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Oscar nominations will be announced on January 22. We’re counting down to the big day by tackling some tough questions and spouting some mad opinions. We’re starting with an appropriately grouchy topic: What lock for a nomination is undeserved?

Jared: Milk Script is Spoiled

I’m considerably more bearish on Milk than my fellow Grouches (yet another reason not to trust their opinions), so perhaps unsurprisingly I’m going to be disappointed when Milk gets its Best Original Screenplay nomination.  In my mind, it is a fine movie and decent script, but hardly Oscar-worthy.  Perhaps the strongest argument to support this stance is that the strength of the cast creates the illusion of a stronger script.  If Sean Penn isn’t there giving one of the strongest performances of the season, does Milk get the screenwriting nomination?  Josh Brolin and James Franco’s performances were both nominated for awards, and let’s face it, both play characters with relatively few meaningful lines.  Some argue Emile Hirsch steals the scenes he’s in, because he goes so close to being over the top.  And Diego Luna, well, he sure makes everyone else look better, again suggesting it is the actors, not the script.  Milk follows an awkward storyline, forgoing clearly depicting Milk’s rise for a standard biopic method of cherrypicking events.  Climatic scenes seem to lack an oomph.  Again, it isn’t a bad script, probably in the top fifteen or so original scripts of 2008, but a serviceable screenplay with great actors should not translate to an Oscar nom.  Granted, this year’s original scripts aren’t terribly exciting, and many of the ones in contention do seem to be largely propped up by a star turn.  Now should be the time for the Academy to get off its high horse about comedies, and instead of forcing in something like Milk, turn to an In Bruges.

Adam: Impeach Ron Howard…

It seems unavoidable that I will soon be ridiculing the Academy first for their nomination and then for their ultimate Oscar choices.  I am already disappointed in many of the “locks” that currently pervade the buzz.  Probably the biggest snub in my opinion is the lack of talk about In Bruges (actors, script, directing, picture).  It was one of my favorite films of the year, and I have to give the HFPA credit for their recognition (albeit limited recognition) of it.  That being said, I have chosen a different topic for my piece – Best Director.  Hollywood’s love for Ron Howard while not totally unfounded is highly overblown.  He is perhaps one of the most over-rated directors in the industry.  I actually liked Frost/Nixon, but I don’t believe that the direction warrants a Best Director nod.  There are much more deserving directors including Martin McDonagh for In Bruges (as you may have guessed by my lead-in), Darren Aronofsky for The Wrestler, or John Patrick Shanley for Doubt. Honestly, I don’t really like David Fincher over McDonagh or Aronofsky either.  In short, I think it’s a travesty that In Bruges hasn’t been recognized enough – whether because of its genre, release time, etc. – and I think the Academy needs to look past its standard/comfortable/fall-back nominees to actual deserving candidates.

John: … And Frost/Nixon While You’re at It

Frost/Nixon is a fine film, but not Best Picture worthy. To me it works much better as like a caper movie where a bunch of underdog ruffians try to take down a President. Or as a showbiz flick as the gang tries to put on the big show. But it has designs on being much more and it doesn’t really work and that’s because, at the core, I didn’t really care. I wanted the underdogs to win, I wanted the show to come off without a hitch, but didn’t really care if Nixon said anything revelatory. Maybe it’s a generational thing where a defeated Nixon means little to me. Or maybe the film didn’t give me enough context to care. Which, incidentally is also a failure in direction and writing, two places where Frost/Nixon is also likely to grab nominations. I can give Howard credit for spinning an entertaining yarn, but it doesn’t do anything exceedingly special.

Clint Eastwood’s Walt Kowalski (from Gran Torino) may be the manliest character ever caught on film.  Sure, guys may aspire to be suave like Bond, badass like Bourne, and lethal like Bruce Lee or Rambo, but deep down we know those are unrealistic exaggerations.  Fun to be for a day, but maybe not much longer.  Kowalski, though, is what we all wish and fear we might be when we reach seventy.  Kowalski’s material possessions exemplify masculinity.  He has a garage full of tools he’s accumulated over his lifetime, a more realistic version of what MacGyver represents.  He’s got the cool car, obviously, which he keeps in immaculate condition.  Comfortable around guns, he saw combat and received a medal, something which most guys wish they could say they’ve done, even if they have absolutely no desire of actually doing it.  Most of all, he doesn’t take nothing from nobody.  He is his own man, unencumbered by anyone and certainly not by whatever these things you call “feelings” are.  If he wants to spend his life on his front porch, drinking PBRs (of course) by the six-pack, hurling racial epithets when mere grunting isn’t an effective enough method of communication, he damn well will.  Kowalski isn’t cynical, exactly, just entirely comfortable with where he is and entirely unwilling for anyone to suggest otherwise.  And, of course, has a faithful dog by his side.  But as the pinnacle of masculinity he is, naturally, the ultimate joke.

The actual movie is almost irrelevant here.  Gran Torino is a pretty standard tale of neighborhood justice – bad guys start picking on the good guys, main character learns something about himself, someone has to make a sacrifice.  Nothing particularly new or exciting.  The non-Eastwood actors were seemingly chosen to contrast the awesomeness of the man.  And it involves Hmong community probably because they provide an easy group for Eastwood to slur an entertainingly large number of different ways, but don’t have vocal enough support to affect the box office.

No, Gran Torino is pretty much entirely about Eastwood tearing through every scene.  I’m still not entirely sure how he manages to be so incredibly over the top (to the point where a mere grunt elicited raucous laughter in my theater) and yet have the film maintain some semblance of gravitas.  The concept is hard to grasp, as all the other actors are serious, the plot is serious, and Eastwood’s character is the most serious of them all, yet he turns out genuinely funny.  His Kowalski is cantankerous, curmudgeonly, and ignorant, but also a reminder that as annoying as other people are, it is pretty hard to avoid them.  Eastwood single-handedly makes the film worth watching.

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I’m finding I Loved You So Long a puzzling film to write about. I liked it but I don’t have many specifics why. I was entirely engrossed and always interested, though without much emotional attachment.

It finds itself in the Oscar sphere due to the performance of Kristin Scott Thomas, a British actress who works frequently in French cinema, though she’d be recognizable to American audiences for roles in films like The English Patient and Gosford Park. She plays Juliette, a woman recently released from prison for killing her son. She settles with her sister, Lea, and her family in Lorraine. The film mostly deals with Juliette readjusting to life outside prison and her inner demons regarding her crime.

There’s not much of a conventional conflict/revolution plot. Juliette looks for work, a tough prospect when potential employers discover what she was in prison for, and bonds with her sister’s family. Juliette’s parents disowned her when she went to prison and this is the first opportunity for Lea and Juliette to really get to know each other. There are also several touching scenes where Juliette connects with Lea’s adopted children. A few subplots involving potential male suitors for Juliette are also interesting.

Scott Thomas’s performance is very withdrawn, something I often find interesting but in this case I found it more one note than anything. Save for one big emotional scene, her performance is blank and emotionless. I didn’t see as much in her performance as I have in other ones that manage to say so much despite showing so little. Best Actress is probably the only potential Oscar nomination for the film and it seems the prospect for that is diminishing, which is fine with me. It was nominated for Foreign Language Film at the Golden Globes, but France went with Cannes winner The Class for its Oscar submission in that category.

I did have one major problem with the film. I knew from hearing about it in reviews that some secrets regarding Juliette’s crime are revealed throughout the film. Consequently I spent too much time trying to figure out where that plot was heading instead of just sitting back and taking it in. Without giving anything away, do not repeat my mistake if you should happen to see I’ve Loved You So Long. The film is much better when about Juliette readjusting to free life and any revelations do not have enough real impact to bother pondering them throughout the film.

A few more thoughts about the ending after the jump. Spoilers ahead! Read the rest of this entry »

We can operate without Jared…kind of.

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The Visitor succeeds on the back of Richard Jenkins. The film soars when he’s on the screen and falters when he’s not. It’s his character and his performance that carry it even as some of the other elements come up short.

I’m a sucker for understated performances that display a lot without really emoting much. Think Ulrich Muhe in The Lives of Others or Tommy Lee Jones in No Country For Old Men or even In the Valley of Elah. Jenkins falls into this category even though his character, Walter, is a bit more than a complete blank slate. But he’s the ultimate bland guy, an economics professor no less, who finds himself widowed, alone, and bored but doesn’t even care enough to be restless. I loved watching Walter loosen and open up.

The white guy rediscovering life via exotic ethnic character plot is a bit cliched at this point and The Visitor does not really break any new ground on that front. In fact, the plot plays out fairly formulaically, complete with a drum circle where the white guy busts loose. But again the success of the film can be traced right back to Jenkins and the character of Walter. Everything about Walter simply works. His actions, from the smallest reaction to the grandest gesture, are believable and not overplayed. I found myself enthralled and smiling whenever Walter was around.

The non-Jenkins, non-Walter parts of the film are a mixed bag, however. I wasn’t a fan of the other actors, including Haaz Sleiman and Danai Gurira as the immigrant couple Tarek and Zainab who have taken up residence in Walter’s apartment. Hiam Abbass as Tarek’s mother also didn’t do much for me, though I could accept that what I thought was stilted line delivery may have been an authentic Syrian accent and way of speaking. The characters, especially the mom, are not as well-developed to make us understand them.

There’s a good film to be made about our country’s absurd immigration policy, but this isn’t it. The movie is infinitely more interesting when it’s about Walter’s emergence and the immigration plot provides conventional conflict that may not be necessary. It also tries to be socially important without totally succeeding. From my understanding it gets the facts right, which helps it become a much better indictment of the system and bureaucracy than of policy. This is after all a dysfunctional, incompetently-administered system that treats illegal immigrants – civil detainees – worse than common criminals that throws any semblance of justice or humanity out the window. This is a topic that deserves full-blown cinematic treatment to really explore it instead of the sort of half-try it gets here.

I’ll be rooting whole-heartedly for Jenkins to pick up a Best Actor nomination. It worries me that he might get lost in the shuffle in a year with a lot of big names in the category. Not only would it be nice for a veteran character actor like him to snag some recognition for himself but it really is one of the finest performances of the year. Writer/director Thomas McCarthy picked up a Writers Guild nod for Original Screenplay, which could well translate into Oscar success. That would be fine, even if only for the writing of all parts of the Walter character.

And you know what? It was nice to see an economist on film, even if his occupation is one of the reasons Walter finds his life in a rut. Three of the four of us met while working at an economic consulting firm and let me tell you, the life of a professional economist is as soul-crushing as portrayed. But so many occupations repeatedly get the on-screen treatment it’s nice that it’s our turn.

And it comes with all the traps of film versions of a profession! Cops and lawyers complain that the movies always get it wrong and The Visitor presents us with a pretty lame example of an economics conference. If an economist showed up to a conference, as Walter did, and someone said in their presentation said, “We find under these circumstances financial globalization can be beneficial. Impreically, it’s good institutions and quality of government that will allow third world countries to benefit and harbor the fruits of globalization,” they’d wonder if they accidentally ended up in an introductory course. Thanks for dragging me to a conference to tell me something completely elementary, poindexter.

(For extra reading, here’s a really great article about a prison in a Rhode Island town and the immigrants living inside and outside its walls.)

Going into this year’s Oscar season, if I had to pick one contender I least wanted to see, I’d imagine it would have been Frost/Nixon in a runaway.  Because going into the movie, I’d probably have called screenwriter Peter Morgan a hack.  I felt like I’d given the man a fair deal, having seen The Last King of Scotland, The Queen, and The Other Boleyn Girl (Morgan co-wrote the first and has sole credit on the latter two).  The Last King of Scotland was a somewhat tolerable movie.  I know some people liked or even loved The Queen, but they happen to be exceedingly wrong.  And as I may have mentioned before, I think Morgan must possess some sort of unholy power if he can turn a movie starring Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson into a clunker of a snoozefest.

With that on the table, I found I actually kinda sorta liked Frost/Nixon.  Not in the top of the charts sense, more in that it is probably in the top quarter or so of movies I’ve watched this year.  Maybe it was because Morgan first wrote it as a play, but I think what worked was the dynamic between interviewer Frost (Michael Sheen) and Nixon (Frank Langella).  Everything else, perhaps, falls fairly flat, so it is fortunate the movie spends a good chunk of time (though not nearly enough) on the battle between the two men.

Nixon certainly views it as a competition.  He looks forward to engaging Frost in a duel of wits.  And as the interview progresses, he gloats over how he is ahead on points.  Indeed, it may have been Brian who called it one of the best sports movies of the year.  And it certainly has most of the trappings of a sports movie.  Scrappy underdog with his small band of supporters who no one believes in up against an overconfident, yet intelligent foe with a sniveling henchman  in a title bout that looks all but lost until the very end.  Sure, the hero gets the hot chick a little early and we may have been lacking a montage, but otherwise we are pretty much there.

To Morgan’s credit, he clearly tries to add texture and depth to characters and situations, where subtlety is not necessarily a desired trait in a sports flick.  Nixon, for example, is not the typical villain.  I’d argue he’s portrayed in a rather sympathetic light.  Sure, he may get a little cocky at times, and he makes the inevitable fatal slip-up, but as a sharp-witted old man, he never comes across as malicious.  The only two characters to actively loathe him are awed when they meet the former President in person.  But again, most interesting is how Frost views him.  For most of the movie, Frost doesn’t view Nixon as an antagonist, really.  Frost seems to think Nixon is a curosity, but he’s only ever gets even slightly intimidated by Nixon on the eve of their final interview.

Frost is the weaker of the two main characters.  I think it is because for the first chunk of the movie Nixon isn’t his opponent.  Instead, he’s fighting the more vague battle to first get the interview, and then get financing and a network to air the show.  Which isn’t terribly interesting, because it isn’t detailed very well and we aren’t given very much of a chance to see its impact on Frost.  It is only when he finally turns to focus on Nixon that the potential of the movie starts to shine through.

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Adam
1. Dark Knight
2. Forgetting Sarah Marshall
3. In Bruges
4. Slumdog Millionaire
5. Iron Man

Brian
1. Milk
2. The Wrestler
3. Dark Knight
4. Slumdog Millionaire
5. Forgetting Sarah Marshall

Jared
1. WALL-E
2. Pineapple Express
3. Forgetting Sarah Marshall
4. Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist
5. The Dark Knight

John
1. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days
2. The Dark Knight
3. Milk
4. The Wrestler
5. Slumdog Millionaire

Or, in other words, Adam is training to be a comic book fanboy, Brian is the guy who sees a few movies at the end of the year, I’m a 14 year old girl, and John, as he just established, is a crappy film critic no one likes.

I didn’t become a regular At the Movies viewer until about two years ago. That’s when they started posting their videos online and the four of us started talking movies more and more. That means I never watched regularly before Roger Ebert left, but that was okay because I really like Richard Roeper and I find his tastes match mine pretty well. Ebert’s a good read but he falls for overly-sentimental, treacly junk too often for my liking (see: anything by Paul Haggis).

A string of guest reviewers came (including one horrible show with John Mellencamp) but eventually two settled in permanently that I liked: AO Scott from the New York Times and, even better, Michael Phillips from the Chicago Tribune. This was swell until Disney took the show in a different direction early last autumn and all the smart guys left.

Enter the Bens: Ben Menkiewicz from Turner Classic Movies and Ben Lyons from E!. They started rough but Menk turned out all right. He’s knowledgeable and decent enough in front of the camera. Lyons sucked from the beginning — he was derided from the moment he was announced as host for calling I Am Legend “one of the greatest movies ever made” — and he still sucks. His reviews barely skim the surface and the reasons for his recommendations either make no sense or are based entirely around an actor’s star power. Your kids are going to make you see High School Musical 3 so you might as well Rent It. Thanks, critic! The mockery from the internet continues to grow, including from Ebert himself.

As I often do, I awoke Sunday morning and watched the latest DVR’d episode. It was the Best of 2008 show and I grew horrified as Lyons revealed his list. His top 5:

1. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
2. Slumdog Millionaire
3. Milk
4. The Wrestler
5. The Dark Knight

We’ll have another top 5 post coming up in a few days for movies we saw through the end of 2008. Here’s what my top 2-6 would be, discounting my #1 of 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days which appeared on most critics’ lists in 2007:

1. The Dark Knight
2. Milk
3. The Wrestler
4. Slumdog Millionaire
5. Forgetting Sarah Marshall

I am disgusted that I loved the same films as Ben Lyons. And I haven’t seen Benjamin Button, the only film that differs on our top fives, yet. His number 10 was also one of my 2008 faves, In Bruges. My belief system is shocked to the core and my ego has taken a beating. Every week I mock this guy as I watch the show but when it comes down to it our favorites are nearly identical. GAH!

Unfortunately the only other syndicated movie review show, Reel Talk, is hosted by Lyons’s nearly-as-obnoxious father, Jeffrey, a man who seems to like every damn movie. But on a side note, the younger Lyons hosts My Family’s Got Guts on Nickelodeon and is quite good, though that only makes me trust his reviews even less. He should stick to hosting kids’ shows.

Full At the Movies top 10s after the jump.

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Stars:                  Jeff Garlin, Fred Willard, Ben Burtt, Elissa Knight

Directed By:  Andrew Stanton

Written By:    Andrew Stanton & Pete Docter

 

Grouches Ratings: 

Adam:             8

Brian:              7.5

Jared:              9.5

John:                7.5

 

Overall:          8.13

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Stars:              Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, Maggie Gyllenhaal

Directed By:  Christopher Nolan

Written By:    Christopher & Jonathan Nolan

 

Grouches Ratings: 

Adam:             9.5

Brian:              9

Jared:              8

John:                9

 

Overall:          8.88

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