Saturday, February 18, 2012

Oscar Marathon 2011A

Today was day one of the movie marathon featuring the "Best Film" Oscar picks. Preview: I'm no longer wondering why they only picked 9 instead of 10. The wonder is why they picked some of these. I'll try not to be too spoilery if you haven't seen the flicks, but since they're all old (for this town) I'm not going to be strict.

Today's films in the order I rank them:
The Descendents
War Horse
(every other movie released this year)
Tree of Life.

moneyball poster

Written by Aaron Sorkin and starring Brad Pitt geeking out on stats, I had hopes for this. I was not disappointed despite setting expectations high. This movie is a metaphor for why it's important to promote and use good minority ideas (and people) and also how it's hard. You want a man to understand the glass ceiling? Send them to see Moneyball - and then take away the interim job security (such as it was) and the final job offer. It's The King's Speech of 2011, and the best of everything that implies. I don't yet know if it will win, but it was far and away the best of these four. Given that it starred absolutely no adult women, it spoke a lot to the environment faced by lots of women. And I'm recommending it as a great movie despite being by men, about men, for men. Anybody could get something good from this.

Moneyball was highly watchable, set up to get you a payoff without too much manufactured feel-good. The goods felt real. I even got a little verklempt at the scene outside Fenway Park. My lack of baseball knowledge outside of Indians/Red Sox superficials meant that the game results were a surprise to me, although the music does anticipate the climactic play. The only off note was at the end where I thought the GM and stats guy were a team, and it didn't play that way, rather each implied the other incidental to the success of the pair, which was sterotypical-guy-like, and wrong. It wasn't clear if they stayed together or not, and needed resolution. Very minor quibble with a long explanation.

Lastly, the biggest female role in the film was the daughter. She and her singing was arced through the show, and the arc had payoff too - well done, mostly. She sings a song, quite well, and it builds. I'm not sure it had to be the same song; it was ok that it was. It showed that the GM had similar life pressures as the team guys he was hiring, firing, and trading. And that he cared about someone outside himself since his role as GM impeded forming relationships with his players, and the relationship to the rest of the staff was rocky at best. I can recommend this movie without reservation.

For the rest of the movie reviews,

read on.

The Descendents

I liked the movie. It was pretty good. The sense of place was nice, although when they were walking to the bar I was thinking how much it looked like Siesta Key Florida, then chalked it up to being a food joint in paradise. I liked that the music was Hawaiian or Hawaiian flavored. There were several songs I'd like to own.

The premise is that a lawyer from an old white/Hawaiian family needs to deal with his kids and family after his wife lands in a coma. Then the secrets start coming out. The big secret is that his wife was having an affair. After telling the family/friend group to go pay their last respects, he, very humanely, decides to find his wife's lover and tell him too. It was well done. Not just the fact of it, but how it was accomplished.

Despite being a film surrounding a crusting up dying woman (which made for some awkwardness) there was a fresh whimsy to it. The eldest daughter starts dragging around her mostly useless friend, even to family visits about her dying mom, which is crazy to start with. After grandpa decks him, and long after I would have tossed him out of the car and out of the picture, he keeps coming along! It's touching and weird and it works. The girls play their parts realistically, which is to say 1 conflicted sullen teenager who knows the family dirt and 1 still young kid who is old enough to be included, but still protected from the harsher realities come off as just exactly that. The younger one makes sand boobs at the beach, for even more whimsy. They get a bit foul mouthed at times, and overwhelmed dad doesn't really know what to do.

The movie seems mostly about surviving a bad situation and coming out happy with yourself and your choices on the other side. I did like how all the characters managed to express emotion, not just the women. And it's all right. I don't think it's the best movie of the year. Come to think of it, it's this year's "The Kids are All Right" with less sex - but the same amount of drama occurring as a result of sex.

War Horse

Full disclosure: I'm not a fan of horses and this movie stars a horse. And if you're a horse fan, be aware that there are a lot of dead horses. But that's kind of the point - how rough war horses really had it.

There was a lot of good in this movie, but not a lot of great. It's the story of a thoroughbred horse who is bought by a drunk Irishman who couldn't afford him and needed a plow horse. The man's son takes to the horse and vice versa and they're off to the races. So to speak, because refreshingly the movie wasn't about horse racing. Then war breaks out and the whole can't afford the horse AND the house thing kicks in and the horse gets sold to an army officer. The son makes a vow to find the horse one day. The rest of the movie follows the horse around his grand tour of Europe as he rides the vicious tides of war and is finally reunited with the boy. (Yeah, you knew that was going to happen, otherwise, why the story?)

There were lots of broad visuals of 1915 era landscapes and dishes and whathaveyou, many of which felt slightly off. I don't know if that's because I notice things more now, or if I inherited the navel orange gene from my mom. (In "Out of Africa", during a romantic scene, my mom leaned over to whisper in my dad's ear, "That bowl of fruit on the table has navel oranges in it. They're a hybrid that wasn't developed until decades after this takes place." Sexy, no?) Here, there were a lot of jam jars filled about 2/3 full. They looked good on screen, but anyone who has homecanned even once knows you shouldn't leave more than an half inch of airspace at the top of a jar, let alone 2+ inches in dozens of jars. (I'll ignore how hard it is to get horses to walk *down* stairs because everyone solves hard problems in war.) There was lots of stuff like this - people were too clean, or oddly behaved like throwing away a saddle when they are scrounging for any useful stuff. Many elements just felt "off" to me and it's not worth trying to nitpick it all, just to say it was pervasive. In that way, and for the horse, this is the year's "True Grit".

Further, there was a whole "dad's regimental banner is lucky" thread running through the show which was all well and good. But his dad didn't even know the son ever had it so when he sees it again at the end, it wouldn't have the impact they implied. It wasn't wasted, they just should have ended the banner arc with the boy and his mom, not with his dad.

I think the biggest thing for me, though, was that this was the horse's story and the way the movie was structured made that hard to figure out. I kept looking for the boy, or how the horse's scene related to his relationship with the boy. Maybe if I'd made it to the first two minutes I wouldn't have been so thrown, so to speak. But I kept expecting the story relate to the boy where it had no intention of doing so and for that I blame the director. When the horse was fully there, there were some weird moments where I didn't understand the horse's motivation. (Why a tank caused such panic when he's half dead and beyond caring from war I just didn't get.) That seems like something a careful director would make more clear (or I just don't understand horses). These were such fundamental storytelling flaws that it should be disqualified as a best movie. Friends on facebook tell me that the movie is a bad ad for a wonderful play. If you want to see the show, I would suggest finding the play.

[Spoilers - end scenes from war horse]
In the final reuniting scene, the boy is blinded by poisonous gas, and the reaction from the horse to the special call (the moment we've waited for through 4 interminable hours of...well 2 hours)... well, the response is purely visual. The boy needed to call and the horse needed to come and nuzzle him. It would have worked with 2 calls, one where the horse moves his head but isn't sure, then one where he follows the established pattern and barrels through anything in his way to get to the boy. The way they did it was broken. The horse lifted his head to 2 or 3 repeats of the call (avoiding the gun there to put him down but then getting back in sacrificial position). So the audience knows the horse is clued in, but the boy making the call cannot know. For the plot to advance, the boy has to know. And he's not going to special call some random non-responsive horse 4 or 5 times. He gets a trial call then it has to work. More than that doesn't work. So this climactic scene was s.t.r.e.t.c.h.e.d. out in an overly long movie, and didn't work besides. Amateur.
To add insult to injury, when I saw the grandfather (of the jam scenes) at the horse auction (where he was again bought for a trumped up amount) I rather expected the granddaughter to show and fall in love with our horse-hero's boy. Because why else bring him back? But no, she's dead in the war. Really? The movie did not need that character to come back. In fact, the movie would have worked better had he not.
[/end spoiler section]

Overall, it was watchable but long. This morality tale was overwrought; the emotional scenes evoked emotion, but you could see it coming in such a way that it felt manipulative rather than heartfelt. We already know war is bad. We already know that people who would ordinarily be friends were forced to take up arms against each other. And we mostly don't use horses in war anymore so why did this movie need to be made now or at all? The more I analyze it, the less I like it. It's an amateur effort by a pro with a big budget and doesn't meet standards it could meet. For all that it wasn't my thing, the very best part of the movie was the mom. She had some great lines very reminiscent of the mom's great zingers from National Velvet. If someone excerpts her scenes on youtube, go enjoy it.

And because it's easy and fun to rip on terrible things, I've gone overboard reviewing the final movie. I felt I should since I spent the first half hour handwriting notes in the dark flickering light for something to do to keep me from leaving.

TOL random images poster
Tree of Life

Where to start? It's a question the movie didn't answer either. I came very close to walking out, or at least sneaking out to play phone Scrabble, except I did wonder how it got a Best in Show nod. After sticking it out, neither I nor any of the other 50+ (remaining) people in the room had any clue. It's the only one we discussed en masse and the consensus was, "What the fuc.kety f.uck were they thinking?" to use the technical terms.

I suppose I could rate it three hits. One tab of acid *might* make the disparate image sequences into a cohesive piece. A second *might* make one imagine a story, and a third *might* make it interesting. But I could think of many, many better things to do with my time like watching Kung Fu Panda I or II, phone scrabble, sudoku, or eating a sandwich.

If you haven't seen it, don't. It's a series of disparate clips of randomness showing real nature, imagined nature, and loosely following (tesseracting?) a family through phases of good times and not-good times mostly in the 50s or thereabouts. I did watch the whole thing except the bits where I and my right arm fell asleep. I have some notion that it's about how fragmented someone feels growing up with someone who is loving and abusive when that someone is played by Brad Pitt. A movie needs to be about something, or it's not a thing, it's just a pile of clutter. Since I've seen student art sales better curated than this, I can pretty well say that it wasn't intentionally about anything, so it failed as a movie. It also needs to move somewhere. It is a series of moving images, but beyond that? Not a movie.

To be as fair as possible [I'm letting the dinosaur live after stomping his head on the rocks], this movie is highly visual and I am not. I either blogged about it or meant to, but I find that I read so much that I have trouble interpreting images. The second reason I stayed in the film was to challenge myself to interpret the visuals. Sadly for the film, the more majestic visuals were less majestic than what routinely appears on the Nature channels. I tried to find narrative and character in the vignettes but either it was beyond my ken or just plain not there to find. A movie that leaves space for interpretation only works if someone is drawn in and engaged. For the vast majority of time, there was no reason to watch it. The extent of intrigue was comparable to being polite to an art school buddy who is years away from finding their niche. I found myself thinking it could use some LOL cats. The (LOL) dinosaurs were appreciated but did not ameliorate the WTF factor.

Like how Moneyball was this year's this year's The King's Speech, Tree of Life was the bastard child of Black Swan and Inception: fragmented, heavily visual, overlapping universes, and not nearly as interesting as it thinks it is. Have you heard the commercial recently that quotes Blades of Glory? It rather sums up my feeling about this film.
Jimmy: [disgusted] I don't even know what that means.
Chazz: No one knows what it means, but it's provocative.
Jimmy: No, it's not.
No, no it's not. And I'm over watching movies about your failed, or even your successful, search for god.

If you've made it this far...
I'm highly sensitive to whether or not shows pass the Bechdel test, and three of the four films fail utterly to contain any women in major roles. The Descendents has plenty of women in it, for all that one is in a coma. It's just that the major female role is the eldest daughter. (If nothing else, Joss Whedon has given us a generation full of kickass adolescent girls and they're going to want to keep working. And they can kick your ass.) There was one lead actress role for an adult woman in these four films, the mom in Tree of Life, but the movie summary doesn't mention her at all. Just sayin.

Count of women crying with restrained anguish: 3, possibly 4
Count of men falling to their knees to express anguish: 2

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Great post, Erika! I'll have to actually go see some of these movies now.