Wednesday, January 28, 2015
One of the lesser known footnotes to modern Olympic history is the relationship of John Du Pont to the Olympic wrestling gold medalist brothers Mark and Dave Schultz. It’s a funny thing that no one pays much attention to the sport of wrestling outside of the quadrennial Olympic cycle, but there’s something so quintessentially American about the sport Of course it’s been around since the ancient games of Greece and eastern Europeans often excel at it, but the American ideal is intrinsically bound to it. It’s a sport based on physical confrontation one-on-one. You succeed based on your own abilities. It is a total make-it-or-break-it scenario. It’s about a fiercely intense combination of brute strength and cunning strategic skills. You have to be tough and strong, but also to outwit your opponent.
Tuesday, January 27, 2015
Maybe I’m just not easily impressed anymore. Maybe it’s because I rarely see any of the really bad movies anymore and so by comparison, the stuff that is really good seems so ordinary. The Imitation Game is supposed to be one of the year’s best movies, but it is so utterly conventional, I just found it sort of dull. This is the story of Alan Turing, the British mathematician who helped decode the messages churned out by Enigma, the Nazis’ communication device, which should be a ripe subject for a fascinating story. The machine Turing developed to break the code laid the foundation for modern computing.
It’s not very often I get turned around on an issue from a documentary film. I didn’t think much about Edward Snowden when his name was big in the news for revealing that the NSA was collecting data on everyone’s phone calls and emails. It struck me as suspicious that, of all places, he wound up in Russia, after first spending significant time in China. Was some foreign government supporting him? And why? I thought, at the very least, he had committed a crime by leaking classified documents. Laura Poitras’s documentary Citizenfour allows us to spend lots of time with him, giving us the sense of really getting to know the man and make a decision for ourselves about him.
Thursday, January 15, 2015
One prediction I got right was that my predictions would not be very good. I don't have records going all the way back, but I'm pretty sure this is close to my worst prediction year. I got a perfect score for only one category - Original Screenplay - and missed on all five (!) in the Sound Mixing category. That's the first time I've ever gone 0/5 in any category. Pretty bad. Anyway, getting 4/5 in a major category is not really a significant accomplishment. Most of the time there's a pretty solid selection of four actors or actresses, four directors, four screenplays. It's the fifth spot that's the hardest to nail down.
In the top eight categories I went 34/43 for a 79%, a full ten percentage points below last year. I should give myself an extra point for correctly predicting there would be only eight Best Picture nominees.
Across all categories that I predicted (so excluding the three short film categories) I scored 72/106 for 68%. Ouch!
So here are the nominees and how I fared...Nominees marked with an asterisk were the ones I missed.
Pretty surprised that Whiplash made the cut and Foxcatcher didn't. I wasn't wild about either movie, but that Bennett Miller was nominated for Best Director is quite an accomplishment considering his film isn't even one of the best eight of the year.
The Imitation Game
predicted but not nominated: Foxcatcher
Tuesday, January 13, 2015
Let me just start by saying that I will not do better on my predictions than last year, when I scored my best prediction rate ever with close to 90% in the top eight categories and better than 75% across all categories.
One of the biggest factors affecting my abilities this year is that I still have a pretty long list of things to see. My predictions are based on a combination of seeing the films and evaluating them, thinking about Hollywood politics, thinking about what other people are likely to respond to emotionally, and also a kind of gut instinct which is really just about bringing the former factors together.
I don't think 2014 was a very good year for film. A lot of what is likely to get a nomination for Best Picture is pretty mediocre. And that follows on down the line through all the technical categories and a lot of acting performances that just failed to blow me away.
The major things still on my list to see are Into the Woods; Unbroken; American Sniper; Selma; The Hobbit; and A Most Violent Year in addition to a bunch of lesser films that could score technical nominations.
My prediction lists are all in order of likelihood. So in most categories, at least the first three spots are dead locks.
I'm calling only eight nominees this year. Since they went to a range of 5 - 10 nominees, there have always been nine nominees, but I just feel like 2014 was a bit weak.
The Imitation Game
The Grand Budapest Hotel
7. The Theory of Everything
8. American Sniper
If there are more than eight:
9. Into the Woods
Wednesday, January 7, 2015
My personal politics are irrelevant when it comes to evaluating a movie. At least I do my best to make it so. Of course sometimes you can’t help it. Doing my best to look objectively at Citizen Koch, the documentary by Carl Deal and Tia Lessin about the impact of the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission on American politics, I would say this is a film that fails to thoroughly examine the very issue it claims to be about.
The Citizens United case, as you may or may not know, was the 5-4 split decision that essentially ruled that, when it comes to campaign contributions, corporations are individuals protected by the First Amendment. The result of that decision has been the funneling of enormous amount of corporate money into political actions.
In The Trip to Italy, comedian Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan re-team with director Michael Winterbottom for a sequel to The Trip. This time, instead of a food tour of the north of England, they are following in the footsteps of Percy Shelley and Lord Byron from Piedmont to Capri.
The two are slightly older now and in their advancing age and settling careers they have become more melancholy. Though they still laugh and smile and enjoy the beauty around them, there is a wistful quality beneath that reveals their dissatisfaction. Playing fictionalized versions of themselves, Steve has a teenage son who lives with his ex-wife. Rob has a wife and young daughter. His wife never seems to have time for him and Rob falls into a little dalliance with a woman he meets.
Sunday, January 4, 2015
There are two central characters in The Theory of Everything, the Stephen Hawking biopic directed by James Marsh and adapted by Anthony McCarten from the memoir by Hawking’s ex-wife Jane. Stephen and Jane are equal partners in screen time and emotional heft in the story. This is less a biopic that gets into the inner workings of a genius mind and his struggle to continue working during a debilitating illness than it is a love story about two people overcoming the terrible weight of that illness on their lives.
One of the great classics of my childhood is March of the Wooden Soldiers, the 1934 Laurel and Hardy comedy fantasy based on the musical Babes in Toyland. When I was growing up it was on TV every year either on Thanksgiving or sometime shortly thereafter. It marked the beginning of the Christmas season and I waited for and looked forward to it every year. It’s not a great movie. Heck, it’s not even a great comedy, not even by Laurel and Hardy standards. But there’s something so magical in the story that so easily captures the imaginations of children.
Joon-ho Bong’s first English language film turns out to b e a bleak allegory about the future (or the present, perhaps) of the human race. Snowpiercer is based on a French graphic novel about a future dystopian Earth that has fallen into a worldwide catastrophe of ultra-cold temperatures and snow. A single train running on a perpetual motion engine makes its way on a round-the-world track taking one year to make the circuit. On board are earth’s only survivors, divided into the working class at the tail section and an aristocracy up front.
The allegorical implications are obvious and hardly worth exploring. It’s a story of the haves versus the have-nots. The people in the tail section survive on protein bars for sustenance. They have no access to any real food or nice clothing that the wealthy have. Revolution is brewing in the air, as it apparently has in the past but been suppressed, led by Curtis (Chris Evans) and his second, Edgar (Jamie Bell). Their mentor is the one-armed, one-legged Gilliam (John Hurt), who pushes Curtis to lead the revolution. Octavia Spencer and Ewan Bremner play two of the revolutionaries who breach the gates along with Curtis, motivated by the removing of their small boys to the front of the train for who knows what? Their first order of business after breaking through the squad of armed guards and three security gates is to release Nam (Kang-ho Song) from the prison section. As the designer of the train’s security system, Nam is literally their access to the front.
Representing the order and oligarchy is Mason, played by a frightfully unrecognizable Tilda Swinton, whose buck teeth and large thick glasses make her a monster. She espouses an unbreakable philosophy of fealty to the train’s engine and its designer, Wilford (played later by Ed Harris). She shows up to teach object lessons to people who refuse to submit. Seven minutes with an arm sticking out of the trin leaves it frozen solid and ripe for smashing.
The screenplay by Bong and Kelly Masterson, based on a French graphic novel, emphasizes themes like cycles (years and seasons are no longer noted by natural progression of the earth around the sun, but by the annual passing of certain landmarks); extinction (cigarettes, bullets, and chickens are all things believed at various points in the story to be extinct, suggesting mankind’ limited time in future history); and perpetuity or eternality (the new god is the “eternal” engine and its operator is humanity’s savior). Wilford and the engine are spoken of by the likes of Mason in terms of such deference and adoration that I thought for sure they would turn out to be mirages. Humanity has essentially been reorganized along familiar lines with new entities supplanting the old (cycles and perpetuity again). Wilford even tries to convince Curtis once he reaches the front to take over the operation. No one lives forever, after all. This is a story about maintaining survival of the species.
The technical challenges of making an action thriller set entirely inside a train must have been great. Bong is a master of camera manipulation. He has a brilliant sense of space and timing and location. His action directing is beautifully organized and choreographed through the whole film. I’m not sure his camera ever “crosses the line.” That is to say, in every shot the direction toward the rear of the train is always left of frame so we never forget where everyone came from and where they’re headed.
And this is an unusual action film in featuring some notable acting. Swinton of course is memorable and brilliant as always. John Hurt and Ed Harris are reliable, bringing empathy and gravity, respectively to their roles. Jaime Bell is youthful and eager, deftly representing a generation of young adults on board who have no memory of anything prior to the train. And Chris Evans, who has demonstrated some surprising actorly skill as Captain America, shows some genuine promise in Snowpiercer. There is a dark side here that makes me anticipate some interesting things in his future if he makes good choices.
It’s the ending I found most beguiling and there’s really no way to talk about it without talking about it so exit now if you don’t like spoilers. There’s an ambiguity that I think Bong wanted out of the ending, but I’m not sure there’s any way to read it as anything but certain doom for humanity. The train blows up and is knocked off the mountain by an avalanche presumably killing everyone on board except two kids: Nam’s seventeen-year old daughter (Ah-sung Ko) and a young boy who was helping to operate the engine. Common wisdom on board has always been that nothing can survive the freezing temperatures, but in the distance they see a polar bear, implying that life goes on (cycles of nature, which actually is eternal unlike the engine). These two kids are the last two human beings on earth. Is Bong implying that they are also a new Adam and Eve and that’s supposed to be an optimistic ending?
I guess it’s a kind of Rorschach test for the audience. One can be hopeful in the possibility of additional train survivors. But when you consider that these two we see, at least, have no survival skills for nature, having been born on the train, the future is bleak. That’s only a piece of what sets Snowpiercer apart from typical summer popcorn movies. It’s got something to say and it’s technically savvy and interesting. I remain pessimistic with regard to the film’s conclusion, but not for what the success of Snowpiercer says about film culture in general.
Friday, January 2, 2015
Jason Reitman made a name for himself (outside of trading on his father’s name) by directing two sort of quirky small-scale character-driven comedy-dramas. Thank You for Smoking and Juno both had enough oddball screwiness to their premises and characters to get noticed. But Reitman’s third feature, Up in the Air, based on the novel by Walter Kirn, for which Reitman shares screenwriting credit with Sheldon Turner, his attention is turned toward real life drama. This is a film about a man whose job is to go into other companies to tell their employees that they’ve been laid off so that the bosses don’t have to get their hands dirty.
Thursday, January 1, 2015
Wrapping up 2014, I’m not at all surprised to find that the number of movies I’ve watched, especially going out to the cinema to see them, has dropped off significantly compared with last year. A job that takes up a lot of my time plus the addition of a new baby to the family has made it very difficult to maintain the movie-going frequency I used to be accustomed to.
In the last six months I watched 64 feature-length films, but only 63 different ones as I repeated Gone Girl. 35 of the films were new to me and I only made it to the cinema 16 times compared with 31 in the same period last year. That makes my total for the year 144 features, but 140 different ones. 93 of those were first time for me with only 38 movies in the cinema for the whole year. In 2013 it was 55 in the cinema and 94 movies I'd never seen before. I got 35 reviews posted in these six months to bring my tally for the year to 75 full-length reviews or 91 reviews including "short cut reviews."
I also watched four animated short films, including one in the cinema. And 22 TV episodes including the entire first season of "The Sopranos."
Here's the list of what I watched from July through December, including the formats I watched them on. Titles in bold have reviews available on this blog.