Let me start by describing a scene in ‘The Raid 2’. A woman pulls two claw hammers out of her trench coat on a packed subway car; she and those hammers work their way through a brigade of bodyguards. This scene gave me an indescribable rush; it was pure sensation. For a moment, I thought a lot of moviegoers are going to be turned off by the film’s ultra-violence; but that didn’t upset me. My jaw dropped; “Holy shit!” I exclaimed. After Hammer Girl, I met Baseball Boy, and then realized that the train scene was only one of a dozen equally impressive action sequences.
Yes, ‘The Raid 2’ (a.k.a. Indonesian ‘Game of Thrones’) is awesome! And this is coming from the guy who gave ‘The Raid: Redemption’ 1 out of 4 stars in 2012. Thankfully, you don’t need to see the original to see the sequel; this one brings you up to speed within the first twelve minutes.
The cop who miraculously but somewhat ridiculously survived the very violent events of ‘The Raid’ gets a new assignment – he has to go undercover in prison to cozy up to the son of a crime kingpin so he can eventually get into the organization. He does that very thing but, of course, it gets way more complicated, and things become way more violent. Oh, and it is very good!
This could be the most spectacular upgrade in movie franchise history (though ‘The Fast & Furious’ series comes close). The Raid: Redemption’ was non-stop mayhem with almost no plot or characterization to accompany the ultra-violence. The premise was this – policeman must kill all the criminal underlings in an apartment building to get to the kingpin in the penthouse. That is a standard videogame setup, and the movie played out like one. Also, to this day, no one can explain to me why it’s subtitled ‘Redemption’.
In this well-paced sequel, however, there is plot, characters, intrigue, and an opportunity to get involved in figuring out what the allegiances are and who could be trusted and who is going to overturn what crime lord. Writer-director Gareth Evans is painting on a wider canvas. He reunites with Iko Uwais and Yayan Ruhian, but they’ve moved from the claustrophobic confines of that high-rise building in the first picture to the entire city of Jakarta. The expanded scope allows for more focus on character and plot, but the film has a great sense of momentum, with one violent confrontation leading to another and another and another. I, for one, do not mind a little bit of dramatic downtime between outbreaks of ultra-violence. You know that double-crosses are coming but you don’t in any way know who’s going to be double-crossing whom. A colleague informed me that the sequel’s plot was what Mr. Evans had intended for the original picture. Maybe he needed to warm up first. The first is a generic exercise. The sequel pulls no punches. Literally.
If the plot merely exists to provide a substructure for these ever-escalating fight sequences, so be it. Because, Oh my God, when they start fighting, well, there’s just a lot of oh-em-gee in this movie. To the less cinematically inclined – those who think they’ve seen it all in 2014 watch ‘The Raid 2’ and then we’ll talk. I could care less for violent action pictures; but with such dazzlingly stylized visual flourishes (classic wide-angle shots, assured handheld camerawork), every confrontation feels substantial. There’s no CGI to speak of; it’s purely physical. My favorite shot: in the middle of a battle, the camera moves to a silent, snow-covered alley. It looks very pure. That is until a very bloody conflict erupts.
Just when you think the movie has reached its peak in terms of its ultra-violent material, it manages to surprise us by incrementally raising the stakes until we reach the breathtaking, and exhausting climax (which is spectacular, even by the standards established previously in this movie). After watching this movie, you will feel as though you have been in combat.
‘The Raid 2’ could be the most violent film I’ve ever seen. I love that a picture this blood-soaked managed to secure the same MPAA rating as ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’. Cray. This 3.5/4 star rating needs to be taken with a grain of salt. Obviously, I say “See It” but with the caveat that you don’t sue me for the recommendation. This picture is designed with a specific audience in mind. Several conservative moviegoers stormed out of the screening I attended during the film’s brutal final act. As I watched these George R.R. Martin-worthy supply of characters get knocked down one by one, it occurred to me that Tarantino’s recent masterwork ‘Django Unchained’ feels like ‘Sesame Street’ in comparison. I had a blast! QED.
‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ is by far the finest cinematic achievement of 2014. If I was to pick my favorite moment (in a film filled with many wonderful moments – hardly a moment went by when I wasn’t smiling), it would be the scene where the prison inmates escape by using miniature sledgehammers, and pickaxes that were smuggled past prison officials inside fancy frosted pastries. If I could describe this scene (or the entire film) in two words: joyous artifice. If this sounds like a Wes Anderson picture, that is because it is.
On the surface, this is a comic caper that defies description. But, it’s a story about storytelling. It’s 1985, and we see a young girl carrying a book called ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’. Then we see a status of that very writer; following this, we see the writer as an old man (Tom Wilkinson) telling the story behind the story to a documentary crew. Then, we jump back nearly twenty years when he (Jude Law) arrived at the one-time glamorous but now fading Grand Budapest Hotel situated in the fictional Republic of Zubrowka. He ends up having dinner with the owner, Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), who tells the story of how we came to run the place (the story that would later become the novel). Rewind back to 1932 when Zero (newcomer Tony Revolori) was the new lobby boy working under the strict command of M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes). M. Gustave not only keeps the hotel and its staff in tiptop shape but also attends to the needs of his clientele – this includes fulfilling the bedroom desires of 84-year-old Madame D. (Tilda Swinton).
When she ends up dead (her death sets everything else in motion), Gustave learns from her attorney (Jeff Goldblum) that he has inherited a priceless painting. This news doesn’t sit well with her adult son Dmitri (Adrien Brody); and there’s a cold-blooded assassin Jopling (Willem Dafoe) to make sure Gustave never gets it. But, Gustave and Zero manage to grab the painting and return to the hotel; at this point, Gustave is framed for her murder. Other players enter: Agatha (Saorise Ronan), an apprentice in Zubrowka’s pre-eminent bakery, Captain Henckels (Edward Norton), the military police chief after Gustave and Zero. The excellent cast also includes Lea Seydoux, Mathieu Amalric, Harvey Keitel, and Anderson devotees such as Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, and Owen Wilson.
All of this material is presented in standard Wes Anderson style, which is to say, there is nothing standard about it. The recursive story-within-a-story structure signifies the importance of storytelling, or at least how it provides weight to something seemingly meaningless. The filmmaking consists of densely packed compositions and framing, meticulously composed and designed shots, precise and detailed traveling shots to supplement his ingenious and oddly practical imagination, and action sequences absent of digital wizardry in favor of something more old school. The story itself is presented in narrow, orthogonal dimensions that are reminiscent of the films of its 1930s setting. Or at least a third of it; actually, the film presents us with three different layers of history. ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ is set in three different time periods: present day 1980s, 1960s, and 1930s – early 1940s. Anderson switches between three different aspect ratios so we know where we are (1.85 in the 1980s, 2.40 in the 1960s, and 1.37 in the 1930s-1940s).
Anderson is now one of my favorite filmmakers and I think this is because he has one thing most filmmakers lack – an original vision and one that is expressed seamlessly. Even with a reasonably short runtime of 100 minutes, ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ is Anderson’s most ambitious undertaking yet. In tackling a complicated section of 20th century European history, and by merging playfulness and humor with some serious and ugly history, Anderson is tasked with the challenge of maintaining tone, but the balance between comedy and drama is perfect. His style has become so distinct and evolved that revisiting his debut feature ‘Bottle Rocket’ will have you thinking “This doesn’t quite feel like Wes Anderson yet.”
For those hoping that Anderson would take a new direction, this isn’t the movie where he does what you want him to. His distinct visual sensibilities remain intact, and he continues to elaborate on familiar themes, and present us with eccentric characters – they appear silly on the surface but contain a lot of depth. Despite its setting, the dialogue is contemporary American. (Almost) no one bothers with European accents – this only adds to the film’s playful absurdity. For some reason, Gustave has an English accent (though his character is modeled after an Austrian). Fiennes’ performance is brilliant; downright hilarious when he needs to be, yes, but his angry outbursts only allude to the darkness of this period. Anderson’s last two efforts had an MPAA PG-13 rating – this one has an MPAA R-rating and so the screenplay offers up plenty of naughty words, naughty deeds, grisly slapstick, and a cat is thrown out the window (well, in ‘The Royal Tenanbaums’, a beagle is flatted by a sports car and a dog is shot with an arrow in ‘Moonrise Kingdom’). These elements don’t sit well with everyone and a cheap argument can be made about how Anderson dislikes pets. But I admire him for having the courage to “bring these pets into the equation” (his words to a Toronto Star reporter). Don’t animals face the same cruel world we humans do?
The movie credits the writings of Stefan Zweig, the Viennese writer whose memoir ‘The World of Yesterday’ was the film’s inspiration. I’m not the least bit familiar with Zweig’s work (and clearly, it’s not a prerequisite to enjoying the heck out of this picture).
On more than one occasion, Gustave speaks of a “glimmer of civilization in the barbaric slaughterhouse we now know as humanity.” He is a fierce survivor. In real-world 1930s, places akin to Zubrowka were on the brink of barbarity and carnage, essentially surviving as an object of nostalgic longing – this longing is embraced by Mr. Anderson. Secondary settings include a muggy prison, a sublime bakeshop, the railway (and other steam-powered modes of transportation); objects (physical and intellectual): telegrams, handmade luggage, paintings, poetry, and psychoanalysis. Anderson captures the strange essence of a bygone world.
The movie is a blast, yes. But, it’s at the service of something more substantial. Others may feel differently, but I can admire the use of comedy as a means of opposition against political oppression. There is a lot going on in ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ – Anderson has conjured a world which is subject to tensions that exist on the outset. We don’t see Hitler or Stalin; for all intents and purposes, they don’t exist in this world. But, offhand references to tragic occurrences call attention to the unseen; the darkness that exists outside the frame. And this tension is reflected within the Gustave character – his refined appearance masks some adolescent vulgarity, and angry outbursts, eluding to the darkness of the period. This isn’t real life, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s a mostly tasty pasty; that is until, we discover the corrosive properties contained within the bottom layer.
‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ is Wes Anderson’s eighth feature and I think it is best since ‘Rushmore’. I was charmed (as I usually am with his work) but didn’t expect to be as moved as I was. Here’s to the best film of the year so far. QED.
Last weekend, my friend sent me a text saying “Hey, let’s go see ‘Mr. Peabody & Sherman. It’s playing in 3-D at Varsity at 5:05 p.m.” These characters weren’t familiar to me; I hadn’t heard of the film. Apparently, I had seen a trailer for it prior to ‘The Lego Movie’, but it escaped my memory very quickly. Then, there’s the 3-D aspect, which I always dread (unfortunately, a 2-D version of the picture wasn’t playing at a convenient time for us). Then, I read the synopsis online only to discover that the movie’s two main characters were a time-traveling talking dog and his human son. My reply text was “O…k, if that’s what you want to see.”
I’m glad I went. I can’t comment on whether purists who know every episode of the circa 1960s television show will have a great time, but as a newbie who wasn’t in the least familiar with these characters or the premise, I found it to be an imperfect, but fast-moving, witty, consistently funny, and well-intentioned picture.
Like ‘The Lego Movie’, ‘Mr. Peabody & Sherman’ has a number of sight gags and pop-culture jokes that will ricochet off the heads of younger viewers only to have the adult audience members bursting with laugher. One scene in particular had me laughing louder than anyone else in the theater, including the young ones – without spoiling it, be on the lookout for what Beethoven does when he finds himself in 2014.
Oh, and it has some terrific voice performances (which any successful animated comedy needs). Ty Burrell (or Phil Dunphy from ‘Modern Family’) has the perfect line delivery; you know, for Earth’s lone talking dog and the planet’s smartest creature. His credentials: Harvard graduate, Nobel Prize winner, pun enthusiast, Olympic medalist, political advisor, master of every musical instrument, and language known to man. His greatest challenge, though, is being a father to his adopted human son, Sherman. He teaches Sherman about world history by traveling through a time machine he invented called the WABAC (pronounced “Way Back”, get it?). Together, they manage to meet everyone from Gandhi to Jackie Robinson. Does this sound like ‘Bill and Ted’ to you? I was reminded of those pictures. In any event, the best parts of ‘Mr. Peabody & Sherman’ are the encounters with these storied figures.
Max Charles voices dorky 7-year-old Sherman, and Ariel Winter (Alex from ‘Modern Family’) is Penny Peterson – she’s threatened by Sherman’s intellect and life experiences. The two get into a fight at school; Mr. Peabody then arranges a dinner party to meet and smooth things over with Penny’s parents. Sherman tries to impress Penny by showing her the WABAC. Their time-tripping adventure results in a rip in the space-time continuum; and so, they must work together (alongside Mr. Peabody) to repair it.
I noticed all the characters have big heads and large eyes; I guess if you want to illustrate cartoonish facial expressions, um, a cartoon works best for this? Animated feature? You know what I mean. But, for a “large head” animated feature, the human characters don’t seem the least bit freaked out by a talking dog, and so the animation design doesn’t fully serve its purpose.
Because this is a family film, the recipe includes several drops of unabashed sentimentality. Part of the present-day plot involves a child services worker who is unable to accept that a dog (even one as brilliant as Mr. Peabody) is fit to parent a child. Mr. Peabody standing up for his parental rights can be seen as a testament to the increasing prominence of non-traditional family units in our real world. Sherman shows signs of rebelliousness; his genius father always calls the shots and takes care of everything; canine parents don’t seem to recognize the importance of their children’s independence (ahem, or human parents, ahem). I admire the fact that the movie didn’t hit me over the head with this message of family love; the preachyness is limited to a teary, short set of speeches towards the end. The focus is where it ought to be - on the father-son relationship; in this case, the father just happens to be a beagle.
The feature was directed by Ron Minkoff (‘The Lion King’). Now, ‘Mr. Peabody & Sherman’ isn’t nearly as memorable as that picture. It isn’t even in the same league as the recent ‘The Lego Movie’, or ‘The Wind Rises’. But, it succeeds in what it sets out to do: it is a bright, gentle, funny, and good-natured picture.
As fun as the adventures were, they aren’t able to justify the in-your-face 3-D surcharge. Even with the limitations presented by the added dimension, the visuals are vibrant and richly detailed. And, I didn’t suffer a headache watching it (what a complement!). See it in 2-D if you can. QED.
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.