Sunday, February 22, 2015

Joe's annual slog through the Best Picture nominees: Part Two

Conceptual artist Plastic Jesus takes a swipe at the Oscars with this public statue.

Dead 2 Rights will be going dark and staying dark for a while, my lovelies. Not by my choice. Circumstances have forced my hand. Specifically, I'm going to be doing some mandatory overtime at my job, and the Geek Squad have informed me that -- after five weeks of deliberation and analysis -- my laptop is irreparable. I learned both of these unhappy pieces of information on Friday afternoon. (Not a good day, in case you were wondering.) These are gloomy times, dear reader, gloomy times indeed. As the Walker Brothers put it back in '65, "The sun ain't gonna shine anymore. The moon ain't gonna rise in the sky." The days ahead are filled with long, tedious hours of work and very little time or opportunity for creative expression. Getting up earlier. Getting home later. Seeing very little (or no) daylight. I am currently very tired and very discouraged. But you know what? I'm only halfway through my rundown of the 2015 Best Picture nominees, and I figured I might as well finish the job before this blog goes on hiatus.

B o y h o o d

Ellar Coltrane gets older. This movie stays the same age.

Director: Richard Linklater

Cast includes: Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, Lorelei Linklater, Marco Perella

The gist of it: Quiet, introspective Mason, Jr. (Coltrane) and his more outgoing sister (Linklater) grow up with a stressed-out but caring single mother (Arquette) over the course of 12 somewhat bumpy years in Texas. Mason's father (Hawke), an aspiring musician, initially struggles with being a responsible adult but does what he can to be a consistent presence in his children's life and eventually matures and mellows over time. Meanwhile, Mason's mother gets an education of her own and becomes a professor but makes some poor romantic choices and goes through two painful divorces from alcoholic men. Mason and his sister witness all of this, and it shapes who they become as they leave home and go off to college.

My take: First, an aside. I have joked, on more than one occasion, that the Harry Potter movies already did what Boyhood did, only with the addition of magic powers. At the time I first said that, I hadn't actually seen Boyhood. Well, now I know that same thought must have occurred to writer-director Richard Linklater, too, because there's a strong Harry Potter motif running through Boyhood, with at least two major scenes built around the J.K. Rowling franchise. Linklater's film is, of course, one of the most talked-about of the eight nominated movies and a perceived front-runner in the category. Much of the discussion has centered around the film's extraordinarily protracted production. (Linklater filmed the movie in pieces over twelve years so that star Ellar Coltrane would age naturally on camera.) Support for the film has been vocal, and this has triggered the usual, predictable backlash. I tried to ignore all of this and appreciate Boyhood on its own terms, which turned out to be a good strategy. This is a remarkably gentle film. Anyone waiting for a Big Plot Twist (death, car accident, courtroom trial, disease, unexpected pregnancy, etc.) is bound to be disappointed, as will anyone waiting for a Big Profound Message. Boyhood had neither, which very much separates it from most Oscar-nominated films. I, for one, was grateful. Linklater, who based Boyhood somewhat on his own experiences as a youth, does not try to force any plot complications or easy homilies onto these characters. He just observes them and lets us observe them. That was enough for me. It might not be for you.

My grade: B

T h e   T h e o r y   o f   E v e r y t h i n g

Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones share a tender moment in The Theory of Everything

Director: James Marsh

Cast includes: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Harry Lloyd, Alice Orr-Ewing, David Thewlis

The gist of it: A biopic of British physicist Stephen Hawking, following him from his days at Cambridge in the 1960s to the successful publication of his book, A Brief History of Time, in the 1980s. Just as he's starting to make some potentially game-changing discoveries about the nature of black holes and the origin of time, Hawking's body turns traitor on him. A neuromuscular disorder gradually and painfully robs him of the ability to move and speak, leaving him confined to a motorized wheelchair and reliant upon a robotic-sounding, computer-generated voice. Initially given just two years to live, Hawking manages to survive for decades, eventually being recognized as perhaps the most famous and influential thinker of our time. Helping to make all of this possible is his strong-willed, long-suffering wife Jane (Jones), a brilliant woman in her own right who makes incredible sacrifices in order to care for her ailing husband. Part of what motivates Jane is that she truly believes in Stephen's work, though they often clash over religion and the existence or nonexistence of God.

My take: Arguably more famous than anything Stephen Hawking has ever said, done, or written is the image of the man himself: the fragile, motionless frame crumpled up in a motorized wheelchair, feet turned inward, shoulders askew, head lolled to the side, with a tinny, mechanized voice squawking from a speaker next to him. It's a classic tragic image: an extremely active mind held captive in a dungeon of a body. I think, despite our admiration for his accomplishments, we can't help but feel a bit sorry for him, though I doubt he'd want our pity. It's human nature. The Theory of Everything plays a bit like a superhero origin story. Gradually, over the course of its running time, we see Stephen Hawking become the "Stephen Hawking" that we all know from documentaries, acquiring all the trademark accessories one by one. We get to see him as a young man and think, "Oh, he used to be able to ride a bicycle! How sad!" This is a sentimental, heartstring-tugging biopic which, curiously, is not that much interested in science. Sure, we get some moments when Hawking makes breakthroughs, but the movie is much more about his relationship with wife Jane, and how it is affected by various outsiders (a male choir director, a female caregiver). It's almost soapy. None of this really registered with me, but I'm not sure why. It felt like a movie I would have recommended to my mother or grandmother, if either of them were still alive.

My grade: C+

T h e   I m i t a t i o n   G a m e

Benedict Cumberbatch's best friend is a machine in The Imitation Game.

Director: Morton Tyldum

Cast includes: Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Rory Kinnear, Allen Leech, Matthew Beard, Charles Dance

The gist of it: During World War II, brilliant British mathematician Alan Turing (Cumberbatch) -- a computer pioneer later famed for his "Turing test" -- works on a top-secret British military project to decode the Nazis' seemingly-unbreakable Enigma machine, which scrambles messages to outsiders to the point that they are impenetrable. Turing pins his hopes on a self-built machine he dubs "Christopher." Although he and his team, including proto-feminist Joan Clarke (Knightley), do eventually get Christopher to work and defeat Enigma, they realize that their newfound knowledge has to be doled out subtly and discreetly, so as to avoid tipping the Nazis off. Turing's codebreaking skills secure several important Allied victories and shortens the war by years, but the public is never made aware of his great achievements. After the war, in fact, Turing faces legal troubles for his then-illegal homosexuality.

My take: It seems like it would hardly be a Best Picture Showcase if there weren't at least one movie about the plight of African-Americans (slavery and the civil rights movement) and another movie about World War II. Selma, of course, was this year's example of the former category, a slot which has been filled by 12 Years a Slave, Lincoln, and The Help in years past. And it looks like The Imitation Game is this year's designated WW2 flick. This one is sort of a "twofer," since Alan Turing's postwar legal persecution also allows the filmmakers to work in a lesson about the evils of homophobia. Mainly, this movie suggests that perhaps that the war could have been over much sooner if everyone in England weren't such an insufferable prig. The movie presents Turing as a martyr figure who faces prejudice, doubt, and pigheadedness at every stage of his life and career. He has to shield "Christopher" with his body on multiple occasions. I guess the best thing about The Imitation Game is that it gives us a new perspective on the question: how do you win a war? The movie occasionally cuts away to footage of planes and tanks and soldiers, to remind you what's happening in the rest of England while Turing is fussing over his machine. But, as this movie sees it, the war wasn't won on any battlefields. It was won by a bunch of nerds doing calculations in a little hut. That's kind of inspiring, but I'm afraid it doesn't make for the most scintillating cinematic experience, at least not for me. Of course, due to some questionable programming, I had just sat through another movie about British people working out complicated problems on chalkboards. Some "biopic fatigue" had started to set in while I watched this. Still, I don't see myself returning to The Imitation Game later in life.

My grade: B-

A m e r i c a n   S n i p e r

Bradley Cooper aims to kill for his country in American Sniper.

Director: Clint Eastwood

Cast includes: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller.

The gist of it: Rodeo cowboy Chris Kyle (Cooper), though approaching 30 years of age, feels obligated to join the Navy SEALS in order to combat terrorism and put his fearsome sharpshooting skills to use in defense of his nation. Once in Iraq, he becomes a sniper and quickly earns the nickname "the Legend" for his long list of confirmed kills. His wife, Taya (Miller), suffers greatly as Kyle serves four harrowing tours overseas. She has to raise the couple's two children virtually alone as he risks his life in combat and sees his buddies die around him. Though he denies it, the experience changes him greatly. When he comes back home between tours, he seems to be in a daze. His blood pressure is off the charts, and he experiences bouts of paranoia. After finally coming home for good, Kyle volunteers to help other wounded and mentally-disturbed veterans, partially to help them and partially to cope with his own PTSD and survivor's guilt. This endeavor, unfortunately, has tragic consequences.

My take: I only listed two cast members up there because, frankly, Cooper and Miller are the only two people who made a strong impression on me during American Sniper. There are various supporting characters, mainly military men who exist solely to get killed and provide further angst for the hero, but I had some trouble telling them apart. This is, at heart, the story of a man who struggles with his circumscribed role as a passionless killing machine and the wife who struggles to understand the man she married. This film serves as a blunt rebuttal to The Imitation Game.  How do you win a war? By shooting as many "savages" (the film's term) as you possibly can. American Sniper begins and ends as hero-making propaganda. The opening passages, regarding Kyle's upbringing and eventual entrance into the Navy SEALS, are almost painfully earnest and on-the-nose. The film's closing moments, too, are unambiguously sentimental. If you saw only the beginning and end of this film, you might mistake American Sniper for an updated version of a World War II propaganda picture. But there's a middle section full of protracted, bloody, bullet-ridden violence which may make the viewer question the nature of war and the effects it has on the men who fight. What happens to a man, for instance, when he has to kill a child in the line of duty? Unfortunately, American Sniper ultimately forgets any kind of ambiguity in its closing passages in favor of patriotic boosterism, thus (in my mind) negating much of what it had just accomplished. A shame, since Bradley Cooper labors mightily to make Chris Kyle a fascinating and multi-dimensional character.

My grade: C+

What Will Win: Boyhood
What I Want To Win: Birdman


  1. Oops, forgot to check back for this. Looks like you got your wish, at least.

    1. Yeah, I always feel sort of guilty when the movie I'm rooting for actually wins. I prefer when something I like but don't really care about wins. (Usually, that works out great.)