Cinderella Ascending

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Jupiter looks down on the wedding audience in Jupiter Ascending.

Jupiter looks down on the wedding audience in Jupiter Ascending.

On Thursday, after spending a good part of the day figuring out my taxes and realizing I owed way more than my accountant had led me to believe, I was looking forward to a little escapism via an early screening of Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella. A fan of Branagh’s early work, I was surprised to find a rather standard Cinderella tale unfolding before my eyes.

The Cinderella poster art depicts the heroine fleeing the palace.

The Cinderella poster art depicts the heroine fleeing the palace.

I have written about Cinderella before and it is certainly not my favorite fairy tale, but still, I was disappointed. While there are a number of versions of this persecuted heroine, this one is based on the 1950 Disney animated film, itself based on the Perrault tale of Cendrillon, which gave us both the fairy godmother and the glass slipper. I apparently don’t remember the earlier film very well, since a few things I thought were new in this one weren’t new at all. Sigh. It was even less inventive than I thought, and I didn’t think it was very inventive. Really, I expect better in 2015.

That said, it did have very, very pretty costumes. At least I’ve probably gotten a head start on next year’s Oscar blitz with this one. Cate Blanchett’s outfits in particular looked gorgeous throughout.

The wicked stepmother makes an entrance at the ball.

The wicked stepmother makes an entrance at the ball.

The wicked stepmother plots with the Grand Duke.

The wicked stepmother plots with the Grand Duke.

If you must see one Cinderella this year, make it the original space opera Jupiter Ascending instead. While the Perrault tale claims the persecuted heroine spot (510A) on the Aarne–Thompson tale type index, given the unusual family relationships, I’d place Jupiter Ascending on the opposite end of the Cinderella spectrum, unnatural love (510B). However, while the film shares many aspects of the Cinderella tale, it also has a whole lot of other stuff in there as well. Some might say too much, but I have to admit to being baffled by the poor reception this film has gotten. Is it perfect? No. Is it rather silly in spots? Yes. But it’s no worse than most superhero or science fiction films. For one, I actually understood the plot, which is more than I can say for Guardians of the Galaxy. Have people forgotten how ridiculous the Lee Pace scenes were in that film? Or how misogynist it was? Here, multiple women, both white and black, have actual parts: They talk! They do their jobs! And their gender/race is completely immaterial. It’s about damn time.

If you care about supporting movies with diverse casts and feminist messages, you should ignore what you’ve heard and see this in the theater.

Plus, it’s very, very pretty.

Jupiter and Kalique discuss passing the Bechdel test.

Jupiter and Kalique discuss passing the Bechdel test.

Oscar Blitz: Wish List

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And the Oscar goes to…

how-did-this-get-made-logo-question-mark

After seeing six of the eight films nominated for Best Picture as well as a few other nominees and eligible motion pictures, I hereby present my wish list for tonight’s awards. [Note: This is not who I think will win. In fact, while I still think the race for Best Picture is between Birdman and Boyhood, I wouldn’t rule out a come-from-behind victory by American Sniper.] I’m not really rooting for anything in particular; mostly I’m just hoping for one or two surprises.

First off, I must say, 2014 was a pretty good year for films, especially those starring women front and center (Belle; A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night; Gone Girl; Ida; Maleficent; Obvious Child; Two Days, One Night; Under the Skin; We Are the Best!; Wild). It’s a shame that these works continue to go mostly unrecognized by the Academy. I swear, if there wasn’t a special category for actresses, I’m not sure how many of these movies would even be seen or nominated. I would love to know the percentage of women in the non-acting branches of the academy. Are these films even considered for awards like Best Screenplay or Best Sound?

I thought it was not possible for me to hate something more than I hated The Master, but I hated this more.

—Money quote from Brutally Honest Oscar Ballot No. 1

With that said, and based on what I’ve seen, here is what or who I would like to see win tonight, in order of preference within each category. In some categories, I’ve also included those I feel should have been nominated (SHBN).*

Best Picture
Whiplash
Boyhood
Birdman
SHBN: Nightcrawler, Under the Skin

Directing
Richard Linklater for Boyhood
Alejandro G. Iñárritu for Birdman
SHBN: Damien Chazelle for Whiplash, Jonathan Glazer for Under the Skin

Adapted Screenplay
Damien Chazelle for Whiplash
SHBN: James Gunn and Nicole Perlman for Guardians of the Galaxy, Gillian Robespierre for Obvious Child

Original Screenplay
Dan Gilroy for Nightcrawler
Alejandro G. Iñárritu et al. for Birdman
SHBN: J. C. Chandor for A Most Violent Year, Jeremy Saulnier for Blue Ruin

Actor in a Leading Role
Eddie Redmayne for The Theory of Everything
Michael Keaton for Birdman
Benedict Cumberbatch for The Imitation Game
SHBN: Macon Blair for Blue Ruin, Jake Gyllenhaal for Nightcrawler

Actress in a Leading Role
Marion Cotillard for Two Days, One Night
Rosamund Pike for Gone Girl
SHBN: Scarlett Johansson for Under the Skin, Jenny Slate for Obvious Child

Actor in a Supporting Role
J. K. Simmons for Whiplash
Ethan Hawke for Boyhood
Edward Norton for Birdman
SHBN: Riz Ahmed for Nightcrawler

Actress in a Supporting Role
Patricia Arquette, Boyhood
Keira Knightley, The Imitation Game
Laura Dern, Wild
SHBN: Agata Kulesza for Ida, Tilda Swinton for Snowpiercer

Cinematography
Roger Deakins for Unbroken
Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski for Ida
Emmanuel Lubezki for Birdman
SHBN: Jeremy Saulnier for Blue Ruin, Jonathan Sela for John Wick

Film Editing
Tom Cross for Whiplash
Sandra Adair for Boyhood
SHBN: Julia Bloch for Blue Ruin, Steve M. Choe and Changju Kim for Snowpiercer

Original Score
SHBN: Marco Beltrami for Snowpiercer, Michael Giacchino for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Mica Levi for Under the Skin, Victor Reyes for Grand Piano

Visual Effects
Joe Letteri et al. for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

I give it to the apes! If you can make people believe and care about apes as credible performers, you deserve a lot of points.

—Money quote from Brutally Honest Oscar Ballot No. 2

Documentary Feature
Virunga
CitizenFour
Finding Vivian Maier

Animated Short Film
A Single Life
Feast
The Dam Keeper

Live Action Short Film
Butter Lamp (La Lampe au beurre de yak)
Parvaneh
The Phone Call

Oscar Statues

Who would you like to see take home one of these golden boys?

And please tune in next week when I expand upon the Oscar nominations that weren’t and some of my favorite films of 2014.



*I also would have liked to see A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night nominated in a number of these categories but for whatever reason it was not on the AMPAS list of eligible films.

Oscar Blitz: STEM Sells

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He probably sat in math class thinking, ‘There should be more math! This could be mathier.’

—Buffy in “The Dark Age” from Season 2 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything

Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything

While biopics are a perennial Oscar favorite, it is still rather remarkable that two historical films involving advanced mathematics and scientific pursuits are competing for the top prize this year. While I had intended to see The Imitation Game (based on Alan Turing’s work at Bletchley Park during World War II) and The Theory of Everything (based on the life of Stephen Hawking) when they came out, I didn’t run right out to do so. As it turns out, that was a pretty good judgment call on my part, as I liked but didn’t love each of these. That’s not to say they aren’t good films, but in a year where the nominated films include such creative visions as Birdman, Boyhood, and Grand Budapest Hotel, these just pale in comparison.

Still, The Imitation Game is the highest-grossing independent film of 2014 and received eight nominations so it deserves some attention in considering the Oscar candidates. This success reflects its solid cast and production values, but personally I was rather underwhelmed by the film. There were a number of clichéd scenes that I enjoyed (Joan “beating” Alan at the puzzle, Alan’s colleagues pulling a Spartacus, the “Eureka!” moment in the bar) but they were clichés. So it’s surprising (or is it?) that The Imitation Game’s best chance for an Oscar lies in its screenplay.

More importantly, it really bugs me how much of the “true story” they changed. While I’m the first to say one shouldn’t expect accuracy in a motion picture, there’s a limit to how much actual history you should change in the service of narrative. Even if I haven’t yet seen Selma, I know those distortions are nothing compared to what they did here. It is stunning to me how much outrage there seems to have been about downplaying Turing’s homosexuality (which I felt the filmmakers hit us over the head with) while these inaccuracies merited very little attention. However, at least these changes did serve to highlight the necessity for secrecy even after the end of the war, something that was never clear to me while watching The Bletchley Circle, and I was happy to finally understand.

In short, I wouldn’t be surprised if The Imitation Game is entirely shut out of all eight races it is competing in. [Note: I would be happy if Alexandre Desplat won for his score, since he is slowly becoming the Roger Deakins of the music category, but it seemed far too overbearing, despite some lovely bits that really did sound “computery.”]

The Theory of Everything is more of a romance than I expected. I liked it and thought it had some interesting cinematographic approaches; however, much to my surprise, I would have liked to have seen more math and science. The beginning was quite strong in this regard but that emphasis eventually made way for the story of the couple, which makes sense given that it was based on Jane Wilde Hawking’s memoir, but I thought the significance of Hawking’s work got lost in the shuffle.

While Felicity Jones acquits herself well as Jane, and the look on her face when Hawking tells her he will be traveling with his nurse is absolutely devastating, it is Eddie Redmayne that carries the film. If he wins an Oscar, it will be well deserved. The score may also take home the prize, but that’s mostly because the field of nominees is so weak. Where is Under the Skin? Snowpiercer? Heck, even the Dawn of the Planet of the Apes had a more compelling score. And, as stated above, I’m hoping that Desplat will finally pull one out, either for The Imitation Game or Grand Budapest Hotel. [Yes, he’s competing against himself, or I do not think Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score would be favored here.]

Oscar Blitz: First-Person Shooter

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If there were a verb meaning “to believe falsely,” it would not have any significant first person, present indicative

—Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations

I’ve already discussed the main Oscar contenders, and will be writing up a post on the remaining biopics soon, but before that I wanted to spill some ink on what is my favorite film of the Best Picture nominees: Whiplash. As I sat enjoying Marion Cotillard’s performance in Two Days, One Night, I was struck by the fact that it is told in the first person, and realized that that perspective is also the one presented in Whiplash and is perhaps one reason I enjoyed both films so much.

There is a certain intimacy that first-person narrative lends a film; it forces you to identify with the main character as you experience the same things he or she does. I should note that by “first person” I’m not referring strictly to a voiceover narrative or actual perspective, since that is truly difficult to achieve in a motion picture, but in the sense that all of the scenes include the main character.

By default, this means the viewer is in the dark about what the protagonist is in the dark about, and I think that this lack of background knowledge gives many of these films a tension lacking in more mainstream fare. Too often, filmmakers forget that we audience members don’t really need every single thing spelled out for us. This was reinforced by my recent viewing of The Imitation Game, with its completely unnecessary bits of war footage. Or Wild, which by necessity used flashbacks to avoid endless voiceover, but in my opinion used far too many and lost the impact of the grueling hike.

But, back to Whiplash. If this movie is playing anywhere near you, I highly encourage you to get out and see it. Whiplash has a tremendous energy that is only emphasized by seeing it in a theater. If you think the idea of a film centered on a perfectionist jazz drummer and his teacher sounds boring, believe me, it isn’t. And I really, really don’t like jazz. I’ve heard this film described as a military training montage crossed with Fame and that is probably the most perfect pitch description I’ve ever heard.

Whiplash is likely to win J. K. Simmons an Oscar for his performance as the teacher this Sunday, but Miles Teller is also extraordinary as the student. (Teller was also compelling in both The Spectacular Now and Divergent, so it will be interesting to see where this relatively young actor goes from here.)

Of course, first-person narratives necessitate an extraordinary actor and performance because so much of the storytelling devolves to them. While some might have been surprised by Marion Cotillard’s nomination for Two Days, One Night, I don’t think anyone who saw the film was. In fact, I’m willing to bet that if this film was centered on a man, it would have gotten a lot more attention. But that’s a story for another day. Suffice it to say that this simple concept, a woman visiting her coworkers one by one over the weekend to plead her case, was brilliantly executed from start to finish.

However, these aren’t the only two 2014 films to focus so intensely on their protagonist. Boyhood also unfolds as a first-person narrative. In fact, the key to its success lies with the fact that we are simply experiencing Mason’s life from moment to moment, year by year, without grand explanations as to what has happened in the interval.

Ida, an absolutely gorgeous, powerful film nominated for both foreign film and cinematography, is mostly told in the first person as well, though a key shot is distinctly not. The few other bits we see that are not in Ida’s presence are unnecessary, and eliminating them might have made that key shot have that much more impact. Regardless, you can, and should, catch Ida on Netflix streaming. It definitely would win my vote for cinematography.

Two other exceptional films that were eligible for nominations (but unfortunately didn’t receive any) also focus almost exclusively on their protagonists to great effect. The very premise of Under the Skin is experiencing the gaze of Scarlett Johansson’s character and her understanding of the world around her. While we do see the motorcycle rider and her victims apart from her—and that is crucial information for the viewer—it is clear that she is very aware of their actions and fates.

Finally, like Under the Skin, Blue Ruin uses the destabilizing effect of the first-person narrative to keep the viewer on the edge of his or her seat. You don’t ever really know where this film is going or what the protagonist (played impeccably by Macon Blair) may do next, mostly because he doesn’t seem to. If you think revenge is a dish best served bloody and/or love the Coen Brothers, this film is for you.

Both these films are chilling in their own way and they really stay with you. Either one would easily make my Top Ten of 2014 and should have received multiple nominations.

Oscar Blitz: Who Sees Short Shorts?

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This is the fifth year that I’ve made the live-action and animated short film nominees part of my Oscar blitz. Each year, one group of films has been distinctly better than the other and this year that group was the live-action shorts. Unlike last year, when they all involved death, this year the theme seemed to be connections, usually between strangers.

A family poses in La Lampe au Beurre de Yak (Butter Lamp)

A family poses in La Lampe au Beurre de Yak (Butter Lamp)

La Maratonista and I definitely had a favorite—La Lampe au Beurre de Yak (Butter Lamp)—but we could see any of them winning. The drama of The Phone Call is an obvious choice, but I can see the understated Parvaneh also taking home a statue. Boogaloo and Graham is adorable, but the script was not as polished as I would have liked. Aya, much like a Saturday Night Live sketch, goes a bit too long for its own good.

Parvaneh makes a deal with  Emely in Parvaneh.

Parvaneh makes a deal with Emely in Parvaneh.

As for the animated films, I think Feast will probably take it, but you never know. A Single Life was a brilliant idea with great animation, but it is very short and the morbid (though funny) end probably won’t encourage votes. The Dam Keeper was very dark, both literally and figuratively. It was an odd story that didn’t really make much sense, but was also sort of sweet so I could see it garnering votes. The Bigger Picture was rather morbid, but I thought the animation was very creative. Me and My Moulton didn’t seem to be saying much of anything, but it had a number of funny moments.

Just two minutes long, A Single Life was certainly short.

Just two minutes long, A Single Life was certainly short, but smart.

As usual, to fill out the animated shorts program, there were additional films, but none of these really stood out to me. I would definitely recommend the live-action program over the animated selections. Check Landmark Theatres to see if they are playing near you.

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