Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

31 January 2014

Oscar Nominees 2014: Part 4 of 14

Blue Jasmine
3 Nominations
  • Actress: Cate Blanchett (I'm Not There., Elizabeth: the Golden Age, Notes on a Scandal, The Aviator, Elizabeth)
  • Original Screenplay: Woody Allen (Midnight in Paris, Match Point, Deconstructing Harry, Mighty Aphrodite, Bullets over Broadway, Husbands and Wives, Alice, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Radio Days, Hannah and Her Sisters, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Broadway Danny Rose, Manhattan, Interiors, Annie Hall)
  • Supporting Actress: Sally Hawkins
Director: Allen
Cast: Blanchett, Bobby Cannavale, Hawkins, Alec Baldwin, Andrew Dice Clay, Michael Stuhlbarg, Peter Sarsgaard, Louis C.K., Max Casella

I sort of hated this, and I fail to understand how this managed a Best Original Screenplay nomination, especially in a year that was more crowded in Original than it was in Adapted (it is usually the other way around). Allen, by the way, is the most nominated screenwriter of all time with 15 nominations and 3 wins. Billy Wilder is the next runner up, with 12 nominations and 3 wins. On the Supporting Actress front, I am really happy for Sally Hawkins. Her nomination was sort of a surprise (she took Oprah's spot!) but she has been doing solid work in Hollywood since her breakthrough in Mike Leigh's Happy-Go-Lucky, and she deserves this. Blanchett has the Oscar in the bag, and, again, this is well deserved. She is superb in Blue Jasmine (no matter how bad I think the film itself is) and she has never won, despite being excellent in absolutely every movie in which she has appeared. [Actually, I will make one exception to this: that Good German mess.]
Will Win: Actress
Could Win: N/A
My Rating: #66 out of 75

The Hobbit: the Desolation of Smaug
3 Nominations
  • Sound Mixing
  • Sound Editing
  • Visual Effects
Director: Peter Jackson
Cast: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Luke Evans, Orlando Bloom, Evangeline Lilly, Lee Pace, Benedict Cumberbatch, Aidan Turner, Dean O'Gorman, Ken Stott, Graham McTavish, William Kircher, James Nesbitt, Stephen Hunter, John Callen, Stephen Fry, Sylvester McCoy

This is an epic mess, filled (as all its predecessors have been) with sweeping vistas, long crossings over very thin bridges, rather a lot of bad dialogue, and an always present sense of foreboding and doom. This particular film is also about running. It is the second in a planned trilogy and ends with a cliffhanger. The most recent film in The Hobbit series also received three Oscar nominations – Makeup, Production Design, and Visual Effects – this second one exchanges Makeup and Production Design for Sound Mixing and Sound Editing primarily because of the increased amount of swordfighting, running, and dragons slithering over mountains of golden treasure. But, look: the magic, if not the money, has gone out of Jackson's Middle Earth franchise. The Lord of the Rings trilogy garnered a whopping 30 nominations and 17 Oscar statuettes. All of those films were nominated for Best Picture. If the Academy has enough good will that it feels as though it needs to nominate this franchise, it certainly does not have enough good will to vote for it to win – certainly not over Gravity, which should best this film in all of its categories.
Will Win: N/A
Could Win: N/A
My Rating: #55 out of 75

August: Osage County
2 Nominations
  • Actress: Meryl Streep (The Iron Lady, Julie & Julia, Doubt, The Devil Wears Prada, Adaptation., Music of the Heart, One True Thing, The Bridges of Madison County, Postcards from the Edge, A Cry in the Dark, Ironweed, Out of Africa, Silkwood, Sophie's Choice, The French Lieutenant's Woman, Kramer vs. Kramer, The Deer Hunter)
  • Supporting Actress: Julia Roberts (Erin Brockovich, Pretty Woman, Steel Magnolias)
Director: John Wells
Cast: Roberts, Streep, Julianne Nicholson, Ewan McGregor, Margo Martindale, Juliette Lewis, Chris Cooper, Abigail Breslin, Dermot Mulroney, Benedict Cumberbatch, Misty Upham, Sam Shepard

Meryl Streep again, huh? I guess I'm the only one who is surprised that this film got talked about as much as it did. It was a big Tony-award-winning play that was heralded as the most important USAmerican play in a decade or whatever, but Tracy Letts' adaptation misses the mark. It's strangely stagey in places it doesn't need to be, and Letts refuses to cut the dialogue he loves so much (he had a similar problem with the John-Wells-directed Killer Joe). If the director was confused about what to do with this film, the marketing people appeared similarly puzzled. The trailer for August made it look like a delightful comedy à la Albert Brooks, and those posters! One was a house with roof coming off of it in some sort of hinge motion and the other was Julia Roberts beating Meryl Streep into the floor. In truth, this movie was not nearly as bad as I thought it was going to be. The acting is top-notch across the board, and Streep and Roberts are both deserving. But this needed to be made into a film instead of simply filming a play. And let's just be honest and ask ourselves if Julia Roberts played a supporting character or gives a supporting performance in this. Really? How do these things happen. In any case, both of these women have Oscars. (Streep has three.) Neither will be winning another on March 2.
Will Win: N/A
Could Win: N/A
My Rating: #52 out of 75

29 January 2014

Oscar Nominees 2014: Part 3 of 14

The Wolf of Wall Street
5 Nominations
  • Picture
  • Director: Martin Scorsese (Hugo, The Departed, The Aviator, Gangs of New York, GoodFellas, The Last Temptation of Christ, Raging Bull)
  • Actor: Leonardo DiCaprio (What's Eating Gilbert Grape, The Aviator, Blood Diamond)
  • Adapted Screenplay: Terence Winter
  • Supporting Actor: Jonah Hill (Moneyball)
Director: Scorsese
Cast: DiCaprio, Hill, Margot Robbie, Kyle Chandler, Rob Reiner, Jon Bernthal, Jon Favreau, Joanna Lumley, Jean Dujardin, P.J. Byrne, Kenneth Choi, Brian Sacca, Henry Zebrowski, Matthew McConaughey, Jake Hoffman, Shea Wigham

I am not sure we can call Wolf's performance on the morning of the nominations an enormous surprise given the Academy's apparent love for all things Scorsese; Scorsese's nomination, for one, was a sure thing. But the nominations of Jonah Hill and Leonardo DiCaprio were big surprises. DiCaprio in particular moved into a slot that was predicted to go to either Robert Redford for All Is Lost (more on that when we get to AIL) or Tom Hanks for Captain Phillips, which the Academy apparently loved but didn't love as much as we thought it would. I disliked this movie, and I had heard early on that Academy members were not responding politely to Wolf's unlikable protagonist, its decadence, its smugness, its filthy language, but five nominations is rather a lot, and this, I think, particularly means that Wolf is well liked by the acting branch (i.e. the branch with the most votes). I don't think this translates into any statues on Oscar Sunday, but it just might.
Will Win: N/A
Could Win: Actor, Adapted Screenplay
My Rating: #67 out of 74

5 Nominations
  • Picture
  • Original Screenplay: Spike Jonze
  • Production Design: K.K. Barrett & Gene Serdena
  • Original Score: William Butler & Owen Pallett
  • Original Song: Spike Jonze & Karen O 
Director: Jonze
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Scarlett Johansson, Rooney Mara, Chris Pratt, Olivia Wilde, Matt Letscher, Portia Doubleday, Laura Kai Chen.

This is so good. I didn't write a regular review about it because, well, it is hard to talk about things that are really, really good. Her is a beautiful and fascinating meditation (it might even be described as a kind of filmic experiment or improvisation) on the theme of our relationships with the sentient and semi-sentient operating systems in our lives. (If you tell me you don't have a relationship with your phone or with your computer you are lying.) But more importantly, Her is about all of our relationships: not just the ones we have with object or operating systems. Samantha, the consciousness that exists in Theodore Twombly's telephone, is just like any other beloved person, any other person with whom one might try to have a relationship. And the film is so smart about her, about how he behaves with her, about what he wants from her. Let me give just one example that I don't think is a spoiler: when I am in a relationship with someone, I have to struggle to remind myself that my beloved is not mine. He feels like mine, sometimes, and of course I occasionally have wanted to possess the men I have loved. And in Her, of course, Samantha is his. She is a conscious, living, being, but he paid for her. He owns her. She works for him. And so she stands in for the fantasy of the beloved whom we can possess, who can become truly and completely our very own and no one else's. What the film does with this is so smart and truthful, that I found myself constantly moved by what happens. It's gorgeous stuff. I should add, too, that Joaquin Phoenix should most definitely have gotten an Oscar nomination for this performance, and if it had been me in charge I would've nominated Amy Adams, as well. I am voting for the Original Screenplay to take home a statue, but it may be that the film has more of a shot in Original Score. Owen Pallett and William Butler's music is probably the most innovative and the most beautiful of the year.
Will Win: Original Screenplay
Could Win: Production Design, Original Score, Original Song
My Rating: #4 out of 75

4 Nominations
  • Picture
  • Actress: Judi Dench (Notes on a Scandal, Mrs Henderson Presents, Iris, Chocolat, Shakespeare in Love, Mrs. Brown) 
  • Adapted Screenplay: Steve Coogan & Jeff Pope
  • Original Score: Alexandre Desplat (Argo, The King's Speech, Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Queen) 
Director: Stephen Frears
Cast: Judi Dench, Steve Coogan, Michelle Fairley, Anna Maxwell-Martin, Barbara Jefford, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Mare Winningham, Peter Hermann, Wunmi Mosaku

Philomena is an okay film. I am not sure why everyone is so into it. I guess because it's a true story. People like movies to be (as they say) based on a true story. I've never understood that very much, myself. Anyway, the Academy liked this picture a lot. Dench is brilliant in it and deserves her nomination, but all the other love I find sort of baffling. Best Picture? You'll see what I mean if you see it. Baffling. The score nomination is rather unfortunate too. It's a serviceable score but nowhere near Desplat's best efforts. (Desplat is incredibly prolific at the moment, so why not pick one of his truly excellent scores to nominate? As I say: baffling.) In any case, don't expect this to go home with any Oscars.
Will Win: N/A
Could Win: N/A
My Rating: #53 out of 75

26 January 2014

Oscar Nominees 2014: Part 2 of 14

Dallas Buyers Club
6 Nominations
  • Picture
  • Actor: Matthew McConaughey
  • Original Screenplay: Craig Borten
  • Supporting Actor: Jared Leto
  • Film Editing: John Mac McMurphy
  • Makeup
Cast: McConaughey, Leto, Jennifer Garner, Steve Zahn, Denis O'Hare, Dallas Roberts, Griffin Dunne, Deneen Tyler

I didn't really care for this, but six nominations including Best Picture, Film Editing, and Original Screenplay (especially in a year with so many good original screenplays) is a lot of love. The Academy clearly really likes this picture, and there's no reason to think it's going to stop loving it any time soon. McConaughey, who has been doing respectable work for three years now (after all of those years of silly rom-coms) is the overwhelming favorite for his category, and Leto (also never before nominated) is the favorite in his. The other Makeup nominees are The Lone Ranger and Bad Grandpa, so I will expect DBC to win in that category too. In fact, I should probably bet on this to win Screenplay while we're at it, but I just can't bring myself to do so.
Will Win: Actor, Supporting Actor, Makeup
Could Win: Original Screenplay
My Rating: #58 out of 73

6 Nominations
  • Picture
  • Director: Alexander Payne (The Descendants, Sideways)
  • Actor: Bruce Dern (Coming Home)
  • Original Screenplay: Bob Nelson
  • Supporting Actress: June Squibb
  • Cinematography: Phedon Papamichael 
Director: Payne
Cast: Dern, Will Forte, Squibb, Bob Odenkirk, Stacy Keach, Mary Louise Wilson, Rance Howard, Angela McEwan, Tim Driscoll, Devin Ratray,

This has gotten better and better in my mind upon reflection. I think, however, that the opposite is probably true for the Academy. This is a pretty good picture, but one that will have worn out its welcome with voters by the time the Awards roll around. It's a quirky movie, too: a funny film that's subject matter is aging and mortality. It's gorgeously shot, but much of the time the camera's gaze is directed at dilapidated old buildings or claustrophobic interiors. Everyone acknowledges that the acting is stellar, but no one feels as though they know Bruce Dern or June Squibb, and both play characters that are not exactly lovable. Six nominations is a lot of love, but Nebraska is an also-ran this year.
Will Win: N/A
Could Win: N/A
My Rating: #40 out of 73

Captain Phillips
6 Nominations
  • Picture
  • Adapted Screenplay: Billy Ray
  • Supporting Actor: Barkhad Abdi
  • Film Editing: Christopher Rouse (The Bourne Ultimatum, United 93)
  • Sound Mixing
  • Sound Editing 
Director: Paul Greengrass
Cast: Tom Hanks, Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, Mahat M. Ali, Corey Johnson, Michael Chernus, David Warshofsky, Chris Mulkey, Catherine Keener

Big surprises on this front on the morning of the nominations. Captain Phillips was supposed to get a Best Director and a Best Actor nomination, as well. You can see from the love for the film's screenplay and its editing, that a majority of Academy members really loved this picture – its USAmerican imperialist/superiority theme surely helps on this front – and yet Tom Hanks (who is absolutely excellent in the movie) and Paul Greengrass (who was nominated before for his excellent film United 93) were no-shows when the names were read out. It's an odd thing, and I am not sure I know why this happened except that The Wolf of Wall Street really took the slot where this picture would've appeared in the Best Actor and Best Director categories. Maybe if it had been released just a little bit later... who knows. In any case, six nominations or not, don't expect Captain Phillips to go home with any little gold men. It is out of the running in all categories.
Will Win: N/A
Could Win: N/A
My Rating: #50 out of 73

Tonto & the Ranger

Julie and I, as a part of a long tradition, get drunk and watch The Lone Ranger.
* * * * *
Julie: I'm ready.
Aaron: Give me ten minutes.
Julie: Sure, but I hope you know this mess is two and a half hours long.
Aaron: I do. Such plaintive music! I think these are visual effects.
Julie: Haha. You may be right. Also we have not discussed the most important thing: What are you drinking?
Aaron: Merlot!
Julie: That seems a little classy for Tonto.
Aaron: Merlot isn't so classy, is it?
Julie: There he is! In the museum!
Aaron: "THE NOBLE SAVAGE". We are starting with that racism?
Julie: Well, Tonto is inherently a racist character.
Aaron: Oh this is good makeup!
Julie: Is he eating animal crackers?
Aaron: This is a weird way to begin an action movie. Where is the action? I think they're peanuts.
Julie: Here we go! The non-use of articles is one of the most racist things about this character. Apparently that is a Tonto tradition.
Aaron: Oh great.
Julie: Also, he has always been played by a white guy, so. There's that.
Aaron: But Johnny Depp isn't quite white, right?
Julie: That's the best part! Johnny thinks he might be Cherokee. But according to He's African American.
Aaron: No you did not bust out
Julie: Hahahahaha.
Aaron: No way. Really??? That is amazing.
Julie: Right? I mean, we can't trust that site. But: hilarious.
Aaron: Well, this is a Hollywood tradition, right? Non-white people or ethnically ambiguous actors are constantly being paid to play non-white characters.

Aaron: Is that... Tom What's-his-name?
Julie: Um?
Aaron: Hey, it's Pensatucky! I am watching this movie only for the cameos.
Julie: Wait, really? Is that her?
Aaron: Yeah. The woman behind Helena Bonham Carter.
Julie: Oh, I was distracted by HBC's whorish red red red lips and costume
Aaron: I approve of whorish red lips. Do you like Armie Hammer?
Julie: I forgot the Winklevoss was in this. No he's just a pretty face. Perhaps he will be interesting in this one! Or.. perhaps not.
Aaron: I think more than his face is pretty.
Julie: Well, that guy's face sure isn't pretty. Wait, is that the mom from Saving Mr. Banks?!
Aaron: It's her right? Oh maybe it is. I thought it was Pensatucky.
Julie: Ruth Wilson. She's not been in anything else of note.
Aaron: Oh. Hm. Well good for her. 2013 was a big year I guess.
Julie: This poor girl will always be in period dress with a bad accent.
Aaron: Let's hope not, poor thing.
Julie: And that would be Tom Wilkinson. FYI.
Aaron: Tom Whatshisname, Tom Wilkinson. Tomato, Tomahto.
Julie: That dude has a gnarly beard.
Aaron: Who directed this mess? Michael Bay? Gore Verbinski? Is it "Tanto" or "Tonto"?
Julie: Tonto.
Aaron: In Spanish, tonto means foolish.
Julie: I know. When Spain dubbed the original Lone Ranger, they changed his name to Toro. Look at me, I'm a fountain of useless knowledge.
Aaron: I appreciate it. I don't know thing one about this film except what nominations it got. Hahaha. That was funny. PG-13, of course. So the violence will all be fake and only for laughs.

Julie: Well, I guarantee you none of these actors knows as much about Tonto as I just told you. When did Johnny Depp go so wrong? Was it the fourth of fifth Pirates? He is a mess.
Aaron: Long before that.
Julie: He did things before Disney? It's been so long.
Aaron: Well, I was thinking of the second Pirates.
Julie: Oh, yes. That is correct.
Aaron: That second Pirates movie is the worst thing.
Julie: By the way, I already have no idea what is happening.
Aaron: Armie is some kind of district attorney? Something about railroad men? I am glad some action is happening, at least.
Julie: But how did they get together? Did I miss that?
Aaron: Yeah. Armie came in just in time to save Johnny from the criminal guy who just got rescued. But then Armie refused to kill that guy (you know, like you do) and then they both got locked up/captured by those outlaws. What's there to know? Stop the train. Fight the bad guys.
Julie: And why was Johnny locked up again? Because everyone is racist against Injuns? I need some motivation here, Aaron. Help me out.
Aaron: That was not explained as far as I can tell.
Julie: Oh, ok. Then we'll stick with the obvious, if silent, racism.
Aaron: Why is there a bird on his head?
Julie: Because he's an Indian! And that's what they do! What is this music? Who wrote this?
Aaron: Shall we try to guess?
Julie: Hans! The Zimmer Man! (Sorry, I had already looked it up.)
Aaron: Haha. But I love Hans Zimmer. All those drums. By the way, they asked Johnny why he was locked up and he answered "Indian", so your theory was correct.
Julie: Yes! Racism is always the answer. Sondheim should've scored this.
Aaron: Hahaha. Poor Steve. You're terrible.
Julie: Wait, what!? Don't pretend like you don't agree with me.
Aaron: Hahaha. You know I agree.
Julie: Just because he's old doesn't mean he's off the hook.
Aaron: But he's so old and white and closety.
Julie: He's not closely! He has a 25 year old boyfriend or something Doesn't he?
Aaron: He does? Good for him.
Julie: Closely? Am I that drunk? I meant closety.
Aaron: You can't be drunk yet! We have like two hours left in this drama.
Julie: I'm almost done with my first beer. And half the Cheez-its. I eat my feelings! The Racism is making me upset.
Aaron: Step away from the Cheez-It.
Julie: I can't. They're so cheesy.

Aaron: I think this movie used to be called Rango and starred a lizard. Now he's a Texas Ranger?
Julie: Well, it is Gore Verbinski!
Aaron: Is it? I was thinking it was Michael Bay.
Julie: I want a spirit horse!
Aaron: I do too!
Julie: How does one get one of those, do you think?
Aaron: Wasn't there a movie called Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron where Matt Damon was a horse? I think for it to be your spirit horse you have to break it yourself or something.
Julie: Oh my gosh, there sure was. I want a Matt Damon Horse. Yes, but where are all the visual effects?
Aaron: There are, so far, a bunch of really cool shots.
L'Arrivée d'un Train en Gare de La Ciotat
Julie: Yes, but where are all the visual effects?
Aaron: A train came right at us!
Julie: Um. Wasn't that the first film ever made? Haven't we made any improvements in a century?
Aaron: Did you see Elysium? I think it was robbed in the VFX department. You are so right about that train and the first film.
Julie: Elysium was boring as hell and the effects were no bueno.
Aaron: Trains always make me think of Freud and trauma, too.
Julie: Freud has a thing with trains? It is your time to shine dramaturgically and tell me what that means.
Aaron: Honestly, I am the worst Freudian. I have forgotten all of that. But Freud's first explanations of post-traumatic symptoms are related to having experienced a train crash.
Julie: The Lumière Brothers. They did the train first, and it was better.
Aaron: Perhaps the Academy was feeling nostalgic? (Like in the 2011 season?)

Julie: Ewwww. Is he taking his heart?
Aaron: I don't know, but this is way too much for a PG13 movie.
Julie: Ewwww. Did I need to see him vomit?! PG13 my ass. This shit nasty.
Aaron: I think he ate something. Like his kidney or something.
Julie: I feel that is racist in some way. I don't know how. But it is.
Aaron: Haha! It is, of course. The true lawmen are behaving properly. But the evil guys are "savages" right?
Julie: Ok, this narrative frame is total cribbing of Princess Bride.
Aaron: This narrative frame is asinine.
Julie: This is stupid. Is it supposed to teach me something? Also, is that Johnny Depp?
Aaron: Best Makeup. Yes.
Julie: Nice. But is it as good as Bad Grandpa? That is the question.
Aaron: No way. Absolutely not.
Julie: What is the other nominee? I forget.
Aaron: The winner: Dallas Buyers Club.
Spirit Horse!
Julie: Aw shit. I hope not. (Side note: I finished my beer and am drinking water until you catch up.)
Aaron: Catch up to what? I've had a quarter of a bottle of Merlot. And of course Dallas Buyers Club is gonna win.
Julie: Haha. You've got nearly 2 hours to polish that off. Spirit Horse! Do you think they painted the horse? I feel like he must be in white-face.
Aaron: HAHA. It is a really white horse.
Julie: He must be an albino.
Aaron: All of this exposition. It is so unnecessary.
Julie: Ew that horse crap was unnecessary.
Aaron: This is Verbinski's main problem. It's for teenage boys. So we have shit jokes. And racism. Teenagers love that shit.
Julie: I just looked him up and didn't realize Gore was so young! I feel like he's 65 but he isn't.
Aaron: He and Brett Ratner are about the same age, right? They've always seemed really similar to me.
Julie: Brett's four years younger, so basically.

Julie: Bunnies!
Aaron: Back to the narrative frame. Oh. No. It's just bad effects.
Julie: Oh my goodness, do you remember that oscar short that was all bunnies a few years back? It was so good. Sorry, I'm distracted by the bunnies.
Aaron: No. Bunnies?
Julie: Rabbit a la Berlin. So good!
Aaron: OK. I will watch it later. Or perhaps during this film.
Julie: I recommend the latter.

Julie: Did he just say his bird hat was angry?
Aaron: "Bird. Angry."
Julie: Angry Birds?
Aaron: Disney's product placement. So. Much. Exposition.
Julie: Really? I guess I'm just not listening to any of it.
Aaron: I know, but that's the point: why is there so much exposition? The film could be so much better if there were some guns or some explosions or something.
Julie: He needs to stop saying Kemosabe.
Aaron: Or an evil animated rattlesnake.
Julie: Well, we still have an hour and a half. It could happen.
Aaron: Also, let me just say that I wish this were a little more homoerotic.
Julie: Again, we have an hour and a half. 

Julie: I feel like Baz Luhrmann wants to be in this scene.
Aaron: I was just going to say that. Party sequences filmed by Baz.
Julie: He should totally do that! Just film everyone else's party scenes and leave the rest of the movie to the professionals. Is this like Batman? No one can recognize him because his eyes are covered in a black mask? Oh my god, her shoes. They just shot the table!
Aaron: Such a Tarantino rip-off.
Julie: Oh yeah? Huh.
Aaron: The guy who ate the heart is an evil spirit actually.. A windigo or wendigo or something. He eats human flesh.
Julie: He's just like Charlize Theron. I wish this were campier, like that movie.
Aaron: This movie has racist portrayals of black people, too.
Julie: Wendigo! Wait, there are black people?
Aaron: The bouncer.

Julie: The horse is as drunk as I am!
Aaron: Haha. I need more Merlot.
Julie: I need more Harp.
Aaron: The horse is supposed to be a spirit animal. And it gets wasted? Why does he keep saying kemosabe? Did you look that up too? What does it mean?
Julie: Ke-mo sah-bee (often spelled kemo sabe or kemosabe) is the term of endearment and catchphrase used by the intrepid and ever-faithful fictional Native American sidekick Tonto. Tonto originated that word! Who knew!
Aaron: Apparently white people in Texas were just as racist back then as they are now.
Julie: Ultimately derived from giimoozaabi, an Ojibwe and Potawatomi word that probably meant "scout", it is sometimes translated as "trusty scout" or "faithful friend". Its use has become so widespread that it was entered into Webster's New Millennium Dictionary in 2002.
Aaron: You are a font of knowledge.
Julie: I am good at Wikipedia.
Aaron: It's a good thing to be good at.
Julie: I wish this was a horror movie. I mean, dude is eating hearts! Why isn't there a Tonto horror movie like that? (Racism.) OH MY GOD. Is he in blackface?! AND A DRESS?
Aaron: He is. "This ain't what it looks like mister. I just like them pretty things." Well it looks like blackface drag. Is that what it is?
Julie: HAHAHA. Johnny should get the Razzie for this. It is terrible.
Aaron: So what keeps happening is that the film continues to point out that white people are, like, really racist and awful and xenophobic. While the film itself also manages to be really racist and awful with every single one of its portrayals.
Julie: Well, Disney isn't exactly known for being PC. Song of the South and all. They are kind of clueless, even when well-intentioned.
Aaron: Effects! Flying horse.
Julie: I missed the effects! because I was thinking of zip-a-dee-doo-dah! Dammit.
Aaron: I am willing to wager that your memory of Zip-a-dee-doo-dah was better than the effects. Ugh. More cartoony PG13 violence.

Julie: HAHA. Probably true. The redface is making my night. This movie is out of control with the racist makeup.
Aaron: For which it received an Oscar nomination. Actually, I am pretty sure the makeup nomination is for the old-age makeup in the frame.
Julie: He just explained Kemosabe! We were supposed to wait for it.
Aaron: So he did.
Julie: But that took an awfully long time.
Aaron: I am glad you looked it up. What did he actually say?
Julie: Oh, I don't know. I'm drunk.
Aaron: "Young brother"?
Julie: That sounds right.
Aaron: The guy who dresses in drag is named Butch. [I got this wrong, actually, but who can blame me?]
Julie: I love that he's still wearing that bonnet.
Aaron: And the wendigo just told him to "tell him straight"!
Julie: Hahaha

Julie: You can't shoot Mrs. Banks!
Aaron: I think we've all seen enough of these movies to know he doesn't shoot her. Why even bother setting it up?
Julie: But that face plant was awesome.
Aaron: I mean, it's all so predictable! Oh no, I missed it!
Julie: Mrs. Banks falls well. Hey, Black Beauty showed up! OH NO!
Aaron: OMG.
Julie: Animal cruelty. I am calling PETA.
Aaron: "Horse. Dead." Jesus.
Julie: Who's spirit animal was that? What a shame.
Aaron: He only uses nouns.
Julie: He just used a verb.
Aaron: This music was composed by Hans Zimmer?
Julie: Yessir. He just called himself a savage. Was he being ironic?
Aaron: Ironically.
Julie: Is he a hipster Injun?
Aaron: He's Johnny Depp. He invented hipster culture.
Julie: So true.

Julie: Nice scream, Armie. LOL!
Aaron: He is hot.
Julie: I am just not into him.
Aaron: I'll say this for Armie: he knows what kind of movie he's in. Orlando Bloom never did.
Julie: Truth.
Aaron: Barry Pepper! Told you  I was in this for the cameos.
Julie: But there aren't that many! There should be more.
Aaron: There should.
Julie: Also, Armie's mask is throwing me off. It's like he's going to the masquerade in the Phantom. He's in the sweat lodge! I hope they start singing "Colors of the Wind".
Aaron: That is not a sweat lodge. That is just a regular old teepee.
Julie: Whatever. They can still sing.
Aaron: This is so racist. Oh Jesus.
Julie: See! They're laughing at his mask too!
Aaron: "Many moons ago"? Really?
Julie: Exposition. 
Aaron: By which you mean more exposition.
Julie: But this is the first time I'm listening. Kind of.
Aaron: See, this is the thing that pisses me off. They act like evil white people killed the native peoples of the Americas. Such bullshit. The people who killed the natives were regular middle-class assholes. Not special hateful ones. Just normal ones.
Julie: The stories we tell ourselves...
Aaron: Right. "We are already ghosts". Wow. That was a good line. I'm actually emotional about that one.
Julie: I am emotional about the fact that that Native American actor is in this piece-of-shit movie.

Aaron: Where is the magic horse, Júlia?
Julie: I don't know, but I need some magic.
Aaron: Me too. Visual effects!
Julie: YAY! Horsey's back! Oh my god, he's so cute. And he just ate the scorpions.
Aaron: He is cute!
Julie: Um, no. Armie cannot pull himself out of sand with his teeth. Ridic. I have to (tee)pee. Be right back.
Aaron: If there is going to be a silver mine, there will probably be Chinese immigrants, too. Yep. Here they are.
Julie: Naturally.
Aaron: What we just saw was preposterous. A cave that has been dug by miners or railroad men cannot have Indian cave paintings on it. It has just been dug.
Julie: Aaron, you are being logical. But this movie is not. You have to accept its fictions!
Aaron: Finally an explosion. I've been waiting.
Julie: Fun music, Hans! Is he gay or straight (in real life)?
Aaron: Hans Zimmer?
Julie: HAHAHA. Well, yes, I'd like to know that too. But I was talking about Armie.
Aaron: Armie Hammer, as far as I know, is quite straight. [So is Hans Zimmer, as it turns out.]
Julie: Hmm.
Aaron: Long term girlfriend, I think.
Julie: I kind of want to watch Pirates now. Johnny is way more fun in that.
Aaron: He is really good in that.

Julie: Is she about to get acupuncture?
Aaron: Chinese woman? Keeper of oriental mysteries. This film.
Julie: Haha. truth. Is that Barry?
Aaron: It is.
Julie: Wow, we haven't seen him in anything in a long time.
Aaron: This man is obsessed with the railroads. But in 21st-century film that signals über-capitalist obsession. Which signals: bad. So Tom Wilkinson will turn out to be a villain of some sort. Just wait.
Julie: Well, clearly. I already thought he was one.
Aaron: Barry Pepper knows what kind of movie he's in, as well.
Julie: She certainly doesn't.
Aaron: What is happening? Whoa. This just got crazy.
Julie: Tom was praying.
Aaron: Is this Fiddler on the Roof? I thought they were going to sing "Sabbath Prayer"
Julie: Tom's beard is really bad. It is too bushy and not the right color.
Aaron: Is his beard fake?
Julie: Um, clearly
Aaron: I think that beard is real.
Julie: Really? How can we find out?
Julie: "Stupid white man." Yup.
Aaron: Yup. Eating Caesar salad.
Julie: Hahaha. I love a good Caesar salad.
Aaron: Julie, I am obsessed with Caesar salads. I make them at home now.
Julie: Really? One can be obsessed with Caesar salads?
Aaron: I crave them, honestly. I know. It's crazy.
Julie: But they are like so unhealthy for you. I remain unimpressed by these train visuals.
Aaron: As do I. What's wrong with a sensible Caesar salad?
Julie: Wait, I thought that kid was Armie's? Who is his dad?
Aaron: Maybe it is. I don't know, actually. How old is he?
Julie: No, he was whining about his dad maybe being dead. So it can't be Armie.
Aaron: The boy, I mean.
Julie: 10?
Aaron: Well, Armie says that the girl and he stopped talking 8 years ago. So... maybe.
Julie: Mmmmk.

Aaron: In these kinds of movies, why don't people who want each other dead simply kill one another?
Instead, they defer it.
Julie: Because then the movie would be 10 minutes long.
Aaron: The death, I mean. What would Derrida say?
Julie: WWDS?
Arrow-scene from Zhang Yimou's Hero.
Aaron: The Chinese workers are actually wearing the hats they wear on the rice paddies. Like, seriously? For digging tunnels? Seems impractical. And fucking racist.
Julie: YESSSSS SO MUCH RACISM. Hard to believe we still have 40 min to go.
Aaron: Oh for Heaven's sake. We do? What else could possibly occur?
Julie: Exposition.
Aaron: Hahahaha. True.
Julie: The Indians are coming!
Aaron: This scene brought to you by Zhang Yimou.
Julie: :D
Aaron: At least Verbinski watches other people's movies. OMG! Kurosawa shot. That is the famous Seven Samurai shot.
Julie: I love Hans just rocking out in the background. He knows how to get the job done.
Aaron: This is horrible.
Julie: And by horrible you mean amazing. Explosion!
Aaron: That was cool. By horrible I just mean how the slaughtering of thousands of native people is just one more fun adventure sequence.
Julie: Barry killed the old Indian!!!!!! I hate Barry. He really is a ghost now.
Aaron: JULIE!
Julie: What?
Aaron: Does Johnny's whiteface wash off in the river? Apparently not.
Julie: Where is the horse? That's all I'm worried about. He is the best actor in this thing.
Aaron: Seriously. The film keeps forgetting about the horse.
Julie: I don't understand how you can forget about a spirit animal like that.
Aaron: Me either.OK but seriously where is the horse?
Julie: Yay! We just saw him!
Aaron: Oh there he is.
Julie: :)

Aaron: Wait, this is somehow about the transcontinental railroad?
Julie: I don't care about the railroad. And I don't think this film does either.
Aaron: Cameo! It's the guy who plays that guy who loves staplers in Office Space. No. You are wrong. This film is obsessed with calling the railroad evil. This film is anti-technology.
Julie: But that is so weird.
Aaron: Stephen Root? I think I thought of his name.
Julie: Who? I don't know who that is.
Aaron: The guy Tom Wilkinson is talking to.
Julie: He's talking to a lot of guys.
Aaron: This scene stolen from The Godfather.
Julie: HAHAHA. Yes. The Lone Ranger, The Godfather. Basically the same.
Aaron: "Hurry up wid dem grapes". What?
Julie: Is the black guy Jamaican? What the hell is happening?
Aaron: "The National Anthem".
Julie: Johnny is not anti-technology, though. There goes that train.
Aaron: Is he stealing all that silver? Is that what's happening?
Julie: I'm not sure. But the horse is back, so I'm happy.
Aaron: This is the William Tell Overture.
Julie: Sure is.
Aaron: Is that a Lone Ranger thing?
Julie: Yes.
Aaron: I love the William Tell Overture. These are visual effects. YES.

Aaron: Terrible. This movie is terrible. Did it do well at the box office?
Julie: You were just excited about it! No, I'm pretty sure it did badly.
Aaron: He hit the girl in the head with a piece of coal And she fell like a cartoon and then got back up.
Julie: Reference: "Johnny Depp Blames Critics for Lone Ranger Bombing at the Box Office".

Aaron: Zimmer is having a good time.
Julie: Well somebody should be.
Aaron: There are two railroad tracks that run parallel to one another. In what world?
Julie: Hahahahaha In Gore's world.
Aaron: Hahaha. That grape slingshot thing was a good joke This movie's second good joke. I've forgotten the first.
Julie: I missed both of them.
Aaron: Never bring a knife to a gunfight. Or an unloaded gun to a knife-fight.
Julie: That was the first joke?
Aaron: No. That was just good advice.
Julie: Ah. I'll keep that in mind. I am waiting for them to make this into a ride at Disney World. That would be fun.
Aaron: Depp blamed the critics for this film's bad performance?
Julie: Apparently. Isn't that hysterical? It couldn't possibly be his terrible performance.
Aaron: Perhaps he ought to have blamed a) his lack of a desire to get in shape for the film and b) his continual need to work with Verbinski. But, like, the critics were right. I love Hans Zimmer right now, though. He just hasn't stopped!
Julie: Yes, he's making this part tolerable.
Aaron: He truly is.
Julie: He just threw Armie a bullet. And he caught it. From a moving train. This movie.
Aaron: Like. James. Bond.
Julie: Just. Like.
Aaron: You cannot shoot a car off a moving train. I am sorry.
Julie: In Gore's world, anything is possible. What is with this time piece?
Aaron: I don't know. The future? The past? No idea. Another watch.
Julie: Hmm. Another of Gore's enigmas.
Aaron: Remember when Rango won Best Animated Feature?
Julie: Unfortunately.
Aaron: Dayne and I always talk about how awful it is. He says thank you for the Her score link, by the way.
Julie: You're welcome? I'm mad at those Her people. That is ridiculous. [We are talking about the fact that the score for Her hasn't been released on iTunes or CD.]
Aaron: It is! That score is gorgeous!
Julie: And it's the only one that would actually make money and they just failed to make it. Like, seriously? Wait, is it over? The bunny just ate the scorpion! What does that mean?
Aaron: Huh? Back to the frame?
Julie: You missed it.
Aaron: No, I saw it. I've onloy had one bottle of Merlot.
Julie: Onloy?
Aaron: OK.
Mr. Fichtner.
Julie: Never take off the mask. Oh. It's over.
Aaron: There will be a button, surely.
Julie: You and your buttons. I always just turn shit off.
Aaron: And now the credits. Which clearly arrive with shame. Who would take credit for this?
Julie: Johnny was a producer. Hans!
Aaron: Well usually I just fastforward until the end of the credits to make sure there isn't a button. I like this tupeface. Typeface.
Julie: Tupeface? Hehehehe.
Aaron: It might be my favorite part of the movie. William Fichtner? That was Willliam Fichtner? James Frain was in this? Who was he?
Julie: I don't know; they all had beards.
Aaron: Remember when he used to get work regularly? I miss him.
Julie: That button sucked.
Aaron: Seriously, though, this movie was already made. And it was called Rango. And it was about greedy railroad barons. And it was just as Manichaeistic as this one.
Julie: Well, as Tina and Amy say, if something goes kind of well, Hollywood will just keep doing it until everyone hates it. I really don't think I even watched Rango all the way through. I am over putting myself through this shit.
Aaron: Haha. This score is great. The winner for the evening is Hans Zimmer.
Julie: Sorry, Hans, but I've gotta go with the horse. I mean, he at the scorpions and was generally delightful.
Aaron: Oh. You might be right. I change my vote. Horse and then Hans.
Julie: Wait, did the horse even have a name?
Aaron: Silver! "Hi yo, Silver!"
Julie: Oh. HAHAHAHA.
Aaron: Julie. Come on. I thought you researched this shit.
Julie: He didn't say it until the end! And then I was just like, oh! Yeah! That phrase! haha.
Aaron: Yeah, but, like. It's famous.
Julie: Shut it.
Aaron: No, they had a whole convo about naming the old mare.
Julie: At least I knew the William Tell Overture was from The Lone Ranger.
Aaron: True. I knew enough to ask...?
Julie: They had convos about a lot of things that were unimportant, Aaron. How was I supposed to know when to pay attention?
Aaron: Can I ask a question about the botton? Button. Jesus. Merlot.
Julie: HAHAHA Sure.
Aaron: Where is Tonto going?
Julie: I have no idea. He got all dressed up and everything. No clue.
Aaron: He is wearing a suit.
Julie: He must be looking for Silver.
Aaron: I'm looking for another glass of wine.
Julie: Hahaha. How many have you had? I only had two beers. And I am ready to pass out.
Aaron: Let's close out the Lone Ranger. Does it win anything?
Julie: No.
Aaron: Anbolutely not.
Julie: Yeah, I mean, that old Indian makeup was good, but that's not enough to win. And visual FX were not even on par with the other noms.
Aaron: Totally agree.
Julie: Sorry, Johnny.
Aaron: Also, no one is going to see this except us.
Julie: So sad. So true.
Aaron: Not sad.
Julie: We are dedicated (fools).
Aaron: Indeed.
Julie: Ok, I need to go to bed. Please edit me into a coherent, sober being.
Aaron: Good night.
Julie: Peace out. Hi-yo Silver. And all that Jazz.

Some of our earlier dialogues: The Avengers, Snow White and the Huntsman, Anonymous.

24 January 2014

Atheist Stories V

I have a lot of atheist friends. And a few of them have asked me to revisit my series Atheist Stories, posts that contained testimonials of conversion stories explaining each person's own relationship with atheism or agnosticism and (of course) faith more generally. For some background, you could visit the first post in the series, but, in brief, a couple of summers ago I became curious about how many atheist friends I had and about their own stories and journeys. I have found these tales nuanced and fulfilling, and because I identify with so much of what my friends shared with me, I have felt part of a larger community of people who have a faith that makes more sense to me than belief in god does. In any case, my hope is that these testimonies are as accessible and as rich to others. My friends will all be referred to by their first names only.


I grew up in a large family and with one parent who was a geography professor. The playroom wall was covered with maps, the house was filled with art from Inuit and Native American and early Norse cultures, and we used as picture books an old Time-Life series about life in other countries. I loved looking at the pictures of people in Japan, in Kenya, in Australia, in China. My parents' friends and colleagues from the university came from multiple faiths and cultures. From a very young age I was aware that the world was (and had been) full of people and cultures and religions all very different from mine.

As a family, we attended the Church of England on the the corner. Looking back, I think my parents appreciated the community aspect of church-going: that is, the readily available babysitters, the neighborhood teas, the access to assistance in an emergency, the feeling of community. They also loved the music and the excellent choir at that church. One parent was an atheist (although I did not know that until I was adult). The other one believed.

Christianity seemed pretty cool to me, and I thought I believed. I wanted to believe: I liked the music, the ceremonies with cassocks and gold goblets and incense and chanting, the beautiful stained glass windows, the noble suffering of saints. I thought I did. But then I remember being quite small (under ten years old) and sitting in Sunday School forever wondering about the other people not mentioned in the Bible – the Buddhists, the Hindus, the Jews, the Muslims – and why they weren't mentioned in the stories too much, or what happened to them during the deluge, or if Jesus was the Messiah how could we really know because a lot of other people in the world didn't believe the same, or was everyone else going to hell because they weren't Christian? It all seemed so so arbitrary.

My conversion was not sudden. Scales did not fall from my eyes. But it came about in Sunday School as a gradual process of being unable to reconcile two different versions of the world.


Growing up in small-town Texas, religion was always a part of my life. Not a huge part, mind you, but Sunday mornings were usually spent at church, and a good majority of Wednesday evenings were spent at church, as well. I did get baptized at least once. I was somewhat active with youth groups and choir/band.

It was never explained to me why we were Christians or why we should be; it was just accepted that we were. When I think about it now, it was the general scare tactics and flawed logic that we all know and love: You can't go to heaven if you don't know God. You can't know God unless you go to church. Bad people go to hell; good people go to heaven.

Honestly, I didn't think much about it and just accepted it as all of my friends and family were Christians and that is what we did or how we were supposed to act. It was our very own shade of normal.

Fast forward a handful of years. I'm now a freshman in college. Living away from home for the first time. Meeting new people and trying to become my own person. About a month into my first semester I met a wonderful woman. She was weird like me, and life was great.

I would come to learn over the course of the next 6 months that she was bipolar. She hadn't been diagnosed yet, but that would come shortly. I forget what happened, but she was acting erratically one night and I flipped out and took her to the ER. Nurses and hospital staff were asking me what happened to her arms. She would cut herself for reasons that I didn't understand then, and I still don't now. She got assigned to a hospital room, and I was given permission to stay the night in the room with her.

The next day her mother showed up and everything kind of went to hell. My girlfriend had told some stories about her mother and how fundamentalist she could be. I always took those stories with a grain of salt because who doesn't have less-than-flattering stories about their parents?

I had met her mother and within about 5 minutes or so she made a statement to me that basically boiled down to God put you in her life so you could watch out for her. Why did you let this happen?

That hurt.

That hurt more than words could ever say. There I was, this stupid college freshman who is trying to play at being an adult. As far as I know, I had never even heard the term "bipolar" before that incident. At this point, I'm fairly certain that I shouldn't have been living on my own, much less trying to be responsible for another person.

As much as I would like to say that I had some sort of witty retort, I didn't. I just listened to what her mother had to say and filed it away for dissection later. And dissect it I did.

What little faith I had to begin with was shaken. I could no longer look at this "God" as a loving individual who had a plan for every one. I mean, you look at the love of your life laying in a hospital bed after making a rash decision because her brain isn't wired the same as everyone else's and tell me that it is part of a master plan. You look them in the eyes and see the pain and confusion and uncertainty and tell me that God loves them.

Once I reached that conclusion, it was all downhill from there. I started questioning relying on this "God". God can't do anything for me that I couldn't do for myself. God doesn't do anything for any one because he doesn't exist.


It would be an understatement to say that I "grew up in a Christian home". I delved into my faith as deeply as I could from childhood through adulthood. I read all of the church fathers from Anselm and Augustine to the mainstream Christian apologists like C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton and even Christian mystics like A.W Tozer. I felt a personal connection with god when I meditated and prayed. I had as much genuine faith as any person can be said to have had. I even spent several summers at worldview camps debating with straw-man atheists and learning to better understand their insidious attacks on my faith.

It was actually the worldview training that sparked my first investigations. It occurred to me that all over the world, in other religions and cultures, there must be similar programs teaching similar young people why their view of the world was correct and how to defend their current beliefs against the incursion of other systems. All over the world there were people just like me, born into different circumstances with different experiences, who were equally as convinced of their particular rightness as I was of mine. Had I been born into different circumstances, at this moment I would be just as convinced of some other point of view as I was of my current one. I would be just as sure and armored as I was now but professing in a completely different position and it would be impossible to know it was the "wrong" one.

This led me to the realization that it is impossible to determine the objective truth of any view when drawn from subjective human experiences. And considering that all human experience is based on subjective sensations, even if objective truth existed it would be indistinguishable from any other set of experiences. And if all beliefs are a function of experience, then it renders free will impossible. And in a universe without free will, choice – and thus punishment or reward for actions – has no meaning. With the the objective truth that is required as the basis for any religious belief unknowable, I came to understand that nihilism is the only possible stance for me.

But I missed the comforting arms of faith, so as an unscientific control study I tried practicing the worship of the Valar from J.R.R. Tolkien’s universe for 30 days. It was very satisfying to know that 14 super powerful beings were looking out for me. I prayed to Tulkas in the mornings to give me strength through the day and praised Aulë when my work was good. At night I asked Varda to watch over me and Estë to give me rest. I felt genuine gratitude to the Valar for my good fortune and happiness. Were it not for the extreme rebellion of my intellect, I would still be one of the faithful. This experiment satisfied me that faith was a strong placebo that produced contentment without any divine effort.

After my experiment I spent the same amount of energy exploring my new atheism as I had in practicing my various religious beliefs. And the more that I read of Hawking and Sagan and Greene and Dawkins the more that I realized that this fit the world that I knew and experienced. It explained the universe that I inhabited, not the one that I wished existed.

What you must remember is that I would rather believe in magic, even now. It is pleasurable to believe in a system provides infinite and eternal rewards for the incredibly low commitments that modern Christianity demands. And yet I found that I could not go back. Because not only does Christianity fail the intellectual test of logic, but it fails the emotional test of magic and wonder.

I think that modern Christians expect too little of their religion. The Bible presents a world of poetry and magic where supernatural beings take human and animal forms to do battle for good and evil. People part seas, call fire from the sky, walk on water, stop the sun and come back from the dead. Donkeys and snakes can talk, pigs are infested with demons, god can live in a golden box carried on poles and some guys try to rape two angels before they destroy a town. Those parts are mainly ignored by modern Christians because they don’t actually fit with our experienced realities. Our universe is much less paranormal and governed by natural processes that can be investigated and explained without magic.

I’m not saying that gravity and natural selection aren’t magical in their own way, but they lack the purely human poetry that the creators of mythologies seek to build. The Bible seems much more likely to have been invented by humans seeking to inject magic into a universe they wished for rather than an explanation of the universe that we actually live in.

I want to believe in a god in the same way that I want to believe in dragons; a world in which they existed would be a better and more fulfilling world. And yet we have as much proof for one as the other.

In case you missed them:
Part I. / Part II. / Part III. / Part IV.

Oscar Nominees 2014: Page 1 of 14

Every year in the weeks leading up the Academy Awards ceremony, I post my thoughts on all of the nominees, although I exempt myself from the documentaries because I don't really like documentaries all that much. For me that means 48 films this year (5 more than last year). 2013 was a really strange Oscar year, what with Argo's director missing a nomination and then winning Best Picture, but 2014 appears so far to be even stranger. Some of the frontrunners for nominations were completely passed over, and Best Picture appears still to be up in the air. Because my favorite thing about all of this movie hubbub is the surprises, I am once again loving Oscar season.

Most of the films in my top ten for the year were passed over (Blue Is the Warmest Color, Fruitvale Station, The Kings of Summer, In the House, The Past), but some scored a nomination or two (The Great Beauty, Before Midnight) and two were nominated for Best Picture (Gravity, Her). In any case, I am excited for what is going to happen.

Oh, and if you're thinking why does he even care about this? I don't blame you. But I have an elaborate set of reasons for still loving the Oscars that I've explained here.

If the nominee has been nominated for Oscars previously, he or she will be listed next to his/her name in parentheses).

This year's nominees:

10 Nominations
  • Picture
  • Director: Alfonso Cuarón
  • Actress: Sandra Bullock (The Blind Side)
  • Cinematography: Emmanuel Lubezki (Children of Men, The New World, Sleepy Hollow, A Little Princess)
  • Film Editing: Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men) & Mark Sanger
  • Original Score: Steven Price
  • Production Design: Rosie Goodwin, Andy Nicholson, & Joanne Woollard (Hope and Glory)
  • Sound Mixing
  • Sound Editing
  • Visual Effects
Director: Cuarón
Cast: Bullock, George Clooney, Ed Harris

Gravity is my favorite of the films nominated for Best Picture. It deserves every one of its nominations. I was overwhelmed by it as I often am with Cuarón's work. It is beautiful, heartstoppingly intense, deeply troubling, and insistently philosophical. (I felt similarly about his 2006 film Children of Men.) Since I fell in love with Gravity, though, I've heard a lot of folks talk about the film's use of symbols. I'm not gonna deny they're there: if an audience member wants to place symbolic value on an image in a movie, that's what images are there for. All I can say about that is that for me the film didn't function on that register – I found the movie to be an intense action movie that also spent a lot of time allowing me to think about being alone, my own desire to keep going while facing impossible odds, and the total vastness of the universe. (I have said before on this blog that I really love the feeling of being completely insignificant and tiny that I get when I stare at the stars.) As for winning Oscars, I don't think this movie is going home with the big man. But Gravity will win nearly all of the below-the-line stuff (except for Production Design).
Will Win: Cinematography, Film Editing, Score, Sound Mixing, Sound Editing, Visual Effects
Could Win: Picture, Director
My Rating: #3 out of 72

American Hustle
10 Nominations
  • Picture
  • Director: David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook)
  • Actor: Christian Bale (The Fighter)
  • Actress: Amy Adams (The Master, The Fighter, Doubt, Junebug) 
  • Original Screenplay: David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook) & Eric Warren Singer
  • Supporting Actor: Bradley Cooper (Silver Linings Playbook)
  • Supporting Actress: Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Linings Playbook, Winter's Bone) 
  • Film Editing: Alan Baumgarten, Jay Cassidy (Silver Linings Playbook, Into the Wild) & Crispin Struthers (Silver Linings Playbook)
  • Production Design: Judy Becker & Heather Loeffler
  • Costume Design: Michael Wilkinson 
Director: Russell
Cast: Bale, Adams, Cooper, Jeremy Renner, Lawrence, Elisabeth Röhm, Robert De Niro, Louis C.K., Jack Huston, Michael Peña, Shea Whigham, Colleen Camp

I really liked this. It's a sleeper in a lot of ways: a good hustler movie with not much going for it except a stellar cast and a director who (all of a sudden) everyone seems to really love. The film's luster fades on reflection, which is why I'm betting on it not taking anything home on March 2. Call me crazy, but I just don't see it happening. I think the closest shot this has at gold is the original screenplay ("wasn't it all improv?" you may ask, to which I would say "And isn't that a screenplay?") There's also the possibility of Amy Adams winning, but the Academy hasn't awarded her for anything yet, so it would seem that while they love to nominate her, they don't actually think she's ready to win one. But, look, I could be way off base and everyone might love this film way more than I do and just give it everything: Screenplay, Director and Best Picture. This is also a distinct possibility.
Will Win: N/A
Could Win: Picture, Director, Actress, Original Screenplay, Supporting Actress, Production Design, Costume Design
My Rating: #25 out of 72

12 Years a Slave
9 Nominations
  • Picture
  • Director: Steve McQueen
  • Actor: Chiwetel Ejiofor
  • Adapted Screenplay: John Ridley
  • Supporting Actor: Michael Fassbender
  • Supporting Actress: Lupita Nyong'o
  • Film Editing: Joe Walker
  • Production Design: Alice Baker & Adam Stockhausen
  • Costume Design: Patricia Norris (Sunset, 2010, Victor/Victoria, The Elephant Man, Days of Heaven)
Director: McQueen
Cast: Ejiofor, Fassbender, Nyong'o, Sarah Paulson, Adepero Oduye, Benedict Cumberbatch, Garret Dillahunt, Brad Pitt, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Alfre Woodard, Michael K. Williams, Dwight Henry, Quvenzhané Wallis, Topsy Chapman, Liza J. Bennett

You can see simply by glancing above that most of the folks nominated for 12 Years a Slave have never been nominated for anything before, and this goes for all of the below-the-line folks (except Ms. Norris). This always makes me want to root for a film, especially when I love everyone involved as much as I do. I wasn't totally in love with this film, but I haven't anything negative to say about it: I just didn't like it as much as I loved McQueen's first two pictures. As for Oscar, 12 Years has seemed to be on a slow decline lately, but my bet – and this is not the most obvious choice – is that when push comes to shove, the Academy goes for this film in the end. I expect it to win Picture and Director. I ought also to say, frankly, that it seems a little nuts to me that anyone is voting for Jared Leto over Michael Fassbender in their category, but apparently Fassbender is not the favorite and Leto is. It's a weird world.
Will Win: Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Supporting Actress, Production Design
Could Win: Actor, Supporting Actor
My Rating: #15 out of 72

22 January 2014

Lone Survivor

I've been told by Dayne that this is "a very drunk post", and I did write it after drinking half a bottle of rosé, so be forewarned.

Here's the thing: when you title your film Lone Survivor and you show the audience who that survivor is in the film's first five minutes, it becomes difficult to maintain the tension a survival film needs.

As far as I am concerned, Peter Berg was in trouble as soon as we started. If I was invested in the four men who go on this mission to kill a random dude (and I was invested in them), I also knew – again, from the film's first few minutes – that they were all going to die except for the, ahem, lone survivor, played by Mark Wahlberg.

I'm actually sort of baffled by the way this film was made, because it really is a high-quality thing for much of its running time. The sound is awesome. The makeup is awesome. The photography is top-notch. The acting is great (I love me some Mark Wahlberg, as you probably know I see everything he does, and I absolutely fucking adore Ben Foster – who is as fantastic in this as he is in everything else). Better yet, this could've been a pretty great survival movie. And who doesn't love a survival movie? Deliverance is very good, but 2012's totally fantastic The Grey by Joe Carnahan is totally worth your time.

Lone Survivor just isn't that, though. Instead it is a picture about four guys who go out to kill some random Arabs about whom we know absolutely nothing. So they go off to do this and then people start shooting at them and stuff. And, well, I sort of understood why people were shooting at them. And I still don't know what we're doing in Afghanistan. And the word Taliban is used a lot, but I am not really sure what that means anymore, and in the context of Lone Survivor it only means "bad".

Mr. Foster, Mr. Hirsch, and  Mr. Wahlberg: not doing so hot.
This isn't to say that I didn't like these guys. They were great guys – funny, charming, interesting. I'd probably have a great time having a beer with any of them. But their deaths were inevitable from the film's first frame, and the deaths of the dozens and dozens of Afghanis also seemed inevitable.

I find all of this killing troubling, as you might imagine, but I also find it troubling that the film is fundamentally not interested in interrogating questions about who deserves to live and who deserves to die. There is a long-ish Deliverance-inspired conversation at the beginning of act two about precisely this question, but the arguments never even reach the level of intelligence of Burt Reynolds' monologue in Boorman's film. We remain well entrenched in clichés. And the possibility of being on CNN as the next Lynndie England is more important to these men than moral obligations or ethical decisions.

I was not unmoved by Lone Survivor. Ben Foster, when he dies, talks about his wife and brotherhood and the Navy, and I really responded to that. But Lone Survivor wears out its welcome. It's twenty minutes too long, and it never manages to justify all of the killing it puts on display. As for the lone survivor himself, he's intense and never boring to watch as a performer. The film he's in, however, had me checking my watch. When do we get to the end – which, I may remind you, we've already seen at the film's opening?  

Are we there yet?
(Sober) Addendum

I forgot to say, too, that I was just stunned by the amount of U.S. military firepower that is mobilized at the end of the film. This is something that Lone Survivor has in common with Captain Phillips. In both films, it is as if the U.S. military is a kind of sleeping giant that doesn't enact its full power unless truly angered. In other words, instead of U.S. military tactics subtending the entire action of these films, both Lone Survivor and Captain Phillips behave as though USAmerican agents act on their own (in Phillips, an unarmed naval crew, in Survivor a heavily armed but isolated foursome) and are not actually supported, trained, funded, protected, and armed by the U.S. military. But once the men get into trouble in both films, the (apparently) full might of the United States descends onto the small number of men who have dared to test this sleeping giant. In both films, the military acts as a kind of exercitus ex machina, triumphantly, impossibly, and with unimaginable power, sweeping in and saving the day.

But this is all a trick – a trick of narrative that serves a specific ideological function. The U.S. military has caused everything in Lone Survivor. The men get sent onto this mountain as a military directive. They get abandoned on the mountain because the military is stretched too thin in Afghanistan. They are there, in fact, to kill the man who then fights back and attempts to kill them. And then when the Navy's four foot-soldiers do not succeed in killing the two men that it has all-along planned to kill, the Navy sends in a large number of helicopters and guns down everyone in sight. Why it didn't do this in the first place and why it allowed all of the soldiers who died to die is the Navy's business, of course, but the film pretends as though it isn't. Lone Survivor pretends that all along the four SEALs are fighting against an army much bigger than them. With its army-from-the-machine narrative device, however, Lone Survivor exposes the lie at its center: all of these deaths – the three SEALs, the rescue troupe, the Afghan fighters – have been, if not carefully, at least deliberately, orchestrated by U.S. military policy in Afghanistan.

18 January 2014

Bad Grandparents: August Osage County and Jackass

Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa and August: Osage County have three Oscar nominations between them. In addition to both being nominated for the United States' most prestigious film award, these films also have other things in common:

Bizarre Titles with Strangely Placed Colons. Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa is how everyone is referring to this film. I think Bad Grandpa is good enough, actually, plus that's how Johnny Knoxville always refers to it on Twitter. My bet is that people who loved the television show Jackass want the Jackass in the title in order to remind people about the hilarity in which they are about to partake; people who thought Jackass was stupid want the Jackass in there to remind people that the movie they're about to watch is somehow not a real narrative film.

But, look: August: Osage County is also a ridiculous title. I mean, that colon should probably be a comma, right? But worse than that, what on earth does this title describe? Where and when we are, you might answer. And you'd be right. And that's all good and well for a play that is about life on the plains, a giant house that eats up people's lives and vitriolically spits them out. But it isn't such a great title for a film that categorized itself as a "comedy" for the purposes of the Golden Globe Awards and whose trailer simply contained the most hilarious parts of a rather funny film.
Let's be honest, August: Osage County is a terrible title for a comedy.

Evil Grandparents and Old-Age Makeup. Johnny Knoxville's misbehaving grandpa, Irving Zisman is horrible. He drinks with his grandson, he pulls down his pants at male strip clubs, he dumps his dead wife's corpse into the trunk of his car. He hits on every woman he meets. All of this is a bit in Bad Grandpa. The cameras are watching real people interact with the antics of a grandson and grandfather who do hilariously shocking things and then wait for passersby to be surprised. Would you help a man move his wife's dead body into the trunk? Would you stop a grandfather who is drinking beers with his grandson at the park?  

Ms. Nicholson, Ms. Streep & Ms. Martindale
August: Osage County's evil matriarch Vi is just as horrible in the film as she was in the play, and Meryl Streep plays her beautifully (contrary to what the awful trailers might have you believe). Actually, I thought the acting in August was great across the board, particularly by the women – Julianne Nicholson, Julia Roberts, and Margo Martindale are all excellent. Martindale is more sensitive and beautiful than I've ever seen her: it is a deeply sad performance. The same goes for Roberts: she is strong and terrifying and completely messed up. It is really awesome (lead) work.

The makeup for these two old people is not really comparable, however. Bad Grandpa's is so fantastically good that it doesn't need film lighting or a camera to fool people. This is makeup that is fooling regular people on a sunny day in Tennessee. It is excellent work.

Mr. Knoxville and Mr. Nicoll
Terrible Direction. While Bad Grandpa mostly works – the film is a serious of pranks played on unsuspecting regular people who don't know they're about to be in a movie – these bits are connected by sequences in which the grandpa (Knoxville) and the grandson (Jackson Nicoll) ride in a car together and sort of pretend that they are in a real movie about a grandad and his grandson. This makes no sense, of course, because we know that they are both in on the joke. We don't believe that either one of them believes in this grandpa/grandson fiction. I was hoping for something a little more meta connecting the bits: perhaps a series of sequences where Knoxville explained to the young actor what normally happens in these kind of buddy-road movies. Or something. Anything but pretense.

Like Grandpa's director Jeff Tremaine, August's director John Wells (who also directed the terrible adaptation of Tracy Letts' Killer Joe) is mostly a television director. And it shows. August: Osage County was a play about a house and a family. The play is filled with simultaneous scenes and a big family-style mise en scène, like the portions at Buca Di Beppo. But the film doesn't embrace this idea at all. Not only does Wells not focus on the house as an important plot-point or character motivation (no shots of empty rooms or childhood bedrooms or kitchens or even many of the outside of the house), the film can't find focus. Whose story is this? August is fundamentally confused about this question. This is not a question in the play: it's a play about a house. But Wells doesn't make this a movie about a house, and instead insists on following someone's story. But whose? He never decides.

In fact, while August: Osage County is not as bad as the poster to the right would have us believe, it is still a mess of a movie. This is a stagey script elevated by excellent acting. All of the highlights of Tracy Letts's play (a hybrid of Sam Shepard's Buried Child and Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night) are still there, but they don't pack the punch they do in the play. They seem diffused by having too many celebrities in a single room. And Letts (who made his own play into a screenplay) hasn't cut the play enough. The play's theatrically intriguing prologue sequence, which involves the patriarch of the family, is inexplicably retained for the film, a decision which my companions who hadn't read the play found very confusing. The plot still works, of course – incest, betrayal, lots of furious family drama – particularly when the acting is this good, but the direction is noticeably terrible, and the film is frustrating throughout for its misplaced perspectives, and almost total lack of a point of view.

Bad Grandpa s also a big ol' nasty mess, and it will probably give you exactly what you expect. In truth, it gave me much more than I was expecting. This movie is hilarious. I did the movie up right and went with three straight guys. You should probably also have a beer or two before going. But if you're ready to laugh, Bad Grandpa will not disappoint. The bits are hilarious – even the tired ones. And my companions and I found ourselves anticipating with relish the ridiculous stuff they were going to do. Oh no, oh my lord, no way, we would say to one another, and then slap each other and laugh hysterically. At more than one point the laughter actually took over and we were all a little out of control. This is totally unbridled absurdity at its most shameless.