Animated Features 2014

The DVD of The Tale of Princess Kaguya came in the mail Friday and after having watched it, I can now comment on this category. They’ve been handing out Oscars for Animated Features since 2001 and it has always had a probationary feel to it for me, like they could cancel the category at any time. It was created in those heady days when we in this country were just discovering anime from Studio Ghibli and Pixar was flexing its muscles. The great Disney renaissance with The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast was not that many years in the past. There was talk of films like Toy Story getting a Best Picture nomination. Nowadays, however, Pixar has stumbled, Miyazaki has retired, and Disney only puts out a traditional ink and paint feature every few years and it can’t be counted on to be a masterpiece every single time. Sadly no one has stepped forward to fill these voids and I fear we are entering a fallow period. I suppose that there have been years when no live action film has been worthy of Best Picture, but with my confidence in the infallibility of Pixar shaken, I think the drought for animated films could last a good long time.
In any case, none of the films nominated for this year’s award are great. Most of them don’t even achieve good. The Boxtrolls is a movie for kids who like gross humor. Song of the Sea is pleasant enough, but hardly inspiring. The Tale of Princess Kaguya is long and slow and the payoff at the climax isn’t really worth the wait. Big Hero 6 is an unimaginative dip into the superhero genre by Disney. This leaves us with How to Train Your Dragon 2 as my pick, simply because I didn’t dislike it as much as the competition. The first one was good but it had the misfortune to come out in the same year as Toy Story 3.
Ugh. Hopefully, I’m wrong and there will be better years ahead.

Oscar Picks 2014

I was in pretty good shape when they announced the nominations on January 15. There were only four films I had to see. The worrying thing was that there was a firm opening date on only one of them, Still Alice. Fortunately I discovered a theater down in Raleigh that was showing Two Days, One Night, so the Best Actress category is covered.
The problem is Animated Feature. I was hoping that The Tale of Princess Kaguya, which is being released on DVD today, would be available to stream on Amazon Prime or iTunes, but alas it is not. So I am going to release this without commenting on Animated Feature. If I get the chance to see that last one, I’ll release my thought in a separate entry. Based on the four entries I’ve seen to date, it doesn’t look like a good year for Animated Features anyway.
By the way, if you live in the Triangle, keep an eye on the Raleigh Grande 16. Mostly it shows the usual mainstream fare, but it also devotes one or two screens to independent or foreign films, often getting them before the Carolina or the Chelsea. They had Foxcatcher a month before it opened in Durham and Two Days, One Night still hasn’t opened up here. It doesn’t replace the old Galaxy Theater, but it does provide another option.
Anyway, on to the picks. I remind you as always that these are not predictions. If you need help with your office pool, go to Goldderby.com. They do a great job and they are the main reason I have so few films to see when the nominations are announced. What I do is select the films that I would give the Oscar to.

Supporting Actress
Since we already knew Meryl Streep could sing, I don’t believe she is really stretching that much in Into the Woods. It’s a fun and fine performance but there are better ones in this category. Laura Dern is barely in Wild, appearing only in flashbacks. It’s fine as far as it goes but there needs to be more. Keira Knightley gives a good, conventional performance in The Imitation Game. To me it didn’t really stand out.
So it comes down to Patricia Arquette and Emma Stone. Arquette has that toughest of all acting jobs in Boyhood, playing an ordinary person with few quirks, eccentricities or flamboyant insanities. What’s more, she had to keep her through line alive throughouy the twelve year shooting schedule, showing her character’s growth, while keeping her the same character. I won’t be upset if she wins.
I’d give it to Emma Stone, however. Her performance in Birdman is riveting as she captures the acidic resentment of her recovering addict character along with the vulnerability of a daughter trying to decide if she wants her father back in her life, and a young girl still naïve enough to have her head turned by a pretentious actor. You can’t take your eyes off her, even though you don’t really like the character.

Supporting Actor
Robert Duvall phoned in his performance in The Judge. He did well but we’ve seen it before. His nomination is for being Robert Duvall, just as Meryl Streep’s is for being who she is. The only thing I would point out is that when they get nominated for these unchallenging roles, some other deserving actor whose career could use a boost gets left out.
Of the rest of the performances there are three that are great and deserving and one that is for the ages. Mark Ruffalo gives us a convincing portrayal of a competent older brother who seemingly has all the answers in Foxcatcher. For Birdman, Edward Norton plays that pretentious actor who likes to stir things up, by either being difficult or provocative and even though this is probably not far from who Edward Norton actually is, he deserves praise for getting it on screen so well. Ethan Hawke’s role in Boyhood, like Patricia Arquette’s isn’t very flashy but that’s what makes it a challenge. He does a tremendous job of showing his character maturing into his role as a father.
But J.K. Simmons will and should win. He casts aside his amiable image to give us a fire-breathing, manipulative antagonist in Whiplash. The only argument you can make for him to not win it is that his role is arguably a lead.

Best Actress
Let’s face it: If an upset of biblical proportions happens and Julianne Moore doesn’t win this category, the angels will weep. She delivers a transcendent performance that completely overpowers a flawed script and saves the movie.
That’s not to say the other performances are unworthy. This is a very strong category this year. Rosamund Pike leads us through the twists and turns of Gone Girl’s plot with unsavory glee. Felicity Jones gives us the remarkably strong woman behind the great man in The Theory of Everything. Marion Cotillard plays an insecure woman desperately trying to save her job in Two Days, One Night. And finally Reese Witherspoon gives a brave performance about a woman trying to atone for her mistakes and heal herself by hiking the Pacific Crest Trail.
Unfortunately for all those other woman, their great performances come in the same year as a transcendent one. Julianne Moore will and should win.

Best Actor
This is the deepest category. Any of these performances would be a good choice. I didn’t care for American Sniper but Bradley Cooper did a great job of immersing himself into his character. He really transcended a flawed script. Plus he abandoned the tics and mannerisms that he’s relied on for the past few years.
In contrast Benedict Cumberbatch gives us a character in The Imitation Game that does not differ much from work he’s done in the past. But he is so good at playing the smartest person in the room, that it’s a joy to watch. And there actually are subtle differences between his Alan Turing and his Sherlock Holmes that he captures expertly.
Steve Carell’s role in Foxcatcher is a real eye-opener. He leaves behind his comic persona and portrays a man whose formative experiences are so different that he’s emotionally opaque. Rich people don’t even go nuts the same way we do.
Eddie Redmayne’s portrayal of Stephen Hawking is both technically accomplished and emotionally moving. He captures Hawking at every stage of his adult life, from cocky young undergrad to the respected scientist and scholar who is rendered unable to talk. All this while making him appealing.
But if it were up to me, the Oscar would go to Michael Keaton. His sad sack actor/playwright is a finely drawn portrait of a man pushed to the edge by the artistic constraints the entertainment industry is putting on him. Keaton has always excelled at playing people who were mad or on the brink of madness, but always in a quirky or eccentric manner. This madness is a little more realistic.
I will say that David Oyelowo should have been in this group for his powerful portrayal of Martin Luther King in Selma. I’m not sure which of the above performances you eliminate but he needs to be in here.

Best Director
Foxcatcher, The Grand Budapest Hotel, and The Imitation Game are all conventionally structured and filmed. The directing challenges do not extend beyond the normal ones faced in any film. That’s not to downplay those challenges. In The Grand Budapest Hotel, Wes Anderson continues to hone his peculiar style into something very special. He’s been doing this for quite a while and still gets better with every film. Bennett Miller got some great performances out of his actors in Foxcatcher and the same can be said for Morten Tyldum in The Imitation Game.
The nature of Boyhood, however, demands that Richard Linklater gain special mention. Filming a movie over the span of 12 years is something of a stunt but imagine the risks in a project like this. Someone could have died, or simply quarreled with the director and refused to do the scenes set in later years. That kid could have grown up to be a bad actor. Plus keeping a stylistic continuity over all those years had to be hellishly difficult even for Linklater who has a pretty consistent style in all his movies.
I’d give it to Inarritu for Birdman, even though I’ve kidded him all these years over his dark outlook on life. Those long tracking shots are technically difficult and his cast is so well rehearsed that they never miss their marks and never lose track of their characters either. It is a remarkable achievement.

Best Picture
American Sniper is a flawed film and does not belong in this category. Likewise I would not have included Boyhood. Call me old fashioned but I like a plot, especially in a film that runs almost three hours.
The other six titles all sort of clump together in my mind. Not in tone, mind you but in that I really can’t eliminate them for the big award for any reason that I can articulate. They are all fine films.
Whiplash, Birdman and The Grand Budapest Hotel are not your traditional Oscar fare. They don’t deal with weighty social issues or tell the story of a protagonist overcoming disability to achieve greatness. Still I would not be upset to see any of them win.
The remaining three are traditional Oscar bait but we shouldn’t hold that against them. A year or so ago, I used my Netflix subscription to see all the Best Picture winners that I hadn’t already seen. The thing that struck me was how consistent the type of film that wins is. Wings, the first winner, is a sprawling epic about war and love. Even though it’s silent, it feels very familiar. There have been outliers, of course, but for the most part, Hollywood’s tastes haven’t changed. This is the type of film that the Oscars were created to celebrate.
Selma deals with the most important issues. It is also a well-directed film with tremendous performances and visuals. The Theory of Everything is the most inspirational with a great technically difficult performance at its core. The Imitation Game deals with World War II and the treatment of gay people, so it has those issues going for it. And when it comes down to it that is the film I enjoyed the most, so it gets the nod.

So that’s it. As usual, pop some popcorn, and enjoy the ceremony.

Song of the Sea

In this gentle ink and paint animated feature, Ben, voiced by David Rawle and Saoirse, voiced by Lucy O’Connell, are two siblings living in a lighthouse on a remote island off the coast of Ireland in the 80’s with their father Conor, voiced by Brenden Gleeson. Their mother seemingly died giving birth to the younger Saoirse and Ben has never forgiven his sister for this. Yet they are united when their grandmother, voiced by Fionnula Flanagan, takes them away from their childhood home to live with her in the city.
Saoirse discovers that her mother was a selkie, a being that is a seal in the water and a human on land. It turns out that when there was trouble with the pregnancy the mother, Bronagh, voice by Lisa Hannigan had to return to the sea and deliver Saoirse as a seal. The girl was born with a white coat that marks her as a selkie as well. Her father keeps it locked away in a trunk.
It also turns out that Macha, some kind of Gaelic god has been turning the faery folk into stone by stealing their souls so they can’t feel emotion. Saoirse can turn them back if she wears the coat and sings a special song. The problem is that she is six years old and hasn’t spoken yet. The children must find their way home to retrieve the coat and save the faeries.
This is a pleasant enough confection, very much for children. The animation is basic and stylized, using blocky shapes and sharp edges. The children are sympathetic and the villains are not too scary.
It didn’t really leave much of a mark on me but I’m not the intended audience.

Still Alice

I wish they’d stop making these things.
Playing characters with handicaps has always been a near sure fire way to get an Academy Award nomination and lately it seems the handicap of choice is dementia. Now I don’t begrudge Julianne Moore the Oscar that she is undoubtedly going to win one week from tonight. Her body of work is one of the most impressive in film history and she probably should have won one long before now. But like I said in my review of Amour I went through this with my mother and I really don’t like watching movies about it. Unfortunately, I can’t ignore a Best Actress nomination, and so here we go.
Alice Howland is a celebrated linguistics professor who has a loving husband and grown children. Hers is an almost ideal life. That is until she starts to forget words. After a while it becomes obvious that something is wrong. She goes to a neurologist, at first without telling her husband John, played by Alec Baldwin, and is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease.
This is not a happy tale, nor is it a medical drama, where they are racing to find a cure. There is no cure. Despite what we are told in creative writing classes and books it is possible to make these kinds of plots work. But unfortunately, the filmmakers fail at this. This is mainly because they chose Alice to be the viewpoint character. At the beginning this is fine, because Julianne Moore captures the terror of someone gradually realizing that something is horribly wrong. This is mixed in with the guilt that comes with the realization that her form of Alzheimer’s is genetic and that she has passed it on to at least one of her children. Her struggle to remain independent, using her smart phone as a peripheral brain and other strategies is heroic.
But as the disease progresses and Alice’s perceptions of the world get more disjointed, the plot falls apart. We see John separating himself from the situation, taking a job in Minnesota, but we don’t feel it, because Alice can’t feel it. At this point her life becomes a sort of montage, snippets of scenes that don’t leave any trace on her because she won’t remember them.
The other performances are fine. Alec Baldwin turns in his usual good job. Kristen Stewart is good as Lydia, the youngest daughter who wants to be an actress. Kate Bosworth is the oldest daughter and the one who knows that she has the gene. She’s good when she’s in the film but really isn’t in it enough.
So what we’re left with here is a transcendent performance wrapped in a mediocre film. Which is actually fine by me. I’m not sure I could handle a great film on this subject.

Two Days, One Night

Things are tough all over. I gather they are tough in Belgium anyway, because directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have made a film about a young mother named Sandra, played by Marion Cotillard, who is in danger of losing her job at a solar panel company. Sandra struggles with depression and is set to come back from extended sick leave. In her absence, the company has discovered that they can get by with one less person. So they present this choice to their workers: bring Sandra back or forego their bonuses for the year. They take a vote on Friday, which doesn’t go Sandra’s way. Sandra and another supporter at the company convince the manager to hold one more vote on Monday. She has the weekend to change enough minds to keep her job.
You see the danger here, right? This is a repetitive plot. The movie is a series of very similar conversations. In lesser hands it could become boring. The filmmakers even emphasize this. In every conversation, Sandra explains the situation. And these are scenes, not a montage. They even exchange pleasantries, saying, “Hello,” and “Have a good weekend.” During the few phone calls, they say goodbye to each other. You almost never see that in movies and TV, because it slows the pace too much.
What saves this movie is the acting, specifically Marion Cotillard’s. She shows us a woman, not only struggling with her unfair situation but with her own demons. Sandra hates doing this; every conversation takes something out of her. When her coworkers get upset or start arguing with her or even get blubbery when explaining why they need the bonus, her instinct is to quit. Her mood shifts with the outcomes of the conversations. When they go her way, she smiles and is optimistic; when they don’t she pops some more Xanax and curls up in the passenger’s seat in the car, while her longsuffering husband, Manu, played by Fabrizio Rongione, worries about her.
The most impressive thing is that you don’t really like Sandra. She’s a bit whiny. And yet Cotillard makes you care about what happens to her. Much of the camera time is spent in close-ups of her expressive face.
In a film like this, you wouldn’t expect there to be much in the way of inspiring visuals. But once again the Dardenne’s emphasize what could have been a weakness. The composition of the shots is cluttered, showing telephone poles and the rundown exteriors of the houses, emphasizing the mundane details of lower middle class life in Belgium.
About halfway through the film, I noticed that when the conversation wasn’t going Sandra’s way, they would compose the shot so that a vertical line would separate her from the other person, usually a doorway or the corner of a building. It may be a little obvious but it’s an interesting use of the camera in what could have been a visually uninteresting film.
I have a few gripes. Manu, her husband is a little too saintly. It’s hard to imagine anybody in that situation not getting a little impatient with her. I won’t spoil it but there is something that happens towards the end that strains credibility.
But overall Two Days One Night is a very good film.

American Sniper

The reluctance that Hollywood showed in making Vietnam movies in the immediate wake of that war does not seem to have carried over to the Iraq War. There are probably many reasons for this but I think the biggest one is that there is no longer a draft and most people don’t know anyone involved in the war. We are removed from the pain of the experience. The reality is very much like watching a movie for most of us. This actually becomes an issue for those who do our fighting. Because when these soldiers come home and they don’t see coverage of the war on the news and they see people going about their business, not apparently realizing that they are living in a country at war, they become confused. This disconnect may be unparalleled in military history.
American Sniper is based on the memoir of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, played by Bradley Cooper. Kyle grows up in the Texas back country, and learns to hunt and shoot at an early age. He has a natural talent for it. Throughout his twenties he makes a living as a rodeo rider. When he’s thirty years old in 1998, our embassies in Tanzania and Kenya are attacked by terrorists and he enlists, becoming a SEAL and a sniper. His unit gets word they are being shipped out on his wedding day.
In all he serves four tours, protecting Marine units on the dangerous streets of Iraqi towns. He’s good at this, and the other soldiers call him “The Legend.” The enemy puts a price on his head. That and the difficult decisions he has to make about whether to shoot or not when women and children can be combatants take their toll. Kyle finds it difficult to cope with life at home.
First of all let me say that Bradley Cooper reminds us that he’s a pretty good actor here. He sheds the tics and mannerisms that he employs in his last two David O. Russell films to give us a fully inhabited performance. You forget that it’s Bradley Cooper. He also puts nuance into the performance despite a script that lacks it.
Clint Eastwood, the director, is a reactionary old buzzard but he knows how to direct a film. If he wants to make a pro-Iraq war movie, that’s his prerogative. It’s disappointing to me, however, that he gives the other side of the argument such short shrift. While this isn’t exactly Eastwood’s The Green Berets, it’s not a fair portrayal of the issues. I expected more from him.
The greatest sin, however, is that American Sniper is such a flawed movie. The problem is the schizophrenic script. On the one hand you have the drama of a soldier dealing with PTSD and it does a pretty good job of bringing up the issues of how we treat veterans. On the other hand, it’s a war story with an almost comic book plot of questing for revenge against the enemy sniper that killed members of their unit. These two elements never really fit together well in the film. It almost feels like two movies edited together. The pace flags because the plot structures are so convoluted, something I never expected to see in an Eastwood directed movie.
One thing is for certain: there will be other films about Iraq and some of those will criticize our involvement in the war. My guess is the more we talk about these issues the better. That’s the good thing about making movies about it. It gives us an opportunity to talk.

Selma

Martin Luther King is one of those historical figures that seem to transcend their own humanity, in that it is hard to think of him as a human being with frailties and faults. We are so used to revering him as an icon on the same level as Lincoln or Washington that we ignore his faults. I think this makes his story harder to understand.
It must be very difficult to play such a figure in a movie but that is the task that confronts David Oyelowo. He plays Dr. King in the summer of 1965 as he is planning a march from Selma to Montgomery Alabama to draw attention and support for the Voting Rights Act. This is necessary because President Lyndon Johnson, played by Tom Wilkinson, is reluctant to support it, having just passed an anti-segregation act and wanting to launch his war on poverty. King is determined to force the President’s hand. By the way there is some controversy about that plot point. But for the purposes of reviewing the movie we’ll let it pass.
The performances are all rock solid. Oyelowo captures the essence of Dr. King rather than giving us an exact impersonation. He depicts a man with an acute awareness of his place in history and a growing realization of the price he is about to pay. King feels the weight of the expectations of his people and he shoulders the load willingly but not without regret. He is also a very smart man who knows how to use the media to advance his cause and makes no apologies for employing those tactics. It is a nuanced and very fine performance.
Dr. King’s is the only fully fleshed character in the film. Tom Wilkinson gives us only a sketch of Johnson. Likewise Tim Roth’s George Wallace is a somewhat one dimensional depiction of a complicated villain. There are numerous smaller roles of historical people who attended the march, who I would probably know if I were more familiar with the story. These range from Stephen James’ depiction of John Lewis to any number of historical cameos. The only other role that provides some complexity is King’s wife, Coretta, played by Carmen Ejogo. She offers support for the cause, but is angry about what her husband’s passion for it is doing to their marriage. She is also fearful of the risks he is taking.
The tone of the film is varied. There is the personal struggle of Dr. King as he tries to keep his marriage and life together. Then there is the process of putting together the march. King is playing a multiplayer game with himself, Johnson, Wallace and the media, trying to put together this historical event. Both facets of the film are riveting but there are places where they don’t quite fit together seamlessly.
Overall though, Selma is a compelling film about a great and important subject. The most important thing it does is give us an idea of Dr. King as a man, not as the icon we generally see him as. Because to deny that these things were done by a person with the impediments of human frailty, doubt, and fear is to diminish the accomplishment.


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