March 28, 2014

Saving Mr. Banks (2013)

Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Colin Farrell

This is the movie that should have been...

For one thing, it should have had a different title. I don't know if there were some legal issues with using the words "Mary Poppins" in the title or something, but I thought Saving Mr. Banks was too...well, subtle. Now, usually I'm not in favor of "dumbing down" things for the general public, but when the public has so little to go off of when deciding whether or not to watch a movie, picking a title that more obviously fit the theme of the movie may have been the way to go here. Subtlety is not your friend when dealing with the masses. This is why a movie as laughably horrible as White House Down made nearly the same amount at the box office - because people knew what to expect from it. (And because apparently they aren't averse to real acting or any semblance of a plot getting in the way of watching stuff getting blown up on screen.)

It should have been more well known, but was awkwardly released on Christmas Day. Like a version of comedies that aren't funny, this was marketed as a heartwarming family movie - again, released on Christmas Day, no less. Except that if I had taken my family to the theater to watch this on Christmas, we'd all be trudging home to curl up alone in dark, cold beds and cry ourselves to sleep.

This might be my personal crusade against the "dramedy," but how does one market this genre? Most tend to focus on the funnier parts of the movie, falsely luring viewers under the pretense that it is a comedy when in fact, most "dramedies" tend to be rather serious movies with just a few funny moments sprinkled in.  So really, maybe we should stop pretending it's an entire genre unto itself. Or at the very least, come up with a better word for it than "dramedy."

This movie suffered from the "dramedy" marketing problem, where the previews made it look like some sort of light-hearted, heartwarming comedy of sorts, filled with music and dancing, instead of the mostly serious and rather sad movie it really was that just happened to have some music and dancing mixed in with it. Perhaps it's because I connected more deeply with the back story of Emma Thompson's childhood and her relationship with her father than the supposed *actual* point of the movie, which was the making of Mary Poppins, but that colored the whole tone of the movie for me. And really, wistful shots like this are bound to make anyone feel sad, if for no other reason than the fact that few of us have memories as awesome as this. If only I had grown up in Australia. Sigh.

Ultimately, I enjoyed the movie. Yes, I know it wasn't a *true* biography, but I figure it's a little like the 2008 Beijing Olympics - you have to expect some subterfuge to achieve that level of showmanship. (Remember the infamous "footprints" fireworks?)

Besides, I am such a biased fan of Disney that I'm apt to enjoy just about anything they put out (with the recent exception of Brave. That was massively disappointing.) Maybe it's unfair to overlook some liberties taken with this script, while skewering a film like Captain Phillips for the exact same reason, but I think it all comes down to expectations. I expect a serious biography and Oscar contender like Captain Phillips to be factually accurate, or to at least change the story in an artistically interesting way like Philomena. Saving Mr. Banks, however, is a bit more like listening to an old grandfather/uncle/name your own beloved relative tell a story - you know it's not the exact truth, but he tells it in such an interesting way and with such enjoyment you hate to disrupt his rose-colored revisionism. And since everyone in the family tacitly understands that this is how this relative operates, no one feels the need to call him out on certain...distortions...

...which apparently, a lot of other movie critics felt the need to do after watching this movie. Again, it's all about expectations. I may be an adult that still believes Disney World is the happiest place on Earth, but I have no illusions about the fact that at the end of the day, Disney is still a corporation - a corporation that is trying to make money and make itself look good. I mean, what do you expect? It's like being shocked that drug companies omit negative results of drug tests that they themselves fund. Except that some members of the public manage to seem equally outraged at both, as if both transgressions are equally ethically questionable.

But yes, it should have been just a tiny bit more accurate. I know it seems like I'm going back on everything I just passionately argued for, but I'm just saying it wouldn't have ruined the movie to have her kids portrayed, or one of the countless facts that were changed or omitted for the final product. I'm all for artistic license, but I agree maybe the screenwriters got a little cut happy. Again, I thought it was a good movie, but bringing in the added element of actual realism could have possibly made it a great movie. Then maybe it would have been nominated for something other than just "Best Original Score." (Oh, and also - just don't call it a biography, eh? Call it "inspired by actual events.")

Final word: A bit more Disneyland, not DisneyWorld, if you know what I'm saying.

March 11, 2014

Elysium (2013)

Matt Damon, Jodie Foster

I loooove me some Jodie Foster. Granted, I didn't follow her childhood career, but I've liked almost all of the movies I've seen where she's a grown-up. (Notable exception: Nell, which has her awkwardly naked throughout much of it.) I think she is an amazing actress and can morph into pretty much any role. Yet...she nearly single-handedly ruined this movie, which is really not easy to do, especially in a sci-fi movie where you have to contend with multiple plot points that leave you wondering.

It wasn't Foster's acting, per se, that was horrible (though that wasn't great either). It was the accent. I know I'm especially sensitive about crappy accents, but this one was so awkward it was almost impossible to listen to. Again, I know it was a sci-fi move, so maybe she was trying to create some kind of futuristic foreign accent? Except that she was the only person in the entire movie with an accent.

I'm Jodie Foster. I'll do whatever I want, even if it makes no sense.

Accent aside, the movie was about as subtle as V for Vendetta but without the creepy masked man with the mustache. It may as well have been paid for by a lobbying group for immigration reform or Obamacare. (Weirdly though, House Republicans aren't spouting off to the media about repealing the release of this movie...) And the whole premise made about as much practical sense as most policies in this country.

In all seriousness, I don't think it would be out of line to say the future citizens of this country would look back on this movie as muy más o menos (since we'll obviously all be speaking Spanish in the future).

Final word: It certainly was not the paradise its name suggested.

March 2, 2014

2014 Oscar predictions

When the nominations came out this year, I'll admit I was less than enthusiastic. Though one reader harshly criticized me for judging movies based on their trailers, I sillily thought that's what trailers were made for! So based on their less than impressive trailers, I was not looking forward to watching what seemed like the ever-growing list of nominated movies.

However, it turns out most of the movies were at least mediocre, which doesn't exactly sound like a ringing endorsement, but it beat my extremely low expectations for the year. Now we'll just have to see if Ellen can do a better job of hosting than she did last time. The good news? It can't possibly be worse than Seth McFarlane. See? It's all about expectations.

Just to clarify, my picks below are my predictions of who I think will win, not who I want to win, since so often the two don't agree. This is exact reason I beat my husband in our March Madness brackets every single year - you can't get swept up by conference sentimentality when placing bets. You need to know that Gonzaga will choke and let you down every single year. 

Best Picture predicted winner: Gravity

Never have I wanted to be so wrong about a pick, but I have a feeling the Academy wants to make history and pick the first sci-fi movie to win Best Picture in history. Also, it was a thin year for Best Picture nominees and I'm sure plenty of viewers were so dazzled by its visual effects they didn't even notice the utter nonsense happening within the movie itself. 

  • American Hustle: It was a the movie version of an 80's hair band - entertaining, lots of fun, but not the highest quality product. 
  • Captain Phillips: If Tom Hanks hadn't headed up this movie, I guarantee it wouldn't have gotten this kind of attention. And yet, Tom Hanks isn't nominated for an Oscar. Shouldn't that tell you something?
  • Dallas Buyers Club: A good movie, but one can't help but feel like the Academy always picks at least one PC movie and this one fit for the year. It's just nothing particularly special in the realm of gay/AIDS movies.
  • Gravity: If this movie comes home with anything other than the award for Visual Effects or something relating to its CGI, well, there's really nothing I can do about it except complain loudly about it to anyone who will listen (my lucky husband!!). But a win would be as wrong as believing this movie would teach you about the realities of space travel.
  • Her: I'm sure the Academy think it's branching out into "unconventional" picks with this one, but it's really just slow, relationship drama with Oscar bait touches like great production design.
  • Nebraska: I liked it, but from what I hear, I'm one of the few people who managed to stayed awake through the whole thing.
  • Philomena: My personal favorite of the year, but judging by the number of blank faces when I try to recommend this movie to people, it's not well known enough to win.
  • 12 Years a Slave: Call it Oscar fatigue. I just never quite made it to this one. But in all honesty, movies with all African-American casts generally don't win Best Picture. If Glory couldn't pull it off, I'm not sure anyone can.
  • The Wolf of Wall Street: I know the Academy loves Scorcese, but I just don't see the Academy voters picking a movie that has Leo snorting blow out of a hooker's a**. Just my opinion.

Best Actor predicted winner: Matthew McConaughey

  • Christian Bale, American Hustle: He's pretty awesome, but he's not Meryl Streep - he can't just win for absolutely everything he does, even if it's not his best work.
  • Bruce Dern, Nebraska: The Academy has a soft spot for actors who play old, cranky people (just ask Clint Eastwood), but unless he's actually going to die soon, they're not going to give him the award out of sympathy. Just the nomination.
  • Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street: Maybe the Academy has gone all Tiger Mom on Leo and is withholding affection and accolades to force him to continue to prove his worthiness? I can't think of another reason for him not to win an Oscar.
  • Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave: BAFTA gave him the win, but he had a hometown advantage there. With gay civil rights issues sweeping across the nation, the timing seems right for Dallas Buyers Club. Looks like we'll need another regular civil rights movement to get any traction for movies about slavery.
  • Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club: The Academy loves a physical transformation for a role. The more weight an actor/actress can lose for a role, the more seriously they are taken when Oscar time comes. Just ask Tom Hanks, Natalie Portman, and Anne Hathaway. Not that he doesn't deserve it, it's just that the weight loss puts him over the edge for the win.

Best Actress predicted winner: Cate Blanchett

  • Amy Adams, American Hustle: It's only a matter of time before she wins an Oscar, but this isn't the year. I appreciate the well executed English accent, but it won't be enough to win, especially against more obvious choices like characters who are over-the-top crazy.
  • Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine: Nothing screams 'Oscar bait' more than playing a crazy person.
  • Sandra Bullock, Gravity: Oh my god oh my god oh my god! [hands flapping] Was this just to inflate the Oscar nom numbers for Gravity, but there was no one else to nominate because she's the only one in the movie?
  • Judi Dench, Philomena: Not good enough to win against Meryl and Cate, but it was refreshing to see something other than her usual cranky old lady routine.
  • Meryl Streep, August: Osage County: She may deserve it this year, but sadly, the Academy awarded her prematurely for The Iron Lady and now she has to politely applaud while someone else collects the award.

Best Supporting Actor predicted winner: Barkhad Abdi

  • Barkhad Abdi, Captain Phillips: The Academy loves an upset and what better category to have it than in a supporting actor category? Every year there is a surprise winner my money is on Barkhad Abdi to be that surprise.
  • Bradley Cooper, American Hustle: You can read my review on this movie to get my thoughts on his nomination. I can't bear to repeat them, or talk about his hair again.
  • Michael Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave: Does he get naked in this movie like he does in every other movie? I'll bet he does.
  • Jonah Hill, The Wolf of Wall Street: Though I've finally decided we are not, in fact, being Punk'd by the Academy, I think the viewing public is going to need a few more years to forget this is the fat kid from Superbad before he can start winning Oscars. Kind of like how long it took Matthew McConaughey to be taken seriously after being the stoner in Dazed and Confused. All right all right all right.
  • Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club: The most deserving, in my book, but it's a pretty political choice (gay, trans, and AIDS? It's like a rainbow trifecta!) and perhaps having Matthew McConaughey win Best Actor hurts his chances for the win by making it look too biased?

Best Supporting Actress predicted winner: Lupita Nyong'o

  • Sally Hawkins, Blue Jasmine: She absolutely nailed the American accent. If she were only competing against Renee Zellweger the year she was in Cold Mountain, this might be enough to win, but sadly, it isn't enough in this deep pool of ladies.
  • Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle: Her winning would be as absurd as that year Judi Dench won for Shakespeare in Love, seeing as Jennifer Lawrence is in this movie for about the same amount of time.
  • Lupita Nyong'o, 12 Years a Slave: Though I didn't see the movie, she's the only thing everyone is talking about, so I'm pretty sure this one is a slam dunk.
  • Julia Roberts, August: Osage County: Her natural over-enunciation made her a natural for a stage adaptation and made it enjoyable to hear her hurl insults with such clarity and vehemence. 
  • June Squibb, Nebraska: Good God she was annoying!! Like, nitpicking grandma annoying - exactly what you would expect in this movie and this family. Sort of like how all parents tell themselves their kids will be different from the brats they see on the streets, I want to believe I will never be that annoying as an old person. Job well done.

Best Original Screenplay predicted winner: Her

I wanted to comment on the screenplay races this year because I can't get over the absurdity of how movies are nominated into categories. Like, how is Blue Jasmine (which is openly based on A Streetcar Named Desire) considered an a original screenplay?? Personally, I think the Academy voters tried to stack the deck to give Woody Allen the win in this category so he wouldn't have to compete against all the biographies in the adapted screenplay category.

  • American Hustle: It's going to be a very disappointing year for American Hustle. It will probably walk away with little more than the award for costume design.
  • Blue Jasmine: After the latest molestation scandal, I think Woody Allen's chance at a fifth Oscar win has slipped away. 
  • Dallas Buyers Club: Not a groundbreaking plot - this movie rests on its acting.
  • Her: I think the Academy is itching to give this movie something and even though I criticized it for being pseudo-intellectual, it's certainly an interesting concept and it has some good dialogue throughout. Definitely the most inventive script of the bunch.
  • Nebraska: Probably too subtle to garner an Oscar win.

Best Adapted Screenplay predicted winner: 12 Years a Slave

  • Before Midnight: They were absolutely robbed here, as it should have swapped places with Blue Jasmine, where Before Midnight could have contended for the win. But against a bunch of real life stories? They'll have to settle for just being happy to be nominated.
  • Captain Phillips: Perhaps if the second half of this movie didn't have my checking my watch every five minutes, this might be a stronger pick. I actually felt the adaptation of this story could have been stronger.
  • Philomena: I've made no secret of my push for Philomena to win any Oscar, really, but sadly, I think it will probably get passed over completely because even evil nuns can't compete with our shame of trying to make reparations for slavery.
  • 12 Years a Slave: Obviously I didn't see this movie, but I'm still picking it for the win. With so many biographies to choose from, it's tough to decide which story is the most compelling. I'm betting on the Academy being swayed by the political implications of choosing a movie about slavery. A true story.
  • The Wolf of Wall Street: I think people just don't take this movie seriously enough to win an award like Best Adapted Screenplay. It's not the movie's fault, of course - it's simply accurately portraying the life of debauchery led by Jordan Belfort, but there seems to be some sort of public distaste for rewarding a movie that revels in it so freely.

Best Animated Feature Film predicted winner: Frozen

  • The Croods: Is this a joke?
  • Despicable Me 2: Lame.
  • Ernest & Celestine: Uh, what?
  • Frozen: Pshhhhh...bitch, please. Are there any other movies even nominated in this category?
  • The Wind Rises: Miyazaki would normally be a force to be reckoned with, but with Frozen closing in on the $1B mark, better luck next time.

Best Original Song predicted winner: 'Happy' from Despicable Me 2

Last year, I didn't predict a winner for Best Song because frankly, I generally don't care that much about this category, but since I can't turn on the radio without hearing Pharrell's friggin' song at least three times in the span of ten minutes, I felt compelled to speak on the travesty that anything from Despicable Me 2 would beat out Frozen. Don't get me wrong - I like Pharrell - but give the man a Grammy, not an Oscar.

  • "Happy from Despicable Me 2: I consider this to be the Oscars appealing to the mainstream, like that year when Three 6 Mafia won for Hustle & Flow. Rarely does the Academy have the chance to give an Oscar to a commercially popular movie and this chart-topping song gives them an excuse to.
  • "Let it Go" from Frozen: Despite every single child in America knowing the lyrics to this song (and it being my least favorite part of the entire movie), I think the overwhelming popularity of Pharrell's song on the Billboard charts will sway the [adult] Academy voters.
  • "The Moon Song" from Her: I don't even remember this song. Is the Academy just trying to give this movie extra nominations?
  • "Ordinary Love" from Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom: Africa, Bono, yawn, yawn, whatever. If Nelson Mandela hadn't passed away recently, would this song still be nominated? Let's be honest.

Don't forget to search the archives or the new(ish) handy Oscars page for all Oscar nominated movies from the past two years. 

March 1, 2014

Philomena (2013)

Judi Dench, Steve Coogan

I recently took the StrengthsFinder test and it turns out - surprise! - one of my strengths is empathy.
(wouldn't have guessed that, huh?) Well, it seems empathy is both a blessing and a curse because it makes watching movies really intense for me. In fact, it's the reason I can't watch horror movies. I empathize so fiercely with the characters in the movie that I literally believe the killer is coming for me next. And yes, I realize how ridiculous this sounds, in broad daylight, from behind the safety of my computer now, but when my eyes are glued to that screen? I am empathizing my way into a heart attack. [**note: I tried to put a scary little gif in here to emphasize my point, but got too scared and had to stop searching**]

In the case of Philomena, I empathized my way through a box of tissues. Although, having gone through the horrible process of childbirth myself, I didn't have to stretch quite as much to imagine how horrifying it would feel to have my kids taken away from me - from nuns, no less. As you can imagine, my comments on parenting usually fall on the sarcastic side and my personal mantra is "there's nothing I can do to them that therapy can't fix later." But watching this movie triggered my inner Colombiana - I wanted to go on a crazy rampage for this woman until someone told her where her son was. I mean, I would preferred the rampage happen before her son were ever taken away, but...

Those damn nuns. Sigh. I've never felt so happy to not be Catholic in my life. Between this and Doubt, I'd probably walk around apologizing to everyone just for having seen the movies. I was married by an Irish Catholic priest and I have half a mind to go question him about his knowledge of these events. I generally try not to spend a lot of time in my life getting too worked up over religion or politics because I prefer to make awkward jokes instead of arguing. But this movie makes it almost impossible to avoid that, so I'll just leave it at... damn nuns.

With so many films this year based on biographies, it's difficult sometimes to decide whether we are comparing the films themselves or just who had a more interesting life story. But what stood out to me about this film compared to say, Captain Phillips, was the beautiful adaptation of the story into a screenplay. I was surprised by how much the screenwriter actually changed, yet it all felt completely believable and yet still somehow true to spirit of the original story. And like The Wolf of Wall Street, the outcome is not necessarily what you'd want, but that's what makes biographies interesting - you don't get to change someone else's life decisions just to satisfy your ideal resolution.

A closing thought (and plea to the undoubtedly numerous Academy voters reading my blog) - this was the most enjoyable Oscar movie of the year. I thought it showed a realness that many of the other movies lacked (I continually had to pinch myself throughout The Wolf of Wall Street to remind myself that it was based on a biography because it was so outrageous), yet retained enough excitement for the audience to stay awake through the whole thing (I'm talking to you, Nebraska). And twenty years from now, this movie will still be just as poignant, heartbreaking, funny, and true. Shouldn't that count for something?

Final word: Loved it. And I'm definitely never converting to Catholicism.