Sunday, February 27, 2011

Cramming for the Oscars

When the Oscars start tonight, I will have seen seven of the 10 movies nominated for Best Picture, thanks to a late push. I saw four of the nominees in the last week.

Tonight, I sat through (most of) Inception with a friend. It manages the not-rare-enough feat of being both utterly incomprehensible and supremely dumb. I didn't like director Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight, but that was more in a this-movie-is-silly-and-overrated-but-still-kind-of-a-joyride way. My reaction to Inception was more of a this-is-one-of-the-worst-movies-I've-ever-seen-and-when-can-I-go-to-bed? kind of thing. We watched much of the last hour in fast forward, which provided about as much intellectual stimulation and emotional engagement as watching it the regular way.

To thoroughly dissect the idiocy of Inception would take far more time than I'm willing to devote to it. Days and days more time. Perhaps months. For one thing, I was offended as someone who has had at least five or six vivid dreams every night for as long as I can remember. The movie seems to have no clue — or interest — in what dreams really are, or what they might represent. But I don't mean to say that's the movie's biggest flaw. They all seem equally big.

This afternoon, I saw Black Swan. I expected to either hate it or be surprised by its greatness. Instead, I thought it was well made but too predictable, and a bit sillier, in spots, than even its self-consciously campy approach warranted. The notion of good girl Nina (Natalie Portman) needing to shed her virginal White Swan personality and get in touch with her inner Black Swan is explicitly set up in the beginning on a kindergarten reading level, and then played out with just enough panache and horror-movie touches to keep things interesting. But until the last several minutes, when things get genuinely creepy and suspenseful, there's a too-regular cycle of scenes: Now she's going to have a bad interaction with her mom. Now she's going to rip off one of her finger- or toenails. Now she's going to feel humiliated by her director. Rinse and repeat.

Earlier in the week, I saw True Grit and The Social Network, both of which I expected to enjoy because of what would be called their connections in horse racing. The Coen brothers are just national treasures, plain and simple. I don't think True Grit is their best, but that leaves it an awful lot of room to be damn good, and it is. How they make such beautifully crafted movies in such quick succession is beyond me. I guess it helps, man-hours-wise, that there are two of them. I was a little worried early on, because Jeff Bridges was borrowing more than a little from Carl of Sling Blade for his voice work. But he reined it in a little, and gave a hammy-but-affecting performance.

David Fincher was a brilliant choice to direct The Social Network. In movies like Seven, Fight Club, Panic Room, and Zodiac, he's proven that he can make stylish, creepy movies even if the source material isn't world-beating. And Aaron Sorkin may be removed from the demographic that habitually uses Facebook, but he's great at what he does. Between his snappy dialogue and Fincher's ridiculously fluid movement between two depositions and the past and present, the movie is a glossy gem. Debates about its realism (and the importance or irrelevance of that) aside, it's top-notch moviemaking.

The three movies I haven't seen that are nominated are The Fighter, The King's Speech, and 127 Hours. Of the seven I've seen, I enjoyed five quite a bit, and I would rank them like this:

1. The Social Network
2. True Grit
3. Toy Story 3
4. Winter's Bone
5. The Kids Are All Right
6. Black Swan
379. Inception


Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Magnificent Mugs

At Very Short List, Luc Sante recommends some truly stunning mug shots from early-20th-century Australia:
Unlike the mug-shot convention of portraying the subject head-on and in profile, the protocols were much looser, so that the accused were sometimes pictured once in close-up and once full-length. And the setting was often a courtyard with a skylight, which softened the contrast. Most important, though, the person behind the camera was someone who recognized the humanity of the varied persons who appeared before the lens, who were sometimes monsters and sometimes innocents, but all of whom deserved consideration. (If not always sympathy; in some shots the photographer apparently declared his or her distaste for the subjects by positioning them in front of the toilets.)
Three examples below, but check out the whole amazing gallery at this French web site.