Art Vs Commerce: Oscar Bait and Endgames (2010s)

2011

Okay so remember how I said The King’s Speech hit most of the big Oscar Bait tropes? Well, time for the one they missed. Movies about how jim-dandy-great the movies are. Bonus points if a once-great white man is lamenting being left behind by history. (I can name three 2010s Best Picture nominees that did that second part, two of them won, all were specifically about about once-big movie people in dire straights, it’s definitely a thing).

And since so many of the Academy voters are Olds, it really helps if you’re paying tribute to a bygone era. Which brings us to…

Whoops, no, that’s the Oscars 2021 review blog, got ahead of myself…

Which brings us to…

And The Oscar Goes To…

And here, in the final post of the series, our fourth and final silent movie. Well, mostly silent.

In 1927, silent film star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is on top of the world. He has a chance encounter with young dancer Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) who manages to land a gig as an extra in one of his movies, where George gives her a leg-up. Over the next two years, Peppy’s star swiftly rises, while George’s fortunes fall when he’s unwilling or unable to adapt to talkies, where Peppy shines even brighter. In 1929 Peppy’s first starring role, Beauty Mark (named after the fake beauty spot George recommended she use) is a massive hit, while George’s self-financed, self-directed jungle epic Tears of Love, his attempt to prove silent films still sell, flops hard.

(Although I want to live in the world where Beauty Mark beat Broadway Melody at the box office, and Tears of Love ends with Valentin’s character dying in quicksand out of nowhere, and if Raiders of the Lost Ark had pulled that shit we’d have never forgiven it.)

The years keep coming (for once the years start coming they don’t stop coming, that’s just science) and Valentin’s situation gets darker, while Peppy keeps looking for a way to help him the way he helped her, which if he weren’t an overly proud dick about it (eh, 1934, masculinity was even more toxic) would have meant this movie was only an hour and a bit. It’s a little similar to A Star is Born, only without the doomed love story between the rising star and falling icon. Sure there’s a mutual spark and fondness between George and Peppy right from their first meeting, but they hardly interact over the next seven years. Which is better. I definitely prefer this to the only Star is Born iteration I’ve seen.

The pacing could be better. George goes through five, maybe six escalating rock-bottoms (if we’re counting “finds out a younger woman has been secretly trying to help him” as a “rock bottom,” Jesus, George) that take up over half the movie. Rock bottom number five feels like it should be the “George learns to accept help and take a step into the talkie era” moment but it isn’t, there’s like 15 minutes left until then.

That said, the movie surely has its strengths. Dujardin is perfect as Valentin, every inch the classic Hollywood icon, part Rudolph Valentino and part Clark Gable. Bejo, likewise, is luminous as Peppy, perfect as a 20s/30s It Girl. And whatever your feelings about making a silent movie about the death of the silent movie era and those it left behind (it is a little… Hollywood wanky), making this a silent movie is how two French actors could have breakout roles as vintage Hollywood stars.

(They didn’t quite break out in the States, Dujardin did supporting roles in Monuments Men and Wolf of Wall Street and that’s about it, Bejo did at least one other American film but nothing on this level, but they’re both working plenty and doing just fine at home in France. Eh, that’s fine, nothing wrong with working in your home country.)

Also while it is a silent film about the end of the silent era, in which both George and Peppy do some solid physical comedy bits (George mirroring his dog was a favourite), the point was not that the fickle crowds were wrong to abandon George Valentin. His refusal to move to talkies is played as a flaw, and paralleled in how lack of talking kills his marriage. (Opening the film with George’s character in a movie being interrogated and crying, via title card, “I will not talk!” was almost too on the nose, which is right in my sweet spot.)

The framing is often excellent, including Peppy and George’s first run-in since her star began to rise… they talk on a staircase, surrounded by studio workers buzzing around them, Peppy on a higher step showing her newfound prominence over George. Or George’s nightmare of having no voice in a world where sound is taking over, first of only two scenes with diegetic sound. Only the last minute has spoken dialogue, but writer/director Michel Hazanavicius makes use of every visual trick and storytelling tool he can… if maybe with a little less artistry than Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans… but with definitely more/better plot.

And George’s dog is adorable.

It’s a gimmick movie to be sure, and hardly the last gimmick movie to sucker Academy voters, but it has charm. Good direction, two knockout leads and a great supporting cast of notable faces (highlights include John Goodman as a studio head, Missi Pyle as George’s vapid former co-star, James Cromwell as George’s loyal chauffeur, and Superman and Lois’ Lois Lane, Elizabeth “Bitsie” Tulloch as George’s Tears of Love leading lady)… you could do worse. Hell, where 2011 Best Picture nominees are concerned, they could have done much worse. This was a rough year, Oscar-wise.

And Rotten Tomatoes Says: They place it at #20, over The Best Years of Our Lives but right under the other Big Gimmick Movie from this decade. Feels… generous.

Where did I rank it? “It’s very gimmicky, sure, and very much Hollywood-loves-Hollywood, but Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo kept it compelling to watch.” It’s in the back half at #56, under District 9, over Beasts of the Southern Wild, definitely over the “I think I liked it but barely remember it” ghetto. And I only ranked two of its eight competitors higher: The Descendants and Midnight in Paris, and I might need to take that second one back, given the Woody Allen of it all.

But melancholy remembrance of the end of the silent era wasn’t going to fill those seats. Not when there was a different, much more meaningful end-of-era flick happening.

The Box Office Champ

Was it a little commercial to split the final Harry Potter book into two movies? Sure, a little. Between this and Christopher Nolan being about to finish his Dark Knight trilogy, maybe Warner Bros. saw their two multi-billion-dollar meal tickets about to end, and tried to hold off the moment when their main source of income was leasing streaming rights to Friends and The Big Bang Theory. But it was also the right choice, because Deathly Hallows had no filler, by any metric. No classwork, no quiddich, no exams, no Peeves, no simple stories of school life that added much flavour to the books but could be cut from the movies to fit the story into two and a half hours. Deathly Hallows only contained Harry, Ron, and Hermione’s desperate quest to somehow find and destroy Voldemort’s hidden immortality McGuffins to free the world from wizard tyranny. And there was too much of it for one movie, so yes, they made two, good call.

As to this one specifically… well first let me point out that it’s very weird only watching Philosopher’s Stone, the one about how fun magic is, Goblet of Fire, where Harry’s in a competition then suddenly shit gets real, and now Deathly Hallows, where all the fun and wonder is gone and all that remains is the desperate battle against evil. I don’t recommend it. You miss a lot skipping half the movies. But, as I was saying.

Deathly Hallows Part 1 was all about the grim hopelessness of Harry, Hermione, and Ron’s quest. with no leads, support, or safe harbour, and it did it very well while still adding three more all-powerful gewgaws into the story because heaven forfend one Harry Potter book not add some new magic thing into the lore. But it was remarkably effective, for being the one movie to strip out the wonder, the camaraderie, the wish-fulfilment, or to put it simply, the Hogwarts of it all. They even got a tear-jerking moment out of killing Dobby, the lame CG house elf from Chamber of Secrets.

Deathly Hallows Part 2 pumps the gas. The Golden Trio pulls a bank job, then we’re off to Hogwarts for the final battle of good vs evil, because where else would it happen, Hogwarts is the Harry Potter series.

This was, of course, the Big Finish, so naturally it drew the crowds. Everyone wanted to see the final battle, and while the action often defaults to people dramatically waving sticks so that the effects team can add in CG sparks, the character beats hit hard. The “Life and Times of Severus Snape” sequence is gutting, Radcliffe plays the hell of Harry’s resignation to needing to die so his friends maybe won’t, Neville Longbottom sells his big hero moments, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint do well… look it’s hard to judge it as a wrap-up to the franchise since I didn’t rewatch half the movies but it’s still a hell of an achievement, and a mostly solid epic conclusion.

And Rotten Tomatoes Says: A glowing 96% from critics, a less glowing 89% from audiences, I don’t know that’s from book fans who were sick of the movies doing Ginny Weasley dirty but it could be.

Other Events in Film

This is the year that expanding the Best Picture list to squeeze in some popular choices failed utterly. The first year they did it, they included the biggest hit of all time (notcountinginflation), the second year saw nominations for Toy Story 3 and Nolan’s Inception, and this year… this year found room for the absolute low point of Oscar bait… Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.

(No, Tree of Life was not Oscar bait, I’m not sure who Terrence Malick’s movies are for other than Patrick Willems, but every movie he’s made since says they’re not for the Academy.)

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, the story of a boy who cures 9/11 with his magical autism powers but still misses his dead dad, is a movie that few saw and fewer liked. It had the lowest Rotten Tomatoes score of any Best Picture nominee since RT was founded (45%, and sure it’s higher than The Broadway Melody but RT wasn’t around then), it received no nominations from any other major award body… but somehow still got itself a Best Picture nomination from the Oscars, plus a Supporting Actor nomination for Max Von Sydow and nothing else.

It was impossible to look at the nine nominated films and not think “This wasn’t the deal, Academy, you expanded the shortlist to fit in some hits, not this garbage Magical Autism Movie or Tree of goddamned Life.” I’m not saying Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 deserved to slap “Best Picture nominee” at the front of that ungainly title, but did it deserve it less than Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close?

See how useful this clip is?

Anyhoodle…

  • This Year in Superheroes: Captain America: The First Avenger is a charmingly earnest start to Marvel’s best (so far) solo series, while Thor is aggressively mediocre. Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg do not find a hit with The Green Hornet, but neither do DC with Green Lantern, which is… flawed. And Fox soft-reboots the X-Men with X-Men: First Class, flashing back to the 60s with James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, and new it-girl Jennifer Lawrence as younger versions of Xavier, Magneto, and Mystique. Cameos by Hugh Jackman and Rebecca Romijn confirm it’s the same continuity.
  • Fast? Furious? With Fast Five, something unexpected happens: characters from the previous four movies all come together to form a car-crime supergroup, with Dwayne Johnson chasing them as Agent Hobbs, and the second he steps off the plane into Brazil, the series transforms from a dumb series of car-based action movies to a legit fun smash-hit dumb series of car-based action movies.
  • This Year in Martin Scorsese: Hugo is the story of a young boy trying to connect with his dead father through a mysterious robot… that suddenly shifts gears at the halfway point and is instead about Georges Méliès, a real-life once-great white male filmmaker lamenting being left behind by history, they did it twice in one year. It was such a weird narrative bait-and-switch that it’s literally the only thing I can remember about that movie. I don’t even remember what the robot’s deal was. Not the worst “kid tries to reconnect with his dead father” movie that year but as discussed, that bar was low.
  • Jason Segel writes The Muppets, which is a pure and utter delight.
  • The biggest surprise of the year, for me, had to be Rise of the Planet of the Apes, a prequel/reboot better than it had any right to be.
  • Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol revives the franchise with the one key ingredient it needed: much more Simon Pegg. The studio investigates maybe transitionting the franchise from Tom Cruise to Jeremy Renner. But Renner would never be as insanely devoted to the stunt-work.
  • If you want to see Star Wars’ Finn, Legends of Tomorrow’s Firestorm, the 13th Doctor, and Shaun of the Dead’s Nick Frost fight aliens and British wealth inequality, Attack the Block is the movie for you!
  • Zack Snyder makes his passion project, Sucker Punch. It looks feminist but deeply isn’t. I’m sure that’ll be the last of that in his filmography.
  • Remember what I said last time, “You either die a trilogy or live long enough to see yourself become Jaws 4? Well, Scream 4 and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides didn’t.
  • Cars 2 not only doesn’t win Pixar another Best Animated Oscar, it doesn’t even get a nomination, as the Academy has the very sensible rule “If you give Larry the Cable Guy a bigger role, you may not have Oscars.”
  • More people should know about The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, in which Dev Patel opens a retirement home for elderly English people, and it’s very charming.
  • David Fincher makes the American version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, which gets Rooney Mara an Oscar nomination for the title role.
  • Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law return for Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, which proves two Sherlock Holmes truisms: 1) every version does some version Moriarty and Reichenbach Falls eventually; 2) it never actually kills Sherlock.

Next Page: The Hype is Strong

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *