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Sunday, February 23, 2003

Mainstream Movie Catch-Up
In a lot of ways this is a kind of dead zone for movies. Once the self-appointed Oscar hopefuls open in the last week or two in December, they tend to stick around in theaters until a) they fail to get nominated in mid-February; b) one movie (usually crap) comes out of Oscar night a big winner (then it stays around forever, while the others finally, mercifully depart and free up some movie screens); or c) the theater-owners finally decide everyone who wants to has had an opportunity to see the big movies and finally take pity and puts on something else.

Because I’ve found myself stuck with nothing to see all too often at this time of year, I went too far in the opposite direction this year, prioritizing movies that weren’t going to enjoy a three-month engagement. But now, for one reason and another, I worry that when Oscar night comes around there’ll be some contenders that I haven’t seen. Even for the British Academy Film Awards, which BBC America showed live and commercial-free this afternoon but which I taped because I was at the movies, I still need to see The Pianist and The Quiet American before I’d be allowed to vote under Troubled Diva/foreign-language film Oscar rules.

Still, I’ve done a bit of catching up in recent weeks, ticking off Adaptation, Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, The Hours, and Chicago.

As far as Adaptation goes, you can count me in the “liked it OK until it jettisoned its conceit three-quarters’ way through” camp. That old enjoyment-squasher high expectations may be one reason I was underwhelmed. After Being John Malkovich, I had very high hopes for another Spike Jonze-Charlie Kaufman collaboration, but this time around it fell short of the “brilliant and incredibly innovative” mark and got stuck at “self-consciously trying to be edgy.” One pleasant surprise: I had forgotten what a wonderful actress Meryl Streep is. Twenty years ago (Jesus, I never thought I’d begin a sentence that way), I would make a point of seeking out and seeing every one of her movies as soon as they came out. Julia, Manhattan, The Deer Hunter, Kramer vs. Kramer, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, even Plenty. But after Defending Your Life in 1991, I think the only Streep movie I saw in a theater was 1994’s The River Wild (!), then nothing until Adaptation. She’s one of those actors who are made for the movies (like Michael Caine): Her performance seems effortless; there’s nothing “actorly” about it. Plus she’s lovely. In Adaptation, the contrast with the very artificial, effortful Nicolas Cage was astounding. There he is huffing and puffing and letting us know he’s an actor; there she is just sort of inhabiting the role and being totally convincing. (The worst “I’m an ACT-or” offender is Edward Norton. I really enjoyed The 25th Hour, but throughout the movie you're aware of a guy laboriously playing a part.)

The Two Towers? Well, I’m not its demographic. I saw the first one as a work “morale event” (the most morale-enhancing part of those movie screening trips is being away from e-mail for three hours, of course; well, that and the free snacks), and I enjoyed it well enough, but it didn’t make me want to go out and read the books or anything (a common enough reaction judging from my pals’ reading habits in December 2001). Considering it’s the middle bit, the narrative was strong—I was never restless or bored, and the effects are spectacular and strangely convincing—but there weren’t really any actors for me to connect with. In The Fellowship of the Ring Ian Holm and Sir Ian McKellen made Bilbo Baggins and Gandalf into real characters; in this movie the complex characters were absent for most of the time. There are characters who are onscreen a lot, but they didn’t seem particularly real or likable. (OK, Viggo Mortensen’s Aragorn is a decent enough character, although a bit too much of a goody-goody for my tastes, but his beard annoys me. The dwarf and the elf, or whatever Legolas is, I could very easily live without.) Still, there’s no doubt Peter Jackson did an incredible job with this series of movies. John Scalzi predicts that Jackson will get a special Oscar for the trilogy. That would surprise me, but I don’t see why he couldn’t win best director (and maybe best picture) next year—after all, the two-thirds I’ve seen so far are certainly of superior quality to most Oscar-winning movies, and let’s let go of the fantasy that the academy rewards high-brow pointy-head movies. (Should you doubt, I direct you to the Best Picture winners for 1990, 1994, 1995, 1997, 2000, and 2001.)

The Hours? Precious, historically iffy, and heavy sledding in parts, but saved by some fabulous acting. Although at times it was hard to know what was going on inside Clarissa’s head, Meryl Streep was always in control; she never seemed lost. Julianne Moore is always so damned convincing—she’s another actress who’s always in command of her character. I’ve been a fan of Nicole Kidman’s since the TV mini-series Bangkok Hilton, but I’m not sure she was right for the role of Virginia Woolf, with or without the prosthetic proboscis. Still, the movie had a strong emotional impact, and that counts for a lot in my book.

And then there was Chicago. Having just seen this just a few hours ago, I’m stunned it got so many Oscar nominations. As an exemplar of a lost genre, I understand that the academy—largely made up, after all, of actors who spent a fortune on voice and dance classes—wants to revive the musical, but it’s so darned run-of-the-mill, obvious, and unsexy. Catherine Zeta-Jones shows that we Welshwomen are gifted with great pipes (yeah, yeah, I’m a Mancunian, but I’m ethnically Welsh and that’s what counts over here); Renée Zellweger is a bloody good actress, a decent singer, and an iffy dancer (though she’s got a great pair of gams); Richard Gere’s awfully good-looking and a not-terrible singer; Queen Latifah rocks; John C. Reilly plays the part John C. Reilly always plays (which makes him one of the actors I’d most like to hang out with for a few days—I’d love to know if he’s anything like the schlubs he’s always cast as), but giving four of those five a 1-in-5 chance of winning an Oscar? I don’t think so. As much as I love Queen Latifah, I just can’t see that even after that spectacular dance number (the only bit of true raunch in the whole film), her performance was award-worthy. Though I suppose after Judi Dench won best supporting actress for about 10 minutes of screen time in Shakespeare in Love, all bets are off.