Hayao Miyazki has made nine animated features, including ‘Princess Mononoke’ and ‘Spirited Away’ since he founded Studio Ghibli in 1985. Now, at the age of 72, the filmmaker has announced his retirement and so ‘The Wind Rises’ is his last picture. My guess is he will pass the reigns over to his son, Goro Miyazaki, whose animated feature ‘From Up On Poppy Hill’ played in limited release last year.
Just this past week, we saw ‘Frozen’ win the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. However, the picture that deserved the win in this category is ‘The Wind Rises’ if only for the beautiful way it captures the dream of flight. This isn’t the first Studio Ghibli production to feature flying machines (‘Castle in the Sky’, and ‘Howl’s Moving Castle’ come to mind). Even the name of the studio, Ghibli, means “wind”. To call Miyazaki an aviation enthusiast may be an understatement
It might seem crazy to say ‘The Wind Rises’ is grounded in reality but I’m going to say it. The best animated films make us forget that we’re watching artificially created characters and immerse us into the story. What’s especially distinctive about this work is the absence of fantastical elements, which is usually the trademark of Miyazaki’s features. Instead, this is something of a biopic; a story based on the life of Jiro Horikoshi. That is to say it is the story of a young man who pursues his dreams of being an aeronautical engineer in Japan during the 1930s.
What he ends up designing, though, is Japan’s zero fighter plane – which we know from History class was the aircraft used in the attack on Pearl Harbor. In his dreams, Jiro meets the Italian aircraft designer Count Gianni Caproni who shows off the nine-winged flying boat he would one day build and throws in several philosophical lemmas such as: i) airplanes are beautiful dreams, ii) engineers turn dreams into reality, iii) airplanes are not tools of war, iv) airplanes will be used to bomb cities. Notice the conflicting nature of axioms iii and iv. Jiro seems aware of but seemingly unconcerned with how the fighter plane will be utilized by the military in the event of war.
Personally, I would have preferred a little more attention to Jiro’s inner conflict extending beyond his various dreamed interactions. Any ounce of self doubt or reservations about what he’s doing is shrugged off with serene resignation. He is fascinated with design, even mundane aspects, such as the curvature of a mackerel bone. Of course, such rudimentary fascinations eventually lead to more substantial scientific discoveries – for example, how flush rivets reduce drag.
There is a lot going on in this picture; on top of Jiro’s transition into adulthood and how that is shaped by Japan’s rigid nationalism, we get a glimpse into Japan’s tempestuous history between the two world wars (including the Kanto earthquake, the Great Depression, the tuberculosis epidemic, the thought police, and the nation’s dependence on Germany for technology).
But, what ‘The Wind Rises’ lacks in thematic elements it compensates for with a hypnotically mesmerizing visual palette. No one does dreams better than Miyazaki, particularly the dream of flight. The flying sequences, among others, are lyrical, luminous and painted with a surrealism-dabbed vibe, which makes it completely different from the photo-realistic image-sharp quality of today’s 3-D computer-animated features.
Some will dismiss the film as a celebration of a weapon’s designer. This is hard to argue, and consequently for such viewers, it will be difficult to see Jiro from a nonjudgmental lens. Somehow, I was able to, maybe because I saw the picture as a celebration of an artist actively pursuing his dreams. Especially true is the burden of trying to balance work life from family life (even when his new bride is dying from tuberculosis, Jiro remains hard at work).
If this is indeed Miyazaki’s last film, he is certainly flying out on a high note. So, thank you, Hayou Miyazaki, for the cinematic memories you’ve given us for the last 30 years. ‘The Wind Rises’ is currently playing in an English-language dubbed version and in Japanese. A colleague of mine gave the picture a 3/4 star review claiming what hurt the picture was “brutal dubbing”. Lucky for me, I saw it in Japanese with excellent English subtitles and award the film 3.5/4 stars. You should too. QED.
’12 Years a Slave’
‘Dallas Buyers Club’
‘The Wolf of Wall Street’
Will win: ’12 Years a Slave’
Should win: ‘Her’
’12 Years a Slave’ – Steve McQueen
‘American Hustle’ – David O. Russell
‘Gravity’ – Alfonso Cuaron
‘Nebraska’ – Alexander Payne
‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ – Martin Scorsese
Will win: ‘Gravity’ – Alfonso Cuaron
Should win: ’12 Years a Slave’ – Steve McQueen
Christian Bale in ‘American Hustle’
Bruce Dern in ‘Nebraska’
Leonardo DiCaprio in ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’
Chiwetel Ejiofor in ’12 Years a Slave’
Matthew McConaughey in ‘Dallas Buyers Club’
Will win: Matthew McConaughey in ‘Dallas Buyers Club’
Should win: Chiwetel Ejiofor in ’12 Years a Slave’
Amy Adams in ‘American Hustle’
Cate Blanchett in ‘Blue Jasmine’
Sandra Bullock in ‘Gravity’
Judi Dench in ‘Philomena’
Meryl Streep in ‘August: Osage County’
Will win: Cate Blanchett in ‘Blue Jasmine’
Should win: Judi Dench in ‘Philomena’
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Barkhad Abdi in ‘Captain Phillips’
Bradley Cooper in ‘American Hustle’
Michael Fassbender in ’12 Years a Slave’
Jonah Hill in ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’
Jared Leto in ‘Dallas Buyers Club’
Will win: Jared Leto in ‘Dallas Buyers Club’
Should win: Michael Fassbender in ’12 Years a Slave’
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Sally Hawkins in ‘ Blue Jasmine’
Jennifer Lawrence in ‘American Hustle’
Lupita Nyong’o in ’12 Years a Slave’
Julia Roberts in ‘August: Osage County’
June Squibb in ‘Nebraska’
Will win: Lupita Nyong’o in ’12 Years a Slave’
Should win: Lupita Nyong’o in ’12 Years a Slave’
BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
‘American Hustle’ – Eric Warren Singer, David O. Russell
‘Blue Jasmine’ – Woody Allen
‘Dallas Buyers Club’ – Craig Borten, Melisa Wallack
‘Her’ – Spike Jonze
‘Nebraska’ – Bob Nelson
Will win: ‘American Hustle’ – Eric Warren Singer, David O. Russell
Should win: ‘Her’ – Spike Jonze
BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
‘Before Midnight’ – Richard Linklater, Julie Deply, Ethan Hawke
‘Captain Phillips’ – Billy Ray
‘Philomena’ – Steve Coogan, Jeff Pope
’12 Years a Slave’ – John Ridley
‘ The Wolf of Wall Street’ – Terence Winter
Will win: ’12 Years a Slave’ – John Ridley
Should win: ‘Before Midnight’ – Richard Linklater, Julie Deply, Ethan Hawke
BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM
‘The Broken Circle Breakdown’ (Belgium)
‘The Great Beauty’ (Italy)
‘The Hunt’ (Denmark)
‘The Missing Picture’ (Cambodia)
Will win: ‘The Great Beauty’ (Italy)
Should win: ‘The Great Beauty’ (Italy)
BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE
‘The Act of Killing’
‘Cutie and the Boxer’
’20 Feet from Stardom’
Will win: ’20 Feet from Stardom’
Should win: ‘The Act of Killing’
BEST ANIMATED FEATURE
‘Despicable Me 2’
‘Ernest & Celestine’
‘The Wind Rises’
Will win: ‘Frozen’
Should win: Can’t comment yet, as I haven’t seen ‘The Wind Rises’; it opens in Toronto later this month.
‘The Grandmaster’ – Philippe Le Sourd
‘Gravity’ – Emmanuel Lubezki
‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ – Bruno Delbonnel
‘Nebraska’ – Phedon Papamichael
‘Prisoners’ – Roger A. Deakins
Will win: ‘Gravity’ – Emmanuel Lubezki
Should win: ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ – Bruno Delbonnel
BEST FILM EDITING
‘American Hustle’ – Jay Cassidy, Crispin Struthers, Alen Baumgarten
‘Captain Phillips’ – Christopher Rouse
‘Dallas Buyers Club’ – John Mac Murphy, Martin Pensa
‘Gravity’ – Alfonso Cuaron, Mark Sanger
’12 Years a Slave’ – Joe Walker
Will win: ‘Gravity’ – Alfonso Cuaron, Mark Sanger
Should win: ‘Gravity’ – Alfonso Cuaron, Mark Sanger
BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN
‘American Hustle’ – Judy Becker, Heather Loeffler
‘Gravity’ – Andy Nicholson, Rosie Goodwin, Joanne Woolard
‘The Great Gatsby – Catherine Martin, Beverley Dunn
‘Her’ – K.K. Barrett, Gene Serdena
’12 Years a Slave’ – Adam Stockhausen, Alice Baker
Will win: ‘The Great Gatsby’ – Catherine Martin, Beverley Dunn
Should win: ‘Her’ – K.K. Barrett, Gene Serdena
BEST COSTUME DESIGN
‘American Hustle’ – Michael Wilkinson
‘ The Grandmaster’ – William Chang Suk Ping
‘The Great Gatsby’ – Catherine Martin
‘The Invisible Woman’ – Michael O’Connor
’12 Years a Slave’ – Patricia Norris
Will win: ‘The Great Gatsby’ – Catherine Martin
Should win: ‘American Hustle’ – Michael Wilkinson
BEST ORIGINAL SCORE
‘The Book Thief’ – John Williams
‘Gravity’ – Steven Price
‘Her’ – William Butler, Owen Pallett
‘Philomena’ – Alexandre Desplat
‘Saving Mr. Banks’ – Thomas Newman
Will win: ‘Gravity’ – Steven Price
Should win: ‘Her’ – William Butler, Owen Pallett
BEST ORIGINAL SONG
‘Happy’ – ‘Despicable Me’ (Pharrell Williams)
‘Let It Go’ – ‘Frozen’ (Kristen Anderson-Lopez, Robert Lopez)
‘The Moon Song’ – ‘Her’ (Karen O, Spike Jonze)
‘Ordinary Love’ – ‘Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom’ (Paul Hewson, Dave Evans, Adam Clayton, Larry Mullen, Paul Hewson)
Will win: ‘‘Let It Go’ – ‘Frozen’ (Kristen Anderson-Lopez, Robert Lopez)
Should win: ‘The Moon Song’ – ‘Her’ (Karen O, Spike Jonze)
BEST VISUAL EFFECTS
‘Gravity’ – Tim Webber, Chris Lawrence, Shrik and Neil Corbould
‘The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug’ – Joe Letteri, Eric Saindon, David Clayton, Eric Reynolds
‘Iron Man 3’ – Christopher Townsend, Guy Williams, Erik Nash, Dan Sudick
‘The Lone Ranger’ – Tim Alexander, Gary Brozenich, Edson Williams, John Frazier
‘Star Trek Into Darkness’ – Roger Guyett, Patrick Tubach, Ben Grossmann, Burt Dalton
Will win: ‘Gravity’ – Tim Webber, Chris Lawrence, Shrik and Neil Corbould
Should win: ‘Gravity’ – Tim Webber, Chris Lawrence, Shrik and Neil Corbould
BEST MAKEUP & HAIRSTYLING
‘Dallas Buyers Club’ – Adruitha Lee, Robin Matthews
‘Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa’ – Stephen Prouty
‘The Lone Ranger’ – Joel Harlow, Gloria Pasqua-Casny
Will win: Dallas Buyers Club’ – Adruitha Lee, Robin Matthews
Should win: ‘Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa’ – Stephen Prouty
BEST SOUND MIXING
‘Captain Phillips’ – Chris Burdon, Mark Taylor, Mike Prestwood Smith, Chris Munro
‘Gravity’ – Skip Lievsay, Niv Adiri, Christopher Benstead, Chris Munro
‘The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug’ – Christopher Boyes, Michael Hedges, Michael Semanick, Tony Johnson
‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ – Skip Lievsay, Greg Orloff, Peter F. Kurland
‘Lone Survivor’ – Andy Koyama, Beau Borders, David Brownlow
Will win: ‘Gravity’ – Skip Lievsay, Niv Adiri, Christopher Benstead, Chris Munro
Should win: ‘Gravity’ – Skip Lievsay, Niv Adiri, Christopher Benstead, Chris Munro
BEST SOUND EDITING
‘All Is Lost’ – Steve Boeddeker, Richard Hymns
‘Captain Phillips’ – Oliver Tarney
‘Gravity’ – Glenn Freemantle
‘The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug’ – Brent Burge
‘Lone Survivor’ – Wylie Stateman
Will win: ‘Gravity’ – Glenn Freemantle
Should win: ‘Gravity’ – Glenn Freemantle
BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT SUBJECT
‘Karma Has No Walls’
‘The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life’
‘Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall’
Will win: ‘The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life’
Should win: ‘Cavedigger’
BEST ANIMATED SHORT FILM
‘Get a Horse’
‘Room on the Broom’
Will win: ‘Get a Horse’
Should win: ‘Room on the Broom’
BEST LIVE ACTION SHORT FILM
‘Aquel No Era Yo (That Wasn’t Me)’
‘Avant Que De Tout Perdre’
‘Pitääkö Mun Kaikki Hoitaa?’
‘The Voorman Problem’
Will win: ‘The Voorman Problem’
Should win: ‘Avant Que De Tout Perdre’
It’s February, so of course we’re going to get movies like ‘That Awkward Moment’, ‘About Last Night’, ‘Winter’s Tale’, and ‘Endless Love’. Are any of these worth seeing? The trailers for all four made me cringe, but I was the most hopeful about ‘That Awkward Moment’ if only for its very appealing cast.
‘That Awkward Moment’ is a bromatic comedy about two confirmed bachelors (Zac Efron and Miles Teller) who agree to stay single to prove their solidarity to their married friend (Michael B. Jordan) whose wife is leaving him. Of course, because this is a rom-com, the moment you make such a pact, the right girl comes along.
This is a very tame R-rated picture. All the profanity and sexual content is reserved for a scene in a stag shop where, ah, cover your eyes, we see dildos. This is followed by an “Oh, I thought you said was a costume party” running gag that first-time sitcom screenwriters would dismiss as too hackneyed.
I couldn’t wait for this movie to be over; even with a runtime of 94 minutes, the picture felt like it was 240 minutes long. The outtakes at the end (featuring scenes of actors fumbling their lines or unable to hold in their laughter) served as an act of desperation; it’s as if the filmmakers are saying “We’re not sure if we made you laugh during the movie, but, hey, we’ll have you laughing on the way out of it.” But, you probably won’t be laughing at that either, which brings us to the realization that the material on the cutting room wasn’t funny, and neither was the end product.
Dude, where’s the comedy? I feel as though the screenwriters had a checklist of topics and assigned a running gag to each one without any thought or creativity – “Hey, let’s make a joke out of Miles Teller taking a dump in Zac Efron’s apartment. Not just once. Not just twice. How about the guys taking Viagra and having to urinate horizontally?” I’ll admit I laughed a few times, but for the most part, the filmmakers’ attempt to walk the line between bromantic comedy and ‘Animal House’-like humor falls completely flat.
Almost every comic situation ends with a character telling someone else “You’re an idiot”, “You’re an a-hole”, “You’re a f***ing idiot”. This isn’t just lazy writing; it’s not even a joke because it’s entirely true. The lengths to which these characters go to maintain this idiotic pact (which essentially functions as a device for such shenanigans to take place) is just cruel and nasty. Their vow doesn’t bear enough weight to excuse these characters of some truly awful behavior.
The material is so shop worn. And what little precious insight it has to offer us – let’s see: men-are-like-this (say they don’t want commitment but they really do) and women-are-like-this (shoes are more important than anything else in life). Offensive stereotypes aside, countless other films have explored this in a more fully realized way - ‘When Harry Met Sally’ is a very good example of how such material has been handed well.
‘That Awkward Moment’ has a very charming cast, but they’re not given very much to do. And that is why the picture is a wasted opportunity. Michael B. Jordan (‘Fruitvale Station’ – last year’s Sundance Audience and Jury winner) and Miles Teller (last year’s ‘Spectacular Now’ and whose movie ‘Whiplash’ won both the Audience and Jury awards at this year’s Sundance Film Festival) have great acting careers ahead of them. ‘That Awkward Moment’ will not be of the entries included within their distinguished filmography. Zac Efron does have potential but is struggling to find the right vehicle to propel him from ‘High School Musical’ teen into a grown-up movie star. His previous attempt at this transition resulted in Nicole Kidman urinating on him in ‘The Paperboy’. At least this is a step up. Well, not really. QED.
Oscar bait. But Academy voters were smart enough to only nominate the film in two acting categories. Whether or not they’re deserved is another story altogether.
‘August: Osage County’ stars every important actor known to mankind – Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Chris Cooper, Ewan McGregor, Sam Shepard, Benedict Cumberbatch, Juliette Lewis and that’s maybe half of the cast. Based on the Pulitzer Prize winning play by Tracy Letts, the film presents us with an estranged Oklahoma family of intellectuals that gets together after the patriarch’s death and must deal with their various strained interpersonal dynamics.
I haven’t seen the play, so I can’t offer a critical comparison between the film and the play, but I do know that the play is about three hours long. The movie version of ‘August: Osage County’ runs at 121 minutes. Mathematically, the film represents about two-thirds the runtime of its source material. This leads me to believe that a vital section has been stripped away – whatever it is that makes these characters even moderately credible in the play is gone. There was only one character that registered and non-coincidentally, this was the lone character who demonstrated any kind of decency. I’m not saying that movie worlds should only be inhabited by decent-hearted types. But, there has to some acknowledgement of their behavior, or some complexity to these (preferably layered) characters. There isn’t a rooting interest here as we listen to these loud (11 on a 10 scale), shrieky, draining arguments amongst the members of the most dysfunctional family in modern cinema. The play’s lengthier runtime probably allowed for more richness to the characters.
Director John Wells, whose previous lone feature was ‘The Company Men’ takes the William Freidkin approach in adapting a story involving a struggle for power within the confines of a domestic space. However, Friedkin was always able to create tension with the material; Wells just turns it into an overcooked mess.
There is a big reveal towards the end of this picture that had me shrugging my shoulders; I just didn’t care. And that is mainly because I found 90% of the characters to be completely loathsome 100% of the time. What we get is a series of well-written verbal jousts for people who do not exist, have never existed, and will never exist. There is no universality to this material; no emotional connection. What’s in abundant supply, however, is a number of showy, go-for-broke performances from a gifted ensemble. Unfortunately, that isn’t enough. QED.
My first review of 2013 was ‘Movie 43’ – for the record, I called it the worst movie of the year and possibly the century (and hopefully the Razzie voters do too). Imagine, then, my surprise in what is known to be the cinematic wasteland of January when I watched ‘The Lone Survivor’. I wasn’t expecting a disaster, but Peter Berg’s adaptation of Marcus Luttrell’s book was better than I could have possibly hoped for. It’s a remarkably good picture – one that is inspired by true events; in particular, the 2005 Navy SEAL operation that went horrifically wrong.
The opening of ‘The Lone Survivor’ is the film’s weakest segment; it struggles a little to find its footing. We see what is essentially a SEAL recruitment video illustrating a rigorous training exercise with a less than subtle score composed by Explosion in the Sky. The score here is nearly identical to one in a pervious Peter Berg film, ‘Friday Night Lights’, also composed by Explosion in the Sky. Any positive message one derives from this recruitment segment is obliterated shortly thereafter.
The initial phase of this (or really any) combat picture consists of cocky banter, talks about wives and girlfriends back home, and a lot of macho posturing. The operation is designed to disrupt Anti-Coalition Militia activity in northern Afghanistan through the killing of a local Taliban leader responsible for the deaths of various U.S. military personnel. A four-man team of SEALS ends up being ambushed by Taliban fighters. The book’s author, the NAVY Hospital Corpsman, was the lone survivor of this failed mission that took the lives of 19 men (a Chinook helicopter was shot down and resulted in 16 casualties). Marcus Luttrell is played by Mark Wahlberg; the remaining team members are played by Ben Foster, Emile Hirsch, and Taylor Kitsch. The performances are excellent, particularly Mark Wahlberg – he is one of our most reliable actors working today without making a big fuss about it. His tough exterior combined with an internal vulnerability makes him the perfect conduit for a human being amidst an inhuman scenario.
The shaky-cam effect of the action sequences only adds to the visceral intensity of the picture. Those sensitive to such bouncy camerawork may want to take a motion sickness pill beforehand. The spoiler included in the title doesn’t deplete the film of its suspense; oddly enough, it increases the level of tension as we know our worst fears are to be realized. What I took from the experience was the courage and brotherhood of these combatants. This is arguable, but I believe the mission that claimed the lives of these men was in the service of nothing. And as these men execute their mission, they aren’t discussing the philosophical or political implications of what they’re carrying out; they’re looking out for each other. On the ground, the life of their fellow brethren is all that matters. QED.
2013 was a year of exceptional quality for the movies (possibly the best cinematic year of the new century). Those who repeatedly comment on the death of cinema simply aren’t paying any attention (or are making the wrong moviegoing choices).
Early in the year, I may not have been as optimistic. No film on the 2013 list was released prior to June (9 of the 10 on my list were released in the Fall/Winter season; 3 of these 9 were released in the last ten days of the year). This isn’t reflective of any long-term memory issues I’m battling but rather the studios’ decisions to backload the year with premium releases (thus, increasing the pictures’ eligibility for Oscar consideration).
Spike Jonze’s ‘Her’ is the best film of 2013; my criteria for selecting this year’s best film was that which was the most transformative experience. Joaquin Phoenix plays perhaps his most grounded character as a recently divorced man in a not-so-distant future in Los Angeles. He’s a poignantly lonely guy who finds new love….with his smartphone’s operating system (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). Is this where our addictions with technology are taking us? Mr.Jonze has taken romance into the virtual realm and the result is the year’s strangest, most relatable (and yes, best) romance. The picture is beautifully photographed by Hoyte Van Hoytema. Jonze’s long takes emphasize the importance of looking at another person in length. And the performances by Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams and Scarlett Johansson (who we never see but hear) are perfectly calibrated. Never before has a film so perfectly illustrated how technology connects everyone to the world but isolates us from true human contact. Following the screening of ‘Her’, I sat in a cafe taking quiet notice of the ratio of people staring into their portable device versus those having face-to-face conversations. ‘Her’ is what we talk about when we talk about greatness in film. Currently playing in theaters in limited release – opens wide on January 10, 2014.
2. ‘Blue is the Warmest Color’
Abdellatif Kechiche’s ‘Blue is the Warmest Color’ is about a young woman’s passage from curiosity to heartbreak as she falls in love with a slightly older woman. Great movies give viewers the opportunity to share the identities and experiences of its characters. For 187 minutes (and what appears to be 6-7 years in the life of the film’s protagonist), her life is your life. Yes, this is a controversial pick as much has been said about the film’s explicit sex scenes. I didn’t find them to be exploitive – Mr.Kechiche is intent on capturing the completeness of Adele’s experience; thus, sexuality is a critical component (as well as food, art, education, occupation, social class). Not only is the picture a master class of acting but it has the courage to tell us that it’s the end of love that shows us what we’re made of. Currently playing @ TIFF Bell Lightbox & will be available on DVD/BR February 11, 2014.
3. ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’
The Coen Brothers are among the best filmmakers on the planet and though ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ may never attract the universal adoration of ‘Fargo’, ‘No Country For Old Men’, or ‘The Big Lebowski’, these guys are still operating at the top of their game. The film’s protagonist is a self-defeating folk singer who spends a cold week in 1961 trying to figure out if he has a future in Greenwich Village folk beat (or anywhere else). Was he born too soon? Too late? Or is it just plain rotten luck? The musical performances from Oscar Isaac (who is first and foremost an actor) are hauntingly beautiful. Rarely has a ballad of bad luck and squandered talent felt so devastatingly real. Currently playing in theaters in limited release.
4. ’12 Years A Slave’
’12 Years A Slave’ is quietly, distinctly one of the most powerful moviegoing experiences I’ve ever had. When I saw this in September at the Toronto International Film Festival, I said that this was clearly the frontrunner for the Best Picture Oscar and I still believe that to be true. This true story about an accomplished family man and musician in the 1840s who was kidnapped, shipped to the South, beaten, stripped of his name, and sold into slavery unfolds with startling clarity. I’m glad that this work of art is being embraced by mainstream moviegoers, which is proof that moviegoers have a craving for substance and meaning in cinema. ’12 Years a Slave’ is unquestionably hard to watch but I didn’t take my eyes off the screen – we’re merely in the audience watching a recreation of an unspeakable injustice and the worst shame in American history. Currently playing in theaters.
Though cinema has been around for over a century, there has never been a motion picture like ‘Gravity’ which is why it occupies the #5 spot on my list. Born of new technology, it provided today’s moviegoers with an experience previously unmatched; I wouldn’t exactly call it a perfect film; but it’s a perfect filmgoing experience, which is equally satisfying. I was blown away by ‘Gravity’. This is a gorgeous film and it does just about everything right in both big and small ways. From a technical standpoint, it’s astonishingly beautiful and intimately detailed; it is also an outstanding achievement in terms of precise tone and the controlled acting. I still don’t know how Alfonso Cuarón made this movie – how he made us feel as if we were actually watching Sandra Bullock and George Clooney struggling for survival in space. But with a budget of $100 million, Mr.Cuarón was able to show us (ahem, Hollywood, take note) what wondrous things cinema is capable of. Currently playing in 3-D @ Cineplex Yonge/Dundas and will be available on DVD/BR February 25, 2014.
Director David O Russell only gets better (and calmer with age) – his ‘Silver Linings Playbook’ stars Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence team up with his ‘The Fighter’ cast members Christian Bale and Amy Adams. Though clearly influenced by Martin Scorsese’s ‘Goodfellas’ and ‘Casino’, I have to say Mr. O Russell out-Scorseses Martin Scorsese’s 2013 release with this bravado tale of con artists and corruption. There were a number of movies this year about capitalism/American consumerism – ‘American Hustle’, to me, was the masterpiece of this 2013 sub-genre. Ridiculously entertaining in the best possible way, the movie joyously embraces the excess of its 1970s-era (from the spandex to the stashes to the bad hair) – all of these a reflection of the characters’ desperate reach for the American dream. I enjoyed having the rug pulled from underneath me and I look forward to revisiting the picture so I could see how all the pieces of the puzzle were assembled. Currently playing in theaters.
How rare it is for an actor to get the best role of his career at age 77. Especially when that actor is Bruce Dern – his filmography dates back to 1960! Shot in radiant black-and-white (and tones of silver and gray) and directed by Alexander Payne, ‘Nebraska’ rips the lid off the mythology that the people of the Midwest are hardworking, good-hearted folk – nope, they can be real a-holes too. Dern is effortlessly great as the prickly geezer who believes he’s won a $1 million dollar prize and makes the 1900-mile trek from Billings, MO to Lincoln, NB. Perhaps the best performance ever given by a Saturday Night Live alumni, Will Forte plays Dern’s son with quiet eloquence. On the opposite end of the spectrum (and also turning in terrific supporting work) is June Squibb as Dern’s acidic wife – her totally inappropriate commentary is hysterical. And of course, this haunting and wickedly funny middle-American masterpiece had to be written by a first-time screenwriter named Bob Nelson. Of course. Currently playing in limited release.
Directed by Noah Baumbach who co-wrote the script with leading lady Greta Gerwig, this low-budget charmer is about a 20s something lady wandering the streets of New York without a sense of purpose. But that’s exactly what she’s in search for – a purpose, an identity, a career. At times, she is her own worst enemy, but there is a rooting interest for this character; and the movie wants her to succeed, and so we want her to succeed and to find happiness. Gerwig is absolutely charming – striking the perfect balance between effortless verbal timing and physical comedy. I really believe this is the role she was born to play. Shot in black and white, Mr.Baumbach’s film is a throwback to the French New Wave, which also honed in on restless youth – and yet ‘Frances Ha’ is still very much its own contemporary thing. What a joyous experience this was – especially the film’s understated final moments which I will not spoil for you. Currently available on DVD/BR.
9. ‘Short Term 12′
One of the 2013 hidden gems was this small indie feature that stayed with me in a big way. Written and directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, ‘Short Term 12’ follows Brie Larson’s character, an early-20s supervisor at a foster-care facility for at-risk teenagers (she is far from untroubled in her own life). The entire thing feels natural and there isn’t a single inauthentic moment in the entire picture. Mr.Cretton is said to have worked in a foster-care home; this, coupled with the fact that he comes from a documentary background gives the movie its naturalistic feel. The picture provided Brie Larson with a long-overdue leading role – she is a major talent to look out for. The same could be said for Mr.Cretton – I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next. This is one of the most honest portrayals of troubled youth I have ever seen. It provided me with the opportunity to truly appreciate the people who dedicate their lives towards helping the underprivileged. Thank you. Will be available on DVD/BR January 14, 2014.
10. ‘Captain Phillips’
Another tale of survival; another movie based on a true story. It’s also another Paul Greengrass masterpiece. For those who haven’t responded well to Mr.Greengrass’ signature shaky-cam kinetic style, at least his “seasick” approach is suitable here. Tom Hanks reminds us of how he became a movie star – this isn’t an action hero role; he is great at playing the smart, experienced, tough, stubborn worldly everyman. Here, he finds himself in a terrifying situation – as the captain of a cargo ship, his vessel is hijacked by Somali pirates. Hanks knocks his performance out of the park and I’ll be shocked if he doesn’t get an Oscar nomination for his outstanding work. ‘Captain Phillips’ is indeed an intense, emotionally exhausting, unconventional action thriller – but behind Mr.Greengrass’ rigorous camera lens lays an immense compassionate heart. Will be available on DVD/BR January 21, 2014.
Honorable Mentions: ‘All Is Lost’, ‘Bastards’, ‘Before Midnight’, ‘Broken Circle Breakdown’, ‘Computer Chess’, ‘The Great Beauty’, ‘The Hunt’, ‘Prisoners’, ‘The Spectacular Now’, ‘Stories We Tell’
The two major themes this year:
- Survival/Hope: 12 Years A Slave’, ‘Gravity’, ‘Captain Phillips’, ‘All Is Lost’, ‘The Hunt’, and ‘Dallas Buyers Club’
-The American Dream: ‘American Hustle’, ‘Pain & Gain’, ‘The Great Gatsby’, ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’, ‘The Bling Ring’, ‘Spring Breakers’, and ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ though it’s on the opposite end of the spectrum in relation to the other titles
*2013 may very well be the best movie year of the new century. However, the titles below illustrate the hardship of the filmgoing profession. Here are the 10 worst films of 2013 (1 being the worst…).
1) Movie 43 – With 87 years left in the 21st century, ‘Movie 43′ has made a very strong bid for the worst movie of the century.
2) Identity Thief – This movie grossed nearly $135 million; this makes many of us moviegoers a victim of an identity thief.
3) The Hangover Part III – If you hated ‘The Hangover II’, then you are going to be disappointed by this. A giraffe is decapitated, a rooster is smothered and a dog is shot with a gun – the cast members should have done community service for this.
4) Ender’s Game - The movie’s zero gravity setting doesn’t excuse it from having zero humor, zero drama, and zero thrills. Zero stars from me…Zzzzero.
5) Only God Forgives – God may forgive, but I do not. ‘Only God Forgives’ is as lifeless as the severed head that turns up mid-way through the movie. It’s an ugly, reprehensible picture masquerading as art-house cinema.
6) A Good Day To Die Hard – RIP ‘Die Hard’ Series (1988 – 2007). At one point in the film, Bruce Willis and Jai Courtney steal a car full of firearms and drive from Moscow to Chernobyl within a matter of hours. For the record, Chernobyl is not in Russia and is located about 700 miles away from Moscow.
7) Gangster Squad – Directed by Ruben Fleischer, ‘Gangster Squad’ is as lifeless as the zombies that populated his previous film, ‘Zombieland’. But, at least Sean Penn’s performance was funnier than anything featured in ‘Movie 43’, ‘Identity Thief’, or ‘The Hangover Part III’
8) Texas Chainsaw – There is an actor in this movie credited as Tremaine “Trey Songz” Aldon Neverson. This name is longer than any one line of dialogue contained in the picture (the majority of the screenplay consisting of “Help!” *scream* “Help!”)
9) Oz: The Great and Powerful – Nowhere near the rainbow. There was nothing here that was great or powerful. For some inexplicable reason, the guest critic on this site gave the film a positive review.
10) Spring Breakers – To quote Danny Glover from ‘Lethal Weapon’: “I’m too old for this shit.” Nothing more than a 94 minute T&A music video.
I’m sure this review will have a significant impact on the film’s box office results. Movies like ‘The Hunger Games: Catching Fire’ are essentially critic proof. Six days into its release, and the film has already crossed the $200 million mark.
As most of you know, last time Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) was the teenage winner of a televised battle to the death competition known as the Hunger Games. She broke the rules by not killing the last competitor (or tribute) Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson). Just when you thought she was out…
The president of her capital Coriolanus Snow (Donald Sutherland) is concerned that she might become a figurehead for a resistance against him. With the help of Plutarch Heavensbee (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), he brings back all the previous winners of the Hunger Games and they have to kill each other all over again – Hunger Games All Star.
I’m not surprised by the financial success of this series; the first film also had a lot of built-in hype and people had high expectations. The film series is based on these hugely successful books that go beyond the young adult crowd at which they are aimed for. As far as franchises built around a stubborn teen heroine debating endlessly between two inexplicably patient lovers as she battles to save the world, one could do far worse than what’s offered here.
I do, however, slightly fault the film for not adhering to its own subtitle of really catching fire. Both ‘Hunger Games’ movies are on the safe side, creating dark worlds with its kids-killing-kids scenario but without any real sense of dread or horror.
Sitting in the director’s chair this time is Francois Lawrence who has already established himself as a filmmaker of dystopian futures thanks to ‘I Am Legend’ fame (a completely misunderstood masterpiece in my opinion). ‘The Hunger Games: Catching Fire’ is a marginal improvement over the first film (which was directed by Gary Ross); I am thankful that the intimate “you are there” shaky-cam approach has been abandoned this time around. The end result is a strikingly more fluid sense of motion; the camera does zero in on the faces of its performers - this gives the picture the intimate feel the first movie was going for but gives us the satisfaction of not having to reach for our barf bags or motion sickness pills.
The film is a triumph of production design; costume designer Trish Summerville is operating at the top of her game – the scene with Katniss’ glittering wedding dress transforming into a symbolically relevant black gown is exceptionally handled. A similar degree of invention is found with the cinematography and the expensively detailed settings which illustrate a futuristic dystopia without providing us with too much discomfort (which circles back to my criticism or at least personal preference in wishing the filmmakers had gone beyond the boundaries of its PG-13 constraint).
As for the performances, it certainly helps to have an Oscar winning performer (thanks to ‘Silver Linings Playbook’) at its center. I think she is an immensely likable and versatile star – she can pretty much do anything from comedy and romance to drama and action. Her character here is a teenager and she is accessible and wise beyond her years; Ms.Lawrence seems to effortlessly project supreme durability and humble vulnerability. With a lesser performer, this offering (and its predecessor) would not work as well as it does. The supporting performances are also quite strong – the best being Stanley Tucci who dazzles as the overly flamboyant game show host.
Once the games contestants are deposited into some tropical environ with a host of dangers including (but not limited to) lightning storms, poisonous fog, rampaging baboons, and bloody rain, the picture does become special-effects heavy. The budget is nearly twice that of the original and it shows - much of the avoid-the-obstacles action is excitingly staged and beautifully shot; yet, at the same time, I feel there is little to distinguish itself from the other big budget action climaxes of this movie year.
The titular action does not kick in until the 85 minute mark (and the movie runs way too long at 146 minutes). Fans of the book will disagree, but I believe there is an enormous amount of exposition in the first half of the film. With the machinery of the plot established in the first film, ‘The Hunger Games: Catching Fire’ should be better paced than it is. Though the first half isn’t entirely a retread of what we have seen in the first film, it does feel awfully familiar; perhaps a shift in locales and settings might have shaken things up a little bit. The movie also liberally borrows elements from ‘Star Wars’ – the unlikely hero who becomes the figurehead for a resistance movement against an oppressive government that wants to eliminate the rebels and use storm troopers at their disposal; the “storm troopers” here even have the same armour as the ones in ‘Star Wars’. The abrupt cliffhanger ending is also very reminiscent of ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ (though to be fair, the second entry just about any trilogy ends as abruptly).
My overall reaction to the experience is mixed – but ultimately, I am giving this movie a pass simply for delivering what it promises to its main target audience. QED.
With movies like ‘Thor: The Dark World’ and ‘The Hunger Games: Catching Fire’ in theatres this weekend, ‘Short Term 12’ will probably not be on your radar. But, you owe it to yourself to see this film, either at TIFF Bell Lightbox where it will be playing this week or when it becomes available for home viewing on January 14th, 2014.
I enter every movie with an open mind but I must say I wasn’t expecting ‘Short Term 12’ to be the emotional rollercoaster experience that it is. It came totally out of left field (at least to me). I know that the movie premiered at a number of film festivals, but there wasn’t much buzz about it. Until now…
Written and directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, ‘Short Term 12’ follows Grace (Brie Larson), an early-20s supervisor at a foster-care facility for at-risk teenagers. Passionate and tough, she seems to have it all under control; but, with the arrival of a new intake at the facility and the impending departure of another, her life is shaken up.
This is a great movie; not merely a “very good” one but a “great” one. It’s a very original film with uniformly excellent performances. The entire thing feels natural and there isn’t a single inauthentic moment in the entire picture. Mr.Cretton is said to have worked in a foster-care home; this, coupled with the fact that he comes from a documentary background gives the movie its naturalistic feel. He uses close-ups and long takes and there is very little music forcing you to feel a certain way. The script avoids placing its young actors into feel-good gooey cutesy territory. The relationship between Brie Larson’s character and John Gallagher Jr. (who sports the five-year boy haircut here as he has on ‘The Newsroom’) is terrific; their relationship (and everything about this movie) feels honest and real.
Now, the idea of this movie sounds like a downer; you would think a movie about teenagers who cut themselves and have substance abuse issues would put a heavy amount of weight on serious issues (on paper, this may seem like a laugh-free experience). Not the case; the filmmakers finds some absurd humor in the intensity of these characters’ situations and the oddity of their lives. But, the film does have its upsetting moments.
What’s interesting about the adult characters is that you find out the different motivations as to why they have chosen this line of work. The John Gallagher Jr. character grew up as a foster child himself and was raised by great foster parents – there is a lovely scene where we meet his foster parents at their anniversary party (as well as the many foster kids they raised throughout the years). It’s clear that this character’s motivation comes from a place of love and that he wants to pay it forward. Grace’s motivation is entirely different; she’s a formerly troubled teen herself now hoping to guide others along the right path. Her character is one some of us can relate to – one that puts herself on the back burner for the sake of other.
What a performance from Brie Larson – you probably don’t recognize her by name. In fact, I had to refer to IMDB to recall some of her previous work. Don’t misinterpret this as a negative - this, to me, is what makes a great performer. She has this chameleon quality in which we register the character she’s playing because we get lost in the performance. I didn’t like ‘Don Jon’ but she was probably the best thing about the movie. She was in ‘The Spectacular Now’ which received critical acclaim and was a hit at Sundance. And she was also in ‘Scott Pilgrim vs. the World’. Let me just say it – she is great in everything. There is something about her that just grabs you; if I had to pinpoint what makes her so appealing in this movie, I would say that she seems grounded and accessible but also has secrets.
The film has a large ensemble and no one gets lost in the shuffle – every actor has their moment to shine. But, this is Grace’s story and Brie Larson’s film to carry. I already look forward to next film and I know that she has a long and terrific film career ahead of her.
‘Short Term 12’ isn’t just one of the best films of the year – it is one of the most honest portrayals of troubled youth I have ever seen. It provided me with the opportunity to truly appreciate the people who dedicate their lives towards helping the underprivileged. ‘Short Term 12’ is a small gem and the lump it leaves in your throat feels earned.
Note: Despite my praise for the film, I have a friend who refuses to see the movie because of the shaky cam aesthetic. This should not be a deterrent; ‘Short Term 12’ is not a Paul Greengrass film (as much as I loved ‘Captain Phillips’, I could see how the technique could render many seasick). QED.
Directed by Gavin Hood, ‘Ender’s Game’ is the long-awaited adaptation of Orson Scott Card’s novel of the same name (which was released in 1985). It’s been 50 years after an ant-like species known as the Formics attacked Earth. Thanks to the heroics of fighter pilot Mazer Rackman (Ben Kingsley), all would have been lost. But, it wasn’t enough – the Earthlings are still concerned about another attack and have created a battle school for kids in the hopes of finding their next great leader. Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) believes that Ender Weggin (Asa Butterfield) is the chosen one – I thought Neo from ‘The Matrix’ was the chosen one? Then, there is Major Gwen Anderson (Viola Davis) who wants to know what’s inside the boy’s head. Ender is taken away from his family (his sister is played by Abigail Breslin) and taken to a military training station – one in orbit around Earth. There, he meets a bunch of kids – none of whom register as fully fleshed out characters. Ender must contend with the escalating intensity of his training and the consequences of his actions and decisions – yes, he might be Earth’s only chance against the potential return of an alien invasion. *shrug*
‘Ender’s Game’ was the top movie at the box office this past weekend – that doesn’t surprise me. There are fans of the novel who rushed out to see it opening weekend. I’m hoping ‘Thor: The Dark World’ dominates the box office this weekend – I don’t know if the Marvel picture will be a good one, but at least it would substantially reduce the possibility of there ever being a sequel to ‘Ender’s Game’. The picture feels like the table-setting first chapter in a series; but even with a production budget of $110 , ‘Ender’s Game’ would have to prove to be a significant return on investment in order for those sequels to take place. Let me be clear about this – I do not want any sequels to ‘Ender’s Game’.
But to review the picture as is – How/why/ wherefore did the movie turn out this way? How does a movie like ‘Gravity’ (with its comparable $100 million budget) get bumped just weeks after its release by ‘Ender’s Game’?
‘Ender’s Game’ is rated PG-13 for “some violence, sci-fi action and thematic material”. Whatever – this is aimed at the pubescent masses to keep them occupied until November 22nd, 2013, which is when the new ‘Hunger Games’ movie opens. But nothing of any consequence happens in this expensive looking picture until the plot takes a ridiculous twist. At this point in the movie, issues such as the immorality of war and its preventive measures lend second-hand depth to a needlessly complicated story.
To begin with, I simply didn’t buy the premise. Why are these kids the best option Earth has? Is it because they play a lot of video games and could thus strategize an impenetrable attack? I’m willing to suspend disbelief often – especially, in a genre such as this; but, I felt Mr. Hood didn’t supply me with a reason to believe in this concept.
To make matters worse, ‘Ender’s Game’ squanders an extremely talented cast; there is Asa Butterfield who played the blank-faced boy in ‘Hugo’. His character is supposed to be in command but I found him to be insufferable; there is nothing likable about his manipulative qualities. Abigail Breslin isn’t given much to work with. Hailee Steinfeld is only there as a potential love interest that sees greatness in Ender. Viola Davis is only there because the frown-faced Harrison Ford needs someone to bark at. The only thing Sir Ben Kingsley has going for him is his heavily tattooed face which rivals that of Mike Tyson; that aside, most of his time is spent staring into space from a skybox watching Ender in action.
What does Graff see in Ender? What makes Ender so brilliant? Why is he able to move up the ranks quicker than any of his battle school colleagues? Ah, it must be because Harrison Ford’s character says so repeatedly – “It is what he was born for.” I didn’t get the sense that Ender was a smart kid. He approaches a roadblock with the same level of creativity and methodical thinking that any eleven year old gamer would: “If X does not work, I will try Y. Y doesn’t work either. Is there a Z?”
We should feel that there is something at stake in ‘Ender’s Game’. Not the case. The movie is filled with more training montages than ‘Rocky IV’ – they provide minimal excitement not just because they are overcrowded war-game simulations but because we don’t know what exactly these characters are being prepared for. What is this picture building towards?
‘Ender’s Game’ is one of the most humorless pictures I’ve ever seen - it takes itself way too seriously; there is absolutely no levity. The only laughs present are that of the unintentional variety. ‘Ender’s Game’ wants to be in a similar space (puns always intended) to ‘Starship Troopers’ – a movie that was able to capture some of the satirical elements of the book. Unfortunately, a tale of this complexity is not best suited for a 114-minute motion picture. Maybe it would have worked better as a mini-series. Maybe. Probably not. The movie’s zero gravity setting doesn’t excuse it from having zero humor, zero drama, and zero thrills. Zero stars from me…Zzzzero. QED.