Sundance Reflections: Other Oddities

“Newlyweeds.” A stoner comedy for people who don’t like stoner comedies.

There are a few films I haven’t talked about yet. The first is “Newlyweeds,” a comedic drama about a young couple, Lyle and Nina, who is coasting through life smoking weed and generally not doing much of anything. But, things start changing when a new drug-dealer enters Nina’s life, and Lyle’s addictive tendencies start tearing his life apart.

The film is easily one of the funniest I saw at Sundance. Lyle and Nina’s drug use has a lot of comedic potential, and first-time director Shaka King makes excellent use of all of it. There’s the time where Nina brings her pot brownies to the child care center where she works and the kids get a hold of them, and the classic-in-the-making scene where Lyle, descending into alcoholism, wakes up on a subway train after a drinking binge wearing a girl’s pink jacket that is too small for him to even remove.

The characters are sweet (if foul-mouthed) and the film is beautifully shot. There is tons of drug use in the movie, but I don’t see it as gratuitous. The film shows the lows as well as the highs of getting high. For people like Lyle, pot is destructive, because it encourages his addictive tendencies. His eventual alcoholism ruins everything around him, even the relationship he was trying so hard to sustain. He is ultimately a kind man, which helps to offset his considerable character flaws. The supporting cast is excellent all-around, but it’s really the writing that shines through. Even during the characters’ more self-destructive descents, we never stop rooting for them and remembering the humanity behind the haze.

The strangest film I saw at Sundance was “Upstream Color,” about as puzzling film as you’re likely to see. Apparently, its some kind of deep meditation on the nature of reality and identity, but I thought it was pure nonsense. It’s one of those “art” films that tries so very hard to be meaningful, all while forgetting that its supposed to be entertaining the audience. The film follows a woman in the aftermath of an infection by some kind of worm that causes her to become brainwashed and lose her identity, which gets transferred to a pig. She falls in love with a man who tries to help her get her life back on track and live again. Sound confusing? Stupid, even? Yep.

The director, Shane Carruth, has received high praise for his unconventional and challenging style, and I can see why. The film is so beautiful to look at that I never felt exactly angry at it. In fact, in technical terms, it’s the best film I saw at Sundance. But, what is it about? Your film can be achingly beautiful, but if you don’t have a good script, you don’t really have much. Don’t get me wrong, I love art-house movies. The deliberately obtuse Terrence Malick is one of my favorite directors. But this is no Terrence Malick film. It’s incomprehensible mud masquerading as meaning. During the Q&A after the film, one audience member called it a “masterpiece.” I thought Sundance-goers were smarter than that.

Sundance In-Depth Analysis: “Blue Caprice”

“Blue Caprice” is a terrifying film, because its major events actually happened. If the Joker was a real-life villain and not just a comic book character, he might look a lot like John Muhammad.

John was one of the D.C. Snipers, a pair of shooters who terrorized the Beltway by shooting random targets from the trunk of a Blue Caprice. The film is a slow burn, as the terrorists slowly make their way towards their killing spree. It reaches into the dark depths of humanity and refuses to let the audience come up for air.

The beginning of the film takes place in the tropics, where teen Lee Malvo is living a life of abandonment. His mother left, and may not be coming back. She tells him to make friends with the man down the street while she’s gone. That man is John. John is a kind man, who takes Lee under his wing and treats him like a son. But John also has a short temper, and is particularly angry over his ex-wife trying to take custody of his three kids. He loves to hunt, and releases his anger by shooting firearms in the woods. But this isn’t satisfying. He wants to send a message. A message of chaos.

The film’s themes are nothing short of chilling. The story of John and Lee shows that, while some men are born violent, others are trained to be that way. Lee is a directionless youth, and John’s words quickly take a hold of him, brainwashing him into thinking that killing is the only way to solve his problems. It’s a subtle indictment of our current culture, which emphasizes widespread ownership of firearms but has little knowledge about the inner-workings of mental illness. It may be too early for a Sandy Hook drama, but this film covers similar ground in terms of our gun culture. There’s also a psychological mentality that permeates the story. John wants to kill because it makes him feel powerful. He may want to take out his violence on his ex-wife, but he doesn’t know where to find her. He is helpless. But killing other people could provide the same psychological release. Or so he thinks.

“Blue Caprice” is a brilliant examination of the nature of violence in our society.

The screenplay is brilliantly penned by R.F.I. Porto. We had an opportunity to speak to him about his writing process after the screening. One of the things he said that really stuck out is that, if you’re a beginning writer, you can’t write a first screenplay like “Blue Caprice.” It will destroy you. Writing this story took him to some very dark places, place of depression and doubts. It’s easy to see why. Getting into the psychology of a killer, particularly a real-life one, must be extraordinarily difficult.

One of the great sins committed in the film is the sin of pride. John quickly falls into the “us versus them” mentality of many killers, and he drags Lee there with him. He refers to those around him as “evil people,” and explains to Lee that “life is not fair.” Life beats the goodness out of you, and the only way to respond is to beat back, rally against all of those people who are so much worse than you are.

John’s brainwashing of Lee is all the more terrifying because it seems natural. Lee wants to win his “father’s” approval, so his first kill is a woman who John said testified against him in court. Lee shoots her in the face before questioning whether he “killed the wrong lady.” “Don’t you see?” John responds. “It could be anyone.” The random targets will prevent the authorities from attaching any sort of pattern or motive to the killings.

The killings themselves are violent but restrained. Lee’s first couple of kills, prior to the D.C. spree, are startling for how cold, bloody and immediate they are. The killing spree itself, which doesn’t begin until the last half hour of the film or so, is less graphic. I appreciate the filmmaker’s tact in shooting these scenes. We could have seen sniper bullets ripping someone’s head open, but that would be dishonorable to the memories of the real-life victims. What we see, instead, is the aftermath. The bloodied bodies lying in the street, at the gas pump or in their cars; the 9/11 calls and emergency response crews as they arrive at the scene. And yet, the threat of violence is always there. We don’t see Lee with his hands on a rifle until the killers are already well into their spree. When we do, Lee is sitting in the trunk of the Caprice, peeking through the hole in the trunk, through which the barrel of the rifle is resting. Lee chooses his target carefully, as John coaches him from the front seat. He chooses his target and shoots, but all we see is the cut to black and hear the piercing shot of the rifle.

I thought the film’s portrayal of violence was tasteful, and refusing to show a lot of gore actually made the film feel more violent. In a film culture saturated with action stars who kill hundreds of bad guys in one film, the filmmakers here remind us that every human life matters, and ensure that we will feel the impact of every life taken. It’s a subtle indictment of the medium of film and its power to desensitize us to exactly the kind of real-life violence that John and Lee committed. A movie made me feel guilty for watching other movies so casually. How ironic.

Back to the guns, the sound in this movie is some of the best I’ve heard. An audience member asked the director, Alexandre Moors, why they made the guns sound so loud that the audience jumped every time one was shot. He said that, in most films, the sound of the gun is toned down so that it doesn’t have that same visceral shock. Their goal was to do the opposite. The sound designer actually raised the sound of the gunshots, so that each one would feel like it was being fired right next to you. I thought the effect was jarring and effective.

Another success of “Blue Caprice” is the cinematography. The film is shot in hues of deep blue, creating a somber tone that also helps to complement the color of the Caprice itself. It also helps to contrast the beginning of the film, the part that takes place in the tropics. This section is much more colorful, as Lee’s life is ahead of him and John is living a seemingly happy life with his three kids.

I find it interesting to compare “Blue Caprice” to another Sundance drama based upon violent real-life events and starring an African-American cast. Compared to the phenomenal “Fruitvale,” “Blue Caprice” is a less pleasant film to sit through. I took fewer breaths and laughed less during it. In both films, we already know the outcome, thanks to both history and raw live video of the protagonists’ fates included at the beginning of the films. The themes of the films are also surprisingly similar. Every life matters. Violence can happen to anyone. African-Americans can be the victims as often as the perpetrators, just like everyone else. I think “Fruitvale” is perhaps a better film overall, willing to take the audience to more areas of human existence and make it feel a wider range of emotions. But, days after attending both screenings, “Blue Caprice” is sitting with me more. I can’t get it out of my head.

As a viewer, I tend to gravitate toward films that reveal the darker areas of the human psyche. Films like “Taxi Driver” and “There Will Be Blood” are near the top of my list of all-time favorites. I think our own darkness can often reveal more about who we are than the light can. We are sinners in need of redemption, and we are all, deep down, capable of doing similar things to our fellow man, under the right circumstances.        When we hear of acts of unspeakable violence in our world, we often ask, ‘how can one human being do that to another?’ This film responds, “Just like this.” We see how easily our fragile human nature can be manipulated and molded by those stronger and smarter than us, for better or worse. This idea is hammered home in the haunting final moments of the film, where Lee, now in custody, is asked a question during an interrogation, after he and John have been caught. “You do know he’s not your father, right?” Lee doesn’t answer, but simply stare forward at the screen. Lee may be beyond saving, all because of one man. That, to me, is the very definition of human depravity.

Sundance Review: “Fruitvale”

Ryan Coogler’s debut feature, “Fruitvale,” won the Dramatic Grand Jury prize at Sundance. It’s easy to see why.

Director Ryan Coogler accepting the Grand Jury Prize for “Fruitvale.”

“Fruitvale” is a difficult film to write about for several reasons. I didn’t take any notes on the film, because I was so engrossed in the world and story unfolding before my eyes. But, more than that, it’s a movie of such tremendously raw power that it’s difficult to put into words.

The plot is based upon the life of Oscar, a bay-area man who was senselessly killed by a BART officer on New Years’ Day, 2009. The film opens with the raw video of the killing, taken on a cell phone, and then proceeds to follow Oscar through the last year of his life.

What makes the film so immediately engaging is the character of Oscar himself. He is an incredibly likable yet sympathetic. Yes, he just got out of prison, but he’s trying to get his life back on track, and is deeply in love with his daughter and girlfriend. He’s even a good sibling and son to his supportive mother, wonderfully played by Octavia Spencer. And yet, he’s having a tough time getting a job, and has been selling drugs to make money.

I’m reading through Blake Snyder’s classic book on screenwriting, “Save the Cat.” In the book, he talks about a major element that every good screenplay should have. Early on in the film, the protagonist should have a moment where he/she “saves the cat.” This means that they need to do something that has us rooting for them from the beginning, no matter how flawed other aspects of their character may be. In “Fruitvale,” we get this in several scenes. Oscar attempts to save a dog that has been hit by a car. The dog dies, but we see how much Oscar cared for him. If he cares for a street dog, how much more might he care for the human beings that he comes across in his life? A similar scene occurs when he dumps his bag of weed, which he could have sold for money, into the ocean. It’s an amazing scene because we see that Oscar has changed, that he is now more interested in living with honesty and integrity than he is with making money.

The plot itself is brilliantly constructed. Every moment is thick with irony and foreshadowing. Since we already know Oscar’s fate, the tension comes from seeing him do mundane things that suddenly take on a raw power. In one scene, we see Oscar picking out a birthday card for his mother. We know, deep down, that this will be the last card he ever gives to his mother, but we hope against hope that history will not repeat itself, that, somehow, Oscar will live. We’re invested in the character not only because he is written well, but because our knowledge of what happened to his real-life counterpart adds to our sympathetic feelings.

The film takes some creative risks visually, and I think they all pay off. The main effect occurs whenever Oscar sends a text. We see a pop-up on screen as he selects who he is going to send the message to and the message he sends. This is a great way for us to see what he is saying without having to see something less visually engaging, such as an awkward close-up of the cell phone himself. The director also includes real-life footage of the shooting and the rallies for justice that took place during the aftermath. The director said he didn’t originally intend to put in these live-action bookends at the beginning and end, but in the end he just couldn’t deny their power. One interesting note: footage from the anniversary rally on Jan. 1, 2013 is included at the end of the film. This means that the footage was shot and cut into the film in a matter of weeks. It was a cool reminder of how quickly and hard filmmakers sometimes have to work to get their film into Sundance on time.



Sundance Reflections: Puzzling Foreign Films

We did see a few foreign-language films at Sundance, and my reactions towards them were very mixed. “Circles,” an international film about a Christian Serbian soldier killed during the Bosnian Civil War in 1992, is beautifully shot but a bit narratively cluttered. In the tradition of “Crash” and “Babel,” it’s a film that attempts to connect several storylines through interweaving narratives that rotate around a single focus. The focus here is Marko, the solider who is killed while trying to protect a Muslim from being beaten to death. The film focuses on the affects his death has on those who were close to him. There’s his father, distraught with grief, his friend, who is crippled by guilt from failing to save him from dying, his girlfriend, who is in an abusive relationship, and Haris, the man whose life he saved.

The film is beautifully shot, mostly composed of long shots and silence. Often, someone is just doing something, and the only indication of how they feel is what is showing on their faces. Some might find the long shots of actions boring from a narrative standpoint, but they’re gorgeous to look at. It’s also a testament to the power of the acting that the characters can say so much while saying so little.

I thought the film was a bit boring, but it’s themes of valuing each individual human life and moving on after a loss are still resonating with me days after. I think it’s one I’ll have to see again.

One film I won’t be seeing again is “What They Don’t Talk About When They Talk About Love,” a messy Indonesian film that follows the various romances in a school for the deaf and blind. The concept of a deaf boy falling in love with a blind girl is brilliant, and has lots of potential. I liked that story. But, the director felt the need to shoehorn in three or four other narratives that are far less interesting. By the middle of the film, I was praying to see the credits. It’s a shame, because I thought individual scenes were beautifully shot and acted. But, on the whole, it’s a mess, and not worth anyone’s time.



Reflections on the Sundance Film Festival: Midnight!

There’s me in front of one of the many displays plastered with Sundance film posters.


No Sundance experience would be complete without seeing a few midnight movies. The crowds is rowdier, the films are not in competition, and everyone is either hyped up on coffee or drunk. Our group saw the gonzo horror film “S/V.H.S.”, a series of very fun (if gimmicky) found-footage shorts. There is a thin wrap-around narrative that connects everything together, but each film is shot from a primarily first-person perspective. The first section follows a man with a robotic eye (conveniently housing a camera) who begins to see dead people. It’s filled with effective jump scares. The second short follows a biker with a GoPro camera on his head who is bitten by a zombie. Hilariously, we then follow the new zombies slow, deadly walk as he looks for human flesh. The third short follows a film crew that snags an exclusive interview with the leader of a strange and mysterious Indonesian cult. When the crew finds out what’s really going on, things get very, very, very gory. Multiple people walked out of the theater during this short (including one from our group), and it’s easy to see why. It’s stomach-churning but also pretty funny and quite scary. It’s also the only short that uses multiple camera perspectives. The final short follows a group of rowdy teenagers as they are slowly abducted by menacing aliens. The chaos is shot from a camera on top of a dog’s head (what will they think of next?). The sound design here is particularly incredible, making the aliens seem much more menacing than they might look otherwise.

Another excellent midnight horror film is “In Fear,” a clever take on the “road horror” sub-genre. A new couple is looking for a rural hotel, when they soon realize they’re driving through a sadistic horror maze. The setting is effective; as we see what the passengers are seeing, we can always imagine what’s around the next turn of the curving road. And our imagination gets the better of us.

Things get even more interesting once their tormentor, Max, convincing them he’s another victim, finds his way into the car with them. I thought the psychology in this film was fascinating. How does a couple that has only been together two weeks act when their lives are suddenly in danger? Do they really love each other? They don’t even know yet, but this experience brings out the worst in both of them. It’s a primal story of humanity vs. survival. In the end, we’re not sure if the protagonists end up with either. I found that ambiguity fascinating.

My favorite midnight movie was the Roger Corman-produced (never thought you’d hear that name at Sundance, huh?) “Virtually Heroes.” Corman came to the director and asked him to splice together 11 1980’s Vietnam action films into a narrative. The director thought of a twist: what if the action stars were in a videogame, being controlled by some loser teenager? That’s the concept, and it works wonderfully. The film is gloriously low-budget, but the writing is spot-on. I’d say it has as much or more nerd cred than “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.” The writing is great; the jokes are aimed at the gaming crowd, but I think the laughs are more accessible than those in “Scott Pilgrim.” There’s even a Konami code joke. There’s not much depth here, but it’s just flat-out fun, the way a midnight movie should be. Oh, and Mark Hamill plays a monk. Now tell me you don’t want to see that. I dare you.

Oh, and we had the pleasure to see this short film in front of “Virtually Heroes.”



Reflections on the Sundance Film Festival: Documentaries

Days afterward, I can’t get Sundance out of my mind. It was truly a life-changing experience. I’ve learned to think about movies, humanity, even God, in new and surprising ways. I wish I could have blogged more while I was actually there, but running around Park City takes every ounce of energy out of you. Here’s a reflection on the films we saw, the conversations we had, and the thoughts that wouldn’t leave my mind. 

We saw a couple of fabulous documentaries at Sundance. “Life According to Sam” was an emotional roller-coaster centered around Sam, a teenager living with Progeria, a rare degenerative aging disease. The film chronicles his life as well as his mother’s long fight to find a cure or, at the very least, a treatment for the disease. We see the kids from around the world with the disease coming in for treatment, and their loving parents, who would do anything to give their kids a long and happy life. The film gets up close and personal, letting us see every skin crack, every misshapen limb, every tear. We see Sam’s mother being rejected time and again by scientific journals, a subtle indictment of our modern scientific culture, where a cure is not a cure unless it is backed by millions of dollars and years of testing. In the end, however, it is Sam who truly makes the film stand out. His positive spirit, his love and passion for life (not to mention brilliant mind) make his comfort with his own inevitable death all the more heartbreaking.

Then, there was “Citizen Koch,” a doc about our current political climate after the Supreme Court’s decision to treat corporations like people by allowing unlimited indirect donations to a political campaign. The film is an assault of image and sound, perfectly synchronized to make you very, very mad. By the end of the film, you’ll wonder why the rich and powerful are the only ones who have any chance at running this country. The film criticizes both Republicans and Democrats for taking part in this unjust political process. But, beyond that, it hopes that things can change, and that is, I think, what makes it memorable.

Dancing with the Sun: Sundance Film Fest Day 1

We take a much-needed break from the glitz and glamour of the Oscar race as we travel to cold, cold Utah for the Sundance Film Festival. The independent spirit is very much alive and well here in Park City, even if many feel like the crowds have gotten out of control. This is my first trip to the festival, and I have to say day one was mighty fun.

The flight was a lovely one, and the rest of the day was spent settling into the house we will be staying in for the week. Our first day is Monday, even though the festival technically started on Thursday. Our group consists of five Point Loma Nazarene University students and two professors. It’s a large house, and we all have plenty of space to call our own. Our host, Judy, is about as kind of a person as you’re likely to meet. She’s also a mighty fine artist; her house is filled with many of the paintings she has completed throughout her lifetime.

The wonderful house we’re staying in for the remainder of our trip.

One thing that strikes me about Utah is just how beautiful it is. There’s something to say about real snow, something I experience very rarely. It positively glimmers. There’s a reason why it’s considered prime snowboarding/skiing territory. But, we’re not here for that. We’re here to watch movies. And watch movies we shall.

We spent most of our day exploring a bit, familiarizing ourselves with the bus routes, the crowds and the cold weather (below 20 degrees Fahrenheit, or so I’m told). We are participating in a program called the Wind rider forum, and, during our initial dinner, we watched Oscar-nominated shorts from two filmmakers (maybe we’re not too far away from the Oscars after all). The first film, called “Head Over Heels,” is a wonderful stop-motion story about an old couple who have lost their spark, and learn to embrace their differences and love once again. The film is up against some tough competition from “Simpsons” and Disney shorts, but it truly deserves its accolades, and draws some justified comparisons to Pixar’s “Up.” We had the great opportunity to chat with the director, Tim Reckart, over dinner. There’s something about a passionate young filmmaker who has nothing to lose that is truly inspiring. Tim, age 26, is truly basking in the moment. He said the stressful part was getting nominated, but he’s not too worried about whether or not he wins an Oscar. He’s just enjoying the ride. In him, I see the true independent spirit.

Fellow student Peter Varberg interviews Tim Reckart, whose animated short “Head Over Heels” is nominated for an Oscar.


When I say “independent spirit,” I struggle to define exactly what that means. It’s something more than having passion and drive, more than just distancing yourself from a major studio (in fact, many independent filmmakers would love to have a big-budget studio back one of their projects). I think it’s that burning desire to try something new, to never settle for anything less than your very best. It’s the ability to humble yourself and take the bruises along with the trophies. It means not only learning from your mistakes, but letting those mistakes inform your triumphs. That’s my working definition, anyway.

The independent spirit, whatever it is, is no less alive in Ariel Nasr, the producer of the Oscar-nominated short “Buzkashi Boys.” The story follows two kids growing up in Afghanistan, who have to come to grips with growing up and struggling with their identity. Although the film is very much rooted in the cultural traditions of its country, the themes are universal. The film hits home for Nasr, who is half Afghan. His goal is to demystify many aspects of Afghan life, a country that many Americans know little about, despite the fact that our military has been fighting there for over a decade. The work of these filmmakers is truly inspiring for anyone with a desire to create something that matters.

I was having some hesitation about this trip, but now I couldn’t be more excited. It’s a true must for anyone with a passion for film (and the real stuff hasn’t even started yet).

Awards Watch: “Silver Linings Playbook”

In this series, I look at some of the major players in the 2012 awards race and analyze their changes at taking home some shiny trophies.

And now for something completely different. “Silver Linings Playbook” is about as delightful and joyous of a comedy likely to come out of mainstream Hollywood. And yet, so much about it is not mainstream at all. Although I call it joyous, its characters are far from joyful (or delightful, for that matter).

Pat, played wonderfully by Bradley Cooper, is fresh out of mental institution after discovering his wife in the shower with another man. To put it lightly, pat snaps, soon revealing an undiagnosed bipolar disorder. In their Philadelphia home, Pat’s parents try to cope with his dramatic mood swings, while Pat tries to clean himself up in hopes that his wife will take him back and lift a restraining order against him. In the meantime, Pat meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), who recently lost her husband and has some issues of her own. She likes Pat, but Pat is too interested in getting his wife back to notice.

Here’s hoping being labeled as a “romantic comedy” doesn’t hurt this expertly acted and directed drama from taking home gold.

The Academy and other awards bodies have been unusually kind to “Silver Linings Playbook.” It’s easily the most lauded dramatic-comedy since “Juno” and “Little Miss Sunshine.” And there’s good reason for that. It’s easily the most surprising, engaging and honest film about mental illness to come along in a long, long time. These movies tend to either over-sentimentalize mental illness or use it simply to serve a contrived plot. There’s surprising little contrivance here, and that has a great deal to do with the performances from the best ensemble cast of the year. In this movie, everyone is crazy, conveying the important message that we’re all mentally ill, to one extent or another. It’s part of the human condition.

I’ve always liked Bradley Cooper as an actor, but I never expected he had this amount of range and depth. His performance here is nothing short of astonishing, incredibly moving yet real at every turn. Rarely does an actor truly understand the mental illness they’re portraying, but I have a feeling Cooper might be bipolar in real life. He’s that convincing. His deserved nomination for Best Actor should stand proudly alongside the likes of Daniel Day-Lewis. I don’t think he’ll win, but he really does deserve a statue.

The supporting cast is equally excellent. Jennifer Lawrence has been equally lauded for her supporting performance. I think its her eyes. Few actors have truly great eyes, but I can see here entire character encapsulated in her eyes. It’s remarkable, and her ability to go toe-to-toe with Robert DeNiro (who plays Pat’s father) is high praise indeed. I think she should be right up there in the conversation for Best Actress (a stacked category, to be sure).

Speaking of stacked categories, Robert DeNiro faces some stiff competition in the Best Supporting Actor category. All of the nominees are previous winners, but I think this is the best performance DeNiro has given in a long, long time as Pat’s football obsessed father, who may have some issues of his own. Jackie Weaver, who plays Pat’s mother, is equally good, although the Best Supporting Actress category is also incredibly stacked.

As far as Best Picture is concerned, the film really doesn’t have a chance. For some reason, it won’t be considered “dramatic” enough, and the award will go to a more “serious” film. “Juno” faced the same problem a few years ago. That’s a real shame. A film shouldn’t have to be dour or gritty to be taken seriously. And yet, that’s the way things work, at least for now. Maybe films like this will help change that.

David O. Russell’s screenplay and direction are both top-notch. It must be difficult to shoot a movie that contains mostly people talking, but O. Russell and his team manage to keep things visually interesting. I don’t think the Adapted Screenplay has much of a chance against Tony Kushner’s regal “Lincoln” and David Magee’s epic “Life of Pi,” but I am happy that it does seem like it is being taken seriously.

But, for now, I’m happy the film is up for 8 awards. The Academy could have easily overlooked it. Here’s hoping one of the most emotionally honest movies in years takes home some much-deserved gold.

One more thing: I’m thrilled that the film’s editing is getting recognition. The way the editors shoot the film makes the audience feel like they’re ready for some medication by the time the film is over. Creating insanity through visuals is no easy task.

See the full list of nominees here.

Awards Watch: “Lincoln”

In this series, I look at some of the major players in the 2012 awards race and analyze their changes at taking home some shiny trophies.

“Lincoln” is deserving of top prizes, but I hope it doesn’t monopolize the awards conversation.

“Lincoln” has become this year’s awards darling, and for very good reason. It is nominated for 12 Academy Awards and deserves every nomination. That is a very rare thing indeed. The Academy tends to gravitate towards bloated, long-in-the-tooth melodramatic epics that span decades in both the movie’s timeline and, seemingly, the audience’s time as well.

Spielberg’s biopic, based in part on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Team of Rivals,” manages to avoid many of the pitfalls of modern biopics. Past historically based winners like “Gandhi” and “The Last Emperor” have felt the need to cover entire histories of great leaders. This often results in bloated four hour-plus running times that test the audience’s patience before the film is even half over.

Now, I’m not criticizing long movies as boring. Some of my favorite films of all time (“Amadeus” or “The Deer Hunter,” for example), have lengthy running times. But, I’ve always been a fan of economy, and Tony Kushner’s script for “Lincoln” is anything but bloated. The film, running only a few minutes longer than the summer tent pole “The Avengers,” wisely sticks to the last four months of the president’s life, as he fights to ratify the 13th amendment abolishing slavery. It’s a rare biopic indeed that doesn’t include a single wasted moment, a single superfluous detail about its subject’s life. Kushner’s original screenplay, which ran over 500 pages, must have been a bloated monstrosity better suited for a TV miniseries. But, whatever happened during the drafting process, it worked. Spielberg’s film is lean by many standards, but features some incredible moments that really sell the audience onLincoln’s humanity, flaws and all.

I keep coming back to the scene where Abe discovers his son lying asleep on the floor. Rather than telling the boy to get up and go to bed, he stoops down to his son’s level and picks him up. It’s easy to forget that our nation’s leaders can lead downright normal home lives, with all of the family dynamics typical of an American family. In his arguments with his wife, Mary Todd, we see his short and frazzled temper. In his conversations with his cabinet, we see his penchant for storytelling and even dirty jokes (by 19th century standards). A good part of this humanity comes through in Daniel Day-Lewis’ indelible performance, which is destined for Oscar glory. He’s not just acting Lincoln: he is Lincoln, in every way he can be. Day-Lewis proves yet again why he is the greatest method actor of his generation.

“Lincoln” has a good chance at taking home the big prize come Oscar night, primarily because it is a handsome and impeccably polished biopic. I also think it’s one of the best movies Spielberg has ever done, so the accolades are indeed justified. It has some stiff competition (especially from “Zero Dark Thirty” and the marvelous “Life of Pi”), but I’d say its chances are still pretty good.

Can Spielberg take home his third statue for directing? I think so. It’s been fifteen years since he was awarded for “Saving Private Ryan,” and I think the Academy may feel fit to award him for the phenomenal work he’s done since. Still, he’s competing against some fine, less recognized directors, which may work against him. Still, the Academy seems to really love him.

While Day-Lewis is the most buzzed-about, one would be remiss to forget the tremendous acting that populates the rest of the film. Sally Field is marvelous as Mary Todd, and I don’t think Tommy Lee Jones can be praised enough for his role as Thaddeus Stevens. Still, both actors face some incredibly stiff and deserving competition (including a best supporting actor race featuring nothing but repeat winners).

“Lincoln” will certainly pick up a few more awards along the way. But, the one I’m really pulling for is Best Score. I’m of the opinion that John Williams can never have too many awards. Although he’s won five Oscars, he hasn’t won in 20 years. I think it’s time to recognize the greatest film composer of his generation once again.

“Lincoln” is most likely an instant classic, which makes it prime Oscar bait. Still, I hope some of the other excellent nominees are recognized in their deserved categories. After all, the Oscars are always more fun when one film doesn’t walk away with everything (with the notable exception of “Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,” which was the greatest, geekiest Oscar telecast ever).

See the full list of nominees here. 

Awards Watch: “Life of Pi”


In this series, I look at some of the major players in the 2012 awards race and analyze their changes at taking home some shiny trophies.


“Life of Pi” should receive just as much recognition for its spiritual themes as for its groundbreaking visuals


Trying to describe the magic of “Life of Pi” with words is like explaining Aurora Borealis by piecing together strips of colored cloth and waving them through the air. There is a simple magic here that is so very rare in mainstreamHollywood, a magic that should serve the film well this awards season.

The basic story follows Pi, an Indian boy whose father runs a zoo. During a move from India to Canada, where the zoo is being relocated, the ship the family is traveling on is capsized and Pi ends up in a lifeboat with an odd assortment of animals, including Richard Parker, a Bengal tiger.

At first, Pi tries his best not to get eaten by Richard Parker, but the two ultimately form a bond through a series of events that are never anything short of visually stunning. The film is almost certain to win a few statues for technical awards. Comparisons to “Avatar” are common, but I think even that is not enough to describe the visual variety and inventiveness on display here. With everything from a giant whale to a school of flying fish to an island full of meerkats, the visuals on display are almost unprecedented. The film even looks great in 3-D, a rarity for such an effects-heavy film. Like “Avatar,” it was shot in 3-D, and the results are immediately apparent.

But, just as refreshing as the visuals are the themes and characters through which the story is told. I’ve never read the original book, but I can imagine why it was considered un-filmable by many. How to do justice to a story of such surging spiritual power? The film is ultimately about keeping faith in a higher power through the storms of life. For Pi, this higher power takes many forms. He is raise to pray to the Indian god Vishnu, but appreciates the prayer practices of Muslims and the personal relationship of Jesus Christ. Early in the film, Pi’s atheist father criticizes him for his winner-takes-all spiritual practices, arguing that science has provided all we need to know about the universe. Pi’s mother replies, “Yes, science may be able to explain what is out there, but not what is in here.” As she points to her heart, we realize this is a rare and special kind of film, one that sees our spiritual journey not as an optional adventure, but one that is crucial to our humanity.

As Pi’s adventure takes him to some dangerous places, Pi has his moments of doubt. He has his moments where he wants to give up on God. But he doesn’t. He relies on the miracle of faith, something that, indeed, science or the ingenuity of man can never explain. A magnificent ending twist reveals what we have already suspected all along: faith can not exist apart from story. A journey of faith necessitates coming and going, growth in the process of discovery. The ability to admit when you’re wrong without sacrificing your core values and beliefs. It seems simple, but it’s not a story Hollywood seems often willing to tell.

I think awards committees may feel refreshed by this focus, but 2012 was a year inundated with spiritually themed movies, and “Pi” may be somewhat forgotten. I sincerely hope not.  Here’s hoping it will be at least nominated for some big awards (best film and director nods) in addition to its technical accolades, because Hollywood needs to tell more stories like this. Stories that keep us looking up in the midst of the storms of life.