ARCHIVE REVIEW: This Is Not a Film

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This Is Not a Film
Directed by: Jafar Panahi & Mojtaba Mirtahmasb
Starring: Jafar Panahi

Jafar Panahi is an Iranian filmmaker who was put under house arrest in 2010 and barred from making films for the next 20 years because the government deemed his work “propaganda.”  In this extraordinary exercise in silent protest, he documents a day in his life under house arrest while simultaneously illustrating the suffocating effect that a theocratic government has on art.

That’s quite a feat for a 75 minute movie that features just three people and a pet lizard on screen.  There is never any effort to sustain a narrative or in any way create to create illusion through technique.  Panahi’s friend and co-director Mojtaba Mirtahmasb is not a director, and largely just stands and zooms from one spot unless instructed by Panahi to move somewhere else.  It is in that forced lack of a narrative that the movie’s intentions begin to mirror the situation Panahi has been forced into, though.  He stages a couple scenes from an unmade screenplay, only to stop in the middle of it, frustrated that explaining a film takes away from the very essence of the art.

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BEST PICTURE NOMINEE: Django Unchained

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Django Unchained
Directed by: Quentin Tarantino
Written by: Quentin Tarantino (screenplay)
Starring: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kerry Washington

Django, like the ‘D’ at the beginning of his name, is silent.  This is no small feat, given that he is the main character in a Quentin Tarantino movie, and should be stopping to yak at any given opportunity, preferably before a burst of ultra-violence.

Of course there is plenty of bloodshed in Django Unchained, so much in fact that it paints a white plantation red, mostly with the blood of its owner and his employees.  It is Tarantino’s second historical revenge fantasy in a row, following the revisionist WWII epic Inglourious Basterds.  Here, though, he crucially refuses to revise the horrors of American slavery, and depicts them in ways that are startling and horrific.  The blood from the shootouts may be gratuitous and expressionistic, but it’s the beating, dog mauling and whipping that feel brutally real even if the movie they are in is often highly stylized.

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BEST PICTURE NOMINEE: Beasts of the Southern Wild

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Beasts of the Southern Wild
Directed by: Benh Zeitlin
Written by: Benh Zeitlin & Lucy Alibar
Starring: Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry, Levy Easterly and Lowell Landes

Since Beasts of the Southern Wild was my pick for the best movie of 2012, I thought I would revisit it here since my original review was an ecstatic, somewhat over-the-top reaction from the Cannes Film Festival.  Having seen the film twice now, I still maintain that it is a masterpiece, and one of the best translations of childhood consciousness that I’ve ever seen in a movie.

Many of the criticisms of Benh Zeitlin’s debut feature revolve around its treatment of race as it relates to poverty.  The harshest (and most recent) of these comes from Richard Brody of The New Yorker, who wrote:

The movie itself is this year’s The Help, a romanticized and mythologized vision of poor Southern blacks (in this case, a father and daughter in a Louisiana bayou community called the Bathtub) that also sentimentalizes the very notion of self-help (“The Self-Help”) in a story that spotlights a tough, poetic, independent-spirited child facing dangers in aquatic adventures.

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Our Favorite Movies of 2012

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1.  Beasts of the Southern WildNo matter how skilled a filmmaker is, rarely does a movie come along that creates a cinematic world that is seething with a new kind of life, a world or vision that movies haven’t seen before.  Director Benh Zeitlin, working with a do-it-yourself low budget commune of filmmaking talent and some extraordinary “non-professional” performers, does that with Beasts of the Southern Wild.  The ferocious story of Hushpuppy (the amazingly talented child actress Quvenzhané Wallis) and her small, increasingly hopeless village on the other side of a Louisiana levee is filled with fantastical, visually stunning sequences as well as low budget narrative economy.  It is this year’s biggest contradiction, and its biggest success.

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2. Amour– Michael Haneke’s second movie in a row to win the Cannes Film Festival’s highest honor (the Palme D’or) is the director’s most empathetic and devastating work to date.  As the camera lingers in the apartment of Georges and Anne (legendary French performers Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emanuelle Riva in devastatingly good form), we become privy to the elderly Parisian couple’s tender, haunting final moments together.  It is a slow crawl toward death, absent plot twists or Haneke’s sadism.  Watching it yields no pleasure, but everything from the incredible performances to the wonderfully precise camera movement lingers long after the movie ends.

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REVIEW: The Queen of Versailles

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The Queen of Versailles
Directed by: Lauren Greenfield
Written by: N/A
Starring: Jaqueline Siegel & David Siegel

Lauren Greenfield’s documentary The Queen of Versailles has images that perfectly define post-2008 recession America.  In the wake of the massive layoffs of most of their maid staff, the once impossibly rich Siegel family live in an immaculate 26,000 square foot mansion littered with old food plates, dozens of misplaced toys and covered in dog shit.

Documentaries like this are a product not just of skillful filmmaking and probing insight, but also luck.  Greenfield started filming two years before the financial meltdown that nearly crumbles David Siegel’s time share empire, Westgate Estates.  Him, his wife Jackie, their eight children (seven of which they made and one who is a niece they took in) and their pets were preparing to move into what would’ve been the biggest home in America.

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REVIEW: Lincoln

Lincoln
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Written by: Tony Kushner (screenplay), Doris Kearns Goodwin (book) (in part)
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn and Tommy Lee Jones

Seeing movies after they have been stampeded over and analyzed by the critical mainstream can be both a blessing and a curse, as it is with Steven Spielberg’s latest historical filmmaking venture, Lincoln.  I often make it a point not to read reviews of movies I plan on writing about until after I’ve seen the movie and collected my thoughts, and this one is no exception.

That being said, there was an op-ed in the New York Times released by Northwestern history professor Kate Masur days before Lincoln was released nationally.  It was titled “In Spielberg’s Lincoln, Passive Black Characters,” and it addresses just what its title proclaims in a succinct, powerful fashion.  Masur is not a professional film critic, and her piece is not an evaluation of the whole production but merely a response to the specific part of it that her title describes.

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REVIEW: Take This Waltz

Take This Waltz
Directed by: Sarah Polley
Written by: Sarah Polley (screenplay)
Starring: Michelle Williams, Seth Rogen, Luke Kirby and Sarah Silverman

One of the first things we see Margot (Michelle Williams) do in Sarah Polley’s Take This Waltz is gently flog an adulterer while visiting an old fashioned theme park.  Waves of anxiety and embarrassment wash over her face as the other people in the crowd laugh at both her and the obnoxiously over-the-top characters performing the ritual.

This scene sets up a convenient Meet Cute for Margot and Daniel (Luke Kirby), but it also brings to light the stigma attached to adulterers, though in modern times the flogging is more verbal.  The dual purposes of this scene are important because Margot is married, and even loves Lou (Seth Rogen), her husband of five years.

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