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I dwell frequently on the points of films, a topic I discussed here. As a primer, I struggle with certain “important” films when their point escapes me or seems not worthwhile, but I wonder if that’s a hypocritical stance since I don’t demand the same from films that I love but who don’t strive to be anything more than entertaining. There’s no right answer but I find it a fascinating topic to ponder. Adam lambasted me for that post (in person, not on the blog because Adam does not write posts, apparently), which made me think more. And another friend gave some good perspective to my search for a point to Inglourious Basterds that I may dive into in a later post.

Amidst all of this I saw The Road, the type of bleak film that often interests me but leaves me pondering what the point of it all was. And I initially had the same reaction here. Viggo Mortensen and son Kodi Smit-McPhee wander a post-apocalyptic landscape, struggling to eat, avoiding roving bands of cannibals, and flashing back to happier times with wife/mother Charlize Theron. It’s essentially two hours of people doing horrible things. I know a common criticism hurled at the film is that the power of the novel comes from the beauty of the prose. In novels, beautiful writing can itself be a point. But how to make a film meaningful if you can’t translate the source’s most important asset?

But with reflection, The Road clearly has themes of survivalism and the challenge of retaining humanity in the most horrible of circumstances. I’d say many Holocaust movies explore similar topics.

So does that help me? I don’t know. It puts me more at peace with the film, which I liked but did not love. I find it more satisfying than There Will Be Blood, a film I still can’t wrap my mind around but which still enchanted me more.

As for the film itself, I very much enjoy the apocalyptic/dystopia genre so I had high hopes for this one. It does disappoint a little; I think the slow, ponderous pace wears a little thin after a while and the oppressive bleakness begins to bear down on you. The plot and the characters are interesting enough. I think where it excels is its imagery. My lasting impressions from the film won’t revolve around a plot point, a line of dialogue, or a performance, but of the burnt-out landscape and the atmosphere of devastation and desperation.

It’s also definitely a film that improves after you leave the theater. It takes some time to sink in and benefits from further reflection. Part of that too is that it has a pat and unsatisfying ending; taking some time to get away from that as well as recovering from rather unsettling experience of actually sitting through the film is a help. And, crucially for this discussion, thematically it needs some time to sink in because my first reaction after it was, “What in the world was that?”

I suspect at this point that The Road won’t be receiving any love from the Academy. Viggo is very good but probably not Best Actor good. I think a Cinematography nod would probably be pretty good though. And maybe northwestern Pennsylvania can get an award for managing to look so damn depressing. Area Most Like a Post-Apocalyptic Hellhole?

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Is there anything better than being blown away by a film out of the blue? That “I can’t believe how great that was” enthusiasm as the credits roll? My latest surprise revelation was Julie & Julia. I had only middling expectations going in. I’m not really the target audience and the critical reaction had been mixed: Meryl Streep was supposed to be wonderful as usual but only her half of the film was worthwhile.

Well I found myself entirely enchanted. Yes of course Meryl turns in another terrific performance. But it’s an all-around entertaining time and I didn’t even feel like the “Julie” part paled significantly compared to the “Julia” part.

Sticking with Julie for a bit, I think it’s true to say that a story of one woman blogging a cooking challenge isn’t going to be a cinematic as the Julia Childs story of revolutionizing cooking forever. And while I would agree the script doesn’t develop Julie as well as it perhaps could have to make the viewer care for her more, the Julie story is not a notable let-down compared to Julia.

Maybe it’s a generational thing, but I related to Julie. We’re a hyper-connected and creative generation and that yearning to make a mark in the world – or at least to find a worthwhile outlet for expression – resonated. (I mean, here I am writing on a blog after all.) Maybe Julie’s need to create and connect and overshare just doesn’t have the same impact on people who didn’t grow up with Live Journal. One’s connection with Julie can vary widely, but I imagine it helps if the entire point of her story isn’t dismissed outright.

The fact that Julie isn’t necessarily a likable character doesn’t detract from the film. In fact I think it probably makes it more interesting. Without a dynamic character that’s allowed to have some large flaws I think the Julie story really would fall flat. And it’s nice to see Amy Adams in a role where she can dial down the chirpiness.

That said, it’s undeniable that the Julia story is wonderful and the real heart of the film. Streep is just delightful and I found the journey through Childs’ life fascinating and enjoyable. One of the more interesting elements is her marriage to Paul, played superbly by Stanley Tucci. Their deep devotion to each other is played straight and without false drama, which is refreshing and not at all boring. Even while sharing scenes with the marvelous Streep playing the larger-than-life Julia Childs, Tucci shines and their chemistry is sparkling.

It seems likely Streep will get a Best Actress nod here, and it would be well-deserved. I wonder if someone else gives the exact same performance, would even get consideration? On the other hand, who else could give the exact same performance? And Tucci would get a (again, well-deserved) Supporting Actor nomination if he wasn’t probably going to get one for The Lovely Bones instead. And I’d be happy with an Adapted Screenplay nod as well since the story is so infectiously enjoyable.

I caught Julie & Julia on a flight where I was already jet-lagged out of my skull and my previous two nights had been spent on an overnight bus hurtling down a Kenyan highway and on an airplane, so I’m looking forward to seeing it again while in a more normal state of mind. If it charmed me even while I was completely out of it, I’d call that a good sign. And this time I’ll be able to eat more than airline food while watching it.

I’d say over the course of a year I see most films that come highly recommended. Not all of them fit into the discussions we have on this site. I try to talk about the ones I love in lists or separate posts but not every one lives up to expectations. Instead of giving these films a pass via my silence I have decided to pillory them here. That’ll show ’em.


Star Trek and Whip It
(95 Rotten Tomatoes, 83 Metacritic; 82 RT, 67 MC)
I feel like I covered most of my objections here and here, but is there a plot point or line of dialog in Star Trek that isn’t a cliche? Or a scene or shot in Whip It?

Sunshine Cleaning
(72 RT, 61 MC)
A textbook case of a movie trying too hard. This film has enough themes and subplots for three Sundance films. And unfortunately too few go anywhere and few I cared about. The one where Emily Blunt befriends Mary Lynn Rajskub is just confounding. Alan Arkin’s character is almost a carbon copy of his work in Little Miss Sunshine. I didn’t care for Emily Blunt. One aspect I found quite interesting was the family’s burgeoning relationship with a one-armed cleaning supply shop owner, played by Clifton Collins Jr. He’s a real revelation in a film that doesn’t do enough with him.

Goodbye Solo
(94 RT, 89 MC)
I expected this movie to be right up my alley. I usually find myself drawn to small, slow, slice-of-life character-driven dramas like this. See my outspoken (at least amongst the Grouches) support for 2008’s The Visitor and Frozen River. And I know Ramin Bahrani is a Next Great American Director. But holy shit this was boring. I kept waiting for something interesting to happen or to get fully involved in a character or their world, but no.

Sugar
(93 RT, 82 MC)
On the one hand, it’s a film about baseball. On the other, it comes from the team behind the Grouches-reviled Half Nelson. Could any film tear Jared apart more? Actually I do hope he sees it because I’d be curious about his take on it and what he thinks of the film’s baseball scenes. Sugar follows a Dominican baseball player as he arrives in America to play minor league ball. More than baseball it’s about the modern immigrant story. I was totally on board for about a third of the movie before it began to lose me. I became less interested in Sugar and his travails. The whole thing just never coalesces into anything particularly interesting.

Fantastic Mr. Fox
(92 RT, 83 MC)
Wes Anderson has made no more than 2/3 of a good movie since his brilliant Rushmore / Royal Tenenbaums run. (That good 2/3 was the front end of Darjeeling Limited.) I loved this book as a kid and the stop-motion animation intrigued me, but it just gets bogged down in Anderson’s increasingly tiresome style. He’s so betrothed to his special Wes Anderson trademarked quirks that he forgets to make a movie that’s actually good. Every touch that seems like it should be clever (Mr. Fox’s mid-life crisis, a badger lawyer/side-kick) are just ill-conceived. I think of Jason Schwartzman’s bored, monotone voice acting as Mr. Fox’s son and I’m reminded all over again why this film was a collasal disappointment.

We were a little behind in getting out our top fives, so we put them all into one post.  Like the good old days.  Tragically, we all agree way too much.  And it appears we wish the Academy would find a little more room for comedies.  Especially comedies concerning the undead.  I do wonder, though, at the counting abilities of a few of my fellow Grouches.  I’m not naming any names, but I swear I see more than five movies listed for a couple of them.

Adam

Inglourious Basterds
Zombieland
The Hangover
(500) Days of Summer
Up In The Air

Honorable Mentions:
Sunshine Cleaning
Taken
Star Trek

Brian

Up
District 9
Zombieland
The Informant!
The Hangover

Honorable Mentions:
I Love You, Man
Sin Nombre

Jared

Zombieland
Up
District 9
(500) Days of Summer
I Love You, Man

John

Up
Zombieland
The Informant!
Julie and Julia
Up in the Air

Well, John worked more of his magic and we found ourselves at a free screening of Invictus.  Directed by Clint Eastwood, the film tells the story of Nelson Mandela’s interest in the South African rugby team, specifically in its performance at the 1995 Rugby World Cup, not coincidentally hosted by South Africa.  A quick note before getting to our initial thoughts.  If you find yourself at a movie, and something amazing or inspiring or whatever happens on-screen, please resist the temptation to clap.  The filmmakers can’t hear you.  The actors can’t hear you.  You know who can hear you?  Your fellow audience members.

Brian

I’m generally someone who appreciates the parts of a movie more than the sums, but Invictus is an example of a movie where the sum was greater than the parts. The more I’ve pondered over it since seeing it, the less I’ve liked it. Overall, it was entertaining and I’d probably recommend it to most folk. So many of Eastwood’s choices — focusing on the security detail, using too much slow motion, beat-you-over-the-head preaching — left bad tastes in my mouth that if you give me a couple of months I’ll probably be actively rooting against it at the awards show. Kind of like the anti-Rachel Getting Married.

Jared

I thought the first third of Invictus was really solid.  A bit heavy-handed, sure, but Eastwood knows how to go for the incredibly low-hanging fruit of heart-tugging eye-watering melodrama.  Plus, I mean, Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela.  Soon, however, the film became repetitive and increasingly filled with poorly thought out sports scenes.  And an impressively buff Matt Damon doesn’t really have a place in the movie.  I will say, though, it is the best rugby movie I’ve ever seen.

John

Invictus is classic Eastwood: corny, horrible dialogue, utter lack of nuance, and an over-reliance on cinematic scenes that don’t advance the film as a whole, but damned if its spirit doesn’t win you over. Hollywood has dished out schlock since its inception and the Academy has lapped it up for nearly as long; I think if I’m going to consume said schlock it may as well be from its master. Eastwood just gets it to feel right even as I’m rolling my eyes.

The Grouches were again fortunate enough to see a sneak preview of an Oscar contender.  Unfortunately, our extremely rigorous editing standards prohibited posting our initial thoughts on Up in the Air until now.  You may have heard of the film, it is the one currently beginning to romp its way through the awards circuit.  Looks like we too think that you should go out and see the film, once it makes it way to a theater near you.

Adam

I think it is safe to say I liked this movie more than the other Grouches.  I will have to think about it some more before I make the decision of whether it makes my current top 5 for the year, but it has the potential to.  I think my greater enjoyment of the movie came from so many aspects of the movie being familiar – the constant traveling, living out of a suitcase, coming from the middle of nowhere, not really liking people all that much, etc.  Added to that, I thought the script was smart.  It wasn’t overly funny, but the comedic elements were spot-on when they were used.  It wasn’t overly dramatic, but it was able to inspire some emotional involvement and draw the audience into the storyline without being overly sappy.  None of the acting was Oscar-worthy, but I thought the acting was strong across the board – with some of the cameos and all of the smaller parts being some of the most noteworthy parts of the film.  I actually also liked cinematography – the plethora of bird’s-eye shots of cities and random parts of the countryside, the very simple block-lettering displaying where each scene’s drama was unfolding, the various locations they chose for the action to take place.  All of these added to the feel of the movie for me.  Looked at individually, no one piece of the movie was spectacular.  However, they were all very strong – with only minor flaws – and so, as a whole, the movie worked for me and I found myself enjoying it quite a bit.

I’m sure the other Grouches will be less kind to the movie, but if anyone has read anything written on this blog before, you’ll know that their opinions are wholly suspect

Jared

Up in the Air is a very likable film: George Clooney plays a hybrid of his on- and off-screen personas, Anna Kendrick and Vera Farmiga are both very charming, heck, it even got me to not hate Danny McBride.  And in lesser hands, I think the story could have devolved into something cutesy.  The movie is consistently entertaining, and I found myself smiling throughout.  It is unfortunate, then, that the ending (by which I really mean the last maybe 20%) prevented the film from achieving something greater.

John

Up in the Air is a very good film in the odd position where I felt it had a lot of specific and not insignificant problems. Things like characters’ actions not making sense based on what we’ve seen from them, plot contrivances, and a general sense of the parts not adding up to coherently say what the film wants to say. But it is consistently very funny, entertaining, and thought-provoking and its tone is astonishingly pitch-perfect. It’s stuck around in my head since we saw it and I’m looking forward to seeing it again. It may well be one of those films that benefits from further viewings. So in the end it’s a clear ringing endorsement from me.

After disliking No Country for Old Men and darn near loathing Burn After Reading, I thought maybe I stopped liking the Coen Bros. altogether.  But after dwelling on A Serious Man for a little bit now, I think they just have a completely different sensibility than I do, and I can’t decide if that means they are wrong.  More specifically, what for the Coens might be sublimely absurd is for me dumb (Burn After Reading) or inconsequential (the other two).  I did like A Serious Man more than their recent prior output, but I still feel like I fail to connect with it on some fundamental level.  Though, to be fair, the subplot with the Asian student is probably one of the funniest things I’ve seen so far this year.

Take the opening scene, for example.  I’m sure I wasn’t the only theater patron to question if I had accidentally gone into the wrong movie.  And while it may have been the most entertaining scene of the movie, I have absolutely no idea why it is in the film.  I mean, yes, I could probably BS something about thematic elements, but really, there’s no reason it is in there.

As for the story proper, it is interesting enough, but feels a bit undercooked.  The premise, basically, is that a physics professor (Michael Stuhlbarg) goes through the somewhat-familiar crumbling of his life, albeit set in a 1960s Minnesota Jewish suburb, so it is a nebbish life.  His wife wants to leave him for another man.  His kids ignore him, other than to have him adjust the TV antenna.  He’s having trouble getting tenure.  His brother isn’t exactly all there.  His bills are piling up.

One thing I liked about A Serious Man is that it doesn’t play out as a typical movie might.  I’d say there are two normal resolutions to this scenario.  One is that the main character learns how to man up, wins back his wife, and wins over his kids, co-workers, and whomever else might be in the way.  The other is that the character realizes he needs to break free from his dreary existence.  In this case, he is fine with his no-good wife leaving him for some schmuck, because he knows at the end of the movie, she’ll realize her mistake and come crawling back,  because he’ll be off following his heart’s dream of being a scuba instructor, and tagging along will be the secretary/co-worker/best friend who was always there secretly pining away for him.

But A Serious Man isn’t like that at all.  Instead of the main character learning how to be a man, he more questions what a man really is.  I was asked if you had to be Jewish to appreciate the finer points of the movie and responded that I didn’t think so.  There are some scenes surrounding a bar mitzvah and some Hebrew is read aloud, but really, unless you have absolutely no idea what a rabbi is, I don’t think being raised Jewish is particularly relevant to getting the movie.  Except, thinking about it now, I don’t know.

Because I think there is a sensibility more prevalent in the Jewish culture than many others of the henpecked husband.  Obviously, yes, lots of guys from all religions are run over by their wives and lots of Jewish guys have the upper hand in their marriage.  But generally speaking, I think the stereotypes would confirm my assertion, at least.  In any case, all I’m trying to say is that the character’s reactions to the obstacles life throws him seemed “real” enough to me and I could see other people viewing it slightly differently.  Perhaps better put, you don’t have to be Jewish to best appreciate the film, just able to empathize with a browbeaten husband.

I was not a fan of the movies’ flourishes.  The first scene, the title screens with the rabbis, the fantasy pops, really, everything not focused on the main character felt distracting and inorganic.  As if they were compensating for the relatively spare story.  Which didn’t bother me as much as I might have expected, I even can justify the ending in ways I never could with No Country.

So where does that leave things?  Beats me.  Took me this long to piece together any sort of semi-coherent response to the film.  I think I liked it and I know I didn’t love it.  It won’t be in my top ten movies of the year, but if I limit the list to films with an actual shot at Oscar, I’m guessing A Serious Man will be right on the bubble.

December 2009
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