And The Oscar Goes To... New Zealand
All these massive TV spectaculars seem to be starting to resemble one another. The Academy Awards may be the most-watched TV show of the year globally, but Eurovision, a cultural extravaganza much loved on this side of the Atlantic, can't be too far behind. Now it's a bit of an axiom in the UK that Eurovision would be virtually unwatchable were it not for the rather cynical and disparaging (not to mention enormously entertaining) commentary the BBC transmission is accompanied by, courtesy of genial old Terry Wogan.
And the Oscars are starting to go the same way. Certainly the Beeb's four-and-a-half-hour long live broadcast was given a whole new atmosphere by the presence (during the commercial breaks, which the BBC had to fill somehow) of, amongst others, the Welsh comedian Rob Brydon, whose increasingly desperate attempts to assert his heterosexuality and do his Ronnie Corbett impression1 brought an unexpected and slightly surreal air to the proceedings. The evening would probably have been much harder going without these contributions, for all that the Academy itself might not have approved.
The actual awards, I'm beginning to suspect, are really one of the least important aspects of the whole thing. It's all about the glitz, and the frocks, and the warm self-congratulatory glow everyone concerned happily wallows in. Of all the Oscars I've sat through in the last few years, this was probably the most entertaining, mainly due to Billy Crystal's extremely polished and funny handling of his MC-ing duties. And it would be hard to really dislike a ceremony incorporating such an appropriate tribute to Katharine Hepburn, or one built around such a delightful story as the long-overdue triumph of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
It would be churlish of me to reiterate the opinion that of the three Rings films, this is the one which is the least clearly deserving of the Best Picture Award (for all that I predicted it would win it nearly two years ago). Given that one takes the quite extraordinary clean sweep of eleven wins for eleven nominations as an acknowledgement of the superb technical and artistic achievements of the whole trilogy, not just this last installment, I don't think there can really be any grousing about the outcome, only sympathy for several other very fine films which found themselves so unfortunate as to be up for awards in the same year.
One other cheery note was the way that the Academy overlooked its traditional bias against vocally left-wing performers and gave both Sean Penn and Tim Robbins Oscars for their turns in Mystic River. So cheery, in fact, that I am willing to overlook the fact that this uncharacteristic open-mindedness was responsible for the only two Oscar predictions I made which weren't on the button. Oh well, can't win 'em all. Yet - 'Mystic River?' I hear you cry. 'What's that then? Surely all films of note eventually get reviewed in 24 Lies A Second, and that one hasn't been done yet!'
Well, funny you should mention it...
Old Man's River
(Yeah, so I'm lifting a Billy Crystal gag. Sue me.)
It's over ten years since Clint Eastwood's long service and considerable skills both as an actor and director were justly rewarded by the Oscars awarded to Unforgiven. Clint has, of course, kept working as solidly as ever since then, but the honest truth is that (with the odd exception) the actual movies haven't really been anything special.
However, this succession of mediocre films has been broken in impressive style with Mystic River, a crime drama based on the novel by Dennis Lehane. Set in Boston, it's the story of trio of men, once childhood friends, who are brought together by violence and tragedy. Jimmy (Sean Penn) is a semi-reformed criminal and tough guy, a devoted family man. Sean (Kevin Bacon) is a homicide detective, struggling after his wife has left him. And Dave (Tim Robbins) is a man left with permanent psychological scars after being kidnapped and abused as a child. When Jimmy's teenaged daughter is murdered, Sean finds he and his partner Whitey (Laurence Fishburne) have been assigned to the case, while Dave's wife Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden) finds herself having terrible suspicions about just what her husband was doing on the night of the killing...
Yes, well, not a lot of laughs in this one (and a total absence of performing orang-utans too). But don't let that put you off, as this is an utterly engrossing and thought-provoking film built with scarcely a dud performance anywhere in it. The plot is complex, with a lot of back-story, most of which emerges through the minutae of the police investigation - but it's never confusing or contrived. The other main strand of the film concerns Penn coming to terms with the death of his daughter and the growing suspicions surrounding Robbins' character. It's more emotionally involving, but equally absorbing, and the two complement each other perfectly.
I'm always slightly wary of films which set out to make serious points and send messages to the audience, but Mystic River manages to do this subtly and calmly. It's interesting that Clint Eastwood, an actor for many years synonymous with a certain kind of cinematic violence (and whose primary big-screen persona was basically that of Angel of Death) has chosen to make a film suffused with a tremendous dread of and hatred for violence of all kinds. Violence causes violence, the story suggests, resulting in people trapped in a cycle of anger and revenge out of which good can never come. It's a grim moral, and this is an intense and often brooding film, but it's also a compulsively watchable one.
Clint's direction is appropriately unflashy for the most part, and he does sterling double-duty as composer of a low-key but very effective soundtrack. But he must surely take some of the credit for a welter of superb performances from virtually the entire principle cast. Robbins exudes a strange shambling menace as the emotionally damaged Dave, Marcia Gay Harden is outstanding as his wife (and if you ask me deserved to win the Oscar eventually picked up by Renee Zellweger), and Penn is never less than utterly convincing as Jimmy, a man virtually unhinged by grief and rage. Some of these performances are perhaps a little obvious and mannered, but no less praiseworthy for that.
Mystic River perhaps outstays its welcome a bit, and the slightly odd, ambiguous ending will not be to everyone's taste. But it is a superb drama, tightly written and brilliantly performed, and thoroughly deserving of your attention. I think it bears comparison with the best of Clint Eastwood's past work, and is also a major piece of evidence for those who would claim that his achievements as a director far surpass those of his acting career. Highly recommended.