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