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The Oscars are quickly approaching. Because we’ve spent the time to see the nominees and because we’re really smart (and I, at least, have impeccable taste), we’re telling you what should win in all the categories.

The nominees are:

  • Michael Haneke, Amour
  • Quentin Tarantino, Django Unchained
  • John Gatins, Flight
  • Wes Anderson & Roman Coppola, Moonrise Kingdom
  • Mark Boal, Zero Dark Thirty

John

This is another tough category for me. It contains a number of films I admire but trying to pick the best writing achievement from them is a hard proposition.

Amour is at the bottom of the pile for me. For those that love the movie, what do they love? The story? The dialogue? The character arcs? No, it’s probably the performances, the shot choices, the pace, and Haneke’s visual style. So vote for him for Best Director.

The problem with Zero Dark Thirty is not torture, per se. All the political hand-wringing about whether it condones torture is overblown. I don’t think it has any duty to explicitly show the downsides of torture (though it is pretty explicit about its horrors). But I think it may have been a better movie if it had. I found the story to be distressingly linear. The key to finding Bin Laden gets discovered very early in the film and much of the rest of the story relentlessly follows that lead, overly simplifying a fascinatingly complex process. Yesterday, Jeff Wells published a response from someone connected to ZDT to yet another editorial about the film. He argues that the film does show the inefficiencies of torture and the years of false starts, but cites literally two lines of dialogue to back that up. I just think the film could have been richer; the film mostly left me with a desire to read a book on the subject to get a more complete view of it. One other script quibble I have is that the film diverts to show literally every major terror attack after 9/11, presumably to add some explosions to the film.

Django Unchained is my favorite film in this category. My favorite film nominated in any category, in fact. Tarantino has made an immensely entertaining film, which is a compliment coming from me as someone who has never fully been on the Tarantino bandwagon. But while I enjoyed the story and the dialogue, all the other elements are what make it so great. The shots, the music, the visual flourishes. There’s no doubt Tarantino “authored” this movie’s success, but in the sense that I’d vote for him for Best Director. (Plus the story tends to meander a bit. People say he needs an editor to cut down on bloated runtime but I think he needs some help tightening up the scripts as well.) I could say the similar things about Moonrise Kingdom. Interesting characters and story but non-script elements make it special.

John Gatins

John Gatins

This leaves Flight, which I think is the movie whose success is most fueled by its script. It takes a story about alcoholism in a creative and compelling direction. Whip Whitaker is a fantastic and complex character. The script also injects some levity into the story, keeping it from getting too bogged down in dreariness. Denzel Washington’s performance and a harrowingly-realized plane crash are other important elements, but a lot of the film’s success started on the page.

Still, if I’m being honest, I’m rooting for Django or Moonrise so that one of them can win something.

What should have been here? I really had high hopes for Looper and it’s a shame it didn’t make it.

Jared

I get on Wes Anderson’s case a lot and I don’t regret any of it. However, his script with Roman Coppola for Moonrise Kingdom does have a lot of sweet moments. The quirkiness gets in the way of everything, but underneath is a touching story of first love and adolescence and being an adult and lots more interesting stuff.

The events of Amour are…”mundane” might be the wrong word, but they are largely commonplace. Which isn’t necessarily an obstacle to making an engaging movie, but throughout Michael Haneke’s whole script I felt like I was watching someone’s home videos. I understand that’s an appealing quality for some people, but I didn’t see the point.

The next three are among my favorite original screenplays of the year. Mark Boal’s script is part procedural and part action thriller. Perhaps unsurprisingly I prefer the latter. The first part of the movie is less remarkable, but it slowly builds to an epic climax. Boal seems really in his element writing tense war action, and maybe a little less confident in the investigation side of things.

I still maintain that Quentin Tarantino would benefit from an editor of some sort to tighten up and slim down his films. But not too much, because there’s a lot of fantastic stuff in there. Tarantino has an absolutely wicked sense of comic relief, the scene with the hoods may be one of the funniest of the year. But like the gruesome shootout at the end (which may be one of the best showdowns of the year), I question how they fit into the movie as a whole.

Great characters start on the page

Great characters start on the page

I was absolutely thrilled to see John Gatins get a nomination here. I thought he had two major roadblocks in his way: the fantastic crash sequence and the stellar work of Denzel Washington. Both of which, of course, stem from the fantastic screenplay. The story is well-plotted and the main character is fascinating. From hotel bed of sin to plane crash to hospital to farm to hearing, the film is always riveting, exquisitely paced, and thought-provoking.

Should have been here: I’d keep Boal, Tarantino, and Gatins. And I’d throw in David Wain and Ken Marino, Wanderlust and Seth MacFarlane, Alec Sulkin, and Wellesley Wild, Ted.

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The Oscars are quickly approaching. Because we’ve spent the time to see the nominees and because we’re really smart, we’re telling you what should win in all the categories.

The nominees for Best Actress are:

  • Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty
  • Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook
  • Emmanuelle Riva, Amour
  • Quvenzhane Wallis, Beasts of the Southern Wild
  • Naomi Watts, The Impossible

John

Whew, this is a tough category. It’s so tough that if I was a real voter I would consider not casting a ballot at all. My preferences between Riva, Chastain, and Lawrence are just that tight.

Riva plays a woman who has been partially paralyzed after a stroke. Her performance is naturally very physical and she puts that on display in a few particularly harrowing scenes, like when she’s shouting gibberish through half her mouth. Chastain is a study in resolve. She is commanding, direct, and, yes, a little cold. She’s also the one actress of these three that could be said to really dominate her movie, that her performance is a defining elements of the film.

It’s a function of the material she has to work with, but I occasionally had trouble believing the lines Lawrence was delivering. This was mostly the case when she was at either her most fierce or most vulnerable. To some extent I just don’t think the film utilizes her character well: I feel like she’s a character I want to see in a movie and I don’t know what the hell the other people are doing there. Still, it’s a good performance and except for those few quibbles she pulls the movie through some real rough spots. She’s almost a breath of fresh air when she comes on the screen, saving us from Bradley Cooper’s neurosis.

So who to choose? I’m not sure. My mind may change before the Oscar ceremony both for who

is most deserving and who I hope will win. I’ll admit I’m kind of rooting for Riva. But I will choose Jessica Chastain on merit.

Going into The Impossible knowing that Watts earned a nomination, I expected more from the role. Her struggles in the tsunami are terrifying but the final 2/3 of the movie finds her bedridden, injured and moaning. I feel like if this sort of thing appeals to you, you have Riva doing it to greater effect. And I certainly don’t begrudge Wallis’s nomination and she really carries her movie. Adages about child acting aside, I just found her the other nominees more compelling.

Jared

Quvenzhane Wallis is more anecdotal proof that child actors keep getting better and better.  I’m not sure I’d put her in my top 20, but part of that is the material and anyway I’m not going to say anything bad about someone whose age is in the single digits.

I liked The Impossible more than I was expecting, and some of that was definitely due to Naomi Watts.  Her problem here is mostly screen time.  I don’t think it would be category fraud to bump her down to supporting actress.  Because she doesn’t really have the material needed to compete here.

I suppose it is possible I’ve got a personal backlash against Amour going on, but I’m clearly missing something here.  Emmanuelle Riva was good, but if you want to give her a lifetime achievement award, fine,  then give her a lifetime achievement award.  Don’t overrate her performance.  She virtually disappears for a good chunk of the movie, leaving me wondering why Jean-Louis Trintignant wasn’t getting the awards attention.

Jessica Chastain is quickly rising up the list of actors or actresses I would cast in a movie if I had to pick a cast without knowing anything about the script.  The first third or so of the movie isn’t particularly strong, but Jessica Chastain a large part of the reason to stick through it.  The role isn’t really what jumps to mind when one thinks Oscar – there’s no big crying scene or wild emoting, which makes it all the more impressive Chastain got the nomination.

For me, though, Jennifer Lawrence is this year’s best actress.  Frankly, it is isn’t particularly close.  Saddled with a rather mediocre script, Lawrence lights up the screen, creating a vivid and interesting character.  She nearly singlehandedly turns Silver Linings Playbook into something watchable.  I firmly believe the awards love that the film and script are getting are ridiculous.  But I just as firmly believe none of that would be happening without Lawrence.  Honestly, I find it baffling that anyone could reach a different conclusion for this category.

Should have been here: My top five  goes Chastain, Lawrence, Jennifer Lawrence (again), The Hunger Games; Rachel Weisz, The Deep Blue Sea; Michelle Williams, Take This Waltz

The Oscars are quickly approaching. Because we’ve spent the time to see the nominees and because we’re really smart (and I, at least, have impeccable taste), we’re telling you what should win in all the categories.

Best Original Song

The nominees are:

  • “Before My Time,” Chasing Ice (Scarlett Johansson)
  • “Everybody Needs a Best Friend,” Ted (Norah Jones)
  • “Pi’s Lullaby,” Life of Pi (Bombay Jayashri)
  • “Skyfall,” Skyfall (Adele)
  • “Suddenly,” Les Miserables (Hugh Jackman)

Jared

For all my hate of Les Miserables, there actually is some good (maybe even great) music in there. “Suddenly” is not that. There are a few exciting measures around the “Trusting me the way you do/I’m so afraid of failing you” bit, but the rest feels like a poor man’s imitation of a lesser Muppet song or something. John and I were talking about the problems with Jackman’s speak-singing, and I think some of those are manifested in the song, in that the music isn’t terribly interesting to begin with, and since Jackman isn’t going all out, the song ends up pretty boring.

Maybe it is because I first came across the song on YouTube, but “Before My Time” sounds exactly like it should be played over the end credits. Always gently moving forward, it presumably allows for some mild reflection as it provides the soundtrack for your exit. Somber and inoffensive, I’ll completely forget this song in 15 minutes.

So, my listens of “Everybody Needs a Best Friend” are probably colored by two other things I’ve been listening to lately. Norah Jones’s “Miriam” (thanks Ian!) is a murder ballad that, frankly, makes me terribly frightened of the chanteuse. But she’s so good on it, I keep wanting to hear a sinister undertone to this song. Which is on me, I know. And then yesterday I listened to Emmy Rossum’s new album of standards. Anyway, where I’m at is that “Everybody Needs a Best Friend” is a perfectly fine throwback to the olden days, and one of the reasons I’m cautiously optimistic about Seth MacFarlane hosting the show. The song is an earnest attempt at a standard, but I’d argue is hampered by its timidness. MacFarlane can be quite clever, but the lyrics lack a hook or spark that I heard in some of the stuff on Rossum’s album. Granted, it is a bit much to ask an Oscar nominee to be a classic, but the point still holds.

I have to admit that the first three or four or times I listened to “Pi’s Lullaby”, it felt inconsequential. But then something finally clicked. Especially once the main theme kicks in around a minute and a half into the song. I think the key is to think “lullaby”. Danna creates a dreamy, almost lush, sound that is light and effervescent, playful and calming.

adele

But obviously it was always going to be “Skyfall”. Obviously it sounds exactly like what you’d expect an Adele Bond theme song to sound like. But that’s OK, because I’d expect an Adele Bond theme to be amazing. You know, I’ve spent the past ten minutes trying to figure out how to reconcile this song with the rest of the Bond movie (which I’d argue save for the opening sequence, the plot point cribbed from The World is Not Enough, and maaybe the last five minutes, isn’t really a Bond film). I think it was too easy for this collaboration to happen, it would have been more difficult to come up with a different plan. And while everything about this is on the nose, again, that doesn’t make it bad.

John

I enjoy the Original Song category, but damned if it isn’t frustrating. Some years there’s a crappy crop of songs and the Academy dutifully nominates a crappy slate. Then other years there are a number of good and compelling songs… and the Academy nominates a bunch of crappy songs. At least this year they are nominating five unlike last year’s debacle. This was a decent year and if you made a playlist of the eligible tunes you’d be sure to find many you like. So it’s too bad this year’s list of nominated songs is so bland.

There’s a clear winner. Thankfully, it’s also a darn good song used to good effect in its film and not just the best of a weak crop. And that winner is “Skyfall.” Adele was made to sing a Bond song, don’t you think?

“Pi’s Lullaby” is the only other nominee I like and it’s sort of an unmemorable Indian chant tune. “Chasing Ice” and “Everybody Needs a Best Friend” are totally bland. “Suddenly” is not helped by Hugh Jackman’s heavily-emoted singing and it sounds pretty bad out of context. I might say maybe it would be better if it was recorded in studio, but it just isn’t a very good song.

So what should have been here? I don’t know how both of the folksy tunes from Brave, “Learn Me Right” (Mumford and Sons” and “Touch the Sky,” missed here. The latter is even part of a neat early scene in the film. For some hip hop, check out “100 Black Coffins” from Django Unchained. “He’s Everything” (Dolly Parton and Queen Latifah) from gospel choir movie Joyful Noise and “Let It Rain” (Badly Drawn Boy) from Being Flynn are two longshot favorites of mine.

Best Original Score

The nominees are:

  • Dario Marianelli, Anna Karenina
  • Alexandre Desplat, Argo
  • Mychael Danna, Life of Pi
  • John Williams, Lincoln
  • Thomas Newman, Skyfall

John

We have a nice slate of Original Score nominees and there isn’t an obvious winner. I’d say Anna Karenina and Life of Pi are the only two nominees whose scores truly caught my attention during the film. Joe Wright always lines up some interesting music for his films. Marianelli’s previous contribution to a Wright film in Atonement won him a well-deserved Oscar and check out last year’s Hanna for a pulsating score from the Chemical Brothers. The Anna Karenina score doesn’t have quite the gusto of Atonement, but it is a great complement to the film’s inventive scenes. Life of Pi works better in the film than on its own. Without the stunning visual displays it feels a bit incomplete but it is a vital part of the film as a whole.

Every year there always seems to be one understated nominee in this category and Argo fits the bill this year. Good music with interesting Middle Eastern twinges to some of the compositions, but not particularly memorable.

Finally, there are the brash nominees. Williams leaves no doubt that he is scoring a Spielberg film and sometimes Lincoln is suffocated in swells of music that hammer home every emotional beat. But the woodwind motifs make it feel like an instant classic (or is it so derivative of previous Williams compositions that it just feels like a classic?). Finally, Skyfall is in your face, loud, and thrilling. It’s probably the best of the bunch when listening to it on its own.

Mychael Danna

Mychael Danna

So which to choose? Is it better to lean towards the work that I simply like the best or is its use in the film most important? It’s a very close race for me between Life of Pi, Skyfall, and Lincoln. At any given point my mind may change, but for now I lean towards Life of Pi. It doesn’t quite hold up to the other two as standalone compositions, but it’s so successful in the context of the film and essential to the film.

Should have been here: Aside from Les Miserables, the only soundtrack that has received numerous replays from me this year is Brave with its Scottish folk compositions. It can be overbearing, but the music in Cloud Atlas sometimes feels like a separate character while the pulsing music from Beasts of the Southern Wild perfectly punctuate a few great scenes, particularly at the end. And I’m not sure if it was eligible, but Johnny Greenwood gives Paul Thomas Anderson another brilliant, off-kilter composition for The Master.

Best Sound Editing

The nominees are:

  • Arog
  • Django Unchained
  • Life of Pi
  • Skyfall
  • Zero Dark Thirty

Best Sound Mixing

The nominees are:

  • Argo
  • Les Miserables
  • Life of Pi
  • Lincoln
  • Skyfall

John

I’m no expert on the subject, but I usually have some sort of opinion on the sound categories. But I look at these nominees and I’ve got nothing. The mixture of Western and blacksploitation styles in Django Unchained gets my vote for Sound Editing. That film wasn’t nominated in Mixing, so I’ll switch allegiance to Les Miserables. I didn’t think the live singing always worked as a stylistic choice, but it did always feel realistic and gave the mixers an extra challenge to properly balance the vocals, backing music, and effects. Plus bonus points for the extra-loud, extra-gross sound of Jalvert’s body slamming into the stones below while committing suicide!

 

The Impossible: Not nominated but memorable

The Impossible: Not nominated but memorable

Last year I made a comment that action movies do not have realistic sounds and compared the digital clangs in Transformers to the terrifying noises produced by tsunami footage found online and in last year’s Documentary Short nominee The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom. I said an action movie should try some more realistic sounds and one actually did this year, with a tsunami to boot! The Impossible‘s tsunami scenes expertly use sound to terrify the audience. The relentless pounding of the current displays the awesome power of the sea. The groans, cracks, and crunches of debris feel deadly and not just digital creations. Then the film does all the above while underwater to bring home the utter chaos of it all. This is immersive, thrilling, and terrifying work.

The Oscars are quickly approaching. Because we’ve spent the time to see the nominees and because we’re really smart, we’re telling you what should win in all the categories.

Best Cinematography

The nominees are:

  • Anna Karenina, Seamus McGarvey
  • Django Unchained, Robert Richardson
  • Life of Pi, Claudio Miranda
  • Lincoln, Janusz Kaminski
  • Skyfall, Roger Deakins

John

This is a good crop of nominees though maybe not very flashy. A number of them do interesting things with lighting and color. Django Unchained features a number of interesting shots – think of blood splatter against white cotton bolls – and Lincoln is an achievement of atmospheric lighting, usually framing its noble protagonist. Skyfall‘s probably here for two big scenes: the Shanghai office building where neon lights reflect through rows of glass walls and the shoot-out in the foggy Scottish highlands at the end. Both are pretty fantastic, though there isn’t as much that’s memorable through the bulk of the film.

karenina

Life of Pi will probably win. I feel like the film is more an achievement in directorial vision and visual effects, but good cinematography partially through digital manipulation is still good cinematography. It just isn’t as showy as it was in Avatar. While I think any of the nominees would make fine winners, I’ll toss my vote to Anna Karenina. The first half of the movie wows with its stylistic visuals, the camera swirling through hundreds of extras in intricately-choreographed scene changes. The second half of the film didn’t keep up the visual flourishes, but I think the material provides less opportunity.

Jared

This category has a stellar group of nominees. That said, I’m not a terribly visual person to begin with, so I’m won’t bother stepping through each one and talking about how pretty the pictures were. I’ll just say that I have the order (from last to my pick) as: Robert Richardson, Django Unchained; Seamus McGarvey, Anna Karenina; Claudio Miranda, Life of Pi; Roger Deakins, Skyfall; Janusz Kaminski, Lincoln. (With apologies to Deakins, who has been the bridesmaid far too many times without ever being the bride.)

lincoln_cin

Do I look good in this light?

But I was continually struck by a very specific aspect of Kaminski’s work in Lincoln. Virtually every shot of Day-Lewis seemed iconic. And where a somewhat similar approach may have felt unearned or over the top in, say, War Horse, it was pitch perfect here. Lincoln wasn’t exactly a hagiography, but it only added to the (mostly true) legend of the man. And virtually every scene saw the character framed and lit so memorably, as if every moment of his life was potentially the one that would make the cover of his biography. This approach may have been a bit much in a movie dominated entirely by the character, but with such a sprawling cast, the decision to constantly glorify Lincoln this way worked magnificently, heightening the dramatic effect and seamlessly enhancing the script.

Best Film Editing

The nominees are:

  • Argo
  • Life of Pi
  • Lincoln
  • Silver Linings Playbook
  • Zero Dark Thirty

John

argo_edit

Cut to: dramatic close-up

I’m not very versed in the art of film editing, but I lean towards Argo for its great pacing and skillful use of suspense even though we’re pretty sure we already know what happens. By the same standards Zero Dark Thirty is close, though I didn’t find the bulk of the film’s pace as effective. I think that may have been more in the screenplay, however.

Silver Linings Playbook is getting some notice in this category with its backers citing its comedic timing. It’s a good argument with one major flaw: it’s not funny.

Geez, has it really been two months since this blog saw a post?  In our defense, three of us are doing grad school in addition to the full time jobs we all hold down (I guess Adam is just lazy).  But no need to worry, now that Oscar season is heating up, we’ve been seeing movies.  And hopefully will get some thoughts up here.

Spurred on by two separate email conversations, I thought I’d check in on the Intrade market for Best Picture.  As a refresher, an Intrade share has a set expiration date, at which time it will pay out either $10 or $0.  In the market for Best Picture, each share represents a movie, so whichever movie wins Best Picture will pay out $10 and all other movies will pay out $0.  But you can buy and sell shares of movies at any point prior to the Oscars, so, in effect, the current share price represents the market’s prediction of the likelihood that film will win Best Picture.

According to Intrade, we are currently looking at a three-horse race.

FRONTRUNNERS

Les Miserables ($2.90) – So these discussions started last week when Ian declared Les Miserables the winner, leading me to check prices on Intrade.  At which point the film was trading around $1.50 – $1.70.  I have documented, time-stamped proof that Brian, John, and I all declared the film a strong buy at that price.  The film was actually trading around $1.60 yesterday.  So what changed?  Yesterday saw the first screenings of the film and though there’s still an embargo on full reviews, initial reports are that the film went over very well and is likely going to be a surefire contender for Best Picture.  Nice to see the market react so quickly.  I wouldn’t be surprised to see the price dip a bit with the inevitable backlash and posts about how these were pro-musical audiences.  But a classic musical is the kind of thing that can start steamrolling through awards seasons.

Argo ($2.85) – Argo is a near-lock for a nomination.  I personally think it has a better than 29% chance to win it all, with the reviews, the box office, the massive cast of known actors (and actors make up a big chunk of the voting membership), it being a patriotic film where Hollywood is the hero, and the story of Ben Affleck’s redemption.  That said, it is hard to recommend a buy, because I’m not even sure a nomination alone will bump up the price, it would need to start winning some precursors.

Lincoln ($2.64) – Another near-lock for a nomination.  I saw this film yesterday, so I’m still sorting through my thoughts.  It has a lot going for it, obviously it is  Spielberg movie, has a huge cast, and the story of abolishing slavery is one that is going to resonate with the Academy.  The movie does have some flaws, though, and it isn’t nearly as broad in scope as a Spielberg Lincoln movie might be expected to be.  Probably best not to touch this one before precursors

OTHER STRONG CONTENDERS

Silver Linings Playbook ($0.52) – Nothing about a Bradley Cooper-led romantic comedy screams Oscar bait, I know.  But the film is directed by David O. Russell (and remember, The Fighter pulled two Oscar wins and an additional five nominations) and co-star Jennifer Lawrence may well be the front-runner for Best Actress.  The Gurus o’ Gold all believe the film will be nominated and Dave Karger (whose predictions have been spot on in years past) still believes the film will win the top spot.  It is looking like the film might not do as well as hoped at the box office this weekend, but given the apparent widespread love for the film, it might be smart to pick up this film right before the awards circuit heats up and sell it off after it climbs.

Zero Dark Thirty ($0.45) – John and I both pegged this as a strong buy.  (Though as I’m writing this, I got an e-mail from Xiaoyu about how he’s already lost money on it.)  The film is still largely a mystery, but it is now it is the one unseen film that still has a shot at the top prize.  Directed by Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker), early word is that the film is top-notch, but maybe doesn’t adhere to many of the traditional Hollywood narrative structures.  We should get an idea as to this film’s future pretty quickly after some more screenings, but I’m betting (other people’s money) that we’ll see a spike.  And I know John is on board with me here.

OTHER FILMS OF NOTE

Life of Pi/The Master ($0.30/$0.20) – I don’t think either of these films have much of a shot at winning.  But they currently seem to be in position to get nominations, so if you believe that will bump their prices, they could provide some value.

Beasts of the Southern Wild ($0.08) – On the next tier of likelihood for a nomination, but it should do well with the Independent Spirit nominations this week, which might lead to a bump in price.

Amour/Flight/The Impossible/Moonrise Kingdom/The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel ($0.03/$0.02/$0.02/$0.04/$0.02) – Maybe one or two of these get a nomination, and they may be seeing nominations in other categories, so if you feel like gambling with the penny stocks, these may be the way to go.

Django Unchained ($0.10) – Your guess is as good as mine.

 

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