Month: January 2014

Oscar Season Diary #8: ‘American Hustle,’ ‘Her,’ and the War of the Heart

3022037-slide-her-filmWe’re a fatherless culture heading in an unclear direction.

Can we sense, at this point, anyone at the wheel?

We’re overrun with greed, with corruption, with politics and media; we have little time to ponder the individual, or to see the soul behind the person staring back at us in the mirror. Survival is merely moving on to the next superficial stimulus.

Spike Jonze’s Her and David O. Russell’s American Hustle reveal a battle our preoccupation with the media has distracted us from acknowledging: the one within us as individuals. Both films remind us of the power of the heart–listening to it, working to preserve it–and resonate within an Oscar year that champions that very attitude.

The news is cluttered with headlines of a new war every day. From Washington to Syria, we hear about wars of ideals, wars of politics, wars of culture, wars of preference and wars of intellect. Some see bloodshed, and others exist as a momentary annoyance when, for a brief moment, we flip the channel to yet another news story about the deepening split between two roaring factions of our nation’s right and left.

If we’re given a spare moment away from the news tickers, push notifications, blinking lights, emails, and texts, it’s only natural to fall back on our own thoughts, emotions, and affections,  though we seek validation, pleasure, and stimulus from technology, and have grown dependent on it to rile us from the state of simply being able to, well, be.

Simplicity is an increasing rarity: this is the struggle that Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) undergoes on a daily basis in Her.

In the not-so-distant future, he’s a ghostwriter for countless clients who hire him to write personal letters to their loved ones. He spends his days recalling emotions he once knew as a married man, but for other people. He’s now divorced and trudging through the remnants of his soul as the world around him vacuums itself deeper and deeper into an outbreak of isolationist technology separating human from human, soul from soul.

Theodore, swayed by a convincing television ad, purchases a highly advanced operating system to cope with the loneliness. Her name is Samantha, and she’s programmed to adapt to new environments as she experiences them. Theodore is forced to confront his feelings of loneliness as he falls in love with Samantha.

The most intelligent thing about Her‘s script is its consistent urgency propelling Samantha forward as a fully-formed character. She grows, adapts, and forms feelings for herself, but most of all is able to understand that she isn’t human, which perhaps is the most beautiful thing about the film. It’s actually quite tragic in that sense, as Samantha yearns for a human body, but never loses her grip on reality. She knows she will never be human, and never tries to be.

Whereas Samantha can’t attain a sense of humanity, it’s Theo’s that she helps restore. At its core, the interactions between Samantha and Theodore are nothing more than Theodore talking to a version of himself filtered through a complex sequence of data. Samantha can only learn through her interactions with people, and she soon begins to interact with Theodore in a way that subtly holds a mirror to his face. His divorce shattered him, and his feelings of isolation and loneliness forced him into a machine-like state. It’s only thorough his acceptance of his feelings for Samantha that he can be truly happy, and he learns to be a human once again.

The film’s form is highly dependent on its content, and vice versa. There’s a gorgeous visual motif running throughout the film involving Theodore gazing out of enormous windows. Whether he’s on a subway, at work, or at his apartment, his view of the outside world is obscured by a glass shield that he can see the other side of, but can’t quite reach just yet. Without giving anything away, it’s only after he spends time getting to know himself (and Samantha), that he’s able to view what’s on the other side free from obstruction. It’s a beautiful film about the best and worst of technology, how it expands our perspective yet limits it, and how–if you don’t lose touch with your humanity–it can open your eyes instead of distract them from seeing what’s around you.

American Hustle explores these issues in a far less subtle manner. It’s classic David O. Russell spectacle. The film is about everything and it’s about nothing in particular, it’s about sexy people in extravagant costumes and the risky business they get themselves into. But, at its heart, its a story about preserving the all-encompassing, overwhelming impression of love.

Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) tells us of his childhood, one where he helped his family’s window business thrive by throwing rocks through storefront glass. It becomes clear that passion drives his actions, and that he’s not above taking control of his fate, even if it means involving himself in his own hand-spun circle of success.

He meets Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), a beautiful woman struggling to find herself amidst the hustle and bustle of urban life, and the two become inseparable. Their love spans the duration of the film, and its the glue of their affections that holds the entire film together.

american-hustle-amy-adams-1The pair embark on a scam operation together as a means to profit from what they deem to be the “lesser” men of society. They start a loan scam, where they promise to get people with poor credit loans–for a fee of $5,000. They’re eventually caught by FBI agent Richie Di Masso (Bradley Cooper), who lets them off the hook if they agree to help him bag corrupt politicians by (similar to Irving smashing windows so his family’s business could thrive) constructing a series of set-ups where they will accept bribes in exchange for political favors.

Sydney and Irving’s actions might be deplorable, but they’re motivated by the love they have for each other. They want the successful American life everyone is promised from birth, it’s just that they take an alternate route on the way there. Happiness is at the root of their actions. At the end of the day, isn’t that what we all want, whether we achieve it morally or by climbing down rungs tinged with grime?

Irving’s wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), is an essential part of the film’s recipe. Of course Irving is cheating on her with Sydney, and she knows it, though she consistently tries to one-up him instead of laying down and taking her final laps through marriage as a victim. The space she occupies (the home she shares with Irving and her son) becomes a surreal place of mockery, where she has lost her grasp on how to safely parent her child, causing fires, smoking, and regressing to a childlike state herself. The home isn’t a place where happiness lives simply because you paint a smiley face on it by marrying and staying together for the sake of normalcy. A home requires work and, most of all, love. It is not a puzzle that fits together just because you want square A to fit into circle B.

If the fantasy of American life doesn’t fit, you must change it.

American Hustle is a story of selfish people with selfish intentions. Russell’s outlook on the world is that it is simply too self-centered for its own good. Everybody is in the game of life for themselves, and survival becomes a tainted, layered byproduct of manipulation, jealousy, and greed

But, the film celebrates a rebel’s instinctual desire to buck the system of control, to never be confined to a single space, and to never relinquish control of his or her own destiny, and that’s far more “American” than staying inside the lines (or within the confines of your white picket fence dreams). American Hustle celebrates its right to be about so simple an idea in such an intriguing way, that the ambition and pacing of the the film as a whole become synonymous with its characters’ drive to attain freedom on their own terms.

Both Her and American Hustle show the lengths that humans will go to in order to feel something, whether it be success, monetary comfort, love, or otherwise–the desire of the human spirit to regain consciousness of itself so that it can exist in peace is at the root of both films.

Many of the year’s films revolve around these ideas of breaking free from confines. A self-imposed prison (Gravity, Inside Llewyn Davis), unjust incarceration (12 Years a Slave, Prisoners), or an emotional cage in the wreckage of heartbreak (Her, Blue is the Warmest Color), screenplays about regaining a sense of self have overwhelmingly dominated the awards season discussion.

GRAVITYIt’s interesting that, in 2013, the Oscar race is so filled with these films that revolve around characters attempting to regain what was once lost. Gravity’s Ryan Stone has lost faith in humanity and in herself after losing her daughter, and the film systematically constructs a beautiful cinematic metaphor for her emotional and spiritual rebirth that carries the film to its conclusion. 

12 Years a Slave sees Solomon Northrupp kidnapped from his life as a free black man in 1800s America to become a slave in the Deep South. He confronts the evils of racism and travels to the brink of his emotional stamina.

2013 ultimately was a year of battles won. When the Academy itself makes huge changes in an attempt to diversify its image, leadership, and voting base, it’s clear the tides of culture are changing, and victory can be seen for those long seen as inferior.

The year saw three black filmmakers’ names soar through the season as legitimate awards contenders. Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station was an early season favorite in key categories (Best Actor, namely), while Lee Daniels’ The Butler spat in the face of those who deemed “black cinema” (a  general descriptor, I know, but it’s for the sake of the argument, here) an unmarketable venture (it grossed nearly $150 million worldwide). I can’t remember the last time this happened, if it has ever happened in the 86-year history of the Academy Awards.

This year’s Oscars are once again, thanks to the preferential ballot, going to be driven by passionate support for smaller projects that normally wouldn’t catch Academy voters’ eyes in a year where only five Best Picture nominees were allowed.

It seems that the Academy has been attempting to restore the heart into the race, when massive campaigns and PR brainwashing has driven the awards race into an endless domino entity. Usually, we look to the precursors to definitively outline the trajectory of the Oscars. Critics circles positioned their awards earlier in the season, so they could do things like push films like American Hustle into the race with first-out-of-the-gate praise (NYFCC, here’s looking at you).

There’s a passion for the craft and a passion for a vast array of films, as we’ve seen major precursors deviate from what was expected to push what they think is the strongest film of the year. With only one week to go until Oscar nominations, there’s an entire herd heading into a pen that’s usually, this late in the game, largely less crowded. Passion is power, and people seem to be voting with their hearts.

Ultimately, as Theodore is in Her, we’re left alone to look in the mirror in the wake of these films. At the heart of top box-office draws of the year was escapism, which is equivalent to throwing a blanket over our eyes. If we’re consistently entertained by pure spectacle, how do we accept art as something multi-dimensional?

We must champion the great films from this monumental year in cinema, because they do what pure spectacle can’t—they take our hand and give a reflective clarity through the dark.

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Tomorrow: DGA Decides Who Lives and Who Dies in the Race – 6 Directors to Watch

ryan-coogler-2-fruitvale-stationAll eyes are on the Directors Guild of America to sift through the murky depths of the 2013 awards season and bring some much-needed clarity.

Sitting firmly at the tail-end of the major precursor nomination timeline, the DGA is usually the wisest of the group. I get the sense that they vote with their hearts a great deal of the time, favoring grand, difficult, complex works which reflect the best of their faction–at least they have for the past 10 years or so.

While clarity is the last thing the DGA brought us last year–they actually broke a 9-year streak of agreeing with the Oscar winner by giving Ben Affleck (who wasn’t even nominated for the Oscar) their top prize for feature film–their nominations will help whittle the current race down to a solid crop of contenders.

Things to look out for tomorrow, when the DGA announces its annual nominees:

1) Joel and Ethan Coen

The Coens’ Inside Llewyn Davis has had a rough week. Days ago, they missed out on any love from the Producers Guild. Shortly thereafter, though, they nearly swept the National Society of Film Crtics’ awards. The film is polarizing audiences and industry figures alike, as the critics seem to love it, but the guilds are hesitant to reward such a peculiar, subtle film.

The highs and lows the film has seen over the last month don’t bode well for its once-promising position as a prime Oscar contender. The DGA aren’t fond of the Coens. They’ve won once for 2007’s No Country for Old Men, and Joel was nominated for Fargo in 1996. True Grit missed out on a nomination entirely, as did A Single Man, both of which were Best Picture contenders within their respective years. If Inside Llewyn Davis misses a nomination here, the film’s Oscar chances will drop drastically.

2) Ryan Coogler and 3) Lee Daniels

Along with Steve McQueen, both Coogler and Daniels have helped make 2013 a historic year for black filmmakers. Each has directed a film that was highly influential. Coogler’s Fruitvale Station riled overwhelming critical and precursor support (its name has consistently shown up everywhere from honorary critics’ awards to the Independent Spirit nominations).

Daniels’ The Butler might not be on the same trajectory to Oscar greatness as McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, but it has solidified itself as a legitimate hit with audiences worldwide, grossing $116 million domestically and another $45 million around the globe. Daniels has also established himself as perhaps the most prominent black filmmaker of the modern age, what with his 2009 film Precious also garnering intense awards season love. Both Coogler and Daniels represent the shifting landscape of American cinema, where black films and filmmakers are no longer voices the American public are afraid to hear, but rather ones they are willing to shell out money to see on more than just a fluke basis.

Daniels’ film is an epic of vast proportions, encompassing a huge ensemble cast (that was nominated over with the SAG, mind you), and shows the director’s ability to effectively helm material with a gargantuan scope. Coogler’s film is a bit small for the DGA’s taste, but Daniels could very well prove to squeak a nomination out of a guild that favors drama and spectacle not unlike that which he gave us with The Butler.

4) Alfonso Cuaron and 5) Steve McQueen

Both filmmakers have dominated the Best Director discussion since their respective films wowed festivalgoers at Telluride, Toronto, and Venice late last year. Both helmed fantastic films, and will become first-time DGA nominees tomorrow morning. The only problem is that their films are vastly different.

Gravity is a showy spectacle for the most part (not to discount its thematic and visual metaphors running throughout the film), while 12 Years a Slave is a challenging, gritty masterwork that remains firmly rooted in an emotional tone that lacks the grandiose, loud, overwhelming visual presence of Gravity. My money is on Cuaron for the win, but McQueen’s story would fit nicely into the narrative the Academy would like to weave (McQueen would be the first black director to win at the DGA or the Oscars, or both) what with their evolving image, membership, and taste.

Gravity fits within a narrative as well. In a year where, for the first time since 1997, a film with a female-driven performance rules yearly U.S. box-office (Catching Fire today surpassed Iron Man 3 as the year’s top-grosser), the Sandra Bullock-driven, one-woman show that is Gravity would be a welcome Best Picture winner for the Academy’s diversifying image. The DGA nominations for both men will tomorrow cement their positions as leaders within the race.

6) David O. Russell

Only nominated here once before (for The Fighter), even Russell’s heyday failed to impress the DGA. Even as Silver Linings Playbook swept the early awards discussion in 2012, his name was left off of DGA ballots in favor of Kathryn Bigelow, Tom Hooper, and Ben Affleck (Lee and Spielberg had been locks for quite some time). This year, his monumental achievement American Hustle is far too big for the DGA to ignore. He’s played the Oscar game so well, crafting three drastically different films over the course of four years, showing range, dynamism, and an ability to get three Oscar-winning performances out of his casts (along with another four acting nominations for other cast members). His on-set antics undoubtedly rub many directors the wrong way, but his achievements are no less significant. A nomination here will further fuel American Hustle‘s position as one of the top three contenders for Best Picture.

Though the DGA has little clout over Oscar nominations with the recent date changes (their announcement comes only one day before Oscar ballots are due), their crossover membership with the Academy is generally good for influencing winners once Oscar nominees are announced.

The Directors branch of the Academy tends to favor more independent, smaller films than the DGA, most likely because the guild itself is for the advancement of their craft, and showy films like Avatar or Argo encompass vast sources from all reaches of the industry, and people can easily see the spectacle a showy director creates. This is how you explain Tom Hooper getting in for Les Miserables last year over the likes of eventual Oscar nominees Benh Zeitlin and Michael Haneke.

The issue of Martin Scorsese has come up a lot, as well, and I just don’t see him making it into the race this year. His film is polarizing, and the film was released far too late in the year to have been a legitimate awards contender. Recognition for the film will come for the picture as a whole  when the Academy nominates it for Best Picture, a broad inclusion that doesn’t pinpoint anything specific is the least controversial route to go. Honoring Marty with a nomination implies that they agree with the film and its trajectory as a thematic vehicle, not just as a spectacle of superb film direction.

My predictions for tomorrow’s DGA nominations, ranked in order of potential:
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Without PGA Support, Can ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ Survive?

LLEWYN2013 introduced this interesting Oscar dynamic where, even if a film misses out on what used to be a key Oscar precursor, it’s resuscitated by intense love from another guild or group.

The cycle of pre-Oscar awarding has shifted from recognizing good films to celebrating the ability of the respective guild or group to champion the right film of the year, considering the Academy can no longer use the majority of these precursor awards as springboards for their own nominations (with the new schedule, winners generally aren’t announced during or after Oscar balloting has already commenced).

All we’re doing is dancing around in circles with a different crop of films each time we pass the 360 mark.

The recent highs and lows of Inside Llewyn Davis on the awards circuit couldn’t have more fittingly encapsulated the 2013 awards season.

Within a matter of days, the Coen brothers’ latest offering went without recognition from the Producers Guild of America–a key Best Picture Oscar prognosticator–to nearly sweeping the National Society of Film Critics’ annual awards.

The National Society of Film Critics’ top honors for Best Film were bestowed upon Davis, with other wins in the Directing, Actor, and Cinematography categories, each a category that other Oscar contenders have led across the board since the beginning of the season. Gravity‘s Alfonso Cuaron and 12 Years a Slave‘s Steve McQueen have dominated the Director race, while Chiwetel Ejiofor, Matthew McConaughey, and Bruce Dern have control the discussion on Best Actor.

The PGA turned a cold shoulder to the film (as have general audiences and other Oscar precursors), which undoubtedly hurts its chances (as crossover membership is a legitimate factor here, where it isn’t with the NSFC), considering Oscar ballots aren’t due for another three days. This will work in one of two ways:

1) Academy voters will read the headlines proclaiming “Coens Left Out of PGA Nominations” as a springboard for voting for something else (“If the PGA didn’t vote for it, why should I?” mentality)

or

2) Academy voters will read the headlines proclaiming “Coens Left Out of PGA Nominations” and use it as an opportunity to vote for the film in lieu of something else (my guess is that the film occupies the same space of appeal as something like Her or The Wolf of Wall Street).

Days before Oscar nominations, one thing remains clear: no one has any idea what they’re doing–or where the race is going.

Since 2000, only two films that the National Society of Film Critics have awarded their Best Film award have gone on to win top honors at the Oscars. The difference? The Academy’s preferential ballot allows films the NSFC generally goes for (polarizing, low-profile arty films) to succeed based on passionate enthusiasm. Since films can extend their reach into the Best Picture category like never before, the NSFC’s love for Inside Llewyn Davis (which doesn’t correlate with how Oscar voters will fill out their ballots) does prove that support for the film can be all-encompassing and firm despite typical precursors which are supposed to influence other precursors. This year, everyone seems to be doing their own thing.

On the Academy’s end, they tend to recognize the Coens when they’re doing something different. That might sound like it speaks for every film in the Coens’ library (evolving their style has become key to their recent work), but taking a look at the Coens’ Academy history, it’s not.

Inside-Llewyn-Davis-trailer-1877774A Serious Man rushed the Best Picture category the first year the Academy expanded the Best Picture category to include 10 nomination slots. Undoubtedly the wild card of the group, the film was boosted by staunch Coen supporters. A year after that, True Grit caught the Academy’s eye for being an uncharacteristically showy, genre-confined turn for the duo, and received a staggering 10 nominations without a single victory. 2008’s Burn After Reading, however, was completely left out of the Oscar race because, out of their most recent work, is more reflective of the classic work the Academy fell in love with in the first place (I like to think of it as Fargo-lite).

And then we have No Country For Old Men, perhaps the best work the brothers have done over the course of their entire career. It’s hard to compare anything to Fargo, let alone to an entirely separate work from an entirely separate period in the career of the most dynamic set of directors working today. No Country For Old Men exists as an entirely separate filmmaking fantasy roaming the stratospheres far and above just about every other film made over the last two decades. The film seemed to sweep awards season with the major critics circles (NYFCC, NBR) and key guilds (including PGA, SAG, and DGA) all the way to the Oscar for Best Picture.

Inside Llewyn Davis is perhaps the most drastic departure from their signature style that the Coens have taken in their entire career, and we know people (especially the Academy) aren’t comfortable with having their expectations challenged. It’s a film which starts as a playfully pessimistic peep into the life of a struggling artist but, as it concludes, is a depressing portrait of struggle making the art, not the artist spinning it for himself. It’s showy in a way that we haven’t really seen from the Coens, incorporating an extra-filmically appealing component–its soundtrack–that resonates in ways and places the film can’t. The majority of Academy voters–the guys in the sound department, for example–are going to tick off the more outwardly appealing films instead of the subtly challenging ones such as this.

When there’s a strong push for a Coens film, its almost always strong enough to break through to the Oscar race. Misfires and delvings into more commercially-appealing territory such as The Ladykillers or Intolerable Cruelty lacked even a critical push into the awards race, proving that voting members are actually paying attention to the Coens as directors with a standard of quality that’s tangible and ever-changing. It isn’t just a voting process that rewards the name. The passion for Davis is strong.

The industry as a whole learned its lesson after Fargo fell short of the prize in the 90s: when you go for the Coens, you must go big–and for the right picture–and I’m not sure they’re convinced Inside Llewyn Davis is that film. It’s still alive without PGA support, but this week’s DGA announcement will seal its fate–hopefully for the better.