Final dispatch from Oscar Land. Reporting from Far Places today. Jordan, Romania and Mars. And a final word from Brooklyn and the UK.
I am momentarily satiated with movies so these last three will get short shrift. They are Theeb, Aferim and The Martian. There are five nominees in the foreign film category. Only three are available at this time: Theeb, Mustang and Son of Saul. To make up the five, I added Aferim and Rams. Even relatively mild OCD kicks in at the oddest times—five nominations, then I must see five films of Academy foreign film genre!
Theeb was almost the first seen in this meandering journey through Oscar Land. And remains indelibly imprinted on my mind’s eye. Beautiful beautiful, filmed in epically scenic Jordan, mostly in Wadi Rum. It’s an adventure story with ‘coming of age’ overtones. A Bedouin boy and his older brother take on a guiding mission with a British soldier during WW 1 right after the Great Arab revolt, and the story goes on… The actors are really from the Bedouin community…untrained, real, excellent. When I make ‘my choices’ list in a little while, Theeb will be near the top for its beauty, authenticity and historical perspective.
It just so happens that The Martian, which I surprised myself and like a lot, was filmed in that very same Wadi Rum as Theeb. So for the surreal landscape alone it is worthwhile. But it’s also Swiss Family Robinson, one of my all-time favorite kid books, brought up to date. How to survive when marooned wherever. Plus I’ve always favored Matt Damon over Leonardo DiCaprio. However we all know Matt is not going to win because Leo worked so damn hard being cold dirty alone lost abused-by-bear-and-man-alike. It’s okay, I’m resigned.
Then there’s Aferim. One weird Romanian flick. Shot in black and white and, you will swear, shot in the 1800s. How they recreated that society, peasant villages and all, is impressive. Aferim is rude, crude, funny, horrifying and as politically incorrect as could be, but definitely fits a slot of innovative filmmaking. I tend to believe the critics who say it’s ‘deeply intelligent’ while still pushing all sorts of buttons concerning what Romanian society was really like at that time. Maybe it is a sort of Canterbury Tales story in a way—I will retain the vision of the father, a sort of sheriff, and his son riding through the countryside, meeting (and insulting and abusing) a great variety of people.
Enough. Except for a final word about Brooklyn, pleasant non-event…boring really. And Amy…shouldn’t a documentary make you care about something in the story. Anything. The people, the cause, the place, the time, the film quality, the music, the food…something, anything? Amy does none of the above.
Done. NOW. A whole day of Downton Abbey rerunning Season 6 as background before the finale next weekend. Yay…11am to 5pm with my Downton people. Another one of those ‘life is good’ days.
Idealism, Cynicism and the Wars Between
M. Neset Here. Tonight I’m the Academy’s war correspondent. Bridge of Spies, Son of Saul, What Happened, Miss Simone?, Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom, The Look of Silence, and Cartel Land are all about wars of one kind or the other. Or is that politics as the famous Clausewitz quote would have it, “…War is not merely a political act, but also a real political instrument, a continuation of political commerce, a carrying out of the same by other means.”
Here’s one way of looking at some of the nominees and their message(s)—by following a little bit of a theme based on this quote from writer David Wolf, “Idealism is what precedes experience; cynicism is what follows.”
Starting with idealism then…What Happened, Miss Simone? does what the best documentaries do, give us the person and/or the time and/or the event(s) up close and personal. I knew way too little about Nina Simone the Blues singer, and less about Nina Simone, civil rights activist and songwriter of “Mississippi Goddam” and “To Be Young, Gifted and Black.” Now I am a fan. One might wonder if we’re not on a course to need an “America Goddam” if the current political landscape doesn’t change.
Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom is brimming over with idealism. Another surprise for me. Realizing how shallowly I had followed the news from the Maidan, also realizing without Aljazeera we would, and will again shortly, have little international news on television…time for some serious streaming from elsewhere in the world and giving our television media over to pop politics, sports and weather disasters—oh yeah, and gunplay.
What happened in Ukraine is that people like us took to the streets and forced a government out of office. Like us—ordinary working and professional people of all ages and at all economic levels. We’re not there yet, too many of us still just comfortable enough to keep us in our houses in our connected Cloud worlds which the bullets haven’t pierced. Mostly. Yet.
Moving on to experience. Son of Saul is a horrific portrayal of real life and events that took place in Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1944. It’s the story of one Hungarian prisoner’s attempt to bury the body of a boy that may be his son in a sanctioned Jewish ceremony. As the gassings and burnings and shootings of and by his fellow human beings crowd around him, he undertakes a series of desperate measures to find a rabbi who can conduct a proper burial, in fact risking an escape plan to do so. This is one dark, dreary, intense and soul-wearying movie.
Tom Hanks offers up a cold war experience in Bridge of Spies. It is just such a good old fashioned spy story with Tom Hanks playing Tom Hanks as he does so perfectly—this time he’s Tom Hanks the spy with the worst sniffly stuffy cold/flu symptoms one could have in the worst possible place to have them—freezing and newly divided Berlin.
Moving right on to cynicism. The Look of Silence and Cartel Land will make the most idealistic among us go ‘Oh what’s the use!’ The Look of Silence is just that—a long piercing quietly questioning look at what happened to one young activist in Indonesia’s ‘anti-communist’ purge during the 60s. Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing, nominated as best doc a couple of years ago, covers much the same territory but without the very personal story told in The Look of Silence by a young optometrist whose older brother was murdered during the purge. Some reviews describe the movie as ‘stomach-churning’ and yes that is true.
If you need another dash of cynicism move right on to Cartel Land and try to figure out who the good guys are, who the bad guys are and what separates them. Mexican villagers and their horny doctor-leader fighting the cartels or the crazy dude on the American side of the border leading his merry band of racists against the border crossers. Why is everyone so damn flawed?
I found this quote by Nikita Khrushchev on-line. It seems to go well with the cynicism part: “Politicians are the same all over. They promise to build a bridge even where there is no river.”
One more post and my Oscar work for this year will be complete.
The Big Short Beasties
The Big Short was kind of funny, kind of sad, all terrifying if you stop for a minute to contemplate the ‘Beasts of Banking.’
Please go to the review in the Times (URL below) so I do not have to make the slightest effort to describe the content of this film. I’ll just say that it’s a comedic docudramatic account of how a lot of mediocre but very greedy people in every branch of banking and real estate brought a lot of the financial world and by default a lot of real people to their knees…and how a few smart and maybe slightly less flawed guys saw it about to happen and made a ton, a Ton, a TON of money with their foresight—and felt a bit sad about it.
It really is an odd film, not exactly a story like Wolf of Wall Street, with a ‘main character’; here money is the main character and it has a perverse sense of humor. One of those films you can just as well watch on the small screen. But good.
So much film, so not-enough time, American and foreign films and documentaries. Eighteen in all. Oh yeah plus a couple of films with black stars or directors that should have been nominated. Twenty then. Five down, fifteen to go. Only evenings after gym when I’m too tired to do anything else are eligible as show times. And Saturday night after writing all day.
See what I do. Make everything too much. So I almost fail. Or fail.
But what a treat it all is anyway. Friday night it was Room. The book drew great praise but I did not read it. And honestly, went reluctantly to the show…which turned out to be excellent. It gave reality to the horror stories of real-life kidnapped women, held prisoner and bearing their captors children. I know there are books out there and probably documentaries from actual incidents but I’ve missed them so this was my Oscar-film reality check.
A review tells us very succinctly the gist of the story: Held captive for years in an enclosed space, a woman (Brie Larson) and her 5-year-old son (Jacob Tremblay) finally gain their freedom, allowing the boy to experience the outside world for the first time. The action, or lack thereof, takes place in the smallest of spaces, the garden-shed prison and, although the pace is deliberate, Larson and the boy, Jacob Tremblay, keep us with them. The kid, in fact, should have been nominated for an Oscar. Truthfully he is as good as Quvenzhané Wallis, the girl in Beasts of the Southern Wild and that is about as good as it gets.
In any case this intimate, almost claustrophobic, small film manages to feel authentic and kind of important.
My Mad Max
Max as she was ever-so-fondly known (the memory of why I named her Mad Max is lost to time) was the world’s smartest and most beautiful dog. I loved her dearly and she was my very best traveling companion (Teresa, you are next best…).
If I had her to rename I’d probably call her Furiosa after Charlize. About Mad Max Fury Road. The new Mad Max is not a movie I would usually see. I was however in Grand Rapids, Minnesota this summer with Robert and Marsha and, wanting to go to the show (as we called movies/films back in the day), it turned out the only halfway seeable prospect was…the new Mad Max. And now that it’s been nominated I am so happy to have gotten it out of the way early.
Let me hasten to add it wasn’t really a bad experience. Charlize Theron is my idea of the perfect ‘tough broad’ so that gave us old ‘libbers’ someone for whom to cheer. Still, basically, all Mad Maxes are boys’ gigs. Lots of big bad vehicles, including cars, car parts, car parts pieced into weird configurations, car parts broken, repaired, glued, bullet riddled…you get the picture. All accompanied by a few nearly-naked seriously-voluptuous sweaty dirty 100% gorgeous women. Good stuff, right guys. And yay for Charlize who made all that roaring and banging and speeding almost palatable.
I picture a wild creature, lean and swift and tough, racing against the wind. And the mustang in this movie is just that…a wild young girl racing against her family’s attempts to tame her. Mustang is a beautiful film, submitted for a foreign film Oscar as a French/Turkish/German production. I had a lovely couple of hours at the Guild—the last time I was there was sometime in the 80s for The Gods Must be Crazy (Botswana). Once again I’m vowing to go often from now on. It’s like being a kid at the Royal Theater in Northome, Minnesota.
Here’s part of a review from The Atlantic:
Mustang tells a straightforward story of female empowerment, but it’s the way it tells that story that makes it deserving of all the accolades it’s received, including an Oscar nomination for best foreign-language film. Though the movie has won (superficial) comparisons to The Virgin Suicides, it has a more distinctly female perspective and is too close to its subjects to feel voyeuristic. The trouble begins in the first 10 minutes of the film, when some nasty gossip and a misunderstanding turns innocent fun into a minor sexual scandal, leading the girls’ relatives to increasingly shut down their access to the outside world. The Turkish-born French director Deniz Gamze Ergüven balances out the film’s creeping claustrophobia with quiet (and not-so-quiet) acts of rebellion, unexpected humor, and warmth, and the result is a tender and fresh coming-of-age film that honors the bonds of womanhood and sisterhood without taking them for granted.
Why do foreign films seem both more authentic and less real than those we make here? But then I am so very stupid about filmmaking although not about the stories they tell. Do other countries make more films on the locations where the story actually claims to take place? Somehow the locations seem to play bigger roles in the foreign film offerings. Loved Mustang. GIRLS RULE.
A Cranky Critique of Oscar Night
Last movie word I promise. Oscar night was good at my place. Nice movie-smart friends brought delicious Oscar-themed food, the apartment was warm and cozy, the wine was fine. Perfect, yes?
But then came the actual show. The Academy Awards. Didn’t it seem like there was more than an average number of puffy white and pastel dresses, sort of faux-50’s-prom-like? Then the standard red-carpet blather. Then the sly and initially funny Neil Patrick Harris. Then the boring Neil Patrick Harris. Then underwear-clad Neil Patrick Harris. Slight depression set in. I was longing for Downton Abbey but my film friends came over to visit Hollywood…not the Abbey. THEN the momentum of the commercial breaks increased. And Neil Patrick Harris was babbling—but at least he had his pants back on. Those of us still hanging in there were tired but we had too much time invested not make it to the grand finale.
The awards had been piling up for Birdman. I was pouting. I had a stake in Boyhood. It’s my story. My sons’ story. It’s ours dammit. Boyhood is a quintessential American story and yet it feels almost European. It take its time. No Flash-bang. No frills. Just an ordinary story of time and family.
Oh well. Eventually I had to accept that Boyhood was not going to win. That it was going to be Birdman was unavoidable. Hey Birdman is a good show. Fast and furious and fun and games. The other BP nominees felt flatter and flatter over the course of the evening. Selma lost its righteous glow; The Imitation Game stayed solid…meaningful… maybe a little dull…; The Theory of Everything showed that in spite of your hideous disease you can share your genius with the world and be a bit of an egocentric jerk besides; Whiplash proved…well nothing really. The Grand Budapest Hotel is a crazy romp through some nasty history. It actually is a bit special. But it lost too.
So My Movie Did Not Win. Bad Hollywood. Bad Academy. I won’t play next year because I’m mad at you. So there.
Enough With the Movies
And then there was Selma, Last Days in Vietnam, Finding Vivian Maier and Ida. All important, intelligent and wildly different. Selma, an engrossing film from any political historical perspective. Martin Luther King Jr. and Lyndon Baines Johnson as flawed but powerful men. MLK was steadfast in his quest for voters’ rights for African Americans…pretty much. President Johnson was supportive but reluctant…maybe. And yes, as one critic, said, it is more political maneuvering than action, much like Lincoln two years ago, which is a welcome change. Still I wasn’t quite as engaged as I had hoped to be.
Which leads me to Last Days in Vietnam and Finding Vivian Maier. Already talked about Virunga—the best of all—and missed Citizen Four at the Guild. Can’t find The Salt of the Earth. While Last Days in Vietnam is exactly what it says; it is less gripping than one might imagine given all of those old newsreels. It avoids the politics of the era altogether which seemed a little strange to me. Finding Vivian Maier was delightful. There is this ordinary nanny/brilliant photographer, completely unknown, generally rather unlikeable, who collected a mass of photographs of everyday people going about their various businesses that is almost unbelievable in quantity and quality.
Ida, a Polish Jewish Nun. Yes that’s what I said. A haunting tragic story. The Jewish orphan saved and deposited at a Catholic nunnery by the Polish farmers who murdered the rest of her family during the reign of the Nazis. She is in the process of becoming a nun when she learns the truth through a relative. It has the look I always expect from foreign films, maybe because I see too few. None of the emphasis on speed and action and too-muchness of many American films. Ida was the one foreign film I managed to see. I must keep my eyes open and make dedicated plans to go to the Guild more. The only place to see almost anything outside of the main stream in this town. I will. I will. I will. I’m voting for Boyhood for sentimental reasons and Selma for meaningfulness. And The Grand Budapest Hotel for fun-with-history.
More Movie Thoughts
CLOWNS, PUT OUT TO PASTURE.
Something for everyone. My favorite of this lot was The Grand Budapest Hotel which I wish I would have watched in a theater instead of the smallness of my living room—the grand scenes of derring-do warranted a bigger screen and popcorn. New Yorker critic, Richard Brodie, believes this is the best of the eight best picture nomination but that doesn’t have a chance for an Oscar because people like their “historical politics at simplistic face value.” Which makes sense since history is hardly taught in schools at any level. Although I understand most of the deciders in the Academy were students back in olden times when the likes of history and geography and literature were considered serious subjects most younger moviegoers don’t have a clue. Guess what audience corporate Hollywood is after.
Birdman is the only other Best Picture nominee that might be brilliant. There are layers and layers and layers in both Budapest and Birdman (as an ad for Birdman repeats ad nauseam) but now that I think about it I prefer layers about history versus layers about ego-maniacal performers.
The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything are movies about very smart people who overcome…achieve…and, one way or the other have or are meeting tragic or unpleasant ends. I liked them both. They were excellent AND ordinary.
Then there’s Whiplash. Which was certainly intense—but I think. New Yorker’s Brodie says it best:
Whiplash” is a classic Sundance script: the plot is so tight that it leaves out the story, the characters so simplistic that they leave out the people. It appeals to Hollywood self-pity; the drummer goes through a masochistic hell as an underling and finally gets ahead as a defiant noisemaker. It depicts success as abject self-abasing obedience followed by a triumphant fuck-you. The movie is too narrow-bore for Best Picture, though. The New Yorker/February 17, 2015.
Evening now: Just watched “The Judge” on Direct TV because Robert Duvall is up for best supporting actor and because I feel mildly awful. Good enough movie. Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall were pretty spectacular actually. But nothing quite gripping enough about this particular down-south lawyer story to make it worth thinking a lot about. Okay so it took place in Indiana—it felt down-home, down-south-like.
Did I tell you I once stole a picture of Janice Rule from my friend Susie’s movie magazine? It may be the only thing I ever just flat out stole—and you don’t even know who Janice Rule was do you? An actress (later psychoanalyst!), who looked like I wanted to look. Very all-American pretty face, tall and slim, with glossy long brown hair—which didn’t exactly happen—although I was prettyish and tall and slim but the hair was always all wrong and insubstantial, wasn’t it? I must have seen my heroine Janice in a movie but I have no idea what or when. In any case I loved her. And stole her picture right out of one of the Photoplay Magazines Susie had somehow acquired.
I still love movies but it is a love to which I am very untrue. I grew distant during a period of time when I had three jobs, two kids and almost no money. Since then I’m afraid my passion only reappears when I’m lonely in a foreign city or just before Oscar’s time.
Here I am then, less than a week before the big Academy blowout—the red carpet and the glamour and the maudlin funny awkward serious bizarre speeches of gratitude. I love it, at least until sometime before the end when I don’t. Since my friend Susanna and I have tried to see every nominated film and as many foreign films and documentaries as possible, it should be a fairly engrossing viewing year.
And we’ll have our party. Remember. My house. Around 5. A few movie fan friends, each bearing a movie-related food item. Small disagreements, the ballots, un vin ou deux and our stars will appear…and disappear as quickly. The magic moment.
Here’s my list so far of the big boys I’ve seen:
Birdman, Boyhood, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The imitation Game, Whiplash, Selma—tonight is The Theory of Everything on Direct TV. Then there are Into the Woods, Ida, Unbroken, Finding Vivian Maier, Last Days in Vietnam and Virunga.
I’m skipping American Sniper—whether as a protest over American gun-love in war-form guise or over a fat Bradley Cooper—it’s hard to know.