Saturday, February 25, 2012

We now return you to this week's--OH HELL! OSCAR DERAILER!

So...remember that article I promised last time? The one where I finally put down my $0.02 on a particular element of film and nerddom that's been getting reevaluated all around?

Well, technically, I'm a liar. I say technically for two reasons
1) I do still plan to deliver on that, but frankly, this piece called to me to get finished first.
2) This technically also meets that description, just not as the subject I had in mind.

So what was the topic that pre-empted this entry that is mutating into a two-article topic on its own? Why none other than that wonderful mess of industry politics, questionable decisions, and the occasional good call that is the Academy Awards.

Now, before I begin, I want to say something I've been noticing over the last few months that, honestly, I find pretty encouraging in a weird way.

In light of the recent controversies over copyright and control of the web that have been raging over the internet over the past few months (and I imagine many of you are sick to death of hearing about), I did note one thing that hadn't fully sunk in before that, the more I think about it, is actually rather exciting. The fact is, while the entertainment industry at large seems to be solely opposed to the fact this technology can be used to distribute their goods without them getting payment, there is another area where one can't shake the feeling they're also feeling threatened - in this new age of distribution and greater access to technology, the floodgates for distribution of film have widened.

We're on the verge of an age where being able to make and distribute a film without having to rely on major studio backing is becoming less dream and more reality again.

A prospect that some have speculated leaves the current industry another step closer to being rendered obsolete by the times, a problem they've been wrestling with as it is through their stubborn attempts to block rather than embrace new technology.

'What the Hell does any of this have to do with the Oscars?' some of you are probably asking right about now. Directly, nothing. Indirectly though, it addresses the same question of 'are you relevant anymore?' that has been slowly growing over the industry these last few months.

It's hard to deny that, in light of this year's nominee announcements, reactions were altogether mixed. Almost immediately, lists of numerous films that people thought were snubbed, if not outright shut out, began cropping up on the web. Now, some response of "* was robbed" is to be expected to a degree with nominees in general cause...hey, it's an awards show, not everyone's going to have the same opinions. This year's response, however, seemed much more pronounced than usual, with the absence of several features (some of which I will go into later) called into question and, in turn, people questioning the appearance on the lists of others (most notably, Stephen Daldry's 'Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close', one of the only Best Picture nominees in general, and of this year's crop, the only one, to actually garner a 'rotten' score on metacritic site RottenTomatoes.)

In light of all of this, more and more people now seem to be asking that inevitable, uncomfortable question - why do we even care about this show? Sure, it's got some nice surprises at times, and some people may enjoy seeing the hardworking members of the industry (and I want to stress that, when I take issue with the industry at large, it's more with studio heads than it is the people actually making the films) all gathered together and decked to the nines for one night that will, inevitably, exceed its given time slot on the networks with almost as much certainty as a Superbowl game.
But as a former benchmark of film quality, is it really relevant anymore?
I mean, how many people here now look and go "This won best picture? That's gotta be good then!" Or how many people feel the need to go to a film on the basis of "Oscar-winning actor *" being in it?
I don't know about you guys, but from the people I've talked to, it just doesn't matter that much anymore. Hell, to some degree, one has to wonder how much it even mattered to begin with, if the numerous lists of bad calls made by the Oscars over the years that crop up like clockwork with each awards season are any indication (fun fact - one of the most acclaimed films of American cinema was beaten in its year for Best Picture. I'm sure some of you already know which one.)

On some level, it seems like the Academy is also aware of its diminishing relevance (how can they not be? It's been acknowledged ratings have been low the past few years, and this year's article revealing the majority of the Academy voter base to be white men over 50 (*) have made it hard for them to ignore it.) To their credit, they have also tried to fix this problem, either by increasing the openings for Best Picture nominee a few years ago from 5 to 9, and actually, for the first time in years, making an effort to try and broaden their horizons, albeit in one of the 'safer' categories. Don't get me wrong guys, I love that you're finally opening 'Best Animated' up to foreign entries besides Studio Ghibli again (and I want to make this clear, this is NOT a knock on Ghibli. Just saying, in the past, this seemed to be as far out of their comfort zone as the Academy was willing to go, which lead to some other greats being sadly shafted) but the fact it took this long to do so disappoints me.

Unfortunately, many of these efforts feel like they're coming too little, too late. Plus the sheer number of things people pointed out as having been ignored by the Academy this year, arguably more so than most other years, seems to suggest the awards are now, without dispute, falling out of faith with the general movie going public.

Now, this isn't to say all of their choices this year are bad. In fact, they have selected several good films this year. The problem is, the number of other equally, or in some cases better movies that got little to no acknowledgment doesn't reflect well on their criteria in general.

...and since I've discussed it several times now, I suppose it's only fitting to round out this article by throwing my $0.02 in on several of the titles that were ignored this year.

Now, given the somewhat long nature of this list, and the fact you guys have already been subjected to enough ramblings, we're gonna try and keep this one moving at a brisk pace (cause as a general rule, we'll all be wondering "How much longer do they plan to go?" tomorrow night.)

Don't be surprised if some, or all of these, you've seen on other lists so far...cause they really do deserve better than they're currently getting:


Possible nominations:
-Director (oh come on, say what you will about his comments, and let's face it, those are why he's not on here, von Trier IS a good director)
-Actress (take your pick, they both stepped up for this one.)
-Supporting actor

In short - were it not for the fact that von Trier's made himself a fair number of enemies with his off-the-cuff comments, this would have been a contender to beat this year. Of course, even if it weren't for von Trier's penchant for PR magic, I can't shake the feeling some of the subject matter of this film also probably cost it some Academy brownie points. I don't just mean the ending (which I can't rightly say I'm spoiling since you know the Earth is doomed within the first five minutes), but the film's rather frank look at depression. This is also where I'd say the acting nominations would pay off. Just as the film doesn't try to sugarcoat Dunst's character's depression, the performances by both her as well as Charlotte Gainsbourg and Kiefer Sutherland trying to help support her, alongside coping with the entire 'Earth is doomed' plotline. But the latter is still a secondary story to that depression element, which the film depicts in showing as sympathetic but not saintly. There are times where we can relate to Gainsbourg and Sutherland's frustration, but at the same time, we know it's not really something that Dunst is consciously doing. In short, it's an honest look at a mental illness.

-Take Shelter

Possible nominations:
-Original Screenplay

In short - Alongside Melancholia, oh WOW did this film get the proverbial short end of the stick. Again, I wonder how much of this was exposure and how much was the fact that the subject matter wasn't necessarily voter friendly (I mean, mental illness isn't new ground for the Academy in films, but as it's depicted here...well...there's a reason the 'Never go full retard' scene in the movie Tropic Thunder exists. In this film it's not retardation, but the principle remains the same.) Between the film's rather straightforward look at a tricky subject, as well as how it plays in ambiguity to the very end as far as whether Michael Shannon's character's visions are real or not, it's already walking a tenuous road. Despite this, the film carries itself quite well, and in particular leads Shannon and Jessica Chastain both deliver some phenomenal work with roles that could have easily been overdone. It took an interesting approach at a subject that, for some, is still rather uncomfortable...and I wouldn't be surprised if that was part of what cost it recognition.
...of course, again, it could just be the exposure issue.

-Martha Marcy May Marlene

Possible nominations:
-Original Screenplay

In short - OK, the fact this got NOTHING is still mind-boggling. Especially in light of some of the other entries that got in this year. This is what people are talking about when they say you guys are losing touch, Academy. Again, maybe this was an exposure issue. Maybe it's the fact this movie came before the big awards season (and yes, the fact is when over the year a movie comes out DOES effect its odds with the Academy.) Or maybe, and I apologize for the fact I'm coming back to this, maybe this is another case where the concept wasn't exactly warming up to voters. I mean, like the previous two, we're looking at a film which addresses mental disorders with a rather straight face. The victims aren't lionized, nor are they shunned. We simply see what this condition does to them and those around them (in this case thanks in a large part to a sadly overlooked performance by Elisabeth Olsen.) Knowing what Martha has been through during her time in a commune-like cult, we do feel bad for her, but at the same time, we can see why her sister and her fiance are frustrated with her at points throughout the movie. Alongside that, the film's avoiding trying to completely side with either part of the issue, tied with an ambiguity in the script (to such a degree that the viewer is left wondering what is real and what is paranoid delusion) may have also cost this any chances at the big win. I do want to believe I'm just seeing the worst in these situations, but the more I look at the spread that got in next to the stuff that didn' DOES raise suspicions.

-We Need to Talk About Kevin

Possible nominations:
-Adapted Screenplay

In short - I'm sensing a pattern here now. It seems like the more 'downer' films from the year are getting pretty roundly shut out here. Now, this could just be coincidence. I could be reading this wrong. But when, as several people have noticed, the films that deal with more uncomfortable subject matters are getting shut out, while a film like EL&IC, amid a LOT of mixed reception, made it all the way up to best picture, it DOES raise suspicions that maybe these films aren't being left out on matters of quality, but simply because the voters aren't liking what they have to say.


Possible nominations:
-Supporting Actor
-Film Editing

In short - Of all of these nomination suggestions, if I had to bat for anyone, I'd join the voices in saying Albert Brooks got shafted from a best supporting actor nomination. Of course, this isn't to say he was alone here. For his own role, Bryan Cranston's turn in this was also worth some acknowledgment. Especially in a year where the Academy has shown they're willing to offer up two nominees from the same film in the same category. Granted, if forced to pick between the two (begrudgingly so,) I'd side with Brooks. In either case, the fact this film only got a nomination for Sound Editing leaves one feeling like this movie, like the others above, should have gotten some more acknowledgment than it did.

-The Adventures of Tintin

Possible nominations:
-Animated Feature
-Adapted Screenplay

In short - OK, I'm still really disappointed this one didn't get a shot. I mean, again, on the one hand, I love the fact we're getting more foreign feature coverage this year in the animated category. On the other, I do still find the fact this lost a slot to the three entries from the US we did get seems rather underwhelming. I've heard some speculation that it was loopholed out due to the fact a lot of it was motion capture. If that's true, I'm going to have to express my disappointment, since that feels like taking an easy out to keep this one from a nomination. As animated features went this year, it was definitely one of the fresher entries this year and, coming from someone who had misgivings about this, more than did the source material justice while still being generally entertaining.

-Meek's Cutoff

Possible nominations:

In short - I'm not sure if this was just the fact it came out too early with little fanfare and exposure or if voters just weren't that crazy about it's approach. I stress the part on lack of exposure...this was one of those full on 'find the nearest arthouse theater, cause if you think this is going to appear in your usual theater, you've either been very lucky or drinking.' It's a damned shame in either case. In an industry that takes a lot of flak these days for reheating old stories and general unoriginality, this film took what, in other hands, could have been a very cliched story and managed to put it in a new spin that actually leaves one remembering the execution almost more than the plot itself. Further to this end, given the film's 'in media res'/'slice of life' approach to its story, it makes the acting (in particular, lead Michelle Williams) even more of a challenge as they don't have the ability to make the full traditional story arc.


Possible nominations:
-Original score

In short - OK, this one I won't say too much on compared to the others. But the work The Chemical Brothers did for the soundtrack, as a nice change from the traditional soundtrack, would have been nice to see make the list (one thing I will give the Academy on this note - giving last year's Original Score to Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross was one of their better calls.) yeah, there's been a lot of questions about this year. I won't say I'm entirely displeased with what we did get, as there have been some good picks in the running as well. Unfortunately, it does make it hard to lend credence to the award as a mark of quality when you see this many good entries getting left at the wayside simply because they either came out at the wrong time, or weren't backed by the right people.

In any event, will be interesting to see how it all pools out tomorrow.

...and yes, next week I WILL make good on that other post was talking about.

Monday, February 20, 2012

That One Holiday Card That Arrives The Better Part of a Week Too Late and Is Addressed to the Wrong Person.

Look well, for this is the face of
the threat to the sanctity of marriage in this country
(...allegedly. I just see an angry ex-child star.)

On a slightly more informal schedule, we return to the Third Row, once again just a little behind a holiday, though hopefully not without a warped sense of how to celebrate it.

After how (relatively) well the Halloween entries went last year (read: they actually got done) I contemplated trying to do reviews for other festive occasions. While Christmas didn't happen this time (though several great targets are lined up for the future) that marked Valentine's Day as the next most likely to try and find something to review., with an event like this one, known by many for its crass commercialization, its overemphasis on the importance of relationships, and the fact it tends to just be a really shit day of the year when you're single, the very nature of this Hallmark holiday lent itself to a lot of REALLY horrible ways I could take this. Bad stalker films. Downright disturbed relationships. Or just go straight for the 'insane exes' style of film making. what some would consider a twist of perverse holiday kismet, and others just some really bizarre timing, the answer came to me actually from an unexpected source...and appropriately enough, while with my girlfriend.

To try and bring this preamble to a close in a nutshell...the both of us are, to differing degrees, cinematic masochists. While we enjoy as great classic from time to time, there's just something to be said for the cinematic equivalent of a flaming train wreck sometimes to really take the edge off a day. It was with this mindset we found a winner.

Without further ado, I submit to you probably one of the most uncomfortable romantic movies I have ever watched - Kirk Cameron's 'Fireproof.'

Now, in starting this I will admit, as far as romance goes, my taste in film isn't exactly the most synced up. If asked to pick my favorite, I can't help but feel I'd opt for Woody Allen's 'Annie Hall' (yeah, the movie is about the couple post-breakup, but in the flashbacks, you really can see what these two see in each other. Plus, even the breakup phase is pretty damn accessible.) So I'll admit, I went into this expecting some schmaltz and with lowered expectations.

...what I got was a film that, the more I think about it, the more I find it to be rather disheartening.

The story itself is part of where the initial problem lies. Cameron plays the main character, Caleb, a firefighter whose marriage is on the rocks... put it lightly. Right out of the gate, these two are at each other's throats. I mean there is some serious venom in this (...or at least as much venom as you're going to get in a film with Cameron as your mainliner. In this case, the most withering putdown he can think to apply to his wife is by calling her a woman. Which feels rather anticlimactic since the buildup to the line leads you to believe he's about to drop a bomb he'll REALLY regret as a sign their marriage needs some SERIOUS help.)

Even the causes of their arguments come across as, honestly, pretty petty. OK, I could understand being upset that, presumably, your husband's looking at cyberporn (the movie tries to address this in a rather tame fashion that mostly just makes it look like Cameron will be enticed by ANYTHING) but the rest of the argument just smacks of two people looking for reasons to rip into each other.

So, right out of the gate, we have quite possibly one of the most loveless couples I've seen in film in a LONG time.

In their own separate social spheres, the two get advice from their own relative circle of friends and family. I'm under the impression that creators of this film don't seem to get out of their own social bubble that much, as many of them don't sound or feel that much like real people, so much as what the writers believe these people sound like. Unfortunately, they sound like archetypes, at best, stereotypes at worst. Most of it's pretty benign at least...though I can't help but feel there's something unintentionally offensive about how the wife's black friends are depicted. Anyway, HERE is where the movie starts getting uncomfortable for me.

With the exception of a couple of the friends who suggest divorce (I DO commend this movie that, despite its obvious ideological overtones, it refrained from vilifying divorce) their friends are all pulling for them. Now, you may be wondering why I would be opposed to that. It's simple - their sole reason comes down to 'God wouldn't like it.' Next to nothing is said for whether or not they were a good couple before, it's either citing the Bible or "relationships take work."

Eventually, at the behest of Caleb's father, a devout Christian, he takes up a 40 day program to 'fireproof' his marriage (it's worth noting the DVD also includes a version of this program for people to use in their own homes...kind of gives you the sense the program was made first with the movie crafted around it...a feeling the film itself just adds THAT much more ground to.) Caleb is understandably dubious, but agrees to give it a shot. You can guess where this is going from the end, Caleb overcomes his demons, restores his marriage, and finds God.

Happy ending, right?

Maybe if we actually cared. Which is probably the biggest problem of the film.
Do I agree that relationships take work? Yes.
The problem here is, the work still needs to have some sort of a foundation to build on. Over the course of the movie, we never really get a sense of what brings this couple together. Much less why they've stayed together (they can't even fall back on the old 'they have a kid and they don't want to put him/her through that' logic.) Not to mention their own interactions feel, altogether, platonic, even when their marriage is supposedly getting saved.

In another set of hands, I can't help but feel this could have been an interesting, if somewhat depressing drama - two people who let themselves get into a marriage born more out of religious convictions than genuine affection and then find, though they don't actually love each other, their beliefs keep either from simply walking away.

...granted, even in its current form, the film still feels that way, albeit likely not by design. Just, at the end, the couple seem to have fooled themselves into believing they've fixed their relationship (this is largely a result of Caleb being less of a jerk and doing an exceedingly selfless act for his wife, Catherine's, mother.)

Does this make him a nice guy? Certainly. The problem is, we still don't get a sense of what these two see in each other. I mean, by the end of the film I could at least see them staying friends after the divorce, but there's not really any sense that their marriage is worth much of anything based on what we see in the film.

It's safe to say this wasn't by least I hope it wasn't. The script is already a strike, emphasizing why marriage in general is worth saving but not why we should care to see THIS marriage saved. It makes the film maker's intentions a bit too apparent for this as a, loathe as I am to normally use this line since I feel it's abused too often, propaganda piece for the sanctity of marriage.

I'm not just jumping the gun or being anti-Christian here, either. Honestly, like almost anything in this world, I feel Christianity used responsibly can be a good thing...keywords being 'used responsibly.' The behind the scenes features (yes, after riding out this movie, we decided to stick out the extras for car crash value) include one of the major backers of the film talking about how marriage is threatened in this country. The propaganda element is definitely deliberate, if not by conscious intent.
Incidentally, I would like to take a moment to thank them for just focusing on the divorce part of the problem. I don't even want to think what would happen if this film decided to take a swing at the gay marriage protests as well.

We learn next to nothing of this couple personality-wise, well, to be specific, there's nothing for them as far as their interaction. We see plenty of them at their respective workplaces and how they interact with their friends/coworkers. The problem is, except for the flaws they're supposed to overcome by the end of the film, there's strangely nothing to them when interacting with one another.
...outside of perhaps Caleb's tendency to resort to violence in his backyard. There's a whole running joke of sorts where his solution to hostilities is to take inanimate objects out to the yard and beat them, only to realize the neighbors are watching...on second thought, maybe THIS is why they don't have a child. Curiously, this is a trait he never actually gets over. In fact, he uses it at one point as a means of dealing with one of his other flaws:
Tempted by cyberporn? Take your computer out back and annihilate it with a baseball bat. I can't help but think two things here:
1) Somehow, calling this an extreme response seems to be underselling it. In terms of 'I can't control my problem' this is like a guy with wandering eye deciding, rather than simply learn restraint, he's going to burn down a local strip club. This isn't so much an act of strength as a man deciding he has no control over himself.
2) To this end, I sure hope they weren't paying their bills by e-banking, or Caleb's inability to keep both hands on the keyboard )may have just done more harm than good.

Which leads to the other fault of this movie - the acting. Now, I know with the general low budget and the general 'propaganda' nature of the movie, I shouldn't necessarily expect high art per se. But even then, the weak acting really undermines the message here. The one strong performance in the film comes from one of Caleb's coworkers played by Ken Bevel, and that's despite his character being used as a mouthpiece for the writers in many of the scenes. Maybe the fact the guy's passionate enough about it in real life helps. All I know is, he gets results for his scenes, so good on him in this.
The rest run from the forgettable, to the laughably bad. Much to his own chagrin, Mr. Cameron tends to fall into the latter category. Especially during scenes of anger.

Even while writing this, the more I look, the more I feel like the very core idea of the film could, with a better cast and writer/director, have been worth something. Hell, with a capable enough writer, they could have even managed to work the Christianity elements in without them carrying the feel of a Chick Tract (minus the hatred for all things non-Protestant, anyway.) Unfortunately, the building blocks that make up the film are all so underwhelming and focused more on what they're saying rather than how it's delivered (and like it or not, how you say it DOES count in a film, doubly so in a film with a message,) resulting in a film that's at best uninspired, and at worst preachy. In the end, we're supposed to feel happy for Caleb and Catherine, but the film's given us no reason to.

Once this went off, I just felt this bizarre sense of discomfort at the fact this program demonstrates its effectiveness to us through convincing two people to stop fighting and simply coexist. Not love each other, just coexist. Even the choice in end song seems to emphasize that unintentional sense of "Feelings are irrelevant here, God wants you to together for life" with lines like 'when you go to step outside, there's an angel stopping you' (paraphrased, mind you.)

I don't know about you, but that sounds less spiritual and more kind of threatening. Like I just picture a strong arm with wings barring the guy's exit, even on errands.

Wow...that was a bit more of a rambler than I expected it would be. Maybe I'm just not cut out for fundamentalist cinema (...won't stop me from trying again in the future.)

So yeah...while I did resist the temptation to try and find something truly tasteless for Valentine's this year (imagine if I'd opted to make good on that promise of revisiting I Spit on Your Grave here?) I, oddly enough, walked away from this more disturbed by what I saw than I had honestly intended. I mean, I expected something that was inadvertently hilarious in its attempts at being serious. While parts of that delivered, I also couldn't help but be let down by the message they delivered with a straight face (albeit I'm sure they may have meant it to be a bit nicer than their execution makes it come across.)

Isn't propaganda supposed to be all about appealing to the emotions, guys?

Anyway, that wraps up for this entry. and speaking of emotions, next week I visit, and attempt to make peace with, an old grudge of film and nerding that, due to recent circumstances, many others have also found themselves re-examining.

Will my conclusions be any different? We'll see when it gets done.

Till then. May you and any loved ones not find you're together simply because the angels won't let you leave.