Category: Best Adapted Screenplay


12YearsASlave1

The first “important” book that I ever read was The Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley. I read it in middle school long before I could fully appreciate the complexity of Malcolm X and Alex Haley’s examination of what it meant to be a black man in America in the middle of the 20th century, but even as an adolescent, the power of El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz’s fury and critique of American culture stuck with me in a way that forever changed my life. Although I’m white, I have biracial family members of African-American lineage and, growing up, my family took care of a family of four African-American foster children for many years. And through my immersion in real life to the legacy of institutionalized racism (and the more casual kind that still lingers to this day) as well as my exposure to Malcolm X’s story at such a young age, I was always aware of and sensitive to issues of race in ways that few of my white friends are or ever will be.

Even as a child, I was always astounded by the ways that people in the American South (West Virginia may have technically been part of the North during the Civil War, but we were one of the last states still actively fighting racial integration in the 60s) romanticize antebellum chattel slavery. These are people who have seen Gone With the Wind one too many times, and their idea of slavery are happy Mammy’s and Prissy’s who were glad to serve at their master’s beck and call. Clearly, they never read Roots. It is impossible to read Roots or The Autobiography of Malcolm X and have any romantic feelings towards the factual history of slavery and institutional racism in America. Yet, people do. We can add British director Steve McQueen’s masterful film 12 Years a Slave to the list of must-see works on that dark page of American history.

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The Academy Award winner for Best Picture is easily the darkest and most complex film to win that award since Schindler‘s List although for my money 12 Years a Slave is an entirely different class of filmmaking, and it is easily one of the finest films of this decade so far. In fact, 12 Years a Slave has such a richly faceted point to make about morality and ethics that I’m unsure if the Academy actually understood the subtext of the film because films this fatalistic and cynical don’t generally win Academy Awards. As an examination of the way that society is capable of normalizing cruelty and how the institutionalization of cruelty against marginalized groups robs even victims of their ability to empathize with other sufferers as they simply try to avoid more victimization themselves, 12 Years a Slave is a masterful philosophical treatise at a Bergman level.

12 Years a Slave is the true story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man living in New York in the 1840s, making a living as a violinist with his wife and two children. Solomon accepts an offer from two men in a traveling circus to play his violin as part of their show, but when they reach Washington, D.C., they drug Solomon and sell him to slave traders. And it isn’t long before Solomon, who was born free and had never been a slave his entire life, is sold to a string of masters in the American South and is exposed to the cruelty and barbarity of antebellum slavery firsthand.

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Upon being kidnapped and sold into slavery, Solomon’s name is changed to Platt, and he is beaten several times within an inch of his life as he protests his new appellation. Solomon must also hide the fact that he can read and write from his new masters because a slave that could read was considered the most dangerous type, even more than runaways. And although Solomon is initially sold to a relatively decent master, Ford (Star Trek Into Darkness‘s Benedict Cumberbatch), it isn’t long before a fight with a cruel overseer results in Solomon’s sale to a brutal and barbaric rapist and sadist, Edwin Epps (X-Men: First Class‘s Michael Fassbender) where he will spend many long years, a witness to not only his own suffering but also that of Patsey (Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o), Edwin’s favorite slavegirl that he rapes and abuses at a whim.

The obvious “text” of 12 Years a Slave is that slavery was a barbaric, unfathomably cruel system that no civilized nation can ever explain away. The text is likely what 12 Years a Slave won its Academy Award for, and Steve McQueen captures the barbarism in no uncertain terms. Slave women are raped repeatedly. Solomon and Patsey are both beaten towards the point of death, and we are given graphic looks at their backs where the flesh has literally been ripped from the bone. Mothers and children are ripped apart and when the mothers cry, they are beaten for their tears. McQueen ensures that there is no way to sit through this film and think that slavery was anything other than the evil system of exploitation and cruelty that it was.

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But, what makes 12 Years a Slave the masterpiece it is (and easily the greatest Best Picture winner in over a decade) are the nearly countless levels of subtext in the film. There’s a moment somewhat early in the film where Solomon has nearly been lynched by a foreman of the first plantation he worked on, and although the plantation overseer stops the lynching, he leaves Solomon hanging from the tree for hours to make a point. And in a magnificent long take, you start to see other slaves leaving their dwellings and return to their daily routine. Almost none of them so much as look at Solomon (one kind soul gives him water) and slave children play in the background eventually. It shows how in the world of slaves where you can be beaten or killed for one stray look, no one sticks their neck out for one another. You simply try to survive, and because of that, the film resists the temptation to even romanticize the suffering of the slaves by trying to make them too heroic or noble.

On the other level, even the kindest whites (with one major exception) are only able to extend mercy or understanding to slaves to a certain point before it begins to inconvenience them. At that point, they simply revert to believing that the blacks aren’t real people and that they can’t risk themselves to help them. Ford is kinder to Solomon than any of his other owners, but when Solomon tries to tell Ford that he is truly a free man, Ford refuses to hear any of it and sells him to Edwin Epps even though it’s clear that Ford believes Solomon on some level. And a friendly plantation neighbor to Epps allows Solomon to keep his wages for playing his violin, but he still utilizes Solomon for slave labour in the cotton fields. And, one seemingly friendly white quickly sells Solomon out because he thinks it will make him a quick buck.

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But, the kicker to the film’s themes of how systematic repression and cruelty robs victims of their ability to empathize with one another is a scene with actress Alfre Woodward (Primal Fear) as a former slave who was freed when she married her master (the same man who allowed Solomon to keep his earnings for a violin performance). She has been a slave. She was in the same position that Patsey was in. But, now, she lives in the comfort that is provided to her on the back of the forced labour of her former people. She gives a small speech at the end about the karmic judgment waiting men like her husband, but she seems totally unaware of the hypocrisy of her own position. And it’s because her suffering has created a mindset of “at least, I’ve managed to escape the lash for now.”

It also doesn’t hurt 12 Years a Slave‘s case that it has one of the finest ensemble casts in years. Chiwetel Ejiofor gives one of the best leading man performances of last year (in a year overflowing with superb performances) by playing Solomon’s suffering as realistically and with as little melodrama as possible. Solomon is human, and even he becomes tone deaf to the suffering of those around him on occasion, and by simply making him a man (rather than a symbol for all of slave’s suffering), Ejiofor and McQueen turn him into one of the most well-crafted characters of the 2010s.

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Although I’ve yet to see any of the other Best Supporting Actress performances besides Julia Robert’s in August: Osage County (she’s great in that film, but the movie is terrible and also Roberts was the leading lady), I can’t imagine I’ll be at all upset about Lupita Nyong’o’s Oscar win. Although she spends much of her early moments on screen not actually speaking, Nyong’o’s role eventually blossoms into an example of the suffering slave women (particularly beuatiful slave women) faced at the hands of male master’s who saw them not as people but purely as tools for giving them pleasure. And, one of the most memorable scenes of the film’s involves Patsey begging Solomon to kill her and put her out of her misery and his refusal to do so because he knows how much trouble it would be for him if Epps found out.

Michael Fassbender got a well-deserved Academy Award nomination as well (I have trouble believing that Jared Leto was ever better than him in anything but I haven’t seen Dallas Buyer’s Club yet so I can’t judge) as the bordering on psychopathic Edwin Epps. Fassbender makes it clear how brutal and sadistic Epps can be, and his actions in the film are monstrous, but Fassbender never turns Epps into a total monster, and that’s the beauty of his performance. Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Giamatti, Garrett Dillahunt, Paul Dano, Brad Pitt, and Sarah Paulson also all shine in smaller roles.

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After a quick scan of the last 20 odd years of Best Picture winners, there seems to be little question that 12 Years a Slave is the best winner of that award since Unforgiven. Although I’ve enjoyed every Best Picture winner of the 2010s, I haven’t thought any of them were remotely Best Picture worthy, and it is beyond refreshing to see a film of this magnificent a caliber finally being rewarded with the highest honor in the film industry. I still have to see most of the other Best Picture winners (the only others I’ve seen so far are Captain Phillips and The Wolf of Wall Street), but 12 Years a Slave has set not only a high bar for them to clear but also any other prestige films to come out the rest of this decade. It is a must-see film event for all who love the fine art of film.

Final Score: A+

 

 

 

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ForrestGump1

(A quick aside before my review proper begins. This is one of the most beloved films of the 90s and the viciousness with which I’m going to examine this film will probably offend its more hardcore fans. You’ve been warned. Also, though I usually attempt to review films purely on their own standards, Forrest Gump is such a cultural icon that I will have to also look at why that is and why I find that so distressing.)

If you were to ask the average movie-goer to compose a list of their top 10 films of the 90s, I’m probably not assuming too much when I say that Forrest Gump would be one of the films to make an appearance most often (and probably rank the highest on average). It is one of the most popular films, not just of the 1990s, but of the entire modern Hollywood era. The fact that this is true says something unspeakably sad about the tastes of the average movie fan. I’m concerned that I lack the vocabulary and the writing acumen in general to describe the melodramatic drivel that is the beating core of Forrest Gump in powerful enough terms. In my two and a half year tenure running this blog, there are probably less than five films that I can name that even come close to the blatant and cheap emotional manipulation that cranks Forrest Gump‘s gears.

Only the treacly garbage known as The Help and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close wear their absurd emotional and plot contrivances as the badges of honor that Forrest Gump so shamelessly employs. Forrest Gump is sappier than a maple tree in New England come syrup season. Sentimentality isn’t a bad thing in films. Movies like Monsieur Ibrahim or Cinema Paradiso are capable of generating real, strong emotions without relying on cheap, unearned histrionics to achieve that emotional payoff. Cheap sentimentality is achieved when writers and directors exploit tragedy and suffering without adding anything new to storytelling conventions that have been abused literally for centuries now or when a film is so patently unrealistic but still set up to evoke a specific set of emotional reactions that it has no right trying to grasp. Forrest Gump commits both sins of sentimentality and it became nearly unwatchable during this particular viewing.

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If, by some miracle you haven’t seen Forrest Gump (hopefully this encourages you to not waste your time watching it), the plot is as simple as it is absolutely fucking absurd. Forrest Gump (Big‘s Tom Hanks) is a sweet and innocent man born in the 1940s in a small town Alabama. But Forrest was born with an IQ of 75 and were it not for his loving mother (Lincoln‘s Sally Field), Forrest wouldn’t have been allowed to attend normal schools. But with the help of his mother who pushes him to not let anyone put him down because of his IQ and the fact that he has to wear leg braces, Forrest learns how to get by. He’s assisted in his childhood by his friend Jenny (played as an adult by The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo‘s Robin Wright Penn), a troubled girl physically and sexually abused by her father, but it’s when Forrest becomes a teenager that he sets on a world of adventures all his own.

It turns out that once Forrest loses his leg braces, he can run incredibly fast. And he becomes a star collegiate football player and even gets to meet President Kennedy (the first in a string of presidents and celebrities that he’ll meet) as part of the All-American Team. And after he graduates from college, Forrest is drafted to Vietnam where he meets Bubba (Justified‘s Mykelti Williamson), a shrimp-obsessed black man, and Lieutenant Dan (Gary Sinise), a death-seeking officer from a long-line of soldiers. Forrest becomes a war hero by saving most of his platoon after a Viet Cong ambush and is even awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. Forrest becomes a world-class Ping Pong player and is involved in more or less every major historical event from the 1950s up until the 1980s.

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There’s probably, actually a good movie in there somewhere if you were to remove all of the bits where Forrest finds himself involved in literally practically every major historical event of the decade. The idea of a mentally disabled man struggling to find his place in life all while trying to come to terms with his love for a woman that is not mentally ill… there’s a good screenplay hidden in there somewhere. But, at literally (I’m probably going to abuse that word during this review) every opportunity Forrest Gump chooses to forego authenticity in favor of outrageous coincidences and unearned emotion. Every emotional scene is underwritten, over-directed, and pompously scored. If you don’t know what you’re supposed to be feeling in a scene (which should be impossible considering the film’s overbearing theatrics), don’t worry; the constantly obvious score will simplify things for you.

And, with a handful of exceptions, the performances are also all too on-the-nose. Tom Hanks won an Oscar for this film, and ignoring for a second that this means both John Travolta and Tim Robbins couldn’t win for their roles in Pulp Fiction and Shawshank, there’s hardly anything great about Hanks’s performance. With the exception of his scene at Jenny’s grave at the end of the film (SPOILER i suppose but I don’t care), he never taps into any genuine emotion in his performance as Forrest. Maybe also when Bubba died. He plays a mentally ill person well, but great acting is synonymous with powerful emotion (even if that power is tapped into in a subtle way like Joaquin Phoenix in The Master), and Hanks’s performance is mostly bland from an emotional perspective throughout. Of course, Forrest is a bland and passive protagonist so that makes sense.

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It should be no surprise then that the only two memorable performances in the film come from the movie’s two best characters. She’s hated by most of the film’s fandom (because she is an actually flawed and broken heroine compared to the perfect but slow Forrest), but Jenny is arguably the most interesting character in the film. Coming from a broken home and making a series of endless bad choices who can only find loves in the arms of a man who may not really understand how love works (despite his famous quote), Robin Wright Penn captured all of the loneliness and desperation that would consume a woman in her shoes. And, of course, Gary Sinise is spectacular as the embittered and cynical Lieutenant Dan who rages against God and Forrest himself for not allowing him to die in the jungles of Vietnam and forcing him to spend the rest of his days as a cripple.

Of course, I can’t make the argument that Forrest Gump isn’t a well-made film from a technical perspective. From the way that Robert Zemeckis seamlessly integrated Tom Hanks into actual classic TV and news footage to the generally beautiful cinematography, Forrest Gump is a competently well-made film. In fact, the skill with which it was made is part of the reason that I suspect so many people are tricked into believing the emotion of the film. Robert Zemeckis is such a skilled director that he utilizes every cinematic trick of the trade to elicit the reactions he wants because the writing of the film sure as hell isn’t strong enough to do the job. And, obviously, the movie has an absolutely killer soundtrack of the best songs of the 60s and 70s once the movie makes its way to Vietnam.

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More than 1300 words is plenty on a film that I distinctly dislike, but because Forrest Gump is so well-loved I had to explain in as clear a language as possible why this film is, from every objective standard I can think of, a total train-wreck.It’s movie trickery that has fooled people into thinking this is some type of profound and grand film. And that’s funny because almost any time the movie espouses some bit of homespun wisdom (usually from Forrest’s mother), it’s contradicted less than ten minutes later. I apologize if you’re a lover of Forrest Gump and this review offends your adoration of this film; I used to like it myself. But, after this particular viewing and as a much more sophisticated movie watcher than I was ten years ago (when I last saw the film), there’s no possible conclusion I could come to than that Forrest Gump cheaply plays with audience’s emotion and uniformly never earns the emotional payoff it so desires.

Final Score: C

 

Argo1

(A quick aside before I begin my actual review. I’m on literally like five or six different types of cold/sinus/allergy medicines at the moment, so if this review is incomprehensible gobbledy-gook, that’s why, and I’ll fix it when I’m not drugged out of my gourd and my sinuses don’t make my face feel like it’s simultaneously melting and being squeezed by a massive vise)

If you were a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, how would you vote in the race for Best Picture? Would you vote for what you simply thought was the finest film of the year based solely on its artistic merits or would you allow for more complicated factors such as mainstream accessibility and cultural significance? I bring this up because for the last five years, I can’t honestly imagine that the Academy voters went with Option A (unless their tastes in movies are just stunningly shallow) and instead went with the option of smart films with mainstream appeal. It’s not that The King’s Speech or The Artist are bad films. They’re very good films, but like 2012’s Best Picture winner, Argo, they were released in a sea of films with far more artistic vision and insightArgo2

With that prior warning, it may come as a shock when I say that Argo is a virtually flawless film. There wasn’t a single moment in the film where I thought to myself, “That was mishandled,” or “They should have done that differently.” However (and I’m about to coin a word here), it was also a totally “awe”-less film. For a movie that is now enshrined as the “Best Picture” of 2012, there was simply not a single exceptional element to the film.  At literally no point in the film (except for maybe Alan Arkin’s performance but more on that later) did I sit up and say, “Wow. That was superb.” From the direction (Ben Affleck’s now infamous Best Director snub was honestly well-deserved) to the cinematography to the characters to the story, everything about the film was very good. Nothing about it was great.

A fairly fictionalized account of real events, Argo is the story of a recently declassified CIA op that occurred during the Iran Hostage Crisis in 1980. After the Iranian revolution that deposed U.S.-supported Shah Reza Pahlavi and began the reign of the Ayatollah Khomeini and Iran’s turn into an Islamic Republic, Iran had a very legitimate beef with the actions of the U.S. government in overthrowing their democratically elected leader prior to Shah Pahlavi. And after months of unrest, protestors stormed the U.S. embassy and took 52 American diplomats and members of the foreign service hostage for 444 days. Argo is the story of six Americans who escaped the embassy before they were captured and the efforts of the C.I.A. to extract them from Iran.

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Tony Mendez (Dazed and Confused‘s Ben Affleck) is a C.I.A. exfiltration expert. His job is to get wanted targets out of highly hostile environments without any violence or calls for alarm. When the State Department and C.I.A. are tasked with extricating the six American escapees (who have been staying at the home of the Canadian Ambassador to Iran), Mendez has to come up with a plan to get them out of the nation alive. So, Mendez decides to have the escapees pretend they’re part of a film crew surveying Iran as a possible location for their new science fiction film, and with the help of Hollywood make-up artist John Chambers (The Big Lebowski‘s John Goodman) and producer Lester Siegel (Catch-22‘s Alan Arkin), that’s just what Mendez is going to do.

Perhaps my biggest complaint about the film is that it’s like eating a box of popcorn. When all is said and done, the film tastes good and it keeps you full as you’re going along, but when the credits roll, you realize it was completely empty and you’re hungry for something of actual substance. I said earlier that the film was flawless although perhaps that was the wrong word. It has a big glaring flaw, but you only really notice upon later reflection once the credits roll. This is a film simply over-flowing with eccentric and interesting characters, but for the life of me, I couldn’t give a shit about a single one of them because the film spent zero time developing them and letting the audience emotionally invest in their troubles.

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Part of me also wants to find fault in the almost comically stoic performance from Ben Affleck as the film’s lead, but upon reflection, I’m going to say that it makes sense and is logical within the context of the performance. Mendez is a hardened C.I.A. spook and his job is navigating high-tense situations. It makes perfect sense that he would be as calm and collected as humanly possible. But, honestly, the only performance from the film that wowed me was another delicious comic turn from Alan Arkin as the foul-mouthed movie producer. If nothing else sticks with me from Argo, the catchphrase “Argo-fuck-yourself” has already become part of everyday vocabulary thanks to Alan Arkin.

I was also bothered by the film’s decision to add unnecessary and totally fictional conflict and complexity to the mission that Tony Mendez was trying to perform. I understand that the film wouldn’t be very interesting if it had stuck strictly to the facts of the “Argo” case, but it could have found depth and tension in other areas rather than a strict portrayal of historical facts with some completely made-up shit thrown in for good measure. The film wants to be taken seriously as a portrayal of the events that occurred (and it does get a lot of points for showing why Iran had a good reason to hate the U.S. at the time), but when it adds fictitious elements like the near shoot-out at the airport in the film’s climax, the movie loses some of its credibility.

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And Argo committed one of the most disappointing movie crimes of all (at least for me). Other than the often hilarious and refreshingly comic moments that lampooned the sillier sides of Hollywood, the film seemed to never generate an emotional response from me other than a vague sense of pleasure from the admittedly very clever and daring mission it portrays. I didn’t care about the characters. Their actions never make me feel sympathy or distaste. And, as mentioned before, their characterizations (even that of Tony Mendez) were crudely thin.

So, it’s becoming clear that my earlier statement that Argo was flawless is coming apart at the seams while I’ve yet to find much positive to say about this film. So, let me close out with this addendum to the torrent of issues I took with this Best Picture winner. I honestly enjoyed this film, and I thought it was a very good, mainstream crowd-pleasing thriller. It is the fact that it was named the Best Picture of last year that I feel the need to examine it with such intensity. As a political thriller and a loose retelling of historical facts, Argo is a success. But if you call this the most artistically significant film of last year, well, “Argo-Fuck-Yourself.”

Final Score: B+

 

TheDeparted1

Not since my review of No Country for Old Men early in this blog’s existence have I reviewed a film that I have such complicated feelings toward. Much like that particular Coen brothers film, The Departed was the movie where Hollywood royalty (in this case Martin Scorsese) finally took home the big prize. Yet, just like No Country for Old Men, there is a sizable portion of that director’s fan-base who feel Scorsese was rewarded for the wrong film. I consider myself to be a bit of a Scorsese buff, and I can name around five of his films that I think are better than The Departed and quite a few films from 2006 that were more deserving of the Best Picture Oscar (Pan’s Labyrinth, Letters from Iwo Jima, Little Children just to name a few). That’s not to say this isn’t a good movie. It is, in fact, a great film (that far exceeds it’s source material, Infernal Affairs). It just has enough flaws to keep it from reaching the top-tier of Scorsese classics.

You do have to give The Departed and Martin Scorsese (as well as screenwriter William Monahan) credit for something though. The Departed (alongside Peter Jackson’s re-imagination of King Kong) has become the standard by which any future remake has to be judged. Current readers will know I reviewed Infernal Affairs last week, and I found it to be an all-style/no-substance affair. That was actually my primary complaint about The Departed for years although upon more recent viewings, I’ve come to appreciate a lot of the subtext the film contained. And despite The Departed‘s occasional slightness, it expands and broadens every aspect of Infernal Affairs. Characters that were broad generalizations are given life and depth, and with the exception of Good Will Hunting and Gone Baby Gone, Boston has rarely felt this alive in cinema.

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With many added characters and a geographical facelift, The Departed is a very Irish-American take (coming from the ultimate Italian-American film-maker, Martin Scorsese) on the Hong Kong action of Infernal Affairs. Irish mafia king-pin Frank Costello (Chinatown‘s Jack Nicholson) runs the Boston underworld, and it puts him right in the sights of Massachussetts State Police Captain Queenan (Catch-22‘s Martin Sheen). Queenan runs the Undercover Department of the Special Investigation’s Unit, and along with his assistant Dignam (The Fighter‘s Mark Wahlberg), he hires Billy Costigan (Inception‘s Leonardo DiCaprio), a State Police cadet, to go undercover and infiltrate Costello’s organization. At the same time, Costello has Colin Sullivan (Margaret‘s Matt Damon) joining the Massachusetts State Police where he quickly climbs the ranks and becomes Costello’s mole in the police. And it’s not long before both Costigan and Sullivan have to hunt each other.

Where The Departed really sets itself apart from Infernal Affairs (besides the better cast, better direction, better editing, etc) is that beneath the cat-and-mouse game at the heart of the film and the violent crime action is a tale about identity, redemption, family, and being something more than fate decides you should be. The obvious theme to discuss is identity and how men and women who go undercover as cops often risk becoming the very people they’re trying to hunt. That was all of Donnie Brasco, and The Departed makes it so much more compelling. Maybe it’s cause DiCaprio handles the terrain better than Johnny Depp (more on DiCaprio shortly), but the dramatic thrust of the schizophrenic state Billy Costigan always had to place himself in was what kept the tightly wound crime thriller glued together.

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To me, any discussion though of the film’s merits have to begin and end with Leonardo DiCaprio’s fearless performance as Billy Costigan. He got his Oscar nomination that year for Blood Diamond, but it should have been for this film, and honestly, he was just as good as Forrest Whitaker in The Last King of Scotland. This was a career-defining performance from Leo, and much like Robert De Niro before him, this was the film that cemented him as Scorsese’s new acting muse. Billy Costigan demands that Leo can reach every spot on the emotional continuum and often flip between them instantly. And not only does Leo do this, he nearly sets a new bar for masculine vulnerability. There is an emotional nakedness that Leo taps into for some of the most important scenes of the film, and it is rare to see a male actor display so much of his soul in a performance.

The rest of the cast was wonderful as well, and it’s honestly impossible to pick favorites. It’s kind of ridiculous that Mark Wahlberg got an Oscar nomination when Jack Nicholson and Alec Baldwin didn’t (as they both gave more interesting performances) though Marky Mark did do a good job in his spot. This was not one of the definitive performances of Matt Damon’s career, but he channeled the smugness and confidence that someone like Colin Sullivan would need to reach the top. Martin Sheen shined as the paternal Captain Queenan (even though he couldn’t always keep up the Boston accent). Some have accused Jack Nicholson’s performance of being too hammy, but I’m pretty sure it was intentional, and it added to the flamboyancy of the Costello character. And as the shared love interest of both Costigan and Sullivan, Vera Farmiga brings her own vulnerable sexuality to the equation as a psychiatrist.

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And, in classic Scorsese style, The Departed is a technical movie fan’s dream. There are issues I take with the direction (more on that later), but mostly, Scorsese proves again and again why he will be forever remembered as one of the most important figures in American cinema. Whether it’s the lighting, the quick cross-cutting, the not-so-subtle religious iconography, or the graphic, stylized violence, The Departed feels like a Scorsese film through and through, and after the decade spent the better part of the decade exploring more serious affairs like The Aviator and Gangs of New York, Scorsese’s return to his organized crime roots was certainly a breath of fresh air to his legions of fans. The Departed runs two and a half hours long, which is about thirty minutes too long for this story, but it took Scorsese’s steady hand to make that length bearable and consistently fun.

However, that doesn’t erase the fact that the film is too long. And while the pacing remains generally propulsive, there are moments where it lags, and I don’t just mean that it slows down to focus on characters. That’s fine. But many of the moments where the film tries to develop the Colin Sullivan character feel less well-realized than the other moments in the film, and unlike Infernal Affairs (where the dirty cop was just as interesting, if not more interesting than the undercover cop), Sullivan just never reaches the dramatic heights that Costigan finds. The sections where the film alludes to his sexual dysfunctions are especially poorly done and just don’t hit with me. Also, Infernal Affairs has a better ending than The Departed. I don’t want to ruin either film’s ending, but if you’ve seen both, I’m not sure if it’s possible to feel that Scorsese’s ending didn’t dilute the powerful nature of the other film’s climax.

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I’ll draw this to a close (this particular review keeps reminding me that I should start taking notes as I watch movies I plan on reviewing like I did in the past) and leave with these parting thoughts. The Departed is a great film and one of the definitive crime epics of the 2000s. Sadly, the competition in that particular category wasn’t as fierce as it was in the 90s and 70s. And Martin Scorsese is such a storied director with such a sizable library of classic films (Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, etc) that The Departed ranks somewhere alongside Hugo in a list of his great films that just aren’t as legendary as his definitive works. Still, for fans of Scorsese and fans of crime movies in general, The Departed is about as can’t miss as they come.

Final Score: A-

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We’re going to start out with a quick discussion of Hot Saas’s Pop Culture Safari grading protocol before this review because it bears on my opinion of this film and how it strays slightly from my usual behavior. The Godfather: Part II marks my 317th movie review for this blog. Out of those 317 films, 16 films will have received the illusive score of “A+” (The Godfather: Part II is about to become movie #16 in that list). Generally, the films that receive this score either leave my intellectually breathless (Synecdoche, New York, 8 1/2, Persona) or they leave me emotionally devastated (The Tree of Life, Winter’s Bone, Glengarry Glen Ross). Occasionally though, films will come along that just such perfect, flawless, and thrilling demonstrations of masterful cinematic technique that there is no other score you could possibly hope to give them. Chinatown or Ran are clear examples. The Godfather: Part II is one of the most technically superb films ever made and one of the true masterpieces of the 1970s (and all of American cinema) and simply superior to its predecessor.

Expanding on every theme of The Godfather: Part I while upping the ante in the tragedy department tenfold as well as shoveling more dramatic irony than one would think humanly possible into a film (though at three and a half hours, I guess you have plenty of time to put as much in there as you want), I think it might be fair to say that The Godfather: Part II could be the greatest American epic of all time. Throw in the fact that these films (particularly this entry) are much lighter on actual violence than people seem to remember and that becomes all the more impressive. Yet, in all of American cinema, the exploration of the destruction of one man’s soul, integrity, basic human decency, whatever you want to call that last shred of “goodness” in our hearts, has never been put on more fuller display than in The Godfather: Part II.

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Set a few years after the end of the original film, Part II finds the Corleone family migrated to Nevada where Michael’s (Al Pacino) plans to get an early foothold in the Las Vegas casino business have borne marvelous fruit. Alongside strong-arming a U.S. Senator who wants to squeeze the Corleones for a gaming license, Michael’s life is complicated by the arrival of Frank Pentangeli (Michael V. Gazzo), a Corleone family capo who is feuding with the New York based Rosato brothers. The problem is that the Rosato’s are allied with Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg) and Johnny Ola (The Sopranos Dominic Chianese), Miami gangsters who are involved in a lucrative business deal in Cuba with Michael. When a botched assassination attempt on Michael in his own well-guarded compound awakens Michael’s vengeful side, Michael will stop at nothing to get revenge on those who could have harmed his family even if it ultimately means he destroys his family in the process.

Alongside the story presented in the late 1950s about Michael’s attempts to root out the rat in his family and protect his interests at all costs, the film also flashes back to the turn of the 20th century where you see the humble origins of Michael’s father Vito (Wag the Dog‘s Robert De Niro) from an exiled Sicilian boy to one of the most powerful gangsters in America. Born Vito Andolini, Vito has to flee his hometown of Corleone where a local mafia Don has a price on his head. He takes a boat to America (where he takes the name of his hometown) and after a run in with a local racketeer heavy, Fanucci, Vito quickly amasses power and respect in his community. In fact, there’s almost a victorious, triumphant feeling to the tale of Vito (although with the ultimate price his criminal activities cost his family weighing over every second) but I’ll have more to say about that important bit of ironic dichotomy later.

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As stated before, The Godfather: Part II (particularly when taken in conjunction with the first film) is a classical tragedy on a Shakespearean scale. Michael Corleone is a tragic hero to rival Hamlet or Macbeth. Here is a man who over the course of these two films starts out with at least somewhat noble intentions (and ultimately this film answers my concerns about the flimsiness of Michael’s transformation in the first film). He wants to protect his family. He wants to avenge the attempted murder of his father. He wants to provide for his screw-up siblings. But, by being so excellent at the business he was born into (but didn’t want anything to do with), Michael ultimately tears his family apart (and spoiler alert), he even orders the cold-blooded murder of one of his own siblings because the sibling betrayed him. He loses his wife Kay (Manhattan‘s Diane Keaton) and everyone is terrified of him. Yet, Michael rarely acts out of a place of pure selfishness (though he certainly ceased to be a good guy a long time ago) and he always thinks he’s doing the right thing, and it’s what makes Michael one of the greatest characters in movie history.

And compare that to the path Vito travels over the course of two films. Michael ultimately proves to be more effective as the head of the family. He makes the Corleones more wealthy than Vito could have ever imagined. But Vito achieved a modest success without alienating and ruining his family. The only casualty that Vito’s family ever suffers (besides his own near death at the hands of Solazzo in the first film) is Sonny (James Caan) but that was also about half Sonny’s fault. Yet, his sons (and daughter Connie [Rocky‘s Talia Shire]) wind up so disconnected from each other as a family that an avalanche of tragedy faces the family once Vito finally dies of a heart attack. Vito doesn’t have the same ice in his vein as his son that Michael thinks he needs to keep the family safe, but ultimately Vito proved to be a more moral man (in his own odd way) than his son transformed himself into being.

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It’s hard for me to name a way in which this film isn’t vastly superior to The Godfather: Part I, but let’s start with the performances. Al Pacino’s Michael in this film is not just the best performance of Pacino’s career (managing to even eclipse Glengarry Glen Ross for me) but arguably one of the most important of all time. This film was only made two years after the first film, but Pacino makes Michael seem decades older and more world-weary. Part of it is the excellent make-up he wears (you see what he usually looks like in the flashback that closes out the film), but you see just how dead inside Michael becomes over the course of the film. It’s one of those performances that can’t really be appreciated without seeing the other film, but Pacino is so great at losing himself in Michael’s emotional turmoil and decay, but he still finds the right moments to explode when he needs to, like when he discovers that Fredo (Jon Cazale) has betrayed him or that Kay has had an abortion.

De Niro so totally nails the mannerisms and vocal affectations of Brando’s Vito that it’s one of the all-time great cinematic impersonations although you also just have to savor the chance to see De Niro when he was so young and untested really exploring the palette of emotions and styles that would go on to define his legendary career. But like Joseph Gordon-Levitt simply became Bruce Willis in Looper, De Niro becomes Brando and it’s a sight to behold. Other stand-out performances from the film include Jon Cazale’s timid and naive Fredo, Diane Keaton’s abandoned Kay, Lee Strasburg’s scheming Hyman Roth, and, of course, the drunken and put-upon Michael V. Gazzo as Frank Pentangeli.

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There’s a moment late in the film that to me sums up not just the story strengths of the film or the acting strengths (though it contains some of the best moments of both) but just the attention to visual detail and the exceptionally strong direction that Francis Ford Coppola lends to the crown jewel in his career as one of the greatest directors in Hollywood history. Michael has brought Fredo back to his estate after discovering in Cuba (after a drunken Fredo lets slip that he knows Johnny Ola) that Fredo was the one to betray him. Although he initially wanted to forgive Fredo, Fredo’s unwillingness to take responsibility for what he did (by trying to blame Michael for treating him like a child) has finally pushed Michael over the deep edge. Michael essentially tells Fredo that he is now nothing to him. And it is so cold, that ice literally comes out of Michael’s mouth as he’s giving this speech. It’s the perfect visual metaphor for how cold and uncaring he’s becoming and it’s one of the defining moments of the film and Coppola’s career.

I could write 2000 more words about everything I love about this film, but I’d like to actually watch a movie today (or maybe get started on my third screenplay so I can rack up a hat trick of unpublished works) so I’ll draw this to a close before this becomes an academic essay on the cinematic import of this film. The Godfather: Part II won Best Picture and Best Director at the 1974 Academy Awards. It shouldn’t have. Chinatown and Roman Polanski should have, but if any film was going to beat Chinatown, I’m okay if it’s this one. Whereas the first film falters under the weights of its own ambitions, The Godfather: Part II not only meets those high standards, it exceeds them in every way. That a film that is three and a half hours long was able to carry my attention for every second of its running time should speak volumes to why this is one of the greatest films ever made.

Final Score: A+

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It’s been a long time since I’ve reviewed a film that is almost without fail always counted among the top ten films ever made. As a matter of fact, I’m not sure if I’ve ever reviewed a film this universally acclaimed. 8 1/2 is probably the closest contender if we throw foreign films into the mix. Chinatown is probably pretty high up there but only among more serious movie types (although you could say the same thing about 8 1/2). I just looked at the list of every single movie I’ve reviewed for this blog (I keep one along with the scores I gave them for my own clerical purposes), and absolutely no film I’ve reviewed is as much of a cultural touchstone as 1972’s Francis Ford Coppola opus, The Godfather. It’s the #2 highest ranked film on IMBD.com (narrowly behind The Shawshank Redemption). It is one of the most celebrated and beloved films ever made. It’s influence is immeasurable. But, it’s not quite perfect.

Thankfully, it is about as close to perfect as you could wish while still recognizing the film has one troubling flaw which distracted me for the film’s entire second half. Perhaps, it’s because the film is so well-loved and so highly considered that I was extra attentive to any flaws that I could find in the film. I’d like to believe I wasn’t going out of my way to look for things that I disliked in this movie, but there’s always a chance that I was doing it subconsciously. But I had so much trouble believing a fundamental transformation of the film that I was drawn out of the technical wizardry that Francis Ford Coppola (and cinematographer Gordon Willis) were using to wow me. Perhaps, I’m ill-suited to analyze the motivations and competing urges that seemed week and artificial to me, but the spiritual downfall of Michael Corleone still seems poorly developed.

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A generations-sprawling epic (particularly when the later two films are taken into consideration), The Godfather is ultimately the tale of the Corleone crime family. Starting on the day of his daughter’s (Rocky‘s Talia Shire) wedding in the mid 1940s, Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) is presented as the head of his powerful crime family. With the help of his sons, the hot-tempered Sonny (James Caan), the incompetent Fredo (John Cazale), and the adopted Tommy (Robert Duvall), Vito runs gambling and prostitution circuits in the New York area. Vito’s son Michael (Glengarry Glen Ross‘s Al Pacino) is a war hero that wants nothing to do with the family business, but when a rival family nearly murders his father, Michael takes it upon himself to run the Corleone family even if it means losing his soul in the process.

At nearly three hours long, The Godfather is a multi-layered, complex epic in every sense of the word so I fear to spoil too much about the plot. Although at the same time, this movie is 40 years old now. It’s not like there’s anybody reading this blog who is still yet to see this movie. Or at least I hope not. What I was trying to get at before though is that there is a sweeping grandeur to the film which is based off of Mario Puzo’s novel of the same name (Puzo also helped to write the screenplay with Francis Ford Coppola). The film falters on occasion but you can’t fault it’s ambition. The Godfather is as much about the price of family and how familial loyalty can undo us as it is a detailed look at the mafiosi in the 1940s. The attention to rich characterization and a bird’s eye view of the most intimate secrets of this family is what made The Godfather such a revelation upon its release.

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Much like Glengarry Glen Ross, this is truly an actors’ film. The ensemble casting is pretty superb (if not quite as seamlessly fluid as Glengarry) and it ranks among the best-cast films in cinema history. Brando won the Best Actor Oscar at the 1972 Academy Awards (though he declined it because of how Hollywood was treating Native Americans… long fucking story), and while I don’t actually consider Vito to the be the male lead of the film (that’s clearly Michael), it’s still a stunning performance. And it was probably Brando’s last great role. This was one of Pacino’s first big roles, and it was obviously what catapulted him to become the film legend he is today. And this is pre-crazy Pacino. It is a wonderful, restrained, subtle performance that helps makes Michael’s self-destruction far more believable than the script which rushes it despite the movie already being three hours long. The film didn’t nab three Best Supporting Actor nominations for nothing.

It’s also an incredibly directed and indelibly shot film. The film was shot by the “Prince of Darkness” himself, Gordon Willis. He earned the nickname because of how he flaunted the then conventional rules of how much light needed to be in any given scene. But it’s the same dark, moody atmosphere and half-lit room and deals that makes so much of The Godfather‘s visual appeal. This is a film where the mood of any given shot or scene is nearly as important as the actual on-screen dialogue and action. In fact, The Godfather is full to the brim of semi-lengthy sequences without dialogue (or without pertinent dialogue) and Coppola and Gordon Willis are able to evoke so much emotion just from the visual composition of a shot.

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And as far as direction goes, is there a better example of cross-cutting in the history of the medium than the famous baptism scene? Michael has finally taken over as the head of the Corleone family and intercut with images of the baptism of his sister’s newly born child, we see Michael’s associates brutally eliminating in one fell swoop anyone who had the temerity to cross or betray Michael’s family. That mixture of the sacred and profane is one of many things that made Coppola such an accomplished director. That moment has become a bit of American iconography. So much so that when it’s played with in The Godfather: Part III, you’re reminded why that film is so f***ing awful compared to the first two entries.

My only significant complaint about The Godfather (which is why I’ve ultimately always considered The Godfather: Part II to be a better film) is sadly, as I’ve said, tied straight to the major character arc that Michael undergoes. His steady transformation from the good-natured, straight and narrow son who doesn’t want to be involved in his family’s criminal underside into a ruthless and merciless crime boss is a shift that I just can’t buy. Much like Anakin becoming Darth Vader in Star Wars, the leap here seems hard to grasp. Although the film plays it out as Michael’s steady descent into hell because he’s trying to protect his family, Michael seemed so pure at the film’s beginning that the movie doesn’t do enough justice showing him being torn about the terrible things he does. He simply does them and there seems to be no psychological afterthoughts as to the terrible things he proceeds to commit.

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If the rest of the film weren’t so masterfully constructed, acted, and conceived, that flaw would be much more detrimental. Thankfully then, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather is a masterpiece in virtually every other respect and it remains an important hallmark of American cinema. My inability to connect with the transformation of Michael Corleone ultimately keeps this film from perfection (and therefore from receiving my illusive top score of an “A+”), but it takes a special kind of movie to keep me engaged for three hours and The Godfather never loses the audience’s focus for a second. I ultimately don’t consider this film to be in my Top 10 Greatest Films of all time, but if you even have a passing interest in movies, The Godfather is simply one you can’t miss.

Final Score: A

 

What does it say about a genre that the film that I consider the height of the market isn’t even a movie that I can give an “A+” to. I like horror (well, I like good horror. 99% of it is just fucking terrible), but I think that as a cinematic avenue, it might be an inherently inferior form. Because I truly believe that The Exorcist is the greatest horror movie ever made (and it’s one of the only horror movies that I actually find to be frightening), but when I think about the other films on this blog that I’ve awarded top marks to, I just can’t put The Exorcist in the same league as movies like 8 1/2 or Tree of Life. I can name exactly one other horror film (particularly if we characterize The Silence of the Lambs as a psychological thriller) off the top of my head that I’d be willing to give an “A” too (Let the Right One In), and there are handful of other horror films that I’d be willing to give “A-“‘s to. And that’s really it. Maybe it’s the way that the vast majority of horror films put scares ahead of engaging character development and therefore sacrifice an ability to emotionally invest the audience in the fates of the film’s heroes and heroines. Great cinema is about great characters and great stories (and occasionally, if your name is Fellini or Lynch or Bergman, about great visual odes to your own medium), and with the exception of Let the Right One In, I can’t really name any horror films that allowed me to become fully invested in fleshed out, three-dimensional characters. Still, The Exorcist earns itself an immense deal of good will by being without question the most frightening film of all time and one of the few movies that can instill genuine disturbance into the mind of this vocal atheist and skeptic.

While the film begins at an archaeological dig in Iraq, where Father Merrin (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close‘s Max von Sydow) stumbles across some ancient artifacts which may or may not be of demonic/Satanist origin, the actual film is centered in the otherwise quiet Washington, D.C. suburb of Georgetown. Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) is a successful actress in D.C. to film a movie raising her 12 year old daughter, Regan (Linda Blair), by herself. Their life is normal and happy (besides Chris’ absent husband) until one day when Chris and Regan begin to hear strange noises coming from the attic. Regan also seems to be convinced that she has communed with a spirit through a Ouija board that she found in the home’s basement. Their terror only escalates when Regan begins acting strangely, starting out by peeing her pants in a nearly catatonic state in front of a party that Chris was throwing and then resulting in full on tremors and spasms where Regan’s entire bed is shaking more than any 12 year old girl could possibly cause. After a series of extensive medical and psychiatric tests, none of the doctors or psychiatrists can come up with a reasonable explanation for Regan’s behavior and in a last minute desperation, Chris enlists the help of a local father (in the midst of a crisis of faith), Father Karras (Jason Miller) to perform an exorcism on her daughter who is increasingly under the obvious control of something beyond the normal. Along with Father Merrin, Father Karras attempts to save this young girl but it might cost him his own life in the process.

The Academy Award for Best Makeup didn’t exist yet in 1973 (it wouldn’t be invented until 1980 specifically for the film The Elephant  Man) but if it did, it would surely have gone to The Exorcist. This movie is nearly 40 years old, but moments where I felt the film’s effects had aged poorly were few and far between. This was back before CGI defined every single sci-fi/fantasy/horror film and make-up artists had to rely on good old human ingenuity to create compelling images that were beyond normal human experience. And The Exorcist succeeded with aplomb. Once Regan starts to really succumb to her possession and her body is covered in lesions and sores and pustules and what not, she is incredibly difficult to look at and it’s all thanks to the marvelous make-up work of the film’s effects crew. Possessed Regan is one of the most iconic figures in the history of horror and the film really nailed that disturbing and grotesque feel that I’m sure the movie’s script asked for (as well as the source book material). I’m just praying (figure of speech since I haven’t actually prayed in years) that I don’t dream about her disturbing visage this evening. Her face or the rare glimpses we get of Captain Howdy. That’s pretty much the last thing I need.

The film’s sound design is also a marvel (considering it won the Oscar for Best Sound, that’s not shocking). There’s a lot of subliminal stuff happening in this film, visually and aurally, and the fact that there’s almost always something happening at the edge of your perception adds a lot to the overall creepiness of the film. I’m a firm believer that sound design is one of the most important aspects of any horror film. It can be used to up the inherent paranoia and tension of the genre to nearly unbearable heights. All of the best horror films rely more on the audience’s imagination and a philosophy that what we don’t see is more frightening than what we do. The Exorcist succeeds in the technical department because its’ unnerving score paired with the endless stream of ambient effects and the more brutal and perverse noises played when Regan/the demon are in full evil mode. It’s disorienting to an almost whiplash inducing degree. To make it even better, the film will often slip in a couple frames of some demonic image just long enough for your eyes to register what you saw but not long enough for you to make sense of the image. From virtually every behind-the-scenes perspective, The Exorcist was a resounding technical triumph.

That was all without talking about the film’s spine-tingling script once. The movie takes its time getting to the possession (because it wants you to become emotionally invested in Chris, Regan, and Father Karras [though I would argue it fails to really develop anyone besides Father Karras in an interesting way]), but once Regan really starts to lose it, the movie is a non-stop ride into the heart of darkness. By the film’s end, you’ll never be able to look at a crucifix the same way again, and outside of a Stephen King novel, I can’t really think of a single bit of horror that was so willing to corrupt the innocence of a child. However, the film’s script is where it falters and that’s not even counting the way that I felt the movie tried to be more character driven than it had the acumen to be. For a healthy portion of the film, an argument could have been made (and was made by most of the doctors) that Regan wasn’t possessed. She was just suffering from some particularly violent strain of schizophrenia. I just wish the film had waited a while longer to make it so obviously clear that she was in fact possessed by a demon. I think the movie played that trump card too early, and honestly, it would have been just as disturbing seeing this 12 year old girl shoving her mother’s face into her bloody privates whether she was possessed or crazy. Ambiguity and the power of one’s imagination is the sign of a great horror writer, and this movie just played it’s cards a little too obviously. It’s not something that ever really bothered me when I watched this movie when I was younger, but seeing it as an adult now, it just seemed a little too heavy-handed.

I’ve written a lot today (3000 words for Game of Thrones alone) so I’ll draw this to a close. Had you asked me what score I was going to give this movie before I actually watched the movie (based on my memories of the film), I would have said “A+” but it didn’t work out that way. I guess my tastes have matured a little bit since I was younger. I haven’t watched this movie in high school so I feel like I came into this film with the perfect mix of nostalgia and freshness to make a good, objective review. Still, I do honestly believe it’s the best straight up horror film of all time. I actually think in retrospect that Let the Right One In is a slightly better movie, but I almost don’t like characterizing it as a horror film. If you’ve somehow missed seeing The Exorcist at any point in your life (my sister watched it for the first time today and was decidedly not impressed), it’s one of those films that any self-respecting movie fan has to see. I think it’s survived the intervening years since it’s release like a champ even if I’m not quite able to call it a perfect movie.

Final Score: A

This blog is well over a year old now, but I’ve only reviewed three other films from the 1930s (and only The Birth of a Nation from before the 30s). I have sort of a complicated relationship with movies (specifically dramas) that came out before the mid-1960s. They have their own idealistic, nostalgic beauty, but more often than not, it’s their same idealism and simplicity that I found to be terribly boring and overdone in the face of the more mature and sophisticated narrative and cinematic devices that have come to define top-tier dramas since the 1960s. However, when I find dramas from that era that I love, I form an almost instant attachment with them because their ability to transcend time and space. If their story or message or simple style seems relevant and entertaining despite being over 60 years old, that’s a fairly massive achievement and it signifies their deserved place in the canon of film beyond the simple fact of their age. Casablanca fits in this category. The films of Elia Kazan and Billy Wilder are other notable timeless works. Well, I now have another film that despite its almost Aaron Sorkin-esque romanticism speaks across the chasms of decades (the film is over 70 years old) with a story that is as relevant today as when it first came out. While it suffers from some of the flaws inherent to the biopic genre, The Life of Emile Zola is a striking statement on our civic duty to stand up against injustice and government hypocrisy.

In the mid 1800s, French author Emile Zola (Paul Muni) and his closest friend, artist Paul Cezanne (Vladimir Sokoloff), are starving for their craft in the impoverished streets of Paris. Emile Zola writes by night and works by day as a clerk at a bookstore where his “slanderous” (i.e. true) attacks on the French government and the social injustices inherent in French life mark him as an active enemy of the state and cost him his job. When a random encounter with a French prostitute inspires him to write a novel that also works as an expose on the harsh realities of French working girls, Zola is suddenly thrust into the international literary spotlight and enjoys a truly prolific career as one of France’s most celebrated authors. He is essentially the Dickens of France in the way that he explores the less glamorous side of the exploding Industrial Revolution. However, in his success, Zola becomes content to while away his years in contented satisfaction despite the condemnations of his former best friend Cezanne who continues to pursue art above wealth. Zola finds himself back in the midst of another moral crisis when a Jewish captain in the French army, Albert Dreyfus (Joseph Schildkraut), is falsely accused of being a spy and a massive government conspiracy arises to frame him for the crime rather than face a more politically tumultuous reality of admitting they charged the wrong man. When Zola embarks on his mission to clear the name of Capt. Dreyfus, he risks not only his legacy among the French people but even his own freedom when the French government accuses him of treasonous libel and places him on trial.

Joseph Schildkraut won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for this film despite the fact that he was only in the movie for at most fifteen minutes or so of actual screen time. Despite the briefness of his presence on camera, he gave a deeply emotional performance that was certainly helped with the effective close-ups of his subtly emotive face. Emile Zola is without question the main character of the film, but the trials of Capt. Dreyfus propel the film’s second half and it’s very important that we care deeply about this unjustly accused man, and Schildkraut aptly garnered my sympathy with his characterization of heartbroken betrayal. However, Paul Muni was the real star of the film, and while I haven’t seen Spencer Tracy in Captains Courageous (who beat out Muni for the Best Actor Oscar that year), I can say that Paul Muni gave an all-star performance as the titular Emile Zola. It may have had some of the over-the-topness and emoting that characterized the big screen in the decade following the transition from silent films to “talkies,” but there was a genuine passion and intelligence in his role and Muni captured the moral outrage that any rational and ethical man in those circumstances would feel. I haven’t enjoyed watching a character give speech after speech in a movie like this since the last time I watched To Kill a Mockingbird with Gregory Peck’s iconic performance as Atticus Finch. Muni’s version of Zola might seem very old-fashioned by modern standards, but even though I knew his acting didn’t really jibe with the more naturalistic modern conventions, I still enjoyed the theatrics and fire he brought to the role.

For the reasons laid out earlier, I was actually dreading putting this in my DVD player. It sounded terribly boring and the plot description on Netflix made me fear that this was going to be a film with an era-relevant theme that wasn’t going to translate well to the modern era. I was completely wrong. Whether it was Emile Zola’s position as a 19th century Howard Zinn/Noam Chomsky/Julian Assange or the way that justice and truth were being railroaded in the vague name of the state, this film is perfectly relevant in the post-Bush era of endless government secrecy. There was a scene during one of the trials where Zola’s lawyer requested the presence of a string of high-ranking army officials to testify, and they all used some imaginary government immunity to not participate. It was like a scene right out of the investigations into torture and inethical spying against the Bush administration. I could just hear Alberto Gonzalez and the rest of the Bush administration saying “I do not recall” over and over again. Similarly, while the film didn’t outright make Dreyfus’ Jewish ancestry the reason why he was being chosen as the scapegoat, the film definitely maintained that subtext (very subtly), and in an era where our government and our nation like to blame one ethnic group or another for our nation woes rather than face harsher truths, it all rang amazingly true. Yes, the script took some liberties with history (though I don’t know how many), and there was a lot of speechifying in this film, but as a product of a day when movies were nearly synonymous with the stage, I thought it was all entertaining and illuminating.

If you’re a fan of classic dramas, The Life of Emile Zola is an obvious pick considering its place as one of the most acclaimed biopics of the early days of cinema. However, if you’re like me and think film noir was the only consistently watchable non-comedy genre from that day, The Life of Emile Zola deserves your attention because of the renewed sense of urgency and relevancy it holds in the modern political climate. The film may paint Zola in the most romantic light possible without exploring any of his potential flaws and so it paints its hero in a very favorable light, but even without getting an entire picture, it’s a fascinating look at a page of history that hasn’t been done time and time again. The acting is excellent (by the standards of theatre anyways) and it was a surprisingly well-shot and well-edited film from this era. If you’ve ever found yourself in a liberal uproar because of social inequality or the government sacrificing justice in the name of a “greater good” that only really profits them, The Life of Emile Zola is an astounding artifact of the dawning of the silver screen to show how some issues have never really gone away.

Final Score: A-

A couple of months ago, I reviewed About Schmidt, writer/director Alexander Payne’s breakthrough picture to widespread critical acclaim (Election was also well-beloved if less acclaimed). It didn’t quite strike me at the same emotional level as Payne’s satirical masterpiece (and in my mind, the best dark comedy of the 2000s) Sideways, but that may only be because I am unable at this point in my life (as a 23 year old) to completely relate to the subject matter of a man coming to terms with his wife’s death and his own finite mortality. I also just thought that Sideways was simply funnier (but it was also trying to be funnier in its own tragic way). Alexander Payne is almost like Terrence Malick in his perfectionist pursuit of the just right story to tell, and there were seven years between Sideways and Payne’s newest film, the Academy Award-winning, The Descendants. The brilliance of Sideways must be a massive burden for Payne at this point because once again, a wonderful and honest film seems somehow slight compared to the man’s opus though that shouldn’t stop anyone from checking out one of the most poignant films of 2011.

The Descendants, based off the book by Kaui Hart Hemmings, is the tragicomic tale of Matt King (George Clooney) and his attempts to come to terms with the impending death of his wife and the challenges of raising his two daughters on his own. When his wife winds up in a coma with no chance of waking up (which means she’s going to die because her will has a “Do Not Resuscitate” order), Matt, a Hawaiian lawyer, is shaken out of his humdrum existence. Matters only get more complicated when he finds out from his daughter Alex (Shailene Woodley) that his wife was having an affair. As Matt has to weigh his responsibilities as a father and a husband, he tries to find the man who was sleeping with his wife all while he also has to make a major decision about whether or not to sell a 25,000 acre plot of real estate that’s been in his family since the 1860s. Whether it’s telling his friends and family that his wife is going to die or dealing with the emotional landmine that is his 17 year old and 10 year old daughters, Matt has more on his emotional plate than any one man should have to deal with.

I’ve only seen one other performance so far from this year’s slate of Academy Award nominated male leads (Brad Pitt in Moneyball). However, out of all of the Best Picture nominees I’ve seen so far (and the other films from 2011 for that matter), George Clooney has given hands down the best performance. The Descendants is probably the best performance from one of the last remaining icons of the big screen. The man makes aging seem so graceful and elegant and he has a Gary Cooper-esque statesmen quality in this role (not to mention, a slight physical resemblance to the aging Cooper). Matt King is a complex and nuanced role that would be too easy to overplay. However, King, the character, is all about emotional restraint and subdued pain, and Clooney captures it almost effortlessly. You always think King is going to be on the verge of a major emotional breakdown, and you can see Clooney channeling all of King’s heartbreak while also maintaining the barely held strength needed for his two daughters. His Golden Globe win was well deserved. Shailene Woodley made her big-screen debut in this film (which also earned her a Golden Globe nomination), and for a young actress as talented as her, I hope this means she can now stop making terrible ABC Family programming like The Secret Life of the American Teenager.

Alexander Payne’s script/direction (as well as the source material) was as brutally honest and “real” as ever. Much like About Schmidt, The Descendants falls heavily into the drama territory of the tragicomic dramedy field. There are plenty of laughs in this film (mostly coming from Shailene Woodley and King’s other daughter, Scottie [Amara Miller]), but for the most part, The Descendants thrusts the viewer into one incredibly awkward experience after another. It wrests some genuine truths about life out of King’s suffering, and over the course of the film, you learn more about how to appreciate what you have in life instead of holding grudges or focusing on material possessions. I don’t want to call it a “small” film because it’s philosophical ambitions are much larger than that, but it’s certainly a quiet movie that doesn’t beat you over the head with pretentious moralizing and instead lets the simple beauty (and pain and awkwardness) of life wash over you. It’s strange that a movie that made me so physically uncomfortable at moments also managed to feel like the most uplifting film of the year behind The Tree of Life.

However, I do have a small gripe with the film that keeps it from being as memorable as Sideways and potentially even falling short of About Schmidt (at least in this one regard). Matthew King never develops into as complete and memorable a character as Jack Nicholson’s Warren Schmidt or Paul Giamatti’s Miles Raymond. For the most part, Matthew King is a completely sympathetic and likeable hero. Besides not being completely in touch with his own emotions, I can’t really point out any major flaws in King’s character which makes him seem like such an unlikely hero for an Alexander Payne picture. While there are some profound differences in his personal life (and business life) by the end of the film, King seems to be a virtually unchanged man by the film’s end. The character who seemed to undergo the most appreciable shift was Alex. In that regard, the ultimate character arc (in a film that can most easily be classified as a character study) was slightly disappointing. It doesn’t effect the larger themes about life and family that the film uses but the lack of a truly memorable character (even if George Clooney sold the hell out of the role) at the center of the film kept it from being a truly great picture.

This was the seventh film nominated for Best Picture that I’ve reviewed out of this year’s ten nominees which means I only need to see The Artist and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close to finally finish that project up. Since The Artist doesn’t even have a DVD release date, it’s anybody’s guess as to when I’ll finally get around to watching it. At this point though, The Tree of Life has been the clear frontrunner for not only the Best Picture of this year but the best picture since 2009’s The Road. I can’t make that final judgment until I see the last two films but I’m 99% sure that Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close isn’t going to dethrone a Terrence Malick flick since it’s unashamedly kitsch exploitation of an American tragedy. Lord knows it won’t be too long before I’m doing this whole charade over again for the best pictures of 2012.

Final Score: A-

Upon its release in 2005, Brokeback Mountain generated considerable controversy with its re-imagining  of the Western as a tragic homosexual romance. With two of Hollywood’s biggest up and coming stars in the roles of the star-crossed cowboy lovers, director Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) was taking a big risk, and this film could have been a huge commercial flop. Thankfully, incendiary performances from Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal along side the visual awe of Lee’s direction turned this film into a beautiful testament to love in all its forms and the tragedy of a world that sets artificial boundaries on our definitions of love. Helping to usher in a new generation of films and film-makers that were willing to deal with the taboo subject of homosexuality, Brokeback Mountain still remains as a ground-breaking artifact of cinema that is only held back by a lack of clear editing that allows the film’s ending to drag to a close.

Brokeback Mountain, based off a short story by Annie Proulx (adapted to the screen by Lonesome Dove‘s Larry McMurtry and Diana Osana), recounts the decades long saga of the passionate and tragic love affair between two ranch hands in the 1960’s American West. Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) have been hired to sheepherd one summer in Wyoming on the titular Brokeback Mountain. Ennis is quiet and reserved in contrast to the youthful exuberance of Jack. On one fateful cold night, Jack invites Ennis in to his tent from the cold, and an intense and physical love affair begins. Ennis is never able to admit that he loves Jack, and when the summer ends, the two go their separate ways. The film continues on for the next twenty years as Jack and Ennis get married, Jack to the rich Lorene (Anne Hathaway) and Ennis to the subdued girl next door Alma (Michelle Williams). We get an intimate and heart-wrenching portrait of men forced to live a life of lies and unhappiness in a society that is unwilling to accept them and in Ennis’s case has conditioned them to not even accept themselves.

Ang Lee transforms the iconic American West (although it’s actually Canada) into a character that is as nearly as important to the experience of this film as Jack and Ennis. Shot beautifully on location in the Canadian Rockies, not since the hey-days of John Ford has a director been so in tune to the natural beauty of the scenery of these films as a tool to enhance the emotional power of the story being told. Brokeback Mountain would have been an important and powerful film on its own, but the composition of a tragic love story along the lines of Rome and Juliet and Titanic interposed with haunting images of the unchecked wilderness and majestic mountains morphs the film into something far more than the sum of its parts. Lee is especially masterful in the way he contrasts the earthly beauty and joy of the tranquil scenes in the mountains and forests against the anguish and pain of the restricted lives each man will live in towns and among society.

Brokeback Mountain received three Oscar nominations in the acting category and rightly so. Had he not died such an unfortunately young death, Heath Ledger would have become one of the most respected names in Hollywood, and this is the film where his star really began to rise. Ledger’s performance is a master-class in restraint and stoicism while still conveying the deep-rooted fear and anxiety that has been instilled in him since he was a young boy. It can occasionally be difficult to understand Ledger’s mumbles, but that simply adds another layer to a man who has been raised to keep who he is as secret as he can. Jake Gyllenhaal brings more life and intensity to Jack although that is very much his character. Where Ennis is the stoic and repressed figure, Jack is far more vibrant and full of a joie de vivre that years of suffering from lies and loneliness can’t rob. He’s also quite capable of evoking the anger and frustration called for when Jack has finally had enough and wants Ennis and Jack to be open about who they truly are. Michelle Williams is simply a scene-stealer herself as Ennis’s unloved and desolately lonely wife.

One of the most interesting themes of the story that a lot of reviewers are unable to grasp is that this isn’t an essentially homosexual love story, but rather, much like Kevin Smith’s Chasing Amy, it paints a picture where the lines of sexuality are a little more blurred. Both Jack and Ennis are essentially bisexual, although the amount of happiness either is able to find from women is quite variable. While it would seem that Ennis is the more masculine and overtly heterosexual of the two, he experiences the least happiness and satisfaction from the women in his life. There was never a moment on screen when it appeared that a woman was truly able to make him happy. Jack on the other hand is the one who initiates the homosexual encounter with Ennis and is the most outspoken about wanting to be with Ennis as the film progresses, yet Jack appears to simply be aggressive sexually whether it’s men or women. The subtlety of the fluidity of sexuality displayed in this film is an important aspect of the film that far too many people don’t notice.

Unfortunately, the film’s final acts draw on for far too long as the portrait of Jack and Ennis’s incomplete lives with wives and children is milked for everything they can til it stops having as much meaning as earlier sequences. The film is able to find its footing again with its tragic final moments but by then, you may be ready for the film to end. Those minor quibbles should not sway you away from seeing this beautiful and achingly tender film. Ang Lee not only brought a mainstream same-sex love story to the big screen, but he also created the first great western in over a decade since Unforgiven. Heath Ledger was a star that was taken from us too soon, but for all the sadness his passing leaves us, we still have this haunting gem to look back on and remember him. Here is a love story that will stand the test of time and remain one of the true treasures of modern cinema.

Final Score: A-