Victoria Jelinek


Oscars 2014

academy-awards-filmstrip-logoI was told when I worked at a talent and literary agency in Hollywood many years ago that the formation of the Oscar awards was a cynical endeavor. The legend went that there had been a rash of sordid incidents in Hollywood in the 1920’s involving starlets and wannabes who came to Los Angeles from all over the US, and so the Oscars were set up by the big bosses of the day as a way to create a nobler image of Hollywood and garner some good press. I’m not sure this tale is true, but I don’t dismiss its possibility outright. What is certainly true is that because of the prestige and positive exposure of the Academy Awards, studios spend millions of dollars and hire publicists to promote their films during “the Oscar season.” This practice has generated accusations that the Oscars are influenced more by marketing, than by quality. In 2009, William Friedkin, himself an Academy Award winning film director and former producer of the ceremony, described the Oscars as, “the greatest promotion scheme that any industry ever devised for itself.”

Despite its potentially disreputable origins and many criticisms of the event, the Oscars are still a grandiose affair I love. Speaking of grand, I’m going to make my predictions about the Best Picture category, and then wait with bated breath to see if I’m correct. I think that the Oscar will go to 12 Years a Slave or The Wolf of Wall Street. My reasoning is that the Academy will not award Steve McQueen Best Director, given his age and his competition in this category, and unless they award Chiwetel Ejiofor Best Actor, they will not want to appear racist by overlooking this film in the major categories (racism is still a hot subject in the US). Moreover, Brad Pitt’s production company produced it, and there have been some bad press and disappointed expectations regarding his costly movie World War Z, so the industry might want to generate some positive feelings. If it is, indeed, 12 Years a Slave, a movie I found beautiful to look at, but too didactic and self-conscious, it won’t be the first time nepotism and guilt won the day (I remember sitting open mouthed when Shakespeare in Love won Best Picture in 1999). If it’s The Wolf of Wall Street, then it will be in an effort at atonement for the fact that Scorsese has never won the Best Picture award, despite his films Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas. Best Director, yes, but never Best Picture. Moreover, Leonardo di Caprio has never won an Oscar, so he may get the Best Actor win, but if he doesn’t, there could be the desire to create a balance with the Best Picture. Don’t get me wrong, I loved The Wolf of Wall Street, but I don’t think it deserves Best Picture. I can live with this win, however.

I’ll be gutted if American Hustle wins. Talk about nepotism and a popularity contest. Writer/Director David O’Russell has delivered fine films, such as The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook, but this isn’t as good as it’s touted to be. Sure, the actors are charismatic and capable, the production design is entertaining, the soundtrack is nostalgic, and there are fun costumes, as well as a lot of time devoted to amusing hairstyles, but there’s little point or suspense to this film.

I’ll also be upset if Philomena wins either Best Picture or Best Adapted Screenplay. Sure, it’s harrowing subject matter (see my thoughts on 12 Years a Slave and the appearance of being sympathetic), the acting is brilliant, the humor is good, but this shouldn’t be confused with the Best Picture or the Best Adapted Screenplay. The Former ‘cause there are more comprehensively great films this year in the category. The second, for the same reason, and because there is a storyline introduced and dropped rather clumsily that should eliminate it from this honor: the scene is the one in which Philomena and Martin meet her son’s adopted sister, who came with him from the convent. Mary (Mare Cunningham) states they did not have a happy childhood, and suggests cruelty on the part of their adopted father, but this is not developed. She claims that Philomena’s son never mentioned or considered their origin, Ireland, or his biological mother, a fact that is later completely discredited. I was left with many questions about Mary’s motives for lying, and the inclusion of this scene in the film, and believe that without developing these provocative storylines introduced here (which the film did not) this scene should have been cut. Its insertion niggled me, and I suspect its inclusion is a clumsy attempt to create a sense of ‘jeopardy” before the third act. But I digress.

Captain Phillips was suspenseful and well shot, but not the Best Picture in my opinion. Nor is Her. Relevant, and a great concept, but not the Best Picture. And I think that despite Spike Jonze’s contacts and cult status in the biz, even the Academy won’t give this film the win. Gravity is beautiful and has lofty existential themes that I find incredibly interesting, but if this wins it will be because the Academy doesn’t want to seem as though it didn’t get it. It’s more likely Alfonso Cuaron will get Best Directing (though I hope Alexander Payne gets it). I’ll be happily surprised if either Dallas Buyer’s Club or Nebraska wins Best Picture (though, as mentioned, I’m fine with the atonement and ‘career honor’ motivations prompting Scorsese’s film to win). If neither Dallas Buyers Club nor Nebraska win the Best Picture, then I hope to god that they win Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Original Screenplay, respectively – they deserve it (see my notes on Philomena), or that one of them gets the Best Actor win.

It would be too lengthy a piece to cover the race for Best Actor and Best Actress, or Best Supporting Actor and Actress. Suffice it to say that the competition is thick (please let it be Matthew McConaughey or Bruce Dern! Please let it be Judi Dench or Cate Blanchett!) But, again, it’s worth remembering that members of the Academy choose the winners – these are fallible folks who work, or have worked, in the industry of movies.  Similar to the rest of the big honors, the acting prizes have been criticized for not recognizing superior performances so much as being given for personal popularity, sentimental reasons, atonement for past mistakes, or as a “career honor” in order to recognize a distinguished nominee’s entire cannon of work…watch it all with a grain of salt, and enjoy the fete.

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12 Years a Slave

12-Years-a-Slave-Movie-PosterCirca 1841. Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a free black man living with his family in Saratoga N.Y., earning his living as a violinist. He is lured to Washington DC by two entertainers promising work. After a night of drinking with them, Northup wakes up in chains and is sold into slavery. Following Solomon’s kidnapping, he’s owned by different plantation owners. The first offers him some responsibility, some kindness, and a violin, and consequently might be the most brutal of Northrup’s owners. It is Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), however, who is the most colorfully cruel. Fassbender introduces Epps as a sadistic drunk, but he becomes a more complex character as the tense relationship with his wife (Sarah Paulson) and his self-loathing are revealed and manifested in his obsessive affection for a young slave girl.

12 Years a Slave is an absorbing film – intelligent and starkly severe. In line with director Steve McQueen’s background as a fine artist, it is also beautiful. Practically every shot could be a still photograph or a painting. There is gorgeous metaphorical imagery in contrast with the violent and physical reality for the slaves. And, as is evidenced in his previous films, McQueen does not shy from human physicality, with scenes, here, of beating, lovemaking, and working, which are visceral, humiliating, and horrifying. This adaptation could have been a feel-good film, a survivor-who-beats-the-odds sort-of-thing, but it’s not, which is appreciated. From the ‘get-go’ this film is despair incarnate that does not make you feel like crying by its conclusion, but, rather, leaves you stupefied.

This is not a common evocation today. I applaud McQueen’s effort, and I value the skill of his refined and remote approach while dealing with potentially incendiary subject matter. But it is for the same reasons that 12 Years a Slave is being heralded as a masterpiece – its ‘objective’ gaze, its aesthetic, its treatment of the subject matter- that I have issue with…the film feels self-conscious, contrived, and didactic. What feels fresh and authentic about this film is its cast: the hero, Chiwetel Ejiofor, his tormentor, Michael Fassbender, the cruel wife, Sarah Paulson, the hideous slave broker, Paul Giamatti, and even Brad Pitt’s Canadian abolitionist (though I swear he begins the scenes he’s in with a southern U.S. accent and ends with a northern one).



Shame

Professional Brandon (Michael Fassbender) lives in New York City and thinks he’s a normal guy with a robust sexual appetite. We see Brandon full of bravado at the beginning of the film, seeking out sexual encounters everywhere and with everyone. However, when his fragile and damaged sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) arrives unexpectedly for a long stay, he realizes he might have a problem and the façade of his life begins to fall away.

While it’s understood from reviews, taglines, and marketing copy that “Shame” is about the difficult subject of sex addiction, I felt as though I struggled to fill in the themes and a story: is it about the emotional cost (shame) of conforming or not conforming to ‘normalcy’? Certainly I left the cinema feeling sad, lonely and bleak, but did I look for hidden meaning and symbolism that wasn’t there? Other than hurt looks, some non-sequiteur conversations, and some sordid scenes, there was no real story or new insight. Brandon is uncomfortable, at moments tender, and sometimes seemingly remorseful with his sister, but why? She’s first introduced to us taking a shower, he walks in on her, and she continues to let him see her standing there naked – even seems to invite it; at another moment he’s wrestling with her with a towel around him that falls. Did she pin her hopes of sexual understanding, and he his, on each other? Is this the basis for his sexual proclivity? We’re meant to imagine the worst but other than a suggestion by Sissy that they ‘come from a bad place,’ this is never explored or explained – was there incest between them or within their family? Certainly in life story lines and characters aren’t always well-developed or resolved, but this is cinema, sure, cinema verging on an attempt at cinema verite, but it felt very much like a glossy student film, preoccupied with its own agenda rather than any desire to reach anyone else. Perhaps this is the point, that we wrestle with concepts introduced in this film, sans more information, going out feeling unsatisfied, and feeling the self-absorption and isolation that arguably reflects our modern world….

This is director Steve McQueen’s second film, and like his first, the IRA hunger strike drama about Bobby Sands aptly called “Hunger,” it is visually interesting, well-acted and promotes conversation. That said, I felt the same as a fellow filmgoer in front of me who said on his way out of the cinema to his friend “Well, I’ll never get that two hours back.”



A Dangerous Method

The plot is described as “a look at the intense relationship between Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud that gives birth to psychoanalysis.” Okay, sounds a bit stuffy, but I studied psychology a bit and heavily relied on Freud’s social insights to write my dissertation, so it sounded intriguing to me. Add Director David Cronenberg (The Fly, Naked Lunch, A History of Violence) and sexy Viggo Mortensen and I’m sold. Going into the cinema I was skeptical about Keira Knightley’s role, but assuaged my worry by telling myself that she’d play a minor character, maybe even just a cameo, and that her name was simply attached to sell the movie.

The plot is not about Jung and Freud. There are minor elements of their relationship as it pertains to psychoanalysis, but they are secondary at best. The focus is primarily on the relationship between Jung (Michael Fassbender) and his patient, played by Keira Knightly, who overacts here to such a degree that it’s painful to watch and who is unfortunately in practically every single frame looking like a palsy victim (and I don’t wish to offend palsy victims by saying this). There is no chemistry between these ‘star- crossed’ lovers, either, despite some manufactured ‘erotic’ scenes. Even Viggo as Freud was dull, a disappointment. That said, no actor could save such a contrived script that is essential boring cliches and little action. But I save my greatest scorn for Cronenberg; I have loved his work in the past and it was his name that drew me to the cinema; but his signature ‘darkness’ (echoing Freud’s theories of the dark and sinister within all of us in society) was false here; there is no sense of direction, as scenes felt meandering and random; and the whole film seems to be lost in costumes and props.

Awful. Surprising, given the talent involved.  I’m wondering, too, who is this film for?  It’s ridiculously basic, as though written for folks who have never heard of Freud or Jung, reminiscent of a lecture at school given by a bored teacher.  It’s got a saleable actress who’s not known for being a great talent, suggesting a bid for commercial success, but the subject matter and the fact it’s a period piece is not likely ever to sell to a general population–which is not to imply that it’s  because it’s too heady or intellectual.  Screenwriter Christopher Hampton (Atonement, Dangerous Liaisons, and The
Quiet American) should have watched Fight Club and examined how psychoanalysis can be brought to the screen with subtlety and force.
As for Cronnenberg, I forgive him–in any canon of great work, there is bound to be a stinker.