2013 Illinois Second Congressional District Special Election, Democratic Primary

Today’s race to succeed very liberal Representative Jesse Jackson, Jr. in Illinois’s Second Congressional District has turned on the issue of gun control, particularly the question of a ban on so-called (and poorly-defined) “assault weapons”.  This annoys me greatly because not only do I oppose an “assault weapons” ban, but I also think gun control is not a particularly important issue – certainly not one that a House race should be centered around.  Yes, the south side of Chicago is plagued by violence (committed through guns and other weapons), but might that have more to do with the interconnected issues of poverty, lack of education and jobs, and gang activity?

Anyway, the race has boiled down to three major candidates: Anthony Beale, Debbie Halvorson, and Robin Kelly.  Beale’s website dwells largely on parochial issues so I ruled him out.  As a past opponent of an AWB, Halvorson’s position on gun control is the closest to mine, but Halvorson also has a somewhat moderate record (at least by the standards of the heavily Democratic IL-2), which is why I supported Jackson when she ran against him in 2012.  Kelly has been running on a stridently anti-gun, pro-AWB position, but she also has a very liberal platform, including a webpage dedicated to “Helping Low-Income Americans”.  She seems to be very protective of our social safety net and supportive of helping the poorest Americans in a positive, constructive way.  For that reason, I’m willing to overlook my differences with her on gun control, and I endorse Robin Kelly for Illinois’s Second Congressional District.

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85th Academy Awards

Today is the 85th Academy Awards honoring the best in film in 2012 and I tried watching as many of the nine Best Picture nominees as I could.  As so often happens in the Academy Awards, the Best Picture nominees tend to dominate the other major categories as well, so I can also weigh in to some extent on the Best Director, Best Acting (Lead and Supporting), and Best Writing (Original and Adapted) categories.

I’ve seen six of the nine Best Picture nominees: Amour, Argo, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Life of Pi, Lincoln, and Silver Linings Playbook.  I didn’t have enough interest to be willing to pay to see Django Unchained and Zero Dark Thirty in theatres, and I wanted to watch the stage version of Les Misérables before I watched the screen version.

Here’s my ranking of the six movies I’ve seen in terms of which I would least like to see win to which I would most like to see win Best Picture.  For the sake of simplicity, these rankings also correspond with my personal ratings and opinions about each movie.  From worst to best, here they are:

6. Life of Pi (my least favorite)

5. Argo

4. Beasts of the Southern Wild

3. Amour

2. Lincoln

1. Silver Linings Playbook (the one I’m rooting for to win)

[Actual winner: Argo (ugh!!)]

As for the other categories, my opinions are as follows.

Best Director: I’ve seen all five movies for which the director has been nominated.  Even though I ranked Life of Pi last for Best Picture, I would actually give the Directing award to its director, Ang Lee, just because the movie was so vivid and well put-together. (My complaints about the movie are largely about its useless plot.) Steven Spielberg would be the runner-up for Lincoln. [Actual winner: Ang Lee]

Best Actor: I’ve only seen Bradley Cooper and Daniel Day-Lewis, and I got to give it to Daniel Day-Lewis, but Cooper did an excellent job and would be a close second. [Actual winner: Daniel Day-Lewis]

Best Actress: I’ve seen three of the five: Jennifer Lawrence, Emmanuelle Riva, and Quvenzhané Wallis.  Though all three were impressive, between them I gotta give it to Jennifer Lawrence. [Actual winner: Jennifer Lawrence]

Best Supporting Actor: I’ve seen three of the five: Alan Arkin, Robert de Niro, and Tommy Lee Jones.  Arkin is overrated and does not deserve an award (the same can be said about Argo) and Jones was good but his role seemed rather negligible.  Out of the three, I would give this one to Robert de Niro. [Actual winner: Christoph Waltz]

Best Supporting Actress: I’ve only seen two – Sally Field and Jacki Weaver.  Between them I’d pick Sally Field; I’m at a loss as to why Weaver was even nominated. [Actual winner: Anne Hathaway]

Best Original Screenplay: I’ve seen Amour and Moonrise Kingdom.  Neither has a particularly distinguished script, but I prefer Moonrise Kingdom. [Actual winner: Django Unchained.  Bleh – I haven’t seen the movie but if the script is similar to the ones from previous Quentin Tarantino movies I can’t imagine it being any good.]

Best Adapted Screenplay: I’ve seen all five movies in this category, and I’m definitely hoping Argo does NOT win.  Among the remaining four, it’s a very close contest between Lincoln and Silver Linings Playbook, but in the end I’m going with Silver Linings Playbook. [Actual winner: Argo – double ugh!!]

Finally, I’ve included my ratings and reviews of the six Best Picture nominees I’ve seen, ranked from worst to best.  Ratings are expressed on a scale of 0.5-5 “stars”.  Warning: These reviews are written for those who have seen the movie and may include spoilers and ending details.

 

 

Life of Pi

2 stars

I didn’t really like this movie.  The plot was slow and it just dragged on and on; I didn’t find watching a boy and a tiger suffer for months in the open sea really compelling.  I didn’t care for the boy’s and tiger’s relationship either; all I saw were two living beings arguing with each other and being generally miserable.  I also didn’t like the religious message, which was essentially that Pi suffered so much but he still made it out alive, which I guess somehow means that God exists and Pi passed his test…?  I always thought the “God must exist because suffering people occasionally get some table scraps of good fortune!” argument (which seems to be the one made by Life of Pi) was a load of bull.

This movie did have great visuals – maybe a Visual Effects or Cinematography Academy Award is in order? – and I did like the twist at the end.  It was also cool seeing all the zoo animals, which I think the movie interprets as manifestations of God’s majesty.

 

 

Argo

2 stars

The opening sequence showing the storming of the embassy in Tehran was really intense and well-done.  When I was watching it I felt like I was actually there at the embassy feeling the emotions that the people at the scene must’ve been feeling at the time.

The movie more or less goes downhill from there.  While the story is pretty interesting, the movie is marred by all the overly snappy and pretentious dialog.  The film’s writers were trying too hard to make the sharp banter among the various government officials and film executives be witty, and it came off as overdone and just lame. (Argo has been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay; I’m hoping it doesn’t win.)

Alan Arkin’s performance was overrated; it was decent but not extraordinary.  He doesn’t deserve the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor he was nominated for.

This movie in general is overrated.  I mean, it held my attention and kept me entertained throughout its duration, but other than that there wasn’t much else to it.  It wasn’t a very deep movie, and it felt rather shallow after I was done watching it.

The movie does have some moments of tension and suspense – like with the ongoing reconstruction of the documents shredded at the embassy that reveal the escapees’ identities.  But a lot of the drama feels fabricated, especially all the useless melodramatic whining and moaning we had to endure every time they showed the escapees at the Canadian ambassador’s house.  As the escapees were finally leaving Iran, the movie couldn’t just let them leave normally (as I’m sure was how it actually happened).  No, the movie insisted on awkwardly shoehorning in a cheesy and ridiculous drama/action sequence that you could automatically tell was fabricated.  Did the filmmakers think anyone would actually believe that an action movie-style runway chase of a departing airplane happened in real life?  What was going to happen next – an Iranian supercop leaps from the pursuing truck onto the wing of the plane and tenaciously clings to it as it takes off into the sky?  Give me a break.

 

 

Beasts of the Southern Wild

2.5 stars

I felt like this movie takes too long to get to the point.  Most of the movie, especially the first third or so, is preoccupied with showing us how miserable life in “the Bathtub” is.  Beasts does a good job of showing how the impoverished Bathtub is, to the point of being almost like another world.  The contrast between it and modernity is well depicted, especially during the few scenes that take place outside of the Bathtub.

Plot-wise, the movie stays stalled for a long time and doesn’t really pick up until Wink and his companions breach a levee.  The movie’s point isn’t terribly explicit, but it’s helped along by Hushpuppy’s narration.  The point is, what, that life sucks and only the strong make it…?  That’s how I interpreted it based on the aurochs (which for some reason were made to be porcine in appearance) and Hushpuppy’s accompanying narration.  To me, the aurochs represented the often harsh vicissitudes of life, and Hushpuppy’s stopping the aurochs in the end represented her having the strength of will to overcome them.

The pacing is quite slow and made the movie feel much longer than its 93 minutes.  The cinematography is raw and shaky to emphasize the gritty nature of the setting and the characters, which I thought was appropriate.

The two main actors, Quvenzhané Wallis (playing Hushpuppy) and Dwight Henry (playing Wink) deliver powerful performances that pretty much carried the movie forward, but I’m on the fence as to whether Wallis’s performance was Oscar-worthy.

 

 

Amour

2.5 stars

This movie is called Amour (“Love”) but while it does focus on a man’s love for his ailing wife, it does so within the context of the ravages of aging.  The movie could just as easily be called Aging, or whatever the French equivalent is.

Amour seeks to immerse the audience in the world of an elderly couple and allow us to connect with their lives, which means we get to watch everything that goes on in their lives, like a reality show except with old people.  The camera lingers forever on the couple doing mundane tasks like brushing their teeth, eating dinner, washing dishes, vacuuming the carpet, or just plain walking around the house, which for these octogenarians takes forever.  The movie spent a good five minutes at least on the riveting action sequence of a slow old man chasing a stupid pigeon that flew into his house.  I understand the purpose of showing us all these details in slow motion, but the downside is that it makes the movie super slow and, at times, boring.  I’m glad I watched this in the middle of the day, otherwise I probably would’ve fallen asleep.

The realism of these people’s everyday lives adds to the movie’s emotional weight as it depicts how a couple deals with the troubles of senescence.  An interesting facet of this movie is how it deals with the subjects of sorrow and love.  What happens in the movie is sad, but it’s not sad in the conventional dramatically tragic sense, like the young lover dying in Titanic or other mainstream tearjerker movies.  It’s sad in a depressing, wow-life-just-sucks-and-there’s-not-much-we-can-do-about-it kind of way.  It’s more of an understated, subdued form of tragedy – if the different forms of tragedy can be compared to different forms of death, a mainstream romantic drama is like someone being blown up in a fiery and spectacular explosion, whereas Amour is more along the lines of someone being, well, quietly smothered with a pillow.  If this movie has a point, it’s that life sucks, especially when it’s coming to an end in your old age.

As for love, this movie depicts it as a man caring for his wife.  There’s not a whole lot of cooing and snuggling and such.  It’s probably the most unromantic romantic movie I’ve ever seen – and maybe that’s the point, that love can take very subtle forms as well as more obvious ones.  As someone who appreciates obvious displays of affection, that point doesn’t really resonate with me personally, and I hope that if I ever grow old with someone there will still be plenty of cooing and snuggling and exchanging of fond looks well into our eighties and nineties.

As for the acting and character development, they were good all around.  I felt that Georges (played by Jean-Louis Trintignant), as the only main character who was functional throughout the entire course of the movie, was the character that really held the the movie together; he basically acted as a stand-in for the audience and how they would react to what was going on.  As the increasingly invalid Anne, Emmanuelle Riva was good at portraying paralysis and dementia, but I don’t know if her performance is worthy of an Academy Award nomination, and if it is surely Trintignant’s performance should be as well?

 

 

Lincoln

3 stars

For me, Lincoln seems to be serving as an acting platform first and a storytelling device second.  First, Daniel Day-Lewis… what can I say.  He is arguably the best living actor (at least for dramatic roles) and he lived up to his reputation here.  He pretty much OWNED the role of Abraham Lincoln.  His performance and commanding, gripping cinematic presence is what keeps the movie together – every time he walked into a scene he almost gave me this comfort that, yes, President Lincoln is here to settle things and make everything right.  By the way, Day-Lewis’s much-discussed voice for Lincoln was as authentic as we could possibly know, and it kinda reminded me of Jim Carrey’s impression of a much later Republican President, Ronald Reagan, in “Presidential Reunion”, the Funny or Die video about the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

As for other acting performances, Sally Field was pretty good.  Tommy Lee Jones was fine but a bit overrated.

Now, on to the movie itself.  This movie felt really long and slow, and I probably would’ve lost interest if not for the subject matter.  It does tell an overlooked but important story about the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in the House of Representatives. (The movie was wise to focus in on one relatively short time period in Lincoln’s life.) It’s very political, which I like, but even I felt a bit overwhelmed, especially as the movie insists on getting bogged down in mind-numbing minutiae – for example, all that stuff about the legality of the Emancipation Proclamation and the courts’ ruling on it and yaddi yaddi yadda… This kind of stuff, by the way, is not going to be readily accessible to most people; if 75 percent of public can’t even define what a filibuster is, they’re not gonna understand or appreciate all the arcana of Congressional procedure.

Of course, being a political movie, Lincoln comes with all the usual hokey drama of political theater, and it has the usual sappy feel-good triumph of good over evil at the end.  Thankfully, we’re not subjected to the political movie cliché of the President giving a rousing exhortation during the climax.  This movie was also goofier than I expected.  I could be wrong, but some of the dialog seemed anachronistic: for example, the use of “shit” as a verb, and the term “conservative” to describe non-Radical Republicans (wasn’t the commonly-used term “moderate”?).

 

 

Silver Linings Playbook

4 stars

Wow, after I saw this I was like, “damn that was a good movie”.  Once you get past the somewhat scattered opening, the story is interesting, engaging, and well-paced, and it sucks you right in.  It’s bolstered by some of the best acting I’ve ever seen. 

I was blown away by Bradley Cooper’s performance.  Maybe it’s because my perception of him was pinned down in the douchebag characters he portrayed in The Hangover and Limitless, but he really knocked this role out of the park. (Now I can’t decide who’s more deserving of the Academy Award for Best Actor, him or Daniel Day-Lewis for Lincoln – and when you’re being compared favorably with Daniel Day-Lewis you know you’ve done an excellent job.) Then there’s Jennifer Lawrence, who completely owned her role.  I remember watching the scene when her character Tiffany is berating Cooper’s character Pat for something about being a hypocritical conformist – I don’t even remember the exact charge anymore – and I could literally see the anger and fire in her eyes.  Her freakin eyes!  Her acting would’ve been phenomenal even if the sound had been muted.  And okay, Robert De Niro was pretty good too.

While the plot was very interesting, I do wish it had a little more thematic depth to it.  The movie does touch (rather bluntly) on the need to stay positive in the face of adversity.  It also makes a point about the value of embracing different and unique people, things, and choices over the more conventional paths, which may not always be ideal.

All in all this was a great movie and now I actually have something to root for in the competition for Academy Award for Best Picture.

 

FEBRUARY 24 2013 UPDATE: Included the actual winners.