I still can’t talk everyone into doing the one day version of this, even though there were only eight films nominated this year. This is an extremely rare year for me, in that I have seen only two of the nominated films this year. I combination of circumstances kept me away from the movies when they were first released and then as it got closer it just seemed to be a better idea to wait and see them all at the annual showcase at our AMC theaters.
Today the first two films that ran were the two that I have previously written about. Both films were in my top five for the year and one of them was my favorite film of last year.
The Grand Budapest Hotel
This marvelous Wes Anderson film is a joy to behold. Filled with eccentric characters, an outlandish plot and a story structure that allows dozens of actors to pop in and out of the film, it is hysterical and very well put together. A combination of miniatures, process shots and fantastic set design takes us through a pre-World War Two , Eastern European country with Ralph Fiennes as M. Gustav, the concierge at the Grand Budapest Hotel and his faithful Lobby Boy.
If you have not seen this film yet, prepare to be shocked. It is one of the most intense experiences you will ever have at a movie and there is virtually no action and with one mild exception, no violence. This is a game of mental torture and artistic chess played by two unlikable characters, both of whom need each other in the worst possible way. Expect J.K. Simmons to walk away with the Best Supporting actor award. Terrence Fletcher is a nightmare of a teacher but a driven artistic taskmaster may be what is needed to push someone to greatness. Just be aware that there is a huge amount of collateral damage along the way. My Favorite film of the last year.
Birdman : (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
This one has been discussed a lot since it came out and it may be one of the favorites to win the big award next week. I was aware that it was a surreal film that uses off camera voices, strange visuals and an unusual set of actors who at times seem to be mining their own experience for the purpose of making this movie.
It is largely a one man show although there is an outstanding supporting cast, including two actors nominated for their roles in the film, but Michael Keaton is the show here. As an actor who make a series of highly successful films in the early 1990s but now is struggling to find artistic and financial success in a Broadway show, Keaton is “Batman”, sorry, “Birdman”. The character he plays reflects every insecurity an actor is likely to feel. He has written an adaption of a story by Raymond Carver, and id directing it himself. The voice he hears is his alter ego from the successful film series, both spreading doubt about the current undertaking but also bolstering his confidence at key moments.
As the film starts, I noticed several trademark Keaton mannerisms in the performance. He pauses in mid sentence, he shakes his head and holds up his hands as we have seen in several of his earlier works, but the longer we watch, the less we see of the familiar “movie Star” and the more we see of a troubled performer at war with himself and the world. Despite the shots that Hollywood takes from the script, Keaton shows that he has mastered the art of screen acting. He underplays scenes at times and makes the grand gestures at just the right moments. If he wins the award, it will not be some lifetime achievement honor that is catching up with him. He will have deserved it.
The movie also skews Broadway, rehab cliches, reality TV, critics and modern social media. While less focused on the narcissistic fantasy of love that “Her” projected last year, “Birdman” shows us how shallow comments and accidental video can build up a personality. The fact that a man not schooled in these techniques manages to make them work in his favor is part of the joy of this movie. It is very cleverly shot, suggesting a continuous point of view through out the movie. There is an occasional passage of time but the camera always picks up at the last spot that it left us. This does mean that the photography is sometime a little frenetic, but you probably don’t need to take any Dramamine.
This picture is a chance for director Alejandro González Iñárritu, to show off a little. The only other film of his that I have seen is the multistory culture clash movie “Babel ” which was not nearly as visually accomplished but was a lot more coherent. “Birdman” is jarring in it’s oddness but very interesting and thoughtful. It reminded me of a less irritating version of “Black Swan“, without the “Twilight Zone” twist.
The story of the civil rights movement continues to be an important one to this country. It is hard to imagine that the events depicted here happened in my lifetime. It is also hard to believe how much the film makers tried to turn the passionate Martin Luther King Jr. into a different kind of hero. There rational and compassionate minister gets a steroid injection by the cutting together of many of his words into a series of sermons and speeches that shown in this manner, make him more belligerent than the times called for. So much of the story is on point that it seems like a cheat to shoehorn in some of the extra drama.
I have read that former members of L.B.J.’s administration are offended at the way their President was depicted in this movie. Johnson may have prioritized things but he was not an impediment to the Voting Rights act. In fact he had authorized a stringent attempt to create a bill that would be as strong as imaginable. Despite having 68 Democratic Senators he feared that the Southern democrats would block the legislation so soon after the Civil Rights Act had been passed the year before. The movie attempts to show how the violent tactics used by the authorities in the South, spurred Johnson on to support the legislation. Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen was particularly moved to push the legislation through because of the Selma March and the tactics used by the Alabama authorities to stop it and it is one of his legislative legacies. the problem was very complex and this film focuses on the infighting of the different supporters of the legislation in the Civil Rights movement and an occasional appearance by intransigent Governor George Wallace. The performances by Tom Wilkinson as Johnson and Tim Roth as Wallace are good side lights to the story but the main focus of course deserves to be on Dr. King.
David Oyelowo plays King with a great deal of dignity and authenticity. His cadence and voice range seem to fit the part perfectly. He has several opportunities to channel Dr. King at the pulpit or the podium, and he comes off effectively at both. If there is a weakness to the film it is that it is so dependent on exposition that it seems as if it is a series of endless conversations. Sometimes they take place in the Oval Office, while others are in a bedroom or in jail. Regardless, there is a lot of talking going on and it seems like it is all written as a history lesson rather than a drama. The most compelling parts of the film are the recreations of the racial confrontations with police and state troopers. These are the events that manage to spark some life into the movie.
“Selma” was the longest film we saw today, and unfortunately it felt like it. The movie loses it’s pacing every time another meeting takes place and there are a lot of meetings in this story. Still it is a compelling story because of the events that it depicts if not the scenes that dominate the film. The set design and costuming are effective at evoking the time and place for these events. Right up until the unfortunate rap tune that is used over the closing credits, the movie felt authentic. When that tune started, it felt like the film became polemic instead of enlightening, and that was a turn off for me.
Next Week Part Two: The Final Four Best Picture Nominees.