Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Ballots in hand: Five Oscar-worthy feats the Academy should consider

Nomination ballots went out yesterday to the members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Members of each branch – such as actors, writers, editors, musicians, ect. – will vote for their favorites in 24 categories, delivering between three and five Oscar nominees in each, except for Best Picture, which will be between five and 10 nominees.

As the Academy makes its decisions, I thought it would be fitting to make a few suggestions to members of the specific branches and urge them to take a closer look at some films that might be flying below their radars. Admittedly, few if any of the people mentioned will have their names called out on nominations morning, but hopefully, by calling them out here, I will encourage fans of great cinema to check out their work as well.

Best Actor: Philip Seymour Hoffman in A Most Wanted Man

When Philip Seymour Hoffman died in February, it was a crushing blow to the film community. Inarguably one of the best actors of his generation, Hoffman was never afraid to take a chance with a character. For his final starring role, Hoffman tackled the part of Gunther Bachmann, a German intelligence official trying to come to terms the terrible things he has done and seen in the name of protecting the innocent.

Sometimes the Academy gets a little sentimental and tosses a nomination or an award to someone who has died, but rest assured, this would be no sentiment nomination. Hoffman, whose resume speaks for itself, is doing career-topping work in A Most Wanted Man. From the accent to the walk to the posture, Hoffman puts everything he has into creating the full portrait of a man who came to a crossroads long ago and wishes he could turn back and travel the road not taken.

Best Cinematography: Fabrice Aragno for Goodbye to Language

When Jean-Luc Godard makes a movie, it is an event in the cinephile world. The master French auteur has spent more than 50 years reinventing what can be done on film. He has pushed the boundaries of form, style, and storytelling with basically every feature he has made, but he has not done it alone. To push the craft, he has enlisted the help of some of the best up-and-coming craftspeople in the business.

Cinematographer Fabrice Aragno has shot only two fiction films in his career, both for Godard. His work on 2010’s Film Socialisme and this year’s Goodbye to Language 3D has been the perfect complement to Godard’s latest avant garde obsession. Some of the shots in Goodbye to Language boggle the mind for their visual complexity and emotional intensity. With so much 3D trash in the marketplace, it is refreshing to see a film that uses the technology to break down the barriers of what is possible on screen, and that is worth celebrating.

Best Original Screenplay: Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan for Frank

This could show up in a number of places on a list like this – supporting actor, original song, costumes, sound mixing, etc. – but it all starts with Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan’s weird, funny, and ultimately poignant story of the strangest rock band of which you have never heard. The beauty of the concept is that the story is told from the eyes of a pretender. He does not belong here, but in trying desperately to change the chemistry of the thing he loves, he blows it up.

Few scripts are as succinct and cutting when it comes to the world of artists, particularly the world of a bad artist. The main character is a fraud who fancies himself a talent, but when he meets a truly impressive group of people, his fragile ego breaks, and he sets off on a path of destruction, whether intentional or not. Ronson and Straughan’s script is a stirring rebuke of those who try to create but can only destroy.

Best Editing: Chris Gill for Calvary

John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary is a thriller, and like all thrillers, it is beholden to its pacing. Unlike most thrillers, it does not rely on quick cuts, fast action, and choppy storytelling. It is a measured consideration of a priest’s crisis not with his own faith but with the faith of a town whose soul has blackened. Calvary simmers and seethes, and only in the end does it boil over, but by that time, the audience has stewed so long the release of pressure is more of a jarring punch to the gut than a relief.

Gill is one of the best editors in the business, though his work is sometimes overshadowed by the flashier tendencies of the directors he works with, most notably Danny Boyle on 28 Days Later and Sunshine. Calvary might not make Gill a household name or bring him more prominence in the industry, but it should. His invisible contribution to the world of this story is indispensable, and without it, the whole house of cards would collapse.

Best Sound Mixing*: Jesper Miller, et al, for Force Majeure

It is remarkable how much of human relationships is predicated on silence. We try to define our interactions by what we say and how we say it, but the quiet moments in between speak louder than any of that. The trick director Ruben Ӧstlund plays in Force Majeure is to turn the normal silences in a long marriage toxic.

Sound mixer Jesper Miller and his team work wonders with the moments between lines of dialogue, when two people whose lives have taken a turn neither expected cannot summon the words to speak. The air is heavy, and the tension is overwhelming, which makes it that much more stunning when Miller brings in the prerecorded music, pitched at a volume greater than we would expect. The oscillation between the quiet and loud and the intelligence to know when to use which make Miller’s achievement breathtaking and turn the film from a marriage drama into a natural disaster epic.

*Note: Sound mixing refers to the adjustment of the levels of sound in a film and the balance of elements such as dialogue, music, and sound effects.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

New movie review: Two Days, One Night

Marion Cotillard plays Sandra in the new Belgian drama Two Days, One Night.

Ethics 101: A train barrels toward a fork in the tracks. If it goes one way, it strikes a busload of children. The other way, it hits one person. You stand at the switch. Which way do you throw it? Variations on this conundrum have littered psychology text books the world over for years, and even the Joker has put Batman to the test on more than one occasion.

Despite the difficulty or impossibility inherent in choosing, we like these kinds of questions because we all know precisely how we would react. In our hearts, we know we are good people who will make the altruistic choice and sacrifice the individual for the good of the many. Add a layer to the question: There is a still a bus of children, but the lone person is your mother – or even yourself. Now, how do we act? The numbers have not changed. The reality has not changed. Maybe we even think our answer has not changed. History says we are wrong.

There is a reason we enjoy these theoretical dilemmas. They allow us to feel good about our own altruism without ever having to learn the truth, as most of us will never face this situation or one similar. Yet, we know the truth. Many people alive today have lived the truth. From the rise of Nazism to the prison camps at Abu Ghraib, history makes it plain: If it is us or them, to hell with them.

In Two Days, One Night, filmmaker siblings Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne stretch out this dilemma to feature length. Marion Cotillard plays Sandra, a Belgian wife and mother who finds out on a Friday she will lose her job come Monday. Her 16 coworkers have voted to lay her off. In exchange, each will receive a 1,000 Euro bonus (about $1,200). The foreman agrees to hold another vote Monday, which gives Sandra the weekend to convince a majority of her coworkers to give up their bonuses so she may keep her job.

Complications arise in the details, but the idea is simple, and as a premise, it is nearly irresistible. Cotillard is magnificent – dressed down and a little dowdy but still her recognizable movie-star self – as a woman battling clinical depression and crushing self-doubt. With each person who turns her away, she sinks deeper into her malaise but is perked up again every time she shifts a vote over into her column. Forced to beg, Cotillard projects pride and defiance as Sandra goes door to door to plead her case.

Taken together with her performance earlier this year in The Immigrant, Cotillard continues to prove she is more than just a sex symbol. She is not playing the femme fatale of her work with Christopher Nolan (Inception, The Dark Knight Rises) or the eye-candy love interest as in Nine or A Good Year. It seems she prefers – and duly shines in – more confrontational work such as her Oscar-winning turn in La Vie en Rose or 2012’s Rust and Bone. Thankfully, there are filmmakers who want her to do more than look pretty and smile, and Cotillard is hungry enough to chase challenging roles.

Yet, as great as Cotillard is and as intriguing as the premise may be, Two Days, One Night never forces the audience to move beyond the surface pleasures of its narrative. The Dardenne brothers make it too easy to sit in judgment of Sandra’s coworkers. The audience should come away wondering what it would do if posed the question: my bonus or a coworker? Instead, the film lets viewers off the hook when it should be making them squirm.

Most of the Dardennes’ films are low-key dramas about real people in difficult situations, and this may be the epitome of that style. Shot almost entirely with handheld cameras in and around the neighborhoods of the brothers’ Belgian hometown, Two Days, One Night drips with authenticity. Its naturalism helps to establish the characters in a recognizable place and time to which audiences from any part of the world could relate.

The downside of the film’s dogged realism is that the stakes remain low throughout. In treating even major events with a “That’s life” wave of the hand, the Dardennes fail to imbue the proceedings with much urgency, which has the added side effect of making Sandra’s interactions feel repetitive. By her sixth or seventh visit, we pretty much know how this is going to go as many of her coworkers have the same excuse. They need the money – a valid excuse and one we all might share but not particularly illuminating the 10th time we hear it.

Sandra’s coworkers live in richly detailed environments that suggest deep inner lives, but the general circumstances are roughly similar. People have families they need to support, or recent life changes necessitate an influx of cash. Otherwise, they are friends of Sandra’s or people for whom she has done a favor. This creates two camps within the film: those who will vote for Sandra and those who will vote for their bonus. There is little separating the members within each group from one another, which keeps the suspense at a minimum as few people have reason to deviate from their stated intention to vote one way or the other.

Stellar performances and an intriguing premise make the film a must see, but I cannot help but be a little disappointed. The opportunity was there for the Dardennes to confront their audience and force viewers to question the way they think about themselves, their loved ones, and the people orbiting just outside their personal solar systems. How would we react? Is it necessarily wrong to take the bonus? Where do we draw the line between us and them? In leaving these questions unasked, the film settles for being merely good, when it could have been great.

See it? Yes.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

New movie review: Winter Sleep

Aydin, played by Haluk Bilginer, stares down the road that lies ahead in Winter Sleep.

What is it that you want to do – write the book you always imagined; donate to charity; spend more time with family; pick up and leave? It could be anything, just something on your to-do list that keeps getting pushed toward the bottom of the page. It is no one’s fault and certainly not your own. Life interferes. Obligations arise. Maybe you will get to it soon, or perhaps you will not. It is possible it is not that simple. You contend there is something getting in the way, but the truth is nobody is stopping you.

Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Winter Sleep is about stagnation. It is about the cycles that repeat and the lies we invent to keep ourselves content. None of the characters in this film has what he wants, but all are too angry over what they lack to do anything about it. They simmer. They boil. They let hate and cynicism control them. Like tire tracks carved in the snow in the lonely Turkish wilderness, they refuse to venture off their well-worn paths because they cannot know when or if they will return to the safety of the road.

Aydin, played by Haluk Bilginer, is a wealthy hotel owner who was an actor in his younger years. He hopes someday to write the definitive history of Turkish theater, but he focuses his energies on vaguely political newspaper columns. His works are published but in a rag of a newspaper, and he measures his success by how many angry calls to the editor his pieces generate. When not sitting in front of his computer, he wanders the grounds of his hotel and chats with guests about little of import. It is winter, and there are few clients, but one gets the feeling that come spring, he will have these same conversations with a new group of travelers.

Nihal (Melisa Sozen) is Aydin’s wife. She is half his age, and it is difficult to grasp what such a beautiful woman could ever have seen in him. Yes, he is wealthy, but she does not seem the type to be lured in by money. They rarely speak or even see each other and keep mostly to separate parts of the estate. She is bored with life and fills her time with a charity committee dedicated to funding education. It is the one thing about which she is passionate, and she wants desperately to keep it for herself and refuses Aydin’s interference at every juncture.

Both are shells of who they were and who they want to be, but they coast through life because the unknown is more terrifying than the emptiness. All too happy to point this out is Necla (Demet Akbag), Aydin’s sister who has moved to the estate to escape an abusive, alcoholic husband. She fancies herself an intellectual. Whenever we see her, she is either reading or goading her brother or sister-in-law into a philosophical argument, it seems, simply for the sake of arguing. The arguments would seem to be a break in the routine, but their debates repeat and circle back around, growing just as stale as everything else.

In May, the Cannes Film Festival jury awarded Winter Sleep with its top prize. It is the latest in a long line of Palme d’Or winners – including last year’s Blue Is the Warmest Color and Tree of Life and Amour before that – to focus on the rhythms of daily tasks and interactions as a means of exploring what is missing from the characters’ lives.

Running three hours and 16 minutes, the film is overly long, but if pressed, I could not think of one thing to cut. Ceylan’s film luxuriates in the kind of lengthy dialogue scenes we associate with someone like Quentin Tarantino. Coincidentally, Tarantino was on hand to present the Palme d’Or to Ceylan at the festival. However, these are not pithy conversations about fast food or films. Instead, Ceylan’s script, which was reportedly almost 240 pages long, plumbs the depths of his characters’ inner lives.

Some of these sequences go on for 10 or 15 minutes at a time – unheard of in modern Western or European cinema – but as the minutes tick by, each line spoken reveals new layers of passion and motivation, even as characters outwardly demonstrate neither of these traits. They are petty and spiteful, obsessed with getting the last word or with finding the most cutting remark possible, but because their behavior stems from deep-seated self-hatred, nothing they can say will fix the real problem.

If I have made the film seem like a depressing slog, that reputation would be somewhat justified, and it is true this will not play well for most audiences. You will likely find yourself fidgeting in your seat, perhaps checking the time and wondering how much longer it could possibly go on. You would not be wrong to feel this way. I did. However, in the final calculus, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

By the time the credits roll, Winter Sleep has transformed from a moody drama about the pain of missed opportunities into a beautiful examination of people gradually waking up to the possibilities of life. For some, this realization comes too late, and for others, it arrives just in time. Everyone is suffering through the harshness of an Anatolian winter – and Ceylan’s film never lets his characters escape either the darkness or the cold – but at the end, we are not left with futility. We are left with hope and the faith that the coming spring will light our way forward.

See it? Yes.