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Monday, February 29, 2016

Post-Oscar comments

Jacob Tremblay, left, and Brie Larson star in Room.
This year I did not run a "best films" post before the Academy Awards because I hadn't seen enough of the contending movies (yet) to offer much in the way of useful commentary. Sorry about that!

But I did honor my personal tradition of going to see a nominated film on Oscar night by catching the early show of Room, which received four nominations, including Best Picture and Best Actress, and for which its star, Brie Larson, took home the golden statuette.

So I missed Chris Rock's opening monologue completely, which I understand did not disappoint in skewering the players on all sides of the black-artists-matter controversy. This discussion is far from over, but I'm glad at least this phase of it is behind us. Adding a lot of politics into a public process that is, still, primarily about two things - art and business - just doesn't really help. 

In the end, for whatever reason, ABC got lousy ratings (no thanks to me!), and several films, especially Mad Max: Fury Road got a boost to their bottom line. And that's what Oscar's really all about. 

Room is, in a word, harrowing. I assume the critics have been enthusiastic about the film (though I'm waiting to read reviews until after I've fully processed my own reactions), but I can see why it did not win Best Picture.

The film that did win Best Picture, Spotlight, remains my own pick as the best of 2015 (as noted here in early January), so it is gratifying to share in the surprise of its come-from-behind victory over The Revenant (which I still haven't had the strength to face). I loved two basic things about Spotlight - terrific ensemble acting and the perfect fulfillment of the old-fashioned simple formula for a great movie: A good story, well told.

I also loved the fact that Spotlight got the newsroom details right, which is the sort of thing that done wrong can very easily ruin even a really good movie for me. Having worked for years at a daily newspaper, I was anxiously scanning every scene in Spotlight for a wrong note - and it passed with a perfect grade.

Not so Room. This film also involves a depiction of journalism, as a sidebar to the main focus of the story, but with very significant impact on the arc of the film and all its characters.

What happens is that an apparently top professional television news interviewer is shown asking leading, accusatory, and inflammatory questions of the extremely fragile subject Ma, and the people supposedly there to protect her do nothing. To describe what happens next would be a spoiler, but suffice it to say things don't exactly get better for Ma.

I reacted to this scene like any audience member was supposed to - feeling angry at the bad media exploiter who used this poor young woman for ratings. Then I stepped back and realized it was the filmmaker actually doing the manipulating here - so I'll redirect that anger. I don't think this was a fair depiction of a working journalist or fair treatment of an audience that has allowed you to take them this far into the world you've created. Not OK.

Maybe this is the essential difference between working with a true story (as in Spotlight) and embarking on a dramatic foray into fiction. In the true story, the drama is what it is - you can try to present it in a ramped-up fashion or not, but you can't change the facts. And it will be the facts - the story - that ultimately convince the audience of the experience they are having. In the fictional Room, I found myself retreating from the story because it did not add up to seeming true. (There's also a throwaway performance by William H. Macy as Ma's father, who disappears with nary an explanation.)

Playing with the audience's emotions may create an effect - but, ultimately, it doesn't win them over. To accomplish that, I think you need to be better than the writer and director of Room have proven to be. As for Larson winning the Oscar - it was a brave performance by a very promising young actress. But I think Cate Blanchett was far better in Carol - and, no doubt, many others already agree.

Cate Blanchett, left, and Rooney Mara star in Carol.

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