Game Over

The ’04 Oscar Best Picture race is all over but the shouting and the ad buys. Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby (Warner Bros., 12.15) is it, and that’s that.
I’m saying this with a twinge of regret since it affects the chances of my personal Best Picture favorite, Alexander Payne’s Sideways. I wish it were otherwise.

The only thing that can stop Million Dollar Baby at this stage is some kind of backlash about the elements that don’t quite work — the retarded kid in the gym, the roteness of Hilary Swank’s first-round knockouts, etc. But I don’t think these things are stoppers.
Emanuel Levy can beat the Aviator drum for Martin Scorsese’s work on The Aviator until he’s blue in the face (“Will Scorsese win the Oscar at his fifth nomination? And how high will The Aviator fly with the Academy voters?”) and it won’t matter. I’ve worshipped Scorsese for decades, and I’m sorry to slap down the hoo-hah, but a reality check is required at this stage.
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The Aviator (Miramax, 12.17 limited) will grab six or seven Oscar noms but mostly, I’m guessing, for below-the-line tech stuff.
But maybe not. Scorsese could luck out with a Best Director nomination, but this will be mainly seen as a tribute to his rep. Leonardo DiCaprio might also snag a Best Actor nomination for his Howard Hughes performance because he’s one of the fiercest, go-for-broke actors of our times, and thereby manages to overcome a gut feeling I couldn’t ignore in the opening reels that he’s just not the right guy physically.
And it’s possible that the film might land a Best Picture nomination, but as God is my witness The Aviator isn’t close to being satisfying or elevating enough, and all this Oscar talk is just wishful thinking.

From where I sit today Million Dollar Baby is probably going to take the bulk of the Best Picture honors…from most of the critics’ groups (an L.A. critic tells me he’s “getting the vibe that Million Dollar Baby may be becoming a strong consensus pick, passing aside The Aviator , which perhaps can’t gather a consensus”), probably from the Hollywood Foreign Press (i.e., the givers of the Golden Globes), and almost certainly from the Academy.
I’ll be a confirmed Sideways man to the bitter end, but Payne’s wonderfully finessed film just doesn’t have the heat that Baby does right now. His work is a tiny bit better than Eastwood’s, I feel. It has a livelier assortment of moods and shadings, and is more emotionally supple, agile and surprising — but it doesn’t have Baby‘s arthouse austerity, and it’s not as strong emotionally.
Just to round things out and maintain a sense of artificial suspense (in the same way that Chris Matthews and the MSNBC news team kept saying “maybe” about Kerry’s election-night chances long after it was clear he was finished), you’ll be hearing about Ray, Finding Neverland, Kinsey, Maria Full of Grace, The Incredibles and so on, but it’s pretty much over and settled.

Aviator Slaps

I didn’t believe for a split second that I was getting a look at anything close to the actual life and times of Howard Hughes when I saw The Aviator. Most of it felt like play-acting, dysfunctional weirdness, time-travel disorientation and phony-baloney CGI.
DiCaprio looks like a 17 year-old kid doing his best at pretending, but once you get past this he’s great. (Does that make sense?) Otherwise, The Aviator is an OCD freak show that drags in the middle, feels somewhat overlong and at the same time strangely choppy and over-accelerated in the beginning, and, some brilliant sequences aside (like the plane crash in Beverly Hills), is a very bumpy ride.
You sit there and you just don’t give a damn about Howard Hughes, and all through it you’re saying, please God…please make this movie about something besides not enough green peas on a plate, urine-filled milk bottles and lint on the lapels.
I’m referring (again) to the relentless attention paid by Scorsese to Hughes’ obsessive compulsive disorder mishegoss. Portions exploring this aspect of his psychology seem to take up nearly half the running time.

Very little about The Aviator seems to be tethered to anything except the front-and-center obviousness of it. The fact that it’s a big pricey period thing shot by Marty Scorsese never leaves your head. I don’t know if it’s the lighting or the cinematography or what, but visually it feels phony and swaggered-up and pushed too hard. (Unlike, for instance, the evocative historical aroma one gets from Jean Pierre Jeunet’s A Very Long Engagement.)
In all sorts of little needling ways, The Aviator never stops offending. Some of the CG-amped flying sequences, for me, are only a step or two away from video-game verisimilitude. I hated that Scorsese picked Gwen Stefani to inhabit Jean Harlow, and I hated those inane lines she says into the mike during the Hell’s Angels premiere scene. (She sounds like some checkout girl at Target.) And I despised Rufus Wainwright’s preening theatrical gestures as he sang on the bandstand in that early party scene at the Coconut Grove. I started to turn off to the film right there and then. I’m just being honest.
New York Press critic Matt Zoller Seitz summed up a perception problem — an unwillingess to roll with Scorsese’s big-canvas, post-Goodfellas phase — with an e-mailed comment on Tuesday, ironically prior to seeing The Aviator that evening.
He said he was “looking forward to it but also dreading it, to be honest. I love Scorsese and think he has gotten a bit of a bum rap in certain quarters recently, because he has evolved from a micro filmmaker specializing in subjective, emotional stories to a macro filmmaker who is concerned with the mechanics of particular societies, and critics have been somewhat unwilling to adapt to this evolution.”
Some took exception yesterday to my anti-Aviator comments in the WIRED column a couple of days ago and sent me some toughly worded e-mails. A couple of them sounded like Peter Jackson fans from last year, saying “you think you know everything but you don’t, asshole!” and so on.
So I asked some journos to see if they’ve gotten the same noise. I told them I was getting a street-thug attitude from Aviator admirers. I said it felt like I’m a struggling tavern owner in 1931 and Jimmy Cagney is striding into my place, grabbing me by the collar and slapping me silly and threatening worse if I don’t buy his brand of bootleg beer.

A trade-paper critic said I had brought the Cagney aggression upon myself “because your comments on the film have been — now let’s be honest — particularly hostile. Perhaps the hostility engendered a hostile response. I do particularly enjoy films that divide the room, though I’m not sure if the division is equal here. It seems that the Aviator supporters outnumber its detractors.”
No argument there. The Rotten Tomatoes rundown shows that reviews are running about 90% positive.
The rest of the comments ignored my Cagney riff and just dealt with the film.
L.A. Daily News critic Glenn Whipp said he had “had no idea The Aviator had ardent supporters, [as] everyone I know is mixed about the thing. The Hells Angels stuff is fine, damn entertaining even, but finding the drama in [Hughes] being afraid to touch a doorknob seems elusive.
Gangs of New York was much more entertaining,” he continued. “And there’s no performance here on the level of Daniel Day Lewis going apeshit in Gangs….unless you count Cate Blanchett’s butchering of [Katharine] Hepburn’s accent.
“Tell those hard-asses to stuff a bar of hypoallergenic soap where the sun don’t shine,” Whipp concluded, “and catch Million Dollar Baby. That will put The Aviator‘s ‘greatness’ into proper context.”
Along with his post-Goodfellas directions, said Seitz, Scorsese “has run into the realities of Hollywood filmmaking — i.e., he’s somehow able to get the massive funding required for peculiar big projects like Bringing Out the Dead, Gangs of New York and The Aviator , but to get that funding, he has to accept severe studio interference, unwelcome notes and marketing input, and the presence of problematic stars like Nicolas Cage, Leonardo DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz, whose names guarantee studio support but who frankly aren’t always strong enough to pull off the very specific emotional effects his recent movies require.”

Oregonian critic Shawn Levy said, “Not to come off sounding like a thumb-breaker or anything, but I thought The Aviator was a really wonderful picture, easily Scorsese’s best since Goodfellas and lots of fun all the way through. Couldn’t believe it was 160 minutes when it was over. I’m virtually certain that it’s gonna win major gold in February. We can still be chums, of course. I just won’t let you hold the remote when we’re channel-surfing.”
Christopher Kelly of the Fort Worth-Star Telegram recently wrote a piece on how Sideways‘s Oscar chances are, in his view, looking much better since he saw The Aviator. He called himself “an Aviator shrugger, not a basher.”
Philip Wuntch of the Dallas Morning News said, “Sorry, Jeffrey, but I really liked The Aviator.”
New York-based journalist Lewis Beale said he hasn’t spoken to enough people about this, but confides he sat next to a big-name critic at the screening he attended, and “this guy said afterwards in an e-mail exchange that (a) the flying effects didn’t work [and] just called attention to themselves, (b) Leo is okay but this critic always relates to him as a little kid playing dress-up, (c) the OCD stuff was way over the top, (d) the film rates 2 and 1/2 stars, and (e) Cate Blanchett’s Kate Hepburn is the best thing in the film.”
But the critic “also felt the pressure was on to give Marty his Oscar for this one. Which, needless to say, he does not agree with.”
One final Seitz thought, rendered post-screening: “In marked contrast to other big Scorsese productions like Goodfellas, Casino and The Age of Innocence, The Aviator is not about a crafty player or alienated pariah pretending to be an insider. It’s about an outsider who truly, deeply, sincerely wants to be an insider. It’s about a visionary who wishes to belong to a club that would not have someone like him as a member. Which I suppose makes it a Groucho Marx joke stretched out to three hours.”


I really need to pay tribute to the brilliant new Aviator one-sheet that popped through a week or two ago. It captures the Hughes essence in a stunningly attractive way that the film never manages. It portrays him as a kind of fearless alien, not quite of this world and with powers beyond the norm, and at the same time blinkered and keeping the world from penetrating his inner sanctum.

I guess I’ll find out later today who the artist was, whether he/she is with an outside agency or working for Miramax’s in-house marketing department. If the film had delivered more of what this poster conveys and less of what I’ve been ranting about today, it might have amounted to a different equation. Not a portrait of a nutbag Hughes, but a man whose inner turbine was so relentless and who was possessed of such unique vision and fierce reach that he was not quite of this earth.


Today’s column was 95% finished as of late Tuesday evening, and I’ve got a fantastic excuse for not getting it up until Wednesday afternoon. I sat in courtroom #602 at Beverly Hills Superior Court all this morning waiting for a small-claims issue to be resolved, and it was all for naught because I didn’t have that pink form that proves the defendant (I’m the plaintiff) had been served.

Defending Soderbergh

“I’d hate to read what you’d be writing about Soderbergh if he was actually making bad movies. As it is, at least from my perspective, he seems to be making films that are either safe and entertaining, or risky and flawed.
Oceans 11 was mild but fun enough. Given the huge cast and complicated story it could’ve been a smug fiasco but it was entertaining and, despite its strangely off-key trailers, I’m expecting the same from Ocean’s 12. Would you call Eastwood a Warner Bros. go-along boy? He alternates serious fare with popcorn flicks for them, too.
Solaris wasn’t effective but it stuck with me and, for a film I’d rate at about a 5 or 6 out of 10, it’s still something I find myself turning over in my head from time to time. Full Frontal was a wank — Schizopolis Lite — but I’d rather see something that took a chance and failed than played it safe.

“And you didn’t mention the aborted HBO series K Street, which was another one of those A-for-effort endeavors. It didn’t quite work but if it had found a stronger groove, it would’ve been great. Even at its worst it still felt like an R-rated TV show directed by an at-his-prime Alan Pakula. Soderbergh tried to base a series on the big political events of the week, using real political figures, real events, D.C. locations; he shot-edited-directed the whole thing himself on a week-to-week basis. Sounds like more work than is healthy. I was almost relieved for him when the series upchucked its own intestines.
“Anyway, my point is he’s out there trying and for the past four years, he’s unfortunately been getting his ass kicked. Given his level of self-deprecation and candor in interviews (see any post Underneath remarks or post Oscar remarks for that matter) I’m sure he’ll admit at some point if your reading on him was accurate or not.
“I personally have more ire for directors who don’t seem to be doing anything at all. Where’s Paul Thomas Anderson? I love him but it’s been two years since Punch Drunk Love and we’ve yet to even hear an announcement about an upcoming project. Can I borrow his clout if he’s not going to use it? What’s taking John Cameron Mitchell so long to follow up Hedwig? Yeah, he’s doing the sex flick but where’s it at? David O. Russell hit a cult homer with Huckabees, but it came five years after Three Kings.
“Understand, I mention these guys because I love and respect the hell out of them but I’d hate to see anybody I like fall prey to the Tarantino syndrome. Therein lies stagnation, I think, and a failure of nerve and instinct. ” — Neil Harvey

“What’s with your bizarre psychoanalysis of directors lately? Okay, Wes Anderson and Steven Soderbergh aren’t making films that precisely match your sensibilities anymore but that doesn’t mean they’ve gone crazy and sold out. As far as I can tell, The Life Aquatic looks very much like something the Anderson we all know and love would make. If it’s too weird for popular tastes, good for him. I’d be happy if he made something with an even more unusual rhythm than his other films. Nobody bashes Kubrick for his cold, precise attention to detail. Why bash Anderson? Is it because he doesn’t return your calls anymore? I thought you were above that kind of thing.
“As for Soderbergh, he definitely hasn’t been asleep for four years. As anyone who’s seen the complete K Street will tell you, it’s one hell of a five-hour movie. Also, you’re in a minority when it comes to Solaris. Yes, it was rejected by the mainstream, 1+1 = 2 film industry crowd but most serious students of film that I know felt this was one of Soderbergh’s best films to date.
Full Frontal was a flawed but worthwhile experiment and definitely not the work of a sell-out. And don’t forget the countless interesting films that Soderbergh has supported as a producer over the last four years (Insomnia, Far From Heaven, Naqoyqatsi, A Scanner Darkly).
“The one area where I turn against Soderbergh is in the Oceans department but…wait a second, didn’t you write a favorable review of Ocean’s 11 in 2001? I remember being excited to see it, based on your review, then being terribly disappointed with the actual film. Now, in order to justify your out-there Soderbergh thesis, you’re pretending you hated it all along. Also to Soderbergh’s credit, don’t forget that several risky projects were green-lit as a result of his involvement in Ocean’s 12. (Soderbergh’s Insider-like whistle-blower project, The Informant, is one.)
“I don’t know why you expect these filmmakers to keep repeating themselves. You can go back and watch The Limey or Rushmore any time. Even if they’re not going in the direction you want them to go, give them some credit. They’re intelligent, film-loving auteurs who put a lot of care into their work and you can’t say that about very many filmmakers these days. ” — Jonathan Doyle, Montreal, Quebec.
Wells to Doyle: Here’s a portion of what I wrote in my early December ’01 piece about Ocean’s 11:

“A little less than two years ago, I reviewed an early draft of Ted Griffin’s script of Ocean’s 11. I said it plays ‘a lot like The Sting‘ but that it ‘lacks the wit and character that made that 1973 film so richly entertaining. The Sting devoted its first 20 to 25 minutes to setting up the job (i.e., providing motivation, ability), and the rest of its running time to playing it out, with no consequences at the finale other than success. That’s pretty much what Ocean’s 11 does.’
“I was wrong. Ocean’s 11 doesn’t do what The Sting does. It doesn’t do what The Hot Rock — another minor but hugely enjoyable early ’70s heist film — does either. And it’s not Rififi or Topkapi or the original Ocean’s 11. It’s not anything, really. It’s a shell of a heist film covered in a yellowish haze. (You’ll know what I mean after seeing it.) One slick move after another, adding up to nothing and leaving you with less than you came in with. That’s Vegas for you.”
Does this excerpt strike you as a rave?
“Good lord! I’m hoping that your Soderbergh rant (and, come to think of it, your son’s QT-inspired pass on tipping) was nothing more than an attempt to prod readers.
“Sure, I’d like another Limey or Out of Sight or sex, lies & videotape. Shit, I’d make do with Kafka. But why all the hostility towards Ocean’s 11 and Ocean’s 12? The former was fun and clever. Not nearly as fun or clever as Out of Sight, but not worthy of that kind of bile. Have you watched it since? I was very surprised to find that I enjoyed it more the second time around. I liked the smug little asides between the actors. They were having a good time, and, against all my instincts, I felt like I was in on the joke with them. The movie is ridiculous, but it’s not stupid.
“When he was super-hot, I considered Soderbergh to be the only American filmmaker who mattered. Maybe he’s not working at that level right now, but give him a break. Say what you will about Full Frontal and Solaris, but they felt like home to me. They reminded me of my favorite `70s films — they had a presence. You could wrap them around you like a blanket. They have a voice that I enjoy hearing.

“Soderbergh was going at a breakneck pace from `98 on — 7 films in 5 years. Who came close to that output with half the results?
“I refuse to begrudge Soderbergh for making a big Hollywood movie. Because even if it is a big Hollywood entertainment, it’s not Coppola making The Cotton Club or Dracula or Jack. O12 is a silly thing made with some friends. No more complicated or important than that. And I feel like SS knows that. Make it good, don’t insult anyone, no huge effects, just a nice little caper built on snarky dialogue and silly situations. I’ll take that over Beyond the Sunset any day.” — Sean Cameron
“There aren’t many directors who haven’t hit this kind of snag. Remember that the same man who directed The Maltese Falcon, The African Queen and The Asphalt Jungle also directed Annie, Reflections in a Golden Eye and Victory. And yet he came back from the ashes periodically to bestow upon us The Man Who Would Be King, Fat City and Prizzi’s Honor. Roman Polanski drudged through Pirates, Frantic and The Ninth Gate before he knocked everybody off their asses with The Pianist.” — Christopher Hyatt.