Posted tagged ‘Spike Jonze’

Reasons I Hate Movies #3: Award Shows

January 19, 2010

The Golden Globes are behind us and they have proven, once again, that award shows have no positive impact on film whatsoever.  Which isn’t to say that the shows themselves can’t have some entertainment value – Ricky Gervais was, after all, hilarious.  But what made him funny was that he constantly took pot-shots at the actors and repeatedly used his sarcasm to point out just how unimportant these multi-millionaires that we shower with awards and attention really are.

Unfortunately, that irony seemed lost on the many undeserving winners.

And such is the irony of award shows.  Presumably they exist to reward good film making but, instead, all they do is keep bad movies and unimportant actors in our collective conscious far longer than they deserve.  Sure, there is the occasional deserving win – No Country for Old Men for instance – but those movies would have stood the test of time with or without an award.  Those movies don’t benefit from the award nearly as much as the award benefits from them since it acts to validate the accuracy of the award.  But once they secure that validation it seems that award shows remain intent upon spending it on crappy films that we should all forget but that, because of a Best Picture Oscar or a Best Director Golden Globe, people will continue to talk about for years.

And such was the case last night.  A movie like The Hangover was fine for what it was – a mildly amusing way to lose two hours of a Sunday afternoon.  But an award winning film?  That’s ridiculous.  But now it won’t simply laps into obscurity as it should since it has inexplicably changed from a throw away comedy to an award-winning piece of cinema.

Which brings me to my two biggest complaints about last night’s show: the almost complete exclusion of Where the Wild Things Are from the nominations, and the infuriating celebration of Avatar.

I’ve already chronicled my love of Where the Wild Things Are, but I realize that it isn’t everybody’s cup of tea.  It is unusual and unsettling and asks a lot of the viewer on a narrative and emotional level.  In other words, it’s a provocative and original film.  Maybe it doesn’t deserve to win many awards since it didn’t achieve widespread appeal, but it definitely deserved at least a nomination – after all, it takes something truly remarkable to polarize audiences the way Wild Things did. It doesn’t, though, take anything remarkable to try to get some cheap laughs out of a few Mike Tyson gags, yet that apparently warrants not only a nomination, but a Best Comedy or Musical Award.  Love it or hate it, Where the Wild Things is an affecting experience.  The Hangover is nothing of the sort.

And then there’s Avatar.  I’ve already chronicled my disdain for this film, so I won’t go into it here.  Instead, since the acclaim that it’s achieved is so colossally undeserved I’m going to give it a very dubious honor: it will be the first movie to ever become a part of my “Why [classic movie] is an over-rated pile of dung” series before it even leaves theaters.  This will be the subject of my next post.

But the very notion that I could already be objecting to the “classic” status of Avatar brings me back to my initial objection to award shows.  The Golden Globes that Avatar won for Best Director and Best Drama, and what I fear are the inevitable Academy Awards for Director and Film that I foresee coming in March, will make Avatar, like Gladiator and  Crash before it, an instant classic, event though it is a horrendous piece of trite and unimaginative garbage.  Without award shows, the novelty of 3D would eventually wear off and everyone would probably come to realize what a bad movie Avatar really is.  But with the backing of a bunch of gold statuettes, the movie-going public will continue to erroneously believe that a technological marvel (which Avatar admittedly is) is also an artistic marvel (which it definitely is not).

But mark my words.  Award shows aside – in twenty years, love it or hate it, viewers will remember Where the Wild Are on a level that Avatar isn’t even sophisticated enough to know to try to achieve.  I just hope that means more to Spike Jones than silly trophies do.

Decade in Review – 5 Best Films of the Aughts

December 28, 2009

Having just vented about the 10 most overrated films of the decade I will now attempt to actually say something positive for a change.  So here goes – my list of the 5 best films of the decade:

#5.  Hot Fuzz (2007)

In a decade full of smirks and chuckles, Hot Fuzz delivered genuine, deep, gasping-for-air laughter.  The beginning is admittedly a bit slow, although it is punctuated by perhaps the funniest single moment of the past ten years.  When the top of a steeple falls down on top of a reporter, not just killing him but obliterating the top half of his body (and yet the bottom half stumbles around a bit before keeling over) the result is so unexpectedly violent and hilarious that I laughed long after the scene had ended.  And then, of course, there are the film’s final forty or so minutes, which are so uproariously funny that my side ached by the time they were over.  Unlike so many comedies of the aughts, Hot Fuzz didn’t try to be clever.  Instead, it tried to be funny, at it succeeded at every turn.

#4.  The Dark Knight (2008)

In an era of crappy comic book movies, this film proved once and for all that the drivel we had come to expect from the genre is inexcusable rather than inevitable.  Heath Ledger’s Joker will go down as one of the iconic performances in film history and deservedly so.  Having said that, it’s too bad that his performance ended up garnering so much attention because it tended to obscure the fact that this film’s excellence went far beyond a single outstanding performance.  Despite entering a crowded and clichéd genre, The Dark Knight was surprising at every turn and every minute of its two-and-a-half hour running time felt both compelling and necessary.

#3.  Wall-E (2008)

In ten years Pixar did more for digital animation than Disney did for traditional animation in the entire 20th century (and that’s no slight to Disney).  Wall-E is Pixar’s crowning achievement.  The first thirty dialog-less minutes give us some of the most elegant filmmaking of the decade.  Sure, the second half feels a bit more like the usual Pixar blend of physical gags and tight storytelling, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  Wall-E is such a flawlessly executed film, and is so full of genuine heart, that the keen social commentary lurking under the surface is just a welcome added bonus.

#2.  The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (2001, 2002, 2003)

So often directors seem to think that making a movie really long and filling it with special effects is all it takes to make something “epic.”  Fortunately, Peter Jackson remembered that story telling and character development are important, too.  As a result, every minute of the nine hours that this trilogy occupied the screen (and even the twelve hours of its extended DVD versions) felt like a gift.  This is one of the rare cases in which the movie was far better than the book on which it was based since Jackson managed to capture all of the magic of Tolkien’s imagination while replacing the woodenness of his prose with a visual style that was dynamic and compelling.

#1.  Where the Wild Things Are (2009)

It seems that everyone either loved or hated this movie.  I am firmly rooted in the “loved” category.  Everything in this film worked – the visuals, the music, the story-telling.  The narrative style was completely unique and yet easy to follow, and the story stayed true to Maurice Sendak’s book without feeling slavish or derivative. I saw it in the theaters twice and liked it even more the second time.  It’s dark.  It’s melancholy.  It’s moving.  It’s brilliant.

So there we have it – proof that I don’t hate every movie.  In my next post (the last one of this decade) I’ll give a few random awards in a “one-off” format.

Fantastic Mr. Fox – Review

December 12, 2009

Remember, I generally hate movies.

That being said, I actually quite enjoyed Fantastic Mr. Fox.  I’m not sure that it’s as “groundbreaking” as some are claiming, but in the end I came away happy to have seen it.  After watching Disney butcher such Dr. Seuss classics as How the Grinch Stole Christmas, The Cat in the Hat, and Horton Hears a Who, it’s great to see two successful film adaptations of “children’s” literature in one year (the other, of course, being Spike Jonze’s brilliant adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are).

That I liked Fantastic Mr. Fox was surprising because my track record with Wes Anderson is almost as bad as my track record with the Coen Brothers.  I liked (didn’t love, but liked) Rushmore, didn’t like The Royal Tenenbaums, and absolutely detested A Life Aquatic – seriously, it was one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen.

One of the problems I have with Wes Anderson films is his insistence on and obsession with style.  It’s not that I mind stylized film making, but style alone isn’t enough to make me enjoy a film.  For Anderson, though, it seems that style is the top priority – that the characters and the narrative are there only as an excuse to execute a specific visual style.  I find this tedious and uninteresting because, as a Simpsons character whose name I don’t know once said: “the whole thing smacks of effort.”

But that effort worked in Fantastic Mr. Fox, in large part because it uses stop-motion animation – a technique that already wears its effort on its sleeve.  As a viewer, the slight jerkiness of the motion on screen acts as a constant reminder of the artificiality of what we’re seeing – something that a stylish director like Anderson takes full advantage of.  In fact, one of the strengths of the film is the way that Anderson manages to match form to content.

After all, one of the liberties that the film takes with Dahl’s book is to use Mr. Fox’s plight to comment on the increasing artificiality of our world.  At one point, Mr. Fox tears into his dinner with all of the recklessness and fervor of a wild animal (which, of course, he is).  His motions are so fast that the stop-motion animation can’t keep up – the artificiality of the film-making is unable to contain the wildness of Mr. Fox.  But as the story progresses (warning – a few mild spoilers follow), Mr. Fox starts to realize the negative consequences of his wildness and his eventual ability to outwit his nemeses, Boggis, Bunce, and Bean stems from his gradual assimilation into their comfortable, civilized (but less exciting) world.  While this brings with it a palpable sense of loss, Fox’s dance with his family at the end – a dance that seems in perfect step with the 12 frames-per-second of the animation – reflects his acceptance of his new lifestyle and, at the same time, justifies the explicit stylization that bogs down most of Anderson’s other films.

All of this being said, the film is far from perfect.  As I already mentioned, Anderson does take some substantial liberties with his source material on both a narrative and thematic level.  While that isn’t an inherently bad thing, sometimes the deviations felt less original than the parts that followed the book more closely.

The second half of the film begins to rely less on Dahl’s brilliant storytelling and more on some of the conventions of contemporary animation, especially in its raucous final action sequence. By entering into these conventions, Anderson is placing himself in competition with other, more experienced animation teams, especially Pixar – a company that has found a formula for fast paced final action sequences that eludes Anderson.  Instead of a tight blending of action and story, a lot of the last half of Mr. Fox made me feel as though I was watching a kid who had lost track of the story he was trying to tell and was instead just having fun with his toys.  There’s a certain joy to be had in this, but it still weakened the overall impact of what starts off as a very original and compelling re-interpretation of a very original and compelling book.

The result is a film that is never boring (and I’m easily bored), and, at times, is deeply interesting.  Some Roald Dahl fans will hate it for the liberties it takes (after all, the film’s grudging endorsement of modern civilization is almost directly contrary to Dahl’s celebration of Mr. Fox’s refusal to be tamed), but others (like myself) will admire the way Anderson’s version of the story engages the spirit of Dahl’s overall literary daring even if he doesn’t stick to the spirit of this particular book.  In its best moments, Fantastic Mr. Fox shows us that stop-motion animation can do things that computer animation simply cannot, but at others it made me painfully aware of stop-motion’s limitations in the digital age.

Most strikingly, though, the film demonstrates that Anderson’s investment in style doesn’t have to overwhelm the other aspects of his film-making.  Maybe if it had been in stop-motion animation, The Royal Tenenbaums would have been more interesting.  I’m not sure anything could save A Life Aquatic.

Where the Wild Things Are – Review

October 17, 2009

Remember, I generally hate movies.

As I said in my previous blog, part of the reason for this is that on those rare occasions that I let my guard down and actually get excited about a movie, the movie lets me down more often than not.  I likened the experience to Charlie Brown continually letting Lucy convince him that she’ll hold the football for him to kick, only to pull it away at the last second each and every time.  Thus, I was worried about the anticipation that I felt for Where the Wild Things Are – I was running towards that ball at full speed and my leg was swinging with all the power I could muster.

But instead of Lucy, it was Spike Jonze holding the ball, and he didn’t waiver for a second.  With this film he has joined the very short list of directors whose names I not only know (which is already a pretty small list), but whose names will single handedly make me take interest in a movie (George Lucas is probably the only other person on that list, but, given his recent track record, that interest is starting to become the “can’t turn away from the train wreck” variety).

In some ways I find it difficult to even offer a review of the film right now because the impact of seeing it hasn’t fully worn off.  It’s also difficult  because Wild Things (by which I mean Where the Wild Things Are not the late nineties soft-core classic) is so unique that describing any of its strongest qualities would verge on being a spoiler.  The experience of watching this film is very similar to the experience of Max, its main character: it’s an almost constant process of discovery.  However, since I don’t want to spoil what those discoveries are (and, honestly, I’m not even sure that I could put some of them into words), I will instead speak to some of the reservations that I and others held about the film prior to having the privilege of seeing it.

The most common (and obvious) questions were whether or not a short childrens’ book written in 1963 could provide the material for a full-length movie and if it was really necessary to find out.  The answer to both questions is a resounding yes, and this speaks to the subtle skills of both Maurice Sendak (the book’s author) and Jonze.  Jonze does a masterful job of capturing all of the complexity of the book – its sense of fun and adventure; its dark loneliness; its childish magic.  In doing so, he not only demonstrates his own remarkable skills as a director, but also reveals just how complex and sophisticated this short book has been all along.

Another reservation that I’ve come across is that, based on the trailer, it looks as though Max’s need to dream up the “Wild Things” stems from dealing with his parent’s divorce.  This worried me a bit going in as well since part of the beauty of the book stemmed from its ability to capture the turmoil, fear, and excitement of childhood without giving the reader a specific reason that Max is acting out.  However, (very, very minor spoiler alert) while the film’s version of Max is dealing with divorced parents, this is in no way the focus of the film.  This movie operates on far too sophisticated an emotional level to let something as specific as divorce guide its story or tone.

I’ve also read that many reviewers have critiqued the film for not being child friendly enough.  Since I am neither a child nor a parent I might not be able to offer the best response to this, but I will say that this is not typical kiddie movie fare.  However, having just sat through several previews of kid movies, I really don’t see Wild Things‘s departure from the genre as a bad thing.  During the course of the movie I heard several children laugh at the humorous moments (I was usually laughing along with them – and I never laugh at typical kiddie flicks), and didn’t (to my relief) hear much chatter from bored children, so I assume the kids in the audience (and there were a lot of them) enjoyed it.  I did hear one child throwing a terrified, hysterical fit during one particular scene, so be forewarned that this film is dark and could be frightening, but, then again, so is childhood.

Finally, I had my own personal reservations about the use of music in the trailer.  As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not a proponent of the recent trend of using a “hip” soundtrack to convince audiences of the imminent “coolness” of a movie.  As such, I worried that the (admittedly wonderful) music that played over the various trailers for Wild Things signaled Jonze’s use of this recent movie cliche.  The music in this film, though, never feels forced or cliched but, instead, blends seamlessly with the visual and narrative elements of the story telling.

And that storytelling is, simply put, breath-taking.  The visuals are stunning and, like every other aspect of the film, do justice to the source without ever feeling merely derivative.

I generally hate movies, but this movie is so unlike anything else that none of my usual critiques apply.  In fact, this film might add a new reason to hate movies to my list since it so clearly demonstrates what film is capable of, thus making the frequent garbage that shows up on the screen absolutely inexcusable.  Who knows, maybe this will be the subject of a future blog.  I’d rather not think about it right now, though, because I’d rather just bask in the glow of the first really great movie that I’ve seen in almost two years.

Reasons I Hate Movies: #1 – Disappointment

October 14, 2009

Since my distaste for most movies is the subject of this blog, I decided that I should probably validate my disdain.  So, I’ve decided to add a feature to my writings in which I give some of the reasons that I generally hate movies, and this is my first installment.  The reasons will appear in no particular order, so it’s not as if what follows is my absolute top reason for disliking movies, it is simply the first one that I chose to write about.

And the reason that I chose to write about disappointment first is that it is particularly topical for me right now due to the upcoming release of Where the Wild Things Are.  When I first heard that someone was making a movie out of this beloved book, my reaction was probably the same as most – how on earth are they going to make a short childrens’ book into a full length movie?  Or at least, how are they going to make it into a good movie (Hollywood has proven that they can make anything into a crappy movie)?  In response, many remarked that Spike Jonze was directing it, so surely he’d figure it out, but, since I am no movie buff, all I heard was the word “director” followed by the sound that adults always made in Peanuts cartoons.

But then something happened: I saw the trailer for the film.  It was, simply put, breathtaking.  Never before had I had actually felt chills just from watching a trailer (with the possible exception of the trailer for the first new Star Wars film, but more on that in a second).  I immediately went from thinking the movie was a stupid idea to counting down the days until its release.  For those who have been living in a cave for the past several months, here is the trailer:

As moving as this trailer is, it also makes one of the reasons that I hate movies very apparent to me.  Every time I think about this film and how excited I am to see it there’s a little voice in my head whispering “but what if it sucks?”  This voice, mind you, is not the product of paranoid delusions on my part (not that those voices aren’t there), they are the voices of experience.  Far too often I let my guard down, let myself get excited about a movie, and then come away with bitter feelings of disappointment.  Sometimes this disappointment stems from nostalgia (Spiderman III, Transformers, Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull,  and the new Star Wars films all had me pumped only to kick me in the gut with their badness) and sometimes it stems from a film’s reputation (Vertigo, Fargo, The Godfather, and Silence of the Lambs all made me eager to see what the fuss was about only to leave me wishing I had just taken a nap instead, which, in the case of Vertigo, is actually what I ended up doing).  Regardless, as someone who generally dislikes movies, it takes a lot to get me worked up about a film, so when a film that I’m excited about doesn’t deliver, I end up feeling like Charlie Brown after Lucy pulls the football away as he tries to kick it  – trusting in a film to deliver on its promise just leaves me open to another let-down and mad at myself for not learning from the past (wow, two Peanuts references in one blog, maybe I’ll go for the hat-trick).

And so it is with apprehension that I’ll be heading to the theaters this weekend.  Hopefully Where the Wild Things Are will blow me away. Hopefully, I’ll leave the theater wanting to see it again and counting down the days until it comes out on DVD.  Hopefully, it will spawn the first glowing review I write on this blog and I’ll come away as giddy as Charlie Brown after seeing the little red-headed girl (I did it!).

But every time I watch that trailer, I can’t help but wonder if the incredible music playing throughout is the reason it seems so great.  Or maybe it’s the impact of seeing images from my childhood realized on the screen that gives me the chills.  Or maybe a trailer, in its brevity, is the perfect format for an adaptation of such a short book.  If any of these is the case, then it doesn’t bode well for the film. But, just like Charlie Brown swings his leg at that football with all of the gusto he can muster, I’ll put all of these fears aside and when I see Where the Wild Things Are this weekend I’ll be full of excitement and anticipation.

Spike Jonze better not pull a Lucy.