Capote (2005)

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Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Clifton Collins Jr., Chris Cooper, Bob Balaban, Bruce Greenwood, Amy Ryan, Mark Pellegrino

Director: Bennett Miller

Summary: The story of Truman Capote and the writing of his novel “In Cold Blood”

Other Nominations: Director, Actor (Hoffman)*, Supporting Actress (Keener), Adapted Screenplay

When Capote came out on DVD back in the day, I rented it on Netflix and gave up half an hour in; after watching it fully this time, I can understand why I did that a decade ago, but I can also now understand why the movie was acclaimed. The movie’s biggest failing is that it starts very slowly-the first 40 minutes or so aren’t really about the murder, but they also don’t really let us get inside the head of its subject all that much-it’s not exactly a crime story or a biopic, but somewhere unsatisfyingly in between. However, the movie starts to shine once we start focusing on the relationship between Capote and one of the subjects of his novel, convicted murderer Perry Smith. Capote feels a sort of kinship with Smith due to their shared intelligence and similar backgrounds despite their very different paths (“It’s as if Perry and I grew up together in the same house and one day he stood up and went out the back door, while I went out the front”). Over the course of the rest of the film, Capote’s feelings get more complex as he has some darker motivations of his own and the film adds up to a remarkably strong portrait of a man who created a groundbreaking novel, but at what cost?

While the script is good, Hoffman puts on a great performance and he does a lot to make that last hour so memorable. Besides just looking and talking almost exactly like Truman Capote, Hoffman also delivers on both the superficial easy-going nature of the man as well as the darkness and sadness that lies beneath. Besides the slow start, the only other complaint I have is that they gave Harper Lee (played by Keener) plenty of screentime (which makes sense, she was his friend and was part of the research for the book), yet left the person as much a blank slate as they started with-why Keener got a nomination, I don’t know, there was almost no material for her to work with here. While this, along with a slow start, prevents Capote from reaching levels of real greatness, the last hour of the movie is so well-executed and Hoffman’s performance is strong enough that it’s still a worthwhile watch.

Rating: B

*Crash (2005)*

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Starring: Sandra Bullock, Don Cheadle, Matt Dillon, Jennifer Esposito, Brendan Fraser, Terrence Howard, Ludacris, Thandie Newton, Michael Pena, Ryan Phillippe, Larenz Tate, Shaun Toub, Bahar Soomekh, Ashlyn Sanchez (her first film), Keith David, Tony Danza

Director: Paul Haggis

Summary: Los Angeles citizens with vastly separate lives collide in interweaving stories of race, loss and redemption

Other Nominations: Director, Supporting Actor (Dillon), Original Screenplay*, Original Song (“In the Deep”), Film Editing*

Is this the worst Best Picture winner ever? Well, no: it’s not as mind-numbingly boring as Chariots of Fire, it’s not as hideously antiquated as The Broadway Melody or Cimarron, and it’s not the kind of pointless, episodic mess that Cavalcade or Around the World in 80 Days were. However, it’s up there and easily the worst of the five nominees of 2005.

Everything about it feels either overly simplistic or bizarre and wrong-headed in planning or execution. What’s striking is how many deeply unlikeable assholes there are (basically, every significant character besides Pena, Sanchez and Soomekh)-it’s like they thought “well, we want to make this movie feel even-handed, but we don’t know how to impart depth and nuance, so let’s just make everybody a jerk instead.” There are some fine character arcs here (like with Dillon, Cheadle and Howard), but overall the screenplay feels contrived in a way that a very similar movie, Traffic, did not: every situation seems perfectly set up to deliver some big moment or character-altering epiphany. While it does explore some issues that other films about race often ignore and the idea of there being such a fine line between a “good” person and a “bad” person when it comes to racism, many times it doesn’t explore its issues very well, or there’s a major misstep. Also, for a film about racism in Los Angeles, it glaringly lacks a legitimate Asian-American perspective. It’s a flawed film that features good acting (Pena and Dillon giving my favorite performances) and some good ideas, but ultimately doesn’t really conjure up a lot of meaningful thought for the viewer afterwards and pales in comparison to the better films there are on race.

Rating: C-

Good Night, and Good Luck (2005)

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Starring: David Strathairn, George Clooney, Robert Downey Jr., Patricia Clarkson, Frank Langella, Jeff Daniels, Tate Donovan, Ray Wise, Alex Borstein

Director: George Clooney

Summary: Broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow looks to bring down Senator Joseph McCarthy

Other Nominations: Director, Actor (Strathairn), Original Screenplay, Art Direction, Cinematography

The subject of TV’s power and potential to either educate or influence in dangerous ways was clearly a subject near and dear to George Clooney: he wanted to do a live TV broadcast version of Network around the same time (he didn’t because according to him, the younger audience he showed the original to failed to recognize it as satire). What he did do was this film, which doesn’t tackle the subject as effectively as Network, but still an admirable effort nonetheless. The movie is focused and keeps a small feel, detailing how Edward R. Murrow (expertly played by Strathairn) helped put some of the final nails in Joseph McCarthy’s coffin and how even in the infant days of TV, perceived “bias” in the media and corporate interests influencing content were already issues. It also gives a proper context that some other films would have overlook: Murrow correctly states that McCarthy “did not create this situation of fear, he merely exploited it” (meaning that he was just the most obvious face of a much bigger problem, which is true), and the focus is on how unconstitutional McCarthy’s methods were rather than the issue of Communism itself being good or bad or even whether McCarthy was right or wrong about Communists infiltrating the government and media (which to an extent, they did). Finally, it harkens back to a now sadly bygone era where you had nationally trusted journalists with credibility across the whole general public and spoke with a remarkable clarity and eloquence-someone who regardless of partisanship, could potentially change your mind about an issue or at least have you look at it in a new way.

There are a number of good aesthetic decisions made here as well, like making the film in black and white, which not only harkened back to the era of TV depicted, but also allowed them to depict McCarthy entirely with actual archive footage so that the film’s portrayal of the man himself could not possibly be considered inaccurate or hyperbole. Overall, while other films have tackled these themes better (such as Network and The Insider), it’s a solid look at how different and how much the same our relationship with the media has been since the advent of TV.

Rating: B

Munich (2005)

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Starring: Eric Bana, Daniel Craig, Ciaran Hinds, Omar Metwally, Mathieu Kassovitz, Hanns Zischler, Ayelet Zurer, Geoffrey Rush

Director: Steven Spielberg

Summary: Five men are chosen to eliminate those responsible for the Munich Olympic terrorist attacks

Other Nominations: Director, Adapted Screenplay, Original Score, Film Editing

I’m not a fan of post-Saving Private Ryan Steven Spielberg’s work in general, but I have to admit he crafted a quality movie here. This is less a film about the Munich Olympics terrorist attacks than it is a broader look into the moral ambiguity that is created through a perpetual cycle of vengeance like there is with the Israel-Palestine conflict: if every act of vengeance always begets another act of vengeance, then a conflict can never end until one side annihilates the other, and at that point is there a difference between the good guys and the bad guys? In doing so, the film sees the conflict in something other than just black and white terms-an unusual step for a Hollywood film, and one that only a Jewish director could get away with without being savaged (although he still got a lot of flack for it regardless).

The other focus the film has is how these missions to assassinate the terrorists responsible for the Munich massacre end up poisoning their souls, making previously unthinkable lines get crossed, and how that poison never leaves you-you can never escape the paranoia that your life (and your families lives) are in danger. This works pretty well too, although much like the previous thing, it suffers from an inability to keep things subtle. The biggest issue the movie has is that it will make sure that the audience cannot possibly miss what the movie’s themes are because every line of dialogue is basically screaming them at you. I enjoy a straightforward movie, but there’s a difference between making your themes clear and driving home those same themes over and over again, in the exact same way (through dialogue between characters) every single time and without adding any new insight over the course of the film.

When it’s at its best, Munich is a great, tense thriller which explores its themes well; when it’s at its worst, the movie beats you over the head with its themes with blunt dialogue and it completely disregards the idea of “show don’t tell.” Still, a very solid film that’s consistently engaging and one of the best from later-career Steven Spielberg.

Rating: B

2005 in Review

Other Notable Films from 2005

Batman Begins

Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit

Sin City

A History of Violence

Serenity

V for Vendetta

Diary of a Mad Black Woman

2005 in Review

Brokeback Mountain: B+

Good Night, and Good Luck: B

Munich: B

Capote: B

Crash: C- (Won Best Picture)

I’m going to join the chorus and agree with the majority opinion that Brokeback Mountain should have easily won Best Picture over Crash. Brokeback Mountain, even in today’s environment where mainstream movies and TV shows are willing to seriously deal with LGBT themes, is a well-acted and well-written film with a lot of nuance; Crash isn’t really any of those things (although the acting is perfectly fine), but it won, and it fits perfectly in with the Academy’s shaky track-record historically when it comes to what films about race to honor (i.e. Driving Miss Daisy winning the same year Do the Right Thing wasn’t nominated). Beyond Crash though, this was a really solid year with four good movies that were worthy of their nominations.

For 2006: Seven different languages are spoken/signed in this film; Martin Scorsese didn’t realize he was directing a remake until after he signed on; A foreign-language film that was ineligible for the Best Foreign Language Film category; This film features both Bryan Cranston and Dean Norris, pre-Breaking Bad, and is also set in Albuquerque; and Helen Mirren won both an Oscar (for this movie) and later a Tony for portraying the same person.

The Aviator (2004)

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Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Cate Blanchett, John C. Reilly, Kate Beckinsale, Alec Baldwin, Alan Alda, Danny Huston, Adam Scott, Ian Holm, Willem Dafoe, Gwen Stefani, Jude Law

Director: Martin Scorsese

Summary: A biopic depicting the early life of legendary director, producer and aviator Howard Hughes

Other Nominations: Director, Actor (DiCaprio), Supporting Actor (Alda), Supporting Actress (Blanchett)*, Original Screenplay, Sound Mixing, Art Direction*, Cinematography*, Costume Design*, Film Editing*

Howard Hughes is a terrific subject for a movie, but I’m not sure this was the best way to tell it. I do appreciate that it wanted to focus on the earlier parts of his life before his mental illness consumed what was once a great pioneer in aviation and filmmaking (although with a notable exception I will get to), but something about it felt lacking. DiCaprio has never really impressed me that much as an actor: solid, but unexceptional and I never got everybody bemoaning him not winning an Oscar for so many years-people like Peter O’Toole, Deborah Kerr, Richard Burton sure but not him. This film did nothing to change my opinion-in the kind of role that feels like it’s born to win an Oscar (larger than life famous person with a tragic mental illness), only rarely did his performance draw me in with the two bathroom scenes being his best work as you can really feel Hughes’ thought processes, OCD and paranoia through the acting and directing. In terms of other actors, Blanchett pretty much is Katharine Hepburn, or at least like the public thinks of her; the difference between the Katharine Hepburn you saw in her movies and the real Katharine Hepburn (at least based off the handful of interviews I’ve seen) are so blurry that it’s hard to fault Blanchett for basically studying her early films for her performance, but to me it still came off as just a touch artificial.

One thing I did enjoy a lot was the color tinting they did in post-production that, when used, did a fantastic job of reproducing the film color style of the given period in the film-in the early to mid 1930s parts, the greens, blues and reds are dead-on and the film looks terrific throughout. But overall, a pretty alright movie with honorable intentions, but at 170 minutes it ultimately it feels a little too long and DiCaprio’s performance never grabbed me. A Howard Hughes biopic sounds like a slam dunk, but I left underwhelmed.

Rating: C+

Finding Neverland (2004)

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Starring: Johnny Depp, Kate Winslet, Dustin Hoffman, Julie Christie, Radha Mitchell, Freddie Highmore

Director: Marc Forster

Summary: The story of J.M. Barrie’s friendship with a family who inspired him to create Peter Pan

Other Nominations: Actor (Depp), Adapted Screenplay, Original Score*, Art Direction, Costume Design, Film Editing

This was really the Kate Winslet movie from this year that got nominated and I have to watch? Not Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind? Sigh.

For me, stories about irrepressible innocent dreamers with childlike wonder seen in an unambiguously positive light rarely appeal to me and also always seem to create “stuffy serious no fun allowed” villain characters so they have an opponent (which is absolutely the case here with Christie’s character, who is also the “rich stuffy serious no fun allowed” type of villain). I can absolutely enjoy a wholly sentimental movie that evokes a sense of magic and wonder (Field of Dreams, E.T., Miracle on 34th Street being some from this project that are great examples), but that almost never happens here (the big exception of the ending scenes where they stage Peter Pan at Winslet’s house, which are great). Depp is pretty good, although this is nowhere near his best work and his nomination surprises me, and Winslet is fine (seemingly the bare minimum for her) but doesn’t get a whole lot to work with-actually, no one gets much except for Depp and Highmore, who’s good for a child actor. Basically, what we have here is a thoroughly unmemorable but still decent (and importantly, at an hour and 40 minutes, short) movie that really shouldn’t have been nominated for Best Picture but was probably due to the Harvey Weinstein’s warlock powers.

Rating: C