Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Where the Top Ten Films of the Year Are

I was initially skeptical about Where the Wild Things Are. I am apparently part of .002% of the population who did not love! adore! oh-my-god-it-was-soooooooo-special! the picture book on which the film is based. I mean, people. It's a picture book. Like, how amazing can it actually be? Going crazy over a picture book strikes me as kind of like going crazy over a piece of chocolate. It could very well be one of the best pieces of chocolate you'll ever have, but it's so small, in the scheme of things. However, I am fully aware that 99.998% of the population does not feel the way I do about Where the Wild Things Are, because I worked at Borders. So I know. Perhaps the only picture book talked about with more fervent reminiscence is Goodnight, Moon. Which, um, I don't really get that obsession either. The way some people talk about these books, it's enough to make you wonder if they've read anything else since, or if they just stopped reading at the picture books level and thought that's all there was.

Anyway, so I was skeptical. Then I read a bunch of articles and reviews in EW and stuff and came around to the idea that it was actually, apparently, a great movie. So it made my to-see list. However, it did not make the top of my list, and so we just got around to seeing it last night, at the $3.99 cinema. As awards season has started, Where the Wild Things Are has remained on my radar, earning nominations mostly for its music but also making a critic or two's Top 10 of 2009 lists, and even one best of the decade mention. I know, wow!

Well, guess what? It's REALLY good. As A.O. Scott says in that decade's best review, rarely has a film so exquisitely mixed realism and fantasy, and so honestly captured both childhood and humanity in general. Hie thee to your local cheap-o theater where you can still catch it, or at the very least add it to your Netflix queue. It is truly inventive, and I would say quietly revolutionary. Spike Jonze should absolutely get a nomination for Best Directing. Honestly, the visionary way he crafted this film pretty much defines what exemplary directing is. Where the Wild Things Are is fantastic -- and not because it is based on the picture book.

And this is still awesome!

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Road, trips, and buzz

This week I've seen two movies based on books, The Road and Up in the Air. They are quite different but each in its own way makes you think about what is important in life. I actually saw someone online comment that Up in the Air was "depressing." Now, granted, I rarely agree with that word when it's applied to any film (I'm told it was odd that I found The Hours inspiring and uplifting), but Up in the Air? Shite, man, if that's what depresses you, I imagine you'd best stay far, far away from most things I like, both cinematic and literary.

The book The Road was one of the best of the past decade, in my opinion. Like many others, I was late to the Cormac McCarthy party, and have only read these last two of his, The Road and No Country for Old Men, inspired to do so prior to seeing the film adaptations. The great thing about The Road is that it sneaks up on you. When I read it, it went fairly quickly, and I was floating along, mesmerized, by his eerie apocalyptic vision, and then all of a sudden the awesomeness crashed down and I realized I was reading a masterpiece. My take on Up in the Air, on the other hand, is that it reads very light and frothy while being deceptively clever and deep.

Up in the Air is getting way more Oscar buzz. It has already won a bunch of critics' awards and is contending in almost all the big categories: best pic, director, adapted screenplay, actor for George Clooney, and also not one but two supporting actress possibilities, Anna Kendrick and Vera Farmiga. I personally don't know which of the two actresses I'd prefer to get the nomination - I'm thinking Kendrick. I am still mulling over my Oscar choices. But George Clooney was great.

It's funny that I like the screenplay, because Jason Reitman (who also directed) and Sheldon Turner completely and totally changed the book. I have major issues with that when it's unfaithful to the story. My take is, go write your own screenplay, then, if that's what you want to do, instead of buying the film rights for some book and then messing it all up. But there are a few times - including The Hours and Dolores Claiborne, two of my favorite films of all time - where I am OK with what is changed for the flick, and this may be one of those cases. Reitman updates the story, adds a character, gets rid of others, leaves out a whole bunch of stuff, and alters the ending, but somehow remains true to what the book got across. I really, really liked this movie.

The Road, on the other hand, remained incredibly faithful to the book throughout almost the entire thing. I enjoyed it and I recommend that people watch it, although I kind of understand the criticism of it that it doesn't do anything surprising. But the story itself is so compelling, and it's well-acted, too. If you thought Up in the Air was depressing though - whoever you are - you might die if you go see The Road. That's what bums me out - that people are avoiding The Road because all they know about it is that it is dreary and dark. When really, it's about "carrying the fire." I would love to see Viggo Mortensen and/or Kodi Smit-McPhee get Oscar nominations. I would love to see The Road stun the naysayers and get a Best Picture nomination.

The Lovely Bones buzz is all but gone, but I'll weigh in once I see it (speaking of fabulous books adapted into film!) The Hurt Locker has received so many critics' awards that I'm sure it will get a best picture nomination; the main question is whether Kathryn Bigelow will get a directing nomination and/or Jeremy Renner will be nominated for Best Actor. I liked The Hurt Locker, but don't think it was the best film of the year. I heard it called "the Iraq war movie for people who don't like Iraq war movies." But that's not me - so then maybe it's not meant to be my movie.

What do I think are the best films of the year? So far - and please understand that I'm still compiling and editing my list - I am thinking: Inglorious Basterds, In the Loop, The Men Who Stare at Goats, Food Inc., and now, maybe, Up in the Air.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh

I owe a blog entry, it's been a while, I've been busy working on stuff, and there is lots going on. But it's late and I need to go to sleep now or Santa won't come! So I'm just popping in to say Merry Christmas, blogosphere. I have some stories coming up for you that I will - it is hoped - have time to post in the next few days.

Even though we are in a weird in-between living situation right now, it's so great to be able to tap into the Christmas spirit of so many people I know in all kinds of different places around the world, mostly via Facebook, blogs, and other online things where I am seeing posted pictures, and hearing last-minute shopping woes, and reports of eating, drinking, and being merry. How e-festive of us all!

Ho ho ho, then. Enjoy Christmas, everyone!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

A S______ Man

Have you seen that film A Serious Man yet? No, wait, A Single Man. I mean A Solitary Man. Aaargh! Yes, three films are hitting us right now with remarkably similar titles. Let's differentiate them, shall we? We'll go alphabetically - which also will likely end up being the order I see them.

A Serious Man - This is the Coen brothers' latest. For a memory trick, just think, "Seriously, Coens?!" It's a Midwestern setting circa 1970: a professor and his life fall apart amid the swirl of his son's approaching bar mitzvah, his tenure review, and his wife leaving him. It has all kinds of really in-your-face Jewish things going on, but the "otherness" of them and the questions of identity, whether Jewish, Korean, or WASPy Midwest hunter, were totally the point. It is a blackly comedic and yet also quite serious film. I am so happy we attended John Serba's "My 2 Cents" discussion about it at Celebration! Cinema, because the discussers kept pointing out layer after layer that deserve consideration. It's quite the blend of physics, Jefferson Airplane, bureaucracy, religion, interpersonal relationships, mysticism, and so forth. I really think it's one of Joel and Ethan's best. Seriously.

A Single Man - This one's generating Oscar buzz for Colin Firth. Just think, "Is Colin Firth single?" which is a question on the mind of many a lady from time to time, right? (Answer: Sorry, ladies!) He plays a professor who tries to cope after the sudden death of his partner. Haven't seen it yet, and I want to first read the Christopher Isherwood novel on which it's based. I will probably have time to do so while I wait for the film to arrive in Grand Rapids.

A Solitary Man - This is the creepy one, with Michael Douglas getting together with a twentysomething. Just think: solitary = creepy, as in creepy solitary confinement. Honestly, I watched the trailer and thought, "Um - wow." It has quite the cast - Susan Sarandon, Danny DeVito, Mary Louise-Parker ... but we all make mistakes sometimes. I think it might be coming out in January? The release date appears to be up in the air. (Much like the wide release date of Up in the Air!) I read that Michael Douglas' performance is the only good thing about the film, and he plays a complete and total jerk. So there you go.

Well, I hope that clears up the confusion about A Serious/Single/Solitary Man. Because Awards Season is no time to be confused. And today is Golden Globes nominations day!!! I will weigh in later on what I think -- overall, there were few surprises -- but for the record, A Serious Man (Coens) got one GG nomination, for Best Actor (Michael Stuhlbarg) and A Single Man (Firth) got three, for him, Julianne Moore supporting, and original score.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Good Feelings

Does this sound familiar?

"A unity all the more prized since it had so nearly been destroyed during the war by internal divisions and external threats. The President, who was aware of this vague and unspecific aspiration, sought to harness it to broad national aims. He hoped that this new sense of 'oneness' would operate as a useful force in leading the nation to a full utilization of its resources and that it would also serve as means of reconciling party animosities...An agreement had to be forged among the differing interests within the community to achieve a program which would be generally accepted without requiring one group to suffer unduly in order to provide an advantage for another element..."

That's from Harry Ammon's James Monroe: A Quest for National Identity (pp. 366-367): my boy Monroe, coming to the presidency right after the War of 1812, starting the so-called "Era of Good Feelings" where these pesky parties of Federalists and (Jeffersonian) Republicans were going to put aside their differences and all get along forever.

Instead, despite Monroe's integrity, everyone around him in Washington was out for personal gain. A lot of good stuff did happen - but unfortunately the "Era of Good Feelings" was probably never destined to last very long.

Read more Monroe thoughts on my Literary Supplement.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Critics are a-Pickin'

Today was a big day in Awards Season news. (Um - you know. If you're into that kind of thing. Ahem.) The Boston Film Critics, Los Angeles Film Critics, and the AFI all announced their picks for the best films of the year. There weren't all that many surprises, in my opinion, despite all the complaints I've read that Avatar was left off of the AFI's list of the ten outstanding films of the year. My response was, "oh well." Then again, The Hangover made the AFI list, so maybe the Avatar devotees have a point.

As for the critics' lists, there was a lot of love for The Hurt Locker. Both cities' critics gave it Best Pic and Best Director to Kathryn Bigelow, plus a few other awards. Tomorrow we'll see if the New York critics agree. Boston and L.A. also made the same choices for supporting acting: Mo'Nique in Precious and Christoph Waltz in Inglourious Basterds. I haven't seen Precious yet, although it is on this week's agenda, so no comment there. But Christoph Waltz is fabulous! I personally loved Inglourious Basterds but if for some reason you were thinking of not seeing it, his performance alone is worth it.

The other thing making me really happy is that the Los Angeles critics gave a couple of runner-up shout-outs to In the Loop, which also totally cleaned up at the British Independent Film awards a week or so ago. In the Loop is, so far, my favorite film of the year. It is monstrously funny, razor sharp, and dead-on about how screwed up our politicians are, although the public they serve is certainly no better. I can't tell you how refreshing and mind-blowing and wonderful it was. It is fast paced with a kind of observant handheld camera feel going on, sort of like The Office, but with the dialogue flying at you and just never letting up as it absolutely rips apart the hypocrisy and nonsense that goes on in government. It goes back and forth between England and the U.S. as officials try to prevent/not prevent a war, mostly for their own selfish reasons. Oh, I adore this film. I cannot even tell you how much I adore it.

Tomorrow, we shall discuss the SSS Men and clear up that confusion.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Vice Versa

I would just like to state once again for the record that I have never, ever heard anyone from/in Los Angeles who has never been to New York say that they hate New York.

Am I implying that the reverse can be heard? Why, yes. Yes I am.

And every time it happens, my respect for New Yorkers goes down a little bit. I guess it's like any wackjob extremist; you bring dishonor on your whole group when you say and do dumb stuff.

If someone told us they like a city where they have never been, we would think they were delusional. Why the hell isn't that true for dislike?

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Michigan Blows!

Why, I mean snow and leaves, of course! In the midst of this great and mighty blizzard -- well, OK, so really during a moment of calm, but after many inches of snow had fallen -- I went for a walk in the piles of snow. Since this Grand Rapids neighborhood has many cute and charming houses, which are necessarily cuter and more charming when decorated with Christmas lights and covered/surrounded by snow, my walk had all the makings of a lovely wintry early evening stroll. EXCEPT, there were neighbors about who were taking advantage of the lull in the snowfall to clear driveways and sidewalks. With snow blowers.

I mean, the whole snow blowing thing looks cool and all, with the spray of snow shooting up and out, but it's just not, well, pleasant. Noisy, and polluting, too, yes? And, on my walk, at one point I had to deviate from the sidewalk -- which, though covered in snow, you could tell was the sidewalk because its snow was slightly lower than the foot-high piles to the left (yard) and right (strip of grass between sidewalk and street). I had to leave the sidewalk because a man was blowing snow from his sidewalk, a loud little machine growling its way through the snow, straight at me. I walked into the road, also covered in snow, but snow that was flattened by cars of course. And right across the street, there was a neighbor clearing her sidewalk, but with a shovel. I smiled. I think I made a political choice to walk on her shovel-cleared sidewalk rather than his machine-blown.

This bugged me all fall with the leaves, too. There I would be on a happy midday run, the autumn sun twinkling through the spaces between the red and golden leaves, and then I'd hear it, the roaring whine of the leaf blowers. Rake! Rake! Rake! I wanted to shout.

Do I think people are lazy? Why yes, yes I do. Now, I know what you'll say. We're busy. We have so many things to do, like spoil our kids and drive them everywhere, and order take-out, and watch television. We don't have time to rake leaves and shovel snow. Boooo! Besides, one-fifth of Michigan is unemployed, so there should be plenty of people with free time. Ha! Even when there's no recession, though, I am dismayed by the nasty polluting snow blowing and especially the leaf blowers. Furthermore, I don't really remember seeing, or rather hearing, them in Boston ever. I suppose there was less driveway and yard space where I lived in Medford, with older New England homes closer together, than here in this tree-y/grassy modern neighborhood. But all I saw there were shovelers. So, ugh. We are a sedentary society, we are unhealthy, and we are fat. Turn off your television and go shovel some snow, people. And if you are too old/sick/frail, then pay someone who is unemployed ten dollars to do it. Or whatever the going rate is. Or don't live in Michigan in the first place, there's an idea. Besides, that woman was shoveling the snow from her sidewalk while the man across the street blew his from his sidewalk, so who's got the upper body strength now, huh?

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Yeah, what he said

Now that it is Awards Season and all, I have been spending some time perusing the various nominees and winners as they trickle in, little awards tributaries that they are, headed to the great river of Academy nominations that takes us to the Oscar Night Sea. Last night I was reading comments about the British Independent Film Awards winners. (Yes, reading online comments can be a dicey proposition, but these weren't bad.) Some people were happy that Tom Hardy won Best Actor in a British Independent Film for Bronson, and sad that he is getting little to no Oscar buzz especially compared to one George Clooney and a little flick called Up in the Air. So then an apparently British bloke had this to say:

"Someone blame those critics who didn't fully see all, or at least try to see all, movies out there. That seems to be the yearly problem with those supposed Oscar voters. You guys and girls get such a cool responsibility, and you all piss it away because you're too busy? Seriously no excuse at all. Unless you're a fireman, then I could let it go."

I find that so amusing. I don't even necessarily agree with him about the precise cause of the problem -- there are definitely other Awards Season issues -- but I just like the way he thinks about the whole thing.

Can I get an amen?! Or was that a "jolly good!"

Monday, December 07, 2009

Seasons change, but animated chickens are constant

I know, I know, I haven't been blogging. Where have I been? Probably off trying to get warm somewhere. It's not that I don't like winter (Boston world, I miss you!) and snow. I love the snow! For example right now I am sitting in a Biggby Coffee shop working on freelance stuff, and I am right by a big window through which I can gaze at the wintry view of white-gray sky, bare branch silhouettes, and little snow bits swirling about without sticking. To my right is a fireplace, and people are scattered in here sipping their coffee and working on their laptops. This I love. It's just the whole living in a cold house thing that hurts my bones. Anyway, where was I? Oh, right. Not blogging. But you know I will have to ramp up the bloggage soon, because a new season is upon us, and that is of course AWARDS SEASON!

Ahhhhh, film. Can you believe it is already December? The National Board of Review has announced its top 2009 films, the Gotham Independent Film Awards have been awarded, the British Independent Film Awards have chosen nominees and winners, and the always-a-good-time Independent Spirit Award nominees are here. And boy do I have some moviegoing to do!

I have been trying my best. We are particularly fond of the $3.99 Celebration! Cinema down the street, and we also go to the only AMC in Grand Rapids of course. (Yes, I said the only AMC. I know, it's as if I had only one Starbucks or something! But the Celebration! Cinema chain here has an awards program too, so I manage.) There are good films -- like, good good, you know, independent or offbeat or arthousy -- at the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts every week, and we frequent that theater as well.

But the bottom line is, I am in Grand Rapids. Middle America. Not a coast for miles. And all the films just aren't playing here yet! Example? You want an example? I'll give you an example. The Road, I tell you. I read the book last year, and it moved me. I've devoured news about the film. I long for it. Some nights I watch the trailer online again just to keep myself going. I read my trusty Entertainment Weekly reviews that assure me it's here -- only it's not here here. Not yet. And so I wait.

Sure, sure, I've been spoiled by years of living in Boston, New York, and of course Los Angeles. There was my long dark Oscar winter in Korea to prepare me for this. But Korea was different. I basically just saw whatever was playing in English, one or maybe two movies per week, and then waited for another poster to appear announcing a movie that I could understand. Here in Grand Rapids, there are other movies playing, but I just don't want to see them, because they are stupid. (Or they are not stupid and we have already seen them.) I had truly forgotten what this is like.

Maybe those of you who haven't had the privilege of living in one of those Select Cities find this normal and see nothing wrong with my plight. Those of you in Select Cities, have pity on me. You know the ones. Besides L.A. and New York, they are the cities you see on that list in your magazine ads: "If you live in one of these cities, enter to win passes to an advance screening..." Boston, of course, is often on there. San Francisco, Atlanta, Chicago, Philadelphia, you know, all the places I want to live. Not so much the G Rap. Sigh. I'm just not about going to see Planet 51, or Ninja Assassin (speaking of Korea, eh), or god forbid Old Dogs. We went to The Blind Side and that fabulous comedy 2012, what more can you ask of me?

And don't even talk to me about The Twilight Saga: New Moon on two screens at my local AMC. Seriously. Don't. Don't even suggest it. I don't think I would have stooped to that, even in Daegu. Sure, when I lived in Asia I was desperate enough to hear English dialogue that I indulged in Harry Potter and the Quittich Tournament or whatever it was (Goblet of Fire, I believe), and yes, I may have paid my 6,000 won to see Chicken Little. But the animated chicken is as low as I go. It is still many steps above the shoegazing swan with her sparkly vampire and Lamanite werewolf.

Never fear. I am making the most of it, and really I'm being melodramatic for the purposes of this blog entry, of course. Recently we have had the pleasure of attending truly awesome films: A Serious Man and The Men Who Stare at Goats. You must not heed EW's shamefully off-base review of TMWSaG for a second. That flick is satirical, philosophical, and sarcastic, with a lot of brilliance just under the surface, so you have to pay attention.

But the Oscars are coming! The Oscars are coming! We are less than two months from the nominations. (February 2nd) We are one week from the Golden Globe nominations. One week, people!!!

Citizens of Grand Rapids, unite! We demanded Paranormal Activity -- now why can't we demand the good stuff?!