My Octopus Teacher: Underwater art exhibition or camouflage?
It’s been over a year since most of us have set foot inside a theatre. Instead, we’ve spent the past 13 months streaming instead of screening, and so the idea of handing out movie awards seems unduly hypocritical even by Academy standards. If ever there were a time to remind audiences that it is once again safe to return to the multiplex, it’s now. Why then did the Board of Governors choose a change of venue, from the Kodak Theatre to Union Station? Fortunately, tear gas wasn’t used to disperse the homeless for a photo-op featuring Academy President David Rubin holding a copy of Andre Bazin’s What Is Cinema? backward and upside-down.
This year’s ceremony was nothing if not inconsistent. Several receivers made it clear that in the case of multiple winners, only one was allowed to speak. Some of the nominees were introduced with snappy thumbnail bios, slightly more personal than those afforded a bachelor on The Dating Game, while other, below-the-line talent, like makeup designers, were signified by name only. Illustrative clips from nominated films, generally a show staple, were sparsely sprinkled throughout. And what’s with the “first name basis” acceptance speeches? Winners would rattle off, “I’d like to thank Jim, and Bill, and Mary...” without divulging their co-workers’ last names. There could be dozens of variations on Jim & Bill & Mary. Why not personalize it? Think how impressive it would look on their showreels!
This year’s “Honesty is the Best Policy” award went to Andra Day. During a running time-padding round of music trivia, emcee Lil Rel Howery asked if the title tune from Purple Rain was a winner, a nominee, or not in the running. In a moment of blinding integrity, Ms. Day dared to question Academy taste with, “It’s a brilliant song, so it probably wasn’t even nominated.” The segment ended with Glenn Close picking up the late Cloris Leachman’s mantle by shaking her tuchas for the camera.
With Steven Soderbergh acting as executive producer, the event tried hard to replicate the look of cinema. Note the opening credit sequence, a first in Academy history, if I’m not mistaken. The swirling camera moves tried hard to emulate Max Ophuls, and damn if the telecast didn’t look as though it was shot on film, thanks to Soderbergh’s choice of filters. The presentation order was also out of whack. The Best Picture award is always the last to be bestowed, but this year the show closed with Best Actor. It’s been hinted that the reason behind the shift was the near certainty that Academy voters would honor the late Chadwick Boseman. And the Oscar went to… Anthony Hopkins, who was not in attendance. The show ended with a whimper, not a bang. Where are Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway when you need them?
Other variations included the apportioning of two Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Awards: one to the Motion Picture Television Fund’s Bob Bietcher, the other to Tyler Perry. Rather than a producer’s daughter or anonymous FSOT (Future Starlet of Tomorrow) personally handing out the Golden Doorstops, they sat waiting on the podium. If Halle Berry’s Emo Howard Phillips bob was a spiteful attempt to settle an old score, chalk one up for her hairdresser. Shorn of clips and musical numbers, the show still came in at a lumbering 3 hours and 20 minutes. What did we learn? Maybe having an orchestra on hand to cut short long-winded acceptance speeches wasn’t such a bad idea after all.
My 2020 New Year’s resolution was to stop calling out films or actors simply because they took home Oscar gold. Who cares? Stop me if you’ve heard this one: Red Buttons received an Academy Award, Alfred Hitchcock didn’t. Art shouldn’t compete. I rest my case.
This week sees my second stab of Pfizer. I fully intend on spending the entire month of May inside Reading Cinemas Grossmont Center. Won’t you join me?
Video on Demand New Release Roundup
The Midnight Sky — George Clooney’s relationship with sci-fi fantasies has been spotty at best. A finely condensed Cliff’s Notes abbreviation: Solaris was Steven Soderbergh’s aesthetically bountiful endeavor to distill Tarkovsky for the masses. Theatre ushers loved the film, as low audience turnout left little to clean up between shows. Gravity was an Awards-season favorite, raking up 7 Oscar nominations — including one for Sandra Bullock — but Clooney’s jocular spaceman was shut out. I’m in the minority when it comes to enjoying Tomorowland, a tentpole picture that collapsed at the box office. According to The Hollywood Reporter, the film lost close to $150 million, making it hard to understand why Clooney would want anything to do with another film that finds him trekking through a CG universe playing opposite a young girl, who in this case is near-mute by intention. (Was it because Bullock took home an Oscar that this time Clooney chose to direct an intergalactic adventure that pits him against an easily upstageable youngster?) 2049 reveals a post-apocalyptic universe, with a bearded Clooney starring as a terminally ill scientist who refuses to join his fellow astronauts in abandoning the base. With the earth’s population wiped out, Clooney tries to contact interplanetary craft to warn them to steer clear of home, and he finds a ship returning home from Jupiter that’s about to be damaged by a meteor shower. A subsequent attempt to do repair work and the rocket ship karaoke that ensues deserve a spot on the cutting room floor. (They could have clipped 30 minutes, and no one would have noticed.) SPOILER ALERT! The entire film hinges on a cheat: with Clooney nowhere in sight, the audience watches as a young mother learns that her daughter Iris (Caoilinn Springall) made it to safety on an earlier flight. This brief moment is intended to establish the young stowaway who Clooney later finds hiding in the kitchen as a corporeal being. Not even M. Night Shyamalan could have sensed a way out of this deceitful ploy. 2020. — S.M. ★
My Octopus Teacher — If ever an underwater adventure doc cried out for IMAX 3D, it’s this, but for now, let’s be thankful that we had a chance to visit this kingdom of strange and exotic animals. The emphasis here is on the vulnerability of life. Craig Foster is a South African documentary filmmaker and co-founder of the Sea Change Project. You’ve heard of Spider-Man’s arch foe, Doc Ock? How about an oc-doc, possessed of such humanity and awareness that it turns out to be the definitive (only?) film on the subject? An octopus is an anti-social animal that spends most of its life trying not to be seen, a trait that makes this documentary an even more astounding achievement. There is no way that Foster and the writing-directing team of Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed could have set out to tell this story. By their nature, films of this kind are shoot-now-figure-it-out-later affairs that rely greatly on patience, persistence, and luck; hide a camera, let it run, and hope that something of interest will float past the lens. Perhaps it’s the filmmakers’ shared ability to think like mollusks, but I’ll be damned if this octopus doesn’t take direction. So does Foster. When faced with intervening and potentially saving the animal from the jaws of angling Pyjama Sharks, Foster refuses to risk interfering with “the whole process of the underwater forest.” Difficult though it might be, the filmmakers never attribute anthropomorphic qualities to their subaqueous superstar. 2020. — S.M. ★★★★