Feb 18, 2013

Quick Reviews: Best Picture Nominees, Part 2 of 3

Happy Presidents' Day, readers of Tableau Your Mind (Tableauyers? Tableauniacs?).  We've been very very busy getting ready for the Oscars next Sunday, making sure that we have bought enough streamers and bean dip (Party Hint #536: One Can Never Have Too Much Bean Dip). We've also been looking back at the nine (9!) films nominated for Best Picture. For Valentine's Day, we reviewed Silver Linings Playbook, Django Unchained, and Amour, which are the three films that most clearly focus on what the French call love, or at least they call it that when they're speaking English. We love a theme, so today, in honor of Presidents' Day, we'll be quickly revealing the three films that deal with American history: Lincoln, Argo, and Zero Dark Thirty:

Story: If you want serious storytelling about Presidential pondering and familial strain, look no further than this fluffy film from Steven Spielberg. It follows the 16th President during his final days in office, working to free slaves before the end of the Civil War through an amendment to the Constitution. Daniel Day Lewis plays president Lincoln as a soft-spoken, thought-provoking man who is brazen in his attempts to secure the freedom of all men. Tommy Lee Jones is along for the ride as Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Lincoln's son Robert Todd, and Sally Field is Lincoln’s tenuously-sane wife Mary Todd. Of course, the whole plot leads up to the ratification of the 13th Amendment and the assassination of old Abie himself (spoiler alert?), but along the way we get lots of scenes of Congressional procedure, behind-the-scenes chicanery, and the unease of the First Family.
Pros: We're not normally fans of Daniel Day Lewis. He tends to play all of his characters as smug and boisterous, and we never really understood why his one-note performances always receive such accolades. Still, he's quite good here in a performance that demands he be quiet, thoughtful, and a bit slow in speech. By all accounts, Lincoln was a man out of time, and Lewis plays him as such. He's smarter than everyone around him, and this only serves to alienate him more from the people in his company. It's a delicate performance, and that's nice to see from Lewis. Sally Field is fun, though she tends to overplay moments that seem like Oscar bait, and Tommy Lee Jones is funny and thoughtful and interesting. He hasn't had such a plum role in a while, and he does a lot with the material he's given. Spielberg does a good job with the material as well, and the script, from playwright TonyKushner, is interesting and well-plotted. Also, the smaller scenes, particularly the ones with Lincoln and his wife and sons, are interesting and understated. There are moments in a recovery ward that take place with Lincoln and Robert Todd that are powerful without being ridiculously over-the-top.
Cons: Most scenes, however, are a little too bluntly rendered, and much of the dialogue is incredibly heavy-handed. Kushner relies on a lot of simple cues to make sure that we know which characters are evil and which are good. Though it flirts with showing shades of grey, for the most part the film clearly shows that the people on Lincoln's side are good and all the others are bad, and other than Lincoln and Stevens, most of the characters are fairly one note. It's also very long, and a better editor might have cropped out a good third of the film. Additionally, the whole thing is over-scored, and that adds to the blunt and sometimes poorly crafted nature of the film. It's done to a lesser extent than War Horse, but still…

Best Picture?: It has a good chance of winning Best Picture, but we hope it doesn't. The other films nominated are better in so many ways, but mostly they're better for not playing it quite as safe as this film, which is so by-the-book that it's boring. Plus, it's super long, you guys.

Film Grade: B/B+

Story: This movie, directed by and starring Ben Affleck-Garner, follows CIA operative Tony Mendez as he attempts to rescue six U.S. diplomats from Iran, during the 1979 Iran hostage crisis. To pull of his rescue, he enlists the help of Hollywood insiders (played by John Goodman and Alan Arkin) as he attempts to smuggle the diplomats out by having them pose as filmmakers on a science fiction movie called Argo. Helping Mendez in Iran is Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber), who has hidden the diplomats in his house and works to help them escape. The rescue seems more unlikely as time passes, and, with the Iranian militants closing in, it's up to Mendez and the Canadians to make sure the diplomats make it home.
Putting the Pieces Together
Pros: The story, based on the real-life rescue that took place 20+ years ago, is told as more of a thriller than a historical film, and it's all the better for it. It can smack a little of "look how funny clothing and technology in the 1970s were," but for the most part that doesn't take too much away from the story.  The script, written by Heights-director Chris Terrio, is fleet and fun and tense. It's amazing that a movie where the ending is basically a foregone conclusion maintains suspense throughout. The acting plays a big part in that maintenance – it is almost uniformly superb. We were happy to watch some of our favorite stars of the 90s (including teen-movie-perennial Clea Duvall [pictured] and Empire Records's Rory Cochrane) give engaging performances, and Victor Garber is, as always, quiet and reserved and brilliant. It's Arkin and Goodman, though, who practically steal the movie, with humor and verve and pitch-perfect timing.
Cons: Affleck is fast-becoming one of our favorite directors, with the wonderful Gone Baby Gone and the action-packed The Town already under his belt, but his acting skills still leave something to be desired. We understand that he loves acting, but maybe he should think less Eastwood and more Shyamalan in his approach to his films. He would have been great as a cameo actor, but there's just too much of him. His emotional journey isn't quite believable in the film, which is difficult to say because we love him so much. We just need to see less of him.

Best Picture?: It certainly seems like the film is on its way to Oscar gold. Affleck wasn't nominated for a Best Director Oscar, but that race is super-competitive and he's less flashy than some of the names on the list. Even with a lackluster lead, the film manages to be entertaining and informative, and it does well not to talk down to the audience. It's a smart film, sleekly told. If you don't think it should win Best Picture, then Ar-go f*ck yourself (We hate that we're using this joke, but we kind of have to).

Film Review: A/A+

Zero Dark Thirty
He's Around Here Somewhere... 
Story: This historical drama, directed by Kathryn Bigelow, follows one agent, Maya, and her team of compatriots as they fight tirelessly to hunt down and kill Osama bin Laden following the events of September 11th. Maya's methods, including interviews, extreme torture, and deal-making, become increasingly desperate as she searches for any hints of the elusive terrorist. BTW: The name of the film comes from the time that the final Seal Team mission was carried out, sometime around 12:30 (or a half hour after darkness; there seem to be conflicting reports).
Pros: While it is a very good film, we had a hard time with The Hurt Locker, Bigelow's previous work. While it is a well-told film, it suffered from not having any characters to care about. Thankfully, Jessica Chastain is a much better actor than Jeremy Renner, and she helps anchor a film that would feel shapeless without her. We know that she is representative of a lot of people who helped in the fight for bin Laden, and she is able to carry the weight of all those people, commanding the screen and giving legitimacy to the events of the film.  Bigelow has a nice, natural filmmaking style, and the film is methodically and organically paced.
Cons: The film is well-executed, but the whole thing feels like it is being told too soon.  As such, so many of the events feel like news reels rather than a part of the film.  In Argo and Lincoln, we know the end results of the film, but the machinations leading up to it are a little less clear. With Zero Dark Thirty, all of the events are recent and easier to remember. There's very little suspense. Also, and this is a small note, but bin Laden's death created a lot of discussions about due process and the ideas of justice for all peoples. We aren't expecting the film to end in a dour dialogue about the way we treat terrorists, but we would have liked to have seen some nod in that direction. We expected Kathryn Bigelow to explore more, but maybe the events are too recent to have any type of objective distance. We could also go into the film's depictions of torture, but that subject has basically been talked to death.

Best Picture?: It could win, but, with Bigelow winning Best Picture/Director for her last movie, it's unlikely she'll win two in a row.

Film Grade: B+

Well, those were our reviews for the three films up for Best Picture that tackle American History, both extremely recent and relatively old.  When we get back to the reviews in a few days, we'll be looking at the films that could be described as 'magical realism': Beasts of the Southern Wild, Life of Pi, and Les Miserables. Until then, goodbye.
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