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For most people the holidays are a time for family and Christmas cheer, but for me they always end up being about enduring soul-sucking depression. It’s Awards season, and that means Hollywood’s major and independent studios are backing Fed Ex trucks up to my door with big boxes full of Awards baiting screeners. Sounds great doesn’t it? It would be, if critics and awards givers ever voted for anything other than miserable, downbeat dramas. Taken one at a time maybe they're enjoyable, but watched by the box full, it's a heaping helping of unhappy. By the time 2008 rolls around, I’ll be ready for a good comedy, or a mindless popcorn flick. Right now though it’s December, and I’m stuck wading through box after box filled with depressing, dire, tear-jerker Oscar screeners. There’s not a smile to be found anywhere among them.
With so many movies to catch up on before the year’s over, I’ll never get through them if I stop to review them all individually. So here’s my solution. A quick hit run-down of some of the Oscar bait I’ve been popping into my DVD player over the past few weeks. Here’s your first helping of Awards contenders that have recently raced across my radar. If I get time before January 1st, maybe I’ll do another.
I’ll start with one of the less miserable films in my stack, Juno, the much touted Diablo Cody scripted, Jason Reitman directed dramedy about a pregnant teen. Teen pregnancy isn’t very funny, and it’s not particularly funny in Juno either, though it does turn out to be sort of endearing and quirky (though credit where credit is due… J.K. Simmons is an absolute riot as pregnant teen Juno’s dad). Ellen Paige stars as Juno, a sixteen-year-old girl impregnated by her best friend Bleeker (Michael Cera) who, everyone agrees, must have only had sex with her if it was her idea. Most of the buzz over the film has been about Diablo Cody’s script, which is well constructed. I liked it, and wanted to love it, but the screenplay suffers from the same problem Cody’s book “Candy Girl” does. She’s just too desperate to be hip. Juno tries way too hard to be hipster friendly instead of simply being what it is, and sometimes that overshadows the better, more real stuff in it. I imagine a late-night re-writing session in which Diablo sat around with her finished product and asked herself such ridiculous questions as “how can I fit uber-cool, obscure bands into this” and Reitman answered “don’t worry because I’m going to costume everyone like they stole their outfits out of the lost and found box in a campus commissary”. I love the way Cody writes her characters and I love the performances Jason Reitman gets from his actors, I just wish the whole thing didn’t feel like it was so carefully crafted to appeal to counter culture conformist, skinny jeans wearing college kids who haven’t realized that mopeds aren’t awesome and they should probably buy an affordable used car instead.
The Kite Runner
2007 has been littered with middle-east films, but The Kite Runner is the first I’ve had a chance to catch this year which ignores most of the political implications of what’s going on over there and focuses primarily on a single, personal story. It follows the life of a boy named Amir growing up in Afghanistan and tries desperately to sell the notion that the Afghans would have been a bunch of peace-loving, modernized scholars, merchants, and farmers if not for those damn Americans and Communists who gave rise to the Taliban. Except of course the Afghanis can’t even seem to fly a kite without turning it violent. When their kids fly them, they do so only to knock the kites of other kids out of the sky. It seems to be some sort of national sport. But there is a certain beauty to the film, and it’s hard not to sympathize with Amir, especially after he and his father escape the country, he grows up, and goes back to save the son of his childhood friend. It’s at times poetic, but kids die, people suffer, and ultimately the film is yet another draining examination of just how much the whole Afghanistan situation really sucks.
Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead
I love Philip Seymour Hoffman and he’s already blown me away once this year with an amazing, mustachioed performance in the mediocre Tom Hanks movie Charlie Wilson’s War. But this and The Savages (which I’ll get to in a minute) are the movies he’s really getting a lot of Oscar buzz for. I guess I get it. He’s pretty good here as half of a brother duo (Ethan Hawk plays the other brother) which decides to rob their parents jewelry store. Things go awry, and the movie turns into a bit of emotional torture for the audience. Hoffman and Hawk are good, but I just can’t think of any other reason to watch Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. It’s such a miserable, dejected little flick. That’s a problem I find myself having with a lot of the heavily Oscar favored movies this year. There’s just no damn good reason to watch them. I’m all for downbeat movies, in fact I love them, if they serve some sort of purpose. The Mist left me an absolute wreck, but in doing so it made me reflect on my own little place in this world. The Devil Knows You’re Dead does none of that, and it certainly doesn’t exist for entertainment purposes. So why the heck would anyone want to watch it? Maybe for Marissa Tomei’s excessive nudity? I guess that’s the best justification I can make for the existence of this movie. For at least the first 30 minutes of the film I was convinced that Tomei’s character didn’t own a single shirt, and she looks all the better for it. Unfortunately, Hoffman’s character also seems to be missing some articles of clothing… in particular his pants.
The second film in my Philip Seymour Hoffman-athon wasn’t much better than the first. Hoffman and Laura Linney star as adult siblings dealing with caring for a father with dementia. It’s a dire, depressing little tale about two people forced to care for a man who’s never done anything but treat them like garbage, but who they now feel obligated to keep off the streets simply because they’re blood related. Hoffman gives another great performance here, and I guess the movie does do a good job of detailing how absolute horrible it must be to care for an invalid elderly parent. I get that. But it’s another one of those movies about writers, and it exists in that weird, Hollywood world where no one changes tires for a living and everyone has free time to sit at home writing novels or working on thesis papers. I liked the dynamic between Hoffman and Linney as adult siblings, it’s rare you see that on screen, but the script is kind of a bore and when it’s not a bore it’s dead set on simply being miserable for the sake of being miserable.
Gone Baby Gone
I missed Ben Affleck’s directorial debut when it blew through theaters earlier this year, but now it’s starting to get serious awards buzz which means Miramax is pimping it by sending out DVD screeners to shlubs like me. Am I glad they did. Ironically enough, Gone Baby Gone, the story of a private detective trying to find an abducted child, is the most purely entertaining and least depressing movie in my mad, end of the year movie cram. Instead of being preachy or soul-sucking, Affleck’s film is genuinely entertaining. While the script is ultimately incredibly predictable, Casey Affleck’s performance is anything but. Meanwhile, surprise surprise, Ben Affleck may actually be a much better director than he is an actor. He has something, and the film is put together with the kind of confidence you’d usually expect from someone who’s spent a lot more time than Ben behind the camera. That said, I’m not sure where all the Oscar buzz comes from. Casey Affleck is good, but he’s even better in the Assassination of Jesse James, and if he gets nominated for anything it should be for that. The movie is good enough to get me really interested in whatever Affleck directs next, but it’s not the sort of film that really deserves any statues. Just an enjoyable, solid, thriller.