Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close.

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (Stephen Daldry, 2011)

Hey here’s another entry in our continuing 2nd Annual Taste My Sad Oscar Watch (2ATMSOW)! I saw this movie on Monday, the day before the Oscar nominations were announced, and was quite worried that it would be shut out of the nominations, thus rendering this post unrelated to the Oscar Watch. This is what I worry about these days.

Luckily, it earned two surprise nods: Best Picture and Best Supporting Actor (Max von Sydow). This makes it the second film in the four-movie-long 2ATMSOW to actually be nominated for Oscars. Congratulations to The Descendants. Sorry ‘bout it, Like Crazy and Weekend. Better luck next year, even though you will be ineligible for Oscars next year.

By the way, this feature will continue throughout the next month, culminating in the Second Annual Taste My Sad Oscar Sadstravaganza, in which I pick the saddest entry in each Oscar category. It is in no way “completely unnecessary.”

Category: Sad movie featuring a former Jeopardy! champion. This is the only such movie I can think of at the moment. At least until the upcoming documentary: What is… Diabetes?

Much more controversially, this is a sad movie about 9/11. It’s been over ten years since that terrible day, and about five years since Hollywood started making movies explicitly about the attacks (United 93 and World Trade Center were both released in 2006). Several others have been made that either directly or obliquely reference the attacks since then. They've all been fairly controversial, and I'm sure all of them were talked about derisively on Fox & Friends. And obviously it's important to be prudent when making a movie about such a traumatic event. I remember reading that Steven Spielberg refused to take a salary for Schindler’s List, stating that it would be “blood money.” No word on whether or not Robert Pattinson did likewise for Remember Me. (We’ll get to Remember Me on the blog soon, by the way. Hooooo boy.)

The issue with these movies is that they run the risk of being exploitative. Ten years is obviously a fair amount of time, but for many, many people, seeing those images will never not be too soon. Roger Ebert wrote, “No movie has ever been able to provide a catharsis for the Holocaust, and I suspect none will ever be able to provide one for 9/11.” I respect that sentiment. I also respect the people who have (non-cynically) tried to make meaningful artistic statements about those events. I do not respect people who are reactionary about this issue, the people who want to erase the Twin Towers from movies and TV shows and all that, as if they want us all to forget they ever existed. That strikes me as childish and very against the whole "never forget" thing.

My familiarity with this issue: In working with children who were too young to remember the tragedy, I found that those kids talked about 9/11 with an open, unfiltered curiosity that I initially took as disrespectful. (I admittedly had a low threshold for “thinking the kids were being disrespectful.”) Upon reflection, I realized that the kids just lack the heightened sense of propriety that those of us who remember the event possess. These kids will learn about 9/11 in school, no doubt, but they’ll really begin to understand it in a more meaningful way when they see a movie that really makes them understand what it was like to be alive when it happened – the way that we understood the Holocaust in a different way after seeing Schindler’s List. I have a feeling that Remember Me isn’t gonna cut it.

I read Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2005 novel, on which the film is based, in college, and I loved it. It was different from anything I had read before (which may say more about the breadth of my pre-college reading than it does about the book itself). I remember thinking it was audacious and weird and often funny and often so ridiculously sad. There were parts of the book that I continue to find amazing; you should all read “The Sixth Borough” (a chapter of the book, here taken from the New York Times a year or so before the book was released). I was particularly taken by Oskar, the precocious, possibly Asperger’s-afflicted nine-year-old protagonist, whose stream-of-consciousness narration reminded me of my own nine-year-old thoughts.

That’s why I wasn’t happy about the fact that the book was being turned into a movie. The idea of some child actor reciting Oskar’s lines in voiceover made me cringe. (Here’s the first chapter of the book, for reference.) And beyond that: this adaptation isn’t a movie (like Liev Schrieber’s adaptation of Foer’s first novel, Everything Is Illuminated), but rather, a Movie. A big studio movie that stars Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock, was produced by known guy-who-runs-Hollywood Scott Rudin, and was directed by Stephen Daldry, who has directed three two Oscar-nominated movies that were all criticized for being little more than Oscar bait (Billy Elliot, The Hours and The Reader). (UPDATE: fellow Jeopardy! champion and FOTB Kara Spak correctly points out that that criticism was never really applied to Billy Elliot, which everyone seemed to enjoy free of cynicism. Duly noted.) So I worried that the quirky uniqueness of the book that I so loved would be lost in the shuffle. (By the way, I would love to reread the book to see if I’d still love it as much as it once did, but I lent out my copy to someone and don’t have it in my house. Note to everyone to whom I’ve lent out books: please return them at some point. Thanks!)

The movie came out in limited release last month (so that it would be eligible for Oscar consideration), so even though the movie opened in DC just this past weekend, I’ve already read a bunch of reviews for it. Some of them are quite positive. People magazine gave it four stars! Some of them are SAVAGE. The A.V. Club, an outlet that I usually trust (or at least trust more than People magazine), gave it an F. I’ve seen it on lists of the worst films of the year. I’ve also seen it get nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture. So. Your guess is as good as mine.

Plot summary yoinked from IMDb: “A nine-year-old amateur inventor, Francophile, and pacifist searches New York City for the lock that matches a mysterious key left behind by his father, who died in the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.”

What I thought of the movie: I did not hate it. I think an F is a pretty ridiculous overreaction. I have seen some shit for this blog, and this movie was not on that level at all. Plus, I’m as sensitive about 9/11 as the next reasonable person, and I didn’t think it was completely objectionable or exploitative.

But I also didn’t think it was very good. It did not approach the sort of emotional resonance as the book, and for the very reason I feared: it couldn’t replicate the tone of Oskar’s narration. The words which, on the page, were so endearingly weird and off-kilter sounded grating when spoken onscreen. Foer’s brilliant use of language is almost completely negated in the movie. You have to wonder if anyone who saw the movie without reading the book (and thus understanding what Foer was going for) could possibly stand it.

There are also scenes that are fully depicted in the movie that are real clunkers, things that really stand out as emotionally manipulative and unfair. Things I don’t remember from the book and wish I could go and check and see if they were in the book, but can’t, thanks a lot, PERSON WHO HAS MY COPY OF THE BOOK. So, it was quite disappointing.

How I related to the movie: Oskar has business cards in the movie (in the book, as well). I’d forgotten about that, and when I saw it in the movie I recoiled. Here is why. As mentioned, I recently worked at a program with young kids (eleven and twelve years old) who loved yapping about 9/11 all day and night. We'd get different groups of kids each week and teach them about leadership and take them around DC and explain to them that they shouldn't loudly talk about the Twin Towers' collapse in the 9/11 exhibit at the Newseum.

One week, I had a young man in my group named Cole (this is not his real name). When he got off the plane in DC, the first thing he did was give former coworker of the blog and current friend of the blog Jaime Albarelli his business card. (She promptly texted me to let me know that a kid who had his own business cards was going to be in my group that week. I groaned.)

Cole must have had a thousand of those cards, because every adult and kid there had one by the end of the week. But beyond the cards (a red flag, to be sure), he was just the worst kid I’ve ever met. An obnoxious, loud, self-centered, indifferent, unpleasant little shit. I found a GChat conversation with FOTB Allie Hagan from that week that I believe accurately reflects my feelings on him at the time:

Allie: johnnnnnnnnnn! 
how's your week?
me: i have a kid with his own business cards
who either cries, throws up, or distracts everyone else with his ADHD
it's like having an infant in the room
an infant with business cards
Allie: oh god

(Not to say that all kids with ADHD are difficult, by the way. I had other kids with ADHD who were awesome. Carry on.)

Oh wait but the other thing, I’ll drop this soon I promise, but the other thing was that his business cards DIDN’T SAY ANYTHING ABOUT HIM. Oskar’s business cards had descriptive things about him that were vaguely endearing (“Francophile,” “amateur inventor,” etc). Cole’s had his name, address and phone number. That was it. Like, at least make it interesting, kid! I still have that card somewhere. I’ve strongly considered ordering a dozen pizzas to their house one day to make up for the week that he crushed my soul. The lesson: kids shouldn't have business cards.

Back to the movie. The precociousness of the kid and his whimsical journey, set against the backdrop of 9/11, is the juxtaposition that really eats at people, I think. Honestly though, that wasn’t the main problem for me. You all know my hatred of child actors, but Thomas Horn wasn’t all that bad. Maybe I understood that it’s a pretty impossible role to play, and that the kid did the best he could. Or maybe it’s that there’s an unwritten rule to not criticize other members of the fraternity of Jeopardy! champions. Hard to say.

How I felt after the movie ended: I heard people crying in the theater. I did not cry. I think I cried while reading the book, though. I wonder if I’d do that if I reread it. (Ahem.)

In the end the issue is that the movie, by virtue of being a movie (or a Movie), makes certain fantastical and magical things from the book very, unavoidably literal. You see him doing all the things he talks about doing in the book, which on its face doesn’t seem like a big deal. That’s pretty much how you adapt books into movies.

But… it’s not a realistic book. The kid walks all across New York City by himself, because he’s afraid of public transportation. (Not Manhattan, mind you, THE WHOLE CITY. Staten Island, Far Rockaway, the whole thing. He’s nine. Come on now.) So either they needed to embrace the unrealism of it, or just not make it. They did neither. They missed the point, and thus they made something that a lot of reasonable people think is offensive. I disagree with those people. When a book so interesting becomes a movie this mainstream, it’s not necessarily offensive. It’s just not fair.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

A Single Man.

A Single Man (Tom Ford, 2009)

Category: Sad film about single men. It’s tough out there for the single men. While the dudes in relationships get to be beholden to their girlfriends’ whims and mood swings, the single men are stuck being free to do literally whatever they want to do at all times. Tough times.

Of course, this is much more a film about a sad gay man. (I guess A Sad Gay Man isn’t as good of a title, though.) The film takes place in the ‘60s, when being openly gay wasn’t really in vogue. The sixties were quite a flamboyant period, though, so one might imagine that the gays could hide in plain sight. Which I bet eased the pain of having to deny who you were as a person to everyone.  

My familiarity with this issue: Yo is this movie about me?!!?!?? (Disclaimer: this remark is only referring to the phrase A Single Man, and not the sad gay part AMIRITE LADIES.)

As mentioned, the film is actually about the gays, thus continuing Taste My Sad’s devotion to that group. Blog completists will know that gay films comprise a sizable percentage of the blog’s oeuvre. Indeed, I’m willing to go on record and call the gays the Official Demographic of Taste My Sad. (Sorry, white people. You're a close second.)

While I do often enjoy movies and shows set during the Swinging Sixties, it’s different from actually living during that period. Everyone seemed to be chilling outside while wearing fancy clothes and talking about their feelings. I don’t do any of those things. Throw in the threat of nuclear war and the musical Hair, and I seriously wonder if I’d have preferred to skip the decade altogether, not unlike Brendan Fraser in the film Blast from the Past.

I would be remiss if I didn’t note how highly anticipated this entry is among the gays and FsOTGs. (By which I mean, FsOTB Ben Pollack and Michelle Loizeaux have recently tweeted about it. It’s a low bar for high anticipation here at the blog.) It's a long time coming, as well: I’ve been planning to watch this film with known stringbean and FOTB Ian Frazier for quite some time now. His thoughts on the film are presented below.

Plot summary yoinked from IMDb: “On what he plans will be the last day of his life, George Falconer reflects on his past, particularly on the death of his partner of 16 years, Jim, who was killed in a car crash some months before. He's decided to take his own life that evening and meticulously plans the event, hoping out loud that he can just make it through the day.”

What FOTB Ian Frazier thought of the movie: Okay. So. Taking the extreme overall attractiveness of Nicholas Hoult out of the equation, here are the reasons why A Single Man is one of my favorite films. (Editor's Note: we will discuss Hoult further later in the blog. Hayyyyy.) The beauty and brilliance of the cinematography and Tom Ford’s choices in filming are breathtaking. Whether it is the sleekness and perfection of each character’s presentation, or the subtle yet moving ways each scene goes from a dull contrast to vivid color depending on George’s emotions in each situation, the film moves me.

Combine this visual exquisiteness with the score/soundtrack and I’m blown away every time and am left wanting more. The movie and the score mesh to create the perfect movie-watching experience for any romantic. I find myself listening to the score repeatedly and love how it has the ability to produce the same emotions I feel when actually watching the film (so kudos to you Abel Korzeniowski and Shigeru Umebayashi). (Editor's Note: Ian burned me the soundtrack to the film and I agree wholeheartedly. I especially enjoyed this version of "Stormy Weather," which I have listened to probably 400 times in the day or so since I've seen the movie.)

Julianne Moore (love her) plays her part well enough, but is nothing in comparison to Colin Firth’s performance and portrayal of George Falconer. This movie sticks because for me it’s more than just a gay film; it’s a story of love and loss and how someone struggles with moving past losing love. The spirit of the story can be summed up with the opening lines, life and “waking up begins with saying am and now,” so be sure not to waste what precious time is given to you.

What I thought of the movie: Wowowow. If I were into ranking the movies I’ve seen for the blog, this would rank at or near the top. Basically everything Ian said I agree with, wholeheartedly.

The reason the movie affected me so much is that it has style and substance in equal measure. I was wary of the fact that it was directed by the fashion designer and movie-directing neophyte Tom Ford. And while the movie is unmistakably fashion-y (populated by a bunch of often-shirtless model types), the choices Ford makes, as Ian notes, totally work. They add to the story, which is compelling enough in its own right.

And then there’s the acting. It’s hard to describe how good Colin Firth is in this movie. The scene where he learns about his lover’s death on the phone is just ludicrously heartbreaking. A huge part of it is shot in one take, no cuts, and everything is just so perfect it defies description. I literally don't know what to say about it except to urge you to watch it. And the rest of the movie totally lives up to that scene.

How I related to the movie: Let me first say that my viewing experience did not match the famous “Motown” scene at my screening of Weekend, but it was still quite fabulous. Do you know how they talk about how many tweets are happening per second, and how it spikes during major events, like the Super Bowl or when bin Laden was killed? When Nicholas Hoult took off his clothes to go skinny-dipping, the number of "lustful comments about Nicholas Hoult" per second went through the roof. It was like the Tower of Babel, except with more groaning.

I really enjoyed all the ‘60s bits. The set design and costumes were obviously really cool and probably spot-on. It’s kind of set against the backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis, which I know about because I’ve seen Thirteen Days. But there are also great ‘60s euphemisms for homosexuality like “poof” and “light in the loafers.” The kinds of things that you don’t really hear anymore, unless you live on Long Island. Plus young sweet Nicholas Hoult talks about taking mescaline, which is hilarious and made me think of Eli Cash. (Very much so.)

I honestly thought the movie would be a lot more about prejudice, or at least the difficulties of living as a gay man in the 60s. And that’s obviously in there, but it’s not as central to the movie as I expected it would be. This is why, as Ian says, it’s really not a gay film. Again, I must point out that it’s very gay. Oh how gay it is! But it’s not JUST gay. It’s about more than being gay. And like all truly great movies, it transcends its genre.

How I felt after the movie ended: I won’t spoil the ending. I haven’t even really talked about the plot, by the way. The film takes place in the course of one day, and while there are flashbacks, it pulls off the exceedingly difficult trick of being more about a person than what happens to him. It’s about a state of mind. Such movies often run the risk of being boring, but this one was anything but. Well done, Tom Ford and the rest of you sexy gays. You’ve solidified your official demographic status. 

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Descendants.

The Descendants (Alexander Payne, 2011)

Well, we’re back. Sorry for the unannounced hiatus. If you must know, I’ve spent the last month or so writing a play about an unemployed, misanthropic blogger who lives in Washington, DC. It is semi-autobiographical.

Because we’re just so excited to be back, we’re jumping right back into the 2nd Annual Taste My Sad Oscar Watch! The 2ATMSOW officially kicked off with our post on Like Crazy (and unofficially with the film Weekend), although I don’t really think either of them will get any Oscar nominations. So this is the first major contender we’re looking at. It was nominated for five Golden Globes, awards that, despite being corrupt, are often regarded as the best predictors of Oscar nominations among the major awards ceremonies. Side question: many friends of the blog have asked if I'm pulling a trick from the Hollywood Foreign Press's book by writing about this film to try to ensure George Clooney’s appearance at the Taste My Sad Awards ceremony (to be held at the Olive Garden in about a month and a half). I cannot comment on these allegations at the moment. I do, however, really hope that George Clooney loves unlimited salad and breadsticks.

Category: Sad film about genealogy. It’s a relatively new craze for white people to look up their ancestors and see what they got up to in the old country. I once remember talking to someone who undertook this quest and complained that her ancestors were “boring.” As in, they were born in some European country, married, had kids, and died, and according to whatever website she used to figure this out, didn’t do anything else of note. I wondered whether or not her ancestors would have tried harder to leave their mark, had they known something like that would’ve been said about them years down the line. I have a feeling they’d have just continued trying desperately to avoid dying of any number of diseases that don’t exist anymore.

(OK this movie is probably not about genealogy. From what I’ve read it is apparently a sad movie about comatose wives. I am listening to this song to prepare, because there is no Smiths song called “Wife in a Coma.”)

My familiarity with this issue: Honestly, your ancestry is a lot like your fantasy football team: nobody cares about it other than you. Unless you’re me, and your great-great-uncle Aloysius invented the bobby pin. (My great-uncle’s name is Robert.) (I may have made all this up.)

This kind of movie raises an interesting question: should sexy movie stars pretend they know what it’s like to be one of the great unwashed? George Clooney In the previews it seems like Clooney’s schlumping it up, forsaking his considerable charisma to play a loser. In the aforementioned About Schmidt, which I remember thinking was really great, Jack Nicholson successfully pulls off this trick. Although now that I bring up About Schmidt, I can only think about the Kathy Bates topless scene. Let’s just forget I ever mentioned it.

Plot summary yoinked from IMDb: “With his wife Elizabeth on life support after a boating accident, Hawaiian land baron Matt King takes his daughters on a trip from Oahu to Kauai to confront the young real estate broker, who was having an affair with Elizabeth before her misfortune.”

What I thought of the movie: It was good. It was not great. But it was very good, I’d say. The movie presents us with a complex situation, to which there are no easy solutions, and it doesn’t take the easy way out. It’s occasionally funny but never forgets about the fact that it is essentially about waiting for someone to die. And the actors are very good, especially superhunk Clooney, who is excellent.

But in the end it doesn’t quite add up. The script was kind of weak: the dialogue was often overly expository, and voiceover was deployed clumsily at the beginning of the movie, making it kind of hard to get into. And once it does get into a groove, the introduction of Clooney’s 17-year-old daughter’s dopey boyfriend kind of torpedoes it for a while. He’s a really dumb, annoying character, who is not redeemed by a late-night conversation scene with Clooney that is baldly intended to redeem him.

Establishing such a complex situation as the movie does takes a lot of skill, and often I felt like the writers weren't up to the task. You’ve got to keep a lot of balls in the air without the audience really noticing, and sometimes it’s hard not to notice. Like that scene with the dumb kid that I mentioned before. You get the sense that they added that scene after a test screening in which people said, “we hate that kid, get rid of him,” but they couldn’t get rid of him because he was in all the other scenes. The movie also kind of wastes Robert Forster, except for that scene where he punches the kid in the face. I liked that scene.

But as I said, more good than bad, more sad than not-sad. Clooney does a lot of emoting, but he’s entitled. I think it’s worth seeing.

How I related to the movie: The film is, as mentioned, set in Hawaii, but Clooney’s opening voiceover talks about how Hawaii is totally not the tropical paradise that it’s cracked up to be, and its residents are not immune to the problems that we mainlanders face. And that’s all fine, but… I would still totally rather live in Hawaii. Not because of the beautiful beaches and clear blue waters (FsOTB will know that those things actually kind of detract from Hawaii’s appeal for me), but people get to dress like slobs all the goddamn time and no one cares! It’s awesome! I am not yet of the age that I can rock a Hawaiian shirt without looking like a knob. But I will be soon. And when I am, I’d like to be living in a place where that sort of thing is not only not frowned upon, but widely accepted, even in the working world.

The reason it’s called The Descendants, by the way, is that Clooney’s great-great-etc-father married a Hawaiian princess, and thus Clooney owns hundreds of thousands of acres of “pristine Hawaiian land” (I think there’s a law that the word “pristine” has to be used to describe Hawaiian things). His decision to sell (or not sell) the land makes the whole “your wife who cheated on you is in a coma” thing more complicated. Having two stressful things going on in your life at the same time is no picnic. Being unemployed during the NBA lockout was very difficult.

How I felt after the movie: I spent much of my bus ride home trying to place the guy who played Clooney’s wife’s paramour. A goofy-looking guy with a recognizable face. I IMDb-ed it when I got home, because I don’t have a smartphone. But I think in this case it’s better that I didn’t, because it would have been really weird to shout “MATTHEW LILLARD!” on the bus. Because YEAH IT WAS THAT GUY. Scooby-Doo star and Freddie Prinze, Jr. BFF Matthew Lillard. It almost ruined the movie for me.

This is definitely an Oscar-bait kind of movie. Good pedigree, wide appeal, etc. And it's not bad, don't get me wrong. I doubt I'll be rooting for it to win many awards, though. Except Best Actor for George Clooney because boy is he dreamy! (Please come to the Olive Garden.)