AMC Best Picture Showcase Day 2

Sitting in the theater waiting for Beasts of the Southern Wild. Both Anne and John Yenny have joined us this week. Let you know briefly what I think after the movie.

Beasts of the Southern Wild

I don’t get it. There was some interesting cultural background here but the story is so full of abstract allegory that it made no sense to me. It was also nearly unwatchable. Does anyone use a tripod anymore? I need to stew on it some more but at the moment I am not really expecting any new insight and it may go on the pile of films that I just have no interest in.

OK, I thought about it overnight and I think this is one of those examples of people getting credit for being original without being particularly good. This is a little known culture that is being examined, and despite being American, it feels as alien as if it were from another world. There are many beautiful shots in the film but all of them are marred by the inability of the camera operators to hold still long enough for us to appreciate them. Certainly the director contributed to this. I posted on another blog about the least deserved nomination this year and I selected “Brave” a good film but not a great one. I would like to revise that opinion.  Benh Zeitlin, the director of this movie is the most undeserving nominee this year. He contributed to the music which I liked but was ultimately responsible for the look and feel of this movie and it is terrible.

I got nauseous watching “Cloverfield” a couple of years ago, I would gladly watch it twice more before I subjected myself to this mess. Even shots that are of makeshift boats floating on calm water, are made to look as if you were at sea in a typhoon. Add on top of that the frequency with which those shaky shots are closeups on the actors and you wonder why anyone would like any performance in the film. The lead is a young girl with personality plus and she is as cute as can be. Her character however goes on a journey without changing much in the process. That trip is also prompted by the unlikely  boogie man of global warming. That’s right, this is in the same category as “Happy Feet”, an environmental propaganda, disguised as something else. 

The more I think about this movie, the less I like it. I see that many praise this film and believe it to be the best of the year. Everyone is entitled to an opinion, and here is mine: People who think this is the best movie of the year, don’t like movies, they like ideas, and not very good ones at that. 

Life of Pi

The movie is incredibly beautiful and I wonder why I did not see it when it was first out. There are images that will linger in my head for days at least if not for years. The story was nicely told, there are some very spiritual elements to it and I will also be thinking about the film in those terms as well. I never felt the time pass as it was very involving.

I never read the book, it is supposed to be quite good but most thought it would be impossible to translate into film. I can’t comment on that translation, but I can say that the framing device used here worked really well at letting us see the story from very different perspectives. The philosophy behind the story is given more context and it is entertaining rather than portentous, which I imagine it could easily have been.  The choice of telling the story this way gives it the feel of an adventure rather than a mediation on struggle. Ultimately the viewer will decide how they want the story to be remembered but the point of view of the writer and them director seems very clear.

This is a CGI heavy film and that usually is a negative for me. Maybe that is why I did not rush out to see it sooner. It is the most realistic CGI that I have seen in a non-fantasy film. The animals and elements are integrated seamlessly into the narrative and I don’t think they go overboard (pun) in drawing attention to themselves.  This film was shown in 3D and the added dimension worked very nicely at making me care about the story. The three different actors who play Pi, are all excellent and they have the added advantage of looking like they could indeed be the same person at different stages of life. If there was CGI involved in this aspect of the film, then it has clearly earned the Special Effects accolades that have come along. The tiger is the most noticeable achievement and I can only say from an average viewer’s opinion, they got it exactly right.

Lincoln

My opinion of this film has increased immensely since I first saw it. The screenplay still has some structural stiffness to it but if flowed much more smoothly on a second viewing. Of course I may be blinded by my tears of admiration and grief for our 16th President. To have spent two hours with Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln, is to feel as if we were in the presence of the President himself. What small men we have leading us these days. Lincoln had the petty and small minded to deal with as well. I would be happy to offer Daniel Day-Lewis honorary citizenship as well as an Oscar.

If you click on the title or the poster, it will take you to my original review. I stand by my comments but I do think I was able to respond more emotionally a second time because I understood the limitations the story was going to impose on us.

Silver Linings Playbook

Another film that got better on second viewing, and I thought it was excellent the first time I saw it.  Jennifer Lawrence was more impressive than I remembered. If she wins tomorrow I will have no complaints. There is no way that Bradley Cooper will upset Day-Lewis, but again if it were to happen, it is because it was a really good performance. The love story was so much more obvious this time around. Even though the mental illness elements are so up front, the romance shines through.

The criticism I had originally, seems less noticeable to me this time around. I guess that may be the case with many films as it has been with three of the movies I saw during the Showcase. The other actors in the film also play the characters in very realistic ways. One blog I read claims that Jacki Weaver did not deserve her nomination here because all she does is simper and cry. They missed the deep caring that she brought to the Mother who is trying to hold a family together that probably would have come apart long before if not for her intervention. The fact that she is not as screwed up as everyone else in the story should not diminish the contribution she makes. 

Zero Dark Thirty

The last of the Best Picture nominees that I saw. This is a complex story put into a narrative of just two and a half hours, but it covers a decade of real life intelligence information. Sometimes details get convoluted and names that are not familiar to most American ears may be confounding. The movie also has the temerity to  acknowledge that enhanced interrogation techniques were a part of the process of finding the world most wanted terrorist. Just like in ARGO, the C.I.A. gets to be correctly labeled as heroes again. They deserve to be lauded for their efforts here, and people should recognize that inference is not a perfect science. That’s how they got WMDs wrong but Bin Laden right.

The star of this movie is a terrific actress and she is very good here, but I think her part is not as vivid as it could have been. Jessica Chastain is trying to make a cypher of a human being into a memorable character, who serves as the audiences point of view in the film. The closest we come to being engaged with her character is in the final section, where she waits the arrival of the SEAL team and their cargo. The intelligence treasure trove is of course going to be something an analyst should care about, but she is the audiences surrogate. It is her visual confirmation of the bodies identity that is the catharsis we have waited for.

There are so many good actors in this picture and most of them are there for a very brief time. Kyle Chandler is in both this and Zero Dark Thirty. Two Best Picture nominees in the same year. He seems to have good taste and a good agent. All of the C.I.A. officers seem vibrant and intelligent. I liked the comment that James Gandofini’s version of Leon Panetta makes, “We’re all smart here”. While it may be true it is also indicative of the posture of the ruling political class and it serves as a slapdown to anyone who challenges those conventions.   Along with the implied criticism of the political bureaucracy and the spoken fear the operative had of the President’s policies, this film was a heck of a lot more honest than I think most expected it to be.

Thanks to the Yennys for making this a great social day also.

Academy Award Picks 2013

OK, I still have a number of films to see in the Best Picture Showcase tomorrow, but this is a list of Predictions rather than preferences. Sticking to just the top six categories for fun and simplicity.

Best Supporting Actor

Lincoln wa the most nominated film, but it is not going to win the Best Picture Award so I think there will be an attempt to spread the love around and therefore the pick here is Tommy Lee Jones.

Best Supporting Actress

Her name should have been engraved on this as soon as the first trailer came out. No Doubt about it      Anne Hathaway.

Best Actor

An even bigger lock than Anne Hathaway, he earned this one from the first poster. It felt like we spent 2 hours with America’s greatest leader. Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln.

Best Actress

The toughest category to call. Emmanuelle Riva was amazing, but I think the Academy will jump on the Jennifer Lawrence bandwagon.

Best Director

Another win for Lincoln by default, no Ben Affleck in the category. Who would ever think Spielberg would be a winner in this competition as a result of attrition. The amazing Steven Spielberg picks up his third director Oscar.

Best Picture

The winner, and as of now my personal favorite,

AMC Best Picture Showcase Day 1

Today is the first day of the Best Picture Showcase. I will be updating posts on the Kirkham A Movie A Day Facebook Page, and later will transfer them here. If you want the live updates, just go to Facebook. Looking forward to a great day.

OK, I had a little trouble here. There was a post about the first two films we saw but when I went to update, I accidentally posted an earlier draft and wiped out my comments.

So here are some insights on the movies we saw today. A little later than I had hoped for, but worth talking about nonetheless.

AMOUR

I had been warned that the movie was bleak and that it was claustrophobic. It is after all about two old people in their apartment facing death. No spoiler here because the very first scene reveals that the wife Anne is dead in her bed. The film chronicles the sudden decline and painful process of coping with a debilitating illness while still maintaining the love and dignity that a partner of many years deserves. I found it much more interesting than I had expected. There were some light touches here and there, the kinds of daily moments that all of us have that make a hard day bearable.

The dialogue is all in French, and there is basically no film score. Music does play a part in the story but it is not used in background, it is integrated as a small part of the events that take place. One blog I read said that it is not a movie, in large part because nothing happens. It is very deliberate in it’s pace, but there are small events chronicled and the characters do go through an arc of developing changes.  My friend Anne sat next to me and there were two moments where she jumped and grabbed my arm in alarm. That is not a movie that has no drama in it.

Having been married to my wife for thirty two years, I understand how complex the emotions were for the two people involved. Sometimes we are at our best, but it does not take long for us to be at our worst either. The two lead actors in this are amazing. The story is small and slow and mostly painful, but it is also filled with the kind of love that is deep and abiding. May we all make it to the end with this kind of courage and devotion.

Les Miserable

I have already written about this film but I do have a couple of minor modifications. I found the music still quite good, and the main songs are often excellent. The problem with the singing transitions and lack of tunefulness continues. Anne Hathaway will deserve her award, she has the two most moving moments in the film. I thought Hugh Jackman did himself credit and the last sequence where he reconciles  his love with having touched the face of God, brought the tears that I had missed the first time around.

I think for a neophyte like me, the immersion into the story the first time, with it’s talk singing transitions was a bit overwhelming. I still see flaws and it almost certainly works better as a stage show. On stage the pace would break for scene changes and applause. The big moments would feel more like they were earned rather than dumped on us. The film tries to overpower continuously, and the camera work is much to busy and excessively close.

ARGO 

This continues to be the favorite for the Academy Award and it was my favorite from the moment I saw it. Nothing has changed for me. The tension starts right away, you are plunged into a world of terror masquerading as a people’s revolution, and nothing ever feels safe. I will add a couple of comments on issues that I did not discuss before. I was provoked to laughter when watching the Iranian Foreign Minister criticizing the Canadians for their supposed breach of International Law. That actually happened while the Iranians were holding the hostages. I also liked the authenticity of the era even more when I remembered that the Warner Brother’s logo at the start of the film was the 1979 era design. It was a clever little touch that I’m not sure everyone noticed.

The brave part of this film making is to actually acknowledge that our people there were just doing their jobs. Many of them despised the Shah also, but what they got in his place is not much better and in so many ways worse. The C.I.A. are the good guys in this story, and we get some Hollywood history to boot. One of my wife’s friends thinks this is really just a TV movie. I’d like to subscribe to the programming she must be seeing, because this is top notch film work by everyone involved.

DJANGO UNCHAINED

Quentin Tarantino makes movie for people who like movies more than films. Yet there is also an aspect to the movies he makes that raises them to art status. This revisionist western, that attacks the easy target of slavery, does so with gusto and outrageous violence. There is so much to laugh at in the film, you might sometimes miss the stern rebuke our ancestors receive for allowing this institution to thrive anywhere in the U.S.

This made my list of the best films of the year but it is not necessarily Tarantino’s best film. The three leads are all excellent but once again I suspect that Christoph Waltz has stolen the show. His bounty hunting dentist, with a clearer grasp of English than all the Americans he interacts with, is a character to treasure in your movie going memory. Django gets the big shootout, but Dr. King Schultz has all the best lines. 

Next week we have the other five nominees. Three of those will be new to me and I will try to write them up a with a fresh attitude. See you all next week.

A Good Day to Die Hard

To say “A Good Day to Die Hard” is a disappointment is an understatement. Many people may have had low expectations for the film. There were a large number of fans who rejected the last film “Live Free or Die Hard” as not being a true “Die Hard” experience, so they had no hope for this to begin with. At our house however, John McClane is an icon, and we all enjoyed the hell out of the 2007 entry. If I can find the photo of the standup that we have, I will post it later (see below). There may have been some flaws in the last film but they were inconsequential from our point of view. From the first strains of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in the trailer, we were anticipating and excited that a new film featuring one of our favorite characters was coming. Ten minutes into the new film I started to worry and half an hour in, I knew it was pretty much a lost cause. This movie is flaccid, confusing, and put together in a way that shows a severe weakness in story telling and an utter disregard for the things that make McClane a great character.

This is a generic spy film, masquerading as “Die Hard”. There is ultimately a heist element to it, but by the time you get to it, there is very little left that is interesting. We all want plenty of action in a film like this, but it has to be connected to the story and character to pull us in. There is very little set up to this movie, and the events that start the first action sequence are confusing. Within a short period of time we are plunged into an elaborate chase where people we don’t know, are chasing people we don’t know and are being followed by a character we should know but who gets behind the wheel for reasons we can’t know. Yeah, that’s the way it feels. The car chase has three vehicles chasing each other, in circumstances that are not always clear. There is a communication between McClane Junior and his C.I.A. handlers, that features a drone over Moscow, and there is some kind of time window that they are up against. There is no explanation of what the time window means, what the objective is for the lead vehicle, and the mayhem that ensues is simply random. Here is one of the ways the film fails to be “Die Hard”: there are quips but they are disconnected from character. McClaine makes apologies to invisible drivers in anonymous cars for no reason at all. None of the quips are funny and they don’t have the edge that characterizes our NYPD Lieutenant.

 As we spoke of it last night, there is a pretty obvious reason the film fails. There is a severe lack of a demonstrably intelligent and evil villain. Alan Rickman, Jeremy Irons, Timothy Oliphant are each solid actors that can convey smarts with a word, a look or inflection. Even William Sadler’s Col. Stuart had personality and confidence. Here we have two competing villains from the beginning, neither of which gives us much of an impression of themselves. One of them is supposed to be brilliant, we know this because he plays Chess against himself. That’s it for character development. There is a snotty henchman that kills randomly, including his own men, but can’t be bothered to shoot our heroes at much more provocation than he gets in the rest of the movie. All of the other “Die Hards” feature exchanges between the bad guys and our hero. That’s where John gets to smirk, insult and generally push their buttons to the boiling point. There is no boiling point here. Everything is hot from the beginning and one hot item is replaced with another when it is convenient for the plot despite being unbelievable for the characters. The plot turns are so obvious and dull that it would surprise me if anyone could be bothered to explain why any of it happens.

 The third and fourth films in the series, added side kick characters so that McClane could bounce off of them and they would provide some relief from all of his deliberate actions. They provide a little spark to the film. McClane’s son is supposed to provide that here, but his character barely has anything to say and when he does say it, it is muttered under his breath. Samuel Jackson’s colorful vulgarities and race baiting and Justin Long’s hipster geek irony were fun. Jai Courtney as Jack, has little chance to match insults or vent with his dad. He mostly glowers for reasons that we are supposed to understand without being told. His role in the spy plot is partially hinted at but vanishes in an instant and we are left with a chase film where we don’t understand who is chasing who. The whole movie consists of shootouts and jumping. Jack shoots and jumps but does not seem to think or analyze. John McClane apparently has second sight, because he gets suspicious twice of characters that we have barely met when they turn around on the heroes.

 There was one point a third of the way through the movie that gave me a brief moments hope. The henchman character thinks he is insulting the two Americans when he says, “it’s not 1986 and Reagan isn’t President.” Here is a chance for some sparkling cowboy swagger to go with our long awaited Yippee Ki Yea, instead there is just some laughter used to cover an escape attempt. Nothing creative or connected to what the other characters are doing or saying. Where is John McClane? Look Bruce Willis can still sell a movie but he has to have more than his looks to do so. The stunts, shootouts, chases in this are all so by the numbers that, you can count the moments till the next one, in your head. We went to an advance 10:00 pm screening and were the only people in the theater. Somewhere some one smelled this coming. We would not have listened, but that doesn’t mean that we should not have.

The Impossible

If you can get through the trailer without a tear in your eye, you might be able to make it through this movie dry eyed. I freely admit I could do neither. The story of one family’s survival in the face of the 2004 Tsunami is truly moving and quite frightening to anyone who has a family that they love. The pain and hardship that all families effected by the disaster is hard to imagine. Visualizing it for us is a harsh reminder of all that was lost but also an inspiring story of hope and love. Once upon a time, disaster movies were all star affairs, where nightmares were invented. “Earthquake”, “The Towering Inferno” etc. Getting through a fictionalized story with cardboard characters is an exciting vicarious experience. Watching a real family, even though portrayed by actors is nearly traumatizing.

In 2004, there was no YouTube and the clips of the tsunami were limited. Two years ago, in the Japanese event, the cameras were ubiquitous, and the clips on-line were numerous. The terrifying power of the ocean, rising across the vista, sweeping away all in it’s path fascinated me. I spent hours watching in torment as I could see people and cars being swept away from helicopter shots overhead. This film brings us to the ground level and puts us in front of those waves with the endangered family. The sequence of the tsunami striking the resort where the family was vacationing is incredibly realistic. The vision of being pulled under and tossed about while objects bashed you or cut you or worse is something that the film makers have recreated with intimate reality. Because the focus is on one family, this does not feel much like an entertainment, but more like a well realized visual diary of their experience.

Naomi Watts plays the mother of this group, and she and the oldest son are the main focus. Her performance has been nominated for an Academy Award and it is understandable why she was singled out. She is strong and terrified all at once. The stunts and makeup must have been grueling, and it is hard to imagine the difficulty of being able to act in those contexts. Her performance is primarily in non-verbal expression of love and determination. Although she has dialogue, it is not the words that anyone will remember from her performance, it is the anguish of her scream as she clings to a tree. It is the breathless facial expression she gives to her son in the overcrowded and frustratingly chaotic hospital. The look of hopeful gratitude she conveys to everyone who helped her and her son is an expression that I imagine all of us would have when aid is offered to the desperate.

Ewan MacGreggor plays the anguished dad. He is also excellent but with far less screen time and a story that does not have the same traumatic physical action to it, I think he has been overlooked when passing out praise. I have to say however, that the real star of this film is the young actor Tom Holland, who portrays “Lucas” the oldest son. Much of the film rides on our ability to relate to the story through the eyes of a ten year old boy. His actions are heroic at times, and when there was selfishness, he made it seem like the natural reaction of a scared child. There are long periods of time where the camera lingers on his face and sagging shoulders. This is not a performance that is overly emotive. His tears come at appropriate moments and do not overwhelm the story. This is what a great child performance looks like.

The other two children are also very good but they largely get by on the sweet faces and innocent manners of kids everywhere. Geraldine Chaplin turns up for one brief memorable scene and she gives the boy playing the middle son an opportunity to shine and make us care even more about this family. While the family is the center of the story, in the background we can see the story of thousands of others. The details are not delved into, but the difficulty is something we will be able to related to. This is a true horrifying story of survival. It did not need to be tweaked to bring the drama to home and change the label to “Inspired by True Events”. That human beings of any type managed to crawl out of the debris left by this powerful event is amazing. That a family of five, including three small children, survived, got lost, and separated and found each other again is Impossible.