Bigelow and Boal’s Twin Protagonists

Watching Zero Dark Thirty for the first time, I was fully invested in the story of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden. As a docudrama about one of the most formative events in our nation’s history, I was riveted. It was gripping.

And then, in the movie’s final moments, I realized it isn’t about that at all. It’s about one woman, Maya (Jessica Chastain), a character dancing between the lines of real and imagined. It’s about her drive to achieve her goal, her total devotion to her craft and her aimlessness upon realizing that she had finally achieved what she had spent her whole life doing. As she says to her boss over lunch when asked what else she’d worked on besides Bin Laden in her career at the CIA:

“I’ve done nothing else.”

Spoilers from here on out on both Zero Dark Thirty and “The Hurt Locker.”

The line almost feels comic when first delivered – Maya is portrayed as hellbent on her goal, and though effective, her methods sometimes trend toward the ridiculous. Of course she’s done nothing else! Then, in the final scene of the film, we see Maya shed tears when asked the one question – perhaps in her entire life – that she’s been unable to answer:

“Where do you want to go?”

Maya is a woman recruited right out of high school and trained her entire life for one goal: the hunt and capture of Osama Bin Laden. She has, quite literally, nothing else: no friends, no notable family, no goal. She’s a dog who has finally caught her tail: what now?

Chastain plays the final scene beautifully, almost gasping for breath through the tears, in utter disbelief that she’s reached this point in her life. It’s reminiscent of another scene in another Kathryn Bigelow/Mark Boal collaboration, The Hurt Locker.

Much like Maya in ZDT, the protagonist of The Hurt Locker is single-minded in his ambition and goals. Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner) is an adrenaline addict who is the best at what he does: deactivating live bombs. The most intense situations don’t faze him. But a simple trip to the grocery store after returning home to his wife and child perplexes him. He can’t handle being bored, and ordinary life bores him. So he reenlists so he can continue his live-wire work.

Maya and James are both fascinating characters not despite what we don’t know about them, but because of it. We don’t learn about James’ family until the very end of the film, but we’re never given more information about him than is necessary. Maya is a total blank slate, to the point where she appears to be nothing but a cipher for the film’s plot. Then, of course, you realize exactly how pertinent she’s been the whole time.

Bigelow and Boal are an interesting partnership, because they work on a similar wavelength. Both like logical, journalistic story settings, but both appreciate having a flesh-and-blood, relatable character at the center. Both embrace the best parts of docudrama while avoiding creating unemotional works. And both appreciate a tough-to-love character that is nonetheless utterly fascinating. It’s no wonder their collaborations have been so successful – and why Maya and James are so similar.

The two protagonists have much in common, and even their differences are telling – especially Maya’s lack of roots versus James’ family at home. At the end of the day, James would envy Maya; a rootless existence filled with nothing but dismantling bombs is his paradise. Similarly, Maya would prefer a world where she could chase Osama Bin Laden forever. Ultimately, however, James can reenlist, but Osama is dead, and Maya is left without any hope, completely unprepared for the world she hasn’t truly been in since high school.

Maya and James feel like spiritual twins, partners who might realize that they aren’t alone when recognizing their own traits in the other. Most importantly, they are the passionately beating hearts at the center of their films. Without those hearts, despite Bigelow and Boal’s best efforts, I think the films would have been so much less than they are. It’s easy to hope that Maya and James might be revisited in a future work, but I think I prefer my understanding of them still incomplete. It’s not what we know that’s most fascinating, after all – it’s what comes after.

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Black Swan

Post Revisited: Reflections of Black Swan

Black Swan

Photo Credit: YouTube | FoxSearchlight

The PieceIt Just Wants to be Perfect
Original Publication: Awkward is What We Aim For
Date of Publication: December 10, 2010

Background: From 2008 til 2011, I operated my own blog, Awkward is What We Aim For. While there are some things I really liked about it, ultimately it tread too much of the same ground as I eventually tread in my “It’s K-OK!” column for the Loyolan, so I let it fall into disuse after a while. Going back and reading it, I’m struck by how immature some of the writing is – if I ever go insane enough that I decide I want kids, AIWWAF is not going to be what I let them read first. Or ever.

However, there were a couple pieces I consider ‘important’ in my development as a writer, and I still hold them near and dear to my heart. So while these stories won’t be uploaded to KevinPatrickOKeeffe.com, I still want to revisit them.

Conception: I saw Black Swan on its official opening night: December 3, 2010. I had been dying to see it since the first trailer was released months before. You remember the one.


Still creepy.

I was blown away by the film, entranced by its tragic beauty. Even in the face of those who didn’t love it, I couldn’t help but rhapsodize about it on and on. Friends were getting overwhelmed when I’d talk to them about it, so I figured I should try and put my thoughts into writing. Thus “It Just Wants to be Perfect” was born.

Execution: What bugs me the most about this piece is its title! I make the very point that Black Swan doesn’t have to be technically perfect to achieve impact in the article, but in the title, I sacrificed accuracy for an allusion. See what I mean about the writing being immature?

Still, what I really appreciate about this piece is how in depth it is. I’ve attempted to follow up on these ideas since, but what’s in this piece are real, raw, unfiltered feelings mixed with analysis. I can’t quite get this deep into this particular movie again, which is a shame, because there’s so much to write about, talk about, digest.

Revisiting: Still, maybe that’s the best part about Black Swan: You can talk all day about it, but ultimately, the movie is such a work of art that it can stand on its own without much discussion. Black Swan still remains among my favorite movies, up there with Sunset Boulevard and The Devil Wears Prada, but while those works have a finite amount of facets to praise, I’ve yet to find a limit of all the different, wonderful things Black Swan does so well.

A Separation

Iranian film is relatable despite subtitles

Originally published in the Los Angeles Loyolan. For original, please refer to: Iranian film is relatable despite subtitles – Los Angeles Loyolan.

A Separation

Photo Credit: YouTube | iranianfilmfes

Living in Los Angeles allows better access to independent and limited release films than almost anywhere else in the country. It’s that sort of access that allowed me to see “Black Swan” on its opening day in 2010. Such opportunity is a gift, but it doesn’t allow residents of the City of Angels to see absolutely everything.

Case in point: I saw the best film of 2011 in March of 2012. The movie was “A Separation,” an Iranian film that just recently won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. The story follows a couple that goes through a divorce and a legal battle with hired help simultaneously. It is, in almost every way, a perfect film, yet because of its status as a foreign film, not to mention an Iranian film, I couldn’t see it until almost two months after 2011 had ended. Those in other cities may never get the chance to see it in theaters.

“A Separation” is a wrenching portrait of a family falling apart, as well as the greatest legal thriller I’ve ever seen. The screenplay and direction, both by Asghar Farhadi, are superb in equal measure. The ensemble of talent is worthy of the masterful film it inhabits. The plot is irresistibly human and relatable. It is only foreign through its language – the story could be told about any culture or any family.

This isn’t the first example of a good film getting lost in translation when distributed in the U.S. With very few exceptions, including Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and this year’s Best Picture Oscar winner, “The Artist” (a French film, albeit with several American influences), international movies are constantly relegated to the foreign dumpster despite easily relatable themes largely because American distributors are convinced that the language barrier will simply be insurmountable.

Unfortunately, those distributors are proven right time and time again by American audiences that would rather see sequel upon “threequel” instead of fascinating stories that happen to be in different languages. It’s a shame that so many in America and beyond won’t get to see “A Separation,” for example, because it has so much to offer, not only to fans of foreign cinema, but to general audiences everywhere.

That’s where the “foreign” label really fails: it creates a barrier between its American audience and the film itself. A story like “A Separation” would work in any language because it’s so relatable – yet the subtitles at the bottom of the screen drive away audiences.

It’s likely that “A Separation” will see some success thanks to the publicity generated on Oscar night. Rentals of the DVD will probably be quite high for some time on Netflix. A story this great deserves better than that, though. It deserves a place among the classic titles we all regard so highly. It deserves a wide audience and huge grosses. It deserves so much more than it will ever get simply because it’s a human story told in a different language.

Since we do live in Los Angeles, “A Separation” is still playing in several art house theaters around the city, including Laemmle’s Royal Theatre on Santa Monica Boulevard less than 10 miles from LMU. If you have the time, do yourself a favor and go see it. You likely won’t get the chance to see such a compelling, heartbreaking story from American cinema any time soon.

Oscar

Predicting the Oscars against the odds

Originally posted as part of Road to the Gold, an Oscar blog on LALoyolan.com. For original, please refer to: Road to the gold: Predicting the Oscars against the odds – Los Angeles Loyolan.

Oscar

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons

The months of anticipation and blind predictions come to a head this Sunday at the Academy Awards. Amateur and professional prognosticators alike await the Oscars like it’s Hollywood’s holy night. No more second-guessing – the predictions are locked in and all one can do is wait.

While the show itself is likely to be fun and full of good speeches by winners in pretty dresses and sharp tuxedos, the real thrill comes from seeing how well you could read the cards and anticipate who the victors will be. So often, prognosticators will be proven wrong. Occasionally, they’ll be very right. But it’s always an anxiety-filled experience waiting for each of the envelopes to be opened.

Most who attempt to predict what and who will win stick to the eight primary categories: Best Director, Writing (original screenplay and adapted screenplay), all four acting categories and Best Picture. In that spirit, I present to you my predictions for the big races at this Sunday’s Academy Awards.

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

I’d love to see Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo’s sharp “Bridesmaids” script take the win. It’s so rare to see comedy recognized at the Oscars, but the screenplay about seven different women and one ridiculous wedding party deserves recognition. That said, I don’t think anything can beat Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” screenplay.

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

Three of the nominees here are also nominated for Best Picture. While the “Hugo” screenplay is larger than life and Aaron Sorkin and Steve Zaillian crafted a really smart script for “Moneyball,” look no further than the rich complexities in the simple subject of “The Descendants” to take the gold.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

“Drive” star Albert Brooks was the major snub here when nominations were announced – the race without him is far more boring. Christopher Plummer (“Beginners”) is the only one with any traction here. The Oscar is his.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

A Melissa McCarthy (“Bridesmaids”) win would be utterly fantastic, but I think another comedienne, Octavia Spencer, is a lock for “The Help.” If the Academy is overcome in their love for “The Artist,” however, a surprise win for Bérénice Bejo is possible.

BEST ACTOR

This race is between the movie star playing an unknown (George Clooney, “The Descendants”) and the unknown playing a movie star (Jean Dujardin, “The Artist”). As with Best Supporting Actress, an “Artist” sweep could prove beneficial for Dujardin, but Clooney has been racking up most of the early awards. Still, I’d give the edge to my personal favorite in the category: Dujardin.

BEST ACTRESS

Just four years ago, Meryl Streep and Viola Davis acted together in “Doubt,” and now the two actresses and friends are the frontrunners for Best Actress. They’ve each won a sizable amount of precursor awards so neither has the distinct advantage. I’d give the edge to Davis, but never count Streep out – she hasn’t won this specific honor in 29 years and some circles consider her overdue.

BEST DIRECTOR

Very rarely does Best Director award anyone other than the helmer of the Best Picture, but if there is a split, expect Martin Scorcese to win here for “Hugo.” The smart money’s on French director Michel Hazanavicius for “The Artist,” however.

BEST PICTURE

This is a race between four films: “The Artist,” “The Descendants,” “The Help” and “Hugo.” “The Artist” is the frontrunner, but not everyone is as enamored of the silent film as I am. “The Descendants” is not a favorite of mine, but a lot of people appreciate the complexity of the script and Alexander Payne’s direction. “The Help” is celebrated by actors but might lack the support in the technical fields. “Hugo” is a marvel in 3-D, but voters get 2-D screeners and the film doesn’t lend itself to the simpler format. Ultimately, look for “The Artist” to capitalize on the love for cinema permeating this year’s nominee and its impressive precursor award streak. It should win and it will.

Oscar

Diversity of Direction

Originally posted as part of Road to the Gold, an Oscar blog on LALoyolan.com. For original, please refer to: Diversity of Direction – Los Angeles Loyolan : Road To The Gold.

Oscar

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons

Forget the golden days of merely two years ago: there is no diversity allowed in the Best Director Oscar race.

Save a few extraordinary directors such as Ang Lee (“Brokeback Mountain”) and Jane Campion (“The Piano”), recognition of anyone who doesn’t fit into the slim “older-white-male” demographic seemed nigh impossible for the Best Director voting body in the Academy.

When “The Hurt Locker” director Kathryn Bigelow won the statuette in 2010, her victory was seen as a sign of changing tides in the white men’s club that the Best Director race has always been. After all, in the same year, Lee Daniels (“Precious”) was only the second African-American man ever to be nominated for the same award (after John Singleton). Unfortunately, in the years since, the Academy has reverted to what is familiar once again.

Last year, the overflow of white, male directors was acceptable simply because they were almost all young and ambitious. The winner, Tom Hooper, directed “The King’s Speech,” and while his film appealed primarily to older audiences, he is a young man. David Fincher, director of “The Social Network,” and Darren Aronofsky, director of “Black Swan,” are both incredibly ambitious and respected in film criticism circles. Even the veterans of the category, David O’Russell (“The Fighter”) and Joel and Ethan Coen (“True Grit”), are a much different brand than the usual directing nominees.

This year is not an exception to the rule. Certainly, Woody Allen (“Midnight in Paris”), Alexander Payne (“The Descendants”) and Martin Scorsese (“Hugo”) are masters of their craft, and Michel Hazanavicius (“The Artist”) and Terrence Malick (“The Tree of Life”) are certainly ambitious, but they are very much the stereotype of a Best Director nominee. The youngest of the five is Hazanavicius at 44 – not coincidentally, he is the only first-time nominee. All the others have been here before; Scorsese and Allen have both won previously as well.

Why not nominate the young Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn for “Drive”? Or how about the female African-American director of the ambitious “Pariah,” Dee Rees? There’s nothing wrong with stacking a category with lots of experience – in fact, the Best Director race should theoretically reward experience more than any other. It is a little disappointing, however, that ambition and diversity can’t be rewarded in equal measure. As far as the winner, look no further than Hazanavicius. The youngest will be rewarded thanks to his film’s almost certain dominance of the show next Sunday.