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THE OSCARS, Part 3

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Our Pete Wassell continues with his incisive look at this year’s Best Picture nominees.

Argo:  Ben Affleck is getting better…

 Tight and tense.  Affleck seems to have found his true calling.  Directing seems to come naturally to him, and I’m personally glad he has stayed with it.  Though flawed, I enjoyed his debut feature Gone Baby Gone on a purely visceral level.  The Town left something to be desired, but at least it had life and energy and was trying to be something more than Gone Baby Gone.  Argo, however, elevates Affleck from actor who wants to direct, to Director who shouldn’t have acted in his own film.  It is a taut political drama that skims over the politics just enough to tell us a human story rather than preach.

The film opens with a brief history of U.S. involvement in Iran.  We install the shah, the shah is a bad guy, the Ayatollah comes to power, and the Shah is granted asylum in the U.S.  This is where we pick up the story–1979, Iran in the midst of revolution.  The U.S. embassy is overrun by angry, militant Iranian protesters, and as the ambassadors burn documents and quibble over whether they should stay or leave, six of them decide to head out the back door, where they make their way to the Canadian ambassador’s pad.  Flash forward 3 months and we are now in the throes of the hostage crisis, but the CIA knows about the six Americans in hiding, and Argo centers around Ben Affleck, playing Tony Mendez, and his plan to fake a film production in order to get the hiding Americans out of the country.

Just to get a sense of pace, all of that set-up happens in 20-25 minutes.  That’s why Argo is so good.  It doesn’t linger.  It tells you where you are, shows you where you are, then hits the gas and doesn’t let up until the credits roll.  The last 30 minutes of the film are spent with your eyes glued to the screen, your heart racing, and your fingers making permanent imprints on the armrest.  Though I knew how it was going to end, it didn’t matter–this is Ben Affleck’s movie, and he decides how it ends.

The problem is that Affleck mails in his performance.  Tony Mendez is said to be one of the 50 greatest CIA operatives of all time, yet Affleck plays him like a robot, never really showing any emotion one way or another.  This allows the supporting cast of Alan Arkin, John Goodman, and Bryan Cranston to shine, but detracts from the film overall because Tony Mendez should be a very cool character with a lot wrapped up in this mission, including his own life.  I think Affleck focused on the directing, and so when he was in front of the camera he was thinking more about the look and less about the character’s motivation.  I think that is a good thing for his career as a director, but a poor choice for this film.

Alan Arkin is good, but not worthy of the supporting actor nomination.  Samuel L. Jackson and Leonardo DiCaprio both deserved the nod for Django over Arkin, who has one fun scene where he shows us what a Hollywood Producer should be, but other than that is in the film for maybe a maximum of 15 minutes.

Argo just won the SAG Award for best ensemble in a drama, and Affleck picked up the Best Director Golden Globe earlier this month.  I think it could certainly win Best Picture, and I wouldn’t be heartbroken if it did, but I don’t think it should be held in that high esteem.  This is a good, fast paced, fun movie that lacks depth at points, but nonetheless tells a dynamic political story without getting too political.

Beasts of the Southern Wild: Pretentious with a side of hushpuppy

Good/Not good.  One of the most hyped films of Oscar season.  Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild is beautiful looking.  Dripping with smoky gloom, and vibrant, fiery colors, you could hang a screen on the wall and play the film in a museum as an art installation.  With that said, Levi’s commercials are beautiful, and I often found myself thinking of them as I watched the film.  So, even though it has cinematography and a Director who has a keen eye for composition, that doesn’t get it over the condescending nature of the story.

 Let me begin by saying that 10 minutes after watching Beasts I was in love.   Quvenzhané Wallis delivers a performance that is both unfiltered and deep.  She is the film’s main protagonist, and we experience her world with her and through her.  However, I had a bitter taste in my mouth and a weird nagging thought in the back of my head, one that I couldn’t quite communicate.  I wasn’t sure what it was about the film that I couldn’t put into words.  I thought I loved it, but I knew that I actually didn’t, and I couldn’t explain why.  It wasn’t until I read Vincent Mancini’s review on the Filmdrunk website that I understood my own feelings.  Quoting from Mancini’s article, “When you live in the city and you buy your meat wrapped in cellophane, it’s a pleasant fantasy to believe that people who sleep in the dirt and gut their dinners are possessed of a spiritual richness that you’ve always felt you’re somehow lacking.”  That is the sad truth behind Beasts of the Southern Wild.  Taking place in a small, isolated plot of swamp which the natives call “The Bathtub” and which is cut off from the city by a massive levee, the characters in this story are bestowed with a wistful carefreeness and depth of spirituality that makes their situation seem magical, and even though they live in squalor, you are made to feel envious of people who can have so little, yet feel so much.  The problem is that it’s easy for us to think that because that makes it easier on us to not actually help these people, or to think about them because they are rich in life and don’t need help.  They actually have it all figured out, and we do nothing but get in the way of their spiritual renaissance.   The film looks down on these people and doesn’t tell the truth about who they are, or where they are from.  It is magical because Hushpuppy, the name of the main character, is a little girl, and many things seem magical at that age, though when you get older you know that there is no magic in poverty, and no hope in hopelessness.  Beasts of the Southern Wild is a film shot by a director who knows what looks good, and who knows how to tell a story visually, there is no doubt in that.  The story he tells, however, is not one that I would hold in high regard, for while it attempts to make powerful the people who live in this ramshackle community, all it truly does is highlight their plight and then laugh at how whimsical and vaudevillian it all seems.  The truth is that no matter how magical the world seems to little Hushpuppy, that is no place for a child, and those people don’t need us laughing at them, they need our help.

Check in for more of Pete’s overview on the Oscars in a couple of days. 

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