Well, Oscar season is upon us. This year (cinematically speaking, at least) was pretty good, and there are all kinds of "Best of 2012" lists out there to show for it. Don't worry, I don't want to further pollute the internet with another, but I am going to start an Oscar-themed feature that will pop up periodically. I'm going to take us on a journey through the years and feature the winners in the Best Picture category, starting with the first winner, the 1927 war epic Wings.
Wings is the story of two WWI flying aces and the girl they both love. The story itself is really quite simple, but it has enough of that classic old-movie charm to make it really pretty delightful to watch. The action scenes are outstanding considering the time period. This was one of the last great silent movies before the sound revolution a few months later, and it provides a rare glimpse into the pre-Depression entertainment world.
Let's talk about the movie first. What struck me most were the action scenes, the mid-air dog fights. You can tell these are really pioneering scenes. They don't always have the cohesiveness or sense of story that we have come to expect, but the shots are really thrilling and sometimes astonishing considering when the film was made. Remember those in-cockpit shots of the pilots from Star Wars? Wings had them first.
There is also great chemistry between Charles Rogers (who plays one of the aces) and Clara Bow. Bow is especially great to watch. She has a natural energy that cuts through some of the melodrama the rest of the cast creates. She plays more than the classic "damsel in distress" or the weak female in search of a strong man. She is laying the groundwork on which the great actresses of the 30s and 40s would build.
As great as the photography is, the story is pretty melodramatic. Of course now it doesn't matter; we know the movie is 85 years old. But it does tell a little about the world in which it was made, and a little of film history. For that reason it is pretty interesting. We get a glimpse of the pre-Depression beauty queen in Clara Bow. She never appears in a glamourous gown as she might have in the escapist movies of the 30s. She seems a little more down-to-earth. There are traces of the "old" ideal: men still wear morning suits and there is nobility in war. There are efforts to make the movie story-focused as well as star-focused. Audiences maybe want a little more to chew on. Once you get through the melodrama you can see into past through a unique piece of history.
So is Wings the most entertaining war movie ever, or the best picture of all time? No. But I definitely consider it well worth seeing, especially if you dig film history or just like old movies.
Here we are, back in Middle-Earth again with the first installment of The Hobbit trilogy, An Unexpected Journey, out last week. We get the same old Lord of the Rings feel as before, with a little breath of fresh air to liven it up a little, and it comes off pretty well.
An Unexpected Journey covers the story of Bilbo Baggins, uncle to the now-famous Frodo. For less-than-evident reasons, he is chosen by Gandalf to accompany a group of dwarves on a mission to reclaim their homeland from the clutches of the dragon Smaug. It sounds like a strait-forward enough yarn. And, thankfully, not too much is done to make it more than it is.
This was one apprehension I had going in. The Hobbit was originally a book for children. It is an adventure story, with themes not running so deep as its older (and much longer) brother's. I wondered how the merry company of dwarves in the book would translate onto a screen now used to totally grounded and realistic (in their own world, at least) characters. Enter Guillermo del Toro. His input in the otherwise-Jacksonian script is evident and needed. Thankfully, we never quite reach the seriousness and emotional depth we had in Lord of the Rings. That made that trilogy work; here it would have been off-mark.
That notwithstanding, there is a little more than in the children's book. The action is pretty actiony when it happens, and there is talk of more sinister connections to later events than was ever hinted at by Tolkien. Overall, I think the balance is maintained pretty nicely, which makes it all the easier to sit back and be enveloped in this world. Which, again thanks to del Toro, is even more visually compelling than Jackson could have come up with on his own. Throughout there are some brilliant del Torian fingerprints (think the goblin king) that spice up the screen. It adds the extra element of fantasy the story needs to stay afloat.
Now, as brilliant as the film is visually (the CG characters in particular,) and especially considering how long it runs, I felt that the character development could have used a little more tinkering in some spots. We are spared the constant buffoonery of some of the less-important dwarves, but what were the important ones' names, again? And Martin Freeman is wonderful as Bilbo, but I wish that at some points he had a little more depth to what he was given, especially in some of his key turning points. Now, these are only minor detractions and most of you won't be bothered by them anyway, so I'll move on.
My favorite scene by far was the game of riddles between Bilbo and Gollum. It was just cinematic joy for those ten-or-so minutes, and we learn even more about one of the great characters of fiction. Haters will call this movie too long, that it could have stood further trimming. I agree, potentially, if there were to be only two films. But, since there will be three movies, I say go in deep so the other ones aren't only action scenes. As it is it paces nicely and doesn't seem tedious. And I will remain quiet on the 48-fps discussion. I saw it in good old-fashioned 24-fps 2D and it was just fine. I honestly don't see what it would have gained in 3D or with a higher film speed. It looked beautiful as it was.
So, I do recommend An Unexpected Journey as some great end-of-year fare, especially to those who have been depressed ever since Return of the King came out and there has been no more Aragorn. It works great on its own terms, and is a lot of fun. So I guess we'll be fine, Tolkien-wise. For the next couple of years, anyway.
I'm going to go right out there and say that Lincoln is one of Steven Spielberg's best films. He has kind of a hallowed place in our hearts, but most people couldn't name anything he's done that doesn't involve Indiana Jones or space (or unfortunately both) in some way. He has resounding hits to his credit, but some hollow misses also populate his canon. With Lincoln, all of the elements come together to form an incredible and timely piece of work.
Let's start off with Daniel Day-Lewis. This is the image of Abraham Lincoln that is going to inform our perception of him for decades to come. Everything he does takes what little we might know about Lincoln's personal characteristics, marries it perfectly with the legend he has become, and makes him a tangible, real person. There is an immense depth just beneath the his quiet surface that one does not see in the Lincoln Memorial. Day-Lewis has managed to create from myth a man, and one as real as any of the rest of us.
I do not put the rest of the cast far behind Daniel Day-Lewis. This is one of the most delightfully cast movies to be released this year, second only to Moonrise Kingdom. Everyone transmits the vivacity of the historian's characterizations to the screen. Who else but Sally Field could play Lincoln's wife, Molly? Who else but Tommy Lee Jones could summon the fire-and-brimstone piety of Thaddeus Stevens? Who else but David Strathairn for Secretary of State Seward? These history book names are herein given splendid life.
Besides the players, the whole picture is just beautiful. Spielberg has espoused more and more blue screen in the past few years, to limited success. If he has is here, I couldn't tell. There is a level of realism throughout the whole thing that only adds to the effect of the movie. There should be a cinematography nomination here.
There are those who would make meager comparisons between the frantic scramble to pass the 13th Amendment and our own predicament with the Fiscal Cliff. Others see it as a plea for bipartisanship and inspiring Lincoln-esque leadership in our increasingly polarized political system. I don't see it as a valid commentary on either. As he did in Schindler's List Spielberg is giving a much more important message than simply "slavery is bad" or "political parties slow progress". He is suggesting that maybe there ought to be a little morality infused into the system again. Today it would be heretical to question Lincoln's strong morals. One might ask, did he go too far, but the overwhelming response would be "of course not". Every campaign for equal rights has its roots in the 13th Amendment, and whether we like it or not, it is a largely moral piece of legislation. And there is nothing wrong with that. Think of where we would be today had it not passed. Lincoln understood that, and was willing to risk an incredible amount to maintain his conviction. Perhaps a solution to the problems of any time is sensitivity to a moral compass coupled with the savvy to use it effectively.
Lincoln is one of the best biographical sketches I've seen on screen in a long while. It captures the drama and feeling of the time and makes real what had previously been only names in history books. Whether it is the best movie this year is debatable, though I'm inclined to think it is not. It certainly rests in the top five, though, and Daniel Day-Lewis is something special.
Next week what else are you all going to see but The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey? I'll hopefully get to it before it's old news. I'll also be starting a series of classic Christmas-type movies that I hope you'll enjoy.
by Chase Harrison