Monday, March 31, 2014

Enemy Movie Review

There were scattered moments in Denis Villenueve’s Prisoners that hinted at the atmosphere and experimentation he employs in Enemy. The lingering shots of trees, emptiness, or recreational vehicles were indications of a different kind of filmmaking. But where Prisoners was a fairly conventional story presented with touches of auteur sensibility, Enemy is moving toward full-blown independence. If Prisoners was dark and atmospheric, Enemy is downright funereal.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Tim's Vermeer Movie Review

In the documentary Tim’s Vermeer, a graphic artist and techno-geek named Tim Jenison posits a theory, also held by art historian David Hockney, that 17th century Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer painted his compositions using a combination of lenses and mirrors to so accurately represent the photo-natural colors and lighting of his subjects. Jenison takes his hypothesis to obsessive extremes by attempting to painstakingly recreated Vermeer’s “The Music Lesson” using methods that would have been available to the artist in his own time. He rebuilds the room where the original was painted. He builds the furniture, has the costumes made, and very carefully places everything just so.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel Movie Review

I’ve just written about Rushmore and touched on the great stylistic difference between Wes Anderson’s earliest films and the techniques he uses in his latest. The Grand Budapest Hotel is a great example of how Anderson’s stylized world, whimsical flights of fancy, and self-conscious artifice have grown and joined together to blend into a harmonious vision.

I was a true Anderson enthusiast through The Royal Tenenbaums, but he lost me until Fantastic Mr. Fox, which struck me as the absolute perfect representation of what he has always tried to accomplish. The Grand Budapest Hotel has brought him back completely into my good graces and though it contains moments that are so previously Wes Anderson-y that it risks becoming a parody of his own style, it somehow reached me in surprising and new ways.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Top Ten of 2013

I'm sort of sneaking this in even though we're fully three months into 2014. I just haven't really had the chance to get around to it in the last six weeks. But here it is officially - my top ten movies of 2013.

1. 12 Years a Slave dir. Steve McQueen - An all-around brilliantly executed movie and with the added bonus of being not only historically, but contemporarily significant. This is arguably the best slave narrative in the history of filmmaking. It gets the number one spot not only because it's a great film, but for its unparalleled historical significance.

2. Her dir. Spike Jonze - A beautiful, warm, and honest romance. The only thing the movie lacked for me was a real emotional hook. I was right there with it all the way through its marvelous production design and perfect screenplay. But it never had that emotional elevation moment for me.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

From My Collection: Rushmore Movie Review

Wes Anderson’s filmmaking style has evolved over the years to such extremes of whimsical fantasy that to revisit his second feature, 1998’s Rushmore, feels tame and almost like a regular movie experience. He was just beginning to hone his skills at symmetrical and perfectly fastidiously set-dressed diorama-like compositions. Compare it to the brand new Grand Budapest Hotel or even The Royal Tenenbaums, his follow-up to Rushmore, where you’ll see clearly compartmentalized sets that resemble a doll’s house, and the earlier film reveals an artist who was learning what kind of worlds he wanted to create on film.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

From My Collection: A Modern Classic Movie Review of L.A. Confidential

What studio executive looked at the talent and material coming together on the 1997 adaptation of James Ellroy’s pulp detective novel L.A. Confidential and thought it was a good idea? On paper, it just doesn’t look like it should work. But I guess that’s proof then that studios can’t predict everything based on filmmakers’ resumes, popularity of talent and story material. In L.A. Confidential they had on their hands a 1950s period detective story with an unbelievably complex plot, one that rivals Raymond Chandler for its twists and turns and reversals. It’s true that pulp stories were steaming along in popularity in the late 90s and neo-noir was perhaps starting to make another brief resurgence.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Short Cut Movie Review: Rush

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.

It’s a result of severely reduced expectations that Ron Howard’s Rush managed to earn more than a little critical praise last year. As an example of its kind – the race car movie – it’s better than you might expect, but as an example of its kind more broadly – the sports movie – it’s sorely lacking in inspiration and spiritual uplift. The greatest sports movies draw their spectators in and make them stand squarely behind the hero so firmly and with such emotional investment that you can’t help but be overcome with emotion. I think of examples like Rocky or Breaking Away. Alternatively, they set up a tragic figure and become more a study of character and loss like in Raging Bull or Million Dollar Baby. Of the two protagonists in Rush – James hunt, the lothario playboy played by Chris Hemsworth, and Niki Lauda, the cautious and meticulous champion played by Daniel Brühl – neither one achieves either of those apotheoses necessary for greatness of character.

Short Cut Movie Review: Omar

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 almost can’t believe Omar snagged a nomination for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. Writer-director Hany Abu-Assad has taken an otherwise thematically interesting tale and designed it as a film with no teeth. Here’s the story of a Palestinian freedom fighter (er, terrorist) who is coerced into aiding Israeli intelligence in capturing his friends. Think of the great dramatic possibilities with this story. Think of all the internal conflict Abu-Assad could depict within Omar (Adam Bikri). Instead he turns it into a minor romantic struggle. He’s in love with the younger sister of his terrorist partner, Tarek (Iyad Hoorani). So is his childhood friend, Amjad (Samer Bisharat). If he goes to prison, he misses out on the life he dreams of having with Nadia. If he turns her brother in, he will forever be a traitor.

Then again, maybe it’s less the material that fails to express the real drama of the storyline, than it is the amateur acting. Bikri has one facial expression. And I’m not exaggerating. He really never changes the look on his face, wither he’s cooing with Nadia, lunging toward an Israeli soldier, or getting tortured in prison. As Nadia, Leem Lubany isn’t much better. The overall production is on the amateurish side as well. The shots are oddly composed and the editing jarring. I’ve never noticed editing so much. This was just a pure disappointment all around, especially coming from the director of the much better Paradise Now.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Short Cut Movie Review: 20 Feet from Stardom

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.

20 Feet from Stardom celebrates some of the unsung heroes of pop music, especially in the early decades. These are the background singers whose voices we hear in early girl groups and songs by artists as disparate as Sting, The Rolling Stones, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Ike and Tina Turner, Joe Cocker, and on and on.

Their vocal stylings helped fill out the music of the rock-and-roll generation. We sang along to their parts on the records and they were rarely, if ever, credited. Let’s keep in mind that instrumentalists find themselves in similar situations, adding guitars, keyboards, or drum tracks to songs without so much as a “thank you.” They are studio musicians and that’s what they’re paid for. But in the early 60s some of these women were the actual singing voices behind the more stylish and sexy figure that the record companies preferred for TV and album covers.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Short Cut Movie Review of Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

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.

Why do they keep doing it? Why do filmmakers continue to make biopics of famous historical figures that don’t reveal anything that we couldn’t learn from a documentary about the individual? Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom follows Nelson Mandela from the early 1940s when he was a young lawyer until the mid-90s when he was elected the first black President of South Africa. Big deal! Mandela was a great man. He did great things for his country and helped lead the movement – from prison! – to end Apartheid. But what do we learn about him from Justin Chadwick’s sprawling epic that covers fifty years of his life?

Short Cut Movie Review: Despicable Me 2

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.

Following the surprise hit Despicable Me from 2010 comes its sequel, which successfully accomplishes the feat of finding new things for old characters to do in a new movie without repeating a formula. Gru (Steve Carell) is now a retired master villain trying to raise three little girls he adopted at the end of the last movie.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Short Cut Movie Review: Short Term 12

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.
Teen angst - ouch
Short Term 12 is like an after school special made to resemble a film. It has all the subtlety and nuance of those low-budget programs designed to teach a lesson or draw attention to a common teen problem. I just couldn’t believe I was seeing the same ham-handed approach to a theatrically-released film and actually made some critics’ top ten lists.

Brie Larson plays Grace (seriously, is that the best you could do for a name?), a young woman who works at a group home for troubled teens. Her boyfriend and co-worker (John Gallagher Jr.) is bearded and shaggy and just so perfectly supportive, caring, and nurturing toward this young woman whose troubled past is signaled by the way she picks at her cuticles, or becomes obsessed with a new arrival of a girl who dresses in dark clothing, is standoffish, has obvious daddy issues, and cuts herself. It doesn’t take a great deal of sleuthing to figure out exactly – and I mean precisely – what happened in Grace’s past to make her like this.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

25 Years Ago This Month: March 1989


As always I start with what I've seen...

Three of the great filmmakers of the 70s and 80s (Woody Allen; Francis Ford Coppola; Martin Scorsese) collaborated on the omnibus film New York Stories which encompasses three short vignettes. The first and best is "Life Lessons" (Scorsese) starring Nick Nolte and Rosanna Arquette about an artist living with his former lover, whose sexual escapades with other men fuel jealousy and a spark of creativity. Coppola's segment is "Life Without Zoe," a sort of fantasy about a girl living in a luxury hotel. "Oedipus Wrecks" is Allen's contribution, about a New York lawyer (played by Allen) haunted by his overbearing mother, who appears in the New York skyline to tell the whole city about her son's personal problems.

I reviewed it last year after taking a second look many years removed, but the cult classic Heathers was released a quarter century ago.

Final Oscar Predictions

This is coming through later than I'd wanted. We just moved into a new house and it's been a terribly busy two weeks. I've not had any time to write as I've spent nearly all my free time either moving boxes and furniture, organizing boxes and furniture, cleaning, and other little odds and ends.

It's late right now, and I really don't have time, but for the sake of just getting this out there, here are my predictions for Sunday night's Oscar ceremony:

Picture: 12 Years a Slave
I have little doubt about this one, although I don't think 12 Years a Slave will win many awards overall.

Director: Alfonso Cuaron
This is a no-brainer as far as I'm concerned.

Actress: Cate Blanchett
This is really tough because I think Amy Adams so richly deserves the award. She's had so many nominations in her very short movie career and she was just dazzling in American Hustle. But Cate Blanchett is a phenomenal actress, was incredible in Blue Jasmine, and while she has won an Oscar, it was not as lead actress.

Actor: Matthew McConaughey
No-brainer again.