Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Oscar the grouch

Correlating the Oscar nominees with my movie-going reveals a pattern. I've seen 3 of the nominees in the theater, and they were all modern-setting historical dramas based on real-life events about famous people, a currently popular type of movie I have a weakness for. I think they're the only movies I've gone out to see in the last several months.

They were The Post (Best Picture and Best Leading Actress, which it deserved), Darkest Hour (Best Picture, Best Leading Actor, and a bunch of production categories, which it also deserved), and Marshall (Best Original Song: I don't remember it even having a song).

But I also saw one other nominee, and that not in a theater: Mudbound, which I streamed via Netflix on the very computer on which I'm now typing. Mudbound is a kind of story that normally doesn't interest me, about people doing stupid and insensitive things and then getting hit on the side of the head with a clue-by-four, but I'd read that it was well-regarded, so here's the thing: watching it on Netflix is like waiting for the DVD. You can watch it at home, you don't have to spend movie-ticket prices, and above all, if you don't like it you can turn it off without disturbing other people as you leave the theater or feel as if you wasted your time and money going there.

And it was good: I watched the whole thing with captivation, which is far more than I can say for any of the online original TV series I've tried to watch lately.

But it was fear that I'd be trapped in a theater with something I wouldn't like that kept me away from a number of other movies. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, for instance: it's an intriguing premise and the cast is outstanding; but it was written and directed by the same guy who made In Bruges, a movie with an intriguing premise and a good cast but which made for one of the more tedious afternoons I've spent in a moviehouse.

I just don't want to risk going through that again, so I'll wait for the DVDs on Ebbing, and Lady Bird and The Shape of Water and All the Money in the World and I, Tonya, and Roman J. Israel, Esq., all of which I also thought about going to see but didn't.

Two Best Picture nominees I won't watch under any premise: Dunkirk - I don't do big-battle war movies, I just don't - and Get Out - I don't do horror movies, I just don't.

So how were the ones I did see? I liked all of them.

I didn't already know the specific story in Marshall, but I was struck - though nothing I've read about the movie has mentioned this - by the similarity of the case Marshall tries to the one in To Kill a Mockingbird (a book not yet written when this takes place). The premise is close to identical, and I'm surprised how, even today, the race-relations side of the story entirely drowns out the sex-relations side.

The Post is impressively historically accurate. Various writers for the New York Times have grumbled about it leaving out the Times more important role in the Pentagon Papers publication, but the movie's opening is misleading: this isn't about the Papers themselves. Due to the course of events, the Post faced a thornier dilemma of journalistic ethics - the Times had already been legally enjoined from publishing; should the Post defy the spirit of the order and go ahead? - and that's the center of the story. The scene where a flustered Graham tells the editors to go ahead is straight out of her memoirs, though it omits the reason for her decision: the paper's lawyer had said he wouldn't do it, but she noticed he provided no justification (the possibility of prosecution, the threat to the stock price), leaving her, she felt, the freedom to go the other way.

As for Darkest Hour, what's the opposite of "pitch-perfect"? "Pitch-imperfect"? This movie is meticulously made in all its physical detail, but the script is continuously slightly off, and sometimes not-so-slightly. The need to paint Churchill as a hero and therefore Halifax (and Chamberlain) as villains infects everything. They were all of them flawed but honorable men doing the best they could, and an honest movie like The Post would reflect that.

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