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Oscar and Ali

This week: yet another look at the Oscars ceremony, and a review of a film unlikely to be heavily nominated for next year's awards.

The Gong Show

For the first time in quite a while I watched the long version of the Oscars this year. I was all set to denounce the whole thing as collective backslapping by the pond-slime of the movie industry, drawing special attention to the way that a) the acting awards are divided along gender lines, mainly to hide the fact that there are so few meaty female roles in major movies and b) the whole of non-English language cinema is shoehorned into one tiny category (well, for the most part, I noticed Amelie picked up a few - mostly technical - nominations).

And initially there seemed to be a lot to criticise in the proceedings: following September 11th, the denizens of Hollywood seemed gripped by the need to somehow validate their existence and reassure themselves that, yes, they really are as important and wonderful as they think they are. Well, I wasn't terribly convinced. The long version of the ceremony also features a rich vein of absurdity that tends to get edited out of the highlights show sane people (in the UK, at least) tend to watch. Night owls got to see Glenn Close and Donald Sutherland broadcasting live from what looked like an Oscars gift shop while the Cirque du Soleil warmed up behind them; we also got Samuel L Jackson's encounter with a violin-playing lunatic.

But all this didn't seem quite so important as the night wore on and genuinely moving and powerful moments started to happen: Woody Allen got a standing ovation, even before his stand-up routine; there was Randy Newman finally getting an Oscar at the sixteenth attempt - and, of course, there were the Oscars going to Denzel Washington, Halle Berry and Sidney Poitier, the significance of which should be very obvious.

As far as the rest of the awards went - well, I haven't seen A Beautiful Mind, so I don't really have grounds to criticise it - and I suppose it would be unreasonable to expect Lord of the Rings to win best picture three years in a row (put your money on Return of the King to win in 2004, though). From a UK point of view, I was glad that Julian Fellowes won for his superb Gosford Park screenplay, and very glad that Jim Broadbent won for his role in Iris (though he should have been in the main Best Actor category).

So, an enjoyable five hours - even though, when all's said and done, this year's ceremony will be remembered for something that shouldn't, in a perfect world, be a big deal of any kind.

Political and Incorrect

It seems rather perverse to follow a look at the most racially significant Oscars in nearly 40 years with a review of Mark Mylod's Ali G Indahouse, but that's never stoped me before. For those of you unfamiliar with Ali G (exclusively those based outside the UK, I'll bet) he's a comedy character created by Sacha Baron Cohen, the joke being that although Ali G is a white middle-class man from a quiet London suburb, he dresses and acts like a black gangster from South Central LA. The distinction that he's making fun of white people who behave like they're black, rather than black people, isn't immediately obvious, which has led to some controversy over here.

Anyway, having started life as the presenter of hoax interviews on a late-night satire show, the character went on to have his own (fairly uneven) series, and now, ominously, headlines his own movie1.

As the movie opens we find Ali (Cohen) hangin' with his equally pathetic homeboys in the not-especially-mean streets of Staines. But his life is plunged into crisis when the local leisure centre is threatened with closure. Meanwhile, the Prime Minister (Michael Gambon) orders his deputy (Charles Dance) to find a new, in-touch candidate to run for office in the Staines parliamentary election. For his own reasons, however, Dance wants to find the most useless, incompetent idiot possible for this job - who on Earth fits that description...?

I did laugh quite a lot while watching the film, although it's extremely hit-and-miss. There's potential for political satire here, but the writers (Cohen and Dan Mazer) only make a token attempt at this, opting instead for - how can I put it? - a ceaseless flow of puerile smut. The movie is quite staggeringly filthy. No gag is too broad to be included, no double entendre too obvious, no joke too crude. (The film opens with our hero being fellated by his dog, but quickly abandons this level of sophistication.) The sheer brazenness of this is sort of impressive and there are some very funny lines - none especially quotable, alas. But the laughs dry up whenever the plot (yup, there is one, of sorts) rears its head - the movie never quite manages to be funny while advancing the story.

God knows what Michael Gambon and Charles Dance are doing in this sort of thing, but they play along gamely. The supporting cast is stuffed with familiar faces off the telly: Kellie Bright, Martin Freeman, and Rudolph Walker, for example, plus cameos from various TV journalists (some of whom even get their names spelt right in the credits). And my fellow Doctor Who fans will be glad to hear that Dalek operator extraordinaire John Scott Martin gets a funny one-line part.

But ultimately, I can't help but have misgivings about the whole thing. No doubt the makers will claim that Ali G is a satirical character, and the film is meant to ridicule him and by extension his racism, sexism and homophobia. It seems to me, though, that Ali's been adopted at face value as a spokesman by the same group he's supposed to be satirising, and the writers seem happy to go along with this: Ali has, after all, recently released a hit single, a semi-serious collaboration with Shaggy (sample lyric: 'Me Julie/Me loves you truly/From me head down to me goolie'). For much of the film the audience is encouraged to laugh with him rather than at him. He's too unironically presented as the hero for his homophobia - to pick a trait at random - to be defensible as satire.

I found the presentation of female characters in the film particularly troubling. On the one hand, there are a large number of extremely attractive young women in the film, most notably Rhona Mitra as Dance's sidekick, and they're unfailingly portrayed in a leeringly exploitative way which is clearly unacceptable. But on the other hand, there are a large number of extremely attractive young women in the film, most notably Rhona Mitra as Dance's sidekick, and they're unfailingly portrayed in a leeringly exploitative way - fantastic! It's a bit of a dilemma and no mistake.

Is this taking a low-brow, gross-out comedy a bit too seriously? Well, maybe, maybe not. I laughed while watching Ali G Indahouse, but felt distinctly uneasy about it afterwards. Would I recommend it? Well, put it this way - it's like an Austin Powers movie, but without the wit, invention and charm, and clearly made on a tiny budget. If that sounds like your kind of film, by all means go ahead and see it. I'm off to type Ms Mitra's name into some search engines (don't worry, I'll feel suitably tarnished doing it). Boyakkasha!

Next week: swords a-swinging, pump-action shotguns a-pumping and blood a-splattering, as (fingers crossed) I check out Wesley Snipes in Blade 2.

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1Ominously because, as all followers of UK cinema know, movies based on TV comedy series tend to be about as amusing as a bombed hospital (while those based on drama series are unintentionally hilarious).

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