Friday, December 11, 2009

Tidings for Muriels Season

With awards season fast approaching, it’s now time to begin what has become an annual tradition for me- Muriels cramming. Having a limited amount of free time at my disposal throughout the year, I tend to find that there’s a decent-sized list of movies remaining come December that I feel compelled to watch before filling out my Muriels ballot. But while in the past I’ve felt a certain duty to take in anything that seems to be remotely in contention for awards, this year I’m getting a little weary of the process.

I suppose this feeling began last Friday, when I watched one of this year’s prime bits of Oscar bait, Lone Scherfig’s An Education. Here is a movie that has all the right ingredients to be a major awards-season player- a star-making turn from Carey Mulligan, a classy (mostly English!) supporting cast, and handsome production values, in the service of an adaptation of an acclaimed memoir, thereby carrying the attendant “based on a true story” cachet. It’s all so perfect- perfectly produced, perfectly performed, perfectly dull. There’s nothing in An Education to jolt the stereotypical arthouse crowd out of their collective comfort zone, but also nothing to make it memorable aside from Mulligan. If An Education makes a star of its leading lady, I certainly won’t complain, but one luminous performer doesn’t a worthy movie make. Compare it to a hard-edged movie like this year’s Julia, which features Tilda Swinton’s career-best work, and you see the difference between a film that uses its star turn as a crutch and one that actually makes it the foundation upon which everything else is built.

In years past, the idea that I would be with skipping a potentially “important” awards contender would have been surprising to me. But then, I had more time to watch movies back in the day. Nowadays, my movie-watching time has decreased significantly, so I have to make the most of it. So rather than sitting through anything that might have even the slightest chance of contending for my end-of-year honors, I’m forced to get more selective. With this in mind, I’ve come up with some rules of thumb I intend to observe this Muriels season, in the hope they’ll help me sift through the dross:

1. If I don’t think I’ll like something, I probably won’t.

In every cinephile, there exists a certain amount of hope that the movies we see will surprise us. But realistically speaking, this doesn’t happen very often. I’ve seen plenty of movies in my time, and this has shown me where my tastes lie as a moviegoer. Consequently, I’ve learned to trust my instincts when choosing what I’ll see. If I want to see something, I’ll find a reason to see it. If I don’t, I most likely won’t. And if I’m not sure, I’ll wait for the reviews. Of course, this method isn’t foolproof, but it works as well as any other I’ve found.

With the proliferation of movie blogs both professional and amateur, the amount of criticism (both positive and negative) can be overwhelming. Thus, trusting my own tastes has allowed me to eliminate the critical noise while making my decisions. The best recent example I can think of is the new movie Precious. By all accounts, this is one of this year’s Oscar juggernauts. But I’m just not interested. When I first read about it in this year’s Sundance coverage, it didn’t sound especially promising, and in spite of everything I’ve heard since then, it just doesn’t seem like my kind of thing.

As a fan of Charles Burnett and Spike Lee, I can assure you that I’ve never shied away from onscreen depictions of the lower-class African-American milieu. No, my lack of interest in Precious stems from my longstanding aversion to victimization stories. As doormats go, the title character in Precious is a doozy- poor, grossly obese, illiterate, raped (and impregnated) by her now-absent father, and perpetually abused by her mother. Factor in a mentally-handicapped baby and a terminal illness (what, no cute puppy?) and you’ve got a movie that practically dares you not to pity its protagonist and be uplifted by her eventual victories. Problem is, by encouraging pity from the audience rather than active sympathy, movies like this tend to reduce their pathetic protagonists into Others, comforting viewers with the idea that, hey, at least they don’t have it that bad. Or as Band Aid so memorably put it in that incredibly patronizing holiday mainstay “Do They Know It’s Christmas?,” “be glad it’s them instead of you.”

Honestly, I hope I’m wrong about Precious. If nothing else, the film’s fans are legion- hundreds of mainstream critics are falling over themselves with praise, and it’s become this fall’s Little Indie That Could, with major players like Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry in its corner. However, I’ve spoken with a number of people I trust who have seen Precious, and nothing they’ve told me so far has changed my initial mind about the film. Additionally, in a certain movie nerd poll (in which I’m a voter), Precious is currently ranked at a meager #104 among this year’s releases, well below such acclaimed titles as Monsters vs. Aliens, I Love You, Man, and Crank 2: High Voltage (that movie is awesome, by the way). I hate to get all J. Ro on my readers, but until someone can give me a compelling reason why I owe it to myself to see Precious, I think I’ll just give it a pass. At least, until it cleans up at the Oscars. Speaking of which…

2. Just because a movie is designed to win a raft of Oscars, that doesn’t make it good.

I’ve been following the Academy Awards for well over a decade, and if I’ve learned anything from this experience, it’s that not all Oscar contenders are created equal. Some movies that capture the fancy of the AMPAS voting body are legitimately great films, whether they’re works of epic filmmaking ambition or wonderfully crafted entertainments. But others are seemingly deemed Oscar-worthy less for their quality than by virtue of their ability to hit the voters’ sweet spots. When people talk about “Oscar-bait,” they’re referring to the latter. And over the past few decades, no one has been more skillful at making Oscar-bait than the Weinstein brothers.

At the peak of the Miramax empire in the late nineties, Harvey Weinstein (and to a lesser extent, his brother Bob) perfected the technique for crafting ready-made Academy attention-grabbers. Start with an acclaimed literary property or a red-hot script, pack it full of Serious Actors (no lightweight movie stars will do), and hand it off to a trusty in-house director like John Madden or Lasse Hallstrom. Then make sure the production values are impeccable, and once production’s over, sell the product film as aggressively as possible. This proved to be extremely successful, with Miramax garnering Oscars for a sweeping epic (The English Patient), a frothy period rom-com (Shakespeare in Love), and a hyperkinetic musical (Chicago).

Ever since they parted ways with Miramax four years ago, the Weinstein brothers have had some trouble finding their old groove. But this fall’s Nine has all the earmarks of a classic Harvey Special. There are no fewer than six (SIX!) Oscar-winning actors in the cast, and the direction is by Chicago’s Rob Marshall, who has brought back most of his Oscar-winning below-the-line team. In other words, after his baity The Reader got beaten by Slumdog Millionaire last year, Harvey’s leaving nothing to chance.

Sorry, but I’m not buying. For one thing, I’m a little sick of the prestige-ification of the musical genre in recent years. Musicals have their roots in light entertainment, but in their attempts to create the next Chicago, studios have turned a genre once categorized by light-footed entertainments into bloated, plodding affairs that are puffed up with self-importance and art-directed to death. Frankly, I could do without the stunt casting of big-name stars in these movies, as if the fact that Richard Gere and Helena Bonham Carter aren’t full-time singers somehow excuses subpar crooning (I say this as a fan of Sweeney Todd, by the way). And while I’m certainly not averse to serious musicals, it’s one thing for a musical to tackle heavy material, and quite another for one to feel heavy due to its sheer relentlessness.

But what I resent even more is how calculated Nine feels, from its conception on down. While I’ve learned to distinguish good Oscar movies from bad ones, there’s still a significant percentage of moviegoers who still equates Oscar success with quality. But a gifted cast and an impeccable technical pedigree isn’t enough to make for a movie that’s worth watching. It’s not that Rob Marshall is a bad director- he’s a moderately-talented company man who pulls off Harvey’s goals with a minimum of fuss- but there’s no vision there. In fact, I dare say that the only vision dancing in the heads of Marshall and the Weinsteins involves a mantelpiece full of little golden statues.

3. I simply can’t see everything.

One of the first lessons that I learned in Microeconomics was the concept of utility- the idea that, given a limited amount of money, time, or other resources, the logical person will choose the option that brings him the greatest relative pleasure or gain. To apply this idea to moviewatching, if I only have time to see a handful of movies per week, I’ll most likely go with the ones I think I’ll enjoy the most. Of course, there are other factors in my decision, including the location where it’s playing and how long it’s running. But generally, I’d say the idea of utility is applicable to my moviegoing habits.

Living in Columbus is something of a double-edged sword when it comes to my viewing choices. On the one hand, I have something of a limited slate from which to choose- limited releases make it here weeks if not months after they bow in NYC, if at all, and there are weeks where there’s next to nothing that interests me. On the other hand, I rarely find myself in a position where I’m unable to see every theatrical release I want to see. Generally, I’m able to catch up with every local release that strikes my fancy.

The exception to this rule is at the end of the year. Suddenly, after withholding them for most of the year, the Hollywood studios dump the majority of their alleged heavy hitters in November and December, all in an attempt to snag some Oscar glory (truth be told, I see that game plan backfiring this year, when voters find themselves with ten Best Picture slots to fill, but that’s neither here nor there). For someone in my position- having a life, in short- I only have time to see two or three movies per week at most, and if the number of movies that I’m curious about is greater than the number I have time to see, something has to fall by the wayside. Whereas I might have had time for these movies earlier in the year, by the time December rolls around, something, as they say, has gotta give.

Naturally, there will always be directors whose films I make a priority to see. I’ll always line up for new releases by Rivette, Malick, the Dardenne brothers, P.T. Anderson, Von Trier, DePalma, Desplechin, and the guys at Pixar, to name a few. But while I have an undeniable sentimental attachment to these directors, I also recognize that they’re good bets, and even if they don’t hit a home run every time they’re at the plate, their batting averages are pretty darn high . Among high-profile films coming out later this month, I’m pumped for the Werner Herzog/Nicolas Cage Bad Lieutenant sequel/spinoff/thingamajig, because duh. Also, I’ll certainly make time for Avatar and The Lovely Bones, since for all their flaws, James Cameron and Peter Jackson are two of the only big-ticket filmmakers in Hollywood who consistently imbue their big-budget productions with real vision and grandeur.

Clint Eastwood? Not so much. Although I’ve loved some of Eastwood’s films- Unforgiven especially- I wouldn’t consider myself to be an unconditional fan by any means. His films tend to have a workmanlike quality, and the good ones succeed primarily because they tell good stories. Simply put, the story for Invictus doesn’t really grab me. Those who’ve followed the blog for any length of time know that I’m not especially keen on the biopic genre, but of all the contemporary figures whose lives demand the biopic treatment, Mandela has to be near the top. So you’ve got a story about Nelson Mandela, complete with the casting of Morgan Freeman as Mandela (the great man’s choice, might I add!), and the best you can do is to put him in an underdog sports saga? Are you frickin’ kidding me?

Not even the presence of Freeman and Damon, two of Hollywood’s finest actors, makes me all that curious to see this. For my money, Freeman has too many Dreamcatchers and Bruce Almightys on his résumé to be a sure thing, and Damon is much more interesting when he’s playing screwballs than heroes (as in this year’s The Informant!). And I’m a little weary of Eastwood’s elder-statesman phase, with every story he tells getting bogged down with shadows and foreboding. Just once, I’d like to see Clint cut loose again behind the camera, make something just for entertainment’s sake (another Space Cowboys, perhaps?). It might not get any Oscar nominations, but it should at least be fun.

A few days ago, I received an e-Mail from a prospective Muriels voter, asking me whether he needed to worry about seeing all of the big awards-season releases before filling out his ballot. I told him that wasn’t necessary, and I suppose that this post is my way of telling the rest of you as well. To me, the Muriels have always been about recognizing the achievements from the past year that inflame our passion about cinema. And I’ve always found that nothing dampers my cinematic passion more than watching a movie out of duty rather than legitimate desire or curiosity. The Muriels have never attempted to be the Oscars, or even to follow them. If our tastes are different, well, that’s what makes life interesting, isn’t it?


Jason_alley2 said...

I sympathize with your frustration of living in a second/third-tier city at this time of year and simultaneously having a life. There are so many movies I'm interested in and sometimes so little time in which to cram them in.

That said, I really DO recommend "Precious". I just saw it last night and thought it was pretty fantastic. Though it does tend to lay it on rather thick at times, there is a gripping authenticity to the script and especially the performances. Rather than just a wallow in self-conscious misery (like, say, "21 Grams"), it's a raw character study of a very life-like person who happens to be victimized on many different levels, and there are an unfortunate amount of people who really DO have a life that is that awful, or even worse.

There are a few directorial quirks that slightly bug, but overall I felt like I had been on quite a journey by the end of it, and was worn out emotionally as well (in a good way). I also did not feel my "strings pulled" at any time.

It's also worth seeing for the acting, plain and simple. Mo'Nique's final scene is so good it sucks all the air out of the room.

So that's my spiel in defense of "Precious" with it what you will.

Even better, I really, REALLY recommend making every effort to see "Passing Strange". It's brilliant and pretty much the antithesis to the high-falutin' Miramax-style Oscar-bait musicals. In my Top 5 for 2009, for sure.

Oh and "Bad Lieutenant..." is awesome.

Ok, I'm done!

James said...

You've beautifully touched on a point that has bothered me for a couple of years: that even a cinephile doesn't want to see everything. For a long time I felt guilty that I'd see the trailer for a film like "Invictus" and cringe at the thought that I'd have to sit through it. Shouldn't I be eager to consume pretty much everything?

But you're right. A cinephile's taste becomes so acute that one gets a danger sense for what is likely to work for you and what won't. And even since I started reviewing four years ago, I've learned a lot about how valuable time is. When you sit down to watch something boring or uninteresting, even if it's for free, that time investment hurts.

I'll likely always work overtime to see the major Oscar nominees simply because I host an Oscar party that kicks fucking ass, but I've become content to let films that don't intrigue me simply slip by if the culture will allow it.

Bryan Whitefield said...

Paul - I couldn't agree more. Your specific examples of Precious, Nine and Eastwood echo my own feelings almost exactly. And this is one reason I'm very happy to be a contributor to the Muriel's - precisely because it revels in its independence, personal preference and lack of award show influence.

Bryan Whitefield said...

I will also add that as someone who takes submitting these lists a little too seriously there are few things worse than stumbling across a film you absolutely love after the final ballot is in. As was the case this week when I finally saw "A Christmas Tale" - a film that was in theaters in NYC for some time and had nothing but glowing reviews. That was a bad miss on my part...