Category: Best Director


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When they’re wronged, most people feel an immediate need for justice to right that wrong. When someone steals, we put them in jail. When someone kills, a handful of states (in a barbaric practice) will kill in return. And while putting someone in jail can keep them from stealing again and executions can keep someone from killing again, is that justice? It doesn’t restore the stolen property. It doesn’t bring the dead back to life. It simply appeases our need to feel that something has been done even if nothing productive came out of the act itself. And the idea that we then commit violence for violence’s sake becomes terrifying and that paradox of how to make right that which is wrong lies at the core of the mature and thematically complex anti-Western, Unforgiven.

When someone is assaulted or violated in some physical manner, society’s focus tends to be on the aggressor of that violence rather than the victim? And while it’s important to ensure that these acts can’t occur again, why is that the epicenter of our attention? Why isn’t it the person that’s hurting? They are the ones who suffered the most, not the society that punishes the action causing the pain. And, while their names may be invoked in the quest for “justice,” too often their actual needs are swept under the rug. And throughout Unforgiven, men seek “justice” while the woman whose brutalization sets the film in motion never has her world returned to normal.

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I had intended to post this review earlier today. But, my body is sort of a mess right now. It’s a new school semester, and my body, long accustomed to sleeping in til well after noon, is fighting a hard fight against my intention to wake up every day no later than 10 AM. Case in point, I fell asleep after a full 16 hour day Monday night at around 2 AM but I woke up at 5 AM and was unable to fall back asleep until around 10 AM. I slept til 1:30 PM (when I had to get up for class), got back home at around four and slept til I left for work. My body doesn’t know what to do with itself. I have to be up at 9:30 AM today (so Wednesday morning) but it’s almost 2 and despite taking a sleeping pill, my body doesn’t want to go to sleep. I am, however, hell bent on correcting myself even if that means operating on minimal amounts of sleep on those days that I don’t work. I’ll do that if I have to. This is all meant to say that my blogging may be taking a backseat because of this (also cause of all of the homework I have to do).

It is a sort of weird, almost divine providence that I wound up reviewing Rain Man a little less than two weeks after I reviewed Forrest Gump. On the surface, one could be forgiven for thinking they’re two similar films. They both involve a mentally disabled man that possesses astounding gifts who uses said gifts to enrich the lives of those around them. Praise the heavens that the surface is where these two films’ similarities end. Rain Man is, as I will posit, the anti-Forrest Gump. Where the latter deals in trite sentimentality, unearned emotional manipulation, and patently absurd twists of plot (it is the trope codifier for the “magical retard” [sorry for the offensive word]), Rain Man is firmly planted in the real world and though a clear emotional arc is traveled, an autistic savant doesn’t magically solve the problems of everyone around him.

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For those who’ve not seen the truly great bit of 80s filmmaking from director Barry Levinson (Diner), Rain Man is a genuinely moving (if occasionally predictable) spin on one of the most American genres of film, the road movie. A fast-talking, self-centered yuppie, Charlie Babbit (The Color of Money‘s Tom Cruise), finds out that his estranged father has died, and along with his Italian fiancee, Susanna (Valeria Golino), makes the trip from L.A. to Cincinnati for his father’s funeral and the reading of his will. But, Charlie finds out that all his father left him was a classic convertible and prize-winning rose bushes, not the $3 million estate that should have been his birthright. With some minor investigation, Charlie finds out that his father left all of his money to Raymond Babbit (Wag the Dog‘s Dustin Hoffman), an autistic savant living in a mental institution that is also the older brother that Charlie never knew he had.

And thus, as a bargaining tool to extort the mental institution’s head caretaker to give Charlie the $3 million that’s been set aside in a trust for Raymond, Charlie decides to kidnap his brother since Raymond’s stay in the hospital is voluntary and no one established an official conservatorship of Raymond after the dead of their father. But, Charlie quickly learns that caring for his brother will be much more work than he bargained for. Raymond is unable to process emotion and information in a way even remotely similar to normal people, and he is a slave to the routines of his life. If he doesn’t eat certain foods at certain times or misses his shows at their scheduled time or doesn’t wear clothes from a specific K-Mart, he starts to snap. Throw in a massive crisis in Charlie’s personal life, and the caretaking of Raymond proves to be an almost insurmountable obstacle. But, as Charlie and Raymond make their way across America, Charlie learns that maybe he can love this brother he never met.

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It almost goes without saying at this point that Dustin Hoffman’s performance in this film is one of the greatest screen performances of all time. Not to belabor my anti-Forrest Gump analogy, but in that film, one would be forgiven for thinking Gump wasn’t really retarded in a traditional sense. He was just slow. I’ve known non-retarded types in real life that are easily dumber than Forrest Gump. You believe for every second that he’s on screen that Hoffman has autism. Hoffman is one of the most famous actors of all time, and despite that, he completely disappears into the role of Raymond. Hoffman’s preparation for the role (he spent a year living with a real life autistic savant) is evident throughout the whole picture. And though Raymond is a very static character (more on that later), Hoffman finds a subtlety and range in his performance that is stunning.

However, despite his Best Actor win at the 1988 Academy Awards, Raymond is not the main character of the film. That’s Charlie, and it’s his arc of emotional growth that defines the film, for better and (slightly) for worse. As I said, Raymond is a static character. Any change he experiences over the course of the film is minor at best. He’s not capable of changing. He doesn’t operate under normal human terms. It’s Charlie’s turn from a greedy, narcissistic yuppie into a compassionate brother that cares more about being allowed to take care of his brother than his $3 million inheritance that makes the film. And unlike the way that Forrest touches everyone’s life, the relationship that forms between Raymond and Charlie is believable and emotionally wrenching. I am incapable of watching this film without crying every single time we make it to the custody hearing at the end of the film.

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It’s too easy to give all of the credit in this film to Dustin Hoffman. His performance is practically iconic at this point. But, let’s not forget that for a brief window in the late 1980s, Tom Cruise was an A-list talent, not just because of his stunning good looks (though that was clearly part of it), but also because of his natural talents as an actor. If you can watch Born on the Fourth of July and question Cruise’s acting creds, you don’t understand good acting. And because Charlie is the main character and because we have to believe his emotional journey of the film, the greatest burden of Rain Man nearly falls on Cruise’s shoulders. And though Charlie isn’t as great a Cruise creation as Ron Kovic, Cruise was expertly cast as the charming but soulless yuppie who is able to find himself in the presence of his brother.

Besides the fact that I don’t think Hoffman should have won Best Actor that year (he should have won Best Supporting Actor), my complaints about Rain Man are minimal at worst. Occasionally, the road trip segments of the film drag or seem repetitive. The business crisis that Charlie must race back to L.A. to thwart is thinly explained at best. And, despite my general love of this film’s emotional arc, occasionally it does seem like some moments are too neatly resolved. Particularly, any scene between Raymond and Charlie’s fiancee cross the line from genuine sentiment to Forrest Gump-style emotional manipulation (though, the movie is just as likely to subvert that later so maybe I shouldn’t actually complain). Whereas many film’s about mental disabilities unfairly play on audience’s emotions and sympathies, Rain Man manages to be painfully realistic yet still deliver a moving emotional through line. What more can you ask for?

Final Score: A-

 

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(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

 

AnnieHall1

Every movie lover has that one film that you can put in a million times, and every time you watch it, you get something new out of it. With our favorite films, repeat viewings become not only a type of security blanket where we can bask in the predicted pleasures of a treasured piece of art, but they increasingly become extended sessions of wonder that one team of filmmakers (from the director on down) were able to get things so perfectly right. They are films that infiltrate every aspect of our lives and we learn and evolve with these experiences so that sometimes, if the film is great enough, something about the film grows to define part of you. I am a lifelong film lover, but 1977’s Annie Hall is my favorite film of all time, and not only is it the crowning jewel of Woody Allen’s career, it’s the most important romantic comedy ever made.

Manhattan may be deeper; Midnight in Paris may be more whimsical; and Crimes and Misdemeanors may be more tragic, but no other film in the Woody Allen canon has transformed cinema to the extent of Annie Hall. Taking the most overdone film genre of all time, the romantic comedy, Annie Hall turned every genre convention on its head. From expectations for a happy ending to the classic manic pixie dream girl archetype to the notions of linear storytelling to a respect for the existence of the fourth wall, Annie Hall obliterated the standards of 1970s storytelling and prior with a rapturous disregard for the way movies were meant to be made. Clearly enthralled with Fellini and Bergman, Woody Allen brought foreign art-house sensibilities into the mainstream.

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Like so much of the best cinema, Annie Hall is an especially autobiographical film. In a vein similar to Chasing Amy (or even Allen’s later Husbands and Wives), Annie Hall is a cinematic portrayal of a crumbling relationship played out by the real life partners in the relationship itself. Neé Annie Hall in real life, Diane Keaton (Love and Death) plays the titular object of Allen’s desire. Diane Keaton was Woody’s greatest muse of the 1970ss, and with Annie Hall, Allen fuses a fantastical and romanticized embellishment of his youth thrown into the tragic downfall of one of the great relationships of his life.

Thus, Annie Hall is the decades spanning tale of the life and loves of Alvy Singer, a purposefully transparent stand-in for Woody Allen. A marginally successful stand-up comedian, Alvy lives in New York. With his best friend Rob (Tony Roberts) and two ex-wives, Alvy’s life isn’t exactly a shining example of having your life together. And his world is only complicated when he’s introduced to the ditsy, sensitive, and complex Annie Hall who bounds into Alvy’s life like an electric jolt to the heart. But the gulf in their intellectual ambitions and Alvy’s own cynical, pessimistic outlook on life spell an inevitable doom for their on-again/off-again relationship.

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If you have ever been in a failed relationship, Annie Hall is a sprawling, exquisitely detailed roadmap of everything that could have possibly gone wrong. Even if you’re a 24 year old kid from rural WV who had never even been to NYC until years after watching this film for the first time, Woody’s tale of lost love, regret, and the rush of dawning romance is timeless and universal in its appeal. I remember watching this film for the first time as a sophomore in high school and immediately being overwhelmed by a sympathy with Alvy Singer, and the relatable nature of this story has only gotten more painfully intense as I’ve gotten older and had more experience in the type of tale Woody has crafted.

And, that attention to detail and brutal effectiveness in detailing a relationship on its way up and just as quickly on its way out is what has made Woody Allen one of the greatest American filmmakers of all time. It would have been too easy to paint a one-sided portrait of the collapse of his time with Diane Keaton, but instead, Allen showed an honest, subtle look at the dynamics between men and women and the ways that we desire different things in life and how those desires can spell doom for love. Annie has become one of the go to examples of the “manic pixie dream girl” but if you actually watch the film, it’s clear that Annie is meant to deconstruct that typical male fantasy.

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But it isn’t just the effective realism and honest intentions of the film that makes Annie Hall the classic it’s become (though that’s certainly a major part of it). Annie Hall stands head and shoulders above its peer because it was the first major film to successfully incorporate serious themes and an actual emotional message with laugh-out-loud fourth wall shattering humor. Over the course of Annie Hall, Woody Allen doesn’t just lean on the proverbial fourth wall; he takes a chainsaw and demolishes it until you’re not sure if the fourth wall ever existed in the first place.

Having his characters directly address the camera, incorporating not only flashbacks but flashbacks where the present day characters can interact with the people in the past, using animated interludes, devolving into downright fantasy, and using sardonic thought bubbles to explain the actual thoughts of characters during dialogue, Annie Hall isn’t afraid to remind you that you’re watching a movie, and it’s better off for it. Some great films have aped this style since ( (500) Days of Summer an obvious example), but no movie has so successfully married the heartwrenching, the hilarious, and the surreal as well as Annie Hall.

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Diane Keaton won a well-deserved Best Actress Oscar at the 1977 Academy Awards for her portrayal of Annie, and the only performance by a woman in a comedy that I can think that is better than her turn in this film was Jennifer Lawrence last year in Silver Linings Playbook. Diane Keaton may have essentially been playing herself, but it was a fierce and now iconic portrayal. What makes Woody such a great writer is that he writes such complex roles for his female leads, and Annie is possibly the best role he’s ever written. Diane Keaton sees Annie through virtually the complete human emotional experience, and she never falters along the  way.

Woody lost that year for Best Actor to Richard Dreyfuss for The Goodbye Girl, and I actually agree with that decision from the Academy. Woody’s turn as Alvy is probably one of the top three performances of his career, but there’s simply no denying that Woody is better behind the camera than in front of it. There are moments here and there where Woody stops acting (even if he’s supposedly conversing with a friend in the film) and just starts performing one of his stand-up routines and the difference in his cadence is too apparent. Still, when the scene calls for it, Woody Allen too hits all the right emotional and dramatic points required for the film.

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I could go on an on about how Annie Hall is a perfect snapshot of life in the 1970s or how brilliant the “It Had to Be You” interludes are or how Allen’s neurotic, nebbish Alvy Singer became the basis of a million rom-com heroes to come, but I think I have probably bored all of you enough with my adoration bordering on worship of this masterful film. I’ve written three unpublished screenplays, and it’s no stretch of the imagination to say that Annie Hall is (with Chasing Amy and Pulp Fiction) the reason I want to be a film-maker. If, in my life, I can write a film that is one-fifth as good as Woody’s opus, I will consider my career a success. I’ll leave you with a quote.

Alvy Singer: [narrating] After that it got pretty late, and we both had to go, but it was great seeing Annie again. I… I realized what a terrific person she was, and… and how much fun it was just knowing her; and I… I, I thought of that old joke, y’know, the, this… this guy goes to a psychiatrist and says, “Doc, uh, my brother’s crazy; he thinks he’s a chicken.” And, uh, the doctor says, “Well, why don’t you turn him in?” The guy says, “I would, but I need the eggs.” Well, I guess that’s pretty much now how I feel about relationships; y’know, they’re totally irrational, and crazy, and absurd, and… but, uh, I guess we keep goin’ through it because, uh, most of us… need the eggs.

Final Score: A+

 

LifeOfPi1

I’ve been putting off writing this review for a couple of reasons. One, I’ve been replaying Persona 3: FES, and those games are time vacuums and exceptionally addicting. The other, more important, reason is that I loved Life of Pi so much that I felt like I needed a good 24 hours of contemplation of the film before I could approach it with a fair and balanced eye. Because, Life of Pi is a technical masterpiece. It joins Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life as being one of the best looking films not just of the 2010s but of all time. It is as deeply spiritual a cinematic experience as I’ve had in ages, and there almost isn’t a wasted frame in the entire film. Life of Pi may very well be the best film of Ang Lee‘s storied career. But, despite my rapturous enjoyment of the film, what the film (and more explicitly, the book) has to say about actual religion and agnosticism is sort of silly and juvenile and distracts from an otherwise soaring fantasy coming-of-age film.

And that last sentence may cause confusion for some as I referred to the film as being deeply spiritual yet I mock the actual religious content of the film/book. When I refer to a film as being spiritual (whether that’s The Tree of Life or Synecdoche, New York), I mean that it has something substantive to say about our place in the universe, our relationship with nature, our own pending mortality. Spiritual films (I consider The Road to be one as well) wrack me emotionally by the end not because of sad or melodramatic content but they force me to look universal truths square in the eye and they change my worldview forever when the movie is over. Life of Pi scales that summit and although its own explicitly religious aspirations (which are laid out far more directly in the novel) are shallow and vapid, it doesn’t significantly mar the deep emotional connection I formed with Ang Lee’s masterful film.

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Based off of the critically acclaimed novel by Yann Martell, Life of Pi is a tender coming-of-age tale wrapped in a classic “shipwrecked” fantasy-adventure. Framed (convincingly enough at first that I had to pause the film to see if it was a true story) as adult Pi Patel (Irrfan Khan) recounts his life story to an aspiring novelist (Rafe Spall). Young Pi (Suraj Sharma) grew up in French India where his parents ran a zoo. An especially bright and curious boy, Pi was interested in religion and spirituality from a young age and became a member of not one, not two, but three different religions as a child. He was simultaneously a Hindu, a Muslim, and a Christian, and saw no reason why that was contradictory. Pi was full of wonder, and there was nothing in the universe that seemed beyond his appreciation, including the dangerous Bengal tiger living in the zoo, Richard Parker.

However, Pi’s family decides to sell the zoo for fear that the family business is going under and that it would be in the family’s best interest to move to French Canada so that Pi and his siblings can have a better life. However, things don’t go according to plan. With all of the animals on board like Noah’s proverbial arc (the religious symbolism there just now dawning on me), the family’s freighter to Canada is sunk by a storm and Pi is the only human survivor. His only company on his life boat is an orangutan, a zebra, a hyena, and the tiger Richard Parker. And it’s not long before it’s just Pi and Richard Parker. And the rest of the film chronicles the day-to-day survival that Pi must endure if he hopes to make it to land when he’s stuck on a boat with a hungry and vicious carnivore. Pair it with the most impressive visuals this side of Avatar, and you have an idea what to expect with Life of Pi.

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Although, bringing up Avatar may give the false impression that Life of Pi is all style and no substance which it assuredly isn’t. As anyone who has seen Brokeback Mountain can attest, Ang Lee knows how to leverage visual beauty (this time mostly computer generated rather than stunning natural scenery) as a way to complement the thematic content of his pictures. In Brokeback Mountain, the stoic, eternal beauty of the Montana hillsides became a metaphor for the secret escape and primal passions of Jack and Ennis. In Life of Pi, the often surreal dreamscape of the ocean (because fantasy and reality are two sides of the same coin in Life of Pi) and Pi’s utter visual isolation constantly remind the viewer of the film’s themes of a man in a total state of nature and the moral costs we must endure in order to survive when removed from society

Still, even if there wasn’t a contextual reason for the film’s overwhelming beauty, there would still be enough moments of exultant visual pleasure in Life of Pi to make it one of the most important films of the years, and I could fill up an entire review just talking about individual sequences that bowled me over with their raw beauty. There’s a scene about halfway through the film where Pi and Richard Parker (whose name I can no longer say in anything other than an Indian accent) are in the boat at night and beneath them is a bio-luminescent visual feast of jellyfish and algae that is interrupted by the arrival of a surfacing whale. It’s stunning, and there’s another moment, much later in the film, where a starving Pi peers into the ocean and hallucinates a visual phantasmagoria that rivals the “birth of the universe” scene of The Tree of Life.

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He was up against some exceptionally stiff competition this year, so I can’t complain too much about Suraj Sharma not getting an Academy Award nomination (when you’re up against Daniel Day-Lewis, Denzel Washington, and Joaquin Phoenix, it’s understandable if you’re passed by). However, for a total newcomer to Hollywood, Suraj Sharma should make an immediate name for himself. He carried this film on his shoulders, because no matter how beautiful it was, if I didn’t care about the boy, it wouldn’t amount to anything. And Suraj made me believe that he was on a boat in the middle of the ocean with a tiger even though he was simply acting against a green screen for most of the film. That takes talent, and I really hope that he makes a career for himself. He is a young talent to watch.

I’m going to draw this review to a close because I’m taking my sister back to Philippi tonight. We both finished our finals today, and we’re going to likely spend most of our summer at home (rather than in Morgantown). She’ll be there because she doesn’t have a place in Morgantown, and I’ll be there because I work in Clarksburg although I still plan on making some trips to Morgantown whenever I need to get away from my family (which may or may not be often. we’ll see). But, I need to pack a little. Anyways, the point of this review is that Life of Pi is far and away the best of the Best Picture nominees that I’ve seen so far. Argo isn’t in the same league of film-making as this masterpiece, and if you have even a passing interest in great movies, you owe it to yourself to watch this excellent picture.

Final Score: A

 

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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+

(Quick aside before the real review. I watched this Sunday evening I believe although it might have actually been Saturday. School started this week. It’s my final year at WVU. Which I can’t even freaking believe. Of course, I’m a 6th year senior so it’s not my first “last” year. Anyways, I watched this a while ago so forgive me if my details are spotty)

It is impossible to take on films deemed as classics with the same level of objectivity you can use for lesser known works. You compare them to the films from the same era that got less attention (even if, maybe, they deserved more). You (subconsciously or totally aware) place the film within a context of sophistication that you’ve come to expect from modern cinema. Simple things like hype or hearing everyone talk about how great a film can often create expectations that are impossible to live up to. In the past on this blog, I’ve referred to that last phenomena as the Juno effect. 1976’s Rocky is the original sports underdog story. And while it can’t be blamed for creating all of the staid sports cliches that clog our cinemas every year, time hasn’t done Sylvester Stallone’s debut any favors. If you’re looking for an easy to enjoy film, Rocky is it, but greatness isn’t a word that shouldn’t be used in conjunction with this Best Picture winner.

As arguably the most famous sports film ever made, Rocky‘s story is known by virtually all and has inspired a legion of imitators. Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) is a sad-sack bum, a nobody boxer who pays the rent by busting heads for a local loan shark. With a crush on his best friend’s sister, Adrian (Talia Shire), Rocky is barely floating through life. He’s even been kicked out of his locker at the local boxing gym by the owner/trainer, Mickey (Burgess Meredith). Rocky gets the chance of a lifetime however when world heavyweight champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) decides to give a local Philadelphia unknown boxer a shot at the title after his original opponent gets injured. When Creed chooses Rocky “The Italian Stallion” Balboa, Rocky has to train for his one shot to make it and to prove to everyone that he’s not a worthless bum.

Sylvester Stallone is not an actor. He might be one of the biggest action stars in the history of Hollywood, but he is not an actor. One can applaud him for writing the script himself for Rocky (and fighting with the studios for years to get it made), but his acting rates somewhere between Corey’s little brother in the finale of Boy Meets World and Sofia Coppola in The Godfather: Part III. That is to say, his performance is an utter trainwreck. Rocky is supposed to be a bit of a meathead, and Sly is himself obviously not the sharpest tool in the shed, but Sylvester Stallone displayed absolutely no emotional range in his performance and it often felt like he was reading his lines from a cue card out of the shot considering how nonchalantly he delivered otherwise critical lines. Talia Shire was nearly as unimpressive as the completely one-dimensional Adrian.

Burgess Meredith and Burt Young stole every scene they were in thankfully. Burgess Meredith was 69 when the film was made, but he had more life and vitality than the film’s actual youthful stars. When he tells Rocky he’s going to “eat lightning and crap thunder,” you believed him. When he called Rocky out for wasting his career as a legbreaker, you felt Rocky’s shame, and when he eats his word to approach Rocky about being his manager for the Apollo Creed fight, you could sense his own regret about his own career. Burt Young was also great as Adrian’s putz of a brother, Paulie. While Rocky is a loser who pulls himself out of the gutter, Paulie is even more pathetic than Rocky, and we see him slowly implode over the course of the film. When he finally spews his rage and despair on Adrian and Rocky, Young truly taps into something heartbreaking and pathetic in Paulie’s character.

I don’t think it’s a spoiler nearly 40 years after the film’s release to say that Rocky loses the fight at the end of the film. When that’s the only unexpected thing to happen in the film (although the fact that he gets the holy hell knocked out of him the entire fight means it’s not really that shocking where the decision goes), the movie will often feel a little cliche. The film runs for roughly two hours, and I applaud it’s decision to devote the first 3/4 of the film to trying to develop Rocky and the environment that spawned him, the movie didn’t do that very well. Why is Rocky such a bum? Why does he have such a terrible opinion of himself? He’s obviously a talented boxer. Where did he go wrong? The film tries to explore his self-esteem issues (as well as those of Adrian’s) but the film instead offers shallow portraits instead of insightful examinations.

The boxing match at the end of the film is certainly one of the most engaging sports scenes in cinema history. If the rest of the film felt too tame or too safe, the climactic fight between Rocky and Apollo is brutal. You get a great look at the hell these men put themselves through because of their own pride and their desire to put on a great show for the crowd. All in all, I enjoy Rocky. It’s a fun movie, but it’s inclusion in the canon of great American cinema is completely unfounded. The fact that this film beat Taxi Driver, Network, and All the President’s Men for Best Picture is one of the biggest crimes in the history of the Academy Awards. But que sera, sera. If you come into the film just expecting an easy to enjoy underdog story, you’ll get what you want. Anything else, and you’re setting the bar too high for a film scripted by Sylvester Stallone.

Final Score: B

Much like last year, it took me until the middle of the summer (with last year’s True Grit remake being the film with the very late DVD release), but I’ve finally finished all of 2011’s Best Picture Academy Award nominees. Yesterday, I finally got around to watching The Artist. I would have had my review up sooner but I haven’t been feeling well ever since I had Chinese food with my family for dinner. I hate the way that I’m ultimately going to approach this film critically, but at this point, it’s the only way I can do it. I’ll do my best to talk about The Artist on its own terms, but as the film that won Best Picture at this year’s Oscars, I feel obligated to discuss how I feel about the awards that it won. I have a history of not agreeing with the film’s the Academy picks for Best Picture. As in, I haven’t agreed with the Academy on a Best Picture since Return of the King back in 2003. Unfortunately, 2011 is no different. Let there be no confusion. I think The Artist is a good film. I thought The King’s Speech was good last year. I just don’t think it’s a great movie and that the Academy was more impressed with the gimmicky nature of a well-made (as opposed to student) silent film than the ultimately simple and innocent nature of Michel Hazanvicius’ story. The fact that this film (especially in the direction department) beat The Tree of Life is one of the most egregious Academy fuck-ups since Danny Boyle and Slumdog Millionaire beat Paul Thomas Anderson and There Will Be Blood.

The Artist is a tragic spin on a story familiar to any fans of Singin’ in the Rain. George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is one of Hollywood’s biggest leading men at the height of the silent film era. His films are smash hits and just accidentally being photographed with George helps to catapult aspiring actress Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) to stardom. However, it isn’t all premieres and glamour for George (and his adorable Jack Russell Terrier, Uggy). He’s in a loveless marriage with his wife (which isn’t helped by his rakish ways) and his ego and pride isolate him from his colleagues in Hollywoodland (the original name of Hollywood in the 20s). Though it isn’t mentioned by name (unlike Singin’ in the Rain), the release of The Jazz Singer in 1927 and the following rise of “talkies” destroys George’s career while Peppy finds fame as a “talkie” starlet. Out of pride, George refuses to make the transition to speaking roles, and he invests all of his money in one last great silent film. However, the movie flops at the box office at the same time that the stock market crashes to ring in the Great Depression. George is forced to sell off all of his belongings and watch his world (including his marriage) fall apart around him.

My feelings about the acting in this film are complicated. If we were judging the film on just how well Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo were able to ape the style of silent film stars like Lillian Gish or Rudolph Valentino, then they were a smash success. Particularly in the scenes where they are showing fictional films in the movie, Jean Dujardin nails the over-the-top (and let’s face it, ham-fisted) style that was the only way to get across emotion and/or exposition (in a weird sense of that word) when you couldn’t speak. However, both stars are guilty of the same kind of “mugging” for the camera that Peppy complains about in an interview once she’s a “talkie” star. There isn’t a lot of subtlety to Jean Dujardin’s performance when we see him going about his daily life. I understand that since he can’t speak, he has to emote a little bit, but when you compare his performance to far more subtle and nuanced roles like Woody Harrelson in Rampart or Ralph Fiennes in Coriolanus, it’s sort of outrageous to realize that he won. Berenice Bejo’s performance was  much more subtle but she was still guilty of more than her fair share of over-acting. Jean Dujardin was capable of delivering some truly great emotional moments (especially when he was in the throes of his depression), but it would only be especially impressive if we hadn’t had 80 years of more mature acting techniques since the “talkies” took over.

While I certainly believe that Terrence Malick’s direction/cinematography/genius with The Tree of Life is one of the greatest film achievements of the 2000s, I must concede that Michel Hazanavicius guided The Artist with a brilliant hand (even if the script wasn’t as perfect). Shot in a gorgeous and crisp black & white, The Artist is one of the better looking films of the year (though yet again, Tree of Life is one of the most beautifully shot films ever), and the movie does an excellent job of shooting a more modern, Manhattan-style black and white for the regular sequences and then adopting the more antiquated style for the movies within the film. There’s a nightmare sequence that was one of the most inspired moments of the film (and of 2011) where George is having a nightmare about his inability to transition to the “talkie” world and so everything else in the world can make noise except for him. It was very brilliant. The shadow and contrast work in the film was second to none as was the attention to period detail, and for fans of old films, you can revel in all of the little historical details that the film tries to get right from the costumes to the cars to the Hollywoodland sign (instead of Hollywood). Also, I will say that there is one Oscar the film totally earned which was for Best Score. I can’t remember the last movie I watched on here where I wanted to go out and buy the orchestral score, but The Artist inspired that reaction. It was a perfect recreation of the scores of yesteryear but honestly, it was better and more stirring than the scores of the past.

At the end of the day though, The Artist is the sort of congratulatory celebration of Hollywood’s past that the Academy eats up like candy lately. Much like the L.A. centric-Crash (which beat the far superior Brokeback Mountain), it’s a film that hits home to the L.A. voting bloc that decides the Oscars. It’s not the best film of the year, and if you’ve seen all of the nominees, I’m not sure how you could disagree with that statement. Of course, I’ve long suspected that the films that most often win at the Academy Awards contain at least some semblance of a mass-appeal factor. Perhaps, I can’t blame them for not always choosing the artsy films that I enjoy. That’s my preference. Other people have theirs. And like I said, The Artist is a good movie. It contains flashes of brilliance and I enjoyed it, but much like Forrest Gump (and the way it fucked over Pulp Fiction) or Titanic (and the way it screwed over Good Will Hunting and/or L.A. Confidential), I’ll always think of it as the movie that stopped Woody Allen or Terrence Malick from more deserving wins. It’s sad but true.

Final Score: B+

I feel like I say this at least two or three times a month but it bears repeating. I’m not generally a fan of dramas before the 1960s (film noir is the major exception to that rule). 95% of the time, the Hays Code just kept them from being interesting. They’re all too (especially in comparison to modern dramas) clean and sterilized. So, it’s always great when I come across a non-noir drama from that era that still holds up really well even by today’s standards. Thanks in large part to a phenomenal performance from James Dean and a shockingly progressive story about racism against Mexicans in the 1920s-1950s, George Stevens’ inter-generational epic Giant was a fascinating (if flawed and extraordinarily too long) look into a time when the cinematic form was finally able to be a little more aware of the tragedies going on in the world around them (rather than serving as a reflection of the societal ideal and ignoring the uglier truths of American society) as well as taking an opportunity to tell a more morally complex and mature tale than the usual Hollywood fare of the time. If we only take the films nominated for Best Picture into account (because The Searchers wasn’t nominated but was easily the best film of that year), Giant was easily better than the over-the-top adventure tale of Around the World in Eighty Days.Giant’s not a perfect film, but I was shocked by how rarely my more cynical side wanted to come out to heckle the more idealistic/romantic side of period dramas of this era.

Taking place over nearly three decades on a nearly 600,000 acre cattle ranch in Texas, Giant is a sprawling film that unveils its ultimate message on greed and pride over the course of three and a half hours. On a trip to Maryland to buy a stallion, Jordan “Bick” Benedict (Rock Hudson) meets the beautiful and independent-minded Leslie (Elizabeth Taylor), and after only knowing each other for two days, they marry. Bick takes Leslie back with him to his family’s massive Texas cattle ranch which Bick runs along with his masculine and domineering sister Luz (Mercedes McCambridge). Bick maintains a rivalry with a surly and shiftless cattle hand named Jett Rink (James Dean) who inherits a small plot of land on the Benedict estate when Luz dies in a horse accident. Jett’s infatuation with Leslie as well his unwillingness to sell back his inherited land to the Benedicts causes an unspoken strife among the families. When, several years later, Jett strikes oil on his plot of land (and becomes one of the wealthiest men in Texas), Jett’s fortunes rise while the Benedicts slowly begin to decline and their class snobbery suddenly begins to reverse. Faced with either selling his land to Jett or giving up the family trade of cattle to pursue the oil business, Bick decides to enter the oil game even though he doesn’t achieve the same kind of wealth as Jett. Throughout this, we get a recurring subplot about the horrendous conditions that the Mexican ranchhands working Bick’s land must face and the complete lack of empathy from all of the white ranchmen (and eventual oil barons) considering their plight. Only Leslie seems to have any sympathy for them, and twenty years later (when she and Bick have grown children), the eldest son Jordy (Dennis Hopper) marries one of the local Mexican girls causing a local scandal which forces Bick to come to terms with his own prejudice.

Despite the film’s absurdly exhaustive length (serious cuts could have and should have been made to this film. Just because you’re movie is about Texas doesn’t mean it needs to be as big as Texas), Giant had plenty going for it. First of all, James Dean could have had a career as huge as Marlon Brando’s if he hadn’t died in a car accident at the age of 24. Giant was the second film he received a Best Actor nomination for (though, honestly, he was a supporting player in this film) and (despite being in the wrong category) it was well deserved. He brought a wounded, brooding sensitivity to the role. Their was such a fierce naturalism and realism to his performance that he was acting in an entirely different style and class than everyone else in the film. This was the turning point from the classical Laurence Oliver style theatrical acting of the past to the more modern, method style employed by a lot of the top actors of the 60s and 70s (Brando, Nicholson, Hoffman, etc). James Dean was at the forefront of that, and it’s hard for me to believe that Yul Brynner was better in The King and I. James Dean was acting circles around everyone else in the movie. That’s not to insult the performances of Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor. They just came from an entirely different school of acting. Rock Hudson also had a more sophisticated sensitivity and Elizabeth Taylor’s intellectual ferocity was a refreshing mix-up from most of the women of the day. However, there was zero romantic chemistry between Hudson and Taylor (though perhaps I’m reading too much into that because I know that Rock Hudson was gay. However, James Dean was bisexual and he just dripped with sexuality).

While the Best Director Oscar certainly should have gone to John Ford for The Searchers (he wasn’t nominated. The Academy really fucked it up that year in that regard), George Stevens’ win that year is at least bearable. Giant is full to the brim of breath-taking shots of the Texas plains, and his camera (and film) patiently capture the transformation of these plains from tens of thousands of cattle to an endless lane of giant oil rigs. Similarly, the film captures the dichotomy between the ever-growing wealth of the Benedicts and Jett compared to the endless poverty and subjugation of the peasant Mexican farmers. It manages to accomplish all of this without going into huge grand speeches and when Bick realizes the error of his ways, it comes at a natural pace (and he isn’t completely cured so to speak). As mentioned, George Stevens’ wrested brilliant performances from his leads and knew better than to try and restrain the fiery James Dean with the contemporary conventions of that age. At the end of the day (and I don’t know how much credit to give to Stevens and how much to give to the cinematographer), Giant is simply a gorgeously shot film. If only he had known to put the same sort of care into editing it down to a manageable length.

Seriously though. This movie is more bloated than Lawrence of Arabia (the next movie in my instant queue, Doctor Zhivago, is another three and half hour David Lean film. Oy vey). If George Stevens (and his editor) had shaved like forty five minutes or so off the 201 minute running time, this could have been an “A-” film. As it stands, it’s full of scenes that drag on a couple minutes too long. It can be repetitive, and there are just simply a ton of moments that could have been excised and not lost any of the film’s magic. Regardless, it’s still a good movie even if its excess keeps it from greatness. If you enjoy older films, it’s easy to recommend. James Dean only has a credited role in three films (he had tiny parts in a couple of other films), and unlike say Marilyn Monroe, he is an American sex symbol/icon/film legend deserving of the title. He was just a raw, natural talent that was taken from us too soon and for fans of good acting, his performance is worth the price of admission alone.

Final Score: B