Category Archives: Academy Awards

The Shape of Water (2017)

I arrived late to the party for The Shape of Water, having finally caught the movie a few weeks ago after months and months of dodging reviews online. Guess I’d better add my voice to the fray, huh? Maybe a piece on how writer/director Guillermo del Toro’s creativity allowed him to get away with a smaller budget…but, no, someone’s already written that. How about an article detailing the Creature from the Black Lagoon-inspired genesis of the film? Damn, that one’s been up for three months. Use of color in the film? Been there. Political subtext? Done that. Seems a movie as rich as this should have a surplus of accoutrements on which to festoon my opinions, should have that pliability typical of great films allowing for different readings, interpretations, criticisms, attitudes and judgments.

The irony, in a way, is that explicit analysis of The Shape of Water is sort of counter to the themes of the film. More than that: forcing words onto Shape, which thrives largely on sight and feeling, might actually be detrimental to one’s enjoyment of and identification with the message at hand. Despite having seen the film only recently and only once, I suspect that removing the words entirely — watching it with the volume muted — wouldn’t take anything away from the overall experience. It might even heighten it, highlighting just how different “words” and “communication” actually are.

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Call Me By Your Name (2017)

Of the nine Best Picture nominees at this year’s Academy Awards, four of them — that’s a healthy 44% — address predatory love. Okay, maybe only three if you don’t include The Shape of Water, though, technically, yes, the protagonist is in love with a literal predator. Down to 33%, which is still a higher percentage than you’d expect from American awards season. Though I suppose Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is never really about rape, only using that (as it used a number of other social issues) as a springboard for dramatic explorations of entirely different social issues. So, okay, fine: 22%.

That leaves Phantom Thread and Call Me By Your Name, both of which are absolutely, inescapably, 100% concerned with “love” that’s mostly characterized by dominance on one side. I should state that I put “love” in quotations because there is, of course, an easy rebuttal to calling such a thing love at all. I should state that jokes equating Shape of Water‘s fish-man to Thread‘s obsessive Woodcock or Call Me‘s way-too-old Oliver have zero business in a serious discussion of this topic. And I should state that I’m a white American male in my late-20s, admittedly a category not known (at the moment, anyway) for our prowess in deft handling of sexual abuse talks. Maybe I have zero business here along with fish-man.

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Phantom Thread (2017)

Early on in Phantom Thread I started thinking about the miniaturized nature of certain segments in the cinema of Paul Thomas Anderson. At the top of this latest film we see Reynolds Woodcock’s morning routine, clearly practiced to the point of automation, nearly mechanical, though the whole scene lasts less than thirty seconds. He shaves, he slicks his hair, he pulls on his big winecolored socks, his pants. And that’s it. The dressmaker is dressed. One might expect a little more extravagance from a film that’s ostensibly about high-end style and tailored beauty, no?

But Anderson has always employed this device throughout his films, these little nugget-sized glimpses that seem like — or sometimes actually are — improvised scraps rather than written scenes. In Inherent Vice this was sort of the entire movie, an assault of crisscrossing people and places and scenarios that rarely evolve into extended sequences. A better example is The Master, probably Anderson’s finest film, throughout which there’s more of a balance in the overall pacing. We meet Freddie Quell lounging on a battleship, then cut to him commiserating with a group of waylaid soldiers, then cut to him masturbating at the edge of the ocean. Later there’s a very quick scene in which he’s chased down after possibly poisoning someone with a stiff drink, and in this span of a minute or so we already know Freddie to be a scrappy rogue fending off all comers on the outskirts of society.

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Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

One of the previews that screened before last night’s Boston premiere of Blade Runner 2049 was for next year’s monsters vs. robots actioner Pacific Rim Uprising, an inevitable if somewhat tardy sequel to Guillermo del Toro’s 2013 original. Based solely on this trailer, it’s evident that Uprising centers on the son of the first film’s protagonist, alludes heavily to that first film, and possibly just revamps the plot with slightly louder explosions. I was reminded, regrettably, of Independence Day: Resurgence, which gave off a similar reek of franchise desperation.

And of course this was the general fear heading into 2049. It’s been 35 years since Blade Runner established a visual and tonal format for scores of futuristic noirs to come (Dark City, Gattaca, Strange DaysAutomata, more), and this is apparently long enough to give up on counterfeiting and make it explicit: time for another Blade Runner. In 2049 we have K (Ryan Gosling), our new replicant-hunting LAPD hero-hunk, leading us through the same streets Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) traversed back in 1982. There is a new mystery at hand, yes, but there is also heavy allusion to the beloved original disseminated through visual cues, recycled dialogue, occasional cameos and, as is par for the course these days, a victory lap for Ford.

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Baby Driver (2017)

baby2I recently watched Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz for the zillionth time. This was partly to assuage my excitement for Baby Driver, Wright’s latest, and partly because the discovery of a commentary track by Wright and his buddy Quentin Tarantino was too good to pass up. Usually commentary tracks feel slight, strained, straight-up unnecessary; Wright and Tarantino have a casual chat that’s nearly as bonkers as Hot Fuzz itself. The pair share a vast encyclopedic knowledge of film and music, and throughout the course of the commentary they discuss nearly 200 films — basically everything besides Hot Fuzz — and if you’re thinking someone should write out that list, well, yeah: reddit.

Their knowledge is enviable, yes, but it’s not nearly as enviable as the fact that both writer/directors manage to make movies that are unlike any other movie you’ve ever seen. Baby Driver, it should be stated at the outset, is unlike any other movie you’ve ever seen. Wright, like Tarantino, has fresh ideas that swing for the narrative fences, and like Tarantino he also has the prowess to actually achieve his vision. This time around the vision is something people are calling a “car chase musical”, which seems only half-accurate because it doesn’t quite do Baby Driver justice.

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The Danish Girl (2015)

There’s something about Eddie Redmayne that just crushes your soul. I’m not saying that it’s a bad thing — he’s a beautiful soul-crusher — but man, I feel like every time I sit down to a Redmayne movie, I’m going to leave feeling any one of, or a combination of, three things: 1) uncomfortably mortal, 2) disastrously under-accomplished, or 3) questioning my sexual identity.

The Danish Girl is no exception to this inevitability, though in this case, it is perhaps a bit more of a forced conclusion than in some of Redmayne’s other roles. In fact, all three of these reactions are obviously sought by the end of the film, with the lead dying – “Shit, I’m so mortal!” – the two leads both being successful, talented artists – “Shit, I’m so bad at doing stuff good!” – and of course, the main character transitioning in order to become his true self – “Shit, what even is a ‘true self’?”

However, the real issue I take with this film, aside from the generally predictable feel of the method-acting made-for-Redmayne award-seeking plot, is that it isn’t actually accurate at all to the life of the person it is supposedly based off of, Lili Elbe (Elvenes), and her relationship with Gerda Wegener, played by the stunning and Oscar award-winning Alicia Vikander — but we’ll get to her later.

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Spotlight (2015)

One appreciates how difficult it is to make a successful film like Spotlight. Yes, you have an A-list cast at your disposal, and yes, it’s Oscar season. They’re going for it. You have a true story that is quite literally already recorded for the public eye, plain as day, and besides the revelatory Spotlight newspaper clippings you have a vast backlog of coverage on the coverage, stories about the story. Yes, most of the real people who took part in that story are still alive and willing to participate in making a film about their achievements. And yes, the crucial win is already firmly in place: this is a highly relevant story, stranger than fiction but all the more urgent for being the truth.

Granted, there’s one massive pressure point in the expectations set by the aftermath of the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church. Director Tom McCarthy (“you” from the first paragraph) must have felt what Adam McKay felt in directing The Big Short, what David O. Russell felt in directing Joy, what Danny Boyle felt with Steve Jobs, what Don Cheadle felt with Miles Ahead. Any director dealing with the poster tagline Based On a True Story must ask “am I getting this right?”

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Anomalisa (2015)

Rather than going out and partying or hanging out with friends as most teenagers do on Friday nights, I instead chose to have an existential nightmare by watching the latest film from writer/director Charlie Kaufman: Anomalisa.

You may recognize Kaufman as the writer of such films as Spike Jonze’s Adaptation. and Being John Malkovich. Kaufman also wrote the much beloved Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and directed the incredibly complex and possibly genius film Synecdoche, New York. If you’re interested in reading some more thoughts on Kaufman’s works, there’s a wonderful writer series here on Motion State. To say the least, in this very impressive filmography Charlie Kaufman has built for himself, Anomalisa stands out as both incredibly unique and right at home.

Anomalisa is about a man named Michael Stone, played by David Thewlis. Michael is a corporate spokesperson known for writing books on customer service. Many people look up to Michael and the way he is able to look at the world, but beneath that exterior, he is actually struggling deeply with problems in his personal life and what he deems “psychological problems”. When people talk, Michael simply hears the same bland voice over and over. One evening in his hotel room, Michael is practicing delivering a speech he is scheduled to give the next day and attempting to infuse it with the sincerity that he obviously lacks. Just outside, he hears the voice of a beautiful young woman named Lisa, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh. Michael is instantly mesmerized by her and is determined to make Lisa a part of his life.

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The Hateful Eight (2015)

Hey — it’s Christmas! Let’s go to the movies. Slug some hot chocolate, throw on your wool hat, follow the colored lights strung from tree to tree on the citywide commons to the movie theater or the cinema or the multiplex or whatever you call it in your neck of the woods. I’ll get the tickets, you get the popcorn. What do you want to see? It’s Christmas, remember, so we need something that will encourage our merriment and warm up our capacity for joy. That disqualifies The Revenant. What about Star Wars for the fifth time? What do you mean you saw it again this morning? Why didn’t you invite me? Whatever, just go get the popcorn.

Here we go: a new Tarantino movie. One would think that a brand spankin’ new flick from Tarantino would, if nothing else, be entertaining. It’s Tarantino. This is the diabolical purveyor of histrionic, action-packed jaunts that bleed style and ooze cool, of movies that have banging soundtracks and automatically generate an Academy Award for Christoph Waltz. This is the director that champions violence in film as fun, responding to the masses that claim violence in film is a potentially toxic influence on viewers with a beautifully composed shot of red blood spewing out of a newly-severed neck. Take that! The violence-is-bad point always reminds me of part of the testimony of famed censorship bogeyman William Gaines during the 1954 hearings on the validity of the violent comic books he produced: “Do we think our children are so evil, so simpleminded, that it takes a story of murder to set them to murder, a story of robbery to set them to robbery?” I picture Tarantino saying that, only with a lot more gesticulation and overeagerness and a lot of “alright, you know, okay?” and a lot of averted glances.

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The Revenant (2015)

It’s fitting that The Revenant pushes the limits of film, ceasing mercifully only just before breaking, because that’s exactly what happens to Hugh Glass. If you’re one of the people behind the film, crafting it, then you have to push the limit: you’re Alejandro Iñárritu or Emmanuel Lubezki, coming off the exquisite Birdman and arguably at the height of your career, seemingly happy to be shouldered with the weight of expectation or otherwise just left with no choice. If you’re one of the people in front of the film, watching it, you want it to push the limit: if you’re watching The Revenant in the first place, you’re likely quite certain that you’re in for a challenging watch and not a brain-switched-off actioner.

But if you’re one of the people inside the film, acting in it, living it, then being pushed to the limit means actually being pushed to the limit. Throughout 2015 stories of the extremely arduous on-location filming of Revenant trickled down from that remote region of Alberta, from the torrential rains of British Columbia, from the freezing southernmost tip of Argentina. Ten people quit or were fired during production. In July Hollywood Reporter ran an article about the brutal conditions on set, prompting more and more questions about the safety precautions and the direction of the film. Blurbs from Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, and the rest of the cast make The Revenant shoot sound more life-threatening than that of Apocalypse Now or Fitzcarraldo; Iñárritu himself has since taken to referring to the cast and crew as “survivors”.

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