Archive for the ‘Oscar’ Category

DVD review: ‘Benjamin Button’ so long it may age you

May 5, 2009

As far as Oscar-bait movies go, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is at least lovely to behold. And I’m not talking about its stars, including Brad Pitt, who spends much of the movie in old-man mold as he plays a person who’s born ancient and grows gradually into childhood.

The film’s astutely used New Orleans settings and CG-driven magic give it a painterly if not almost otherworldly look, which certainly befits its preposterous fantasy of growing younger, rather than older. (I mean, really — must we take this as seriously as director David Fincher and company? After all, we’re not getting paid to do so.)

But beyond lovely looks — and another great performance by Cate Blanchett as Benjamin’s longtime love — the film is a languid, glum, slow go — sort of Forrest Gump without the box of chocolates.

Its decades-long sprawl, voyage of self-discovery, off and on romance and far-flung locales make it an epic, but it’s an epic which rarely moves — or moved me. In part that’s because Pitt is such a low-key non-presence on screen, as if he’s trying to outdo Tobey Maguire in the no-acting style of acting.

Make this a 100-minute movie and it might have held my attention. Turn it into a 165-minute epic and I grow impatient as Benjamin grows younger.

But the Criterion Collection which released Button’s new DVD is content to make the viewing experience longer still — at least for those who want to penetrate its movie magic. Among many other extras, a feature-length look at The Curious Birth of Benjamin Button is exceptionally well made and revealing.

Then again, it lays bare the aforementioned magic — and why do that? Whatever charm and appeal I drew from this film lay in the spells it cast, and showing how it’s all done turns such magic into mere moviemaking exercises. For big fans, Criterion doesn’t disappoint, but for casual viewers who feel this film is overblown already, more is less.

Ledger Oscar nominated, but commercial flicks ditched for artsy hooey

January 22, 2009

Despite a brave forecast Wednesday in USA Today that Oscar voters finally might see the light and meld their alleged “we love the world” populism to their choices for 2008 nominations, such was not the case Thursday when the noms were announced.

Again, smash-hit popular entertainment got little respect. And what else is new? Sure, Titanic and The Return of the King won big at both the b.o. and on Oscar night. But largely the 2008 slate is like so many others: heavily weighted toward artsy fare released at year’s end, and slanted against popular fare which dominated ticket sales and boosted the industry. After all, what does the public know?

So The Dark Knight and WALL-E both got shut out of the best-picture race, in favor of such overrated no-hit flicks as The Reader and Frost-Nixon. Frost-Nixon? Is Ron Howard getting rubber-stamped? Sir, I’ve seen enthralling political dramas such as All the President’s Men, and you, Frost/Nixon, are no All the President’s Men.

Sure, the late Heath Ledger was nominated as best supporting actor for The Dark Knight, and the film got eight nods in all. But except for Ledger’s, it got no major award noms. And the best WALL-E could muster, beyond an inevitable best animated feature nomination from a thin field, was an original screenplay nod.

So forget about cheering for a popular favorite, unless you dig Benjamin Button’s absurd story of a man aging backwards while Gumping through time, or you’re hooked on the game-show heroics of Slumdog Millionaire. And while this year’s slate may not be as esoteric as last year’s, Oscar viewership again should decline, as film fans with the wacky, dim-witted idea that WALL-E and The Dark Knight represented better filmmaking than the allegedly weighty The Reader or Frost-Nixon get stiffed.

I’m leaving Milk out of my rant because I believe in that movie, regardless of its level of popular appeal. It’s not only beautifully made, with another fantastic performance by Sean Penn, but its late-’70s story of intolerance vs. inclusiveness is somehow more timely and significant for today than anything else in the best picture field.

Still, that race now largely comes down to a plurality vote for “Best Pretentious Pseudo-Artsy Flick Released in December.” Come on.

My rant can’t be complete without dissing supporting actress nominee Penelope Cruz for a shrieking performance in Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Bad movie, bad performance. Sorry, Woody — I love ya. But this was recycled, contrived, lame, preposterous, unfunny and unremarkable, with countless missteps. Who cares about a bunch of losers strangely unencumbered by the need to make money or face real responsibility while they indulge in artistic whims and in lust/passion with the depth of a tuna sandwich?

But huzzahs to Robert Downey Jr.’s supporting actor nod for Tropic Thunder. He won’t win — in true Phantom of the Paradise mode, Ledger’s a lock — but Downey was as good as anyone on screen last year, as a dude playing a dude dressed like another dude and sometimes looking like the first dude but really being — oh, forget it. But he was great — and he even held fast to his character’s pledge  not to drop character till after the DVD commentary! Robert, I salute you. With this and Iron Man, you rocked in ’08, and Tropic Thunder was the year’s funniest film.

Not that that distinction will ever win anyone a best picture Oscar — what do humorists know? We’ve got dead presidents to resurrect, guys to be born old, and snob appeal to embrace over entertainment power.

Yes, that’s the Oscars — again — rejecting the sheer show-biz oomph on which the industry depends in favor of pretentious Important Pictures which bore to the point of snores. Oh, well — at least we’re done with The English Patient.

DVD review: ‘McHale’s Navy: Season Four’ bids us arrivederci

December 2, 2008

Was Italy the kiss of death for McHale’s Navy? We’ll never know for sure, but we do know that when the WW II sitcom shifted from the South Pacific to an Italian coastal village, its new digs lasted for just one season, and then its seamen bid buh-bye to series TV.

That’s not to say McHale’s Navy: Season Four, new on DVD from Shout! Factory, is a washout. For the five-disc, 30-episode set, almost all of the original comedy cast stays intact, having shifted from fighting the Japanese to fighting Germans in Italy, where some new regulars join in. But though this shift allowed for more elaborate exteriors — with back roads, towns and a wider range of scenery — it also led to some excruciatingly bad Italian accents and Italian stereotyping.

Granted, such transgressions were common on TV in the ’60s, before globalism and dawning multi-cultural awareness made non-Americans seem less corny, colorful and quaint and more like — well, everyday people. And you must take that into account when viewing a series such as this, which surely had no mean-spirited bones in its four-season, 138-episode body.

Also look for Don Knotts among the season’s guest stars. The actor who kept The Andy Griffith Show in stitches was able to go briefly from that series during its run in order to guest star elsewhere or make a theatrical film. Andy would make some reference to Barney being “on patrol,” and an entire episode would slip by without a sign of the skinny, ever-agitated deputy.

Come to think of it, TV was extremely accommodating in the ’60s. Both My Three Sons and Family Affair were creatively produced (writing scripts far in advance and shooting far out of sequence) in order to allow stars Fred MacMurray and Brian Keith, respectively, to pursue their careers elsewhere at the same time they were top-billed TV stars.

I suppose McHale himself, Ernest Borgnine, could have done the same thing, having come to TV with an Oscar pedigree from 1955’s Marty. But he chose to stick closely to his series for its run, and I don’t believe he was ever absent from an episode.

As for the entire crew of PT 73, we’ll miss ’em, now that this series reaches its end on DVD. But  three theatrical films with this cast are hovering out there somewhere, and 138 episodes isn’t a bad run for savoring such silliness and shenanigans.

Our thanks go to Shout! Factory for following through with the complete TV run, which so often isn’t the case with vintage TV releases. And our thanks go to Borgnine, Tim Conway, the late Joe Flynn and others for making McHale’s Navy — whether waging wacky war in the Pacific or the European theater — a frothy, lively, fun show that’s stood the test of time.

‘There Will Be Blood’ wants to drink your milkshake

April 8, 2008

By now you’ve heard the “I drink your milkshake” dialogue from There Will Be Blood. By now you know this means that violently determined early 1900s California oilman Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) will “drink your milkshake” by taking what you have, right out from under your nose (in his case, milkshakes being analogous to buried oil).

Now know this: There Will Be Blood wants to drink your milkshake, the analogy in this case being your hard-earned money. It wants to take an absurd 92 per cent favorable reviews (critics’ herding instincts can be more single-minded than the most forgiving of geeky fans) and the Oscar hullaballoo which produced two (count ’em) awards (for cinematography, and Day-Lewis as best actor) and the alleged great track record of director Paul Thomas Anderson, and with that it wants to drink your milkshake. It wants to take your money, via DVD purchase or rental, for what’s one of the most wildly overrated films in recent memory.

But then, look at this past Oscar season. Pathetic. News bulletin: The movie industry is tanking, and even ostensibly artful films launched as Oscar bait aren’t immune to its doldrums. Yet something has to win best picture or best actor, if only by default. Trouble is, Anderson is no Stanley Kubrick or Francis Coppola or Marty Scorsese. He’s just another pretentious young director who equates violence and sordidness with art, and who tells a tale that should fill one hour yet stretches out over almost three. Epic, schmepic.

The chief problem is that Blood makes everything out of its central character, but does almost nothing to truly flesh him out. Where did this man come from? What are his inner demons, and how’d they get there? Why is he murderously violent and contemptuous of most human beings, but fiercely protective of his son? Why is he never arrested? None of this is explained or addressed. It’s just a given. He’s a mean bastard. There — satisfied? Well, no.

Look, if you feel you’ve simply got to have a fix — of snooty fare ordained by Oscar, of pained but powerful performances — be my guest. Give up your milkshake and try this out. Day-Lewis is good, all right, and I suppose he deserved his Oscar in a thin field. But lockstep approval from 92 per cent of reviewers? Gimmeabreak. Someone’s been drinking the Kool-Aid, not just  milkshakes.

Drat the rat — give me ‘The Simpsons Movie’

January 8, 2008

On Feb. 24 — the WGA strike permitting — millions will watch on ABC and worldwide as the Oscar for best animated feature film of 2006 goes to Ratatouille. And I say phooey.

This film has been shoved down our throats by Disney and blocs of herding-instinct critics since day one, and it’s just not that good — at least, conceptually and storywise. Sure, visually it’s a beauty to behold, thanks to today’s state-of-the-art computer animation. But what’s so unusual about that? And besides, making cuddly, adorable heroes out of real-looking CG rats is nuts. Roiling hordes of vile, scurrying rats headed to a KITCHEN — where food is prepared — food we’re supposed to eat — that’s entertainment? The film also squandered its setting of Paris by making scene after scene set inside a restaurant kitchen or a rat’s sewer, and its awkward, beyond-shaky plot about a symbiotic relationship between a rat gourmet and man cook was just plain awful.

Yet Ratatouille got almost universal acclaim, as almost everyone jumped on the bandwagon and even hysterically shouted down any dissent on Internet chat boards. (Gee, wonder if a studio has ever thought to hire people to do this dirty work for them?) Of course, even in profit, Ratatouille continued Pixar’s box-office slide from the stratosphere, but a studio can’t have everything.

All this leads me to believe critics and the public haven’t figured some things out yet in this new era of high regard extended to animated features, an era which formally began when they got their own Oscar category for best animated feature film in 2001.

It’s the story, stupid. And a great story was what CG films clearly had over traditional animation in CG’s early years. Even with Toy Story’s comparatively crude CG by today’s standards, CG films’ writing was edgy, clever, contemporary and, like their artwork,  more real and relatable. Flat, 2D, traditional animation still stuck to childlike adventures and comedies in a sad case of arrested development. (Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas or Atlantis: The Lost Empire anyone?)

But no more than those films, Ratatouille did not deliver a great story, either. In fact, its concept was horrible.

Ever seen a rat up close? Ever had one in your home? Bad enough in your attic — think about rats in your kitchen. Now think about the disease and filth that vermin spread. Now enjoy your popcorn and soda while you watch rats prepare food in a kitchen in a real-looking CG movie.

Riiiiight. Yet Ratatouille got knee-jerk adulation, ostensibly for being from a studio, Disney/Pixar, that’s been on a roll, as if they could do no wrong. And ostensibly for being so gosh-darn nice to look at. Why, look at the lavish details in the hair on the rats’ hides!

You know what? George Lucas’ three Star Wars prequels were gosh-darn nice to look at, too — but their stories and characters were wretched. Those films were more about trading on past glories and selling a merchandise campaign than creating legitimate plots. And the same goes for Ratatouille, which gets ridiculous credit for form over substance.

So what was the best animated feature of 2006? Easy: The Simpsons Movie. No, it wasn’t as glossy and slick as the rat flick. In fact, it takes perverse pride in being flat, 2D and “ugly,” as shown in the trailers added to its new DVD. But for what it was — taking a limited-budget TV show to the big screen — it looked great, tweaking just enough to be more elaborate for theaters, but not enough to lose its essential, hard-earned and perversely charming identity.

Yet even so, that’s not what’s important — or it shouldn’t be. What’s important, or should be, are stories and characters, as the WGA is reminding us with its current strike. If it’s not on the page, it won’t be on the screen, and on the page The Simpsons Movie kicks Ratatouille’s butt.

Well, what did you expect? The longest-running, most inspired, most subversive comedy series ever to air on prime-time broadcast TV, The Simpsons is the real deal in terms of writing and characterization, just as it’s always been. And the expanded plot for feature length (Homer poisons Springfield’s water supply, the city is placed under a dome, the family escapes but returns) was as good as any done for TV, just longer. That’s not to mention characters uniformly more fascinating than a rat who wants to live out his dreams by being a gourmet chef for food snobs (huh?).

I’m not saying cartoon rodents can’t entertain. Take Disney’s own Mickey Mouse. But he might as well be a talking and upright-walking dog like Goofy, since he’s more humanlike than animal in his broad, cartoonish way.

But also take The Simpsons, which gives us entertaining rodents routinely. That includes the opening sequence of its film, a cartoon within the cartoon where you’ll find Itchy, the diabolical rodent who torments poor kitty Scratchy with hyperbolized violence inspired by classic Warner Bros. shorts.

Now that’s a rat — making mischief, not making dishes for food snobs. In effect, Ratatouille was all about snobbery, and not just for food, but for CG gloss.

Give me comparative ugliness with meat on its bones any day. Give me timely, topical, cut-to-the-chase humor. Give me The Simpsons, which has been good enough to win 23 Emmys, even if its movie probably won’t win a single Oscar.

Yep, that’s me on ‘3:10 to Yuma’ box

January 4, 2008

Your faithful DVD reviewer hopes you’re looking forward to one of the best films of 2007, 3:10 to Yuma, when the Russell Crowe-Christian Bale-starring Western rides into video town next Tuesday, Jan. 8.

With more echoes of Oscar-winning classic High Noon than 1957’s original Yuma starring Glenn Ford and Van Heflin, director James Mangold’s film is exciting, absorbing and philosophically potent. The tale of a luckless farmer (Bale) who bravely agrees to take a captured outlaw (Crowe) to prison, it’s violent, all right, but not as a dramatic crutch, especially considering the powerful performances of its stars. Crowe is erudite, charismatic and quietly indomitable, while Bale is heart-breakingly flawed yet courageous. Ben Foster deserves a supporting-actor Oscar nod for his gun-crazy punk in Crowe’s employ, and don’t overlook Peter Fonda as one of Bale’s fellow escorts. Talk about icons — and yes, he has Western roots. The Hired Hand, anyone?

Normally I balk at Hollywood’s ceaseless hypefest, but in this film’s case — busted! Yep, that’s me, quoted endlessly on Yuma, from its DVD box’s front cover to its national TV ads to its web spots, in each case proclaiming it “The best Western since Unforgiven!”

So hysterically hypey. So shameless. So — wait a minute.

For one thing, keep in mind that the exclamation point wasn’t mine. Studios have always done that. Call it misleading, or call it “emphasis for artistic license.” For another, consider that calling anything the best Western in 15 years is almost like celebrating the best ice hockey team in the Sahara — there just aren’t a lot from which to choose.

But that’s not Yuma’s fault. The fact is, it’s a great film, and great films deserve special praise. Check it out next week. You’ll be glad you did.