Sunday, February 22, 2009

Chris Is a Nerd, Pt. 7,381: Post-Oscar Thoughts

Overall, not a bad show. Hugh Jackman was a surprisingly strong host, it seemed like they did a good job expediting the "smaller" awards (sorry, I understand the significance, but I really couldn't care less about excellence in costume design), and the whole production seemed much more tastefully done than in past years. Also: thank god they decided to condense the Best Song nominees into a medley. I always hated sitting through those damn things.

One thing the Oscars can never seem to change, though, is how eminently predictable they are. Of the six categories I discussed a few weeks ago, I predicted five of the winners correctly. That's not too bad, honestly. Were I of age and in Vegas, I'd have probably made some money tonight. Not too much, though. The odds in favor of my predictions were probably pretty high.

Most importantly, however, I spent the evening in good company. A good time was had by all.

Let's break this down.

Best Picture:
Winner: Slumdog Millionaire
Prediction: Slumdog Millionaire
Comments: Let's face it: in recent years, the Academy has had a very good track record for rewarding the best film. Each of the last four years, the best film of the five nomimated has gone home with the statue: Crash in 2005, The Departed in 2006, No Country for Old Men in 2007, and now Slumdog Millionaire for 2008. And Slumdog WAS the best of the five films. You could argue with me, of course, but I imagine you'd be wrong.

Best Director:
Winner: Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire)
Prediction: Danny Boyle
Comments: Boyle's a very good director, he's responsible for a fantastic film, and by all accounts he deserved to win. He wasn't my personal preference (Fincher was), but he seems like a pretty nice dude and I'm glad he's finally gotten his chance to shine. It's been a long time coming.

Best Actor:
Winner: Sean Penn (Milk)
Prediction: Mickey Rourke (The Wrestler)
Comments: Or, Sean Penn Jacks the Award from the Underdog, Pt. 2: Oh My God, He Actually Deserved It This Time. (Sorry. I still think Bill Murray should've won back in '03.) I predicted Rourke with some confidence, but I can't honestly say this surprises me. Penn is a perennial favorite, he played a very politically important character, and he did an excellent job of it. Despite agreeing with everything he said, I do think his speech was a bit too soapbox-ish. But he's Sean Penn. He's Mr. Hollywood Humanitarian. So, eh, whatever. Milk is a better film than The Wrestler, Sean Penn did a better job than Mickey Rourke, so I'm happy.

Best Actress:
Winner: Kate Winslet (The Reader)
Prediction: Kate Winslet
Comments: I keep returning to Winslet's 2005 appearance on Extras where she, as a foul-mouthed version of herself playing a nun in a World War II drama, admitted to Ricky Gervais that she was only doing the Holocaust drama so she could win an Oscar. Funny, to say the least, but prophetic. I didn't see The Reader. I didn't have much desire to. Winslet's a fine actress and I'm glad she finally won, but this feels so much more like a "we should give it to her because she hasn't won" than a "she was so great in this particular film, so let's reward her." But hey, that's the way it goes sometimes.

Best Supporting Actor:
Winner: Heath Ledger (The Dark Knight)
Prediction: Heath Ledger
Comments: Surprised?

Best Supporting Actress:
Winner: Penelope Cruz (Vicky Cristina Barcelona)
Prediction: Penelope Cruz
Comments: Good. I'm glad she snagged this one. For my money, she was better than everyone else she was up against. This was one of the few awards of the evening where there was breathing room for some of the other nominees, but ultimately the Academy decided to be predictable and award the frontrunner once again. Justice is served, at least in this case.

The best moment of the evening was when that one dude balanced the Oscar statue on his chin. That was badass. The worst moments were the ones where I had to look at Adrien Brody's hair. What the fuck.

'Til this time next year! Who knows what'll take home the awards for 2009? I don't yet, but I place my early bets on Paul Blart: Mall Cop.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Movie Roundup: 2/12/09

... now with more ridiculously high scores than ever before!

School is terrible. I immediately classify anything that stands in the way of me watching lots and lots of movies as such, and school quite effortlessly succeeds in this endeavor. As a result, I have only managed to watch but nine films since the semester began. However, as can be seen from the almost uniformly high scores, I've at least made those nine films count. At least, in most cases. There are, as always, exceptions. The alphabet has, for dramatic effect, saved the juicy ones for last. Onward.

Children of Men (Alfonso Cuaron, 2006) 86
Proof positive that good movies should never be watched only once. Before now, the only time I had seen Children of Men was during its theatrical run. I liked it, but it didn't register in my head as anything other than just a good, solid sci-fi film. Who knows what happened in the two intervening years, but upon rewatching this, I was floored. Absolutely fucking blown away. This was the same film, unquestionably, but somehow this time it was just better. So, so, so much better. First off, I don't remember it being this emotionally harrowing; I remember it being dark and bleak, but nowhere near as affecting. And second, everything you've heard about this film's cinematography is true; I just can't even comprehend how they pulled some of this shit off. Though there are several amazing sequences (the "egg-spitting scene," for lack of a better description, being one), the now-famous six-minute warzone take near the end of the film is one of the most impressive things I have ever seen. I'd say it has to be seen to be believed, but I've watched that scene by itself several times and I still don't believe it. Just like how I still don't believe I could have seen this the first time and not just gone apeshit for it. It's fuckin' amazing.

A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick, 1971) 100
I've said it once before: there are exactly five films I've seen that I would give a perfect score. This is one of them. Stanley Kubrick was an inhumanly gifted filmmaker, and he's responsible for some of the greatest movies ever produced, but this is hands-down his greatest achievement. It's also his most notorious. Over the last four decades, the film has amassed almost as many detractors as it has avid supporters. And while the naysayers' points may be valid, I will defend this film to the ends of the earth and back. The one argument I will not buy, though, is that it's just an empty, excessive excuse to shock its audience. Kubrick's approach is very forceful, but to accuse him of doing it without a solid agenda completely undermines the fact that this film dishes up lots of provocative philosophical questions. There is quite a bit to chew on here. Alex is an evil, sadistic sociopath, but isn't what the "good, clean" society/government does to him even more evil and more sadistic? Is robbing a person of his free will not an even more cruel, violent act than anything Alex does for fun? Isn't the capacity for decision what makes a person truly human? This is just scratching the surface. These are not empty, easy questions. This is a film with something to say. Many find the way it says these things objectionable, but I assert that it has to be unrelenting to make the impact that it does. It's unquestionably one of the nastiest, most vicious and unforgiving movies ever made, and many will hate it for this reason, but I think it's all the better for it. And even stripped to its basics, it's still wonderful: it's a boldly original story very well-told, Malcolm McDowell gives one of film's great performances as little Alex, and Kubrick's talent for direction and cinematography is -- as always -- unparalleled (the calm, surreal, tripped-out way he filmed this creates an atmosphere quite unlike any other in film history). This is why I love film. Everything's here, and it's perfect.

The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008) 94
I've always been fascinated by how quick and skillful the Joker is for a man who supposedly has no plan. I imagine it would take some firepower indeed to blow up an entire hospital, but somehow the guy manages to rig it all up in under an hour. What a resourceful son of a bitch. In other news, this movie is still fucking fantastic. I have now seen this film four times. It has been out six and a half months. I almost never rewatch movies with that sort of frequency. Something about this one just compels me to. I live in constant fear of the day its follow-up inevitably gets released; even if Christopher "God" Nolan is onboard again, there's no way it's going to be anywhere near as good as this. I mean, how could it be? What sort of villain could ever compare to Heath Ledger's Joker? What sort of tragic story arc would ever measure up to the decline and fall of Harvey Dent? Nothing. Nolan may be divinity among directors, but some water is just too fickle to walk on. But you gotta admit, he brought it on himself. We love him oh so dearly for it, but -- as they say -- no good deed goes unpunished.

Fear(s) of the Dark (A Bunch of French Dudes, 2008) 71
A very cool, stylish collection of French animated shorts. The overarching concept, as I understand it, is to tap into and -- to a certain extent -- exploit some of our primal fears: creepy crawlies, mad scientists, swamp monsters, Republicans (is that redundant?). And while none of these films are genuinely scary or even a little bit creepy, they are all shades of Highly Entertaining and Satisfyingly Badass. My personal favorite is the final vignette, in which a man suspects he may be at the tender mercies of a murderous housewife, but truly all of these are quite cool in their own ways. The film falters a bit with its short, female-voiced interludes, but even so, these banal middle-class "fears" provide an interesting contrast to the darker and more legitimate affairs of the full-length stories. So, all in all, a very worthwhile venture. It's different (which is always a plus), it's not "French" in the pejorative film-snob sense of the word, and it's honestly a lot of fun. Definitely recommended.

The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972) 99
Yep, it's still that good. I have this fear -- sometimes justified, sometimes not -- of rewatching favorite films and finding that something has been lost between viewings; that I don't care for it quite as much as I did before. In the end, with The Godfather, I probably never had anything to worry about. This is filmmaking at its finest. Very few films can purport to working flawlessly on every level, but it happens here: the gold-hued cinematography is gorgeous; Nino Rota's mournful music has become iconic; there's tons of both implicit and explicit symbolism; there's a tremendous message about the corruptive influence of money and power (the once-virtuous, "that's my family, Kay, not me" Michael Corleone is, in my view, one of the most tragic characters in all of cinema); and, for the more straightforward audiences who just want an entertaining story well-told, the one on display here is as nuanced, multifaceted, and air-tight as can be hoped for. The first time I ever saw this, I was wary. I was thinking there was no way it could ever stand up to its one-of-the-best-ever hype. It does. It is one of the best. Second only to The Shawshank Redemption, of course.

Jackie Brown (Quentin Tarantino, 1997) 82
I guess my own personal hero-worship of Mr. Tarantino leads me to overestimate how much other people like him. The group I watched this with, as a whole, did not seem to enjoy it quite as much as I expected. But hey, that's what makes for horse races. I love it. I'm giving it an 82, which -- despite how many high ratings I've been giving out lately (a misleading consequence of rewatching favorites and not watching new ones) -- is still a ridiculously good score. And it's really only my third-favorite Tarantino flick (Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill are, of course, firmly embedded in the uppermost tier of my rating scale, while the still-awesome Reservoir Dogs is in my opinion his weakest). Still, like it or not, this has got his fingerprints all over it. Despite being his only adapted screenplay to date, the film is still unmistakably his, and personal responses are no doubt going to hinge on that. It is long and it is deliberately paced, but for my money it never once stops being entertaining or enjoyable. So there we are.

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (Tom Tykwer, 2006) 46
Tom Tykwer directed this. The man who made a name for himself with the kinetic, uber-hip, stylish Run Lola Run made this. Two more dissimilar films you will never see, to say the least. This is a movie that handles its weirdness much like many women handle their perfume: everyone knows a little dab will do ya, but in the end some erroneous idea about excess seems to take over in spite of it all. Some women, I swear to god, use half the bottle because they think each additional squirt will somehow make them that much more aromatic. Instead, it's just nauseating. Perfume, likewise, can't stop at being a dark, quirky serial killer yarn; it's so desperate to assert itself as "something different" that it feels compelled to keep piling the weirdness on until the whole thing just becomes ridiculous. By the time it got to its mass orgy/Christ figure/zombie flesh-eating payoff (oh, if I were only joking), I knew there was no way it was ever going to be able to recover itself. And that's a shame, because it starts off intriguingly, only to have its interest shift away from what happens in the plot in order to focus on the "what next?" element of its rather depraved downward spiral (and may I just say this spiral goes on and on and on -- at 147 minutes, I shit you not, the film's way too long). I'd be lying if I said it's not entertaining; it certainly is. It's ... captivating, to be sure. But it doesn't add up to much. It's just weird for weirdness' sake, and -- aside from Lynch and very few other exceptions -- I'm not really cool with that. Bonus points for casting Dustin Hoffman and Alan Rickman, though. Always good to see those guys.

Sunset Blvd. (Billy Wilder, 1950) 93
The way I see it, Billy Wilder is just about the greatest director that no one knows about. Names like Kubrick and Hitchcock get thrown around constantly by all manner of film fans, hardcore and casual alike, but for some reason Wilder seems to get lost in the shuffle. The truth is, though, that from the mid-40s to the early 60s, the man basically just made one amazing film after another. However, none in my opinion are quite as amazing as Sunset Blvd., still one of the most profoundly unsettling films ever released by a major studio. Let's face it: Wilder had balls. Big ones. For when it was made, this was edgy stuff. It's still potent almost sixty years later. (The same thing struck me the first time I watched Double Indemnity, Ace in the Hole, and Some Like It Hot -- the man simply refused to play it safe, which no doubt is an integral part of his greatness.) The usual Movie Night crew was chuckling and commenting throughout, but it was easy for me to see that it wasn't so much genuine amusement as it was nervous energy. Despite preconceived notions about "old movies," this is not an "easy" film. It tackles some dark, disturbing subject matter with a frankness that makes it indelible. And with a strong script, brilliant performances (Gloria Swanson is ... beyond words as Norma Desmond), and top-notch direction, it's little wonder this has become one of the all-time greats. I respectfully agree.

Tokyo Gore Police (Yoshihiro Nishimura, 2008) 34
I'm not the kind of guy who loses his shit just because something is Japanese. I don't get people who do. Our Japanese friends, colorful as their culture may be, are just as capable of making a bad film as anyone else. To be honest, you kinda know what you're getting yourself into with a title like Tokyo Gore Police. It's a splatterfest, and its main goal is to showcase as many gruesome mutilations as its 110-minute runtime will allow. And I get that. I'm cool with that. I'm one of the least squeamish people you'll ever meet, so that's not my problem with it. My problem with it is that it's just a bad film. I suppose the ooey-gooey blood and gore is effective in some exaggerated way, but it looks fake. It looks like movie gore. To add to that, the story (highly trained police killer wants revenge for her father's murder) is pretty pedestrian and uninvolving, which in itself wouldn't be too much of a burden if the heroine wasn't so damn uninteresting. It's impossible to connect with her, especially when she's really not that sympathetic (she bloodbathes some random dude who feels her up on the subway). To round it out, poor continuity editing makes this seem more like an extended trippy dream sequence than a coherent story. But oh well. It definitely has promise (I like the general idea quite a bit: futuristic Tokyo, privatized police force with extreme crime-fighting strategies, and so on), but it doesn't focus that promise in a way I find satisfying. Audiences that just want to see people get gored and mutilated and hacked up and bloodied in ridiculously graphic ways will probably get into it; I wanted a little more emotion and a stronger plot to justify it. Or maybe there's just some cosmic law that states that a sane and ethical person is only allowed, based on moral principles, to like one film of this ilk. I found that film when I watched Miike's Ichi the Killer (which is just as grotesque and graphic, but has a certain something that the Tokyo Gore Police Club lacks). So just watch that one instead, yes?

'Til next time ... OUT!