Tag: academy awards

Zero Dark Thirty


Zero Dark Thirty (2012)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Two years after the September 11 attacks in New York City, Maya (Jessica Chastain), an officer of the CIA, is sent to the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan to work with another officer, Dan (Jason Clarke), who is charge of interrogating Ammar (Reda Kateb), suspected to be connected to important Saudi terrorists. Torturing the detainee when he fails to cooperate, Dan and Maya eventually hear about a man named Abu Ahmed. Ammar claims that Abu Ahmed is a courier for Osama bin Laden. Other men who are questioned under similar conditions confirm this. Over the years, Maya devotes her life tracking this piece of information which inevitably leads to the killing of bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

Written by Mark Boal and directed by Kathryn Bigelow, “Zero Dark Thirty” has received a lot of censure for supposedly endorsing torture by means of extracting information. This is most unfortunate because some of the bad press have convinced many not to see a quiet but incredibly thrilling film about a great manhunt that has lasted over a decade. As a film, not a collection of hard facts, “Zero Dark Thirty” commands elegance in characterization and construction of tension from gradual heat to a boil.

It is understandable that most will find themselves exasperated during the first half. Nothing much happens. At least not on the surface. And that is exactly what I liked about it. A recurring theme is the fact that gathering reliable and valid intelligence takes time. We are so used to amphetamine-fueled action movies involving the CIA and other government groups finding out all there is to know about everything and everyone in a matter of minutes that when something like this comes along, some of us do not know what to make of it. Plenty of names and technical terms bounce around our eardrums that all of them sound the same eventually. It is easy not to care until something goes boom!

The sudden bursts of violence break the slow stream of questions, muffled hopes, and quiet disappointments. One of the most chilling scenes, at least for me, is the bombing that takes place in a hotel. After the explosion and smoke starts to blend with dust, there is no score to suggest that something exciting is happening. No, music would have masked the tragedy that has happened. There are only screams of pain, disoriented people shuffling about and trying to get on their feet, a collective fear and confusion. Because it looks and feels so real, I found myself shaking and wanting to detach from the material but could not do so. I craved to know what will happen next.

Two women characters are given the chance to shine. There is Jessica (Jennifer Ehle), an officer in the embassy who we suspect might butt heads with Maya. She believes that money is so persuasive that even those who seem like they will never break from their ideologies will be enticed in the least. Her relationship with Maya is taken into an unexpected direction. Meanwhile, Chastain plays her character with the most convincing intelligence mixed with sophistication, resolve melded with obsession, and courage to push and demand others not to partake in a state of quiescence. Chastain’s scenes with Kyle Chandler, playing a CIA station chief, contain the right amount of balance between animosity and respect. When details get confusing, it is helpful that she is there to serve as our compass. Due to the nature of her job, it is necessary that she knows she is always right.

“Zero Dark Thirty” can be too cold at times given its procedural nature but this does not lessen the material’s power in any way. On the contrary, I respected the focus and vision from behind the lens like the raid scene shot in heavy darkness on purpose to prevent us from seeing anything concrete. In a way, it can be taken as the antithesis of a commercial action picture that glorifies violence where we are forced to see every chunk of tissue flying into the air.

Beasts of the Southern Wild


Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) and her father (Dwight Henry) live in a place called “The Bathtub,” nicknamed for the area’s tendency to flood when a storm and other natural disasters strike. Located south of the levee, their community is separated from modern society but this is not to suggest that their culture is less than. On the contrary, despite the poverty around them, they are a proud people with a knack for survival. While Hushpuppy and Wink have a fight due to the former causing a fire, huge chunks of ice in the Arctic, which happen encase giant prehistoric animals, melt and collapse. Aurochs tend to demolish everything that happens to be on their way and so the Louisiana bayou is under threat.

“Beasts of the Southern Wild,” based on the screenplay by Lucy Alibar and Benh Zeitlin, is the kind of picture that our culture should be hungry for because it meshes reality and fantasy in such a way that is engaging, challenging, and worthwhile. If someone from a thousand years from now takes the time to watch this movie, I imagine that person being transported to the in-folds of time and dreams, a similar feeling that takes over my entire system each time I am engulfed in the imagination and ambition of Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

The celebration of life is the overarching theme that permeates through the collective lives of the bayou residents. Within the first ten minutes, it immerses us in life, from a crowd of excited people celebrating in the streets while fireworks brighten the dark skies, babies crying for attention, down to the manner in which the chickens cluck every other step and freshly caught crabs skitter about on their alien environment. Flooding us with a myriad of images so alive, it attempts to break down some of our notions about people living in squalor, mainly that they are unhappy and therefore must be pitied.

At the same time, the film is not afraid to deliver the unflinching reality of what it means to be economically marginalized. We watch Wink and Hushpuppy go about their usual days and wonder how they can subsist on what they have–or don’t have. When it rains, for instance, they do not even have a proper roof to keep all of the water out of their home. Further, the walls are so thin, the thunder sounds like a lion’s roar that is only a few feet away. When it is dark, close-ups are used more often to draw us into looking at their physicality and reading their conflicting thoughts through the emotions that have surfaced on their faces. Likewise, the wide shots are utilized wisely, usually in the daytime, in order to give us an idea of what the characters have to work with. And it isn’t much.

Under Benh Zeitlin’s careful direction, the symbolism in the film does not overpower the flow and rhythm of the story being told. For instance, the flood could have been so dramatized that at one point the focus might have shifted to the disaster instead of a six-year-old trying to make sense of what is going on. Instead, Hushpuppy wakes up one morning and mostly everything is submerged accompanied by an eerie quietness. It reminded me of my childhood growing up in the typhoon-magnet Philippines. A storm would rage overnight and when I woke up, I would step on my patio and notice that the streets would be blanketed by cream-colored water with current so powerful, moderately-sized trees would be carried downstream as if they were made out of plastic toys.

“Beasts of the Southern Wild,” based on Lucy Alibar’s play, offers something unique to the table and it is understandable why some might be at a loss on why it is special. Because our film culture, currently, is so inundated with the familiar, I think a lot of us have learned to expect less. I hope young people as well as future filmmakers will see this, be inspired, and follow by example: that it’s perfectly okay to color outside the lines, use nail polish instead of crayons, or perhaps tear up the pages altogether and make a collage instead.

Hugo


Hugo (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★

Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) lived in the walls of a train station with two jobs: winding the clocks that enabled the station to run smoothly and collecting pieces of machines required to fix an automaton that his father (Jude Law) left him before he died. Our young hero believed that the apparatus held a message from his father. But when a toy stand owner (Ben Kingsley) caught Hugo for stealing, his notebook, which contained instructions on how to properly fix the automaton, was confiscated. Based on the novel “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” by Brian Selznick, the film had a firm handle on its visual effects by constructing a world so convincing, the opening shot in which the camera daringly explored the depth of space using 3D technology was completely mesmerizing. My eyes were fixed on the middle of the screen and I felt like the camera’s straight trajectory could go on for miles without sacrificing a pixel of its crispness. The strength of the picture relied on many consistently controlled visual trickery without coming off as too gimmicky. One excellent example was when we followed Hugo in the murky underground levels of the station, up a helix staircase, through giant machineries dancing in perfect rhythm, up until our protagonist stopped to admire the view of the Eiffel Tower. Eventually, though, the picture had to focus on the story which was mixed bag. On one hand, I cared about Hugo. He was a kind person, a bit mousy and reticent, with a prodigious talent for fixing machines. Even though he had to steal things like food, we were on his side because his motivations were clear. We wanted to know the message hidden in the automaton and hoped that it would lead to Hugo no longer having to scavenge, as a rat would, on a daily basis. With the help of Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), the toy stand owner’s goddaughter who craved a bit of adventure, the duo dove into an investigation about the message of the automaton and how the two of them were connected. Their research forced them to cross paths with the Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), always on the lookout for homeless children to send to the orphanage. It was enjoyable to watch because as Hugo and Isabelle moved from one area to another, the special and visual effects worked on the background which underlined the magic of their journey. On the other hand, the picture had a lesson about film preservation. While I support the idea of protecting old movies from wear and destruction, I found it to be too cloying. Since the issues that the latter half of the picture brought up were so important, Hugo’s story felt small in comparison. While the images were still sophisticated and pleasurable, especially for cinephiles who love old movies, I wanted to know more about the boy and how he planned to move on from the train station if things didn’t work out as he hoped. The character called Monsieur Labisse (Christopher Lee), a librarian, was greatly underused. He seemed to have developed an interest in Hugo, maybe as a protégé or a son, but the scenes the two had together felt underwritten. Based on the screenplay by John Logan and directed by Martin Scorsese, “Hugo,” like the automaton it featured, looked fantastic but the inside didn’t feel complete. It worked as a sensory experience but not an emotional or cerebral one. A mark of a great film touches more than one camp.

Patton


Patton (1970)
★★★★ / ★★★★

The film started off with General George Patton Jr. (George C. Scott) delivering a speech about war and the importance of winning being embedded in the American culture with the gigantic United States flag on the background. It was probably one of the most patriotic scenes I’ve seen portrayed on screen, but at the same time I felt that the picture was making fun of itself. The scene aimed to establish our main character: He was intimidating because he was obsessed with discipline and excellence. His reputation as being one of the feared generals, especially by the Nazis, was well-earned because he was an uncompromising man. Fear sometimes generates respect. The film was beautifully shot. In war pictures, I find it uncommon that I notice the environment because, to me, at least with the more recent war movies I’ve seen, the environ is simply a template where we get to see bombs exploding like there’s no tomorrow. But in “Patton,” I found the second scene outstanding because it featured a peaceful landscape in the Arabian desert where American soldiers’ bodies laid lifeless as Arabian people stole the soldiers’ clothes and other belongings. Again, there was the theme of duality. On one hand, it was sad to see those dead and rotting soliders. On the other hand, we could look at the Arabian people and see that looting was their chance for survival because they obviously didn’t have much. The film is different than other war movies. With “Patton,” we don’t follow any soldier in the battlefield or realize any of his personal struggles. It simply followed the general during his glory days as he tried to compete against British Field Marshal Sir Bernard Law Montgomery (Michael Bates), attempted to outsmart German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel (Karl Michael Vogler), his probation because he slapped a soldier around for complaining about being afraid of the sounds of war, up until he regained his footing in the military. Throughout his journey, we learned so much about him such as his passion for poetry and penchant for history. The latter was his strength but at the same time it was his weakness. His enemies who didn’t know much about history often lost but those who were knowledgeable thought Patton was predictable and almost pretentious. Naturally, his strongest enemies were the ones who were just as smart as him. No one can argue against Patton’s biggest weakness being his mouth. He had no filter; he didn’t think he needed one so he was prone to saying the most inappropriate things during the most inopportune time. “Patton,” directed by Franklin J. Schaffner and partly written by Francis Ford Coppola, won seven Oscars (including Best Picture and Best Actor) not only because of its epic scale but also because of its small details that made this biopic all the more personal.

Gladiator


Gladiator (2000)
★★★ / ★★★★

When the emperor of Rome (Richard Harris) was murderered by his own son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), Maximus (Russell Crowe), general of the Roman empire, wanted to honor the dying man’s wishes by helping the empire turn into a republic again. This didn’t sit well Commodus because he craved for power and wanted to prove that he would be a great ruler by leading a dictatorship. The first time I saw this film, I wasn’t impressed with it. I thought the story was all over the place, the characters were simplified for the sake of being commercial, and there were a handful of glaring idioms that did not fit for its time (it was set in year 180). While I think that those flaws are still applicable, I found myself liking the movie the second time around for two reasons: this role being one of Crowe’s more moving performances and the intense action sequences. Without a doubt, the picture relied too much on the battles in the colosseum to generate some sort of tension. However, it was effective because we like the characters fighting for their lives such as the friends/fellow slave-turned-gladiators (Djimon Hounsou, Ralf Moeller) who Maximus met along his journey. I caught myself voicing out my thoughts such as “Hurry up and get up!” and “Watch out for that tiger!” No matter how much I tried, there was no way I could have kept quiet because I just had to release some of the stress I felt at the time. I also enjoyed watching Oliver Reed as the man who owned the gladiators; I found his past interesting and I wished the film had explored him more because he could have been a strong foil for Maximus. The scenes they had together were powerful because they respected each other but at the same time they didn’t want too be friendly because, after all, one was “owned” by another. Another relationship worth exploring was between the late emperor and Maximus. They treated each other like father and son but it felt too superficial, too planned. Commodus would walk in on them and feel jealous and unloved. But what else? “Gladiator,” directed by Ridley Scott, was loved by many because everything was grand and it wore its emotions on its sleeve. However, I’m still not convinced that it is Best Picture material because it often chose the obvious over the subtle path too frequently. For a sword-and-sandals epic with a two-and-a-half hour running time, while the action scenes were highly entertaining, there was no excuse for a lack of depth involving most if not all the characters. Therefore, as a revenge picture, it didn’t quite reach its potential.

The Color Purple


The Color Purple (1985)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Based on Alice Walker’s novel and directed by Steven Spielberg, “The Color Purple” stars Whoopi Goldberg as Celie Johnson who endured years of suffering in the hands of a very abusive husband (Danny Glover). Celie lost everyone she loved–her son, daughter and sister (Akosua Busia)–and since she was so used to being treated as less than human, she learned to shut herself down and live as though she was a ghost. But when her husband’s kind mistress (Margaret Avery) came into her life, Celie learned to not hide her smile and then everything else fell into place. Most importantly, she learned to fight for her freedom. Watching the lead character struggle physically and emotionally touched me in so many ways to the point where I wanted to cry or yell or scream for her. I admired her because she was so strong–she didn’t break when everyone else told her that she was useless, ugly, unloved, and dumb. She took all of it because she had nowhere else to go. I liked that although the picture was primarily Celie’s story, it was also about the bond between strong women. The bond between Celie and her sister was so powerful and I loved watching them interact, especially the scene when Celie’s sister taught her how to read. It was a huge catharsis when Celie realized that her sister had been writing to her for years but she never received any of it. The bond between Celie and Shug–the mistress–was just as heartbreaking, notably the scenes when Shug would give Celie a boost of self-esteem. There was also a bond between Celie and Sofia (Oprah Winfrey), a strong charismatic woman who everybody wanted to talk to and get to know. Celie looked up to the three women not only because they were strong but also because they were free. The film didn’t take any shortcuts. It tackled the complex issues head-on whether it was about sexuality, race, gender and societal norms. Even “evil” characters like the husband were not one-dimensional. One of the many lines that stood out to me was “Even sinners have souls, too.” Despite the picture being two hours and thirty minutes long, I thought its pacing was exemplary. The passing of the years as the characters we came to love (and hate) growing considerably older was painful to see because one minute they were at their primes and the next they were shriveled up and almost defeated. I think it’s a shame that this picture was nominated for eleven Oscars but did not win a single one. I’m at a loss because the performances were all excellent, the soundtrack tugged at my heartstrings, the cinematography was absolutely breathtaking, and the writing was multidimensional.

A Single Man


A Single Man (2009)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Tom Ford’s first feature film “A Single Man” embodied beauty from the inside out. Colin Firth plays an English professor who recently lost his partner (Matthew Goode) for sixteen years and is contemplating suicide. We get to observe what he does by himself from the moment he wakes up and how he interacts with others, such as his long time friend (Julianne Moore) next door, a Spanish stranger (Jon Kortajarena) and a student (Nicholas Hoult) who shows interest in him. We also got a chance to hear his self-deprecating thoughts and see tender fragments of the past when his lover was still alive. I love how this film felt more European than American. When it comes to its aesthetics, I was mesmerized by how everything seemed to glow due to the perfect lighting, how the wardrobes (with perfect creases at just the right spots) perfectly reflected the era, how the close-ups of the actors’ faces gave us information beyond what was said, and how the presence (and absence) music highlighted the emotional rollercoaster that the lead chaarcter was going through. Firth was simply electric. I totally forgot that I was watching him because I’ve never really seen this side of him before. I’ve seen him excel in romantic comedies but never have I seen him so controlled, so sad and so conflicted. There were times when tears started welling up in my eyes because I completely sympathized with what he was going through. Not only did he lose the person he loved as much as he loved himself (or maybe more), he lost a sense of security. At one point in the film, he lectured to his class about fear and it said so much about his own psychology. Goode was so charming, it was easy to see why Firth was so in love him. Moore was also sublime as an aging woman who still had feelings for Firth but had to control herself because she knew about his lifestyle. The way she hid the pain from her husband leaving her and her son not caring about her by immersing herself in alcohol and make-up was quite moving. I also loved Hoult as the student who saw profound sadness in his professor. (Admittedly, I thought his American accent was a bit off but maybe it was because I was so used to hearing his real accent in “Skins.”) His swagger was just so appealing to me; I couldn’t take my eyes off him. Lastly, the appearance of Kortajarena shocked me in so many ways because I was used to seeing him in high fashion photographs. Even though he wasn’t in the movie much, an acting career is a possible road for him. Ford highly impressed me because this was his first time directing a full feature film. The complexity in which he balanced the picture’s emotions and looks really drew me in–a quality that is sometimes absent even with the most experienced directors. I’ll definitely be on the look out for Ford’s next project. “A Single Man” is an ambitious film with tremendous and sometimes lowkey performances. It may not be the best film of the year but it certainly is one of the finest.