Friday, January 31, 2014

The Invisible Woman

In the little-known and seldom told tale of Charles Dickens and his much younger lover, director Ralph Fiennes brings a vitality that is often lacking in staid period costume dramas, As an actor, he imbues Dickens with life. It’s easy to imagine him as a hard and severe man what with his novels dealing with orphans, urchins, tough disciplinarians, cruelty, and war. But as played by Fiennes and written by Abi Morgan, he is playful, youthful, and full of vibrancy.

Short Cut Movie Review: The Lone Ranger

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.

Not nearly as bad as I was expecting (not to be mistaken for an endorsement) was Gore Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger. I was expecting Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End levels of awfulness, but it rose to the middling heights of The Curse of the Black Pearl. It does most of what you’d expect from an update of a classic TV and radio show beloved by the Boomers. It throws in lots of big action set pieces, impossible stunts, a poop joke, and a lame attempt at making it seem less exploitative of American Indians, but as long as it’s got Johnny Depp running around in a ridiculous getup and makeup acting all Looney Toons, it’s sort of undermining itself.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Short Cut Movie Review: Ernest & Célestine

The moment I start watching a foreign animated film, I realize how generic the American studio animation is. True, Pixar has been the gold standard for animated features, especially in terms of story and characterization. And theirs are among the few animated films where the director’s hand can be felt. But when it comes down to it, there’s an almost level uniformity to the projects coming out of Pixaar, Disney, Dreamworks, and Warner Bros. So to watch something like the French film Ernest & Célestine is to be reminded taht artistry, style, and uniqueness of visión can all be worked into animation. Also, the story can be based on a children’s book without pandering to children.

The Grandmaster Movie Review

Admittedly, I’ve never given the films of Wong Kar Wai a fair shake. I tried 2046 a few years back and found it, at the time, to be a little inaccessible and didn’t finish it. And from what I know about his style, I get the sense they require deep focus and a high level of mental commitment. Probably they key is to see his movies in the theater where there are no distractions. Anyone who wants to know what happens when a director of Chinese melodrama tackles the martial arts genre need look no further than The Grandmaster. I suppose it’s almost inevitable that every Asian director gets around to doing it at least once. But only Won Kar Wai can do it and make it about something that isn’t really action-oriented at all.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Important Anniversaries Marked in 2014

* The Oscar winners noted were released in the previous year, but given the award in the year noted.

10 Years Ago (2004)

Mel Gibson made waves of controversy and took his first irreversible steps toward becoming a racist and anti-Semitic Hollywood pariah with the release of The Passion of the Christ.

Number of films I've seen: 109
My average rating: 6.33/10
My best of the year: Sideways directed by Alexander Payne
My worst of the year: The Phantom of the Opera directed by Joel Schumacher

directing debuts: Zack Snyder (Dawn of the Dead)
notable deathsActors Marlon Brando (80) and Christopher Reeve (52); President Ronald Reagan (93); Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat (75); musician Ray Charles (73)

Top grossing film for the year (domestic): Shrek 2 ($441.2 million)
(worldwide): Shrek 2 ($919.8 million)
Academy Award Best Picture winner*: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King directed by Peter Jackson
Cannes Film Festival Palme d'Or winner: Farhenheit 9/11 directed by Michael Moore

Movies from my collection
Before Sunset
Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story
Garden State
The Incredibles
Kill Bill: volume 2
Million Dollar Baby
Napoleon Dynamite
Ocean's 12

Non-movie related
Facebook launched on 4 February
- The Madrid train bombings committed by al-Qaeda on 11 March
- Groundbreaking for the new World Trade Center tower began on 4 July. The skyscraper is still not completed.
- On 26 December, a major earthquake under the Indian Ocean caused a massive tsunami that killed more than 200,000 people in as many as 14 countries.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Short Cut Movie Review: Two Lives

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 film has not yet been released commercially in the United States.

The German-Norwegian co-production Two Lives is about the war children of Norway – babies fathered by Nazi soldiers during the occupation. Because Norwegians were considered true Aryans, these children were regarded as part of the pure race and so the movie, written by Georg Maas, Christoph Tölle, Stale Stein Berg, and Judith Kaufman (and directed by Maas), claims many of these children were forcibly removed from their Norwegian mothers and placed in Lebensborn homes in Germany. This is the story, based on an unpublished novel, of a woman who was reunited with her birth mother in Norway, but whose life begins to unravel after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

Short Cut Movie Review: The Croods

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.

I can’t figure out how The Croods, an animated film from Dreamworks, was nominated for the Oscar for Animated Feature over a couple of other options that were demonstrably better movies.

Emma Stone voices Eep, a typical American teenager in most respects excepting the fact that she lives in prehistoric caveman days. She whines and complains about not being able to leave the cave at night, her family is a real drag, and she goes bonkers over some new shoes. Her dad, Grug (Nicolas Cage) is an excessive worrier. Ugga (Catherine Keener) is the mom who goes along to get alone. Cloris Leachman is Gran, the hanger-on in the family, and Clark Duke is the dim-witted son, Thunk.

25 Years Ago This Month: January 1989

The deep doldrums of January brought only a handful of major releases. That's been typical for a long time as the theaters continue to be tied up with movies vying for big awards. So the studios tend to dump their garbage in the first month of the year so no one will notice.

January of 1989 brought some real stinkers.

First up is The Experts, starring Arye Gross and John Travolta (with mullets!!) in a late Cold War era comedy about two nightclub entrepreneurs who are drugged and kidnapped to the Soviet Union. They're placed in a town made to look and feel like a middle American town. It's populated by Soviet agents schooled in speaking with American accents and behaving "American." Travolta and Gross believe they are actually in Nebraska. America wins when the two begin indoctrinating these phony "Americans" with rock music and dancing which turns the would-be spies into America lovers.

Friday, January 24, 2014

The Spectacular Now Movie Review

James Ponsoldt’s The Spectacular Now is a refreshing depiction of teenage life, friendship, romantic relationships, and angst. Its main character, Sutter (Miles Teller), is the school’s life of the party. He’s fun and funny, popular among the ‘right’ people, and has an on again-off again beautiful girlfriend, who looks like the all-American Homecoming Queen. Like The Perks of Being a Wallflower, this is as close to the spirit of John Hughes as we’ve seen, in the sense of a writer who gets the voice and troubles of the American teenager.

Short Cut Movie Review: The Broken Circle Breakdown

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 Belgian film The Broken Circle Breakdown is precisely the kind of film that foreign countries typically enter as their candidates for the Foreign Language Film Oscar. They’ve learned to play the game. If it takes on subject matter that tends to be appealing to Hollywood, then they get noticed. And sure enough, it was nominated last week for the Oscar. A marriage in crisis and a cancer-stricken child are the two major plot points and it doesn’t get much more emotionally heart-wrenching than that. And really I’m not saying it’s a bad movie, but I’ve come to anticipate that foreign films will me something new. When they mimic some of the worst aspects of studio filmmaking, I’m disappointed.

Short Cut Movie Review: Despicable Me

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.

I’m a little angry at myself for skipping Despicable Me in 2010 which meant I skipped its sequel last year. Despicable Me is a charming and oftentimes very funny little animated comedy written by Cinco Paul, Ken Daurio, and Sergio Pablos, about a nefarious world villain named Gru, whose lifelong goal is to steal the moon. He’s a little upset that someone recently stunned the world by stealing one of the Great Pyramids of Giza.

The Book Thief Movie Review

I’m not even sure where to begin describing everything that is loathsome about The Book Thief, Brian Percival’s film of the novel by Markus Zusak, adapted by Michael Petroni. It almost stirred in me a potentially self-punishing interest in reading the novel to discover if Zusak’s representation of a German town during WWII is any less trite and sanitized than Percival’s film. It is true that a WWII-themed story, even one taking place in Germany, doesn’t have to be mired in depression and death. The Book Thief has its share of death and some destruction, but it fails to capture any real sense of devastation and decay among the German people as their morals and country crumbled around them.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Her Movie Review

What direction are we headed in with ubiquitous technology that becomes smarter year after year? Our smart phones, tablets, and other devices respond more and more effectively to our persona needs. Even voice technology for communicating your wants and tasks is possible. So how far away from artificial intelligence are we? That question is less important than how we handle it once it’s here. Previously, The Matrix and AI have dealt with issues related to machines that can think, reason, and even emote, but Spike Jonze’s Her tackles the romantic relationship aspect directly.

Lone Survivor Movie Review

I think when Marcus Luttrell complains that he doesn’t understand how people could possibly say Lone Survivor, the movie based on his memoir, glorifies war because “there is nothing glorious about war,” he is missing the point. Due respect to Luttrell – he’s been to Afghanistan, watched his friends die, and was incredibly lucky to come out alive, but saying that a Hollywood movie glorifies something is not the same as saying that that something is glorious. No doubt being in war is terrible beyond words. That’s why veterans tend not to talk about the experience of war outside the context of the buddies they made and the stories they told and created. But a movie can make that experience seem, to the uninitiated, sexy, desirable, exciting, fulfilling, and yes, glorious. There’s an extent to which all films that depict war are inherently pro-war. You can’t show an image of something without tacitly endorsing what it represents. Whether or not Lone Survivor goes out of its way to glorify war or whether it is a form of war porn I’m not sure. Does the level of realism make it more or less responsible?

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Short Cut Movie Review: Computer Chess

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.

Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess is like a strange vintage relic from the indie movement of the early 90s. It’s shot on what looks to be analog video, but may be manipulated digital video. Its flat, low contrast black and white cinematography is reminiscent of low budget films of that era. It has more in common with Kevin Smith’s Clerks, but also sometimes feels like early Jim Jarmusch. However, it has a rougher video finish that doesn’t even look as good as those amateur 16mm productions.

The Past Movie Review

Further cementing himself as Iran’s (or anywhere’s) best director of taut human drama, Asghar Farhadi gives us an excellent follow up to A Separation, the film that won the Oscar for Foreign Language Film and made many critics’ top ten lists (including my own) two years ago. The Past is a masterful display of a great writer at work. Starting from the classical position of staging drama in a condensed period of time, it takes place over a handful of days during which enough secrets, emotions, and hidden motivations are revealed to fill a couple more movies.

Friday, January 17, 2014

The Hunt (Jagten) Movie Review

Once you put a piece of information out into the world, true or not, it stirs around forever. Years can go by and someone can come across it and it will start to kick u dust again. A now discredited doctor made up data that suggested a link between certain childhood vaccines and autism. Now there is a large and growing anti-vaccine movement. That all comes from an initial lie. The things most people think they know about Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris and their motivation for shooting up their high school in Littleton, Colorado, are based on initially flawed reporting and bad information. Those untruths continue to be the commonly held truth. The list can go on and on. To some extent, Thomas Vinterberg’s affecting drama, The Hunt is based on exactly that phenomenon on a microcosmic level.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

How Did I Do (2014 Edition)?: Or my results on Oscar nomination predictions

Here is a rundown of how I did on my predictions for the nominations for the 86th Academy Awards.

But first...

I thought 12 Years a Slave would have the big haul of nominations, but it's in third place with nine. American Hustle and Gravity came out on top with ten nominations each. Following behind we have Captain Phillips,  Dallas Buyers Club, and Nebraska each with six and then Her and The Wolf of Wall Street with five each.

There are seven first-time nominees in the four acting categories with all the women of the Best Actress category having been nominated before. Amy Adams is the only one who's never won an Oscar and I think this really could and should be her year.

You can click here to see my list of predictions.

In the top eight categories I scored 39/44 (88.6%). That's probably my best ever, or close to it.

Across all categories that I predicted my score was 82/107 (76.6%)

That's all definitely far better than last year.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

86th Academy Award Nomination Predictions

As I write this, there are still (as usual) several films I have yet to see. Probably the two biggest awards contenders I haven't seen are Her and August: Osage County. There are then quite a few lesser contenders for technical awards that I might still see including The Invisible Woman, Rush, The Grandmaster, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, The Lone Ranger, The Book Thief and possibly some others.

When you look at other nomination predictions, you see long lists of spoilers and outside possibilities. I could list at least ten deserving and, in some cases, remotely possible candidates in each category, but I'm interested in picking what I honestly think will be nominated and naming one or two that I truly think are the strongest additional contenders. My basic claim is that (at least for the top eight categories) you won't hear a name or title called on Thursday morning that isn't listed here.


With the possibility of anywhere from five to ten nominees, it's obviously much harder to guess not only which films, but how many, will be nominated. Since that rule was implemented there have never been fewer than nine nominees. This year has a number of strong contenders, so I see no reason why there won't be nine or even ten nominated films again. My predictions are listed in order of likelihood, with the top four being my dead locks. As much as I was disappointed in The Wolf of Wall Street, I think it's making enough impact that it will make the list. If there were only five nominees, I think the fifth spot would be a tossup among everything else I have on my list.

I'm going with nine nominees playing out as follows.

1. 12 Years a Slave
2. Gravity
3. American Hustle
4. Captain Phillips
5. Dallas Buyers Club
6. Her
7. Nebraska
8. The Wolf of Wall Street
9. Inside Llewyn Davis

spoilers: PhilomenaSaving Mr. Banks

Friday, January 10, 2014

Which Way Is the Front Line from Here...Movie Review

Director and subject, Sebastian Junger (left) and Tim Hetherington (right) while making Restrepo.
It’s funny that I was just yesterday writing about the documentary The Crash Reel, which is about an individual drawn to extremely dangerous activities even after that activity nearly kills him, because now I find myself thinking about similar themes in relation to the subject of Sebastian Junger’s Which Way Is the Front Line from Here? The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington. It may or may not be coincidence that both films were made by HBO. Hetherington was a photojournalist who specialized in going into war zones. He was Junger’s co-director on the Oscar-nominated documentary Restrepo. Front Line was made after Tim’s death while covering the rebel uprising in Libya in 2011.

Folk musicians totally miss the point of Inside Llewyn Davis

Not sure why I should be surprised that folk musicians are disappointed in the Coen brothers' Inside Llewyn Davis. Their work expresses an often bleak worldview with protagonists who are, more often than not, deeply flawed idiots. The brothers themselves have even referred to their three films starring George Clooney as the Clooney Idiot Trilogy. But people are usually turned off by dark, bleak, or superficially nihilistic tales, so why would folk musicians be any different? They are, by definition, musicians for "the people," after all.

The problem with the criticisms coming from the contemporary folk music scene is that they seem to want the Coens to have made a movie they didn't actually set out to make. They want Inside Llewyn Davis to be a historical representation of the Greenwich Village folk scene in the early 60s. They wanted something they could walk away from feeling self-congratulatory about. It seems many have also been under the impression that the Coens were trying to make a Dave Van Ronk biopic when, in fact, Van Ronk's memoir served only as a jumping off point - an entry into that world from which they could draw some inspiration and detail. Instead, what the folkies got was a sepia-toned melancholic portrait of a character. That's right - a character - a work of fiction!

Llewyn Davis is a self-important louse. He's not the most likable of characters, even by Coen brothers standards, but he's not supposed to be representative of any particular historical figure. Nor is the film meant to educate the American public on what happened in that tiny enclave of Manhattan fifty years ago. They rather purposefully left out any reference to politics and civil unrest that was going on around that time specifically because the focus is on Llewyn. The setting and the musical tradition is background paint that helps inform. But look at any Coen brothers film, especially the truly stylized period pieces such as O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Barton Fink, The Man Who Wasn't There, and Miller's Crossing and tell me you think those were intended to be historical films. They all take place in a darkly romantic fantasy vision of Depression-era southern dust bowl, WWII period Los Angeles, post-war American suburbia, and a Prohibition-era gangster-run noir city.

Short Cut Movie Review: A Letter to Momo

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.

Before Hayao Miyazaki was introduced to the United States, the majority of the best known animation from Japan was action-oriented anime involving monsters, robots, words, guns, and superhero-like costumes. Miyazaki’s worlds centered on mystery, fantasy, mythical creatures, and the imagination of childhood. Now he has a list of former apprentices, protégés, and imitators who continue to produce interesting animated stories following his tradition. A Letter to Momo, from writer-director Hiroyuki Okiura, is like a tame version of a Miyazaki fantasy.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

The Crash Reel Movie Review

The documentary The Crash Reel, directed by Lucy Walker and written by Walker and Pedro Kos, could have been an exposé on the hazards of extreme sports. It could have attempted to demystify and explain what causes certain people to engage in such sports and come back to it over and over even after sustaining terrifying and sometimes life-threatening injuries. But her movie has a personal touch and doesn’t try to do anything but show on participant, his accident, and his family’s reaction.

Epic Movie Review

One of the better (as in just above average) offerings in this last weak year for American animated features is Epic. It’s a largely derivative eco-conscious storyline that brings to mind Avatar by way of Ferngully with a touch of Alice in Wonderland. The characters aren’t entirely memorable, but there’s enough here that’s commendable that it’s not worth dismissing. How’s that for faint praise?

The Wolf of Wall Street Movie Review

These guys who work on Wall Street and idolize characters like Gordon Gecko and live by the credo that “greed is good,” who make every decision based on how much money, power, drugs, or sex it might get them are the subject of The Wolf of Wall Street. Previously it was Boiler Room, which was meant to show the consequences of living that life, but became, like Oliver Stone’s Wall Street before it, a clarion call for a new generation of upper crust wannabes who took entirely the wrong lessons from the movies.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Cutie and the Boxer Movie Review

The day before sitting down to watch Cutie and the Boxer, I was thinking about my approach to documentary films. I tend to review them from the perspective of my reaction to the material rather than the way that material is presented. If my primary focus as a critic is on narrative filmmaking, then what do I hope to get out of documentaries? So I decided to try to look at them in terms of the stories they tell and how they’re told instead of focusing solely on the subject matter. Then I watched this touching and at time melancholy tale of two Japanese artists who’ve made their lives and careers in New York and I found a great story presented in a fascinating way.

The Grand Budapest Hotel trailers

First I watched this trailer for Wes Anderson's latest film, due in March:

And my first thought was, "This looks like a Wes Anderson parody." Seriously, you can hear the Honest Trailers voice say, "Starring: Every single actor who's ever been in a Wes Anderson movie!" And they're saying and doing things that are just so...singularly Wes Anderson. He's devolved into self-parody. Maybe some people already thought he'd done so years ago.

But then this trailer mellowed the experience a bit:

I'm a fan of Anderson, I really am. I loved Rushmore back in the day (I even just bought the Criterion Blu-Ray of it). The Royal Tenenbaums is one of my favorite movies. Since then my opinions of his work have vacillated between "didn't really care for it" (The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou) to "yeah, I really enjoyed that" (Moonrise Kingdom). Not exactly damning or glorifying statements. His style was unique for two movies (which is quite a feat when you think about that logically). But now you realize he makes exactly one kind of movie and just alters the story and characters. I don't know. We'll see. I'm sure it will be good. I just find it difficult to get really excited about this. 

Monday, January 6, 2014

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug Movie Review

Each of these dwarfs is just like the others...
As if the first chapter weren’t already interminable enough, the second part of The Hobbit has arrived. This one, subtitled The Desolation of Smaug, is the insufferable middle section of a trilogy that had no business being, at most, a single three hour movie. Like The Two Towers a decade ago, it’s a movie without beginning or conclusion and so it just feels like you’re awash in stuff that happens to characters. Only it’s far worse than The Two Towers because that was at least based on a book of its own whereas this is from part of a single book with lots of additional crap thrown in.

Inside Llewyn Davis Movie Review

The Coen brothers love failures. They love characters who just hopelessly fail at what they do. Any great literary character has to have some flaw. Flaws make us human. The Greeks understood that. The most memorable Coen Brothers protagonists are defined by flaws and made human by the occasional glimmer of having it together. Mostly their heroes are lucky to get out alive. Their latest creation, Llewyn Davis, embodies elements we’ve seen before in their films. He’s going through a Job-like test a la Larry Gopnik. He’s Tom Regan without the wits and strokes of luck. He’s Jeff Lebowski without a bed of his own. He’s Everett McGill without a plan. He’s Barton Fink without the success. He’s all of this, but still entirely original.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Everything I saw in the second half of 2013

Here's the breakdown of my movie and TV viewing for the last six months of
the year, combined with the first half.

I saw 67 feature films and wrote 51 new reviews from those. That makes 154
for the year compared with 211 in the year 2012.
I saw 31 features in the cinema, one of which was a repeat. So that's 55 films
in cinemas for the year compared with 64 the year prior.
48 of the films I saw were films I'd never seen making a total of 94 new films
for the year. That's 30 fewer than in 2012.
I watched 24 TV episodes, 12 of which I'd seen before. I didn't track TV
episodes before this half year, but I did watch the sixth season of "Mad Men"
in the first half of the year, which I think was 13 episodes.
And there were also 5 short films (2 in the cinema), plus commentary tracks
on 3. So that brings the yearly total to 25 shorts.