Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Film Round-Up, February 2013: Oscar nominees!

Your time will come, Jessica. Your time will come. 

Many, many apologies for the late posting of these reviews. February was an absolute blur and I completely lost track of time. This full-time writing thing is hard. It's not all getting up at noon and deciding what T shirt to wear. 

Anyway, this month I decided to review a slate of Academy Award nominees that ICON, which is letting me reprint these with permission. This is a bit of a dead period and it was a nice way to play catch-up. I wish I could have squeezed Amour in, but I couldn't swing. The screening schedule didn't work and the movie's release date in Philadelphia fell on the same day as my deadline. 

Enough excuses. Let's get to the good stuff...and Les Miserables! 

Zero Dark Thirty (Dir: Kathryn Bigelow). Starring: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Ehle, Mark Strong, Mark Duplass, James Gandolfini, Chris Pratt, Joel Edgerton. Bigelow’s previous effort, The Hurt Locker, was a sturdy, macho character study. Timing turned Bigelow’s Oscar-winning effort into something bigger than it was. In 2009, the only movies coming out about the George W. Bush-sponsored Middle East stupidity were finger-pointing documentaries. What’s ironic is that Zero Dark Thirty feels timeless even though it retells (courtesy of first-hand accounts) relatively recent history: the search for and killing of Osama bin Laden. What distinguishes Zero Dark Thirty is how Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal reveal the emotions behind the cold strategy. Maya (Chastain) is the young CIA operative whose search for the elusive warlord consumes her, and Chastain’s restrained, painfully human performance—you can hear her soul snap, crack, and rebuild—makes us care beyond patriotic obligation. Behind the covert details and technology, people determined this mission’s success: people who made mistakes, who hesitated, and who cared. Fortunately, there was one person who cared more than anyone else. Zero Dark Thirty—nuanced, fast-paced, and brilliant—is about what it costs to become a hero. [R] *****

Les Miserables (Dir: Tom Hooper). Starring: Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway, Russell Crowe, Amanda Seyfried, Sacha Baron Cohen, Helena Bonham Carter. How to begin to describe my rage for this epic adaptation of the beloved Broadway musical? You cannot cast non-singers for a movie where practically every line is sung. That hobbles Les Mis, especially whenever Crowe—who sounds like he has a terrible chest cold—opens his yap. Even though every song spells out the characters’ torment, Hooper doesn’t adjust the bigness of the musical for the big screen. Instead, he amplifies the emotions to comic levels. Characters sing in the rain or get smushed to one side of the screen to emphasize the loneliness they’re already warbling about. We get close-ups of teary-eyed revolutionaries. And everybody sings in the same trembling, weepy voice, giving the movie a stifling hangdog conformity that is only broken when Carter and Cohen do their soft-around-the-edges nutjob act. The story, focusing on the June Rebellion and the inescapability of the past, keeps you involved and Hathaway delivers the only moments that don’t seem wrapped in the gauze of big-budget splash. But one thought kept entering my mind while watching Les Miserables: It would have been terrific if no one had attempted a damn note. [PG-13] **

Lincoln (Dir: Steven Spielberg). Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, David Strathairn, Hal Holbrook, James Spader, John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson, Gloria Reuben. Day-Lewis’s portrayal of the 16th president has received lots of attention, as it should. It’s a beautiful performance that paints Lincoln as a human being, not as an on-deck legend. But it’s not the only reason to watch Spielberg’s sweeping historical near-masterpiece. Tony Kushner’s script isn’t just beautifully written, it’s a gorgeous model of economy: a brief segment of Lincoln’s tumultuous presidency—the race to pass the 13th Amendment and end the Civil War on his terms—gives us a full view into the man’s professional greatness and personal tumult. Day-Lewis’ immense power tends to override films, turning costars into props. (For further proof watch There Will Be Blood) Understatement, thankfully, defines this performance and he acts against a roster of steely pros. Field, whose trademark weepiness somehow got her an Oscar nod, is fine as Mary Todd Lincoln. But we treasure the scenes featuring Jones’ tart-tongued Thaddeus Stevens and Strathairn’s impassioned, dignified William Seward. Spader, excellent as a roguish vote wrangler hired by Lincoln, brings welcome levity. The only thing keeping Lincoln from classic status is Spielberg’s unfortunate tendency to end his movies like the deathbed scenes in soap operas. [PG-13] ****

Beasts of the Southern Wild (Dir: Benh Zeitlin). Starring: Quvenzhan√© Wallis, Dwight Henry. The token “hey, we care about small films, too!” nomination.  In the bucolic grittiness of the Louisiana bayou, a little girl named Hushpuppy (Wallis) views the universe as a series of interconnected pieces: if one piece falls, so does everything else. With a storm coming and her drunk, quick-to-anger father (Henry) getting sicker and more obstinate, our heroine has to handle the great unraveling by herself.  Zeitlin does a very nice job framing the story as a blunt Cajun fairy tale, and he coaxes a compelling performance from Best Actress nominee Wallis, who was five years old when she auditioned.  What keeps Beasts of the Southern Wild from being little more than an indie curiosity is that Zeitlin keeps us at arm’s length, opting to highlight symbolism and cultural identity over personal conflict. (The best scenes are between Wallis and Henry, whose relationship lacks the sweet rudder of an adult female.) Too frequently Hushpuppy isn’t a character but an instrument to express those larger issues. But there is enough here that’s worth your time, and it’s miles better than Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, last year’s shrill kids-are-people-too nominee. [PG-13] ***

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