Tag Archives: Oscars

Brooklyn

Brooklyn, story about a young Irish woman leaving her family behind to forge a new life for herself in the America of the early 1950’s, is old-fashioned movie making in the best sense of the term.

BrooklynThe film, directed by John Crowley (Boy A, Intermission) and adapted by Nick Hornby (About a Boy, An Education, High Fidelity) from the novel by Colm Tóbín, is a nostalgic take on a story as old as America itself – reinvention.

Eillis Lacy (Saorise Ronan) lives in a small post-war Irish town. Her father is dead, and she lives with her mother and older sister Rose (Fiona Glascott), who cares for them both. Her future is so bleak that she agrees to have an Irish priest living in New York arrange a job and living arrangements for her, in hopes of creating a better life there.

Eillis (pronounced Á-lish) feels guilty about leaving her sister with the burden of caring for their mother, but Rose has carved out a nice life for herself, and won’t hear of any guilty talk. It’s a difficult parting and a rougher ocean crossing, but Eillis makes it to Ellis Island and her new life.

At first, the new world is jarring. The boarding house is a strange place, ruled by a loud woman, Mrs. Keogh (Julie Walters), and occupied by a chorus of lonely women who eventually grown on Eillis.

The job that has been arranged for her – a position as a shop girl at a fancy department store – is yet another adjustment. Eillis’ supervisor (Mad Men’s Jessica Paré) is a tough, serious woman who insists on having her customers treated as special friends, but Eillis is so homesick, that can’t see through the fog of tears that constantly fill her eyes.

But things aren’t what they seem. Eillis’ supervisor calls the priest, Father Flood (Jim Broadbent), after an especially rough day, and he meets with her in the breakroom of the store and dispenses some priestly wisdom. “Homesickness is like any other sickness. It eventually passes and moves on to someone else.” He assures her it will be okay, but he has more than just kind words. He’s also arranged for night classes at Brooklyn College, which will allow her to study bookkeeping.

With this bit of good news, the clouds begin to lift. Back at the boarding house, the girls and Mrs. Keogh have begun to warm up to their quiet new neighbor. Enough so that they all hang out together at the weekly parish dance, where Eillis meets a boy one Friday night.

This is where the movie really turns. The boy, an Italian named Tony (Emory Cohen), cruises the Irish dances because he prefers Irish girls to the same old Italian girls available at the Italian version of the parish dance.

It’s a meet-cute moment that works for the innocence of these two. They are each so earnest and decent, you can’t help but root for them (even though you’ve been conditioned by movies and TV series to expect some underlying perversion).

The romance escalates to the point of a funny dinner with Tony’s family that is concluded by him walking Eillis home and telling her he loves her for the first time. It’s an awkward moment because Eillis doesn’t know how to respond. She’s never been in this position before. It’s yet another new experience for her.

As their love blossoms, a complication arises when Eillis’ sister Rose dies, perhaps from an illness she kept from everyone so that Eillis could be turned loose to live her own life.

Eillis returns home to mourn with her mother, but not before being persuaded to marry Tony before leaving. Tony feared that once back home, Eillis would never leave. Being first or second generation American, he probably knew something about the power of Home. Eillis agrees, and the go to the courthouse and marry in secret just before she returns to Ireland.

Back in Ireland, she finds that little has changed and everything has changed. Having come from America, everyone looks at her anew. It’s as if she’s being noticed for the very first time. Boys want to date her. Rose’s old employer wants to hire her, knowing she has a bookkeeping certificate. It’s like an Irish Tractor Beam has been turned on to keep her from returning to New York.

To complicate matters even more, a nice boy with a secure financial future falls for her, which her mother seizes on as a sign that things are looking up for “them.”

Eillis is torn between love and guilt, old and new, the past and the future as she struggles with a riot of emotions that have caught her completely off-guard. Finally, a voice from the past rears her ugly head, bringing everything to a head.

Saorise Ronan is a delight to watch in the role of Eillis. One of the many pleasures of Brooklyn is its comfort with silence, which it uses like white space on a printed page, and Ronan’s use of silence speaks volumes in subtext in the way she uses her eyes and body to tell stories and convey the inner dialogue that rages inside this thoughtful woman. Her Oscar nomination is well deserved. There will surely be many more to come.

Emory Cohen, a relative newcomer, also walks a thin line, playing a sweet, decent man without falling into treacly obnoxiousness that would have us rooting for Eillis to stay in Ireland. I look forward to seeing what’s next for him.

The supporting cast of Brooklyn was marked by one fine performance after another, from the girls at the boarding house to Domhnall Gleeson as Eillis’ Irish suitor. But it’s Julie Walters and Jim Broadbent who do standout work as Mrs. Keogh and Father Flood.

Walters’ comic timing is put to good use as the fearsome proprietor of the boarding house who dotes on Eillis as a “sensible girl.” Walters takes the role up to the point of caricature, but when it seems she’s about to take it to cartoonishness, she softens the woman and gives her a vulnerable twist that completely humanizes the old woman.

Similarly, Broadbent conveys a decency in the old priest that conveys a sense of how Christians should be – loving, wise, humble and charitable people.

Looking at the construction of Brooklyn, on paper it seems like a movie that might be better suited for the Hallmark channel for all its sweetness, but the quality of the storytelling, direction, art direction and especially the acting give it the boost it needs to transcend sentimentality and achieve a kind of sweet grace that will have the hardest of hearts wiping away tears.

As Brooklyn reaches its inevitable conclusion, we are given a reminder of one of the things that makes America so great – here, you can be whoever you say you are. There’s no guarantees, and it doesn’t come cheaply, but if you are willing to pay the steep price of turning away from home, it could happen.

A first-draft take: The Revenant

Alejandro Iñárritu’s The Revenant was nominated this week for a Best Picture Oscar, and I went to see it today hoping it was better than I’ve been hearing. Unfortunately, it’s exactly as I’ve been hearing.

The problem with The Revenant, if you want to call it that, is that it’s a good adventure tale dressed up like an epic.

The RevenantThe film stars Leonardo DiCaprio (in an Oscar nominated performance) as Hugh Glass, a real-life frontiersman who lived in the time of frontier heroes like Jim Bridger, with his own true-life adventures that read like tall tales. DiCaprio is solid in the role, which called for very little memorization of lines. What sounds DiCaprio made were mostly in the form of grunts and heavy breathing, and dressed in a thick bear skin pull-over and sporting a scraggly beard and long hair, he looks more like an animal than the suave Gatsby-esque figure we’re used to seeing.

The story opens in a flashback of the savage murder of Glass’ wife, a Pawnee, and the mutilation of their son’s face by white soldiers. Her whispered words of love and wisdom serve as a kind of frontier Greek chorus as Glass makes his way through this story.

The story’s present is years after the massacre and finds Glass and his son Hawk working as guides for American fur trappers in Wyoming in the early-1800’s. As Glass and his son hunt for food, their party is attacked by Ree’s seeking the daughter of their chief.

The action sequences are expertly shot, putting you in the middle of the action. The violence is depicted so realistically that blood spatters the lens at one point. Arrows pierce necks, bullets open up holes in bodies, knives puncture abdomens. And blood flows in nearly every scene.

Glass and Hawk make it back to their party and help the survivors escape to their flatboat, which provides temporary relief from attack.

During all of this, we meet Fitzgerald, played by Tom Hardy (in an Oscar nominated role), a cruel fur trapper who is a tough man among tough men. Of course, he makes it back to the boat without so much of a scratch, cursing and complaining about all the pelts they had to leave behind – no doubt a comment on the boundless greed of American expansionism.

Once they’ve gotten out of earshot of their attackers, Glass recommends abandoning the boat, which is sure to be attacked downstream, and opting for an overland route back to the safety of their fort of origin.

Fitzgerald hates the idea and argues strenuously against it, discounting Glass’ coolly articulated explanation of them being sitting ducks. Their captain, played by Domhnall Gleeson, sides with Glass and orders the boat ashore at the next logical spot.

Fitzgerald keeps up his bitching and complaining until the captain orders him to knock it off. This only shifts his target, but not his tone as he starts in on Glass, asking him if it was true that he shot and American officer in defense of an Indian woman (Glass’ own wife, we learn later). Glass refuses to engage the man.

This sets up the central conflict between Glass and Fitzgerald, two men who openly dislike one another.

When Glass is mauled by a bear a few mornings later, in a scene that is amazingly shot and performed, it’s Fitzgerald who argues strenuously against attempting to haul nearly dead carcass over the mountains. When the captain finally relents, and asks for volunteers to stay with Glass until he dies(along with the real-life Jim Bridger and Hawk), to see he is properly buried, Fitzgerald agrees after a handsome payday is offered. All this is done in full view of Glass, who is injured but conscious.

Later, when Fitzgerald is tired of waiting, he tries to bargain with Glass to let him end his life. When Hawk interrupts this plan, Fitzgerald kills him in a struggle, which is again played out in full view of Glass, who can do nothing but grunt and cry.

When Fitzgerald lies to Bridger, in order to get hi to abandon Glass, the remainder of the movie is the struggle for Glass to literally claw his way back to civilization to exact his vengeance on Fitzgerald.

Against all odds, Glass relies on his training and a single-minded determination to overcome obstacle after obstacle. Cold weather, lack of food, lack of shelter, lack of weapons for protection and an improbably crowded wilderness filled with predatory men are all dealt with in an improvisational manner that would Jason Bourne proud.

Fitzgerald and Bridger make it back to the fort, just after the captain and the others, and as promised, he’s paid his bounty for doing the honorable thing. Not wanting young Bridger to go un-rewarded for his duty, the captain gives him another share even though he’s paid the original to Fitzgerald. Bridger, in a fit of conscience, leaves it with the captain and storms out of the meeting.

Glass finally does make it back to the fort, where his return is announced with enough warning that Fitzgerald can break into the captain’s safe and sneak off for Texas with a small fortune.

The final act of the movie sees a rejuvenated Glass setting off with the captain to finish what he started, challenging his wife’s haunting reminders to leave vengeance to God.

Everything about this film is done superbly, from the fine cast to the extraordinary cinematography to the special effects of the frontier violence. There’s not a false note in the whole movie, which begs the question – “Why did I walk away feeling like there was something missing?”

Again, I think that the story just wasn’t big enough to support the great ambition of Iñárritu and his team.

The first evidence of this lies in the flashback sequences and the voice-overs. My guess is that they weren’t in the first draft of the script, but were added to give Glass’ struggle depth and universality that, although they worked, just didn’t elevate the story.

Compare The Revenant to Jeremiah Johnson, and you’ll see what I mean. Jeremiah Johnson, similarly, was the story of a frontiersman in roughly the same time period whose family is similarly butchered. But what elevates the Redford classic to the level of epic is the framing of Johnson’s story against that of the culture from which he’s escaping from and into. Jeremiah Johnson is a densely layered story that works first as an adventure, then as social commentary and finally as epic.

All this is not to diminish The Revenant. If it wasn’t for the aforementioned Oscar nominations, I probably wouldn’t belabor the above points. But because it has been nominated for so many awards, it’s impossible not to think of it in those terms.

I look forward to seeing the remainder of the nominated films to see where The Revenant ranks, but for now, I’m guessing it’s not this year’s Best Picture.

It’s Oscar season!

On a day that included the sad news of the passing of actor Alan Rickman (he died of cancer at 69, just three days after David Bowie died of cancer at 69), the Oscar season kicked off with the early morning announcement of this year’s nominees.

I’ve long said that the Oscars are my Super Bowl, and as much as I love football, I love the Oscars even more.

My plan for this year is to see all the movies in my favorite categories, write about them here and then make my picks for the big night, February 28, when Chris Rock will no doubt give Whitey a lot of shit for ignoring a lot of good work from African American artists.

That said, here’s my homework assignment for the coming weeks:

Best Picture
• The Big Short
• Bridge of Spies
• Brooklyn
• Mad Max: Fury Road
• The Martian
• The Revenant
• Room
• Spotlight

Best Director
• Lenny Abrahamson | Room
• Alejandro Iñàrritu | The Revenant
• Adam McKay | The Big Short
• Tom McCarthy | Spotlight
• George Miller | Mad Max: Fury Road

Best Actor in a Leading Role
• Bryan Cranston | Trumbo
• Matt Damon | The Martian
• Leonardo DiCaprio | The Revenant
• Michael Fassbender | Steve Jobs
• Eddie Redmayne | The Danish Girl

Best Actress in a Leading Role
• Cate Blanchett | Carol
• Brie Larson | Room
• Jennifer Lawrence | Joy
• Charlotte Rampling | 45 Years
• Saoirse Ronan | Brooklyn

Best Actor in a Supporting Role
• Christian Bale | The Big Short
• Tom Hardy | The Revenant
• Mark Ruffalo | Spotlight
• Mark Rylance | Bridge of Spies
• Sylvester Stallone | Creed

Best Actress in a Supporting Role
• Jennifer Jason Leigh | The Hateful Eight
• Rooney Mara | Carol
• Rachel McAdams | Spotlight
• Alicia Vikander | The Danish Girl
• Kate Winslet | Steve Jobs

Best Foreign Language Film
• Embrace of the Serpent | Colombia
• Mustang | France
• Son of Saul | Hungary
• Theeb | Jordan
• A War | Denmark

Best Documentary Feature
• Amy
• Cartel Land
• The Look of Silence
• What Happened, Miss Simone?
• Winter on Fire

The Tree of Life

Tree of Life movie posterLast Friday, I was in New York helping a friend celebrate his 40th birthday, and after a long day of walking all over Brooklyn and the Lower East Side, we headed over to the Landmark Sunshine Cinema on Houston Street to rest our feet while we took in Terrence Malick’s much-anticipated The Tree of Life.

My friend had no idea what he was getting himself into.

As I paid for my ticket, I asked the girl on the other side of the glass if she’d seen the movie.  Her eyes lit up as she nodded and said “Oh yeah.”  I asked her what she thought about it, and she said it was the “most Malick of all his movies.”  I smiled and nodded back to her as I walked away, anxious to see how that assessment would play out.

Much has been written about Malick’s style of movie making, which is typified by loosely constructed narratives that do not adhere to traditional rhythms.  Rather, his stories are like a child’s meandering exploration of a new environment, following whatever catches his attention.  They are also marked by beautifully captured images, especially of nature, that sometimes overwhelm the senses.  This was used to great effect in The Thin Red Line, where shots of blowing grass were allowed to linger for many beats past what would be considered normal, only to be shattered by explosions of gunfire or bursting shells.  Malick also makes frequent use of voice-over narration by his characters.  It’s often used novelistically, to take us inside the minds of the characters, usually as they wrestle with philosophical questions.

Malick’s fans see these characteristics as great strengths that set him apart from an increasingly formulaic style of film making that places little value on intellectual adventurism and any other kind of risk-taking.  His detractors, like Richard Schickel find these traits tedious, pretentious, and self-indulgent, a kind of pseudo-intellectualism that is impossible to stomach.

And so it is with The Tree of Life, Malick’s most ambitious film, which took the top prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, despite drawing boos from the audience at its screening.

It’s an impressionistic story that contrasts the tragedy of one American family against the backdrop of the relentless march of time – putting into greater perspective the things that consume us and distract us from the bigger picture, namely of our God.

It’s a theme that many have found – and will continue to find – offensive, or simple-minded at best.  But it’s the desperate questions that Malick’s characters ask themselves in quiet moments of pain, regret, or remorse that hound most of us, I think.

The movie opens with a quote from Job 38:4,7 – “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth…when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted with joy?”

This passage is a key to understanding the movie. As these characters suffer – as we all do – there is a bigger picture, another view of the problem, but we are often too consumed with our problems, to the point of navel gazing, to lift our heads up for a different point-of-view.

The first images of the film are of the Mother (Jessica Chastain), going from a young girl to grown woman, and over the popcorn-like flashes of her life, we hear the adult version of herself telling us that “there are two ways through life – the way of nature and the way of grace.”

And with that, we have the central conflict of the family we will come to know.

But first, there is that tragedy.  Years later, as the Mother’s sons have become young men, there is a telegram delivered to her house, informing the Mother that her middle son has been killed.  How this is, we never learn.  Nor is it even important.  She collapses under the weight of this news until finally, she gathers herself so she can tell the Father (Brad Pitt), who is traveling.

Cut to the present, where we meet Jack (Sean Penn, in a brooding role that has become all to familiar to his fans), a successful looking architect who is married and lives in a very nice home, wears nice suits, and works in a high-rise building in what looks like Houston, Texas.  He lights a candle.  Is it the anniversary of this event?  We don’t know.  But he is out of sorts.  He talks to the Father and confesses that he thinks of his dead brother every day of his life.  He’s stuck, unable to get beyond this tragedy, this great hurt.  In voice-over, we hear Jack ask where this all began, and it is here that Malick takes us all the way back – to the very beginning, when the foundations of the earth were laid.

This passage, which is to be expanded and turned into an IMAX documentary at some future point, is Malick’s interpretation of how the earth came to be.  To bring this vision to life, he employed the talents of Douglas Trumbull, who worked with Stanley Kubrick on 2001: A Space Odyssey.  It is a long passage that conveys us from nothingness to the violent forces that resulted in a world that eventually produced the dinosaurs, some of which are recreated with startling realism on beaches and in forests and rivers.

At the conclusion of this passage, we are transported to 1950’s era Waco, Texas, where we meet the rest of the O’Brien family.

The Mother is the embodiment of the way of grace.  She is a beautiful woman, earthy and nurturing, who is often photographed as she hugs, kisses, caresses, or comforts her boys with a reassuring touch to the shoulder or arm.  She holds back none of her love, and encourages her sons to do the same.  At one point she warns, “unless you love, your life will flash by.”

At the other pole is the Father, who practices the way of nature and worries that his wife is making the boys soft.  In response he over-compensates, never missing a teachable opportunity to drive home his philosophy of self-determinism.  He’ll live to regret this, lamenting the fact that while he was busy grabbing at life he missed “the glory,” a term that is also used in The Thin Red Line to describe God, or at least the way of grace.

In the middle are the boys, with the story being told from the point-of-view of Jack, the oldest.  Vignettes from the life of this family spill onto the screen like old snapshots, painting painfully accurate portraits of pre-adolescent angst and parental ham-fistedness.  It’s to Malick’s great credit that I found myself identifying equally with Jack and the Father (I have three children of my own).  So close are Malick’s observations that I spent a good deal of the movie wiping away tears, connecting this fiction with my own experiences.

We see young Jack, as he teeters over the line from childhood innocence to the world of adult awareness, where those early recognitions of parental imperfection are often met with harsh judgments and resentment.  But Malick wisely avoids the trap of making the Father a monster.  Instead, he is a flawed creature, equally capable of moments of great tenderness and monstrous cruelty, motivated by his personal frustrations and a fear of what might befall his children.  Pitt plays this middle ground wonderfully, coming at his family from a place of good intentions gone awry as he erupts into fits of anger at the transgression of his rules.  He is a man of his time, trained for one thing – to provide for his family materially.  To nurture or even encourage an emotional intimacy with his sons seems to be equal parts impossible and distasteful to him.

And so the rhythm of this middle section of the movie is the daily life of a middle class American family, punctuated by the milestones that we can all recognize: school crushes, fighting and playing in the neighborhood, pulling weeds, climbing trees, and getting into trouble for seemingly random things.  It’s a passage of love, hurt, laughing, and crying – and through it all, we hear the voices of Jack, the Mother, and the Father as they struggle to makes sense of this life, and these key moments that can’t be shaken.

Speaking of acting, praise must be given to Hunter McCracken (young Jack) and Laramie Eppler (middle child R.L.), non-professional actors who do a splendid job of inhabiting the boys and playing many key childhood moments with truth and grace.

Finally, after too short a visit with the O’Briens, we are brought back to the present.  And it’s after Jack has ruminated on these moments – in the context of all that has gone on before them in the grand scheme of time – that he is able to move on.

Malick concludes this God-soaked film with a passage that I won’t spoil here.  All I’ll say is that The Tree of Life is truly the most Malick of all Malick’s movies.  The girl at the ticket booth was correct, and I can’t remember being more moved by a film than I was by this beautiful story.

I wish I could see it again, to better organize my thoughts, but I’m back in Louisville where this film won’t soon come, so I’ll have to make do with this.

Academy Awards 2011: Final Thoughts

The Academy Awards 2011: Final Thoughts

A lot of people bashed the Oscars, but don’t we go through this same ritual every year?  Is it some kind of guilt over our worshipping the golden calf of celebrity?  It’s as if the day-after bashing is a guilt offering to cover our shame.

That said, I feel no guilt.  Every year, I go into the telecast hoping for some transcendent moment, but end up like Linus on Halloween, waiting in vain for the Great Pumpkin.  Oh well, maybe next year.

How ironic that the year that was devoted to the younger demographic was dominated by a 95 year old legend who reminded everyone that just because it’s new doesn’t mean it’s better.

Bless the person who booked Kirk Douglas for the broadcast.  Despite at least one stroke, he’s lost none of the spark or timing or determination to seize an opportunity that made him a star.  When he finally and reluctantly receded into the night, after Melissa Leo’s wonderful f-bomb, little did we know that we’d had our high-water mark for the night.

I don’t understand all the energy that’s put into pandering to youngsters, especially when it comes as the expense of the past.  Isn’t that what the Oscars are all about – comparing this year’s talent to everything that’s gone before?

What I REALLY hate is the toast that happens before the awarding of Best Actor & Actress.  It’s painful to watch, especially when Bridges screws up and shatters the illusion of him giving off-the-cuff remarks, like the best man at a wedding.

They need to stop that.

And how come we didn’t get to see Coppola getting his Thalberg award?  I would have loved to have seen the montage they put together, especially if it was as clever as the fake musical one.

And finally, I liked the opening, until they went Back To The Future on us.