The Report is a good movie facing an uphill battle to find a wide audience and awards glory. The latter is pretty unlikely for anyone except for Adam Driver, who’ll be recognized far and wide for his role in Marriage Story before The Report. The former is a shame, because writer and director Scott Z. Burns does a solid job of turning pretty difficult material into a compelling narrative.
The Report dramatizes the Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation into the CIA’s use of what it called enhanced interrogation procedures and came to be more correctly labeled as torture. Driver is, as usual, terrific as lead investigator Daniel J. Jones, while Annette Bening pulls off a believable Sen. Dianne Feinstein. The cast also features a who’s who of top TV talent from the past five to ten years, including Jon Hamm, Matthew Rhys, Jennifer Morrison, Michael C. Hall, Corey Stoll and Maura Tierney. I really liked the casting of Ted Levine (best known as serial killer Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs) as CIA director John Brennan.
Technically, it’s a very well done movie of the story everyone says they wish there were more of. It’s well-written, well-cast, well acted and effectively evokes both the grit and grime of anonymous black sites with both slick and merely functional bureaucratic settings. It lacks the melodramatic sweep that made, for example, Oliver Stone’s awesome JFK a riveting tale of investigation and government corruption, but it also sticks to a much more conventional version of the truth.
The movie covers material that ranges from recreations of some of the most egregious and offensive acts committed by American government officials in the name of protecting the nation from the next 9/11 to committee meetings and detailed and excited discussions in a sealed subterranean investigation room. This is Driver’s movie and he makes Jones a surprisingly likable bureaucratic protagonist fighting to get the story both correct and out to the public.
The real problem the movie has is a dramatic one. Yes, the material uncovered by the report is dramatic and shocking. But the report also came and went in real life, without making the impact on policy that it warrants. Which raises another problem in terms of seeking a wider audience as it plays so neatly into the extremely polarized political divisions of American society that there’s no way it could change anyone’s mind. Its portrayal of Democrats as the good guys and the Republicans as willingly and completely complicit is only countered by a few jabs at former President Obama and his desire to avoid extreme and impractical political battles. It ends up portraying Jones’ dive into the truth as impotent — in the end, it doesn’t matter that he’s right, that he’s documented horrible things. He never had a chance to spark change.
And The Report meets the same fate. Driver makes it worth a watch, and it is smart and intelligent — it’s just a question of how many people really want that.
I’m going to use the 83rd annual Academy Awards, which are being presented this Sunday (in case you didn’t know) as an excuse to talk a bit about awards in general and to make my picks for the winners this year.
First of all, I have my own rule about awards and their significance: The only thing any award signifies is the opinion of the people giving it at the time they’re making that choice. It means nothing else. This means it’s nice to win, but I’m not going to stop liking a movie I already admire if it doesn’t win, and some movies can get all the awards in the universe and still be, in my opinion, complete crap.
That said, the thing that makes some awards more special than others comes down to who is presenting the award and the exclusivity of the award. The Oscars are a great example of both. Winners have the satisfaction of knowing that the industry — people who know what they’re doing when it comes to making movies — admire their work. They also know that these awards are exclusive and subject to rules that are (for the most part) fair and inclusive of all the work that’s been done in a particular year.
The exclusivity part is best illustrated by what happens when awards are not exclusive. For example, each year only five actors get nominated for best performance by an actor in a leading role, and only one wins. This means out of hundreds of potential choices, only one per year gets to take home the statue. That’s a tough choice for people to make, but it usually means the winner has done something interesting or unusual to earn it. But if you started to, say, split the category up and award a best actor in a drama and a best actor in a comedy and maybe a best voice acting performance for animation, then the exclusivity of winning a best actor Oscar is diminished and it’s not going to be as special. You would always end up with a debate over which of the multiple winners was the best and slights against someone who wins who others will say deserves it slightly less than another of the winners. So keeping the awards exclusive like this is something the Academy wisely resists, and there is a ton of pressure put on them to add more categories because the publicity and marketing machinery of Hollywood would love to have more races to run and those magical “Oscar Nominee” or “Oscar Winner” labels to slap on ads and DVD cases.
To bring this back to comics, when I was a judge for the Eisner awards back in 2005, there were a lot of discussions at the start of the judging process about whether we wanted to add, delete or merge categories. I resisted and argued against adding new categories, and against instances of expanding the number of nominees precisely because doing so undermines the exclusivity (and therefore the prestige) of the awards. Also, I thought making those tough choices was what we had signed on to do, so failing to whittle down the number of nominees to the typical five just because we couldn’t bring ourselves to make a hard choice between two nominees was a cop out.
The one award I argued most vehemently against adding was one for best reality-based comic. My rationale was that comics don’t really do nonfiction. You can stories based on real events, to be sure, but it always has to be adapted into a narrative and filtered through the creators into a form that is otherwise indistinguishable from any other comic. Prose and film can do nonfiction — you can present facts and make a case in both of those media without having to turn it into a story. In film, you can show directly people speaking, places and events as they happen. In prose, you can describe and relate the same sorts of items in a detached, third-person and factual manner. In comics, you just can’t do that and still have the comic book medium be the best way to communicate the points you’re trying to make. The most obvious case for this is Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, which is essentially an academic paper on the mechanics of comics done in comic book form. And for that, McCloud had to re-create himself as a character who narrated the chapters and moved through them in a linear fashion that essentially turned each part of the book into a narrative story. So, I argued against it and won the point. It lasted all of a years — the next year’s group of judges felt differently and went right ahead and added the category.
The other trick for legitimizing your awards is to make sure that they are presented for specific works rather than to a person. If you look at the fine print, you’ll see the Oscar’s don’t give an award for best actor, but for best performance by an actor in a leading role. Voters are choosing a specific work, which is different from voting for a person as best actor. If I think that, say, Jack Nicholson is the best actor every year and he’s not in a movie this year (or not in one that stands out enough for awards attention) it would still be intellectually honest to vote for him as best actor, which would not be the case if the award is for best performance by an actor. It’s a difference that gets easily glossed over, but I think it’s an important one.
On to the fun part: My picks for this year’s Oscars. (FYI, for folks needing help with their Oscar pool ballots: my track record in picking these things is not very good, so follow my picks at your own risk.)
Should win: Toy Story 3. I admit, I’m biased, having covered it extensively, but I still think of the nominees this was the most all-around entertaining and well-made movie I’ve seen all year.
Will win:The King’s Speech. This is a good movie, and it’s pure Oscar bait. And I’d like to think the academy is too smart to give it to The Social Network, which was good but not the groundbreaking film everyone seems to think it is. I think they’re confusing the importance of Facebook in people’s lives for the movie itself being important.
Should win: Joel and Ethan Coen. They’re always great, but of all the noms, True Grit was the one film that I think would have been completely different and far less interesting in the hands of any other helmer.
Will win: Tom Hooper. See above.
Should win: Javier Bardem (Biutiful). Is this guy ever less than excellent? Nope.
Will win: Colin Firth (The King’s Speech). This is an excellent performance, and it will triumph because it also hits all the Academy’s biases.
Should win: Natalie Portman (Black Swan).
Will Win: Portman. This is in a class by itself this year.
Best Supporting Actor
Should win: Christian Bale (The Fighter)
Will win: Bale. Again, nothing else is as memorable as Bale’s Boston junkie.
Best Supporting Actress
Should win: Helena Bonham Carter (The King’s Speech). I think she’s horribly underrated in Oscar circles. She’s always fantastic and was especially superb in this role. I usually love anything Amy Adams is in, but this wasn’t her best role. Steinfeld would be my second choice — her performance was as essential to True Grit as Bridges.
Will win: Melissa Leo (The Fighter). She’s very good, though I think her role is a bit too supporting in that the real conflict in that movie was between the brothers. Her role is not what I remember when I think of this movie.
Should win: Inception. I really dug this movie and felt it successfully pulled off more daring writing stunts than any other movie this year.
Will win:The Kids Are All Right. This movie was written about ad nauseum when it first came out here in L.A., so I’m sure it will win something and this is it.
Should win: Toy Story 3. Again, I’m biased. I think Michael Arndt did a great job on this script.
Will win: The Social Network. Everyone loves Aaron Sorkin for some reason.
Best Animated Film
Should win: How to Train Your Dragon. As great as Toy Story 3 is, I really loved this movie. Plus, I think it has a strong chance to pull off an upset, a la Happy Feet beats Cars.
Will win: Toy Story 3. By nominating it for best picture, it’s nevertheless pretty clear how the Academy feels about this movie.
Best Foreign Film
Should win: Biutiful (Mexico).
Will win:Biutiful. This is one of those wild card categories, plus I admit to not having seen all of these. But Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu makes fantastic movies and I am hard pressed to imagine any of the others surpassing it.
Best Art Direction
Should win: Inception.
Will win: Inception. I can see Alice in Wonderland or The King’s Speech playing spoiler, but the production design on this is pretty spectacular. Plus, Guy Hendrix Dyas is a great guy and he deserves it.
Achievement in Cinematography
Should win: True Grit. Roger Deakins
Will win: Deakins. Everyone loves his work, and this film really looks spectacular.
Achievement in costume design
Should win: The King’s Speech, Jenny Beavan. I don’t always notice the costumes when they’re trying to be subtle, but I thought the costumes were used to excellent effect in this movie. I noticed what the actors were wearing without it being distracting at all.
Will win: Alice in Wonderland, Colleen Atwood. This is just a hunch, but the outfits in this were pretty spectacular and splashy in the way the academy sometimes likes to reward.
Best Documentary Feature
Should win: Inside Job. If you haven’t seen this yet, it is the definition of a must-see. If you don’t leave the theaters absolutely enraged, then something’s wrong with you.
Will win: Exit Through the Gift Shop. This was a great year for docs, and this is easily one of the most bizarre and fascinating stories put to film.
Best documentary short subject
I have to pass on this one, because I’ve not seen any of the nominees.
Achievement in film editing
Should win: The King’s Speech, Tariq Anwar
Will win: Anwar. This was beautifully edited, with much of its power coming from the pacing that Anwar gives it.
Achievement in makeup
Should win: The Wolfman, Rick Baker and Dave Elsey. Come on, it’s Rick Baker! He’s the whole reason this movie got made.
Will win: Barney’s Version, Adrien Morot. But the Academy won’t go for a werewolf movie, so I guess this will win.
Achievement in music written for motion pictures (Original score)
Should win: How to Train Your Dragon. John Powell
Will win: Powell. Hollywood has really taken to this score — and for good reason.
Achievement in music written for motion pictures (Original song)
Should win: “We Belong Together” from Toy Story 3. Music and lyric by Randy Newman.
Will win: Newman. This one sticks with you long after you leave the theater. And Hollywood loves Randy Newman.
Best animated short film
Should win: Day & Night. Teddy Newton.
Will win: Day & Night. The others are really well done films, but this was a terrific idea that works only in animation and really only in 3D. It may be the only 3D movie to come out this year where the 3D is truly essential to the experience.
Best live action short film
Again, I have to pass, having seen none of these. Look for tips on your Oscar pool elsewhere.
Achievement in sound editing
Should win: Toy Story 3. Great stuff.
Will win: Tron: Legacy. This one usually goes to a big effects movie and the sound work in Tron was very strong.
Achievement in sound mixing
Should win: True Grit. Skip Lievsay, Craig Berkey, Greg Orloff and Peter F. Kurland.
Will win: True Grit. I can still hear this movie in my head, so good job.
Achievement in visual effects
Should win: Inception. Paul Franklin, Chris Corbould, Andrew Lockley and Peter Bebb.
Will win: Inception. There was no cooler image in a movie this year than Paris bending. I think that will edge out the sequels in contention, while Alice in Wonderland isn’t as seamless and Hereafter just plain lacks the volume of shots.
The nominees for the 81st annual Academy Awards were announced this morning. Yes, I was up at 5:30 a.m. PST to watch on TV and file a brief report for Animation Magazine.net. But reading the list itself was disappointing in the extreme.
Most of it came in the Best Picture/Best Director categories, which this year are for the exact same five movies, for which the choices are dull, boring and uninteresting.
Yes, a lot of his has to do with the exclusion of “The Dark Knight,” “Wall-E” and even “Waltz with Bashir,” all of which are superior movies that earned overwhelming critical, popular and commercial acclaim. (Yes, “Bashir’s” a little short on the commercial acclaim, but by the standards of films in its genres it already is a huge success.) And you’d think that kind of trifecta would have made an impact on the Academy.
Instead, what we’re left with is nominations for films that are decent but come up lacking in relevancy, entertainment value and even basic quality. But since they fit the Oscar mold and cater to the increasingly antiquated and odd predilections, they get the nod over material that genuinely entertained their audiences with stories that thrilled the heart and the mind.
So I just don’t get it. Especially the nomination of “The Reader,” which hasn’t even been terribly well reviewed but has the double whammy makeup factor of a good performance from Kate Winslet (and, honestly, is she ever anything less than great in anything?) and a Holocaust connection (didn’t the offensive inanity of “Life is Beautiful” cure of this weakness?).
But don’t take my word for it, let’s look at what the critics say as a whole on Metacritic.com and Rotten Tomatoes. (Yeah, it’s not perfect, but it’s a relatively level field from which to judge the overall critical reception of a movie.)
Metacritic posts the following marks for the best pic/director noms (in bold) and a few other popular contenders that missed the mark:
1. Wall-E — 93 2. Waltz With Bashir — 90 3. Slumdog Millionaire — 86 4. Milk — 84 5. The Dark Knight — 82 6. Rachel Getting Married — 82 7. Wrestler — 81 8. Frost/Nixon — 80 9. Iron Man — 79 10. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button — 69 11. The Reader — 58 And here’s what I found at Rotten Tomatoes for the same 11 pics:
1. The Wrestler — 98 2. Wall-E — 96 3. Slumdog Millionaire — 95 4. The Dark Knight — 94 5. Waltz With Bashir — 94 6. Iron Man — 93 7. Milk — 92 8. Frost/Nixon — 91 9. Rachel Getting Married — 88 10. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button — 72 11. The Reader— 60 What’s interesting about both is that “Benjamin Button,” which lead all films with 13 nominations and is generally considered the film to beat, and “The Reader,” are both at the bottom of these lists. For all the usual reasons, “Iron Man” was never in the mix, but “The Wrestler” and “Rachel Getting Married” would have made more sense than “The Reader.”
“Wall-E” did pretty well by most standards, earning six nominations. But being an animated film means it’s chances of a best picture nom are completely undercut by the animated feature category — which it’s not even a sure bet to win. I have this sneaking suspicion that the actors branch, the largest in the academy, will be put off by the lack of dialog in the first half of “Wall-E” and go for one of the others.
“Waltz With Bashir” has much the same problem. Despite being a tremendously effective documentary and finding a completely unique and appropriate animation medium to tell its story in, it’s consigned not even to the ghetto of animated feature but to foreign film. Again, its not even guaranteed a decent shot at winning that category, which has become notorious for overlooking outstanding films in recent years. (“4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days,” anyone?)
Which brings us to “The Dark Knight.” It’s hard not to think it was overlooked because it was a Batman/superhero/comic book movie. It’s really the only explanation. And choosing a mediocre bit of Oscar bait like “The Reader,” a warmed over retelling of a marginal media event like “Frost/Nixon,” or a beautifully crafted but emotionally hollow SF story — that no one involved with would admit is SF — like “Benjamin Button,” and you’ve got a pretty good case that the Academy’s nominations flat out failed to represent the best filmmaking of the year.
Something I’ve long known but almost never been able to get anyone to talk about is the internal politics of the Oscars, which have become insular and restrictive enough to make die-hard Legion of Super-Heroes fans or 1990s X-Men continuity freaks look normal by comparison. A lot of academy members vote for films to support people they’d like to work with, to secure their next job or simply out of some distorted idea that they should vote for a film like “The Reader” just because its serious nature is inherently more valuable than anything a cartoon or a superhero movie could do.
And it’s that last prejudice that really sinks the noms choices, because it’s obvious that a lot of the most innovative filmmaking, a lot of the best work, the films that are connecting with their audiences in significant way, are films like “Dark Knight,” “Waltz with Bashir” and “Wall-E.” Like “Star Wars,” which was passed over as best picture for “Annie Hall,” or “Forrest Gump” trumping “Pulp Fiction,” this will go down as one of those years of regret for the Academy. And their ratings will hurt because of it, no matter how good (or not) Hugh Jackman is as host. And if the Academy continues to nominate films that only fit its seemingly narrowing niche of acceptability, they risk tarnishing their image as the pre-eminent awards in the industry. It doesn’t take much to become a laughing stock — just ask the HFPA how much hurt that one Pia Zadora mistake inflicted and how long it took to heal.
There is hope, however, and it’s “Slumdog Millionaire.” Thankfully, at least one of the films nominated for best pic/director has some energy, gets the blood pumping and actually has people excited to see it do well. Perhaps it’s a coincidence, but I don’t think it is, that director Danny Boyle has eclectic tastes and has made great movies in all kinds of genres, including “28 Days Later” (horror) and “Sunshine” (sci-fi — I may be the only one, but I liked it).
So if I could give one message to the academy, it’d be: Why so serious? Relax. Enjoy going to the movies. And for God’s sake, get over your English teacher. Movies don’t have to adapt Proust, Hemingway, Dickens, the Bible or Faulkner to be serious entertainment. Let movies be movies, and remember — this is supposed to be fun, but it’s also supposed to be a process that honorably searches out and rewards the best filmmaking of the year, regardless of genre or medium of origin.
I didn’t watch the Golden Globes telecast last night, just like I also don’t drink Drano, walk barefoot across broken glass or pour salt in my wounds. But Heath Ledger won the supporting actor award for his performance as The Joker in “The Dark Knight.” I think at this point, it’s a near certainty that he will be nominated and be the favorite to win the same honor at the Oscars. It also raises the overall Oscar profile of “The Dark Knight,” which is gaining ground in the Oscar race and I think stands a very good chance of becoming the first-ever comic book movie to get a Best Picture nom. It won’t win, but as they say, it’s nice to be nominated ….
Deadlines and holiday travel have limited posting this week, bur here’s a few tidbits that I came across:
* I haven’t seen if the trailer for “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” that’s supposed to be running before “The Day the Earth Stood Still” has been made available online yet. But Hugh Jackman’s all over the place, having been named the host for this year’s Oscars telecast.
* Looking at the newspaper ads for Clint Eastwood’s “Gran Torino,” I spotted a name in the credits familiar to comics readers of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s: Jenette Kahn. An exec producer on the film, Kahn was publisher and/or editor in chief of DC Comics for something like 25 years.
* No fewer than four comic book movies made the cut for the Oscar’s visual effects semifinals: “The Dark Knight,” “Hellboy II: The Golden Army,” “Iron Man” and “The Incredible Hulk.” That list of 15 contenders will be pared down to seven for the famous VFX bakeoff in January, with the top three from that event getting actual nominations.
* And Bettie Page, queen of 1950s pinup girls and inspiration for countless comic artists, has died at age 85.
A couple of small interesting things for a frantic Friday morning:
* I don’t have an iPhone, but if I did, I’d definitely take the new ComiX0logy iPhone app for a whirl. The regular site has a very good new comics pull list system that I imagine would be extra helpful if I could pull it up on my phone when I’m at the comics shop because I always forget something. The app also gives you access to some digital comics and, if you buy it the first week, it’s a dollar off.
* In “The Dark Knight” news, the Joker has taken over the mosts recent issue of Mad Magazine. Check out a preview here. Meanwhile, the film is due to be rereleased to theaters on Jan. 23, which give me another chance to check it out in IMAX. And the AP moved a story yesterday about how the film’s Oscar chances have risen as the rollout of awards contenders nears its end.
* Speaking of awards, all you comics creators should be aware that submissions are now being taken for the Eisner Awards. Details here.