Tuesday, March 27, 2012

2012 Preview Continued

     So now that I've w(h)et your appetite (to match my froggy-skin), with the first ten films in this series it is time to get down to the ten most awards buzzed movies of the year so far.  Oscar nominations are still a looong way away, so anything can happen.  Films on this list will flop with the critics (Larry Crowne or J Edgar anyone?)  and films we have no idea about at this early stage will appear (like a little movie called The Artist did last year in May).  Still, I think it is safe to say that several of these films WILL be contenders and most, if not all, of them should at least be highly watchable.  So settle in with a frosty bottle of fly juice (or whatever inferior libation you prefer) and let's get started.

10.  THE SURROGATE - opens ????
         directed by:  Ben Lewin
         written by:  Ben Lewin
         starring:  John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, William H Macy
     Writer/director Ben Lewin has made a handfull of films in the past, but none of them have really broken through in a way that has made him into a name to be reckoned with.  That may all change this year, however, with The Surrogate.  In it, he tells the story of a man who has spent his life in an iron lung and now wants to hire a sexual surrogate to help him lose his virginity.  It has already won the Audience Award at this year's Sundance Film Festival as well as a Special Jury Prize for ensemble acting.  Its three stars are no strangers to the AMPAS.  The Academy may be (or should be) chomping at the bit to reward John Hawkes after his snub for Martha, Marcy Mae, Marlene last year, and the film could provide excellent comeback material for Helen Hunt and/or William H Macy.  I myself am particularly looking forward to this one.

9.  ZERO DARK THIRTY - opens December 19th
       directed by:  Kathryn Bigelow
       written by:  Mark Boal
       starring:  Chris Pratt, Jessica Chastain, Mark Strong, Joel Edgerton, Jennifer Ehle, Edgar Ramirez, Kyle Chandler
     Formerly titled Kill Bin Laden, Bigelow and Boal's follow up to Best Picture winner The Hurt Locker tells the story of the military's mission to hunt down the infamous Al Queda leader.  They had actually already begun filming before Osama was found and had to stop production to rewrite the ending as history unfolded.  Which calls to the forefront the film's greatest advantage (besides its amazing production team and cast):  it could NOT be more timely.  It is also exactly the sort of film that Bigelow does best, one in a genre that is traditionally male dominated.  The cast is also replete with talented up and comers (Strong, Chastain, Edgerton, and Ehle were all either in or dancing on the edge of last year's acting races), so if this film delivers the goods all manner of accolades are possible.

8.  THE HOBBIT:  AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY - opens December 14th
       directed by:  Peter Jackson
       written by:  Fran Walsh, Phillippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, Guillermo del Toro
       starring:  Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Andy Serkis, Richard Armitage, Orlando Bloom, Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, Elijah Wood, Evangeline Lilly, Christopher Lee, Ian Holm, Billy Connolly
     Many pundits seem to feel that Peter Jackson has already been rewarded enough for adapting the tales of Middle Earth to film.  The Lord of the Rings series was nominated for a total of thirty Oscars and won seventeen of them.  However, considering the care that Jackson puts into these movies it is hard to imagine the first of this two part prequel to that series will not be a powerhouse in at least the technical categories.  When you factor in how much of the incomparable cast and production team are returning for these films, the sky may well be the limit.  Early delays plagued the production (along with departure of original director del Toro), but with Jackson back at the series' helm expect great things.

7.  HYDE PARK ON HUDSON - December 7th
       directed by:  Roger Michell
       written by:  Richard Nelson
       starring:  Bill Murray, Laura Linney, Olivia Williams, Olivia Colman
     Okay, so a LOT (I am CAP happy today) of people feel that Bill Murray is way overdue to win an Oscar.  At 61, he has paid his dues and come very close.  Playing FDR in a biopic centered around a love affair between the iconin president and a distant, younger cousin (portrayed by three time nominee Laura Linney, whose career has been on an upswing of its own of late) sounds like the sort of role that could do the trick.  Add in the always captivating Olivia Williams and Olivia Colman (who many feel was snubbed last year for her work in Tyrannosaur) and you have a pretty good recipe for some acting awards.  Director Roger Michell has never really established himself as an awards magnet type in the past, so Picture and Director seem less likely, but that is why the word breakthrough exists.  This film seems like a big question mark to me, but Murray's fans are keeping it at the forefront of the conversation.

6.  THE DARK KNIGHT RISES  opens July 20th
       directed by:  Christopher Nolan
       written by:  Jonathen Nolan, Christopher Nolan, David S Goyer
       starring:  Christian Bale, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Anne Hathaway, Liam Neeson, Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman, Michael Caine, Marion Cotillard, Morgan Freeman, Juno Temple
     Okay, am I going to lose all credibility and be written off as a mere fanboy if I admit that this may be the movie that I am MOST looking forward to this year?  I'll keep it to myself then.  But seriously, Nolan's Batman trilogy is the smartest, sleekest, and most brilliantly cinematic adaptation of a comic book character (and characters) ever.  And so far, it just keeps improving.  Nolan excells at transcending genres and, let's face it, the Best Picture field was widened largely in an effort to never let another film like The Dark Knight slip through the cracks.  Just look at the cast.  And the technical awards?  I don't think I'm going out on too much of a limb to say that I could easily see this film getting ten or more nominations when it is all said and done.

5.  THE MASTER - opens ???
       directed by:  Paul Thomas Anderson
       written by:  Paul Thomas Anderson
       starring:  Amy Adams, Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Laura Dern
     Paul Thomas Anderson has only directed six feature length films over a span of sixteen years but he knocks it out of the park every time.  His latest, The Master, is set in the 1950's and follows the ascension of a budding cult leader.  Anderson's last film (There Will Be Blood) just missed the Academy's top two prizes.  Also note, a charismatic religious "Master" seems like a role perfectly suited to allow Hoffman to knock it out of the park and into another park located several miles away.  After last year's cotton candy Oscars, some slightly darker fare is sure to break in this year.  Regardless of how the awards race turns out, I expect this to be one of the year's best.

4.  DJANGO UNCHAINED - opens December 25th
       directed by:  Quentin Tarantino
       written by:  Quentin Tarantino
       starring:  Jamie Foxx, Leonardo DiCaprio, Don Johnson, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Kurt Russell, Sacha Baron Cohen, Samuel L. Jackson, Christoph Waltz, Kerry Washington, Walton Goggins
     When Tarantino makes a film it is always a unique event, whether he is embraced by Ampas or not (but he often is, despite the risks he takes or the boundaries he pushes).  He shows no signs of growing any more conventional with Django Unchained, the story of a freed slave turned bounty hunter who returns to the plantation where his wife is still a slave.  Oh, and it's being billed as an action/western.  Likely to be controversial, Django is a real wild card, but Pulp Fiction and Inglorious Basterds both challenged the definition of what it means to be an "Oscar Movie".  Jackson and Waltz have both worked very successfully with Tarantino in the past.  Also, the director's penchant for reviving the careers of fading stars (Travolta, Greer, Forster, etc) certainly bodes well for Johnson and Russell.  If anyone can make Don Johnson hip again, its this man.  Add in a whole assortment of OTHER great talent that has never worked with Quentin and this one promises to be FUN.

3.  THE GREAT GATSBY - December 25th
       directed by:  Baz Luhrmann
       written by:  Baz Luhrmann
       starring:  Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton, Isla Fisher, Tobey Maguire
     So...Christmas day at the cinema this year is going to be Leo in Django vs. Leo in Gatsby.  Hmm....  Director Luhrman's record is inconsistant and this novel is notoriously difficult to adapt to the screen, but the era of the flappers does sound sort of "Moulinesque" so we shall have to wait and see. Predicting DiCaprio for a nomination has become a regular pitfall for many on the web but the guy is one of the greatest (if not the greatest) actors of his generation, so let's just assume eventually we'll all be right.  Yes, Bachir took me by surprise last year too, and I'm a little bitter.  As an aside, this will be the first film DiCaprio and close pal Maguire have done together since This Boy's Life in 1994.  Mulligan and to some extent Edgerton were also considered near misses last year for recognition, and that should work in the film's favor as well.

2.  LES MISERABLES - December 14th
       directed by:  Tom Hooper
       written by:  Alain Boublil
       starring:  Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen, Eddie Redmayne, Samantha Barks
     Les Miserables is my favorite musical of all time (well, maybe tied with Cabaret).  To say that it is not exactly musical comedy would be an understatement.  It is dark and depressing and if it doesn't make you cry by the end either somebody did something wrong or you may be lobotomized or dead (like much of the cast).  The casting here is interesting.  When I first heard that Seyfried was on board I imagined her more as Eponine, but maybe that's just because I like her and Cosette is a much less interesting character.  Cohen and Carter as the Thernardiers are inspired choices and I expect "Master of the House" to be a major highlight here.  As a stage play, Les Mes relies largely on the proximity of the live actors and the immersion in the world of the French Revolution to get the audience fully invested in the melodrama and tragedy of it all.  This is more difficult to do on a movie screen, but if The King's Speech revealed one great strength of director Tom Hooper's it is the ability to tug at the heartstrings.  If he can do the same thing with a much less uplifting story I'll forgive him for beating at least five better movies at the Oscars a year ago.  I really will.


1.  LINCOLN - opens Dec ? (exact date TBA)
       directed by:  Steven Spielberg
       written by:  Tony Kushner, John Logan, Paul Webb
       starring:  Daniel Day-Lewis, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones, Jackie Earle Haley, James Spader, Walton Goggins, Michael Stuhlbarg, John Hawkes, David Straitharn, Hal Holbrook
      The Oscars love a biopic.  They love a costume drama. They love sweeping historical epics.  They love Spielberg.  They love Day-Lewis.  So why on Earth wouldn't they love Lincoln?  It's no wonder that this picture has the most buzz of all this year's offerings at this early point in the game.  Of course, Spielberg's War Horse was in the same position last year and wound up winning nothing.  It seems like a film tailor-made for awards love, but is that all it is?  Only time will tell.

And that is the buzz list, but this is a three part series, and the next part is gonna be my favorite.  Coming soon, my ten most anticipated movies that did not make this list. Froggy's "Hops of Faith" if you will.  They may not have the focus of as many bloggers and pundits at the moment, but these films have me just as excited as the twenty we have already discussed.
                                                                                                          Believe what I have "toad" you,


Friday, March 23, 2012

Upcoming 2012 Awards Season Preview

     I know I had promised a wrap up of last year's Oscar season but its pretty wrapped up already.  With that in mind I am instead posting a three part series on upcoming films that may or may not play into this year's awards race.  The first two posts will deal with the twenty films that currently have the loudest early buzz attached to them.  The final post will cover ten films that don't have as much general buzz yet, but that I just can't wait to see anyway.  Let's start with films 20 - 11 on the current buzzometer:

20.  BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD - opens June 29th
         directed by:  Benh Zeitlin
         written by:  Lucy Alibar and Benh Zeitlin
         starring:  Quvenzhane' Wallis

     Last year's awards race was frought with coming of age tales about young boys (War Horse, Extremely Loud, Hugo), so why not one focusing on an even younger girl.  Beasts of the Southern Wild tells the story of Hushpuppy, a six year old girl who sets out alone to find her absent mother in a world where climate change is unleashing prehistoric beasts upon the world and her father has fallen gravely ill.  The film has already won the Grand Jury prize at Sundance as well as the cinematography award and been critically received with fervor that is already drawing comparisons to Slumdog Millionairre and The Artist.  Working against the film?  Sundance is VERY early in the year (this time last year Martha, Marcy Mae, Marlene and Like Crazy were the toast of the festival) and the film's June release also gives it plenty of time to fade from voter's minds before the screeners start to arrive.  A successful appearance at Cannes (?) or a strong box office performance could help to overcome these problems, but that is all conjecture at this point.  The lack of experience and star power connected (this is Wallis's acting debut and Zeitlin's first feature length film) could also be a stumbling block.  This will, however, be either a contender or one of the film's that is lamented for not having been.  It would be so much fun to see Zeitlin triple nominated for directing, screenplay, and score.

19.  THE SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK - opens November 21st
         directed by: David O. Russell
         written by:  David O. Russell
         starring:  Bradley Cooper, Julia Stiles, Robert De Niro, Chris Tucker, Jackie Weaver
     Director David O. Russell's last film, The Fighter, allowed him to finally break into the Best Picture/Director races but failed to impress me as much as the Academy.  This was mostly due to the script, however, as Russell obviously led his four leads to give powerhouse performances.  His films that he also scripted have been much more to my liking (I Heart Huckabees and Three Kings particularly) and he returns to double writing and directing duties with The Silver Linings Playbook.  The film is a drama centered around a young man who tries to put the pieces of his life back together after release from a mental institution.  While stars Bradley Cooper and Julia Stiles have not been awards magnets in the past, they have definitely demonstrated that they have the chops to break through with the right roles.  With De Niro and Weaver (can't wait to see her in ANYTHING since Animal Kingdom) as Cooper's parents and a late November release, this film seems poised to play for keeps this year.

18.  MOONRISE KINGDOM - opens May 25th
         directed by:  Wes Anderson
         written by:  Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola
         starring:  Kara Hayward, Jared Gilman, Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Tilda  
            Swinton,  Frances McDormand, Harvey Keitel, Jason Schwartzman
     Wes Anderson's films have danced around the edges of the big races for years securing Animated Feature and Original Screenplay nominations in the past (for Fantastic Mr. Fox and The Royal Tennenbaums respectively) but suffered from the comedy curse when it comes to the Best Picture race.  Once again, he seems poised to possibly break in with Moonrise Kingdom, a film about a young couple who runs away together and how the efforts to search for them turn their New England island town upside down in the process.  Kingdom is already set to open the Cannes Film Festival just prior to a late May release, mirroring the path followed by the Tree of Life to a Best Picture nod last year.  The cast is also filled with awards players (Norton, Murray, Swinton, McDormand, Keitel) many of whom have already proven to work well with Anderson in the past.  Anderson's dry quirky brand of comedy seems like it should be more palatable to AMPAS than more broad comedies, and even gross comedy Bridesmaids made a good shot at Oscar last year, so who knows.  Whatever the outcome, this movie is definitely on MY must watch list for 2012.

17.  LIFE OF PI - opens December 14th
         directed by:  Ang Lee
         written by:  David McGee
         starring:  Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Tobey McGuire, Ge'rard Depardieu, Tabu
     Even though Lee's last film (Taking Woodstock) fell a little flat, the man who brought us Brokeback Mountain and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon can never be counted out of the Awards races.  He returns this year with Life of Pi, based upon the wildly successful novel by David Magee.  It tells the story of a young Indian boy who is trapped with a variety of wild animals after a shipwreck.  Many have cited that this will be a difficult novel to adapt to the screen and you know what they say about working with children and animals, but Lee is high on the list of directors who should be able to make a go of it.  A mid December release date should give the film an excellent shot at awards consideration, should it be well received.  It would also be great to see McGuire finally nab a Best Supporting nomination, but we will have to wait and see.

16.  BRAVE - opens June 22nd
         directed by:  Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman
         written by:  Brenda Chapman and Mark Andrews
         starring (voice):  Kelly MacDonald, Emma Thompson, Billy Connelly, Craig Fergusen
     Unless it is the sequel to their worst reviewed movie ever (cough...Cars 2...cough), the latest Pixar feature must always be considered a serious contender for Animated Feature at the very least.  This year they bring us Brave, the story of Merida a Scottish princess and archer who is propelled into adventure in an attempt to fix problems she has brought upon her kingdom.  It also marks the first Pixar feature with a female lead character.  What you can see of the animation from the early stills is encouragingly gorgeous.  Both of the directors are relative newcomers to the role (although Chapman did direct Prince of Egypt) but have long histories with film and animation, and they have some great voice talent to work with.  Only time will tell if the picture has the goods to break out of the animated ghetto, but if the field is wider than five this year, expect it to at least generate a lot of buzz about a Best Picture nomination.

15.  TROUBLE WITH THE CURVE - opens September 28th
         directed by:  Robert Lorenz
         written by:  Randy Brown
         starring:  Clint Eastwood, Amy Adams, Justin Timberlake, John Goodman
      Yes, we've all been burned the last few years by putting Clint Eastwood projects on our lists of early contenders, but this is a dramatic change of pace.  Eastwood is turning over the director's chair to long time collaborator Robert Lorenz and making his first acting appearance since 2008's Gran Torino (which was meant to be his final film as an actor) and his first acting appearance under another's direction since In the Line of Fire almost twenty years ago.  In Trouble With the Curve he stars as an aging baseball recruiter who takes his daughter (Adams) with him on one last road trip.  Once again, we could be looking at Eastwood's swan song as an actor and that could be too much for the Academy to resist, even if sports films are often a hard sell (and we just had a baseball film last year).

         directed by:  Terrence Malick
         written by:  Terrence Malick
         starring:  Rachel McAdams, Rachel Weisz, Jessica Chastain, Amanda Peet, Ben Affleck, Javier  
     Sure it doesn't have a release date or even a title yet and Malick's films are synonymous with post production delays, but its currently scheduled for 2012 so we'll put it on the list and keep our fingers crossed that we see it this year.  This writer/director's films almost always factor into the year end awards in some capacity and two of his last three have garnered Best Picture nominations from the Academy.  This film is being billed as a romance about a man reconnecting with a girl he knew in his hometown.  Of course, with Malick that is sure to be a less simple tale than it sounds like on the surface.  While this picture is likely to be a contender in Picture, Director, Cinematography and possibly Original Screenplay (Score?, Editing?), the acting prospects are a bit more sketchy no matter how brilliant some of the performances might be.  You see, NO ACTOR has EVER gotten an Oscar nomination from appearing in a Terrence Malick film.  Strange but true.

13. GRAVITY - opens November 21st
\       directed by:  Alfonso Cuaron
        written by:  Alfonso Cuaron, Jonas Cuaron, Rodrigo Garcia
        starring:  Sandra Bullock, George Clooney
     The story of an astronaut stranded alone in mid-spacewalk, the rest of her crew dead, desperately struggling to get back to safety, Gravity promises to be the acting challenge of Sandra Bullock's life thus far.  She is reportedly in almost every frame of the movie, and her and George Clooney in a much smaller role are pretty much the whole cast.  Fans and critics alike have been anxiously awaiting director Cuaron's follow up to the widely acclaimed Children of Men.  Movies set in outer space typically have a difficult time with the Academy (outside of historical dramas), but this could be the film to break through.  One thing is for sure, it is an excellent chance for Sandy to prove that her Best Actress win was more than a one-shot fluke.

12.  ARGO - September 14th
         directed by:  Ben Affleck
         written by:  Chris Terrio
         starring:  Bryan Cranston, Ben Affleck, John Goodman, Titus Welliver, Taylor Schilling
     Ben Affleck's directorial efforts have played very well with critics and to some extent the Academy although neither Gone Baby Gone nor The Town quite managed a Best Picture nomination.  Maybe the third time will really be the charm.  Argo is the story of a CIA mission to rescue Americans trapped in Iran during that nation's revolution.  Both of his previous efforts have garnered acting nods, so this might be excellent news for John Goodman who is surely due for his first nom (especially with appearances in two other high profile awards pics likely to be released this year).

11.  Anna Karenina - November 9th
         directed by:  Joe Wright
         written by:  Tom Stoppard
         starring:  Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Aaron Johnson, Emily Watson, Kelly MacDonald
     There have already been a dozen or so film adaptations of the classic Tolstoy novel going all the way back to 1910.  However, the writing/directing team here is very strong, the cast has the makings of a stellar ensemble, and period dramas are right in the Academy's wheelhouse, so who can say?  At the very least, this film should be a strong contender for Art Direction, Costume, and Make-up.  Knightly, also, has been steadily building her award creds in recent years, so if she nails this, Best Actress could well be up for grabs as well.

  And that's it for now.  I will soon return with films ten through one, and they should have a little something for most tastes.  The top ten has historical biopics, fantasy, musical numbers, new adaptations of classic characters, political intrigue, action, and a "Western" where the hero is an escaped slave. 
                                                                        Feeling fresh as a tadpole,

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Killing the Dream Contagion

My three new DVD reviews include the weakest entry in the great Jessica Chastain film festival of 2011, a high profile disaster flick, and a fairly standard horror movie with some A-list talent attached.  Let's hop to it:

Texas Killing Fields - This is the fifth of the six films that Jessica Chastain appeared in during 2011 that I have seen.  While she is definitely the strongest thing about the film, that is the most backhanded compliment since Reagan said that Bush was the best vice-president in his memory.  Don't get me wrong, she does make the most of the material unlike her co-star the often brilliant Sam Worthington.  Often. His over the top stylings here, however, call to mind every angsty junior partner in every B cop drama of the eighties.  Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Chloe Grace Moretz do respectable jobs, making the most of the material if not quite overcoming its limitations.  To be fair to director Ami Canaan Morgan, this is her first attempt at creating a major feature with name talent, and many a great director has put together a clunker or two before hitting their stride.  Even a more experience director would have trouble spinning gold out of a script which is basically a murder mystery in which the killers might as well have ridden into town wearing black hats.  If the audience knows who the killers are from the get go, you have to create suspense by making the audience wonder how the detectives will catch them.  This flick made just made you feel incredulous that they hadn't caught them yet.  2 out of 5*(1 1/2 but for Jess)

Dream House - Director Jim Sheridan has made a couple of really good movies, but this was a bit of a let down.  The acting is definitely stronger than in most horror films.  Heading a cast with Daniel Craig, Naomi Watts, and Rachel Weisz should and did accomplish that.  However, the beginning is lacking in chills and suspense.  Then comes the twist, which made the middle a little more interesting, but created a plot hole when combined with the resolution.  This hole reveals itself just as you are getting to the pay off scenes, rendering the believability non-existant.  I, at least, was too angry about the plot's obvious contradictions to feel any fear.  I can't say much more without spoiling it, but I'll post a comment that explains what I'm talking about so:  spoiler alert in the comments section of this article.  2 1/2 out of 5*

Contagion - Steven Soderbergh is not only a prolific director, but a highly accomplished one and the disaster movie Contagion is certainly no embarrassment to him.  It is slick, stylish, well acted, and has a cohesive storyline.  It is, however, a little short on thrills for its genre.  Fighting a disease does not make for as much action as a disaster movie about a threat of a more macrocosmic nature.  This is understandable.  Soderburgh tries to avoid the cheesiness that many films of this genre suffer from by keeping the professionals acting like professionals, rather than engaging in histrionic speechifying.  This is an admirable choice, but the film swings a little too far in that direction, leaving the audience feeling as detached as the characters are forcing themselves to be.  Most of the characters who are not professionals dealing with the threat (Jude Law as a blogger, Gwyneth Paltrow as patient zero) are unsympathetic in some way, again inhibiting an emotional connection.  Even Matt Damon as a grieving husband and father keeps his emotions in check for most of the film for the sake of his daughter.  It is only when the threat has passed that he allows himself a moment to let it all out and it is as much of a relief for the viewer as it is for him.  While the film left me a little cold, it is highly watchable and well made, but not a must see.  3 1/2 of 5*

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Immortal Skin, Forgotten Dreams

Today's reviews include a fantasy period thriller, a documentary about an archaeological find, and gender bending horror movie from Spain's greatest filmmaker.  Let us begin:

IMMORTALS - Director Tarsem Singh (The Cell) has not exactly carved out a niche for himself as a critic's darling and nothing about Immortals is going to change that.  It tells a wildly adapted version of the life of the hero Theseus from Greek mythology that bears very little resemblance to its source material most of the time.  This sort of story can be very interesting accompanied by interesting choices.  The choices in this movie mostly seem to be determined based upon how well they show off the production values, which are impressive but a bit over blown.  The acting ensemble is similarly either vapid or overblown.  Even talent like Mickey Rourke is left to just stand around and look menacing most of the time.  Mount Olympus looks a little bit like a male modeling agency's float in a gay pride parade, but it certainly works on that level.  The film shares some of its production team with the similar film 300, and the look and feel are much the same.  Much of the camera work, sets and effects are beautiful, but they tend to overshadow, rather than complement, the story and performances.  All in all, Immortals is very pretty to look at, but you are unlikely to call it back like you promised you would when you left the next morning.  2 1/2 of 5*.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams - Cave is a documentary by famed director Werner Herzog who rose to prominence in the 70's making narrative films like Aguirre, the Wrath of God.  His career has had a 21st century Renaissance in the field of non-fiction film making. Here he gives us a front row seat to the archaeological find of the century:  cave paintings dating back 30,000+ years, the earliest examples of artwork known to man.  The camera work inside the cave is amazing, and the images of the paintings have a certain power to them, a very haunting quality.  The exposition and interviews with experts outside of the cave are very interesting if slightly less engaging.  This is a minor gripe, however, scientists are not noted for their sparkling and photogenic personalities.  The paintings...extraordinary.  4 1/2 of 5*

The Skin I Live In - I love the work of Pedro Almodovar in general.  His films always have an element of campy melodrama, like a John Water's flick, but more elegant.  My favorite films of his also have some wacky element of the fantastic involved as well.  Not since All About My Mother has a film of his seemed as free in this way as The Skin I Live In.  It strained credibility right up to the edge of the cliff, but kept me invested in the story the whole way through.  Antonio Banderas is never better than when working with the director who got him started and their chemistry as a team has not faded with time apart.  Every twist in the plot came just seconds after any careful veiwer's moment of realization that it was coming, heightening the suspense.  Unless subtitles give you hives, check it out. 5 out of 5*

Cave of Forgotten Dreams is also available on Netflix Instant Play.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Senna, Take 13

     Time to catch up on what I've been watching at home this week.  Since at this point I'm trying to fill in all the best movies from 2011 that I have not yet seen, expect some strong reviews this month.  One of these three may very well make my top ten list, but let's start with:

SENNA - Senna is the biographical documentary about Formula 1 race car driver Ayrton Senna, perhaps the most famous competitor the sport has ever known.  The film is composed almost entirely of actual footage from the era.  It sounds like a fairly pedestrian documentary.  What sets it apart, however, is that the shots are so skillfully woven together that at times it seems more like a scripted biopic. Director Asif Kapadia was best known for making narrative dramas previously, so it is not that surprising.  There is a real sense of storyline here.  When you are with Senna during a race (seeing what he saw via an in-car camera, and hearing what he heard over his headset) there is a real sense of suspense.  Most documentaries are informative in some way but, to me at least, the better ones are able to get an emotional reaction out of the audience.  This film succeeds there admirably.  Senna's face is so expressive (and the footage chosen so well) that by the film's end you feel like you don't just know the man's story, you know the man.  The feelings of the people of his native Brazil are also almost palpable on the screen. I am not a fan of auto racing, yet found this feature completely engaging. 4 1/2 of 5*


Does the world really need yet another samurai action flick/ historical drama?  I was skeptical...then I saw 13 Assassins.  Don't get me wrong.  It is not the best written film of the year.  Many of the characters are stock archetypes.  The acting is stronger than average and cheesy humor is kept to a bare minimum.  But two things really elevated this film for me.  The first was the stunning cinematography throughout the film (Nobuyasu Kita: DoP) from outdoor landscapes to indoor bloodbaths.  The best part, however, was that the entire second half of the film is one hour long, outlandish, brilliantly choreographed and executed, lightning fast "Massacre" of an action sequence.  I mean, one continuous scene.  I won't say it transcends a typical martial arts movie the way that Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon did, but it was a hell of a lot of fun to watch.  4 out of 5*


If you would rather just rent the thing and see for yourself than listen to me shamelessly gush, this is your opportunity.  Okay, anyone left?  I have not seen writer/ director Jeff Nichols one previous film, Shotgun Stories, but I think maybe I will now, especially since it also stars Michael Shannon.  This is the fourth of actress Jessica Chastain's six films released in 2011 that I have seen and again she shines in a role totally different from her Oscar nominated turn in The Help (see my August review), her equally impressive work in Tree of Life, or her best in show performance in The Debt, but this was really the Michael Shannon show.  He was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Revolutionary Road but many of you know him best as Agent Nelson Van Alden on HBO's Boardwalk Empire.  He is magnificent in this film.  The plot basically centers around his character, "Curtis"'s internal struggles with his own sanity, and he is not a particularly verbose man.  Every nuance of fear, doubt, and pain plays out clearly on Shannon's face and in his eyes.    Now add in a subtly winding script that keeps you guessing and some truly gorgeous camera work, and...well...I warned you I was gonna be this way.  All in all, Take Shelter was a unique experience that was written with great insight and care, performed brilliantly, and executed with consistently impressive quality.
5 of 5*

P.S.  Assassins and Senna are also currently available on Netflix Instant streaming.

Friday, March 2, 2012

While I was away!!

Ok, obviously I cannot go back and give you reviews of everything my cinema addicted self watched between September and now but I can give you a list of which ones I highly recommend.  Below I have done just that listing the films that I would give four, four and a half or five star ratings.  If a film got four stars and sounds interesting, watch it.  If it got four and a half and you don't hate the genre, watch it.  If it got five, watch it no matter what.  Films marked with an asterisk received pre-Oscar mini Twitter reviews which you can check out there @themoviefrog.  Let's start with the five star films:

2010 - Incendies: French Canadian mystery, Foreign Language film nominee 83rd Oscars
           In a Better World:  Danish made drama, Foreign Language Film winner 83rd Oscars

2011 - The Tree of Life: VERY abstract drama, Best Picture nominee 84th Oscars  *
           Drive: Gory B action movie with A-list acting, script and production values *
           A Separation: Iranian family drama, winner Foreign Language Film 84th Oscars *
           Pina: German documentary on the famous interpretive choreographer in 3D, Doc nominee 84th *
           The Descendants: Quirky family dramedy, Best Picture nominee 84th Oscars *
           Rango: Wacky cartoon for kids and adults, winner Best Animated Feature 84th Oscars *
           The Artist:  Black and white, silent, romantic comedy, winner Best Picture 84th Oscars *
           Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy:  Cerebral Brit spy thriller, 4 Oscar nominations *
           Hugo: 3D fanciful adaptation of children's novel, Best Picture nominee 84th Oscars *

Then, the four and a half star films:

2010 - Undertow: Gay themed Peruvian romantic ghost story
            Carlos: Six hour biopic crime drama about terrorist Carlos the Jackal

2011 - Hannah: Action thriller with 16 year old girl as the action hero
           Red State: Horror thriller about an EXTREME right wing cult.  Oh, and funny.
           Crazy, Stupid Love:  Romantic comedy, probably the year's best
           Margin Call: drama about the dawn of the recent economic crisis, Screenplay nominee, 84th Oscars *
           Midnight in Paris: time hopping romantic comedy, nominated for Best Picture 84th Oscars *
           Attack the Block:  Indie Brit sci-fi movie with a touch of comedy
           50/50: dramedy about a young man diagnosed with cancer
           Moneyball:  sports drama, Best Picture nominee 84th Oscars *
           A Better Life:  indie drama about the plight of Mexican immigrants Best Actor nominee 84th Oscars *
           The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore: winner, Best Animated Short 84th Oscars *
           The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo: dark and gritty mystery thriller Best Actress nominee 84th Oscars *
and if you really have a lot of time (or a serious film addiction), the four stars:

2010 - Of Gods and Men: French drama about monks in a foreign war zone
            Love and Other Drugs: offbeat romantic comedy
            Mesrine: Public Enemy: biopic about famous French bank robber

2011 - Jane Eyre: Period drama based on the classic novel. Nominated for Best Costumes *
           Captain America: The First Avenger: the best of a bumper crop of super hero movies
           Bridesmaids:  Raunchy femal centric comedy.  Nominated for writing and Supporting Actress *
           The Devil's Double: dramatic thriller set in Sadam's Iraq
           Warrior: MMA fighting family drama, nominated for Best Supporting Actor *
           The Ides of March: Political intrigue drama nominated for Best Screenplay *
           Chico and Rita: Cuban adult romance nominated for Best Animated Feature *
           Hell and Back Again: War documentary about a wounded vet, Doc Feature nominee *
           Albert Nobbs: Cross dressing period drama up for two acting awards *
           Beginners: Gay themed family dramedy, nominated for Best Supporting Actor *
I have a few more films to watch (like Take Shelter, coming in today's mail!!!) before I feel comfortable making my best of lists for the 2011 season, but only a few, so we should have that soon.  In the meantime, happy viewing.

Hangin at my pad (or on my pad?)

Thursday, March 1, 2012

YES!!! The Movie Frog will continue!!!

     I do apologize for my absence.  Due to unforeseen circumstances in my personal life, The Movie Frog had to go on a temporary hiatus. I am going to blaze back in now, however.  I tried to open back up before last Sunday's grand event, but could not remember my blog password.  I know, clever right?
     In the meantime, I started a sister set of postings under TheMovieFrog on Twitter.  Look for thumbnail reviews there of all the Oscar Movies that I saw before the show (36 out of 46 features, and one of the shorts).  I still have not seen A Cat in Paris, Bullhead, Footnote, Monsieur Lazhar, In Darkness, W E, The Adventures of Tin Tin, Paradise Lost 3, Undefeated, or The Muppets, but will be correcting that ASAP.
     I will try to get out to the movies for 1 new release a week, whenever possible, and review it.  I will also publish thumbnail reviews of two to three rental or instant play movies, focusing on new releases and hidden gems whenever possible.  This weekend I could go see The Lorax, a new release quite likely destined to be an Animated contender next year, but I may reach back a couple of weeks and see The Secret of Arriety, of which the same thing could be said.
     I'm also going to do an Oscar wrap up post, an early Oscar preview post, and a list of very good movies I've seen while my postings have been nonexistent these last few months.  By months end I will have a top ten of 2011 list (yes, I know it is March, but there are a few things I must still see first:  Take Shelter, We Need To Talk About Kevin, Shame, etc).  April will probably be just movie reviews and maybe the beginning of my 1000 movies to see, until Cannes gets this year's Oscar race going in May.

This blog has not croaked,
The Movie Frog