Tag Archives: Oscars

The Oscars: The movie reviewer 30 years ago

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Wow. Time flies.

This is me, 30 years ago this year, in a totally not-posed shot outside the Rivoli Theater in downtown Muncie. The photo was taken for some promo or other when I was reviewing movies.

The Rivoli isn’t there anymore. And I don’t review movies in my day job anymore.

But there was a time when i did. I reviewed movies as part of my actual job – as opposed to the stuff I do here, around the edges of my actual job. I’ve done a little bit of everything in the news business in more than three decades, but I reviewed movies from 1978 (“Animal House” was the first) to 1990 (“The Two Jakes.”)

Back in the day, and really until just a few years ago, I watched the Oscars every time it was on. Every minute of it.

Tonight I’ll watch some of it, but will take extensive breaks for “The Walking Dead” and “Talking Dead” and all the other things that go with being a grownup.

Time marches on.

Oscar catch-up: ‘Argo’

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“Argo” is like the best episode of “Mission: Impossible” ever filmed.

I swear I’m not disrespecting the Best Picture Oscar-nominated film, it’s based-on-a-true-story subject matter or its director and star, Ben Affleck.

But I had a real sense of deja vu while watching this smart and tense thriller of old episodes of the TV series, in which a covert operative would organize a team to pull off a mission in a foreign country. There would be assumed identities, disguises, bluffs, a trial run that went badly and a final gambit that looked to be falling apart before everything came out okay.

In “Argo,” Affleck plays a CIA agent who comes up with a daring plan: When the American embassy in Iran falls to militants in 1979, most of the staff is captured and held for more than 400 days.

But a half-dozen staff members get out and are hidden in the house of the Canadian ambassador (Victor Garber). Affleck goes in, posing as a Hollywood moviemaker scouting locations in Iran for a big-budget science fiction movie called “Argo.”

Before Affleck gets there, the CIA recruits two old Hollywood hands – the Oscar-winning makeup artist behind “Planet of the Apes,” John Chambers (John Goodman), and wry producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) – to make the movie look real. They put together a script, storyboards, cast performers and even stage publicity for “Argo.”

It all pays off in the end, as Affleck sneaks the embassy workers out of the country after convincing the Iranian military they’re only been in Iran for a couple of days to scout locations.

As enjoyable as the set-up, poking fun at Hollywood, is, the scenes set in Iran are tense and nervous-making. We know the outcome but we’re still absorbed.

Affleck and the actors playing the embassy workers do a good job, as does Garber as the brave Canadian politician.

Standout roles go to Goodman and Arkin, however. I just wish we got to see more of them.

A few random observations:

As a longtime movie fan, I would have loved to have seen more from the world of Goodman and Arkin’s characters. A prequel or sequel maybe? I’m serious. I would go to a movie watching these guys move through the fringes of Hollywood circles.

The movie does a great job of recreating 1979. Seriously, I forgot how damn big eyeglasses were back then. And the smoking – people smoke everywhere, including airplanes.

A lot of people talk about how many current movies are too long. At right around two hours. “Argo” feels too short, almost hurried. We were at the airport and the climactic moments almost before I knew it.

There’s been some talk that Affleck was “robbed” of an Oscar nomination and is seeing some cinema justice with other awards. He probably deserved a director’s nod.

There’s no comparison between this movie and another based-on-true-events spy thriller, “Zero Dark Thirty.” “Argo” is much more accessible, more crowd-pleasing and less morally ambiguous. I think I liked “Zero Dark Thirty” better, though.

Oscar catch-up: ‘Zero Dark Thirty’

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In which I try to see a few Oscar nominated movies before the Oscars roll around.

Director Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty” has picked up a lot of political baggage, much of it centered around the film’s early scenes of CIA operatives using waterboarding and other means of torture to try to extract knowledge of the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden from low-to-mid-level al Qaeda operatives.

The scenes are pretty harrowing and few moviegoers will go away without an opinion of the use of torture. Suffice it to say the scenes also set the tone for the movie even as they serve to introduce Maya (Jessica Chastain), a CIA analyst who goes from standing by and watching colleague Dan (Jason Clarke) administer torture to ordering punishment herself.

Maya’s quarry is bin Laden and, over the course of the next two hours, she pursues not sightings of the al Qaeda leader – there aren’t any legitimate ones – but the identity and whereabouts of people who might have contact with him.

Over the course of several years, Maya and fellow operatives like Jessica (Jennifer Ehle) interrogate those with knowledge of bin Laden and those protecting him, cultivate sources and begin to focus – obsessively, at times, for Maya – on a courier who is reportedly bin Laden’s connection to the outside world.

As most of the world knows, the CIA finally finds the courier and tracks him to a Pakistani town and fortress-like compound where bin Laden has been hiding … well, not in plain sight, but in a far more likely location than a remote cave for the leader of an international terror organization.

Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal let the story unfold at a deliberate pace but pepper it with suspenseful scenes, including Jessica’s meeting at an Afghan base with a potential informant as well as the tracking of the courier.

It surprised me, somewhat, to see “Zero Dark Thirty” described online as a spy thriller. It is, certainly, but aside from the raid on bin Laden’s compound the movie came across most like a political thriller as Maya pushes her way through CIA bureaucracy, the doubts of her superiors and what seems like a more urgent mission for many in government than finding bin Laden: preventing future terror attacks.

Chastain is quite good as the smart and dedicated Maya, a character based on the woman who led the decade-long pursuit of bin Laden.

The movie features a cast of familiar faces, from Mark Strong (“Green Lantern”) and Harold Parrineau (“Lost”) to Chris Pratt (“Parks and Recreation”) and Joel Edgerton (the “Star Wars” prequels). Luckily, they don’t pull the audience out of the story.

“Zero Dark Thirty” is a first-rate political and historical thriller.

Oscar catch-up: ‘Lincoln’ deserves the praise

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The other day I noted I hadn’t seen a single one of the major Academy Award contenders and hoped to do so before Oscar night.

Last night I finally had a chance to see “Lincoln,” Steven Spielberg’s big-screen treatment of events surrounding the passage of the 13th Amendment to the constitution and the wind-down of the Civil War.

Considering the praise that’s been heaped on the film – and the 12 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture – it’s no real surprise that the film is so good. But what’s best about the movie is that it doesn’t sanctify Abraham Lincoln. Yes, Spielberg emphasizes the 16th president’s determination to do what’s right in all things, as well as his kind soul.

But the best things about “Lincoln” are the ways it humanizes Lincoln, a man given to folksy stories and metaphors, so much so that he quips at one point that it’s good to be comprehended.

Daniel Day-Lewis’s Lincoln – and Day-Lewis disappears into the role; I rarely thought of the actor himself at any point during the movie – is a mix of grim humor and pathos, a towering man bowed by tragedy.

As the movie opens, in early 1965, it’s assumed that the war is coming to an end after four bloody years and more than 600,000 casualties. But Lincoln is determined to push the 13th Amendment, outlawing slavery and involuntary servitude, through Congress. Democrats in the House oppose the move and Lincoln’s own Republicans are torn between strident abolitionists like Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) and moderates who want to end the war as quickly as possible. If that means maintaining slavery, then so be it, they reason.

The movie – written by Tony Kushner and based in part on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals” – shows Lincoln trying to accomplish the balancing act of trying to get the amendment passed but maintaining the urgency of the war as a motivator for Washington’s politicians.

The idea that Lincoln is prolonging the war, even by a few days, weighs heavily on him and the film. The president visits a battlefield strewn with bodies as well as a Union hospital to talk to young soldiers who lost limbs. There’s a horrible moment when Lincoln’s oldest son, Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) watches as hospital orderlies dump arms and legs into a pit. Robert desperately wants to enlist. His mother, Mary (Sally Field), plagued by memories of the death of another son as well as depression and headaches, threatens to hold her husband personally responsible if Robert dies.

Don’t assume that “Lincoln” is somber throughout, however. Lincoln is himself a wry and funny presence and a major subplot – in which three Republican operatives (James Spader, Tim Blake Nelson and John Hawkes) go around soliciting the votes of outgoing Democrat representatives to support the amendment – is consistently amusing.

I have very few quibbles with “Lincoln,” although a major one is an unnecessary scene near the end. The war over and the slaves freed, Lincoln continues to meet with his cabinet to plan his second term. He’s reminded that he’s to go out with his wife for the evening. He dons his coat and hat and leaves the White House. The iconic shots of Lincoln walking away would have sufficed to emphasize the man’s passing into history.

I didn’t even mind a scene that followed, with young Tad Lincoln (Gulliver McGrath) watching a play, only to be heartbroken when an announcement is made that his father had been shot.

I just wish that Spielberg had omitted a bed scene, with Lincoln being pronounced dead from his wounds. It is the least subtle moment of the movie, complete with the phrase, “Now he belongs to the ages.” The movie was more than strong enough to do without it.

“Lincoln” is a smart, heart-breaking and sometimes wryly humorous look at a pivotal moment in our nation’s history and the man at the center of it.

The Oscars? I love ’em. But …

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When the Academy Award nominations were announced this morning, I stopped what I was doing and watched a few rounds of the nominations. I didn’t study them and dissect them the way I would have for about a decade when I wrote about movies and actively saw everything I could possibly see.

Looking at the list now on the Academy’s website, I’m just a little shocked that I haven’t seen a single – not one – of the movies nominated for Best Picture.

I want to see “Lincoln” and “Zero Dark Thirty.” I’d probably enjoy “Django Unchained” and “Silver Linings Playbook.”

As I’ve noted before, I sometimes miss the days when I saw everything that came out – with the exception of a few art films that didn’t make it to a screen in my area – and I would obsess over my favorite movies’ chances.

Despite my relative ignorance of the Best. Movies. Of. The. Year. as defined by the Academy’s membership, I’ll be watching on Oscar night. I’ll enjoy the glimpses of the lesser-known categories – there’s a “Simpsons” short nominated for Best Animated Short Film? – and marvel over the outfits and hairstyles.

And, hopefully, I’ll have seen some of the movies by then. So I can, you know, judge them adequately.

 

‘The Walking Dead’ eats the Oscars

 

 

 

 

Oscar-watching has been an annual ritual with me since I was a little movie-obsessed geek.

And, truth be told, I’ll be checking out the Academy Awards tonight. I especially want to see Billy Crystal’s opening, which is likely to be the kind of corny but crowd-pleasing stuff that Oscar viewers enjoy.

But in pretty short order, I’ll be tuning in to AMC to watch tonight’s “Walking Dead” episode, “18 Miles Out.”

It’s not that I don’t care about the Oscars. I’m kind of interested in who wins. But not enough to miss “The Walking Dead.”

So here are a few reasons why I’ll be watching zombies and soap opera on AMC rather than aging movie stars and soap opera on ABC.

Nobody thanks anybody on “The Walking Dead.” At least they don’t thank everybody. At great length. And monotonously.

Nobody will play anybody offstage on “The Walking Dead.”

Nobody will be talking about what the characters on “The Walking Dead” are wearing. If Shane or Lori gets mostly naked, we might hear some variation on this, however.

Nobody will complain that “The Walking Dead” lasts too long. Maybe that the characters are spending too much time on Hershel’s farm this season, but not that the show itself runs too long.

Nobody will get eaten at tonight’s Oscars. ‘Nuff said.

 

And the Oscar won’t go to …

Back when I was a movie reviewer and entertainment writer, I followed the Oscar announcements as if the head of the motion picture academy was releasing puffs of either gray or white smoke. They were that important to me. Movies were my religion.

This year’s nominees were announced this morning but I’ve yet to really study the full list. I do have a few thoughts, however.

I’m not going to suggest that “X-Men First Class” or “Captain America” or “Bridesmaids” or any of several movies I saw in 2011 should have been nominated.

But each year when Hollywood is buzzing about the best movies of the year, my mind goes back to 1982. I wrote an article listing my picks for best pics of the year.

But I was too caught up in what I should choose as the best movie of the year rather than what I really thought.

Considering 1982 was a milestone year for movies, guess which of the following I picked as the best of the year:

“E.T.”

“Tootsie”

“Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan”

“The Verdict”

“Gandhi”

“Sophie’s Choice”

“Blade Runner”

“My Favorite Year”

“Richard Pryor Live on Sunset Strip”

“The Year of Living Dangerously”

Yep, that’s right. I picked “Gandhi.”

Undoubtedly a good movie, and an Oscar winner, but one that I’ve never watched a second time.

Since then, I’ve learned to be true to my own tastes.

Between now and the Academy Awards ceremony in February, I’ll no doubt see some more of the nominees. So far, of the nine movies in contention for Best Picture, I’ve seen “Midnight in Paris” and “The Help.” I don’t know that either picture is one for the ages but they were pretty good.

I’m looking forward to “War Horse” and “The Artist” and some of the other nominees.

And I don’t really think I’ll see the makers of “Captain America” leaping up on stage next month.

But I might be wishing they would.