Herrington and Akers on the Oscars, Part 1: The Screenplays

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Last year, Flyer film writers Chris Herrington and Greg Akers had a back-and-forth exchange leading up to the Academy Awards broadcast. This not only let us geek-out on a cultural event we both tend to obsess over, but also gave us one last chance to sing the praises of some lesser-known films the Oscars may have overlooked.

We predicit Quention Tarantino will leave the red carpet happy, with a Best Original Screenplay Oscar.
  • We predicit Quention Tarantino will leave the red carpet happy, with a Best Original Screenplay Oscar.
This year, we're back at it, and will divide our conversation into five parts, one each morning this week, leading up to Sunday's Oscar broadcast. We start today with the screenplay categories.

Best Original Screenplay
Nominees: The Hurt Locker, Inglourious Basterds, The Messenger, A Serious Man, Up

CHRIS HERRINGTON: The Messenger seems to be the only selection here incapable of actually winning. Of the rest, my guess is that The Hurt Locker is — correctly — perceived as more of a director's movie and the Coens' star-free, low-box-office A Serious Man simply too obscure. So I'm betting that this comes down to Up and Inglourious Basterds. Given all those long, talky scenes, the inventiveness of re-writing WWII, and the film's success both at the box-office and with Oscar noms, I think this is where Quentin Tarantino gets recognized. Will Win — Inglourious Basterds.

Should Win — I actually like all of these movies, but do think Inglourious Basterds was too disjointed, The Messenger perhaps a little too schematic, and wish Up hadn't devolved into standard-issue cartoon action down the stretch. I think The Hurt Locker is the best movie of the bunch, but I think the best screenplay here comes from my old nemeses, Joel and Ethan Coen. A Serious Man might be the first Coen movie more concerned with real life than with some kind of cinematic or literary source material, and I found it to be a very serious, very personal, fascinatingly prickly, and darkly comic look at religious belief and culture (which just happens to be Jewish because they are) from the perspective of an alienated insider.

I don't necessarily think anything really Got Robbed here, but my favorite non-nominated original screenplay is probably Adventureland, where Superbad director Greg Mottola offers a corrective to that too-coarse film by scripting his own more tender, more perceptive "teen sex comedy," an ’80s-set coming-of-age story that gets all the details right. Also under consideration: Ramin Bahrani's New South drama Goodbye Solo (the first of many references I'll be making to that film in this discussion), Sam Raimi's super-fun return to form Drag Me to Hell, and, for a real sleeper pick, the smartly conceived low-budget zombie thriller Pontypool, which screened here as an Indie Memphis midnight movie. Over to you, Akers.

GREG AKERS: Do we really only get to do this once a year? If the Academy can double the Best Picture nominees to 10, can they also have Oscars given out twice a year? Kinda like minor league baseball, with a winner from the first half of the season and a winner from the second half? Too much?

Best Original Screenplay is my favorite of all categories. You've got to have money or connections (or talent, sure) to produce, direct, act in, or adapt a script, but a great original screenplay is entirely free. It's worth is based on the vision of the writer, and a great original script can come out of anywhere from anybody. Creative democracy in action.

I get what you mean about The Hurt Locker being perceived as a director's movie, but I don't agree with that perception. I liked it plenty (#15 on my 2009 year-end review), but when I came out of it I thought to myself something along the lines of, "That probably would've made a better book." I guess this is my way of saying I think the script is The Hurt Locker's strength. Inglourious Basterds is an absolute triumph as the ultimate Jewish revenge fantasy — textually and metatextually using film to release decades of pent-up anger and sorrow. It's also disjointed, as you say, so there's that knock against it. The Messenger is solid but more of an acting showcase (the direction's very fine too). The opening 15 minutes of Up make a promise the rest of the film can't keep (though it fails in an utterly watchable way). A Serious Man is the Coen Brothers at their most sober and maybe the script with the most to say of all their filmography.

All that said, I'm going to agree with you: Will Win — Inglourious Basterds. The Hurt Locker won the Writers Guild Award and will quite possibly duplicate that win here. But, inexplicably, Basterds was not nominated for the WGA. WTF, WGA? The Academy really wants to shower Tarantino with love here, and they'll do so. Should Win — A Serious Man. The film enlarges in my mind over time. I think after The Big Lebowski, it might be their best.

Got Robbed: Well, poop, you keep saying everything I want to. Like Inglourious Basterds, Adventureland was a series of connected scenes and thematic vignettes all building toward a great whole. Unlike Basterds, Adventureland hangs together quite well, thanks for askin'. It's plotted like a series of fond memories recalled years later, and it nails the feeling of a formative transition in life. I also, boringly, agree wholeheartedly on Pontypool. I hate you. Wait, you didn't mention Atom Egoyan's tense drama Adoration, did you? Or Moon? A-ha!

A scene from Adventureland:

HERRINGTON: Well, hopefully that clean sweep of agreement won't be a sign of things to come. My primary rejoinder to you here is on your assertion about Inglourious Basterds releasing "decades of pent-up anger and sorrow." Look, I like the movie and think Tarantino has evolved into an underrated filmmaker, and in theory I understand where you're coming from. But I think the word "sorrow" is far too strong for a film that I don't think really has much of an emotional pull. Inglourious Basterds is cool and detached even when going for the operatic. It's a film that thinks more than it feels. I could elaborate on a disagreement we have about where The Hurt Locker's strengths lie, but something tells my we'll have plenty of other chances to get into that as the conversation develops. Back to you for Adapted Screenplays.

AKERS: Maybe "sorrow" is too strong, but I don't think by much. The character of Shosanna (Mélanie Laurent) is the best of the film, for all the scenery that Hans Landa gets to chew. In Shosanna's arc I find the tie to a word like sorrow. How about "profound existential sadness" instead? Doesn't have to be about the Holocaust to have a sad Jew in a World War Two movie. And no emotional pull? The look on the Bear Jew's (Eli Roth's) face as he pours bullets into Hitler's head is one for the ages. Oh, spoiler alert.

As for "cool and detached," I think that's a bum rap Tarantino films get. His dialog and direction may be cool and detached, but his characters rarely are (even when they desperately want to be, a la Mia Wallace in Pulp Fiction). I could maybe write a 5,000-word essay on the tension in Tarantino films between who his characters pretend to be (what they say) and who they really are (what they do).

But not right now. Right now, it's time for a 5,000-word essay on ...

Best Adapted Screenplay
Nominees: District 9, An Education, In the Loop, Precious, Up in the Air

Will Win: Toss out In the Loop. Hardly anybody saw it and the voters will see the nomination as recognition enough. Toss out District 9: It's a character-driven, high-concept, message-subgenre science fiction movie, sure. Additionally, it's a SCIENCE FICTION movie and thus has no chance. An Education? Please, Louise. The movie wasn't nominated for a Writer's Guild Award and couldn't even win this category at the British Academy Awards. Precious could pull an upset, I suppose, but this one is Up in the Air's to lose.

Should Win: But Up in the Air shouldn't win. The most effective, affecting parts were with unscripted non-actors. The most writerly moment in the film, the business about the backpack speech, didn't pay off in the end — the script feels two-thirds complete. The extent to which Up in the Air works is a function of the work of George Clooney and Vera Farmiga. Precious sizzles as, essentially, a vehicle for Mo'Nique's fire and woe and Gabourey Sidibe's pained persistence. Re: District 9: For an ostensibly smart allegorical tale, it was pretty lousy when you really examine how the underlying message holds up. I'm down with the alien apartheid approach, but I'm pretty sure there was a noble savage and maybe even a magical negro up in D9's metaphor. An Education was excellent, all around, and I have nothing bad to say. But In the Loop should win out of this group. A hilarious, damning insider's look at international politics and diplomacy. Like Syriana if Syriana was a comedy. Didn't see it coming.

Got Robbed: What a sad sorry state of affairs when the profound brilliance of the adaptation of Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are doesn't get recognized. So, someone takes a 10-sentence picture book that's as firmly fixed in the minds of half a century of kids as any, plumbs it for untold psychological riches, and uses it to make a respectful, non-pandering children's movie — and everyone forgot to vote for it? Stupid Academy. I'll also note Julie & Julia, which adapted two books by two authors and mixed them into a seamless concoction as tasty as any in 2009.

HERRINGTON: Well, the first part of this is the easiest: Will Win: If the buzz is to be believed, Up in the Air is losing steam for both Best Picture and Best Actor, which surprises me. But as a smart but glib star-driven box-office hit for grown-ups, it can't go home empty-handed and will win this.

Sharp dialogue between recognizable adults will help Up in the AIr take the Best Adapted Screenplay award.
  • Sharp dialogue between recognizable adults will help Up in the AIr take the Best Adapted Screenplay award.
Should Win: I don't think this is as strong a group of nominees as in the Original Screenplay category. District 9 is based on a quasi-interesting sci-fi premise but is politically confused when it isn't devolving into generic action. It has no business being here. I think Precious' appeal is more performance-driven, which is also true, to a somewhat lesser degree, with An Education (or maybe I'm just too annoyed by screenwriter Nick Hornby to wish him an Oscar). So, for me, this comes down to In the Loop and Up in the Air. The former is a nice, novel use of the The Office aesthetic (British version) in the realm of political satire, but I may surprise you — and, frankly, myself — by repping for Up in the Air here. We seem to have a pretty strong difference of opinion on what works in this film. To me, the talking head segments with real folks isn't the film's biggest strength but its biggest weakness. It invokes a sorrow (I think that word applies here) and gravity that the bulk of the film can't quite match. That I'm giving the film my screenplay nod here is because I've decided — perhaps incorrectly — that those scenes are a directorial insertion — filmmaker Jason Reitman undercutting screenwriter Jason Reitman. I think Up in the Air works best as a smart, smooth, grown-up romance/character study rather than as a self-conscious grab at the Zeitgeist and its best scenes — no, not that public-speaking stuff, but Clooney and Farmiga's hotel-bar meet-cute and the later inter-generational three-way conversation among Clooney, Farmiga, and post-collegiate Anna Kendrick — are sexy and zippy and truly adult in a way mainstream movies so rarely are now.

Got Robbed: Yep, here is where the Academy totally missed the boat. Where the Wild Things Are and Fantastic Mr. Fox are great adaptions, both taking children's lit classics and expanding them into something deeper and — yes — better. The former is an intense, beautiful psychological portrait of sensitive childhood. Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers deserve much, much more attention for what they've accomplished here. And with the latter, writer-director Wes Anderson and script partner Noah Baumbach achieved a startling synthesis of source material and their own personal style.

AKERS: Great call on Fantastic Mr. Fox. I know you're right even though I've never read the source material. And my final thought on the Up in the Air script: I agree that the fired-people vignettes completely skew the curve on this film. If they weren't in there, I probably would've liked the movie a lot more and really appreciated its slick adult fare. The fact that they're in there and the rest of the film can't match their gravity made me a little mad at how small Up in the Air otherwise is in a final reckoning.

And with that, we're 1/5 of the way finished! Join us Tuesday as we tackle the Supporting Actor awards.

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