Sunday, June 28, 2015

Acting Achtung

Oh those poor, untrained American actors.
Perhaps you've noticed an influx of Brits, Scots, Irishman and the like playing Americans on film and television, be it Colin Farrell on True Detective, Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl, or Daniel Day-Lewis as Abe Lincoln. Is this terribly different from the 90s, when Anthony Hopkins played Richard Nixon and John Quincy Adams, or from Cate Blanchett picking up an Oscar for playing Katharine Hepburn the 2000s? Terrence Rafferty (formerly of The New Yorker and GQ) seems to think so, and he took to The Atlantic to write about "The Decline of the American Actor."

Rafferty writes: " many good American roles have been going to English, Irish, Welsh, Scottish, Australian, and Canadian actors." He goes on to cite Selma as a case in point, noting that "the parts of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Coretta Scott King, Governor George Wallace, and President Lyndon B. Johnson were all played by Brits." Furthermore, he counterpoints with a theoretical casting of a modern-day version of The Godfather with an exclusively British cast, arguing that "it isn't nearly so easy to dream up a fantasy cast of American actors":

" might see Daniel Day-Lewis as Don Corleone, surrounded by, say, Tom Hiddleston as Michael, Rory Kinnear as Sonny, Ben Whishaw as Fredo, Benedict Cumberbatch as Tom Hagen, Keira Knightley as Connie, and Romola Garai as Kay."

For the sake of getting to the point, let's ignore that Rafferty's exercise yields some spectacularly awful casting (gone is John Cazale's elegant inelegance and pathetic carriage, let's bring in the guy who nearly played Freddie Mercury) and that this sort of critique feels more in line with a user-posted BuzzFeed list than a venerated publication like The Atlantic. Instead, let's focus on his assertion that American actors are in trouble.

"[Training] no longer has the sort of allure for young American actors that it did in the days of Brando and Dean and Clift and, later, De Niro and Pacino...The actors of the current generation mostly started going before the camera as kids, and got their training on the job...Leonardo DiCaprio came up that way. So did Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Jennifer Lawrence, Reese Witherspoon, Keri Russell, Michelle Williams, Emma Stone, Michael B. Jordan – practically every young American actor you want to see has the same story."

Gee, that doesn't sound good. These young whipper-snappers, foregoing years of training giving up the teachings of Meisner and Strasberg and other great acting teachers and schools!

Except, wait a minute, I seem to recall that Oscar Isaac, who recently earned comparisons to Al Pacino for his work in A Most Violent Year and praise for his playful interpretation of Dr. Moreau as a fratboy in Ex Machina, is a Juilliard graduate, and that he's about to co-headline the next Star Wars. His co-star of both Star Wars and Inside Llewyn Davis, Adam Driver, is also a Juilliard graduate, and his work in Girls is one of the best performances on television right now. Other Juilliard graduates currently gaining career traction include Nelsan Ellis (Get On Up, True Blood), Lee Pace (Pushing Daisies, Halt and Catch Fire), and the grossly underrated Anthony Mackie (underused in the Marvel movies but appearing in films by John Hillcoat, Jonathan Levene and David Gordon Green this year and next). That's to say nothing of their female fellow alumni Jessica Chastain, Viola Davis, Samira Wiley and Danielle Brooks (both on Orange is the New Black), and Gillian Jacobs (Community).

Juilliard isn't the only school still putting out some talented actors. In the purportedly thin field of trained male actors under 40, there's Tisch School of the Arts graduates Miles Teller, Corey Stoll, Andy Samberg and Jake Johnson (who studied writing, to be fair); Carnegie Mellon grads Zachary Quinto, Pablo Schreiber and Matt Bomer; and Brown's John Krasinski. Go a bit older, you've got Benicio Del Toro and Mark Ruffalo at Stella Adler Studio and Bradley Cooper from The Actor's Studio, to name a few.

Furthermore, some of the acclaimed Brits listed in Rafferty's piece didn't actually finish, or in some cases even start, their theater studies. Freddie Highmore learned "on the job," as Rafferty might put it. So did Keira Knightley. Hugh Dancy studied English in Oxford. Hugh Laurie took part in dramatic and comedic revues with Emma Thompson and Stephen Fry at Cambridge while studying archeology and anthropology. Actors like Michael Fassbender, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Colin Farrell dropped out of school for work. Other up-and-coming U.K. performers, from Robert Pattinson to Jack "No Relation" O'Connell, didn't attend university at all.

These aren't the only instances of Rafferty talking out of his ass. A few precious morsels:

"In fact, quite a few impeccably trained British actors could barely hold the screen next to their untutored but movie-savvier American co-stars: watch what Bette Davis does to Leslie Howard – who was no slouch – in Of Human Bondage."

That's a nice backhanded compliment for Davis, who studied theater, performed on Broadway and under George Cukor, and spent most of her life pushing to be considered a serious actress while losing patience with untrained co-stars (see her literal and figurative slaps at Errol Flynn's acting ability). I don't know, maybe Rafferty's under the impression that American film acting didn't get Truly Serious until Brando and his method mumble and brumble showed up.

"There's a lovely moment at the end of My Week With Marilyn [ed: blech] when Kenneth Branagh, as Olivier, watches Michelle Williams, as Marilyn Monroe, in the 1957 comedy The Prince and the Showgirl, which Olivier directed. With a bemused look on his face, he mutters, 'She's quite wonderful. No training, no craft to speak of, no guile, just pure instinct. She's astonishing.' Throughout the movie, poor Marilyn has been trying to satisfy both her director, with his brisk English-thespian professionalism...and her Actors Studio coach, Paula Strasberg, who's always murmuring Methody instructions in her beleaguered ear. Olivier is right: Monroe knows nothing about acting, except what's in her very impressive bones, and it's enough."

Hey, let's diminish another great female star with "she's got something, just not craft" bullshit. We'll take the notoriously stuffy Olivier and the odious "I slept with Marilyn Monroe, really" fantasy of My Week with Marilyn over Kevin McCarthy and Eli Wallach's praise for her studiousness at the Actor's Studio, or Lee Strasberg's opinion that Monroe was second only to Brando among his students.

Without wanting to sound like a red-faced commenter on The Atlantic's message board, Rafferty's article is spotted with inaccuracies and generalizations like this, ranging from putdowns of the TV shows pre-2000, claims that the cast of Friday Night Lights isn't doing so hot outside of Michael B. Jordan (guess Jesse Plemons' roles in Breaking Bad and The Master didn't count for much), and arguments that American actors aren't keen on playing unlikable characters until they're older (Miles Teller in Whiplash? Isaac in Ex Machina and Inside Llewyn Davis? Eisenberg in The Social Network? Jason Schwartzman in Listen Up Philip? Jonah Hill in The Wolf of Wall Street? Paul Dano in anything?).

What, exactly, is Rafferty getting on about? It seems tied to the age-old, deeply tiresome condescension towards screen actors who haven't trained extensively in the thea-tah. It was present among certain critics and actors in the past, and it still hasn't died out completely among either (having spent some time training as an actor* before switching to writing, I've put up with countless arguments with the latter**). The dismissiveness is palpable in Rafferty's claims that "American culture is in the business of making stars, which is more a matter of people who able to be themselves...and that's okay too, up to a point." It's as if decades worth of Cary Grant and John Wayne appreciations following decades more of their being perpetually undersold by Academy voters and critics were for naught. Simply being on screen is a lesser skill, even if it's something that Daniel Day-Lewis, truly great actor that he is, couldn't do to save his life.

It's also a sign of the artificial limits of Oscar movies and blockbusters to talk about film and acting. Exciting work by younger actors (Ezra Miller, Tye Sheridan), comic performers (Bill Hader, Jason Segel, Zach Woods, and yes, Seth Rogen), and actors outside of the U.K. and U.S. (Tony Leung, Peyman Moaadi, Tahar Rahim) gets ignored in favor of whatever's getting the most play on the prestige circuit. Maybe a lot of Brits are playing biopic roles because the Weinstein Company and their ilk are eager to spread a layer of superficial class over their dead-end biopics (the superb Selma should be excepted here). I'm not totally against Rafferty's claim that Joseph Gordon-Levitt's past couple of roles can't match up to the startling live wire work he did in the early 2000s, but I'm less inclined to listen when you go around and praise Benedict Cumberbatch, a talented actor whose only pantheon-level cinema performance (in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) was four years ago, and who's since wasted his time giving tediously mannered performances in awards-baiting dreck like The Imitation Game, The Fifth Estate and the desecration of August: Osage County and otherwise turning himself into a sentient Tumblr post.

Richard Brody addresses the fact that the wrong movies frequently get the most attention in a New Yorker post that's in part a response to Rafferty's article. Aside from his description of the Atlantic piece as "thoughtful and stimulating" rather than "well-trod and Jesus almighty already" and his take on Marlon Brando's method roles (go with God, man, but you're trippin'), he highlights a tendency to praise Capital-A Acting*** and impersonations at the expense of actors who can simply be, from Sterling Hayden and Humphrey Bogart to current performers like Jason Schwartzman and Adam Driver, not to mention up-and-comers like Kentucker Audley and Tyler James Williams.

Rafferty's piece isn't without its mitigating factors – his appreciation of Jake Gyllenhaal's recent work in the final graph in particular – but I can't help but lose patience when stale debates about American vs. British acting are trotted out like they're something new. I dislike fitting square pegs like Scoot McNairy and Sean William Scott (one of our finest actors and I'll fight anyone who says otherwise) into round holes, and as much as I love to see actors challenge themselves, I don't want to see Tom Hiddleston's Michael Corleone or Seth Rogen's Polonius any more than I would've liked to see Robert De Niro as Victor Von Fronk-ehn-schteen (then again, it couldn’t have gone much worse than his turn as The Monster). The same goes for whatever training it takes to get an actor to the stage or screen. There's room to to debate the merits of classical training vs. on-the-job training, but not if we're going to use one as a cudgel against the other.

*Lest ye think I'm bringing this up to bolster any opinions I might have about acting, let it be known that I am a staggeringly terrible performer and that the stage and screen (if not the print and online worlds) are better off with my having decided it wasn't for me.

**Which is not to say that this went for all or even most students and teachers I encountered, but it wasn't a terribly uncommon sentiment, either.

***To be fair, others' ingrained suspicion of Big Acting frustrates me as well, but that's A) a byproduct of terrible Oscar clip moments becoming more and more prominent in film, and B) an argument for another day.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road

Grade: 87/A-

Mad Max: Fury Road seems to have been created entirely to illustrate how paltry the action has been in this year's earliest blockbusters. A far cry from the undistinguished destruction of Avengers: Age of Ultron and the half-realized cartoonishness of Furious 7, director George Miller's vision is one of balletic brutishness, of beautifully choreographed pandemonium. Where those earlier films were indifferently shot and murky, this is a film of rich red deserts and grey-blue night skies. The director may have not made a live-action film since 1998's memorably deranged Babe: Pig in the City, but Fury Road easily matches the sublime mixture of silliness and savagery of Miller's earlier Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior while cranking the kineticism and inventiveness into overdrive.

Filling in for Mel Gibson (who'd probably be more at home playing the villain at this point), Tom Hardy stars as Max Rockatansky, former cop turned ronin in a post-apocalyptic wasteland ruled by a cult, the War Boys, and their dictatorial leader Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, playing a different villain than he did in the original Mad Max).

For much of the first third, Max is incapacitated, captured and used as a human bloodbag for ailing War Boy Nux (Nicholas Hoult). The focus is instead put on Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), a soldier who hijacks a War Rig meant to collect gasoline to smuggle Joe's slave wives out of his desert kingdom and into a promised "green place."

A few niceties aside, that's more or less the long and short of the film's purposefully spare plot, a near-constant chase between the War Boys and the women with Max involuntarily along for the ride. And what an exhilarating chase it is: the film's first third alone sees Furiosa caught in between Joe's horde and a rival group of marauders, dodging the bullets and explosives of both and racing through a sand storm to escape both (Max, for his part, is strapped to the front of Nux's vehicle, feeding blood to him while trying like hell to find any way to get out).

Mad Max: Fury Road is a masterpiece of design, of editing, and of direction. Miller has reportedly been working on the film for years (it was originally meant to shoot with Gibson in 2001), and has used the extra time to stock up on ten films' worth of visual ideas. The War Boys are a constantly thrashing group of angry, aggressive beasts. Their spray-painted bodies (white torsos and mouths, black above the nose) recall the tribalistic nature of heavy metal concerts (if the connection weren't clear enough, one of the vehicles in the horde features a guitarist whose axe doubles as a flamethrower). Immortan Joe's shock white hair, ghoulish mouthpiece and heavy armor are outdone by the boils and welts on his body. It's the most vividly-realized group of heavies in recent movie history.

Their ferocity is matched by the film's. Fury Road reportedly features over 2,700 edits, but they're all service of making the film's stunts and explosions (there are more than a few) clearer and giving them a greater impact. Even when Miller cuts from, say, Max hanging off the edge of a truck to a parallel scene of Furiosa and the women fending off men with chainsaws above them, he carefully builds upon each moment, making sure that we never get lost in the carnage and that the scene never loses its propulsion. The pure inventiveness of the stunts (men using vertical poles to reach from one vehicle to another) and the edits (a screaming War Boy in a crash is used as a screen wipe) recalls both Buster Keaton and legendary animator Chuck Jones, making Fury Road the most imaginative action movies in years as well as the most hard-hitting.

If the film is fueled by Miller's ingenuity, it's driven by his leads: Hardy's flintier, more guttural take on Max is a welcome reinterpretation of the character, while Hoult's initial hyperactivity gives way to an unexpectedly sensitive hero. But Theron steals the show as Furiosa. In a film that emphasizes action and actions over dialogue, Theron creates her character almost wholly on how she carries herself as someone who's had to fight to survive, who's had to become part of the barbaric tribe in order to get the chance to rebel. Notably, Theron's head is shaved, her upper-face caked with the same black grease-paint many of the War Boys wear. It's in part her disguise, her way of becoming a part of the tribe, but it's also a sign of how one has to cut off an essential part of their humanity in order to survive in a cruel world.

Mad Max: Fury Road's early reviews have pegged it as a feminist masterpiece, which is overstating things a bit: it's working in broad strokes, and while its female heroes (both the wives and the awesomely-named Vulvalini tribe that assists the group) are welcome, few of them outside of Furiosa are given much personality. But it's still thrilling to see a film that shows its heroines first escaping, then outright destroying the patriarchal society that has, as the film suggests, "killed the world," and a central villain whose worldview is so diseased that it becomes manifest on his body. Even our ostensible protagonist seems to know it's not his show, frequently ceding leadership to the capable women around him. Furiosa's resilience in spite of a hellish past and a difficult road ahead is the film's soul amidst all the mayhem, a sign that if there's hope to be had for humanity's future, it's not likely with the ones responsible for its near-destruction.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Maps to the Stars

Grade: 71/B

Maps to the Stars is not a satire. Or, at the very least, its satirical points are the least interesting things about it. Bruce Wagner’s script may have started out as a poison pen letter to the movie industry, self-important actors, teen stars and celebrity therapists, but he and director David Cronenberg have turned it into a much weirder, nastier beast. As it is, Maps to the Stars is less A Modest Proposal for Showbiz and more The Duchess of Malfi Goes to La-La Land, a Jacobean revenge story and comedic horror movie that’s as convinced of all of humanity’s madness as it is of Hollywood’s.

Of course, it gets plenty of shots in at Hollywood while it’s there. There’s Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), a fading star and daughter of an Old Hollywood legend (Sarah Gadon). She’s convinced her mother, who died young in a fire, abused her, and she works out her therapy with TV psychologist Dr. Stafford Weiss (John Cusack). Weiss is the father of teen actor Benjie (Evan Bird), whose bad behavior hasn’t much improved since he left rehab, and isn’t discouraged by his stage mother Cristina (Olivia Williams). Trying to make it to their level is limo driver and wannabe actor/screenwriter Jerome (Robert Pattinson), who meets and begins a relationship with Havana’s new assistant Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), a badly-scarred, mysterious woman from out of town.

That only begins to scratch the surface of Wagner’s script, which is one-liner heavy but isn’t shot or edited in a way that gives them the expected punch. Rather, Cronenberg stages things a bit flatly to counteract the exaggerated world and leaves room for slight pauses. This gives Maps an odd rhythm and tone that keeps the film’s familiar situations (and occasional mustiness and Mad Libs approach to name-dropping) from feeling like another send-up of screen idols and sycophants. It’s an artificial world full of artificial takes on artificial people, but the film’s plain presentation cuts them in half, exposing the fraudulence and self-importance with which the film’s characters present themselves.

Nowhere is that more clear than with Moore’s performance, which takes advantage of Moore’s skill at playing heightened characters by having everything Havana does feel a bit…off, whether as a bid for sympathy or as an insincere congratulations. Its purposeful affectedness contrasts with Cusack, Gadon and Pattinson, all of whom give deliberately affectless performances (similar to those in Cosmopolis) that only amplify their characters’ venal behavior (though giving that same objective to a child actor is a tall order, and Bird can’t quite manage it). Only Wasikowska manages moments of real openness and human emotion, and even then her earnestness is so out-of-place in this world that it’s slightly unnerving, hinting that maybe not all is right with her either.

Maps to the Stars is also a ghost story, both metaphorically – Moore can’t escape her mother’s shadow and vies for her role in a remake of one of her movies, Wasikowska has an odd connection to the Weiss family – and literal – Gadon haunts her daughter, while Bird is plagued by a dead young girl he visited in the hospital for good press. These spirits and echoes don’t possess their earthly charges so much as they release or further stoke the brutality that was already inside them; to that end, the film is a sort of modern parallel to Cronenberg’s Shivers where the parasite is psychic rather than physical, and the releases are violent rather than sexual (though no less perversely cathartic). What begins as a screed against Hollywood becomes a story of human (and especially familial) failure, betrayal and cruelty that’s avenged in a typically Cronenbergian (read: fucked up) fashion. If Hollywood and humanity can’t be fixed, they’ll be purged.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Stupid Oscar Predictions for Stupid Oscars

Can't promise Mark Harris-level insight, but *shrugs* I have fun doing these. So here they are.

Best Actor

Michael Keaton and Bradley Cooper are the only nominees who belong here. Right now I'm mostly just thankful that Steve Carell's aristocratic burlesque act in Foxcatcher and Benedict Cumberbatch's embarrassing attempt to turn Alan Turing into a Funny Asperger's Bot/asexual gay martyr in The Imitation Game are being counted out of most Best Actor polls. Cooper's internalized work in American Sniper is a more deserving dark horse, with the actor's eyes showing internalized, suppressed self-doubt and inner conflict even as his body expresses utmost confidence in everything he believes about the war. The Golden Globes went to Keaton and Eddie Redmayne, the latter of whom seems to be getting the edge if the SAG win is any indication. It'd be an eye-roller, a reward for a physical transformation that's half makeup and half automatic, with Redmayne doing little to distinguish himself from any other actor who might have been cast. Keaton's live wire burnout performance in Birdman is my favorite of the bunch, and with the Oscars seemingly rolling that way for several of the major awards, I'm going to cross my fingers and predict that he'll ride the Birdman wave to the one win I think the film deserves.

Best Actress

A much better lineup than Best Actor, with only Felicity Jones' fine but unexceptional work in The Theory of Everything earning a big shrug. I'd be happy with any of the other four, from Reese Witherspoon's prickly work in Wild to Julianne Moore's elevation of disease-of-the-week material in Still Alice. I'd be happier with either Rosamund Pike's breakthrough role as the enigmatic, chilly Amy in Gone Girl, the shrewdness of which (she has to project naïveté and vulnerability to other characters and intelligence and calculation to the audience while still hiding her thought process from both) has only grown in my memory. Cotillard would be my ideal: she manifests her character's depression physically, letting us see the weight of the world practically crushing her, without ever making it seem like an actorly stunt, and her win for Two Days, One Night would double as a win for The Immigrant. But I won't complain too much when Moore finally picks up her Oscar, even if she should've won for Safe/Boogie Nights/Far From Heaven/other.

Best Supporting Actor

Duvall's the only head-scratcher here, turning in solid work that simply doesn't rank in the top twenty or so performances of his career. Better still: Ruffalo, giving the quietest, most complicated performance in Foxcatcher, and Edward Norton, who might have the most difficult job given that his character A. is, as written, a tired method acting caricature, which he enlivens and makes the funniest part of the film, and B. is given the film's dumbest monologue (the "eyeballs" line), which he delivers with an emotional directness and sincerity that makes it go down easily. I'd almost go with Hawke's work, given how fun it is to see him grow as an actor/person and play a man who's at once a cool father figure and kind of a cad. But I'll happily sign on to the favorite/slam dunk winner J.K. Simmons, who takes a potentially one-note monster and makes him a vivid and mesmerizing manipulator of emotions/drill sergeant/oh what the hell he's a fun monster, shut up.

Best Supporting Actress

*sigh* Streep's back. I wish they'd stop nominating her every time she coughed, given that she's been doing the same hammy star-turn bullshit since The Devil Wears Prada (save Fantastic Mr. Fox), where we're ostensibly seeing an actress disappear into a role but we're really seeing Meryl Streep, Great Actress™. She's less annoying than usual in Into the Woods, but she kills several jokes in "Witch's Rap" and never approaches Bernadette Peters' sublime mix of theatricality and emotional directness. As per usual, it's all about the dancer, not the dance, and I'm getting mighty tired of seeing the dancer drawing attention to her own virtuosity. Streep needs a real director, so her latest film with Jonathan Demme can't come soon enough.

OK, that rant is done, so here's the rest: like Felicity Jones in The Theory of Everything, Keira Knightley is fine in The Imitation Game, but she's given a role that doesn't require her to do more than stand there, look supportive and occasionally launch into monologues. I didn't like Begin Again but she's at least allowed to be more present and display her unique warmth; this is another role that any number of actresses could have done. Laura Dern's nomination for Wild arguably falls into that territory, but Dern's vivaciousness does make an impression in her limited screentime; it could have been anyone in the role, arguably, but I'm glad it was her. Emma Stone has Birdman's single best moment, immediately after her Oscar clip "you don't matter" speech, in which a mixture of "I'm glad I got that off my chest" and "I've deeply hurt someone I care about" comes over her face. It's a great moment, and she's the only one I'd accept as an alternate to the best nominee (and likely winner), Patricia Arquette. Like Hawke, she grows as an actress and a person in the role in a way that few are given the opportunity to do. But she's given the richer character, a woman who's at once supportive and sometimes impatient, someone who's trying her best for her kids while making sometimes catastrophic decisions for herself, and someone whose final scene wrecked me more than just about any other this year.

Best Original Screenplay

Glad that Nightcrawler is here, less happy that Foxcatcher is here, but neither will win. Boyhood seems to be giving off the impression of being more of a director's movie than a writer's movie (I don't know, writing scenes that credibly build off of and expand stuff that you shot a year or ten ago seems like a pretty big task to me). Birdman's screenplay is the worst thing about the film, a collection of musty showbiz/artist observations and insecurities made palatable by great performances and bravura direction. It's a load of bullshit that gets elevated to the level of entertaining bullshit. Many think a Birdman sweep seems to be in order, but I think this is where they'll reward Wes Anderson and The Grand Budapest Hotel (it falls in line with Spike Jonze's win for Her last year). Anderson's work is the best of the bunch, a nesting doll of a script that works as a great chase movie while smuggling in a moving statement about the perils and pleasures of nostalgia.

Best Adapted Screenplay

Well, I'd love to bang a gong for Paul Thomas Anderson finally getting his due for his skillful adaptation of Inherent Vice (no small feat, given the density of the text), but it ain't happening. The three real-life movies will hopefully cancel each other out – I don't mind American Sniper's script so much, but The Theory of Everything is biopic-by-numbers while The Imitation Game insists on Alan Turing's greatness and his status as a martyr without ever actually making people thing about his achievements or his sexuality in a palpable way (i.e., him actually having sex with men). Whiplash's nomination is total category fraud, but seeing as it's a better alternative/more of a writer's movie than any of the above films, I'll bet on that.

Best Animated Film

With The Lego Movie left out there's no obvious favorite aside from "not The Boxtrolls" (didn't see it, not commenting on it, but no one seems to favor it over the others). I could see either of the American studio movies getting it, though I'm scratching my head as to how How to Train Your Dragon 2 became an apparent front-runner. But I could also see a surprise with one of the foreign imports, with my heart going to Isao Takahata's lovely, subtly devastating The Tale of the Princess Kaguya. I'm going to be safe and go with How to Train Your Dragon 2.

Best Foreign Film

I don't have a horse in this race: Two Days, One Night didn't make the shortlist. I'm only sort of in favor of Ida, didn't catch up with Leviathan, Wild Tales or Timbuktu yet. Betting on Ida.

Best Documentary Feature

Life Itself didn't make it, so it'll be Citizenfour. OK.

Best Original Score

Hans Zimmer (Interstellar) has won and Gary Yershon (Mr. Turner) wrote the (great) score to the movie seen by the fewest people, so they're both out. It's really a race between Desplat and Johansson, with the only question being whether Desplat cancels himself out with two nominations. It'd be a joke if he won for his solid work in The Imitation Game instead of his career-best work in The Grand Budapest Hotel, but it'd be an even bigger joke if Johannsson's middlebrow-de-rigeur score won for The Theory of Everything. That could easily happen, given that it won the Golden Globe and other awards (somehow), but I'll be stupid and go with my heart: Desplat for The Grand Budapest Hotel.

Best Original Song

I can't see them going for "Lost Stars" (one of the many songs from Begin Again that posits a Lisa Loeb soundalike as the savior of modern music)or "Grateful" (Beyond the Lights). I'm one of those folks who found "Everything Is Awesome" ungodly annoying, so I'd rather not see The Lego Movie pick up the sympathy vote. A more understandable pick would be "I'm Not Gonna Miss You," about Glen Campbell's battle with Alzheimer's, but I can't really see them going with anything other than "Glory," given the backlash it'd inspire if Selma got nothing. It'll be nice to see Common get an Oscar.

Best Sound Editing/Mixing

I'm betting on American Sniper getting both of these; it'd be weird to see it get shut out after getting so much love from the Academy nomination morning. Birdman or Interstellar could potentially get one or both, and I could see Whiplash (deservingly) getting mixing, but right now I'm betting on them throwing something to Clint and company for Sound Editing and Whiplash for Mixing.

Best Production/Costume Design

Wes Anderson's films should win these awards every year they're eligible, so it'll be nice to see them finally, you know, win them in real life rather than my fantasy Oscars. It'll be a rare case of the Academy's tendency to give things to the most designs actually lining up with the best.

Best Makeup and Hairstyling

It's the one place I could see Foxcatcher winning something; if it were just for Mark Ruffalo's hairline, I wouldn't mind, but Steve Carell's nose is a needless distraction, epitomizing everything about that performance that's just a step too much. The Grand Budapest Hotel could conceivably win here, but the nose thing is the most Oscar-y bit of makeup, so I'm betting on Foxcatcher.

Best Visual Effects

None of the superhero movies belong here. It's between Interstellar and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, with my preference/prediction going slightly toward the former. Also: why in the hell is Godzilla not here?

Best Editing

Boyhood cut together twelve years' worth of footage, and much of its power comes from its juxtapositions (Mason exiting a room, cut to a year later where his mother and new stepfather arrive at their new home). I could see the Academy maybe favoring the flashier (but still great) work in Whiplash or the precise action editing in American Sniper, but I'm betting on Boyhood. Also: how in the high holy hell did The Imitation Game get here? It features some of the dumbest editing of the year, from the cross-cutting between documentary footage and bad CGI to an edit that takes us from a torpedo slamming into a boat to a man putting a cigarette out. Yes, very clever, Mr. Editor, you really had your Lawrence of Arabia moment there.

Best Cinematography

I'd be so on board with Robert Yeoman finally getting something after years of doing great work with Wes Anderson; his use of three different aspect ratios was more than a trick, establishing an emotional connection (at least among nostalgic film aficionados, no small point in a film about nostalgia) to previous eras. I wouldn't mind Ida or Mr. Turner picking something up, either. Less wonderful: Roger Deakins, doing fine work on Unbroken but some of his least distinctive work (that said, I don't think he'll the makeup Oscar for this if he didn't get it for Skyfall). It'll probably be a repeat win for Lubezki, though, given that the one-take conceit that Birdman employs is bound to wow people. I think it's as banal as Lubezki's images have ever looked, but it achieves the sense of claustrophobia and restlessness that he and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu are going for, and its framing of the actors does enhance their psychological states, so it's hardly bad work, just less exciting than usual.

Short Films

I never know what's going on in these categories, so I'm just picking the ones that seem baity (Live Action Short: The Phone Call, featuring Sally Hawkins and Jim Broadbent), have been lobbied about as being baity (Best Documentary Short: Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1), or are by Pixar (Best Animated Short: Feast).

Best Director

Bennett Miller's nominated for Best Director without Foxcatcher being nominated for Best Director, so it's safe to assume he's out. I'm not complaining; I admire Miller's craftsmanship but think that his direction of Steve Carell to take as many pauses and suck the air out of the room as possible is overkill when his style already values long pauses and sucking the air out of the room. Still, he's far more welcome than Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game), nominated for pointing the camera in the general direction of the actors. Wes Anderson would get my vote, both for his continued representation of Michael Powell's ideal "composed film" and as a validation for nearly two decades of uncompromising, fiercely idiosyncratic work. The same could go for Richard Linklater, a more likely candidate for his deeply empathetic, quietly powerful direction of Boyhood, but it has a big competitor in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu.

I liked Birdman more than any of AGI's films since his debut Amores Perros, and if nothing else, his direction gets some lovely, lyrical moments, like Keaton's flight over New York, and it successfully immerses us in Keaton's (and, by proxy, Inarritu's) personal and professional insecurities. But it's still a bit too sledgehammer-y for my taste. AGI won the Director's Guild Award, which usually lines up with the Best Director winner (the last diversion was when Ang Lee won for Crouching Tiger and Steven Soderbergh nabbed the Oscar for Traffic, way back in 2001). Still, rules are meant to be broken and statistics are meant to be diverged from, so I'm betting on Linklater squeaking by.

Best Picture

We can safely rule out Selma (nominated for next to nothing), American Sniper (too controversial), Whiplash (too small) and The Theory of Everything (getting more praise for the actors than anything else). Harvey Weinstein's campaign for The Imitation Game has been pretty gross, with the whole "Honor the Man, Honor the Film" horseshit, and I'm hoping that it rubbed enough people the wrong way; plus, The Imitation Game isn't favored to win any other major awards, so it'd be a weird Chariots of Fire-style split if it won. The Grand Budapest Hotel is tied with Birdman for the most nominations, so they clearly like it, but I can't really conceive it winning the top prize (much as I'd like it to). It's between Boyhood and Birdman, and while I've been going back and forth, I'm going to put money down on Oscar voters picking the latter for insisting that what they do is the most important thing in the world. I'll have to remind myself that I actually like Birdman just fine when it picks up the top prize that I think The Grand Budapest Hotel, Boyhood, Selma and Whiplash all deserve more. In the words of William Munny in Unforgiven, "Deserve's got nothin' to do with it."

Sunday, January 25, 2015

The Duke of Burgundy

Grade: 96/A

The Duke of Burgundy is the unlikeliest love story to hit the screen in years, and one of the most beautiful. The plot, about a lesbian S&M relationship, sounds targeted to male viewers’ more prurient interests more than it sounds like a romance. But the film is never sexy, exactly, nor is it about sex. Director Peter Strickland (whose Berberian Sound Studio unnerved without ever showing the lurid violence expected from the giallo movies it paid tribute to) makes The Duke of Burgundy less about the salacious elements at play and more about the feelings and motivations behind them.

The film’s opening deliberately obfuscates those motivations, introducing Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) as a maid to the severe Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen), who immediately rebukes her for her lateness. Evelyn quietly goes about her duties, sweeping the floor, polishing Cynthia’s boots, hand-washing her underwear. When Evelyn makes a mistake, she’s punished with (off-screen) water-sports. The next day, the sequence repeats. Cynthia and Evelyn love each other deeply, but this elaborate submissive-dominant ritual wears down on one of the parties, who does this only to please the woman she loves.

Saying too much more would do a disservice to the film, which gradually reveals the particulars of their relationship and the great lengths Evelyn and Cynthia go to in order to express their affection. One of the two needs this in order to be sexually satisfied. The other can only do her best to tolerate it. On the flipside of the coin is their interest in entomology: one is an expert in Lepidoptera, or the study of butterflies. The other is not. The first owns a gorgeous collection and attends multiple lectures. The other also attends, but she can barely keep up, asking irrelevant questions and giving incorrect answers. The first constantly plays recordings of butterflies humming, which annoys her partner. It’s a terrific parallel, illustrating the trying but inevitable process of lovers having to take part in interests that aren’t always shared.

Both actresses give moving, multilayered performances; D’Anna (who appeared in Berberian Sound Studio) is appropriately timid and unassuming in their sexual games, but her frustration with her partner’s interests is palpable, as is her humiliation when one moment goes too far. Knudsen is even better, displaying a deep fear that she’s slowly losing D’Anna. There’s a mid-film scene in which one woman masturbates the other under the covers while whispering sweet little nothings (or, rather, dirty little nothings) into her partner’s ear. She struggles to say the things that turn her lover on, fumbling to sound spontaneous and never saying anything with conviction. It’s a perfect encapsulation of their relationship, both in and outside the bedroom, as they both strive to keep the other happy while worrying that it’s not enough.

Strickland pays tribute to the kind of arty softcore films made by Jesus Franco and Tinto Brass in the 70s, complete with a dreamy score by British alternative duo Cat’s Eyes and an opening sequence that credits perfumists and lingerie makers. Remarkably, though, Strickland never eroticizes their encounters so much as he romanticizes them, viewing the more outré elements from a distance while showing boots or soaking pairs of panties in loving close-up, turning them into odd but strangely believable expressions of love. Cynthia and Evelyn’s kisses and embraces, meanwhile, are handled delicately, sometimes through superimpositions, as if they were too romantic to show, while their insecurities are communicated in an homage to Stan Brakhage’s avant-garde classic “Mothlight,” conflating sexual inadequacy with inadequate interest in the other partner’s field. It’s a highly aestheticized movie, but Strickland’s aims are in line with those of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Michael Powell or Douglas Sirk, a kind of emotionalism through artifice. With The Duke of Burgundy, he reaches their level.

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