Sunday, February 26, 2012

And The Oscar Goes To...

Who gives a rat's ass? I mean, seriously. We'll do the 2011 round-up shortly here at the Bitmaelstrom but it feels like more than ever, the nominations just go to the films with the right pedigrees/marketing plans. I mean, it's always been this way to some degree, but the nomination process seems less and less likely to include anyone or anything surprising.

Ten slots for best picture and no nom for a Harry Potter or a Win Win? We have room for the widely panned Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close because, you know, it's important and has Tom Hanks in it. Moneyball is a trivial film but Aaron Sorkin wrote it, so, yeah, give that puppy an award. War Horse? Really?

It's worse in the writing department: Both the murky Margin Call and the risible Ides of March are nominated. I guess I should be grateful neither Cars 2 nor TinTin made it into the animation category.

UPDATE: Wow, my worst set of guesses ever 1/10! I guess I really am out of touch with Hollywood these days!

OK, enough grousing. My annual guesses follow:

Best Picture
Will win: The Help
Should win: The Help
Observation: The beauty of The Help of course is that it didn't happen, which sort of makes it a pleasant lie celebrating the fiery, liberated white woman journalist.
My pick: Normally, I do a big thing where I list all the movies and whittle them down and mull, but I really don't have to this year: Machine Gun Preacher was, hands down, the most interesting, challenging and dramatic film of the year.
Possible upset: The Artist, which is at least as good a movie as The Help, but has the Weinstein Oscar machine behind it. This is why Shakespeare In Love has an Oscar.

Best Actor
Will Win: Gary Oldman
Should Win: Demien Bechir
Observation: It's not that Oldman is so great in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. He's great in everything. And Smiley is not exactly a broad character—it's not Sean Penn screaming IS THAT MY DAUGHTER IN THERE!? seventeen times, which is what Oscar loves. So why Oldman? Simple: He doesn't have an Oscar yet. Clooney and Pitt? Really? You know, these categories used to be dominated by acting giants, not just people in the "in club". (That's not true at all but it makes for a great rant.)
My pick: Demian Bechir would definitely be on my short list, along with Paul Giamatti. But I'd probably give the best actor nod to Gerard Butler (Machine Gun Preacher) or Robert Wieckiewicz (In Darkness) or...
Possible upset: Jean Dujardin. What he did was nothing short of astounding in The Artist. It's all very well to create a narrative of a charming movie heartthrob, and another thing to portray it so convincingly.

Best Actress
Will Win: Glenn Close
Should Win: Sure, why not.
Observation: I pick Close for the same reason I picked Oldman: She doesn't have an Oscar yet and she probably should. For Fatal Attraction, if nothing else. And, truth be told, she was quite good in Albert Nobbs. Not at pretending to be a man, which she doesn't really. But just being a compelling character.
My pick: Er...uh...Have you noticed there aren't a lot of great roles for women in American movies? I'm having a hard time thinking of any really standout performances this year. Judi Dench and Mia Wasikowski in Jane Eyre were good. The French had a bunch of 'em, like Margueritte in My Afternoons With Margueritte and the Hedgehog in The Hedgehog. In Darkness had a bunch of great female parts. Michelle Monaghan was excellent in Preacher.
Possible upset: Michelle Williams. She allllmost pulled off Marilyn. Seriously, though, while I'll be kinda pissed if Clooney or Pitt win for actor, all of these women did a worthy job.

Supporting Actor
Will Win: Jonah Hill
Should Win: Christopher Plummer or Max von Sydow
Observation: Plummer and von Sydow will split the old guy vote delivering the tropy to Hill, who is playing the first likable person in his career.
My Pick: Christopher Plummer. But for The Man In The Chair, not the gay movie. (Which was fine, but Chair was a better role.)
Possible Upset: The only thing I can think of is that neither Sydow or Plummer will rack up enough votes for their movies that no one saw to not split the vote. Beginners in particular is fairly obscure. But it's got the gay cachet. Is that still brave? They both have two noms and no Oscars, and both are in their '80s. The Academy doesn't want another Ray Walston on their hands.

Supporting Actress
Will Win: Melissa McCarthy
Should Win: Sure, why not
Observation: See previous rant on actress roles. This is the comedy ghetto, award speaking, and McCarthy doesn't exactly fit the preconceived notion of a Hollywood starlet, so if she wins, there's lots of fodder for the women's media about how it's not all about the skinny girls any more. (See America Ferrara, Kathy Bates, Camryn Manheim, Oprah Winfrey, etc.)

Director
Will Win: Terence Malick
Should Win: Terence Malick
Observation:  I've never seen Tree of Life or any other Terence Malick film. I just don't see Michel Hazanavicius winning for The Artist and the other three movies sucked. OK, maybe not sucked, but at least weren't particularly impressive. Tree of Life has scope.
Possible Upset: Michel Hazanvicius

Animated
Will Win: Rango
Should Win: Rango, I guess. Not a great year for the 'toons.

Foreign Language
Will Win: In Darkness
Should Win: In Darkness. A Separation was good, too. But Nazis are people pleasers. At least as movie topics.

Original Screenplay
I'm done guessing. A Separation should win this.

Adapted Screenplay
Mehhhhhhh....Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Moneyball was more enjoyable, but the former was a nigh impossible task. Points for difficulty.

Aaaand...already bored. Like I'm gonna watch this slow-mo train wreck? I don't think so.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol

Ace of Spades wrote a rather dismissive review of the latest Mission Impossible, Ghost Protocol on his blog claiming that the critical praise was due to the presence of the great Brad Bird (Early "The Simpsons", "The Critic", Iron Giant, The Incredibles, Ratatouille) at the helm, which was plausible enough to me that I lowered my expectations heading into the theater.

Also, Mission Impossible: Never cared for the series enough to watch an entire episode. Didn't care for the first two movies in the movie franchise to see the third. Never thought, "Hey, Tom Cruise! Love to see him in something." (Though I'm not a hater: He was good in Risky Business and seriously under-rated in Rain Man, but normally I'm indifferent.)

That said? We loved it. The Flower, The Boy and I were all enthusiastic by the end of the film. I can't say strictly that Ace is wrong, because he's saying the third one was better, and I haven't seen it, but it's hard to imagine it being the case.

Why does it work? Lotta reasons. Intriguingly, while I wasn't a fan of the show, I always thought it was dumb that they did a movie abut the show and then removed so much of what the show was about. Like, killing the team right off the bat in the first one and turning Ethan Hunt into more of a Rambo/McClane character.

This movie embraces the TV show. I'm sure I missed lots of references (never having seen the show) but there was: The lit fuse during the credits, the self-destructing message, and even the amazing tear-away Scooby-Doo mask make appearances, though updated to be more plausible and with a dash of humor. The theme from the show features prominently in Michael Giacchino's score, and Bird did well to bring him on board. (Giacchino scored The Incredibles which had similar '60s spy/action themes.)

Also, and more importantly, there's the team. You might actually remember them. Simon Pegg is the tech/nerd/comic relief, for example. Paula Patton is the girl, and the movie does a good job of steering her away from the typical clichés. Jeremy Renner completes the team and, once again, you think the movie's going to go one way with him but goes another.

The technology is fun. The right mix of stuff we have and stuff that's just out of reach. It's cool. And it fails. Often.

Ace criticized the film for being a "now we go here, no we go here, now we go here" Bond-style travelogue, but it actually seemed to flow logically to me. (He actually talks about an elaborate scheme which they do, despite it being pointless, but having seen it, I don't see how they could have called off the plan.)

Well, look, The Boy said "I have no problems with the movie at all."

He never says that. It's unheard of.

I had no problems with it either. Say what you want about Cruise, he looks plausible doing the action. You don't even say "for a 50-year-old", which he is. Well, 49. But still.

Michael Nyvqist is the heavy in this flick, in a dramatic shift from his milquetoast Blomqvist (from the Swedish Girl With A Dragon Tattoo Movies) though we don't see him that much. Léa Seydoux (Robin Hood, Midnight in Paris, Inglorious Basterds) plays a sexy, evil assassin, which works, somehow.

The whole thing just works: Just the right mixture of not-taking-itself-too-seriously against being-plain-goofy. Really the only action film of 2011 we all recommended unreservedly.

Thin Ice

Fargo meets A Simple Plan in this Midwestern tale of a small crime gone horribly awry? No, not really, but that's what I'd heard about the new Greg Kinnear flick Thin Ice.

Kinnear plays Kenosha, Wisconsin-based insurance salesman Mickey Prohaska who stumbles across an opportunity in the form of a dotty old man named Gorvy (Alan Arkin). Gorvy has a violin that's valuable, but he doesn't know it, so Mickey decides to swap it with a cheap Chinese piece o' crud. This simple plan is sent spinning out of control by the introduction of twitchy security installer Randy (Billy Crudup, of the giant blue penis).

It does invite comparisons with the aforementioned movies. But it has nothing like Plan's nihilism (nor its starkly beautiful cinematography), nor Fargo's study of the gradients from good to evil. It's actually quite a fun movie.

Kinnear is sleazy, which he's good at, but also charming and likable—which he's also good at. So just as it's hard not feel a little schadenfreude over his setbacks at first, it becomes impossible not to empathize with him and hope he finds a way out as he gets deeper in the muck.

Crudup is typically good as the unstable alarm installer. Alan Arkin, wonderful, as always. Bob Balaban, David Harbour and Michelle Arthur round out the cast, with Leah Thompson in a supporting a role, looking kind of haggard as Kinnear's put-upon but also somewhat cold wife. Michelle Hutchinson has a small role, which is kind of cute, as she was the escort in Fargo not won over by Steve Buscemi's charms.

The Boy and I were both greatly pleased, and it's somewhat surprising (at least to us) that the movie has such mediocre ratings on the various sites. Before seeing it, I attributed the ratings to it being a black comedy, which is never a big people pleaser.

But it's really not that dark. One of the (I think, unpopular) characteristics of a dark comedy is the inversion of morality, where evil is overtly celebrated or rewarded on a meta-level, and this movie—while lacking admirable characters—doesn't do that.

Nonetheless, it's not tearing up the box office, so see it while you can, folks!

Friday, February 17, 2012

The Adventures of Tintin

Journey with us now to the days of your youth, and the many hours you spent sprawled in front of a blazing fire reading about Tintin and his amazing adventures!

I mean, if you're a 70-year-old Belgian.

If not, you probably don't know who the hell Tintin is.

I don't know about you but I'm sort of at the point where, when Spielberg makes a movie, I'm just, like, "Whatever, dude." Seriously. Have the horse, like, defuse the bomb, or whatever. Remember Raiders of the Lost Ark? I've mentioned how the moment that Indy rode the submarine across the Atlantic killed my enjoyment.

It's just too stupid, you know? At any point, it submerges, as subs are wont to do—it's even built into the name!—and you're drowned. Even if you could hang on the entire length of the trip, it'd be a stupid thing to do.

So I readjust how I watch his movies. And that's worked for a while. But he keeps pushing the limits of dumb. It results in bizarre flicks like War Horse. Here? He's got CGI. So you don't even get the wow-factor of knowing that a shot was complicated to set up and choreograph. It's all some damn computer program.

Spielberg + CGI is a bad idea. The camera swooshes around because it can. The action sequences are so preposterous that they exacerbate Spielberg's already bad problem with eliminating all the suspense and thrill by reminding the viewer he's there guiding every moment of activity. If you could escape the uncanny valley for a moment—which is difficult because the voices don't seem to quite sync with the mouths—Spielberg throws you back in with some kind of silly shenanigans.

The Adventures of Tintin is almost as bizarre as War Horse. It's sensibilities aren't quite modern American, with the titular teen hero being allowed to run-around post-war Europe and Africa, shoot guns and do all sorts of non-PC things.

This was kinda cool. I can only assume that he expected to make his money in the worldwide market.  (And he was right: About 75% of this movie's box is from the worldwide market.)

But you know what else is a bad idea? Speilberg + comic book. He already has trouble deciding whether to—well, look at Nolan's Batman movies: Hardcore realism. He never wants you do challenge the literalness of his movies. Whereas Burton just wanted something that looked cool.

Spielberg always seems to create a literal reality out of soap bubbles that he gleefully pops if  you should ever start to feel invested. For example, Tintin has a dog, Snowy. (If you're like most people I've discussed it with, you probably thought Tintin was the dog, but that's Rin Tin Tin—no relation.) Sometimes Snowy's a dog, with dog powers. But if you ever need it, he's also a dog-ex-machina, who can read or capture the scroll from a hawk (don't ask), or whatever.

Look, at one point, an airplane crash due to low fuel is averted by having a drunk belch into the carburetor.

Maybe if it were cleverer. You know kind of Lewis Carroll-y where the absurdity is countered by puns or something. As it is, it feels ad hoc, sloppy, just not very engaging at all. There are a couple of incompetent Interpol cops, who look alike and have the same name (but who are not related), who provide slapstick comic relief which is as cute as it is unnecessary. (The movie never suffers from enough dramatic tension to require comic relief.)

But, hey, we weren't there so I could see it. The Barb wanted to, and she was ready to watch it again as soon as we watch the theater. Which, by the way, is true so far of every movie she's seen.

The movie ends weird, too. The actual ending is about 15 minutes before the credits roll, and the end is basically a setup for a series. Not even a sequel, but a series.

You're kind of expecting a surprise or a big finish, and it's just not there. It's all lead in for breakfast cereal and SatAM cartoons.

I didn't hate it, actually. It's better than The Zookeeper or The Smurfs. But it's all part of the big mishmash of mediocrity that closed out 2011.

Star-studded cast of voices. Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are the Interpol cops, while Edgar Wright has a script credit (reuniting the cast of Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and "Spaced!") so, I dunno, maybe this was saved from being another 1941 by some serious script doctoring.

I should note that this seems to be something of a crowd-pleaser, according to IMDB, Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic. So, maybe I'm just getting curmudgeonly(er) in my old(er) age. At the same time, it didn't set the box office on fire, and I have to wonder if that's because, you know, it sucked. Adjusted for inflation, the box office this and War Horse are situated between Always and Amistad—and actually well below 1941.

Interestingly, Tintin cleaned up worldwide while War Horse didn't.

Albert Nobbs

I went to a conference a few weeks ago where one of the presenters was a transvestite. I was trying to focus on what the person was saying but there were all these little, slightly off things that kept drawing me to the fact that she was a he. I found myself thinking about this person while watching Albert Nobbs, the latest (and I hope last) Oscar entry to occupy our local bijou.

Albert Nobbs doesn't have this distraction, fortunately, since you know it's Glenn Close and she's supposed to be a woman dressed as a man. It doesn't really work as drag per se, any more than the aforementioned presenter, but it works as drama.

This is a quirky little story of a woman who dresses as a man to serve in the (presumably more lucrative) manservant industry of 19th century Ireland, and who comes to dream of a life where she lives with the fetching young Mia Wasikowski (Tim Burton's Alice thingy), for which she almost has the money saved.

The cute part being Nobbs's complete (and almost male) inability to grasp the nuances of courtship, while Mia is being more than aggressively pursued (and conquered) by Aaron Johnson (the eponymous Kick-Ass, having had a kind of macho/bad-boy makeover).

It's not a bad movie, but it's not great either. Good acting, with Brendan Gleeson and a bunch of other English actors you'll recognize. Glenn Close has a script credit.

I suppose the premise is plausible. I think back to that presenter, and it's not like anyone stormed the stage yelling "You're no woman!" ('course, maybe I'm the only one who noticed.) Semi-interesting as a premise, although men are shown to be at the root of all lesbianism, or something.

I think the biggest negative about this film is that it's part of this line of films that are released for Oscar consideration that nobody ever considers whether they're good or not. If a film has a particular pedigree, and won't bank any money, they release it at the end of the year and clamor for awards.

It's an approach, I guess, but it's also kind of a sham. It's as though Hollywood is saying, "The rest of the year, we turn out crap. Here's the good stuff you cretins can't appreciate it." With no actual consideration of quality.

This year's batch has been a big pile of mediocrity. Nobbs is one of the better films, probably, but it's just passable. The Boy was tepid toward it, not displeased though he also saw through the drag easily.

It was either this or The Iron Lady and that seems like it would be an even more ostentatious sort of drag. (When liberals dress up as conservatives.) So I think we made the right choice.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Conversations From The Living Room, Part 35: These Aren't The Applicants You're Looking For

"How does that not-the-droid-you're-looking-for thing work? Some kinda Jedi/Force thing?"
"Yeah. But it only works on the weak-minded. Er, originally."
"So, Darth Vader's incompetent at hiring people?"
"What?"
"Well...stormtroopers?"
"I don't think he's actually down in HR screening the applicants."
"..."
"Don't think about it. Down that road lies nerd-dom."

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Coriolanus

To get the most important question out of the way, yes, it rhymes with "anus".

Coriolanus is one of Shakespeare's lesser known plays, and Ralph Fiennes has chosen to remind you bitches that he's not just a noseless necromancer. Nay, Mr. Fiennes has chosen for his directorial debut to give you not just a master class in acting but a how-to-deal-with-Shakespeare for the 21st century.

The story is that Caius Martius (Coriolanus) is a great general who has saved Rome repeatedly from its numerous enemies. His ambitious mother, Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave), has seen to his ascendancy to the Roman consul, while the timid, faithful Virgilia (Jessica Chastain, looking a little overpowered) just wants her husband home safe.

The thing is, Coriolanus is a great general. He's not a political animal at all. Rising to the senate requires kissing the ass of the people, and if there's anything he holds in greater contempt than the senate, it's the people.

Pride is his sin, but he is definitely a giant among trivial sycophants and a pathetic rabble.

I feel like I should dislike him, but I can't. He's a magnificent animal who finds himself trapped and tortured by the machinations of Brutus and Sicinius, whose main concern is keeping their own jobs. There are two among the people, Tamora and Cassius, who are creating trouble, too, and between them they manage to get Coriolanus transformed from the Consul to an exiled traitor.

Coriolanus finds his revenge by allying with his martial nemesis, Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler) in a joint effort to sack Rome.

Whoa.

Shouldn't've pissed him off, dudes. Brian Cox rounds out the cast as Menenius, the guy who gets Corioalnus and tries to mentor him through the difficult Consul approval process, and to get him to turn away when he's at the gates of Rome.

Coriolanus is not one of your chatty Shakesperean heroes. He does not monologue. He's a man of action. And Fiennes has cleverly opted for putting the action in a modern day setting. It's Rome, Antium, and the city-states of yore, but with a CNN-like news channel, modern weaponry, and so on. There's a nice touch that the rabble-rousing plebes look like communist revolutionaries, and during the uprising at the grain depot—the Boy spotted this—the riot police, with their shields, strongly evoked Roman legionaries.

This is a bold choice and some people aren't gonna like it. I consider them wrong, tasteless, stupid, and of likely dubious parentage.

The actions makes no sense from a literal standpoint. To care about that is to completely miss the point. Aufidius and Coriolanus have to be locked in physical, mortal battle. Coriolanus has to take the city practically single-handed. It's great drama, and it's signaled well by the fact that even though things look modern, the language is still Middle English.

It's also kind of awesome that the update includes a more colorful cast than might have been found in 1610 England. As a result we get Shakespeare spoken with a variety of accents, include Gerard Butler's thick Scottish brogue.

It's just a bold drama done boldly. It's going to be a little hard to parse the language, if you don't have your Shakespeare ears on—no subtitles—but it gets easier as the movie goes on, of course. And it's so worth it. At least it was for me; I was laughing more than the other people in the audience.

The Boy was impressed. At first he indicated a strong, general approval, but over the next few hours and days, it constantly rose in his esteem.

It won't get much attention, relative to its quality: It's too martial. This is a story of how society grinds up its great people, ultimately destroying itself in the process.

Great stuff. Check it out, you cretin.

We Need To Talk About We Need To Talk About Kevin

The thing is, if you're going in blind, We Need To Talk About Kevin sounds kind of like a comedy. It's not, of course. It's about as far from a comedy as you can get. At the same time, I think the movie might work better if you go in blind, so I'm going to advise you not to read the capsules, and only brush on the story shape here, and overall tone—which will be more than enough for you to determine whether you want to see it.

When we meet Eva, she's living in a run-down little house in a small town somewhere and desperately looking for work. In between shots of her present day life, we see threads of her former life: Her courtship with Franklin, the birth of her son, Kevin, who is difficult to say the least, and her daughter, Celia.

The focus of the movie is the friction between Kevin and Eva, which allows for a certain degree of incompetency on Eva's part but which mostly focuses on Kevin's innate evil.

That's right, this is The Bad Seed. Or Orphan, if you prefer. Done Oscar-style!

Which should be a big tip as to whether want you to see it. Production-values-wise: Tilda Swinton is great as Eva, expectedly, though she's better as tortured mother than glowing bride or expectant mom. John C. Reilly is Franklin, and he—well, he seems to fit perfectly into just about every role he's in, doesn't he. (OK, I guess if you see him as the buffoons he's been playing in some of his bigger budget flicks, maybe not, but I think that's your problem, not his.)

There are three different Kevins and, frankly, I think they're a mixed bag. There's a real challenge to the role that I'm not sure the pre-schooler and grade-schooler are up to. I mean, they're so cuuuuuuuuute!

I just had a hard time buying the evil there.

In fact, despite the stark realism, it didn't feel like a real thing to me. Less so than a Bad Seed or even an Orphan. Why? Because this is an "arty" film, there's a compulsive injection of ambiguity into the proceedings.

You could say this isn't a Bad Seed so much as a Bad Mom movie, as it has this week need to inject ambiguity into the proceedings. Eva's not a great mom to Kevin. Partly it's because she's self-involved, but mostly it's because he's eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeevil! This has a bizarre side-effect of raising the question, "Was he born that way or did she make him that way?"

But that's silly. Distracting. Crappy mom's don't make evil kids. Evil moms, sure. Psycho moms, yeah, why not. But just slightly cool moms? Good lord, the entire Northeast upper middle class would be riddled with psychotic sociop—okay, maybe a bad example.

You get my point. It's one thing to have the mom wonder, "Did I do this?" This is a fair question that generates sympathy with the viewer. If you have the audience wondering "Well, is she just that awful a bitch that she's driving her son to extremes?" you take away a lot of sympathy. Or just make things murky.

Despite the mis-steps, it's dramatically effective. Stark, nihilistic, this movie lives deep in the very darkest heart of despair, reminding us that a roll of the dice can doom your entire existence to the bleak realms of gray from which there is no escape.

Not really my kind of flick, you know? Not bad, and it managed to engage me moments after finding certain devices too cute or manipulative. But Bad Seed movies aren't my thing precisely because of the ickiness, and this movie doesn't skimp on the ick.

The Boy was...moved. Disturbed. That tells you something about it right there.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Conversations From The Living Room, Part 34: Beating a dead War Horse

"OK, so here's another problem with War Horse."
"I'm pretending to be interested."
"The main character?"
"Yeah?"
"It's a horse!"
"And?"
"Well, in a dramatic narrative, you want the main character to go through changes. To be different in the end than in the beginning."
"..."
"And maybe Joey did change from the beginning of the story to the end. But, you know, he's a horse. It's not like he can tell us."
"..."
"And, maybe what he decided was that the Germans had the right idea. He went into the war being pro-English but came out primed to support The Fourth Reich."
"..."
"I mean, Germans saved him a couple of times! The English sent him to charge against machine guns! We could be viewing this movie all wrong: It might be a demonstration of how Nazi horses are made! Wait, where are you going? You can't rule out this exegesis just because it makes you uncomfortable!"
"..."
"Stupid Nazi horses."

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