I’ve managed to knock off a couple of the year’s big Oscar films over the last week, having finally seen Brokeback Mountain in the theater last week, and Walk The Line last night. Having already checked out Capote and Good Night & Good Luck, I’m down to just Crash (with plans to check that out soon) and Munich (which I may try to get to next week) as Best Picture nominees I’ve managed to miss. I think this is actually the first year where I honestly wanted to see all the Best Picture noms. Usually there’s at least one of them where I’m like, “eh”.
I’m not really sure what this says about the Academy Awards, or perhaps film in general, but in my quest to see this year’s “Oscar films”, Walk The Line was the first of the Best Actress nominations I’ve seen. The other four were pretty much all from films that got no other love, aside from the lead female, so they haven’t really climbed to the top of my list yet. Whereas I’ve now seen 4 of the 5 Best Actor performances (with the lone exception being Hustle & Flow). Sadly, I guess it’s still a man dominated world.
Anyhoo, some thoughts on the most recent two.
Brokeback Mountain was damn near everything people were saying it was. Breathtakingly beautiful in its cinematography, really well acted, and exceptionally written. I really can’t think of anything about the film I *didn’t* like. I went into it expecting to like Heath Ledger, as despite his pretty boy image, I’ve always thought he was a damn good actor (check out his role in Monster’s Ball). He was as good as advertised. What surprised me, however, was how good Jake Gyllenhaal was. He brought far more to the dance than I was expecting. It’s actually kind of a joke that he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor, as his role was just as big as Ledger’s and was no less central. I mean, it’s nice for the Academy to want to recognize him, but it kind of makes the process a farce if they can’t even follow their own qualifications.
I really liked Walk The Line, although it was mostly just for the acting. Reese Witherspoon absolutely NAILED that role, showing a depth I didn’t think she was capable off. Kind of ironic too, that she turned out to have a better voice than the real woman she was portraying. Joaquin Phoenix did a damn fine job as well, particularly during the close-ups of him singing. The scene early on where he was auditioning for record producer Sam Phillips was *awesome*. The unease and fear in his face as he started playing his self-written tune, was quite the site. My only complaint about his casting is that Johnny Cash was such a large presence, and despite his best attempts to seem hulking, I never really bought Phoenix as being Cash. He did manage to impress the hell out of me with his singing though.
Comparing the two films, there is one huge, glaring thing that I noticed. Both films take place at times in the 1960’s. To me, Brokeback was a real, tangible, lived-in 60’s. Walk The Line was a spit-and-polish, squeaky clean 60’s. And I don’t think that the two worlds were really all that different. Now I realize that the characters in Walk The Line were performers, and as a result, would have been cleaned up, but that’s not what I’m talking about. All throughout the film, Cash’s first wife had perfectly made-up hair, and smooth, flawless skin. She shone, even when she was supposedly cooped up in the house all day taking care of the kids. Compare that with Michelle Williams’ haggard look from Brokeback and you’ll see what I mean. Hollywood has a nasty habit of making the past appear cleaner than it was. The cars are always new, and streets without a hint of trash, everybody’s clothes look fresh off the rack. All except for those few moments when somebody needs to look “down and out”, such as Cash near the end of Walk The Line. So they give him a few wrinkles to his shirt and allow him to not shave for a day or two. I don’t know why this bothers me as much as it does, but I have a hard time buying into a film when the world they create looks so sterile.
Another complaint I have to lodge against Walk The Line is one I have to lodge against pretty much any film ever made about a real singer. The concert footage always sucks. I realize the general excuse is that in filming, you can’t just throw them up on stage and have them sing, recording as you go. Too many shots need to be set, and you can’t hear directions being spouted over the music. But when they shoot actual concert films, they never have a problem getting what they need. So why not shoot a biopic that way as well? The shots of Phoenix and Witherspoon singing, while effective for their storytelling, looked bogus. It’s always so obvious that they’ve taken a studio recording, added crowd noise, and had them lip-synch to it. At the very least, can’t they at least get the sound recording from a live performance, so that it doesn’t sound so clean?
If you’re trying to reflect real life, you have to dirty it up a bit.