Sunday, February 26, 2012

Best Picture Fest Reviews - Spoilers Galore!

Rob and I made our annual trek (do you like how I make it sound like we climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro or something?) to Best Picture Fest at the theatre down the road the last two Saturdays in a row, and as always, I have a few opinions. It's a weird field for Best Picture this year -- someone I don't like called it a "weak" field, and since I don't like him, I hate to agree... but it's kind of true.

Herewith, in the order the movies were screened:

War Horse: (Full disclosure: I am not a fan of horses. I do not give a crap about horses, nor have I ever given a crap about horses.) Steven Spielberg makes a family movie about a horse. What this means for you, the filmgoer: about 35 minutes of horse porn (and by horse porn, I mean gently caressing scenes of a boy caring for a very special horse, not actual porn -- that's a whole different blog) followed by an hour and a half of Mr. Horse Goes to War. Spielberg does certain things really well in this movie: emotional manipulation? Check. Showing the horror of war (in this case, World War I)? Check... and well done.

But even as I wept my way through the entire film, I was scowling at the screen thinking, "Really, Steven?" (In my dreams, Steven Spielberg and I are on a first-names basis.) I hate knowing when I'm being manipulated. Particularly bad was what I would term a "bromance" between the main horse Joey and a black horse he meets during training leading up to the first battle. They are thrown together over and over throughout the movie and we're clearly meant to believe these two horses are best friends. Umm... they're horses. And since I don't really give a crap about horses, maybe this is just something I'm ignorant about -- maybe horses have besties all the time. But it was a pretty big stretch to believe the scene where our main horse Joey is cognizant enough to realize the danger his friend is in when the German army is about to put him into a lineup of horses pulling artillery to the front and steps up to do it for him, knowing his friend isn't strong enough. Come on. They're horses.  Seriously, be a little more subtle with the manipulation, you know? And when his buddy dies, we're clearly meant to believe our main horse is sad. Which... okay, fine.

But then I had to step back and remind myself that he wanted this to be a movie that you could take your (older, obviously) children to with you -- and I really did appreciate the obvious gestures he made in that direction. For example, there was a scene where two young German soldiers are executed for desertion, and the scene is filmed from above a windmill, and the arm of the windmill comes across the shot as the guns are fired. During battle scenes, there is a lot of noise and activity but the cameras cut away from the gore of death and then come back to show bodies strewn across the field of battle instead. And I think knowing this -- that it's a family movie -- makes the movie easier to forgive. But do I really want to have to forgive my Best Picture nominees for anything?? Not really.

Moneyball: We saw this when it first came out. Brad Pitt stars as Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland A's baseball team. He's trying to build a team on limited funds and comes to believe in the "moneyball" concept, which is that you need to use the money you have to put people on base, not to purchase super stars. This movie also stars Jonah Hill as a young stats geek who introduces Billy Beane to the concept. Lots of snappy dialogue and fun discussion of trades. Baseball fans should like it, but it's not baseball porn -- there aren't the usual loving shots of the ball game and players who are changed by the game or any mystical baseball shit like that. It's mostly about what it's like to run a major league team on less money than all the other major league teams. It was even better the second time around, not trying to wrap my head around what the movie was trying to do. It's high on my list of favorites for the year.

Tree of Life: Oh god, where to begin? Okay: this is for sure the most pretentious movie I've ever seen. It screams from the rafters, "Look at me, look at me, I'm ART! I AM ART!! Do not ignore me -- I AM ART!" And it's a fucked up movie. It's bizarre. No one knows what it's about. There are all these articles and reviews online that say it's about the birth of everything and where we fit in it - but these people who wrote these articles and reviews sure as shit didn't get that by watching the movie.

So, there's about 15 minutes of confusion at the beginning, flipping back and forth between this family in the 1950s and the parents finding out one of their sons has died in a nonspecified manner sometime in the 1960s and then Sean Penn in the present day in an unnamed city (which drove me INSANE -- I want to know where things take place); we're to know he's one of the three brothers all grown up but we never really know for sure which one he is -- probably the oldest of the three since the bulk of the movie focuses on the oldest brother... and since the movie's promo materials also claim he is the oldest brother. Then, after these fifteen minutes of not really setting anything up that we can grasp onto to care about any of these people, Malick (the director) treats us to a 30-minute National Geographic special on evolution, beginning with the Big Bang. There is even a scene with a dying (?) dinosaur, and a velociraptor comes out of the forest and pokes around a bit and then WALKS. AWAY. Meanwhile, the entire theatre crowd is practically screaming, "EAT IT! RIP ITS THROAT OUT!"

Because by this time in a crowded theatre, the groaning and the whining and the exclamations of "What the fuck??" are audible. The tension is palpable. And this is a theatre crowded with film buffs. Not the usual bunch of lazy assholes you usually end up in a theatre with, who can't handle a thick accent or anything too challenging and just want to see some shit blow up -- the people who commit to sitting through Best Picture Fest are pretty hardcore about their movies. This is about when people started getting up and walking out, figuring they'd take a long dinner break. Oh, and there are all these quotes from the book of Job being narrated by the woman who plays the mother over this stretch. Super annoying.

We stuck it out, and there was the center part of the movie, which told the story of this family in the 1950s, mainly focusing on the three young boys, and mainly from the perspective of the oldest brother. It's kind of a coming of age and coming to terms with faith and its place at the table of your life tale. The father is a dickwad -- and Brad Pitt as the father does the most annoying thing I've ever seen with his lower lip, so congrats on getting me to think you're super ugly, Brad Pitt. This center part of the movie IS the real movie, and should have been the entire thing.

But instead, Terence Malick had to be a pretentious douchebag and add 15 minutes in the end of Sean Penn wandering around on a beach with everyone from his childhood, including the dead brother and his childhood self. I assumed they were all dead and in some sort of heaven-type place, and there was a visually powerful scene in which the mother embraces Sean Penn that actually made me cry. But apparently, he's just having some kind of hallucination or daydream or whatever. And then eventually the movie just ends, and the entire theatre erupted in booing and people shouting obscenities. NO LIE.

I could talk about how annoying this movie was for hours. Did I like it? No. Did anyone like it? No. I would LOVE to hear from someone who likes this movie and understands what it's about and can explain it all to me, and why Malick made the choices he did in its direction. Seriously.

At the same time, I can't tell you I hated it, either. It challenged me and I'm not sure I want my movies to challenge me quite that much. This is the same argument I get into with my books all the time.

Anyway, moving along...

The Descendants: A story about a family (who happen to live in Hawaii) waiting for their mother to die. She's been injured in a boating accident and is in an irreversible coma, so her life support has been turned off and the father (played by George Clooney) has to help his two daughters cope. In the midst of this he learns that his wife was cheating on him leading up to the accident and has to deal with his anger about that in addition to the loss. It's a really well-done piece of story telling. All the acting is superb. My family kind of lived something very similar with my older sister last summer, so I can relate, and I really appreciate that the filmmakers made it that story about family and how you have to cope and live on -- how in some ways, this totally earth-shattering horrible thing really isn't all that earth-shattering in the end because the world keeps going, everyone else keeps going, and those who are left behind have to keep going too. Rob and I both loved this one.

Hugo: I didn't know what to expect from this at all. It was marketed -- poorly -- as a kid's movie. It's really not a kid's movie -- it's more what I think of as a movie for everyone. Based on the book The Invention of Hugo Cabret, it's about a young orphaned boy who lives in the Paris train station and keeps the clocks running (he was an apprentice to a drunkard uncle who has disappeared -- later he turns up dead). He's got this automaton (an early robot, essentially) that he and his father were trying to repair together before his father died, and he figures if he can get it working, it will have some kind of message for him from his father. Meanwhile, the man who runs the toy shop in the station has tired of this young boy stealing from his shop and takes away a journal the boy has of his father's plans and sketches, which show the automaton. In the end it turns out this toy shop man built the automaton many years before. But what the movie is really about is movies and how movies shape dreams or express dreams or make us believe in magic. It's basically Martin Scorsese's love letter to movies.

It's beautiful, absolutely gorgeous -- we did see it in 3D, which put the viewer right in the thick of the action -- and it's very well acted, especially by the young boy and the young girl. A truly magical movie experience. Really worthy of its nomination. Loved it from start to finish.

The Help: I really enjoyed this book so I wanted to like the movie -- and the movie IS likeable enough. But it's almost too likeable, given the subject matter. I felt like it should have been darker, like everything was given a Chris Columbus-style veneer (still haven't forgiven him for the first two Harry Potter movies, never will, don't even get me started) -- his hands as producer were clearly all over everything. The way the white women treated their housekeepers was played too much for laughs; they were forgiven for too much (the book doesn't let them off this easily). The men were nonexistent and mostly buffoons; they were controlling racist assholes in the book. The worst part was that the movie didn't truly convey how dangerous it was for these maids to share their stories; it didn't convey at all their constant fears and worries for their families. In so doing, the film belittles them and makes them secondary. And thus it IS racist. Disappointing and racist.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close: It's hard to make a serious movie that centers around a kid. You have to get the viewers to care about the kid almost immediately, or nothing works from that point forward. And the kid in this movie has the most annoying, grating voice I've ever heard in my life, and thus... nothing. Nothing for me to grasp onto or care about. I was bored to the point that I drifted off once or twice, and almost got up and walked out just to get away from how boring it was. Tom Hanks was also super-annoying as the dad; he's supposed to be this paragon of the perfect dad, but in reality, he's basically played an elaborate prank on his child so that kind of makes him a douchecanoe in my book. And really, OF COURSE The Renter is the long-missing grandfather. Come on. Who didn't see that one coming?

I felt really bad because I could tell Rob and our friend Kama who came with us were both really into it. I apologize for being annoying. I just got NOTHING from this movie.

And also it's an example of lazy filmmaking -- I don't mind when a director has a certain style or things they do particularly well, but this is the same guy who directed Billy Elliot, and you could totally tell he was trying to make this kid look quirky in the exact same ways with a number of different shots. Ridiculous, is what it was.

The Artist: I love Jean Dujardin. And I had so many friends just rave about how great this movie is that I started to get worried -- on the surface, it sounded awesome and I should love it and Jean Dujardin is in it too, but what if it wound up being too pretentious and I hated it? But those concerns were for nothing -- it is as fantastic as everyone's telling you it is. Berenice Bejo is an absolute delight as Peppy Miller; I just want to bring her home with me and have her sit in my living room looking all delightful and pretty. And Jean Dujardin's skills with facial expression are superb. And his eyes! Dude, Jean, you're killing me with those eyes. Here -- check him out. I'll wait.  Tell me he's not nice to look at it.

Yeah, it's in black and white. Yeah, it's a silent film (it has a score). Get over it. It's awesome.

Midnight In Paris: I love Woody Allen. I can think of maybe two Woody Allen movies that I don't like... maybe only one. So of course I liked this movie. It's a love letter to Paris and to Paris in the 1920s in particular. It's got Hemingway and Scot and Zelda Fitzgerald, and Kathy Bates as Gertrude Stein and a recurring appearance from the First Lady of France as a hottie tour guide (if I were French I would dress so much better and be so much prettier). It's fun and funny. I'm not totally down with Owen Wilson as the lead, acting as stand-in for Woody Allen himself. I'd have preferred someone a little less mellow. But whatever. It's a good movie. I'd have liked it a lot better from my couch at the end of a work week, and not as a Best Picture nominee. But no one ever asks me to vote.


So for sure, it's an off year after the last five years of Best Picture nominees being for the most part amazing (the only exception for me was Black Swan last year -- still my worst movie ever).

I think for now I'll rank them as follows (1 being my fave, 9 being my least fave): 1 - Hugo; 2 - The Artist; 3 - The Descendants; 4 - Moneyball; 5 - Midnight in Paris; 6 - War Horse; 7 - The Help; 8 - Tree of Life; 9 - Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. It's a tough call between 8 and 9 but ultimately I had to choose as the worst the movie that didn't affect me at all. I'd rather be challenged and angry than bored to death.

I think The Artist will win. The acting awards are too tough to make a call.  Or I'm just tired and lazy. You pick.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012


So I've finished a good draft two of Less Than Perfect - my novel, for those of you not in the loop. And I'm happy with it. It was a victory -- a hard fought victory. It took me well longer than I had planned or expected. And yes, like I've said before, life got in the way, but still -- it was frustrating to not feel it come together faster.

Maybe it's crazy, but I swear to you it was my new MacBook Pro that turned the tide in my favor. Because within a week of owning it, I finished the second draft.

All thanks to my broken ankle.

Anyway. I know I have something good. I know people are going to love it. I know this. But when you write, really seriously write, you spend a good deal of time second-guessing and doubting yourself. You know for a fact that some of what you do is crap, garbage, tripe. It might actually be the majority of what you do.

And so it's always nice to get some affirmation -- that you know what the hell you're doing, you know what you're about. And tonight, in the midst of my ginormous household organization process, I got my affirmation. In this pile of junk, papers and magazines and whatnot, I found a printout of a very early draft of Less Than Perfect. The very first draft, in fact. This was back when it was still called "Untitled NaNoWriMo Project 2010" and only about 37 pages long. And I sat down to read it.

And let me tell you: It was stupid. It was horrible. It was horribly stupid. Reading it was almost as embarrassing as reading over the short stories I wrote in college and my early twenties... an exercise I engaged in just the other night. Excruciating. It was so bad I can't believe I kept going. I can't believe I found anything in there to hold on to.

But I did. I fell in love with my two main characters, and their families and friends, and I couldn't let them go. And somehow, it got better. And then even better. And then good.

And so reading this early draft -- and this so close on the heels of looking over a lot of my old writing -- affirmed for me that OH MY GOD, I do know what the fuck I'm doing after all when it comes to the craft of writing. All the years of working at it, figuring it out, have actually paid off -- I make good, even great, decisions about the narrative, what to leave in, what to cut, what to say, what to leave unsaid. I'm not perfect -- I don't think anyone who writes can really be objective about their own work and will always need some trusted advisors to look it over and offer real perspective. But in general, I know what the hell I'm doing.

It's a good feeling. I majored in Creative Writing in college. It was one of those majors where you could ace all your coursework as long as you put in the effort, even if the outcome of your effort was mediocre. My fiction writing teachers in college hated my work. They hated that it drifted into cliche more often than not; they hated that it always involved some sort of romantic relationship between a female and a male character; they hated that I used too many details instead of the spare language befitting short fiction. They seemed to like me as a person, save one professor my final semester, so I tried not to let it bother me. But it ingrained in me so much self doubt. I lacked so much confidence, and I didn't get any of it back until the workshops I took in my late twenties and into my early thirties. I got confidence in spades there, and looking over it now, the work I was doing then was amazing, in terms of skill and content. It's just that I never quite knew where it was going. But it was beautiful, and I remember loving the journey.

And then I allowed a person in my life take all that away from me in one ugly moment of betrayed trust, and it took 7 years -- 7 long and sort of lost and depressing years -- before I found it again, and reminded myself how much I love to write. I love to write so much I want to do it every single day, over and above almost everything else. Part of it is the journey. Part of it is that I can see the destination now.

And I love being back here. This is who I am. As much as my family probably hates how divided my attention for them is, I don't ever want to go back to being less than me, that sad lost person who wasn't doing what she was supposed to be doing. I'll figure out a balance at some point, I know I will.

And in the meantime, I have a killer draft of a really good novel.