With the beautiful Santa Anita racetrack, right outside of our theater, on a lovely winter day in Southern California, we spent eleven hours in a dark movie house seeing the remaining best picture nominees yesterday. Today is Oscar Sunday so we will see what actually wins, but for the moment my impressions of the final films.
This is a very sweet and sentimental love story about an Irish girl who comes to America and falls for both her new life and a young man. The courage that it takes someone to get up and move halfway around the world and start over is amazing. I saw a Hollywood Reporter story about an actor’s ballot and he ranted anonymously about how immigration was not really like this and that if you wanted to know how it was, see America, America. I’m all for exploring the many variations on the immigrant experience but I suspect they are as divergent as the cultures that people came from. I sat watching this with my friend who’s Mother had a very similar experience coming from Ireland and she said it was not dissimilar to this film. The Irish Catholic immigration story from 1950 is probably different from the Italian Catholic story of 1900. So let’s take this for what it is rather than what someone else thinks it should be.
A young girl has little hope of a satisfactory life in her native land, and her enterprising older sister arranges for her to move to New York and start anew. The production design here is the kind of thing that makes me want to return to those days. The Department stores were elegant, the cars were huge, and the clothes were vibrant and becoming to both men and women. I know it is a technicolor wash of the old days but it looked completely dreamlike and wonderful. The village in Ireland was quaint but gorgeous and the streets of New York were vibrant and active. The screenplay by Nick Hornby is filled with words that sound like they were spoken in 1952, both in the world and in the movies. Actress Saoirse Ronan is excellent in the part and she seems luminescent despite supposedly being the plain Jane in her circle of friends at home and in New York.
The story takes a dramatic turn that forces us to think about what the choices in life we make really mean. It seems for a while that the hopes she carries are tested by the dreams of her youth. In the end, the audience is satisfied that the right choice is made and there was a point to all the process that we watched. I doubt that the film will win but as I said to my companions, if it does, it will be a victory I can live with, all of the movies nominated this year are worthy in my opinion.
This is a movie that uses so many things that Hollywood films have loved over the years. There is a political mystery, being unraveled by journalists, fighting a seemingly implacable foe. There is also no rooting for the other side because the evil that is being fought against is the worst kind of crime and the hubris of the institution is one of the most unforgivable sins imaginable. There is enough finger pointing to go around by the end of the story that even the journalists themselves do not emerge unscathed. There is a collection of colorful characters and the ensemble acting is top notch.
I did think that the usually reliable Mark Ruffalo was the weak link in the cast. He was not bad, but I could see his performance so much more obvioulsy than everyone else. This is the fault of the screenplay which gives him one scene of histrionics that feels very out of place with everything else we have been shown. Michael Keaton was extremely good and of the cast I’d have picked him for the acting honors rather than Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams. Maybe the biggest performance that is over looked however belongs to Stanley Tucci, as a quirky attorney, filing lawsuits that never get the attention and the punitive damages that they deserve. His fury is so controlled it is disturbing. He seems odd but he may be the most stable of the lawyers involved in the whole mess. Familiar TV actor Jamey Sheridan and Movie idol turned character actor Billy Crudup are attorneys who do their jobs and live by their code of ethics, but each seems unsatisfied and unable to do anything about it.
The functioning newspaper in the film may be a relic of the past, but it is a good contrast to the dysfunctional strategy of the Catholic Church hierarchy to address a true evil by treating it as a character flaw the equivalent of being an alcoholic. That they cared more for the priests that made up their order than they did for their parishioners is the thing that will damn them to the hell they earned. That this movie manages to unwrap this horror in the calm, deliberate manner that it does is perhaps it’s most impressive feature. It is not my favorite film of all the nominees, but If i were a voter, I’d cast my vote for this movie which manages to make a serious story into a thriller with a conclusion that is only satisfying in the sense that the truth was uncovered. Director Tom McCarthy made a film a few years ago that I really liked, “Win,Win” and he has made another seriously entertaining film about a hard subject to look at.
From a purely entertainment point of view, this was my favorite of the films nominated. “The Martian” takes a great near future speculative science story and turns it into a tense two hour rescue comedy. The idea that this is a comedy may seem strange, that was my view when it was nominated in that category by the Golden Globes, but it is pretty funny, and I know it had a lot more laughs than some of the alleged comedies of Will Farrel. So, OK, it’s a comedy by that standard. I like the idea of science being used to tell a story but it is a fiction and some of the science here feels a little tacked on to get us out of the conundrums the story put us in in the first place.
Matt Damon may not be one of my favorite people, but he is a fine actor and he has to carry the movie with a star like performance. Like Russel Crowe from fifteen years ago in “Gladiator” director Ridley Scott has taken a big screen “movie star type performance” and surrounded it with technical marvels and enough drama to keep us enthralled for the run of the picture. This is just solid big screen entertainment. Scott was not nominated which seems to suggest that the film has little chance of winning, but it has every chance of being watched repeatedly for years to come, unlike a few other good, but not repeatable, films on the list.
While it is still an excellent film, and it may be the movie to beat this year, a second viewing highlights some of my original evaluation of the movie. It is longer than it needs to be, it is a little more self important than it has earned any right to be, and sometimes it is simply so grim that we should all get an award for enduring it. If Leonardo DiCaprio wins for best actor because of the rigors of making the movie, then we need to retroactively give Harrison Ford an Oscar for some of his Indiana Jones films. The degree of difficulty standard seems to be applying here. This is a film that was next to impossible to make and contained some breathtaking images, but maybe it could use a little work with the script.
I suppose it will win for cinematography, because so often, the movie with the most beautiful locations gets that award. I was a bit weary of the fish eye view of the trees that was used as a transition so often and if J.J Abrams can be criticized for “camera flare” can we give Alejandro Iñárritu a special award for “lens fog”? At least three times he lets the camera deliberately get close enough to the action to get fog on the lens, taking us out of the movie in spite of the effort to use this technique to bring us in.
The film is full of ponderous moments and spiritual flim flam, but it also contains some really impressive moments. Most of these take place in the first thirty minutes of the movie. The attack on the trappers camp and then the bear attack would probably be enough to make this a great film. Unfortunately, for every solid moment like that, there is a dreamlike sequence of skulls, burned churches, and haunted trees to remind you that this movie is supposed to be a spiritual journey and not just a revenge movie. Frankly, “The Grey” did that more effectively, I just wish they had stuck to the adventure.
The poster giveaway at the AMC Showcase was not as satisfying as it has been in the past. They have chosen to go with mini-posters this year and they lack the artwork that marked all the Best Picture nominees. On the other hand the embossed lettering and the Tenth Anniversary slogan, “I Saw the Best Back to Back” is a very nice design.
Till next year, thanks AMC.