Though my work towards my MLIS degree has been taking its toll on my movie time, I am still working on watching the AFI lists to completion. I actually had to give a presentation last semester—3 minutes on any topic—and I chose to present on the AFI lists and my lengthy quest to dominate them. So now while I am on vacation (my last semester—woohoo!—will start in a week) I have been taking the opportunity to knock off a couple of list movies. My goal is to finish out one of the lists (probably 100 Thrills, which I’m closest to finishing) before the end of 2014.
The Sheik is a silent film from 1921; Son of the Sheik is its 1926 sequel. Both were on the disc I got from Netflix, and both were less than 90 minutes long, so I watched both. The original film is the one the AFI recommended, on the 100 Passions list. It is one of the original desert epic love stories of the kind I avoid even now! (I had The English Patient on disc for—no lie—longer than 12 months and returned it without watching it.) But hey, >90 minutes.
Here’s my immediate problem with The Sheik being a legendary love story: it’s based on kidnapping. The female love interest, Lady Diana, catches the eye of the Sheik while they are both running around some desert city casino. Later, she is out in the desert with a guide who seems to be in cahoots with the Sheik and sets her up to get grabbed by the Sheik’s men, and then they hold her until she comes around. She stays in a luxurious tent and wears luxurious outfits, which the movie seems to think makes it a little more OK. But even by the standards of the 1920s, this entire endeavor is pretty offensive.
Anyway, the Sheik wins her over because there is a rival gang of bandits who see that the Sheik is traveling with a white lady, and they decide they will steal her away from her captors. And unlike the Sheik and his men, these bandits are bad guys. So the Sheik successfully fights the bandits, getting injured in the process, and Lady Diana is overcome by gratitude and love. Happily ever after!
The racial politics are not terribly enlightened, either. Lady Diana sits by his bedside after the bandit battle, where the Sheik sleeps in one of those not-too-serious movie comas, and she remarks, so weirdly, that he has “large hands for an Arab.” (Firstly, is it a stereotype that Arabs have small hands? Or are generally small? What does one have to do with the other?) But then the Sheik’s English companion breaks the news to the Lady that the Sheik was never an Arab! His parents were European, had some desert encounter with the previous Sheik—he saved their lives or something—and then the previous Sheik, who had no sons, willed the title to this European boy. And he takes it on, going to live and rule over this lawless desert territory for some reason.
This backstory fits Valentino the actor, who was Italian and not Arab—not that Old Hollywood would hesitate for a SECOND to attribute a minority race to a white actor, mind you, there are a million examples. Here is a list of them, and they’re missing Katharine Hepburn playing Asian and Charlton Heston playing Mexican, off the top of my head.
But anyway, what’s really obvious about this moment in the The Sheik is that it gives Lady Diana permission to truly love the Sheik and consider him as a mate. The movie makes it very clear, as does the performance by the actress, that this is a moment of revelation for her. He is suitable now.
The movie does have some fine action, interesting sets and costumes. Agnes Ayres is lively and appealing as Lady Diana, though I was unimpressed by Valentino. Other than a few fight scenes, the Sheik does very little that is interesting to watch. Like many actors of his generation, Valentino makes a lot of big, broad faces. His role as the Sheik is still impenetrable. His acting doesn’t offer any indications of why he thinks kidnapping Lady Diana will be an effective way to win her, or whether he makes any reconsiderations of the choice once it’s been done. He seems to love her in an obsessed, heavy-breathing type of way. The reputation of Valentino as the king of romantic heroes was not fully justified to me by the performance here.
The sequel, which takes place 20-some years later, stars Valentino both as the original Sheik (barely recognizable under makeup and beard) and as the titular Son, not surprisingly a dead ringer for his father. A new young actress plays the love interest, while actress Agnes Ayres returns as mother of the Son, for which she received this charming credit:
The plot is some mess involving a girl who dances for coins, whose father is part of a roving bandit gang. She has a secret romance going on with the Sheik’s son, and the gang finds out and tries to exploit the son or the sheik or something. And there is much battling, and some son stepping out of the shadow of his father, and so on. It was only fine.
The extras on the disc were fascinating time capsules. Valentino apparently judged a series of beauty contests all over the United States (and Canada) and then judged the national finals in 1923. Apparently he did this long and thankless job because he was under a promotional contract with a cosmetics company, a contract he took on to rebound financially from a divorce. Anyway, there’s a short film about the contests and lots of footage from the final pageant and the crowning of the most beautiful woman in America, Miss Toronto. Whoops. (According to that link above, Valentino was probably having an affair with Miss Toronto. Scandal!)
Another extra, terribly disturbing, is newsreel footage reporting on Valentino’s death at age 31. He died very suddenly (due to infections following appendicitis surgery) and at the height of his fame (Son of the Sheik came into theaters a month after his death). The newsreel includes footage of the funeral home and the body itself, lying in state. That’s not an image I can imagine seeing on movie screens now (for sure on the internet, and TMZ). You can even buy glossies of it on EBay.
I always think of Old Hollywood whenever anyone talks about TMZ or other abominations of modern media. We saw an example of this last week when ABC News buzzed the house of the newly-deceased celebrity Robin Williams with helicopters, taking footage of…what? What could they have hoped to catch on video? Ambulances? A medical examiner or coroner entering the house? The body being carried out, I suppose. Like that’s something we need or deserve to see. It’s gross behavior to feel entitled to that level of celebrity access, but it is most decidedly not new.
A strange case, Silver Linings Playbook. It’s basically a romantic comedy, a trifle that got this huge awards push for some reason (Harvey Weinstein) and thus masqueraded as something grander and more important than it is.
Now listen, I have nothing against proclaiming a romantic comedy as a piece of greatness. Romantic comedies are a crucial part of film history. It Happened One Night won a jillion Oscars back in 1935 and it deserved all of them. Annie Hall deserved its award attention in 1978. I am one of those secret Shakespeare in Love (Best Picture, 1998) supporters, even, because I think one, that movie is brilliant, and two, Saving Private Ryan is overrated.
That’s all right. Go scream and bang some dishes. You’ll get over it, and then come back.
I don’t know that Silver Linings Playbook is of the level of those other movies. It Happened One Night is special just because it’s a near-perfect filmic experience in an era when everything about film was newborn. It set precedents for romantic bickering, comedic action, pacing, movie star charisma, everything. Annie Hall is one of those defining-a-generation movies. (Mmmm, zeitgeisty.) Shakespeare in Love succeeds at comedy and drama, and has a perfect screenplay. (Perfect.) Playbook, on the other hand, does not have a perfect screenplay—it strains and is contrived in places. It is not heartbreakingly of its time. It doesn’t feel new about anything.
Here is what Playbook is: a really funny, genuinely romantic, undoubtedly well-acted, charming movie that we’ll all have forgotten in a couple years, but which you will not regret having shelled out a tenner to see. See, my secret is that I love romantic comedies. Despite being perpetually disappointed by them. The modern romantic comedy is terrible. It’s stupid. It’s sexist. It has Gerard Butler in it. Playbook is a movie that boldly proclaims, “A romantic comedy doesn’t have to be terrible!”
Somehow, everybody tried a little harder on this one. The hook is mental illness: Bradley Cooper, our main character, is a man who in his late twenties or early thirties (not sure if he’s playing his own age, or younger; there is some evidence that he is) is newly diagnosed as bipolar. He has a violent incident in his past for which he spent several months in a mental institution. In the opening scene of the movie, his mother has come to check him out, despite everyone’s anxiety that he’s not ready for the stresses of reality.
Cooper’s character, Pat, has convinced himself that he can overcome his own brain functions with exercise and positivity. He feels strong; he feels like he can take that bipolarity and just choke it dead. And I LOVE that the movie acknowledges almost immediately what a bad and erroneous idea this is. Pat goes back on his meds pretty quickly, because brain chemistry and state of mind are different things, something movies almost never tell you. His psychiatrist is also really good. Movie shrinks tend to be terrible; they say ridiculous things, they encourage their patients to do out-of-character, off-the-wall things because they live to establish plot contrivances. Pat’s guy listens, reacts, reframes.
(Beyond that, some of the things the movie has to say about mental illness are weird, at best. Other reviews can fill you in on that, because it didn’t bother me so much.)
Jennifer Lawrence sails in amidst Playbook’s biggest contrivance: healing through dance. Lawrence’s Tiffany, who is clinically depressed, in a self-destructive heavy-eyeliner kind of way, is a ballroom dancer, and she needs a partner for a big competition. Pat balks at being that partner, but Tiffany’s also a great manipulator and plays an emotional trump card. She knows just what’s important to him, and how to dangle it in front of his face. So he’s caught up, and we get a classic mismatched pair of misanthropes who will “improbably” fall in love.
Again, so obvious, so done before. Still, dancing is always interesting to watch, and everybody in this film is basically excellent. Cooper manages to vault right over his usual douchey Cooperness. The buzz cut helps; he doesn’t so closely resemble Hangover guy. There was something else he did, though, that I really enjoyed. I don’t know how to explain it really, except to say that he was a serious guy who was also funny to watch. The character is hyper; he takes things to ridiculous extremes. To a degree, even his trials and tribulations are funny. The movie knows that, Cooper knows that. But Pat takes himself 100% seriously. And Cooper plays that contradiction: a dead serious guy, smack in the middle of a romantic comedy.
You know who else is great? Robert De Niro. There was a time when that didn’t need to be specified, but we all know De Niro’s kind of lowered his standards in the last decade or so. This character he plays, Pat’s dad, is not built from De Niro clichés, he’s not a tough guy. He’s actually quite a sensitive dude. He has OCD, and he is devoted to the concept of good luck charms. He thinks Pat is one of them, and uses that as a way to guilt Pat into spending more time with him (i.e., “The team lost, and you should’ve been here!”). Pat’s negotiations with his family—trying to rebuild those relationships and regain their trust—are as important to the story as the romance, and that gives the story a little extra weight.
Awards Attention: Though it was up for Best Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, and, weirdly, Editing, it was never really in the running for any of those. Playbook is an actor’s movie, so that is where bets were laid. Though the movie came away with one just Oscar, for Jennifer Lawrence in her lead role, there were four nominations—Cooper, De Niro, and Jacki Weaver as Pat’s mom had the other three.
Weaver had the least real chance; not only was she up against a powerhouse (Anne Hathaway from Les Mis), but she had a nothing role in this movie. She was nominated a couple years ago for a movie called Animal Kingdom in which she seemed equally underused until this scene at the end where she suddenly delivered this chilling speech that made you realize there was tons more to her character than you had initially thought. I kept waiting for something like that in Playbook, and it did not happen. De Niro, on the other hand, is doing something very special here—a very modulated, fidgety, improbably emotional tough guy. I thought he had a good chance, but it did not work out for him.
Bradley Cooper is, as I wrote above, just great in this movie, but he was up against Daniel Day Lewis as Lincoln, and never had a shot in hell. The best thing he’s going to get out of this is being referred to as “Oscar nominee Bradley Cooper” in movie trailers from here on out, which is not a bad thing for him.
As for Jennifer Lawrence, I watched The Hunger Games again this week, and—she made these two movies in the same year—I feel like her performance in Hunger Games was so much more intense than Playbook. The circumstances of that movie are just naturally more intense—being hunted for your life will do that—but it still seems like a problem. I don’t want to play into any stereotypes about acting—“there has to be tons of emoting in tons of intense situations or it’s not really acting!”—but the role here just seems slight, compared to others she’s done (Winter’s Bone has another great performance of hers, in another much more serious film).
Having said that, there were a couple moments in Playbook that I found impressive. Not the “I must be crazy!” diner freakout they used as her clip at the Oscars, which seemed overdone, nor the “schooling everybody in football stats” scene everyone assumed they would use as her clip at the Oscars, which was more about the writing than anything special in the delivery. But I loved her nearly-hyperventilating anxiety when she blows up at her sister for inviting Nicki to the dance competition, and the broken, longing looks she sometimes gives Pat when he’s ignoring her. And she danced real cute, and we all love her regardless, so congrats on the Oscar, Jennifer.
This movie was in strong contention over at Tomato Nation’s recent bracket tournament for the bleakest and most depressing movies ever. It is a movie that many moviegoers—even those game for foreign films and/or Oscar bait—skipped because of its subject matter. It’s about an elderly couple, Georges and Anne (played by Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva), and their love which increasingly becomes painful obligation as health problems begin to plague Anne.
I read a lot of comments by people who specifically said they wouldn’t see any movies where grown-ups have to wear diapers. Well, guess what. There are adult diapers in this movie. It is Hard to Watch, much like the movie Tracy Jordan was in on 30 Rock. Anne loses her dignity in myriad ways that Haneke lays out to be as bracing as he can. It takes something that people so willingly ignore—the fact that our bodies age, deteriorate, and then die—and makes it everything, unignorable. Unless, I guess, you don’t show up in the first place.
The movie opens when both are in good health; they come home from a concert (they were classical musicians, formerly), they banter about bedtime. They are both trim and not badly-dressed and seem like models for fulfilling elderlihood (a word I just made up). Then Anne has the world’s creepiest stroke (Haneke has also directed some thrillers, and here and there it shows—quite effectively) and it all goes to hell.
Actually, they roll with the punches first. She is partially paralyzed to begin, largely immobile all down her left side, but still is able to get around a little bit, generally using her husband as a crutch. He will grab her on her right, arms around her, and almost drag her around in half-circles, and that way she can move. It looks almost like slow-dancing, which is not a coincidence. We see her sitting in bed reading, holding and turning the pages both with her good hand. A former piano student of hers visits, and while he is uncomfortable with her appearance, she waves it away. (Even though the loss of a full hand’s functionality for a pianist is a real tragedy, one that the movie does not forget to illustrate.)
There is even one particularly funny little moment when some medical dudes bring Anne a motorized wheelchair and she tries it out in the vestibule of their apartment. She moves it a few feet forward, a few feet back, whirls it in a slow circle, all while Georges talks to her about something else. It’s the closest thing to freewheeling behavior you really see in the whole movie. They still believe at this point that they will weather this setback; that it will mean a different life for them, but not a worse one.
And it just gets worse and worse from there. A movie about eighty-year-olds with health problems is really only going to end in one way. What this movie wants to make clear, though, is that sometimes it happens slowly, and that makes it harder for everybody involved, especially for people who have previously loved each other as independent, self-possessed adults. Georges takes considerate care of Anne at every second, until he is forced to hire a nurse who can do some things he can’t. All through the movie I kept marveling, “He’s old too!” He must be tired, he must have aches and pains, but he makes everything in their life about taking care of her. He bristles at intimations from his daughter (played by Isabelle Huppert) that Anne needs to be put away somewhere.
Trintignant is amazing, by the way. Riva got all the attention because her performance involves so much physicality (paralysis, plus looking less and less like a human as she goes on) but the resolve of Georges—that Anne deserves this commitment from him, even though it’s sapping the life out of him, too, even though her decline fills him with profound sadness—it’s astounding and done almost totally in the way he looks at Anne, or stares into space.
There is a strange moment, a line where Anne tells Georges that he “can be a monster sometimes.” It was in the trailer, which I saw a dozen times before the movie came out. She says it quite matter-of-factly, he doesn’t ask for clarification, they don’t discuss it more. Is she serious? Has he been cruel in the past? We just don’t see any evidence of that in the scenes we do see. There is one moment when he succumbs to frustration and slaps her, but it seems to be the result of intense fear and stress, and not a fundamental meanness inside him. Because of its placement in the trailer, I assumed this movie would be about an older man who has neglected his wife, and who has to step up (or fails to step up) when she becomes ill. But (other than that line) that’s not what we see here. It’s very strange. Maybe it’s just a line to remind the audience not to make assumptions. “We may be here now, but there were fifty or sixty years prior to this, and you don’t know what was going on then.”
Despite the devastating nature of the subject matter, there is beauty to Amour, too, in their beautiful metropolitan apartment if nothing else, but also in little moments when Anne and Georges are just coping as best they can. They do have “amour” for one another, and even though it’s a double-edged sword (that title just drips with irony), there is something admirable in sharing a life with someone literally until death.
Awards Attention: It won Best Foreign Language film, to nobody’s surprise. I think its placement in the Best Picture race (where it lost, of course) was mostly to prove to people that the Academy is cool and not in the pocket of Big Hollywood. It was never going to win that, of course. And I wouldn’t have voted for it for that, either, mostly because it’s such a small story; still, in thinking about what makes a movie a success, we can’t forget that telling a story that’s affecting and honest and deep doesn’t happen without some serious artistry behind the camera.
Haneke lost Best Director to Ang Li, who put tigers in lifeboats, and lost Best Screenplay to Quentin Tarantino. This is probably because no one ever stops speaking dialogue in Tarantino movies, while Amour was about 70% intense silence. I will say that Amour’s non-linear narrative (which begins at the end) was a very effective storytelling choice.
Finally: Riva was nominated for Best Actress. She lost the Oscar to Lawrence, but beat both her and Jessica Chastain for the BAFTA a few weeks earlier. As I said above, the physicality is the real marker of skill in this performance. She moves freely and easily, and then she droops on one side. And then her body becomes more and more maimed, and then her eyes become more and more vacant. She physically becomes a shell of a person. And while you can’t underestimate the effect of makeup here, Riva is really doing something that you need to be an actress with 60 years’ worth of experience to be able to do. (Hiroshima mon Amour, people. That was her in 1959.) Amazing lady, who at 85 must still be fully in control of her body to have pulled off this performance, so she’s already winning at the game of life. (Also, she has a César and something called the “Silver Goddess” from Mexico, and she’s still beautiful, so she’s doing OK all around.)
Among other reasons that I have not been prioritizing posting to my blog as I so earnestly declared that I would, is this: after a fall and winter of applications and recommendations and campus visits, I have officially accepted an offer to join an MLIS program this fall.
Within six months, here is where you will find me: iSchool at the University of Pittsburgh
Yes, it’s back to school for me for a librarian’s degree. And before you tell me that print is dead (–Egon), let me assure you that I have studied this subject a great deal and that all information schools are heavily digital these days, and as far as concerns the ability of libraries to sustain themselves, we know more than you.
Now I just have to finish up my job here, move to Pittsburgh and uproot my entire life! (…Yikes.)
I managed, under the wire, to see all nine Best Picture nominees, but I’ve been out of town this weekend and not all the reviews are finished. Look back this week for Silver Linings Playbook, Amour, and Django Unchained (plus some others).
Post-show results are in red.
Preference: Zero Dark Thirty
Yep, Argo won.
Prediction: Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln
Preference: Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln
Yep, Daniel Day-Lewis won.
Prediction: I legitimately have no idea. I don’t think Naomi Watts or Quvenzhane Wallis really have any semblance of a chance between them. Any of the other three (Jessica Chastain, Jennifer Lawrence, or Emmanuelle Riva) could take it home and I’d say, “Yes, that seems about right.”
Preference: hmmm… maybe Riva! Lawrence should win someday for a better movie than Silver Linings Playbook, and she and Chastain both have decades to get here again. OK, talked myself into it. Emmanuelle Riva.
Lawrence took this one, clumsily and charmingly. I still think the movie was too slight to warrant an Oscar-winning performance, but I can’t really begrudge Lawrence anything. She even took a moment to wish her competitor, Emmanuelle Riva, a happy birthday! That’s a mark of a legitimately cool person.
Best Supporting Actor
Prediction: Christoph Waltz, Django Unchained
Preference: I don’t know. I loved De Niro’s performance in Silver Linings Playbook, but Philip Seymour Hoffman was mesmerizing in The Master. (In what was actually more of a lead actor performance in my opinion.) So I guess either of those dudes.
Waltz took it. Though I enjoyed his peformance in Django Unchained (a movie I finally saw the night before the Oscars), I found myself rooting for Hoffman at the last moment. What brilliant work he did there. Too bad for The Master.
Best Supporting Actress
Prediction: Anne Hathaway, Les Miserables
Preference: Anne Hathaway, Les Miserables (I guess-none of those performances blew me away, honestly)
Yep, Anne Hathaway won. She wore a terrible dress.
Prediction: Steven Spielberg, Lincoln
Preference: Ang Lee, Life of Pi? Maybe Haneke. It’s hard to choose in these cases where the person I think actuallly deserved it – Kathryn Bigelow – wasn’t actually nominated.
Half the jokes in the telecast were about Ben Affleck’s nomination snub, while I still think the real snub story was Kathryn Bigelow. Neither of those heavyweights being available to take it—and Spielberg having alienated voters somehow, I guess, possibly with that final scene in Lincoln I had such problems with—it was a surprise win for the unassuming Ang Lee. I can’t begrudge that guy anything; his work is always technically proficient but also deeply emotional, much as Life of Pi was. (And it’s not like he hasn’t survived his own snubs; Lee’s Brokeback Mountain lost Best Picture to the laughable Crash in 2006.)
Best Original Screenplay
Prediction: Quentin Tarantino, Django Unchained
Preference: Wes Anderson & Roman Coppola, Moonrise Kingdom
Tarantino won. It wasn’t a bad screenplay by any means, but I still think Moonrise Kingdom deserved it more.
Best Adapted Screenplay
Argo took it. Screenwriter Chris Terrio gave a lovely speech about solving problems with creativity instead of warfare. A great message, and an Oscar-appropriate one.
Best Animated Feature
Preference: Brave – only one I saw, but I loved it enough that I bet it would remain my favorite of the five
Also the only one the voters saw, I bet! Also, they love to give awards to dudes in kilts.
Best Foreign Language Film
Preference: Amour – well, it’s the only one I saw. No looks really good though; I’ll see that when it comes to Cleveland next month
Seeing fewer of the nominees gives me a better shot of guessing correctly. I was right here.
Best Documentary Feature
Prediction: Searching for Sugar Man
Preference: I didn’t see any of them, but The Invisible War is about a serious feminist issue (sexual assaults in the military), so I want that one
Ditto. Right here also.
Best Animated Short
Prediction: “Fresh Guacamole”
Preference: “Adam and Dog”
They went lighthearted, awarding “Paperman.”
Best Live-Action Short
Prediction: “Buzkashi Boys” if I’m being cynical, “Curfew” if the Academy is cool
“Curfew”! Writer-director Shawn Christensen praised the little actress Fatima Ptacek for stealing the movie away from him, for “being so good nobody remembers [he] was in it.”
Best Documentary Short
I was right here, “Inocente” won, and she was there. I was a bit disappointed to find she was visibly a few years older than she had been during the filming of the short, and dressed appropriately like a grown-up.
Best Original Song
Prediction: “Skyfall,” from Skyfall
Preference: “Skyfall” – And Adele’s going to perform it on the show so we ALL win
Which was more of a sure thing, Adele or Daniel Day-Lewis? They were both pretty much always going to happen. I do wish she had performed with Shirley Bassey, or immediately before or after, instead of both of them being marooned in different parts of the show.
Best Original Score
Prediction: Lincoln – never bet against John Williams
Preference: Skyfall – I don’t know, I just really like the way they weave in the classic Bond refrain
They went with Life of Pi here. Shrug. (P.S. I did not know at the time that Skyfall‘s composer, Thomas Newman, was on his eleventh nomination without a prior win. Really too bad.)
Prediction: Lincoln in one of its “sorry we aren’t giving you Best Picture” awards
Preference: I don’t know; Life of Pi looked beautiful, but an enormous amount of that was CGI. Django had some beautiful vistas. Skyfall, too. Oh, and those golden fields in Anna Karenina! I guess any of them would be OK besides Lincoln. Oh well.
Life of Pi here too, that being the surprise big winner of the evening, taking one more statue than even Argo did. Truly did not see that coming. Also, like Best Score, Cinematography had a perennial bridesmaid of a nominee in Roger Deakins, cinematographer of Skyfall. Ten nominations, two of them in the same year (2008) and zero wins.
Best Art Direction
Prediction: Les Miserables in one of its “sorry we aren’t giving you Best Picture” awards
Preference: Anna Karenina – this movie had a beautiful, imaginative look, partially realistic and partially staged
I always do so badly in the technicals. It went to Lincoln.
Preference: Zero Dark Thirty! The tension this movie sustained over long periods of time was masterful.
This one was right.
Best Sound Editing
Prediction: Argo – meaning I have no idea
Preference: Zero Dark Thirty – have I mentioned that I really, really loved this movie? I don’t know, the sound was probably good.
An unusual tied award, going to the teams behind both Skyfall and Zero Dark Thirty.
Best Sound Mixing
Preference: Life of Pi – I assume this is the category where you reward whoever made us hear the sound of the tiger’s claws sticking in the canvas tarp. I loved that.
It was Les Mis here. For the record, I read sometime this past week that Sound Editing deals with the sound that was recorded on the set, and Sound Mixing deals with the post-filming audio tweaking. Or possibly it is the reverse.
Best Costume Design
Prediction: Mirror Mirror has the brightest and wildest of the stylized historical gowns
Preference: Anna Karenina, although I suppose dressing Keira Knightley to look glamorous is not a terribly difficult endeavor. But all the wintry fur hats and stuff! Excellent.
Preference was right; the only attention Anna Karenina got all night.
Prediction: The Hobbit for the big hairy feet
Preference: Les Miserables, for the consumptive pale and rotten teeth
Again, preference, not prediction, was right.
Best Visual Effects
Prediction: The Avengers in a little nod to the highest grossing film of the year
Preference: Life of Pi for that freaky island
Yet again, preference was right. Maybe I need to quit assuming the Oscars will go for the obvious choice. (At least as far as technical awards are concerned. For acting, they still pretty much do.)
It would be unbearably hipster of me to say Lincoln is a bit too Spielbergian to have any edge. Spielberg is one of the greatest living filmmakers and has a number of masterpieces to his credit. But—like all great filmmakers, he has tics, which over time can calcify into clichés. And as he approaches middle age, Spielberg seems to have reached backwards to the Golden Age of Hollywood for inspiration. Everything he makes now looks like it could star Gary Cooper. Great actors playing great men across history, standing up in courtrooms or in Congress and making stirring speeches while triumphant music (composed by John Williams, natch) plays under them. At the Globes last month, when Daniel Day-Lewis won for Best Actor in a Drama, his speech went a bit long and the orchestra started to play him off (as they do) and I commented to my friends—Lewis was being his usual dignified, eloquent, ultra-serious self—and when the music started to play under him, I commented, “This is the exact experience of seeing Lincoln.”
And that’s not bad, necessarily; I love freedom and earnestness and emotional manipulation, or I wouldn’t have ever been able to watch any Frank Capra movies, or anything with Jimmy Stewart, or Gary Cooper. I love young Abe Lincoln when he was played by Henry Fonda in the corniest little sack of Americana ever. I don’t think Lincoln deserves a Best Picture Oscar, though, because a movie that wins the big prize should have some teeth.
The story itself was far edgier than the treatment of it really reflects. It’s about Lincoln selling out his most sacred value of forthrightness. He makes a bargain he feels that he has to make for the betterment of the future, even though it prolongs the horrors of the present. That’s a compelling concept, and I put the book on which this movie was based into my Goodreads queue as soon as I got home.
But there were these dumbed-down moments in the movie that felt superfluous or contrived. The movie wanted to make sure everybody got everything all the time. For example, the couple that comes to see Lincoln and Seward early in the movie over Macguffiny business, all so they can express their views on the emancipation question. They go so far as to literally emphasize their own ordinariness, so that we viewers will all understand Lincoln’s conflict: the people wanted an end to the war more than they wanted an end to slavery, and they would embrace the end of slavery if that was the means to end the war, but all things being otherwise equal (so to speak) slavery on its own merits really wasn’t hurting them any.
The thing is still plenty entertaining, though. Every character actor and his character actor brother appears in it at some point, everybody having their moments to express all the little nuances of the slavery question. It even manages to build up suspense in the moment of the great vote, and you’re sitting there counting the “Yay”s and “Nay”s and then think, “Chill out. It’s the Thirteenth Amendment. It passed.”
The acting is terrific across the board. Sally Field is good as the unstable Mary Todd (although, I continue to believe, she is twenty years too old for the role). I liked Joseph Gordon Levitt as Lincoln’s older son, and Gloria Reuben (Jeanie Boulet from ER!) as Mary’s lady’s maid, or whatever her position was. As for Daniel Day-Lewis, he is chameleonic, unrecognizable as Lincoln. I’m not sure if he was wearing a lot of prosthetics on his face—the nose couldn’t have been real—but he wears them like they’re his own. He’s especially gangly, too—when we get a full shot of his body his legs seem each a mile long—and I commented to my mom that I thought he might be wearing short stilts, although I haven’t been able to get internet confirmation of that supposition. People complained that the voice was unLincolnlike, apparently assuming that a guy who was 6’5” and born in a log cabin must have been a baritone, and maybe he was (who would know?), but DDL has always had the voice he has—a tenor at deepest—and his bearing and demeanor are right even if the individual elements are not. He talks like a man who’s smarter than everyone he knows, but has never forgotten what it was to live with a dirt floor beneath his feet. He talks like a man who will wait patiently to be heard, but then will make damn sure you listen. He seems like Lincoln. So congrats to the Irishman who brought him to life! I fully expect that DDL brings home the statuette on Oscar night and that nobody begrudges it of him. He’s like Meryl Streep that way. Yes, he gets tons of attention and praise. He’s just so very good.
One last negative thought: I, like many critics, think that Spielberg dogged the ending. We all understand that staging an assassination in a hero piece like this one is a fraught venture. The story is about Lincoln, the man, and to portray his murder would be to make the story about his murderer (so the line goes, although I quibble with that). What the movie does instead is cut from Lincoln going to the theater, to Lincoln’s son, who is also at a different theater (???) seeing some children’s play, and then someone rushes onto the stage to announce that Lincoln has been shot. And then they cut to this awful bit of business at Lincoln’s deathbed, where he is curled up, weakened, beat, people all around, both sons crying, Mary Todd having a hysterical fit (psst, I bet Sally Field wrote this scene and slipped it to Spielberg).
It is a depressing and almost disturbing final image. And it’s a strong parry to the claim I made at the start that it’s a conventional movie. But it’s so weird and out-of-step with the rest of the movie. What gives? I’ve thought it through, and although I would still (were I in the directorial or editorial position on this film, or equally likely a snowboarder or a unicorn) have excised the scene completely, I think it’s meant to recall for us one last time Lincoln’s family ties. His wife and his sons are so important to him—the way he brings the little one around to meetings and everything and just lets him be there, observing his dad at work, is such a refreshingly intimate image of fatherhood in an era where it was probably not much like that. And even though the movie has gone to such great lengths to show us the work of a man whose choices changed the course of American history forever, in so significant a way that maybe nobody else can top him, and forced us to think first of how his death was a national event, a cause for shared, communal sadness, I think the scene propels us back into the family circle to remind us that whatever ties we the people might believe we have over our public figures, they are still men, whose hearts really belong to their wives and children. Describing the scene to myself this way makes me like that ending more, and maybe if it had been staged just a bit differently I would’ve been on board. Oh well.
Expected Awards Attention: As I said in my Argo review, a month ago I would have predicted a Best Picture win here, just because the Oscars love these kinds of movies. A not-too-unpleasant story about one of our greatest American statesmen, directed by Spielberg with all those Spielberg touches—speechifying, swelling John Williams music—that act as shorthand for “this is a great and important movie.” But the winning streak Argo is on has pretty much let us know that whatever splash Lincoln is going to make as a movie has already been made.
Daniel Day-Lewis in the main role is a different story; he has won everything up to this point and will most likely win on Oscar night. He’s a wonderful actor; his performances go bone-deep. He even has Oscar history with stovepipe hats. OK, he didn’t win for that but you have to grant me the fun of that comparison.
I predict a lot of tech categories here. It will lose all the majors, including director (sorry Spielberg) but will take all the Sound and Score-type categories.
Here is my previous experience with Les Miserables: .
Right. I’ve never read the book, which numbers pages in the thousands, and I’ve never seen the stage show; never even listened to a cast recording. I was a band kid in high school, and I knew a lot of people who were musical nerds—Grease, Phantom of the Opera, etc.—but none of that stuff ever worked on me. So not only did I not know the plot going in, I didn’t even have previous knowledge of any of the songs, which are more important to the movie than plot. That’s how musicals work.
My experience now with Les Miserables is basically that the songs are only OK, and that it is far too long.
This is the problem with trying to see a broad range of movies, such as a complete Oscars Best Picture slate. At least one of them is going to be so Not For You that you’re going to really kind of hate it, and it doesn’t necessarily reflect upon the movie in a qualitative way. I think the movie has a lot of qualitative issues, and even people who really love Les Mis have pointed them out, so I’ll feel free to do so as well, in a minute. But this movie was never going to hit me where I live. I don’t like musicals. I have liked movies where people sing here and there, usually when the music is contemporary (Moulin Rouge is the gold standard here). And I also liked Chicago back when that was a thing, but the music there was so much better (brighter, bolder, jazzier) and the staging of that movie was so much better. Regardless of (Chicago director) Rob Marshall’s dubious output since then, he really made that movie visual and full of movement. (He was originally a choreographer.)
Les Mis is directed by Tom Hooper, who won Best Director two years ago for The King’s Speech (not rightfully in my mind, as he beat out much more innovative filmmakers like David Fincher, Christopher Nolan, and the Coen brothers who had great films out that year). And the movie is mushy. Everything in it (save Cosette’s hair) is black and brown. The team behind production design probably bent over backwards to recreate the France of Napoleon III and we can’t see any of it. Hooper lights actors’ faces as bright as he can because his focus is on their performances, but it means we can’t see anything else in the background.
The most shameless use of this technique is Fantine (Anne Hathaway)’s big song. Literally the entire thing is done in close-up. So great for her acting, all the expression on her face and blah blah blah. I hated the choice. It was too static. Her face and the song were not interesting enough for me not to get bored. I hated the removal of her character from any kind of movie context for the length of the song. She’s just there, floating in space. And the intense close-up was not flattering. I know they say a beautiful woman looking ugly equals Oscar gold, and it will probably work for Hathaway this weekend, so she’s not gonna mind. But I also know I did not need to see the mucus glistening in her nose, and I would have preferred not to.
In general, I preferred the group songs to the solos. They tended to me more upbeat and energetic. Weirdly, some of the only solos in the movie I liked belonged to Russell Crowe, who is getting almost unanimously panned for the performance. It makes me sad, because I have always liked Russell Crowe, even through his phone-throwing days. His character, Javert, is more stalwart, less dramatic than other characters, but he’s got a sturdy, authoritarian menace that really worked for me. He sings two solos, both standing on a high ledge of something. The first (I think it was the song called “Stars”) was one of my two favorite bits in the movie. Possibly because the camera had to be pulled back so you could see the titular stars, and also have the context of Javert on the ledge. My other favorite part was the two-minute scene where Valjean and Javert have a spontaneous swordfight at Fantine’s deathbed (“The Confrontation”).
I did not find Crowe’s singing outrageously bad, either. His singing voice may not be as rich as Jackman’s, but the presence of Eddie Redmayne ensures that Crowe is far from the worst singer there. (Redmayne has got a Kermity throaty thing that I found literally embarrassing.) I wasn’t particularly taken with Amanda Seyfried’s singing, either, but it may not be her fault; every song she gets is in the upper registers of tweety birdsong.
As for Hugh Jackman as Valjean, he is great, an able leading man, a terrific singer. However, the movie wastes his most intense moments by using them in the first five minutes, when Valjean fights his criminal nature at the bishop’s place. From then on, he’s just sort of low-key and darty-eyed, skipping town every time Javert gets on his trail. And carrying people everywhere. Nobody uses their legs around Valjean!
The length is the greatest problem I had here. Two and a half hours is not an indefensible length for a prestige film, but this one felt like it lasted DAYS. There were so many moments—not one, not three—so many I lost count—when I thought, I can’t believe this is still going on. The movie gets everything done with Fantine kicking the bucket and Valjean rescuing Cosette (whose position I never quite understood; she’s living with the innkeepers, but Fantine was still paying for her, so why didn’t she just live with Fantine? Because of the shame of single motherhood in 1860s France?). The time passes and we settle onto Marius and the revolutionaries, and I’m like Oh God, we still have the entire revolution to go. And then the next half hour was about their damned love triangle! Marius sings about Cosette. Marius sings with Cosette. Eponine sings about Marius. I don’t care about any of you!
Then there is much battling, which like everything else is confusingly staged, and when the dust has settled, Marius goes back to the scene and has a WHOLE SONG about how everyone he knows is dead. I hated Marius so much, and I was so bored. This is my personal hell.
And then MORE stuff happens. Finally Valjean is on his deathbed; I know because Fantine is back and she’s singing there. But Cosette comes to visit, and she tells Valjean that no, he won’t die today. My thoughts at that point: Nooooooooooooo, die!
Drawing me to the conclusion that neither the pacing nor the subject matter was conducive to my enjoyment. I’m glad I saw it because I can weigh in on the performances, which, again (save Redmayne—who I really do hate) were almost all terrific, and I do respect their commitment to the roles, to the singing, to all the extra nonsense that goes into pulling off an endeavor like a large-scale musical.
But I’m not going to the next one.
Expected Awards Attention: Well, its eight nominations pales in comparison to Lincoln’s twelve. I think it has a couple good opportunities, though. Supporting Actress is in the bag for Anne Hathaway. It’s a relatively weak category (Field was too hammy, Amy Adams too forgettable, Jacki Weaver too underused, and Helen Hunt may have been great but it was in a movie nobody saw, including me) and she’ll slide right in there with her acting having been augmented by singing and head-shaving. She’ll take it seriously, she’ll dress to be looked at, and she’ll give a good speech. Hathaway’s in the game, she knows what’s she’s doing.
Jackman was fine, but he has no shot against Daniel Day-Lewis. Jackman is an incredibly engaging presence at awards shows, though, and I’m sure he’ll present and be charming, and the camera will cut often to his laughter and enjoyment out in the audience. In the opposite position as Hathaway, he knows he’s not going to win, so he can just kick back and have a good time. (By the way, HOW AWESOME would it have been if Jackman had been tapped to host the show instead of the odious Seth McFarlane? Is it too late to get someone to break McFarlane’s legs or something? You know Jackman would jump right in. He’s already going to be there.)
Let’s see, other nominations include Best Picture (will lose, because there are much better ones to choose from) and Best Song (will lose, both because the song was forgettable, and because if the Academy can give an Oscar to Adele, they will). It will probably win Art Direction and Costumes, although Anna Karenina will deserve both awards more.
I would gladly see Best Makeup awarded to Les Miserables. (Am I not benevolent?) Everybody looked just as poor and sickly and teeth-rotty as they were supposed to do.
The documentary shorts were the real marathon of the short programs. The other two programs came in under two hours, with the live actions averaging about 20 minutes apiece and the animateds mostly less than 10 minutes. Each of these mini-docs ran a solid 40 minutes, for a total run time of 200 minutes (that’s 3 hours, 20 minutes). The showing at the Capitol had a very welcome 10-minute intermission between docs three and four.
I’m not a big documentary person, either, but something about the 40-minute runtimes really worked for me, letting me get invested and informed, but rarely rolling over into boredom.
This one was a profile of a gifted young artist, Inocente. Fifteen years old, living in Southern California, effectively homeless. She seems like an extraordinary person.
She is one of those people who you see sometimes and you think, that person lives their art. Inocente does it quite visibly—she dresses a little wild (remember Claudia Kishi, guys? She’s like the Mexican version of that) up to and including drawing patterns on her face with makeup every day (intense cat eyes, flowers or feathers on the cheeks, etc.). She is part of a low-income art school program where she has opportunities to express herself through her art, despite the stifling environment she has at “home” with her resentful former-teen-mom and multiple little brothers.
Such a great story, but I didn’t care at all for the style of the narrative. It was produced by MTV Films, and though I know that they’ve made a respectable name for themselves producing documentaries and other fiction films, Inocente had some MTV-ready elements that I felt detracted from the story. There were the unnecessary hand-drawn titles—drawn by Inocente, sure, but a little cloying in their 15-year-oldness and seeming to want to recall other hand-drawn titles MTV has indulged in.
Also, so much of the story was told by Inocente, dead center close-up. I didn’t have a problem with her words, but I would have preferred to hear them in voiceover and see her going about her daily life (you know, documentary-like) rather than have her just sitting there in her room like, “So, this is my life.” There’s something about the “relating my story to a camera that’s two inches from my face” thing that just screams “reality TV” to me. Like instead of talking about being raised by a teen mom and jumping from shelter to shelter, she should be saying, “It really pissed me off that Mikayla said that about me. But I’m not here to make friends!”
I went back and forth on loving her art and thinking it was overwhelmed by extra touches. Like, we get the hot pink and the thick strokes; you don’t need the glitter too, Inocente. But she’s fifteen. That element of her work will settle in time, probably. I have no doubt she has a huge career ahead of her.
Four more docs after the jump…