I had epic plans for shaking off winter movie ennui by hitting the multiplex and breaking off three action movies in a row this weekend. Sadly, I started with The Grey which was surprisingly terrible considering the aggregated Rotten Tomato score. Between that and approximately 10 trailers that all looked horrible (two of which featured Liam Neeson who of course was also in The Grey), all enthusiasm for cinema was sucked right out of me. The dismal new releases and the incredibly boring and predictable awards race (just give all the goddamn hardware to The Artist already and let’s move on, shall we? I swear to God it’s some kind of Bataan Death March) add up to a dark times for movies. So, long story short, I skipped catching up with Mission: Impossible and Red Tails and just came home in a grumpy mood. I put down 400 words or so on The Grey, but after awhile it didn’t even seem worth the energy of forming those words into coherent thoughts. The movie was only laughably bad a couple of times (most damningly at the very end) and the rest of the time it just kind of laid there like a bored hooker too jaded to pretend she’s even enjoying herself.

So that’s that. One interesting note is that, despite copious awards attention, audiences still seem to be having a difficult time choosing The Artist as the movie to see. By the 10th week of release last year, future Oscar-winner The King’s Speech already had $75 million in the bank. Though it has expanded more slowly, The Artist so far only just crossed $16 million in the same span of time. It only cost $15 million, but still. It’s interesting. It’s a better film than The King’s Speech yet people just can’t get over it being “silent.” It’s too bad because I expect most of them would like it if they gave it a shot. I think it’ll make a lot more money when it wins 5 or 6 Oscars here in another month, but there’s no way it touches the $135 million domestic made by Speech.

Anyway, that’s all from me this week. Now it’s your turn. Did anyone get up to anything good in the last week or so?

17 Responses to “Grey Matter”

  1. In contrast I’ve had a terrific week of movie watching. It started with Beginners and A Separation and ended with Poetry and revisiting Tree of Life.

    Beginners was very well crafted and featured standout performances from McGregor and Plummer (who were great in their scenes together). I had a smile of appreciation on my face throughout most of the film and thought it largely achieved a delicate balance between charming understated whimsy and more substantial if gentle reflections on loss and how our familial past shapes our attachment style. My only quibble related to the treatment of the central romance which seemed to extend the falling-in-love phase a scene or two too long for my taste. What surprised me given how much I enjoyed it at the time was the complete lack of subsequent resonance – not a complaint, just an observation.

    A Separation deserves all the raves its received. What a richly layered film and incisive exploration of the moral shades of the unfolding events. The separations take so many forms – between partners, parents and children, men and women, church and secular mores, lower and middle classes, ones obligations to family and ones obligation to the truth, and the people and the bureaucratic state. And all this complexity is conveyed so subtly and organically that you think you’re watching a documentary with the naturalistic performances and directorial style that deflects attention from itself. It was also fascinating to have a glimpse inside the much maligned Iranian society.

    Poetry was another beautifully and subtly composed navigation of moral issues. Early on it created preconceptions about the central character in the viewer’s mind and then used them to distract from what was truly happening inside her and the degree of lucidity it showed. Like A Separation I never knew for sure where the film was taking me until we get there and then I immediately realized how right the ending was on so many levels.

    I love how the best of art house world cinema never seems to fall back on the formulaic elements and the familiar genre story structures typical of English language cinema. Even quirky and inventive art house fare like Beginners has no real surprise in terms of where it goes in the end.

    Lastly, I introduced my wife to Tree of Life. I was as impressed and moved by the second viewing as I had been by the first. She shared my appreciation of it and we had fun discussing its power and craft, and bouncing ideas off each other about how Malick makes one see all that’s shining.

  2. Damn, Sartre. Good weekend for movies!

    My reaction to Beginners is slightly cooler than yours, but mostly that’s a reflection of the disappointment I felt at it not being as good a movie as the opening set me up to expect. I loved all the stuff with McGregor and Plummer, really kind of hated all the stuff with McGregor and Laurent. On balance the former saved the latter, but the latter kept the movie from being great. Seriously, I was nearly in tears 10 minutes in, but then it kind of fizzled out.

    I really loved A Separation too. Despite the advance hype, it was a wonder surprise.

    Sadly I still haven’t seen Poetry despite the fact it’s streaming on Netflix.

    Glad Mrs. Sartre was engaged by Tree of Life and that it held up for you a 2nd time. If anything I think I liked it even more a second time around.

  3. I saw The Grey, which I commented on for the review. I liked it a bit better than Craig, but I found my diminishing enthusiasm dashed by the ending.

    I also saw Tin Tin (in 2D), which was the action-adventure movie that I wish Spielberg had delivered for Indy 4. However, I was so creeped out by the repeated forays into the uncanny valley that it really detracted and distracted from the film. As impressive as Weta’s motion-capture work is, fully CGI performances still have a way to go as far as I’m concerned.

  4. Craig, I suspect you’ll find plenty to admire in Poetry. It’s right up there among my favorites for the year so far.

    Joel, having now seen Tin Tin are you surprised it wasn’t nominated for best animation by the Academy?

  5. @sartre: yes and no. I sympathize with the Academy’s reluctance to recognize motion-capture CGI as animation, since it’s obvious from watching the film that motion capture benefits the animation quite a bit. However, there’s still quite a bit of work that the animators are doing to create the finished product. But since only some, not all, of the animation has been provided by animators it’s unfair to hold this to the same standard as “typical” CGI or cell animation.

    By the same token, I lament the fact that Andy Serkis isn’t likely to be recognized anytime soon for the amazing work he has done in a series of mo-capped roles, but where does the performance end and the animator begin? Hard to say.

  6. @joel: for me a mo-cap feature, as opposed to a film that uses mo-cap together with live-action, appears to have sufficient animation to qualify for serious consideration. But you’re right, the hybrid of real acting and animation even in a mo-cap feature is going to cause pause for best animation voters.

  7. Joel, had I not been made so grouchy a string of trailers including Battleship, Wrath of the Titans and This Means War, I might’ve been more willing to forgive The Grey whatever faults I found in the screenplay, but yeah, that ending. Just laughable.

  8. Lucille and I saw five films in theatres (6 if another viewing of THE ARTIST is counted in):

    Show People (1928) **** 1/2 (Monday evening) Film Forum

    A Man Escaped ***** (Thursday night) Bresson at Film Forum

    The Grey *** 1/2 (Saturday morning) Edgewater multiplex

    Declaration of War **** (Saturday evening) IFC Film Center

    Beauty and the Beast in 3D ***** (Sunday afternoon) Edgewater multiplex

    A survival saga set in the snow starring Liam Neeson THE GREY has it’s moments and some excellent visual atmospherics and set pieces. It ends poorly and follows a predictable path too, presenting a TEN LITTLE INDIANS/THE CALL OF THE WILD hybrid. DECLARATION OF WAR is a sylish and brave French drama that follows the details of a real-life story. The film’s two lead stars are also directors, with the female behind the camera here. The film is moving and spirited and shows how a certain group of people would bond and handle the ultimate tragedy.

    Bresson’s austere prison drama never gets stale after endless viewings; King Vidor’s SHOW PEOPLE is a charming comedy with real life appearances from early era stars including Chaplin; the animated BEAUTY IN THE BEAST doesn’t need 3D, but if it’s an excuse to see it again, so be it. Watched THE ARTIST a fourth time with some people who hadn’t yet seen it and a few adoring family members and the magic remains in full flavor. As deserving an Oscar winner as we’ve had in many years.

  9. Sam I’m pleased you liked Declaration of War. Some critics weren’t so high on it, I think maybe because it strikes such an odd breezy tone for material you’d expect to be overly melodramatic. The ending I found very bittersweet.

    I have an interview with Donzelli and Elkaim that I still need to transcribe.

  10. I finally caught up with three Best Pic nominees in the theater here. The Descendants was pretty solid for the most part; great performance by Le Clooney. I had some problems with the screenplay and by extension I suppose with the source material. The whole real estate thing? Whatever. That was a big minus for me. Anyway, it was probably my favorite of the three films this weekend.

    Next was The Artist. Charming and clever, sure, but I can’t imagine ever wanting to watch it again. I enjoyed it and am glad I got to see what all the hoopla was about, but frankly all the hoopla about the film seems to say a lot more about us as a society at this depressing moment in time than about the enduring quality of the film itself. Had I seen it at Cannes, I would not have predicted it to be the Oscar frontrunner, not by a longshot. I’d recommend it to friends, but I fail to see how this film advances cinema in any way or truly takes risks. It’s a throwback to a beloved earlier era and the answer to the perpetual complaint that “They don’t make ’em like they used to.” Frankly, I just want to see what new and exciting things filmmakers can bring to wow us. I’m getting sick of the nostalgia pervading absolutely every aspect of life lately. Is living in the present that unbearable?

    I really tried to go into Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close with an open mind. I had genuinely loved the book when I read it seven years ago, but oy, what a terrible film Stephen Daldry made out of it. Just excruciating and cloying and melodramatic music cues on top of screaming fits and swirling cameras. Tom Hanks as a Jew? Please. The only–and I do mean only–saving grace of the film was a beautiful supporting performance by Max Von Sydow. Everytime he was on the film relaxed and breathed again, and when he left it was back to the screaming. The improbabilities of the plot were much more gracefully handled in the book, and the lead character was in the book simply a marvelous creation, not the peaked and unlikeable little grief monster he is in the movie. Honestly, I think Thomas Horn was completely wrong for the part and was directed even worse.

    What’s funny though is that after the torturous melodrama finally ended and the credits rolled , I heard these teenagers talking a few rows back from me. One of the girls was trying to talk the others into staying until the end of the film because “every film has something really funny at the end of the credits if you stay long enough…you’ll see! It’ll be awesome! You don’t want to miss it!’

    I mean, WTF? I laughed so hard at the thought of this autistic 9/11 film having a Ferris Bueller-style coda, I finally got those tears in my eyes Stephen Daldry had been trying for all along.

  11. Loved reading this little masterpiece of a comment, Jen. The meld of sharp and funny cultural and film observations was seamless. And the comment’s own coda would have done Dorothy Parker proud.

  12. You’ve summed it all up there, JB. Ironic that Woody Allen made nostalgic escapism the main theme of his best film in years, yet nostalgic escapism is still kicking his film in the pants all the way to March.

    I look at this way: If we didn’t have The Artist sweeping everything, we’d have The Help winning Best Picture. I grudgingly prefer The Artist in that equation.

    You read Incredibly Loud too, did you not? I couldn’t see how that would ever translate to film, especially since the pitfalls Daldry’s film apparently wallows in are constantly threatening to overwhelm Jonathan Safran Foer’s prose.

  13. Stay tuned for the Extremely Loud blooper reel! hahah

    JB, I’d switch attitudes about Artist and Descendants in that I at least found The Artist more entertaining whereas Descendants was outright disappointing, but I certainly don’t argue with finding both films wanting and neither deserving of winning any kind of awards.

    Along the lines of what Joel said, I’d add Hugo to the list of movies along with MiP and the Artist (and to a lesser extent The Muppets and Winnie the Pooh) that traffic in nostalgia. What separates MiP and Hugo from the pack is that nostalgia has a thematic relevance and it isn’t just a gimmick for audience enjoyment. Both films comment on nostalgia, one cautiously and they other one more optimistically.

  14. Ironic that Woody Allen made nostalgic escapism the main theme of his best film in years, yet nostalgic escapism is still kicking his film in the pants all the way to March.

    @Joel EXACTLY. That’s one of the things I love best about Midnight in Paris, that it both embraces this nostalgiaphilia in the most charming and whimsical way and then gently rejects it in favor of enjoying our own time and appreciating being our creative selves in the present. It’s how I feel exactly. I love antiques and history and vintage styles, but given the choice, yeah I’m going with my iPhone and terrific dental care.

    Yes, I’m definitely comfortable with The Artist winning over The Help. Though to be fair, The Help is the one BP nominee I still haven’t watched. I’ve been avoiding it as hard as I could, but I’m planning to watch it before the Oscars just because it’s so rare I’ve actually had a chance to see all the BP nominees ahead of time.

    Also @Joel I agree. The brilliance of Foer’s book is in the little grace notes of nuance and quiet insight that fleshed out the boy’s character and made him appealing and winsome, combined with the experimental storytelling format. That’s everything that was lost, and it’s like Daldry took a highlighter to everything else in the book, then took the book’s title as his directorial style. Ugh. It just felt like a cutesy-vulgar exploitation of 9/11 in the end. Might as well have been made by Paul Haggis or M. Night.

    @Craig I can make a case for every BP nominee being about nostalgia in some crucial way. It’s endemic, I tell you.

  15. Full disclaimer: I haven’t seen The Help either, but I’ve seen enough to know it’s not going to be my pick for Best Picture. I might enjoy it quite a bit, I might not, but I just haven’t been willing to take it on. I’ve given up on subjecting myself to every BP nominee simply for the sake of completion, because the quality of nominees has degraded while their numbers have swelled.

    I’d have to go with Tree of Life, Midnight in Paris, Hugo, War Horse (in that order). None of the other nominees belong in the category, as far as I’m concerned.

  16. THE ARTIST is a very great film and would be deserving of the Best Picture prize in any year.

    It rates ahead of every film in the Big Nine save for TREE OF LIFE.

  17. And in my opinion if THE ARTIST wasn’t going to win everything, it would be HUGO or THE DESCENDANTS up next. Not THE HELP. The SAG ensemble win does not make a Best Picture win.

    The Oscar win for THE ARTIST is nothing more than the final confirmation of dozens and dozens of awards won by the film on both sides of the Atlantic.

    Does THE ARTIST deserve everything it has won?

    You bet.

    Craig, I know your position on the film (and I know Joel’s) and I respect both. I just feel that now that I am fully on the bandwagon with this film after several successful re-viewings, I want to hold up the reverential side.

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