Tuesday, January 28, 2014

2014 Unreasonable Movie Project (Vol. 4): The Act of Killing It, Which I'm Not

You are an idiot. That's what the 'current me' would tell the 'past me,' the me of a week ago, if I had the chance. I'd tell the 'past me' that if you are going to motivate yourself to see and write about 25+ movies in the next six weeks, don't make it harder than it needs to be. Be smarter than that.

The 'past me' thought he was being clever by seeing a movie he wanted to see (Lone Survivor) that was nominated for a few technical awards at the Oscars, and pair it with a well-regarded documentary about what he thought was a past war in Indonesia (The Act Of Killing). With similar themes, it would be an easy post to write...right?

Fictional war (based on real war) could be compared to nonfiction accounts of real war. Then I'd make some jokes about uncreative studio marketing managers, and uncreative critics, and their inevitable mentions of the holy trinity of modern war cinema (Saving Private Ryan, Full Metal Jacket, Platoon), and it would be over. Clean and simple. Out and done.

But it never happens that way, especially in war movies. The routine op always goes bad somehow. The guy on watch always falls asleep. The young private always does something stupid. In this case, the stupid private is me. War is hell.

Lone Survivor is a fine movie, and not at all difficult to analyze. It's about a team of four Navy SEALS that goes on a mission to find a Taliban leader in the mountains of Afghanistan and finds more than they bargained for. The scenes of warfare are extraordinarily realistic, and it is hard to watch because (minor spoiler alert!), the SEALs are forced to jump off more than one cliff.

Based on a book by former SEAL Marcus Luttrell, the movie sticks closely to the experiences of these soldiers at this moment in time. There isn't much else to chew on. Given how political the operations in Afghanistan and Iraq have been over the last dozen or more years, it's actually quite a feat that none of that context seems to exist in this film. Lone Survivor could be billed as "War in a Vacuum."

The problem with movies that don't make their own strong statement about why they exist is that others will make the statement. The conservatives say its a statement of American exceptionalism that justifies our involvement in Afghanistan. The liberals will say its jingoistic war-porn in yet another attempt to use violence to make money. It somehow justifies everyone's worldview, simultaneously.

The truth is it's probably none of those things. It's just a story about some very brave guys in a bad situation, and sadly it's not that memorable. But we all kinda knew this ahead of time, didn't we? If you're going to hire an actor to bring some gravitas, and elevate the project into a heavyweight, it's not going to be Mark Wahlberg. Ben Foster is in it, who I think is an unbelievable actor, but he can't carry it in a supporting role.

The big mistake I made, the thing I didn't see ahead of time, is thinking that The Act Of Killing would be just as straightforward. BIG MISTAKE.

The Act Of Killing is bizarre. It's a total heavyweight, already having won more than 25 awards internationally, but it's wacko. If David Lynch and Wes Anderson and Terry Gilliam had co-directed it, it would not have been weirder. And it may very well win the Oscar for Best Documentary.

The historical background: Indonesia's military took control of its government in the 1960's, and oversaw the killing of millions of people who were communists or were suspected of being communists. It's clear that the para-military gangs that did some of this killing were often full of young men who killed for power, for money, for sport. This government is still in power in Indonesia today.

The premise of the documentary: The filmmakers found a few of these para-military men who killed "communists" in the 1960's and asked them to talk about it. They agreed, happily. These men, some of whom are now essentially government-sanctioned criminal bosses, were then coaxed to make a movie about their exploits in whatever style or genre they wished. They would write it, shoot it, act in it, everything. They agreed, happily. And it was all captured on film.

[...allowing all that to sink in...]

[...still waiting...]

I'll say this: even if a man can completely and consciously justify the evil things he has done, and even if the world tells him he is right, that evil lives in his heart and he will suffer.

And lastly: Lone Survivor and The Act Of Killing are nothing alike.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

2014 Unreasonable Movie Project (Vol. 3): The Domination of Dench and Streep

I am not an ageist. Let's start there. But older movie-goers are a loud bunch. Whether it's because they aren't trying to please anyone anymore, or because they feel they have earned the right to do anything they damn well please, they don't bother whispering.

Once a year, my wife and I take a day off in January so we can see two movies, and we did that again. This year, our first movie was Philomena, and just as we were getting comfortable, waiting for the previews at five minutes to 11 a.m., a noisy crew rolled in. I heard them before I saw them, on the ramp coming into the theater. Three women emerged, at full volume, and began to have this three-minute conversation as they started climbing the steps to our left:

Lady #1 (loudly): Where should we sit?

Lady #2 (also loudly): Let's sit up there.

She pointed to some seats further behind us, about four rows up. The house lights were still up, but it did not seem to help them move quickly. My wife and I tried not to listen, but they would not be ignored.

Lady #3 (once they got to the seats, loudly): It is hot up here! Are you hot?

Lady #1: I am warm.

Lady #2: It's too hot.

Lady #3: Well let's sit down there then...it is hot up here!

They crossed the row to the steps to our right and started coming back down. These women were now the sole focus of our attention, a mini-drama playing out in front of us, behind us, around us. The horror of their discomfort, the simplicity of their needs, it was all so compelling. THEY JUST WANTED TO SIT DOWN.

Once they finally did, Lady #1 asked the question we all wanted answered: Why was it so hot up there?!?

Those loud ladies had made the arduous journey up to those high seats and then down again, and their destination was not what they had imagined. Theirs was a human story, a story of ascending the mountain, only to be disappointed. Why is it that those high seats can never live up to the high seats in our hearts? Why so hot, loud ladies? Why indeed.

"It is pretty hot up there," my wife said. I nodded furiously. Clearly we needed the movie to start.

Thankfully Philomena did not disappoint. Judi Dench plays Philomena, a 70-year-old Irish woman who had been placed in a convent by her father as a pregnant teenager. She had the baby, and was able to spend some time with her son as she worked off her "debt" to the convent, but her son was sold to a rich American couple, never to be seen by her again. She finally tells her adult daughter what happened years ago.

Steve Coogan, a very famous comedian in England, wrote the screenplay and played against type in the role of Martin Sixsmith, a recently-fired political spin doctor who is looking for a project, any project, now that he is out of work. Philomena's daughter makes Sixsmith aware of her mother's story, and he reluctantly agrees to help track down this long-lost son so that he can write about it for a magazine.

Despite the potential for this movie to be horrendously sad, Director Stephen Frears (The Queen, Dirty Pretty Things, High Fidelity) creates a good balance. The story moves quickly and takes some interesting turns. Steve Coogan and Judi Dench do a tremendous job playing characters who develop a relationship, despite being nothing alike. Their interactions are the core of the movie.

It was simple, heartfelt, and well done. While it wasn't exactly a pick-me-up, we enjoyed it.

For our afternoon matinee, there were no palette cleansers in store for us as we saw August: Osage County, originally a play written by Tracy Letts about a complicated family in rural Oklahoma. If you want a dialogue-heavy ensemble drama, this is it. And it continues to have that live-theater feel.

There is only one actor you wouldn't recognize:
  • Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts will get a lot of attention for their performances as a dysfunctional mother and daughter.
  • Benedict Cumberbatch does a very good job of playing against type as the simple-minded cousin of this Oklahoma family.
  • Ewan McGregor is also here, playing Julia Roberts' husband, and making us wonder why there are so many British actors in a film set in small-town Oklahoma.
  • Dermot Mulroney gives us a dirtball version of his typical heartthrob role.
  • Juliette Lewis gives us a slightly smarter version of her character in The Other Girl.
  • Chris Cooper, Margo Martindale, Sam Shepard, Abigail Breslin, and Julianne Nicholson all do a very good job as well. Martindale is particularly good as Meryl Streep's sister.

Despite all the star power, it was the one unknown actor in the entire movie that got the best line. Misty Upham, who plays the Native American health aide recently hired to help out, smacks Dermot Mulroney with a shovel after seeing some inappropriate behavior. "He was messing with Jean, so I tuned him up."

It's a very powerful movie, and worth it for the performances alone. I don't know if I enjoyed it, but it made me wonder about the inevitability of becoming the people who raised us.

I keep hearing that Hollywood is a place that lacks roles for older women, but these two movies extend a trend: Judi Dench and Meryl Streep up for Oscars every year. It isn't completely true, but it seems like it. It's like two old boxers, in the ring once again, this time for Best Actress. Dench vs. Streep. Streep vs. Dench. Let's see how they stack up...

TALE OF THE TAPE Judi Dench Meryl Streep
Known for Almost Everything Everything
Birthdate 9-Dec-34 22-Jun-49
Height 5'1" 5'6"
Origin North Yorkshire, UK New Jersey, US
Family Widowed, 1 child Married, 4 children
Education Central School of Speech and Drama Yale School of Drama
Oscar Nominations 7 18
Oscar Wins 1 3
BAFTA Nominations 28 14
BAFTA Wins 11 2
Golden Globe Noms      11 28
Golden Globe Wins 2 8

Actually, Cate Blanchett seems to be favored for Best Actress this year for her performance in Blue Jasmine, but can the track record of Dench and Streep be considered anything less than dominant? And imagine how much more impressive it would be if American audiences had discovered Dench earlier - her first Oscar nomination came at the age of 65, the age Streep is now!

If Hollywood does indeed become a place where Dench and Streep can't get a part, I'd suggest the roles of Lady #1 and Lady #2 in what I'd like to call "The Heat Up There: A Mini-Tragedy." We'll get Downton Abbey's Maggie Smith to play Lady #3. It'll be like The Lord of the Rings crossed with The Three Stooges. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll wonder why they refuse to whisper.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

2014 Unreasonable Movie Project (Vol. 2): Frozen In Cold Weather and Other Forecasts

Movies are a form of escapism for me. I live in the coldest major city in America, and specifically dreamed up the Unreasonable Movie Project to help mentally escape the dead of winter.

Dead is what you would be if you were outside for very long without proper gear on January 6, 2014, the coldest day in 10 years in Minneapolis. Wind chills were -50. Exposed skin freezes in five minutes at -50. So of course, that was the day I decided I ought to take the kids to a movie.

My wife wasn't thrilled about it, but the kids and I piled in the car, and we listened to meteorologists on the radio warn people to "shelter in place" as if we were driving through a hurricane on our way to see Frozen.

My wife had instructed us to check in when we arrived and check in when we left, like we were racing a leg of Iditarod. I wasn't worried about getting stranded, but I complied. When my kids saw me using my phone in the theater lobby, they begged me to take a picture of them posing in a cardboard cut-out of The Lego Movie. They were way too excited about this, but I complied.


After the photo shoot and a pre-emptive kid bathroom break, we went into the theater. Most people must have decided to "shelter in place," because there were a grand total of two other people sitting there. Do I think I put my kids in danger that night? I really couldn't say...you're judging me, I can feel you judging me.

The movie itself was great, made in the traditional style of classic Disney musicals. The story was about two sisters, the princesses of a great northern kingdom. The older sister has a magical power that makes her different and she isolates herself because of it, but the younger sister is determined to bring them back together. It's definitely a girl power movie, which is nice. There are boys, even boys who do heroic things, but the girls drive the action.

My two nitpicky gripes about the movie involved the writing, which was poorly simplified at two or three key moments for the sake of a quicker pace, and a character twist that seemed jarring and out-of-the-blue.

"Did you see that coming?" I asked my daughter. "I totally didn't see it coming. There was no foreshadowing, at all. I had no idea that character would do that," I said.

To seem smarter than the average Daddy, I then rattled off the definition of foreshadowing, which she probably already knew. I've done this before. Last year, she endured my speech about conflict being required to create drama.

"I knew that would happen," she said of the character twist. "When something goes that well that soon in the movie, you know it's going to turn bad."

"Ummm...good point," I said uneasily. This must be what Obi-Wan felt like in those final moments. So much for me being the Jedi master. She's only 9.

The credits mentioned that Frozen is based on the Hans Christian Andersen story "The Snow Queen." I got excited about it because I had taken a literature course on the stories of Hans Christian Andersen in college. I still own the book. Maybe I could still teach her something.

I asked my daughter if she was interested in taking a look at the story when we got home. She loves to read, and reads incredibly fast, so she said yes. Not wanting to play favorites, I thought I could also create some meaningful dialogue about the movie with my 7-year-old son, but he just kept repeating what the magical snowman kept repeating: "My name is Olaf, and I like warm hugs!" He said this in response to anything I asked, and thought it was hilarious. Since quoting movies is a time honored male tradition, I'm not worried. Actually, I'd say he's developmentally ahead of schedule.

"Yeah, that story is nothing like the movie," my daughter said, a half-hour after I gave her the Hans Christian Andersen.

"What about the two sisters?" I asked. "And you read the entire 28-page story that fast?"

"There weren't two sisters," she said. "And yes I read the whole thing."

"Was there a magical snowman?"


"So nothing was the same then?"


OK then. If you are excited about this movie's connection to Hans Christian Andersen, my daughter describes it as "loosely based." Very. Loosely. Based.

Seeing Frozen was in keeping with the Unreasonable Movie Project because it's all about seeing movies that might win awards. Frozen just won Best Animated Film at the Golden Globes, and because I've also seen The Croods and Despicable Me 2 this year, I figure I've now got this year's animation category covered.

The nominations for the Academy Awards are released tomorrow (January 16), but I'm not convinced the Golden Globe winners will be any indicator of the eventual Oscar winners, or even the nominations. The Globe recipients were spread out among several movies. 12 Years A Slave, American Hustle, and Gravity may be the front runners for Best Picture because of their Globe wins, but a lot can happen between now and March 2.

Both Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto won for their roles in Dallas Buyers Club, but their chances diminish at the Oscars because there aren't separate 'Comedy/Musical' and 'Drama' categories for films and actors like the Globes (a very Gen Y event - seems like everyone gets a trophy). At the Osacrs, everything is in one big pot. There is a lot of good work out there this year, and you can make a case that there are no clear favorites.

"So the Golden Globes won't be any good to me predicting the Oscars?" I might hypothetically ask my daughter.

"Nope," she would say. Smart girl.

NEXT POST: My wife and I take our annual day off to see two movies, and choose great ones that nonetheless suck the life out of us. Philomena and August: Osage County are both heavyweight movies dealing with heavyweight subjects.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

2014 Unreasonable Movie Project (Vol. 1): Let's Be Unreasonable Again, Shall We?

I created The Unreasonable Movie Project last year, and saw 27 movies in 48 days. If it had even a tiny chance of winning an Oscar, I saw it. I wrote about those movies during those 7 weeks, and about the experience of frantically seeing too many in too little time. The unreasonability of it all caused the writing to not always make sense (I wrote more column-inches about my Dad smuggling a giant bag of candy into Argo than I did analyzing Daniel Day Lewis in Lincoln), but hopefully the people who read it smiled once or twice.

If there was one thing I learned from the experience, it was "If you do this again, get ahead of the game." At the very least, I could be better prepared by seeing more movies during the year, taking notes, coming up with new ideas for writing posts. Any little thing would help.

But I didn't do any of that. I actually saw fewer movies this year. I didn't think about whether I would resurrect this Frankenstein until late December. I saw one movie that might barely be relevant during the award season, which I will get to later. Given all that, my only option is to announce...


Like last year, I'll bring you all the unnecessary, obscure and borderline-useless information you never asked for about ALL the movies that might win something during award season at the British Academy Film Awards, The Screen Actors Guild Awards, The Independent Spirit Awards, The Golden Globes (yada yada yada), and most importantly, the 86th Annual Academy Awards.

10 minutes ago, the thought flashed through my mind there might be fewer movies to see this year. 5 minutes ago I realized I would be hard-pressed to think up any thought dumber than that because there are a shit ton of movies to see. Of course there are. I checked with all the film bloggers, buffs, and bookies I could find on the internets, and decided there are at least 20 movies in the Oscar mix (in alphabetical order):
  1. 12 Years A Slave
  2. All Is Lost
  3. American Hustle
  4. August: Osage County
  5. Before Midnight
  6. Blue Jasmine
  7. Captain Phillips
  8. Dallas Buyers Club
  9. Enough Said
  10. Fruitvale Station
  11. Gravity
  12. Her
  13. Inside Llewyn Davis
  14. Lee Daniels' The Butler
  15. Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom
  16. Nebraska
  17. Philomena
  18. Rush
  19. Saving Mr. Banks
  20. The Wolf Of Wall Street

And we haven't even seen the nominations for the Oscars yet, which are announced on January 16 (to get more information on any of these movies, my favorite movie resource on the web is IMDb.com). There will inevitably be other movies that must be considered once all the nominees for all the awards I've mentioned above are revealed, possibly including...
  1. Blackfish
  2. Blue Is The Warmest Color
  3. Frances Ha
  4. Kill Your Darlings
  5. Labor Day
  6. Lone Survivor
  7. Mud
  8. Out Of The Furnace
  9. Short Term 12
  10. Stories We Tell
  11. The Book Thief
  12. The Great Gatsby
  13. The Hunt
  14. The Invisible Woman
  15. The Past

But if we're considering categories like Best Editing or Special Effects or Costume Design, really any movie made this year might become relevant. The Lone Ranger might make the list. But for the sanity of all involved, let's not let that happen. This is the 2014 Unreasonable Movie Project (Twice As Unreasonable!), not the Irrationally See Everything And Lose Your Job Movie Project.

I mentioned before, in that list of the must-see movies, I have only previously seen one. How ridiculous is that? I'm supposed to be a movie buff, and in the 2013 calendar year, I saw one movie that might be up for an award? What the hell have I been doing? I'm not being facetious here...somebody needs to email me and fill me in because there must be gaps. This goes way beyond procrastination.

The one movie I saw? #18 on the list - Rush. And I went only because I couldn't get into a screening of Gravity.

Rush is about Formula 1 racing in Europe, taking place in the early to mid-1970's. Directed by Ron Howard, it's capably done, but I'm not quite sure why it's up for Best Motion Picture - Drama at the Golden Globes. Daniel Brühl plays one of the drivers, and he is up for a Best Supporting Actor at the Golden Globes too. Again, I'm not quite sure why. It wouldn't be completely fair to call it a Euro-Days Of Thunder, but just writing Euro-Days Of Thunder makes me giggle, and is life completely fair?

Apologies to all the reviewers that rated it so highly on Rotten Tomatoes, but it bombed at the box office, so it seems like word of mouth and my two cents line up. If I go to the mat for one of your guilty pleasures, Mr. Howard, it'll be for Backdraft. Not exactly the "you go, we go!" attitude you were hoping for, but I'm not dropping into a burning building for this one. I'm not even going to drop into a non-burning building containing a movie theater for it - I'm not seeing it again. I've got a few other things to do.

Before the Oscar nominations are announced on January 16, I'll get some of the "non-relevant" movies on my list out of the way, like The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, which I saw this past weekend (and liked because yes I am a LOTR dork). My wife and I might get a headstart on the list of 20 as well - she wants to see Gravity and Philomena. My kids want to see Frozen.

Once the Oscar nominations are announced though, it'll get real. I'll have to put the game-face back on for the long slog to March 2. No more hobbits or elves or Bad Granpas. It'll be time to get unreasonable...again!