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Monday, February 20, 2012

Oscar Movie Reviews

As Oscar night comes upon us, I thought it was time to give some quick thoughts on movies I've seen that are up for nominations.  I'll start with the last two Best Picture nominees I have yet to review, check out a few more nominees, and end with 3 foreign films I saw over the weekend.

Best Picture Nominees

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

The biggest gasps to be heard Oscar morning were probably when this was announced as one of the 9 Best Picture nominees.  And, to quote Amy Poehler and Seth Myers from SNL, "Really, Academy, Really?"  It's place in the Best Picture lineup means that at least 5% of the Academy listed this as their number one choice.  It also has the notorious distinction of being the most poorly reviewed Best Picture nominee in at least the last 20 years.

All of which isn't to say there are no moments of enjoyment to be found in this movie.  I liked the book by Jonathan Safron Foer quite a bit, and some of its charms do make it to the screen.  The movie is about a boy whose father is killed in 9/11.  To deal with his grief and find some meaning, he attempts to discover the secret to a key he has found in his father's belongings.  This journey leads him to traverse the boroughs of New York.  Many of the people he visits are interesting and are worthy of more screen time (especially the wonderful-as-always Viola Davis).  But, by the end of the movie, an odd tone has been struck.  It's a whimsical movie about 9/11 that never feels quite realistic, yet you are expected to be moved and cry at the terrible tragedy of that day.  There were many tears around me, and yet I didn't feel it.  Max Von Sydow is quite good in his Oscar nominated silent role, yet I found Tom Hanks miscast and young Thomas Horn pushing the limits of annoying.  I certainly looked at the time several times throughout the movie, and I don't think the movie honestly earns its sentimentality.

Grade: C+

War Horse

War Horse is another Best Picture nominee that enters the race with somewhat mixed reviews.  I've already given my review by podcast.  I entered expecting a sentimental film, and that's what I got.  I also really enjoyed myself.  The movie starts out with everything a little too heavy-handed, yet it really picks up once our horse Joey (the main character of the movie) goes to war.  I was drawn along with the story and willing to follow this horse as he encounters all sides of World War I.  Spielberg and his collaborators certainly make some questionable choices in the film.  Why accented English instead of subtitles? Why did they pull so many punches in showing the violence of war? Why is the cinematography all so over-the-top "pretty"?  This is certainly not Spielberg's best work, but by the end I was able to embrace its old-fashioned charms and felt it earned by tears, something I couldn't say about Extremely Loud.

Grade: B

Other Nominees

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
(Nominated for Best Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Score)

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a movie that does a rare thing: it asks the audience to use their brain and be comfortable with ambiguity as they puzzle through the film.  The movie comes from a long novel by John Le Carre that was also a 6-hour miniseries in the 1980s.  This movie clocks in at just a bit more than 2 hours, so the storytelling is obviously extremely streamlined.  I was definitely confused at points throughout the movie, yet I was riveted the whole way through.  Every single period detail seems incredibly authentically  Cold War-era Britain, from the drab suits to the dour office buildings.  The acting is also top-notch.  Gary Oldman leads the cast and gives a remarkably restrained and inward-looking performance as an agent trying to expose a mole in the British intelligence system.  I also loved Tom Hardy as a hidden man with questionable loyalties.  As soon as this movie ended, I read the Wikipedia plot summary (and a few things clicked in), but I also wanted to see it again as soon as possible.

Grade: A-

The Ides of March
(Nominated for Best Original Screenplay)

The Ides of March is well-acted, never boring, artfully put together, topical, and yet not particularly ground-breaking.  Ryan Gosling goes 3-for-3 in good 2011 performances that show his range (compare him here to Crazy, Stupid, Love and Drive), and Philip Seymour Hoffman and Evan Rachel Wood also give good supporting performances.  This movie is about a campaign worker who gradually comes to discover that the candidate he is working for (played by George Clooney, who also directs) has some skeletons in the closet.  Definitely worth a watch, but missing that extra something that makes for a great movie.

Grade: B

The Rise of the Planet of the Apes
(Nominated for Best Visual Effects)

This summer blockbuster is a whole lot of fun and features a remarkable performance-capture performance by Andy Serkis (who also did Gollum from The Lord of the Rings films).  It's a prequel to the original Apes movie, and this one brings the audience firmly onto the side of the Apes, who are cruelly used until they decide to rise up.  The humans aren't given particularly interesting characters in the movie, but there are some amazing action sequences, particularly the climactic chase and fight on the Golden Gate Bridge.  

Grade: B

Foreign Film Nominees

A Separation
(Also nominated for Best Original Screenplay)

Every year National Geographic screens the 5 Foreign Film nominees, and I was able to catch 3 of them this year.  Far and away the best I saw, as well as easily one of the best films of the year, was A Separation, from Iran.

To reveal too much of the plot is to do a disservice to the viewer.  I'll just say that this movie starts with a couple deciding to separate and moves on to the consequences that result from this decision.  Along the way, this decision impacts several characters in two very different families.  Watching this movie, I was reminded of how shallow so many movies (even relatively good ones) are.  Since seeing it Friday, I've been thinking about the characters and their struggles constantly.  Both on the surface and beneath are deep and engrossing questions about gender, religion, marriage, children, moral ambiguity, and modern Iran.  It's all done with no preaching, no heroes, and no villains.  It's also damn engrossing as it turns into a legal thriller as well.  It also has one of the most haunting and moving finales I've seen in a long time.  If this movie is playing around you, see it as soon as possible.

Grade: A


A movie about dueling Israeli academics, who happen to be father and son, this movie shows the huge stakes that academics put around small things-such as honors, awards, and citations in others' work.  It starts amusingly with a brisk pace and clever introductions to the characters.  Unfortunately, it then moves to a rather boring place, neither funny nor serious enough to interest the viewer.  By the end, I was ready for it to end.  I'm a bit puzzled at how this movie made it to the final 5.

Grade: C

Monsieur Lazhar

A sweet, gentle movie about a kind teacher and his impact on children.  This movie comes from Quebec and concerns an Algerian immigrant who takes over a class of children after their last teacher commits suicide.  The movie quietly looks at the cultural clashes that occur, and the care that this man (who harbors his own scars) gives to the students in their vulnerable time.  Along the way, the movie also makes some cogent points about modern education's distrust of messy emotions and deep relationships between teachers and students.  

Grade: B+

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