Sunday, February 15, 2015

Oscars!: Selma

Movie: Selma
Nominations: Best Picture, Best Original Song ("Glory")

Okay, so if you have't seen Selma? Go see it. Go see it now.

It is a shameful thing that the only nomination it got was Best Picture -- it deserved more, many more. Ava DuVernay should have gotten a directing nomination -- her work was incredible. David Oyelowo should have gotten a Best Actor nomination. Paul Webb should have gotten a screenplay nod. It deserved all of these things, as its nomination for Best Picture shows, but it got none of them. I am still and will continue to be incensed over this. It was not right. It is my vote for Best Picture even though I am afraid it will be ignored.

Tom Wilkinson and Tim Roth were brilliant as LBJ and George Wallace, respectively, but even more brilliant is the choice to relegate them both to the sidelines of the movie. It's not their story; it's the story of the people, and of MLK as one of the leaders of those people. (Also also, Nigel Thatch was incendiary in the one scene he had as Malcolm X. He just owned the screen -- truly amazing). But Oyelowo was just... really, really good. One of the problems with a lot of discussion of MLK Jr. is that we tend to focus on the inspiration rather than the man, and this movie manages to show both. We see the way he moved as a lynchpin within the movement, holding its fragile alliances together, even as he himself was torn and fractured about what was happening and his responsibilities to his family, not to mention the whole not wanting to get horrifically killed and tortured thing. His performance is solid and magnetic, and yet DuVernay and Oyelowo manage to, as MLK Jr. endeavored to do himself, keep the focus not on him, but on the events around him and the people he is trying to lead. This is an ensemble piece, a community piece, and it's really a work of art.

You know, we as a nation are in danger of turning a blind eye to this part of our history in favor of the hatred it fought. Ignorance is not acceptable as a defense. These things happened, and they are in danger of happening again if we do not keep up the struggle, as Ferguson shows. Selma is... brave. It's important. It is really just excellent, and it deserves more than the establishment is willing to give it. Go see it. Vote with your dollars. Make your voice heard.

Oscars!: Whiplash

Movie: Whiplash
Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Supporting Actor (J.K. Simmons), Film Editing, Sound Mixing, Adapted Screenplay

So, this film is intense. A kid who's really driven and not terribly socially adept gets into one of the best music schools out there because he wants to be a jazz drummer, and meets up with the hard-ass, brilliant, auteur prof (J.K. Simmons) who really just wants to make the next jazz great by pushing someone good until they excel (or break). Is that so much to ask?

Whiplash is a hell of a ride. It's the director's first film (he wrote and directed it) -- he couldn't get funding for it (and it was shot on a shoestring, basically) and so he made it into a short film and took it to Sundance, where it did very well and then he got the funding for the feature length version. This film is basically every indie filmmaker's dream process come true. J.K. Simmons is ferocious -- he is a musical predator that you never know whether he's going to accept you as part of the pack or turn on you without warning. It was uncomfortable to watch him in places -- if you've ever been bullied by a prof, this movie makes you squirm.

That said, the music... it's amazing. And Miles Teller who plays Andrew, the lead drummer, actually does all his own playing, including that freaking incredible 9 minute solo at the end. This is the shortest movie in the list, which is frankly refreshing -- not only because it doesn't feel like a marathon, but because it's a hard sprint all the way through, and you really can't fathom that you could have ridden that rollercoaster any longer than you just did.

As for the nominations -- J.K. Simmons for Best Supporting Actor. I'm behind it. He was amazing -- he owned that entire film. Holy cats. Sound mixing was pretty damn amazing too. I don't think it will get Best Picture, but that's okay. We should see more awesome work from Damien Chazelle in the future, and who wins Best Picture for your first indie film? Save something for the rest of your career, you know?

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Oscars!: The Grand Budapest Hotel

Movie: The Grand Budapest Hotel
Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Cinematography, Costume Design, Directing, Film Editing, Makeup and Hairstyling, Music, Production Design, Original Screenplay

Sorry I've fallen behind on these posts -- it's been a busy week. That said, let's get back to it, shall we?

The Grand Budapest Hotel is a Wes Anderson film -- arguably his crowning achievement in film, frankly, as seen by the nominations listed above. I don't mean to short any of the actors -- Ralph Fiennes as Mr. Gustave was frankly wonderful, and everyone did their caricatured, scene-stealing best. That said, Anderson's preferences for expressionless faces and scenes like still life paintings (because they're too improbable to be photographs) forcibly pulls the attention away from the performances and into the film as a whole. In this case that works, because the story and the setting and everything else are really captivating.

I am not a huge Wes Anderson fan, to be frank. I find his films often too artificial, too unpleasantly snide. This film, however, has none of that. It's a love story -- and not just between characters, although there is love there, but for a whole beautiful world, tinged with the narrativized romance of memory, that vanished from the face of the earth. There are political and philosophical and personal threads all interwoven in a way that Moonrise Kingdom, for example, never came close to realizing, and that elevates this layered film, moving in and out of time and fiction and memory in ways that justify every symmetrical positioning, every mote of Andersonian artificiality, and turns it into something rather wonderful.

I don't know that it's going to get Best Picture, but for sheer skill and artistry and technical "this is what film is" wowza, it's worthy. It and Birdman have a great deal in common in the sheer wizardry behind them -- both directors understand what the medium is capable of and are willing to push its limits in order to exploit those possibilities. I would honestly be fine with it sweeping the technical awards, because the longer I sit with it, the more I appreciate it. It really is a wonderful film.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Oscars!: The Imitation Game

Movie: The Imitation Game
Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Actor (Benedict Cumberbatch), Best Supporting Actress (Kiera Knightly), Directing, Editing, Original Score, Production Design, and Best Adapted Screenplay

The Imitation Game is a movie about Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch), largely during the war years when he was trying to build a machine to crack Enigma, but also going back to his childhood and forward to his eventual branding as a criminal (due to his homosexuality) and associated suicide at the age of 41.

The worst thing about Benedict Cumberbatch is how overused he's becoming in geek properties. The best thing is just how damn good an actor he is, as evidenced in this film. This is not to say that the rest of the cast weren't good -- they were, and I enjoyed Kiera Knightly as his primary foil and idea generator -- but honestly this was his vehicle and he plays it wonderfully. Well directed, well acted, well written... I really enjoyed it. It didn't give us Turing as a clearly gay man, as it didn't focus on his final relationship at all (we never meet his eventual lover who gets him caught, or learn the secret behind the burglary at his house). We never see him in a sexual way at all. What we do see is his emotional connections -- we learn about his first love, Christopher, and see that connected to his later work, as well as seeing his friendship with Joan and his efforts to work with others. The surprising thing, though, is that at the end, the final text to appear on screen focuses almost entirely on his end, the plight of homosexual men and women in England, and how he was eventually pardoned.

The strange thing about this is... I really went through this movie thinking how great a focus it had on his social disabilities, not his orientation. It seemed at odds with the movie that came before, wherein Turing's relationships at Bletchley and before form the core of the film and the biggest challenges to be overcome.

I enjoyed this movie. I enjoyed Cumberbatch's performance. But that being said... I'm not sure why it's nominated for Best Picture. It's very good, don't misunderstand me, and I encourage you to see it if you haven't... but I think in the end it seemed very much a normal very good if slightly uneven film, and I can't quite determine why it was invited as a guest of honor to the party, if that makes sense. I don't know. We'll see.

Monday, February 2, 2015

My birthday cake! or, Adventures in gateau de crepes

So my birthday is on Wednesday, but we were going to have friends over tonight for gaming* so I decided I'd have my birthday cake today. I was trying to figure out what sort of cake I wanted this year, so I perused my new favorite food blog, Smitten Kitchen, and came up with this: gateau de crepes. Now, a gateau de crepes is just what it sounds like -- a cake made of crepes, layered with pastry cream. I have nothing against traditional cakes, but my birthday is an opportunity to try something new in desserts, and I like crepes, and I really like pastry cream, and so what the heck! Gateau de crepes it is.

So, the first thing I learned about gateau de crepe is that this is not a one day cake. Like many things in French cooking, nothing is hard, but there's a lot of little steps. In this case, I started on Saturday making the crepe batter and the pastry cream (as both have to sit overnight). On Sunday, with my friend Cheyenne's help, we moved to assembly.

So, the idea of this is that you make 20 crepes, and stack them, with about a quarter cup of pastry cream on top of each one (the pastry cream itself being lightened with whipped sweetened cream to be fluffy). Off to the right you can see one of the crepes being made. Cheyenne actually knows how to make crepes decently, so she offered to work that station while I handled cream and cake assembly.

What you see off to the left is me spreading cream on what I think is about the sixth crepe in the stack.

And then we have something like the 12th crepe -- it's starting to look like a cake! The crepe on the plate by itself was a contender for Prettiest Crepe, which is the one you put on top.

And then getting close to done! It's a little lopsided here, but it's squishy so you can gentle push it back to vertical and it will stay. 

Et voila! The finished cake!

Now, what you do with it, since that seems a bit simplistic if delicious, is it has to sit in the fridge overnight and firm up and sort of meld, and then you sprinkle sugar on the top crepe and brulee it, and then you slice it like a cake. I am very excited about this. So excited, in fact, that I needed to share it with all of you! Hooray birthday cake! 

*Of course, Snowpocalypse means no gaming tonight, so argh.