As October begins its final descent, that means we get to look forward to seeing more and more trailers for The Big Oscar Movies. In the fall/winter we can see most of the best movies of the year mixed with top directors/writers/actors squandering their talents in an attempt to win a little gold statue.
There’s a reason why the term Oscar bait is derisive. It’s because these films are as soulless as Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, except wrapped in nicer packaging. In many ways, that makes them worse. A movie like Green Lantern didn’t bother to pretend to mean something (other than that courage is better than fear and believe in yourself), while these films masquerade as having legitimate artistic value.
Watching the trailers for these two films show the worst tendencies in this quest for gold. Every scene, every moment, and every music cue seem carefully orchestrated to suck all the emotion out of the story by telegraphing what we are supposed to feel. They try so desperately to inspire us or make us cry just from the trailer that it (and by relation, the movie) becomes a joke. You can’t (well shouldn’t) turn emotion into a scientific formula, which it always feels like these films are trying to do.
There’s another reason why I’m going to compare these two movies and not, say, something like The Descendants (which might be Oscar-baity, but I’m willing to give Alexander Payne the benefit of the doubt). No, it has nothing to do with both films being about the relationship between animals and man, though that also functions as a similarity. The main point of comparison is that both directors need a hit.
Well, need is a bit of a strong word. I’m sure Steven Spielberg would do just fine if he never directed another movie again. Nevertheless, the past decade hasn’t been particularly good for the man behind Jaws. He hasn’t made an attention-grabbing movie probably since Saving Private Ryan in 1998. (Some of) his 2000s offerings might have made money, but they lack flair and anything particularly memorable. You’d expect the person behind Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. to do something compelling with War of the Worlds…but he didn’t. 2005’s The Terminal might be one of the worst films ever created. And Indy IV … was better than The Terminal.
Cameron Crowe is another story. Obviously his name isn’t as big as Spielberg’s, but his last film (Elizabethtown) seemingly crippled the careers of himself, Orlando Bloom, and Kirsten Dunst. Dunst might have somewhat fixed herself through Melancholia. Bloom was really, really, really excited about being called for The Hobbit.
We Bought A Zoo (dir. Cameron Crowe, 2011)
At 30 seconds in, we’ve already hit some of the most annoying tropes of any film. The “Based on a True Story” words hitting the screen, the hard working widowed father, and the precocious daughter born from The Adorable Machine.
We follow this with a “live your life” encouragement speech and Damon getting a Jerry Maguire moment (from the person who wrote/directed that movie). When Damon and daughter seek to buy a new house, the Realtor (Leon from Curb Your Enthusiasm who is continuing to fool white people by wearing glasses) shocks them by letting them know that their perfect house (which really doesn’t look that great) is actually…now get this…a zoo. The problem with hedging your movie on the BOATS concept is that moments like this seem disingenuous. It might give (some of) the audience a laugh, but it doesn’t ring true.
Once those dreadful “This Christmas” words hit the screen, we’re forced to endure the twinkly magical heartwarming music of wonder. This is made even worse as “Be Unpredictable,” “Do Something Crazy,” and “Embrace Your Wild Side” emerge as the slogans for this tripe. I guess they ran out of time for “Follow Your Heart” and “Follow Your Dreams.”
Nevertheless, we see the scenes we expect to see. The youngest daughter being oh so adorable; the son yelling at his father “This is what you want! This is not what I want!”; the wacky moment where Damon freaks out about an animal; single father Damon awkward flirting with the attractive zookeeper (Scarlett Johansson); and the fatherly advice scene (“All you need is 20 seconds of insane courage, and I promise you something great will come of it.”). Is there a subplot where they have to save the zoo? Of course there is! Not a single moment in the entire trailer feels honest. Not even Damon explaining that “the sellers say you don’t even need any special knowledge to run a zoo, what you need is a lot of heart.” Something about that just doesn’t seem accurate.
Of course, this isn’t a documentary, so expecting the movie to provide a hard-hitting look at untrained people running a zoo is stupid on my part. But the problem with We Bought A Zoo is that every moment seems fake, hacky, clichéd, done before, seen before, repeated to the point of satire. Damon can do better, Scarlett can do better, and Thomas Haden Church appears to be the only one able to imbue his character with any sort of humanity.
Also, after the movie’s title is revealed but before showing the credits, the trailer has a two second bit where Damon asks Scarlett “you coming?” These types of “final moments” in trailers always puzzle me since they’re not really cute or comical or clever. They offer no insights into the characters nor do they leave us with a lasting image. They feel like a bizarre and needless form of padding. I guess you could argue that Damon is “talking” to the audience and the cut to Scarlett smiling should make us feel good about what we just saw. Either way, it’s not the worst of the ad’s problems.
War Horse (dir. Steven Spielberg, 2011)
Spielberg’s War Horse is a different ani…creat…movie. While We Bought A Zoo is The Blind Side (absolutely no racism intended or meant), War Horse is The English Patient (absolutely no racism intended or meant). Lush landscapes mixed with relentless melodrama, British people, and war mixed with the Spielbergian tendency of having people stare endlessly. This movie comes across as oh so cloying. From the trailer alone, the film is obvious. It will make you cry. By God, if you have one heartstring this movie will force you to sob.
I am a fascinated by World War I. The pointlessness and hopelessness of a war that nobody wanted or really understood lends itself to questioning the nature of humans and humanity. Some of the greatest war movies have been made about The Great War, including Paths of Glory, All Quiet on the Western Front, The Grand Illusion, Johnny Got His Gun, and the surprisingly chilling ending to Black Adder Goes Fourth.
The most important thing about World War I is that it shouldn’t look so…glossy. That might not be the exact word, but it’s the word that first comes to mind. Spielberg’s World War I lacks the dirtiness that marks the best works about the conflict and that encompasses the entire feeling of the battle, which, in turn, takes away from the power of the war. But it’s not really about the war is it? From the repetition of a single piano key to let us know…that…this…is…somber…and…epic to the “Be brave! Be brave! Be brave!” speech to the horse backed by the sunset looking towards the horizon, we know that horse and/or rider will die and Spielberg will eke every last tear out of the event.
It makes you yearn for the lightheartedness of Equus.
When it comes to Spielberg, his Oscar chances might be better with The Adventures of TinTin. Supposedly, the early/European reviews are quite good and, over the past several years, the Oscars have grown to appreciate animated films more. Both Toy Story 3 and Up earned Best Picture nominations along with their Best Animated Feature nods, and this year is lacking in a benchmark cartoon. In previous years, we not only had the Pixar staples but some indy-ish offerings like The Fantastic Mr. Fox (which I still consider superior to Up), the relentlessly depressing but incredible Mary and Max, The Illusionist, and Persepolis.
This year, Pixar released Cars 2, a less respected sequel to its least respected film. Rango was terrific (and contained some of the best CGI animation I’ve ever seen, including those in Pixar’s movies), but its placement earlier in the year might be a hindrance to its Oscar chances, not to mention the likelihood of Nickelodeon Movies throwing its weight behind Spielberg rather than Verbinski.
Oscar bait films are no longer as popular with the Oscar voters as they once were. Even with the increase to 10 nominees, very few of those types of movies make the list. The obvious gambit being played by We Bought A Zoo and War Horse probably won’t even pay off. Though maybe it will commercially. And War Horse probably will get nominated.