Saturday, December 21, 2013

Saving Mr. Banks (2013)

In terms of adapting a secondary medium to film, the sweet spot between making the film commercially acceptable and true and faithful to the spirit of the original product is tough to achieve. It’s a dynamic that is in constant play and is always interacting and/or clashing with each other. This is the interaction that is going on when movies like, say, Catching Fire are made.

2013, in general, has been a pretty weak year for adaptations. Even the good ones like, say, Catching Fire, don’t fully capture the spirit of the source material. And then there’s The Great Gatsby. Ugh! I feel that the only nominations in the Best Adapted Screenplay section of the Oscars will stem from obscure source materials, as opposed to notoriously popular source materials. So, the solution to revitalize the adaptation: make a movie about the overall process (any conflicts, connections, etc.) of adapting a beloved source material.

This is where Saving Mr. Banks comes in. It’s 1961 and Mr. Walt Disney wishes to turn the popular series of Mary Poppins books into a movie. I don’t exactly remember what it was called, but I digress. Only one obstacle stands in their way: P.L. Travers, the author. She wants to make sure it’s just right and she disapproves a lot of ideas that Disney and his creative group possesses. Throughout the film, flashback scenes are interspersed that show Travers’ childhood, including her relationship with her father.

And this is where Saving Mr. Banks sets itself apart not merely from film adaptations, but films about films or creating source materials. Her life. It’s a cliché to hear certain writers or creators say, “So and so is a part of me.” In P.L. Travers’ case, Mary Poppins IS her, both figuratively and literally. Mary Poppins is the summation of P.L. Travers’ life; the amalgamation of her childhood, her troubles, and herself. We see Mary Poppins in her in a literal way, via her movements and mannerisms. We see Mary Poppins in her metaphorically, via her life. Mary Poppins was birthed by merely P.L. Travers’ existence, which is why see faces the hard decision of whether or not she should hand the rights over to Walt Disney. How would he treat her? Once Disney has the rights, he isn’t handling a character. He’s handling a human life in the most figurative sense of the word. A movie daring and competent enough to handle this theme gets a mountain of respect from me.

The film also finds allegory in, of all places, that goddamned mouse. In an early scene, P.L. Travers is annoyed to find a huge Mickey doll in her hotel room. Then, as time goes on and Travers starts making decisions, she becomes closer to the Mickey doll. This is both a funny yet heartwarming way in showing her personal connection to Poppins and her deep-hidden trust issues, which I’ll get to later.

P.L. Travers wrote one of the most popular series of books, which lent itself to probably Disney’s most famous live-action flick. So which highly touted, uber-talented, Oscar-caliber actress is going to attempt to play this weighty role? Meryl Streep? Julianne Moore? No. Emma Thompson. Yeah, maybe Thompson is always the “first-choice” actress, but she’s very talented and I am eternally grateful that she was picked, as she gives a career defining and utterly transcendent performance. I’m sure some may bitch about that she exaggerates it, given that we hear some of the actual conversations between Disney’s creative team and P.L. Travers at the end credits (you’re welcome, in advance), but I believe that, in this day in age, an actor must combine the real life, stature, and mannerisms of the person with somewhat of a caricature of that person when doing a biopic.

And Thompson makers Travers an utterly fascinating figure. This performance is allegorical to her career. Her career has been a mixed bag of kooky, comical, and melodramatic. Her performance allows for all three of these adjectives to be exuded. The fact that she can switch from idiosyncratic whimsy to gut-wrenching pain and do it so naturally and immaculately, sometimes within seconds, says a lot about her skill and dedication to her craft. One scene that stood out to me was the climactic premiere of the film. That moment comes with an intense catharsis to the audience and to Travers and she portrays that catharsis with such haunting subtlety that I was moved. It’s right up there with Jessica Chastain’s final shot from Zero Dark Thirty, in terms of pure minimal brilliance that knows how to elicit emotions.

Tom Hanks is utterly masterful, as I expected, as Walt Disney. Hanks has a history of innovation connection to Disney. First, he has a voice-over role in the first CGI animated film and the first PIXAR film and now, he is playing the man behind the mouse with newly discovered elements: warmth, passion, humor, depth, and even a hint of pain. It’s an enlightening performance. Earlier, I mentioned P.L. Travers’ relationship with her father. Collin Farrell plays him and it, like the others, is Oscar-worthy. The way he transitions from a chirpy, happy, loving, almost obsessive father to a tortured, guilt-struck, bed-ridden alcoholic is incredibly frightening and thoroughly believable and sincere. The deteriorating relationship also perfectly states why Travers has trust issues with Disney. Paul Giamatti, who portrays Ralph, a chauffeur for Mrs. Travers, only has a minimal amount of screen time and yet is very memorable as he gives what is probably his best performance.

This movie is a magical, enchanting, evocative experience. It’s a joy to see little details of Travers’ life that were blatantly transferred to the Mary Poppins franchise. It’s a joy to see the songs of the film being re-created. It’s a joy to see the fake P.L. Travers reacting to the real Mary Poppins movie. And it’s especially a joy to see a film provide closure not through a final shot, but by pictures in the end credits. It’s an unadulterated, perfect example of how to incorporate historical context and not disrupt thematic cohesiveness. This kind of magic is why I love film and why I take such pride in my passion with them. I walked into this expecting a straightforward biopic involving a dynamic between Travers and Disney and I walked out, giddy to find out the DVD release date.

What are you waiting for? Go see it! Spit spot!

RATING: Four out of four stars!

Saturday, August 31, 2013

The Butler (2013)

I wish to offer repentance for not posting as much lately. I’m sure this isn’t necessary seeing how my blog doesn’t garner huge views, but I contribute my hiatus to not posting with Completely Charming, the Facebook page I was on. Combining that, the fact that my History thru Film class is done, the fact that I’ve spent ¾ of my summer working, missed opportunities, and (sigh) pure laziness, I guess the creative juices haven’t had a chance to flow.

And I can’t just wing one. My self-proclaimed job is to offer you my opinions at my freshest and passionate state. I thought that I would write reviews of recent films I’ve seen in theaters, but the two I have seen (Star Trek: Into Darkness & Fast and Furious 6) ended with me not doing a review, that of which I can attribute to it slipping my mind.

Anywho, that was then. This is now. The Spectacular Now! (Nah, just kidding. Although, I do desperately want to see that film)

Let’s talk about racism…in film.

Racism is an assuredly risky subject when it comes to film. When you don’t have to delicately handle it if you’re satirizing it, you have to meticulously craft it when it comes to straightforward dramatic fare. If you don’t elicit a real visceral response out of either the audience or, internally, through the helmers, it can come across as threadbare, preachy, or humdrum. Case in point: the trailer for the upcoming film, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. The life of Mandela had been done innumerably in film before and the prejudicial images are as common as you’ve seen in other films or, hell, even history lessons. God, does it look stagnant!

In The Butler, directed by Lee Daniels, whose film, Precious, transcended every film in 2009 on any aspect (acting, content, story arcs, emotion, etc.), there is a scene where Louis, the son of the butler, takes part in a sit-in at a segregated restaurant. It is intercut with Louis’ college class preparing for it. The restaurant patrons, inevitably, grow restless, annoyed, and impatient. Customer scorn leads to employee insistence on segregation, which leads to violence. This scene isn’t just some flyby moment that displays commonly known aspects of racism. While I know about sit-ins, the sequence lands a good hard punch to gut, due to its enduring time length, thus allowing the themes of determination to be exuded.

What follows this moment? The Butler finds out about his son’s behavior and discourages it. It’s not the generic film concept of demand for freedom exceeds anything else. Contrarily, it actually makes an articulate, shrewd thematic argument on both sides of the issue. This is one of the rare moments of the movie that is not a scene, more a breath of fresh air.

The opening of the film takes us to Mason, Georgia. Cecil Gaines (The Butler) was born into slavery. After his father gets shot in the cotton field by the plantation owner, the estate’s caretaker takes him under her wing and teaches him the ropes of becoming a servant. He soon leaves Georgia and heads for North Carolina. After breaking into a pastry shop and getting caught by the owner, he teaches him how to be a butler, a craft takes him all the way to Washington D.C.

The film is skillful on a visual level. The film molds great luscious retro motif, which can be contributed to the evocative camerawork and lighting. Arguably, Lee Daniels’ primary forte is in the field of all-star casting. This year, Daniels has assembled the most celebrated, far-flung, and dexterous cast of the year. Along with Lee Daniels alumni, Lenny Kravitz and Mariah Carey (who has no dialogue and yet emits a lyrical, pensive performance), Forest Whitaker plays the butler with cogency and confidence. Other cast members include Oprah Winfrey, David Oyelowo, YaYa DaCosta, Terrence Howard, Elijah Kelley from Hairspray (another film that relates to racism. Ironic), rapper David Banner, Vanessa Redgrave, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Robin Williams, James Marsden, Minka Kelly, John Cusack, Alan Rickman and Jane Fonda; a serviceable cast, if not transcendent. I don’t predict any Oscar buzz for any of them, but they definitely play the parts and play them very well.

However, the expansive cast is part of the problem with the film. It’s not the actors, it’s the film itself and the fact that the film is so hell-bent on the focal point: the butler. The film is much like the butler itself: it provides you with the goods and nothing more. It has such a airplane-like pace. It follows its objective, which is to show the butler as much as possible, and neglects any major stops. This prevents the film to obtain any tangible momentum or any meaty character development. In terms of the characters outside of the butler and the presidents, the film acknowledges their presences, but doesn’t assert their caricature completions.

The theme of the film revolves around itself. It is about the butler and, more than a few times, gets trapped on that theme and just gets caught in a circle. This is dreary because the butler doesn’t have much of an arc. He doesn’t have to overcome any particular obstacles. He’s just the butler. He does offer the occasional consolation, but he just acts as a butler. While some may argue that this augments the film because it may be argued that the butler can’t do more than his role given the racism during that time, he never provides us with any nuances to make that case.

This, for the most part, affects the film emotionally, too. Most emotional moments just never seem to resonate. It sort of enters the psyche, resides there temporarily, and vanishes. I couldn’t emotional invest with the romantic subplot involving Louis and his girlfriend because the plotline is just limp and disposable. The film almost wants to handle it uniquely, but in doing this, it basically doesn’t acknowledge its romanticism, if any. The plotline is basically dropped later on.

However, one part of that stanza above should be underlined: for the most part. The film finds potent eloquence in the relationship between the butler and his son, Louis. The film finds extreme pathos and complexities in this interaction. The way it unfolds, crumbles, and, eventually, how it ends is extremely touching. Also, the coda is extremely competent in how it amalgamates the context of the film, the historical context of the past, and the context of the now and still strikes an outstanding relevance.

 The film is 2 hours and 12 minutes, but I can say with no hyperbole that this is probably the most rushed 2 hour+ film of the year. But Lee Daniels, I will forgive and forget. He takes his central achievement, takes away the raw power and searing, unabashed emotion, preserves the other benefits, and simultaneously expands and subdues his new film. It doesn’t make for his most masterful film, but it makes for his most accessible one. And for Lee Daniels, that’s just fine with me.

RATING: Three out of four stars

Good Night and Good Luck (2005)

With forms of government such as fascism, totalitarianism, anarchism, and Bieber-ism (that last one, of course, isn’t real, but given his number of followers, you would think it is), I can’t quite call communism the worst form of government ever. Don’t get me wrong, though. I don’t support it, what with its shady politics, lackadaisical economy, and lack of free speech. Its idea of equality for all is admirable, but it doesn’t work. Human nature would never allow it. Some possess a level of superiority that ranges from low to high. Others are cankerous racists. Communism is a method of manipulation. The government, while claiming to be about peace and parity, possesses a large amount of power and the power can, and has, been abused. Just read Animal Farm and you’ll see how it works.

Nevertheless, communism, while not extinct, had gone by the wayside, in terms of an igniter for relevant discussion. I’m sure there are people from the New Age who don’t see communism as a big deal; as just some failed form of government created by some “Santa Claus-looking dude.” I couldn’t exactly blame them for thinking that, seeing how we live in a free, capitalist nation. While there are certainly some remaining communist nations, we are not one of them. America, F*** Yeah!

But during the late 40s up until 1989, there was a huge communism uproar. The U.S. and the Soviet Union were at each other throats, the Vietnam War began, and an intense heaping of paranoia was felt via the Cold War. Hell, even when the fall of Berlin Wall occurred, David Hasselhoff sung at this magnificent event. It was very dark times. Anyway, back to the Cold War paranoia. When you hear this phrase, you most likely think of one man: Joseph McCarthy, the focal point for George Clooney’s 2005 directorial work, Good Night and Good Luck.

McCarthy, for the uninformed, was a senator who believed that Communists had infiltrated the government. Because of his absurd and invalid theory, he began an extreme process of redbaiting, accusing many people of being a Communist. The film isn’t a biopic of his life and beliefs, as I may’ve led you to believe. The film’s protagonist is, rather, Edward R. Murrow, a CBS television news anchor, angered by McCarthy’s actions. In a time where news reporters did merely news reporting, Murrow took to television and cut right to the point: McCarthy was wrong. Clearly, without him, we would never have the other biased, overly opinionated properties that preside our country today (FOX News, MSNBC, might as well throw in Perez Hilton’s blog).

For a film about such a groundbreaking, influential, non-conformist paired up with such uneasy subject matter, it is not a grand diatribe of McCarthyism that one would expect. The film is not a brazen, subversive piece of work. Its tone is blunt, but casual. It doesn’t even rely heavily of music. But why would you, seeing how the smoothly scathing dialogue is music to my ears? I’m sure some might oppose to its autopilot, dialogue-oriented structure of the film, but I appreciated it. The film is about thought, not action. It keeps the intelligence, but spares the emotion. This works, because it is a subtle film.

George Clooney, who also co-wrote the film, and Robert Downey, Jr. have roles in the film as CBS employees. While the film doesn’t emphasize their characters, they do deliver good performances. The standout, by far, however, is David Straithairn as Edward Murrow. He portrays Murrow with a charm that is both devilishly forthright and sincerely acerbic.

Also, on a nostalgic level, this film soars. The filmmakers do an excellent job in portraying the 1950s. They physically immerse themselves into the time period in more of a total and passionate way than most movies I’ve seen. The gorgeous black and white cinematography, the sporadic yet excellent use of music, and even the scrolling caption in the beginning, which gives the audience the necessary historical background, brings the viewer into the time.

I must, now, bring up the aspect of the film that was highly controversial in my film class: the ending. I won’t reveal the actual ending, but I will say that many of my colleagues were left confused and unsatisfied. I am mixed on the ending, but do have a final verdict. See, on the one hand, their critiques of the ending are somewhat warranted. It doesn’t really end. It just stops. And it does this at such an awkward part of the film that it left me asking, “That was it?” I was befuddled, too.

However, I’d rather be on the side of defending it, because on the other hand, the film is about a non-conformist, so logically, the film should conclude in a non-conformist fashion. One critique I heard of it was something along the lines of, “Movies are supposed to actually provide an ending.” (not the exact quote. I just paraphrased it). My rebuttal is that that is the conformist route. That’s what would’ve been expected. As opposed to offering us a clear-cut ending, it allows our knowledge of history to be activated and allows history to play out without the film laying it out for the audience. It swings for the fences, just like Murrow himself, but in a subtle form.

Subtlety is the glue that holds this film together. While it doesn’t allow the film to push itself into anything other than merely good territory, this still means it’s a good film. Seeing how I commended the film on what it tried to achieve, this is a compliment.

RATING: Three stars out of four

Ghosts of Mississippi (1996)

“This story is true.” This caption flashes in Ghosts of Mississippi’s preface. This possesses a blunt, hardline persistence behind it. Before this caption, director Rob Reiner reminisces on black culture of the 1960s in an attitude tinged with searing pain and surprising achievement. This does a good job in setting the mood for the film. Setting the mood is a field that Reiner seems to have intense expertise in, given the nostalgic narration of Stand by Me, the eerie location in Misery, and even the suggested pedophilia of North that affirms the uncleanliness of the rest of that piece-a-shit. But I digress.

In June of 1963, a Mississippian black civil rights activist, Medgar Evers, was gunned down outside of his home by irascible racist, Byron De La Beckwith. He was tried twice and found not guilty for the murder of Evers. This is the thematic lead-in for the film. The film presents to us the widow of Medgar Evers, Myrlie. She is indignant on the fact that the accused assassin of her husband is being allowed to roam free, permeating his white supremacy attitude everywhere. In the late 1980s, an assistant District Attorney by the name of Bobby DeLaughter decides to take on the case, despite the fact that most of the evidence has disappeared and the judge who got Beckwith off the hook is the father of his wife.

For a film with such a bulky historical theme and an intriguing historical event, one adjective I can surprisingly use to describe this film is: underwhelming. Part of the blame goes to screenwriter Lewis Colick. I’m not saying the screenplay is badly written. I am saying that the film does, occasionally, fall victim to some clunky script decisions. Colick barely gives Goldberg any screen time, even though she’s listed as one of the major stars of the film. There’s a revelation of Medgar’s brother that is supererogatory and clichéd. There’s a scene where the status of the case is presented via a voice over as time goes on that feels awkward and rushed. All of these choices seem to act as currents that sweep the film under itself.

However, the worst script choice involves the love subplot. Lemme explain. When Bobby’s wife, who is racist, finds out that Bobby has taken on the case, she leaves him and their three children. One day, when his oldest son gets into a fight with some kid because of Bobby’s beliefs and decisions, the son is taken to a hospital. Bobby meets a nurse, she compliments his actions, the camera focuses on his and her awestruck faces, foreshadowing music plays, and, sooner or later, the lovebug gnaws their necks, mauling the script in the process. It feels completely pointless, as if it’s part of a different movie. It completely ceases the initially compelling flow of the film. I guess the progression of a case involving racial tensions was just so dull that they needed a romance to invigorate it. Blow me.

Also, this film hits some resonating blows in the character development and acting section of the film. There are so many characters (a D.A. officer named Mr. Peters, Bobby’s wife, the mother of Bobby’s wife, Bobby’s father, Bobby’s children – two of which go way overboard in their Southern accents) that are not only given such slim development, but whose real-life counterparts portray them terribly. William H. Macy is present in this film, but it’s so embarrassing to seem him prowl through the movie in a superficial role. He had more dignity in Marmaduke. Even the man who portrays Medgar Evers hams up his death scene, painfully.

Hell, even Alec Baldwin is flawed. Now, I do believe he gave a good performance as Bobby DeLaughter. In everything I’ve seen from him, he is always oozingly cool and suave. He brings those admirable qualities to this film, too. He, convincingly, dives into the complexities, moral dilemmas, and wild feelings of Bobby. It’s spellbinding, really. However, I felt that he employed one of the most pathetic Southern accents I’ve ever seen in film. It alternately comes and leaves him. Regardless, he was good.

As was James Woods as Byron De La Beckwith, whom I was annoyed with initially with that shrill, quasi-black voice, but manages to encompass evil with his squinched lips and glaring eyes. He’s a chilling presence, despite his lackluster character development. He’s pretty much just a sneering criminal and one confrontation between him and Bobby during the final court case, in my mind, boiled down to having all the cinematic importance and craft of a bragging third grader. Whoopi Goldberg was practically a shoe-in for the role of Evers’ widow. And despite her lack of screen time, a ham-handed speech at the film’s coda, and the fact that she never ages over the course of almost thirty years (must be some really good skin cream), she brings an intense courage and boldness to her performance. Her emotional testimony during the final court case is a moment that works for her because all her emotions amalgamate and culminate, without going over the top.

These three main performances, along with a couple of others, are good aspects of the film. As is the compelling flow I mentioned earlier. The structure of the film is beguiling and sustains your interest. While I knew where the train was going, I still enjoyed getting there and most, if not all, of what came with it.

I said the film was underwhelming. I never said it was a bad movie. While I’m not going to condemn the film for being predictable, seeing how most people, myself included, know the outcome, I am a little disappointed of how rudimentary the film is. However, I’m the kind of person who likes to take what they can get. Thankfully, the film gave me just enough.

RATING: Three stars out of four

Flags of Our Fathers (2006)

Ah, we meet again, Eastwood.

In reviews past, I’ve discussed how Clint Eastwood has a palatable versatility on the tonal scale. I’ve personally appreciated how humble he can be in honing his craft while still making visual sonnets. He doesn’t have to include any special effects. Everything’s raw, genuine, and unabridged. His films from the 2000s I’ve seen from him juxtapose masterful cinematography with cold, savvy storytelling. From the naturalistic character study of Gran Torino to the lyricism of Invictus, modesty seems to be an undercurrent in his narratives, lately. His films are the equivalent of that pretty girl who doesn’t shove her beauty in your face.

However, whatever happened to Clint Eastwood films where the narratives are as overblown as the visuals? Whatever happened to Clint Eastwood films where the motives were lofty and the pretensions are sky high? Whatever happened to Clint Eastwood films that left one quoting it three years after the film was out? Well, I haven’t seen his films from the 2010s, but until then, I dunno. You’re not really gonna find the affirmative answers in Flags of Our Fathers.

Now, I’m sure you’re wondering how I cannot call the film “lofty” and “pretentious” when it’s not merely a Clint Eastwood film, but a Clint Eastwood war film, a genre that provides most of the heavier, direct, and extreme films, moreso than horror. However, there’s a little more going on in this film. The film does have hefty ambitions, though. It’s the first of a two-part saga, centering on the Iwo Jima era in World War II. Surprisingly, the film, told via flashbacks, doesn’t focus primarily on the battle, but more on the photograph that sprung from it: the picture of the soldiers raising the flag on Iwo Jima.

You see, there is apparently more history behind the photo than one might think. Apparently, there was an implanting of the flag before the photo was taken. It was a glorious and proud moment. However, the Secretary of the Navy demanded the flag, which really pissed off the colonel of the Marines. His solution to the problem was to secretly take down that flag, put up a replacement flag, make the Secretary of the Navy think it’s the original flag, and the Marines keep the original flag. Six other Marines do this and a photo is captured of this merely petty event. However, this is the image that becomes implanted into the minds of U.S. citizens, who see it as a symbol of hope and courage. The Marines from this photo are brought home from war to be the heroes.

Back to the original burning question: How is this subtle? On the surface, I would ask myself the same thing. Eastwood’s knack for displaying an unmistakable visual prowess is here. The cinematography is astounding. In the daytime, it is translucent. In the nighttime, it is solemn, bathing itself in an austere, hazy color palette. All the time, it is poetic and whopping, even including a haunting and frightening POV shot.

The music is used poignantly and minimally. Its motive is not to evoke emotion. Its motive is to portray emotion and let you, the audience, do the rest. I also appreciated the brooding, grandfather-like narration. I also appreciate Eastwood’s brazen structure of the film. The film, as previously mentioned, is told via flashbacks. Sometimes, there are flashbacks within a flashback, proceeding afterwards to flash forward in a flashback. There may’ve even been flash forwards to the present and then, flashing back to a flashback within a flashback.

Confused? I’m not. I made it through Inception.

I think that it is absolutely ingenious. While I kinda wished that instead of flashing back in flashbacks, the film just simultaneously showed the idealistic glamour and importance of heroism with the macabre, lurid reality still occurring, the flashbacks can reveal a somber, aching, melancholic truth. The film is crafted in an audacious, unbridled fashion with, assuredly, sweeping battle scenes.

While watching the film, I found myself comparing it to Saving Private Ryan. The battle scenes in that film were gritty and visceral. This film’s battles are a little more artistic, sophisticated, and thematic, not quite going for the severe gore, with the exception of an extremely graphic image in a non-battle scene, and not going overboard with the shaky cam. Additionally, whilst the battles in both films denote the intensity of war, Private Ryan captures more of the danger, whereas Flags of Our Fathers captures more of the fear. During the former, I felt tense. During the latter, I felt sympathetic.

I described the film’s battles as thematic. The thematic area is where the modesty of the film can be found. The film impressively portrays themes of commitment and friendship, but the thematic highlight of the film involves the unobtrusive yet provocative theme on what a hero is. The philosophy of Saving Private Ryan was manifest, expected, and passé. Here, it’s taut, restrained, and thought provoking. A whole slew of questions entered my brain: What classifies as a hero? Do heroes actually exist? Is it the actions one does or is it doing something at the right place at the right time? Is it right to act like a hero to offer optimism in times of distress or does that make you a phony attention whore? Should people feel an obligation to be treated like heroes after they accomplish “heroic” acts?

It’s been a while since I’ve seen a film where so many questions have appeared in my brain in such a sudden yet sneaky manner. The film also provides some wry commentary on the excessive, occasionally ridiculous, nature of WWII propaganda. When the film shows scenes of women singing corny WWII songs, you can feel the film incredulously chuckling to itself.

Even some of the imagery is controlled. When the surviving “heroes” go to a banquet and the film shifts to a shot with ice cream in the shape of the photo, which has fudge with a somewhat red shade poured on it, it’s one of the most cleverly acerbic and fiendishly poignant scenes I’ve seen on film. Also, it’s a miracle that, given Clint Eastwood’s Republican background (which I don’t see how that can be, seeing how he supports gay marriage), he doesn’t emanate a right wing, overblown, “USA” attitude.

Another facet of the film that blew me away was the character development. You know that in some war films, I find the development of the characters recycled, sparse, and banal. This pet peeve was mine was present in scenes before the Iwo Jima battle where the characters are depicted as the same old testosterone-encompassing punks who say quasi-funny dialogue and have thin personalities, which was one of my main issues with Saving Private Ryan. However, once the hero aspect of the film came into play and even during the battle scenes, the characters began to obtain depth, weight, and texture.

Even some of the other characters, outside of the Marines, are meaty. For example, there’s this one man who discovers the fact that the widely beloved photo wasn’t the real, essential photo. This angers him and pretty much tells the present “heroes” to act as the concrete heroes. He brings us financial reasons, but he isn’t some superficial, sneering, money grabber. He actually backs up his outrage with legit historical context. His perspective makes sense.

Even though I couldn’t name a single familiar actor from the film until I looked it up on Wikipedia (some of them include Ryan Phillippe, Paul Walker, and Barry Pepper), the Marines are far superior actors in this film than in Saving Private Ryan. I even remembered the names of some of them. My favorite was Ira Hayes, portrayed by Adam Beach, because I felt that his characterization was the most complex, impressive, and sober. He hates the idea of leaving his unit to go be a “hero” and his post WWII life is unfortunate and sad. His outcome is portrayed with spare composition, beautiful landscapes, and a gentle acoustic score. This solidifies that heroism isn’t synonymous with simplistic glamour, whether it’s before, during, or after it. The film gets a little schmaltzy and maudlin towards the end, but instead of groaning, I found myself buying it hook, line, and sinker. It worked because we are given adequate development for all the characters.

Partial credit for the brilliance of the screenplay goes to one of the two writers Paul Haggis, director, producer, and screenwriter of Crash, one of my favorite films. The other screenwriter is William Broyles, Jr., who penned Cast Away, Jarhead, The Polar Express, and a bunch of other films. Credit for the brilliance of the film, as a whole, goes to everyone. Spielberg assembled a well-oiled machine that got up and over the hill, but not without a few spurts of failure. Eastwood assembled a well-oiled machine that goes up and over the hill at 140. Eastwood, you’ve made my day!

RATING: Three-and-three-quarters stars out of four

Saving Private Ryan (1998)

I gotta be honest with you. In terms of films, war films do not receive the highest exaltation in my book. Now, I’m not saying war films are bad, quite the contrary. What I am saying is that I feel that we have, basically, exhausted every possible way to do a war film. A film describing the horrors of war? Seen it. A film describing the psychological toll of war? Seen it. A war film bathing itself in shallow heroism? Seen it. A film that takes war to task on a philosophical level? Seen it.

In my opinion, many war films boil down the same way: A series of one-dimensional cardboard cut-out archetypes act like testosterone-infused punks, say quasi-funny and occasionally perverse dialogue, give their background via routine, sapless conversations or images, such as the man who just wants to be back with his family, have a majority of overly portentous speeches, and a majority of them get killed and everyone finds it more horrifying and byzantine than expected. Done.

At this point, all of it feels so premeditated and distant. While some war films may have been the best thing ever back then, watching some of them now just reinforces my complaint with them. Now, to be fair, I’ve only seen a few war films. The information I am gathering is coming from personal observations and possible assumptions. Of the war films I have seen, I do, however, think they are, despite my issues with them, really good. Really, really good. And how can Saving Private Ryan not be really, really good, seeing how it’s made by the really, really good director, Steven Spielberg? The answer is: It can’t not be really, really good, because it is really, really good. #tonguetwister

Now that I’ve soiled the word, “really,” let me discuss the plot of the film. The film opens with a shot of an elderly man in a cemetery, which has the fallen soldiers of World War II. He sees the surfeit of tombstones and breaks down. Through his eyes, the film takes us back to the Omaha Beach assault in 1944 with the U.S. army squad at battle led by Captain John H. Miller, played by Tom Hanks. After the assault, which I will discuss later, it is revealed that there are four brothers of the Ryan family fighting in the war. In a plaintive and haunting scene, we learn that three of them have died in action. However, the fourth brother, James, is missing and Miller and his squad are ordered to find him and bring him back home.

Now, some of the issues I have with other war films are here, mostly the inadequate, plastic character development. The almost cartoonish testosterone is still there. The dissonant, forced humor, albeit there is one scene referencing an EE-breasted girl trying to fit into a 42 D bra that is consistently and fluidly funny, is there. The sluggish, threadbare conversations are still there. The rote dialogue involving the honor and dignity of fighting is there. There is even one character, a klutzy, tender soldier, who isn’t funny, interesting, or very likable, and basically only serves as the inevitable, philosophical backbone. The characters are so wafer-thin that you pretty much immediately forget their names. Plus, not only are the actors portraying the soldiers subpar, but some supporting cast revelations seem out of blue, like, “Hey, there’s Vin Diesel! Look, it’s Paul Giamatti! Hey, it’s Phoebe’s brother from Friends!” And there is a final shot of the American flag that is a little nationalistic and severely pandering that it’s cringe inducing.

However, there are two characters that are thoroughly realized. One of which is Captain John Miller. Every beat with him is enthralling. Thanks must also go to the actor portraying him. Tom Hanks shows us his versatility as usual as he plunges into his role with assurance, virility, and authority. His performance is also very nuanced in a bold way. When you’re dealing with a character that, after commencing his men to shoot a German man, sobs intensely, this is a very complex role and Tom Hanks handles it exceptionally. The other character that is made out of meat, not cardboard, is Private James Ryan. While the reaction to the discovery of him is profoundly under whelming, Will Hunting himself, Matt Damon, who plays Ryan with a muscular magnificence, briskly rescues the scene. Like Hanks, Damon delves headfirst into Ryan’s perplexity and deep internal duty. The ideal that Damon would rather sacrifice his own life than save it is really revealing.

In terms of the technical aspect of the film, do I even have to comment? It’s freaking Spielberg. One aspect of the film that everyone talks about is the opening Omaha Beach battle. I’ve heard so many cinephiles raving about how it’s one of the best moments in film, one of the best battles filmed. Pretty much if you review this film and refuse to mention it, one might get hanged by their thumbs. All I can say is…damn!

This is one of Spielberg’s most ambitious film moments. I mean, this scene is talked about for good reason. Spielberg uses every technical gimmick imaginable: explosions, constant dialogue, absence of audibility, lurid moments, booming audio, slow-mo, Dutch tilts, close-ups, shaky cam (which ranges from richly abrasive to overkill), great POV shots, squirting blood on the camera, etc. It’s overwhelming yet remarkable. It is gritty, extremely graphic, realistic and palpable and the longer the scene progresses, the tension, anxiety, and desperation progresses further. All of the battle scenes are immaculately choreographed, despite the overuse of the shaky cam. Seriously, was the cinematographer having a seizure?

As predicted for a Spielberg production, the cinematography is massive, adopting a grave color palette of grays and muted blues, which really encapsulates how lugubrious and dangerous the environment was around them. There’s even a shot of the soldiers’ silhouettes coming over a hill that is almost an oblique homage to E.T. The camerawork can also adjust its speed and yet still retain its primary motive: to show the brutality of war. When the camera is spry or slow, it compliments the ugliness of war. However, while the film describes the horrors of war, it is not about the horrors of war. It is more about the ferocious determination and intense complexities present in this certain situation. The progression of the journey is absolutely beguiling, despite its unnecessary beats.

I seem to keep falling back on my opinion that there are a lot of trivial, expected moments in the film. This should affect the emotional level of the film, but not really. While there are a lot of labored emotional moments, the genuine occurrences of emotion are actually spot-on. The revelation of the identity of the old man from the beginning is surprisingly unpredictable and it leads to a shot before the final, pedantic shot that is actually really inspiring and sad. Also, when Spielberg allows the voiceovers of letters to the families of fallen soldiers to overlap while the writers incessantly compose them, it’s one of the most heartbreaking, gut-punching, and puissant moments in film history.

To be honest, Saving Private Ryan doesn’t totally work as a war film in itself, per se. The battle scenes are magnificent, but there are too many shopworn clichés and a banal supporting cast.. However, the film is more centered on the mission to bring Private Ryan home. Take that plus the battle scenes, the incredible performances by Hanks and Damon, and Spielberg’s usual brand of crafty filmmaking, and the film really works.

RATING: Three-and-a-half stars out of four

Friday, May 10, 2013

The Great Gatsby (2013)

You know what one of the greatest qualities is? Subtlety. I love subtlety. Now, don't get me wrong. I love a ravishing, grandiose Technicolor epic or a whiplash-inducing, blunt action film as much as the next guy. However, certain nuances or unmanifest aspects of books, films, TV shows, etc. can be just as rewarding, especially when you point them out before everyone else. Subtle devices of life are beautifully controlled, humble, and genius. And in my opinion, an excellent example of subtlety can be found in F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel, The Great Gatsby.

And that's a shocker to me, because, initially, I didn't like it. At least the first couple chapters. To me, a lot of it was calling the natives of the 1920s out for not having morals, but doing it in a very iterating, warmed-over fashion and Nick began, to me, as not a very captivating protagonist. However, the chapters after it justify the existence of the first two chapters and everything comes into place. Once that happened, I really liked it. I wouldn't say it's a classic, but it certainly has earned its place in classic literature.

So, a 2nd film adaptation of it (the first one was released in 1974, to my knowledge) was on its way...directed by Baz Luhrman. Oh, shit.

Actually, I didn't feel this way when I first saw the trailers. It looked glossy, suave, and competent enough and it had Leonardo DiCaprio, one of the best actors working in Hollywood currently. Sure, I was in disapproval of the choice to cast the wide-eyed borefest, Tobey Maguire, to play Nick and the surfeit of current music. However, I thought that maybe Maguire wouldn't be terrible, seeing how he has been good in movies, such as Seabiscuit and, of course, the Spider-Man movies. Sure, Baz Luhrman wasn't a master of refinement and he ruined Romeo & Juliet, but he did good with the flawed yet extravagant film, Moulin Rouge.

In addition, I was seeing it as a field trip. Getting out of school to go see a film. BAD-ASS! So, after having finished the book, I went into Gatsby hopeful...and, boy oh boy, I came out hurt.

OK, here's the story of the book. It is the 1920s. Genuine morals have diminished and shallow, vacuous activities, such as drinking and partying, have increased. This really upsets Nick Carraway, a modest West Egg native (an island in New York) who has just recently returned home from war and has now taken up an occupation as a bonds salesman. The only person who doesn't seem to anger him is Jay Gatsby, whom is viewed by Nick with fascination. His intense glamour, his abundance of parties, the constant rumors of him, and slight detachment from people has caught the attention of everyone. He has achieved the American Dream, but is missing the one thing he truly values: Daisy Buchanan, a woman of a higher social class, who is married to Tom Buchanan, he himself is having an affair with a woman named Myrtle, who resides in the Valley of Ashes, where the poor folk live.

Can Daisy and Gatsby break through their social constraints and be united? And is Gatsby not what he seems?

Yeah, the plotline of the film remains the same. But going back to the book, as you can tell by the plot, there is some mournful, incredulous social commentary while still working as its own creations. It creates a modest, mysterious, and romantic atmosphere, not exactly all at once. The writing is very controlled and eloquent.

The film? OK, you know what? Let's stop dancing around my opinion. Let's cut the bullshit. I'm getting right down to the point. I think this film is terrible. I absolutely hate this film. It destroyed any previous hope I had for it.

Right from the beginning, Luhrman, who also wrote the script along with Craig Pearce, a frequent co-writer for Luhrman, gets it all wrong. It begins with Nick as a troubled soul in therapy, depressed, anxious, and prone to spurts of anger. We don't see any of this. It's just on a sheet of paper. We see the doctor treating him is Dr. T.J. Eckleberg, someone who eyes are used as symbolism throughout the novel. The film is then told in flashback with Nick, not merely writing it, but treating us to constant narration. Did Luhrman even read the source material?

I put heavy emphasis on this question because Luhrman just doesn't get it. He does NOT get the spirit of the novel. The novel was dainty and restrained. Not to mention subtle. Subtlety in this film? Pfft! Throw that out the window. The Fitzgerald novel had intense symbolism, accentuating the novel with an assortment of colors, including green, which is the dominant symbol of the film. It represents hope for the reconciliation of Daisy and Gatsby. In the novel, it's controlled. Here, it is uncomfortably blatant. And the way it's executed pretty much makes it obvious.

Also, the mystery of Gatsby is simplisticly handled. In the novel, it is hinted that Gatsby has an shady past. Fitzgerald doesn't directly hint at anything specific. He sounds as confused and puzzled as the readers. In the film, they overdo that aspect so painfully that the film basically violently elbows the viewer in the ribs and says, "Hey. Get it? Foreshadowing! Get it? Get it?" Another aspect that's overdone involves the struggle of Gatsby trying to obtain Daisy. Also, a moment from the novel where Daisy and Gatsby meet after five years is rendered in the movie as a clumsily written piece of slapstick. I mean, it was kinda funny in the book, but not here.

In the book, there is a section where Fitzgerald writes, "[Gatsby] wanted nothing less of Daisy than that she should go to Tom and say: 'I never loved you.'" This shows Gatsby's internal thoughts. It quotes him, vicariously. He doesn't outright say it. In the film, he outright says it! OK, movie. You don't have to say that! THE BOOK ALREADY DID IT FOR YOU, YOU HACKS! If you needed to convey it, that'd be the only time where the maddening narration could've been useful. First, you insert an unnecessary aspect into it and you can't even take advantage of it when it's necessary.

There are, also, certain things that are changed from the book that ruined later parts, especially at the very end with a scene involving Nick doing a certain something that absolutely lowered my intelligence and made me feel unclean and offended. Some aspects from the novel are even underplayed or not even mentioned at all. One example involves a scene at the hotel with Daisy, Gatsby, Tom, Nick, and Jordan, a party girl who is close to Daisy. There is fighting between Tom and Daisy, but in the book, there is wedding music playing in the ballroom below, which provides a callous, ironic counterpoint to the heated and explosive fighting and pretty much states that marriage is a minor failure. In the film, there is none to be found. There's potential there and they don't even use it.

Oh, and the sexual complexity of the relationship between Nick and Jordan is nowhere to be found. Oh, and Daisy's daughter is only shown in one scene for a line or two, whereas in the book, she has restricted time, but she does play a crucial role in a certain moment that pretty much states whether or not Gatsby and Daisy can be together. Oh, and the abusive history of Tom against Daisy? Never mentioned. I'll let die-hard Gatsby fanatics point other moments out on their own websites, but let's just say that the script itself is a tone-deaf, confused mess.

The film, itself, has gotten mixed reviews, thankfully. Some reviews have stated that a viewer needs to surrender any prior literary agenda and just accept it for what it is. You know, maybe they're right. Maybe I should. However, there is one tiny little problem. The Great Gatsby has been engrained as a monument of classic literature and the film has been billed as the adaptation of that book, so it's kind of hard to forget the book when THE WORLD WON'T LET YOU! That's like saying, "Hey, you know that shitty Psycho remake? Well, when you go into it, just forget all about the timeless, influential original film. Just keep an open mind." Doesn't click together. So, surrender the literary source? Uh, no! Denied!

However, aside from the abhorrent script content, it is still crap. One drawback for me of the film is the style. Boy, has it been a while since the style of a film has left me mentally nauseous. Luhrman is known for incorporating fleet camerawork, an epic scope, and a large color spectrum into his films. Hell, Romeo + Juliet did that and I hate that film. However, that film at least had a somewhat enjoyable visual flair and it was cohesive.

This? Jesus. I don't where I've seen more of a obnoxiously garish, overwhelmingly bright, and painfully glib style. I mean, they just overdo it, to the point where it is assaulting and practically suffocating. It's so outlandish and flamboyant that it almost comes across as a satire of The Great Gatsby. I know the book is about glitz and glamour, but in the film, it feels phony and cartoonish, like I'm watching the Smurfs or something. And the funny thing is that the cinematography would've been absolutely gorgeous in another film, but here, it just feel plasticized. They even overdo the Valley of Ashes. Even though the description of the setting in the book matches up with the setting in the film, it still feels too excessive and phony.

Plus, the editor of the film, I guess, has severe, almost scary, ADHD because 99% of the shots last no more than 5 seconds. Some scenes involving backstory and revelations take place in SPEEDING CARS, which wasn't the case in the book. And the ones that do last longer are just flat-out pretentious.

Also, Luhrman is known for clashing the cultures of then and now. It worked in Moulin Rouge, absolutely bombed in Romeo + Juliet, particularly in its loathsome ending, but this film takes it to a new level. When there isn't bombastic music intruding the film the intrusive style of music is from modern artists, even though the film takes place in the GODDAMN TWENTIES! Whenever I heard a Jay-Z song in the mix or when I hear a piano cover of Crazy In Love, I wanted to vomit out my eardrums. No, it's not possible, but that's how I felt.

Also, the acting is flat-out atrocious. Tobey Maguire as Nick? Terrible. Carey Mulligan, portraying Daisy like a curious yet delicate lost puppy, instead of a tormented drunk? Terrible. Joel Edgerton, whose character, Tom, has been polished down to a one-dimensional, sneering dickface? Terrible. Isla Fisher as Myrtle, whose way too glamorous and pretty for the role of Myrtle, even for the context of the book? Terrible. Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby? Terr...ific. Yeah, he actually gives a good performance. Mostly. He plays up the histronics in the second half of the film, which is extremely out of character. Oh, by the way, I hate whenever ANY Gatsby says, "Old sport." It makes me want to abuse their testicles with a fish hook. Just saying.

The romance between Daisy and Gatsby isn't as strong as in the book. In the book, it feels almost desperate and melancholic. In the film, it feels schmaltzy and feels like it's constructed by a Pretty Little Liars writer. Oh, yeah. I went there. The film, also, includes a random sex scene (don't worry, it's PG-13) between Daisy and Gatsby. Many have defended it, claiming that it highlighted the absence of morals, but let's be honest, it's not. It's just there for women to see DiCaprio's shirtless physique and it's constructed in the fashion of a romance novel.

Mainly, the romance isn't strong because the film never gives us a reason why Tom and Daisy shouldn't be together, except for the fact that Daisy and Gatsby are in love. Ugh! Oh, speaking of Gatsby, remember in the 1999 adaptation of Inspector Gadget where they showed the face of Dr. Claw, something never EVER done in the original source material. Well, in this film, they reveal Gatsby prematurely. And when they do, Nick talks to a man about rumors about Gatsby and the man is revealed to be Gatsby himself. In the book, it's a completely different story and I won't even describe it because I don't want to cease my boiling anger.

I was ready for this film. I was up for every second of it and my brain was fighting it. The fact that I don't merely watch despicable qualities of the film, but I have to watch them for almost 2 and a half hours make the experience a tedious one that justifies incessant watch checking. There are a couple of strong and funny moments, but those moments are few and far between in this film. Overall, the film is a bloated, superfluous, misguided mess. I can't call it lazy, but I can still hate it. Think of all the bad aspects of Moulin Rouge, the melodrama of Titanic minus the expertise, crank the level of both of those things up to 11, and you get the idea.

The Great Gatsby revolved around subtlety and this Gatsby revolves around pretentiousness, a quality I absolutely despise. Given the mixed critical reception of both the 1974 film, currently unseen by me, and this film, I think a verdict will arise, stating that Fitzgerald's classic is unfilmable. Take a hint, Hollywood. And DiCaprio, I want you to win an Oscar, but you're not going to get one if you continue to associate yourself with Baz Luhrman. Just saying.

RATING: One star out of four

Lincoln (2012)

In describing Lincoln, one adjective comes to mind: subdued. Now, think about the meaning of this word, the subject matter for which the film revolves around, and the creator of the film itself: good ‘ol Spielberg.

In my Invictus review, I stated, quote, “[Clint Eastwood] deserves a film where his ideas can be executed in a way that’s visually gargantuan yet narratively humble.” However, if there is any other director who deserves this, to me, it’s Steven Spielberg. This man has pretty much left his fingerprints on pretty much every genre known to man: comedy, science fiction, horror, pulp-style adventure, film noir, drama (lots of drama), animated, and war. Hell, he could make an Asian kung-fu film and it’d probably be one of the best films ever.

So, a historical film based on one of the most fascinating figures in U.S. history, unquestionably, had to be made by Spielberg. Everyone knew it and everyone knew it would be exceedingly competent. What other standards did he have to meet? Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter? While that film (also released in 2012) was surprisingly better received than it had any right to be, a guy with an indecipherable name and who has the credits of Day Watch and Wanted under his belt directed it. Point goes to Spielberg!

The question was how he was going to tackle it? He has previously made historical films and all of them were maturely grandeur with out-sized emotions and scenery. From the black-and-white beauty that juxtaposed the macabre and revolting subject matter of Schindler’s List to the opening twenty minutes of Saving Private Ryan, subtly wasn’t exactly this man’s forte. However, he has demolished all preconceived conceptions of him with this breath of fresh air that both purifies and mildly poisons me.

I’m sure shallow New Age folk would just pass this off as a biography of Lincoln’s life. Wrong! The film actually starts when Lincoln is the current president and it focuses on Lincoln’s final four months of living. The specific storyline revolves around Lincoln desperately and tenaciously trying to get the 13th Amendment passed whilst in the midst of the Civil War. Would this end the war? Was a method to directly end the war more important? Whatever the answer to these questions were, Lincoln felt that freeing the slaves was crucial to a better country and was willing to do anything to achieve that goal including bribing conflicting Democrats. Lincoln, also, had to juggle personal problems involving the family he has built; a major problem involves his son, Robert, passionately wanting to fight in the war against his family’s wishes.

Now, in my Argo review, I secured a majority of space as a diatribe of the Academy for naming it the best picture of 2012. I still don’t agree with their decision, but I digress. I feel I should begin my critique of the film by connection to the film and its corresponding Oscars. Or at least the main Oscar: Best Actor for Daniel Day-Lewis.

It is pretty much fate that one of the most masterful directors to handle this material would snatch one of the most masterful actors working in Hollywood currently. After a streak of playing cynical characters in films such as Gangs of New York and There Will Be Blood, the latter of the two is currently unseen by me, he has decided to step into the hat and beard of Abraham Lincoln. And thank God for that. His Oscar was well deserved because he is utterly hypnotic and completely embodies Honest Abe with a warm voice and an occasionally threatening tone that’s mannered in nature.

Of course, Spielberg has finesse for selecting a well-rounded and replete supporting cast. Sally Field as Lincoln’s wife is bold, intense, and committed. Her performance is nostalgically great, bringing her back to her Oscars days in the 70s and 80s. The way the dynamic between Lincoln and his wife unfolds is intense and the actors play it to a tee. This film and Men In Black III also provided us with a Tommy Lee Jones double feature. While filmgoers were either satisfied or disappointed with M.I.B. III, people were united in praise of Lee Jones’ passionate performance as Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, who is depicted with a raspy voice and gruff personality. Lee Jones is always blasé yet intense, but the level of that depends on the film. In this film, he is somewhat blasé and very intense. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who must have a contract that he must do at least two films a year and is shaping up to be Shia LaBeouf of the 2010s and the male Emma Stone, shines as Robert, Lincoln’s son.

The film, also, won an Oscar for its production design. And…they weren’t wrong. The whole mise-en scene is insidiously sumptuous. With the exception of the occasionally circular, carousel-like motion of the camera that starts out artistic and then becomes annoying, I appreciate the modest yet colossal camerawork of the film, which almost feels like a stage play and continually evoked HBO.

The camera bathes itself in a dank color pallete. It’s grimy, lugubrious, austere, and sophisticated; the perfect way to film this. Even when the camera is bright, it doesn’t allow itself to be overly bright, still retaining that dark and cleverly musty shade. There is, however, one shot of the Capitol on voting day for the Amendment that is implicitly gorgeous. Of course, Spielberg’s heavy orchestral music manipulated me and played me like a piano. And that’s just fine with me.

However, the film is not a perfect one. The major flaw involves the fact that certain aspects of the screenplay and structure that do work work against itself. For example, I appreciate the minimal, dialogue-oriented structure, in theory. I appreciate its meticulous, absorbant pace, in theory. I appreciate the multitude of conversations that makes the viewer more anxious for the arrival of the central goal. However, those three aspects work against itself, in the sense that there are some conversations that aren’t interesting. When they appear, they bring the film to a halt and makes the measured pace feel sluggish and monotonous.

Another issue I have with the film is the occasional emotional inertia of the film. Again, I understand that the film is centered on logistics, opinions (which are expressed via mesmerizing debates), and situation, but when the film tries for emotion, there are a couple of times where the film doesn’t deliver totally on that level.

For example, the revelation of the status of Lincolns’ son, Willie, feels forced and doesn’t land an emotional punch. In addition, the subplot involving Robert craving to fight in the war against his parents’ wishes, to me, simply boils down to the generic “child-has-a-dream-but-the-parents-are-unsupportive-but-they-eventually-realize-the-error-of-their-ways-and-support-their-child’s-dream” plotline. It was old when Disney did it. I don’t even care if this part of the film was real or not. It still, in my opinion, adds up to nothing.

There are, also, little things that irritated me. For example, there is a political debate that has a line that foreshadowed women’s suffrage that I felt was forced, idiotic, and unnecessary, almost as if the speaker was looking at the camera and winking with irony. Also, while I love the speeches for the most part, some of them become uncomfortably elongated and almost self-consciously portentous.

However, there are a multitude of genius moments to make up for that. The climactic voting scene is modestly made but vastly intense, to the point where I was lingering on every word. It’s also genius that the verdict of this scene is said off screen. While most of the film is dialogue-oriented, the reaction is, in this scene, portrayed via camerawork, ambiance, the stalwart eyes of the actors, and minimal yet hefty scenes that follow it. And the scene of all the deceased and rotting corpses from the Civil War is harrowing. And the ending is constructed in a lyrical and absolutely beautiful way. And the film, also, works as a biting, barbed, and yet sly political commentary. The incessant disagreements, the heated debates, the constant put-downs, the acceptance of bribes in exchange for their true beliefs, etc; all of these aspects seem to skewer and mock, in an almost embarrassed tone, politics and their inability to detect what is morally correct. However, the commentary is executed obliquely and secretly. And in the midst of the magnificent performances, the fetching, ingenious production values, and the over-the-top facets of the film, the film is elevated, and can be labeled as laudable, because of one adjective: subdued. That’ll do Spielberg. That’ll do.

RATING: Three and one quarter stars out of four

Argo (2012)

To the public eye, one of the most fascinating figures in Hollywood has been Ben Affleck. Unfortunately, I believe the consensus agrees that, for a while, he’s been fascinating in all the wrong ways. His career has been rocky, to say the least. Lemme explain. He started his career in films such as Mallrats, and Chasing Amy. Yet the fascination in Ben Affleck most likely began in 1997. This marked the year that Good Will Hunting was released; a film exalted by critics and won him and co-writer Matt Damon an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. I’d like to think that people expected great things to come from him.

With the exception of some Kevin Smith comedies and Shakespeare in Love, people’s expectations were not met. This actor who had so much potential quickly tapered into doing simplistic and unmemorable action films, reviled comedies, and gaining a reputation of hooking up with every chick in Hollywood until John Mayer came along. Affleck had practically abandoned his Oscar potential and turned himself into the commonplace action hero or the incessant crybaby, neither of which the public believed he could believably portray or justify with concrete acting abilities. However, these past couple of years, Ben Affleck’s career has been a rags-to-riches story.

In 2007, he showed how much of a powerhouse he was as a director with the release of Gone Baby Gone. In 2010, he showed how much of an expertise he possessed as being both a director and an actor with the release of The Town. So, clearly he showed that his unimpeachable cinematic craft had never left him. All he needed was that one bulls eye as a artistic thrust into the cementation of him as an excellent filmmaker and for his directing and acting talents to collide head-on.

Argo was that film.

Right from the beginning, he practically beats us over his head with his exceptional composition. After the old-fashioned Warner Bros. logo fades away, which really places up into the time period of the film, Affleck introduces us to the backstory thoroughly, allowing the viewer to comprehend the film and have more of a feel for it. The film is based on a true story and the text that reveals this fact seems to bear an unsettling undertone.

The film takes place in 1979. As the film previously explains, Iran is run by shahs, or kings. In 1941, Reza Pahlavi was appointed as the shah. He was a shah who loved the West (the United States). However, he was overthrown during the Iranian Revolution in 1979. When President Jimmy Carter sheltered Pahlavi (partly to treat him for cancer) in the United States, the Iranians were outraged.

Under the rule of newly appointed shah, Ayatollah Khomeini, Iranians ambushed the U.S. embassy in Tehran. 50 people were taken hostages, but six people escaped and found security and safety in Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor’s house. The U.S. hears of this dreadful situation and CIA exfiltration specialist, Tony Mendez, is brought in to help the situation. He’s lost for a legit solution until he finds “inspiration” in Battle for the Planet of the Apes, as opposed to other people who would just be repulsed by it. After watching this, the solution is clear to him: Create a fake science-fiction film, Argo, go to Iran, claiming to scout for locations, grab the hostages, and fly them back to America.

OK. Before I begin with my critique, KNOCK IT OFF! You over-hyping bastards, knock it the hell off. Was it a good movie? Yes. Was it a really good movie? Yes. Once again, I’ll get to that in a minute. But I say this in my most sincere and militant opinion, Argo was not, repeat not, the year’s best picture. To all the critics who call this the best film of the year, isn’t that a little extreme? I mean, I can accept the film critics, but the Oscar for Best Picture? Really? The film was pretty much 2012’s Wag the Dog, except this film was based on true events. It didn’t have the creativity of Beasts of the Southern Wild, it didn’t have the grandiose and theatricality of Les Miserables, it didn’t have the simmering tension and captivating build-up of Zero Dark Thirty, and it certainly didn’t have the expertly executed drama and impeccable character development of my favorite film of 2012, Silver Linings Playbook.

Seeing how I am already on a roll now, I guess I should explain why Argo wasn’t worthy of the Best Picture award. First of all, I discussed earlier of the “impeccable character development of Silver Linings Playbook.” This film doesn’t have nearly as great character development as that film. The characters aren’t bad. Once again, we’ll get to that later. What I am saying is that the characters are not fully-fledged into anything complete. Tony Mendez just seems like the standard government genius (isn’t that an oxymoron). Oh, I forgot the classic cliché that he’s distant from his son and his wife (or, I guess, ex-wife. The movie is pretty vague and convoluted on that aspect). This section of the film is too nonchalant, painfully rushed, and mildly ungainly. He’s not one-dimensional, but not two-dimensional. I guess he’s more in the middle. One-and-a-half dimensional, I guess (boy, that isn’t going to catch on).

Also, the hostages are also flatly written. They’re just banal, uninteresting caricatures just waiting to be saved. Of course, one of them conveniently is literate in Arabic and one of them is the classic wary, hesitant archetype; the only one of the bunch who fits in this description. This, in addition, connects to another reason Argo shouldn’t have won Best Picture. The film, in general, is emotionally inert and distant, in terms of the situation. Thinking of this flaw reminds me of Schindler’s List, a Best Picture winner and one of my favorite films. That film had an obvious opinion and perspective on the Holocaust. The filmmaker was clearly horrified and disgusted by it.

One of the positive aspects I’ve heard in various reviews was that it was “ideologically neutral.” Well, I feel that the neutrality of it is part of the problem. It just doesn’t deliver, totally, on a visceral level. I wouldn’t even have an issue with the neutrality of the film if it didn’t try not to be neutral. The film, as expected, shows scenes of anarchy and terror, seeing how this took place during the Iranian Revolution. However, when these scenes happen, as gut wrenching as they may be on the surface, it, intrinsically, feels studied and agonizingly calculated. It feels as if the filmmakers felt obligated to insert those scenes. I understand the film’s not entirely revolved around the Iranian Revolution, but in order to feel for and buy into the plea of the hostages, it must be viscerally rewarding. It isn’t. Good thinking, Oscars. Sorry that the torment and obstacles of two mentally ill souls who fall in love with each other isn’t as deep as this. God!

However, to continuously rant on the undeserving award this film received would be denying the brilliance of the film. The cinematography is vibrant and pristine, complete with an incredible overhead shot that made me feel like I was floating in mid-air. While the hostages aren’t developed with any sort of finesse, seeing them in the process of getting on the plane (C’mon. Everyone knows it ends happily) is unbearably tense and seeing the plane take off was inspiring and expertly done. The combination of the actual film with real news footage from the 1970s is brilliant, sonorous, and evocative. And in the film’s coda, the credits placed over science-fiction memorabilia and use of sparse music is alternately shrewd and solemn, ironic and grave.

In addition, the performances are excellent. While Ben Affleck isn’t given much meat on his character, he does give a very good performance. Bryan Cranston ditches his meth lab from Breaking Bad and gives a strong performance as Mendez’ supervisor, Jack O’Donnell. John Goodman is very good as the gruff, mordant John Chambers, a make-up artist, and Alan Arkin simply shines as the cynical, wry producer, who delivers a joke relating to the film’s title that it’s heavily quoted within my film class.

The bottom line is: Argo works. It is a very well made movie. It works as a thriller, a comedy, a love letter and a middle finger to Hollywood. However, I am still persistent in my belief that the acceptance of the Best Picture Oscar by the film was incorrect. Was the film, at least, worth being nominated? Definitely. I mean, what other nominee options were there? Breaking Dawn: Part 2? Over my dead body!

RATING: Three and a half stars out of four

Iron-Jawed Angels (2004)

Have I mentioned before that I admire HBO? Have I mentioned that I deeply admire HBO, because I really admire HBO. Although, seeing how they are the company that has released my all-time favorite film, Temple Grandin, it shouldn’t be unexpected for me to be biased towards them. However, as I pondered on HBO’s library of television films, I realized something: the success of HBO’s television films makes no sense.

Not because they’re bad; far from it. It’s because they shatter every conformist aspect of, not merely other television films, but films in general. They are so anti-conventional. They march to the beat of their own drum. They are the indie rock of cinema. Their cinematic skills are on a level that I wish most films released in theaters were on. For a station whose major success was found in The Sopranos, which I have finally seen and I can conclude that it is good, these self-effacing, unorthodox films shouldn’t be as hugely popular and widely successful as they are. There truly must be a God up there.

I believe that the reasons that they shouldn’t be popular are the exact reasons why they are popular. HBO does have a huge reputation, even though the general consensus could probably only name, like, seven of their shows. It is the hometown for the blockbusters and it used to shelter stand-up comedy specials before Comedy Central robbed them of that. Stars like Julianne Moore, Ed Harris, Claire Daines, Macy Gray, and Al Pacino have lined up to get a taste of the HBO hummus (I’m weird). So, with all this in mind, I guess it shouldn’t surprise me that HBO’s television films are hugely successful and suck up Emmys like a…uh…Emmy vacuum (I’ll stop with the weird descriptions). It also shouldn’t surprise me that a station that has a catalog of broad and fascinating topics would choose to make a film revolving around women’s suffrage. Folks, meet the Iron-Jawed Angels.

The film, as previously stated, revolves around women’s suffrage, particularly around passionate and outspoken suffragist, Alice Paul, played by Hilary Swank. It chronicles the efforts made by female suffragists to retain voting rights they believed they were entitled to. Folks, don’t worry. This isn’t some moronic Lifetime film. Read on. The film brings to life the extreme hardships of the suffragists, including the torture that some endured at prisons.

I believe my verdict is clear: HBO has a prowess for crafting visual poems. The cinematography is extremely versatile, covering all areas. It can be fleet and quick and it can also be slow, although the slow-mo sequences can be awkward, at times. It is just orgasmic (just another way of saying liberating. I like the sound of it.) to see camerawork that is so quick-witted and alive.

The camera, also, used to great effect in the end credits. Spoiler alert: Women get voting rights! SURPRISE! The credits consist of Alice Paul and her friend and fellow suffragist, Lucy Burns, played by Frances O’Connor. The camera spirals around them, as the two ladies perennially smile and the brightness of the setting illuminates them. Those end credits are as strong a symbol of triumph as I’ve seen in a while.

The intro evokes the craftsmanship and creativity of poems. The intro merely displays an array of images, all of which are virtually unconnected with each other. This forces the viewer’s mind to conjure up many thoughts, just like a poem should. I, also, admire the film’s controlled and almost insidious use of music. At one point, the music is as modest and sparse as HBO and the next moment, it blares some unknown modern song. While the clashing of cultures can be questioned, I trust and respect HBO’s judgment, whatever it may be.

Writers Sally Robinson, Eugenia Bostwick-Singer, Raymond Singer, and Jennifer Friedes have all crafted a marvelous screenplay that clashes tonally like the music clashes, culturally. Surprisingly, for a film of this potent subject matter, there’s a lot of mordant humor, some of which is directed towards Helen Keller. And here I thought Family Guy was the only product on television that poked fun at her. The script, at the same times, expertly executes its mood, sometimes in unique ways. Consider a scene where Alice, after going on a hunger strike in prison, is dragged into a room, where she is force-fed. In a typical film, you would most likely hear some muffled audio and maybe some uninterrupting orchestral music would play. In this film, the other female prisoners, mostly comprised of the other female suffragists who were jailed, sing a hymn, a capella, while the torture ensues. It may not be the most grandiose emotional moment, but it is more elegiac and haunting than most films that use the aforementioned tactic to elicit emotions. The script also incorporates the key element of HBO’s success: restraint. Consider the climactic scene where women’s suffrage laws have finally been passed. There isn’t any raucous cheering and accumulating orchestra music. The screenwriters know that the subject is intrinsically triumphant and the end credits will take care of everything.

As expected from HBO, the acting is first-rate. Hilary Swank has a tricky character. Tonally, she has a variety of areas to cover. For a character whose moment of starving herself nearly to death is preceded by scenes of her crying in agony over the loss of a former suffragists and questioning her own cause and of her fingering herself in the bathtub (tastefully done, I might add), this character portrayal is daringly written and depicting her wouldn’t be a walk in the park. Hilary Swank does it impeccably, assured and confident as ever. Bob Gunton is very believable as President Woodrow Wilson. Thank God Gunton’s allowed to play a character, as opposed to some one-dimensional, outlandish stereotype in Patch Adams. Veteran actress Anjelica Huston is stern and strong in her role and Julia Ormond is very good, despite her restricted screen time (she’s the suffragist I told you about who dies).

One actress who surprised me was this woman Molly Parker, who played Emily Leighton, the wife of a senator. He is against women’s suffrage and she is not. This actress, apparently, played a major role in Deadwood and has received various bit parts in various films. She was superb in her role as a woman who begins as reluctant and ends as courageous. One of my favorite moments with her was a scene when she’s in prison. The women’s suffragists’ petitioning has been seen as a crime and thus, the women spend time in jail, as previously stated. Her husband visits her and they have a conversation, which is one of the best moments in the film. The things they discuss evoke an ambiance that is both heartbreaking and hopeful. She knows that, one fine day, women will overcome, but will she?

However, not everything about the film is excellent. While we do have a plethora of incredibly talented actors and actresses, we still have to put up with that useless waste of space that is Patrick Dempsey. This film made me realize something: I hate him!

I didn’t realize that before, but this film makes a case for my newfound hatred of him. In everything I’ve seen him do, he has that annoyingly chirpy, putso smile that makes him look like Sean Penn with Down’s syndrome. When he’s not aggravating me with his smile, he aggravates me with how lost or tired he looks. In addition, his character is a tool. With the exception of one scene where he reveals to Alice that his wife dies, which is actually one of the few moments his torpid acting is actually justified, there’s no weight to his character.

The, I guess, romance between him and Alice is clichéd and banal. There is one scene where it is a montage of them together being romantic and silly, and interspersed with that is the aforementioned moment of Alice fingering herself. Sure, it’s hot, but the way the scene’s structured is incoherent and fragmented. The whole fingering business feels like a deleted scene that they half-assedly tied in to the film. It’s like if someone watched Schindler’s List and someone randomly scattered pieces of a porno into the film. In addition, as much as I love the camerawork, there was one moment where Julia Ormond was talking over some moving sky background that felt more at home in a 1980s music video.

Regardless of that, Iron-Jawed Angels is the kind of the film that affirms HBO’s reputation as a sly powerhouse. This is definitely one of the quintessential women’s suffrage films to view. It’s informative, eye opening, and well acted, written, and filmed. Plus, while it is still a weirdly placed moment, you still see Hilary Swank finger herself. Can’t go wrong with that. ;-)

RATING: Three and a half stars out of four