Michael Sragow chat

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Michael Sragow has been a film critic for publications in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston and Seattle. He has written on movies for The New Yorker since 1989 and has been a film critic and editor for Rolling Stone. He came to the Sun in 2001 from Salon.com, where for two years he wrote a movie column on films and filmmakers.

baltimoresun.com: Welcome. Thank you for joining us to talk about Sunday's Oscars ceremony.

Michael Sragow: Good to be here again -- a month earlier than usual!

Lisa, Cockeysville: Do you feel any films up for Academy Awards are overrated this year? Which film would you have left off the Best Pictures list? Should there be another film there instead?

Sragow: I love the breadth of the Oscar choices this year, and the way they sweep over all categories of American and international movies, but there is at least one clunker and one sweet little nothing among the best picture choices this year. As a friend of mine said in a song he wrote to the tune of "Mr. Sandman," Mystic River mystifies me! I don't mind enduring punishment for enlightenment or even some good thrills, but the over-acting and the cascading incredible subplots completely turned me off that one. And "Lost in Translation," though full of talent, evaporated as you were watching it -- or at least as I was watching it.

The second part of your question is easy to answer: I've rarely recommended a movie to people that won such universal awed reaction as "In America." It's terrific that it's up for three major Oscars, but I think if it were up for Best Picture it really would have had a shot. Of course, there are other movies I loved last year, like "Dark Blue," that didn't have a shot, but no matter how hip and smart Oscar gets it will always be easy to overlook accessible if complex movies done in traditional American style. I think "Dark Blue"'s star, Kurt Russell, who gave the year's best performance as the antihero of Dark Blue, will get recognized next year for "Miracle."

baltimoresun.com: Were there any nominees that really surprised you? Which ones?

Sragow: I guess I thought "Lost in Translation" was too thin to make an impression, but I still was pleased that the Academy would honor such an odd movie -- at least it's individual. I felt the same way about a lot of the surprise awards. "City of God," the Brazilian movie that got nominated for four major Oscars including best director and best writer, wasn't in my list of best foreign films last year, but it was a sensational (if I think slightly sensationalistic) piece of moviemaking, and it was astounding and hopeful that it was showered with nominations. Some of the "surprises" I think you could see coming if you talked to people in LA over the last year, like the best actress nomination for Keisha Castle-Hughes in "Whale Rider." I actually thought if the Academy was going to honor young actresses this year it should have looked toward (again) the Bolger sisters in "In America." But "Finding Nemo" getting a best script nod, and "The Triplets of Belleville" not just competing with Nemo for best animated feature but also being put in the running for best song -- these are all good signs and not at all predictable!

Lisa, Chevy Chase: There was less time between nominations and voting this year. How do you think that will affect the outcome? Did it hurt the indies?

Sragow: It HELPED the indies. A lot of the Academy membership is super-responsible, and even before the controversy over whether the indies could send out screeners erupted, the people I know out there were flooding me with questions about which smaller movies they should see. (The screener controversy, which got a lot of ink but probably meant nothing to most moviegoers, eventually dissipated when a judge ruled that indies could send DVDs and tapes to Academy voters.) The results are in the nominations. Just look at the best acting categories; almost every nominee is from an independent production. And the nominations for Ben Kingsley and Shohreh Aghdashloo, for "House of Sand and Fog," were for a movie that might as well have been an independent, even if it is a DreamWorks production. The creative categories are so peppered with deserved independent nominations I found myself frustrated only that certain other indies, like "The Station Agent," which I like better than "Lost in Translation" or "American Splendor" (though I enjoyed "Splendor"), didn't manage to land anywhere on the list.

Doug Hattala, Napa, Calif.: Why all the acclaim for "Lost in Translation"? The script is banal, Scarlett Johansson's character is an unconvincing Yale graduate, and Bill Murray's character seems to exist only to belittle the Japanese, who are presented as no more than caricatures. The movie has the feel of a padded student film.

Sragow: I'm with you. I think at the time it was released (mid-September) moviegoers and critics alike just wanted a movie they could relax into without being assaulted; I'm surprised it has held its allure into the award season. But never underestimate the power of The New York Times! I'm convinced "American Beauty" won a few years ago because of Bernard Weinraub's July 4 column praising it to the hilt before anyone else saw it. I think the story on Sofia Coppola in the New York Times Magazine in late summer started the ball rolling for "Translation" and apparently the momentum never stopped.

Brian K., Cockeysville: Please explain the appeal of "Seabiscuit." I found it extremely boring and way too long.

Sragow: I loved "Seabiscuit." I think the appeal of it is that it tells an underdog story without giving into sentimentality and at the same time not being afraid of sentiment. I thought the way Gary Ross, the writer-director, took his time introducing the three emotionally-wounded major human characters before uniting them with this written-off horse paid off emotionally and (if I can use a loaded word these days) spiritually; I wish he hadn't underlined with voice-over narration the metaphor of Seabiscuit as the American spirit rising up from the Great Depression -- and if he felt he must, I wish he had someone less PBS-like than David McCullough to read it. But I thought the performances of Bridges and Cooper and Maguire and William H. Macy and the race scenes were transcendent.

baltimoresun.com User: Was the beef about screener tapes really about piracy? Or was it also about containing the influence of the minis against the majors?

Sragow: There is a piracy problem, and even a handful of the coded tapes that were eventually sent out to Academy members wound up on the Internet. But the main piracy problem comes from people within the industry copying the movies in editing and screening facilities. The crackdown on Academy screeners looked suspicious, because indies have had so much success in recent Oscar years, but if the studios were really trying to crack down on smaller companies the strategy backfired. More likely Jack Valenti wanted to do SOMETHING quick about piracy and the screener ban was the easiest and most visible move he could make.

Gabriel, Bethesda: This year there are a lot of international actors and actresses up for consideration. How do you think the diversity of the nominees will affect the outcome?

Sragow: The diversity is good to see, but I bet the winners will be decided for other reasons than an outpouring of UNESCO solidarity. For example, Charlize Theron in "Monster." When Shirley Jones won for Elmer Gantry and Elizabeth Taylor for Butterfield 8, there seemed to be a rule: to win an Oscar, play a prostitute. Well, Theron trumped that with a prostitute-serial killer and a stunning physical transformation (I thought the performance itself was just a stunt, and I LIKE Charlize Theron). (Interesting P.S.: When Sally Field followed Norma Rae with "Back Roads," she was said to be the only woman who won an Oscar so she could play a prostitute.) Anyhow.... The best actor nominees are for betting purposes the most interesting. Most people (me included) expected Sean Penn to walk away with it, but there are earthquake tremors indicating the land has shifted and Johnny Depp might actually take it for his amusing (and hit-making) turn in "Pirates of the Caribbean."

baltimoresun.com User: Once again, documentaries are strong. What do you think this says about the industry? Why are documentaries making such an impact these days? Do these nominations reflect good changes in Academy procedures, better doc filmmaking, or both?

Sragow: Documentary moviemaking IS on an upswing, and there are several reasons. I think the rise of digital video has helped make documentary-making more accessible. I think the exploding nature of the American movie audience is a big factor: John Edwards keeps talking about two Americas, but people who go to movies know there are about a dozen Americas, and one of them wants fact-based films that have a point of view or a sense of poetry to them and would never get on the networks or into theaters without the clout of festivals and critics. Documentaries as personal and idiosyncratic and marvelous as "My Architect" and as provocative and daring as "Capturing the Friedmans" might never have made a splash if they were done a decade ago, and might never have made it onto the Academy lists if the documentary category hadn't gone through a shake-up designed to bring more actual documentary-makers into the voting ranks. The Academy choices in this category were always interesting, I think -- I was not one of those who cried that Michael Moore never got a nomination (of course, who can forget, he won last year) -- but it is true that the choices are more in tune with movies that are shaking up viewers in the theaters.

By the way, "Spellbound" and "Friedmans" and "Winged Migration" just got released on DVD, and the new movie "Touching the Void," a cross between a documentary and a docudrama about a mountain-climbing accident in the Andes, is just hitting theaters and is spectacular.

Dan, Washington, D.C.: Do you know anywhere in this area that is showing the Academy award nominated short films for this year? I'd be willing to go as far as Philadelphia.

Sragow: I think there is a theater in New York, but I haven't heard of one in D.C. or Baltimore doing it and I'm not on top of the scene in Philly.

Bob Siegmann, Sunnyvale, Calif.: Have you ever seen a truly bad movie (we're talking "Dude, Where's My Car") saved by good performances?

Sragow: Many truly bad movies. You know, whenever "Dirty Dancing" came up this week because of the misbegotten new remake/sequel/whatever, "Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights," I was amazed at how even people fond of the original knew it was a crappy movie. But it did have this archetypal middle-class girl and underclass boy story, and Patrick Swayze was astonishing in the dance scenes, especially with his fellow dance-instructors -- he's the best thing in the new one and I'm still surprised that no-one ever figured out how to use a guy that moved so well in, say, swashbucklers and acrobatic action films as well as musicals.

I think critics miss a lot of what movies are all about if they don't pay attention to performances -- I still hope to catch up to an incest movie from 35 years ago, "Brotherly Love," because I remember Stanley Kauffmann writing about how incredible one of my favorite actors, Peter O'Toole, was in it.

Nick Gallanos, Seattle: Who are your favorite comtemporary film critics?

Sragow: I think there are a number of entertaining, enlightening, original critics out there, but they're often not in the most visible positions. One who is -- Joe Morgenstern of the Wall Street Journal -- seems to me one of the most graceful and inventive and humorous writers ever to work this beat; we go in and out of synch in our choices, but because he's so honest in his individual reactions to films and eloquent in working them out, I always know WHY we disagree (not always the case)! My old friend Terrence Rafferty, who I used to share a berth with at the New Yorker, has been appearing a lot in Section 2 of the Sunday New York Times. Steve Vineberg, who wrote the best book on acting I've ever read, METHOD ACTORS, shows up there sometimes too, when he's not penning magisterial essays for the Berkeley-based THREEPENNY REVIEW. And the writers for Slate and Salon.com are generally witty and challenging. I'd like to put a plug in for a DVD magazine I freelance for, THE PERFECT VISION: it has one of the most succinct and intelligent and enjoyable review sections in contemporary journalism.

Mark Smolenski, Owings Mills: I find it remarkable how you and other movie critics are castigating Mel Gibson because he presents a conservative point of view about Christ's passion, yet when a liberal point of view (see Oliver Stone -- "JFK") of an event is presented, it is deemed artistic license. Is it possible for you and your ilk to judge a film without your bleeding heart biases coming to the forefront?

Sragow: The supposed "conservatism" of Mel Gibson's "point of view" had nothing to do with my reaction to the film. If the movie had ANY interesting point-of-view to it, I would have been appreciative. The movie is so rigorously focused on details of torture and agony that theology, philosophy, history -- not to mention drama -- go out the window. The reductive impact of the film is such, it's as if Gibson thinks that you can measure the profundity of Jesus' sacrifice by the punishment he took.

But I'm glad you posed your question this way. Many of my favorite directors have been out-and-out conservatives. In fact, I'm currently working on a biography of Victor Fleming ("Wizard of Oz," "Gone With the Wind") who was a founding member of the anti-Communist Motion Picture Alliance. One of the things I love about Hollywood in the 30s and 40s is that a guy like Fleming and lefties like Dalton Trumbo could rise above political differences and have great relationships and produce great entertainment. I want more movies that are seriously politically aware, but the kneejerk politicization of all movies by the left and right has taken a lot of fun out of the public discourse.

baltimoresun.com: Thank you for sharing your insights with us. Any final predictions for the big night?

Sragow: This is one night when I'll be rooting for the favorite, since the favorite is THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING. Peter Jackson was even robbed of a nomination last year for "The Two Towers," and I think the Academy has seen the error of its ways. When I did this chat a year ago I think I said something grandiloquent like, "When the third film in the trilogy appears it will complete the most magnificent fantasy achievement in the history of the cinema..." Well, that's what LOTR has turned out to be!

After ROTK and Jackson I'll be rooting for Diane Keaton as best actress for "Something's Gotta Give" (for Samantha Morton too, in "In America") -- although I think Theron has it locked. And for actor, Ben Kingsley, who manages to bring genuine tragedy (and even a streak of dark comedy) to all the gimcrack tragedy in "Sand and Fog" -- though Depp, Penn and even Murray have better chances.

For supporting actress, I think Shohreh Aghdashloo may overcome Renee Zellweger's Beverly Hillbillies Greatest Hits rendition in "Cold Mountain" -- I certainly hope so -- and for supporting actor, we can always hope that Djimon Hounsou will take a prize for "In America," though my gut tells me it's Tim Robbins' year (he did have one fun scene in "Mystic River," but it violated the logic of the rest of his character in that movie).

Thanks for the give-and-take and the hospitable forum.

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