Thursday, February 19, 2015

Oscar Run-Down (an incomplete review)

So here is my run-down of the six of the eight Best Picture nominees.

American Sniper

Director: Clint Eastwood

After the recent weeks of controversy and debate over this film, I finally saw it. I find it to be a very good movie about one singular man's experience with war, though it's not exactly a flawless masterpiece of cinema.

The story is that of Chris Kyle, the deadliest sniper in U.S. military history. Kyle was a man driven to enlist by patriotism and a strong urge to fight very real terrorism. As such, he did four separate tours in Iraq during the 2000s, distinguishing himself mostly through his unmatched skill in long-range shooting, which gave much-needed cover to ground troops. Also depicted are Kyle's struggles to reacclimate to life away from combat and back with his wife and children.

Most things are done quite well in the film, and they speak to Eastwood's deftness as a director. The battle scenes are intense without being gratuitously violent. Kyle's subdued intestity and levity feel extremely authentic, thanks to Bradley Cooper's understated yet nuanced performance. My main problems with the movie come from two places: one is that Kyle's wife, Taya, becomes a one-note refrain of "Don't go." It's an important sentiment, to be sure, but the film never does much to innovate on the theme.

The other, larger, problem I have is that there was clearly some manipulation of the facts in order to present a more exciting film narrative. In fact, I have even heard Cooper himself say that they had always pitched the film to be a "Western in the desert." This is fine in a work of fiction, but when you are telling the tale of a real man and the effects he felt of war, then artificial elements come off as a bit cheap and disrespectful to the subject. It doesn't help that some of these fictional manipulations can be seen as nationalistic propaganda, even if this was not the filmmakers' express intent.

My general feeling about the controversy around the movie is that both sides are blowing things a bit out of proportion, in order to support their pre-existing beliefs. One could perhaps make an argument that there is a hint of propaganda about the film, but it's certainly not clear-cut. However, I really didn't get the sense that the filmmakers were trying to make any kind of grand political or social statement about war. It's simply a well-done look at a gifted soldier and war's brutal effects on him.

Will it win Best Picture? I seriouly doubt it. Eastwood has done better movies, and the flaws are a little too glaring.

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)


Director: Alejandro Inarritu

I just watched this one, and it's certainly a trip. Using a heavy dose of Stedicam cinematography and extremely clever editing, Birdman follows Riggan Thompson, a once-immensely popular star whose best-known role as the titular superhero has become an anchor on his soul. Seeking to legitimize himself as a serious artist, Thompson burns through his remaining finances and emotions to try and pull off a successful production on Broadway. It is, of course, no acident that Thompson is played by Michael Keaton, whose "biggest" role was as Batman in the two massively successful Tim Burton movies in 1989 and 1992. Keaton is great as the celebrity going through a very serious mental and professional crisis, and his performance is worthy of the Best Actor nomination that he's received.

The film has a lot ot absorb, and I  must admit to feeling a tad burned out during the last 30 minutes or so. Still, it's mostly an engaging look at a few intense days in the life of a man whose sanity is fraying more with every passing hour. There is plenty of magical realism to be had, and the performances are as impressive as they come. It can be a bit tough to glean an ultimate point through all of the criticism that Inarritu hurls in nearly every direction: celebrities, self-absorbed actors, theater critics, the public, and basically anyone involved with theater or film. Regardless, it's absolutely worthy of the 9 Oscar nomination it got, and it certainly should take home at least a few of the technical awards.

Will it win Best Picture? I doubt it, since the film takes so many pot-shots at every aspect of showbusiness, though it's a highly creative and worthy contender.

Boyhood

Director: Richard Linklater

An excellent film, in keeping with Richard Linklater’s naturalistic style while being a rather new achievement.

Boyhood follows the twelve formative years of a child named Mason, from ages 6 through 18. It is a tapestry of moments, of varying intensity, that leave an imprint on him as he grows towards adulthood. Similar to Linklater’s Dazed and Confused and other films, there is no particular “story” here, other than a single American boy experiencing a rather typical childhood in Texas between 2001 and 2013. He has an older sister; a single, working mother; and a wayward father who is periodically involved in his life. Mason has to deal with his mother’s sometimes strict, alcoholic boyfriends/husbands, his nagging sister, and the attempts to find any sort of purpose in life.

The brilliance of the movie is just how organic and subtle everything is. While there are a handful of shocking and traumatic moments, none of them is the stuff of high cinematic drama. Most of the movie is given over to the little moments that slowly shape Mason: the discovery of female bodies through lingerie catalogues; a casual conversation with his father that alters their relationship ever-so-slightly; a brief shove from a pair of bullies; a stern talk with his photography teacher. These and many more moments tell the tale of a boy who becomes sullen but hopeful that life does have something to offer a young person who is never completely sure of his footing. It’s a long movie, in terms of time (2 hours and 45 minutes), but it never feels it as we smoothly transition through Mason’s childhood years.

I may not feel the need to watch Boyhood again any time soon, but it is clearly an outstanding film achievement.

Will it win Best Picture? Perhaps, given Linklater’s place in American film history and the fact that he hasn’t been honored in such a way before. It is certainly one of the strongest contenders in the field.


The Grand Budapest Hotel

Director: Wes Anderson

It's a Wes Anderson movie, alright.

Told with several chronological jumps and a ridiculously talented cast, we follow the adventures of Gustave H., the legendary concierge at the title Hotel. He's a curious character, who lives to be the very best at his prestigious job, while bedding wealthy women of advanced age. Gustave is sold to us by the hilarious performace of Ralph Fiennes, who completely nails the shifts in register required by Anderson's ever-quirky script. The story is rather ridiculous, as have been all of Anderson's movies to varying degrees, but there is always a unity to each movie that allows us to accept the strange ways in which they work.

I'm of two minds these days about Anderson. He's clearly a unique filmmaker, and I still find his movies amusing and impressive for their exacting detail and singular blend of childlike glee and more universal and profound human sentiment. However, I can't shake the question of whether he's capable of doing something truly outside of the clear niche he's created for himself. In Grand Budapest, we even see the first marks of self-referential narcissism with a montage of other concierges across the globe, with each one being an actor who is an Anderson movie mainstay: Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, and others. The joke is only remotely funny if you know Anderson's films. Such egotism is a bit annoying, in my view.

Will it win Best Picture? No way. Though it might be another tiny step towards the "Life-Time Achievement Award" that Anderson will win 20 years from now.

The Imitation Game

Director: Morten Tyldum

An otherwise very good film made excellent by an outstanding acting performance.

This film, in keeping with the unoffical "biopic" theme of 2014, looks at key moments in the life of British mathematician Alan Turing. Turing is the father of modern computer science, and the film mostly traces his enlistment by the British military to crack the Enigma Code - Nazi Germany's code for military transmission used in World War II. The code was considered unbreakable until Turing and his small team put all of their mental efforts towards cracking it.

The Enigma Code puzzle is the intellectual meat of the plot, given its greater place in world history, but the film takes a close look at Turing himself, who was himself a cipher to many who knew him. Awkward with people and a closeted homosexual (homosexual acts were illegal in England during Turing's life), his struggles with himself are almost as fascinating as his desire to solve logical puzzles. The more personal elements explored in the film wouldn't have had nearly the power that they do if not for a spellbinding performance by Benedict Cumberbatch. Like most in the U.S., I first knew of Cumberbatch through the incredible Sherlock series on the BBC. What I saw in The Imitation Game was an actor going well beyond the norm to bring a singular historic person to life on screen. I have to think Cumberbtach a serious contender for Best Actor.

Will it win Best Picture? There's a very good chance, given how solid the movie is, in all respects.


Whiplash

Director: Damien Chazelle

This is a fantastic movie about obsession, drive, and the question of how far people will go to find and inspire greatness, either in themselves or in others.

The story follows Andrew Neimann, a freshman drummer at a highly prestigious music conservatory in New York City. Andrew's presence, skill, and determination are noticed by the school's most accomplished instructor, Mr. Fletcher, who quickly invites Neimann to try playing with the school's elite jazz ensemble. Neimann's excitement is soon burned away by Fletcher's unrelenting, scathing style of discipline and verbal abuse towards his pupils, especially Neimann. The young percussionist's drive to excel is driven by his own passion for greatness as well as his growing hatred for Fletcher.

The movie is uncomfortable in many places, as we watch Fletcher abuse Neimann in every way imaginable: physically, emotionally, and psychologically. Fletcher's rationale is that only through such manipulation and pressure can a musician become one of "The Greats." To support his theory, he often cites a famous anecdote about legendary jazz saxophonist Charlie "The Bird" Parker having a cymbal thrown at his head. We viewers are left plenty to ponder this notion of artistic acheivement and whether it is worth the cost. The cost, in Neimann's case, is his relationships with family, friends, and other musicians.

The music is the film is great, as you would expect, and the sound and film editing enhance it to a great degree. The highlight is clearly the performance of J. K. Simmons as Fletcher, who brings the sadistic music instructor to frightening life. Simmons will likely win Best Supporting Actor for the role, and he alone is worth watching, even if it can be difficult to witness the maelstrom of torment that he heaps upon Neimann.

Will it win Best Picture? I'm skeptical, due to how specialized the topic is, but it is clearly an all-time great "music" movie.

Selma & The Theory of Everything (and a few final thoughts)

I wasn't able to see either of these movies, try as I might. Based on the buzz, though, it sounds like we can expect Selma to completely get the shaft, while The Theory of Everything may merit little more than a Best Actor award for Eddie Redmayne.

Overall, I have to say that this year's crop of Best Picture nominees is a fairly solid one, though not exactly a year that will be seen as a historically great year. When we look back at these eight films twenty years from now, I don't know that more than one or two of them will have acheived "all-time great movie" status.