Thursday, December 11, 2014

Blog Update: Why We Have Not Been Posting Lately

When we began this little blog in June of 2008, it was just the two of us, and we could go see a movie anytime we wanted. Sometimes we would see two or three in a single day if we decided we wanted to do that. We would watch at the theater and at home. We would see G-rated animation, R-rated dramas, and a lot in between.

Now, over six years and over 225 posts later, we have two children under the age of 18 months! As you might imagine (and many of you know from personal experience), this makes it very, very difficult to spend a couple of hours at the movie theater. It is almost equally as difficult to even spend two consecutive hours watching a film in the comfort of our own living room!

So, if there are no new posts for a while, you'll understand why.

We have been happily surprised over the past few years at how many friends and strangers take the time to read our thoughts on movies. Literally thousands of people from across the U.S. and around the world have somehow found their way to our page.  Amazing.

We aren't taking the blog down, but we are setting it aside temporarily.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy











What could have been the lone silly mistake in Marvel Studios' recent history instead proves to be the silliest big win. Guardians of the Galaxy assembles lesser-known and less conventionally heroic comic book characters than The Avengers. Its plot features an overabundance of laser blasters, spaceships, and extraterrestrial weirdos, ramping up the sci-fi spectacle at the risk of alienating more down-to-earth moviegoers. And its tone is considerably lighter; in this respect it is reminiscent of the comic book films of the 1990s which were not ashamed to splash the screen with color, fill the soundtrack fun tunes and load plenty of humor into the dialogue. Guardians has been compared by some critics to Star Wars, and this is a useful comparison given the likelihood that Marvel has launched yet another successful franchise.

While there are some fleeting references to the Avengers and their exploits, these are kept to a minimum so that James Gunn (in what is essentially his big screen directorial debut) and fellow screenwriter Nicole Perlman can introduce us to an all-new slate of characters. The unlikely space-faring team is led by Peter Quill (Chris Pratt, who, until now, has mostly been a TV star but will next be seen in 2015's Jurassic World). Quill, a.k.a. Star-Lord, is the only human in the group and frequently turns to a cassette tape of 1970s pop rock to help him remember his deceased mother and childhood back on Earth. His companions are Gamora, Groot, Rocket, and Drax (Zoe Saldana, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, and Dave Bautista, respectively). Each of them has an unsavory or tragic past, each has a less-than-stellar reputation in the galactic community, and each has (of course!) convenient abilities and/or skills that lend the group a fighting chance at defeating forces of evil--namely Ronan (Lee Pace) and Thanos (Josh Brolin, uncredited). The extensive cast also features Djimon Hounsou, Glenn Close, and John C. Riley in brief but key roles.

While the rest of the so-called Marvel Cinematic Universe films have succeeded with a self-serious apocalyptic vibe, this one swaps that for a winking anything goes attitude and some personal sensibilities. It's a fun thrill ride of a film that is often laugh-out-loud funny. It embraces its geeky cheesiness with just the right mix of sincerity and irreverence, so we can appreciate its computerized artistry (the special effects really are outstanding) and not get hung up on the crush of plot, plot, plot. Speaking of plot, the Guardians' chief task in this film is to acquire and protect something called an "infinity stone", keeping it out of the bad guys' hands and thereby saving entire worlds from utter destruction. Along the way, each member of the group is emphasized equally, a la Avengers, so that the themes of teamwork and trust and sacrifice might be heralded. That said, Rocket or Groot might be considered the most memorable creatures on the team; Rocket is a wise-cracking gun-toting raccoon; Groot, who is something like a tree, doesn't say much but has quite the smile.

Remember them all, because you'll see them again: a sequel is already on the calendar for 2017, and scenes involving The Collector (Benicio del Toro) confirm some significant crossover potential with the Avengers in other future Marvel films, several of which are already in production and dated as late as five years from now. It's all good, though, as long as they can keep making them this good.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes


This is the movie the summer of 2014 needed. It's predecessor, 2011's Rise of the Planet of the Apes, was a really good film that carefully and somberly laid the foundation for what was to come; now, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes has managed to surpass it in many technical and artistic respects, and adds layers of post-apocalyptic drama to an old story whose ending we already know. That director Matt Reeves (Cloverfield) was able to deliver a respectable sequel in the midst of an unusual summer movie drought makes it all the more satisfying.

In the world of the movie, ten years have passed since Rise left us hanging. In that time, a sizable community of genetically modified apes with remarkable intelligence has flourished in the forests near San Francisco. This group includes Caesar (Andy Serkis), the most advanced among them and the leader of the pack thanks to the revolt and escape from human captivity he orchestrated in Rise. The apes are still outnumbered by the humans, it seems, but maybe not for long. What humans are left after a viral pandemic huddle in squalid conditions in a ravaged downtown San Francisco, faced with dwindling fuel and the prospect of no electricity. The virus that wiped out most of the human population--including Caesar's boyhood caretaker (Rise's James Franco)--was, you'll recall, first developed to be a miracle cure for human neurodegenerative disease before it was found to have deadly side effects. For whatever reason, a small fraction of humans were immune, though, and those are the ones who now live in fear of the apes and in fear for their livelihoods. We are led to believe that beyond San Francisco's ruins, other pockets of surviving humans exist, but we never see them; a montage of grave news reports during the opening credits leaves no doubt that the whole world was affected by the virus.

The people are led by Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), a man who harbors a building, jealous hatred for the apes. One resident, Malcom (Jason Clarke) convinces Dreyfus to let him go with a small group into the forest to attempt to repair a large dam; if the mission is accomplished, power could be restored to the city, enabling its inhabitants to live substantially healthier, more comfortable lives than they've known for a decade. The only problem: the apes control the forests, and Malcom will need to earn the trust of Caesar before he'll ever be able to approach the dam. This precarious interaction between desperate humans and prideful apes is the vehicle by which the film drives us into its emotional and ponderous new world.

New world, indeed. In fact, it is the film's focus on the apes and their civilization, rather than on humans' plight--that makes this story abound with technical wonder and visceral entertainment. The human characters predictably argue and fight among themselves. And sure, there is an extreme amount of tension between the humans and the apes. But even within the apes' own nascent society there are degrees of mistrust and lawlessness. Some apes, including Caesar, have experienced and benefited directly from the "good side" of humans; others suffered horribly in humans' cages and seek revenge. These differing perspectives allow for dynamic relationships among the apes that are startling and have fans already looking forward to the franchise's next installment, due in 2016.

Mr. Serkis should go down in history as one of Hollywood's great pioneers, paving the way for future CGI motion capture actors to do things we can't even imagine now; his performances have become spectacles in and of themselves, with each new effort trumping the last. Here, as the conflicted, wise but vulnerable Caesar, Mr. Serkis reaches new heights of nuance and raw emotion. Toby Kebbell and Karin Konoval, as his fellow apes Koba and Maurice, hold their own, along with the rest of the ape cast. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is one of the best films of 2014.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Edge of Tomorrow

From a screenplay by Christopher McQuarrie (Valkyrie and Jack Reacher), director Doug Liman (three Jason Bourne films) delivers a smart and nimble thriller in Edge of Tomorrow, starring Tom Cruise as a man who seems to be caught in a "time loop" a la Groundhog Day. The latter is one of those films that people either love or hate; it has become a cult classic, but some tire of the "repeating day" conceit almost as quickly as Bill Murray's Phil character himself. But Groundhog Day is a romantic comedy. Would it make a difference if the guy in the time loop were a soldier on the front line of a war, discovering shocking truths about the enemy only to be killed and awake to live the same day over again? We didn't think it would, but thanks to quick pacing, careful editing and Mr. Cruise's reliable effort, the answer is yes.

The first act's scenes and dialogue, before the time loop confusion begins, could have been culled from any number of futuristic action films that feature scary alien invaders, sophisticated weaponry, caricatured commanding officers and near-certain death for GIs on the ground. Mr. Cruise plays Major William Cage, a guy who has never personally experienced battle and, perhaps because of his photogenic qualities, is being used by the military as a spokesperson who regularly appears on news programs to discuss an ongoing war with mysterious creatures who rode to Earth on asteroids. The aliens are winning the war, but just as despair starts to set in among the earthlings, a breakthrough occurs: a soldier, Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), wearing a sort of robotic armor, single-handedly secures victory for the humans in Verdun, France. She does this with such a miraculous level of efficiency that she is hailed as a hero and it is thought that the new armor that made the difference. A major offensive is then planned, called operation downfall, to attack the enemy in Europe. Cage is summoned to London and told that he is to fight on the front line in this operation. He responds with incredulity but soon finds himself on a forward operating base (Heathrow Airport!) in a bewildering rush to war. And then things get interesting: the time loop begins (yes, we are told how), Cage meets Vrataski, and the rest is history. Or the future. Or something like that.

This is a bona fide action film, but its intelligence, its well-placed dashes of humor and romance, and the chemistry between its stars lift it above typical summer fare. As with any story that involves manipulation of time, there are logical questions that will bother you after you leave the theater. But then, any movie that keeps its audience pondering enigmatic plot points long after the credits have rolled is worth a look. So we recommend Edge of Tomorrow.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Maleficent

Robert Stromberg, who has spent the recent years of his career as a very successful production designer (Oz the Great and Powerful, Alice in Wonderland, and Avatar) makes his directorial debut with Maleficent, another in a string of revisionist back-stories from Disney that is visually arresting but poorly written. What Maleficent has going for it that the others didn't is an all-in performance from Angelina Jolie as the titular villain. No actor in 2010's Alice in Wonderland really stood out, and James Franco seemed uneasy in last year's Oz the Great and Powerful; Ms. Jolie's effort, though, is emotional, memorable and keeps the film afloat when it otherwise would certainly sink.

Elle Fanning plays an impossibly chipper princess Aurora in a supporting role. Prince Phillip, who in the animated classic saves Aurora with "true love's kiss", is barely present at all this time around. The red, blue and green fairies (Flora, Fauna and Merryweather) who raise Aurora in the woods have in 2014 been assigned different names and excessively childish personalities; under their care, it's a wonder Aurora survived to her first birthday, much less her sixteenth. And King Stefan is no longer the hopeful father we remember from the 50s cartoon; instead, he is a power-hungry warrior, largely deserving of Maleficent's anger. Even Maleficent's creepy black raven, named Diaval, is no longer the dark enemy we were led to believe. These unfortunate re-characterizations are all in the service of an entirely new mythology that presents Maleficent, perhaps the scariest of all Disney bad guys, in a new, empathetic light as an (albeit strange) mother figure. To be sure, she needed a back-story. The classic film never explains who she is or why she's evil or where she came from. But are these the answers we were looking for? She's not evil at all! In fact, she loves Sleeping Beauty!

It struck us as we were leaving the theater how similarly we felt after seeing Darren Arronofsky's revisionist Noah earlier this spring. That, too, was an entertaining movie that hit a lot of high notes. But we couldn't help but ask after it was over: was this modern re-telling worth changing so many of the source material's details? Did godly Noah need to be brought to the point of infanticide? Did the climactic showdown between Prince Phillip and Maleficent's dragon need to be eschewed for the sake of teary-eyed regret? Probably not.

See Maleficent for Ms. Jolie's performance. See it to puzzle over what parts of Disney's 1959 masterpiece Sleeping Beauty were changed to make this film minimally suspenseful. And see it for the color-blasted 3D CGI fantasy world Maleficent calls home. But don't expect great cinema. The story simply isn't there. We'll end with a note to parents: the film isn't quite as scary as the advertisements would have you believe. The youngest kids will certainly still be frightened by some battle sequences, hence the PG rating, but older kids should be fine. Because Maleficent isn't a villain after all.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Godzilla


Godzilla, along with King Kong, are cinema's two most iconic giant monsters. Given how 1998's Roland Emmerich Godzilla adaptation underwhelmed, we shouldn't blame ourselves for being wary of this one, especially since it's director, Gareth Edwards, had never led a major studio film before. But 2014's Godzilla is impressive and fun, both a fitting tribute and stand-alone blockbuster marking sixty years since the kaiju first appeared on screen in the 1954 Toho classic. It respects decades-old mythology while also taking advantage of modern technology and some decent acting, smoothly splicing an hour of scary/campy anticipation with an hour of gleefully obnoxious city-smashing monster mayhem.

The legendary monster himself is still radioactive, still able to demolish skyscrapers without breaking a sweat, and still on a mission to bring "balance" to nature in response to mankind's "arrogance". But he has gotten considerably bigger. And his iconic roar, made sixty years ago by scraping pine tarred leather across a double bass string (according to NPR), is now the product of a recipe that is a trade secret. But it's breathtakingly loud. Godzilla is the star of the show, of course; despite honest efforts to engage us with the lives and times of human characters, the drama between Godzilla and two other giant prehistoric creatures gets top billing. This is as it should be, though it's unfortunate that an actress as talented as Elizabeth Olsen (Martha Marcy May Marlene), playing a young mother and E.R. nurse named Elle Brody, is given so little to do. The film's biggest human role belongs to Aaron Taylor Johnson (Ford Brody, a navy lieutenant and Elle's husband), who was Vronsky in 2012's Anna Karenina. His is a serviceable performance in which he is called upon to do several things one might expect: save a child, defuse a bomb, rebel against his father, and make tearful phone calls to his lovely wife, all while bravely putting his life on the line. Ken Wantanbe (Inception's Saito) pulls off the Japanese lead and gets to utter the most melodramatic line in the script: "We call him...[humorously long, tense pause]...Godzilla!" Bryan Cranston and Sally Hawkins round out the cast.

The dramatic restraint shown during the first act (we don't actually see Godzilla until we're past the sixty minute mark) is admirable and effective, and may make that portion accessible even to those who struggle to appreciate the allure of a monster movie's inevitable death and destruction. But once the death and destruction begin, it is with no holds barred. Mr. Edwards manages the story well, knowing when to dial things back and when to throttle them all the way up. The scale of the damage to the city centers of Honolulu, San Francisco, Las Vegas and even Nevada's Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository is so extreme as to prompt chuckles among the theater crowd. As with many former entries into the genre, this response strangely endears the film instead of undermining it.

Monday, May 5, 2014

The Amazing Spider-Man 2

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 feels like a must-see summer blockbuster only if one intentionally forgets that it is a rushed sequel to an unnecessary franchise reboot, the first installment of which debuted a mere five years after its predecessor trilogy closed. Millions of people around the world managed to achieve this degree of forgetfulness this weekend, though (or, they were small children during the first trilogy's run and are now old enough to see a PG-13 film), filling theater seats almost out of a sense of pop culture obligation. It's Spider-Man! How could we not want to see this film?! While Spidey's reign as the most iconic of Marvel superheroes continues to be threatened by Disney's cinematically superior Avengers machine, this character's adventures remain a huge draw and, since 2002 at least, we'd miss him if he left the screen for too long. That said, this sequel is a cluttered mess that barely manages to satisfy audiences thanks to the outstanding romantic chemistry between its co-stars, Andrew Garfield as Peter Parker/Spider-Man, and Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy, reprising their 2012 roles and in a real-life relationship.

Why director Mark Webb and an assemblage of no fewer than seven screenwriters felt obliged to cram so many characters and so many plot lines into this movie, pushing its run time nearly to the 2.5 hour mark, we cannot say. Don't they know that two more sequels are already green lit?! That's at least four (or, at this rate, five) more hours to fill. Here is an incomplete list of subplots we are asked to juggle while being entertained by this film:

  1. Peter's on again/off again relationship with Gwen
  2. Peter's search for the truth about his parents
  3. Peter's strained relationship with Aunt May (Sally Field)
  4. Peter's inexplicable friendship with a clearly evil Harry Osborne (Dane DeHaan)
  5. Spider-Man's efforts to save New York from Electro (an almost unrecognizable Jamie Foxx)
  6. Spider-Man's efforts to save himself and others from the Green Goblin
  7. Spider-Man's efforts to save people from yet another villain named Rhino (Paul Giamatti)
Spider-Man flying from skyscraper to skyscraper while a quasi-human blue battery electrocutes Times Square's flashy signage may be a fun spectacle, and the special effects are as good as should be expected. But the quiet scenes of dialogue between Mr. Garfield and Ms. Stone end up being the film's most compelling. Though they redeem the movie they also expose it as one that is merely going through the big-budget summer franchise motions, one that seems intent on keeping us from emotionally investing in the villains, their intended victims, and even Spider-Man himself. A touching scene in the epilogue in which Spidey is assisted by a little boy is a nice addition, but it's too little humanity, too late. There is simply too much going on in this story. Here's hoping 2016's third chapter will better balance the awesome CGI action visuals with intelligent characterization; it seems to us that this could be accomplished by reducing the number of principals and having the protagonist thrown into an apparent moral catch-22, narrative strategies at which several other recent superhero movies have succeeded.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier


One of the biggest real-world political riddles of the 21st century--how to protect individual freedoms while bolstering national security--is at the center of a sinister plan to destroy the world's foremost security organization (S.H.I.E.L.D.), bury its superheroes, and exterminate millions of other people in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the latest of Disney's Marvel comic-book projects. This familiar sociopolitical undercurrent adds a (small) dose of plausibility to the otherwise typical superhero fare and lifts this sequel to keep it on par with its 2011 predecessor, The First Avenger. It was Americana and the nostalgia associated with World War II that made that first film a standout; this time, it's old-fashioned conspiratorial thrills and the chemistry between Cap (Chris Evans) and Natasha, a.k.a. the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) that makes the 136-minute run time fly by.

Somehow, directors Anthony and Joe Russo manage to keep the story coherent amidst a barrage of new characters and twisty subplots. There is a lot going on in Winter Soldier. Why is the normally cool and collected S.H.I.E.L.D. director, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson in a welcome expanded role) acting so strangely lately? What, if anything, is Natasha Romanoff hiding from Captain America? Why is the woman who lives across the hall from Cap (Emily VanCamp) so interested in him and yet so unwilling to join him for a date? And who is the murderous, shadowy man some people call the "Winter Soldier"? The Captain, a.k.a. Steve Rogers, is still somewhat bewildered (although this emotion is unfortunately downplayed) by having been "frozen" and presumed dead in the 1940s only to be "awakened" and called back into action in the present day, effectively time travelling seventy-plus years into a future full of new technology and dark threats. But as these questions begin to be answered he is forced to enter a labyrinth of deadly attacks, political corruption and friends who can't be trusted. Robert Redford plays Alexander Pierce, a senior S.H.I.E.L.D. official who epitomizes the latter of those dilemmas. The very likable Anthony Mackie plays Sam Wilson, a.k.a. the Falcon, whose humble but high-flying antics help save the day.

Winter Soldier features the requisite CGI-laden action sequences; they don't necessarily up the ante in the special effects arena but are, of course, impressive and fun to watch. One scene in which Nick Fury's SUV is being shot at is particularly notable for its humor and excess. The film's third act certainly plays by the comic-book genre's unwritten rules: (1) blow as much stuff up as possible, (2) cause as much destruction as possible, (3) have one or more key characters disappear for a while and then reappear and precisely the right moment, and, (4) by whatever means necessary, have the protagonist almost die. But, as with other Marvel films, this fiery bombast is not an end unto itself. As incredible as the action may be, it supports rather than overwhelms the central themes of friendship, loyalty, and service. Therefore, Winter Soldier stands on its own as a deserved blockbuster and also whets our appetite for the future "Marvel Cinematic Universe" films that are already in the pipeline, most of all next year's Avengers sequel and 2016's planned third installment in the Captain America franchise which was announced by Disney just this afternoon.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Noah

About as far removed as can be from the happy cartoon Sunday School lessons of childhood, and thankfully nowhere near as biblically inept as its detractors might have you believe, director Darren Aronofsky's Noah seeks to treat this most classic of stories the way so many other Bible stories could and should be treated in modern movies: as a dramatic epic, full of good actors and top-notch production values, and made for adult eyes and minds (this horror movie will absolutely scare young children!). Rather than a playful focus on the animals boarding two-by-two, this film emphasizes the wicked world of men and women left behind to drown in the rising sea. Less of a meditation on Noah's righteousness before God, the movie is more of a psychological character study that examines a good man who, faced with a monumental burden, begins to lose sight of what is real, what is important. This intimate portrait of reality unraveling in the mind of the protagonist is a hallmark of Mr. Aronofsky's, and it works well here as it did in earlier films. Only this time, a few of the precious sentences of Scripture had to be either embellished or altogether ignored for the sake of creating personal tensions withing Noah's family and subplots featuring stone giants and unexpected pregnancy.

Russell Crowe is understandably, matter-of-factly downtrodden in the title role, having just been told in a dream of the imminent destruction of all life on Earth. Chapters 6-10 of Genesis recount the actual history of Noah and the Great Flood, and in that original account Noah "finds favor in the eyes of the Lord" from the very start of the story (6:8) and enters into a "covenant" with God (6:18) by which his family, including his three sons and their wives, are preserved even as the rest of humanity perishes. Mr. Aronofsky's re-telling accepts that "every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart" were only evil at that time (6:5); but, he deviates from his source material by having Mr. Crowe's Noah earnestly believe that he and his family also are also destined by God to die following the flood, thereby wiping out the human race completely and making the story of Noah's Ark one about the rebirth of animals and plants rather than about the cleansing of mankind. On one hand, this departure from Scripture seems offensive to those who believe the Bible's verses shouldn't be tinkered with; on the other hand, it renders Noah humble and deeply conflicted, infusing a very familiar tale with drama and even suspense. There are several other liberties taken with the Bible's text, but those who hold strictly to Scripture will find much to celebrate, too. The sinful depravity of man, Noah's ultimate goodness and commitment to God, God's faithfulness and sovereignty and even the biblical creation/Garden of Eden account remain substantially intact.

Jennifer Connelly is Noah's wife, Naameh, in a role similar to the one she played in 2001's A Beautiful Mind. Anthony Hopkins has the most fun of anyone, playing Methuselah, who is Noah's grandfather. Methuselah is famous for being the longest-living person in the Bible at 969 years, the 969th of which was the year of the Flood; in this film, he is a cross between a winking prophet and a powerful wizard and supplies the only comic relief of the 2.5-hour run time. Nick Nolte and Frank Langella have voice roles as two of the "Watchers", perhaps meant to be the film's fanciful version of the biblical Nephilim, described as "heroes of old" in Genesis 6:4 and portrayed here as fallen angels turned to lurching beings made of stone. Of Noah's three sons (Shem, Ham, and Japheth), only Shem has a wife in the movie, and his wife happens to be Emma Watson, who turns in a memorably emotional performance. The story's antagonist is Tubal-Cain, who is largely an invention of the film's despite possessing a real biblical name. Ray Winstone plays the fiercely humanist (and therefore evil) Tubal-Cain with gusto, as the leader of the descendants of the murderer Cain who are obsessed with industry and who believe that their Creator, if he exists at all, has turned his back on them forever. This story is much bigger than one bad guy, though, and the epic nature of the film seems to swallow Mr. Winstone's performance.

Hopefully, any box office success to be had by Noah will further enlighten the major Hollywood studios to the possibilities for really good movies found in the pages of both the Old and New Testaments. Where is the big budget treatment of the Tower of Babel, or of Lot's family in Sodom, or of Isaac's near murder at the hands of his father, Abraham? And those ideas are from merely the first half of the first book of the Bible! Noah is not without its flaws. But Mr. Aronofsky, who is on record as a skeptic, has on the whole told his story in a manner both earnest and entertaining. No screen adaptation of a Bible story will ever be without controversy. But there are plenty of good movies to be made nevertheless, and the better they are, the more people--both believers and nonbelievers--will talk about the "big ideas" at the heart of these stories: the broken relationship between mankind and God, and the good news that God doesn't give up in his pursuit of us, even though circumstances might temporarily be misinterpreted to suggest otherwise.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Our Oscar Picks and Predictions















We predict Gravity will be the big winner of the night, winning in seven categories. We are split between it and American Hustle and 12 Years A Slave as our personal pick, though Gravity is the one we are most likely to watch again and again at home. We expect American Hustle's big win will be for Jennifer Lawrence, and 12 Years will 2 trophies including for writing. Dallas Buyers Club should sweep the male acting categories. Frozen is the favorite to win each of the categories in which it is nominated. We have a feeling Captain Phillips, Philomena, Nebraska, and even The Wolf Of Wall Street might leave the ceremony empty-handed.

Our picks and predictions:

Picture:
What will win: Gravity
Our pick: Gravity

Director:
Who will win: Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity
Our pick: Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity

Lead Actor:
Who will win: Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club
Our pick: Christian Bale, American Hustle

Supporting Actor:
Who will win: Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club
Our pick: Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club

Lead Actress:
Who will win: Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
Our pick: Amy Adams, American Hustle

Supporting Actress:
Who will win: Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle
Our pick: Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle

Original Screenplay:
What will win: Her
Our pick: American Hustle

Adapted Screenplay:
What will win: 12 Years A Slave
Our pick: 12 Years A Slave

Animated Movie:
What will win: Frozen
Our pick: Frozen

Score:
What will win: Gravity
Our pick: Saving Mr. Banks

Song:
What will win: "Let It Go", Frozen
Our pick: "Let It Go", Frozen

Production Design:
What will win: 12 Years A Slave
Our pick: The Great Gatsby

Cinematography:
What will win: Gravity
Our pick: Gravity

Costume Design:
What will win: The Great Gatsby
Our pick: American Hustle

Visual Effects:
What will win: Gravity
Our pick: Gravity

Makeup and Hairstyling:
What will win: Dallas Buyers Club
Our pick: Dallas Buyers Club

Sound Editing and Sound Mixing:
What will win: Gravity
Our pick: Gravity

Film Editing:
What will win: American Hustle
Our pick: Captain Phillips

We have not seen any of the documentaries, foreign language films, or live action short films this year. The only animated short film we (and almost everyone else) has seen is Get A Horse! because it was attached to screenings of Frozen. But we can't imagine any of the other nominees in that category being more worthy of an Oscar than Get A Horse!

Our Thoughts On This Year's Best Picture Nominees


For the past six consecutive years, from 2007 to 2012, we somehow managed to see all of each year's Best Picture nominees, even though we live in Georgia where the chances of finding a theater showing a movie like Amore or Milk is quite slim. The AMC theater chain helps us out with its annual "Best Picture Showcase" event. But, in 2013, it didn't happen. We failed to see Her. And, we skipped The Wolf of Wall Street on purpose; we're not prudes (well, not unreasonably so) and we love Leonardo DiCaprio and we think Martin Scorsese is a Hollywood legend, but we just were not willing to sit through what is, by all accounts, a three hour long glorification of depraved behavior in which the guilty party is never moved to true regret or redemption.

All of that said, we did see seven of the nine nominees this year. Here are our thoughts on those seven (click the film's title and a review will open in a new tab):

With its technological wizardry and Sandra Bullock's acting, Gravity may end up being the big winner, though American Hustle and 12 Years A Slave are worthy runners-up. We'll post all of our picks and predictions next.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Nebraska


Director Alexander Payne (2011's The Descendants), known for weaving threads of satire and dark humor into otherwise simple pictures of American society, returns this year with Nebraska, a funny movie about an old man and his son on an awkward road trip. Mr. Payne grew up in Nebraska himself, and so we can't help but believe that some of the beautiful shots (photographed totally in black and white) of the Great Plains and small-town Americana he includes are something of an ode to his past, or to that region. Set against such a lovely backdrop--think big sky, rolling grasslands, and downtown facades that look like they belong in an antiques store--the family at the center of his story appears all the more dysfunctional, which is to say normal.

Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), a haggard elderly man, is seen at the start of the film walking precariously on the rocky shoulder of a major highway in Billings, Montana, where he and his wife and their sons have lived for many years. Woody received one of those junk-mail magazine subscription solicitations disguised as a sweepstakes award letter, and believes there is a million-dollar prize waiting for him to claim in Lincoln, Nebraska. Because he can't drive, he decides to walk. Eight hundred and fifty miles. Maybe Woody is losing his mind, we think. He must be, right? His older son (Bob Odenkirk) and wife (June Squibb) certainly think so, and suggest it's time to move him "to a home". But his younger son, David (Saturday Night Live alum Will Forte), who seems to need some time away from Billings himself, offers to drive his dad to Lincoln--not because he thinks the sweepstakes letter is anything other than a complete scam, but because he feels like it's an opportunity to spend some time with his father while he is still "half-way coherent".

On the way to Lincoln, unexpected events necessitate spending a few days in the tiny, fictional town of Hawthorne, Woody's hometown. The film dwells here for a considerable amount of time, photographing a dusty fading town and making lighthearted fun of its residents, including some of Woody's relatives. There are several laugh-out-loud moments, but mostly Mr. Payne and screenwriter Bob Nelson want us to just grin and quietly chuckle at the cooky--and familiar?--characters. Aside from the humor, though, there are more serious themes of perseverance and decline. On one hand, the winking cynicism with which these family members and childhood acquaintances address one another never comes close to breaking the ties that bind them together. On the other hand, the comedy in the story sits just above an undercurrent of shuttered businesses, alcoholism, and lifetimes of hard work that don't seem to be paying off.

Mr. Forte's is the by far the most clear-headed character. David indulges his father's ridiculous impulses, defends his dignity, and is genuinely interested in understanding his past and securing his happiness and safety--all of this, even if it means wasting a week on a charade, in search of a pot of gold that he knows isn't there. David isn't perfect; he isn't particularly likable. But in some ways he represents us, the audience. We see the events and people of Nebraska through his eyes, and so, like him, we can appreciate both their absurdity and their practical, subtle sensibility.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Dallas Buyers Club


Dallas Buyers Club is a character study that purposefully avoids the broader political and societal realities of the AIDS epidemic to focus on one person: Ron Woodroof, a Texas man who was diagnosed with HIV in 1985. Co-writer Craig Borten extensively interviewed the real-life Ron before Ron's death in the early 1990s, so a good bit of what we see on screen is based on true events. In the film, he is played with nimble passion by Matthew McConaughey, who, we read, lost nearly fifty pounds for the role to make his performance more believable. His efforts, both at weight loss and in front of the camera, prove to be worthwhile. Mr. McConaughey's Woodroof is a pale, skinny-as-a-rail bull rider and electrician whose life is a profane carousel of promiscuous women, alcohol and the occasional line of cocaine; his carefree spirit, a mortal danger for most of his life, becomes his greatest asset after the diagnosis, enabling him to live far beyond his initial prognosis and motivating him to ease the suffering of countless other AIDS patients.

Ron is never portrayed as anything close to a saint, and squarely fits the mold of a jerk from the perspective of most people he encounters, even later in his transformed life. His hospital doctor, named Sevard (Dennis O'Hare), knows him only as a stubborn foul-mouthed patient in denial who has a habit of indignantly storming out of the building. Another doctor, Eve (Jennifer Garner), eventually is able to think better of Ron thanks to her scientifically-informed open-mindedness toward alternative drug therapies, but is still frequently baffled by his apparently coarse worldview and wild behavior. Bedeviled by government regulations that seem to protect pharmaceutical corporations and doctors at the expense of patients, Ron skirts the law by stealing prohibitively expensive pills from hospital cabinets and smuggling loads of drugs and supplements across the Mexican border. He uses some of the stuff himself, and uses the rest of it to run a "buyers club" in which desperate people pay a flat monthly fee for access to the medicine. All of this is done with a smile and a wink--and, at one point, a silly priest disguise--and there is a good bit of comic relief thanks to McConaughey's well-delivered lines, facial expressions, and outrageous circumstances.

But Ron's experience with AIDS redeems him from a life without much meaning and pushes him toward understanding and compassion and even genuine love, not to mention the "business" operation he sets up to provide very practical physical and emotional relief to total strangers. He becomes something of a champion in the eyes of his "customers", a man who shares their affliction and who is bold enough to take the risks necessary to help them when no one else will. That most of these people are gay infuses the story with a powerful dynamic: Ron, a proudly heterosexual cowboy who once spewed anti-gay slurs and shunned his neighborhood's gay establishments, now finds himself reaching out to gays with compassion and frequenting gay hangouts to promote his "club" and offer them hope. In fact, Ron's chief business partner is Rayon (Jared Leto), a transgender person he met in the hospital. Ron at first recruits Rayon out of pure necessity, but their friendship grows into a strong one as Ron's hateful dispositions are abandoned. Rayon is somewhat predictable and reinforces several stereotypes about transgender individuals, but Mr. Leto's performance is the most affecting one in the movie and one of the best performances of the year by an actor.

Dallas Buyers Club showcases so much destructive behavior and desperation that it's a challenge to watch and enjoy. But we're glad we did. Director Jean-Marc Valee (The Young Victoria) has not really pushed the envelope in terms of content and isn't looking to shock his audience. Seeing through the thick fog of casual sex, alcoholism, drug abuse, hurtful language and selfish decisions, we are pleased to find repentance, healthy choices, kind words and sacrifice.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Philomena


Judi Dench stars as a folksy Irish Catholic woman in need of emotional closure in Philomena, a very funny and sentimental film which, like its titular character, wears its heart on its sleeve. This isn't to say that it is a tear-jerker, though; while some scenes inevitably might move a viewer to tears, it is not the movie's intention to merely play on our feelings. On the contrary, this is a story--based on real people and events--that emphasizes forgiveness (a rarity in popular culture) and elevates kindness and pragmatism over despair and self-pity. It is also a laugh-out-loud comedy, as well as a turn-by-turn investigation that reveals some surprises. Director Steven Frear (1988's Dangerous Liaisons and 2006's The Queen) helms a briskly-paced, evenly toned crowd-pleaser.

We are accustomed to seeing Ms. Dench in the roles of powerful, no-nonsense women, most recently as M in Skyfall and other Bond films. As Philomena Lee she is quite the opposite: she is very dependent on others and spouts nonsense frequently and with perfect comedic timing. The story opens with a teenage Philomena (Sophie Kennedy Clark) who gets pregnant out of wedlock and is cast out, presumably by her shamed parents, to a convent in Roscrea, Ireland where she spends several years doing laundry. The nuns at the convent convince her that the slavish work is proper punishment for her sexual sin. They delivered her baby, who grew to toddler age, and Philomena was allowed to interact with him for only one hour per day. Then, her son is adopted against Philomena's will and leaves the convent, and is lost to her. What follows 50 years later (and for the majority of the film) is a little old lady's effort to track down her long-lost son. What she will do with any knowledge she gleans of him is mostly ambiguous; she seems particularly interested in knowing whether he embraced his Irish heritage, and whether he ever "thought of" his mother.

Assisting Philomena with her quest is freelance journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan, who also co-wrote the screenplay). Coogan's Martin is the worldly, arrogant straight man to Dench's sometimes bumbling, sometimes prudish, small-time Philomena. They are quite the odd couple--this is the foundation for most of the jokes--as they travel many miles and for many days, searching for answers; Sixsmith's work as a journalist has earned him a few key contacts in political circles that end up paying dividends. He is an outspoken atheist who finds Philomena's faith in God absurd, especially considering the decidedly cold, inhumane manner in which she and her son were treated decades earlier.

When the pieces of the puzzle are at last put together, the picture turns out to be one more of personal moral challenge for Philomena and Martin, and less of a revelation about the son, Michael. A gripping third act confrontation with the convent's nuns provides a remarkable opportunity for Philomena to act out her faith, put the past behind her, and personally display for Martin and several others what a religious life should be about: compassion and forgiveness. How accurately this dramatization deviates from what was really said and done, we don't know. But Philomena is a satisfying, heartfelt movie. It is one of the best films of 2013.

Monday, February 24, 2014

12 Years A Slave

Last year's unfortunately-toned Django Unchained felt like it was winking at what is the most sinful chapter in America's history. It was a film about slavery, but it was a fantasy film; though it included several great performances and some genius behind-the-scenes work, those efforts were ultimately undermined by the film’s overarching vision: let’s take a true national horror and sensationalize it, make it funny, even. Director Steve McQueen, in only his second major full-length project, takes an altogether different tact, choosing unlike Django’s Quentin Tarantino to play it straight and to give us a film that lets its own subject matter—rather than its visionary’s imagination—determine its mood. In this case, that means the mood is one of heartbreak, violence, solemnness, pain, anger that people can be so hateful, and hopefulness that God nevertheless provides genuine hope. 12 Years A Slave is one of the best movies of 2013.

Solomon Northup was a free black man living peacefully with his family in Saratoga, NY, in the pre-Civil War 1800s. He is duped into following two would-be businessmen to Washington, DC, but the men are really kidnappers who proceed to turn him over to Louisiana-bound slave traders. For the ensuing twelve years, Mr. Northup fights to maintain dignity, hope, and his very life in a day-to-day existence that is a cruel horror. Chiwetel Ejiofor, a Nigerian-born, London-educated actor, portrays Mr. Northup with degrees of soul and agility that have already earned him some prestigious accolades. While at one of the plantations where he is forced to work Northup meets a slave girl named Patsey (a remarkable debut by Lupita Nyong’o) who suffers worst of all and is driven nearly to suicide, as she quickly becomes the go-to rape victim for her insatiable and angry “master”, Edwin Epps (the excellent and haunting Michael Fassbender). There is one scene in which Solomon is forced at gunpoint to assist with Patsey’s “punishment”; it is among the most tragic and upsetting things we’ve ever seen on screen.

Violent disdain of blacks by whites permeates Northup’s world just as we know it did on many of the South’s plantations; Paul Giamatti and Paul Dano both play dreadfully racist characters, though they possess very different careers and dispositions. But in the slave quarters, dim hope is kept alive by faith in God, the occasional kinder-hearted man, and—in Solomon’s case, a unique one—the truth about his legal standing as a free man that might one day cause him to be rescued and restored to his family. Brad Pitt shows up in a small but key role as an abolitionist named Bass who strengthens Solomon’s resolve.

Whether films like this engender “white guilt” among their mostly white, mostly affluent “art house” audiences is debatable. Equally debatable is the decision by Mr. McQueen to constantly emphasize the natural beauty of his subjects’ surroundings and hold his camera so steady. Scenes of human torture are often separated by sweeping golden sunset vistas or close-ups of stately live oaks, their Spanish moss gently rustling in the warm southern breeze. This coupled with the decidedly polished, cinematic style of photography whisper inadvertently to trick us: maybe, hopefully, all of this—Solomon’s plight, slavery in general—is just a dream. Questionable also is the very focus on Solomon, who was a slave for twelve years. Where are the films about men and women who were enslaved for their entire lives, those who had far less hope of freedom than Mr. Northup, those whose stories don't have happy endings? Maybe we don’t want those stories on our screens. Or maybe we don’t need them. Is twelve years (or two hours in a comfy theater seat) enough to help this generation inch closer to understanding and respecting this saddest era of America’s past? Maybe, maybe not. But at least 12 Years A Slave does well what good films are supposed to do: make us feel.


Tuesday, December 31, 2013

American Hustle

Director David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook and The Fighter) and a remarkable ensemble cast deliver American Hustle, a richly satisfying comedy about a con artist and his mistress who (barely) pull off the biggest scam of their pathetic but carefully combed-over "careers" in 1978 New Jersey. The man with the plan, who sports the horrific and metaphorically useful comb-over, is Irving Rosenfeld (an outstanding Christian Bale in the film's most memorable performance). A redheaded beauty he meets at a Long Island pool party, Sydney (Amy Adams), is inexplicably seduced by his considerable beer belly and becomes his partner in both the romantic sense and the business one. Ms. Adams' role is probably the most challenging of the cast's, but she does everything right--stress, fear, confidence, vulnerability, sexual tension, faux sexual tension, anger, faux anger, and so on. With Sydney on board, the pair are able to graduate from small-time personal loan fraud to...well, getting arrested then recruited by a wildly ambitious federal investigator, Richie (Bradley Cooper), who says he'll forgive their crimes if they'll agree to help him put some bigger fish behind bars. So begins a darkly hilarious but appropriately tense trip into a world of crooked politics, casino deals, suites at the Plaza, and hidden cameras in purses & potted plants. Everyone, it seems, is trying to hustle everyone else. Throw in an entire generation's worth of hair curlers, cigarette smoke, flamboyant 70s attire, awful costume jewelry and melodramatic family members, and American Hustle becomes a whole lot of fun. Robert De Niro even drops by, uncredited, as an aging Miami mob boss in one of the film's best scenes.

Mr. Russell has made in many ways what amounts to a spoof of classic Scorsese movies like Casino and GoodFellas; American Hustle is a good bit more light-hearted than the films it successfully sends up, trading cocaine for hairspray and graphic violence for awkward kissing in a nightclub toilet stall. (The R rating comes thanks to lots of profanity and some dresses that leave little to the imagination.) Inspired by the real-life Abscam corruption scandal of the late 70s, American Hustle achieves its entertainment goals in the same manner Mr. Russell's 2012 award winner, Silver Linings Playbook, did: with smart chatty dialogue. Fast, sometimes foul-mouthed, intelligently written but often devoid of coherence--the conversations these characters have with one another usually come off like streams of unconsciousness or improvised diverting nonsense that draw laughs from the audience and yet manage to move the story forward at a brisk pace.

Moreover, relationships and motives that are incomprehensible to us seem plausible and even endearing by the time it's all over. Irving's wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), who at first refuses to consider divorce because of family pride but reconsiders after she meets his conniving partner in crime, has an elementary-aged son whom Irving adopted and claims to love; this small sub-plot keeps the big scam alive at one point in the film, but we all know it is there mostly just to poke fun at the cliché of guys who fancy themselves good fathers but spend practically all of their time engaged in destructive behaviors. Ms. Lawrence, in a supporting role here, has an uneven accent but is otherwise remarkable as a nosy, desperate stay-at-home mom who puts out two literal fires and starts at least that many figurative ones during the film. Meanwhile, the mayor of Camden, New Jersey, Carmine Polito (a very good Jeremy Renner), who unwittingly gets entangled in all of the mess, is a genuine family man and public servant; the fact that Irving is heartbroken after using this "friend" of his to run the con game deepens the imminently unlikable Irving character enough to make us like him. Louis C.K., Michael Pena and Jack Huston round out an excellent supporting cast with small but funny roles.

This must have been a fun film to make considering the setting and the on-screen talent involved; perhaps the costume department enjoyed themselves more than anyone else, dressing the stars in the most dreadful assortment of late-70s kitsch glamor imaginable. It's difficult to predict whether this will become a classic in the vein of GoodFellas (a Best Picture win sure would help that cause), but it's certainly one of the best films of 2013 and further cements the already stellar reputation of its director and cast members.