In the months leading up to the Hollywood awards season, Lincoln (which I still have not seen) seemed like the obvious front-runner for the major awards. I had all the pedigree, great reviews, and it was just the sort of popular historical epic that the Oscars often enjoy awarding. When everyone started announcing nominations, it seemed like this was being confirmed. But when the ceremonies actually started occurring, something unexpected — at least by me — started happening: Argo was winning everything.
From the Golden Globes, to the Director’s Guild, to the American Film Institute, Argo was absolutely cleaning up, and about an hour ago, all that momentum came to what by this time seemed like the inevitable conclusion: Best Picture.
Here’s the thing though. Argo wasn’t that good. Granted, Ben Affleck has pretty much stunned everyone by not only emerging as one of the most promising directors of his generation, but also by re-emerging as a worthwhile actor. But in my opinion, this is the least compelling film he has directed to date. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a bad movie. It’s a competently made thriller with a great cast (if they made a spin-off that consisted entirely of Alan Arkin and John Goodman’s characters insulting each other, I would get in line for it tonight), the story is engaging, and in spite of the uncomfortably racist treatment of the Iranians, it was a fun movie. I give it a 7 out of 10. But it’s not major award material, and it sure as hell wasn’t the best movie of 2012.
So why did the film industry heap so much praise on it? My theory is that Hollywood just has such a hard-on for itself that it couldn’t resist throwing every award it could dig up at the movie that portrayed them in a heroic role in an international spy thriller.
I dunno, maybe I’m just being bitter. I know a lot of people who loved Argo. But honestly, BEST PICTURE? I mean, REALLY?
When they first announced the production of Zero Dark Thirty, only a few months after the killing of Osama Bin Laden, I essentially wrote it off as a cynical Hollywood cash grab and didn’t pay much attention to it. I assume it would be a flag-waving action flick featuring a lot of muscular men with big guns and perpetual 3-day beards kicking open doors and shooting heads out from under turbans. Yeah ok, so maybe I’m a bit too cynical.
At any rate, my interest piqued a little bit when I started hearing about the cast. Then the reviews started coming in, and I put my doubts aside entirely.
Speaking of the cast, it’s a gold-mine of quality actors, including severalwho I have loved on TV shows, but who have been under-utilized in Hollywood thus far. Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Harold Perrineau, Mark Strong, Mark Duplass, James Gandolfini, Joel Edgerton, and Chris Pratt, to name a few. Jessica Chastain, one of the best recent arrivals to Hollywood stardom, holds them all together with a really great performance that just got her a much-deserved Oscar nod.
Fortunately, all my concerns were unfounded. Zero Dark Thirty is a very well-written drama which gives a detailed look at the years-long covert search for Bin Laden. Obviously I can’t vouch for the accuracy of it, but it feels authentic, which is what matters.
The way the story is structure reminded me very much of David Fincher’s masterpiece crime drama Zodiac (although it’s not quite that good. Almost nothing is). On first viewing, I give it a solid 8/10, and I suspect it will improve with more viewings.
Of all the genres of film, the musical is the one I have the most trouble getting excited about. There are exceptions, but it’s really rare for me to enjoy a musical. Most of the time, the primary problem is that I simply don’t like the music. There’s also something in my mind that always revolts when seemingly normal people spontaneously burst into synchronized song and dance for no apparent reason. Fortunately, Tom Hooper’s adaptation of the stage musical manages to avoid both of those problems. I enjoyed most of the music, and the fact that virtually every line in the movie is sung helps to avoid the awkward transitions. The end result was good, but very flawed. I’ll start with the good.
The film was made using a virtually unheard of method of recording all of the singing live on set, and it mostly pays off. The voices still come through clearly, and you’re able to hear more of the emotion in the performances. And speaking of performances, the high point of the movie is easily Anne Hathaway’s. Her rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” very nearly had me in tears, not a common occurrence for me. She deserves an Oscar, and I hope she gets one. Most of the performances were quite good, although Helena Bonham Carter seems to have just phoned in a less entertaining repeat of her performance in Sweeney Todd, an impression which isn’t helped by the fact that she shares most of her screen time with Sacha Baron Cohen, who was also in Sweeney Todd, although he is far more effective here than she is. Eddie Redmayne and the rather unbelievably stunning newcomer Samantha Barks also give memorable performances. Russel Crowe is solid as Javert. And obviously it hardly even needs to be said that the story is one of the most beautiful tales of redemption ever told, so it’s got that going for it.
On to the bad. I’ve heard a lot of complaints about Tom Hooper’s directing, and I can understand why. The most obnoxious problem is that it seemed like the only method he ever used for shooting the dramatic solos was to plant the camera right in front of the face of the actor and just leave it there. I felt like I spent half the movie looking up people’s nostrils.
There were also some serious editing problems of various types. In my opinion, as good as Eddie Redmayne and Samantha Barks both were in their roles, the love triangle subplot between them and Amanda Seyfried’s Cosette added nothing at all to the overall story, and since the movie ended up feeling about 15 or 20 minutes too long, I think it would have been an improvement to to drop that storyline altogether. On a more technical level, there was a scene where Javert was chasing Valjean. Valjean escapes by jumping off a balcony of some sort, but we are never given a shot of where he is jumping to, or a shot of him landing. We are left with the impression that he simply leaped into empty space. The whole scene is full of confusing spatial problems of that sort.
I was also rather disappointed with Jackman’s performance as Valjean. I think Jackman is somewhat underrated as an actor, and I was really looking forward to seeing him in this role, but I found his performance and his singing rather dull.
Serious as these problems are, the beauty of the story and the strength of most of the performances is generally enough to overcome them. I suspect I’ll want to see it again someday, which is a pretty high compliment coming from me, at least for a musical.
A few weeks ago, I went to an Alfred Hitchcock marathon at a local theater. This week, the same theater was playing a group of Humphrey Bogart classics. The Big Sleep, Casablanca, and The Maltese Falcon. Needless to say, I couldn’t miss it.
I had seen all three of them before, but it had been a while, and I had only seen Casablanca once. I’m not going to bother writing out full reviews. All three of the movies are absolute undisputed classics, and if you haven’t already seen them, you should do so at the first opportunity. But it was interesting to see The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon on the same day. I seem to be in the minority on this, but I’ve always preferred The Big Sleep. Having now seen them consecutively, I’m reasonably sure that The Maltese Falcon is the better film overall. The writing is tighter, there is a wider array of great and memorable performances, and there are several scenes that are absolute masterpieces of tension and character interaction. In spite of this, I still prefer The Big Sleep, and there are a couple of reasons.
First, although Bogart’s performances are excellent in both, I like Phillip Marlowe a lot more than I like Sam Spade. Marlowe is a bit rough around the edges, but Spade is a selfish, misogynistic asshole, and I had a hard time rooting for him.
Secondly, I much prefer the women in The Big Sleep. All of the women in The Maltese Falcon rather weak and uninteresting, not really doing much of anything except relying on Spade. On the other hand, almost every woman in the big sleep is confident, capable, and more than a little sexually aggressive. Maybe that’s just more my type, but in my opinion, it made for much more interesting interactions.
As for Casablanca, all I’ll say is that I didn’t appreciate it nearly enough the first time, and also going to a theater to see such an absurdly romantic movie by myself was kind of a dumb idea.
Man, it’s been ages since I posted on this thing. By way of excuse, I’ll just say that I’ve been at school. I haven’t been watching nearly as many movies as I was over the Summer, and I’ve had less time to write about them. But happily, I had something of a lull in my homework this weekend, and I decided to take advantage of it by spending the whole weekend watching movies instead of trying to get ahead on my work.
First off, Netflix recently added The Artist to it’s instant watch catalog. To my great irritation, I didn’t have the money to go see it when it was in the theaters last year, so I’ve been waiting to see it for a year. It was definitely worth the wait. The sheer guts involved in making a silent film and trying to sell it to modern audiences deserves applause. That said, I don’t think it deserved Best Picture, in spite of the fact that it was a year of shamefully weak nominations. Tree of Life, dammit!
When this won, I wondered if we would start seeing more silent film productions, and I was rather hoping that we would. Unfortunately I haven’t seen any sign of that so far.
Next up, on Saturday afternoon I went to see The Master. It’s been two days now, and I’m still not entirely sure what I thought of it. The story is about an alcoholic WWII vet who gets drawn into a cult-like group led by an extremely charismatic man who claims to be able to help people defeat trauma and pain by revealing the source of them, which is buried in past lives, and it all plays out very well. The two lead performances are truly above and beyond what we might expect, even from two actors as remarkable as Joaquin Phoenix and Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Paul Thomas Anderson’s direction is exceptional as usual. It all looks beautiful. But for some reason, I couldn’t quite get past the feeling that it was somewhat superficial, that if you looked underneath the enormous amount of talent involved, you wouldn’t find much of interest. That said, I definitely enjoyed seeing it, and I’m reasonably sure I will see it again.
After leaving the theater, I went to do my grocery shopping for the week and ended up making an impulse rental at the Redbox on the way out the door. Another movie that I missed out on when it was in the theaters last year was The Cabin in the Woods, and I had been meaning to rent it ever since it came out on DVD.
Anything Joss Whedon touches automatically gets a high level of interest from me, and I had literally heard nothing but rave reviews about this one, so I had extremely high expectations, but I still didn’t expect to enjoy it as much as I did. The whole movie functions as an ingenious breakdown of horror movie conventions, taking the oh-so-typical Evil Dead inspired setup and adding a layer that completely changes the rules.
The script is every bit as clever as Whedon fans have come to expect, and the cast is all spot-on. Honestly, part of me just wanted to have a whole movie focusing on Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford exchanging friendly insults and projecting utter competence. Fingers crossed for a prequel?
Now for Sunday. While I was looking for showtimes for The Master on Saturday, I accidentally made the happy discovery that a theater in town was playing an Alfred Hitchcock marathon all weekend. I’m sure it’s an incredibly common story, but Hitch’s movies played a pivotal role in turning me into the film fanatic that I am today. I used to watch them with my family when I was a kid, and it’s probably fair to say that he was the first director who I ever came to appreciate. Needless to say, the chance to spend an entire day watching his movies projected on to a big screen could not be passed by.
The first one I saw was The 39 Steps, which has always been one of my favorite Hitch movies. One of the earliest examples of what would eventually become a signature plot device, “the wrong man,” it’s a masterful mix of excitement, humor, and romance. There just aren’t a lot of movies that are as much fun as The 39 Steps.
Next up was Strangers on a Train. I had seen it once when I was very young, but I remembered enjoying, and the second viewing was definitely not a disappointment. What really carries the movie is a great performance by Robert Walker as one of Hitchcock’s more subtle psychopaths. He’s a childish, spoiled man from an obscenely rich family who cooks up a “perfect murder” plan wherein two strangers who meet by chance will each murder someone that the other wants out of the way, with the theory being that the lack of apparent motive will make it impossible to solve the crime. After explaining this idea to a famous tennis player who he happens to meet on a train, he then goes ahead and murders the man’s cheating wife, and expects him to reciprocate. It’s a lot of fun, and the climax on the out-of-control merry-go-round is one of Hitch’s best.
Next was Notorious, another one that I had seen probably a decade ago, but never since. This one I hardly remembered at all, and after watching it again I would say that I was almost certainly too young to appreciate it when I saw it before. Frankly, it’s a stunningly good movie. Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman both give some of their best performances. Grant is a government agent who recruits Bergman, the daughter of a convicted Nazi spy, to help investigate a group of Nazi scientists in Brazil. They inevitably fall in love, but it all falls apart when they are told the details of her assignment, which is to work her way into the home of one of the Nazis by seducing him. The result is definitely one of Hitchcock’s most effective dramas, and I wish I hadn’t waited so long to watch it again.
The last movie on the program for the night was Rebecca, which I had never seen before. It was the only Hitchcock movie to ever win the Best Picture Oscar, but I knew so little about it that I was pleasantly surprised to see Laurence Olivier’s name in the opening credits.
This one threw me for a loop a little bit. Most of it played out as a much more straightforward melodrama than I expected from Hitch, albeit an effective one. The performances are all quite effective, but I couldn’t help but feel like the middle act dragged on for a very long time. Although of course it’s possible that the fact that I had been sitting in the same theater seat for 8 hours may have contributed to that. At any rate, it picked up considerably in the last act, and the overall result was very satisfying.
So that was my weekend. I may start trying to update this more regularly, but I’ll be blunt and admit that it’s not very likely.
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Starring Guy Pearce, Joe Pantoliano, Carrie-Anne Moss
I just finished watching this movie for the second time. It had been years since I last watched it, and I had forgotten how amazing it really is.
It takes the form of a murder mystery told backwards. Pearce plays Leonard, a man who suffered a head injury and is no longer capable of forming new memories. The movie begins with him avenging the murder of his wife and works backwards through his labors to solve the mystery of who killed her. The editing, which could easily have been a confusing gimmick, works beautifully.
But what really makes the movie works is Pearce’s performance. Leonard is a truly tragic character. The last thing he can remember is his wife’s murder, and he will never really be able to form memories of events after that. He gets through life by abiding by a strict system. He takes polaroids and jots down notes, trusting only his own handwriting. The things that he really needs to remember, the important facts of his investigation, he tattoos onto his body. He must go through a regular ritual of centering himself, figuring out where he is and why based on the information written on pictures and scraps of paper in his pocket. He is truly incapable of healing from the emotional trauma of his wife’s murder, and his only reason to live is for revenge. Pearce plays it all off beautifully, never losing the humanity of the character. He makes us feel Leonard’s pain, but he also makes us like him. The good-natured way in which he explains his condition over and over again is somehow endearing, and he seemed like someone I would want to get to know. And of course that makes his story all the more tragic, because he can never get to know anybody.
Directed by Bobcat Goldthwait
Starring Joel Murray, Tara Lynne Barr
Joel Murray stars as a middle-aged schlub who is fed up with the meanness and stupidity that seems to have overtaken American culture. After being fired from his job and informed that he has a brain tumor, he decides to take out his frustration by going on a rampage. He is joined by a profane teenage girl who is so impressed by his murderous quest that she talks him into taking her along.
The movie is often very funny, and there’s something surprisingly cathartic about watching Murray blow a hole in a guy for taking up two parking spots, or listening to him rant about the lack of humanity in reality television. It’s probably not a movie that I’ll be returning to any time soon, but it was worth a viewing.
Directed by Alexander Payne
Starring George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Nick Krause
In the last several years, Alexander Payne has made two truly beautiful comedy dramas in About Schmidt and Sideways. He returns to similar territory here, although not quite as effectively. Clooney plays a man trying to take care of his two young daughters while his wife is in a coma following a boating accident. Early on in the movie, he learns that she will not recover, and the decision is made to pull the plug. On top of all this, he finds out that his wife had been carrying on an affair for some time before the accident. He decides to find his wife’s lover to tell him of her impending death and give him a chance to say goodbye to her.
This all sounds like ripe territory for Payne, but the magic doesn’t seem to be there this time. It’s not that the movie isn’t good. The story is well put together and the cast give mostly fine performances (with the exception of Krause, who plays a friend of Clooney’s older daughter who tags along with them throughout the movie). It’s worth a watch, but don’t expect anything earth-shattering.
Directed by Steve Taylor
Starring Marshall Allman, Claire Holt, Tania Raymonde
Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller was a big deal for me when I read it as a teenager. It was a time in my life where I was just beginning to question a lot of the fundamentalist beliefs that I had grown up with, and Miller was the first person outside of my own age group who I ever heard ask the same questions and voice the same frustrations.
I was a bit skeptical when I heard they were making it into a movie, but apparently many of the fans didn’t feel the same. When word got out that the production was being shut down due to lack of funds, a Kickstarter was launched to raise money and ended up bringing in more than twice what was needed.
The result certainly isn’t perfect. The movie tells a somewhat fictionalized account of Donald Miller’s attempt to escape his fundamentalist background by running off to Reed College in Portland, a notoriously liberal institution. He hides his Christianity, starts drinking and swearing, and makes friends with a lesbian.
The movie is very likable. The cast give mostly sincere performances, and the story is inherently interesting, at least to me. It’s certainly miles above the useless bullshit that usually gets sold under the banner of “Christian film.” But as I said, it’s not perfect. Taylor’s inexperience as a director shows through, much of the dialogue is somewhat stilted, and there are a few bizarre animated transition sequence that don’t seem to belong at all.
In spite of the flaws, it was definitely worth watching, and I think it has the potential to spark quite a few interesting discussions.