Oscar Talk: Django Unchained, Amour, Flight and Skyfall

E: Rounding out the last best picture nominees, and the remaining films with the highest nomination total, I have an odd little quartet for you today.  An extravagant Western fantasy, a heartbreaking tale of a marriage’s ending, a tale of heroism and alcohol, and James Bond’s zesty new installment.  Yes, that’s right.  Skyfall is a five time Oscar nominee.  A Bond movie – because it’s a really, really well made Bond movie.

Django Unchained

This spaghetti Western/revenge drama tells the story of a man purchased from slavery to help a kindly, genteel bounty hunter.  No friend to slavery, the bounty hunter soon takes on the former slave as his assistant and colleague.  Together the two set out to rescue the freeman’s wife from the plantation of a snake-like villain named Calvin Candie.  That’s right.  His plantation’s called Candie Land, and it’s the hell into which our intrepid heroes must ride.

I find Quentin Tarantino just so damn frustrating.  He takes his topics and his characters seriously, and yet ridicules them to the same degree.  His movies are insane mash ups of genre films riddled with the unexpected – what was he thinking, peppering the film with Python-esque comedic pauses (Jonah Hill and Don Johnson prove particularly hilarious as dithering Klan members), raising tension to a nerve-jangling chill and then relieving it with violence so preposterously cartoonish and bloody that it snaps me right back out of his world?  It staggers me how much I can like and loathe his movies at the same time.  The gun fights and exploding corpses fly so far beyond belief that eventually they bore me.  Not another shoot ’em up that paints the plantation house’s white walls red!  Twice in the same damn half hour?  Yawn.  So I just have one question for you.  Do you like Quentin Tarantino?  If you do, you’ll probably enjoy this movie.  I did – exponentially more than the highly lauded Inglourious Basterds.  But I hated it, too, and I wouldn’t have watched it if it wasn’t nominated.

As far as the Oscars, let’s be honest – Christoph Waltz is really a lead here.  I don’t know why it is, but we’re weirdly unable to acknowledge there can be two lead male characters is a single film.  Latent homophobia?  Or is it just an overcrowded lead actor race?  This kind of thing happens all the time (remember Jamie Foxx being nominated for supporting actor for Collateral when he was the main character, but less of a star than Tom Cruise) yet it never ceases to annoy me.  That said, Waltz has an excellent chance of picking up his second supporting actor statuette for a Tarantino movie.  With wins at BAFTA and the Golden Globes, he’s more decorated than his lofty co-nominees.  And his character’s really delightful.  You like his Dr. King Schultz; you just can’t help it.  And though he’s a dangerous man, he doesn’t inspire the loathing of Colonel Hans Landa, Waltz’s previous winning role.  Of course, his victory is by no means assured; all four of his competitors have at least one Oscar in their back pockets, and brilliant roles to boot.  He’s no where near the shoo-in he was the last time.

The movie is perhaps more likely to pick up original screenplay, which would be Tarantino’s second such award (the first being for Pulp Fiction).  The film has virtually no chance in its other three categories – Best Picture, Cinematography, and Sound Editing.  But if it did manage to win the first two awards, it would become Tarantino’s most decorated film ever.

Amour

I keep wondering who I should recommend this beautifully made film to – and especially if I want to recommend it to those who’ve nursed a loved one through terminal illnesses – and I’m not sure if I can.  Anne and Georges are a lovely elderly French couple, sweet to each other, entrenched in their ways, living in beautiful communion in a gracious Parisian apartment with a grand piano and paintings on the wall.  But the day after seeing one of her former piano students perform, Anne suffers a stroke, a ghastly moment where she’s suddenly no longer present in her body.  If you’ve seen any image from this film, it was that one; Anne’s utterly vacant face framed in Georges’ hands. She recovers, but not completely.  An operation is planned to prevent further strokes, but instead it has the opposite result, and she returns home half paralyzed.

The film moves slowly through their lives, watching as the two establish a routine which is then upset by further declines in Anne’s health.  She has a wheelchair; then she gets a mechanized one.  Georges takes care of her himself, refusing the occasional offers of help from their rather emotional (and largely absent) musician daughter Eva; then he’s forced to take on caretakers, nurses.  The pair doesn’t want to talk or admit defeat. They’re polite, thoughtful of each other; they’re driven past endurance. Their dilemma is real, and painful, and terribly, achingly sad.

One aspect of this film that struck me was the isolation of their suffering.  Anne doesn’t want to be seen in her position (certainly not once her right hand curls into a claw as the paralysis wears on), doesn’t want pity, doesn’t want even to go on.  On the one hand, as the spouse of course the bulk of her (often humiliating) care falls to Georges, but I really wanted Eva to step it up and help over her father’s protests.  I’ve helped care for two of my grandparents through final illnesses, and I cannot imagine not shouldering that burden as a family.  That’s not the story Michael Haneke told, but he made me care so much about his characters that I wanted something better for them than the ending this (very French) movie provides.

Even without the subject matter, this isn’t a movie for everyone. Writer director Haneke makes really unAmerican choices; to start the film, we watch the audience at the concert, but not close enough to see their individual reactions, instead simply becoming part of the audience ourselves.  Often, his camera remains across the room from Anne and Georges, giving us the static feel of a spy camera eavesdropping on their troubles. We’re as close and yet as distant as the audience in the theater.  Several times, we spend minutes watching a pigeon wander their apartment; I can just imagine that driving my brother M up a wall.

Amour seems certain to win at least one of its five nominations; Best Foreign Film.  Of course, the frontrunner doesn’t always win, but it’s certainly the frontrunner. Of the four others, it has an very outside chance of winning director and original screenplay, and absolutely no chance of winning Best Picture.  Actress Emmanuelle Riva has nearly an equal chance of winning best actress along with Jennifer Lawrence and Jessica Chastain; her recent BAFTA win might indicate a surge in appreciation.  Though Riva’s task is by far the most physically arduous, moving from health to half crippled to merely moaning “hurts, hurts, hurts” in blind agony.  I’m sorry Jean-Louis Trintignant hasn’t received more attention for his work as Georges; seeing Amour makes me want to seek out early work for both marvelous lead actors.

Flight

Last fall when this movie came out, I didn’t want to see it.  It looked, I don’t know, predictable.  Too dark.  Too obvious an acting showcase for Denzel Washington.  And a weird movie for Robert Zemeckis,  the force behind cheery adventures like Forrest Gump, Back to the Future, Romancing the Stone and Who Framed Roger Rabbit.  I love those movies, don’t get me wrong, but none of that goes to show he can do a deep story about an alcoholic pilot who produces a miraculous, Sully Sullivan style landing of a crashing plane and is then caught in the press and NTSB maelstrom.  Oh, Zemeckis’s done less bubble gum work – Cast Away and Contact come to mind – but he’s big and fun and colorful.  So this just seemed odd.

But oh, wow, what a movie. From the very beginning, it casts a spell.  As Captain Whip Whitaker boards a plane drunk and high, you just can’t imagine where the movie will take you – even if you know in advance that the plane fails and that his experience and his improbable calm and control save almost everyone on board.

But of course, since 6 people lost their lives, there will be an investigation.  And there’ll be a scapegoat, oh yes.  The NTSB wants one.  The owner of the airline wants one.  Melissa Leo, in a masterful turn as the lead NTSB investigator, wants the truth to get out; Don Cheadle, as Whitaker’s brilliant lawyer, and Bruce Greenwood, as the head of the pilot’s union, are equally determined to protect Whip.  What does he really need, though, and what kind of life is out there for him beyond the investigation?

Flight is nominated for two Oscars – Best Actor for Denzel Washington, and best original screenplay for John Gatins.  One of Hollywood’s biggest stars, Washington puts his soul right out on the screen to gather up his first nomination in more than a decade.  I have to tell you right now, though I’ve only seen four of the five nominees for original screenplay, this is by far my favorite.  The characters are so sharply, truthfully drawn, so quickly established.  Personally I would have voted to nominate John Goodman as supporting actor here as Whitaker’s jovial drug dealer – he’s far more unique a creation than, say Alan Arkin’s movie producer in Argo.  Goodman has a really great knack of getting himself in top quality films; look at his record in the last few years and you’ll find him in last year’s Best Picture winner, The Artist, and this year’s presumptive winner, Argo, as well as nominated films Flight, Paranorman, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.  Not too shabby, especially since he did it while costarring on Community, Damages and Treme. Yet this beloved American icon has never been nominated for an Oscar.  What’re you waiting for, Academy?

At any rate, neither Gatins nor Washington has a hope of a win – Washington because he had the bad fortune to go up against the towering genius of Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln, and Gatins probably because he’s not well known and the movie generally doesn’t have a lot of buzz.  It almost doesn’t matter, though.  This is one of the best films of the year, so take that from this review – that you need to go out and rent it.

Skyfall

This is definitely my favorite Bond film of the post-Sean Connery era.  Yes, of course there are the stunning, exotic locations and the thrilling action sequences, but there’s also glorious cinematography, good acting, good action and smart writing.  Wow, what a gorgeous and cool movie!

I don’t want to ruin the workings of the plot for you.  Suffice it to say that Bond starts the movie pretty much dead, having been blown off a bridge by a colleague who was aiming for the man Bond was fighting on top of a moving train; M encouraged the colleague to take the dubious shot.  So of course their relationship is a bit more fractious than usual when Bond arrives back on the scene to try and recover – what else – the list of undercover agents stolen by the man on the train.  The locales (Turkey, Singapore, Scotland) are exotic, the beautiful (and exotic) girls swoon, and the car is a stunner.  There’s a new Q – the marvelous Ben Whishaw – and a sneaky dog of a bureaucrat nosing around M, played by the rather marvelous Ralph Fiennes.  Javier Bardem provides a Bond villain  – well, if not at his Oscar winning, shivery, creepy best, then at least with gusto, weirdness and some truly terrible blond hair.

I can’t imagine a scenario in which Adele’s “Skyfall” doesn’t win best song.  But I’m very strongly rooting for Skyfall to win another of its five nominations (score, sound editing and sound mixing being the others), that for Roger Deakins’s cinematography.  It amazes me that ten time nominee Deakins (long recognized as one of the greats) has never won this category, and his work here is poetry with line and motion.  Mr. Deakins, I’ll be crossing my fingers for you!

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2 comments on “Oscar Talk: Django Unchained, Amour, Flight and Skyfall

  1. P says:

    Great write up. You have made me want see all of the movies for different reasons than their ad campaigns.

    Since I often tease you on your entries, I thought I’d share my positive responses too.

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