Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

30 January 2015

Oscar Nominees 2015: Part 4 of 12

Part 1. Part 2. Part 3.
Part 4 of 12:

2 Nominations
  • Picture
  • Original Song: Common & John Legend
Director: Ava DuVernay
Cast: David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, Tom Wilkinson, André Holland, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Common, Wendell Pierce, Lorraine Toussaint, Giovanni Ribisi, Tim Roth, Stephen Root, Colman Domingo, Stephan James, Trai Byers, Oprah Winfrey

This is one of the best films of the year. It is my #10 for 2014. It's excellent; it's hard hitting. It is also – and this is quite an achievement – a film about the past that is also fundamentally a film about the present. DuVernay has made a film about the importance of the Voting Rights Act to USAmerican politics. This is hugely important – the Supreme Court, just two years ago, gutted the Voting Rights Act, declaring (is that the correct term? no.) cynically pretending, with its head firmly in the sand, that people of color are not systematically kept away from the polls in Southern states. DuVernay's film is superb, and anyone who has seen her previous work knows that she is only going to get better. There are more things that need to be said about Selma and Oscar, though. Here it is in the Best Picture category, but its director, lead actor, screenwriters, and costume designer didn't get nominated. Many people have cried foul, and I am inclined to join them. The Best Actor category was crowded: it almost always is, in fact. As for director... the Directors branch was clearly being foolish this year because nominating Morten Tyldum in this slot over Ava DuVernay was short-sighted and silly. The Imitation Game is an asinine piece of calculated feel-good Oscar machinery, and Selma is a hard-hitting historical exposé that speaks to our contemporary moment. But, you know, the Academy is mostly old white men (and their old, white wives). I will say, though, that Selma was way too late to the party. This film and others that were released on or after December 25 (A Most Violent Year, Cake, Still Alice) did not do well with the Academy. They need time to watch those screeners, and these films need time to build buzz. Selma's campaign was mismanaged. I blame racism for a lot of things, and racism was surely partially to blame for Selma's weak showing with Oscar. But this is also the fault of Selma's publicity team. This was a mismanaged campaign; do not mistake it.
Will Win: Song
Could Win: Picture
My Rating: #10 out of 76

2 Nominations
  • Actress: Reese Witherspoon (Walk the Line)
  • Supporting Actress: Laura Dern (Rambling Rose)
Cast: Witherspoon, Dern, Thomas Sadoski, W. Earl Brown, Keene McRae, Michiel Huisman

This movie was a surprise to me; I had no idea it was going to be as good as it turned out to be. It is an unimaginative nominee here, though. Witherspoon is hardly giving a notable performance here. It's a nice role and a smart movie, but not anything brilliant. Dern is brilliant here, and I was so happy to see her name on nomination morning that I actually cheered quite loudly in my apartment. She is the best thing about the movie, and my companion and I left the film praising Laura Dern and remembering all of the great work she has done over the years. Neither woman has a chance of winning on Oscar night, but I will be rooting for Laura Dern nonetheless.
Will Win: N/A
Could Win: N/A
My Rating: #27 out of 76

Inherent Vice
2 Nominations
  • Adapted Screenplay: Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, Magnolia, There Will Be Blood)
  • Costume Design: Mark Bridges (The Artist)
Director: Anderson
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Katherine Waterston, Joanna Newsom, Owen Wilson, Josh Brolin, Hong Chau, Jena Malone, Benicio Del Toro, Eric Roberts, Reese Witherspoon, Michael Kenneth Williams, Maya Rudolph, Martin Short

A stoner movie that is way, way more than a stoner movie. This is a film about how mass culture is sold to us and how – in the best tradition of socialist critique – everything is immanent to capitalism. It's also fun and trippy and has plenty of what-the-fuck moments. I found the script difficult, as well, but I loved it for its difficulty and its complexity, and I loved the difficult, conflicted characters at this film's center. I'm not going around recommending Inherent Vice, but I enjoyed it thoroughly, and the script is incredibly good; its nomination was well deserved.
Will Win: N/A
Could Win: N/A
My Rating: #34 out of 76

2 Nominations
  • Cinematography: Ryszard Lenczewski & Łukasz Żal
  • Foreign Language Picture: Poland (In Darkness, Katyń, Man of Iron, The Young Girls of Wilko, The Deluge, Promised Land, Pharaoh, Knife in the Water)
Cast: Agata Trzebuchowska, Agata Kulesza, Dawid Ogrodnik, Adam Szyszkowski, Jerzy Trela, Halina Skoczyńska

Easily one of the best films of the year and currently available on Netflix Instant. This is a tight little gem of a film; it's short at 90 minutes, and it is cruel and cold and unsparing, as well as gorgeous and clear and always surprising. I cannot say enough good things about it. It's my number two movie for the year and when I saw it in the theatre I had to sit in my seat for a solid five minutes after the movie ended before I was able to talk to my friends or think about moving around. This is superb filmmaking. Oddly enough I don't think it is going to win the Best Foreign Language Oscar. We'll see. I haven't yet seen Leviathan, but it currently seems to have the buzz on its side. None of that matters, though, move Ida to the top of your Instant queue. It is shockingly good.
Will Win: N/A
Could Win: Foreign Language Picture
My Rating: #2 out of 76

Jaime Escalante Is My Hero

Like, ok, technically, Stand and Deliver is sort of a bad movie. It's actually kind of a hot mess. No scene lasts for longer than about 4 minutes, and director Ramón Menendez switches focus so many times that your head can start spinning.

But... Stand and Deliver is about the power of pedagogy, and even more importantly about the shift that can happen when a teacher believes that students can accomplish the tasks set in front of them. This is an inspiring, sentimental narrative that I totally bought into, even if I thought the movie was only so-so.

For some reason Edward James Olmos (who got an Oscar nomination for this role) has an accent I can't quite define, but the plot of the film – a computer programmer quits his job to teach math to Latino students in East Los and winds up helping them pass (with flying colors) the AP Calculus exam (They did better than I did. Seriously.) – is just so awesome.

And the film makes it really clear that it's racism that holds these students back, not their economic situation or anything else that mitigates their performance in the classroom.

Lou Diamond Phillips, Will Gotay, Ingrid Oliu, Vanessa Marquez, Lydia Nicole, Karla Montana, Mark Eliot, and Patrick Baca play a group of students that no one believes in. But they rise to the occasion and are awesome. (Incidentally, Vanity Fair should do a thirty-year-reunion photo with all of these folks in 2018.)

By the end of the picture, when the subtitles tell us that 18 students from Garfield High passed the AP Calculus test in 1982 and then that number grows every single year until it says that 87 students passed the exam in 1988, I had already started crying, soft-hearted sap that I am. This is the work. And if the film was sort of a mess, I don't really care. I was inspired.

28 January 2015

Oscar Nominees 2015: Part 3 of 12

Part 1.
Part 2.
Part 3 of 12:

5 Nominations
  • Original Score: Hans Zimmer (Inception, Sherlock Holmes, Gladiator, The Thin Red Line, The Prince of Egypt, As Good as It Gets, The Preacher's Wife, The Lion King, Rain Man)
  • Production Design: Nathan Crowley (The Dark Knight, The Prestige) & Gary Fettis (Changeling, The Godfather: Part III)
  • Visual Effects
  • Sound Mixing
  • Sound Editing
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Jessica Chastain, Anne Hathaway, John Lithgow, Mackenzie Foy, Michael Caine, David Gyasi, Casey Affleck, Topher Grace, Matt Damon, Ellen Burstyn

Ok, so I wasn't the biggest fan of this when I first saw it. (It's a time-travel movie, but it swears it's all about love.) But it's grown on me since then, and I keep ranking other things below it, because Interstellar was pretty to look at, even if so much of it was silly and half baked. Hans Zimmer's score, it should also be noted, is my favorite of this year's nominees. It won't win, but I find myself listening to it at work. It's very, very good; one of my favorite Zimmer scores in recent years, and one of this year's best. The effects, too, are top notch, and I expect them to go home with the Oscar.
Will Win: Visual Effects
Could Win: Sound Mixing, Sound Editing
My Rating: #47 out of 74

Mr. Turner
4 Nominations
  • Cinematography: Dick Pope (The Illusionist)
  • Original Score: Gary Yershon
  • Production Design: Suzie Davies & Charlotte Watts
  • Costume Design: Jacqueline Durran (Anna Karenina, Atonement, Pride & Prejudice)
Director: Mike Leigh
Cast: Timothy Spall, Marion Bailey, Paul Jesson, Dorothy Atkinson, Joshua McGuire, Karl Johnson, Lesley Manville, Martin Savage, Jamie Thomas King, Karina Fernandez

#dickpoop started trending on Twitter after Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs mispronounced his name on nomination morning. Oops. Honestly, I loved Mr. Turner and it's in my top ten, but four nominations is a lot for a film that is as difficult to love as this one is. I am surprised it did so well with the Academy. I find Gary Yershon's nomination to be especially surprising, given his score's simplicity and the relative lack of publicity that this film got. But unlike films that were latecomers to the game this year (Selma, Cake, A Most Violent Year), Mike Leigh's movie played at Telluride and had lots and lots of time to sink in with voters, steadily gaining positive buzz from critics throughout the fall. Mr. Turner probably won't take home any statues, but I am delighted that a movie I loved this much got so many nominations.
Will Win: N/A
Could Win: Costume Design
My Rating: #10 out of 74

Into the Woods
3 Nominations
  • Supporting Actress: Meryl Streep (August: Osage County, The Iron Lady, Julie & Julia, Doubt, The Devil Wears Prada, Adaptation., Music of the Heart, One True Thing, The Bridges of Madison County, Postcards from the Edge, A Cry in the Dark, Ironweed, Out of Africa, Silkwood, Sophie's Choice, The French Lieutenant's Woman, Kramer vs. Kramer, The Deer Hunter)
  • Production Design: Dennis Gassner (The Golden Compass, Road to Perdition, Bugsy, Barton Fink) & Anna Pinnock (The Grand Budapest Hotel, Life of Pi, The Golden Compass, Gosford Park)
  • Costume Design: Colleen Atwood (Snow White and the Huntsman, Alice in Wonderland, Nine, Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Memoirs of a Geisha, Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, Chicago, Sleepy Hollow, Beloved, Little Women)
Director: Rob Marshall
Cast: Emily Blunt, James Corden, Meryl Streep, Anna Kendrick, Daniel Huttlestone, Chris Pine, Lilla Crawford, Christine Baranski, Tracey Ullman, Johnny Depp, Billy Magnussen

When you look above at this list of nominations, you'll see that each of Into the Woods's four nominees has already been nominated multiple times. This is a big studio picture, and the studio paid a lot of money to hire all the best people. They did, and four of those people wound up with Oscar nominations because they are all excellent, well-known artists. But Into the Woods is a phone-in job for all four of them, as well as for most of the rest of the team on this movie. It's a lazy, boring, joyless adaptation of the stage show that is, in fact, never more than a filmed stage version of the show itself. In writing this post, I kept trying to find an image from the film that wasn't the same tired sound stage that served as the backdrop for most of this movie's scenes; they just aren't out there, though. Most of this film took place in what is, for all intents and purposes, the exact same location. As for Meryl Streep, she basically acts as though she is in a completely different movie than the rest of the cast of Into the Woods; the whole performance feels a little off kilter. I know the Academy loves her, but she doesn't need to get nominated every single year, does she?
Will Win: N/A
Could Win: N/A
My Rating: #68 out of 74

3 Nominations
  • Cinematography: Roger Deakins (Prisoners, Skyfall, True Grit, The Reader, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, No Country for Old Men, The Man Who Wasn't There, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Kundun, Fargo, The Shawshank Redemption)
  • Sound Mixing
  • Sound Editing
Director: Angelina Jolie
Cast: Jack O'Connell, Ishihara Takamasa, Garrett Hedlund, Domhnall Gleeson, Finn Wittrock, Jai Courtney, C.J. Valleroy, Alex Russell, Maddalena Ischiale, Vincenzo Amato

Honestly, it is time for Roger Deakins finally to win an Oscar. Look at that list up there! He has shot some gorgeous, gorgeous films and never won. He ain't gonna win this year, either. Jolie's film was not widely loved by the Academy, and it is a little bit of a mystery to me as to why this was so. Was it too obviously Oscar-bait for them? Did it not make them feel good enough about themselves? Was it too ethnic (Italian)? Was it that it was a WWII movie about the Pacific theatre instead of the European theatre? Who knows. In any case, the Academy just didn't go for it, and they aren't going to go for it on the big night either. I should also note my own frustration, here, that this year's very, very good war movie – Fury, which boasted excellent performances, great art direction, awesome sound mixing and editing, a great script, and realistic violence – is nowhere to be found among the nominees despite its being far superior to any of the other war movies this year.
Will Win: N/A
Could Win: N/A
My Rating: #54 out of 74

26 January 2015

Oscar Nominees 2015: Part 2 of 12

Part 1.
Part 2 of 12:

American Sniper
6 Nominations
  • Picture
  • Actor: Bradley Cooper (American Hustle, Silver Linings Playbook)
  • Adapted Screenplay: Jason Hall
  • Film Editing: Joel Cox (Million Dollar Baby, Unforgiven) & Gary D. Roach
  • Sound Mixing
  • Sound Editing
Director: Clint Eastwood
Cast: Cooper, Sienna Miller, Sammy Sheik, Luke Grimes, Navid Negahban, Jake McDorman, Keir O'Donnell, Eric Close, Cory Hardrict, Eric Ladin

This movie is awful. I am not sure that it is a huge surprise that a genre-picture directed by Clint Eastwood has made such a huge splash with the Academy, but it is certainly strange that a movie no smarter than, say, Predator or Rambo, a movie that is way less intelligent than a movie like Three Kings or Jarhead or this year's superb Fury should be nominated over any other film. But here we are and this movie is selling tickets like nobody's business. People seem to love this film's combination of gun-violence, anti-Arab sentiment, and video-game aesthetics. I found this combination irresponsible and deeply troubling. It's also basically little more than a shoot-em-up picture with some excellent acting. That said, Bradley Cooper really is great in the movie, and in a crowded category, he deserves his nomination as much as anyone else does. The nomination for Screenplay, however, is a bit of an absurdity; the characters speak in clichés and the script consists mostly of obvious, thudding symbols like bibles and rifles falling in the dust. This is making millions right now at the box office, though, and it should win plenty of statuettes come Oscar night. One more thing: this movie showed up very, very late to the party, and still managed to pull off six nominations, something other latecomers (Selma, Cake, A Most Violent Year) were not able to do. That it did this is mostly due to Eastwood's popularity among the Academy, but its tardiness still hurt it, otherwise we'd have seen nominations for Sienna Miller, here, and for Eastwood himself.
Will Win: Adapted Screenplay, Film Editing, Sound Mixing, Sound Editing
Could Win: Picture
My Rating: #65 out of 73

The Theory of Everything
5 Nominations
  • Picture
  • Actor: Eddie Redmayne
  • Actress: Felicity Jones
  • Adapted Screenplay: Anthony McCarten
  • Original Score: Jóhann Jóhannsson
Director: James Marsh
Cast: Redmayne, Jones, Charlie Cox, Harry Lloyd, David Thewlis, Emily Watson, Simon McBurney, Alice Orr-Ewing

Well, I loved Harry Lloyd in this, and Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones are both good (I loved Jones in last year's The Invisible Woman). This movie, though, is just so similar to The Imitation Game, and that is decidedly not a good thing. Still, it seems to have staying power. Redmayne won the Screen Actors Guild Award, and he may take the Oscar, too, although I don't think he will: Oscar tends to like its lead actors older. But it is definitely possible. All of this is a snoozefest. I don't want to keep complaining about this year's season, but most of the big films bored me to tears. The Theory of Everything, does have more redeeming qualities than Imitation, and it also has a weird love triangle that is at least intriguing.
Will Win: Score
Could Win: Actor
My Rating: #56 out of 73

5 Nominations
  • Picture
  • Adapted Screenplay: Damien Chazelle
  • Supporting Actor: JK Simmons
  • Film Editing: Tom Cross
  • Sound Mixing
Director: Damien Chazelle
Cast: Miles Teller, Simmons, Paul Reiser, Melissa Benoist, Nate Lang, Austin Stowell

Well this is an excellent film. This is one of the best of the Best Picture nominees and one of my favorite films of the year. It's riveting filmmaking and the fact that it did as well as it did with the Academy is a shock and a delight to me. I was especially pleased to see this film's editor, Tom Cross, get a nomination. He deserves it. The editing is perhaps the most exciting thing in the movie, and this in a film that is a white-knuckled ride; I left the movie raving about Tom Cross, as well as Miles Teller and JK Simmons. Everything about this movie is just great.
Will Win: Supporting Actor
Could Win: Adapted Screenplay
My Rating: #9 out of 73

5 Nominations
  • Director: Bennett Miller (Capote)
  • Actor: Steve Carell
  • Original Screenplay: E. Max Frye & Dan Futterman (Capote)
  • Supporting Actor: Mark Ruffalo (The Kids Are All Right) 
  • Makeup
Director: Miller
Cast: Channing Tatum, Carell, Ruffalo, Sienna Miller, Vanessa Redgrave

This is very good, but its nominations are a little odd here – note that there is a Best Director nomination, but not a Best Picture nomination. This is an indication of respect for the movie but not affection. (My own review reflected this feeling when I saw it, as well.) Steve Carell's nomination here is unfortunate, because it could so easily have gone to David Oyelowo for Selma. Still, it's not undeserved; just unnecessary. I don't think it can realistically hope to win any Oscars on February 22, either. It's a very, very good movie, but I don't think anyone really loves it that fiercely.
Will Win: N/A
Could Win: Makeup
My Rating: #14 out of 73

24 January 2015

Oscar Nominees 2015: Part 1 of 12

Every year in the weeks leading up the Academy Awards ceremony, I post my thoughts on all of the nominees, although I exempt myself from the documentaries because I don't really like documentaries all that much. For me that means 50 films this year (2 more than last year). 2015 somehow seems even stranger than last year. Selma's director, actor, costume designer, and screenwriter were snubbed; Best Picture is newly up in the air; and two very deserving pictures (Grand Budapest Hotel and Whiplash managed to surprise with a ton of nominations). Because my favorite thing about all of this movie hubbub is the surprises, I am, as usual, loving Oscar season even though a great many of the big movies this year totally suck.

I say this every year, but most of the films in my top ten for the year were passed over (Under the Skin, Like Father Like Son, Fury, Force Majeure), but some scored a nomination or two (Ida, Two Days One Night) and three were nominated for Best Picture (Selma, Grand Budapest, Whiplash – that's one more than last year). In any case, I am excited for what is going to happen.

Oh, and if you're thinking why does he even care about this? I don't blame you. But I have an elaborate set of reasons for still loving the Oscars that I've explained here.

If the nominee has been nominated for Oscars previously, he or she will be listed next to his/her name in parentheses).

This year's nominees:

Birdman or (the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
9 Nominations
  • Picture
  • Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu (Babel)
  • Actor: Michael Keaton
  • Original Screenplay: Iñárritu & Armando Bo & Alexander Dinelares Jr. & Nicolás Giacobone
  • Supporting Actor: Edward Norton (American History X, Primal Fear)
  • Supporting Actress: Emma Stone
  • Cinematography: Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity, Children of Men, The New World, Sleepy Hollow, A Little Princess)
  • Sound Mixing
  • Sound Editing
Director: Iñárritu
Cast: Keaton, Zach Galifianakis, Norton, Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough, Stone, Amy Ryan, Lindsay Duncan

I liked Birdman, but I wasn't as in love with it as most of the people I know. The movie's central gimmick works really well, and it's a kind of stunning, virtuosic picture with some great performances (Andrea Riseborough's being the standout in my mind). Edward Norton gets lots of points for being willing to lampoon his own over-earnest image. Keaton is not great in the movie, as far as I am concerned, but he is right for the picture. It seems written for him and perfect for him. Much hullabaloo has been made about the score by Antonio Sánchez being disqualified by the Academy's music branch – it was determined that the movie relies too heavily on music from other sources (notably Mahler, Tchaikovsky, and Adams). In any case, you might think it's a little odd that the Academy loved this weird movie as much as it did, but this is a movie about actors and acting, and the Academy loves movies about that.
Will Win: Actor, Cinematography
Could Win: Original Screenplay, Sound Mixing, Sound Editing
My Rating: #29 out of 73

The Grand Budapest Hotel
9 Nominations
  • Picture
  • Director: Wes Anderson
  • Original Screenplay: Wes Anderson (Moonrise Kingdom, The Royal Tenenbaums)
  • Cinematography: Robert Yeoman
  • Film Editing: Barney Pilling
  • Original Score: Alexandre Desplat (The Imitation Game, Philomena, Argo, The King's Speech, Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Queen)
  • Production Design: Anna Pinnock (Into the Woods, Life of Pi, The Golden Compass, Gosford Park) & Adam Stockhausen (12 Years a Slave)
  • Costume Design: Milena Canonero (Marie Antoinette, The Affair of the Necklace, Titus, Dick Tracy, Tucker: the Man and His Dream, Out of Africa, Chariots of Fire, Barry Lyndon)
Director: Anderson
Cast: Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, Jude Law, F. Murray Abraham, Saoirse Ronan, Adrien Brody, Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, Willem Dafoe, Harvey Keitel, Jeff Goldblum, Edward Norton

This is my favorite of the Best Picture nominees and, as with Birdman, I am surprised the Academy liked this movie as much as it did. First of all, it's funny, which usually means that a movie isn't going to be taken seriously. I saw this movie with a whole group of friends (including my friend Walter – he and I cemented our friendship while drinking viognier and talking about Wes Anderson five years ago). Also, and this is a huge deal, the exquisite production designs for Anderson's films have never before been acknowledged by the Academy. This is an enormous first and a very exciting one. I don't expect this movie to win the big statue, but I do expect it to do very well, including Anderson's first Oscar for writing.
Will Win: Original Screenplay, Production Design, Costume Design
Could Win: Cinematography, Film Editing, Makeup
My Rating: #5 out of 73

The Imitation Game
8 Nominations
  • Picture
  • Director: Morten Tyldum
  • Actor: Benedict Cumberbatch
  • Adapted Screenplay: Graham Moore
  • Supporting Actress: Keira Knightley (Pride & Prejudice)
  • Film Editing: William Goldenberg (Zero Dark Thirty, Argo, Seabiscuit, The Insider)
  • Original Score: Alexandre Desplat (The Grand Budapest Hotel, Philomena, Argo, The King's Speech, Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Queen)
  • Production Design: Maria Djurkovic & Tatiana Macdonald
Director: Tyldum
Cast: Cumberbatch, Knightley, Rory Kinnear, Matthew Goode, Mark Strong, Charles Dance, Matthew Beard, Allen Leach, John Northcote

Snoozefest. When you see this, I hope you're able to stay awake. This is not the film among the nominees that caused me the most ire, but it is way up there. In all honesty, too, I see why people loved it so much. It makes one feel very superior to people from the past. Oh, we're so much more evolved now and isn't it sad what they did to that poor genius over there in Britain, and didn't he just overcome? I can hardly bear it. This film's host of nominations are particularly upsetting because Tyldum's slot in the Director lineup really could've gone instead to AvaDuvernay for her work on Selma or, barring that, to someone else who made a superb film this year – Paweł Pawlikowski, say, or the Dardenne Brothers, or (more within the realm of possibility) Damien Chazelle. I have a feeling, though, that nomination morning was the high point for The Imitation Game, and the wind is now out of its sails completely; we saw this phenomenon last year with American Hustle.
Will Win: N/A
Could Win: N/A
My Rating: #58 out of 73

6 Nominations
  • Picture
  • Director: Richard Linklater
  • Original Screenplay: Richard Linklater (Before Midnight, Before Sunset)
  • Supporting Actor: Ethan Hawke (Training Day)
  • Supporting Actress: Patricia Arquette
  • Film Editing: Sandra Adair
Director: Linklater
Cast: Ellar Coltrane, Arquette, Lorelei Linklater, Hawke, Marco Perella, Brad Hawkins, Tom McTigue

I was soft on this picture for several reasons. It is not without its charms, for sure, and it has been quite popular with critics, but I found the whole thing rather boring. This was an awesome idea – really an awesome idea – but its execution simply wasn't all that spectacular. Still, who doesn't feel good about Richard Linklater finally getting his due as both a screenwriter and a director. He has been making great, quirky, interesting films for two decades now, and this is as good a time as any to honor his contributions to all of our lives. Don't let its comparatively paltry six nominations fool you: this is going to win the big one as well as two other Oscars.
Will Win: Picture, Director, Supporting Actress
Could Win: Original Screenplay, Film Editing
My Rating: #43 out of 73

23 January 2015

Inspiration, Overcoming, and Oscar Bait

Somewhere near the end of act two of Angelina Jolie's Unbroken, the evil Japanese man who runs the P.O.W. camp where U.S. Olympian slash soldier Louie Zamperini is imprisoned forces the other Allied soldiers in the camp to punch Louie in the face. All of them. Louie takes their punches like a champ, screaming at his fellows who don't want to slug him Just hit me!

Jolie's film is a little bit like Louie at this moment in the movie.

It isn't that there aren't problems with the movie. There are plenty of them. But, like its hero, Unbroken seems to me a sort of resilient little guy. It tries and tries, and it wants to be something amazing. And as much as you might want to punch it in the face, it's just going to get up and stand there staring at you in defiance.

Unbroken, for the record, is based on a book by Laura Hillenbrand, and if you didn't know this before you started the movie, you will once you start watching. Anything that could happen to Louie Zamerpini happens to him. Hillebrand stuffs new events into Zamperni's life as though accretion will make him interesting, much like she did in the narrative she created that spawned Seabiscuit back in 2003. He is a first-generation immigrant; he takes control of his life as a small child by focusing on running; he runs in the Olympics; he is a bombardier in the Pacific theatre in the Second World War; his plane crashes not once but twice, and the second time the plane goes down in the Pacific and he survives. Then he survives in the middle of the ocean with only a tiger for company for like 45 days by literally catching sharks with his bare hands; he is finally rescued... by the Japanese; he is beaten; he is transferred to a POW camp in Tokyo where he is tormented by this crazy sadist named "the Bird", who has some kind of bizarre (erotic?) fascination with him; he appears on Japanese radio for some reason; he is then transferred to a new prison camp where he hauls coal; he lifts things above his head. (The poster, incidentally, really is iconic. I love it. Even if this movie never addresses anything approximating "redemption", whatever that is supposed to mean in this context.)

But all of that really happened to him, you might protest. Fine. But I am sure lots of other things happened to him, too. Like, I dunno, dancing with a girl for the first time, or learning to make gnocchi, or training to be a bombardier, or carrying his husband's blood around his neck in a vial. My point is that the film (of course it does) gets to choose what it shows us, and it chooses to show us all of the things that beggar belief. Even if they are all true, this compilation of events is not the same as a character study. Hillebrand and Jolie seem to believe that the fact that he made it through all of these events is a study of who the man is.

Garrett Hedlund: an unassuming bright spot in this movie
What it does to me, instead, is make him into a kind of superhuman figure, who represents resilience, unbrokenness (that old masculine preoccupation), triumph, even military victory, rather than being an actual human. We learn very little about Louie Zamperini himself, except that he is strong enough to take a punch.

There is plenty of sentiment here, too, and Unbroken is intended as a weeper: a deeply tearful story that makes us all hug our six children just a little tighter.

And now I imagine Louie getting back to his feet and looking at me with his clear, shallow eyes. See, in truth, this film is not really that much worse than the other big sentimental Oscar-bait movies of the year (The Theory of Everything, The Imitation Game, Rosewater). In fact, I think it's a bit better than them. It's beautifully shot, and much less boring than those movies, and it doesn't have nearly as many cliché phrases as those three films, and if Unbroken focuses, like Theory, Imitation, and Rosewater, on a young man who is assailed by things he simply doesn't deserve and a world in which he feels lost and misunderstood, Unbroken at least does not ask us to pity our protagonist from some position of audience superiority; the other films do that in spades.

Why did the Academy like Theory of Everything and Imitation Game so much more than it liked Rosewater and Unbroken? Honestly, I couldn't tell you. It all feels so arbitrary to me. But it might be this feeling of superiority that we are allowed as we look at Alan Turing and Stephen Hawking in this year's movies about their lives. Imitation Game and Theory of Everything are completely invested in the idea that their protagonists "really" want to be "just like us"; they're designed to make us feel better about ourselves. Unbroken wants us to try to be better, to work harder, to lift that motherfucking piece of wood over our heads. It's a ridiculous film, but in this way, at least, it asks so much more of its audience than its fellow Oscar-bait films this year. Somehow I bet that it will eventually make more money than those other two movies, too. Because when you punch Louie Zamperini, he just gets back up.

18 January 2015

Love and Snipers

Katie: This was better than Interstellar, at least.

Me: No way. Interstellar had way more redeeming qualities than this.

Katie: Like... love?

Me: Hahahaha.

(That Anne Hathaway speech has scarred us all.)

The Two Faces of January

I am not sure I could quite say why The Two Faces of January doesn't work, but it doesn't.

The film, by Hossein Amini, is based on a novel by Patricia Highsmith, the thriller-writer behind The Talented Mr. Ripley, Purple Noon, and The American Friend.

The costumes, by Steven Noble, and the score, by Alberto Iglesias, are great, and in all honesty I think this could have been a good movie. There is just something missing here. I suspect that it is the performances. Oscar Isaac, Viggo Mortensen, and Kirsten Dunst are the three central figures in the drama, but Dunst's part is underwritten, and we aren't really allowed to love any of the characters. They are all being quite cool, but none of them quite ever lets us in.

With beautiful scenery, great photography, and a terrific plot supporting them, the movie tries to hit emotional places, but none of these ever lands – our investment in the characters is just too shallow. I only cared about whether or not either of them would win; I never cared about how much it would hurt if one of them lost. So maybe it wasn't the performances; maybe it was simply the stakes of the film that were missing.

In any case and for what it's worth, Oscar Isaac continues to be someone to watch. Even though the performance is sort of off, he is quite compelling.

11 January 2015

It Isn't Automatically Cooler to Be Older: You Actually Have to Stay Cool

I am fairly certain that I love Zac Efron as much if not more than the average thirtysomething homosexual, but even Zac Efron was not enough to rescue Neighbors.

There is something hidden away in this movie about people getting older and having kids but still wanting to be young – still wanting to do mushrooms and smoke weed and drink their younger counterparts under the table.

There is something buried in this movie about the way that having a baby makes a person into a very old person who can't bear even the smallest noises while simultaneously making that same person into someone who wants to run wild and escape from his or her life.

There is something lurking behind the plot of Neighbors that has to do with feeling like one is a part of a team, something about wanting desperately to feel as though one's partner is on one's side and that the only thing that matters is working together to defeat a common enemy.

There is real truth in the way that many people fear that the things that they are good at are not really being utilized when they begin parenting. How do I put my skills at managing other people, at being the kingmaker, at planning a double-cross, to use when all I am supposed to do is watch this kid all day?

Neighbors doesn't really get to any of that, though. In fact, it seems to want to be a movie for the family side of the family vs. frat in the poster. The movie insists that it really is cool to be older and more boring and to eat pizza in bed. It's way cooler to make a calendar with your kid posed as characters from television than it is to go to Burning Man. The movie really believes this. And that's fine and all, whether I believe it or not.

But if Neighbors wants to convince its audience that this is true, it does a terrible job of it. All of the fun that is had in the movie is by the fraternity house. They do a lot of pretty awesome things, and they clearly throw amazing, lavish parties.

Let me underline, though, that there are perhaps two funny jokes in Neighbors. More than anything else this is a series of jokes that just fall flat. A total disaster. Even with Zac Efron.

10 January 2015

The Immigrant

The only reason it occurred to me to watch James Gray's The Immigrant was because people started talking about Marion Cotillard's performance and Darius Khondji's cinematography when it came time for Oscar season. I found out The Immigrant was on Netflix Instant, and (as I didn't have this service at home) wound up watching the movie when I was at my parents' house over the Christmas holiday.

I started watching the movie and was immediately bored. It took itself way too seriously, I thought, and I didn't believe the main character's struggle one bit. I also didn't know anything about her – the director and screenwriter plunged her into crisis immediately before I had a moment to understand who this woman was.

After 25 minutes I had to stop. This movie was a sentimental, cheaply made mess.

So then I thought: what am I missing? The New York Film Critics' Circle and the Boston Film Critics singled out The Immigrant as the best performance by an actress this year.

I decided to read some reviews. Maybe some of the critics would validate my opinion. Nope: raves by both the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. I also realized the director was James Gray, who made The Yards many many years ago, which had a fight scene with Mark Wahlberg and Joaquin Phoenix that my friend Tom and I had called (back in October 2000) one of the best fight sequences ever put on film.

So I decided to finish the film – I usually finish films, in fact – with a new outlook. The NYT promised that Jeremy Renner's appearance in the movie would lighten things a bit. He did, indeed.

But not enough to make this movie worth watching. Maybe I just didn't get it, but what occurred to me as I finished The Immigrant was just how fragile the ability to believe in a picture actually is. I simply didn't buy Cotillard, Phoenix, and company in all of their finery and period garb. They looked like they were playing dress-up to me. (Incidentally I almost always feel this way about Leonardo DiCaprio.) And so I never dropped into the film emotionally or even intellectually, because I just found the whole picture so preposterous.

Not that I don't believe stories like the story in The Immigrant occurred in the U.S. – they probably occurred numerous times. But just that I didn't believe Gray's way of telling this story. The suspension of disbelief is just so delicate. Apparently the critics for the NYT and the LAT were able to drop into the movie; I wasn't.

09 January 2015

85 Minutes in a Car with Tom Hardy

The poster for Locke says (in, one might imagine, a bit of a desperate tone) that Locke "reverberates with the power of big, universal themes". In fact, Locke is about a kind of masculine dream of keeping it all together, of handling things and making them turn out to be ok. It's the fantasy of the good father and the sort of essence of what masculinity is. So... universal? Not really.

Which is not to say that Locke is without merit. It's something.

What that something is is a little harder to define. Steven Knight's film is a Tom Hardy vehicle. And it is 85 minutes of Tom Hardy and his telephone. He is driving, and he's in the car, and he's on the phone. That's it. That's the movie. The cinematographer does his best to keep things visually interesting and mostly succeeds. And Tom Hardy is excellent, as he almost always is.

Locke is an elegant little thing with a tight script, and it is certainly interesting in a formal sort of way, even if gimmicky might be a better way of describing it. Locke is a construction man who oversees concrete pours, and so the metaphors of sturdiness and dependability and cracks are all put to subtle but insistent use by Knight's script. (As I noted, it isn't quite a universal thing – sturdiness and solidity are old-school masculine preoccupations.) Still, this all works well, and Hardy's performance is heartfelt and beautiful and restrained.

But despite its truly excellent ending, Locke just isn't all that interesting. All of the right ingredients are there, but somehow the whole thing just doesn't work without a hitch. I felt myself wanting to check my watch, and the 85 minutes felt longer and longer as they went on. Would this have been an excellent 65-minute film? Perhaps.

08 January 2015

2014 in Review

~ ~
1. Under the Skin
2. Ida
3. Two Days, One Night
4. Like Father, Like Son
5. The Grand Budapest Hotel
6. Fury
7. Force Majeure
8. Gloria
9. Whiplash
10. Selma
11. Hide Your Smiling Faces
12. Mr. Turner
13. Mommy
14. Dom Hemingway

~ ~
15. Gone Girl
16. The Congress 
17. The Way He Looks
18. Leviathan
19. Foxcatcher
20. Wild Tales
21. Life Partners
22.  Big Hero 6
23. The Homesman
24. Two Lives
25. Joe
Still Alice
Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?
Blue Ruin
A Coffee in Berlin
Policeman (השוטר‎)
Nymphomaniac: Vol. II
How to Train Your Dragon 2
Yves Saint Laurent

~ ~
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Birdman or (the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Song of the Sea
Guardians of the Galaxy
Inherent Vice

Nymphomaniac: Vol. I
Viva la Libertà
The Missing Picture
Draft Day
Stranger by the Lake
Le Week-end
Captain America: the Winter Soldier
That Awkward Moment
The Book of Life
The Gambler

~ ~

Begin Again
Dear White People
Goodbye to Language
Beyond the Lights
A Most Violent Year
Love Is Strange
Space Station 76
The Maze Runner
The Tale of the Princess Kaguya
The Double

The Two Faces of January

The Zero Theorem
The Boxtrolls
The Circle (Der Kreis)
The Theory of Everything

~ ~
Magic in the Moonlight
The Imitation Game
Blood Ties

The Immigrant
The Last Sentence

~ ~
X-men: Days of Future Past
American Sniper
Into the Woods
Only Lovers Left Alive

~ ~
The Lego Movie
The Hobbit: the Battle of the Five Armies
In Secret

~ ~
Interior. Leather Bar.
Dracula Untold
The Judge

04 January 2015

Best Actor 2014

My top choices in the order I would place them on my Academy ballot if I were allowed to vote. In other words, this is my top five, but I acknowledge that this list is already influenced by awards buzz, and the actors who I think would theoretically benefit the most from my vote are at the top.

JOHANNES BAH KUHNKE, Turist (Force Majeure)

JUDE LAW, Dom Hemingway




Also loved:
Bradley Cooper, American Sniper
Ralph Fiennes, The Grand Budapest Hotel
Masaharu Fukuyama, Like Father, Like Son (そして父になる)
Jake Gyllenhaal, Nightcrawler
Tom Hardy, Locke
Tommy Lee Jones, The Homesman
Yiftach Klein, Policeman (השוטר‎)
David Oyelowo, Selma
Tom Schilling, Oh Boy (A Coffee in Berlin)
Timothy Spall, Mr. Turner

Apologies to:
Ryan Reynolds (The Captive), Niels Arestrup (Diplomatie), James McAvoy (The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby), and Toni Servillo (Viva la Libertà), whose films I have not yet seen but will see soon.

My Best Actor Picks from past years (2004-2013)

03 January 2015

Morality Tales - Japanese and USAmerican

Takahata Isao's The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is, in many ways, a ghost story: the transliteration of the Japanese title, かぐや姫の物語, is Kaguya-hime no Monogatari. In many old Japanese movies that made it to U.S. release, this word monogatari (物語) is featured. It means tale or story or legend, and it comprises the tale/story part of the titles of Mizoguchi's Tales of Ugetsu, Ozu's Tokyo Story, and Misumi's The Tale of Zatoichi. These tales are not necessarily ghost stories, but they are always moral tales, and I had not really remembered that when I went in to see Princess Kaguya. (Frankly, I was just excited to see that it was playing anywhere within an hour of where I live; I drove 60 minutes.)

The moral tale that Princess Kaguya is telling is a tale for adults. This is, in many ways, a film for parents – admonishing them (us) to take care that we do not pressure our children to be something that they do not wish to be. Attempting to transform them into what we think they ought to be only causes heartache and misery, and our children may miss out on happiness altogether.

In Princess Kaguya, a poor, childless bamboo cutter discovers a tiny princess in the forest. He takes her home, where she transforms into a baby. The woodcutter and his wife raise the child as their own. (All children are a gift, the moral says, both the ones that are given to us and the ones that we think we created ourselves.)

The child is happy, learns quickly, grows quickly, but is a little off. The woodcutter decides that she is really a princess and that she ought to be taken to the capital, where she can learn how to be a proper princess. He executes this plan, but of course the girl hates it in the city, away from the bamboo and the wild pigs and the water and wind.

I don't want to say much more about the movie vis-à-vis its plot, but I will say that the movie underlines several other moral lessons. In Kaguya, what is of value are the things we have in our lives – the things we can share with one another or give to those we love – not fantasies about imaginary jewels or magic amulets. Dreams and fantasies are not worth much in this movie, but pheasant stew and mushrooms and fun with friends are worth a great deal.

And the film asks parents to spend time with their children and learn what they want from the world – learn what happiness looks like to them – instead of deciding what happiness ought to look like. (Kaguya literalizes this moral several times.) Life is very short, Kaguya says, and at any time our children, our friends, our money can be taken away from us. We must treasure what we have while we have it.

My gloss of the film makes it seem much more heavy handed than it is. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya isn't quite as on the nose as my description makes it out to be. Its moral lessons are subtle, its animation is beautiful, and I quite liked the film.  
~ ~ ~

But I had the same problem with The Princess Kaguya that I had with Richard Linklater's Boyhood. These are films about parenting: about watching a child grow up and understanding life in new ways by watching a child become someone we didn't originally envision, a person wholly his or her own. But, as Richard Linklater does with Boyhood, Takahata decides to tell his film from the perspective of the child rather than the perspective of the adults. For me, the journey of the child is not that interesting. In fact, it's predictable, even generic. The kids in both films almost always do what is expected of them. They watch their parents in predictable ways, they approach their friends in exactly the ways I expect them to.

Now, these are both films by adults, so while they purport to be giving us the perspective of a child, a way of looking at the world that is new and exciting and fresh and whatever, this isn't true. Both Takahata and Linklater see the world of the child in generic ways, in ways that idealize the experience of a child: the child wishes his parents would stay together and is terrified when they fight, the child wishes to live in the forest with her friends, the child idolizes his father, the child doesn't want to be a lady, she wants to be a tomboy, the child wants to learn to express himself, the child falls in love with the first boy that she meets, the child finds himself inexplicably and unanalytically jealous of his mother's boyfriend.

But although these films tell their stories from the perspective of the child, these are actually just more parental perspectives, covert parental perspectives disguised as children's perspectives. Both Boyhood and Kaguya reenact the failings the adults in their films commit – they are finally more interested in themselves and their own experience of watching the child, of living vicariously through the child, than they are in understanding the child him- or herself.

My big problem with Boyhood is that it is a movie about parenting that continually pretends it is a movie about growing up. It isn't just that I am way more interested in exploring the world of parenting than I am in attempting to relive the experience of growing up (although this is true), it is that so is Richard Linklater. For my money, if both Linklater and Takahata admitted from the start that their movies were about the experience of the parent watching the child grow up, I would have been much more interested in their movies. As it is, both movies are fine, but both simply recreate a nostalgic experience of childhood felt by someone who can't remember any more what being a child was actually like.

02 January 2015

The Congress

Here's one you probably haven't heard of!

Ari Folman's The Congress is a quasi-science-fiction movie that is really an animated movie more than it is anything else. Hm. Maybe this is not the best way to start. Things get confused easily when I think about this movie, so I'll start with the plot.

In 2013, we follow the actress Robin Wright (played by Robin Wright). She is 44 and the studios want her to sign one last contract. She will be scanned by the studio so that they can put her into any movie they want without having to deal with the real actor's objections to things – no human problems. They will make her permanently 34 years old and she will be a movie star again, but it won't actually be her. It will all be computers. She will be animated. Wright signs the deal for various reasons, and they go about scanning her, but she stops the scanning in the middle unsure if she wants to continue – the whole thing is just too weird for her. This is the first 40 minutes of the film.

I originally thought this was going to be a movie about dehumanization, about the difficulties of being a person who is also a commodity, produced by studios and consumed by moviegoers everywhere. And it is that, but The Congress is about the future more than it is about anything else. And so it is about consciousness and drugs as well as consumption and commodification.

After the first 40 minutes, The Congress flashes a title card: Twenty years later. It's a shocking thing to do, and I feel bad for spoiling this moment here, but there's no other way even to begin to explain what comes next in the movie, and I still haven't even explained the title. Twenty years later, Robin is in her early sixties, and she drives to a "restricted animated zone" where she drinks an Alice-in-Wonderland-style vial and becomes animated. (At this point maybe you'll remember that the director, Ari Folman, first hit it big with the animated documentary Waltz with Bashir (ואלס עם באשיר).) I won't tell you what happens next, but Robin is attending an event in an animated world called "the futurological congress" where everything is in one's head (or at least it would appear so).

The rest has been described by others as psychedelic, and that is a very good technical description, I think, but The Congress is a representation of what living through chemistry might be like, of an imaginary world made to seem very real through ongoing drug use. As a film, The Congress is less of a nightmare than it is a kind of Rousselian pageant of wonders: things are amazing in this animated world, and much is possible that is impossible in the real world. It is mind-boggling and scary as well as beautiful, and the future that The Congress shows us doesn't seem that far away, to my mind. This is also an entirely different take on The Society of the Spectacle, by a filmmaker that uses animation to its fullest. If The Congress is like anything, it is like the animated universes of Oshii Mamoru's Ghost in the Shell (攻殻機動隊), Kon Satoshi's Paprika (パプリカ), and Richard Linklater's Waking Life (although it is nowhere near as soporific as Linklater's movie). This is smart, challenging stuff that imagines a possible future for us in critical, non-ironic ways.

Some other stuff: Robin Wright is superb. She has been doing the most challenging, interesting work of her career these last couple of years (did you see last year's Adore?) and she is a joy to watch. Harvey Keitel also gives an excellent performance in The Congress: his best in many years. And Max Richter's score is gorgeous and contemplative. This is great filmmaking, and Ari Folman is proving himself a real philosopher of media and human interaction with media. The Congress is one of my favorites of the year.

01 January 2015

Best Actress 2014

My top choices in the order I would place them on my Academy ballot if I were allowed to vote. In other words, this is my top five, but I acknowledge that this list is already influenced by awards buzz, and the actresses who I think would theoretically benefit the most from my vote are at the top.


ROBIN WRIGHT, The Congress



Ineligible, but would be on my list if her film were eligible:

Also loved:
Anne Dorval, Mommy
Lindsay Duncan, Le Week-end
Mavis Fan, Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow? (明天記得愛上我)
Charlotte Gainsbourg, Nymphomaniac: Vol. II
Lisa Loven Kongsli, Turist (Force Majeure)
Hilary Swank, The Homesman

Apologies to:
Jennifer Aniston (Cake), Jessica Chastain (The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby), Valeria Bruni Tedeschi (Human Capital), and Julianne Moore (Maps to the Stars), whose films I have not yet seen but will see soon.