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Archive for February, 2016

Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

PrintDirected by Kathryn Bigelow

When I’m deciding which year of movies I want to watch next, sometimes I let a random number generator pick. But when I chose the movies of 2012, I had a very specific reason in mind: I was in the mood to watch an action movie. There haven’t been a lot of action movies nominated for best picture, but I was certain that 2012 had two: Zero Dark Thirty and Argo. I hadn’t seen either one, but I knew that Zero Dark Thirty was about the assassination of Osama Bin Laden, which was exciting, so it had to be an action movie, right? Guess what. I was wrong. Don’t get me wrong; it’s a fantastic movie. It’s definitely not an action movie, though.

So what’s the story? Maya is a young CIA operative sent to Pakistan to protect the US from future terrorist attacks. It takes her ten long years of ferreting out information from the thinnest threads, but she is finally certain that she knows where Osama Bin Laden is hiding. Now she just has to convince the rest of the CIA.

The Good: Jessica Chastain is fabulous as Maya, the woman who believes in what she’s doing and refuses to budge on what she believes is correct. She’s tenacious and single-minded and tough. She doesn’t care about what other people think and she’s not ever going to give up. The part itself may seem a little cold, but Jessica Chastain does an excellent job. Her acting makes the ending perfect.

The supporting cast is solid. I love it when a movie has even the smallest role perfectly cast, and Zero Dark Thirty is one of those movies. If I made a list of everyone who does an amazing job in this movie, it would be really long, so I will just mention a couple. Jason Clarke and Jennifer Ehle both make fantastic CIA operatives. Kyle Chandler is good as Joseph Bradley, Maya’s boss who doesn’t really believe in her lead, but who knows that ignoring her is a bad idea. Joel Edgerton and Chris Pratt make excellent Seal Team Six members. But again, everyone is so spot on that it’s hard to pick out the best people.

I’ve watched other movies based on historical events that play fast and loose with dates and places (cough, Elizabeth, cough). I appreciated how places and dates were so specific. I even like the “chapters” that helped keep the story moving and showed how time passed, because frankly, spy work seems to move very slowly sometimes, and it would have been boring if every single step that Maya made to draw the lines and make the connections had been shown.

I loved the beginning. The lack of any images made the voices of September 11th so compelling that it drew me in and made me remember my September 11th experience. I don’t think that could have been done nearly so well if scenes from that day had been splashed on the screen.

The soundtrack is amazing. Music is used sparingly, so that when it happens, it really makes an impact. Most of the action happens to natural noises, which makes it more realistic, and the occasional music unobtrusively underscores the emotion. That was an excellent choice.

The screenplay manages not only to tell the story of what happened, but to make the characters feel real and believable. They have backstories and lives outside of what’s going on thanks to the screenplay, which I understand was rewritten after Osama Bin Laden was killed. I think it would be fascinating to know what the ending was going to be before that happened.

The Bad: Even though we all know how the story ends, the tension during the Seal Team Six scene is almost unbearable. That’s probably a good thing from a storytelling point of view, but for me, it’s as uncomfortable as watching a horror movie, especially since there are innocents involved.

The Ugly: The first twenty minutes or so of the movie are mostly scenes of torture, and there are other scenes of torture throughout. Bigelow doesn’t pull any punches or soften these scenes, and they are hard to watch. I know a lot of people believe that torture is sometimes necessary; I don’t want to get involved in any discussion about that. I’m just saying that it’s not an easy thing to see, especially knowing that torture happens in real life.

Oscar Won: Best achievement in sound editing (tied with Skyfall).

Other Oscar Nominations: Best motion picture of the year; best performance by an actress in a leading role (Jessica Chastain); best writing, original screenplay; best achievement in film editing.

Lincoln (2012)

Lincoln_2012_Teaser_PosterDirected by Steven Spielberg

This is yet another post that I had already written, but lost when I lost my flashdrive. On the bright side, that means I get to celebrate President’s Day by posting about Lincoln, which is a happy coincidence. It’s a great movie about a great man. I feel like I’m gushing, and I’m sorry, but it really is an amazing movie.

So what’s the story? In the last days of the American Civil War, Abraham Lincoln wheels and deals and does everything he can in order to pass the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which will abolish slavery in the United States forever. He has a deadline, however; if the South rejoins the Union before the amendment passes, they will defeat the amendment and keep slavery legal.

The Good: Daniel Day-Lewis does it again. The man is a chameleon. I could pass him on the street and not have a clue who he is because he always becomes his character. I felt like I was watching real footage of Abraham Lincoln. Before I started watching these Oscar-nominated movies, I thought Daniel Day-Lewis was overrated. I will never think that again. I cannot believe how amazing he is in this part.

I am rarely struck by makeup and hairstyling, but there are so many actors in Lincoln that I am familiar with – and I didn’t recognize any of them except for Tommy Lee Jones. Even Sally Field is practically unrecognizable. Everyone looks period-correct, and it is impressive. The costuming adds to this, of course. You can see the different classes and stations in society through the clothes, and I love it.

Speaking of actors, the supporting cast is fantastic. Sally Field makes a wonderful Mary Todd Lincoln. She shows all the complexities of the woman, including her awareness of how her illness made Lincoln’s life more difficult. Tommy Lee Jones always plays crusty men well, but he is also tender in his portrayal of Thaddeus Stevens. I don’t usually like James Spader, because he always makes me feel slimy, but since his character is slimy, he works so perfectly. I didn’t feel that anyone did a poor job. This is another perfectly-cast movie.

The production design and the sets were another aspect that made the movie historically believable. The rooms were low-ceilinged and dim, even during the day. Everything is slightly dingy, as if covered by the ash of the fires. There is mud and dirt and grime and that’s how life was then.

John William’s score is surprisingly subtle for him. It’s beautiful and stirring and simple and just right for a movie about a brave, simple man.

The Bad: There is nothing bad about this movie. Nothing bothered me about it at all, except perhaps Tommy Lee Jones’ wig, but Thaddeus Stevens had a bad wig in real life, so there wasn’t much choice there.

The Ugly: There are some short ugly war scenes and reminders of the cost of keeping the war going so that the amendment could pass, but that’s realism, not bad filmmaking.

Oscars Won: Best performance by an actor in a leading role (Daniel Day-Lewis); best achievement in production design.

Other Oscar Nominations: Best motion picture of the year; best performance by an actor in a supporting role (Tommy Lee Jones); best performance by an actress in a supporting role (Sally Field); best achievement in directing; best writing, adapted screenplay; best achievement in cinematography; best achievement in film editing; best achievement in costume design; best achievement in music written for motion pictures, original score; best achievement in sound mixing.

Les Misèrables (2012)

Les-miserables-movie-poster1Directed by Tom Hooper

This was one of the posts that I lost when I lost my flash drive. As much as I hate rewriting things that I’ve already written, I won’t have a hard time rewriting this one. I have a lot to say about Les Misèrables in general, the musical and this movie version of it in particular.

When I went to study in London about ten years ago, I wasn’t planning on seeing the stage version of Les Misèrables. The touring coming comes to my town often enough, and I wanted to see things I wouldn’t have the chance to see at home. But then I saw a poster of the cast, and the man playing Enjolras was really attractive (I might use the term “super hot” if I weren’t trying to be taken seriously), so I let my friends persuade me to go with them. I knew many people who had seen the musical and thought it was the best thing ever, and I had read an abridged version of the book before I saw the play and seen the movie version from the 1930s and knew that there was fantastic material to work with, so I was expecting really good things. I was really disappointed. I kind of wish I could find the scathing essay I wrote about it. I told my friends that I didn’t really like it, and that got spread around the entire group I had come with, kind of like in the claymation version of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer when they find out that Herbie doesn’t like to make toys.  (“Melanie didn’t like Les Misèrables!”) I got a lot of weird looks after that from people in my study abroad group, but I didn’t care. I got that same kind of look when I told people I had no desire to see this movie because I didn’t much care for the musical, kind of a mix of shock and disgust. I was never planning on seeing this movie. Stupid best picture nomination. I wasted three hours of my life to see a subpar version of a subpar play.

So what’s the story? Convict Jean Valjean is released from prison. He steals some silver from a priest, who tells the police that he gave Jean Valjean the silver. The priest then tells Valjean that he has to turn his life around. Valjean does so, changing his name so that the stigma of having been a convict won’t follow him throughout his life. However, Javert, a policeman who worked at the prison, recognizes Jean Valjean for who he was, and Valjean must go on the run, taking the daughter of a factory worker with him.

The Good: Les Misèrables has some truly beautiful music. They may not be all completely memorable, and some are hard to tell from others (when I’m not actively listening to them, I always get “Bring Him Home” and “On My Own” mixed up), but they are beautiful nonetheless. I have never forgotten “Castle on a Cloud,” which I learned over twenty years ago in school, and “Stars,” “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” and “Do You Hear the People Sing” always give me goosebumps.

There was some decent acting. Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe both did fine jobs as Valjean and Javert, respectively. Crowe does especially well as Javert, who is perfectly convinced that the law is always right and simply cannot reconcile justice and mercy. Anne Hathaway and Samantha Barks both gave excellent performances as women torn apart by the way French society works. Aaron Tveit and Eddie Redmayne were very good as young revolutionaries Enjolras and Marius, and although I think they took up too much time in the movie, Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen were perfectly cast as the comic relief-bringing Thènardiers.

The costuming, production design, and makeup were all admirable. Early 19th century France was brought to life thanks to those elements. I always like seeing a historical movie that doesn’t only involve wealthy people. It always makes me happy to have people acknowledge that a)poor people existed, and b)that poor people had different hairstyles, homes, and clothes than wealthy people.

The Bad: I don’t whose idea it was to have the actors sing live instead of lip-synching and putting in the songs later, but it was a bad idea. This movie would have been so much easier to watch if there hadn’t been so many cringe-worthy notes. I think the only person who pulled off all her singing with no problems was Samantha Barks, who played Èponine.

I have never understood the ending. It makes no sense to me to have all the people who have died throughout the movie/Jean Valjean’s life would be together in one place singing about the same thing. All those various people weren’t fighting for the same future, exactly. Also, if Heaven is a barricade as the finale hints, I don’t really want to go to Heaven.

The Ugly: Amanda Seyfried should never have been cast in this movie. Her singing is terrible to the point of distraction. She does have the right look, but I’m sure there are other innocent-looking blondes who could have sung the part much, much better.

Most of the other reasons I didn’t like the movie have to do with the weaknesses of the musical itself. Way too much time is spent on the Thènardiers at the expense of other things from the novel that would have made things make more sense. I wish a bit more time had been spent on the bishop, for example; that felt kind of glossed over. I hated that Javert didn’t recognize Valjean because of his face, but because he was strong. I can understand that people change after twenty years, but I’m sure that Javert had met other strong men in prison before. There was nothing really special for Javert to recognize him. (In the novel, in case you’re wondering, Valjean acts like a human jack to get carts off of men. That’s not something you see often, and makes a lot more sense. Not sure why that was changed.) I was annoyed by Marius and Cosette’s literal love at first sight. They did nothing except see each other, and suddenly life wasn’t worth living without each other? There are other little bits and pieces like that throughout the movie that just add up to me being annoyed with the whole thing.

Okay, now I get to talk about how the book compares to the movie. Since seeing the musical ten years ago, I have read the unabridged version. It’s not perfect. Victor Hugo needed a friend to tell him that when your characters are racing through the sewers in a life-and-death situation, you don’t need to cut from the action to give an entire history of the sewers of Paris. But one amazing, amazing thing that Hugo did do was give everyone a history. The first fifty to one hundred pages are not about Jean Valjean at all, but about the bishop, who, we learn, has given up all of his privileges and only keeps enough of his salary to keep himself fed. The rest he gives to the poor. The only thing he kept was his silver, so when he not only allows Jean Valjean to keep the plate, but also gives him the candlesticks, it’s a huge deal. The students all have back stories, so we care a lot more when they die so uselessly. The Thènardiers are not funny at all. They show the corruption and evil that can happen in poorer classes. They are menacing and horrible. Also, they are the parents of Gavroche, which gets skipped over in the movie completely. There are more connections which make everything that happens much more meaningful. I realize that not everything from a 1500 page book can make it into a three-hour movie, but that’s why making  Les Misèrables into a musical was just a bad idea to begin with. My final advice? If you haven’t seen the movie already, skip it and read the unabridged book. If you have seen the movie already, read the unabridged book. You will be amazed at the depth of feeling.

Oscars Won: Best performance by an actress in a supporting role (Anne Hathaway); best achievement in makeup and hairstyling; best achievement in sound mixing.

Other Oscar Nominations: Best motion picture of the year; best performance by an actor in a leading role (Hugh Jackman); best achievement in costume design; best achievement in music written for motion pictures, original song (“Suddenly”); best achievement in production design.

Silver Linings Playbook (2012)

silver linings playbookDirected by David O. Russell

I’ve mentioned before that I have mental health issues; depression is what I have to put up with. It’s not fun, and it’s not easy. It has been especially hard in the past because mental illnesses aren’t something you talk about. If you tell someone you have cancer or diabetes, they will sympathize with you, whereas there are still people out there who don’t believe that depression is a real thing. “Just look on the bright side,” they say. “Go running. Eat better. You’re just feeling down.” But people who are just having a bad day don’t seriously fantasize about slitting their wrists or driving their car off a cliff. They haven’t written letters to their families explaining why they felt the need to do this. People who are just feeling down don’t skip their favorite activity of the year for which they have VIP passes because they are crying all day for no particular reason and can’t stop. They don’t sit and think about how worthless they are and how no one really would miss them if they were gone and how their pets would really be happier with another family anyway. Yes, everyone has off days now and then, but for me, those things were my reality. Every. Single. Day. Now that I’ve found an antidepressant that works for me, those things are thankfully not a part of my life as often as they were, but this is why I appreciate movies like Silver Linings Playbook that bring to life people struggling with real issues that are so misunderstood. It’s also why I started this movie three or four times before I could actually watch it all the way through and why I still wouldn’t have seen it if it weren’t for my medication. It’s too real and too painful, too hard to watch when I wasn’t doing well. Sorry for the very long ramble, but it’s a subject close to my heart and I apparently had a lot to say about it.

So what’s the story? Pat Salitano has just been released from a mental institution after fulfilling a court-ordered eight month stint there. He is determined to get his life back to normal and win back his ex-wife, Nikki, who has not only left him, but gotten a restraining order against him. He meets a young woman named Tiffany who wants him to join a dance contest with her. Hoping that this will show Nikki that he has turned his life around, Pat agrees.

The Good: The acting was wonderful. Bradley Cooper as Pat, Jennifer Lawrence as Tiffany, and Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver as Pat’s parents were amazing. I loved the subtle hints in Robert De Niro’s acting and character that showed that he, too, was dealing with mental health issues, although they were undiagnosed in his case. I thought that casting grumpy-faced Julia Stiles in the part of Veronica, a woman not really satisfied with anything, was brilliant, and I also liked John Oritz in the role of Ronnie, Veronica’s husband.

The music fit the movie perfectly, just kind of laid-back piano and guitar music. Nothing overblown or loud or fancy, because the story isn’t any of those things. It’s a small, intimate story about people working through their problems and finding out that when dreams die, it’s okay to find new ones.

I liked the screenplay. It made all the characters very real, not caricatures of people with mental illness. Or of people living in Philadelphia, for that matter. It helped make the people come alive. I appreciated, too, the humor in the screenplay. Yes, mental illnesses are serious, but funny, random things happen to everyone, regardless of their health. Also, I have felt the same way as Pat about Hemingway (and other authors) at times, so I loved that someone finally said it.

The Bad: I don’t really have anything to complain about here. I really liked the movie, except for two issues that were so bad for me that they have to go in the ugly category.

The Ugly: The age difference between Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper bothered me throughout the entire movie. I didn’t know at the time what the age difference was, but I would have put Pat at 42 and Tiffany around 23 just looking at them. There is really only a fifteen year age gap between Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, but still. It felt kind of icky to me. While Jennifer Lawrence did a fabulous job, I would have been happier with someone a little older.

I would have been fine with it, though, except for the ending.  (SPOILER ALERT) I talked myself into being okay with the age gap because they were just friends, two people who were dealing with similar issues. Age isn’t as big an issue there. But then they were shown being in love and having a relationship, and I didn’t like that. It didn’t seem to fit the movie. I really, really wanted them to just stay friends. I wanted them to each know that they had someone they could depend on who understood them, but somehow by having them fall in love, it cheapened the movie for me. That ending made it seem that unless a man and a woman fall in love, their relationship is pointless. The movie became just another romantic comedy instead of a comedy about people dealing realistically with mental issues, and that bothered me. Silver Linings Playbook is still worth watching, but it became less meaningful to me personally.

Oscars Won: Best performance by an actress in a leading role (Jennifer Lawrence).

Other Oscar Nominations: Best motion picture of the year; best performance by an actor in a leading role (Bradley Cooper); best performance by an actor in a supporting role (Robert De Niro); best performance by an actress in a supporting role (Jacki Weaver); best achievement in directing; best writing, adapted screenplay; best achievement in film editing.