For years “Richard Gere” was a name that indicated to me that I probably didn’t want to see a movie. He was a young heart-throb actor when I was in my late teens. Some swooning friends dragged me to see “An Officer and a Gentleman,” which I admit was not half as bad as I expected, but my friends carried on in a way that made me embarrassed to be female. That was the last I bothered to see a movie starring Richard Gere… until I saw “Hoax.” I went to see “Hoax” for no real reason beyond the urge to see a movie, any movie, and not expecting much. I was pleasantly surprised by Gere’s performance. It was especially surprising given that so many older lead actors embarrass themselves by trying to hold onto action or romantic hero roles at an age that makes them seem like male Norma Desmonds. Gere, on the other hand, has been willing to take on roles that are unglamorous.

It’s really hard to get less glamorous than the main character in “Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer.” Seeing that we’re virtually drowning in movies that take place in overblown fantasy worlds with superheroes and other over-the-top characters, it’s refreshing to see a drama that takes place in the real world. It’s not a boring, slow-moving, slice of life picture, either. The stakes are high enough to generate real tension. There’s a side of me that I really wanted it to be a great picture. However, it’s only a good picture.

If I understand correctly, “fixer” is the closest English equivalent to the Yiddish word “macher.”

“Its kind of network has no head, only a nerve center: the mediator, the macher. He has to touch all the various bases one after the other — engineers, officials, government leaders — in order to oil the creaking wheels of the mechanism, both large and small.” (source)

However, Norman isn’t truly a fixer, but he’d like to be one. He’s mostly a failure and, as such, he is simultaneously annoying and poignant. The main weakness in the movie, to my mind, was that the plot was not quite believable enough for a realistic movie. Norman befriends an Israeli politician. I didn’t entirely buy the relationship between the two main characters. An extra scene or two to establish a stronger relationship between them would have helped. Also, the politician, Michal Eshel, played by Lior Ashkenazi, didn’t seem ruthless enough to rise to the level he does. These feel like quibbles, but they do keep the movie from being great.

The acting is wonderful throughout, but I really want to mention Michael Sheen, an actor who hasn’t really been on my radar. I recognized the face but couldn’t put a name to it. He plays Norman’s nephew, who both cares about his uncle and is embarrassed by him. He simultaneously tries to look out for him and distance himself from him. It was a complicated set of emotions and motivations to play and Sheen does a fabulous, subtle job. Sometimes actors get too much credit for over-the-top performances and the more naturalistic ones get overlooked.

While the movie isn’t great, it is good. It feels original, which makes it worth seeing.

The other movie I saw this week was “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword” and let me tell you it sucked. First of all, I’ve never heard of the lead actor Charlie Hunnam and I hope I never hear of him again. Hunnam seemed too old for the character he was playing. By coincidence, Gere was also in a bad King Arthur picture once upon a time. The director of Gere’s picture, “First Knight” said:

“The thing about First Knight, for anybody who’s actually into the Arthur legend, it’s probably ludicrous, because we didn’t actually pay any attention to it, other than the names of the characters, and Camelot, and the idea of knights of the Round Table stuff.” (source)

Hmmm….. the same could be said of “King Arthur.” The director, Guy Ritchie, seems to be clueless as to why the Arthur legend has been so compelling for so many people. Even the sci-fi comic book, “Camelot 3000,” with aliens and a lesbian Sir Tristan, seemed more in the spirit than this overblown nonsense.

Jude Law makes a depressing contrast with Gere. If Gere has become a better actor over time, Law seems determined to go in the other direction, from being a serious actor to a dreadful hack. It’s disappointing because I’ve really enjoyed Law’s performances in the past.

It just makes it seem worse that it must have been an expensive movie to make. It was a massive waste of money. Don’t waste your time.

A few months ago, a real event struck me as having the potential for a good story. However, the story did not have a happy ending. The “hero” was very flawed and perhaps would be more accurately called the “protagonist.” A flawed hero, an unhappy ending – of course there’s a classic literary form which can accommodate those elements. It’s called tragedy, and it’s been around a long time.

Then it hit me. We don’t watch tragedy anymore. I’m not sure we read it that much either. We have “drama” and we have “melodrama,” but we don’t do sad endings, and our heroes are only flawed in the most superficial ways. They’re not deeply, morally flawed in a way that causes their downfall, like in classic tragedy, or even in serious dramas of the past.

I wonder what that says about our culture.

“The Big Short” is an interesting movie in this context. Considered purely as entertainment, it works remarkably well. The story follows three groups of underdogs in the run up to the housing crash and subsequent destruction of the economy in 2008. The three groups are unrelated. The first group is an independent subdivision within the large investment banking firm of Morgan Stanley. Although within the larger Wall Street institution, the film establishes this group, lead by the character of Mark Baum, played delightfully by Steve Carell, as somehow different from the rest of the firm. The second group, mainly one person in this case, is a smaller investment firm, Scion Capital, located in California and run by a numbers obsessed physician, Michael Burry, played by Christian Bale. The third group is two young men, Geller and Shipley who are attempting to start their own hedge fund. What all these groups have in common is that they not only recognize that there is a bubble in the housing market but they figure out how to profit wildly off of it. As a story about outsiders who succeed for exactly the same sort of reasons that they are outsiders in the first place, it works remarkably well. Moreover, it is extremely funny. As pure entertainment, it’s great.

However, it is a movie with a point and a moral, and that is where it gets a little bit into trouble. It’s produced by Brad Pitt’s production company, Plan B. I haven’t had time to read the book by Michael Lewis on which the movie is based, so I don’t know if the morality play comes from the book or was imposed on the story by the people who chose to produce this book. As I’ve said before, my ideal way of doing this would be to see the movie, form an impression, make some preliminary notes, do research, then see the movie again. When a movie is based on a true story there are really two things to review, the movie as entertainment and the movie as reportage.

As entertainment, “The Big Short” works wonderfully. It’s much funnier than you might expect. Actors turn and speak to the camera quite a bit, which worked for me, although people who never like it will still be annoyed. Despite this technique, which I assume was necessary for communicating the large amount of information needed to understand the story, the movie tries to follow the dictum, “show, don’t tell,” as far as that is possible. Again, your tolerance for contrivance will be tested. Gillian B. White, who writes for The Atlantic, said:

…I was annoyed by the premise of someone actually bringing a Jenga set into a meeting (and in fact, all the finance people in my theatre audibly groaned along with me), I did think that the use of the structure was probably a visual tool. Essentially, Gosling uses a Jenga tower to show how tranches work: that even top-rated securities couldn’t withstand the failure of lower-rated securities, on which the tower and many CDOs were built.

No one groaned when I saw it. If you’re too sophisticated to enjoy a movie, then I guess it won’t work for you. At one point the group from Morgan Stanley takes a trip to Florida to see a new development of virtually uninhabited McMansions that were bought with the easy credit. Walking around one empty house, the characters get a cute little symbolism of the danger when an alligator emerges from the water of a swimming pool and snaps at them. That probably wasn’t how it happened either, but it was an amusing moment. Also, when they talk to someone who is holding several properties bought with adjustable rate loans, that someone is a stripper. The someone in real life I knew like that was a social worker, but that doesn’t make for a fun visual and also doesn’t emphasize that the loans were being bought by people who couldn’t pay them. Ironically, White had no problem with that particular contrivance.

I also thought that the Florida trip did the best job of showing the human side of the crisis, which was sorely needed. When Carell heads to a strip club to talk to a dancer who has bought a house (or five!) he explains to her that her adjustable-rate mortgage payment could increase by 200 percent once her teaser rate ends. And because her home hadn’t increased in value, there was no equity and she couldn’t refinance like she’d been promised. She promptly (and appropriately) freaks out.

There were less provocative scenes that were important too: A family renting a home that an owner had put under his dog’s name, a tenant finding out that his landlord took their rent money and didn’t pay the mortgage on the house they’ve been renting—leaving them out on the street. And immigrants who were duped into signing mortgages that they couldn’t possibly stay current on. It was heartbreaking, and that is the reality of the crisis: actual devastation to people’s lives and livelihoods.

It’s not really apropos to the movie review, but I find it telling about our current society that the elites who write for our national publications are too sophisticated to go with the flow over a Jenga set, but thought that the Florida trip was “sorely needed.” Most of us need the Jenga set and we already know people who were affected in a negative way by the crisis. In fact, I saw the overweight, tattooed renter and the stripper as exemplifying the way our elites negatively stereotype the working class they rule over. Still, although it was a cartoonish, and unsympathetic, illustration of what was happening to ordinary people at the time, it was done with a light tough and was basically amusing.

There were three celebrity asides to explain the financial instruments involved. Again, quoting the Atlantic discussion, this time from Bourée Lam:

I found the cutaway explainers less strong: the Margot Robbie bubble-bath scene where she explains mortgage-backed securities was funny, but ultimately a bit confusing. The Anthony Bourdain scene about fish stew and collateralized debt obligation sort of worked. And I never thought I’d see behavioral economist Richard Thaler and Selena Gomez in the same room, but I actually thought they explained synthetic CDOs pretty well.

Actually, the bubble-bath scene was just stupid and irritated the feminist side of me in the way I usually try to not mention so I don’t feed the notion that feminist are all a bunch of prudish jerks. (Strangely, the stripper scene bothered me more due to the assumptions about class than due to the use of a little t and a to decorate an almost exclusively male movie. Shortly after the crash I remember having a dinner with a man in finance who referred to the bubble being created by lowlifes who were buying plasma televisions on credit. The notion that the crash was somehow caused by the undeserving lumpenproletariat is an important part of how our financial elites emotionally justify their anti-social behavior.) Unlike Lam, I don’t think the fish stew explanation worked. Again, and I know I’m going off on a tangent, I think it shows the writer’s distance from the average person. Taking your leftovers and using them in another dish the next day is just a normal person’s notion of household economy. Sure, it might be a rip-off if you’re in a fancy restaurant and they charge you a lot of money for it, but I kind of like fish stew, it’s part of a normal person’s behavior and, most importantly, it won’t hurt you. So the fish stew analogy only makes sense to the class of people who throw away perfectly edible food. The Selena Gomez bit worked well.

Neil Irwin in The New York Times wrote an article called, conveniently, “What ‘The Big Short’ Gets Right, and Wrong, About the Housing Bubble.”

“The Big Short” makes a big deal of its protagonists realizing that there was a giant housing bubble in the middle of the last decade at a time no one else could see it. But that’s not quite right. When no-money-down home loans were commonplace and home prices were soaring, there was widespread discussion of the possibility that the United States was experiencing a housing bubble.

I remember that time period well and I can second Irwin’s statement. For me, it was when I found out that one of my mother’s social worker friends with a disabled husband was buying property in Florida. Shortly afterward, I went to visit a friend in New Hampshire and a couple of other New Yorkers who had similar anecdotes were there and I distinctly remember a conversation worrying about this. This would probably have been the summer of 2007, although it could have been 2006. However, none of us made a ton of money. As Irwin correctly notes, “there’s a big difference between identifying at the macro level that something is going on, and understanding the financial plumbing that would allow a person to profit from that insight.”

Irwin continues:

What the characters portrayed in “The Big Short” figured out… was how the rot from bad mortgage loans that helped fuel the housing bubble had come to permeate supposedly safe securities. There were billions of dollars of highly rated bonds floating around that were in fact worthless….

The key transmission mechanism that turned a simple correction in the housing market into a global financial crisis were those bonds. Global banks had loaded up on these supposedly safe securities, and were at risk of becoming insolvent when their true value became known.

That “transmission mechanism” brings us to Yves Smith’s evaluation of the movie, which is essentially a reposting of her opinion of the book, which she called “fundamentally misleading.” She writes:

Absent the actions of the subprime shorts that Lewis lionized, the US would have suffered a S&L-level housing crisis (which at the time was seen as a serious blow to the banking system and the economy), not a global financial crisis that came perilously close to taking down systemically important capital markets firms around the world.

She criticizes Lewis, the author of the original book, for focusing on personalities and having a Manichean worldview with good guys and bad guys. The movie’s main character, Mark Baum, is based on the real life person Steve Eisman.

The anchor is Steve Eisman, a blunt, unintentionally abrasive curmudgeon and money manager, who in his former life as an analyst put sell ratings on all the Gen One subprime lenders of the 1990s. Not only does most of the description of market chicanery and cluelessness come through him, but Eisman also serves as the main vehicle for depicting the shorts as noble opponents to a feckless industry.

Eisman’s realization that the industry he once covered, consumer finance, was out to “fuck the poor”, led a boyhood Republican to become, per Lewis, “Wall Street’s first socialist.”

Smith adds an important point:

Lewis completely ignores the most vital player, the one who was on the other side of the subprime short bets. The notion that “it’s a CDO” is daunting enough to stop the non-financial reader in his tracks. The author is remarkably uncurious about who the end investors were for CDOs.”

She quotes from Lewis’ book “German banks, Taiwanese insurance companies, Japanese farmer’s unions, European pension funds, and in general, entities more or less required to invest in AAA rated bonds” and summarizes this as “the international equivalent of widows and orphans.” (She adds a gratuitous, and I believe inaccurate, aside that “because they are exotic, presumably elicit less sympathy.” I haven’t noticed our elites displaying any sympathy for domestic widows and orphans lately.)

So what does Eisman do, our hero, vocal advocate of the poor and exploited, who now (along with Lewis) indisputably knows that he is an integral part of the problem?

“Whatever that guy is buying, I want to short it.” Lippman took it as a joke, but Eisman was completely serious. “Greg, I want to short his paper. Sight unseen.”

“Eisman recognizes that the subprime market is a disaster waiting to happen, a monstrous fire hazard that, once lit, will engulf the housing market and financial firms. Yet he continues to throw Molotov cocktails at it. Eisman is no noble outsider. He is a willing, knowing co-conspirator. Even worse, he and the other shorts Lewis lionizes didn’t simply set off the global debt conflagration, they made the severity of the crisis vastly worse.”

The movie does not entirely ignore Irwin’s and Smith’s points. Irwin himself notes that one of the central figures, Murray, the doctor in California, has difficulty retaining his investors. As Irwin recounts the episode in the movie:

“I may have been early, but I’m not wrong,” says one character, the hedge fund manager Michael Burry as portrayed by Christian Bale. “It’s the same thing,” a skeptical investor retorts.

Regarding the morality of profiting from other people’s misery, at one point, Baum/Eisman’s wife, played by Marissa Tomei, says, “You’re not a saint. Saints don’t live on Park Avenue.” And as the two young characters towards the end start dancing around happy to have made money, Brad Pitt’s character, an insufferable prig, gives them a lecture about how every time the unemployement rate goes up x number of people die, reminding them of the larger societal consequences. In the wake of the movie, the Financial Times quoted Brad Pitt as saying, “I get enraged when people start telling other people how to live their lives.” Unfortunately, the character he plays has no such reticence.

Still, these are just lines and the overall emotional effect leaves the viewer walking away feeling that these guys are somehow heroes, in the vernacular, not literary, sense of the term.

So, while I highly recommend the movie- the performances are all solid with a couple of notable ones, it moves more quickly than you’d expect, it’s funny, lively and gives you a sense of what happened during the economic crash of 2008- take the story with a very large grain of salt. As Paul Krugman has said, “economics is not a morality play.”

It’s not a happy story in which virtue is rewarded and vice punished. The market economy is a system for organizing activity — a pretty good system most of the time, though not always — with no special moral significance. The rich don’t necessarily deserve their wealth, and the poor certainly don’t deserve their poverty; nonetheless, we accept a system with considerable inequality because systems without any inequality don’t work.

Lately, I’ve started to grow annoyed with the way everything in the world has been not only politicized, but politicized by people who think they’re battling evil. In that context, which is related, I suspect, to our current disinterest in tragedy, I’m not entirely comfortable with the message of this movie. If Brad Pitt wants to improve the world by telling stories, I would suggest that he tell stories that are more complicated in their morality.

Update: I owe an apology to Brad Pitt. My sister, who is planning on seeing “The Big Short” tonight, asked me what the last morally movie I saw with a morally flawed protagonist. I said, “True Story.” It turns out that Brad Pitt was one of the producers. It’s also worth noting some of the other things I said to my sister about that movie. I mentioned that while it was very interesting and well-acted, it was not emotionally satisfying. The true crime drama is perhaps a little too true. Real life doesn’t come in neat little packages and moral lessons are not always clear. Because it was so unsatisfying, it can’t really recommend it, but I appreciate the fact that the actors, director, and others, including the producers, made the effort and I’m glad that I chose to watch it.

We like to disdain “Hollywood endings,” but Hollywood endings and classic formulas are popular for a reason. They provide an emotional jolt which is one of the reasons we like stories in the first place. If we reach out beyond tried and true formulas, we will fail sometimes, but it is a noble failure.

On Sunday, my mother and I went to go see “Bridge of Spies.” Most of the reviews are positive. The few negative reviews seem to be from people who were expecting an action picture, so I’ll get that out of the way before I review the movie on its own terms. It is a true story about a lawyer who defends a Soviet citizen living in the United States and accused by the United States of spying. It’s about justice and principles in a realistic way. If you’re in the mood for a tense spy thriller with a little bit of action, this is not the movie for you.

“Bridge of Spies” felt to me to be a direct descendent of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” Frank Capra’s 1939 film about a naive man who becomes a U.S. senator and confronts corruption in Washington. The plots and the characters have little in common. The lawyer, James B. Donovan is a wealthy and worldly man from New York City, a partner in a prestigious law firm, a graduate of Harvard Law and a former naval officer who was an assistant during the Nuremberg trials. A few of the summaries say that the character, played by Tom Hanks, is a just and insurance lawyer, but I think the film establishes pretty well that he is not “just” an insurance lawyer. When he enters his office, we clearly see the name “Donovan” on the door. The office itself looks well-appointed and the army of secretaries are highly deferential. There is a reference to his role in Nuremberg. Like the viewers who think all spy movies have explosions and chase scenes, perhaps some people missed these cues because they are used to seeing everyone in movies living and working in expensive environments that we all know are not realistic. The indications that Donovan was a respected and accomplished lawyer who had settled into a slightly boring routine were there to me.

What James B. Donovan, Esq. and the humble Mr. Smith have in common is a firm belief in the principles undergirding liberal democracy. This, not espionage, is the subject of the movie. Like Mr. Smith, Donovan engages in some speechifying to that effect, and like Mr. Smith his adversaries are other Americans. In this case, they are other Americans who believe they are acting in the interests of he United States but who do not have his faith in liberal principles. The main antagonists in the movie are not the Soviet diplomat or East German official, played by Sebastian Koch, but the FBI agents and other lawyers who wish to advance American interests and do so with significantly fewer scruples.

Unlike Mr. Smith, Donovan does not achieve his ends through such speeches. He seemingly convinces no one. A sophisticated man, not a naive dreamer, he succeeds through subtle and persistent interpersonal interactions, not through force of his argument.

It’s a movie with a political argument at its heart. I’m afraid the movie may be poorly served by the title and poster. It has zero sex that I can recall and almost no violence. Even the interrogation scenes were done an a manner that an older child could watch. If the children are old enough to be interested in the subject, by all means bring them.

It is a timely film. At a moment when liberal democracies once again find themselves opposed by international forces that do not share our values, it is a good reminder about the necessity of sticking to those values, and that one can succeed while doing so. Abiding by those values does not mean you’re weak; it means you’re strong.

sends men in thongs when you need them.”

Yes, that’s a line from Magic Mike XXL. If you’re waiting for a review of Magic Mike XXL before deciding whether or not to go see it, it’s probably not your type of movie. Muscular, gyrating, pulsating, bumping, grinding men in various states of undress. Do you need to know more?

I was really impressed by the movie’s treatment of women. One of the best scenes was when Joe Mangeniello, playing the subtly named Big Dick Richie, is having a crisis of confidence in his ability while en route to a stripper convention. They pull into a gas station with a convenience store attached. Behind the counter is a dour looking young woman. The other dancers challenge him to put a smile on her face. She is not conventionally attractive, and looks even worse with the great big frown. I was bracing myself for the jokes at her expense, jokes that never came. Furthermore, there are several strong female characters. It was very strange to realize that while it was not what anyone would call a great movie, it had some of most realistic portrayals of women I’ve seen on screen.

That left me feeling a little bit puzzled.

Since I absolutely loved District 9 by the director Neill Blomkamp, I really wanted to see Chappie despite having some misgivings due to the cutesyness of the title. The grittiness of the setting combined with the childlike innocence of the title character almost worked, which is how the entire movie is. It’s about half a dozen poor choices away from being a great movie. In fact, the parts of it that worked are so good that I wish I could give the director a do-over. It could have been a memorable movie. Instead, the poor choices are so bad that, despite some fun moments, the movie overall is just okay. It is entertaining and I wasn’t for a moment bored. Since I hate being bored at the movies, the director does get a thumbs up for that much.

Dev Patel plays Deon Wilson, an engineer who works for a manufacturer of police robots. The robots are equipped with artificial intelligence and can operate on their own. Deon, however, dreams of creating “real AI,” in other words a robot that possesses consciousness. When one of the police robots breaks, Deon takes the opportunity to load his experimental software into it. The robot is stolen by a group of gangsters who owe a large amount of money to an even more vicious gangster. Also working for the military manufacturer is another engineer, played by Hugh Jackman, who distrusts AI and is working on a larger robot which would be operated remotely by a human.

Of the three gangsters who steal the robot who become Chappie, two are played by Yolandi Visser and Ninja (Watkin Tudor Jones), members of the South African rap-rave group, Die Antwoord, and they are a joy to watch. Yolandi Visser is especially well suited to the role because she embodies both the cutesyness and the grittiness in the movie. She seems to be in her element whether she is committing a crime or sweetly encouraging the robot to call her “Mommy.”

It is strange that the gangsters in their lair, located in an abandoned industrial building with colorful graffiti on the wall, feel more real than the engineers in their office. That is a real weakness in the movie. I would have preferred to see the engineers working in teams, perhaps making the distinction between the people working on the software and those working on the hardware. It also would have helped if the office environment wasn’t just a generic office with cubicles that could have been lifted from any movie. Also, we don’t get any sense of the general population beyond the gangsters and the company that makes the robots. The summary from Sony Pictures Entertainment says:

In the near future, crime is patrolled by an oppressive mechanized police force. But now, the people are fighting back.

However, I didn’t get that at all. Is the government weak and the population terrorized by these gangs? Is the society totally dysfunctional and do most people rely on the gangs unless they’re really rich? We don’t really get what’s going on in this society.

Also, the ending doesn’t quite work emotionally.

District 9 was really something special. Unfortunately, Chappie is not. I hope Blomkamp gets it right next time.

So, I decided that I needed a little distraction. I’ve been spending almost all my free time exercising, trying to get in shape, and that has the odd combination of characteristics that it is totally self-involved, yet not very fun. For my birthday, my sister bought me a membership at the Museum of Natural History. I looked up online to see if they had any special programs and I found this:

As I think everyone knows by now, I just love chipmunks. Needless to say, I hurried out of the house. It’s great. For those of you who do not like violent movies, I warn you that an ant is eaten by a lizard and the mouse brutally kills a scorpion. I hope that is isn’t indicative an any Mammalianism on the part of the filmmakers that the fuzzy things come out victorious.

Since it was produced by the BBC, it’s playing in different museums that have large IMAX screens. Unfortunately, the BBC page doesn’t seem to be up to date on theater listings. It has the museum where I saw it today listed as “to be confirmed” under the “Coming Soon” subheading. However, if you have a museum or other institution with 3D capabilities near you, you might want to see if it will be playing there.

I really don’t know how they made that movie.

The chipmunk on the left is the friendly one.

The chipmunk on the left is the friendly one.

Well, I just got in from seeing American Sniper and I’m feeling pretty glum. Honestly, I’m just sitting here thinking that life has no meaning. I’m writing more because I’m not quite ready to go to bed than for any other reason.

First of, regarding American Sniper – Did you see the trailer? Did you read a review or two? Yeah, then you saw the movie. It was just barely interesting enough to not qualify as boring. I don’t know. I feel like I’m supposed to have an opinion about it. Is it pro-war or anti-war? Is it patriotic or does it subversively question patriotism? That would imply that there is something going on in the movie. It’s workmanlike in a not good meaning of the word. Does Bradley Cooper do a good job? I guess. He holds a gun and runs around believably. Did anyone else here feel like life wasn’t worth living when they left the theater, or is it just me?

I’ve been in a weird damn mood the past couple of days, and that it’s hard to tell if my response to that movie is due to my circumstances or if it was in fact, kind of uninteresting.

You see, what you probably don’t actually know, but you may very well have faint glimmers of it, is that I don’t have an especially rosy view of humanity. As I see it, we’re social animals. All of the crap we call morality is the decisions we make for whatever group we belong to survive and continue. We’re sensitive to power and status. Sometimes that causes us to do altruistic and caring thing, but more often we do petty and competitive things. Nothing matters to us as much as our place in that social hierarchy.

We all do what we have to do to make it in this society. Usually, that involves not being very nice to other people.

Okay, here’s my own preferences among the Oscar nominees. This isn’t in anyway a prediction of whether or not they will win, just whether or not I liked them.

Whiplash, Birdman, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Selma, The Theory of Everything, American Sniper, The Imitation Game, Boyhood.

Boyhood may have succeeded in being the single most pretentious piece of crap ever made. It has one major gimmick. It took twelve years to make. No review can say anything positive if it doesn’t say that. It’s long, and it’s boring. Sitting on a park bench and watching people walk by for three hours would be more interesting.

Well, I’m going to sleep on it and see if I have anything more interesting to say about them tomorrow.

And… the nominees are:

Robert Duvall The Judge
Ethan Hawk Boyhood
Edward Norton Birdman
J. K. Simmons Whiplash
Mark Ruffalo Foxcather

This might be the most fun category. Many of the most interesting roles are not the leads, and, for better or worse, men tend to get meatier parts than women on average.

If one of the abilities of a good actor is to be able to disappear into a role, then I think all five of the actors here can said to be good.

The Judge was a good movie, but not a great one, and it is unsurprising to me that this is the only category in which the film has received any nominations. Robert Duvall stands out in this picture as a small town judge who may or may not have killed a man to whom he had given a lenient sentence many years earlier and who later went on to commit another crime. Eventually, he is put on trial himself, and one of the factors that might help to acquit him, that he suffers from memory loss due to chemotherapy, is a fact he is trying to hide. Duvall does a notable job portraying the frailty of an aging man. Once, I had an acting teacher tell me that one mistake people make when playing someone who is drunk is that they act drunk, whereas drunk people typically struggle to act sober. We see Duvall negotiate this contradiction. He plays a sick, frail, older man who is trying to hide just how sick and frail he has become. The role gives Duvall the opportunity for more dramatic moments as well as more subtle ones.

Boyhood seems to have really enthusiastic defenders. I am not one of them. I’ve been told that I am not capable of appreciating that the movie is supposed to be about those uninteresting parts of life that happen in between the more dramatic moments that are usually the subject of a movie. Also, it took twelve years to make. Ethan Hawke aged very naturally over twelve years. What else can I say? Here is a scene in which Hawke, who plays a non-custodial parent, tries to make small talk.

Birdman also had its detractors and vocal defenders and in this case I am with the defenders. I walked out of the theater feeling that I had just seen something remarkable. Later, one of my mother’s friends said she hated the movie because the main character was not likeable. In fact, none of the people on the screen are likeable in the banal sort of way that almost everyone except the evil step dads are likeable in Boyhood. Perhaps it says something about me that I identify more with the unlikable, but interesting, characters in Birdman than the likeable, but insufferably boring, ones in Boyhood.

Like Robert Duvall, Edward Norton also had the good fortune to be handed an exciting complicated role. In this case, Edward Norton plays a critically acclaimed actor, Mike, who steps into the role of a play days before opening night. The actor who had previously been in the role has an accident. Mike has a reputation as being difficult to work with, a fact closely connected to his talent since he throws himself into his roles.

Mark Ruffalo is over shadowed by just about everyone else on this list. In some ways, this emphasizes the importance that the writing has as the starting point. Ruffalo’s character is simply not that interesting. I’ve already said in my discussion of the screenplays that I felt that Foxcatcher lacked the intensity of the other films. The two central characters, John Du Pont, played by Steve Carrell, and Mark Schultz, played by Channing Tatum, are people with complicated motivations. Ruffalo’s character, Mark’s brother David, most just wants a stable life and is dragged into the drama happening between John and Mark somewhat against his will. I can’t say I’m overly fond of Ruffalo’s mumbling, shuffling, hunched over interpretation. I’m not really sure who to blame for this. I think the director needs to carry some of the burden. I’m really not very familiar with Ruffalo’s body of work. I was a little put off by the fact that Tatum and Ruffalo had such very different accents. Again, I feel as if the director should have picked up on that and stepped in.

Finally, we come to J. K. Simmons astounding turn as Fletcher, the music teacher, in Whiplash. Like Duvall and Norton, Simmons had the good fortune to be handed a meaty part. It is to Simmons credit that we don’t see Fletcher as purely evil. The following scene has been shown in just about every discussion of the movie, so I was tempted to show a different one, however I decided to include this one after all. In it, we can see the transition Simmons goes through from a demanding, although normal seeming, teacher to every student’s nightmare. (He reminds me of my first acting teacher who would regularly have me in tears at the end of a class. I used to say that he could get a performance out of a rock.) I understand that they first tried the scene faking the slaps but weren’t satisfied. In the end, the slaps are real, as you can see the redness on the student’s cheek. In a later scene, the student tackles the teacher and Simmons, I understand, broke a couple of ribs. It’s really an intense performance.

My own instinct would be to give the award to Simmons, but it would hardly be surprising if Duvall and Norton were to win it. If Simmons wins, Norton may have had the misfortune to get one of his best roles during the wrong year.

I’ve decided to start my thoughts on the Academy Award nominated movies with the writing awards. I don’t want to speculate on the potential winners as to simply discuss the screenplays themselves.

Of the five screenplays which have been nominated in the Writing (Original Screenplay) category, four to them have the director as the writer or one of the co-writers. In these four cases the movies appear to be the director’s brainchild. Foxcatcher is the exception in this instance. Of the five nominees in this category, three of them, Birdman, Boyhood and The Grand Budapest Hotel have been nominated for best picture. Only Nightcrawler was not nominated in any other categories.

Birdman Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr. & Armando Bo
Boyhood Richard Linklater
Foxcatcher E. Max Frye & Dan Futterman
The Grand Budapest Hotel Screenplay by Wes Anderson; Story by Wes Anderson & Hugo Guinness
Nightcrawler Dan Gilroy

It is interesting to not that, with the exception of Boyhood, most of the stories have a darkness to them. Nightcrawler is most certainly the darkest of all. In fact, I would say that it falls squarely in the tradition of film noir. Unfortunately, I gave my little collection of books on film noir to one of my mother’s students when he was accepted to film school, so I’ll have to rely on the internet. Nightcrawler could be said to be a social problem film with a protagonist, Lou, who is something of a petty criminal or grifter. He begins as someone who is unemployed trying to find work. Unable to find any, he happens upon and accident and comes across a news stringer who listens to a police radio and heads to accident or crime scenes to try to get video footage for local television reports. Lou obtains an inexpensive camcorder and tries to get his own footage. In an effort to succeed, he begins down a slippery slope towards less and less moral actions. We see a world that in is inherently corrupt, where all human relationships have been reduced to transactions. The movie looks at the reality of a world where jobs are insecure and where news is entertainment. It is a dark, dark vision.

On the surface, The Grand Budapest Hotel would seem to have little in common with Nightcrawler, however if we look at the script rather than the visual style of the film we again see a corrupt, dark world. Unlike Nightcrawler, the world inhabited by the characters in The Grand Budapest is far from unrelievedly dark.  The film has the structure of a story within a story within a story. The central part is narrated by Zero, who, while working as a lobby boy at the hotel, is taken under the wing of the concierge, Mr. Gustave H. Twice, Mr. Gustave H. says something to the effect of, “You see, there are still faint glimmers of civilization left in this barbaric slaughterhouse that was once known as humanity.” One of Gustave’s lovers has been murdered and left him an expensive painting in her will. Gustave is pursued by his dead lover’s greedy son and the family’s enforcer. All of this takes place as Europe descend into war in the background. Mr. Gustave H. sees himself as a bulwark against the decline of civilization. The bright visual style of the film belies the far more somber, although absurd, tone of the script. This lurking seriousness grounds the whimsy and keeps it from floating away into frivolousness.

Birdman has a serious, dark tone, but not in the way of the other two. In Birdman it is not a corrupt world that tortures us, rather we torture ourselves. All the characters struggle with inner demons. The main character is an actor who became famous playing a superhero character in multiple blockbusters. Now he’s seek artistic validation by appearing in a drama on Broadway that he has adapted and directed. I was looking at some clips of the movie online to remind me of it since it’s been several months since I’ve seen it. The dialog is very strong.

Foxcatcher, a story of an unhappy multimillionaire who tries to give himself a sense of achievement by nurturing a wrestling team, but become emotionally entangled with one of the wrestlers, is another dark story. As in Nightcrawler, we have another young man, this time played by Channing Tatum, who is struggling. Foxcatcher, while certainly in interesting movie, is not as tightly written as the others. It lacked the tension it needed or the emotional intensity.

Well, it’s getting late, so I’m going to have to wrap this up. There are a lot of interesting themes that were brought up in the original screenplays, the nature of work, the difficulty of making a living, the nature of the media, what defines civilization and humanity. My own personal favorites were Birdman and Nightcrawler. Since Nightcrawler has received significantly less attention than the other films, I’d like to say that anyone who enjoys film noir should try to see it. Jake Gyllenhaal does a great job as Lou.

No one asked me, but I figured it’s a dirty job and someone’s got to do it, so I’ve been making my way through the list of Oscar nominees, at least in the major categories. Strangely, it started with the brouhaha over whether or not Selma was “snubbed” for a nomination because the actors, director and producers are black. (I originally typed African-American and then switched it because I remembered that David Oyelowo is not American.) I realized that I couldn’t have much of an opinion as long as I hadn’t seen the other nominees. Eventually, it bloomed into just wanting to watch as many nominees as possible before the Oscars.

Last night I watched Whiplash and I have to say that it utterly blew me away. I can’t say enough good things about this movie. First of all, if anyone was snubbed for a best Oscar nod, it was Miles Teller, who puts in a tremendous performance as Andrew, a music student. It seems that gender expectations make precocious little girls and very young women unexceptional as Oscar nominees in the acting category, but not so for young men. It’s a trend that may have to do with factors other than just the sexism of the people handing out awards, according to this interesting research, “Gendered Age Differences Expected among Oscar Nominees.” Teller certainly did a better job that that dreadful Benedict Cumberbatch, about whom no one would care if it wasn’t for brain-dead anglophilia – and the same can be said of his skeletal co-star.

Teller plays an ambitious young drummer, determined to do whatever it takes to be great, who encounters a teacher determined to do anything to make his students great, and anything includes viscous emotional abuse. It is a fabulous meditation about what it takes to rise above the common herd.

Besides the wonderful performance by Miles Teller, there is a great performance by J.K. Simmons, as the teacher. The role of the teacher exemplifies what makes this movie so great. The character is described in many reviews as a sadist. Yet, his sadism is not done for his own pleasure, but to get better performances out of his students. It asks us what are the acceptable lengths to which one can go in pursuit of excellence. To the movie’s credit, it does not answer that question.

This is a wonderfully relevant story in our current society, one that does not satisfy itself with the reassuring myths we are usually fed. Every time I hear someone saying that they’re insisting on “excellence”, I wince a little bit. One of the important myths needed to keep up the charade that we live in a meritocracy is that this arrangement is somehow universally beneficial. The people of merit are all healthy, fit, well-groomed, socially adept, friendly, poised as well as being academically and professionally successful, emotionally balanced, with a fulfilling family life and friends. Whiplash shows us the frustrating reality that we don’t want to see. Excellence, greatness comes at the expense of those other things. We see Andrew practicing until his hands bleed. The movie’s director, Damien Chazelle, told Teller to not exercise and to stay out of the sun. We are told in the movie that he has no friends. His one relationship falls apart. Excellence comes only at a high price.

A little over a decade ago, I lived with a man who had been a mathematical prodigy when he was young. At the age of eight, he taught himself calculus from a book. Starting in middle school, he would leave his regular public school after lunch and go to a nearby college where he would take math and science classes. He started Harvard at nineteen. Everyone expected great things from him, great things that never materialized. He used to tell me about a longitudinal study which followed gifted children over many decades. I believe it was the Terman Study of the Gifted. While some of the children who were followed in the study, which is still ongoing, went on to have notable careers, many followed more mundane paths. The point that my ex-boyfriend was always trying to make was that it was not ability, or even interest, alone that accounted for success. He always liked to point out that people who achieved great things made sacrifices in other areas of their lives that he was not willing to make. They have, in the words he preferred to use, unbalanced lives. His father, a medical researcher who had made some important discoveries, was one of his prime examples. His father, as far as he could see, was not a happy person. He would verbally berate his wife at home, who would put up with it because he was a genius. She saw her role as to nurture and take care of her driven husband. But my boyfriend didn’t want the kind of life his father had. He preferred to be more mundane, yet enjoy a life that was more balanced.

Whiplash was made on a small budget. It’s the director’s second movie, which he wrote himself. It’s partly autobiographical. Chazelle made a shorter film which he used to raise money for the full version. For this reason, the screenplay is nominated for the Academy Award for Writing in the Adapted Screenplay category. The budget for this film was only 3.3 million dollars, a pittance compared to the fifteen to sixty million dollars that it took to make the other nominees for best film. As a small, independent movie, Whiplash opened in few theaters. I wanted to see it anyway because of the subject. The first review I saw said essentially, “Finally, a movie about a drummer, and thank goodness it’s good.” The Oscar nomination has secured its release in many more theaters. Unless it wins in a big way at the Oscars, it probably won’t stick around long after the awards, so I really recommend you try to see it.

It has its flaws. I don’t want to give away the ending, so let me say that I wish Chazelle could have found a way to get the same emotional dynamics that we find at the end in a more realistic scenario. It stretched credulity, but it didn’t ruin it. The emotional intensity between the characters, not the setting, is the interesting part of the scene. The music is fabulous. I’m no jazz critic, but I really enjoyed the music. I understand that Teller can really play drums. Although it is not Teller that we hear in the soundtrack, it is apparently mostly Teller that we see on-screen. He could not have entirely faked it. If anyone finds themselves easily annoyed when actors obviously can’t play the instrument they supposedly are playing in a movie, they will be able to suspend disbelief watching Teller. As far as the other musicians in the movie go, apparently there is no need to suspend disbelief because they hired musicians, not actors, for those roles.

I’ve been trying to see all the movies in certain categories so I can write about the awards with a reasonable level of knowledge. I thought it might be more interesting to compare and contrast the movies than to just offer up reviews. However, I thought Whiplash was so good, that I wanted to alert everyone to it while it’s still lingering in theaters.