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The Wider Angle: Ruminations of a hardcore cineast

by Celluloid Dreams correspondent Ken Karn


Greetings to all fellow denizens of the dark.  I am afflicted just like you: a film addict with no known cure.  This space will be used, on a more or less regular basis, to touch on cinema-related topics not covered in other parts of this site.  Since movies relate to virtually all aspects of our daily lives, this forum shall have no limits.  I encourage you to provide comments, feedback and expansion of the topics discussed.  I strongly discourage dumb ass remarks, bad grammar and cheap shots.  And remember that no matter how many movies you've seen, there's always room in your brain for one more.


Saturday, January 26, 2008

"Oscar Films to See, Films to Wait for DVD"

Now that the Oscar noms have hit the street the serious movie fan is probably playing catch up.  In order to assist in this endeavor I’ve provided this handy guide to what you should see in a theater (if still possible), what can wait for DVD, and a few that you can avoid altogether.  However, I must address one Oscar item before I begin.


Let me get the qualifications out of the way:  all the actors in Juno are very good to excellent and they do a magnificent job with the material they were given.  I also believe that the director, Jason Reitman, is an up and coming talent who will do much better work in the future (I loved Thank You for Smoking).  But Best Picture??  Best Director?? Actress?? And most horrifying of all, Best Original Screenplay??!!

GMAFB!  Juno is as deep as a parking lot puddle with dialogue that was clearly written by someone who’s in love with her own writing (That would be indie It grrl and former stripper Diablo Cody).  Every character is a smart ass, with a rapier wit and stale, pop culture-filled comebacks to anything said.  There is nothing in the way of character development beyond some glib characterizations.  While unexpected pregnancy can be played effectively for laughs (Knocked Up, which was only OK funny), Juno played it like a zit a few days before the prom.  If you’re going to mine for comedy gold using teen pregnancy (a real problem, BTW) you better have a damn good reason.  All Juno finds is artificial sweetener in a cupful of warm fuzzies.  If you absolutely must see it in order to judge for yourself please be my guest, but those who skip it will thank me.

It’s probably a given that the big screen is the place to see any movie, but the following nominees especially demand initial viewing in a movie theater:  Atonement, There Will Be Blood, Sweeney Todd, and Into The Wild.  I suspect The Diving Bell and the Butterfly belongs in this category, but I haven’t seen it yet as it won’t be coming to a theater near me.  The one to run out and see immediately is Into The Wild because it was sadly ignored the first time around.  It’s an intensely moving portrait of one young man’s journey to the only place he can live, and it should be taking the place of Juno for both Best Picture and Director.  Atonement is classic Oscar material: a lush, sprawling period piece with gorgeous actors, romance, tragedy, war and the possibility of redemption.  Sweeney Todd is a grand opera that would lose a lot on home vid, and There Will Be Blood is an intimate epic with towering performances that can barely be contained by the screen frame.

Two of the very best of 2007 will enjoy the least drop-off on the small screen.   Michael Clayton is a claustrophobic puzzle of a character study that develops into a pretty neat little thriller.  Don’t be put off by the arcane setting or legal subject matter as it’s really about a man searching for his humanity.  Michael Clayton is an acting showcase that doesn’t have a wasted moment.  No Country for Old Men has excellent cinematography and the wide open spaces of west Texas, but it will still play well at home because of its precise storytelling and vivid characters.  The violence in the film has been overblown, perhaps because it is so fast and unexpected when it happens, but don’t let that scare you.  The relentlessness of Javier Bardem’s character, an efficient killer who lives for his work, is far more disturbing.

 A few other nominees worth checking out include director Ben Affleck’s severely underrated crime saga Gone Baby Gone, with stellar performances by Oscar nominee Amy Ryan and Ben’s little brother Casey Affleck.  David Cronenberg’s thriller Eastern Promises is another film few saw, with the best fight scene ever involving a naked Viggo Mortensen and some Russian mobsters in a steam bath. 

One film that smelled of Oscar bait from the day I first heard about it was American Gangster.  I was flabbergasted that it was virtually shut out for the main categories.  Please put it on your list if you’ve missed it because film fans seldom get to see 2 stars go at it like Denzel & Russell do here.  Compelling and very entertaining, even if a few of the facts from the real-life case were inflated a bit.

The most glaring omission on almost all top 10 lists, and now with the Oscars, is Zodiac, David Fincher’s dark, despairing portrait of a few good men who lose themselves while searching for an elusive killer. Fincher threw out all his usual visual tricks and instead used an unblinking eye to chart a meticulous and obsessive investigation that was to have no resolution.  Zodiac is so perfect on so many levels, but it was the lack of a perceived payoff that kept viewers away.  Don’t be a fool.  Check it out on DVD right after you get finished reading this column.


Hmm…maybe not so good

A few films that have been given lots of attention—certainly more than those in the past 3 paragraphs—met with indifference when projected before my eyes.  Of course Juno fits nicely here: not a horrible movie but certainly not worthy of praise.  I was strangely unmoved by Away With Her, perhaps because I was expecting more than a well acted but inert character piece. One particularly beloved film this year, Hairspray, I found to be grating and unfunny.  None of the tunes were memorable and John Travolta was beyond bad with his faux Ballmer accent.  No way did I buy him as a woman, so his presence was a constantly pulling me out of the movie.  John Water’s version was gobs better.  My final “ehh” film of the year is Waitress.  Look, I know the director died tragically before the movie was first shown, but overpraising this trifle is as egregious as the gushing for Juno.  I actually thought Waitress was a better movie, but still very minor with an ending that it did not earn.  And don’t even get me started on the awful southern accents.  Just in case you think I have something against pies, I adore the ABC-TV show Pushing Daisies.

I wouldn’t be fair to those out there who appreciate my coverage of films that are designed to creep you out if I didn’t include one undiscovered horror gem.  Horror is such a misunderstood genre and it’s so special when somebody actually gets it right.  That person is William Friedkin (yes, he of The Exorcist) and the film is Bug.  Ashley Judd deserves to be up there with Julie Christie, Laura Linney and the rest for her shattering performance as a down and out woman who falls under the spell of a stranger who is convinced he’s infected with bugs dwelling just beneath his skin.  This, my friends, is a real horror moovee and I cannot recommend it enough.


2008 Ken Karn/Celluloid Dreams

The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of Ken Karn, and do not necessarily reflect those of Celluloid Dreams staff or other contributors.




Respond to this column! Email Ken: ken@celluloiddreams.net.  Your message and/or Ken's response may appear on this page. You've been warned.

1-26-08 "Oscar Films to See, Films to Wait for DVD"
12-20-07 "What's Up With the Weird Holiday Movies?"
10-30-07 "The Overstuffed Cinema Buffet"
8-27-07 "Superbad"
7-7-07 "Oh, the horror... the horror..."
6-19-07 Ruminations on the Movie-going Experience
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