A Rant of Rhyme and Reason: It’s Time.

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(Editor’s Note: If you’re wondering why I have not posted reviews the last two weeks… well, welcome to February! I have not been out to see a film by choice in quite a while. There’s just not a lot of quality stuff out this month and my outings have otherwise been to screenings for reviews that should be published soon. Regardless, I should be catching up on a few films over the weekend and next week, when some of my reviews will also be online to share. So stay tuned for those.)

I would like to start this opinion piece by thanking the Academy.

For all the criticism that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences gets – including the ubiquitous complaint that their voting body is too old, too white and too out of touch with the daring, essential films of the period – they have done some pretty good picking for their awards show this year, to be held this Sunday. My favourite movie of the year, Her, is nominated for Best Picture and four other awards, and Spike Jonze is the odds-on favourite to win Best Original Screenplay. My favourite animated movie of the year, The Wind Rises (which I saw at the Toronto International Film Festival but recently opened in theatres), is nominated for Best Animated Feature Film. My favourite subtitled film of the year, The Hunt, is a dark horse contender to win Best Foreign Language Film.

It is always easy to play “Monday Morning Quarterback” with the Academy, picking on whom they snubbed from awards glory the previous evening. When Crash defeated Brokeback Mountain in the most shocking Best Picture upset ever, author Annie Proulx – who wrote the short story Brokeback was based on – wrote a vitriolic response, calling the victor “Trash” and blaming its win on an overtly conservative Academy that was out of touch with contemporary culture. It also was not the only time the Academy barred a more daring film that captured the zeitgeist from the top honour in favour of a crowd-pleaser (see: Saving Private Ryan vs. Shakespeare in Love or The King’s Speech vs. The Social Network). After the Oscars, culture commentators take to the web, look into their imaginary crystal ball and declare something like this:

“I will NEVER watch those stupid awards ever again! How dare they give it to ‘Film X’ instead of ‘Film Y.’ In 50 years, ‘Film Y’ is going to be remembered as a magnificent milestone in cinema that people still talk about, film professors still teach, etc. ‘Film X’ will be forgotten in a week. People will look back at the Academy and ask, ‘What were they thinking?!’ You just wait and see. What a bunch of turds that Academy is!”

Well, we have finally come to a year where the Best Picture race is actually, well, a race. Normally, it is very easy to predict the night’s top winner. The film that wins Best Picture with the Producers Guild of America has an astounding success rate with capturing the top Oscar. If that remains true this year, then two films will tie for Best Picture: Gravity and 12 Years a Slave. (It is actually nice to not have a pretty confident feeling of what the envelope will read.) Regardless of which of those two films – and really, it is very likely to be either Steve McQueen’s true story of enslavement or Alfonso Cuaron’s sci-fi survivalist epic – the Academy has bestowed its honour on a deserving film.

The slogan on Los Angeles billboards for 12 Years a Slave’s campaign reads, “It’s Time.” That could be a vague statement for a poster aimed at Academy voters, until you look at the history. 12 Years a Slave marks a rarity for any Oscar-nominated film: it has a black Briton lead actor, a black Briton director and an African-American screenwriter, all with decent to very good chances of taking home Oscar gold on Sunday. If Ejiofor wins, he will be only the fourth black Best Actor winner in history, after Sidney Poitier, Denzel Washington and Jamie Foxx. If McQueen wins, he will be the first black director to ever take home the prize. In fact, 12 Years a Slave is only the second – yes, you read that correctly – Best Picture nominee in history to have a black director. (Would you believe that the first was Precious, only four years ago?!)

However, 12 Years a Slave should not be bestowed gold because it marks a turning point for black talent. It should win Best Picture because it is a good film. Does it deserve the top prize? In my opinion, yes, even though it did not make my top 10 films of 2013 list. It is a tough and uncompromising watch, as it should be. (Perhaps the “It’s time” slogan was directed at Academy members avoiding their screener DVD of the brutally violent film.) Like 1993’s Schindler’s List, it is a horrifying true story that is too remarkable to pass up and depicts a place, time and person in history that everyone should know about and learn about.

In the same way that Steven Spielberg’s Holocaust drama became a tool for education and a re-awakening of survivor testimony after its release, 12 Years a Slave has a good chance of doing the former. A recent effort to bring the book the film is based on into American high-school curriculum for slavery units has been a success. Meanwhile, the film manages to be a chilling portrait of history without succumbing to an overwrought, simplified dramatic arc. It’s a film filled with pain and almost no pleasure – and it should be awarded for its unnerving storytelling and excellent performances.

12 Years a Slave could be the first film to focus on the African-American experience to win Best Picture (the second if you count 1967’s In the Heat of the Night, although that was a more conservative film that had a white protagonist). On the other hand, Gravity could also make history by becoming the first science-fiction film to grab the top honour. As much as the Academy has neglected films that are not about white people, they also neglect films from genres more reliant on audacious stories, visual effects and computer-generated craftsmanship. Like Star Wars, another storytelling milestone renowned for its visual effects, Gravity is slated to win a slew of technical categories. However, Star Wars lost to Annie Hall, despite picking more awards that evening (seven for George Lucas’s space odyssey, four for Woody Allen’s relationship comedy). The Academy could bring Gravity, ahem, down to earth with a Best Picture loss.

But moviegoers should not doubt the pull that the critically acclaimed, box office behemoth has. Although it does not have a screenplay nomination – normally a stain against the film – it is just as visceral and terrifying a ride as 12 Years a Slave, but far more entertaining. Meanwhile, it boasts some of the most groundbreaking achievements in filmmaking – that 13-minute opening shot is probably already in the first line of DP Emmanuel Lubezki’s obituary – and it does so in the pursuit of creating a more authentic story environment, not empty bombast. Just as in the literary world, makers of science fiction content have been looking for the genre to be validated as one that is serious and worthy of merit in the cinematic realm.

Gravity is as important for what it does with filmmaking as 12 Years a Slave is essential for what it does with storytelling. Nevertheless, both films are deserving of Best Picture and all the rest of the Oscar gold they will likely receive. It is easy to look back at years when a surefire classic lost out to a film of lesser influence or quality and bemoan the Academy’s poor decision-making. When looking back at the race for the 2013 Academy Awards, it would be hard to decry either of these likely champions for triumphing over the other.

It’s time for a fine Oscar race between two very worthy, wonderful films.

The Essentials: Bernie (2011)

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Editor’s Note: I run the Essentials column at the end of every week, but last Friday, I decided not to write about Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused. Although it is one of the director’s most acclaimed and adored films, a repeat watch of the high-school comedy did not live up to an earlier viewing. Although the film has its merits, it was more lacklustre than I recalled. If you are interested in seeing Dazed and Confused, do check it out. It has a killer soundtrack and a great young ensemble of rising stars. However, it did not encapsulate the teenage experience with as much feeling or depth as I recalled, and thus I cannot highly recommend it or include it in my column.

A recent phenomenon in arthouse cinema is blending the realms of fiction and non-fiction. Documentaries like Clio Barnard’s The Arbor and Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell are hybrids of fiction, documentary, and staged reading and performance. The filmmakers recreate events that involved real people with actors portraying these roles, adding a meta-textual layer to stories already exploring the uncertainty of the truth as it pertains to cinema.

One of the most beguiling hybrids of true life with a larger than life representation on the big screen is Richard Linklater’s little-seen 2011 gem Bernie. The film tells the true story of a perplexing murder in the small town of Carthage, Texas in 1998. About three quarters of the film is historical fiction, with big stars portraying the characters involved in the true-crime story. Meanwhile, on the fringes of the story is commentary from the Carthage townspeople about the characters and their reactions to the escalating events. These people are interviewed and give their colourful insights straight to the camera, like in an A&E special.

Most of these people are real-life Carthage residents and these are their real thoughts on the title character, the woman he murdered and the bizarre incident that turned their town upside down. A few of them, however, are actors who have speaking roles along the bigger names in the cast. Until the end credits, it is difficult to discern who is speaking verbatim to the camera and who is reciting Linklater’s locally digested dialogue.

Bernie Tiede (played by Jack Black) was an assistant funeral director in Carthage, but even though he worked with the deceased, he was full of life. A bustling personality with bumpkin charm, Bernie befriended everybody he met, according to the locals. Stout and with a comical moustache, he was charismatic without being bawdy. As one of the Carthage residents recounts, “He had the ability to make the world seem kind.” Another talks about how Bernie always had his hand out for a shake. Beyond arranging and leading prim funerals, he had a captivating voice and directed local community theatre.

One of the D.L.O.L.s – or “dear little old ladies” – in town becomes the object of Bernie’s affection. Her name is Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine) and she is everything her beau is not. As much as the Carthage community approves of Bernie, they speak of her as if she was a ghastly plague. “She was just a mean, hateful old bitch,” one townsperson spits. Nugent was one of the town’s wealthiest residents, a recent widow when Bernie started giving her attention. She had an estate, kept to herself – mostly because nobody else, family included, could stand her wickedness – and was a rascally old prune before Bernie became her friend.

Bernie and Marjorie were a couple for a few years. They spent her money on lavish trips abroad and were genuinely happy together. However, the details leading up to the funeral director shooting her multiple times with an armadillo rifle and the several months between the murder and when authorities found her body in a freezer – ironic, considering Bernie’s meticulousness with other corpses in his mortician job – is a hot topic of gossip and speculation. The townspeople talk to the camera, speaking from house porches, local workplaces and diners. Meanwhile, Linklater and co-writer Skip Hollandsworth (a local journalist who actually covered the case) devise a persuasive tale to explain how the chipper, charming busybody who everybody adored could descend to a state where he could murder his friend and lover.

Linklater’s docu-comedy may have seemed outlandish if not for the participation of the townsfolk, who colour the story with funny and refreshingly off-the-cuff remarks about the crime and characters. Bernie also could have been too dour and off-putting if not for the exceptional performances and the deft way the director blends light and dark comedy in the more “fictional” sections of the film. Together, the townspeople’s commentary and the imagined scenes of what may have actually happened comprise a portrait of true crime that brims with humour, insight and suspense.

Through the hilarious, sometimes off-kilter commentary from real-life Carthage residents, many of whom are well into their senior years, Linklater makes you feel as if you know this community. The director situates the audience so well with Carthage life that Bernie becomes like a eulogy for the convict at its centre. Like Bernie, we are initially smitten with the goodness and sincerity of the folk speaking to the camera; however, we have to question their morality when they side with their funeral director friend when Davidson charges him. The locals’ aside start hilarious and become more darkly comic (and concerning) as the trial begins.

One of the keys to making this distinct blend taste great is the pitch-perfect performances, namely from Black and Matthew McConaughey, who has a small but perfectly suited part as the sleazy county district attorney, Danny Buck Davidson. Black has never been better as the affable and affectionate title character, drawing the audience into his charm but also giving hints of a calculating underside that ensure his turn into a murderer, liar and schemer is convincing. Black has both a booming presence and a sweetness that fits the man he portrays. McConaughey is terrific as the suspicious D.A., cunning with some of the other rag-tag criminals he’s dealt with but even more confounded by Bernie’s descent into vulgarity – and how quickly the locals side with the convicted man.

The extent that Linklater marries quirky, offbeat humour with a dark subject is quite miraculous. At one point, the story moves from the shocking gunning down of Marjorie to a musical sequence with Bernie front and centre, singing and dancing. In the opening scene, the title character leads a lecture about the right way to prepare a body for a funeral – giving such advices as not to overcosmetize and how showing the slightest hint of teeth could turn grief to comedy. The sequence is a playful mix of a macabre subject with tender comedy, setting the tone perfectly for the rest of the film.

Few films approach true-crime with as much complexity and comedy as Bernie, and the results of Linklater’s blend of fiction and documentary is fascinating, as well as an intriguing case study of East Texas anthropology. Told with joy, pathos and some bruisingly funny anecdotes – both real and imagined – Bernie is a post-modern classic.

A Rant of Rhyme and Reason: Why We Need the Bechdel Test More Than Ever

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Over the last few years, entertainment journalists, columnists and bloggers have referenced a system known as the Bechdel test to qualify how well major films treat their female characters. The Bechdel test gets its name from American writer and cartoonist Alison Bechdel, who co-wrote a 1985 comic strip outlining the rules of the concept. A film can only pass the Bechdel test if it contains A) two named female characters who, B) talk to each other about, C) something other than a man.

Some people who write about the Bechdel test insist that the rule is more of an amusement to poke fun about Hollywood’s gender bias than a serious test that needs to be adhered to. And they have a point. The classical studio system was a male-run domain and the vast majority of films featured male protagonists and had stories that came from the typewriters of male screenwriters. Meanwhile, female autonomy in many spheres of life was far more restrictive before the Bechdel test came to fruition as a clever plug on Hollywood patriarchy. Many of the finest films in Hollywood’s history, from Star Wars to Citizen Kane to much of Alfred Hitchcock’s oeuvre, do not even pass the meager rules on the list.

Of course, in today’s film marketplace, there are more roles for women, there is a greater visibility of female directors and screenwriters, and social conventions for the gender have changed so drastically from 30 years ago that superficially feminine caricatures are outdated. Right?

Not quite. It is true that there are more films starring female subjects aimed at a female audience that show more female-centric stories. In fact, some of the best are reeling in major coin at the box office, like Frozen, Gravity and The Heat. However, there is still a large number of major productions, as well as award-worthy independent features, that do not come close to passing the Bechdel test. It is worrisome that Hollywood is still failing the Bechdel test about as often as it passes it, 14 years into the 21st century.

Frighteningly, there is still a predominant ideology in the movie business. To attract studio funding and audience interest, the scripts producers want to see have – for the most part – male characters, struggles and dilemmas. Oh, and these men are mostly white and straight. Executives fear of what their film’s bottom line may look like if their productions have a female hook. This is strange, especially since females still comprise a bigger moviegoing audience than men. As Jennifer Kesler analyzed in a piece about Hollywood’s gender bias in screenwriting, Hollywood studios “still saw women the way Peter Pan saw Wendy: a fascinating Other to be captured, treasured and stuffed into a gilded cage. Where we did not talk. To each other. About anything other than men.”

Even this year’s Best Picture nominees have more films fail the test than pass it. Captain Phillips, Gravity, Her, 12 Years a Slave and The Wolf of Wall Street fail. American Hustle and Nebraska pass, but marginally. Dallas Buyers Club – the only of the nominees to have a female screenwriter, Melisa Wallack – and Philomena pass without debate. According to a website devoted to tracking films’ adherence to the Bechdel test, the last Best Picture winner to pass without argument is – wait for it – Crash, which won eight years ago.

The test indicates the lack of meaningful roles for women in the industry and ensures that we keep languishing in a cinematic atmosphere guided by the stories that only men, supposedly, want to see. The annual Celluloid Ceiling report released in January showed that only 16 per cent – fewer than 1 in 6 – of people who worked behind the scenes of the 250 highest-grossing films of 2013 were women, a percentage lower than in 1998, the first year the report came out.

If that is not a cause for alarm, then could it have to do with just a lack of female interest in the film industry? Well, since cinema is so overwhelmingly focused on telling male stories and connecting with male audiences, isn’t there a greater likelihood that those attracted into this creative industry were men? Well, yes – but I doubt that it would be at a five to one ratio of men over women. Four years after Kathryn Bigelow won an Oscar for The Hurt Locker – a film that did not come close to passing the Bechdel Test – women in major creative positions in Hollywood is still a rarity.

In 2013, only two of the top 100 grossing movies had female directors (Frozen and Carrie), while only five had female screenwriters. Female filmmakers still made fine films last year like Enough Said, Stories We Tell, In a World… and Blackfish, but I’m not holding my breath to see whether Nicole Holofcener or Sarah Polley get handed a tentpole production any time soon. Studios are more hesitant to give women the same chances they do with men. There is no issue giving big properties to newly minted directors likes James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy) and Marc Webb (The Amazing Spider-Man). In a blog post from German-born director Lexi Alexander (Punisher: War Zone), she writes that there is not a lack of female directors but “a huge lack of people willing to give female directors opportunities.”

The Bechdel test began as a joke in a comic strip. Nearly 30 years after its publication, it is no longer funny, merely an indicator of how little regard the entertainment industry still has for films filled of female characters who have stuff to talk about that are not the men around them. The Bechdel test is not a system for feminist righteousness, while its pervasiveness among cultural commentators is not a fluke: there are still major issues that need to be addressed regarding female representation in cinema. I am not insisting that Hollywood needs to be gender equal, but the stories it tells should be. And until female voices and creators get the credit they deserve, Hollywood will still get a poor report card on diversity by continually flunking the Bechdel test.

Review Monday: 2/10/14 (The Great Beauty, The Monuments Men)

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It is hard to explore the rich world of The Great Beauty (B), the winner of the Golden Globe for Foreign Language Film and a favourite to take that prize on Oscar night, without talking about the dreamlike sensations of Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini. Fellini had an enormous impact on European cinema, awakening it from its neorealist slumber and adding both satire and surrealism to his vivid looks at Italian life during the 1950s and 1960s. One could imagine the famed Italian directing this film with an aged Marcello Mastroianni. Instead, Il Divo director Paolo Sorrentino helms the vibrant yet indulgent drama with his frequent leading man, the droopy faced Toni Servillo.

Here, Servillo plays Jep Gambardella, a socialite and journalist beginning to look back at the triumphs and foibles of his life in the wake of his 65th birthday. He saunters through Rome’s avenues in the daytime, discusses the arts with his intellectual friends in the evenings and later throws rooftop parties until the sun rises. At one of his outdoor fiestas early in the film, people directly scream at the camera or give it an enticing wink. In this sequence, we sometimes move protagonist’s perspective. When we first get a glimpse of Jep, he is dancing into the frame. He looks like an unlikely superstar, chomping on a cigarette, his wavy gray hair sleeked back, dancing rigidly in a tailored suit while others gyrate ecstatically around him.

At the age of retirement, though, Jep is beginning to look back at the events of his life. He wills to embrace the whirlpool culture of the high life and not compromise with any decision for the rest of his days. “At my age, a beauty isn’t enough,” he explains. The gregarious Italian does have a few regrets: he never had any children nor pursued one of his young adult crushes, a woman who died recently but with whom he shared an erotic moment by the seaside he never forgot. He also settled for the life of a journalist, which although fulfilling, never gave him much of a chance to write a follow-up to a well-received debut from four decades ago.

As Jep, Servillo is boastful and brilliant, full of an acidic wit that speaks of a roaring reputation as a writer and cultural observer but also the deep sigh of a man walking around with the ghosts of his past tugging on his tailored sleeves. His first love’s death brings out Jep’s meditative mood. Death seems to be courting him throughout the film, from a man collapsing in the opening scene to the decaying state of the surrounding architecture. The protagonist swings in a hammock overlooking the ruins of the Colosseum, an apt visual metaphor for how he still bathes in his own glory yet is starting to contemplate both the storied history he left in ruins.

The Great Beauty is not a film that moves with purpose. The sparkling, sun-drenched scenery, is intoxicating but perhaps uninviting for impatient viewers who would prefer a less languid pace. The plot is propelled instead by random visits to art installations, performance pieces, splendorous palaces and ghostly mazes, a blend of hedonism and hilarity that evokes a tone that mirrors some of Fellini’s carnivalesque affairs. Some of The Great Beauty’s excursions, however, feel indulgent and a tad too brash once Sorrentino’s drama gets into some more heady emotional terrain. It’s a film that succumbs to its pleasure a bit more easily than the pain. One wishes Sorrentino and co-writer Umberto Contarello sprang some of the emotion behind the protagonist’s stony mask with more depth.

However, the film is a lush, lavish look at both the open city and the slowly opening socialite. Lele Marchitelli’s score shimmers as brightly as Luca Bigazzi’s dazzling imagery, adding a frothy touch that Jep would adore. Fellini would be impressed by Sorrentino’s sensitive, sensational look at la dolce vita.

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Meanwhile, another of my film reviews is now up on Toronto Film Scene. The Monuments Men (C+) is a well-made yet not very enthralling adventure that meanders too often between being two different kinds of movies: a rousing wartime adventure and a solemn historical drama. Despite some good performances, the film is a bit too sterile to wholeheartedly recommend. Check out that review here.

The Essentials: Slacker (1991)

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Richard Linklater was 30 when he made his first movie, a magnificent and meandering drama drifting through the malaise of a disengaged yet not quite apathetic generation of twenty-somethings. Slacker, shot for $23,000 and one of the most influential milestones of American independent cinema, was denied entry into Sundance yet likely inspired many of the filmmakers who venture to Park City’s festival today to pick up a camera and film what they know. What did Linklater know? He knew the lifestyle of Austin’s aimless graduates, a group of frustrated observers trying to make sense of the world but without the sense to take responsibility of their future. Had Linklater not titled his follow-up film about high schoolers in the Seventies Dazed and Confused, he could have given this film that title.

Linklater cast himself and around four dozen nonprofessional actors for a series of dialogue-heavy vignettes around West Austin. The authenticity of the setting and the dialogue would become a staple of the films he would later write and direct. These later films – Tape, SubUrbia, the Before trilogy – take place over a short time span, with scenes gliding into each other in real time. Linklater even acts as the first ‘slacker’ subject before exiting a taxi and having the camera follow another character, jumping to a different chapter and someone else’s reality.

Credited as “Should Have Stayed at the Bus Station,” Linklater’s broke and drifting neo-philosopher talks to a cab driver about a dream he had on the ride into Austin. He talks about a book he read in his dream, about the premise that every thought you have creates its own reality. He could have stayed at the station and hitchhiked with somebody else, but instead he decided to pay for a taxi, which brings him to a new state of being. In a way, the director’s meandering thoughts about the different states of reality guides the structure of the film. At any point, the camera could stick with one of the lost and delirious characters we follow for a few moments; instead, it tracks someone else entering the frame and moves into his or her life.

Included in this diverse set of vignettes is a woman trying to sell samples of pop star Madonna’s pap smear, conspiracy theory obsessives (whether the subject be John F. Kennedy’s assassination or how the American space program is a covert operation) and older teens throwing, defiantly, everyday objects that remind them of old girlfriends into a river. These city folk are lollygagging around without much of a schedule or destination. Many of these characters likely do not vote but it is not due to apathy. They just feel that there are more important things to do. “I’ll get a job when I hear the true call,” one character says, speaking to students conducting a survey about the working world. These folks just don’t want to enslave themselves to ideologies they don’t agree with.

What connects the various stories is a defiance of authority and a willingness to live on one’s own terms, no matter how offbeat and unproductive. There are old anarchists and young neo-poseurs on the same city block trying to make sense of an absurd world that has denied them a place. Linklater captures the feeling of aimlessness in ways that are funny and endearing, yet speak to a greater truth about the culture of the early 1990s. He has created a masterwork looking at what one character describes as “the immense effort required not to create.”

The casual rhythms and ramblings of the people from Slacker sound so much like conversation that it is hard to imagine that much of it came from Linklater’s pen. The dialogue is as colourful and intelligent as it is loose and circular. The people on screen may be slackers, but they are not lazy: they are just moving to the rhythms that the rest of the world has afforded them and they are not set to change the pace. The camera eavesdrops on conversations both fascinating and banal, and Linklater (working with director of photography Lee Daniel) makes a terrific use of a fluid, tracking camera that walks as the characters talk.

The film goes through both the angst and tedium of an aimless adulthood, as well as the exhilarating freedom of not needing to be tied to any principles or ideologies. With Slacker, Linklater enjoys stepping into other’s people shoes, but he is more concerned with explaining ideas than telling stories, or treating the people we meet as people and not characters. Few of these drifters have anywhere urgent to be and so we just observe their wanderings into funny thoughts, conversations and confrontations.

Isn’t it the role of independent filmmakers to broaden the scope of what an audience thinks is cinema by having them enter frames of mind and different realities that we have never experienced before? Audiences are so tied to the familiar and conventional that Linklater’s debut resonates even greater than he likely ever dreamed. Slacker is a work of mania and misery that defined a generation by bringing their malaise of the mainstream into close-up. The film is not as much the work of an amateur as it is that of an ethnographer.