Saturday, February 21, 2015

Oscars: Witness the Whiteness

For many years now (and you can scroll back through previous years here and here, if you're so inclined), I've been an aficionado of the Academy Awards. Some years that means we get some really interesting movies, and some years...well, the Academy has some issues, and pointing them out isn't exactly groundbreaking.

In short: The Academy is sometimes on a delay. That means things like Pacino getting snubbed for Godfather II, but then picking up an Oscar for Scent of a Woman, which meant Denzel Washington got snubbed for Malcolm X, but then he picked one up for Training Day (in fairness, I don't think anyone that year really got robbed because Denzel got tossed a make-up Oscar, but I also didn't see Ali). But then again, sometimes they get it right. Javier Bardem, for instance, absolutely deserved his Oscar for No Country for Old Men, and Heath Ledger deserved his for The Dark Knight (would he have won if he hadn't died? That's a separate discussion).

The most relevant movie doesn't always win. Brokeback Mountain should have beaten Crash, for instance. Why didn't it? Because the Academy is homophobic? I wouldn't have thought so, but it seems that the MPAA is, indeed, composed for old, white, men, and as we're seeing in a lot of avenues these past few years - politically, culturally, etc. - there's a kind of weird burst of cultural conservatism. Or, perhaps, just a burst of nasty reaction to any kind of progressivism. We have some really awful racial stuff going on, what with the murders of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, and then we've got the GamerGate hate group still making death threats and generally being awful. And then we've got this report of an Academy voter who basically finds it offensive that the cast members of Selma would open support Garner and want justice for him, but then she turns around and lauds American Sniper:

American Sniper is the winner of the year, whether or not it gets a single statuette, because for all of us in the movie industry — I don't care what your politics are — it is literally the answer to a prayer for a midrange budget movie directed by an 84-year-old guy [Clint Eastwood] to do this kind of business. It shows that a movie can galvanize America and shows that people will go if you put something out that they want to see. With regard to what it did or didn't leave out, it's a movie, not a documentary. I enjoyed it, I thought it was well done, and I can separate out the politics from the filmmaking.
The privilege and myopia beings shown there is kind of staggering, as is the fact that Sniper is getting the accolades it's getting, but I'll talk about that more anon. For right now, I just want to recognize that the Oscars have some issues in general, but this year in particular, it really feels like the nomination process fucked anyone darker than George Harrison out of any possibility of an award. All of the acting categories are white, the only POC to get a directing nod was Inarritu, and there sure aren't many women represented anywhere. It really feels like the Academy collectively got more conservative this year, and I'm hoping, as always, that as the old folks retire and die off, we start seeing some folks who are, well, a little more attentive.

I'm an optimist, of course. There are plenty of folks in my generation who are just as shitheaded as any of the old guard.

Anyway, let's do some discussions and predictions, and then tomorrow or Monday I'll post about the food.

Best Actor: Four of the five nominees are playing real people. We've got Chris Kyle, Stephen Hawking, Alan Turing, and Jean du Pont, plus Michael Keaton playing an aging actor best known for playing a superhero decades ago. While we can joke about how that shouldn't be a stretch, Keaton reportedly said this was a really difficult role for him to play. Birdman is a weird movie, and I can believe that doing the long-ass takes, dealing the magical realism and just the overall strangeness of the movie was a difficult role. Plus, this is Keaton's first nomination for an Oscar, which is just weird. But what else we got?

Bradley Cooper is nominated for playing Chris Kyle in American Sniper, and from everything I've read, he brings a lot more empathy and humanity to the role than Kyle actually did. I really hated the movie, and while I can't fault Cooper, I'm kind of annoyed that it's even in here.

Eddie Redmayne did a really fantastic job as Stephen Hawking, taking him from a fresh-faced, goofy grad student to the gangsta rapper we know and love. The physicality required is really incredible, and I wouldn't be sad if he wins.

Rootypoot Fizzlesnitch is nominated for Imitation Game as Alan Turing, and while I enjoyed the movie, I can't for a minute believe that this is going to be Custardpant's winning performance. He'll get an Oscar at some point, I'm sure, but I think (hope) it's going to be after geek media stops going bazonkers for him.

And that leaves Steve Carell in Foxcatcher. I liked this movie; it was slow and pretty damn depressing at the end, but watching some old videos of the real Jean du Pont, I think Carell really nailed it. Is being buried under the makeup going to hurt him? Does uglying up help men the way it does women? I don't know.

My choice & prediction: Michael Keaton

Best Actress: So, fair cop, I haven't seen Two Days, One Night. Just didn't get around to it, so I have no idea if Marion Cotillard is going to blow it away like she did in La Vie en Rose. I think, though, that even if she turned in a really amazing performance she isn't going to overcome Julianne Moore for Still Alice or, for that matter, Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl (lot of noms in this category are the only noms for their respective films, huh).

Actually, this is a pretty strong category. Reese Witherspoon really carried Wild, which I really enjoyed, and while Pike wasn't quite the driving force in Gone Girl, I thought she did a really amazing job (and I'm surprised we didn't get more noms from that movie - not even a screenplay nom? We got Sniper instead? Fuck). Felicity Jones was great and subtle in The Theory of Everything, but I think I'm hearing more buzz for Moore. And initially, I was thinking that'd be cool, but I dunno. Her portrayal of a woman coping with early onset Alzheimers is impressive and it's touching for me personally, but I think after all is said and done, I'm more impressed with Witherspoon. She really made the movie, she was a producer, and she portrayed Cheryl Strayed's struggle and life journey.

My choice: Reese Witherspoon
My prediction: Julianne Moore

Best Supporting Actor: It's weird how often this is a lock. I can't remember when the last time was I was surprised by this category. Maybe 2006? Anyway, J.K. Simmons has this sewn up, I think. So how about that?

His performance in Whiplash was really impressive. He's a great character and supporting actor, and to see him get to play such an important role and really strut his stuff was cool. Up against him, we have Ethan Hawke, who, like Patricia Arquette, is getting nominated for sheer tenacity; Mark Ruffalo for the doomed David Schultz; Edward Norton playing a method actor; and Robert Duvall for The Judge. I was expecting that to be a comedy, from the trailers and posters, and was surprised to find it was a much more dramatic movie (and hard to watch for me because movies about dads declining in health is a tough subject).

I think we can safely discount Ruffalo and Hawke; their performances were good (better than Common or Henry Sanders in Selma?), but they didn't have the depth or meat to upstage Simmons. I guess Duvall or Norton could pull an upset here, but Duvall is a seven-time nominee, one-time winner (for Tender Mercies, which I'd never even heard of). So is this year his "yeah, he might be dead soon" year? I doubt it.

My choice & prediction: J. K. Simmons

Best Supporting Actress: And, of course, rather than anyone from Selma, we get Meryl frickin' Streep, again. Look, I'm impressed with her in Into the Woods; it was a demanding role physically and she did her own songs, blah blah. But I'm kinda over her, and I seriously doubt this is going to be her year (again). I think Laura Dern wasn't in enough of Wild to win it, charming though she was, and I think that Kiera Knightley was too much of an afterthought in Imitation Game. I really like Emma Stone, and I thought she was great in Birdman; that was a role she could have really chewed scenery with, but there were scenes that she packed a lot of history into a couple of expressions. But I think she's too young, and that the Academy is going to take this opportunity to reward Boyhood by giving Patricia Arquette the Oscar.

My choice: Emma Stone
My prediction: Patricia Arquette

Best Animated Feature: Again, I'm missing a movie, here. Song of the Sea didn't open anywhere near me and we couldn't get a totally legal not-a-screener, so I missed it. It's not going to beat Big Hero 6 anyway.

So, what've got? Big Hero 6 is a Disney property, it's a superhero film which are, like Hansel, so hot right now, and it's the biggest box office on the nomination list, so I suspect it'll probably win. How to Train Your Dragon 2 was good, but it opened a while ago and I think it might drag a little. Speaking of that, The Tale of Princess Kaguya was interesting, but I don't know how well American audiences are going to grok it, plus it's really long and a woman breastfeeds OMG. (This is me having a low opinion of the MPAA voters.)

And then there's the fucking Boxtrolls. This movie was nominated because it's stop-motion and the craft that goes into it is astounding. But it's not that good of a movie. Never mind accusations of transphobia; there's a discussion to be had there, for sure, and some of it is pretty uncomfortable. But the movie drags, the story is weak, and the whole premise is just odd in a not especially good way. I'm annoyed that this one was nominated over LEGO Movie.

My choice and prediction: Big Hero 6

Best Director: Four of five movies are Best Picture nominees, which probably means that Bennett Miller ain't wining for Foxcatcher. I also don't think that Morten Tyldum (who?) is taking it for Imitation Game, nor do I think that Wes Anderson is going to win it, and I'm fine with that (he just makes the same movie over and over again, and while I like Grand Budapest Hotel better than his other movies, he's still just doing the same thing he always has). Everything I'm reading has this race between Alejandro Inarritu (pardon my lack of accent marks) for Birdman and Richard Linklater for Boyhood.

So, both movies show an amazing amount of craft. Birdman is shot as though it's, like, two hugely long shots, and while it isn't really, the shots were really long and the movie is impressive and ambitious. But talk about long shots - Boyhood was filmed over 12 years, and that took balls. Any of the actors involved could have fucked off to Timbuktu or died in a car wreck, and Linklater managed to keep it together. I like Birdman better, but I think this race might go to Linklater and I'm OK with that, too.

Oh, I should say, I'm OK with that because Ava DuVernay was fucking robbed.

My choice: Alejandro Inarritu
My prediction: Richard Linklater

Best Visual Effects: Ah, now we're in my wheelhouse! At least, here's where the genre films go, since there are none of them nominated for Best Picture this year (bleah). We've got three superhero films (Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Guardians of the Galaxy, and X-Men: Days of Future Past), plus Interstellar and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. All were impressive; I don't think Apes is winning it just because it's kinda what we saw with Rise of the Planet of the Apes on a bigger scale, but I don't know, the motion capture might impress people. I think, honestly, that Interstellar might take it because the movie really had a shot at some other awards, didn't get them, and this might be a way to recognize it (and it really was a technically impressive movie).

I waffle; I think that the three superhero movies didn't really do anything that other genre films haven't done before, but of the three, from an effects standpoint, I gotta go with X-Men. Better, visually, than Interstellar, though?

My choice & prediction: Interstellar

Best Adapted Screenplay: Christ, here we've got American Sniper, adapted from all the bullshit in Kyle's book to bullshit on the screen overseen by his widow. The movie didn't even show his death, which is, y'know, a pretty important detail, and as other folks have pointed out, everyone's fine with show him shooting kids and women in "battle," but god forbid we should actually attempt any introspection (the phrase "live by the sword, die by the sword" kinda comes to mind). I'll be really fucked off if this wins.

The other I gotta say, the one where the script really jumps out at me was Inherent Vice, but I'm a sucker for noir-is detective stories. I liked Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything well enough. The latter at least wasn't just a biopic; it focused on the time period and the work they were doing as much as anything. Whiplash is the other nominee, but I think that Sniper will probably beat it, because "patriotism."

My choice: Inherent Vice
My prediction: American Sniper

Best Original Screenplay: I like this category. This tends to be where the weird stuff comes out, and lo and behold, we have another violent, noir-ish movie in Nightcrawler. I would have been happy to see Jake Gyllenhaal get the nomination over Bradley Cooper (but happier to see David Oyelowo get it), but I'm happy to see it here. It's creepy and moody and ugly, and I'm happy to see that instead of the treacle that gets into Best Picture sometimes. Of course it isn't going to win, because the other four are Best Picture noms. I don't think Foxcatcher (which...wait, was that not based on Mark Schultz' memoir?) or Boyhood (which was kind of rambly, script-wise) are taking it. I think it'll be between Grand Budapest and Birdman, and I think, again, that it'll go to Birdman rather than Anderson's usual "highly convoluted everybody speaks in deadpan" thing.

My choice & prediction: Birdman

Best Picture: Welp.

First of all, I'm annoyed there are no genre films. I mean, I couldn't expect Guardians of the Galaxy to get anything, but why not Interstellar? Why not Snowpiercer? There are more Best Pic nom slots, and the past few years, they've used them.

Ah, well.

Whiplash isn't winning. It's cool that it was nominated and all, but it doesn't have the juice or the resonance with the academy. Same thing with Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything. If we're having biopics, it's nice to have them about scientists, rather than soldiers...oh, wait.

Likewise, Grand Budapest Hotel isn't taking it. It's very pretty and the story is compelling, the characters are distinct. Sure, it's an Anderson film, which means the acting is very deadpan and passionless, and no one ever laughs. I don't think it's going to win.

I don't think American Sniper will take it. I bet it'll get some votes, but I think it'll get shut out by Boyhood and Birdman (both more ambitious, neither feature fucking rubber babies - seriously, what a shitty, amateurish thing to do, and kudos to Sienna Miller for nursing the rubber baby). And deservedly so - the story is simplistic to the point of being insulting, plays merry hell with history in a way that is actively damaging to the country. Anyway, I won't rant. Just fuck this movie.

As much as it pains me, I don't think Selma will win. I think it should. I think it should have gotten more recognition than it did, and I think that we are in the middle of a struggle very much like the one depicted. I mean, think about it - we've got cops murdering black men, only it's being broadcast and shown and there's very little ambiguity and they're still not facing any repercussion. So yeah, I think this movie was probably the one with the most resonance and importance, and I don't think it'll win. I also think that if by some weird chance it does win, I'll have to deal with a bunch of assholes going "oh, it only won because it's about black people," but seriously, it doesn't have a white savior, and that, I think, is why it's not winning. The mostly white Academy feels uncomfortable with the fact that when white people actually do try to do something progressive, they get shot, not lauded, but mostly they just act like assholes.

I think, again, it's between Birdman and Boyhood. And the same questions arise: Is Boyhood too much of a gimmick? Is Birdman too much of a "fuck you" to Hollywood, or just too weird in general? Going by the Academy's track record, I'm thinking it could go either way, but I think I'll go with Birdman.

My choice: Selma
My prediction: Birdman