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And now, part two of Ian and Jared’s fantasy Sundance draft.  If you missed it, check out part one for scoring and the first four picks.

With the fifth pick of the 2014 Fantasy Sundance Draft, Jared takes…

Low Down

Jared: Director Jeff Preiss is a cinematographer and experimental filmmaker, and this film is about a jazz pianist and his daughter, so I’m taking the movie under the principle that anything unappealing to me is probably a good bet for awards love. Preiss has been knocking around for awhile to some acclaim, and this is his first crossover to anything that could be considered mainstreamish. What mostly drew me to the film were the lead actors: Elle Fanning and John Hawkes. I’m not saying we are high on Fanning, but I thought Elle Fanning deserved an Oscar nomination for Super 8, and Ian is the one who likes her more. She’s a fantastic actress who already has British Independent and Satellite nominations on her resume. John Hawkes has an Oscar nomination, of course, and is just generally awesome. He also shares an Sundance Special Jury Prize for ensemble acting. The rest of the cast includes Peter Dinklage, Glenn Close, Taryn Manning, Lena Headey, and Flea, with Anthony Kiedis listed as a produce. Which is fascinating, if nothing else.

Ian: Just to be clear, Internet weirdos, we think Elle Fanning is a terrific actress, nothing more. But yes, she was the best thing in the charming Super 8, and her performance in Somewhere was approaching transcendent. And I don’t need to sell anyone reading this on John Hawkes, or the rest of the cast. My hesitation is that it may seem a little slight and unfinished even for a Sundance movie, but that’s a mild reservation. If it’s good, I think it would perform well, and I’ll probably be strongly into seeing it. I’d have taken it next.

With the sixth pick of the 2014 Fantasy Sundance Draft, Ian takes…

Dear White People

Ian: Instead, I took a movie that’s probably going to end up less on the lyrical side. Dear White People seems like enough of a polemic that I suspect I’m giving up shots at the Grand Jury and Audience awards, since satire may be a genre even less favored than horror. I do think this movie is very likely to land Justin Simien something, however, since he seems like a smart, already recognized writer who, let’s face it, knows how to market himself well. I’m not saying that to be dismissive, or to say that the film is unlikely to stand on its own, but I think having a nose for p.r. and recognition is a skill (as the Weinsteins prove every award season). Aiming for a writer’s/director’s award here, and hopefully, a smart and subversive movie.

Jared: I strongly considered this one. Look, in order to be an ace awards pundit, you have to throw political correctness out the window. It seems safe to argue that the type of people going to an indieish awards festival in Utah created by Robert Redford will fall over themselves to applaud an intellectual look at race in the country. The only question, really, is how subversive, how funny, how frank the film is. One gets the feeling Sundance folk would like to tsk-tsk others for their racism, it is unclear what the awards impact would be if the film asks viewers to think more critically about themselves.

With the seventh pick of the 2014 Fantasy Sundance Draft, Ian takes…

Whiplash

Ian: This one is kind of a mirror image of Hellion, as a young man is brutally shaped by a parental figure in a feature film that was expanded from a short previously recognized at Sundance. The difference here is pedigree. Start with the cast, and Miles Teller in particular. I said this last year with The Spectacular Now, but Miles Teller is definitely one On The Verge, and he and Shailene Woodley took home a special jury award for his efforts in that film (aside: well-deserved, in my opinion). Now, he’s back in the competition as an intense student, being mentored by the always reliable J.K. Simmons. Add in that the film has already won a Jury Award as a short, and then Director Damien Chazelle got the feature-length script on the Black List, and this one has a lot of promise. Just as with J.J. Abrams and Infinitely Polar Bear, the presence of big macher Jason Reitman on the producer list also helps tip the scales. Starting to think I may have underrated it, if anything.

Jared: Hm. Yeah, this one may have fallen. Can’t think of many negatives here. Writer/director Damien Chazelle has a screenplay credit on The Last Exorcism Part II, which isn’t the most encouraging thing in the world, I suppose. And he wrote the upcoming Grand Piano, a thriller starring Elijah Wood as a concert pianist who John Cusack (presumably) threatens to kill if he plays a wrong note during a recital. But yeah, the film seems a good bet to bring home something.

With the eighth pick of the 2014 Fantasy Sundance Draft, Jared takes…

God’s Pocket

Jared: As a huge fan of the TV show Ed, I’m tickled pink to see John Slattery directing a Sundance film. Even though Dennis Martino was obviously a bastard and totally wrong for Carol Vesey and maybe I digress. Slattery is best known, of course, for his role on Mad Men and has directed five episodes of the series, to some acclaim. This film marks his feature film debut as director. The cast is jaw-droppingly good: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Eddie Marsan, John Turturro, Richard Jenkins, and Christina Hendricks, it isn’t unreasonable to hope for a nod for one of them. The film is based on a novel by Peter Dexter, on whose novel The Paperboy was based, and who has screenwriting credits for Mulholland Falls, Michael, and an Emmy nomination for Paris Trout. So that’s a mixed bag. But the Sundance description includes “authentic”, which is always a good sign, plus it specifically mentions the cinematography, so it could be in the running for a point there.

Ian: It’s hard for me to get a read on God’s Pocket. On the one hand, this is bigger than the type of movie usually in the Sundance competition. This is probably the best prestige cast we’ve seen in our storied history of fantasy Sundance drafting. And yes, Lance Acord, the cinematographer, generally works in movies that premiere at Sundance, and not films in competition. On the other hand, how much of this acclaim is a favor to the well-liked John Slattery? This isn’t said to be dismissive at all, he may well be a great screenwriter, and he’s taken on some visually inventive episodes of Mad Men (Signal 30 in particular is likely an underrated episode in the Mad canon). We (well, I) just don’t know yet, and the film description sounds a little on the pedestrian side to be in the Jury Prize running. It’s probably a pick that’s going to score, and maybe one that has broad audience appeal and familiar characters, so I endorse it here.

Coming up next, part three of our draft.

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We’ll each putting up our own thoughts on Best Picture. Except now, when I’m publishing Adam’s writeup. Guess he wanted to continue his streak of not posting.

So, for the grand finale, I’ve decided to forego my previous format and write what I thought about each movie. Unfortunately for you, dear reader, none of the other Grouches have written their posts yet so I am forced to confine my analysis to the movies and my critiques of the others (if they should appear) will be constrained to hearsay and personal experience. So, without further ado, I give you The Nominees:

Precious
Throughout the year, we watch a lot of movies in preparation for the Oscars and I find that my opinion of some of these movies varies greatly from my initial impression as time goes on. As I rank the movies I’ve seen throughout the year, I constantly compare previous views to more recent ones to come up with the best possible score for each – some fall, others rise, and some stay steady throughout. Precious was definitely one of the fallen movies. I thought it was a fine movie, but realized that my initial opinion of it was artificially raised due to all the hype and praise surrounding it. As I time went on, I realized that the script wasn’t all that strong. Decent dialogue was scarce and most of the scenes were pretty blasé (with the notable exceptions of the apartment/stairs scene and the final social worker scene). Mo’Nique’s performance was terrific, granted, but Sidibe’s was, honestly, forgettable. No one will remember her performance in a year or two – if that. The directing was also fairly weak. The dream sequences were unnecessary and heavy-handed, and the other scenes were set up less than ideally. It may seem like I hated the movie, but I didn’t. I gave it a 5.8 out of 10 (though it started at a whopping 7 if you can believe it) so I didn’t think it was horrible, I just want you all to realize that the hype surrounding it is just that – hype.

An Education
An Education actually suffered the opposite fate as Precious. It actually moved up in my ranking as time went on. At first, I couldn’t get over what I viewed as a ridiculous plot. I couldn’t understand how we, the audience, were supposed to buy into the fact that a random older gentleman randomly picked up a school-girl; started to date her immediately – well, as soon as he was able to convince the girl’s very conservative and old fashioned father he was on the “up and up” via a 2 minute conversation, in which he told a joke; and convince her to quit school just shy of graduating. As time went on though, I was able to separate the weak story and horrible scene transitions, and appreciate the strengths of the film. Carey Mulligan actually puts on a pretty great performance – especially given she had very little experience prior to this. She was able to take on a leading role and make it her own. This was one of the few well written lead female characters I saw this year and it is due, in no small part, to Mulligan’s performance. The other fantastic performance was Alfred Molina’s. My respect for him (due in no small part to his role in The Man Who Knew Too Little) dropped dramatically with his part in Spider-Man 2 (one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen). However, he has totally redeemed himself by being one of the brightest spots in this movie. I am very disappointed he wasn’t nominated for Supporting Actor over Damon.

The Blind Side
The Blind Side has a higher score (6.5 out of 10) than I anticipated going into the movie. And, while the script wasn’t anything to write home about, I found myself enjoying the movie, nonetheless. Bullock does a decent job as a Southern, Tennessee-hating, heart-of-gold mother of two (then three), and her nomination for Best Actress is deserved. She was definitely the most impressive part of the movie and I am actually quite happy that she is the front-runner for the win. I have, for the most part, quite enjoyed Ms. Bullock over the years and am glad she has a chance to take home the gold. Other than that, there isn’t much to say about this movie. It is like Precious in a lot of ways – teenager with a troubled past and parental issues is taken in by a strong female character who tries to better them. The biggest difference between the two movies is the tone. While The Blind Side is, on the whole, light and fun (and has an uplifting ending), Precious is a study in just how wrong things can go in a child’s life (and that not everything has a happy ending). For whatever reason, though, I found myself enjoying The Blind Side more than Precious and more than I originally thought I would.

Avatar
As you may have realized by now, I have ordered these movies in ascending order. Which means that the second highest grossing film in history, and the film sure to take home the most amount of Oscars is only 6th on my list of Best Picture nominees. While this may seem confusing to most (I’m looking at you John), anyone who actually watched the movie (and has any taste) can tell you that this movie is over-rated by far. First of all, let’s get this out of the way: The film was absolutely visually stunning. Seriously. They did a tremendous job with the CGI and 3D scenery and sequences. Unfortunately, they stopped there. It is a beautiful façade over a weak structure. The most important part of the movie is the script. This movie’s script was decent – when it was used in Dances With Wolves, Pocahontas, and Fern Gully. If you are going to steal another movie’s idea/script (which I don’t necessarily disagree with – I mean, look at my boy Tarantino), at least improve upon it. Or, at the very least, make an attempt to change it in some way. The only thing they seem to have done is make the dialogue worse and delve less into every single one of the characters. I am actually floored that a 3+ hour movie had absolutely no character development. And don’t get me wrong, I am a huge fan of a bunch of movies with little to no plot, no character development, and awful dialogue (I mean, I watch mindless action films by the truckload), but I don’t nominate them for Best Picture. I don’t care what John tries to tell you – don’t drink the Kool-Aid on this movie. See it because it is visually stunning, not because you are looking for an actual Best Picture movie.

A Serious Man
I don’t know how Jared and John write so much. I’m not even half way through this and I’m exhausted. Major props to them. So, now on to A Serious Man. First of all, I’d like to say that I was a huge fan of the opening scene of this movie – especially once the film was over and I realized that I couldn’t figure out how it fit into the rest of the movie. Second, this movie had one of the most interesting characters of the entire year. It was fascinating for me to watch the actions and reactions of this character as we delved deeper and deeper into his mundane, depressing, and all too real existence. I am a huge fan of character studies (if done well). While this isn’t in the same league as Michael Clayton, it is a serviceable replacement for the year. It also has one of my favorite side-stories of the entire year. The scenes with the Korean student are absolutely hilarious.

Up
I’ve talked about this movie a couple of times. I can’t get over how the rest of the Grouches basically have an orgasm whenever they think or talk about it. Yes it was decent, but it wasn’t THAT good. It definitely had its moments (which is why it made it into the top 5 of contenders), but it fell well short of Pixar classics like Toy Story, Finding Nemo, and The Incredibles. The talking dog was pretty fantastic, and the little scout had some pretty great lines, but that is pretty much it. A lot of the jokes seemed forced or were predictable. The plot was weak, and the villain, one of my favorite elements of most movies, was very weak. I just couldn’t get invested in any of the characters or laugh at many of the jokes (I’d actually like to hear whether Jared thought he laughed more during Up or She’s Out of My League). I will give it this, though, the opening scene was very well done. Squirrel!

District 9
District 9 definitely had one of the most interesting takes on a tried-and-true story. Having the an alien race living in slums, cohabitating to humans, and regulated to second-class status in all things was brilliant. Telling the story in the form of a documentary (The Office style) was pretty fantastic as well. The surprisingly humorous script was augmented by and equally surprising strong cast (surprising in that it is comprised of unknowns). The reason this movie isn’t higher on my list, though, has to do with the plot. While the background and premise of the movie was original and interesting, the actual story was less than stellar. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I didn’t like it, it’s more that it didn’t live up to the promise of the movie’s premise. It was decent, not spectacular. I also felt it didn’t flow as well as it could in a couple of different areas, but that’s really just nit-picking. Overall, a very enjoyable movie that I recommend, and I am very glad to see it make it into the Best Picture nominees.

The Hurt Locker
This is another movie that has increase its ranking as time has gone on. I put it slightly lower on my list originally due to the lack of thought put into the overall plot of the movie. What were all those highly entertaining scenes leading up to? Who is SSG William James and why should we care about his story? However, discounting that, this was a fantastic movie. Kathryn Bigelow does a phenomenal directing job here and I very much hope her Best Director hopes are realized – she deserves it. The tension she is able to create in almost every single scene is nothing short of amazing. The bomb scenes are some of the best I’ve ever seen – due in no small part to the great camerawork. Let’s not forget about Renner either. Even though I didn’t know why I should care about him or his story, I couldn’t help but be fully engrossed in whatever he was doing due to Renner’s extremely strong performance. I seriously wish the Academy wasn’t going to hand over the Best Actor award to Jeff Bridges solely as a “Lifetime Achievement Award” because Renner far-and-away out acted Bridges this year. There is a reason this is in my top 3 of nominees. This is a terrific movie, and, had it had a better script, could have been a serious contender for my favorite movie of the year.

Up in the Air
What can I say about this movie? My fellow Grouches have, on many occasions, ridiculed this movie – its script, acting, and directing – and I can’t understand it. Not because I liked it so much (though that is an extremely valid reason in-and-of-itself), but because they all profess to like it as much or more than me. The lowest score it got between us is an 8.4. It actually has the third highest average score of any film we’ve seen this year (beaten by Zombieland and Up). That’s saying quite a bit. I thought it was great. Since Michael Clayton, my respect for Clooney has skyrocketed and I think he does a great job here. Not only that, the two female characters in this movie are both widely different but equally well written and portrayed. Kendrick and Farmiga both shine as opposite sides of the same coin (the professional woman), and complement Clooney’s character as few roles do, now-a-days. I thought the script, while not out-of-this-world, was very well done – with humorous, contemplative/deep, and sad/depressing moments sprinkled in throughout the movie. I actually also really like the directing here as well. Reitman was a very close third to Tarantino and Bigelow this year. Each gave very strong efforts this year, which were rewarded with equally strong movies. I will admit that this movie struck a nerve with its portrayal of the constantly traveling businessman (as that was my life for 2 ½ years), but even discounting that, this was a pretty great movie.

Inglourious Basterds
The Big Kahuna (and no, not Big Kahuna Burger) – nine down, one to go. Since seeing this movie, it has topped my annual Top 5 with only one other movie even coming close to toppling it (Zombieland for those keeping track). Quentin Tarantino is one of my all-time favorites and he doesn’t disappoint with this dialogue-driven, Nazi-killin’, action flick. From the first scene, Tarantino is able to fully invest the audience into his world. How many other directors/films would have such a long, dialogue-heavy opening scene? And how many people actually noticed that the scene went on for so long after the first couple of minutes of interplay between Waltz’s SS Colonel and the out-matched farmer? Tarantino’s ability to take the seemingly most inane scene and turn it into a focal point of a movie based solely on the dialogue (and underlying story) never ceases to amaze me. And he does this more than once in the movie (don’t forget that amazing bar room scene). All this is without taking into account the overall story or the wonderfully violent action scenes. Tarantino gives us a movie that is entertaining on multiple levels and does so with style (plus, he killed Hitler…come on!). If it were up to me, Basterds would receive Best Picture, Original Screenplay, Cinematography, and Film Editing along with the almost assured Best Supporting Actor for Waltz. Alas, it is not to be.

Today we’re taking on the Best Director race and declaring who we think should win.

The nominees:

  • Avatar: James Cameron
  • The Hurt Locker: Kathryn Bigelow
  • Inglourious Basterds: Quentin Tarantino
  • Precious: Lee Daniels
  • Up in the Air: Jason Reitman

John says:

    This is another terrific lineup of nominees and again I feel like I’m nitpicking some to narrow it down to my favorite. Any of these five would make a great winner. So what am I looking for in Best Director besides who made the best movie? I’d say overall vision, style, tone, pacing, and coherence. Does that sound about right? Of course, these are all things I look for in a movie anyway.

    Tarantino strikes me as all flash with minimal substance. He made Basterds a thrilling ride, but I don’t think I really shared his vision. No doubt a fascinating and stylish film, however. The weighty material in Precious requires a deft hand to prevent it from slipping into absurd melodrama or emotional manipulation. Daniels cast the right actors and extracted pitch-perfect performances out of them. His visions for Precious’s dream sequences hit the right tone to balance the more intense scenes.

    I give Bigelow lots of credit for finely honing the tension in The Hurt Locker, making it one of the best war thrillers I’ve seen. And Reitman does a great job with the tone and atmosphere in Up in the Air. The film sort of settled in my gut and that feeling was the largest takeaway for me, even more than any scene or performance.

    But James Cameron is my choice. The man had a big vision for Avatar and he completely delivers. We may quibble about the writing, but he shepherds the story through the long running time without ever letting it drag and always keeps it entirely coherent. In lesser hands, Avatar could be a mess of visual effects and thematic missteps; Cameron makes his technological breakthroughs enhance and complement all the other components of the film without taking away from any. I just love the world he creates and the way he uses all the tools at his disposal to realize it.

    Snubs: I don’t mean to overdo my love for The Informant!, but it’s absolutely a triumph in tone, editing, and style and for that Steven Soderbergh should have received some love.

Jared replies:

    Like John mentioned, I’m not sure anyone has a good idea how to judge a director (i.e. where the direction starts and the writing/acting/editing/cinematography, etc. starts), and so I’m a little less comfortable here than with the other categories.

    I didn’t really like Inglourious Basterds, and I think part of the reason for that was that no segment of the film really felt complete. Tarantino’s mishmashing style may have worked elsewhere, but I found it pointless here.

    Maybe Jason Reitman’s direction just seemed effortless. And it isn’t like I could point to a single thing non-script thing I’d do differently with the film. But I also can’t really think of a memorable thing about the film I’d attribute to Reitman.

    Hopefully this time will be the last I have to say that the key to Precious was Mo’Nique, Sidibe, and the basic story construct, almost everything else is besides the point. I fall somewhere between John and Brian on the dream sequences, but I’ll give credit to Daniels for how he handled the stairwell shots.

    Like many people, it seems, I had a hard time making the final decision here. My problems with Avatar stem almost exclusively from the script. Cameron obviously has a nearly unparalleled ability to do big, splashy sequences while working them into something bigger. But ultimately, I guess I’ll shift a little bit of the blame for the slow parts onto his direction.

    Enough, at least, to anoint the ex-Mrs. Cameron the winner. We’ll get to it, but I think Kathryn Bigelow was working from a relatively weak script. The film was tremendously tense. And sure, it helps when a bomb is involved. But really, not that much happens in the film. So I’m going to assign a good chunk of the credit to Ms. Bigelow for creating a really taut film with neat action scenes.

Brian adds:

    Fantastic. Let the Avatar bashing begin! But first, the two near-contenders for my pick for the Oscar. I know Adam will follow up with a full-throated defense of Inglourious Basterds, but Tarantino is my runner-up choice. Everything that made the movie great, the episodic chapters, the white-knuckled tense scenes at the prologue and in the bar, the fantastic conclusion — can be ascribed to Tarantino’s direction. It was truly a great marriage of material with cinematography, and the way that he brought together a melange of actors and stories is definitely to his credit. For a guy who dislikes “message” movies, I’m surprised by how much Jared disliked Basterds.

    Up in the Air was also a great display of directing — which I tend to think of an award for “how well does everything come together.” Reitman got great performances out of Kendrick and Clooney — and I thought the bumpers he used between cities, the plane’s eye view, was a nice touch. But this year — not enough to compete with the big guns.

    Going by the definition above, I blame Cameron’s ego for disqualifying him for an Avatar win. He let Giovanni Ribisi and Stephen Lang chew the scenery to pieces and failed to recognize the shallowness of his own script. The final third took forever to come, even though the final battle was inevitable. His vision of a technical masterpiece came true, but I just can’t give a director award to a half-good film.

    And I definitely can’t fathom giving it to Precious, which as Jared has said, is only being considered for anything because of Mo’Nique and Sidibe. The fantasy sequences that John and Jared refer to are pointless, distracting, and overdone. Daniels’ penchant for shakycam when in the social worker scenes with Mariah Carey infuriated me — I was so engrossed by the performances only to be drawn out by an unnecessary zoom.

    But, Bigelow. There’s your winner. Many of the setpieces from the film will stay in my memory, including the UN car bomb scene and the final shot back in Iraq. From start to finish, Hurt Locker keeps you on your toes, never truly sure what’s going to happen. A less competent director (*cough* Paul Haggis) would have found a way to insert their own ideologies and politics into what may end up being one of the best Iraq war movies ever, but Bigelow is smart enough to let her work speak for itself.

Adam proclaims:

    Will Win: Kathryn Bigelow

    While I may have had more love this year for other movies, the reason this movie wasn’t in my top 5 had nothing to do with the directing. Given a better script, this movie had the potential to be near the very top of my list of movies this year. I have to agree with both Jared and John that the tension she was able to create, as well as the very well done action scenes, make for a very strong nominee. I have no problem with her winning this category (especially if it is over Cameron).

    I Want to Win: Quentin Tarantino

    I am a huge Tarantino fan, so maybe my opinion is somewhat biased, but I don’t think that really matters. I’m biased because I believe Tarantino is one of the (if not THE) best writer/director/producers out there, and Inglourious Basterds is no exception – despite Jared’s felonious assertions. I’d LOVE to see this movie sweep all categories…but I’m not naïve enough to believe it will happen.

    Dark Horse: Lee Daniels (and no, I’m not being racist. He’s the longest shot)

    He’s last in the rankings (both mine and others’ predictions) and there is a reason…he didn’t do that great of a job. I hate to admit it, but I agree with John – Soderbergh is a MUCH stronger candidate for the slot.

    Ranking:

    1. Quentin Tarantino
    2. Kathryn Bigelow
    3. Jason Reitman
    4. James Cameron
    5. Lee Daniels

    Grouches Critiques:

    I find it almost unfathomable that Brian of all people is the only one to really give adequate credit to Inglourious Basterds – shame on you Jared and John. I will have plenty of time to bash John’s love of Avatar and James Cameron in the next couple of days. All I can say now is…really? Really, John? Nothing else really jumps out at me about the rest, though. We were pretty close with our critiques on these movies with 3 of 4 picking Bigelow. Precious wasn’t great and the direction was one of the weakest parts, and the strongest part of Up in the Air was not the directing.

    Random Notes:

    As much as I think Avatar is over-hyped, the direction wasn’t horrible (second best thing about the film next to the visuals – which has something to do with the direction). That said, I actually like more of the picks here than in Adapted Screenplay. And, like Adapted Screenplay, my top two are close enough that I’m not going to be pissed at the Academy if they go with Bigelow. She did a terrific job with the little she was given.

    God I hope James Cameron doesn’t win.

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