Monday, October 7, 2013

New background image for the blog, courtesy of a kiosk at the University of Minnesota. A show at Memory Lanes, meditation classes, chess club...a fine combination.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Unreasonable Movie Project (Vol. 18): 4 Days Later, The Most Untimely Oscar Review Ever

So now that we've had 4 days to reflect on the 85th Annual Academy Awards, and all hope of timeliness is gone, The Unreasonable Movie Project (UMP) has decided it will now weigh in...

My kids and I spent the day of the awards at my parents' place because my wife was in Florida at a conference. We got back home just in time to catch some of the red carpet coverage. I noticed that Kristin Chenoweth was one of the sideline reporters, and while I liked her in The West Wing, and even in the under-rated Pushing Daisies, her forced, hyper-kinetic banter made me want to turn the volume off. She was also over-tan and under-weight, which made me feel bad that she feels she has to do that to herself.

We also watched Jamie Foxx being interviewed on the red carpet with his 19-year-old daughter, which floored me initially, but I checked and he's 45. He doesn't look 45.

Then it went to commercial where I saw the first of many different jcp (JCPenney) commercials. They were really well done, and are part of some big re-branding to make JCPenney seem a lot less...JCPenney. The first one I saw featured "Grounds For Divorce" from Elbow, a band that consistently cranks out great music. Later they used "Would That Not Be Nice" by Divine Fits. OK jcp, you've wandered over to the cool kid table in the lunchroom. Will they call you "jcp?" Or will they tell you to go sell Dad a flannel?

I don't know that I want to discuss host Seth McFarlane too much; I'd rather focus on what the real stars were doing at the show. Whether you liked his hosting ability or not, his real contributions to movies in the past year have been Ted and Movie 43, which means he should have been hosting the RAZZIE Awards, not the Oscars.

MacFarlane has a good stage presence, and is a good singer (particularly for a guy whose main gig is animation and voice work), but he had a way of letting loose with his crass jokes and then immediately following them with misdirections and half-retractions when the crowd booed, never taking responsibility for the jokes, never letting them stand on their own merit.

Even his "Captain Kirk came from the future to tell me I bombed" opening allowed him do bits that he could deny responsibility for if they offended, you know, because he hadn't actually done them yet. It's only Bad Future Seth doing doing those bits, and Good Present Seth will put a stop to it...right after you've watched them in their entirety. How was the Academy to know he'd pull this "I saw your I didn't" routine all night? They couldn't. MacFarlane doesn't have to answer to a studio audience for Family Guy.

This is the moment where the 4-day lag benefits this post: MacFarlane's performance may have gotten a few cheap laughs from me when I watched, but the more I think about it, the worse I feel about it. MacFarlane is a bizarro-Wes Anderson, or a bizarro-Coen Brothers. Or both. Multiple viewings are his kryptonite.

Anyway, there were winners who won, and losers who lost, and you've already seen the lists. You either have an opinion on all this, or you don't. Here are my UMP Awards that focus on the spectacle of the award show itself, on the movie stars themselves, in the order they occurred to me:

Most Underwhelming Result in the Most Competitive Category: Christoph Waltz wins his second Best Supporting Actor award, not for his role in Django Unchained, but for his 3-years-ago performance in Inglourious Basterds. Robert De Niro and Philip Seymour Hoffman easily could have won. Tommy Lee Jones should have won. I think Waltz knew it too because he seem embarrassed in his lukewarm acceptance speech.

Funniest Presenters that Killed in Rehearsal Then Bombed Live: Paul Rudd and Melissa McCarthy ad-libbed their intro for Best Animated Short with a bit that must have been waaaaaay funnier in rehearsal. Paperman won, and is worth seeing, all seven minutes of it - my daughter thinks they showed it before Wreck-It Ralph, but we aren't sure. We've also heard Identity Thief is terrible.

Best Dress: Mark Andrews, director of Best Animated Feature winner Brave, blue and burgundy kilt.

Best Actor, During the 85th Annual Academy Awards: George Clooney catches the small bottle of whiskey thrown to him by Seth MacFarlane in an attempt to diffuse his joke about 9-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis being too old to date Clooney in about 16 years. Clooney smiles and takes a swig for the camera (knowing he can tell MacFarlane he's done in Hollywood at one of the after-parties).

Strongest Suspicion That a Former Addict Was in Relapse: Tie. Samuel L. Jackson and Robert Downey Jr. All five male leads of The Avengers presented Life of Pi with the award for Best Cinematography, prefaced with some banter about Jackson and Downey being former addicts. When the two of them started riffing off-script, the other three started to snicker, and we suspected that a new round of interventions might be in order by summer.

Most Incoherent Speech/Worst Hair: Life of Pi cinematographer Claudio Miranda, looking like Gandalf (or maybe Saruman), but not sounding like him. Here is a video of his acceptance speech with a simultaneous Spanish translation that is no more confusing than the speech in English by itself.

Most Disrespectful Music Meant To Force Winner Off Stage, In The History Of Ever: Jaws theme.

Fastest Recovery From 'Old and Embarrassing Themselves' To 'Old and Still Kicking Ass,' One Minute Flat: 76-year-old Shirley Bassey, performing "Goldfinger" during the homage to 50 Years of James Bond, in a way that made us first recoil in horror, then watch in amazement.

Most Vindictive Introduction Pairing: Best Actress nominee Jessica Chastain, paired with Jennifer Garner to present Best Foreign Language Film. Chastain is beautiful, talented, and up for an award, so all eyes should be on her...except when she's paired with the impossibly tall, slender distraction that is Jennifer Garner (and she's over 40!). That's just mean.

Worst Pronunciation of Les Misérables: John Travolta tripped over his lines as he tried to introduce the musical movie tribute portion of the show, and couldn't pronounce Les Misérables. My sister-in-law, professor of French and Comparative Lit at a fine west-coast liberal arts school, tells me the proper pronunciation is MIZZ-AIR-AH-BLUH, roughly.

Best Musical Performance: Jennifer Hudson, Dreamgirls tribute, hands down.

Most Desperate Ad Buy: Royal Caribbean, because absolutely no one in the world wants to go on a cruise right now.

Funniest Reveal of a Tie: Mark Wahlberg presents the award for Sound Editing to both Zero Dark Thirty AND Skyfall. Right after his announcement, he repeats, seemingly to a particular person in the audience, "We have a b.s...we have a tie."

Classiest Presentation Speech for Any Award and It Wasn't Even Close: Christopher Plummer presents the award for Best Supporting Actress with the most professional introduction of the night, saying he would happy to work with any of these actresses in any of his next 30 movies.

The 'Just Give It To Her So She Shuts Up' Award for Best Supporting Actress: Anne Hathaway. She memorized a lot of names for this particular speech, but I can't actually rip her here (even though I want to soooo badly) because unlike her Golden Globes and BAFTA speeches, this one was fairly reserved, probably in reaction to all the bad press. You know she reads it all, every word.

Most Powerful Person In Hollywood Being Caught Coming Back From the Bathroom: Harvey Weinstein (founder of Miramax, co-chairman of The Weinstein Company, very heavy hitter), during the Academy President's speech. The cameraman and show director are now missing and presumed dead.

Most Underwhelming Musical Performance: Adele performs Best Original Song winner "Skyfall." Something weird was going on with her voice, and it wasn't just her cockney phrasing. I don't think she's recovered from vocal cord surgery. Jennifer Hudson's Dreamgirls co-star Jamie Foxx was not impressed.

Second-Most Vindictive Introduction Pairing: Daniel Radcliffe was forced to present the Production Design award with Kristin Stewart, who was her usual awkward self and seemingly already stoned. Never do a cutaway to Kristen Stewart. Still aloof. Always aloof.

Best Exaggeration of a Spanish Accent Due To The Popularity of Sofía VergaraSalma Hayek presents the Governor's Award winners with the accent she had 20 years ago.

The 'We Still Love You Even If You Might Be Damaged' Award: Adele and Paul Epworth won Best Original Song with "Skyfall," and Adele is the most tearfully-endearing, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels-sounding recipient ever. She tells the crowd, "You're awwwwl amaaazing!"

Best Impersonation of Stifler from American Pie: Writer Chris Terrio wins the Adapted Screenplay award for Argo, and shows himself to be both manic (in his acceptance speech), and supportive of his friends (the first to comfort a crying Ben Affleck after the Argo Best Picture win), all while being a dead ringer for Seann William Scott.

The 'Dude, That's My Neighbor!' Award for Childish Wonder in Award Acceptance: Quentin Tarantino is psyched he's getting the award for Best Original Screenplay, but he's more psyched that Charlize Theron (his neighbor) is handing him the statue. Mark it down on your 'Hollywood Homes Tour' map.

Worst Speech with the Best Unintentionally Funny Line: Ang Lee stumbles through his speech after winning Best Director for Life of Pi (biggest surprise of the night) and near the end thanks both his agent and his lawyer. He then shrugs in earnest apology and says "I have to do that." Crowd erupts in laughter.

Most Disappointing Speech: Jennifer Lawrence, the self-deprecating anti-Hathaway we all know and love, trips on her way to the microphone and starts off strong with "You're just cheering because you feel bad I tripped..." and then completely falls apart by thanking her agents and then giving us a blank stare before running off stage.

Most Alarming and Unexpected Wardrobe Malfunction: Meryl Streep, walking up to present Best Actor, wedgie.

Best Speech/Best Comedy Writing (And/Or Upstaging of MacFarlane): Best Actor winner Daniel Day-Lewis begins with a very serious appraisal of his blessings, and then launches into a story about how he was originally slated to play Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, and Streep was the original choice to play Lincoln in Lincoln. Incredibly funny because it came out of nowhere. He then gets serious again but stays brief, thanks his mother, and he's off. Best speech of the night.

Best Academy Awards Quiz: My friend Craig created and emailed all of us a great Academy Awards trivia quiz on the day of the show. I worked on it as I was watched the Oscars and took notes. It was a welcome distraction, but I really wished I could have remembered that the second Oscar-winning movie that starred Leonardo DiCaprio (other than Titanic) was The Departed. How did I not remember that The Departed won Best Picture?

Worst-Kept Secret In Hollywood: Tiny Fey. Amy Poehler. Your hosts for the 86th Annual Academy Awards.

The Unreasonable Movie Project might reinvent itself next year, and it might also become the most fun thing I'll never do again. Either way, it was quite a ride. Thanks for reading!

Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Unreasonable Movie Project (Vol. 17): Recapping The Slog, Previewing The Oscars

So I was planning on giving you a wonderfully insightful and entertaining recap of Les Misérables and Zero Dark Thirty, with maybe some Arbitrage and Bernie thrown in before I previewed the 85th Academy Awards Ceremony, but as Robert Burns once wrote, "The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men gang aft agley." Can't you imagine fellow Scot Ewan McGregor delivering that line in an unintelligible brogue?

Here's what I am going to do: I will recap the last of the movies I did see, and give you the ratings of all 27 movies I saw over the course of The Unreasonable Movie Project. 27 movies. 48 days. Very unreasonable. It lived up to its billing.

Les Misérables: There were lots of people in the theater, so I sat on the side to give myself some escapability (I don't enjoy musical theater much). Then I was blocked from the aisle by a woman and her adult daughter, who proceeded to heave-cry through half the movie. I was trapped, and endured every minute. Anyone who enjoys musical theater will love it.

On screen, there's Anne Hathaway, who will win the Oscar for singing a single gut-wrenching song (she really really really wants to win an Oscar), Russell Crowe, dressed in his old Master and Commander outfit, not singing very well, and Hugh Jackman, looking very old and beaten up. Jackman can sing, but doesn't stand a chance against DDL or Joaquin Phoenix in the Best Actor category on Oscar night.

Rating: $6.50

Arbitrage: I rented Arbitrage to see if Richard Gere deserved his Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor, and came away relatively unimpressed. The movie itself is a capable thriller, with Gere as a very wealthy Wall Street investor who has a number of converging, self-made problems. Gere's character is more complex and sympathetic than the ruthless Gordon Gecko, but not that much more sympathetic. Brit Marling plays Gere's whiz-kid daughter, both talented and ethical, but there aren't many other likable characters.

Rating: $6.00

Zero Dark Thirty: This should be a real contender for Best Picture, but evidently isn't. The depictions of torture are a little too much for the Academy voters in Hollywood, so I hear. Of all the 2 hour and 40 minute movies up for Best Picture, and there are many, this was the only one that felt shorter than it was. I preferred this movie to Argo in the "Important Moments in CIA History" category precisely because it isn't as neat and clean as Argo, and Jessica Chastain has a real shot at Best Actress.

Rating: $8.50

Perks of Being a Wallflower: Not sure how this ended up being my last movie. It starts off as a cliché high-school coming-of-age movie, and gets funnier, more thoughtful, and more unpredictable. I was pleasantly surprised. It's the drugs and dorks of Dazed and Confused, mixed with the music obsession of High Fidelity, tied together with the sincerity of The Breakfast Club.

It's only problem is that all these high school kids seem like college students. Lead actor Logan Lerman, 21, plays a 15-year-old, and 23-year-old Emma Watson plays an 18-year-old. My wife thinks Lerman is actually the son of John Malkovich, who produced the movie. What would be the motivation for such an unusual arrangement? Not that Malkovich isn't weird enough to to do it, but my wife has no proof, and yet is absolutely convinced. "There are crazy similarities," she says.

Rating: $7.50

The Unreasonable Movie Project Final Movie Ratings:

Flight - $7.50
Cloud Atlas - $6.00
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel - $6.50
Argo - $8.00
Brave - $7.00
Silver Linings Playbook - $8.50
Lincoln - $9.50
Hitchcock  - $7.50
Beasts Of The Southern Wild - $7.00
Skyfall - $8.00
The Sessions - $8.50
Rust And Bone - never gave it a rating
Frankenweenie - $8.00
The Hobbit - $7.50
The Master - $7.00
Moonrise Kingdom - $8.00
The Impossible - $8.00
Life of Pi - $8.00
Salmon Fishing In The Yemen - $5.50
Seven Psychopaths - $7.00
Looper - $8.00
Django Unchained - $9.00
Amour - $8.50
Les Misérables - $6.50
Arbitrage - $6.00
Zero Dark Thirty - $8.50
The Perks Of Being A Wallflower - $7.50

Don't forget the Oscars are Sunday, February 24, on ABC, 6 p.m. central time. Seth MacFarlane is hosting (yeah, the Family Guy guy) and the odds of a train-wreck are very high. I'll be watching, and will recap it for everyone on Monday.

It's almost over folks, hang with me...

Monday, February 18, 2013

The Unreasonable Movie Project (Vol. 16): Love, Violence, and Kevin Bacon

"How are you going to write about Amour and Django Unchained in the same post?" my wife asked. It's an interesting question. If you look at the list of Best Picture nominees, there might not be another two movies that seem less alike. A French drama about a man caring for his sick wife that stars two actors in their 80's, and a Tarantino-directed western about a slave and a German bounty hunter carving through the pre-Civil-War South in search of the slave's wife. It's like finding the thread between Cocoon and The Wild Bunch.

And yet Django Unchained is not purely about violence, and Amour is not as gentle as you might guess. These are two love stories, both containing scenes where the men frequently have visions of their wives in better states (as in 'being happy instead of in pain,' not 'being in California instead of Wyoming'). The execution is a little different, but both movies are about men who would do anything for the women they love.

Didn't think I was going to be able to do connect the dots, did you? And it's actually a pretty decent theory, and not at all made-up. Good thing too. If I wasn't able to connect them, then this post just becomes two straightforward movie reviews, and I can't do straightforward. It comes out all weird. Roger Ebert and others do serious film criticism really well already. Worse yet, this might have devolved into some kind of pathetic version of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon...

Jean-Louis Trintignant (the husband in Amour) was in The Outside Man with Ann-Margret, who was in Any Given Sunday with Jamie Foxx!

Jean-Louis Trintignant was in The Great Silence, which was directed by Sergio Corbucci, who directed the original Django (didn't know there was another Django, did you?).

Want me to keep going? No? You can play on your own then.

Anyway, both movies are excellent. As I watched Django Unchained a second time, for 90 minutes I thought that this was the best movie I had seen this year. The writing was great, not over-written as Tarantino can do at times, and Christoph Waltz, Jamie Foxx and Leonardo DiCaprio tag-teamed the stranglehold on my attention. There is no other trio of actors in any movie that is more captivating this year. Waltz was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his role as Dr. King Schultz, a German bounty hunter. He's good, but not quite as good as he was in Inglourious Basterds, for which he won this same category in 2010Foxx is even better than Waltz, but I think DiCaprio was most deserving of an acting nomination.

If you look at his filmography, DiCaprio has never really played the villain before. He certainly has the flawed protagonist down pat, but he's never been a pure bad guy. Well, he's good at it. REALLY good at it. In one moment, he is the effete southern gentleman, lover of all that is French (a faux-francophile if you will, since he can't actually speak the language), and in the next moment he is a brutal southern slaver, as capable of physical savagery as the overseers he employs.

The violence in Django has two levels (and it is very, very violent). There's the campy, cartoonish violence we've seen from him before, reminiscent of the spaghetti westerns and blaxploitation films he adores. But he also employs a more realistic and restrained visual style in certain scenes when depicting violence against slaves in the pre-Civil-War American South.

The implied violence can just as shocking, if not more shocking, than his Wild Bunch-style shootouts, but the style-alteration shows Tarantino's awareness that these things really happened, and in his mind, to make that unrealistic is to show disrespect to the slaves that suffered. Slaves were whipped in real life. Slaves were tortured. Slaves were hunted with dogs. Tarantino isn't shying away from it - showing it realistically proves how evil slavery was and still is. I don't think he can claim to be historically perfect, but Lincoln, Argo, and Zero Dark Thirty can't claim it either.

Or maybe he isn't that deep and good guys get one treatment, bad guys get another.

Ultimately, I think it's true that Tarantino cares more about storytelling than history. All he wants is for us to cheer for Django. He wants us to want him to get the girl and kill the bad guys and ride off into the sunset. And he does, of course, but you probably already guessed that. As I said before, I really thought this was the best movie I had seen 90 minutes in, but then it kept going, and going...and going. At two hours and 45 minutes, it becomes more about endurance than enjoyment. I'll still give it an $8.50, but if he only could have cut 20-30 minutes out, he would have had an absolute masterpiece on par with Pulp Fiction. Too bad.

I don't think I'll recap Amour for you, other than to say that I saw an afternoon showing, and then went straight to Ash Wednesday evening mass. As they put the ashes on my forehead, they told me to "remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return." That actually perked me up.

Emmanuelle Riva is up for Best Actress in her role as a dying woman, but just like Dicaprio in Django Unchained, I thought that her un-nominated counterpart Jean-Louis Trintignant carried the film in his role as her husband. Riva does very well with the aspects of portraying a physical decline, but I think the Academy is a little too infatuated with performances that require oddities and tics (Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man, DDL in My Left Foot, etc.). Trintignant's character, thrown into caregiving, was both understated and brilliant. Amour is also an $8.50.

I will warn you that, if you see Amour at an art-house theater like I did, they will show a lot of European foreign-language trailers before the movie. None of these trailers are for happy movies. Most have to do with either the Holocaust, or life in a communist country before the Berlin Wall came down. And even though Amour can be quite sad, I am grateful that at least it took place in a world where the fleeting yet potent joy of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon was merely clicks away...

Emmanuelle Riva was in I Kill, You Kill (Io uccido, tu uccidi) with Tomas Milian, who was in JFK with one Mr. Kevin Bacon.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Unreasonable Movie Project (Vol. 15): I've Seen This Movie Before and I'll See It Again

It's tough to get my friend Jim out to see a movie. Don't get me wrong, he loves movies, but he loves them much more OFNF - On Flatscreen Near Fridge. He's the nightmare scenario personified for box office ticket sales; a patient man with a home theater. The last movie I drew him out for was Seven Psychopaths, and as luck would have it, it's on The Unreasonable Movie Project list. I asked Jim if he would see it again with me and help evaluate this BAFTA Outstanding British Film of the Year nominee, and with a DVD copy at his place, that's just what we did.

Jim was also going to help me with Looper, because there are a ton of similarities between these movies:
  • I've seen them both already
  • For each, the director was also the screen writer
  • Both have excellent screenplays, with well-developed characters
  • Both have violent action

Unfortunately the universe conspired against us and we weren't able to schedule a viewing for Looper, maybe because Jim had never seen it (thus not fulfilling the first similarity - I think I asked him to see it with me when it came out, but he dug in like a tick). Oh well, I'm pretty sure Jim is biased against Bruce Willis anyway, and I can't tolerate that. The man has done no wrong for me since Moonlighting.  I would be on my own for Looper.

When we first saw Seven Psychopaths, we were entertained and confused, and we agreed on that before watching it a second time. We also talked about the possibility that the movie might be about writer's block (I'll explain later), which led to an argument about The Shining, and whether that movie was entirely about writer's block (Jim's assertion), or if it had some supernatural element to it (my feeling). Then we starting talking about Shelley Duvall, who played Jack Nicholson's wife, and what a weird-looking person she is, which forced us to create a written list of other weird-looking women (Martha Plimpton, Sara Gilbert, Juliette Lewis, etc.). What use this list would be to us later on was unclear. Then, just because, Jim felt he had to show me several YouTube videos involving Kai the Hatchet-Wielding Hitchhiker (warning: Kai loves the profanity). 

We still had not started the movie.

Having wasted our chance for constructive preparation, and armed only with the hope that the movie would become more clear on a second viewing...we finally began. Our first job was to actually map all seven psychopaths. The movie begins by introducing us to all seven, and we felt it was hard to keep track in the theater. With some revision, this was the list:
  1. The Jack of Diamonds (Sam Rockwell)
  2. The Quaker who avenges his daughter's murder (Christopher Walken)
  3. The Mobster who loses his dog (Woody Harrelson)
  4. The Vietnamese Buddhist
  5. Maggie, serial killer of serial killers, one-time wife of...
  6. Zachariah (Tom Waits), serial killer of serial killers, one-time husband of Maggie
  7. Billy Bickle (Sam Rockwell)

"The math is all messed up!" Jim said, once we realized that Sam Rockwell is both Psychopath #1 and #7. Jim had previously commented that, in general, seven psychopaths is six too many, but with this new information, he thought maybe six was one too few. Our goal of becoming less confused was headed in the wrong direction, but after properly noting and appreciating the Taxi Driver reference (Rockwell's last name is Bickle; he talks to himself in a mirror), on we watched. Gold star for us.

We were definitely entertained by viewing #2. Much like his excellent first movie In Bruges, writer/director Martin McDonagh creates very snappy dialogue, and even though the screenplay stirs up a lot of blood and guts, both real and imagined, it's basically a comic character study. The three protagonists are very interesting people, and are well-acted by Colin Farrell, Sam Rockwell, and Christopher Walken. Given that all three actors are capable of being spectacular, each scene is really satisfying. They have a good rhythm together. 

The problem lies in stringing the story together - it still didn't make a lot of sense. Jim thought that the entire movie might be some sort of dream sequence, all in the head of Marty (Farrell), the struggling screenwriter. Marty and Billy (Rockwell), the under-employed actor and freelance dog-napper, are constantly talking about the script Marty is trying to write (called "Seven Psychopaths"), so between the actual occurrences of the movie, the talk of Marty's screenplay, and the imagined scenes of said screenplay, calling it a dream would be a charitable way to let McDonagh off the hook. Even though he tries to end it in a very grand (and very cliché) shootout and moral lesson, it's a mess.

Hans (Walken) sums it up at the end of the movie by saying to Marty, "You're the one who thought psychopaths were so interesting...they kind of get tiresome after awhile, don't you think?" Eventually, yes, we did, but because of exchanges like this (Jim's favorite), I'm still giving Seven Psychopaths a $7.00. 

Rian Johnson, writer/director of Looper, can also create a well-written script. His movie plot has some holes in it too, but that's because the story involves time travel, which can never be completely logical. Nominated for Best Original Screenplay at the 2013 Writers Guild Awards (February 17), Looper is more of a traditional action movie, but has a much tighter script than Seven Psychopaths.

The short version of the plot summary is this: The year is 2044, and time travel hasn't been invented yet, but by 2074 it has. A group of young criminals, called loopers, are hired by a future criminal organization to kill people who are being sent from 2074 back to 2044. Evidently disposing of dead bodies is impossible in the future because of ID tracking, so the loopers make them disappear in the past.

The main character is Joe, played by Joseph Gordon Levitt and made up to look like a young Bruce Willis, who plays older Joe. When young Joe is sent the older version of himself to kill, he hesitates, and older Joe escapes. Pandemonium ensues (future people running around in the past is 'bad,' we're told in a nonspecific way). Older Joe believes that if he can track down the head of the 2074 criminal organization and kill him as a child in the past, he will be placed back in the future with his beloved wife.

Willis is trying to track down and kill a kid, young Joe is trying to kill him to make up for his mistake, and the criminal organization that employs the loopers is trying to kill them both. Thankfully the writing provides a framework for it all. It's very inventive, at one point using scars to communicate messages to the future. And when the young and old Joe meet face to face, the young Joe says "Your face looks backward." Little flourishes like that make it a very smart screenplay. How can you not be intrigued by the only movie you'll ever see where Bruce Willis shoots someone and then breaks down and cries?

I have to sound the Stuhlbarg Syndrome Alert again (actor appears in more than 1 movie in a given year). Emily Blunt appears in this movie too, and actually gets to flex her dramatic muscles much more here than she does in Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. Playing the mother of the future criminal mastermind, she will stop at nothing to protect her son. She knows the older Joe is coming for him, but she's not quite sure if she can trust the young Joe to help her stop him. She has to be tough in a tough world, but she's barely keeping it together. Blunt is just one more reason this is one of the best action movies in years. I'm giving Looper an $8.00.

How is it that Blunt can pull off the American accent so well? Why are English and Australian actors so good at this, and American actors are so bad? In every source I can find online, there are arguments as to whether Americans such as Gwyneth Paltrow, Angelina Jolie, Renee Zellweger, and Meryl Streep actually have good British accents, or are merely passable. The only group I can find that are universally hailed as Americans having great British accents are, you guessed it, the guys from Spinal Tap. Congrats all you American thespians [sarcasm], you've set the bar at...11?

Unsolicited Valentine's Day Tip from The Unreasonable Movie Project to all the guys out there: Since we all love Bruce Willis (in a masculine kind of way), don't forget to take your sweetie to the new Die Hard: A Good Day to Die Hard this Thursday. It's better than jewelry. She'll love it!

Friday, February 8, 2013

The Unreasonable Movie Project (Vol. 14): Fishing For Decent Movies in the British Isles

You caught me. I didn't see Amour last night. I went to work, came home, ate dinner, talked to my wife and kids, then watched Salmon Fishing in the Yemen on DVD. I was then going to go to a 9:25 p.m. show of Amour at the Edina Theater. It didn't happen because I needed sleep. My kids' school starts ungodly early, which means I have to get up ungodly early, and I just couldn't let movies or writing keep me up past midnight again.

Don't I get points for my ambition? I was going to see two movies in one night, and I had it all scheduled. And then instead of being 90 minutes (which I admit was a guess...I didn't actually look at the run time on the disk), Salmon Fishing in the Yemen ended up being more than two hours, including the break I took to tuck in the kids, and then my schedule was blown to hell.

I was a little bit relieved actually. It ended up being a leisurely night with a leisurely movie. It was leisurely in the way The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel was leisurely. Neither movie was very challenging. They both produce a pleasantly lukewarm feeling in their viewers. Expertly crafted to be sure (Lasse Hallström directed Salmon), but not too sharp or frantic or objectionable in any way. They are like that colleague of yours who is very nice, but you never bother to get to know any better. You're embarrassed to admit it, but their primary offense is that they bore you.

Both of these movies were in the Best Motion Picture (Musical or Comedy) category at the Golden Globes this year, and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is up for Outstanding British Film of the Year at the BAFTA Film Awards, happening this weekend (February 10). To quote Seth Meyers I ask, really? Really? These are some of the best films the British Empire has to offer? Where is this year's Trainspotting? Or The Bridge on the River Kwai? I'll even settle for a Four Weddings and a Funeral, for the love of David Lean. Since when did British film become synonymous with safe? Or the new word I learned recently, twee? The latest Bond film has more genuine drama.

I suppose the actors can be forgiven. Emily Blunt is capable in Salmon, and movie roles for women are so limited that it's hard to begrudge her taking the money and running. Ewan McGregor seemed to be an odd casting choice for an academic fisheries expert, but he must be shell-shocked from The Impossible and took this to calm his nerves. He doesn't seem to know how to play the role, which makes sense because we don't quite know what the movie is trying to be. Is it a comedic drama? Is it a dramatic romantic comedy? Is it a combination of A Fish Called Wanda and A River Runs Through It? It's none of the above. I am confused by it and so is Ewan. And even at 41, he seems too young to be a stodgy academic. I'm going to slap myself in the face later for saying this, but this is a Colin Firth role.


The plot centers around a rich sheikh (Amr Waked) who wants to build a river in Yemen capable of supporting salmon and salmon fishing. McGregor is a well-regarded British government fisheries expert who is recruited by Blunt to help the sheikh make it happen. Convinced it's a joke and an impossibility, McGregor is forced by the Prime Minister's press secretary (Kristin Scott Thomas) to take on the project so that it will result in a positive British/Yemeni relations news story. Fortunately for Thomas, McGregor becomes more interested in the project (and more interested in Blunt) the more he works on it.

Kristin Scott Thomas is the best part of this movie, and that's sad because she has about 15 minutes of screen time. The edgiest line in the whole movie is an unexpected joke she makes about The Wire when chastising her son for wearing a hoodie, proving its never a bad idea to reference The Wire (the :44 second mark of this clip).

I don't know if I should keep writing because that's the highlight. The Wire joke was the peak. This movie is a $5.50, the lowest rating I've given so far. There's a romantic element that's not that romantic, there's an assassination attempt that's more silly than stressful, and there's a soldier character who is sent to Afghanistan and goes MIA, and if you're cheering for Blunt and McGregor to get together, you end up wishing the soldier stays missing or is dead...

But it's a feel-good movie! Really!

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The Unreasonable Movie Project (Vol. 13): Man Vs. The Ocean

The movies we're going to take on today are good old fashioned disaster movies, boys and girls. More specifically, movies about Man Vs. The Ocean. This is a solid sub-genre, with some worthy members. You can start with The Poseidon Adventure (1972), which featured an ocean liner getting hit by a tsunami, and then Gene Hackman tries to get everyone out alive. I haven't seen it, but it's supposed to be solid. There are others, like Titanic (1997), which we've all seen, and the classic Jaws (1975), which might be more Man Vs. Ocean Wildlife, but let's say it counts.

Hitchcock's Lifeboat (1944) is kind of a War Movie/Man Vs. The Ocean hybrid, but very well regarded. There's The Perfect Storm (2000), where George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg play Massachusetts fishermen who aren't so wicked smaat (that's smart in New England). One of my favorites is James Cameron's The Abyss (1989), which features Ed Harris in a high-tech dive suit breathing oxygenated dish soap. With The Abyss, Titanic, and all the documentary work he produced about the real Titanic, it's safe to say Cameron was obsessed with Man Vs. The Ocean for a large part of his career.

I recently saw the newest entries to the sub-genre, The Impossible (Man, Woman + 3 Boys Vs. Tsunami), and Life of Pi (Man Vs. Ocean Storm, then Man Vs. Being Adrift In The Pacific). They both belong in this category, but they are very different movies. If you're trying to decide which one you might prefer, or you're comparing and contrasting, let's go to the tale of the tape*:

* I saw both movies alone, at the same theater, one day apart, in the early afternoon, all to improve the scientific validity of this comparison for you, the reader. Reports that I cried in both are not relevant.

The Impossible
  Category: Man vs. The Ocean (Tsunami)
  Starring: Naomi Watts (nominated for Best Actress), Ewan McGregor, several child actors
  Plot Synopsis: Family goes on vacation, tsunami hits, family tries to find each other
  Based On: A real story of a French/Spanish family on vacation in Thailand in 2004
  Tone: Massively sad, hyper-realistic drama focused on survival after a terrible tragedy
  Moral: Shit happens
  Interesting Fact: The real family is better looking than the actors

Life of Pi
  Category: Man Vs. The Ocean (Storm, Adrift On The Open Sea)
  Starring: Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, several CGI animals
  Plot synopsis: Family from India heads out on cargo ship with their zoo animals to move to Canada, storm sinks ship, only youngest son survives, on a lifeboat, with a Bengal Tiger
  Based On: A fictional novel, published in 2001
  Tone: Uplifting, almost fairy-tale-like adventure that tests a boy's survival skills and faith in God
  Moral: God is watching over us when shit happens
  Interesting Fact: The animals in the movie are mostly computer-generated

The Impossible is gritty realism; an entire movie where the actors are literally covered in grit. There are no showers, or running water, or much of anything else after the tsunami, really. After the waves hit, the tourists and the native Thai are only focused on survival and finding friends and family. The Bennett family (the Belón family in real life) fly to Thailand for a Christmas beach vacation. On their third day, the waves hit their beach resort with no warning, and the family is separated into two groups, each not knowing if the others are alive. Given the destruction around them, it seems most likely that they are not.

This is the tsunami as seen by the individual, shot to show the real physical and emotional toll of the survivors in the immediate aftermath. Spanish-directed and produced (but in the English language), director Juan Antonio Bayona decided to use large-scale models and large water tanks so that most of the scenes use real water, not CGI. The scenes of Maria and Lucas underwater, being battered by tree roots and debris as the waves strike, are particularly frightening. The only scene in the entire movie that is "not real" is Maria's flashback as she goes under anesthesia before surgery, where she relives the first wave hitting. "Think of something nice," the nurse says. Even the dream sequences are terrifying.

I thought for a moment that this movie might be like the movies and television shows I constantly complain about, those that use the suffering of children to cheaply manipulate the emotions of the audience. I decided that since this is an entire movie about human suffering, and not just a plot device meant to get a rise out of the viewers (I'm thinking about you, Rust and Bone), it was somehow OK. They went big, but I knew what I was in for. Despite being tough to get through, it's still an $8.00 movie.

Opposite of The Impossible, Life of Pi seems like it could entirely be a dream, or a children's book come to life, or a color-saturated fairy tale. The movie has been adapted from a novel by Yann Martel, and tells the story of Piscine Molitor Patel, a boy named after a swimming pool in Paris. He is inquisitive as a child in Pondicherry, India, and soon begins to worship God as a Hindu, a Catholic, and a Muslim, all at the same time. His father, who runs a zoo, tolerates his son's religious activities but encourages him to use reason to guide his life. He doesn't listen.

A few years later, the zoo begins to fail financially, and Pi's father decides to move the family to Winnipeg, Canada. He loads his family and all the zoo animals (which he intended to sell) on a freighter headed for North America across the Pacific. The boat sinks and Pi (now a teenager) survives only because he went above deck to watch the storm. This is where is starts to get fanciful: Pi left the freighter on a lifeboat, which contains not only him, but a Zebra, a Hyena, and an Orangutan who floated over on a fishing net full of bananas.

The animals don't get on too well. Zebra kicks Hyena, Hyena kills Zebra, Orangutan punches Hyena, Hyena kills Orangutan, and then, surprise surprise, out from under the lifeboat tarp, Bengal Tiger attacks and kills Hyena and eats them all. Pi escapes the Tiger by making a raft of life jackets and oars, ties it to the boat, and floats just out of the Tiger's reach. And so begins Pi's journey of survival on the ocean, which is full of wonderful and dangerous things. Plus there's the Tiger on his boat.

The movie is narrated by Pi Patel in middle age, who is telling his story to an author interested in the adventure of his youth. He tells the author that when he finally landed in Mexico and was saved, officials from the Japanese shipping company that owned the sunken freighter listened to his fantastic story but did not believe him. He then told a more conventional story of four people ending up in the lifeboat, but the other three ended up killing each other, and only he survived.

Pi asks the author which story he prefers, and the author chooses the one with the animals. But now the seed of doubt has been planted - is Pi's Tiger story true, or did he imagine it to block out the horror of his reality? Strange things can happen to someone's mind after 227 days at sea. Now we must have faith in Pi to believe his amazing story of faith. It's an interesting twist at the end of this colorful, beautifully-shot, fairy tale adventure, which I will also give an $8.00.

So I put the question to you: do you like your disaster movies more like Saving Private Ryan (horrific beach scenes, first-person realism, destroyed landscape) or like The Lion King (father dies, son returns from exile, colorful animation)?

Monday, February 4, 2013

Schedule Change: Unreasonable Movie Project to be twice per week

Hey movie fans! In order to give you a quality product, I'm going to make the Unreasonable Movie Project a twice per week proposition for the next three weeks (Tuesdays & Fridays). I will have a bonus post on the day of the Oscars, and a wrap-up post as well, so hopefully nobody feels cheated. You've always gotten what you've paid for here at the Unreasonable Movie Project, but in the event I accidentally "set the bar" for some nice folks, I don't want to disappoint them.

Unreasonable Movie Project Schedule:

Tuesday, February 5: The Impossible/Life of Pi
Friday, February 8: tentatively Amour/Salmon Fishing in the Yemen + BAFTA Awards
Tuesday, February 12: tentatively Bernie/Arbitrage + Film Independent Spirit Awards
Friday, February 15: tentatively Anna Karenina/Deep Blue Sea
Tuesday, February 19: tentatively Django Unchained/Seven Psychopaths
Friday, February 22: tentatively Les Miserables/Zero Dark Thirty
Tuesday, February 24: Oscar Preview + Oscar Live Tweeting: @jay_kelly
Friday, February 25: Oscar Wrap-Up

If the changes above are not satisfactory, all complaints can be registered in the comment section, and will forwarded to the appropriate parties within 24 hours. For ease of processing, please designate your submission as a schedule complaint, content complaint, or general gripe. Crazy trolling will also be accepted. Thank you.

Happy movie-going!

Old Film Buff Blessing:
May your admission prices never rise,
May the kid behind you never kick the back of your seat,
May the screen shine warm upon your face,
and the candy fall soft upon your hands
(without spilling in darkness to the sticky floor below)
And until you sit in spring-loaded chairs again,
May you dream of winning the Palm D'Or in Cannes.

Friday, February 1, 2013

The Unreasonable Movie Project (Vol. 12): 12-Year-Old Kids and Imaginary Kingdoms

When my wife leaves, the conversation often turns to more childish things at my house...

"Will, how was your day at school?" I ask.

"Good," Will says.

"How about you Louise, you have a good day?"

"Yep," Louise says.

"That's good...[thinking]...wanna see how far Daddy got on the Tatooine level of Angry Birds Star Wars?" I ask.

"YAAAAAYYYYYY!!!!," they yell out in unison.

I promise that my knowledge of what my kids do in school is deeper than this. It just didn't get any deeper on this particular night. After showing the kids how I got three stars on most of the Tatooine levels, I had a thought.

Louise saw me thinking this thought and said, "When you smile a little bit and you look really sneaky, it means your thinking about letting us watch television, Daddy."

"We watched the first Star Wars movie, right? Have I ever let you watch the second movie, The Empire Strikes Back?"


So we watched Empire, the best of the Star Wars movies. They were groundbreaking at the time, and my kids loved it, but for me as an adult, the movie didn't hold up that well. George Lucas really can't write, a fact that's exposed when you watch the movies again and again over the years. This wasn't the majority public opinion until Lucas foisted Episode I on us in 1999. We were no longer falling for his special effects misdirection - when Lucas was doing CGI parlor tricks with his left hand, we could see him writing badly behind the curtain, hoping we wouldn't notice.

Fortunately for Lucas, in 1977, he was doing something no one had seen before. His screenwriting shortcomings were masked by a young Harrison Ford (who acted the hell out of the ludicrous dialogue he was given), he had a visual sense of style like no one before him, and he had created a wonderful imaginary world. As a kid, I was into it. All the movies, all the toys, every detail. And what did I know about good dialogue at that age? More than anything else, Empire made me feel nostalgic for a time when I could immerse myself in something like that.

The night after watching Empire, I watched Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom. Anderson, like Lucas, creates his own worlds for his movies. They may seem like the real world, but they are a quirkier, more colorful, and far more symmetrical. Anderson doesn't carry his characters over from movie to movie, but his style is so distinct that you know when you're in Wes Anderson's head. The private school extra-curriculars of Rushmore, the underwater voyages of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, and the forest island of Moonrise Kingdom all take place in the same meticulously art-directed, storybook world. They may not take place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far way, but that's OK.

Moonrise Kingdom features kids in a way he hasn't done since Rushmore, Anderson's best movie and one of my favorites of all time. Some of his best characters have been young, digging into life without fear of failure, even if mixed results ensue. I don't think his films are as strong when he's portraying damaged characters, or at least when ALL the characters are damaged. The exception is Bill Murray, who appears in all Wes Anderson movies and is almost always damaged, but no one pulls it off quite like Bill Murray.

I have a feeling that if I were a 12-year-old today, I would be immersing myself in Wes Anderson's work. Moonrise Kingdom, about a boy and a girl about that age who run away together, is funny like all Wes Anderson movie are, and has a bit of that taboo thrill of pre-teen love. It also has plenty of rummaging-through-a-thrift-store details to geek out on. Anderson actually commissioned cover art for the six storybooks that Kara Hayward's character Suzy reads during the movie, and Anderson himself wrote the passages she reads from these books. He also decided to animate all six books, even though this animation does not appear in the movie.

The man is a slave to detail, which you can see almost all of on the Moonrise Kingdom web site, one of the most comprehensive movie web sites I've ever seen. I'm giving this movie an $8.00.

I wished I could have watched the movie with my Dad, who reminds me of Ed Norton's character Scout Master Ward. Set in 1965, Scout Master Ward is in charge of Camp Ivanhoe, a "khaki-scout" camp on New Penzance Island. In 1965, my Dad was 21 years old, and near that age served as a camp counselor at Many Point Scout Camp outside of Detroit Lakes, Minnesota. I can imagine my Dad spot-checking uniforms and camp sites, handing out demerits to messy kids, but ultimately caring about whether they were having a good time and learning something.

And I'm sure he could weave a hell of a lanyard.

Next post: I'm trying to group the movies I have left to see according to theme so I can write a few interesting weekend posts before the Oscars. So maybe it'll be a Life of Pi/The Impossible against-all-odds/natural-disaster weekend. Oh goody.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Unreasonable Movie Project (Vol. 11): The Master of Moonshine and Mood Swings

When Ben Affleck won Best Director at the Golden Globes, he seemed genuinely honored during his speech to win among such great directors, and then compared the director of The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson, to Orson Welles. Anderson is definitely talented, and is a much different director than Affleck.

Affleck is like Clint Eastwood - he's turning into a director that understands the elements of good storytelling and delivers them in a pleasing way. That's not to say he's making simplistic movies, because Gone Baby Gone was a complex story with an ending that gives the audience a lot to think about, but he isn't creating movies likely to have multiple interpretations. He lays his cards on the table, and he wants to entertain.

Anderson is more like a novelist. He's also adept at storytelling, but he gives you a bit more to chew on. Maybe he'll entertain you with the story, maybe he'll entertain you with the performances of his actors. Or maybe he won't entertain you at all, but he'll give you something to talk about. This is true for The Master. The movie is essentially about a relationship between two men, but if Anderson is making a statement through this relationship, it's got layers.

I have really enjoyed some of Paul Thomas Anderson's past movies...Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, Magnolia. I never saw Punch-Drunk Love. I didn't enjoy There Will Be Blood...I appreciated it but didn't like it. The Master falls somewhere in between. I have not decoded the layers.

Part of the problem with this movie lies in its pre-release buzz. There were rumors that it was some sort of condemnation and expose of Scientology, and that elicited some strong reactions in people. Anderson himself has said that he did a tremendous amount of research on Scientology to help him create this movie, but it IS NOT about Scientology. It's about two men. One of these men, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), has created his own religion, and he's clearly a fraud, but that is only a component of the story. Dodd has a pathological need to be loved and respected, and finds an unusual challenge in a WWII vet named Freddie Quell who stows away on Dodd's boat.

Freddie (Joaquin Phoenix), has problems, major problems. Likely unstable even before the war, he joins the Navy where he learns to make moonshine with the precision of a chemist. After returning from the Pacific, he is an angry alcoholic with PTSD issues, impulse control issues, and can't-keep-a-job issues. He's got so many issues that the folks with the fake religion can barely tolerate him. But Dodd can't cast him out, maybe for the challenge of making Freddie love him. That and Freddie's moonshine.

Hoffman, Phoenix, and Amy Adams, who plays Hoffman's wife, are all nominated for Oscars. Adams does a fine job, Hoffman is great, but Phoenix gives a performance that should unquestionably win Best Actor if it weren't for Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln. I thought DDL was a slam dunk in this category, and he probably still is, but Phoenix creates an underweight, stooped-over character in such emotional pain that it made me cringe more than Joaquin Phoenix as a rapper. If this was a non-DDL year, he would win.

That's what I enjoyed most about this movie - the performances. The interplay between Hoffman and Phoenix was phenomenal, especially in the scenes where Hoffman is trying to indoctrinate Phoenix into "The Cause."

But what did the characters learn (not sure)? How did the characters change (don't know that they did)? Did we travel from Point A to Point B, or did we stay in the same place (there was some boat travel, and some passage through time, but other than that...)? I was left with all these questions. I don't know that I needed a Ben Affleck ending, all tied up in a bow, but I wanted something more than what I got. I'm giving The Master a $7.00.

Next post: It looks like Life of Pi is disappearing from theaters, and I'm starting to realize that there are very important award categories that the Oscars have neglected.

Monday, January 28, 2013

The Unreasonable Movie Project (Vol. 10): The Prequel to the Remake of a Parody/Homage of a Classic

The major complaint of movies these days is that no one is coming up with any original ideas. I do not dispute the disturbing number of sequels and prequels and sequels to the prequels, but anyone who thinks this is a 21st Century problem is romanticizing the past. Ever since there have been movies, people have been stealing bits of stories, parts of stories, or entire stories. This was of course preceded by people stealing ideas for books, preceded by people stealing ideas for stories told around the campfire.

I don't even know you can call it stealing, because some believe only seven basic story-types exist anyway. If this is true, you have to steal because there are no new ideas. Recycle one of seven, or put a few together in a mash-up, mess with the linear time structure, and call it new. That's all you can do. The seven are:
  1. Overcoming the Monster: Hero or heroine destroys monster (personal nemesis, personal demons, actual demons...) to restore order.
  2. Rags to Riches: Hero or heroine with undeniable talent triumphs over humble (or crappy-through-no-fault-of-their-own) beginnings.
  3. The Quest: Hero or heroine embarks on a journey (with sidekicks) to overcome evil and bring back stuff (and chicks, or dudes).
  4. Voyage and Return: Kinda like The Quest, except the journey wasn't a choice, so it's a journey BACK for hero and heroine, and perhaps there's no loot. Or chicks.
  5. Rebirth: Things begin badly for the hero or heroine, but through this and that and what have you, second chances happen.
  6. Comedy: In the Shakespearian sense, involves confusion and misadventures, perhaps caused by (possibly flawed) hero or herione, but things work out. 
  7. Tragedy: In the Shakesperian sense (or any other sense), things don't work out.
This theory makes sense to me. Quentin Tarantino and Christopher Nolan can layer stories on top of one another, chop up their time sequences a million different ways, mix in any modern twists, but the basic plots remain. That said, I have trouble identifying which of the seven, or combination of the seven, encompasses Pulp Fiction...I don't know if anyone has figured it out.

This weekend I saw Frankenweenie with the kids, and The Hobbit, two movies that cannot claim to be "original" in the young-hotshot-wrote-a-story-and-then-scraped-together-funding-and-then-managed-to-make-something-that-won-the-Caméra-d'Or-at-Cannes sense of the word. Not even close.

The 95-minute, animated Frankenweenie (2012), by Tim Burton, is a remake of Frankenweenie (1984), a 30-minute, live-action Tim Burton. The 1984 version was a parody and an homage to the 1931 version of Frankenstein. I can't decide whether to award or deduct points to a man who rips himself off. The original is oddly loaded with stars (Daniel Stern, Shelley Duvall, the kid from The NeverEnding Story...), but the rumor is that Disney fired Burton afterward for wasting company resources on something that would be too scary for kids. His next project would be Pee-wee's Big Adventure, which is completely awesome, definitely my favorite of his movies.

Frankenweenie is up for Best Animated Feature at the Oscars, along with Brave, ParaNorman, Wreck-It Ralph, and The Pirates! Band of Misfits. I have now seen all five, and I am surprised to say that I may have enjoyed Frankenweenie more than any of them. I've tended to dismiss Tim Burton in the past few years because he's so very...Tim Burton, but the story was funny, and not too scary for the kids (although the trailer scared the pants off them, and they did not want to see this for months). It's also very stylish - you can see the influence of the original Frankenstein. I liked it a lot, and gave it an $8.00.

Wreck-It Ralph just won Best Animated Film at the Producers Guild Awards, and Brave won the Golden Globe, so any of them could win the Oscar. ParaNorman may be the most original and best written of the five (I bet whoever made it is a big Tim Burton fan), but it was also the scariest and the most mature. The only disappointment for me was Ardman Animations' The Pirates!, which was a big let down compared with Chicken Run and their Wallace & Gromit work. It just wasn't as fun or as funny. Perhaps it was Al Roker's fault.

And even though it got no award-love, animation fans should also see Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted. The Penguins in this series have got to be the funniest animated characters created in the last 10 years.

In terms of being "original," The Hobbit has an entirely different issue. It's not a remake, but another chapter in the longest movie ever made. Let me start by saying that I love The Lord of the Rings. I own the Director's Cut box set of all three, but they are not distinct movies, they are one 12-hour-long movie. That's not a judgement, it just is what it is. With The Hobbit, which is the first of three new movies, Peter Jackson has now created his own personal Star Wars. The Fellowship of the Ring is now Episode IV, and The Hobbit is Episode I.

But even George Lucas was making separate movies. Jackson hasn't changed a thing. It's the same cinematography, same musical score, same characters, same imaginary world (albeit 60 years earlier), and same author of the original material. If you didn't like the first 12 hours of this movie, you will probably not like the second 12 hours either, which is fine. If you are a big fan of The Lord of the Rings, you will get more of the same. It's good, but it has forfeited the element of surprise. And it'll test your endurance. Can you imagine the Hobbit/Lord movie marathons of the future? 24 hours of movie, with short breaks, in a theater. That's a two-day ordeal. Viewers will have to bring sleeping bags and camp overnight in the lobby.

The question I really wanted answered while I watched was "how are they going to get three 160-minute movies out of that little book?" The Lord of the Rings trilogy is a thick, dense affair with lots of details from which to pluck scenes and dialogue for a movie or three. The Hobbit is one book, and much less dense in style than its successors. At times, I had the suspicion that Jackson was using Tolkien's exact words and action on the screen, not at all edited and reduced like most screenplays do to their source material. I'd like to go back and read the 'riddle contest' scene between Bilbo and Gollum in the book - I bet it sucks those passages dry.

Regardless, I enjoy this series, so I enjoyed this portion as well. It's a $7.50 movie. This weekend did not strike a blow for wildly original film-making, but I had a good time with it. At the very least, it allowed me to take a break from serious French films that pull the emotional football out of the way just before I kick it.

Next post: The Master, which may or may not be about Scientology, finally has appeared in a theater in Minneapolis, so I have to strike while the iron is hot. Barrett Oliver, the kid from The Neverending Story (above), totally disappeared from the public sphere at age 16 despite a busy acting career, supposedly because of Scientology. If that's true, why has Tom Cruise never disappeared?

Friday, January 25, 2013

The Unreasonable Movie Project (Vol. 9): The Fine Line Between Stupid and Clever

I saw De rouille et d'os (Rust and Bone) on January 23, and I do not want to tell you about it. I want to tell you about how tired I am, and that I've seen 12 movies in 17 days. I want to let you know I have another 18 movies to go before the Oscars, but that I will surely go blind or keel over by then. There's a decent chance there will be no Unreasonable Movie Project Oscar Picks or live-tweeting the broadcast because I will have passed out and slept through it. That’s what I'm telling you.

This has been building, but Rust and Bone pushed me over the edge. It’s the kind of movie that takes it out of you, and the perfect movie to address something I've been thinking about since seeing Beasts of the Southern Wild. What's the difference between being entertained by a movie (or not), and appreciating a movie as an art form (or not)?

The lines are not exact, but there are four basic types of movies:
  1. Good movies that you like
  2. Good movies that you do not like
  3. Bad movies that you like
  4. Bad movies that you do not like
Obviously, good movies that you like are the best of everything. The movie has entertained you, or provided you with whatever it is that satisfies you when you go to the movies. You liked the story, or liked the actors, or it made you happy or sad or scared and that’s what you expected. Good movies that you like also have value in a larger context, meaning that, other than just you, they please a large number of others, and possibly are recognized and/or win awards (like the Oscars).

Examples of good movies that I like: Lincoln, Silver Linings Playbook, The Sessions, Pulp Fiction, Schindler’s List, Full Metal Jacket, Memento, The Hustler, and my favorite movie of all time, The Usual Suspects.

Then there are good movies that you do not like. This is a tricky category, and is defined as movies that clearly have value, but you did not enjoy watching them. They are well-crafted, or well-acted, or well-written, but they aren't to your taste. They are like a famous piece of art that you would never in a million years hang on your wall. Beasts of the Southern Wild fell into this category for me recently. I felt like there was value in what I was seeing, but I did not enjoy it. The messages of the movie didn't quite resonate, but I could appreciate the work. This category is also for movies that happen to trigger any personal tripwires. I react very strongly to any movies (or TV, or any other media) that deal with kids getting hurt or killed. I can’t deal with those kinds of stories any more, and I know that I can't be objective about them. Plus musicals...I can't handle musicals.

Other examples of good movies that I do not like: Happiness, Moulin Rouge!, Local Hero (I know several people who love this movie), Kids, A Clockwork Orange, and There Will Be Blood.

Bad movies that you like, more commonly known as guilty pleasures, are usually raunchy comedies or stupid action movies. They also might be really, really terrible B movies, which are so bad that the entertainment value is off the charts. Mystery Science Theater 3000 was founded on the principle of people hanging out and making fun of bad movies. Whether you are the kind of person who will admit to these guilty pleasures or not, we all have a list tucked away somewhere in our brains. Cable television survives on guilty pleasures.

Examples of bad movies that I like: Point Break (my wife loves this movie), Road House, Red Dawn (the original; see how almost any Swayze movie works here?), White Men Can’t Jump, Superbad, Rocky IV, Predator, The Fifth ElementHudson Hawk, etc.

Bad movies that you don't like are very bad. Usually these can be avoided all together by not being fooled by trailers, web site ratings from and, and word of mouth. A friend of mine has a theory that if a particular movie is being marketed TOO heavily, that's a sign of a bad movie. And if you hear that a studio refused to screen a movie for critics, that's a sign of a very bad movie.

Examples of bad movies that I do not like: Most horror movies, most Adam Sandler movies, Battlefield Earth, Bio-Dome, A Night at the Roxbury (or most movies produced by SNL's Lorne Michaels), and the truly terrible Napolean Dynamite (cue the torrent of Gen Y outrage...).

There are movies that fall in between categories. One of my favorite movies of all time is The Big Lebowski, and I don't think it's truly a 'good movie that I like.' It might very well be a guilty pleasure. I can think of a few other comedies like this, like Wedding Crashers, The 40 Year Old Virgin, and even Animal House, which could very well be the Gen X Napolean Dynamite. You never know how well a comedy will hold up. Like David St. Hubbins once said, "There's a fine line between stupid and clever."

Rust and Bone falls into the ‘good movies that I do not like’ category for me. I got through nearly the whole thing, and it was going to be a good movie that I liked. It's beautifully shot, and the director does an amazing job of telling the story visually. It's a wonderfully subtle example of "show don't tell" film-making. Marion Cotillard is very good, and has been nominated for several awards.

But then I had a very visceral reaction to a critical scene near the end. The movie was moving toward a natural resolution (I thought), but the writer wanted something more dramatic. Maybe it was necessary, but I did not appreciate it. It felt emotionally manipulative. I won't give it away, but know that it is a piece of art I cannot hang on my wall. But that's just me. Maybe you would hang it in your living room, right over your couch.

Next post: Movie night with the kids, featuring Frankenweenie, and then finding the most fun, energizing movie that remains on my list. Maybe Moonrise Kingdom, or The Hobbit? Maybe both!

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Unreasonable Movie Project (Vol. 8): The Sex Life of a Paralyzed Poet

I've worked for two organizations that directly support people with disabilities in my career. Despite my work, I have never, ever had a conversation with anyone about how much people with disabilities want or like to have sex. Never happened. With conversations in the workplace about sex being frowned upon, no incident reports have been filed, no cases prosecuted. Gold star for me.

But have I even thought about these issues? Why not? I don't usually slip into that common perception that those with disabilities are either less-capable or super-capable (think Stephen Hawking), and unlike me. They're just people, with wants and needs. Not excluding sex. Seems spectacularly reasonable (I feel I'm qualified on what's reasonable/unreasonable right now). Maybe I have a different bias: "Hi, my name is Jay, and I'm a prude."

If you see The Sessions, you will think about these issues. The movie is based on the writings of Mark O'Brien, a journalist and poet who was struck by polio at age 6, and from then on was only able to move three muscles, one in his neck, one in his jaw, and another in one foot. Despite needing to be in an iron lung for large portions of the day, he graduated from the University of California at Berkeley, where he used to drive around by himself on a custom-made electric gurney. Evidently he would crash quite a bit because the mirrors he used to see didn't work that well, and he would convince passers-by to set him back up so he could get on his way.

He even opened a small publishing house for poets with disabilities. There is a short documentary that featured O'Brien called Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O'Brien, which won an Oscar in 1997. O'Brien passed away in 1999.

In his late 30's, O'Brien decided he wanted to lose his virginity, so he worked with a sex surrogate. The movie is based on an article he wrote about those "sessions." John Hawkes plays the role of O'Brien with little movement (obviously) and a squeaky voice due to O'Brien's limited lung capacity. Nominated for Best Actor at the Golden Globes, the Screen Actors Guild Awards and the Film Independent Spirit Awards, Hawkes plays him as a regular guy, which he was. A funny, observant, talented, regular guy, who it just so happens couldn't move most of his body.

"The two mythologies about disabled people break down to: one, we can’t do anything; or two, we can do everything," O'Brien says in Breathing Lessons. "But the truth is, we’re just human."

Helen Hunt has been nominated for Best Supporting Actress at the Oscars, the Golden Globes, the BAFTA Awards, the Screen Actors Guild Awards, and the Film Independent Spirit Awards for her role as Cheryl Cohen-Greene, O'Brien's sex surrogate. The role required her to be naked a lot of the time, but in a far more clinical than passionate way, for the most part. The viewer's eye tends to drift to Hawkes when he is on screen (despite Hunt's nudity), but clearly she is being recognized by her peers this year for a very challenging role.

There is a matter-of-fact quality to her portrayal, and that quality seems to permeate the movie. This is not a story about a man overcoming adversity or prejudice or advocacy, as many stories about people with disabilities are. This is more about O'Brien's emotional growth. He has physical barriers that set up the story, but the real barriers are emotional. He's a complex person, as we all are. This is more of a first-person account of new experiences, and how those experiences can change our lives.

The Sessions won the Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival last year, in addition to all the nominations for Hawkes and Hunt, so this film has the potential to take home a lot of hardware. It's funny and emotional, and very well done all around. But guess what? Nobody saw it. Maybe it'll do very well on DVD, but no one saw it in the theater. I saw it with three other people, and by that, I don't mean that I saw the movie with three friends. I mean that there were four of us sitting in the theater. Four.

After I and my fellow viewers elbowed our way out of the theater, I was curious, so checked the domestic box office take for the movie when I got home (you can find anything on the interwebs). The Sessions brought in only $5.8 million, approximately, since mid-October in U.S. theaters. For comparison, The Hobbit brought in $84.7 million in its first three days when it was released in December.

Just for fun, here are the box office numbers for the movies I've seen for the Unreasonable Movie Project so far (through January 21, 2013), plus The Hobbit:

Skyfall: $301.0 million, 11 weeks

   The Hobbit: $288.6 million, 6 weeks

Brave: $237.3 million, 30 weeks

Lincoln: $161.8 million, 11 weeks

Argo: $115.2 million, 15 weeks

Flight: $93.1 million, 12 weeks

Silver Linings Playbook: $56.7 million, 10 weeks

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel: $46.4 million, 22 weeks

Cloud Atlas: $27.1 million, 13 weeks

Beasts of the Southern Wild: $11.5 million, 30 weeks

The Sessions, $5.80 million, 14 weeks

Hitchcock: $5.79 million, 9 weeks

So of the 11 movies I've seen so far (plus The Hobbit), The Sessions missed being dead last at the box office by $100,000. And The Hobbit brought in almost 50 times more money. I have not see that movie yet, but I would be surprised if I rate it a $8.50, like I am rating The Sessions, even though I am a big fan of The Lord of the Rings series. I feel like I might be Middle-Earth-weary. But we'll see... after all, it is An Unexpected Journey.

Next post: It's unofficially Nudity Week here at The Unreasonable Movie Project, with my next movie likely being Rust and Bone.