Selma, Black Actors and Oscar

Throwing some thoughts into the mix….

There’s always some kind of “scandal” surrounding the Oscar nominations, and the key word is “snub.” If you were magnificent in a film but people in Hollywood don’t like you, they say you’re snubbed. Or if you got a lot of press but didn’t get nominated, you’re snubbed, which is a way of creating conflict and generating more press.

This year, Jennifer Aniston supposedly was snubbed because she wasn’t nominated for Cake. Same with Angelina Jolie for directing Unbroken. And there’s the biggest, most genuine, shock of all for those on the inside, and that’s the absence of The Lego Movie in the animation category, one it was supposed to win.

But in a year where wrists got sore from pulling out the race card on every other event, Selma is the big Oscar snub story of the moment. It was indeed nominated for Best Picture and was nominated and will win Best Song for “Glory.” It will likely earn a standing ovation from the crowd come Oscar night when it’s performed (as this is how Hollywood will “make up” for the supposed snub when they overpraise the performance of this good piece of music.) But it wasn’t nominated for Best Actor, a true oversight, and it wasn’t nominated for Best Director.

There is of course the issue of racism in the film industry, which is mostly white and male. To think that no one in the general liberal camp of Hollywood is not racist is absurd, of course. But it’s just as absurd to say that because there are many white males voting, that that would be the key reason not to nominate Ava DuVernay, a black female, as director.

First of all, take a look at who also didn’t get nominated: Clint Eastwood, for a film that gathered six nominations including Best Picture, American Sniper. Was he not nominated because he’s considered something of a conservative? That wouldn’t be a good reason not to nominate anyone, especially when he’s given us some of the best work he’s done in a decade here. Then there is David Fincher, who did one of the finest directorial jobs of the year with Gone Girl, which only got one little acting nomination. It was brilliantly directed, and went from something of a front-runner to an also-ran in just a few months. And there is Christopher Nolan, whom many thought was a shoo-in with Interstellar. DuVernay is in good company.

From where this author sits, her work in Selma simply didn’t deserve the nomination. While we enjoy historical moments as much as the next person, to nominate someone just because it would be the first black female nominated as director shouldn’t be enough to garner the nod. It’s not an opportunity missed unless she deserved it. To some, she did. To me and to others, she didn’t.

For those following such things, you already know that the timing of the film’s release was a problem, coming so late in the year. There was also an apparent problem with the screeners, the DVD versions of films put out to voters to encourage them to see the considered films in their busy schedules. I’m sure a few heads are rolling over at Paramount, and perhaps they should. Not getting enough screeners out is a serious goof-up, and those screaming racism need to back away, take a cleansing breath and consider the big picture this year behind the lack of nominations, including bad timing and marketing missteps.

The lack of Oscars for black actors, screenwriters, and directors is a reflection of the lack of blacks in the mainstream industry, both now and historically. Today’s filmmaking community, with the exception of some individuals, doesn’t consider itself racist at all, of course. The power players have always been about money, anyway, and if there were money to be made with black participants, it probably wouldn’t matter. Being historically white and male, it’s not surprising that voters might tend to lean toward what they are familiar with and comfortable with, but that idea extends far beyond race to the subject of indie films and the fine foreign products that make their way onto American screens. Voters vote what they resonate with.

Let’s take a quick look at the Oscars and black actors:

Hattie McDaniel gets the first nomination for a black performer as Best Supporting Actress for Gone with the Wind (1939). She wins it. Nine years later, Ethel Waters wins the same category nomination for Pinky. She doesn’t win.

Dorothy Dandridge gets the first Best Actor/Actress nomination in 1954 for Carmen Jones. She loses to Grace Kelly, who should have lost to Judy Garland.

It’s not until 1963 that Sidney Poitier wins for Best Actor for Lilies of the Field. Was he really better than Albert Finney in Tom Jones? Or Paul Newman in Hud? It was probably the fact that he was beloved and black that he won the award (or can’t I say that?)

Several other black performers were nominated between 1963 and today, including Denzel Washington for Glory and Whoopi Goldberg for Ghost (a rare and happy occasion for a comic performance).

Then we come to 2001, when the Best Actor and Actress Awards were won by Denzel Washington and Halle Berry, both of whom won, I believe, because they were black and Hollywood decided that this was going to be the year to do that. Washington’s performance for Training Day was a surprise nomination to me, and I took it as a sign of affection for Washington as a respected person in Hollywood that he would be nominated. But I didn’t think he was deserving of a nomination, much less the award. It wasn’t the strongest year, to be honest, and there is still the idea that if Russell Crowe hadn’t had a phone-throwing problem, he would have won his second consecutive Oscar for A Beautiful Mind. But Washington, IMHO, was nominated because he is respected and loved, and won because this was the year to honor black performers. (It may well have been a make-up for his loss for Malcolm X as well. It’s another bad habit of Hollywood to take care of what they think was an oversight by creating new ones.)

Halle Berry is a wildly variable actress, who can be fine in one film and awful in the next. She was fine and dramatic and edgy in Monster’s Ball in an Oscar-bait performance, and hit her artistic peak with this film. She may well have deserved the award. But Hollywood nearly put its shoulder out of joint that year in congratulating itself for honoring black performers that year. No trace of racism there, unless it’s a problem to give an award because someone is black, which may well have been the case here with Washington.

Since then, we’ve had Jamie Foxx for Ray, Morgan Freeman for Million Dollar Baby, Forest Whitaker for The Last King of Scotland, Jennifer Hudson for Dreamgirls, and Mo’Nique for Precious. Last year we had Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong’o nominated for 12 Years a Slave, and the latter won. Barkhad Abdi was also nominated for Captain Phillips, but lost to Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club. There are varied, but generally good, reasons that black actors didn’t win when they were nominated. Mostly it was because it was felt that others did a better job.

Was The Color Purple robbed because it was nominated for 11 awards and won none? Was that racism, or could it be because in each category, someone was better? The Turning Point, a film on the rarefied world of ballet and catfights, was in the same situation. Was that anti-classical dance, or were there just better choices in all the categories?

This year had plenty of surprises, not only in the snub category. Marion Cotillard, one of the greatest film actresses alive today, was honored for her work in Two Days, One Night, possibly knocking out Aniston and Oscar favorite Amy Adams, who’d just won the Best Actress Award at the Golden Globes for Big Eyes. I saw Big Eyes and not the others, but from what I’ve read, it seems a good set of choices.

The only real “snub” for Selma was the omission of David Oyelolo as Martin Luther King, Jr. It’s a wonderful performance. But it’s also part of a film that many didn’t see in time. It’s also low-key and weighed down rather than intense, and lacks the big furniture-chewing moments that tend to draw nominations. That’s not necessarily right or smart, but it’s a fact, and it has nothing to do with the color of the actor.

Yes, Hollywood voters are generally white and male. But to define that entire demographic as racist is racist. The lack of nominations of black actors in general (and I use the term to refer to both genders) is part of film’s history in America. Last year’s winner for Best Picture was 12 Years a Slave, which was the best picture of the year. Last year, three out of 20 acting nominations were by black actors. This year, the 20 acting nominations didn’t include a black performer. Next year will be different again. Perhaps someday the entire conversation will be about the work, and not about the color of the folks working.

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Selma

Selma is the companion piece to American Sniper in terms of being a Rorschach test for America in early 2015. Those loving neat categories would place Selma on the left and American Sniper on the right, and might find some kind of balance there. This would miss the value of each film by a country mile.

Like American Sniper, Selma is, to some of us, a movie. It’s an important movie, and a good one—just not a great one. The Oscar snub business, always a fascinating topic, will be addressed in the next posting. This time, as with all films, I’m writing about the film as a film. (See the opening quote and the first paragraph of my writing on American Sniper–film-prof.com/2015/01/17/american-sniper/.)

Let’s jump first to Selma’s theme, which, along with the central performance, is the strongest part of the film and what grants it the majority of its emotional heft. It presents and ultimately celebrates a moment within a great moment in American history, when the rights of blacks to vote were at least legally guaranteed, one of several key steps forward in civil rights in the 1960s. Just addressing this topic with skill and artfulness is reason why this is an important film and one that should be seen by every adult in America.

Yet here is where this unassailable and respected element of the film finds its major problem area. It purports to show the history of a great man at one of his greatest moments, and we have no reason to believe that what we are shown about Dr. King is inaccurate. The brouhaha has been over the film’s treatment of President Johnson and his role in the Voting Rights Acts. For those who respect truth and think that films covering historical events should work extra hard to present as much truth as they can (like the author), this is a problem.

Director Ava DuVernay has been a bit defensive on the issue: “My response is that this is art. This is a movie. This is a film. I’m not a historian. I’m not a documentarian.” This is disingenuous at best (especially since she has a history of directing documentaries). She’s tackling a highly charged moment in American history with real people with real reputations who did real things. It doesn’t diminish King to have LBJ treated more accurately, though the dramatic conflict between the two might not have been as easy to locate and represent. It’s a weakness of the script that it had to bend truth to find drama. (Among recent films, The Imitation Game also did the same thing, but the license taken there was less damaging to the film and to history.)

Actually, her depictions of J. Edgar Hoover and George Wallace are less than convincing, and in some ways as stereotypical as previous generations’ representations of blacks in films. In fact, if one were committed to digging into the truth about Wallace and his perspectives, one would have to sharpen the representation to include an intelligent understanding of the state’s right/federal government tension of the time. But even an attempt to try to understand a state’s leader’s wrestling with the issue of states’ rights, for the sake of depth and truth, might trigger accusations of wanting to reinstate Dred Scott. Bottom line: it’s too easy to simplify, stereotype and unnecessarily throw figures under the bus to support a point that doesn’t need supporting. And that’s a weakness that unfortunately undermines the power and believability of the rest of the film.

Happily, the central performance by David Oyelowo as King is sublime. You can feel the weight of the responsibility King must have felt, as well as the bone-deep fatigue, both physically and emotionally. This holds the film together, and Oyelowo’s rhetoric soars nearly as high as those of King himself when he’s addressing the crowd. He well deserved an Oscar nomination, and should have been in Steve Carell’s “slot,” for those who think that way. (See the next posting on why he may not have received the nomination.)

There are other strong points. The sequence of the beatings following the first attempts at the march is fine filmmaking, combining music, editing and camerawork for a powerful and animated experience—a jolt of energy the film continually needed. On the more personal side, some of the intimate conversations between King and Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) bring a humanity and tenderness that softens the legend and reminds us of the personal cost of his work. There is a fine scene of a particularly painful question asked of King by Coretta, and the inordinately lengthy time he takes to respond is one of the finest uses of quiet in any recent film.

The film is far too talky at times, and can feel more like a historical reenactment with people working to describe the situation to the viewer rather than living it in front of us. King was obviously brilliant and articulate, but too many times the conversations of him and others are expositional, working to inform us of actions and attitudes that we might have inferred from something more visual, like, say, action.

The presence of famous faces is also problematic, though some might fold it into their political and emotional experience of the film. But seeing Oprah, an institution herself, along with Martin Sheen and Cuba Gooding, Jr. can be distracting, especially when every key black part is played by actors generally unknown outside of the trade. It pops the viewer right out of the film to see these renowned figures. It may add some element of “See, these people support the message of this film,” but it subtracts from the viewer’s engagement in the film and the credibility of its images.

Director DuVernay is a little like Angelina Jolie, who is also a young filmmaker with talent still relatively new to helming a large-scale dramatic feature. The film, while generally well acted, is too didactic and slow, and has a few exaggerated stereotyped performances of historical figures. But this is a good film, especially from someone with a relatively short resume. More than that, it addresses a painful subject in our history that needs to be looked at and discussed far more than it has. In the world of film art, it is a minor film. In the world of films on historical figures and tragic historical situations, it’s an important entry and should be viewed, the LBJ misrepresentation notwithstanding, by every American adult.

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American Sniper

Titus 1:15 To the pure, all things are pure…

To this Biblical passage I add, “to the political, all things are political.” This goes for film critics as well as politicians, and that has posed a few problems in covering American Sniper, one of the best films of the year.

You can almost palpably feel the angst in many a critic’s attempts to describe, praise or even evaluate the film objectively. To praise the film might be seen as a support for the war, or George W. in particular, or warmongers in general, and that slight possibility is anathema to too many reviewers, and throws them onto many a divergent path. This film may go down in history as a Rorschach test first and a work of art second.

As hard as it might be for some critics to handle, this is a film first and foremost. It’s a well directed, well acted, well paced and well written film as well. And for those who thought that director Clint Eastwood had lost his mojo—and there has been ample recent evidence—it’s a relief to see he hasn’t.

This is partly the story of the sniper with the single most kills in American military history, Chris Kyle. It mainly covers his tours in Iraq, and as such is one of the best-constructed war films in recent memory. But the film goes beyond that, and does it sensitively and realistically. It covers the effect of his work and the war on him and especially his family. That’s a difficult balance to maintain for any film, but American Sniper pulls it off.

This is due in great part to the two central performances. I say two because there has been a great deal of attention paid to Bradley Cooper, who bulked up big-time for the role and has turned from “that guy in the Hangover movies” to an actor enjoying his third acting Oscar nomination in three years. This is the best work he’s ever done, and by far the least ostentatious. Bradley’s performances in Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle were showy, edgy and appropriately over the top at times. Here he has nailed a character that is sure of himself—to a fault sometimes—and deeply committed to what he believes. It’s the opposite of flashy, but is strong and defined. Like Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side, an underrated actor creates a character and then simply lives that like character throughout (apparently he also stayed in character throughout the shoot). Cooper doesn’t just “act up a storm” in any given scene, or show us his acting chops, but embodies his creation.

Just as excellent is Sienna Miller, who rises to a new level in her role as Kyle’s wife Taya. In what could have been a throwaway role as the longsuffering wife, Miller makes this character as much of a specific individual as her husband. Miller has previously been known for her looks as much as anything. Here she brings an intelligence and raw reality we haven’t seen before. In some scenes, partly due to Chris’s reticence and Taya’s intense concern, Miller pops off the screen more than Cooper. If this role were in another film, she’d likely get an Oscar nomination, or at least be in the discussion for one.

The script succeeds in balancing a number of narrative threads, and it seems a juggling act at times. There is Kyle the sniper, and the intense difficulty of knowing when and whom to shoot. Then there is another, almost competing sniper on the other side of the war. Then there is his family, and the tensions there. Then there is the difficulty of adjusting to life back home when you’re still feeling the siren call (and what is that call, exactly?). Only the close of the story poses a slight problem narratively (spoiler alert), and it isn’t allowed to reflect back onto what we’ve already seen.

Eastwood has been known for underplaying for a long time, and his films receive some of their power from this understatement. But here he allows some genuine, heartfelt emotion to come to the surface in real-life contexts, not set pieces designed to demonstrate either the actor’s skills or the importance of the dramatic moment. This is his most rounded and balanced film in years.

American Sniper has carved out a new place for itself. It’s not The Hurt Locker or Zero Dark Thirty, though there are narrative similarities. It’s not a Bourne film, though the editing and sound editing work to create some similarly tense action sequences at times. It’s not The Green Berets, either, and can’t and shouldn’t be analyzed primarily from a political point of view. It’s the story of a man with deep convictions and with a talent that involves shooting. That may be hard to wrap one’s head around at times for some critics, but this is first and foremost a character study of an American soldier. Yes, it doesn’t condemn him for going to war, but nor does it shy away from the devastating impact that war can have on a body, a psyche, or a family. There may be thematic reverberations emanating the film, but it may be months or years before we can objectively see and analyze them.

In the meantime, this is solid, clean, mature filmmaking at its best.

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2015 Oscar Thoughts, #1

Today the Oscar nominations came out. There were a few surprises, and the usual bellyaching about snubs. Whatever…. BTW, I’ve posted the nominations below.

Best Picture
Only 8 nominees for Best Picture out of 10. No Into the Woods, no Big Eyes. That’s good. Otherwise, it’s all the usual suspects, with a surprise inclusion of Whiplash.

Best Actor
No surprises here, though Steve Carell’s nomination for Foxcatcher should have gone to Ralph Fiennes for his high-wire performance in The Grand Budapest Hotel. That was a stellar performance that looked too easy, and was comedy, and high comedy no less. The academy doesn’t tend to notice such accomplishments.

Nothing against Carell, but it’s normal to applaud comics who go serious, and do a genuinely good job. It’s that combined with the collective surprise of everyone that got Carell the nod.

Best Actress
Sorry, Jennifer (Aniston). No Cake jokes here, but this isn’t your year. Also, Amy Adams, who just won the Golden Globe for best comedy performance (in a non-comedy—go figure) in Big Eyes, wasn’t even nominated. Good decision. Instead of Jennifer or Amy, we have Marion Cotillard for Two Days, One Night. Cotillard is France’s Meryl Streep, with more emotion, and is a world-class actress. I’m glad she was recognized.

Best Supporting Actor
Glad Mark Ruffalo wasn’t passed over for his fine work in Foxcatcher. He has no chance of winning, but this time the nomination is the award. J.K. Simmons is a lock.

Best Supporting Actress
Glad that Laura Dern was nominated for Wild, but she could have easily been nominated for her equally fine work in The Fault in Our Stars. If it wasn’t for Patricia Arquette’s lock on the Oscar for Boyhood, this could have been Dern’s year.

Best Director
No Christopher Nolan (Interstellar), a bit of a surprise considering the technical achievement of the film (see last year’s director, and the year before!) No Ava DuVernay for Selma. Some are bemoaning the Academy’s not nominating the first African-American woman in this category, as if that were reason enough for a nomination. Of course this kind of skewed reasoning (to give a nomination for any other reason than the work itself) is behind many bad choices in nearly every year. What should be discussed is why the directing wasn’t considered good enough to be included. Are the film’s reputed historical inaccuracies the reason? Is the directing good, but others are simply better?

This kind of argument reminds me of when The Color Purple was nominated for 11 Oscars and won none. People were crying foul for all sorts of reasons. I took a careful look at all the categories and agreed that while each person nominated deserved a nomination (or nearly all, to be honest), that there was simply someone better in every category that year. That’s not snubbing. That’s simply losing. In Selma’s case, there is ample reason to believe that not enough folks saw it before nominations were due. Racism? Let’s try to remember last year’s Best Picture, shall we?

Perhaps the only other surprise was the omission of The Lego Movie from the list of nominations for Best Animated Film. It most certainly should have been there, and arguably should have won. But those that say the Academy is too married to traditional animation techniques and is a little too old or slow to pick up all the humor in the lightning-paced film—those folks might be right. Apparently not everything is awesome.
______________________________________________________________________________________________________

2015 Academy Award Nominations

Best Picture
“American Sniper”
“Birdman”
“Boyhood”
“The Grand Budapest Hotel”
“The Imitation Game”
“Selma”
“The Theory of Everything”
“Whiplash”

Best Actor
Steve Carell, “Foxcatcher”
Bradley Cooper, “American Sniper”
Benedict Cumberbatch, “The Imitation Game”
Michael Keaton, “Birdman”
Eddie Redmayne, “The Theory of Everything”

Best Actress
Marion Cotillard, “Two Days, One Night”
Felicity Jones, “The Theory of Everything”
Julianne Moore, “Still Alice”
Rosamund Pike, “Gone Girl”
Reese Witherspoon, “Wild”

Best Supporting Actor
Robert Duvall, “The Judge”
Ethan Hawke, “Boyhood”
Edward Norton, “Birdman”
Mark Ruffalo, “Foxcatcher”
J.K. Simmons, “Whiplash”

Best Supporting Actress
Patricia Arquette, “Boyhood”
Laura Dern, “Wild”
Keira Knightley, “The Imitation Game”
Emma Stone, “Birdman”
Meryl Streep, “Into the Woods”

Best Director
Alejandro González Iñárritu, “Birdman”
Richard Linklater, “Boyhood”
Bennett Miller, “Foxcatcher”
Wes Anderson, “The Grand Budapest Hotel”
Morten Tyldum, “The Imitation Game”

Best Animated Feature Film
“Big Hero 6″
“The Boxtrolls”
“How to Train Your Dragon 2″
“Song of the Sea”
“The Tale of the Princess Kaguya”

Best Adapted Screenplay
“American Sniper,” by Jason Hall
“The Imitation Game,” by Graham Moore
“Inherent Vice,” by Paul Thomas Anderson
“The Theory of Everything,” by Anthony McCarten
“Whiplash,” by Damien Chazelle

Best Original Screenplay
“Birdman,” by Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris Jr. & Armando Bo
“Boyhood,” by Richard Linklater
“Foxcatcher,” by E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman
“The Grand Budapest Hotel,” by Wes Anderson & Hugo Guinness
“Nightcrawler,” by Dan Gilroy

Best Cinematography
“Birdman,” Emmanuel Lubezki
“The Grand Budapest Hotel,” Robert Yeoman
“Ida,” Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski
“Mr. Turner,” Dick Pope
“Unbroken,” Roger Deakins

Best Visual Effects
“Captain America: The Winter Soldier”
“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”
“Guardians of the Galaxy”
“Interstellar”
“X-Men: Days of Future Past”

Best Documentary Feature
“Citizenfour”
“Finding Vivian Maier”
“Last Days in Vietnam”
“The Salt of the Earth”
“Virunga”

Best Documentary Short Subject
“Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1″
“Joanna”
“Our Curse”
“The Reaper (La Parka)”
“White Earth”

Best Film Editing
“American Sniper,” Joel Cox and Gary D. Roach
“Boyhood,” Sandra Adair
“The Grand Budapest Hotel,” Barney Pilling
“The Imitation Game,” William Goldenberg
“Whiplash,” Tom Cross

Best Original Song
“Everything Is Awesome,” from “The Lego Movie,” by Shawn Patterson
“Glory,” from “Selma, by John Stephens and Lonnie Lynn”
“Grateful,” from “Beyond the Lights,” by Diane Warren
“I’m Not Gonna Miss You,” from “Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me,” by Glen Campbell and Julian Raymond
“Lost Stars,” from “Begin Again,” by Gregg Alexander and Danielle Brisebois

Best Production Design
“The Grand Budapest Hotel,” Adam Stockhausen and Anna Pinnock
“The Imitation Game,” Maria Djurkovic and Tatiana Macdonald
“Interstellar,” Nathan Crowley and Gary Fettis
“Into the Woods,” Dennis Gassner and Anna Pinnock
“Mr. Turner,” Suzie Davies and Charlotte Watts

Best Live Action Short Film
“Aya”
“Boogaloo and Graham”
“Butter Lamp (La Lampe au Beurre de Yak)”
“Parvaneh”
“The Phone Call”

Best Animated Short Film
“The Bigger Picture”
“The Dam Keeper”
“Feast”
“Me and my Moulton”
“A Single Life”

Best Sound Editing
“American Sniper,” Alan Robert Murray and Bub Asman
“Birdman,” Martin Hernández and Aaron Glascock
“The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies,” Brent Burge and Jason Canovas
“Interstellar,” Richard King
“Unbroken,” Becky Sullivan and Andrew DeCristofaro

Best Sound Mixing
“American Sniper,” John Reitz, Gregg Rudloff and Walt Martin
“Birdman,” Jon Taylor, Frank A. Montaño and Thomas Varga
“Interstellar,” Gary A. Rizzo, Gregg Landaker and Mark Weingarten
“Unbroken,” Jon Taylor, Frank A. Montaño and David Lee
“Whiplash,” Craig Mann, Ben Wilkins and Thomas Curley

Best Costume Design
“The Grand Budapest Hotel,” Milena Canonero
“Inherent Vice,” Mark Bridges
“Into the Woods,” Colleen Atwood
“Maleficent,” Anna B. Sheppard and Jane Clive
“Mr. Turner,” Jacqueline Durran

Best Foreign Language Film
“Ida” (Poland)
“Leviathan” (Russia)
“Tangerines” (Estonia)
“Timbuktu” (Mauritania)
“Wild Tales” (Argentina)

Best Makeup and Hairstyling
“Foxcatcher,” Bill Corso and Dennis Liddiard
“The Grand Budapest Hotel,” Frances Hannon and Mark Coulier
“Guardians of the Galaxy,” Elizabeth Yianni-Georgiou and David White

Best Original Score
“The Grand Budapest Hotel,” Alexandre Desplat
“The Imitation Game,” Alexandre Desplat
“Interstellar,” Hans Zimmer
“Mr. Turner,” Gary Yershon
“The Theory of Everything,” Jóhann Jóhannsson

The 87th Academy Awards will air on February 22.

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Unbroken

Analyzing Unbroken so far after its release, and the day that the Oscar nominations came out, makes this a different kind of analysis:

Unbroken is a great sophomore effort by a young director with limited directorial experience. She happens to be half of the most famous couple on the planet, and will always be remembered as an Oscar-winning actress. It was assumed (one supposes) that between the scope of Unbroken and her star power that this was a guaranteed Oscar nominee, if not winner. It’s gotten three nominations, all in the technical area. It probably won’t win any.

Based on the early life and grueling POW experience of Olympic runner Louis Zamperini, the film is bumpy in pace, beautiful to look at, and curiously cool considering the events covered. Legendary non-Oscar-winner cinematographer Roger Deakins (nominated for his 12th time for the film) has created a variety of looks for the film, most of which work for the scene they are recording but which makes the unsteady pace seem that much more so; flashbacks are sepia and dark in the Zamperini home before the war, then it’s crystal clear, then we have a typical blue-grey scene that achieved its apotheosis in the LOTR movies. Then we have some Gone with the Wind shots of orange skies with silhouettes. All of it’s beautiful, and it’s as all over the place as the pace is.

Perhaps there is simply too much story to tell. Young boy becomes world-class runner and makes it into the Olympics with Jesse Owens and der Fuhrer. He gets shot down and endures an excruciating 47 days in a life raft. Then he gets captured by Japanese soldiers and finds himself in a camp run by a sadistic corporal who seems to have a psychosexual fixation on the poor guy and beats him at every opportunity. And that’s only the beginning of his life.

Director Angelina Jolie opens the film well, though the entire beginning is a little Norman Rockwell-ish. But once the plane crashes, she is literally and figuratively lost at sea. Perhaps in an attempt to make us feel the long languishing experience of three men lost in the ocean, Jolie spends far too much time on the experience. Instead of constructing the sequence to make us understand or even feel the weight of thinning bodies and seemingly endless time, the sequence goes on and on and we become emotionally disconnected at the same time we are mentally gathering the data that tells us how very long these guys were suffering.

In fact, “feeling” is something the film is strangely distanced from. We see the horrific action, but the film never gets inside the experience, only showing it to us from the outside. There is so much here to work with that perhaps Jolie, carrying her own reputation for extremes, was reticent to make too much emotional and dramatic hay with situations that were so inherently intense and violent. But throughout, we see alternately beaten, starving, or coal-covered POWs at a bit of a remove, witnessing their agonizing situations from just too far away to be anything but horrified. Jolie even goes so far as to keep the hitting and slicing of fish out of the frame, as well as much of the violence. It’s a welcome change from the rub-your-face-in-it of a Tarantino and so many others, but the loss is one of connection to the depth of pain undergone by the characters.

Happily for the film, there is Jack O’Connor as the lead. This is this year’s star-making performance, and O’Connor has won the Breakthrough Awards from many an organization to prove it. The film is completely his, and he carries it on his ever-thinning shoulders from the moment we see him until the end. He is the one that brings us as close as we get to experiencing the personal drama going on as Zamperini makes it through one abusive beating after another. The film won’t get close enough to the gut-wrenching emotional center of the entire years-long ordeal, but O’Connor carries that angst within his performance and keeps the entire film centered. This wouldn’t be the film it is without him. What the film doesn’t give us, he does. Acting-wise, he should be able to do anything he wants for quite a while.

There were great expectations awards-wise earlier in the year, but really for no good reason other than Jolie’s fame. This is a beautiful looking film that has a few set pieces in it, with a great central performance by a future star. It’s well directed, but not anywhere near expertly so. (For heaven’s sake, it’s the woman’s second feature, and for a second feature, it’s great.) Jolie is a director to watch, though, especially with actors.

There was an attempt to sell this to a faith audience because of Zamperini’s later experience, becoming converted at a Billy Graham rally and extending forgiveness to his captors. In the coulda, shoulda column, it may well have had a much more passionate dramatic arc if it hadn’t ended with his arrival back at the States, but instead with his later meeting with his tormentors. It’s true that the film gives short shrift to his faith, but what little there is is honest and respectful, an increasing rarity in mainstream films these days. Some people of faith were disappointed that what Zamperini felt was the real center of his life story was just barely addressed, but at least his future experiences were addressed—albeit barely—and were done with proper deference to faith and forgiveness.

Unbroken is a good film about endurance that could have been a stronger film about endurance and forgiveness.

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An open letter to the creators of Exodus: Gods and Kings

Note: Normally, I write a critique of a film in the standard way. After viewing Exodus: Gods and Kings, I felt a note to the director, screenwriters and producers of the film seemed more in order.

Dear Mr. Scott, Myriad Producers and Several Screenwriters:

I managed to see Exodus: Gods and Kings just before it slipped out of town. Obviously, I wasn’t in a hurry, but due to the duel role of Christian pastor and film professor, I felt obligated to see it. I know the film didn’t succeed on the level you hoped, and I believe there are some good reasons for that. First, what’s good about the film, which is a lot:

The film is gorgeous, even in standard 2D, which is how I saw it. You, Mr. Scott, are a master of the visual, and that is perhaps the strongest part of the film. It’s difficult to make a classic epic in our cynical age, and your images are striking and sometimes breathtaking. You created a world that I believed in, a major challenge in epics of such scope.

You chose good actors for the main roles. Though I thought Moses looked particularly great for 80 (!)—which he was in the Biblical account—it was a wise decision to cast the intense and talented Christian Bale in the role. Perhaps you were following in DeMille’s footsteps with Charlton Heston from back in 1956 in casting a younger man. But whatever the reason, Bale is a solid choice. He brought a great deal of commitment to the character, and can handle both the broadest action sequence and the most tender intimate one.

Joel Edgerton is an underrated, talented actor, and he fit the part of Ramses well. His character wasn’t always clearly defined, but Edgerton’s screen presence more than makes up for that. Any film is improved by the presence and abilities of Ben Kingsley. His authority and acting talent were close to a perfect match for the part of Nun. That couldn’t have been done better.

But Bale was hobbled by an unsure focus on the character of Moses, and this is where the film began to break down. Is it a must nowadays to so severely deviate from the stories in the Bible and how they are presented? The average moviegoer understands that conversations need to be created and context needs to be given to famous events. You brought a strong sense of reality to scenes of life in the desert, for example, as well as personal conversations and the before-and-after scenes of the parting of the Red Sea.

But what you all did with the character of Moses was the strand that undid the whole film. And this is where two elements of missing the mark come in: You missed gaining the audience of Jewish and Christian believers and you tore the dramatic heart out of the story at the same time. This weakened the film immeasurably and took away your chance to be the huge hit (and classic) it could have been.

Following the same tortured logic that crippled Noah, you’ve added the wrong kind of psychological complexity to your main character. What the Noah team did so wrong (aside from the ancient Transformers that ruined the film for so many), was to take an incident that any common Bible reader knows happened later (Noah’s drunkenness) and attach it to the ark ride, using the future incident to give Noah an edge of cray-cray that wasn’t justified and made the whole film careen out of control from that point on.

What you did here is bonk Moses on the head, and therefore turn all his conversations with “God” into a possible set of hallucinations. That wasn’t bad enough, but then you validate “God’s” presence and reality through all the plagues. So is your “God” real, or not?

Then there is the most confusing and offensive artistic decision, and that is to present God as a petulant boy. I understand that visualizing God isn’t the easiest thing in film, and I applaud your attempt to forego the usual deep baritone voice with reverb and search for some kind of visual expression in a visual medium. But seriously, this was a huge misstep that kept too many folks from enjoying and therefore recommending the film. You might have gone the “angel of the Lord” route (ask your religious advisor), and that might have been some kind of justification for creating a more human-like being. But you have the boy say, “I am,” and that puts him right in the God camp. Then “God” gets touchy and begins to deviate from the Biblical account, and just like that you’ve lost your audience.

Then the worst decision of all was made. You shot an arrow through the dramatic heart of your story and simultaneously alienated the audience that knew something of the story: You took Moses completely out of the plagues. Check your Bible again. Moses and his staff were an integral part of the plagues.

Then you compounded that error by losing any chance of retaining the core of the drama, which would have been the Moses vs. Pharaoh confrontations. Seriously, a version of the Exodus without the phrase “Let my people go!”? Were you so loathe to stay away from anything in The Ten Commandments that you let that central line slip? And then you made the real confrontation the unsubstantiated and truly unbelievable one between the two men just as the final huge wave engulfs them—as if pulling out the “this time it’s personal” dynamic? What could have been a powerful dramatic series of clashes gets cut out and replaced by a silly, unsupported face-off that’s dwarfed visually and dramatically by a big wave.

Now I must stop for a compliment. We certainly didn’t need to see all the many Biblical accounts of the direct conflicts between Moses and Ramses, and you presented the plagues (mostly) so well. We will forgive the crocodile thing, which was unbiblical and didn’t make sense; and really, were those sharks I saw, in a river, or what I just dreaming I saw them?

But moving from one plague to another was creative and beautifully done. The momentum you created in doing that helped bring some energy to those scenes, and unfortunately, that was the only energy they got. They could have been incredibly intense if you had connected them to the Moses/Ramses conflict; then they would have been full of suspense and real drama. Instead, you gave the agency to “God,” which made the whole thing unconnected from anything to do with Moses or Ramses. And doing all that took the tension out of the whole “Let my people go!” dramatic arc. So not only did you alienate anyone who believed in the Biblical account of the Exodus by doing this, you gutted the dramatic heart of the film. Huge mistake all around.

I understand that the new gold standard for films about faith is The Passion of the Christ, and everyone has been looking to re-create that lighting in the bottle ever since that film’s success. Yes, all his faults aside, Mel Gibson has a good eye (and hired a great cinematographer), and is a rough-and-tumble director, just the thing to add some energy to his Biblical epic. But there is something else Gibson brought to the table that none of the other epics have done: genuine faith in the story and the material. Clearly the final decision-makers for Noah and Exodus didn’t have faith in the original accounts, and it shows. Gibson did, and that is the single biggest difference between his film and these others. If you had simply done a straightforward account of Moses actually hearing from God without questioning his mental state, and of Moses being involved in the plagues, running into Pharaoh’s pride and stubbornness, you’ve have created a new classic.

There are other quibbles to be had, of course. The film has an uneven pace, characters are given short shrift (why bring in Sigourney Weaver if you’re not going to use her character or is her performance is left on the cutting room floor—to use an outmoded expression?), and there is little relation between the soft, intimate, tender scenes and the big long shots and epic battles? (See any of the Lord of the Rings films to see how to do that.)

Also, as good as most of the effect were, The Good Earth did a better job with the locusts, and the birds in the background of one of the beautiful long shots seemed a bit large for supposedly being so far away.

What a lost opportunity this film is! Such beauty, such talent, such an epic scope. Here’s an idea. You don’t have to believe the Biblical accounts yourself. But trying following it with sincerity, letting that challenge be your greatest artistic hurdle. The results have to be better than what we’re seeing now. And if you had, this film coulda been a contenda.

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Big Eyes

When we talk about “story” in my film class, we often talk about how much it means to American moviegoers and how little it can mean to filmgoers from other cultures. Many students come into class professing that their sole interest in the film is the story. While that changes by the end of the semester—one of my goals for the class—story is sometimes the one thing that holds a film together.

Case in point: Big Eyes. It could and should have been so much more. Amy Adams and two-time Oscar winner Christoph Waltz as the two leads. Consummate stylist Tim Burton directing. None of those elements really work. What does is the amazing and true story of Margaret and Walter Keane, she who created all those “big eye” paintings and he who marketed them and took credit for their creation. The story is the glue that just holds the various parts together—parts that never add up to a coherent whole.

It’s a David-and-Goliath story of sorts. She is shy but has something of a talent. He is anything but shy and has a talent for schmoozing and marketing. The screenplay provides a few “reasons” why she would allow him to take credit for her work, but nothing adequately explains her continued acquiescence to the scam. Yes, we’re told she rushed into the marriage because he was in need of support for her and her son. He is clearly presented as the brains behind the business success of the paintings, something the film makes clear she could never have accomplished on her own.

But even after the feel-good final scenes and the victory, we are left with some confusion. Why did she take so long to stand up to her husband? Why did she put up with his abusive behavior, aside from the Big Lie?

The film doesn’t make that clear, and neither does Adams’ performance. Apparently Adams hesitated doing the film for a while because she didn’t feel she could get into the character of someone who was so (apparently) easily used. She was right. She couldn’t. Adams is such a sympathetic actress, especially in parts like this, that we take her side from get-go. She hits the beats required of her by the action, but she never locks down on a character we can understand and, yes, fully respect.

Waltz, never one to be afraid of chewing any furniture on the set, here overreaches the entire time. While Adams is a soft and naturalistic presence in most films (even when she’s trying not be), Waltz almost can’t seem to help going bigger than life. On paper this might have worked for the enthusiastic salesperson that was Walter Keane. But Waltz never lets up, and it’s just too much.

Burton, of course, is something of a legend, but look at this previous work: Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, and Dark Shadows. Not much of an emphasis on naturalism or anything from a woman’s point of view. That’s one reason some people were excited to see what Burton would do with such a different story—and one based on real events. Miss Peregine’s Home for Peculiar Children and Beetleuice 2 are his next announced works, and perhaps that tells us something.

Burton succeeds in creating something of a slightly cartoonish version of the ‘50s and ‘60s, and that is consistent throughout. If he’s taking his cue from the paintings or his own view of that time and place, it works. The tone, however, is all over the place. There is one Burtonesque seen for those fans looking for evidence that this is a Burton film, but it’s jarring and seems out of place.

Between a story that’s both amazing and strange, Adams’ sweet, soft and slightly unfocused performance, and Waltz’s one-note high-intensity, Big Eyes is a mixture of elements that only barely coalesces. This time, however, the story is strong enough to contain the multi-directional acting and unsure direction. Even with those three artists at work, the story is still the best reason to see it.

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