Ghost Writer – 7

Extremely Hitchcockian music, by Alexandre Desplat, and the bleakly austere setting of “Martha’s Vineyard,” made one sense danger at every turn. Pierce Brosnan, Ewan MacGregor and especially Olivia Williams acted beautifully, and the pieces fit together like a Swiss watch. In short, this was a wonderfully made film. The only problem was the plot, which required one to accept that the CIA, without a recent success to its name, could engineer Britain’s entry into the Iraq War; and that the generally impotent (v. major powers) International Court of Justice could provoke a worldwide hue-and-cry over a Prime Minister’s “rendition” of four alleged terrorists, when the U.S. was doing worse on a weekly basis. Undoubtedly, this story would play better in Europe, where director Roman Polanski, for familiar reasons, is in exile.

Oscar Review

No real surprises among this year’s Oscar winners, although Time’s prediction sheet managed 12 wrong, to 12 right. What dawned on me, however, as it must have before, is how much the Oscars are little more than a popularity contest, rather than a recognition of technical talent. I’m not referring to Sandra Bullock’s win over Meryl Streep’s far more amazing performance; instead, I’m looking at the secondary awards, things like sound mixing.
Now, I am no cinema expert and am in no position to judge films on technical merit; but surely there must be films that aren’t particularly “good” that nevertheless are blessed with extraordinary cinematography or sound editing. But it so happens that of the five nominees for sound editing, all five were also best picture nominees. And we all know that it was not the sound editing that got them included on the best picture list! The situation is not so extreme, but close to it, for all the other categories that apply to every movie released last year, with the exception of makeup (more on that in a minute).
Every movie would seemingly qualify for the awards in art direction, cinematography, film editing, sound editing, sound mixing and, for most, original screenplay. But guess what: Hurt Locker, which happened to win best picture and director, won in four of those six, and presumptive runnerup Avatar won the other two. Now, I felt all along that Hurt Locker was the best American movie of the year, but on its “low budget,” could it really have had the best sound? In other words, if you’re a technical genius but your movie is not one of the two or three favorites of the Academy crowd, you can forget winning an Oscar.
There are two more categories I have omitted that also apply to every film but whose nominations don’t mirror the best picture: costume design and makeup. I exclude the former because, while every movie has costumes, this category is clearly aimed at “costume dramas,” movies employing out-of-the-ordinary clothing, like this year’s winner, The Young Victoria, or even movies about clothing, like Coco Before Chanel. One could almost say the same for makeup, citing the winning Star Trek, where the makeup created alien races. But the makeup in the other nominees, Il Divo and The Young Victoria, was no more extreme than that found in many other flicks – yet the Academy, for this category alone among the 24, offered only three nominations. Maybe for this award they really voted for best makeup, not best picture.

Paris – 6

A forgettable piffle, saved mainly by being a French piffle and the lovely Juliette Binoche. Saw it on the plane four days ago and have already forgotten what it was about.

A Serious Man – 8

A hilarious riff by the Coen Bros on growing up Jewish in St. Louis Park, 1967. A latter-day Job (though I should re-read the book), beset by calamity after another, with allusions as well to Sodom and Gomorrah, while Larry seeks to find out how Hashem talks to mortals, and what he is saying. The rabbis are better at questions than answers, the voice of the day is Jefferson Airplane, and when we do hear God’s voice, is it a tornado?

The Last Station – 6

Strangely unaffecting, in a Chekovian manner. Aristocrats stand around distraught, but we don’t care. About them, the Tolstoyan movement, or Tolstoy’s copyrights. The announced theme is Love, but there is no real chemistry between Helen Mirren and Christopher Plummer; and the younger couple, James McEvoy and the luscious Kerry Condon, exhibit more lust, or puppy love, than any serious model. Paul Giamatti is either miscast or unnecessarily sleazy – what’s his game?, you wonder. An empire of sorts is collapsing, but we don’t care.

The White Ribbon – 8

Michael Haneke’s meditation on cruelty, or evil?, as embedded in German culture, or humanity?, in 1914. The father figures alternated between humiliating their women and beating their children, a lesson the children had learned all too well and practiced on the weakest among them. The world at large was not much better, as we were reminded by the commencement of the First World War. The black-and-white cinematography was stark and stunning, and the untroubled but profoundly troubling face of Karla, the blond young ringleader, remains to haunt well after the closing credits. The opening credits, small, white-on-black and soundless, grabbed your attention, and the unsolved mysteries of the story meant you were never comfortable, just as Haneke wanted.

The Blind Side – 7.5

For Hollywood cornpone, this was done well and was a lot of fun (cf. Whip It). Sandra Bullock ate up the screen, but I was just as enamored of Tim McGraw as her easygoing husband and Collins and S.J., their two age-appropriate kids. By making Michael silent and rather opaque (cf. Precious), we could focus on Lee Ann, who was anything but. It is hard to dramatize the importance of an offensive left tackle in football, so those scenes were rather a stretch; but there was lot of truth to the recruiting sideshow, despite its exaggeration. This was much better than I expected, even after discounting it for its massive popularity.