Monday, February 23, 2015

Oscar winners

And so, there you have it. Birdman is our new showbiz-themed Best Picture winner. It's an exciting winner, if not the one I was hoping for.

Interestingly, each of the eight films nominated for Best Picture took home at least one trophy, which must be rare. I don't know. I don't feel like researching it.

The big winner of the night was obviously Birdman, with four Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay & Best Cinematography. A pretty good four to nab. To its credit, it was probably also runner-up in all three of the acting fields it was nominated for.

But The Grand Budapest Hotel was close on its heels with four wins of its own: Best Original Score, Best Production Design, Costume Design & Hair & Make Up. Worth nothing - this was composer Alexandre Desplat's first win after 8 nominations (also worth noting; he scored, but was not nominated for: Zero Dark Thirty, Moonrise Kingdom, Syriana, The Painted Veil, etc).

2nd Runner up (much to first-time director Damien Chazelle's delight) was Whiplash, with three wins in Best Supporing Actor, Editing and Sound Mixing. All richly deserved.

Beyond that, the wealth was spread pretty evenly:

Boyhood - Supporting Actress
The Imitation Game - Adapted Screenplay
The Theory of Everything - Best Actor
Selma - Original Song
American Sniper - Sound Editing

Rounding out the major category winners were Interstellar (Visual Effects) and Still Alice (Best Actress).

Sunday, February 22, 2015

2015: The battle of two greats with gimmicks

On the eve of the 87th Academy Awards, it seems the race has come down to Boyhood vs Birdman, which is a very difficult but, truth be told, satisfying race.

As a great admirer of both films and the balls it took to make them, I'm not really sure where to put my loyalty, except that my loyalty is completely and entirely with Boyhood, even though I admire Birdman just as much. Confusing? Much. Welcome to Oscar watching.

I really don't know how to feel heading into tonight's ceremony (to clarify, I'm watching it on TV like everyone else. I just mean heading into it in an emotional sense). I mean, obviously it doesn't really matter who wins. It's just the Oscars. But then, it also matters who wins because awards and recognition make careers (they also break them, but mostly only if you're a woman and suddenly you're punished for all the bad scripts you need to say yes to after winning an Oscar because there are only so many good parts going around. But more on that later). Also, it's really hard when the race is teetering between two frontrunners that you actually care about.

I kind of feel bad for not getting behind the Birdman campaign. It's an amazing film, but it just feels like it will live on better as a great film that got fantastic awards coverage rather than as a Best Picture winner. Whereas Boyhood just feels like an enduring classic that will only keep earning it's place in the Best Picture winner lineup more and more as the years go by. Of course, both films have their fans and detractors.

I want to say a few things about all this:

1.  If Boyhood and Birdman split the vote, like Jack Nicholson & Daniel Day Lewis - both worthy contenders - did in 2002, which film will be the Adrien Brody that comes in to scoop up the difference? There are a few interesting contenders: Grand Budapest Hotel, Imitation Game and then there's American Sniper, which will feel like a big let down the moment it happens. Also, it's not gonna happen. If they really believed in the unexpected box office phenom, they would have nominated Clint Eastwood over the guy who made Imitation Game. If anyone gave a damn about Selma at all, I'd be worried for the two frontrunners, but no one does. Long story short, if there's a split the difference situation, let's hope it's Wes Anderson that reaps the benefit. (imagine Beck and Wes Anderson winning twin Grammies & Oscars in the same year - it'll instantly become unhip to be a hipster & jocks will become the new counterculture)

2. Boyhood has Best Drama & Best Director from the Golden Globes, where Birdman lost to Grand Budapest Hotel (but won Best Screenplay, which it also later lost to Grand Budapest Hotel at the BAFTAS) and the same from the BAFTAS. That feels right. At the same time, Birdman won the Screen Actors Guild ensemble award (and why wouldn't it? Every performer is pitch perfect) & the Directors Guild Award (here it is a toss up, but also easy to see why it would win - it's the more flashy of the two remarkable achievements) & most unexpectedly, the Producers Guild Award (clearly no producer, in particular, is more worthy of praise, in years, than Jonathan Sehring, who greenlit the project and financed it, bit by bit, over 12 years, with 7-year contract limitations and surely endless nagging from studio execs wanting to see return on investment. Of course, Sehring was somehow deemed not eligible as a Producer by the Guild, which might explain why the film itself was passed over. It's all very confusing.) Which is all to say that - we have a real race on our hands! What fun.

3. Birdman may be about ego and existential dilemmas in the movie business, but Boyhood is about real, ordinary life. I wonder which one Hollywood will respond to more (uh oh).

4. About the "gimmicks" inherent in both contenders: first off, both films are fantastic & remarkable beyond their gimmicks. Great writing, great performances and razor-sharp, confident directing (the one obviously far more subtle than the other). Secondly, both gimmicks are remarkable & fantastically executed. There's nothing wrong with doing something for the "first time" in cinema. It's to be applauded.

4.1 While Birdman's seemingly single shot trick has been done before (notably by Hitchcock in 1948's Rope), it's never been done well. Rope is pretty bad & the one shot gimmick distracts more than aids the story (the technology & know-how was also markedly less abundant in 1948). Birdman's "single shot" breathes new life into an already exciting film. It captures the breathless rush of Riggan's existential meltdown, the frenetic pace of live performance, and it just creates a damn cool freaking rhythm of a movie, man. And what's wrong with that? It's a breakthrough achievement that deserves to be celebrated many times over. Would Birdman by as good without its "gimmick"? It's hard to imagine it without it, but it has so much else going for it, I have to believe it would be. Would Gravity be as good without it's long take conceits? Let's not go there...

4.2 Boyhood's 12-year semi-documentary experiment is a real first in feature cinema, and something both thrilling and profound to behold. This one is trickier because the passage of time is so integral to Boyhood's stories, and the themes of much of Linklater's career. It's a daring conceit, but also the element that drives home the subtle profundity at the heart of this simple story. Time passes by the mundane and the melodramatic and before you know it, you're all grown up (or your kids are all frown up) and you barely know how it happened. There's so much more to the film and it's tenderly observed world of characters than that, but it's kind of the thing that makes it great. The idea, not the gimmick. The gimmick is just a genius way of expressing it. It's also kind of magical watching Mason / Ellar Coltrane grow up before our eyes in the blink of an eye, much as his mother does... I'm going in circles. There are so many beautiful pieces written about Boyhood (like this one) that I won't bother trying to wax lyrical. Would Boyhood be good without the 12-year gimmick? Honestly, yes. Would it have gotten a fraction of the attention? No. It kind of is what put it on the map. So it's a bit of a catch-22. Because the gimmick is so integral to the storytelling, but it also kind of makes it seem like it's the only significant thing about it. But it's not.

5. So my predictions? Boyhood takes Best Picture. Birdman Director. Because although both are amazing films & incredible directorial achievements, Birdman is the more flashy directing triumph, while Boyhood is the more enduring film, imo. On the other hand, the Indepedent Spirit Awards saw it exactly the other way around last night, and my wife says that makes more sense. So what do I know? At least it's a battle of two truly exciting and refreshingly original giants & both will be remembered for years to come regardless of how tonight turns out.

Friday, January 23, 2015

The Top 5 classic films I discovered while living in NY

Recently, I was honoured to be featured on Between 10 & 5, where they asked my to name my top 5 films. Since this is clearly impossible and started giving me sleepless nights, I decided to narrow it down, instead, to the top 5 new-to-me classic films I discovered since moving to New York to study film. It's a fairly random selection of films with little in common other than that I love these 5 films so much.

Here's (my section of) the post:

Friedl Kreuser | Film Student and Illustrator

Choosing favourite films is like Sophie’s Choice for me, so I decided to narrow the field by listing the five biggest game changers I’ve discovered since moving to New York to study film.

Sherlock, Jr. (1924), Buster Keaton:

There is no end to the genius of Buster Keaton and, though everything in his filmography is worth exploring, this 45-minute fantasy comedy is bursting with fresh ideas and cinematic creativity.

The plot is irrelevant when you have Buster Keaton – as a haplessly in love wannabe detective / film projectionist – sleepwalking into a movie screen and experiencing first-hand the magic (and, in his case, danger) of film editing – a technically brilliant piece of Meta self-reflection long before Charlie Kaufman made it cool. As if that wasn’t enough, he finds time for a splendid, Bond-esque chase sequence and a perfect, quietly subversive ending.

Strike (1925), Sergei Eisenstein:

Warning: this clip contains spoilers of sorts & is pretty rough on animal-lovers
(Also: why are there not better clips of Strike online?! The opening sequences are blissfully beautifully)

The visceral power of undiluted Soviet montage should be a compulsory life experience, and there is no better place to start than Eisenstein’s masterpiece (far greater in scope, if more lacking in focus, than Battleship Potemkin). Throwing all the rules Hollywood was writing about cinema out the window, Eisenstein needs no protagonist – the humble crowd of factory workers is his hero – makes minimal use of dialogue and simply arranges his endless stream of images as six searing mood pieces of escalating tension.

And he goes for the jugular – throwing at you, by turns, some of the most beautiful, brutal, surreal and disturbing images you’ll ever see. The devastating climax is a clear influence on both Apocalypse Now and Schindler’s List (and Spielberg owes much of his career to one of Eisenstein’s favourite tricks – cutting to close ups of children at just the right moment).

The only thing wrong with it is that it is blatantly manipulative propaganda (but then, isn’t everything?) – so be careful, or it may turn you into a commie.

L’Atalante (1934), Jean Vigo:

This quiet, gentle film – a favourite of both Francois Truffaut and Michel Gondry, who loved it so much he illustrated this poster for it – is the only full length feature by Jean Vigo (arguably the great tragic Van Gogh of film directors, who died of tuberculosis aged 29 while a butchered edit of L’Atalante was being released to lacklustre response).

Beautifully marrying gritty naturalism with just a touch of lyrical poetry, Vigo takes a simple story of ordinary, working class newlyweds (on a barge, filled with cats, and a decidedly strange cabin mate with a splendid cabinet of curiosities) and crafts it into a subtly complex portrait of two stubborn, brittle humans figuring out whether they can belong to one another. Filled with extraordinary detail, surprising sensuality and the most vivid, authentic acting you’ll find that side of Elia Kazan.

L’Atalante poster, designed by Michel Gondry (1990 French rerelease)
L’Atalante poster, designed by Michel Gondry (1990 French rerelease)

Do The Right Thing (1989), Spike Lee:

This is a film so in touch with its time and place, it could stand simply as a document of early 90s cool (a fashion manifesto for young hipsters everywhere), but of course it’s so much more than that. It’s not just about Spike Lee’s invigorating visual style, or the Altman-esque, “plotless” narrative either – what makes Do the Right Thing so great is Lee’s willingness to have something honest and complicated to say about the racial tension he felt around him in early 90s Bed Stuy.

As his central premise, he presents contradictory philosophies from Martin Luther King Jr and Malcom X, and tries to figure out what it means to “do the right thing.” Rather than give us an easy answer, Lee’s confrontational film demands that we have an opinion. With gentrification still creeping across Brooklyn and cops still shooting kids on the street for no reason other than being black, these are conversations that are sadly as critical in America today as ever.

There is also important food for thought here for South Africans. Though I doubt I could ever agree with those who call Mandela a traitor (he saved our country’s soul), Spike Lee’s film – if you let it – does offer some uncomfortable insight into the plight of those on the receiving end of (historical and on-going) racism who are constantly required to smile, forgive and forget.

Love and Death (1975), Woody Allen:

This is a bit of a cheat, because I saw it right before I moved to New York, but it is the great Woody Allen film that I somehow never knew was this great.

What could be better than Woody Allen channelling Tolstoy via the Marx Brothers and Ingmar Bergman via his New York neuroses while dragging Diane Keaton, Mother Russia, Napoleon Bonaparte and the Grim Reaper along for the ride? Epic, irreverent and, most importantly, hilarious.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

The Sound of Silence

Please forgive the silence.

Sumupfilm is at film school.

Normal ramblings will resume soon enough.