Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Review of the Academy Awards Presentation

You know, yesterday I read an article about the Oscar winners from the night before.  The writer stated that she did not understand how the winners were selected, except that actors voted for actors, directors for directors, etc.  That's correct and then every member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences votes for Best Picture, no matter what their movie career entails.

I also read that the viewing audience was considerably less this year than the last few years. I have to say, I watched the entire telecast Sunday night, using the commercial breaks to hustle my shih tzus outside and back again.

And you know what? I thought except for a few highlights, it was a lackluster, boring show.  Don't get me wrong, Neil Patrick Harris was fine.  He's a talented guy, a good singer, and good with a joke.  There were plenty of beautiful people dressed in couture.  But the glamour seemed somehow shabby when compared to the glory days of Hollywood.

I am a stage actor and director.  I was taught in college the differences between film acting and stage acting.  For one thing on the stage, an actor has to sustain a character and there are no retakes.  It's either get it right the first time or blow it off and go on.  Film actors are required to emote bits of scenes, sometimes out of sequence, and only have to learn the lines a bit at a time.  Stage actors have to learn their whole part.  The best stage actors learn the entire play.

The best actors are able to seamlessly go from film to stage and back again.  People like Meryl Streep, Bradley Cooper, Helen Mirren, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Eddie Redmayne to name a few, are noted for doing just that.

I'm not complaining about any of the winners this year. To me any of the acting nominees could win, as well as any of the Best Picture nominees.

In fact, I found I was strangely unmoved by the Oscars, except for a few moments.

The moments that moved me most were the songs - "Everything is Awesome" from the Lego Movie - loved the movie and loved the production number. Lady Gaga's tribute to the Sound of Music and Julie Andrew's reaction to it when it was over, made me sniffle but not weep copious tears. Mostly the reaction was due to the knowledge it had been fifty years since the movie came out - years that I was a sapient life form who is now growing older.  Besides, my mom and dad loved that movie.

Then came the presentation of the song "Glory" from the movie Selma.  Now, that did make me cry.  No, I haven't seen the film yet because I know that's one I need to see at home.  You see, my parents and I were driving from Dallas to Jacksonville, Fl on the day the marchers tried to cross that bridge.  We were stopped by the National Guard members before we got to the bridge and told there was a problem and we would have to take an alternate route.  We glimpsed a bit of what happened...a fact which cemented my liberal political leanings for the rest of my life.  I never forgot that or the subsequent news films on TV.  I cannot watch that in a public place. I know for sure it will upset me.

The memorial segment, which usually has me in tears, didn't move me that way this year.  Instead, I was angry that Joan Rivers, long known for her Red Carpet work at the Oscars, as well as her work in films, writing, doing voices, and appearing in a film about her life and career, was completely omitted.  They included "studio marketing executives" a couple of them, but they couldn't include Joan Rivers? Get real.

All of this got me to thinking...it doesn't really matter who does or doesn't win an Oscar.  A few years from now, no one may remember or care who won at all.  A win matters to the actors who can demand bigger salaries from holding that statuette.  A winning director will be offered other projects.

Some classic films never won an Oscar and some fly-by-night films took Best Picture and disappeared into oblivion...

After all, as Neil Patrick Harris announced Sunday night, in 2014, movies made a total of $600 million dollars.  American Sniper took in $300 million, half of the total amount for the entire industry and the entire year. American Sniper took one Oscar - for sound editing.

In the end, I guess the Academy Awards are really more of a popularity contest, like a student council election in high school...the really popular kids will be elected while the smarter kids who might really be good officers will be overlooked.

Did you even remember who ran ten years later? I doubt it.

I'll keep going to movies and watching what I like, though I may not watch the Oscars again.  Instead I'll look at the highlights on line. That will tell me the salient points of the presentation.

I know what good acting is and appreciate it - onstage or in films. So, I'll just post my reviews and let people watch what they want.

After all, Everything is Awesome!  I have to admit I LOVED the Lego Oscars they passed out to the famous in the audience...nice touch.

Until next time...take care.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Stephen Hawking & Alan Turing

Okay, I recently saw The Theory of Everything, the story of Stephen Hawking, his wife, and the advent & progression of his disease but I waited to post about it. As someone who takes care of an aged parent who is losing his identity by leaps and bounds, it was hard for me to watch this, much less discuss.

Today I went to see The Imitation Game, the story of Alan Turing and his work in creating a machine to crack the Enigma code the Nazis used during WWII.

Both of these films depict real men in intellectual pursuits, each with a condition either physical or psychological/emotional which makes them different even from their colleagues.

These films both deserve their own recognition, so let's start with The Best of Everything.

It is the often harrowing true story of brilliant English physicist, Dr. Stephen Hawking, diagnosed as a young man with ALS, also called "Lou Gehrig's Disease." His body begins to betray him as he loses control of his muscles and limbs. We watch him go from an awkward man, thought to be clumsy, through the emotional pain and frustration of losing control by degrees.  In the beginning, he is given a prognosis of only two years to live.

He marries his sweetheart, who vows she will stay by his side.  They have children together. He becomes more and more limited in what he can physically do on his own.  Finally he is confined to a wheelchair and cannot provide any of his own care. Friction comes in the marriage when his wife continues to do it all by herself.  By this time, they have three children. The story goes on from there.

The great tragedy in this film is Dr. Hawking loses the ability to speak, but retains his amazing intelligence.  He is one of the most gifted physicists of our time.  Imagine not being able to share such knowledge, how frustrating that must be.

Most of you have probably seen Dr. Hawking interviewed or teaching.  If you have, you know his voice is computer generated - technology helped him speak again, even if the accent is American rather than his native British English.

Eddie Redmayne does a phenomenal job of portraying Dr. Hawking, twisting his body into all but impossible positions to emulate the struggles this man lives with.

Felicity Jones also does a wonderful job in the role of his wife, portraying the emotional journey Mrs. Hawking went through with sadness, fear, and exhaustion sapping her daily energy.

This film is a realistic portrayal of what caregivers of people with disabilities face.  It is a daunting prospect at best, even or perhaps especially so when it is someone the caregiver loves.

Redmayne and Jones are both nominated for Academy Awards for acting and rightly so.  The Best of Everything is also nominated for Best Picture, as it should be.  It brings to the audience the realization that the genius in the wheelchair with the mechanical voice is at heart a fully rounded human being, capable of love, laughter, and emotional pain.  Something often overlooked by the people who turn their back when confronted by the sight of a person with a disability.

The Imitation Game

This film is another British production about a brilliant Englishman, Alan Turing, arguably one of the greatest heroes of World War II.

Like Hawking, Turing is a different sort of chap, brilliant mathematician, but focused to the point of mania. He is an introverted genius with few social skills. He doesn't realize when he offends people.  He doesn't understand when those people become angry.  He simply lives too much in his mind.

During WWII, Germany known for brilliant physicists and mathematicians, develops the Enigma Machine, a clever code machine that is impossible for the enemy to decipher. (So they think...) True story, the English get hold of one of the Enigma Machines, in the film, a polish soldier stole the machine and got it to the English.  I don't know if that's historically accurate or not, but they did have one of the machines, which the Nazis did not know.

At an estate in southern England, known as Bletchley Park, the military and secret military intelligence hired people to break the Enigma code.  Trouble was, the code was only good for 24 hours, so each day at midnight the code was thrown out and a new one used.  The Brits couldn't break the code fast enough to be of use before the code changed.

Enter Alan Turing added to the mathematicians, linguists, and statisticians already working on the Enigma.  His idea was to build a "thinking machine", he called Christopher (for reasons explained in the film). During the struggle to build the machine, Turing had to learn to work well with others, instill trust in them, learn to like them and socialize with them. He is helped by Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), a lovely female cryptographer who helps him solve the Enigma along with his crew.

This is a powerful story based on historic events.  They do succeed in breaking the Enigma codes as fast as the Germans change them.  Then comes the moral dilemma.  They cannot stop every attack they know is coming.  If they do, the Germans will know they have broken the Enigma code and change to something else, throwing out all the work done at Bletchley Park, along with the Allies' advantage.

When the war ends, the unit is told to break up the machine (Christopher) and burn it.  They are forced to burn all records and told never to see each other again.  Their work is to be kept secret in case they need another such unit to fight the Soviets in the future.

Turing goes back to his professorship at Cambridge, withdrawing once again. His personality, or lack of one, gets him into trouble in the 1950s.  He is ultimately arrested for "indecent behavior" because he is a homosexual, which at that time, was illegal in Great Britain. It is the beginning of his downfall.

Bravo Benedict Cumberbatch.  He does a magnificent job of portraying Alan Turing.  It is always so difficult to play a truly repressed personality with poor social skills, brilliant or otherwise and make the audience feel his pain.

Keira Knightley as Joan also does a wonderful job in the film, a young woman who in her own way is as intelligent as Turing as a female which was an anathema in those days.

Both Cumberbatch and Knightley are up for acting awards at the Oscar presentation - Him for Best Actor and her for Best Supporting Actress.

I have to tell you, this one made me cry - not as much as American Sniper, but enough that I put on my sunglasses upon leaving the theater because I hadn't stopped weeping.

Just before the ending credits on the screen, is a paragraph explaining that historians think the breaking of the Enigma code ended the war two years earlier than it would have ended.  They also estimate that 14 million lives were saved by the war ending when it did rather than continuing.

Alan Turing is considered to be the father of modern computers.  His "Christopher" did remind me of Univac, the first commercial behemoth computer which matured into our hand held devices in contemporary times.

In the early 1990s, Queen Elizabeth pardoned Turing posthumously from the charges and allowed the tale of the Bletchley Park Code Breakers to be released to the public. Overturning fifty years of silence on the amazing success of their work.

Whew. I did well this year.  I've seen four of the five Best Actor nominees for the Oscars - missing only Steve Carell in Foxcatcher.

Of the eight best picture nominees, I've seen five and may see the sixth, Boyhood, before the Oscars tomorrow.

My favorite for Best Picture? That's a tough call.  They're all so different and not a bad one in the bunch.
The same with the Best Actor nominees.  Each of these men did memorable work in their respective films.  I am hard pressed to name a favorite. Bradley Cooper surprised me in American Sniper with his performance. (As a Texan, I may be a tad bit prejudiced).  Redmayne and Cumberbatch were both phenomenal in their roles.  Michael Keaton surprised me the most in Birdman.  I wasn't expecting the depth of his performance.

Hollywood Buzz says it will likely be Keaton.  That's fine, but I'll be happy with any of them.

Check out these and other nominees.  The films are well worth your time.


Saturday, February 14, 2015


In my late, limping Don Quixote style quest to view the Oscar nominees, last night I saw Birdman starring Michael Keaton.

This movie has gotten a lot of buzz since it premiered.  Michael Keaton has not made a movie in several years.  According to his interviews, he chose this script because he liked it and its ironic relationship to his actual career.

Keaton plays Riggin Thomson, a former movie actor, famous for playing the superhero, Birdman. Okay, Keaton played Batman on the screen.  His transformation to the ever-present character of Birdman is eerily familiar, probably intentionally so.  The bird mask/cowl is similar to his costume for Batman.  Also, he uses the deep, graveled voice he used as Batman. The main costume difference for Birdman is a pair of large wings with which he flies.

After years of inactivity and wanting to be taken seriously as an actor, Riggin adapts the stories of his favorite writer to a play, finds a backer, and stages it in NYC.  When the film begins, they are in final rehearsals. Riggin, hyper and nervous, attacks the second lead during a run-through.  The injured actor has to be hospitalized.

With their preview of the play to be staged the following evening before an invited audience, his co-star, played by Naomi Watts, suggests her husband could step into the role.  He's a well-respected actor, so Riggin agrees to cast him.

Enter Edward Norton, an incomparable actor both in real life and in the script, who comes into the play - disrupts the action of the play and ends up seducing Riggin's daughter, played by a luminous Emma Stone.

And that, as they say folks, is only the beginning...

Birdman is a thrill ride of sardonic humor, real pathos, and apparent disconnection to reality.

Keaton is flat-out (sorry my Texas is showing) brilliant. Called upon to display a wide range of emotional responses he delivers every time. He reminded me of what a gifted actor he truly is.

Everyone of the major cast members are up to his challenge.  Edward Norton, long-known for his mesmerizing roles, gives us another look at his stellar ability.

Naomi Watts reminds us of her stunning talent with a measured performance as a woman fulminating with conflicting emotions.

Emma Stone, as the dysfunctional daughter newly home from rehab, creates a complicated character with a penchant for perching on the roof of the theater building at night and watching the crowds pass by.

Much of the story takes place in the theatre, primarily backstage going through the winding corridors to enter smoke filled dressing rooms.  With the clothing strewn about and props scattered in the mix, I can smell that backstage area.  Speaking as someone with years of acting and directing experience, I can tell you the backstage looked and felt authentic. Also, the view from the stage to the filled seats beyond the lights is completely real.

The film made me long for one more role in the theater...you know what they say about the smell of greasepaint...(not to be confused with the wonderful play "The Roar of Greasepaint and the Smell of the Crowd."  But that's another another story, entirely...Told you Birdman made me miss the theater...)

Seriously, though, Birdman is a many tiered story that leaves the audience wondering just what is real and what is fantasy.  It is a contemporary allegory that is completely entertaining.

Audience members always view any performance through the screen of their individual life experiences.

Birdman offers a rich creation of many levels.  Everyone will see something different and enjoy the view.

It's off-beat and hilarious in places with an ending that will leave you either laughing or scratching your head.  Check it out.

Keaton is up for Best Actor at the Oscars a week from tonight.  Is he better than Bradley Cooper? My answer is he's different in a different kind of role.  I want to see Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything before the ceremonies.  I hear he's brilliant in that difficult role, not to mention Benedict Cumberbatch...

Gah, so many choices!

Enjoy going to the movies.

Until next time. . .

Sunday, February 1, 2015

American Sniper

Clint Eastwood has developed into a masterful film director.  His latest work, American Sniper, is nominated for several Academy Awards, including Best Picture.  I've only seen one other of the Best Picture nominees, but I suspect director Eastwood's film can stand alone on the list.

Taken from a book partly written by Chris Kyle, the title subject, American Sniper is a realistic, unvarnished look at warfare.

Kyle, a Navy SEAL, was credited with the most kills of any sniper in the history of the American military. Before, during, and after his four tours of duty in the Middle East, he came home to his wife and growing family.

A native Texan from Midlothian, which is a small city south of Fort Worth, he grew up working with horses.  After high school, he rode broncs on the rodeo circuit.  9/11 brought an end to his rodeo days, as he enlisted to go after the ones who attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

The film bounces back and forth in the time frame of his life.  Rather than being a distraction as it might be in a film by a less talented director, the time hops build the tension.  The non linear time depiction also reflects Kyle's emotions from his experiences as he tries to go back to civilian living.

Bradley Cooper stars as Chris Kyle. I've always liked Cooper as an actor.  He's played several parts of differing intensity in popular films, most notably Silver Linings Playbook.  In American Sniper, he shows us his true artistry.  For artist he is, as he disappears in the role. He grew up in the Philadelphia area, according to his bio.  I have to tell you, as a lifelong Texan, Cooper's accent and attitude were so familiar to me, I could have sworn I knew the guy.  He has the most realistic Texas accent from a non Texan I've ever heard on the screen. You believe Cooper as Chris Kyle, so much so it will break your heart.

I think he really deserves that Oscar for his performance, one of the best I've seen in years.

SPOILER ALERT ---I sobbed so hard at the end of this film, I had to wait until all the credits were over before I could exit the theater.

American Sniper is one of Eastwood's best.  This one is gritty and real, at times too much so.  Like some of his other films, this one will stay with you long after you see it.

Okay, let's get real here.  If you  haven't figured out by now, I tend to be a Liberal and I hate war.  I come from a military family and grew up surrounded by my dad's WWII memorabilia of his tour in the South Pacific.

Several critics, primarily on the west coast, have slammed American Sniper as a "conservative" dream.

I REALLY disagree with that depiction.  Politics do not come into play in the film.  It isn't conservative or liberal from the point of view.  It is a portrayal of a real man and his experiences.

It's all too easy to label art from one's own perspective but this film covers all the bases.

War is hell.  I forget which General said that, but he was right. American Sniper tells it like it is and sometimes it's hard to watch.

No political party can claim this film.  It is gut-wrenching reality of real people who put their lives on the line and go bravely into that good night.

You don't have to agree with the war, but it is real.  Our men and women are fighting and coming home either in a wooden box or an emotional one from the horrors they have faced.

Bravo, Mr. Eastwood. Bravo, Mr. Cooper. You have given us a film that will not fade away.

And Bravo to Chris Kyle, most of all, for the guts it took to share his story.