Sunday, January 24, 2016

The Wind Rises (2013)

The Wind Rises Photo - Hayao Miyazaki Photo

1 Nomination, 0 Wins

Nomination: Best Animated Feature Film - Hayao Miyazaki and Toshio Suzuki

In many ways, The Wind Rises's adult-oriented, historically based storyline is a departure for Hayao Miyazaki, but in other ways it is the natural culmination of the legendary director's career.  Though missing the fantastical elements of his previous output, the film brings the same childhood wonder and mystery from Miyazaki's world of imagination to a world more grounded in reality.

Hayao Miyazaki was born to Katsuji Miyazaki, an aeronautical engineer and the director of Miyazaki Airplane, a company that supplied rudders and other parts to Japanese fighter planers used in World War II.  It is not hard to see why Miyazaki was attracted to telling the story of Jiro Horikoshi, the primary engineer behind many of the airplanes used by Japan in the war, including the A6M Zero that Katsuji Miyazaki's rudders supplied.

Speculative psychology aside, what Miyazaki has put on film is a love letter to human flight, expertly balancing dramatically beautiful flight sequences with quieter moments of human drama.  Like all of Miyazaki's films, it is simple enough for children to love and complicated in its simplicity enough for adults to love.

The animation is beautiful, the American voice cast is well selected - particularly Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the lead role - and the story is told briskly and thoughtfully.

While the master is enjoying a well-deserved retirement from filmmaking, I selfishly hope the 75-year-old genius still has another film or two in him.  If not, The Wind Rises is a wonderful coda to his career.


Sunday, January 17, 2016

Magnificent Obsession (1954)

Jane Wyman in Magnificent Obsession with Rock Hudson, Directed by Douglas Sirk

1 Nomination, 0 Wins

Nomination: Best Actress in a Leading Role - Jane Wyman

Every genre has a filmmaker or two who dominates all discussion of the genre, not by subverting or reimagining it, but by fully engaging in its conventions while introducing a previously unmatched level of artistry.  Like John Ford with the western or Vincente Minnelli with the musical, Douglas Sirk is the undisputed master of the female melodrama.  Though largely dismissed in his own time, the reevaluation of Sirk began in the 1970s with Cahiers du Cinema and the French New Wave and hit its crescendo in the early 2000s with Todd Haynes's majestic love letter Far From Heaven.  As Haynes continues to demonstrate Sirk's influence in his growing filmography, it is clear that Sirk's influence grows as well.

Magnificent Obsession began filming within days of the release of The Robe, a Biblical epic adapted from the novel by Lloyd C. Douglas that became a huge hit for 20th Century Fox.  Douglas's first novel, Magnificent Obsession - previously adapted in 1935 starring Irene Dunne and Robert Taylor - had sold nearly two million copies (according to the Chicago Tribune), and Universal saw potential taking another pass at the tearjerker.  They gave the assignment to their director Douglas Sirk, who had just wrapped production on Taza, Son of Cochise, a largely forgotten 3-D western starring Rock Hudson.  Though Taza did not exactly suggest a pedigree suited to Magnificent Obsession, Sirk, who had already built an extensive filmography at this point, had directed All I Desire immediately prior to Taza, a melodrama with many of the motifs that would become Sirk trademarks.  Magnificent Obsession began a run of several films for Sirk that firmly established his legacy, culminating in 1959 with Imitation of Life, Sirk's most admired film (and also his last).

It is impossible to deny Sirk's abilities as a director, and though Magnificent Obsession does not yet demonstrate the level of visual beauty he would offer in his later films, he loads frames with deep, rich colors and textures.  Performers never looked better than they did in front of Sirk's cameras, and co-stars Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman both practically glow in his frames.

The plot of the film is thin, and the character development is thinner.  In preparing for her performance, Jane Wyman claimed (to Hedda Hopper) to have gone to lengths that were unusual for the time, including speaking with an adult who had lost her vision.  Her performance is capable if uninspired, but it is not surprising that what might nowadays be characterized as Oscar bait resulted in an Academy Award nomination.  Hudson, who for reasons I cannot comprehend was Sirk's muse, is at his best when working with Sirk, though he still manages to bring little more to the role than any capable actor would bring.

Despite his visual gifts, I remain unconvinced of Sirk's genius in other aspects of filmmaking.  Magnificent Obsession is little more than the 1950s version of a Nicholas Sparks adaptation, and the visual beauty cannot make up for average performances and an emotionally insipid story.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

The Judge (2014)

1 Nomination, 0 Wins

Nomination: Best Actor in a Supporting Role - Robert Duvall

Robert Downey Jr. Photo and Robert Duvall Photo in The Judge Movie 2014
Photo Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Portraying difficult, overbearing fathers is right in Robert Duvall's wheelhouse, just as playing cocky and charming jerks with underlying hearts of gold is what Robert Downey, Jr. was born to do.  When you partner two of the best actors of their respective generations in roles perfectly suited for them with strong chemistry between the two performers, you have the recipe for a winning film.  The most important remaining ingredient is a strong script; unfortunately, this ingredient is - while not missing - certainly not at the level needed to match the talents of those bringing it to life.

Many have described The Judge as Oscar bait, and it's not hard to see why.  Both leads had the type of showy roles that tend to attract the notice of the Academy, with Duvall in a particularly strong position to gain a nomination.  The Academy loves nominating aging legends in the Supporting Actor category, and Duvall playing a dying older man accused of a crime certainly fits the bill.  But his performance is much more than a mere attempt to win his second Academy Award (he previously won for 1983's Tender Mercies).  Duvall is known for an actor especially adept at the loud, showy moments, and he has a few of these on display here.  But what often fails to get noticed is Duvall's absolute genius for holding back, for showing the briefest beginning of a big moment before repressing it.  We are almost certain we know what he is thinking, but we are never sure.  Duvall has never abandoned this tendency, and it is what has allowed him to continue to turn in some of his best work at an age at which most actors are trading in on their personas.

The Judge tries to be several kinds of film, and succeeds perhaps 80% in each of these efforts.  It has elements of a strong family drama weighed down by too many superfluous plot threads (adultery, a developmental disorder), a murder mystery that succeeds in ambiguity but failed in making me care about what actually happened, a sympathetic and unflinching look at aging that abandons the subject just as it hits its bravest moment, and a story of a fish-out-of-water in one's hometown whose fish acclimates all too quickly to create much drama.  There's a strong storyline in there somewhere deep down, but there are too many digressions and false starts to sustain any momentum in the telling.

But there is a benefit to all of these extraneous themes, and that is the multiple showcases it gives to a cast of gifted actors.  Aside from the headliners, Vera Farmiga adds some verve to the usually uninspiring role of the first love who stayed behind, Vincent D'Onofrio gives his best non-television performance in years, Jeremy Strong wisely underplays a role that is unnecessary but saved through Strong's performance, and Billy Bob Thornton - the new king of cameos - is one of the only actors who could be credibly cast as a lawyer capable of going toe-to-toe with Downey.

Adult melodramas like The Judge were common in the 1990s, but have all but disappeared in recent years as studios have marshaled their resources more and more toward potential tent-pole films.  The best of these films were almost always the result of a singular filmmaker's vision.  The Judge demonstrates all of the indicators of a story with multiple visions told by committee with no single person at the helm, and indeed the script was handed off to multiple screenwriters before director David Dobkin took the final pass.  Ultimately, the film falls short due to a lack of cohesiveness, and though this is partly covered by strong performances all around, it results in a film that feels bloated and confused.

On a related note, I am quite proud of myself for avoiding any review cliches related to "judgment."

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Ida (2013)

2 Nominations, Wins TBD

Nomination: Best Foreign Language Film of the Year - Pawel Pawlikowski
Nomination: Best Achievement in Cinematography - Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski

Compared to the lush, showy cinematography of its fellow nominees (Birdman, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Mr. Turner, and Unbroken), it's not immediately clear why Ida was nominated in the category.  The film's stark black-and-white cinematography is far from the visual wonderland that is The Grand Budapest Hotel.  Yet the film's seeming visual simplicity belies a depth that is remarkable, much as the film's simple plot belies a depth of character and emotion that makes it one of the very best films of the year.

Ida reminded me a great deal of The White Ribbon, the Michael Haneke film from a few years ago that was also nominated in the foreign language and cinematography categories.  Both films were nominated not in spite of but because of their deceptively simple black-and-white cinematography.  Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski's black-and-white cinematography is as beautiful as I've ever seen.  The pair don't rely on shadows to create visual interest, a common strategy with black-and-white films, but instead create stunning depth of field and beautifully simple lighting.

Most noticeably, the camerawork makes star Agata Trzebuchowska literally glow, with her eyes as big as dinner plates.  Trzebuchowska turns in a terrific understated performance, but it's hard to overstate how much the cinematography enhances her performance.  Trzebuchowska emotes with the only slightest of facial movements, so small that they would be lost in most cinematographers' gazes. Aside from the sheer beauty of the cinematography, it is absolutely essential to conveying the emotions of the lead, and thus the film is unimaginable without it.

Everything about Ida is understated, from the quiet performances to the simple story.  There is no single thing about the film that makes it great; it is truly larger than the sum of its parts.  Ida is a truly lovely film, and will stay with me far longer than many of the films that attempted to make a bigger and more lasting statement.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

The 5 Biggest Surprises of the Oscar Nominations

Most who watch the Oscars find their greatest pleasure in judging the outfits worn by the stars, grading the monologue, or joking about the length of the ceremony.  I've always found my greatest pleasure in decrying the snubs and questionable nominations by the Academy.  I was not disappointed this year, as the Academy made several moves that I (nor most others) did not expect. 

Here are the five biggest surprises of this morning's Oscar nominations.

1. Bradley Cooper's Best Actor Nomination
Steve Carell, Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Keaton, and Eddie Redmayne were virtual locks for nominations, with only the fifth spot up for grabs.  Conventional wisdom had the fifth nomination going to Jake Gyllenhaal, who was nominated for his role in Nightcrawler by both the Screen Actors Guild and the Golden Globes, or Timothy Spall for his work in Mr. Turner.  If not one of these two, most Oscar watchers would have guessed David Oyelowo might be able to sneak in for his portrayal of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Cooper was barely talked about, yet he managed to sneak in his third consecutive acting nomination, in addition to an additional nomination for producing American Sniper.

2.  The LEGO Movie shut out from Best Animated Feature Film
The LEGO Movie has a 96% Tomatometer score at Rotten Tomatoes and grossed more than $250 million, and was seen by many as the clear favorite to take home the Oscar for Best Animated Feature Film.  Yet the film failed to receive even a nomination in the category, receiving its sole nomination in the Best Song category.  Two little known films received nominations instead (Song of the Sea and The Tale of Princess Kaguya), common practice for the Academy, but virtually no one saw The LEGO Movie getting shut out.

3. Amy Adams and Jennifer Aniston left out
After her win in the Musical or Comedy category at the Golden Globes for her role in Big Eyes, Adams's hope for her first Oscar were revived.  After the Screen Actors Guild left her off of the ballot in favor of Jennifer Aniston for her work in Cake, her nomination chances were far less certain, but it seemed that one of the two would battle for the nomination.  Instead, both were left off the ballot in favor of Marion Cotillard.  Notably, none of the Golden Globe Musical or Comedy actress nominees were nominated for Oscars, and only Michael Keaton of the Musical or Comedy actor nominees earned an Oscar nod.

4. Whiplash's Big Day
J.K. Simmons is the favorite for the Oscar in the Best Supporting Actor category, but it seemed unlikely that Whiplash would get other attention from the Academy.  Instead, the film received five nominations, including the Big Kahuna nomination for Best Picture.  The film has taken home just over $6 million, but this attention from the Academy should help it find a much larger audience.

5. Gillian Flynn Shut Out
Gillian Flynn's adaptation of her own novel Gone Girl was much lauded, with her smart pruning adding suspense to the already impossibly suspenseful story.  The film had the potential to be nominated for its screenplay, cinematography, and leading lady, but only Rosamund Pike was nominated for her star making performance.  The Imitation Game was a lock for a nomination after receiving nominations from the Golden Globes and the Writers Guild Awards, and The Theory of Everything seemed to be a likely candidate as well.  Whiplash was nominated by the WGA in the Original Screenplay category, so its nomination wasn't a huge surprise, and American Sniper seemed like a possibility after its WGA nomination.  Few saw Paul Thomas Anderson having much of a chance for Inherent Vice, especially after it failed to be nominated for either a Golden Globe or a WGA Award (Gone Girl was nominated for both films).  Yet Anderson heard his name called and Flynn did not, much to the dismay of the book's legion of fans.

And the least surprising nomination...

Roger Deakins for Best Cinematography for Unbroken
This is his 12th nomination and third in three years, and it's getting to the point where it's hard to imagine an Oscar ceremony without a Roger Deakins nomination.  Perhaps our greatest living cinematographer, Deakins has yet to take home an Oscar, and it seems unlikely that this will be his year. 

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Contending With Variety's Best Documentary Feature Contenders

We are still two months away from the announcement of the 87th Academy Award nominations and three months away from the ceremony itself, but Variety is already weighing in on one of the least closely followed but always fascinating categories, Best Documentary Feature.  The industry paper lists 18 films contending for a nomination, ranging from the usual Best Documentary fare (Middle East relations and health care exposes) to far more unusual - and perhaps unlikely - selections.

While several of these choices appear to be strong contenders for a nomination, others seem unlikely.  I have only seen a few of these selections, but based on the Academy's recent history of nominees, I would like to take a quick look at the chances of each of Variety's selections to receive a Best Documentary Feature nomination.

Merchants of Doubt
Merchants of Doubt was the first film listed, and it is not hard to see why. The film is directed by Robert Kenner, who received his first career nomination a few years ago for Food, Inc. after a long career of filming television documentaries.  The film is inspired by the book of the same title by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, and focuses on professional deniers: those whose job it is to deny the effects of climate change in order to slow attempts to address it.  Environmentally focused documentaries like An Inconvenient Truth and The Cove have taken home Academy Awards in recent years, and Inside Job, which focuses on corruption of policy by interest groups, also won the Oscar.  Merchants of Doubt isn't a shoo-in, but it has all of the ingredients of a Best Documentary Feature favorite.

Nas: Time Is Illmatic
It's unlikely that Academy voters (median age: 62) hold the the Nas album Illmatic with the same reverence as do hip hop fans, but we should be careful before we write off the chances of the Academy recognizing hip hop.  The Academy awarded Oscars to Eminem and Three 6 Mafia and also nominated M.I.A. (Pharrell also received an Oscar nomination, but it was for the decidedly un-hip hop "Happy").  Most significantly for Nas: Time Is Illmatic's chances, Tupac: Resurrection was nominated for Best Documentary Feature, paving the way for a hip hop documentary to receive a nomination.  However, Tupac was much more well known than Nas, and his untimely death more dramatic than the story of the creation of an album.  Still, with music-centered documentaries like Searching for Sugar Man and 20 Feet From Stardom recently gaining favor with the Academy, this doc has a chance.

The Salt of the Earth
Director Wim Wenders is a favorite of the documentarians branch, having been nominated twice before in this category (for Buena Vista Social Club and Pina).  The Salt of the Earth is a profile of photographer Sebastiao Salgado, co-directed with Salgado's son Juan Ribierto Salgado.  This doesn't seem like the type of subject matter that makes the Academy jump up and down, but Wenders's track record means that he should be taken seriously in prognosticating this category.

Life Itself
When I first saw Life Itself in August, I declared it a shoo-in for a nomination, and my opinion hasn't changed at all.  Roger Ebert, the film's subject, was a beloved figure in the film industry, beloved even by those whose films he criticized.  The film is a lovely retrospective of Ebert's life and career, but the scenes of he and his wife Chaz living through his illnesses are touching and beautifully rendered.  This film should be catnip to Academy voters, but is also entirely deserving of a nomination.

Finding Vivian Maier
Finding Vivian Maier has done well at some of the more progressive film festivals, but a documentary about a street photographer is unlikely to receive a nomination.  The film's chances are further hurt by the presence of The Salt of the Earth; the Academy is unlikely to nominate two films that profile photographers, and if they are to choose one they will almost certainly go with Wim Wenders.

Dancing in Jaffa
Along with Life Itself, this is one of the two films I am most confident in predicting a nomination.  The Academy famously loves to award trophies to films about Middle East relations, and this is the rare feel-good documentary on the subject, telling the story of Jaffa schoolchildren - both Israeli and Palestinian - finding commonality and fraternity in dance lessons.  It's hard to imagine this one getting left out.

Plot for Peace
This is a tough one to call.  Plot for Peace looks at Jean-Yves Ollivie, a South African diplomat who brokered many significant peace deals.  Any film about South Africa in the 1980's should get the Academy's attention, though Ollivie is a little known figure in the United States and thus this film could be forgotten.  After years of mostly irrelevancy at the Oscars, South Africa was nominated at the 77th Academy Awards for Zulu and won the Oscar the following year for the wonderful Tsotsi and garnered all kinds of attention for District 9.  This South African-produced film would also follow in the footsteps of Searching for Sugar Man, which, although not a South African film per se, prominently featured Cape Town.  This film has an uphill climb, but festival audiences have loved it.  If enough nominators see Plot for Peace, it could grab a nomination.

Fed Up
With Food, Inc. receiving a nomination a few years ago, Fed Up has to be taken seriously as a contender.  The film looks at the obesity crisis and the processed food industry, and if you believe the stereotype of Hollywood as a land of kale-chomping vegans, Fed Up would seem a natural fit.  Yet with constant news stories about the obesity crisis, it would take a unique viewpoint or an exceptionally well made film to get the attention of the Academy.  I haven't seen the film and thus can't say if Fed Up achieves this, but it would take a great film on this subject for a real possibility of a nomination.

Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me
Elaine Stritch is a beloved figure in the entertainment community, and this film is said to be a great telling of her life.  Still, the story just doesn't have enough emotional weight, outrage, or uplift to be much of a contender.

Tales of the Grim Sleeper
Tales of the Grim Sleeper has HBO Documentary Films behind it, and thus has a great chance of receiving a nomination.  It's a dark story that touches on many subjects that Academy voters love, and from everything I have heard it is a terrific film.  Definitely one to watch.

Code Black
Code Black was distributed by The Long Shot Factory, and while the film isn't necessarily a long shot, it's also not a favorite.  The film looks at the happenings of an emergency room, using the action to indict the American health care system.  While Academy voters have supported films of this subject, health care is not at the top of their minds the way it was before the passage of the Affordable Care Act.  There is still just as much to be outraged about in American health care, but unless this film is truly great (I have not seen it), this doesn't seem to be an Academy-favored subject.

Keep On Keepin' On
I am a huge jazz fan and occasional jazz writer, so a nomination for a documentary about the great Clark Terry working with prodigy Justin Kauflin would please me greatly.  Keep On Keepin' On has been picking up hardware on the awards circuit, but it isn't likely to get an Oscar nomination, especially with arts-centered films like Life Itself in the mix.  Still, this is the documentary I most want to see.

A film about saving the mountain gorillas of Congo produced by Leonardo DiCaprio?  This film has everything going for it: an environmental theme and major star power.  This film is amongst the strongest contenders for a nomination, especially if DiCaprio and Netflix put their weights behind it.

Happy Valley
When the Academy rewards sports-themed films, they look for feel good stories.  Happy Valley documents the recent Penn State scandal, exactly the opposite of what the Academy likes.  It's hard to imagine a depressing documentary about college sports in rural Pennsylvania getting much love from Oscar voters.

Kids for Cash
Unlike Happy Valley, this Pennsylvania-set film is more in the wheelhouse of the Academy: an outrageous story of corruption and injustice perpetrated on children.  Kids for Cash is neither a lock nor a long shot, but it is easy to see the film outraging Academy voters enough to pick up a nom.

The Great Invisible
The Great Invisible picked up the Grand Jury Award at South by Southwest, instantly making the film an Oscar contender.  It's a meticulously produced expose of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, looking at both the damage perpetrated on the environment and Gulf Coast residents who rely on the Gulf waters for their livelihoods.  I'd be surprised if The Great Invisible isn't nominated.

Jodorowsky's Dune
Ever heard of the cult Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky?  Neither have all but the most avant-garde Academy members.  This film details the filmmaker's aborted attempt to adapt Dune for the screen.  If the much more accessible Lost in La Mancha couldn't get nominated, it's unlikely Jodorowsky's Dune can.

Alive Inside
As mentioned earlier, the average age for Academy voters as of 2012 was 62, and films about the aging tend to get noticed by the Academy.  Alive Inside was given the Audience Award at Sundance, and an inspiring look at the benefits of music therapy for senior citizens.  If the category is dominated by emotionally draining, hard-hitting films, look for Alive Inside to eke out a nomination.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Backdraft (1991)

3 Nominations, 0 Wins

Nomination: Best Effects, Sound Effects Editing - Gary Rydstrom and Richard Hymns
Nomination: Best Effects, Visual Effects - Mikael Salomon, Allen Hall, Clay Pinney, and Scott Farrar
Nomination: Best Sound - Gary Summers, Randy Thom, Gary Rydstrom, and Glenn Williams

Firefighter GIF

I was seven years old when Backdraft was released, and though my parents - in a rare but understandable moment of parental censorship - did not allow me to see the film, I lost many nights of sleep while dreaming of my house burning in the fires shown in the trailer for Backdraft and experienced at the Backdraft attraction at Universal Studios Hollywood.  While countless films and television shows have had scenes of dramatic fires since Backdraft, none have felt as real or dangerous. 

One of the best remembered (and most ridiculed by real firefighters) lines from Backdraft comes from Robert De Niro's character Donald Rimgale: "(Fire is) a living thing.  It breathes, it eats, and it hates."  Yes, this line is goofy and overtly anthropomorphic, but it accurately describes the film's fires.  The team of Mikael Salmon, Allen Hall, Clay Pinney, and Scott Farrar did outstanding work in creating the film's fire scenes.  Though computer-generated effects can offer cinematic experiences that could never be produced by conventional effects, there's something about traditional effects that hasn't yet been replicated by computers.  The fire scenes are dramatic in large part because the audience knows that real people are running through the fires as the scene is being filmed.  Yes, they are stuntmen, but they are in much more danger than an actor in front of a green screen.  Director Ron Howard and the effects team, working with the sound effects team of Gary Rydstrom and Richard Hymns, do wonderful work together in creating suspenseful, exciting, and oddly beautiful action sequences.

The scenes without fires, however, were not nearly as successful.  One of the film's very first decisions - casting Kurt Russell in the dual roles of a father and a son - left me questioning Howard's judgment, and the bad decisions keep coming.  William Baldwin's performance is easily mockable, the motivations behind the actions of characters are as silly as they are confusing.  The film's biggest issue is that there are just too many plotlines, causing the film to wander.  I loved De Niro's Rimgale, and would have gladly watched a film about his inspections of fires.  Donald Sutherland is equal parts campy and scary, and J.T. Walsh is as great as always.  Each of these characters could have been the protagonist of a film, and it's hard not to get the sense that any of these films would have offered a more compelling story than Backdraft.  

The main story of the film, the rivalry and battles between brothers Steven and Brian (Russell and Baldwin, respectively), isn't terribly interesting.  We've seen these brotherly battles before and since, and there are no surprises here.  I always enjoy Kurt Russell, and his screen presence is undeniable, but with a weak script and a co-star that is fighting far above his weight class, Russell can't do much.

The structure is a mess, the acting is uneven, and the personification of fire all drag the film down.  Yet with the one-two punch of unforgettable action sequences and the gifted trio of De Niro, Sutherland, and Walsh, I'll never change the channel when Backdraft is on TV.