Michael Sragow chat

Read the transcript of our chat with The Sun film critic.

February 27, 2004|By Baltimoresun.com staff

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.

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