Sunday, February 22, 2009

Oscar movie marathon

I gave up a Saturday to the movies, but I feel as though I lived several lifetimes in that interval. Or at least a few months, in someone else's life.

Last Saturday, AMC theaters across the country screened all five movies nominated for the best-movie Oscar. The showcase began with "Milk" at 10:30 a.m. and closed with "Frost/Nixon," ending at midnight.

The Santa Clara theater where I went sold out. I saw empty seats, but people were moving around between movies, and it seemed that a good number of them left didn't stay for all of the movies.

"Milk" was moving and unexpectedly funny. Sean Penn portrayed Harvey Milk as engaging, charismatic, and wickedly funny, eager to reach out to others but not shy about drawing a line past which he will not be pushed. Penn created a character who is both humble and appreciative of his political power.

The movie often had the grainy look of a 70s newsreel, even when we weren't seeing historic footage. This effect was used sporadically and wasn't distracting. The director successfully evoked anxiety and claustrophobia in the crowd rally scenes, shooting low and as if being jostled.

"The Reader" was intense and emotional, raising a lot of questions without answering most of them. The audience laughed several times at points that I did not think were funny at all. Perhaps it was nervous laughter, trying to break the tension.

All of the characters are seeking answers, but there are no explanations, no absolution, not even a clear definition of guilt. Why does Michael (Ralph Fiennes) act as he does when he has information that could affect Hannah's (Kate Winslet) future? Does he think he's respecting her wishes, or is he trying to punish her? Why does Hannah respond as she does during her trial for war crimes -- shame, guilt, helplessness, or something else? The movie leaves you pondering these things, and the awesome work by Fiennes and Winslet makes you wish you had the answers, regardless of whether or not you liked their characters.

I was prepared to dismiss "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," with its tagline "Life isn't measured in minutes, but in moments," as too Forest-Gumpian for my tastes, although I figured I'd enjoy the eye candy. And there was plenty of that: At a point in the movie where Brad Pitt's character is about the actual age of the actor, a woman gazes at him and blurts out, "My God, you're perfect!" which got a good laugh from the audience.

In the end, it is a movie filled with what sound like platitudes -- we're all on a journey, taking different roads, you have to learn to let go, don't be afraid to love. But the device of the man aging in reverse, getting younger as he gets older, somehow allows these things to be reconsidered. The pace of the movie is slow, but in a very enjoyable way, lingering over the faces of the actors and the lovely parts of New Orleans.

At this point in the day, I was ready for some Bollywood color and rhythm, a little lightness and romance. "Slumdog Millionaire" is irresistable. The faces are fresh and passionate. There are some horrifying acts of violence, but they don't extinguish the hopeful spirit of the movie, embodied by Dev Patel, the youthful hero. It was everything you could want in a movie: pretty, action-filled, suspenseful, romantic, and a dance number at the end that leaves your toes tapping.

It was the last of the five movies, and perhaps I was tiring, but my attention wandered during "Frost/Nixon," despite riveting moments when the movie focused tightly on the gamesmanship between David Frost (Michael Sheen) and Richard Nixon (Frank Langella).

The semi-documentary style of the film was distracting; I could see what was happening, I didn't need someone telling me what I was seeing. Also, I understand what a handheld camera (or the look of one) can add to a scene -- the immediacy, the you-are-there realism -- but sometimes I just got tired of the jiggly picture. I wanted to say: Quit nudging me, already.

The most compelling image, the one that lingered after the lights came up, was a tight shot of Nixon's face at the end of the interviews, when he realizes that his political career has truly ended and that he has no one to blame but himself. He looks overwhelmingly lonely, defeated, and self-loathing.

It was odd to live in such a timeless space, to spend a day without demands or deadlines. I thought I'd emerge bleary-eyed and mentally drained, but I was just a little tired, and not at all ready for the experience to end.

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