Monday, March 01, 2010

Second thoughts on half of the Oscar nominees

Saturday I attended the annual AMC Best Picture Showcase, in which the theater chain plays all the Oscar nominees in a mini-marathon. Since there are 10 nominees this year, the marathon plays over two weeks. Saturday, it was, in order: Avatar, Up in the Air, Precious, The Blind Side and the bane of spell-checkers everywhere, Inglourious Basterds. 

Avatar: I've really gotten tired of people cracking on this movie because of its screenplay. I am going to declare this loudly, right here and now: JAMES CAMERON IS A GOOD SCREENWRITER.

Yes, I will agree that his dialogue clunks about as loudly as a wrench in a dryer. However, too many people are complaining under the misconception that if the dialogue is bad, the screenplay must be bad. NOT so. Any screenwriter worth their salt will tell you that dialogue is only half the battle - if that.

Cameron thinks like an engineer - he is extremely good at constructing his stories, at laying the groundwork for plot points that pay off later. It's not all in the camerawork. His use of the toruk (the large orange flying creature) is an example of that. In most sci-fi films that would just be the big monster for a battle at the end. In Avatar, he starts as a predator, but then becomes the instrument that Jake uses to regain the respect of the Navi after he is outcast. That, to me, is smart writing. Remember how early in Titanic (another wrongly maligned screenplay) Cameron explained exactly how the ship broke apart, so the audience would better understand what was happening at the climax? That's smart writing too.

No, the story isn't the most original one in the world, but as Pixar's writers will tell you, most of the great stories have been told in one form or another. (What is the original Toy Story, after all, but a variation on the buddy cop movie?) The trick is to put a new spin on them to make them seem fresh, and in my opinion, Cameron did that. Those who dismiss Avatar as "Dances with Wolves/Ferngully in space" are only being as facile as they accuse Cameron of being.

 .... and dismount soapbox. GRADE: A+

Up in the Air: Yes, it has a smarter screenplay than Avatar, but that's not why I like it better than Avatar. I like it better than Avatar. I like it better because it hit me harder personally. I could relate all too well to George Clooney's lonely character in many respects - which is why I see the film as hopeful even though I've heard people call it "depressing." Their loss.  If it were only up to my vote, this would win Best Picture. GRADE: A+

Precious: A sterling acting showcase to be sure, but this may be the single most punishing film to watch since Requiem for a Dream. Powerful, to be sure, but sometimes I felt more subjected to it than enriched by it. GRADE: A-

The Blind Side: It was interesting to see these films played back to back, as some see The Blind Side as the "lite" version of Precious. I can see why many people love this feel-good story, and it is well performed and well made, but it wouldn't be on my Oscar ballot. Like many an uplifting sports drama, this movie makes its button-pushing feel far too obvious. The "feel-good" nature of it, too, seemed too pandering, too "Hallmark" to me - and one could persuasively argue the movie strays a little too far from the truth. Still, I accepted it as genial, entertaining  hokum that went down easily. Bullock's brassy performance helps. GRADE: B+

Inglourious Basterds: My best friend's teenage daughter pegged this movie exactly right when she said "It had its moments" That's all Inglourious Basterds is to me. A handful of great moments surrounded by too much chaff. I've seen the movie three times now, and it has seemed less and less impressive to me on each viewing.

Simply put, Tarantino falls too much in love with his material and can't make judicious editing decisions. For every masterful scene, like the opening interrogation, there are two or three more that drag on too long, or are even completely unnecessary. That slow, boring scene with Mike Myers under heavy makeup that sets up the shootout in the bar? That could - and should - have been completely jettisoned in favor of a few smart lines of exposition. At certain points, the film almost grinds to a halt - and that only becomes more apparent when it springs back to life, in, say, the big climax at the theater. 

Inglourious Basterds is not a great movie - just a good movie.  And Christoph Waltz will absolutely deserve his Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. But Star Trek was more deserving of a Best Picture nomination. I now call Basterds may least favorite of the 10 nominees. GRADE: B

PS On the other hand, it seems that Basterds is my ticket to free movies. The second time I saw it, at Studio 35 in Columbus, a couple of drunk jackasses  made loud, obnoxious comments throughout the movie. (This is why I hate that some theaters serve alcohol). Studio 35 had the good sense not only to throw them out, but to hand the rest of us free passes as an apology. And at the Oscar marathon Saturday, AMC Newport was wise to hand out passes after many people complained when we had to switch auditoriums because of Avatar's 3D print. If you want to know why I keep seeing a movie I don't really like that much - here's your answer!

The second half of the Oscar marathon is next Saturday, with screenings of Up, A Serious Man,  The Hurt Locker, An Education, and District 9. The Oscars themselves are next Sunday, March 7. I plan to post my predictions on Friday.

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