Friday, August 10, 2018

Baby Boomers -- Fools for the City


How do you like the new view that my wife, Marie, and I have? Or our new neighbor, Billy Penn, who looms over our new home in Philadelphia?

Yep, we have finally made the move that we talked about (or bored our friends with) for the last 20 years. We ditched our home in the northwest suburbs and have relocated to Bella Vista, if not the heart of the city, at least one its main arteries.

It turns out we’re part of a trend, not that we have ever been particularly trendy. Consider this stat: Between 2009 and 2015, the number of renters in Philadelphia aged 55 and older jumped 22 percent (compared to an eight percent jump among millennials). As you poll or otherwise probe our generational peers who made this move, we find that our own reasons and drivers were similar. We downsized from our modest, though still oversized, 4BR suburban home, which had at least two more bedrooms than we needed. We don’t have kids at home anymore, having successfully educated them, kept them out of jail, and made them into model, tax-paying Americans. Thus, schools aren't an issue for us anymore. (If they were, Philly would be a bad bet).

Much to Do and View
Additionally, Marie and I are culture vultures, and the city is awash with museums, theater, exhibits, lectures and the like. On the greener side of things, recent Philly administrations invested in parks and other open space, as well as parking.

Excellent restaurants have long been a given in Philadelphia. And as a follow up to them, there are many hospitals and other healthcare facilities to tend to my clogging arteries and soaring glucose levels. Believe me, I’ll be looking for a new endocrinologist there.
There is also lifestyle. The area we moved from was a lovely place to raise our two kids, but once we stepped outside our traditional Colonial for a walk, there was little to do or even see. Heck, there were hardly any sidewalks, fercrissake. But yesterday, I walked to the local hardware store in my new neighborhood, and I saw more in that five-block walk than I did in the last two decades in my burbs. Plus the walk itself was good for my aging constitution.

Despite what may be counterintuitive to city haters, Philadelphia is affordable for us. Even on a fixed income, our years of equity building and selling my soul just to have a couple of pensions have given us more money for housing than most of the poor millennials who are loaded with college debt. (Note: Data from TenantCloud, a property management software service, show that nearly one-third of all urban applications are for renters over age 60. Another sign of the influx of boomers.)

Planning is Essential
Making this move was not a piece of cake. Decluttering nearly four decades of marriage and packing up an old life to make way for a new one in smaller quarters was not easy. But we were systematic about it. We kept a large poster board in our kitchen, and we covered it with Post-its to mark the things we had to do to make this move happen. That included primarily of deciding where we wanted to go, then getting our own home ready to sell.

The second part was harder and took more time to do. It took us about 18 months to empty the four-bedroom house we owned for nearly three decades (to the day, coincidentally; we turned it over to the new owners on the day after our 26th anniversary of purchasing it). It’s amazing what things we call “shit” you can accumulate in that time. Extra CDs and DVDs went to the local library, until they cried “Uncle!” Unwanted or ignored miscellanea, such as books, artwork and the like went to Goodwill and other organizations. We hired junkers like JDog Junk Removal & Hauling to haul stuff away either for charitable donation or just to trash. Our contribution to the growing landfill problem in the USA.

Then we had to get our home ready, and there was much to do. It’s amazing how easily you can overlook certain things in your home when you are dealing with more mundane issues, oh, say like raising a couple of kids, figuring out how to contribute to their college education and their weddings, and replacing your job during the Great Recession. So in a relatively short time, we replaced the windows, replaced the roof, spruced up the bathrooms, and repainted and recarpeted the house.

These things work great in a sellers’ market. We put up our “for sale” sign on a Tuesday, and by the following Wednesday, we had two agreements of sale at our asking price. (We chose the one that had no contingencies.)

Living for the City
Next came the critical task of planning our new location. Did you see the reference above to a “sellers’ market?” That tiny detail made our search more challenging, and it took several months. (I suggest that you pick a reliable realtor, which seems obvious but is easy to overlook or flub. In our case, we were served by Ryan Kanofsky. He came to us when he followed up an online inquiry that Marie made. He e-mailed her, asking if she was looking; she said not yet. Ryan checked in with her patiently for five years. He was our guy, always turning over stones, making himself available on weekends, and advising us when he thought we were too enamored of a particular property. In the end, he, with help from his associate Caitlin Beck, came through for us.)

We shopped several downtown Philly locations, including Fairmount, Brewerytown, Queen Village, Center City and the Graduate Hospital area. All terrific, all worthy of consideration. But we landed in Bella Vista, the section considered the original Italian-American section of the city (even though early citizens also included Irish immigrants and African Americans who were former slaves).

Bella Vista is Italian for “beautiful view,” but it’s not the original name for the area. That name was part of a rebranding campaign in the early 1970s. Though Italian Americans still make up a large percentage of the population today, Bella Vista can still boast a good deal of the cultural diversity that we couldn’t get in the suburbs, including neighbors who are African American, Vietnamese and Mexican. We are so looking forward to this aspect of our new climes.

Our new home was voted “best neighborhood to live in Philadelphia” by Niche.com in 2016. There are plenty of parks and other green space, which are supported through a multitude of volunteers. The volunteer groups also produce public events in the parks such as summer concert series, yoga, and outdoor movies. There is a permanent community garden at 10th and Kimball, and the local athletic scene includes the sport that’s just right for an aging Italian American like me -- bocce. 

So excuse me, I have to drop this blog to run to John’s Water Ice up the street for a traditional lemon ice and a soft pretzel. The prices are good, and the commute there is minimal. Just don’t tell my endocrinologist.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Among Oscar’s Slimmer Pickings, (Just) a Couple Stand Out This Year

I’m getting worried. This is the second year in a row that I am unenthused about the Oscar nominees. I am starting to believe that it’s the continuation of a trend, an inexorable decline in the film industry. Last year, I believed that all the nominated films were good, though none of them great. This year, I think my top two picks among the nominees are classics, but there are others that may not have been nominated in a better year. Some are out-and-out bad!

We may be witnessing a sea change where the best works are not being produced by traditional movie studios, but by upstarts like Amazon, Hulu and Netflix. Are less worthy projects and talents getting greenlighted today in Hollywood? I suspect that is the case.
For those of you who know my annual blog, you also know the drill: These are not my choices of the best films of 2017, nor are my predictions of who will win. This is how I rank this year’s Academy nominees, from worst to best, according to their innovation and uniquely cinematic quality. I often quote Roger Ebert’s single criterion: Which movie made me feel differently about film this year? That’s what I am looking at, and for the most part, I am underwhelmed.

FIRST, THE OVERLOOKED
It’s criminal that Taylor Sheridan’s Wind River received no recognition this year. Attribute that to the producer, that major persona non grata, Harvey Weinstein. Anything connected to him is cursed in Hollywood this year, maybe forever.

As director and screenwriter Sheridan showed in Hell or High Water, he is a master at many elements of cinematic storytelling. Here, a master tracker with the Fish and Wildlife Service (played with cool efficiency by Jeremy Renner) helps to investigate the murder of a young Native American woman in Alaska. As the story unravels, so does a tale of isolation, male dominance, cultural segregation, and, ultimately and hopefully, redemption. Well-acted throughout, a special shout out goes to Elizabeth Olsen, who gives a fine supporting performance as a law enforcement officer assigned to the case. (NOTE FOR LATER:  I felt much more connected to this theme of heartache over a young woman’s murder than I did months later with an ostensibly similar film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri.)

THE UNDESERVING
9. The Phantom Thread — Mark Twain quipped that a classic book is “something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.” Same with some “prestige” films like The Phantom Thread — people feel they should see them, but most can’t sit through them. Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Phantom Thread starts well enough as a handsomely detailed character study of 1950s London fashion designer, Reynolds Woodcock (stunningly played by Daniel Day-Lewis). The film shows Woodcock’s devotion to his craft, but with little room for anything or anyone else. Then enters Alma (Vicky Krieps), who eerily and without explanation becomes Galatea to Woodcock’s Pygmalion.  As we sit through Woodcock’s cakewalks, his personal quirks, and a murder plot that seems to come from another movie, the film eventually goes nowhere. The last cryptic shot of the film embodies the feelings of the audience with whom I shared this film: What was that about?

8. The Post —Director Steven Spielberg tells the story of how The Washington Post struggled to publish the Pentagon Papers, a classified document whose release helped end the Vietnam War. Meryl Streep gives a perfectly fine and nuanced performance as publisher Katherine Graham, though I never for a moment bought Tom Hanks as Ben Bradlee. As a film about journalism, we get some cinematic flourishes, like close-ups of flashing phone buttons and trucking shots through a newsroom, spicing up an otherwise static story (this is Spielberg, after all). But I feel as though I saw this movie 40 years ago when All the President’s Men was released (which received a respectful nod in The Post’s final shot). Ultimately, The Post is much like eating your broccoli. Yes, it’s good for you and much more nutritious than other sugary fare. But it’s also not particularly interesting or very much fun.

7. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri — If I could give an award for “most overrated film of the year,” this would win hands down. I admit that I liked Frances McDormand in a focused, flinty performance. Another underappreciated favorite of mine, Sam Rockwell, injects some semblance of subtlety into a role that is grossly overwritten (emphasis on gross, in view of the gratuitous homophobic violence he commits). Both performers deserved more than this hot mess of a script — a grab bag of melodramatic, cheap theatrics with no narrative cohesion. Also, I felt no connection with any of the film’s characters, which is inexcusable in a film about an unsolved rape & murder. It all leads to an opaque and equivocal ending that is less thought-provoking than it is a device for ending the film because the screenwriter had nothing left to say.  This may well win Best Picture, but I didn’t like it one bit.

FLAWED COMPETITORS
6.  Darkest Hour — This could have turned out to be just one more account of how Winston Churchill singlehandedly dragged the U.K. by its collective lapels into World War II. But it turns out to be more. Directed crisply by Joe Wright (a tidy 89 minutes!), we first see Churchill’s late-life rise to power as Europe begins falling to Hitler’s lust for domination. Churchill stands alone as the leader who recognizes der Fuhrer’s threat, and we see how the Prime Minister rises, falls, and ultimately triumphs in guiding Britain to leadership. The film is ultimately driven by Gary Oldman’s bravura lead performance. (Please, let’s just hand this most respected actor the Oscar he has been denied so long.) The Book of Proverbs says that “where there is no vision, the people perish.” Darkest Hour reminds us to thank our stars that Churchill arrived in time to promote a singular vision of a free world.

5. Call Me by Your Name — In its Italian pastoral setting, Luca Guadagnino’s film strikes a somnambulant tone that is sometimes too much (too little?) to bear. But look more closely to uncover its universal theme of longing and burgeoning adulthood in this story about Elio, a seventeen-year-old boy, and Oliver, a charismatic older man. In one of the most moving performances of the year, Timothée Chalamet conveys attraction, metamorphosed into love, only to lose that fleeting happiness to the realities of the world. Though the film is too languid for my tastes, there is no mistaking its tenderness, captured perfectly in the heartbreakingly long final shot. Special note: Watch actor Michael Stuhlberg performance in a poignant penultimate scene as Elio’s father. This fine actor is unrecognizable in The Post, The Shape of Water, even as Edward G. Robinson in Trumbo. Look for him in other films, if you can find him.

4. Lady Bird — More than another coming of age film, Lady Bird is a sweet memoir that felt as fresh to me as its title character, played by the wondrous Saoirse Rowan.  (How does this young Irish woman play American so well?) Rowan is supported ably by the rest of the cast, particularly Laurie Metcalf as her all-too-human mother, Tracy Letts as the supportive and understanding father, and Lois Smith as Sister Sarah Joan, the Catholic school principal.  (The good sister has one of the most poignant lines when she compliments Lady Bird on the fullness of her writing. The girl says, “I guess I pay attention.” Sister Sarah Joan responds, “Don't you think maybe they are the same thing? Love and attention?”)  Likewise, Lady Bird flourishes under the attention of director and screenwriter Greta Gerwig, who shows us just how challenging it is to grow into adulthood. A familiar story told touchingly by the ascendant Gerwig.

3. The Shape of Water — Much to love in this magical movie about a mysterious, saturnine amphibious creature that is captured in a Cold War-era lab and subjected to a cruel study. The flawless design evokes both the time and the Silver Age of DC comics, which were awash in sci-fi settings. Sally Hawkins is luminous as Elisa Esposito, the mute cleaning woman who begins communicating with her fellow misfit. Though Director Guillermo del Toro weaves these elements into a unique vision, he goes astray in several ways: A fantasy dance sequence seems lifted from The Artist. A room flooded for a romantic encounter strains credulity, even for a fantasy. Add interspecies coitus, and this overly long (by at least 20 minutes) concoction turns…silly; no other word for it. Del Toro will likely win Best Director, and I agree he shows a gift for using film to create an otherworldly world. This movie would be at the top of my list if he had also shown some restraint.

BEST OF CLASS OF 2017
2. Dunkirk — With 2007’s Atonement and this year’s Darkest Hour (both directed by Joe Wright, coincidentally), plus this epic by Christopher Nolan,  it appears the “miracle of Dunkirk” is getting new attention — a miracle because in May 1940, nearly 340,000 Allied forces were rescued from the French seaport of Dunkirk, mostly by civilian boats. (Had those troops perished, it is likely that the Nazis would have prevailed in World War II.) Dunkirk eschews the templates of previous war movies; rather than telling the story through characters, this movie places us directly in the bedlam of war, alternating between land, sea and air. Driven by highly credible re-creations of battle and anchored by powerful and compact performances, Dunkirk’s ultimate moral is how individuals can combine their forces to make a huge difference. Nolan makes large scale, larger-than-life filmmaking fashionable again.

1. Get Out — I have long admired comedian Jordan Peele’s witty takes and commentaries on race, violence, the National Football League, and other pertinent social issues as half of the Key and Peele TV show. But that insightful work didn’t prepare me for his jaw-dropping debut as a screenwriter and director in Get Out. With this film, he reinvents the horror genre in a way I would never imagine, injecting a social theme (specifically, race relations) into it, and it is not merely a perfunctory exercise. It is trenchant and powerful.

Daniel Kaluuya plays Chris Washington, an African American student and photographer, who is preparing to visit the home of his white girlfriend, Rose Armitage (Allison Williams of Girls, in an underrated performance). He asks if her parents know he is black; after all, he knows all too well the danger (or at least the discomfort) that lurks in such a situation. She assures him that all is okay. Instead, when Rose’s parents meet Chris, they are actually very accommodating, even a bit nervous. Overbearing, in fact. There are some patronizing comments from the dad, Dean Armitage (deliciously played by Bradley Whitfield). Example: “I would have voted for Obama a third time if I could have.” Mother Missy (an eerie Catherine Keener) stays more in the background, making her formidable presence known later.

Eventually, we learn that Dean, Missy and all their friends have a keen interest in black people, but for a horrifying reason. Chris’s uncovering of that secret forms the ensuing plot of this clever and fast-moving film. But don’t be misled by the chase scenes and comic relief (the latter supplied mostly by comedian LilRel Howery in a hilarious turn as Chris’s friend, Rod, proud of his stature as a TSA agent). Peele makes pointed statements about how we as American people cannot talk to each other, and also how racism causes many people to devalue others. As an auteur, he is smart, insightful and resourceful. Most important to his filmmaking aspirations, Peele is also efficient and polished: Get Out is well paced, clocking in at just an hour and 44 minutes, certainly not bloated as many first films can be. And it is economical. The film was made for just $5 million, and having grossed more than $30 million, it is profitable several times over. That alone should boost Peele’s stock in Hollywood. I can’t wait to see what new projects will come his way as a result of this success. Same for Daniel Kaluuya; he is a revelation in his role as Chris, and he was deservedly nominated for an Academy Award for his nuanced performance.

For its witty and perceptive screenplay, the integration of special effects, a uniformly high caliber of performances, and above all, its consistent vision of its theme, I see Get Out as the best film among the Oscar nominees this year.

On March 4, Oscar turns 90, and it is satisfying to see so much diversity behind the camera in many craft categories being honored this year. They are all well-deserved, adding a special touch to this year’s ceremony. I will be looking forward, past this year’s ceremony, toward the 2018 crop of films, hoping that they can raise the ante a little bit for next year’s ceremony.


Friday, February 24, 2017

Oscars 2017 — Pat’s Picks, Predictions and Potential Threats to Your Pool

Going to an Oscar party this Sunday night? If so, here is help for your Oscar pool —my fearless predictions for who will win, who should win, and the nominees who might upset the Academy’s applecart in the top six categories: picture, director and the four acting categories.  (For those of you who doubt my credentials, I have a success rate above 90 percent, and even when I am not correct, I am always certain.)


Truthfully, this year’s prognostication is a bit easier because of the momentum of La La Land, the frontrunner with 14 nominations. While a backlash against the film is possible, I doubt it. The film is appealing, accessible, and it is about Hollywood’s favorite subject: Itself. So it should dominate the awards, even against more deserving competition. Here is how I see the race shaping up:

ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE

  • MAHERSHALA ALI — Moonlight
  • JEFF BRIDGES — Hell or High Water
  • LUCAS HEDGES — Manchester by the Sea
  • DEV PATEL — Lion
  • MICHAEL SHANNON — Nocturnal Animals

PREFERENCEMahershala Ali. I never saw Ali’s work before, but he captivated my attention in this film and also with a gentle yet commanding turn in Hidden Figures. I am a fan of his going forward, and I’m cheering for him here.
PREDICTION Mahershala Ali. Ali won the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) Award, and the actors comprise the largest block in the Academy membership. Also, his lovely supporting performance in Hidden Figures allows the Academy to honor his body of work for the year.
POOL DISRUPTOR?Dev Patel. Patel has been a reliable actor since he was in a previous best picture, Slumdog Millionaire. He also won the UK’s BAFTA award, so he could steal this. However, it’s more likely that the nomination itself is his recognition.

ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE


  • VIOLA DAVIS — Fences
  • NAOMIE HARRIS — Moonlight
  • NICOLE KIDMAN — Lion
  • OCTAVIA SPENCER — Hidden Figures
  • MICHELLE WILLIAMS — Manchester by the Sea


PREFERENCE — Viola Davis. Davis conveys a wide variety of emotions throughout this film, ranging from joy, to disappointment, to sorrow, to anger, and finally to acceptance. No actress supported a film as magnificently as she did.
PREDICTION — Viola Davis. Davis could have been submitted for lead actress but traded down to ensure a win. One of Hollywood’s most respected players, she has won everything else in this award season, and she is due.
POOL DISRUPTOR? — Sorry, but no one will upset Ms. Davis. I have as much of a chances of nabbing this award as the other four nominees do. This is as close to a lock as you will ever see in an Oscar race.

ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE

  • CASEY AFFLECK — Manchester by the Sea
  • ANDREW GARFIELD — Hacksaw Ridge
  • RYAN GOSLING — La La Land
  • VIGGO MORTENSEN — Captain Fantastic
  • DENZEL WASHINGTON — Fences


PREFERENCE — Viggo Mortensen. As the iconoclast raising his kids off the grid, forced to face the real world (literally and figuratively) during a tragedy, Mortenson gives a believable and original performance. But he is a Hollywood outsider, so unlikely to win here. 
PREDICTION — Denzel Washington. Affleck had been the front-runner (which I don’t get, given his monotonous, zombie-like performance). But his recent bad behavior has reportedly turned off voters. Between that and his SAG win, the iconic Washington is poised for his third Oscar. 
POOL DISRUPTOR? — Ryan Gosling. He reached outside his range by singing and dancing in La La Land. Given that the film is this year’s darling, he could possible ride its coattails to his first Oscar in an upset.

ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE


  • ISABELLE HUPPERT — Elle
  • RUTH NEGGA — Loving
  • NATALIE PORTMAN — Jackie
  • EMMA STONE — La La Land
  • MERYL STREEP — Florence Foster Jenkins


PREFERENCE — Emma Stone. Okay, her singing and dancing were passable. But when Stone emoted in this role, she showed a range most performers don’t have. She’s this year’s Jennifer Lawrence; she is already due for an Oscar even at her young age.
PREDICTION — Emma Stone. Since her breakout in Easy A, Stone has worked steadily and reliably, amassing an impressive portfolio. Given her SAG victory over much of this same field, and the way Oscar likes pretty young woman, the odds favor her. 
POOL DISRUPTOR? — Isabelle Huppert. A respected and much-honored European actress, voters may feel her time has come (surprisingly, her first Oscar nod),  and that younger actresses like Stone and Negga still have time, while Portman and Streep already have their Oscars.

BEST DIRECTOR

  • LA LA LAND —  Damien Chazelle
  • MOONLIGHT —  Barry Jenkins
  • HACKSAW RIDGE —  Mel Gibson
  • MANCHESTER BY THE SEA —  Kenneth Lonergan
  • ARRIVAL —  Denis Villeneuve

PREFERENCE — Denis Villeneuve. Villeneuve fashioned an otherworldly world, portraying extraterrestrials uniquely, creating a new language, and manipulating the time/space continuum. Considering that La La Land’s Chazelle openly cribbed from a variety of past musicals, Villeneuve’s work was startlingly original by comparison. 
PREDICTION — Damien Chazelle. When Chazelle made Whiplash some years back, I called him an emergent and visionary artist. Now he’s made the feel-good movie in a year when we really needed something to feel good about, and he’ll be rewarded for that.
POOL DISRUPTOR? — Barry Jenkins. Jenkins is the flavor of the month, making his first feature on a shoestring, turning a profit with it, and shining a light on a neglected segment of society. He could be a surprise winner here.

BEST PICTURE

  • ARRIVAL
  • FENCES
  • HACKSAW RIDGE
  • HELL OR HIGH WATER
  • HIDDEN FIGURES
  • LA LA LAND
  • LION
  • MANCHESTER BY THE SEA
  • MOONLIGHT 

PREFERENCE — Arrival. Perplexing and challenging, Arrival’s cinematic qualities are unique. It moves us not only around our world and beyond, but to the interiors of its characters, exploring how we may choose to love, even in the face of preordained tragedy. 
PREDICTION — La La Land. Singing and dancing, starring two young and charming performers. What’s not to love about this confection? People complain that “They just don’t make movies like that anymore!” Damian Chazelle did, establishing his future in Hollywood by mining its past.
POOL DISRUPTOR? — Hidden Figures. This won the SAG‘s “best ensemble” prize — essentially that group’s best picture award. Could there be an undercurrent of Oscar voters dying to honor this sweet movie? If any film is poised to upset LLL, this could be it.

Feel free to toast me when you astound your friends and family with your uncanny predictions. And if it turns out that I’ve misled you, just load up on the guacamole dip and enjoy the rest of the party. After all, it’s only the Oscars.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Oscars 2017 -- Slim Pickings in a So-so Year

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has suggested which movies of 2016 are the best. The result for me is that I am less interested in this Oscar cast that I have been since Driving Miss Daisy nabbed the top prize in a snoozer of a ceremony.
This is a down year for me. There are many good films here, but none that I would term great. I doubt that there are any classics here, and I also don’t think that the Academy overlooked any hidden or underappreciated gems. Simply put, I think there were slim pickings in 2016.
Still, this is a task I take on, so here is how I rank the nine nominated films, in descending order. These are not my predictions, but my estimation of their innovation, uniquely cinematic quality, and overall excellence. I have often stated that I follow the Roger Ebert rule. I think the best film of a given year should make me look at cinema differently. Only one film did that for me in 2016.
By the way, there is one common positive element among all the nominated films this year: The acting is really good, not just among the Oscar nominees, but throughout all the casts. It used to be said that film is a director’s medium while the stage belongs to actors. But this year’s crop of performances must have been hard to pare down. Bravo to all.

So here goes.

How Did That One Get In?

9. Lion — This movie has all the earmarks of Oscar bait: A pathetic child. Let’s elaborate on that: Make that “a pathetic child who is separated from parents.” Heart-rending absences.  Climax of an inevitable and predictable closing. (I won’t detail the closing because I don’t want you to say I spoiled it for you. But if you operate on a mental level above Forrest Gump’s, you’ll see it coming a mile away.)  The plot of this two-hour film could have been told in about 40 minutes. Instead, it is padded with B reel of train rides, Google Earth looking down on terrains, and faces filled with longing. While I am happy to see Dev Patel get an overdue acting nomination, Lion is the Filomena of 2017, a cloying film that breaks no cinematic or scriptwriting ground, but instead relies on sentimental clichés.

Worthy Competitors

8. Fences —Denzel Washington’s challenge in directing Fences was to free it from its stage origins. While the film is still more talky and “stagey” than you want a film to be, Washington triumphs in the raw emotion he conveys, thanks to the wonderful performances he elicits from his skilled cast. Yes, let’s just hand Viola Davis her Oscar now. What you’ve heard is correct; she IS that great as long-suffering Rose, wife of protagonist Troy Maxson. Washington himself is terrific in the lead, and given his recent Screen Actors Guild award, I predict he will win Best Actor. They are both ably supported by a fine cast, including Stephen McKinley Henderson, Jovan Adepo, Russell Hornsby and Mykelti Williamson. August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize –winning play (which he adapted for this movie) has created a new Death of a Salesman, replete with anguish, disillusionment and betrayal. Washington has honored Mr. Wilson’s work with this adaptation.

7. Moonlight — I admire much about this freshman effort from director Barry Jenkins. The autobiographical story of its main character, Chiron, is moving as the young man gropes for his place in the world. Moonlight is also filled with terrific performances, particularly Naomie Harris as Chiron’s crack-addicted mother and Mahershala Ali as the neighborhood drug dealer who mentors the boy. That Jenkins could shoot his film so quickly and so quickly and have it turn a profit is remarkable. However, I found that its torpid third act, which goes nowhere for the longest time, killed the momentum built to that point. I expect a well-deserved Oscar for Ali, who is charismatically electrifying in every frame he fills. I also foresee an undeserved adapted screenplay award to Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney. I predict that in a few years we will wonder what the hubbub of this film was about.

6. Hacksaw Ridge — This film tells the dramatic story of Desmond Doss, a conscientious objector during The Good War who ends up winning the Congressional Medal of Honor, not by killing a single enemy soldier but by saving 75 fellow soldiers.  I found Hacksaw Ridge to be the most technically accomplished film of all nine nominees. Its cinematography, production design, editing and special effects are superb. Though the film is a little long, director Mel Gibson still manages to navigate the narrative skillfully. Along the way he gets fine performances from his actors, your typical Hollywood cast of ethnic and temperamental misfits who come together (predictably) on the battlefield. Andrew Garfield does a fine job of bringing Doss’s unlikely story to life. It is a story well worth telling, and Doss is a man who deserves to be remembered. I am grateful for Hacksaw Ridge.

5. Hidden FiguresHidden Figures tells the story of three African-American women who worked for NASA during the nascent years of the U.S. space program. Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) is the impossibly brilliant mathematician at the center of the film. Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) takes it upon herself to guide the space agency into the computer age, wresting control of the behemoth IBM machine that lands there. Finally, Janelle Monáe is Mary Jackson, fighting in court to attend a segregated classroom to become an engineer. The trifurcated story moves gracefully under the skillful direction of Theodore Melfi. There are cliché moments to be sure (The boss crowbars the sign to a segregated ladies’ room! The snooty white male mathematician gets his comeuppance!). Still, even though Hidden Figures does not always amount to high drama, it typifies Hollywood when its heart is in the right place.

4. Hell or High Water — Such a pleasure to see this polished gem get the recognition of Oscar love! Hell or High Water is a fitting morality tale for this era of resentment against the haves of this country by their victims. Two brothers rob banks so they can get back the ranch that was once theirs — hitting the very banks that bilked their family!  Solid performances abound. Chris Pine and Ben Foster as the brothers play two men searching for justice rather than revenge, with Pine measured and controlled and  Foster like a pop bottle ready to explode in the hot Texas sun. Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham anchor the film with supporting performances as the sheriff and deputy hunting the criminals. David Mackenzie shows a real feel for the land and character portrayed in the movie, directing this film with an economy and focus that wastes not a frame.  

3. La La LandLa La Land begins on a Los Angeles off-ramp filled with stalled cars. Suddenly the drivers dance in one of the most vibrant movie openings ever filmed. We also meet Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone), who are searching for love and stardom, he as a jazzman, she as an actress. What an opening!
Apparently this film is everyone’s darling, but after this auspicious opening, it moves unevenly, charming at times, but also settling to a snail’s pace. I liked La La Land, but not as much as everyone else seems to, and not even as much as I wanted to.  How groundbreaking is a musical that admittedly borrows liberally from past works? Also, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone kind of sing and dance, but not well enough to anchor a movie like this. I appreciate the chutzpah of making a musical in these grouchy times, but it didn’t make my number 1.
(As a bonus to my readers, here is a link to a Saturday Night Live sketch that I loved. It features a suspect being grilled by the police for having the impudence NOT TO LOVE LA LA LAND! It also helps explain why it didn't make the top of my list.)

2. Manchester by the Sea —Lee Chandler is a struggling laborer, suffering silently through an untold tragedy (voiced later in a heartbreaking piece of acting by Michelle Williams).  Then Lee is unexpectedly tasked with caring for his late brother’s son, a role he neither wants nor seems suited to.  As we slowly uncover Lee’s character in Kenneth Lonergan’s moving screenplay, there are no grand heroics. We witness the quotidian triumphs we achieve in our everyday responsibilities. Some films eschew cheap sentiment, loud music, and other tricks to move us. Better films earn our engagement by appealing to our common humanity. Manchester by the Sea is a fine example of the latter, a movie that seems populated by real people like you and me. (By the way, one negative point here: I do not get the acclaim for Affleck in the lead. I don’t believe that moping around with your mouth open constitutes great acting.)

1. Arrival — Roger Ebert once stated that film directors are “set free from the rules of the physical universe and the limitations of human actors, and can tell any story his mind can conceive.” This principle puts Arrival at the top of my list of the Oscar-nominated films of 2016. I found it to be the entry that most tested our notions of how to use film not only to tell a story but to challenge our imaginations.
Arrival is what’s known as “a thinking person’s science fiction movie.” Sometimes that phrase refers to a movie that is absent special effects and, worse, dull. But Arrival is perplexing and complicated, and it is also surprisingly moving. The story begins when spaceships from an unknown, unnamed planet land at seemingly random spots around the world. A group of linguists, including Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is gathered to determine how to communicate with these aliens. What is their mission? Are they on earth in peace or to conquer us?
To complicate matters for us, the viewer, director Denis Villeneuve has the film jump back and forth in time and place, showing Louise with a small child and then a young adult woman. Is this one and the same person? What is the story here?
I can’t say too much more so as not to give away the plot. But I will say that I have viewed great films over the years that use editing to alter our sense of time and place and also to advance several stories at one time. Examples include the great silent film, Intolerance, as well as Citizen Kane, Nashville, Crash and Inception. Villeneuve took a seemingly unfilmable short story and brought it to life on the big screen, testing our very notion of this temporal world (a key plot point) as only cinema can.
NOTE: Villeneuve is in the post-production of Blade Runner 20149, the sequel set 30 years after the original. I can’t wait to see what he does with that material.


So once again, I will take a look at next Sunday’s broadcast, curious to see who wins but not in very much suspense. I will probably not even be overly engaged. I expect La La Land to take the lion’s share of the prizes (e.g., best picture, director, actress, probably score and one of the songs, maybe even best original screenplay). But I am already holding out to see what is released in the remainder of 2017, hoping for some films that are a little bit better that this year’s crop.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

My Look at Oscar's Nominees (and One More for Good Measure)

Another year, another list of nominees, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has suggested which films released in 2015 may be the best. For me, this is a down year. Twelve months ago, I wrote in this annual blog that I could make a case for any of the eight films that were nominated. And I termed my top film, Birdman, a film for the ages. This year, I am underwhelmed. I found all the nominated films good, but none of them great. In fact, I think the Academy whiffed on the truly best film of the year, and that will be my bonus selection later. 

As in years past, I rank the nominated films in ascending order. This is not my prediction of who will win, but how I rank the films against each other according to their innovation and uniquely cinematic quality. 

The Head-Scratcher
8. Bridge of Spies —Steven Spielberg has lately turned largely to history in his films (e.g., Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan and Lincoln, all masterpieces in my view). Bridge of Spies takes place during the Cold War, and in Spielbergian fashion, it hits the right notes at first. The film boasts two skillfully understated performances: the  reliable Tom Hanks as James Donovan,  the negotiator horse trading with the Soviet Union to bring home not just U2 pilot Gary Powers, but also an unjustly jailed math student, and Mark Rylance as Rudolf Abel, the Russian spy who is trade bait. Yet this film left me cold in the end, overly long, with a pace that often had me checking my watch. I found nothing cinematically outstanding about it, so it’s the one film here that has wondering how it was included.
(I would have preferred to see Ryan Coogler’s Creed get this spot. Coogler essentially rebooted the Rocky franchise for the 21st century, and that was daring. After this film and Fruitvale Station, I look forward to seeing more from this talented filmmaker.

Worthy Competitors
7. Room — Film at its best creates an entire world that envelopes its viewers. Director Lenny Abrahamson has accomplished the impossible:  He re-creates a tiny world where Ma and her five-year-old son, Jack, live — a 10-foot space, a universe Jack knows only as “room.” In short order, we learn Ma (nee Joy Newsome) was kidnapped at age 19 by “Old Nick,” a neighborhood psychopath who built “room” solely to hold her prisoner.  We can infer that Jack is the Nick’s son, born and raised in captivity, yet thriving because of Ma.
Brie Larson brings the character of Ma to life admirably, including the phases of peaceful protection, planning the escape, and dealing with its aftermath. She is likely to be named best actress, a deserving honor, though I would prefer that Charlotte Rampling win for her elegance nuances in 45 Years. Still, Room is a noteable achievement; like Ma, it thrives triumphantly within its confines.

6. The Revenant — You may be surprised at my low ranking for this film, director Alejandro González Iñárritu's follow-up to Birdman, last year’s best picture. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Hugh Glass, a trapper left for dead in the woods. When he revives, he seeks revenge on his would-be murderer (Tom Hardy). DiCaprio is brilliant in a feral and virtually wordless performance, which leaves him to communicate Glass's pains, fears and hatred through his face and grunts. The Revenue has many merits, most notably Emmanuel Lubezki‘s startling cinematography. He and Iñárritu committed to shooting the entire film in natural light, and the result is a spectral tone poem that testifies to the power and beauty of nature. But I also found The Revenant to be bloated in length, at least 30 minutes too long. DiCaprio will likely (finally) get his Oscar. In addition to the awards for cinematography, I think it may capture direction and Best Picture. But it’s not at the top of my list.

5. The Martian — This is an audience favorite that is also as finely crafted a film as they come. Credit that to veteran director Ridley Scott (still without an Oscar! And no nomination this year!). In a tidy and economical piece of opening exposition, we meet astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) and his fellow explorers on Mars. Soon Watney is stranded when the crew mistakenly escapes without him. The Martian documents Watney’s survival techniques, whether it’s his protection from the elements or his ingenious use of (his own) human waste to grow food. Ultimately, the film is about our human connections, as Watney’s plight becomes a cause célèbre back on planet Earth. Though the final scenes are both emotionally overwrought and somewhat corny, they are also genuinely exciting and moving. The Martian delivers the fun and reminds us why we love the movies.

4. Brooklyn — This exquisite film is anchored by the lovely Saoirse Ronan, who plays Eilis, a young Irish woman who makes the difficult decision to move to America for a better life. The film documents her entry to the new world as sensitively as any since the Ellis Island scenes in The Godfather II. Eilis finds work through the patronage and guidance of her fellow Irish who had preceded her. She even falls in love with an unlikely Italian American (a career-making performance by Emory Cohen). But when a personal tragedy leads Eilis back to Ireland, she faces a personal crucible that teaches her the true meanings of home, country and identity. I don’t expect this flawless gem of a movie to win one Oscar, but let’s at least pay attention to its star. If you want to remember her name, just know that it’s pronounced “Ser-sha,” like inertia — indicative, I hope, of this talented actress’s momentum.

The Contenders
These last three films are my personal favorites, and I think they may also be the finalists for the top prize. If any one of these wins Best Picture, I’ll be pleased. 

3. Spotlight — It’s said a picture is worth a thousand words. Spotlight proves the opposite — that a superlative script is worth a thousand gratuitous visuals. It is about the Boston newspaper team that uncovered the child abuse scandal covered up by the archdiocese. 
But “uncover” may be too strong a word; the journalists more or less stumble upon the case, learning that the facts may have been under their noses for too long. On one hand, much of Spotlight is All the President’s Men for the 21st century, detailing the shoe-leather procedurals that slowly revealed the facts of the case. But on a deeper level, it is also about the complicity of so many Bostonians who may have turned their heads in an effort to leave well enough alone. That may be the illustrative point of this deceptively remarkable film. 

2. The Big Short — Hollywood should just take Michael Lewis’s manuscripts and make movies from them before they even go to press. After Moneyball and The Blind Side, Lewis’s books are clearly box office gold in the right hands. Director Adam McKay — a man known for such silliness as Anchorman I and II, Talladega Nights and Step Brothers — created this smart and fast-moving film about the collapse of the real estate market and the wise guys who capitalized on it. McKay’s many clever techniques to instruct the audience include subtitles, cutaways to instructional segments (Anthony Bourdain and a fish stew analogy! Margo Robby in a bubble bath!), even breaking the fourth wall, where characters turn mid-scene and address the audience directly. Mix in the imaginative editing that adds an urgent energy, and you have what is probably the best film ever about finances. The funniest, too. 

1. Mad Max: Fury Road — I tend not to like action films like these, but I was enthralled by George Miller's 21st century incarnation of his dystopian saga. This film was extremely well crafted, including the production design, the non-stop film & sound editing, and particularly the wonderful cinematography by Oscar-winner John Seale. Even though I predicted that The Revenant would be the film to beat for the cinematography Oscar, Seale's work is at least equal. 
Miller, like Ridley Scott, shows that directors can maintain their chops into their seventh decade. While some may be turned off by the cacophonous energy and visual onslaught of Mad Max, I encourage viewers to look past that and concentrate instead on the imagination and superb execution that Miller and his team brought to this ambitious and stunning piece of work.

So this was the list of nominees I had to work with. But I think the Academy blew it this year, so I am going to name my own best film of the year, which is…

INSIDE OUT
If movies’ goals are to make us see a compelling message, then Inside Out is this year’s most absorbing film. This remarkable, primary-hued romp is set inside the mind of Riley, an 11 year-old whose world is turned upside down after her father’s job forces her family to move from the familiar confines of Minnesota to the alien world of San Francisco. Well, actually, many of us know that the City by the Bay is spectacularly lovely… but not to this preteen whose fragile and still-developing psyche is not yet equipped to handle such change.

The script is smart, and it brings to life and to bright light the difficulties of preadolescent youth. It would be easy to dismiss the script as an adaptation of Psychology for Dummies. That would be too easy. It takes a lot of smarts to write a movie about such an arcane subject as the interior workings of the human mind, and an 11-year-old human mind at that. 
We encounter all this tumult among the avatars who live inside Riley’s head.  The leader is the indomitable Joy, joyfully voiced by the perfectly cast Amy Poehler. Bill Hader plays Fear, high strung, high energy and high maintenance. Mindy Kaling is Disgust, and who else could play Anger but Lewis Black, as volcanic on screen and aurally as he is on stage. Finally, there is Sadness, played by The Office’s Phyllis Smith. In many ways, she is the sweetest character in the film, loveable in her melancholy and giving voice to Riley’s most legitimate apprehensions. Though not one of Riley’s emotions, Richard Kind does a wonderful job playing Bing Bong, Riley’s imaginary childhood friend. This rainbow-colored elephant makes a surprise return when Riley needs him most, and I found this character most poignant.

Screenwriter Pete Docter, Meg LeFauve and Josh Cooley weave the inner workings of the mind into a kaleidoscopic amusement park filled with twists, turns and hidden dangers, much as you might find when you venture off the beaten path of a circus, behind the sideshow tents. Ostensibly for kids, I felt Inside Out’s emotions and insights were strictly for adults. There are moments when we older members of the audience are reminded of when we lost our childhood innocence. If you didn’t shed a tear during the third of this film, well, then, I don’t think I want to know you.

I know that Inside Out is up for best animated feature, and maybe I should be satisfied with that. But other animated features have been nominated for best film (e.g., the Toy Story sagas, Beauty and the Beast), so I contend that Inside Out was wrongfully snubbed this year. For its combination of insight, compassion, humor and intelligence, all made possible through sheer mastery of film, I say that Inside Out is the best film of the year, easily outclassing the other nominees that the Academy put up.

Well, I will be firmly on my sofa this Sunday night to see who wins what. I also look forward to seeing what Chris Rock brings to the event, especially in light of the ongoing diversity issue at the Oscars. I know that this year’s crop is a little substandard, but the Oscars are like sex: even when it’s mediocre, it’s still pretty good. Hooray for Hollywood.

Monday, February 16, 2015

2015’s Best Picture Nominations Mirror a Good Year for Movies

Since the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences expanded their nominees for the Best Picture Oscar from five to as many as ten in 2009, the list has sometimes seemed bloated to me. I mean, really, how many people remember A Serious Man from that year? But 2015 is different. I could make a case for any of the eight films that are nominated, each being worthy film achievements in their own rights. I don’t find one head-scratcher in the bunch, not a single one in which I said, “How did THAT sneak in?”

As in years past, I rank the nominated films, in ascending order. However, don’t take any individual position as a snub. Ranking these films is tantamount to comparing students who have earned an “A” with a grade of 90 versus a 99. The only distinction is my #1 film, which I believe is not only far and away the best film of this year but one that is a groundbreaker that will stand the test of time.

Again, these are not my predictions for the Oscar, just the way I would arrange them on a cinematic continuum. I’m confident that the final awards will be different, but I’m also confident that, regardless of the outcome, no selection will be undeserved, regardless of how surprising it may be.

8. The Theory of Everything — In the tradition of My Left Foot and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, James Marsh’s keenly felt and sensitive film about Stephen Hawking puts us in the center of a man’s debilitation. Marsh’s storytelling moves tidily into Hawking’s courtship of his wife, Jane (exquisitely, delicately portrayed by Felicity Jones), the discovery of Hawking’s ALS, and Jane’s decision to marry him anyway, determined to enjoy whatever time they have. As we proceed through their difficult life together, Eddie Redmayne, in the title role, gives an excruciating performance, one that I predict will get the Best Actor Oscar. Redmayne evokes nuances that only a most disciplined actor could achieve. I only wish that this film’s definition of “...Everything” included Hawking’s actual theories and how they illuminated physics for so many people. That would have made this fine film more complete for me.

7. American Sniper — Clint Eastwood shows yet again why he is one of our finest directors over the last 35 years. This portrait of Chris Kyle, the eponymous sniper, takes us into the psyche of a soldier with a specific and unique role in warfare. The combat scenes are tense at times, harrowing at others, but always realist. Bradley Cooper, bulked up for the role, can now be recognized as one of the more versatile actors of his generation with his third consecutive Oscar nomination. (By the way, how was the wonderful Sienna Miller overlooked for her portrayal of Kyle’s loving but suffering wife?) Forget the phony debate of whether this is a prowar or antiwar film. It is a look at a man who fulfilled his duty to country distinctively.

6. Boyhood — I knew a film director who, when asked what he did for a living, said “I manipulate time and space.” Richard Linklater proves this view with Boyhood. It is the story of Mason, told over 12 actual years, which lets the film’s characters age in real time. Linklater’s commitment to this innovative technique is marked by his devotion to craft. The consistency in characterization, performance, even film stock, is remarkable. Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette give loving performances as Mason’s parents, and Arquette seems to be a lock for a Supporting Actress Oscar. For me, the one downfall is the story itself, which I found wanting. Many have excused this aspect, saying Boyhood shows the ordinariness of life. Yes, a story in any medium can show the mundane, but it should also have a dramatic arc. This deficiency diminished Boyhood for me.

5. The Imitation Game — This remarkable story of how mathematician and cryptologist Alan Turning helped break the Nazis’ Enigma code unfolds in a roundabout way that illustrates the injustice shown its subject. The film begins with Turing’s arrest for homosexuality, and only as the police investigation unfolds do we learn of Turing’s titanic contribution to the Allied war effort. Benedict Cumberbatch, in a magnificent and heartbreaking performance, portrays Turing as a guy who didn’t fit in with others, even as he towered over them in intellect, leadership and achievements. Though the film’s subject of computer science could have been arcane, director Morten Tydlum makes it accessible and comprehensible to the audience (a contrast to the treatment of Stephen Hawking’s scientific work in The Theory of Everything). In the end, we are confounded with how such an important and valuable human being could have been so mistreated simply for being who he was.

4. Whiplash — Andrew Neimann (Miles Teller) is a promising young drummer honing his craft at a New York conservatory of jazz. He comes under the tutelage of Terrence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons, in the performance of a lifetime), the revered and feared bandleader. Neimann comes to be terrorized by Fletcher, whose motives are not made clear: Is he pursuing perfection at all costs? Or is he merely a controlling sadist? Miles Teller shines as Neimann, fulfilling the promise he showed as a teenage alcoholic in The Spectacular Now. But Whiplash belongs to Simmons, and he is practically assured an Oscar for his performance. Writer/director Damien Chazelle emerges as a talent as auspicious as Andrew. While the third act strains credibility (a shortcoming in the screenplay), the overall film explodes with a kinetic intensity that I have rarely seen. Whiplash is a unique vision by an emergent talent.

3. Selma —One scene defined Selma for me: Martin Luther King (wonderfully portrayed by David Oyelowo), on his way to Selma to capture the vote for African Americans, stops with his lieutenants at a friend’s home for breakfast. They savor the meal laid out for them, laughing and relaxing as only good friends do. In a single stroke, director Ava DuVernay shows the humanity of those who led the civil rights movement, making them more than plaster saints. DuVernay, a one-time documentarian, imbues Selma with a sense of authenticity rarely seen in historical films. Her King is not only regal, but flawed (his adulteries are referenced) and given to uncertainty. How DuVernay could have been passed over for Best Director in favor of  Bennett Miller’s somnambulant helming of Foxcatcher is beyond me. Her work on Selma breathed new life into a story that is already a familiar part of the American canon, casting it in a fresh light.

2. The Grand Budapest Hotel — Jean-Luc Godard said “cinema is the most beautiful fraud in the world.” I prefer to think of movies as a place where we create exquisite illusions. Given that, The Grand Budapest Hotel was one of the most delightful films I saw all year — a concoction of artifice and whimsy, centered on an imaginary Eastern European country that must fight for its existence. The unconventional visual style of the movie unfolds more like a storyboard or a comic strip, which is the very antithesis of filmmaking, but Anderson makes it all work. I have not always found Wes Anderson’s styles endearing (The Fantastic Mr. Fox, yes. Moonrise Kingdom, no). But The Grand Budapest Hotel was a treat for me, a break from the familiar tropes of conventional filmmaking and one of the most imaginative films of 2014.

1. Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) — Film critic Godfrey Cheshire once said of Citizen Kane, Orson Welles's masterpiece, that it had “the epic collision of talent and ambition…. It exudes the wonder and thrill of artistic discovery, the giddiness of high-stakes daring, the narcissistic pull of power, fame and youthful self-regard.” I would apply these same words to Birdman, an audacious film that takes us into the state of mind of a desperate man, Riggan Thompson, an actor once famous for the Birdman superhero franchise, Today, years after he abdicated that role, Thompson is going for broke, betting all his remaining cash and the remnants of his reputation on a single roll of the dice. And like his film’s main character, director Alejandro G. Innaritu pulls out the stops, innovating story-telling techniques that will influence films for years to come.

As I watched Birdman, I couldn’t believe the long tracking shots, wondering when they would end. (Could they go on forever? They seemed as if they would.) Not merely a novelty, these seemingly inexhaustible shots informed the desperation of the main character and the chaos in the Broadway show that he was staging in this last gasp of his career. One must not overlook the practical challenges Innaritu faced in executing such shots; one error by an actor reciting a line, one inadvertent intrusion by an errant camera operator, and it all starts at the beginning. Yet the director pulled it all off, completing the film within a tight budget and a tighter deadline. 

Equally daring was the unusual score of the film, a driving piece of percussion performed on a single set of drums. I haven’t heard such a choice since the 1950s (e.g., Sweet Smell of Success), and it works. Such cinematic sleight of hand hangs together on the screen through Michael Keaton, giving the most physically demanding performance I saw this year. He appears in nearly every frame, so the success of Birdman depends on him. Keaton blurs the lines between sanity and madness continuously, letting us see every stage of Riggan Thompson abjection as he strains to regain relevance. For me, Keaton’s performance is the best of the year, a tour de force that plumbs the depths of his talent and the breadth of his risk taking. (How many other actors would allow themselves to be photographed on the streets of New York in their tidy whities?)

Innaritu has already won top prize of the Director’s Guild of America, and I believe he will repeat at the Oscars. It would be just. Birdman is an exhilarating work that shows us what film is capable of accomplishing, as it cuts across time, through space, and even in and out of sanity. It is the best film of the year, the best film of the last few years, and I expect it will be viewed as the best film of many years to come.

Those are my thoughts in this excellent year. I look forward to the actual awards on February 22. The beauty of this year’s ceremony is that the auditorium will be filled with winners, regardless of whomever Oscar blesses as his final choice.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

From Space to the Ocean to Nebraska: Ranking the Oscar-nominated Films

The Academy Awards are this weekend, and the Big One is up for grabs. 


For the last few years, I have praised the new and improved Oscar system for nominating strong films beyond the traditional “five films” in the Best Picture category. However, I think the Academy regressed this year, as there are some real clunkers among the nominees. I think they could have cited fewer films than they did. Still there are two or three strong contenders slugging it out for the top prize, and I would be happy if any of them won. 

So here is my annual ranking of the nominated films — nine this year — in ascending order. For those who are new to my annual exercise in arrogance, here are the rules: 

  • These are not my predictions, just my choices. 
  • This list does not necessarily comprise my personal picks for the best films of the year. I am simply ranking the Academy’s nominees. There are films I thought merited consideration as "best film" that are not on this list. 
  • I rank these according to my perception of their entertainment value, the attention to craft, and most important, innovation and uniquely cinematic quality, challenging my long-held notions of cinema.. Or as the great Roger Ebert used to put it, a film that made him look at film a new way.


This year, I think there is such a disparity in quality among the nominees that I have grouped the nine into three broad categories: How was this thing ever considered a ‘best film;” the worthy- efforts-that-are-not-great-in-the-end; and the films that are probably already classics and will be appreciated for years to come.

THE HEAD-SCRATCHERS

9. Nebraska — I saw this film as a sneak preview at a local art house, long before the award seasons began. I thought, “Boy, director Alexander Payne really sleep-walked through this one. Bruce Dern’s initials could stand for ‘brain dead,’ as he is practically inert in this performance. This woman playing Dern’s wife (June Squibb) is a rank amateur; this must be her first film. But Will Forte does an admirable job playing Dern’s son. A nice turn by an actor we don’t know. I hope he is recognized for his efforts.”
Now imagine my reaction when the nominations came out and everyone BUT Forte received nods. This thing was a bewildering disappointment to me — a thin story brought to life in a plodding production. I think the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce should sue for defamation of character.


8. Philomena — Dame Judi Dench plays Philomena Lee, an Irish woman searching for her long-lost son. The boy was taken from Philomena by the nuns who boarded her after she became pregnant. In this movie, the sisters perpetrated innumerable sins against poor Philomena, but none as heinous as those committed by the screenwriters. There is no dramatic arc to this story, which hits its peak early with heartbreaking scenes in which Philomena’s son is taken by a rich family to America. Afterward, the film is populated by scenes in which Dench plays… well, basically, she plays the same precious, twittery Judi Dench we have seen in countless other movies over the last 15 years. I believe a Best Picture should show cinematic freshness. If not that, at least it should show exceptional craft. This film was created the originality of a paint-by-numbers work.

7. Her — This movie is an overlong, somnambulant musing on a simple premise (and to my mind, one not so profound or original): What would happen if we made a computer operating system that was so smart that we could engage with it? And what if some imminent nebbish took the bait and fell in love with said software, in this case, his smart phone? I once saw a Twilight Zone episode in which a computer fell in love with Wally Cox, and that show had more to say about human/computer love in its allotted 30 minutes than Her did in 126.
And when will this unspecified future time be? It was so similar to our current time, that I thought this vague “future” would occur in the next nine days. Woody Allen did a better job conjuring the world-to-come in his hilarious Sleeper. Her was a major disappointment for me, given the possibilities the theme presented. Additionally, it wastes a thoughtful and elegiac performance by Joaquin Phoenix


(For my money, here are three films that would have deserved a Best Picture nomination more than the three above: Fruitvale Station, Blue Jasmine and Mud.) 

CLOSE BUT NO CIGAR

6. Captain Phillips — Oh, Tom Hanks, how do we love thee? Let us count the ways. Just when you think that this guy has played out his string, and there are no more decent all-Americans/ AIDS-afflicted noblemen/lucky idiot savants that he can play, and maybe, just maybe, we can't even accept him any longer as Woody in Toy Story X… well, then he plays Captain Richard Phillips, who must protect his crew of a commercial ship from modern day pirates. And once again, Mr. Hanks pulls more tricks out of his hat to give us insight into this ordinary man who overcomes an extraordinary situation.
The entire production is guided by the wonderful Paul Greengrass, the director who was able to give an urgent realism to United 93, the story of the hijacked plane that would be doomed on 9/11. Unfortunately, Captain Phillips’s script runs out of gas about three-quarters of the way through the film, and Greengrass pads the film unnecessarily. While this movie had much potential, I rank it as a a near-miss. 


5. Dallas Buyers Club — Ron Woodroof is a most unlikely hero. He is a part-time rodeo rider and homophobe with poor personal habits, who also practices indiscriminate, unprotected (heterosexual) sex. The last point catches up with him when he is unexpectedly diagnosed with AIDS. In fact the disease is so advanced at the time of diagnosis that his doctor gives him 30 days to “get your affairs in order.” Ron turns out to be smarter and tougher than we think, and so begins his remarkable journey to get medicine for himself and, over time, others suffering from this modern-day plague.
Matthew McConaughey gives a career-defining (or is it career-reviving?) performance as the real-life Woodroof. Even more stirring is Jared Leto, who plays the transgender, HIV-infected woman named Rayon in a performance that has won him nearly every award except the Lombardi Trophy. He is as close to a shoo-in for an Oscar this year as I have ever seen, and I am cheering for him myself. Unfortunately, this hard-core movie has a mushy center, when Woodroof’s business dealings become too tedious to watch. Still, this is a worthwhile film about a shameful period in our recent history, a time when AIDS was running rampant in this country and few people cared because "they" were getting it.


4. The Wolf of Wall Street — I think I liked this movie when I saw it before, except it was named Goodfellas back then. Still, Martin Scorsese proves that he has the juice at age 71 with this biopic about Jordan Belfort, a financial investor scumbag who lines his pockets with the money of sucker investors he has essentially victimized. 
This movie wants to rock and roll all night with scenes about cocaine, hookers, various levels of infidelity, and many more examples of wretched excess. The problem is that The Wolf of Wall Street is too long by half, and that blunts the power of Scorsese’s mastery. Still, the movie is distinctive for its energetic performances, particularly those by Jonah Hill and Leonardo DiCaprio. Hill builds upon his breakthrough performance in Moneyball , portraying  Donnie Azoff, a wiseguy cipher who comes apart when ill-gotten money flows into his life. Hill can kiss his teenage "everyboy" roles goodbye, as this movie vaults him into the front ranks of modern day character actors. DiCaprio’s performance is absolutely revelatory as he brings an unforeseen energy and comic timing to his role as Belfort. Watch in particular the scene when he tries to go down a flight of stairs and drive home under the influence of Quaaludes. It was probably the best physical comedy I have seen from an actor since Steve Martin was inhabited by Lily Tomlin’s spirit in All of Me.

THE FINALISTS

I am finding it difficult to pick the one film from these last three nominees that should be named "Best Picture." They are all superb. Let it suffice to say that I will be pleased if any one of them (or even any TWO of them) picks up the top Oscar on March 2.

3. 12 Years a Slave — That this horrific story is true makes 12 Years a Slave  even more powerful than a depiction of slavery may have been. Imagine that you are a free man; being sold as a slave would be just about the last thing you would imagine. That is the story of Solomon Northrup, a professional musician and middle-class citizen of Saratoga Springs, N.Y., who is drugged and awakes to being bound in a dank cell. So begins an ordeal that happened to him only because of his skin color. 
While the graphic physical abuse in the film was profoundly disturbing, it was actually the ongoing indignities that affected me more, because many of us take decent treatment for granted. So imagine being slapped merely for responding to a white, low-level functionary. Or watching a slave boy who is up for sale show off his physical abilities as though he were a prize horse. There was the subtly demeaning confrontation Northrup had with his owner (a manic, irrational Michael Fassbender in another fine performance) when the possibility that Solomon could read and write is uncovered. All of these add up to a Bedlam that would have destroyed a lesser man. 
Solomon’s character is made more vivid by the brilliance of Chiwetel Ejiofor, who I believe has actually been underrated for his finely nuanced performance. Consider all the changes to Solomon’s character, going from content family man, to frightened and bewildered prisoner, to a survivor. For me, Ejiofor earned my fictional vote during a scene when he is forced to whip another slave. The look on his face and his body language portrayed a man who had lost his soul along the way just so he could live another day. Ejiofor is my personal choice for Best Actor. Perhaps he would have had a better chance at the top prize if he had lost 41 pounds for his role. 

2. Gravity — It is a wonder that this riveting spectacle never turned into an audio-visual cartoon. Credit for that goes to director Alfonso Cuarón. This man is not a newcomer, as he showed us his prodigious talent in the underseen masterpiece, Children of Men. In that film, Cuarón portrayed a dystopian future (one more clearly illustrated than Her, I might add) in which there is no hope because no children are being conceived. Gravity  also gives us a hopeless situation when astronauts George Clooney (ever handsome, charming and commanding) and Sandra Bullock (the accessible everywoman, once again in a wonderful performance) face their destinies as a result of a space accident. 
No time is wasted on exposition here. We viewers are thrust into the story at the get-go as though on booster rockets, and we hang on, white knuckles and all, until the triumphant end. As Ang Lee did last year with Life of Pi, Cuarón takes control from the beginning and never lets us go, exhibiting mastery both of his technical cinematic craft and the art of storytelling. He is sure to win a well-deserved Oscar for his direction. I also believe that this is the film that will take home Best Picture, also deserved.  
     
1. American Hustle — This film ended up at the top of my heap after a lot of consideration for one simple reason, one I state every year in this blog: American Hustle expanded my view of the possibilities of cinema. Yes, 12 Years a Slave tackled the sensitive topic of slavery, but anyone who says a film like this has never been done before hasn't seen the classic mini-series, Roots. Gravity is an exciting space adventure, but let’s be honest. Stanley Kubrick laid down the template for this film with 2001: A Space Odyssey. And he did it in 1968 — 45 years ago — with more vision and much less technology available to him. American Hustle used the Abscam debacle of the 1970s to show the foolishness of government and the banality that lurks in the hearts of our elected officials as well as our criminals. Underneath all that snarky, sarcastic tomfoolery was some very sad truths about human behavior.
David O. Russell is not my darling as he is to so many reviewers. For example, I found The Fighter obvious and tedious, filled with overwrought acting. But as Russell showed us in Silver Linings Playbook, he is a damned good director of actors. He proves it again here, coaxing four Oscar-nominated performances from his cast (the always amazing Christian Bale; Amy Adams, who seems incapable of a bad performance; Bradley Cooper, who seems to be growing in stature before our eyes; and the luminous Jennifer Lawrence, who imbues her floozy character in American Hustle with a delightfully comic approach.) There were also countless supporting players, and I make special note of Louis C.K., who was terrific as a hapless government agent who was Cooper's character's nemesis. 
American Hustle is a modern-day comedy of manners, and it does not speak well of the manner in which we conduct ourselves. The film is full of laughs, but many of them are at our own expense.

Okay, I take off my reviewer’s hat for another year. This should be another fun year. I am predicting that, other than Gravity picking up many technical awards, the honors will be spread around a bit this year. And why did I suggest above that TWO films may take home the Best Picture award? Because the voting promises to be that close. (For the record, the Producers Guild Award went to Gravity and 12 Years a Slave. Perhaps the Academy will call it a draw, too.)

I look forward to this ceremony as I almost always do. So don’t call me the night of March 2. I will be transfixed by the pomp and splendor once again, and reviving my love for the movies. I hope you will enjoy the ceremony, too.