Monday, January 26, 2015

Flying high: Birdman takes two big steps toward Oscar glory

The cast of Birdman poses together after taking home the best ensemble prize from the Screen Actors Guild Awards.

If you had asked me before this past weekend what would win Best Picture at the Academy Awards in a few weeks, I would have told you Boyhood, and I would not have hesitated. Director Richard Linklater’s popular coming-of-age drama has picked up award after award from critics groups and other organizations, it is the best-reviewed movie of the year, and almost no one who sees it dislikes it. Until now, it seemed unstoppable, but a funny thing happened on the way to the Dolby.

Birdman, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s satire of the entertainment industry, picked up two big industry awards this weekend, the best film award from the Producers Guild of America and the best ensemble prize from the Screen Actors Guild. That is a whole lot of support thrown behind Iñárritu’s grand takedown of the modern media culture.

The last time a film won both the Producers Guild and the Screen Actors Guild but did not win Best Picture at the Oscars was in 2006, when Little Miss Sunshine took home both awards but Martin Scorsese’s The Departed brought home the big prize. After that, No Country for Old Men (2007), Slumdog Millionaire (2008), The King’s Speech (2010), and Argo (2012) all pulled the trifecta.

The reason those two Oscars precursors are so predictive is two-fold. The actors make up the largest voting branch of the Academy, which means any film embraced by the actors has a tremendous voting bloc behind it. In addition, the Producers Guild uses the same preferential ballot system as the Academy (which you can read more about here), and support within that system is usually widespread, meaning a film is not only voters’ favorite but is other voters’ second or third favorite. The higher up on the majority of ballots a film places, the more likely it is to win.

I, for one, am thankful Birdman has thrown a bit of a monkey wrench into the season. So many years recently have been over before they have gotten underway with films such The Artist and the aforementioned Slumdog Millionaire simply steamrolling their way to Best Picture. Last year, when 12 Years a Slave and Gravity duked it out to the end – they tied for the Producers Guild award – was the most thrilling Academy Awards race in years. It is nice when the writing is not on the walls.

A couple more things to take away then: Boyhood is probably still the frontrunner despite this surge from Birdman. It is a crowd-pleaser that will end up near the top of a lot of ballots, if not in the No. 1 spot. On the other hand, Birdman is more divisive, a love-it-or-hate-it movie, in spite of the broad support the Producers Guild win suggests.

One major thing Birdman has going for it is a lot of support from below-the-line workers. The film is a technical marvel, which it proved by tying for the most Oscar nominations this year with The Grand Budapest Hotel, in addition to an acting showcase. It should draw support from a wide range of craftspeople, as well as the actors, writers, directors, and producers.

Another takeaway from the televised broadcast of the Screen Actors Guild Awards was the support for Selma, which was not nominated in a single category last night. Clips from the film played during the show’s “Celebration of Diversity” montage, and whenever Ava DuVernay’s movie flashed on screen, a roar of applause went up from the audience. Despite netting just two nominations, Selma could be a real threat in the Best Picture category, particularly as it has been in the news almost constantly since the nominations announcement. Only time will tell on that front.

In the other categories from last night, the only real surprise for me was Eddie Redmayne winning best actor for his portrayal of Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, beating out the favored Michael Keaton. We probably will not know who is going to win that award at the Oscars until Feb. 22, when the envelope is opened, and while I am pulling for Keaton, added intrigue is always welcome in the Oscar race, particularly when the other acting awards seem all but sewn up. Julianne Moore, Patricia Arquette, and JK Simmons have not missed a step yet, and I see no reason why they would on the way to the Academy Awards.

The next few weeks will be telling as more industry guilds hand out their honors, including the art directors, cinematographers, and directors, which will be a big indicator. It all leads up to the big event the last Sunday in February, so until then, enjoy the mystery.

Friday, January 23, 2015

New movie review: Wild

Reese Witherspoon plays Cheryl Strayed in the Oscar-nominated film Wild.

Remember that crazy time in 1997-98 when the following happened:

February 1997 – Universal releases Dante’s Peak.
April 1997 – Fox releases Volcano.

May 1998 – Paramount releases Deep Impact.
July 1998 – Touchstone releases Armageddon.

July 1998 – Dreamworks and Paramount release Saving Private Ryan.
December 1998 – Fox releases The Thin Red Line.

It happens all the time, particularly on television, but it is rare that it takes place so much within such a short time period and with such specific topics – two improbable volcano disaster movies released in three months; two end-of-days asteroid pictures released in three months; two star-studded, high-profile World War II films released in six months. Even more interesting is that in each case, the same dynamic played out. One film proved more popular and achieved greater critical acclaim – acclaim being a relative barometer in a couple of these cases – while the other died a quick death.

I mention all this because I fear we may be about to see the same thing go down with a pair of films from the last year, which would be a great disservice to the less acclaimed, less popular film. Generally speaking, it is folly to compare two films against one another simply because they cover a similar topic. Each film has a right to be judged on its own merit, but I could not watch Jean-Marc Vallée’s Wild without thinking of the superior and criminally underseen Tracks, from director John Curran.

September 2014 – The Weinstein Company releases Tracks.
December 2014 – Fox releases Wild (what is it with Fox swooping in second with all these movies?).

Let’s break it down: Both are adaptations of memoirs by young women who set off on lonely journeys across an unforgiving landscape in order to discover something deeper within themselves. If you can view these two films without comparing them, then you are not paying attention, but to be fair, you probably have not seen both. Tracks made $508,000 in its entire theatrical run, while Wild made more than $600,000 in its first weekend on just 21screens. Still in theaters, the Reese Witherspoon-starring film has made more than $33 million already.

On its own, Wild is not a bad film, but it suffers greatly from the comparison to Tracks, a more measured, philosophical, and engaging take on nearly the same subject. Here is the thing, though, Tracks is not in theaters now. Wild is. Tracks is scheduled to come out on DVD in February. I urge you to rent it. You will not be sorry you did. However, since no one benefits from these comparisons, we will consider Wild on its own.

Vallée made his name with the 2013 true-life AIDS drama Dallas Buyers Club, and he brings many of the same tricks to the true story of Cheryl Strayed, who set out on her own to hike the 1,100-mile Pacific Crest Trail. Strayed’s story is affecting, if familiar, as she uses her journey to put her life back together after spiraling into drugs and addiction following the death of her mother. But, if the territory feels well worn, Witherspoon’s performance is refreshingly committed, and Vallée coats the film with enough style to cover up some of the tale’s more mawkish elements.

It is nice to see Witherspoon, who also serves as a producer on the film, dipping her toes back in quality waters. She has not had a great run since winning an Oscar for her performance in Walk the Line in 2005, but supporting turns in Jeff Nichols’ excellent Mud (2012) and this year’s Inherent Vice from Paul Thomas Anderson seem to have given her back her groove. Here, she dives mind, body, and spirit into the character of Strayed and delivers a performance that is sympathetic without being cloying and gritty without being over the top.

Strayed is an imperfect person, and it is to the film’s credit that she is allowed to be. She is often selfish and self-centered, and when it comes down to it, she wants to be a better person but does not know how. Witherspoon, Vallée, and writer Nick Hornby do an excellent job of bringing to life a real, complex woman who is still a work in progress, as so many of us are. It is rare to see such a well rounded and fully realized female character on film, and that is something for which to be thankful.

While the movie ostensibly chronicles Strayed’s journey along the Pacific Crest Trail, about half the story takes place in flashbacks to Strayed’s youth, adolescence, and early adulthood.  Vallée brings a stylistic flare and visual panache to the memory sequences that is missing from so many other movie flashback scenes. Though the sonic trickery, light filters, and handheld camerawork are just variations on techniques Vallée used in Dallas Buyers Club, they fit the story well and still manage to give the movie its own unique feel.

The film’s biggest problems are its twin fears of silence and solitude. For a story about a woman who feels lost and alone in the world, Strayed is rarely shown without company of some kind or another. Rather than following each step of a decidedly lonely journey and enveloping the audience in the vast expanses of nature, Valleé takes every opportunity to skip ahead to the next time Strayed meets someone with whom she can have a conversation.

Failing that, the film leans heavily on voiceovers taken directly from Strayed’s memoir, eliminating any nuance from Witherspoon’s wonderfully expressive performance or Valleé’s impressionistic mise-en-scène. Little is left to the imagination – as though the filmmakers were afraid the audience would miss the meaning or metaphor of the journey – which is a shame because it greatly lessens the impact of the film.

Wild is not the first film to spoon-feed its message to the audience, and it certainly is nowhere near the worst offenders, but it is a disappointing trend in movies like this. With the chance to challenge viewers and confront them with the realities of a life in turmoil, it falls back on pat explanations and easy sentiment. Strayed’s story should make us wonder about who we are and how we got here, but the film does not ask these questions. Instead, it goes down like comfort food, which can be good but not always good for you.

See it? Yes.

Friday, January 16, 2015

New movie review: American Sniper

Bradley Cooper plays Chris Kyle in Clint Eastwood's new film American Sniper.

Without fail, the best war films are made after the war being depicted has ended – usually well after. All Quiet on the Western Front (World War I); Saving Private Ryan and Letters from Iwo Jima (World War II); M*A*S*H (Korean War); Apocalypse Now and Platoon (Vietnam War) – the reasons are pretty clear. Time lends clarity, and distance lends perspective. Removed from the jingoism stirred by the presence of an immediate threat, we are free to think critically about our past and to explore the gray area between good and bad, right and wrong, and nationalism and imperialism. Enter the Iraq War.

History will remember Iraq as a quagmire, an unnecessary jump into the politics of the Middle East that has marred two presidencies and will likely define a third, but we are not there yet. Because the war in Iraq has been deemed the War on Terror, there are no easy victories or clear ends in sight. So, when we see images of the recent attacks in Paris or of any violence in the Middle East, we are subject to swells of patriotic pride and a sense of duty to kill the terrorists. This is true today, and it will be true tomorrow and for the foreseeable future. So, how to address this on film without time, clarity, or perspective?

Clint Eastwood’s newly Best Picture-nominated American Sniper disregards clarity or perspective by tackling the war from the point of view of one man, Chris Kyle. Based on a true story, Kyle is considered the deadliest sniper in American history, credited with more than 160 confirmed kills. Throughout four tours in Iraq, he will gain the nickname “Legend,” and his fellow soldiers will call him a hero and thank him for saving their lives.

That he saved many American lives is indisputable, and his legend among U.S. troops and enemy combatants is incontrovertible. His status as a hero, however, is murkier, and until its disastrously contrived final minutes, Eastwood seems to be willing to ask tough questions about heroism, machismo, and misplaced male aggression in our society. Though told entirely from Kyle’s perspective, the film is not lacking in characters who question his desire to kill or his need to participate in war.

Common among films addressing the War on Terror such as The Hurt Locker or Zero Dark Thirty, part of the message seems to be that war simply gets in the blood and becomes an addiction. Played with energy and commitment to spare by Bradley Cooper, Kyle is a rootin’, tootin’ all-American cowboy from the start. We see glimpses of his youth spent hunting, fighting, and receiving chest-thumping pep talks from an aggressive, authoritarian father. This is a man born in blood and raised on violence. His attraction to war is not surprising.

One place where Eastwood’s film steps wrong, then, is in its action sequences, which are too exciting, if you will allow me to explain. People such as Kyle and many other soldiers sign up to kill bad guys. Yes, there is patriotism and protecting the American way of life and freedom and all that, but make no mistake, they want to kill some bad guys, too. Here, they are provided ample opportunity. With one exception, the violence plays out like a video game as soldiers march through crumbling towns, clearing room after room in home after home. It all looks like so much fun.

The exception comes during Kyle’s final tour of duty, when a sandstorm hits amid a raging firefight. It is like a descent into hell and the first time in the film the war seems to take on any metaphysical meaning. His obsession, his selfishness, his lust for war, his need to win – it all comes crashing down at once on one Iraqi rooftop. It is a bravura sequence, displaying the kind of technical mastery we have come to expect from an Eastwood film, as well as from his collaborators, editors Joel Cox and Gary Roach and cinematographer Tom Stern.

This dichotomy plays out on every level of the film – one step forward, two steps back. The problem exists at the script level. Every time Jason Hall’s screenplay, based on the book by Kyle, Scott McEwen, and James DeFelice, digs at the myth of military heroism, it pulls back and reaffirms Kyle’s personal heroism. Hall seems afraid to out Kyle as a complex individual who saved a lot of American lives but who killed a lot people and neglected his family for years out of a misplaced sense of pride and duty.

Here is the thing: Nobody wants another situation such as after the Vietnam War, when returning soldiers were spat upon and abandoned by the country that sent them to fight. Respect is certainly due to the men and women in uniform regardless of the justness of the war being fought. However, no one is automatically a hero for signing up to kill another person. As with anyone else, soldiers are flawed, complicated people with conflicting emotions and contradictory motivations. At every turn, American Sniper avoids confronting this reality head on.

When Kyle is stateside with his family – wife Taya, played by Sienna Miller, and two small children – we finally get a glimpse at the depths of feeling and emotion churning in Kyle. Cooper is excellent at portraying the unease Kyle feels with the stillness of life outside of war. Each shrill sound or sudden movement is cause for alarm. It is clear he is not a healthy man, either physically or mentally.

Amid the blood and guts of the battlefield, the movie’s most chilling moment comes when Kyle is simply watching television at home during a birthday party. We see him staring at the screen, and we hear the sounds of battle. Then, it is revealed the television is off, and the war is playing only his mind but constantly. He is not necessarily excited anymore by the fighting, but he cannot turn it off. It is a part of him.

At its close, American Sniper makes overtures to the need for increased veterans care, a position it would be difficult to argue against, though history proves prevention trumps treatment every time. Veterans deserve respect, and they certainly deserve better care when they return from war than they are often afforded. They deserve these things not because they are heroes but because they are human. American Sniper is a good film, but one wishes it had been more interested in telling the story of a man rather than that of a legend.

See it? Yes.