Note from Nick: We’ll be running content from our friends over at the International Academy of Film and Television in Los Angeles on CHUD, hopefully sharing some new voices and opinions and eventually creating a conduit from the Sewer there and back again. If you’re in Los Angeles and pondering films school, find them at IAFT.net. Here’s Pete Wassell’s take on the Oscar pool, part one.
The Oscars — The Latest from IAFT-LA
by Pete Wassell
In a year when a lot of people didn’t see as many movies as they might’ve wanted to, the Oscar nominations don’t surprise, but as always, disappoint. Pete Wassell’s on our team in Burbank. Here’s his overview of some of this year’s 9 Best Picture nominees.
Lincoln: Excellent. The best thing Steven Spielberg has done since Saving Private Ryan, and that’s saying a lot because I really like Catch Me if You Can. Daniel Day-Lewis plays the 16th president both as a giant of a man, but also as a human being, with all the tics, anxieties, flaws, and frustrations that beset each of us at every turn. The casting is flawless with Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones, James Spader, and Hal Holbrook only bolstering Day-Lewis’s sterling performance. With a tight script and sharp direction that manages to tell the story of the Civil War, the battle to end slavery, as well as introduce us to Abraham Lincoln the man, all while maintaining a coherent thread and steadfast pacing–all that makes Lincoln, I feel, almost a lock to sweep the golden statues.
Silver Linings Playbook: Solid. David O. Russell is one of those directors whose movies I will never miss. I’ve seen all his work from Spanking the Monkey and Flirting with Disaster to Three Kings and IHeart Huckabees. Bradley Cooper turns in a very good performance as Pat, a man just released from a mental hospital under the supervision of his parents, who suffers from delusions of getting back together with an ex-wife whose lover he nearly beat to death. That sounds like a dark story, but like all David O. Russell movies, this one has a biting wit that carries through the entire picture, making it much easier to swallow as we watch this character traverse the mine field that is his home and his own head. Robert De Niro gives his best performance in years as Pat’s father and would-be bookmaker Pat Sr. Jacki Weaver plays Pat’s Mother Dolores, and Jennifer Lawrence plays Pat’s standoffish, attractive, and equally dysfunctional quasi love interest Tiffany. The film is very well represented at the Oscars with Cooper being nominated for Best Actor, Lawrence for Best Actress, both De Niro NS Weaver for Best Supporting, as well as Best Picture and Best Director. Just writing that made me tired. However, like all David O. Russell movies, SLPB falls short. He doesn’t really tie these scenes together. Instead, the whole isn’t equal to the sum of its parts. A strong opening leads to a lull in pacing, and certain scenes, while trying to be funny, seem flat and awkward. Then, towards the end, Russell seems to want to wrap things up, and so he does, with a bow on top, and without any real explanation or a finish to Pat’s journey. Silver Linings is a good movie, and you should check it out, but Best Picture, Best Director? You decide.
Les Miserables: You should be able to enjoy this film even if you don’t know the musical. However! If you don’t like musicals, don’t waste your time! When I walked out of Les Mis, I said two things to myself: If that doesn’t win Production Design and Costume Design, the Academy has finally lost their minds, and I never thought Russell Crowe could be so overshadowed. Crowe has always struck me as an actor and a person who wants to be in the forefront and who works harder than anyone to be the man riding on top of the boat, but even with that force of personality he is achingly small as Javert, and the film suffers because of it. The surprise is Anne Hathaway as Fantine. When she sings I Dreamed a Dream, knowing that her voice was recorded live, and in one take…! There’s your Oscar nomination. It’s like when you first watch Forrest Gump, and at the end, when Forrest meets his son, and you watch all the emotions that Tom Hanks puts Forrest through, you immediately forgive him any sappiness, and any overacting, because that moment breaks your heart, and unless you’re a monster, your eyes swell and you almost can’t watch, feeling strangely voyeuristic. But I digress. Les Miserables is long, but epic, and it does drag in the middle after Fantine exits and before the young students start their revolution, with all due respect to the lively and raucous rendition of Master of the House performed by Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as Thénardier and Madame Thénardier. Once we get to the students and their revolution, the pace picks back up and follows through all the way to the end, but Russell Crowe does the end a disservice by almost mailing in his performance as Javert and cheating the audience out of what should be a profound and moving scene. Les Miserables has some real pacing issues, and Russell Crowe sinks one of the great characters. And though Anne Hathaway and Hugh Jackman shine, they can’t quite get it over the (spoiler alert!) barricade.
Whew! Nine Best Picture nominees, and I’m not even halfway through. Nine?! It’s ludicrous.
Django Unchained: Quentin Tarantino does what he does and I love it. A great soundtrack, violence, vengeance, dead slave owners and bigots to the left and the right, and comedy… yes, Django Unchained is very funny. That’s what Tarantino does. He’s a synthesis machine, taking the best aspects of the genres he loves, breaking them down and putting them back together again in his own way, illuminating the possibilities that lie within pulp and now Spaghetti Western genres. From the opening scene when Jamie Foxx, who plays Django, throws off his burlap wrap and stands over his would-be oppressor, the audience knows they’re in for a treat. Django is nominated for Best Picture, and Christoph Waltz, who plays Dr. King Schulz, is up for Best Supporting Actor, and Tarantino for Best Original Screenplay. But no director, no nomination for Samuel L. Jackson who, much like William Hurt in A History of Violence, adds so much to the film in such a short period of time. You literally can’t take your eyes away from Jackson when he’s on screen. And Leonardo DiCaprio as the depraved Calvin Candie, owner of the 4th largest cotton plantation in Mississippi, is brilliant. He plays Candie with a mix of southern charm and ignorant, evil nonchalance that adds an operatic nature to his character. The truth is that everyone could have been nominated for Supporting Actor, so seeing Christoph Waltz get nominated again wasn’t a surprise, and not that big of a problem for me. Though I would have nominated either Jackson or DiCaprio over him, at least the Academy nominated one of them. No Best Director nomination for Tarantino, though, is ridiculous. The film once again moves at its own pace and blends music with visuals better than any film this year. Tarantino shelved his chapter style, and instead filmed a straightforward Spaghetti Western in the vein of a Fistful of Dollars and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, but maintaining his unique style and sense of pulpy entertainment. When we first go to Mississippi to meet Calvin Candie, the camera looks straight down over the heads of shackled slaves as they trudge through thick wet mud, and the giant letters M-I-S-S-I-S-S-I-P-P-I scroll across, covering the entire screen. We are in Mississippi, and it is not where we, or Django, want to be. There’s a fight scene between two slave men that has been set up by Calvin Candie that does get on the brutal side, and I nearly turned away. I loved Django from start to finish, though it does wrap up a little too nicely for a Tarantino film. I think it’s one of the best movies of the year and no nomination for either Tarantino or Samuel L. Jackson is a giant snub.
Argo: Affleck is getting better…
Tight and tense. Ben Affleck seems to have found his true calling. Directing seems to come naturally to him, and I’m personally glad he has stayed with it. Though flawed, I enjoyed his debut feature Gone Baby Gone on a purely visceral level. The Town left something to be desired, but at least it had life and energy and was trying to be something more than Gone Baby Gone. Argo, however, elevates Affleck from actor who wants to direct, to Director who shouldn’t have acted in his own film. It is a taut political drama that skims over the politics just enough to tell us a human story rather than preach.
The film opens with a brief history of U.S. involvement in Iran. We install the shah, the shah is a bad guy, the Ayatollah comes to power, and the Shah is granted asylum in the U.S. This is where we pick up the story–1979, Iran in the midst of revolution. The U.S. embassy is overrun by angry, militant Iranian protesters, and as the ambassadors burn documents and quibble over whether they should stay or leave, six of them decide to head out the back door, where they make their way to the Canadian ambassador’s pad. Flash forward 3 months and we are now in the throes of the hostage crisis, but the CIA knows about the six Americans in hiding, and Argo centers around Ben Affleck, playing Tony Mendez, and his plan to fake a film production in order to get the hiding Americans out of the country.
Just to get a sense of pace, all of that set-up happens in 20-25 minutes. That’s why Argo is so good. It doesn’t linger. It tells you where you are, shows you where you are, then hits the gas and doesn’t let up until the credits roll. The last 30 minutes of the film are spent with your eyes glued to the screen, your heart racing, and your fingers making permanent imprints on the armrest. Though I knew how it was going to end, it didn’t matter–this is Ben Affleck’s movie, and he decides how it ends.
The problem is that Affleck mails in his performance. Tony Mendez is said to be one of the 50 greatest CIA operatives of all time, yet Affleck plays him like a robot, never really showing any emotion one way or another. This allows the supporting cast of Alan Arkin, John Goodman, and Bryan Cranston to shine, but detracts from the film overall because Tony Mendez should be a very cool character with a lot wrapped up in this mission, including his own life. I think Affleck focused on the directing, and so when he was in front of the camera he was thinking more about the look and less about the character’s motivation. I think that is a good thing for his career as a director, but a poor choice for this film.
Alan Arkin is good, but not worthy of the supporting actor nomination. Samuel L. Jackson and Leonardo DiCaprio both deserved the nod for Django over Arkin, who has one fun scene where he shows us what a Hollywood Producer should be, but other than that is in the film for maybe a maximum of 15 minutes.
Argo just won the SAG Award for best ensemble in a drama, and Affleck picked up the Best Director Golden Globe earlier this month. I think it could certainly win Best Picture, and I wouldn’t be heartbroken if it did, but I don’t think it should be held in that high esteem. This is a good, fast paced, fun movie that lacks depth at points, but nonetheless tells a dynamic political story without getting too political.
Beasts of the Southern Wild: Pretentious with a side of hushpuppy
Good/Not good. One of the most hyped films of Oscar season. Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild is beautiful looking. Dripping with smoky gloom, and vibrant, fiery colors, you could hang a screen on the wall and play the film in a museum as an art installation. With that said, Levi’s commercials are beautiful, and I often found myself thinking of them as I watched the film. So, even though it has cinematography and a Director who has a keen eye for composition, that doesn’t get it over the condescending nature of the story.
Let me begin by saying that 10 minutes after watching Beasts I was in love. Quvenzhané Wallis delivers a performance that is both unfiltered and deep. She is the film’s main protagonist, and we experience her world with her and through her. However, I had a bitter taste in my mouth and a weird nagging thought in the back of my head, one that I couldn’t quite communicate. I wasn’t sure what it was about the film that I couldn’t put into words. I thought I loved it, but I knew that I actually didn’t, and I couldn’t explain why. It wasn’t until I read Vincent Mancini’s review on the Filmdrunk website that I understood my own feelings. Quoting from Mancini’s article, “When you live in the city and you buy your meat wrapped in cellophane, it’s a pleasant fantasy to believe that people who sleep in the dirt and gut their dinners are possessed of a spiritual richness that you’ve always felt you’re somehow lacking.” That is the sad truth behind Beasts of the Southern Wild. Taking place in a small, isolated plot of swamp which the natives call “The Bathtub” and which is cut off from the city by a massive levee, the characters in this story are bestowed with a wistful carefreeness and depth of spirituality that makes their situation seem magical, and even though they live in squalor, you are made to feel envious of people who can have so little, yet feel so much. The problem is that it’s easy for us to think that because that makes it easier on us to not actually help these people, or to think about them because they are rich in life and don’t need help. They actually have it all figured out, and we do nothing but get in the way of their spiritual renaissance. The film looks down on these people and doesn’t tell the truth about who they are, or where they are from. It is magical because Hushpuppy, the name of the main character, is a little girl, and many things seem magical at that age, though when you get older you know that there is no magic in poverty, and no hope in hopelessness. Beasts of the Southern Wild is a film shot by a director who knows what looks good, and who knows how to tell a story visually, there is no doubt in that. The story he tells, however, is not one that I would hold in high regard, for while it attempts to make powerful the people who live in this ramshackle community, all it truly does is highlight their plight and then laugh at how whimsical and vaudevillian it all seems. The truth is that no matter how magical the world seems to little Hushpuppy, that is no place for a child, and those people don’t need us laughing at them, they need our help.
Still, the movie only cost a million eight. That’s astounding.
Wow! Six down, three to go. I gotta go lie down for a while. Check back in a couple of days, and I’ll have the rest for you.