Archive | January 2016

Wrapping up 2015: The Gift

It shouldn’t be possible for a good film to become a bad one in one scene. The awful ending of Psycho doesn’t keep it from being an all-time great. But then, the ending of Psycho doesn’t invalidate and wipe out all the good that came before it. It let the momentum of the movie come to a crashing halt of tedious exposition, but that exposition didn’t say “by the way, here’s how everything you liked about the movie is now a lie”. The good parts of Psycho remain good, no matter how it ended. The same cannot be said of The Gift, a film with an ending that meticulously sabotages all the good that comes before with swift and brutal efficiency.

The Gift, starring, written, and directed by Joel Edgerton, is something close to a marvel for its first 90 minutes. It drew me in, surprised me, and engrossed me. It was a candidate to be one of my favorite films of the year. And the the ending happened. Like with Psycho, good movies sometimes have bad endings. The ending of The Gift is not simply bad; it aggressively undoes everything good about the film that came before. I don’t think I’ve seen anything like it.

There is enough skill and quality in this film that merits more than lip service. It tells the story that starts out feeling all too familiar. An affluent yuppie couple- Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall)- have relocated from Chicago to Simon’s hometown in Southern California. Their new home is one of the those glass spaces carved into the canyons. All that view makes them expensive, I suppose. While shopping for furniture, a man approaches Simon, claiming to know him. Simon needs a few beats to remember. It’s his old high school classmate Gordon (Edgerton), better known as Gordo. Simon, feeling plenty awkward, disconnects with that always misguided line when trying to not talk to someone: “let’s catch up later”. Gordo takes him up on it, leaving them a bottle of wine and showing up for dinner.

Gordo is socially awkward, and Edgerton plays this well. No over-the-top affectation. Robyn, an introvert herself, empathizes with him and scolds her husband for mocking him behind his back. He sees a desperate hanger-on. She sees a needy but harmless soul. If this weren’t a thriller, we’d likely see agree with her. Initially we think that Robyn is a cliche, an all too trusting character who lets someone sinister into her life through naivety. Gordo regularly visits the house uninvited. He hesitates to answer when asked if he has a family, or what he does for a living. He hints that something happened between he and Simon years ago. We think we know where this movie is going.

And then, at first, it doesn’t go there. After a few trips down conventional thriller road (hints that Gordo “isn’t all he seems”, and Robyn’s dog going missing for a few days) the film takes a genuinely surprising turn. Robyn, unsettled by her husband’s behavior, investigates his and Gordo’s history.  She discovers that there is far more to Gordo than we expected, but not some horror backstory. Real human tragedy. And Simon is, well, an unapologetic asshole, but the type able to hide it from loved ones so long as he has some private punching bags to bully. Gordo was once that punching bag. Other victims of Simon’s emerge, and the plot seems to take on a beautiful sense of poetic justice. It seems like Edgerton has tricked us into watching a thriller and instead gave us a gripping story of Robyn’s empathy and smarts revealing hidden layers in her life. I was stunned, not from plot twists and jump scares, but from genuine surprise at how smart and human and empathetic this story was. When Robyn tearfully confronts Simon late in the film, it’s not out of fear for her life, but out of despair at realizing just what a cruel human being her husband is.

And then, that goddamn ending. To get into how thoroughly The Gift sabotages itself at the end, I need to plunge headlong into spoilers.

I repeat, major spoilers herein

A key revelation in the film is that Simon was a relentless bully in high school who ruined Gordo’s life, spreading rumors that got him pulled from school and beaten to a pulp by his father. Initially, these revelations are part of what make the film so surprising. They justify Robyn’s empathy toward Gordo. The film, to this point, is from Robyn’s perspective. Every new thing she learns about Simon is another nail in the coffin of their marriage. It’s a smart subversion of an old-fashioned thriller setup. Robyn convinces Simon to apologize to Gordo. Instead of apologizing, Simon beats and humiliates him, then lies to Robyn. Gordo leaves a note saying he won’t bother them anymore. Time passes. Robyn becomes pregnant. Simon sabotages a co-workers chance at a promotion so he can get the gig, is discovered, and is fired. Robyn goes into labor. Simon gets a tape from Gordo.

The tape, and a subsequent conversation Simon has with Gordo, more than suggest that Gordo drugged and raped Robyn earlier in the film (a scene where we see her collapse in her room; we are lead at the time to believe that she overdosed on pills, but Gordo’s tape suggests he drugged her). It is also implied that Gordo might have impregnated Robyn. All of this plays out as Gordo taunts Simon over the phone as Simon breaks down into tears. The movie ends. Where to begin.

This ending is cheap and exploitative “shock” material in a film that, thus far, has succeeded in presenting a sense of empathy and humanity. Worse yet is how this ending treats Robyn. Up until the end, she is the film’s protagonist and point of view. At the end, she isn’t even a character. She has no idea what has happened. She doesn’t speak or have a chance to listen or present a point of view. Her agency isn’t just gone, it’s disregarded as if it never mattered. The possibility of her rape is strictly to provide pain for Simon. It’s bad enough that the film so needlessly resorts to using rape strictly for shock value, having already told a complete and satisfying story. That it kicks Robyn to the curb, using her victimization to heighten her husband’s pain, is worse. Finally, the ending renders everything that made the film so good- its focus on and justification of Robyn’s empathy- completely inert. It was all a ruse to get us to this bullshit. Gordo was a predator all along. Robyn was being foolishly naive. The most cynical and stupid tropes of thrillers turn out to be what this movie believes.

The Gift spends 90 minutes subverting our expectations of its genre, turning into a terrific story, and then heedlessly plunges into the very worst aspects of that genre in its final moments. This is a well-acted, technically proficient film. But its story is ultimately cruel, bitter, cynical, stupid, schlocky, and gross. If you’ve ever wondered if one scene can turn a good film into a bad one, The Gift is a case study.

 

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Blindspot 2016 #1: Smiles of a Summer Night

I admit that writing about movies hasn’t been at my mind’s forefront recently, but I’ve decided to push through that. My grandmother would want me to keep up my writing.

Last week I watched the first film on my Blindspot list: Ingmar Bergman’s 1955 romantic comedy, Smiles of a Summer Night.

What’s that, you say? Romantic comedy? Bergman?

Yes, indeed, that is what we have here. And it is wonderful.

Smiles of a Summer Night is warm but not sentimental, insightful but not cynical. The warmth is delivers stems from Bergman’s deep understanding of these characters and his willingness to let them interact and talk like real people. Much is said in this film, most of it deeply felt, most of it only partially understood by those listening.

The film feels alive like a good play does*. When a play opens you always feel like you’re walking into someone’s life. In Smiles of a Summer Night, the life we intrude upon is that of Fredrik (Gunnar Björnstrand), a middle-aged lawyer with a grown son and a young wife about his son’s age. He had been married for a long time. His wife died, and he spent some time coping by bedding as many pretty women as he could. One, a beautiful thirty-something actress named Desiree (Eva Dahlbeck), he actually had feelings for. However, he called it off with her and instead married Anne (Ulla Jacobsson), who is not yet 20 when the film begins. They haven’t yet consummated their marriage, and he has no desire to pressure her to do so. He still fantasizes about Desiree, and visits her. Not for sex, but for emotional intimacy and understanding. “You are my only friend, the only person to whom I can show myself”, he says in a moment of vulnerability.

*This story did end up on Broadway; Stephen Sondheim adapted it into his 1973 musical “A Little Night Music”.

Certainly his son is incapable of providing any emotional support. Young Henrik (Björn Bjelfvenstam) is studying to be a clergyman, and pontificates about morality, most likely because he is terrified of women. Fredrik’s maid, Petra (Harriet Andersson), plays him like a fiddle and lures him to bed. Petra is extremely close with Anne and tries to offer advice for when the time comes for her to lose her virginity. We sense that the two are more earnestly attracted to one another than to anyone else in the movie.

One reason Desiree and Fredrik’s relationship is now platonic is that Desiree’s current paramour, a soldier named Magnus (Jarl Kulle), is both absurdly jealous and willing to duel at a moment’s notice. A scene where Magnus finds Fredrik alone with Desiree is both very tense and very funny. Magnus is married to Anne’s friend Charlotte (Margit Carlqvist), and the two converse quite openly about their affairs. Neither is all that happy about the others’ infidelity. Their affairs have become a sport that neither can win.

For no apparent reason other than “this will be fun for the movie to do”, all the characters assemble for dinner at the home of Desiree’s mother, Mrs. Armfeldt (Naima Wifstrand). The old woman knows full well what she’s getting into inviting all these desperately concupiscent people under one roof, on the longest day of the year. The characters celebrate the solstice by staying up all night, talking, brooding, plotting, dreaming, about sex, romance, and fidelity. Amid the chatter there is barely any time for them to act on what they talk about.

There is such richness to this film’s dialogue. Most scenes consist simply of one on one conversations. These conversations don’t simply move the plot along. Every one is rich and revealing. Fredrik confides his anxieties about his marriage to Desiree as she undresses after she performs a play; their mutual comfort effortlessly conveys their familiarity. Anne and Petra talk frankly about sex; Anne is full of questions for Petra, who is happy to share her insights. Magnus tells Desiree that he doesn’t mind if Charlotte cheats on him. He then tells Charlotte the same, only about Desiree. There’s little doubt he minds very much in both cases. Fredrik toils in the background, desperately reading scripture amid the ribaldry.

When they all arrive and Mrs. Arnfeldt’s house, she sits back over the proceedings almost contentedly. She presides over their dinner table conversation like a referee, guiding the action but showing no desire to dictate any terms. The topic of choice? Charlotte’s bet with her husband that she can seduce Fredrik in fifteen minutes. He takes the bet and they all take a drink of wine. It’s going to be that kind of night.

Amid the conniving and bickering, Andersson gives my favorite performance in the film. Her Petra is the film’s heartbeat, radiating joy and a lust for life. While everyone else is slowly working themselves to a boil inside Mrs. Armfeldt’s manor, Petra is getting hers with Frid (Åke Fridell), a portly servant whose jolly hedonism matches Petra’s.

Who ends up happy and who doesn’t isn’t really the point of this film. Bergman’s far too perceptive a filmmaker to fixate on happy endings. He crafts a terrific ensemble of characters and traps them under one roof together. So much of the film’s sense of fun is simply seeing a new pairing of characters talking on screen. Their conversations are so alive. We have no idea where they’ll go. At one point Anne and Petra suddenly burst into giggles during a chat and throw themselves onto a bed, rolling in delight. It’s such a spontaneously delightful moment. In another scene, Anne is discussing marriage with Charlotte, who suddenly delivers a monologue about her troubles with her husband and with men in general. It’s a burst of despair, and Margit Calqvit’s eyes are focused just barely off the camera. She’s not talking to us; we’re right there and she can’t see us, and the effect is alarming.

Smiles of a Summer Night doesn’t shrink from its characters’ sadness, but its overarching tone is warm and, surprisingly, optimistic. Some characters remain paired with the person they began the film with, others run off on whims, and still others don’t seem to give a damn so long as they get a roll in the hay before the sunrise. The shortest night of the summer works its spell on everyone. They don’t all true love, but that’s a lot to ask for in one night. Sometimes, understanding yourself and everyone around you a bit better will do just fine.

 

Praise

This afternoon, my grandmother Patricia Joaquin Burkhalter died. Lila, as I call her. She was 84.

Born and raised in the Philippines, she survived World War II on the run with her family from Japanese soldiers. She raised 8 children. I am one of her 14 grandchildren. She introduced me to classic movies as a child. I would spend New Year’s Eve watching old movies AMC and TCM, trying and failing to stay up until midnight. To this day, when she was around, it felt like home.

She was my standard for resilience. I took for granted her ability to overcome anything. She went quietly today, and I can only assume that it was precisely her time.

I’m listening to one of my favorite musical cast albums right now, In the Heights. In my review of Brooklyn, I praised it for managing to encapsulate so universal an experience in such a specific immigrants’ story. In the Heights does much the same thing in its story of a Latin American community in Washington Heights. I need these stories in my life. They help me feel closer to my Filipino heritage, and remind me that I wouldn’t be here if my grandmother and mother hadn’t been bold and courageous. In the second act on In the Heights, the protagonist’s grandmother dies suddenly. The entire cast joins him in an impromptu hymn. Alabanza, they sing. Praise.

Lila is an honorific invented by my older cousin Catie when she was a toddler. She was the first child in my generation. My grandmother wanted to be called abuelita, a holdover of the Spanish influence in Filipino culture. Catie mustered “lila”, just one letter off of the traditional Filipino word for grandmother: “Lola”. It was sort of perfect.

Lila beat cancer at 60. Barely two years later, her husband, my grandfather, died of pancreatic cancer. He was diagnosed on Good Friday and died on Easter. It’s been 23 years since he died. I thought about that a lot today. It was their wedding anniversary. Such a long time to be apart.

Lila lived through the death of her daughter, my auntie Lizzie, of mesothelioma. In the last year, two of her siblings died. When my mom was wavering between life and death a little more than 10 years ago, thanks to hospital-acquired pneumonia after a mild stroke, Lila was there, making sure my family held things together until my mom got better. She had an endless resilience, reinforced by a wicked sense of humor. You have that when your next-door neighbor is killed by a bomb when you’re 12 years old, when you go to college in Minnesota after growing up on the Equator, when you marry a white man in Georgia in the 1950s. She always survived. Over the past few years she’d had a number of frightening medical episodes. She always pulled through. This morning, my mom told me she was checked into the hospital for low blood pressure. It sounded routine. “Oh, okay,” I said, nonchalantly. Compared to past events, it didn’t sound like something to worry about. An hour and a half later, she was gone.

There’s only so much fight in every person. Lila had enough for three lifetimes. Earlier today, my sister posted a picture of Facebook of Lila as a young woman, staring into a canyon in the South Dakota Badlands. It’s the image I want to hold in my head of my grandmother, from a time before I ever saw her and yet so undeniably reminiscent the person I will remember.

Alabanza, Lila. I love you.

 

 

Wrapping up 2015: Carol

It’s hard to pinpoint the precise moment when Carol and Therese fall for each other. Their romance begins with stops and starts. They connect instantaneously, when Therese (Rooney Mara), working that nightmare that is retail at Christmas, helps Carol (Cate Blanchett) choose a present for her 4-year-old daughter. Carol invites Therese out. Then she invites her over. Then she invites her on a road trip. To this point, they haven’t kissed, or even expressed much outward affection. Occasionally one’s hand finds the other’s shoulder or arm and lingers. It’s 1952. We sense that Carol is well-versed in pursuing romance with women in ways that don’t catch undue attention. We sense that this is all new to Therese, but that she is ready learn the ropes the moment her eyes first meet Carol’s.

Carol is the latest film from Todd Haynes, and it is as good a film as I’ve seen in the last year. It might very well be the best. It is my favorite sort of story: of people earnestly and humbly pursuing happiness. It shouldn’t be so hard to pursue such a clear mutual attraction. It goes without saying that there are plenty of obstacles standing in Carol and Therese’s way, even beyond the year they live in. Carol is married, and seeking a divorce. Her husband Harge (Kyle Chandler) knows that she has had affairs with women

I’ve read critiques that Carol is a cold, even distant film. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. Haynes presents the slow-burn of Carol and Therese’s relationship as a survival mechanism, one that Carol has clearly developed over the years and that Therese is willing to play along with. That doesn’t mean the film lacks emotion. It just asks the audience to look closely, to see how two people might come alive with one another and force themselves to contain it. Blanchett and Mara are both splendid here. Watch how Blanchett conveys Carol’s open flirting with Therese when they first meet, without saying or doing anything a judgmental, homophobic stranger might notice. Watch Mara in return, and how Therese notices that it’s flirting and reacts entirely with her eyes. This is not a distant film; it’s brimming with emotion, contained within two characters who are forced to try to repress it. As a result, moments where feeling overflows feel symphonic. In a time when so many films treat sex as a perfunctory plot point, Haynes makes a squeeze of a shoulder feel like a grand romantic gesture.

Have we become so accustomed to romantic cliche that we can’t comprehend a film that presents such an emotionally honest romance? One only encumbered from full bloom by outside forces? Haynes doesn’t downplay the dangers posed by homophobia in 1952. Carol carries a revolver with her; when Therese finds it, it feels like a wake up call. Men see Therese and barrel through her obvious disinterest. A boyfriend is gobsmacked when he sees that Therese has fallen for Carol; there’s no mistaking her attraction, he just seems indignant that his girlfriend is leaving him for a woman. We sense he’d care less if she was leaving him for a man. And Carol’s husband is a minefield for her future; he’s emotionally volatile, with full knowledge of her affairs and a willingness to use them to keep their daughter away from her. He sees Therese in their house, listening to music, and can barely contain his anger.

And yet, this is a far more hopeful film than not. It is rapt with the beauty of romance. This is the most sumptuous film of the year. Not a frame is wasted. In a year full of monumental achievements in cinematography, I hope it’s Edward Lachmann who takes home the Oscar. He and Haynes craft a painterly world, not in the usual sense of shimmering artifice, but in how aware the camera is of space, of light, and of color. My favorite shot of the movie is a short tracking shot of Therese moving around her apartment. It’s a drab, spare space, the sort of apartment we expect a twenty-something retail worker to have. The camera is positioned in the rear, and everything feels at a distance, like we’re observers peering in from a window, as in an Edward Hopper painting. Then Therese opens the door, and Carol is there, bathed in the hallway light, a burst of brightness and color in the far right corner of the shot. The image comes alive. We don’t need to hear a word to know exactly how Therese feels.

 

 

Oscar Nomination recap

Let’s see how I did (my picks that didn’t get nominated are struck through, and nominees I didn’t predict are in bold):

Best Picture

  • The Revenant
  • Spotlight
  • The Big Short
  • Mad Max: Fury Road
  • The Martian
  • Carol
  • Bridge of Spies
  • Room
  • Creed
  • Brooklyn

Not too shabby. My long-shot hopediction for Creed didn’t pan out. Carol is the surprise here. The most critically adored film of the year scored six nominations, but didn’t pull a Best Picture nod. I’ll be seeing the film on Saturday, so I’ll let you know how outraged I am about this surprise snub after that.

The nod for Brooklyn is a pleasant surprise for me. I loved that film but I thought it was too quiet to land a nod in this category that otherwise favored very heightened, tension-filled narratives. Likewise, I was right about Room: it has only made $5 million, making it one of the lowest-grossing recent Best Picture nominees. But it struck me as the sort of film that would engender a passionate support base big enough to get it in the door here, and it did.

Best Director

  • Alejandro G. Iñárritu, The Revenant
  • Tom McCarthy, Spotlight
  • George Miller, Mad Max: Fury Road
  • Ridley Scott, The Martian
  • Todd Haynes, Carol
  • Adam McKay, The Big Short
  • Lenny Abrahamson, Room

Picking against DGA-nominee McKay seems like it was a bad idea. But then, DGA-nominee Ridley Scott got snubbed. What gives? Maybe voters decided that The Martian was a star vehicle for Matt Damon, and that McKay deserved credit for handling a big, star-studded cast with The Big Short. Abrahamson, meanwhile, is a terrific surprise. Room is a contender for my #1 film of the year, and his nod here makes me think that its support was bigger than I imagined. Meanwhile, my prediction that the Academy would nominate Haynes for both a distinguished career AND perhaps the most critically adored films of the year didn’t pan out.

Also, the BAFTA snubs for Mad Max were an anomaly. It’ll be interesting to see if Iñárritu makes a run at back-to-back Oscars. If he doesn’t win, it’s either McCarthy or Miller. Can the Academy embrace a low-key, actor driven film, or a stylized genre film in this category? We’ll see.

Best Actor in a Leading Role

  • Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant
  • Michael Fassbender, Steve Jobs
  • Matt Damon, The Martian
  • Eddie Redmayne, The Danish Girl
  • Michael B. Jordan, Creed
  • Bryan Cranston, Trumbo

I was really hoping Jordan could pull an out-of-nowhere nod for Creed, but it was not to be. This isn’t a surprise; Cranston had a lot of precursor support, while Jordan had almost none. But still a letdown for me. As I said, I’m terrible at being completely pragmatic when making predictions.

Best Actress in a Leading Role

  • Brie Larson, Room
  • Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn
  • Cate Blanchett, Carol
  • Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl
  • Jennifer Lawrence, Joy
  • Charlotte Rampling, 45 Years

Rampling made it in after all! I had her falling short to Lawrence, but then the Oscars decided to put Vikander in supporting, opening the door for Rampling. I haven’t seen 45 Years yet, but it’s high on my list of films that I need to see before the Oscars. This is a very nice turn of events though; Rampling is a terrific actress, but this her first Oscar nomination at age 69.

Best Supporting Actor

  • Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies
  • Christian Bale, The Big Short
  • Sylvester Stallone, Creed
  • Jacob Tremblay, Room
  • Mark Ruffalo, Spotlight
  • Tom Hardy, The Revenant

Well, I guessed that Idris Elba would be snubbed despite his heavy precursor support. he joins the short list of actors who failed to get an Oscar nomination after recognition from the Golden Globes, SAG, and BAFTA. I predicted Tremblay would take his place, but instead it was Hardy who swooped in, despite not being nominated for any of those awards (Tremblay is up for the SAG). I still think Tremblay’s campaign was doomed the moment he was pushed for Supporting in a film where is the more of a lead than Brie Larson.

Best Supporting Actress

  • Kate Winslet, Steve Jobs
  • Rooney Mara, Carol
  • Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Hateful Eight
  • Alicia Vikander, Ex Machina
  • Kristen Stewart, The Clouds of Sils Maria
  • Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl
  • Rachel McAdams, Spotlight

So, Vikander’s category confusion did cost me in the end. I predicted she’d get a Best Supporting Actress nomination, and that she’d be nominated for an Oscar for The Danish Girl, but I somehow ended up with two wrong predictions for her. Stewart was a bit of a long shot, my attempt at scouring the field for a dark horse who could garner stealth support. That support ended up with Rachel McAdams, whose work in Spotlight is superb. I figured Ruffalo, who has the showiest performance in the film’s deep ensemble, would be its lone representative at the Oscars.

Oscar nomination predictions

I used to be obsessed with handicapping the Oscars, keeping a steady eye on every major award leading up the nomination announcement, spending hours picking apart all the main categories. Nowadays I pay general attention to the awards circuit (go Mad Max!) but don’t get around to making my predictions until, well, about now. Here are my predictions for the nominees in the major categories, sorted from top to bottom by my estimation of the likelihood of their nomination.

Best Picture

  • The Revenant
  • Spotlight
  • The Big Short
  • Mad Max: Fury Road
  • The Martian
  • Carol
  • Bridge of Spies
  • Room
  • Creed

As always, the possibility of 5-10 nominees makes this a fun category to predict. The voting rules are a bit complex (a thorough explanation can be found here) but the gist of it is, films that get nominated are those that are (shockingly) ranked first and second on the most ballots. It’s easy to get a sense of which films are generating a lot of passion through the precursors, and the top seven films here have all gotten quite a bit of support. Room is my gut prediction. It’s almost certainly the least-seen film among major contenders, but I have a feeling that it will top a lot of ballots among those who have seen it. And finally, Creed is my annual hopediction. I’d love to see it make the cut, and I think it has more than an outside chance.

Best Director

  • Alejandro G. Iñárritu, The Revenant
  • Tom McCarthy, Spotlight
  • George Miller, Mad Max: Fury Road
  • Ridley Scott, The Martian
  • Todd Haynes, Carol

The only spoiler here that I can imagine is Adam McKay for The Big Short. But I’m betting the directors’ branch of the Academy goes with Haynes, a respected auteur who has not yet received a directing nomination.

Best Actor in a Leading Role

  • Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant
  • Michael Fassbender, Steve Jobs
  • Matt Damon, The Martian
  • Eddie Redmayne, The Danish Girl
  • Michael B. Jordan, Creed

Look, I have never been able to be pragmatic about Oscar predictions and I’m not going to start now. I’m not going to include this barrage of solid but mostly one-note contenders and not predict Michael B. Jordan’s tour de force work in Creed. Yes, this means predicting snubs for Bryan Cranston in Trumbo (a movie no one seems to like very much yet that everyone’s predicting for this category) and Steve Carrell in The Big Short (a very good performance that stands a good chance of being dwarfed by the size of the ensemble). So be it. DiCaprio’s winning this thing anyway, so why not be bold?

Best Actress in a Leading Role

  • Brie Larson, Room
  • Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn
  • Cate Blanchett, Carol
  • Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl
  • Jennifer Lawrence, Joy

Christ almighty, this is where things are getting messy. Buckle up. Larson, Ronan, and Blanchett are the frontrunners here. They’re safe. After that, we have Vikander, who is being pushed for Supporting Actress. Given that the BAFTAs and Golden Globes both balked and put her in lead, and that she has also been getting awards attention for supporting actress for Ex Machina, I’m predicting that she ends up in lead for this film. Of course, she might end up in supporting for The Danish Girl, or her votes get split every which way and she gets no nominations (a la what happened to Scarlett Johansson in 2003 when she was in almost exactly the same boat with Lost in Translation and The Girl With the Pearl Earring).

Of course, Rooney Mara is also facing some scrutiny about her category placement for Carol (she’s being pushed in Supporting but has gotten some nominations as a lead). I’m predicting her in Supporting, but we’ll see. The last spot comes down to Charlotte Rampling for 45 Years and Jennifer Lawrence for Joy. Rampling’s performance is far more critically adored, but it has been largely ignored by non-critic awards-givers. Critics largely panned Joy, but enough Academy voters rallying behind Lawrence would be far from the most surprising turn of events this year.

Best Supporting Actor

  • Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies
  • Christian Bale, The Big Short
  • Sylvester Stallone, Creed
  • Jacob Tremblay, Room
  • Mark Ruffalo, Spotlight

Rylance has quietly become a frontrunner in this category, and should comfortably be nominated alongside Bale and Stallone. Tremblay is another instance of category fraud (he is the protagonist of Room, narrates the movie, and is in almost every scene) but he’s here because everyone seems to forget Quvenzhané Wallis had little trouble being nominated for Lead as a child. I digress; Tremblay gave what was, for my money, the best performance by an actor this year, and I see him riding Larson’s frontrunner momentum to a nod. Idris Elba has been getting a lot of plaudits for Beasts of No Nation, but the film has garnered little other traction since its October release. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the voters opt to recognize someone from the extraordinary cast of Spotlight. Ruffalo is the best bet; he has the showiest character to chew on in a largely understated ensemble.

Best Supporting Actress

  • Kate Winslet, Steve Jobs
  • Rooney Mara, Carol
  • Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Hateful Eight
  • Alicia Vikander, Ex Machina
  • Kristen Stewart, The Clouds of Sils Maria

Don’t talk to me about this category. Don’t speak. Don’t try. I need to take a break and get a drink to stop my head from spinning.

All right, I’m back. Winslet is the only sure thing here. The only one. Mara? I could easily see voters scoffing at her category placement and putting her in lead, as I predict they will with Vikander for The Danish Girl. Or perhaps Vikander ends up here for The Danish Girl and not Ex Machina. Leigh has gotten consistent support for a movie that has otherwise sputtered on the awards circuit. Stewart has been a critical juggernaut for her performance in The Clouds of Sils Maria, which counts for more in a category as scattered to hell as this one than it does for Rampling. Long story short, there’s a good chance that Winslet, Mara, and Vikander are all nominated tomorrow and I’m still only 1/5 in this category.

That’s it. My brain hurts. I’ll see you all tomorrow morning!

 

Wrapping up 2015: The Revenant

Spoilers ahead

Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s The Revenant is a gorgeous depiction of terrible things happening. I wish there was more to say about it than that. Many harrowing events unfold; as empathetic people we wince and cringe and remember that this is based on a true story, so there’s decent chance some of this awful stuff really did happen. It looks lovely. It’s very well acted. And aside from its intermittent gross-outs, I can’t recall much else that it made me feel.

OK, so I’m a sucker for good visuals. Let’s talk about those for a bit. Emmanuel Lubezki has nature photography down. We knew this ten years ago when he was nominated for an Oscar (which he should have won) for Terrence Malick’s The New World. Look, I’m an unabashed Lubezki fan. Whether he’s working with Malick, Alfonso Cuaron, or Iñárritu, his camera swoops into the scene and skittishly looks around like someone getting their bearings. His wide shots are always painterly but not overly luxe; pretty as they are they’re still doing their job of setting the scene. And when situations call for mud, blood, and spittle, he makes sure we feel caked in it.

I just wish it was in service of a movie that was about something more than its face value. Many things happen in The Revenant, but there’s not much under the surface. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Hugh Glass, a tracker and hunter and guide for a large hunting party. The group of 40 is reduced to 8 in the opening minutes, when a party of Arikara warriors attack the hunters’ camp. The survivors include Hugh’s son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) and John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy). Fitzgerald wears villainy like a medal. He repeatedly makes clear that he cares more about making his money from this excursion than any individual’s life. He tries to goad Hawk, who is half-Pawnee, into attacking him with racist diatribes. All of this is before Hugh is attacked by a bear, after which Fitzgerald really gets his evil on.

The bear attack scene has been widely talked about, and rightly so. It is a spectacular set-piece. The Revenant comes alive during its action sequences, and this one is a standout. It’s a harrowing single-take sequence that uses that technique well; it refuses to look away from the horror, keeping us trapped up close as Glass fights for his life. When it’s over, Glass is so shredded we wonder how he doesn’t bleed out in seconds. It seems likely that only the bitter cold keeps him from succumbing to infection.

This sequence, plus the attack that opens the film, are The Revenant at its best. The technical craft is so sublime, the tension so brutal that it’s impossible not to be riveted. The problem is, the film is 2 hours and 36 minutes long.

No amount of time is inherently too long for a movie, of course; a bad 90 minute film feels longer than a good 3 hour film. The Revenant‘s biggest issue isn’t its length; it’s that it doesn’t use that time to amount to much. Once Hugh Glass is abandoned by his men, the film becomes about his survival. He goes through a gauntlet of terrible things. There comes a point where these ordeals are no longer inherently riveting. He doesn’t grow as a character. Nor does anyone else. Fitzgerald, who abandons Hugh for dead and murders Hawk in the process, only grows more brazenly evil as the film progresses. Hardy, to his credit, gives this character his all. He could have gnashed his teeth and wrung his hands and cackled the whole time and it would have been more in spirit with how Fitzgerald is written. Hardy is a very charismatic actor. We reflexively want to assume his characters have depth, but Fitzgerald is maddeningly one-dimensional; his scenes consist of his doing bad things or insisting that those bad things are justified. Are more nuanced antagonist would have done wonders to give this film, and Hugh’s desire for revenge, more weight.

Hugh’s journey does have some interesting moments. He meets a wandering Pawnee hunter who feeds him, builds him a shelter, and helps him recover from his injuries. The film does a decent job of bringing First Nations characters to prominence. For example, the Arikara chief who leads the raid that opens the film is looking for his daughter, who has been kidnapped by white hunters. We also get glimpses of Hugh’s earlier life, how he lived for some time with a Pawnee tribe and fell in love with Hawk’s mother. These interludes are welcome, but feel stretched thin by the long running time.

Unfortunately, for all its beauty, The Revenant simply isn’t interesting. For the most part, it’s not even as harrowing as you’d expect. A series of unfortunate events is not inherently fascinating; we have to be invested in the people going through them. Hugh survives ordeal after ordeal, and once in a while reminds us that he wants revenge on Fitzgerald by carving “Fitzgerald killed my son” into the earth. But we don’t see him grow or change or express much emotion aside from desperation. The third act feels like it should be triumphant or cathartic or something, but it all feels obligatory. There’s been no narrative buildup, and thus no satisfying payoff. It’s not a boring film; it’s just not gripping. It’s always beautiful, and the performances are all strong. This isn’t DiCaprio’s best performance, but it might be his most… well, “most” by itself is a pretty good descriptor. He is asked to portray a man who begins his story already a weathered shell of a person and whose only arc is to slowly transform into leather. He does this as well as I imagine it can be done. DiCaprio has always been best at broad, big emotive acting, and he has ample opportunity for that here. It’s not surprising he’s the Oscar frontrunner; he doesn’t have a killer monologue, but I sense that won’t matter voters when they see him desperately carving out a dead horse’s guts to use the carcass as a shelter. Unfortunately, the rest of the film is much like the horse corpse he turns into a bed; bloody, messy, and pretty hollow.

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