The Curt Critic featured in the Wisconsin State Journal

The Curt Critic in the news: This recent Wisconsin State Journal article is validation that Liz Zélandais' quest to see all 53 Oscar-nominated films for 2013 is a fascinating enterprise worthy of public interest, rather than merely nuts.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Virunga - 2015 Oscar Nominee for Best Documentary

Heartbreaking, world-impacting, hopeful. It's what is happening now, as you read these words. Which way will it go?

I spent three days putting off watching Virunga, dreading what I would have to watch, what painful emotions I might experience. Congo. Virunga Park, home to 200 of the remaining mountain gorillas and other fading wildlife species—protected by the country's laws, which are enforced by its rangers who frequently die in the line of duty. Corrupt government officials, easily swayed by encroaching international oil interests. Civil war. Rebel groups, more heavily armed than the Congolese army, under the sway of Big Oil. Innocent residents, wanting to maintain clean lakes they depend on for their livelihood, their lives determined—and often torn apartby these shifting political winds.

It took me another three days to watch this movie—a little each dayjust to build emotional fortitude. Virunga richly deserves its nomination, based on its premise, cinematography, and documentary standards. It introduces a country and individuals of beauty, integrity, and heart. It also builds a very real fear of what the influence of oil, the promise of money, and sell-out corruption will wreak on all of this. The thought of what harm may occur is heartbreaking, but it's not just "them". It's us. If Virunga goes, so goes the world.

Maybe by now you get the idea—this is not an easy movie to watch. As difficult as it was, it, fortunately, was not as wrenching as I had anticipated. It ends on a hopeful note, but it clearly conveys its message.

It is worth every moment it takes to watch (or that you spend working up the courage to watch it), every uncomfortable moment it makes you squirm or cry, and every decision it elicits that you can and will make a difference for Virunga, for the Congo, and for the world we all share. 

Notes of interest:
  • Executive producer: Leonardo DiCaprio
  • At the January 31, 2015 screening of Virunga at the New York Museum of Art and Design, Bill Clinton made a surprise appearance.
  • French investigative journalist, Melanie Gouby, figures prominently in the movie, even going undercover. Her website is here. She is fearless, kick-ass, skilled, and wicked smart.

Birdman - 2015 Oscar Nominee for Best 1) Picture, 2) Actor, 3) Supporting Actor, 4) Supporting Actress, 5) Director, 6) Original Screenplay, 7) Cinematography, 8) Sound Mixing, 9) Sound Editing

Deeply textured and fiercely layered magical realism. They should definitely tip the drummer.

Opening with a tighty whitey-clad Michael Keaton levitating in the lotus position, punctuated by the cynical inner musings of an anti-hero, and accompanied by a drum score reminiscent of street musicians whose mesmerizing rhythms take willing hostagesBirdman put my brain into simultaneous states of ecstasy and confusion, reveling in the pieces and trying to put them together. 

As art imitates life imitating art, Batman-alum Keaton plays faded movie star Riggan Thomson, formerly famous for playing superhero "Birdman". Absent from everyone's celebrity radar for a couple of decadesbut still subjected to Birdman's inner taunting—Thomson is staging a comeback by writing, directing, and starring in a Broadway play based on Raymond Carver's "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love"

Thomson is haunted not only by Birdman, but also by a cluster of conflicted relationships: his estranged wife (Amy Ryan), girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough), pistol-of-a-daughter (Emma Stone), and best friend/producer (Zach Galifianakis). Then there is the star of the play, vapid method actor Mike Shiner (wonderfully played by Ed Norton), and the play itself, which is simply not going well.

It took me two days after the closing credits to decide if I even liked this flick. Ultimately I decided that it's incredible, and I can't wait to see it again. Just the presence of these actors—Michael Keaton, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts, and Edward Norton—is an amazement, and their performances individually and as an ensemble are stellar. 

Similar to even the best abstract art, this movie is not for everyone. It comes in oddly sized pieces, it's messy, and—as my brain found out—some internal assembly is required if you absolutely must make sense of it all. It is, by turns, hilarious and dark.

Keaton's performance—and by the way, not unlike his character, where the hell has he been the last two decades?—is my pick of the litter for best actor win. He does not bring the physicality and transformation of Bradley Cooper in American Sniper or Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything. But he is raw and real and surreal, delivering a visceral impression of digging to the emotional center of the planet.

If you are on the fence about this one, but have the least bit of curiosity about it and any desire to broaden your cinematic universeat least give it a whirl once it goes to video. 

"Marvel" at this trivia:

  • Three of these Birdman actors have appeared in superhero movies—Keaton (Batman), Norton (Incredible Hulk), and Stone (The Amazing Spider-Man).
  • Birdman's original music score (fabulous, IMHO) was disqualified as an Oscar contender. Read the story here*. 
  • For an inside peek at how the drummer and director created this wildly divergent music score with elite methods and dumbed-down instruments, read this.

*My favorite quote: "There is a fairly widespread sense that the [Academy's] music branch — which is comprised of 244 members, many of whom are quite elderly and some of whom haven't written a note of music in decades — is a bit narrow-minded, perhaps a tad out of touch and doesn't always adjudicate disputes in a consistent manner. "