Posts Tagged ‘Movies’

The Worst of the Oscar: Round-Up

Saturday, July 20th, 2013

(This is the last part of a series looking at the Best Picture award through the years. Parts I, II, and III.)

In comparing the critics, the Academy and IMDB, I find that, with few exceptions (e.g, West Side Story, Crash, Braveheart) the critics and IMDB are in large agreement while the Academy is more often the outlier. That’s not entirely surprising, given that the Academy judges films in the moment while IMDB voters, for any year before about 1998, have the verdict of history on their side. Their ratings are reflective of the critic’s and historian’s opinions. If you look at the immediate judgement of IMDB — the last ten years, you’ll find some questionable favorites (The Dark knight Rises) but also some times when I think IMDB, even in the moment, did a better job than the Academy. Inception was a better film than the King’s Speech. Intouchables, from what I’ve heard, is better than The Artist. Batman Begins was better than Crash. Eternal Sunshine was better than Million Dollar Baby.

In short, I think my tendency to use IMDB ratings to judge films is justified provided one accounts for the biases it has. It is certainly less biased than the Academy.

Overall, however, I think while the Academy’s performance has waxed and waned, most of its picks aren’t horrific. I’ve sorted the Best PIcture winners into four categories:

Agreement: This is where the IMDB, the critics and the Academy all picked the best picture or the winners are neck-and-neck. Clearly, the Academy did its job. In this category, you would have All Quiet on The Western Front, It Happened One Night, Casablanca, The Lost Weekend, The Godfather, the Sting, The Godfather Part II, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the Deer Hunter, Amadeus, Silence of the Lambs, Schindler’s List, Forrest Gump, The Return of the King, the Departed. That’s 15 out of 85. I have seen all of those films except The Lost Weekend and agree with IMDB and history.

Defensible: There is some disagreement but the film has a place in the conversation as the best pic of the year. Generally I look for something rated at least an 8.0 on IMDB, in the top five and with either IMDB or the critics agreeing. Any film that makes the AFI top 100 or similar lists is defensible. In this category, you have Mutiny on the Bounty, You Can’t Take it With You, Gone with the Wind, Rebecca, Best Years of Our lives, All About Eve, On the Waterfront, Bridge on the River Kwai, Ben-Hur, The Apartment, West Side Story, Lawrence of Arabia, The Sound of Music, In the Heat of the Night, Midnight Cowboy, Patton, The French Connection, Rocky, Annie Hall, Gandhi, Platoon, Rain Man, Dances with Wolves, Unforgiven, Braveheart, Titanic, American Beauty, Gladiator, Million Dollar Baby, No Country for Old Men, A Beautiful Mind, Million Dollar Baby, No Country for Old Men. That’s another 31 films where the Academy’s choice is defensible. That’s 46 of 85 years where I would say they did their job. So about half the time. I have seen all of these films except You Can’t Take it With You and generally agree with the verdict.

Meh: A good film, by not a great one. Probably got swept up in some hype. There are better films that could have been recognized that year. There’s a bit of play in this one as a few of these are probably seen as bad picks by some. Ordinary People over Raging Bull is regarded as a bad choice now, but IMDB still regards Ordinary People as a good film. I’m trying to be a bit objective here and leave my opinions out. But the way I see it, the “meh” picks are: Wings, Grand Hotel, the Life of Emile Zola, How Green Was My Valley, Mrs. Miniver, Going My Way, Gentleman’s Agreement. Hamlet, All the King’s Men, An American in Paris, From Here to Eternity, Marty, My Fair Lady, A Man for All Seasons, Kramer vs. Kramer, Ordinary People, Terms of Endearment, the Last Emperor, The English Patient, Crash, Slumdog Millionaire, The Hurt Locker, The King’s Speech, The Artist, Argo. That’s 25 years where the Academy muffed it. I expect some of the recent titles like Crash to eventually slip down into the bad category.

I’ve only seen ten of the “meh” films, actually, which is why I’m relying as much as I can on critics and IMDB. Does that mean I can’t judge them? Perhaps. My priority when it comes to watching old films is to watch ones I have heard are good or ones I know I will enjoy. For the sake of completeness, I will eventually watch all of the Academy winners and will post on Twitter if I think history and/or IMDB got it wrong. But it will be slow. The limited time I have for movies is better spent on things like Frankenstein than Grand Hotel.

Bad: Generally, this is reserved for films that rate below a 7.0 but special mention will be made where even a good film nudged out a classic, especially if it was for stupid reasons. The designation of a film as a bad choice is almost entirely objective, based on IMDB ratings and historical consensus. This is because I have only seen five of these to completion and bits of others. As I said, I’m still working my way through the Best Picture winners. And Best Picture winners that history has judged poorly are very low on the priority list. Sorted from the biggest difference between the IMDB rating of the Best Picture winner and that of the film historically regarded as the best, the worst pictures are: Driving Miss Daisy, Oliver!, Around the World in Eighty Days, Chariots of Fire, Shakespeare in Love, out of Africa, Tom Jones, Chicago, Gigi, The Greatest Show on Earth, the Great Ziegfeld, Cavalcade, Broadway Melody and Cimarron. That is 14 years where the Academy completely stunk up the joint, picking a mediocre picture while classic went unrecognized.

If we designate the first category as an A, the second as a B, the third as a C and the fourth as a D, the Academy has earned 15 A’s, 31 B’s, 25 C’s and 14 D’s in its 85 years for a GPA of 2.55 GPA. Let’s call that a B-. But … I’m kind of surprised to find myself saying this … I think their reputation is worse than their actual performance. We have the benefit of history. We have the benefit of time. We don’t have the disadvantage of studios harassing us to hype their picture. Considering the pressure the Academy is under and the skewed distribution of the electorate, I don’t think they’ve actually done that bad a job. If you’re looking for a list of films to watch, the list of Academy Award winner is not that bad a place to start, especially in recent years where IMDB and history are still a bit uncertain.

I think the Academy is getting less relevant thanks to IMDB and the explosion of online critics. But as a historical perspective … they’re OK.

So what is the worst of the worst? As I noted in Part I of this series, I don’t think it’s illuminating to look at the first ten years of the Academy, when they were still sorting things out (even though snubbing City Lights was mind-boggling). That leaves off four pictures. I’m also going to exclude any year where the best picture of the year isn’t regarded as one of the best of all time. The Searchers is rated as one of the best westerns ever, but IMDB only rates it an 8.1 — great, but not historically so. Ignoring it was a terrible snub, but we’re looking for the absolute worst choices. That cuts out Around the World in 80 Days, Tom Jones and Driving Miss Daisy. Next I’ll cut out Oliver!, since IMDB rates it a 7.4 and the brilliance of 2001 and Once Upon a Time in The West became obvious later — a bad choice but not the worst.

That leaves us with six finalists for worst picks of all time. Of these, I have seen five and bits of the sixth. And I’ve seen most of the films they snubbed. So without further ado.

Actually, you know what? I like good numbers, so we’ll make this is a list of seven with the seventh being:

#7 – Lifetime Achievement Award: Cimarron over City Lights, The Great Ziegfeld over Modern Times and Broadway Melody over The Passion of Joan of Arc. The first decade of the Academy was terrible, far worse than we will ever seen again.

#6 – 1981: Chariots of Fire over Raiders of the Lost Ark, Das Boot, On Golden Pond, Gallipoli, Excalibur(!!) and Body Heat. Chariots is actually a decent film. But it won in a strong year over far superior films.

#5 – 1985: Out of Africa over Back to the Future, Ran, Brazil, The Purple Rose of Cairo, The Color Purple, Witness and A Room With A View. IMDB regards Better Off Dead as a better movie than Out of Africa. That’s Gen-X bias, of course. But … I’m not entirely sure they’re wrong.

#4 – 1998: Shakespeare in Love over American History X, Saving Private Ryan, The Big Lebowski, The Truman Show, Run Lola Run, Dark City, Lovers of the Arctic Circle, The Thin Red Line, Elizabeth. Yes, that’s right. SIL wasn’t even the best film that year about Elizabeth I.

#3 – 2002: Chicago over The Two Towers, City of God, the Pianist, Talk To Her, Lilya 4-Ever, The Magadalene Sisters, 25th Hour, In America, Road to Perdition, Adaptation, Minority Report, the Whale Rider, Gangs of New York, The Hours, Rabbit-Proof Fence, Far From Heaven, Dirt Pretty Things, About Schmidt, Insomnia. If you lower the vote threshold to 10,000 votes, Chicago was ranked 50th out of 184 films that year. This is not just about The Two Towers. This was a very strong year and the Academy picking a truly mediocre film. Appalling. I didn’t expect I would see this as worse than Shakespeare in Love. I originally ranked this choice #4. But the more I looked at it, the worse the pick looked. Another reason why I did this exercise. I’m aware of IMDB’s bias against musicals. Chicago was still a bad choice.

#2 – 1958 : Gigi over Vertigo, Touch of Evil, A Night to Remember, Auntie Mame, The Fly. I went over this before. Gigi is a bit of a stand-in for the snubbing of Hitch. I’m aware that it swept the awards and is regarded by many as one of the best winners. Those many are wrong. It wasn’t even close to the best picture of the year. Look beyond the number of awards it won and it’s an awful pick.

#1 – 1952: I’m probably over-correcting for my bias against bad picks in my lifetime. In time, Shakespeare or Chicago could take over this spot. But consider what The Greatest Show on Earth (the only bad pick I have not seen in its entirety) stomped on to win the statue: Singin’ in the Rain, Ikiru, Umberto D, High Noon, Limelight, The Quiet Man, Othello, the Importance of Being Earnest, Moulin Rouge, Monkey Business, Ivanhoe. Some of those are over-rated, I grant you. But in 1952, you could have wandered into a theater at random and seen a better movie than The Greatest Show on Earth.

The Worst of the Oscars: 1978-2012

Saturday, July 13th, 2013

One of the things that happens from this point forward is that action movies and cult movies begin to take over the IMDB ratings. We also, by the 90′s, begin to run into IMDB’s bias toward recent films. So the comparison of Academy to IMDB becomes steadily less useful.

IMDB’s temporal bias is the result, in my opinion, of fanboys and excited audiences wildly over-rating pictures right when they see them and then not going back to revisit their ratings. There’s a sort of “observer effect” in films since the late 90′s where IMDB itself has become part of the process. So people, in the moment, think “Best. Movie. Ever!” rush over to IMDB and rate it a 10. Five years later, they’d probably rate it an 8.

IMDB ratings have a predictable rhythm. New movies shoot up to the top, sometimes to #1, based on early fanboy ratings and deliberate attempts to raise the rating. Then they slowly sink down to Earth as general audiences catch up. I don’t think they are as bad as critics say nor are as manipulated as snobby websites like to pretend. But they do have issues.

At some point, IMDB is going to have to tweak their formula to downweight votes that were cast (1) for movies that debuted since IMDB was inaugurated, and (2) in the immediate months after a movie was released. I think this would remove a lot of the bias, at least for anything less than ten years old.

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The Worst of the Oscars: 1953-1977

Thursday, July 11th, 2013

Let’s just dive right back in, shall we?

This exercise turned out to be very revealing about the biases built into IMDB ratings. IMDB tends to over-rate science fiction, westerns and movies by certain directors (Tarantino, Leone, Kubrick). It tends to underrate musicals and movies with women leads. This is not entirely surprising if you know about the internet. But it is fascinating to see it in such fine grain.

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The Worst of the Oscars: 1928-1952

Tuesday, July 9th, 2013

Some time ago, I got into a Twitter discussion about the worst films to be tabbed by the Academy as the Best Picture of the Year. The usual nominees were bruited about but I wanted to approach it in a more systematic way.

So what I did was go through the list of Academy Awards winners for every years since 1928. What I was looking for was the answer to several interlocked questions: Was it the best picture of the year? If not, what was the best picture of the year? How is the film regarded historically?

I’ve talked about the limitations of IMDB ratings before, especially when it comes to films over the last 20 years. But my feeling is that comparing the films within any single year can be illuminating. This took a little bit of work since movies from early years don’t have a lot of votes. I’ve also taken the liberty of figuring out which movie for any particular years is the “consensus” best film, based on perusing the AFI and other critics’ ratings. I think the method to my madness will become clear once we get going.

The short story is this: the Academy has rarely done a great job, has sometimes done a horrible job but has mostly done an OK job. They rarely select the best picture but huge snubs are kind of rare. They clearly have biases: against silent movies, against comedies, against certain genres like science fiction. They clearly favor “important” movies that make them feel smart or politically aware and they are very prone to the flavor of the month. There’s a reason all the Oscar nominees are released in December.

Let’s go year-by-year. To save some sanity, I’ll break this up into three posts with a fourth to sum up.

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2012 in Review

Friday, July 5th, 2013

I’m getting better at this. It’s only July. Last year, my “year in review” came out in September. The year before in December. My review of 2009 didn’t come out until June of 2011. Hey, I got a kid. Maybe when she’s off to college, I’ll post my year-in-review while it’s still winter.

We’ll start in the usual place. Here are the list of films that were nominated for Best Picture:

Argo: I’m liking Affleck more as a movie maker than a movie star. While this was somewhat fictionalized, it was still tense and enjoyable. I’m not sure if it was the best picture of the year, but it was very good. 8/10

Amour: This is not yet out on DVD.

Beasts of the Southern Wild: I really liked this motion picture for its magical realism and excellent low-key acting. I was reminded of the equally excellent Winter’s Bone, which used local actors and a great performance from Jennifer Lawrence to craft a great low-key film. Had I been an Academy voter, I might have picked this one. 8/10

Djanjo Unchained: Django, like Tarantino’s previous picture, is beautifully shot with excellent acting and some great writing. But the ridiculously excessive violence, the great length and the completely unnecessary final half hour dragged this down. Tarantino need an editor badly. 7/10

Les Miserables: OK, maybe I would have tapped this for the Academy. It has its flaws, as I noted in the long-form review, especially an editing style that wastes the visuals. But I love the story, so … 8/10

Life of Pi: Visually excellent with great acting. It just manages to walk the tightrope of not being ridiculously pretentious. 8/10

Lincoln: This has faded a bit but I still found it very enjoyable, mainly for the performance of Lewis and Jones. A movie is doing a good job when you’re tensed up about a conflict where you know the outcome. Apollo 13 was the best at that; but Lincoln does pretty well. What makes this movie good is that it eschewed a “Highlights from Hamlet” approach to Lincoln’s life and focused on one specific event that illuminates everything. Its flaw — the unnecessary coda — is fatal precisely because it departs from that, making us feel we’re watching a History Channel special. (Note to Spielberg: we know that Lincoln died). The movie should have ended with Lincoln walking down the hall. I was reminded of Munich, which was excellent … right up until the unnecessary and uncomfortable closing sex scene, complete with flying sweat beads and Eric Bana’s horrifying orgasm face.

Ugh.

8/10, in any case.

Silver Linings Playbook: I would not have liked this movie, most likely, had it not been for Jennifer Lawrence. I found the script a bit weak and a lot of the acting hammy. But Lawrence is just so damned good in the lead role that she makes the movie worthwhile. 7/10

Zero Dark Thirty: Jessica Chastain is her usual excellent self and the directed is taut. One problem I had with the raid scenes, however, was that they were so dark I could barely see them, even on my plasma. Other than, it was enjoyable. 8/10

Looking at the IMDB rating for movies with over 20,000 votes, we add the following titles.

The Dark Knight Rises: I’ll return to this in a second, but this is why any IMDB rating from the last decade or so needs to be taken with some salt. DKR is the top-rated film of 2012 on IMDB. I liked it, but it was long and not nearly as compelling as the Dark Knight. I give it an 8/10 now, but it probably deserves more of a 7.

The Avengers: One of my favorite movies from 2012. Great action, yes, but leavened with really good writing and acting that is suited to the task. Joss Whedon needs to do more. 8/10

The Hunt: I have not seen this.

The Hobbit I: I wrote a long form review. I’ve now seen it four times and still like it a lot. Again — this seems to be a recurring theme — the movie is too long. But it does a lot right. 8/10

The Perks of Being a Wallflower: This movie hit close to home. While I didn’t have the protagonist’s mental health or life issues, I was a very lonely kid in high school. That was an improvement over elementary school, where I was relentlessly teased and bullied. While I did form a few friendships among outcasts, there was nothing like the group depicted in this tale nor did I know a teacher like the one played by Paul Rudd (who’s showing a bit more range these days). The only teacher who got involved with students’ lives was involved in a Christian prayer group. They invited me to things but … you know. Still, the movie surprised me by avoiding the worst cliches and managing to be original. The acting is uniformly good; the kids seems like real kids. The dialogue works. I gave it a 7/10 out of Twitter, but don’t be surprised if I raise that in the future. This might grow on me. (And … seriously? Not one nomination for this movie? Just in case you didn’t already think the Academy Awards were stupid).

Wreck-It Ralph: My daughter loved this movie. I found it clever and appealing, certainly a better film than Brave (which was a fine film). 7/10

Moonrise Kingdom: I’m not a big fan of Wes Anderson, but the two leads made this work well. 7/10

Skyfall: Also in the running for my favorite movie of 2012. The best Bond since Casino Royale. 9/10 (fanboy rating).

Cloud Atlas: I put up a long-form review. I should watch this again. 8/10

End of Watch and Conquest 1453: Have not seen these.

Looper: This was a really good science fiction movie and really should have gotten a lot more respect. This is the sort of classic sci-fi that is slowly emerging from the rubble of the Action Movie Era: a movie about ideas and people more than it is about action and CGI. 8/10

One thing you may have noticed: the movies of 2012 were ridiculously bloated. Almost every movie on that list ran a bit long and some ran long by more than half an hour. I don’t mind a long movie when it earns that length; Cloud Atlas earned it because of its complexity. But several movies — The Hobbit, Dark Knight Rises and Django in particular — could have been hoved down with no real loss. The biggest villain here is endless action scenes. It’s no longer enough to have a good action scene; now every possibly stunt you can think of has to be included; everyone has to get his moment to kick ass, everyone has to get their one liner. Writers used to make up their mind about how they wanted a movie to be resolved. Now they don’t; they just resolve it both ways by some ridiculous plot twist.

But here’s the big thing. Of the movie on that list, the only ones I currently own on DVD are Hobbit, The Avengers, Skyfall and The Dark Knight Rises — all fan purchases. If money were no object, I might add Les Mis, Looper and Cloud Atlas to that. But none of those movies screams for me to buy them.

I noted before that the Dark Knight Rises is the top-rated picture of 2012. That’s fan-bloated; it will sink. But right below that is Django, which is also fan-bloated. You have to get down to Life of Pi before you find a genuinely well-regarded movie.

In short, while 2012 was a good year for movies, it was not a great year. I don’t believe any of those films above are destined to be classics. I would frankly rate Before Midnight, which I saw two weeks ago, over any of them.

Now it’s tough to guess the judgement of history. But I’m not seeing the kind of classic that people watch for generations coming out of Hollywood these days. Look at IMDB’s top films since 2000. Almost all of them are action movies. Now Lord of the Rings may be destined for classic status, but is The Dark Knight? Inception? City of God?

OK, OK, IMDB is bloated by fan boys. Fine. But even if we strip those out, we have Memento, Spirited Away, The Pianist, The Lives of Others … Look at Roger Ebert’s Great Movies and narrow it down to the last decade. Not a lot there and not a lot that I think he’s absolutely right about.

Look, it’s Friday, I’m tired, I have a summer cold. I’m 1200 words in. Maybe I’m being too pessimistic. But I’ve been thinking this for a long time. I see a lot entertainment. A lot of solid popcorn movies. But the only time in recent memory I’ve watched a film and said, “Wow, they’ll be watching this for the next fifty years” was when I saw Lord of the Rings. OK, maybe a couple of Miyazaki or Pixar titles, too. But I have no inclination to rewatch Argo or The Artist or The King’s Speech or The Hurt Locker. Slumdog Millionaire maybe.

Well, as I said, it takes a long time for history to judge. No one thought 2001 was a classic when it came out and the Academy once awarded Shakespeare in Love over Saving Private Ryan. Ask me in a decade and maybe I’ll be saying that one of those films above was truly great. But at my desk at 11:35 at night? Doesn’t seem like it.

Update: Yes, I’m aware that people have been saying the above since movies became talkies. Maybe I’m in a “get off my lawn” mood. But it honestly does feel like the great artists are moving away from film and more toward other media.

Cloud Atlas

Saturday, June 29th, 2013

Cloud Atlas is, if nothing else, ambitious. Clocking in at just under three hours, it actually earns that length (unlike a lot of recent bloated movies) because it tells six related stories spanning a time of half a millenium, ranging from a 19th century slaving ship to a 24th century post-apocalyptic tale. It uses a small group of actors to play multiple roles in the various stories and the tagline is that all these stories are connected.

I liked Cloud Atlas quite a bit and intend to watch it again. In time, I may grow to love it. But, for right now, I admire it more than like it. I feel it falls just a bit short of its lofty ambitions.

The biggest problem is that the connections between the six stories seem kind of weak. My understanding is that the book has nested stories, where each one is being read or watched by those in the next story, so that it becomes a story within a story within, etc. six times. The movie seems to be trying to do something grander and more imaginative: have the stories play off of each other or feed each other in a karmic sense so that we feel we are seeing the same souls interact as they try to reach a glimmering future. But … and maybe I need to watch it again … I felt the connections were between the stories were tenuous at best. Doona Bae and Jim Sturgess are lovers in three of the stories, but this isn’t really revealed until the end. Tom Hanks and Halle Berry only interact in two of the stories and their connection seems tenuous. The birthmark seems to link the six protaganists — Adam, Robert, Luisa, Timothy, Sonmi and Zachry. But their stories are different and the six actors who play them don’t seem to be playing reincarnations of the same character. The over-arching plot doesn’t seem to have the resolution and catharsis that the eloquent voice-overs promise. So, in the end, this seems less like six interconnected stories spanning 500 years than six stories juxtaposed together. I felt like one more pass through the script might have tightened those connections and made a much more emotionally deep picture.

However, although the film’s reach exceeds its grasp, it’s still a very good movie and at least it’s reaching. All six of the stories are compelling in some way. Reading through the reviews, I’ve noticed that the critics always napalm or praise different segments, never the same ones. That’s probably because all six works pretty well. Even when the script is a bit weak (the Luisa Rey sequence), the acting and directing carry it. And when the story is strong — Sonmi 451, the Pacific Crossing and Sloosha’s Crossing were my favorites — it’s very good.

All three directors do a fine job: the film is always visually and narratively compelling. The acting is strong, even if the makeup that allows the actors to change races and genders isn’t always up to par. But it is rarely outstanding. It’s fun to watch the actors slip in and out of roles (although that muddies the supposed karmic connections between the stories). And watching Hugh Grant and Hugo Waving slither through six villains is a treat. But no performance in the film really grabbed me as particularly inspired.

As has become par for the Wachowskis, there are many striking visual images: Luisa’s dizzying plunge into the river, the Abbess’s eyes changing color, the chase of Sonmi and Hae-Joo. Thankfully, the visuals are mated to good stories and good acting, so they never grow tiresome.

So, overall, a good film. Maybe, in time, a very good one. But it falls just short of greatness for me, so I have to give it an 8/10. It will probably rank as one of my Best of 2012 in the post I’ll cook up over the next few days.

You know what excited me most about Cloud Atlas, though? It hints that the Wachowskis have at least one more great film in them. The Matrix is a great film, of course. Its sequels are a bit disappointing but have their moments. V for Vendetta is a visually excellent film and has a strong narrative. Speed Racer was a commercial and critical flop that I have yet to see. But Atlas hints that they have something great in them, that their talent for visual flair an imaginative ideas is going to come together into something really jaw-dropping in the near future. Maybe it will be Jupiter Ascending. Or maybe Jupiter will stink and we’ll have to wait ten years for it. But I think there’s greatness there. And perhaps Cloud Atlas is where we’ll say we first saw it.

Saturday Linkorama

Sunday, June 23rd, 2013
  • This visualization of the Right of Spring is seriously seriously cool. Seeing the music like that, you start hearing the subtleties that elude you when you just hear it. This is one of the reasons I like to see classical music in performance. There is so much more going on than the ear can take in.
  • This map of linguistic divides in the United States, is something I could spend an entire post on. I match most of the pronunciations from Georgia except for “lawyer” and “pajamas”.
  • This story, about charities that just exist to raise money, should be getting national attention. It’s a disgrace.
  • I’ve used some of these.
  • Roman concrete was apparently better than the shit we’re using.
  • I think this is more or less true: the financial industry has stopped being about enabling economic progress and more about itself. When engineers can make more moving piles of money around than inventing things, we’ve got a problem.
  • Teenage boys killed the sex scene.
  • Les Miserables Review

    Tuesday, May 28th, 2013

    I have never seen the musical Les Miserables. I’ve never actually seen any film or stage representation before. I have however read, and deeply loved, the book by Victor Hugo.*

    (*I recently discovered, to my horror, that the version I read so long ago was, in fact, abridged. So I may have to read it again when I have a month to spare.)

    So my expectations were medium to high going into the recent Les Miserables film. I can say that while I didn’t love it, I liked it quite a bit. There are times when it creaks. It has a very serious editing problem, with lots of rapid cuts that distract from the sumptuous visuals, the serviceable singing and the excellent acting.

    But this is compensated for by the things the films gets right. The art direction is fantastic; 19th century Paris is recreated so well I felt like I needed antibiotics. The music is fine. I’m not as enamored of the score as most fan but it gets good when there is polyphony. The story, while stripped to its bare bones, retains the most important parts including the emotional wallop at the end. And the acting is uniformly good. Les Miserables has a great ensemble cast. One particular performance of note is that of Sacha Baron Cohen. His singing is OK, but his acting is a lot of fun. Between this and Hugo, he’s showing the makings of an excellent and versatile supporting actor. The more he does this and the less he does his characters, the happier I’ll be.

    The thing I kept thinking as I watched it, however, was that I wished it weren’t a musical. I’m not slamming the music or anything. As I said, it works great sometimes. And Les Miserables is such a massive sprawling tale that perhaps musical numbers are the only way to advance the plot and the emotional threads fast enough to squeeze it into three hours. But I think the spectacle and the singing sort of take away from the excellent actors that populate the film. Many of the film’s flaws — Hooper’s preference for quick cuts and extreme closeups — are the result of doing it as pure musical rather than pure drama or drama punctuated by the occasional song. A distillation of this problem can be found in Russell Crowe. Many critics napalmed his singing. I found that he lacked dynamic range but was perfectly adequate. His flaws as a singer only stand out because the rest of the cast are better. But the complaints about his perfectly serviceable singing distract from his excellent acting. A little less singing and a little more acting and he would really have nailed Javert. The same can be said for many of the cast. Only Redmayne, Barks and perhaps Jackman are really able to pull off the singing and acting simultaneously.

    One thing Hooper did right, however, was record the singing during filming. There is verisimilitude to the singing that is unique. Sometimes it’s distracting — Jackman in particular has a tendency to sing with a very open mouth. But I’m hoping the technique can be refined in the future because it really works much better than lip-synching.

    Overall, I would probably give it a 8/10. I have to think about it a little bit. I love the story so dearly that the film redeems its sins with the occasional great moment.

    Trekkie Thoughts

    Thursday, May 16th, 2013

    We’re getting a new Star Trek film tomorrow. I’ve been trying to avoid any expectations, but I can’t help it. I’ve been a fan for as long as I can remember, since watching reruns of the original series on Channel 17.

    Given tomorrow’s launch, I thought I’d finally publish my blog post on the Trek movies.

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    Thursday Linkorama

    Thursday, January 24th, 2013

    I think I’ve spent the entirety of this week either on the phone or having a meeting or curled up in bed with a migraine. Sigh. Some weeks are like that.

  • I can’t say that I enjoy the retuning of some songs to different keys, per se. I do, however, find it utterly fascinating how important key is to the mood and feel of a song or musical piece. I knew a woman back in college who had a variety of health issues that would eventually take her at a young age. But she was an amazing pianist who could shift the key on a song instantly and play it perfectly. Somehow, it never changed the tone like these retunings do.
  • Cracked looks at lines censored by TV. My brother and I used to get great amusement from watching movies like The Breakfast Club and Police Academy on Channel 46. The dubbing was so bad and the lines so hilariously stupid, we almost preferred them. My favorite comes from Police Academy: “Mahoney …. nobody plays with me.” with “plays” delivered about an octave and a half lower than Bailey’s register.
  • This article, which tries to argue that Southern dominance of Miss America is a result of racism, is so idiotic, so filled with PC bullshit and is such an inaccurate assessment of Southern history, culture and tradition, that it could only possibly have been published in the New York Times.
  • Eerie pictures of Chernobyl and amazing pictures of World War I.
  • Jacob Sullum details some of the concerns about allowing the CDC to do research into guns. I’m in favor of lifting restrictions on scientific research, even if it does mean politicized work. I just hate restrictions too much. But it is worth noting that the public health experts have a bad history of cooking the books to reach their conclusions, as seen in the EPA’s study of second-hand smoke and the CDC’s own study of obesity deaths.
  • A woman drives 900 miles out of her way and through several countries due to a supposed GPS error. Maybe it’s me, but I doubt the GPS was the only malfunctioning thing in that car.
  • An environmentalist admits he was wrong on GMO’s. Thanks a lot.
  • How much do you want to bet that most of the people involved in these idiocies were not fired?
  • I can’t vouch for the accuracy, but if these people really have recreated a hairstyle from the Roman Empire, that’s pretty damned cool.
  • Looking Ahead to 2013

    Wednesday, January 2nd, 2013

    Any year you can walk away from is a good one right? I ended 2012 with my family and career intact, so I don’t think I can complain too much. Abby had a great year with her first real birthday party and a good start to kindergarten. I landed a couple of grants and got a couple of big projects off my plate, including the image gallery for the mission.

    On the other hand, I had my gallbladder out and had a sudden awful onset of bad migraines, something I still have not quite gotten control of. My mother-in-law died. My stepmother got cancer. We spent a fortune on fertility treatments and got, for all our pains, one miscarriage and a bad MS relapse. So … yeah, not our best year.

    In sports, my Braves bowed out in ignominious fashion and the hated New York Giants stomped over the Falcons, Packers and Patriots. On the other hand, the Falcons had another good regular season, the Braves have a lot of young talent and Chipper Jones went out in grand fashion.

    Politics? Oh, God. This was one of the most frustrating disillusioning years I can remember. I looked at both parties and eventually slammed my head into the desk and voted for Gary Johnson. We had a huge amount of sound and fury. More digital ink was spilled than ever before. I blogged my guts out over at Right Thinking. And the result? Obama is still President, Congress is still split, Congress is still stupid, the deficit is still huge and the economy is still sluggish.

    But, for some strange reason, I have a good feeling about 2013. 2011 was a the year of false hope — personally, professionally and politically. 2012 was a tough grinding exhausting year. But I feel like things have put in motion that will make 2013 suck a lot less. I can’t put my finger on anything specific. That probably means I’m wrong.

    Oh, well. Without further ado, my bold predictions for 2013:

  • Alabama over Notre Dame; New England over Green Bay; Miami in the NBA, Cincinnati over the Angels
  • Movies look like a mixed bag. Bad remakes and sequels galore (Evil Dead, GI Joe 2, Hangover 3, Die Hard 5, etc.). Beautiful Creatures and Pacific Rim look hilariously bad. And I’m not optimistic about Oz, Man of Steel or The Great Gatsby even though I want to be. I’m worried Hobbit 2 will suffer from Middle Chapter Syndrome (even more than Hobbit 1 does). But maybe something will surprise us.
  • We’re going to have a debt ceiling crisis that will hurt the economy and result in almost no spending cuts of note. Nevertheless, the economy will lumber on. And, for the first time in years, the deficit will notably shrink.
  • The Supreme Court will have another interesting year, likely striking down Prop 8 but on very narrow grounds.
  • Japan and China will rattle sabers but no fighting will break out. We will probably eventually intervene in Syria. The EU will continue to lumber toward a unified state.
  • So, yeah. Even looking at that, I’m not predicting a great year. But 2012 was so lousy, 2013 is almost bound to be better.

    We must always remember that the arc of history is long and, over the last decade, has pointed toward progress. On a global level, things are improving. Steadily, haltingly, frustratingly. But improving. And maybe 2013 will be the year things start improving around here — slowly, haltingly, frustratingly. In the end, the future is what we create. And I intend to bend my shoulder a little bit more this year and push a little harder.

    The Hobbit Part I

    Saturday, December 15th, 2012

    The Hobbit is not the Phantom Menace.

    I feel like I have to say that leading in, even though I liked the Star Wars prequels. But since that is the gold standard of disappointing sequels, I’ll just use it as a marker. The Hobbit will not disappoint. Casual fans may find it a bit boring in parts. Tolkien enthusiasts, however, will probably love it despite the liberties it takes with the text. Jackson has fleshed out the book with so much detail and backstory, that you can’t help but get swept up in the labor of love this clearly is.

    As I said on Twitter, the movie is good. Sometimes it is very good. But it if were a half an hour shorter, it would be awesome.

    Let me unpack that a bit. The biggest problem the movie has — in fact, I would almost say its only problem — is that it’s too long. If you’ve got me checking my watch during a Middle Earth movie and continually wondering, “OK, is this where they’re going to end it?”, you’ve got a problem with running time.

    It’s hard to pin down exactly where the movie bogs down because there is simply so much new material. New stuff has been larded in everywhere — the battle with the goblins, the chase to Rivendell, the “out of the frying pan” scene. This is not all bad: Jackson has put a much more tangible villain in the piece who works very well. And, as noted above, the backstory fleshes out the movie to be much more epic than the book.

    No, I don’t think the new material is the problem. The problem is that some scenes just drag on. People are complaining about the party at Bilbo’s house, but I didn’t find that to be much of a problem. I kind of liked it actually as it did a good job of introducing and defining the characters (Balin, in particular, does well). But the part of the prologue with Frodo just drags on. Gandalf’s introduction is almost verbatim from the book. The consultation in Rivendell really drags with Blanchett and Weaving intoning each syllable verrryy slowly. And a number of the battle scenes just go on for far too long (a growing problem in modern action films). In the end, the movie doesn’t really feel like it has an arc; it feels like a series of incidents that just … at some point … kinda ends.

    Personally, I would have ditched all the stuff with Radagast (although it does produce one extremely chilling scene). But I actually think that sharper editing could have kept everything in the movie that’s there and still cut half an hour off the running time. The result would be a great two hour movie that would leave the audience breathless.

    And that’s the rub. The reason I’ve spent most of this review complaining about the running time is because Jackson does so much in the film that’s just so right. The prologue about Erebor is excellent. Thorin’s backstory is great. The new villain is excellent and deepens the significance of Thorin’s return to Erebor. The “riddles in the dark scene” is the highlight of the film. Bilbo’s journey from timid Hobbit to hero is done better than Tolkein did. Middle Earth itself is, once again, rendered with such beautiful, loving and fiddling detail. And there are images in the film — the appearance of the necromancer, the “into the fire” scene, the eagles — that just work really really well.

    The actors are all well-chosen and do jobs ranging from good to excellent. And Jackson shows the talent he’s shown before for letting actors act.

    So, yeah, I liked it, despite its running time. I will probably see it again because, as with the second two LOTR films, my anticipation and worry impinged my enjoyment. But it’s definitely worth $8. Especially on a big 2-D 24 fps screen.

    I’ve rated it 8/10, which is provisional. The reason it’s provisional is that a) I’m a fan; b) I rarely rate films higher than 8 on initial viewing; and c) I have to see the other two films (and I really don’t want to wait two years for them). I initially rated the LOTR movies as 9′s but elevated all three to 10′s as they were one long epic rather than three films. So Hobbit I’s legacy will depend on how Hobbit II and Hobbit III go.

    The Girl Who Set the Dragon’s Nest on Fire

    Friday, November 23rd, 2012

    My thoughts on watching the movies of Girl with the Dragon Tattoo are too long for a tweet, so I’ll spell them out in a few hundred words.

    I read all three books of the Millenium Trilogy last year. They are quite good: Larsson was a talented writer. His characters are believable (up to a point) and he is a master at building suspense and mystery. The three books are compelling page turners and featuring a plethora of strong female characters. And Lisbeth Salander has to be one of the better literary characters to emerge in recent years.

    However, there were a number of things that bothered me about them. There is the Gary Stuish protagonist who seems not far removed from Larsson himself and spends much of the books sleeping with a series of great women. There is the stark moral color-coding, where all the antagonists are sexually abusive misogynistic dinosaurs. But what bothered me most was the way the books almost seemed to revel in their sexual depravity and trafficking hysteria. There is a strong “rescuer fantasy” undercurrent to the books that is subverted in Dragon Tattoo but keeps poking its head out in the next two books.

    The books were a giant hit and have since been turned into a Swedish television miniseries and a Big Hollywood Film. I have now watched the Hollywood version (albeit a bowdlerized version on a transatlantic fight) and the first two parts of the Swedish miniseries.

    On balance, I like the Swedish version better. I do need to see the American version in full at home to be completely sure about that, but I think my judgement is unlikely to change. The American version has definite advantages — a more filmic look, sharper direction, an even darker atmosphere. But the Swedish version is a little more complete and a little less slick, which I think are advantages.

    One striking thing about the two movies is that the American version features much more handsome actors. I think this is actually to the film’s disadvantage. The Swedish actors look more real, more worn down, more in keeping with how I envisioned them (and, uh, more Swedish). It made them easier to identify with and easier to believe. To put it bluntly, Daniel Craig is way to handsome and way too British for Mikael Bloomquist. He does a great job, no question. If I didn’t know the Swedish version existed, I’d think he was definitive. But Michael Nyqvist is just a bit more suited to the role. The same goes for the lead role: Rooney Mara is excellent; but Noomi Rapace is just a bit better.

    However, you really can’t go wrong with either one. Both are good. Both are suspenseful. Both do the book justice. Both come with my recommendation. They are both somewhere between 7/10 and 8/10, with the Swedish version a little higher. Was the remake, strictly speaking, necessary? I think it was. Because there a lot of people who simply will not watch a Swedish miniseries, no matter how good it is. The Craig film, by being slicker, more filmic and in English is more approachable and therefore allows more people to enjoy the story. I really don’t have a problem with that. The American film is utterly worthy of its Swedish predecessor.

    Important note: the Swedish movie versions are cut by about half an hour from the full television miniseries versions. Netflix now has both available for streaming and I strongly recommend the miniseries version, which fleshes out the story and includes a number of small details and subplots that, in my opinion, make for a fuller viewing experience. This review is based on the full version.

    (Really Serious Spoiler Warning: I’m about to reveal the end of the story, so please don’t read if you have not seen/read the story and want to maintain suspense.

    There is one thing that I hated about the book: that Lisbeth destroys the evidence of Martin’s crimes. The reason it bothers me is that the families of all the girls he murdered deserve closure — not to mention the cops who investigated those crimes. I realize that Lisbeth would not appreciate this, but Mikael would. This is one sense in which the Swedish TV series was better than the novel: Mikael agrees to keep the murders out of the press but he and the Vangers agree to notify the families. I found that much more satisfying than the books “we’ll destroy all the evidence if you donate money to women’s causes” social engineering resolution.)

    Red Dawn

    Sunday, November 18th, 2012

    This week will see the release of a remake of Red Dawn. The movie seems destined for the rubbish bin and several “worst of 2012″ lists but I thought I’d spare a few thoughts on it, since the original Red Dawn was quite a moment in my early teen years. And not just because it was the first PG-13 movie.

    Red Dawn is not a great movie, but it is an iconic one. Apart from the zeitgeist it tapped into, which I’ll discuss in more detail below, it was simply a good film. That characters were reasonably well-defined, their actions not outlandish and it delivered a tremendous amount of action professionally and effectively (today’s audiences are unlikely to understand just how violent this movie was for 1984). I’ll let on that it has a “boy’s fantasy” aspect to it: the idea of teenagers successfully resisting a evil and powerful foe. But it twisted that formula a bit as it became steadily grimmer and grimmer until its inevitable end. I have watched it a couple of times since the theaters and always found myself intrigued. I would probably rate it a 7/10, acknowledge I’ve added a point for personal reasons.

    However, the remake, even it is well-made and well-directed, is unlikely to succeed the way the first film did for many reasons that have nothing to do with film-making. The most obvious and commented upon is that, to avoid tanking the Chinese market, the enemy is North Korea. It is unlikely that North Korea could successfully invade itself, least of all the United States. Maybe they’ll come up with some explanation for NK’s sudden military might. But the absurdity of this is sure to drive audiences away. Even if the enemy were China, the idea is still implausible. The United States has more military might than the next twenty nations combined. And that’s not even counting the millions of Americans who hunt and would, if we were ever invaded, comprise the largest standing army in the world. Hell, Pennsylvania could probably outgun most nations.

    When you get down to it, the essential thing about Red Dawn is that it was a film whose making was only possible during the Cold War, when we had an enemy superpower of significant military might and the very real fear that entire regions of the world — central America in particular — would turn against us. It struck a chord with many people — especially my generation — because it played on the patriotism and paranoia that was so strong during the Andropov-Chernenko years. Unlike the new film, the basic premise of the older film was not completely ludicrous, even if it was far-fetched. Hell, my friend Adam and I used to constantly play at resisting the Russian occupation.

    Red Dawn came with a ready-made audience: tens of millions of Americans who lived under the Soviet threat every day. Critics complained that it seemed like a commercial for the Reagan Administration. These critics apparently missed that Reagan was re-elected in a massive landslide at least in part because of his fierce opposition to Communism.

    Today’s young people are simply unlikely to identify with that. They’ve grown up in a world where America’s military might is taken for granted; where wars are rare things fought in distant countries. They’ve grown up in a world where true totalitarianism — the gulags and secret police type — is in retreat. They’ve grown up in a world where our own country is the one becoming a police state. The zeitgeist that made Red Dawn a cult classic simply doesn’t exist anymore. And so it will just be another loud dumb action film.