Oscar noms, and the Life of Pincoln

Did I write about great Cloud Atlas was? I just assumed I wouldn’t need to talk about it any more, but should probably check if I ever did write about it publicly. (ed: nope! dammit.)
So, I’ve watched half of the best picture noms from the last academy awards ceremony, and Cloud Atlas still stands out as the best movie made last year. Very sad that it wasn’t nominated.

But here are a few thoughts on the other contenders I’ve seen. I’ll be brief. Spoilers abound.

Django Unchained was very well made, but I left the theatre sick to my stomach. two scenes of violence in there haunted me. The first Tarantino movie that I wasn’t sure I ever wanted to watch again. I get that he was playing a game with slave violence being sickeningly real, and everyone else’s violence being cartoonish – but I don’t think it had the desired effect on me. Somehow it made the slave violence hyper real. the bloody dudes clawing at each other in the corner of a lavishly furnished 2nd floor room and the death-by-dog – are the first scenes I can remember REALLY upsetting me in years. Since the head crushing and rape scenes in Irreversible i think. Anywho. this strange aspect of Django, plus the way it seemed like a pretty linear narrative (a departure for Tarantino. His first movie to just be a quest that proceeds from start to finish without jumping around in time?) = added up to me not thinking it was best movie he’d made.

I thought Argo was a joke. I’m stunned that it was nominated, much less that it won. I guess there were a few moments where the period piece choices seemed real, and not like dress up or lets-play-hit-songs-i-loved-as-a-kid. I guess there were a couple moments where I felt for the characters because of some good writing or acting (though I can’t actually remember one). But the sequence where ben affleck has to hang out in his hotel room alone and drink made me chuckle, because it was such a hollywood star getting his big over the top acting moment. And the interaction at the end where his boss talked about his medal in such a way as to explain it to the audience, instead of saying something those two guys would have actually said. not to mention the hilariously over the top moment where rebels chase a plane with jeeps and guns. bleh.
I also felt like all the LA scenes were from some goofy comedy, and didn’t mix well at all with the tone of the other scenes. I also wanted more from the scifi movie. It didn’t seem like it existed on its own (as anything more than a plot device to enable other moments).
I loved Affleck’s previous two directing efforts. I thought this was a fun experiment in period set pieces (cool music! and difficult hair! and zany clothing! so wacky, to choose what is familiar enough, but not too familiar!). I thought it was big step back for Affleck (whom I really kind of adore). soo. bleh.

I’m sure I’ve already written about Zero Dark Thirty. though maybe only in emails (ed: yep! damnit). Basically I thought it distracting that the filmmakers chose to have one person involved in so many things. In every damned scene? I prefer the Traffic or Zodiac approach to “long term crime procedural” stories : of sharing the narrative backbone among different characters. Feels less forced? more honest, somehow?
Magically placing the agent in the first interrogations, through to sending her home to sit out the rest of her life behind a desk when her identity is compromised, on to sending her out to nevada to brief the seals, until sending her back into the field for the big op so she can identify a corpse while all her coworkers just teleconference. It all seemed like a big stretch to me. My dad assured me that was how it would really have been done. but i don’t know how much I trust him on this. anywho.
Also, jessica chastain kind of leaves me cold. She blew me away in Tree of Life, but everything else has felt a little forced. Like Naomi Watts after Mulholland Drive. She just seems to be hitting the same notes. She does it well. but. bleh. It keeps me from thinking this movie is better than the one that still has my favored performance.

Saw Lincoln earlier this week. I didn’t really enjoy it WHILE watching it. but I enjoyed a slow burn from it afterward. The more I thought on it, and tried to explain it to others, the more I respected it as a very good and subtle movie. Not the “life of Lincoln” movie I wanted. but a very interesting take on a subject that has been done to death. … on 4 subjects that have been done to death? (the civil war, slavery, the humanity behind great leadership, and the legend of lincoln?).
And I guess there haven’t been a lot of “House of Representatives arguing” movies. as a genre. so I respect that. But it did sometimes feel like the senate scenes from the Star Wars prequels. Not a tone I’m eager to dive into. strange choice to spend so much time there? bold choice?
Anywho, at first I was put off by the seemingly pointless stories they had Lincoln tell. Felt like I was watching the West Wing and they were spoon feeding me his secret humanity. But as the scenes accumulated, I realized they were showing how politics worked back then, and still do to some degree. And they were showing you a rare peek into how great men achieve mass favor, and deal with mass hatred.
In the end the “i broke the law, so i’m not a perfect guy” scenes felt a little too sugar coated to me. I never felt like the hero legend was really being challenged. And some of the lingering shots seemed a little overly sentimental (the guy just staring in admiration as little old Lincoln awkwardly walks away down a hall. “He is just a man. JUST A MAN! oohhhh! the humanity!”). Kind of felt like spielberg was holding back, but could’t resist slipping in some of the special audience manipulations he does best. And I thought Daniel Day Lewis ran acting circles around Joseph Gordon-Levitt in their big “i hate you dad, i’mma be a soldier” scene. Which made me sad because I love JGL.
But ultimatelyI was really floored by the power of the “dudes standing around Lincoln’s dead body” at the end. Seems like I’ve seen that seen way too many times – but it always seemed like some dispassionate painting before. Strangers clinging to the one great man. I think the genius of this movie is really how you seem to know everybody in that room, and you have a taste of what Lincoln meant to them. This was a master filmmaking moment. To me that was the big “twist” of the movie, that everyone should be talking about. The thundering “BET YOU DIDN’T EXPECT THIS PART TO FEEL LIKE THIS!” moment.
but then they went into some obscure speech i don’t know. probably gloriously summarizing something that the writer spent a lot of time researching. but it struck me as an odd note to end on. To go back to the legend and the facade of the words, after so masterfully grounding him in the company of his fellow men.
Also, it felt Like speilberg (or maybe I should blame Janusz Kaminski, the cinematographer) worked in a lot of little bits of visual sentimentality and warmth but Tony Kushner (the screenwriter) had written something much more subtle and cold. Strange mashup? dunno. Was also a little put off by the sally field performance. Some kind of weird attempt to make a crazy bitch character into a misunderstood damaged woman, who is also secretly more powerful than the president. I dig the way they’re saying “women needn’t be dismissed as crazy or weak”. but it also struck me as an unnecessary twist on the history, to please modern sensibilties. And it bled over into making Lincoln seem a little bit less realistic as a character. (Daniel Day-Lewis’s scene chewing performance in Gangs of New York still stands out as my favorite of his works. With There Will Be Blood close behind. Plus he was way too short for the role, and seemed to be constantly placed on soap boxes in closeups so he could tower over people even though he had just walked up to them and was shorter – I found myself watching and considering his choices for the part instead of being direclty lost in the power of the character. When LOTR handles this so effortlessly, I have a hard time celebrating Lincoln as a modern masterpiece of filmmaking).
I was also a little put off to find out, from the bluray extras, that they filmed the congressional scenes in Virginia. as some kind of fuck-you to the south. (well, they said it was a beautiful healing moment. that they were forcing. benevolently. because they’re so above us all and perfect. but. it felt more like an unnecessary fuck-you to me.)
Anywho. Like Munich, i thought it was very well made. and kind of a daring/different choice for Spielberg. But, like Munich, it struck me as an interesting experiment more than a classic masterpiece. (and Munich was much more entertaining, with period choices that were handled wayyyy better than Argo, and a painfully grim undercurrent of frothing revenge behind every line).

So much for being brief. I’d meant to dismiss all these movies and go back to sucking Cloud Atlas off. oh well. instead i’m just stream of consciousness barfing. I guess this is a blog post for me. sorry if you’ve read this far. i guess.

Uh. the final movie on my list is Life of Pi. Just finished it minutes before starting all this typing. While I thought it was delighful and fresh, powerful and colorful – I didn’t think it a masterpiece. So much of the CGI seemed obviously fake. ugh. it kept pulling me out of the movie to wonder if the animal in a shot was real or faked. And I think this kept pulling me out of the gravity of the spirituality and symbolism, just as if I was watching a national geographic documentary that was cross-cut with Finding Nemo. jarring. bleh. I would have preferred they just go all in with one approach or the other. Well, i would have preferred it all be real, even if they had to sacrifice all “perfect” framings and impossible camera moves. (part one of “why this movie wasn’t made for people like me”).
At several points I was reminded of the beautiful shots from Ang Lee’s The Hulk (esp. the jellyfish floating through the desert). Something about watching a cartoon distracts me from spirituality? Maybe it reminds me of illustrated bibles or religious pamphlets that are oversimplifying for the reader, and thus talking down to them. Maybe I find it insulting? not sure.
anywho. the acting was great (except maybe for the writer dude? or maybe the problem was that he never really had any character moments to offer? He seemed very much like Christian Slater’s writer in Interview with a Vampire. Except slater was ultimately involved in the action briefly). The ideas, situations, and visuals were gorgeous. But in the end it felt like they’d scraped the bet parts of a smirking spiritual puzzle off the top of a deeper character driven piece.
I kind of dig wondering at the meaning of the second uglier story (which is “true” because it doesn’t offer anything we don’t already “know to expect”). Not sure if they were suggesting that as what really happened, or if they’re saying Pi was some kind of great improviser and tearful actor. … Also still wondering at the symbolism of the many strange moments (“man verses his own unruly animal nature” came to mind a lot), but i think this was a movie for somebody else. Someone more interested in just being happy and thinking about the positive things. and smiling a lot and kissing themselves when no one is looking. bleh.

Cloud Atlas also had a kind of shallow “just be good to each other” vibe, but I found the (6?) changes in tone to be much more engaging and interesting than Pi’s steady jolly g-rated cartoon tone. I felt like i “got it” but didn’t “feel it.” However I really respect how the puzzle paid off in the end with the “and so it is with god” moment. That was a great payoff to the whole movie. Eh. But I guess I don’t feel like there are going to be any other layers to go back and discover beyond that moment? Like, they did an excellent job going 3 layers deep, but i wish there were a few more layers left luring around, to go back and wonder about. maybe that’s why it makes me think of a spirituality-for-dummies pamphlet. hmmf.

anywho. i’d love to rant on and on about Cloud Atlas here, but I should save it until I get the bluray and watch it a few more times. Or maybe I should stop bothering to write these rambling reviews? Part of me hopes that by dumping out my raw reaction, i might help others see a movie differently. maybe enjoy it, or at least think about it, in a new way – and thus get more value out of the time and emotions invested.

but i’m not a great writer, and i’m not sure anyone wants what I’m offering. so maybe I should just keep the “reviews” to 140 characters or less, and spend more of my spare time creating things. or maybe i should try to present this blog more clearly as a personal diary, so it won’t come off as an attempt to argue with anyone’s different take on these movies. I dunno.

But I love movies. And even if I think everyone else’s opinions of these puppies wrong, I don’t regret watching them. wee.

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