The King’s Speech (2010)

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“I have a voice,” he says, on behalf of suppressed royalty everywhere.

Royal history is not my strong suit.  I remember some of the big names – Elizabeth I and II, Victoria, some Henrys and Georges and what-not thrown in for good measure – but the order is a bit mixed up.  I tend to forget about the ones who didn’t have eras named after them, and quite possibly never even knew who reigned during the big wars of the twentieth century.  (How often have we heard about Winston Churchill and Neville Chamberlain; far rarer did we hear of the king’s role.)  I’ve also just spent the last twenty minutes meandering through Wikipedia’s lists of British monarchs.  Unsurprisingly, I did not end up on the page for George VI.

This film is in the genre of “moderately interesting historical story where nothing particularly unexpected happens but maybe you learn a bit more about a significant event.”  The plot is quite simple:  king meets speech therapist, king nearly fires speech therapist, king makes speech.

The speech in question is the king’s announcement of Britain’s entrance into war with Germany, live on radio to the entire nation.  Problem is, the king has had a lifelong stammer, and would have been spared the duties of the king if only his flaky brother hadn’t abdicated the throne to run off with his American divorcee girlfriend (another story I knew nothing about until suddenly Madonna made a movie about it).  Spoiler alert:  he makes the speech.

One of the things I’d hoped to better understand after watching a large number of award-winning films was the three-act structure.  I’ve read about it in various contexts, in both screenwriting and other types of stories.  However, I’ve watched movies for years without being conscious of the structure, and even after learning that it exists as a pretty standard structure, I still have trouble recognizing where those acts begin and end.

I’m not sure whether my skill has improved, but this movie’s structure seems pretty formulaic.  Of course, King Bertie first has an antagonistic relationship with his speech therapist Lionel.  Of course, they have a moment where Lionel is revealed to be not what he seemed, thereby threatening the entire relationship.  And of course, the king ends up succeeding in his important speech and sharing a creepy nod across the room with Lionel, before the latter fades mysteriously into the background, like any other Yoda-like figure.

The difficulty with films based on real events is that, even if you don’t know the particulars of the story, you have a general sense that things turned out okay.  We know coming into it that they wouldn’t have made a movie if the speech was a disaster and it somehow made Britain lose the war against Hitler.  Maybe you don’t need shocking twists to stay engaged with a movie, but then again, it’s hard to be passionate about something so bland.  It’s not a terrible movie – even fun in a few places – but neither does it affect me in any deep way.  Now, Hamilton’s King George III – that’s a king that’ll stick with you!

 

Theme:  King

First Time Watching?  No

Final Verdict:   Positively medieval

Argo (2012)

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A couple of years ago, I had the idea to watch a bunch of Oscar-winning films for the sake of a blog (sound familiar?).  My plan then was far less ambitious in many ways:  I’d just start with the most recent one and work my way back until I got bored of it.  Well, this was where I began.  (Let’s not mention how many films it took me to get bored.)  (It was five.)

Since I generally try to avoid too many plot spoilers before I watch a film (and I’m fortunate enough, even with the most popular ones, to remain largely in the dark about the most basic information about these movies), I tend to enter a film pretty blind.  Watching this the first time through, I struggled a bit to follow what actually happened.  Most of what I know about Iran, even now, comes from Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire.”

So, yeah, I knew that the Iran hostage crisis was a thing, but didn’t understand the circumstances leading up to it or how it played out.  That’s not exactly the story here – instead, it’s the story of six people who escaped the U.S. Embassy in Tehran when it was taken over by an angry mob (what they’re angry about we aren’t privileged to learn).  Seems like maybe not the best idea, wandering out into the crowd, but who am I to judge?

They take refuge at the Canadian Embassy, and since their presence is a secret, cue Ben Affleck to rescue them.  He plays a CIA agent (who in real life is Latino, but let’s not worry about that).  Also, he has a back story about wanting to be a good father or something, which somehow makes him seem even more wooden.  Is this how he acts in every movie?  I’ve seen robots with greater emotional range (Lost in Space robot, I’m looking at you).

Fortunately, he directs a better film than he stars in, with a nice late 70s effect to the film itself.  There are some interesting moments where multiple things are happening at one time – and though it’s a pretty common filmmaking tool, it was successful here in conveying a lot of information in short batches.  Suspense on the whole is well done here – who would have guessed sitting on a plane could be so fraught with tension?

On the other hand, there are definitely moments of manufactured drama.  The Pentagon has called off the mission?  Screw you, I’m doing it anyway!  (Which sounds nice in theory, but not when you need cover from people back home to carry out the plan.)  There’s an unnecessary scene featuring Affleck and a bottle of whiskey, torn by indecision(?) as he contemplates his mission.  At least, you assume this, based on the fact that practically every other movie has featured the same type of scene.

Here I am, a few years later, and apparently on track to finish something I started for once in my life.  Watching so many movies, one after another, makes you start to wonder what differentiates one from another.  I mean, what makes this a Best Picture?  I ask myself that a lot, both on and off this screen.  I keep hoping that I’ll come up with an answer.

 

Theme:  Whitewashing

First Time Watching?  Actually no.

Final Verdict:  The best bad idea we have

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014)

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Random factoid:  the first Batman actor who portrayed the Dark Knight using a distinct voice different from his Bruce Wayne counterpart was Kevin Conroy in Batman: The Animated Series (which, incidentally, was awesome).  I only mention this because of Michael Keaton.  I’m sure I saw his version of Batman back in the day, but I don’t remember anything of it to compare his portrayal.  Some have said that this is a movie about Michael Keaton seeking to transcend his Batman-ness.

When you get past the superhero costume, though, this is actually a film about art and the value of creation.  Keaton’s Riggan Thomson is trying to escape his reputation as the hero of a series of massively popular superhero films – he’s accused of being a celebrity, not a real actor – by adapting a Raymond Carver short story into a Broadway play.  Along the way, he invests everything, from money to emotional energy, into proving he’s not a hack, in defiance of that scary voice in his head that shares a striking resemblance to his alter ego, Birdman.

For some reason, I always mix up Raymond Carver with Robert Coover, who wrote “The Babysitter,” among other fractured postmoderny stories, and so I expected something a bit different from the play.  Oops.  So I’m not familiar enough with Carver’s work to see how it might shine more light on why that particular writer’s work meant something.  Riggan credits Carver with inspiring him to be an actor, in a bit of a stretched connection.  It seems like a sort of pretentious choice, designed for the sort of Broadway audience (the “rich old white people” as Riggan’s daughter describes).  It’s like he’s reaching so desperately for something literary, something that screams ART.  But is he being indulged in his vanity project, or is there some real worth to it?

I actually watched this twice in the past few months, because I’d intended to write about it earlier this year and then didn’t, and ended up forgetting the finer details.  And I think the second viewing helped me get a better grasp on it, though I still looked up online to see what the hell I was supposed to make of the ending.  I’m interested in the way this classic technique of magical realism is brought into a sort of modern, comic book context.  In a way, it’s almost the opposite of a typical superhero movie, where we take for granted that these certain people have special powers.  In Birdman, we’re left wondering whether there really is something special about this guy.  Is Birdman a part of Riggan’s unique reality, or is he just experiencing a psychotic delusion?  What are we to make of his mental state?

I love the long swooping shots, tracking characters from room to room.  It somehow expands the scope even as so much of the film takes place within the confines of this theater.  Because it’s so difficult to manage long shots, they’re rarely used in film (and I’m pretty sure there isn’t another such film that won Best Picture, because I looked for it!).  But it works well in a movie about rehearsals and acting and theater – on stage, you’ve only got the one shot to make things go the way you want them to.  As in life:  there is no dress rehearsal, so you’ve got to make the most of it.

 

Theme:  Mental Health

Diagnosis:  Hallucinations?

First Time Watching?  As long as you count it as first during 2016

Final Verdict:  Feeling relevant again

Spotlight (2015)

 

 

I waited until after the Oscars before I watched any of this year’s nominees for Best Picture. But I’m honestly glad that Spotlight won, because otherwise I never would have seen it on my own. I moved to Boston about ten years ago (yowza), a few years after the events of the film take place, but this feels like a very current story, its repercussions lingering even today. As the long blocks of text at the end of the film attest, Boston was only one of many towns where the Catholic Church covered up the actions of its priests.

 

There are very few Best Pictures that I’m aware of being set in Boston (The Departed is the only other one I know of offhand), and not many overall, which seems strange for a city with such a rich cultural history. Boston is a fitting setting for a film – of any kind, but particularly this story. It’s small, old, with a long Catholic history, with pockets of powerful and wealthy people, pockets of immigrants, pockets of poor. I really enjoyed how local the film felt, from the newspaper atmosphere – talking about the Big Dig and other Boston stories – to the familiar shots of the city through the seasons. In nearly every city scene, we see a Catholic Church looming in the background, which certainly feels accurate. It felt authentic to me in a way that some other movies or television set in Boston seem to lack. My only criticism is how rare a good Boston accent is in this film, the best one coming from one of the victims, a guy from Worcester who now struggles with addiction. Considering how actors tend to mangle a Boston accent, though, perhaps it’s for the best.

 

I can’t help but watch this in the context of our current political system, thinking about the dangers of systemic abuses, the power of the institution threatened by those wronged by it. You see the truth of the story unfold and wonder, how did this happen? Why did nobody do anything about all these cases of abuse before now? How could people stand by while members of the Church – their neighbors’ kids, maybe even their own children – were being abused? Maybe it tested their faith too much to question the authority of the Church. Maybe the Church didn’t know what to do with the abusive priests. Maybe they hoped that if they kept praying for them, they’d somehow be fixed. That’s maybe the most generous way of looking at it. I liked that some of the characters questioned their own role in not doing more – not breaking the story sooner, when they’d received tips from victims years before the Spotlight story broke.

 

I really enjoyed this movie, more than I thought I would – though enjoy is probably the wrong word. The actors were great, particularly Michael Keaton’s portrayal of the head of the Spotlight team, Walter “Robby” Robinson. Mark Ruffalo seems to show up everywhere, though I don’t mean that in a bad way. Of course, John Slattery inescapably reminds me of Roger Sterling, and I like seeing Stanley Tucci pop up in any movie. Movies of this nature tend to make everything out to be a personal crusade for the story’s heroes, and I’m glad that the tack they took with this was less histrionic. It’s a story about journalists doing their job, working as professionals, and recognizing their own failings in the course of getting the story. So often we see reporters portrayed as sort of unsavory, like weasels preying on innocent mice. For once, that’s not the case.

 

It’s worth pointing out that I’m not Catholic. Admittedly, I’m also skeptical of religious people, because though some part of me was led to believe that the more devout one is, the more generous and loving a person he or she is, I’ve rarely found that to be the case. As an adult, I know more lapsed Catholics than practicing Catholics, and though that’s perhaps reflective of the sort of company I keep, it also probably says something about an institution that doesn’t retain many of its followers in adulthood. If I’d ever had faith in such an institution, I can’t imagine I still would by the end of this movie.

 

For the better part of the decade I’ve lived in Boston, I haven’t purchased an actual physical newspaper. Though I used to read my daily hometown newspaper, I’ve never been really big on following the news, and that casual interest faded even more over the years (to be fair, the fact that when I did subscribe to the Sunday Globe, my paper often didn’t show up also contributed to me abandoning the newspaper). I’m not the only one, and I have to keep that in mind even as I lament the slow decline of the newspaper industry, and particularly of the kind of long-form journalism that allowed a story like this to come out. Investigative reporting is never profitable, but I can’t help wondering whether something is lost with that kind of in-depth work, even as the internet creates amateur investigators all over the place. Maybe there will be more movies made about the hard work of newspaper journalism, but I can’t help thinking that they’ll never again be told in the present day.

 

Theme: Priest

First Time Watching? Of course

Final Verdict: Like a good newspaper, it stands alone.

12 Years a Slave (2013)

 

A few years ago, my coworker related a funny scene from a movie she liked – I can’t remember what it was – and asked me whether I’d seen it. I answered, off-the-cuff, “Oh, I don’t watch black movies.” It sounded pretty bad, and she didn’t hesitate to call me out on it. Later, the line became a bit of a running joke between us, in those moments when the topic of race came up in conversation.

Of course, what I meant was something along the lines of “I don’t watch movies at all, really, including but not limited to comedies predominantly featuring black actors of the sort you’re describing, maybe in part because I don’t get some of the jokes.” But I suppose I also meant “I don’t watch black movies.”

What makes a black movie, anyway? Is 12 Years a Slave a black film, because it stars black actors, or was directed by a black man, or because it tells a story that is distinctly and uniquely a Black American experience? (That director, incidentally, is also British.)

Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northrup is amazing in this role. Some of the most powerful moments are those with no dialogue or action; we’re left only to contemplate the shock on Solomon’s face as he tries to recognize the reality of his situation, the absurdity of it. We linger long on his near-lynching, see the background as people gradually resume their activities in the background, not daring to approach the man dangling on the end of the rope. It’s a frightening world, with little compassion or humanity – even sometimes among the slaves, who are themselves clinging to survival however they can.

This is a difficult movie to watch. It’s heart-wrenching, and even though it kind of has a happy ending, at least in the sense that Solomon returns home, the viewer is left with a sense of nausea at the idea of all those slaves who suffered this life. Maybe the hardest thing for me to fathom was the sheer resilience that kept them alive despite the hopelessness of their life. I recall reading something recently about modern-day plantation tours, where (white) tourists often asked, “But they treated the slaves well, right?”

Well, we even get a look at that question, in the form of Benedict Cumberbatch (who is great as Sherlock, but I had no idea what to make of his accent here). BC plays Ford, Solomon’s first slaveholder, and he’s portrayed as almost benevolent. He takes Solomon’s expertise into account, and praises him for his work. You’d almost think he’s one of those kindly slaveowners. When Ford sells Solomon, he portrays himself as stuck in a system beyond his control. He has debts, he protests, and so as much as he’d like to keep Solomon, he has no choice. In the end, Solomon is still just property to discard.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the ongoing controversy around diversity in Hollywood and at the Oscars. Something in it also forces me to question my decision to focus on Oscar-winning films for a year. By choosing to watch these movies – not only, but realistically, how many movies can you watch in a year? – I am also choosing to not watch others. And if the Oscars has excluded minority artists throughout much of its history, then what else am I missing? I do still feel that it’s worthwhile to watch canonical movies, but also recognize the value of delving deeper to appreciate things outside the mainstream, which are often also outside white culture.

My last blog post drew an interesting reaction (interesting, for starters, that I got a reaction at all). Somebody reacted negatively to my critique of Dances with Wolves, or not so much the movie itself, but in context with the Oscars diversity issue. He suggested that great art will find its audience, which is a nice sentiment – but I don’t think history supports it.

Great art doesn’t exist in a vacuum, unless the cleaning crew at the gallery made a grave mistake. Art is made by people, and exists in conversation between its creator (who carries a history of his/her own experience and interpretation) and the audience it finds. Engaging with art requires asking questions of all kinds, probably starting with, “Why I am reacting to this the way I am?” You do a disservice to yourself to limit your encounters with art (of any kind – writing, fine art, music) to things that resonate with your own experience.

When watching this film, I asked myself, what audience is this meant for, and for what reaction? It’s a difficult movie to watch, filled with white characters that are loathsome. There’s a sense of distance that I feel as a white person watching these figures, who are so blatantly racist and cruel. And yet, I can’t help seeing parallels in our present day. How many of us white people are well-intentioned and yet still blind to many of the painful realities of living as a Black American today?

This post, as it turns out, isn’t really about 12 Years a Slave much at all. It’s an incredible film, and certainly worth looking at in greater detail, but I think others have probably done that better than I can do. At the same time, I don’t think it’s a disservice to the movie that I’ve spent my time discussing the context in which I’ve experienced it. Maybe I don’t watch black movies. But maybe I should try harder to do so and see what I can learn.

Theme:  Plantation

First Time Watching?  Yes

Loved it/Liked it/Hated it – Thank God Almighty We Are Free at Last

The Artist (2011)

Speaking of silent films…

What’s that? You couldn’t hear me? Well, that’s probably because you’re reading this, not because it was a silent film.

Anyway, over eighty years after the first silent Best Picture, The Artist took the prize. I remember the buzz when it came out – in fact, I even saw it in the theater, something I can mostly only say about movies that contain Harry Potter or Wolverine. (Harry Potter and the Adamantium Claws: best crossover ever?)

What’s really cool about The Artist is that it’s as much a meta-picture as anything, a celebration of and sort of winking look at the early film industry. I’m not sure why this intrigued me so much considering how little I know about the film industry (of any era). Having now seen (one, at least) silent film, and understanding a bit more of what that genre was like, I can appreciate a little better that transition. It seems so long ago, and yet, here we are in an era of so much change. Which of the new technologies in entertainment – 3D, 4D, whatever – will stand 80 years from now, and how will our current batch of movies look to those future people? What must it be like to be on the losing end of change, left behind as a dinosaur in a world of mammals?

This is maybe the first movie I’ve watched in this project (which I’ve now re-watched for at least the third time) that’s really made me think about what it means to be a “Best Picture.” The Artist is truly different from any other movie I’ve seen, even as it follows the trends and tropes of everything that’s come before it. Without the distraction of dialogue, the visuals are given a greater weight, narratively and emotionally. Water pooled on a table, fire, so many reflections. I enjoy the part where George and Peppy play out take after take of their first scene together, each redo another step towards them falling in love. But it’s another scene that really sticks with me: Peppy finds herself alone in George’s dressing room, puts her arm through his jacket sleeve, hanging on a rack at person-level, and relives the dance with her own hand substituting for his on her hip.

If that’s not enough, there’s an adorable dog who plays the role of mascot, comic relief, savior. If they could make a movie with an entire cast of dogs (and maybe a few baby goats), I would be all over that.

Perhaps a Best Picture is one that can change something inside of you, make you feel love where once beat a cold, hardened heart. I don’t consider myself a romantic, and yet, here I am, gushing over a romance film. There’s hope for all of us.

Theme:  Silent Film

First Time Watching?  Nope, saw it in the theater.

Loved it/Liked it/Hated it:  With pleasure.