Six Nominated Films

February 7, 2011 at 7:32 am (Movies and TV)

Now that it’s February, I really have to get on the stick. I have a long list of films to see before the telecast on Sunday, February 27. I spent this SuperBowl weekend seeing six more, which I will as usual offer comments on for your convenience.

Toy Story 3, nominated for Best Animated Feature.

Only in an alternate universe with Toy Story fail to win its Oscar. I preferred How to Train Your Dragon. But the Academy is not going to miss its last chance to award a franchise that changed the history of animated films forever. As you may recall, the original Toy Story came out in 1995, and its sequel in 1997, before they even had the Best Animated Feature category (that arrived in 2001).

I found several scenes, like the one where Ken models clothes, to be unnecessary. The whole concept of “bitter, non-played-with toy as villain” is a recycle from Stinky Pete, the Prospector. This film took less care with subplots, scoring, and background details than the other two, which is a shame and not fair to the original. One scene involving an incinerator moved me to tears, but not because of what was happening onscreen; I was terribly upset, picturing all the little kids sitting in movie theaters around the world getting traumatized. Had I taken my 6-year-old to this, he’s have woken up with nightmares about his toys burning up. The film had moments, certainly. But it wasn’t a worthy successor.

The Kids Are All Right, nominated for Best Picture

A few people have suggested that Annette Bening might pull an upset over Natalie Portman for Best Actress this year. Bening turned in a solid performance, but mostly, the character is Carolyn Burnham as a lesbian. It’s not that big of a stretch. The best moments of this film came from Mark Ruffalo and Julianne Moore, who are both nominated for Support Categories they won’t win.

The writing in the film is exactly the type I admire most…honesty, with humor and heart (that’s my motto, in fact). There is both humor and heartbreak. There is perfection in imperfection. These characters and their motivations are believable. In America, people don’t seem to get as offended by lesbians as they do gay men, for some reason…a reason why this film has gotten the level of attention it has. However, thinking back to Milk and Brokeback Mountain, those films both won other awards, but NOT Best Picture. I wonder when America will be ready for a gay Best Picture. It won’t be this year, and that’s too bad, because this was a special film.

Exit Through the Gift Shop, nominated for Best Documentary Feature

Thierry Guetta, a French expatriate in Los Angeles who ought to be on Ritalin, was obsessed with his camcorder for several years, and because he captured everything he could for several years, he stumbled onto the underworld of illegal street art. Guetta befriends the likes of Sheperd Fairey and Banksy, and follows them around, helping to document their art process and the reaction to that art. If only that’s solely what this film had been about.

Responding to a half-serious challenge from Banksy, Guetta mortgages his business, rents an art studio, buys printing equipment, and hires a staff to mass-produce the kind of street art Fairey and Bansky made famous. Guetta then puts together an art show, using quotes from those two artists to promote the show. Guetta’s show nets him a million dollars in art sales. The whole thing made me sick because this guy commodified art on purpose, and got away with it. He didn’t even do his work, personally. My 13-year-old son, also horrified by what he was seeing, exclaimed, “But…he’s cheating!” Even though there aren’t technically rules associated with art, I agree that there was something sleazy about this. Loved the first half, was upset by the second, and I wish the film had chosen either one or the other to be completely about.

Dogtooth, nominated for Best Foreign Feature

A Greek executive rules tyrannically using psychological and physical abuse, over his wife and three adult children, who live in a walled-off compound far away from civilization. This is a home school from Hell. Incest (very graphic) is condoned, the “children” spend all day in their underwear but dress in infantile-looking formalwear for dinner, and the three have been brought up, deliberately being taught fallacies about their language and their world. It is disturbing from beginning to end, and has a lot of sex and nudity in it, which isn’t done with any camera trickery or body doubles.

What the hell are the Greeks smoking these days? I’ve heard a few people claim that this film is really a protest against oppressive governments. I have no idea whether that’s true or not, because I didn’t read it that way at all. If it was the intention to have it be such a protest, then it was badly, and offensively handled. Not only will I not recommend that anyone see this, but I will actively campaign against anyone seeing it.

I Am Love, nominated for Best Foreign Feature

This is a film that proves I’m not enough of a film snob yet. It won the Golden Globe, and has gotten tons of glowing reviews about its depth. I pride myself on reading several levels of depth in films, to the extent that I’m asked to share my notes a lot at film school now that I’m there. However…I found it mostly boring because of its very slow pace. It took about half an hour before I even understood what the film was about, and because I don’t speak Italian, I missed a key point. Tilda Swinton’s character is Russian, and speaks Italian with a Russian accent. Good luck understanding that facet without reading any reviews, or just reading subtitles, grrrrr.

While others have written that this film is about a woman who is an outsider in her own family, who discovers and follows her own needs, that isn’t what I got from it. I found it to be a statement about old business that valued quality products and people, versus the new corporate mantra that only the bottom line matters. Grandfather Eduardo leaves the company to his son and grandson (also named Eduardo), stating that he wishes his old-fashioned business philosophy to continue; before the grandfather’s body is even cold, his son is making arrangements to sell to an American corporation. Young Eduardo clearly espouses his grandfather’s position, and protests loudly. Disillusioned, he argues with his mother, falls by accident into a swimming pool, hits his head and dies. His death is necessary because it represents the death of the old ways. I found that aspect of the film to be its most compelling. Overall, so far, between this and Dogtooth, this wins. But that’s not saying much because Dogtooth is actually Dogpoop.

Restrepo, nominated for Best Documentary Feature

I haven’t walked out on many movies in my lifetime. I think the only one I can ever remember actually walking out on is Adam Sandler’s Waterboy, because as the parent of a child with autism I found it offensive. I have great respect for the men and women in uniform who are deployed in Afghanistan, but I am ashamed to say, I lasted only twelve minutes and forty-three seconds into this film before I got seriously motion-sick and had to turn it off. It’s possible I may go back and try to see more, but…it’s even worse than the one that’s made me sickest of all (Children of Men), which I sat through all they way only because it contained Clive Owen. Maybe I’ll pretend the Army captain is Clive Owen. I do feel an obligation to finish this film. It’s the least I can do to honor the troops who have placed themselves in harm’s way, in my place. But I think I’ll need one of those motion sickness patches first.

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Anti-Socials and The Social Network

January 13, 2011 at 4:27 pm (Movies and TV)

I think I may have been the last person in America to see The Social Network, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that I have been on FaceBook for three years and can’t live without it. This film chronicles the controversial startup of the internet behemoth.

My favorite scene of the film is the very first one, with quickfire, snappy dialogue that could only have been written by Aaron Sorkin. This is the kind of back-and-forth I’ve been missing since The West Wing left the air. As the story takes place mostly in dark rooms, online, in law offices and in e-mails between people, the challenge here is to build any sense of action. Several scenes could have been eliminated entirely, had Person A simply e-mailed Person B about what was going on, as my husband pointed out. “Yes,” I agreed. “But it would be a pretty short movie, and film is primarily a visual medium, so all we’d be doing is checking some computer geek’s e-mail for half an hour.”

The film will get many Oscar nominations, including one for Jesse Eisenberg, whose cocky, driven portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg seemed eerily familiar to me as the parent of a child with autism. Were I not that parent, I would have been more able to see the Zuckerberg character as the jerk the movie wants you to. Instead, I saw a possibly autistic kid with a good idea. The only character I was truly able to like and sympathize with was the unfortunate Eduardo, and even he distracted me, because he looked so much like a childhood friend of mine.

So much of this film takes place in dark little rooms, the kinds of rooms that imply shady deals, and breed anti-social computer addicts all over the world. The difference here is that Zuckerberg did something with it. For better and worse, he has changed the world. Whether that can be said for thousands of young men trapped by their own social awkwardness, behind computers, I don’t know. The irony of a socially-inept person inventing the ultimate social tool is not lost here.

Many critics are calling this the best film of 2010. While I understand that this can be viewed as “a film for our time,” I thought it failed on a couple of levels, and that the failings were writing decisions rather than directing or acting decisions. Will an old lady who isn’t very familiar with computers see this film and come out with a better understanding of FaceBook, or computers, or the internet? Not likely, because the film assumes a certain level of knowledge from the outset.

There are two aspects of FaceBook which should have been better explained, which affected my ability to sympathize with characters. One is, if Zuckerberg would not allow advertising, how was FaceBook worth money and not just a big expanding electronic rolodex? The other is, how is FaceBook different from MySpace and Friendster? At one point, the film even asks this question, but never adequately answers it. Answering these two key points more obviously and more in-depth might have built more urgency for Eduardo’s concerns, and might have created more excitement in the audience about the idea.

The multi-talented Justin Timberlake did a swell job of playing the counterpoint to Zuckerberg’s rising star. It was unfair both to Timberlake and to his character that they went so far to establish him as part of the story, only to leave his character unresolved at the end. I am not savvy enough to already know what happened to that man, and the film implies that viewers ought to.

Maybe I’ve been taking too many cultural classes at film school, but I was also bothered by the notion of white privilege and how this story, and so many stories like this, came out of Harvard, and ONLY Harvard. There were no people of color anywhere. The only contributions women make are to dump the men in the story. Maybe, the story happened exactly like this, and maybe in its telling, this film perpetuates the notion that to get anywhere in this country, you have to be a white guy from Harvard: film simultaneously portraying, and perpetuating, reality. I like to think that because Zuckerberg had such animosity toward the “closed club” issue, that FaceBook, the corporation has gone on to create opportunities for people outside that circle.

I say this every year: I go to the movies during Oscar season to discover that one film that makes me go…WOW…now THAT was best picture. I didn’t get that feeling here, like I did when I saw Slumdog Millionaire or the Hurt Locker. Black Swan and True Grit are both better films than The Social Network. But as I said…that may not be important. The more important thing here may just be that you have more FaceBook users than moviegoers, period.

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The Fighter and The King’s Speech

December 30, 2010 at 3:54 am (Movies and TV)

Every year I do a movie marathon with my Mom to get ready for awards season. I always look forward to it and always have fun, even when the films aren’t ones we particularly like. This year, we saw The King’s Speech, followed immediately afterward by The Fighter. These two films are similar in that they both present afflicted men who overcome certain obstacles to attain greatness. These two films are different in that I liked the former, but did not like the latter.

When we went in to the theater to see The Fighter, a lady was on her way out, wiping away tears, and telling us magnificent the film was. We can’t figure out why this lady was crying. There have, over the years, been examples of blue-collar people in the movies who are likable and who have a certain degree of dignity, if not class (think Rocky Balboa or Erin Brockovich or Sissy Spacek in Coal Miner’s Daughter). You will not meet anyone like them in The Fighter, which has the unusual distinction of having not one single character I liked, could sympathize with or root for, and it is difficult to like a film under those circumstances. As I had previously read, Christian Bale does completely dominate the film. I couldn’t decide whether this was the point, or whether they just allowed him too much power. Also, Oscar buzz aside, after headlines I’ve read, and certain audio clips I’ve heard, I’m not sure acting like a jerk is such a big stretch for Bale. Melissa Leo could very well deserve an award if she was able to make me hate her that much in two hours’ space.

In terms of filmic convention, I take no issue with The Fighter, other than, the soundtrack (which jumped between classic metal, 80’s music and Whitesnake) thoroughly confused me. I don’t understand how a film set in 1993 is so heavy on 70’s and 80’s music, though, if the alternative is Ace of Base and Ugly Kid Joe, maybe we’re better off. This will be a weird year at the Oscars for Darren Aronofsky, who directed Black Swan, but produced The Fighter. Hopefully only Black Swan will get nominated and the guy won’t have to risk mixing up speech papers in his pocket.

The bottom line about The Fighter is dysfunction. Can we ever really rise above dysfunction if we surround ourselves with the same people whose patterns have screwed us up? Perhaps  it depends on the individual. Several critics have compared this film to Rocky, and it isn’t even close. Both films are about small-town fighters becoming champions despite incredible odds. However, only Rocky is a guy you can feel for, can root for; and that’s really saying something when you consider that The Fighter is based on a true story. The film did no favors for the people involved, who ought to be pretty upset. I did not emerge with any further appreciation for boxing, or any feeling of enrichment for having seen this film.

In contrast, The King’s Speech is the movie I can picture an older woman coming out of, wiping away tears and proclaiming its excellence. Colin Firth is a master of masking deep emotion with British reservedness (see What A Girl Wants, Bridget Jones, Love Actually, pretty much anything he’s ever been in). Geoffrey Rush is a master of likable peculiarity (see Shakespeare in Love, Quills, Pirates of the Caribbean, pretty much anything he’s ever been in). Helena Bonham Carter (aka Mrs. Tim Burton) makes her first return to unquirky, normal British period biopics in quite a while, and comes across with grace, style and believability; this is hardly the Red Queen. The cast here turns out to be a better recipe than The Fighter‘s. The acting was, in itself, solid; I was also struck by the clever, heartfelt screenplay, and Alexander Desplat’s mesmerizing score.

Some films depict characters from throughout history at a defining moment. We don’t see what they went on to do, because we know it, historically. What we see is some crisis of conscience or confidence that leads to them becoming the person they had to be, to face their particular moment in history. That King George VI had to contend with the eruption of World War II, a new monarchy, and stuttering all at the same time was something I had not been previously aware of. I imagine that Queen Elizabeth will want to see this film, because it’s about her parents, and depicts her as a child; she is sure to approve. I felt not just that I had enjoyed the film, but had come out of it with more appreciation for history. That’s the difference, when you create characters who are accessible and able to be sympathized with.

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Black Swan

December 28, 2010 at 1:54 am (Movies and TV)

Oscar time is definitely here. I read very few reviews of Black Swan, because I wanted to form my own conclusions. That’s how I’m rolling with it this year, because I have a rep to protect. This is my first year reporting on Oscar films, officially as a film student. You can tell I’m a film student because I now call them films.

Once you go to film school, you realize that you will never watch one in the same way again. I can’t merely watch and enjoy anymore, because now my mind is occupied with things like continuity, editing, parallel structure, lighting, etc. — all the stuff I get graded for. In some cases, this will probably ruin the experience for me. Not this time.

The themes operating in Black Swan are fantasy versus reality, perfection versus imperfection; good versus evil, and of course sanity versus insanity. Darren Aronofsky juggles all of these themes deftly, while constructing a real-life story that parallels that of the ballet “Swan Lake” right down to the characters and their functions. In an ironic twist, it was announced hours before I saw this film that Natalie Portman is pregnant and engaged to her choreographer from Black Swan. Talk about the intensity of art blurring real-life boundaries! I wish them well, but can’t help but notice that many relationships starting on a  movie set aren’t long for the world once the bubble of that film has popped and removed the couple’s main thing in common. (See Johnny Depp and Winona Ryder, Heath Ledger and Michelle Williams, Kate Winslet and Sam Mendes, etc…)

I’ll get this out of the way now: I don’t like ballet. I’ll also get this out of the way now: when screenwriters explain the plot in lay terms to the audience, my first impulse is often to want to throw a shoe at the screen. Twice, Aronofsky’s characters explain the plot of “Swan Lake.” Once, Vincent Cassel’s narcissistic director explains to Natalie Portman’s Nina what is happening in the scene, so here is what he needs from her. The other example occurs in a night club as Nina tells the story of the ballet to a dopey guy who’s trying to get in her pants and clearly does not like or know anything about ballet. These explanations happen in a believable, uncontrived way, and don’t just explain things to uncultured boobs like me who aren’t into ballet; they also provide greater context for what we’ve seen and also, what we are about to see.

Portman’s performance is heroic. She is believable as the sheltered meekling who descends into insanity, and it is a testament to her ability that we are just as confused as she is at times about whether something has occurred in reality or whether she has hallucinated it. Each step of the way it is fascinating how she can’t take responsibility for her own behavior, and when she does, it represents character growth both horrifying and beautiful. That she will win an Oscar, especially after announcing her engagement and pregnancy the same day Oscar ballots were mailed, is not in doubt.

I have seen articles predicting a supporting nomination for Mila Kunis. I can’t say that I necessarily agree or disagree, because our entire experience of Kunis’ character is through the eyes of someone paranoid and delusional, and Kunis plays the whole thing with enough of a smirk that we can’t tell how real any of it is. If I were going to nominate anyone for support, it would be Barbara Hershey, who is purely diabolical as a former dancer-turned-stage mother.

Note the particular uses of black and white in costuming, and how the opening credits are white on black and the ending credits, black on white. At one point, someone puts X in Nina’s drink, and we see it affecting her faculties; that happened to me in 1989 and it did look a lot like that. The much-touted girl on girl sex scene is pretty vivid, but did not strike me as gratuitous, especially considering its metaphorical and psychological implications.

When Tom Cruise made The Last Samurai, my chief complaint with it was that it could only appropriately end in one way, but they still eked out a contrived, happy Hollywood ending. In Black Swan, the same does not occur, and you realize afterward that you were breathless at that moment. As Portman utters, “It was perfect,” you agree.

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Steel City Girl Enjoyed Iron Man 2

May 8, 2010 at 5:40 pm (Movies and TV)

Welcome, Summer Movie Season, 2010!!!!! What a way to start!!!!

We have a 6-year-old who was obsessed with the first Iron Man movie. We own the movie. He has Iron Man shoes, hat, shirts, coloring book, action figure, etc. I considered the fact that they make little boy underwear that say “Iron Man” kind of funny but wrong…though his little butt sports those, too. He spent Iron Man 2 fighting along with Iron Man in his seat, and in some parts where rock music was involved, he was dancing like a goof. He woke us up at 8am this Saturday morning by jumping on top of us and singing Ozzy Osbourne’s Iron Man theme at the top of his lungs. He was not only undisappointed, he was in the zone the entire time. And he’s been “flying” and calling himself “Iron Bean” for the last two hours.

Recall that the original Iron Man was one of my top 3 favorite movies of 2008. I liked it not just for the luscious rogue-ish-ness that is The Downey, but because it asked important questions about weapons and war and peace.

Here we are 2 years later. Very, very rarely does a sequel live up to the original. From a pure entertainment value standpoint, I think I enjoyed Iron Man 2 the same amount. However, that was in spite of The Downey rather than because of him, as when we meet him it is 6 months after his announcement that he is Iron Man, and he has become a pompous ass. In the first one he was a pompous ass but a FUN one. The plot in this sequel requires that Downey become just an ass, so that he can be taken down a couple pegs in order to return triumphant. Tony Stark is less fun, but that’s less Downey’s fault than it is a plot device. He has his reasons.

I always grin like an idjit the entire time Samuel L Jackson is onscreen, and we think they may have even used the Pulp Fiction diner in one scene. The long-suffering Gwyneth Paltrow is delightful as usual. Scarlett Johanssen kicks much butt, and, I am happy for my husband that we finally get a good movie that has eye candy for BOTH of us. There was a flap over the fact that Terence Howard was re-cast with Don Cheadle…they handle this by having Cheadle’s first line be, “I’m here, it’s me, deal with it.”

The big coolness in terms of characters and actors, hands down…MICKEY ROURKE. I have no idea why Hollywood has waited this long to start casting him as a true bad-ass. I sympathized with Rourke but was also completely creeped out by him, even while seeing his answer to Iron Man’s technology and thinking, oh, now THAT is COOL! He was just as much a show-stealer of a bad guy as Heath Ledger’s Joker…which is not to say I equate the two (Ledger rules)…just that I was preoccupied with the bad-guy over the good-guy in Iron Man 2 in the same manner as I was in The Dark Knight.

Iron Man 2 also deals with important themes and asks difficult questions which should be asked, as the original did. If someone invents something that could be dangerous, does the government have a right or a responsibility to take it away, or is it personal property? When you toss your lot in with a bad guy (as the US has done before in the Middle East), why are you surprised to get double-crossed? They made use of the threat of loose nuclear components in Russia, as well as the notion that decisions you make 30-40 years ago can often have a lot to do with where you are right now (again, see US Foreign Policy, Middle East). It also questions the use of robot drones in war (see US Foreign Policy, Afghanistan).

The visual effects are top notch if sometimes impossible according to the laws of physics, particularly, a scene at a Monaco raceway. I do have some questions, though…with some of this film devoted to Iron Man’s vulnerabilities, I’d like to know what happens if he ever goes into water, as surely, he’d sink to the bottom. Also, if you are making robots to fight wars for you, and they’re robots, wouldn’t it behoove you to give them a more streamlined design than to make them human-shaped? I mean, a human-shaped Navy robot wouldn’t be the most aquadynamic, a human-shaped Air Force robot wouldn’t fly as well as other shapes and designs would.

Anyone who calls this sequel a disappointment is wrong. These days, I tend to measure movies in terms of, would I feel bad paying full price for seeing this? How about matinee price? On-Demand rental? Grocery store dollar rental? The answer on Iron Man 2 is…definitely worth full price.

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2010 Oscar Best Picture Menus

February 6, 2010 at 8:29 am (Movies and TV)

As those who follow Heidi’s Oscar Hyjinks have come to expect, I usually make up menus to celebrate each Best Picture Nominee. This year, my Best Picture menu construction was a hell of a lot more challenging because that tricky Academy decided to expand the field to 10 nominees. I used to only have to come up with 5 menus. This year, then, I am technically supposed to come up with 10. However, I started this at 1:30, it’s 3am now, and I don’t think enough of Sandra Bullock’s acting skills to actually take the trouble to provide a menu for The Blind Side. In fact, let’s just call it a “Blind” menu. Yeah. It’s invisible. That’s the ticket! (I may add it later, like after I’ve actually seen the movie. If you want to just substitute a football-shaped cake and some Gatorade, that works for me.) Anyway, I hope you have fun mixing and matching these Best Picture inspired menus for your Oscar Night festivities!

UP

This animated epic takes place partly in South America, which is the main character’s destination throughout the film. So for a menu celebrating UP, I decided to put together some recipes from South America.

APPETIZER: Ecuadorian Ceviche

APPETIZER: Banana Black Bean Empanadas

MAIN: Turkey and Quinoa Meatloaf

SIDE: Salvadorian “Quesadilla Cake”

SIDE: Colombian Arepas (Cornmeal Cakes)

COCKTAIL: Vaina: A Chilean Cocktail

DESSERT: Chilean “Cake of Leaves”: Torta De Hojas

INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS

This picture cannot help but inspire a combination of German and Jewish cuisine. I *could* recycle the menu from The Reader from last year, since this year they frickin’ DOUBLED my workload on Best Picture menus. But that isn’t doing it RIGHT.

APPETIZER: Lox and Cream Cheese Spread (Jewish)

APPETIZER: Cheese Puffs (Jewish)

MAIN: Old World Pot Roast (Jewish)

SIDE: Onion, Cheese, and Bacon Tart (German)

SIDE: German Apple Pancakes (German)

COCKTAIL: German Bight (German)

DESSERT: Walnut-Chocolate Torte (Hungarian/Jewish)

THE HURT LOCKER

I do not by any means intend this to be a cop-out. Really. My advice to those wanting to do a meal celebrating this movie is to go to a Military Surplus store and buy some MRE’s (Meal, Ready-to-Eat). I will at least provide a link to those unfamiliar with the world of MRE’s, so you can see what’s out there.

AN EDUCATION

How else can one celebrate this film other than with traditional British fare? I left out anything containing the words “kidney” or “liver.” It’s just better that I do.

APPETIZER: Cock a Leekie Soup (not as dirty as it sounds)

APPETIZER: Angels on Horseback

MAIN: Steak Balmoral

SIDE: Hot Cross Buns

SIDE: Country Mushrooms

COCKTAIL: Buck’s Fizz (also not as dirty as it sounds)

DESSERT: Treacle Tart

UP IN THE AIR

To celebrate UP IN THE AIR, I found a few whimsical dishes inspired by airplanes. Because most airlines no longer serve full meals on their planes, I’d suggest a bunch of appetizers including the ones below, rather than a main course…plus possibly honey-roasted peanuts, then some Champagne and Godiva Chocolates for your “First Class Guests.”

APPETIZER: Chicken Salad Airplanes

APPETIZER: Artie the Airplane (this one ROCKS!)

APPETIZER: Trail Mix

APPETIZER: Turkey Finger Sandwiches

COCKTAIL: The Jefferson Airplane

DESSERT:  Airplane Cake

AVATAR

The most famous thing about AVATAR was the Blue People. So here, despite what George Carlin always claimed, are some BLUE FOODS. The appetizers here should be colorful tropical fruits such as papaya, mango, kiwis…to help celebrate the colorful world of Pandora created by James Cameron and company.

MAIN: Stuffed Blue Crabs

SIDE: Blue Corn Bread

SIDE: Blue Cheese Shrimp and Rice

COCKTAIL: Blue Hawaii

DESSERT: Blueberry Pie

PRECIOUS

This is a really tough movie to represent through food. The only thing I could definitely think of to include is a cocktail containing Orange Soda, which is what Mariah Carey’s character buys for Precious at one point during the film (not the cocktail, silly, the Orange Soda!). As PRECIOUS takes place in New York City, perhaps some New York Style cuisine would be appropriate. I included a Pigs-in-the-Blanket appetizer as a tip of the cap to the New York hot dog vendors, a side dish from the New York Times, and, you can’t go wrong with Paula Deen’s own recipe for New York Strip Steak!

APPETIZER: New York City Egg Salad

APPETIZER: Pigs in a Blanket

MAIN: Paula Deen’s New York Strip Steak

SIDE: Horn and Hardart’s Macaroni and Cheese

SIDE: Seared Red Cabbage Wedges

COCKTAIL: Blackberry Sunrise

DESSERT: New York Cheesecake

DISTRICT 9

I can’t help but fill this menu with prawns. And when I searched for traditional South African recipes, some of those actually were based on prawns (and in fact, if you really wanted to, you could make this menu count for INVICTUS as well if you’re doing a general “nominated movies” thing). I decided to spare you the Monkey Gland Pie and the Cat Food.

APPETIZER: Melon Salad

APPETIZER: Curried Prawn Soup

MAIN: Frikkadels

SIDE: Bobotie

SIDE: Prawn Risotto

COCKTAIL: Dawa

DESSERT: Koelsusters


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Up in the Air

January 2, 2010 at 6:44 pm (Movies and TV)

My family spent the better part of 2009 unemployed, and while we were lucky enough to land on our feet, we have several very dear friends we still hurt for, who might want to wait a little while before seeing Up in the Air. This ain’t no Juno, despite the presence of both Jason Bateman and JK Simmons.

I’m pretty sure my husband and all of those friends would have preferred to be fired in person by George Clooney — handsome, likable, compassionate — than with a phonecall or an e-mail. Some of the inherent discomfort in Up in the Air revolves around how emerging technology allows us to disconnect from uncomfortable situations, when it’s convenient. Firing someone. Breaking up with someone. Quitting your job. It’s so much easier to send an electronic message, isn’t it? But we lose part of our humanity in the mix, an argument that is successfully presented here.

Director Jason Reitman interviewed scores of recently-fired people to get their actual, unscripted reactions.  At one point, Clooney’s character says something to the effect of, “We have no idea how they feel, and no matter how we feel for them it’s nothing compared to what they feel.” Reitman held true to that and showed emotional maturity by allowing the dislodged workers to speak for themselves. Doing so was smart on two levels because it elevated the emotions, and presumably also helped some out-of-work people with extra cash. The song during the credits, “Up in the Air,” was written by a random person who had just been fired, and sent the tune to Reitman “in case he wanted to use it.” The recording quality is bad, yes…but…everything this musician has to say about being unemployed captures it pretty perfectly, and I really hope the song gets some kind of recognition because it gives voice to what so many of us have gone through and are still going through. I am obligated to do a shout-out to our family friend Danny Glicker, costumer extraordinaire, who was nominated for an Oscar last year for his work in Milk…keep it rockin’, Danny!

Clooney is effective here. He is getting much critical acclaim, but I must disagree when it comes to Oscar discussions. A Best Actor Oscar traditionally should be reserved for the actor who pushes his personal boundaries with a courageous performance (as Clooney did when he won his Best Support for Syriana). There is an extent to which I don’t think this role was a big stretch for Clooney, Hollywood’s most famous bachelor who goes from home to home, movie to movie, all over the world. I don’t think of Clooney as disconnected from people in real life, but I also can’t say the role of Ryan Bingham is so out of the box for Clooney that it warrants him an Oscar in the same way Forrest Whitaker got his Oscar for The Last King of Scotland, Ben Kingsley as Gandhi, Philip Seymour Hoffman in Capote, etc. In a sense this is Clooney, playing the less-famous version of his real self.

There has also been much said about the two women in this film, Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick. Unfortunately, at Golden Globes time, they are nominated against each other and for that reason may split the vote and both go home empty-handed. That is a shame. Farmiga is the perfect foil for Clooney, and Kendrick is annoying (which may have been the point, but…dang…she is REALLY annoying). Farmiga stands out, because she is tasked with a major plot reveal and hits exactly the right note with it.

Up in the Air is an uncomfortable film at the end of a terrible year. It is not a bad film, but neither is it great. Major awards it wins will be solely based on its timing, which was spot on in terms of capturing the national mood, and on the fact that it was a weak year for movies because of the economic downturn. This would not win Best Picture in any other circumstance. Every year, I go to as many nominated movies as I can, trying to guess which ones will come out on top. For the past three years, all of which I’ve outguessed Roger Ebert and in one case, won a national guessing contest in USA Today, I had an immediate gut reaction after I saw the Best Picture, and had no doubt I had just seen the Best Picture. That hasn’t happened yet, this season. You could say it’s still up in the air.

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Avatar (or, Dances With The Blue Man Group)

January 2, 2010 at 4:16 am (Movies and TV)

Everything you hear about the visually stunning nature of Avatar is true.  Everything you hear about Avatar‘s storyline being completely cliche, and a shameless re-tread of Dances With Wolves, is also true. I would even go a bit further and say that my family and I also picked out certain elements of Harry Potter, Braveheart, Star Wars, and The Matrix. Even the beautiful neon creatures created to populate the planet of Pandora, owe something to fabric designer Laurel Birch. (Go to eQuilter.com, search Laurel Birch, and you’ll understand.)

I counted Sam Worthington’s accent slipping from gruff American back into his native Australian (cue Ferris Bueller school secretary voice) NINE TIMES in the first twenty minutes. That’s even worse than Mel Gibson in the first Lethal Weapon movie. I quickly realized that if I kept count I’d drive myself crazy, and that Worthington’s American accent is  Worthingless. That Cameron insisted the character must be American was in error. Would any part of the story, or the story’s outcome, have been different had the character been Australian? No.

The marine colonel is an over-the-top stereotype. How much more effective it might have been, had Cameron chosen to put any kind of twist on that character or his outcome. Female characters showing any strength get killed, except the main character’s squeeze.  That people 150 years in the future still smoke, and still have military equipment with clunky-looking controls, confused me. That foreshadowing is used in a way that assumes the audience is stupid, and that new age concepts are compared to technology, disappointed me. That the film gets preachy about materialism but has inspired a full commercial franchise including action figures, fast food toys and a video game, downright disgusted me (just as Wall-E did).

2009, overall, was a weak year for movies. Several really good films (like The Maiden Heist) never went into full release and several planned films were discontinued, as the entertainment industry was hardly immune to financial hardship. In an otherwise weak year, Avatar will stand out in terms of its box-office returns and may get a Best Picture nomination because AMPAS chose to expand the field to 10 nominees and include more populist choices, and, because this was a movie with excellent special effects. Avatar will be well-justified in winning any technical award it is nominated for, but, I can’t vouch for anything else and I am frustrated by the amount of  “critical acclaim” going on here. Perhaps James Cameron should have stuck with marine documentaries, which are at least worth seeing at full price. My recommendation is to either pay matinee price to see Avatar while wearing earplugs along with your 3D glasses, or else, send your avatar to the theater.

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Sherlock Holmes (or…No Shit, Sherlock!)

January 2, 2010 at 3:09 am (Movies and TV)

Until today I had never seen a Guy Ritchie movie I actually liked.  My easiest and most comfortable manner of reviewing Sherlock Holmes is to compare and contrast it to Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl, which as many of you know is an all-time favorite of mine.

Both Sherlock and Pirates have plot holes big enough to drive a truck through. Both films have bromances and at least one ballsy, gun-toting chick. Both are developed from pre-existing material (Sherlock, faithfully developed from the Arthur Conan Doyle novels and Pirates from the Disney theme park ride) and are period pieces to the detail. Both scores are awesome and stick with you afterward, but then both were written by Hans Zimmer, go figure. Both heroes have substance abuse issues and a cute “straight man” to curb their antics; both heroes also use quick thinking and humor (with a few guns, blades and explosives) to get themselves out of various conundrums. Both films shamelessly set up a sequel, and in both cases, I didn’t mind, largely because both movies boast favorite actors of mine (Downey and Depp, natch) in delicious states of dress and undress, sometimes wet, and with awesome hair. And both were the most fun I’ve had at the movies in a really long time.

While I don’t think Holmes will be a serious contender for any acting awards, I do believe it may play into some technical awards (though in many cases will lose to Avatar). That it will be nominated for a costumes Oscar, and possibly art direction,  I do not doubt.

On to the differences. Besides Sherlock having a bulldog and Pirates having a monkey, there are a few. While both films do have one villain clearly defined and one in the periphery, allowing the opportunity for further episodes, only Sherlock Holmes resolves things with any finality. In fact, one of my pet peeves about action/adventure movies happens when the bad guy has an unsatisfying come-uppance at the end, an unfitting death or something unFaustian. The ending of Lord Blackwood was so well done I believe I actually said “Awesome!” out loud, before realizing I’d done it out loud and sank back into my seat. Also, Holmes goes a lot further than the first of the Pirates films did to create a sense of period with more than costumes and vehicles. The smoky days of London in the Industrial Revolution are tangible and palpable, and I half expected Sweeney Todd to pop out of a doorway. While both films’ plots toy with elements of the supernatural, only Holmes finally dispels myths using science.

Pirates was superior in that Captain Jack Sparrow was a truly unique movie character we hadn’t seen before, and because he was so over-the-top, we can’t think of Downey’s interpretation as occupying the same space, even though technically speaking, it should.  I can see more kids going to see Pirates and then wanting to dress up as a pirate than I can imagine those same kids seeing Sherlock Holmes and then coming home, donning a deerstalker tweed hat, and creeping around with a magnifying glass (though, to be fair, not even Downey does that).

Sherlock Holmes is a new take on an old theme, and a fun one at that…but I fear that the excitement of following clues and solving mysteries with logic may no longer be its own thrill in a world of fight scenes and special effects. I look forward to seeing where the franchise goes.

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Ahhh, Invictus (the First Review of the 2009 Oscar Season)

December 11, 2009 at 10:05 pm (Movies and TV)

So commences my annual exercise of seeing as many Oscar movies as I can, and reviewing them for anyone who cares in time for Oscar Night.  I thought Invictus was a pretty safe first choice. This one has a stew of things going for it: 1) Morgan Freeman, 2) playing Nelson Mandela, 3) in a Clint Eastwood movie, 4) in a year when we just elected our first black President. I’m sure the Oscar engraver is standing by. Invictus has already won  Best Director from the National Board of Review, as well as a tie in the Best Actor category for Freeman, and The Clooney in Up in the Air (voted Best Picture). At Oscar Nom time, we may see these: Best Actor for Freeman, Best Director for Eastwood, Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Original Song, “Colorblind” by Overtone.

Invictus will NOT be seeing any awards for Best Editing however, as it’s the choppiest, worst-edited “Awards Season Movie” I’ve seen in a long time. The continuity people screwed up repeatedly, and that was annoying.  There will be a drinking game invented out of Invictus. Every time Morgan Freeman’s hair changes from grey-streaked to all grey, or back to grey-streaked again when it would be completely out of sequence, take a drink. Every time Matt Damon’s accent slips, take a drink. Every time Morgan Freeman’s teeth morph back and forth between perfect cosmetic dentistry and “old guy teeth,” take a drink. Every time Matt Damon’s voice says a different word on the rugby field while his mouth is clearly saying the F word, take a drink. These are the kinds of things that Hollywood will probably forgive the beloved Clint Eastwood for, but because he made Letters from Iwo Jima and Unforgiven, two films perfect in every sense…I can’t forgive it. Which is sad when one of the messages of the movie is forgiveness. Ah, well…

I don’t like most sports. I don’t like most sports movies. We know there are certain inherent rules about sports movies: it all must come down to the last play during overtime with a tied score, and the scene must be in slow motion to choir or opera music. That is given. However, I found myself appreciating the movie anyway because Eastwood is a master of story through simplicity and subtlety, and how anyone could not emerge afterward without more affection and respect for Nelson Mandela, I don’t know. If you are someone worried about overwrought Obama parallels…you needn’t be. I do hope President Obama sees Invictus and is challenged and inspired. I want to look up how many of the portrayed events actually happened, because this is the kind of film strung together by events that, if they’re real, are better material than most writers could invent.

In September of 2001, my husband and I went to New Zealand on our honeymoon and bought an All-Blacks jersey, a book about how to do The Haka, and a copy of the All-Blacks fight song by the Finn Brothers, “Can You Hear Us.” A few years later, when our son was born, he received a baby-sized All-Blacks onesie as a gift. So it was with reluctance that I had to accept the All-Blacks as “the villain team” here; especially since if you’ve ever met a New Zealander they’re about as far from grumpy and intimidating as you can get. Another thing that happened in September of 2001 is that our views of airplanes changed forever, and Eastwood unexpectedly uses that in a way that forces us to catch ourselves in the same manner that the characters are learning to open their own minds. This isn’t just a story about a big game, or even about Nelson Mandela. It is about compromise, healing and the personal journey that each person must make on the way to true tolerance for others.

I recommend the movie wholeheartedly, not in the least because Eastwood’s sense of timing never ceases to amaze me. He released Million Dollar Baby while the Terry Schiavo case was going on, right when we needed to have those conversations. His alternating views with Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima arrived as America began asking tougher questions about the War in Iraq. Here Eastwood delivers another eerily prescient narrative, at a time when our country is more politically divided than ever, and are looking to our own first black leader for the same ilk of leadership.  I hope Invictus continues Eastwood’s fine tradition of starting conversations and challenging our thought processes.

As added entertainment, I challenge you die-hard Filmies to a game of “Spot Clint,” which is kind of like a cinematic version of “Where’s Waldo.” I’m not even sure why I caught it, but my mom and I laughed when it happened because the fact that I had caught it at all was a fluke.

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