Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Adventures in Cinematic Failure: "Winter's Tale" Really Sucks

I'm lucky enough to have access to a screening series in New York, where I get to see movies for free about every other week. It's an especially great group to be a part of during the Oscar season when so many great films are out (and is why my bank account can survive my obsession with the Academy Awards). But, once the awards season is over-- as it is now-- then the film screenings tend towards the random. It's still a great group, as I get a chance to see films that I ordinarily wouldn't have bothered to see, and sometimes I am pleasantly surprised. But this past week, I saw the new film Winter's Tale and it was one of the worst things I've ever seen. It's really bad. Really, really bad. I went into it with only the lowest expectations, and I was still disappointed. Few things could ever hope to be this bad. Having spent the past few posts discussing the very best in film of the past year, it might be a nice change of pace to write about one of the worst films in recent memory. And so, for your reading pleasure, I am going to summarize the film to the best of my ability and, of course, point out the many, many, many flaws as the film went on.

To start, the positives. The film looks beautiful.

Thus ends the list of positives.

Actually, the other positive is that at least Russell Crowe doesn't sing.

The film starts with an overly dramatic narration saying something about stars and love and how we're all connected or something. I would mock it as being really cheesy and awful, except that it's probably the least cheesy and awful part of the movie.

Now it's 1886, and an immigrant couple (one of whom is played by Matt Bomer for no reason) are denied entry to the United States. The couple is disappointed, but not for themselves, but for their infant son who they think deserves a better life. They're so determined for their son to not have to live in...wherever they come from since they never actually tell us...that rather than keep him, they lower him into the ocean in a toy boat. Keep in mind that it's not a real boat, it's just a model of a ship, and from the looks of it, they're not exactly near shore. This baby would have little to no chance of survival and these parents are probably the least responsible parents in the world.

But, luckily for them, their terrible plan works and the child grows into Colin Farrell.

Farrell, immediately after watching this film.


Colin Farrell plays Peter Lake, a common thief with an Irish accent despite, as the opening scene showed us, having not grown up in Ireland. It's now 1916, and Farrell is running away from men in bowler hats. Now, in the completely incoherent trailer (although to be fair, the trailer makes more sense than the film itself) I assumed that these were cops. Since they're chasing down a thief. But, really they're apparently gangsters, led by Russell Crowe.


Russell Crowe does his best "Russell Crowe with a scar" face.

They have him cornered and are about to kill him. But Colin Farrell is saved by a magical white horse.

Read that again. Colin Farrell is saved by a magical white horse.

This happens less than ten minutes into the film, and is probably the earliest a deus ex machina has ever appeared in a film.

The best performance in the film and Colin Farrell.
The thing is that Colin Farrell takes an unreasonably long time to climb onto the magical white horse, and I have to wonder why Russell Crowe doesn't shoot him. But there's a very good reason for this: Russell Crowe is really bad at killing people in this film. Really really bad. This is just instance #1. Take a drink every time Russell Crowe doesn't kill someone.

So Colin Farrell escapes on the magical white horse which might be able to fly, and decides to flee New York City to hide out. He takes the horse to...a location (again, unspecified) and talks to...a guy. I'm pretty sure we don't ever learn his name. But, after Colin Farrell leaves, he knowingly says to the horse "I was wondering when you'd get here," so the guy clearly has some sort of magical quality. The guy does not do anything in this entire film.

We find out that Russell Crowe is a demon. We are also told in expositiony dialogue that Colin Farrell used to be his protege and that demon Russell Crowe thinks of him as a son. Don't worry, this part of their relationship never has any impact on the story and neither ever shows any emotion towards the fact that their father/son relationship has become a rivalry. That would be too interesting. Demon Russell Crowe is trying to kill Colin Farrell because he's going to perform a miracle. And, as a demon, Russell Crowe can't let that happen.

Back to Colin Farrell, he's trying to leave town and plans to ride the magical white horse to Florida. Because that's doable. But the horse refuses to move, and Colin Farrell takes this to mean he should rob another house before he leaves. He sneaks into a house which clearly belongs to a wealthy family-- being all thiefly like he is-- but finds that the house is not abandoned as he originally believed. Instead, Jessica Brown Findlay is there-- she plays Beverly Penn and she has consumption. Earlier we saw a doctor who looked horrified to see how poorly she was doing even though she looks perfectly fine.

Jessica Brown Findlay does her best "close to dying" face
Colin Farrell watches her play the piano and accidentally steps on a floorboard, which squeaks. Jessica Brown Findlay turns and sees him holding a gun. Colin Farrell attempts to alleviate the tension in the room by simply saying the word "squeaks." That's his actual line. She looks at him, and he just says, "squeaks."

Seriously, this scene feels like Colin Farrell forgot his lines, but remembered that one of the words is "squeaks," so he just said that a few times.

But whether Colin Farrell knew any of his lines is not important here. What's important is that because Jessica Brown Findlay is hot, Colin Farrell decides not to rob the house. And because Colin Farrell is hot, Jessica Brown Findlay is not scared of him. Even though he's a stranger who snuck into her house and was creepily watching her (and I didn't mention she'd just gotten out of the bath) and is holding a gun. But, again, he's hot, so therefore can't be dangerous. They drink tea and talk about their lives and fall in love. We know that they fall in love because...we're told they are. Seriously, there's no reason for these characters to connect at all, and the actors don't share any chemistry. But they're in love because...they are. Just accept it, because there's more ridiculousness to come.

Colin Farrell rides away on the magical white horse but meets up with a Native American man  who, like with many other supporting characters in this movie, is completely unexplained and never appears again. He tells Colin Farrell that the horse is actually a guardian angel who shows up when someone's going to perform a miracle, and encourages Colin Farrell to go and be with Jessica Brown Findlay.

The previous night, Russell Crowe had been at a restaurant and injured a waiter and drew something in his blood. The drawing is supposed to be a redheaded woman, but it looks like more like a "squiggly thing." And because the waiter was a virgin (luckily for Russell Crowe) this means the drawing is actually a prophecy, so Russell Crowe thinks that the redheaded woman must have something to do with Colin Farrell's miracle so he tries to find her.

Anyway, demon Russell Crowe finds Jessica Brown Findlay-- the redheaded woman-- and menacingly talks to her before killing her. Now, it's a common criticism that movie villains tend to explain their plans for no reason, thus giving the chance for the hero to foil said plan. Consider almost every James Bond film ever made. But this irrational trope is especially egregious here. Russell Crowe even mentions while talking to Jessica that he has to kill her quickly since Colin Farrell is probably on his way to save her. He actually acknowledges his time limit, and then continues to talk for a really long time. Unsurprisingly, Colin Farrell shows up riding his magical fucking white horse-- which is an incredibly conspicuous way to arrive. Russell Crowe can see and hear him from across the block...yet still does not take this opportunity to kill Jessica Brown Findlay. Even though he was just talking about how it's really important for him to kill Jessica Brown Findlay. Instead, he just watches as Colin Farrell rides on by and effortlessly picks up Jessica and the two of them ride away on their magical white horse. Demon Russell Crowe gets really angry about this despite having made no effort to stop it. That has been instance #2 of Russell Crowe being really bad at killing people. Take a drink.


So, Colin Farrell and Jessica Brown Findlay ride away on the magical white horse as demon Russell Crowe and his gangsters chase them. Colin Farrell gets to the edge of the city, which is apparently a cliff overlooking a frozen lake. Jessica Brown Findlay is scared because the horse is about to jump off the cliff, but Colin Farell tells her that the horse can fly. This is certainly news to the audience, and it's rather unclear how Colin Farrell knows this particular fact, but he does and the horse does indeed fly off the cliff with invisible wings that the audience can see (???) and runs away on the frozen lake. Russell Crowe is angry, and tells us that he can't follow them because it's "against the rules." Instead, he kills his second-in-command-- a guy named Romeo. With such a literary name, you'd think that maybe he has something in common with the famous character after which he is named. He does not. Other than the fact that he dies, but in this case, it's certainly not tragic.

Seriously, this guy is named Romeo, yet has nothing to do with the Shakespeare character. There's later a character named Caesar, who also has nothing to do with the Shakespeare character. And the film is called Winter's Tale yet has nothing to do with the Shakespeare play The Winter's Tale. What gives?

Oh, and in case you were wondering, demon Russell Crowe is not the one who actually kills Romeo-- he makes a henchman do it instead. So his track record of not successfully killing anyone himself stands. You can breathe a sigh of relief.

The magical white horse keeps running on the frozen lake and happens to take its two passengers to the very place that Jessica Brown Findlay was planning to head to that very day. Good job, magical white horse! There, Colin Farrell meets Jessica Brown Findlay's family-- specifically her father, played by William Hurt, and her sister Willa, who seems to be about seven by my estimation, and is the most precocious and whimsical child ever put on film, beating out competitors in this category like Dakota Fanning in I Am Sam and the character Timothy Green from the film The Twee Life of Tweemothy Green.

The actress' name is McKayla Twiggs, which totally sounds like a Hogwarts student.

McKayla Twiggs precociously tells Colin Farrell that because he loves Jessica Brown Findlay, he can save her. She brings him to a greenhouse, which contains a bed that she built out of wishes. Not even kidding. Colin Farrell will later say that the bed was built with the wishes of a child. McKayla Twiggs tells him that if he kisses Jessica Brown Findlay on the bed, then she won't die of consumption. Colin Farrell does nothing with this information. He spends a lot of time with the family and gets to know them. At one point he saves the house from exploding, but even that is boring.

We also learn that stars are the souls of the virtuous people after they died. And Jessica Brown Findlay really likes stars and knows a lot about them. She proves this by listing all the names of the stars several times. "Castor, Pollux, Cassiopeia, Ursa Minor, Ursa Major, Polaris." These are, I think, the only ones she ever says, though, but a list of six proves her expertise pretty definitively. Except that Cassiopeia, Ursa Minor, and Ursa Major are all constellations and not stars, so...not really sure what's going on here but either way, half of her list is wrong.

While all of this is happening, demon Russell Crowe goes to meet with "The Judge." Who is actually Lucifer. Who is played by Will Smith. At one point this would have been really funny because this means that the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air is the devil. But then Will Smith proved he's a serious, Oscar-nominated actor whose cameo could hold a lot of weight. But, the thing is, Will Smith hasn't really done anything good lately. His last film was the disastrous After Earth. So his presence here is not as much "Oh cool, Will Smith," it's more "Why is Will Smith here? And why is he the devil?"

Demon Russell Crowe asks devil Will Smith for permission to leave New York City to chase after Colin Farrell and kill him. His reasoning here is pretty sound-- Colin Farrell is going to perform a miracle, demons can't allow that to happen, Colin Farrell is away from New York City, so demon Russell Crowe needs to leave to kill him. Devil Will Smith, however, decides not to allow this for reasons which aren't ever explained and tells demon Russell Crowe that he has to find another way. Even though it would be so easy for him to be like "okay," and thus allow demon Russell Crowe to perform his task. Demon Russell Crowe leaves, sulking, and devil Will Smith foreshadowingly tells him that "The miracle might not be what it seems." Demon Russell Crowe hears this coming from a seemingly all-knowing and all-powerful devil and decides to do nothing with this information.

Demon Russell Crowe, luckily, finds a way around his problem by speaking to another demon-- who the credits tell us is named Gabriel even though in mythology Gabriel is not a devil but an angel so why is he a demon who is named Gabriel ohmygodthisfilmsucks-- and basically tells the demon to go to the house and kill Jessica Brown Findlay. Demon Gabriel is like "But we're not supposed to go out of the city," and demon Russell Crowe is like "Yeah, it'll be okay," and that's the end of that. It's never explained why this rule can be broken but others can't.

Oh, I forgot to mention that Russell Crowe learns of Colin Farrell's whereabouts because some jewels told him. He, like, can read jewels. Again, never explained.

So, the demon who the credits tell us is named Gabriel goes to the house and slips some sort of magic poison into Jessica Brown Findlay's drink when no one's looking. Later that night, Colin Farrell and Jessica Brown Findlay have sex and she immediately dies. Like, literally immediately after. It's weird. This murder, of course, succeeded because a person other than demon Russell Crowe carried out the murder. Good job, demon who is confusingly named Gabriel. You are the most competent character in the movie. Colin Farrell rushes Jessica Brown Findlay to the...sigh...bed of wishes and kisses her. Nothing happens. Later, at the funeral, McKayla Twiggs precociously gives Colin Farrell a flower because that's what whimsical children do.

With the love of his life gone, Colin Farrell gives up and basically just waits for demon Russell Crowe to kill him. Demon Russell Crowe arrives with a ridiculous number of henchman, and yet it still takes a really long time to capture Colin Farrell. The magical white horse flies away and demon Russell Crowe has Colin Farrell in his clutches. Rather than shoot him, or stab him, demon Russell Crowe decides that the very best weapon he could use is his head. He head-butts Colin Farrell several times, and then finally head-butts him off of a bridge.

But because he is Russell Crowe in this movie, Colin Farrell survives. This is instance #3 of Russell Crowe being really bad at killing people. Take your third drink. We watch Colin Farrell crawl out of the sea but discover that he has amnesia. So sad.

Now we fast forward to 2014. That's 98 years. 98 years have passed. This is an important fact to remember. It's also important to note that what I just described is the BETTER HALF OF THE MOVIE. Its level of suckiness is nothing compared to what happens in the second half of the film. You have been warned.

So, Colin Farrell has not aged at all in the 98 years, but his hair grew out a little bit.

"Oh god, it's only half over."
Colin Farrell still does not know who he is or where he came from. And these questions still seem to be foremost on his mind-- over other concerns like "I still look the same and have been alive for 98 years," and "I don't seem to have met or befriended any other person in those 98 years," and "I need a haircut."

But then he's walking around Central Park and he walks by the guy from before. You know, the guy. The guy who seemed to know about the horse and was like "I was wondering when you'd get here." Well, he's here again and does what he does best: he says a cryptic thing. This time he says something like "Okay, Peter, it's time for you to change." I'm not even sure. Well, he flips a coin and this causes Colin Farrell to bump into a little girl. Neither of them seem to be bothered by this, and have a conversation that Colin Farrell earlier had with McKayla Twiggs. This supposedly represents something, but it's not like they end up being the same person reincarnated or anything, so I'm not really sure what it means. Basically, the little girl is just trying to out-precocious McKayla Twiggs. She doesn't quite do it, but she tries. She then asks Colin Farrell what his name is and he replies, "I don't know."

WHAT?! HE DOESN'T KNOW?! Like, I get that he has amnesia and doesn't remember who he is, but this is a dilemma he has faced for 98 years. Did he not, at any point in those 98 years, think "Maybe I'll just come up with a name. Something that people can call me in case they ask me really simple questions like 'What's your name?' Maybe I'll call myself Colin." No, instead, he spent the entire time just wandering around going "I can't remember my name. Welp, guess I just don't have one."

The girl and her mother, Jennifer Connelly, walk away. Nothing happens. There is no change. Even though random useless magic guy said there would be. Don't worry, he never shows up again and we never find out who he is.



But somehow, without any prompting, Colin Farrell suddenly remembers that he used to live in the roof of Grand Central Station. So he goes there and finds various trinkets from his past. Using them, he pieces together that he might have had something to do with the Penn family. This brings him to the Isaac Penn Reading Room, where he talks to a librarian (depressingly played by the very talented Norm Lewis).

Winter's Tale: A Tale of Two Javerts
Colin Farrell wants to look through the archives of the reading room, which is fine, except that he needs two forms of valid ID. Which he doesn't have.

So, this shouldn't surprise me because he DOESN'T HAVE A NAME but how does he not have any ID? How, in 98 years, did "getting an ID" not come up? It becomes clear that Colin Farrell did not go to the police or a doctor after he had his amnesia. But why not? That would be a normal thing to do! It's not like he remembers he's a thief, so why wouldn't he go to the police? And even if he doesn't have a valid ID, how has he not gotten a fake one? In 98 YEARS?! And...wait, we saw him sitting in his apartment earlier. How does he own/rent an apartment without a valid ID? Or a name? WHAT IS GOING ON?!

Anyway, Jennifer Connelly overhears this. She happens to be a reporter and therefore doesn't need. any ID to go back to the research room, and she decides to help him. This must be why Colin Farrell had to bump into her in the park, so she'd recognize him and decide to help him except WAIT NO SHE SAYS "Do I know you?" AND HE SAYS "I don't think so," SO THEY DON'T RECOGNIZE EACH OTHER AT ALL AND THE WHOLE CENTRAL PARK SCENE WAS USELESS. USELESS. Despite not recognizing him, Jennifer Connelly agrees to help him, saying that she was having trouble with her current project anyway. When Colin Farrell asks what her project was, she says something like "Oh, the cure for cancer or something," which is puzzling because we later find out she's a food columnist.

So, they go to the back room and go through pictures of the Penn family-- Colin Farrell seems to recognize William Hurt, and then all of his memories come back when he sees Jessica Brown Findlay. He starts babbling that he knew her, which is clearly impossible because these pictures were taken 98 years ago. But, sure enough, the very next picture they find is of Jessica Brown Findlay and Colin Farrell standing next to each other.

This puts Jennifer Connelly in a weird situation. If this happened to me, and I were a reporter-- a profession which typically attracts rational and fact-driven people-- I would think that Colin Farrell was a con artist who had somehow hacked the computer and photoshopped himself into the picture. But even if I believed that the picture was genuinely untouched, then this means that he is either a time traveler or an ageless being who is at least 100 years old. Jennifer Connelly responds to this news by disinterestedly saying "What's going on here?" She is way too calm . And is, in fact, way too calm throughout the entire film. Seriously, this character is ridiculously unenthusiastic. And all of Jennifer Connelly's line readings have this certain drowsy quality which makes the second half of this film just so unbelievably uninteresting and perplexing. It's beautiful, and truly the worst performance in a film chock full of them.

A friendly reminder that she won an Oscar.

So, Colin Farrell bemoans that all of the people he knew must be dead, which he treats as some sort of revelation even though he lost his memory 98 years ago so he must have known this already. And then Jennifer Connelly says (in, of course, the most uninterested tone possible) "Not all of them."

She says this, we find, because it just so happens that the editor-in-chief of the magazine at which she works is...Willa Penn. The precocious child. Who is played by Eva Marie Saint, who looks like this.


And if we are to believe the timeline of the movie, she should be 105 years old.

Eva Marie Saint is 89 years old, but looks amazing for her age-- there's no way she would be over 100. And if she's over 100, how is she STILL THE EDITOR-IN-CHIEF OF A MAJOR PUBLICATION?! Shouldn't she have retired by now? Is no one concerned that there's a literally ancient person running this magazine?! HOW IS SHE STILL ALIVE?! DOES SHE EXIST ON A HEALTHY DIET OF WHIMSY?!

So, Colin Farrell and Jennifer Connelly go to meet this 105-year old super editor at her office. She sees Colin Farrell and, amazingly, does not immediately keel over in a stroke. No, rather than showing any shock, horror, or disbelief at seeing her sister's boyfriend from nearly 100 years ago standing before her looking completely unchanged (he cut his hair at some point so he really is completely unchanged), she simply throws her arms up, says "Peter Lake!" and gives him a hug.

This, I think we can all agree, is not a normal response. Seriously, no one in this movie is at all concerned that Colin Farrell is an immortal possible demigod. Jennifer Connelly asks Eva Marie Saint how this is possible (finally) and Eva Marie Saint replies with something along the lines of, "When you've lived as long as I have, you realize that things happen." Sure, things happen...but not things like this!!! Yes, I understand that they're characters in a fantasy movie, but THEY DON'T KNOW THAT! Thankfully, this ridiculous scene ends, and there's not any real point to it other than to show that Willa is still super whimsical even as an old lady. Her final line in the scene is simply to say that she likes pecans. And, thus, she disappears from the film forever. Jennifer Connelly and Colin Farrell are now alone. Now, I know I've made this point before, but again, Jennifer Connelly is a normal person, who is faced with an ageless, seemingly immortal being who is over 100 years old. And while she might have doubted him before, she has now heard first-hand from someone that he is in fact the same person from the photographs 98 years ago. And, in response to all of this, she says the following line. I swear this is the exact line from the film, and it is as ridiculous on the screen as it is here. She says:
"I have a chicken."

Read it again. Read the line. See, what she's doing is inviting him over to dinner, where she's planning to make chicken. But EVEN IF we were to believe the absurd situation that her response here is to invite him for dinner, the fact that the screenwriter thought the best line to convey this would be "I have a chicken," is mind-boggling. I had given up on this movie long before this, but I was especially over it now. What a ridiculous line. Who wrote this crap?!

Oh. The screenwriter was Akiva Goldsman.

Akiva Goldsman won an Academy Award for Best Screenplay once.

An Academy Award-winning writer wrote the line "I have a chicken."

I hate everything.

At first, Colin Farrell declines the invitation, but then shows up anyway. He has dinner with Jennifer Connelly and her daughter. To the film's credit, it does appear that they are having chicken, so at least it's consistent here. Colin Farrell learns that the daughter has cancer, and she begins to convulse and passes out. As she's passed out at the window, Colin Farrell realizes that the drawing of the woman with the red hair is actually the daughter! And the red hair isn't red hair at all-- it's the red headscarf that she's wearing on her head because of the cancer!


Unfortunately, demon Russell Crowe has found this out too. See, remember how jewels talk to him? Well the jewels choose just now to tell him that Colin Farrell is still alive. Why did they wait 98 years? For dramatic tension.

So demon Russell Crowe goes back to devil Will Smith and is like "How did this happen?" Devil Will Smith tells him that the miracle they all sensed would happen was actually caused by Jessica Brown Findlay! She loved Colin Farrell sooooooo much that he remained alive. Which means that Colin Farrell is not performing his miracle until just now. Devil Will Smith admirably resists the urge to say "REMEMBER WHEN I SAID THAT THINGS AREN'T WHAT THEY SEEM? THIS IS WHAT I MEANT, YOU IDIOT!"

But, here's the problem for me...Jessica Brown Findlay performed a miracle and demon Russell Crowe wasn't even aware of it for 100 years. Which means that performing a miracle didn't really have any consequences. But, why then is demon Russell Crowe so adamant that miracles not happen? It doesn't seem to have any adverse affect on the demons whatsoever. So why does he care? Is he just an asshole? Does he like squashing miracles because, well, that's just what demons do? What is his reason for this?! THERE ARE NO STAKES AND NO LOGIC IN THIS STUPID MOVIE!

Demon Russell Crowe resolves to actually kill Colin Farrell for realzies this time-- and given his track record that's going to work out great. Seriously, he has to be the least menacing villain ever. I mean, the worst thing he's done in the entire movie was butcher his accent. Zing. He's so determined to kill Colin Farrell that he strikes up a deal with devil Will Smith that he gives up his immortality. It's never explained exactly why this is necessary, but, like with all the other unexplained things in this film, it's best not to think about it too much. Besides, it was never really established that he couldn't be killed before. We never see him, for example, get shot and then immediately heal. So, for us, there hasn't really been a change. But...I digress. Now not immortal demon Russell Crowe tracks down Colin Farrell's whereabouts and arrives at Jennifer Connelly's house. Colin Farrell realizes they have to get out of there, so he and Jennifer Connelly climb to the roof, unconscious cancer-ridden child in tow. Now this might seem like a stupid plan, as there's nowhere to go once they're on the roof. But...when they get to the roof, they find something there, waiting for them. Something that made me laugh out loud in the middle of the theater.

Are you ready to know what it is?

It's the fucking magical white horse.


So they fly away on the magical white horse and go to the same house they escaped to beforehand-- the giant mansion which is, luckily, uninhabited ever since the Penn family all died out. Jennifer Connelly asks if it's safe and Colin Farrell says that it is, because demon Russell Crowe can't follow them there.

Naturally, demon Russell Crowe then shows up with his troupe of gangsters all driving black cars. This surprises us, as we had not heard that he could go there now, but luckily Colin Farrell has an explanation-- one which I as a viewer was eagerly anticipating. Seeing demon Russell Crowe arriving, Colin Farrell looks at him and simply says "Rules can change." Which is not a good explanation, is not a complete explanation, and barely even qualifies as an explanation, but at least it's something. In fact, it sums up the entire narrative of the movie. This is not a movie that is concerned with rules. This is not a movie that is concerned with logic. Rules, after all, can change, so why stick to them? Why make an effort to create any semblance of guidelines for how this world works. It's not like that's important when setting up a fantasy film. HAVE I MENTIONED HOW MUCH THIS MOVIE SUCKS?!

So, Russell Crowe is there and is really ready to kill everyone. But while he's busy talking, the magical white horse decides to break the ice, which makes all of the gangsters and their cars sink into the water and die. Meaning that the magical white horse has magically saved the day three times in the film. Three deus ex machinae are too many for a single story.

Demon Russell Crowe and Colin Farrell begin to fight. Russell Crowe immediately has an advantage, and begins to kick and headbutt Colin Farrell.  Seriously, he really likes headbutting. He keeps doing this for quite some time. At this point, it would be so easy for him to kill Colin Farrell. But, instead, he just keeps headbutting him. And he keeps doing this until Colin Farrell manages to stab him with one of the trinkets he found in Grand Central earlier in the movie. Demon Russell Crowe dies from this-- in complete shock at the fact that someone would think to use an actual weapon, and a technique other than just headbutting. His last thought was surely "Doing something to actually fatally kill the other person? Why didn't I think of that?!"

As demon Russell Crowe dies, I realize that this is instance #4 of him failing to kill someone. Take a drink. In fact, take another drink, because he also failed to kill Jennifer Connelly. And take a third drink because he also failed to kill the most deadly foe of all-- an unconscious child with cancer.

Meanwhile, Jennifer Connelly continues to have the same comatose expression throughout the whole film.
Having vanquished demon Russell Crowe, the logical thing would be to ride the magical fucking white horse back to a hospital. But, oh noes! The child died at some point! Don't worry-- she was not killed by Russell Crowe's character because that would be a true miracle.

Also, it was at this point that I realized that the daughter does have red hair, which seems redundant because I thought the red headscarf was supposed to symbolize the red hair, so why does she also have to have red hair? Meh, it doesn't matter. That's the least of this film's problems.

But, yeah, the cancer child is dead. Jennifer Connelly seems kind of sad about this and maybe even says "Oh no," or something. It's not as much of a reaction as I would expect from a single mother whose daughter just died, but it's the most emotion she shows in the whole film, so I'll let it slide.

But Colin Farrell has an idea! He carries the dead girl to the bed of wishes that Willa had made as a young girl. Now, I got really worried here because I thought the whole point was that he had to kiss the person on the bed to bring them back to life. But...even for this film, having Colin Farrell make out with a dead child would be a bit much. But they go to the greenhouse, lay her on the bed and then, just kind of ask her to not be dead anymore. They cry on her, Colin Farrell kisses her on the forehead, and he also puts down the flower that Willa gave to him as a young girl. Which has survived without going bad for 98 years because fuck logic, I mean, seriously, he was thrown in to the ocean and the flower was still okay. Also, for some reason, he never threw away the flower during his time with amnesia even though he had no cause to think he should keep it. Although at first it looks like nothing happened, eventually the dead cancer girl wakes up and Jennifer Connelly is so happy she almost smiles.

The film ends and Colin Farrell flees this shitty movie by flying on the magical white horse into the night sky to, theoretically, become another star and join Beverly in the night sky.

And...that's the end. In the end, he finally gets to be with his true love who died almost a hundred years prior and who hadn't been on the screen for an hour. And his one true destiny was to save a littler girl who he met twice in his life and whose family he had absolutely no relation to otherwise.



In case you couldn't tell from my commentary, this movie sucks. The performances are wooden, the dialogue is stupid, and the logic of the film is completely incoherent. And that last one is the worst flaw of the film. I love fantasy, but to set up a fantastical world, you need to define how the world works. This film hardly explains any of what's happening, and a lot of what it explains, it later contradicts. The film never explains the real role of magic in this world. Russell Crowe shows his supernatural demonic powers in public and everyone seems to accept it, and no one questions it. Similarly, we never know just how much Colin Farrell knows about this world. We know from that one single line at the beginning that he was raised by Russell Crowe, so maybe he knows about demons? And yet he seems rather out of the loop at the beginning of the film. And NOBODY REACTS TO THE WEIRD THINGS THAT HAPPEN!!! That's the worst part. All these humans take everything infuriatingly in stride.

There are plenty of bad movies out there, but what makes Winter's Tale especially enjoyable to watch is the fact that it takes itself really seriously. You can tell that it's trying to be profound and trying to be magical, and everyone involved seem to think they're succeeding. So the fact that they're not succeeding even a little bit is part excruciating and part hilarious. And the worst part is that it could have been a good movie. The characters are not interesting, but they could have been, and the novel on which it is based is hugely popular, and I can see how it would make a great book. I hear that the film and the book are completely different, so that's a good start. But the lack of any attention to detail, the stupidity of the characters, and the all-around incoherent narrative make Winter's Tale one of the most astonishing cinematic failures I've ever seen, and it's an early contender for worst film of 2014.

But at least Jennifer Connelly has a chicken. And that's something for which we can all be thankful.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

2014 Oscar Predictions: For Your Listening Pleasure


So, fans of this blog have read my many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, MANY thoughts on the Oscars. But...if that's not enough for you, now you can listen to those thoughts too! This past weekend, I was visiting my alma mater and ended up talking about the Oscars on a radio show, along with a lot of other great, knowledgeable people with some great insight.

Check it out here.

Many thanks to Kelsey and Teddy for having me on the show!

Saturday, February 15, 2014

"The Wolf of Wall Street" and the Shylock Problem



As the Oscars approach, one of the more controversial nominees this year is Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street. I weigh in on the debate, and offer a comparison with one of Shakespeare’s most notorious characters.


One of my main passions in life is the complete works of William Shakespeare. It’s pointless to discuss how great Shakespeare is here, as it’s not like his genius is not well-known or often-discussed. One of Shakespeare’s best qualities is his inclusion of, at the time, unrepresented characters. No other playwright of the time gave their female characters such prevalence and strength, and the inclusion of characters of other races is rather incredible. One such character is that of Shylock, the Jewish moneylender from Merchant of Venice. The best known character from the play, Shylock is not actually the titular merchant, as many believe. The merchant, in this case, is the anti-semitic Antonio, who regularly bullies and disrespects Shylock. In most contemporary productions, Shylock is seen as a victim who cunningly seeks revenge on his oppressors. He is a sympathetic character, and his utter defeat at the end—when Portia shows him up in court—is usually displayed as pitiable and sad. Shylock’s not necessarily a good guy, and his demand for a pound of Antonio’s flesh is scarily unreasonable, but you understand it, considering the years of abuse he has faced.

Al Pacino as Shylock
I include the caveat that this is in contemporary productions, because in Shakespeare’s time, Shylock was certainly meant to be the villain. He’s creepy, he’s crafty, he’s downright vicious, and of course is a completely anti-semitic stereotype. With the changing times, directors and actors must go out of their way to make the play acceptable and…well…not racist (I’m not even going to mention the Moroccan Prince who apologizes for his complexion). And, to be fair, there have been many productions that handle this admirably. And despite Shakespeare’s intentions, Shylock does come across as a believably sympathetic character.

But I object to what has become a common notion—I have heard from a surprising number of people a theory that Shylock was intended to be the hero of the play. They claim that Shakespeare meant for him to be sympathetic, that he meant for the final scene to be a tragic one and not a triumphant one. That Antonio and his cohorts are intentionally villains and bigots, and not Shakespeare’s choice for the heroes of the play.

This is, frankly, bullshit.

It’s simply a fact that Shylock was meant to be a scary villain. Yeah, Shakespeare shows him some compassion (the “If you prick us do we not bleed” speech being the most famous example) but he does this with almost all of his villains. Shakespeare was unusual for not painting his characters in black and white and giving the heroes faults and the villains moments of kindness. But Shylock is certainly a villain, and is an undeniably racist caricature. All evidence points to this—from comparing Shylock to Shakespeare’s other villains, to notes about the original production, to the ACTUAL TEXT OF THE PLAY. I challenge anyone to read this play and find any real evidence that Shakespeare was actually rooting for Shylock. Despite contemporary interpretations, it’s just not possible.

So, why then have people come to the conclusion that Shylock was meant to be a hero? For one main reason: they don’t want to think that Shakespeare did something bad. Despite his documented faults, his fans wish to see the best in him. And when presented with a “grey area,” they choose to give the artist the benefit of the doubt.

And that lengthy rant brings me to the main point of this post. Because this is not a review of The Merchant of Venice, it’s a review of The Wolf of Wall Street, the Oscar nominee which I found to be one of the most morally bankrupt and irresponsible films I’ve ever seen.

None of this should be new information. When the film first premiered there were instant criticisms of the film as misogynist and crude. This was enough to generate considerable controversy surrounding the film—which is probably why the acclaimed film either dominated the nominations of major awards, or received nothing (it notably did not earn SAG Award nominations for Oscar nominees Leonardo DiCaprio or Jonah Hill, and a board member for the Critic’s Choice Awards was very vocal that this film was intentionally left off of the list of nominees).

But after the initial wave of criticism was launched at the film, a new chorus of voices came out of the woodwork citing the film as actually having a feminist message. One of the most shared pieces championing this point of view is this one from feminist website Jezebel (a website which has been very problematic in the past, but which remains one of the more recognizable voices for feminism on the internet). In this article, and in others, the main point is that the act of simply portraying misogyny on screen does not make the film itself misogynistic. And I agree. But much like we give Shakespeare too much credit to assume that his racist comments are intended as commentary, we give Scorsese too much credit to assume that his portrayal of misogyny is not, in fact, misogynistic in and of itself. 

Still from The Wolf of Wall Street

The behavior of Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his gang of cohorts is nothing short of disgusting. To anyone with a conscience this should be apparent. But the film glorifies his behavior and flaunts excess in a way that puts DiCaprio’s other major film this year—The Great Gatsby—to shame. Most of Belfort’s worst behavior (one incredibly offensive conversation comes to mind where the characters discuss little people as if they are literally inhuman) is played for laughs.  Perhaps the worst scene for me was when a gay man is brutally beaten and dangled off the roof of a building by his ankles, only to later be arrested. This scene horrified me, but in the theater where I saw it, there were distinct laughs from the audience (especially as DiCaprio jokes that the policeman beat the man up too). At screenings of the film near Wall Street, there have been reports of stockbrokers cheering at Belfort’s destructive behavior, and numerous people have taken to twitter saying how they “want to be Jordan Belfort,” and talking about how badass Belfort is. It’s terrible and far from the response that one should take away from the film.

Obviously, the reaction of an often-ignorant public does not mean that the product itself is at fault. The brilliant television show Breaking Bad similarly had fans who supported main character Walter White even as he became indefensible. But the difference between these is that while Breaking Bad went out of its way to show White as cruel and pathetic, The Wolf of Wall Street treats Belfort like a charismatic hero. I can almost understand why fans had the reaction to “want to be” Belfort—since the film paints him as really cool, and seems to view him as an ordinarily good guy who sticks to his principles, who simply got into a bad situation, and was corrupted by drugs and power. Breaking Bad, on the other  hand, ultimately made the distinction that Walter always had the villainous side to him and his nature made him do this rather than any real outside force—“I did it for me,” he confesses at the end of the series. Breaking Bad sets up Walter White as an absolute genius, but never sets him up as being more than human. But in the film, Belfort comes across as a silver-tongued demigod who everyone looks up to and who always gets his way—and we are supposed to look up to him as well.

What’s missing from the film is any manner of condemnation for Belfort. When he does something wrong, DiCaprio addresses it in a brief narration where he sounds sad, but then moves on (the film has to keep at a fast pace to avoid having a runtime even longer than it is currently). Now, this film is based on true events, and in real life, Jordan Belfort gets away with his crimes, so I’m not arguing that he shouldn’t get away with it in the film. But this is a work of art and the artist is allowed to make a statement. It would be incredibly easy to provide cinematic commentary to paint Belfort as pathetic, and to show disdain for him. Scorsese is certainly well-versed enough in filmmaking to know how to show a character is a villain. Do something to show regret, do something to show shame, do something to show that Belfort’s actions have been harmful. But that’s completely missing here.

Actually, it’s not completely missing. One character does seem to have regrets. That character is Agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler) who rides the subway with a look of sadness at his ordinary life—which Belfort had confronted him with earlier—and who happens to be one of the few decent people in the entire film. What does it say that the one character who does actually make an honest living and whom presumably, should be completely satisfied with his work and with his life, is the only one who is shown to be “less than?”

And the thing is that it would be incredibly easy to offer condemnation of Belfort and the like. It would take one scene—one single scene. Perhaps one where we see Belfort hit rock bottom and realize how pathetic his life is? Some have argues that this scene does appear in the film, but which one? Is it the one where Belfort is physically incapacitated due to particularly powerful Quaaludes? Because that’s the same scene where he actually finds strength by taking MORE drugs, and then manages to save his best friend’s life. Or maybe it’s the scene where his wife leaves him and he crashes his car while trying to kidnap their daughter? Thiswell-written piece which defends the movie (but very fairly acknowledges its flaws) basically hinges its entire argument on the existence of that scene. Except that, despite the damage to his car, he comes away completely unscathed and doesn’t appear to have any remorse.

For me, the easiest way that the film could have condemned Belfort would have been by showing his victims. Belfort was taken down because his shady business practices were really harmful, and robbed a lot of people of a lot of money. He ruined lives. This is mentioned exactly once, by Belfort’s first wife Teresa (Cristin Milioti), and is quickly dismissed. So, this is mentioned only briefly in a three hour film. And the only time one of Belfort’s victims is even in a scene is in a single phone conversation as they’re being conned—they’re not even allowed to appear on the screen. This is far from unintentional. DiCaprio has gone on record saying, “It’s a very conscious choice that [writer Terrence Winter] made in the screenplay not to show the ramifications of their actions. Throughout the picture, you go on this acid trip with them, without any regard for the people around them.”

That’s all well and good, and an interesting an approach…but only if the regard for the people hurt by the characters EVENTUALLY comes into play. If there had been a single scene showing how much people had been hurt by Belfort, right at the end, just one scene to show the ramifications of their actions—which the filmmakers specifically avoided doing—then this film could have had a moral compass. It still wouldn’t have been perfect, but I wouldn’t be writing this rant. That scene is necessary or the movie becomes completely loathsome. Think about it this way—how would we react if a film were made with this same level of glamor and glitz but were about Bernie Madoff? Would we still hail the film as brilliant, or would we rightfully say that the film was not harsh enough in its portrayal of the detestable con artist? You cannot show the crimes of the character if you don’t bother to show those hurt by them.

Again, is it possible that those involved in the film meant for us to be disgusted? Certainly. But much like with Shakespeare and his representation of Shylock, we should not give them such a benefit of the doubt. Considering the textual—and, in this case, cinematic—evidence that is placed before us in the work, there is nothing to imply that this is the case other than wishful thinking which, simply, should never be assumed. Just as Shylock was meant to be a villain, Belfort is meant to be a hero here. And just like with Merchant of Venice, just because a responsible audience will not excuse bad behavior on behalf of the piece’s protagonists, we should not assume that those behind The Wolf of Wall Street are on the same level of thinking. The film struck me as completely irresponsible and, frankly, reprehensible.

To be fair, it is objectively well-made. And there are some really strong scenes—I was especially struck by the brilliant scene where Belfort invites the FBI to come onto his boat. But there were some objectively bad parts of the film as well. I’m okay with a character breaking the fourth wall and talking to the audience—but it felt like it only happened two or three times in the entire (very long) film. You can’t establish that DiCaprio will speak into the camera, and then forget about it, and then halfway through go “Oh yeah, he talks to the camera sometimes.” And when the Swiss banker (Jean Dujardin) suddenly had a voiceover and was communicating with Belfort telepathically? What was that? And having Belfort’s capture being on the infomercial DiCaprio is shooting was one of the stupidest things I’ve ever seen. And while many of the performances were very strong, I was not at all impressed with the performance of Margot Robbie as Belfort’s wife Naomi. To me, the performance completely fell flat and, as a result, the only major female character in the film was a complete non-entity.

I have nothing against films with unlikable characters, or ones where the characters do unlikable things. It’s often necessary to highlight what is wrong with the action in the first place. But in The Wolf of Wall Street, a film which I promise I went into with only the highest hopes, the crucial moral is completely missing. It brings to my mind The Player, directed by Robert Altman-- a great film where the despicable main character gets the girl, and literally gets away with murder. But Altman has the sensibility and the subtlety to nonetheless make sure we know that his protagonist is not a hero. Scorsese lacks any semblance of such subtlety here. And it was definitely needed if the film were to succeed. If a film seems misogynistic, it probably is. After all, I think Shakespeare said it best: "He's mad that trusts in the tameness of a wolf."

What are your thoughts? Do you feel I missed something that would redeem the film from the very low regard in which I hold it? Let me know in the comments—I’m always up for a debate.

2014 Oscar Predictions: The Technical Awards

We finally reach the last batch of my Oscar predictions: the technical awards. These and other less-discussed awards are big for anyone who wants to win a ballot-- it doesn't matter if you guess all of the major categories correctly, because if you get these wrong, you're not going to have the numbers to put you over the edge. And, this year, these categories are really easy to predict: just choose Gravity whenever possible. Seriously, this film is going to win everything in these categories.

Here is the full breakdown of my predictions.


BEST ORIGINAL SCORE:

Nominees:
 The Book Thief
Gravity
Her
Philomena
Saving Mr. Banks

Will Win:   Gravity

A category of heavy-hitters. This is the twelfth nomination for Thomas Newman (Saving Mr. Banks) but he has yet to win.  Alexandre Desplat (Philomena) is another favorite who has yet to win, but he has been nominated six times in the past seven years. And, of course, there's John Williams, whose nomination for scoring The Book Thief is his 49th career nomination-- making him the second most nominated individual in Oscars history (behind only Walt Disney). But this win is going to go to relative newcomer Steven Price, whose score is absolutely crucial to the success of Gravity as a film.


BEST ORIGINAL SONG:

Nominees:
"Happy" (Despicable Me)
"Let It Go" (Frozen)
"The Moon Song" (Her)
"Ordinary Love" (Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom)

This has already been a fascinating category, mostly due to the controversy of the original fifth nominee-- "Alone Yet Not Alone" from a film of the same name. The little-known film (a Christian propaganda film which had been partially funded by Rick Santorum) was a surprising nominee-- so surprising that a private investigator was brought in and discovered that the song's co-writer had engaged in illegal campaigning practices (using his power as a former governor of the voting branch to send emails to the voters campaigning for his song). Although nominations have been revoked in the past, I believe (don't quote me on this) that this is only the third time it has happened-- and it is the first time it has been done on ethical grounds, rather than disqualification due to a technicality.

The race itself is less exciting. Despite the stardom of U2 and their Golden Globe win for "Ordinary Love," it's probably not going to win on Oscar night. No, the odds-on favorite is "Let It Go" from Frozen. And I know I'm going to lose some fans for saying this, but...I don't get the fascination with this song. It's not a bad song, but...it's not really a great one. It's been done so many times before, and often much better (perhaps because it's performed by Idina Menzel, I couldn't help but compare it to "Defying Gravity" from Wicked.) The thing is, I love the music in this movie. There are tons of great melodies and clever lyrics and composer Robert Lopez is brilliant (he's known for his work on the Tony-winning musicals Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon). But the song was really underwhelming for me, and was one of the few songs from the movie that I didn't have stuck in my head when the film was done. Obviously I'm in the minority here, as EVERYONE loves this song, but I don't get why it's getting the attention over, say, "Do You Want to Build a Snowman?," "In Summer," and even "Fixer Upper."

But, of the nominees, I will admit that it's the best option. "Happy" is a lot of fun, but is nothing special. "Ordinary Love" isn't bad, although it's certainly not one of U2's best songs, and would have been a better song for the film if the band performing it had ACTUALLY BEEN SOUTH AFRICAN. Seriously, producers? You couldn't find a single South African band or musician to write a song about Nelson Mandela that you could use instead of a song by a band from Ireland? This leaves "The Moon Song," which is my personal favorite of the nominees...but was the best song in film this year really a standard lullaby accompanied by a ukelele? If "Please Mr. Kennedy" from Inside Llewyn Davis had been nominated, then it would have been the clear winner for me.

Although we all know that this is the best song of the year. Or ever.


BEST SOUND EDITING:

Nominees:
All is Lost
Captain Phillips
Gravity
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Lone Survivor

Will Win: Gravity

You're going to be seeing "Will Win: Gravity" a lot now...


BEST SOUND MIXING

Nominees:
Captain Phillips
Gravity
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Inside Llewyn Davis
Lone Survivor

Will Win: Gravity

Yes, sound editing and sound mixing are two different things. Yes, only sound editors and sound mixers can really differentiate between the two in a film. Yes, these awards typically go to the same film every year.

BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN

Nominees:
American Hustle
Gravity
The Great Gatsby
Her
12 Years a Slave

Will Win: Gravity

Some think that The Great Gatsby could take this one, but I'm not convinced the Academy will want to give that film anything. Still, it shouldn't be counted out. Personally, I loved the cohesive and distinct designs of both American Hustle and 12 Years a Slave very much and think that in a fair world, one of them would win this. But, it's going to be Gravity.

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY:

Nominees:
The Grandmaster
Gravity
Inside Llewyn Davis
Nebraska
Prisoners 

Will Win: Gravity

This is one of the strongest batches of nominees-- all five have truly incredible cinematography (I particularly liked the interesting work in Nebraska-- the 11th black and white film to be nominated in this category since the 1960's). The other four nominees would have had a chance at a win any other year, but really no film can win other than Gravity for its truly groundbreaking achievements in the field.


BEST MAKEUP AND HAIRSTYLING

Nominees:
Dallas Buyers Club
Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa
The Lone Ranger

Will Win: Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa

In what has to be one of the weirdest group of nominees in Oscar history, I'm going against the grain on this one. The inclusion of The Lone Ranger here is strange, as most thought the makeup-- like the rest of the film-- was just plain weird. Now, most of what I'm hearing is that Dallas Buyers Club is going to win, but I'm not convinced as I didn't find the makeup to be all that standout in the film. Yes, it's the best overall picture of the three nominees, but does it really have the best makeup? Everything I've read or heard that calls this award for Dallas Buyers Club uses the argument that "The makeup in Bad Grandpa is good, but the Oscars are never going to reward a film with Jackass in the title." But...why not? This category already nominated the film, and has a history of nominating really bizarre and despised movies (remember, this is the category that makes Norbit an Oscar nominee). The makeup work is impressive. They made Johnny Knoxville look like this:


Consensus seems to be that this film actually has the better makeup. Why shouldn't it win? I'm going to go out on a limb and say that it will. Although I think that both Prisoners and Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom should have easily been nominees in this category.


BEST COSTUME DESIGN:

Nominees:
American Hustle
The Grandmaster
The Great Gatsby
The Invisible Woman
12 Years a Slave

Will Win: American Hustle The Great Gatsby

The Academy loves period pieces, and as there are no films from the Victorian/Elizabethan era nominated tonight, it means the Academy gets to reward work from a different time. It's going to be American Hustle or The Great Gatsby and I'm really on the fence with this one-- it could go either way. But I settled on American Hustle for its stronger overall look (who could notice the Gatsby costumes through all of the glitter?)

EDITED: As it is now Oscars morning, and buzz has changed in the half a month since I originally published this, I have to adjust my predictions. Despite the fact that I don't actually remember what any of the costumes in The Great Gatsby looked like, apparently it's pretty much a lock to win this one. I always knew that Gatsby was the favorite, but I thought Hustle had a chance. Apparently no. Apparently it is definitely going to be Gatsby according to everyone in the know. So, prediction altered. Apparently this rendition of The Great Gatsby will win one, perhaps two awards. And yet Philomena probably won't win anything. Lovely.




BEST FILM EDITING:

Nominees:
American Hustle
Captain Phillips
Dallas Buyers Club
Gravity
12 Years a Slave

Will Win: Gravity


BEST VISUAL EFFECTS:

Nominees:
Gravity
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Iron Man 3
The Lone Ranger
Star Trek Into Darkness 

Will Win: Gravity

Should Have Been Nominated: Pacific Rim

I was shocked when Pacific Rim failed to score a single nomination in any of the technical categories, despite beautiful designs from the brilliant Guillermo del Toro. I had hoped that this above-average summer action flick would score some credit-- I mean, if the Transformers series has gotten nominations in these categories, not awarding anything to a film as accomplished as Pacific Rim certainly seems like a snub. I mean, come on, The Lone Ranger? Really?


And there you have it-- my final batch of Oscar predictions. Be sure to read my other predictions as well, and let me know your thoughts in the comments. Best of luck to everyone on their Oscar ballots and to all of the nominees on Oscar night!

Best Picture Prediction

Best Director Prediction

Best Supporting Actor Prediction

Best Supporting Actress Prediction

Best Actor Prediction

Best Actress Prediction

Best Screenplay Predictions

Best Animated/Documentary/Foreign Language/Short Film Predictions

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Oscar Predictions 2014: Best [BLANK] Film


When people think about the best film of the year, the one that comes to mind is, of course, Best Picture. But when we say Best Picture, we mean best Full Length Feature Film. There are, in fact, six other categories which, essentially, award the best picture in their field-- it's just a more specific field. Of these categories, the only consistently mainstream one is the Best Animated Feature category-- although Best Documentary Feature and Best Foreign Language Film occasionally have some well-known films among the nominees-- like Oscar-winning documentaries March of the Penguins, An Inconvenient Truth, or Bowling for Columbine. But these more mainstream releases don’t always win. For example, famous documentaries such as Spellbound, Super Size Me, and Sicko all went home empty-handed on Oscar night. And that’s because the Oscar voters actually watch all of the films nominated, which most pundits, oddsmakers, and bloggers (including myself) have not done. This disparity can perhaps be best seen in the foreign-language film category. Take the case of Pan’s Labyrinth, which despite being a hit in the United States and receiving multiple other Oscar nominations, lost this award to the German film The Lives of Others. And I have to tell you, as much as I love Pan’s Labyrinth, The Lives of Others is one of the best films I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching—it had appeared on numerous critics’ Top Ten lists that year and very much deserved its triumph. And yes, reaction was negative as people who had not seen any of the nominees other than Pan’s Labyrinth were outraged at its supposed snub. This same ignorance has already been on display this year, with many on the internet being surprised that palme d’or winner Blue is the Warmest Color was not nominated. But…while the film is in a foreign language, it was ineligible to be nominated this year as it was released past the deadline in its home country of France. So its lack of a nomination was far from a snub—it was a certainty!

But I'm getting off track. Because I want to talk about the most overlooked categories-- the ones for short films-- Best Animated Short Film, Best Live Action Short Film, and Best Documentary Short Subject. These awards are a big deal for filmmakers. For those who make these films, there is no higher honor one can receive. But because they’re not big names and often don’t have a wide release, no one really cares about these awards. And I'm not saying that everyone has to watch these films—I know how expensive it is in both time and money to watch movies these days (and if you use…um…less legal methods, these films are often more difficult to locate) but they’re worth at least reading about. What do these documentary short subjects actually address? Even if you can’t see the whole film, you can often get a glimpse of the animation in the animated shorts, and they’re usually incredible. 

I learned about two fantastic short films from previous Oscars—both winners in the Live Action Short category. One is Six Shooter which was made by playwright Martin McDonagh, who has since made the fantastic feature-length films In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, and Six Shooter is certainly on par with them. The other live-action short I’d like to recommend is a wonderful movie musical called West Bank Story which is, essentially, West Side Story but taking place between two rival falafel stands on the Gaza strip. The reason why I sought this film out, and in fact purchased it, was actually the speech that the filmmaker, Ari Sandel, gave at the Oscars, which championed the work of the independent filmmaker, the “little guy,” and the importance of the films in the categories below. Here’s a great interview with Sandel about winning the Oscar which ends with the full speech. You realize that, while big celebrities oftentimes give acceptance speeches at multiple awards ceremonies in their life, this is really, truly, the greatest moment in the winners of these particular categories. That’s why they’re often some of my favorite acceptance speeches. Don't go to the bathroom when these awards are announced-- the speeches are going to be the most earnest and wonderful of the night.

And if the encouragement of me and Sandel is not enough to get you to care about these awards, then remember that these are the categories that people just guess on for their ballots. So, these are the ones that can really help put you over the edge if you’re in any competitive Oscar betting pool.

But enough of my soapboxing-- let's actually predict who will win:

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE:

Nominees:
The Croods
Despicable Me 2
Ernest & Celestine
Frozen
The Wind Rises

Will Win: Frozen

This is probably the biggest lock of the night. There's no way Frozen won't win this. I haven't seen the other films listed (Ernest & Celestine could be wonderful but has not been released in the United States yet) so I can't say who should win. But I will say that I wasn't as blown away by Frozen as many others were. It has a lot of flaws. But, still, it's a really enjoyable, beautifully animated film with some great music. It's hard to imagine there won't be big cheers when this one wins.


BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM:

Nominees:
The Broken Circle Breakdown (Belgium)
The Great Beauty (Italy)
The Hunt (Denmark)
The Missing Picture (Cambodia)
Omar (Palestine)

Will Win: The Hunt The Great Beauty

There are really only two films competing for this award: The Great Beauty from Italy, and The Hunt from Denmark. If any of the other films win, it will be a huge upset. Having seen both of these, I can say that they're two incredibly different films. Most are calling this one for The Great Beauty-- thinking that it will beat out its Scandinavian competitor. And I can see why. The film is one of the strangest (in a good way) that I've seen. It's almost as if Robert Altman were doing his interpretation of Bollywood. Its title is appropriate: it certainly is beautiful (many gorgeous shots of Italy) and is certainly great in its scope-- it's a sprawling film featuring many loosely connected scenes and themes. It's a wonderful and thought-provoking film. The Hunt, on the other hand, is much smaller. The story of a man falsely accused of molesting a child-- and the ensuing witch hunt on the part of his friends and family-- relies on subtlety, and has a wonderful performance from Mads Mikkelsen, who won the Best Actor award at Cannes. The emphasis is more on storytelling, which the film does superbly-- not to mention the fact that it handles a very difficult issue with surprising sensitivity and adeptness.

It's really impossible to compare the two. If The Great Beauty wins, I will understand why, and I won't be upset. And, as I said, it's probably the favorite here, with The Hunt simply a contender. But in this category, the Academy has a tendency to pick the smaller films. Consider the year that the wondrous and whimsical Amelie lost to the more dramatic No Man's Land from Bosnia & Herzegovina. This category has had no shortage of upsets, and I'm predicting one this year. I could be totally wrong, but I think it's going to be The Hunt.

However, if The Great Beauty wins, then it will mean that Italy will be officially tied with France for the most winners in this category.

EDITED: As it is now the morning before the Oscars, things have obviously changed. The Great Beauty has simply become too much of a favorite for it to be reasonable to pick anything else. Upsets are still always possible, but the odds of The Great Beauty winning have only increased since I originally published this, and the chances of The Hunt winning have all but disappeared. Both are great films and both should be seen, but The Great Beauty will be the winner tonight.


BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE:

Nominees:
The Act of Killing
Cutie and the Boxer
Dirty Wars
The Square
20 Feet from Stardom

Will Win: The Act of Killing
 
This category always features amazing variety. The feel-good films tend to not have the best success here, as the category likes to award the more hard-hitting documentaries (the fact that March of the Penguins won is actually rather surprising) which would knock out Cutie and the Boxer and 20 Feet from Stardom this year. I think the big winner here is going to be The Act of Killing based solely on its truly unique premise: the film follows former executioners under the command of Pol Pot in 60's Cambodia as they are encouraged to recreate some of their murders in various film styles (such as Western, gangster film, and musical) and filmed the process. Disturbing and fascinating, it's the best bet.

And, to go back to the point that you should see these films, all of these documentaries with the exception of 20 Feet from Stardom are available on Netflix right now! Go watch them! Interestingly, The Square was actually released as an original film on Netflix, meaning that Netflix has garnered its first Oscar nomination.


BEST ANIMATED SHORT:

Nominees:
Feral
Get a Horse!
Mr. Hublot
Possessions
Room on the Broom

Will Win: Get a Horse!

This category is often unpredictable, but if there's a favorite it's Get a Horse! which is otherwise known as the short shown in theaters before Frozen.  The film's use of classic Disney characters, and a combination of old and new animation make it a fun and nostalgic pick. If not Get a Horse!, the other favorite would be Room on the Broom which is based on a children's book of the same name and features an all-star cast of British comedians (it's narrated by Simon Pegg, and also stars Gillian Anderson, Rob Brydon, Sally Hawkins, Davis Walliams, and Timothy Spall). It's perfectly fine, but the fact that it takes them over twenty minutes to tell what I imagine is, like, a twelve page book is kind of ridiculous. It's a fine movie for kids, but for adults it's incredibly predictable and tedious (and, even for kids, it's hardly groundbreaking). The only reason it got nominated is for the names involved...and that might be enough to make it a spoiler to win. Although it shouldn't-- it doesn't hold a candle to any of the other nominees here.

Should Win: Mr. Hublot

Get a Horse! and Room on the Broom are nice, but neither comes close to actually being the strongest of these films-- especially not Room on the Broom which is perfectly adequate but is really nothing special and goes on way too long. And while Get a Horse! is really good, its animation is really not all that impressive, especially when compared to the other films in this category.



My two favorites are Mr. Hublot and Feral, two very different films. Mr Hublot is the story of a lonely man in a steampunk mechanized world who adopts a dog. It's simplistic, but the story it tells is actually really wonderful, to the point that I got a bit choked up towards the end. And the level of detail that goes into the animation is really extraordinary. My close second is Feral which tells the story of a feral child who is brought into society by a hunter. The animation is unlike anything I've ever seen before, and I was especially impressed by the amount of expression animator Daniel Sousa extracted from these characters considering they don't have any faces.

I wanted to make a Wolf of Wall Street joke, but nothing I couldn't come up with anything clever.

Get a Horse!, for me, comes in a clear third place in this lineup, and is not even close to being on the same playing field as Mr. Hublot or Feral (for me, it does beat out an interesting Japanese film Possessions about a traveler who escapes a temple of horrors through the use of his sewing kit). Really, as long as it's not Room on the Broom I'll be happy. If that wins then...I just give up.

Should Have Been Nominated: A La Francaise, The Missing Scarf, The Blue Umbrella

At the presentation of short films that I went to, after the five nominees played, I was ready to leave...but then another film started playing. It was called A La Francaise and the screen announced that it has received "commendation." Not only did this film play, but two other films played after it-- none of them received nominations, but they had all received a commendation of some sort. I'm not really sure what the technicalities of this are, but I have to say...these three films were some of the best of the showing, and certainly deserved nominations above three of the actual nominees. 

Pixar's The Blue Umbrella was cute and clever, A la Francaise was hilarious, and both were exceptionally well done. But, the third commended film, The Missing Scarf, was by far one of the most brilliant things I've ever seen. Using simple and whimsical paper animation to tell the story of a squirrel looking for a missing scarf, the film starts off rather plainly. But then...it takes a turn towards the existential and the absurd. By the end of the film, I could hardly breathe because I was laughing so hard-- when it is released for purchase on February 25th, I will be the first in line to download it so that I can watch it again: the first time I was too distracted by my disbelief that what was happening on screen could possibly be occurring. It was simply amazing, I cannot think of anything else like it, and cannot possibly hope to explain its genius in text-- you really do have to see it for yourself. It alone is worth the price of admission. As far as I'm now concerned, its lack of nomination is the biggest snub of the year. Oh, and did I mention that it is narrated by George Takei?


BEST LIVE ACTION SHORT:

Nominees:
Aquel no era yo (That Wasn't Me)
Avant que de tout perdre (Just Before Losing Everything)
Helium
Pitaako mun kaikki hoitaa? (Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?)
The Voorman Problem

Will Win and Should Win: Helium

When I originally published this post, I called this category for The Voorman Problem. The reason was that I had read that most people were predicting a win for it, so it seemed like a sensible thing to do. However, now that I've seen the films, I've changed my mind. Here's why:

I understand why people think The Voorman Problem will win. It's a really interesting film, based on a short story, about a psychiatrist who examines a prison inmate named Voorman who thinks he's a god. You learn very quickly, however, that Voorman might be right (as a proposed test, he makes the nation of Belgium disappear). It's well done, but not really that suspenseful-- you immediately know that this character wields tremendous power, so there's no real mind game played-- the psychiatrist never holds all of the cards. And the ending comes rather abruptly, ending on a bit of a "huh" rather than a bang.

But, despite this, I understand why a lot of people are predicting a win for this one: celebrities. None of the five films nominated are American, with the other entries coming from Spain, France, Denmark, and Finland. The Voorman Problem is from the U.K., and features performances from internationally recognized actors Martin Freeman and Tom Hollander. If you were looking at things statistically to determine which film would win, a la Nate Silver, this film has all of the key elements to put it over the edge.

The two main players in The Voorman Problem
But since seeing the films, I have changed my mind. And I have changed my mind for one simple reason: I simply refuse to believe that, of the people watching these films, enough people would name it their number one pick.

Of the nominees, there's really only one that will definitely not win-- that's the Finnish Do I Have to Take Care of Everything? which is perfectly nice, but is a lightweight comedy that clocks in at less than half of the running time as the second shortest film. It's fine, but not really Oscar material-- to compete it would have had to have been a laugh-out-loud riot, and it really isn't. It's fine, though. I also don't think a win is likely for the Spanish That Wasn't Me, an emotionally powerful but also highly flawed film about two Spanish doctors kidnapped by African child soldiers.

The Voorman Problem places third for me, and just like with Get a Horse!, it is a distant third behind my two favorites of the program. My pick for the win-- because it WILL win if everyone is as moved by it as I was-- is the Danish entry Helium, about a custodian at a hospital who tells stories to a dying boy about the magical world of Helium where he claims the boy will go to when he dies. It's a beautifully shot, beautifully written, and beautifully acted film which had tears streaming down my face. Absolutely incredible.

I could also see voters responding to my second favorite-- the French film Just Before Losing Everything which starts of slowly but soon comes to a frightening head. The film follows the four hours before a woman and her children are attempting to flee their home and start a new life to get away from her abusive husband. Things are going okay, until her unaware husband shows up at the supermarket in which they're hiding out. It is a tense film, and of the nominees, is the one which feels like a full-length feature-- you become incredibly invested in these characters and their well-being. It would be my runaway winner, if Helium just didn't tug on my heartstrings so much.

If you want to do the safe thing, choose The Voorman Problem. I won't be surprised if it wins. But, I'm guessing that a lot of people calling this award for that film have not seen the full lineup (few people have). And watching these films together, I just cannot believe that The Voorman Problem will beat out two clearly superior films. I'm calling an upset in this category.

BEST DOCUMENTARY-- SHORT SUBJECT

Nominees:
CaveDigger
Facing Fear
Karama Has No Walls
The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life
Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall

Will Win: The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved Me Life

Alas, I've yet to see the films in these categories, but hope to before the Oscars and will update this page accordingly. I've heard of some support for CaveDigger, but The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life seems to be the odds-on favorite here.


Thoughts on my predictions? Thoughts on my rant on the importance of these categories? Has anyone else had a chance to see these short films? Let me know in the comments!