Awards season is here and I am a massive pirate:
It's strange that there's been practically no discussion on the entire forum about such an acclaimed film: Zero Dark Thirty (2012)
Okay, so after watching Django I've decided I'm getting award season fever so I'm gonna blast through as many Best Picture nominations as I can (it's a travesty that Django wasn't in there) just so I can be properly outraged when something sh*t wins as it always does at the Oscars.
Anyway... Zero Dark Thirty (and its fantastic poster, above). A film about the hunt for and capture of Osama bin Laden could have gone two ways. It could have gone the "bang bang shoot our way through Afghanistan until we realise we should be looking in Pakistan then blast our way through there too" or it could have gone the way it did and be more of a Law and Order style police procedural with the "police" being the CIA. It's all the better for it really, especially considering an "Ooh-rah let's shoot us some terrists"flick would have been exactly the propaganda I was glad ZDT never really became.
With much more focus on drama and procedure, ZDT isn't the action film that you might think you're getting from the first trailer (not to mention the fact that you only see half of Jessica Chastain's face and the back of her head for a second in it, but sexism in marketing films is another discussion for another day). There is, obviously, a quite action packed set piece towards the end (you can probably guess what that involves if you've watched a news programme in the past two years) but it's not indicative of the rest of the film. The majority of screentime centres around Jessica Chastain's Maya and her obsessive ten year journey to be the one who is responsible for finding public enemy number one. Spanning ten years and two continents means that there isn't really much room for any of the rest of the cast to make much of an impression. This is pretty much the Jessica Chastain Show, and she runs it well. As you would hope, you get quite a lot of character development over a decade. Maya runs through a multitude of grey areas morally and emotionally through her career and they take their toll. From the tentative and wary person she is in her first "enhanced" interrogation to the very Carrie-from-Homeland type character she becomes. The mission consumes her and becomes her entire life, delivering a very poignant scene at the very end of the film.
The events at the beginning of the movie that mold her into a harder person have been pretty controversial themselves. Featuring depictions of detainees being waterboardied, put into stress positions, locked in boxes and beaten, the film's stance regarding torture has been varied. Some interpret it as a condemnation of the CIA and wider US Govt. treatment of detainees, and other see it as a message saying that torture is a necessary evil. I was very fearful of being fed some bullsh*t propaganda message about how the treatment was justified but I don't think I got that. the impression I took from it was that this was simply what happened, and we're left to make our own judgement about it. One criticism I'd level on that note though is how much of a point is made of the Obama administration's clamp down on torture/enhanced interrogation. The CIA staff make it sound as if his office actually made it all stop completely and immediately, when it's pretty clear that did not and has not happened.
I'm very glad that Kathryn Bigelow (director) didn't gloss over the details of the final raid on the compound to paint SEAL Team 6 as unfaultable American heroes*. The raid does mess up where it did in real life, there are casualties that could have been avoided and certain practices (e.g. shooting stationary bodies "just to make sure") that aren't exactly considered respectful happen but overall it seems like a fair and accurate representation. Something I might take issue with is that it's never said out loud that the raid isn't exactly legal for the US to be carrying out on Pakistani soil. It's alluded to, but never spoken in such words. That could've been made clearer.
Overall though, the film doesn't come off to me as political propaganda. There's been a lot of fuss made over how much access Bigelow and co. got to some classified files when doing the research, access that could have been given in return for good lighting, but personally I don't feel like I was campaigned at. That said, despite being a well paced film with an immensely tense finale and an engaging central character, I don't think a film like this should ever be given the award for Best Picture. I know, saying that art shouldn't be rewarded on merit because of its subject matter is borders on fascistic censorship**, but I just think that giving something with such potential to be propaganda such a prestigious award would set a bad precedent. That, and I just think it was a really good film, not a great film.
*Well, I mean I have nothing but respect for the soldiers themselves, they were just doing their jobs. I mean with regards to the mission and the nature of how it was orchestrated.
** I know, I know. I'm a prat.
And to follow that... Django Unchained (2012)
Tarantino's been banging on in the film press these past few months about how he thinks directors only get worse once they're "old". Well, consider yourself very much still middle aged Mr Quentin because Django Unchained is not to be missed.
His last film, Inglorious Basterds was often called a spaghetti western in every way but location and time. Having enjoyed that he's obviously taken that interest in spaghetti westerns a little further and given us Django, although of course it couldn't be that straightforward and we get was the director himself has dubbed a "southern". It's an important distinction though. With slavery at the heart of the film it had to be in the south and it had to be pre civil war, so it's markedly different from a lot of the classic westerns in that respect.
Don't get me wrong though, this is a film about slavery but it's not your standard middle-class white guilt fare like Dances with Wolves or something. This sh*t is Tarantino through and through, and that means it's about expressions of power rather than expressions of regret. Django is very much a revenge fantasy made manifest with everything that entails. Django (Jamie Foxx) is a slave who's been recruited and freed by a German bounty hunter, Dr King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), who's offered his freedom in return for his help hunting down some particular targets. Upon hearing of Django's forced separation from his wife, Schultz offers his help in tracking her down and rescuing her. That means rescuing from her newest master, the notoriously sadistic Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).
It's these three that make the film. Foxx is perfect as the freed slave going from a defeated man who'd had the only good thing in his life stripped from him to an unstoppable force of nature. The man exudes confidence and power; when Django kicks a door open, you know sh*t's about to go down. Similarly, Waltz delivers yet again for Tarantino. Following his ridiculously good performance as Col. Hans Landa in Inglorious, he's much the same in that Schultz is a smooth wordsmith and charismatic talker, only this time he's not a sadistic nazi but one of the good guys. This time you won't feel a little uncomfortable for really liking him. As for DiCaprio, this is just another nail in the coffin that was my stupid opinion of him. Thanks to films like The Beach and Romeo + Juliet I was sure he was a poor actor, then I saw Catch Me if You Can and figured he got lucky, then I saw Inception, then I saw The Departed and now I've seen Django Unchained and now I think he's one of the best on the scene these days. One particular scene in Django is one for the portfolio, where in an energetic rant the actor actually slashed his hand open by accident but just went with it because it fit the scene perfectly. the guy literally mutilated himself on the job and incorporated it into the scene. The man is fantastic.
That trio does make the film the great piece of work it is, but they don't do it alone. It's by far Tarantino's most mature film yet, but not at the expense of his personal style. Most Tarantino films to date have been flashy, visually and musically exciting films with a bit of a pulpy core in terms of emotion. The trademark flash and shock are still there. Hell, there's so much of the signature bright scarlet blood that one gun fight ends with the walls almost entirely painted with the entrails of the unlucky whiteboys who encountered Django. The humour that goes off on tangents hasn't gone anywhere either. Not to spoil it too much but there's a near enough ten minute sequence devoted to pointing out just how much the local KKK chapter might as well have walked off the Blazing Saddles set. But the devotion and determination of Django to get his wife back runs deeper than most emotional threads in Tarantino films. You could argue about Kill Bill's revenge idea, but you'd be wrong, that's just more of the pulpy flash again.
And that's not even mentioning the amount of hatred and disgust that should rightfully be generated in anyone's heart for Samuel L Jackson's Steven.
A great cast and exciting script lend itself perfectly to Taratino's vision of a western southern. Django is an epic journey through revenge, hate, violence and love with an exciting finale that'll rival any blockbuster on the silver screen these past few years. Les Misérables (2012)
I still maintain that one of the places you can find true beauty is in that of honest sadness. I'm not talking "boo hoo I did sh*t on an exam" or "I can't afford all the things I want", I mean proper, balls-to-the-wall, unapologetic despair. Fortunately, as you'd probably guess from the title, Les Misérables has got me covered on my despair quota for this month.
To get this bit out of the way: yes, it's a musical. And yes, I espouse my hate for musicals at more opportunities than it is welcome. But this, this is different. For one, a major factor in why I hate musicals is because the singing always feels so soulless and detached from the rest of the film but this isn't an issue here. Taking the gutsy move to have all performances done live on set (most musicals have the tracks recorded in studios months before the actors even meet on set) director Tom Hooper grants the songs the emotional impact they deserve. Trusting actors to perform, well, while they're performing allows for a whole new dimension of freedom on set; they don;t just have to stick with the track they laid down months ago. Secondly, pretty much the entire film is done "in song". Taking that move eliminates the weird jarring sensation that annoys me so much when people go from spoken dialogue to singing in most musicals. If you're gonna sing, go total immersion and don't let up. It's so much better for it, and the lines that are simply spoken carry so much extra weight.
The standard of the singing is immense and a testament to this method of film-making. There's been a lot of buzz around Anne Hathaway's rendition of Fantine's 'I Dreamed a Dream', and it's completely deserved. Her angry and melancholic version encapsulates the film in a nutshell and will the defining moment of the production for a long time to come. Hathaway's passionate and emotionally driven performance blows out of the water whatever technical showboating rendition that mad Scottish woman could come out with.
Hathaway stands out, but that's no slight on the rest of the cast. Everyone involved, including the fantastic Hugh Jackman and Russel Crowe as Jean val Jean and Inspector Jalvert respectively, knocks it out of the park. Another standout moment that's received notably less press but really stuck with me was Samantha Barks' version of Éponine's 'On My Own'. f*ckin' brilliant.
You really do the gauntlet of sadness with this film. Off the top of my head you've got: throwing away your life to save your families', the shame of becoming a vagrant thief, shame of selling yourself out jsut to support your family, being dehumanised into a piece of meat, physical mutilation*, unrequited love, guilt over not owning up to your own mistakes even if it's to protect others, fear of discovery, discovering that the work you've devoted your life to was an amoral cause, misguided youth being snuffed out amid a just crusade and countless others. So yeah, pretty sad, but beautifully so.
I can't recommend it enough. Even if you're a miserable bastard like myself who thinks they hate musicals, it'll get ya. I find it hard to believe there's been an eye that paid attention through the whole thing that stayed dry.
*I'll always give massive respect to anyone whose willing to physically change their body a great deal for a role especially if it's actually on screen. Hathaway cutting her hair off is to be commended just as much as Natalie Portman having her hair completely shaved in V For Vendetta, a scene I hold up to justify my choice of favourite actress. Life of Pi (2012)
The movie of the book deemed "unfilmable" by many. Life of Pi tells the story of a young man, Pi, who becomes lost at sea after a shipwreck involving a shipment of zoo animals. His only companion, a ferocious Bengal tiger. It's a story about determination and finding both yourself and God.
In one sense it's a film that deals a lot with religion, but in a nuanced and sweeping touch. It's not about Christianity, or Islam or Hinduism. It's about a man's personal connection with his own version of a higher power. Pi and his less than friendly companion go through a lot and without each other or a connection to something bigger, they would most likely not come through it as one.
Life of Pi is very much a film you feel as well as watch, so it's hard to describe in exact terms. Even if you don't buy into the message of the film though, it is objective to say that the film is visually breathtaking. It's remarkable what director Ang Lee can manage to do with a small boat, a vast ocean and a smattering of wildlife. It takes him literally only those three things and he creates the most beautiful looking film I've seen probably since Enter the Void. Some of the shots of what pi encounters at night, and the shots of the sinking ship, will most definitely stick with me for a long time.