February 23rd: Zero Dark Thirty (Oscar Week Day 7)

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Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Nominated for: Best Picture, Best Actress (Jessica Chastain), Best Original Screenplay, Best Sound Editing, Best Film Editing

It is a wonder that this movie was made so quickly. This movie attempts to chronicle the search for the then-leader of al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, after the events of September 11th, 2001. It takes place during the long stretch of time from then to May 2nd, 2011, in which bin Laden is killed in a raid conducted by Navy SEALs. Between this time, the narrative focuses on Maya, presumably a composite character, a CIA officer played by Jessica Chastain. Maya essentially devotes her entire career on the trail for bin Laden. She and her colleagues find themselves in the midst of some major terrorist incidents while on this trail, which led to some shocking and tense sequences. In building a narrative of the past decade or so, this film may go on to define this era, as it not only depicts important events, but touches upon many of the political issues that arose over this search for the “world’s most dangerous man.” One interesting change was the change from the Bush Administration to the Obama Administration; the earlier parts of the film had the use of enhanced interrogation techniques to gain information; after Obama takes office, their methods obviously have to change. However, these time jumps are sudden, and we are left wondering what occurred during the time in between. The concept of the Maya character is interesting; as mentioned, her entire career is focused on this one manhunt. She comes across as a very strong and determined character, who grows more hardened as the years pass by. But she makes some bizarre choices, such as her use of a profane word during an essential meeting with the CIA Director, for example. I personally did not enjoy Chastain’s performance. While not bad, I found her moments of intensity and anger to be unconvincing. It is clear when the movie is a political thriller/action film, and when it is a character study. The thriller/action scenes are far more compelling. This movie never glosses these real life events. This movie has a visceral feel, and there are moments that truly shocked me. Sometimes shock may be generated from an unexpected explosion; sometimes you may just feel tension from encounters and the potential of danger. None of these sequences fail to be gripping. By far the most compelling sequence is the raid near the end of the movie. Seeing this raid with no music and from various perspectives is a truly intense experience. The sound of each individual bullet shot should have some sort of jump effect, and the moment of the actual killing, without telling too much about how it is presented, is very appropriate. Even the sequence afterwards which depicts the cleanup is intense. While I never got into the characters, I must admit that the ending moment was very powerful. Kathryn Bigelow, along with her editors and sound designers, have crafted a very realistic looking and sounding film that is very timely, though a bit lengthy.

Shocking, gritty,  and real, this movie has some of the most intense sequences put on film. However, the movie skips around time messily, is very long, and its characters might not be as compelling as one might hope for.

February 22nd: Silver Linings Playbook (Oscar Week Day 6)

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Director: David O. Russell
Nominated for: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Bradley Cooper), Best Actress (Jennifer Lawrence), Best Supporting Actor (Robert de Niro), Best Supporting Actress (Jacki Weaver), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Film Editing

On the surface, an uninformed fool may dismiss this movie expecting a standard rom-com. How wrong this fool is. This movie is shot and edited, written, and acted in unconventional ways. It follows Philadelphian Pat Solitano, played by Bradley Cooper, who demonstrates just how talented he is as an actor in this movie. Pat has bipolar disorder and has been released from a mental health facility, and upon returning home, attempts to pick up the pieces of his life. He mainly strives to win back his wife, who has recently moved out and filed a restraining order against Pat. In Pat’s immediate family are his concerned and loving mother, played by Jacki Weaver, and his father Pat Sr., played by Robert de Niro. Pat Sr. is an interesting character; he is a big fan of the Philadelphia Eagles and is shown as having various OCD traits and a dependency on certain elements to be in place while watching football games to ensure the Eagles’ victory. This film continues to explore mental conditions and disorders when introducing Tiffany, the sister-in-law of one of Pat’s friends. Tiffany is played by Jennifer Lawrence, who is electric in this role. There isn’t a moment of her screen time where you don’t realize (or aren’t thinking about) what is on her mind and what she is feeling. Tiffany is stern and emotional, and Lawrence does a fantastic job. A recent widow, Tiffany immediately forms an interesting dynamic with Pat. Right from their first encounter, they ask personal and intrusive questions, yet they both appear to be on the same page, as their conversations flow well and they are both unfazed. They both discuss their various medications, and overall waste no time whilst talking to each other. They both form a strange bond with each other due to their quirks and instability, though Pat takes special attention to her due to her connection to his wife. These two characters are shown to be highly volatile; there are various scenes demonstrating this, and Cooper and Lawrence are able to bring out their best during these scenes. Their tantrums are loud, but feel realistic; they are filmed in a sort of uneasy filming style. It isn’t something you see every day, but it is something you COULD see. In fact, this movie as a whole feels very genuine. The dialogue, as bizarre as it may sound depending on who is speaking, feels genuine. It is easy to get immersed into this small chunk of Philadelphia. The camera is rarely static, but never shaky; it gives you a place of being, and the camera movement always fits within the context of what the characters are doing. Some of the weirder visual moments occur when the police officer charged with watching Pat appears; unconventional camera movements and editing convey a sense of foreboding trouble. The camera sometimes takes the perspective of Pat when observing Tiffany, with the camera glancing as he would. The movie, while exploring mental conditions and disorders, has the main theme of looking for happiness, or that “silver lining,” as the title obviously suggests. This happiness could be found in unexpected places through unexpected methods. I also felt that the film suggested that there is something within everyone’s mind that makes us all strange and unique.

It might not be what you’d expect, probably for the better. Featuring career-high performances from Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, this look at mental illness, sports culture, love, and happiness is unconventional, yet charming and enjoyable.

February 21st: Lincoln (Oscar Week Day 5)

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Director: Steven Spielberg 
Nominated for: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Daniel Day-Lewis), Best Supporting Actor (Tommy Lee Jones), Best Supporting Actress (Sally Field), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Score, Best Sound Design, Best Production Design, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing

It’s a period piece directed by the most famous director of our time, written by a prestigious playwright and starring a two-time Oscar winning method actor as America’s most famous President. This movie is exactly what you would expect from that combination. This movie focuses on the final months of Abraham Lincoln’s Presidency, mainly on the end of the Civil War and his efforts to have the Thirteenth Amendment passed by Congress, while also focusing on some aspects of his personal life. It begins with a scene of brutality, depicting a battle during the Civil War. Besides a few scenes showing observations of destruction, the movie rarely focuses on this aspect of the time period. Instead, the movie focuses mostly on the political atmosphere at the time. The House of Representatives is depicted as being more vibrant and loud compared to the present day. Congressmen yell and openly insult each other on the floor; they jeer and scream in either anger or celebration. We also see the work of political operatives, mainly Republicans played by James Spader, John Hawkes, and Tim Blake Nelson. Their sometimes amusing methods of winning votes from Congressmen form the more lighthearted moments of the movie. At the center of the movie, we have Daniel Day-Lewis going all out as Abraham Lincoln; he has transformed into the man himself, adapting a historically-accurate voice along with various other subtleties in his body language. Day-Lewis performs long monologues and tells drawn out stories to convey the relaxed and pensive nature of the 16th President, but he is loud and intense when he needs to be. Opposite Day-Lewis is Sally Field as the First Lady, Mary Todd Lincoln. The First Lady has been through much before the events depicted in the movie, such as the loss of a child, which is reflected by her unstable nature. This movie has an expansive cast, and one of the best ensembles in recent memory. This would include Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Robert Todd Lincoln, David Strathairn as Secretary of the State William Seward, and most prominently Tommy Lee Jones as Republican Congressman and abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens. Stevens is stern, loud, bold, and colorful in his language. Steven Spielberg’s direction takes a backseat in favor of Tony Kushner’s script and the acting; this movie is full of monologues. But visually, this is still an impressive film. Washington D.C. is made vibrant and lifelike, and the production design is very detailed.

As a way of understanding how politics worked during the time of the Civil War and the character of Abraham Lincoln, this movie excels, especially thanks to its wonderful performances. Its play-like nature may turn off a few, however.

February 20th: The Sessions (Oscar Week Day 4)

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Director: Ben Lewin
Nominated for: Best Supporting Actress (Helen Hunt)

It isn’t eye-opening or life changing, but it is very hard to not enjoy this movie. The movie is based on the true story of Mark O’Brien, a poet who is paralyzed from the neck down to to his polio. Mark O’Brien is portrayed by a horribly Oscar-snubbed John Hawkes, who makes the best of not being able to move most of his body. Hawkes develops a very distinct voice. His portrayal of O’Brien makes him come across as an anxious romantic who desires love and intimacy. To achieve this, he is given the idea to hire a sex surrogate (which as the movie points out, is very different from a prostitute). Mark hires Cheryl Cohen-Greene, played by Helen Hunt in a very honest performance. Some of the women in this movie have a slight struggle, that being that they grow too close to Mark, and Cheryl is not different. It was certainly entertaining to see these sessions between Mark and Cheryl; Cheryl treats this work in a very professional manner, and Mark acts anxiously the entire time; he initially screams in pain when his shirt is being removed and overall is very nervous during these sessions. Many of these moments form the basis of the comedic moments in this movie, and they are, for the most part, effective. Again, Cheryl becomes closer to Mark, and vice versa. Mark relates this information to his local pastor, Father Brendan, portrayed by William H. Macy. It was amusing to see Brendan’s reactions to Mark’s casually-told but graphic recollections of the sessions. He is overall a good supporting character, but I disliked how scenes with him and Mark were intercut with other scenes, such as the sessions themselves. It sometimes made for a messy narrative. There were also some scenes with Mark’s different nurses that were utterly pointless, like a conversation with one of his nurse’s and her boyfriend, whom we never see again, and recurring scenes with a hotel bellhop hitting on his nurse. This movie has nice themes of love and intimacy, and working with the limitations you have. Mark had already had this condition for quite sometime by the time we meet him. He never complains and has accepted his condition, yet frustrated with the limitations he has that prevents him from achieving intimacy. These are nice themes, but the movie overall isn’t very emotionally powerful.

Narrative problems aside, John Hawkes and Helen Hunt make the movie as a whole work, which contains nice themes and some amusing moments.

February 19th: Beasts of the Southern Wild (Oscar Week Day 3)

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Director: Benh Zeitlin
Nominated for: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress (Quvenzhané Wallis), Best Adapted Screenplay

It’s charming and unique, and features one of the more interesting parent-child relationships I’ve seen in a film. Taking place at a Louisiana bayou in a community named the “Bathtub,” this movie follows young child Hushpuppy, played by Quvenzhané Wallis in one of the best child performances in recent memory. She has a lot of dialogue and narration, and delivers all of it with the proper weight that comes with the words; Hushpuppy comes across as thoughtful and mature for her very young age. Her father is Wink, played equally as well by Dwight Henry. The two have their conflicts; Wink is not abusive or mean-spirited, but he is troubled. Wink is tempered and has problems with alcohol and his health. While he is sometimes angry, he is still shown to be very caring for Hushpuppy, even with some of his irrational behavior. One sequence has Wink leaving their home during a storm and “fending it off” with a shotgun to make Hushpuppy feel safer. Wink wants nothing more than for Hushpuppy to be safe and to grow into a stronger person. This movie is shot in a very visceral shaky-cam style. The concept of shaky-cam turns off many, but never did I feel annoyed or disoriented. In fact, I think this visual style made the movie for what it is. It gave the film a very naturalistic quality, and some of the sights of this environment were stunning. It is filmed in a way so that some of the more fantastical elements of the film, mainly sequences featuring “Aurochs” (presumably the titular “Beasts”) fit perfectly into the established aesthetic of the film. The community of the “Bathtub” is shown to be very vibrant from the get-go; its inhabitants are energetic and happy, and when conflict arises, they find a way to handle it all together. However, these inhabitants all basically function as extras and never grow into characters, even though they add to the energy of the movie.

Charming and emotional, this look at an interesting father and daughter relationship in a worn-down but vibrant environment is a unique and worthwhile tale.

February 18th: Flight (Oscar Week Day 2)

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Director: Robert Zemeckis
Nominated for: Best Actor (Denzel Washington), Best Original Screenplay

While featuring a technically-impressive airplane sequence, this movie is mostly a character study on an alcoholic. Denzel Washington plays airline pilot “Whip” Whitaker after he saves ninety-six our of one hundred and two people on board a plane after he makes an emergency landing during a mechanical failure. Hailed as a hero, we see earlier in the movie that he is addicted to alcohol and uses drugs such as cocaine. During the fateful flight, he is even seen pouring vodka into his juice. He is faced with the potential of legal action due to his intoxicated state, though he insists that the mechanical problem is to blame. Denzel Washington in ways plays both a similar character and different character to those he plays. He is different in terms of his personality and the conflict he goes through; he is a more troubled and vulnerable character. On the other hand, Whip has the same demeanor and method of speaking as his other characters. The movie sometimes presents a compelling look at alcoholism and abuse; I certainly liked the way a scene in the beginning was filmed, in which Whip snorts cocaine and the camera moves violently towards him. However, it was sometimes difficult to sympathize with Whip. He was unwilling to accept his problem until very later into the movie, which necessarily isn’t a bad character trait, but I was frustrated about his self-destructive tendencies, such as when he approaches his old family while intoxicated. This movie features a large supporting character, including his friend and drug dealer played by John Goodman, a performance which I certainly enjoyed, and a love interest for Whip played by Kelly Reilly. I found her role in the movie to be a little pointless. She doesn’t contribute much to the overall plot, and scenes featuring her interrupted our time with Whip in the beginning of the film. Bruce Greenwood plays Whip’s friend who represents an airline pilot union, and Don Cheadle as an attorney, but these performances aren’t memorable. Who was memorable, however, was James Badge Dale as a cancer patient who Whip and his eventual love interest encounter at a staircase in a hospital; he is on-screen for less than seven minutes, but he masterfully delivers a monologue about life and death. By the end, I didn’t find the overall message to be that special.

It features a great crash sequence and some impressive acting, but as a character study, it could have been a little more.

February 17th: Amour (Oscar Week Day 1)

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Director: Michael Haneke
Nominated for: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress (Emmanuelle Riva), Best Original Screenplay, Best Foreign Language Film

This movie adopts a very patient and slow style, making for quite a hard watch. Some will feel rewarded by the end, some will not. It follows an old, married couple in their eighties after wife Anne, portrayed by Emmanuelle Riva in a great performance, suffers from a stroke. She is paralyzed on her right side after a surgery, and is left under the care of her husband Georges, played by Jean-Louis Trintignant. The rest of the movie takes place entirely within the confines of their home; people go in and out of the house, including their daughter, but for the most part, the movie focuses on their couple and their personal frustrations. Anne is very adamant about not wanting to be sent back to the hospital or put into a nursing home; Georges feels distress from taking care of her, and her occasional resistance to care. The camera is still for the majority of the movie; takes are long and very dialogue-driven. There is a very honest quality to both the writing and the acting; the dialogue is very elaborate and reveals everything about the characters’ feelings and backgrounds. This approach will not appeal to everyone, though. While I never found myself necessarily bored, I felt just as frustrated at the characters will watching them; perhaps this was the intention. I liked when we first caught a glimpse of this style, in a in early scene where our couple watches a musical performance at a theater. The camera is still pointing at the audience; it doesn’t focus on the two characters, instead making them an ordinary part of the audience. One thing I will say that I appreciate about this style is the sound. Sound is an element of film that we all take granted for. Utilizing this still approach to filming, you notice all of the little gulps when Anne drinks her water, a door creeks, the whirring of an electric wheelchair, etcetera. This movie has themes of life while facing death; they talk about the older parts of their lives, but not in a cliched sentimental way. A pigeon that finds itself within the house is a recurring element of the movie; what the pigeon symbolizes is up for interpretation, but its presence in the film makes more sense as the plot progresses. As mentioned, Riva has a great performance as the struggling Anne, whose mental capacity falters as the movie progresses. But overlooked was Trintignant as her husband Georges. While I was sometimes unsympathetic towards his character due to his attitude towards his wife, it is still a great and honest performance.

It’s a patient movie; some will find it intriguing, some will be frustrated as its two lead characters. However, the leads from the two actors are great.