Steve’s Look at Upcoming Movies

So far I’ve only seen one movie released in 2012 (The Hunger Games), but that’s about to change. With the release of The Avengers this weekend, the floodgates will be opened. I’ve added a new page to my blog on which I rank 44 movies coming out between now and the end of the year. Take a look to see what I’m most looking forward to and then leave a comment to let me know which movies you are most anticipating. For each movie I’ve included the release date and reasons why and why not to see it. See you at the movies!

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War Horse and Real Steel: Steve’s Surprising Recommendation

This weekend I watched two movies with connections to Steven Spielberg. The first was the Spielberg-directed War Horse, which was nominated for Best Picture, along with five other Oscar nominations. The second was Real Steel, a movie about boxing robots, for which Spielberg was an executive producer. It did receive one Oscar nomination for Visual Effects. I’m not a huge Spielberg fan. I have liked, but not loved, most of his movies. My favorites all date from the early 80’s (Raiders, E.T., The Color Purple). The last one that I really liked was Minority Report from a decade ago. I rented War Horse because I’m somewhat obsessive about seeing all the movies that are nominated for Best Picture. I was not expecting to be blown away by War Horse, but given its pedigree I figured I would at least enjoy it, and that is just how it turned out. Good movie, but not great. Deserving of its Best Picture nom? I can think of about twenty films that were more deserving, but War Horse has enough going for it to give it a fairly strong recommendation. My son requested that we rent Real Steel. The trailer made it look fairly entertaining, but, if I wasn’t expecting much from War Horse, I was expecting even less from Real Steel. I just hoped it wouldn’t turn out to be a waste of two hours. It most certainly wasn’t a waste of time. I am quite surprised to report that I enjoyed Real Steel much more than War Horse!

The key word there is “enjoyed.” One could argue that War Horse is a “better” movie in many respects (and I would grant many of those arguments), but I found Real Steel to be more enjoyable, more fun, and more moving. I shed a few tears during War Horse, but there were more tears flowing more often during Real Steel. I guess I’m more of a sucker for father/son movies than I am for horse movies, but, apart from my emotional response, I think that does get at the heart of why Real Steel is a more effective movie than War Horse. Both movies are shamelessly tearjerkers. Both are manipulative, but aren’t all movies manipulative in some way? Isn’t that the point of making a movie? Both are hopelessly cliched much of the time. Both depend on ridiculous plot-points. Both lead to inevitable endings (although there is a bit of a surprise in Real Steel’s conclusion.) Most importantly, both struggle with the fact that the title “character” is non-human, but the important difference is that Real Steel isn’t actually about the robot, it is about a father/son relationship, whereas War Horse really is about the horse. Alright, you could claim that it is about the relationship between the farm-boy Albert and his horse Joey, but that doesn’t change the fact that half of that relationship is animal rather than human. I know some folks really love their animals, but they are still animals and that limits the emotional impact of a movie. Besides, Albert and Joey are separated for over half the movie and the story follows Joey to war, which, for me, deadened the movie’s emotional impact. The story became so episodic that I felt disconnected from it. (It also seemed over-long at two and a half hours.)

In our blog description, we say that the most important element of a movie is its ability to tell a story and to create relationships that we care about. This is where Real Steel beats out War Horse. Sure, War Horse is a good looking movie, but its story-telling is weak. I didn’t really care if Albert and Joey got back together, although I knew they would. (That is not a spoiler, that is the inevitable ending I mentioned earlier.) On the other hand, I did care about Charlie and Max, the father and son, in Real Steel. Their story drew me in. Sure, it’s a story that’s been told many times before, the errant father who eventually sees the errors of his ways, but it is a storyline that still works for me and at least it gives a sense of hope, which our world desperately needs. That, in a nutshell, is why I rank Real Steel higher than War Horse.

In closing, I’ll offer a few particulars about each movie. As I’ve said, War Horse is a good looking movie. The cinematography is often beautiful. The war scenes are generally effectively filmed. Fortunately, Spielberg avoids an overuse of back-lighting. Overall, it felt like an old fashioned, Disney animal movie. That is not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s not necessarily a good thing either. Overall, the acting was good, but there was precious little in the way of great performances. Unfortunately, Jeremy Irvine was in the good, not great category, as Albert, which may not have been enough in such a key role. I did especially enjoy Emily Watson as Albert’s mother and Niels Arestrup as French grandfather. Given the episodic nature of the story, most of the other actors had little to work with. One annoying aspect of the movie was the Germans and French who spoke in English with their national accents. I’m not sure that having them speak in German and French with subtitles would have resolved the issue given the attempt to make this a family film. In that regard, the violence of the war scenes is kept to a minimum, but is still probably too much for younger children. Finally, yes, the horses look good. Horses are, after all, magnificent creatures. Most everyone in the movie, except for a few cold-hearted military officers, recognize how grand Joey is. Spielberg and his team do all they can to give Joey a strong sense of personality. They are fairly successful, but Joey is not Mr. Ed. I will mention, on behalf of my co-blogger Bill, who loves savior motifs in movies, that there is one scene where Joey “volunteers” himself in the place of another horse. I am sure that this scene makes some folks misty-eyed. It made me chuckle.

Although, I’ve said that it is in the story that Real Steel beats out War Horse, I would argue that it is also a good looking movie in its own way. The cinematography may not be as grand, but it works well. The opening sequence where Charlie drives up to a fair with the camera catching the reflection of the carnival lights in the windshield of his truck is as effective as anything in War Horse. The various underground arenas where the robots fight are well designed, each with a unique feel. The fight scenes themselves really aren’t all that special. How much can we be expected to care about robots beating on each other? But, the movie isn’t really about the robots anyway. I greatly enjoyed Hugh Jackman as Charlie. I join my son in saying that we are looking forward to seeing him in Les Miz later this year. Dakota Goyo brought great enthusiasm to the role of Max. Many of the other roles were cliched, but the performances still served the story well. In addition to the father/son storyline that I greatly enjoyed, the movie also offers the classic sports underdog motif. This movie is a surprise winner!

A Look Way Back: Steve Ranks the 2009 Best Picture Nominees

I have finally seen all of the 2009 Oscar nominees for the Best Picture, so I’ll add my ranking to our blog.  However, in working on this blog, I’ve become even more aware of two distinct ways in which movies are rated.  There is the consideration of artistic merit, which includes both style and storytelling.  Generally, this is what so-called “critics” focus on.  Then, there is simply reflection on whether a movie provides a fulfilling experience.  This is what “fans” seem to base their ratings on and also points to which films are likely to be watched more than once.  I find myself thinking about movies in both ways, so I’m going to rate them both ways.

2009 Best Oscar-nominated Pictures by Artistic Merit

1. Inglourious Basterds – The strongest combination of style and storytelling of the ten.  However, Taratino’s style definitely isn’t for everyone, even though this is actually less violent than much of his work.  Also, some find his themes of revenge troublesome, not to mention the rewriting of history, but this movie does raise the interesting question of what would be an appropriate action if one had the opportunity to rid the world of Hitler.  This is dazzling filmmaking.  Style with substance, I say.

2. The Hurt Locker – Not a terrible choice for best picture, but I didn’t find it to be nearly as strong as Basterds.  Whereas Taratino was clearly rewriting history, The Hurt Locker was presented as realism, but too much of it rang false for me.  Still a great movie, though.

3. District 9 – This is a love it or hate it movie and I loved it.  I love the mishmash of styles, beginning as a cheesey documentary and then passing through the territories of drama, thriller, horror, all with a strong undercurrent of social commentary.  That is where it blows away the next movie on this list.  It makes you think deeply about not simply apartheid, but prejudice in its many forms.

4. Avatar – This movie ranks this high simply for style.  Yes, it’s a good looking movie (although I think the floating mountains are simply ridiculous!), but it’s severely lacking on the storytelling side of the equation.  Think deeply?  Nope, this is a James Cameron movie.  In too many ways this is Dancing with Wolves in Outer Space.  Given all that, I’m surprised I’m putting this at no. 4, but that’s how good it looks.

5. Precious – I hesitated for over a year before seeing this because I thought it would be too depressing.  It is a sickeningly sad story…poverty, rape, incest, abuse…but it is well done.  I place it here mostly for the strength of the acting.  I also liked the directing for the most part, especially her flights into imagination to escape the torment of her world.  I wish the ending had a bit more of the hope of that imagination in it.

6. A Serious Man – Being a Coen Brothers film, you’d expect this one to gain a few more style points, but this is one of their most reserved and subtle movies.  However, as with most of their work, this one grows on you with repeated viewings (see the list below).  It is a marvelous modern telling of the Job story.

7. Up in the Air – I wanted to love this movie.  George Clooney!  Jason Reitman!  I didn’t love it.  It was an interesting examination of our culture and the loss of deep relationships, but that is also where it failed for me.  I didn’t like the way the affair was handled.  Alex gets mad when Ryan nearly exposes their affair to her husband.  I’m sorry, Alex, you were in an affair.  Affairs hurt people, destroy relationships and this one detracted from the movie for me.

8. An Education – Hmm, if affairs are bad, how about an older man preying on a young girl and nearly ruining her life?  This movie explores what a person will do to escape what they think is a dull life and the wrong turns we can take in trying to find a meaningful relationship.  It is well done, but I found the character of David to be such a creep and it turns out I was right.

9. Up – Many people love this.  Not me.  It was o.k., actually quite good in spots, but I thought they added too many elements.  It felt disjointed to me.  I don’t think it was even the best animated film of 2009.  I’d give that honor to The Fantastic Mr. Fox.

10. The Blind Side – Style? Sappy!  Storytelling? Clichéd!  Does it deserve to be considered for Best Picture?  Of course not!  But, I cried my eyes out and enjoyed nearly every minute of it.  This is the kind of movie that has me wondering what I mean, what anyone means, when they say a movie is good.  And look where it is on the other list!

2009 Best Oscar-nominated Pictures by Desire for Multiple Viewings

1. Inglourious Basterds

2. A Serious Man

3. District 9

4. The Blind Side

5. Avatar

6. The Hurt Locker

7. Up

8. Up in the Air

9.  Precious

10. An Education

Steve’s Tentative Top Ten

When someone recommends a movie to you, how do you respond?  It seems to me that you need to know that person’s taste in movies in order to know how to judge the recommendation.  For instance, I know that I almost always agree with Roger Ebert’s reviews, so I trust his recommendations.  So, here is a tentative top ten list of my favorite movies to help you get a sense of where I am coming from in my recommendations.  The list is tentative because there are so many movies that I love that limiting a list to only ten is nearly impossible.  I decided to try to make this list a fairly good representation of the movies that move me the most.  As I was thinking about what to include I came up with so many movies that I’m planning to add a list of 100 movies sometime soon, so come back to look for that.  In the meantime, I’d love to hear about a couple of your favorites, so feel free to comment.

Here they are (in no particular order):

Wizard of Oz (As it was for so many, this is the movie that first turned me on to the magic of movies.  It is simply perfect!)

It’s a Wonderful Life (It’s a wonderful movie!  Could you hand me a kleenex? Or two? Or three?)

Taxi Driver (Scorsese and DeNiro!  Discovering the power of movies that explore the dark side of life.  You talking to me?)

The Big Lebowski (The Coen brothers could have filled at least half of this list by themselves…Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, Miller’s Crossing, Fargo, O Brother, No Country for Old Men…possibly True Grit, but I’ll have to see it again to be sure.)

Inglourious Basterds (I confess, I love Quentin Tarantino.  Such style, but also more substance than he is given credit for.  Yes, extremely violent, but also an unflinching examination of such things as the seductive and deadly desire for revenge.  This spot could also be filled by Pulp Fiction.)

Field of Dreams (How’s this for a change of pace from Tarantino?  Such a delightful movie, so much more than a baseball movie, revealing the power of giving oneself for others.  Pass the kleenex again!  If you show it, I will watch!)

High Fidelity (A movie set in a record store!  {I love music almost as much as movies} Featuring Top Five lists! {As you can see, I love lists} One of the best movies about navigating the treacherous waters of relationships.  John Cusack’s best performance.  Jack Black’s too.  From the book by one of my favorite authors, Nick Hornby.  About a Boy, also from a Hornby novel, could also easily be in this list.)

Hannah and Her Sisters (Most people list Annie Hall as Woody Allen’s best, but this is the one that I love.  The entire cast is great, but Michael Caine is incredible!)

Caddyshack (Such over the top characters, so many great quotes.)

Casablanca (Yes, it is a classic in every sense of the word.  Bogie could also be represented here with The Maltese Falcon.)

Star Wars (Wonderful in so many ways.  Either New Hope or Empire Strikes Back could fill this spot.  Return of the Jedi comes close, but I was never quite sure about those Ewoks, a bit too cute and a sign of bad things to come.)

Toy Story (Childhood, friendship, loyalty…oh, heck, just pass the kleenex again.)

Platoon (Works great as a Viet Nam war movie, but even more so as an examination of the battle of good vs. evil around us and within us,  although I’m not sure I’ll ever enjoy it quite as much ever again…thank you, Charlie Sheen!)

The Sound of Music (Is there a better movie musical?  And, yes, this one also requires a hanky or two.)

The Fisher King (A great movie on sin and redemption.  I love Terry Gilliam’s wild directing style.  Jeff Bridges and Robin Williams are marvelous.)

I could go on and on…Big Fish, Magnolia, and so many others…consider this a preview of the list of 100 coming soon.