Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Premise Grand

     I think that director Gus Van Sant is a fantastic talent when he is really on, as evidenced in such films as Milk, My Own Private Idaho, Drugstore Cowboy and, yes, Good Will Hunting (which is a little sappy, but still a good pic).  His last feature, Restless, was not met well at all.  Being something of a fan, I was hoping for a great comeback out of his latest, Promised Land.  I was somewhat satisfied with the direction it seemed to  indicate that the director is headed.  Overall, Promised Land IS an improvement over the director's previous effort.  It has a stronger cast (no offense Ms. Wasichowska, YOU could have held your own just fine, and the production values are higher.
     In many ways, it also has a superior script:  the characters are more well developed and the plot line does have a couple of really nice twists thrown in.  The problem is that Promised Land completely loses the edginess of many of Van Sant's finest films.  In this regard alone, Restless was actually superior, sporting a slightly uncomfortable tone that was right in the director's wheelhouse.  What's worse is that the tone of Promised Land is actually a little self-righteous and preachy.  This is coming from someone whose outlook on this issue is quite similar to the film's, so don't assume my assessment is based upon a problem with the message.  I merely object to the fact that the message, at times, became the movie.
     With all due respect, Mr. Damon needs to remember that if you are going to be vocal publicly about your political views, then you have to be careful to approach it more gingerly than this if you choose to write about it.  Otherwise...preachy.  We will tolerate a bit of that tone in the narration of an activist documentary (cough..cough), but in narrative fiction it plays on screen worse than anything this side of unending self pity.  Mr. Krasinski gets a little more of a pass quite arbitrarily because he never made me feel like I was re-watching Inside Job.  I apologize, Mr. Damon, if this is unjust.
     Now that I have that out of my system...that is the only thing that I can really say against the film.  Van Sant makes the most out of the strengths of the script, pulling some fantastic acting out of the ensemble and leading a tight production team.  I am unfamiliar with the previous work of cinematographer Linus Sandgren, but he does some really memorable work here.  My favorite example would be when Damon is standing, framed by an American flag, addressing the town.  Pretty standard for this sort of film, but for the fact that the lense is focused in such a way that the flag is fuzzy and blatantly out of focus made it for me.  Few probably took as much notice of that particular frame sequence as I did, but I'm sure it had a subtle influence on many viewer's perception of the moment just the same.  The film could have used a little more of that approach.
     Mr. Damon DOES do a fine acting job in this film, and I feel bad about giving him a hard time on the script, so we'll talk about him first.  The role is one that is a little more mature than we are used to, a little more jaded by life than the "boy next door" roles that made him famous, but more approachable and human than his action hero work.  They left just a touch of gray in his hair, just a touch, and it helped to paint him at a man who is reassessing life and trying to figure out how he really wants to spend the rest of it.
     John Krasinski actually steals the show in several scenes.  His is a very interesting character with far more layers than he first appears to have.  Krasinski tackled them all with ease and a dynamic screen presence.  He roundly proves that if anyone is ready to follow Carrell from The Office to the Box Office, he's your man.
     Frances McDormand is also strong, giving probably the most grounding and subtle performance in the film.  Hal Holbrook has to get biggest bang for your screen time award, although Rosemary DeWitt and Titus Welliver also manage to shine in smaller roles.
     I didn't feel like I'd left a bad movie as I walked out of the theater and I was glad that I had caught it there. However,  it (aside from the preachy tendencies) WAS my sort of thing.  If a drama about a small town trying to make a decision about allowing Big Natural Gas to use fracking techniques on their property sounds particularly interesting to you, have at.  However, if it only sounds SOMEWHAT like your thing, I can heartily recommend the picture to anyone when it comes out on DVD.  It's a very GOOD movie.  4 out of 5 stars.

Related Posts:  Restless Nostalgia is the Key (Restless review)

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Surviving the Alps is a Rush

  In this batch of pictures available now on DVD, I include an odd Greek drama, an Oscar nominated documentary, and a cross town chase flick about bicycle messengers.  Don't mean to hurry, but we're in a...

  Premium Rush - This is a film that unashamedly is what it is what it is.  It's an action adventure flick that follows bicycle messenger Wylie (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) across the city of New York in treacherous traffic as he flees other cyclists, people on foot, people in cars, crooks, cops, and one completely despicable crooked cop (Michael Shannon).  It owes a little bit to Run Lola Run and a little bit to Tarantino's playbook, but doesn't even try for the artsy respectability of either.
      The screenplay by David Koepp and John Kamps is (I have to believe) intentionally a little campy, a little self-aware that it is a PG-13 action flick.  Koepp also directs, and he throws in a few cool flourishes, such as when Wylie visualizes his possible routes, that help to keep the film visually stimulating.
     And it IS very visually stimulating, all while being an action film of fairly limited violence.  It is full of creatively constructed chase sequences, and keeps the viewer on the edge of their seat for most of the film.  The stunt work is fantastic, some of the best I've seen this year.
     Of course, there is some B-acting among the supporting cast, but the film is well anchored by Shannon and Levitt.  Somehow, these two actors' amazing charisma and screen presence makes it all work.  Shannon actually revels in the film's campy nature, going ironically over the top which may have been the only way I would have bought it.  Levitt, by contrast, plays it totally straight for the most part, giving the film one central character to believe in and care about.
     As I said, the film doesn't have any delusions that it needs to take itself any more seriously than it does, and it shouldn't.  But it is a fun way to pass a couple of hours that doesn't require very active viewing.  It may be a trifle, but it was a fairly tasty one.  3 1/2 of 5 stars.

  Alps - Anyone who saw Greek director Giorgos Lanthimos's international break out (and surprise Oscar nominee) Dogtooth a couple of years ago had to be expecting a weird and uncomfortable, but not unrewarding, experience from his follow up Alps.  At least, that's what I expected and exactly what I got.  Although these films (co-written with Efhymis Filippou) are far from masterpieces, they make me thoughtful and uncomfortable in a slightly more bearable, but quite similar way to director Lars von Trier's Antichrist.  If these guys are working up to a Melancholia (Triers phenomenal follow up), I want to still be checking their stuff out when they get around to it.
     Alps is the story of a group of people who start a business renting themselves to the bereaved as stand-ins for the recently deceased.  What starts out with a creepy premise has a perpetually increasing creepy atmosphere throughout, as you slowly watch all the group's members quietly self destruct.  I'm not exactly sure what this is all supposed to say after one viewing, but maybe the members of Alps are taking the pain of grief on themselves when they take it away from others.
      The acting is subdued (by American standards) but quite excellent.  The two women members of the Alps are the film's real stand-outs.  Young Ariane Labed is previously unknown to me, but as the Alps's youngest member, she brings an energy that is both dark and innocent at the same time.  The film opens with her dancing and closes the same way, but she has a tough road from one dance to the other.  Apparently, I'm not the only one she's been impressing, as she is crossing over to English language cinema this year in Richard Linklater's Before Midnight, which is already lighting up the 2013 film festival circuit at Sundance.
     Conversely, I was familiar with Aggeliki Papoulia from her role as the daughter/sister in Dogtooth.  She is great here, and is (to my mind) the lead of the piece, with the most precipitous character arc of everyone.  I said that the acting in this film was subdued, and it is as a rule, but when this lady finally goes over the top, watch out.  No word on her next project, but I have a hunch she'll be in whatever Lanthimos does next.
     I thought this film was slightly more palatable than its predecessor and showed signs of growth.  Still, I'm not quite ready to go above...4 of 5 stars.

  How To Survive a Plague - I was on the fence about whether or not I was going to give last year's "AIDS in the 80's and 90's" documentary We Were Here 4 1/2 or 5 stars and now I kind of wish that I had gone with 4 1/2, because I've now seen the topic handled in a far more dynamic and affecting way.  Don't get me wrong, that first film was powerful, and devastating to watch, but when the death tolls started falling, it was almost as if by magic, like a storm had passed all on its own.  In How To Survive a Plague, we still get the horror and fear from the previous doc.  We still see the same evidence of heroism among average people in a time of struggle.
     We also get (and here is the difference) perspective on how the "Gay Plague" was defeated.  We see the struggles of the core members of ACT-UP and how they fought the President, the FDA, and even each other and made AIDS into an issue that the country could no longer ignore.  We Were Here ends in an abatement, Plague ends in a victory.  A victory tainted by great loss, but a victory nonetheless.
     I think that it is safe to say that director David France can count his documentary among the finest directorial debuts of 2012.  He uses mostly vintage footage, featuring the men and women who actually moved the movement forward, interwoven with interviews and commentary from those who survived, but pulls it all together so skillfully and with such obvious passion for his subject matter, that innovative flourishes of style would have only distracted from his powerful story line and vivid historical context.
     I know, it's easy for the gay reviewer to promote the AIDS documentary, but trust me, this is a lot more than just a "gay movie".  It's a film about how people CAN come together and make a difference. It is about how ordinary citizens can still bring their concerns to the attention of those in power.  The age that the documentary covers may be a fading memory, but this message couldn't possibly be more timely than it is today.
      More than that, all people should have an appreciation for the dedication of the early membership of ACT-UP, as they are heroes who saved the lives of countless American citizens, often while deathly ill themselves.  I know I have several friends who probably wouldn't be here today without their efforts.  Whether you have been let in on it or not, you probably do too.  5 of 5 stars.

Related posts:  Beautiful Melancholy Conspirator (Melancholia review)

Monday, January 28, 2013

"Impossible"y Well Crafted

     Over the past decade, director Christopher Nolan has made a place for himself in cinema by taking genres that weren't "respectable" and making movies that critics couldn't help but respect, most notably super-hero and science fiction films.  In taking this approach to film, he follows in the footsteps of Steven Spielberg and the late, great Stanley Kubrick.  Now we can add director J.A. Bayona (and screenwriter Sergio G. Sanchez) to this list.  I have not seen their Spanish language debut, The Orphanage, but it is apparently one of the better horror films of the twenty-first century.  Now, with their English language debut The Impossible, they attempt to give the disaster flick genre this treatment.  How do they do?  Well...
      Even with the raves coming from the festival circuit, I had limited anticipation for this film's a disaster flick.  So many things can go wrong.  The emotions in such a film are so intense that it is easy for performances to not ring true.  So much time is spent in this genre on action sequences and, well, SURVIVAL, that the time for character development becomes extremely limited.  Then you have the sticky wicket of budgeting complicated special effects sequences in a film unlikely  to pull in the same sort of box office as a blockbuster science fiction flick or any random installment of a comic book or teen novel franchise.
     Then I saw the trailer, and I was titillated. The glimpses of the tsunami sequence looked great.  The emotion seemed palpable and organic.  The actors looked totally invested.  Of course, I know the power of a good trailer.  I must say, however, that The Impossible far surpasses even what I was hoping for after watching the trailer.  The team at work on this film (and the impressive thing is how seamlessly all the elements fit together, especially considering the director's relative lack of experience) found a way to overcome every obstacle inherent in the chosen genre.  This is simply one of the most well made films of the year.
     The problem with the script for most disaster pics is that they try to encompass large casts, often designed to show how (insert disaster) affects members of different sub cultures and/or social strata, you get the idea.  The genre's standard narrative structure only leaves limited time to really get inside the character's heads, and when you split that time among ten, twelve, or twenty main characters, everyone ends up barely more than a stereotype.  This limits dramatic impact severely.  The Impossible gets around that by focusing strictly on one family of five, and even more specifically on the mother, father, and eldest son.
     The smaller central cast also helps keep the intense emotion demanded by the character's circumstances as real as possible.  At no time do we doubt the intense connection between this family.
Naomi Watts (in a recently Oscar nominated lead turn) is as good as she's ever been.  I think the last time she really impressed me was in Fair Game, a film where she played a very buttoned up, even icy role.  To see her work here, where she is so warm, such a good and loving mother, shows just what sort of range this talented lady is working with.  She disappears completely into the role of Maria, and is the heart of the chemistry that the whole family evinces when together.
     Ewan McGregor is one of the most under appreciated actors around, to my mind.  Although he's been nominated by the Globes twice, he has yet to receive any love from the AMPAS, BAFTA (except the Scottish leg), or the BFCA.  This, for a relatively young man (barely in his forties), whose resume already includes Beginners, The Ghost Writer, Big Fish, Little Voice, The Velvet Goldmine, Trainspotting, Shallow Grave, Being Human, and now The Impossible.  It's disgraceful.  He is fantastic here, although not given nearly as much screen time as Watts and Holland.  I've never really seen him as the paternal figure before, and he settles into the role quite gracefully.
     The two younger sons (played by Samuel Joslin and Oaklee Pendergast) each give exceptional turns for their ages, but it is Tom Holland who is the soul of the entire film, threatening to overshadow his much lauded parents entirely.  The Impossible is a great coming of age story.  You can almost SEE Holland's character learning, adapting, and searching himself for strength.  One of the strongest juvenile performances in a year full of talented child actors.
     As far as the Visual Effects go, and indeed, every aspect of the technical design and implementation, they are flawless.  Oscar Faura's cinematography is lush in paradise, desolate when paradise is lost, and always keys you right into the perspective of whichever member of the family you are living vicariously through at the moment.  Editors Elena Ruiz and Bernat Vilapova wove the whole thing together with meticulous and precise attention to detail and inspired timing.  Every aspect of this production came with some real challenges, all handily overcome.
     The only real criticism that I've heard of this film is that it doesn't really have a lot of thematic depth, but I think that while it may not have "a message" or "a moral" or anything as tightly wrapped up as that, it is not a shallow film.  Sometimes the best way to reflect the world is just to tell a great story, with characters that you can believe in, and let the meaning emerge from the drama.  The fear, despair, desperation, and hope that we go through with this family, and the things that we see them live through lead us to question ourselves in ways that we come to organically.  How would I hold up in this situation?  How long would I keep looking?  Could I be that brave?  We remember our own greatest moments of confusion, and relief.  The film may not overtly ask us to make grand conclusions about the meaning of life, but it certainly begs reflection upon the things that give life meaning.  I loved it.  5 of 5 stars.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Henry's Invisible Arbitrage

     In today's round of DVD reviews we cover a Best Documentary Feature nominee, a disappointing quirky comedy, and a fantastic drama with a beloved actor's career best performance.  Might as well get to it...

  Arbitrage - Richard Gere has never been my favorite actor.  He's just always faded into the background a little bit for me.  Not in any sort of "Please, God, not the movie with Richard Gere" kind of way.  I was never turned away by his appearance in a film, but it didn't encourage me to watch it either.  Looking back at his filmography, I find four or five glaring examples of pictures that I would have expected myself to have seen, most shamefully I'm Not There and Days of Heaven.
     In most of my favorite Richard Gere films, it's his co-stars who have stuck with me long after the lights came up.  Pretty Woman is about Julia Roberts.  Primal Fear is about Edward Norton (boy howdy).  Chicago is about, well, damn near everybody but him.  So I wasn't really anticipating being as blown away by Arbitrage as many critics had been.  Sometimes I love being wrong.
     Arbitrage is a GREAT little movie, and for once, Gere's performance undeniably rules the day (and it's not like he didn't have any competition, more on that in a bit).  His performance as Robert Miller stands as one of the best that I have seen this year.  He's captivating, with great depth and nuance.  He is a man full of contradictions and conflict.  I have always found talk of Gere being "overdue" with the Academy to be a bit hyperbolic in the past, but I think they missed the train on this one.
    And then again...there is Susan Sarandan.  Susan was one of my first love affairs with an actress's career.  Thelma and Louise, The Witches of Eastwick, Dead Man Walking, Bull Durham...I could go on and on.  She was undeniably one of the most sought after and respected actresses in Hollywood through the seventies, eighties, and nineties.  The twenty-first century has shown something of a decline in the quality of rolls she has been offered (but never in her talent, her work on TV's Rescue Me has been some of the finest of her career).  I''m hoping that Cloud Atlas and now Arbitrage are precursors of her next big era as a movie star.  Here she is clearly the sort of fiery, vital, intelligent, strong, and yes, gorgeous lady of retirement age that the world has only come to know in this new century.
     The cast is actually a very strong ensemble, with Tim Roth and Nate Parker obvious stand outs.  And then again...there is Brit Marling.  Ms. Marling first caught my attention in Another Earth, then blew me away in Sound of My Voice, but I'd only really watched her act in that special little Brit Marling world that (as the screen writer) she could create in those two films.  Think of it as a melancholy suburb of Wes Anderson (Moonlight Kingdom, Royal Tennanbaums) world with sci-fi overtones and you'll sort of get what I mean.  I am happy to report that she can play a character in a more realistic setting quite adeptly, and holds her own well here.
     I've focused mostly on the actors partially to avoid saying too much about writer/director Nicholas Jarecki's marvelous script.  I'm still not sure whether you could say it had a happy ending or not, and that's as much as I'm giving you.  As a directing debut, this was absolutely outstanding.  5 of 5 stars.

  The Invisible War - In all honesty, I hadn't even made up my mind if I was going to watch this film until the Oscar nominations were announced.  I spent the first thirty minutes or so watching interview after interview with victims of rape within the military, feeling that it was all very sad, but that not much effort or creativity had been put into the formatting and compilation of the documentary itself.
     As the film continued, however, the women (and one man)'s stories began to draw me in more and more.  The film was actually quite skillfully plotted and edited together to slowly captivate the viewer in just this way.  The interwoven interviews approach to documentary film making has certainly been done a million times before, but at least it is done very well in The Invisible War.  By the film's end, I had been taken on a bit of an emotional roller coaster, and I think that most people would have the same experience.
     This is my first exposure to the work of director Kirby Dick (although I quite wanted to see This Film Is Not Yet Rated when it came out) and I was reasonably pleased.  You'll have to watch the picture to get the full story, but The Invisible War gets extra credit for actually changing the situation it was designed to illuminate in a direct manner.  4 of 5 stars.

  Jesus Henry Christ - Oh, boy...If Brit Marling world is like a melancholy, sci-fi suburb of Wes Anderson world, then Dennis Lee world is like a rundown part of Wes Anderson world that all the characters from Ace Ventura: Pet Detctive have moved into.  Weird indie sensibilities are intermarried poorly with bursts of bawdy comedy and uninspired chaos.
     Toni Collette is wasted here.  Young stars Jason Spevack and Samantha Weinstein do evince some potential talent, but the lack of quality inherent in the material is too much to transcend.  The child actors' performances were the only element that kept this film from being graded even more harshly.  2 of 5 stars.

Related posts:  Cloudy Connections (Cloud Atlas review), Another Young Project (Another Earth review), The Sound Hope Sparks (Sound of My Voice review)

Friday, January 25, 2013

Oscar Winner Predictions & Buzz - Finishing Touch Techs

      After these, I'm gonna take a few days to update my buzz before I tackle the genre categories and screenplays.  In the meantime, I'm sure that I'll pop out a few movie reviews and catch up to my viewing a bit.  As always, the buzz rankings come first, with former rankings in parenthesis.  My thoughts and predictions come slinking along after.

Best Editing
  1.(2) Zero Dark Thirty - Dylan Tichenor & William Goldenberg
  2.(1) Argo - William Goldenberg
  3.(3) Lincoln - Michael Kahn
  4.(6) Life of Pi - Tim Squyres
  5.(8) Silver Linings Playbook - Jay Cassidy & Crispin Struthers
     I currently see things a little bit differently...
  1. Argo - I have expected this to be the season of William Goldenberg in the Editing category for quite some time now, and thus far my theory is bearing out.  The difference in buzz between his two films is arbitrary, so I'm going to go with the movie that has blown me away for its editing (although I have yet to see Zero) more than any other film this year.  These are his third and fourth nominations with no wins.
  2. Zero Dark Thirty - If Goldenberg does not win for Argo, then I feel pretty sure he will win for this film, an honor he would then share with Dylan Tychenor, currently blessed with his second nomination.
  3. Lincoln - The legendary Michael Kahn has now received eight nods and won three times, which seems like it should be enough for anybody.  However, he's been working with Spielberg frequently since Close Encounters in the late seventies, and everytime Spielberg has won big, so has he (his three wins are for Raider's, Schindler, and Private Ryan).  If Lincoln takes Picture and Director, Mr. Kahn's odds go up tremendously.
  4. Life of Pi - This is Tim Squyres' second nomination (following Crouching Tiger, also with Lee), and he is certainly a contender to watch in the future, but I am less than optimistic about his chances this year, unless Pi wins picture.
  5. Silver Linings Playbook - Even if Playbook won Best Picture (and it could, I assure you), I doubt that it would pick up an Editing victory.  It's nominees are on their first (Struthers) and second (Cassidy) nods.
  Rust and Bone - Review forthcoming.  Very skillful, seamless, creative and deliberate interweaving of the visual elements at play here.  Freaking great movie.

Best Visual Effects
  1.(1) Life of Pi - Bill Westenhofer, Guillaume Rocherson, Erik-Jan De Boer & Donald R. Elliot
  2.(3) The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey - Joe Letteri, Eric Saindon, David Clayton & R. Christopher White
  3.(4) The Avengers - Janek Sirrs, Jeff White, Guy Williams & Dan Sudick
  4.(5)  Prometheus - Richard Stammers, Trevor Wood, Charley Henley & Martin Hill
  5.(8)  Snow White and the Huntsman - Cedric Nicholas-Troyan, Phillip Brennan, Neil Corbould & Michael Dawson
     Once again, I ALMOST agree with the buzz, with one little switch...
  1. Life of Pi - I'm afraid that the buzz for Pi to win this category has been deafening for months before the nominations were even announced. Having seen the picture, I'm a believer.  Three of the nominated artists are receiving their first nominations.  Only Bill Westenhofer has been nominated thrice, winning once for The Golden Compass.
  2. The Avengers - I jump this film up a slot to number two because if anyone in the category is sporting an overdue victory factor that might catch the attention of the voting body, it is Dan Sudyk, on his fifth nomination with no victories.  It's not like there is really such a thing as a celebrity visual effects artist in the sense that there are quasi-celebrity cinematographers or even editors and costumers, so his running tally of losses may slip under the radar, but you never know.
  3. The Hobbit:  An Unexpected Journey - Of course, if there IS just ONE celebrity visual effects artist, it might be Joe Letteri, enjoying his seventh nod.  However, he already has FOUR wins under his belt, and TWO of them were set in Middle Earth, so victory may be an uphill battle.
  4. Prometheus - The only one of the nominees for this film who has been nominated before (Trevor Wood) has only been nominated ONCE before, for The Golden Compass, which won the Oscar.  The work here was solid, but the film's general lack of awards presence this season does not lead me to believe it will present much challenge to the big three.
  5. Snow White and the Huntsman - This is Neil Corbould's third nomination, but he already won once for Gladiator and the rest of the team are all first time nominees.  This nomination was a bit of a surprise;  I doubt it can win.
  Should have been nominated:  The Impossible - It doesn't have to be all about aliens and powers and monsters.  I feel like I know what being caught in a tsunami looks like.  If I ever find out I PRAY that I make it back to tell you if I was right.  I'm not optimistic.

Related Posts:  Oscar Winner Predictions & Buzz: Of Snubs and Triumphs (preview), Musical Techs (Score and Song), Noisy Techs (Sound Editing & Sound Mixing), Pretty People Techs (Costume Design & Make-Up and Hairstyling), Pretty Picture Techs (Cinematography & Production Design), Fantasy Life of Pi?I Think You "Argo"ing To Love It!Merchandisers Assemble! (Avengers review), Promarlius Kingdom (Prometheus review), The Best Huntsman's Shadow (Snow White and the Huntsman)

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Oscar Winners Predictions & Buzz - Pretty Picture Techs

     Buzz comes first with previous rankings in parenthesis.  My personal thought and predictions follow on each category's second list.  Let's knock these out...

Best Production Design
  1.(2) Anna Karenina - Sarah Greenwood & Katie Spencer
  2.(1) Les Miserables - Eve Stewart & Anna Lynch-Robinson
  3.(3) Lincoln - Rick Carter & Jim Erikson
  4.(8) Life of Pi - David Gropman & Anna Pinnock
  5.(4) The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey - Dan Hennah, Ra Vincent & Simon Bright
      I would only shift this around a bit...
  1. Anna Karenina - Besides having the buzz (and the goods), this team is also the most overdue, both on their fourth nod (having been nominated together for Sherlock Holmes, Atonement & Pride and Prejudice) without a single win.
  2. Life of Pi - This film has enough upward momentum in buzz right now to make me think that it is taking a real run at the win.  Production Designer David Gropman is on his second nomination (the first was for Cider House Rules), and Set Decorator Anna Pinnock is on her third (previously up for Golden Compass and Gosford Park).  Neither has won.
  3. Les Miserables - Besides good buzz, Production Designer Eve Stewart also has three nominations (this, The King's Speech & Topsy Turvey) under her belt.  Anna Lynch-Robinson's set decoration is being honored for the first time.
  4. Lincoln - This is Production Designer Rick Carter's fourth nod, but he's already won for Avatar.  It's his partner Jim Erikson's first time at bat with the Academy.
  5. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey - This picture's set decorating team is enjoying their first nomination.  Production Designer Dan Hennah has been nominated five times, but has already won once.  With all of these winless multiple nominees in the game, he'll probably have to wait to see a second victory.
  Should have been nominated:  Cloud Atlas (again, six different time periods)

Best Cinematography
  1.(2) Life of Pi - Claudio Miranda
  2.(8) Skyfall - Roger Deakins
  3.(3) Lincoln - Janusz Kaminski
  4.(6) Anna Karenina - Seamus McGarvey
  5.(7) Django Unchained - Robert Richardson
     I CANNOT argue with the buzz here at all, much as I personally feel that the camera work in Anna Karenina was far superior to that in Skyfall, and Lincoln's use of lighting blew anything I saw onscreen in either of them.  Still, I don't get to vote...
  1. Life of Pi - I've been trying in this round of predictions not to let the buzz rule me when there is an undeniable overdue factor involved.  There is a GLARINGLY overdue DoP nominated in this category, but it is not second time nominee Claudio Miranda.  However, his buzz is SO strong for Life of Pi, and his work so undeniably groundbreaking (not to mention gorgeous), that I still have to predict him to win.
  2. Skyfall - BUT...there is one radically overdue cinematographer in the mix this year.  This is Roger Deakins' TENTH nomination with no wins.  I have to believe that if anyone can steal this trophy from Pi, it is he.
  3. Lincoln - THEN AGAIN...Kaminski is a living legend on his sixth nomination.  He HAS already won twice, both times for Spielberg helmed Best Picture winning films.  Hmmm...
  4. Anna Karenina - Seamus McGarvey (now a two time nominee) did excellent work on this film, and he's had a strong year, having lensed The Avengers as well.  However, I think a win is unlikely for him THIS year.
  5. Django Unchained - Another living legend, Robert Richardson is enjoying his eighth time at the AMPAS rodeo, but with three wins under his belt already (JFK, Aviator, & Hugo).  He also JUST won last year, so this year the nod is probably its own reward.
  Should have been nominated:  Beasts of the Southern Wild (instead of Skyfall)

Related Articles:  Oscar Winner Predictions & Buzz: Of Snubs and Triumphs (preview), Musical Techs (Score and Song), Noisy Techs (Sound Editing & Sound Mixing), Pretty People Techs (Costume Design & Make-Up and Hairstyling), Anna Conumdruma (Anna Karenina), Cloudy Connections (Cloud Atlas review), Fantasy Life of Pi?23? You Don't Play Like a Sequel Over 2. (Skyfall review), Best That the Summer Wields? (Beasts of the Southern Wild reveiw)

Oscar Winners Predictions & Buzz - Pretty People

     As always, the buzz leads with former rankings listed in parenthesis.  My thoughts and prediction can be found on the second list in each category.  Let's get hoppin...

Best Costume Design
  1.(1) Anna Karenina - Jaqueline Durran
  2.(2) Les Miserables - Paco Delgado
  3.(3) Lincoln - Joanna Johnston
  4.(4) Mirror Mirror - Eiko Ishioka
  5.(8) Snow White and the Huntsman - Colleen Atwood
     My nominations here follow the buzz pretty closely, but here's why...
  1. Anna Karenina - This is Jaqueline Durran's third nomination with no wins, and the work is certainly strong enough for the win, so...
  2. Lincon - This is Joanna Johnston's first nomination, but the buzz here seems to be growing steadily, so for now, I'm going to count her as Durran's main competition, but don't count out...
  3. Les Miserables - Paco Delgado is also enjoying his first nomination, and buzz is strong here as well.
  4. Mirror Mirror - It was a nice gesture to give costume designer Ishioka her second nod posthumously, but she won the first one, and the work here was...well...a little tacky, honestly.  I just can't see them giving her the win.
  5. Snow White & the Huntsman - I'm sure that someday Colleen Atwood will win a fourth Oscar, but even the nomination was a bit of a surprise this year (her tenth, by the way).
  Should have been nominated:  Cloud Atlas (six different time periods, come on)

Best Make-Up and Hairstyling
  1.(3) The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey - Peter Swords King, Rick Findlater & Tami Lane
  2.(4) Les Miserables - Lisa Westcott & Julie Dartnell
  3.(5) Hitchcock - Howard Berger, Peter Montagna & Martin Samuel
     Here, I'm going to (perhaps unwisely) go way against conventional wisdom, and say...
  1. Les Miserables - This is Lisa Westcott's third nomination with no wins, and that gives her a bit of a leg up from the overdue factor.  This is also the only Best Picture nominee in this category.  For now, I'm going to predict it wins.
  2. Hitchcock - This film also features a multi-nominee who has never won in Martin Samuel who was previously nominated for two film in the Pirates series.  For now, I'm going to say that this gives it the edge over presumed front runner...
  3. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey...This film's Make-Up team consists of two second time nominees who both won for their first nods.  This might make the Academy loathe to reward them again so soon.  Of the trio, only Rick Findlater has never won (or been nominated).
  Should have been nominated:  Cloud Atlas

Related posts:    Oscar Winner Predictions & Buzz: Of Snubs and Triumphs (preview), Musical Techs (Score and Song), Noisy Techs (Sound Editing & Sound Mixing), Anna Conumdruma (Anna Karenina), Being Margaret's Mirror (Mirror Mirror review), The Best Huntsman's Shadow (Snow White and the Huntsman review), Cloudy Connections (Cloud Atlas review)

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Oscar Winners Predictions & Buzz - Noisy Techs

     As always, the buzz comes first, with former rankings appearing in parenthesis (you'll note that Argo wasn't even ON either of the November charts).  My opinions and predictions follow on the second lists.

Best Sound Editing
  1.(4) Life of Pi - Eugene Gearty and Phillip Stockton
  2.(7) Skyfall - Per Hallberg and Karen M Baker
  3.(5) Django Unchained - Wylie Stateman
  4. Argo - Erik Aadaj and Ethan Van der Ryn
  5.(3) Zero Dark Thirty - Paul N.J. Ottosson
     My initial thoughts in this category were so far off the buzz that I had to adjust them a little to take it into consideration.
  1. Django Unchained - Wylie Stateman has been nominated six times over the course of 22 years.  It's a bit of a wild hunch, but I think the overdue factor may win the day on this one.
  2. Zero Dark Thirty - I know that it's buzz has waned since the nominations, but this COULD be the one award that this film wins.  It is Ottosson's third nomination. He won previously for The Hurt Locker.
  3. Skyfall - This seasoned team would be 2 and 4 (Hallberg) & 2 and 1 (Baker) if they DON'T win this year.  I think the film has a better shot in Mixing.
  4. Life of Pi - Only strong buzz keeps me from ranking this film last.  It has been praised for its sound design, but this duo just won last year for Hugo.  Unless the majority of the Academy is unaware that they are voting for the same two guys, it seems unlikely.
  5. Argo - This is only Aadaj's second nomination and his co-nominee has already won twice.  I think this nod was just a shout out.
  Should have been nominated:  The Dark Knight Rises

Best Sound Mixing
  1.(1) Les Miserables - Andy Neelson, Mark Paterson & Simon Hayes
  2.(7) Skyfall - Scott Millan, Greg P. Russell & Stuart Wilson
  3.(5) Life of Pi - Ron Bartlett, D.M. Hemphill & Drew Kunin
  4.(8) Lincoln - Andy Nelson, Gary Rydstrom & Ronald Judkins
  5. Argo - John Reitz, Gregg Rudloff & Jose Antonio Garcia
     Conversely, in this category I didn't alter my initial feelings to fit the buzz at all.  They matched up exactly to start with.
  1. Les Miserables - Andy Neelson may not have the strongest overdue factor on this list, but he received his seventeenth and eighteenth nominations this year and has only won once (for Saving Private Ryan).  When you couple this with the fact that no musical had ever blended its sound elements in quite this way before, and his team becomes the one most likely to take the prize.
  2. Skyfall - The MOST overdue nominee in this category is Greg P. Russell, who has been nominated 16 times in the last 22 years and NEVER WON.  It feels like the Academy wants to give Skyfall something, and these stats make this a tempting token offering.
  3. Life of Pi - D.M. Hemphill is rocking a pretty impressive overdue factor as well with 8 nominations and only one win (for Last of the Mohicans), and this film's sound work has been highly praised.  Both his co-nominees are basking in first nomination bliss.
  4. Lincoln - This is the most seasoned team on the list, but apart from Mr. Neelson (who is far more likely to win for Les Miz), nobody's really sporting the overdue thing, as Judkins has won twice and Rydstrom has four Oscars.
  5. Argo - A case could be made that Reitz, on his fifth nod with only one win, could be seen as overdue.  I'm not going to make it.
  Should have been nominated: The Impossible

Related Articles:  Oscar Winner Predictions & Buzz: Of Snubs and Triumphs (preview), Musical Techs (Score and Song); 23? You Don't Play Like a Sequel Over 2. (Skyfall review), Fantasy Life of Pi?I Think You "Argo"ing to!Love It!The Dark Knight Transcends

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Oscar Winners Predictions & Buzz - Musical Techs

  As always, the buzz comes first, with previous rankings listed in parenthesis.  My predictions and commentary follow in the second list.  It's still early in the game;  don't be surprised if I change my mind before my final predictions.

Best Original Song
     I went on YouTube and listened to all of these right before I wrote this.  Just saying...
  1.(2) "Skyfall" from Skyfall - Adele Adkins and Paul Epworth
  2.(1) "Suddenly" from Les Miserables - Claude-Michel Schonberg, Herbert Kretzmer, and Alain Boublil
  3.(9) "Everybody Needs a Best Friend" from Ted - Walter Murphy and Seth McFarland
  4. "Before My Time" from Chasing Ice - J. Ralph
  5. "Pi's Lullaby" from Life of Pi - Mychael Danna and Bombay Jayashri

  1. "Skyfall" - Sure, this song won the Critic's Choice and the Globe, but the real advantage that it has going for it is Adele.  Everybody loves Adele, the marriage of her sultry 60's throwback voice and stylings to the bond franchise was an inspired move, and she adds a refreshing atmosphere of grace and humility to any awards show.
  2. "Before My Time" - I know this is really illogical at this point, but check the song out and then tell me I'm completely crazy, or tell me now, I don't care.  If enough members who vote actually listen to all five songs, I think it has a shot.  Almost as haunting as the first time I heard Skyfall, if not quite as catchy.
  3. "Pi's Lullaby" - 11 nominations (3 above the line, 8 below) indicates widespread support for this film in multiple branches.  It could pick up any number of awards, and while this is one of the least likely categories for that to happen in, it could.
  4. "Suddenly" - I know, I know, it's still one of my two favorite musicals of all time (even if I still haven't seen the film) but the song does not stand up to "I Dreamed a Dream", "One Day More", "On My Own", "Stars", or even "Master of the House".  All it has is Best Picture nominee buzz, and that is waning.
  5. "Everybody Needs a Best Friend" - Nominated as a token shout out to host Seth MacFarlane, and a bid to get Norah Jones singing live at the show.
  Should have been nominated:  Something, anything from Lawless.  Seriously.

Best Original Score
  1.(2) Life of Pi - Mychael Danna
  2.(1) Lincoln - John Williams
  3.(5) Anna Karenina - Dario Marianelli
  4.(4) Argo - Alexander Desplat
  5. Skyfall - Thomas Newman
     And I say...
  1. Life of Pi - Mychael Danna may stand little chance of winning in Song, but he does seem to have the momentum in this category right now.  I know that the Globes don't determine the Oscars by any stretch, but this time I think that they might match up.
  2. Argo - Alexander Desplat could easily benefit from the overdue factor.  In the last seven years he has been nominated five times (and it might have been six if he hadn't refused to submit any of his works from last year) but has yet to win.  He is definitely one of the most celebrated (and nominated) composers in the modern age of film and this could well be his year.
  3. Lincoln - This is John Williams' forty-eighth nomination, although a handful of those were for Song.  He has won five times, three working with Lincoln helmer Spielberg (Jaws, E.T., and Schindler's List), as well for Star Wars and Fiddler On The Roof.  He won the Critics' Choice, but I have a sneaking suspicion that the Academy may feel that with five wins under his belt, the bar is set just a little higher for this living legend.
  4. Skyfall - If the buzz weren't so low for this picture, I might have to predict Thomas Newman on the overdue factor alone.  This is his eleventh nomination, and he has yet to win.  Previous nods include memorable music from WALL*E, American Beauty, and The Shawshank Redemption.
  5. Anna Karenina - This is Dario Marianelli's third nomination, and each time has been for a collaboration with director Joe Wright.  Still, this composer has only recently come to prominence and already has a win under his belt for Atonement (also nominated for Pride and Prejudice).
  Should have been nominated:  Beasts of the Southern Wild - Benh Zietlen...If they were gonna go for Director and Adapted Screenplay, surely they could have given the year's most exciting new film maker the trifecta of nominations that he so richly deserved.

Related Posts:  Oscar Winner Predictions & Buzz: Of Snubs and Triumphs (preview), 23? You Don't Play Like a Sequel Over 2. (Skyfall review), Ted Butters up the Polisse (Ted review), Fantasy Life of Pi?Elena's Brave Law (Lawless review), Anna Conundruma (Anna Karenina), I Think You "Argo"ing to!Love It!Best That The Summer Wields (Beasts of the Southern Wild)

If It Ain't "Wreck"ed...

      I am usually leery of scripts written by committee.  Wreck-It Ralph has FOUR credited writers: two on story (Jim Reardon, and director Rich Moore), Jennifer Lee on screenplay, and Phil Johnston on both.  I am quite pleased to say that for once too many cooks didn't spoil much of anything.  Occasionally, the "throw everything against the wall and see what sticks" method actually DOES produce something worthwhile.
     There are so many great little moments and concepts in this world they have written up.  Just a few:  the use of the Diet Coke and Mentos effect, the handling of the "first person shooter", Felix fixing his own face, Felix attempting to break his bars, Turbobug (somehow reminded me of Judge Doom at the end of Roger Rabbit), the Game Central Station concept.  Maybe it took a whole handful of writers to come up with this many clever ideas.
     Of course, my reaction to this film may very well be influenced by some degree of nostalgia.  I was a kid during the eighties when the video arcade was the most magical place in the world.  It was a place just for kids and teen-agers, where we could enjoy this new pass time, one that belonged only to us, our parents had not had electronic gaming of this nature.  From the first time I saw Pong at the home of one of my cousins, I was hooked.  There are so many blasts from the past for my generation.  From Clyde turning blue when Ralph shocks him at the Bad-Anon meeting, to "Q-Bertese" to Ralph muttering "I thought this was gonna be like Centipede!" when he sees what Hero's Duty is all about, the golden age of gaming was well represented.
     Of course, this only lends fuel to the fire of the argument that Disney seems to be trying to appropriate the qualities of Pixar's brand (who have always been lauded for making 'toons that appealed to both kids and adults), while slowly making Pixar's films a little bit more "Disney-fied".  The idea that they are trying to make Disney proper's films a little more adult is supported by the choice of Rich Moore as director.  He is certainly experienced with animation, having been the primary director on TV's Futurama, but that show was certainly not intended primarily for younger audiences.   In addition, the video game reality of Wreck-It Ralph certainly seems like the sort of reality that Pixar revels in creating, while the princess-led coming of age tale Brave seems firmly in the parent company's wheelhouse.
     What's really interesting to note is that the two films share a primary theme.  Merida's constant refrain in Brave is that she wants to "change her fate", and take her destiny into her own hands, rather than fulfill the expectations she was born to.  Ralph's quest is the same, but his status as a "bad guy" complicates matters and widens the breadth of the film's thematic reach.  What makes someone good or bad? Can someone with a "bad" job to do, be a good person?  I'm imagining auditors and former military interrogation specialists who took their kids to see a cartoon and received a catharsis that they weren't anticipating when they bought the tickets.  Especially if they got a Vanellope sized hug from said children afterwards.
     One of the most brilliant things about Wreck-It Ralph is the voice casting, particularly of the four primary characters. John C. Reilly is the world's greatest lovable schlub as usual.  Sarah Silverman gives Vanellope the perfect flavor of snarky but infectious enthusiasm.  Who could play Sue Silvester with a gun better than Jane Lynch, or make Felix as mindlessly cheerful and optimistic as Jack McBrayer?  One almost has to believe that the dialogue was written with these actors already firmly in mind.  The animation department's character design certainly must have been.  Other apropos casting choices included Alan Tudyk, Dennis Haysbert, and Edie McClurg.
    (As a side note: Director Moore has now worked with Ed O'Neal after working with Katy Segal for years on Futurama.  Should we expect a Christina Applegate voiced cartoon from The Mouse House in the near future?)
     After the AMPAS forced me (with their nominations) to endure Tangled and The Princess and the Frog in recent years (to say nothing of War Horse), I've developed a certain set of expectations from their brand.  Suffice it to say that Ralph wrecked them.  My only complaint is that they couldn't give even a token shout-out to Frogger (unless I missed some of the characters in the Game Central Station scenes).  4 1/2 of 5 stars.
  Paperman - A little bonus to the cinematic experience of Wreck-It Ralph is that it was preceded by Best Animated Short nominee Paperman, just like the cartoons that I VAGUELY remember them playing as lead-ins to movies when I was REALLY little.  This film utilized an innovative hybrid of animation techniques to create a look that was slick, wholly original, and slightly surreal.  Add to that a creative storyline with more  clever bits and moments than seven minutes should be able to accommodate and I have to say that John Kahr's directorial debut is easily the best animated short I've seen since Logorama... 5 of 5 stars.

Related Posts:  Elena's Brave Law (Brave review)

Saturday, January 19, 2013

The Sound Hope Sparks

     In today's reviews we cover a highly original thriller, an extremely offbeat romcom, and a very well acted comedy about an aging couple.  Lots of love in this post, you'll see...

  Sound of My Voice - I liked, but did not love writer/actress Brit Marling's pet project from last year, Another Earth.  Still, her unique and creative voice was enough to get me interested in her future projects.  Boy howdy, I'm glad I jumped on THAT train.  This film was so small and so few people have seen it, that I may be almost alone in this opinion, but Sound of My Voice is one of the best films of the year.  As I said, I enjoyed her collaboration last year with Mike Cahill, but something about the way that her and director/co-writer Zal Batmanglij work together on "Voice" puts it in a whole different category.
     Well, their collaborative style, and Ms. Marling's performance, which is INCREDIBLY captivating: seductive (not really in a sexual way), charismatic, and quietly dangerous.  She is so soft spoken, and you so would not want to f___ with her.  Her portrayal of a cult leader can actually hold its own quite well next to Phillip Seymour Hoffman and John Hawkes' recent triumphs playing variations on that theme (in The Master and Martha Marcy Mae Marlene, respectively).
     Christopher Denham (who you may remember as a hostage in Argo earlier this year) and Nicole Vicius (who is even a little more obscure) also give fine performances.  There are a couple of scenes (in which some of the best communication is unspoken) between the three of them that still give me chills just thinking of them.
     I don't want to say too much about the film because it relies on twists and surprises too much to discuss it at length without spoiling it but, suffice it to say, I recommend it most highly.  Find it and see it or you will be missing out on one of the year's great hidden gems.  5 of 5 stars.

  Hope Springs - I didn't really go into this film expecting a whole lot out of it.  Nothing in the promotionals or the basic premise really grabbed me in a year full of films I got excited about instantly.  It wasn't the strongest script of the year, and I highly suspect that director David Frankel decided that after working with her on The Devil Wears Prada, that the best approach to working with Ms. Streep was to wind her up and get out of the way.
     But in dismissing this film, I was seriously underestimating the acting talent involved.  Meryl could read the phone book (or a cook book, for that matter) and it would be interesting.  The greatest thing about the movie, though, is that she brought out the very best in co-star Tommy Lee Jones.  I don't know if I've ever seen him better, outside of No Country For Old Men.  He was crochety (like normal), but also vulnerable, tender, ashamed, and desperate.  I have got to see Lincoln.
     The second greatest thing about this comedy is that it was actually FUNNY.  Again, I must credit the cast.  It wasn't the lines that were hilarious so much as the delivery.  Streep and Jones's comic timing and interplay was so spot on in fact, that Steve Carrell (an inspired choice to play the couple's therapist) ends up playing the straight man while the two of them rattle off the zingers.
     An older couple in marriage counseling may not sound like YOUR first choice of how to spend an evening either, but I urge you to think again.  Hope Springs was a very happy surprise for this little Movie Frog.  4 of 5 stars.

  Ruby Sparks - So after two fairly glowing reviews it's time for me to slam film number three.  Except I can't.  Not at all.  Actress Zoe Kazan was untested as a screenwriter before this movie, but we should have known that it would be something special, having prompted directing team Valerie Faris and Jonathen Dayton to make this their first film since Best Picture nominee Little Miss Sunshine six long years ago.
     You know that this is going to be a unique story just from the premise:  a writer dreams of his perfect woman and somehow writes her into the world.  That tagline is just the start of this tale, however, as absolute power does that thing that it does.  Somehow along the way Ms. Kazan manages to say some rather thought provoking things about love, betrayal, free will, and sacrifice.
     Although I was not a great fan of Being Flynn, Looper and this film have totally redeemed Mr. Paul Dano. He's having a great year, and his slightly goofy, but intelligent persona works perfectly here.  Ms. Kazan herself is fantastic as Ruby, reacting sooo naturally in some really out there situations.  Chris Messina gives strong support as our writer's brother, and Annette Bening and Antonio Banderas were delightful surprises as their mother and step-father.
     Again, this film relies a lot on unforseen twists, so I'm going to cut myself off here.  Again, I can recommend this film quite highly.  4 1/2 of 5 stars.

Related articles:  Another Young Project (Another Earth review), Can You "Master" Your Nature?Martha's Certified Method (Martha Marcy Mae Marlene review), Being Margaret's Mirror (Being Flynn review), Twist Until You Are Loopey (Looper review)

To Royal Effect

    Danish screenwriting duo Nikolaj Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg are probably best known on this side of the pond as the pair who adapted the script for the first version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.  Here they take their work more firmly into their own hands (Arcel also directs) and prove to be as adept in the world of courtly intrigue as they were in the world of ultra violent cyber espionage.  The film is a little talky in places, but overall it is a tightly written script, realized by a whole ensemble of fine performances.
     The film fits nicely into one of this year's thematic niches:  the acknowledgement of and fight for human rights, especially over the course of history.  These issues resonate through Cloud Atlas, Lincoln, and Django Unchained, and they predominate in A Royal Affair as well.  The politics at play here are every bit as vicious and partisan as in our time, or any of the time periods touched on by the other films.
     A Royal Affair is also a love story, though, and a rather unconventional one.  It is a story of forbidden love, fully realized.  It is the story of the love a man and a woman can have for all the people of the world.  In places, it is a tale of self-love, taken to abhorrent extremes.  It is also, and this is the part that got me, the love of a man for the one man who treats him like a friend (although a friend that he treats pretty poorly), rather than like a king.  It is a story of betrayal, yes, but also of forgiveness and acceptance.
     As I said, the acting in this film is tremendous.  Alicia Vikander's face is just made for the camera.  She is such a captivating presence onscreen.  She has an instinctual knack for emoting just enough to make you empathize with her without ever pushing the matter in a way that looks like she's trying.  Of course, it doesn't hurt that she's absolutely gorgeous.  Mads Mikelson first really caught MY attention in Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky, but general American audiences are more likely to have seen him in Casino Royale or Clash of the Titans.  His chiseled face, like Vikander's, can convey so much emotion with the slightest shifts of expression.  Their onscreen chemistry is searing, perhaps all the more so because by necessity it must exist mostly behind a veill.
     The performance that sticks with me most, however, is that of Mikkel Boe Folsgaard, as the slightly unhinged King Christian VII.  He gives the foppish monarch such depth of personality, so many sides and layers, that he becomes one of the most fully realized characters that I have seen in film this year.  Fear, courage, love, lust, loyalty, resignation, and every other extreme of human emotion are at play in a performance which takes the king through phases of hedonism, growth, regression, and defeat.  Maybe my favorite Supporting Actor turn of the year thus far.
     The film is also very impressive technically.  The camera work by cinematographer Rasmus Videbaek is interesting and mostly quite beautiful.  The sets are excellent;  Manon Rassmussen's costume design is actually much stronger than a couple of the current Oscar nominees.  But the best part about this film is that it is not flashy, but is highly effective.  It relies on story, characterization, and mostly understated drama to keep the viewer's attention.  It had mine.  4 1/2 of 5 stars.

Related Posts:  Cloudy Connections (Cloud Atlas review)

Friday, January 18, 2013

The Perfect Para-Killer

     With today's DVD reviews we will be covering an Animated Feature contender at this year's Oscars, a dysfunctional family drama with religious overtones, and a backwoods bloodbath.  A triple feature should start with a cartoon...

  Paranorman - This is the first feature presentation from writer Chris Butler, and I must say that it shows a lot of promise.  The basic premise is nothing terribly revolutionary.  It's the typical awkward child coming of age story told through the metaphor of supernatural powers that make the youngster misunderstood and ostracized.  As he comes into his own, the boy (Norman, naturally) must stop some threat that only he, by virtue of his own "otherness" can stop and save the town.  At which point, of course, everyone believes/accepts him not despite, but for ,his uniqueness...blah, blah, blah...we've ALL heard this one before from Buffy the Vampire Slayer through The Sixth Sense.  The thing is, the story is told so well, with so many interesting little bits of humor and original touches, that it doesn't really matter.
     This was also Mr. Butler's freshman effort as a director, although he shared those duties with more experienced hands, attached to Sam Fell, who previously directed both The Tale of Despereaux and Flushed Away.  The pair seem to work together well, creating a more unified and singular vision and tone for their film than many a solo director is able to pull off.
     They certainly coaxed some great voice work out of the actors.  Kodi Smit-McPhee (the kid from The Road and Let Me In) is great as Norman, never falling into the predictable sing song patterns that often characterize voice over work for child characters.  The supporting cast is also uniformly impressive, including such familiar names as Anna Kendrick (as Norman's older sister), Christopher Mintz-Plasse (as Alvin, the bully who hounds Norman), Leslie Mann (as Norman's mom Sandra), and Elaine Stritch (as Norman's ghostly grandmother).  The notable stand-out is John Goodman as Norman's Uncle Pendergrast.  Argo,
Flight, now this...the man's had a great 2012 body of work.
     Before I go, I simply HAVE to mention that this film was just nominated (in addition to Best Animated Feature at the Oscars) for GLAAD's annual media awards, becoming the first PG rated film ever to receive such a citation.  (WARNING: SPOILER)  This is due to the inclusion in the central cast of an openly gay character in the form of local jock Mitch (played perfectly by Casey Affleck).  The best part for me is that not only is the character an atypical representation of a gay man, you never even know or suspect that he IS gay (although he does ignore an awful lot of advances from Norman's sister), until right at the end of the movie.  As far as I know, Mitch is the FIRST openly gay character in any mainstream, animated family film anywhere ever.  So, on a personal note, thank you for writing Mitch, Mr. Butler, and for writing him well.
     The best animated film I've seen so far this year.  Unless you're allergic to cartoons (I'm usually okay if I take a Benadryl first, myself), I highly recommend checking it out.  4 1/2 of 5 stars.

  Killer Joe - It's been a looooong time since director William Friedkin made The French Connection and The Excorcist.  His latest, Killer Joe, seems fresh, contemporary, and appears to be the rare film that people can find almost as shocking today as they found The Excorcist back in 1973.  This white trash thriller may not be anything TOO ground breaking or innovative, but you would certainly never guess that it had been helmed by a seventy-seven-year-old man either.
     Killer Joe benefits from what so many "ultra-violent" films seem to forget, subtlety.  Sometimes less is more, at least for a while.  The violence in Killer Joe is insidious and oppressive, but is only expressed physically in occasional spurts and starts for most of the picture.  But you never doubt that the entire film is about violence: physical, emotional, mental, spiritual, and fiscal.  It is about the violence we do to others and the violence others do to us.  It is about the violence that we let loose into the world everyday in ways great and small.  More than anything, it is about how violence begets violence in an exponentially escalating vicious cycle until it truly boils over, and when it boils over it erupts.
     Matthew McConaughey is superb.  I think this is my favorite performance of his entire career thus far.  He commits totally to the character.  He reminded me a little bit of Woody Harrelson in Natural Born Killers, which was the film in which I first glanced just how versatile an actor the Cheers alum was going to prove to be.  McConaughey's Joe is almost an archetype of the word sinister, but manages to skate just on the edge of going OVER the top, JUST keeping Joe within the realm of credibility.  I can't wait to see Mud, I can't wait to see Mud.
     The whole cast is great, actually.  Juno Temple is the stand out, I suppose, for her total commitment to the part of Dottie.  Just astounding.  Gina Gershon is deliciously treacherous.  Thomas Haden Church's effortlessly simple delivery makes one wonder how Dobber would have turned out without Coach around to keep him out of the trailer park. (Shivers!)  And Emile Hirsh was the perfect everyman of his environment.  I don't know how to say it better than that.
     This film is GRAPHIC.  It is not suitable for children.  I'm not entirely sure that it's suitable for adults either, but I kind of liked it.  4 of 5 stars.

  The Perfect Family - This little family drama from a writing and directing trio whose prior experience was mostly in short films (director:  Anne Renton, writers:  Paula Goldberg and Claire V. Riley) mostly serves two functions:  as a story of a family accepting a lesbian daughter, and as an acting vehicle for Kathleen Turner, surrounded by a cast that won't bring the film down, but won't outshine her.  It functions pretty well on both levels, and Kathleen is pretty fabulous, but the film as a whole is not terribly memorable.  3 1/2 of 5 stars.

Related posts:  I Think You "Argo"ing to Love It!Didn't Quite Take "Flight"

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Didn't Quite Take "Flight"

     Flight is a movie which suffers a little from over-hype.  First it was a major premiere at the New York Film Festival!  Then it was billed as Robert Zemeckis's triumphant return to live action film making!  Then it premieres and it becomes Denzel Washington's greatest role in years!  Then it releases and it becomes something of a box office hit, which should have been a no-brainer. Denzel is rarely BAD for box office and the film had a trailer that made guys think that it's a bad-ass action movie about a plane crash and women expect a heart wrenching drama in which Mr. Washington would make them laugh a little and cry a lot.  Suddenly, however, film awards commentators begin concluding left and right that this box office surge has elevated Flight (pardon me, sorry) to the level of serious Best Picture contender.  Whew!
     Fortunately, I think that I was able to keep my own expectations in check.  I really expected it to be a slightly sappy drama with a brief, extremely slick and well put together action sequence that would work well as a vehicle for Mr. Washington to make people laugh a little, and cry a lot, and maybe get some awards attention.  And that is pretty much what I got.  Is it his BEST work in years?  Maybe, but not in any hands down kind of way.  I thought that his work in Book of Eli was magnificent.  Someone trains a blind man to memorize the entire Bible and fight his way across a continent.  How many actors can sell that kind of premise?
     There is also some great supporting work being done here, particularly by John Goodman (who is so hot right now, someone give him that stand out role to get a Best Supporting nod under his belt already) who continues to illustrate why he is one of America's greatest character actors in a role that probably has less than ten minutes of screen time.  Kelly Reilly gives an engaging turn as Nicole, the young woman battling similar demons who becomes Whip (Washington)'s love interest.
     The thing that keeps Flight from being elevated (again, sorry, can't help it) above a mere actors' vehicle is ironically the thing that (outside of Mr. Washington's performance) the film is receiving the greatest accolades for:  John Gatins script.  It's not a BAD script, but it plays sort of like a TV movie of the week, where an estranged husband and father battles addictions.  At times, it verges on melodrama.  Especially when Whip invades his family's home.  And it tackles a "serious issue", but in a way that is fairly easy and sanitized compared to the life paths of most "addicts" that I have known.  Whip is presented his "rock bottom" in a courtroom on a shiny silver platter.  In real life, that experience is usually a lot more messy.
      Mr. Zemeckis should be happy with his film overall, however.  He indeed demonstrated that as a director he could still pull powerful performances out of live actors.  He did not create the kind of wholly original take on the world that he did in films like Forrest Gump, Back To The Future, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, but maybe that will be next time out.
     Technically, the film is sound.  The special effects sequence is brief, but seamless.  Ditto for the most impressive work done by the sound department.  This is also a pretty well shot picture, one of cinematographer Don Burgess's stronger efforts.
     Flight is a GOOD film but far from a great one.  Maybe you like shameless "message movies" more than I do, but a Best Picture nod for this flick would have been akin to the slot that was taken by The Blind Side a few years back.  That being said, Denzel is every bit as good in this as Sandy was in that, so maybe you should check it out after all.  3 1/2 of 5 stars.

Sister's Summer Sleepwalk

     This batch of home viewing options includes a return to narrative film making after a foray into the documentary field, a comedy act adapted into a movie, and a pleasantly twisted romantic comedy.  Might as well dive in...

  Sleepwalk With Me - I must admit that I only decided to check out this debut feature from writer/director/star Mike Birbiglia because it co-starred Lauren Ambrose and I haven't really seen her do anything since Six Feet Under was cancelled.  It turned out to be a pretty decent feature, a sort of anti-rom-com.  It did rely a little heavily on stand-up segments (not surprising considering that the auteur responsible is known mostly as a comedian), but told an original story and presented a few chuckles along the way.
     I was a little bit disappointed that the delightful Ms. Ambrose did not play a more substantive role, but the delightful and unexpected inclusion of Carol Kane in the cast (as the protagonist's mother) almost made up for it.  The movie was obviously made on the cheap, but sometimes it is about what you do with what you have.  3 1/2 of 5 stars.

  Red Hook Summer - It has been awhile since writer/director Spike Lee was at the top of his game, at least with films written as narrative fiction.  His heyday, of course, is considered to be during the late eighties and early nineties when he was making his little Brooklyn-set films, most famously Do The Right Thing.  So this small, intimate family drama set in the housing project of Red Hook in Brooklyn was like a beacon of hope that maybe he was poised for a great return to form.  Maybe if I hadn't raised my expectations so high, I would have walked away a little more satisfied.
     Instead, I'm mostly left sort of ambivalent about the film as a whole.  The script was okay, but definitely a little more preachy (literally) than was needed.  Mr. Lee used to have a little more thematic finesse.  Maybe working on documentaries has made his film making a little more literal in nature, but it did not suit his purposes here.
     The cast was also pretty uneven in both capability or execution.  Jules Brown, in the lead role of Flik Royale, definitely gets top honors.  His performance is the best thing about the picture, and he anchors it nicely.  Unfortunately, he plays opposite the casts' weakest link in Toni Lysaith as Chazz Morningstar.  Her line deliveries are stilted enough to halt otherwise touching moments between the kids right in their tracks.
     And it was sort of like that for me.  Some good.  Some bad.  Some expectations I'll try to keep bottled up when Oldboy comes out later this year.  2 1/2 of 5 stars.

  Your Sister's Sister - I had never really noticed actor Mark Duplass before I saw Safety Not Guaranteed earlier this year.  He was good in that film;  in this one he's better.  The whole leading trio of this film is pretty great.  Emily Blunt and Rosemarie DeWitt round out the cast as half sisters who wind up at their family cabin with Duplass's character one weekend.
     I guess you could bill this as one of the best acted and scripted rom-coms of the year and probably feel pretty safe in that statement. I am unfamiliar with the earlier works of writer/director Lynn Shelton, but this picture had greater depth of character development than most flicks of it's genre.  This sets the talented cast up nicely, each finding multiple opportunities to shine, both dramatically and comically.  A few interesting twists are thrown in, keeping the plot pleasantly clear of formulaic. My top recommendation of the post.  4 of 5 stars.

Related Post:  Deep Part of Safety (Safety Not Guaranteed review)

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Anna Conundruma

     Director Joe Wright (Hanna, Atonement) makes some very bold choices in this latest film adaptation of the classic Russian novel Anna Karenina.  He employs a play within a film technique with scenes that take place on an actual stage, transactions between locales that happen across a theatrical catwalk, etc., played against scenes that take place on location like in a normal film.  This approach, one assumes, is meant to play up the artifice of all storytelling mediums, while juxtaposing this perspective with ultra-realistic moments that demonstrate how invisible the artifice can be.  I love the concept of this show them the strings, then hide them again method.  It's a very creative way to view an old and oft told story with fresh eyes.
     It should have worked, and it did on most levels.  It was technically brilliant, an absolute feast for the eyes, but more on that later.  The problem with such a stylized and experimental take on a film is that the acting must be that much more engaging to make us believe in the characters (especially when you keep reminding us that they are characters).  I hate to single out actors unduly, but Aaron Taylor-Johnson is not having a good year.  His performance in Savages brought that film down, and I'm afraid that the same can be said here.  He is so prancing and preening, and over the top as Vronsky that I lost all emotional investment in every scene he was in.  When coupled with the swirling bits of changing scenery, I lost all of my disbelief.
     But Ms. Keira Knightley, she swung for the fence in every scene, in the best possible meaning you could attribute to that metaphor.  In her moments by herself, as well as with the film's other principles (not so much Vronsky), she would inevitably draw you back in.  Jude Law (who would have been a great Vronsky fifteen years ago) is slightly stilted, but mostly impressive as Karenin.  Particularly impressive is Alicia Vikander as Kitty.  Coupled with her performance in A Royal Affair (review forthcoming), she is becoming one to watch.  Her scenes opposite Knightley, and those opposite Domhall Gleeson, are some of the most redeemably captivating of the film.
     As I said, the film is really quite amazing technically, beautiful to watch.  I can't argue too hard about any of its four Oscar nominations (Costume, Production Design, Cinematography, and Score).  I could have even bought nominations in Make-Up and Hairstyling or Editing.  Jaqueline Durran is an obvious heavy hitter in the Costume race, but I wouldn't be surprised if cinematographer Seamus McGarvey might not be a bigger threat than anyone (including me) took him to be, despite the obvious genius of his lensing on this production.
     While I might not have liked Anna quite as much as I enjoyed Mr. Wright's last film, Hanna, I would still say that it is a grand experiment which almost worked and is well worth checking out.  It is HIGHLY worth checking out if you are in the mood to stare blankly at the screen while amazing pictures float by.  I'm just saying.  4 of 5 stars.

Related Posts:  Of Snubs and Triumphs (response to and analysis of Oscar nominations), Savage Men in Oslo (Savages review)

Ted Butters Up the Polisse

     In this crop of DVD reviews we cover a coming of age tale with scatalogical references, a French police procedural, and a clever little political satire.  Let's get hoppin...

  Butter - This is the first screenplay that writer Jason A. Micallef  has seen produced and he is to be congratulated.  This little satirical take on the 2008 election cycle is constantly charming and at times a little brilliant.  It could have been much more timely with an earlier release date, but thank goodness it was finally released this year.
     Kudos are also well deserved for director Jim Field Smith.  He manages to establish a tone that is just offset from reality.  Close enough that we still care about the characters.  Off enough that we keep looking for what else is being said.  He also pulls great performances from a strong ensemble cast including Ty Burrell, Hugh Jackman, Olivia Wilde, Alicia Silverstone, and Kristen Schaal.
     Two (well, three) performers really stand out, however.  First off, Yara Shahidi is fantastic in her first major film role.  She is cute without being precious. She is assertive without coming off as precoscious. Yet she is still just a child, and is often at her best when developing the parent/child relationship with foster father Rob Corddry, who is also pretty great in the movie.
     Finally, I must complement the lovely Jennifer Garner, who leads this cast most impressively.  Not only does she nail the role, but it is a character unlike any we've seen her play before.  I see newly proven range as a performer, and indications that she may make the transition out of her ingenue days more smoothly and successfully than had previously been anticipated.  See it...4 of 5 stars.

  Polisse - I'm a little perplexed as to what the Cannes jury that awarded this fillm its jury prize was thinking. There are some directors who can star in their own films while performing their other role quite effectively:  Woody Allen and Ben Affleck come to mind.  French actress turned auteur Maiwenn does not appear to be one of them.
     When this gambit fails, it is usually because too little attention is paid to either one's own performance or the performances of the ensemble and the tone of the film as a whole.  Polisse falls into the latter category.  In tone the film is like some cheesy seventies American cop buddy TV show.  There is a scene in a disco that fails to meet even that standard.  The director seems unable to even look beyond her own performance enough to guide Joey Starr, who overplays the role opposite her own.
     Maiwann's own performance is more solid, but Frederic Pierrot (Sarah's Key, I've Loved You For So Long) gets best in show.  The seasoned vet probably didn't require much direction.  These two performances save the film from an even lower rating, still...2 of 5 stars.

  Ted - Seth McFarland has been having a real break out year with the film industry.  He's hosting the Oscars, and has an actual nomination for Best Original Song.  All because of this little movie.  The summer film that was an unexpected critical and box office hit, relatively speaking.  I wanted to really like this movie, but, honestly, it was just OK.
     Mila Kunis was my favorite thing about the film.  She uses the same understated approach that works well for her on Family Guy.  It mostly plays here as well.
     I guess my problem with Ted is the same problem that I have with Family Guy.  One clever little thing that catches my attention and/or funny bone, then ten fart jokes.  All the time.  It stops being funny to me.  I may sound like the stodgy old guy, and maybe I'm just not cool enough.  I don't know...3 of 5 stars.

Related articles:  Restless Nostalgia is the Key (Sarah's Key review)

Monday, January 14, 2013

Hide Prep For Harem?

     I had every reason to root for Hyde Park On Hudson.  It had a terrific cast lined up.  It was based in one of America's most interesting historical periods and based around one of America's most interesting presidents.  It also gave the great Bill Murray an opportunity to stretch himself as an actor.  Despite a relatively inexperienced writing and production team, my hopes were high.
     Were my hopes realized?  Well, some of them.  The film was very uneven.  In fact, in places it was almost like it was two different films.  One of them was about the visit from the King and Queen of England to enlist the aid of the President and First Lady of the United States with what was rapidly turning into World War II.  On this level, the film actually works quite well.  The second film is about FDR's young cousin learning how to fit in as one of his myriad mistresses.  Hence the article's title.  This storyline....well....
     The performances from the first family and the royals were all first rate.  The Olivias (Williams and Colman) were a bit underutilized (as Eleanor and Elizabeth respectively), but made the most with the limited material they were given.  Ms. Colman's interaction with her husband the king (Samuel West) are particularly notable for comic timing.  Mr. West is really quite extraordinary as Bertie.  I think I may actually prefer his interpretation to Collin Firth's at times.
      The real stand-out, however, is Bill Murray as F.D.R.  In this respect, the film is completely satisfying.  Although I love Bill Murray, and consider him one of our great comedic actors, in all of his previous work he has played some variation of the same character.  Most of his characteristic mannerisms and verbal ticks have been present no matter what role he was playing.  I do not think, after seeing his work here, that we can still say the same.  The Bill Murray persona is completely swallowed by that of the president.  The actor becomes lost in the character.  Bravo.
      As I've said, the other side of the story doesn't fare as well.  Laura Linney (as the cousin/mistress) is almost completely unsympathetic.  Basically, her story line consists of her gradual seduction by the President followed by her indoctrination by presidential secretary and fellow mistress Missy (played by Elizabeth Marvel).  Linney's Daisy comes off as weak,easily molded and manipulated.  The role was a bit of a miscast for an actress so skilled at portraying great strength.
      I do not think that the blame for the uneven nature of this film can be placed on the production team, untried though they may mostly be.  Technically the film is fairly slick.  Particular credit is due to Production Designer Simon Bowles who did a really fantastic job.  I don't even think that the fault lies particularly with director Roger Michell who did draw some pretty great acting out of many of his cast members.
      The real problem is with screen writer Richard Nelson's script.  I'm not really sure why the dual storyline technique was employed at all.  If the film had just been about the royal's visit to America, it could have been a much stronger piece.  The only thing I can think of that might have prompted this story's other plotline is a desire to demonstrate how a leader's personal relationships don't really have any effect on how well they can lead.  The point is valid, but do we really need a movie about it?  Considering the impeachment debacle during the Clinton administration, maybe we do, but I would have enjoyed more of FDR and the King.
      Still, the film is worth watching just for Murray.  3 1/2 of 5*

Seeking the Queen Raven

     In today's reviews we will be taking a look at an apocalyptic dramedy, a happy accident of a documentary, and a highly disappointing thriller.  Somewhat of a mixed bag, but let's open it anyway.  First up...

  Seeking a Friend For the End of the World - I am very picky about my comedies, but Steve Carell in the starring role is usually enough enticement to get me to check one out.  I find his ability to play even the most bizarre situations in a perfectly believable manner to be unparalleled in his generation, matched only by the great Bill Murray.  He is in typical top form here, even if the script is just slightly above average.
     I have not seen Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist, the film produced from screenwriter and director Lorene Scafaria's first script, but I am not particularly blown away by her sophomore effort.  There is some potential in evidence here, but it is far from realized.  The movie falls into the trap that many dramedies do and becomes too middle of the road.  The funny parts are too subdued, and the thematic development fails to go deep enough.  Everything becomes "kinda funny".
     Fortunately, Mr. Carrell and co-star Keira Knightley have excellent chemistry onscreen as well as terrific mutual comic timing.  This keeps the film watchable.  The picture is also improved by the presence of several notable supporting turns by performers such as Connie Britton, Patton Oswalt, and Melanie Linsky, just to name a few.  Thanks to the high caliber of acting involved, I do give this film a reserved recommendation.
3 1/2 of 5*

  The Raven - I had this real thing for the works of Edgar Allen Poe in high school, so no amount of poor reviews were going to keep me from checking this film out.  What did I think?  Well...
     I know director James McTeague is capable of better.  V for Vendetta was flawed, but FAR better than this.  I imagine him sitting behind a greasy recipe book and reading...
  Add 1 part Sherlock Holmes to 1 part Se7en and 3 parts cheese.  Several shots of vodka.  Stir until soggy but far from smoothly blended.  Have former respected indie star recite lines over phone into batter.  Preheat    expectations as high as possible, then leave concept in oven until thoroughly half baked.  (Try to stay awake until it is finished). Serve with relish.
     Mr. John Cusack is a talented actor with a wry sense of wit.  Projects like this and the disaster flick 2012 completely fail to utilize his strongest skill sets.
     If the film has one saving grace, it is that Alice Eve delivers a beautiful reading of "Annabelle Lee".  Told you I had a thing for Poe.  1 1/2 of 5*

     The Queen of Versailles - Sometimes great things just happen, without really being planned.  Such is the case with this documentary.  It started out as a film about a family that was building the largest residential home in America, modeled after the French palace Versailles.  Unexpectedly, the family gets caught in the recent financial collapse and the story changes radically.
     Somehow the whole accidental storyline comes together beautifully.  Despite their opulent lifestyle, you feel for the family when they struggle.  Yet you have to laugh at them a bit at the same time.  All of the viewer's emotions become engaged and you can't help but walk away from the film feeling that all people, whatever divides of wealth or culture may exist between them, have more in common than seems readily apparent.  This is the first of director Lauren Greenfield's documentaries that I have seen, but I'm very interested to see what she does in the future.  I can easily recommend The Queen of Versailles.  4 1/2 of 5*

     And that's it for this time.  My reviews have fallen a bit behind my viewing, so forgive me if my next few posts seem a little bit rushed as I catch up.