Movies - The Oscars postsWednesday February 04, 2009
The Lundys: Best Reviews of Best Pics
No science in mine. Not a speck of it. Just reviews that confirmed or articulated what I felt was right or wrong about a movie. Mostly wrong, this year. Many people have said that 2008 was a pretty crappy year for movies, but, to me, it was really only an off-year for the prestige pictures. Overall, it was a great year. Just look at 2007. The big box-office pics were either lame threequels (“Spider-Man 3,” “Pirates 3,” “Shrek the Third”) or noisy remakes (“Transformers”), while 2008 gave us, among the top five box-office hits, “Dark Knight,” “Iron Man” and “WALL-E.” Not bad.
From the winning reviews, you can probably guess which movie I’m rooting for on Oscar night. It has no shot but... Doesn’t mean I’m not rooting.
Apologies, too, to all the critics whose reviews I missed. I’m not much of a surfer. I don’t even have nominees for best reviews of best picture candidates. Only winners. Maybe next year.
OK, on with the countdown.
For best review of Stephen Daldry’s “The Reader,” the Lundy goes to... Joe Morgenstern of The Wall Street Journal! (Applause) Mr. Morgenstern wins the award even though, and this is extremely embarrassing, I haven’t been able to read his entire review. (Thanks for nothing, WSJ.) After scanning the Rotten Tomatoes site, though, Mr. Morgenstern most exactly articulated the biggest problem with both movie and book:
The Reader remains schematic, and ultimately reductive. It really is about literacy, which proves to be a dismayingly small answer to the enormous questions posed by Hanna's dark past.I can talk more about this later, but: Yes. “The Reader” begins as a sexual coming-of-age film, veers into a Holocaust picture, and winds up as an “ABC Afterschool Special”: Hanna Schmitz Learns to Read. With such a trajectory (which is more obvious in the book, since the movie includes Kate Winslet’s great performance), it can’t help but feel small and unworthy. Academy, I'm looking at you.
For best review of Ron Howard’s “Frost/Nixon,” the Lundy goes to... David Edelstein of New York Magazine! (Applause) I love in particular Mr. Edelstein’s early slams of Nixon the man. Criticism is not for the impartial, political or otherwise, a fact that many editors at many newspapers — trying to hold onto every loudmouthed conservative subscriber — don't seem to understand. Edelstein also gets to the heart of what’s weak with “F/N”:
Frost/Nixon is unsatisfying even if, like me, you’re a lifelong aficionado of Nixon-bashing. [Screenwriter Peter] Morgan makes him out to be a Great White Whale, but when he sat down with Frost, Nixon was already dead in the water—convicted by his own words in White House transcripts to the point where even his Republican allies had long deserted him. And with selective editing, Morgan makes it seem as if Frost got Nixon to admit more than he actually did. The original Watergate interview is now on DVD, and there are self-exculpatory escape clauses in every interminable, circumlocutory utterance. When Frost read aloud from the White House transcripts, Nixon’s eyes darted around as he searched his brain for linguistic loopholes. In Frost/Nixon, Langella’s heavy features move slowly; he seems to be plumbing the depths of his soul and glimpsing, for an instant, the abyss. Alas, the shit that dribbles from Langella’s mouth is still Tricky Dick’s.For David Fincher’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” the Lundy goes to... David Denby of The New Yorker! (Tepid applause. Some hoots.) Mr. Denby actually reviews, or takes apart, all of the Oscar candidates in his piece — save “Milk,” which he roots for — and he’s good on all of them. But particularly “Button”:
As Benjamin makes his way, many people puzzle over the discrepancy between his age and his temperament. But who cares? The movie is given over to an infinitely patient and scrupulous working out of its own bizarre premise, and you come away from its sombre thoroughness with the impression that something profound has been said without having any idea what it could be.For Danny Boyle’s “Slumdog Milionaire,” the Lundy goes to... Manohla Dargis of The New York Times! (Hoots. Cries of a New York bias.) Ms. Dargis’ reviewed the film when it was merely a film — one of many coming out that month — as opposed to the Oscar frontrunner for best picture, but, from that early, uncluttered vantage point, she still manages to articulate what is both appealing about the film, and, more importantly, what is false about it:
In the end, what gives me reluctant pause about this bright, cheery, hard-to-resist movie is that its joyfulness feels more like a filmmaker’s calculation than an honest cry from the heart about the human spirit (or, better yet, a moral tale). In the past Mr. Boyle has managed to wring giggles out of murder (“Shallow Grave”) and addiction (“Trainspotting”), and invest even the apocalypse with a certain joie de vivre (the excellent zombie flick “28 Days Later”). He’s a blithely glib entertainer who can dazzle you with technique and, on occasion, blindside you with emotion, as he does in his underrated children’s movie, “Millions.” He plucked my heartstrings in “Slumdog Millionaire” with well-practiced dexterity, coaxing laughter and sobs out of each sweet, sour and false note.And finally, the last Lundy of the evening, for best review of Gus Van Sant’s “Milk,” goes to... Andrew Sullivan of The Atlantic! (tepid applause; shrugs; people grabbing their coats and leaving en masse) Mr. Sullivan is the only non-critic in the bunch, but his early take on “Milk,” written from a more personal perspective, articulated something about the film I hadn’t taken in. It opened the film for me. That’s basically what you want from a critic:
Milk was a radical; but he was also a businessman. He had one true love; and yet couldn't integrate it into a successful long-term relationship in his short life-time. He was a man of the streets and yet he also had to become a symbol of establishment power. The scene when he both stokes a rally-cum-riot and then calms it down captured the tension perfectly. He was a man of politics, but he was also only a politician in order to have the chance to be a human.
The movie's brilliance is not that it begins and ends with his death as a reflection on the first and last things; it is that it begins and ends with Milk's love for another human being as well. This reach for intimacy - always vulnerable, always intimate, never safe - endures past movements and rallies and elections. These manifestations of the political are the means to that merely human end.
Which is why, in so many ways, the gay movement, at its very best, is something holy.That’s it, folks. Thanks for coming. And keep reading the critics.
Pedigree of a Slumdog: PGA, SAG, DGA...
Then factor in the Producers Guild of America, which began giving awards in 1989. How many times has a movie won the DGA and the PGA and not won best picture? Three times: In 1995 when the guilds chose “Apollo 13” and the Academy chose “Braveheart”; in 1998 when the guilds chose “Saving Private Ryan” and the Academy chose “Shakespeare in Love”: and in 2005 when the guilds chose “Brokeback Mountain” and the Academy chose “Crash.” That’s 84 percent.
(BTW: Isn’t it amazing how the guilds had the better choice each disagreeable year?)
Then factor in the Screen Actors Guild, which began giving awards in 1996. This is the fifth year all three guilds agreed. They agreed in 1999 (“American Beauty”), 2002 (“Chicago”), 2003 (“Lord of the Rings: Return of the King”) and last year (“No Country for Old Men”). Of course each of those pictures won the Oscar. Now we’re talking 100 percent.
In other words, if you choose anything other than “Slumdog” in your Oscar pool, you’re rolling with some pretty loaded dice.
First there was that odd, Joker-mask video he did for his Carpetbagger blog. Then last week he clapped the Academy on the back for choosing quality (meaning: “The Reader”) over popularity (meaning: “The Dark Knight”).
But yesterday? He launched into one of my least-favorite journalistic devices: How the popularity of this or that film reflects the nation’s mood.
The Times is infamous for doing this. Just last year, on May 15th, Michael Cieply implied that the upcoming summer movies, including “The Dark Knight,” “Tropic Thunder” and “Pineapple Express,” were just too dark. “The mix,” he wrote, “may not perfectly match the mood of an audience looking for refuge from election campaigns and high-priced gas, said Peter Sealey, a former Columbia Pictures marketing executive…”
Turns out “The Dark Knight” was just the refuge people were looking for. So Brooks Barnes took over, and on July 28th, wrote the following: “The brooding film, directed by Christopher Nolan, also fits the nation’s mood, Warner Brothers executives said.”
Problem solved. We weren’t repelled from the movie because it reflected our mood; we were drawn to it. Once it became clear we were drawn to it.
See what fun you can have with the nation’s mood?
Carr, whom I love, and who’s a better writer than both Cieply and Barnes, has actually done something worse. He begins his article, “Riveting Tales for Dark Days,” by once again lauding the Oscar nominees. They are, he says, an upbeat lot, particularly compared with the gloom of last year’s “No Country” and “There Will Be Blood.” They reflect our nation’s can-do spirit in troubled times. In one graph he dismisses what he’s doing and then keeps doing it:
Using the Oscars as a prism on national consciousness is a hoary, time-worn activity perpetrated by those of us who must find meaning in sometimes marginal work. But it does seem worth at least a mention this time around that both the Academy and audiences are showering love on such upbeat movies at a rough time in history.Why is this worse? Let’s let “X” stand for “What people would do or are doing because of the nation’s mood.”
Cieply’s X wasn’t verifiable but predictive. It was two months down the road when only idiots like me would remember that he, or someone he had quoted, had made such a prediction.
Barnes’ X was verifiable and correct. People were in fact going to see “The Dark Knight.”
Carr’s X? Verifiable and incorrect. And not just incorrect in a small way. Incorrect in a way that refutes his entire premise.
He mixes two unstable elements. He writes that January box-office receipts are up by 10 percent (true) and that the Oscar nominees are more upbeat than last year (true-ish, though there’s nothing as purely pleasant as “Juno” in the mix). So he concludes people are drawn to these upbeat best picture nominees.
Problem? For whatever reason (and I blame the studios as much as anyone), we’re not drawn to these upbeat nominees. We’re drawn to “Paul Blart: Mall Cop,” which has made, as of today, $69.3 million. The nominees, save for “Button,” have all made less. Some a lot less: “Slumdog” ($59.5M), “Milk” ($21.9M), “Frost/Nixon” ($12.9M) and “The Reader” ($10.2M). In fact, as I mentioned yesterday, Brandon Gray, over at boxofficemojo.com, has written that these nominees are, at the time of the noms, the least-attended ever. (I’m still interested in his math on this, by the way.)
In Carr’s defense, and despite the “showering love” line above, he does say that the upbeat nominees “reflect an appetite on the part of the Academy, and by proxy, the public, for a nice, big chunk of uplift.”
That’s a nice one. Using the Academy as a stand-in for the public when the two have never been further apart.
So I’m a little worried about David Carr. He’s better than this.
Who Sees the Oscar Nominees Anyway?
Gray comes to this conclusion about Oscar and box office:
Slumdog Millionaire was a snowballing success prior to the Oscar nominations and Gran Torino, which received zero nominations for instance, was a hit, and neither picture's status fundamentally changed after the nominations were announced.He also mentions in passing the b.o. difficulties of “Frost/Nixon” but no one seems to be taking Universal to task for this. When the movie had buzz in December, Universal kept it limited (205 theaters). After the noms, they opened it wider (1,000+ theaters), but by then it had been overshadowed by both “Button” and “Slumdog,” and word-of-mouth wasn’t great, and people stayed away. Maybe they would’ve anyway. Who knows? But Universal pushed it for the Oscars, and then relied on the Oscars to push it to the public. Didn’t work.
In better news, Focus Features, a Universal subsidiary on life-support, finally opened “Milk,” one of the best films of the year, wider. It plays in 882 theaters today. About effin’ time. Yet it's still the only best pic nominee not to play in at least 1,000 theaters.
Milk Left Out
But — that said — what a great group over at filmexperience! Nathaniel R. was nice enough to post the MSNBC quiz and dozens of his readers posted their results. I should immediately apologize for the Frank Langella question. Some actors in some roles make an early impression that never goes away, and, for me, Langella will always be Zorro. That’s how I first saw him. At age 11. Later when he became a star on Broadway as Dracula, I’d think, “Hey, it’s Zorro.” When he played the villainous chief of staff in “Dave” I went: “Dude: Zorro!” On and on. Nixon, too. Still, I should’ve made the answer easier. Because how can you not imagine him as Jack the Ripper?
No apologies to anyone who got no. 14 wrong. That was a gimme.
One reader, meanwhile, suggested no. 8 didn’t have much to do with the Oscars. For those who haven’t taken the quiz (and c’mon already), here it is:
At the time of the nominations (Thursday, Jan. 22), how many of the best picture nominees had been seen in more than 1,000 theaters in the U.S.?
A. All five
The answer is One, “Benjamin Button,” and for a second I agreed with the reader. A second later I thought: Actually this is the most relevant question in the quiz. It’s not some factoid only the most insane person would know (see: no. 2); it’s about how isolated our supposed best pictures have become. Again: read this.
I found it particularly instructive that many of Nathaniel’s readers thought “Milk” was one of the most-distributed nominees when, as of today, it’s the least. Its theater-high was 356. Hell, every best-picture candidate expanded the weekend after the Oscars except for “Milk,” which remains in its truncated state of 250. I’m no insider or businessman but... Does that make sense? Is there a plan here? Who’s running Focus Features anyway?
Only a handful of best-picture nominees this decade haven’t been distributed into at least 1,000 theaters: “Gosford Park” (918), “Lost in Translation” (882), “The Pianist” (842), and, the winner of the least-distributed best-pic nominee of the decade, “Letters from Iwo Jima” (781). If “Milk” doesn’t expand, it will more than halve that mark.
So what is Focus Features saying? That it can sell “Brokeback” but not this? That Americans are more willing to understand the people who bombed Pearl Harbor, speaking in Japanese, than the people who opposed Prop. 8, speaking in English?
I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again, and I’ll keep saying it until someone gives me a response I understand: How good can the studios be if they can’t sell quality?