Sunday, February 12, 2017

Oscar's Best 2016

It's Oscar time once again, and once again I've failed to be active on this blog.  So much for best intentions.  2016 has had a number of good movies, and overall I'm pleased with the best movie category.  However, unlike most years, I didn't find that singular standout movie to make my top choice easy.  My top two, and the next two, choices are almost interchangeable.  Only the bottom few were easy for me to categorize.  I did feel a bit self conscious for selecting all of the racially themed movies near the bottom, but that's just how it went.  As always, I welcome and encourage comments, either to agree or disagree with my ranking.  I understand that movies are art, and that we don't, and that we shouldn't, agree on what "good" art is.  The following list simply represents my humble opinion.  Be aware, there may be spoilers.

1)  LION:  This is an amazing "based on a true story" movie, by virtually unknown director Garth Davis.  It's the tale of a 5-year-old boy, named Saroo, who accidentally gets trapped on a train in India.  He's unable to disembark until he arrives in Calcutta, thousands of miles from home.  Saroo is eventually adopted, out of an orphanage, by a couple in Australia.  I'm not normally a fan of child actors in leading roles, as they don't typically have the range to show the "arc" of character development necessary.  However, Sunny Pawar is simply amazing as the young lost boy, and in my mind was overlooked by Oscar.  Dev Patel does get a nomination for expertly playing the grown and tormented Saroo, struggling to find his own identity.  Nicole Kidman, who plays his adoptive mother also deserves her nomination.  The film flows beautifully and captured my full attention.  The action, cinematography, acting, and direction are all top notch.  I was simply swept away.  My only slight issue came in the final act, which I felt lacked the same intensity, edge, and tempo.  Therefore, it did not hold my attention in the same way the rest of the movie did.  The ending of the movie ended up feeling a bit too much like a documentary.  That being said, this is an excellent film and should be seen by all movie lovers.  Bring Kleenex!

2)  MANCHESTER BY THE SEA:  I felt somewhat conflicted by this film.  The thing I didn't like about it initially, is the very thing I ended up liking most about it.  First let me summarize- the movie deals with the life of Lee Chandler, played by Casey Affleck, a New England native, dealing with tragedy, sorrow, and guilt.  The source of his anguish is cleverly withheld until well in to the movie.  Lee is forced to move from his self imposed prison, a dingy basement apartment in Boston, back to the town at the heart of his suffering.  He's been named in the will of his deceased brother, to care for his teen aged nephew Patrick, played by Lucas Hedges.  I'm a huge fan of, and consistently find myself enjoying movies that are driven primarily by good acting, and this is clearly one such film.  Of course what makes extraordinary acting special is the writing.  Great actors given great dialogue makes for great cinema.  There is a two minute scene in which Casey Affleck chats with his ex wife, played by Michelle Williams (both appropriately nominated), that is simply magnificent.  Two of the best at their very best.  It's a scene that will stick with me for a very long time.  What bothered me most as I walked out of the theater was Lee's lack of "arc."  It's a deeply sad movie, about a deeply wounded man, who by the end of the film is nearly as sad and wounded as he was at the start.  He's lonely, hurting, and picking bar fights in the first act exactly the same as he is and does in the last.  Despite being around loving people, family and friends, who are struggling to move on with their own lives and their own hardships, he simply can't.  I left the theater feeling hopeless and depressed.  However, the movie is so powerful, so well written and performed, that it continued to haunt me.  In time, I ended up appreciating this movie for portraying a character who simply can't get over his guilt and loss.  Sure, there is a tiny bit of growth, but some wounds are just too deep to recover from.  Not every movie needs to have a happy ending, not every character has to see the light.  I respect that this movie was even made.  For such a dark movie, there was a lot of humor, some of which I didn't think fit all that well.  Lucas Hedges gives a fine performance, for which he got a nomination.  However, to me he's the weakest link.  It's not the actual performance as much as what his character seems to be about.  As paralyzed by sadness as Lee is, Patrick barely seems to recognize that his own father has just died.  He seems only to care about fishing, friends, and juggling his two girlfriends.  It's a great film, a must-see, but again, bring Kleenex.

3)  ARRIVAL:  Sci Fi at its very best.  Smart, rich characters, well acted, great script and superior direction.  Who could ask for more?!?!  Alien vessels have arrived and are hovering over a multitude of cities around the globe.  Are they friend of foe?  Merely observers or threats?  Amy Adams is a leading linguistics professor and is charged with decoding the "language" which the aliens are using to communicate.  I was fully hypnotized by the story, by the acting, by the pace, by the visuals, and by the message.  I have seen reviews and heard comments that this is a "snooze fest," "preachy" and "cliche-riddled." I couldn't disagree more vehemently.  Finally a movie about alien life that isn't simply a monster story.  A film with meaning and heart.  I was struck by the directors use of light and focus.  Many of the scenes are purposely dark, with only the object of interest in the light.  It's a seamless yet artistic way of drawing our attention.  A similar technique is used in which there is a short depth of field.  Only the object of interest is in focus, while the surroundings are blurred, with changing focus to draw our attention.  It's a unique story, beautifully shot, and worth a peek.

4)  HELL OR HIGH WATER:  A modern day western.  Instead of horses we have pick up trucks.  Instead of an evil land baron, we have evil banks.  Once again what makes this film superior is the acting and writing.  The surprising Chris Pine and the deliciously menacing Ben Foster play Toby and Tanner, cowboy brothers, who decide to rob banks for the money they need to save their family and their land.  The brothers both have dark sketchy pasts, but what they also have is a bond, and true love for each other.  Toby is fighting his darker nature and appears to be the good brother, while Tanner has malice just barely below the surface.  He's not even trying to hide or suppress his baser instincts.  The interactions feel real, honest, complex, and unique.  The other couple, or partnership, that is equally unique is between the Texas Rangers Marcus and Alberto, played by Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham.  Once again Jeff Bridges offers a deep portrayal, inhabiting his character as comfortably as if it were his own skin.  He steals every scene he's in and makes it look easy.  He adds a levity but also a legitimacy to the film.  At the risk of sounding cliche, Jeff Bridges is an American treasure.  The direction of this film is superb.  David Mackenzie takes us on a beautifully paced and artistically filmed western adventure that is absolutely worth the trip.

5)  LA LA LAND:  I mean this as a compliment: LA LA LAND is a great little chick flick.  I should also add that in general, I am a fan of musicals- my favorite probably being HAIR.  As much as I enjoyed LA LA LAND I don't think it deserved a record number of nominations.  What makes this movie work is the incredible chemistry between Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone.  Both are great actors in their own right, and are also magnificent together.  Damien Chazelle expertly backs up his amazing direction of WHIPLASH from 2014.  I can't wait to see what he comes up with next.  The movie is light and engaging as we learn to genuinely like and root for both lead characters  We also find an appreciation for the third lead, "Jazz."  Their courtship is sweet, even if it is somewhat predictable.  I found the first two-thirds of the movie enjoyable and fun, but the final third of the film is what makes it special.  All the great musicals I can think of have an edge, a darker side, to go along with memorable musical numbers.  Until the final act that edge was absent, which left it feeling simply amusing and "sweet."  My only other criticism has to do with the voices.  I've heard it said that the relatively sub-par (not awful by any stretch) singing voices of the stars is what gives it authenticity.  I'm not of that camp.  I found their singing a bit distracting, much as I did hearing Russell Crowe croak in Les Miserables a few years back. If I had to recommend any of the nominated movies for a fun date night out, this would be it.

6)  HIDDEN FIGURES:  When I saw the trailer for this movie I thought it looked quite Pollyanna and a candidate for the TV Hallmark Hall of fame.  After a friend, who saw it, told me it was "trite" I was sure I'd hate it.  Exactly the kind of movie I typically hate.  After seeing it, I was right, it was Pollyanna and even a little bit trite.  Even the images were all bright, colorful and cheery.  However, I actually enjoyed it a lot.  The story is compelling and important.  It's a part of our American history that we should all be aware of and I was hooked from the start.  It's the tale of NASA's endeavor to put a human in to orbit and eventually on the moon.  It's based on the real life significant contribution of African American women, who provided invaluable mathematical contributions to the US space program.  Taraji Henson is a captivating as Katherine Johnson,  Octavia Spencer is her usual charming self as Dorothy Vaughan, and Janelle Monae portrays Mary Jackson, three "human computers."  Theodore Melfi artfully relays the story about these talented women, stressing the support they receive from their friends, family, and community.  It's a beautiful representation of life in the 60's and depicts a warm and loving African American community.  I was surprised how well a story largely about overcoming racism and bigotry was told without a sharp edge, without finger pointing, and without anger.  There is no violence, no cursing, and no gratuitous outrage.  Still, it's made evident how difficult the lives of African Americans were at that time, and how deep the injustices were which they had to endure, both socially, legally, and professionally.  I tend to like my movies a bit darker and with more grit, but this is an important true story, beautifully told and worth seeing.  An ideal family movie date.

7)  MOONLIGHT:  I'm still conflicted by this film.  There is no doubt that this movie was well acted and directed but I just couldn't connect or relate.  I was only able to appreciate it as a work of art.  In the end I just didn't find it terribly entertaining.  MOONLIGHT is the story of Chiron, aka Little, a homosexual boy, growing up in the drug infested projects of Miami.  The movie is told in three acts, with three actors representing different stages of his life.  Each actor is challenged by different aspects of his struggle, as he endeavors to understand his own sexuality and to be accepted.  He just doesn't fit in to his community, his school, or even his family.  His struggle isn't only external, but he also struggles to define and know himself.  He's the product of poverty and lack of opportunity; hungry for positive role models, as he's being raised by a drug addict single mom.  My primary issue with the film was once again a lack of "arc."  Each of the three actors playing Chiron do so almost stoically. Feelings and opinions are seldom verbalized and have to be inferred.  The youngest actor is almost comically silent.  There is very little growth, which may be the point, but it left me feeling empty and disconnected from Chiron.  This is the a classic "indie" type movie and I only recommend it for true movie lovers.  The film is raw, dark, and depressing, yet there is no doubt that it is a work of art.

8)  HACKSAW RIDGE:  I'm not sure I can be totally objective about this movie.  First, I tend to be hard on military movies, just as I am on medically themed movies, because I have some real life experience in those fields, making me more judgmental and more critical than I should be.  That real life experience for some reason also keeps me from getting fully immersed.  Second, I'm just not a huge fan of Andrew Garfield.  He was good in a smaller role in THE SOCIAL NETWORK, passable as SPIDERMAN, but in my opinion he is what kept 99 HOMES and SILENCE from being as good as they could have been; I might even say that he ruined them for me.  I do like Mel Gibson as a director, and as such he did a masterful job.  The movie is once again based on a true story.  Desmond Doss was a conscientious objector who served as a Medic during the battle of Okinawa.  He didn't carry a weapon and refused to "fight."  Still, he was a hero, saving lives, and earned the Medal of Honor without firing a single shot.  As such it's a compelling and important story.  Doss volunteers to serve and it comes as no surprise that in basic training his fellow recruits, as well as the cadre, want him gone.  Nobody wants to be in a foxhole with a solider without a weapon.  It also doesn't come as a surprise that by the end they all respect and appreciate him.  A significant sub-plot of the film deals with his courtship of a nurse.  During the romance Garfield continually makes the same ridiculously dopey expression that made me want to punch him in the face.  His social and political fight for acceptance is well documented by the film and as such it's interesting.  However, the heart of the movie takes place on Hacksaw Ridge.  It's probably the longest battle scene in history, or at least that I can remember, or maybe it just felt that way.  In any case, this movie has 6 nominations so someone liked it, I just wasn't one of them.

9)  FENCES:  I've stated that I particularly enjoy movies that are "actor driven."  Clearly FENCES is one of those films, and yet it's my least favorite of the Best Picture nominees.  Denzel Washington is a living acting legend and Viola Davis is on a short list of best living actresses, and they both shine.  That being said, I found this movie to be a series of long, often boring, speeches.  Very little action and a plot I couldn't relate to and didn't care much about.  The set of the movie is pretty much limited to a single house and the yard around that house.  When it was over I said "this felt more like a play then a movie."  I was embarrassed to find out that it was actually a Broadway show first, and that the show featured Washington and Davis.  Washington directs the action which takes place during the 50's and deals with family, race, loss, and forgiveness.  AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY is another film based on a play, with similar issues, but is a far better film in my opinion.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Oscar's Best 2015

Once again the Oscars are upon us, and I haven't written a single blog this year.  At a minimum, this year, I will write a post revealing my personal ranking of the 8 movies nominated in the Best Picture category.  I do hope to write a few more posts in this coming year, and I hope to entice some comments, but hope does spring eternal.
Beware, there may be mild spoilers.
Here, from best to worst..... IN MY OPINION.

1)  SPOTLIGHT:  I often find myself struggling with the order in which to rank the movies nominated for best picture.  Some years it's fairly simple, but this year was particularly difficult, especially after the top two.  My choice for the very best picture of the year is typically easy, as it was this year.  SPOTLIGHT is quite simply the best movie I saw in 2015.   It's such a complete film, without holes.  It's a wonderful script, expertly directed, beautifully shot, and honestly acted.  The action flows at a steady pace, which is a key construct for making a great film.  The story is of course about Catholic priests molesting boys in Boston, and ultimately the world over.  It uncovers the systematic cover up perpetrated by government officials, the community, the legal system, and the church itself.  That being said, the movie is really more about the craft of being a journalist.  It reminded me of ALL THE PRESIDENTS MEN in the way it focuses on the investigation.  Michael Keaton plays the leader of the Spotlight team, a division of the Boston Globe.  His team typically pursues a single story that requires deep, prolonged, intensive, investigative reporting.  Liev Schreiber, the newly hired, first ever Jewish editor of the Globe, essentially assigns the Spotlight team this story.  Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams are Spotlight journalists who doggedly follow lead after lead.  What's beautiful about this movie is that it doesn't pull any punches, yet it doesn't feel judgmental either.  There is no gratuitous religion or church bashing.  The facts are honestly and accurately depicted, and the intricate deception is revealed layer by layer.  I was also struck by the apparent reluctance, of everyone involved, to uncover the truth, but being honor bound and dedicated to doing so.  Often at their own expense they proceed, because it was the right thing to do.  For the most part they are faithful Catholics without an ax to grind.  Every fact uncovered leads to a darker more disturbing truth, a truth nobody really seems to want to hear.  With heavy hearts and a hope to find a different truth, they do their duty.  I was swept up in the journey, learned something, and was thoroughly entertained.  If you haven't seen it, are older then 20, you won't be disappointed.

2)  ROOM:  My second choice was also pretty easy this year.  For such a harsh and ugly premise this really is a gentle and beautifully crafted film.  Brie Larson plays Ma, a young woman who 7 years previously, as a teenager, was abducted and locked in a shed behind her captor's home.  The tale is elegantly told, and expertly paced, in two parts.  We join the story in the claustrophobic space of a 10 X 10 foot shed.  Ma and her now 5 year old son, played amazingly well by Jacob Tremblay, are locked away and isolated from society.  A flickery rabbit-ear television and the captor himself are the only connection to the outside world.  The first half of the movie takes place entirely within this space, referred to simply as "room".  Somehow Ma manages to make this tiny room a loving home for the two of them.  It's impressive how much action and how full a life takes place in this tiny physical space.  The second half of the movie deals with their rescue and re-introduction to society.  What's striking about this movie is how beautifully and subtly it's been crafted.  It was obvious that the writer and director agonized over every line and every image.  There were so many opportunities for it to become melodramatic but it never is.  It could have become emotionally manipulative or sensationalized but it isn't.  Each point is made poignantly but subtly.  For example, we suspect the boy will be emotionally damaged and will need professional therapy.  We do indeed see him talking to a Psychiatrist, but that scene probably isn't even 30 seconds long.  The fact that the perpetrator will have a trial, which will have a physical and financial cost, is only alluded to peripherally.  We learn very little of the captor or his motivation.  He is not dignified by giving him the weight of a back story.  Ma's own father has "issues" with her and his newly discovered grandson.  It's never spelled out and it's not debated.  The audience is given credit for some intelligence and we are allowed to draw our own conclusions.  The movie is all about Ma and her struggle to survive, in and out of room.  I was swept away by the elegant, simple, beauty of this very dark and very powerful story.  In the end it speaks to human resilience and to the power we have to adapt and endure even in the face of the most crippling hardships.

3)  THE MARTIAN:  This is where it got difficult for me to decide which movie I enjoyed more.  Depending on your own personal preference and personality the order might well be different.  My own "sciency" background is probably why I liked this movie so much.  Maybe just because I saw it with my girls and was in a good mood.....  The exploration of and travel to Mars has been very much in the news lately.  Thousands of people are signing up to be potential one way travelers to Mars.  Matt Damon credibly plays an astronaut who becomes stranded on Mars, knowing his days are literally numbered.  He methodically and realistically deals with the obstacles threatening his survival; how to eat, how to breathe, how to communicate with earth, how to survive the elements, long term.  In his own words "I'm gonna have to science the shit out of this."  The story is told with a keen sense of drama and yet maintains a light almost comedic air.  I was swept up and fascinated by every discovery, every challenge, and every solution.  I was also inspired by the hopefulness and optimism of this film.  Humans and humanity are shown in the very best most generous light.  The cinematography was breath taking and Ridley Scott's direction was spot on; simply a beautifully told story.  I do agree that the pace of the film was a tad slow, especially considering how much of the movie involves only Matt and Mars.  I also felt that the ending was rushed, incomplete, and somewhat unsatisfying, especially after such a slow deliberate build.  If you don't buy in to the story early, with a run time of 2:24, I could understand how you might feel it long and even tedious.

4)  THE BIG SHORT:  If you're interested in the financial markets and enjoy biopic style movies I could see where this film might rank higher on your list then it does mine.  I know it was my oldest son's favorite movie of the year, even if he didn't see ROOM.  This very ambitious script tries to untangle and explain why and how the stock market crashed, and exactly how that event was tied to sub prime mortgages, or collapse of the housing "bubble".  Considering the inherent complexities, director Adam McKay succeeded admirably.  The primary characters impressively played by Christian Bale, Steve Carell (no longer a mere comedic actor), Ryan Gosling, and Brad Pitt, are based on the actual people who exposed the corruption.  Only the names were changed to protect the innocent.  For the most part this film moves along briskly and is captivating.  I'm not typically a huge fan of voice-over narration but due to the subject matter and need for explanation, the direct looking in to the camera narration by Gosling actually worked.  I seemed obvious that the movie was made by a primarily comedic director.  McKay is best known for STEP BROTHERS, ANCHORMAN,  and TALLADEGA NIGHTS.  There was a humorous slant that I felt was often unnecessary and at times distracting.  My most common complaint these days is the length of movies.  Do they really need to be more then 2 hours long?  Several scenes were pointless and added little to the story or my understanding of what happened.  I keep remembering a alligator in a swimming pool, and wonder why???  Still, I was thoroughly entertained and walked out with just the right amount of indignation and outrage.

5)  BROOKLYN:  If you're inclined to romance you'll enjoy this movie and would no doubt rank it higher then I did.  Saoirse Ronan, who I expect to win the Best Actress award, gives an amazing performance as a young Irish woman who reluctantly leaves her home and family to start a new life, with more possibilities, in New York.  Her journey and early experiences are marked by memorable encounters with other fascinating people.  Each of the characters she interacts with are rich, full, interesting people.  It's a great sign that I wanted to know more about her travel companion, her co-workers, and the women she shared a house with... to name a few.  It speaks to the richness of the script, that even the more peripheral characters were intriguing.  Her travels are harrowing and her early days in NY are desperate and lonely, yet she endures.  She is supported by the church, finds work, educates herself, and lives the American dream of making a better life through hard work.  Somewhat predictably she ends up falling in love.  The lucky Italian young man is deftly portrayed by relatively unknown Emory Cohen.  The slow build of their affection and reliance on one another is truly beautiful.  They avoid cliche and contrived drama.  Eventually she makes a return trip to Ireland, feeling the pull of home and family.  Once back in Ireland there are job opportunities and there is an inevitable attraction to a charming Irish suitor.  She is confronted by a choice between a life in NY and the potential of a rich life back "home" in Ireland.  The story of this complex woman's life is expertly crafted and tenderly told.

6)  THE REVENANT:  Now if you need a little more action and testosterone in your movies, you'll no doubt rank this much higher.  I was particularly eager to see THE REVENANT, in large part because I'm a huge Leo fan (still annoyed and perplexed that he didn't win best actor for THE AVIATOR) and of director Alejandro Inarritu who brought us such amazing and memorable films as BIRDMAN, BABEL, and 21 GRAMS (maybe on my top ten of all time) to name a few.  In a nutshell the movie is about revenge and survival.  Leo's character's son is killed by the harsh, duplicitous, and menacing character played by Tom Hardy.  After the first ten minutes my hopes were very high.  The opening depicts an Indian attack on fur trappers in the wild.  We've all seen a number of bow and arrow attacks in various films, but Inarritu's treatment is truly unique and majestic.  The brutality, panic and fear is palpable.  Leadership weighing the options, mounting a defense and counter, followed by a retreat felt "real", was visually stunning, and had my heart racing.   The much hyped bear attack was equally extraordinary, leaving me breathless.  The landscape and how it was filmed should have been considered for a best actor nomination.  The scenery was the lead, and had a lot to do with the power of this movie.  So while there was a lot to like, there were enough "issues" that dropped THE REVENANT down in my personal ranking.  Maybe it's my fascination with TV's MAN VS WILD, or my medical training, but I kept thinking "he'd be dead of hypothermia", or "no way he'd survive that", a few different times.  Heck, I avoid shallow puddles on a sidewalk, skipping around them, even when I have on boots.  Yet these men made no effort whatsoever to avoid walking right through freezing streams, in not much more then fur boots.  A good friend of mine felt the quality of Leo's performance was over-rated since there wasn't all that much dialogue.  I countered with Adrian Brody's performance in THE PIANIST, which was extraordinary but similarly short of dialogue.  While it wasn't his most memorable role, I won't be disappointed if Leo wins.  For all it's qualities, the film, in the end just didn't deliver enough by way of arc.  What was the point?  What did we learn?  Revenge is good?  We're capable of amazing feats if we put our mind to it, or are properly motivated?  For me, too little pay off for far too long a movie.  Beautiful and entertaining, but a bit empty in the end.

7)  BRIDGE OF SPIES:  Steven Spielberg just doesn't make bad movies.  Fine, I was no fan of WAR HORSE but still....  His credits are legendary; arguably the best living director, or at worst he's in the team picture.  This movie is another popular true story bio-pic.  Tom Hanks plays a well reputed lawyer who is enlisted to represent a Soviet spy and eventually to negotiate a conflict between the Soviets and the US.  He's untrained and inexperienced for the task he's given.  His skills and ethics are put to the test trying to negotiate a prisoner exchange.  While the performances were predictably excellent, particularly Hanks and Mark Rylance, the Soviet spy, who I would have enjoyed seeing more of.  Still, I felt a number of scenes were "stiff" for lack of a better word.  The action felt choreographed at times, almost rehearsed, something unexpected in a Spielberg movie.  Again the 2 hr 22 minute run time felt excessive.  I checked my watch a number of times to see "how much longer".  Another issue may actually have more to do with me personally then with the film.  I knew what the eventual outcome would be.  Much like ARGO the movie is considered a thriller.  How much suspense can there be when you already know what's going to happen?  I never had that pit in my stomach rooting for some particular result, or anxiety dreading some other outcome.  Knowing it'll all work out, ahead of time, is a suspense killer.  There just wasn't enough dramatic tension, nor were the characters compelling enough, to keep me fully invested for the films entirety.  There were plenty of exceptional scenes and much to like, but as a whole, for a best picture nominee, I was disappointed.

8)  MAD MAX: FURY ROAD:  Ranking this movie last was actually a very easy choice.  I just didn't like much about it.  Off the top of my head there were a number of movies I'd have rather seen nominated instead of MAD MAX.  For example,  EX MACHINA, TRUMBO, CONCUSSION, ME EARL AND THE DYING GIRL, THE WALK, and STEVE JOBS were all much more enjoyable and to me "better".  I didn't see the animated INSIDE OUT but I have a hunch it too was better.  I know this movie has, or will have, cult status.  I have a number of friends who loved it.  I'll admit that it was stylishly innovative and different for sure.  Still, I couldn't get in to it.  I was unable to suspend disbelief.  It's vital to accept the premise of any movie to be able to enjoy it and I couldn't.  The story is about survival in the dessert of a post-apocalyptic world.  A tyrant needs to be overthrown and the elements need to be endured.  I didn't care for the acting, the premise, the costumes, or even the cinematography.  I got hung up on the lack of water which made survival too unrealistic for me to overlook.  I felt any number of scenes were "artsy" for the sake of "artsy" which didn't contribute anything to the film.  It felt very much like a very long MTV music video, for a song I didn't care for.  A guitar player on the hood of a demon vehicle?  Soldiers flapping around like flags at the end of very long poles in the dessert?  I just kept thinking "really?".  To me this movie was a bit like how I feel about good poetry.  You may well have no idea what the heck it's about after the first reading, but if you study it, you'll be rewarded by some deeper beauty or truth.  In this case I had no desire to study and never found any deeper anything.  And as they said in THE BIG SHORT, "Truth is like poetry.  And most people fucking hate poetry."  I loved the original MAD MAX, far less THUNDER DOME, and even less FURY ROAD.  For free, on HBO, I guess it's worth a look, just to see what all the hype is about.  Make your own judgement.  I welcome opinions on why I'm wrong about this movie, or any other movie for that matter.


Sunday, March 1, 2015

Oscar's Best 2014

In the first blog I ever wrote, I gave my opinions about the movies nominated for best picture in 2013. Since that time I've written reviews on a number of movies, but only a fraction of those I actually saw, and none recently.  I realize now that my ambition to review every movie I saw simply wasn't realistic.  Unfortunately, I had mostly negative reviews of  many of the movies I saw over the spring and summer months.  It was that negativity which in part stifled my desire to review as many movies.  This year I hope to blog a bit more, but only about noteworthy films.

I'm going to start this year, just like I did last, by briefly reviewing the 8 movies nominated for best picture.  However, this year I'm going to review them in order, from worst to best.  I invite any and all comments about my opinions or about the order in which I've ranked them.

8)  THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL:  I have already written a full blog about this movie and detailed why I didn't care for it.  I was disappointed to see it won a number of awards, but thankfully none in the main categories.  Simply put I don't get the sensibility of most Wes Anderson movies.  Clearly the Academy and "people" enjoy his movies.  I wish I did, but I just don't.  I always end up feeling like I didn't get the joke.  I found this movie, like so many of his, to be just silly.  It provoked more eye rolls and shrugs then laughs.  I've always said movies are art, and it would be horrible if we all agreed on what good art is.  To me his most recent movies are like Gangsta Rap, I understand that some people enjoy it, but I don't get it.

7)  BOYHOOD:  I greatly appreciate the originality and the ambition involved in making BOYHOOD.  Twelve years is a long time over which to shoot a film.  I do applaud the effort.  I should probably confess that I haven't been a fan of many Richard Linklater directed movies.  My biggest misgiving about BOYHOOD is that it simply wasn't terribly entertaining, and certainly not over the 2 hr 45 min run time.  It was far more interesting and entertaining.  It failed my watch test.  Far too often I found myself checking the time and wondering when it would end.  On the positive side, I did enjoy the performances.  All of the leads (Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette, Ellar Coltrane) gave solid performances.  I was content to see Arquette win the Oscar, even if I'm not sure her role was merely supporting.  I did enjoy watching the actors age on screen and I particularly enjoyed watching the evolution of technology.  It was fun to see an old Disc-Man give way to an iPhone and to witness the evolution and impact of the internet and even Facebook on the lives of our leads.  I even enjoyed the somewhat choppy way the movie was made.  Linklater didn't feel the need to belabor life altering events.  A short shouting match, a hidden sip of booze, and it's enough to understand that there was an alocholic and abusive relationship.  I'm glad I saw this movie but I'm not sure I'd recommend it to the casual movie fan.

6)  AMERICAN SNIPER:  Again I need to start with an alibi.  I find it difficult to be objective when reviewing military themed movies.  Having spent so much time in uniform, albeit none in combat, it's difficult for me to get fully immersed or to be objective.  Ordinarily I'm totally absorbed by whatever I'm watching.  I'm able to fully lose myself in the story and in the action.  It's only after I've left the theater that I begin to think about what I've seen and to consider my opinions about it.  During military themed films I often find myself thinking too much during the movie.  I get sidetracked and distracted by outside thoughts.  For example, I may question how the uniform is worn or if a haircut would be acceptable.  I also notice people, places, and events that remind me of my own experiences.  If I'm unable to lose myself, I'm less likely to enjoy it as thoroughly.  That being said, I am a huge fan of Clint Eastwood directed movies and I did enjoy this one.  UNFORGIVEN is still one of my all-time favorites.  Bradley Cooper made the role his own.  He was completely believable and seemed to inhabit the mind and body of skilled sniper, Chris Kyle.  I don't think it's fair to criticize the movie for not making more of a political statement.  It wasn't about the legitimacy of the war, nor was it about what the US role in the middle east should be.  It was a strong bio-pic about a soldier and the impact his job and the war had on his life.  It was about PTSD and the struggles so many soldiers face when they return home.  It was also about what military families might face when loved ones go to, and return from, war.  The movie was well made, artfully directed, beautifully shot, and well acted.  I believe the script could have been better, which is why it's only my 6th favorite of the 8 nominated "best".

5)  SELMA:  I'm not that well versed on the details of MLK's life and death, so I can't and won't comment about the historical accuracy of this film.  I did enjoy this movie very much, in particular the hypnotic performance by David Oyelowo as MLK.  I understand why people are complaining that he was overlooked for an Oscar nod.  On the other hand, best actor was probably the strongest category this year.  Oyelowo seemed to inhabit the soul of MLK and channeled him particularly well during speech giving scenes.  He was able to portray MLK's determination and resolute sense of purpose.  It was clear that he understood, even at the time, how important his mission, or calling, was.  The future of social evolution and civil rights in our country, and in the world, depended largely on his actions.  I also enjoyed the performances of Tom Wilkinson who played a conflicted President Johnson, and of Tim Roth who played a bigoted and cock-sure Gov. George Wallace.  I felt the representation of the attitudes and actions of white Americans at the time was well balanced and on the whole fair.  It's still shocking to realize how recently in our past these horribly racist laws, actions, and attitudes existed.  A demonstration of our depravity, early in the film, involving a violent explosion, nearly ripped me from my seat and left me feeling as if I'd been punched in the stomach. Still, it is heartening to see how far we've come since that time, even if we've still got a way to go.  I felt like some of the characters could have been flushed out more while others seemed extraneous and unnecessary.  There were some detours that took us away from the action but overall it was a well made film that deserved the honor of being nominated for best picture.

4)  THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING:  The third of four bio-pics portrays the life of renowned physicist Stephen Hawking, based on a book written by his wife.  Even if I wouldn't have voted for him, I wasn't surprised nor disappointed, to see Eddie Redmayne win for Best Actor.  His performance spanned the full range of SH's life, from vibrant but unsure student falling in love, slowly loosing the control of his body, to the wheelchair restricted, pretzel shaped, voice machine using, genius we're all familiar with.  The writing, cinematography and direction were all top notch.  I first fell in love with Felicity Jones, who played Jane Hawking, in a sweet little love story called LIKE CRAZY.  I'm not sure she was the best choice to play his wife, but her performance was subtle but strong, balanced, and honest.  Perhaps because the script was based on Jane's book, I felt the disintegration and ultimate failure of their marriage was almost romanticized and glossed over.  Additionally I would have preferred it if they had delved more deeply in to his scientific accomplishments, rather then focus so much on his personal life.  Other then that I enjoyed this movie very much.

3)  WHIPLASH:  High octane from start to finish, filmed in 19 days.  A riveting story about a young musician with lofty goals and a heavy handed "teacher".  So much was right with this movie.  The writing, the acting, the direction and cinematography were all spot-on.  JK Simmons won for best supporting actor, though I'm not sure he wasn't a lead.  What was particularly impressive was the young Miles Teller matching the veteran actor scene for scene.  Watching the two of them play off each other was mesmerizing and brilliant.  Ever since I saw Miles in THE SPECTACULAR NOW I expected great performances from him, and he hasn't let me down.  Great acting isn't enough to make a great movie.  The script and the exploration of each character's motivation is what makes this movie special.  The young drummer not wanting to be merely great, but striving to among the greatest of all time. His aspiration was to be artistically immortal and he was willing to make any sacrifice to attain that goal.  He'd practice and rehearse until his hands literally bled, he'd forgo love and intimacy if it interfered with his goals.  The teacher expecting nothing short of perfection from his musicians; instructing through fear, brutality, and psychological manipulation.  In the end, both know it's all about the music.  The only criticism I had was relating to the scenes not involving music.  The movie seemed to slow down sharply whenever they were out of the rehearsal room.   Perhaps because the film was so frantic and high speed 90% of the time, it really seemed to lag during remaining 10% of scenes.

2)  THE IMITATION GAME:  Only marginally edging out WHIPLASH, I enjoyed this movie a great deal.  Another bio-pic portraying the life of Alan Turing, a true genius, war hero, and father of Computer Science.  As in WHIPLASH the writing is extraordinary and the acting is off the charts.  I can't say I really recall any exceptional Benedict Cumberbatch performances previously, but he'll be cemented in my memory from here on out.  He captured the essence of a very complex character.  He brilliantly showed us what it must be like to to have a singular mind, to be driven, to be misunderstood, and to be at odds with oneself and with the world.  Keira Knightley, who's never afraid to take risks, shines as the female genius mathematician who motivates, inspires, challenges, and ultimately humanizes the awkward and socially retarded Turing.  I ranked this film higher simply because the scope and range was so much greater.  It was a "bigger" movie.  What I didn't care for was the relatively short shrift given to the fact of Turing's homosexuality.   Ultimately he was ostracized and chemically castrated for his "sin" of homosexuality.  I think that was a big part of who he was, and to me it was incompletely addressed, almost rushed, as an afterthought, very late in the film.

1)  BIRDMAN:  What can I say, I loved this movie and was elated it won so many awards.  I have had friends tell me it was boring, claustrophobic, silly, and even "unwatchable".  I can't possibly disagree more vehemently.  I admit that I'm drawn to actor driven movies and BIRDMAN was definitely that.  There is little I enjoy more in film then strong acting performances.  Of course writing is critical and the value of a good director can't be over-estimated.  BIRDMAN was directed by the supremely artistic Alejandro Gonzalex Inarritu, who also directed 21 GRAMS, another of my all-time favorites.  He's a director who really has a clear vision about what his film should be, and it's always unique.  He's also a collaborative director who seems to love actors.  His initial intent was to film the entire movie in one single take.  While that didn't happen, many of the shots are long and uninterrupted, giving the feel of a single take.  Nearly the entire film takes place in and around a Broadway stage; up and down small corridors and in cramped backstage rooms.  I truly appreciate the artistic vision and groud-breaking risk taking evident in this film.  To say BIRDMAN is unique is a real understatement.  Michael Keaton portrays Riggan, a washed up actor known almost exclusively for being the character Birdman, in a string of comic-book movies.  In an effort to redefine his career and his life, to be "more",  Riggan directs and stars in a Broadway play.  A play he's invested his life savings in.  Riggan is a deeply flawed and supremely complex character.  Keaton's portrayal ranges from subtle glimpses in to the psyche of Riggan to grand, over the top, outbursts.   Because of the extreme range of emotion and arc of character I'd have voted for Keaton to win the best actor award.  I really felt like I got to know, like, and understand Riggan.  The always amazing Ed Norton and Emma Stone round out the cast with equally extraordinary performances.  Naomi Watts was adequate as well, but in my opinion she was the most forgettable of the characters.  I admit there are elements to this movie the viewer just has to accept.  An open mind is a must to enjoy this film.   I'm not a huge fan of movies with open endings.  I understand a writer or director might want us to think, to decide for ourselves what a movie means; in fact, that's what good art should do.  However, I don't typically enjoy having to decide what happened in the end.  I hope that's not too much of a spoiler.

In my next blog I will try to come up with a few "In case you missed it" movies I enjoyed in 2014.  I will also try to comment on a few more movies during the course of the upcoming year.

I welcome any comments about any of the movies discussed.  Feel free to disagree about anything.  Movies are art and there are no right opinions.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Godzilla- God NO

The trailers for this movie had my hopes high.  While the reviews have been decent overall I was quite disappointed in this movie, as I have been in so many this year.
The film starts interestingly enough, with a strong performance by the incredible Bryan Cranston.  However, the groundwork, well laid, leads nowhere fast.  Once Cranston exits the action, my interest exited as well.
The run time of 123 minutes seems like it should have been appropriate, but we don't actually see Godzilla until close to an hour in to the movie.  Which made the build up tedious.  Once the action starts we actually see more of the MUTO, secondary "monsters", then we do of Godzilla.  Godzilla ends up fighting these clumsy moth-like creatures, with gangly limbs, and less then powerful or menacing characteristics, in very forgettable, darkly lit, uninspired fight sequences.  Where the "monsters" come from, how they were reactivated, what they are trying to accomplish, where they are trying to go, and what the point is............it's all left murky at best.  I found it hard to follow, or care about, the plot.  The writing, the direction, the flow of the action sequences and fight scenes, and the acting were all poor.  Other then that though...........
Our hero, Ford, played by relative unknown Aaron Taylor-Johnson, deserves special mention.  He gives a performance that will soon be forgotten.... bordering on embarrassing.  He seemed far out of his depth and I'm sure will go back to being unknown very soon.  Most of the acting in this movie, apart from Cranston, was sub-par......... and that's being kind.  Even the talented Ken Watanabe was made to appear wooden.
I have a million other little things that annoyed me about this movie, but I think I'll adhere to "if you don't have anything nice to say don't say anything at all".
Maybe X-Men?

The Amazing Spider-Man 2

Sadly, I think I may be getting to old to fully enjoy the comic book action movies.  I'm finding it harder to be entertained and easier to be critical of this genre I've loved.
This new incarnation of Spider-Man, my favorite comic growing up, was a mediocre rehash of old material.  I found nothing much new or exciting.
It seemed to be me that the director just assumed we all know the back story of Spider-Man and his relationship to Gwen Stacey (adequately played by Emma Stone) and to Oscorp.  While it took quite a while for the action to build, it didn't feel like we really learned anything new or were made to care about the action to follow.
While Andrew Garfield is an acceptable Spider-Man, I didn't feel like he showed much range, for which I think we can blame the writing and direction.  Spider-Man's characteristic sarcasm and humor was in evidence and enjoyable.... just not enough to make up for the other gaps.  He's tormented by the loss of his parents and the strained personal relationships in his life, he's conflicted about the role Spider-Man has in the world, and yet there still seems to be little arc to his character.  Such fertile ground and so little fruit.  Still, he wasn't the problem.
I was most disappointed in Jamie Foxx.  His character Max, felt a lot like a bad rip off of Eddie Murphy's character in "Bowfinger".  His transformation to the villain Electro also left a lot to be desired.  He was far from menacing and looked, if you'll forgive the pun, cartoonish.  There was this odd bluish shimmer that was almost comical.
The typically spectacular Sally Field was completely wasted in her role as Aunt May.  I think she was plugged in to a few awkward scenes just to justify a paycheck.  Two young up and coming talents, Dane DeHaan and Felicity Jones (spectacular in "Like Crazy") could have been used more fully.  Dane did as much as he could with the material and I did enjoy his performance over all. I do look forward to watching more of their work in the future.
There was also very little natural flow to this movie.  The action seemed to jump around quite a bit.  Much was assumed and taken for granted.  While technically sound the Direction could have been far better.  I am not impressed by Marc Webb at all.
However, I did find many of the action sequences to be excellent.  The mixture of full speed hyper-kinetic action and slow motion was well used and inventive, if slightly over-used.  I saw this movie in 3D, which is how I think it was intended to be seen.  At least in the high flying, acrobatic, web swinging, action sequences the 3D worked very well and added to the sense of flight and magic.
Overall the movie was too long and too predictable.  It wasn't horrible, but for me, not as good as previous versions.
Bring on X-Men.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Draft Day- Select Netflix

The best thing I can say about this movie is that I didn't hate it.  Draft Day is another Kevin Costner sports film but nowhere near the quality of "Field of Dreams", "Bull Durham", or even "Tin Cup".  I know the reviews were pretty good, but the poor box office supports my overall disappointment in this film.  As a huge sports fan I had high hopes.

Basically this is a story about Sonny, played by Costner, the Brown's general manager, facing the NFL Draft.  The entire sports world and Cleveland are watching and criticizing his every move.  He's under enormous pressure both externally, and internally.  His owner and the Super Bowl winning coach are on his back, his love interest works with him, and even his Mom is pressuring him, along with seemingly everyone else.

I had issues with the lack of surprise and lack of believability.  I never had a doubt that Sonny would come up aces in the end.  I wasn't sure how, but I never once doubted the ultimate outcome.  Now, knowing there will be a happy ending isn't exactly a rare thing but in this case it really muted the tone and suspense for me.  I also knew, since we "met" so few athletes, that each would eventually have some meaningful part in the plot.  Nobody is "just there"....  Nobody to throw us off.  No suspense.

My other issue was the complete lack of character development and chemistry between characters.   The most interesting character, other then Sonny, was the team's owner, adequately played by Frank Langella.  There was just too little of him.  Sonny's Mom, and the issue surrounding his recently deceased father were poorly developed and merely distracting.  A peripheral story-line adding nothing.  Ellen Burstyn's performance was distractingly bad and contributed nothing to further the story.  Denis Leary plays the coach who actually quits the team because he disagrees with Sonny's choices.  As a sports fan this is beyond unbelievable.  No NFL coach would quit because of a perceived bad draft.  Of course he changes his mind in the end, but still.........  Jennifer Garner, the love interest and the team's "capologist", newly pregnant with Sonny's baby, has her moments but overall is window dressing.  The scenes involving her financial management role are interesting enough, but the pregnancy was just another peripheral story-line adding little.  In general I don't find her to be all that talented and this role did nothing to change my mind about her. "Dallas Buyer's Club" was my favorite movie last year but she was my least favorite part of it.  There was even a nerdy receptionist kid, who seemed to be an afterthought, again adding nothing.  I guess he was supposed to be the Jonah Hill of this movie but he came across as simply silly.   Costner himself was about what we've come to expect from him.  Adequate acting and charm, but he can only go as far as the material allows.

In my opinion this was a poor rip off of "Moneyball", a far superior film.  There was none of the intrigue, suspense, or insight.  I never felt like I was getting the hoped for peek behind the curtain, the way I did in "Moneyball".   So if you're a big Costner fan, or simply want to watch a sports movie, and have already seen "Moneyball" you can rent "Draft Day".

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

I saw this film with my 18 year old son.  Afterwards I asked him what he thought, and an he informed me that he liked it a lot.  I pressed him about what he liked exactly, hoping for some teen insight.  He simply replied "it was entertaining".
Well, he didn't know it at the time, but he pretty much nailed my primary criteria for liking or disliking a movie.  Was I entertained or not.
Quite simply Captain America: The Winter Soldier was entertaining, all 136 minutes of it.  I have to admit that in general I'm a fan of comic book movies, and movies that have to do with special powers and abilities.
The film was shot in bright futuristic color yet with a very modern "this could be real" feel.  The effects were believable but not so overwhelming as to feel stilted or overshadowing the action.  I particularly enjoyed a scene in which an SUV was the star.  The car responded to voice commands and "helped" Nick Fury, somewhat overacted by Samuel Jackson, survive an ambush.
To nit pick I did think some of the acting was weak.  In addition to SJ's hammy performance I thought Robert Redford seemed uncomfortable at best.   Chris Evans and Scarlett Johansson were adequate, even if the lines they were given were a bit Greeting Card.  Captain America's goody two shoes overt "I never lie" persona got to be a bit tedious.
The Winter Solider aka Bucky Barnes, played by Sebastian Stan was pretty cool.  His look and cold blooded assassin code, along with a metal arm, made him the ideal villain.  I did think he looked a lot more intimidating and menacing with the veil like mask, which was discarded too soon.
 I know good is supposed to prevail over evil, but this was so black and white it came across as corny.  I like my hero's to have at least a bit of an edge.  They don't have to be Wolverine, or even Spiderman, but Captain America would make Superman seem downright sinister.
So in a nutshell, it's a fun and entertaining movie.  Now bring on Spiderman.