Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Movie Musings

OK, I've been busy, so I haven't had much time to think. But I have to raise a couple of movie questions -- sparked most recently by my seeing Walk the Line last night.

First a little background: I may already have said that I have a discipline of seeing a movie every Tuesday night (except when one of us can't go!) with a friend. I won't say much about why I call it a "discipline": Suffice it to say that I can be fickle in commitment. But it has been a treat to be drawn into the practice. We've seen some really great stuff -- mixed in with real dogs.

Well, last night we saw the Johnny Cash encomium. We'd not been too inclined to see it -- my friend wasn't too "into" JC's life and misery, and I was suspicious of a bio pic about singers. For my part, I'm slightly acquainted with Johnny Cash's life and career, and I rather enjoy his and June's singing. (Most people know of my love for opera and other things esoteric. Not many know of my closeted love for things blue grass and country of a certain sort -- especially Dolly Parton, whom I consider an adorable genius). But I like Johnny's -- oops, June's -- "Ring of Fire" and other hits. (I don't know the Folsom Prison recording, but now I'm interested.)

I was concerned about a couple things: First, the hoopla was too adoring. The ga-ga-ness of "they sing their own songs" scared me, because I figured I'd be distracted by the difference between the "real" Cash voices and the "acted." I also thought it would be pretty difficult to inhabit Johnny Cash -- something that Philip Seymour Hoffman absolutely nailed in Capote.

Well, I was proven correct -- in my own eyes and ears, if not those of critics. I was annoyed by Phoenix's mannerisms; I was put off by his singing much more out-of tune (flat) than Johnny did. I sympathized with Reese Witherspoon as June Carter Cash -- and I kind of liked her voice (but she sang with a failure to respect vowels and consonants that I don't think the Carter Family would have allowed her to develop).

What devastates me -- well, that's a little drama-queenish, isn't it? -- is that Reese took home the Oscar for this performance. Oh, I recognize that it was a different part for her. But it was not a gargantuan effort, I think. In constrast to Felicity Huffman in Transamerica, it was paltry.

I thought Huffman's performance was incredible. She irritated me throughout the entire movie -- but irritated in a way that rooted in her utterly taking on the role of a man-almost-to-woman. Her walk was terrific -- she actually managed to look like she was struggling much more than the performers in the cross-dressing shows in Chicago. The way she lowered her voice to an eerie sexlessness was brilliant. And through it all, I could feel her pain. Why the Academy was scared off from her, I'll never understand.

But then, what's with Crash as the best movie? I mean, what is new there? What is profound? (Curiously, this was both Kathy and my reaction to Brokeback Mountain, which we found to be an oft-repeated tale of love denied by social opposition, only with two good-looking men filling in for Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant.) What is the message -- that we all have the capacity to be racist, but that we can be complicated racists? Kathy and I watched it over the weekend (my second viewing -- Kathy is often subjected to "seconds" with me, although once in a while I "reserve" a movie for the two of us to see together). We agreed that it was an interesting movie, but that it had little to say. And the implausibilities: Does LA have only six police officers? One social services supervisor? And why has no one pointed out that all the different "races" had their good and bad points, except for the Iranian shopkeeper (who, I trust, is a stand-in for "Arab" -- even though Parsis loathe being represented as Arabs): He incarnates the "Arab" mania for violence and blaming all the wrong people.

When that movie is contrasted with Munich or Good Night, and Good Luck or Capote, I can't begin to understand Academy tastes. I think a local commentator was right: It was a timid, even running scared, response to the realities of the world. Steer clear of the gay cowboys -- nominating the movie was enough; let's not get tangled up with a gay writer; and don't get too political.

Spielberg's Munich surprised me: I didn't intend to see it -- but my friend chose it, so I went. I was converted. The movie was thoughtful, balanced (maybe that's why it lost) in its portrayal of the costs of fighting terrorism on its own terms. It was a fantastic movie (something I was not able to say about Spielberg's Schindler's List).

The Edward R. Murrow film, thank you George Clooney, was really good, too. It's great flaw is that it assumes that people remember Murrow and McCarthey and that whole mess. The movie was too short -- and it would have been better to have been longer, with more build up. But I have to say, as an old Murrow fan, I was not prepared to be so impressed with David Straithairn. I completely forgot what Murrow really looked and sounded like while I was watching this movie.

Overall, I was frustrated by the Oscar awards (I didn't watch the show, but I'd check in every so often with my child to find out who was winning). At least Hoffman's spine-tingling portrayal of Truman Capote was recognized. And I couldn't really argue with Rachel Weisz's win -- although I was impressed with Frances McDormand in North Country , which movie I was also surprised to love.

I know that the motives of the Academy members are mixed -- and since many of them are in the business of producing the dreck from which the "bests" stand out, maybe it's self-preservation at the fore. But this was a year when they had the chance to make some important statements -- not just political, but encouragement for bold, new thinking and for daring portrayals. They opted for safe and cuddly.

I guess we need more George Clooneys and Caroline Barons and the like.

What did I miss?


LutheranChik said...

I'm with you on Good Night and Good Luck; but I did like Crash -- keep in mind, of course, that I live in a community without a theater, that's 35 miles away from the nearest duplex, so my standards are pretty low.;-)

BTW -- I am organizing a Lutheran carnival on the topic of Lutheran spirituality. If you're interested, let me know.

Anonymous said...

Everything one needs to know about the credibility of the Academy was summed up in Jon Stewart's quip: "For those of you keeping score at home...Martin Scorsese, zero Oscars. Three 6 Mafia, one."


Dwight P. said...

RAR, I understand that one of the members of that group thanked Jesus for their success -- with a song about how tough it is to be a pimp! Have we reached bottom yet?