Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The Way We Were

Number 1 - Nebraska

School yearbooks are funny. Our book used to be in black and white with a few color pages. We used to spend hours figuring out exactly which pages were going to get to be in those coveted color pages. If there was one regular complaint from middle school kids about the yearbook then, it was that it wasn't all in color.

After I returned to the yearbook from a break, the world of yearbookery had changed. We were in all color. We were paying a lot more for the book, but that decision was gone. We were in glorious color. And during that year, as the class was looking at some black and while photos during our photo of the week session, some kids suggested that we have some pages in black and white. And the class agreed.

You can't win.

Unless you watch Nebraska.

It's in black and white. I absolutely cannot imagine it any other way. To be absolutely honest, I do not think it would top my list if it were in color.

As I played with my photos from my vacation last summer, I spent a few second with every single one of the almost 10,000 photos. In the end, I picked just about 750 to actually edit. With a good handful, I tried them in black and white. But here's the thing I wasn't quite sure of. Why did I try with some and not others? And why did some work in black and white and not others?

I'm still not sure if I totally understand logically. But on an emotional level, I understand it a little more after watching Nebraska. There's a certain emptiness to black and white photography. The dark is what isn't there. That's a bit of sadness, loneliness, or whatever else. But there's the light. Something of significance is there that we can accent in a way that color cannot.

There's a certain emptiness to Nebraska. Woody Grant, played by Bruce Dern, seems to live a bit of a hopeless life. As the movie starts, he is walking alone. It turns out that he is walking from Montana to Nebraska to claim a million dollar prize that he won. Or didn't.

Everyone else who looks at the "winning" ticket points out that he hasn't actually won anything. The viewer understands very quickly that it isn't actually a winning ticket, But Woody can't seem to get it through his head.

He's portrayed as a loser. This is a guy who can't hold down a job. He's probably an alcoholic. His wife seems to blame him for a lifetime of unhappiness. His two kids seem to be in lives that are falling apart. The obvious connection is Woody.

This is the guy who gets five minutes of screen time in most movies. There a middle aged guy down on his luck. We wonder why for most of the movie, but then his father shows up for a scene. Oh, ok. That's why this guy is so unhappy. He has a crappy father. Got it. Move on to the rest of the story.

But in Nebraska, our focus is on Woody. As the movie goes on, we are shown who he is. We are shown where he's from. We are shown more about his wife and their relationship. Tiniest of spoilers - it's nothing like what you think.

The story is framed around the relationship that changes between Woody and his son David, played by Will Forte. David knows that Woody has won nothing, just like everyone else. He needs a short break from his own life. Helping Woody take this journey is going to allow for that.

You can also see, however, that David wants to be there when Woody finally fails. Perhaps he, too, has seen those movies. He pictures himself as the victim of the circumstance of being Woody's child. Nebraska is largely Woody's story told through David's eyes. We learn about Woody's background as David does. He has only heard the stories; now he gets to see the reality.

There's an emptiness to their lives. But that's not the focus. There's some light to it. There's something there. There's something in the past. There's something in their future. The black and white shows us that. We feel it.

Nebraska isn't exactly a redemption story. It isn't exactly a happy story. It isn't a sad story. It's a lot of everything. It's about, you know, the grey area.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Seasons in the Sun

Number 2 - Frozen

This was the biggest surprise I've had in the theaters in a long time.

Somehow or another, I wandered across this article discussing Frozen. I say that because I really have no idea why I clicked on it. I had no interest whatsoever in seeing the movie.

I saw one trailer. In my memory, I seem to remember a moose chasing a carrot across ice. Hijinks ensued. It wasn't funny. It wasn't entertaining. It also wasn't a moose.

I don't even remember paying enough attention to the trailer enough to notice that is was Disney. I'm pretty sure that all I thought at the time was that this movie was trying to cash in on the Ice Age bonanza, and that seemed really, really lame. I was reminded of that trailer with the squirrel and his frozen nuts.

And then look at the poster. More of the same. I'm sure I had to assume that it's about a silly snowman who lost his carrot nose. Or something.

And if you didn't read it, that's the point of the article. Disney wasn't marketing this movie to me. It was marketing it to dumb kids so that they would drag their unsuspecting parents into the movie.

After glancing through the article, which I didn't carefully read until after seeing the movie, the idea stuck in the back of my head. I checked out the rottentomatoes score - currently at 89%. But because of that first trailer, I also checked the score for Ice Age. It's at 77%.

As I've mentioned Ice Age a couple times now, I should point out that I didn't hate it or anything. There just wasn't anything special or even interesting to me about it.

So why did I see it? The next time I was planning to go see a movie, I was going to get to the theater a bit too late to see what I really wanted to see. I might have only missed trailers, but I don't like showing up after its dark and tripping over people and blocking their view. Frozen was showing about twenty minutes later. High rottentomatoes score? Free pass? What the heck.

Frozen is not Ice Age.

It's a fantastic story. It has great characters. It has two strong female leads. It's funny. The music is fun and memorable (why yes - I do, in fact, want to build a snowman). And most importantly, it's smart.

The interaction between Anna,  voiced by Veronica Mars Kristen Bell, and Prince Hans seems to be typical. The villain seems obvious. It all turns around later in the story in a way that not only works, was surprising, but was cool.

I went into Frozen with absolutely no idea what it was about or what was going to happen. The only things I remembered that I didn't know from the article is that there was a female lead and that there were songs.

The biggest problem I've had with this is that in conversations with actual adult people is that I've mentioned that it was great and I've gotten some sideways glances. My credibility is questioned. I'm sure the same has happened with many of you. But Frozen is a damn fine movie, and almost my favorite of the year.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Love's Theme

Number 3 - Gravity

The trailer and the hype didn't get me for Gravity. Looking back, I don't know if I ever saw the trailer in the theaters. I didn't see a lot of movies in the season leading up to it, so I probably saw it on a small computer screen. Or maybe just a commercial.

But Gravity is one of those movies that really needs a big screen. If you haven't seen it in the theaters yet, there's still time. I even wish I had seen it in IMAX.

I did bite the bullet (and the extra four or five bucks) to see it in 3D. Once again, I listened to some joker or another tell me that this was a movie that needed to be seen in 3D. Once again, they're wrong. About once a year or so I fall for that. Totally my fault.

During Gravity, you get a strange sense of the claustrophobia of being in space. The nothingness closes in around you as much as it does the characters on the screen. That's something that the big screen does that your TV might not.

We're getting so close to entering an amazing age of CGI. Looking back at the time since the biggest and blockbusteriest pioneers, Jurassic Park and Terminator 2, movies have seen a lot of really, really shitty CGI. In many cases, though, filmmakers have done a great job in building on those blocks to create some great effects where they aren't necessarily obvious.

Gravity is one of those movies. While you're watching it, you start with a sense of logic that tells you that they obviously didn't film it in space, so there must be something going on. But the thing that sets it apart is that you very quickly forget. I wonder if it's because there are no monsters or even animals behaving is ways they wouldn't normally do so? Because you don't have to suspend that reality?

Other than that, it has a pretty straight forward plot, the acting is well enough, and we get character development. What more can you ask for?

Even though I wasn't expecting to like Gravity as much as I did, that's nothing compared to the absolute surprise I got from watching movie number two...

Friday, January 3, 2014

Come and Get Your Love

Number 4 - Dallas Buyers Club

I think I'm experiencing déjà vu with this movie. It's nothing about the plot or setting or anything like that. It's Matthew McConaughey.

You see, he's really, really good in Dallas Buyers Club. I left the theater thinking to myself, "Matthew McConaughey? As in, 'All right, all right' with no shirt on playing the bongos? He's this good of an actor?"

And then I took a look at IMDB to see what else he had been in. My memory is that he's been crapping it up in a bunch of stinkers. But no, it's a list of pretty good movies. And pretty good performances.

And here's the déjà vu. I'm pretty sure I've had this same conversation with myself and gone to IMDB and reached the same conclusion.

I guess it isn't a particular movie that I'm thinking of but just the guy himself. Now there are probably other reasons as well. I didn't see Sahara, but I heard it was a turd and that he was probably a piece of corn in that turd. His role in The Wolf of Wall Street was memorable, but his acting was a bit over the top. And yeah, he was that guy who played the bongos and ran around without a shirt. Or so I heard. Or read. I don't know. For some reason, that's how I know him.

It's funny that I talk so much about McConaughey being good. Jared Leto was phenomenal and will get a best supporting actor nomination.

In addition to all that, it's a really good movie. When it's finished, you'll learn more about HIV and AIDS medications. All I knew before going in was "AZT. That's the AIDS drug, right?" Turns out - no. It's not. Or it shouldn't be. And oh yeah - you'll hate another part of our beloved government, specifically the part that is supposed to be keeping us safe from all of the horrible drugs that people are abusing themselves with. Because it's a black and white issue - no grey area whatsoever.

It's still in theaters. Go see it.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Dancing Machine

Number 5 - Twelve Years a Slave

Yeah, it probably earns its spot on my list because I'm a history nerd. But damn, it's a good movie.

Teaching eighth grade, slavery was always a focus in the spring. We try to do everything we can to get kids to really understand exactly what was going on. It was pretty important to understand the brutality of just the idea of owning another person. And then there's the actual physical brutality.

Every year, in almost every class, there was always at least one of these boys. They would have to show everyone how tough and awesome they were instead of, you know, trying to understand the concept. They would tell everyone else how they wouldn't take any of those beatings. They would fight back and kick everyone's ass.

Or, perhaps, when we watch Glory, they would giggle at Denzel Washington as a tear rolls down his face while getting beated. When that happened, it was always a strange juxtaposition of giggles and sniffles. Unfortunately, they weren't the uncomfortable giggles that you often get with students. For those of you who aren't teachers, it's that moment when kids are uncomfortable with what they are seeing and hearing. And instead of shutting up and trying to absorb or think about it, they laugh.

But this isn't that. These boys are laughing at Private Trip (Denzel's character) for being weak. Real men don't cry, after all. He's just getting whipped.

A few seconds later, they show a quick shot of his ripped up back. Some of the kids get it at that point, but not all. A big part of that is technology. Watching something in a classroom using district purchased projectors doesn't exactly show clarity. It's easy to miss exactly what you're seeing.

But even so, Glory doesn't show the full brutality of skin getting ripped off of someone's back. Perhaps they skipped it because it didn't want to earn an R rating that it didn't deserve.

Twelve Years a Slave goes all in. You see it. You hear it. You feel it. It's bad. The bad thing is that an eighth grade classroom, full of people who need to see this, probably won't be allowed to.

The movie is even more heartbreaking when you know the outcome, which is actually spoiled in the title. Solomon Northup "lives" as a slave for twelve years before being returned to freedom. You feel the years he lost in his life. But you have to remember that he is one of the few who got freedom at all. Every other slave you see in the movie remained a slave. Most were born a slave. Their freedom doesn't come until the War Between the States later on and the Thirteenth Amendment.

The acting, by just about everyone, is raw and perfect. If Twelve Years a Slave doesn't get a Best Picture nod, I just hope that a few of the people in it do. 

The worst thing about the movie? That poster. Look at that thing. It looks like it's for Run, Soloman, Run instead of this. Shame.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

2013 Movies - The better movies

I left this off of the last post:
Man of Steel was a good enough superhero movie. It just wasn't a very good Superman movie. It quickly became clear as to why he no longer had his underwear on the outside of his pants. That's because when you get your panties in a bunch, you don't want to wear them anymore. I'm cool with the brooding, moody superhero. But this wasn't Superman. I have plenty of faith that Ben Affleck can be a good Batman. I have little faith that Zack Snyder can make a good movie, and I wish Affleck had been tapped for that role instead.

If this moment isn't in the next Avengers movie, it fails.
Now to the better films.

The last superhero movie this year was Thor: The Dark World. I thought it was the best of the bunch, but it didn't have much with which to compete. It was fun and funny. It continued the storyline of the character between Avengers films. It did what it needed to. I wonder if these movies are too big, and that they really have to be. While Asgard is a great change of pace, I would like to see more of the god on Earth type of thing. Have Thor take on some of the Marvel Universe villains (how about Thor versus the Absorbing Man?), but keep the focus on something smaller. He doesn't have to save the universe each time. This goes for all of the Marvel movies. Save that for the Avengers.

I'm enjoying the new Star Trek movies. Star Trek Into Darkness had an interesting enough take, and Benedict Cumberbatch can do no wrong. I'm not a big enough trekkie to compare these, but I can tell you that as long as this cast is on the Enterprise, I'll keep coming back. They nailed each character.

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues had no way of living up to the first movie. I accepted that before watching it, and it helped. There were a few funny parts, but nothing as quotable. There were a few long stretches between laughs. But the funniest scene (which was also the funniest scene in the first movie - funny how that works) was pretty darned funny. It features one of the Jacksons.

Last year, I forgave the length of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. I think it's because of the LOTR films, which I loved. But in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, I just couldn't sit still. Everything looks great. Everything is fun. But there are just... so... many... details. I haven't read the book since fifth grade. Is there really enough left for another movie? I'm definitely not the first or last to say this: It would have made a REALLY great single film.

Saving Mr. Banks is going to be a top choice for people who don't really see a lot of movies. I say that in the most condescending way I possibly can. While watching it, I got caught up with it as well. It's a good movie. There were plenty of tears falling in that theater. But here are two reasons why it can't be great. First, Tom Hanks... isn't very good. With most actors, you can forgive it. But I can't with him. Sorry. The second reason is very similar to my critique of Les Miserables last year. If you loved Saving Mr. Banks, it's probably because you liked the music. But the music was from a different movie. If you got a little teary eyed during Feed the Birds, it wasn't because of this movie. It's because of Mary Poppins.

Her is a cringe movie. You won't feel comfortable for the entire movie. When you start to feel comfortable, you notice it, and it's not OK. And yet, I still have to say that the movie is quite... beautiful. Perhaps that says more about me than the movie.

American Hustle tried really hard. It tried too hard. And everything is technically good about it. The story is fine, the acting is really good, and it looks great. But it doesn't quite come together. For me, it was the music. Partway through I thought about how good the soundtrack was in representing the late 70s. As the movie kept going, they crammed in more and more songs that would make a great soundtrack. But it started to become a parody of itself. It started to become - how many late 70s songs can we license and cram into this movie? Apparently, all of them.

The Wolf of Wall Street is definitely a Martin Scorcese film. You won't mistake it for anyone else's work. Unlike in American Hustle, he knows how to grab a song from the time period and make it stick to a scene. Everyone is great in this. I was concerned from the trailer that Jonah Hill was just playing Joe Pesci. He sorta does, but he also has his own thing going on. There are shots of Leonardo DiCaprio where he looks a lot like Orson Wells in Citizen Kane.  If  five weren't such a nice round number, I would have made it a top six list and started with The Wolf of Wall Street. It's a three hour movie, but it didn't feel much longer than two hours fifty-five.

Inside Llewyn Davis is a cool little Coen Brothers film. I use the word little carefully, as each Coen Brothers movie feels intimate. Their movies really are about people. They are about the characters and not as much about what happens. But some of their movies feel bigger. This really is about one guy. Sure, there are other characters. But it's about Llewyn Davis, a struggling folk singer in the early 1960s. The big conflict you will have when you watch is whether to actually root for him or not. All I could think of while watching was this story from The Onion. And then I just wanted him to get some kind of day job.

Tomorrow - number five.