This is the time of year when the studios send DVDs of their movies to the members of the Screen Actors Guild, the Directors Guild and, in my case, the Writers Guild. It’s not altruism. They’re hoping to garner our votes for the various awards being handed out in the near-future.
In case you haven’t noticed, there is an annual pattern to the release of motion pictures. During the first few months of the year, the studios dump out most of the movies they suspect won’t do very well at the box office and which certainly won’t be competing for Oscars and Golden Globes. During Easter vacation and the summer months, with kids out of school, they start screening animated features and most of the big action movies based on comic books. Once September rolls around, there’s usually a lull until Thanksgiving kicks off the start of the homestretch.
That’s when they finally let loose all those movies they expect will knock the critics on their keesters. These are the movies you see advertised with quotes from the New York Times and the news magazines. Suddenly, every other movie or, as they prefer being called, film, is “an unforgettable work of art,” “a profound, often disturbing, cinematic experience,” “reminiscent of Ingmar Bergman,” “quixotic and intriguing,” “luminescent,” “heartfelt,” “emotionally overwhelming,” “absolutely electric,” “truly inspired,” “galvanizing” and “a once in a lifetime thunderbolt!” The thesaurus gets more use in one month than it gets during the entire rest of the year.
A person could come down with the vapors just from reading the ads.
So far, I’ve seen nine of the movies that will be fighting it out for the various plaques and statuettes over the next couple of months. Among those I haven’t seen are “Doubt,” “Seven Pounds,” “Gran Torino” and “Rachel Getting Married.”
Now, I understand that except, perhaps, for food, there is probably nothing as subjective as one’s response to movies. All I can offer is my honest opinion and the promise that I will not resort to using a thesaurus.
To begin with, even though I appreciate the studios saving me the price of admission and the bother of leaving my house for the local Cineplex, I have to say that if these nine movies are the cream of the crop, 2008 is the worst year in movie history.
The nine are “The Reader,” “Revolutionary Road,” “Milk,” “Frost/Nixon,” “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” “Changeling,” “The Wrestler,” “Defiance” and “Slumdog Millionaire.”
Before I get into specifics, I should confess that I have very little tolerance for long movies. Back in the 30s and 40s, movies typically ran between 75 and 100 minutes. Because theaters offered double features, newsreels, cartoons and shorts, they rarely ran much longer, unless they had “Gone With the Wind” on their hands. But once TV came along in the 50s, the studios felt that in order to compete, they had to increase the size of the screen and try to turn every movie into a special event. Unfortunately, most of the movies, such as “Cleopatra,” “The Longest Day,” “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” “Ben-Hur” and “Tora! Tora! Tora!,” were only epic in length, not in content.
In time, as the stars and directors usurped the power previously held by the likes of Darryl Zanuck, Harry Cohn, Jack Warner and Louis B. Mayer, movies started to run longer and longer because of the various inflated egos involved. Aside from Woody Allen, they all began to think that running time reflected their own importance. If they took the better part of a year making the damn thing, they weren’t going to let you leave the theater until they were good and ready.
The shortest of the nine movies is “The Wrestler.” I was actually anxious to see it because I had read the raves it had garnered at various film festivals, and I was curious to see Mickey Rourke’s performance. I had been a fan of his when he started out in “Body Heat” and “Diner,” and hoped he was returning to his early form. Frankly, I’m not even sure how I feel about him in the title role because I thought the entire movie was so amateurish. If I had been told that the movie had been written and directed by a couple of 20-year-old theatre arts students at UCLA, I wouldn’t have been surprised. Sometimes, I’m afraid, even a movie that runs just 109 minutes can seem like it takes a day and a half. If Einstein hadn’t beaten me to it, I’m sure that somewhere along the line I would have mentioned that time is relative.
“Revolutionary Road,” which comes in at a minute under two hours, is one of those typically depressing depictions of a modern marriage. A lot of the scenes between Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio play like auditions for the Actors Studio. It’s not that they’re performed badly, just that they seem staged. Of course that may seem like a naïve statement when we all know that movies are staged, but the good ones don’t appear to be.
“The Reader” also stars Ms. Winslet. Of the nine movies, I found this one the most effective. It was certainly the saddest. I could imagine Winslet possibly competing against herself for the Oscar, although I noticed that the Weinstein brothers, Bob and Harvey, who are rather clever when it comes to accumulating Oscars, are claiming in their promotion material that she and Ralph Fiennes are both supporting actors, as are Lena Olin and David Kross. So, the Weinsteins would have us believe there are only supporting players in this movie and that I lied when I claimed that Winslet is the star. Believe me, if they manage to pull off this ploy, it’s Bob and Harvey who should win the Oscar.
I thought “Slumdog Millionaire” had the most interesting premise of the year -- and should certainly kill off India’s tourist industry -- but I, for one, found it dragged a good deal of the time. Still, if I were a betting man, I’d probably pick this one to cop top prize at the Academy Awards.
Frankly, I don’t understand why so many of my friends were impressed with “Frost/Nixon,” especially as most of us are old enough to have witnessed the actual event. Nothing about this recreation struck me as being particularly interesting or illuminating. What’s more, I was put off by the height differential between Nixon (Frank Langella) and Frost (Michael Sheen). In real life, the men were virtually the same height, but there’s a six-inch difference between the two actors, and seeing Nixon loom over Frost just looked weird to me. Also, Sheen, whom I had enjoyed as Tony Blair in “The Queen,” never convinced me he was the insipid womanizer he was portraying.
“Defiance,” about a group of Russian Jews trying to elude the Nazis during World War II, runs 137 minutes, although “runs” is about as inappropriate a verb as one could use in connection with this snoozearama. Daniel Craig, however, proves that he can be as stoic and one-note as Bielski, Tuvia Bielski, as he’s been as Bond, James Bond.
“Milk” provided me with one big surprise. I thought that Sean Penn, who generally strikes me as hammier than pigs feet, was absolutely believable as Harvey Milk, the homosexual activist who was the first openly gay American elected to public office. But the movie, itself, plays like a, well, fairy tale. Every gay character is decent, witty, warm, wise, charming and courageous. In a year or two, I fully expect that “Milk! The Musical!” will open on Broadway, with Nathan Lane in the lead.
“Changeling,” directed by Clint Eastwood, stars Angelina Jolie in one of those dowdy roles that glamour girls take on in the hope of snatching up an Oscar. Eastwood seems to feel that if he leaves “The” off his titles, as in “Unforgiven” and the 141-minute “Changeling,” he’s made enough of a concession to the Philistines. Speaking on behalf of Philistines everywhere, I say it would be better if he edited his movies instead of his titles.
That brings us to “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” If you think the title is a mouthful, you ain’t seen nothing. The movie is 159 minutes long. That’s just 41 minutes less than “Casablanca” and “The Maltese Falcon” put together! “Button” certainly has its nice moments, but at that length, how could it not? Briefly, it is the life story of a man who, for no discernible reason, is born old and becomes younger as the years go by. On the other hand, if you happen to be young when you sit down to watch it, you’ll be eligible for Social Security by the time it’s over.
Didn’t I see anything this past month, you’re asking yourselves, that I could recommend without reservation? It so happens I did. For about the sixth or seventh time, I watched “Bachelor Mother,” a 1939 comedy with Ginger Rogers, David Niven and Charles Coburn. It’s perfectly delightful, has a terrific script, and, not coincidentally, it’s just 81 minutes long.