The Good, the Bad, and the Oscars

Argo Movie PosterThe outcome of the recent Academy Awards sweepstakes was a very mixed bag. Argo, the winner of the best-picture prize, is a nice little movie with a timely theme, a feel-good ending, and reminiscences of the 1997 comedy-drama Wag the Dog—a more interesting tale of faux filmmaking for a political purpose—in the background. Yet while it’s ably directed by Ben Affleck and engagingly acted by a talented cast, it doesn’t have the artistic or emotional heft that distinguishes the best best-picture winners.

Ditto for Searching for Sugar Man, which took the prize for best feature documentary. It’s a consistently amiable, mildly suspenseful movie with a few revelations about global media culture. But unlike Kirby Dick’s The Invisible War, about sexual abuse in the American military, it hasn’t furthered widespread debate on an alarming national crisis, and unlike The Gatekeepers and Five Broken Cameras, both about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it isn’t an eye-opening update on a chronic international problem.

In the performances department, Lincoln star Daniel Day-Lewis had such an obvious lock on best actor that the balloting was almost redundant. And while Jennifer Lawrence didn’t make a huge impression on me in Silver Linings Playbook—actually, nothing made a huge impression on me in Silver Linings Playbook—her best-actress award is understandable as a conventional middle-of-the-road choice between the eighty-six-year-old Emmanuelle Riva in Amour and the nine-year-old Quvenzhane Wallis in Beasts of the Southern Wild. Riva should have won, but she has a lifetime of great films and international prizes to compensate for her loss.

Amour earned the award for best foreign-language film, and it would have been an excellent winner for best picture—it was, after all, the year’s best picture. I’d hoped that Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke would also win the director and original-screenplay prizes for this incisive study of an elderly couple reaching the ends of their long, productive lives. But it was still gratifying to see Ang Lee named best director for Life of Pi. Lee is a phenomenally versatile artist whose movies range from the romantic comedy of The Wedding Banquet and the nineteenth-century classicism of Sense and Sensibility to the sociological drama of The Ice Storm and the kung-fu action of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, not to mention the groundbreaking gay western Brokeback Mountain.

Life of Pi movie posterLife of Pi is one of the Oscar victors that I’d like to comment on more fully. It’s a mostly faithful adaptation of Yann Martel’s prizewinning 2001 novel about a young Indian man who grows up in a zoo-keeping family, sets out to emigrate from India to Canada with his parents, and gets stranded by a shipwreck that leaves him adrift in the Pacific for almost a year with no companion but one Richard Parker, a Bengal tiger.

Lee maximizes the story’s visual possibilities, following Martel’s lead by giving key roles to animals, minerals, and vegetables. The animal kingdom provides the beasts that leap into Pi’s lifeboat, quickly winnowed down by Richard Parker’s jaws and claws. The mineral realm is the ocean on which Pi and the tiger have to survive for many agonizing months. The vegetable kingdom is represented by Pi’s meatless Hindu diet, which doesn’t last long when fish are the only available food, also by the vegetation on a mysterious island where an extravagant trick of nature comes perilously close to killing him. The movie captures much of the excitement (and a few of the dull stretches) of Martel’s book in cinematic terms that ring mostly true on the 3-D screen, thanks to Lee’s muscular directing and the top-flight cinematography by Claudio Miranda, who deserved his Oscar win over such giants of the field as Roger Deakins (Skyfall), Robert Richardson (Django Unchained), and Janusz Kaminski (Lincoln).

Lee is the latest world-class filmmaker to experiment with the 3-D format, preceded by Martin Scorsese with Hugo and Wim Wenders with the exquisite Pina. The jury is still out on the process’s long-term aesthetic benefits, but its main drawback is a certain artificiality that may be unavoidable in 3-D visuals. Despite this and the fact that Life of Pi is partly animated—the animals are made of computer programs and pixels, not flesh and blood—the film’s performances are stunning, starting with that of Richard Parker, surely the most splendid feat of computer-generated imagery to date. On the human side, young Suraj Sharma is marvelous as young Pi and the wonderful Irrfan Khan is even better as Pi many years later, lending extraordinary richness to the long, transfixing monologue that closes the film. At its best, Life of Pi is an intimate epic, as big as the ocean, as personal as Pi’s expressive face.

Zero Dark Thirty movie posterA best-picture contender that I find less worthy is Zero Dark Thirty, which also scored nominations for Mark Boal’s original screenplay, Jessica Chastain’s starring performance, and contributions in two technical categories. (It won only the sound-editing award.) Directed by Kathryn Bigelow, who wasn’t nominated for the directing prize, this overhyped drama has realized the marketing-department dream of getting expansive coverage in news, editorial, and op-ed venues in addition to the usual reviews and entertainment reportage. Bigelow and Boal have been hot media items ever since their 2008 picture, The Hurt Locker, which told the high-octane story of an army bomb-squad leader in Iraq who uses combat to satisfy his addiction to danger and adrenaline. Zero Dark Thirty, about the CIA’s arduous effort to locate Osama bin Laden and the military raid that killed him in May 2011, is just as topical.

I won’t rehash the debates over the film’s strong implication that “enhanced interrogation techniques,” known to most of the world as “torture,” was indispensable for extracting information essential to the mission’s outcome. What bothers me most is the portrayal of torture as a natural, even obvious tool that any sensible investigative outfit would use without thinking twice. Bigelow and Boal say that Zero Dark Thirty takes “almost a journalistic approach to film,” in Bigelow’s words. This is a much-inflated claim; the picture is a well-crafted docudrama at best. But if it were journalism, a good news editor would have blue-penciled many of its assumptions, from the necessity of torture to the focus on a single fearless leader—a CIA operative named Maya—whose guts and gumption get the job done when fainter hearts want to give up and go home. Less technically brilliant and more ethically problematic than The Hurt Locker, which also fell short on political context and moral clarity, Zero Dark Thirty is a superficial look at a subject that hasn’t yet gotten screen treatment as intelligent and insightful as 9/11 received in Paul Greengrass’s United 93 and Spike Lee’s 25th Hour, still the most resonant movies to emerge from the so-called war on terror.

Les Misérables explores a more distant historical era from a more progressive moral standpoint, garnering a surprising number of Oscar nominations as a reward: best picture, song, production and costume design, and actor (Hugh Jackman) plus three that produced victories for supporting actress Anne Hathaway and two of the technical teams. The movie’s Oscar bids were aided by its high-class pedigree—Victor Hugo’s philosophical 1862 novel and the eponymous stage production, slated for yet another Broadway run next year—and by its serious-minded subject, which was explored by Hugo with quiet passion and has been recycled in dozens of movies and TV shows dating as far back as 1912.

The story revolves around two figures: a laborer named Jean Valjean (Jackman) who gets into endless trouble when he steals a loaf of bread and breaks parole, and a police inspector named Javert (Russell Crowe), who vows to track Jean down if it takes the rest of his career. Jean then strikes it rich, enters a new life of wealth and ease, and intervenes in the travails of Fantine (Hathaway), a poverty-stricken single mom. The background of the tale is the rise of revolutionary rage against the corrupted and corrupting political system, which afflicts the poor with economic, political, criminological, and familial injustices that have not been definitively vanquished to this day.

Les Miserable movie posterDespite awesomely bad reviews from some powerful critics, Les Misérables has racked up great box-office numbers, and it’s the first musical to win a best-picture nomination since Chicago a decade ago. I’m not a great admirer of the movie, which strikes me as too long, too loud, and too self-righteous about its weighty themes. That said, however, I’m pleased to see such conspicuous success accrued by a film that has weighty themes—solidarity with the oppressed masses doesn’t figure very prominently in, say, the average Die Hard movie—and while neither director Tom Hooper nor composer Claude-Michel Schönberg does work of historic importance here, it’s encouraging that audiences have endorsed a serious musical with a continuous-music format that’s closer to opera than to Singin’ in the Rain. May it continue to prosper, flaws and all.

Saving the worst for last, I’m still having horrible nightmares in which Django Unchained gets nominated for five Academy Awards, and as crazy and impossible as that seems, when I wake up it turns out to be true! I’ve tried to reconcile myself to this reality, but I can’t shake the idea that a best-picture nod for this nasty bit of work reveals a rotten little spot in Hollywood’s heart that ought to be excised on an emergency basis.

The story is vaguely related to that of Django, a 1966 spaghetti western by Sergio Corbucci about a gunslinger who slouches into town dragging a coffin behind him and proceeds to kill almost everyone he sees with a weapon that was hidden in said coffin. Quentin Tarantino’s variation on this theme sets the action just before the Civil War and makes Django a slave purchased from captivity by a dentist turned bounty hunter. The plot builds to a bloodbath in which, once again, almost everyone gets killed.

Django Unchained movie posterI respect Tarantino as a born entertainer, a brilliant technician, and a gifted practitioner of what Alfred Hitchcock called “pure cinema,” playing the audience’s emotions like a virtuoso violinist with a Stradivarius in hand. In some of his pictures—Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown—his expertly assembled casts and strokes of cinematic ingenuity are dazzling enough to make the experience truly memorable. But on other occasions he works up situations so contrived and imagery so sadistic that his pictures can’t be mistaken for anything but childish revenge fantasies. Tarantino may be embarrassed by the base emotions he’s so good at arousing, because lately he’s been disguising his violent melodramas as historical morality tales. In the recent Inglourious Basterds he wrought spectacular havoc on Hitler, Nazism, and the Holocaust, a trio of genuinely evil targets. He repeats the trick in Django Unchained, blasting slavery, human trafficking, and American racism with explosive bursts of screen-shattering destruction.

I agree with Tarantino on one point: those things are evil! Reexamining them could be beneficial if he had something of value to say. But he doesn’t, and not even career-best performances by Leonardo DiCaprio, Samuel L. Jackson, and Christoph Waltz (who richly deserves his supporting-actor Oscar despite its lowdown showcase) manage to lend the gun-worshiping action flick the responsibility and respectability that any Oscar contender ought to have. This is a Django that shouldn’t have been unchained. Let’s hope Tarantino turns his prodigious talent to more constructive ends next time around.

Tikkun film critic David Sterritt is a film professor at Columbia University and the Maryland Institute College of Art and guest editor of Film Quarterly. His most recent book is Spike Lee’s America, published this year by Polity.
 
tags: Culture, Film, Reviews   
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