Month: February 2012

Favorite Films of 2011

I respect the Oscars’ selection of Best Picture nominees (I’ve seen seven of the nine films), but here are the films that I would have included if I were a member of the Academy:

My Favorite Films of 2011

1. Midnight in Paris

I think why this film resonates with me so much is for two reasons: Gil’s (Owen Wilson) fascination with the past and his Woody Allen-inspired neuroticism. With a degree in History, I have a soft spot for nostalgic tendencies, so I found a great sense of commonality between Gil and myself and his yearning for this particular moment in time, full of his artistic idols (Hemingway! Buñuel! Dali!). And Owen Wilson so perfectly executed Allen’s notorious neurotic behavior, which is also another trait of mine, even if that’s one I’m not so proud of. Beyond feeling a connection to the main character, I found the film so delightfully entertaining and original, not to mention really funny. I liked that the trailers for the film gave you little to go off of – I seriously knew nothing more about the film than Owen Wilson was a writer suffering from writer’s block while in Paris. So it was such a pleasant surprise to find that the story took an abrupt left turn at the stroke of midnight, incorporating what we can only assume was time travel – or was it all a dream? Did Gil have too much wine? Or did he really just imagine everything, what with his suspicion of the brain tumor and all? We don’t really know, but that’s why I loved it. The story was simple and straight-forward, yet conceptually it was executed on a whole separate level from anything else this year. Plus, the soundtrack and shots of Paris also swooned me into falling in love with this film.

2. Bridesmaids

There was a lot of talk about how this movie helped prove that women can be funny too (or at least funny enough to be deemed a box office success), but I think that’s a moot point, as anyone who has a brain and a sense of humor knows that there have been funny women since the beginning of time (I’m sure Eve was a riot!), let alone the beginning of the movie industry who have been very successful (the two Hepburns, anyone?). But that being said, this movie was really really funny. So funny in fact, that I saw it three times in the theatre. Kristen Wiig has been stellar on SNL, even if a lot of the material given to her is subpar, but add in her screenwriting and acting skills, plus one of the greatest ensembles of today’s comediennes, plus a few great supporting men, plus director Paul Fieg of Freaks & Geeks fame, and then you’ve got an original, poignant, and hysterically honest film.

3 & 4. The Artist & Hugo

In line with Midnight in Paris, The Artist and Hugo tug upon the nostalgic strings of any film fan’s heart. I liked that this year saw a small trend in light-hearted stories that deal with life’s struggles and conundrums, yet find a happy medium in the process through the magic of art. In these two films, that artistic medium is film, and boy do I have a bias there. I felt like The Artist knew how to draw on an adult’s relationship to the classic movies of yore with a great tongue and cheek approach, while Hugo reminded me of those magical moments when you’re a kid and you first see those fantastical images on the giant screen in front of you.

5. Super 8

Okay, now I can see I might have a problem with really liking movies about movies. Oh well, I can’t help what I like! I was bummed to see that Super 8 got no love from any of the award shows, but this was definitely a summer highlight for me in terms of “popcorn movies.” Although I would argue it is much more than your typical summer fare, higher and above any other action movie that came out this year, with strong character development and an emotional core that gave it so much more depth than just being an alien/monster movie. That being said, it was also good suspenseful fun. And it had perennial favorite of mine Kyle Chandler in it and an impressive group of teenage actors. So it wins on multiple levels.

Honorable Mention: The Descendants (George Clooney and Hawaiian scenery showcase), Moneyball (simple and subtle), Shame (two words: Michael. Fassbender.), The Help (Viola Davis is superb), Cedar Rapids (a fun overlooked ensemble comedy), Friends With Benefits (a raunchy affair, but also sincere), Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (a beautifully constructed finale to an exceptional series – but let’s try to forget how they all look 19 years later…)

Happy Academy Awards Day!

Also known as my favorite day of the year, the 84th Annual Oscars are finally here, after what has felt like the longest film award season yet. Perhaps that’s due to the fact that most of the categories are locked in, (i.e. The Artist is going to win pretty much everything) yet that doesn’t stop me from enjoying the telecast one bit less. And hey! Billy Crystal is back! So things are looking good – and much better than last year. To get you in the mood, why don’t you check out these spot-on and enlightening infographics from Vulture on all the best picture nominees (thanks to my sister for sending me the links!).

Check out the rest of the entertaining infographics here!

Home Sweet Home


If you like espionage thrillers as much as I do (and are missing the days of Alias), then I think Homeland will be the perfect remedy to fill any void in your life that yearns for a well-acted, character-driven mystery with a lot at stake (actually, now I’m pretty sure I’m wanting to fill the void that Lost created when it ended two years ago). Unless, of course, you’ve already seen the entire series last fall in the US. But alas, Homeland just premiered in the UK on Sunday night and I made sure not to miss it, as I’ve been itching to watch since it seemed to win pretty much everything at this year’s Golden Globes. And lucky for me, I don’t have to pay for Showtime to watch it – just a steep UK TV license fee instead! Needless to say, I am absolutely hooked from what is one of the best pilots I have seen in recent times. It’s riveting without being showy, and there are already so many layers to the characters, with everyone seeming to be hiding something. You can watch a three minute clip from the first episode here, and if you live in the UK you can watch the pilot on Channel 4’s website.

London in the Time of Cholera

To complement the dense theoretical readings on time-space compression, global civil society, and complexity theory required for my current masters program, I have been trying to balance those headache-inducing concepts with something a bit, I don’t know, lighter. Yet somehow the most recent book I’ve managed to read for leisure is all about death and bad luck. I picked up The Ghost Map back home before leaving for London simply because it’s a story about London in the midst of the city’s Victorian heyday…and a story in the midst of the city’s sorely lacking sewage system. The book is a non-fictional account of one of the worst cholera outbreaks the city had ever seen, in the year 1854. Looking at a time that has been widely portrayed by Charles Dickens, The Ghost Map unfolds as a scientific mystery about the origins of cholera and author Steven Johnson manages to infuse suspense from page to page as a doctor, John Snow, and a reverend, Henry Whitehead, try to make sense of the situation and upend the miasma theory (a belief that the virus spread due to polluted air) notorious of Victorian rhetoric. Having walked the streets of Soho, where this particular outbreak originated, it was definitely an intriguing story to follow, particularly the struggles of Snow, who faced so much adversity in trying to persuade people, especially government and health officials, who were too closed-minded to believe that this virus could be spread by the consumption of contaminated water. Yet Snow’s developments in gaining more understanding of cholera helped future generations of scientists to eventually influence changes in the planning of city infrastructures, therefore leading to more efficient and safer urban conditions that we are familiar with today. Of course, Johnson’s epilogue does not forget that there are many cities in the developing world today who are still at the point where London was over 150 years ago, still dealing with cholera outbreaks, and also repeatedly warns readers that biological warfare or another pandemic in the likes of the cataclysmic 1918 “Spanish Flu” are still looming threats. Although he tries to reassure readers that the advances in science and medicine should hopefully help abate or prevent such events, I think I’d rather try not to think too hard about such possibilities with a pint or two…a pint I could get at The John Snow pub, at the very location of the outbreak that made him (posthumously) famous.

Figwit Lives! From Rivendell to the Oscars…

As a huge fan of Kiwi Bret McKenzie, I am so thrilled for his Oscar nomination for Best Original Song, even if he is up against Sergio Mendes. And also as someone who has spent a significant amount of time in New Zealand, I am so fond of the way he talks about his childhood memory of watching “The Dog Show” (it’s actually “A Dog’s Show” according to Wikipedia, and is appropriately referenced in an episode of Flight of the Conchords). I also love this clip for revealing that the McKenzies are Elven royalty when it comes to being LOTR extras (well, most of the McKenzies anyway). For anyone that is not aware of the Bret McKenzie story, you might be interested in learning that Bret was not just an elf extra in Fellowship of the Ring, he was an Internet and LOTR sensation – earning the fan-created name Figwit (acronym for “Frodo is great…who is THAT?!” based on the reaction of a fan pleasantly surprised by the ethereal beauty of Bret’s natural Elven qualities). Meanwhile, Bret was also a member of three musical acts: reggae band The Black Seeds, The Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra, and of course Flight of the Conchords. Quite a repertoire if you ask me. In researching his Figwit days in further detail, I came across a made-for-television documentary about it that aired in New Zealand just as McKenzie and Conchords partner Jemaine Clement landed the HBO deal to adapt their live comedy act into a series. Watch the documentary below (it’s in five parts, only an hour long) and you’ll see some great footage of LOTR cast and crew, of McKenzie as an even shier and more modest guy than he is today, Jemaine Clement looking ridiculously young with shaggy hair, and some really entertaining footage of LOTR superfans.*

Figwit Documentary

Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5

*This content includes fake elf ears and gratuitous amounts of awkward silence

Ren’s Reviews: The Descendants

I so appreciate Alexander Payne’s films for their non-apologetic approach to character studies and his subtle way of infusing comedy into mostly serious narratives. Like in Sideways, where Paul Giamatti’s character is a bit of a slob, has some bad habits, and has low self-esteem. The film doesn’t transform him, he grows up a bit when he finds a lady he likes, but for the most part he’s the same guy, just now he has someone in his life who isn’t completely put off by him. Similarly in The Descendants, George Clooney isn’t the most lovable guy. Although I would argue that George Clooney being George Clooney, anyone watching isn’t going to be turned off too much (Honestly, how can you not like the guy?). Still, he plays an average guy, Matt King, who finds himself at a standstill in all aspects of life: in his marriage, in raising two rebellious daughters, and in his job as a lawyer where he has to decide on an important family matter regarding the inheritance of a large sum of land as the descendants of Hawaiian royalty (we have a title!). Of course, the film starts right away with the accident that puts King’s wife in a coma, making all matters much more complicated. Even though the film centers on the hardships that befall the family with this new situation, particularly as King learns his wife had been having an affair, the story really focuses on King’s realizations that he has been an absent father and husband, always somewhat complacent toward everything in his life. And with his wife’s condition he continues to struggle to find the right course of action of how to deal with what life has thrown at his family. He lets his father-in-law criticize him, makes no real effort to stop his daughters (great performances by Shailene Woodley & Amara Miller) from acting out in inappropriate ways, and wants to leave the decision about the inheritance to everyone else. I found Clooney’s performance a refreshing change from what we’ve seen from him before. Yes, he always tends to look exactly the same in every film, but I saw this as a standout performance. Plus, this is one of the few films that he has ever played a parent (One Fine Day is the only other movie that comes to mind) and I think he played the role convincingly as he tries to remain grounded with his “head above water,” as King says in the film, all while trying hard not to allow any grief to surface. As much of the movie is about trying to reconstruct a family that was already broken, the film is really about a man who doesn’t know how to confront life.  This is of course reflected in the film’s beautiful Hawaiian locales. Yes, King says through narration that just because he lives in Hawaii it doesn’t mean he lives in paradise and we are aware that tropical islands deal with tragedy too. But the melancholic ukulele and slack-string melodies, the translucent coastal waters, and the lush greenery that accompany the film in what almost seems to be recycled shots, mirror King’s actions in pretending that everything is fine and will be resolved. By film’s end he has to learn how to let go of things that he cannot control and learn from his daughters’ audacious personalities. And in the true spirit of the film, these are not big realizations, they are subtle lessons that King learns even as he struggles to execute them, dealing with life’s unfairness one day at a time.