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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
February 23, 2012

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Short Films, Oscars, Anti-Oscars

The Academy Awards are on this Sunday night, and once again our guests prepare their ballots. We mark the films that we wish would win, and the ones we predict will win.

One of the hardest categories to outguess is that of short films. Two groups of five are nominated: animated short films and live-action short films.

I'm not sure that actually watching the short films will help you in making predictions -- but it will certainly allow you to find your preferences. Right now, the Carousel is showing the DVD of each category, as one of two hundred theaters nationwide providing this service.

Animated Short Films

It's well worth the time and money, though I do have good news and bad news about the animated shorts.

The good news is that in addition to the nominees, there are four honorable mentions.

The bad news is that three of the four honorable mentions are much, much more entertaining than three of the five nominees.

A sad little mental illness afflicts those who nominate in the animated short film category. It's disnephobia -- the utter terror that these nominators might be caught liking a film that tells a clear and entertaining story.

Apparently, among animators it is very cool to profess to enjoy films in which the technique of animation looks as primitive and unpleasant as possible, and in which no story of any interest to a human audience can be discerned.

Instead, the nominated films are generally of the sort that no one likes, but about which boring people can say pseudo-profound things, leading their listeners to hard liquor or quick departure.

The two most dreadful nominees come from Canada -- a coincidence I'm sure, since the Canadians I've known (including my Canada-born grandfather) love a good story as much as any American.

One is called Wild Life, and it pretends to tell the story of an Englishman who goes to Alberta in 1909, where either nothing happens or something does, but the audience could not possibly care.

The other Canadian entry, Dimanche (Sunday), is from Quebec, so it is in French, when it bothers with any language. It is a tale of a little boy who likes putting coins on the track to be flattened by passing trains. With a drawing style that is blocky and exaggerated to no point, the film shows us how very dull Sundays are in Quebec.

Even finding that a bear's head on the wall of his grandparents' house is still attached to the body of the living bear outside does not add interest to the story, since, when the bear breaks free, it runs in front of the train and either is crushed by it or not -- apparently it would be cheating to let us see; or worse, it was merely a figment of the boy's imagination.

From these two films I learned: Life in Canada is unrelentingly depressing, and all the people in Canada who know how to draw apparently already live in the United States where all the animators who like to tell entertaining stories are employed.

But these two dull films, if they do not kill you outright, are easily forgotten once you've seen the others, all of which are entertaining. However, you can be sure that one of the two Canadian films -- probably Wild Life, because it is the dullest -- will win.

I enjoyed The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, which gave a bibliophile like me a chance to revel in the sight of winged books with personalities and projects to accomplish. The story has no point, but at least it shows us well-drawn, interesting things that we haven't seen before. Come to think of it, this might win. Even Academy voters have to be awake to vote.

A Morning Stroll tracks us through three generations of street life. Someone out for a walk sees a chicken turn a corner, go up a front stoop, peck on a door, and get admitted. The first time is in the 1950s, and the style of animation reflects the era. The second time is today, with cellphones and other paraphernalia dominating.

The third time is post-apocalyptic, and let's just say that it is simultaneously funny and nauseating.

The most entertaining of the animated nominees is La Luna -- from Pixar, which means it cannot win. A boy is out in a boat with two men; they climb a ladder to the moon, and there sweep up a litter of small golden stars. This brief summary cannot tell you the sheer pleasure of watching brilliant animators at work, telling a story of gentle whimsy and pure delight.

But the non-nominees in the theatrical reel really shine. OK, three of them shine. Skylight is a mockumentary about penguins getting killed by the hole in the ozone layer. It is the funniest animated film I've seen in a long time, and not just because it takes on the sacred cow of eco-puritanism.

Amazonia is a perverse frog-eat-bug story about nature cute in tooth and claw in the rain forest. But the highlight, for me, was Nullarbor, an Australian road-rage, nicotine-craving extravaganza whose highlight is the moment when the "hero" pukes up a cigarette he just swallowed and contemplates picking the butt out of the nauseating mess sliding down the window in order to finish smoking it.

Live-action Short Films

There were no extras on the DVD of live-action shorts, mostly because live-action is so much cheaper to make than animated films. Therefore, live-action shorts can be much longer than they need to be. All of them are quite watchable; three of them are brilliant.

Pentecost is three good jokes strung together. First, a bored altar boy in an Irish church accidentally startles a priest into falling over backward; he is punished by his father and the fathers as if he had done it on purpose. So he is grounded from football, until he has a chance at redemption. I'm not telling you the best bits, except to say that, at the end, I was disappointed: all this buildup, and that's all we get?

Raju is the probable winner, and I think it's worth it. A German couple come to India to adopt a child from an orphanage, to which they pay an enormous fee. But when the boy disappears on the first morning together, the distraught father makes a dreadful discovery, first about the boy, and then about his wife. Unforgettable.

The Shore is a loquacious, rambling Northern Irish story about an Irishman's return after decades in America, where he runs into the fiancee he jilted, who went on to marry his crippled best friend. Unfortunately, everything important in the plot is conveyed by dragged-out explanations by the American to the daughter he brought along with him. Meanwhile, most of the time in this long, long "short" is spent setting up one sight gag: a horse-against-cripple chase scene on a tidal flat.

Good performances can't make up for tedious writing. But it's watchable. Entertainment Weekly thinks that this one will win. What a shame if it does -- but it has a recognizable actor in it, and most of the Academy voters are actors, so there you go.

Tuba Atlantic really is about a tuba. Well, it's really about the old Norwegian who finds out he has six days to live -- a degree of precision so absurd that it sets the tone for the entire delightful film. A young girl comes to be his Angel of Death -- his companion till he croaks. Their relationship is delightful, as is his struggle to the death with the local seagulls. This would have been my favorite, were it not for:

Time Freak is actually short, but it uses every second wisely. A sort of Groundhog Day with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. There's two Americans with a time machine. I'm not going to tell you any more than that, because anything I say will spoil it.

Oscar Picks -- Best Picture

Let's begin by saying that this wasn't a particularly good year for movies in general.

Second, let me assure you that, as usual, the nominees are high on pretention and sanctimoniousness, while the most entertaining films are generally ignored.

Naturally, high-adventure films are ignored, even though this year saw the best-ever entries in three franchises: Mission: Impossible, Sherlock Holmes, and Planet of the Apes. In my opinion, Rise of the Planet of the Apes was one of the best movies of the year. But of course it was not nominated.

Hanna was a terrific, original thriller that was completely ignored. Get the DVD and you'll see what I mean.

But confining myself to the movies that were actually nominated, two stand out as being fine popular entertainment and Oscar-bait. The Help might be seen as yet another White Liberals Save the Black People from Evil Southerners, except that the writing and performances were unusually good.

The irony is that to the degree this movie reflects reality, it shows that the darkest days of segregation were clearly over, for the funny reveal that made Octavia Spencer the likely Supporting Actress winner would have led to lynchings, not mere three-stooges bluster.

Ordinarily, the combination of white Civil Rights heroes and copious ridicule of bigoted southerners (nobody sees the irony of bigoted non-southern filmmakers incapable of seeing past stereotypes) would make The Help a lock for the Oscar.

Instead, there's a decent chance that a truly original, unsmug film might walk away with the gold: The Artist, a black-and-white silent film about silent films that is funny, artistically brilliant, smart, and genuine. Of this list of nominees, it's the only one with a chance of winning that will, in my opinion, stand the test of time.

The other nominees are a mixed lot indeed. Hugo is a movie about a depressed, under-appreciated director, made by a self-celebrating, over-appreciated director -- all under the false pretenses of making a children's movie. What a miserable bait and switch.

Midnight in Paris was a shock because (a) it was both watchable and by Woody Allen, and (b) it was a pretty good time travel movie by a non-sci-fi director.

The Descendants was a shock because it was a generally entertaining movie by the same writer-director who brought us the unwatchably smug, pretentious, condescending About Schmidt and Sideways. Still, the methodology is still to make his actors look stupid while pretending to make some kind of smart comment about people who aren't as smart as the director.

And if I see another foul-mouthed know-it-all teenager who turns out to be charming and good after all, I'm going to puke. It's just a gimmick. In the real world, foul-mouthed know-it-all teenagers who treat their parents with open contempt are, in fact, every bit as stupid as they act. These movies are really attempts by filmmakers to look cool to teenagers who terrify them -- usually their own. It doesn't work.

Life is short. I didn't see War Horse because the puppetry that made the play kind of cool was replaced by real horses, which made this another improbable horse movie. I didn't see Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close because life is short and I'd rather play videogames.

Moneyball I meant to see, and will see before the Oscar broadcast; people I trust enjoyed it very much.

Which brings me to The Tree of Life, which doesn't belong on this list because it's too good, too true, too deep to be considered as a peer of any other movie in recent memory.

I know. I'm the guy who despises pretentious artiness and hails good, plain storytelling.

But The Tree of Life is not pretentious. Director-writer Terence Malick was not even making a movie. He was filming a childhood; he was staging a redemption.

To achieve his aim he could not use the standard tropes of the movie industry. The three-act structure or any other rules had no place in what he was doing.

If you sit down to watch The Tree of Life expecting to see "a movie," you will be disappointed -- and perhaps perplexed or even outraged.

It's like Moby-Dick, in that you have to be old enough to understand what's really going on, and patient enough to accept the sometimes glacial forward movement of story, the constant (seeming) digression, the sometimes perplexing images.

I'm old enough. To me, this movie is childhood filmed; it is the most perfect portrait of a family that I've ever seen. Malick hates nobody in this film; even the troubling father is loved by this movie, though Malick faces his flaws head on. The mother is idealized and dreamlike, but the movie is also unsparing of her ineffectualness.

It is possible to pay close attention and yet miss the fact that the movie is built around the unshown death (in war) of the second son; it is told from the point of view of the older son, it is actually about the older son (played with unusual restraint as an adult by Sean Penn), and yet the heart of the movie is the beautiful middle boy.

In the process of telling this family's story, with a degree of intimacy, realism, and perfection no movie has ever achieved before, Malick also includes the creation of the world, evolution, and a vision of the afterlife that is the first nonsilly metaphor of judgment, redemption, and reconciliation I've ever seen.

Other filmmakers have forayed into some of this territory; most of them missed entirely.

I am not recommending that you see this movie. I don't think it will win. It will never be a popular hit.

But I will never forget it. I will watch it again and again. It is a highwater mark of filmmaking.

Not like Citizen Kane, a vanity project that has sucked the film industry into Orson Welles's self-hype. People keep telling me that it's The Greatest because it was "so innovative." Really? The main innovation was Welles's unfailing ability to take all credit to himself; in fact it is shallow, untruthful, unfair, and badly overacted by Welles himself.

Malick is not self-promoting here. He is not even self-indulgent. He is the genius Welles pretended to be. Welles was never capable of anything like this; he wouldn't have known where to begin.

In future years, people will look back and say that whatever movie won this year, it should have been The Tree of Life. But that's not really true. The Tree of Life is sui generis. It cannot be compared. An Oscar would demean it. It's not a "movie."

Animated Feature

Let's get real here. Not one of the nominees this year would have been competitive last year, when only three films were nominated.

What is the Academy thinking, when last year Despicable Me and Tangled were not even nominated, while this year there are five nominees.

Everybody says Rango is going to win. What a nauseating idea. This incoherent, boring, cliche-ridden mess will be an Oscar winner? It won't be the first time.

Overrated Best Picture Winners

Entertainment Weekly of February 14, 2012, ran a feature called "The Most Overrated Best Picture Winners," in which a cooler-than-anybody reviewer decided what should have won, and didn't, in several past years.

I knew the writer was an idiot when he derided How Green Was My Valley for daring to win over the tedious Citizen Kane (see above).

Then the silly conformist quotient went up even higher when EW picked Dr. Strangelove over My Fair Lady. If only those silly Academy voters had known how cool the pretentious Kubrick would seem to pseudo-intellectuals in 2012, compared to the genuine intellectual George Bernard Shaw and the brilliant Lerner and Loewe.

It doesn't help that EW then disdained two films on my all-time greatest list: Gandhi and A Man for All Seasons. The only really negative things they can bring to bear on these two films is that they're long and boring. Hmmm. They aren't boring to people who actually understand the ideas being developed or the people whose biographies are being given.

But then I realized: True heroes who stand against the powers that be are so embarrassing to intellectuals today, since they themselves never aspire to do anything but conform to the opinions of other certified intellectuals.

I can't disagree with them about The Last Emperor -- beautifully filmed as it is, it was up against Broadcast News and Moonstruck, both of which are still compulsively watchable; but please remember, O EW, that Last Emperor won for precisely the reasons that you would hand the victory to Citizen Kane and Dr. Strangelove -- it made the Oscar voters feel smart to prefer it to more accessible films.

I'd agree that Out of Africa was an empty choice in 1985 -- until EW reminded me that it was up against Prizzi's Honor and Kiss of the Spider Woman. Oh, wait -- EW doesn't tell us the other two nominees that year: The Color Purple and Witness. And it was Prizzi and Spider Woman that EW thought should have won? They would have been even less comprehensible winners than Out of Africa.

EW thinks Shakespeare in Love shouldn't have won -- and I agree that it's really just a bit of period fluff. But that makes it harmless indeed compared to EW's shoulda-won nominee, Saving Private Ryan. But maybe EW never read William Goldman's completely-convincing destruction of Stephen Spielberg's utterly fake treatment of World War II. (Film reviewers don't actually read essays that contradict the received wisdom, apparently.)

Maybe The Social Network should have beaten The King's Speech last year, but in the long run, The Social Network may turn out to be ephemeral, a snapshot of egocentric puffery, "geniuses" who invented the pogo stick for computers; when Facebook passes away, so will any interest in The Social Network. While the human dilemmas explored by The King's Speech are not likely to fade.

And when EW claims that Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf should have beaten A Man for All Seasons, they reveal their ignorance: While Edward Albee's play is one of the great American dramas of all time, the film adaptation was Elizabeth Taylor's worst acting job -- a notable achievement, really, in a career that included her horrible performance in Zefferelli's dull Taming of the Shrew. In both, Taylor proved herself utterly without comprehension of characters who are written to be witty, and which she played as screamers utterly without intelligence.

If EW can't tell that Elizabeth Taylor had zero understanding of one of the most intriguing female characters in all of dramatic literature, and prefers her performance to the nuanced, deep work of Paul Scofield, Leo McKern, Robert Shaw, John Hurt, Corin Redgrave, Wendy Hiller, and Susannah York, on a powerful script by Robert Bolt, well ...

It just proves that Entertainment Weekly is about fads and trends, without a speck of understanding about the arts they comment on. Elizabeth Taylor, an actress? Not in those roles, baby.

I'll tell you some Oscar years where the wrong film won -- but most of the time, the film that should have won wasn't even nominated. Do you realize that in 2000, the year that the historically-idiotic Gladiator won, Cast Away wasn't even nominated? Nor was Almost Famous. But Traffic and Erin Brockovich were nominated. Go figure.

Nothing wrong with A Beautiful Mind in 2001 -- except they completely misunderstood game theory, and once you get the gimmick, there's nothing there to reward rewatching. That year the astonishingly good Gosford Park was nominated -- Robert Altman at his best, with brilliant performances from top to bottom of the cast.

And when the shallow, all-sizzle-no-steak Chicago won in 2002, let's forgive the Academy -- the alternatives were Gangs of New York, the Pianist, the middle Lord of the Rings installment, and the execrable The Hours. It was a bad year, kids; Chicago won by default.

Need I go on? When assessing past winners, remember that the Oscars are artifacts of their time; they are not only in competition with other films of that year, but also they are being voted on by the voters of that year. To second-guess them after the fact is time-snobbery -- and I'm as guilty, in my own way, as the EW writers are.

In the end, the Oscars aren't about what stands the test of time. The voting takes place when the films are all too new -- the Oscars are about the moment, not the ages. So criticizing past Oscar choices is like saying, after the fact, what a general should have done in a battle. Now we know Joe Hooker should have had better information about back roads in the battle of Chancellorsville, but his troop deployments weren't stupid, he was simply up against Stonewall Jackson.

Similarly, now we know Million Dollar Baby is faked-up schmaltz, a glorification of euthanasia; but it could have been worse. It was up against The Aviator and Sideways, which, if they had won, would make the Academy look even stupider today. Yes, the other nominees, Ray and Finding Neverland, are definitely better movies. But they didn't pack the emotional punch -- just as Citizen Kane didn't move people the way How Green Was My Valley did.

Still doesn't. Citizen Kane is only useful because the symbolism and artiness are so juvenile and pathetically easy to decode that any idiot can feel like an intellectual, without noticing that it's all in service of a shallow little soap opera.

See how easy it is to be mean to dead filmmakers? What is Orson Welles going to do to me now? Too late for him to steal writing credits from me, the way he stole them from other writers who worked with him. (Hitchcock did it too, so maybe it's standard operating procedure.) Unbelievable that any writer could ever call Welles a genius. Rather, he put his knife in the back of adequate talents and used their work to call himself a genius. Theft plus hype equals an enduring Hollywood reputation.

Happy Oscar parties, friends!


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