Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Let the Oscar Bait Season Begin with the Life of Pi

Today Ang Lee's released his first critically acclaimed film in seven years, Life of Pi.  Lee has had a wide variety of films in his repertoire, from Sense and Sensibility, to Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, and his best film Brokeback Mountain.  While Mountain and Sense and Sensibility were dependent on acting and the screenplay Hidden Dragon was more of a director's feat, and technical masterpiece.  Life of Pi looks to be in the same vein as Hidden Dragon, adding the 3D element.

While Lee is an incredible director, Life of Pi fits into a recent trend for me, as a film lover, films critics and Oscar voters may rubber stamp, but I have no desire to see.  From the first time I saw the preview for Life of Pi, I was a bit underwhelmed, and there was no drive for me to want to see the film.  While I am not providing a convincing argument against wanting to see the film, no am I trying to convince others not to see this film, I feel as though this may be one of those "Oscar pictures" I miss in the theatres because it just does not look to have appealing story.  Life of Pi looks like one of those films that will be visually stunning, but just lacks the depth I need from a screenplay.  While Ang Lee rarely works on films like this, the involvement on James Cameron is not shocking, as his films tend to have some pretty atrocious scripts (Avatar).

My point, is that it's time to whittle down the true achievements in film making vs. the Oscar bait, and while there could be many arguments made for a lot of the films this year, Life of Pi feels the most like "Oscar bait."  Some could argue this about Lincoln, Argo (although less so), and Silver Linings Playbook, but my pick for this year would be Life of Pi, namely because it gives me that feeling when I see the preview.

Last year's big "Oscar bait" films were War Horse and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.  I did not see either film in the theatres.  I rented War Horse on red box, and waited Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close to make it to HBO.  While these films are not awful (although Extreme Loud is close) there is something disingenuous about their spirit.

When I sat down to watch War Horse in my apartment, from start to finish the plot felt contrived and forced on the screen.  I saw the play, and fell in love with genuine emotional context of how this horse connected the different people, the story was great and well done in play format.  While Steven Spielberg has made some great films in the 2000s like Munich, Minority Report, and Catch me if you, and this year's Lincoln, this felt like he was film made me feel like they people behind it were just jonesing to get Oscar nominations, and make more money for the play.  I wanted better, but the film did not live up to the play, but still found its way to the best Picture race, because of the fact that the film felt important.

Some of the same things could be said for Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.  Throughout the past Oscar voters have become obsessed with nominating films centered around the Holocaust.  The Reader, a subpar film, and another example of "Oscar bait" bumped off The Dark Knight from a nomination, because of the subject matter.  The Holocaust represents this dark/interesting moment in history that pulls people in, and helps voters connect.  The event is important, and often times is used to help win Oscars.  When Ricky Gervais hosted the Golden Globes for the first time he joked with Kate Winslet stating I told you if you did a Holocaust film you would win/get nominated (I am paraphrasing).  The sad part is he was correct.

As we get further ahead in time look for films centered around 9/11 to have the same impact on Oscar voters.  9/11 was an important moment in American history, changing the landscape of the United States and the way we view safety.  Extremely Loud and incredibly Close fits within this model, and while the film has some beautiful moments, and is one of the saddest films, there is no cohesion to make this enough of a solid film.  This film bumped out quality films like Drive, and Take Shelter, because the subject matter seemed important, and the bait was cast.

As I posted this a friend had reminded me of The English Patient, back in 1996, which had been released from Miramax, which was owned at that time by the Weinstein Brothers.  The English Patient was meant to feel important, much like The Reader.  Seinfeld, made fun of Patient, with Elaine struggling to sit through the film, while people around went on an on about how great the film was, and namely because people were told it felt important.

The other interesting part about both of these films was the people behind their rise to success were the Weinstein's.  These two men (Harvey and Bob) have behind numerous wins, and nominations that may not have happened with other film companies.  These two men work their magic, and get things to happen, quality be damned!  They are not the only men with power, but they seem to do Oscar campaigning the best, look at Shakespeare in Love beating Saving Private Ryan, or Meryl Streep beating Viola Davis last year.  I admire, and fear the power of these two brothers.  With power comes great responsibility toward the future of film.

Oscar bait can defined in so many different terms, and while this is only one snap shot, there is cause to think about what are the best films, and why are they the best.  How do you define the best?  Am I just being picky?  The answers to both these questions could be, ambiguous.  I want to see Hollywood evolve and not play it safe, to take the risk, and challenge people to see the better films.  The bottom line is that things go back to money, and in the end the best films often do not got seen by the masses.  Here's to hoping that the best films win out this year, and that Oscar bait is kept to a minimum.

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