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Archive for the ‘Movies’ Category

2012: a great year for movies

Last night I saw The Hunger Games, which I thought was quite solid. Good enough to make me want to read the second and third books in the trilogy (especially because this will supposedly take me about a day to do). When I was watching the previews for it, I was reminded that 2012 really ought to be an incredible year for film. Check it out:

Brave – Pixar’s next

The Dark Knight Rises – Nolan’s sequel to the Dark Knight

Django Unchained – Tarantino’s film about a freed slave and a German bountyhunter who go up against an evil plantation owner (DiCaprio)

The Hobbit – part 1 of 2

Lincoln – Spielberg directs Daniel Day Lewis

Moonrise Kingdom – Wes Anderson’s first live-action film since Darjeerling Unlimited in 2007

Prometheus – Ridley Scott (Alien, Blade Runner) returns to the genre he pioneered, supposedly an Alien prequel

Other films that will generate buzz, but don’t appeal to me as much:

The Amazing Spider-Man, The Avengers, Bourne Legacy, The Dictator, The Great Gatsby, Men in Black 3, Skyfall (James Bond)

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Meryl Streep won the Oscar for Best Actress yesterday for her role in The Iron Lady, a bad movie. People have variously justified her win over Viola Davis as a de facto lifetime achievement award for all her great work that has gone unrecognized. After all, she’s the “best actress of her generation.”

But is she really that good? Considering that most lists of “best actresses of the last 30 years” would put her at or around number one, how good were her performances? Last night, as I tried to list her best performances, I found them variously lacking (more on this in a bit). She’s a bit like a Barry Larkin — consistently good but never “the best.” Certainly she belongs in the pantheon, but her brilliance rarely rose to the level of her predecessors or contemporaries.

Slate has a good rundown here, but I’ll point out that my favorite Streep performance is probably one of Adaptation, Kramer vs. Kramer, or Angels in America. And yet, these are not in the same stratosphere as, say, Jodie Foster in Silence of the Lambs, or Naomi Watts in Mulholland Drive, or Diane Keaton in Annie Hall, et al. Even in each of those movies, Streep’s performance is arguably overshadowed by one of her costar’s work (Nicolas Cage in Adaptation, Dustin Hoffman in Kramer vs. Kramer, and Al Pacino in Angels).

I think Streep’s pedigree is part of the problem here. Her choice in films tends toward the prestige project or the indulgent (Devil WearsPrada, a fun but unnecessary movie; Julie and Julia, a movie that I enjoyed for its Streepness). When she goes off the beaten path, it’s not in search of an unusual new director or a bizarre indie picture. Instead, it’s for Mamma Mia! or A Prairie Home Companion.

Again, I like Streep’s work, and I enjoy the way that she fully embodies her characters. She’s clearly a sharp woman with phenomenal talent, but she’s cautious with that talent, which may lead her away from the most intriguing roles.

Perhaps I can’t blame Streep for her choice in movies, which is to some degree out of her control, but she’s Meryl Streep! She has her pick of movies! She could star in (almost) anything she wanted, and can play comedy, drama, thrillers, etc. Yet, she cannot help but hew towards the conventional.

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The full list is out. What do you all think about it?

What I like:

-Love for Moneyball. Granted, I might be biased due to my love of baseball, but I think it’s a great film, and I like that it got nominated for Best Picture, Brad Pitt for Best Actor, and Jonah Hill for Best Supporting Actor.

-Love for Bridesmaids. One of the year’s best comedies got noms for screenplay and for supporting actress. Only problem is it could have gotten a nod for Best Picture. It certainly deserved it more than The Hangover did.

What I don’t like:

-Movies with bad reviews getting nominated for Best Picture. Previously, it has happened to The Blind Side and to The Reader. This year it happened to Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. It has a 46 on Metacritic. Seems like a bad choice.

-Not enough love for Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Rooney Mara got a well deserved Best Actress nomination, but I think Fincher could have gotten a Best Director nod, and the film certainly should have been one of nine to be nominated.

What surprised or intrigued me:

-Best Screenplay for A Separation. It already seems guaranteed to win for Best Foreign Film, but it might be truly fantastic to get other noms.

-How does Tintin win the Golden Globe for Best Animated film but not even get nominated for the Oscar?

-The Academy was evidently unable to resist movies that celebrated movies. Hugo and The Artist lead the field. I am excited to see both.

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“The Devil Inside,” a mockumentary exorcism movie that critics and viewers alike agree is total garbage, has been bizarrely successful.

This reminds me of the “My Humps” phenomenon, in which a song that was so terrible that no one in their right mind could possibly enjoy it defied the expectations of the band, label, and thinking human beings.

These phenomena go beyond mere “So Bad It’s Good.” No one walked out of “The Devil Inside” or listened to “My Humps” and thought even ironically that it was good. This is voluntary experiencing badness in mass quantities.

A few notes: scarcity is important here. January is typically the worst time for new movies, particularly mass-market movies. Thus, January has regularly produced a parade of box-office horribles, from the Big Momma’s franchise to Paul Blart: Mall Cop.

Additionally, this is not a case of differing opinions between critics and viewers. Devil Inside scored abysmally (“F”) on Cinemascore, which surveys audience members with exit surveys to determine how they enjoyed the film. Viewers hated it; critics hated it; and yet, people went to go see it in swarms.

Was it a good marketing campaign? Maybe. But plenty of good marketing campaigns fail to build buzz that translates to eyeballs.

Rather than asking a question of marketing/box office success, I think this question gets at a central idea of movies: Why go in the first place? We go to see films (or listen to music, etc.) for a variety of minutes, and we’ll pick something based on our goal. Sometimes, we want to be scared, and in January, when pickings are slim, we’ll go see a terrible one. Sometimes, we want to listen to a dance single, and when one appears on the radio, we’ll keep listening, even if we don’t even enjoy it.

Tastemakers would hate to admit it, but our tastes are as much about availability bias and what’s right in front of you, rather than some careful selection. We watch whatever we can agree on (e.g. the success of “Pawn Stars”), not what is greatest (e.g. the ratings for “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad,” “The Wire,” etc.).

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On aging well

I’ve been thinking lately about what it means for a film or album to age well. People change their tastes as they age. But this slows down after a certain point, wouldn’t you agree? As a teenager you might like Justin Bieber or Katy Perry, but as you enter college, you decide what you really like. Some people continue to like top 40 all the time, while others discover Dylan and Hendrix. But I would argue that at some point while your tastes in music and film might change some, they tend to slow down or even solidify.

But despite this, you notice exceptions. You still like Scorsese films, but maybe one of them no longer seems that great in retrospect. Or you continue to like a ton of indie rock, but now you wonder whether Weezer was ever all that great. Why does this happen?

Sometimes it can be obvious. Society has changed, and you just can’t get over the fact that Breakfast at Tiffany’s features such blatant racism, so it ruins the whole thing for you. But other times it’s more subtle, and it becomes difficult to explain why. Here are a couple examples that have been on my mind lately:

Music that aged well: The Wrens. Their album, the Meadowlands, is one I enjoyed when it came out during my college years. It was a solid piece of indie rock with varied styles within the album. But as time passed, I would forget about it, and revisit it after months or even years. And every time I did, I enjoyed it more. This is a band that could have been the next Creed, but instead chose not to “sell out.” It’s good for us – we get their excellent music – but it wasn’t so obviously good for them. The guys still lived together in suburban New Jersey working shit jobs making very little money. And the feelings the album evokes continue to resonate as time passes.

A movie that didn’t age well: Lord of the Rings. The books are classic, and the movie is a well-adapted version of the fantasy world. But remember how huge this seemed when it came out? How much it dominated the media? How many pop culture references it produced? How the third film won over 10 Oscars, including Best Picture? Doesn’t that seem silly now? Doesn’t it seem indistinguishable in excellence from other very good adaptations like some of the Harry Potter films?

So what do you say, Unpersons? Any good examples you have of things you know you used to love but don’t anymore?

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Sometimes it’s good to have a voice pushing back at the critical commentariat that push boomer favorites like Bob Dylan and The Godfather as the “greatest of all time.” Unfortunately, articles like this one by Natasha Vargas-Cooper are going too far in the wrong direction:

History does not inform the value of a film; you need never see a stylized Godard flick or Cary Grant comedy to understand the enthralling power of Fargo or Independence Day. Movies are a mass art and everyone should have opinions on them regardless of if they’ve seen The Deer Hunter or not. We are a generation weaned on television and movies, we were moviesgoers before we were citizens, it’s too long to wait until the purists die off to talk about the accomplishments and missteps of Paul Thomas Anderson in a serious way. So let’s plow our cart over the bones of the dead and take stock of our new frontier.

First, Independence Day? Don’t get me wrong, I did think it was the greatest film ever made when I was 11, but still.

More importantly, though, I don’t think cinephiles that have watched The Deer Hunter necessarily dislike Paul Thomas Anderson movies (or Independence Day, for that matter). In fact, watching more movies gives you more perspective on the movies you have seen, are seeing, and will see, in the same way that reading more books or meeting more people informs the books/people that you encounter.

This reminds me of Sarah Palin’s “Real America” snobbery. Refusing to read Foucault or listen to Puccini because of the reputations of the people who do such things (“non-Real-Americans”) is exactly as snobbish as refusing to read Guns & Ammo or listen to Brooks & Dunn because it’s beneath your station. I can’t even believe that someone would voluntarily choose not to experience something and then use that experience as a source of pride:

The rules of the game (Ha! That’s the name of a classic movie I have never seen. Eat it ,1939!): Both low and highbrow movies are allowed in.

Really? Eat it, 1939? Of all the film snobs I know, none of them would say “Eat it, 2011!” as if no good films worth discussing were released this year. They might lament about overall quality, or complain about 3-D, but no one would write off a whole year.

Being a snob is not any better if you’re just a snob about lowbrow/recent culture.

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Good idea: adding streaming video service to your DVD delivery service.

Bad idea: getting hosed by the studios, jacking up the rates, and now, splitting the service in two.

I honestly don’t understand how splitting Netflix into a streaming service and a DVD delivery service is productive towards Netflix’s end goals. It fails to assuage the people who are now pissed off that they have to pay for both. I mean, it was always going to be the case that Netflix would have to adapt or die, and they knew they would probably have to drop their DVD service eventually. But for now, the things that keep people with Netflix (name brand recognition, Netflix’s excellent recommendation/ratings engine, widest selection) will be each be hurt by the split. There will be a competing service, with a more cumbersome rating/recommendation system, and much more limited selection in the streaming section.

I like Netflix’s service. It has kept me from pirating a movie as long as I’ve had it, and I’ll still keep both the streaming and the DVD service. But I wonder how long Netflix will keep subscribers like me.

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