Weekly Roundup is a feature posted each weekend on I Wonder if You Wonder. It gives me a chance to react to the week’s industry news and to provide some quick thoughts about the films and TV shows I’ve been watching. (Plus it’ll give you some idea of the sheer amount of stuff I watch!) Let’s dive right in.
Slow news week in general, but here we go anyway.
Star Wars in 3-D: The entire Star Wars saga is being re-released in theaters in 3-D, beginning with The Phantom Menace this weekend. I’m already embarrassed at how many times I saw that movie in theaters as an impressionable 14-year-old, so you won’t be seeing me there anytime soon. I’ll admit to being vaguely tempted by Return of the Jedi, though – it’s the only Star Wars movie I’ve never seen on the big screen.
No Muppets at the Oscars?: This week, word leaked that the producers of the Oscars weren’t planning on having the nominees for Best Original Song perform their songs live on the telecast as they usually do. Apparently nothing is set in stone as yet, but this would mean that we’d be deprived of a live performance of “Man or Muppet” from The Muppets. This understandably sparked significant outrage on Twitter. Seriously, Academy? Uncool.
House Plans its Demise: The producers of the show announced this week that this season would be its last. I literally haven’t seen a single episode, but Hugh Laurie sure does do a great American accent.
2012 Berlin International Film Festival Opens: This year’s Berlinale opened on Thursday and will continue for the next week or so. The jury is comprised of a number of noteworthy artists, including British director (and Jury President) Mike Leigh, actor Jake Gyllenhaal, actress Charlotte Gainesbourg, and Iranian director Asghar Farhadi (about whom more later). The films in competition at the festival include Jayne Mansfield’s Car – Billy Bob Thornton’s first movie in a decade – and a new film by famed Italian directors Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, who are still working into their 80s.
The Voice – Suddenly the Highest Rated Show on TV: Obviously this is because I wrote about the show in a positive light in last week’s Weekly Roundup. Or maybe because it aired right after the Super Bowl, which was the highest rated show in the history of television. Yeah, probably that.
K-Bell Loves Sloths: Told you it was a slow news week. But it you somehow haven’t already seen this gem from Kristen Bell’s recent appearance on the Ellen show, OMG WATCH IT NOW:
And if that wasn’t enough, the whole thing then got auto-tuned:
…I love it SO MUCH.
Viewings & Reactions:
Margin Call: Going into this one, I’d heard two totally different opinions about the movie: some people thought it was a really good portrait of the financial crisis, and others felt that it was hopelessly boring. I see where the people who thought it was boring were coming from – the movie doesn’t exactly move along at a brisk pace – but I fall in line more with the former group than the latter. I’m not sure the film is 100% successful in explaining all of the intricacies of the financial meltdown that claimed companies like Lehman Brothers (which the firm in the film is clearly based on), but for someone who has a little bit (but not a lot) of understanding of these issues already, 90% success in explaining things was more than enough to keep the plot moving along. The cast is uniformly stellar – even Demi Moore – and Stanley Tucci is particularly impressive as a whip-smart analyst who sees the financial collapse coming and gets laid off in the first ten minutes of the movie anyway.
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close: This is a tricky one. The film has sharply divided critics, and it’s no surprise given its story: it explores the aftermath of 9/11 through the eyes of a precocious child, Oskar (Thomas Horn), who may also be autistic. Two elements seem to have turned off some viewers: the potentially annoying qualities of the main character (which are the logical result of his immense intelligence for his age and the fact that he may have Asperger’s syndrome) and the use of 9/11 as the background for what is essentially a work of magic realism or a modern-day fairy tale. I reject both of these interpretations; for one, I found that Oskar’s potential afflictions enriched the character more than it hurt him, and works of fiction have often used real-world tragedies as backgrounds to more personal stories. Is Extremely Loud’s use of 9/11 any worse than the insipid Michael Bay movie Pearl Harbor and its use of the December 7, 1941 Japanese attack? Absolutely not.
All that being said, I still don’t think the film was great. While I acknowledge the filmmakers’ right to use 9/11 as the background to a story like this, the way that the plot resolves itself – with a manufactured happy ending in a situation where despair would probably be the only legitimate reaction in the real world – makes the film somewhat less than believable, not from the perspective of objective realism but from the point-of-view of emotional believability. Such is the nature of fairy tales, I suppose. Still, it’s worth checking out so that you can decide for yourself.
The Iron Lady: A movie about Margaret Thatcher, one of the most powerful and influential people of the 20th century, that somehow manages to be about nothing at all. I literally don’t think there’s a single thing in this movie that I couldn’t have learned from reading Thatcher’s Wikipedia page. The bland recitation of a bunch of interesting events in a person’s life isn’t enough – great biopics are able to somehow tie everything together and help the viewer gain some insight into the film’s subject. Not so with The Iron Lady. But hey, Meryl Streep is great in it.
A Separation: What a film. Asghar Farhadi’s masterpiece is the favorite to win this year’s Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, coming on the heels of its Golden Bear win at last year’s Berlin International Film Festival.
I’ll say this up front: the film wasn’t anything like I expected. As the title would suggest, the films explores Nader (Peyman Maadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami), a married couple that is going through a separation and potential divorce. We’ve seen this kind of film before: there are a few scenes of the couples fighting, we wonder how it’s all affecting the couple’s young daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi, the director’s daughter), and so on. For about the first half hour of the film, everything played out as I expected it to, and I began to question what it was that had prompted all of the hype. But then something unexpected occurs: an event, partially taking place off-screen, which dominates the rest of the film and forces viewers to confront our own preconceptions, misconceptions, and the entire concept of subjective perspective. It slowly dawned on me that I was actually watching a modern-day, realist/minimalist version of Rashômon; that’s the only other film I can think of that so expertly foregrounds the subjectivity of truth. (I was so damn proud when I realized the Rashômon thing, until I found out that Roger Ebert had already made a similar comparison in his annual Top 10 list article. Oh well.)
Aside from Rashômon, A Separation reminds me most strongly of some of Michael Haneke’s films, like Caché and The White Ribbon, not only stylistically but also in the way that Haneke’s films tend to never be about what you think they’re going to be about. Caché depicts a middle-class French family that is being spied on by some unknown party. While this seems like a pretty standard plot for a thriller film, what the movie is really interested in is the decline of the French bourgeoisie, France’s history of colonialism, and other similarly complex issues. The marital separation in Farhadi’s film is interesting in its own right, but its real purpose is to serve as a window through which we are invited to explore the far more universal and complicated issues at stake.
On top of everything else, there’s also the issue of how Farhadi was even able to the make the film in the first place. Right now, the Iranian government is in the midst of an unprecedented crackdown on filmmakers and artists, and many assumed that a film of this quality would never be made again (or at least not until there was some kind of major regime change in Tehran). Somehow, though, Farhadi was able to satisfy his government minders adequately without blatantly sucking up to the regime or sacrificing even an ounce of artistic value. A truly impressive accomplishment.
Needless to say, I highly recommend this film.
Red State: This is Kevin Smith’s most recent film, and it’s totally unlike anything he’s done before. It’s the story of a group of teenagers who are taken hostage by a fanatical religious group along the lines of the Westboro Baptist Church (the idiots who are always protesting military funerals). For about the first 45 minutes, the movie is straight-up torture porn, which is interesting only because it’s something I never expected to see from Kevin Smith. After that, though, the film’s focus shifts to the ATF agents, led by Special Agent Keenan (John Goodman), who are attempting to stop the violent and well-armed fanatics. Generally speaking, I’m a big fan of filmmakers who utilize genre cinema (horror, in this case) to address real-world issues (the original Godzilla/Gojira is one of the best films ever at doing this), and Red State does a decent job in this regard. Beyond all of the blood and gore, the film’s an interesting examination of the insanity of these kinds of fundamentalist groups, and it also does well to scrutinize the increasing power of the federal government post-9/11 (which is strengthened by some obvious parallels to the Branch Davidian and Ruby Ridge incidents). For my taste, many of the characters – both religious fanatics and government agents – are a little too stereotypical and one-note, which will prevent the film from ever being one of my favorites, but it’s still a decent try. And Michael Parks, who plays the leader of the religious cult, is at his maniacal best. (I don’t understand how Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, and Kevin Smith seem to be the only directors out there that recognize how good an actor he is.)
Smash: An antidote to my increasing skepticism about Glee. After a great first episode, Smash has the potential to be what Glee never could be: a postmodern musical for adults (in the vein of 2002’s Chicago) that is able to explore an All About Eve/Black Swan style stand-off between two equally talented performers, without nearly as much kitsch as many other musicals (Glee included). It’s early yet, but so far so good.
The Challenge: Battle of the Exes: Naomi and Leroy got eliminated. Sad face.
Previewing features and articles I’m working on for I Wonder if You Wonder, some of which will be posted this week, some in weeks ahead, and others that’ll be abandoned due to laziness or frustration. (Hey, at least I’m up front about it.)
- On David Fincher and Trent Reznor (this might be the week I finally write it!)
- On Seinfeld and the evolution of the sitcom (because I really enjoyed the random reference to the show I made in my last article)
- Back to the Future: Part II: Meditations from the Future (hopefully something kind of fun and silly, looking at what the movie got right and what it got wrong about the 21st century)
- Something about an older movie! I’ve written too much about really recent stuff, so it’s time to start trotting out my other interests: film noir and classical Hollywood in general, Italian neorealism, Golden Age Japanese cinema, New Hollywood cinema, etc.