Thursday, August 1, 2013

Quartet of Wild Angels

     Today we cover a bi-sexual three way romance, another bi-sexual three way romance, and a tale about an elderly foursome.  Always trying to keep you on your toes here at TheMovieFrog.  Age before beauty...

  Quartet - This film was the directorial debut of acting legend Dustin Hoffman.  While it is not the most deeply affecting film you are likely to see this year, nor the most imaginatively rendered, it is a solid ensemble performance piece.  Often when actors are transitioning into the role of director, the aspect of the job that comes most naturally is motivating and guiding other actors.  Such would certainly seem to be the case here.  To Mr. Hoffman's credit, he chose a script that lent to great performances.  Academy winning writer Ronald Harwood (who adapted from his own stage play) has certainly written more ambitious scripts (The Pianist, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly), yet Quartet does an excellent job of providing interesting character frameworks for the actors to build upon.
     The film really is an actor's showcase first and foremost.  Although all four of the primary actors do extraordinary work, bringing well rounded characters to life, Tom Courtenay is probably the least memorable.  I do not think we can hold it against him too much, though, as every comedic ensemble must have a "straight man", and Reginald is the (relatively) reasonable member of the title group.  He is a bit curmudgeonly, but once men round a certain age that passes for suave.  Billy Connolly is his polar opposite and best friend as the outlandish and delightfully cheeky scoundrel Wilf.  The "oafish clown whose external nature masks a true self that is calm and wise" persona has certainly been done numerous times before, but Connolly brings real charm and sincerity to the role, embellishing a slightly tired character "type" with genuine humanity.
     The ladies REALLY steal this show, however.  Pauline Collins plays Cissy, a delightfully daft alto who appears to be in the early stages of dementia.  What she lacks in reliable cognitive function, she more than makes up for in radiant goodness.  It is impossible not to love Cissy, even as you laugh at her slow ruination, then hate yourself just a little for doing so.  Ms. Collins never treats Cissy as a joke, and the effects of this choice enhance both the character's comedy and pathos in equal measure.  Then, of course, there is the truly incomparable Maggie Smith. No one plays the crusty old Brit with a heart of gold quite like Smith, and that is exactly the sort of role that Jean, the film's true diva, qualifies as in spades.  While it's not exactly new territory for the veteran actress, it is terrain she travels in style.
      In many ways, we've seen the story of Quartet before.  It is essentially Cocoon without the fountain of youth.  However, we have rarely seen this tale told with such a consistently high quality of acting talent involved, and this keeps the film well worth paying attention to.  I wouldn't say that Hoffman has knocked it out of the park with his directorial debut, but he hits a solid double...4 out of 5 stars.

  Angels of Sex - As I mentioned before, this film and Young and Wild are very similar in terms of both story line and thematic center.  Both films involve a central character caught in a love triangle in which they have fallen for two people, one of each sex.  As such, both films delve wholeheartedly into questions of gender identity, sexual orientation, and society's relative acceptance of the bisexual.  I have to admit that I preferred Angels of Sex, but this could be because I find it more relevant to my own life experience, having gone through a phase of my life when I was a guy sexually involved with both genders.
     You also can't argue with the power of eye candy, and all three of the leads in this story are definitely pretty to look at.  Astrid  Berges-Frisbey plays Carla, who starts out as the woman wronged when her boyfriend gets a boyfriend of his own. She previously crossed over into English language films in Pirates of the Carribean: On Stranger Tides.  Lorenc Gonzalez plays Bruno, the boyfriend with the wandering eye and Kinsey scale score. His previous acting experience has mostly been on Spanish language television.   Both of these actors give fine performances, but it is Alvaro Cervantes (who may be recognizable to English speaking viewers from the feature Hanna) in the role of the tempter Rai, who steals the show for me.  Of course, as the tempter Rai, he is meant to steal everything, but he does so remarkably well.
     I won't say that Angels of Sex is a revolutionary film or that it revisits its story's ideas with a lot of original insight.  I WILL say that it was entertaining, and featured a believable and palpable chemistry among the cast's central trio.  It also managed to mislead me at the end, faking me out a bit.  As many movies as I watch, that has to count for something...4 out of 5 stars.

  Young and Wild - Then there's the OTHER mixed gender three way romance of this post.  I actually had somewhat higher hopes for this film.  I found the mixed message of spirituality played against more bestial instincts to be thematically intriguing, but didn't ever really feel as if the film developed these ideas enough for my liking.  While I did see potential in the film making technique of director Marialy Rivas (this is her first international breakout feature, and the second one period), her skills as both a writer and a director may still be a little too raw to handle such ambitious subtext gracefully or in manner that probes it deeply enough. I do hope that she sticks with it, and meets enough success that she flies onto TheMovieFrog radar again.
     I WAS quite impressed with the film's young star Alicia Rodriguez, who brought a sort of bemused vitality to her role.  If anything was lacking in her performance, it would be chemistry with her two co-stars, but I found them lackluster next to her in general, so this may have been due to no fault of Ms. Rodriguez's.
     All in all, Young and Wild was a film with several great moments that never quite found a cohesive whole to belong to...3 1/2 of 5 stars.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

July Oscar Buzz and Predictions - The Big Two

     The big two, of course, being picture and director.  As always, the first list is about the buzz.  The second list is whatever crap came out of my head...

Best Director

  1. George Clooney - The Monuments Men
  2. Martin Scorsese - The Wolf of Wall Street
  3. Joel & Ethan Coen - Inside Llewyn Davis
  4. Alfonso Cuaron - Gravity
  5. David O Russell - American Hustle

  6. Ridley Scott - The Counselor
  7. Bennett Miller - Foxcatcher
  8. Paul Greengrass - Captain Phillips
  9. John Wells - August: Osage County
  10. Steve McQueen - 12 Years a Slave

     I can understand why all of these names made the list. If there's a long shot in the bunch, it is probably John Wells.  I'm expecting August: Osage County to be more of a showcase for the actors, maybe the script, but time will tell.  If I had to say what sets my list apart, I would note that I am predicting more of a breakthrough for the young buck auteurs in 2013.  I'm also more realistic about how easily the directors' branch of the AMPAS gets spacesick...

  1. Joel & Ethan Coen - Inside Llewyn Davis...I am not necessarily predicting the win here, just the most likely nominee. Out of the true veteran heavy hitters in this year's race (it seems odd to think of  the Indie Revolution harbingers as such, but it's been a long time since the early nineties), only the Coens have already debuted their film and received a consensus critical opinion that leans comfortably toward the positive.
  2. Martin Scorsese - The Wolf of Wall Street...Sure, I usually give a strong edge in the early part of the year to the films that have already debuted, but I can't help myself.  Marty and Leo are always a powerful combination.  It seems unlikely that both Scorcese AND Clooney get left out.  After seeing the first trailer for "Wolf", my money's on Marty.
  3. Ryan Coogler - Fruitvale Station...At this point, this little indie effort might just WIN the top two categories.  Coogler is sure to top a host of best first director lists this year, and winning would give him the distinction of being the first African-American director to do so.  See, I made it all the way to number three before I invoked Harvey Weinstein's name to justify a predicted nominee's inclusion...invoke.
  4. Steve McQueen - 12 Years a Slave...And while we're at it, we might as well also go on record saying that 2013 will be the first year to award two black directors with nominations (you can't call Steve McQueen an African-American no matter HOW PC you are, he's from England).  True, McQueen's previous efforts (particularly Shame) were a little too much for the Academy's delicate, often fragile, sensibilities.  This film could easily follow in Shame's footsteps and elude recognition no matter how brilliant it is.  Slavery, however, is a topic that Oscar can stomach a good hard look at much more readily than sex addiction (to say nothing of Michael Fassbender's penis).  Django proved this to be true.  I'm hoping that this picture can follow in those footsteps.
  5. JC Chandor - All is Lost...I went back and forth on my fifth and sixth place predictions, but I finally decided to place this epic of one man lost at sea in the number five slot for two reasons.  First, it has already debuted and blown expectations out of know.  Critical consensus is firmly on the film's side and star Robert Redford's Oscar comeback story is ready to write itself.  The second reason is that, as I stated, I think this will be a real breakout year for up and coming writer/directors.  Chandor's freshman effort, Margin Call, beat the odds to land him a screenplay nod.  Might this be the year that the other aspect of his amazing talent gets recognized?

  6. George Clooney - The Monuments Men...Of course its more than likely that Mr. Clooney will take one of my young lions down.  The Academy loves Mr. Clooney in a way that makes the women uncomfortable in their clothes and the men even more so.  After mostly ignoring his last effort, The Ides of March, it is almost unthinkable that they would let this film (which panders to their tastes in such a gratifyingly obvious way) go by without giving it multiple nods (with director/writer/star/producer George C up for at least a couple of them personally).  Still, it is not THAT far outside of the realm of probability that he gets Picture and Screenplay, but misses director and/or actor.
  7. Bennett Miller - Foxcatcher...Moneyball was the best movie that has ever been made about two topics as boring as math and baseball.  Imagine what Mr. Miller might do with an inherently interesting premise and an equally capable cast.
  8. Ridley Scott - The Counselor...I would have placed this film higher in the rankings if I had not been burned last year lobbying for Mr. Scott's underwhelmingly adequate Prometheus.  I'm sorry, but only time can heal these wounds...maybe just enough time for this thriller to open.
  9. David O Russell - American Hustle...Mr. Russell's recent track record with Oscar means you can't ignore his possible inclusion here, but every lucky streak breaks eventually, just ask Jason Reitman.
  10. Alfonso Cuaron - Gravity...I really wanted to put Elysium in this unlikely wild card slot, but Gravity does have far more buzz.

     But I considered...John Wells (August: Osage County), Richard Linklater (Before Midnight), Woody Allen (Blue Jasmine), Lee Daniels (The Butler), Paul Greengrass - Captain Phillips, Neil Blomkamp - Elysium, Bill Condon - The Fifth Estate, Spike Jonze - Her, James Grey - The Immigrant, Jason Reitman - Labor Day, Anton Corbjin - A Most Wanted Man, Alexander Payne - Nebraska, Spike Lee - Oldboy, Scott Cooper - Out of the Furnace, Asghar Farhadi - The Past, Stephen - Philomena, Ron Howard - Rush, John Lee Hancock - Saving Mr. Banks, Susanne Biers - Serena, Jean-Pierre Jeunet - The Young and Prodigious Spivet

Best Picture

  1. The Monuments Men
  2. Inside Llewyn Davis
  3. The Wolf of Wall Street
  4. August: Osage County
  5. Captain Phillips
  6. Fruitvale Station
  7. Nebraska
  8. Foxcatcher
  9. Before Midnight
  10. The Counselor

  11. Gravity
  12. Saving Mr. Banks
  13. American Hustle
  14. 12 Years a Slave
  15. Labor Day
  16. The Butler
  17. The Great Gatsby
  18. Out of the Furnace
  19. All is Lost
  20. Rush

     So far, the year has seen the debut of three films that I'm betting make the Best Picture race, and you can find them at slots one through three on my prediction list below.  Film festival crowds have also been treated to a couple of feasible maybes (six and fifteen on my list) and one dark horse wild card that's made enough of an impact to humor (number nineteen). The other fourteen films I am championing purely on speculation, some more speculative than others.

  1. Inside Llewyn Davis...Coens + Cannes acclaim + Oscar friendly release date > or = Best Picture nominee.
  2. Fruitvale Station...Sundance AND Cannes acclaim + The Weinstein Co. + critical embrace > or = Best Picture nominee.
  3. Before Midnight...Conclusion to a beloved trilogy never honored under old five nominee system + best film in the series + best reviewed narrative film in English of the year = Best Picture nominee.
  4. The Wolf of Wall Street....After all that simple math the remaining speculation seems a little scarier. Of course, Martin Scorsese reunited with frequent 21st century muse DiCaprio is usually a PRETTY sure bet, at least better than most, so I can face my fears on a big limb before I go out on some that are decidedly flimsier.
  5. 12 Years a Slave...With only two previous films under his belt, Steve McQueen is already proving himself a thoughtful director of consistently impressive quality.  His third film sounds far more baity and far less off-putting than Shame.  For now, my money is on McQueen getting bumped up to the next level when the year is said and done.
  6. All is Lost...As already noted, this film has screened to rave reviews and surpassed the expectations of almost everyone who has seen it. In it Robert Redford give a performance that has placed him at the head of this year's Best Actor race securely enough to generate other nominations.
  7. The Monuments Men...I held out as long as I could before getting to the film that seems genetically engineered for the Academy Awards due to a sneaking suspicion that the "bait" factor here could prove to be overkill.
  8. Foxcatcher...There is now some doubt whether this film will actually be released or get held over to 2014.  IF it comes out this year, I'm expecting greatness...largely a hunch.
  9. The Counselor...Ridley Scott failed to deliver last year, and it has made me gun shy regardless of how potentially great the premise of this film sounds.  Of course, the same knee jerk reaction kept me from being too enthusiastic about Lincoln last year, and we know how that turned out.
  10. Blue Jasmine...Yeah, I know, Woody JUST had a big comeback two years ago, but early word on this one is encouraging and Cate Blanchett looks positively brilliant in the trailer.

  11. Gravity...Yeah, I expect it to be great too, but any film set in space has one mark against it from the get go.
  12. American Hustle...While director David O Russell's film's have had a flawless track record in recent years, that is a double edged sword.  While the AMPAS is sure to take the film seriously, they may also feel that the director has already gotten his due of late.  He's almost got to top Silver Linings Playbook to even get in the game.
  13. August: Osage County...I find the cast of this piece as rife with tasty possibilities as the next guy, but I'm still not sold that it will break out of the acting categories.
  14. Captain Phillips...Action flicks are another genre with something of an uphill battle to wage when it comes to getting awards recognition.  Still, director Greengrass has done it before.
  15. Nebraska...For an Alexander Payne film, Nebraska's response at Cannes was...tepid.  It could still happen, but Payne's track record is about due for a blip, and so far it leaves many cold.
  16. Labor Day...Jason Reitman fell out of the Academy's favor a bit with his last effort, Young Adult. His possible comeback? The dramedy king goes all drama.  It could be the revitalizing change of direction that he needs, or it could be just another action thriller.
  17. Elysium...Even though no one else seems to be taking this film's above the line prospects very seriously at this point, I am STILL so stoked about the way that District 9 transcended the science fiction genre that I will not count director Neil Blomkamp out.
  18, Philomena...Weinstein seemed awfully eager to pick up this up. His sights COULD be set for a campaign beyond Best Actress.
  19. Stories We Tell...Every year or two, some rather unique documentary comes along that people theorize could finally be the first to land a best picture nomination.  If anything did this year, it would be this one from director Sarah Polley, which has received nearly universal praise.
  20. The Young and Prodigious Spivet...Again, Weinstein jumped at distribution and its not like director Jean-Pierre Jeunet has never been courted by Oscar before (Amelie).

     And that does it for this round of Oscar predix.  We'll probably get around to more around September.

  Related articles: What "Cannes" We Tell So Far?, June Oscar Buzz and Predictions - The Aural TechsThe Visual TechsThe Genre CategoriesThe ScreenplaysSupporting PlayersActor and Actress; Innkeepers of Blood and Shame (Shame review), Arantino Explained (The T is Invisible) (Django Unchained review), Promarlius Kingdom (Prometheus review), Dark Clouds Beautify "Silver Linings"Another Young Project (Young Adult review)

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Outside the Prodigal Idiots

     Our fourth installment of the 2010 rewind series brings Algeria's Oscar nominee, an unusual documentary about a transsexual and her estranged brother, and an animated feature about redemption that will give you wings...

  Outside the Law - The story of three brothers and the roles that they play in the early twentieth century fight for Algerian independence from France, Outside the Law earned Algeria a nomination for Best Foreign Language film at the 83rd Academy Awards.  Director Rachid Bouchareb had previously been nominated for the 2006 film Days of Glory which I regret to say I have not seen.  Taken on its own merit, "Law" is something of an old fashioned sprawling family epic, one that highlights a culture and a people that have received relatively little exposure in world cinema.  For this alone, the film is to be admired.
     However, it is also a tale well told and a capably handled production.  The three lead actors in particular are to be commended.  The brothers are all such distinct personalities, yet their onscreen chemistry never lets you doubt the common history and bond that they share.
     Jamel Debbouze plays the youngest brother Said, who could be said to be the pragmatist of the trio.  He lives outside of the law in service of personal profit, trying to build a bubble of security for himself and his own with a small empire of endeavors that range from promoting boxers to running prostitutes.  Debbouze plays him with a smarmy charm that never quite comes across as slimy.  Of course, one could make the argument that characterizing a pimp in such a sympathetic light ignores his exploitation of women. I prefer to see him as a truly well rounded personality, complete with both despicable and noble qualities.
    Nobility is the very spirit of eldest sibling Abdelkader, played by actor Sami Bouajila, but he can be the most ruthless of them all in the service of a cause that he perceives as noble.  He is a man who is comfortable with ideals, but not so much with interpersonal relations and emotion.  Bouajila portrays him, in fact, as something of a cold fish when not immersed in the passionate fight for Algerian independence.  As an activist, however, he is bold, charismatic, powerfully spoken, and inspirational.
     Roschdy Zem plays the middle brother, Messaoud.  He has the gentlest and simplest nature of the three, and is the last one to become an outlaw.  He is also a complex figure whose nature is rife with contradictory elements. He can be an absolute physical monster of a man in defense of what is his, a decorated soldier long before he joins his elder brother in the Resistance.  He is the most sympathetic of the three, as played by Mr. Zem, and the most tragic.  In the end, his loyalty to his family and his people is his Achilles' heel. Physically, he is by far the most formidable member of his brood.  In his heart, he is the most vulnerable.
     As you can easily see from this basic rundown of the main players, the story is far from short on conflict on multiple internal and external levels.  Watching how the brothers change in response to circumstance and each other makes for a complex and captivating tale of war and brotherhood that I can only criticize for an occasional slide into melodrama...4 of out 5 stars.

  Idiots and Angels...Writer/director/producer/animator Bill Plympton is generally considered to be one of the most talented and exciting makers of animated film around.  His short films have won awards at Cannes and nominations from the Academy.  His feature films don't lack for critical laurels, either. Despite this, your ignorant little Froggy had not seen ONE Plympton original until I watched Idiots and Angels for this rewind series.
     I can see, even at first exposure, what all the fuss is about.  Idiots and Angels was a highly original piece of work, with a strong story line that didn't condescend to its audience. While certainly not aimed at children, the script does make excellent use of elements common to children's tales.  Taken at its most simple elements, it is an allegory of redemption.  The characters are largely allegorical in nature and the story draws clear lines between good and evil while still allowing for the existence of both within each individual.
      The animation is strongly influenced by the Film Noire school in tone and style.  The images are not designed to achieve the "hyper-realism" of modern computer generated graphics, but use a simple, representative approach to character and scenic design.  I'm not sure (being shamefully unexposed to Plympton's other films) if this is simply the animator's constant style or if it was tailored specifically to Idiots and Angels, but it complemented the allegorical slant of the movie perfectly.  The transitions between scenes were particularly brilliant, morphing one focal object into another as the background shifted almost imperceptibly.behind them.
      If you enjoy watching unique and creative approaches to animated story telling, this picture should be a must see.  It has less musical numbers or fart jokes than most animated Oscar nominee have (none, actually) but it does have something far more difficult to come by in today's world of market testing and target audiences...MAGIC...4 1/2 of 5 stars.

  Prodigal Sons - My opinion shifted several times during the course of this offbeat documentary from director Kimberly Reed.  It begins as a simple story about Ms. Reed's first trip back to her home town after transitioning from her old identity as Paul McKerrow many years before.  I grew a little weary during the first thirty minutes of the film, which don't really cover much new ground in terms of LGBT acceptance issues in biological families.  But this is just the beginning, and explorations on the themes of gender, identity, acceptance, and the nature of family are only broached at this point.
    The most grating thing about the picture's first act (and indeed, the whole picture) is the onscreen presence and personality of the film maker's older adopted brother Marc.  Yet Marc's abrasive nature serves the film well, because it sets the viewer up to write him off as the voice of ignorant intolerance that hinders the progress of our valiant hero.  In the second act (which is mostly Marc's story), you see that Marc's fears and the emotional distance he maintains are brought about largely by his own insecurities and indefinite sense of personal identity.
     By forcing the viewer back and forth between perspectives, the film maker calls attention to the subjective nature of perception. Like a fun house mirror, life often shows us an image that is warped enough to appear as something "other" when it is really just our own reflection.  As much as I came to admire the documentary that this film grew (somewhat accidentally, it appears) into, I still felt that the first act was a needlessly drawn out example of a scenario we have seen numerous times before, presented in a manner that has become somewhat dull with repetition...4 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013 Oscar Buzz and Predictions - Actor and Actress

     In the interest of trying to finish these close to June, let's hop right to it. As always the buzz is more immediately obvious and I make you wait just a moment longer...

Best Actor
  1. Leonardo DiCaprio - The Wolf of Wall Street
  2. Bruce Dern - Nebraska
  3. Matthew McConaughey - Dallas Buyer's Club
  4. Robert Redford - All is Lost
  5. Michael B Jordan - Fruitvale Station

  6. Tom Hanks - Captain Phillips
  7. Oscar Isaac - Inside Llewyn Davis
  8. Steve Carrell - Foxcatcher
  9. Chiwetel Ejiofor - 12 Years a Slave
  10. Michael Fassbender - The Counselor

     The buzz seems reasonable here, and I see no reason not to believe that most or all of the gentlemen listed above will deliver noteworthy turns.  I do think that Bruce Dern is probably going to wind up being campaigned in Supporting.  Other than that, my predictions differ mostly in that I tend to give the edge to performances that have already screened and proven to live up to the hype.  With that in mind...

  1. Robert Redford - All is Lost (0 wins out of 1 nomination)...I am a LITTLE self-satisfied that I predicted this a few months back in my first guesses BEFORE anyone saw the film at Cannes.  Since then everyone else has jumped on board with me.  Hopefully we won't capsize.
  2. Oscar Isaac - Inside Llewyn Davis (never nominated)...Word out of Cannes was very strong for this latest Coen production and its star.  Of course, we won't really know until the film debuts to a wider audience, but for now it seems like a strong bet.
  3. Michael B Jordan - Fruitvale Station (never nominated)...This film (and its young star) received raves out of both Sundance and Cannes earlier this year.  The obstacle here will be getting enough people to see the film but modest box office didn't stop Quvenzhane Wallis last year, so it might not matter.  Oh, yeah, the Weinstein Company is handling distribution.
  4. Matthew McConaughey - Mud (never nominated)..It would seem to be Mr. McConaughey's year.  I know everyone else is predicting that he gets in for Dallas Buyer's Club, but we don't REALLY know how that will turn out just yet.  We DO know that Mud was his greatest performance to date, so until that is no longer true, I'm sticking to my guns.
  5. Steve Carrell - Foxcatcher (never nominated)...I love it when famous funny men prove they have dramatic range as well, and so does the Academy.  Bennett Miller directed Jonah Hill to a nod in a role that possessed far less furniture chewing potential, so...

  6. Michael Fassbender - The Counselor (never nominated)...This film is a potentially fantastic question mark at the moment, but after being left out at the 84th Oscars because his equipment was flopping  all around the screen while he out acted all of that year's eventual nominees, the Academy should be looking for an excuse to recognize Fassbender's talent.
  7. Ethan Hawke - Before Midnight (0 wins out of 1 nomination in acting categories)...Something from the first half of the year almost always emerges as a true awards player and the third film in the Before series would seem to be the early bird most likely to succeed at this point in the game.  A previous nod for Training Day demonstrates that the Academy respects Mr. Hawke. If the film scores in Picture, Adapted Screenplay and Actress, he could be swept along with the current.
  8. Chiwetel Ejiofor - 12 Years a Slave (never nominated)...Steve McQueen is a strikingly gifted director whose films thus far have featured actors in roles that took them down to very deep and difficult places.  If the never previously nominated actor rises to the challenge, he could be a real threat.  However, he'll have to avoid being upstaged by both McQueen muse Fassbender and Brad Pitt.
  9. Leonardo DiCaprio - The Wolf of Wall Street (0 wins out of 3 nominations)...I LOVE Leo, and he is undeniably one of the most overdue actors out there but I'm SOOOO tired of predicting his nomination every year and being wrong.  See, this is the thing.  Leo CAN get another nomination, and a win, and he will in time. But Leo has to be twice as good to get praise from the Academy as anyone else because he once acted like a brat when he didn't get a nod for playing a role in which he was pleasant, but vastly under challenged. Of course, this was back when he was barely out of his teens.  Now that he's nearing forty, I'd like to ask the Academy: Who's REALLY being the brat?
  10. Tom Hanks - Captain Phillips...Once the AMPAS's favorite son and poster boy, it has been quite some time since Mr. Hanks REALLY threw his hat in the ring.  A lot of pundits believe that this will be the year that he receives a long awaited sixth nomination.  I think he's gearing up, but I could be wrong.  If it DOES happen this year, I prefer to believe it will be for this film, rather that the as yet sap-unseen Saving Mr. Banks.
  I also wouldn't be shocked by:  Casey Affleck - Ain't Them Bodies Saints (0/1), Christian Bale - American Hustle (1/1), Forest Whitaker - The Butler or Untitled Lee Daniels Project (1/1), Benedict Cumberbatch - The Fifth Estate (nn), Michael Shannon - The Iceman (nn), Josh Brolin - Labour Day (0/1), Mark Wahlberg - Lone Survivor (0/1), Idris Elba - Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom, Christian Bale - Out of the Furnace (1/1), Hugh Jackman - Prisoners (0/1), Colin Firth - The Railway Man (0/2), Daniel Bruhl - Rush (nn), Tom Hanks - Saving Mr. Banks (2/5), Ben Stiller - The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (nn), Christoph Waltz - The Zero Theorem (2/2)

Best Actress
  1. Meryl Streep - August: Osage County
  2. Nicole Kidman - Grace of Monaco
  3. Naomi Watts - Diana
  4. Emma Thompson - Saving Mr. Banks
  5. Kate Winslet - Labor Day

  6. Sandra Bullock - Gravity
  7. Marion Cotillard - The Immigrant
  8. Julie Delpy - Before Midnight
  9. Berenice Bejo - The Past
  10. Cate Blanchett - Blue Jasmine

     Many a year reaches the half-way point and the biggest challenge in predicting this category is coming up with ten ladies to single out as true real contenders.  Traditionally, more films are led by men with more women playing supporting roles.  This year, however, we actually have a pretty wide field of actresses to choose from.  I could see ANY of the women above winding up with a nomination, but they're not exactly my top ten...

  1. Cate Blanchett - Blue Jasmine (1 win out of 5 nominations)...No one can claim that the Academy has failed to honor Cate Blanchett, but no one can claim that she hasn't earned and deserved every bit of it.  She looks amazing in the trailer, like her performance IS the film. I could say we all know what Allen is capable of doing when working with a female talent of this caliber if Blanchett wasn't practically in a caliber all her own.
  2. Julie Delpy - Before Midnight (never nominated in acting categories)...I've gone on record with the fact that I expect this film to be the one big above the line player released in the first half of 2013, and this is probably the second most likely nod for it to snag.  Mrs. Delpy's performance has been universally praised as one of the strongest elements.
  3. Meryl Streep - August: Osage County (3 wins out of 17 nominations)  Whatever the AMPAS thinks of DiCaprio that makes them so hesitant to honor him, the opposite must be true of Meryl Streep.  Like Woody Allen, she almost has to be attached to a BAD film to get left out (or request that no one vote for her).  No reason to believe that this Weinstein backed production will fall into that category as of yet, so here she is.
  4. Judi Dench - Philomena (1 win out of 6 nominations)...Speaking of Harvey and Company, they recently picked up this film for distribution at Cannes.  If the move was made as an 86th Oscar play (and with the Weinsteins, it is likely), Best Actress seems like a reasonable primary target.  While the company already had three strong contenders for nomination (Streep, Kidman & Roberts), a second Oscar for aging British matron Dench seems like their strongest play for a win.
  5. Jessica Chastain - The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby (0 wins out of 2 nominations)...Both in terms of Academy appeal and ability to deliver, Ms. Chastain shows signs of becoming the Meryl of a new generation.  She's made a believer out of me, demonstrating more range in two short years than most actresses manage in a whole career.  If I have to lay odds for performances I haven't seen (and, well, I kinda do), she seems like a safer bet than most.

  6. Berenice Bejo - The Past (0 wins out of 1 nomination)...Circumstance may well keep The Past from being submitted to the Foreign Language Film race at all, but there's no way that it will fail to register on 2013's awards radar.  Original Screenplay and Actress seem like the categories in which it could most easily compete with English language productions. DuJardin may have won the statue for The Artist, but the world fell in love with Ms. Bejo.
  7. Sandra Bullock - Gravity (1 win out of 1 nomination)...Ms. Bullock is certainly well loved and likable, and it has made her one of the most successful and bankable romantic comedy stars ever.  Now over forty, she is working very hard to expand her range as an actress before she gets relegated to playing rom-com moms.  Her Oscar for the Blind Side came not so much because her performance blew everyone else out of the water (the script was far too saccharine and formulaic to allow for that),  but because it broadened the range of what we had seen her do significantly.  She beat out several younger, more "prestige" actresses for Gravity, and I'm sure that director Cuaron did not take the decision of casting this (practically) one woman show lightly.  The only thing standing in her way is the little problem of the film's subject matter.  The last Best Actress nominee in space was Sigourney Weaver for Aliens waaaay back in 1986.
  8. Julia Roberts - August: Osage County (1 win out of 3 nominations)...It's not that I don't think Ms. Roberts stands a very good chance of being fantastic in this film.  I have reservations about her chances of recognition in this category because of splits.  She and Streep will split the votes of those who wish to honor the film in this category. She, Streep, Dench, and Kidman will split the campaigning efforts of the Weinstein Company.  Of course, it she actually shows us something new and surprising, none of that will matter.
  9. Emma Thompson - Saving Mr. Banks (1 win out 4 nominations)...I recently saw Beautiful Creatures and was reminded of just how great an actress Emma Thompson can be when she's given something to do besides be primly British.  I want to be wrong about how many empty calories this film will contain, but if wishes were fishes we'd all have a feast.
     I'm so lame. I'm declaring number ten a tie.  Again...
  10. Nicole Kidman - Grace of Monaco (1 win out of 3 nominations)
  11. Naomi Watts - Diana (0 wins out of 2 nominations)
     It seems appropriate to pair these ladies, and not just because they are "besties".  They are also both appearing in self-titled biopics about iconic women.  This particular sub-genre of cinema has a bad reputation for good reason.  Quite often such movies exist strictly to serve as Oscar Bait vehicles which exploit the shortage of leading roles available to women to attract stars regardless of how little effort has been put into the script.  Yes, you occasionally get The Queen, but more often you get The Iron Lady.  I would love for one of these two pictures to buck the trend, and both ladies may receive nominations even if my hunch is right on the money.  For now, I'm going to choose to believe that this year's bumper crop of notable women characters is evidence that the day of My Week With Marilyn has passed...and keep my finger's crossed.

  What bumper crop, you say?  Behold this feast...Rooney Mara - Ain't Them Bodies Saints (0/1), Chloe Grace Moretz - Carrie (never nominated), Cate Blanchett - Carol (1/5), Annette Benning - The Face of Love, Greta Gerwig - Frances Ha (never nominated), Marion Cotillard - The Immigrant (1/1), Felicity Jones - The Invisible Woman, Kate Winslet - Labor Day (1/6), Jennifer Lawrence - Serena (1/2), Shailene Woodley - The Spectacular Now (never nominated), Audrey Tatou - Therese Desqueyroux

     With that, we are left with Picture and Director.  I shall try to return posthaste.

  Related articles:  What "Cannes" We Tell So Far?, June Oscar Buzz and Predictions - The Aural TechsThe Visual TechsThe Genre CategoriesThe ScreenplaysSupporting Players,  Innkeepers of Blood and Shame (Shame review), Water and Earth Make "Mud"

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Lore of the Warm Dead Man

     Today we are covering the rare modern western, a zombie rom-com (no, really) & a drama about abandoned children...who also happen to be Nazis.  I couldn't make this stuff up...

  Lore - This is the second feature film from director Cate Shortland, but she already shows signs of a being a director with a confident and insightful eye.  Little touches like the cuts between shots in the opening hop-scotch sequence make a convincing argument that we may be witnessing the rise of an important new voice in international cinema.  She also co-wrote the script with TV writer Robin Mukherjee and it is a truly novel concept: a road movie in which the "heroes" are the abandoned children of Nazi war criminals left to fend for themselves and try to stay out of prison.
     The entire production is actually handled quite well. The costumes (Stephanie Bieker), production and sound design are all excellent.  Special praise must be heaped upon editor Veronika Jenet and cinematographer Adam Arkapaw.  Without their creative expertise sequences like the aforementioned "hop-scotch" bit or the "bonfire sequence" would never have been possible.  The film is heavy on mood and atmosphere, and is very effective in that respect.
     The ensemble cast of mostly children is also phenomenal, led by Lore herself, Saskia Rodndahl.  The young lady shows a remarkable maturity as an actress, conveying volumes with a look, a gesture, or a moderate change in her posture.  Amazingly, this is the actress's debut performance, but she has four other films already finished or in the works.  She truly shines brightest playing opposite either Ursina Lardi (who plays Lore's mother) or Kai-Peter Malina (who plays the love interest, Thomas).  Her interactions with both characters are so charged with fiery passion completely held in check by complex mixed feelings.  Both of her co-stars match her smoldering calm with equal eerie intensity and the result is some really fine acting.
     Needless to say, I highly recommend this Australian Foreign Language Film submission to last year's Oscars which just released in the U.S. on DVD this month...4 1/2 of 5 stars.

  Warm Bodies - So, you know I watch a lot of very cerebral movies here at TheMovieFrog, but sometimes my brain needs a rest.  Sometimes I need something like....Zombies In Love. Honestly, this was pretty much my thought process as I selected writer/director Jonathen Lavine's horror rom-com for my 2013 viewing list.
     I can't say that the film was exactly a step in the right direction from 50/50, the young auteur's last effort.  Warm Bodies was full of cheap laughs, predictable twists, and a plot that was more loaded with holes than the lawn at a high end country club.  There also weren't any star making performances like the one from JG Levitt in Mr. Lavine's last film.
     In fact, Warm Bodies WASN'T a very good picture...but I still kind of enjoyed it...but it just wasn't very good...but I kind of liked it...but it was NOT very good...let's just call it my first truly guilty (maybe guilt RIDDEN) pleasure of the year and leave it at that...3 out of 5 stars.

  Dead Man's Burden - Fortunately (or not), I do not feel nearly so conflicted about the last film in today's post which is the writing/directing debut from producer Jared Moshe.  Many say that the Western is a dead genre.  Purists have groaned at deconstructions such as Django Unchained in recent years, and I am quite happy to inform them that Dead Man's Burden is no such film.  It is a fairly traditional tale of the Old West.  I am not so happy to have to tell them that it is not a very good one.
     The problems begin with the script.  From the first frames of the film it is easy to imagine the foreseeable symmetry that is destined to conclude it.  The rest is just filling in the blanks, which the writer does with stock characters, even stock conversations.
     Even the gun fights seem to lack tension.  This may be owing to the original score by H. Scott Salinas whose gut wrenching melodramatic movements seem more well suited to a Lifetime Original movie than a taught thriller.  Mired by such sticky sweet sentimentality, it is difficult to pull much tension out of the film aurally.
     I would like to say that the performances save the day, but they do not.  Most of the cast is purely forgettable, while Clare Bowen actually embarrasses herself somewhat in the role of Martha.  Only Barlow Jacobs (who has great, piercing eyes) is able to transcend the material somewhat in the role of Wade, but it is not nearly enough to salvage this half baked story which leaves the Western genre in the same coma that it found it in...sigh...2 out of 5 stars.

  Related articles:  Arantino Explained (The T is Invisible) (Django Unchained review)

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

June Oscar Buzz and Predictions - Supporting Players

     Supporting Actor and Supporting Actress are much more difficult to call this far out than Actor and Actress because not only do you have to guess which films will bring the quality, but which performances will stand out among several star laden ensembles.  As always, the buzz leads, while my humble guesses (relatively humble, all things considered) follow thereafter...

Best Supporting Actress
  1. Amy Adams - American Hustle
  2. Cameron Diaz - The Counselor
  3. Margo Martindale - August: Osage County
  4. Cate Blanchet - The Monuments Men
  5. Ocatvia Spencer - Fruitvale Station

  6. Julia Roberts - August: Osage County
  7. Oprah Winfrey - The Butler
  8. Catherine Keener - Captain Phillips
  9. Carey Mulligan - Inside Llewyn Davis
  10. Vanessa Redgrave - Foxcatcher

     Of course, things are still wide open.  I could easily have named twice as many women who currently have buzz in this category.  Right now, I see things sorta like...

  1. Kristen Scott Thomas - Only God Forgives (0 wins out of 1 nomination)...Refn squeezed 1 nod out of Drive and it would seem that this would be the nod that the Weinstein Company acquired "Forgives" to try and secure since she reportedly steals the show.  Besides, the Academy's been waiting for an excuse to invite her back ever since The English Patient.
  2. Oprah Winfrey - The Butler (0 wins out of 1 nomination in acting categories)...Honestly I was ready to predict her for Best Actress but it now looks more likely she will campaign here.  Weinstein again.
  3. Cameron Diaz - The Counselor (never nominated)...I'm kind of betting heavily on this film for several categories and after four Globe nominations, you'd think the Academy is just waiting for the right role here.
  4. Vanessa Redgrave - Foxcatcher (1 win out of 6 nominations)...This is just something that all movie fanboys want, 1 more win for an old lady crush who hasn't gotten much love in recent years.  All great actresses that live this long hit this point.  We saw it with Dench and Mirren.  We're seeing it now with Redgrave and Maggie Smith.  If this role is worthy of her, it could definitely manifest.
  5. Margo Martindale - August: Osage County (never nominated)...She's definitely got buzz going for her, and she's a SEASONED character actress...

  6. Juliette Lewis - August: Osage County (0 wins out of 1 nomination)...but this zany gal has never really gotten her due with The Academy and this could be her big comeback after several years laying low.
  7. Cate Blanchett - Monuments Men (1 win out of 5 nominations)...She's one of the most respected actresses in the business, playing the only female role in this magnificent boys' club piece of Oscar bait.  Still, I'm betting on her for Lead Actress in Blue Jasmine this year.
  8. Octavia Spencer - Fruitvale Station (1 win out of 1 nomination)...It's been seen and her reviews are complimentary, but she's still so fresh off her first nomination and win.
  9. Amy Adams - American Hustle (0 wins out of 4 nominations)...It's getting to where everyone just predicts Amy regardless but I think the Academy might wait a minute with the constant nods until she takes the role that they can give her a WIN for.
  10. Tilda Swinton - Snowpiercer (1 win out of 1 nomination)...I know science fiction films NEVER earn acting nods but she's absolutely AMAZING in the trailer, the Academy owes her a nod after We Need To Talk About Kevin, and it's June so I can put whatever the hell I like in the number ten slot!!!

     I also considered:  Jennifer Lawrence - American Hustle (0/2), Julia Roberts (probably Lead) - August: Osage County (1/3), Sally Hawkins - Blue Jasmine (never nominated), Jane Fonda - The Butler (2/7), Catherine Keener - Captain Phillips (0/3), Penelope Cruz - The Counselor (1/3), Jennifer Garner - Dallas Buyer's Club (n/n), Scarlett Johannssen (n/n), Michelle Pfeiffer - The Family (0/3), Laura Linney - The Fifth Estate (0/3), Amy Adams - Her, Samantha Morten - Her (0/2), Carey Mulligan - Inside Llewyn Davis (0/1),
Naomi Harris - Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom (n/n), June Squib - Nebraska (n/n), Zoe Saldana - Out of the Furnace (n/n), Jessica Lange - Therese (2/6) & Lupita Nyong'o - 12 Years a Slave (n/n)

Best Supporting Actor
  1. Mark Ruffalo - Foxcatcher
  2. Michael Fassbender - 12 Years a Slave
  3. John Goodman - Inside Llewyn Davis
  4. Josh Brolin - Labor Day
  5. Benedict Cumberbatch - August: Osage County

  6. Jeremy Renner - American Hustle
  7. Matt Damon - The Monuments Men
  8. Matthew McConaughey - The Wolf of Wall Street
  9. Colin Farrell - Saving Mr. Banks
  10. Joaquin Phoenix - The Immigrant
     First off, let me say that there are still more possibilities left in this category than I could list without getting encyclopedic, so I have tried to be really tough in whittling it down.  There are three gents in The Butler I would like to have mentioned, another trio in The Fifth Estate.  I would like to apologize to Mr. Renner, whose talent I truly hope leads to another Oscar nod (and maybe win) someday, but I'm not currently betting strongly on Hustle.  That said, I'm thinking...

  1. John Goodman - Inside Llewyn Davis (NEVER NOMINATED!!!)...The film has premiered and Goodman is said to nearly steal the show from Oscar Isaac.  He is probably America's greatest living character actor to never be nominated.  Please, Academy, hear my plea...
  2. Bruce Dern - Nebraska (0 wins from 1 nomination)...Category confusion between here and Best Actor kept Mr. Dern off the buzz list but I'm betting this is where he lands.  With a Best Actor win from Cannes under his belt for the role, a nod here (for the first time since Coming Home in 1978) seems assured.
  3. Mark Ruffalo - Foxcatcher (0 wins out of 1 nomination)...Not only does Mr. Ruffalo have the most  buzz in this category, but he's in the lead by a mile.  The pundits have spoken, and unless Foxcatcher completely implodes, I think we can expect a second nomination to land in his lap easily.
  4. Ewan McGregor - August: Oslo County (never nominated)...I know that everyone is expecting Benedict Cumberbatch to get a nod from this film, but Ewan is waaaay more overdue and was snubbed last year for The Impossible.
  5. Benedict Cumberbatch - 12 Years a Slave (never nominated)...However, the pundits are pushing hard for Mr. Cumberbatch to break through, and this scenario could avoid vote splitting with Mr. McGregor.

  6. Michael Fassbender - 12 Years a Slave (never nominated)...Of course, I'm betting on Fass for Lead Actor in The Counselor at the moment, but if that doesn't happen, I'd bet on this.
  7. Matthew McConaughey - The Wolf of Wall Street (never nominated)...Mr. McConaughey also seems primed for a first nod this year, but I am currently expecting him to get one in Lead (for Mud or Dallas Buyer's Club).
  8. Brad Pitt - The Counselor (0 wins out of 3 nominations)...Brad and Fass are appearing in two films together this year and it would be a lot of fun for them to both get nods from the same one!
  9. Dane DeHaan - Kill Your Darlings (never nominated)...You may not know who Mr. DeHaan is yet, but he's been building his reputation slowly with films like Lawless and The Place Beyond the Pines.  If he blew this away, who knows?
      I'm being a real wuss with narrowing things down this year, but for this slot I'm saying...
  10. Someone From The Monuments Men:
      Matt Damon (0 wins out of 2 nominations in acting categories)...This is, of course, the idea that everyone is jumping on.  Mr. Damon is just one of several talented actors in this ensemble, most of which are just as arguably overdue as he is...
      Bill Murray (0 wins out of 1 nomination)...Mr. Murray is without a doubt the finest actor to ever come out of Saturday Night Live.  He infuses even the most serious roles with a sense of whimsy and even the most comedic with a touch of sadness, and yet no Oscar???
      John Goodman (never nominated)...Have I made my feelings clear on this one yet?
      Daniel Craig (never nominated)...and this seems inevitable as well...
      Jean Dujardin (1 win out of 1 nomination)...definitely the least overdue, but who knows?

     ...and then there was...Ben Foster - Ain't Them Bodies Saints (nn), Bradley Cooper - American Hustle (0/1), Robert De Niro - American Hustle (2/7), Jeremy Renner - American Hustle (0/1), Benedict Cumberbatch - August: Osage County (nn), Alec Baldwin - Blue Jasmine (0/1), Javier Bardem - The Counselor (1/3), Jared Leto - Dallas Buyer's Club (nn),  Channing Tatum - Foxcatcher (nn), Tim Roth - Grace of Monaco (0/1), George Clooney - Gravity (1/4), Joaquin Phoenix - The Immigrant (0/3), Josh Brolin - Labor Day (0/1), Will Forte - Nebraska (nn), Woody Harrelson - Out of the Furnace (0/2), Colin Farrell - Saving Mr. Banks (nn), Brad Pitt - 12 Years a Slave (0/3), Jonah Hill - The Wolf of Wall Street (0/1)

     Expect a slight delay (and maybe a set of at home viewing reviews and a 2010 rewind set) before I finish these with Lead Acting and The Final Two.  I need a few days to update my buzz first.

  Related articles: What "Cannes" We Tell So Far?, June Oscar Buzz and Predictions - The Aural TechsThe Visual TechsThe Genre CategoriesThe ScreenplaysWe Need To Interrupt Miss Bala (We Need To Talk About Kevin review), "Impossible"y Well CraftedMudWater and Earth Make "Mud", Elena's Brave Law (Lawless review), A Price Beyond This Time (The Place Beyond the Pines review)

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Chasing Mama's Hive

     Today's offerings include a shameless message movie...or two...and a better than average horror flick produced my the genre's modern maestro...

  In The Hive - I originally considered including this film in my 2012 viewing schedule because it was the late Malcolm Clarke Duncan's final film and kept it on the list because I absolutely love actress Loretta Devine.  She lives up to her name as usual, and Mr. Duncan does respectable work, but this is a horrible B-grade message movie that could have been a made for TV after school special apart from the acting talent involved. By message movie I mean that the plot was made to suit the moral rather than allowing the film's thematic implications to grow from (or at least compliment) the story.  Please don't allow this to make you believe that I don't care about the plight of inner city youth, I just don't enjoy it when a film maker tries to manipulate my emotions on any topic in such a shameless and clumsy manner.
     I'm not sure why writing Glitter would have influenced anyone to produce another screenplay from writer Cheryl L West, nor why someone whose finger is usually more on the pulse of entertainment as Robert L Townsend's is to choose this as a directing project.  I DO know that (unfortunately) there are not enough quality roles available for actors like Devine and Duncan for them to pass something like this up.  It's too late for anyone to give Mr. Duncan another role that allows him to shine the way that he did in The Green Mile, but please, please, PLEASE can someone give Ms. Devine a project worthy of her talents.  This sure wasn't it, although she does redeem the film SOMEWHAT...2 out of 5 stars.

  Mama - Guillermo del Toro is one of the great masters of the horror genre.  The man knows how to set a scene for suspense.  He executive produced this film, and the newest director to benefit from his mentoring (Andres Muschietti, who also co-wrote the script) seems to have something of his flair and eye.  There is a marvelous scene where you see the younger sister wrestling with someone on the other end of the blanket who you are led to believe is her older sibling...until she comes around a corner and  removes her glasses with great deliberateness before entering the bedroom with her head down.  As she shuts the door behind her, we see the younger girl fly across the ceiling dragged by the still half concealed blanket.  Magical.
     That being said, Mama is no masterpiece, although it has its moments.  It does have a fairly original concept and some genuine scares.  The girls are pretty creepy in their feral condition and things don't work out exactly as you would expect.  In fact, the film ends in a way that runs very contrary to the usual formula for scary movies that feature children prominently.
     The real problem with the film is the uneven quality of acting to be found.  One the one end, you have Jessica Chastain.  Anyone who reads TheMovieFrog with any regularity knows how I feel about the young actress already and she is as magnetic and flawless as always.  The role certainly isn't the most deeply nuanced she has ever been given by any stretch, but she elevates the material in exactly the way I have come to expect.  Meghan Charpentier (who plays the older sister, Victoria) is best known for playing younger versions of Amanda Seyfried, but I think she may have a bright career ahead of her.  There were some really nice, quiet little touches to her performance.  On the other end of the spectrum, you have Nikolaj Coster (who plays the uncle) giving line readings that were cardboard enough to qualify for immediate recycling.  The younger sister was played by Isabelle Nelisse whose performance quality varied.  She was marvelous at playing the feral young beast.  As she grew progressively civilized her line delivery began to be easy to imagine soliciting camp groans once the picture has aged enough that the FX become laughable.
     Of course, looking at the film in 2013, it is still likely to be far better than most of the horror pictures coming out this year.  The young director's attention to detail and Chastain's genre transcending acting chops create a watchable story you are unlikely to regret giving a watch...3 1/2 out of 5 stars.

  Chasing Ice - At one point environmental photographer James Balog, who stars in this documentary, says something to the effect that if he could just get the pictures of the climate change that he has witnessed watching glaciers in the last two decades to the public, they would tell the story themselves.  This is certainly true up to a point.  The photographs are devastating and Mr. Balog's work in creating them is nothing short of heroic.  I would imagine that they must elicit an emotional response and command a lot of attention from anyone who has not been conditioned to ignore anything on the topic.
     On the other hand, documentary film maker Jeff Orlowski shows a lazy directorial hand in this debut effort, doing very little in the way of story telling aside from what the pictures can handle on their own.  What could have been an intriguing story with a little bit more of a human element to it became a little sterile and a little bit of a hollow message movie, saved only by how moving the photos are.
     The Oscar nominated Original Song "Before My Time" was the reason that the film entered my radar in the first place and was my personal favorite out of last year's nominees.  As performed by Scarlet Johannssen, it is haunting and beautiful...3 1/2 of 5 stars.

June Oscar Buzz and Predictions - Screenplays

     The case with the screenplay categories is usually an embarrassment of riches on the Adapted side and a few shoo-ins among the Originals with the remaining slots left for that year's up-and-coming auteurs.  This year there are more heavy hitting arguably overdue writers working in Original, which promises to be an interesting novelty if nothing else. As always, the buzz leads each category with my thoughts and predictions following after.

Adapted Screenplay
  1. Before Midnight
  2. The Monuments Men
  3. August: Oslo County
  4. The Wolf of Wall Street
  5. The Butler

  6. Foxcatcher
  7. Labor Day
  8. 12 Years a Slave
  9. Captain Phillips
  10. The Great Gatsby

     It seems odd to me that Before Midnight lands in Adapted just because it is a sequel, but that's how the rules work at present.  I would like to post the disclaimer that I expect August: Osage County to be one of those ensembly Picture nominees with no Screenplay nod (think: The Help).  Tracy Letts showed talent with Killer Joe, but it was no masterpiece of a script.  There are relatively few Oscar veterans in serious contention in this category, but I still think experience counts...

  1. Before Midnight - Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy & Ethan Hawke (0 wins out of 1 nomination)...This film has been celebrated even more exuberantly than the previous installment that earned this trio a nomination - seems like a gimme.
  2. Foxcater - E Max Frye (never nominated) & Dan Futterman (0 wins out of 1 nomination)...If this film works at all it will rely heavily on a strong screenplay.  Futterman was previously nominated for Capote.
  3. The Wolf of Wall Street - Terrence Winter (never nominated)...Mr. Winter may have never been nominated for an Oscar, but he's worked on some of the most cinematic television shows imaginable (The Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire) and Scorsese would never have signed on for a screenplay that didn't have the goods.
  4. Monument's Men - George Clooney & Grant Heslov (0 wins out of 2 nominations in writing categories)  Third time COULD be the charm for this pair whose film sounds almost TOO Oscar baity.  Still....
  5. 12 Years a Slave - John Ridley (never nominated)...Yes, Mr. Ridley's most impressive previous cred by a mile is Three Kings, but that WAS a very good screenplay and I can't imagine that Steve McQueen is going to follow up Shame with (pardon the expression) some crap.

  6. Labor Day - Jason Reitman (0 wins out of 1 nomination in writing categories)...Reitman is a very talented auteur, but Young Adult proved that he can wax too dark for the Academy's tastes and this is his first effort without comedic elements.  We will have to wait and see.
  7. Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom - William Nicholson (0 wins out of 2 nominations)  Arguably one of the most overdue names on this list, Mr. Nicholson was previously nominated for Gladiator and Shadowlands.  He is also backed by the Weinstein Company.
  8. The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet - Jean-Pierre Jeunt & Guillaume Laurant (0 wins out of 1 nomination)...The writing pair that brought you Amelie, working in English, backed by the Weinstein Company...nuff said.
  9. The Butler - Lee Daniels & Danny Strong (never nominated in writing categories)...The Paperboy is not exactly the most convincing former writing credit (remember Daniels only DIRECTED Precious), but Harvey Weinstein is pushing this as a Best Picture nominee.  Still, could be another victim of The Help syndrome.
  10. Snowpiercer - Joon-ho Bong & Kelly Masterson (never nominated)...Yes, it's science fiction, that's why I put it last.  Still, the writers separately penned Madeo (or Mother, which surely would have been nominated if it was in English) and Before the Devil Knows You're Dead so I have very high hopes.

     Also in the mix:  August: Osage County (Tracy Letts, never nominated), Captain Phillips (Billy Ray, nn), The Fifth Estate (Josh Singer, nn), A Most Wanted Man (Andrew Bovell, nn), Much Ado About Nothing (Joss Whedon, 0/1), Oldboy (Mark Protosevich, nn), Philomena (Steve Coogan & Jeff Pope, nn) & The Spectacular Now (Scott Neustadter & Michael H Webber, nn)

Original Screenplay
  1. The Counselor
  2. Inside Llewyn Davis
  3. Fruitvale Station
  4. Gravity
  5. Nebraska

  6. American Hustle
  7. The Past
  8. Captain Phillips
  9. Blue Jasmine
  10. The Immigrant

     This category is PACKED this year, with some very celebrated screen writers in contention.  I wouldn't count out ANY of the buzzed about films listed above, but I DO have a few films I feel strongly about that didn't make it.  MY list looks more like this...

  1. Inside Llewyn Davis - The Coen Brothers (2 wins out of 5 nominations in writing categories)...I'm not saying they'll win (previous wins for No Country and Fargo sort of make the notion of being overdue silly), but with raves out of Cannes, a nomination seems all but assured.  There are three names that should never be underestimated in the Oscar world.  Pixar, Weinstein...and Coen.
  2. Fruitvale Station - Ryan Coogler (never nominated)...It may seem odd to place a rookie at number two with so many experienced sharks in the water, but the film has been seen, was well received, and has Weinstein pushing it hard.
  3. Blue Jasmine - Woody Allen (3 wins out of 15 nominations in writing categories)...I would add Allen to the list of names to never bet against except that in a career as prolific as his you have to have a lot of misses to only score (ONLY?) fifteen nominations in over forty years of film making.  Early buzz indicates this is not one of them.  I wouldn't vote against it.
  4. The Counselor - Cormac McCarthy (never nominated)...It may be Mr. McCarthy's first script, but he IS one of the most celebrated novelists of the twenty first century, whose work has often adapted beautifully to screen.
  5.  All Is Lost - JC Chandor (0 wins out of 1 nomination)...I had a really difficult time picking between number five and number six here, but this film has already been seen to strong reviews and Chandor is one for one ( with Margin Call) with the Academy.  Robert Redford's performance ensures that even the most curmudgeonly Academy members will watch their screeners and have the movie in mind.

  6. American Hustle - David O Russell (0 wins out of 1 nomination) & Eric Singer (never nominated)...That being said, its hard to bet against Mr. Russell.  However, he has gained above the line notice on his last two films (Silver Linings Playbook was JUST last year and incorporated most of the same primary actors) and unless this film is REALLY something special, AMPAS might decide that it is someone else's "turn" as it were.
  7. Gravity - Alfonso Cuaron (0 wins out of 2 nominations in writing categories) & Jonas Cuaron (never nominated)...This film and Elysium are in kind of the same boat.  In both cases, I have great confidence in the previously nominated writer's abilities, but in both cases the films are science fiction (or at least employ certain sci-fi sensibilities) and that does not always bode well with the writer's branch. For now, I'll give Cuaron the edge due to the fact that he has already proven not to be a one trick pony (with nods for both Y Tu Mama Tambien and Children of Men).
  8. Elysium - Neil Blomkampf (0 wins out of 1 nomination)...See what I said for Gravity.  Blomkampf's one trick was the brilliant debut effort District 9.
  9. The Past - Asghar Farhadi (0 wins out 1 nomination)...If The Past were not in French, I would probably place Farhadi MUCH higher on this list.  Still, he got here in Arabic with A Separation, so a nod is certainly possible.
     I never do this, but...
  10. Her - Spike Jonze (never nominated in writing categories)...I find it difficult to believe that the writer's branch has never honored him before, but it's true...
     (tied with)
        The Zero Theorem - Pat Rushin (never nominated)...I find it difficult to believe that the Academy has never embraced the film's of director Terry Gillam more than they have.  Maybe this is the year they FINALLY correct this.

     Plus...Ain't Them Bodies Saints (David Lowery, nn), The Dallas Buyer's Club (Craig Borten & Melissa Wallack, nn), Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach 0/1 & Greta Gerwig, nn), The Immigrant (James Gray & Rick Menello, nn), Mud (Jeff Nichols, nn), Nebraska (Bob Nelson, nn), Out of the Furnace (Brad Inglesby & Scott Cooper, nn), Rush (Peter Morgan 0/2), Saving Mr. Banks (Kelly Marcel, nn) & Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley, 0/1),
  Related articles: What "Cannes" We Tell So Far?, June Oscar Buzz and Predictions - The Aural TechsThe Visual TechsThe Genre CategoriesThe Help ReviewThe Perfect Para-Killer (Killer Joe review), Another Young Project (Young Adult review),  The Great Zac Efron Film Festival of 2012 (The Paperboy review), Dark Clouds Beautify "Silver Linings"Water and Earth Make "Mud"

Monday, June 24, 2013

Barney's Lebanese Invention

     The third set of 2010 Rewind Series reviews presents us with a mystery/drama in which everyone's favorite lovable schlub gets a little less lovable, a drama about the struggles of immigrants with adorable kids & the best movie ever set almost entirely in the interior of a tank.  That said...

  Lebanon - When I first heard about this film I had my reservations despite the near universal critical acclaim that it was receiving.  I just didn't see how one could place an entire movie in such a limited setting and not end up stifling the storytelling process.  Boy, was I wrong!  I never imagined so much drama and character development could occur in such a confined space.  Many critics have likened the film to the classic German movie Das Boot (The Boat) but to my shame I have not seen it.  It reminded me a bit of The Hurt Locker, only with claustrophobia.
     Israel has really been establishing itself as an important new voice on the international cinematic scene in the last decade. Among other accolades, the nation has earned Oscar nods for Best Foreign Language film four out of the last six years. The introduction of writer/director Samuel Maoz is certainly another notch in their belt.  Lebanon is the film maker's first narrative feature, having previously made the 2000 documentary Total Eclipse.  You would never know it, as his sense of pacing is impeccable and his ability to overcome the limitations of the situation seems evident of a much more experienced hand.
     The picture also boasts a very strong ensemble cast of mostly untried young actors.  The sound work is fantastic.  Credit for the overall quality of production must also be given to cinematographer Giora Bejach, who used both lensing and composition to impressive and creative effect.  Easily the sweetest fruit that the Rewind Series has yielded thus far...5 out of 5 stars.

  Children of Invention - This little indie drama about the challenges that face Asian-American immigrants won a slew of accolades at small film festivals for its director Tze Chun.  It has three competent lead performances.  It sheds light on issues that are important to many people who often lack a voice in the popular media.  It is a well constructed story filled with believably motivated characters.  It features antics from some REALLY cute and talented child actors.  Despite all these facts, it just fell a little flat for me.
     There are a few main factors that resulted in my feeling this way.  First, the supporting cast is a little weak, particularly the cops, who need mustachios to twirl in the interrogation scenes.  Second, actress Cindy Cheung does a great job in the lead role of Elaine, but the character is almost too much of an innocent yet capable super mom to be credible.  Third (and this is really the big one) the film just never took off tonally. Small family dramas of this nature need a slow but deliberate build to a palpable emotional climax that this movie never achieved.  Still, entertaining enough...3 1/2 of 5 stars.

  Barney's Version - This Oscar nominee for Best Make-Up was not the first film from director Richard J. Lewis, although he is certainly better known for his extensive work in the television medium.  The film did not QUITE work, but I would not lay the blame on Mr. Lewis.  He actually appears to be quite talented as an actor's director pulling some great turns out of his cast, notably Minnie Driver, Dustin Hoffman, Rachelle Lefevre, Scott Speedman & Saul Rubinek.  The criminally under-appreciated, but immensely talented young actress Rosamund Pike threatens to steal the film from its formidable star. If her character were not just a tad too unbelievably perfect she might have.  Of course, maybe the point is that she was perfect for Barney, and this story IS Barney's version.
     Many, I fear, will fail to connect with this film in much the same way that many failed to connect with Jason Reitman's 2011 film Young Adult.  Like Charlize Theron's character in that film, Barney is not terribly likable.  I would imagine that many would find this especially disconcerting when such a role is filled by an actor who is normally cast in lovable Everyman parts like Paul Giamatti.  This wasn't my problem with the film, however, the Everyman should not be perfect.  Good people have irritating quirks and aspects to them, and the most charismatic of figures can be rotten at the core.  I personally found Giamatti's work in this film to be marvelously layered and Barney to be a refreshingly believable movie character in many ways.
     Where the film failed for me was in basic plot and narrative structure. Michael Koyves script functions very well as a dramedy, and seems to be one throughout most of the film.  However, he fails to ever really give resolution to this narrative arc, instead letting it trail off into nothingness ten minutes before the picture ends.  Instead, Barney's Version resolves as if it had been a mystery all along.  Thinking back, the first five minutes set it up that way, but the body of the film had an entirely different tone.  As such, the mystery aspect never really built up enough suspense to make that narrative climax satisfying or exciting.  I REALLY wanted to like this film more, but it REALLY ended weakly...3 1/2 of 5 stars.
  Related articles: Another Young Project (Young Adult review)

June Oscar Buzz and Predictions - The Genre Categories

     The Genre Categories (as we like to call them here at TheMovieFrog, are different from categories that celebrate a certain aspect of film making (say, directing or editing) in that they are each like their own little Best Picture category for a certain type of film.  Other than Animated Feature, they are also the most baffling categories to predict, with the most convoluted rules about eligibility, and the most complicated nomination processes.  They also (aside from Animated Feature) are sure to contain the most OBSCURE collections of titles to be found among the twenty-four categories that the Academy deems fit to celebrate.  All that being said (and grains of salt hopefully at the ready), this is what the buzz (and in some cases I) have to say on these six.  As always, the buzz appears first, while my thoughts (where applicable) follow thereafter...

Short Subject (Live-Action)
     In all honesty, it's really difficult to say a lot about ANY of the shorts this far out, but for the sake of completion, I will try.  Two films of this variety have caught my attention: Come and Play and Needle.  Both have had some early film festival buzz and could easily be contenders this year IF they qualify to compete.  In June, that's a big if.

Short Subject (Documentary)
     Completion be damned, I got nothin...

Animated Short
     I feel a little more confident in this category, due to the industry influence of Pixar and its parent company Disney.  Both have strong contenders this year, and I think it's a pretty good bet to call them front runners at this point in the game.
     THE lead horse right now has to be Pixar's The Blue Umbrella. It is currently playing in theaters as the lead in to Monsters University and getting as many raves as the feature (if not more).  Playing in conjunction with a major blockbuster will give the film massive exposure and awareness (for a short) and the strategy certainly worked for last year's Animated Short winner Paperman, which played ahead of Wreck-It Ralph in theaters.
     BUT DON'T COUNT OUT...Disney's Get A Horse, which I believe is going to be released with their upcoming feature Frozen.  The short uses archive voice over work from Walt Disney himself using (very) old style animation and Mickey Mouse character design.  It's still being kept somewhat under wraps but is being quietly publicized in much the same way as Paperman was last year.

Foreign Language Film
     Usually, I would have my own list for this category by June, because there would be a couple of star international directors that I would be willing to go out on a limb for.  Unfortunately, most of the usual suspects for such treatment that have films coming out in 2013 are making them in ENGLISH.  I'm talking to YOU Susanne Bier (Serena), Joon-ho Bong (Snowpiercer) & Jean-Pierre Jeunet (The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet).  Pedro Almodovar coming out with a piece of fluff camp comic relief (I'm So Excited) doesn't help matters either.  I think I'll just offer short commentary on the picks that the buzz has come up with instead.
  1. Blue is the Warmest Color - France...Director Abdellatif Kechiche would appear to be as new of a voice for the Academy as for me, but the film won the Palme D'or at Cannes and that is always a good start.
  2. The Past - Iran...The last film that writer/director Asghar Farhadi gave us was the Oscar winning A Separation, and this picture (which also did very well at Cannes) would be a shoo-in for front runner status if only I felt a little more confident that it will even be submitted. Farhadi's home nation (Iran) boycotted the Oscars last year, and there is no telling if that choice will be repeated.  The film is in French and was produced by that nation, but for France to submit The Past, they would have to pass up Blue Is the Warmest Color, so who knows...?
  3. Child's Pose - Romania...This would be Calin Peter Netzer's first notice from the AMPAS but the film won both the Golden Bear and the Fipresi Prize in Berlin so it would seem to have an excellent shot.
  4. Salvo - Italy...This production from Academy rookie directors Fabio Grassadonia & Antonio Piazza didn't get QUITE the attention of "Blue" or "Past" at Cannes, but it did win the Critics Week Grand Prize and the France 4 Visionary Award.
  5. Lunchbox - India...Another Cannes Critics Week hit, this film is by director Ritesh Batra who was shortlisted for a Short nomination for his film Cafe Regular Cairo.  Having international star Irrfan Khan cast in the lead should help to build notoriety.

  6. Me, Myself & Mum - France...This is the freshman feature from director Guillaume Gallienne, and it got good notices at Cannes, but it is difficult to imagine France picking it over its more esteemed competitors.
  7. The Missing Picture - Cambodia...I don't know that there has ever been a film that became a nominee in all three feature length genre categories, but this animated documentary from Cambodian film maker Rithy Panh could possibly do it.  The film won the Un Certain Regard category at Cannes and was VERY well reviewed. Considering the director already has more of an international pedigree than most of the names on this list, and things start to seem even more probable.
  8. Gloria - Chile...Director Sebastian Lelio won the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury for this film at Berlin and star Paulina Garcia won the Silver Bear for Best Actress.  Can Chile get a second nod in a row?
  9. Like Father Like Son - Japan...This film won the Jury Prize at Cannes and despite international acclaim director Hirokazu Koreeda has yet to have a film nominated at the Oscars.  Might this be his year?
  10. Heli - Mexico...The same overdue factor could help director Amat Escalante secure his first nomination especially considering that he already won Best Director at Cannes.

     But don't count out...Mood Indigo (Belgium), The Hunt (Denmark), Omar (France), Closed Curtain (Germany), & Le Grande Bellazza (Italy)

Best Documentary Feature
     Actually, I think I'm gonna do exactly the same thing with this category.  I feel too ignorant of the width and breadth of the field to do much more...
  1. The Act of Killing...It's hard to argue with the buzz that Joshua Oppenheimer's film currently holds front runner status in this race.  First, it has the sort of unique premise for a documentary that the AMPAS seems to have taken to in recent years (Exit Through the Gift Shop is a good example).  Second, it currently holds a 92 Meta Score.  Third, it won the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury at Berlin.
  2. Stories We Tell...Director Sarah Polley usually makes narrative films and, as you can imagine, this is another highly unusual concept for a documentary that came about almost like a happy accident.  The film currently holds a 93 at Meta Critic and has already won great acclaim NORTH of the border from the Genie Awards, The Toronto Film Critics, The Vancouver Film Critics...
  3. We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks....Never count out director Alex Gibney, especially when he's delving into such timely material.  It's only sporting a 75 Meta Score at the moment, but who knows...?
  4. Blood Brother...Steve Hoover's tale of AIDS in India won both the Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, so it must be considered a serious contender as well.
  5. The Missing Picture...and if you read my analysis of Foreign Language Film you know the triple threat hopes that I'm pinning on this one.

  6. Salinger...Oscar often fails to notice biographical documentaries about artists like this one from documentarian Shane Salerno, but with the Weinstein Company backing it, anything is possible.
  7. Room 237...I would love to think that the Documentary branch could make room for Rodney Ascher's in-depth study of the hidden meanings in Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, but it doesn't seem like their sort of thing even with good to great reviews (80 on Meta Critic).
  8. 20 Feet From Stardom...Morgan Nelville's doc on the lives of back up singers did well at Sundance and currently holds an 82 on Meta Critic.
  9. Herblock: The Black and the White...I haven't really heard a LOT about this film that screened at Tribeca but it has garnered a bit of buzz.
  10. Running From Crazy...Documentaries on figures in entertainment don't usually fare well with Oscar, which doesn't bode all that well for this biographical film about Mariel Hemingway from Barbara Kopple.  However, last year's for Searching For Sugar Man win proved that exceptions can be made.

Animated Feature
  1. Frozen
  2. Monsters University
  3. Turbo
  4. Ernest and Celestine
  5. Epic

  6. Despicable Me 2
  7. Planes
  8. The Missing Picture
  9. Free Birds
  10. The Croods

     After having a couple of great years with the Academy, independent distributor G-Kids got shut out at the Oscars last year facing an unusually strong field of mainstream competitors.  I'm thinking that they make a comeback this year considering the strength of the field of possible acquisitions that lays before them in 2013.  My list may be some wishful thinking (nothing wrong with that in June) but I think that (likely G-Kids competitor Ernest and Celestine aside) the buzz is going WAY too conventional in a year that offers an unusually varied assortment of candidates...

  1. Monsters University...I doubt that this wins.  That being said, the franchise is well respected and it's Pixar.  Oh wait, maybe it could win...
  2. Frozen...Disney is really trying to rebrand itself.  If this year's effort comes anywhere near the quality that they achieved last year then a nomination seems more than likely.
  3. The Missing Picture...If G-Kids is smart they will snatch this Cannes award winner up and go for the big time!!!
  4. Ernest and Celestine...For a Foreign Language 'toon to have this much buzz early on, that's got to mean something.
  5. The Trick or Treaters...Although the Weinstein company has had difficulty trying to "Bully" their way into some genre categories of late, I think you underestimate this possibility at your peril.

  6. The Congress...If I knew this trippy adult tale from director Ari Folman would qualify, it would knock something out of the top five.
  7. Hell and Back...If I knew this would get released in time, this re-imagining of the Orpheus myth from the creators of Robot Chicken featuring Susan Sarandan would knock something out of the top five.
  8. The Wind Rises...Miyazaki makes this film a contender, the subject matter's connection to the Axis powers make it a tough sell.
  9. Turbo...Nobody knows anything yet.
  10. Free Birds...Ditto

     And of course...Despicable Me 2, Dorothy of Oz, Epic & Planes

     Next time out we go above the line and cover the Adapted and Original screenplay categories...


  Related articles:  What "Cannes" We Tell So Far?, June Oscar Buzz and Predictions - The Aural TechsThe Visual TechsIf It Ain't Wrecked (Wreck-It Ralph review), Side Smashed by Bully (Bully review)

Monday, June 17, 2013

Struck by the Rabbi's Color

     Yeah, I know, this is the part where I usually give you cute little teasers about the three films I'm going to be reviewing.  Today's post, however, is special because it is our first At Home Viewing article that includes 2013 releases, specifically Upstream Color and Struck By Lightning.  We are not, however, quite done with the 2012 films as I have about twenty left to do. Today they are represented by the animated feature The Rabbi's Cat.  Might as well get under way...

  Upstream Color - This is the second feature from writer/director/star Shane Carruth.  I have not seen his first film, Primer, but after checking out this movie, I'm more than a little interested.  Upstream Color is, quite simply, the most creative and original science fiction movie that I have seen in a long time (at least since Inception).  I don't ever say this lightly but I was quite literally blown away.  I went into the film with very few expectations one way or another (the picture is still quite obscure, flying under most movie goer's radars).  This is probably to the film's advantage because it is said air of mystery and uncertainty that is the film's greatest strength.  To that end, I am not going to give away any more of the plot than is absolutely needed.
     Upstream Color is not for the impatient or easily frustrated.  The plot is quite literally baffling in the film's first half.  It is the sort of film that you need to just let wash over you for a time until the pieces finally begin to come together.  Even when you have seen the whole film once, chances are that it will not all make sense.  I admit to re-watching it a couple of times myself almost immediately.  Of course, this means that I can say without reservation that this is definitely a feature that highly rewards multiple viewings.
     Besides its ambiguity, the only other real complaint that I've read about the film is the acting performance of director Shane Carruth.  I, however, found both he and Amy Seimetz's lead performances to be fantastic. They both come across as listless and emotionally disconnected, but there is a very good reason for this.  Just trust me.  I actually found that both of them gave multi-layered performances, letting you see glimpses of their more humanizing emotions seeping out through the cracks of their general disorientation.  Andrew Sensenig is also delightfully creepy in a supporting role and Thiago Martins absolutely terrified me in the first half hour.
     I guess at this point I don't really have to say that I HIGHLY recommend this picture.  Besides surely being one of the best written films of a year that is just getting started, and being very well acted, the cinematography is absolutely gorgeous.  You can once again thank the multi-talented (and multi-hat-wearing) Mr. Carruth, who also composed the original music and had a hand in the editing.  He instantly goes to the front of the class of exciting new auteurs with Brit Marling and Benh Zeitlen.  I cannot think of a more perfect low budget science fiction flick...5 of 5 stars.

  Struck By Lightning - This marks Emmy winning actor Chris Colfer's (best known for playing Kurt on the television show Glee) debut writing credit on a feature film. I have really enjoyed Mr. Colfer's work on Glee, especially the way in which his character has helped to change public perceptions of young gay men.  As such, I was very hopeful that this film would be just as much of a delight, whether it addressed similar themes or not.  Unfortunately, I cannot say that it was.  It was actually a rather flawed effort which failed to really go anywhere or say very much of anything.
     It tells the story of an ambitious young high school student who is trying desperately to effect his escape from the small town he feels is hampering his growth.  Or was that Ferris Bueller's Day Off? Rushmore? No, no...Election. Get it? Subplots include his relationships with his estranged parents.  His mother is a pill popping head case who acts as if she couldn't care less about him while his father is absent and plays no part in his life whatsoever.  Both of these relationships provide rich potential for development, but were never given enough time or focus to evolve into anything that would provide growth or insight to either the characters or the viewer.  Carson (Colfer) starts a literary magazine to try and improve his college chances and blackmails other prominent members of the student body into participating.  We never really see his plan's success or see him face consequences for his unscrupulous methods.  Some effort is made to insinuate that the students involved might have learned something about themselves through the process of writing, but this thematic thread doesn't go far enough, and sort of trail off into nothingness.
     Mr. Colfer also stars in the film, and I think that he may have been thinking more as an actor than as a writer during the process of conceptualizing his script.  Carson (his character), besides being bitter and witty, is left as sort of an everyman, the straight man (or voice of reason if you want to get really technical in a literary way) in a field of extreme personalities.  I can only assume that this was done to demonstrate that the actor possesses range well the flamboyant exuberance central to his characterization of Kurt on the show that made him famous.  This does not serve the plot as well as it could have, but it REALLY does a disservice to the young artist as an actor.  Mr. Colfer has tremendous talent, but it is as a CHARACTER actor.  This is not to say that he must always be relegated to supporting status, but standard everyman type leading characters are a waste of his rare gift for quirkiness and going over the top.
     The best things about this film are the performances of SOME members of the supporting cast.  Allison Janney is captivating as always even when delivering slightly stilted dialogue as Carson's mother.  Polly Bergan is likewise delightful as his dementia ridden grandmother, although we have certainly seen her play somewhat similar roles in the past.  Sarah Hyland (best known as the youngest daughter on Modern Family) does a respectable job although she, too, is cast to rather familiar type.  Allie Grant (who played young lesbian plus size model Isabelle Hodes on the first several seasons of Weeds) probably stretches herself the most as the uptight yearbook editor.
      Late in the film, Mr. Colfer tries to tie in some sort of metaphoric subtext about bitterness and "personal rain clouds".  Like most of the other threads of the script, this one comes off as frayed.  I do hope that Mr. Colfer gets another shot with another screenplay (or at least another leading film role) because I feel that he has a lot more to offer than just one great role on one good TV show.  Next time, however, I hope he gives himself a more interesting character that stretches his bag of tricks in some way besides being less obviously homosexual. I also hope that he takes a little more time with his other characters and situations so as to avoid quick and easy stereotypes.  Maybe even a story outside of the overly dramatized and over played struggles of American high school students...3 of 5 stars.

  The Rabbi's Cat - Typically, European animated films are quite different from their American counterparts in several key ways.  They tend to be aimed more at the entertainment of both adults and children (you know, like Pixar in the old days only more so).  They rely a lot less on musical interludes delivered in the style of a Broadway play (if at all).  The cast of characters in no way seem to have been designed with an action figure line already planned out.  They involve a little more thought (and wit) than cuteness (and fart jokes).  The biggest difference, however, is that Foreign 'toons seem to be written in a far more literary style, at least attempting to develop something a little more thematically complex than a one sentence moral presented in a far more clumsy and obvious way than Aesop ever did.  The higher meanings behind last year's Animated nominees, for example, could be summed up like this:
                                1. Don't be ruled by fate, but don't forget who you are.
                                2. Sometimes weird is good and even necessary.
                                3. If you set out to do the impossible you may succeed, but it will be an empty victory if your motivations are not rooted in love. (Which ain't half bad and is why Frankenweenie should have won)
                                4. Don't be ruled by fate, but don't forget who you are. (This would have been good advice to both the parent studio and its subsidiary.  Maybe if they'd paid attention to their own platitudes they wouldn't have both made the same cartoon last year.)
                                5. It's funny when stupid clumsy pirates get hurt. (Sorry Aardman, but this was such a make-up nod for nominating three films that were nowhere near as good Arthur Christmas for the 84th Oscars.)
     Which brings us, at long last, to The Rabbi's Cat.  It is not an "adults only" type of animated story.  It doesn't indulge in the sort of lusty sensuality (not to mention excessive overindulgence in alcohol) of Chico and Rita.  It IS, however, the most thematically ambitious piece of 100% animated film making that I have ever seen.  Race relations, the quality of truth, religious tolerance, the nature of faith, love (in a world beyond fairy tales) and tradition versus innovation are all topics that have been skillfully woven into the tapestry of this tale.  I cannot stress enough how refreshing it is that these serious subjects of thought emerged  organically from the interaction of the characters and events.  The Rabbi's Cat is no message movie, nor does it attempt to give pat or easy answers to the questions it raises.
     The picture is based upon the graphic novel of the same name by French actor/writer/director Joann Sfar.
Of course, he had help on the directing side of things from Antoine Delesvaux, and on the writing side from Sandrina Jardel.  I incorrectly assumed that having created the original story was Mr.Sfar's only qualification for these positions, but he actually had previous directing experience on Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life (which I have never seen).  The translation from printed medium to dramatic representation was accomplished with sensibilities that show deft awareness pertaining to the requirements of the medium.
     I do have a couple of reservations about the film, however.  While I usually abhor dubbed translations on Foreign Language Films, I actually prefer them to subtitles (which this film implemented) when the film in question is animated.  In live action movies, the dubbing of (usually inferior) English interpretations of the lines detracts far too much from the power of the actors' performances.  In a cartoon, where every element besides the voice is supplied artificially, it is difficult to pull much depth of feeling from the words if you do not understand them. It is something of a lesson about how essential facial expressions and body language are to our perceptions of not only the craft of acting, but all observations of human expression.  At any rate, The Rabbi's Cat went with subtitles which is far too distracting from the animation itself, as it requires that you look at it to appreciate it.
     The only other complaint that I can muster is that the film ended a little too abruptly for my tastes.  While I understand that the thematic questions raised in this picture are far too expansive and elusive to enable neat and easy solutions over the course of one feature length cartoon.  Trying to wrap them up in the finale would have been disastrous.  The problem lies in the fact that even the plot lines seemed to just sort of rush through a denouma and end, without resolving any of the characters' plots.  Still, you have to give Mr. Sfar points for courage and chutzpah...4 of 5 stars.