400 Screens, 400 Blows is a weekly column that takes an in-depth look at the films playing below the radar, beneath the top ten, and on 400 screens or less.
The Oscars are on Sunday and awards season is almost over. The flavor of the month this season has been almost all war movies and biopics, as it has been roughly since 9/11. Though this year we have the occasional mention of Hurricane Katrina (which kind of falls in both categories). For example, Baz Luhrmann couldn't bring himself to make pure entertainment like he did with Moulin Rougue. This time he had to make Australia (110 screens), which starts out as a lightweight entertainment, and then morphs into a heavy war movie, and drags on too long in the process.
At least three movies managed to combine biopic and war elements: Edward Zwick's Defiance (442 screens) managed to please some viewers, but most critics as well as the Academy voters couldn't get past its awkward filmmaking to embrace the powerful true story hidden somewhere deep inside. On paper, Steven Soderbergh's Che (20 screens) seemed tailor-made for Oscars. Both the director and star (Benicio Del Toro) are former Oscar-winners, and the film runs four hours and encompasses both war elements and a true story. Many critics went bonkers for it, but Academy voters resisted it, possibly because of the length, but more likely because it doesn't spell out precisely what it wants you to think. It's a hugely complex, very intelligent, slightly aloof essay-like film rather than an emotional rise-and-fall story like most biopics.