Sunday, March 2, 2014

Best Picture Showcase 2014, Day 2

Yesterday was day 2 of AMC's best picture showcase, a marathon screening of the remaining five of this year's nominees for the Best Picture Oscar: Nebraska, Captain Phillips, Her, American Hustle, and Gravity.

Nebraska was a funny, quirky movie about an elderly man, played by Bruce Dern, who believes he has won a million dollars in a mail-in sweepstakes and has his son take him on a road trip to collect his prize from the sweepstakes headquarters. It was very funny, and the acting was excellent, particularly Bruce Dern, who is rightly nominated for Best Actor. It was shoot in black-and-white, which gives the picture a quaint feeling that suits the material.

Captain Phillips, which tells the true story of the captain of an American cargo ship taken over by Somali pirates, was very thrilling and  suspenseful. Is especially impressed by the way the ending shows the aftermath of such an episode. Not surprisingly, Tom Hanks was superb in his role as the title character.

Her takes place in the near future, and is about a man who falls on love with his computer's artificially-intelligent operating system. It creates a plausible vision of the future, and tells a thoughtful story of how people interact with technology. The characters were relatable and the plot believable, given the premise. It is my personal pick for best movie of the year.

American Hustle is about a con man and his female partner helping an FBI agent in a sting operation after he busts them. It's plot was actually somewhat difficult to follow. The '70s aesthetic was charming, and the music was great, but I didn't think the movie was anything special otherwise. It also uses that annoying technique I complained about last week, opening with a scene from the middle of the story before flashing back to the beginning. At least in this case, the filmmakers used the opportunity to dive the Christian Bale character a memorable introduction.

Finally, Gravity, about two astronauts stranded in space after their shuttle is destroyed by debris, was as thrilling as they say, and was technically very well-made. It was also filled with a lot of very typical Hollywood-style nonsense science, at least some of which would be obvious to any viewer, regardless of their level of scientific literacy or familiarity with spaceflight and physics in particular. I don't always find this sort of thing distracting in a mindless action picture, but it should preclude a film from being considered one of the years best and so I'm a bit puzzled that Gravity was even nominated.

Overall, I enjoyed all nine of this year's best picture nominees, several of them a great deal. I think this was one of the better years in recent memory in that respect, and as always I'm glad to have seen all the nominees.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine

Though it was not nominated for Best Picture, Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine was up for several other Oscars and so I decided to watch it recently.  Despite the lack of a Best Picture nomination, Blue Jasmine has been highly praised as one of the year's best movies, a view of the movie which completely eludes me.

The characters were mostly unpleasant, were mired in unhappy situations, and made bad decisions.  The story was dull, and I was totally uninvolved in anything that happened to anyone on screen.  I have not seen very many Woody Allen movies, but I did see Midnight in Paris, which was nominated for Best Picture two years ago, and I really enjoyed it.  In contrast, Blue Jasmine was just difficult to sit through.

Even the acting seemed uninspired.  Cate Blanchett, who plays the main character, is nominated for Best Actress, and while she was good in the role, nothing about her performance really stood out to me in a way that says, "this is possibly the best performance in the movies this year."

If anyone who really enjoyed Blue Jasmine wants to share what they enjoyed about it, I'd love to hear it.  My personal recommendation is to pass on it.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Best Picture Showcase 2014, Day 1

This past weekend, I watched four of the nine movies nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, as part of AMC Theater's annual "Best Picture Showcase," in which all the nominees are screened during two consecutive Saturdays. The four movies featured during this first day of the marathone were Philomena, Dallas Buyers Club, The Wolf of Wall Street, and 12 Years a slave.

All four were excellent. Interestingly, all were based on true stories. The first two, Philomena and Dallas Buyers Club, I knew virtually nothing about before watching. Philomena in particular was excellent. It tells the story of an elderly lady, played by Judi Dench, trying to track down her long-lost son with the help of a journalist who wants to write a story about her experience. Judi Dench was funny and charming, and the story was affecting and sad without seeming overtly manipulative. I even cried a bit during some especially moving scenes.

Dallas Buyers Club was also very good, telling the story of an HIV-positive man fighting the medical establishment for medicine he believes could save his life. It turns out to have been filmed locally (in the New Orleans area), and I recognized a lot of places onscreen. The story was interesting, but I was somewhat uncomfortable with what I think was an unfair demonization of the medical indistry in general, with a seeming contempt for the practice of science as it pertains to the controlled study of the efficacy of drugs.

The Wolf of Wall Street was outrageous and fun, but it was also rather shallow. It's certainly one of those films to have benefited from the recent increase in the maximum number of nominees from five to ten. It was enjoyable, but I didn't really think it was anything special and I don't think it was quite on the same level as the other movies in contention.

Finally, 12 Years a Slave was extremely good. It could have been the best of the day if not for a couple of confusing narrative points. Notably, it indulges in a pet peeve of mine, which is to begin the movie with an out-of-context scene from the middle of the narrative, then flash back to the beginning of the story. This is a fairly common technique, but it feels lazy and unnecesarry to me. I can think of a few movies that use this specific structure (including The Wolf of Wall Street), but none whose story benefitted from it. I'm not opposed to non-linear or otherwise unusual narratives, but this just seems like a lazy way to give a movie an attention-grabbing opening with no real effort. But maybe I'm making too big a deal out of what was honestly a relatively minor criticism in an otherwise excellent film.

Of the four movies I saw on Saturday, Philomena is my pick for the best so far, though there are five more (Nebraska, Captain Phillips, Her, American Hustle, and Gravity) to come next week. I've already seen two (Her and Gravity), but I'll save my thoughts on them until I re-watch them with the other nominees on Saturday.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Carroll vs. Craig on God and Cosmology

I attended a debate between physicist (and atheist) Sean Carroll and Christian apologist and philosopher William Lane Craig on "The Existence of God in Light of Contemporary Cosmology" last night at the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.

I thought it was a pretty good debate. The main issue I had was that both speakers, but Craig in particular, spoke in highly technical language about physics and cosmology, to an audience that I don't think was quite that familiar with either subject. The most egregious example is when Craig invoked something called the "Boltzmann brain" in defense of the fine-tuning argument, without really explaining what it is. Carroll gave a cursory explanation during his turn, but it was brought up repeatedly throughout the debate, and while I eventually came to a basic understanding of the argument, it was still too far over my head for me to meaningfully consider the argument. The moderator even joked about this, suggesting that the audience Google it during intermission.

But there was still plenty that I did understand, and I thought Carroll did an excellent job holding his own, and possibly even besting, someone who is easily among the strongest debaters that Christian apologetics as to offer.

Something that stood out to me was when Craig characterized Carroll's model of the multiverse as entailing that the universe simply "pop into existence." Craig continued to use that phrase in subsequent rounds, with barely any recognition that Carroll has specifically repudiated that characterization. It emphasizes something that's been clear to me from listening to past Craig debates, that he has a script and he tends to stick to it.

Another thing that impressed me about the debate was the quality of the audience questions during the question-and-answer session at the end. They were almost all thoughtful questions that elicited meaningful and interesting responses. There was also very little rambling or lecturing from the audience, which I find can often be a problem at events like this. The moderator had explicitly warned the audience beforehand that they would not be permitted to lecture, but I find that even that sort of warning is usually ineffective. But it turned out not to be an issue here.

Overall, it was a fun if sometimes frustrating debate, and I am very glad to have attended.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Richard Linklater's Bernie

Last night, I saw Richard Linklater's film, Bernie, featuring Jack Black in the title role as the assistant director of a funeral home in a small Texas town. Bernie is eccentric but well-loved, especially by the little old ladies whose late husbands' funerals Bernie organizes. This eventually develops into an odd relationship with one particular widow, a wealthy but mean old lady like by apparently no one else in town.

Bernie is an strange mix of comedy and drama, and based on a true story, though I knew nothing about the actual events, and was taken quite by surprise by a turn of events about halfway through the film. The advertisements and reviews describe it plainly, indicating that it is not considered a "spoiler," but I shall not reveal it here, because I enjoyed discovering these events as they unfolded, and hope that someone else might derive the same enjoyment by going into the movie blind.

What I will describe is Jack Black's incredible performance, which is like nothing else he's ever done. He has created a unique character in Bernie, and utterly disappears into the role. Bernie is loved by his neighbors, and viewers will have no trouble understanding why. He is kind, gentle, and sympathetic. Jack Black is really a joy to watch in this movie.

Bernie also stars Shirley MacLaine and Matthew McConaughey. The latter plays one of many townspeople who talk about Bernie directly to the camera in a series of interviews. I believe, however, that most or all off the other interviewees are actual townspeople. It strikes me as odd to juxtapose real townspeople's recollection of events with those of an actor playing a role, but it works well within the movie.

Bernie is funny and a joy to watch, not least of all because of Jack Black's performance. I greatly enjoyed it and would recommend it to almost anyone.