#OscarsSoSilly

The Oscars should be taken seriously on a few levels. Sometimes they actually reward and encourage great work. At other times, they at least call attention to work that might otherwise be ignored. They can jumpstart a stalling career (or in the case of Best Supporting Actress, apparently begin the death process) or begin a new successful one.

But it’s good not to take them too seriously. They are not quite as silly as the Golden Globes, which admittedly have moved from the ridiculous (voters in the past seemed to be able to be bought by a few peanuts and a free drink) to the occasionally interesting. They lean European, of course, which makes sense considering that the group behind them is the Hollywood Foreign Press. That helps bring a little balance to the Oscars, which of course tend to skew American.

When we look over some of the more laughable Oscar wins in its history (does anyone seriously want to remember Renée Zellweger’s Cold Mountain award with fondness and pride?), it’s helpful to know what is really going on under the surface. Occasionally, a best “something” actually gets an award for that best work. Marion Cotillard for La Vie en Rose is a case in point. Yes, a foreign language performance, and it was the best of many a year. Also, Philip Seymour Hoffman in Capote, etc.

But many times, we are giving a career reward for someone the Academy hasn’t bestowed its golden man on at this point. Julianne Moore’s award for Still Alice was given for a wonderful piece of acting, and a great chance to give an “overdue” artist her award. (See also the Best Actress awards for Nicole Kidman for The Hours and Kate Winslet for The Reader, both of which could/should have been in the Supporting Actress category) Or the great performance was the year before, when someone else got the award, and this year, if you put in a good one, you’ll get the Oscar for that, even though we all know it’s a year-later consolation prize.

Perhaps the two most prominent actors receiving the consolation award were Bette Davis and James Stewart. Davis had reportedly come in second with a write-in vote for her work in 1934’s Of Human Bondage –meaning she wasn’t even officially nominated. Of course this was the year of the first five-award sweep (Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Screenplay) for It Happened One Night. If you look at Davis’s performance now in comparison with the other nominees, hers sails above them, even Claudette Colbert’s solid work in It Happened One Night. In a more perfect world, Grace Moore and Norma Shearer should have been out, and Myrna Loy should have been nominated for her stellar work in The Thin Man (which earned her film partner William Powell a nomination.)

In any event, it was generally recognized that the Academy had blown it big-time with their failure to nominate Davis. So she got the next year’s award for Dangerous. There was no real standout that year, so her win made some kind of sense. (She also won three years later, deservedly so, for Jezebel.)

But the James Stewart award mix-up may well have stemmed from the same year. Clark Gable won Best Actor for his good work in It Happened One Night, which meant that he wasn’t going to win for 1939’s Gone with the Wind, an admittedly stronger performance and probably the best of his career. For some reason, the Academy lost its head for a moment, passing over Stewart’s work in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (which still stands up) for Robert Donat’s in Goodbye, Mr. Chips, which really doesn’t as much. (That film is more remembered now for introducing us to the lovely Greer Garson than for Donat’s performance).

So what to do? Well, we’ll give it to Stewart for a perfectly fine but not special performance in The Philadelphia Story, over Chaplin in The Great Dictator, Olivier in Rebecca, and horror of horrors, over the man who should have won, Henry Fonda for his powerful work in The Grapes of Wrath. Fonda would have to wait until the 1980’s for his “he’s going to die, let’s quickly get him an award” award for On Golden Pond. (Fortunately, there was no performance for the ages among the nominees in that category, so why not give it to Fonda?)

Then there is the “if only they had waited a few years” element. For instance, Marlon Brando should have won Best Actor for his work in 1951’s A Streetcar Named Desire. No other performance in that very strong year had the impact and influence of that work. But it was time to reward Humphrey Bogart for his career and oh, yes, his work in that year’s African Queen. He was great in that film, but the award should have gone to Brando. It gets confusing, though, in 1955 (for the year’s previous films). That was the year that Brando finally did win his first Oscar, for his titanic work in On the Waterfront. That too was impacting and influential. But Bogart did fine work in The Caine Mutiny, and might have won for that if he hadn’t won a few years earlier. To confuse matters more, there were predictions that Bing Crosby was going to win for his dramatic (and best film) performance in The Country Girl, which dwarfed his Oscar-winning work in 1944’s Going My Way. Brando’s win makes sense, but it could have gone those two other ways for “other reasons” than giving the best performance.

Which leads us to…the personal affection factor. Speaking of The Country Girl, the lovely and well-liked Grace Kelly gave a solid “against type” performance in that film. And she won the Oscar. But it was over Judy Garland’s work in A Star is Born, which is wholly different, to be sure, but which still towers over the other nominees that year. Garland had caused a lot of problems for MGM in the late ‘40s, and wasn’t winning any new friends with how she and her producer husband were handling aspects of A Star is Born. People were tired of her antics, and Kelly had also done some solid work in Dial M for Murder and even better work in Rear Window the same year. So Garland lost. Shouldn’t have happened.

Then of course there is the single Oscar for screenplay for Citizen Kane, a film that should have cleaned up at the Oscars. But Orson Welles was a rather arrogant and obnoxious fellow, so it’s not surprising that things got personal—aside from the fact that not all that many folks recognized what a groundbreaking film it was.

Then there is the split vote (or I must confess, what I assume is a split vote). For instance, 1951’s An American in Paris won Best Picture. It’s a great film, but my guess is that A Streetcar Named Desire and A Place in the Sun (both great, serious, black-and-white classics) split the vote. The year before, the funny and talented Judy Holiday won Best Actress for Born Yesterday, an admitted comic classic (at least her performance, anyway). But this was the year that Anne Baxter insisted on being in the Best Actress category for All About Eve instead of Best Supporting (which she may well have won) with co-star Bette Davis, who gave the performance of her career. Also competing was silent film star Gloria Swanson, giving a classic performance in a great film, Sunset Boulevard. Davis should have won, but with all the vote-splitting going on, Holiday came out on top.

Perhaps the most egregious example is for 1935’s Mutiny on the Bounty. Since the Best Supporting category didn’t appear until the next year, there were three—count ‘em, three—nominees for Best Actor: Clark Gable, Charles Laughton and Franchot Tone. The winner? Victor McLaglen for John Ford’s The Informer. And Montgomery Clift and Burt Lancaster likely canceled each other out for 1953’s From Here to Eternity. But then, the winner, William Holden, was receiving his “we should have given it to you earlier” award. A lot of people thought he should have won for Sunset Boulevard (1950) and instead he won for Stalag 17 three years later.

Then of course there is the sweep factor. Perhaps the worst example of a sweep win was Charlton Heston’s in Ben-Hur. Seriously? He was probably the weakest in his category; the award at least should have gone to James Stewart for Anatomy of a Murder, which was several levels above Heston’s work. And though he was a fresh face and did fine work in 2011’s The Artist, it may well be that the love for that film swept Jean Dujardin into the winner’s circle that year. Oh yes, and Donna Reed in From Here to Eternity. And George Chakiris in West Side Story.

There’s also the career reward. That’s related to the “we should have given this to you for a stellar recent performance,” but not always. Paul Newman for The Color of Money. Jack Lemmon in Save the Tiger. Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman. Denzel Washington for Training Day. Leonard DiCaprio for The Revenant. Robert Duvall for Tender Mercies (fortunately, he also deserved that award). John Wayne in True Grit (though, again, if they’d waited, a more worthy film would have been The Shootist.) Mary Pickford in Coquette. Ginger Rogers in Kitty Foyle. Elizabeth Taylor in BUtterfield 8 (though this was coupled with the “you almost died, here’s your award” factor). Jessica Tandy in Driving Miss Daisy (good performance, but really a lifetime achievement award). Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich (sure, a really good performance, but Ellen Burstyn in Requiem for a Dream!!! Helen Hayes in Airport. John Mills for Ryan’s Daughter. Don Ameche in Cocoon. Jack Palance in City Slickers. George Clooney in Syriana. The list will go on and on.

The race factor. Hollywood has rightly been criticized, like the rest of America, for its institutional racism, which has denied many a black (or Asian, or whatever) actor or actress the career they perhaps might have had. So every once in a while, they try to balance the scales by honoring performances that perhaps don’t deserve the award. The recent #OscarsSoWhite controversy isn’t new. The first breakthrough came for Hattie McDaniel for a deserving performance in 1939’s Gone with the Wind. Since then…not much. But skipping back a few years, we find that (perhaps) some have won because of their race. I remember that when Denzel was nominated for Training Day, my immediate reaction was “Wow. They really like this guy. Not really deserving, but this is a sign of love. We’ll see who wins.” Well, the momentum began, and the patting on the back came early to Hollywood when there was a non-spoken (or was it?) group decision to favor both major actor categories with black winners. Halle Berry’s work in Monster’s Ball was surprisingly good, and a case can be made for it deserving the award over her competitors. (Unfortunately, she’s done little worthwhile since.) Denzel’s win for Training Day was unfortunate, too. IMHO, he didn’t quite nail the character, and Russell Crowe deserved it for A Beautiful Mind (the phone-throwing incident notwithstanding). In any event, Denzel’s was probably the weakest in the category. But it was Hollywood’s year to congratulate itself again by attempting to make up for its past sins. (See also Sidney Poitier’s award for a “nice” performance in 1963’s Lilies of the Field. Hello? Albert Finney in Tom Jones, or even Paul Newman in Hud?)

Then there is the simple “What the heck were they thinking, or smoking?” award. Best Picture to 1952’s The Greatest Show on Earth can be attempted to be excused as a career award for legendary director Cecil B. DeMille, who never won a competitive Oscar. But what about Around the World in 80 Days? Or The Sting? Or Rocky (over All the President’s Men)? Out of Africa? Dances with Wolves?

Bottom line? The Oscars are based on a huge variety of factors, some of which have to do with the quality of the work. That makes them interesting, important, occasionally silly, and never completely predictable.

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Thoughts on Oscar (2017)

This year’s nominations are anything but shocking, though you’d think there was drama galore according to some reports. But that’s just an attempt to wring some strum und drang from what is a pretty normal year.

Yes, it’s a big deal to have a picture win 14 nominations, as La La Land did. And while the number of nominations doesn’t predict the final total (1977’s The Turning Point and 1985’s The Color Purple both had 11 nominations and went home empty-handed), it’s likely La La Land will do well—though with two films nominated for Best Song, it’s sure to lose at least one in that category. Though it’s not a runaway smash, it’s a solid hit, and the timing of its rise as well as its worth will likely seal its win for Best Picture.

Side comment: It was good to see the generally under-appreciated Hell or High Water get a nomination for Best Picture. A modern western, it’s also a solidly made film with a great original screenplay (nominated) and solid performances, including Jeff Bridges with another nomination.

All of the films have their strengths, though some of the sentimental favorites (Lion, Hidden Figures, and even Arrival) don’t stand a snowball’s chance in Hades. But a nomination brings attention and dollars, and these are films worthy of both.

The only category that has suddenly gotten interesting is Best Actor. It’s been considered a lock up until now for Casey Affleck for his magnificent performance in Manchester by the Sea. But with Denzel Washington’s win at the Screen Actors Guild Awards for Fences, things are looking different. Denzel is deeply loved by the Academy, and Casey is an acquired taste, or even one who leaves a bad taste. I love Denzel, and would love to have coffee with him, while I’m not eager to share a caffeine moment with Casey. But I’m one of the few who thinks that Denzel, while a good actor who can occasionally touch being very, very good, he isn’t a great actor, and can be, yes, overrated. (If more than a few folks read this, I’d get hate mail for this statement. But no worries.) Affleck’s performance is one for the ages, and the fact that he hasn’t always behaved and doesn’t have the loyalty of other performers shouldn’t make a difference. I hope it doesn’t.

The Best Actress category brings me to one of my pet peeves. It’s the use of the word “snub.” Media coverage loves to create drama and exaggeration where there isn’t any, and the use of this word is very rarely accurate. For example, we are to believe that Amy Adams was “snubbed” because she didn’t get the expected nomination for Arrival. Or Hugh Grant for Best Supporting Actor for his excellent work in Florence Foster Jenkins (a must-see), or even perennial favorite Tom Hanks for Sully. It makes for fun speculation as to why someone got in and someone didn’t, but few folks are actually snubbed.

The reason Hanks didn’t get nominated is that he was merely solid, and the other male performances in that category were better. Same for Hugh Grant, though it would have been nice to see him get a nomination for what might be his best work. The speculation for Amy Adams is that her “slot,” a ridiculous idea, was taken by either Ruth Negga for Loving or La Streep for the aforementioned Florence Foster Jenkins. Negga has been getting solid buzz for a long time, and since race has been a big issue this past year (as if it hasn’t for the previous several hundred?), the nomination is also a respectful tip of the hat to the subject of interracial marriage. (Hollywood loves to pat itself on the back for its political correctness, and nominations like this are both deserving and feel-good at the same time.) Meryl Streep’s Golden Globe speech may well have locked in her Oscar nomination this year. But for those who don’t think her work here was special, think again. Streep has never been strong in comedies, and she shines here, though she plays the “straight woman” part rather than the one knowingly generating the laughs. Plus her technical work—singing off-key so precisely with just the right edge of self-deception—is a triumph right up there with Eddie Redmayne’s work with the growing physical debilitation of his character in his Oscar-winning role in The Theory of Everything, or Colin Firth’s combination speech impediment/stammer in The King’s Speech. Streep’s was a masterful performance made all the more amazing by how effortless it looked. Try thinking of anyone else in that role and you’ll realize how very good she was here.

Of course neither she nor Negga will win. But Negga’s nomination is the award itself, and 20 for Streep is a nice, historic round number. And Amy Adams should thank the Academy. Some have posited that the gratitude should be for not placing her on the list of those who are nominated for X number of times and haven’t won. They’re right that Amy wouldn’t have won this year anyway, and therefore escapes said list. I’m suggesting that her not being nominated makes her next nomination that much stronger. People love her, and the next strong performance—barring an amazing performance elsewhere—is practically guaranteeing her a win.

The Academy is grateful to Fences for providing it an opportunity to give the much-loved Viola Davis an Oscar for Fences. Of course she is excellent. But that’s almost not the point. She pretty much always is, and the Academy wants to give an Oscar so badly they can taste it. The only regret here is that Michelle Williams’ stunning work in Manchester by the Sea may be left in the shadows. Williams’ and Affleck’s last scene together in the film is nearly overwhelming and may be the best two-person scene this past year. But watch for the immediate standing ovation for Davis when she wins.

Best Animated Film has a lot of strong contenders: Kubo and the Two Strings, and the popular Moana and Zootopia. Should be interesting to see who comes out on top.

Apparently we are far enough away from the Holocaust that it no longer dominates the documentary category. Instead, race relations has taken its place: I am Not Your Negro, 13th, and O.J.: Made in America are all in the running.

Two final thoughts:

It was nice to see the genuinely odd and original Lobster get a nomination for screenplay. It was better written than directed, but it’s good to see that the oddness of its central idea didn’t keep folks from noticing the freshness of its script.

Also, it’s not always the case that the film destined to win Best Picture (La La Land) has so many technical nominations as well as the usual writing, directing and acting ones. It’s certainly a contender for Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Editing, Best Production Design, Best Sound Mixing, and Best Sound Editing. It’s an unusually strong film that can capture nominations in all those categories.

Predictions? Soon….

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Jackie and Hidden Figures

I spent a good portion of my weekend in the early 1960s. First, Jackie, the impressionistic, rather cool story of Jacqueline Kennedy during and shortly after John Kennedy’s assassination in 1963. Most attention has been paid to Natalie Portman’s masterful performance, which just a short while ago was the favorite for her second Oscar (not so much anymore). Certainly, it’s a technical triumph on the order of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s performance in Capote and Colin Firth’s in The King’s Speech. Both involved digging deeply into the character while conquering a major vocal challenge: Truman Capote’s voice was, shall we say, unique, and the king in The King’s Speech had both a stammer and a speech impediment. Portman, Hoffman, and Firth all rose to the challenge by making their speech part of their characters, and not an affectation or odd, unattached characteristic.

Jackie is deliberately Brechtian in its direction and screenplay, and even in the central performance. The film is structured around an interview (think The Usual Suspects without the fun), but moves forward and backward in its presentation of a woman, soaked in grief and anger, who is nevertheless engaged in setting the country’s memory of her husband’s short time in office in Camelot amber. Even the interview, the viewer’s home base, is made somewhat uncomfortable by its distancing cinematography and mise-en-scène. The rest of the time, we are thrown around as in an amusement park ride, from this moment in time to that, and from this reaction to that outburst to the back-and-forth of funeral plans. Fortunately, Portman holds this together with her performance, for the film doesn’t seem to have a specific point of view other than to demonstrate the grieving, controlling, deeply wounded, intelligent, articulate woman who was once our First Lady.

There is something of a dramatic arc in the film’s depiction of the central events surrounding the assassination, including the swearing in of LBJ, Jackie’s state of shock, her crafting the theater of the funeral, and the packing up of the family’s belongings to make way for the new White House occupants. There are also flashbacks to Jackie’s famous television tour of the White House. The big moment, though, comes in a flashback toward the end of the film, as Jackie once again remembers the gruesome details of the actual shooting, which is presented in a manner that’s not exploitative but is nonetheless gruesome and hard to watch.

This is first and last Portman’s film, and will be the definitive Jackie “biography” for a long time. But a few other notes: The actor playing John Kennedy, Caspar Phillipson, is a bit short for the part, but looks a great deal like him, which has resonance for those of us old enough to have been paying attention to the presidency. Also, Peter Sarsgaard really doesn’t look a lot like Bobby Kennedy, but this terrific actor owns the part, and makes his scenes with Portman the highlight of the film, be they scenes of tender protection or angry accusation. Billy Crudup (the interviewer/writer), Greta Gerwig (Jackie’s friend and confidante) and the late John Hurt (Jackie’s priest) are all solid.

Ultimately, the film is more pieces than a whole, but the viewer is left with the strong impression of Jackie as a powerful, conflicted presence who masterfully crafted a perception of her husband that has lasted over half a century and is in little danger of fading. We’re also left with the idea that Portman is an extraordinary actress.

Hidden Figures is this year’s The Blind Side or The Help—not because of subject matter (race) as much as they are all well made, feel-good movies that were popular and don’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell of winning Best Picture, in spite of their nomination in that category. Hidden Figures tells the story of three brilliant black women who by virtue of mathematical skill made it into the inner workings of NASA in the early 1960’s and were instrumental in getting our astronauts into space. Facing sexism and racism, the three triumph by virtue of their brains and determination.

The basic facts of their trials and successes are the heart of the story. The three main white characters, however, are either composites of several real people, or were created to represent certain racial and sexist attitudes of the times. (Beware of the “Based on true events” line in the first few moments of the film, or other similar lines in other films.) Yet the story is both heartbreaking and encouraging, and unlike the stories of Red Tails and Free State of Jones, the film version of the events of a great and important story will be contained in a solid and entertaining film that won’t be quickly forgotten.

The “triumph over obstacles” element of the film is at the heart of the film, but the film relaxes enough to include family, romance, the challenges of the space program—especially in light of the Soviet competition—and of course, race in America circa 1961. As enjoyable and as easily watchable as the film is, the institutional racism of the country provokes sadness, anger and deep regret, and is therefore an important if mild reminder of our great national sin. This is a film that should be seen to keep us aware of our recent history, even if the context of the rest of the story threatens to soften its impact.

The film is smooth and goes down easily. The separate bathroom theme is overplayed and stretched out far too long with one character, and doesn’t make the point as much as dilutes it. But that’s the film’s only overstatement. Performances are strong. In a weaker Best Actress year, lead actress Taraji P. Hensen might have copped a nomination for a solid performance. Octavia Spencer is one of the most likeable actresses around, but her nomination here is likely based more on the part and her likability than on meeting the demands of a difficult part (such has her Oscar-winning part in The Help). It’s interesting that the three main white characters, even the two more insensitive ones, are played by relatable actors—Jim Parsons and Kirsten Dunst—that we could never dislike even while we aren’t tracking with their attitudes. That’s worth an analysis all its own.

The story and treatment of the film will make it enjoyable and long-lived. Other than being the feel-good film of the year, the presentation of racism (even more than sexism) here is a fascinating entry in the lineup of films that address the darker issues of our country’s past. Some could argue that these themes are not addressed with the judgmentalism and edge needed—a point. Others could argue that the treatment is realistic and just sharp enough to be taken in by today’s viewer in a way that sticks—also a point. Talk amongst yourselves….

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Quick thoughts on the Golden Globe Awards

Meryl Streep is one of our greatest actresses, and I have the utmost respect for her talents. In my mind, she is one of a small handful of genius actors. It makes me ache to see her fall into the usual trap of feeling that she has to use a platform created by her talents to speak her political mind—no matter what she said. Just accept the award graciously, Meryl, and compliment your other actor friends. You’re just feeding the all-too-common idea that filmmakers are entitled rich people who are above the rest of the hoi polloi and need to be taught the higher perspectives. And no, it wasn’t brave to say what nearly everyone else in the echo chamber–I mean the room—already believes. And I also think Donald Trump’s tweet response was think-skinned, defensive, childish and completely wrong on every level.

I was grateful to see a few women dressed modestly. For a group that supposedly would view themselves as opposed to the exploitation of women, it’s remarkable how many women present themselves wearing tight and/or cleavage-revealing outfits. The irony is dizzying.

The loss of what was expected to be Mahershala Ali’s supporting actor award for Moonlight to Aaron Taylor-Johnson for Nocturnal Animals was completely unexpected.

Not sure if Tom Hiddleston’s award for “The Night Manager” was deserved. But Hugh Laurie’s award for the same show certainly wasn’t. It belonged to Sterling K. Brown for his portrayal of Christopher Darden in “The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story.” Perhaps the British background of these two actors was the deciding factor for these “foreign press” members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. All these performances were good. It’s just that Brown’s was excellent.

Steve Carell and Kristen Wiig (go, Rochester!) had by far the best and funniest presentation of the evening. It was a master class of comedy and timing.

The seven awards for La La Land were a record. Not only did the film win the most Golden Globes in history, but it won in every category in which it was nominated. But these awards are probably not necessarily going to be the predictor of this year’s Academy Awards. La La Land was the obvious choice in the comedy/musical category. How could that be compared fairly to Manchester by the Sea or Moonlight? Apples and oranges. It may be that we have a revisit to the films from 1951, when the vote between dark and serious films—A Streetcar Named Desire and A Place in the Sun—may have split the vote and given the top award to the musical An American in Paris.

The Best Actress/Drama award to French legend Isabelle Huppert may be a bellwether of a shift away from Natalie Portman’s portrayal of Jackie Kennedy in Jackie. Or, again, it may be the “foreign press” aspect again, though there has been talk for months that Huppert deserves the award. She will certainly be nominated.

Casey Affleck deserves the Best Actor/Drama award, and he’ll win the Oscar. Sorry, Ryan G. Not your year, so be content with the Golden Globe and be glad they divide the Best Acting awards.

Viola Davis’ award for Fences signals her receiving the Oscar this year for the same performance.

Damien Chazelle, winner of Best Screenplay and Director for La La Land and just shy of 32 years of age, is now officially Hollywood’s new wunderkind. Whiplash wasn’t a fluke, but a sign of what was to come.

Can’t argue with the two awards for The Crown. Well worth the visit.

Best Miniseries or TV Film and Best Actress for Sarah Paulson for “The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” might have been the most deserved awards of the evening.

Mel Gibson has officially made his comeback with Hacksaw Ridge.

Sophia Vergara is a lovely woman, but she looked and acted rather ridiculous.

I can’t comment on the many awards for relatively new television shows, as I can’t begin to keep up with them. And I wonder how many voters can….

The chiropractors in the Los Angeles area were likely quite busy today with all the patting on one’s back that went on last night. Can we please just rein it in and stick to filmmaking and gratitude?

Lastly, the Golden Globes only recently have scaled the walls of respectability. Their history is as a compromised small group of easily influenced Eurocentric voters. Their present isn’t a whole lot different.

 

 

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La La Land

I haven’t seen Moonlight yet (I live in Rochester, New York, not a major city, and it takes awhile for films to get here at times), but La La Land may well be the best film of the year. It’s not perfect, but it reaches higher, and succeeds more, than any other film I’ve seen this year except perhaps Manchester by the Sea.

Director/screenwriter Damien Chazelle (Whiplash) has done the near-impossible. He’s not just created a musical, but he’s created a modern cinematic context where anyone but the most cynical can accept the conceits of the classic musical—that folks can sing and dance in the real world, occasionally being joined by others, and of course, with lots of orchestral background. No one has tried that, at least with this level of success, in years.

Its numbers are dazzling at times (a word I use precisely), especially the first number that obliterates the viewer’s skepticism by virtue of the number’s audacity and demonstration of talent and cinematic artistry. And Chazelle tries to dazzle several other times, and usually succeeds. He does it with camera movement, pacing, editing, lighting, and color. He quotes so many classic Hollywood and French musicals that I lost count, or just happily gave up trying and let myself just enjoy the whole experience. There are nods to Singin’ in the Rain, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, many a Vincente Minnelli film, especially An American in Paris (there is lots of “Minnelli red”), The Red Balloon, the non-musicals Rebel Without a Cause and Casablanca, and the entire Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers canon—for starters.

But a viewer doesn’t have to have any background to enjoy the film, as Chazelle has successfully reinvented every element of the musical so that it resonates today; knowing what he might be quoting or paying homage to is simply an added layer of enjoyment. He opens the film with a classic musical approach that brings in singers and dancers over a large physical space—in this case a stretch of Los Angeles road—then approaches most other numbers differently. Lovers express their emotions. An audition that prompts a personal story leads into a song. There are “what if?” reveries. And there are more realistic songs performed as songs within the context of the film by Ryan Gosling, who plays a jazz pianist, and John Legend, who plays a compromised version of himself.

The casting is just about perfect. Gosling and Emma Stone, the female lead, each has a strong screen presence on their own, and an insane chemistry between them. (This is their third film, after the popular Crazy, Stupid, Love and the far-less-popular Gangster Squad.) Their easy-going connection makes every scene believable, every action acceptable.

Neither is what would be called a serious singer or dancer, though they can each carry at tune, and Stone especially has some good moments, especially in “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” near the end of the film. Considering that Gosling was with Justin Timberlake, Christina Aguilera, and Britney Spears as part of The Mickey Mouse Club in their youth, I expected a slightly higher level of expertise in song and dance. But their level of talent works here in unexpected ways.

I generally bemoan the use of “actors who sing” making film musicals with challenging or beautiful music. Perhaps the most egregious example in recent years has been Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd, which featured two very good actors—Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter—who could carry a tune, but not the beauty of the songs they sang. Having heard the stage version, I was aware of the exquisite tones and harmonies I was missing, even as the performers acted their parts well.

La La Land could have had that discrepancy, except that the film itself is about dreams, and the work in reaching for them. Chazelle has taken the American musical (and its French homages) and reconstituted it as a kind of dream itself that one can only reach for, and quote, and attempt to fit oneself into. Gosling’s and Stone’s characters are striving, and they’re reaching for something, and their falling short of Gene Kelly, Judy Garland or Astaire/Rogers actually works for the film. In their singing and dancing, they are fitting themselves into the dream, and their “good enough” quality adds to their honoring of the dream they’re aspiring to. There were moments where the key Gosling was singing in was too low, but then Stone comes in with a harmony and you realize that anything in a higher key wouldn’t sound right for her. Another thing the “good enough” musical performances do is keep this soaring film grounded in the reality of its characters. Gosling shouldn’t be Howard Keel, and Stone shouldn’t be Kathryn Grayson. Those lovely voices would wrench the viewer right out of the film and the world Chazelle has so meticulously created, and would have snapped the suspension of our disbelief, a situation so challenging to create and sustain.

For Gosling, there has to be a creative tension between how directly the film shows him playing the piano. As a serious pianist myself, I’m often in pain by how older film try to portray piano playing. Classic choices have been not to show the hands at all, and to try and simulate the movement of hands and shoulders from a distance; that’s been done relatively well and unbelievably badly. Or…sometimes the actor learns the notes and plays as close an approximation as possible. That’s the case here, and Gosling deserves all the props for his hard work. But the playing he’s doing is complex jazz, ornamented with difficult runs up and down the keyboard. He does his best, and it’s good, but the decision to show his hands isn’t always successful. Perhaps it takes a pianist to see it, but it’s clear that what he’s seeming to play is often not what we’re hearing. (But he fooled a piano-playing friend of mine, so perhaps I’m in the tiny minority, and after all, who cares?)

Another reason the film and its wildly different musical approaches succeed is that there is a strong central theme about following one’s dreams—a theme handled with respect and an acknowledgement of the struggles and sacrifices that often need to be made. Unlike other films with this theme, however, there is no judgment on those pursuing those dreams. There are real losses when there is a dream to gain, and the film doesn’t back away from this—another element that grounds the film in a certain realism. There is no “we can have it all” that we find in the most naively romantic musicals of the past. Not every relationship lives “happily ever after,” and the film recognizes the reality of that.

Aside from the theme, Chazelle also tends to use a common musical trope, only in a slightly more cynical way. Classic musical numbers have often ended with an interruption (“Shall We Dance?” from The King and I) or a shared experience—often a laugh—that brings us back into the story. Musical numbers here don’t tend to end while in the midst of a flight of fancy (and Chazelle flies pretty high), but in down-to-earth disappointments, frustrating realities, or crude communications. We’re brought right back into the real world of the film and its characters, and the numbers and their dazzle or whimsy are hermetically sealed off, preventing the non-musical world of the film from being compromised.

The songs too are varied and catch the ear. A few will live on beyond the film, and even with the rest, you will leave the theater with one or more of them in your head.

There is much more that could be said and analyzed in La La Land, and I may do that in a future entry. I certainly intend to see the film again and try to see what I know I must have missed the first time around.

The more sociological and political among us might point to this moment as one where our country needs the optimism and joy found in this film. That might be true, and I will leave to others to evaluate it in that context. From a purely filmic viewpoint, it can be said that Chazelle has accomplished a reinvention of the American musical while still paying homage to its past, being simultaneously nostalgic yet without a whiff of staleness. Yes, it’s a good story, told well, with solid acting—all those things. But Chazelle has shown us what can be done with this genre, and how to take nearly every element of a classic musical and make it work in a modern context. Yes, it will be studied for years. But don’t let that bother you. Just go out and enjoy it.

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Rogue One: My Experience

Note: I usually write serious analyses of the films I see. Not so much here.

I’m pretty sure I saw Rogue One. My two sons who don’t live around here, their spouses, and their combined seven children have all been staying with me and my wife over the holidays. My older son wanted to take some of his six children with him to see the film while he was visiting. After being told the show we wanted was sold out, we went the Fandango route and were able to get enough tickets, even if we were spread out a little in the theater.

I remember sitting down in the newly installed lounge chair that is far too comfortable, and can be made even more comfortable with the push of a button. There was a grandson to the left of me, a granddaughter to the right of me, and a can of soda that was being passed back and forth between them. I remember the film starting, and thinking that I had better start paying attention.

Full disclosure: I am not a Star Wars nerd. I don’t understand the intricacy of the Star Wars universe, its denizens, and its conflicts. I don’t hate or resist Star Wars. I just don’t get into it. I’ve seen all the films, and enjoyed The Force Awakens as a well-made action film with some good moments of comedy. Saw it twice, in fact.

So most of the references to place and circumstance went over my inattentive head. My well-versed seven-year-old grandson let me know that this planet was important because, etc. I just smiled, and lovingly thanked him for the info. I will confess that the general fatigue of so many guests, a cozy chair and a lack of intense interest often made my eyelids rather heavy. I had to keep mentally slapping my face, reminding myself that this was an action movie I should be paying close attention to.

In terms of story, the film apparently makes a good connection to A New Hope. It does explain well why the Death Star had a weakness, an explanation which is plausible and which fills in a rather large hole of logic in the series. Darth Vader arrives with the right amount of cleverness and pomposity, yet I shed no nerd tears upon his arrival, and in fact didn’t even experience a frisson of fan delight.

My most artistic child had pointed out to me that Felicity Jones was guilty of what I often complained I liked least about Jim Carrey’s early dramatic roles—that it was obvious to me that he always knew where the camera was, and that was something I found distracting. I didn’t notice that so much as I noticed that she was often poised in the frame, presented in a rather timeless “I am Star Wars Women, Hear Me Roar” fashion for us to admire.

A few times, I got confused as to who was who, and where are we, and what exactly is going on? That might have been the fatigue, those blasted lounge chairs, the passing soda, or another granddaughter who occasionally escaped from her parents to come down and walk back and forth in front of her siblings and grandfather.

I usually don’t pay attention much to special effects in that 1) I am not a nerd, and 2) they are usually all of a piece throughout a film—either great, OK, or cheesy. What I did notice, though, was funny and made me think of the comments made about The Social Network. In that film, the presentation of the Winklevoss twins was accomplished with an incredible set of effects. But the fake breath when the actors were outside speaking in the cold looked unreal. Here in Rogue One, the spaceships, explosions and otherworldly settings seemed real. But the breaking glass near the end (when the principals are working to get the essential information) looked fake. And then, that was that horrible effect at the end.

There were so many ways to get that shot right, and pretty much one way to get it wrong, and the latter way was chosen. The frontal facial shot of Princess Leia was god-awful. Now Carrie Fisher had died the day before I saw the film, and Debbie Reynolds had already passed, but I didn’t know it yet. So Carrie alone was on my mind, and I knew that the info in the film had to get into Leia’s hands. This could have added some tender poignancy to the last shot. Instead, we viewers were treated to a simulation of Leia’s face that did no one’s reputation or memory any good. It was like running a flawless marathon and then slipping over a banana peel near the finish line.

There are, however, a few thematic elements that lifted the film. (Spoiler alert). One was the issue of sacrifice for a larger cause, and the film rose above a mere action film several times when showing those sacrifices. And our human need for connection, especially during moments of pressure or loss, was perhaps never better pictured than the last action of Jyn (Jones) and Cassian (Diego Luna). Their brave embrace in the face of their end may well be the thing I remember most about the film.

My ticket stub, my grandchildren’s witness, and a few fleeting memories told me I did see Rogue One. Yet even so, one day later, it all fell out of my head.

I think I may have to see it again…

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Manchester by the Sea

Manchester by the Sea is a deeply moving, occasionally wrenching, and extraordinary film. It’s a unique mixture of realism and formalism, in combinations one doesn’t usually find. It also features some of the best acting of the year, including a performance by Casey Affleck that, if he doesn’t blow it with his behavior, is guaranteed to win him a well-deserved Oscar.

Written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan (who has directed only Margaret, released in 2011, and 2000’s You Can Count on Me), the film takes the struggles of a Boston janitor and turns it into art. The story itself could have been the stuff of melodrama: (spoiler alert) disaffected, hard-drinking janitor loses his brother and “inherits” his teenage nephew, a proposition that neither embraces. Other films may well have worked toward that touching moment when they each accept their circumstances and each other, and the viewer reaches for a Kleenex. This is not that film, and the film doesn’t end up there, or go anywhere near there.

To say much more would ruin the joy of discovery, but Lee Chandler (Affleck) has his own demons and rough past, which comes to us in pieces. He also has an ex-wife, played by Michelle Williams (My Week with Marilyn, Blue Valentine) in another brilliant performance. While the story goes back and forth, and branches out in several different directions, the heart of the story is the relationship between Lee and his nephew, played in a star-making performance by Lucas Hedges (Moonrise Kingdom, The Grand Budapest Hotel).

The script has been receiving deserved acclaim. The structure of the film is anything but straightforward, but is clear and emotionally true. The dialogue, is as the case with Lonergan, is so realistic, so unnervingly natural at times, that it puts the artificiality of others films into strong relief. The conversations, the tensions, the awkwardness of real life is on display throughout the film, in nearly every scene.

Lonergan’s camerawork is mostly direct and honest and unassuming. But his editing rhythms are not. He’ll often bring the viewer into a flashback and then out again before we’re even aware of it. He also holds his beats of his shots a little longer—and some a lot longer—than “normal” films, which has the tendency of drawing us into the physical place of the film or the emotional territory he’s exploring.

Even more daring, and unusual, is his use of music. It’s neither “on the car radio” music or background music, but an addition of music over images. Some of the music is classical, some not, some familiar, some not so much. But it transports these scenes to another dimension, and lifts the film during those scenes. The story of the trials and tribulations of ordinary “folk,” in this case, Boston-area workers who also love the sea, is often handled by filmmakers with a touch of condescension, or at least distance. Lonergan’s use of music raises the challenges and emotions of these “ordinary people” into something elevated and exquisite. It’s something that could be badly and wrongly copied, and let’s hope that others who don’t know what they are doing and how stay away from the idea.

Then there are the performances. For those of us paying attention to him, Casey Affleck was the under-recognized brother of a moderately talented actor who turned into a good director. Casey was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for 2007’s, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, a respected work with this respected performance noticed by all 12 people that saw the film. For those who haven’t noticed his work over the years, this is a startling and unexpected performance. For the rest of us, it’s merely stunning and one of the best performances of recent years by anyone. Lee is a broken, deeply conflicted and emotionally bound man nearly destroyed by circumstances that is thrown into a new circumstance that puts social, relational and emotional demands on him that he can barely handle. Watching Affleck navigate these moments—some tender, some awkward, some bursting with anger—is a joy to experience. Rarely has there been a recent performance that is so full of painful internal life and is so masterfully modulated by the actor. Some of the great moments are simply Affleck, standing there silent and withdrawn, emoting as powerfully as those actors that love chewing the furniture. Unless he throws the Oscar away through Russell Crowe-like behavior that likely cost that actor the Oscar for A Beautiful Mind, he is a lock in that category.

Williams has a much smaller role, but has nearly as powerful an effect on the viewer as Affleck. Her scene on the sidewalk with Affleck toward the end of the film is one of the best-acted, most heartbreaking scene of two broken people trying to communicate. It’s a scene full of regret, love, unspeakable pain, and a near-complete inability to connect.

Hedges, as the nephew, is getting a great deal of attention, and his performance has the challenge of holding his own against the powerhouse performance by Affleck. This he manages to do, even if he isn’t quite as excellent as others are declaring, especially in his “losing it” scene, which reaches for the stars and only hits the moon. Still, it’s disturbing on some levels that his characterization of a “normal” teenager rings so true. (It’s been a while since I was raising teenagers, and it’s probably more accurate a portrayal than I’d prefer to be aware of.)

The film’s not perfect, but the imperfections are few. There is a fight scene that seems unmotivated. And then there is, sigh, the religious aspect. There is a scene of some minor but important characters (including a surprise casting choice) who are simply described as “Christian,” in this case, meaning religious, and presented as different from the traditional nominal Catholics that are the main characters. And as so often happens in Hollywood, the “Christian” characters’ faith is worn more on the outside than on the inside. There is also the common mistake of throwing in some aspects of classical Catholicism, traditional Protestantism, and evangelicalism in a strange combination that no one practices, but that it seems to represent modern believing Christians to filmmakers. Between the pictures on the wall, the praying, and the behavior, I wasn’t sure what these folks believed. In a film that is so specific about place, employment, behavior and relationships, it’s a misstep and aberration.

But aside from this common mistake, Manchester by the Sea is a powerful, touching, and occasionally devastating film. It’s easily one of the most original mainstream films this year, and Casey Affleck is, at least for the moment, the best Affleck in film.

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