Thursday, 28 February 2013
'Zero Dark Thirty', 'Lincoln', 'To The Wonder', 'Cloud Atlas': review round-up, plus Academy Award opinion
First up, before the reviews, a brief Academy Award summary just because it wouldn't be polite to completely ignore award season, as I have so far this year!
'Argo' winning doesn't offend me like it has some people. I know it's pretty lightweight, a sort of Sidney Lumet knock-off, but I really enjoyed it even if it's quite far from the best film of the past year (it made my 2012 top 30 though, coming in at 21). I think it found favour with the Academy because it's built to appease (or at least not offend) both right-wing hyper-patriots and liberals. It lays the blame for the situation in modern day Iran at the feet of the US - and UK - whilst also being a punch-the-air CIA success story, and in a part of the world where American successes are hard to come by. Plus, it's entertaining whilst still being kind of worthy, it pokes gentle fun of and celebrates Hollywood, and - though Ben Affleck was snubbed for a directorial nomination - the Academy traditionally loves actors behind the camera.
Ang Lee winning for the twee and shallow 'Life of Pi' (the night's big winner with 4 awards) is a joke, especially given that Paul Thomas Anderson ('The Master') and Terrence Malick ('To The Wonder') weren't even nominated. 'Life of Pi' was one of the worst films I saw last year. And how did it win a cinematography award? How much of it was actually filmed in-camera? It's a triumph of post-production work if anything at all - as a result (and perhaps justly) it won the visual effects award. I didn't rate 'Skyfall', but how is Roger Deakins still Oscar-less?
Can't argue with any of the acting wins, aside from the fact that Christoph Waltz ('Django Unchained') is clearly in the wrong category: he's a co-lead rather than a supporting player. Glad to see Jennifer Lawrence pick one up, though Bradley Cooper is the star performer in 'Silver Linings Playbook'. Would have taken any of Cooper, Jaoquin Phoenix ('The Master') or Daniel Day-Lewis for Best Actor, so I'm OK with the fact DDL won it - becoming the first triple Best Actor winner in the process. Pretty pleased for Anne Hathaway too: she's not in 'Les Miserables' for long, but she is the best bit. Besides she's due one for missing out back when she was up for 'Rachel Getting Married'. And, though I quite like Waltz and am glad he won another Oscar (just four years ago he was a 52 year-old unknown TV actor and now he has two Academy Awards!), there is no way his performance was on the same level as Philip Seymour Hoffman's career defining turn in 'The Master'. No way at all.
'Brave' shouldn't have beaten 'ParaNorman' in the animation category - or 'Wreck-It Ralph', for that matter. Confirmation that Pixar will win that award every year so long as the film in question isn't related to 'Cars'. I'd have preferred seeing 'A Royal Affair' win over 'Amour' in the foreign film category, but 'Amour' is still a terrific film. Shame Tarantino won a screenplay award for one of his baggiest movies: perpetuating the idea that the screenplay award is about dialogue, when movie writing is about much more than that. For instance, craft, structure and discipline. You shouldn't be able to throw every thought you've had onto a page and beat a pretty perfect film like 'Moonrise Kingdom' to that award. No arguments with 'Searching for Sugar Man' for best doc - loved it. Also, how was 'Cloud Atlas' (see opinion below) not even nominated for Best Make-Up? 'Hitchcock' was, and that's just Anthony Hopkins in a terrible fat-suit. 'Cloud Atlas' is a little more ambitious and interesting than that, even if it's not much else.
For more on the Academy Awards, they were the subject of my latest podcast with Toby King - which you can subscribe to on iTunes.
'Zero Dark Thirty' - Dir. Kathryn Bigelow (15)
Like 'The Hurt Locker' before it, Kathryn Bigelow's latest foray into post-9/11 US dealings in the Middle East is resolutely A-political. Whether that's in order to avoid splitting the audience (and Academy Award voters) or because she has no clear view on events I can't say, but 'Zero Dark Thirty' - despite strange allegations that it's pro-torture - is clinical, cold and matter of fact, sometimes to the point of being sterile. It's possibly the least testosterone-filled and adrenaline pumping movie of Bigelow's career as, aside from a tense and deeply disturbing depiction of the Delta Force killing of Osama Bin Laden in the film's final third, it mainly follows the office-bound trials and tribulations of Jessica Chastain's maverick CIA operative. We witness her attempts - apparently based on fact - to persuade bosses to pro-actively pursue fresh intelligence on Bin Laden, then (supposedly) assumed by higher ups to be hiding in remote caves - a decade-long quest that ends in the al Qaeda leaders 2011 death.
The Delta Force sequence is breathtaking in its construction, and totally morally ambiguous - it's basically a group of well-armed men slaughtering the occupants of a family home as they sleep and plays as about as heroic as that sounds - but the rest is fairly forgettable, if reliably performed by the award-nominated lead. Chastain is a commanding presence, though most of her discussions with bosses are cliché dick-swinging contests won by the shoutiest person in the room, rather than Aaron Sorkin-style exhibitions of smartest-guy-in-the-room cleverness. It could have benefited from the latter given how talky it is, and how interesting much of supporting cast are: Mark Strong, Mark Duplass, Joel Edgerton, Chris Pratt, James Gandolfini, Kyle Chandler, Jason Clarke and Frank Grillo are all decent in it but have very little to do.
In regards to the much-discussed scenes of torture, I don't think Bigelow, or writer Mark Boal, has an overtly pro or negative stance (though you could certainly make a compelling case for anything other than a negative stance being morally dubious) as far as we can glean from the movie. Torture is certainly depicted, but ultimately generates no intelligence that isn't ultimately already in the CIA's possession. Besides, whilst the military personnel involved, along with Chastain's character, don't seem to have any problem with the practice, the torture itself is suitably uncomfortable to watch - much like the Delta Force raid. Neither are presented as performed by uncomplicated good guys. In fact I'd be very surprised if anybody - even on the extreme "kill them all for what they done" far-right - found much cause to celebrate the military action as depicted here. The film's only real crimes are against reasonable running times, as it out-stays its welcome by a good 40 minutes. But that's a consistent problem with 95% of recent movies. For further reading, see 'Lincoln' and 'Cloud Atlas' below.
'Lincoln' - Dir. Steven Spielberg (12A)
This will be a very short review, as Spielberg's 'Lincoln' is an otherwise forgettable (if robustly constructed) film that will be remembered for an amazing central performance: Daniel Day-Lewis is fantastic, as is much of an impressive supporting cast. His Abraham Lincoln is believable and a character, not a caricature - something that can't be said for every Day-Lewis creation. We have no real way of knowing if this is what the most-celebrated US president sounded like or moved like, but this portrayal is entirely convincing and, perhaps more significantly, wonderful to watch. In fact it's the only thing that kept me gripped in what's really a dry courtroom drama about the horse-trading and back-room politics involved in passing a law. The Civil War setting is interesting and the law in question - the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which outlawed slavery in the United States - is obviously of great historical importance, but Spielberg's telling of these events suffers from an uncharacteristic lack of dynamism and narrative drive.
'To The Wonder' - Terrence Malick (12A)
Full disclosure: I'm not a great lover of Terrence Malick's ouvre, finding that I appreciate his work far more than I enjoy it or even like it. In that respect 'To The Wonder' is true to form: a plot-light, narration-heavy visual poem, replete with awe-inspiring visuals (including the classic: long grass in a suburban American backyard at magic hour) and deeply, earnestly contemplative about the meaning of existence, the director's relationship with God and our place in the universe. This one deals in typically big themes via Javier Bardem's conflicted priest and Olga Kurylenko's lovelorn immigrant - covering existential despair with over the top free-spirited joie de vivre. Yet it's more satisfying for me as a subject for post-film conversation than as a viewing experience itself.
To me its whispering narration, mostly in French and Spanish this time around, coupled with inspirational visuals of people frolicking in nature, give it the feeling of a particularly lavish perfume ad or an especially bombastic mobile phone commercial. Which isn't to say the film itself is at all superficial or pretentious: I think Malick is entirely sincere and honest in what feels like a very personal exploration of - among other things - marriage as an intrinsic part of faith and faith as an essential component of marriage. It's just that, as with the similar (if infinitely more grand and ambitious) 'Tree of Life', the themes that are closest to Malick's heart couldn't be further from my own. Spirituality and faith are often no more than buzzwords in American movies, and Malick is to be applauded for examining these concepts seriously and devoid of superficiality (I'm thinking of you 'Life of Pi'), but they don't particularly interest me as a militant atheist.
On a different tact, Ben Affleck is completely bland (or perhaps his character is just incredibly cold to the point that he isn't required to express any emotion) and his character poorly defined, whilst Rachel McAdams is in it for barely ten minutes - making it odd that in some cases the marketing has billed them as the stars, especially given that Kurylenko narrates the majority of the piece and features more prominently from start to finish. In many respects the film is about her character's journey from flighty and infatuated love-obsessive to wounded and disheartened romance cynic.
'Cloud Atlas' - Dir. Tom Tykwer, Lana Wachowski & Andy Wachowski (15)
Nothing says the Wachowskis like ambitious and expensive folly, and so in the spirit of the 'Matrix' sequels and the unfairly maligned 'Speed Racer' comes the cluttered and confused 'Cloud Atlas', made in collaboration with German filmmaker Tom Tykwer (of 'Run Lola Run' and 'The International' fame). There's so much to be curious about here: for instance, the principal stars all play a half-dozen different characters, often changing race and gender as the film cuts between time periods - from the 1800s to the far-flung, post-apocalyptic future. It's a sci-fi blockbuster, romantic tragedy, period drama, espionage thriller and a slapstick comedy about bungling pensioners - all in one movie. But this is both the appeal and, it turns out, the problem. Many (if not all) of these disparate elements are interesting, but combined they have the effect of drowning each other out, whilst the constant cutting leaves it feeling messy and unfocussed.
Basically it doesn't quite work as a whole, only really succeeding as a curiosity: but, for many, this curiosity won't extend for the film's near three-hour running time. Furthermore, the stories only really have one point: that we should set aside intolerance of difference and embrace the fact that we are all essentially one single race, united in our struggles. That's why it is actually anti-racist for (as an example) Jim Sturgess to get made up to look Korean, as opposed to deeply troubling: because the fact that we're all the same is the movie's entire point - which it attempts to amplify through the repeated use of the same actors in vastly different role across the span of human existence. But this presents two problems, as I see it.
The first is that this message, if - like most of the audience, I presume - you already believe it, doesn't require a three-hour, $100 million demonstration in which Tom Hanks incongruously plays an Irishman, a Scotsman and a futuristic caveman. The second difficulty is that, by venturing into the bigoted sci-fi future, and the bigoted ultra-distant future, the film suggests that this war against difference is intrinsic to the human experience and never destined to change. In other words: we'll always be racists. And that's a bit pessimistic for my taste.