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Sunday, February 3, 2013

The Last of the Best Picture Nominees: Amour, Django Unchained and Zero Dark Thirty

My duty of seeing all 9 Oscar nominees before the big night is done (with no last minute running out to the theaters) with my viewings of Amour, Django Unchained, and Zero Dark Thirty.  As I was thinking about how to tie these disparate films together, it struck me that they are all about revenge.  One is about an individual's revenge both for himself and historical atrocities, one about a country's revenge for an act of terrorism, and one about the ultimate "revenge" that all of our bodies will eventually take on us simply because we are human


My personal most exciting element of Oscar nomination morning was the 5 nominations for Austrian director Michael Haneke's Amour (Picture, Actress, Director, Original Screenplay, Foreign Film).  It's very rare for foreign film to make it in to Best Picture, and for Haneke to beat Affleck and Bigelow to a director's spot is astonishing.  With great focus, Amour traces the abrupt physical and mental decline of a  French woman (Emmanuelle Riva) and its affect on her devoted husband (Jean-Louis Tritignant).  Besides an opening scene at an orchestra concert, Amour never leaves the book-lined, comfortable Parisian apartment of the central couple.  They have a few visitors (most notably their grown daughter played by Isabelle Huppert), and most of the movie simply traces their duties, conversations, and interactions as they face Anne's inevitable decline.

Haneke has often been labeled a cold and clinical director, and it's true there is nothing warm and cuddly here.  In Amour, however, Haneke's gaze is squarely on the love of the couple at the center, never looking away at what love and devotion for another person in their final moments means, and by extension what it will mean for all of us.  There's no doubt watching Amour is a wrenching experience, and I for one wept through at least half of the movie.  It's just that profound and gripping.  Haneke is especially good at writing and editing scenes, so that we move abruptly through time, sometimes seeing a few moments later and sometimes seeing Anne after a considerable decline.  The performances of the lead actors cannot be lauded enough.  Emmanuelle Riva has a small chance at wrestling a Best Actress award from Jennifer Lawrence, and Tritignant is every bit her equal in what is the more active and prominent role in the film.  So many movies float away as mere memories a few days after you see them, and yet I have a feeling that I will remember the emotions of Amour throughout my life.

Grade: A

Django Unchained

As film directors go, I'm not as much of a Quentin Tarantino fanboy as your average internet film blogger.  I was intrigued by the premise of Django Unchained, but word of its length (close to 3 hours) and extreme violence dampened by enthusiasm a bit.  Thankfully, I spent 3 highly enjoyable hours with a movie that is witty, gripping, fun, troubling, and perhaps the most morally serious film made by Tarantino.

Django Unchained tells the story of Django (Jamie Foxx) who teams up with bounty hunter Dr. Schultz (Christoph Waltz) to find the men who tortured him in slavery and, most significantly, his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), who has been sold to the vicious and smooth-talking Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).  If you know Tarantino movies (specifically Django's spiritual heir Inglorius Bastards), you know where this movie is going.  Witty dialogue will be mixed with violence, movie history will be slyly referenced, and vengeance will most definitely come.  What I found most fascinating and invigorating about this movie was how Tarantino takes the horror of slavery, but also mocks the cultural and film legacy of films of the noble south.  When blood splatters (and boy does it) over the plantation estate of Calvin Candie, I immediately thought of the plantation Tara from Gone with the Wind. It's a subversive kick to see the disdain with which Tarantino treats his southern characters and the whole blight of slavery.

The cast is great from top to bottom.  My best-in-show goes to Samuel L. Jackson as Stephen, a house slave who has moved to the side of his oppressor.  It's a brilliant, scary performance and it definitely deserved an Oscar nomination.  Flaws? It goes on a bit long (especially during an extended dinner scene), and while I understand and mostly respect Tarantino's use of violence in the film, there are a couple scenes where less could have been more.  All in all it's a must-see movie,  my favorite Tarantino movie since Pulp Fiction.

Grade: A-

Zero Dark Thirty

Another movie about revenge, but its style is a million miles removed from Django Unchained.  Director Kathryn Bigelow tells the story of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden slowly and soberly, following leads that go nowhere until Bin Laden's whereabouts finally come into focus. The central character of the film is Maya (Jessica Chastain), a CIA agent who is entirely obsessed with finding Bin Laden.

After being heralded by numerous critics groups (including the New York Film Critics) and flat-out loving Bigelow's last movie, the Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker, I had very high hopes for Zero Dark Thirty.  In the end, I think it is well-made, interesting, engaging, but perhaps a little vacant at its core.  Whereas in The Hurt Locker we really got into the characters of the soldiers in Iraq, I never felt that I knew Maya as a character.  Jessica Chastain is a terrific actress with an amazing career ahead of her, but I didn't find her as engaging here as I did in last year's The Help, Take Shelter, or The Tree of Life. Where the movie is undoubtably great is in its last 45 minutes.  Bigelow stages the killing of Bin Laden in a way that makes it easy to follow for the audience, yet also shows the moments that are disconcerting.  There is also a great last shot in the movie that gives us some insight into Maya.

I feel I can't review ZDT without addressing its intense torture controversy.  As Bigelow herself has said, depiction of torture does not imply agreement.  The question is, I think, does the movie look at torture seriously? Absolutely. The scenes of torture are actually shot in a way that causes the viewer to feel the same revulsion Maya does when first encountering the torture.  If you were a viewer who thinks torture is completely warranted, I actually think the scenes would shake your confidence a bit. Bigelow is not an emotionally manipulative filmmaker, and I think she shows great restraint in not telling audiences exactly what to think.  I respect her for that, and yet I wish the movie moved me more.  Many viewers and critics I respect greatly adored this movie, but it didn't rise to the level of greatness for me.

Grade: B

1 comment:

  1. I felt like Boal and Bigelow showed too much restraint going for the emphatic journalism style of filmmaking but holding back from making great attempts to engage the audience unless they came into the film with their own feelings on the issue. Technically impressive, but so dark and cold for me.