movies

A modest proposal re the Oscars.

Many a movie-lover can think of the Oscar selection that made them stop respecting the Academy. For me, it was when Shakespeare in Love won Best Picture over Saving Private Ryan. For older film buffs, or real students of the cinema, it probably happened a lot earlier. I’m no film critic or student of the cinematic craft, but watching Saving Private Ryan not win the Oscar left my jaw on the ground. I think Harrison Ford, who had the dubious (in this particular case) honor of announcing the winner, was a little shocked, too, and had trouble masking it.

I would like to see the Academy create a new Oscar category that would reward long-past cinematic efforts that, in retrospect and in the court of moviegoing public opinion, should have won Oscars. Each year, one of these retrospective Oscars would be given to a producer, director, actor, actress, etc., from a film at least 10 years old, who should have won an award. There’d be just one such award per year for fear of overdoing it, and there would be no requirement that the film, director, actors, actress, etc., was nominated for an Oscar the year it came out.

If nothing else, such a category would help me respect the Academy just a teensy bit more–which is the metric by which all should judge themselves. They can spend the first three years giving Oscars to Saving Private Ryan, The Shawkshank Redemption, and Pulp Fiction. Sorry, Forrest Gump just doesn’t hold up over time for me; it should’ve been a distant third that year.

“Some other way.”

WARNING: Spoilers ahead with no spoiler-text. Proceed at your own peril.

Yesterday I watched One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest for the first time in quite some time. It’s a great adaptation of a great book; it’s well-written and well-directed and every single actor nails every single note; and it’s fun to see so many recognizable (at least to me) faces–Nicholson obviously, but also Danny DeVito, Vincent Schiavelli, Christopher Lloyd, Brad Dourif, even Angelica Huston for a few seconds–back when those faces were younger. And every time I watch it, I do so with joy in my heart knowing that it’s the favorite movie of one of my two favorite football players of all time, Jim McMahon.

I turned the movie on with the intention of killing 15 or 30 minutes before heading out. But when I got to McMurphy’s first meeting with Dr. Spivey–just after we’ve been introduced to the inmates and Nurse Ratched–something clicked. I had to watch the whole thing straight through with this new perspective. And when the movie was over, I thought that perhaps I was finally old, or too ornery, or that my heart had shrunk three sizes too small.

What clicked was how stupid it was of the hospital administration to accept McMurphy, who was quite transparently feigning mental illness, instead of sending him right back to prison. Normally, you watch the movie and understand from the very beginning that McMurphy is pulling a fast one (or at least trying to). Normally, you accept it, just as the doctors seem to accept it, and settle in to enjoy his antics and cheer him on as he rages against the system. But this time, I figured that if the doctors had made a mistake by admitting McMurphy, then that might mean he was… the bad guy.

So I watched the movie under the assumption that McMurphy–not Ratched–was the villain. And lo and behold, I no longer saw him as the free spirit who was trying to have a good time and enrich the lives of those around him. I saw him the way Ratched did: disruptive, maybe even a bit sociopathic. Watch McMurphy through a critical lens and you start to focus on all the harm he causes: the deception that got him into the mental institution; the possibility that he took up the spot of somebody who genuinely needed mental help; the openly deliberate attempt to aggravate Nurse Ratched; the agitation of the real patients; the young nurse he scares nearly to death; the broken glass during the cigarette scene; the thinly-veiled racism and the not-at-all-veiled sexism; the stolen bus; the stolen boat; the fact that the doctors and orderlies had no idea where their patients were during the fishing trip; the fact that the cops and the Coast Guard had to spend their time looking for McMurphy and the patients; the fact that McMurphy managed to get his sentence extended; and, of course, the party that trashed the ward, cost a few people their jobs, cost Billy his life, and ultimately cost McMurphy his mind and his own life. Oh yeah, and since McMurphy inspired Bromden’s escape, we can tack on the cost of a marble plumbing fixture being torn out of the floor and thrown through a window, plus the cost of a manhunt for a schizophrenic giant.

And after surveying all the misery McMurphy caused, I had to wonder whether it was worth a few moments of fun. At the end of the movie, I actually felt great sympathy for Nurse Ratched.

Don’t get the wrong idea: I get the movie. I’ve seen and loved it many times, and I like the book (written from the Chief’s point-of-view, which isn’t captured in the movie). But every so often it’s fun to ignore what an author or a director wants to tell you, and instead focus on what’s actually there, and do with it what you will.

My review of The Road.

WARNING: Spoilers and spoiler-text ahead. If you haven’t seen the movie yet and do not wish to have any clue or hint revealed unto you, don’t read this post. To view the spoiler-text, move the cursor over the black marks. Also, I didn’t call this “On The Road” because that’s a Kerouac title. I don’t think anyone would mistake one of my blog entries for a modern beat classic, but better safe than sorry.

Here’s the short version of my review: go see it. You’ll like it, but then go read the book. Beware: Cormac McCarthy deliberately uses minimal punctuation in the book.

Here’s the longer version:

On Friday, I was complaining, as I am wont to do, to a buddy of mine that The Road wasn’t playing anywhere nearby. I got online to find the nearest showing and was pleased to learn that finally, some Jacksonville theaters were playing it in about 20 minutes. I hung up the phone in the middle of whatever whatsisname was blathering about,  hopped in the ‘Rolla, drove up to some theater near Regency, bought some Milk Duds, and sat in the middle of the seats.

It’s unusual to find movies that equal or surpass the source material, so I expected to be a little bit disappointed. Well, John Hillcoat directed a decent movie, but sure enough, I was a little bit disappointed.

The best thing about the movie was the casting. Some might say that with a story full of nameless characters with almost no background given, it’d be difficult to screw up the casting. Maybe so, but these actors seemed lifted straight from the pages of the book. Viggo Mortenson was great as the Man–a learned man in the old world, and a desperate scavenger in the new one. He probably could have lost a few more pounds to more fully achieve that starving-to-death-at-the-end-of-the-world look. Kodi Smit-McPhee was a little older than I envisioned when I read the book, but he was excellent as the Boy. Good thing, too–if that role had been miscast, it would have ruined the whole movie because the audience would be rooting for his demise. I was worried that being as young as he is, he would over-emote and be totally void of subtlety. Nope. No problems at all. He wasn’t obnoxiously earnest or overly weepy, he gave quizzical looks that weren’t exaggerated… he was believable. Garret Dillahunt was also believable, disturbingly so, as the gang member in the woods. One could revile and feel great sympathy for Michael K. Williams as the Thief, and Robert Duvall was memorable as the somewhat nihilistic Old Man.

Now, on to the nitpicks:

The cast had two weak links: first, Charlize Theron. Actually, I don’t know if that was a casting problem, or if the director simply mishandled her scenes. She came across as empty and hopeless when necessary, i.e., after the world-ending event, but she came across that way beforehand, too. The end of the world seemed to have no emotional impact on her–she was already doomed.

The other casting problem was Guy Pearce. He looked and acted more like one of the cannibal gangsters from earlier in the movie than he did the Veteran in the book. Perhaps that was the director’s intention: to keep us guessing about whether the Boy would be saved or eaten. But in the book, it seemed that the reader was supposed to know that the Veteran was a good guy, and the question was whether the Boy had developed the judgement and the trust to figure that out. Meh. A minor nitpick.

Music: There was too much music. The only music should have been in the flashbacks, and maybe a piano scene. The music during the present-day scenes kept me from truly absorbing the bleakness of the situation. Maybe the lack of music was an expectation left over from the last Cormac McCarthy movie, No Country for Old Men, but it would have fit this movie a lot better.

Color: I don’t know much about processing film or lighting and such, but there was too much green in this movie. There was too much blue in the ocean. Everything needed to look deader.

Editing: I think the flashback to the night of the event should not have been the very first scene. It should have appeared in roughly the same spot as in the book… somewhat early, but after we’d seen the general condition of the world. After the Coca-Cola incident. After seeing the house the Man grew up in. After some of the Boy’s questions about the old world, to remind us that he’d never known the old world.

For what was supposed to be an R-rated, horrifying movie, the director left out some of the most horrifying scenes. Where was the scene were they hid from the long caravan, complete with gang colors, slave-drawn wagons full of the spoils of war, catamites in chains and marching pregnant women? Where was the man who’d been struck by lightning, who couldn’t be helped? And where was the cannibals’ rotisserie–which also made you wonder a little bit about the pregnant women?

A lot of really good dialogue and narration was missing–I wanted to hear more of the musing over the nature of the world, I wanted to see more of the argument between the Man and the Wife over how (or whether) to handle the new world, I wanted more of the God-talk. Most of all, I wanted to hear the final paragraph of the book read over a shot of trout swimming through a stream, with something green and bright on the banks.

Finally, I didn’t like the change of location for the final scene. McCarthy had the Man die in the woods near, appropriately, the road, with the Veteran approaching from, again appropriately, the road. Hillcoat had the Man die on the beach, with the Veteran approaching from further down the beach. Still a good scene, I just thought that particular scene needed to be truer to the novel.

I must give Hillcoat credit for a particular change from the book: the Man and Boy don’t make a clean escape from the cannibal’s house. Hillcoat’s version of the scene brings the Man’s greatest fear much closer to fruition than McCarthy does.

I’d like to get hold of Hillcoat and the producers and convince them to shoot a few more scenes, shuffle some scenes around, get Viggo to do some more narration and maybe Cormac McCarthy himself to read the final paragraph, but since that is highly unlikely I’ll just make do with this adaptation as is. Overall, I’m glad I finally saw it. The Road is a good movie–go see it. The Road is a treasure of a book–go read it.

On Star Trek, or, “The nerdiest post I’ve ever written.”

WARNING: Spoilers and spoiler-text ahead. If you haven’t seen the movie yet and do not wish to have any clue or hint revealed unto you, don’t read this post. To view the spoiler-text, move the mouse cursor over the black marks.

When I first heard that Star Trek was going the way of the re-boot, I had some pretty low expectations. After all, you can easily reboot the Batman and James Bond series because there’ve been so many different actors in so many iterations of those movies. We expect a new Batman every so often and a new James Bond roughly once a decade. But Trek has always been different, because until this year, only one set of actors has ever played those roles.

So giving those roles to new actors was simultaneously risky, thrilling, and brilliant. Risky for obvious reasons. Thrilling because we’re finally getting back to the core of Star Trek for the first time in ages, and it turns out that Abrams knows how to handle the characters. Brilliant because it’s been so long since The Original Series came out that the writers and producers can safely re-use some of the old plots and ides, and most of today’s movie-going audience will be none-the-wiser.

But seeing new actors in those old roles was also a little saddening. I say that because we long-time Trekkies and Trekkers–and I mean the ones who were fans mainly of The Original Series–now have to separate the original actors from the roles. It’s not the adventures of ShatnerKirk and NimoySpock anymore, it’s just Kirk and Spock. Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto may be fine actors and seem to play off each other well, but whatever respect/friendship/intellectual jousting they develop will simply never hold a candle to Shatner and Nimoy. And now that I think it’s safe to say that we finally have seen the final appearance of an original castmember–Nimoy in a role too big to call a cameo–a tear comes to the eye (metaphorically speaking, that is, for I have no tear ducts).

Now that all that’s out of the way, I have to say that Star Trek was a fun movie. It broke the curse of the odd-numbered films (at least for now), and exceeded my original expectations by far.

I’ll start with the bad:

First, I hated the scene with young Kirk nearly driving over the cliff and playing “Sabotage” on the radio. It was great for the trailer, but unnecessary for the movie. After all, if you’re going to introduce him as an obnoxious drunk frat-boy type who gets in barfights, then there’s no need for that earlier scene.

Second, the writing in the second half of the movie was weak. There was a little too much coincidence: the Narada just happens to emerge from a black hole at the time and place of Kirk’s birth, the Enterprise just happens to be under construction in Iowa near Kirk’s home, Kirkjust happens to be marooned right next door to Old Spock’s lair, which just happens to be walking distance from where Scotty is stationed. You have a perfectly good plot device to explain why that stuff isn’t coincidence: Old Spock–you know, the guy who knows how everything is supposed to happen, and is smart enough to influence events in that direction. Once I learned that Old Spock would be in this movie, I thought for sure that somehow, he would be thrown even further back in time than he actually was, and then make sure that Kirk, Spock, McCoy et al. were assigned to the Enterprise. Nope. It was all blind luck. I expected better writing.

(And that’s not even addressing the mumbo-jumbo about what happened in the future. That required better elucidation for my tastes.)

Third, and I’ve said this before, hold the damn camera still. I don’t need the shaky-cam, I don’t need the bizarre upside down angles or the spiraling zooms. I need to see what’s going on. Period.

Fourth, I want to watch the Enterprise just f@#$%^g unload on the bad guys. I know there was the order to fire everything at the end, but it just didn’t look nearly as awesome as I hoped.

Now the good:

The best news is that although this was a pretty good flick, there’s still plenty of room to improve and there are plenty of stories to tell. The sequel should be even better, and I can’t wait to see it.

The actors and the direction were good. When Leonard Nimoy comes across as the weak link in the cast, then you’ve done some good casting and good directing. I think they assembled as good a cast as possible for younger versions of the Enterprise crew. The actors did a fine job of acting like younger versions of the original characters–except that they need to find a way to make Quinto a baritone. I liked that they made more use of Uhura than the original series ever did–after Kirk and Spock, she’s the most important crew member in this movie.

The Enterprise looked good. I liked the bridge, I liked the transporter room, I liked the exterior. I didn’t like the engine room much. I liked that when the ship went to warp, it was gone. No stretching out, no major flash of light, no looping all over the place, just BAM. Gone.

To those who complain that this movie violates Trek canon, I would point out that the so-called “canon” was quite fungible and inconsistent at times. Of them I ask, how many times did the age of the Enterprise change? How any different times did Spock “finally” understand what it meant to be human? Why was the bridge crew, Spock included, surprised to see that Romulans resembled Vulcans in “Balance of Terror”? (Note to normal people: no, you didn’t miss anything in the movie; these are references to inconsistencies in The Original Series.)

To those who complain that this movie is too close to being a rip-off of Star Wars, I say: bite me. Gene Roddenberry wrote his stories about an Iowa farmboy zipping around the galaxy long before George Lucas wrote his stories about a Tatooine farmboy zipping around the galaxy. And besides, Star Wars has officially sucked for the last ten years.

I loved the subtle and not-so-subtle references to the original series and original movies. My favorite moment was watching Kirk eating the apple during the Kobayashi Maru. The apple was a perfect hat-tip to the “I don’t like to lose” scene from The Wrath of Khan.

And with that particular reference, I’ll stop. This movie was not as good as Khan–of course, I see no way how any movie in any genre could ever be as good as Khan–but it’s probably second or third. I’ll have to see it four or five more times to tell for sure. The best part of the new Trek movie is that young folks seem to like it enough that they’ll spend a lot of their folks’ cash on it, which means more good Trek films to come. Here’s hoping that J.J. Abrams keeps up the good work.

Go to http://www.cbs.com/classics/star_trek for original Trek episodes from back when commercials were less than 10 minutes per hour instead of 17-18 minutes per hour. Check out “The Menagerie” to see what happened to Christopher Pike in the “original” timeline (I don’t think they have “The Cage,” the original pilot, on-line).

One Comment

Aabrock2187

14 May 2009 11:02 pm

Spoilers follow….maybe Dom can help with inviso-text.

I enjoyed Star Trek (alternate title: “Kirk gets beaten up and almost falls off of things repeatedly”) immensely. There were some large coincidences that I think could have been explained better as Dom mentioned but the energy of this movie pushed all of that aside. Highlights:
– The sensor ‘pings’ that opened the movie
– The entire pre-title sequence
– The overpowering charisma of Chris Pine
– The silence of space
– Spock’s dive-bomb on the Romulan ship and the Enterprise’s assistance
– Christopher Pike
– the fate of Vulcan in general and Amanda in particular

There were some things I wish they had explored a little more…like Spock’s line about how thoroughbreds have to be broken before they reach full potential. Kirk did have the appearance of flying by the seat of his pants the whole movie, hopefully the next movie will show him getting broken and becoming a little more thoughtful. I agree with all of the convenient coincidences that Dom mentions, but I will chalk that up to the inherit limitations of the ‘origin story’ format. The next movie should hit the ground running without any of that baggage. I just hope they stay away from ANY time travel plots for the next few movies.

I custodiet ipsos custodes.

(The translation doesn’t quite work, but I got tired of trying to find the right one.)

WARNING: Spoilers ahead. If you haven’t seen the movie yet and do not wish to have any clue or hint revealed unto you, don’t read this post. Also, go read the book.

I wonder how many people who knew nothing about Watchmen brought their kiddies, thinking it was just another superhero movie. I would hope that the “R” rating would discourage morons form bringing their six-year-olds, but you never know.

I knew I’d be at least a little bit disappointed. I knew that the “Black Freighter” story-within-the-story would not show up in the theater. I knew that the ending was going to be different. I knew that there was no way they could have packed everything from the comic into a two-and-a-half hour movie.

But the movie looked awesome from beginning to end. The costumes, the settings, the toys and trinkets were spectacular–either totally true to the comic, or updated with just the right hints of the originals. Finally watching a Watchmen movie made by someone who so obviously loved the book (even if he strayed from it from time to time) was exhilarating.

The look and music were great (although I thought they shouldn’t have used “99 Red Balloons” when they did–it distracted from an important scene). I loved the “McLaughlin Group” introduction and I loved the opening title sequence. Rorschach was great. Doctor Manhattan was great. The Comedian was great. All three were just as sociopathic and just as humane (in their own little ways) as their ink-and-paper counterparts. The other actors ranged from okay to pretty good. But there were a handful of scenes that were so unemotional, lightweight and full of line-reading instead of acting that I felt like I was watching a re-enactment in a documentary about the Watchmen rather than a Watchmen movie.

Like I said, I was disappointed at times and exhilarated at others. I was exhilarpointed. At the end of the movie, I was shaking my fist at the screen, angry-old-man-yelling-at-kids-on-his-lawn style, and beaming. The great moments were great, but there was so much left out that I felt jilted. A six-hour version of this film might not be long enough. Hopefully, five or ten years down the road, one of the cable channels, say HBO, will put together a 12- or 13-part miniseries with the whole story in it. We’ll see.

2 Comments

Aabrock

9 March 2009 6:02 pm

I walked out of the theater not really sure; I was hoping to see a bit more dialogue to elucidate the relationships and character motivation. This is speaking as someone who has read the comic multiple times and know who does what and why…I kept thinking how those who had not read the book would be quite confused at times. The villain’s story and ultimate reaction to events got so diminished that it took much of the power from the ending. Then again, Rorschach was note-perfect and lived up to comic. The Nite Owl / Silk Spectre II relationship was not really fleshed out (ha ha) enough and needed some more to sustain a chunk of the latter half of the movie. Then again, the Comedian was almost more hardcore than in the comic. Doc Manhattan was ok…to me he is the least interesting of the characters anyway. The look of the movie was very slick and the fight scenes were sufficiently fresh. The music was very 80’s; The ‘Tears for Fears’ in the background during Ozy’s Alexander spiel…awesome. Awesome to the max.

I will definitely be lining up for the 4-hour (I think) director’s cut that has the Black Freighter story intertwined…I hope that the additional footage will round out the movie the way it deserves.

eh

15 March 2009 6:02 pm

http://comics.com/grand_avenue/2009-03-13/