Awards Season Movies: Mini Reviews Part 2

Since I’ve been seeing awards season movies faster than I can write full reviews of them, I’m writing mini reviews until my screener pile is diminished. The idea is to give you quick reactions to the flicks from last year that people are talking about, and to let you know exactly which ones are worth your time.

My latest round of reviews features my thoughts on “Not Fade Away,” “Django Unchained,” “Lincoln,” and “The Sessions.”

Not Fade Away

Band playing in the movie Not Fade Away

“Not Fade Away” © Paramount Pictures. All rights reserved

When I interviewed David Chase about his big screen debut “Not Fade Away,” the director/writer had some fascinating things to say about the connection between music and film as artistic mediums. He also provided interesting insight into his main character Doug’s emotional dilemmas and the movie’s ambiguous ending. The problem is that his intentions were not obvious during the film.

“Not Fade Away” is an angst-ridden, cliché period piece that’s more of an aimless coming-of-age tale, than an artistic statement about the power of rock n’ roll. A large part of that conception has to do with the abundance of banal elements like arguments about political issues at family functions, egotistical squabbling between band mates, parroted motivational statements, and the usual “parents just don’t understand” conflicts.

In positive ways, the film resembles Chase’s television creation The Sopranos, with a dark, moody aesthetic and superb soundtrack of classic rock songs. Additionally, Sopranos alum James Gandolfini reteams with Chase to give an entertaining performance as Doug’s crabby working-class father. He has a couple of poignant soul-baring conversations with Doug, so it would have been nice to see him more in the film.

Perhaps the most original thing about the movie is that (SPOILER ALERT) Doug doesn’t actually make it in show business. Chase realizes the ending may work against him with American audiences, who usually only want to see success stories, but at least it’s unique. This realistic outcome connects well with the filmmaker’s message that while you can lose it all, as long as you have good tunes by your side, life goes on. I just wish Chase had devised a less hackneyed vehicle for delivering his point.

My Grade: C

Django Unchained

Jamie Foxx and Leonardo DiCaprio in the movie Django Unchained

“Django Unchained” © The Weinstein Company Inc. All Rights Reserved

Quentin Tarantino has been paying homage to westerns for so long that it was satisfying to see him finally take the genre by the horns with “Django Unchained.” His version of a western is largely like you would suspect: aggressive satire in the vein of “Blazing Saddles,” silly push zooms, whip-crack sound effects, gratuitous slow motion, and blood splashing by the bucketful. Even with Tarantino’s strong track record, it’s hard to top the hilarity of KKK members arguing at length about the eyeholes in their hoods being cut unevenly. It’s also tough to surpass the excitement of the film’s Mexican standoff, which leads to an explosive shootout.

More than his last film “Inglourious Basterds,” Tarantino uses “Django Unchained” to comment on the horrific social climate of the time period (1850s). He tests your stomach with violent punishment, sadistic torture, and bare-nuckle brawls that have slaves fighting to the death. I consider myself someone hardened by his previous work, although I still had moments that made me queasy.

Normally I dig Tarantino’s anachronistic soundtrack, but this time it just felt off, especially the lengthy inclusion of Jim Croce’s “I’ve Got a Name.” Plus the film is bloated, taking what feels like forever to arrive at the epic showdown. I thought that the movie was anticlimactic until I was blindsided by the massive shootout. Then, the story continued for a while after, which surprised me. A tighter ending and a more direct arc toward the bad guy would have significantly changed this picture for the better.

Once again, Tarantino tailors dialogue incredibly well to his star Christoph Waltz, writing lines in the actor’s precise cadence. However the tension the writer/director created with Waltz’s exchanges in “Inglourious Basterds,” is not nearly as palpable here. At least magnetic performances by the actors make up for the movie’s shortcomings. Christoph Waltz is brilliant as Dr. King Schultz, the bounty hunter who frees Django (Jamie Foxx) and helps the former slave to rescue his wife. From the moment you see him on screen, Leonardo DiCaprio is clearly having a blast in his first bad guy role as the pseudo-intellectual egomaniac Calvin Candie. Samuel L. Jackson is equally unforgettable as Candie’s deceptively conniving head slave. Can someone please cast Leo as another villain ASAP?

My Grade: B

Lincoln

Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln

“Lincoln” © 2012 – DreamWorks II Distribution Co., LLC. All Rights Reserved.

I saw “Lincoln” fairly late in the game compared to most of my colleagues, who caught it in November. By the time I watched it in early December, my hopes were pretty high because of all the praise I kept hearing for the film. What really took me aback were all the different types of viewers that were raving about the movie. I don’t think I heard a single bad thing about it. That’s a lot of pressure to like a movie, right?

Well, I’m pleased to report that “Lincoln” not only met my expectations, but it actually exceeded them in a number of categories. From a technical perspective Steven Spielberg is a highly skilled director, so his superb work didn’t come as a surprise. Also, I knew that as a story, this picture wouldn’t be the standard biopic, choosing to concentrate on the last year of Lincoln’s life and presidency. I liked the narrow scope of the tale.

What truly blew me away were the quality of Tony Kushner’s screenplay and the powerhouse performance by Daniel Day Lewis as Abraham Lincoln. Kushner’s dialogue is whip smart, plus his portrait of the era’s politics is quite thorough. Daniel Day-Lewis is notorious for throwing himself into every role; however nothing can adequately prepare you for the intensity of his efforts. He truly embodies the Lincoln in all senses, from his appearance to his raspy falsetto voice. The other actors are no slouches either. Sally Field gives a nerve-wracking, tortured performance as Lincoln’s wife and Tommy Lee Jones excels at oratory insults as Senator Thaddeus Stevens.

What’s fascinating about the film is that you get to see Lincoln from multiple angles: the devoted family man, the suffering husband, the jovial storyteller, and the fiery politician. Perhaps the most captivating part of the movie is its examination of the American political process, as the president does everything in their power to pass the 13th Amendment and end slavery. At points Lincoln can become monotonous with the character’s constant jokes and goofy stories, although at least they make light of that in the film.  Plus the silly wigs and facial hair are a distraction.

However there are some brilliant moments when the writing, acting, and directing come together to create compelling scenes. The one that really sticks out involves Lincoln’s pondering about the legality of The Emancipation Proclamation. As the depth of his statements affect you, Spielberg slowly closes in with a zoom, and then Daniel Day-Lewis surprises you with his spirited ultimatum. It doesn’t get any more thrilling than seeing the soft-spoken kind president, threatening to exercise his immense power, should his will not be done. Not exactly the stuffy man you remember from the history books. This guy is pretty damn cool.

My Grade: A-

The Sessions

Helen Hunt and John Hawkes in the movie The Sessions

“The Sessions” © Fox Searchlight

It’s hard to think of a Hollywood movie that treats sex with sincerity and sensitivity, that’s why a film like “The Sessions,” is surprising, because it manages to treat both sex AND disability with care. This tale is a heartwarming, honest one about Mark O’Brien’s (John Hawkes) quest to complete his human experience. As someone who is severely physically disabled, he has never been able to know love or even sex despite the fact that he’s perfectly capable of the act. Social stigma surrounding his condition has prevented women from becoming intimate with him, but should he be denied that pleasure due to circumstances beyond his control? Of course not.

That’s how Mark ends up seeking out a sex surrogate (Helen Hunt) to help him become comfortable with his body, as well as the act of sex. Their sessions together not only teach Mark what to do in the bedroom, they aid him with overcoming his own mental roadblocks.

One of the amusing things about Mark is that since he was raised very religious, he leans heavily on his faith. His priest (William H. Macy) doesn’t just hear Mark’s confessions; he becomes a friend to Mark. At first he’s wary about Mark’s quest, however he quickly ditches his hang-ups to support what he feels to be a vital initiative to putting Mark on a better path in life.

This film is shot in an understated way, without using fancy camera tricks, allowing the dialogue and the actors to drive the film. Director/writer Ben Lewin creates witty, candid exchanges between the characters that will make you chuckle with their quirky humor without distracting you from their serious message. A large reason this works is the comedic timing of John Hawkes. He delivers Mark’s lines with unbridled honesty and the perfect balance of self-deprecation to prevent the film from slipping into depressing territory. There are moments though, where Mark is a very unlikable character. He’s rude, insensitive, and singularly minded about women as objects. Thankfully, this dissipates as he grows into a more mature person.

The other performances on in the movie are so-so to Hawkes’s by comparison. They’re not bad, just not nearly as captivating. Although Helen Hunt bravely disrobes several times during the picture, her Massachusetts accent is heavy-handed and she comes off a bit stiff at times. William H. Macy seems to be on autopilot for his part as well, which is fine for his character.

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the film is its predictable tear jerker ending. Since the movie is based on a remarkable true story, it obviously pulls from real events, but Lewin didn’t need to go with such a low blow to the audience.

My Grade: B+

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