Oscar Buzz 2015: Some Thoughts on Nominated Films

I love movies. And I also love “film” (that word connotes a more refined sensibility that usually includes independent and foreign movies). It’s always exciting to see high-quality movies that are well produced, directed, acted, and are aesthetically enticing. Here is a somewhat haphazard, unscientific set of reviews on the Oscar films I have seen so far.

Wild: I did not read the memoir upon which the film is based, but from what little I knew of it, it sounded very interesting. The film was generally quite what I was expecting, a woman’s journey to self-empowerment and emotional release as she treks Pacific Coast Trail, with a happy ending. In these sorts of films, what matters is not the originality of the story, but how one gets there. What are the obstacles the character faces? How are they shown? What is the backstory? Director Jean-Marc Vallee (who did a wonderful job with the real, naturalistic “Dallas Buyers Club”) is really a director’s director: he has a very particular vision for the film, how he wants things to happen and the types of performances he wants to get out of his actors. This is evidenced in the flashback sequences that form a thread through the whole film; it is quite a work of brilliance and editing for a director to pull something like that off. Sometimes, however, the flashbacks become distracting, for either we do not get enough information in the flashback because it is too short, or they take us away from the present time. Certain motivations are still not made clear. Reese Witherspoon does a wonderful job as Cheryl, and is well suited to the role. However, I would not necessarily say she would be the prime contender for best actress, as it is a role that any capable actress could do. Laura Dern is also very good as Cheryl’s mother, someone who moves the audience, even though Vallee could have chosen to show more of her dark side and what she had suffered. Overall, a very enjoyable film.

The Imitation Game: There had been so much buzz about this film that, naturally, I was very eager to see it. I am an easy sell for any English movie, as I am an Anglophile, and I especially like films that deal with intelligent people or subject matter. However, I must confess that this film was a bit of a disappointment, though it was by no means a bad film. Benedict Cumberbatch is excellent as Alan Turing, and it is really he who carries the film with his nuanced performance. The other actors are fine; despite my initial doubts about Keira Knightley cast as a mathematician, I found she was up to the task. If anything, I felt her part was minimized and her character’s contributions were not adequately acknowledged at the end (no mention was made of Joan Clarke’s life after that period).
Making a biopic is never easy, and this film chose to focus on a few crucial threads: secrets, bullying, Alan’s genius, and his closeted homosexuality. But in focusing on these things, the film left out many things, such as Alan’s family background, his studies at Cambridge and his mathematical genius, the context and impact of his work on British society and the future of computers (this needed to be explored more), and Joan Clarke herself. It is always a tough call when making a film or writing a piece of literature, when the creator chooses to be very focused on a couple of things, because where is the line between too many topics and too few?

Into the Woods: Pure fun! This is what good entertainment should be—accessible, creative, high quality, and intriguing. Stephen Sondheim’s musical does very well on the big screen because of its fairytale themes; any sort of fantasy-type topics lend themselves to great visual effects, which is why we go to the movies anyway. The cast is all uniformly very good, and certainly Meryl Streep steals the show, but Anna Kendrick’s believable Cinderella and the child actors who play Robin Hood and Jack are especially noteworthy. The costumes and art direction are marvelous; they truly conjure a very specific world in which the story takes place. What especially struck me about the film was Stephen Sondheim himself. He has a very particular, unique musical language — surely, it is not to everybody’s taste– but his understanding of English language text setting to music is very, very keen, something I admire as an opera singer. For the cast to perform Sondheim’s music as well as they do shows actors who are at the top of their game, for Sondheim cannot be easy to do.
My only general complaint with the film is the complete lack in casting any non-whites/minorities in lead roles. Only in the crowd scene near the end do we see a diversity of faces. The roles in the film for the most part (with the exception of the witch and Rapunzel, who are mother and daughter) could have been cast with any race, or mixed races, and thus the film would have wider appeal worldwide. And it would also seem more up-to-date with society, instead of backward, as the film industry still seems to be with anyone not white.

Whiplash: Stunning, dark, and intense. And very, very real. Those of us who are musicians can especially relate to the trials and tribulations suffered by Miles Teller as a gifted jazz drummer, Andrew Neiman, who is trying to “make it” as a musician. There is a certain genius in reproducing reality in whatever medium and artist works in, be it literature, television, painting, film, etcetera, and director Damien Chazelle has succeeded brilliantly in making a film that seems very believable. It is not just the excellent performances by Teller and J.K. Simmons, but also all the concrete details and places and settings. Particularly interesting is Andrew’s family life, for he is the son of a single father (played very credibly by the ever-affable Paul Reiser) who is involved and yet not very involved, and his relatives who do not seem to be very supportive of Andrew’s life as a musician. The unfolding of the plot is also done well, because just when something seems resolved, a new obstacle arises, and that obstacle is always something unique and different, be it girl trouble, injury, or a change of heart on Fletcher’s part. Andrew’s motivations are not always clear as the film progresses, or rather, his motivations are clear, but we wonder why he is not learning to pull back on his ambition after he suffers tragedies.
J.K. Simmons is a wonderful actor (you may have seen him already in a number of other films as a character actor), and one never doubts his ferocity and emotions in this film–a tribute to Simmons’s talents. However, I find his character sometimes a little too one-sided. Yes, we know he’s a monster. Yes, we know he throws things at people. Yes, we know he is very foulmouthed. But it is only in one scene for contrast during the body of the film, when he talks charmingly to a little girl, do we see he is more than just a monster, that he is a rounded human being. Whether this was the choice on the part of the actor, the director, or the director’s script is unclear. In my opinion, this one-note personality of Fletcher is what slightly detracts from what is an overall strong film. But it is not for the faint of heart, for it is quite an emotional rollercoaster.

The Theory of Everything: This is my personal favorite on all fronts. The acting is superb–Eddie Redmayne deserves the best actor Oscar–the directing, the art direction, the script, etcetera. A horrible snub for director James Marsh not to have been nominated for best director, because he gets such human, rounded, warm performances out of his cast. This film beautifully shows the progression of legendary physicist Stephen Hawking’s life, marriage, and illness, as well as the difficulties and joys experienced by his caring wife Jane, an intelligent, strong woman in her own right. The period costumes and the details of the era in which they first met are very evocative and enjoyable for the viewer, taking us back to a time of hairspray and formal dates and dances. The film marries science and science metaphors with a love story, and sometimes the visual analogies are quite stunning, such as when Stephen sees the cream swirling in his coffee cup as a black hole. Scientists might argue that the film should have included more science, and that is a fair comment, but there is just enough physics that makes it clear to the layperson that Hawking was a genius. Felicity Jones’s Jane is a complex woman, for she is romantic, hard working, resentful, self-sacrificing, conscientious, and morally torn. Her emotional dilemma is captured so well here, we can see her hesitation and yet her desire for a physically able lover that she finds in the choirmaster Jonathan, and Jonathan’s own caution in loving Jane too much and too visibly. What Redmayne accomplishes so well is both Hawking’s physical degeneration and his seemingly cheerful, good-humored personality that has too often been masked by his disability. It is very fascinating to see the home life of a great scientist, to see who he is beyond his accomplishments. One of the most intriguing scenes of the film is how Stephen learns how to use his voice-replacement computer system, and how it empowers him to carry on with his life.
Lest readers think I believe this is a perfect film, there are some criticisms I would raise. One is the editing, especially in the earlier part of the film; the cuts seem unusually fast, and don’t allow the viewer to sink into the shot. We don’t need to change the point of view from the front to the back of the characters while they are having a conversation. (A friend of mine did suggest, however, that the reason for these fast cuts is the representation of time, that time seems to be very urgent in the beginning, but then it slows down–a valid interpretation). Also, the makeup crew did not adequately age Stephen and especially Jane through the film, as she looks rather the same at the beginning as she does at the end, with only a difference in hairstyle. I do take issue with a minor point: the title. The Theory of Everything–what is “everything?” The primary issue in this film is love, and I think “The Theory of Love” would have been a much better title, especially because of the irony of theorizing something as wonderfully abstract as love. The film omits details on Hawking’s second marriage to his nurse, which eventually failed.

The Grand Budapest Hotel: Too much time has passed since I saw the film in order for me to give it an accurate review. However, what I do recall is that the film was all over the place and too much of a pastiche of wacky characters and settings and too much going on. I am a huge Wes Anderson fan; I have seen almost all of his films and think he is one of the most brilliant directors of the past couple decades, for he combines tremendous intellect with heart. His characters are always unusual or quirky and clever, but the viewer never comes away feeling like his films are merely a cerebral head game. This is Anderson’s gift. Anderson also creates unique fantasy worlds that seem just one hair short of a reality that we know, but are somehow unplaceable. In this film, it is not quite clear what the point is, or what the point of view is, for it seems like we are set up with one premise, but get delivered another. The ever-odd, talented chameleon Tilda Swinton is wasted on too few scenes. Every known Anderson star from any of his films is given a cameo at some point here, and this becomes very distracting. Not even beautiful sets, costumes, and Anderson’s usual brilliant art direction redeem the film. Despite the rave reviews, I must confess that here, I am a detractor. But I eagerly await his next film.

Maleficent: This clever fairytale is nominated for costume design, and it is not difficult to see why. This is a very visually creative film and a unique film as well, for it is dark. Angelina Jolie is actually very convincing as the title role (there is always something rather cold and scheming about her face in real life, isn’t there?), which is a spinoff from Sleeping Beauty. Particularly fun are the trio of pixies, and the visual effects throughout make it exciting to watch.

There are still more Oscar-nominated films to see! What are your favorites, and why?

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