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The Oscar Nominees: Hidden Figures

hiddenfigures

From now until February 26th, I will be taking to be taking a brief look at the nominees for The 89th Annual Academy Awards, one film at a time in several categories.

Nominated for: Best Picture | Best Supporting Actress (Octavia Spencer) | Best Adapted Screenplay

It is difficult to arrive at a movie like Hidden Figures after having seen two inspired pictures (and fellow Best Picture nominees) about the black experience that transcended their subjects so much that they became more than just a racial profile.  Both Fences and Moonlight were about black men affected by the world around them, how they see their role in the world and also the inside journey of their own souls.  Denzel Washington’s film was about a very flawed man who holds court over the family, the household and the small community of friends that make up his whole world while also dealing with questions of his own mortality.  Moonlight dealt with three decades in the life of a black man who is shaped by the people and experiences around him, dealing with questions of morality and personal and sexual identity.  These were great films.

Having come through those two experiences, Hidden Figures is significantly more conventional.  It’s more a Hollywood treatment of a chapter of African-American history that up until now has been either forgotten or ignored.  It takes place in 1961 as during the heated space race between The United States and The Soviet Union as NASA feels the pressure from the government to get men into space.  Desperate for a break, the NASA team reaches out to an unknown, untapped group of black women (this is at the height of the Civil Rights movement).  The women, Dorothy Vaughan (Supporting Actress nominees Octavia Spencer), Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae), and Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) are incredibly proficient at advanced calculations but, of course, must overcome the racial barriers set for them by the times.

What comes of this is not at all surprising.  It is also not as challenging as it should be.  The movie seems to soft-peddle their struggle to find equality in a white (and mostly male-dominated) environment.  Of the three women, the one who comes off the best is Taraji Henson.  She has the bigger part as Katherine Johnson, a shy single mother trying to find a place in an arena where few black women were allowed, and in an arena in which people with her skills were about to be replaced by computers.

Hidden Figures plays much more like The Help then it ebbs close to Fences or Moonlight.  By that I mean it takes an extremely soft-touch to a subject that should be far more challenging.  It’s not a great movie, its plotting and dialogue feels more like the invention of a screenwriter than something that seems to be welling up from the past.  It has some inspiration but you kind of walk out of it feeling as you’ve seen a manufactured product than a portrait of history.  Yet, that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a bad movie either.  Henson is the key here.  Her performance resides in the center of the story and she is the emotional fulcrum.  Hidden Figures is a safe movie, but not one to dismiss.  See Fences and Moonlight first though.  You’ll be glad you did.

 
 

The Oscar Nominees: Rogue One

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It is understandable to approach Rogue One – the Star Wars saga’s first stand-alone adventure – with a touch of trepidation.  Massive experiments in narrative time-bending have never been this series’ strong point.  I must admit that, up until I saw the movie, I had been predicting that it would be a stem-to-stern appetizer, a movie whose only function was to satiate Star Wars fans hungry for next year’s Episode VIII.  I feared that in rewinding the clock to tell the story of the events that led directly into Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope we might be in for a lot of fan gratification without much meat on the bone.  I am excited to report that this isn’t the case.  This is not only an exciting entry in the Star Wars saga but one that is so well constructed that it gives a new and much deeper poignancy to the events that are to come.

The most unexpected element to Rogue One is that the filmmakers recognize that the key to George Lucas’ world is that you can always sense that millions of stories exist just off-screen.  His is a universe so rich and so full and so lived-in that you get the feeling that every character, even those lurking on the sides of the screen, are going somewhere to do something.  Everything wandering in and out of the frame from the humans to the creatures to the technology to the terrain seemed to have been thought about and considered in great detail.  His universe was always in motion and you always had the feeling that you wanted to sink your teeth into those areas that the movies couldn’t explore.

Teetering now on the edge of its 40th anniversary, Star Wars exudes a universe that is as familiar to us as the letters in our own name.  If you were lucky enough to have been a kid when George Lucas’ original trilogy was new then you probably spent your Sunday afternoons seated on the floor of your bedroom pushing around small plastic versions of Star Wars heroes and villains using your imagination to pick up and expand Lucas’ grand universe where his movies left off (I can assure you that describes at least one skinny, spectacled kid in north-eastern Ohio.)  We would like to imagine that those kids also included director Gareth Edwards and screenwriters Tony Gilroy and Chris Weitz.  They know this world, they understand it with intimacy.  Best of all, they respect it.  They understand the story that is before them.  Their story is so well written that it plugs up holes in A New Hope that have lingered for decades – like how the Imperial engineers overlooked a small thermal exhaust port in The Death Star that could destroy it.  Also, why and how Leia managed to get her hands on the technical readouts of The Death Star in the first place and how and why she came to call on Obi-Wan Kenobi.

Rogue One (the words “A Star Wars Story” are nowhere on the screen) is basically a heist movie, all about how a rag-tag group of misfits were able to steal the The Death Star plans so the Rebellion could find a weakness and exploit it.  Yet, it never pulls back on letting us know what the stakes are.  The Empire in this movie is seen as an all-consuming galactic nightmare, a massive military regime with the power to control and enslave an entire civilization just by force of will – and this is before Vader is put in command.  The Empire knows how to show its muscle and the timeline here begins at a moment when their new super weapon is still thought to be only a rumor.  That fantasy is crushed the first time that The Death Star is used to strike at a city from space and we clearly understand what that means for the rest of the galaxy.  Time is of the essence here.  One of the values of this film is that its special effects are able to take it places that the original films could not go.  In a horrifying scene, we get to see what the Death Star’s laser does to a large desert city – we see the ground pulled up and torn apart in ways we didn’t see with the destruction of Alderaan.

The setting owes everything to Star Wars but the story owes its nuts and bolts to all those great World War II mission movies like The Dirty Dozen and The Bridge on the River Kwai and especially The Guns of Navarone (another film about the need to destroy an enemy super weapon.)  These are desperate times, when the Empire has taken control and plunged the galaxy in darkness.  When Obi-Wan called this “The Dark Times” he wasn’t kidding.  We can feel the boot of the Empire pressing down on even the most mundane aspects of day-to-day life.  Those who fear the regime hovel in corners and shanty towns and outposts where they eek out a living in poverty.  The Jedi are all but extinct and those who worship The Force are mired in the remnants of a hokey religion that breeds far-flung cults of little significance.

The central figure of Rogue One is Jyn Erso (played by a straight-faced Felicity Jones) whose father Galen (Mads Mikkelsen) was a noted Imperial Engineer who was heavily involved in the construction of The Death Star until he jumped ship and went into hiding.  An incident in Jyn’s childhood left her homeless so she was adopted and raised under the care of no-nonsense revolutionary and Clone War veteran Saw Gerrera (Forest Whittaker) whose broken body is kept alive by the same technology that keeps Darth Vader breathing.

Through events too vast and complicated to explain here, Jyn gets herself hooked up with a band of revolutionaries: A Rebel assassin named Cassian (Diego Luna), a blind swordsman named Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen); A gun-toting cynic name Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen); A recently defected Imperial pilot called Bodhi (Riz Ahmed); And the scene-stealing K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk) an imperial droid who is a much more stolid and far less-reassuring version of C-3PO.  They get mixed up with a Rebel Alliance that is, in truth, at war with itself.  In meeting rooms, arguments wage between those who want action and those who want a strategy.  The Empire has cut off and killed nearly every option that the Alliance has and so they are eventually forced to put their trust in the hands of Jyn and her crew who know about the weakness in The Death Star but are unable to prove it.  Their mission is to sneak into the lion’s den, so to speak, and retrieve the plans that they can be given to the Alliance.

That explanation might make the film sound dull and familiar, but the pacing, the logic, the sense of dread and the ticking clock mentality make this story far more exciting then it probably has any reason to be.  Over on the Imperial side, we see a far more organized but no less fractured union between officers.  If the fractures in the Alliance are the results of desperation, then the fractures in the Imperial hierarchy is the result of overbearing egos.  The major conflict comes between the imperious Grand Moff Tarkin (played by a computerized reconstruction of Peter Cushing that is just weird) and Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), the Director of Advanced Weapons Research for the Imperial Military.  He’s a bitter snort who has a connection to Jyn’s past that makes her mission into an act of revenge.

The connections between the new characters are probably the film’s weak point, but its hard to lay that on a movie since their mission doesn’t leave much time for quiet introspection.  We feel the weight of the world pressing down on each of their shoulders, the movie is so busy that its hard to get a sense of how they connect with one another.  The mystery of these characters is guessing their fate.  Since this is a stand-alone, it’s hard to guess who will live and who will die.  The one new character that I was able to connect with was Chirrut, the blind swordsman.  He’s a man of faith who marches into battle chanting to himself, “I am with the Force, the Force is with me” identifying him as a holy man cementing the fragmented pieces of his fallen faith.  He has a one-liner during capture by Stormtroopers that brings down the house.

While the new characters leave something to be desired, there is a tickle in revisiting the old and the familiar.  Yes, Darth Vader has a minor supporting role but its not insignificant.  We get the giddy joy of once again hearing the mechanized voice of James Earl Jones and finally FINALLY seeing Vader fight at the top of his power, it’s a thrill.  More on this I will not say.  What I can say is that the movie is littered with in-jokes, cameos and tiny asides that are forecasts of things to come, yet they don’t get in the way.  They don’t quake the story like some of George Lucas’ alterations to the classic Star Wars films.

What quakes this movie in the most positive way is it’s third act.  WOW!  What an achievement of narrative within action.  In an era when so many action movies go on automatic pilot and give us the tired old crash and bash nonsense, here is a movie that gets it right.  The drama is built on our orientation of the placement of the players at every moment.  We understand what is happening, what’s at stake and what the odds are.  We know placement of men and hardware so that we get involved rather than sitting back and just watching a lot of random pyrotechnics.  Rogue One is a masterwork of action and suspense, and while it all leads up to where we expect, it doesn’t do it in the way in which we expect.  The actual mission to retrieve the plans is accompanied by a ground assault that starts small and then escalates into a full scale war that never for a moment loses its forward momentum.  It’s the most exciting thing this series has seen since the climax of The Empire Strikes Back.  And since the characters aren’t burdened by having to return for sequels, their fate is not telegraphed in advance and some sacrifices are not only necessary but poignant.

I’m sort of on a high from this movie, first from having seen it with 250 other Star Wars fans on opening night, and second because it’s the first time in a very long time that I feel that the characters in a Star Wars movie live in an organic environment, one that is burdened by darkness and questions of morality in a way that I haven’t felt since The Lord of the Rings.  As with Jackson’s trilogy, Rogue One allows us to feel the pressure of a fallen society, crushed under the heel of an overbearing entity.  There is a complete world here.  There are histories, rules, religions, traditions, connections.  There is a weariness in the spirit of these characters worn down by two decades of war and oppression.  Rogue One is so much more than I expected, and so much more than I ever thought to expect.  It’s a grand adventure with a force all its own.

 
 

The Oscar Nominees: Deep Water Horizon

From now until February 26th, I’m going to be taking a brief look at the nominees for this years Academy Awards, one film at a time.

Nominated for: Best Sound Editing | Best Visual Effects

The most unnerving thing about Peter Berg’s retelling of the Deepwater Horizon tragedy is that it in trying to recount the events, it turns out to be a visually exciting entertainment.  That’s absolutely the wrong approach to this material, particularly when recounting an event in which 11 men lost their lives.  Of course, one could argue that a movie like Titanic did the same thing, but the difference is that James Cameron’s film made sure that we understood the human element first.  His visual effects were in service to the story, not simply in service to giving the audience its money’s worth.

My basic problem here is that the movie glosses over the people involved.  The men on the oil rig, particularly those who didn’t make it back home are not seen as flesh and blood human beings, but as pegs used to be propped up and knocked down.  When we see photographs of the real men at the end of the film we have no idea where they were in the movie or who played them.  They are simply a vague name and then a casualty.  That’s a disservice to this tragedy and one that made this critic unusually uncomfortable.

Whatever you think about the events that transpired on that doomed oil rig, this is a standard disaster film from top to bottom.  There are the good blue-collar joes doing their job vs. the big bad corporate money men who want to cut corners.  That may play as good conflict but it doesn’t accurately portray the events that led to the explosion.  This film is going to make damned sure that blame is place one a single individual and that you get your money’s worth in the visual effects department.

The special effects department is really the star here, the whole last third of the film is made up of impressive visual effects but there’s little-to-no orientation to give us a sense of placement, where are the men in conjunction to the danger zones?  Who are the injured?  Whose been killed so far?  We need to be part of the experience here not just part of the action.

 
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Posted by on 02/13/2017 in Uncategorized

 

The Oscar Nominees: Captain Fantastic

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From now until February 26th, I will be taking to be taking a brief look at the nominees for The 89th Annual Academy Awards, one film at a time in several categories.

Nominated for: Best Actor – Viggo Mortensen
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I have an affection for movies about particularly weird families.  I love the textures of families who have unique problems, unique lifestyle that make you glad your a fly on the wall to their bizarre union.  This includes such diverse broods as The Berkmans, The McCalistars, The Friedmans, The Simpsons, The Klumps, The Skywalkers, The Royals, The Addams and that weird family from Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  I even like The Pack family of Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes.

The Cash family of Matt Ross’ Captain Fantastic is eccentric too.  They live off-the-grid and are headed by Ben Cash (Best Actor nominee Viggo Mortensen), a father of five whose parenting skills are either to be admired , scoffed or prosecuted.  He lives alone with his children in the wilds of northern Washington State teaching his small brood how to live off the land by hunting and fishing but also by understanding the intellectual pursuits of history, quantum mechanics and philosophy (They celebrate Cholmsky like he’s a natural born legend).  Ben teaches his children to reject the American society that offers only fast food, video games and rank ignorance.  Instead he wants his kids to be self-sustaining eco-warriors with the heart of a lion and a brain devoid of nonsense.  You can have your comparative stance but to me they seem to reside somewhere between Swiss Family Robinson and the Partridge Family (they travel in a large bus).

You can have your point of view about Ben’s parenting skills whether you believe that he’s doing the right thing or keeping the kids completely unprepared for the real world.  The problem is that the movie doesn’t really land either way.  I enjoy watching this family’s off-kilter manner but the movie doesn’t quite know which point of view it needs to make.  At once writer-director Matt Ross’ script admires Ben’s technique, the next minute it questions his methods with relation to the kids’ functionality in the real world.  There is never really a leaning one way or the other.

The story forces Ben and the kids out of the woods when a family tragedy (largely Ben’s fault) brings them back into civilization for a funeral and a cold-water treatment to the real world that they aren’t really prepared for.  This could either be a statement or a comedy of errors but the movie never really lands on either side.  It kind of rides the middle, depending on the viewer.  Me, I thought Ben was missing the larger picture of sustaining kids who won’t be prepared for what the world was going to give them.  Sure, you want them to be strong and intelligent, but where is the pursuit of being able to mingle within society without looking like an off-kilter hippy weirdo?

One note: Viggo Mortensen has been nominated for Best Actor, but I’m not sure I understand why.  It’s an ordinary performance, but it’s not a special one.  There’s nothing particularly noteworthy about Ben other than his parenting skills.  Why not give that slot to someone really unique, like Adam Driver’s poet in Paterson, Andrew Garfield in Silence, Joel Edgerton in Loving, Hugh Grant in Florence Foster Jenkins, Ryan Reynolds in Deadpool or any of the three wonderful actors who played Chiron in Moonlight.  Mortensen gives a nice, good, ordinary performance, but it’s not worth singling out.

 
 

The Persistence of Disney, Part 16: Sleeping Beauty (1959)

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For a man known for reinventing the language of fairy tales, it’s odd to consider that Walt Disney only made three straight out fairy tales in his career.  Yet, it is important to note that those three films, Snow White, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty are not only some of the most accomplished work he ever created but also the most progressive in terms of his art.  Whatever problems you have with Snow White are pretty much cleared up in Cinderella and whatever problems you have with both are pretty much cleared up by Sleeping Beauty; that being in terms of the basic artistry. The characters themselves are another matter.  We’ll get to that in a moment.

Sleeping Beauty is an epic in almost every conceivable way.  It’s a big movie.  It’s got a big story, a big setting, a big concept which is not surprising if you follow the Disney films up to this point because his work was always a growing process.  Disney always sought to improve himself and his work.  You can see this in the films made in his lifetime and further proof can be seen in the decline of quality in the films made by the studio in the two decades immediately following his death.

In that, Sleeping Beauty reveals possibly the most accomplished work that Disney had done artistically since Pinocchio.  It’s artistry is in harmony with the subject matter in a way that few other films, Disney or not, were able to achieve.  The stylized animation borrows heavily from medieval art and (along with the lovely addition of music by Tchaikovsky) works beautifully within the fairy tale setting.

This setting is already familiar even to those who haven’t seen the film.  Everyone knows it by heart: A lovely new daughter is born to King Stefan and the queen and there is much rejoicing (yay!).  There is a grand christening ceremony held at the palace at which three good fairies, Flora, Fauna and Merryweather, each bestow a magical gift to the newborn Princess Aurora.  Then, of course, the party is crashed by the evil fairy Maleficent who takes offense at not having been invited to the proceedings and in turn bestows her own “gift” on the princess – a curse at which the princess will prick her finger on the needle of a spinning wheel on the occasion of her 16th birthday and instantly be struck dead.  Of course, realizing that logic is never the frontal intention here, one has to ask the obvious: Why a spinning wheel?  Why didn’t Maleficent just a simply cast a death curse?  Why the extra work?  Why the loophole?  And her motivation:  She wasn’t invited to the party.  That seems a bit extreme.

Anyway, Merryweather turns that curse around so that the princess will only fall into a deep sleep that will be cured by the kiss of her true love.  The fairies decide to stow the princess away in order to keep an eye on her and to keep her away from Maleficent.  Meanwhile King Stefan orders all spinning wheels in the kingdom destroyed.

That’s a pretty beefy story especially when you consider that that only makes up the first half.  The rest, involving the kidnapping of the prince and Maleficent’s search for the princess and the ensuing battle in the third act, is another movie on its own.  As I said, this is a big movie, with a big story and an enormous cast of interesting characters.  In fact, this film might have the most interesting cast of supporting players.  The three fairies Flora, Fauna and Merryweather almost take over the picture.  They’re individuals with individual personalities.  The same goes for King Stefan and King Hubert (father of the prince) who, in a nice running gag, want their children to wed but remain in a constant state of love and hate as they attempt to plan their children’s futures.  I also like Maleficent’s piggy goons who are obviously under a curse of their own.  I even like the presence of a menacing crow, who scours the countryside looking for our secluded heroine.

And, of course . . . Maleficent herself.  Oh my.  Walt Disney never created a character more deliciously evil, more tantalizingly insane or more flamboyantly designed.  She has the countenance of a snake but the form of a human bat.  Her look is deliciously devilish, beginning with her trademark horns.  They’re impressive. They rise at least a foot off of her head, twisting like a country road and then arriving at two fine tapered points that face east and west. You can’t stop staring at them, and the fact that they tower above an expressive face that, like the horns, twists this way and that from deadening frown to menacing smile without ever concealing the terror behind it.  Her smiles arrive with the thundering news that something wicked this way comes.

I’ll admit rather ashamedly that this was the first time that I had actually seen Sleeping Beauty.  I’m not sure why but it is one of those films that I never really got around to.  I am glad that my first viewing came in the process of watching the Disney animated features in succession because I could better appreciate all that the animators were trying to do.  You can feel the writers and the animators reaching out just a little further to make this more than just filmmaking by the numbers.  I was impressed by the amount of time given to the three fairies.  I was impressed by the lush forests in the backgrounds and the massive cavernous halls of the palace.  I was impressed by use of color and the sound, which gives the whole palette a three-dimensional feel.

And yet . . . and YET, as great as the film is artistically, there is one element that simply doesn’t work: Sleeping Beauty herself.

What a dull, lifeless character she is.  She a tired bore who is barely more than a whisper in her own story.   Of course, these early Disney princesses weren’t known for their blustering personalities but at least I can say that with Snow White and Cinderella gave me enough to grasp at an emotional investment.  Plus, they were at the center.  Princess Aurora functions as the center of the narrative, but she spends much of the movie off to the side.  It’s really a minor supporting role.  I realize I’m being tough on the character but it would be like watching Star Wars with Luke only given 15 minutes of screentime.  She’s dull and lifeless largely because she doesn’t have time to develop a character.  Like all classic fairy tale heroines, Princess Aurora is the prize to be won, the object to be sought, the rank of purity to be preserved until the arrival of the handsome prince.  There is no way around it, she’s a cipher, an object, a trophy to be collected.

So does that mean that we should dismiss Sleeping Beauty as a rank and file patriarchal vision of what a woman is good for?  Not exactly.  As I watched the film recently, it occurs to me that, in spite of Aurora’s postage stamp status in the film, this is a far more feminist statement than you might realize.  Really, think about it.  The most interesting characters in the film (i.e. the ones who actually drive the plot) are all women.  Flora, Fauna and Merryweather are not at the service of a man outside of their loyalty to the king.  They make the decisions that govern the princess’ fate.  They are the saviors of her care when Maleficent strikes her with a death curse.  They don’t seem to operate on orders, but with a sense of what’s right.  It is their decision that dictates the actions of the rest of the film.  Of course, yes, there’s a dithering quality to their squabbling, but the salvation of our title heroine in large part belongs to them.

And yet, with two steps forward come two steps back.  While I admire the independent spirit given to the three fairies, I am also obliged to consider Walt’s bizarre habit of feminine heavies.  As I push through this series, I have noticed a bit of a disturbing equation: Within his lifetime Walt saw the release of 18 animated features.  Eight of those features had a straight up villain and six of those villains – The Evil Queen, The Wicked Stepmother, The Queen of Hearts, Maleficent, Cruella De Ville and Mad Madame Mim – were all women, older and unsightly ones at that.  What is the message here?  Does it harken back to the days of Pandora’s Box wrapped up in the theory that women exist to mess up man?  These women, I think, represent a position of power whether stationary or magical but they are evil and use that evil to bend the will of others.  The machinations are always skin deep.  The Evil Queen wants Snow White dead because she’s younger and prettier.  The Wicked Stepmother enjoys holding power over Cinderella because of her age and beauty.  Maleficent is snubbed at the christening ceremony.  These women are burdened by youth and by the prospect of a happy life that seems to have eluded them.  They are also largely alone save for a few loyal sycophants.  What is this model trying to impart?  Get married young lest you become a bitter old maid?

So, what does that mean for Princess Aurora, and for that matter Snow White or Cinderella?  They are young and good-hearted and are rewarded with the hand of a man who is not only handsome but also rich and of noble blood (okay, it’s hard to argue with that).  Are little girls being sold a message that is cheap and superficial.  Well, yes, but at the time it wasn’t all that unusual.  The function of an American woman in the 1950s was thought to get married, raise kids and keep the home fires burning.  In that way Sleeping Beauty is a movie stuck in time, as an off-kilter model of the role of woman and what was expected of them.  What was not known at the time was that here, in 1959, the world was in a state of change.  Rock and Roll, Elvis, Playboy magazine, the sexual revolution and women’s lib were the tapestry of the second half of the 20th century, rendering the role model of the Disney princesses right out of existence.

That said, this was the last time this model was used.  In point, it was the end of an era.  What would follow in Disney’s cannon would be more male-centric stories, adventures more in the vain of Peter Pan than Snow White.  Disney last few remaining animated features before his untimely death in 1966 would deal with dogs, bears and Merlin the magician.  The renaissance and restoration of female heroines in Disney’s animated output would just have to wait.

 

The Oscar Nominees: Jackie (2016)

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From now until February 26th, I will be taking to be taking a brief look at the nominees for The 89th Annual Academy Awards, one film at a time in several categories.

Nominated for: Best Actress – Natalie Portman | Best Costume Design | Best Original Score
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There is an odd musical cue at the very beginning of Pablo Larrain’s historical drama Jackie that sounds as if it might be more at home in a horror movie.  The best way to describe it is to ask you to imagine that the score is imitating an oncoming train.  This musical beat plays several times throughout the film and at first I pondered that it might have seemed a bit inappropriate given the subject matter.  This is the story of Jackie Kennedy before, after and for the most part during, those four horrifying days in 1963 from the moment that she witnessed her husband’s brutal murder until the moment that she buried him.  Through her eyes, we see the rushing tide of events and of emotional turmoil; sorrow, agony, anger, and emotional crisis both inward and outward that were crushing her in those terrible days.  For her, it was a horror show.  The world and the course of history were rushing at her like a runaway freight train.  From that moment on, it is reasonable to imagine that she may have felt as if she had been hit by one.

Jackie is a masterful study in human crisis, how human beings deal with extreme tragedy and the immediate effects, particularly when they are in the public eye.  It takes an event we know very well and humanizes it so that it lifts itself above the countless array of matter-of-course documentaries and hokey dramatic recreations that sensationalize and/or trivialize the events of the assassination.  Instead, this film is an intimate and closely observed bio-pic of the inward personal Hell that besieged the suddenly widowed first lady during those first few days as she struggled not only to get a handle of what had happened but also to deal with the myriad of circumstances that were to follow.  She questions herself, her role as a mother, human nature, and also questions her own spirituality which she frequently lays out to a kindly Irish priest (John Hurt) who is caring but also very matter of fact.

A very public personality in the immediacy of the assassination, the eyes of the world are upon her but Jackie finds that an onslaught of emotion and expectations of propriety are laid thick upon herself and her image.  At this moment when she finds herself bombarded by events, the worst is that in a country broken down in sorrow, she can find little time to get a handle on her own.  She finds that even in the torment of those events, she is still being instructed on how to act, what to say, and what the proper emotional notes are.

Yet, the chaos of the moment is unrelenting.  She not only has to deal with the moment, but also the rush of transition of administration from Kennedy to Johnson.  The White House staff is not unsympathetic but they are understandably concerned about the future of the country, their government, their personal lives and their careers.  Very quickly boxes are being packed and personal effects are being moved in and out of The White House before she has even had a chance to inform Caroline that her father has died.

The staff rushes to get things in order, but always at the center is Jackie who returns to a White House that feels like it has been hit by a tornado.  There is something in the editing and cinematography and the production design that reminded me of The Shining.  There is a very Kubrick-ian feel to the White House bedroom – the furniture is too perfect, too perfectly placed.  Everything is organized physically while the woman at the center stands in disarray.

The narrative structure feels chaotic but in a very functional way.  We see the rushing of events unfolding in a whirlwind of information, outward public response and the leanings on Jackie of all of the things that have to get done in a matter of hours; the funeral, the press, the final resting place and the tumult of questions of what will come afterwards.  It is all crumbling before her as she sees her world coming apart.  “I have nothing of my own,” she tells a journalist, and it has more than one meaning.  Jackie wrestles with grief matched with the expectations that weigh heavy upon her shoulders.  Everyone is out for themselves and the only person who shares her grief is Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) whose heart and soul aches at the prospect that the future that he and Jack envisioned for the country will never happen.  Both Bobby and Jackie are broken, lonely people faced with a cold reality that neither they, nor the world, would have ever thought possible – Camelot in smithereens.

Jackie is played in a masterful performance by Natalie Portman who cannot have had much fun playing this role, but who reaches down into the depths of her soul to give a performance that I think should get her a second Oscar.  Portman has always been one of the most expressive actors but here she manages total control over her physical performance.  She is an actress whose emotional states always lie just under the skin and here she exerts control over those emotions from grief to anger to frustration to bitterness.  Jackie’s situation is rocked by chaos, but Portman seems able to modulate that turmoil in a way that is tangible and filled with great empathy.  We can feel it.

The first time we see Jackie she is walking around outside the house at Hyannis Port just one week after the assassination.  Her lovely face is a mask of sorrow and pain and confusion from which it will not recover.  Through the process of grief and the acting out of the role she is expected to play, we can always sense that under the surface something inside of her is screaming.  She is allowed very few moments of solitude.  Portman is given a scene here that is as startling as it is heartbreaking.  Jackie, just having returned to The White House from Dallas, is left alone in her bedroom still wearing the strawberry pink Chanel suit spattered with her husband’s blood.  As she strips out of her cloths and into the shower, Portman is allowed notes of anguish and sorrow and pain that this fine actress has never been allowed to display before.  It is a stunning, wordless three-minute scene of pure acting, pure emotion.

The story of the immediacy of the assassination is framed by two historical events, one after the shooting and another before.  The major framework is the scene at Hyannis Port one week after the shooting, when a bitter and beleaguered Jackie gives an interview to Life Magazine journalist Theodore White (Billy Crudup).  He asks the standard questions but she is less willing to give him standard answers.  Understanding the temptation on his part to sensationalize the interview, she gives him bold and unguarded information, including a gut-wrenching retelling of that moment, and then instructs him not to print it.  She does this several times based around everything from the shooting itself to the information that “I don’t smoke,” which she does constantly.  It is a manner of control over the press that she has never been able to have before.

The other framing device is where the filmmaking really strikes us.  It takes place during Jackie’s famous Emmy-winning Valentine’s Day television tour of the White House in 1961.  The first lady is instructed in her performance for the camera, especially the smile that we sense is hard to maintain.  But something about the filmmaking here is really kind of interesting.  The recreation of the television special is seen in black and white, of course, but the sound is muffled as it might have sounded on television at the time.  With that, Jackie’s words don’t seem to be her own.  There is a strange disconnect between what she is saying and what we are hearing.  She goes through the motions as CBS correspondent Charles Collingwood asks the standard questions but her lips seem to be moving to pre-recorded words.  I initially assumed that it was a flaw, but then it struck me that the disconnection in her words represents the way in which the public persona of Jackie was separate from the real person that she was in life.  Seeing her through the prism of the new medium of television we see that an image has been created, a distorted image that is far from the truth.

I was stunned by how brilliantly crafted this film is, especially when so many recent bio-pics (The Butler, Jobs, 42, Get On Up, The Iron Lady) aren’t so much interested in their subjects as they are in rushing toward the next red letter moment.  Here, the focus isn’t on recreating moments and getting all the furniture in place, it’s on the emotional devastation heaped upon a woman whose image had been lionized by history and how she negotiated the difficult path through the darkest moment in America’s recent national consciousness.

This is a great American film.  It is a portrait of tragedy and loss and the attempts to visualize the sorrow and grief of an event that this country has never been able to lay to rest.  Jackie is by no means a happy movie, but it gives a face to a tragic event that has been portrayed by history for its details and less for its emotions.  America doesn’t have any mythologies as it did with the Kennedy family and that notion ties up the film’s ending.  Jackie stands in much the same position that King Arthur did at the end of the musical “Camelot” at the realization that the grand spirit and lofty ideals of the once-proud kingdom are gone. “Don’t let it be forgot/That once there was a spot/For one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot.”

 
 

The Oscar Nominees: Zootopia

zootopia

From now until February 26th, I will be taking to be taking a brief look at the nominees for The 89th Annual Academy Awards, one film at a time in several categories.

Nominated for: Best Animated Feature
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The greatest joy of going to the movies, for me, is the joy of discovering something that the filmmakers have worked to turn into something special.  Week after week, I attend the Hollywood product that regurgitates shopworn plots and tired characters that aren’t much deeper than your average rain puddle.   Yet, every once in a while I come across something that breaks the mold, swings for the fences and tries to be better than average.

It gives me great joy to bestow this praise on Disney’s Zootopia, a movie that by all accounts should be just a forgettable piece of animated weekend movie fodder, but instead is creative, colorful, funny, touching and tells a story that is actually kind of compelling.  It also creates a wonderful world, one in which animals are the dominants, human beings apparently don’t exist and every species is sectioned off into their own little part of town.  Elephants live in the larger part of the city; mice live in a tiny part of the city, etc.  Everyone has their place and most have apparently made an agreement not to cross the boundaries.  The inhabitants are divided up between predators and prey.

I love this environment.  It reminds me of the town in Pinocchio, the sea in Finding Nemo or the inner-cranium of Inside Out.  It’s always a good sign when you look at a heavily detail and populated world on screen and secretly imagine all the nooks and crannies that you’re going to explore in slo-mo on the DVD.

Of course, inside that world is a story, and it is a good one.  Zootopia focuses on a spirited bunny named Judy Hopps (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin from “Once Upon a Time”), a rabbit from down on the farm who is aiming for the impossible dream of becoming a big city cop.  The impossible part comes from the fact that in Zootopia rabbits don’t become police officers, they stick to carrot farming.  That job prospect is left to far more efficient (not to mention more menacing) predators like rhinos, yaks and lions.  Judy’s well-meaning parents are concerned about her dream and remind her that “It’s good to have dreams as long as you . . . you know . . . don’t act on them.”

Well, she does act on them and becomes part of Zootopia’s brutal police force, led by the humorless Chief Bogo (voiced by Idris Elba), a yak who has no real need for a rabbit on the force and assigns her the job of meter maid.  Judy, of course, excels at this.  From here, I’m going to be careful because the plot that develops from there is a doozy.  She unwittingly gets herself mixed up with a sly hustler fox named Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman) who is scamming the elephant community and gets information that an Otter has gone missing.

What comes of this is a really great and kind of compelling mystery.  The writers Jared Bush and Phil Johnson have really worked to create something that has our attention, and something that builds piece by piece.  I’ll be honest, I had no idea what lay at the end of the trail of clues.  This is extremely rare for animated movie.  In most cases you can see the end of the mystery before it even gets started, but here they respect our intelligence by letting us figure out what is happening.  I realize that I’m being vague but I’m trying to keep the details light.

The beauty of Zootopia is in the designs and the color.  The filmmakers here are so generous with their artistic freedom that we feel that we have entered a new kind of world.  Every kind of animal is represented and every kind of animal seems to have been given its own kind of space, unlike other movies in which the animals all seem to be relatively the same size.  Elephants and rabbits, and mice and foxes and weasels and yaks exist in the same space but their proportions are exactly right.

I was also excited about Judy Hopps.  This is a fun character, not a token hero, but a gal who wants to realize her dream and has stars in her eyes.  She fun to listen to, but she’s also fun to watch.  She has a spirit and a personality that seem original and not something that feels like it comes off the assembly line.  The details of her body language are something special here.  Animation is getting better and far more intricate and it is a delight to watch.  I also liked the idea that she is attempting the break the mold and get into a profession that all others are telling her that she has not business pursuing, not even her parents.  She wants this, and she won’t let anything stand in her way.  But it isn’t the case of a character trying to succeed at something that she’s not good at.  She just has to overcome the cynicism of those who doubt her.

If there is a drawback to Zootopia, it’s something that crops up in the second act.  This movie has an overwhelming amount of political correctness that seemed to wash into the plot from out of nowhere.  Judy makes a negative public statement about predators that makes her pariah of the community and, for me, it was a development that arrived with a clang.  This was a movie on the fast track of energy and originality and this was an element that I feel that the movie didn’t really need.  In a movie that creates an entirely new world, why add elements of our own?

My other problem was in the character of Chief Bogo, Judy’s superior officer.  He’s a dead serious character whose function is to always be putting Judy in her place.  That’s fine, except that the character has no humor; he turns up to spoil her progress and it felt more like an irritation.  I thought it would have been more fun if he was molded more as a funny parody of all those wrong-headed police chiefs from the Dirty Harry movies who were always chewing Harry out even while the evidence was staring them in the face.  This character seemed, I don’t know, unpleasant.

Those objections aside, I found Zootopia to be far better than I might have expected.  It creates a bright, fun, and intricate world that didn’t always feel like the filmmakers were motivated by marketing.  Somebody cared about this story, they cared about this production and they seemed to have had as much fun putting it together as I did watching it.