Monday, December 31, 2012

Dec. Oscar Buzz and Predictions - Foreign Films

     Once again, I am sooo glad that I saved these categories until a little bit after I updated the other genres.  This time the delay allowed me to see the foreign film short list which brings us down to nine contenders, a much more manageable number to pick from.  First, however...

Live-Action Shorts
     As I did with the documentary and animated shorts, I'm just going to go with the buzz for now and present my commentary along with that list...
  1. Curfew...This, director Shawn Christensen's third short film, has already won 13 film festival awards.
  2. Death of a Shadow...This L.A. Shorts "Best of the Festival" winner was directed by Tom Van Avermaet and features international star Matthias Schoenaerts (Bullhead, Rust and Bone)
  3. When You Find Me...This short's prestige with the Academy will certainly be bolstered by the fact that it is directed by Bryce Dallas Howard (you might know of her father: Ron)
  4. Asad...Director Bryan Buckley's short has already won five festival awards, including Tribeca.
  5. 9 Meter...Director: Anders Wallace

  6. Henry...This is the second short film from director Steve Bono.
  7. The Night Shift Belongs to the Stars
  8. Buzkashi Boys...This L.A. Shorts drama winner was directed by Sam French
  9. Salar...Winner of Best Short at the 2011 Austin Film Festival.  It is the debut film from director Nicholas Greene.
  10. Kiruna-Kigali...This is the fourth short film from director Goran Kapetanovic.

Foreign Language Film
     The buzz is saying...
  1.(1) Amour - Austria
  2.(2) The Intouchables - France
  3.(5) A Royal Affair - Denmark
  4.(3) No - Chile
  5.(5) Beyond the Hills - Denmark

  6.(10) Sister - Switzerland
  7.(6) War Witch - Canada
  8. Kon-Tiki - Norway
  9. Iceland - The Deep
  Leaving the Rankings...Barbara - Germany, Lore - Australia, Fill the Void - Israel
     It's a rare thing when the five most buzzed about films all make the short list, but that is what happened this year.  I still find it difficult to believe that all five of them get nods.  I'm thinking...
  1. Amour...Michael Haneke's latest has undeniably been the big winner with early critic's awards and precursor nods.  It hasn't dominated quite as overwhelmingly as A Separation did last year, but Amour's front runner status is still a no-brainer.
  2. The Intouchables... Backed by Harvey Weinstein and undeniable box office, its hard to imagine this Globe and Critics Choice nominee failing to make the final five.
  3. A Royal Affair...Which brings us to our third film to score both precursor nods.  This is our third and final lock.
  4. War Witch...While this film did not score major awards show nods, it DID make the National Board of Review's Top Five Foreign Films for this year, and scored an Independent Spirit nod.
  5. No...While I was hesitant about this film's ability to gain a wide support base, making the NBR's top five and the Academy shortlist has strongly bolstered the film's chances.

  6. Kon-Tiki...This film was barely on my radar a couple of weeks ago, but a Golden Globe nod does a lot to raise both my awareness and the AMPAS's.
  7. Sister...This film has been steadily growing in buzz and DOES have an Indie Spirit nomination, so it is a possible spoiler.
  8. Beyond the Hills...This has been one of the front runners for a nomination for most of the year, but it feels like its buzz has been waning.
  9. The Deep...Anything is possible in this category, but low profile and nearly non-existent buzz indicate that Iceland may have to settle for being honored to get this close.

Related articles:  Nov/Dec Oscar Buzz and Predictions: It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year (preview), Musical Techs (Score and Song), Noisy Techs (Sound Editing and Sound Mixing), Pretty People Techs (Hairstyling and Make-up & Costume), Pretty Picture Techs (Production Design and Cinematography), Finishing Touch TechsToons of Any Length (Animated Short and Animated Feature), Docs of Any Length (Documentary Feature and Documentary Short), Screenplays (Adapted and Original), Supporting PerformancesActor and ActressAbove All, Like a Bullheaded Man (Bullhead review), Sept/Oct Oscar Buzz and Predictions - Foreign Films

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Dec. Oscar Buzz and Predictions - Actor and Actress

  Both of these races are tightening up to small groups of real contenders, but there is still room for some surprises.  As always, the buzz rankings come first (with previous rankings in parenthesis) and my predictions follow...

Best Actress
     This race looks on the surface to be down to six contenders, but I think eight is probably more accurate.
  1.(4) Jennifer Lawrence - Silver Linings Playbook
  2. Jessica Chastain - Zero Dark Thirty
  3.(3) Marion Cotillard - Rust and Bone
  4.(2) Quvenzhane Wallis - Beasts of the Southern Wild
  5.(8) Emmanuelle Riva - Amour

  6.(9) Naomi Watts - The Impossible
  7.(1) Keira Knightley - Anna Karenina
  8. Helen Mirren - Hitchcock
  9. Rachel Weisz - The Deep Blue Sea
  10. Helen Hunt - The Sessions
  Leaving the Rankings:  Laura Linney - Hyde Park On Hudson, Viola Davis - Won't Back Down, Meryl Streep - Hope Springs
    These are MOST of the strongest contenders.  Of course, Helen Hunt will probably be nominated in Best Supporting Actress but those pesky critic's groups don't always decide how to categorize a performance according to how it is being campaigned.  Oscar usually does.  I also think that Knightley's meteoric plummet in buzz is a strong indicator that she is out of the race even though she is largely responsible for what works in Anna Karenina.  Oh well, her day will come again one year.  As I see it now...
  1. Jessica Chastain - Zero Dark Thirty...I adore both of the ladies currently considered to be leading the pack in this category, but I'm going to go with a hunch (and the fact that I thought her performance in Tree of Life last year would have not only been nominated, but WON Best Supporting Actress in a perfect world) and put Ms. Chastain in pole position.
  2. Jennifer Lawrence - Silver Linings Playbook...However, I haven't seen either of these first two films yet and Ms. Lawrence's track record is just as impressive, and got that way ALMOST as quickly.
Both ladies picked up Globe, Critic's Choice, and SAG nominations.  Jess won the National Board of Review.  Jenn won Los Angeles Critics Circle.
  3. Quvenzhane Wallis - Beasts of the Southern Wild...Even though only the Critic's Choice have really recognized her thus far, the Globes are looking for stars, and she was ineligible for the Screen Actors Guild.  I still expect Oscar to name her this category's youngest ever contender.
  4. Marion Cotillard - Rust and Bone...Critic's Choice, Globes, and SAG nods and near universal praise should push Ms. Cotillard to her second nomination, once again in her native French.
  5. Naomi Watts - I just saw my first full trailer for The Impossible in the theater and my anticipation is now that much higher.  She also has the same trifecta of awards show nominations as most of my current predictions.

  6. Emmanuelle Riva - Amour...Like Ms. Wallis, she was only recognized by the Critic's Choice, but probably missed out on the other awards shows for similar reasons.  I'm a little skeptical about two French actresses making it in, so I'm leaving her in the alternate slot for now.
  7. Rachel Weisz - The Deep Blue Sea...The New York Film Critics plucked Ms. Weisz's performance from obscurity and the Globes were paying attention.  There is at least a chance that she slips in.
  8. Helen Mirren - Hitchcock...Globe and SAG nods almost seem like politeness just because she's Helen  Mirren with the Critic's Choice exclusion, but you never know.  Everyone loves her (guilty).
  9. Emayatzy Corinealdi - Middle of Nowhere...This young recipient of nods from the Gotham and Indie Spirit Awards has been gaining ground for months, but her exposure is likely still too limited to make it in with the Academy.
  10.  Judi Dench - So far she's only gotten a Globe comedy nod, but the Ensemble nod for the film at SAG indicates that the film likely has fans among the actor's branch of AMPAS.

Best Actor
     This category is really tightening up.  I think we're down to six..maybe seven real contenders.
  1.(1) Daniel Day-Lewis - Lincoln
  2.(2) John Hawkes - The Sessions
  3.(3) Joaquin Phoenix - The Master
  4.(8) Denzel Washington - Flight
  5.(5) Hugh Jackman - Les Miserables

  6.(7) Bradley Cooper - Silver Linings Playbook
  7. Anthony Hopkins - Hitchcock
  8. Richard Gere - Arbitrage
  9.(4) Bill Murray - Hyde Park On Hudson
  10. Jean-Louis Tritignant - Amour
  Leaving the Rankings:  Phillip Seymour Hoffman - The Master, Clint Eastwood - Trouble With The Curve, Jamie Foxx - Django Unchained
     Although Murray was great in Hyde, the film's failure to meet expectations overall has probably nixed his chances this year.  I also think that while Riva is pretty likely to get in for Amour, she would be the only acting nomination.  My list is...
  1. Daniel Day-Lewis - Lincoln...You can't argue with a runaway train.  Besides all the awards show nods and a host of smaller critics award wins, he's won the New York Film Critics and tops almost everybody's list.  No way he won't get nominated, unlikely he fails to win.
  2. John Hawkes - The Sessions...He's maintained buzz since Sundance (almost a year ago) without really missing a step along the way.  He's in.
  3. Bradley Cooper - Silver Linings Playbook...He's seemed to be on the outside looking in until recently, but nominations from all the televised awards and Independent Spirit and a win from the National Board of Review have made his nomination a probability.
  4. Hugh Jackman - Les Miserables...There has been a little bit of a critical backlash to this film, but none of it has been aimed at Mr. Jackman and he's gotten all the critical precursor nods.
  5. Denzel Washington - Flight...Like all of my other predicted nominees, Mr. Washington received nods from the Critics Choice Awards, the Golden Globes, and the Screen Actor's Guild.  For now, I'm going to let that edge out...

  6. Joaquin Phoenix - The Master...Phoenix missed out with SAG and since that is the only precursor whose voting members overlap with the Academy, I'm going to put him here for now, although he gives what is surely one of the best leading performances of the year.  We'll see.
  7. Richard Gere - Arbitrage...Gere was ignored by SAG and The Critics Choice, but his Globe nod certainly keeps the possibility of Oscar notice alive.
  8. Jack Black - Bernie...Yes, really.  He got an Indie Spirit nod, a NY Film Critics Citation, and Globe and Critics choice nominations for Best Actor in a Comedy.  Do I think he'll get in?  Not really.  But I do think he is probably the most likely candidate outside of my top seven.
  9. Jamie Foxx - Django Unchained...Django came in really late so it is possible that the AMPAS might embrace an element or two that earlier awards shows ignore.  It could be Mr. Foxx.
  10. Suraj Sharma - Life of Pi...Despite his Critics Choice citation for Best Young Actor/Actress, this is mostly my For Your Consideration slot.

Related articles:   Nov/Dec Oscar Buzz and Predictions: It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year (preview), Musical Techs (Score and Song), Noisy Techs (Sound Editing and Sound Mixing), Pretty People Techs (Hairstyling and Make-up & Costume), Pretty Picture Techs (Production Design and Cinematography), Finishing Touch TechsToons of Any Length (Animated Short and Animated Feature), Docs of Any Length (Documentary Feature and Documentary Short), Screenplays (Adapted and Original), Supporting PerformancesBest That the Summer Wields? (Beasts of the Southern Wild), Deep Part of Safety (The Deep Blue Sea), Acting Master Classes in Private "Sessions"The Best Huntsman's Shadow (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel), Can You "Master" Your Nature?Bernie! On a Ledge of MisfitsFantasy Life of Pi?

Friday, December 28, 2012

Dec. Oscar Buzz and Predictions - Supporting Performances

Best Supporting Actor
     As always the buzz comes first with former rankings in parenthesis.  My own little amphibious ideas follow.
  1.(2) Phillip Seymour Hoffman - The Master
  2. Tommy Lee Jones - Lincoln
  3.(5) Robert DeNiro - Silver Linings Playbook
  4.(1) Leonardo DiCaprio - Django Unchained
  5.(6) Alan Arkin - Argo

  6.(8) Matthew McConaughey - Magic Mike
  7.(7) Dwight Henry - Beasts of the Southern Wild
  8. Christoph Waltz - Django Unchained
  9. Javier Bardem - Skyfall
  10. John Goodman - Argo
  Leaving the rankings:  Russell Crowe - Les Miserables, William H. Macy - The Sessions, Bryan Cranston - Argo, David Straitharn - Lincoln
   Believe it or not, there are actually like eleven guys who have some legitimate buzz going right now and I can see multiple scenarios possibly playing out in this category.  The Academy usually only goes three for five with the buzz in at least one acting category.  I may well be indulging in some wishful thinking here, but next time I write about this category will be in my final predictions on January 9th, so indulge my imagination one last time...
  1. Leonardo DiCaprio - Django Unchained...This guy is one of the most overdue actors out there and this could well be the film's only win.  Of course, I haven't seen it yet, but...
  2. Tommy Lee Jones - Lincoln...Mr. Jones is supposedly amazing in this film and I almost hope that he's the most deserving nominee but DiCaprio wins anyway.  I don't have anything against Mr. Jones but it would set the Karmic scales right after his performance in The Fugitive beat Leo's far more deserving turn in What's Eating Gilbert Grape back when the latter actor was just a kid.
  3. Phillip Seymour Hoffman - The Master...Although this film's buzz has been steadily waning overall, Hoffman has sneaked onto multiple nominee lists that mostly ignored The Master as a whole, and for the moment, I'm expecting that to happen with Oscar.  He's also completely deserving in this role.
  4. Chritoph Waltz - Django Unchained...Of the three possible "come out of nowhere" nominations in this category, he seems the most likely candidate to knock one of the presumed top five candidates out of the race.  His campaign has probably demonstrated more forward momentum in the last couple of weeks than anyone.  I think he's in.
  5. Robert DeNiro - Silver Linings Playbook...Oscar loves a come back, I love a comeback, we all love a comeback, but this is far from a sure thing.

  6. Alan Arkin - Argo...For now, I'm going with Waltz and DeNiro, working on the assumption that Goodman and Arkin will split the Argo vote, but I could EASILY be wrong.  The fact that a true contender for the Best Picture win almost always has a nod in one of the acting categories makes me even less certain.
  7. Javier Bardem - Skyfall...I'm certainly taking this possibility more seriously than I did a couple of weeks ago, but I'm still not really expecting it.
  8. John Goodman - Argo...IF the Academy rejects Django (and they could), it could result in double nominations for Argo in this category instead.  If you stack up all the actors overdue for their first nomination, Goodman would be very near the top (which will be unfortunate for all those underneath).
  9. Eddie Redmayne - Les Miserables...Russell Crowe was considered a major contender before this film debuted, but young Mr. Redmayne has stolen all the buzz overnight.
  10.(tie) Dwight Henry - Beasts of the Southern Wild...Mr. Henry has remained just outside of this race's top five contenders almost all year long, but those are rarely the candidates who receive a surprise nomination, unless other presumed contenders fail to meet expectations.  As much as I think his performance is one of the year's most deserving, a nod seems unlikely.
              Matthew McConaughey - Magic Mike...Even though he has had a great year, I think that Mr. McConaughey will score his first nod next year when he'll be appearing in Mud (which already has great festival reviews), Dallas Buyer's Club, and The Wolf of Wall Street.  Besides, his work in Killer Joe was actually his best THIS year.

Best Supporting Actress
     The top three in this category seem pretty secure.  Beyond that...?
  1.(2) Anne Hathaway - Les Miserables
  2.(3) Sally Field - Lincoln
  3.(4) Helen Hunt - The Sessions
  4.(1) Amy Adams - The Master
  5.(10) Maggie Smith - The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

  6. Ann Dowd - Compliance
  7.(8) Samantha Barks - Les Miserables
  8. Nicole Kidman - The Paperboy
  9. Jackie Weaver - Silver Linings Playbook
  10. Judi Dench - Skyfall
  Leaving the Rankings:  Kerry Washington (although she was eleventh) - Django Unchained, Olivia Williams - Hyde Park On Hudson, Vanessa Redgrave - Song For Marion, Judi Dench - The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
     These definitely seem like the ten strongest contenders, but I'll shuffle things a bit....
  1. Anne Hathaway - Les Miserables...If I had to pick the eventual winners of five categories right now, before nominations, this would be one of those five.
  2. Sally Field - Lincoln...If anyone can beat Ms. Hathaway, it would be Ms. Field.  However, I think this beloved vet will have to finally learn what it feels like to be nominated and NOT win.
  3. Helen Hunt - The Sessions...It hadn't really occurred to me until just now, but this will also be Ms. Hunt's first time with the same experience.
  4. Ann Dowd - Compliance...This actress's sudden buzz has been deafening and the accolades just keep on coming.  I now find it highly likely that she will sneak in ala Jackie Weaver in Animal Kingdom.
  5. Maggie Smith - The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel...Everybody loves Maggie right now (deservedly so) and this film's success with SAG indicates widespread approval in the industry.  Even though it means Hathaway would be the only nominee under forty, I'm still predicting this for now.

  6. Amy Adams - The Master...Her buzz has faded a lot by comparison with the other presumed front runners and the film hasn't even received as much love from the critic's circles as expected, much of its thunder stolen by Zero Dark Thirty.  For now, I'm going to predict that Dowd and Smith steal Ms. Adams'.
  7. Nicole Kidman - The Paperboy...Even though Ms. Kidman's buzz has surged in recent weeks, I think Ms. Dowd is this year's last minute success story in Supporting Actress.
  8. Judi Dench - Skyfall...As with Bardem, I am forced to recognize this possibility as a growing likelihood, but not one I'm quite ready to embrace.
  9. Samantha Barks - Les Miserables...I know, I've been predicting she actually gets nominated for months, but it now seems like Ms. Dowd is going to have the "plucked from obscurity" vote.
  10. Jackie Weaver - Silver Linings Playbook...Of the four possible acting nods for this picture, this seems like the least likely, although I'm so glad to see the amazing Ms. Weaver getting more exposure.  She should have won this category for Animal Kingdom.

     We are down to the wire with these updates, but I'm going to push to get the last six categories out by New Year's Eve.

Related Articles:  Nov/Dec Oscar Buzz and Predictions: It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year (preview), Musical Techs (Score and Song), Noisy Techs (Sound Editing and Sound Mixing), Pretty People Techs (Hairstyling and Make-up & Costume), Pretty Picture Techs (Production Design and Cinematography), Finishing Touch TechsToons of Any Length (Animated Short and Animated Feature), Docs of Any Length (Documentary Feature and Documentary Short), Screenplays (Adapted and Original), Can You "Master" Your NatureWhere Did the Magic Spider Go? (Magic Mike review), Best That The Summer Wields? (Beasts of the Souther Wild review), 23? You Don't Play Like a Sequel Over 2. (Skyfall review), I Think You "Argo"ing to Love It!Acting Master Classes in Private "Sessions"The Best Huntsman's Shadow (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel review)

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Savage Men in Oslo

     Today we will be providing DVD reviews of a dark Norwegian drama, a twisted little thriller involving drug cartels, and a threequel whose returns are only modestly diminishing.  Might as well start with...

  Savages - For the benefit of those of you a little younger than me, let me tell you about Oliver Stone.  In 1986, he burst into the limelight with first Salvadore (which received two Oscar nods) and then Platoon (which racked up eight nominations, winning four, including Picture and Director).  For the next thirteen years he would remain one of the most influential (and often controversial) American directors producing a string of  BIG movies including Wall Street, Born On The Fourth of July, The Doors, JFK, Natural Born Killers, Nixon, and Any Given Sunday.
     In the twenty first century, Stone has been less prolific, and focused his efforts largely on documentaries.  He has also gradually backed away from screenwriting, directing the scripts of others.  So far, the results have been less impressive than his earlier works (Wall Street 2 anyone?), but Savages does show some signs of a gradual return to form.
     It is hobbled, to some extent, by two of its leading performances.  Taylor Kitsch, who appeared earlier this year in both Battleship and John Carter, does not appear to benefit much from having better material to work with.  Aaron Taylor-Johnson, conversely, showed great promise in films like Nowhere Boy and Kick-Ass, but is not having his best year (Anna Karenina review coming soon).  In fact, the veteran supporting cast in this film mostly outshines the main characters.  The exception to this trend is Blake Lively.  The young actress best known as Serena on television's Gossip Girl flounders a tiny bit in the early scenes with the boys, but begins to really shine once she has more experienced cast mates to interact with.  Her and Salma Hayak, in particular, bring out the best in each other.
     In Stone's heyday he was a star maker, opening doors for everyone from Jamie Foxx to Woody Harrelson.  I think he may have done it again this time with Ms. Hayek.  The forty-six year old actress spent much of her early career playing "pretty girl with accent" roles.  Here she is the villain, and she nails it.  She is actually scarier than Benicio del Toro (who is great as a heavy, but we've seen him do it before), which I would not have expected at all.  It is also worth noting that this is, in my opinion, John Travolta's best work since Pulp Fiction.  He really vanishes into his character in this.  Demien Bechir does as well, but then, I've never seen him not do so.
     All in all, I feel that Savages is a little under rated and it is a shame Salma Hayek is not a serious part of this year's Best Supporting Actress discussion.  The film would be worth watching for her performance alone.  4 of 5 stars.

  Oslo, August 31rst - This is the second feature for Norwegian film maker/lead actor team Joachim Trier
and Anders Danielsen Lie.  The first film they made together, Reprise, won international acclaim including a Best First Film award from the New York Film Critics Circle.  Unfortunately, I have not seen it.  Based upon Oslo, August 31rst, however, it now goes on the (admittedly long) list of films I MUST get around to soon.
     "Oslo" tells the story of a recovering drug addict as he makes his first steps back out into the world after rehab.  We follow him as he takes stock of his life and personal connections, trying to imagine a future for himself.  It is a highly moving film, that is told with a real tragic beauty.  Lie's performance is easily one of my favorite Lead Actor turns of the year so far.  The supporting cast, though quite strong, are tangential by comparison.  He IS the film.
     Be warned, however, this film is bleak.  If you watched Shame last year on my recommendation and were depressed for days, this might not be your thing.  Otherwise, I strongly suggest checking it out.  4 1/2 of 5 stars.

  Men in Black 3 - I have never been a big fan of this franchise, but a friend offered to loan me this film, and it HAS been getting some Best Make-Up and Hairstyling buzz, so I decided to check it out.  It wasn't bad for a sci-fi/comedy threequel.  I've certainly seen the quality of franchises diminish MORE quickly.  If you were a huge fan of the previous installments, I'm sure that you will enjoy this one too.
     While I did miss Frank the Pug, his absence was made up for by the inclusion of Josh Brolin as the young Agent K.  I'm not going to say that he did Tommy Lee Jones as well as Levitt did Willis in Looper, but it was actually pretty darn close.  The make-up (which IS impressive) helps, but the mannerisms and vocal patterns were spot on.
     I can't exactly say that I'm anxious for a Men In Black 4, but part three was certainly watchable enough.  If this sort of thing is your cup of tea, I won't dissuade you from checking it out.  3 of 5 stars.
Related Articles:  John's Woman in Wrath (John Carter review), December Oscar Buzz and Predictions - Pretty People Techs (covering Best Make-Up), Twist Until You Are Loopey! (Looper review)

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Killing Them Affordably

     I've seen a lot of comparisons drawn between Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises and Andrew Dominick's Killing Them Softly this year, and for good reason.  Of all the films I've seen so far this year, these are the two that deal most directly with the financial state of Western civilization at present and the effect that it has upon the psyches and philosophies of the citizenry.  Unlike Nolan's film, this one doesn't really try to argue the merits of any possible solutions to these conditions or alterations that could be made to the structure of our society to treat the disease behind the symptoms.  No, Killing Them Softly is a film about survival of the fittest within the conditions and society that we have.  It paints a portrait of an America in which there are wolves who accept the way things are and learn to thrive within their circumstances, and sheep who foolishly gorge themselves on idealistic dreams of change, leaving them a more drowsy and vulnerable mob.
     I am a little embarrassed to admit that I have not seen either of writer/director Dominick's previous efforts, especially The Assassination of Jessie James by the Coward Robert Ford.  I find this first exposure very promising.  He obviously brings out the best in his actors, as I'll expand upon shortly.  His writing style aims for innovation and depth as well as plot and character development.  One of his most interesting little flourishes in this film is the integration of sound bites from the 2008 election cycle.  The results of this approach were mixed.  Sometimes the way in which the footage interwove with the dialogue enhanced the story, sometimes it came across as being a little heavy handed.
     As I said before, this movie features some great performances. Chief among them is Brad Pitt's turn as top hit man Jackie.  I have been a fan of Pitt's since he was an under rated pretty boy, but he has really begun to realize his potential in the last few years.  The subtlety and maturity that he evinced in last year's Moneyball carries over successfully here, in a role that could so easily have gone over the top.  Jackie, however, is a smart wolf, who isn't about being showy.  He prefers "killing them softly.  From a distance."  He is all business, and his calm confidence is far more sinister and intimidating than a more demonstrative interpretation of the character could have ever been.  His final monologue here belongs in any montage of the actor's greatest moments.
      James Gandolfini is having a strong year, and he certainly doesn't embarrass himself here, as a fellow hit man whose new economic realities have obliterated his focus and strength.  The role is not that different from what we saw the actor do in various seasons of The Sopranos, but no one plays the self doubting mobster better.
      Richard Jenkins is the sort of character actor who never gets the credit that he deserves.  This is because his delivery is so natural, his characters so fully realized that you never see him acting.  I hope someone gives him something showy and outside of his comfort zone so that he can once again get some awards attention.  His work here is dependably strong as always, and more than a little bit wry.
     The rest of the cast is no less impressive.  Scoot McNairy (who also appears in Argo and Promised Land) continues to have one of the best break out years going.  Ray Liotta proves that he still has a lot more to give when provided with an opportunity.  It was especially fun to watch Ben Mendelsohn (who played Animal Kingdom's obligatory bad ass Pope) playing the most ineffectual member of the core cast.
      Killing Them Softly could have been a strong awards contender in a weaker year for film.  It is not a masterpiece, but I believe it is an important step in the emergence of a potentially great film maker, and a great director/actor partnership between Dominick and Pitt.  It is also a thought provoking film, especially if you are not predatory by nature, nor content to be prey.  What can the common man do in a world where even hired killers have to adopt recession inspired price cuts?  4 1/2 of 5 stars.
Related articles:  The Dark Knight TranscendsI Think You "Argo"ing To Love It

360 Horse Selection

     In this edition of DVD reviews, we will be covering the most over rated film of the year (so far, in my opinion), a great little true indie, and an international ensemble piece.  Let's get hoppin...

  360 - This film was a really mixed bag for me with its hodge podge of story lines and characters.  When pulled off well, ensemble pieces like this can be some of my favorite films.  360 didn't quite get there, but it did have some nice elements.  It's Christmas, so let's start with the nice list.
     I love films with characters from many different nations and cultures in which everyone speak in their own language.  This is the technique applied here with characters speaking in English, German, Arabic, French, Portuguese and Russian.  It's interesting to me to think that viewers from different countries have to read or not at different times when watching the film.  It makes it a different film for different viewers in a very unique way.
     This film is also rife with acting talent including Jude Law, Rachel Weisz, Ben Foster, and a host of international performers.  All of the cast do respectable jobs with the material they are provided, although most of their characters are never really given enough development to allow the actors to shine.  The stand out work among the ensembles is undoubtedly done by Sir Anthony Hopkins, especially in his scenes with Brazilian actress Maria Flor.  They alone seem to really transcend the limitations of their screen time.
     In this film director Fernando Meirelles (City of God, The Constant Gardner) and screenwriter Peter Morgan attempted a quasi-remake of director Arthur Schnitzer's classic film Le Ronde.  I have never seen this movie, but I must wonder if it influenced Robert Altman's film Short Cuts which in turn inspired Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia, as the films incorporate similar styles in many ways.  The latter two films brilliantly present an intricate interweaving of an impossible number of whole stories told in glimpses.  360, however, came off more like glimpses of whole stories that never get fleshed out to any sort of satisfying conclusion.  While I found the characters to be intriguing, my interest was never really sated in a way that brought me any sort of satisfaction.  2 1/2 of 5 stars.

  The Turin Horse - This is my first exposure to the work of Bela Tarr, Hungarian director of the Werckmeister Harmonies.  It may actually be my first exposure to Hungarian cinema, and for that I am grateful that I watched The Turin Horse.  Unfortunately, that is pretty much the only positive that I can pull from the experience.  Otherwise it's just a whopping two hours and twenty six minutes of my life that I will never get back.  This film is fairly well reviewed and is actually showing up on a couple of year end top ten lists, but I didn't get it.  No, worse, I think I did get it, and it just wasn't worth the time it took me to do so.
     The film tells the story of a farmer who Friedrich Nietzsche (as the legend goes) once stopped in the process of beating a horse.  Supposedly the famous philosopher returned home that day never to speak again, his voice entering the realm of nothingness that his philosophy espoused.  The Turin Horse picks up after that famous encounter, as the farmer returns to the squalid home that he shares with the aforementioned horse and his daughter.
     The first two hours of the film deal mostly with two things: the fact that the horse won't eat, and the repetitious viewing of the household's daily chores.  By repetitious, I mean by rote, step by step, over and over.  The film is like Groundhog Day without the charm, humor, and myriad cast of quirky characters.  I literally spent six or seven minutes watching a character expressionlessly remove layer after layer of clothing...NOT JUST ONCE!!!
     I'm sure that this is all done to give us a sense of the nothingness of these character's lives and it does a nice job of lowering expectations enough for the last half hour or so of the film to seem like a climax. The conclusion of the picture seems to lend further credence to my assumption that the film is some sort of nihilistic treatise on the emptiness of the world and the human spirit,  The trip, however, is NOWHERE near half the fun and the destination ain't all that great either.  There is some beautifully bleak cinematography at play, but that is the greatest recommendation that I can give to this movie.  2 of 5 stars.

  Natural Selection - This is the premiere feature from writer/director Robbie Pickering.  It was surely made on a shoestring budget and is cast entirely with actors that you know you've seen before but you can't put your finger on exactly where it was.  Sometimes a film doesn't need any glitz or prestige.  Sometimes a tiny little film is just cleverly written, skillfully guided, formidably acted, and artfully woven together in a way that is impossible to deny.  For me, this was just such a movie.
     This is an unusually intelligent comedy about a woman who discovers that everything in her life is not the way she thought and embarks on a journey that challenges everything she thinks she knows and believes.  Actress Rachel Harris (Ed's overbearing girlfriend from The Hangover) takes on this difficult role in a way that makes you totally buy into Linda's season of rebirth.  The character's transition is handled in such a way that it is profound without ever becoming hokey or occurring too easily.  Look for both her and co-star Matt O'Leary (who pulls off an impressive transformation himself) to figure into my Best of 2012 articles.
     This is a unique and engaging film with no faults worthy of harsh criticism.  I recommend it wholeheartedly.  4 1/2 of 5 stars.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Jiro Waltzes with Vampires

     In this round of DVD reviews I take a look at a romantic dramedy with a couple of strong performances, a documentary about a famous chef, and a movie that I feel is truly a little bit evil.  No, really...

  Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter - When in doubt, lead with the evil.  I was purposefully not going to watch this film, but a friend bought it and momentarily overcame my better judgement.  In a culture where we seem to learn so little from history, this film seems like a positively nefarious creation to me.  Now the first thing your children are going to think of when they think of Abraham Lincoln is that he was the president that saved us from the Undead.  It's not funny.  Half of America believes that the deregulation of business operations in this country will lead to prosperity, not even knowing that it was the practice of the administrations that led us into the great depression.  The practice was known at the time as "Laissez-faire" economics.  No one knows THAT anymore, but they know Lincoln's favorite weapon for beheading was an axe.
     This film was over-acted, over and under-written (it's possible, trust me), and bad for you.  I mean, I don't know what else I really expected from a collaboration between the director of Wanted and the writer of Dark Shadows.  There are some talented people in the cast but even Dominic Cooper couldn't rise above this material the way he did in The Devil's Double.  Even the CGI was cheesy and obvious in places.  A few decently choreographed action sequences just barely keep this film from getting my minimum rating.  1 1/2 of 5 stars.

  Jiro Dreams of Sushi - This documentary shines a spotlight on the life of Jiro Ono, possibly Japan's most famous sushi chef.  It is a fascinating peek into the work ethic of a certain generation of Japanese culture, and that generation's efforts to pass those values along to their children.  Despite his belief that dedication to work made him a poor father, both of Jiro's son's have followed in his footsteps in a manner that suggests they have adopted his values with greater zeal than most children ever do.  He certainly never uses the word "pride", but you get the idea that he feels it just the same.
     Jiro himself is an interesting character.  He's so matter of fact and dispassionate on the surface, yet you can't help but see the passion of a true artist underneath.  Yet this art is more precisely created than you could possibly imagine without actually seeing how meticulously the fare at the world famous Sukiyabashi Jiro is chosen and prepared for yourself.
     The real star of the film, at least for me, is the sushi.  In Japan, the visual appearance of a meal is valued almost as much as the flavor, and Jiro's work is gorgeous to the eye.  If you are a sushi fan (and you either are or aren't, I don't know anyone who is ambivalent about sushi), you owe it to yourself to have a look.  Be warned, though, you will crave a trip to Japan to sample these dishes in person.  No movie has ever made me this hungry.  I have a wasabi craving right now, just thinking about it.  4 of 5 stars.

  Take This Waltz - I have not seen writer/director Sarah Polley's previous feature Away From Her, so this is my first exposure to her film making.  I found it entertaining and watchable, if not one of the most inspired or hilarious comedies that I have seen in recent years.  It was good, but my expectations for the film and especially for the performance of its star Michelle Williams, had been built by buzz to levels that the actual movie just wasn't quite prepared to reach.  I mean, Williams is good, but it is certainly not her best work.
     In fact, both her and "other man" Luke Kirby were completely overshadowed by supporting players Seth Rogan and Sarah Silverman.  Playing the wronged husband, Rogan evinces both range and depth that I personally was completely unaware that he possessed as an actor.  It's not that he's not funny.  He is.  But he plays a real man who is funny here, in no way a caricature or an unbelievable buffoon.  He actually prompted empathy from me.
     Silverman is just as impressive, if a little less surprising, as the troubled sister-in-law.  She is actually one of the more dramatic characters in the film.  There is this one scene where an inebriated Silverman puts Williams' character in her place that may be my favorite scene.
     Ms. Polley definitely appears to be a film maker with the potential for greatness, but Take This Waltz isn't quite there yet.  It is, however, a rather GOOD film, with a strong ensemble cast that makes the most of the material.  3 1/2 of 5 stars.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Fantasy Life of Pi?

     Director Ang Lee certainly has a varied filmography.  Some of his best known films include a costume drama (Sense and Sensibility), an artsy kung-fu flick (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), a dysfunctional community drama (The Ice Storm), and a gay romance/western (Brokeback Mountain).  In fact, it seems as if no two Ang Lee films bear much resemblance to each other.  His newest effort, Life of Pi, bears little resemblance to any other film that I have ever seen.
     Pi is a visual feast.  Set at sea, chronicling the lone survivors of a ship wreck (a teen-aged boy and a tiger) as they float for weeks aboard a small escape boat, the seascapes and natural wonders put upon screen for the viewer to behold are truly awe inspiring.  It is completely understanding that this film is currently considered the front runner in this year's Best Cinematography race.  Lenser Claudio Miranda certainly produces the best work that I have seen yet this year.
     The use of 3D technology is innovative and impressive:  creatively planned and expertly rendered.  It immediately joins Avatar and Hugo in the small pantheon of films that have most artistically and effectively utilized this medium.  The film also employs some of the most seamless and believable integration of CG images and live action that I have ever seen.  Richard Parker never looks like anything other than a real tiger, one that hasn't even been superimposed.  Pi is also widely considered the favorite film to win Visual Effects.  Again, I can't argue with its worthiness.  The most impressive thing about Pi's Visual Effects (although not at all surprising with Lee helming the picture) is that they are always used in service to the story, never the other way around.
      The sound elements are also implemented masterfully.  There were such a wide variety of sound effects necessary to this story.  Like the visual elements, the aural ones are expertly handled without being oppressive or overbearing.  No less worthy of praise is editor Tim Squyres, who had an ungodly (although there is nothing ungodly about Life of Pi, more on that shortly) task bringing the various pieces of this movie together, and performs his duties in a way that is almost miraculous.
     The Academy (and other various other Awards bodies) almost never take the actors seriously in big budget special effect laden films no matter how good they are.  The list of snubs is embarrassing in hindsight:  Leonardo DiCaprio, Marion Cotillard, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Tom Hardy in Inception, Asa Butterfield, Chloe Grace Moretz, and Ben Kingsley in Hugo, Hugo Weaving in The Matrix, Harrison Ford in The Empire Strikes Back or Raiders of the Lost Ark, hell, Andy Serkis in Rise of the Planet of the Apes or any Middle Earth productions for that matter.  Occasionally a Sigourney Weaver in Aliens or Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight sneaks in, but not often.  When we look back at the films of 2012 (which I'm gonna try and get to this year by March or April), I feel certain that one Suraj Sharma's performance in Life of Pi will be remembered as one of the most underrated.
     Not only did this young Indian native have to carry ninety percent of this film on his back (Irrfan Khan is also quite impressive in the other ten), but he had to do most of it interacting with a non-human acting partner who wasn't really with him most of the time.  He pulls it off brilliantly, investing so much humanity into Pi, and so much raw emotion into his relationship with Richard Parker that my chest literally tightens up just a little thinking back on it now.  As an interesting side note, Sharma's fluctuation in weight is real.  He put on weight before filming, and then wasted away with Pi over the course of filming.  This is definitely one of the best performances that I have seen this year.
     As much as I have raved about the technical elements and young Mr. Sharma's performance, the most impressive thing about Life of Pi is the STORY.  This is one of the best and most original tales put to film in a long time, and one of the richest in subtext.  Screenwriter David Magee is being shortchanged this year as films like Argo (which I have seen, and it did have a great script) and Lincoln (which I have not seen) are eating up all the early critics awards for Adapted Screenplay.  I have not read the book (although now I REALLY want to, but I can well imagine what sort of a challenge he faced in translating it to the screen.  The twist ending is handled in such a brilliant manner that I immediately wanted to watch the film a second time because I knew that it would be a completely different movie that would mean completely different things to me.  I'm still waiting.
     Of course, with this film, I think I would immediately want a third viewing to really focus on pondering the film's thematic development.  Pi gives you a lot to chew on.  It IS a film about spirituality.  Pi is a practitioner of three faiths: Hinduism, Catholicism, and Islam, and believes them all.  He seems to see the divine most clearly, though, in every little piece of the world around him.  This is a film that is about how a man chooses to view his own personal world, and how that relates to faith.  It is about meaning, what things mean to us both personally and communally and how we pull strength from this.  I try not to throw in spoilers (at least not ones that aren't slightly obfuscated) so I'll stop there, and expand on these ideas at another time.
     This has turned into a really long review, but Life of Pi is a movie that offers so much.  It intensely engages the viewer on levels visual, aural, emotional, intellectual, and yes, spiritual.  Ang Lee has added yet another masterpiece to his eclectic body of work, one that I feel sure will stand up to multiple interpretations.  It occurs to me that it is also a film that manages to say much about topics that passions run high with, yet I see little to nothing within the movie that anyone could find offensive or objectionable.  It should even be acceptable viewing for any but the youngest of children.  By this point it should go without saying that I recommend this picture most highly.  It's easily one of the year's best.  5 of 5*
Related Posts:  Nov/Dec Oscar Buzz and Predictions: It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year (preview), Musical Techs (Score and Song), Noisy Techs (Sound Editing and Sound Mixing), Pretty Picture Techs (Production Design and Cinematography), Finishing Touch Techs (Editing and Visual Effects), The Screenplays, October Oscar Buzz and Predictions:  PictureDirectorI Think You "Argo"ing to Love It

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Where Did The Magic Spider Go?

     In this round of DVD reviews we cover one film I liked A LOT more than most critics, one I was a little less enthusiastic about than many critics, and a Lebanese picture I just sort of have to smile and shrug at.  Let's begin...

  The Amazing Spider-Man - When I first heard about this reboot of the Spider-Man franchise, I thought that it was too soon to relaunch.  However, I am very pleasantly surprised to report that director Marc Webb has done much the same thing for the super-hero flick that he did for the rom-com in 500 Days of Summer. Namely, he has injected a "genre film" with characters whose individuality and humanity far exceed the sort of stereotypical "stock" two-dimensional non-personalities that far too often populate such movies.
     Sole credit certainly cannot be given to the director, however, as the screenplay (from Spider-Man veteran Alvin Sargent, Harry Potter series mainstay Steve Kloves, and James Vanderbilt who wrote Zodiac) is thoughtful, witty, and provides clear, believable motivation for the characters at all times.  This allows the cast to really act instead of merely reciting lines and emoting on cue.  The difference really shows.
     I think that there are four reasons that this film failed to REALLY catch on.  First, it could not top Avengers or the conclusion to the Dark Knight trilogy in either expectations or prestige.  Second, I think that many people felt there was no need for a re-boot this soon and didn't allow the film to change their minds.  Third, the special effects are a little bit weak.  Finally, the film is much less action oriented than most super-flicks.  Only the third reason lessened my enjoyment at all.
     I CANNOT end this post without talking about how great this cast is.  Andrew Garfield's version of Peter Parker is by far my favorite.  Unlike Batman, who is almost a different person than Bruce Wayne, Peter and Spider-Man are the same complicated, but fully integrated personality.  He is the geek, the daredevil, the angst and guilt ridden teen, the hero with the weight of the world (or at least New York City) on his shoulders, and the insufferable smart ass.  Garfield does an exquisite job of juggling these elements as Peter brings some under control while growing into others.  His screen chemistry with Emma Stone is also fantastic.  I totally bought their love story, which figures in a little more heavily than is typical in a comic book adaptation.  Stone is fantastic as Gwen Stacy, you totally get why a guy like Peter would go for her.
     The supporting cast is also great.  Martin Sheen as Uncle Ben and Denis Leary as Captain Stacy both flourish in the limited screen time that they are given.  Rhys Ivans is very good as The Lizard without stealing the picture from the hero.  Sally Field, however, makes Aunt May a far more compelling character than I have ever previously found her to be, and is the real stand out among the secondary characters.
     I highly recommend this film.  I expect great things to follow with this franchise as long as they are not forced to diverge from the path they have chosen to make the films more commercial.  Give it a chance, you'll thank me....4 1/2 of 5 stars.

  Magic Mike - I love it when I get to NOT go gaga all over films that people expect me to adore because I'm gay.  I am happy to report that in this way I found Magic Mike, which I enjoyed but consider over-rated,  was quite satisfying.  I know the movie is supposed to be so much more DEEP than people expect because it shines a light on how dehumanizing a life in the sex industry can be for MEN as well as women.  I take issue twice.  One, no shit it's just as dehumanizing for men over time.  Did people not actually know this?  Number two, once upon a time I had several friends who made their living in that business and their life experiences make Magic Mike look as sanitized as a Disney film does when compared to Grimm's Fairy Tales.
     Casting that aside, its not a badly made, written, or acted film, just one that I found to be a little light.  Alex Pettyfer and especially Channing Tatum are impressive in the lead roles.  Matthew McConaughey is having a great year, and he is pretty great in this film.  Would I pick it as one of the year's top five Supporting Actor turns...probably not.
     Still, the film is quite watchable, especially if you DO like naked men.  If they make you uncomfortable, you will probably be able to live with yourself if you skip it.  3 1/2 of 5 stars.

  Where Do We Go Now - This entry from Lebanon in LAST year's foreign film race was received pretty well on the festival circuit, but failed to secure a nomination.  It is the second feature by writer/director/producer/star Nadine Labaki, in which she tells the story of a village (half Christian and half Muslim) whose women have decided will remain peaceful regardless of the fighting that rages around it.
     There is a lot to be admired in the thematic intent of this film.  Voices from this part of the world that advocate for religious tolerance and acceptance should definitely be encouraged.  I do feel, however, that Ms. Labaki is still growing as a film maker.  The film relies too much upon sex humor that may have raised eyebrows in Lebanon, but seems amusingly tame by the standards of the world as a whole.  Still, the picture does bear a certain charm and shines a small light on a corner of the world whose cinema is only just beginning to flourish.  3 of 5 stars.

Related Posts:  Merchandisers Assemble! (Avengers review), The Dark Knight Transcends, Nov/Dec Oscar Buzz and Predictions: Noisy Techs (Sound Editing and Sound Mixing), Finishing Touch Techs (Editing and Visual Effects), Sept Oscar Buzz and Predictions - Supporting Performances

Dec Oscar Buzz and Predictions - Screenplays

Original Screenplay
     As always we'll start with the buzz...
  1.(1) The Master
  2.(5) Zero Dark Thirty
  3.(2) Moonrise Kingdom
  4.(3) Django Unchained
  5.(4) Amour

  6. Looper
  7. Flight
  8. Promised Land 
  9. Middle of Nowhere
  10.(6) Seven Psychopaths
  Leaving the Rankings:  Brave, Hyde Park On Hudson, Inside Llewyn Davis, Magic Mike
     It's becoming very clear who the top contenders are here.  I see my top three picks as locks with four...maybe five...films fighting it out for the remaining three slots.
  1. Django Unchained...With the screenplay win from the National Board of Review, Globe and Critics Choice nods, generally good notices, and Tarantino prestige, I have to think this is the surest contender and might be this film's best chance at a win.
  2. Moonrise Kingdom...Wes Anderson may have missed his nod at the Globes, but not at the Critic's Choice or Spirit awards and he feels overdue for some recognition.
  3. Zero Dark Thirty...Although this film definitely feels like a lock for a nomination (with Critic's Choice and Globe nods already under its belt), Mark Boal did just win for the Hurt Locker, so I'm not seeing a win here...yet.
  4. The Master...This film's chances with Oscar in general are hurting at the moment, but I still think it gets in here as it did at the Critic's Choice.
  5. Looper...Besides BEING one of the best screenplays of the year, this film is gaining momentum quickly, starting with a surprise nod from the Critic's Choice Awards.

  6. Amour...Pundits seem to love the idea that this film will break out of Foreign Language Film, and its acclaim IS high, but it doesn't have any major wins or nods for screenplay specifically, so we'll have to wait and see.
  7. Middle of Nowhere...If any film were to emerge as a top contender at the last second, it would be this one.
  8. Flight...Yeah, it got a Critic's Choice nom but enthusiasm for this film outside of the Best Actor race is waning.
  9. Promised Land...The Academy is very fond of Matt Damon and the lack of awards attention thus far COULD just be from lack of exposure.
  10. The Cabin in the Woods...This is probably wishful thinking on my part but this script has gotten some love from minor critic's groups and that is more than anyone was expecting.

Adapted Screenplay
     First, the buzz...
  1.(1) Lincoln
  2.(2) Argo
  3.(7) Silver Linings Playbook
  4.(3) Beasts of the Southern Wild
  5.(5) Life of Pi

  6.(6) Les Miserables
  7. The Sessions
  8.(4) Anna Karenina
  9. The Perks of Being a Wallflower
  10. Cloud Atlas
  Leaving the Rankings:  The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Quartet, On the Road
     I can't really argue with the buzz rankings too much here...
  1. Silver Linings Playbook...All of the top three films here are locks, and all three got nods at the Critic's Choice and Golden Globes.  Silver also got an Indie Spirit nod, which might mean nothing, except that in early WINS, Russell's screenplay took the National Board of Review and the D.C. Area Film Critics, which just edges out...
  2. Argo...which won Chris Terrio the Los Angeles Film Critics, which just edges out...
  3. Lincoln...which won Tony Kushner the screenplay award from the Boston Film Critics.  All three should have no difficulty securing nods and would seem at this point to be each other's only real competition for the win.  The other two slots?  Well...
  4. Life of Pi...David Magee got a Critic's Choice nod here, and the film is highly likely to get a Best Picture nod, so I'm going to say it's probably next, but far less secure.
  5. Beasts of the Southern Wild...Behn Zeitlen's brilliant screenplay has not been singled out exactly, but this young auteur has been winning almost every "Promising New Filmmaker" award that any critics group has flung around.  I still retain hope that the Academy will be more open to this film than the Globes and SAG (which might have shown more support if the film had not been eliminated from consideration before voting began).  Hence I'm giving it this last slot for now, but stiff competition remains in...

  6. The Perks of Being a Wallflower...Perks got an unexpected nod at the Critic's choice, and recognizing writer/director Stephen Chbosky (who also wrote the source novel) in this category could be a nice way of honoring a film that many feel has been given less attention that it deserved.
  7. Les Miserables...No major mentions for screenplay, but the film is sure to garner a host of nominations.  There is always the possibility that this will be one.
  8. The Sessions...This film was presumed to be a strong contender, but early critics group awards and major nominations have eluded Ben Llewyn thus far...
  9. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel...This movie seems to be popping up in all sorts of unexpected places lately, so who knows...
  10. Cloud Atlas...Well, we all know that this late in the season number ten is my personal For Your Consideration slot.

     I'm going to catch up on the buzz for a bit and then I'll be back to cover Supporting Actress/Actor.

Related Posts:  Nov/Dec Oscar Buzz and Predictions: It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year (preview), Musical Techs (Score and Song), Noisy Techs (Sound Editing and Sound Mixing), Pretty People Techs (Hairstyling and Make-up & Costume), Pretty Picture Techs (Production Design and Cinematography), Finishing Touch TechsToons of Any Length (Animated Short and Animated Feature), Docs of Any Length (Documentary Feature and Documentary Short), Can You "Master" Your Nature?Promarlius Kingdom (Moonrise Kingdom review), Twist Until You Are Loopey? (Looper review), I Think You "Argo"ing to Love It!Best That The Summer Wields? (Beasts of the Southern Wild review), The Cabin With the Goods,
Acting Master Classes in Private "Sessions"Cloudy Connections (Cloud Atlas review), Sept/Oct Oscar Buzz and Predictions - Screenplays

Monday, December 17, 2012

Dec Oscar Buzz and Predictions - Docs of Any Length

     I forgot how much research has to go into the genre categories.  After this post, I'm going to skip Live Action Shorts and Foreign Language Film for a minute until the FLF committee releases their short list.  That's good.  The screenplays will seem very relaxing by comparison.  I know who wrote them.  Let's get hoppin...

Best Documentary Short
     As I did with Animated Short, I'm not going to presume to argue with the buzz, so I'll just present commentary with it.
  1. Open Heart...Already an International Documentary Association nominee for Best Short, this film is by former AFI fest winner and Directors Guild nominee Kef Davidson.
  2. The Education of Mohammad Hussein...This film was made by Heidi Ewing & Rachel Grady, the Oscar nominated duo who made such feature length docs as Jesus Camp, Boys of Baraka, 12th and Delaware, and this year's contender Detropia.
  3. Mondays at Racine - Another IDA nominee this year, this picture is directed by Cynthia Wade, who won this category previously with the film Freeheld.
  4. Inocente...Directors Sean Fine and Andrea Nix are former Documentary Feature winners for the film War Dance.
  5. Redemption...Jon Alpert & Matthew O'Neil have directed one former nominee in this category,  China's Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Province (which I have actually seen, and was very impressed by).

  6. Paraiso...This is the first film by Fillipino director Christine Dianne Aquino.
  7. Kings Point...Another IDA nominee that marks the directorial debut of Sari Gillman.
  8. The Perfect Fit..This short by director Tali Yankelevich made a small splash at the Chicago International Film Festival.

Best Documentary Feature
     It is notable that the release of the Academy's short list shook this category up considerably, as it is wont to do. There were several notable exclusions, most glaringly:  Central Park 5, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, Marley, The Queen of Versailles, and West of Memphis.  Marley is the sort of bio-doc that rarely gets in.  The same goes for Jiro, which may have seemed too light as well.  A lack of gravity may also have been The Queen of Versailles' undoing.  West of Memphis may have felt like a replay of the Paradise Lost series, which was honored just last year in this category.  Central Park 5?  Whatever the reasons that these films failed to make the short list, they were all much higher profile than half of the movies that did.  That being said...
  1. Searching For Sugar Man
  2. How To Survive a Plague
  3. The Gatekeepers
  4.(1) Bully
  5. Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God

  6.(2) The Invisible War
  7. The Impostor
  8. Ai Wei Wei:  Never Sorry
  9.(4) The House I Live In
  10. Detropia
  Leaving the rankings:  Jiro Dreams of Sushi, Ethel, This Is Not a Film, The Island President, West of Memphis, The Queen of Versailles, Under African Skies
     I almost just let this list speak for itself, but there were a COUPLE of pointed changes that I wanted to make...
  1. How To Survive A Plague...Documentarian David France's first feature has already won him a Gotham Award and a New York Film Critics Circle award for Best First Film.  After snubbing the excellent AIDS documentary We Were Here, might the Academy be ready to "make it up" to the issue?
  2. Bully...I don't care what anybody says, Harvey Weinstein is GOING to get his horse into this race one way or another.
  3. Searching For Sugar Man...Director/editor Malik Bendjelloul's debut effort has already won honors from the International Documentary Association, Sundance, and the National Board of Review.  Only AMPAS's apparent aversion to bio-docs as a rule keeps me from proclaiming it the front runner.
  4. The Gatekeepers...Former cinematographer Dror Moreh's directorial effort has already won with the Los Angeles Film Critics and is building buzz quickly.
  5. The Imposter...Made by Bart Leyton (another first time director) this film is also building quickly in buzz, ever since winning the Documentary category at the British Independant Film Awards.

  6. Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence In the House of God...Legendary documentarian Alex Gibney (Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Elliot Spitzer, Casino Jack and the United States of Money, Taxi To The Dark Side) could certainly be seen as overdue for a nomination and this winner of the British Film Institute's Giverson Award could easily replace one of the five film I've listed above.
  7. The Invisible War...Although buzz has waned a bit for this Sundance Audience Award winner, it is one of the few films that remain from last update's top ten, so it is staying on some people's minds.
  8. The House I Live In...I'm much more excited to see this film from two time Sundance GRAND JURY prize winner Eugene Jarecki (another one overdue for his first nod), but its buzz has REALLY waned.
  9. Ai Wei Wei:  Never Sorry...This doc just looks so promising that I'm going to keep it in the top ten even though I can't see the Oscars embracing two bio-docs in one year.
  10. This Is Not a Film...It would be an almost stupidly brave move for the Academy to embrace this movie, but nowhere near as brave as documentarian Jafar Panahi was in making making

Related Posts: Nov/Dec Oscar Buzz and Predictions: It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year (preview), Musical Techs (Score and Song), Noisy Techs (Sound Editing and Sound Mixing), Pretty People Techs (Hairstyling and Make-up & Costume), Pretty Picture Techs (Production Design and Cinematography), Finishing Touch TechsToons of Any Length (Animated Short and Animated Feature),
Promarlius Kingdom (review for Marley), Hysterical Peace of Purgatory (Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory review), Pariahs Were Here On the Rampart (We Were Here review), September Oscar Buzz and Predictions - The Genres

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Dec Oscar Buzz and Predictions - 'Toons of Any Length

  Best Animated Short
     It became far simpler to at least make good guesses for this especially frustrating category (that is, if you are trying to make predictions), with the recent shortening of the competitors list to ten possibilities.  Still, I don't quite feel ready to argue with the buzz yet, so I'll just offer brief commentary along with the current buzz list...
  1. Paperman - This Disney production that played theatrically alongside Feature Contender Wreck-It Ralph is definitely the front runner by a huge margin in terms of both buzz and general awareness.  First time director John Karrs bounced around the animation departments of various films at Pixar for years until eventually making his way to the parent company as the Animation Supervisor for Tangled.  In Paperman, he utilizes an innovative blend of both 2G and CG animation that has a lot of people very excited.
  2. Adam and Dog - Winner of LAST year's ANNIE for short subject, this film is directed by another first time director:  Minkyu Lee, who also has some Disney background on a much more limited scale.
  3. The Eagleman Stag - This ambitious work of stop motion animation is the debut directorial effort from Michael Please.  It has already won him a BAFTA and the Animated Short Subject award from the Chicago Film Festival.
  4. Maggie Simpson in The Longest Daycare - This (along with Paperman) is a nominee for Best Short at THIS year's ANNIE awards.  Will Groenig, Silverman, Brooks, and company finally win an Oscar?
  5. Dripped - Yet ANOTHER debut effort from French film maker Leo Verrier, this short has already won a host of small film and animation festivals.

  6. Fall of the House of Usher - ?????
  7. Combustible - The lastest effort from Katsuhiro Otomo, creator of Akira.
  8. Head Over Heels - The third short film from Timothy Reckert, this one has also received numerous citations and a few wins on the festival circuit.
  9. Tram - The only previous nominee on the short list (for 1993's Words, Words, Words), you would expect Czech director Michaela Pavlatova to be a strong competitor if Tram were not an overtly erotic bus trip fantasy that no one has heard of.
  10. Fresh Guacamole - Director PES has won many awards for short film work but none were for this film.

  Best Animated Feature
     Well, it is now official:  enough animated films qualified for this category that we will definitely be looking at a field of five nominees come January.  I am embarrassed to say that I have only seen two of the competitors, but I am making this category's stand outs more of a priority in the near future.  It became obvious what the top five wide release films were going to be months ago, but somehow that pesky little distributor G-Kids has developed a real talent for pushing otherwise obvious choices out of the way to nab a slot or two.  This year they have four potential spoilers in the mix, and any of them could wind up in the final five.  To make the prediction game even more difficult, for the first time in years there is no clear front runner heading into the nominations, although I have a hunch.  More on that later, the buzz says (with previous rankings in parenthesis)...
  1.(1) Brave
  2.(5) Frankenweenie
  3.(2) Paranorman
  4.(4) Wreck-It Ralph
  5.(3) Rise of the Guardians

  6.(8) The Painting (Le Tableau)
  7.(7) From Up On Poppy Hill
  8.(10) The Rabbi's Cat
  9. Pirates! Band of Misfits
  10. Madagascar 3
  Leaving the rankings: The Lorax, Hotel Transylvania
     I, however, am gonna differ quite a bit this time...
  1. Frankenweenie - Although a meta-critic score of 74 hardly qualifies you as a critic's darling like the last three winners of this category, this film is winning the most critic's group awards and is the ONLY animated film showing up on any year end top ten lists so far (at least that I've seen, and I've LOOKED).  It was also made by Tim Burton, who (some recent waning of quality in his live action offerings notwithstanding) is a highly influential director and writer that the Academy has not found an excuse to honor.  This might be their best chance for some time to come.
  2. Brave - I really don't expect this tepidly received picture to win, but it takes a total flop to keep Pixar studios off the list of nominees.  This is one of the two that I've seen, and it was...good.
  3. The Painting - This will be G-KIDS surgical strike number one.  It has been steadily gaining buzz and HIGHLY positive notice, and I feel pretty sure that this film, like the two above, is a near lock for a nod.
  4. Paranorman - It was highly tempting (considering this film's mixed reviews) to just give G-KIDS all three remaining slots here, but 'Norman has been winning almost everything that Frankenweenie doesn't, so I have to leave its nomination in place...for now.
  5. The Rabbi's Cat - Surgical strike number two!!!!

  6. From Up On Poppy Hill - Or this could be number two...or even number three!
  7. Wreck-It Ralph - There is a decent chance that Disney could get this film into the line-up.  It has gotten pretty positive reviews overall, especially for John C. Reilly's voice over work.
  8. Rise of the Guardians - Despite pretty dreadful reviews, early precursor honors (some sight unseen) have kept this film in the conversation (the All-Star VO cast doesn't hurt either).
  9. Pirates! Band of Misfits - The second film that I've seen.  Never count out Aardman Studios.
  10. A Liar's Autobiography:  The Untrue Story of Monty Python's Graham Chapman - I can dream.

Related Posts: Nov/Dec Oscar Buzz and Predictions: It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year (preview), Musical Techs (Score and Song), Noisy Techs (Sound Editing and Sound Mixing), Pretty People Techs (Hairstyling and Make-up & Costume), Pretty Picture Techs (Production Design and Cinematography), Finishing Touch TechsBernie! On a Ledge of Misfits (Pirates! review), September Oscar Buzz and Predictions - The Genres

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Secret Lights in Anatolia

     In this round of DVD reviews we focus on a modern day animated fairy tale, a disappointing supernatural thriller, and my very first exposure to Turkish cinema.  Time to get hoppin...

  The Secret World of Arriety - I am a slightly embarrassed little Movie Frog to admit that this film is my first exposure to the works of writer (and often director, but not this time) Hayao Miyazaki, the reputed genius who gave us films such as Ponyo, Howl's Moving Castle, Princess Mononoke, My Neighbor Totoro, Spirited Away and this year's Animated Feature contender From Up On Poppy Hill (Arriety is ineligible because of the delay between its Japanese and U.S. release).  What can I say?  Neither Japanese cinema nor animation are my strongest suits.  The Classic Cinema Series is going to change that eventually.
     The story that this film tells is in many ways a simple amalgamation of elements common to children's fairy tales.  It features a sick child.  It features fantastic creatures that only the child sees.  Two very dissimilar children forge an unlikely friendship.  There is a cat that is at first leery of the fantasy creatures.  There is a secret involving the child's parent.  It takes place in a house unfamiliar to the child but filled with history that involves him.  I could go on.
     However, the story is told with a fresh, modern perspective and is told well.  While it is definitely a 'toon intended as children's entertainment, it will engage adults on an emotional level, even if it fails to challenge them too much intellectually.  There is something inherently charming in this tale, and in the animation that accompanies it, that transcends both its sappiness and lack of narrative innovation.  A great film to share with children that won't bore the adults to tears.  4 of 5*

  Once Upon a Time in Anatolia - I try to watch a healthy smattering of non-English language films every year.  I find the differences in cultural perspectives fascinating and love seeing the way that artists in different parts of the world flavor their storytelling.  I often walk away feeling more knowledgeable about more than just cinema, especially when I'm expanding my viewing repertoire to include a new nation. Which is part of why I'm so glad that I saw's my first Turkish film.
     I'm quite pleased to say that is NOT the only reason that I'm glad I watched it;  it was also a very well made picture.  Writer/director/producer (and sometimes editor and/or cinematographer, but not this time) Nuri Bilge Ceylan is arguably his nations most prestigious film maker, having won acclaim at numerous international film festivals including Berlin and Cannes.  It is easy to see why.
     Once Upon a Time in Anatolia presents a diverse tapestry of characters, who bring a whole spectrum of viewpoints and perspectives, all performed marvelously by the ensemble cast (although Muhammet Uzuner does stand out in the role of Doctor Cemal).  The men mix and interact, the conversations ranging from polite chit chat to intimate musings on each individual's private philosophies.  It reminds me of Altman's slice of life works such as Short Cuts and Nashville, where he would use a large cast of diverse, nominally connected characters and use it to give you the flavor of a specific place and time.
     It must also be said that Anatolia is a beautifully captured piece.  The cinematography is used to enhance the overall mood equally well when framing a bleak landscape or an angelic face emerging from the unexpected darkness.  Gokhan Tiryaki deserves the attention that his work has been getting.
     I highly recommend this film.  It starts out a little slowly, but really pays off in the second half.  4 of 5*

  Red Lights - I love it when a really good supernatural thriller comes along.  When done well, it's one of my favorite kinds of movies.  They're just so rarely done well.  When such a flick has a cast including the likes of Sigourney Weaver, Cillian Murphy, Robert DeNiro, Elizabeth Olsen, and Toby Jones, I figure I have to give it a shot, right?  Right.
     Not so right this time.  Weaver is good but forgettable. DeNiro's performance is both lazy and over the top at the same time, which I didn't know was possible.  Olsen continues to build a reputation as a young actress who consistently picks source mater nowhere near as good as she is.  Murphy does his best, but it's a pretty hopeless situation.  The characters are stock caricatures as written, and the editing is a little over eager to freak you out even as the plot fails to do so.  I would say more, but this year I have to save some zingers for my Worst Films of 2012 article.  2 of 5 stars.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

23? You Don't Play Like a Sequel Over 2.

     Okay, so the truth is I have never really been a huge fan of the James Bond franchise and Skyfall was, at best, a second tier priority on my 2012 personal mandatory viewing list until two things happened:  1. How inspired a choice Javier Bardem seemed as a 21rst century quirky Bond villain really sank into my brain, and 2. Everyone on the planet began touting it as the "Best Bond Film Ever", and a "Dark Horse Best Picture Contender".  Did it live up to my expectations?  It pleasantly exceeded them.  Did it live up to the hype?  Well...mostly.
     Bardem was excellent as always.  He was utterly creepy yet wholly believable.  There's this homoerotic bit between him and Craig when they first meet and, the actors are both at their best and playing off each other like mad, but even I felt a little uncomfortable.  It's not his best performance and I'm not sure it can really fly as a serious candidate for this year's unusually competitive Best Supporting Actor race, but expect it to be on my rather longer list when I get around to the Best of 2012 series.
     Judi Dench is also magnificent playing off both Bardem and Craig like the seasoned pro that she is.  I'm biased.  I'm a huge fan.  Even in the most boring of films she is able to draw depth out of what would otherwise be dreadfully two dimensional characters.  She did not, thankfully, have to find satisfaction in that fashion here.  On the contrary, M is given far greater depth and a much more fully realized past than she has ever been given before.  Ms. Dench plays it for all it is worth, tough as nails and (almost) completely unapologetic.  As for her Oscar chances?  Much the same as what I said about her co-star except that I must add that if anyone takes the "venerable Master" slot in Supporting Actress, it will be either Emmanuelle Riva (never nominated), or Maggie Smith (having a HELL of a year all around, and hasn't been nominated in a WHILE.
     Daniel Craig also reaps the benefits of a more detailed backstory. The script of Skyfall focuses much more on the psychology of both Bond the persona and Bond the man, portraying James as a man at a point in his life where he is really beginning to see just how different those facets of himself have become.  I won't really say a lot more (I HATE spoilers, or else this article would have had an entirely different title, I'll drop it somewhere in my year in review lists), just this:  Craig is rapidly becoming my choice for Best Bond.  Only Sean Connery presents the slightest bit of competition.
     Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris, and Ben Whishaw also do commendable jobs in roles that look likely to repeat in future films.  Ben Whishaw particularly, as the new "Q", is a delight on screen.  I hope he holds onto the role longer than his last couple of predecessors did.
     Is it the best Bond film ever?  In many ways it is, as the characters are delved into more deeply than ever before.  Much of the credit for this must be given to the script, and the addition of screen writer John Logan (Hugo, The Aviator, Gladiator, Rango) to the writer's pool.  This Bond feels more grounded and believable, more of the "spy", less of the "super".  Director Sam Mendes must also be congratulated for bringing all the elements together in a package that is still slick and exciting without totally losing the campy, quirky, and wry elements that define the franchise.
     The film stands a good chance at competing in several technical categories.  Roger Deakins does his usual excellent job on cinematography, Thomas Newman delivers a memorable composition, etc.  Hopefully the Music Branch is lenient enough to let Adele's haunting "Let the Sky Fall" into the Best Song competition despite some minor sampling.  It is a beautiful, powerful, and haunting tune that could be the only real competition Les Miserables faces in the category.
     "But", I hear you asking, "Is Skyfall a Best Picture contender.  I'm going to say "No".  It is an excellent Bond film and a really solid action flick, but while it has far greater character development than one would expect, it is still a little lacking in deeper thematic elements.  It is what it is, and there is certainly nothing wrong with that.  It is not quite a great film, but it is a VERY good one that I highly recommend...and this is coming from someone who has never been a huge fan of James Bond.  4 1/2 of 5 stars.

Related Articles:  Nov/Dec Oscar Buzz and Predictions: It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year (preview), Musical Techs (Score and Song), Noisy Techs (Sound Mixing and Sound Editing), Pretty Picture Techs (Production Design and Cinematography), Finishing Touches Techs (Editing and Visual Effects)

Monday, December 10, 2012

Deep Part of Safety

  In today's batch of reviews we cover that most high brow of genres, "Concert Tour Bio-Doc", a melodrama from England that seems like a throwback to another time, and a quirky comedy.  Let's just do it...

  Safety Not Guaranteed - This rather enjoyable comedy was at times cute, at times clever, and at times a little touching.  Three aspiring journalists land a filler assignment investigating a man who claims to be planning a trip back in time by answering his Help Wanted ad (which bears the warning: Safety Not Guaranteed).  The film manages to tell a real story about reasonably believable individuals that even manages a dash of actual character and thematic development along the way.  Not bad for a writer/director team like Derek Connolly and Colin Trevorrow, mounting their first feature length narrative film.
     The principle cast is also made up of actors who are hardly seasoned veterans with long and storied filmographies, but they all do respectable jobs.  Of the three leads, only Jake Johnson is best known for his (limited) exposure in films such as 21 Jump Street (he was the high school principal).  Aubrey Plaza and Mark Duplass are best known previously for their work in television (Parks and Recreation and The League respectively.
     There had been some muttering about a Best Original Screenplay nomination for this film earlier in the season although it seems to have fallen by the the awards wayside as other contenders have emerged.  Still, it is a clever and original, if not flashy and prestigious, little film that is well worth a look.  4 of 5 stars.

  Katy Perry:  Part of Me - Let me start this review with two disclaimers.  First, I would NEVER have seen this film if not for a friend who was picking out movies with me at our local kiosk one evening (unless, of course, "Wide Awake" somehow makes it into this year's Best Original Song nominations).  Second, I actually DO like and respect Katy Perry as an artist more than most young pop singers.  Besides the fact that she is a fairly talented song writer who can sing without an auto-tuner, she has always struck me as original and authentic.
     So my biggest problem with this concert footage video/biographical documentary is that the whole thing seems so staged.  It completely negates the whole "I am my own unique self who doesn't care what others think" image that Ms. Perry has worked so hard to cultivate.  Of course, maybe the artifice will fly right over the heads of the teenage demographic that the film is aimed at.  To my eyes, however, even Katy's ill fated relationship with Russell Brand began to seem like it had been fabricated to add drama to the film.
     Ironically, while I am much more prone to watch a documentary than a concert video, it was the footage of the performances that I found to be the most entrancing part of the picture.  A few clever and dazzly stage numbers, unfortunately, are not enough to save what was billed as a feature film.  1 1/2 of 5 stars.

  The Deep Blue Sea - Awards watchers will no doubt be expecting top honors for this post to go to this film, considering the buzz that is cropping up lately for its lead actress Rachel Weisz, who was actually awarded Best Actress for 2012 by the New York Film Critics circle last week.  Ms. Weisz is excellent as always, and is given a LOT of scenery to chew here.  It's a very Betty Davis kind of role.  Ms. Davis's films worked best, however, when SHE was allowed to go over the top, while the rest of the world and characters around her were presented in a slightly more subdued and realistic manner.  The Deep Blue Sea would have benefited from the application of similar sensibilities, as the whole thing becomes something of a laborious melodrama.  It begins with a failed suicide attempt, and then moves both backwards and forwards from that point in time to tell the somewhat pat story of the doomed romance(s) that led the heroine to such desperate lengths.  Nothing we haven't seen before.
     Besides Ms. Weisz, best in show honors must be presented to relatively unknown actor Simon Russell Beale, who plays her estranged husband.  If the rest of the cast had shown his restraint and ability to convey emotional SUBtext, then the entire production would have been much easier to swallow.
     Some commendation must also be given to the cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister, whose fuzzy lensing and lighting created a sort of a throwback look to the film, like early technicolor film noire.  Unfortunately, the film's visual style was also a bit reminiscent of the covers of many cheap romance novels, which hits a little too close to home.
      Although true movie geeks will probably want to check this film out just to see Ms. Weisz's performance, I can't really give the film as a whole a very rousing recommendation.  2 1/2 of 5 stars.