This film sounds depressing, hateful and "shocking." After reading this review, I decided to read the entire plot on Wikipedia instead of spending $8-$10 to see it. It won't win, anyway.
This is a good movie that could just be a great movie on its own if it weren't beholden, as a biopic, to history. When this film garnered so many nominations, I was surprised, but then I realized that Hollywood must adore a movie that takes credit for its role as "savior of a national crisis." There are two brilliant sequences in this film. The first comes with the opening of the film, as illustrations and narration explain to the audience a short history of Iran, including the United States' role in the 1953 coup, and exactly why Iran was so pissed off at us in 1979. It's smart, it's compelling, and the it's a rip-off of one of the beginning sequences in Persepolis. (Seriously, watch Persepolis. So good.) The second brilliant sequence comes immediately after, as the siege of the United States embassy in Tehran is shown, shot-for-shot from footage from 1979, inter-cut with scenes of the embassy workers responding, first pragmatically going through the steps to seek assistance, then in panic as they try to destroy documents, and finally with the resignation that they will soon be taken hostage and/or killed. It's harrowing and illuminating. During the siege, we see six of the embassy workers escaping out a side door, and walking quickly away. They eventually seek refuge in the home of the Canadian ambassador.
I was a born in 1979, and I admit to never having studied anything about the Canadian Caper. If I relied on Argo for all my information, I would think that their entire role was to assist the CIA complete the entire operation while they take the credit for that rightfully which belonged to the United States and President Jimmy Carter. This is not exactly the truth. (It was the other way around.) President Jimmy Carter, while praising Argo as a great film, describes Canada's involvement in the planning as 90%. This is not what one gets from the film. Director and star of the film Ben Affleck has defended this criticism of the film by stating that since the film is "based" on a true story, the filmmakers are allowed poetic license. But the film itself contradicts that rationale by including the shot-for-shot scene of the embassy siege, the historical explanation at the beginning, and the "here's what happened after" scenes at the end of the film, which feature even the real Jimmy Carter! Poetic License is needed when there are parts of history for which one doesn't have a record; otherwise, the tension felt by the audience is false. There is a scene where the main character defies a CIA order to call off the mission, and the audience has to sit there for a few minutes going "Ooooh, is he going to go through with it? Will the CIA change their minds!?" But if we know it didn't happen like that, why would we enjoy simply the experience of being manipulated into feel tension of that at all? Because if it's not the truth, the experience is all you get.
There's a scene in a souk where the Americans are trying to establish their identities as filmmakers, which nearly devolves into a riot, because Iranians apparently just go psychotic when they see white Westerners. It adds to the impression that some had about Argo being slightly xenophobic. Elsewhere in the film, endearing film curmudgeons Alan Arkin and John Goodman, and Ben Affleck's CIA supervisor, make cheesy jokes that appeal to the lowest common denominator about the shallowness of Hollywood. I kept rolling my eyes and thinking "Well, maybe these guys really do make unoriginal jokes." Ben Affleck's Tony Mendez goes through the entire film expressionless and stone-faced. Nothing is amusing or terrifying or stressful enough to him to require expressing it with a different face. There was talk that Affleck was denied an Acting nomination, but in my opinion, he didn't deserve one! (If you want a nomination, do more acting, Ben! We know you can!) Perhaps this is an argument for to directors to let someone else act in their film, if they can't give both jobs their all. The fact that a role like Tony Mendez could have given a job to a Latino actor makes this aspect a little more bitter.
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Originally, I didn't intend to this watch this movie. It seemed a little too spiritually flaky and life affirming in a contrived sort of through-the-eyes-of-a-child way. Maybe I'm just not in the space right now where that kind of thing appeals to me. Or maybe I think that kind of attitude is lazily manipulative, and that it ignores the grim realities of other people's lives. I don't like the idea of poor, black people's "magical inner lives" making more economically privileged audiences feel good about themselves. To be clear, I didn't criticize the film this way or make a concerted effort to avoid it. If it hadn't been nominated for any Oscars, it's the kind of film I'd watch if it happened to be on TV when I was looking for something to watch.
But it did get nominated, and then my brother said it was a great movie, so I figured I'd check it out before the awards show. Got it in just under the wire, too - I watched it last night. For the first twenty minutes, I struggled to enjoy the film, because the setting - porous shacks created with various materials and scattered with worn and trashed possessions - and the main relationship - between Hushpuppy and her father Wink - is uncomfortable to witness. At one point, Hushpuppy is frying cat food (to eat?) in a pan, and I'm going "Oh for fuck's sake, seriously?" Wink is not a good father. Sure, he loves her, and he does things to try to teach her to survive, but some of those things don't seem like they would be necessary, if he just took her some place else to live. And I couldn't help but think that if Wink was a mother instead of a father, then I would be reading criticism about how this shitty mother won't take her kid from a dangerous and unhealthy environment. Near the end of the film, Hushpuppy narrates that she can count on two hands the number of times she's been picked up. That's not the work of a good parent.
That narration takes place during a scene in which Hushpuppy and her three little girl cohorts (who have possibly lost their parents - the film isn't clear) have swam to a platform-boat thing, which then transports them to Elysian Fields, a floating bar and cathouse (?) advertising "Girls Girls Girls," where the women are all wearing slips and nightgowns, and they greet little girls with open arms. Hushpuppy talks to a waitress and cook who just might be her long-lost mother. The waitress makes Hushpuppy some fried alligator and grits, then they dance together in each other's arms. The other girls dance with other ladies, and the room radiates with aching and comfort.
I haven't had a lot of time to think about this film, or maybe the film is esoteric enough to require a more poetic explanation than I am capable of giving right now. All I can say now that to me, the film is an expression of the enormity of the universe and the insignificance of human actions to the universe, and that the enormity of human actions, the determination to fight a losing battle, the power of heartbreak, the generosity of compassion and love between humans are equally enormous and exist as one with the universe. Moreover, as a film, Beasts is tight and true to itself. Nothing about the plot or the motivations of the characters rings false or contrived. It's a good movie. It's good art. Although, it won't win Best Picture.
If the Academy were going to honor one of Quentin Tarantino's "revenge" flicks with a Best Picture win, it should have been his first and most brilliant, Kill Bill (Vol. 1 or Vol. 2), which wasn't even nominated. Or possibly Inglourious Basterds, which was nominated. (IB lost to The Hurt Locker, which I still have no desire to see.) I loved Django Unchained, but I love everything Quentin Tarantino does. I love his dialogue. I love his characters. I love the way he loves his character actors. I love the way he loves film. So I ought to know, compared to works in the past, DU is not up to snuff. The lady characters (of which there are few) hardly have anything to say. Tarantino doesn't do the best job depicting slavery. The film not only has a White Savior problem, worst of all, is the insulting insinuation that all the slaves who aren't Django are dolts. Since somebody already explained that much better than I, feel free to click on that link! Plus, I'm not impressed that Tarantino posed for that photo (in linked page) fully-clothed, in-between two naked women.
FYI to all dudes who have in the past and who will in the future pose fully-clothed among naked women: Fuck You.
While watching Les Miz, I decided two things. (1) The only reason I wanted to watch this movie is because of the music. (2) A musical version of Les Miz is still better than the non-musical version featuring Liam Neeson, Claire Danes and Geoffrey Rush (each at their most Neesian and Danes-ish and Geoffreyrushiest) that came out a few years ago. Shudder. The problem with the first point, is that I don't actually like all of the music in Les Miz. (Just most of it.) So sometimes the film felt a little long. The difference with watching the musical on-stage is the excitement of the live-action spectacle. On stage, the scene where the Thénardiers sing "Master of the House," while they rip off their customers, plays out on a grand-scale, a crowd of people on the stage, with the cheeky Thénardiers smirking to the audience behind people's backs. It's riotous and hilarious. In the film version, customers are ripped off stealthily, in close-ups, Helena Bonham Carter and Sasha Baron Cohen (as the Thénardiers) looking sly and mean. Since they are on film, and filmmakers have made a decision to not break the fourth wall, there is no audience for them to entertain. The film version seems to take away from the charisma of the stage musical, without adding enough of the advantages of film to replace it.
Still, the film does as well as it can for a sing-through musical. I don't have a technical opinion about the singing voices of Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe, although apparently they weren't the best. Anne Hathaway deserves the accolades she's been receiving for her turn as Fantine. It won't win Best Picture, of course.
Life of Pi
Life of Pi is one in a long list of films that make me wish I had read the book after watching the movie. Since I read the book nine years ago, that wasn't possible. There were times when I felt restless during this movie, just because I know how much of it takes place on the lifeboat. The book does a much better job of layering Pi's beliefs in Hinduism, Christianity and Islam, into a symbolic and practical spiritual guide. Whereas in the film, Pi just keeps saying "my story will make you believe in God," merely because he survived, I suppose. But I can't criticize the film any more negatively than that. It's good story, and the film is faithful to the book. (Except for inserting a teenage love story at the beginning, which didn't do anything for me. The heartbreaking event in this film is that Pi loses his family quickly, freakishly and tragically. You don't need a long-lost love to make that event any more poignant.) The tiger Richard Parker looked completely real (and beautiful and terrifying), and the visual effects for all of the ocean scenes (2/3 of the film) are stunning.
After I saw Lincoln, I predicted that this would be the film that takes home the Oscar for Best Picture. It's exactly the kind of "serious," "important," epic film that the academy loves to award. In other words, it's Spielbergian. And I figured the Spielberg Backlash (tracing back to the upset of Shakespeare in Love's win for Best Picture over Saving Private Ryan, in 1999). Since, of course, it's Spielbergian, it's self-indulgent and could use a stricter editor, but at this point, that's almost an endearing quality. (Indeed when Lincoln says, at one point "I could write shorter sermons but when I get started I'm too lazy to stop," he seems to be channeling Spielberg himself. ) Or maybe I just thought Daniel Day Lewis as Lincoln was endearing. One of my favorite parts of the film was when Lincoln is meeting with some of his cabinet members and war strategists, and they are trying to come to a decision about the latest move of the Union Army. Rather than answer a query addressed to him, Lincoln pauses, and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton yells "You're going to tell one of your stories! I can't stand to hear another one of your stories!" You can tell the room is as sick of Lincoln's stories as is Stanton, and yet as he begins, everyone is drawn in, again, because that's how charismatic and warm Lincoln (or at least, DLD as Lincoln) is. In the very next scene, as they wait for a telegram, they are gathered around a desk, still and anxious, and Lincoln is holding the hand of Edwin Stanton. I love little details like that.
In fact, talking about the film right now, and thinking about it again, makes me want to watch it again. It has a couple of problems. Mary Todd's companion/dressmaker Elizabeth Keckley was a much more dynamic historical figure than the "mother of a dead soldier" is presented in Lincoln. And there are many random inaccuracies, not the least of which is the fact that Connecticut's delegates have been depicted as voting on the wrong side of history. But here's where poetic license serves to convey the spirit of Lincoln and the fight to pass the 13th amendment. (Whereas poetic license in Argo works to convey feelings about things that didn't happen.) Lincoln is an ambitious, imperfect film that strives to honor the people who worked to overturn the greatest atrocity our country has ever inflicted on a group of people. Do we do a good thing when assisted Canada with getting our citizens out of Iran, during a conflict for which our own country is partly to blame, while sacrificing the 10% of the credit that we deserved? Yes. Tony Mendez deserved credit, and the story is such an outlandish story, that it deserved a movie. But audiences deserve to be told these stories in the spirit of honesty.
Silver Linings Playbook
To love movies is to hate the Oscars. I love movies, and thus, I am a huge critic of the Oscars, though you'll never catch me ignoring any of the proceedings. And it's not that I love to hate it. (Although if I'm being honest, I think there's an element of that in many things that humans hate.) I love film! I want films that I love to be recognized and honored, because I want more people to see them! And then I want to share the things I loved or didn't love about these films with other people. I want film to represent things that are real and honest. I want film to reflect and influence society. Which is why - among other reasons - I get so angry about the number of women in film, and women's representation in film. But before I go down that rabbit-hole, all of this is to say simply, that I get annoyed when it seems like films get nominated for Oscars just because they are being released during "Oscar season." At the end of the year, in other words. So many films released in the Spring and the Summer get ignored at award shows. Although that doesn't even confront the fact that often the truly great, artful and thought-provoking films - challenging films - can't get a large audience, and are thus ignored, as well. (The big example of this from last year for me, was Melancholia. I still think about this film and see scenes from this film in my head, 14 months after the first and only time I watched it.)
Silver Linings Playbook is one of those films I was surprised to see receive so much Oscar attention. "Just because it was released during the The Season?!" And then when I realized who the director was: "Just because it's directed by David O. Russell?!" That said, I liked SLP a lot, and maybe it's Russell who deserves credit for seeing the potential of Bradley Cooper to give a complex, vulnerable performance. Since I already wrote a blog post about this movie, I won't go into many more details that that. Given the rest of the nominees, however, SLP deserves to be here along with Argo, Life of Pi, and Les Misérables. (The caveat, if you remember from the paragraph above, that I don't think a lot of nominated films deserve their nominations.)
Zero Dark Thirty
Funny story about when we went to see this movie. We were late, which I LOATHE - it almost never happens - but we were banking only missing the previews. When we walked in, however, the film was already deep into the beginning scenes (the infamous/controversial torture scenes in ZDT). We made a spectacle of ourselves trying to find seats in the theater. Not longer after, the torture scenes ended, and the rest of the film played out sans torture. I left the film thinking "that wasn't that bad at all - I thought all the torture stuff would really bother me!" Then I kept reading that there was "40 minutes of torture." Forty minutes here, forty minutes there. I stopped thinking it was a typo, and starting thinking that ZDT was playing on more than one screen in that theater and that we walked into the wrong showing, which must have begun a half an hour before the one we were aiming to see. We did not experience even 30 or 20 minutes of torture. Apparently we were being even bigger assholes than I already thought we were being.
So, I loved the film. I thought it was smart, well-edited and exciting. I loved that the main character is not just a woman, but a unapologetic bitch. (Some day I will write a blog post about how I loathe the tendency of people to criticize female characters as "unlikable." Tony Soprano is the most un-fucking-likeable character in recent history - seriously, he's a total asshole, all the time - and nobody ever used that as a reason to hate The Sopranos.) Had I had to watch 40 minutes of torture which the film falsely argues provided the CIA with the ultimate clues to finding Osama Bin Laden, maybe I wouldn't have liked it as much. Director Kathryn Bigelow defended the torture scenes by pointing out that "depiction is not endorsement." This is the same problem I had with the false notion that a misogynist website devoted to rating women's looks was the parent of Facebook (in The Social Network). "Here is a thing we all love and it came this disgusting thing" - as if the disgusting thing was a necessary evil. As Americans, we all love the fact that Osama Bin Laden was located, and we don't feel too bad about the fact that he was summarily executed, do we? While writing that, I feel abhorrence, but it's true, isn't it? So - this great thing came from this terrible thing! It legitimizes the terrible thing! That's what the film says. Bigelow and writer Mark Boal can deny that all they want - but they shouldn't have to. The film itself should have communicated that. They said since torture was part of history, they felt a responsibility to include the torture scenes - that to not do so would be ignoring a regrettable fact of our history in this conflict. But duh - you don't have to connect the torture scenes with the clues the CIA uses to find Bin Laden. They chose to make that connection, and unfortunately, it makes the film look sloppy - unless you miss the majority of the torture scenes that is, in which case, the film doesn't disappoint!
BEST PICTURE PREDICTION: I am saying Argo, but hoping that it will be Lincoln.___________________________________________________________________
Other major categories (that I have time to write about):
Actress in a Leading Role
- Jessica Chastain - Zero Dark Thirty - PREDICTION + MY FAVE -This who the Oscar for Zero Dark Thirty should go to. Chastain was unrelenting and fierce in her role as Maya.
- Jennifer Lawrence - Silver Linings Playbook - A lovely actress, but this performance isn't terribly mind-blowing. (Although I do love her in the scene where she invades Pat's home after the football game, and yells at pretty much everyone.)
- Emmanuelle Riva - Amour - Sorry I don't want to see your film, Riva.
- Quvenzhané Wallis - Beasts of Southern Wild - Quvenzhané Wallis was terrific in this movie, but I'm not a big fan of giving children Oscars. We don't even know how much of her portrayal is just Wallis being herself. Actors who work hard to act shouldn't lose out to kids who are just being themselves.
- Naomi Watts - The Impossible - Unfortunately I didn't get around to seeing this film.
- Bradley Cooper - Silver Linings Playbook - Kudos to Cooper for playing something different than "handsome asshole," but this is not an Oscar-worthy role.
- Daniel Day-Lewis - Lincoln - PREDICTION + MY FAVE - The only other actor in this category who deserves an Oscar is Joaquin Phoenix, but I don't think the Academy particularly like Phoenix, or Paul Thomas Anderson. However, they love DDL.
- Hugh Jackman - Les Miserables - Meh.
- Joaquin Phoenix - The Master - Masterful performance as a character who is utterly repugnant, in a film that I left the theater not liking so much.
- Denzel Washington - Flight - Unfortunately I didn't get around to seeing this film.
- Amy Adams - The Master - Meh. I don't think it's that compelling to give your husband a HJ while telling him quit drinking.
- Sally Field - Lincoln - She gave Mary Todd Lincoln a complexity that is often ignored by less generous texts. If Hathaway doesn't win, I'd root for Field, or Jackie Weaver.
- Anne Hathaway - Les Miserables - PREDICTION + MY FAVE - I think the Internet Hate toward Hathaway is just "hating the pretty girl who refuses to act humble enough for you." Fuck that. GO HATHAWAY!
- Helen Hunt - The Sessions - I didn't see this film.
- Jackie Weaver - Silver Linings Playbook - She was terrific, but I think she will be overshadowed by the others, except for Adams.
- Alan Arkin - Argo - Same grumpy old man character he plays in every film.
- Robert De Niro - Silver Linings Playbook - Nope. Not Oscar-worthy. It's like if De Niro sneezes, he immediately gets a host sycophants raving about how honest and raw it was.
- Philip Seymour Hoffman - The Master - Perhaps PSH deserves the award here, because he was terrific. Just didn't like this movie.
- Tommy Lee Jones - Lincoln - I wouldn't mind if TLJ wins. He'd deserve it more than Arkin, De Niro and Waltz. But I read that the Academy doesn't like him.
- Christoph Waltz - Django Unchained - Same character he played in Inglourious Basterds (although charming and mezmerising), and we already gave him an Oscar for that.
- Brave - MY FAVE
- The Pirates! Band of Misfits
- Wreck-It Ralph
- Amour - Michael Haneke
- Beasts of the Southern Wild - Benh Zeitlin
- Life of Pi - Ang Lee
- Lincoln - Steven Spielberg - Since Affleck wasn't nominated for director (paving the way for Lincoln to get Best Picture and Affleck to get Best Director as a consolation prize), I don't know what's going to happen in this catetory. Maybe other people love Amour more than I've anticipated.
- Silver Linings Playbook - David O. Russell
- Amour - Michael Haneke
- Django Unchained - Quentin Tarantino
- Flight - John Gatins
- Moonrise Kingdom - Wes Anderson & Roman Coppola - MY FAVE - Since Moonrise Kingdom deserved a lot more recognition, I'm rooting for it to get Original Screenplay even harder!
- Zero Dark Thirty - Mark Boal - PREDICTION - Maybe this will be a consolation prized for not getting Best Picture, and being snubbed for Best Director.
Writer - Adapted Screenplay
- Beasts of the Southern Wild
- Life of Pi - PREDICTION + MY FAVE - Actually my prediction isn't so sure. But I do think the difficulty of filming this story means that it should have the award from Adapted Screenplay.
- Silver Linings Playbook
Now let's get ready to watch! (Locate wine, set out snacks, publish blog post...)