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Wednesday, December 28, 2011

2011 ANNUAL FILM ROUNDTABLE (ROUND 2: "DRIVE" AND "SHAME")

Part two of our discussion begins with more divisive talk this time about Drive, Shame, and Winnie the Pooh. Check it out below:



SEAN:

Welcome back Brian, and thanks for that lovely take on Tree of Life. Moving away from Malick and The Help there are so many interesting movies to talk about here. In preparing for our talk Julian raised the topic of Winnie the Pooh which arrived in theaters and disappeared as if it hadn’t been released by the largest media company on the planet, Disney. I can’t explain how this happened, it’s a wonderful, gentle little movie that Disney did not craft for free. Why did they dump it and fail to promote it? Why did they simply give up on opening weekend?



This, sadly, is a fairly regular phenomenon in Hollywood. One of my favorite films of 2011 is The Big Year starring Steve Martin, Jack Black and Owen Wilson. Fox gave up on The Big Year based on tracking numbers weeks before the film opened. The Big Year is a brilliantly smart, well observed comedy about very specific, well drawn characters. The comedy in The Big Year isn’t wacky or over the top but observant and very human. I think the fact that the film wasn’t a goofball comedy may have been the reason Fox gave up so quickly, they didn’t know what kind of movie they had and thus they didn’t know how to sell it. In a perfect world this wouldn’t matter but in the imperfect world of Hollywood, a marketing hook is crucial to a movie regardless of that movie’s quality.
On a slightly related topic, Brian, it’s killing me that I have not seen Certified Copy. I’ve seen over 150 movies this year and somehow that wasn’t one of them.
Opening another topic, what was everyone’s take on Drive? I was hypnotized by Drive. The score and the cinematography are so immersive and Ryan Gosling’s performance is so quiet and measured that the film lures you inside of it and then pummels you emotionally until by the end you are spent by all the violence and sleek, cool effortlessness of the production. I am swimming against the tide on this but I think Carey Mulligan was better in Drive than in Shame. The role is smaller and more functionary than Shame but I found her more sympathetic and plainly more interesting than her show emotional outbursts in Shame. The fact that I am one of the few people who didn’t love Shame certainly plays a part in my opinion.
It was a year for detached, observant drama. Drive, Shame, and strangely Moneyball all had a similarly sleek, detached air. For Drive and Moneyball that detachment is a ploy that draws you in closer to the characters until you are inextricably bound to them. In Shame I found the the detachment to be colder and more forceful. I never connected with Michael Fassbender or his problems. I definitely connected with Gosling and with Brad Pitt in Moneyball. Pitt’s Billy Beane has the shortcut of a cute daughter to bring you toward him emotionally but there is an effort on Pitt’s part as well to keep us at arms length until just the right time.



CANDICE:

It's interesting. I love the classic Winnie the Pooh cartoon, but I think there seems to be a trend where critics find it cool to condemn children's movies unless they're super provocative--like The Adventures of TinTin--and strip away he more traditional wonder of old school animated movies. I saw that a lot this year--including with Winnie the Pooh-and it puzzled me. I'm not sure if that had anything to do with the box of office dud.

Although I haven't seen The Big Year, I can tell you that the marketing may have had something to do with its lack of success. he trailer looked like a screwball comedy with no focus, and like it wasn't targeted to anyone in general. If it's anything as good as you say it is, than the marketing did nothing for it.

Sean, I love that you brought up the quietness that I noticed as well in both Shame and Drive. I personally think it worked better in Shame, mostly because the chemistry between Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan was far better and emotionally connected than that of Mulligan and Gosling in Drive. When Mulligan and Gosling stared at each other in moments of silence it just seemed like the movie went blank, lifeless. I felt nothing between them but silence. But when Mulligan and Fassbender shared silence in Shame, it was palpable the tension in that movie was so clear, and in every part of their characters.



But I will say Drive really proved to me that Gosling is just a magnetic actor. That role--and that movie-isn't for everyone with his specific style, but Gosling made it more mainstream. His acting, even in the quieter moments in the movie was so riveting, so fierce. It really breathed life into the movie. It is a true test of talent for an actor to say so much without saying anything at all. Also, I want to add that both Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman put in work in that movie! I was mesmerized by both their brutal performances. Like you said, Sean, when Drive gets going, it really takes off. While I enjoyed the last half a little more than the first half, I appreciated how the first half set up for a wild ride in the second half.Very stylized, nostalgic film.

Now Shame, awww Shame. My #1 movie out of all the movies I've seen this year. How I love it so. Let me count the ways. :)

I'll start first by saying I really don't think there is another actor who could have brought Brandon's life to screen so earnestly, so controlled and so heartbreaking as Michael Fassbender. He helped turn an otherwise heartless subject into something so painstaking and filled with emotion that it made it impossible to not empathize. The moments between him and Mulligan were so touching, but so filled with aggression that you never knew what to expect from them, you were hypnotized by them. I was never a fan of Mulligan until this performance, where I think she really delivered an emotionally present performance, finally. Fassbender really carried the burden of shame on his back in every minute of that film. He, along with the great direction of Steve McQueen, made every moment of that film seem beautiful tragic but moving at the same time. Not a tough feat for the subject matter. With McQueen's thoughtful direction, often shooting the characters from behind, the audience really gets the sense that they're peering in on these characters' disgraceful secrets. It's really quiet beautiful to watch.

I haven't gotten a chance to seen Moneyball yet, but I do think Brad Pitt is one of those actors whose versatility is so unexpected and so refreshing. I have really enjoyed watching his career unfold.

JULIAN:

Disney really screwed the pooch – or, in this case, the silly old bear – with Winnie the Pooh.

Before the first trailer for the film arrived, I knew nothing of the movie, and considering how much I keep up with movie updates, that certainly says something. But that’s not the real reason why it was such a disaster at the box office; the biggest factor in this wonderful, charming little piece of nostalgia’s financial demise was Disney’s decision to release it opposite Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2.

The latter film went on to have the highest-grossing opening weekend ever, something that surprised absolutely no one, while Pooh and his friends from the Hundred Acre Wood faded into movie-going obscurity.

What were execs at Disney thinking? People of all ages were excited to see the Boy Who Lived face off against Voldemort one last time on the big screen. It’s also worth noting that Disney dropped this movie in the summer, an odd time to release a very tame, traditionally animated G-rated film. Why not give it a slot in the November/December timeframe where it would have had a nice chance at finding a big audience?

The weekend of December 2 didn’t even boast one new film hitting theaters across the nation (on a side note, Sony re-released Oscar contenders The Ides of March and Moneyball to bolster their awards profiles). Traditionally speaking, it’s a bad weekend to release new films, but Winnie the Pooh would have fared far better on that weekend than in its puzzling summer debut.



This is a film that, with the proper release date and attention, could have been an Animated Feature frontrunner at the Oscars. And let’s be honest: Disney’s other two animated films this year, Cars 2 and Gnomeo and Juliet, have little to no chance of winning; Cars 2 might become the first Disney/Pixar feature to be shut out of the Animated Feature race (we can hope).

That’s what makes Disney’s course of action in domestic and international release very peculiar (its worldwide rollout comes across as very random and without any focus). Maybe it was the knowledge that Cars 2, regardless of how terrible it is, would make a pretty penny. On the awards side of things, maybe Disney tried to focus more on its live-action combo of The Help and War Horse, both of which seem locked for Best Picture nominations. Or maybe Disney simply tried for counterprogramming with the release, aiming for families with young children.

Every possibility listed above plausible to a degree, but in all honesty, I’ve no clue what the folks at Disney were thinking in regards to Winnie the Pooh’s release date and marketing.

As for The Big Year, I haven’t given it a look-see, but I’m siding with Candice on this one. If someone told me about a comedy with Jack Black, Steve Martin, and Owen Wilson, I’d be intrigued since I like all three actors in varying degrees (I’m giving Wilson the benefit of the doubt thanks to Midnight in Paris). However, those trailers and TV spots were genuinely appalling, making for some absolutely horrendous marketing.

Also in agreement with Candice, there’s no clear demographic that this film is trying to grab. None of the three actors, despite being solid performers, really carry much weight at the box office anymore either.

I’d now delve into Drive and Shame, but I’ve yet to see either title. I thought I’d have time to check out Drive when it first hit theaters, but it only played in my market for two weeks. As for Shame, there’s no telling if that movie will even come to a theater near me.

But I have seen Moneyball, and while I can’t bring myself to give it an enthusiastic shout of praise as other critics can, it’s a quality drama that thankfully avoids focusing on the sport of baseball to give protagonist Billy Beane the spotlight. Brad Pitt carries the film on his capable shoulders, giving a great star performance.

However, I’m really disappointed that he’s getting more attention for his leading work here than his vastly superior supporting performance in The Tree of Life. I’m not surprised, though: his Moneyball lead makes for a far more traditional, though not unimpressive, performance, with all of the bells and whistles that accompany what’s generally considered strong acting (crying scenes, likable underdogs, etc.).

The Tree of Life, on the other hand, sees Pitt fully embodying a stern yet loving father figure. He fully fleshes out a character while simultaneously bringing to fruition something that’s more of an elusive concept than a character study. Generally speaking, it’s easier to enjoy and appreciate Moneyball than The Tree of Life; same goes for Pitt’s work in both films.

While I’m still, to some extent, discussing Moneyball, let me take a slight detour and say that I’m not sold on the idea that Jonah Hill will score an Oscar nomination. He’s in the exact same situation as Mila Kunis was for Black Swan (though she actually deserved an Academy mention… but that was last year): a young comedic actor, who few take seriously, going against type in a movie that’s dripping with Oscar attention. Both actors were/are riding the coattails of more established performers in the movies as well.



BRIAN:

Well, now my lack of moviegoing this year is coming out. I've yet to see Winnie the Pooh, Drive or Shame, though all three are high on my list to see. I have seen Moneyball, and I thought it was done well, but I couldn't get past the fact that I didn't care about the stakes. I do argue that a person might need to be a baseball fan to truly appreciate the film. I do respect it, though, and I agree with Julian that Pitt is great in it. I don't think Jonah Hill gave an Oscar caliber performance at all. He was fine in the role, but there was nothing that made him stand out as Oscar-worthy. I think Julian is correct that Hill will travel a similar path that Mila Kunis traveled last year. She didn't ultimately get the nomination, and I didn't think she deserved it because she was good, but not that good. Hill is in the exact same boat except I think he has even less of a chance than Kunis did simply because Black Swan was more liked than Moneyball.

Again, admitting that I have only seen less than 30 films released this year, I've gotten the overall feeling that this hasn't been a great year overall in film. There are few films that have really blown away the critics, and considering that it's now the end of the year and there's no real front runner for Best Picture, I think that says something about quality overall. I have seen a number of films that I really liked but didn't love. I really only saw five movies that I would say are great--Certified Copy, Tree of Life, Of Gods and Men, Meek's Cutoff and Midnight in Paris--and out of those five, the only five star I gave was to Certified Copy. There are many films that I would say were good or very good--Source Code, Super 8, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, Tabloid, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, 50/50, Moneyball, The Ides of March, Bridesmaids, The Muppets and Margin Call. None of those films would be in my top 10 in any other year. Today, I'm planning on seeing The Artist, A Dangerous Method and hopefully one or two others. Still, though, I haven't gotten the impression that there's a significant number of great films out there that I have yet to see--maybe Drive being the biggest exception. Also, there's no chance that Certified Copy, Meek's Cutoff and Of Gods and Men will be nominated for Best Picture. At this point, I think it's unlikely that Tree of Life will be nominated as well.



Still, I haven't seen too many bad movies, though I think the most overrated movie is The Descendants. I flat out disliked it, which is pretty significant considering that it received a 92% on Rotten Tomatoes. I've heard Alexander Payne criticized in the past for making fun of his characters in his films. I've not agreed with this charge in his previous films, but I couldn't get past the sarcasm and cynicism that permeated The Descendants. The framing of so many scenes are meant to be comical, and the narrative contrivances similarly were meant to milk laughs from the audience. We're expected to laugh at characters dealing poorly with grief. By the end of the movie, I didn't feel like the characters learned anything about themselves or their grief. Instead, it all came off as a tawdry quest to have an uncomfortable encounter with Matthew Lillard and Judy Greer...and don't get me started on the subplot about selling the land and Clooney's character's completely unbelievable change of heart. I think Clooney was very good, and I'd be fine if he gets a nomination. Unfortunately, I won't be happy when The Descendants gets a Best Picture nomination as I'm sure it will.

I look forward to sharing some thoughts on The Artist for day three of our conversation.
Any other thoughts regarding Jonah Hill and his potential Oscar candidacy?

2 comments:

(Fr) Dennis Kriz, OSM said...

I'm going to defend Winnie the Pooh here. In a year of often dismal and politicized children's animated films -- Hispanics are bad (Hop), all non-Anglos are bad (Hoodwinked Too), it's okay to make fun of the _only_ non-white person on your cast (Diary of a Wimpy Kid 2) on the Right, and let's make fun of Dick Cheney, er "oil man" Tex Richman (Muppet's Movie) ... and G.W. Bush (Arthur Christmas) with a dolty out-of-touch Santa declares "Christmas Accomplished" when there was "One kid left behind" ... -- happily the only agenda that Winnie had was finding a pot of honey ;-).

Paolo said...

High five, Candice! Whenever I read that Drive is lifeless, I do fist pumping motions because those have more humanity than Drive. And yes, Mulligan is better in Shame.

Anyway, I also have a list of stuff I need to see like well made kid stuff, including Arthur Christmas and Winnie the Pooh, the latter of which is already on DVD.

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