Thursday, January 27, 2011

In defense of Netflix Canada

With Netflix now in Canada, I figured I'd give it a try. It does, after all, feature a free first month trial before charging for the service, so even if I decided it was no good, it wouldn't cost me anything. I've heard a lot of people complaining about the selection in Canada, so I wanted to check it out to see what was really going on. It turns out a lot of the criticisms come from the fact that there are very few movies from the past year, and that a lot of more mainstream blockbuster movies from the past decade are absent. It looks like Disney and Dreamworks are mostly absent, as are Paramount and a number of the other companies. But once you get past that superficial deficiency, there's a lot to the selection. Sure, a decent portion of the movies looks like the kind of stuff you'd find in the dollar store, but there are enough quality movies to make it worth your while. I've done a cursory examination, and there is a healthy selection of critically-acclaimed films, films from great directors, AFI Top 100 films, Academy Award-winning films, and even goofy fun movies (a la Hot Fuzz). My early estimate is that, at watching an average of a movie a week, it would take me several years to watch all of the films worth watching. Anyone who says there's "nothing" on Netflix is either very well-watched or too lazy to spread their tastes beyond some fairly shallow borders. There's also a number of films that are almost impossible to rent and difficult to get even from the public library that are readily and easily available. The TV selection isn't great, but even it has its appeal: Mad Men, most notably; a host of British shows, like all of Black Adder; and even brand new shows like Running Wilde and The Big C. It all adds up to the reality that Netflix really is worth the $7.99 a month based only on evaluation of the content, and not worth all of the complaining that I've heard. And the convenience factor is almost priceless: the fact that I can have any movie in their selection within a few minutes is amazing, and it will help expand my viewing. For example: I watched an indie gem called Frozen River yesterday. It's a small film that garnered some critical acclaim two years ago, and it was vaguely on my radar to see. It is not likely that I would have ever rented it, or even that I would have remembered to request it at the library, but I happened upon it in my search for another movie and decided to watch it. So, despite some of the flaws in the selection, Netflix is still worth the money, and anyone who disagrees should take some time to expand their film tastes beyond Transformers and White Chicks. And no, Netflix did not provide promotional consideration for this argument.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Oscars 2011

The nominees were announced today, and there were a few surprises along the way. Here's my early take on the major categories, including the frontrunners and the snubs.

Best Picture: As I wrote recently, I'm still not a fan of the ten nominees process. There were no surprises in this category, but the dominance of True Grit in the overall nominations does make the discussion of which nominees would have been left out. The stories here include the inclusion of Toy Story 3, which, though expected, is still impressive because it makes the second consecutive nomination for Pixar as well as one of very few sequels ever to be nominated for Best Picture (the most notable examples being The Godfather Parts II + III. The ten are a healthy mix of studio pics and indie flicks, and mostly seem to "deserve" to be there. I've seen six of the ten, and all six were on my top ten list. The other four I haven't seen yet (Winter's Bone, The Kids Are All Right, Black Swan, and 127 Hours) were on my list too. It seems like it will come down to The Social Network and The King's Speech. I'd give the early edge to Network because of its dominance, but you never know. The snub: well, there wasn't one with ten nominees.

Best Director: Four first-time nominees and the Coens. Regardless of what happens in Best Pic, the award will likely go to David Fincher. The snub: Christopher Nolan. Seriously, Academy.

Best Actor: This was an impressive year for acting, with several actors who could have been nominated other than these five. It seems pretty clear what will go down: two nominees have won in recent years, two are rookies in uncharted waters, and the fifth is Colin Firth, who should win for The King's Speech. The snub: I haven't seen it yet, but perhaps Ryan Gosling from Blue Valentine. Mark Wahlberg did a good job in the The Fighter, but I don't think he's a snub, per se.

Best Actress: Again, a strong slate of candidates. The competition should come down to Natalie Portman and Annette Bening, the two Golden Globe winners. Portman may have the edge, but after snubbing Bening twice, the Oscars may give her her over-due. For now, I'll say Portman. The snub: Not really any snubs here, but Hailee Steinfeld's lack of nomination here (which could have happened) made some snubs in the Supporting Actress category.

Best Supporting Actor: Bale in The Fighter, easily. His primary competition would be Jeremy Renner, the standout in the overly adored and thankfully neglected by the Academy The Town. The snub: Andrew Garfield as the emotional heart of The Social Network.

Best Supporting Actress: The race looks to be between castmates Amy Adams and Melissa Leo in The Fighter. I'd give Leo the early edge, but it could go either way. This category can be a surprise, though, so it may end up that they split the vote and allow someone like Carter to make it through. The snubs: Though I haven't seen either Kids or Swan, it seems like Julianne Moore and Mila Kunis were left out.

Best Original Screenplay: Four of the five nominees are up for Best Pic, and this category often goes to a film as consolation. It's likely between Inception and The King's Speech; I'm leaning toward Christopher Nolan for Inception to help make up for this year's Director snub and past snubs (ie. The Dark Knight). The snubs: Black Swan gets the nod for Director but not Screenplay, the inverse of Inception. Odd.

Best Adapted Screenplay: All five nominees are Best Picture nominees, but two nominees have won this award in the past three years, effectively ruling them out. This should be as close to a gimme pick as there is, with Aaron Sorkin taking the award for The Social Network. The snub: ?

Best Animated Feature: It seems like a no-brainer that Toy Story 3 will win because of its nomination for Best Picture, but The Illusionist could cause it some difficulty. Still, I expect that Pixar will win their fourth consecutive award for the final chapter of the story of Woody and Buzz.

This might be the first year that I watch other categories earnestly. The one that really sticks out is Original Score, with the competition between Inception and The Social Network. But as usual, there's a whole month of debating, prognosticating, and viewing ahead before the Oscars. My priorities for viewing this year: 127 Hours, Winter's Bone, The Kids Are All Right, and Black Swan, the four Best Pic nominees I haven't seen yet.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Rebranded

It took me a while to get to this stage, but I finally made the switch today, after years of deliberation. I changed my blog's URL address to lifeofturner.blogspot.com from the previous (original) address. It's not a very perceptible shift, but I think it's important for me. I'm still keeping the same template and the same style, but I felt that it was time to change the address. At one time, I did have the concern of the security of having my name serve as the address, and although that still seems to be a side benefit of the change, it's not the root of it. I'm not sure why I've changed, other than it gives a somewhat fresh restart to my blog. I think part of it might be that I am trying to sort through my online presence and figure out what should stay, what should go, and how to connect the various parts of my online identity and make it easier for me and others to navigate the murky waters of the internet. But maybe it was just finally time to change. I've been blogging now for six-and-a-half years, with varying levels of frequency and success. At its peak, which also seemed to be the time in which there were the most casual bloggers, Life of Turner was getting around 30 visits a day. I'm not sure how many people visit now because of the myriad methods people can use to access my blog (feed readers, Twitter, FB, etc.), but I don't think it's getting quite as many hits now. I have long left behind my external drive to post - though I still like knowing that people are interacting and reacting to what I am writing - but I think this rebranding will help me keep blogging, if only for myself. So change your bookmarks and your feed readers and get ready for a new-ish chapter of Life of Turner.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Ten-Nominee Dilemma

The Oscar nominations come out on Tuesday, and it seems like a lot has been settled already. It could be argued that three of the four acting awards, both writing awards, and Best Director are already settled. Best Picture looks to be a two-picture race (as usual), with The Social Network poised to edge out The King's Speech. Dave Karger from Entertainment Weekly keeps a close watch of the race, and his last breakdown before the nominations is available here. He ranks the top 10 in Director and each of the four acting categories, and the top 15 in Best Picture, due to that new quirk in the nominations that now means that ten films get nominated for that award. But as I've thought about it in the past few weeks, I've realized how much I am not a fan of the ten nominees, much like Owen Glieberman points out. Here's my take on why the Oscars should not keep ten nominees for Best Picture.

1. There is a clear divide between the five main nominees and the five "extra" nominees, as EW's Kargerobserved in last year's nominees.
The only debate last year would have been whether to nominate Up! for Best Picture; the other four "extras" (A Serious Man, An Education, The Blind Side, and District 9) would not have factored into the conversation.
This year it seems clear again, with the five "real" nominees being The King's Speech, The Social Network, The Fighter, Inception, and Black Swan. Why bother putting five more in the list?

2. Most of the "extra" five nominees are not really "Best Pictures". There is a certain critical and commercial cachet that usually accompanies nominees, and there is an expectation of transcendent cultural significance that goes with the title. They may not be the "best" five films of the year, but there is an element to their journey that gives them an advantage over other films. There may be seven, even eight of these kinds of movies in a year - certainly not ten or fifteen. There have been some years that have been exceptions - most recently 2008, in which three of the five BP nominees were less significant indie flicks (The Reader, Frost/Nixon, and Milk), leaving some big names out of the race - but those are not the norm. There's usually a healthy mix of studio pics as well as more indie pics, and is rare that more than two of the nominees out of five are the kind of understated small flicks that seem to go against the grain. With ten films, it is inevitable that some of those level of movies are nominated or part of the discussion. This year's examples include The Kids Are All Right, Winter's Bone, Another Year, and Get Low. Movies like Shutter Island, The Town, and The Ghost Writer would usually be the kind of movies that would make some critics' top ten lists but never be considered for BP, and yet at least one of these is almost guaranteed to be nominated. There are other ways to honour films, particularly through the acting and writing nominations. There's a difference between a film with great performances and a great film. Jeremy Renner was great in The Town, and its script may be worthy of an Original Screenplay nod, but it's not Best Picture material as a film.

3. There should be "snubs", which becomes a lot more difficult with ten nominees. If the five main nominees are assumed, the biggest snubs would have been True Grit and Toy Story 3 - both certainly significant, which would have made the discussion interesting. Now that they're almost guaranteed nominations, along with three other extra films, the discussion is less interesting. Sure, there were still some authentic snubs last year (The Road most notably)), but most of the "snubs" were films like Star Trek or The Hangover. Seriously? Maybe they could be considered snubs if it were the Golden Globes, but at the Oscars? As it stands, there will still be some snubs in each category, but we need the elitism in the main category of the awards! Where the snubs came was not in the nominations, but in the wins: four Best Pic nominees were shut out in the awards. There's often one film that's snubbed almost entirely (last year it was Up In The Air, which went 0-for-6), but most of the time the Academy tries to spread the wealth around between the films. With 10 nominees, they just can't do it.

4. Having ten nominees doesn't change the conversation about the best films of the year. Critics still have top ten lists, and there will always be dissension from the Academy's nominations - usually correctly so. Some viewers want to watch films that are not necessarily in the public consciousness, and it's almost disappointing to see a film acknowledged by a public that would not be able to handle it. The best example from last year: A Serious Man. It was a niche film that most viewers would not appreciate, and that should have been nominated for Original Screenplay and maybe Best Actor (a snub, to be sure). Instead, it was vaulted into the collective consciousness for a public that had difficulty getting it. Sometimes, it's great to have one of those films in the Best Pic running (eg. There Will Be Blood), just to make people better movie watchers, but I don't mind if there are some of the more esoteric films that stay on the fringes. Maybe this is just me being an elitist, but I like that there are films that I can like that aren't subject to truly public scrutiny. But in the end, the fact that A Serious Man was nominated didn't change anything about its regarding by critics; it just meant that more people who wouldn't have gotten it anyway ended up not getting it.

So that's why I think there should be five nominees, instead of ten. The Academy should let the critics debate the extra nominees, and restore the established order to the awards. Let films be recognized in other ways, let there be snubs, and let the debate continue!

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Double Review: The Fighter and The Town

A man, born and raised in Massachussetts, who is struggling to escape his history of being bullied by family and some very difficult friends, and trying succeed with a new love in an unforgiving change of lifestyle. That's the basic plot of Ben Affleck's The Town, as well as David O. Russell's The Fighter, though each movie gives it a different spin. The Town is the fictional story of Doug MacRay, a professional bank robber haunted by his demons and the need for the one last big hit to get out of Charlestown; The Fighter is the true story of "Irish" Micky Ward, a boxer who had to overcome his family history and some poor decisions to make it out of the town of Lowell. Both films feature many of the same themes, both are propelled by the same sort of character conflict, and both feature some of the best acting performances in recent memory.
The Fighter may be Mark Wahlberg's baby - he spent four years training for the role and convincing producers to fund the project - but he is vastly overshadowed by his three co-stars. It's very difficult to parse his performance - I think it was better than it seemed on first viewing - because of his three co-stars. Christian Bale gives a DeNiro-esque method acting clinic as Ward's elder half-brother, Dicky Eklund, an almost-was boxer and crack addict, and cements his place (for people who haven't watched enough of his films) as one of the best actors of his generation. Melissa Leo steals every scene she's in as Ward's brassy domineering mother, Alice, a mix between Erin Brockovich and Leanne Tuohy (The Blind Side). She is a force to be reckoned with, and Leo delivers. Write them both in for Best Supporting Academy Awards. Leo's only competition is her co-star, Amy Adams, who yet again shows an unheralded side of her acting as Ward's no-nonsense girlfriend, Charlene. Adams has been nominated widely for her roles in Junebug and Doubt, and though she has shown considerable range throughout her relatively short career, nothing could prepare her fans for this role. Charlene is tough, foul-mouthed, and aggressive, and Adams brings her to life with a ruthlessness seldom seen by actresses of her stature. Julia Roberts, with her role as Brockovich a decade ago, has nothing on Adams transformation. If Leo's performance was not so compelling, Adams would be the frontrunner.
In The Town, Ben Affleck's lead character, while interesting, is subject to another captivating performance: Jeremy Renner as his sociopathic partner in crime, Jim. Renner has had quite a run, with last year's The Hurt Locker and this film establishing him as an actor to watch. Jim is a genuinely unnerving character: someone who could, and does, snap at any moment, and provides by far the most compelling reason to view the film. Jon Hamm entertains as the FBI agent in chase of the gang, and he even shows a non-Don [Draper] side in his performance, though he is somewhat limited by the premise. The film is intriguing, though somewhat predictable, but worth watching mainly for Renner. Affleck tries some interesting tactics in the film, but it is bound somewhat by the nature of the heist/crime genre. It's good, but not great.
The Fighter, on the other hand, exhibits many of the hallmarks of the already-crowded boxing film genre, but presents these in a new and fresh way. Russell has a history of being difficult to work with but getting results, and this film is no different. From the details in filming Ward's bouts in the styles and cuts of the original fights to the wardrobe choices to the technical use of cameras from 1993, every shot in the film demonstrates a keen eye for style and detail. It is more Raging Bull than Rocky; it's as much about Ward's fight with himself than others. Although, as Bill Simmons comments, The Fighter is subject to some of the faults of the genre, it is a compelling story and a technically unique film. There are a lot of ways that this film could have been far less compelling and more mainstream, but Russell and his cast ensure that doesn't happen. It's easily one of the better boxing movies released and one of the better sports movies of the past few years, as well as one of the best films of the year.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Getting the whole story

An article in Thursday's Globe and Mail commented on a program sponsored by Canada Student Loans to help students transition into post-secondary education and the injustice that such a program would be held at a high-achieving school such as West Vancouver Secondary. Normally, this is the kind of story that would make me slightly disillusioned with the government and education system, but this case is different because I have been a part of the Life After High School program delivery. The article does acknowledge briefly that it was primarily a technical anomaly that West Van was picked, but it dwells on the audacious nature of the offense against all sensibilities [note the sarcasm] that West Van would be picked while other schools were left off. What the article does not regard with any kind of dignity is that LAHS, as an experimental research project, needed to establish clear boundaries for research, and that West Van's inclusion was as an outlier in statistical data, not the norm. There is a brief mention of the good the program is doing, but no in-depth examination of the many schools that were significantly helped through the program. I know, because I was at many of those schools. I would hope that once the data starts being compiled that the Globe and Mail would report on the success of the LAHS program, but the cynical side of me suspects that there wouldn't be as much of a story in that. I have the same reaction to this story as I did to some of the coverage of some of the stories I was involved in during my time in the student press, most notably the Sheaf "Capitalist Piglet" cartoon scandal in March 2006: it's not the whole story! But despite these semi-regular reminders of the bias of the media, too often, I forget this feeling when I'm reacting to stories I read and I react as if I understand the issues as intimately as I might if I were involved. So my encouragement to me and to you: get the whole story, not just what the media gives.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Trimming the fat

It's hard to believe that I haven't blogged in a month. I've had every intention of doing so - reviews of The King's Speech and The Town are still brewing, I have a half-composed review of Donkey Kong Country Returns in my head, and there have been a number of other events in my life and the world that I would normally consider stimuli for a post. And it's not as if I haven't had time: in the past ten business days, I've only worked 3.5, and I've had the house and computer to myself most of the time. The best term I can think of to describe my recent condition is "hibernation". I just needed some time away from everything, and that included my blog. But now I'm starting to realize that I can't hibernate permanently, and that I actually need to press into something new in order for this time to be valuable. I'm still not employed, though I am working semi-regularly as a TOC, and I have felt that the word for this time is "transition." I'm working through a lot of stuff to transition into the next stage, whatever that looks like. But that means that I need to finish off what I'm doing now, whatever that looks like. I'm not quite sure what it is now, or what's coming, but I'm realizing that a big part of this transition is "trimming the fat". There are a lot of things that I have carried along with me under the assumption of identity, but a lot of them are not part of who I am now. I'm talking about a lot of stuff, from what movies I want to watch to people I haven't talked to in years on my e-mail list to books I'll never read to websites I like years ago to...well, the point is made. I have a unique opportunity right now to trim the fat of my life and to cut out a lot of those things that are not part of who I am becoming. I don't know how much I'll change in this process, but it feels like there's a lot to be determined through it, and that I will be better on the other side. I think it will be important for me to blog throughout the process, so I'm going to endeavor to post more regularly in the near future to see how that helps me work through this. Whatever happens, I'm planning to be lighter, both physically and metaphorically. It should be fun!

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