Saturday, February 17, 2007

Unstructured Comics

Does this comic make you laugh?

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If so, you are a True Geek™, in which case you should check out XKCD, which describes itself as a "webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language". Rarely have I encountered such a concentration of Pure Geekery.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Oscar Roundup

From the last several years, I've made it my goal to see and review all of the Best Picture nominees for a given year. I am glad to report that I was able to complete my task for this Oscar season although, I must say, that the competition was considerably more lackluster than usual, which is a shame given that there are at least two movies that should have been nominated but which weren't.


Last year, my favorite nominee was Crash, which was a complex ensemble movie with a multitude of intertwined stories all dealing with the subject of racism. Babel is another ensemble movie but, where I found Crash to be an innovating cinematic fugue, Babel failed to impress me. Babel tells four different stories in four different countries (although two of them take place in Morocco and one spans the United States and Mexico). I felt that each of the stories could have made a decent short story (with one of them potentially worthy of a short story nomination) but that the whole didn't hang together well.

A big part of the problem I have with Babel is that many of the threads are thin. The Japanese connection to the rest of the stories is especially thin to the point of being practically non-existent. If one were to excise the Japanese tale, none of the rest would have either gained or lost a thing. One might also make the same claim of the Mexican/American story. Beyond that, whereas Crash had a central theme, Babel seemed to me largely pointless. I suppose that there's some message about how our actions extend beyond the horizon of our perceptions but, honestly, it's a stretch. It doesn't help that of the four stories, two of them had rather unsatisfying endings.

The Queen

The Queen focuses on the week following the death of Princess Diana. It's an exploration of the complex relationship between the British populace and their monarchy. Diana's death was both a national tragedy as well as a personal tragedy complicated by the fact that the Windsors weren't, in any sense of the word, fond of Diana. Elizabeth's instinctual response, which is to strive for privacy and dignity, is at odds with the populace's desire for public and official displays of grief, which causes immense conflict within the royalty as well as the government of a young Tony Blaire.

It is an interesting study in politics and privacy and the acting was superb. Never the less, I felt that the movie lacked a certain critical spark. When I see a best picture nominee, I want to feel wowed. When I left The Queen, I felt like I had gotten my money's worth but not as though I had experienced a work of landmark cinema.

The Departed

Martin Scorsese's latest bid for the statuette is a bloody and convoluted film that covers his favorite subject: organized crime. The story is very nearly Shakespearean in complexity as well as in sum violence. I suspect that it will be the movie that finally gets Scorsese a best picture award in part because he's due and in part because, of the nominees, it arguably is the best movie of the bunch. Given that this is a weak year, however, I think that the praise must be measured.

As a movie goes, it certainly has the characteristic Scorsese touch and, I must admit, Leonardo DiCaprio and Scorsese make a good team. Never the less, I feel that it's a fairly standard Scorsese entry. It does not ascend to the quality of The Deer Hunter or GoodFellas (which is my favorite gangster film) and I think that it would be a bit of a shame if this were the one of his movies singled out for official distinction. Be that as it may, it is certainly the best of the bunch and does deserve to win on that basis, alone.

Letters from Iwo Jima

I try to anticipate which movies will get nominated so that I can see them well in advance. Of the two Eastwood movies, I guessed that Flags of our Fathers would be the one nominated which means that I had to see two depressing World War II movies in a single year.

Letters is the story of the battle of Iwo Jima told from the side of the Japanese defenders. I do applaud the movie for having the courage to show history from the side of the losers, especially given that the majority of American produced movies about the war treat the Japanese combatants as mere props. Be that as it may, I do think that Flags was the better movie given its insightful exploration of how we alternately create and then dispose of our heroes. Letters was poignant but I feel that other movies have covered that same ground, if not from quite the same angle. Be that as it may, I do think that it is worth seeing, especially in the context of the larger Iwo Jima epic that Eastwood has created.

Little Miss Sunshine

I am delighted that this movie got a nomination. It is a rare thing for a comedy to get nominated and, generally, when one does get recognition it's the sort of depressing black comedy that makes you want to cry more than laugh.

Little Miss Sunshine does have its dark moments but it's also a genuinely funny movie. I've actually seen it three times (dragging friends in my wake) and each time I saw it the entire theater was in stitches through the best parts. The interesting thing about the movie is that it's using the same basic formula as National Lampoon's Vacation – dysfunctional family takes a road trip to a coveted destination and has trying and humorous experiences along the way – but it manages to utterly transcend the formula by making the characters feel like fleshed out beings with genuine inner lives.

Be that as it may, as much as I liked it, I don't think that it quite manages to deserve the award. Mind you, it's a close call and I really won't be upset if it does win, nor can I articulate what more I would want out of it. Perhaps, like the Academy, I do have a subconscious bias against the inclusion of comedies.

Honorable Mention: Pan's Labyrinth

It has long struck me that the Best Foreign Language Film category is something of a ghetto (much like the more recent Best Animated Film category) that often prevents deserving films from getting a Best Picture nomination. I think that Pan's Labyrinth is a perfect example of this phenomenon, which is further exacerbated by the fact that Letter's from Iwo Jima is, for all purposes, also a foreign language film.

The movie is an exquisite tale set during the Spanish civil war that deftly interweaves the mundane and the fantastic in the style of Magical Realism. The end result reminds me of some of Neil Gaiman's better work. It's the sort of mature fantasy work that's so very rare and yet so wonderful when it's done well. I would encourage everyone to take the time to see it.

Extraordinary Mention: Children of Men

The deep snubbing that Children of Men received is proof that the world lacks justice. I have heard rumors that the reason it didn't get recognition, beyond a handful of minor awards, is that the studio that produced it simply didn't know that they have a masterpiece on their hands and, thus, didn't do the sort of critical direct marketing that's necessary to get inclusions for the major categories.

That said, the film is magnificent. Most great movies have one, or maybe two, potent scenes that stick with the viewer long after he's left the theater. Children of Men, which is a dystopian tale about a world falling apart at the seams and the persistence of hope in spite of despair, is filled with such scenes. Week's after having seen it, I still find myself thinking about it. It is, in my opinion, the best movie of the year and, perhaps, of the entire decade. Its omission is heartbreaking. I hope that it will eventually develop a cult following and that it will eventually come to be seen as a science fiction and sociological classic.

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