Saturday, April 12, 2014

Ranking the 2014 Academy Award Nominees (Documentary)

OK, I still have a ways to go before I've seen all the narrative and animated feature nominees. But I did manage to catch all the documentary features (they're all streaming on Netflix). I recommend all five. Here's how I rank them, starting at the top.
1. The Square
This account of public protest in Egypt is both inspirational and cautionary. Mass protests bring down the dictatorial regime of Hosni Mubarak. It takes another round of protests to convince the military to give up power and conduct elections. One of the groups oppressed by Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood, comes to power, and seeks to impose its own tyranny on the people. (I can hardly believe this, but at one point the Brotherhood's leader proclaimed himself Pharaoh.) This led to yet another set of protests. Mind you, at times the rallies were met with deadly force; these people showed a lot of courage. I scratched out a few notes about the film here.
2. Cutie and the Boxer
By the time the film was over, I was charmed by this portrait of a quirky artistic couple in New York. Vivid, interesting people who sometimes made your heart ache.
3. Twenty Feet from Stardom
This film about unheralded backup singers is comfort cinema. The viewer feels ennobled by proxy as the talented people (mostly black women) who sing behind the stars get some deserved recognition.
4. Dirty Wars
America has done some bad, bad things. Remember the heroes who got Osama bin Laden? They were part of the Joint Special Operations Command, which had been conducting secret raids in various countries for years. Sometimes those raids involved the killing of innocent civilians. There is a logic that justifies such killing, but it is reasoning from a very dark place. This documentary follows a reporter as he learns about the activities of the JSOC. The film doesn't provide any simple answers, but boy does it ask some troubling questions.
5. The Act of Killing

This is the most astonishing film of the lot. Nearly fifty years ago, agents of the Indonesian government murdered many people they didn't like–in particular, people they suspected of being Communists. The killers have remained in power and have never been called to account for their murders. In the film, a documentarian offers to help them stage Hollywood-style reenactments of their misdeeds. They respond with enthusiasm, bullying modern-day villagers into participating in the project. After a while, this perverse form of LARPing becomes repetitive. Still, the mind is boggled.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Kids

I have always felt a bit out-of-step with other film lovers when I consider my feelings toward two early Steven Spielberg films, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. They seem painfully didactic to me–lessons clumsily wrapped inside an entertainment. I'm on board with one of the lessons, that a thing's strangeness does not necessarily make it menacing; the idea was a welcome counter to Nixon-era paranoia. But the other lesson, which could be read as, the innocence of children is the greatest wisdom, sticks in my craw. I think it gets kids way wrong.

For me, the worst moment of both films comes in Close Encounters. A woman and her young son are inside their house when a UFO approaches outside. There are bright lights and vibrations and loud sounds. The mother is terrified, but the child is attracted to the lights, runs outside, and is carried off by the UFO.
I know that there is a point in child development when the child actively separates its identity from those of its parents, but that sort of breaking free comes for children much older than the boy in the film. In fact, in the movie the child is more oblivious of his mother than alienated from her. And that oblivion seems utterly false to me; in a strange, potentially frightening situation, children of that age will look to adults for emotional cues rather than ignore them.


This wrongheaded depiction of a child came to mind recently when I watched a very fine film that gets adult-child relations right. What Maisie Knew (as of this writing, available for streaming on Netflix and elsewhere) updates the Henry James novel to modern New York. Julianne Moore and Steve Coogan play the horrible parents of six-year-old Maisie (Onata Aprile). When it suits them, they are affectionate toward the girl; but mostly they are tied up in bitterness toward one another. Maisie loves her parents but learns that she must entrust herself to other adults as well. There is a point in the film when Maisie, abandoned by her parents, stands curbside next to a man she barely knows (Alexander Skarsgård), a bartender friend of her mother's. Maisie automatically reaches up to take the hand of this unfamiliar adult. That little gesture is an emotionally searing moment in the movie, and it contains more truth about children than either of the Spielberg films.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Ranking the 2013 Academy Award Nominees


The statuettes have been handed out; the celebrants have dispersed. Here are my own rankings, starting at the top. Like last year, I am combining Best Picture and Best Animated Feature nominees.

1. Zero Dark Thirty

There might be a movie (or at least a good magazine piece) in the political reaction to Zero Dark Thirty. First, while the film was being made, came the rage on the right. The pundits knew in their guts that the movie, set to be released shortly before the election, would be a giant pro-Obama propaganda piece. Typical Hollywood–pointing out that Obama did “get” bin Laden, right in the middle of a political campaign. Then the film came out, and it seemed to suggest that maybe, just maybe, torture yielded a bit of valid information. My stars, whimpered the left, you never heard me praising that movie. No no no no no. And there's a sad aspect to this: The underlying logic seems to be that torture is justified if it produces any useful result at all. This is the thinking of much of the political arguing class, across the spectrum. Hmm. Once upon a time, “The end justifies the means” was very much an arguable proposition.

Zero Dark Thirty breaks from typical storytelling in a couple of ways. First is the role of women. A completely fictional screenplay about a CIA analyst with a single-minded focus on getting a major terrorist might cast a woman as the analyst. But you can be sure she would be not only smart, but a master of the martial arts as well–because the ability to physically pummel someone is Hollywood's true measure of heroism. Now, Maya may have been a tough cookie, but I don't recall her dispatching anyone with ninja kicks. And having cast a woman in the central role, your traditional script would have surrounded her with square-jawed men to be her fellow heroes. But ZDT places a second woman, Jessica, in a key role in the bin Laden hunt; and there's even a third woman, Lauren, who comes up with a key bit of information. Oh, reality–you're really overdoing it with the women, aren't you?

The second atypical feature, reflecting genuine courage and originality by the filmmakers, is the handling of the raid on bin Laden's compound. Many reviewers were baffled that in the last act, a complete group of newcomers to the film carry out the raid. Good God! How dare they vary from formula and keep the main character outside the action! Of course, writing Maya into the raid would have been a hacky gesture, but some of the critics apparently wanted to see that, or to have the raid taken out of the movie. The rules of plotting must be obeyed, no matter how much they harm the final product!

2. Les Misérables

Obviously, I liked this film a lot; even Russell Crowe was welcome. (Russell Crowe is always welcome.) I've had limited experience with Les Mis; I had never heard the musical (though five years ago I watched the 1934 film–it was phenomenal), and was prepared for something tiresome along the lines of Evita or Phantom. It was much better than those. I didn't mind all the close-ups. Some critics carped that the character of Éponine was underutilized, but this happens in musicals and opera all the time.

Some of my affection arises outside the merits of the film itself. Apparently this musical has caught on particularly well with young people, and it's pleasing to think that another generation has been charmed by musical theater. And part of the story's message–that there are plenty of people in great need who ought to be helped–argues against some of the nastier sentiments expressed in today's politics. There are still plenty of people who would happily give someone five years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread.

3. Amour

This is a punishing film, depicting the sad downward spiral of a loved one's health. But it's restrained and humane–well, as humane as we're going to get from Michael Haneke. It's life's end as a horror story, with just enough compassion that it doesn't entirely crush the soul. This thread of compassion, a lifeline to the viewer, starts at the opening scene of the movie, when police break into an apartment to find.... Well, I won't spoil it.

4–5 (tie). Lincoln and Silver Linings Playbook

These two films were so different that I couldn't compare them well enough to rank one above the other. Both had good storytelling and great performances.

Perhaps the dryness and tight focus of Lincoln's subject–the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, abolishing slavery–forced Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner to work at their highest level; there's little room for mawkishness or bombast when you're trying to make a series of meetings into an enjoyable feature film. And of course Daniel Day-Lewis's humanizing performance brought the story to life. A personal note: I knew it was coming, but I still got chills from Seward's line, “Now he belongs to the ages,” which I first learned from a View-Master slide many decades ago.

Silver Linings Playbook is Hollywood fare when Hollywood is running on all cylinders. Who doesn't want to see two sweet, damaged people work things out?

6. Life of Pi

This comes from the My Great Adventure vaults, with Ang Lee as the beloved uncle you look forward to seeing on holidays. And there's a little spike at the end of the story that makes for great after-film discussion.

7. Argo

Here Hollywood pats itself on the back, but you don't really mind; it's a good yarn with enough historic truth in it to make you feel a little uplifted.

8. Django Unchained

I think it's Quentin Tarantino's film-geekdom that makes him such a master of set pieces, and most of them work in this revenge fantasy. Also welcome, among others, are Jamie Foxx in a starring role, and Jonah Hill in a hilarious cameo. I even got some chuckles out of Tarantino's appearance.

9. The Pirates! Band of Misfits

In ranking the animated features, I asked myself which one entertained me the most. This offering from Aardman Animations was most on my wavelength–congenial and clever, and not specifically pitched to kids. The leads, voiced by Hugh Grant, Martin Freeman, Imelda Staunton, and David Tennant, are all great fun.

10. Wreck-It Ralph

This is a charming adventure, if the candy colors don't drive you to distraction.

11. Brave

Add another Disney princess to the castle. Fantasies in Scotland never grow old.

12. Frankenweenie

The parts–family pet resuscitation and monster invasion–don't quite hold together, but there's lots of quirky imagination at play.

13. ParaNorman

This one is all right, but it stays well within the kids' safety zone, which can get a little boring.

14. Beasts of the Southern Wild

Many have taken this very original film to heart, but it didn't quite work for me.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Ranking the 2012 Academy Award Nominees

Maybe I was grouchier this year; unlike last year, there were quite a few nominees I flat-out didn't like. Here's the combined list of Best Picture and Best Animated Feature nominees, ranked best to worst.

1. Moneyball
Jonah Hill helps Brad Pitt build a baseball team. A thoroughly enjoyable entry from the Men Solving Problems genre.

2. The Descendants
Great heart, great comedy. You leave this movie feeling like a decent person–one of many decent people in the world.

3. Chico & Rita
Jazz, romance, and a history of Cuba. More ambitious than a lot of live-action films.

4. Rango
Oddball, imaginative western critter comedy.

5. Kung Fu Panda 2
One Kung Fu Panda film should have been enough, but some very fine writers came up with some more original ideas for a surprisingly touching movie.

6. Puss in Boots
I doubted the cat from the Shrek franchise could carry a film. I shouldn't have. Very entertaining.

From here on I am a sourpuss.

7. The Tree of Life
Terrence Malick shot for the moon here. The middle section is lovely, but the outer sections don't transport.

8. The Artist
Kind of a humdrum story. I know that broad smiles and outstretched arms were supposed to make me applaud, but, sorry, my reflexes must have been off.

9. Hugo
Martin Scorsese is a blessing to the film world, but this film started with Professor Scorsese Demonstrates a Continuous Shot and ended with Professor Scorsese Insists That Preserving Old Films Is Important. The shot was crudely attention-grabbing, and film preservation is certainly a worthy cause, but I wanted to be entertained.

10. War Horse
Maybe I'm too jaded to fall for that ol' reliable manipulative movie magic.

11. Midnight in Paris
I think I understand why the characters out of the past were drawn so flatly–they arose out of the main character's limited imagination–but to understand is not to enjoy.

12. A Cat in Paris
The dog in the snow was funny. Otherwise, pretty much everything was routine or downright dumb.

13. The Help
You can tell a character is noble by how heroically she deals with insult. And because we think you're a moron, we're going to lay on a lot of insult so you get the point.

14. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
Because I am a bad person, I thought the kid was thoroughly irritating. Because I live in the real world, I thought the story was thoroughly preposterous.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Religious Freedom? Really?

I confess it. I have gotten exercised about the whole issue about what should be provided in women's health insurance. I have Taken The Bait.

Here's how I look at it. Try to follow along.

First, a completely imaginary case:

You're an election judge. Your job is to provide ballots to people who come to vote. But now something occurs to you, in a flash of overwhelming righteousness: Women who do not cover their heads in public are shameful beings. When women with uncovered heads come to the polls to vote, you do not acknowledge their existence. Certainly you do not give them a ballot.

News flash: I have it in for you. You have taken a job and then decided that the job is unworthy of you. You will not besmirch yourself by doing what the job requires. I demand you either find someone–an election clerk, perhaps–who can handle the work that is beneath you, or you get out of the election judge business.

Now to reality:

You are a church. But you have chosen to get into non-churchy things, such as health care. And now you have decided that a part of health care–providing women with contraceptive services–will diminish your unfathomable holiness.

My stern advice: Find a way to accommodate these women, or get out of health care.

If you have taken a job, and then decided you are too noble to do the job, but will not give up the job: To hell with you. The fist of your religious freedom is smashing my face.

No rabbi or imam or bishop gets to decide what health care women should get. (Women or anyone else, for that matter.) Not in my America.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Resemblances

The first time it happened was in 2005.

I was watching the movie Bad Day at Black Rock. Spencer Tracy plays John J. Macreedy, a World War II veteran who pays a visit to an isolated town in the West. Robert Ryan is Reno Smith, the informal leader of the town, and it's pretty clear that he's a bad guy.

Macreedy is puzzled by the townspeople's secretive behavior, and early in the film Smith confronts him at a filling station and tries to bully him into leaving town. That's when the resemblance hit me: Smith (Ryan) looked exactly like George W. Bush! And his pugnacious attitude solidified the likeness.

Then a few weeks ago it happened again.

This time I was viewing Water for Elephants, in which Christoph Waltz plays August, a handsome, hard-nosed circus owner. Early on I saw that August was the spitting image of Mitt Romney! And there were several character elements that also linked the two: August enriched himself by taking over the assets of other circuses; he enjoyed firing people; and he didn't always have his animals' best interests at heart.

Chilling.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Christmas: A Note


For your holiday pleasure, I heartily recommend this week's podcast from Start the Week With Andrew Marr. The discussion centers on the Roman Emperor Constantine, who decided it would be politically useful to appropriate a carefully edited version of Christianity for his Empire. The result is nicely summarized in the Nicene Creed, which covers these aspects of Christ: Birth, Passion, Crucifixion, and Resurrection. Carefully omitted from Constantine's religion: Jesus's Ministry. It seems the actual words and deeds of Jesus were too controversial; they didn't serve the Emperor's political agenda.

The podcast explains this much better than I do. But the next time you hear public figures bloviate about their devotion to Christianity, without actually showing any familiarity with the teachings of Jesus–well, perhaps you have Constantine to thank.