Friday, February 20, 2015

And The Oscar Goes To... Part 2



We’re going through the eight films from 2014, nominated for Best Motion Picture of the Year, as part of the upcoming Academy Awards presentation on February 22nd. If you missed Part 1 yesterday, where I discuss the first four movies, go check it out now. I’ll wait….

…done? Good. Let get right to it, the final four nominated films.

THE IMITATION GAME

I absolutely loved this movie. One of the best of the bunch, for overall performances, set pieces, directing, and script. It’s a movie’s movie. Directed by Morten Tyldum, it tells the story (only recently revealed to the public after being kept secret from the world for decades after World War Two), of Alan Turing and his fellow cryptographers as they work to crack the “un-crackable” Enigma code used by the Nazis.

Everyone loves Benedict Cumberbatch (STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS, 2013, Sherlock TV Series), myself included. The guy plays his roles with such understated intensity. His style is perfect for the brilliant, Asperger-ish mathematician Turing. Turing’s lack of social graces adds a bit of humor, and humanness, to the role, but the moments when he anguishes over his work, or his personal dark secrets, is where Cumberbatch shines the most, filling the screen with that expressive mouth of his. I don’t know how else to say it. For some actors it’s their eyes, or chin, but for Cumberbatch, it’s those lips. Watch the film and tell me I’m wrong (and I say all this in a purely heterosexual way – if that’s even possible).

Supporting cast, again, is great. I admit to some concern going in about Kiera Knightly making me forget she is, well Kiera Knightly (when you become so associated with films like PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: THE CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL, 2003, sometimes it’s hard to break the preconceptions an audience has for you). I did forget. Her performance as Joan Clarke was honest and a great match for Turing’s awkward genius. Kudos, also, to Allen Leech (of Downton Abby fame) for a strong performance after what I felt was a slightly weaker one in GRAND PIANO (2013).

Will this take the prize? It deserves it, but I think voters will split their hanging chads between this biopic and one other, THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING, keeping both from enough votes to win. Pity. There’s just so much to like about all these films. Aren’t they all winners, in the end? Okay, enough of that. On to the movie I think might just win and the reasons why.

SELMA

Going into see SELMA, I expected it to be a good film, but I was unprepared for how good it ended up being. This even-handed story of a moment (an often bloody moment) during the Civil Rights movement in the Sixties could have been just another rehash of similar films that came before. In the hands of mostly-unknown director Ava DuVernay (her past credits are primarily single-episode stints on television shows, such as Scandal), it brought the human story of the most revered figure of this time, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, into the clear light of day. King and his people decide to make a stand in the segregated town of Selma, Alabama in 1965, knowing the reaction would be hostile (and the film does not shy away from the fact that this is exactly what they hoped for), for federally-enforced equal voting rights for blacks. Much of the scenes of violence occurring during the first attempt at a march from Selma to Birmingham have been ingrained in the country’s psyche, and sometimes the film carefully intersperses actual footage with the fictional recreations of the film.

David Oyelowo (INTERSTELLAR, 2014, LEE DANIEL’S THE BUTLER, 2013) brought the real Dr. King  to life, for me at least (sheltered white boy from New England that I am), more than any other film I’ve seen about this time period. He looked like him, sounded like him, and I found myself missing him in any scene he did not appear in. I’m shocked Oyelowo is not on the list for Best Actor in a Leading Role. His performance was as powerful, if not more so, than any of the nominees. Films are released close to the end of the year to be fresh in voter’s minds, but perhaps SELMA‘s late release might have hurt its chances. Who knows? The rest of the cast was just as powerful, especially Carmen Ejogo (THE PURGE: ANARCHY, 2014, ALEX CROSS, 2012) as Coretta Scott King and Stephan James (WHEN THE GAME STANDS TALL, 2014) as John Lewis. On a side note, it was cool seeing James play Lewis, since the real John Lewis was keynote speaker at my son Andrew’s college graduation ceremony.

As I mentioned earlier, this nearly flawless and beautiful (even in its ugliness) film is the strongest contender for the Best Picture award. Because of the breadth and width of styles of the other nominees, SELMA should be able to garner enough votes across the Academy’s tastes to win. If so, however, why weren’t any of the actors nominated, nor the director herself? My guess: not enough voters had seen it yet. For the final vote, they will have had time to get to a screening. So… but I’m getting ahead of myself. Two more films to discuss.

THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING

James Marsh directed this biopic (one of four in the list), this one about the famous astrophysicist and mathematician Stephen Hawing, based on the personal memoir written by his wife. The film begins at the start of Hawking’s PhD dissertation, when he meets Jane, played by Felicity Jones (THE INVISIBLE WOMAN, 2013). Soon after, symptoms of ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease) begin showing themselves. It eventually debilitates Hawking and confines him to a wheelchair.

Eddie Redmayne is best known from the film LES MISERABLES (2012), as the star-crossed lover who loses all his friends. Redmayne becomes Stephen Hawking in this film. I’ve followed Hawking’s career, both the scientist (I read his mind-blowing and famous book A Brief History of Time back in the eighties, though I can’t claim to have completely understood it all) and recurring guest star on The Simpsons television show. Yes, there must have been some very talented makeup, but a lot of this transformation came directly from Redmayne, himself, whose contorted positions and slurred speech dominate the film. I’d be very happy if he takes the Best Actor trophy (that category is going to be a tough call this year)

Like I said about THE IMITATION GAME, I think these two films will split up a good chunk of the votes, being biopics of scientists during similar time periods, and because of this, probably won’t get enough to take the prize.

WHIPLASH

Finally, we come to a movie that I knew nothing about going into the theater, except that J.K. Simmons (SPIDER-MAN, 2002, and many Farmer’s Insurance commercials) won the Best Supporting Actor Golden Globe for his role as the near-psychotic professor Fletcher. Director Damien Chazelle’s (GRAND PIANO, 2013) film WHIPLASH feels like an Indie, which it is, no major budget, but a decent story and some awesome music and multi-dimensional characters.

As mentioned, Simmons won the Globe for his role as a professor obsessed with culling from his classroom the next Charlie Parker, the next Great Musician. Miles Teller (THE SPECTACULAR NOW, 2013, DIVERGENT, 2014) plays Andrew, a budding drummer who is just as obsessed with becoming the next Great Drummer as Fletcher is to find him. For both, this is to be done at any cost. Teller’s Andrew is not a very likeable character, so single-minded in his determination, so focused, that nothing and no one who may come into his life matters as much as this. He’s talented and vain about his ability, though his vanity is not unjustified. In fact, he is so good that his irksome personality eventually endears him to the audience. It did for me. As much as a putz as the kid can be in scenes, you really, really want him to succeed because, in many ways, it’s all he has.

The music, well, this is a drum movie (not too many of those around), and to have been in a theater with good speakers to watch WHIPLASH was a treat. The sound, the percussion, the power of a good drummer comes alive in this film. By the end of the movie, my heart was racing. For the sheer Wow-ness factor, WHIPLASH is the biggest bang for the buck, knowing nothing about it going in. It was a small, awesome movie, with some kick-butt sounds. (This written by someone who’s not much of a jazz fan, himself).

AND THE OSCAR GOES TO…

So there we are. The nominees for Best Motion Picture of the Year, to be announced at the 87th Academy Awards on Sunday, February 22nd. As I was putting this together, I thought I’d decided which movie would win. My thought was, just to be daring, THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL would take Best Picture and light up the Twitterverse with the twist. My reasoning was the range of films in this category and that SELMA would take Best Director to give new director DuVernay kudos for such an awesome film. Then, as I was writing the section on SELMA, and peeking at the other category nominations, I realized that SELMA was not listed in the Director category, nor any acting ones.

So I’m changing my guess. Academy members will have had time to see all the nominees before voting, and as usual will want to give as many nods to as many of their favorite films as possible. Seeing so few categories offered to reflect this movie’s caliber, I believe they will elect SELMA as Best Picture. Maybe Anderson will walk away with Best Director, because he’s unique, and everyone in Hollywood seems to like the guy. But I still have a couple of weeks to change my mind on that one. 

[Post Script: of course, when the Academy Awards did air the Sunday after this article, we were all surprised when BIRDMAN took the award for Best Picture. Could be the same reasons mentioned above shifted the chances for a more independent film to win, and this one obviously resonated with the voters. Still, at least I was surprised - though happily. Because I love it when such an upset happens and makes everyone go, "Huh?"]

MELODRAMATIC ENDING TO THIS ARTICLE

Movies are woven into the thread of our society and our lives. They make us see things in different ways or simply turn off our brains for a couple of hours. The Academy Awards is a glitzy, flashy way of paying homage to the industry, and watching them is a way to say thanks (aside from buying a ticket for the movies themselves). Stay up a little late, even if it’s a school night, and enjoy the show with me.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

And The Oscar Goes To... Part 1



So, it’s that time of year again. The annual Academy Awards presentation is a big event at the Keohane house, more so lately since we’ve begun hosting our own annual Oscar Party, filling out ballots, watching the show and eating (and voting on) movie-themed food. We make it a point to see every Best Picture nominee before the show (knowledge is power and leads to winning the infamous grand prize at the party). Having finally seen all of the nominees, I thought it would be interesting to offer these mini-reviews, and make my amazingly intelligent guess as to which film will take the Best Picture trophy (historically awarded way too late on a school night for us east coasters). As I type this, I haven’t quite decided my choice. I’ll do so as I write, but the films were all extremely well-done and entertaining in their own right. I discuss them alphabetically below.
 
AMERICAN SNIPER

Directed by the estimable Clint Eastwood (J. EDGAR, 2011, LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA, 2006), this adaptation of the autobiographical novel of the same name by Chris Kyle, known as the most deadly sniper in American military history, has taken movie-goers by storm. War films are back in a big way, though if this was actually true, I’m disappointed Brad Pitt’s FURY (2014) wasn’t nominated. I’m a fan of Bradley Cooper (SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK, 2012, AMERICAN HUSTLE, 2013), and he doesn’t disappoint as Kyle, a soft-spoken soldier who happens to be a crack shot. Because of this, he quickly rises as the best sniper in the Iraq war, but also as one of the enemy’s most wanted. The film, like many of its predecessors, doesn’t sugarcoat war, and kudos to the filmmakers for drawing the viewer into the constant fear and stress of being a soldier in a country where anyone can be an enemy. At least, for drawing us in as much as one can be, watching with a bag of popcorn.

There is an ongoing plotline of a deadly rivalry between Cooper’s Kyle and the best sniper from the other side (I never quite know what to call our enemy over there, especially during that particular war), known as Mustafa, played with silent elegance by Sammy Sheik (LONE SURVIVOR, 2013). This part of the story felt a little contrived, good guy versus bad, but adds a connecting thread throughout Kyle’s multiple tours in Iraq and how it affects his relationships back home. Overall, it is a violent, tense thriller that happens to also be true, which makes it more frightening.

This film has a good shot at Best Picture, but I don’t think it’ll take it. War movies sell tickets, and this one should have because it was good, but they don’t often win the big prize. They have in the past (remember THE HURT LOCKER (2008)?). But I don’t think so this time.

BIRDMAN

Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s (BABEL, 2006, BIUTIFUL, 2010) story of an aging Hollywood actor trying to make his name as a serious playwright and stage performer is, well, bizarre. And entertaining. Funny sometimes. Touching. Hard to pin this one down with one or two adjectives. Surreal, is probably the best choice. How much of what we see is real, and how much is the mind of the main character, Riggan, is only sometimes revealed. In one instance, three quarters of the way through, it’s done rather cleverly.

Appropriately, Michael Keaton (BATMAN, 1989, NIGHT SHIFT, 1982) plays Riggan, once the star of a blockbuster superhero franchise known as Birdman. After three (or four, I forget now) films, he put aside his birdy cowl and quit Big Time Acting. Years later, he is still haunted by Birdman—literally. The superhero is constantly berating and haranguing him, inside his head, urging him to make a new Birdman film and forget this pipe dream of debuting a stage play on Broadway. Riggan is obviously suffering from schizophrenia, and he knows it.

I think.

This is a smart film, because it isn’t going to tell you. It shows you some truths as you watch, if you watch carefully, but overall the viewer lives inside the character’s head over three days leading up to the play’s debut. I have some reservations, overall, on the story itself, but not Keaton’s performance. Without using this word lightly in any way, Keaton’s performance is brilliant—his best performance, in my opinion, of anything he’s done prior. Edward Norton (THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL, 2014, yet another Best Picture nominee), as the star actor brought in for the lead role and who delights in being as outside-the-box as possible, was also a highlight in the film. Lastly, the cinematography was stunning. There were very little (obvious) scene edits, the film looks and feels like it was shot in one long, continuous shot—an effect the filmmakers intended and which succeeded for the most part. Somehow, the camera follows the characters up steps, across the stage, around corners, smoothly as if you’re following them around yourself. There were times I said aloud, “How did they do that?” I don’t believe (though the Academy voters have surprised us before) this will take Best Picture, but it’s my choice for best Cinematography.

BOYHOOD

Ah, BOYHOOD, the film all of us wanted to see for the unique method writer/director Richard Linklater filmed it. With the same cast working over twelve years, this puppy was shot in bursts every year when the actors were available. The film centers around one family, in particular the son, Mason, from age six to the start of his college years. Throughout the course of the movie, we watch the actor, Ellar Coltrane, grow up. There are no obvious transition scenes, no words “One Year Later” flashing across the screen. One scene fades and the next opens with everyone just a wee bit older. Personally, I though Coltrane did a tremendous job. He really comes across as a normal—albeit fringy—kid. As does the rest of his family, in a somewhat dysfunctional way.

Patricia Arquette (Medium and Boardwalk Empire TV Series) plays his mother and deservedly won the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress. You watch a real single mom doing her best to raise her son and daughter (played by the director’s real life daughter, Lorelei Linklater) as best she can, while making the wrong decisions about the men in her life. Can’t blame her, though. We all thought they were good choices when they started, too. Ethan Hawke (GATACA, 1997, one of my favorite sci-fi films ever, and THE PURGE, 2013) plays the estranged dad trying to re-connect with his kids at the beginning of the film, and over time doing so in his own, cavalier way.

This movie isn’t, really, about anything in particular. Except, “Here’s a look into one family’s life over twelve years.” It’s fascinating to watch, with some strong performances all around. Is it the Best Picture of the batch? No, I don’t think so. It will take some awards home, I think, perhaps Best Original Screenplay, but the lack of any single story thread throughout might hurt its chances at the big trophy.

THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL

Director Wes Anderson’s humor took me a few years to hook my teeth into. But my daughter Amanda’s love for this guy’s bizarre style has grown on me. I mean, THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS (2001) was good, not my favorite, but MOONRISE KINGDOM (2012), I thought was extremely clever and at times very funny. THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL, however, was sheer joy. I don’t think slapstick has worked this well in a long, long time. It is a very clever, funny movie, with so much kinetic energy in its cuts, angles and dialogue, that you are swept away in Anderson’s vision. Ralph Fiennes (HARRY POTTER AND EVERY OBSCURE THREAT KNOWN TO MAN, 2001 – 2011, SCHINDLER’S LIST, 1993) is polished perfection as M Gustave, manager of the title’s hotel. Even better was his co-star and relative newcomer Tony Revolori as the bellhop Zero, whom Gustave takes under his wing.

Anderson always has a stellar supporting cast in his movies, and this time is no exception, with Adrien Brody (THE VILLAGE, 2004), Willem Dafoe (4:44 LAST DAY ON EARTH, 2011) and Jude Law (GATACA, 1997, A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS, 2004) as a writer narrating the tale (Law plays the narrator quite often, it seems). Even Ed Norton (BIRDMAN, 2014, FIGHT CLUB, 1999) was in this one, so he’s vastly increased his odds of being associated with another Oscar winner with two films on the list.

The sets were lavish and absurd, and out-staged only by the totally goofy miniatures used for the surrounding countryside. The lift up the mountain and subsequent downhill ski chase were brilliantly funny. Any movie these days that can make me laugh out loud as much as this one, and when not laughing, smiling until my face hurt, has a good chance of taking the prize.

Granted, comedies do not have a good track record with the Academy. With such a varied scope of films in this year’s bunch, however, the splits in voting might be extreme enough for THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL to surprise everyone and sneak away with the prize. This is a tough one. It’s either this, or more likely SELMA (see Part 2). What I know historically of the awards tells me SELMA will take it, but my gut says …HOTEL. Let me keep talking about the rest of the films, and I’ll commit to one. (I do change my mind in Part 2, not to worry.)

Well, this is all the room we have today. Come back for Part2 tomorrow, as we discuss the other four films nominated for Best Picture, and my final take on which will take home the golden phallic guy.