Friday, April 8, 2016

An Oscar-winning performance - but only five people were in the movie theatre to see it

(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, April 6.)

I’m very grateful to the man who runs my local movie theatre. Let me tell you why.
A couple of weeks ago I went to a film called Room. Until about two minutes before it started, I was the only person in the theatre. Then two couples arrived.

This was not a new experience for me. Years ago I made the mistake of going to see a British film solely because the American directors Joel and Ethan Coen were involved as executive producers.
I reasoned that any film with the Coens’ names in the credits must be worth seeing, but it turned out to be an utter stinker; a film so bad that I’ve forgotten the title.

There was only one other person in the theatre – a man I knew, as it happened – and he left in disgust about 20 minutes before the end.
I stayed on, almost convinced that the Coen brothers were playing one of their tricks and that something would suddenly happen to justify the preceding 100 minutes of tedium. Alas, nothing did.

It remains one of the most pointless films I’ve seen. I soon forgave the Coens, although I sometimes still wonder whether they were having a laugh at the audience’s expense.
But I digress. The reason I’m grateful to the man who runs my local movie theatre is that he keeps showing films that he must know will appeal only to a minority audience.

There’s not a huge demand for arty films in the provincial town where I live, but it’s surprising how many turn up on our local screen. The theatre owner obviously depends on crowd-pleasing commercial films for his profits, but he always has something alternative up his sleeve for those who aren’t interested in the 37th Batman movie.
Room was a case in point. It’s a Canadian production (although set in the US state of Ohio) about a woman who has been abducted and kept for seven years as a sex slave in a locked, soundproofed room, during which time she has given birth to a son.

I won’t give too much away, other than to say it’s not quite as harrowing as it might sound. The relationship between the mother and the boy is extraordinarily warm and empathetic and the rapist is seen only briefly. In fact the most harrowing part of the film isn’t where you expect it to be.
Had it been an American film, I imagine Room might have been quite different. American directors aren’t generally big on subtlety, but Canadian films tend to be more understated – exactly the treatment Room needed.

I was pleased that Brie Larsen, who played the mother, was honoured with the Academy Award for best actress a few weeks ago. It was a rare case of an Oscar being richly deserved.
That brings me to the second point of this column: namely, the sheer novelty of the Academy Award judges actually getting something right. This year they did it not once, but twice.

The Oscar for best picture went to Spotlight, an exemplary piece of film-making about a Boston Globe reporting team’s determination to expose serial sexual abuse by Catholic priests.
It’s a no-nonsense, character-driven film, refreshingly devoid of gimmickry and razzle-dazzle. The journalists at the centre of the story are neither improbable heroes nor scumbags. I felt I recognised them.

But it’s a sad story too, because it reminds us that with the gutting of the newspaper industry (it’s set in 2002, before the Internet brought carnage on the print media), an institution vital to the functioning of an informed society has suffered huge damage.
But if the Academy Awards judges got those awards right, they reverted to type with some of the others. They pandered to public and media sentiment by giving the Oscar for best actor to Leonardo DiCaprio for his performance in the over-hyped 19th century wilderness survival story, The Revenant.

The Revenant is spectacular to look at but pretty ordinary in every other respect.  Emmanuel Lubezki certainly earned his Oscar for the film’s breathtaking cinematography but neither DiCaprio nor the director, Alejandro Inarritu, deserved theirs.  
The problem with the Academy Awards is that the judges are often swayed by extraneous factors. Industry politics, media noise and pre-awards lobbying can be more decisive than quality or even audience appeal.

In this case it was clear the Hollywood establishment had decided it was DiCaprio’s turn to win, and it scarcely mattered that his performance in The Revenant was utterly unexceptional.
These factors help explain why films that have won best-picture Oscars are sometimes not the ones that had a lasting impact. In 1998, for instance, the winner was Shakespeare in Love. That was also the year of Saving Private Ryan. But which film do people remember today?

Next year, expect to see a black actor take home a statuette. Given the uproar this year about blacks being excluded from consideration, you can almost put money on it.

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