Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Most Exceptionally Groovy Oscars Podcast Playlist

For the second consecutive year, I was invited onto the Indiana University Cinema Podcast, along with the venerable James Paasche, to talk about the Oscar nominations with hosts Andy Hunsucker and Jason Thompson. Andy has kindly created a video playlist, so if you're dying to know what I think about, say, costume design, now's your chance to go directly to the source.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Contenders (Life of Pi, Lincoln, Flight, Silver Linings Playbook, Skyfall, Beasts of the Southern Wild)

I'm surprised by how much I've enjoyed catching up with some of this year's Oscar contenders, and not just because of my above-it-all hipsterish indifference to awards' bait. While all of these films have received generally good reviews, I've realized that I've been putting too much stock in contradictory opinions based on rather specious or trivial issues. While Ben Affleck's boneheaded Argo draws praise for being "like a decent TV movie of the week," as though that were something worth paying even matinee prices for, the Realism Argument that has taken Zero Dark Thirty to task in the political arena has been trotted out - oftentimes as its close cousin, the Insider-Knowledge Argument - to pan other movies on socio-cultural grounds. At least one critic has slammed Silver Linings Playbook because he once dated somebody who was bipolar and their experience did not include Eagles games and dance contests; someone who was from the same part of India as the protagonist in Life of Pi helpfully informed us that they don't really talk like that there, a crucial element missing from Ang Lee's documentary approach to the material.

Also being woven into many reviews with seeming frequency are quotes from the filmmakers themselves, the underlying assumption being that arbitrary soundbites from random interviews by creative artists with vested interests (personal, political, commercial) should automatically be trusted. Jonathan Rosenbaum, for example, is correct that Kathryn Bigelow's "naive contention that (Zero Dark Thirty) 'doesn't have an agenda, and it doesn't judge' has only helped to confuse matters," but that confusion only exists by letting an external comment interfere with what's on screen in the first place. 

That's my general rule for evaluating movies: the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of the film itself. Unlike Argo, whose cliches grate as loudly as a stalled clutch at Tehran International Airport, Zero Dark Thirty lets nothing incongruous inside of its own reality. (Well, almost nothing: Mark Boal's script gives Jessica Chastain a couple of grandstanding moments, but at least they're entertaining grandstands.) Similarly, while I know little about Indian culture or alcoholism or what it takes to ratify an amendment (I did, however, once spend considerable time with a bipolar person, but I don't assume that qualifies me to a higher level of experience), I was absorbed by the worlds of the following films; in varying degrees, they made me believe.

Life of Pi. Ang Lee's beautiful, harrowing fable about a pair of mismatched shipwreck survivors - an Indian boy and a Bengal tiger - is the greatest boy-meets-animal story since Carroll Ballard's The Black Stallion, featuring 3-D used for maximum creative effect and CGI that looks shockingly substantial. I think some folks are taking too literally as a mission statement the claim by the adult Pi (played by Irrfan Khan, who tells the tale to an unnamed Canadian author) that his story "will make you believe in God." With the kind of tough-minded sentimentality often mistaken for exclusively treacly sentiment, Life of Pi undercuts the stereotype of Indian mystical wisdom for a more double-edged belief-by-necessity in order to survive both our ordeals and our memories. 
Lincoln. The first Spielberg movie I've liked since the last time he filmed a script by Tony Kushner, Lincoln, like Munich, provides the director with intellectual rigor that meshes beautifully with his emotional clarity. Both qualities embody the personality of the main character himself, played with effortless authenticity by Daniel Day-Lewis, who transforms the abolition of slavery from an emotional appeal into a legal argument in order to get the 13th Amendment passed. Among its other achievements, Lincoln does something exceedingly difficult by depicting internal conflict among the key players on both sides of the issue, as when an admittedly racist Representative, whose brother died in the Civil War, votes no as expected, only to hold his head in moral anguish.
Flight. Denzel Washington must have sensed that his estimable acting skills were in recent years calcifying into shtick (or maybe he caught Jay Pharaoh's unerring parody on SNL), because he throws timidity to the winds as a drink-and-drug-addicted pilot whose life-saving actions during a plane crash forces him to confront a personal tailspin of his own doing. Robert Zemeckis's return to reality from twelve years of motion-capture brings his controversial strain of conservatism back to Hollywood movies, but you don't have to be religious to appreciate the sincerity with which he approaches spirituality. Flight is in a sense a disease-of-the-week movie in disguise, but whereas most actors playing drunks oversell weakness, Washington emphasizes his character's strength, making the demons that bring him down all the more formidable.       

Silver Linings Playbook. A romcom in disguise, David O. Russell's latest comedy-of-rage is the weakest of all of his movies that I've liked (though better than I Heart Huckabees), but as with The Fighter I still enjoyed the dexterity with which Russell tries to conceal the film's narrative trappings. I have to laugh at the accusations that Russell "sold out," since nearly all his movies - nearly all nervy, unhinged attempts to reconcile his thuggish and pacifist instincts - feature happy or hopeful endings. Russell may be a thug, but there's nothing cynical about his art. Like Bradley Cooper's mentally fractured antihero, he believes.
Skyfall. The latest Bond movie and the first Sam Mendes film I haven't found appalling (his staging of Javier Bardem's rock-and-roll helicopter raid gave me a tingle of laughter), Skyfall follows the personal storyline of the superb Casino Royale and hideous Quantum of Solace to somewhere in between. Roger Deakins' Oscar-nominated cinematography enhances a mixed-bag script, C+ dialogue offset by an A+ structure leading to an emotionally satisfying conclusion.

Oh, yeah, I almost forgot....

Beasts of the Southern Wild. The hatred for this (knee-jerk charges of racism, etc.) has been as overblown as the praise. I liked my friend James Paasche's defense on our recent podcast that the film is one of very few child-related movies that doesn't condescend to its protagonist. My problem with the movie is visually it's amateur-hour, the year's biggest eyesore this side of The Hunger Games. An admirable debut, a decent effort. I just wished, while watching it, that I could actually see it.