Friday, March 29, 2013

Down with Sinister Lies!

     In today's crop of DVD reviews we reap the French equivalent of The Big Chill, another preachy film about failing schools & a horror film that was actually pretty good for once.  Might as well dive in...

  Won't Back Down - You know, this picture has made me a believer.  No, not about the problems in our modern school systems, I was already a believer about that.  It has made me a believer that even someone as talented as Viola Davis faces great difficulty finding decent roles as a middle aged black woman in Hollywood.  How else can you explain the two time Oscar nominee accepting this role in Won't Back Down?  She does a great job (as always), but even someone as seasoned as she is unable to elevate this material into something more.  Maybe they should have given her the Oscar for The Help while they had the chance.
     That explains her choice, I suppose, and actresses Holly Hunter and Rosie Perez haven't exactly been beating offers off with a stick the last few years either, but didn't Maggie Gyllenhall get nominated for an Oscar for Crazy Heart just a few years back?  And she follows that triumph up with this film and Hysteria?  I'm a little lost.
     I'm sure that when Daniel Barnz (who also directs) and Brin Hill sat down to write this screenplay, it was with the best of intentions.  I'm sure that they really wanted to call attention to the problems of American schools, celebrate those who are working to fix it, and inspire others to do the same. They might as well have written a greeting card.  What they've produced is an obvious and cloying message movie.  Message movies belong on television as after school specials, but occasionally they get enough stars attached to them that they wind up on the big screen.
     The performances by the two lead actresses DO make the film somewhat watchable, but all in all it's a bit of a snoozer, unfortunately.  To Ms. Davis and Ms. Gyllenhall, demand that your agents find you something worthier of your talents.  This time, Don't Back Down...3 of 5 stars.

  Sinister - I have not seen writer/director Scott Derrickson's creation The Exorcism of Emily Rose but now I feel as if maybe I should go back and watch it.  I love a GOOD horror movie, but even a Movie Frog like me sees so few of merit nowadays.  They mostly go in for the gross out, replacing elements like suspense and mystery with blood, guts, and (cheap looking) special effects.  That is not the sort of film that Mr. Derrickson and co-screenwriter C. Robert Cargill have crafted here at all.
     Sinister is full of suspense AND mystery.  It has a sufficiently original villain with a credible back story.  It goes for creepy more often than it goes for shock value (the slow motion movements of the ghost children who vanish in such a way that you can almost see them dimension hopping is a particularly nice touch).  It takes some effort to craft interesting characters, and builds a sub-plot of family drama that actually works.  It tells a real story that actually somewhere.
     Of course, it doesn't hurt to have a capable veteran actor like Ethan Hawke in the lead.  He plays the part for all it is worth without ever going too far over the line.  We share his curiosity, frustration and terror because it is always in reaction to what has happened.  His acting never telegraphs what is coming; the viewer believes that he is just as surprised by every twist as they are.  Relatively unknown supporting players Juliet Rylance (as his wife) and James Ransone (as Deputy So-and-So) also lend much stronger back up than you usually expect from this oft-maligned genre.
     The best part, however, is that Sinister doesn't fall apart in the third act.  The threads of the mystery all come together into a cohesive whole.  While the big reveal was a scenario that had occurred to me, I never knew for sure how things would work out until they actually did.  There was no deus ex machina, no plot holes, and no collapse of characterization.  It all made sense.  I'm sure there will be a pointless sequel, and it will disappoint terribly.  Until then, I'm going to just be thankful that The Cabin in the Woods wasn't the only good scare that 2012 had to offer...4 of 5 stars.

  Little White Lies - In many ways, French director Guillaume Canet's latest film Little White Lies is just a typical movie about a group of friends in their thirties and forties who get together once a year and go on vacation.  It contains an added twist in which one of the usual suspects is back home in the hospital after a terrible accident on his motor bike, but largely it is full of the sorts of twists, turns, and yes, "little white lies" that are typical of such a film.
     What makes it a much better watch than it sounds like is the phenomenal cast of French stars, many of which you may actually be familiar with.  Marion Cotillard (La Vie en Rose, Inception) is a given as she makes as many films in English as she does in her native tongue (maybe more).  Francois Cluzet became world famous just this year for his star turn in The Intouchables.  Gilles Lellouche first came on my radar in the excellent thriller Mesrine: Killer Instinct.  Jean Dujardin is, of course, the recent Best Actor winner for The Artist.  All do great work here (even if Dujardin's screen time is rather limited), and make the film worth watching, even if you do feel a bit like we've been here and done this...4 of 5 stars.

  Related articles:  The Help reviewHysterical Peace of Purgatory (Hysteria review), The Cabin With the Goods (The Cabin in the Woods review)

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Dark Clouds Beautify "Silver Linings"

     The films of director (and often writer) David O. Russell are very hit or miss with me.  I do, however, usually prefer works in which he at least collaborates on the screenplay (Three Kings) to when he merely directs the product of other writers (The Fighter).  Even in the Fighter (which I opine to be his most over-rated movie) he is a great actors' director pulling amazing performances from his cast.
     Silver Linings Playbook may be his finest film to date.  He adapted the screenplay himself from the novel "The Silver Linings Playbook" by Matthew Quick to marvelous effect, crafting characters that are vividly complex and dialogue that is both witty and poignant, often at the same time.  In many ways it is a very traditional romantic comedy, except that we are equally drawn to and frightened by both of the lead characters.
     It is a very well made film.  Both cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi (who also turned in great 2012 work in The Grey) and editors Jay Cassidy and Crispin Struthers (who earned an Oscar nod) turn in great, understated work.  The reason these men's work is so impressive is that the camera angles and cuts were utilized in a way that perfectly highlighted the jobs being done by the actors.  Make no mistake; Silver Linings Playbook is first and foremost an actor's showcase, but it transcends that label in the same way that it transcends being merely a rom-com.  If you have any doubts, look up how many other films have scored an Oscar nomination in EVERY acting category.  Not many.
     I don't know what I can really say about Jennifer Lawrence's Best Actress winning performance that hasn't already been said.  I also don't know how I can praise the actress herself in a way that I haven't already here at The Movie Frog.  Her portrayal of Tiffany is complex, haunted, acerbic, clever, desperate and tough in an unlikely blend of personality traits that completely, 100% WORKS in every frame of the film that she graces.  Unlike Pat, she embraces who she truly is, even the parts that are "sloppy and dirty" and this gives her the ability to help him learn to embrace his own truth in a way that no one else can.  Ms. Lawrence is easily in the top of her class.  She is the youngest actress I know of, save maybe Saoirse Ronan, to have achieved such a polished and mature screen presence.
     I have been watching Bradley Cooper's career pretty closely since his days on TV's Alias, to The Hangover, to now (with several steps in between) and have always thought that he had the potential to do more. Yet, even I am completely blown away by his work in this movie.  As Pat, Mr. Cooper gives a performance that is both gloriously over the top and utterly sincere at the same time.  As an  unmedicated manic-depressive, Pat must volley between such extremes of emotion, yet we are never allowed to lose sympathy for him.  In even his most volatile states, Mr. Cooper always manages to let the viewer see Pat's heart, the heart of a man who is earnestly and desperately trying to be better.  In a VERY competitive year, no one can possibly begrudge this man his first Oscar nod.  I can't wait to see what he does next.
     Robert DeNiro plays Pat, Sr. in the film, and at this point it is just a cliche to talk about how this is his best work in many years; it is though.  Of particular significance is that fact that Pat is Pat, Jr., because Pat the elder is every bit as desperate and quirky as his son, in his own way.  His heart is also just as sincere.  All he really wants is to understand and have a relationship with his son.  The two are very much alike, although neither seems to realize it in the early part of the film.  DeNiro gives a multi-layered performance that rings true even at its most ludicrous points.  I'm not sure that I've ever seen a role in which the actor has been provided with the opportunity to so fully employ his entire bag of tricks (dramatic and comedic) in such a fashion.  I sincerely hope that Hollywood takes note that this living legend has a lot more to offer than just a name that can still draw a little box office, and gives the man a little more to work with than he has often been afforded of late.
     The rest of the ensemble is also fantastic, most notably Jackie Weaver.  The first time she was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar it was for playing the nastiest character in Animal Kingdom, a film not lacking for nasty characters.  This time she plays the most normal member of her household and the center of sanity and sweetness that holds the family together.  I can't say I found her to be QUITE as captivating here as in the former flick, but it always nice to see someone display so much range in their acting.  Chris Tucker gives the best performance of his career as Danny, Pat's friend from the clinic.  In this role Mr. Tucker is able to give all his manic zaniness to us without diminishing how believably either his character or the picture plays as a whole.  Julia Stiles is also delightfully snooty and caustic as Tiffany's sister.
     To sum things up, Silver Linings instantly ranks as one of the great romantic comedies.  What really sets it apart are the characters.  We root for Pat and Tiffany not because they are the cutest, most lovable people on the planet, but because they (like ourselves) are flawed human beings who could see themselves as unlovable.  We cheer when they triumph because ANY sort of victory for them confirms that love might still be possible for any one of us.  After all, it only because they surround dark clouds that Silver Linings brighten the sky as vividly as they do...5 of 5 stars.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Breaking the Undefeated Motors

     DVD reviews today shall include:  the final installment of the most successful series of movies based on young adult novels ever made, the 2011-2012 winner for Best Documentary (finally!) and a French film that might just be the strangest movie of the year.  Let's hop to it...

  The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2 - I have managed to avoid reviewing any of this series of films up until now because I didn't want to get egged by any of the Twi-hards in my life after skewering some of the pretty awful previous installments.  This film was a little better than any of those, so I feel a little bit safer telling you what I thought of it.  Of course, the credit may go largely to the source material, as Breaking Dawn was by far the best of the novels (which a friend forced me to read a few years ago with the continuing promise that they would get better as the series progressed).  This may owe to the fact that there is more story actually going on.  The whole Edward/Jacob/Bella triangle has been resolved and the film can concentrate more on all the cool things that vampires can do in author Stephanie Meyer's world.
     The acting is still a little stilted, although recent work by Pattinson and Stewart in other films has suggested that the silliness of some of the dialogue and long melodramatic close-ups may have more to do with this than the talent of some of the actors involved.  Well those factors, and having to try and play off of Taylor Lautner.
     Oh, and guys who have been forced to sit through this whole series by their wives and girlfriends finally get a little payoff in the form of a stylishly choreographed and actually quite well executed fight scene.
     Otherwise, the film is a little too maudlin when it is sad, a little too ecstatic when it is happy and a little too precious overall for this Movie Frog's tastes.  It IS a little more exciting that the first four films though...3 1/2 of 5 stars.

  Undefeated - I am not a big fan of football and a documentary about a scrappy come from behind football team from an underprivileged school that turned their fortunes around to make the play offs just didn't sound like my cup of tea at all.  However, co-directors Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin (both of whom had one far less successful documentary to their credit working separately) didn't really make a movie about football.  Instead, they have made a film about hope.  It is about how the selfless act of giving by one man can inspire hope in a group of young men.  It is about how that hope can foster self-respect in them.  It is about how these attributes can spread to their community.  It is also about the set backs and road blocks that will inevitably spring up along the way.
     While the giving, loving nature of Bill Courtney who, having grown up without a father himself, serves as both coach and surrogate male role model to this team is touching and powerful, it is the three players that the pictures narrows its focus to that really break your heart and then put it back together again repeatedly.  O.C. Brown is the star of the team who is depending on a football scholarship to make college (that and a minimum entrance exam score that seems nearly unreachable).  Chavis Daniels is the troubled youth with a bad attitude returning after a stay in a juvenile detention center.  The one who almost made me cry, however, was Montrail "Money" Brown.  Unlike the others, football was not going to be his way out, his grades would be enough to get him into college.  Football was, though, the thing that had given him the inspiration to realize his academic potential by giving him discipline and a sense of self-worth.  When he is injured early in the season it looks like he may be sidelined for the rest of his senior year.
     In short, this doc exceeded all the expectations that I had going in, even with its Oscar win for Best Documentary Feature a little over a year ago.  By focusing on the human elements, the directors have made a picture that can draw in even the most resistant viewers.  Even a non-fan like me was cheering the team on during the actual games by the end of the season in a way that I never cared enough to do for my own school teams.  If you ARE a fan of football already, the boys run a hell of a season that will keep you on the edge of your seat and the rest will just be gravy...5 of 5 stars.

  Holy Motors - This is the first film that I have seen from French writer/director Leos Carax and I found it to be confounding, frustrating, highly original, and completely unpredictable.  I had really hoped to catch this one in the theater but it was only out in Atlanta for a short time and I missed it.  I'm sort of glad because it was the sort of film that demanded an immediate reviewing to begin to make sense of this confusing bit of cinematic pandemonium.  It has a little bit of everything: sex, violence, fatherly advice, video games, a flower munching gnome and one impromptu musical number from Kylie Minogue.  Confused?  So was I for most of two viewings, but I think it finally makes sense to me mostly.  I'll wait for the Best of 2012 series (aka The Froggy Awards, coming soon) to let you in on my detailed analysis.  Doing so here would spoil the whole thing and I want you to have a chance to see it on your own first.
     The whole film rests on the shoulders of lead actor Denis Lavant, who gives one of the most amazing performances of the year.  Actually, he gives several, changing appearance, personality, age and gender before the viewers' very eyes over and over again throughout the course of Holy Motors.  Each role is just as unique and captivating as the last.  In only one scene do we see his TRUE (?) self expressed outside of the limo that seems to be his office and home. I think the only thing that I have seen Mr. Lavant in before this was the horrid The Temptation of St. Tony, but his performance here has completely eradicated his involvement with that monstrosity from my memory banks.
     Technically the film is also quite impressive.  I have mentioned elsewhere that I thought there were four films this year with far better Make-Up and Hairstyling elements than the three that the Academy chose to award with nominations and this is one of them.  Hair and make-up designer Bernard Floch did an amazing job of coming up with Mr. Lavant's different looks (many of which the actor applies to himself on camera).  Costume desiner Anais Romand also had a challenging task full of variety that she accomplished most impressively.  I would also like to commend cinematographer Caroline Champetier (whose excellent work I am familiar with from the 2010 film Of Gods and Men) for picking interesting angles that always kept things visually interesting even when confined to the interior of a limousine.
     For a film that seems to have no meaning for most of the first viewing, Holy Motors ends up having much to say on the prostitution of artists in the age of reality T.V. and ever present cameras.  It is also a piece about the fluidity of individual identity in a time that forces one to constantly reinvent themselves.  While it is a story that is told in a most enigmatic manner, it is a rewarding one if you are willing to put in the work needed to figure it out...4 1/2 of 5 stars.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Les MostlyAbles

      I first discovered the stage musical version of Les Miserables at age sixteen on a trip that my high school theater department took to New York.  It was love at first sight (sound?).  I don't think that I have ever literally cried so many times in a few hours in my whole life.  It quickly became my favorite Broadway show ever (okay, tied with Cabaret).  Obviously, when it comes to musical theater, I pull a little to the dark side.  Which is why I was concerned when I found out that Tom Hooper the (okay, yes, Oscar winning) director of The King's Speech was going to be helming the long awaited film adaptation of the play.  After all, this is the director who turned a story about disability and World War into a charming little lark about an unlikely friendship and now he chooses to take on the bloodiest, gloomiest musical ever made.
      Despite my reservations about what manner of mood shifts Mr. Hooper might bring to the piece, I couldn't deny that he had assembled an amazing cast and my anticipations ran VERY high.  Word that he was going to make the innovative move of having the actors singing live within the scenes rather than prerecording the voice tracks only fanned the flames of my excitement.  "So...", I hear you wondering, "Did Mr. Hooper remain true to the starkness of his source material or fall prey to his schmaltzier tendencies?".  The answer, sort of dispassionately, is: a little of both to be honest.
      On the positive side, the choice to have the actors sing live was a rousing 95% success.  One actor's lack of musical proclivity may have been accentuated, but the honesty of emotion that it lent to the rest of the performances is undeniable.  Hooper was also able to pull some terrific work out of MOST of the cast, as he did in The King's Speech.  The man is obviously a gifted actor's director.
     On the not so positive side, those with cinematically weak stomachs might want to take some Lactaid before viewing a FEW of the scenes.  I'll just give one quick example.  In the stage play, the song One Day More ends the first act as all of the characters join in slowly until it creates a tableau of the players that freezes with several members of the general cast hoisting French flags to complete the picture.  While slightly contrived, this is an accepted convention of stage craft that works in that medium.  In conversion to film, Hooper chose to show all of the individual characters singing their parts of One Day More in the separate locations where they would logically be at the time, which is great.  On the final note, however, Hooper flashes to random French citizens hoisting French flags in the street for no apparent reason and then cuts with no segue whatsoever to what was designed to be the beginning of Act II, Scene I, presented after an intermission.  This climax and (lack of) transition significantly undermine the inherent power of one of the most affecting numbers in the production.
      Besides a few cheesy directorial flourishes such as these, I really only find two faults with the film.    I really hate singling actors out and he's already taken a lot of flack from almost every reviewer on the planet, but this is not Russell Crowe's finest hour (or two and a half hours, but why quibble?).  Suffice it to say that this usually far more capable actor is horridly miscast, mostly because his singing is always strained and often slightly off key.  His acting suffers as well in the struggle to over-compensate.  My other gripe with the film is the Original Song "Suddenly" which lacks the (abundant) inspiration so obvious in the original libretto.  It was obviously thrown in just to garner one more Oscar nomination (which it did) and does nothing to enhance the already lengthy production.
     I'm sure by now it sounds like I didn't like Les Miserables and this could not be further from the truth.  There is a lot of really good stuff going on.  My personal affection for the source material just makes me very tough to satisfy completely.  However, I would recommend the movie for exposure to the story and music alone.  I have seen the film criticized for concentrating too much on the love story as if were some typical musical comedy but this could not be further from the truth.  Les Miserables is no simple happy-go-lucky boy meets girl tale.  Instead, it is a story about love can make the world a better place even in the most seemingly impossible situations:  love of freedom, the love of a parent for a child, love of humanity, the love of God, and...yes...romantic love.  I have also read a review by a writer who became frustrated with the endlessly repeating musical motifs.  To this reviewer I say, Les Mis is not really a musical, it's an operetta.  Such motifs are a basic component of the particular genre, carefully placed to subtly tie events, characters, and emotions together over the course of the show.  There are still more distinctive unique songs of memorable quality (that are sampled often, okay) than in any two Rodgers and Hammerstein "masterpieces" put together.
     Technically, the film is very strong in most areas.  I would say that some of the editorial choices (from Chris Dickens & Melanie Oliver) were a bit too obvious in their attempt to elicit emotion, creating the opposite effect in the active viewer.  This is easily the most ambitious project that cinematographer Danny Cohen has ever taken on and some of the work is absolutely breathtaking, but at other times the obsessive use of extreme close ups undercuts the emotion by overstating.  The Oscar winning Sound Mixing team of Andy Nelson, Mark Paterson & Simon Hayes were fully deserving of all accolades that they received. Not only was the work that they did absolutely groundbreaking, but the lack of lip synching actually accomplished exactly what it set out to do. Les Miserables sports an organic melding of sight and sound that many of the movie musicals commonly considered to be the greats of the genre fall well short of.  Lisa Westcott and Julie Dartnell also won an Oscar in the Make-Up and Hairstyling category.  While their work is impressive, I can't even really say that I agreed with the nomination. However, given the fact that NONE of the films that should have been in the mix (Cloud Atlas, anyone?) were even on the ballot, I can't begrudge this one the win.  The costumes, sets and props were all magnificent, earning Paco Delgado, Eve Stewart & Anna Lynch-Robinson well deserved recognition from the Academy.
     Still, what will captivate you most about the film version are the performances.  Hugh Jackman gives the best performance of his career so far, revealing talents and layers that took this reviewer completely by surprise.  We already knew he had training as a singer, but we had no idea his voice could penetrate the very soul the way that he does here.  Rarely can such extremes of emotion play so genuinely scene by scene and shot by shot but Mr. Jackman goes all in for every heart wrenching beat and works it out every time in what is truly one of the best leading performances of 2012.
     I am completely perplexed at all the animosity that has been launched like a guided missile at Anne Hathaway in direct proportion to her (admittedly endless and repetitive) success through the 2012 awards cycle.  What is it that people begrudge her?  Her talent? That would be understandable, if petty.    She brings the goods in this movie.  I had my doubts knowing how little of the story her character was actually in, but as Fantine she is a force of nature.
     I was actually a little let down by the way that the Thenardiers were handled and I had been soooo excited when I heard that Sacha Baron Coen and Helena Bonham Carter were going to be playing them.  Somehow their performances wound up a little more subdued than I expected, which is odd considering that they both specialize in going WAY over the top.  Director Tom Hooper does have a tendency to homogenize things a bit too much, so maybe his influence had something to do with it.  They both gave GOOD performances, don't get me wrong, but the scoundrel and his wife are the only comedy relief in a sea of misery, and both of these performers are capable of being wildly humorous and outrageous.
     Conversely, I was fairly ambivalent about Amanda Seyfried and Eddie Redmayne as adult Cossette and Marius before I saw the film.  I thought Ms. Seyfried was brilliant in the HBO series Big Love, but her film career has been built mostly on roles that didn't really allow her to demonstrate the depth of her capabilities.  The only thing I could remember HIM from off the top of my head was My Week With Marilyn, in which he was stifled by a fairly tepid script and production.  Plus, I have always found the young lovers to be the least interesting characters in the script (and let's face it "A Heart Full of Love" IS the weakest song in the original libretto).  I don't know how, but these two young actors blew Broadway out of the water.  Seyfried finally lives up to the promise of her beginnings and Redmayne's rendition of "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables" was heart wrenching in both its beauty and sadness.
     Eponine has always been my favorite character in the show and West End actress Samantha Barks had already played her countless times when she was approached about the role that would, in the end, also serve as her film debut.  It is easy to see why she was snatched up for the movie adaptation.  She is lovely, pitiful, miserable and desperate all at the same time.  Unlike many stage actors who foray into film, she uses no overblown facial expressions or exaggerated gestures.  Her performance is organically touching.  Hopefully, this will not be her last appearance on the big screen.
     If I'm being totally honest, I spent most of 2012 predicting awards glory for and overall brilliance from Les Miserable. While it did score a host of nominations, it didn't exactly work out like I predicted.  I so desperately wanted to give this film a big five out of five star rating, but it was good not great overall with moments that were much better and moments that were much worse.  Still, I would definitely recommend checking it out, especially if you have never been exposed to the wonderful music before.  Oh, and bring a tissue.  Bring two...4 out of 5 stars.

Related Articles:  Cloudy Connections (Cloud Atlas review)

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Perks of Being Samsara's Impostor

     In this trip around the fairgrounds, we will be exploring one of the best films largely overlooked during the 2012 awards season, as well as two documentaries: one about who mankind as a whole really is and another about a boy who that isn't at all what he seems.  And with a flick of my tongue...

  Perks of Being a Wallflower - Here at The Movie Frog, we love it when something excellent comes from the unlikeliest of sources: a drama about high school students who feel like misfits, for example.  Writer/director Stephen Chbosky's debut film, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, is just such a something.  He adapted his film from his own acclaimed novel of the same title, and it is a beautifully written story that translates so well to film that I can't help but wonder if he originally penned it with the idea in mind.  There is nothing trite about Perks, and nothing cliched, save the fact that it is a movie about high school outcasts, of course.
      As good as the story is, this film would never have worked without the trio of young actors at its core (and some able assistance from the adult supporting cast, particularly Dylan McDermott and Paul Rudd .
He's come a long way since Percy Jackson, and young actor Logan Lerman shows remarkable potential as Charlie, the freshman at the center of this piece.  Lerman delivers one of the most sincere performances I've ever seen.  Charlie is a very troubled young man, but is also portrayed with great innocence and intelligence.  Emma Watson blew me away as Sam, the older girl (senior) that Charlie falls for.  There is this scene where she stands up in the back of a truck as it drives through a tunnel that is more magical any spell she cast in her younger days.  Even her accent work is impressive.  Only once or twice did I catch even the slightest hint of British vowels and I was listening hard for them.  I am soooo glad to see Ezra Miller play a sympathetic role, easily proving as Sam's step-brother Patrick that he can be just as lovable as he was despicable in We Need To Talk About Kevin, or obnoxious in Another Happy Day.
          All three of these characters have had really difficult lives in their own ways and I don't mean because someone stole their lunch money.  They are not easy stereotypes and it takes time to figure out what's really going on with them.  In short, the are portrayed as real teen age individuals, one of the most endangered species on the planet (at least, when I was that age).  They reminded me of the people I hung out with in high school in a way that nocharacters of a film in this sub-genre ever have before.  I REALLY hope that "Perks" serves as a career launch for Chbosky and Lurman, and a major career bump for Miller and Watson.  They all deserve it...5 out of 5 stars.

  The Impostor - This is the debut feature film from documentarian Bart Layton, whose previous work has mostly been in television.  In it, he tells the story of a 22 year old homeless Frenchman who perpetrates a masquerade that he is actually a 16 year old boy from Texas who had disappeared years earlier.  Layton should be proud of the work he has done in The Impostor, as he has produced a captivating picture that indicates much promise for his future endeavors.
     It is told in a combination of interviews with the actual people involved and re-enactments of the events using actors to portray them.  The scripted bits bothered me a little, as I felt that they undermined the veracity essential to the documentary genre.  On the other hand, in the absence of much actual footage of the scenes being relayed, they did help to enhance the suspense of the film.  One also gets a strong enough sense of who the players REALLY are in the interviews, that the viewer leaves the picture feeling that they know as much of the true story as can be known.
      Overall, The Imposter is a good first film that tells a story with a lot of sinister twists and turns that I'm not going to reveal too much more about because it would actually ruin the viewing experience to know.  I found the story utterly implausible, but its hard to fault the movie for this when it is telling a true story...4 of 5 stars.

  Samsara - Director and cinematographer Ron Fricke is best known for the documentary Baraka, which I have never seen, but is very highly regarded.  It appears to have been composed very similarly to Samsara, both consisting entirely of images with no spoken words whatsoever.  Baraka was apparently a visual survey of spirituality and religion across planet Earth.  The word Samsara means the cycle of birth, life, death, and re-birth central to religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism.  The film does a very good job of representing this concept, again on a world wide scale.
     The picture reportedly took five years to film and edit, and it is easy to believe.  The images are striking, beautiful & diverse.  Traditional Chinese dancers are juxtaposed with sprawling city scapes, desolated natural disaster sites, baptisms and recycling plants.  Some of the images are so beautiful that it is difficult to believe that you are looking at real places and the scenes are ordered and spliced together to marvelous effect by Fricke and co-editor Mark Magidson (who also collaborated with the director on the concept and treatment).
     If I have one complaint about Samsara it would be that the score from composers Marcello De Francisci, Lisa Gerrard & Michael Stearns is a little TOO calm and lilting.  At an hour and forty-seven minutes with no dialogue, a little more musical variety in style and tempo would have been a balm to the attention span.  Otherwise, the film is an incredibly impressive and elaborate endeavor...4 1/2 of 5 stars.

  Related posts:  We Need To Interrupt Miss Bala (We Need To Talk About Kevin review), Happy Uncle Beaver (Another Happy Day review)

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

"Zero"ing in on a "Dark" Decade

     According to conventional wisdom, the two things that you should never discuss in polite company are politics and religion.  These also happen to be the two topics at the very heart of Zero Dark Thirty, director Katherine Bigelow and screen writer Mark Boal's controversial follow-up to Best Picture winner The Hurt Locker.  Not that The Movie Frog is afraid to be impolite (nope, I'm a pretty ruthlessly sarcastic amphibian), but I do have a lot of readers in the Middle East and other areas of the world where some of the the subjects in this film might be a little touchy.
     So, to get started, let me just say that this Movie Frog graduated from a high school in which my graduating class had members from all over the world, over fifty nations of origin represented.  By the time I was a teenager I had friends of all ethnic, religious, and political backgrounds.  I feel that growing up in this sort of environment was good for me because it taught me to appreciate mankind for the great variety that makes it up.  I cover English language cinema exhaustively, but I also try to cover a strong sampling of films  from all over the world, with an eye towards what they teach us about cultures and artistic traditions that are, well, somewhat foreign to most Americans.
     That being said, Zero Dark Thirty is very much about the United States and the American psyche in the decade following 9/11 and can only be analyzed from that standpoint.  Maya (Jessica Chastain)'s journey through the film is symbolic of the journey that we all took in many ways, to both our shame and honor.  Little in life is truly black and white, and there is darkness in even the purest of hearts.  If my analysis of this film proves offensive to anyone, I apologize in advance.  My understanding of certain situations may well be skewed or limited by my cultural perspective, as may yours.  Seeking to grasp this fact and trying to gain insight into OTHER perspectives is the only way that we can ever truly make the world a better, safer place to live in.  After all, we are ALL only human.
     Bigelow and Boal are carving out an impressive niche for their collaborations, producing two of the most profound artistic explorations of America's modern foreign policy in any medium.  Far from cheap propaganda, their work focuses instead upon individuals dropped into the middle of horrific situations and the effects wrought upon their psyches over time.  As with The Hurt Locker, I didn't entirely "get" Zero Dark Thirty until the very end, when I finally saw these effects clearly in a simple, silent scene.  From the film's inception when we are presented with a jumble of 9/11 news reports presented with the screen in darkness, rooting us firmly in the time of the action, but literally floundering in the dark surrounded by confusing noise.
     The movie's single Oscar win (or tie) for Sound Editing does not dole out nearly enough love for the production team, who have put together a tight, precise package.  Sound is indeed an important element in the film, expertly designed and implemented.  This shows in everything from the calculated breaks in the silence of the raid to the news reports that play in the background to keep our time line oriented (a technique employed much more subtly here than in Killing Them Softly, but Zero is a much more subtle film).  
      Sound is also used cleverly during phone conversations between the C.I.A. home offices and agents in the field abroad.  A chaotic din in the desert background punctuates the mayhem that is never too far away, while the quiet on the other end of the line is demonstrative of the imposed illusion of safety and order that exists in America.  As always, Alexandre Desplat produces an effective score that underscores the scenes emotionally without becoming maudlin.
      The film is quite visually impressive as well.  The Make-Up and Hairstyling team make excellent use of facial hair in much the same way that I mentioned background noise being used in phone conversations.  In America, the character Dan (Jason Clarke) is clean shaven as he tries to return to "civilization" whereas he had worn a bushy beard in the field.  When he is in Kuwait, he sports a beard, but a more neatly trimmed one.  The editing of the film (which earned William Goldenberg and Dylan Tichenor an Oscar nod) is marvelously timed; all of the film's shocks truly startle the viewer.  Particularly effective are the cuts between night vision and regular lensing during the raid, creating a surreal atmosphere to the film that mirrors the mind set of the disbelieving soldiers.  Cinematographer Greig Frasier also turns in impressive work, framing scenes of beauty and desolation with equal ability.
     The film's supporting cast give unanimously capable performances. Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Ehle, and Joel Edgerton are all particularly memorable, and James Gandolfini makes the most of very limited screen time in an uncharacteristically subdued performance.  The real stand-out, however, is Jason Clarke.  In Dan, he has embodied a character who is both the brute and the scholar, the man and the monster, all in one neatly tied up (and physically imposing) package.
     Zero Dark Thirty belongs, however, to Jessica Chastain, an actress still relatively new to film (although she already has quite a history on the Broadway stage), but able to convey more by the tilt of her head while in three quarter profile (her back ALMOST turned to the camera) than most actors can in a straight on close-up.  In two years on the big screen, she has already secured two Academy Award nominations (the first for The Help), playing two characters who could not be more different.  As Maya, she presents us with a complex individual who is also a symbol for ALL Americans, especially ones of her generation whose entire adult lives were rung in by the sound of post-9/11 funereal bells, who faced the scariest period in anyone's life during a time when EVERYONE in this nation was being run by fear.
     This picture was originally titled Kill Bin Laden, and I actually think that the name is more apt.  A friend that I talk about movies with on a regular basis disagreed with me when I told him this, stating that Zero Dark Thirty has more finesse.  However, this is Maya's film and the girl is not about finesse or niceties.  She has to fight everyone every step of the way and all of her best lines include the word "fuck":  "How do you like Pakistan so far?" " It's kind of fucked up"; "I'm the motherfucker who found the place."  Regardless of its rough directness, the title "Kill Bin Laden" is more to the point and sums up the whole purpose of Maya's adult life.  She is asked what else she has done in the role she was recruited for straight out of high school and her reply is "Nothing.  I've done nothing else."
     The film caught a lot of flack in the press because of the use of torture by American agents against the detainees.  It was accused on the one side of advocating torture, on the other of demonizing American agents just following their orders.  It is easy to attack it from both political poles because it doesn't really make judgments either way.  Torture is presented in the film as something that Maya must learn to accept to accomplish the daunting task set before her.  As the scene where Jessica (Jennifer Ehle) is killed after lightening up on safety protocols to put a potential ally at ease aptly demonstrates, these people are playing a game where niceness earns you death.  Still, utilizing these extreme methods IS shown to weigh greatly on the men and women who must do so.  Dan may start the film out appearing to be a hard-ass with a heart of stone, but we slowly see that he retains a connection to his humanity through his interaction with the monkeys kept on base.  When the monkeys are killed, he is actually unable to continue in his role in the field, returning home before he loses his soul entirely to the whole unpleasant business.
     Humanity is hard to come by in this crusade, and impossible to hang on to.  The one time that Jessica gets Maya to relax her guard, the cafe they are in is bombed, chaos rushing in to wipe the illusory pleasantries out of their lives, much as every new counter-strike to the war on terror drove home the fact that the world was not as safe a place as many of us in the West had come to believe.  Maya tells Jessica that she's not "that girl who fucks", and she's not.  She's the avatar of man's far more carnal impulses: the blood lust borne of dreams destroyed.  After the compound has been discovered, Maya writes the number of days during which nothing is done about it on her supervisor's window as a daily expression of frustration and impatience for these desires to be sated, for some degree of sanity to return to a culture that cannot sleep or see the world through sympathetic eyes until our collective boogey man has been vanquished.
     (I don't think spoilers are possible in a film where the ending is such current news, but here is your alert anyway - Froggy)
     After Bin Laden has been killed, the soldier who shot him wanders back downstairs in shock muttering "I shot the third floor guy", utterly disbelieving that his finger had just ended the worldwide manhunt that had kept  the world in suspense for nearly half of his life.  I remember feeling a little stunned and disbelieving myself when I first heard the news.  Maya's reaction is even more telling as the girl that no one could shut up for twelve years is reduced to saying only one word throughout the last ten minutes of the film.  She silently watches the chopper carrying the body approach in awe and wonder, then approaches the body bag with a unique blend of trepidation, excitement, and distaste like a child unwrapping some horrible but irresistible Christmas present.  This quest has been her obsession, but once it is finished she doesn't know who she is without it, and isn't sure she's ready to go back to a "normal" life knowing what she has allowed herself to become in order to "Kill Bin Laden".  As she finally allows herself to feel again it should be a catharsis, but instead she feels drained of both her humanity and the cause to which she martyred it.  Easily...5 of 5 stars.

Related Articles: Killing Them Affordably (Killing Them Softly review), "The Help" review

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Keep the Liars at the End of the Street

     In today's pile o' DVD's we have a last(?) word on a member of THE classic sketch comedy troupe, a disappointing horror flick, and this year's token gay male love story.  Time to dive in...

  Keep the Lights On - I regret to admit that I am unfamiliar with the previous work of either director/writer Ira Sachs or his writing partner on this venture Mauricio Zacharias.  In this film they tell the story of a gay couple and their on-again-off-again relationship over the years as one deals with drug addiction and the other never gives up on him.  It is a touching story that aptly demonstrates how strong the love between two people can be even when much of the world refuses to recognize what is between them as an expression of true love.  It is also a horrifying story of drug addiction and how easy it is to fall into such marginal sub-cultures when one has felt marginalized from society their whole life.  Unfortunately, to the gay male viewer, it is also rife with commonly addressed stereotypes.  Of course, many of these may appear less stereotypical to straight observers.  I'm sure that many Asian-American viewers may have found aspects of The Joy Luck club to be a little "pat", that were totally new concepts to the movie viewing public at large.
      Central to the success of the film is the performance of Thure Lindhardt (Into the Wild) as Erik Rothman, the more stable member of the couple.  His performance is simple and low-key through most of the movie, but explodes with emotion in all the right places.  In Erik, Lindhardt sculpts a character that is quietly strong, something we see too little of in films in general, and gay characters in particular.  I particularly love the way that his voice gets huskier and his verbiage less polished  when he gets on the phone with a potential hook-up.
      Zachary Booth (Nick and Norah's Infinate Playlist) plays Paul Lucy, who is in many ways the weaker character in the couple. His inability to accept his own homosexuality leads to his inability to deal with his substance abuse and his inability to get hold of his life throughout most of the film.  His performance is excellent in the thankless task of playing a role that is often unsympathetic.  I became so frustrated with his CHARACTER that it took me a little time after the film was finished to appreciate how boldly Booth has embraced even the more off-putting elements of the part.
     I certainly recommend checking out Keep the Lights On.  I should also add before we move on that it is refreshing to see that cinema (at least in other countries) continues to move beyond the notion that men merely kissing is radically risque.  The couple actually has sex scenes akin to what you would see a heterosexual couple having in a rated R movie, and they have real chemistry.  I guess my lack of enthusiasm is unfairly dropped in this picture's lap because I was hoping for the sort of "modern gay relationship manifesto" that we saw in last year's brilliant feature Weekend, one of my top ten films of 2011.  While "Lights" will NOT be cracking my top ten for the year, it has a strong shot at my top 50, in a HIGHLY competitive 2012...4 out of 5 stars.

  A Liar's Autobiography: The Untrue Story of Monty Python's Grahame Chapman - or...The Film With the Most Unnecessarily and Pretentiously Long Title of the Year Deserving of a Subtitle of Comparable Character and Duration...or...Grahame Chapman was a Size Queen.  I apologize.  I certainly am unaware of any other tone that would be appropriate when discussing an animated autobiography of the late Grahame Chapman: open homosexual, wry wit, and founding member of Monty Python's Flying Circus.
     The film is composed largely of new animation harnessed with vintage audio, strung together in such a way that Mr. Chapman narrates the story of his own life from beyond the grave.  Ingenious, irreverent, witty, and still a little inflammatory, even today.  It (frighteningly) may not be the most inaccurate biopic that you ever see, but it is probably the only one that admits it in the title.  I particularly love the depiction Chapman and his co-creators as feces tossing monkeys in his recollection of how they settled upon the name "Monty Python's Flying Circus".  It features the voice talents of all the regular players as well as Cameron Diaz (who plays Dr. Sigmund Freud).
     If you were a fan of the original BBC series, you have a pretty good idea of what to expect only with bolder homo-erotic references (and bolder sexual content in general).  If you are very young (or were home schooled right through your graduate studies), and are unfamiliar with the comedic stylings of this innovative pre-SNL sketch comedy troupe whose influence upon future generations of comedians and writers has been inestimable, then you should definitely educate yourself.  In a particularly strong year for animated films, this one stands out as one of the most unique, although be warned that it is not made for children...4 1/2 of 5 stars.

  The House at the End of the Street - Rarely is a sophomore directing effort as sophomoric as this one by Mark Tonderai.  It starts out okay and goes downhill from there. I don't know why I would have expected better from screenwriter David Loucka after last year's plot hole ridden Dream House, but he was partnered with Jonathen Mostow, who penned the expectation smashing U-571 many years back.  This film was full of predictability, and every mystery ended in the least interesting of all possible answers.
     I have been following recent Best Actress winner Jennifer Lawrence's career very closely since her first Oscar nomination for Hunger's Bone. Her starring role was my main attraction to watching this film and probably was the source for much of the picture's box office return.  For what's it is worth, the film WAS elevated a little by her inclusion.  She was great as always.  Let's hope that with her recent Oscar win and the financial success of The Hunger Games franchise, she will no longer feel the need to settle for insipid projects like this one...1 1/2 out of 5 stars.

  Related Articles:  Belle Had a Killer Weekend (Weekend review), Best of 2011 - Best Picture ConcludedKilling the Dream Contagion (Dream House review)

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Hardly Without a "Hitch"!

     Hitchcock, the biographical film detailing how the famous "master of suspense" got Psycho (undoubtedly one of the best horror films of all time) made against the better judgement of everyone he knew, was a late entry into this year's awards cycle. It immediately sparked all sorts of speculation as to what sort of awards glory the producers, publicists and/or studio execs thought that it might be headed.  An ambitious campaign was launched for the film, stimulating buzz for everything: Picture and Director, the acting categories, Costume Design, you name it.  In the end, Helen Mirren received Best Actress nominations from the Globes, SAG, and BAFTA (the British Academy).  BAFTA also nominated the film for Best Make-Up, which was the only category that it received an Oscar nod for.  It was this lone Oscar nod that sent me running to the last theater showing the movie in Atlanta, knowing that I would never get a review published until it was long gone from the theaters...sigh.
     In truth, I'm not sure why Hitchcock was rushed into this year's awards season.  Surely it wasn't to secure one Make-Up nomination, but the picture overall was entirely mediocre. Director Sacha Gervasi had won some measure of acclaim for directing Anvil, but a documentary (even with some humorous overtones) is an entirely different beast than a piece of narrative storytelling such as this.  Likewise, screen writer John J McLaughlin was one of the three credited scripters attached to Black Swan, but had produced no solo works that won comparable acclaim.  They tried very hard to create a film that captured something of both the sinister and the wryly humorous aspects of the man (Hitchcock, that is) and his work, but somehow came off producing a cutesy imitation of both aspects.
     Of course, if you want to draw subtle strokes, a Danny Elfman score is not the best place to start.  Mr. Elfman is imminently talented at scoring fairy tales and super hero fare, but his musical movements are a little heavy handed for the tone that this piece required.  Production Designer Judy Becker has proven adept in contemporary settings (Silver Linings Playbook, The Fighter) and truly desolate period work (Brokeback Mountain), but the bright colors of the sixties came off as an art deco interpretation of art deco much of the time.  Jeff Cronenworth does the best he can on cintematography and manages to pull off some interesting shots, probably earning "best in show" as far as the crafts are concerned.  As for the Oscar nominated Make-Up, I can only say that sometimes less is more, as their "grand accomplishment" looked far more like Anthony Hopkins made up as Alfred Hitchcock than like Alfred Hitchcock.
     I feel bad for Anthony Hopkins, as his facial prosthetics and fat suit left him crippled as an actor.  He had to struggle to register much emotion on his face, and his physicality was severely limited as well, leaving him to act mostly with his eyes and voice.  He tries his best to overcome these limitations visually, but overcompensation for an immobile facial structure often results in wild and unrestrained eye movements that are difficult to believe.  As for the voice work, while he had Hitchcock's odd vowel sounds down pat, some of the cadence and choice of which words to emphasize rang false for me, not quite capturing "Hitch"'s trademark vocal inflections.  His chemistry with Mirren was perhaps the strongest part of Hopkin's performance, but to really pull off the playing such a larger-than-life, familiar figure, an actor really has to embody said personality the way that Streep did as Thatcher or Childe.  Hopkins is a talented actor, but while he doesn't give a BAD performance, he still falls short of that mark.
      Perhaps the BEST reason for rushing this picture into the 2012-2013 awards race was Helen Mirren.  At the time that the film's release was announced the Best Actress race was looking a little thin, and even with late entry Jessica Chastain muscling her way in for Zero Dark Thirty, I have to believe that Mirren was one of two actresses (the other being Marion Cotillard for Rust and Bone) that just barely missed Oscar nods.  She is easily the best part of the film.  Most of the best laughs result from her taking lines that were not particularly witty on their own and spinning them into some really clever comedy.  She brings out the best in co-star Hopkins in this regard as well.  To be completely fair to Mr. Hopkins, she does have an easier task, since the general public is not nearly so familiar with Alma as they are with her more famous husband Alfred.
     The rest of the cast do respectable, if not entirely outstanding jobs.  Scarlett Johanssen definitely comes across as far more than a pretty face as Janet Leigh. This makes me happy because the actress is often cast in roles where said face is the only requirement, despite the fact that she obviously has other talents.  The stand-out for me, however, was James D'Arcy.  As Anthony Perkins, he seemed to be the creepiest thing in a film about one of the creepiest directors who ever lived.  Taken with his (multiple) roles in Cloud Atlas, I would say that the actor is having a fine year indeed.
     Hitchcock had some entertaining moments, but failed to be much more than a film about a director getting a film made despite obstacles.  It tried to be also be a comedy, but outside of a few inspired line readings from Mirren and Hopkins, it wasn't very funny.  It also tried to say something about a man facing senior citizen status who wants to prove he's still everything he used to be.  Had Hopkin's face not been bound by so much make-up, maybe this thematic intent could have come across in a more inspirational or affecting manner, but it didn't.  In the end, the film was simply more flash than substance, disappointing in a biopic about a film-maker whose work was always so substantive....2 1/2 of 5 stars.

  Related Articles:  Rent and Honed (Rust and Bone review), Cloudy Connections (Cloud Atlas review)

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Singing Short Toons

     I would have loved to have gotten this up while the Oscar Nominated Shorts: Animated were still out in theaters but I believe that most of them can still be viewed online and they will be released as a DVD collection shortly.  They were simply too good not to devote a post to.  Since we know the winner already (and since I've already reviewed it), let's start with...

  Paperman - First, I'll reprint my original review (originally published with "If It Ain't Wrecked", attached to my Now In Theaters review for Wreck-It Ralph, posted January 22):
      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.
     I stand by the five star grade, but would like to add that the great thing about Paperman is that it is the first Disney production in years to recapture the flavor of delight that ran through the Disney feature films of the early-to-mid-twentieth century.  It was fully deserving of its win...5 of 5 stars.

  Adam and Dog - The debut film from director Minkyu Lee (who also works as an animator with Disney), this film is beautifully rendered and must be complemented for remaining tasteful while not presenting the residents of the Garden of Eden as odd, sexless neuters.  I loved this piece, but I'm not sure that it would tug at the heart strings of non-dog-lovers in quite the same manner...4 1/2 out of 5 stars.

  Fresh Guacamole - This is one of the shortest short films that I have ever seen at just two minutes in length.  As you might expect, this does not leave a lot of room for thematic or narrative development.  What it does contain is some of the cleverest, most creative animation that I have ever seen.  I'm not even sure how director PES managed to pull it off.  Watching Fresh Guacamole is like watching a REALLY good magic show, and is every bit as satisfying and refreshing as the name implies...4 1/2 of 5 stars.

  Head Over Heels - The only student film in the mix (by director Timothy Reckert), Head Over Heels is also the lengthiest animated short nominee this year at eleven minutes long.  It makes full use of its extended run time, however, to tell a complicated story about a husband and wife whose lives have become ruled by opposite gravitational poles.  Literally, she lives on the ceiling.  It is also a well thought out allegory about a couple whose lives have grown apart that want to learn to bring them back together again.  This is easily the most complex of these films in terms of story line, character development, and subtext.  It may have lacked some of the sheer charm of Paperman, but it was surely its strongest competitor for the win...5 out of 5 stars.

  Maggie Simpson in The Longest Daycare - I love the Simpsons.  I grew up on the Simpsons and it is still going strong after all these years.  However...while this short was the most classically structured piece for a theatrically released animated short, that was part of the problem.  It was everything that you would expect from a five minute Simpsons story about Maggie and her nemesis...and little else.  It was cleverly written and handily executed, but hardly innovative.  With such original competition, this left Maggie, for me, crawling along at the rear of this year's pack...4 out of 5 stars.

Related Articles:  If It Ain't Wrecked (Wreck-It Ralph review)

Saturday, March 9, 2013

The Kid With Broken Compliance

     In this set of DVD reviews we review an Oscar nominated documentary, the latest from the French Dardenne brothers and a creepy little drama that is one of 2012's great hidden gems.  Warning: This is a very strong set of films!!! Disclaimer: They are ALL currently available on Netflix Instant Play!!! Let's get hoppin...

  Compliance - In a year where so many of the big studio, traditional "Oscar bait" films have actually lived up to the hype, I confess that I have felt a yearning for some of the quirky, "little film" excellence of the 2011 film season.  Where are this year's Melancholia, We Need To Talk About Kevin, Tyrannosaur & Take Shelter?  I must say, after seeing writer/director Craig Zobel's little hidden gem Compliance, I feel like I have gotten my fix for a minute.
     Compliance is the sort of twisted, uncomfortable narrative that I would deduct points from for improbability, were it not based on a true story.  Every time that you think the story has reached the apex of wrongness, it warps a little harder.  I was physically tense while watching this movie.  It hurt a little bit.
     The picture is full of spot-on performances.  Ann Dowd (who won Best Supporting Actress from the National Board of review for Compliance and was nominated for a Critics Choice award) is the inarguable stand out as Sandra the fast food restaurant manager who becomes involved in a crime when she receives a call from Officer Daniels, played to eerie perfection by Pat Healy.  Dreama Walker, Philip Ettinger, and Ashlie Atkinson perform more than admirably as the restaurant staff and Bill Camp is truly inspired as Sandra's boyfriend Van.
     I don't want to give away too much, but Compliance is a study of the phenomenon sociologists refer to as "trained incapacity" (or at least they did when I took Sociology).  The term refers to how people (especially in structured, corporate style environments) become so focused upon the checklist of behaviors and procedures that they have been conditioned to remain in "compliance" with, that they are unable to think for themselves or do anything besides follow directions when faced with authority.  I have not seen any of Craig Zobel's previous work, but this insightful, riveting piece has me anxiously awaiting his next project...5 of 5 stars.

  5 Broken Cameras - One of the great things about documentary film making is that it is one of those art forms that occasionally occurs completely organically.  Someone sees something worth documenting in the world around them, picks up a camera, and before you know it they have accumulated footage that begins to tell a story.  If they are lucky, as first time film maker Emad Burnat was, they meet someone (like co-director Guy Davidi) who has already made a documentary and can help them finish the film and get it seen.  This is the highly warranted success story of 5 Broken Cameras.
      The film chronicles the slow incursion into Burnat's native Palestinian village by Israeli settlers, the passive resistance that he becomes a central figure in, and how the resistance is met.  The story is structured by what occurred during the life span of each of five cameras, recording a part of the story before being destroyed in the context of the tale they are telling.  The chronology of the film is also punctuated by the progression through early childhood of his youngest son, born in the picture's first scene.
     5 Broken Cameras is touching, informative, and told with very little agenda but much passion. It is also a telling first person look into a part of the world about which we in the West are given little true insight.  I can make no argument against its inclusion in this past season's list of Oscar nominees, and highly recommend checking it out.  4 1/2 of 5 stars.

  The Kid With The Bike - The French Dardenne brothers have been a small sensation on the international film circuit for several years now, but I regret to admit that The Kid With the Bike is the first of their films that I have seen.  It will not be the last.  It is typical of the sort of excellent drama about normal, everyday people with real world problems that the European cinema seems to handle so much more maturely than American films in the twenty-first century.  It addresses child abandonment, delinquency, and the meaning of family without every devolving into melodrama or coming across as a "message movie".
     The acting in this film is also excellent.  The cast never "pushes" for emotion, simply inhabiting the characters in a realistic manner and letting the story tell itself.  I went into the film expecting great things from the talented Cecile de France, already an admirer of her work in the two  marvelous "Mesrine" films.  She did not disappoint me at all, delivering another fine performance in a totally different sort of role.  Her thunder is stolen a LITTLE, however, by the film's young star Thomas Doret who has one hell of a debut as Cyril, the kid in "Kid".  This young actor had to portray great and disparate extremes of emotion in a film that sought to avoid histrionics of any kind.  He handled it like a much more seasoned performer would, giving us all of Cyril's hurt and frustration while perfectly maintaining the tone of his scenes.
     All in all, this is a professionally put together piece of movie making that manages to emphasize story and character above spectacle yet remains completely engaging.  The central characters are easy to relate to and care about.  Now I see the point of all the Dardenne-mania...4 1/2 of 5 stars.

Related Articles: Beautiful Melancholy Conspirator (Melancholia review), We Need To Interrupt Miss Bala (We Need To Talk About Kevin review), Edgar, the Mysterious Tyrant (Tyrannosaur review), Senna, Take 13 (Take Shelter review)

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Arantino Explained (The T is Invisible)

The Film in Which Tarantino Blows Tarantino to Smithereens

     Like most American college students in the early to mid nineties, I found Quentin Tarantino to be the herald of a new age of American cinema when I first discovered Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction.  Twenty years later, the Geek Guru of Film may STILL be trying to top those early triumphs, but even his weakest efforts show more creativity and cleverness than ninety percent of what's available at the box office.
     Django Unchained, however, is far from Tarantino's weakest effort.  It is a film with flaws, but many great moments as well.  I would rank it somewhere in the middle of the pack...not quite as strong as Inglorious Basterds, but still a bit ahead of the Kill Bill series (all of which I love, by the way).  It is also pure Tarantino: abrasive, irreverent, challenging and completely self aware of its more sophomoric tendencies.
     Which brings us, I suppose, to the obligatory accusations of racism thrown around when a white boy makes a film about slavery in which the "n-word" is tossed around casually and often.  Personally, I think that being offended by one of this man's movies is a lot like being offended by South Park:  you make yourself look far more ridiculous by your reaction than the movie was capable of making you look.  Quentin is an equal opportunity offender and lover of all mankind, which should be obvious to anyone who actually pays attention to his films.  The use of the "n-word" is not only historically accurate, but absolutely necessary to capture the thematic tone of ignorance and disregard for human rights that is central to the piece.  As for the institution of slavery itself, I don't think any film has ever presented it in all its disgusting barbarism in quite the stomach turning manner of Django.
     As I mentioned before, the film does have a couple of flaws, so let's get those out of the way first.  I regret to say that while Django the character is written brilliantly as a sort of Blaxploitation cowboy super-hero, Jamie Foxx's interpretation of said character falls a little bit short.  It's not a bad performance, and he does have some wonderful moments, but in its totality his performance lacks something of the bigger-than-life-yet-utterly-believable quality that his three primary co-stars deliver in spades.  Foxx has proven himself adept at both comedy and drama, but doesn't quite seem to catch the groove of the weird hybrid flavor essential to this material.
     I would also say that while Mr. Tarantino drew four wonderful, memorable characters at the center of this yarn, some of the peripheral talents were underutilized.  I was quite excited to hear about Kerry Washington's involvement in this project.  She is a highly talented young actress, the only junior member of the cast of For Coloured Girls to hold her own when playing against her veteran cast mates.  I had hoped that participation in this film would expose her ability to a wider audience, but she is given so little to do or say that I am afraid her role will quickly be forgotten.  Walton Goggins, similarly, seems to be placed in the picture merely to look googly-eyed in the background.  While there is no actor better suited to this task, the man has MUCH more to offer.
     The only other real fault I found with Django is an uneven quality in the plot structure by which the climax pales in comparison to the bigger, wilder battle scene that proceeds it.  The fault, however, may not lie in the script at all, but in Mr. Foxx's unwillingness to quite take his character all the way over the top with feeling.  The character herd has thinned somewhat by the final scene, and working alone the actor seems unprepared to upstage what the ensemble as a whole was able to pull off.
     In Mr. Foxx's defense, it IS a pretty amazing ensemble to try and upstage.  The clear stand-outs, however are Leonardo DiCaprio and (ESPECIALLY) Samuel L. Jackson.  I have always held that Mr. DiCaprio is a far more talented character actor than leading man, and his first turn in a truly villainous capacity has gone a long way toward proving me right.  It was refreshing to see the familiar actor truly doing something NEW, impressing me in a way that I don't know he quite has since Gilbert Grape, certainly not since The Aviator.  His acting has usually been at its best when there was a darkness to the characters he was playing (The Aviator, Shutter Island, Inception) and diving into the deep end of that ocean has produced one of his best turns yet.
     Samuel L. Jackson is one of those great actors who could never quite transcend the enormity of his own personality.  I have always asserted that all of his characters, while entertaining, employ very similar vocal inflection patterns, postures, and modes of physical expression. In other words, Sam L always played some variation of Sam L.  I will say this no more. In Django, he completely disappears into the character of Steven.  His customary mannerisms just weren't there.
     However, it is the interaction between these two characters that creates much of the sheer joy of viewing this picture.  Their relationship is perhaps that most complicated between any of the major characters.  The scene where they conspire in the study, away from prying eyes and ears, is absolutely outstanding and tells you so much about the characters in such a short burst of time.
     All this doting on his two snubbed compatriots should do nothing to minimize the contribution of Chritoph Waltz and the performance that recently nabbed him his second Best Supporting Actor Oscar.  Waltz actually plays the outsider in this world and it is through his eyes that we see the true horror inherent in it.  He is charming and bigger than life but still completely accessible.
     Long as this review is becoming, I would remiss not to take a minute to praise the excellent work of Django's production team.  Fred Raskin faced a daunting task stepping into the shoes of Tarantino's longtime editor Sally Menke, (who recently passed away) and performed his duties admirably.  Cinematographer Robert Richardson was fully deserving of his Oscar nomination providing some of his finest camerawork to date.  It is also easy to see why many considered costumer Sharen Davis's lack of a nomination a snub.  Foxx and DiCaprio in particular had some A-mazing outfits.  Django also makes fantastic use of music with one of the best and most diverse soundtracks of the year.
     On a final note, Inglorious Basterds and this film seem to be inviting a third revenge fantasy focused on righting the wrongs of history to finish the trilogy.  What's next, Quentin?  The remnants of the native South American tribes invade the Vatican to steal their gold?  A mysterious plague affecting only Republicans strikes the country and a team of gay doctors refuse treatment?  Let your mind run wild, Mr. Tarantino, it's what we count on you for.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Hotel of Seven Crosses

     In this edition of DVD reviews, we cover a well-known comedic auteur's shot at action hero status, some of humankind's most well known communal fears in a kid-friendly romp & a film that teaches one the rules of being a psychopathic best friend.  Confused yet?  Keep reading...

  Alex Cross - Okay, so yes, the main attraction in checking out this movie was to see Tyler Perry directed by someone else in a role so far outside of his usual wheelhouse (and wardrobe).  I'm happy to say that in THAT respect, Alex Cross was a pretty satisfying flick.  Perry did a very respectable job, and I actually bought into his performance a lot more than I bought into the film as a whole.
     I can also give some degree of praise to his co-star Matthew Fox.  As a fan of the late, lamented Lost series, I had my doubts that I would be able to buy Fox in any role other than Jack.  However, his twitchy, insidious performance as Picasso (the film's villain) soon allayed those fears.  He undoubtedly took the role a little over the top (perhaps due to a lack of directorial reigning in), but it is always encouraging to see an actor bravely tackle a role so far outside of their comfort zone.
     These little bits of praise having been doled out to the cast, I am afraid that there is little else to recommend about Alex Cross.  It is a fairly standard, formulaic thriller from director Rob Cohen that shows little of the inspiration he demonstrated in The Fast and the Furious.  Directorial flourishes like the "rattling camera" effect meant to demonstrate Picasso's mental state prove more distracting and obvious than chilling and effective, and the whole production is lucky to have Perry's star power (and impressive star turn) to anchor it.  Otherwise, it might have been overlooked entirely...2 1/2 of 5 stars.

  Seven Psychopaths - So, writer/director Martin McDonagh came out of the box knocking homers (I don't know what is up with me and the sports metaphors lately).  His debut short Six Shooter won an Oscar.  He moved on to his feature debut In Bruges, a minor masterpiece that earned him an Oscar nod for Screenplay.  Poor Seven Psychopaths (his sophomore feature) had to live up to all of that, or else be damned by faint praise.  Which it was.  I myself found it to be a delightfully twisted little treat, taken on its own merit.  It may not quite be on a par with its predecessor, but it is highly original, full of witty dialogue and interesting characters, and rife with infectious dark humor.
     Of course, it doesn't hurt to have a cast loaded with talent.  The perpetually undervalued Colin Farrell is great as the most normal guy in the room (pretty much every room in the film).  Sam Rockwell gives his best performance since Moon.  Chrisptopher Walken is at his most smooth and intricately nuanced.  And Woody Harrelson is...utterly Woody Harrelson (which is a GREAT thing).  The film is also packed with notable cameos and small roles from such luminaries as Michael Stuhlbarg, Abby Cornish, Harry Dean Stanton, Gabourey Sidibe, Zeljko Ivanek and Tom Waits.
     Seven Psychopaths is a hard hitting, bitingly self-aware thriller which actually invites some serious thought into the line between sanity and insanity.  It aptly demonstrates how one bad day can change the direction of a person's life forever.  All this, and it actually made me laugh out loud. I highly recommend checking it out.  4 of 5 stars.

  Hotel Transylvania - I know, I also thought, "Do we REALLY need ANOTHER supernatural themed animated flick this year?"  I'm not sure that we NEEDED one (Frankenweenie and Paranorman already fitting the bill quite nicely), but I will say that Hotel Transylvania was a much better cartoon than I had feared it would be.  It had a lot of stereotypical monster jokes (the Frankenstein/fire bit got particularly tiresome in places), but it also had a lot of heart and entertainment value.
     The film's voice talent is like a Saturday Night Live reunion between Adam Sandler, Andy Samberg, Molly Shannon, David Spade and Jon Lovitz.  Selena Gomez, Kevin James, Fran Drescher and Ceelo Green are also featured, but my favorite performance is by Steve Buscemi as the harangued husband of a Wolf-Man, Wayne, burdened by far too large a litter of pups.
     The story centers around Dracula (Spade)'s daughter Mavis (Gomez) falling in love with a human, Jonathen (Samberg), and becomes Guess Who's Coming to Dinner with cobwebs from there. This is a more apt comparison than you might think as Mavis and Jonathen become easily identifiable to the inter-racial couples of years past or the gay couples of today.  In fact, what appeared to be a cute little lark of an animated flick actually evolves into a clever (if slightly heavy handed) statement about how people with superficial differences form presupposed ideas and fears about each other, easily exceeding my expectations. Freshman feature director Genndy Tartakovsky can be proud of the job that he has done here, and I might even be down for checking out Hotel Transylvania 2 (already in the works)...4 out of 5 stars.

Related Articles:  To Rome, Sugarweenie! (Frankenweenie reviews), The Perfect Para-Killer (Paranorman review)

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

What's Next in the Cinematic Swamp!

     Whew!!!  The end of the Oscars for another year is a time of great joy here at The Movie Frog because it gives me a chance to catch up and focus on some other subjects.  It is also a stressful time as I realize that the only thing left to this year's awards coverage is my own Best of 2012 series and I still have several key films to watch before we are ready to get started on The Froggies.  Anyway, I basically wanted to take a few moments to tell you what to expect in the next month or two here at The Movie Frog!
  1. Reviews, reviews, and reviews:  Oscar season left my REviewing way behind my viewing.  Unfortunately, I have several Now in Theater reviews to post for films that are seriously on their way OUT of the theaters towards home viewing.  Please bear with me as I try to knock these out and get more current.  My DVD reviews will definitely be focused on the remaining 2012 releases for the next several weeks.  Some of my In Theaters viewing will be picking up films like No as they reach Atlanta, but my coverage of 2013 releases in the theater will probably start with Oz the Great and Powerful...I can't resist.
  2. My second priority is going to be the revival of the Classic Cinema Series, which should get back up and going next weekend.
  3. Before March is out I plan to write a few pieces highlighting some of the films I'm most excited about in the coming year.  It should be very similar to the short series I did to launch last year's season.
  4. Of course, the next BIG thing is going to be The Froggies, my Best of 2012 series.  I still have fifty 2012 releases that I would IDEALLY like to see before I write them, but it largely depends on how soon Middle of Nowhere gets released on DVD more than anything (believe me, if it had played in Atlanta, I would have caught it in the theater).  In the meantime, I was fascinated by some of the thematic threads that ran between this past year's great films and have decided to write a series of articles on this topic.  I'm calling it The Road to the Froggies.  Look for it in early April.

     And that's it for now.  Prepare for a barrage of reviews this week so I can get current, and a whole bunch of other stuff just over the horizon.  When I look at where The Movie Frog is today compared to just one short year ago, it literally amazes me.  Thank you for reading, thank you for spreading the word, and believe that this next year is only going to get better.

The Buzz-o-meter & the Final Word!

     For those of you who have never read an explanation before of my methods for accessing buzz, here's a brief rundown.  All year long, I do extensive research and read as much of what critics, other bloggers, the general public, and the industry have to say about the year's films in general and said film's chances for year end awards glory in specific.  I give points based on a scale that I adjust a little each time around.  Because buzz fades over time, several times a year I cut each film's tallies in each category in half, making everything that follows worth twice as much as what came before.  This year I found my buzz rankings to transition a little too slowly, so I will probably cut the buzz in half a little more frequently next year.  This article concerns itself with the final buzz rankings, which are not my final predictions, but which certainly informed them.  It also concerns itself with how I did in my predictions, and a few final thoughts on this year's awards season.  Let's get started...

  Best Picture
1. Argo  41% (WINNER)
2. Lincoln 24%
3. Silver Linings Playbook 8%
4. Zero Dark Thirty 6%
5. Les Miserables 5%
6. Beasts of the Southern Wild 4%
7. Life of Pi 4%
8. Amour 4%
9. Django 3%
    And the buzz did not lie for Picture this year.  Even though it became the first film since Driving Miss Daisy to win the top prize without a corresponding Best Director nod (maybe because of it), Argo reigned triumphant.  I'm glad I listened to the buzz... 1/1 I guessed correctly...

  Best Director
1. Stephen Spielberg - Lincoln   54%
2. Ang Lee - Life of Pi   27% (WINNER)
3. David O Russell - Silver Linings Playbook  8%
4. Michael Haneke - Amour 8%
5. Benh Zeitlin - Beasts of the Southern Wild 2%
     Of course, Argo winning Best Picture meant that it was going to be a year with a split between that category and this one and in such a year anything can happen and the buzz can be all wrong on a major category or two.  Such was the case as Ang Lee brought home his second Best Director trophy with no corresponding win for Best Picture (the first was for Brokeback Mountain).  Unfortunately, I was NOT brave enough to split with the buzz myself, guessing Spielberg, and I got this one wrong...1/2 I guessed correctly...

  Best Actor
1. Daniel Day-Lewis - Lincoln 68% (WINNER)
2. Hugh Jackman - Les Miserables 15%
3. Joachin Phoenix - The Master 8%
4. Bradley Cooper - Silver Linings Playbook 4%
5. Denzel Washington - Flight 4%
     Sometimes the buzz is so decisive that there is just no arguing the obvious, as was the case here...2/3 I guessed correctly...

  Best Actress
1. Jennifer Lawrence - Silver Linings Playbook 47%  (WINNER)
2. Jessica Chastain - Zero Dark Thirty  24%
3. Emmanuelle Riva - Amour 21%
4. Quvenzhane Wallis - Beasts of the Southern Wild 5%
5. Naomi Watts - The Impossible 2%
     In this category, I thought that the split support between Lawrence and Chastain might allow Riva to swoop in and nab the trophy, but I was wrong.  I should have paid attention to the fact that Lawrence had been widening her lead, but alas...2/4 I guessed correctly...

  Best Supporting Actor
1. Tommy Lee Jones - Lincoln 42%
2. Robert DeNiro - Silver Linings Playbook 26%
3. Christoph Waltz - Django Unchained 17% (WINNER)
4. Philip Seymour Hoffman - The Master 12%
5. Alan Arkin - Argo 3%
     I suppose that Mr. Waltz's win cannot be said to have come from nowhere, considering his pre-cursor victories, but I really thought that Robert DeNiro would be the upset victory here.  Oh, well... 2 out of 5 I guessed correctly.

  Best Supporting Actress
1. Anne Hathaway - Les Miserables 67% (WINNER)
2. Sally Field - Lincoln 22%
3. Amy Adams - The Master 5%
4. Helen Hunt - The Sessions 4%
5. Jackie Weaver - Silver Linings Playbook 1%
     This was maybe the biggest gimme of the night.  Even I (on my worst year in a long time) couldn't get this one wrong... 3 out of 6 I guessed correctly.

  Best Original Screenplay
1. Django Unchained 34% (WINNER)
2. Amour 29%
3. Zero Dark Thirty 27%
4. Moonrise Kingdom 8%
5. Flight 1%
     Yeah, I predicted Amour to upset here, just like in Best Actress and it worked out just the same... 3 out of 7 I guessed correctly.

  Best Adapted Screenplay
1. Lincoln 42%
2. Argo 40% (WINNER)
3. Silver Linings Playbook 11%
4. Life of Pi 4%
5. Beasts of the Southern Wild 2%
     Whew!!!  At least one time that I went against the buzz, it panned out for me.  I correctly guessed that Argo's WGA and Scripter victories indicated enough support to unseat the presumed front runner, not that it held MUCH of a lead anymore... 4 out of 8 I guessed correctly.

  Best Animated Feature
1. Wreck-It Ralph 40%
2. Brave 27% (WINNER)
3. Frankenweenie 24%
4. Paranorman 8%
5. The Pirates! Band of Misfits 1%
     So far, I haven't really taken much umbrage with who won on Oscar night, whether I predicted their victory or not.  That ends here.  I gave the Academy too much credit, figuring that the Pixar brand alone would not enable Brave to defeat the far superior Wreck-It Ralph (to say nothing of the just as excellent Frankenweenie).  Guess I was wrong...4 out of 9 guessed correctly.

  Best Documentary Feature
1. Searching For Sugarman 54% (WINNER)
2. The Gatekeepers 17%
3. How To Survive a Plague 14%
4. The Invisible War 9%
5. 5 Broken Cameras 6%
     Fortunately, I went with Searching For Sugarman's significant lead in buzz here, rather than counting on the surprising history of upsets in this category... 5 out of 10 guessed correctly.

  Best Foreign Language Film
1. Amour - Austria 69% (WINNER)
2. A Royal Affair - Denmark 13%
3. No - Chile 8%
4. War Witch - Canada 5%
5. Kon-Tiki - Norway 5%
     What I said about Documentary Feature, only more so... 6 out of 11 guessed correctly.

  Best Cinematography
1. Life of Pi 47% (WINNER)
2. Skyfall 31%
3. Lincoln 17%
4. Anna Karenina 3%
5. Django Unchained 2%
     Although I feel sorry for Skyfall's Roger Deakins, having so many nominations and still no wins, I'm glad I went with the buzz, giving me...7 out of 12 guessed correctly.

  Best Editing
1. Argo 51% (WINNER)
2. Zero Dark Thirty 29%
3. Lincoln 9%
4. Life of Pi 7%
5. Silver Linings Playbook 5%
     I expected Goldenberg to win this for Argo from the day that I saw the film in the theater... 8 out of 13 guessed correctly.

  Best Production Design
1. Anna Karenina 39%
2. Les Miserables 27%
3. Lincoln 16% (WINNER)
4. Life of Pi 15%
5. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey 2%
     Even if I hadn't predicted this one for Anna, I probably would have gone for Les Miserables.  Still, I certainly can't begrudge the winner... 8 out of 14 guessed correctly.

  Best Music (Original Score)
1. Life of Pi 53% (WINNER)
2. Lincoln 22%
3. Argo 12%
4. Anna Karenina 8%
5. Skyfall 6%
     I stuck with conventional wisdom pretty much wherever Pi led the buzz and that worked out to my advantage.,, 9 out of 15 guessed correctly,

  Best Music (Original Song)
1. Skyfall - "Skyfall" 67% (WINNER)
2. Les Miserables - "Suddenly" 24%
3. Ted - "Everybody Needs a Best Friend" 5%
4. Life of Pi - "Pi's Lullaby" 3%
5. Chasing Ice - "Before My Time" 1%
     This one was another no-brainer.  I said that if "Skyfall" qualified, it would be the winner way before it even qualified.  I saw no reason to jump ship at the last minute... 10 out of 16 guessed correctly.

  Best Costume Design
1. Anna Karenina 45% (WINNER)
2. Les Miserables 34%
3. Mirror Mirror 9%
4. Lincoln 9%
5. Snow White and the Huntsman 4%
     I was a little worried that the Academy would end up awarding costumer Ishioka posthumously for Mirror Mirror, but thankfully I stuck with Durrant and Anna...11 out of 17 guessed correctly.

  Best Make-Up and Hairstyling
1. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey 59%
2. Les Miserables 34% (WINNER)
3. Hitchcock 7%
     It was difficult for me to care about this category when they honored these three films over at least four others that I felt were more deserving (two of which didn't even make the short list), but thankfully I went with the Best Picture nominee rather than the front runner... 12 out of 18 guessed correctly.

  Best Sound Editing
1. Life of Pi 28%
2. Zero Dark Thirty 25% (WINNER - tie)
3. Skyfall 22% (WINNER - tie)
4. Argo 17%
5. Django Unchained 7%
     In a tight three-way race, the Academy had a rare tie decision.  I had predicted Skyfall, figuring it would go home with a trophy for something other than just Song.  I say that ties are so rare that guessing either of the winners counts as right... 13 out of 19 guessed correctly.

  Best Sound Mixing
1. Les Miserables 57% (WINNER)
2. Skyfall 20%
3. Life of Pi 15%
4. Argo 4%
5. Lincoln 4%
     The innovation of live singing in a movie musical was a risky and (in most of the film) highly effective choice that was sure to win the film recognition in this arena... 14 out of 20 guessed correctly.

  Best Visual Effects
1. Life of Pi 66% (WINNER)
2. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey 19%
3. Marvel's Avengers 9%
4. Prometheus 4%
5. Snow White and the Huntsman 2%
     As I said, I usually stuck with Pi in the techs for the most part, and this one was the most forgone conclusion of them all... 15 out of 21 guessed correctly.

  Best Animated Short
1. Paperman 50% (WINNER)
2. Adam and Dog 20%
3. Head Over Heels 16%
4. Maggie Simpson in the Longest Daycare 12%
5. Fresh Guacamole 3%
     This was a really strong crop of short films, but Paperman was clearly the most well known and publicized throughout the season as well as being arguably the most innovative animated work this year.  It had been several decades since Disney won this category, but I'm glad I didn't let that deter me from predicting their win this year...16 out of 22 guessed correctly.

  Best Documentary Short
1. Open Heart 45%
2. Inocente 25% (WINNER)
3. Mondays at Racine 19%
4. Kings Pointe 8%
5. Redemption 3%
     Not having seen these, I had to simply watch the buzz.  Although Open Heart still led at crunch time, Inocente had been surging, so I took a chance. Fortunately, it paid off...17 out of 23 guessed correctly.

  Best Live-Action Short
1. Curfew 41% (WINNER)
2. Buzkashi Boys 19%
3. Asad 18%
4. Death of a Shadow 17%
5. Henry 4%
     Unfortunately, I predicted the same sort of upset for Buzkashi Boys in this category, and it did not come to pass... 17 out of 24 guessed correctly.

     And that was final score was seventeen.  It certainly wasn't my best (I think 19 right is my best tally ever, back when The Hurt Locker won for 2009), but it could have been a lot worse. If I had just stuck with the buzz, I would have only scored 16 correct.  You know its been a weird year when I did better in the Shorts than in the major categories.  Here's hoping that 2013 is an awards season that offers us just as many twists, turns, and surprises.  I know I'll see you then...

Related articles: 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), Pretty Picture Techs (Cinematography & Production Design), Finishing Touch Techs (Editing & Visual Effects), Toons of Any Length (Animated Feature & Animated Short), Docs of Any Length (Documentary Feature & Documentary Short), Screenplays (Adapted & Original), Supporting Players (Supporting Actor & Supporting Actress), Actor and ActressForeign Films (also covering Short Live-Action), Picture and Director, Final Predictions,  "Lincoln" PerksBest That the Summer Wields? (Beasts of the Southern Wild review),  Acting Master Classes in Private "Sessions"Didn't Quite Take "Flight"Can You "Master" Your Nature?"Impossible"y Well CraftedAnna Conundruma (Anna Karenina review), I Think You "Argo"ing to Love It!Fantasy "Life of Pi"?Promarlius Kingdom (Moonrise Kingdom and Prometheus reviews), If It Ain't "Wrecked" (Wreck-It Ralph and Paperman reviews), Elena's Brave Law (Brave reveiw), To Rome, Sugarweenie! (Frankenweenie and Searching For Sugarman reviews), The Perfect Para-Killer (Paranorman review), Bernie! On a Ledge of Misfits (Pirates! Band of Misfits reveiw), Surviving the Alps is a Rush (How To Survive a Plague review), Henry's Invisible Arbitrage (The Invisible War review), To Royal Effect (A Royal Affair review), 23? You Don't Play Like a Sequel Over 2. (Skyfall review), The Habit: A Much Expected Returning (The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey review), Ted Butters Up the Polisse (Ted review),
Being Margaret's Mirror (Mirror Mirror review), The Best Huntsman's Shadow (Snow White and the Huntsman review), Merchandiser's Assemble (Avengers review)