This is the second in what will be a series of between two and 17 posts (the first is here) designating the first annual home anywhere _____ of the year awards. Actually, that’s not true. We’re not going to name a film of the year for any one (and the sum of) the following reasons:
- We didn’t see that many films in 2005,
- Of the films we did see, we can’t really remember whether or not we saw them within the last year, and
- We have no idea which of these films that might or might not be eligible for such a prestigious award was the best.
Normally silly things like that might not stop us from just making up a winner for this prestigious award, but we have just enough film nerd friends to guarantee that a messy and ill-conceived winner would generate all sorts of dissension and turn home anywhere into the world wide web center of cinematic controversy. And, frankly, our Typepad Plus level subscription simply doesn’t buy us sufficient bandwidth for such an event.
Instead, I’m just going to write about the movies I’ve seen lately and say what I did and didn’t like (and yes, we’re aware that I’m alternating indiscriminately between "we" and "I" as I write…I’m mysteriously freed up like that). I do this as a service to you as you make decisions about whether or not to allow the ridiculous-celebrity-funding movie business to take you for seven bucks plus a sizable concessions endowment for these particular reels.
I’m pretty sure I didn’t set foot in a theater for a period of between 4-6 months in the time surrounding the arrival of our smiling baby girl. Then, in the period of just over a week, I made four trips to the movie house. Following is my take on each of those experiences in no particular order:
With apologies to my friends and family in the oil business, ace and I give this one two enthusiastic thumbs up. Contrary to what you may have heard, this is not a reductionist piece of George Clooney liberal propaganda. It is an intelligent, interesting (and I assume loose) adaptation of this book, exploring the complicated interplay between the oil industry, international politics, spy games, Islamic fundamentalism, and terrorists who will pull out your fingernails to get you to talk. In the spirit of Traffic (Syriana was written and directed by Stephen Gaghan, who was the screenwriter for Traffic), the film skillfully tells several independent stories that don’t wind up being so independent.
I know some are so sincerely suspicious of Clooney and his motives that they can’t imagine this being anything but a Michael Moore-ish smear job on conservative politicians and oil companies. I won’t say it paints an altogether flattering picture of the business or politics related to the oil and gas industry, but it’s not 126 minutes of Dick Cheney caricatures either. It is, of course, a particular subjective version of a particular sort of story, but it didn’t strike me as terribly unfair or unrealistic. The characterizations are complex, and there are few, if any, apparent stereotypes and oversimplifications. The tensions between greed, conscience, power, and humanity are obvious, even among some of the less tasteful characters. Perhaps the most powerful and unsettling aspect of the film is the sense that you’re getting a glimpse of how this part of the world really works.
I should also add that Clooney is terrific as the doggedly well-intentioned CIA agent in the middle of this whole mess. Despite his silly celebrity antics, I think he’s one of the better actors on the A-list, and this was one of his more convincing roles. There were also nice showings from the likes of Chris Cooper and Christopher Plummer, two of those guys who always seem to be perfect for the roles they play but seldom really stand out. Matt Damon is tolerable, but not much more.
Now I’ll admit that I’m often pretty skeptical of these kinds of high production blockbusters. On average, I’d say I make an effort to see one out of every three or four movies hailed as "the year’s biggest thrill ride of adventure and exhilaration" or whatever. I can’t say I was as jacked up as some of my friends to see the King of the Kongs, but I was sincerely interested and expecting to like it. I guess that was primarily because of the capital Peter Jackson earned through the Rings trilogy, because I typically like Jack Black, or because, in general, guys like to watch monkeys. How could I not like a movie made by the guy behind the 42 hours of Tolkien footage starring Jack Black about the biggest monkey to ever score a hot blond, right? Well, um…here’s how…
Though I acknowledge that some of the visual aspects of this movie were utterly spectacular, I just never found anything beyond Kong vs. T-Rex and the other effects to buy here. In a movie that was easily 30 to 45 minutes too long, I didn’t think any of the characters I was supposed to care about were given enough depth or texture for me to care about them. By the mid-point of the exercise, I was so frustrated with this fact that even the otherwise fascinating action sequences were becoming an irritant because they never gave way to actual plot or character development. Where Jackson might have flirted with excess in action magic at points in the LotR series, I thought he mostly disregarded restraint and discretion this time around and did to the story what those crazier than hell (and I mean that literally) voodoo people were about to do to poor Ann. (And speaking of the crazy voodoo people, is there any doubt that Peter Jackson has officially replaced Stephen King as the Hollywood guy who obviously has the most disturbing dreams?)
Those of you who fervently disagree are, of course, free to post your own thoughts. I know some folks saw everything I didn’t in the film, and I’m fairly sure I’m the only guy in the country who’s been told that this movie about a big gorilla and his uber-hot blond girlfriend is too cerebral for me. That is, of course, quite possible. Just not likely.
[Editor’s note: It took every ounce of restraint I could muster to refrain from including in this review the sophisticated poem about King Kong that I learned in elementary school. It includes phrases that rhyme with King Kong, like ping pong, Hong Kong, and well, some others.]
I have known of Johnny Cash for most of my life, in part because my Dad grew up in rural Arkansas not too far from where Cash was raised. I can’t say I remember my Dad being much of a fan, but I remember being aware that John and June were generally held in high esteem in that part of the world. I didn’t actually get to know the man or his music until the last year of the his life when I got my hands on his last album, American IV: The Man Comes Around (which I believe you should own if you don’t already).
By the time I heard about this film, I was already in as a fan of the music and the man. I think his fairly public appetites for both sin and redemption tell a story about almost all of us and tell it with more honesty than most of us ever manage when we tell that story ourselves. So my only real obstacle was the fact that I’ve never cared much for Joaquin of the Phoenix family. (Who is this out there naming their children things like River and Joaquin anyway? What’s that you say? They also made kids named Liberty, Summer, and Rain? My apologies to Joaquin, who obviously got the normal name. What’s that you say? He once changed his name to Leaf because he felt left out among his siblings? Poor kid.)
So let this stand in testimony to my open-mindedness, lest my review of Kong suggest otherwise: Joaquin "Leaf" Phoenix is outstanding as Cash. If they hand him an Oscar, I’ll have no complaint. Ditto with Reese Witherspoon, who may be on her way to a pretty special career. They are completely believable and startling authentic as the complicated, tortured, and strangely storybook couple, and their performances are enough to make this a really good film. Though the script didn’t quite seem complete to me, that isn’t necessarily a knock on the writers or director. I just think this is one of those very rare cases where the silver screen version of someone’s life is actually an understatement. By all accounts, the man really lived an unbelievable life, and maybe his own telling (which can be purchased and sent to me from my Amazon wish list on the left, by the way) is the only way to do it justice.
My last note on Johnny Cash: If you’ve never heard or seen the lyrics to his song The Man in Black, or even if you have, make haste.
This was purely a father-son day excursion in my first week of mock unemployment. I’m excited about getting into the habit of Aiden and I spending consistent, designated time together, and he’s finally old enough that I was relatively confident he could sit still for the necessary 80-90 minutes to watch an animated picture on the big screen. He’s been to the movies before, though never with much success (from our perspective anyway). That said, he’s remained convinced that he wants to go to the movies pretty consistently, and he recognizes the theater every time we pass it. Chicken Little was the only G-rated option we had, so off we went to watch the sky fall.
I’m happy to report that the boy and I had an excellent time. I smuggled in some M&M’s and raisins for him, a candy bar for myself, and we bought popcorn and soda waters. We had the whole theater to ourselves, and Aiden more or less watched about 90% of the movie. He started getting restless toward the end, which means he did better than me by about half an hour. You’ll notice I’ve said very little about the movie itself, but that’s not out of neglect or because I’m distracted by our personal story. It’s just because there isn’t much to say. It was more like a really long episode in any average TV cartoon series than a big animated feature, and I think Aiden agreed. The kid can watch movies like Toy Story and Finding Nemo as much as we’ll let him, and he’ll talk about them for days. As we left this one, we had the following conversation:
Aiden (enthusiastically): YES!
Me: What was your favorite part of the movie?
Aiden: ….mmmm…the popcorn!
And that’s about as good a review as I’d be able to write.
I’m surprised to see your positive review of Syriana. I thought the lawyer in the movie lacked any sort of discernable motivation which contributed to my overall confusion throughout most of the flick. That character single handedly ruined the movie for me. I never had any idea what he was up to or why he was doing it.
Phil: I understand the frustatration with the lawyer character. My read was that he was supposed to lack a clear (or at least consistent) motivation. I think his role was to be the guy we thought might be motivated by something good, but ultimately seems to just play the thing for personal gain. I agree that his character wasn’t executed well, and I thought too much attention was paid to him. It just didn’t spoil the rest of the film for me.