How do you make the Academy Awards interesting when everybody knows who's gonna win the big prizes? You pull out some nice surprises. Elsewhere, Of Time and the City and Serbis are worth seeking out.
It's almost March, but now that the Oscars are over, I guess we can finally say goodbye to Movie Year 2008. First up is my review of the Oscars. After that is a handful of movies from this year -- and a few that I let slip by me from last year.
The 81st Annual Academy Awards (ABC, Feb. 22)
Watch the Oscars long enough and you’ll realize that the show’s entertainment value comes down to three key ingredients: the degree of uncertainty about who’s going to win what, the quality of the acceptance speeches, and the overall design of the show (which includes the host). The first of the three ingredients was always going to be a disaster this year – not since The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King won everything in sight five years ago has the telecast’s suspense factor been so low. So thank goodness the other two ingredients compensated so mightily.
Put me down as one of the people who thought that having past winners honor this year’s nominees was a stroke of genius – at the beginning of the show, the surprise factor was its best element, but as you came to expect it later in the broadcast, the fun came in seeing who would walk out and what they would say. The freshness and novelty of the gimmick probably wouldn’t carry over to future Oscar shows, so those who loved it better savor it while you can.
Host Hugh Jackman was the right mixture of eye-candy and charm, and while I didn’t think either of his song-and-dance numbers was entirely successful, I found myself not blaming him for their weaknesses. If the Oscar producers decide not to go with outside-the-tent comedians for the immediate future, I wouldn’t mind seeing him get another shot.
What else is there to say? Kate Winslet’s father’s whistle was an instant “classic moment” – we’ll be seeing that clip for the rest of our natural lives. Same goes for Philippe Petit’s sleight of hand. I was thrilled La Maison en Petits Cubes won for Best Animated Short. And I thank Steve Martin and Tina Fey for making me laugh harder than I have in quite a while.
Of Time and the City (Strand Releasing)
Does it make a difference that I’ve never been to Liverpool? For the early stretches of director Terence Davies’ personal documentary, I wondered. Now in his 60s, the filmmaker looks back at his childhood in Liverpool, merging city history with coming-of-age confessions but largely focusing on how our hometown shapes us even when we’ve long since moved on. I can’t deny that a part of me wanted a separate commentary track where a more objective Liverpudlian could offer a contrasting point of view, cluing us in when Davies was being too harsh, too grumpy, too melodramatic, or just plain wrong about his observations. But unlike Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg, which I found painfully self-regarding while admiring its obvious inventiveness, Davies has made an ode to his youth that extends to the rest of us. At first, his pompous, bilious narration annoyed me, but that was before it becomes clear that his invective is merely a way to hide the complicated emotions he feels toward Liverpool, and part of the film’s immense poignancy is how we watch that tone ever so slightly change over the course of the film. Davies hated the Beatles, which makes him a hopeless crank. But as with other things about his hometown he hates and/or loves in Of Time and the City, he makes the case for his withering dismissal.
Serbis (Regent Releasing)
Filipino filmmaker Brillante Mendoza asks a pretty simple question with Serbis: How can a poor family survive when its livelihood and lodging are dependent on a rundown dirty-movie theater? I’m partial to the big, flowing family comedy-drama – I love Yi Yi and Parenthood for the same reasons – but what Mendoza does that’s different is that he places his characters not in the relatively safe environs of middle-class life but in the filth. And I mean that literally – this theater is utterly disgusting, with dingy seats, unsightly bathrooms and graffiti everywhere. The film’s Pineda family (especially the children) are surrounded by casual images of sex – the movies the theater shows, the gay hustlers hanging around the joint, the nude pictures hanging on the walls – and without tsk-tsking about it, Mendoza examines how that can start to affect the foundation of any clan. Serbis is quietly engaging without ever being about much of anything – somebody’s girlfriend gets pregnant, a judge’s decision creates a ripple effect among the Pinedas – but Mendoza is mostly going for observations and atmosphere. There are plenty of each here.
Heartbeat Detector (New Yorker Video)
I think it can be a lazy trick to recommend one movie by disparaging a better-known, similar movie. But, really, those who love The Reader because of its portrayal of Europe’s still-lingering guilt and shame over the Holocaust ought to check out Heartbeat Detector, a far tougher and more compelling variation on the same theme. Plus, it’s loads more entertaining – Hollywood could do a twisty, noir-ish remake out of this tale of a corporate psychologist (Mathieu Amalric) asked to discreetly examine the company’s CEO (Michael Lonsdale) after he starts acting oddly. Director Nicolas Klotz, working from a novel by François Emmanuel, has made a character-driven mystery that looks like a drama but feels like a thriller. The payoff of the shrink’s investigation has been given away by this point, which blunts the resolution’s impact a touch, but I have to say that for once I loved Amalric fully in a role. Whether in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, A Christmas Tale or even, god help us all, Quantum of Solace, there’s always been something a little removed about him, but here that distance is part of the design. One of Heartbeat Detector’s great ironies is that actually both of its main characters are falling apart – Amalric is just doing a better job of hiding it.
Burn After Reading (Focus Features/Universal Video)
Every year, a film or two slips by me – I hear such awful things about it that I don’t bother to see it for myself. Of course, the point of going back is hoping that you discover, hey hey hey, this is an underrated gem. Burn After Reading isn’t quite a gem, but it’s far better than you were lead to believe. Not, in fact, another dumb-people crime caper from the Coen brothers, it is actually a … uh … OK, yes, the people in Burn After Reading aren’t the brightest. But unlike The Big Lebowski or O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the Coens don’t just make their characters punching bags. Frances McDormand’s lonely middle-aged woman is too poignant for that, so too is Richard Jenkins as the man pining for her, so too is George Clooney’s super-shallow and insecure lothario. If there’s a complaint to be made, it’s that the Coens have concocted a rich collection of characters but don’t know what to do beyond their simple comedy-of-errors scams with them. Still, this thing is really, really funny. But the Coens’ greatest buried treasure remains The Man Who Wasn’t There.
Miracle at St. Anna (Touchstone Home Video)
Let’s once again revisit the career of Spike Lee. One of America’s most striking visual filmmakers, and yet he’s also a man who hasn’t made a movie in the last 20 years that hasn’t had at least one too many subplots stalling its dramatic momentum. But as a card-carrying fan of Bamboozled, I’ll sit through anything he’s willing to dish out. Catching up with Miracle at St. Anna, I was prepared to like it more than those who ripped it to shreds during its super-brief theatrical run – considering the amount of rancor in the reviews, how could I not like it more than other critics had? Well, the film’s detractors are half-right. At almost three hours, Miracle at St. Anna is simply too long – a common complaint with his last half-dozen movies but a huge problem here. But it’s not detached or unfocused. Spike Lee doesn’t make films as much as he makes stews – there’s a little bit of everything in there, and he’s not interested in trimming back on any of the ingredients. (Can you imagine what a “director’s cut” would look like for one of his movies?) Give the guy credit for trying to reimagine the World War II movie as political commentary and domestic soap opera, and acknowledge that his staging of scenes remains as lively and off-the-cuff as ever. (His looseness helps break the film out of the historical-war-epic mold.) But I have to side with the detractors – this thing is a total mess. A very lively mess, to be sure, but remember that I’m a fan of Bamboozled. A normal human being doesn’t stand a chance.
Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired (Velocity/THINKFilm)
Just another slick documentary about Hollywood, I figured – remember how superficial Inside Deep Throat and The Kid Stays in the Picture were? And filmmaker Marina Zenovich isn't perfect – she intercuts the story of Polanski's trial with images and bits of score from his movies as if to say, ah-ha, life does imitate art, or something. And even if the film is sympathetic to Polanski, it's not blind or stupid – we get that he made this mess all by himself, and that he has no one to blame but himself. Wanted and Desired does a terrific job of reminding us that celebrity trials and media circuses aren't anything new – or legal systems that can hardly be considered impartial when the famous cross its path. When Zenovich isn't diving into Polanski's films for cutaways, she stays out of the way, letting the lawyers and reporters tell the story, and what they have to tell is absolutely fascinating. Best of all, like a good journalist, she uncovers lots of meaty tidbits that give the story the proper coloring and shading. Where other Hollywood documentaries feel like wan nostalgia trips, Wanted and Desired feels like it's about something – and the issues at play are as relevant now as they were back then.
Consumables is a regular overview of popular culture.