Monday, May 28, 2018

2017: The Shape of Water

Elisa Esposito's life is fairly routine and lonely. Her only friends are her neighbor, Giles, and her coworker Zelda, with whom she cleans at night in a laboratory. All three are rejected by society: Elisa for her inability to speak verbally, Giles for his sexual orientation, and Zelda for her skin color. Then Elisa and Zelda discover a strange humanoid sea creature imprisoned in the lab, with whom Elisa develops a deep connection. Upon learning that the creature is set to be killed and dissected for research, Elisa recruits her friends to free him.

I have very mixed feelings about this film, as I'm sure many people do. It's an extremely bizarre premise and story, and I can't really tell whether I liked it or not, but I thought it was filmed beautifully. The theme of water was everywhere - in the fluid camera movements, the lighting, the sets, the soundtrack - and it worked quite well. The costume and effects used to bring the creature to life were very effective, and all of the performances were phenomenal. Mainly, I wasn't a huge fan of the strange love story between Elisa and the creature, especially at the end. I would have liked to see more of them getting to know each other and learning to communicate. She brings him eggs and teaches him the ASL sign for "egg", and like four other signs; I wanted more of that. I would have believed in the love story more if the Amphibian Man had more of a personality.

I'm pretty sure that, like the previous year's winner, this film won Best Picture for its representation. Once again, I have mixed feelings about that as well. It was quite refreshing to see a film with a clear female protagonist finally win Best Picture for the first time since 2004. I appreciated that all four of the main characters the audience was supposed to root for were from groups who tend to be under-represented in Hollywood: a disabled woman, an African-American woman, a gay man, and a sea monster. The only problem with that, which I'm sure was not the filmmakers' intent, is that it could potentially be interpreted as equating the first three groups with the last one, implying that they are not fully human. I think the filmmakers were trying to show that the creature was more human than the white male able-bodied human villain who was trying to destroy him, which is a theme that has often been explored by Disney movies: Belle crying, "He's no monster, Gaston; you are!" in Beauty and the Beast and Clopin asking, "Who is the monster and who is the man?" about Frollo and Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame come to mind. The difference is, in those cases, the person interpreted as a monster was actually human, whereas the creature in this movie, while pretty awesome, is clearly not human. Don't get me wrong, I'm all for looking beyond outward appearances. I even like the idea of someone falling in love with a person who looks like a monster and isn't going to transform into a handsome prince. All I'm saying is I don't like the implication that Elisa has to end up with Amphibian Man because her disability makes it impossible for "normal" people to fall in love with her. I'm virtually positive that that's not what the film was trying to say, but it's certainly a valid interpretation. I realize that too often people with disabilities are portrayed as having no sexuality at all, which is wrong, but is it really a step forward to show someone with a disability only having sex with a creepy monster thing? Without spoiling too much, I think the ending could have salvaged this questionable message, but if anything it made things worse by not even letting Elisa consent to what happens.

Overall, this movie has a lot of good things about it, but the whole love story thing just really doesn't work for me. I'm not sad I watched it, but I feel like it could have been better, which is similar to how I felt last year. More representation in Best Picture winners is a great new trend, and I hope it continues indefinitely, but I also hope the execution improves.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

2016: Moonlight

This is the coming-of-age story of Chiron, a gay, African-American male, raised by a single, drug-addicted mother, told in three parts: one when he's about 10, one when he's about 17, and the third when he's in his mid-20s. Each section of the movie contains a few key events that shape Chiron's path of self-discovery.

There are some things I really like about this movie, and others not so much. Honestly, one of my favorite things about it was the lighting. Early in the movie, one of the characters tells a story about an old woman commenting, "In moonlight, black boys look blue," and I don't know if it was mostly power of suggestion, but a lot of the lighting looked blue to me, which added a nice artistic touch. I was also, for the most part, very impressed by the performances, particularly those of Alex Hibbert and Ashton Sanders, who played Chiron in the first two parts. As a child, he doesn't speak very much, and those two actors do a tremendous job of conveying his pain and fear with just their eyes. The third section, on the other hand, seemed like a completely different movie. I didn't think Chiron's transformation was quite believable, and the last third seemed to drag a lot more than the first two. The pacing of the movie as a whole is on the slow side, but the end was almost excruciating, and then nothing really happened. So it was a bit disappointing. Overall, I didn't dislike this movie, but I didn't love it either.

Personally, I think this movie won Best Picture more for what it represents than for how good of a movie it is. Overwhelmingly - in fact, almost exclusively - mainstream Hollywood tells stories about straight, white people. People of color and LGBT+ people are hardly ever represented in Best Picture winners, let alone LGBT+ people of color. This particular year, the two front-runners for this award were Moonlight and La La Land. I still haven't seen La La Land, although I'm going to have to eventually if I want to keep up my Best Actress blog, but from what I've heard, I'm 99% sure it's about straight white people. The past few years before this, all the Oscar-nominated actors were white, prompting significant Twitter backlash with the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite. Not to mention that 2016 was the year of the Pulse massacre, the continued escalation of tensions between people of color and the police, an election that emboldened bigots, and a lot of other similarly terrible things. Since Hollywood is, at least ostensibly, extremely liberal, I think a lot of people voted for Moonlight without having seen it, just to make a statement. And like the movie itself, I'm not sure how I feel about this. On the one hand, it seems like the Best Picture Winner should be the actual best movie of the year, not the movie that makes the best statement of the year. On the other hand, if this project has taught me anything, it's that the Best Picture Oscar Winner is almost never the actual best movie of the year, and there are definitely much worse things than shining a spotlight on a movie about people who don't often have the chance to see themselves represented on the silver screen. So while this is not my favorite movie of all time, or even my favorite movie of 2016, I'm glad that it won. And I'm really hoping this year's winner will be a female-centered story. Seriously, it's been way too long.

Currently I'm making my way through Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar winners, which means I will re-watch this movie again after reading the play, but that will probably take a while since I'm currently in the early 1940s, and it takes much longer to read and then watch than just to watch. But you can check out that blog here if you're interested.

Friday, April 8, 2016

2015: Spotlight

It starts relatively small: a Boston priest is accused of molesting children. No one at the Boston Globe is particularly interested in this story, until the new editor-in-chief asks the four-person investigative team known as "Spotlight" to dig deeper. What they uncover is an alarmingly widespread pattern of sexual abuse within a system that looks the other way and enables it to continue indefinitely.

While I definitely liked this better than the previous year's winner, it's certainly not the best film to ever win this award. The pacing isn't ideal. The beginning in particular is very slow and draggy and rather boring, and I couldn't help thinking, Really? THIS won Best Picture? Once the Spotlight team actually starts investigating, it gets much more engaging, but it's still lacking in some respects. The screenplay won an Oscar, but while there was some good writing, much of the dialogue was flat and felt artificial: more than once I thought the characters would have worded things differently than the lines. But I could have been wrong about that because there isn't an overabundance of character development, so I might have gotten a different impression of the characters than intended. However, after the first fifteen minutes or so, I was fascinated enough by the story that the better aspects of the film outweighed these flaws, and I came away with an overall positive opinion of the movie.

I think the lack of character development actually works somewhat well in that it shifts the focus away from the journalists and onto the story they're covering. The scenes when they're interviewing victims are very well done, and I wanted more of those. On the other hand, I had trouble with the scenes when they were interviewing or talking about people who knew that this was going on and either did nothing or made the problem worse because I kept getting them mixed up, so a little more character development would have been nice. Overall the performances are solid. Mark Ruffalo mumbles a lot, which makes him hard to understand, but I like the way he portrays his character's enthusiasm. The rest of the Spotlight group - Michael Keaton in his second Best Picture winner in a row, Rachel McAdams (halfway through my mom turned to me and asked, "Is that Regina George?"), and Brian D'Arcy James, who I did not recognize with that mustache - all do a good job of portraying slightly different reactions to the story as it unfolds. I like the way the four of them interact; they make a believable team. Personally, though, I found the supporting performances by Liev Schreiber, as the driven, poker-faced new editor-in-chief, and Stanley Tucci, as an eccentric attorney determined to help victims, more outstanding than the leading performances. But again, maybe we aren't supposed to get to know the main characters very well.

It seems pretty obvious that this film won Best Picture more for the subject matter than for being an exceptional movie. I haven't seen most of the other nominees yet, but I find it hard to believe that this was the best of the bunch. Granted, it is a very intriguing and disturbing story, but the execution is lacking. Some scenes are unnecessary, some need to be expanded upon. Most of the tension in the story feels artificial and forced - was it actually likely that other papers would steal the documents the second they were released, especially since no one else knew they were available? Chill, Mark Ruffalo. I was also confused by the big epiphany that they should use the record books to find priests that followed the pattern of disappearing and reappearing in a new parish every few years, since I'd assumed that was why they'd taken the books in the first place. To summarize: it's a decent movie, and I'm glad I saw it, but it has too many flaws to make it truly deserving of this award.

I don't have a clue what's coming up next, but in the meantime you should read my blog about Best Actress Winners here. I'm caught up except for the most recent winner, so now I'm trying to decide what to blog about next. If you have any suggestions let me know. It doesn't necessarily have to be Oscar-related, but it will probably be movie-related.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

2014: Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Actor Riggan Thomson is known for one role: that of the superhero Birdman, which he played in three movies 20 years ago. He decides to write, direct, and star in a Broadway play, just to prove that he can. The film chronicles the days leading up to the play's opening, following Riggan, his ex-wife and daughter, his lawyer, and his fellow cast members.

I have very mixed feelings about this movie. On the one hand, I kind of hate the plot and all of the characters. On the other hand, I really like the way it was filmed. From the beginning, I noticed that something felt odd about the camera work, but I couldn't quite place it at first. After a little while I figured out what was going on: it was filmed to look like it was (almost) all one continuous shot. It's not like this is the first time this has been done; Alfred Hitchcock used it in his 1948 thriller, Rope. But while Rope takes place entirely in one tiny apartment, Birdman goes all over the place and even includes a flying sequence. Once I realized that that was why it felt weird, I started to enjoy the movie a lot more than I had been. I was less bothered by the characters and story because I could focus on the technique.

Beyond that, I didn't think this film had much to recommend it. The cast gave very convincing performances, but I couldn't really relate to any of the characters. The few people I was actually interested in were underdeveloped in favor of drawn out conversations between obnoxious characters about boring topics. There were also way too many underwear scenes and instances of unnecessary profanity for my taste. I guess I can kind of see why some people really like it, but it's definitely not my type of movie. Granted, it was very beautifully filmed, so I did enjoy watching it from that perspective. But there were several great movies that came out in 2014 that I enjoyed watching a lot more, so I'm not convinced that Birdman deserved to win Best Picture. Still, I'm glad I watched it. I kind of wish I'd gone into it knowing about the filming like it was one shot thing (although once I noticed it, it did seem vaguely familiar) so I could have focused on that the whole time, but it was also nice going into it knowing very little about it so I wasn't biased one way or the other.

Coming up next: I don't know, but I hope something with a female protagonist. It's been like 10 years since the last one. It's time.

P.S. In case you're interested, I'm also blogging about Best Actress Winners here.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

2013: 12 Years a Slave

Solomon Northup is a free black man living in New York with his wife and children, until he is abducted and sold into slavery. The film chronicles the horrors he faces as he desperately struggles to regain his freedom.

I first watched this movie several months ago, but I didn't blog about it then, and it had been long enough that I decided to watch it again before doing so. I'm very glad I did, because I thought it was much better the second time. Part of the reason I didn't want to blog about it right away was because I had heard so much praise for it, heard it called the definitive movie about slavery so often, that I didn't want to admit I didn't think it was that great. The beginning is really confusing. I still don't understand why it starts with scenes from the middle of the story, or what the point of that one sex scene is. The story also drags a lot, with a few too many scenes of nothing but Solomon staring into space contemplatively. But beyond those complaints, overall I think it's a very good film that effectively conveys the evils of slavery.

I'm pretty sure most people already know that slavery is evil without watching this movie, but there were aspects of it that I hadn't thought about, or at least had never seen portrayed before. The way the one plantation owner kept waking his slaves in the middle of the night to make them dance, just because he could. The way other slaves were expected to just go on with their work while one was being brutally beaten or almost hanged in the background. The way the plantation owner's wife was so jealous that her husband was sleeping with his slave that she wouldn't even let that slave have soap. The way that even the "nice" white people still unquestioningly accepted the privileges they received from such a messed-up system, taking for granted that they were somehow superior. The way that Solomon and the other slaves who knew who he was kept saying that he didn't deserve to be there, as if those who were born into slavery did. This film presents all these and many other sad truths without any ceremony or fluff; this is just how it was. All this comes together under the expert direction of Steve McQueen, with fabulous performances by the entire cast, particularly Chiwetel Enjiofor as Solomon. And then there's Lupita Nyong'o, whose incredible, haunting performance earned her a well-deserved Best Supporting Actress Oscar. The first time I watched this movie, I couldn't really get past the odd beginning, but this time I was able to fully appreciate just how well put together the rest of it is.

This is based on a true story that I'm not familiar with, so I don't know exactly how accurate the film is, but despite any factual inaccuracies it may have, it still seems brutally honest. Not that I actually witnessed that part of history, obviously, but I am aware that centuries later, our country still hasn't fully recovered from the side effects of slavery, particularly racism and fear of those who look different from us. I'm also aware that slavery still exists, though it seems like people are far less accepting of it now, as long as they know about it, which I guess is something.

I think it's interesting that of all the Best Picture Winners that dealt with historical issues, this is the first one to deal with slavery directly. The only other one I can think of that really talks about it at all is Gone with the Wind, which, while mostly a very good film, does a really terrible job of portraying slavery, implying that people were somehow happy to be enslaved and were only freed because of the meddlesome Yankees who didn't understand the benefits of the system. And somehow, though it's awful and many of us would prefer to forget about it, and though the effects of racism still tear this country apart, the fact that we're talking about slavery in this way at all seems like a step forward, albeit a tiny one.

Next Best Picture Winner: Birdman

I'm also planning to watch all the films that won Best Actress in order and blog about them on this account, kind of like this blog but focusing on the actresses' performances rather than the movie as a whole, so look out for that. Also in 2013 I wrote about all the movies I'd watched at least 10 times in the previous 10 years here in case you're interested in reading more of my movie thoughts. Also thanks for being one of the approximately 5 people who actually read this. You're awesome!

Thursday, July 11, 2013

2012: Argo

During the U.S. hostage crisis in Iran, six Americans escape and hide out with the Canadian ambassador.  In order to get them safely home before they are discovered and executed, Tony Mendez of the C.I.A. invents a fake movie so they can pretend to be a Canadian film crew looking for a desert location.

I've heard this movie get a lot of hate.  People complain that it's historically inaccurate and that it's a horrible insult to all the brilliant films made in 2012 that this was named Best Picture, but while I will agree that there were a lot of good films in 2012, I actually really liked Argo and was glad it won.  After all, this isn't an award for the most historically accurate movie of the year.  Part of the point of this film is that Hollywood is fake, so maybe it was inaccurate on purpose to prove its point.  I don't know and I don't care, and I know people have valid reasons for disagreeing with me, but I'm going to talk briefly about why I think Argo deserved this award.

First of all, historically accurate or not, it's a fascinating story.  It sounds completely ridiculous to use a fake movie to save people's lives, but sometimes ridiculous ideas actually work.  Though I would have liked more character development of the six people being rescued, I think keeping the audience from getting to know them too well was the filmmakers' way of showing us Tony's perspective.  He's risking everything to pull off a plan he knows will almost certainly fail to save people he doesn't even know.  Yes, that's his job, but that doesn't make it any less heroic.  So I was surprised to find myself so invested in whether they were rescued, since I'm usually more interested in characters that I feel I've gotten to know.  I'm still not exactly sure how this film managed to pull this off, but for whatever reason I found myself just as invested in the fates of these six people whose names I could barely remember as I'd ever been in the fate of a movie character, which is a lot more than it probably should be.

As a result, this is just about the most stressful movie I've ever watched.  Even though I knew they were going to get out alive, the whole time I couldn't help thinking that there was no possible way that they could.  I think the filmmakers did an excellent job of building tension, and the first time I saw it I could hardly breathe during the second half and was literally clutching my sister's hand for most of the airport scene.  That, to me, is evidence of good filmmaking.  Thankfully, there is a significant amount of comedic relief, particularly in the form of John Goodman and Alan Arkin, but even that is laden with tension.  It seems like they're only making jokes so that they don't have to think about the potential consequences of failure, which almost makes the whole experience even more stressful.  Just to be clear, I think this is a good thing.  I think a movie's job is to transport its audience into the story, and with a story like this it needs to be stressful.  So while I definitely wouldn't be able to watch this every day, I think it's a well done film.  You can disagree with me, that's your prerogative, but if you've been warned that Argo isn't worth watching, let me urge you to give it a chance.  You might be pleasantly surprised as I was.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

2011: The Artist

Silent film star George Valentin is on top of the world...that is, until the talkie era sets in.  George refuses to make the transition, and begins to fade into obscurity.  On the other hand, Peppy Miller, who got her start as an extra in a Valentin movie, shoots to fame in talking pictures.  As George's world spirals out of control, all of Peppy's dreams come true.  But Peppy happens to be in love with George, and that might just be all he needs to get his life back on track.

The Artist is a very unusual movie for many different reasons.  Most obviously, it is a silent film from the 21st century.  As the film itself portrays, once movies started talking they never looked back.  Until now.  But even for a silent film it's unusual.  It almost feels wrong to call it a silent film, since sound plays such an important role in the story, and there are a few sequences that use sound.  When George stubbornly decides to make his own film without sound, he has a dream that everything makes sound except him.  It's an eerie scene: the instrumental soundtrack temporarily disappears, and various clunks and thuds are heard, then the barking of a dog and the ringing of a telephone.  One could almost say Sound is the villain in this movie, at least until George learns to work with it in the end.  This is what makes it so different from other silent films: it's silent by choice.  In the same way that Schindler's List was black and white to emphasize the darkness of the Holocaust, The Artist is silent to emphasize George's struggles with sound.  It's a film technique, rather than a medium, as silent film was in the 1920s.  And it works beautifully.  The lack of audible dialogue aids instead of hinders the telling of a moving story, portrayed by actors with faces that would make Norma Desmond proud.  Jean Dujardin is adorable when he laughs and smiles, and heartbreaking when his character is at the end of his rope.  And Bérénice Bejo has fabulous, subtle facial expressions, which is rather surprising given the over-exaggerated faces one might expect from a silent film.  And I'll never say anything against adding a cute dog to a movie, particularly when he's so much like Asta from the Thin Man movies.  The cinematography and soundtrack are equally beautiful, and the story is both tear-jerking and uplifting.  In short, this is a wonderful film, and that's coming from a viewer who generally only enjoys movies with witty dialogue.

If I had to fault this film, I would say that it's a little too much like Singin' in the Rain.  Both movies, in a nutshell, are about a self-centered silent movie star who has trouble making the transition until a young, up-and-coming woman convinces him to make a musical.  At the beginning of the film, I actually thought, "How odd, a silent remake of a musical."  But The Artist delves into much darker themes than Singin' in the Rain, and besides the beginning and the very end, it's very much its own story.  And anyway, I like Singin' in the Rain, so I don't mind that this film emulates it to a certain extent.

Since I loved this and the previous year's winner so much, I can't wait to find out what next year's winner is!  Although, now that I've said that, I'll probably hate it, but I'll just have to wait and see.