very worried. The story of intrigue in the founding of the CIA/FBI/Evil Governmental Organization, and how it drives family man Mark Damon away from his completely underwritten wife and family (was most of Angelina Jolie’s role left on the cutting room floor, or did she forget about the script, deciding to take the opportunity to be directed by Robert DeNiro – who has now done two overwrought movies as a director), this is a film which, at once, tells too little and too much. It is too long because of details that, ultimately, make no difference to our comprehension of the story or the people in it.

THE ILLUSIONIST – So, here’s my problem with this film. I enjoyed watching it. I liked the basic premise revolving around a magician in love with a woman so far above his social strata that he needs his magic to secure a life with her, and I even liked watching Ed Norton in it (Paul Giametti left me cold). But, ten minutes after walking out of the film, it had completely evaporated into the ether for me. Not a thing memorable. That’s not good for a film, is it?

THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND – Forrest Whitaker will probably win the acting award for this one, primarily because it’s the only role that’s close to a sick or psychotic person among the nominees this year. That having been said, he’s not even really the star of the film. Nope, this is another film in which a white character (and not a very interesting one at that) is used to tell the story of a black man and a black problem – the oppressive regime of Idi Amin. Whitaker, joking aside, does a great job of portraying this man on the edge. I haven’t seen Will Smith or Peter O’Toole’s films yet, so I didn’t vote in this category this year, but it doesn’t feel like a strong category to me.

LITTLE CHILDREN – I am not a Todd Field fan. That is, I am not a fan of Field as a director (I liked him as an actor in EYES WIDE SHOT). He makes movies in which every single scene is important and fraught with power and meaning. As a result, no scene has importance, power and meaning, for me. As an editor, I’m all about shaping a film, and his films seem to be on one frequency.

COPYING BEETHOVEN (not nominated) – Ed Harris is really good as a dying Beethoven who is forced to accept a female copyist as he is finishing his famous Ninth Symphony. Naturally, he learns to like and appreciate her, even though he is a complete curmudgeon. The scene where he conducts the symphony is tremendously done, but it doesn’t make up for the flatness of the rest of the script and direction.

THE DA VINCI CODE (not nominated) – The best way to see this film is to be told, again and again before you see it, that the film is horrible. Then, you can turn around and say, “Hey. It wasn’t THAT bad.” So… it wasn’t that bad!!” Now, I realize that this falls under the “damning with faint praise” category. And that is, precisely, what I am doing. It’s a flat, normally non-involving portrayal of a pretty interesting book, done without much energy or variation.

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III (not nominated) – It’s hard to believe that this franchise is still creaking along, but it is (at this point) the James Bond film of its day. As opposed to the new Bond film, this is an old-fashioned Bond, in which gadgets play a bigger role than people, and the people are all one of two types – for us or against us, and you never are sure which side anyone is on. The series has taken a nosedive since its first, delicious, episode (De Palma apologists, hold up that DVD box whenever I get down on him – which I am about to do in the next section), but there are still enough set-piece chase scenes to raise your interest here. I don’t even care that, with our awareness of what CGI can do in films, that we realize that most of the time, not of the actors are ever doing anything that we see them doing. It’s still fun. Just not as good as we want it to be for that film budget.

THANK YOU FOR SMOKING (not nominated)

Poor – Excruciating, Puzzling and Maddening All Wrapped Up In One
THE BLACK DAHLIA – Wow. A bad Brian de Palma film. Can you shock me even more. I have to go back to the early 1980s to find a film of his that I really like (and that would be DRESSED TO KILL), though I did think the first MISSION IMPOSSIBLE was incredibly well put together and probably the best of the seven or eight of them that we’ve seen (or feel like we’ve seen). I struggled for any type of human connection between the characters on screen, or with me. There was none. My favorite James Ellroy book needed some energy, heat, passion, or anything that showed a pulse.

THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA – If I liked fashion I might have liked this film more. If I liked Anne Hathaway more, I might have liked this film more. If I didn’t mind, single-minded one-note performances that were supposed to funny by Meryl Streep, I might have liked this film more. But I don’t pine for any of those things, and didn’t spend much time enjoying this film. That’s my prejudice, I know. There are plenty of people who thought that Streep was “positively delicious” playing the most mean, evil, self-centered boss you could ever have. I just kept on thinking that I GOT the point back in the first reel of the film, and didn’t need to keep seeing it every damned time she walked into the frame.

THE GOOD GERMAN – Several years ago, Gus van Sant did a remake of PSYCHO, in which he reshoot every single camera shot and edited a version of his film which was similar to Hitchock’s original in most ways except that it was horrible. That film provoked the question “Why?” in most people. I feel the same way about this useless exercise in ripping off Michael Curtiz and other filmmakers of the 40s. It’s an exercise doomed to failure – Soderbergh, who made this one, didn’t shy away from using complex CGI effects shots, nor did he decide to release the film in monaural sound, did he? Yet he claimed that he wanted to make a movie in the old studio way, except for permitting sex. It doesn’t work. It feels like a student film (and I teach film at USC’s film school, so trust me, I know about this) whose director had a strong initial conception and never let go, even when it wasn’t working.

MARIE ANTOINETTE – Oh My God! I couldn’t get through more than twenty minutes of this mess. As interesting and involving as Bill Murray’s and Kirsten Dunst’s performances were in LOST IN TRANSLATION, that is how Uninteresting and vapid all of the characters were in this film. Sofia Coppola’s first two features spent time with complex people, and allowed us to see the complexity. This one seemed like form over function, style over people. Not my kind of film, no matter how much cool music is in it.

ART SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL (not nominated) – I’ve liked all of Terry Swigoff’s films – both documentary and narrative – since his first – CRUMB. This time, he got banal on us. The trials and tribulations of some artists at an art school don’t make for films as interesting as anyone who is in art school. I thought everyone got over that after a few months.

RUNNING WITH SCISSORS (not nominated) - No comment. I watched it (well, partially), but no comment. No, I’m serious, I REALLY HAVE NO COMMENT. There is nothing that I can say about this film that won’t seem horribly insensitive and catty. So, it’s time for me to roll up my sleeves and Move On.

No comments: