Friday, May 3, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty Wins My Best Picture

By now I have seen a large number of films released in 2012. Argo was the Best Picture winner at the Academy Awards. I have previously devoted reviews to The Dark Knight Rises, Zero Dark Thirty, Lincoln, The Hobbit, Silver Linings Playbook, and Prometheus all of which I saw on the big screen. Here’s some short thoughts on several other 2012 movies that I chose to watch outside of the theater.

The Master featured acting on the level of Lincoln in every way.
Joaquin Pheonix was as brilliant as Daniel Day-Lewis in 2012 and proved conclusively that he is one of the world’s best actors. He completely disappears inside his character. Philip Seymour Hoffman almost matches him with a powerful supporting role. Hoffman deserved to win the award for Best Supporting Actor in my opinion.  I really like both of these actors. They have some very intense and satisfyingly written scenes featuring just the two of them. Truly captivating performances. Unfortunately, The Master builds a marvelous complexity and ends up doing nothing with any of it in the end. That was deflating to me. Why ask me to invest myself in this puzzle and do nothing with what I invest as a viewer? Pheonix’s character just runs away, as he was running away when he stumbled into the world of Hoffman’s L. Ron Hubbard-style character to begin with. So, it is on par with Lincoln in acting and in execution. It is a good film. I give it a 7.

Django Unchained is one of the better movies I saw from last year. I am a
Quentin Tarantino fan. There is no such thing as an "uncool" Tarantino film. Django is cool.  Jamie Foxx in the title role dons wire-framed sunglasses in his western gunfighter’s attire as an antebellum plantation house blows up in a ridiculously massive dynamite explosion at the end of the film. That’s Dirty Harry caliber cool. Django features the classic Tarantino witty, smartassed dialog.  Quirky characters abound while ridiculous situations emerge. The music choices are all fantastic (Tarantino’s use of music puts him a class with Stanley Kubrick, my favorite director of all time). The story moves fast and it is 2:45 in length so it is a complex story. Tarantino deserves his Best Screenplay award. Django is well written. The acting and direction are first-rate with several entertaining performances.

The movie’s one obvious flaw is its convenient “melding” of historic time frames. The film is torn between being set in the 1850’s with guns and outfits from the 1880 American west. In this movie one shot often is all it takes to kill something. Bam!  He’s dead in spectacular
Sam Peckinpah exploding body style. Bam!  That horse’s head just splattered in several directions. Those few wounded left gorily screaming in pain and agony are quieted. Bam! Tarantino kills a lot of people again just as in his Kill Bill movies. No shortage of gratuitous violence here.

But, Tarantino takes the edge off with extensive use of the ridiculous. Western hat styles, guns and accessories from the 1880’s are presented in pre-Civil War America.  In pre-KKK times a raiding party spends five minutes of the movie arguing amongst themselves about not being able to see through the holes in the bank bags cut to cover their heads. The scene is hysterical. I doubt if you will see another movie attempt a western style shootout set to rap music while Django fires his gun and kills 2-3 men in one aim…in the 1850’s. Yeah, right. Ridiculously funny. I give this film an 8 and recommend it to my friends.

Though I could name you a half dozen great musical movies, The Sound of Music being the greatest, I generally do not care for films of this genre. The Daniel Day-Lewis musical Nine (2009), for example, would earn a 5 in my book. It is a mediocre film and it is a worse musical.  A dreadful viewing experience. Moulin Rouge! was all the rage in 2001. I thought it was a 7 at best.  Les Misérables is not that good though it has a few strengths.  Russell Crowe has a stronger singing voice than I would have thought. Anne Hathaway deserved her Best Supporting Actress award. Her performance, though brief in the film, is still gritty, lyrical, and powerful. The film is simply a translation of the successful Broadway musical. Several individual characters sing solos to the main theme, different lyrics depending upon their circumstances. Many of them die during the course of the story. They all come back to life to sing  in unison the triumphant main theme with words of inspiration in the film’s final scene. A feel good movie about democracy. I was bored during long stretches, as I am with most musical films.  This one gets a 6.

Argo was lame. For the life of me I do not see how this movie gets Best Picture. It is in no way of that calibre. Ben Affleck walks through the film like a mannequin. The raging intensity depicted in Iran is covered in a detached manner. I do not care for any of the 12 hostages that were actually freed. They are featured on a few cutaway scenes in the movie but there is no effort by the script nor the direction to make me care for any of their lives. The movie fails to fully express the danger and threat to their lives as they experienced it. Argo is a big flat something that is never quite enough. It is an observer's film you need not seek for emotional investment, you won't find very much compared to the magnitude of the events depicted.  Argo is a classic 6 of a film, despite its critical success.  Blah.

Life of Pi at times rivals Avatar in terms of digitized visual experience. It is a feast for the eyes and a wonderful family film in my opinion. The storybook tale is great for older children.  Teens will find the cinematographic eye candy worth watching. Still, for all its visuals there's not much of a story to hold it all together. In the end, the film fails to deliver a narrative punch the size of its grand visuals. Life of Pi is a 7, however, because it is not a bad film, just not that great.

At one point in the film Hitchcock, the famed director (played superbly by the great Anthony Hopkins) declares that his new film Psycho is "stillborn." According to the movie, the film is rescued when Hitch, as he was known, and his wife (a terrific performance by Helen Mirren) decide to edit the film together. It is an interesting premise. It's historicity is generally correct. Hitchcock was indebted to the creative input of his wife in many of his films. At any rate Hitchcock is another great example of a 6. The acting is very good, Scarlet Johansson and James D'Arcy are perfectly cast respectively as Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins. But the film introduces many complex elements, Hitch's erotic obsession with blonds, his wife's need for creative input to the point of seeking it in another man, the artistic desire that drove Psycho inside both Hitchcocks. Nevertheless, it only postulates these situations without any depth. For that reason the film feels empty to me. Well-made to a point but it does not stay with me after it is over at all.

Of all the films I saw I would say Zero Dark Thirty was the best of 2012. I think it is a shame Jessica Chastain did not win a Best Actress award. Django Unchained is a close second, though neither film is great in the larger context of film history. In truth, as with most years, there were no truly great films made, to my knowledge. That the Academy (and most critics) uplifted the mediocre Argo while some members supported a boycott campaign of Zero Dark Thirty leads me to believe that the Academy decided to stiff ZD30 by voting for a different film in the same historical genre. Argo’s choice only makes sense to me as a protest vote.

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