Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Chico & Rita Movie Review

Chico & Rita is a lovely little tribute to an era in American culture during which a new American genre was born and to a country and its people who helped foment that genre. The genre I speak of is jazz in the late 1940s and early 1950s and the country is Cuba, which lent a great many musicians to the New York music scene, bringing with them their conga drummers and smooth Latin beats to help transmute a the burgeoning new form.

Monday, February 27, 2012

2012 Academy Awards In Memoriam

Yesterday I made some quick predictions about inclusions in the annual montage of dead celebrities for the Oscar show. Here's the full list of those included.

Jane Russell - actor
Annie Girardot - actor - an odd inclusion this French actress as she doesn't seem to have any credits that would be well-known in the United States.
John Calley - executive - most recent winner of the Thalberg Award
Polly Platt - art director
Ken Russell - actor, writer, director - Oscar nominated as Best Director for Women in Love. Recently appeared in Mr. Nice.
Donald Peterman - cinematographer
Farley Granger - actor - Strangers on a Train and Rope
Whitney Houston - actress, ahem
Bingham Ray - executive
Tak Miyagishima - member-at-large - winner of 3 Scientific and Technical Awards as well as the Gordon E. Sawyer Award

Bert Schneider - producer - winner of an Oscar for Documentary Feature
Michael Cacoyannis - director, producer - 3 Oscar nominations for Zorba the Greek
David Z. Goodman - writer
James Rodnunsky- electrical department
Peter E. Berger - film editor
Jack J. Hayes - composer
Peter Falk - actor
Cliff Robertson - actor
Laura Ziskin - producer
Sidney Lumet - director
Sue Mengers - talent agent
Steve Jobs - executive
George Kuchar - experimental filmmaker
Hal Kanter - writer
Theadora Van Runkle - art director
Tim Hetherington - photojournalist and documentarian nominated last year for Restrepo. He was killed while covering the conflict in Libya last April.
Gene Cantamessa - sound
Gary Winick - director of such recent films as Bride Wars and 13 Going on 30.
Bill Varney - sound
Jackie Cooper - actor
Gilbert Cates - producer
Richard Leacock - documentary filmmaker
James M. Roberts - member-at-large
Marion Dougherty - member-at-large, casting
Norman Corwin - writer
Paul John Haggar - member-at-large, assistant film editor
Joseph Farrell - public relations
Ben Gazzara - actor
Elizabeth Taylor - actor

Sunday, February 26, 2012

84th Academy Awards Live Blog

8:24 Getting ready. Starting to rethink my prediction for Best Documentary. Undefeated could well win the award. But I picked Pina.

8:30 Maybe I should have picked Hugo over Tree of Life for Cinematography too. Too late.

8:30 The quintessential "Magical Black Man" opens the theme of the show: "The Magic of the Movies."

8:32 I would have liked this a lot better if fucking Bieber hadn't shown up.

8:33 Crystal sneaks in a reference to The Princess Bride.

8:36 I actually just got a rush of excitement when Crystal came out on stage reminding me of watching the Oscars when I was younger.

8:37 An uncomfortable joke about Kodak's impending bankruptcy.

Handicapping the Oscar In Memoriam Montage 2012

I believe the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences uses the end of January as the cutoff date for fallen celebrities to be included in their annual montage. This rules out the possibility of Whitney Houston's inclusion unless they make a decision that she's too big not to include. She was never nominated for an Oscar, although some songs she performed in The Bodyguard were nominated, and she only starred in three Hollywood movies. I think it's possible we'll see her included, but not surprised if she's left out.

Frances Bay is an actress whose face you probably recognize for all the bit parts she's had over the years. I don't think we'll see her, but she died last September at age 92.

In Darkness Movie Review

I wonder if we’ve reached a saturation point where Holocaust films are concerned. Sure, there are millions of stories to be told from that travesty of human failure, but most would probably be fairly similar. Real eye-opening awareness of the horrors of the Holocaust came about in the 70s when documentaries and dramatic films began to crop up in Britain and the United States. In a cultural awareness sense this probably reached its pinnacle with Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List in 1993. Roman Polanski provided a new take on the subject by focusing not on anyone’s heroism or courage but on one man’s blind luck to come out alive in The Pianist. Given all that’s come before I really wonder what drove Polish director Agnieszka Holland to visit the Holocaust for a third time with In Darkness, adapted by David F. Shamoon from Robert Marshall’s book In the Sewers of Lvov which is itself based on a true story. That is generally the nail in the coffin for any criticism leveled at a Holocaust film.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Undefeated Movie Review

Undefeated is a documentary of such surprising power and emotion I was left stunned in my tracks. I didn’t know anything about it before I walked in except that the poster indicated it was about football. If you want a similar experience to my own, then consider this a spoiler warning and stop reading now.

It tells the story of the Manassas High School football team in West Memphis, Tennessee, under the direction of volunteer coach Bill Courtney. I stress volunteer because the film is always careful to point out when the coaching staff involved donates their time to this horribly underfunded program in a city all but forgotten by the rest of the state. Not that any government has an obligation to fun sports programs in public schools. I understand completely the decisions that are made to cut programs for lack of funding even when those programs can be proven to give kids reasons to stay in school and make something of their lives.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Hell and Back Again Movie Review

It often feels like every decade has its own subject that is annually nominated in the Best Documentary Feature category at the Oscars. This decade’s focus is the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Looking through the records, I’m surprised to discover that only three have been nominated (with one winning). Although this year the Iraq War as subject made its way into the Documentary Short category so I guess that makes up some ground.

One of this year’s nominees in the feature category is Hell and Back Again about a veteran of the Afghanistan War who suffered a bullet wound that shattered hip and his femur. Now he gets around with a walker or wheelchair, goes to physical therapy and probably suffers from some form of PTSD although the film is never really explicit about any of it.

Anonymous Movie Review

I’m not a Shakespeare scholar. I probably know more than most people but I certainly can’t claim any intimate knowledge of his life and work. I know enough to say that the alleged controversial question of authorship of his works is complete and utter bunk, in spite of what Shakespearean actor Derek Jacobi believes. The issue strikes me as little more than the common disbelief among those who have spent lots of time and money on formal education that someone with a lesser education could possibly possess such genius. A major part of the argument has been that Shakespeare’s education was insufficient to prepare him for works containing classical allusions and such. As far as I’m concerned this is no different to any modern day conspiracy theory that suggests for instance that we never really went to the moon and that George W. Bush personally flew airplanes into the World Trade towers.

Pina Movie Review

In his introduction before the presentation of his latest film, a documentary called Pina, director Wim Wenders claimed that if you’d asked him in the mid-80s if he’d ever make a film about dance, he’d have laughed. Then he saw a performance by the Tanztheater Wuppertal choreographed by Pina Bausch and he was hooked. After lengthy planning stages in preparation for a documentary, Pina suddenly died. Ready to abandon the project completely, Pina’s dance company, some of whom worked with her for 20 years or more, insisted they continue with a film but make it a tribute to her work and incredible artistry.

I, like Wenders, never would have thought I’d be so captivated by dance but this film hooked me from its first moments until the close. Not only is the dancing some of the most wonderfully beautiful work I’ve seen in any medium, but Wenders uses his 3D cameras to expertly capture the performances in a way that makes it feel more like a live production.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Real Steel Movie Review

Real Steel takes a rather unbelievable premise and turns it into some kind of Over the Top retread. Okay, that’s a flippant comparison because after taking a guy who drives a truck around the country to participate in a competition that must appeal to a niche market and throwing in that guy’s estranged son into the mix until they forge the bonds of a relationship there’s not much to compare really. It also must be said that Real Steel is a far better film than that dreadful Sylvester Stallone vehicle from the 80s.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Margin Call Movie Review

The financial crisis that started in 2008 is far too complicated to explain in one 2 hour dramatic film. The experts on the subject can hardly understand exactly what led to such a tremendous financial crash. Some films have tried to get into it, including documentaries, all of which are too all-encompassing to make much sense or to coalesce the details into something understandable to a layperson.

J.C. Chandor’s Margin Call, however, is a smart little financial drama that takes place basically in the 24 hours before the big crash really started. Chandor, the son of a Wall Street investment banker, and a man who clearly understands a lot more about financial institutions and brokerage deals than I ever will, has crafted a screenplay and a film unlike anything I’ve ever seen on similar topics. Your typical Wall Street drama is so often fast-paced high tension designed to make what is otherwise cinematically uninteresting material more visually arresting. Chandor eschews the bells and whistles for a story that is character based.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Some Kind of Wonderful Movie Review: 25 Years Ago This Month

Some Kind of Wonderful is often compared to Pretty in Pink as being a retread of similar material. Both were written by John Hughes, that master of writing teen characters in the 80s, but I think the similarity between the two is superficial. It’s true that both films are about class divides in American high schools. Both are about a teen from the poor side of town who falls in love with a rich kid. But Hughes, in his way of probing beneath the surface, uncovered different layers in this telling.

Rio Movie Review

Several studios have tried to horn in on Disney’s virtual monopoly on feature animation, usually by trying to do things that Disney does not do. DreamWorks has created more grown-up oriented fare in the Shrek series and the little remembered Antz while Blue Sky Studios, best known for its Ice Age series, has tried to build its reputation around lovable animal characters. With Rio they’ve tried to branch out a little bit by including several prominent human characters in the story and by giving the film a rollicking musical score by John Powell (who also provided the wonderful score for How to Train Your Dragon) and some big musical numbers featuring singing characters and animated dance sequences.

The Muppets Movie Review

It’s been 15 years since the last time the Muppets graced cinema screens. I haven’t seen The Muppets in a movie since they took Manhattan 25 years ago. Someone in Hollywood apparently thought it was worth a shot to bring them back. Really they took a chance on Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller, who came up with a story and pitched it successfully to Disney studio executives. Lo and behold, The Muppets, directed by James Bobin, has turned out to be one of the most successful Muppet movies.

Because it’s been so long since they went away the story has to awkwardly cater to their old fans while introducing them anew to the next generation. I don’t know if this is a franchise Disney can maintain because the one thing that remains certain after seeing this film is that the Muppets are analog characters in a digital age.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Oscar-nominated Documentary Short Films

The Oscar-nominated short films are playing in select cities around the country. In New York I saw them at the IFC Center in Greenwich Village. Due to licensing issues, God Is the Bigger Elvis did not play in this program.

In the last decade or so documentary feature films have grown more and more to resemble narrative films. Not only are they often more professionally made than many documentaries were before, but they push a strong narrative quality that I imagine is a reflection of the need to compete at the theatrical box office with fictional films. Often they feel bloated, overblown and overlong. But what I discovered in experiencing the Oscar-nominated short films programs is that documentary short films are where really interesting work – in terms of both subject matter and style – is still being done.

Oscar-nominated Live Action Short Films

The Oscar-nominated short films are playing in select cities around the country. In New York I saw them at the IFC Center in Greenwich Village.

The first of the Oscar-nominated live action short films was Pentecost, a light Irish comedy about an altar boy who just can’t resist the urge to ruin Sunday mass. After a supposed accident in which he caused the priest to fall by swinging the incense ball too close to his face, he’s given a second chance by default to be part of the altar boy elite ‘squad’ to perform a mass given by the Archbishop upon his return to this small town. Taking place in the late 70s, the boy is threatened with never being permitted to watch or listen to football again (and Liverpool has the European Cup final coming up!) The boys are given a pre-game talk that amounts to a sports team pep talk. Directed by Peter McDonald, it’s light, amusing and somehow distinctly Irish.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Oscar-nominated Animated Short Films

The Oscar-nominated short films are playing in select cities around the country. In New York I saw them at the IFC Center in Greenwich Village.

This year Pixar’s almost annual entry in the Academy Awards’ Animated Short contest is a sweet little film called La Luna directed by Enrico Casarosa. It’s a touching little tale about a young boy venturing out to sea on a rowboat with his father and grandfather as they throw anchor and hoist a ladder up to the moon, climbing up with brooms in hand to sweep away the beautiful and twinkly stars that give the moon its glow. The film is bright and gorgeous and embodies nearly everything that Pixar has used to make a name for itself. It is one of the two best entries this year.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

84th Academy Awards Predictions

I'm making these predictions still with two weeks to go before the ceremony. There remain several films I haven't managed to see yet, mostly in the technical and short film categories. My goal is to have seen everything except 1 of the documentary short films, and probably two of the foreign language films. It will require great focus and a lot of time, but I'm aiming high. With that in mind, I might revise my final predictions before the 26th, but this is how I'm calling it at the moment. Any updates will be noted as such.

You can find the full list of nominees with links to any reviews I've written here.

Picture - The Artist
Director - Michel Hazanavicius for The Artist
Actress - Viola Davis for The Help
Sorry Meryl, you won't be winning again.
Supporting Actress - Octavia Spencer for The Help
Actor - Jean Dujardin for The Artist
Supporting Actor - Christopher Plummer for Beginners
Adapted Screenplay - The Descendants
Original Screenplay - Midnight in Paris
I'm not really sure any of the other nominees will really connect with Academy voters. Woody is a sentimental favorite who hasn't won an Oscar in more than 20 years.
Film Editing - Hugo
Cinematography - The Tree of Life
Art Direction/Set Decoration - Hugo
Costume Design - Hugo
Musical Score - The Artist
Without the musical score, this movie is almost nothing.
Original Song - "Real in Rio" from Rio
Makeup - Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part II
Sound Mixing - Hugo
Sound Editing - Hugo
Most voters don't know the difference between these two categories and tend to vote for the same film, especially one that is likely as popular with the Academy as this one is.
Visual Effects - Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Animated Feature - Rango
Still with two films to see in this category I feel confident in this prediction.
Documentary Feature - original prediction: Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory current prediction: Pina
I've only seen two so far, but this is my prediction.
Updated 23 February: I've now seen all the nominees and considering that only those Academy members who have seen all the nominated films can vote in this category I have to think they're going to vote with the film that moved them most. For me, Pina, was the most astounding of the five, so I'm changing my prediction.
Foreign Language Film - A Separation
Animated Short - The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore
I haven't seen any of the films. The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore is on YouTube, but I'm waiting to see the full program next week. La Luna is Pixar's (nearly) annual entry in this category, so even though Cars 2 didn't make the cut for feature animation, at least they got on the board in this category.
Update 16 February: I've seen all the nominees and my choice is the strongest of the five nominees. La Luna is about as excellent, but I'm sticking with my original pick.
Live Action Short - Time Freak
Again, I haven't seen any of the films in this category, but based on what I've read...
Update 16 February: I've seen all the nominees now and I think Time Freak really is the strongest of the three nominees, so I'm sticking with it as my prediction. But voters may go sentimental and do-gooder and vote for the lost child weepie Raju.
Documentary Short - Saving Face
I haven't seen any of these films.
Update 16 February: I've now seen four of the nominees and have changed my prediction from  Incident in New Baghdad. Voters may choose that doc about a day of bloodshed in the Iraq war. It plays to the stereotypical liberal Hollywood mindset by featuring an ex-soldier speaking out against the war. But I think voters will go with the doc that moves them most and I was most moved by Saving Face, so I've changed my prediction to that.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Oscar Trivia 2012

*This post has been corrected. Composer John Williams received his 46th and 47th nominations at the 84th Academy Awards, not his 47th and 48th. (13 January 2013)


- Among all nominees, the most nominated is John Williams (46th and 47th nominations this year). He is followed by Woody Allen (22nd and 23rd nominations) and Meryl Streep (17th nomination).

- Among all nominees, the individuals with the most Oscars is sound designer Gary Rydstrom with 7 wins followed by composer John Williams with 5 and visual effects artist Joe Letteri with 4.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Une vie de chat (A Cat in Paris) Movie Review

Animation as a medium can be a wonderful and often beautiful way to tell a story. It’s a shame that more filmmakers don’t use it. Here in the United States animation tends to be thought of as a children’s medium and it is generally used solely for such. Feature film animation was the exclusive purview of Disney until the late 1990s when Pixar (acquired by Disney) and DreamWorks started producing their own imaginative, though still childish, films.

However, in recent years we’ve been seeing brilliant work from foreign filmmakers who specialize in animation being recognized here and almost every year since the inception of the Animated Feature Oscar, a foreign film with adult oriented themes has been nominated. There’s been the dark earth-toned work of Sylvain Chomet in The Triplets of Belleville and The Illusionist, the Iranian film Persepolis, Waltz with Bashir from Israel. Two years ago a little known (in the USA) Irish film called The Secret of Kells made the Academy’s cut and received a nomination. This year they’ve gone outside the box again – the exclusion of Pixar’s Cars 2 – and nominated two films, one of which has not yet been released in the United States.

Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory Movie Review

From left: Joe Berlinger; Jessie Misskelley, Jr.; Damien Echols; Jason Baldwin; Bruce Sinofsky at the film's premiere in NYC.
The third and most recent entry in the Paradise Lost documentary series, titled Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky has a much more focused plan of attack. Much more than its predecessors, it seems somehow more professional, more bona fide, which I suppose is a reflection of the fact that they’ve incorporated contemporary documentary film techniques to tell their story.

Kung Fu Panda 2 Movie Review

Kung Fu Panda 2, the sequel to the hit computer-animated action comedy from DreamWorks Animation, follows the standard rules of sequels. It is bigger in scope, louder, and more boisterous. And it expands the cast list, already overflowing with celebrity voiceovers, to include even more. Part of the fun is trying to identify that voice you recognize but just can’t place. In addition to the stars of the first show, Dennis Haysbert and Jean-Claude Van Damme appear as kung fu masters from another province and Danny McBride is here as a badass wolf.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Paradise Lost 2: Revelations Movie Review

John Mark Byers (right) gives an interview on local TV news.
The impression I got from Paradise Lost, Joe Berlinger’s and Bruce Sinofsky’s documentary that focused on the trials of the West Memphis Three and the crimes they were convicted of committing, was that their intent was to present an objective portrait of those events. Five years later they returned to follow up and explore new evidence and accusations to make Paradise Lost 2: Revelations, a documentary that is much more unabashed in its partisan view of the crime, investigation and trial.

If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front Movie Review

Daniel McGowan’s t-shirt showing a picture of George W. Bush with the caption “International Terrorist” just about sums up the way he encounters the world. That he chose to wear that shirt while a documentary film crew was interviewing him during his house arrest prior to receiving a criminal sentence indicates that knowing what a shorthand signal it is, he wants the audience to know just how far to the left he stands from the political fence. I’m going to make a bold guess in saying that how you respond to the message on his shirt will be a fairly accurate litmus test for your opinion of the environmental warriors that are the subject of If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Albert Nobbs Movie Review

Did anyone notice while making Albert Nobbs that the title character is just not that interesting? Didn’t it occur to anyone that a supporting character, one in a very similar life situation as Albert is not only portrayed in a far better performance but he is more vividly drawn with a more compelling history. Is this a fault of the screenplay by Glenn Close and John Banville or the short story “The Singular Life of Albert Nobbs” by George Moore?

Close plays Albert Nobbs. This is not a Linda Hunt case of a female actor playing a male character. Albert is a woman who has been disguised as a man for an undetermined number of years, but it’s certainly long enough that his entire identity is essentially male. For that reason I refer to Albert with masculine pronouns. Only at two moments in the film did his actual gender come to the fore. Set in the late 19th century, Albert makes his living as a waiter at Morrison’s Hotel in Dublin.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Jane Eyre Movie Review

I feel a little ashamed that I came into Cary Fukunaga’s lively adaptation of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre without ever having read the book or even seen an older film version. This is in spite of the existence of about ten versions from both cinema and television in the sound era. I didn’t even know the story. So my approach to the film has little to do with the film as an adaptation of a novel and story I’m familiar with and much more to do with how Fukunaga’s telling, from a screenplay by Moira Buffini, affected me as I watched.

Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills Movie Review

Damien Echols waived his 5th Amendment rights and, perhaps mistakenly, took the stand.
The so-called West Memphis Three have become very well known in recent years, garnering a large following on Facebook and other Internet outlets. I’d heard the phrase and read passing headlines related to the case, but knew nothing about the crimes that three men from Arkansas were convicted of and for which they spent 18 years in prison. I saw the news flashes last year when they were released after signing an Alford plea deal in which they maintained innocence for their crimes but admitted that the prosecution had sufficient evidence to convict – a bizarre facet of the legal system if ever there was one. And so after nearly two decades in prison (they were teenagers when convicted) and long-standing public campaigns demanding reviews of the evidence, appeals and retrials, the West Memphis Three went free.

Friday, February 3, 2012

A Better Life Movie Review

There’s something about a white director and a white screenwriter making a film about an immigrant Latino family in Los Angeles that doesn’t sit right, like Steven Spielberg or Norman Jewison directing movies about the African-American experience. That director Chris Weitz was able to make such a simple and moving family drama that portrays real characters without resorting to stereotypes shows willingness and empathy on his part to get it right. He could not have been successful without the touching screenplay by Eric Eason from a story by Roger L. Simon and surely it helped that it was financed by smaller independent studios, freeing the filmmakers to work outside the constraints of the studio system that otherwise might have insisted on a story in which a white character achieves self-actualization by helping non-white characters. Not that we’ve seen that before in a popular film nominated for the Best Picture Oscar.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon Movie Review

Transformers: Dark of the Moon is one of the great movie mysteries. It poses seemingly impossible conundrums and then refuses to solve them. Some of them include such questions as: Why is it called “Dark of the Moon?” What happened to the word “side?” Was it too long for the movie posters? Other riddles to behold are whether or not action screenwriters actually know what the word “triangulate” means and how can a screenplay so irreparably dumb know how to use “whom” correctly? Also, is there a book of action movie dialogue clichés from which Ehren Kruger took about 33 percent of the lines? Is it possible to release a Hollywood mega-budget film that isn’t overflowing with expository dialogue? Did director Michael Bay and his visual effects teams understand the action sequences? Did they actually try to make them coherent and fail miserably or is it just pure laziness. This movie is wondrous to behold. I’ve never seen its equal.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Haywire Movie Review

Before going to see Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire I kept referring to it as “the ass-kicking movie.” It’s hard to argue that I was wrong in my terse description. The whole thing is a ruse to showcase the talents of Mixed Martial Arts competitor Gina Carano in several brutal action fight scenes.

The film opens with a cracker of a fight scene. The stage is set in a tranquil roadside diner somewhere in upstate New York. Mallory (Carano) approaches cautiously, enters and sits down. She’s soon joined by Aaron (Channing Tatum) and their conversation reveals tidbits of a plot we’re not yet privy to. The dialogue here is not the lazy expository garbage of your typical action film. Instead they speak like characters who already know the history and have no concern for the audience’s knowledge. Suddenly and without warning, Aaron has thrown his coffee in Mallory’s face and smashed the cup on her head before they start brawling in the tight confines between the counter and the booths.

25 Years Ago This Month: February 1987

Paul Schrader's misfire but well-intentioned Light of Day starred Michael J. Fox and Joan Jett as sibling rockers trying to get their band off the ground to the detriment of Jett's young son. Gena Rowlands played their mother. Michael McKean also starred as a member of their band. This was Fox's first attempt to be taken seriously as a dramatic actor even before Bright Lights, Big City and Casualties of War.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Iron Lady Movie Review

Somewhere in the life of Margaret Thatcher I’m sure there is a compelling story waiting to be told. After The Iron Lady it will have to wait a while longer I suppose. Directed by Phyllida Lloyd from a screenplay by Abi Morgan, it present just so many flashes of Thatcher’s life from girlhood through her resignation as the British Prime Minister while concurrently following her in the present day as she slowly succumbs to dementia and reflects on the glory of her fantastic political life.