And the Oscar for Best Picture Goes To

After eating the last slice and musing about the Life of Pi from baking to digesting, Lincoln, noting the time was now Zero Dark Thirty, retired to his study and consulted his Silver Linings Playbook on dealing with the Beasts of the Southern Wild. “Les Misérables in the South”, he thought to himself, “went and had Django Unchained. Should I profess my Amour or tell them, ‘Argo fuck yourselves’?”

Last year, I was inspired by my friend Jon Nagle to watch each of the films nominated for Best Picture prior to the Oscar telecast. I did the same this year. And like last year, I posted a review on Letterboxd after viewing each film.

Here are my reviews of the nine nominated films ranked by my level of enjoyment of them.

9. Les Misérables:

I dreamed a dream this film wasn’t nominated for Best Picture and I wouldn’t have to watch it in the lead up to the Oscars. Alas, my dream turned into a nightmare as I sat in the darkened theater besieged by monotonous, plodding, and sometimes-difficult-to-understand lyrical talking interspersed with fleeting bursts of melody.

I imagine some producers saw Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway’s Oscar number a few years back and decided to find a big Hollywood musical to shoehorn them into. Because shoehorned they were. Tom Hooper confines most of the performances into closeups not giving the performers room to, well, perform. Perhaps this was a decision to make the depressing characters and film feel more intimate and thus more relatable, but the closeups make the characters and film feel confrontational and forced.

That this is a musical makes the film already pretty unbearable for me. Add some grating performances and highly questionable directorial decisions, and the result is a film that is, well, pretty miserable.

8. Zero Dark Thirty:

Zero (fun in a) Dark (theater for at least) Thirty (minutes too long). Even without the torture controversy, this film just isn’t that great. The film is overly long, not compelling (save for the last act during the mission), and not well acted. Jessica Chastain plays a stiff, one-note, and one-dimensional character who isn’t at all engaging.

I applaud Kathryn Bigelow for attempting this monstrous project squeezing ten years of activity into two-and-a-half hours and for not grossly and jingoistically portraying the mission, but the film just doesn’t work.

But I fault her for being manipulative (did we really need the real-life phone calls from 9/11 opening the film? We all know why we were hunting bin Laden. And to follow that up with a torture scene as to suggest, “Remember what they did? So torturing them is okay, right?”) and confusing (can she and Mark Boal call this a “journalistic” film and then claim the right to take artistic liberties regarding torture and waterboarding and their successes? Where was the debate on using torture? Where were the failures and false positives?).

I hope the controversy surrounding the film goes beyond just the film’s depiction of torture and extends to the U.S.’s use of it; we could use the discussion and revelations. But torture aside, I apparently saw a different film than everyone else.

7. Django Unchained:

This film has style, it has wit, and it has charm. It also has a sagging second act and gratuitous violence in the third that treks deep into over-the-top territory for me. With Christoph Waltz’s stellar performance, the first act, however, was a five-star film; it sadly wasn’t matched by what followed.

6. Life of Pi:

This is easily one of the most visually masterful films I have ever seen. First, there’s Richard Parker. I don’t recall one instance in the film where I could point to and say, “Oh yeah, right there. He’s obviously digital.” Of course he’s digital. But the effects are so polished I couldn’t tell. Second, the seascapes, the clouds, the shipwreck, the storm, the jellies. Everything is absolutely stunning.

The one aspect, and I guess this is pretty important to the story, I didn’t find stunning was the religious and spiritual aspect of the film. I was left confused at the end of the film—confused as to what the story was saying about religion. Do I accept the the fantastical, embellished story simply because it’s “the better story”? Or do I accept the more logical, plausible story even though it doesn’t make for a tale for the ages? When it comes to deistic matters, I subscribe to the latter, so the parallels to religion at the end of this film made me wonder if I had just seen anything of substance.

Still, I can take the film for what it is: a visually beautiful story. A story. And nothing more.

5. Amour:

“It’s beautiful.”
“What is?”
“Life.”

So too is this film. The film is a beautifully constructed essay authentically examining love and devotion and features equally beautiful and engaging performances. The film is both heartwarming and heartwrenching, for as beautiful as the film is, it’s also exceptionally depressing.

As the film depicts a couple’s love and devotion being fiercely challenged, the film simultaneously challenges the audience to learn something by stepping into each role in the film. Perhaps we’re Eva and have parents (or grandparents) in a similar situation and should be more attentive to their situation. Or perhaps we’re Georges caring for our love and seeking inspiration to keep going. Or perhaps we’re imagining if we were Anne. Would there be a Georges in our life to wholeheartedly care for us?

That, for me, is the mark of a truly powerful film. Not only does the film exist as art, it exists as inspiration to pause and reflect on our lives. And that is a beautiful thing.

4. Beasts of the Southern Wild:

Definitely the biggest surprise for me amongst the Best Picture nominees, this film is a powerhouse of a film and a testament to humble, imaginative filmmaking with Benh Zeitlin’s superb debut direction and Quvenzhané Wallis’s captivating debut performance.

Intentionally or not, the film presents and flirts with many themes. This multi-layered film mentions the themes so you’re aware of them but never takes a stand. There’s the abject poverty, the multi-cultural community in the south never mentioning race, said community’s libertarian-esque refusal of government meddling, governmental disaster prevention and response, and global warming. While watching the film, I expected a commentary on one or more of these themes, but none came. And I’m glad.

Why? Because the film is firmly rooted in a child’s perspective of the world—rooted in the Now—social commentary would have been out of place. This film is entirely from Hushpuppy’s perspective, and reasons for why things are or why things did or didn’t happen are only given from her point of view. We’re never given a sense of when or where exactly this film takes place, a concrete reason for her mother’s disappearance, or an explanation of her father’s illness or where he disappeared to. Those answers may matter to us or to adults in the community, but not to Hushpuppy. That they are never presented makes the film more wondrous.

So too does Dan Romer and Zeitlin’s score for the film. Infused with bayou flavors and dreamy textures, the score is every bit as enchanting as the film is, and the piece leading into and playing over the end credits is infectiously delightful.

And “infectiously delightful” aptly describes the film, too, for now we all know “once there was a Hushpuppy, and she lived with her daddy in The Bathtub.”

3. Argo:

A tantalizing blend of heart-pounding tension and knee-slapping hilarity delivered by a solidly effective cast and director. Ben Affleck is proving himself as a star director with each new film. If for no other reason, see this film for Alan Arkin and Bryan Cranston.

2. Lincoln:

Is it presumptuous of me to say this film will win a River-Queen-load of awards? From acting to directing to writing to costuming, this film, which both entertains and educates, is expertly and lovingly crafted.

Part of the expertise exhibited by Steven Spielberg is crafting a film that is remarkably restrained. Given the subject matter—the greatest American president—one might expect a grand, historical epic charting how a tall-in-stature but short-in-experience man becomes that great president and how the trials and tribulations of the events he was thrust into defined the man. Instead, we are treated to a smaller, more scope-focused, and more intimate film about how the man defined the events thrust upon him. And the film is all the better because of that focus and restraint.

Restrained, too, is John Williams’s score. Often heard are complaints his music dominates—negatively—scenes it accompanies. But in Lincoln, he, like Spielberg, gets out of the way of sorts. Large parts of the film are left unscored. And when his music is heard, it is to gently and, in many cases, elegiacally reinforce the moment on screen—until the end when the score lets loose.

That focus and restraint from Spielberg and Williams allows something else to shine through: the acting. Daniel Day-Lewis has been called the “greatest living actor” for good reason. On display in this film is proof why. From his mannerisms to his wit to the way he physically carries the character on screen, Day-Lewis is every bit as good as expected. And then some. He breathes life into a historical force we only know from photos and text in history books in a way that made me think, “Gee, I wouldn’t mind having a White House Honey Ale with this man.”

Day-Lewis’s isn’t the only great performance. Also great were Sally Field and Tommy Lee Jones. Her shared time with Day-Lewis and his time apart were notable and not to be overlooked. (A side note about casting. The supporting cast is a treasure trove of b- and c-list television actors. One in particular—a certain British accountant playing a certain U.S.General—entirely caught me off guard to the point I missed everything he said when he was introduced. After the initial shock wore off, I determined I wouldn’t mind seeing him in his own film.)

What I saw in this film were parallels to our time. Besides the political horse-trading and bitter divisiveness—and abject name calling!—legislation had to be passed to course-correct the legal status of a particular set of people. Almost 150 years later, the story hasn’t changed. Furthermore, both times feature a president, from Illinois, who, as he looks at the long game, is accused of being overly deliberative and not adequately leading.

These parallels give the film an almost timeless feeling. So too does the title character. While the film takes place in a time when the United States was ruled by men of whiskers, the moral fortitude of its title character is bound by no age. And as that title character, Daniel Day-Lewis gives a masterful performance—a performance that, like Lincoln, now belongs to the ages.

1. Silver Linings Playbook:

While the story may be wholly predictable, the stellar performances are far from it. Jennifer Lawrence may have been a girl on fire earlier in the year, but here, she’s ablaze. And she’s not the only one. Bradley Cooper, Robert De Niro, and Jacki Weaver all deliver tremendous performances most definitely deserving of their Oscar nominations. The film tackles love, loss, and family strife in both a realistic and humorous way. This is a loving, engaging romantic comedy-drama starring Jennifer Lawrence and featuring a pleasant score from Danny Elfman. For me, what’s not to like.

Of the nine films nominated, I enjoyed Silver Linings Playbook the most. But if I had a vote for Best Picture, I would cast it for Lincoln. Come Oscar night, though, neither of these films will win Best Picture. Argo will.

And like last year, my favorite film of the year isn’t amongst these nine nominees:

Safety Not Guaranteed:

What a charming, quirky, heartwarming, and heartfelt movie. From the beginning I was enchanted as I watched these characters unfold and was left guessing as to what each character’s fate would be. Aubrey Plaza, in an extension of her Parks and Recreation role, is a partner any of us can hope for in whatever our mission is.

And speaking of Best Picture winners, here’s Nelson Carvajal’s mashup of past winners. Tomorrow it’ll be time to take off the nominees and cap the piece with Argo.

Lincoln

Is it presumptuous of me to say this film will win a River-Queen-load of awards? From acting to directing to writing to costuming, this film, which both entertains and educates, is expertly and lovingly crafted.

Part of the expertise exhibited by Steven Spielberg is crafting a film that is remarkably restrained. Given the subject matter—the greatest American president—one might expect a grand, historical epic charting how a tall-in-stature but short-in-experience man becomes that great president and how the trials and tribulations of the events he was thrust into defined the man. Instead, we are treated to a smaller, more scope-focused, and more intimate film about how the man defined the events thrust upon him. And the film is all the better because of that focus and restraint.

Restrained, too, is John Williams’s score. Often heard are complaints his music dominates—negatively—scenes it accompanies. But in Lincoln, he, like Spielberg, gets out of the way of sorts. Large parts of the film are left unscored. And when his music is heard, it is to gently and, in many cases, elegiacally reinforce the moment on screen—until the end when the score lets loose.

That focus and restraint from Spielberg and Williams allows something else to shine through: the acting. Daniel Day-Lewis has been called the “greatest living actor” for good reason. On display in this film is proof why. From his mannerisms to his wit to the way he physically carries the character on screen, Day-Lewis is every bit as good as expected. And then some. He breathes life into a historical force we only know from photos and text in history books in a way that made me think, “Gee, I wouldn’t mind having a White House Honey Ale with this man.”

Day-Lewis’s isn’t the only great performance. Also great were Sally Field and Tommy Lee Jones. Her shared time with Day-Lewis and his time apart were notable and not to be overlooked. (A side note about casting. The supporting cast is a treasure trove of b- and c-list television actors. One in particular—a certain British accountant playing a certain U.S.General—entirely caught me off guard to the point I missed everything he said when he was introduced. After the initial shock wore off, I determined I wouldn’t mind seeing him in his own film.)

What I saw in this film were parallels to our time. Besides the political horse-trading and bitter divisiveness—and abject name calling!—legislation had to be passed to course-correct the legal status of a particular set of people. Almost 150 years later, the story hasn’t changed. Furthermore, both times feature a president, from Illinois, who, as he looks at the long game, is accused of being overly deliberative and not adequately leading.

These parallels give the film an almost timeless feeling. So too does the title character. While the film takes place in a time when the United States was ruled by men of whiskers, the moral fortitude of its title character is bound by no age. And as that title character, Daniel Day-Lewis gives a masterful performance—a performance that, like Lincoln, now belongs to the ages.

Skyfall

At one point during the film, James Bond quips his hobby is resurrection. That may be true for the character, but it’s even truer for the franchise. Now going on 50 years, the James Bond franchise has gone through twenty-three films (a few of them remarkably terrible), six actors in the title role (some better than others), a changing—and shrinking—world stage (not to mention the changing technology), and the influence from other film franchises (most notably Nolan’s films and the Bourne films).

Yet the franchise lives on. Whenever one might count Bond out, he comes roaring back louder than the MGM lion preceding his adventure. A hokey Diamonds Are Forever gave way to Live and Let Die and an uncharacteristic role for Bond. A tired A View To a Kill gave way to The Living Daylights and an uber-serious Bond. A weakLicence to Kill (and a six year hiatus) gave way to GoldenEye and a fresh, new direction. An atrocious Die Another Day gave way to Casino Royale and its refocused, reinvigorated approach to the character and franchise.

Skyfall continues the trend of resurrection. Not only does the film do penance for the sub-par Quantum of Solace, it sets up the franchise for many more films to come. And while the film looks to the future, it makes sure not to forget the past with several nods to staple Bond elements.

That future-and-past theme appears throughout the film. The future of MI6 is tested while Bond’s and M’s pasts surface. The first two acts were superb with their expected action and unexpected amount of sleuthing. Dame Judi Dench is marvelous as M in a very expanded role, and Javier Bardem is wicked, wily, and tremendous fun (Anthony Hopkins’s Hannibal Lector and Heath Ledger’s Joker meet Julian Assange and Anonymous). Had the third act contained the same amount of vigor,Skyfall would have easily found a spot in my top-five Bond films. But the third act fell apart for me as it descends into a more generic action film that feels considerably less Bondian than the two preceding acts (and there’s a preparation montage during which all I could think of is Home Alone). The first two acts have so many people and so much going on that the third act seems desolate and disconnected. And afterward is an epilogue of sorts that, given the events of the third act, seems almost tacked on and inappropriate—but it was necessary to complete the franchise’s resurrection.

What else is disappointing about the film is the role females play. The female role achieved a high-water mark in Casino Royale with Vesper being a strong, intellectual equal to Bond and with M being a smart, capable leader. But in Skyfall, the female roles are, umm, resurrected to their “traditional” roles.

Not disappointing is the work from director Sam Mendes. Mendes isn’t known for rollicking action sequences, but with Skyfall, he proves he’s no slouch either. He deftly handles the action as well as he does the more dramatic side of Bond.

With Mendes comes his sometimes cinematographer Roger Deakins. His work inSkyfall is unquestionably my favorite part of the film. The use of light and shadow and the abundance of striking silhouettes throughout the film is inspiring.

And along with Deakins comes Mendes’s composer of choice: Thomas Newman. When Mendes was announced as director, I was curious if his usual collaborator would be brought on to score the film or if David Arnold, who scored Tomorrow Never Dies through Quantum of Solace, would remain. When Newman was announced as composer, I was one part frightened and one part intrigued. Frightened because at the time nothing in his past suggested he could pull off a high-octane action score. Intrigued because everything in his past shows he has enormous talent. And the end result is something quite satisfying. As with his director, Newman proves he no slouch at action either. All the familiar Thomas Newman mannerisms are present. But so is a new, and welcomed, side of Newman.

Not welcomed is the absence of a generous amount of interpolations of the title theme throughout the score. As what usually happens when the film’s composer is not involved in creating the title song, the song disappears after the title sequence ends. When given proper treatment, the song’s melody becomes more than a disjointed musical addendum and serves as a unifying identity for the film. Adele’s terrific and very Bondian song is beautifully quoted to accompany the mesmerizing visuals as Bond arrives at the casino but is otherwise absent from the film. This wasn’t the case with Casino Royale as David Arnold co-wrote the title song with Chris Cornell thus allowing him to weave several orchestral fragments of the song throughout the film.

So to enjoy Adele’s song (which is probably my second-favorite part of the film), we have to look to the title sequence. And that sequence is designed by series regular Daniel Kleinman who returns—thankfully—after being noticeably absent fromQuantum of Solace when Marc Forster brought along MK12, his title-sequence creators of choice. Kleinman’s Skyfall sequence expertly mirrors the film with imagery and symbolism carefully plucked from events in the film. And at the same time, it mirrors the franchise. Throughout the sequence, there’s a constant forward motion. The sequence propels forward unfazed and unhindered—just like the franchise does.

And that’s what the franchise will continue to do—especially after an entry that will be seen as successful as this one where the directing, acting, story, music, and visuals all come together to create one hell of a Bond film. There are faults with the film but not enough to derail the franchise’s forward motion. And certainly not enough to derail the franchise’s resurrection. You picked a good hobby, Mr. Bond. Here’s to 50 more years. But let’s fix those faults.

The Nightmare Before Christmas

(This was my first time seeing this film. I know. I’m a terrible person.)

I hate musicals. Let me get that out of the way. All the spontaneous, choreographed singing? Hate it. I mean, how realistic is it that all the towns folk of Halloween Town simultaneously burst out into song and…oh…Halloween Town. A skeleton man. A living rag doll. And a ghost dog. Right. This is a fantasy world.

Yes, a fantasy world. And a remarkable one at that. The imagination and creativity that went into the character and set design for the film is astounding. Immensely inventive. (And the stop motion adds a special quality not achievable if this were a traditionally animated film.) If Halloween actually had its own town, this is exactly what it would look like.

Is this what it would sound like, too? I don’t know, but I can’t imagine The Nightmare Before Christmas sounding like anything else. Danny Elfman’s work for this film is absolutely spectacular. Strong themes, sharp lyrics, and terrific performances—including Elfman as Jack Skellington’s singing voice—really make this film into the classic it is. (That Elfman never took on a similar project is somewhat disappointing. No other film project of his has matched the level of musical variety and creativity achieved in this film. The closest he came was for Charlie and the Chocolate Factoryand its four highly varied and highly enjoyable songs for Augustus Gloop, Violet Beauregarde, Veruca Salt, and Mike Teavee.) From the opening song “Halloween Town” to the film’s highlight song “What’s This?” to the summation of each theme in the end credits, Elfman adeptly supplied the film’s striking visuals with striking music that perfectly matched Tim Burton and Henry Selick’s eclectic vision.

The film itself is probably a three-star or perhaps a four-star effort. Things I was curious about weren’t explored (like why was Oogie Boogie a gambling man or why weren’t the portals ever discovered by someone in any of the holiday worlds). But Danny Elfman’s work makes up for the film’s shortcomings.

And one of those shortcomings is that the film’s still a musical. And I hate musicals. But The Nightmare Before Christmas is so much more. A charming concept. Monsterous visual creativity. And a stellar Danny Elfman soundtrack. If only more musicals were made like this one.

A is for Avengers, and A is for Awesome

Joss Whedon is to the Avengers universe as Christopher Nolan is to the Batman universe. This film is everything you could want in a superhero film and so many things you could want in any other film: likable characters, snappy dialogue, plenty of laughs, memorable moments, killer special effects, and loads of action. The last act of the film is relentless with its propulsive action sequences—but never overbearing as Whedon skillfully manuevers through each sequence.

What else Whedon skillfully does is bringing all these characters—most of them with their own movie or movies—together in a cohesive and successful way. Mashing this many strong personalities together could be a disaster for a not-too-careful writer and director. But Whedon—and the cast—make this work.

And work the characters do. The underlying plot is fairly simple, but never is that a detraction as it allows the characters to really shine throughout the film. No Avenger is relegated to the sideline; all are given adequate screentime making them all seem equally important. Giving each character his or her due also means giving pairs and groups of characters so many rich and humorous moments together. I was expecting all the action the characters bring, but I wasn’t expecting all the laughs.

Equally rich was the music. Alan Silvestri delivers a roaring, macho, and heroic theme and score. While not as blatantly—and laughably—heroic as his Captain America theme, Silvestri’s Avengers theme excellently fits the group: strong, stated, and fit for the challenge without ever taking itself too seriously.

But what should be taken seriously is how great a film this is. A is for Avengers, and A is for Awesome. And that’s exactly what The Avengers is.

And the Oscar for Best Picture Goes To

(I wanted to title this post “At Midnight in Paris, Hugo rides War Horse Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close past The Tree of Life to meet The Artist, The Descendants, and The Help for a game of Moneyball” but it wouldn’t have fit in a tweet.)

A tradition my friend @nagle has is to watch all the films nominated for Best Picture prior to the Oscar telecast. This year, I joined in. As I watched each film, I posted a review on Letterboxd, a gorgeous website to share ratings and reviews of movies and to track films you want to see. The site is still in beta, but try to get an invite if you can (I may have one for you).

Here are my reviews of the nine nominated films ranked from what I thought was the worst to what I thought was the best.

9. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close:

A mother and son with a fractured relationship learn how to connect after the untimely death of the father. This could be the makings of a decent film.

But add in some 9/11 exploitation and a kid who is extremely loud and incredibly annoying, and you have this film. Without last year being the tenth anniversary of 9/11 (I wonder how this film fared with people who regularly watch Fox News), this film would not be nominated—and that it was nominated over 50/50 and Drive is absurd.

The whole film is irritating (why didn’t Max von Sydow’s character use both sides of the paper to write notes and thus use half as many notebooks?) and exploitative—which is sad given that at the film’s core is something that could have blossomed into a decent—and perhaps nomination-worthy—film.

8. Moneyball:

A nicely made film about America’s pasttime—baseball—and not America’s pasttime—math—with excellent performances from Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill. Nicely made, but ultimately boring.

7. The Artist:

Hugo, a love letter to cinema, is art for a purpose. The Artist, also a love letter to cinema, is art for a gimmick. Everything in this film is a gimmick. The silence. The performances. The aspect ratio. The flecks on the film. The dog. And, of course, the music. Ludovic Bource will win the Oscar for Best Original Score. While it isn’t the best score of the year, it’s good and is surely is the most important to its film. But that doesn’t make it any less gimmicky—just like George Valentin’s used-car-salesman smile didn’t make him any less gimmicky.

6. The Tree of Life:

My eyes said, “Wow. This film is beautiful.” My brain said, “Wow. I have no idea what the hell is going on.”

The film is confusing, slow, and jarring, but it looks amazing. During some parts of the film, I wasn’t sure if I was still watching this film or if my television somehow switched over to Planet Earth.

Dazzling visuals aside, for a large portion of the film, I was either indifferent (is this film done meandering yet?) or lost (did Sean Penn wake up one morning questioning his existence or did he stumble around for years with a stupefied look on his face?).

Perhaps someone can explain to me the meaning and significance of the film. Or maybe I should just go watch Planet Earth.

5. Hugo:

There’s much to marvel at in this film: the visuals, the tasteful 3D, the childlike wonder and curiosity, Howard Shore’s score, and Martin Scorsese showing us he can excel outside his comfort zone (one thing that had me wondering the entire film, though: why did everyone in Paris have British accents?).

Even if you aren’t a fan of 3D (I’m not), see this in 3D in a theater. Scorcese shows how 3D can be a treat. And that’s something else to marvel at: a film celebrating cinema’s past is embracing its future.

4. The Help:

If you’re looking for a stirring historical drama that effectively addresses the civil rights struggle, keep looking. If, though, you’re looking for an inspiring story of bravery and righteousness in the face of an unsettling and despairing society and a film that is believable and extremely well acted, look no further. The characters and performances are both convincing and likable—especially those of Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer. Give these two ladies an Oscar!

3. Midnight in Paris:

I think this movie was made for me. Love letter to Paris? Check. Romantic comedy? Check. Charming story with a clever hook? Check. Enchanting female love interest? Check. Another reason to dislike Rachel McAdams? Check.

The film’s opening is a moving postcard of Paris highlighting the magic of the city. And after I spent over a week there a few years back, I learned Paris is indeed a magical place. Even in the rain.

2. War Horse:

A touching story of friendship, loss, and perseverance beautifully shot by Janusz Kaminski and magnificently scored by John Williams. This is Spielberg’s best dramatic film since Saving Private Ryan and John Williams’s best dramatic score since Schindler’s List.

Part of what makes the film so successful is the film, like the horse it follows, never takes sides. There aren’t good guys and bad guys. Just people. People who pass in and out of Joey’s life. People who all speak English: the British, the French, and the Germans. I would normally complain that the French and the Germans should be speaking in their native tongues with superimposed subtitles, but not in this film. Joey doesn’t hear tongues; to him, everyone speaks the same language, and that’s what the film presents.

Part of what makes Spielberg so successful is his ability to effortlessly move from depicting the horrors of something to depicting the beauty of something. In the no-man’s-land scene, the film juxtaposes the frightfulness of war with the triumph of camaraderie.

And the Spielberg magic continues through the end of the film with a closing movingly supported by Kaminski and Williams. This Spielberg ending is amongst his best.

1. The Descendants:

The parody poster for this film was titled “George Clooney Is Good At Acting”.

Yes, yes he is. I have no idea if acting is hard, and I certainly have no idea if acting in this kind of role is hard. But George Clooney makes it look so easy. Easy in that he makes his performance look so real—that he becomes the character and not just George Clooney, and that we, the audience, embrace him in this role, we sympathize with him, and we are fully with him on his journey.

Even if we haven’t been through a similar ordeal and thus able to relate with his character and his performance in that way, we can still relate in our own ways and admire the pain, the joy, and the life he goes through.

His life—and our lives—are part funny, part painful, part crazy, and wholly unpredictable—but the love of family and friends will bring us together in the end.

And that’s how we all can relate.

Of the nine films nominated, I thought The Descendants was the best. But there was one film that I enjoyed more than any of these nine:

50/50:

Don’t let the multitude of laughs throughout the first act of this film confuse you into thinking this is a comedy. This is not a comedy. This is a story of acceptance. This is a story of friendship. And of family. And of love. This film is heartbreaking at the same time it’s heartwarming. And if you’re like me, the film will make you wonder how your life and the people in it would play out if you were in a similar situation.

Watching and reviewing these films has been a fun journey, and I look forward to doing it again next year.

In honor of the Oscars today, I leave you with this: John Williams’s 2002 musical tribute to the Oscars. Enjoy.

Disney/Pixar Soar Again with Up

I saw Disney/Pixar’s latest film Up tonight at a private screening for ESPN employees.   A few notes:

Pixar once again proved what a powerhouse they are in film making.   Not only does Up prove their superior animation and technical abilities, Up proves again their superior (and more important) story-telling abilities.   Watching these characters, you can’t help but feel their emotional struggles throughout the film.   The story is one of humor, sadness, joyousness, and overall feelgood-ness.   I never thought I would root for a crotchety old man.   Like past Pixar films, Up appeals to both little kids and big kids.   No matter your age, you will be touched by this film.

WALL-E

wall-e

This weekend, I watched Disney/Pixar’s latest film WALL-E for the first time.   What a phenomenal film. Pixar proves once again what a powerhouse they are.

First, the visuals.   Absolutely breathtaking.   Several shots in the film were hard to separate as 3D-generated they looked incredibly realistic.   The lighting, the shading and textures of the models, the reflections, the depths of field, and more all combined to create this incredibly realistic fictional world.   What a talented group of visual artists Pixar has working for them.   One particular shot I remember being so amazingly realistic-looking is an extreme close up of the top, front of WALL-E’s unresponsive eyes as EVE leaned in toward him.   Outstanding work.   I can’t use enough adjectives to describe the visual work on this film.

A significant portion of the film and its characters are voiceless (well at least without a human voice). Not having characters with speaking voices could prove to be tragic if special care were not taken to ensure proper communication cues were present as replacements, cues such as animation conveying excitement, sadness, etc.   We could tell what kind of mood EVE was in by the shape of her eyes.   But complementing and perhaps surpassing the visual cues were the auditory ones.   The sounds each robot made, from short beeps and blips to more emotion-filled sounds of longing and excitement, gave the audience a method to connect with the characters through personification. Ben Burtt, the veteran Hollywood sound designer, gave voices to the robots and made their world just a little more believable.

So much of the film was magical.   From EVE and WALL-E’s dance in space to WALL-E showing EVE the bubble wrap to the loyal band of “broken” robots who had uses for their malfunctions after all to the little lunch box WALL-E transports his keepsakes in.

But, like in any film, the key component to a magical film is the story, and WALL-E had a fantastic story, one of hope and love.   The hope lies in the state Earth is in, a state thanks to humanity’s carefree laziness, consumerism, materialism, and ignorance of self- and communal-health.   What today may be a cool new thing will be the downfall of us and everyone around us tomorrow.   Even after we wander past what is reasonable, healthy, and judicious, there is still a little green hope waiting to bring us back.   The lesson here for us real humans, though, isn’t that we should wait for our wasteful ways to one day be rectified by something outside of our doing, but instead for us to alter our self-made path to destruction now while we still have the chance.   Hope, then, is something we can find in ourselves.

What else we can find in ourselves in love.   Love for ourselves, love for someone else, and love for each other.   I don’t think I’m giving anything away here by saying the romantic component of WALL-E revolves around the relationship between WALL-E and EVE.   The love and longing WALL-E feels toward EVE reflects the most basic of human feelings the need to love and be loved; the need for a companion.   Once we find that perfect love, we will stop at nothing to pursue (clasping onto the spaceship), help (with EVE’s directive), and protect (from the rain and elements) said love.

These two themes of hope and love allow us to connect with the characters and reflect on our own lives through the characters.   Even the quirks of the robots give us the ability to see bits of ourselves (who doesn’t love popping bubble wrap or collecting little trinkets?).

Finally, I, along with every other Mac geek around, gleefully smiled when WALL-E made his reboot sound the sound of a powering-up Apple computer.

WALL-E is an exceedingly outstanding film, from the visual and aural presentation, to the basic building blocks of a solid, successful story.   While the film is comprised of artificial beings in an artificial world, the characters’ passions and emotions are those humans encounter every day, and they invite us to reflect in our own realistic world of hope and love.

Movie Review: Quantum of Solace

quantum of solace

I saw the latest Jason Bourne James Bond film this weekend.   Although not as much as Casino Royale, I thoroughly enjoyed Quantum of Solace, and I will be seeing it again.   What follows are some lengthy thoughts and reactions.

Since any cinematic experience for me heavily involves the music, I’ll begin there.   The title song, “Another Way to Die,” was written by Jack White and performed by White and Alicia Keys.   While hailed as the first duet in Bond music history, the song is terrible.   When I first heard the song several weeks ago, my first listen left me cringing and shuttering in disbelief.   The song has grown on me significantly, though, and I actually enjoy listening to it.   As a Bond song, however, it’s only slightly better than Madonna’s atrocious “Die Another Day.”   White’s and Keys’s voices during the song don’t mesh well, and because they cover about the same vocal range with slightly different timbres, they seem to almost clash with dissonant cacophony.   Instead of singing the chorus, they shout it; the orchestrations throughout are barren, and in the full version of the song, the intro meanders almost incoherently while stealing the same notes from “You Know My Name,” the title song from Casino Royale.   Aspects of the song are catchy, hence my continual listening to it, but overall it fails.

Performance aside, though, the most damning aspect of the song is the lack of a usable, discernible melody to use with the film’s score.   The best Bond title songs are those which can be weaved into and interpolated throughout the score proper.   When this extended use happens, the song becomes more than a seemingly-disjointed, tacked-on prefix to the film; instead, it becomes a more intricately developed musical identity to the film.   Composer David Arnold returns to write his fifth Bond score, his first being Tomorrow Never Dies in 1997.   Throughout his tenure, he has had (at no fault of his own) mixed success with song melody utilization.   For Tomorrow Never Dies, he wrote a classic Bond song titled “Surrender” (performed by k.d. lang) that was skillfully and successfully woven into the score.   The song’s melody served as a propulsive base to several action cues throughout the score.   The song, though, was replaced at the last minute by a sub-par song, titled “Tomorrow Never Dies” and performed by Sheryl Crow; “Surrender” survived, though, to appear during the end credits.

For The World Is Not Enough, Arnold wrote a song performed by Garbage.   This song remained in the title sequence and, although not as often as “Surrender,” appears during the score.

Die Another Day was a musical amalgam of awfulness.   Arnold had nothing to do with the song; instead, Madonna wrote and “performed” the song, which was nothing more than a cesspool of techno filth (and the words “die another day” were spoken a sure-to-make-anyone-say-enough-already sixteen times).   Arnold, slowly descending into techno madness from his brilliantly modern-yet-classic-Bond score for Tomorrow Never Dies to his not-as-good-but-still-enjoyable score for The World Is Not Enough to his disappointing score for Die Another Day, seemed to attempt to out perform the song’s techno nonsense.   Because of the overly techno feel and the absence of a strong melody, other than the “James Bond Theme,” to focus on, the score suffered immensely.

But for what Die Another Day lacked musically, Casino Royale more than made up.   Arnold collaborated with Chris Cornell to write “You Know My Name.”   The song was a fitting answer to the “re-invented” Bond, giving him a modern, harder edge song to fit his new rougher, edgier persona.   Several melodies found themselves masterfully sprinkled in the score numerous times, and the way the song melodies intertwined with the classic four-note Bond chord progression made their appearance in the score better than the appearances from “Surrender” in the Tomorrow Never Dies score.   The song served as more than just a song to accompany a beautiful title sequence; it served as a musical identity to the rest of the score and therefore the film as a whole.

The score for Quantum of Solace shares much of the same musical identity with Casino Royale except for a strong melodic line to create a cohesive whole.   The action pieces, the reflective pieces, and the sleuthy pieces all are strong and enjoyable, but the score could have been stronger and more enjoyable with a unifying melody.   While two cues on the soundtrack quote a “melody” from “Another Way to Die,” the quotation is relegated to a softer, sleuthy rendition, far from the outstanding usage of song melody in Tomorrow Never Dies and Casino Royale.

What I find most interesting about my reaction to the Quantum of Solace score is regardless of how much I love the theme, I don’t miss an outright, bombastic performance of the “James Bond Theme.”   A statement of the theme like its abundant usage in Tomorrow Never Dies just doesn’t seem to fit with this new Bond.   Is that good or bad, though.   If you consider the Bond theme to be overused, then I suppose its absence, save for the several skillful additions of the Bond chord progression and the famous guitar line rendered for strings, is welcome and allows for other musical ideas to take shape and precedence.   Like Casino Royale, though, the end credits feature a rousing rendition of the theme.

The title song, if not a part of the score, is, of course, the underpinning of the Bond title sequence.   Since GoldenEye in 1995, Daniel Kleinman has created the stylized and themed title sequences.   I was shocked to learn he had been replaced for Quantum of Solace but was cautiously optimistic that MK12, who designed the wonderful end title sequence and in-film motion graphics pieces for Stranger Than Fiction, was designing the sequence.   Unfortunately, though, the Quantum of Solace title sequence was underwhelming.   The sand and desert theme is an appropriate and obvious tie-in to the film’s climax location, and the women emerging from the sand was an interesting effect.   Unlike previous title sequences, the names of the cast and crew didn’t just fade on, they had a cool animation to bring them on screen, and the best name animation was for Dame Judi Dench (her name appeared from circles animated identically to those of the gun barrel sequence).   But the sequence as a whole meandered and wandered through its desert-like setting.   The latter half seemed to throw a non-congruent slew of swiftly animating elements, from silhouettes of naked women to lines in the shape of a globe amongst some stars.   Unlike the Kleinman sequences, this sequence seemed at a loss for a driving purpose and focus.

In addition to the title sequence, MK12 designed the in-film motion graphics associated with the Microsoft Surface touchscreen and the satellite-phone-call/villain-database-search wall in M’s office.   These animations were superb and inspiring.

But enough with the music and the design.   What about the rest of the film?   Overall, the film was good, but not on the same level as Casino Royale.   In Quantum of Solace, the film seemed like a never-ending chase sequence; there was a car chase, a foot chase, a boat chase, and an airplane chase.   All this action is great, but there could have been some more exposition and character development (especially since the film shockingly came in under two hours).   A few scenes (the ending comes to mind) could have benefited from a couple more minutes to explain the unanswered questions that arose from them.   The action sequences, though, were great, and the stunts performed were top-notch.   Several times I cringed at the intense physicality Daniel Craig put himself through for the role.

Although the scene didn’t involve intense action, one of the highlights of the film was the Tosca opera scene.   Bond is doing some actual spying, trying to discover what he can about the mysterious group who wear “Q” lapel pins (fashioned in the same font as the film’s title).   After Bond finds out what he needs to, he encounters the bad guy and the sound drops from the film.   Instead of bullet firings, shouts, and destruction, we only hear the music from the opera sung over the scene of Bond fleeing resulting in an unexpected and incredible scene.

The main Bond girl Camille, played by Olga Kurylenko, was an interesting psychological counter to Bond.   Both are seeking revenge, but what Bond learns from Camille helps shape him into the more familiar Bond character.   Mathieu Amalric as Dominic Greene played a non-typical Bond villain.   Instead of the supervillain intent on seeking world domination, Greene was a philanthropist-posing, dastardly-scheming corporate boss, and he played his character well.   But for me, other than Craig as Bond, the best performance came from Dame Judi.   She, apparently being the only authority figure in Bond’s life, was crisp, forceful, and yet funny.   One of her best lines (and I’m paraphrasing, as I don’t remember the exact quotes): she, through her aide on the phone with Bond, asks about someone Bond was to investigate; he responds the guy was a “dead end”; M, in an outburst of surprise and fury, says, “that means he killed him!”   The delivery of this line and several others made me laugh.   When producers decided to reboot the series with Casino Royale, I’m very pleased they kept Dame Judi as M.

Also with the rebooted Bond came a more Jason-Bourne-like persona.   While I’m sure this persona will get mixed reactions, it doesn’t bother me.   Like Bond, Bourne is a spy; and now like Bourne, Bond deals in a more realistic, edgier world than the old Bond did.   No invisible cars here.   Thankfully.

Couple other notes: as with Casino Royale, I fail to comprehend why one of M’s aides couldn’t have been Moneypenny instead; I hope we see more of Felix Leiter in forthcoming films; the Goldfinger reference with Fields was outstanding; Mathis and the dumpster was disturbing; the gun barrel seemed tacked-on and lacked the sophistication of Kleinman’s Brosnan gun barrel sequences; and Universal Exports makes a Bond-geek-pleasing return.

And, as customary, the credits end with “James Bond Will Return.”   I’ll be eagerly waiting.   I just hope that Q, Moneypenny, Daniel Kleinman, and David Arnold as title song composer return, too.

You Know That Feeling When You Walk into a Spider Web?

When does a comic book movie become too comic-book-y? When does the incessant cheese in a film start attracting rats? Both good questions, but not better than this one: what happened to Spider-Man 3?

The first film set the stage and introduced us to the world of Peter Parker, although this film had plenty of cheese as well. The second film gave us a serious character drama wrapped up into an exciting comic book movie. The third film gives us a series of blockbuster special effects sequences and one dance number strung together by a lackluster, trying-too-hard story in the effort of passing all this off as a “film.” Sorry, Mr. Raimi, it just didn’t work.

I was turned off from the film right from the opening title sequences. They were cool, but uninspiring and all-too-familiar like we’ve seen them before in the previous two films. In fact, the beginning portion of the credits listing the main stars was, more or less, a fusion of the titles for the first two films. Nifty effects, but dripping of been-there-done-that. About half-way into the sequence, we shift pace, and we see a bunch of black ooze, the stuff that we know will turn Spidey into evil Spidey. It just kind of crawls around not inspiring at all.

These visuals are backed up by the only sound on the screen the music. Danny Elfman, the composer for the first two Spider-Man films, wrote fantastic music for the title sequence and the rest of the films. He and director Sam Raimi had a fued over music in Spider-Man 2, so Elfman left the series after that film. Enter Christopher Young, someone who is NO Danny Elfman. Young trying to work with Elfman’s music is like a a hot dog trying to taste like a lobster. It just doesn’t work. Elfman’s title sequence music channeled through Young sounds as uninspired as the black ooze sequence looks. The instrumentation is lacking, and the excitement and driving percussion apparently left with Elfman. The first and third portions of the music in the title sequence are interpolated Elfman themes; the second portion is Young’s work. Fine on its own, but it holds no water compared to Elfman’s original music. Young’s themes are too simplistic in comparison to Elfman’s more complex musical endeavors. Furthermore, the music in linear form is at best a holed, beat-up patchwork of mush painfully obvious where Elfman ends and where Young begins.

So enough about the music, yes? Well for a film music fan, this is what we listen for. Music, for me, makes or breaks a film. The music in the rest of the film didn’t necessarily break the film, but it sure didn’t save it from the numerous faults (although there was a really cool rendition of the Spider-Man theme done with a dark male choir during the church scene). As mentioned earlier, the story was not much of a story. I fear that Raimi is going the way of George Lucas and concentrating too much effort on special effects rather than fleshing out the meat of the film in storytelling and character development. The new characters we’re introduced to in this film were far too underdeveloped, and Peter and M.J. seemed out of character and, frankly, unlikable in several scenes.

The special effects were ok in some places, and obviously fake in others. The fake-ness was most obvious at the end when we see the Sandman dissolve one last time (don’t worry, I’m not giving anything away). The effects were off in this film, too easy to tell real from computer-generated.

Two final thoughts: apparently no one on the writing staff could think of anything better to do in fight sequences than drop people off buildings. One or two people don’t fall; try four or five. Think of something else to do! And finally, a dance number should never EVER be in a Spider-Man film. Period.

Yes, this film was a comic book movie. But looking at films such as Spider-Man 2 and Batman Begins, there are comic book movies that are serious enough to make a great film. This film just took itself too seriously and ended up being seriously bad.