Sunday, February 22, 2015

Going to the Movies Part 3

Tonight's the night!  So I had better get a move on...

The last two movies that are subjects for my Oscar preparation (and anticipation) are Selma and Unbroken. Now, I hasten to point out that Unbroken is not one of those nominated for Best Picture, or best director, or best actor, etc.  In fact, it was only nominated for cinematography, sound mixing and sound editing. Of course those categories are very important for the people who work in those fields, but--frankly--I don't stay tuned for the winners.

So, why did I pick this pair to compare and contrast. Well, there are quite a few similarities. Both both are about real men, based in 20th century American history; both deal with men of uncommon valor, who have to deal with a presumption of racial superiority.

Unbroken focuses on the life of Louis Zamperini,  Now, were it not for a best-selling book by author Laura Hillenbrand, Zamperini's life, beyond his youth, might have passed relatively unnoticed.  Hillenbrand*, you may recall, is the author who wrote another story of resilience and triumph--Seabiscuit.  Just as Seabiscuit was seen as fertile ground for making a movie, so was her book Unbroken.   Even though the idea of making a movie about Zamperini's life had been kicking around Hollywood for decades, it was mostly likely Hillenbrand's book that jump-started it.  Angelina Jolie, who directed it, had to fight--not to get the movie made, but to be selected to direct it.

After a childhood during which Zamperini was a bit of a miscreant, he discovered he had a talent for running. In fact, he became so accomplished that he was selected for the U.S. track team which went to the 1936 Olympics held in Berlin, the ones infamous for Hitler's domination of the spectacle--and for Jesse Owens' amazing accomplishments as a track star that buried Hitler's notion of racial superiority. Owens won four gold medals--3 in sprint, and one in long jump. Zamperini was a distance runner participating in the 5,000 meter race. He didn't win any medal, but acquitted himself well with running the final lap in record time.

The connection that Zamperini has to 20th century American history was his service during World War II.  He was a bombardier on the somewhat notorious B-24 bombers. These planes were known to be difficult to fly. In fact, the plane he was on was hit by gunfire during an aerial battle and badly damaged. Because of that, he and other crew members were sent to Hawaii to be reassigned. While they were waiting, a call came in to go on a rescue mission for another downed bomber. A crew of 11 was assembled and flew off in another B-24. During that mission, the plane he was on developed mechanical problems and went down in the Pacific near Palmyra Island. Thus began another great adventure of his life. He and his surviving crew mates lashed together several rafts and began drifting across the Pacific Ocean.  

After 47 days of drifting in the Pacific, the raft washed up on Marshall Islands, then under control of the Japanese, some 1837 miles (2956 km,). The two remaining survivors were promptly captured by Japanese soldiers, thus beginning another "adventure." While the movie shows his early life, the youthful troubles he encountered, and his running triumphs, it concentrates on the drama of being adrift and the subsequent imprisonment in Japanese POW camps. During this time--about two years--he and other Allies were cruelly mistreated by prison guards, some of whom were particularly sadistic. One stand-out example, which the movie portrays very convincingly, was a guard the POWs called "The Bird."  He took a particular dislike for Zamperini and never missed a chance to punish him.  It is during these moments in the movie that the viewer experiences full force one of the elements that was evidenced in World War II.  Just as the Germans presumed their superiority due to their "Aryan purity," Japanese soldiers felt superior to their captives whom they degraded and looked down on.

Zamperini's very survival is an indication of his uncommon valor. The movie ends before the final difficulty of his life; Zamperini experienced one other challenge that threatened his survival. Upon his return home after the war, he began to drink heavily.  His life was turned around after his wife begged him to go hear the evangelist Billy Graham.  Based on the message Zamperini heard, he realized he needed to change his life--and he did. Beyond that, he absorbed a central element of Christian thinking--that of the need for forgiveness, even of one's enemies. Zamperini eventually returned to Japan, and sought out his former captors with the specific intent to forgive them.

Martin Luther King, Jr., the subject of the movie Selma, is far better known to most Americans than is Zamperini. Given that familiarity, there is less need to underscore the initially stated similarities: the two stories are about real men, are based on 20th century American history, both deal with men of uncommon valor, and both deal with a presumption of racial superiority. We know many of the basics of Dr. King's life--his rise to leadership in the infancy of the civil rights movement.  In fact, the movie Selma distills many of the details in a single event--the march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965.

Following the Civil War, African-Americans were systematically and routinely deprived of many of the rights the Civil War was intended to help them gain. Chief among those was the foundational right of our democracy: the right to vote. African-Americans were required to register to vote--as we all are today--but for them, the finish line was a moving target. The movie powerfully portrays this in an event involving Annie Lee Cooper (played by Oprah Winfrey). She tries to register to vote, only to be asked a series of questions which she admirably and confidently answers. Then one last question is thrown at her, one so trivial as to be absurd. Not surprisingly she cannot answer, so her application is stamped DENIED.

To redress this and other grievances, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Dr. King are brought in to Selma to try to galvanize action. Part of the drama of the movie also focuses on the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which included John Lewis, which had been trying for three years to move voter registration forward.  The means to move voter registration rights forward was to organize a march from Selma to Montgomery, the capital of Alabama, which begins by crossing the Edmund Pettus bridge. 

(credit for photo of the Pettus bridge-- "Edmund Pettus Bridge 03" by Carol M. Highsmith)

The history of this time is fresh to many of us who were adults--albeit young adults--during the 1960s.  Its retelling is essential for younger generations to know that the right to vote was hard won for African Americans.

Other elements of Dr. King's life are woven into the movie--not always in full detail, but enough to give a sense of the man's life, including some of the sadder aspects.  We know that the FBI maintained a file on him, that the then director J. Edgar Hoover seemed to make a special point of spying on Dr. King.  We also know that Dr. King was unfaithful to his wife in a way that very nearly destroyed his marriage.  All these elements are in the movie.

What we see is only a glimpse of is his uncommon valor. We don't see much of time spent in jail--where Dr. King was too often sentenced for his pursuit of basic rights for Americans.  We don't see many of his speeches where the possibility of rioting and destruction was all too present. We don't see his death at the hands of a white assassin.

What we do see graphically portrayed is the visceral deep-seated hatred that too many whites displayed against Africa-Americans. There are very few examples in the movie of whites who were moved to join this basic civil rights fight. But there some.

So, where do the movies differ? Apart from the understandable differences of stories being told about two different men being portrayed, perhaps the singular difference is in the length of their lives. Louis Zamperini, born in 1917, died very recently in mid-2014. Dr. King who was born in 1929 was assassinated in 1968.  And, of course, neither of the deaths feature in the movies.

The movies share one more common aspect--both have been controversial in that challenges were raised to the ways in which the stories were told, and how faithfully history was represented. Some evangelical Christians were upset that Unbroken ended before Zamperini's life-changing encounter with Christianity. And Selma has been controversial in the elements of history either omitted, or recast. There were many more nuances to the civil rights campaign--and at times the movie truncated those events. What has received more press has been the way President Lyndon Johnson was portrayed--as reluctant to get into the civil rights campaign.

A far better treatment of the way these two movies tell history is dealt with by my fellow blogger (and longtime friend) in her blog post: "Pondering History, Torture and Violence."  I commend it to you.

OK--now, off you go. Watch the Academy Awards. And afterwards I just might tell you if I picked any winners.

*Laura Hillenbrand has her own story of struggle and resilience. While she was a student in college, she experienced a sudden debilitating weakness that was eventually diagnosed as being caused by chronic fatigue syndrome. Her life has been marked by her ups and downs with this disease. But despite the severe limitations it places on her life, she has managed to become a successful author.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Going to the Movies--Entr'acte

(To the novice reader of this blog...are there any?...please note that the blog title suggests that there have been other "Going to the Movies" entries of late. Pray, go back two posts, should you wish to read Going to the Movies, part 1 and Going to the Movies, part 2. Otherwise, after you read this one, wait breathlessly for Going to the Movies, part 4--yet to be written.)

I read a recent article in the New Yorker by James Surowiecki titled "Rethinking the Seasonal Strategy" in which he notes that the predilection of Hollywood, which began in the early 1970s, to release movies seasonally based on the predicted popularity is beginning to break up. Surowiecki notes that "for decades, Hollywood's release strategy has been governed by a simple calculus: summer is for blockbusters, the end of the year is for classy, and the other months are for stuff you fear no one wants to see."

This year's early release in January breaks that strategy--Clint Eastwood's American Sniper had one of the biggest openings when it was January.

But this review is NOT about American Sniper. Truth is, we have not yet seen this movie, and--frankly--I don't know if we will. I am by birth and persuasion a pacifist. Certainly, I watch war movies, and find many of them deeply moving. But I am not sure I am ready for a movie that glorifies the warrior, while taking note and illustrating the deep soul-searing effects war has on that person.

No, this review is about The Grand Budapest Hotel*. (Incidentally, The Grand Budapest Hotel was another one of those movies released "off season" in March, 2014.) And I am treating it alone because it is unlike any of the movies recently released. The only thing I could compare the movie to would be other Wes Anderson's film.  You can see titles of other films he has directed here.  Despite its having been released "off season" The Grand Budapest Hotel is one of the Academy Awards'  nominees for best picture of the year.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is set in the fictional country of Zubrowka in a fictional hotel some time between the world wars-- in the 1920s-1930s.  The title refers to a hotel in the grand old style--sprawling, lovely, evocative of a way of life long past. I think the hotel exterior looks like a fantastic confectionary creation of a cake...which is also what the movie is. 

Summarizing the plot is an exercise in futility. The story is told in flashback by an old writer (F. Murray Abraham) who sits in the lobby of the hotel, His audience is a young writer (Jude Law). In between is a rollicking delightful absurd confusing lovely humorous movie.

I loved the dialogue--rapid fire, intricate, laugh-out-loud lines. To recapture some of the best, I go to IMDB and read them. Bits of the best dialogue in the movie is featured in the previews--but don't avoid the movie thinking you got the best bits in the preview. There's so much more...lines that couldn't be included in the movie previews.

And I loved the characters.  This ensemble cast seems to have everyone currently in the movies these days as well as in television. The lead character--the hotel's concierge Monsieur Gustave H.--is played by Ralph Fiennes with a fine comic touch. Frankly, I would never have thought of him as comic actor--but he is perfect in this role. Many scenes are played with absolute straightness, but the context is so outrageous that the effect is comedy at its best. One such scene--that includes many cameo performances--occurs when Gustave H. calls on the connections of his fellow concierges in hotels all over Europe.

If you haven't seen the movie--or even if you have--you can read a summary of the plot. It helps you make your way through labyrinthine complications, which perfectly suit Europe's pre-World War II's complexities.

I think it is unlikely that this movie will be awarded the Oscar for best movie of the year...but, in many ways it is.  It is not only a comedy, albeit a dark comedy. It is also an insightful glimpse into Europe before the start of the last time the world was seized with war.  This article nails it--The Grand Budapest Hotel is a thoughtful comedy about tragedy.
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* In looking back through past blogs, I find that in April, 2014, I speculated that this movie would NOT be picked as an Academy Award nominee.  It's nice to be wrong!

Friday, February 20, 2015

Going to the Movies (part 2)

YIKES...I better get moving. Only two more days before the golden statues start wandering into various stars' hands.

So, next two movies compared and contrasted: The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything.  This is probably the most natural pairing. After all, both are about British men who are real, not fictional. Both men are geniuses. Both men accomplished something that changed human history. And both are products of the 20th century.

Now for some differences.

First, perhaps for those who have not yet seen either movie, I should tell you what they are about.  The Imitation Game centers on the efforts of the Allies, specifically the
British, to break the Nazis' code which was used to send orders to various factions of their military effort.  The Nazis used a machine (code named Engima) to help set the encryption. At the outset of World War II, the Nazis' encryption was seemingly unbreakable. Not only was the encryption device a thing of mastery, but the code used was changed daily.  The Allies, who had captured an Enigma machine, tried mightily to see patterns in the string of letters being sent out, but every day any progress they may have made ended at midnight when the new code was put in place.  Enter Alan Turing, and many others, who were hired specifically by the British war effort to break the code. They were housed at Bletchley Park, in Buckinghamshire, England.  And they were sworn to complete secrecy.

The movie The Imitation Game compresses its story in such a way to make Alan Turing the center. There is justification in that--as Turing was a genius who is today regarded as the father of the computer.  Many other people were involved in this effort--a fact that gets a bit lost in the context of the movie. The secrecy to which people were sworn continued LONG after the end of World War II, and has only recently been given full coverage.  If you haven't read much about this aspect of World War II, do so--it is fascinating reading, worth any thriller novel that any writer could conceive.

The Theory of Everything is based on a book written by Stephen Hawking's first wife, Jane. While Stephen was a young man, in his early 20s, he began to experience muscle weakness, that was eventually diagnosed as motor neuron disease, or what today we call amytrophic lateral sclerosis. Such early onset of this disease is rare. Many things are amazing about Hawking: that he is still alive, decades after the start of the disease, that he persisted in an academic career despite towering odds against him, that he is a published author who continues to write, that he married--twice--and fathered three children.

The movie focuses on these early years, with his courtship of Jane, with his burgeoning academic career, and most obviously with his coping with a life-altering disease. 

So, now the contrasts between these movies. Even though both suffered through circumstances that made their lives difficult, Turing's eventual outcome was ignomy. He was a homosexual in an age that not only demonized that sexual orientation but also declared it illegal. The movie focuses in part on his being persecuted-although some historians challenge the movie's veracity. What is definite is that he died young, at age 42. There is some speculation that his death was suicide. It was not until some years after his death that he was recognized posthumously, with any record of "illegal" acts expunged.

Hawking's circumstance, of course, is that he has a disease which usually results in the person's death within a few years.  He has not only lived, but lived well and been recognized, lionized and given many appropriate awards for his ground breaking work, particularly on black holes.  The movie condenses this recognition into one touching scene where Hawking and his by then ex-wife go to Buckingham Palace where he is honored by the queen for his contributions to science.

Even if these movies were not about real men, it would be obvious that their stories differ in terms of inter-personal relationship. Turing is shown as socially awkward, distanced, and somewhat aloof. Hawking is playful, engaging, and mischievous. Both, of course, are wholly dedicated to their work and push themselves to limits.

These movies are very satisfying to watch, even though they are stories conventionally told, using the kinds of movie techniques we associate with good story telling. You won't leave the theater thinking--wow, what great cinematography, what great effects, what amazing scenes.  But you will leave thinking--Wow! What great men. What contributions to humanity. What triumph of the human will.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Going to the Movies...

…and so begins the annual mad dash to see as many of the Oscar nominated movies before actually Academy Awards ceremony begins.

As with other years, we chose to see some of the nominated films and skipped others. Of course, we may later change our minds and go see some of the nominees.  So, to help frame your reading, here are the nominees for Best Movie; Best Director; Best Actor and Actress; Best Supporting Actor and Actress. Yes, there are other categories but, be honest, do you really care?

"American Sniper"
"Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)"
"The Grand Budapest Hotel"
"The Imitation Game"
"The Theory of Everything"

Wes Anderson, "The Grand Budapest Hotel"
Alejandro G. Iñárritu, "Birdman"
Richard Linklater, "Boyhood"
Bennett Miller, "Foxcatcher"
Morten Tyldum, "The Imitation Game"

Steve Carell, "Foxcatcher"
Bradley Cooper, "American Sniper"
Benedict Cumberbatch, "The Imitation Game"
Michael Keaton, "Birdman"
Eddie Redmayne, "The Theory of Everything"

Marion Cotillard, "Two Days, One Night"
Felicity Jones, "The Theory of Everything"
Julianne Moore, "Still Alice"
Rosamund Pike, "Gone Girl"
Reese Witherspoon, "Wild"

Robert Duvall, "The Judge"
Ethan Hawke, "Boyhood"
Edward Norton, "Birdman"
Mark Ruffalo, "Foxcatcher"
J.K. Simmons, "Whiplash"

Patricia Arquette, "Boyhood"
Laura Dern, "Wild"
Keira Knightley, "The Imitation Game"
Emma Stone, "Birdman"
Meryl Streep, "Into the Woods"

Two caveats--first, we did NOT see all the movies from which the nominations are drawn. Second, it comes naturally to me to do analyses using compare and contrast. So, let the lesson begin.

The first pair of movies is Boyhood and Birdman.

WHAT?  I can hear you saying--how do these two movies relate.
Well, here are the comparisons I see.  They are both about life. They both use innovative movie making techniques. They both have a great deal to say about parent/ child relationships. And they both feature relationships that have failed.

Ah, but the differences? That's where the richness of each of these movies comes in.

Where Boyhood is about the beginning of life, and of course on into adolescent years, Birdman is about the end of life.  Or at least a career at its end.

As for technique, you must have heard about Boyhood's approach. Probably one of the most creative techniques ever employed by a director--the story is of seemingly real people (although they are fictitious) over 12 years. And, yes, it was filmed over those 12 years. The actors stayed with the project, so we not only get to see the sweet coming-of-age story unfold (almost in real time), we also get to see all of the characters grow older. We see the changes in their faces, and their bodies, which wonderfully conveys the changes in their lives.

Birdman is a far more compressed time frame, as is the filming technique. Many scenes in the movie are filmed as one long unbroken shot. You get the sense that not much editing was needed. The camera follows the characters around--the setting is a theater on Broadway--until you feel dizzy and lost from all the twists and turns.

As for parent-child relationships, that is the primary theme of Boyhood. We meet the parents of two young children--a boy named Mason, a girl named Samantha, the mother named Olivia, and her ex-husband, the children's father, named Mason Sr.  When they are young, we watch the children bantering and bickering. As they get older their sibling relationship stays real, although there is a bit more love between them.  Understandably, it is the relationship with each parent that is the primary focus. Since the movie is titled Boyhood, it is on Mason, Jr. that the movie concentrates. He and his sister see their father on weekends, primarily, so that relationship is less nuanced. The mother, who has the main responsibility for the children, is working through her own growth--returning to college, getting a job teaching, going through failed relationships. Through all of the twists and turns that seem so much like real life, we watch these people as they move through stages.

Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette are superb in their roles. And Lorelei Linklater (the director's daughter) is a believable young girl as Samantha. But the real star of this story is Ellar Coltrane as Mason, Jr. He is sheer delight to watch.

The parent-child relationship in Birdman is between Michael Keaton, as the father, and Emma Stone as his daughter.  Each of them has experienced failure that is almost debilitating. Keaton, as "Birdman" or Riggan Thomson, the real name of Birdman. Riggan was an actor who had several blockbuster movie roles as a super hero--Birdman. But that time has passed, and we meet him in the present when he is trying to resuscitate his career.  Stone, as Riggan's daughter Sam, has also failed although her youth belies the reason. She has been in treatment for drug abuse, and now seems aimless, having little motivation to do much.  The relationship, as depicted in the course of the story, has a rocky start but slowly moves toward a sweet father-daughter interaction.

The romantic relationships in the two movies are also complex. While the specific reasons differ, in neither movie have the characters established and maintained supportive loving relationships. 

There are several noteworthy scenes in each movie--at least, I have my favorites. I will share just one.

Toward the close of Boyhood, young Mason is getting ready to leave for college. He is with his mother, who has struggled to help get him to this point in his life. Suddenly, her face crumples, and she begins to sob. It seems almost out of character, at first, since she has been so strong. However, her reason is not exactly what you expect.  She has worked so hard--to better herself, to raise her children, to achieve success in a romantic relationship.  Seeing her son, her younger child, getting ready to leave to launch his life, she cries--she sees her life as being at its end. It is both funny and deeply touching.
Next blog post: The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything.