Sunday, February 22, 2015

And the Winner Is....

The clock is ticking. It's the big night for Oscar, so I'm on top of my deadline to register comments about the contenders.  Some truly great movies based on historical stories, current books and people, and fantastical tales, with outstanding performances and risks taken by producers and directors. Hope you'll have as much fun as we do at our house, filling in the ballot for nominees we pick to be the winners.  So here we the Best Picture category:

American Sniper is hard to beat for a true story reminiscent of recent headlines and a timely trial to remind us this movie will wind its way to a tragic finale. Navy Seal Chris Kyle is portrayed by a very husky Bradley Cooper in a role that he literally embodies for a new level of achievement in an already impressive career. As a war story, the on-the-ground perspective of the skilled gunman gave me a chill. He goes for the target regardless if it's a child hugging a grenade or the enemy sharpshooter peering through a rooftop view miles away. I could taste the dry dusty dirt of Iraq, hear the jumbled thoughts inside his steely head, and feel the tug of a thumping heart when images of his family danced between bullets. I was there, with the Navy Seal whose patriotism compelled him to a third and fourth tour of duty in a part of the world that had and has a split personality at best toward American engagement. And I was there, when he returned home unable to adjust to a life he once cherished. And I was there when his wife pleaded with a stranger, not the man she married. Real. Tough. Stuff. But nothing in his military training prepared Chris Kyle or his family for the final chapter on that driving range at the hands of a troubled soldier. The scene doesn't appear in the movie. Instead, his flag-draped coffin travels past endless crowds who line the roads of his Texas hometown. They are there to honor their hero, and to never forget the sacrifice of those who wear the uniform of our armed forces. The movie does the same. In spectacular disturbing detail, it brings front and center the sacrifices and the journeys back home. For that and much more, American Sniper deserves its nomination on the Best Picture list.

Birdman is a robust character study of Riggan Thomson, played by Michael Keaton, who has been there and done that as a Broadway actor, but still tries to do it again with a new play, starring role,  unpredictable co-star, and the sexually charged teen daughter who hangs around like a simmering flame ready to burst into an explosion, which she does in one dramatic scene. Blazing with energy, sensual innuendos and encounters, and crazy complicated relationships that we'd expect from such theatrical characters and director Inarritu, the film is a romp through dressing rooms, closets, and high ledges that flies off in unexpected and believable directions at every turn of the backstage and onstage sets and streets of Broadway.  Keaton has already won Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild best actor awards and may very well go all the way for the Oscar. I can't deny him the deserved accolades, and loved his speech for the Golden Globes in which he shared his humble roots, heartfelt appreciation, and vulnerability. And who can dismiss his long accomplished career? He may ride this award season all the way to the stage tonight.

Boyhood is a quiet film that slowly tugs at the heart until you catch yourself weeping for no good reason as a family of four evolves through years of marriage, divorce, remarriage, divorce, graduations, fights, adolescence, and so much more. So there are reasons. The universal experience of family life washes over us in waves of nostalgia to which we can relate, at least to substantial chunks. We've lived this story, first as children in a family with parents (one, two, or more), and then as parents raising the kids. Director Richard Linklater took a giant risk when he signed four actors to a shooting schedule once a year for twelve years. But he's done that before, with the Sunrise Sunset films that were ten years apart, gems in their own right. Considering what can occur in all four of the actors' lives during that period of time, and his own as well, Linklater accomplished a monumental task. Luckily for us, he pulled it off, not just to complete the movie, but to infuse a piece of art with a sense of magical realism that feels more like a documentary of these lives than a scripted film. Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette are stunning in understated performances, with similar deliveries by the two actors who play the son and daughter, Ellar Coltrane and Loelei Linklater (the director's daughter supposedly wanted to bail on the film at some point but persevered, perhaps with fatherly encouragement).  My daughter who is raising two sons, 20 and 17, said she cried through most of the movie. The poignancy is undeniable, and heart-wrenching at times. I'll be just fine if this is the night's big winner. It touched me softly, deeply, as well.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is a zany showpiece of film, with story, visual, and character elements that lend themselves to imaginative invention more akin to Disneyland characters and capers. Ralph Feinnes has never been quirkier or quicker, on his feet and in his delivery, as the manager of this exotic European resort where well-heeled patrons park themselves to escape from a more practical, sensible world outside the hotel (at times). Tilda Swinton, Owen Wilson, and Bill Murray offer memorable co-starring and cameo appearances, each with their own brand of whimsical, whacky tributes to add to a composite of entertaining puzzle pieces that might tickle a few chuckles from Laurel and Hardy or the Marx brothers. The colorful, playful sets of the hotel and surrounding countryside could be toy creations in which pastel pastries and interiors set the tone against a backdrop of snow-capped mountains in faraway Austrian inspired scenes. All things are possible, and all things can happen, as they do when dead bodies surface, countryside jaunts lead to wild chases, and bellboys take center stage. It's a thoroughly original, exhausting, enjoyable, nearly cartoon slice of moviemaking that is not inconsistent with director Wes Anderson's other work. He specializes in original storytelling that takes us down roads less traveled where characters and stories possess unique qualities and spin we're not used to seeing, i.e. Moonrise Kingdom, the only other movie of his I've seen. Applause for the delightful Grand Budapest Hotel! Will it be the the zany, quirky winner for best picture? Not likely. For best Original Screenplay? Quite possibly, with the Writers Guild of America award in that category already under his belt.

The Imitation Game is accomplished historical storytelling that sealed me to my seat for the entire ride. It doesn't hurt to have an equally accomplished Sherlock Holmes BBC actor in the lead, playing a brainy, geeky guy long before anyone dreamed of Silicon Valley or branded men who tape their eyeglasses and prop pens in their shirt pockets as nerds. Benedict Cumberbatch carries this movie from beginning to end, as Alan Turing, the British genius who unlocks the German Enigma code to give the Allies the advantage they need to turn the war and beat Hitler to the ground. But it wasn't an easy win for Turing, and it didn't lead to a lifetime of happiness.  There were roadblocks that nearly killed the effort along the way, including military superiors who demanded faster results and nearly shut down the enterprise undertaken by Turing and a handful of colleagues who joined the secretive mission. Keira Knightley plays the female co-star, romantic interest on the team who softens the rough edges of Turing's awkwardness with his co-workers on the high-tech project. Cumberbatch is authentic in a pondering role that sears the screen with ferocity. This is a character who refuses failure, pushes the limits, and eventually succeeds, allowing the world to triumph over Nazism. If only the joy could have followed him after the war, but the world wasn't ready. Found out as a homosexual, Turing is ostracized by the social norms of the day and forced to live a reclusive life that ends with a probable suicide at the age of 41 in 1954. The brilliance of Imitation Game is that it takes a highly technical topic and pugnacious character, spins a yarn of intense human interest and historical significance, and delivers an unforgettable movie that the New York Times calls a "tidy and engrossing drama."

Selma,  another historical movie on a broader scale, takes us back to the mid-sixties in Alabama where Martin Luther King leads a 50-mile march from Selma to the state capital in Montgomery, but like Turing, his journey was wrought with challenges and a tragic ending.  In fact, blood was spilled, lives were lost, and the Civil War was alive and well in the old South. State troopers blocked the bridge out of Selma to ensure no one would reach the capital until national publicity and a groundswell of whites and blacks arrived from other parts of the country to join a second march at a later date. While I lived this period of history in high school, I can't say I truly understood or followed the daily dramas except for evening news stories when I caught them. So it was an important movie for me, to fill in the missing pieces, in the same way that The Butler, another Oprah movie, did last year. Performances were exemplary from David Oyelowo and Carmen Ejogo who played King and his wife, Coretta Scott King. Oprah's cameo scenes were emotional and memorable, the most prominent one when she tried to register to vote, but was turned down, even after she gave correct answers to the questions asked. In the end, history triumphs and the Civil Rights Act is passed by President Johnson, whose portrayal in the film has been criticized for diminishing his significant support for King to bring the worst of racial atrocities to the attention of the American press. While it's an important film with a significant contribution, it's unlikely Selma will beat out the competition for the Oscar. But who knows?

The Theory of Everything is utterly remarkable, depicting the life of Stephen Hawking, whose perseverance and virtuosity shine from beginning to end through the performance of Eddie Redmayne. Based on his first wife Jane's book about her life with Stephen, the film opens with a magical fairy tale in the form of a love story in Cambridge between two brainy, charming characters. They capture our hearts only moments before they face a dismal diagnosis that will reverberate throughout their lives and test them at every kiss and turn. This is a triumphant love story that stands up to the challenge of Stephen's debilitating disease, with dedication, loyalty, and determination rarely if ever seen among others with a similar diagnosis. Felicity Jones' portrayal of Jane is honest and earnest, her devotion to her husband nearly angelic, until it isn't. Up to this point, Jane and Stephen put their love and faith in each other first, to raise a family and support Stephen's substantial scientific contributions to the field of physics, including the publication of a bestselling book. But Jane eventually recognizes her own desperate needs in a nearly impossible situation where she has been a moon orbiting around Stephen's earth. Both find love beyond their relationship, which has run its course under the most difficult circumstances imaginable. The film does justice to a heart-wrenching story about a couple who rises above an unforgiving disease, but Eddie Redmayne's portrayal of a twisted, disfigured, slurring invalid is what lingers and aches for months afterwards. It's hard to imagine a more demanding role with such a high bar for physicality and emotional depth, unless it would be Bradley Cooper's portrayal of The Elephant Man on Broadway, which I haven't seen. Redmayne has already collected several awards, and may be giving the acceptance speech for an Oscar tonight. An honor well deserved.

Whiplash is the final nominee in the Best Picture category, but a film I did not see. J.K. Simmons stars in the role of a music teacher and has already picked up some awards for his portrayal.