I’ve seen most of the Academy Award nominee films this year and talked to friends about them often. My friends know I’m a movie geek and that I occasionally write about films so they like to know what I think or tell me why they disagree with my opinions. (I’m not naming my Oscar winners here, but I may let something slip in this essay.)
Most of these films I’ve seen with friends and their reactions are often quite interesting. If they find the major characters unappealing or boring, they decide they don’t like the film, no matter how excellent it is in every way (including the performance of the disliked character). This puzzles me.
For instance, in the late 2014 film Mr. Turner, JMW Turner is depicted from mid-career on as he becomes recognized for his magical, almost mystical, seascapes and landscapes. He’s not upper class, he’s a man of the middle class at best. His father, a former barber, acts as his assistant in the studio. Timothy Spall portrays Turner as crude and rough, both in speech and actions. He’s unkind to his employees and probably not pleasant company. But his paintings are gorgeous and the Mike Leigh film is insightful and beautifully made. It received outstanding reviews and a Metascore of 94 out of 100 on metacritic.com.
The friend I saw the film with hated the Turner character and didn’t care for the film much either.
Another film I loved (and have seen twice) is Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. After I first saw it in July, I wrote that it’s “a beautifully edited story of a boy growing into a young man. That’s all. Just life, compressed into 164 minutes. The transitions of age and family change are done so smoothly that sometimes you miss them. The film is rich in conversation (that often seems improvised, although it isn’t) about life, its meaning and potential.”
A friend who also saw the movie thought it was boring. She found the boy unappealing and none of the characters interesting.
In the first place, I don’t agree with that view of Boyhood. And I don’t think whether you happen to “like” the characters has anything to do with the nature, quality and excellence of the film.
In Whiplash, directed by Damien Chazelle, JK Simmons plays a jazz band coach, who is blunt, unkind, even physically brutal to the teenaged musicians. A despicable character, surely? But that doesn’t mean the film and Simmons’ performance aren’t Oscar-worthy. (Whiplash received an 88 Metascore.) Take a look at Simmons with the teenaged drummer played by Miles Teller.
Birdman was another brilliant film, directed by Alejandro Iñárritu. Although it’s nominated (and may well win) best film and has received excellent reviews (88 on Metacritic), it seems to really divide viewers. Many people I talked to about Birdman said they hated it and hated Michael Keaton and his character. I just don’t understand what that has to do with your opinion of a film. The premise and plot of Birdman is brilliantly creative, the acting is superb and it’s astute about ego and aging—plus the cinematography is outstanding. (Yes, I would be happy if it wins best film.)
The Third Man. I just watched The Third Man, the 1949 Carol Reed film starring Orson Welles and Joseph Cotton, for the fifth or sixth time. (I’ll write about this gorgeous early noir film in a later post.) Harry Lime (Welles) is a thoroughly despicable character and Holly Martin (Cotton) is an ineffectual American writer in Vienna just after World War II. Neither of them is likable or admirable. But how could that possibly change your view of this epic film?
The art is what it is
I’ve written about this topic before: Love the art even if you don’t love the artist. My point is that the work of art deserves to be viewed on its own, separately from the artist. In April, I wrote about the documentary on photographer Vivian Maier, which depicts her (through interviews) as controlling and mean to the children she cared for. I said that I don’t care about that. I appreciate her work for what it is. Brilliant, engaging images of humanity.
And I added a comment about Woody Allen, who some believe is a horrible, perverted, child-abuser. And he may be that. Or not. Either way, that doesn’t affect the nature of his films or whether I want to see them or appreciate them. The art is what it is.
And finally, there’s Bruce
Of course, there’s a Bruce Springsteen corollary. (Isn’t there always?) Springsteen does not hide his political views; he’s a committed blue-collar liberal. He expresses his views in his songs (especially in his recent albums, Magic and Wrecking Ball). In every concert he takes a few minutes for what he calls his PSA, where he criticizes the current administration (especially under Bush 43), demands punishment for those who caused the financial crisis and help for those who are in need. This drives his conservative fans crazy. (I know because I’ve gone to plenty of concerts with some of them. And I love them anyway.) But those fans love his music—his stories, his lyrics, his melodies, his performance, his band. They appreciate his art for what it is.
Here’s Bruce singing about “Death to My Hometown,” brought about by the banksters. “Send the robber barons straight to hell,” he sings, to the cheers of this huge crowd at the Isle of Wight festival in 2012.
The Chicago International Film Festival is a wealth of great and, if not so great, at least very intriguing, filmmaking from all over the world. I’m not through using my CIFF tickets this year, but here are two terrific films I wanted to tell you about.
Birdman, directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, 119 minutes
I saw Birdman Saturday night, the only night it was shown at the festival. This is sort of a preliminary review of Birdman because I’m still thinking about this very creative piece of filmmaking. Is it the film of the year? Maybe. It’s an hypnotic film, partly because of the amazing cinematography. It’s also the most wildly creative film I’ve seen in a long time. Joyous, high energy, madly manic … and sad.
I loved all the long tracking shots following actors down the backstage corridors of old theaters, mainly the St. James Theatre on 44th Street. Actually, it was probably the backstage theater nature of this film that made me like it so much. The street scenes in the theater district and from the theater roof were fabulous. In one scene, the Edison Hotel on 47th Street, where I stayed last year, makes a cameo.
The performances by Michael Keaton and Edward Norton are gnarly, gritty and masterful. (Norton’s performance made me go back and watch Fight Club again. A great film, but not a fun film. It’s one that gives you a lot to chew on.) There’s been some criticism about Birdman’s plot and about Keaton’s character, the unravelling actor whose success is in the past. But there is substance to the film in Riggan’s angst about his career and his life and how he approaches regenerating both. I don’t agree with David Edelstein that this is an “empty masterpiece” or “a triumph of vacuous virtuosity.” Most critics gave it high praise. But okay, we can say it’s not Hamlet. I do want to see it again soon. The film opens Thursday the 23rd.
Algren, directed by Michael Caplan, 87 minutes
This excellent documentary about icon of the Chicago literary underworld Nelson Algren was directed by Chicago filmmaker Michael Caplan. It’s a fine film with interviews with many interesting artists and journalists he inspired. Ernest Hemingway, an Algren admirer, said he was second only to William Faulkner as a literary giant. The film comes alive with a treasure trove of black and white photos by Art Shay, the great Chicago freelance photographer who shot for Life, Time, Sports Illustrated and many other national magazines. Shay and Algren met in 1949 and collaborated on many projects over rhe years. Shay took photos of Simone de Beauvoir, the French feminist writer who became Algren’s lover and spent time with him in his Wabansia Avenue apartment (when she wasn’t in Paris with Jean Paul Sartre). Among other things, we learn that Nelson and Simone “fucked in Stuart Brent’s bookstore.”
The fascinating interviews in Caplan’s film include Studs Terkel, musicians Billy Corgan and Wayne Kramer, filmmakers John Sayles, Wiliam Friedkin and Philip Kauffman, Northwestern professor Bill Savage, journalist Rick Kogan and photographer Shay.
Algren wrote Man with the Golden Arm, A Walk on the Wild Side, The Neon Wilderness and the marvelously poetic book of essays, Chicago: City on the Make. Algren never gained the reputation that his writing deserved because he wrote about bums, drunks, junkies and prostitutes–the denizens of the neighborhood he loved centered around Damen and Division streets in the mid-20th century. (I’m glad Algren isn’t around to see what that neighborhood is like now.)
The film features music and music direction by Wayne Kramer of the Detroit rock group MC5 and a closing song to “Chicago” by Billy Corgan. Check out the trailer for the film. It surely will show up at the Gene Siskel Film Center or the Music Box.