So I sort of went crazy with my movie watching this week. The weather has been crazy and I really want to actually watch all the movies on my list this year. (I also reviewed a couple of catch up movies here.) It was not unfortunately a cheery week as you shall see, but it was filled with really compelling stories…
Zero Dark Thirty
I’m still not sure how I felt about this movie. It was incredibly well put together, and I adore adore adore Jessica Chastain – I would watch her read a phone book. I also really appreciated that this was a film about women that wasn’t about their femaleness, because that is very rare. But I’ve also never sat through anything that made me as supremely uncomfortable as this movie. Part of that stems from Kathryn Bigelow’s masterful direction (seriously Academy no nomination?) which creates an environment where you can literally see an explosion driving towards you and it will still make you jump out of your chair. The rest of my discomfort has to do with the torture. I guess I don’t really have anything to say about it that hasn’t already been said, by people smarter and better informed than I, but it made me sad as an American that the CIA operatives portrayed in this movie seemed to mainly complain about how they couldn’t torture detainees in illegal black sites anymore.
But on a positive note, this film like Argo, has a wonderful supporting cast filled with wonderful character actors, including my favorite Mark Duplass, and Jason Clarke, who I have never seen before, but he is amazing in this – sadistic but somehow likeable.
So I saw when it came out in theaters, and haven’t seen it since, but as I’m writing about depictions of femaleness I thought I would say a few words about how refreshing this movie was. Princess Merida is the first Disney Princess who gets her happy ending without getting a marriage proposal, which would have been awesome enough, but it’s also about mothers and daughters. Which is significant because 1-the mom is not dead (that happens sooo often) 2-she is not evil. Julia and I were talking during the Globes on Sunday about this movie made us cry and then call our moms. Also she has awesome hair.
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Speaking of fairy tales with dead mothers…I present Hushpuppy, female Prince of the Bathtub, aka the area below the levee in Louisiana. Before I really delve into my complicated feelings about this movie, let me just say unequivocally that Quvenzhane Wallis was fabulous in this film. She has a remarkable presence and conveys so many varied emotions and an astounding strength. This performance would be impressive from an adult, let alone an eight year old girl.
All summer long I was told by various people who I had to see this movie. (Side note there generally isn’t an easier way to keep me from seeing something than to gush about it too much to me, I suffer a lot from the disappointment of inflated expectations.) I wasn’t disappointed by the quality of this film, the non-actors perform admirably, and the natural world so exalted by the characters is captured in all its glory and destruction. My problem was that I was expecting to be charmed, that’s how it was sold to me, that it would somehow be uplifting. It was not. It was heartbreaking. What is inspiring about a nine-year old who is left to fend for herself and then take care of the people who are meant to be taking care of her? I know this is magical realism, it is a fairy tale, but just like the Hans Christian Anderson versions of the classics, this is a story of someone tortured by their environment yet tethered to it. I know so many people who watched this movie over and over again. I don’t even know if I could sit through it again.
The Hunger Games
While we’re talking about strong girl movies, I might as well say I’ve also seen The Hunger Games. I saw it last summer, so I admit that I don’t really remember all of my feelings about it, except that it has a lot thematically in common with Beasts, in that they are both stories about societies that pay no mind to the lives of children. (OK I might be being too harsh on Hushpuppy’s dad, but that movie was really hard on me.) This is one of those book adaptations of movies that vindicates that snub attitude literary people have about Hollywood. The book (this first one at least) is really remarkable, this movie is standard summer fare. But I do really like the song Taylor Swift got nominated for:
This movie is not about a strong female character. Well, I guess it’s sort of about the strength of Shirley MacLaine’s character’s bitchiness, but not really. This is a movie based on an incredibly bizarre true story about when the most decent man you have ever met murders the bitchiest woman in town. I have no way of explaining how twisted and charming this movie is without telling the whole story – which I have already subjected a couple of friends to. Jack Black does a wonderful job as the titular assistant funeral director/community theater star/companion to old women/murderer and Matthew McConaughey proves once again that he does strange so very well, but the real heart of this movie is the people of Carthage, TX. Richard Linklater, already one of my favorite directors, made the excellent decision to simply include actual townspeople as narrators in the movie. Making it sort of half documentary reenactment. Really, I know the premise is weird, but you have to see this movie.
Life of Pi
Full disclosure: I am not a fan of the novel that this movie is based on, so my issues with the film are not actually with the film, but with Yan Martel’s original premise. I get the whole idea, “we tell each other stories in order to survive” as Joan Didion so wonderfully put it, but I think Martel implies too strongly that we get to choose the stories we prefer rather than grappling with reality. That being said Ang Lee has made a visually stunning film out of a lot of hanging out in the doldrums of the Pacific Ocean.
I was terrified to go see this movie. I had heard horror stories about Michael Haneke, and his antagonistic relationship to the viewer of his films. I have no desire to watch a movie designed to torture me. That being said, after listening to the team on the Slate Culture Gabfest explain the power of this film and the departure that it was for Hanake, I decided to go. And I’m very glad I did. It might be the most powerful film I’ve seen, like ever. Emmanuelle Riva, apparently a French film legend, does an amazing job of essentially playing two characters, the lucid version of Anne and the childlike dying version. This may be a departure for the director, but it is certainly not an easy movie to watch, and I don’t think I could ever sit through it again. But for all its heartbreak it is a testament to what human beings can withstand. There is one nightmare dream sequence in this that made me jump out of my skin, and then I spent the rest of the time afraid that each bump was going to be the signal of another nightmare, which was a signal of course to wake me up and realize that I was watching this man’s slow motion nightmare unfold. But it is unfolding in a beautiful apartment. Also pigeons are awful.
Rust and Bone
I thought this was going to be an inspiration story about Marion Cotillard overcoming a devastating injury and learning to be a person again, and it partly is, but it is really a story about Matthias Schoenaerts being an awful father, and sometimes a great guy, and sometimes a criminal, and sometimes a wonderful person carrying Cotillard’s Stephanie into the ocean. There are parts of this movie that were really heartwarming and parts that were really confusing to me, but I think that comes mostly from the fact that I don’t really understand the appeal of wanting to be a fighter for a living. This wasn’t a typical Hollywood “hero overcomes adversity film” but I felt like at points it kept trying to be. The two leads did have really nice chemistry though.
West of Memphis
My first documentary of the year! (It was nominated for the BAFTA but not the Oscar, which is odd because it is such an American story, even if it is a story of American failure.) I have never seen any of the other three documentaries about Damien Echolls, Jason Baldwin, and Jesse Misskelly, better known as the West Memphis Three, wrongly convicted as teenagers for the heinous murder of three young boys in West Memphis, Arkansas. So I don’t know how this movie compares to earlier iterations of the story, but I do know that this film is a compelling wonder of documentary storytelling. This movie easily could have been a sensationalist screed against the broken Arkansas justice system, the news media, or the man who evidence suggests actually committed the crime, but instead it uses old news footage, new evidence and wonderful interviews to slowly and convincingly lay out a case for the truth. I’m very glad that these men are out of prison, and after seeing this I hope that they will eventually get the exoneration they deserve. Also Lori Davis is an incredibly inspiring woman.