Another Oscar Night come and gone

Gold Trophy

Well, I did not see as many Oscar-nominated movies as I’d hoped, but I did see 18 of the movies that were up for awards last night, including all of those that were up for best picture and any for acting.  I saw most of those up for writing awards but only one of the foreign films and one documentary. Luckily, I will still be able to see many of those on Netflix in the coming months.

My predictions weren’t too bad—I got 10 out of 24, but I missed a few of the big ones. I thought Boyhood deserved best picture, but I certainly think that Birdman was worthy.

I’m very happy that Julianne Moore and J.K. Simmons both won for their performances. And I’m glad that Birdman took home the award for best original screenplay and that The Imitation Game won best adapted screenplay. graham moore

The acceptance speech by its writer Graham Moore was the best of the evening. “Stay weird” will be the catch phrase we remember most from last night. We should all be thankful that his suicide attempt at age 16 was not successful.

The big surprise of the evening for me was how beautifully Lady Gaga can sing. She did Julie Andrews proud belting out a medley from The Sound of Music, though I wasn’t exactly clear why that was part of the night’s program.

Neil Patrick Harris wasn’t bad, but I would love to see Ellen DeGeneres back as host. He did throw a good zinger right at the beginning, referring to Hollywood’s “best and whitest,” a clear dig at the lack of diversity represented by the nominations.

Of course Birdman director Alejandro Iñárritu is Mexican, so not all the awards were handed out to white people. And he appealed to the U.S. to treat recent immigrants with dignity, considering we are a nation based on immigration.

And I congratulate John Legend and Common for their win in writing the best song, “Glory.” Despite the few nominations that seemed to value diversity, the crowd loved their moving performance of this song from the film Selma and gave them a well-deserved standing ovation.

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Oscar contender: Foxcatcher

Gold TrophyYesterday was my last-ditch effort to see films before the Academy handed out their awards. I had tried to see foreign film contender  Timbuktu on Saturday, but it was sold out! Everyone had the same idea, I guess, because 6 of the movies showing at the Shattuck were sold out. And of course I waited in line for 15 minutes before I found out that it was sold out. Grrr.

So Sunday afternoon I went across town 15 minutes early to the only theater still showing Foxcatcher.  There were plenty of seats.

I was disappointed. The acting was good, but there were gaps in the story, and I felt it was poorly edited.

In addition, it was never clear to me why events happened as they did. Perhaps it’s because it was based on a true story, and the writers didn’t actually know all the facts and motives, since two of the main characters are no longer living. But wrestling scenes were longer than they needed to be, taking up valuable time that could have been spent on character development or plot. The film was a full two hours long, which was at least 20 minutes too long in my opinion.

steve carell
Note the prosthetic nose that transforms Carell into DuPont.

I have to give props to the makeup people, though. Steve Carell was almost unrecognizable as crazy chemical heir John DuPont. Close-up shots on his face never revealed any tell-tale seams, yet DuPont’s schnoz is nothing like the nose that belongs to actor Steve Carell.

It’s a sad story that did pique my curiosity, but I can’t recommend the movie. Maybe I should find the book it was based on…

Oscar countdown: Whiplash is a brutal experience

Gold TrophyWhiplash is nominated for Best Movie and Best Adapted Screenplay, and J.K. Simmons is up for Best Supporting Actor for his role as an abusive conductor at prestigious Shaffer Conservatory.

I have to admit that it was painful to sit in the audience and watch the constant abuse hurled onto promising young musicians who no more deserved it than a puppy deserves a beating for barking. I would dismiss such behavior as unrealistic and over the top if it weren’t based loosely on writer/director Damien Chazelle’s experience in a high school band. Although the screenplay was not an autobiographical film, I’m curious to find out just how far his former teacher and bandleader went to inspire the actions portrayed in the movie.

I was squirming in my seat as I watched Simmons embody the loathsome Fletcher, who not only threw a chair at the film’s protagonist, the ambitious drummer Andrew, but adeptly wielded mental cruelty whenever possible.

For instance, early in their relationship, Fletcher asks Andrew about his parents under the guise of trying to explain his natural talent. Caught off-guard, Andrew innocently reveals that his mother left him and his dad when he was quite young. That tidbit later gets flung in his face in a public shaming meant to break him.

Occasionally Andrew catches a glimpse of something more humane in the bandleader, which unfortunately gives him enough hope to stick around, enduring still more abuse at Fletcher’s hands. The audience breathes a sigh of relief when outside forces end the destructive relationship. But Andrew, still wanting to believe that Fletcher has a soul, gives him another chance despite their history and agrees to play in an upcoming performance.

J.K. Simmons’s acting lifts the movie to greater heights. The writing was fine but not, in my opinion, Oscar-worthy.

One scene particularly strained credulity. (Spoiler alert #1) Andrew is due at an out-of-area competition, but his bus breaks down. Undaunted, he rents a car to complete the trip. (Of course my bullshit alarm went off because I know that car rental agencies don’t lease to 19-year-olds.) And of course because he’s speeding and texting (the quintessential modern cautionary tale), his car gets broadsided by a semi. Shortly after impact, we see our bloody hero crawl out from under the wreckage and run the rest of the way to the concert hall. That was when my disbelief ended its suspension and snapped.

whiplashBut the moment that most disturbed me happened at the very end. (Spoiler alert #2) The audience has watched this monster in a position of authority screaming epithets at young impressionable music students for most of the movie, undermining and belittling them at every turn with sometimes tragic consequences. Andrew recovers from yet another manipulative blow to play in front of an audience that can make or break his career.

Now, there may indeed exist music lovers who might actually appreciate extended extemporaneous drumming, but I found myself checking my watch halfway through his performance, however skilled it may have been.

Nevertheless, that wasn’t the downfall of that scene. On top of being subjected to the world’s longest drum solo, I was struck with what I thought was a horrible message—because Andrew worked hard, persisted, suffered endless abuse, and literally bled for his craft, he finally got Fletcher’s faint nod of praise. No doubt there was great satisfaction in proving to himself and to the assembled music critics that his talent could shine through despite Fletcher’s treachery. But ending with Fletcher’s much-sought-after approval, the movie seemed to me to condone his methods. Was that the point?

Hoping to gain insight on the writer/director’s implicit message, I read interviews with him in the L.A. Times and Variety. Chazelle claims that he wanted to make a movie about music that was like Raging Bull, to show the punishing side of an artist’s life and depict how much he is willing to go through to achieve his goal.

Fair enough. But that’s not enough payoff for the audience, who is suffering along with him. For the struggling artist to be a sympathetic character, his aim needs to reach beyond his tormentor’s belated validation; his goal needs to be producing something beautiful or bettering himself.

If, in the final scene, Fletcher had looked beaten at his own game, or if he’d become an alcoholic has-been, if he’d gotten what he deserved—he would not be smiling. I, for one, wanted the vicious music instructor to meet with a dark end in addition to our hero rising victorious.

But maybe that’s just me…

Oscar countdown: Live Action Shorts

Gold TrophyThe best way to celebrate Presidents’ Day is by going to see a movie, especially because Presidents’ Day is 6 days before Oscar Night!

In my attempt to see all the Oscar-nominated films before stars begin walking those red carpets, I saw the five nominees for best live action short film. (Thank you, Shattuck Theatre, for screening these every year.) I feel so lucky to live in Berkeley, where I am able to see them.

 

The five films up for the award came from Tibet, Ireland, Switzerland, Israel, and the UK.

“The Phone Call,” from Great Britain had two big names in its cast. Sally Hawkins plays Heather, who works at a suicide hotline and talks to a distraught widower, voiced by Jim Broadbent. Heartbreaking and realistic, this film packs an emotional wallop. We listen to a man who feels there is nothing to live for and watch Heather, who is helplessly watching the clock, hoping to get the information she needs to send an ambulance to the suicidal man. As bleak as the subject matter is, the film does end with a life-affirming message.

Dave’s fave was the entry from China and France called “Butter Lamp,” directed by Hu Wei. This charming glimpse of a small Tibetan town is all shot from one camera angle as people move in and out of the frame. A traveling photographer shoots family portraits with a variety of cheesy fake backgrounds. Once all the photos are taken, the backdrops are rolled up, revealing the actual scenery—a breathtaking view of the Himalayas behind a road under construction that is sure to change life forever in this quaint hamlet.

bugaloo & graham“Boogaloo and Graham,” directed by Michael Lennox, features an Irish family in which the impulsive father brings home two baby chicks for his rather wild young sons. Full of good-natured (if somewhat immature) humor, this short was the most lighthearted of the nominees, although the threat that at any moment the chickens might become dinner gave it a slightly darker edge.

Set in Israel, “Aya,” directed by Oded Binnun and Mihal Brezis, was quite engaging, mostly due to the actress who played the main character and the suspense that builds during the long car ride to Jerusalem. But there were too many unanswered questions for my taste, and the disappointing ending left me feeling as if the writer had run out of steam rather than bringing it to a satisfying conclusion.parvaneh

Although we don’t know why the teenaged title character in “Parvaneh” is alone seeking asylum in the rural Swiss Alps and is responsible for sending money to her family  in Afghanistan, it’s clear that she is in over her head and has very limited options. Directed by Talkhon Hamzavi, this film takes a few surprising turns as we watch Parvaneh take a train to Zurich and navigate unknown territory in her attempt to wire money via Western Union. But an unlikely friendship gives the film a hopeful twist that views humankind as more good than evil.

I enjoyed all five films—each deserves praise. But I think I was most taken with “Parvaneh,” if only because, as a mother, I worried about a young girl on her own in a strange city and I wanted to protect her.

Go see these wonderful short live action films if you get the chance!

 

 

 

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Oscar countdown continues: Finding Vivian Meier

Gold TrophyA few weeks ago, I pledged to see all Oscar-nominated movies (at least in the categories that I cared about) before February 22, when the winners will be announced. Since that promise, I’ve seen American Sniper, Two Days and One Night, and The Judge. And today in bed with a cold, I watched Finding Vivian Meier.

I had heard about the mysterious photographer a few years ago when I saw a short film about her as part of a rare visual performance by my favorite radio show, This American Life.

But Finding Vivian Meier is a full-length documentary that delves into the life of an artist and just goes to show that people are not always who they seem to be. Filmmaker John Maloof had to do some serious detective work and go through mountains of documents in order to put together a timeline for this reclusive woman. And by documents, I mean boxes and suitcases full of receipts, newspaper clippings, negatives, and undeveloped film. A hoarder, she also kept all manner of doodads that she picked up in pawn stores and dumpsters.

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One of Vivian Meier’s many self portraits

The padlock she kept on the door to her room hid away not only evidence of a life spent taking photographs but also stacks of newspapers that she always meant to read. It appears she never threw anything out. After her death in 2006, the contents of her storage locker were auctioned off in pieces, which is how John Maloof discovered that first box of negatives. After he saw what he had, he tracked down as much as he could of the rest of Vivian’s belongings. By this point, he not only wanted to print her photos and get them into public view, he was also curious what kind of person could take over 100,000 photos without sharing them with the world.

Vivian made her living primarily as a nanny, and the film features interviews with many of her now-grown charges as well as some of her employers. And although everyone agreed that she was an extremely private person who took photographs all the time, they had different perspectives based on what little Vivian revealed to each of them.

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One of Meier’s street photographs

For instance, some people were sure she was French, and one man thought she was either Austrian or from Alsace, but in reality, she was born in New York.

One woman claimed to be her friend but knew very little of her circumstances. Some of her charges had positive memories, but some of the stories they told about her as a nanny portrayed her as cruel. One woman illustrated for the camera her singular walking style, stomping loudly in what she called “army boots” and swinging her arms. Meier was called “eccentric,” “crazy,” “mean,” “very opinionated,” and “a nice lady.”

Perhaps depending on which persona she wanted to project, she alternately used variations of her name that included the more casual Viv to the formal Miss Meier, but when forced to leave a name at a shop where she wanted them to hold something for her, she left only the name V. Smith.

Recollections from a few who spent time with her point to a past of abuse, most likely at the hands of a man (or men), judging by her reactions to males and her warnings to little girls to stay clear of men because they only wanted them for sex.

But even with Maloof’s exhaustive research, we will never know exactly what shaped the secretive and enigmatic Miss Meier. She never married, had children, or sustained any lasting relationships, as far as anyone knew. Her only remaining living relative is a distant cousin who never met her.

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one of her contact sheets

But her legacy is her body of work, which has prompted many in the art world to declare Meier one of the greatest street photographers of the twentieth century. Hers is a fascinating story told artfully in this documentary.

Two Days, One Night, and ten movies to go…*

 

 

Sandra on phone
Marion Cotillard as Sandra

Marion Cotillard is the heart of the quiet Belgian film, Deux Jours, Une Nuit (Two Days, One Night), which refers to the amount of time her character Sandra has to convince her coworkers to forgo their bonuses in order to let her keep her job. Brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne wrote and directed this film that was Belgium’s official entry for Oscar’s best foreign film. (It didn’t make the cut, but French-born Cotillard got a nomination for best actress.)

Cotillard does an excellent job of portraying Sandra, who, in addition to having to fight for her job, is also battling depression. Though her situation is certainly difficult, she has the loving support of Manu, her husband and her rock (played by Fabrizio Rongione), who pushes her gently but firmly in the right direction.

I would hope that the premise of this film—that employees must choose between their bonuses or allowing a colleague to return to work after medical leave—would never happen in real life. But it makes for an interesting dilemma.

We watch Sandra spend a weekend tracking down her peers so that she can ask them outright to vote for her. This would never be a pleasant proposition for anyone but is especially grueling to a woman as fragile as Sandra, who doubts herself enough already without being in the position of fighting for a low-level factory job that is crucial to support her family.

Deux Jours...Because she essentially presents the same case to each of the other 16 workers, the audience hears her spiel multiple times. Had this movie been presented in Hollywood, I imagine film executives would have summarily refused to back it due to the script’s inherent repetition. American audiences probably aren’t as patient in general as European movie-goers (if our high-energy, smash-’em-up summer  blockbusters are any indication).

But with each plea, we are experiencing with Sandra the weariness, the frustration, the misplaced hostility, and the surprising moments of kindness. Each person’s response is different, and we realize that of course each of them has a life away from work that requires them to consider more than just Sandra’s job. So we have to be there for every door she knocks on to understand what she’s going through. It may not be a psychopathic serial killer on the loose, but I felt real tension every time Sandra pleaded her case right up until Monday morning’s vote.

Realistic, thoughtful drama takes time, and I felt my 95 minutes were well spent watching Two Days, One Night.

*Two movies down, and ten still to see by February 22.

 

 

American Sniper isn’t bad, but Oscar-worthy?

Amer SniperBecause I am on a mission to see as many Oscar-nominated movies as possible before February 22, last night I saw American Sniper, directed by Clint Eastwood. The two-hour film featured a solid performance by Bradley Cooper, who portrayed sharpshooter SEAL Chris Kyle. It also did a good job of showing how impossible it is to see your target in a sandstorm. And it made clear that veterans return from war with all kinds of scars, and not all of them are visible.

But I didn’t really get why his story was made into a feature film. It was based on a book written by the title character, who was killed before the movie was made. The story begins with a young boy in Texas who grows up being told that he needs to protect his own, so it’s no surprise when we see him enlist after 9/11.

He is, of course, changed by war, and he predictably has difficulty at home when he’s between tours because his wife feels she’s lost the man she married. But he returns not once but three times; and his fourth tour becomes a vendetta to set things right by killing the notorious sniper called “the Butcher,” who has killed his SEAL buddies.

Gold TrophyBut once he’s home for good, a doctor takes him for a walk and introduces him to disabled veterans, which seems to fix him right up. No PTSD here.

Then in the last shot of the movie, we see our hero leave with the person who is going to kill him, and one sentence appears abruptly onscreen that essentially says that Chris Kyle was killed by a veteran, a man he was trying to help.

So what’s the message here? No good deed goes unpunished? He who lives by the sword dies by the sword? That it’s more dangerous to be on home soil than fighting terrorists thousands of miles away? It’s not that I think all art must have a clearly defined message, but I saw little else of value in this movie, so I assumed there was a take-home message.

Otherwise it’s just the tale of a highly skilled sniper who suffers losses, becomes somewhat dehumanized, but then bounces back just to be shot and killed at age 39.

I was more curious about the relationship between him and his younger brother, which was only touched on and then abandoned. And the story behind his death, were more of it known, would have been a fascinating exploration of mental illness among vets. Or the tragic situation he left behind—a widow with two young children—that’s a movie that could hold my interest.