Why Argo Should Not Have Won Best Picture.

•February 26, 2013 • 1 Comment

(Warning: Spoilers about Argo and Zero Dark Thirty ahead!)

I’m late on this one by a few days, but I wanted to vent about Argo winning Best Picture at the Oscars. Before I get into this, I want to say that I enjoyed Argo. I thought it was an entertaining film that had a great cast and high production values.

Why, then, have a blog post about why it shouldn’t have won? There are a few reasons. The first is that the plot veers so far from the truth that claiming it’s “based on a true story” rubs me the wrong way. Let’s make a list of things in the movie that are true:

1) There was an Iranian revolution in 1979.

2) The Iranians did take a number of hostages from the American embassy.

3) There were a group of workers that escaped the embassy and spent time in a Canadian ambassador’s house.

4) Those 8 people were smuggled out of the country. Their cover story was that they were location scouting for a Star Wars-esque science fiction film.

Those are the only true aspects of the story. The fact of the matter is that the CIA actually had very little to do with the operation. According to then-President Jimmy Carter, the CIA’s value to this operation was about 10%, with Canada providing the other 90%. In other words, Canada did most of the work, yet they were reduced to little more than a footnote in the movie.

Then, you’ve got all the absurd Hollywood twists thrown in to build suspense. This is stuff like the embassy workers being against the movie-crew cover story. Or them nearly getting massacred in a lynch mob in Iran. Or the Iranian soldiers shooting at their plane as it was taking off.

The thing that bothers me most about this movie is the political implications. Salon.com writer Andrew O’Hehir points out in an excellent piece about Argo that the Iranian revolutionaries are vilified throughout the film for doing exactly what the United States did in 1776!

Obviously there were a lot of negative aspects about the Iranian Revolution and I’m sure many tragedies occurred during this tumultuous period. But let’s not forget that one of the primary reasons the Iranian Revolution happened in the first place was that the CIA overthrew Mohammad Mosaddegh because he wanted to nationalize the oil industry!

So here’s the chain of events:

1) Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh attempts to nationalize oil industry in Iran.

2) CIA is upset because this means oil prices will go up.

3) CIA and British intelligence agencies stage a coup d’etat, overthrow Mosaddegh.

4) CIA installs Mohammad Reza Shah as leader of Iran.

5) Iranians revolt because of the Shah’s repressive policies and because they’re pissed off at Western involvement in their country (and who could blame them?)

6) Iran becomes a theocracy where the majority of citizens are vehemently anti-US (because of the coup).

7) 30 years later, Hollywood makes a movie celebrating the bravery and ingenuity of the CIA, when they were the same people who created the conditions for the Iranian Revolution!

So in other words, the CIA is being praised for getting American citizens out of a revolution…that was created by the CIA! That’s like praising a guy who set his own house on fire and pulled his son out of the burning building as some type of hero. It’s maddening.

And the thing that really annoys me about the whole situation is that these issues are completely glossed over in the film. Sure, there’s some brief mention at the beginning of the film about how the CIA’s involvement may have led to the revolution. But that obviously doesn’t get brought up ever again, especially as the film descends into a standard Hollywood action movie.

Contrast this with a film like Zero Dark Thirty, which brings up some very controversial issues and then tackles them head on. Now, some (including Senator and former Presidential candidate John McCain) have accused ZDT of bending the truth in the same manner of Argo, particularly on the issue of torture and whether or not the use of “extreme interrogation techniques” led directly to the capture of Osama Bin Laden.

To that I would say that, regardless of how useful it was, torture happened quite often during the zenith of the “War on Terror.” To me though, what’s important is that the film forces the view to confront this ugly issue. In a way, the film implicates the viewer in the widespread use of this ugly technique. There’s a key scene in ZDT where the CIA is having a meeting about how they may have to curtail their interrogation techniques because of the change in administration. “You don’t want to be the last one holding a doggie collar” one agent tells another. On the television in the background, Barack Obama is giving a speech about the inhumanity of torture and how it’s not what the United States stands for.

I think that scene illustrates the key difference between Argo and Zero Dark Thirty. Argo is a propaganda film that paints a sterling portrait of the CIA and shows Iran as a brutal place. It justifies the United States position of superiority by painting the Iranians as barbaric and uncivilized. Zero Dark Thirty is not afraid to show that, when it comes to these difficult situations, there are no good guys.

My Four Favorite Movies of 2012

•January 1, 2013 • Leave a Comment

So with 2012 finally in the past, I thought I’d look back at my four favorite films of the year. I’d say overall it was an average year for movies. I go to the theatre pretty regularly, and more often than not this year I left saying “Eh, that was alright.” These four films aren’t necessarily the “best” films, they were just my personal favorites. Some minor spoilers ahead, so read at your own risk.

4) The Dark Knight Rises.

The Dark Knight Rises

I don’t think anyone would argue that TDKR was better than The Dark Knight, but taken on its own merits this is still a highly entertaining film that does a fine job closing out the greatest series of superhero films ever put on camera. The highlight of the film for me was the performance of Tom Hardy as Bane. I know a lot of people had a problem with his garbled, Sean Connery meets auto-tune accent, but I thought the character himself was a great follow-up villain to Heath Ledger’s Joker. Both Bane and The Joker are essentially terrorists, but where The Joker was all about chaos and anarchy, Bane represents order. Interesting way to end the series.

Certainly this movie had a lot of problems. It takes forever to get into motion, for one thing.  Also, while I thought Ann Hathway did an admirable job as Catwoman (who’s really a ridiculous character, if you think about) the whole love story between her and Bruce Wayne just didn’t work for me.

At any rate, in terms of summer blockbuster this had everything you could want. An established character being pushed to his limits by a worthy adversary, solid acting, an impressive cast, and a ton of explosions and fist-fights to satisfy the bread-and-circuses crowds.

3) Looper

Looper

Time travel has always been one of my favorite film-subjects. If there’s any type of time-traveling element in a movie, I’m there. Primer, 12 Monkeys, and Donnie Darko are my favorite films that deal with the subject, but hell, I even kind-of liked The Butterfly Effect, a movie that starred Ashton Kutcher.

ANYWAY, I guess this affinity for people moving around in time meant that I was predisposed to like Looper, but I think most people who have seen the film can agree that this is an awesome movie. If you haven’t seen it, it is set in a future where time travel has been invented but is illegal. As such, the only group of people regularly using it are criminals, who use characters called loopers to assassinate enemies in the past and then dispose of the bodies.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays one of these loopers who is generally satisfied with his life until his future self (Bruce Willis) gets sent back as one of this targets. The plot gets complicated from there, and in lieu of blabbering away further I’ll just post this clip:

The thing I liked most about Looper was its originality. I don’t really feel like counting, but I’d hazard a guess that at least 60% of the mainstream movies shown in theatres over the past year were either a sequel, remake, or adaptation of something else (book, video game, board game, whatever). Looper, quite simply, is unique. It also draws great performances out of the two leads and makes an interesting point about the pointlessness of violence. If you haven’t already, go see this movie!

2) Moonrise Kingdom

Moonrise Kingdom

I was probably even more inclined to like Moonrise Kingdom than I was Looper because of my long-standing appreciation and admiration of Wes Anderson’s work. Anderson is a pretty polarizing guy, it seems, and while this film doesn’t stray far enough from his typical oeuvre to attract many new converts, it’s an outstanding example of his strengths as a filmmaker.

The movie is set in the 1960’s on a fictional island off the coast of New England. A young boy scout named Same and his girlfriend Suzy send the community into a frenzy by running away together. They are pursued by the Boy Scout Master (in a great, low-key performance by Edward Norton), a police captain (Bruce Willis) and the girl’s parents (Anderson regular Bill Murray and Frances McDormand).

This movie walks a fine line between drama and comedy, as most of Anderson’s films do. It is occasionally hilarious, but also touching. Sam and Suzy are outcasts, but are able to find comfort in each other, while the rest of their world searches desperately for them. T

1) The Cabin in the Woods

The Cabin in the Woods

The Cabin in the Woods is a unique undertaking, to the point where I’m frankly surprised that it managed to do as well as it did at the box office. Directed by Joss Whedon, the film is initially structured as a typical horror movie. A group of young people go to a cabin the spend a weekend, where they find themselves under attack by zombies.

However, there is much more going on than meets the eye. At the risk of completely giving away the movie, I’ll just say that the second half of the movie is in essence a deconstruction of the entire horror genre. It is basically asking the audience why we watch horror movies in the first place. All this leads to a brilliant final sequence where the heroes of the movie face off with just about every horror-film cliché imaginable.

Some critics have griped that the movie is too clever for its own good, but I think that this movie and its creators should be praised for taking such a huge risk. They accomplished the difficult task of both putting out  quality, entertaining film while simultaneously poking fun at the genre.

IPad

•December 28, 2012 • Leave a Comment

Well, I recently succumbed to societal pressure and asked for an iPad for Christmas. And Santa, being the kind and jolly soul that he is, actually got me one. I have to say I was skeptical about how much practical application these things actually had. But now that I’ve spent a couple days messing around with it, I have to say that I’m pretty impressed.

One of the main reasons I wanted it in the first place is to record videos. I coach track and cross country, so having a device that records videos and then immediately plays them back is quite helpful for working on form. I also found an app called Running Coach’s Clipboard which keeps track of people’s splits in a very efficient way. So I’ve been happy with that aspect of it for sure.

I also think there are a bunch of really interesting stuff you can do with it. There’s one app I found that let’s you insert over-the-top action sequences like a plane crash into the video, for instance.

So that’s probably the most simplistic review of an IPad ever written, but whatever. Apple is, in all likelihood a soulless, heartless corporation but they know how to turn out a good product.

Television Review: Workaholics Season 1

•September 7, 2012 • Leave a Comment

I mainly watched this show because it was on Netflix Instant Watch. I had just finished watching the Walking Dead and was looking to watch something during lunch one day. In lieu of putting on an episode of The Office or Parks and Recreation, I decided to give Workaholics a try. I’d heard mildly good things about it via Twitter and the familiar premise meant that I wouldn’t have to spend a lot of time getting introduced to the characters and learning about the setting and all the stuff that makes more high-minded television shows difficult to begin.

Workaholics is about three idiot slackers who work as telemarketers. It’s basically a less serialized, more comedic take on The Office, only with more dick jokes. Think The Hangover II meets Office Space. The characters are ostensibly different— one is tall and kind of preppy, one is short and extremely unsuccessful with women, one has long hair and a mustache and is weird—but they’re all basically the same. The three leads (Blake Anderson, Adam DeVine, and Anders Holm) are also the creators/writers of the show. There are also a couple of their fellow office workers sprinkled in here and there, but Anderson, DeVine, and Holm are rarely not on camera.

I’ll start with what I don’t like about the show. My primary complaint is that the plot’s lack any sort of inventiveness or originality. One episode focuses on the guys being forced to sleep at work and running into some “criminals” they suspect are robbing the place. As it turns out, it’s just the tech guys installing updates to the company’s software. The pilot episode concerns them being trying to get out of taking a drug test, a plot-line that I’ve seen numerous times most notably on The Office a few years ago.

I’m certainly not suggesting a show like Workaholics needs to come up with ingenious plots in order to be great, but I’d like to see a tad more creativity put into what these guys are doing. Don’t get me wrong, many of the references are hilarious and fly under the radar. A later-season episode features the gang getting roped into attending an ICP concert, which is at least something different.

I also have a bit of a problem with the casual cruelty displayed by the main characters. Numerous examples of this exist, but during one episode where Anders has to make a presentation to his boss at work, his two “friends” conspire to sabotage it with porn. Even though Workaholics has some fantastical elements, it at least appears to exist in the real world. Seeing the show’s leads going to such lengths to destroy their own careers just takes away from any realism that might have existed. There’s also the infamous “To Friend a Predator” episode, where the guys become good friends with a child predator. Not the show’s finest moment.

With that being said, I find the characters weirdly endearing when they’re not acting like complete morons. Sitcoms tend to make their main characters, if not good people, at least fairly successful in some particular endeavor, whether it’s their job or attracting people of the opposite sex. The guys on Workaholics don’t have any of that. In fact, it’s hard to think of a single redeeming quality that any of them have, other than “enthusiastic.”

I have a certain amount of respect for the writers (who are also the lead actors on the show) for not making themselves more glamorous. One of my least favorite tropes in television and film is how awful, ugly people always seem to have attractive girlfriends (see: every episode of Seinfeld ever, everything Seth Rogen’s ever been in). These guys are completely hapless with women, which to me at least makes them more endearing. It’s never expressed explicitly in the first season, but there’s an underlying sadness beneath the characters. Clearly Anders, Blake, and Adam are not completely happy with their lives, but they still go out and try to have fun instead of wallowing in their misery.

Final Analysis: Arrested Development this ain’t, but it’s worth a watch.

Grade: B-

Film Review: The Campaign

•September 5, 2012 • Leave a Comment

I went out and saw The Campaign on Labor Day. As the harbinger of beginning of fall and the death of summer, Labor Day is generally a depressing day. My thinking was that seeing a comedy could potentially lift my spirits and send me into the year with a renewed sense of optimism. Sadly, The Campaign was unable to meet my admittedly high expectations.

After a characteristically solid meal at Chili’s, during which the waitress asked me if I was “familiar with the menu” at Chili’s, I headed out to see it Monday night at 8:30. I will say that the theatre experience itself probably contributed to my disappointment in the film. Comedy films, especially broad ones like The Campaign, are always better in a big crowded theatre, preferably with a few people laughing hysterically at every Zach Galifianakis one-liner.

This theatre was just like that, only the exact opposite. There were 11 people in the theatre; me and the person I went with, a teenage girl and her mother (?), some older looking dude and his girlfriend/wife, a random 40ish year old lady, and a group of kids who came into the theatre laughing hysterically and then did not laugh once the entire movie. I felt like anytime I laughed, it was magnified times a thousand because of the eerie silence that permeated the room.

Anyway, on to the movie. The Campaign is a pretty basic political satire. Will Ferrell plays a Bill Clinton-esque politician who’s been in the House of Representatives for some time now and has settled into a comfortable life of womanizing and doing as little work as possible. Galifianakis plays the same character he plays in every movie, a weird man-child with a good heart. He gets recruited by a team of political lobbyist (Dan Akroyd and that guy from Harry and the Hendersons) who want a patsy in that seat so they can put some Chinese factories in the United States.

Let’s be honest; if you’re looking for an inspired plot in a Will Ferrell movie you’ve come to the wrong place. The movie gives Ferrell plenty of the goofy, SNL-inspired gags that he loves, none of which were particularly funny. Also, since they showed every humorous part of this film in the trailer, it wasn’t exactly a surprise seeing him get attacked by a snake while trying to appeal to the Christian-right (which doesn’t even make sense; why would a Democrat think he had any chance with the Christian right?) and so on.

For a film about politics, The Campaign is sorely lacking in any type of message, other than a generic “let’s all treat each other civilly” one the film pulls out of nowhere in the last 15 minutes. It seems to be a trend in comedy these days that no matter how ridiculous a movie’s premise, the third act is going to see the characters learn some type of life lesson. In a movie as dull as The Campaign, the only lesson I needed was to stop paying 11 bucks to watch bad movies.

Final Analysis: Shockingly mediocre.

Grade: C

The Sounds Of Checks Cashing: New American Pie Film Is On The Way.

•March 13, 2012 • Leave a Comment

American Pie 4

Well, it finally happened. Film in the United States has officially hit rock bottom. We’re in the depths of a cultural nadir so deep, I don’t know if anything can save us. It was a horrendous summer of movies, highlighted by the creative team behind the Hangover Part II  queuing up the Word Document from the first film and replacing all references to “baby” with “monkey” and moving the setting from Las Vegas to Thailand. The fact that the original Hangover was actually a fairly original, entertaining film made the whole moneygrabbing process all the more depressing.

The rest of the summer gave us mediocre superhero films (Captain America, Thor, X-Men First Class), another nostalgia-crushing trip through the Transformers universe, a live-action Smurfs movie whose single-joke premise was to use the word “smurf” as a fill-in for every word in the English language (Screenwriter: I really smurfed up this script. Should we rewrite this and try to make it, you know, better? Producer: No, that’ll do), and the deplorable creation that was The Change-Up. Were it not for a decent comedy (Bridesmaids) and a film about a group of apes taking over San Fransico, the summer would have been completely devoid of even serviceable films.

Then, we had what’s widely considered one of the worst “award seasons” in recent memory, culminating with The Artist winning Best Picture. I’ll admit that I didn’t see this film, so I can’t really comment on its “artistic” merits (see what I did there?). Some of the other prestige pieces—The Descendants, Drive, War Horse, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close—were all pretty underwhelming, which kind of sucks because I feel like this year really need a great film to come along. If anyone actually watched the Oscars this year, the blatant theme was about how awesome it is to go to the movies. It’s a good sentiment, and I understand why every person who got up on stage mentioned something about “the magic of the movies.” However, even for people who consider themselves serious film fans, it’s hard to really get excited about this stuff.

It’s even harder to be excited about film when it’s pretty obvious that the idea well in Hollywood has run dry. All of which brings us to the point of this rant: the trailer for American Pie: The Reunion. Take a few seconds to look at this:

If you’ve managed to steer clear of the American Pie series, congratulations. The first one came out way back in 1999, and was a huge hit. I was 12 at the time, but naturally this movie was huge among the kids in my grade, so like the sheep that I was, I watched it. Multiple times. I thought it was dumb, but I did my best to pretend to laugh at the film’s idiotic characters, awkward sex-scenes, etc. They’ve since put out 2 more theatrical films and about 35 direct-to-DVD releases.

At this point, the people involved with American Pie clearly have no interest in anything like “making a decent movie” “integrity” or “putting out a high-quality product.” Which is really what bothers me about the whole thing. None of the actors involved in the original film have gone on to do anything of note (with the possible exception of Sean William Scott). Writers David Stenberg and Adam Herz, have only written American Pie and its multiple sequels. So it’s only natural that these people turn to the one piece of pop culture they have had success in and attempt to replicate that success by making the exact same movie over again.

What’s really frustrating to me is that people will go see this movie. One of the things I’ve come to accept in recent years is that, when it comes to movies (and music, and television), people are idiots. They would much rather shell out $10.50 to see American Pie 13 than go see something original. It’s depressing.

I wish there was some way to prosecute the people behind this abomination in court. Perhaps someone could sue them for consumer fraud. What we need is a commission in Hollywood whose sole purpose is to read over scripts and screen them for similarities to other movies within that franchise. If the script proves too similar, it doesn’t get made. Good idea, huh?

 

I’m Not Sure If This New Arrested Development Season Is A Good Idea.

•January 4, 2012 • 1 Comment

Arrested Development is one of the greatest television shows of all time. The show ran for three short seasons and was cancelled in 2006. Despite widespread critical acclaim, it was never able to find a sizable audience, probably due to the rapid-fire nature of the jokes, the quirkiness of the characters, and the heavily serialized nature of the series that made it extremely difficult to follow without having seen the previous episodes.

Since it was cancelled, the audience that adores the show has grown via DVD sales and the internet (it’s currently streaming on Netflix Instant Watch!). In this time, it took on an identity as a plucky show that achieved greatness briefly before the heartless bastards that control the television industry pulled the plug because the mouth-breathers that watch television weren’t sophisticated enough to understand “intelligent” humor.

One could argue that its cancellation has bolstered the show’s reputation significantly. I did not watch the show on television, but after reading various blog posts and articles detailing the travesty that was its cancellation, I bought the DVD’s. I really do think the fact that it was cancelled makes it more appealing to fans, particularly people who like to think of themselves as “informed viewers” who believe that their tastes are just a little bit better the the schmohawks watching How I Met Your Mother with all the other less enlightened people (and yeah, I include myself in that category!).

Ever since Arrested Development ended, there have been talks of bringing the show back in some form. There was talk of it being picked up by a subscription based channel such as HBO or Showtime, but that never materialized. Over the past five years, the cast has been hounded by reporters wanting to know if there would be an AD movie. Most people thought it would never happen, as the logistics of getting the ten primary cast characters and creative team (mainly series creator Mitch Hurwitz) seemed to be an insurmountable task. Plus, there was the issue of finding a network for a revamped version of the show, or a film studio willing to distribute what is essentially an unpopular product with a large, fairly expensive cast.

Well, long story short, the show is coming back. Netflix, which streams the show online on its site, has agreed to stream another season. Apparently, each new episode will follow one of the primary cast members, and a movie will bring the whole thing together. Netflix is looking to start distributing their own shows, as they already have a new series called House of Cards that is set to run sometime in 2012.

I don’t want to be a naysayer, but I am not a fan of this development. I still plan on watching it, of course, but I think there are a lot of problems with putting a long-dormant show back on the air. In season seven of Curb Your Enthusiasm, Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld (playing themselves) discuss why reunion shows “are always lame.” They basically conclude that reunion shows are typically self-serving affairs and that they “never look right.” They then go ahead and do a reunion show, which is awesome.

Now, the Seinfeld reunion show on Curb was awesome, but it was awesome specifically because of the way it was done. You had Larry David the person wrote a show in which Larry David the character writes a reunion show not for any artistic or commercial purpose, but as a ploy to win back his ex-wife. It was also awesome because we only saw the actual show in brief clips. The brief clips were great, we got a sense of what the show would have been like without having to actually see the whole Seinfeld episode, which probably would have been lame if it was done as a straight-up show.

With Seinfeld, as with Arrested Development, I never felt there was a great need to know what the characters were up to. I’ve watched both shows multiple times, and I don’t think there was a bit of character growth on either show. And that’s fine. I didn’t watch Seinfeld because I wanted to see Jerry recognize the errors of his selfish ways and settle down with Elaine. I didn’t watch Arrested to see Job become a better person and start treating his son Steve Holt (Steve Holt!) like an actual, you know, son. I watched these shows because they were well-written and funny. Extremely funny. The characters, by and large, changed depending on the plot. Job and Michael would get into some massive fight (one time with a giant rock and a giant pair of scissors), make amends, and the next episode they’d be just as adversarial as ever. And no one said boo about it.

So that’s the first reason I don’t think this reunion is a great idea; it’s not like anyone really cared about whether the Bluth family got it together. Because you know what, a functional Bluth family is a boring show.

The second reason is kind of an obvious one. The show has a legacy, and this revival could easily end up destroying that legacy. It could also add to that legacy, for sure. But why roll the dice? The first three Star Wars films were the stuff of legend. The last three tarnished the legacy of the first three, no question. We could have the same thing going on here. Mitch Hurwitz has been in a major slump since AD went off the year, with a number of failed television shows (Sit Down, Shut Up, anyone?). Michael Cera has gone from a sweet, good-natured teenager on AD to an over-saturated, annoying, poor man’s Jesse Eisenberg.

None of this means that the Arrested Development revival will be a flop. I’m going to watch the hell out of it. I hope it’s good, and, if anything, it will be interesting to see where they go with the story. But I don’t see why it’s necessary.