Oscars 2014: A film odyssey

It’s a wrap: my month of trying to cram in all 42 Oscar-nominated feature films and 15 shorts before the awards ceremony.

For the third straight year, I humbly concede defeat. My tally stands at a paltry 31 features and 15 shorts.

I ended quite appropriately at around 4 p.m. on Oscars day with “The Book Thief” (up for Music-soundtrack).

And isn’t that what movies are? Little book thieves? The fear, anyway, is that watching too many movies might turn our heads to mush and make us forget about reading. Although more often than not, the movies are based on books that, typically, if you’ve read them, are FAR superior to the movies.

Har-har-har. I laugh when people compare these two vastly different art forms. “It didn’t do justice to the book.” IT CAN NEVER BE THE BOOK. It’s the movie!!

1384359757000-BOOK-THIEF-MOV-JY-1658-59704130Still, ending with this Nazi-era tear-jerker, in which we watch Hitler youths’ faces redden reflected against a bonfire of crisping, curling books — “intellectual dirt,” they called it — was more than fitting. Far from a perfect adaptation of what I’m told is a magnificent read, it certainly didn’t suck.

photos-seats1Besides, it brought me back to the Arlington Cinema ‘N’ Drafthouse, a venue I had boycotted for more than 15 years because it lacked clearly designated parking and was prime hunting grounds for enterprising, likely unlicensed tow truck companies. The week we bought our 1998 VCR-loaded, Nintendo-ready flashy green-gold Dodge Caravan LX, we went to see a movie there and it was towed lickety-split and held hostage for $150. We blamed the theater at the time because we figured someone must be getting a kickback.

78c44eed-e13e-4139-bafc-6339dd853239Well, our car and the theater survived, and today I was reminded what a cool place it is. Movies are just $6.50 (cash only, be forewarned), and it’s not just beer and pizza on the menu —  I had a pretty decent spinach-walnut salad with raspberry vinaigrette, and their drink menu is entertaining in itself, featuring specialties like the Pulp Fiction (grape vodka, creme de cassis, Sprite and Blue Curacao), Pirates of the Caribbean (Malibu rum, pineapple and orange juices, Grenadine and cherry) and the Big Lebowski “The Dude Abides” (vodka, Kahlua and cream).

As has been typical on this month of crisscrossing the metro area, I made a couple of quick friends, other movie mavens who see the season as a sort of March Movie Madness (technically, February Madness). It’s not about the endgame, it’s about the odyssey.

My record stands at seeing 74% of all the movies nominated in every category, because you can’t predict winners with any authority if you haven’t see all the contenders. And the distributors, the weather, the theaters, plus life in general put plenty of obstacles in my way, which added to the drama. (Ask my husband about the morning I was rushing to see a 10:20 a.m. matinee before work, spilled coffee on my GPS, then discovered GPSes don’t like that and won’t work, so I went the wrong way and missed the showtime, including the 15 minutes of previews and had to abort the mission.)

That was “Frozen,” the animated feature I am sure will win tonight. I can’t fully say, because I didn’t see “Ernest & Celestine”— scratch that, couldn’t — because it isn’t yet available in the States. A dirty, dirty trick played by the Academy, handicapping all of us Oscar marathoners.

There were a few other titles like that, such as the foreign film nominee “The Missing Picture” (Cambodia), which doesn’t come out until March 19.

What other pictures am I missing? I’ll give you the Big Picture. Some of these 11 flicks I spent the month chasing, but somehow never managed to be in the right place at the right time. Others I simply didn’t care enough about to rearrange my world for. The latter category includes this first one (horrors!):

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. Unfortunately, by not seeing this behemoth, it rules out THREE categories for me to safely judge: Sound Editing, Sound Mixing and Visual Effects. I wanna say “All Is Lost” for Sound Editing, “Lone Survivor” for Sound Mixing and “Gravity” for Visual Effects, but I cannot, not in good conscience.

Star Trek: Into Darkness & Iron Man 3. These two titles I wouldn’t have minded at all seeing, but because they weren’t easily available and I wasn’t gonna see “The Hobbit,” anyway, I didn’t bother. That leaves me only having seen two of the Visual Effects contenders: “Gravity” and “The Lone Ranger.” But no matter, “Gravity” will win.

Before Midnight. This omission makes me saddest of all, because the writing categories are among my favorites. It is available on Blu-ray, but I refuse, refuse, refuse to hoard any more movies. Technology will make them all refuse (clever!). Something I learned this year: Any sequel up for a screenplay award is automatically entered into the Adapted category, even though it’s as original as sliced bread. The Academy considers it based on the movie(s) that came before it.

The Great Gatsby. No great loss, I’m told. Except by not seeing it, I can’t vouch for the two categories it is nominated for: Costume Design and Production Design.

The Invisible Woman. I’m not a fan of period pieces, and because “Gatsby” was handicapping me, I decided not to spring for the rare chances I had to see this. I hate the Costume Design category, anyway. I have no clue. But I’m rooting for “American Hustle.”

Ernest & Celestine. Already covered, but I kept calling it “Ernestine & Celeste” in my mind. That’s what you get, zero name recognition!

The Wind Rises. This came out only last week. Shame on you, Oscar! Not only was I handicapped, it was handicapped.

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. I wanted to see this, nominated for the U2 song. But WHERE was it? Couldn’t they have brought it back when Mandela died? Somebody missed their opportunity.

The Great Beauty. Up for foreign film, it looked like the Italian version of “The Wolf of Wall Street.” But I’m pulling for “Omar,” that haunting Palestinian film of betrayal and freedom-fighting youth set in the West Bank. If it wins, people can stop with the Jewish-Hollywood jokes, OK? Hollywood will have proved itself totally inclusive. (UPDATE: It didn’t win. On with the jokes.)

The Missing Picture. The missing commentary.

There you have it. My missing pictures. Everything else mentioned tonight I saw. I still have to pick/write about four more categories, but I’m starting to think I’ll blow my deadline. You’ll trust me if it’s not on record, right?

So enjoy the show tonight … and even though I’m not Catholic, I think I’m giving up films for Lent.

Oscar picks: Cinematography

The nominees:

The Grandmaster (Philippe Le Sound). How do you translate Terrence Malick into Chinese? Bingo. Every shot here is painstakingly precious — the super-slow-mo kung fu gang warfare in a downpour is an explosive but choppy opening.  Impressive that the cameras didn’t get waterlogged. This movie does play like an epic poem.  Eventually, though, the effort to make every frame a piece of framable art (or velvet painting, in some cases) gets cumbersome. Cinematography should be the medium, not the entire masterpiece. Solly, Chalrie, too indulgent for my tastes. The trailer deceives you into thinking there is more story there — the movie feels more like a brochure for a martial arts school than a history lesson. Could it be the language barrier?

Gravity (Emmanuel Lubezki). Contrast the choppy opening of The Grandmaster with Lubezki’s 12- to 20-minute continuous opening shot (depending on your source). OK, now that’s just showing off. Academy voters are likely to vote for this because the vista of space tickles their fancies — even though it was all done with wires and “mirrors,” i.e. the Light Box that I’m sure you’ve read about. Great invention, this 3-D projection chamber with 4,096 programmable twinkly lights.  I simply can’t vote for robotic cameras and puppetry in this category. For visual effects, sure, hands-down, it wins the Oscar, but give me humans operating a camera any day.

Inside Llewyn Davis  (Bruno Delbonnel).  Now we’re talking cinematography. Delbonnel did Amélie — he has a magic touch. This movie was like a painting, so lyrical … mostly blue hues, with spots of brown marking Llewyn and the cat, little splashes of red opportunities and life flashing by. It’s the kind of film you can watch with the sound off and it will still hold your interest. The cinematography supplies half of its character. Perfection.

Nebraska (Phedon Papamichael).  I’m really torn between the previous nominee and this one, a rare black-and-white entry. Papamichael also shot 2011’s The Descendants — he’s a master at narrative photography. And that’s what he calls it, “photography,” so in that respect I feel the images were a bit static. Sometimes I got the sense I was looking at a storyboard not a finished film. But the black-and-white wasn’t flat at all —it somehow helped bring the bleakness of these folks’ lives to life.  There was one shot that made me disgruntled, though —one weird rack focus moment in which Will Forte and Bruce Dern switch places in their vehicle, and the camera lens changes shape then rights itself — I tsk-tsked that, was it intentional? Made me dizzy. But overall this is a true contender. Stacy Keach! That was Stacy Keach. At 72,  he’s only five years younger than Bruce Dern, but man, he looked 20 years younger.

Prisoners (Roger A. Deakins). I may be the only one who saw this movie showcasing Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano, Melissa Leo and Viola Davis. I know, right? The cinematography was so suspenseful it pulsated like a horror movie, even though it’s your basic twisty crime detective story —expertly crafted.  Sadly, because no one saw it, it can’t possibly win.

My prediction: “Gravity”

My pick: “Nebraska”

(Ultimately, because these are American awards, Nebraska should win over the foreign-feeling Inside Llewyn Davis — also probably too many words in the title for folks to remember, as this is The Year of One-Word Titles. Nebraska is like an American Gothic, or Wizard of Oz without the color fantasy section … but I wouldn’t be sad if Inside Llewyn Davis took home an Oscar.)

Oscar picks: Documentaries

What every documentary filmmaker is born knowing; Real life can be stranger than fiction — and 50 times more horrific, dramatic, tear-jerking, whatever you’re going for in the storytelling. Above all, documentaries can incite a typically passive moviegoer to outrage and action.

Michael Moore, on Oscar night.

Michael Moore, cleans up well for the 2003 Academy Awards. His Oscar-winning “Bowling for Columbine” is a timeless treatise on gun violence.

IMHO, it took Michael Moore, a master documentary maker, to raise the genre to an art form, combining all of the above, plus humor. He also inserts himself into his movies — analogous to a first-person-column approach in a newspaper. Not that documentaries ever aimed to be objective; their hallmark is advancing an agenda, from awareness to anarchy. So judging them on artistic vs. sociopolitical merit can be tricky.

What Moore does is mix the flavor of 60 Minutes and Mission: Impossible into an awesome sauce of smart sass. Maybe the theory is: to get more people to watch documentaries, you must inject them with more mainstream movie technique.

Frankly, I’m seeing the lines blurring both ways. Best Picture nominees are becoming more docudrama-esque. Most of this year’s pool are based on “true stories”(American Hustle is about Abscam; 12 Years a Slave, Captain Phillips, Dallas Buyers Club, Philomena and The Wolf of Wall Street are all derived from memoirs) — history vs. “story” story. Of the remaining three, two are fantastical cautionary tales (Gravity and Her, both sci-fi nightmares that advance only slightly today’s horrors of technology and artificial intelligence to navel-gazing effect). The lone Nebraska is novel in its novel approach. But more on BestPicNoms in a future post.

Even when you’re up on the news and know the story inside and out, the structure of documentaries is delightfully unpredictable, compared with your typical blockbuster. And it’s nearly impossible to correctly guess which one will take home the Oscar.

So here’s a hand. I’ve seen all five of this year’s crackerjack crop of nominees. They are so good, I hesitate to present summaries lest you decide you don’t need to see them.

You need to see these. They will make you smarter.

Four are available for live-streaming on Netflix, with the fifth, 20 Feet From Stardom, coming at a higher premium on Amazon ($3.99 for Amazon Prime members).

The nominees, in alphanumerical order:

20 Feet From Stardom

This slick, music-soaked testament charts the careers of backing vocalists, specifically the black women who supported the careers of artists such as Lou Reed (“… and the colored girls sing doo-doo-doo-doo-doo-doo-doo …), The Talking Heads, Stevie Wonder, Joe Cocker, David Bowie, The Rolling Stones, Michael Jackson, Steely Dan, Elton John, Luther Vandross (the latter two got their starts as backing vocalists, didjaknow?; we learn that Vandross backed Bowie on his soulful hit “Young Americans”). Specifically, we meet Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Judith Hill and Tata Vega — if their names ring any bells and, really, they should — that’s the point. It explores why some people “make it” and others never will. A handful are brought back for a reunion recording session.

Note: This is the ONLY nominee that doesn’t depend on subtitles. For that reason, and the star power behind it (Bruce Springsteen kinda narrates), I’m thinking it appeals most to Hollywood and will win.

The Act of Killing

Based on synopsis alone, this one may garner Academy votes. It’s got a great gimmick. The filmmakers found former executioners who spent 1965-66 helping to purge a million “Commies” in Indonesia — thousands at their hands alone. They interview the killers (self-dubbed “gangsters”) in present day, taking them back to the scene of their war crimes and inviting them to tell their stories by re-enacting the brutal slayings. It plays out as a twisted form of therapy for some of them, but void of justice.  As documentaries go, it is too contrived, rambling and poorly edited, for my tastes. If you want to skip one, this is at the bottom of my heap. Which is why I fear it may win.

NOTE: So far, these first two are what I call “hindsight” documentaries. They rely on vintage footage and modern interviews and reunions to make the meat of the movie. The following three all required more “vision” on the part of the filmmakers to capture the story as it unfolded. That quality raises a documentary in my estimation.

Cutie and the Boxer

This is an art-for-art’s-sake film in the vein of Inocente, which won the Oscar for documentary short in 2013. That film followed a homeless Hispanic teenage artist’s journey to being celebrated at her own art show — while gaining self-esteem and independence along the way. “Cutie” refers to the doppelganger of Japanese artist Noriko Shinohara (more like a graphic cartoonist) who came to America at age 19 to pursue her career but got sidetracked after she met and married her mentor, Ushio “Gyu-chan” Shinohara, a Japanese Neo-Dadaist who famously creates paintings by boxing at the canvas. This film is the couple’s reality show, showing their humble suffering while living for art, the warts of marriage and alcoholism (they are separated in age by 22 years and The Boxer is turning 80 as the film starts). It also focuses on their chasm of recognition and satisfaction, as they journey toward their first husband-wife gallery show in hardscrabble NYC. It is Noriko’s story of finding her voice and independence (“I am woman, hear me ROAR”), so for that reason Academy voters, always swayed by feminist themes, may vote for it.

Dirty Wars

Fearless investigative reporter Jeremy Scahill (The Nation) should not only win the Academy Award for this exposé of the repercussions of America’s “War on Terror,” he should win a medal. Using spooky, artsy night-vision effects, gritty black-and-white-and-blue-and-green hues, he follows the country’s collective dawning that a Joint Special Operations Command even exists — a force nicknamed the “American Taliban,” which seems impervious to fact-finding or flak and was ultimately outed with the killing of Osama bin Laden. As one observer puts it: A potent “hammer searching for a nail.” Scahill is the star of the film, with Art-of-War-Zen-like narration, but also in the model of Michael Moore. It is mind-blowingly shot, tautly edited, expansive and gripping. It may also dent your American pride a bit while opening your eyes to why the rest of the world hates us so much.
A MUST-SEE.

The Square

This film serves as your Cliffs notes for the Arab Spring, tracking revolutionaries during the uprising in Egypt’s Tahrir Square from repression under Mubarak to his overthrow to the election of Morsi to repression under him to his overthrow and Egypt’s uncertain future. One young instigator I particularly fell in love with was Ahmed Hassan, an articulate and charismatic kid; another, Magdy, is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. And they’re tight friends! Folk singer Ramy Essam’s storyline is particularly wrenching, and the main guy, Khalid Abdallah, is actually Scottish and movie-star-handsome. And there are women featured, too. If the image in your mind when you think of these Cairo demonstrations is macho heathens or the shocking assault on CBS reporter Lara Logan, this movie will change your mind about these masses who are together more enlightened than the bulk of Americans seem to be. Against the backdrop of Dirty Wars, this movie makes Egyptians the most heroic tribe on Earth. But it won’t win, because it is too much like the documentaries shown in school. Still, it could win due to the uprising of Netflix, for which it was produced.

To wrap up:

My prediction: 20 Feet From Stardom

My pick: Dirty Wars

5 ways poetry doth rock

Clostridium-difficile_456pxA friend this week shared a poem as her Facebook status, resolved that 2014 would be the Year of Viral Poetry. The game went: “Like” it and she would assign you a poet. Thus tagged, you must plunge into this master’s work, like unstopping a brain clog — getting down and dirty, because contemporary poetry has fewer rules than the augured couplets of ninth-grade Honors English. Next, share your wonder by pasting in a poem as your status. So non-status-quo!

Then, as others glom onto you with “Like” petals, you’ll divine, assign, entwine, and this rivulet of streaming consciousness become a swollen wave to displace the dreariness of insipid trumpery.

That was the plan.

c-diff-photo-300x225.jpgSo I dove, cannonballed, belly-flopped into the source material, hoping to dislodge a pearl from the sandy, stingy depths of complacency. But that poem seemed just words randomized, a word cloud, a fluffed pillow of broken dreams, alphabet soup. This poem didn’t speak to me. Another poem sabotaged itself with quirk. The famous series — mere postcards to a celebrity. I rifled, like a picky eater with a shellfish allergy, through the digital poem links, downloaded mp3’d poems, YouTubed and buzz-fed for a Great Poem, one that itself might be shared exponentially. The more I typed “poem” the more it didn’t look write [sic]. A tiny voice started whining: How did she get to be an acclaimed poet? Who is she to pout and ponder? What makes these word choices arranged this way art, and others but utterances? And isn’t “WordPress” so aptly named — we’re all just slaving in a word mill of meaninglessness, churn, churn, churn.

light-virus-1I begrudgingly posted one — of course about death, too obvious — stating I didn’t really like this one, but it’s published, it must be worthy … and waited for the thunderous clap of “Likes” and my turn to pick a pack of poetic, pickled, plucking peckers. … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … Hello? … … … … … … … … … Is this thing on? … … … … … … … Turned out my friend had assigned me one of her poetry teachers, ouch, and I had probably offended everyone in the room.

Tonal2

The word cloud I created from the poem I chose to post, “Tonal,” by Julia Bloch.

‘Course I think that I’m halfway smart and thoroughly understood this poem. Then my friend analyzed the poem … and in the process psychoanalyzed me. She showed me I had been applying my editing skills, and a poem is not necessarily built to withstand the acid tests. I had been reading it wrong, trying to sniff out the person behind the pen, legitimize her, case some logic or crack some code. Worse, I had been reading just the words.

Here is what I discovered about poetry through this fanciful Facebook exercise:

1. There is no “About Me” in poetry.

What was all that we learned in school about the id, the ego and the super-ego? Well, writers have ego. Writers-editors, super-ego. But the poet knows only the id, and that’s not spelled “I-D,” as in construct a Gravatar and share a little something about yourself in three pithy sentences. The poet dissolves amid the fluid exchange of lucidity.

2. Poems have an “interiority” complex.

This goal of “going viral” with a poem? Ridiculous. It’s already viral in the smallest and largest (universal) sense of the word. It connects like a unicellular predator inside of you and eats at you and decimates your defenses. You can’t put the experience “out there.” It’s like “E.T: The Extraterrestrial,” both outlandish and “right here.” It is of creation. A fabrication of the fabric of life. So there’s little point in sharing. That would be redundant.

3. To appreciate poetry, you must reject authority.

As puzzling as a poem might be, and as clever as you think you are in unlocking its meaning, there is no answer sheet. As my friend pointed out, “Is the poet the ultimate authority of her work? I think not.” You aren’t, either, because the next time you attend to it, it may strike you differently.

4. There’s death in every poem.

Writing may bring some immortality, but an immortal poem confronts death as the life-affirming force it is. What is life but the absence of death? When we write poetry, we are, in the most reductionist sense, tangling with mortal measures — and that’s why I’m writing this at 3 a.m., praying someone will hear, or care.

5. We are all poets.

What’s really happening on Twitter, Facebook and the “Like”? A percolation of delineated and concentrated thought that congeals — like the creation of a Facebook status or that guy’s blog post, “Marriage Is Not for Me,” going viral — it was really his headline that did it. Yes, a certain twist on words, or something that connects, strums, makes inner music that others dance to. Our accidental choices mixed with nail-biting deliberations produce a form of condensed poetry, every time. We blindly follow the rules while cloyingly obliterating them. Technology is the platform for us to rise to the next stage, to one-up ourselves, but we stay above it, hovering, waiting for that next burst of creativity or clarity.

And that’s why I sat agape watching this commercial the other night, pondering: Is 2014 indeed the Year of Viral Poetry? “That the powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse.” — Walt Whitman, taking flight on an iPad Air.

Powerful play, Apple.

Oh, and jk about the “5 ways.” There are hundreds more, but I’m clearly no authority.