Saturday, April 26, 2014

Short post-mortem

In years past, I've always made some effort to fit in as many of the year's Oscar-mentioned films because I liked to have experienced what people were lauding as worthy of mention. Of course, there are always films (like Blue is the Warmest Color) that don't end up getting attention from the Academy that I think are simply better than many things that do, but most of what ends up on the Best Picture list or are the vehicles for the 'Best X' category tend to have some merit and end up being worth watching. I caught one before the awards were given out and two in the last couple days.

The first was Dallas Buyers' Club. While I've read a fair amount of criticism about the distortions to the story of Ron Woodroof (who is portrayed, brilliantly, by Matthew McConaughey), the fact remains that the essential story, that of a group of people fighting to extend their lives in the face of a modern plague, is displayed wonderfully in this film. I thought the structure was a bit off, in that we never really see the emotional impact of the changes on Woodroof because he's so driven to keep fighting in every arena that civil society allows. He's a fighter and he remains one, right to the end, and there's never really a different side. That said, it was such a departure from the usual fluff that McConaughey is attached to that I think I was won over by his performance in the same way that I was convinced ever after that Brad Pitt could act after seeing 12 Monkeys (and I was right!/breaks arm patting back.) Of course, soon after I'd seen DBC, True Detective began and I may never have a bad word to say about McConaughey again...

And you can't really say anything about the film without mentioning Jared Leto, who stole every scene that he was in. Again, the standard story about someone transitioning from bigot to at least grudgingly respectful is all well and good. But in the case of both actors, I was far more interested in the zeal that they obviously carried for their roles and how willing they were to embody them (quite literally, given that they both had to starve themselves to portray very sick individuals.) In that respect, just watching the performance was more important than getting something thrilling in the form of a plot.

The same was essentially true of 12 Years a Slave. I enjoyed it for what it was, even though it veered away from drama and closer to documentary at some points. I thought the performances, top to bottom, were excellent with the lone exception of the aforementioned Pitt, whose role was so artificial that it fairly screamed "deus ex machina" and he played it that way. That may underscore my real problem with the film in that, while it certainly may be true that there was a Canadian contractor who is the person that eventually opens the door to Solomon Northrup's freedom (I have not read the original text), the development of that relationship isn't given the space that it needs to make Pitt's role feel like anything other than a device. Indeed, the film's title presents an agonizing length of time for the specific kind of injustice that Northrup endured (saying nothing about the broad-based injustice of slavery in the first place), but the film really fails to portray that time.

There are a couple instances where it seemed like director Steve McQueen (not that Steve McQueen) attempted to show the passage of time by cutting away to moments of scenery that I found quite entrancing visually and useful in and of themselves to give the audience time to consider Solomon's circumstances or even to contrast his situation in a brick-walled prison in slave country Virginia as the Capitol sits serenely on the other side of the river in nominally free Maryland. That's moody atmospheric stuff and if McQueen was using it to build that mood and show the passage of time, that's great. He just didn't do it often enough. One of the essential keys of the story is the dolorous, repetitive labor that was slavery (and especially cotton harvesting) and how this man was separated from his family with no recourse for Twelve. Long. Years.... except that it never felt like that. Solomon's circumstances changed so rapidly that I never got the sense that he was stuck in this situation for anything longer than a few months, so that by the time the film ended I watched the credits roll thinking that I had seen a good film, but not one for the ages.

All of that said, just like DBC, the performances were worthy of watching regardless of the mild flaws of the story. Chiwetel Ejiofor's anguish in the final scene where he's reunited with his family (spoiler!), as a man who has clearly lived his entire life under tight self-control; indeed, a man who has survived as a slave for a dozen years because of that self-control, is now faced with a situation where the emotion is simply resonating off of him but he is still unable to break down and release it. That was magnificent.

And then there's some crazy people in backwoods (backplains?) Oklahoma. While August: Osage County seemed to get the fewest raves of the three, I actually thought it was the best film. Once again, performances carried the day. I can't say enough about the cast and I guess I don't need to, as there was certainly more than enough talent packed in there, but aside from the excellent and glowingly-reviewed and nominated turns by Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts, I found myself equally as intrigued by Juliette Lewis and Julianne Nicholson. Juliette, as Karen, wasn't stepping too far outside her sphere by playing the ditzy sister trying to score big with a playboy husband, but she had the best line of the film at one point, cutting straight to the heart of the story as she rants at Barbara (Roberts):

Because I doubt that Jean’s blameless in all of this. I’m not saying that I blame her. Just because I said that she’s not blameless. I’m not saying she’s to blame. It’s just that she might share in the responsibility. It’s not cut and dried. It lives where everything lives. Somewhere in the middle. Where the rest of us live! Everyone but you!...
And I may have to do some things I’m not proud of again because life just puts you in a corner that way. And then, come January, we’ll be in Belize. Doesn’t that sound nice?
That final line made me crack up because you can't try harder to escape from your situation without telling everyone that that's exactly what you're doing. Likewise, Ivy (Nicholson) has the most emotional moments of the story that have the most to do with a positive outlook. Surrounded by the chaos, outrage, and despair, she's actually trying to move forward and responds with as much restraint as she can muster to try to be the stalwart of the three daughters that she's always been.

What should be evident from those two is that Osage County had the best story. In many ways, it's the smallest and most personal, taking place in one house over a few days, rather than spanning nations and years, but those are often the ones that live with you the longest. I know that I'll remember moments from Osage County longer than any from the other two films because it presented a situation that I could relate to while still being interesting enough to keep me watching simply because it was so different from my own. These were real people and we could have been voyeurs watching them go about their lives. The film is based on a play of the same name and, as so often happens, those films present the most memorable characters that have already been put through their paces to reach an audience. Add a camera and some remarkable talent and you're going to make memories for a much wider swathe of people.

There's one more film that I considered seeing but eventually didn't and which also received a shower of accolades in award season and that's The Wolf of Wall Street. I'm a fan of both DiCaprio and Scorcese, but the reason I didn't see it is still with me: I'm not particularly interested in further lionizing a pattern of behavior that should have landed many, many people in jail and which resulted in almost no one seeing the inside of a cell. Make me a film about Jamie Dimon on trial for his life and I'll be camped outside the theater.

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