My Oscar Picks

oscar-the-grouch-300I’m going to stick to the system I used last year when writing about the Oscars: I’ll talk about what I think SHOULD win rather than what will. Also, I’ll choose one film from the actual nominees for each category, and also the movie I would pick in a magical universe where everything I like was nominated. And as always, I’m limiting discussion to movies I’ve actually seen.

BEST PICTURE

From the nominees: LINCOLN

(Will it actually win? Probably not.)

From everything: MOONRISE KINGDOM

I saw all the best picture nominees this year except for three — Les Mis, Life of Pi, and Amour. For me, this choice came down to a very close tie between Lincoln and Silver Linings Playbook, both of which I really enjoyed. And I do think those two are head and shoulders above the other options here. Both Lincoln and Silver Linings Playbook are incredibly competent, well-crafted films, and both are much less conventional than I had expected from their context and their marketing. This is basically a tie, but in the end I chose Lincoln, more or less on the strength of Daniel Day-Lewis’ crazy good performance, and on the very smart script by Tony Kushner.

If I had free reign to pick anything, I think I’d end up choosing Moonrise Kingdom as the best of the year. It was funny, charming, and I think I felt the closest emotional connection with the characters. It pulled off a pretty impressive trick of being incredibly engaging at the same time as coming off as almost self-effacing in its presentation. And everything is presented with straight face; the characters are never being winked at or trivialized, even when what’s happening is ridiculous or funny. My new favorite Wes Anderson movie, and I think Anderson can be either very goo, or awfully annoying. This movie shows off everything that’s good about what he does and never falls into the trap of being trivial or twee. It’s a winner.

BEST ACTOR

From the nominees: DANIEL DAY-LEWIS in LINCOLN

(Will he actually win? Obviously, yes.)

From everything: DANIEL DAY-LEWIS in LINCOLN

DDL on both counts; I think he’s just too good in this to give it to anyone else. He’s completely believable as Lincoln, which must be an immensely hard thing to do. He never reads as parody, or even someone acting. You can never take your eyes off him. I know he’s the easy choice for this, but there you go. I did also really like Bradley Cooper in Silver Linings Playbook and Joaquin Phoenix in The Master. It was the first time I’ve seen Cooper actually act — and he’s good! — and Phoenix was blindingly weird but very compelling. I didn’t see Denzel Washington in Flight or Hugh Jackman in Les Mis. (I love Hugh Jackman, but I’m kind of suspicious of Les Mis…) I also think Mark Duplass deserves serious credit for his weirdly naturalistic portrayal of a man who may or may not have a time machine in Safety Not Guaranteed. Obviously no Oscar love there, but that was one of the best performances I saw this year.

BEST ACTRESS

From the nominees: JENNIFER LAWRENCE in SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK

(Will she actually win? I think so, yes.)

From everything: JENNIFER LAWRENCE in SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK

It’s usually easier for me to think of supporting roles I really liked than leading roles. I think part of that is a lot of good movies don’t even really HAVE leading roles. Moonrise Kingdom is pretty much an ensemble piece; Silver Linings Playbook is close to it. Even in The Master, how exactly do you make the determination that Joaquin Phoenix is the lead, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman is supporting? Anyway, this is by the way of saying that there were a lot of actresses whose performances I liked a lot in 2012, but just a few who were clearly the leads in their respective films. I think my favorite two performances were actually both from Jennifer Lawrence, in Silver Linings Playbook and in The Hunger Games. She has a way of making her characters completely believable that is rare, I think, even among really good actors. It’s like with Daniel Day Lewis, you just don’t see her acting.

I love Jessica Chastain, but not her strange role in Zero Dark Thirty. And Quvenzhane Wallis is adorable, but I just don’t think six-year-olds act, exactly. The other two roles nominated here I didn’t see. Also to get back to Safety Not Guaranteed, Aubrey Plaza was great in that too, and her role had some dramatic meat on it in addition to comedy.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

From the nominees: PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN in THE MASTER

(Will he actually win? I don’t think so, no.)

From everything: PHILIP SEYOUR HOFFMAN in THE MASTER

I was never sure exactly what was happening in The Master, but Philip Seymour Hoffman was really good in it. His portrayal never became caricature; one interesting thing about the movie was that his character of Lancaster Dodd is probably a much more compelling and charismatic person than the real L. Ron Hubbard ever was. There’s some aspect of the con artist to him, but he clearly has incredibly powerful motives beyond that, even though the film never completely illuminates what they are. Hoffman can dip in and out from naturalistic to weird in a way that’s really compelling. He makes the truly bizarre scene where he serenades Joaquin Phoenix with “Slow Boat to China” seem real and believable. If you asked me what was happening in that scene, exactly, I could not tell you, but Philip Seymour Hoffman is awesome.

I saw all the performances nominated for this award, and have mixed feelings. Tommy Lee Jones was great, though to a certain extent he was just being Tommy Lee Jones. Robert De Niro was terrific; he would be my second choice. I don’t ultimately think Christoph Waltz deserved a nomination. He was charming in Django Unchained, but that’s where his performance stopped. Samuel L. Jackson as the slimy house slave Stephen was much more impressive. Similarly, Alan Arkin was great, but John Goodman deserved to be nominated for his performance in Argo more than he did.

Outside the nominees, how about Bruce Willis in Moonrise Kingdom? Jake Johnson in Safety Not Guaranteed? I’ve come down a little off my intense love for Cabin In The Woods, but Richard Jenkins was terrific in it. Ben Whishaw, Jim Broadbent, and Hugo Weaving were all fantastic in their multiple roles in Cloud Atlas, too.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

From the nominees: SALLY FIELD in LINCOLN

(Will she actually win? No chance.)

From everything: SALLY FIELD in LINCOLN

Interesting I’m ending up sticking mostly within the fields of the actual nominees for most of these. As previously indicated, I didn’t see Les Miserables (not sure I want to), nor did I see The Sessions (which I definitely DO want to see). I thought Amy Adams was fantastic in The Master, but Sally Field gets this one partly just because her role was so interesting. Mary Todd Lincoln was almost as important in Lincoln as Abe was, and nearly as juicy a part. It’s also a role that would be very easy to play badly — I’m crazy and I ruin everything! — but she never gets anywhere near that broad in the film. Mary Todd has gone through a lot and you feel surprising sympathy for her. One of the rawest, most surprising moments in Lincoln is when you’re reminded that Abe threatened to commit her to an asylum.

"I like you."

A couple other great performances from outside the nominees: Judi Dench as M has been consistently one of the best things about the newer James Bond movies since 1995. And in Skyfall she finally got a movie that was as good as she was.

One more, FAR off the beaten path: V/H/S — a found-footage horror anthology movie —  was mostly stupid and awful, and I can’t in good conscience recommend it to anyone. But it does feature one of the most memorable performances of the year for me: Hannah Fierman as a girl that a bunch of guys meet at a bar.  She seems a little bit off… and it all goes downhill from there. I can’t be too detailed for fear of spoilers, but this actress is is genuinely brilliant, and pulls off the weirdest, most inhuman horror performance I’ve ever seen. (If for some reason you do watch V/H/S, seriously do not watch more than the first and maybe the last segments in the anthology. I promise you they are not worth it; there are some real stinkers here.)

BEST DIRECTOR

From the nominees: DAVID O. RUSSELL for SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK

(Will he actually win? Pretty unlikely but it’s possible.)

From everything: DAVID O. RUSSELL for SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK

I think David O. Russell should win here because it’s Silver Linings Playbook where  the choices that the director makes are most impressive. He pulls astonishing performances out of all these actors, and the pacing and tone of the movie constantly keep you off-balance and off-your-guard. He NEVER makes the easy choice. Almost any movie would be more interesting and daring directed by Russell, and I think that should be rewarded. To dip very briefly into the real world, this is one of the very few categories where I’m genuinely interested who wins. Would love to see it be Russell, though obviously no crime to give it to Spielberg.

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

From the nominees: MOONRISE KINGDOM

(Will it actually win? I have no idea.)

From everything: MOONRISE KINGDOM

Please give this to poor Moonrise Kingdom. It got shut out otherwise and it deserves more. Please do not give this to Zero Dark Thirty, or worse, Django Unchained.

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

From the nominees:  LINCOLN

(Will it actually win? Still no idea.)

From everything: SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED

Lincoln’s screenplay was terrific: smart, lean, funny and unpretentious — from the occasionally very pretentious Tony Kushner. But how about some love for weird, neglected, semi-brilliant Safety Not Guaranteed? (I’m classifying it as adapted since it’s technically based on a real Craigslist listing.) Cloud Atlas and The Hunger Games were also two very good adaptations of tricky source material. I wish the Hunger Games in general got more recognition here, it was a really good movie and was completely shut out, even for technical stuff. (Of course, it did make 600 million dollars, so maybe they’re not too broken up about it…)

BEST ANIMATED MOVIE

From the nominees: FRANKENWEENIE

(Will it actually win? Gosh I have no idea.)

From everything: FRANKENWEENIE

I saw four out of five of the animated films nominated this year (no Wreck-It Ralph) and enjoyed all of them. Great to see this category working out. I think I most enjoyed Frankenweenie, which had a LOT of similarities to ParaNorman, both about weird misunderstood kids dealing with a somewhat softened horror situation. Frankenweenie I think talked down to its audience a bit less, though, and deserved credit for its whacked-out visual style and for daring to be in black-and-white. (Is it the first black-and-white kids movie in the color era?)

Here endeth my opinions. This pretty much wraps it up for the categories I care about, though I’d love to see The Hobbit win for FX, and I thought Skyfall had terrific music, both the score and Adele’s song. Comments?

Review: “The Glass Menagerie” At The A.R.T.

We didn’t get to see our traditional movie this weekend; we were going to see “Amour,” but snowpocalypse intervened. So instead, I figured I’d write about the production of “The Glass Menagerie” that we saw. (Free tickets with CJ’s ART connections!)

So this was a very star-studded show, with ART royalty Cherry Jones as Amanda and SPOCK (Zachary Quinto) as Tom. The woman who played Laura I hadn’t heard of, but was also Wendy in “Peter and the Starcatcher.” Everyone was terrific, to the extent that it’s hard to pick a favorite. Spock was compelling and funny, Cherry was extraordinary, and Laura and the Gentleman Caller were both incredibly real and almost painful to watch.

I haven’t seen a production of this show in quite a while, but I think when I’ve seen it before Laura was played as more childlike. In this, she wasn’t childlike at all, just incredibly shy and wounded, which I liked. And the Gentleman Caller here is played as more sympathetic than sometimes– ernest and misguided, where he can also be played as callous, even intentionally toying with Laura.

The set and stagecraft were also great. The stage is suspended in a pool of water or black goo which you could see some of the action reflected in. And the fire escape where some of the action takes place spirals upwards into the air echoing the glass unicorn’s severed horn. There’s also a truly stunning stage gimmick near the opening of the play. I can’t spoil it here, but it’s how one of the characters enters the stage, and it’s hands-down the best entrance I’ve ever seen onstage. It evoked loud gasps from 90% of the audience when we were there.

The one thing I didn’t like about the direction was an odd piece of choreographed business where Amanda and Laura do a little dance around the table, and sort of dance their hands around making patterns as they’re wiping it down. It just came out of nowhere and didn’t seem connected to the rest of the show at all. But for a flaw, it’s a pretty minor one, as it took about a minute and a half max.

On the whole, the play was expert, moving, and well-acted. Very funny occasionally, but the tone is genuinely quite dark by the end. I was pretty upset by the curtain call, but that’s sort of the point.

“Argo” Review

Time for another movie review!

We saw “Argo” yesterday, and basically it was a lot of fun. It wasn’t a work of art, and it didn’t make any great points about the human condition, but it was very enjoyable to watch.

(To get it over with, one of the minor reasons it was fun is that it’s probably the best movie I’ve ever seen for the “where have I seen that actor” game. In addition to fairly big names like Bryan Cranston and John Goodman and Alan Arkin, “Argo” features — the Magister from “True Blood”! Andrew from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”! Clea DuVall from everything! That guy from “Monsters”! The “Friday Night Lights” guy playing a character identical to the character he plays in “Zero Dark Thirty”! Adrienne Barbeau as a space witch! And so on.)

But in addition to all that: it’s a thriller, more or less, and based on a true story, more or less. (Maybe more less than more, from what I’ve read.) The meat of the story — getting six of the Iran hostages out of Tehran by constructing fake identities for them as a Canadian sci-fi film crew — is certainly true, and is great to watch.  It’s also agonizingly stressful at times. Being trapped in a building by a mob who hates you is not something I’ve thought much about, but I guess it must be truly horrific.

And obviously “Argo” has a great cast, but the acting is weirdly spotty. The good ones first: John Goodman is terrific as the make-up artist who helps the CIA make their fake film. Bryan Cranston is funny and great as a CIA higher-up. The six actors who play the hostages are very good, and always read like real people despite the men’s astonishing 1980-style facial hair.

The not-so-good: I didn’t love Alan Arkin in this, despite loving him more generally. He’s a Hollywood producer, and ends up being played mostly for comic relief. He’s nominated for a best supporting actor Oscar for this, but I actually thought Goodman was significantly better, partially because he has a somewhat better part. It’s much clearer why Goodman’s character — who is a real person — is important to the plot than Arkin’s fictional producer character.

And Ben Affleck himself is honestly not so great in this. I think he can be a very good actor, but here he’s sort of playing the stock morose hero. What his character is accomplishing is interesting, but he feels the need to hit all the traditional notes we’ve seen a million times before. He’s separated from his wife and has a kid he wants to see more often. When he’s discouraged in Tehran, he goes to his hotel and looks out at the window while drinking whisky straight from the bottle. I never want to see that scene again in movies; I’ve seen that scene. And hotel rooms have glasses, presumably even in Iran. Pour the damn whisky into a glass. But this is both an acting problem and a directing problem, and they both probably come down to Affleck.

Technically though, the movie is great. Well paced, and it does some neat stuff with mixing in real contemporary footage from the time. Nothing crazy innovative, but it’s very well done.

In sum, I would definitely recommend “Argo.” And I see it compared to “Zero Dark Thirty” a lot, despite being a very different kind of movie. But if you ARE somehow put in a position where you have to choose which CIA-focused movie to see, I would voice strong support for “Argo” over “Zero Dark Thirty.” Neither is a masterpiece, but “Argo” is a lot more fun. Less torture, more John Goodman and trying to figure out where you’ve seen particular character actors.

“Silver Linings Playbook” Review

Another weekend, another movie review. But hooray, because this was MUCH better (than “Zero Dark Thirty.”)

I think seeing “Silver Linings Playbook” cemented that if I had to pick a favorite director working right now, it would be David O. Russell. I always enjoy his movies, and they’re never exactly what you expect. He’s also one of the very few people who consistently makes movies about people who are middle or lower class without being patronizing or ridiculous. Characters in his movies live in houses like I and my friends lived in growing up. And that’s weirdly rare in Hollywood movies, where everyone is always some nebulous kind of architect or event planner who lives in an apartment the size of the batcave.

Anyway, I really enjoyed this movie, though I didn’t know exactly what to expect coming into it. It’s not really a romantic comedy, but I think it’s closer to that category than anything else. It’s basically about two very messed up people — one coming out of a mental hospital and one getting over the death of her husband — coming together. It’s not even quite a comedy exactly, even though it’s often very funny. It’s also frequently very upsetting, at least in the first half or so. There were a lot of moments where it was very hard to watch, simply because the people onscreen are so upset or or desperate or self-destructive.

It then sort of shifts gears and becomes a little more formulaic and a little less raw about two thirds through, but I had no complaints. It even has an ending involving a dance competition, which in any other movie would be completely eye-roll-worthy, but in this somehow seems real and inspiring.

Jennifer Lawrence is great, which is only what I expected, and Bradley Cooper is really terrific. I’ve always kind of liked Bradley Cooper, I think because I associate him with “Wet Hot American Summer,” but I’ve never see him in much except that and “The Hangover,” neither of which he really does much in. But he’s genuinely very good in this, capable of being both charming and actively repulsive.

Also, Robert De Niro is fantastic — and I’d honestly  forgotten that he’s even capable of being a good actor after seeing him sleepwalk through so many terrible movies without giving a crap. He’s not playing Robert De Niro or a parody thereof, he’s playing an actual character, which I think is the key. (He’s the Bradley Cooper character’s father, who is not completely sane in the standard sense himself.) He even looks different, sort of rundown and haggard. This is literally the best role I’ve seen him in, counting “Taxi Driver” and all that. Whatever David Russell does — which seems to include making everyone in his movies miserable — he gets astonishing performances out of actors. Chris Tucker is somehow in this movie and he’s awesome.

And even the minor characters are great. Bradley Cooper has a best friend who appears to be normal and successful but is actually on the edge of complete breakdown and talks about listening to Metallica and punching the walls until he hurts himself in his garage.  He also has a therapist, who is clearly a really terrible therapist, based on the advice he gives him, but also turns out to have more in common with the Cooper character than you realize.

Anyway, in addition to being a hundred times better than “Zero Dark Thirty,” this is for me one of the top two or three movies of 2012. Highly recommend, CJ seal of approval and all that. See it!

“Zero Dark Thirty” Review

We saw “Zero Dark Thirty” yesterday; here are my thoughts on it in a contrived question-and-answer format.

First things first, does it constitute an apologia for torture?

Yeah, I think it kind of does. I don’t want to spend too much time on this, because it’s just one of a bunch of issues, but there it is. The movie definitely shows torture and “enhanced interrogation techniques” as integral to picking up the little leads that eventually lead to the killing of Bin Laden. And you could make the argument that the film is just showing what happened without making a moral judgment, but it seems like most people say that’s a very skewed version of what happened. Specifically, that torture did NOT lead to the identification of the courier that led to Bin Laden. Also, the movie doesn’t show any of the false positives and red herrings that came from torture, just the ones that led to something real, and that constitutes an argument being made by the filmmakers, whether they realize it or not. Exclusion of facts can make an argument just as much as inclusion.

Well okay, if you can put that aside, is it a good movie?

Ultimately, no, not really. I was certainly never bored while watching it. But it’s one of the most television-like movies I’ve ever seen. There’s no character development of any kind, it’s a straight-up procedural. Track down the bad guy and get him. The last 40 minutes or so which show the actual raid on the compound is  riveting. But that’s because we’ve all wanted to see some version of what went down ever since the announcement. And this is a competent, big budget dramatization of the seals going in and being bad-ass. (Though Andy from Parks and Recreation being there was a genuine problem for my suspension of belief.) But it’s more like a very good History Channel reenactment than anything really cinematic. And the two hours or so that come before are interesting, but like I said, kind of torture-y and with no actual characters who you identify with or care about — it’s about tracking down clue after clue, but the people doing the tracking are ciphers. For what it’s worth, I think “The Hurt Locker” was a MUCH better movie, and I’m a little mystified by how much acclaim this one is getting.

Well what about Jessica Chastain? Isn’t she amazing and Oscar-worthy?

Oh yeah! But not in this particular movie. Not her fault, I don’t think, her character is very strange. The filmmakers make a very conscious decision to limit what you know about the protagonist. Maybe because she’s not a real person? Maybe because she’s supposed to represent an amalgam of a lot of different people? I’m not sure. But you never find out anything about our hero, “Maya.” She’s dogged and determined and follows leads that nobody else will. But you don’t know anything about her background, her motivations, her last name, whatever. And it’s implied in the movie that those things don’t really exist. She’s so devoted to her work that she has no friends and she’s at a loss for what to do with herself when OBL is finally killed. But since we know so little about her, it’s hard to care. She’s like the ultimate G-man in some Hoover-produced propaganda flick, not a real character. So many of these choices are mysterious to me. Why make the movie so centered around some very boring imaginary character if she doesn’t have any arc or development?

This all sounds terrible, was seeing this movie a miserable experience?

No! It was interesting and thought-provoking. I just certainly don’t think this was the best movie of the year, as many other people seem to. And I don’t think I’d recommend that anyone see this on the big screen. You won’t be missing anything on Netflix.

How many stars do you give it, out of five?

Two and a half?

Heroes of 2012

Here’s the other half of my heroes and villains thought-spew.

#5 — Suzy Bishop and Sam Shakusky (from “Moonrise Kingdom”)

The young couple that runs off to be together in “Moonrise Kingdom.” These guys get to be heroes in my book because they stop at nothing to pursue their love, which may not be forbidden, but is at least very unconventional and earnest. I think it’s that extraordinary stone-faced earnestness which makes the characters so appealing. They’re often funny, but they’re never played for laughs. What they’re doing is at every moment the most serious thing in the world for them, even when everyone around them completely fails to understand it. Suzy’s obsession with fictional young adult paperbacks is also very appealing, coming right up to the edge of the Wes Anderson twee cliff without quite falling off. And another nice thing about the movie is, they succeed in their mission, more or less. They consider themselves to be married, whether or not anyone else does.

beasts-of-the-southern-wild-review-image-Quvenzhane-Wallis-noscale#4 — Hushpuppy (from “Beasts of the Southern Wild”)

Another character that blows you away with her genuineness. I think it’s a cool gesture that Quvenzhané Wallis was nominated for a best actress Oscar, though I have some doubts that anything a 6-year-old does on film is exactly acting. Hushpuppy saves the world from very large baby piglets and brings her dying father a piece of magic deep-fried alligator, all of which seems freighted with awesome symbolism when you’re watching “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” She also just seems so completely real at every moment that it’s almost unsettling to see her on a screen; it’s not something you’re used to seeing at the movies. The thing her portrayal most reminds me of is kids in Francois Truffaut films, but with the added lens of the film’s magic realism, which makes it seem even truer to a child’s perspective.

martin-freeman-as-bilbo-baggins-in-the-hobbit#3 — Bilbo Baggins (from “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey”)

Martin Freeman continues his run of straight men and audience stand-ins, from Arthur Dent to Dr. Watson to Bilbo Baggins. Martin Freeman reacts! Anyway, Bilbo is so iconic I figured he had to be in here, as almost the founder of the unlikely hero trope. And seriously, Freeman is absolutely the best  imaginable casting for this. “The Hobbit” movie is strongest when it’s firmly focused on Bilbo; it’s when it drifts off into prologues and Thorin’s heroism that it’s weakest. Bilbo is (obviously) the heart of the story, and the fundamental brilliance of Tolkien is that hobbits may be made-up creatures with fuzzy feet, but they’re also much more like you and me than heroes in almost any other fantasy story. Bilbo’s not Siegfried, he’s a guy who likes to eat and read maps. And that makes him automatically more interesting to me than, I don’t know, Conan the Barbarian or something.

JenniferLawrenceHungerGamesKatniss002#2 — Katniss Everdeen (from “The Hunger Games”)

There has been a lot of ink spilled on how Katniss is a new kind of heroine, most of which I agree with. She’s an unusually powerful and independent hero, who is — at least at this point in the story — mostly uninterested in romance with her available man-candy, seeing it as secondary to survival and the protection of her family. She’s competent and powerful at the same time as being vulnerable. She’s a pragmatic hero; she does what needs to be done without worrying too much about grand ideologies. At the same time, you totally believe that she could become the symbol of a movement in the way she does. She has the charisma and the presence. And Jennifer Lawrence is perfect in the role. She’s a serious, skilled actor who is good enough that she makes you believe that she has actually gone through the things the character has.

Daniel-Day-Lewis-as-Abraham-Lincoln-634x445#1 — Abraham Lincoln (from “Lincoln”)

This one is easy. And of course Abraham Lincoln was actually the hero of two movies this year, though I’m concentrating on the Spielberg-y one rather than the one with vampires. Lincoln is another deeply pragmatic hero, who gets things done in the face of incalculable odds. And the stakes he’s playing for are higher than in almost any fictional story that you can think of. He saves the country and its soul. And I noticed that several of my other choices on this list are kids. Lincoln obviously is not. He’s wise and deeply moral without the benefit of the youth, innocence, and naiveté that make it easier. He’s moral despite — or because of — all that he’s lived through and all the pain he’s seen. It also is a nice symmetry that my top hero and my top villain (Old Georgie) both wear a stovepipe hat.

Villains of 2012

I’m still hanging out at home, busy being horribly ill, so I’m going to keep churning these entries out. It’s one of those things, though, where I really don’t know what I’ll make of them later on when the huge doses of cold medication wear off.

Anyway, I thought it would be cool to do an AFI-stye list of the best heroes and villains of the movies in 2012 — so I’ll start with the villains.

#5 — Ravenna (the evil queen from “Snow White and the Huntsman”)

Back to this again. This movie wasn’t good, but I loved the evil queen, or at least what she could have been. Charlize Theron was very scary in an interesting way; she never seemed completely in control, instead she seemed constantly desperate, just hanging on by the skin of her teeth and trying to figure out a way to keep on going. This made her very scary in that you got the sense she was unpredictable, and ready to do just about anything. She’s running scared through the while movie, since the point she finds out that her whole “the fairest” deal isn’t going to last forever. And again, it seems like there’s a much more interesting movie that could have been –that we just get hints of through the brief appearances of this character. Basically since the only way a woman can exercise power — or even stay alive — in the  world of the film is to be beautiful, she decides that she’s willing to do anything that’s required to remain beautiful forever, because the alternative terrifies her.

django-jackson#4 — Stephen (from “Django Unchained”)

Another character I liked from a movie I didn’t. It’s the same deal; I thought Samuel L. Jackson as the house slave Stephen was by far the most interesting part of the movie. He’s a nightmare version of Uncle Tom or Pork in “Gone With the Wind.” He’s the archetypical loyal old male slave who loves his master more than life itself  — and that the master shows a kind of creepy mock deference to. This kind of character is always unsettling to look at through modern eyes anyway, so I like that “Django Unchained” calls it out and makes him the primary antagonist. He’s sort of semi-comic relief, but also has real teeth — he’s the one who figures out what the heroes are up to and stops their plan. And tellingly, when Django ends up slaughtering everybody, he’s the last to die. It makes it seem as though, at least in crazy Tarantino world, Django isn’t just killing the bad guy, he’s killing a symbol of this nasty malingering stereotype. Of course, the more you think about this, the less sense it makes — has Django defeated racism? — but I think that’s true of this movie in general.

8024346983#3 — President Snow (from “The Hunger Games”)

Part of this is because President Snow is a pretty good character anyway, but a big part of it is the brilliant casting of Donald Sutherland and of Donald Sutherland’s beard, which makes him look like an evil Canadian Santa Claus. As the primary antagonist of the whole Hunger Games series, Snow doesn’t even get all that much screen time in the movie, but none of it is wasted. He’s shown as affable, charismatic, and completely cold and ruthless. The books make a lot of hay out of descriptions of Snow’s eyes — “snake eyes” — and Donald Sutherland can do that. He can make his eyes look totally without emotion or sympathy; it’s very creepy. And I mentioned the beard as a joke, but it actually really enhances the character. Snow wants to be seen as this benevolent, paternal figure, so he has this big friendly Walt Whitman beard to cover up how cold and calculating he is.


#2 — The Director (from “The Cabin in the Woods”)

No picture here, because the actor who plays the Director is a fun uncredited reveal and it would be a shame to ruin the surprise for those who haven’t seen the movie. The Director is one of those villains you don’t hate, and to some extent you can’t even fault. He/she is in charge of torturing and killing the heroes of the movie, but you find out it’s all for a pretty good reason: namely to stop the world from being destroyed and every living person from dying in agony. (Why exactly this is is explained in the movie.) So that’s a bummer, but can you really fault him/her for his/her actions, ruthless as they are? The Director is also a fun, “The Third Man” style antagonist who only shows up at the very end of the film after being repeatedly referred to in hushed tones throughout, so it’s a treat when you finally get the reveal, even though he/she isn’t onscreen for very long before things wrap up. And the actor packs a lot of character into those last few minutes.

#1 — Old Georgie (from “Cloud Atlas”)

So Old Georgie — played by Hugo Weaving — is a possibly imaginary devil figure who appears to Tom Hanks in a post-apocalyptic future and tries to push him towards doing the wrong thing. In this guise he gets an awesome Baron-Samedi-type outfit, a warty zombie face and creepy yellow eyes. The cool thing, though, is that in the other time periods the movie covers, Hugo Weaving plays a bunch of other nasty characters, including a vicious assassin, a corporate thug, an 19th-century slaver, and a dictatorial female nurse at a nursing home (seriously). So all these characters and the qualities they exhibit can be see as echoes throughout time of one protean embodiment of evil, hatred, and selfishness. So Old Georgie may or may not actually exist, or may be an archetype of all of humanity’s worst qualities that exists beyond time.

UPDATE: Can we get some more comments up in here? What do you think of my choices?