Thursday, February 28, 2013

Short Cut Movie Review: Kon-Tiki

Short Cut Movie Review is normally less than 400 words, but in some cases may go slightly over. This is my attempt to keep writing about as many films as I see without getting bogged down with trying to find more to say. They are meant to be brief snapshots of my reaction to a movie without too much depth.

This is what happens when foreign filmmakers try to replicate big Hollywood storytelling, but fall just a tad short. Yes, this is the most expensive movie in Norwegian history, but its budget still pales in comparison to the studios. Directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg try their hand at epic adventure filmmaking. The calculation worked because the Academy fell for it and nominated it for the Oscar.

The true story of a Norse adventurer who set out to drift across the Pacific on a balsa wood raft is not new to the Oscars, however. The documentary on the subject won the award more than 60 years ago. Thor Heyerdahl (Pål Sverre Valheim Hagen) wanted to prove (or demonstrate the possibility) that Polynesia was settled by travelers from South America and not, as science at the time believe, from Asia. The problem is that the Incas didn’t have ships. So Heyerdahl enlisted a crew of five, they built a raft using only materials available to the ancient Incans and they set out.

This is a typical story of a man with singleness of purpose, so driven that he loses his family in the process. You might be fooled by the Norwegian dialogue into thinking you’re watching a great movie. It looks good and all, but it’s really mediocre. I was put off by some early scenes of stilted pretension and poor writing. If this movie were in English hardly anyone would give it a second thought.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Short Cut Movie Review - Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry

Short Cut Movie Review is normally less than 400 words, but in some cases may go slightly over. This is my attempt to keep writing about as many films as I see without getting bogged down with trying to find more to say. They are meant to be brief snapshots of my reaction to a movie without too much depth.

You might have heard a couple of years ago about a Chinese artist and dissident who disappeared after several years of criticism, through his blog and various art projects, toward the Chinese government, specifically the state of government school buildings that collapsed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake killing as many as 5,000 children. This documentary by Alison Klayman presents Ai Weiwei as he is, faults and all: artist; activist; protester; dissident; husband; father; philanderer. He is a big teddy bear of a man with a portly figure and a long scraggly beard. He’s taciturn in most of his interactions, but you can see his mind aflutter when he’s working. Most of his art is produced by technicians who realize his visions.

The subtitle of the film refers to Weiwei’s refusal to make apologies for any of his criticisms, a stoic and immovable disposition that even carries over into his personal life in the form of an extra-marital affair that resulted in a child. Throughout the film, he is continually revealed as a man who believes wholeheartedly that incremental changes can be made by a single man standing up to injustice. He is relentless in his pursuit of reform, refusing to back down even when a police beating leaves him with a severe brain injury requiring surgery, even when his official complaints are predictably met with curt dismissals, even after months of imprisonment and isolation designed to break his spirit. The more people are called to action by Weiwei’s story, the sooner the Chinese government might see some more significant changes.

Short Cut Movie Review: The Imposter

Short Cut Movie Review is normally less than 400 words, but in some cases may go slightly over. This is my attempt to keep writing about as many films as I see without getting bogged down with trying to find more to say. They are meant to be brief snapshots of my reaction to a movie without too much depth.

Frederic Bourdin lives the American high school dream.
This documentary was short-listed as a finalist for the Oscar this year, but lacks the weight or the populism necessary to make the final five. This is the incredible story of a 23-year old French man who successfully passed himself off (for a short time) as a 16-year old boy from Texas who had gone missing 3 ½ years earlier. What’s more, he fooled the boy’s actual family, who believed they had gotten their lost son/brother back after years of alleged torture and sexual abuse. You won’t believe the strange turns this story takes.

Director Bart Layton uses dramatic recreations and in depth interviews with everyone involved including the missing boy’s mother, sister, and other family members, the private investigator who figured out the truth in the unlikeliest of places (this guy could be the main character in a story of his own, he’s so fascinating). Then there’s the too bizarre to believe you’re actually hearing it interview with Frederic Bourdin, the amoral and remorseless man who has impersonated countless people like a modern day Zelig. Layton wisely avoids allowing judgment to creep into the story. He gives all participants the space to tell their stories in their own words, something none of the news programs ever afforded the grieving family.

In Memoriam: The Oscar Death Montage 2013

The last two years I made predictions about who would feature among the 40 or so film personalities to make the In Memoriam montage at the Oscars. This year I started to make a list in early January and then just plum forgot about it until a few hours before the show, at which point I thought it was a bit late.

Here's the final list as presented on the show. The inclusion of Andrew Sarris is significant. Critics don't often make these lists. Surely the people working in the industry don't always like us, but you can't deny the influence certain critics have had on the medium. Sarris is one.

No big omissions, although there are always some people griping about this or that person not given their due. Ann Rutherford was left off this year, for example. Look, she was never a big star, never a big award winner. She was an Academy member, but her last credit was nearly 40 years ago and she spent the end of her career in television. Talk of snubs of Andy Griffith, Phyllis Diller, and Larry Hagman is just silly. They were clearly TV stars who get their In Memoriam tribute at the Emmys. The Oscars is for feature film and people primarily associated with films. But then there's Adam Yauch...

Short Cut Movie Review - Half Nelson

Short Cut Movie Review is normally less than 400 words, but in some cases may go slightly over. This is my attempt to keep writing about as many films as I see without getting bogged down with trying to find more to say. They are meant to be brief snapshots of my reaction to a movie without too much depth.

Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden adapted this story of a drug addicted public school teacher in the inner city from a short film they made two years earlier. Ryan Gosling was Oscar-nominated for playing the middle school teacher and girls basketball coach whose student discovers his secret addiction. Fleck directs entirely with handheld cameras, sticking true to the typical cinema verite style that so many gritty urban dramas employ. The young Shareeka Epps is a standout as the sensible and quiet Drey, who is essentially alone and in desperate need of an adult role model with an older brother in prison and a mother who works double shifts as an EMT. Gosling and a local drug dealer name Frank (Anthony Mackie) vie to be that role model. Neither is particularly well-suited to the job and the movie does either a sly or an irresponsible thing in making us hope Drey steers clear of Frank in favor of her teacher.

Fleck is much less interested in the perils of addition than he is in the moral quandary of a white drug addict thinking he’s a better mentor for a child than a dealer. Unfortunately he doesn’t know quite where to take the story or how to end it convincingly. Drug addicts don’t often arrive at happy endings, and when they do it takes a lot more time than Fleck devotes to it.

Short Cut Movie Review - Mission: Impossible III

Short Cut Movie Review is normally less than 400 words, but in some cases may go slightly over. This is my attempt to keep writing about as many films as I see without getting bogged down with trying to find more to say. They are meant to be brief snapshots of my reaction to a movie without too much depth.

The writing partners Alex Kurtzman and Robert Orci, along with director and co-writer J.J. Abrams, tried to give IMF agent Ethan Hunt a little more personal stake in the spy game by giving him a fiancée (Michelle Monaghan). To allay any suspense regarding the action movie cliché of the hero’s lover being in danger, Abrams opens the film with a sadistic scene of the villain, Owen Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman) attempting to extract information from a bound Ethan (Tom Cruise) before killing his fiancée. This allows the anticipation to build differently, knowing what their fate will be and also knowing that once he capture Davian early in the film, we will see him get away. Having flesh in the game isn’t quite enough, apparently, because they also gave Ethan a female spy protégé (Keri Russell) for whom he feels a need to exact revenge.

Ving Rhames returns as Luther, the team’s computer expert, remarking about their mission to break into The Vatican that it’s a cakewalk compared to Langley, referencing the centerpiece break in of the first film. Maggie Q and Jonathan Rhys Myers round out the IMF team, with Billy Crudup serving as Ethan’s boss and Laurence Fishburne adding severity and gravitas as the IMF director. The action dutifully pumps along. Abrams has continually proved himself a whiz of an action director and this is where he had just begun to cut his teeth. It’s generally a fine effort as far as these things go.

Short Cut Movie Review: The Gatekeepers

Short Cut Movie Review is normally less than 400 words, but in some cases may go slightly over. This is my attempt to keep writing about as many films as I see without getting bogged down with trying to find more to say. They are meant to be brief snapshots of my reaction to a movie without too much depth.

As not just a documentary filmmaker, but as a journalist, Dror Moreh pulled off a major coup in getting six former heads of the Israeli security agency Shin Bet to go on camera to talk about sensitive events in Israel’s history. Apparently Ami Ayalon was the first to agree to appear and he was instrumental in contacting the others and convincing them to participate. This is hardly surprising to learn considering his obvious objections to some of Israel’s policies regarding West Bank settlements and the morality of targeting terrorists for assassination.

The inspiration Moreh took from Errol Morris’s The Fog of War is evident in the manner of his interviews which are the result of probing questions, the carefully reflective and highly introspective answers given by his subjects, and the intercutting of news footage, photographs, and eerie aerial shots similar to those seen in spy movies where an agency is targeting a terrorist. His six interviewees are not exactly apologetic with respect to the orders gave and carried out, but they have clearly given their actions a lot of thought in the intervening years. Some are less apologetic than others, but all reveal the minds of philosophical men who see the need for greater understanding if peace is to be achieved.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Turin Horse Movie Review

In Bela Tarr’s latest, and reportedly final, film so much happens while seemingly nothing happens. It takes a lot of motivation to begin a black-and-white Hungarian art film with a 2 ½ hour running time, but surprisingly, once I started I could barely take my eyes away. The Turin Horse is an exquisitely beautiful and fascinating study of an old farmer’s and his daughter’s trudgingly repetitive and lugubrious existence in rural Italy in the late 19th century.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Side Effects Movie Review

Like most avid filmgoers, I too hope Steven Soderbergh isn’t being genuine when he claims Side Effects is his last film before retiring. He is one of the few directors currently working in Hollywood who can elevate a standard genre film above its perceived limitations. Even when he’s off his game, his films are usually very good. Films like Magic Mike and Haywire didn’t exactly set my world on fire, but they would have been utterly forgettable trash in the hands of a lesser artist. Side Effects similarly didn’t have me begging for more, but as a crime thriller in the mode of a lone wolf investigator trying to clear his name I can think of a few worse examples and hardly any better.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Oscar Predictions 2013 (85th Academy Awards)

Update 2/21/13: Documentary categories - see below

If you had asked me a month ago when the nominations were announced, many of my predictions would have looked a lot different. The momentum always changes in the weeks between nominations and the awards ceremony. Films continue playing in the theaters and earning money. They win or lose other awards like the BAFTAs and the various guild awards. All these things doubtless affect Academy voters, but also indicate how people are reacting to the films.

Actress - This is really a race between Jessica Chastain and Jennifer Lawrence. Emmanuelle Riva is a dark horse, but I don't really think she's a factor. Zero Dark Thirty has gotten some blow-back in the press for its depiction of torture as being instrumental in the capture of bin Laden. It's a darker, heavier film. Still, I'm putting my money on Chastain to take the award.

prediction: Jessica Chastain
possible upset: Jennifer Lawrence
my preference: Chastain, but I think all 5 nominees are truly fantastic performances

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Oscar-nominated Documentary Short Films Review

The five nominated short documentaries are divided into two programs in most places because of the length of the films. Maybe they’ve also been split up because there’s hardly a soul who can handle in one sitting stories of women with cancer, Rwandan children with heart disease, homeless New Yorkers collecting cans and bottles for income, and a homeless teenager. There is certainly no shortage of tears in the audience during any screening of these films, all of which are deeply moving experiences and, in most cases, excellent examples of documentary filmmaking. Here are my brief reactions in rough order of preference.

The most inspiring, my favorite, and also my pick to win the award is Inocente, which follows a 15-year old artist in San Diego whose family has spent years being homeless and drifting from shelter to shelter after escaping an abusive father. Her paintings not only provide a much needed outlet of expression, but also an opportunity to make something of her life when a local program gives her the chance to put on an art show. I’m very suspicious that this girl happened to be chosen as one of two young artists out of 5000 to do a show. I have a feeling there was some manipulation or collusion between the documentarians and the charity because it feels too perfect. I’m not really concerned with that, however, because if it means this girl gets better future opportunities as a result, and also that the charity gets more exposure and thus more funding, it means it can help more people. There’s a whole lot of material crammed into this 40 minutes. The only regret is that we would love to know what happens to her ten years from now, but we may never find out.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Oscar-nominated Live Action Short Films

Following are my brief reactions to the five films nominated this year for the Oscar for Best Live Action Short Film. The wonderful thing about a short film is how it reminds you that not all stories need to be told in two hours. To see a story presented in 20 or 30 minutes is just a wonderful relief. You really get to see how much fat gets added into feature films to pad their length. Any one of these five films could easily be developed further, but what’s the point? They are all nearly perfect as they are. However, I didn’t think this year’s lot were as strong as last year’s and there’s nothing I feel very strongly about. They are in my rough order of preference.



Asad is the one of the five that best expresses zest for life and hope for the future. In war-torn Somalia, where bands of rebels come passing through villages taking what they want and killing when they please, a boy is stuck between the old world of fishing the open seas, where all the villagers know he’s had no recent luck, and the new world order of piracy. Asad longs to join his older friends on a pirate raid, but luckily for him they don’t allow it. On his first solo fishing trip he later makes a surprising discovery – one that sort of sums up the oddities of life.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Oscar-nominated Animated Short Films

These are the five films nominated this year for the Best Animated Short Film Oscar. To see them back-to- back is to have the experience of being tugged in several directions in a short period of time. There is no unifying theme between them, as there shouldn’t be. Here are my brief reactions to them in my rough order of preference.

Fresh Guacamole

This may be my favorite of the five for its sheer simplicity. There’s no story here, just an animated throwback to what early cinema pioneers used the medium for. At the birth of cinema filmmakers captured brief actions – a kiss; a running horse; a person jumping. This two minute animated film is a colorful stop-motion animation using mostly household objects to make a bowl of the avocado dip. Hand grenades for the whole fruit, baseballs for onions, a Christmas tree light bulb for a jalapeño, Monopoly houses when it’s chopped. This is what cinema sometimes does best.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Impossible Movie Review

Sometimes you have to attempt to erase your preconceived notions of a movie before you go in to see it. With The Impossible, Spanish director J.A. Bayona’s retelling of the true story of a family of five that survived the devastating 2004 tsunami in Thailand, I had plenty. The trailer did the film no favors as far as I was concerned. I made two predictions when I saw the trailer: 1) the film would be an appalling depiction of that terrible tragedy for its focus on a rich white family that made it through while hundreds of thousands of poor dark-skinned people died around them; 2) the film would be a cloying and phony emotional tug at the heartstrings, cynically designed to extract false tears from the audience. I was wrong on the second, but absolutely dead-on accurate on the first.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Seven Psychopaths Movie Review

What is it with filmmakers who start out with some quirky little movie that gets a lot of recognition for its panache, or great writing, or great storytelling and then they’re given a big budget and bunch of movie stars and things just seem to run away from them? Martin McDonagh started out with In Bruges, which signaled the start of a promising career in the gangster/hitman genre, the kind of talky pictures about wretched individuals who nevertheless epitomize cool made famous by Quentin Tarantino. Seven Psychopaths is his second feature film, an absurd farce of a story about an Irish screenwriter named Marty (autobiographical much?) trying to write a movie called Seven Psychopaths (self-referential much?).

Monday, February 4, 2013

How to Survive a Plague Movie Review

Documentary films are first and foremost supposed to do just that – document a story, an event, a person, etc. It tends to be the case that most documentaries are contemporary and many are a call to action for some pressing issue that the filmmakers feel strongly about. The recent Oscar winners An Inconvenient Truth, which deals with global warming, and The Cove, about dolphin fishing in Japan, are two examples. Sometimes they tell a story of events long ago, perhaps bringing to the public’s attention events they otherwise would have known little to nothing about. Those we might refer to as historically educational documentaries. These include just about every Holocaust documentary in existence. Some are just plain good stories and would make for an emotionally moving experience if adapted into a narrative film. Last year’s Oscar winner Undefeated as well as Man on Wire from several years ago come to mind. But while I sat through How to Survive a Plague, one of this year’s Documentary Feature nominees, I kept thinking it felt so strangely anachronistic.

25 Years Ago This Month: February 1988

This was not a particularly interesting month of movie releases. There are new films from John Hughes, Wes Craven, and Roman Polanski, and Spike Lee's sophomore effort, but nothing that really awed critics or audiences. And not a single thing that has really survived a quarter century later beyond the odd pick-up off a rental shelf (or queue in today's parlance).

*movies I've seen

Apprentice to Murder starring Donald Sutherland and Chad Lowe doesn't even have a Wikipedia page. I can't track down any reviews other than Kevin Thomas's in the L.A. Times (he gives it a mixed to positive review), it has only 221 votes on the IMDb, and it's not in the Netflix database. Talk about movies that time forgot!

The Serpent and the Rainbow is a zombie chiller from director Wes Craven and starring Bill Pullman. It's got a rotten rating at Rotten Tomatoes, but only just. The blurbs are mixed with some critics calling it Craven's best film to date and others calling it pedestrian or too trumped up with effects.

*She's Having a Baby is one of John Hughes' lesser efforts with Kevin Bacon and Elizabeth McGovern as a young married couple and the trials and tribulations of trying to conceive.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Oscar Trivia 2013

General

- 191 different individuals are nominated for Oscars, 92 of whom are first-time nominees.

- 9 individuals have two nominations this year: Mark Boal (Original Screenplay and Picture - Zero Dark Thirty); Mychael Danna (Score and Song - Life of Pi); William Goldenberg (Film Editing - Argo and Zero Dark Thirty); Michael Haneke (Original Screenplay and Direction - Amour); Ang Lee (Picture and Direction - Life of Pi); Andy Nelson (Sound Mixing - Les Miserables and Lincoln); David O. Russell (Adapted Screenplay and Direction - Silver Linings Playbook); Steven Spielberg (Picture and Direction - Lincoln); Benh Zeitlin (Direction and Adapted Screenplay - Beasts of the Southern Wild)

- Among all nominees, the most nominated is John Williams (48th nomination this year). He is followed by sound engineer Andy Nelson (17th and 18th nominations) and sound engineer Gary Rydstrom (17th nomination).

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

- The biggest length of time since any nominee's last nomination is for Sally Field (28 years since her last nomination), followed by Robert De Niro (21 years) and costume designer Eiko Ishioka (20 years).

- Fresh Guacamole, in the running for Best Animated Short, is the shortest film ever in contention for an Oscar. It clocks in at under two minutes.

- George Clooney has joined the ranks of the illustrious filmmakers to achieve Oscar nominations in four different principal categories. His Best Picture nomination this year adds to his previous nominations in acting, directing and writing categories. He joins Warren Beatty (acting; directing; writing; producing), Orson Welles (acting; directing; writing; producing), Stanley Kubrick (directing; producing; writing; visual effects), and Kenneth Branagh (acting; directing; writing; short films).

However, Clooney has one up on all those guys. If we break the principal categories into the sub-categories of supporting and lead for the acting category, and adapted and original for the writing category, then Clooney has been nominated in 6 different categories (supporting actor; lead actor; director; picture; adapted screenplay; original screenplay). Welles remains at 4 while Kubrick, Branagh, and Beatty are at 5.

Friday, February 1, 2013

5 Broken Cameras Movie Review

It used to be that in your Academy Awards pool you could place good money on any Holocaust-themed or Israel-as-terror target movie to win the Documentary Feature award. It is perhaps a little too revealing of general sentiment toward Bibi Netanyahu’s administration and its policies toward Palestinians, the peace process, and settlements in the West Bank that not one, but two documentaries that are critical of Israel have been nominated for the award. The first is an Israeli and Palestinian co-production called 5 Broken Cameras. It is pure documentary in its most simplistic format, featuring personal footage shot by Emad Burnat, a resident of Bal’in, a Palestinian village in the West Bank. His cameras document weekly protests of the settlements that continue to encroach upon their land and the separation barrier that cuts them off from their livelihood. The film is divided into segments each one marked by the destruction of one of his cameras. In the end he displays them all on a table, some broken by the Israeli Army, one shot, one destroyed in a car accident. All filmed with a sixth camera that we’re told is still filming today. Burnat’s co-director is Guy Davidi, who stepped in to help with the editing, the translation of the Hebrew spoken by Israeli citizens and soldiers, and the voiceover narration that steadily defines the narrative.

25 Years Ago This Month: January 1988


Acclaimed director John Avildsen, of Rocky fame in the 70s, went on to direct all three Karate Kid films in the 80s and then followed that up by returning for Rocky V. But in between he made a little known and nearly forgotten film called For Keeps? which starred Molly Ringwald in a role that was supposed to help her break out of her typecast goody two shoes teenagers into more mature fare. She's a high school senior who gets pregnant and then gets married in a shotgun wedding to her boyfriend, who clearly is not ready for fatherhood at 18. Roger Ebert gave the film 3 stars, saying:
And yet there is a certain bottom line of honesty in this movie, and if it is about the joy of young love, it is also about the pressures of young responsibility.
Janet Maslin's review in the New York Times mostly praised Molly Ringwald's performance. Jonathan Rosenbaum was not very kind at all in the Chicago Reader. I have not seen it since I was a kid. I felt grown up watching it, but I don't really remember how well it deals with important teen issues.
The Couch Trip - Dan Aykroyd plays an insane man posing as a psychiatrist on a radio talk show. Michael Ritchie, director of other middling 80s comedies such as Fletch and The Golden Child, directs. Walter Matthau and Charles Grodin also starred. From the mostly postive New York Times review:
The lines and situations in "The Couch Trip" aren't consistently first-rate, but the point of view is so engaging, and the performers so enthusiatically committed, that the movie makes willing co-conspirators of the members of the audience. Like Mr. Matthau, "The Couch Trip" can be good fun even when it's slouching around with nothing much to say.
 Then there was this mixed review from Roger Ebert:
The humor comes from the behavior, not the details of the plot - out of the moment, out of the carefully observed quirks of human nature. The best moments in "The Couch Trip" do exactly that, but there are not enough of them, and the ending is a mindless and meaningless action sequence, with Aykroyd dangling from a helicopter to talk Matthau out of jumping off the top of the Hollywood sign.
Other films released this month included Kiefer Sutherland in Promised Land; Burt Reynolds and Liza Minnelli in Rent-a-Cop; Return of the Living Dead Part II; Chuck Norris in Braddock: Missing in Action 3 which closed out the epic trilogy; early roles for Tim Robbins and John Turturro in Five Corners also starring Jodie Foster.

Film Debut: Pauly Shore in For Keeps?