Blog Archives

The Oscars: Why Birdman’s More Deserving Than Imitation Game but Cumberbatch Might Just Edge Out Keaton

Birdman
Grade: A

The Imitation Game
Grade: B

The Imitation Game, like many good films, follows the filmic formula created by the slew of its predecessors. Take your ingredients—a clean script, well-written dialogue and ripe actors—toss them in the bowl with a handful of significant history, some heart, and a dash of humor and let your concoction stew. If you’re lucky, if this combination is cooked just perfectly, the blend of star-power and story-importance just right, your film will end up an Oscar contender.

Only, there’s a big difference between an Oscar-contender and an Oscar-winner, and The Imitation Game will not win the Academy Award for Best Picture. It will not. Iñárritu’s Birdman or Linklater’s Boyhood can and will claim the golden statue on February 22nd.

Or at least they should.

the-imitation-game-benedict-cumberbatch-2What it comes down to is longevity. Award shows, especially ones as well-regarded as the Academy Awards, owe it to film history to choose the films that will stand the test of time. Will we remember the film in five years? Will we recall the grin on our face and the thoughts racing through our head as we watched it? Will we still be talking about it, comparing it to other films, deeming it the model to which others can aspire to? We’d better. That’s what I want in my Best Picture winner and that’s precisely why The Imitation Game won’t win, but Birdman very well might.

The Imitation Game tells the untold story of Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch)—master code breaker, mathematical genius and closeted homosexual during World War II tasked with the challenge of cracking Germany’s unbreakable code and helping the Allies win the war. Turing’s biggest obstacle is not Hitler, but other people’s ignorance, not only due to their inferior mental capacities, but also their inability to appreciate his contributions to the war effort while being blinded by the perceived-indecency of his illegal homosexuality.

Is The Imitation Game an important story? Yes. Does it deserve its telling? Of course. Sometimes, that is good enough. As a person who values stories, ones on the screen or otherwise, I appreciate moments that prove the necessity of storytelling and The Imitation Game is, arguably, a more necessary story than Birdman. The Imitation Game has the power to change people’s perspectives, make them approach history, diversity and humanity in a new way and that accomplishment is powerful. But Best Picture winners can’t simply be important. We’re not awarding the best “subject” or the best “topic” the golden statue. The award must also be about craft. The winner must push the boundaries. It must be a game-changer.

The Imitation Game did not twist the filmic-formula enough. It followed the rules. Birdman, on the other hand, pushed the boundaries of style, morphed the conventions of storytelling, and blurred the lines between truth and fiction in ways that engage its viewers beyond simply causing basic feelings of joy and anguish. Birdman follows Riggan’s (Michael Keaton) Hollywood comeback as he puts everything he has into a failing Broadway play to prove to himself, and the world, that he’s still relevant and not just the man in the bird costume from the blockbuster superhero flicks of his past. Shot in a way to look like one continuous take, peeking in on its cast of characters, sneaking up on them in their natural habitat, the camera doesn’t so much as highlight the action as it does chase it down. The result is interactive, involving the film’s viewers, begging them to analyze, urging them to change their mind, all the while playing with form in ways that support the film’s complexities. No two viewings will yield the same analysis. No two screenings will cause the viewer to reach the same conclusion at its completion. Birdman is art in the truest form, providing just enough to point you in a direction, but trusting you to fill in the blanks however you see fit.

Birdman doesn’t say too much. It doesn’t scream its meaning at you. It asks you to decipher for yourself. Its themes are vast and complex—truth versus reality, art versus commercialism, ego versus craft and at its center, the universal quest for validation. And what we come to see again and again and again, is that any attempts at validation don’t matter. Fame is not based on skill, or credence, or hard work, but entirely on chance. Riggan’s success and failure is not his own—it’s a result of critics, viral videos, and the shenanigans of his co-stars—it has nothing to do with talent. In an endless attempt to find truth, real truth, the curtain is simply raised on more and more illusion. What is real in show business? What is real in life? We’re all playing a role. The actors are simply playing a role of playing a role. We pretend to be chasing reality, but really we’re all just basking in illusion. “Truth is always interesting,” Mike (Edward Norton) tells Sam (Emma Stone) in one of their many games of Truth or Dare, but the film would say otherwise. Truth is only interesting because it’s unobtainable. We’re all meandering and chasing it down in endless loops and knots, just like Iñárritu’s camera, just like the maddening film industry, just like Riggan’s life. And for what? The struggle for validation never goes away. “You don’t matter,” Sam tells her father. No one does. The struggle is the only thing that does, it’s the only place where our story is truly authentic. Fame and recognition is a monster we can’t predict, a puzzle even Turing couldn’t solve.

Read the rest of this entry

Advertisements

Let the Moments Seize You: A Review of Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood”

Grade: A

Sometimes, we count on a movie to pull us out of something, out of ourselves, out of our rut, our emotional hole, or funk. Sometimes, we lean on the stories we hear and watch more than we should. We expect them to mirror our own lives perfectly so that the act of relating to the story makes us feel better. By relating to someone else’s tale, we feel normal. By seeing the characters come out of their low points, we know we can and will come out of them too. We see the bigger picture for what it is—bigger than the present.

BoyhoodRichard Linklater (Dazed and Confused, the Before Series) has teamed up with long-time collaborator Ethan Hawke (who plays Mason Sr. in the film) for a movie that’s the first of its kind. Filming a little each year over the course of twelve years, the film follows the actual growth of its characters and the physical evolution of its actors. The story centers around Mason (Ellar Coltrane) who starts out an adorable six-year-old boy in trouble for trying to make rocks into arrowheads using a pencil sharpener and spending too many hours gazing out the window at school. By the film’s completion, he’s evolved into a full-blown adult, just as contemplative as he was in the beginning of the film, but entering the next great phase in his life: College. We follow the family through all their ups and downs—all their moves, career changes, and new and failed marriages. Hawke’s Mason Sr. evolves from a wild, absentee, young dad to the tamed, mini-van driving father of a new baby. All the while, Mason’s mother, Olivia (Patricia Arguette) makes mistake after mistake in her oftentimes fruitless attempts to make life better for her two children. We get the family’s whole history and every physical transformation without the makeup, fat suits, or multiple actors often clumsily employed in a drama in order to depict the passing of time. No miscast younger versions of the title character. No caked on stage makeup. Linklater’s Boyhood is different. It’s special. His characters have grown and evolved as the actors have—every gained pound, grayed hair, and alternating style.

And we get to watch the transformation.

Despite the spectacle of this film being both ingenious and the first of its kind, my initial reaction after leaving the theater was of slight disappointment. I guess I was looking for a little something more relatable in Boyhood. Relatable to my experience. Thankfully, this feeling was only my initial reaction. After thinking it over, I changed my mind completely and my feelings of letdown were immediately replaced with awe. I wasn’t approaching the film in the right way. I wanted a film that was entirely my childhood experience with all its specificity, angst, and thrill. I wanted to leave the theater with a new perspective on my past from having watched someone else’s. I wanted this film, like many have in the past, to provide answers to my own questions. To boost my spirts. To offer clarity where there was none.

BoyhoodUnlike Mason, I was not born in the late 90s. I didn’t grow up with divorced parents. I never had to deal with alcohol or physical abuse in my family. I wasn’t ever lazy in school. I didn’t party as hard as the average teen. I didn’t have a cell phone before the age of 15. I didn’t ever live in Texas and have to state the Texas anthem after the Pledge of Allegiance each day in class (a scene in the film that got a lot of laughs from the audience). For a story about growing up, I was upset that Mason’s coming-of-age was so different from my own. I was upset that I couldn’t relate directly to his experience. But then I noticed something: Throughout the entire film, the movie audience knew just how to react—just when to laugh, just when to coo, just when to cringe, just when to sigh—and I realized that this audience was entirely relating to Mason’s story. The entire film, to them, was an inside joke they were thrilled to be let in on. And this was not an audience of all 18-year-old boys, like Mason. This was a mix of males and females, twenty-somethings and teeny-boppers, the middle-aged and the senior citizens. If they could laugh, if they could sigh, if they could identify with Mason’s story, why couldn’t I?

And that’s when I realized I was approaching the film all wrong. The film’s goal wasn’t to make you identify with the specific events that happened to Mason, but instead it sought to make you relate to the act of experiencing experiences. Your experiences. The string of experiences that make up a life. The moments. Yes, Mason’s coming-of-age story was not my story, but despite this, I did play trampoline games with my siblings when I was young, as Mason did. I did blow bubble-gum bubbles as big as my face and wait for my sister to pop it. I have cried over a bad haircut. I have bonded with my father over The Beatles. I have ordered queso at 3 am after a night on a college campus. I have moved far away from home. I have seen endings come and wondered why.

By filming one story over the span of twelve years, Linklater is expertly able to create a comprehensive study on human life. Specifically, the pace at which life flies by. What I came to realize is that Boyhood wasn’t so much about the things that did or didn’t happen to Mason in his life, the story was about how life, in general, is made up of these seemingly inconsequential memories. It’s about the timing of the events. The pace of life. The changes. The amount of changes. The speed of the changes. The footprint those changes leave. Linklater captures this unseen, abstract idea of growing-up. The actual feeling of it. And he does this by cramming twelve years into just under a three hour movie. This makes perfect sense. When we sit back and recall our life’s story, our major memories, we don’t list them all, we only have our key moments. And they’re the key moments that have made up a life that, in a blink of an eye, has come and gone.

And that’s something we all can identify with – the ever-morphing past, present and future. The string of events and memories and instances that make up a life and the complex ways in which those memories are plotted and sewn into the fabric of our lives. No two childhoods are the same, but despite what happens to us in our individual growth, the progression of life, the very act of growing up, is universal. We grow. We identify with the fluidity, the constant change, the inertia of life. Despite what happens, we’re always moving. And life and childhood and adulthood fly by and it’s only the key moments, the key glimpses into a life that may seem inconsequential (like bowling without bumpers, and drinking our first beer) that make up who we are and who we become. Our memories become an epic movie with fast cuts and holes and quick scenes. And we choose to remember the ones that explain who we are in the best way. As Mason and his new friend theorize at the end of the film (albeit a bit stoned in the mountains), it’s not the moments we seize that matter, but the moments that seize us. We all have a lifetime of moments. It’s what we make of them that shape us. It’s those individual moments, whatever they are and however they’re strung together, that make all of our coming-of-age tales one in the same.