Tag Archive for Oscars

Forces of Nature: Experiencing Cuaron’s GRAVITY

On Monday, I went to see Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity by myself. Considering how infrequently I’ve visited theaters since I’m no longer getting paid to do so, it should feel both cathartic and exciting every time. This is even my favorite time of year to see theater movies – the trailers are for upcoming Oscar films (indeed: The Counselor, Captain Phillips, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, and The Monuments Men aired prior to the feature – along with some Keanu Reeves incoherence called 47 Ronin, which will probably be a terrible masterpiece) or the year’s horror fare. Mostly, I was just anxious. Gravity was bound to be a tense, emotionally vivid experience for somebody claustrophobic like me, who is in complete awe and terror of space, who as she gets older realizes (and rebels against – hello skydiving) her own impending mortality.

Bullock in Cuaron's Gravity

Sandra Bullock in Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity (Courtesy Badassdigest.com)

As it turns out, alone may have been the best way to see Gravity. Scott Foundas wrote a piece over at Variety that claims the movie, which draws inspiration from art films of the 1920s and ’30s, might be considered a religious experience. That’s taking it a little too far, if you ask me…and after the Aurora shootings, I was known to call the theater my sanctuary, my temple. When you really think about it, though, isn’t that what you’re doing, going into a massive, darkened space to view flickering pictures by yourself? You’re deliberately removing yourself from one world and entering another; you’re atoning for your “sins” through voyeurism, or you’re taking comfort in others’ plight (for me, anyway, there’s always an element of schadenfreude). You’re worshiping larger-than-life actors, brilliantly imagined other worlds, technology that continues to develop a century after the first picture moved.

Gravity begins with an off-key orchestral forte that builds in volume until you’re not sure your ears can take it, then snaps off, leaving you alone in the dark and relative silence. (I was reminded of the original THX sound – remember that?) For an hour and thirty minutes, you’re trapped in space with Dr. Ryan Stone (Bullock), a medical doctor who is for some reason working for NASA, and Matt Kowalski, a seasoned vet who’s looking to break the record for longest space walk. The characters are minimally developed, their arcs relatively simple and even predictable. When disaster strikes (at 90 minute intervals in film-time, hooray for suspense!), Stone and Kowalski perform exactly as you’d expect. Read more

Movie Review: Zero Dark Thirty (1/12/13)

Movie Poster: Zero Dark Thirty

Zero Dark Thirty

Directed by Kathryn Bigelow
Screenplay by Mark Boal

Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Joel Edgerton

How long is Zero Dark Thirty? 157 minutes.
What is Zero Dark Thirty rated? R for strong violence including brutal disturbing images, and for language.

CLR Rating: 5/5 stars

Movie still: Zero Dark Thirty, Jessica Chastain

Jessica Chastain as Maya in Zero Dark Thirty.
Photo: Richard Olley/©Columbia Pictures

War is hell, and Kathryn Bigelow shows us why in a tense, nuanced new film.

In May of 2011, American soldiers performed a midnight raid of a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, and killed Osama bin Laden, the former leader of Al-Qaeda and the figurehead behind the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Facebook exploded with graphic photos of his dead body, captioned with celebratory exclamations. Terrorism is dead! America triumphs!

After the 9/11 attacks, finding bin Laden was a decade-long process, a lengthy, complex route punctuated by car bombings, attacks on the world’s largest cities, and hundreds of deaths. Kathryn Bigelow’s 2010 movie The Hurt Locker is a film whose overriding message is that war is hell, even for (especially for?) those who literally defuse bombs. In late 2012, Bigelow released her newest effort, Zero Dark Thirty, an account of the hunt for, and eventual death of, Osama bin Laden. This new film, very different in locale and tone from her last movie, is also about war as hell; no one, not even the CIA desk jockey scrutinizing from the relative safety of a computer as tiny men blow up tiny cars, comes out of battle unscathed. Hanging over Zero Dark Thirty is a pall of strident assertions that the Obama administration released classified information to filmmakers in a play to curry public favor. The CIA responded that it provided no such information, and a week ago a senate panel was convened to look into the matter.

Whether or not Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal (who also wrote The Hurt Locker) obtained classified information regarding the hunt for bin Laden, the resulting film is a pièce de résistance. The movie begins on a black screen with real 911 calls from people inside the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. “It’s so hot, I’m burning up!” a woman sobs, as the dispatcher murmurs, “Oh my God, oh my God.” It is a brutal, horrifying punch directly in the gut. It’s also an ingenious move – the next scenes, featuring very realistic torture of detainees (including graphic depictions of waterboarding), are much easier to take once we’ve had a vicious reminder of the crimes these men helped to commit.

As young, pretty CIA agent Maya (Jessica Chastain) watches, Dan (Jason Clarke) beats and intimidates a prisoner. The camera shifts from Maya’s anguished face to the man’s palpable discomfort; Dan steps outside to inhale a cigarette, his gaunt features and shaggy hair betraying his torment. The movie has been criticized for fetishizing torture, for focusing lovingly on violence. No, that it doesn’t do. Dan and Maya, solid and resilient though they are, do not revel in the acts they commit. “This is what defeat looks like,” Dan sneers to the prisoner, and over the course of the film, you’ll find yourself repeating that line. This isn’t triumph. This isn’t glory. This is what defeat looks like.

Maya is a woman possessed, acting brashly on intuition over the course of eight years. Her slight frame and long red hair are out of place in rooms full of men clad in black suits and ties. Her voice, at a higher register than those of her male counterparts, is jarring when directed toward a bound man. In boardrooms and offices, she leans forward, face stony, refusing to be cowed by a director’s temper tantrum. She introduces herself to the Director (James Gandolfini) as “the motherfucker who found him,” without a hint of a smile. She faces off against the CIA’s top agent, Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler, a.k.a. Coach Taylor), threatening his job if she doesn’t get what she wants. In short, this woman has more balls than anybody else in the room. She, like The Hurt Locker’s William, risks life, limb, and sanity to ensure no more lives are lost.

Chastain’s performance is nothing short of brilliant (and very worthy of her Best Actress nomination). Her face, a hard mask of determination, features delicate but sharp, barely betrays her sorrow when colleagues die, her fear (short-lived though it is) when bullets riddle her bulletproof car, her anxiety when she sends a company of men to kill someone for her. She’s a force of nature trapped behind a desk. Chastain herself, who seemed to pop out of the woodwork last year with her Oscar-nominated performance in Terence Malick’s Tree of Life, is a force to be reckoned with.

Boal’s screenplay is ingenious; Zero Dark Thirty marks the third two-and-a-half-hour movie I have seen in theaters this week, and of all of them, it is the most compelling throughout (I’ll let you figure out which were the other two). Dialogue is simple, though the characters throw around terms that don’t make immediate sense to laypeople. Characters are simple, static; generally with a film about a female protagonist, there’s a subplot involving romance. There is no romance here, only determination. The climactic raid of the Abbottabad compound, including a black ops helicopter crash and subsequent explosion, is so tense I had to remind myself to breathe, even though we all know how the story ends.

Bigelow, who won Best Director despite ex-husband James Cameron’s best efforts in 2010, is the only woman in Hollywood making war movies. Noted asshole Bret Easton Ellis claimed on Twitter recently that she’s only an interesting filmmaker because she’s a hot woman. I disrespectfully disagree with his assessment. Bigelow is an interesting filmmaker because of her talent and perspective. Certainly, she’s beaten a path through the Hollywood boys’ club and been the first female to win the Best Director Oscar. These things are notable wholly because of her gender. More important, though, is the fact that she continues to produce work that amazes us with its artful tension, nuance, and complexity. In this sense, you may feel, watching Maya face off against the men in suits, barreling a hundred miles an hour toward a seemingly impossible goal, that you’re getting a glimpse at Bigelow’s own struggles.

I am almost always the sole unaccompanied woman in theaters for horror and war films. This isn’t because I’m trying to be part of the boys’ club, but because I actually love film. It’s clear to anyone watching that Bigelow does, too – and her films are different from those of many of her (male) counterparts in that there is no glamour here.

War is hell. Bigelow’s perspective, her focus on lonely, purposeful characters in the midst of chaos and violence, portrays this more eloquently than most of her colleagues could hope for. In the final shots of Zero Dark Thirty, a pilot tells Maya she must be pretty important, and then asks her where she wants to go. Her mask shatters, and for the first time we see her as a person, a human being who’s done and seen nightmarish things, whose only sense of purpose is now gone – and whose triumph actually looks a lot like defeat.

Movie Review: Silver Linings Playbook (11/21/12)

Movie Poster: Silver Linings Playbook

Silver Linings Playbook

Directed by David O. Russell
Screenplay by David O. Russell

Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Jacki Weaver, Anupam Kher, Julia Stiles, Chris Tucker

How long is Silver Linings Playbook? 122 minutes.
What is Silver Linings Playbook rated? R for language and some sexual content/nudity.

CLR Rating: 4/5 stars

Movie still: Silver Linings Playbook

Photo: JoJo Whilden/©Weinstein Company

The Virginia Film Festival added Silver Linings Playbook to the lineup as its Centerpiece Film at the last minute. David O. Russell’s dramedy had been gently building buzz as it toured the major festivals, attracting the attention of critics with each screening. The VFF is a small festival even after twenty-five years, mainly due to the fact that Virginia, well, isn’t a movie state (though the organizers would have you know, parts of Lincoln were filmed here in the Commonwealth, so there). People travel from all across the state to attend the Festival, and often enough, they have no idea what they’re in for. (This year, a lady in line for Silver Linings Playbook thought she was seeing The Merchant of Venice for some reason. “My husband and I just noticed there were movies playing all weekend!” she said dreamily, “and I love the theater!” I traded glances with the people behind me in line, holding up my ticket to make sure I was in the right place. Silver Linings Playbook had been sold out for weeks. When I saw Black Swan a few years ago under stringent security, most of the older audience was pretty sure it was seeing a movie about the artistry of ballet. That was an entertaining screening.)

Aside from the clueless lady in line, the audience for Silver Linings Playbook is aware. There’s chatter about Russell’s directorial style: he is known to be prickly; there is a series of YouTube videos floating around of the director and actress Lily Tomlin shouting profanities at each other on the set of I Heart Huckabees while a weary and distraught Jason Schwartzman and Dustin Hoffman wander around in the background. There are excited murmurings about the next Hunger Games movie: these, more than Jennifer Lawrence’s heart-rending turn in Winter’s Bone, will now be her claim to fame. People are excited for Silver Linings Playbook, really thrilled to be in the Paramount (which, by the way, is one of the most beautiful theaters I’ve ever seen).

I went in knowing next to nothing about the plot, which is for the better. The plot of Silver Linings Playbook is kind of inane. Matthew Quick’s book, one guesses, is able to neatly tie up loose ends without going overboard. Narrative style is more fluid in a novel, and authors pad trite plot devices with character development and lively prose (see also: Yann Martel’s Life of Pi). Much of the time, a movie just can’t offer the sort of character depth and development a book does. It’s totally implausible that a man recently released from a psychiatric hospital would find himself with the weight of his family’s livelihood on his shoulders as he performs in a dance competition with a recently widowed, slightly nymphomaniac young woman. These characters, from the superstitious, obsessive-compulsive father figure, to the Eagles-loving Indian psychiatrist, are not your average Philadelphians. They’re larger than life. What’s really interesting about Silver Linings Playbook is that Russell adapted a silly plot and over-the-top characters into a movie that absolutely does offer the kind of character development you want, and does, somehow or other, create a totally plausible, mostly enjoyable yarn.

Pat Solatano (Bradley Cooper) allows his long-suffering mother Dolores (Jacki Weaver) to pull him out of inpatient psychiatric care the moment the courts allow (and against doctors’ recommendations). At home, Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro) isn’t sure how to accept his son again – he can’t quit repositioning the remote controls during football games on which he bets, and he can’t look Pat in the eye. Pat Jr. goes on morning runs wrapped in a trash bag so he can win back his ex-wife Nikki with a sexy new body. Unfortunately, Nikki has a restraining order against him. As the whole story comes into view piece by piece, it becomes clear that Pat needs all the help he can get to rebuild his life. His best friend’s deplorable wife (Julia Stiles) sets him up on an ill-fated date with her younger sister Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence). Tiffany lost her husband recently and uses sex to dull the pain. The two of them make a deal: if Tiffany communicates Pat’s undying love to Nikki, he’ll perform in a dance competition with her. Somewhere along the line, Pat Sr. decides to bet the family’s business on the dance competition. (Like I said, it’s a wee bit farfetched.)

Russell translated Quick’s small-time yet exaggerated story into a believable, smart, and sweet film, certainly, but what makes Silver Linings Playbook a work of genius is its brilliant performances. Russell, in spite of (or perhaps because of) his alleged asshole tendencies behind the scenes, squeezes every last drop out of his actors. Cooper, previously known almost entirely in comedies (though he was good in Limitless), somehow imbues a troubled, violent person with gentle kindness veiled by abrasive potshots. De Niro doles out one of his best performances in years; the man looks nothing short of elderly these days, and his fragility is gorgeously vivid. Lawrence puts a hard, ugly face on pain. She’s a woman who hurts so badly she tortures herself and everyone around her to make it easier. Two very broken people swirl around each other, each basking in the other’s palpable anguish, and eventually realize their respective hurts can combine to put them back together again.live streaming movie Power Rangers

Watching Lawrence verbally spar against Robert De Niro, you remember that she’s a force to be reckoned with. Her chemistry with Cooper is odd and off-putting, but beneath the antagonism, both characters recognize foils of themselves. Russell took utmost care to give all the characters dynamic personalities; from Dr. Cliff Patel (Anupam Kher) to the police officer in charge of Pat’s restraining order (Dash Mihok), no one is two-dimensional. Nikki, who in some ways is the catalyst behind the entire series of events, is more of a mythical figure than anything else; though it would have been simple to make her an evil, conniving witch, Russell refused. The film’s cinematography and color scheme are pleasantly low-key, reflecting the chill of autumn and winter in Pennsylvania in a muted palette. These blue-collar people live unglamorous lives, and they’re proud of them.

The story isn’t particularly a happy one, and it’s uncomfortable to the point of cringing at times – but quite frankly, what love story goes according to plan? What profoundly broken person doesn’t make you want to laugh and cry at the same time? All you can ever hope for, according to that quote attributed to Dr. Seuss, is to fall in mutual weirdness with someone. Watching these two do just that is totally gratifying.

Silver Linings Playbook is generating Oscar buzz already, and its three leads deserve their nods. Russell, whose films are hit-or-miss, has himself a hit. It isn’t exactly a feel-good holiday romp, but for people like me, suckers for quirk and angst, it’s the perfect antidote to the usual rom-com. If you ever get enough of turkey and beer and football, do yourself a favor and check it out this season. You won’t regret a minute.

Movie Review: The Descendants (11/19/11)

Movie Poster: The Descendants

The Descendants

Directed by Alexander Payne
Screenplay by Alexander Payne and Nat Faxon

George Clooney as Matt King
Shailene Woodley as Alexandra King
Amara Miller as Scottie King
Matthew Lillard as Brian Speer
Nick Krause as Sid

How long is The Descendants? 115 minutes.
What is The Descendants rated? R for language including some sexual references.

CLR Rating: 3/5 stars

Movie Still: The Descendants

Alexander Payne’s latest brings us
the best and worst of grief and humiliation.

On opening night of the 2011 Virginia Film Festival, the new George Clooney/Alexander Payne vehicle The Descendants is sold out. A palpable buzz fills the theater, as much for the beginning of the festival as for the evening’s feature. I’ll admit, I knew little about the movie prior to the screening – but Payne’s name is enough to get me in a theater seat. With 1999’s Election, Payne handed us an older, grayer, and totally deplorable Matthew Broderick, ruining the teenage dreams of Ferris Bueller fans (and he showed us that romcom queen Reese Witherspoon has serious range). In 2004, Sideways put Paul Giamatti and a naked Thomas Haden Church on the pop culture map as pathetic middle-aged wine connoisseurs. With The Descendants, Payne turns his brutal but loving hand to Kaui Hart Hemmings’s novel about a cuckolded widower (played by Clooney, who is far more believable as a grieving father than as a cuckold) and his dysfunctional quest to find the man with whom his comatose wife was stepping out.

The story could take place anywhere; it bears a passing resemblance to one arc in John Irving’s New England-set The World According to Garp. Fortunately for the audience, though, Payne’s newest flick takes place in that paradise of sparkling sand and cerulean sea, Hawaii. Matt King (Clooney) is a member of one of Oahu’s wealthiest dynasties. As his family struggles to make an enormous, far-reaching real estate decision, Matt’s wife falls into a coma as the result of a speedboat accident. Matt, who until the accident was the “backup parent, the understudy,” finds himself saddled with two foulmouthed daughters. Seventeen-year-old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) has a bit of a drinking problem, and apparently has kicked her drug habit following her expulsion from the last fancy private school she tried. Ten-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) has a cruel streak and an entirely understandable obsession with death and sex. When Alexandra stops acting out long enough to tell Matt his wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) was cheating on him, Elizabeth’s impending death takes on a decidedly more confusing hue. In one of the worst parenting decisions committed to film, Matt takes his dysfunctional family, which now includes Alex’s twerp surfer friend Sid (Nick Krause), to Kauai to hunt down the man with whom Elizabeth was sleeping.

Payne is best at depicting the niggling, cringe-worthy flaws of your average Joe. His movies are smart depictions of normal people thrust into bizarre situations – but softly strange, not so farfetched as to be impossible. Like The Squid and the Whale’s Noah Baumbach, Payne chooses topics that are grotesque, darkly comic. You laugh because you can’t figure out what else to do with yourself. The Descendants intersperses chuckles with poignant portrayals of grief. People respond in viscerally nasty ways to death – they lash out at one another, they place blame, they stubbornly deny that anything at all is wrong. In fact, all five Kübler-Ross stages of grief are present in Payne’s movie. One could argue people are at their worst after the death of a loved one – and in Payne’s deft hands even people at their worst are a morbid pleasure to watch.

The Kings finally locate Elizabeth’s lover Brian Speer. Speer turns out to be none other than Matthew Lillard (I only bring this up because, well, who in her right mind would choose Matthew Lillard over George Clooney?). Even worse, he’s a real estate agent heavily invested in Matt’s family’s land. In a final dagger straight to Matt’s heart, Speer has a family: pretty wife Julie (Judy Greer) and two young children. After a brief and intensely awkward confrontation, Matt can finally return to the grieving process, and as always in road movies (which this is, despite its oceanic setting), the characters grow closer together.

The majority of Americans, of course, live in the lower 48, and to us Hawaii is as exotic as a foreign country. In the opening monologue, Matt asks, “Do you think just because we live here, our heartaches are less painful?” Juxtaposed with shots of Hawaii’s overpopulated cities and homeless – the things that don’t come to mind when we think of that idyllic state – the question is startling. Likewise, it’s jarring to see Hawaii’s most influential businesspeople dressed in khaki shorts and (obviously) Hawaiian shirts: “Don’t be fooled,” Matt warns us. “The most powerful people often resemble bums and stuntmen.” Payne and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael walk a fine line; although Hawaii is undeniably gorgeous, for the most part the beauteous landscape takes a backseat to the microdrama on the surface of the islands.

Clooney, who’s falling into common typecasting for older actors, is perhaps too suave for the role. Nonetheless he’s believable as a man stumbling into parenthood, meandering through grief, and tripping over pointless jealousy. Lillard and Greer, both comedic actors usually relegated to the role of funny sidekick, remain firmly on planet earth in The Descendants. Woodley, Miller, and Krause form a team of quirky, eventually likeable young things to bolster Clooney through his journey. Robert Forster puts in great screen time as Elizabeth’s bitter, grief-stricken father, spewing vitriol and placing blame. Though Payne is undoubtedly a great filmmaker and Clooney will draw audiences thanks to that charm, that coif, and that beautifully graying stubble, the movie isn’t brilliant. It’s a bit tonally uneven, a bit heavy on the profanity. It isn’t destined to go down in history with Election. But those like me, who are drawn to family-oriented melodramas infused with a bit of comedy, will find a perfectly likeable movie with a number of genuinely hilarious scenes. It’s smart, sad, and painful all at once, but the execution isn’t snappy enough to draw Oscar gossip. It’s a perfectly passable dramedy, but it isn’t among the best.

Oscar Leadup – Ladies in Film: Female Agency and Pleasure in 2010 Movies (2/23/11)

Helena Bonham Carter The King's Speech

Helena Bonham Carter in The King’s Speech: behind every great man, there stands (or sits, ever so primly) a great woman.

2010 was not what you’d call a banner year for women in the real world. Gossip rags and TV offer ever more ways for everyone to look bad, but women in particular get a special place in our celebrity-obsessed hearts. The famous-by-marriage Real Housewives of Wherever are releasing their own wines, tee shirt lines, and diet plans. The “stars” of “Teen Mom,” most of whose sole claim to fame is their deplorable immaturity and lack of successful birth control, end up on glossy tabloid covers every week. The Learning Channel airs “Sarah Palin’s Alaska” while MTV plays “Bad Girls Club” and other dreck about women fighting for the affections of Bret Michaels and Flava Flav. Note: narrative television (“Mad Men,” “Big Love,” etc) had a lot of strong, complex female characters to offer in 2010, but that’s for another blog.

Amber Portwood Teen Mom

“Teen Mom”‘s Amber Portwood, beating up her babydaddy because that‘s what good reality TV is all about. I’d rather watch “Ice Road Truckers.”

Meanwhile, over here in the real world things aren’t much better: battles over reproductive rights and the redefinition of rape are front page news. The right is set on barring federal funding from one of America’s most important women’s health organizations, Planned Parenthood.

Please Give Hall and Peet

Rebecca Hall and Amanda Peet star in Nicole Holofcener’s Please Give.

Basically women’s bodies and behavior are, as always, available for scrutiny and hand-wringing. But 2010’s film releases, which feature a cadre of resolute, opinionated, loving, and intelligent ladies, offer a comparative breath of fresh air for women in front of the camera. Read more