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.

Monday, January 21, 2013

The Unreasonable Movie Project (Vol. 7): James Bond Vs. the Beasts in the Bathtub

When I told her this weekend I needed to see Skyfall * again, my wife asked, “Do you really have to see movies you've already seen?”

“Well, I did make the rule,” I said. Rule #2 of The Unreasonable Movie Project is ‘every movie must be seen from this day forward.’ It was a fail-safe, a second nuke-key around my neck to make sure the readers got fresh information and that I didn't cheat. It ensures total unreasonability.

Good thing I did follow the rule, because dragging myself to a Sunday-morning Skyfall to comply yielded an interesting discovery. Of the three British movies I've seen, all three (this plus The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Hitchcock) have plot lines about getting older, and two are about Judi Dench getting older.

If only Dench had been available for Hitchcock, she could have made it 3-for-3. She actually looks like Alfred Hitchcock’s wife Alma Reville far more than Helen Mirren, but I suppose other English actresses need to work too. Still, this smacks of an English version of the Stuhlbarg Syndrome.**

Bond movies tend to be hit or miss, but it didn't bother me at all to see this movie again because Skyfall is a very good action movie. From the more recent Bond flicks, I've enjoyed Casino Royale and, if you remember the Pierce Brosnan era, GoldenEye. This one was as good or better. Sam Mendes of American Beauty and Road To Perdition fame directed, and did very well despite no previous connection to the Bond franchise.

My first experience with James Bond was Roger Moore in Moonraker, which I saw on TV as a kid. I wish I had a cooler story to tell, like I saw all six Connery Bond films before I was 10 years old, but I don't. I was born in the 70's, I saw Moonraker on TV, and I liked it. That Jaws guy was scary.

Skyfall was on my radar for this project because it was getting some pretty heavy pre-nomination Oscar buzz, and not just for the technical awards. It's up for Best Cinematography and four other Oscars, but the Best Picture rumors ended up being just rumors. It's well-represented at the BAFTA Awards, up for Outstanding British Film of the Year, Judi Dench for Best Supporting Actress, and Javier Bardem for Best Supporting Actor. It's well-deserved - I give the movie an $8.00.

Bardem, Dench and Daniel Craig are quite good. The entire movie revolves around the team of Dench and Craig and whether they are both too old to be effective in their respective roles. Dench is the aging coach being steered toward retirement for a mistake, and Craig is her star athlete, past his prime, body breaking down. And even though there were are no nominations for him, Craig needs to get something, a tin foil trophy, anything for making us believe even for a moment that his 007 is a drunk not fit for her majesty's service (which he does). If he drinks at all in real life, he's doing it in between reps at the gym.

The other movie I saw this weekend was about as un-Bond as you can get. Of all the Best Picture nominees, Beasts of the Southern Wild will be the one that people most disagree on. Because it's such a spare movie, some will argue that there isn't much to it. Others will argue the opposite, that its simplicity is its genius, and that simple stories have the most depth. The reactions will probably tell you more about the viewer than the movie.

Set in a near-future where southern Louisiana is going underwater from global warming, a levee is built to protect civilization in northern Louisiana and beyond. Most people live north of the levee, but not everyone. There are those who choose to live "in the Bathtub" south of the levee. We're left to guess why these small groups of people have stayed, many on the edge of squalor, some deep in it. They drink a lot, eat lots of crab and crawfish, and seem to be in a state of endless Mardi Gras, perhaps waiting for the world to flood completely.

The people depicted have a certain way of life, neither good nor bad. It is part of the story, but many viewers will be completely distracted by it. The flooded terrain makes what most would consider "normal life" impossible. If you can't get past it, you won't see anything else. And you won't like the movie.

Yes, these characters live in squalor...yes, these characters are making odd parenting decisions...yes, these characters drink a lot. But the movie is about a little girl who is trying to make sense of the world in the time and place she was put into it. Quvenzhané Wallis was nominated for Best Actress for her role as Hushpuppy, a 6-year-old who lives with her father and has imaginary conversations with the mother that abandoned them. Hushpuppy is fiercely loyal to her father, despite the fact he keeps her at arms length. He can't imagine living anywhere but "the Bathtub," no matter how high the waters rise.

I found the movie hard to watch. I think I understand what the filmmaker was trying to express, particularly the theme about the connections we have to the places we're from, but the broader "finding our place in the cosmos" thread was less well-developed. The Best Actress nomination for Wallis confuses me too. Almost all the people who appeared in the film were previously non-actors, including Wallis, but I thought Dwight Henry was much more interesting to watch as the father. I'd rate this as a $7.00 movie, without much of a realistic shot at any awards.

There is some fantasy in Beasts of the Southern Wild that I liked, about stone-age creatures encased in Antartic ice being released as the earth warms. I don't know that it quite worked, but I liked it. Maybe it's this same magic that explains how a group of  people, basically cut off from modern society, somehow get their hands on so much beer.

* Stuhlbarg Syndrome Alert: Judi Dench, who appeared in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, appears in Skyfall, although this is her 7th time appearing in the series. Ben Whishaw, who played multiple parts in Cloud Atlas, also popped up in Skyfall as Q, Bond’s quartermaster (equipment/tech guy).

** Definition of the Stuhlbarg Syndrome: The dissonance created by recognizable actors being in too many movies in a given year, thus reducing their credibility for audience members in those roles. At times, can mean certain death for a film. Its presence can be detected by the audible phrase "Hey! I know [him/her]! That's [character name] from [movie or television show]!"

Friday, January 18, 2013

The Unreasonable Movie Project (Vol. 6): Helen Mirren Edged Out by a (Prosthetic) Nose

Hypothetically, let’s say you’re a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and it's time to pick the women you think should be up for Best Actress. The BAFTAs, the Screen Actor’s Guild Awards, and the Golden Globes have all nominated Helen Mirren for her role in Hitchcock. She’s in good company too, as one of four women nominated by all three (Jessica Chastain, Marion Cotillard, and Jennifer Lawrence are the others). And she already has an Oscar for The Queen, which makes her Oscar royalty. So Helen is a lock, right?

Well, not exactly, because you’re a Hollywood big shot, and maybe you didn't see Hitchcock (even though all the Academy members are sent ALL the films) because not a lot of other people saw it, and the box office is such a big deal to the Academy, or at least making money is important to its members, like you. And Helen Mirren has been nominated SO many times, and she’s kinda boring, and what would be more interesting than Helen? How about if we nominated a 6-year-old (Quvenzhané Wallis for Beasts of the Southern Wild) and an 85-year-old (Emmanuelle Riva for Amour) in the same category? That would be brilliant drama, wouldn’t it? Great photo ops!

But, if Helen’s out, you still have to nominate Hitchcock for something, don’t you? What else is there? There are lots of famous actors in it, but who stood out? Wasn't Scarlett Johansson in it? You mean no one nominated anyone in Hitchcock for anything, other than Helen? Really? Uh oh. What? The Brits nominated Hitchcock for a Best Makeup award? What for? Ooohhhhh...his nose. Anthony Hopkins had a prosthetic nose to look more like Alfred Hitchcock. I guess that’ll do.

That’s how I imagine Helen Mirren was replaced at the Oscars with a prosthetic nose. Sad. Mildly implausible, but more importantly, sad, I think. And Anthony’s nose is going to get annihilated in that category at both the Oscars and the BAFTAs by The Hobbit, which has half of New Zealand in the cast made up to look like elves, dwarves, hobbits and orcs.

I still had to see the movie, for Helen. As I cross-checked my calendar, my Unreasonable Movie Spreadsheet (which tracks movies and various miscellaneous data), and the local movie listings for various theaters, I realized I might not have another chance to see Hitchcock beyond this week. Its DVD release date hasn't been set, and the three second-run theaters showing it now are not continuing past January 17.

This is an example of some of the logistical problems I've been running into with a handful of movies. It’s showing me the truth about stupid public stunts: it's exciting when you find the fool to wear the stars-and-stripes leisure suit and make the motorcycle jump; it takes effort to find the 30 buses to jump over. So before it disappeared, to the Riverview Theater I went.

The Riverview is one of the best theaters in the Twin Cities. It’s an old theater, in good shape, with new seats. It’s second-run movies are cheap, and so are the concessions. I love it. In this particular case, it’s cool to see a movie about Hitchcock in a theater that may have shown Psycho when it was released. It’s definitely shown it since - the Riverview does a great job with special showings and retrospectives of the classics.

Turns out the movie isn’t really about Alfred (or his nose). It’s about the personal and working relationship Alfred had with his wife, Alma Reville (Mirren). It’s a loosely-interpreted story taken from Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, by Stephen Rebello. In 1959, Alfred Hitchcock had just released North By Northwest, which was a smash hit. Then someone pointed out that he’s 60, and asked why he wasn't retiring. He then starts looking for his next project, becoming enthralled with a book about a serial killer from Wisconsin.

Alfred and Alma, married since 1926, had been collaborating for years on his movies. Psycho, which he begins shooting in 1959 and financed himself, was no different. Alma was heavily involved in the screenplay and the final edit, and the story suggests that while their relationship wasn't always smooth (Hitchcock was known to be somewhat obsessed with his blonde bombshell leading ladies), they loved each other, and brought out the best in one another. I certainly appreciated the story about partnership - my wife edits this blog (thanks babes!), making it possible for me to put something creative out in the world without me looking stupid. Parts of my writing are my wife, and parts of Hitchcock's movies were Alma.

This movie is by no means an exhaustive look at his career (and doesn't try to be), but I thought this was good story about Alfred and Alma, two people struggling not to be dismissed by the public or by each other as they get older, professionally or personally. It was quick-moving and entertaining. I’d give it a $7.50.

And yes, this was another movie with a known ending. Alfred Hitchcock was certainly under pressure to make Psycho a financial success because he had financed it himself, which was a risky venture. The studios didn't want to finance a slasher film. We all know he ended up making an unexpected classic. This tension drives the story forward, but the eventual success of Psycho is secondary. As an audience, we want Alfred and Alma to be alright, to remain in love, and to keep making movies together. Sorry Argo, Hitchcock doesn't lose as many points with me for this issue.

Can I address one more issue? An actor named Michael Stuhlbarg has now appeared in three movies I've seen this year, Hitchcock, Lincoln, and Seven Psychopaths. Some of you know him as Arnold Rothstein in Boardwalk Empire, and he also appeared in Men In Black 3. I don’t know how he has the time.

There is a mini-trend here. John Hawkes was in The Sessions and Lincoln in 2012. Joseph Gordon-Levitt was in Lincoln, Looper, Premium Rush, and The Dark Knight Rises. Jennifer Lawrence was in Silver Linings Playbook, The Hunger Games, Devil You Know, and House at the End of the Street.

Are there fewer than 50 working actors in Hollywood these days? Is this now an undesirable profession? Are beautiful teenagers no longer flocking to California on buses? Or are casting agents being paid to hire only known actors? Whatever the cause of this phenomena (let’s call it the Stuhlbarg Syndrome for now), it's a sickness. Recognizing character actors too often can produce confusion and disorientation in audiences. Remember when Sam from Cheers showed up in Saving Private Ryan? It threw everyone for a loop, ruined the whole flow of the movie. Spielberg may as well have cast Woody and Coach as German soldiers after that.

If the Stuhlbarg Syndrome turns from mini-trend into pandemic in 2013, we might have to look for a cure. Until then, cover your prosthetic nose when you sneeze.

Next post: Beast of the Southern Wild and the latest Bond movie this weekend, perhaps? Dry martinis, shaken not stirred, afterward?

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Unreasonable Movie Project (Vol. 5): Lincoln and the Nature of Knowing the Ending

The two best movies I’ve seen so far during The Unreasonable Movie Project (UMP) are the last two I’ve seen: Silver Linings Playbook and Lincoln. My apologies to Argo, which has already won Best Motion Picture Drama at the Golden Globes

Now that I’ve seen multiple Best Picture nominees, I need to define the real purpose of The Unreasonable Movie Project. Am I reviewing and ranking these movies according to my personal preferences, only using the Oscars to help me choose the best movies of the year? Or am I doing this to handicap the various award categories at the Oscars? I’m not much for real gambling, so I’ll define it as the ridiculous process of discovering my favorite movies of 2012.

Vegas is interesting, though. The bookies agree with me on Lincoln, big time. Six weeks from the Oscar ceremony, Steven Spielberg seems to have Best Picture and Best Director locked up. Daniel Day-Lewis has a stranglehold on Best Actor, and already has the vote of the DDL Club (unofficial fan club whose president is my wife). 

Tommy Lee Jones is probably going to win Best Supporting Actor whether he’s impressed by award shows or not. Lincoln is even favored to win Best Adapted Screenplay (from Doris Kearns Goodwin’s historical account Team of Rivals). Sally Field needs to pull her weight in the Best Supporting Actress category because Anne Hathaway is beating her down with blunt objects in Vegas with her portrayal of Fantine in Les Miz. Tommy Lee Jones would never smile at the mere insincere mention of his name in a winner’s acceptance speech, Sally. 

I have to agree with the oddsmakers. Lincoln is a GREAT movie. It’s epic and impressive and interesting and tense and funny and DDL (my new adjective for well-acted) and full of every semi-famous character actor known to man. It’s so epic that it’s swallowing other good movies (John Hawkes, nominated for Best Actor in The Sessions, is in it). Lincoln is the great white of this year’s Oscars and those other movies are going to need a bigger boat.

And can I just point out the logical inconsistency between UMP Vol. 4 and UMP Vol. 5 before the internet trolls do? In Vol. 4, in finding fault with Argo, I wrote “...the unfortunate consequence of any movie based on historical events is this: we know the ending.” How is Lincoln any different from Argo in this respect? 

We all know Abraham Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth in Ford’s Theatre, which has often been the focus of other movies and television shows about him. Most people know Lincoln freed the slaves with the Emancipation Proclamation during the Civil War. But the focus of this movie is about Lincoln and his efforts to get Congress to pass the 13th Amendment to the Constitution near the end of the Civil War, which permanently outlawed slavery in the United States. It’s essentially a new story to most people, even though it was an incredibly important moment in U.S. history.

But Tony Mendez and his exfiltration of six American Embassy diplomats from Iran in 1980 was a new story too, so say the trolls! Yes, but it was a pretty simple story. Most people who saw Argo knew the entire plot before they saw the movie (Iranian hostage crisis, fake movie, rescue some people). The trailer gave you everything. And the event on which Argo was focused was an important one, but not one with lasting effects on the country. Perhaps if it had gone badly it would have changed the course of the Iranian hostage crisis, but it didn’t.

With Lincoln, we know the outcome, but we don’t know what’s going to happen. That’s as well as I can explain it. DDL gives a completely 3-dimensional view of what Lincoln might have been like in a story that few of us know. Add to it that Lincoln is one of the most intriguing people in U.S. history, and in the age of video, no one alive has actually seen him or heard him speak. DDL becomes him completely, or at least a version of him. Lincoln is a $9.50, because I barely blinked.

I took the day off work to see Lincoln with my wife, who is a college instructor and is still on winter break. We’ve done this before, taking a day to see both Gran Torino and Slumdog Millionaire a few years ago. Since we did it once before, we decided to see two movies again, and saw Silver Linings Playbook in the morning, and Lincoln in the afternoon.

Two movies in one day is a marathon. This whole thing is an ultramarathon, but that’s what I signed on for, right? Sitting through movies and writing about movies is far more tiring than it should be. I’m tired as hell.

Thankfully, Silver Linings Playbook is the kind of movie that helps lighten things up, because even though it can be very serious, its extremely funny too. Any film with a main character that likes Metallica and tailgating at Philadelphia Eagles games means you don’t have to worry that the fate of the United States is on the line.

Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence are both up for Oscars for Silver Linings Playbook, as is David O. Russell for Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay. Jackie Weaver and Robert De Niro, who play Bradley Cooper’s mother and father, are up for Best Supporting Actress and Best Supporting Actor. I think there’s an Best Editing nomination in there too. In other words, the movie was nominated for almost every category in could be nominated for as a movie that’s non-animated, non-costumed, and non-action (there is running, but it's for exercise).

The movie was adapted from a fictional novel by Matthew Quick. Pat, a former teacher who is being released from a mental institution into his parents’ care, is fixated on getting in shape and getting his wife back. He is bipolar, and naively thinks that by losing some weight and reading all the books in her class syllabus (she’s an English teacher), things can return to the way they were. But there are no straight paths for this guy.

He meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), who has some mental health issues of her own. He initially wants to avoid Tiffany because he’s attracted to her and therefore she is an obstacle in his efforts to reunite with his wife. The dynamic changes when he starts to believe if he does something nice for Tiffany, she can help him get his wife back. It doesn't quite work out that way.

I enjoyed myself in this movie more than any other so far. It’s intense and funny. It’s treatment of mental health is nuanced in ways I haven’t seen before. And it was original and unpredictable. Because this is a movie where people don’t actually already know the ending (gasp!), I won’t give anything else away. It’s worth it if you check it out - an $8.50 movie

Next post: Will I be able to drag myself to a mid-week showing of Hitchcock to have something for next post? Stay tuned...

Monday, January 14, 2013

The Unreasonable Movie Project (Vol. 4): Introducing The Unreasonable Bag of Movie Candy

After I left the theater where I saw Argo with my Dad on Saturday (January 12), I had to make sure no one saw me transferring the 4-pound bag of candy from my Dad’s car to my car. My Dad had decided to stop and get us a snack for the Sam’s Club.

“You really can’t buy anything in small portions at Sam’s Club,” he said with a straight face, as if he hadn't shopped there for more than 20 years. I swear I can’t bring him anywhere.

I was rushing to the theater after just having played basketball that morning, and I was hungry. He stopped me from going to the concession stand by saying “ I've got something for us,” as he patted his coat pockets. As we’re getting comfortable in our seats, I expected him to pour a few Skittles into my hand, but he shoves 7 or 8 fun-sized Skittles packets in my direction, plus a few small packets of Starburst.

“I've got another full pocket of these things too,” he said, sounding way too excited. He didn't mention his treats were part of a giant bag of candy in his car until the movie was over, a bag he insisted I take with me because he’s on a low-carb diet. I guess I now have an “Unreasonable Bag of Movie Candy,” an unexpected, faithful companion for the next six weeks. It’s like Tonto, except more caloric.

Amid the eating, we did happen to see a movie too, a movie that just won Best Motion Picture Drama at the Golden Globes (January 13), which is a problem. Don’t get me wrong, Argo is a good movie, maybe even a great movie. Clearly some people think so. Everything was well-done; it was well-acted; the production design and costumes were excellent; everyone was smoking everywhere as everyone did in 1979; old news footage was integrated seamlessly and helped create a sense of the sentiment of the time.

The problem is I never felt like I was seeing something amazing, even though the real events on which the movie was based were definitely amazing. But the plot is essentially this: the amazing cannot be pulled off unless the people involved appear ordinary (real spycraft is boring). And the unfortunate consequence of any movie based on historical events is this: we know the ending.

Ben Affleck plays Tony Mendez, an exfiltration expert in the CIA who concocts a plan to pose as a Canadian movie producer, enter revolutionary Iran, and retrieve six American embassy employees who managed to escape becoming part of the Iranian hostage crisis in November of 1979. But there are no machine gun battles. Nobody is jumping roof to roof. An action scene in Argo is Affleck drilling the six on the details of their cover identities around a coffee table in the living room of the Canadian embassy. It’s tense, but it feels law-students-studying-for-the-bar-exam tense.

Relevant questions might be:
  • Have modern movies ruined me for realism on screen? 
  • Did I walk into the theater expecting a drama to be an action movie?
  • Will the Golden Globes influence my rating?
  • Why am I up very late at night talking to myself, then documenting it, and putting it on the internet?

Maybe. Maybe. Yes (I’m weak). I’m not sure. I’m giving Argo an $8.00.

That same day, after ingesting much fun-sized candy watching Argo, I watched Brave, which just won Best Animated Film at the Golden Globes, on DVD with my kids (6 and 8 years old).*

* It’s eerie how Argo and Brave won Golden Globes the day after I saw them, don’t you think? Maybe The Unreasonable Movie Project has some voodoo working for it. That’s cool. I’ll try not to get so cocky that my new-found instant karma hits me right in the face.

My wife arranged not to watch it with us because she’s not a fan. She and the kids saw Brave in the theater, and she thought the plot was a bit heavy for two young kids.

She put it this way: A princess rebels against her mother the queen, to the point that she convinces a witch to cast a spell on the mother, turning her into a bear. The father has a thing against bears, and tries to kill the mother-as-bear. Then she looked at me with that look, that how-does-this-not-sound-totally-inappropriate-to-you-too look. I nodded my head and slowly backed away. No. Sudden. Movement.

But Brave is an animated action/comedy for kids, right? Or is it a serious Greek almost-tragedy? Or a modern horror film? Depends. I cannot begin to understand the complexities of being a mother with a daughter, or how that shades a mother’s perspective on what she sees in the world. In the wrong moment or state-of-mind, Mamma Mia can seem like Saw VI. Maybe it was just a mother’s reaction to seeing her kids being genuinely scared.

I didn't find the movie quite so menacing, but my kids weren't scared either because they knew the mother would escape from Tehran...I mean, become human again. The possibility that the mother might become a bear permanently was far more frightening to me than the possibility the father might hurt her. The father’s pursuit of the mother-as-bear was treated comically, but the possibility of transformation and that the mother’s soul might be lost in the process, was treated as a serious race against time.

I’m not sure where I’ll rank Brave with the other animated movies of 2012, but I will give it a rating of $7.00. It’s funny, and sweet and well-meaning in spots, but I've always had a thing about characters making bad decisions as a way to create conflict and drive the plot. The kids in The Brady Bunch made bad decisions in the first five minutes of every episode, and the moral of every episode was “tell the truth.”

And after 6 years and 117 episodes, not one of those damn kids learned that lesson. What does it take? If Marcia magically turned Carol into a bear, and Mike chased her around with a shotgun, and Greg staged a successful exfiltration to save her, would they learn it then?

Next Post: A big day at the movie theater with my wife to see Lincoln and Silver Linings Playbook back-to-back.

Friday, January 11, 2013

The Unreasonable Movie Project (Vol. 3): The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is nothing like Slumdog Millionaire

I promised myself I will not compare The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel to Slumdog Millionaire. Let’s all sit on the floor in lotus pose and chant “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is nothing like Slumdog Millionaire...The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is nothing like Slumdog Millionaire.” Let’s chant it over and over again until we achieve enlightenment.

Both movies are set in India. Both feature Dev Patel. But you will not see Judi Dench jumping into a giant pile of human waste. In fact, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is probably the cleanest, least-sweaty movie about India, and traveling in India, I’ve ever seen. The men wear sport coats and dress slacks like it was a brisk autumn in Boston (the dress slacks in Slumdog Millionaire were few and far between).

My wife and I watched it together, and she thought there was a definite Wife Swap quality to the plot, as six of the seven aging characters who travel to India are having issues with their love lives. Everyone is wookin’ pa nub, some in the wrong places (there was no wife-swapping in Slumdog Millionaire).

It’s hard not to think about Downton Abbey, however, with Maggie Smith and Penelope Wilton as two of the four primary female characters. In Downton Abbey, Smith is the entertaining curmudgeon Dowager Countess of Grantham, but in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, she is a racist, bitter former housekeeper being sent to India for a cheap hip replacement. She is spectacular in both roles, showing she can pull off both Upstairs and Downstairs (there were no hip replacements in Slumdog Millionaire).

The Screen Actors Guild Awards nominated Smith for a Best Supporting Actress, and also nominated the cast for Outstanding Performance by a Cast. The Golden Globes, which are coming up Sunday (January 13), has Judi Dench nominated for best actress in a musical or comedy, which is silly given Smith’s performance. Dench is good, but Smith is a cut above in a movie that is, at best, a well-scrubbed lightweight, disappointing given its star power.

I’m surprised it was nominated for Outstanding British Film at the BAFTAs. This CAN’T be the best movie to come out of Great Britain this year. Maybe the nomination is just a show of respect to all the great actors in the cast, a tip of the cap. While the movie did have some well-done scenes exploring the theme of older people being discarded, this was not a great script. I’m giving The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel a $6.50 out of $10 on my rating scale, a decent film with very little grit.

Slumdog Millionaire DID win a BAFTA Best Film award. It also won Best Picture at the Oscars, which just released its 2013 nominations. Here are the Oscar nominees in some of the important categories this year:

Best Motion Picture of the Year:
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Django Unchained
Les Misérables
Life of Pi
Silver Linings Playbook
Zero Dark Thirty

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role:
Silver Linings Playbook: Bradley Cooper
Lincoln: Daniel Day-Lewis
Les Misérables: Hugh Jackman
The Master: Joaquin Phoenix
Flight: Denzel Washington

Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role:
Zero Dark Thirty: Jessica Chastain
Silver Linings Playbook: Jennifer Lawrence
Amour: Emmanuelle Riva
Beasts of the Southern Wild: Quvenzhané Wallis
The Impossible: Naomi Watts

Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role:
Argo: Alan Arkin
Silver Linings Playbook: Robert De Niro
The Master: Philip Seymour Hoffman
Lincoln: Tommy Lee Jones
Django Unchained: Christoph Waltz

Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role:
The Master: Amy Adams
Lincoln: Sally Field
Les Misérables: Anne Hathaway
The Sessions: Helen Hunt
Silver Linings Playbook: Jacki Weaver

Best Achievement in Directing:
Amour: Michael Haneke
Life of Pi: Ang Lee
Silver Linings Playbook: David O. Russell
Lincoln: Steven Spielberg
Beasts of the Southern Wild: Benh Zeitlin

The last category I listed was Best Director, and the biggest controversy seems to be that Kathryn Bigelow (Zero Dark Thirty) and Ben Affleck (Argo) were not nominated, despite having their films up for best picture. I think the bigger shock is the omission of Bigelow, who won for The Hurt Locker three years ago. And Zero Dark Thirty, another military movie, is supposed to be amazing, if not perfectly accurate historically. The Unreasonable Movie Project isn’t scheduled to see it until right before the Oscars, so I haven’t reviewed it yet.

As a director, Ben Affleck is doing a pretty good job modeling himself after Clint Eastwood. Gone Baby Gone and The Town were very good. He even had actors in other nominated movies saying he was robbed. I’ll find out this weekend - my Dad has agreed to see Argo with me. I’m bringing him for context (and good company) because he remembers the Iranian hostage crisis (I was 5 years old when it started). This will be the first Best Picture heavy hitter I see, so I’m excited. My Dad is excited because my brother promised to see Argo with him months ago, but has not delivered. All three of us agree I’m the reliable son.

The other movie I’ll review for my Monday post (January 14) will be Brave, which I’ll watch at home with the kids. I’m the only one in my family who hasn’t seen it in the theater, and my wife wasn’t in love with it (something about daughters poisoning mothers being a bad idea). I’m down on Pixar as well after Cars 2 (even Toy Story 3 was a bit intense for kids, I thought), so we’ll see if it competes with ParaNorman, my favorite of the Best Animated Film Oscar nominees this year.

(There were no animated Scottish princesses in Slumdog Millionaire)

Next Post: The Golden Globes recap; Argo and Brave reviewed; anticipating going to Lincoln with my wife, who has read Team of Rivals.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Unreasonable Movie Project (Vol. 2): Two Down, Many To Go

What have I done, you ask?

Saw two movies in two days, took notes, wrote blog posts, did research, found out what’s playing where (now), tried to guess what’s playing where in 3 weeks, or 6 weeks, e-mailed theaters for insider information, got nothing, created schedules, updated spreadsheet, worked, ate, thought about exercise as a concept, tried not to ignore the family, slept.

What have I done, I ask.

This has all become frighteningly real after seeing both Flight and Cloud Atlas in the last two days, and anticipating the real start of the movie award season as the BAFTA nominations are announced today (January 9), and the Oscar nominations are announced tomorrow (January 10). The Golden Globes are this Sunday too. It’s too late for me to speculate on potential nominees or Globe winners -  we’ll have our answers shortly.

Given the number of movies I’m seeing, it shouldn’t make a huge difference, but if the Academy voters throw me a few curveballs, it could change some of the movies I need to see. It might push a ‘charmingly imprecise’ operation across the line into ‘surprisingly ragged,’ but hopefully not as far as ‘idiotically spontaneous.’

I ended up seeing Flight with my sister. She’s single and 24, with time on her hands. Before we went in, she told me she was excited for an upcoming online date with a guy who worked for a local microbrewer. She seemed oddly excited about his line of work, and I wondered aloud if this guy ever thought being a brewer would get him chicks. I also couldn’t resist telling her that she would soon be telling her friends that “he brew my mind.” She did not think that was comedy gold.

Speaking of beer (and minor spoilers), Denzel Washington’s character drinks lots of beer in Flight, plus whatever else he can get his hands on, then snorts some cocaine to make himself functional so he can get on a plane to fly in bad weather. He’s the pilot.

It’s a frantic and intense first half hour as things go spectacularly wrong, but other than the drinking-and-drug-binge/plane crash sequence that starts the movie, it slows down to become a relatively understated, matter-of-fact addiction drama from Robert Zemeckis, who made the very grand Forrest Gump and Cast Away.

Zemeckis has his trademark classic rock soundtrack, but other than that, it’s really all about Denzel as an alcoholic in denial, who lands/crashes his plane in an amazing way, all the while having a blood alcohol content of 0.24 (3 times the legal limit in most states to operate a motor vehicle, six times the limit for an airline pilot). He does not deal well with the ensuing investigation.

My sister and I both noticed an unusual tick Denzel affected with his mouth, almost like he was chewing on the inside of his lip. I couldn’t tell if that’s a character thing or a Denzel thing - I’ll look for it next time I rewatch Training Day or another Denzel-as-drunk movie, Man On Fire. Other than that, he was great. Best Actor great? I have no idea how the politics work behind closed doors in Hollywood, but I bet he will have to get more than a few people liquored up to get an award for acting like an alcoholic. Only people with charisma can do that and he has it.

Oh, and there’s gratuitous, continuous, full-frontal, lingering nudity during the first five minutes, so heads up to parents who limit that for their kids, and/or parents who are into that.

Cloud Atlas has nudity too, but not as much, and it is not as straight-forward a movie. It’s a wonderful book, I'm told, because it's a book I haven’t read. Now that that’s out of the way, this is a movie with five sub-stories happening at different points in history, 1849, 1973, 2012, 2144, and about a hundred years after the apocalypse (2250?).

In order to help show the the interconnectedness of the stories, and the characters within the stories, the movie hops around quickly in a non-linear way. The actors also appear as different but related characters (perhaps reincarnated versions of themselves) in each story. Halle Berry, Hugo Weaving and Hugh Grant do a credible job of this; Tom Hanks less so, perhaps because he’s an award-winning leading man forced to play a number of very odd characters.

The great acting starts with Jim Broadbent, who is very funny in the only light-hearted vignette (2012) as a 60-ish book publisher who is tricked by his brother into admitting himself into a high-security “retirement home” for senior citizens. Young English actors Jim Sturgess and Ben Whishaw are also excellent in several roles. The star of the movie might be Bae Doo-na, a South Korean actress who appears in all the sub-stories, but shines as the genetically-engineered servant in 2144.

I know you’re expecting a rating system. I can respect that. Rating systems of 4 can’t be done anymore because people now expect that fifth star, or thumbs up, or tomato. Yes, you can’t have 5 thumbs, I get that. My point is that a 10-point scale would be better. It allows for some nuance, and I reserve the right to throw in a fraction or a decimal point. What’s the unit of measure though?

What about money? First run movies are about $10, right? A $10 movie is a movie you went to on opening weekend and loved it and never looked back. $10 well spent, however you define it. A $7 rating was a good movie, but you’d have rather paid $7 than the $10 you paid at the door. You’ve seen movies of this quality before, and there’s some doubt as to whether you’d get more enjoyment from other things with your $10, like a six-pack of good beer, or last year’s version of this movie on DVD.

A $4 rating is a movie that feels identical to the time you lost that $10 bill, the one you probably dropped on the street when you were fishing your phone or your keys out of your pocket. Lower than $4 is a movie that you might walk out on, or try to get your money back because you feel like you got robbed.

Flight is a $7.50 movie. It started great and ended up only good. Denzel will definitely be in the running for best actor. Cloud Atlas is a $6 movie. It’s not expected to win any awards, other than for make-up or some other technical awards, and that makes sense to me. While I enjoyed parts of it immensely, the story structure, and the actors playing multiple roles, didn’t allow interesting stories and characters to gain depth and become more interesting. The casting was distracting too. We’re all connected, I get it, blah blah blah, 2 hours and 40 minutes later, what else you got?

Next post: The Oscar and BAFTA nominations revealed; the upcoming Golden Globes; watching Best Exotic Marigold Hotel with my wife in the comfort of my own home, guaranteed to make us feel young again.

Monday, January 7, 2013

The Unreasonable Movie Project (Vol. 1): Kicking Off The Disaster

What makes you want to read someone’s blog? It’s got to be good, right? Anyone will watch seven seconds of a pug on a skateboard, but its got to be WAAAAY better than that if you’re actually going to spend time reading something. Reading takes effort.

Only a train wreck of a blog project is going to get you to read. Well, you’re in luck, because I am creating a major disaster for you. Become a witness...

There are seven weeks until the 85th Annual Academy Awards, happening on Sunday, February 24. Starting today (January 7), I will SEE and WRITE ABOUT most of the movies that are at all relevant to the Oscars, not to mention the Golden Globes, the BAFTAs, the SAG Awards, and some other award shows you've never heard of. I will take you on my journey, my careening-down-a-mountainside movie journey that crash lands at the Oscars. If I live, and sell the script, Michael Bay will direct.

If you like movies, maybe you’ll find something you want to see. Maybe it’ll even be entertaining. If you aren't into movies, maybe you’ll just enjoy the spectacle. That’s fine too.

I got the idea from my sister, who told me last week that she wanted to see all the movies up for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. I've had the same thought in years past, like a lot of people. My next thought was, and this was a silent thought in my head, despite the quotes, “How can I do this AND write about it?” My answer, to myself (still silent): “Make it really unreasonable. You can’t just see the ten Best Picture nominees.  That's easy. Make the project so big it’s insane.”

And with that, I've sorted out some of the details. I've made lists with spreadsheets. Hey, you can see a handful of movies over seven weeks without writing anything down, but you cannot do what I’m about to do without a spreadsheet (may or may not be revealed in its entirety at a later date).

And rules. We need rules.

Rule #1 - No documentaries
I love a good documentary, but my spreadsheet already has 43 movies in it. These 43 are all the movies that are, or might be, nominated in those award shows I mentioned. In order to dial this back from IMPOSSIBLE to unreasonable, I can’t do documentaries.
Rule #2 - Every movie must be seen from this day forward
If I've already seen it, I have to see it again. I’d be cheating you if I write about a movie I saw 6 months ago. You don’t want that. You want freshness. And Junior Mints. But this is the internet and I don’t have chocolate for you so go buy your own.
Rule #3 - There are exceptions to Rule #2
Some of the 43 movies on my list are longshots for awards. Example: The movie Hope Springs is on the list because Meryl Streep either is, or may be, nominated for some awards. Nothing else about that movie is being talked about. I know you’re out there saying “but it’s Meryl Streep, you have to see it!” Well, I might see it, but this isn't The Iron Lady I would be skipping. I think I’m going to end up seeing about 28 movies, give or take. I had to cut it down somehow. More on Meryl later in the project...
Rule #3a - The Animation Corollary
7 of the 43 movies are animated. Because I have kids, I've already seen 5 of the 7, but I’m not going back to re-watch animated movies. Again, I'm aiming for unreasonable, not impossible. I am planning on seeing Brave and Frankenweenie for the first time, but only because I love you.
Rule #4 - The Indies are in
I didn't put all the movies nominated for Independent Spirit Awards on my list, but there is a good representation. I’m not about big budgets folks, I’m about quality.
Rule #5 - Theaters are not required
This project wouldn't be possible if I had to see everything in the theater, even though I love that theater experience. DVDs are legal. Maybe I’ll even buy a movie on iTunes. Netflix is allowed too, even though their streaming selection sucks (sorry, needed to be said). But while my wife is supportive of my writing, there are limits. And consequences. Even with this rule, I am going to owe her, big.
I haven’t figured out every detail of the project yet, but I know I will post something every Monday, Wednesday and Friday to keep you up to date on what I've seen and how in God’s name I’m doing it. It may not be pretty, but that’s why you've read this far, right?

My first movie will be Flight, which is at the cheap theater near my house this week. Denzel has some Oscar buzz, as he always does, and I’m afraid of flying, so of course I want to see him crash land a jet upside down in a drunken stupor.

Symbolic though, don’t you think?

Next Post: Oscar nominations revealed January 10; BAFTA nominations revealed January 9; my first (few) movies