Feb 20, 2013

Quick Reviews: Best Picture Nominees, Part 3 of 3

Where did we leave off? We've looked at the films nominated for Best Picture about LOVE, and we've looked at the films nominated for Best Picture about AMERICAN HISTORY.  So, we guess it's time to look at the straggler films, the films that don't really fall into any category. We were thinking of calling them ‘Magical Realist’ films, because most of them employ magical elements within a realistic framework. One has pig-monsters as big as a house, the other has a house for two that's no bigger than a boat, and a third has truly terrible singing from Russell Crowe. The third is probably the most magical, because, as someone once said, nothing is more magical than singing! (Just because that person was Hitler doesn't mean that it isn't true)

Now that we think of it, though, the thing all these films might have in common is that they all feature water and boats in a big way. Boats that are massively important in these movies, whether people are living, pulling, or adventuring in them. So here we go, looking at Beasts of the Southern Wild, Life of Pi, and Les Miserables. Let's climb aboard the review boat! Raise the anchor, full speed ahead!

Beasts of the Southern Wild
Story: Set in the not-too-distant past, this film follows the residents of a small, swamp town (The Bathtub) as they deal with an incoming storm and the fallout once the storm has passed. In particular, the film follows Hushpuppy (newcomer Quvenzhané Wallis), a small girl whose complicated relationships with her complicated, sickly father and her all-but-gone mother spur her to action in surprisingly heartfelt ways. As her hometown is lost to the incoming waves and the levees threaten to keep clean water away, Hushpuppy is adrift in a sea of emotions that her tiny frame cannot handle. And in the midst of all that, giant pig-beasts (Aurochs) have awoken from their arctic slumber and are charging towards the young heroine.
Pros: On paper, this is perhaps the simplest story up for Best Picture, revolving around one family with atypical yet steadfast values as they protect their homestead from waves and rain buffeting against the walls and deal with all of the terrors that the unknown brings. It's directed simply, as well, with a director that lets the camera sit and study the subjects, which allows the moments that take place outside of reality really land. The film  lives primarily inside Hushpuppy's head, and thus the is reliant on Wallis's performance, which is one of the strongest and purest we've seen this year. We're normally not the biggest fans of child actors, but Wallis gives an honest and raw performance akin to like fellow child Hailee Steinfeld in True Grit a few years back. She's surrounded by a cast of non-actors who give understated, emotionally honest performances. Her father, played by baker-turned-actor Dwight Henry, is brutal and loving and harsh. Her schoolteacher Ms. Bathsheba is adept at playing a mentor one minute and a carefree swamp hippie/herbalist the next. It's simply a well-done movie.
Cons: However, the film dips its toes into fantasy from time to time, and sometimes those moments are more confusing than magical. Perhaps due to the marketing for the film, a lot of the more unconventional scenes feel inorganic to the film. We watched this movie a few times, and it definitely improves upon further viewings. Tonally, it takes a few times to make sense.

Best Picture?: Honestly, this may be our favorite film up for Best Picture. It's beautiful and emotional without feeling exploitative, and the guerrilla-style writing and shooting of the film appeals to us. It's filmmaking at its purest form, stripped of the pomp and pompousness of films like Lincoln and Django and Les Mis. It's a wonderful film, but it probably isn't a Best Picture winner. It will have to survive as just a simple and bold testament to love, innocence, and strength of character.

Film Grade: A+

Life of Pi
Story: Based on the book by Yann Martel, Life of Pi tells the story of Pi Patel, a young boy lost at sea with a full-grown Bengal tiger. As he deals with multiple dances with death, Pi learns to understand the full weight of faith and his complicated array of feelings about his striped companion.
Pros: The film, simply put, is beautiful. It's honestly one of the most beautiful films that we've ever seen. Director Ang Lee has somehow created a film bathed in color and texture and light that never feels garish. His team, from the Visual Effects to the Cinematography to the Music, is impeccable. Stylistically, there are no false turns. All of the big moments land. In terms of acting, there are a lot of great performances. Tabu (as Pi's mother) is, once again, completely amazing, and Irrfan Khan (as the older Pi) is solid.
Cons: We're huge fans of the book on which the film is based, and one thing we loved was the book's emphasis on isolation, desolation, and lost hope. In cramming the novel into a two-hour film, the filmmakers have taken all of those moments and pauses out, focusing instead on the big moments. This makes for gorgeous, violent, devastatingly rapturous moments, but without the gaps in between it feels like an overdose of intensity. It's then up to the actors to match that intensity, and, while the (sometimes digital) tiger is more than equipped to bring it, the lead actor (Suraj Sharma) gets lost in a lot of yelling and gesticulating. What's even worse is that his yelling rings false, almost comical, and he's the only human we see for a majority of the film. There simply needs to be an increase of smaller moments. To put it in nautical terms, the film is all tidal waves with no calm water. It's exhausting.

Best Picture?: The film deserves all the technical awards it has coming to it (Best Score, Best Cinematography, maybe Best Editing), but it's not a Best Picture. It is, however, a very good picture. Maybe the eventual 4-hour edit will be perfect.

Film Grade: B+/A-

 Les Miserables
Story: We've already reviewed this film, so let's make this quick. Some guy (Hugh Jackman) steals some bread, and then some stupid guy (Russell Crowe) tries to find him for like twenty years because of a misplaced sense of justice. Then, the French Revolution happens, and almost everyone dies. Some people fall in love, but it rarely works out. Helena Bonham Carter shows everyone up.
Pros: Anne Hathaway is really good as Fantine, but she's (Spoiler Alert) dead after like twenty minutes. Then, the whole film falls apart. Also, Jackman is really good, and dude can pull a boat like a boss. Also, live singing was an interesting experiment.
Cons: There's a lot to like, but it's the faults that really stand out. Crowe is really bad at singing, and his efforts to be good at singing make him bad at acting. While Hugh Jackman is really good, and carries the film well, sometimes his vascular face is more frightening than endearing. Also, on the director front, Tom Hooper has made a film that feels both overdone and too simple. There's nothing grand or large about it, but all of the emotions are overplayed. It's an infuriating mix - set sail for mediocrity!

This Movie is a
Poop Deck.
Best Picture?: God, we hope not.

Film Grade: C+

When looking at these three films, what stands out (more than the magic and the boats) is the fact that they live or die based on the strength of solo performances. In Beasts, Wallis excels at carrying a whole movie. In Life of Pi, the lead actor isn't great at selling large moments and isn't given time to rest in the smaller moments. In Les Mis, Fantine carries a film to her death and then Jackman has to pick up the slack, which he does admirably enough but not too successfully. So, thems the breaks.

So which film will win on Oscar night? Probably Argo, but the expanded category means it could be anyone's game. In the end, though, you all are the winners, because you got to read a series of reviews that are full of water puns.

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