Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Sh*t Happened One Night

Click here for Episode 7 of Best Pictures from the Outside In.

You like us, you really like us! Nathaniel's full transcript for Episode 7 of Best Pictures from the Outside In just went on-line, and we already have seven comments, many of them commiserating with what to me is the unforgivable victory of Ron Howard's scared and very safe A Beautiful Mind over Robert Altman's saucily observant Gosford Park, Peter Jackson's majestic Fellowship of the Ring (my full review here), and Baz Luhrmann's inventively exuberant Moulin Rouge! (my full review here). I can't get on board with the idea that Mind's success was an all-out travesty, since I still think that Todd Field's In the Bedroom is as self-fetishizing and frustrating a middlebrow arthouse film as A Beautiful Mind is a burnished crowd-pleaser. But Oscar Night '01 remains, nonetheless, a major miscarriage of justice, not because A Beautiful Mind is worse than other Best Picture winners—as we've seen recently and will again, it's not—but because Oscar came so close, and yet so far, from doing the right thing with its top prize.

Since I didn't get a chance to say so during our conversation, I'll add that I do think A Beautiful Mind has one bracing little moment of writing, directing, and performance, when Jennifer Connelly asks an on-the-mend Russell Crowe to take out the trash just for a change of scenery, and she overhears him talking to people who aren't there, only to be corrected. It's a very rare scene for letting you identify heartily with both points of view, and for ending with a tone that isn't what you expect. Both actors successfully project characters who feel like whole people, and Nash's dementia seems like a three-dimensional dramatic situation. Would that we'd seen more of this.

Thankfully, sometimes Oscar does do the right thing with its top prize, and even more thankfully, some films are brimming with beautifully played and directed scenes, and with three-dimensional dramatic situations. I'm the only one of the three of us who was left wanting just a bit more from It Happened One Night this time 'round, but that doesn't change that the film remains one of my all-time favorite winners. I still rejoice that, in a rarity for his early youth, Oscar had the grace and merriment to reward a comedic love story and a character piece that isn't about a legendary scientist or a famous leader. As Mike points out, there is so much more to say about this rich, delicate, ambitious, and entertaining movie than we were able, so keep the conversation flowing in the comments!

For reasons of available time, which have also hampered my recent viewing, I haven't seen all of the 1934 nominees yet and can't deliver my own rankings as has been my recent custom. In fact, '34 is sort of a weak year for me overall, so as you wait for my updates (once I've seen Cleopatra, Flirtation Walk, and a couple of others), please let me know your own favorites from that year. I love taking direction, and with any luck at all, yours will be better than Ron Howard's.

This Week: Nathaniel's transcript and Goatdog's tie-in entry
Previously: ep.1: Wings & No Country; ep.2: Broadway Melody & Departed; ep.3: All Quiet & Crash; ep.4: Cimarron & Million Dollar Baby; ep.5: Grand Hotel & LOTR:ROTK; ep.6: Cavalcade & Chicago

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Blogger NATHANIEL R said...

i've seen few of IHON's rivals either --my favorites of 34 are the usual suspects

L'Atalante (the only thing that measures up to IHON) Imitation of Life and The Thin Man

so i'm also eager for suggestions. Bring them on.

7:13 AM, August 14, 2008  
Blogger Noah Adams said...

I agree with you in regard to A Beautiful Mind, but I happen to love Field's IN THE BEDROOM which I believe to be the most accomplished film by an American, so far, this decade.

11:33 AM, August 14, 2008  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Noah: Thanks for writing. I've made my case about Bedroom in the review linked above, and just this once, I'll refrain from repeating myself ad nauseum. But feel free to post more of the reasons for your prodigious enthusiasm; I'm always interested, even when I don't agree.

11:48 AM, August 14, 2008  
Blogger Dan Callahan said...

"It Happened One Night" fully deserves to be the best picture winner in '34; among the nominees, only "The Thin Man" can rival it. And I never care about the mystery plot in the "Thin Man" movies, so that knocks it down a notch.

There are some real duds among the picture nominees. "Here Comes the Navy" is just a bread-and-butter Cagney/Pat O'Brien vehicle. "House of Rothschild" and "One Night of Love" are curiosities at best. The only one I haven't seen is "The White Parade"....but come on. Loretta Young in a movie about nursing?

"Cleopatra" is cheap fun, and "Barretts" is stuffy and overlong, but boasts a terrific Charles Laughton performance. Stahl's "Imitation of Life" is a great movie, and a neglected one.

I'd knock out Frank Borzage's Powell/Keeler formula "Flirtation Walk" for his masterful "Little Man, What Now?" and the part-Howard Hawks directed "Viva Villa" for his essential "Twentieth Century."

Great films that didn't get nominated: Vidor's "Our Daily Bread," Lubitsch's "The Merry Widow," W.C. Fields in "It's a Gift." And, towering above them all, even "It Happened One Night," Von Sternberg's raging masterpiece "The Scarlet Empress."

12:18 PM, August 14, 2008  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Dan: My current "tops" list goes Scarlet Empress, It Happened One Night, L'Atalante, and then a soon-to-be-settled horserace between Imitation of Life and The Thin Man... so we're clearly thinking on the same page. I might have liked Barretts a little more than you did, and also The Gay Divorc&#233e (Ginger again!), but all the other titles you mentioned are high on my list to catch up with, especially Twentieth Century, which is sitting right here, waiting for me to meet my writing deadline.

Little Man, What Now? is a new title to me, so thanks for that one!

1:23 PM, August 14, 2008  
Blogger goatdog said...

I was recently shocked at how much I love John Ford's Judge Priest, which debuted pretty high on my '34 top ten list. Other than that, I really liked Upperworld which features Warren William as a railroad tycoon who starts seeing a showgirl (Ginger Rogers) because his wife (Mary Astor) ignores him. And Michael Curtiz's Mandalay is a lot of fun, and since you loved Kay Francis in Trouble in Paradise, this and 1932's One Way Passage should convince you that she's unjustly forgotten.

1:31 PM, August 14, 2008  
Blogger Noah Adams said...

It's funny but I love IN THE BEDROOM for almost the exact reasons you don't. I love the baton toss from Tomei and Stahl to Spacek and Wilkinson. I love that because it is Spacek and Tomei that I as a viewer expect their characters to remain the main focus. All of this is intentional misdirect, and serves the structure of this film in a fantastic way. The film is anti-suspense, and anti-vigilante, but it is NOT anti-climatic. I saw this film when it premièred at Sundance with no hype and no preconceptions. For me it was a revelation, and heralded a much hoped for maturation of American independent cinema. Unfortunately, a film can rarely live up to its hype. And it is hard to not want to find fault with something that has been over-praised. I don't mean to assume that you weren't sitting there at Sundance like the rest of us, but after reading your review, if I had to guess I would say you saw it after it had already been "ballyhooed."

9:21 PM, August 14, 2008  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

I can see your point. I don't think I was as hopped up on the advance hype as I was on the excitement of the film's beginning, since I do love to see an American indie filmmaker using a wide frame, being careful with his colors and judicious with his pace, and trying to understand people in a complicated, dramatic way rather than construct something that the studio racket will be likely to get behind. So, even though I really don't like that opening "explain the title" monologue about lobster traps, I was jazzed by how Bedroom started, and then maybe was kind of hard on it for what I see as its disappointing fulfillment of its own promises. (I've gone back and seen the movie again, expecting to like it better, but feeling basically the same; I wrote a little more about it, through the prism of Spacek's performance, here, if you're interested.

Thanks, by the way, for following up!

12:08 AM, August 15, 2008  
Blogger Noah Adams said...

Thanks, Nick.

I read your evaluation of her performance. I guess we just see things differently. Your characterization of Spacek's character being shortchanged by the “sexist” screenplay is, for me, out of bounds. This isn't about justice – emotional or otherwise. And the filmmaker’s obligation to balance gender dignity is hardly the point. Dubus himself, the writer of the short story on which the film is based, wrote that the character of Ruth was inspired from Lady Macbeth. Given that as a starting point, I think both the script and Spacek's performance are true to the story’s conceit. Her quiet underplaying when she tells Wilkinson that she has seen their son's killer in town and that he “smiled” at her (he didn't) can be interpreted two ways – as sincere or as an intentional piece of manipulation. There is nuance in what she does, the kind that too few actors are capable of, no matter how many cigarettes she smokes. I too am a great admirer of Celia Weston, and your idea of her in the lead is an interesting one. I agree with you that Spacek achieved something that was possibly beyond the reach of Lange or Bassett – but I’ll guess Streep would have made similar choices in terms of underplaying the “big” scenes.

3:31 PM, August 15, 2008  
Blogger NATHANIEL R said...

i love In the Bedroom too Noah... and right now I'm wishing it would have won best picture so we could have argued over it in full.

Nick's take is interesting (they always are) but I don't ever feel like the movie reductively becomes about vigilanteism (i think it's as much about that as Gosford Park is about its whodunit... which is to say: not much) or that it's only interested in Tom Wilkinson's grief.

i love the title of the film and i even like the winnowing away of the other characters until we're only left with one couple, which strengthens the film's core ideas... even though that narrowing is the one thing Nick especially doesn't like about it.

to each their own. but thank god some people still make movies that allow for multiple justifiable responses and interpretations

8:56 PM, August 15, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A post about the 2001 Oscars brings back so many bad memories; I can't think of another year where my least favorite nominee won in five of the eight major categories, and where two of the other three categories went to my fourth choice. (Denzel Washington and A Beautiful Mind were just barely ahead of Russell Crowe and Moulin Rouge, I felt.) Gosford Park winning Screenplay, and Black Hawk Down winning two well-deserved techs were the only bright spots of that Oscar night.

I've been almost afraid to watch In The Bedroom again, because although I greatly admired it when I watched it, I thought Little Children was one of the worst films of 2006. I watched it again recently, and I was glad the movie held up, and that Spacek's performance remains every bit as impressive to me as it was initially. I think it's a tough role, one that has to seem introverted, tightly wound (and she is both of those things, and she's also someone who takes great care not to let anyone know how much she's hurting), and yet she gradually has to emerge, to the surprise of the audience, as the dominant party in the marriage. Another actress would make Ruth Fowler emerge as the dominant party early on, in those early scenes where she's trying to discourage the Tomei/Stahl relationship. But Spacek doesn't seem so dominant; she seems like an inoffensive nag, someone who they'll listen to out of respect, but she never begins to emerge as the truly dominant party int he marriage until that argument scene. It's there that we see how savvy she is, and that she knows exactly what buttons to push and how to push them. Best of all is that door slam--this is a woman who clearly knows how to throw her husband off guard. Spacek's loss to Berry's histrionics (and I wish I could find the super-long piece I wrote about how vile and offensive I find Monster's Ball to be) is one of my five or so least favorite Oscar choices of all time.

And not to go on any longer, but I think Wilkinson should've won too. He seems to have turned into a ham lately, but I wouldn't take anything for that performance.

11:17 PM, August 15, 2008  
Blogger Noah Adams said...

dws1982, the way you feel about Little Children is how I feel about Flags of Our Fathers. Your defense of the latter is well thought out. However, I was not able to connect with the execution. I've admired much about Eastwood's recent films, Million Dollar Baby and Mystic River among them, but Flags felt like an on-paper respectable endeavor with disappointing results. For the record I am not among the sucker-punching Haggis bashers, and think that aside from having too many O'Henry neat and tidy endings, Crash was a worthy melodrama and an extremely impressive debut.

In a boxing match sense I agree with you about Spacek vs. Berry, and also your point about Wilkinson being shortchanged by Oscar. I haven't seen enough of his post Bedroom performances to respond to your hammy characterization of recent work. But I thought Wilkinson's performance in Tony Gilroy's, Michael Clayton was absolutely terrific. I know this thread is supposed to center on 2001 and we are digressing into 2006 and 2007, but I'll close in saying that Gilroy's script losing out to Juno's Diablo Cody was as painful to watch as anything.

11:47 AM, August 16, 2008  
Blogger tim r said...

You know, it's great to have people leaping to the defence of In the Bedroom in such a considered way, since it's a film Nick and I have argued the toss over once or twice -- I'm glad I'm not the only one who sees the ending as more disturbing than anything else. I think that movie gets grief as a force that messes people up, frankly, and I think Spacek goes Lady M one better by starting off as this perfectly ordinary nagging mum, as dws puts it so well. For me, it's a hell of a brave choice for the movie to admit that she's distorted so horribly by this primal desire for revenge, and not to have her repent of that or purge it from her system, a catharsis your usual middlebrow melodrama would almost certainly insist on. To my mind, the fact that Ruth gets Tom to do her dirty work is hardly able to count as abandonment in the dramatic scheme of things. I'll put it more simply: if I were murdered and the killer got off on a technicality, I'm fairly sure my mum (who wouldn't hurt a fly and even looks a bit like Sissy) would hunt that motherfucker down, law be buggered. (Expect my dad would be too busy in the garden to help out, but, er, ...not sure where I'm going with this.) Anyway, for a combination of the above reasons and those stated by everyone else, the film knocks me sideways, every time.

As usual I haven't seen nearly enough films from 1934 -- precisely six, by my count -- but I'd have the giddy and brilliantly played Twentieth Century at the top of the pack, then IHON, Thin Man, the original Man Who Knew Too Much, L'Atalante (which I don't really get) and lastly The Scarlet Empress, which must have the gaudiest production design in film history. Those statues! I'm surprised to be saying this about a Dietrich/JvS collaboration, since I love them both, but this one was generally the wrong side of absurd for me, on my first viewing a couple of weeks ago. Don't get me wrong, I do love the implication that Dietrich has slept with the entire Russian army. I'm not nuts. But I'm interested: what do you guys see in the movie, beyond its wild and admittedly tantalising overripeness in every frame? I thought it was invested in a cheaper, ultimately emptier form of "historical" kitsch than the delirious and fearless Blonde Venus, to me his clear masterpiece and a movie of huge, bonkers feeling as well as sex and spectacle. Isn't Empress (and aren't we) too busy gawping to feel much?

6:20 PM, August 16, 2008  
Blogger tim r said...

Oh no! And they'd promised us Vicky Cristina Barcelona was really, honestly, the good one...

1:02 PM, August 21, 2008  

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