Oscar Talk: Anna Karenina, The Sessions and Paranorman

E: Two weeks from the big night, friends, and the movies I have left to see tend to be smaller ones.  Fewer nominations, or less important ones.  That doesn’t mean they’re not worth your time, however. I’ll try to go as light on spoilers as possible.

Anna Karenina

For the third time, director Joe Wright teams with his muse Keira Knightley to bring us a fresh take on the 19th century Russian classic; the tragic adultery novel re-imagined as a stage play.  I heard a team of academics discuss how apt the conceit is; Russian court life was about performance.  And you can tell just from the advertisements how stunningly beautiful this version is, with it’s sweeping camera work and luxurious costumes; it was a joy to behold.  The costumes, particularly, feature twists on your average costume drama – asymmetry and a decided lack of ornamentation.

The thing is, I’ve always resisted reading this book and watching film adaptations up to now.  I’m not a huge fan of infidelity dramas, or the judgmental Victorian unhappy ending, or what I like to think of the “put a likable woman in a crap situation and then punish her for it” plot.  (Actually, I shouldn’t confine that by gender because of course there’s Jude the Obscure, but still, it feels like it’s mostly women.)   What I like even less about this particular story, now that I’ve steeled myself to see it, is that I can’t buy the love which causes Anna to throw away her life.  At least in Ju Dou the audience sympathizes with the leads before the movie turns on them – and you know when I’m unfavorably comparing a movie to Ju Dou we’re in trouble.  Now perhaps Tolstoy’s point was that Count Vronsky is unworthy of Anna’s love, that her descent is folly unmitigated, and maybe that’s why I’ll never go on to read the book. I can’t help feeling that the filmmakers wanted us to laugh at Vronsky, with his preposterous hair and his scraggly mustache and his nose in the air.  Shouldn’t we share some of Anna’s lust for him, even knowing it’s foolish?  But no.  There’s no point at which he merits any of it, and no point at which I wanted her to succumb to his dubious charms, and so at virtually every point watching Anna fall was agony.

For a while this fall there was speculation that Keira Knightley might receive her second Oscar nomination, but as soon as the critics started giving out there awards, it because clear there were a host of contenders with more buzz.  There was no way the physical, artistic aspects of this production would be overlooked, however; it’s profoundly beautiful.  In all it received 4 nominations, for cinematography, score, costume design and production design, and it has to be considered a threat in each one.  Though the costume race boast a particularly crowded cluster this year (Snow White and the Huntsman, Les Mis and Lincoln all produced strong, gorgeous work; two time winner Eiko Ishioka died before she could receive her 8th nomination for Mirror, Mirror), it’s hard to imagine Jacqueline Durran’s 1870’s gowns seen through a 1950s couture lens being bested for sheer aesthetic impression.  The film has to be considered a contender for Seamus McGarvey’s cinematography, as well.  Though less likely, when we consider that the beautifully made Lincoln doesn’t have quite the awards momentum it deserves, Anna Karenina could even sneak in wins for Dario Marianelli’s haunting score and its enchanting production design as well.

The Sessions

So sometimes, when you’re an Oscar Watcher, you end up checking out movies that don’t have obvious appeal.  You might, say, end up watching a lush costume drama based on a book you’ve spent your life avoiding.  On the other hand, you might watch a strange little true story where the protagonists spend their time with their clothes off, and like it better.  Catholic poet and journalist Mark O’Brien, rendered immobile by polio since the age of seven, decides he wants to lose his virginity when he hears (through the course of his work) of a center for sex and the disabled, and something called a sex surrogate.

I expected to like this movie for it’s well reviewed performances; what I didn’t expect at all was how much I laughed.  After all, what’s a guy to do if he’s not going to make it on the football team?  He develops his sense of humor.  Mark is tender and sweet but also mordantly funny, and his conflicting desire to make a life for himself despite his knowledge of his frailties and his guilt makes him enormously appealing.  Lying on his back on a gurney, Mark spends a great deal of time discussing his choices with his supportive priest, played by a shaggy haired William H. Macy; between content and delivery, you can’t not laugh.  It’s hard to explain how someone can be so inert (Mark can only move his head, tapping out his poems and dialing the phone with help of a stick tipped with an eraser) and yet also so alive.

Of course, he also spends a great deal of time with sex surrogate Cheryl, who coaxes new sensation from his polio wasted limbs.  Mark can’t directed his limbs, but he can feel; Cheryl’s a strange, wonderful combination of frank teacher, therapist and hooker. As a married mother, her challenge is to awaken Mark’s body without engaging his emotions – or hers.

Though it certainly deals with the Catholic prohibition on pre-marital sex, the film never really engages the issue on a level with consideration for Catholic theology. Instead, people with less than a frank view of sex are treated as guilt-mongering; there’s an odd and lovely scene at the film’s end with a Jewish ritual, mikveh, where Cheryl (a convert, though one who doesn’t need the advice) is encouraged to see her body and love it as God intended.  “I think Jesus would give you a pass on this one,” Father Brendan decides when Mark asks if he has the go ahead to find a therapist.  It’s understandable, of course – this poor man who spends his life in an iron lung ought to get what pleasure he can from his broken body – but I can’t help thinking it would have been interesting to see someone speak for the Church rather than just marginalize it as vindictive.

That the film’s sole nomination comes in best supporting actress for Helen Hunt as therapist Cheryl is something of a shock; John Hawkes was considered a lock for best actor, and perhaps the only person with a shot at beating Daniel Day-Lewis for the prize.  Oscar loves a disability, and Hawkes was extraordinary, so it’s difficult to understand why this happened. Perhaps the subject matter was off-putting to older voters?  Or because he moves so little, it seemed like less of a feat?  I remain in awe simply of the way he found to hold his body, rib cage distended, limbs oddly limp.  Hunt receives her second nomination, the first after her win for 1997’s As Good As It Gets; the nomination is her award.   Hawkes, too, would have been up for his second nomination after his supporting nod for Winter’s Bone.  Certainly he doesn’t have the name recognition or star power of Denzel Washington and Bradley Cooper, but none the less remarkable for that.

Paranorman

Take the conventional story of an oddball who conquers the misunderstanding of those around him and saves the day, and mash in bits of other stories –  a boy who talks to the dead (Sixth Sense), a prophecy (Harry Potter), a vapid and determined older sister (Phineas and Ferb), a vengeful witch from local legend (Blair Witch Project), and zombies (like, everything), and you have Paranorman.  Young Norman has a shock of black hair standing straight up on his head (no lightning shaped scar, though) and thick eyebrows like black licorice.  He has sweet conversations with his grandma, who watches horror movies with him; eventually we find out that Grandma is dead, and no one else in the family believes Norman can really talk to her.  My favorite sequence in the film follows Norman on his walk to school, where he cheerily interacts with an empty street full of ghosts only he can see.

Most of the film’s other characters look like they’ve been passed through a funhouse mirror: tilted and sloping heads, weirdly enlarged body parts, thicken thighs or stomachs or shoulders.  And that’s the living.  Because, yes, we meet quite a few undead when a 300 year old witch’s curse forces them up from the ground.  Norman and his band of squabbling misfits must save the day – although the real challenge turns out to be figuring out what and who to save it from.

I’m not quite sure what age this film is aiming at – there are the requisite references and jokes aimed at the parents, of course, but it’s gross and frightening for little kids and not actually scary enough for older ones.  2012 saw a strange profusion of horror-themed kids movies, including Paranorman, fellow nominee Frankenweenie (the expansion of Tim Burton’s 1980s short), and huge hit Hotel Transylvania.  This film is nominated for Best Animated Feature, a category which seems likeliest to go to meghit Brave or critical darling Frankenweenie.

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