A Film Digression: Oscar Week in the Lincoln Theater Seat
I LOVE films. The last week of February was educational, physically demanding, emotionally taxing, and gas draining because I decided to watch 7 movies over the course of 5 days. Did I mention I love films? They invoke laughter, despair, anger, curiosity, wonder and I find they encourage discovery, an invitation into the lives of people both fictional and real, whose stories paint images that resonate in so many ways.
Now I might also have added financially debilitating because movie tickets today are not cheap, and 7 of them in less than a week is a little jarring to my bank account, but I came across a pretty awesome opportunity. Several of the cinemas in the area were showing the Oscar Best Picture nominees in light of the awards show happening Sunday the 26th. One of them, Cinemark, had an amazing deal where for $35 you got a pass designated for all 9 best picture nominees. At the time of this decision to take on this challenge I had already seen two of the films; Moonlight and Hidden Figures. But if I hadn't, if I were to have bought 9 individual tickets for each nomination, I would have spent over $100. So when I found this pass I knew this challenge was gonna happen. And it was gonna be amazing.
I tried my best to walk into these films without any preconceived notions. Really hard not to, but I tried to avoid reading the synopsis, reviews, and comments of any films I did not previously read of. I wanted to take in the story almost as the characters do, live it day by day (in their case), minute by minute (in mine) and just experience it from my own perspective. The alternative is not bad, I just find when you take in a lot of opinions before watching a movie, it influences your view point before you have witnessed the work yourself. The critic who analyzed one notable performance or the article that focused on an upsetting theme each sets the stage for your perception of the story. So it is no longer just your relationship to the story. It's yours, and the critics, and the articles too. But I digress in my film digression. I want to take a walk through that week again, try to focus on a thought or two of what I appreciate about each film (heads up spoiler alerts), and why I'd do it all over again.
Tuesday February 21st
Directed by Denzel Washington / Starring Denzel Washington & Viola Davis
I fell into this story and was completely enthralled by the breadth of struggle, joy, remorse, and contemplation. The main character Troy is a charming, gregarious man of conviction. Set in the 1950s you learn quickly that as a black man Troy's experiences have been filled with test and trial and limitation. These have made his convictions even stronger with little room for sympathy or vacillation. The limitations he experienced in his past, namely his shortened baseball career, mark him with resentment and you see its effects on his youngest son Cory. He, Troy, was too old when the major leagues began admitting black players so he lived with that lost dream, with the belief that his talent was cheated from its rightful chance to flourish. And now Cory has the opportunity to play football, but Troy is adamant that he gives it up, focuses on work, and finds a reliable trade because sports is a dream too uncertain, an uncertainty compounded for a black man at this time. Cory doesn't see it that way. He sees opportunity, not limitation. But then again his perception has not been marked by unjustifiable denial like his father. For this struggle I vacillated between admiring Troy for his resolute beliefs and resenting him for the stubbornness which kept his son from pursuing a dream. But then again I have been fortunate enough to not be denied access to my passions and pursuits because of the color of my skin. So I wonder if my resentment is really a fair judgement. Troy is often the catalyst for conflict and change. You see it as He speaks these powerful soliloquies that reverberate into others around him, sometimes in positive ways and sometimes in negative ways. But always powerful.
Wednesday February 22nd
Directed by Garth Davis / Starring Dev Patel, Nicole Kidman, and David Wenham
I had watched a PBS documentary on the story of Saroo Brierley around the time Lion was first coming out in theaters. I remember having the greatest difficulty comprehending the feeling of being separated from my family for 25 years. To be lost in translation, the insurmountable emphasized by the millions of people pushing their way through the station not noticing the boy asking for help. It pained me to watch all those people walk by him, the train clerks demanding he leave because he couldn't explain where he was from, and is left to fend for himself so abruptly. It then amazed me how resilient, resourceful, and intuitive he is. He survives months of poverty and isolation, avoiding kidnapping by his adeptness. I swear the way he ran, I marveled at his speed and urged him to move even faster to escape. When he gets adopted and the film fast forwards to his life in Australia at age 30 he is more restless as he grapples with losing his family. And it is a loss filled with so much uncertainty because he has no knowledge of where they are, how they are, whether they are even still alive. The only knowledge he has is that he is alive, a knowledge evermore painful because he wishes his mother could know that too. By the suggestion of a friend he looks to google earth for any help to find his hometown, which was eye opening because despite having grown up with this technology, I had never truly regarded its impact. He could cover thousands of miles with a swipe of a mouse. Now that did create an overwhelming sense of dread considering how many miles he crossed in that train, but google earth captured a detail that his memory had captured too; a tower. It was that same tower he remembered looking at the night he accidentally got on the train which drew his eye on his computer screen. When he makes it home and reunites with his mother and sister, I, and near everyone in theatre, cried so hard. I saw how much of our identity we hold in our home and our family, and so grateful that he found his.
Wednesday February 22nd Part II
HELL OR HIGH WATER
Directed by David Mackenzie / Starring Chris Pine, Ben Foster, and Jeff Bridges
Second film of the night. Hell or High Water is the story of two brothers who take the law in their own hands to help avoid the foreclosure of the land that belonged to their deceased mother. The system left her vulnerable and their vengeance is justifiable, at least to a certain extent. In revenge stories, there has to be some moral purpose behind the bad actions and it helps if the characters are engaging and relatable. I recognized both pretty quickly. I found myself focused on the way the brother’s personalities affected the justification of their actions. Toby is a reserved man, a father who sincerely wants to ensure his kids a safe future and Tanner is a humorous volatile ex-convict who gets an adrenaline high from subjecting others to fear. I found myself feeling more sympathy and regard for them despite their questionable actions because 1. It was for a greater moral cause and 2. Their personalities were relatable and infectious. I found myself invested in their success until one thing happened that I could not shake. Early on in the film their exploits drew the obvious attention of the police, the investigation led by Marcus Hamilton and Alberto Parker (played respectively by Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham). The two officers have a brotherly comradery. 10 years of crotchety and slightly racist jokes makes for an intimate partnership that you come to appreciate. Fast forward toward the end of the film, Tanner has split away from Toby to pull the attention of the cops away and begins a sniper shoot out, blowing up one of the police trucks with a gusto you can’t help but be enthralled by, and holding his ground as “king of the mountain” against a dozen officers. But then he shoots and kills Alberto, right through the head, and in the split second that his death occurred my opinion of Tanner was ruined. It made me wonder why I did not have such a reaction when the innocent people in the bank were murdered. They didn’t deserve that fate. And if my moral compass is so straight I should have felt only sickened by Toby and Tanner’s actions, but I wasn't. I think the human condition is complicated by learning context, history, circumstance, character development, and intimacy. Had we not walked alongside Marcus and Alberto, listened to their stories, witnessed their complicated relationship and genuine regard for one another, Alberto’s death may not have had such an impact. Yet those powerful performances demand the question; is there a limit to the ends justifying the means. No matter how noble.
Thursday February 23rd
MANCHESTER BY THE SEA
Directed by Kenneth Lonergan/ Starring Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Lucas Hedges
Manchester is a film that is interesting and unassuming without gusto or exaggerations. Casey Affleck's character, Lee Chandler, is seemingly devoid of emotion. As the story progresses you do get peeks into his personality but beneath the surface is a brew of emotion that he won't expose. He is kind, and his awkward reserve is endearing, but does not express much and I wanted to urge him to reveal more. But I think that is where a lot of the power came from, because he is filled with emotion and tortured by ityet he will not allow it to be felt openly, where he would reveal himself. I loved the relationship between Lee and Patrick, it was awkward, funny, and genuine, as they struggled to make sense of the loss of their brother/Dad Joe (played by Kyle Chandler). I listened to a Fresh Air interview with Director Kenneth Lonergan about a month before seeing the film and I remember him mentioning how important humor is in life, particularly in the moments of grief. There was one scene in which Lonergan felt the scene was misjudged and read as funnier than he intended. The scene is Patrick opening up the freezer to grab food and upon opening the door a frozen chicken falls. It sends him into a panic attack as it causes him to think of his Dad stuck in the morgue frozen. Lee comes into the room trying to console him and he says "you can't freak out every time you see a frozen chicken". It bothered Lonergan that people reacted with laughter at that line. I thought his comment was interesting, and sitting in the theatre, watching that scene play out and hearing laughter in the audience, I shared his opinion. I hurt for Patrick, to feel that shock of a loved one's death from so seemingly simple a thing. I have experienced it myself and though I can see how people would find Lee's comment funny, it seemed ill-fitting to laugh, as though it undermines what Patrick is going through in that moment. This occurrence brings me back to the concept in the beginning of this post, the effects of hearing opinions and reviews on your interpretation of the film. Would I have reacted the same way, had I not been conscious of that scene and the thoughts of the director? Whether or not, I appreciate that interview and I appreciate the film even more.
Friday February 24th
Directed by Denis Villeneuve / Starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, & Forrest Whitaker
Arrival was another film that I had little prior knowledge except that aliens were somehow involved. I did ask a colleague or two whether it was more like a horror movie, which is not my cup of tea. Thankfully, they reassured it's not. Maybe creepy, but not ruin your pants scary. So other than that I had no expectations. I was very intrigued through the whole film and loved how the focus was on communication. Most extraterrestrial themed films are focused on the threat, danger, and battle between the aliens and the human race (think Independence Day or Alien). There was the military presence, the feeling of imminent destruction, but there was a subtlety and intimacy between the aliens and Louise and Ian (played by Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner) that was really interesting. Linguistics is a fascinating topic on a human level, but bring in an other worldly element to it, it becomes more poignant. I will admit that toward the end of the film, I grew more confused as the element of time was morphed and bended so we got glimpses into Louise's past connected to the future because of her growing ability to communicate with the aliens. Their role was to help the human race survive, not inflict mass destruction, and she was the one to bring about that understanding.
Saturday February 25th
LA LA LAND
Directed by Damian Chazelle / Starring Emma Stone & Ryan Gosling
I go back and forth about musicals. Some I can happily watch over and over again like Sound of Music and West Side Story, but sometimes I watch musicals with an incredulous attitude, the moment when all of a sudden the character begins bursting into song to say things that don't need to be sung. Sometimes I cannot fight how unrealistic and seemingly un-relatable it is. I did not feel that with La La Land. It was a myriad of things; the interaction of the characters, their development individually and as a couple, and the transitions into the musical pieces, they felt more natural, and understandable.
This was one film in which I read two articles about before seeing it. One was about the disappointment the writer felt in the chosen cast, how they weren't professional performers of the dance and singing world. And the other about the patriarchal influences that seemed to taint the progression of the story. Both were seemingly negative so I went into the film with a little bit of skepticism and sensitivity to what might be true of those articles point of view. Now I don't just read a piece and adopt it's rhetoric or opinion blindly (or I try not to...definitely not perfect), but those articles touched on subjects I find important, so I continued to look for it in the film-critiquing and analyzing for the negative. I came away from the film inspired and satisfied. I will admit that I disagree with both of those articles. I believe Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling did a wonderful job in their performances, both in their acting and their musical skills. They might not be akin to Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, but that's OK, it does not take away from what they contributed and the overall impression that La La Land created. Mia (Emma Stone's character) is independent and strong willed, she falls in love with Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) who is resolute and passionate. They journey together towards their goals, but conflict arises as Sebastian's goals seem to come as Mia's don't, and their relationship begins to be sacrificed. Up until this point I can see where that perspective on a woman waiting under a man's success to find purpose might be witnessed, but it's more complicated than that. And certainly doesn't stay in that direction for long. Mia catches her break, finds her success without Sebastian (after his encouragement and prompting to audition for a role she didn't think she could do). Neither does the film end with the two together, with Mia at home watching the children, dreaming away her dreams while Sebastian finds success in Jazz. No, she found a new life, with acting her career and passion, yes with a husband and a child, but ultimately happy because of them and her career. There is no success at the expense of the other. I wanted Mia and Sebastian to end up together, I did. I did appreciate that the film was not bound to the typical ending and their relationship was not static. He came to her aid even when they were not going to forge on together. They saw each other with respect and in the end that is realistic and relatable.
Saturday February 25th Part II
Directed by Mel Gibson / Starring Andrew Garfield, Hugo Weaving, and Luke Bracey
If there was ever a story that exemplified living life with purpose and honor, and living in the image of one's creator, Desmond Doss' would be it. He was an amazing man of faith, who trusted his faith to guide him and stand by his principles. And they were principles that were pretty unorthodox for the environment he was putting himself in. Set in World War II, Doss enlists in the army as a medic and, based off of a strongly influenced vow, decides he will not take a man's life, nor will he carry a gun. He is a conscientious objector, though in the film he defines himself more as a "conscientious cooperator". He is met with a lot of hostility and shock by his comrades and commanding officers as, in their eyes, it is a necessity to have a weapon to kill the enemy. Doss' view is he wants to save lives, and even in the high risks of live combat where a weapon would prove useful he can do so by serving as a medic. His convictions are admirable, but his actions are even more so. His platoon is assigned to an area in Okinawa, to engage in a battle that can only be fought once you climb a 350ft cliff called the Maeda Escarpment onto a field already laden with the bodies of dead soldiers, American and Japanese alike. After an onslaught from the Japanese, the remaining able American soldiers retreated down the cliff to let an air strike assist in their dire situation, leaving no choice but to leave the wounded. Andrew Garfield did a wonderful job portraying Doss, in his charm and reselience. I can't imagine being there, the chaos, the deafening sounds of bombs, the pierce of bullets, blinding smoke, and screams, and all happening so fast, how could you take note of everyone's state and keep a clear head? Desmond Doss was the last to begin the descend, until he heard cries for help. I think by the grace of God and an insane amount of bravery he ended up saving the lives of 75 men. "Lord help me get one more" was what he repeated after lowering each man down the cliff side and returning into the smoke in search of his comrades. I am amazed by this story, blown away by the fact that it's true (some alterations were made for the film, I read of some here, but overall accurate). He was the first conscientious objector to be receive the congressional medal of honor.
One thing I appreciate about the Oscars, especially with this years nominees, is the variety of subject matter highlighted. These films are all unique, the stories vastly different from one another, and they touch on multiple themes. You see the same themes explored in each but they are distinct, melded and unique by the circumstances of each story. It is hard to compare but easy to see that such emotions exist in all of the films. And they are captured beautifully. How a winner is chosen I still think impossible (though if I had to be honest I think I did have a favorite. The first of the 9 nominees I saw...looking at you Moonlight). I look forward to the many films of this year and hopefully another Oscar week in 2018.