Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring Review - 5/5

As the release of the third and final Hobbit film approaches, which presumably means the final film of any kind by Peter Jackson involving Middle Earth, I decided this would be an excellent time to give my Lord of the Rings trilogy blu rays a spin and go on the grand, sweeping journey with these characters once more...and what a journey it is indeed. The first installment, The Fellowship of the Ring, is a brilliantly paced blockbuster that manages to make every minute of its three hour running time feel vital and joyous rather than ponderous. For me, all three of these films still feel like an event rather than just another movie.

The other day I revisited the film A.I. Artificial Intelligence for the first time since it was released in 2001, and I mentioned that I didn't recall much from that year and that is a very truthful statement, but I do remember the magical cinematic experience The Fellowship of the Ring provided me each and every time I went back to the theater to be swept away into the majestic fantasy land beautifully crafted by Jackson. I am a sucker for work that is this epic in scope, especially those that value storytelling rather than merely an assault on the senses.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring is perfectly casted, and thus the performances enhance the magic of the entire experience. It was an ambitious project, adapting such an iconic work by J.R.R. Tolkien, and yet I can't imagine it could have been handled any better with every single aspect working in harmony with one another. The direction of Jackson, the photography of Andrew Lesnie, and the score by Howard Shore that suited the tone of every single scene so well, it is a beautiful film that is worthy of the adoration it still receives to this day.

Viewing these films has become essential for me to do on an annual basis, mostly because I love the feeling of relaxing inside on a cold night and letting the warmth of epic cinema wash over me. My 2014 quest to Mordor is off to a wonderful start.


Saturday, November 29, 2014

E-Team Review

There is a sequence during the Netflix Original documentary E-Team that felt very familiar to me at first glance, and I realized its striking similarities to a moment during the recent film The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 in which Katniss explores her former home after bombs had turned everything she found familiar to rubble. In E-Team an area that had been a place of relative normalcy only an hour earlier is now completely destroyed by bombs from above, an aerial strike on a residential location, women and children wounded, innocent lives lost. 

That particular moment in The Hunger Games is effective and emotionally stirring, sure, but in the end it is fiction. I get swept up in the narrative and buy into the story, but I can go home knowing that no actual harm was done. The destruction is a set designed by Hollywood, the bodies and bones all props placed carefully by professionals. What we see in E-Team is far too real, and it is painfully haunting. The documentary focuses on a team of people that are sent into areas that recently experienced horrific tragedies deemed emergencies, and the goal of the team is to investigate whether human rights of those impacted have been violated.

The cameras are rolling constantly almost like a found footage film, only this footage actually is legitimate and I considered the possibility at times that it would need to be found rather than returned safely. During a sequence or two, the camera is put down and not focused on any particular subject as planes fly overhead and bombs are being dropped nearby. It sounds awful to label such atrocities as entertaining because obviously I would prefer humanity wouldn't suffer such awfulness in order for me to see it, but it is during these tense moments that E-Team is nearly overwhelmingly compelling, as my eyes couldn't leave the screen even if I had tried.

I had to remind myself that the real point of the documentary isn't the atrocities themselves but to understand these people who risk their lives to investigate them, so while spending a decent amount of time focusing on the quieter moments of their lives away from the war zones may not have been as interesting, the decision to do so was necessary for the film to achieve its goals. I actually think the real flaw of E-Team is that it could have been a little bit longer, had a little bit more meat on its bones, because the subject matter felt heavier than the sub-90 minute running time was capable of showcasing. 

While documentaries such as this or the other Netflix originals I have seen like Virunga or last years incredible work The Square aren't particularly fun to watch in terms of their subject matter or message, they are important and riveting films that deserve our attention. I get to sit on this couch in a warm home in front of a beautiful LED screen. The least I can do is better understand what is happening in the world outside these walls and appreciate why these people went to such great and dangerous lengths to have these films made.


Friday, November 28, 2014

A.I. Artificial Intelligence Review

As the months on the calendar continue to fall off far too rapidly and the years start to sound more like a science fiction setting rather than the present, the year 2001 starts to remind me less of the Kubrick masterpiece and more of a time long since passed. While I recall the memories of things that will be impossible to forget, like the surreal day in September in which America was attacked, very little of what I personally experienced back then will register in my mind ever again. I was 17 years old and the days I lived then all blur together in a mess of underage alcohol consumption and raging hormones, but oddly enough I have carried a hatred for a specific film with me for over thirteen years now: A.I. Artificial Intelligence.

The strange part is, I could no longer even remember why I hated it so much. I had seen it with friends when it opened in June of 2001, and I recall walking in with expectations of a grand, wildly imaginative science fiction masterpiece, and walking out bitching about the ending and the way it was "too long" and "boring". All these years later and I still found myself scoffing at the film when I would see it receive praise, and it occurred to me that I have forgiven people I actually had reason to dislike back then in recent years. I have transformed from a turd teenager to a 30 year old man with a 7 year old daughter since my one and only viewing of A.I. Artificial Intelligence. Wasn't it about time I gave the film a second chance?

While still not a masterpiece, A.I. Artificial Intelligence is certainly grand and wildly imaginative and I feel a bit of shame for holding such an odd grudge for 13 years when I could have been revisiting it and discovering the reasons to embrace it instead. The original vision of this film came from the master himself Stanley Kubrick all the way back in the 1970's, but he simply could not get the project off the ground, having issues with the quality of special effects available to him. Kubrick felt that they would not be worthy to create the child android character of David appear human enough, which is mandatory for the narrative. It wasn't until 1995 when Kubrick decided to hand the project off to good friend Steven Spielberg, and even then nothing moved forward until Kubrick passed away in 1999. 

While Kubrick never got the chance to see his finished vision finally put to celluloid, I now believe he would have been proud of what Spielberg achieved. I was blown away by how strong the visuals of the film stand up in 2014, which seems like a silly statement when referring to a film only released 13 years ago, but the progression of the quality of effects available continues to unfold rapidly and yet A.I. feels as if it could be put into cinemas today and no one would ever know the difference. The performances of Haley Joel Osment and Jude Law are hauntingly on point for the android roles they are playing, and the Pinocchio inspired story is constantly compelling and heartbreaking, which is ironic because while I shed tears for the pain of David, in truth David is feeling no pain. He has no heart, he has no soul, and yet I wanted nothing more than for him to find the blue fairy and become a real boy. If Kubrick picked Spielberg because he felt he was the correct choice to make the audience connect so deeply with something not human, much the way we did with an alien in E.T., than he certainly got it right. While the film may suffer from a small amount of flaws, the depth of how I connected to it on an emotional level was not one of them.

Speaking of those flaws, only one thing I recall feeling way back in 2001 still registered with me this time around and that is with the pacing. I don't know what it is exactly, but I was totally invested in the first and second acts of the film, but by the third act which takes place in a far distant future I felt myself fading away from the work a bit. A.I Artificial Intelligence went from a riveting, joyous ride to a bit of a lean back in my seat and check the clock to see how much more was left experience, and I cannot be certain whether this is truly the fault of the film or if I should be taking issue with myself as the viewer. I suppose a third viewing will be what makes or breaks this issue with my drifting away during the final thirty or so minutes.

Also, while it only comprises of about seven seconds of screen time, there is a sequence where Chris Rock does a voice cameo and it really feels out of place. I don't understand creative decisions like this, because it really wasn't amusing and it certainly didn't add anything to the film and yet it was a jarring reminder that I was indeed just watching a movie. I prefer to let the experience overtake me, when I lose sight of what is fact and what is fiction and instead just get swept away in the story, but little things like celebrity cameos meant for nothing more than a giggle or a talking point don't sit right. 

As a massive fan of the science fiction genre, I will not be quickly moving A.I. Artificial Intelligence to the top of any all time lists, but I certainly regret not finding time for a second viewing sooner and recognizing how silly my hatred was. For the most part this is a masterfully handled film with depth and passion seeping out of every pore. If you are like me with this or any other highly regarded picture, carrying with you the negative energy of a bad cinematic experience for years, I suggest you sit down with an open mind and give it a second chance. I'm thrilled I did.


Wednesday, November 26, 2014

No Country for Old Men Review

"The crime you see now, it's hard to even take its measure. It's not that I'm afraid of it. I always knew you had to be willing to die to even do this job. But, I don't want to push my chips forward and go out and meet something I don't understand. A man would have to put his soul at hazard. He'd have to say, "O.K., I'll be part of this world.""

No Country for Old Men is a true masterpiece, a film that is so brilliantly directed, written, photographed and acted that it demands multiple viewings in order to be truly appreciated. On the surface this is the story of a man named Llewelyn Moss who comes upon the scene of a drug deal gone wrong, the aftermath being a number of dead bodies and two million dollars in cash. Two very different men begin searching for Moss and the missing money, Ed Tom Bell and Anton Chigurh.

Bell is the local Sheriff, a man who embodies the concept of old school, a representation of days gone by. He is the law yet not once does he have the opportunity to stand in the way of evil. A man whom has experienced pure evil first hand, yet as the years wear him down he cannot adapt to the world changing around him or the enhanced threats that are born from it. Ed Tom Bell is always a step behind.

Anton Chigurh is evil personified, a character that ranks amongst my favorite villains in cinematic history. Something about the man doesn't feel quite right, and I don't simply mean his demeanor or willingness to kill anything in his way. Set against the backdrop of the lifeless landscapes of Texas in 1980, in a strange way Chigurh almost feels futuristic. His wardrobe and his weapon appear to be ahead of the times. He is an assassin who embraces every opportunity to spill blood yet he fears the idea of it getting on his shoes. He is a representation of what the Sheriff cannot begin to understand. Anton Chigurh makes life or death decisions literally with the flip of a coin. Anton Chigurh is fate, an undeniable future, and the law of the land is incapable of stopping it.

I know the ending of this film is a source of much controversy, as many didn't care for the fact that it seemed abrupt and without a definitive conclusion. I am not one of these people. No Country for Old Men is not a story that demands some sort of final epic battle between good and evil. Such a thing would completely fly in the face of the entire point of the film. The first time I experienced this triumphant slice of cinema, when the final frame quickly turned to black, I wanted to stand up and cheer for what the Coen brothers had achieved.

Seven years and multiple viewings later, I am still filled with a tremendous sense of joy as the credits begin to roll. Despite my love for this work, I can't help but feel like it will be many more years and revisits before I truly comprehend the perfection of No Country for Old Men.


Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Genius Directors - Stanley Kubrick

Despite being a fan (to say the least) of Stanley Kubrick and his films, I didn't quite grasp the level of brilliance he achieved during his career until I visited his IMDB page recently and really soaked in the list of his work. The man was essentially a masterpiece machine, and what impresses me even more is that he wasn't a one trick pony who mastered a genre and stuck with it.

In 1957 he released the devastating film Paths of Glory, an anti-war story of a troop of soldiers who refuse to follow through with a suicidal attack and are thus charged with the war crime of cowardice, a potential sentence of death at the hands of their own country they trusted with their lives. In 1960 Kubrick was at the helm of the historical epic Spartacus, a film twice as long as Paths of Glory and far grander in scope. In 1964 the world was lucky enough to witness the absolutely brilliant anti-war satirical comedy Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, which I consider to be one of the greatest comedies ever released.

His next film after Dr. Strangelove is considered by many to be not only the greatest science fiction film of all time, but perhaps the greatest period. 2001: A Space Odyssey is without a doubt my favorite work of Kubrick and sits comfortably in my top ten films of all time, an abstract and polarizing cinematic behemoth that is designed to confound and challenge the audience, and it succeeds as even after double digit viewings I can merely present my hypothesis on the meaning of the film rather than absolutes.

Skip ahead all the way to 1980 when one of the truly iconic horror classics was released, The Shining, a film that not only scares the shit out of viewers but also has left a lasting legacy on pop culture and anyone who has allowed the haunting imagery to linger in their minds. Next was Full Metal Jacket in 1987, another Kubrick anti-war classic that plays in two jarringly different acts, the first at boot camp as we witness the mental breakdown of Leonard Lawrence, more famously known by the nickname Gomer Pyle, and the second act allows us to witness the awfulness of the Vietnam war. Full Metal Jacket is a wonderful movie as a whole, but the first act at boot camp and the final scene of the film are the two aspects that will forever stay with me.

Finally, twelve years later in 1999, sadly Kubrick's final and most misunderstood masterpiece was released, Eyes Wide Shut, a film that literally gave me nightmares after seeing it. If you sit down to watch Eyes Wide Shut because you are looking for nudity and the infamous orgy scene, don't bother. Sure, those aspects are indeed there, but if your main goal is to be aroused by the experience you are sure to be disappointed, as the narrative of this film is instead a giant advertisement for the positives of monogamy, a slice of cinema that left me feeling anything but sexy.

Amazingly, all these films I mentioned and I didn't even cover Barry Lyndon or A Clockwork Orange, considered to be two of the finer films ever released. That is how brilliant the filmography of Stanley Kubrick.

Ranking his work is a tall order, but here is my attempt to do so:

1. 2001: A Space Odyssey
2. Eyes Wide Shut
3. The Shining
4. Full Metal Jacket
5. Dr. Strangelove
6. Paths of Glory
7. Barry Lyndon
8. A Clockwork Orange
9. Spartacus

Not listed are those I have (sadly) never seen, his first feature from 1953 titled Fear and Desire, the 1955 film The Killer's Kiss, The Killing from 1956 and Lolita from 1962. A part of me feels ashamed to still have these four films to experience before I can truly understand everything the man accomplished, but the other part of me is thrilled to have Kubrick work left to discover.

Eyes Wide Shut Review

This was not my first viewing of Eyes Wide Shut but it nevertheless felt like an eye opening experience. After I finished the film very early this morning, I headed off to bed to get some sleep. With the window open next to me, I was sure I heard an ominous noise outside and I jumped to my feet to take a look. Nothing. Silence. I tried to convince myself that there was nothing to worry about, yet as I laid there I couldn't shake the feeling that I was being watched. I was certain that someone was out there, residing calmly in the darkness, waiting for me to drift off into vulnerability.

Once I finally did, I had a pretty vivid and disturbing nightmare regarding the safety of my loves one. I woke in a panic in the middle of the night, reminding myself that reality was still as mundane as our suburban slumber. It was merely a dream. Is it possible that these images that haunted my subconscious happened on this night, after this film coincidentally? Absolutely. I have no proof otherwise. Personally though, I believe I was soaked in the atmosphere Kubrick created. I believe I absorbed the paranoia of Dr. Bill Harford (Tom Cruise).

When this film was released in 1999, I recall it being touted as something that would be endlessly sexy, a dream come true for my hormonal 15 year old self. At the time I didn't appreciate what it really meant to be a Kubrick film, but had I known I wouldn't have believed the hype that this picture was meant to sexually arouse the audience. The irony of a work that features numerous nude women, prostitutes and an orgy is that in the end, it feels like a giant advertisement for the benefits of monogamy.

While not sexy, Eyes Wide Shut is without a doubt one of the creepiest films I have ever seen. I am seldom impressed by the horror genre, and such films rarely keep me up at night or make me consider the possibility that someone is watching me, but the hypnotic world created by Kubrick along with the simplistic yet utterly perfect musical score had my nerves fried, my stomach unsettled and my skin crawling, especially during the infamous mansion sequence.

I recall this film being deemed a lesser Kubrick upon its release, which was also the final work of the genius auteur. Perhaps a victim of a marketing campaign that wanted to focus on a beautiful real life couple doing sexy things together on camera, it seems as if those that entered the cinema initially had their perversions disappointed and thus couldn't connect to what was actually presented. Not only do I disagree with anything about Eyes Wide Shut being lesser, it very well might be one of the finest efforts from a man who seemingly crafted masterpieces with ease.

I doubt anyone was actually watching me last night as I attempted to count sheep. It seems absurd to even consider such a thing, but what proves the power of this work is that I still feel like I can't be sure. It may take quite a few more viewings to fully appreciate the density of this film, and perhaps every time I will lose a bit of a sleep that night. I am willing to embrace the nightmares.


Monday, November 24, 2014

The Theory of Everything Review

Stephen Hawking truly is a remarkable man. His achievements, especially while fighting his battle with ALS since he was diagnosed at the age of 21, are beyond extraordinary. He has literally changed the way the world thinks and has provided humanity with a better understanding of existence. Just trying to comprehend his Wikipedia page gives me a headache because it is so vastly consumed with career accolades and discoveries and important personal life information.

Thus, you can imagine my disappointment when his biopic The Theory of Everything turned out to be rather unremarkable.

It isn't a bad film by any means. In fact, it is quite good, but it also constantly felt safe and familiar, like I had seen it all before. Reminding me very much of the tone and beats of the former Best Picture winner A Beautiful Mind, in a year when I have been challenged by the ambition and scope of films like Interstellar and Boyhood, nothing about the story or the filmmaking during The Theory of Everything felt audacious and unique enough to really leave a lasting impression.

I actually found myself a tad annoyed during the film by the usage of lighting, as I found techniques that are often times used more subtly during films to be ridiculously on the nose, specifically during the more well lit, positive moments. I noticed the opposite during various scenes, like when the bad news of Stephen's illness is delivered to his girlfriend, and the frame was overwhelmed by the drabness of a lifeless blue, a cold setting for a moment deserving of it, but I didn't find this to be jarring or bothersome. However, during joyous moments, like the first time Hawking holds his baby or a later sequence when he sees the woman he loves, sunlight pours in through the windows and makes the subjects in the frame glow almost angelically. Instead of merely demonstrating warmth through color and sunlight, director James Marsh forced me to practically squint in order to follow the scene. I appreciate using mise-en-scène to set the mood, but this went above and beyond and felt forced rather than natural.

On a performance level though, that is a whole other story with The Theory of Everything and worthy of any award recognition that is sure to come. Felicity Jones is excellent as the first wife of Hawking, Jane Wilde, and she perfectly compliments the show stealing, sublime performance by Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking. Without yet seeing this film, I picked Redmayne to walk away with the Oscar for this role based on early word of mouth alone, and now that I have experienced the performance I will not be changing that pick. At his worst, Redmaybe was excellent, and at his best he WAS Stephen Hawking. I was blown away by the transformation and the authenticity that he brought to the screen, it truly is something special that everyone must see to appreciate.

The Theory of Everything finds itself running with the top dogs towards award season, and the best analogy I can make as to why I feel it doesn't belong in the Best Picture hunt involves figure skating at the Olympics. Some films out there are going on that ice and attempting the most challenging, innovative routines, understanding that to slip a little or not land a move perfectly is acceptable when the overall product is extraordinary. The Theory of Everything is the skater who goes out and plays it safe and simple in order to land everything perfectly, technically a fine show but no one will remember it for years to come.

Except, of course, for those performances. Eddie Redmayne? Give him the damn trophy now.


Sunday, November 23, 2014

Night of the Living Dead Review

"They're coming to get you, Barbara!"

Every damn person on the planet knows what a zombie is. I am pretty sure if you asked a baby that was born earlier today what a zombie was, they would be like "Oh sure, zombies. When is the next season of The Walking Dead?", and the current blast of zombie popularity can absolutely be attributed to the overwhelming success of the television series. Long before Zack Snyder made them track stars or AMC began dominating Sunday night ratings, the genius who is the real man to thank for the fascination with zombies was crafting brilliant, scary, satirical gems. That man was George A. Romero.

Night of the Living Dead was the first and in my opinion also the greatest work involving zombies ever created. Released in 1968, the film takes place over the course of one day and night and for the most part takes place in one brilliantly utilized single setting, a house that both feels like salvation and also a prison, facing a sentence of an unknown time frame as no one knows what is happening to the people infected and no resolution is in sight.

An explanation of the plot or breaking down the various technical aspects of filmmaking will not properly explain one of the main reasons why I admire Night of the Living Dead so much. This is a groundbreaking feature for a few major reasons beyond the simplicity of its place in horror or, more specifically, zombie cinema history. The two leads of this film are a a white female protagonist and an African-American male protagonist. Remember the release date I mentioned above? 1968. Not only are they they leads, but the African-American takes control of the house and the situation and is often times bossing around the white men inside the home with him. The interesting thing is, the part wasn't originally written to be specifically a black male, which makes the decision to cast Duane Jones for the role that much more fascinating and progressive. Romero says he simply chose to cast the person best for the role, and Jones was it, and in the 1960's to ignore color and not worry about the potential backlash over the decision is beyond admirable, it's remarkable.

If you think you love zombies but have never seen the Romero zombie films, especially where it all started with Night of the Living Dead or the follow up Dawn of the Dead released a decade later, do so immediately. In 2009, Spike TV honored Romero with the "Mastermind Award", and it was presented by Quentin Tarantino who pronounced that the middle initial A in Romero's name stood for "A fucking genius."

Well said, Quentin. Couldn't agree more.


The Hungers Games: Mockingjay Part 1 Review

I have said it before and I will say it again, I totally respect and appreciate the fact that everyone is entitled to their own opinion. Art is pointless without discussion, without debate, without passion, because if everyone constantly agreed on the quality of it then what the hell is the point? So by no means am I telling anyone they are wrong or that their thoughts are invalid when I say the following: I can't comprehend the negativity that has surrounded The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1, at least on a critical level. 

Some may see the "fresh" overall ranking on a site on Rottentomatoes and wonder what negativity I am referring to, but if you take a closer look at many of the reviews posted, there seems to be this consistent rhetoric regarding this film being a lazy cash grab and many seem to find it boring. The general idea behind the cash grab notion is because of the decision to split the final novel into two films where as they were able to make well paced and compelling single films out of the first two, and I will be totally honest, prior to seeing Mockingjay Part 1, I had assumed I would be bothered by this exact thing. I read all the Hunger Games novels prior to me seeing any of the films, and I recall being a tad underwhelmed by Mockingjay after being thrilled by every damn page of Catching Fire. When the announcement came that the final piece of the source material would be split apart, I rolled my eyes and assumed the worst because I didn't believe the first half of Mockingjay was worthy of being its own film, but I gotta tell ya...I was wrong.

Was the pacing of Mockingjay Part 1 perfect? No, a little bit of fat could have been trimmed off the edges for sure. There may have been a scene or two that could have found their way to the cutting room floor without harming the narrative, although to be honest at this moment I couldn't tell you what I would have cut myself. Without a doubt though, this film didn't flow quite as wonderfully as its predecessor Catching Fire did, but regardless the decision to make two films was absolutely the correct one. Knowing what is yet to come when the conclusion of this franchise arrives next year, there is simply far too much content worthy of finding its way to the screen for them to have made an audience friendly 150 minute or less feature without rushing through the material. I'm glad they chose to let the environment, the dialogue and the stakes of the revolution breathe. 

Being bored is such a subjective response to a film because one man's trash is another man's treasure. I was fascinated by the back and forth war taking place during Mockingjay Part 1, and I don't mean merely bullets and bombs but also the trade off of political propaganda in attempts to sway the momentum of the movement. The footage used to rally the districts, the coaching of words to incite the highest amount of passion, all of it was well written and totally compelling, and I found that the film pretty much flew by and I never once felt fatigued by the progression of the story nor did I want it to end. 

Director Francis Lawrence had already proven to me that he was the right choice to helm the remainder of the Hunger Games franchise after I fell in love with Catching Fire, and that opinion was reinforced with his confident and smart direction on display here. The imagery on display throughout balances the modern and crisp essence of 21st century filmmaking with the gritty and dour vibe of the setting and mood wonderfully. The performances were yet again on point, and the talent on display with the usual suspects from the previous installments combined with additions like Julianne Moore and Natalie Dormer made it impossible not to find the dialogue interesting. Oh, and Philip Seymour Hoffman...if he were my professor in school, regardless of the subject matter, I would have gotten an A. When he spoke, I listened, and while I usually don't dwell on the loss of actors for too long, it is still surreal to know he is gone and the days of seeing him absolutely own a frame are soon drawing to a close. 

I have a feeling that the reception to The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 is going to change drastically once the final film is released, when it becomes apparent that the somewhat methodical pace of the first act was actually a perfect lead in to the chaos and tragedy that rears its ugly head during part two. This may not end up making a top ten, top twenty, hell who knows, maybe even a top thirty list from me once I screen everything I desire to from 2014, but the only thing that matters right now just keeps dancing through my head: I can't wait to see the final chapter unfold. 


Friday, November 21, 2014

Spirited Away Review

If you are not familiar with the work of the legendary master of animation Hiyao Miyazaki, look up his filmography and start from the beginning. Actually, it would be a safe bet to just watch every film released by Studio Ghibli, which Miyazaki co-founded in 1985. While not every movie released by the studio has been flawless, in general the production company has put out some wonderful, imaginative work, and in my opinion their two greatest achievements are two of the finest in the history of animated cinema: My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away.

Spirited Away is, quite simply, an incredible piece of art, one of the finest, most detailed examples of why hand drawn animation will always burst to life in a way that computer animation is unable to. I could pause every frame of this film and admire the remarkable craftsmanship that went into it's production, as even the smallest detail in the farthest corner of the screen was treated with importance and care. My seven year old daughter sat in awe of every single minute of Spirited Away and I was right beside her feeling that same sense of wonder all over again.

Spirited Away tells the story of a 10 year old girl named Chihiro and her parents as they are on their way to their new home, but one wrong turn has them exploring an abandoned amusement park instead. The magical, mystifying world Chihiro finds herself in soon after cannot be explained by my words, and really it shouldn't. You just need to see it for yourself, but every moment is full of imagination and creativity and thematic richness that hides behind a simple tale of a young girl trying to find a way back to her parents and the world she knows.

There is a scene at one point that takes place on a train, and I don't mean to build it up as some major action packed event because it isn't. Very little technically occurs during this sequence, and yet it may be my favorite few minutes of any animated film ever. The music, the beautiful animation, the fact that the surreal scenery reminds me of a dream I once had and wish I could have all adds up to pure perfection. It is a small segment of the film, just a few minutes, and it is sublime in its simplicity.

I will continue to waffle on whether My Neighbor Totoro or Spirited Away is the true Miyazaki masterpiece, but honestly it may be a tie, and that's not so bad right? Why pick one when you can watch both?

If you haven't yet, do it. Watch them both. You won't regret it.


300: Rise of an Empire Review

If you went and eliminated every moment of slow motion in 300: Rise of an Empire, just kinda played the entire movie at normal speed, I'm pretty confident it would be roughly 26 minutes long.
I can't comprehend how a director thinks showing action in super slow motion is cool. I just don't get it. The only reason that technique should be used is if the thing you are showing me deserves to have that extra time devoted to it, because either an intricately designed set piece plays a role or because what happens is so mind blowing that showing it quickly doesn't do it justice. The Matrix is a perfect example of slow motion that not only works, it was flat out necessary. We needed to see Neo literally bend over backwards to avoid bullets in the slowest possible fashion to truly appreciate it.

Every damn sequence of this film involving grotesque violence is slowed down so that we can see every drop of blood flying through the air, and trust me, there is plenty to see, and frankly it makes the entire experience boring. I have seen people getting cut with giant swords in movies before, and the visual style that made audiences flip their shit back in 2006 when the first 300 was released is no longer a reason to drop 12 dollars on a ticket at the cinema. Nothing that happened during 300: Rise of an Empire was all that interesting and it certainly is never as awesome as it thinks it is.

Action movie directors, take notice: go watch The Raid: Redemption and The Raid 2 by Gareth Evans. How do you make an epic blood bath blow your mind? By making it reach through the television and kick your own ass just by watching the movie. The pace of The Raid films is electric, so intense, so non-stop that it is exhausting to watch and I love every second of those gems. You can practically feel the punches and kicks as they land, and despite laying on a couch and eating cheetos the entire film, you can't help but feel sore in the end.

300: Rise of an Empire can splash as much blood on me as it wants, it doesn't save it from being boring and a perfect example of all style without even attempting substance. Speaking of the splashing, I lost count how many times I rolled my eyes at the fact that at least 60 percent of the movie was done specifically to sell 3D tickets. Giant weapon flies at the screen, look out! Blood spills out towards me, oh no! Arrow soars through the air right at my face, the horror!

It's lame and a bad sign for the confidence in the film if every stupid scene is crafted in a way to make people pay a couple extra dollars per ticket. I was never a huge fan of the first 300, but at least I can quote some of the famous lines of dialogue and I recall being impressed by various scenes. I will not remember a single thing from 300: Rise of an Empire going forward.


Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire Review

Despite the mostly positive critical response to the first film as well as obvious commercial success, director Gary Ross did not return to continue the franchise, and in walked Francis Lawrence and with him some expected skepticism. I certainly felt it and questioned whether he was the right man for the job, with a filmography consisting of the films Constantine, I Am Legend and Water for Elephants, it was hard to immediately rally behind the choice and assume it would result in the Catching Fire adaptation I had been hoping for. While I was pleased a different cinematic mind would be getting a crack at utilizing the talent involved at a higher level than Ross achieved with the debut, was Francis Lawrence really cut out for this hyped, much anticipated project?

The answer proved to be a resounding yes. Everything about Catching Fire is an improvement from the first. More confident and comfortable performances from the entire cast, as well as great additions to the film like Jeffrey Wright, Jena Malone, Amanda Plummer, Sam Claflin, and of course the late great Philip Seymour Hoffman. In fact, as soon as I heard the news of Seymour Hoffman being added to the cast, my confidence in the entire film skyrocketed. He was a man of transcendent talent and his mere presence in a frame made everything around him seem stronger, and he is and will continue to be missed.

The stakes in this film are higher, the tension has intensified and the direction of the story has gone to more mature heights, as while a similar round of the "games" is played like in the first film, the actually central focus of this narrative is more on the external games being played by President Snow in the Capitol and Katniss and her people as her story of love and ascension as the Mockingjay, a symbol of hope and decency and compassion and strength, sparks a revolution in all of the districts she tours as the previous years winner of the games.

Speaking of the actual games that take place in Catching Fire, the "arena" is not only bigger and bolder and more interesting than it was in the first film, it is also far more aesthetically pleasing, a glorious site on the big screen as it was filmed with IMAX cameras and it still maintains its piercing picturesque appeal on a flat screen at home. The transition from the first act of the film to the games is smooth and the pacing never falters throughout, a running time of nearly 150 minutes and yet I never feel it as I watch the film, it always flies by as every single moment is, quite simply, really god damn entertaining. 

Despite this being my 3rd or 4th time watching Catching Fire in the one year since its release, I still found myself just as enthralled and excited by the entire film as I did that first time in the theater last November. You could argue some of the same issues I found during the first film pop up again here, like a screenplay that doesn't fully flesh out the details for an audience that is unfamiliar with the source material, but I am willing to give this more of a pass as it is a sequel. Francis Lawrence was given an opportunity to work with what was built for him, to take fans of the first film and make them fall in love with the direction of the series, and at least in my case he absolutely nailed it.


Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Hunger Games Review

Film appreciation is such a subjective thing, as no matter how talented a filmmaker is or how seemingly perfect a screenplay can be, we see what we see and thus, we like what we like. In regards to the two installments of the Hunger Games franchise, I have seen such wide ranging reactions to the films ranging from it being the greatest thing ever made to one of the worst, and what I try to do when I really break a movie down is separate myself from the hyperbole in either direction.

I decided now was a good time to revisit these two films, with the release of the third (but not final, because every damn franchise needs to a two part conclusion) movie coming this weekend. The complaint I have heard most often regarding the first film has come from those who have not read the books in advance, and it is that the screenplay doesn't do a good enough job to teach the viewers about the basics of the story, like why are some districts thriving while others are rationing food? What exactly is the arena they fight in? What technology is at the disposal of these games makers exactly, as they are clearly able to start fires and create giant dog creatures out of, essentially, thin air?

As I was familiar with the source material prior to seeing the first film when it was released in 2012, it was easy for me to put together the pieces and follow the story so I didn't really absorb the possibility that it would be difficult for others, but the truth is, those complaints are absolutely valid. The screenplay does seem to take for granted the notion that not everyone sitting in the audience will have read the books, and that is a shame because the film really should be able to completely stand on its own without any confusion from the audience.

The sequences involving the love triangle were among my least favorite in The Hunger Games. I still can't comprehend why we are cutting away from the arena to see her male friend/potential lover Gale back at home pouting about their relationship status. The fact that she could be dead at any minute seems to take a back seat with him apparently, and I found having to see his face get all sad over her television romance with Peeta was a lame addition to the film, something that easily could be saved for the start of the second installment.

That being said, The Hunger Games is still a very good film because everything it does right far outweighs the negatives. The casting is inspired across the board, with Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen obviously stealing the show in the lead role. That scene just before Katniss goes up into the arena, as Cinna tries to comfort her? That, for me, is the finest sequence in the entire film, and very little of it has to do with words spoken. The way her body trembles in fear, the look in her eyes as she is about to rise into what will almost certainly be her is a sublime performance.

I love the way sound is utilized during certain portions of the film, like the very start of the games. The chaos taking place is allowed to overwhelm us visually without any noise, making the violence that much more jarring. Also, I appreciate the way this film clearly sets up a sequel but also manages to work independently, merely leading down a path rather than making it a focal point. A character death inside the arena sparks the beginning of a revolution back in her district, and the emotional weight of this scene is effectively heavy and beautifully handled. Rather than diverting away from the central core of the film this is just a quick glimpse into something that will be expanded on later on.

The Hunger Games is a good but not great book that was adapted into a good but not great movie, an effective and entertaining way to kick off a franchise.


Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Following Review

Sixteen years before he dazzled audiences with the ambitious film Interstellar, Christopher Nolan put out his debut film Following, and while the scope of his work continues to grow and the budgets of his blockbusters continue to balloon, the talent displayed with his first feature is undeniable.

Told rather rapidly in a non-linear fashion, Following for the most part focuses on two men, one named Bill who has a habit of following strangers for observation purposes, and another named Cobb who catches Bill in the act. Cobb is a burglar who decides to teach Bill about his breaking and entering techniques. Much like the visual palette of the film, nothing about these actors or the characters they are portraying are flashy, but for an extremely low budget feature (a whopping six thousand dollar production budget), all of the pieces fit together to make Following an enjoyable, twisty treat. 

This was my second time watching this Nolan thriller and it was just as much fun watching it all unfold again as it was the first time. Also, Following is hard to resist given its running time of only 70 minutes. Too tired to stay awake through a 150+ minute epic? Only a little while until you need to be somewhere? Are you a Netflix streaming subscriber? If any or all of these apply to you, give Following a look and see where it all began for one of the most famous directors working today.


Monday, November 17, 2014

Virunga Review

For many, myself included, watching a movie is looked at as a wonderful distraction from the troubles of reality, and thus documentary filmmaking can be a difficult pill to swallow depending on the subject matter. I find that I need to be in the right mood to sit down and watch real people deal with real issues and feel real pain, which is why you will never see me waffling between whether to watch Star Wars, Pacific Rim, Guardians of the Galaxy or a hard hitting documentary about assisted suicide.

While you won't find many, or for that matter any documentaries listed near the top of my favorite films of all time list, I refuse to shy away from the experience and knowledge obtained from a non-fiction narrative. Each year a handful or more of truly special documentary films are released, and to not seek those out and see the world from a different perspective is a shame. Earlier this year I got the chance to see the film Life Itself, a documentary about the life and death of quite possibly the most beloved and recognizable film critic Roger Ebert, and it is a truly inspired work that paints a real, honest picture of his existence. It was a joy to experience the small glimpses into his life and his family, and the tears I shed over their loss in the end were the icing on an unforgettable cake. 

While Life Itself was without a doubt the strongest documentary I have seen thus far from 2014, I have now watched 11 total released this year and all of them have been solid, admirable films, the most recent of which is titled Virunga. A Netflix original documentary, Virunga focuses on a brave group of rangers whose goal is protect Virunga National Park, located in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The park has been subjected to war, animal poaching and a British company called Soco International exploring the possibilities of finding oil at the site, and the film is at its absolute best when it focuses on a man named André Bauma who cares for and looks after the gorillas that live inside the park. It is heart breaking to see these animals scared and sometimes killed, and watching men put their own lives on the line to protect the park and the creatures that inhabit it is inspiring and compelling stuff.

Where Virunga misses the mark for me is when the film takes a detour away from the park and the chaos taking place inside it and instead uses undercover camera footage and interviews to detail the heartless motivation of the company Soco International, as we literally hear and see their plans to take the park and the lack of empathy they feel for the people and animals that care deeply for the land. On its own this material is technically very compelling and I understand the reason for it, as it directly ties into the fate of Virunga National Park, but this section of the film feels so different and out of place compared to our time in the park that I found it jarring, as if it killed the beautiful flow of the narrative established early on. 

Even with its flaws, Virunga is a very good film and absolutely worth a watch, but when I went into the experience I was hoping to feel the way I did after watching the Netflix original Oscar nominated documentary from 2013 The Square, a film that confidently maintained its singular focus throughout and knocked my socks off with the haunting feeling of actually being inside a war zone. Plenty of the footage from Virunga did elicit a similar reaction from me, with a knot in my throat and my heart rate elevated as bullets literally fly past these brave rangers and camera operators, but I wanted more of these people and their passionate plight and less of an exposé about a shady oil company. I understand the choice to include the footage and information, but the pacing and fluidity of the film took a hit as a result.


Sunday, November 16, 2014

Interstellar Review

My adoration for Christopher Nolan as a filmmaker does not manifest blindly, despite what many people may assume as all I see around the internet is the term "fanboy" thrown out any time a rave Nolan review pops up. My eyes are open while I experience his films and if the time shall come in which his work truly disappoints, I will feel it and accept it. It just hasn't happened yet, and Interstellar certainly isn't the one to let me down. In fact, after my revisit yesterday, this time in front of a majestic IMAX screen, I am confident that this is not only the most ambitious work of his career, it is also his best.

Christopher Nolan does not make flawless films, let's make that clear. I do not believe he is a one man masterpiece machine or that he walks on water, but I love his filmography and the power it has over me because the man is a grand, ambitious entertainer. He is a man of big ideas and big execution, and any flaws that may pop up during films like Interstellar or Inception are easily forgivable because I admire the desire to dream big and present a grand vision at the expense of perceived perfection.

I realized long ago that I am a man who embraces the all important second viewing of a film, because for whatever reason my brain seems to process more of the details once I already know what is coming, once I am allowed to just sit back and lose myself in the ride rather than try to guess what happens next. I had minor issues with aspects of Interstellar initially after one watch, as I found parts of the film to feel rushed despite its nearly three hour running time, wishing we could have had an additional 15 or so minutes on Earth with Coop's family to really let the power of the relationships resonate. I didn't seem to notice this as being an issue this time around, and perhaps it was because I had already taken this journey once before, but I was emotionally invested quickly and the tears of Murph knowing her father may never return home broke my heart.

My other key issue with the film was the tonal shift of their time on the second planet they land on, the Hoth-like beast of a world that feels more like a nightmare than salvation the second we lay eyes on it. I found the direction the film takes while on that planet to be jarring after one viewing, and perhaps it was because I didn't see it coming and I didn't expect it, because now I felt that sequence flowed just as beautifully as the rest of the work, and I understand the significance of what occurred there thematically more than before. The editing that is showcased here, as we follow both the drive of Coop to save himself and humanity and also the similar passion of his daughter back on earth as she cannot give up the fight to rescue both her loved ones and the world, is completely enthralling and beautifully handled. These two worlds are vastly different but the circumstances on them are familiar, both feeling desolate and potentially hopeless, and despite being millions of miles apart from each other, a father and his daughter simply will not give up.

If you read my previous review of Interstellar, you may be surprised to see me mention any flaws at all considering how head over heels in love I was with the film then. I had these minor reservations but I still never questioned how I felt about the complete journey Christopher Nolan took me on in the cinema that night. My love for film cannot be broken down simply with X's and O's like a play design in football, it is a far richer and deeper experience than just pointing to a flaw and deducting points off my final grade of the movie. If you were to look at the trend of my favorite films over the past three years, The Tree of Life in 2011, Cloud Atlas in 2012 and then Gravity in 2013, you will find that I connected with these works on such a deep, profound level that whether or not a performance was a little off or the script could have been tweaked and so on, these issues cannot diminish what I feel internally as I let the experience wash over me.

To me, cinema and art in general is all about a personal connection. You can break down every minute of a film and analyze it to death, and sometimes I am guilty of doing this myself, but for the most part I know whether or not a film worked because I can feel it in my soul. As I sit here and reflect on my second Interstellar trip, I would not be able to find a single moment that left me troubled or baffled or simply feeling off. Does that mean it is a perfect film? Hardly. For me though, for what I am looking for when I take my seat inside that theater, for what whets my appetite when appreciating the medium that has stole my heart, Interstellar is a grand, sweeping work that feels like a dream I might have that I would hope to let play out before I must wake. The incredible imagery of a ship attempting to dock in the depths of space combined with an eerie score by Hans Zimmer that seemed to always match exactly what was needed in that moment, that for me is science fiction. I have always craved exploration, a curiosity resides inside me that wants to know what can be found in every nook and cranny of not only our world, but our universe and beyond, and while no film could ever completely satisfy my desires, at the very least Christopher Nolan certainly tried. His vision lifted me out of my seat and brought me to places far beyond my field of vision, and for that I thank him.

Interstellar is a film about love, and the central relationship is the bond of a father and his daughter. As I absorbed the movie into every pore, I remember thinking that I would do anything and everything, I would travel anywhere and face any danger if it meant saving the little girl that I brought into this world. Try and tell me why I shouldn't love this film, go ahead, your case might be incredibly valid and well reasoned, but in the end it will not work. When cinema speaks to me, I listen. Interstellar has spoken.


Saturday, November 15, 2014

The Passion of Joan of Arc Review

In a review posted in 1997, Roger Ebert wrote "You cannot know the history of silent film unless you know the face of Renee Maria Falconetti." What makes this statement fascinating is that anyone even remotely familiar with that era of film would think first of the stars of the time like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and perhaps Harold Lloyd, yet he invokes the name Falconetti as a necessary piece of cinematic knowledge. Was she a star at the time, a familiar face recognized from multiple silent classics? She was not. In fact, her lead role in The Passion of Joan of Arc was her one and only appearance on film during her life. It didn't require her to speak a single spoken line of dialogue, and yet it may just be the greatest single performance ever put to celluloid. 

Never has emotional anguish felt so real than in the eyes of Falconetti, which combined with the brilliant direction from Carl Theodor Dreyer makes this film a haunting and disturbingly beautiful experience, one of the few I can honestly categorize as feeling religious in nature. I am not a church going man, needing factual proof rather than faith to devote my life to any higher power, yet I get so lost while watching films like The Passion of Joan of Arc, The Tree of Life and to a slightly lesser extent the phenomenal Life of Pi that I can't help but wonder if some sort of unseen force was working behind the scenes, allowing such powerful themes to flourish in a motion picture. 

You can't simply watch a film like The Passion of Joan of Arc. If I had made popcorn prior to the start of the film, it would have been left untouched. If I had put too much ice in my soda, it would have been watered down by the time I took my first sip. The imagery in play during this absolute masterpiece from 1928 combined with the breathtaking "Voice of Light" musical score that was added to the film in 1994 by composer Richard Einhorn. While it might seem strange to watch a film released nearly sixty years before my own birth featuring music that wasn't even composed until I was already ten years old, you must understand that when the film was first played for audiences in the late 20's, it featured music played live in the theatre by an orchestra. Those compositions and whether or not a definitive piece was ever chosen to accompany it is unknown, but music was always involved in the film, and "Voices of Light" is an achievement so grand it is worthy of being played along side the work of Dreyer.

This was my second viewing of The Passion of Joan of Arc, and my decision to place the film in my top 5 of all time after a single screening has been proven justified. Occasionally I am guilty of making proclamations of greatness that prove to be hyperbolic, and I am willing to admit that initial excitement and my passion for the medium got the best of me, but that simply isn't the case here. In fact I am wondering if perhaps I am underrating this film, because honestly, it just might be the greatest film ever made.


Friday, November 14, 2014

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford Review

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford was a total afterthought in my film universe for years. The title was memorable for me simply because of it's length, but it carried no real resonance besides that. My expectations for the film were so low that, to be honest, when I read extremely positive reviews online I had trouble buying into it. How could a film mean so little to me, a film that sat so far off my radar that it practically didn't exist, yet be this good?

I looked up the director, found the name Andrew Dominik. Who? A name that meant absolutely nothing to me, a tiny filmography of three films associated with his name of which I had seen none. As the final frame of this film left my screen, I looked up the name again, a name so meaningless less than three hours earlier, had now earned my everlasting respect. I don't know if Andrew Dominik has any other films worth a damn, and frankly I don't care. In 2007, his vision produced The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, an absolute masterpiece.

The performances throughout this film were fantastic, with top billing going to an incredible showing from Brad Pitt and the award worthy work of Casey Affleck. The credit goes to these actors, but also to the man behind the scenes calling the shots, who had the patience to let each scene play out so beautifully, so effortlessly that each line of the script had room to breath, to dance out of their mouths like poetry. The backdrop of the film was stunning, featuring epic cinematography that was impossible to ignore, showcasing snowy landscapes and realistically vivid colors similar to something seen in a Malick film.

The original score produced by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis was arguably the star of the film. So haunting, so intoxicating, it never overwhelmed a single scene yet it consistently enhanced the experience. Rarely does a score so perfectly match the tone of a film, here it feels like fate that such a high level of artistry with music and film could come together and become one.

If I had not looked it up, I would have never known how long this film was. Perfectly paced, never plodding, every single scene swept me off my feet and allowed me to lose myself in it's wonder. Seriously, this may sound over the top, but this isn't like other films I have screened and loved on a weekly basis. This is a film I can comfortably add to my top 50 films of all time and never question or second guess it. This is a film that I could watch again right now if I didn't need to go to sleep.

This is film at it's finest.


Thursday, November 13, 2014

My Neighbor Totoro Review

The imagination of a child is a wonderful, magical thing. As my daughter grows older, I sometimes can't help but just watch her play, listen to the stories she comes up with, the scenarios she invents for her toys and dolls. I have noticed the ability she has to create grand ideas and worlds with her mind, totally losing herself in them with a look of joy in her eyes that words can't describe. Even if I had the worst day at work, when I walk in the house and see her playing with 20 different toys at once, doing a different voice for each without even skipping a beat, all is right in the world.

This was my second viewing of My Neighbor Totoro, but something about this time felt totally different and new to me. I connected with it on a far greater level, striking a chord in me that I didn't notice during my debut screening. I felt emotional throughout, whether it be a smile I couldn't get rid of or tears from watching a child lost and alone. I felt a deep compassion for the father, something I don't recall experiencing before. He is a man with a lot on his plate, moving into a new home with his two daughters while his wife, their mother, is ill in the hospital, yet he still takes the time to ensure they are having fun, encouraging their imaginations to not only exist but to flourish in new and exciting ways.

I love this film, quite possibly one of, if not the greatest achievement in the history of animated films. My Neighbor Totoro may technically feature a simple story, but it's message is meaningful, touching and important. Sometimes a Father can do everything he can to be there for his kids, but it still isn't enough. Sometimes a friend who shares no blood can step in and fill their lives with love and warmth, but even so something is missing.

Sometimes a child just needs a Totoro.


Stoker Review

Every so often a film manages to transcend its rather weak narrative by being, for lack of a better term, eye candy. Stoker does very little to peak my interest in regards to its story, which is clearly inspired by the 1943 Alfred Hitchcock classic Shadow of a Doubt, and by "inspired by", I mean the premise and even the name of the oh so creepy Uncle is lifted right from it. Mia Wasikowska plays India Stoker, and within the first few minutes of the film we learn of the death of her father via the screams of her mother, Evelyn (Nicole Kidman), after receiving a phone call delivering word of the tragedy. With the loss India learns that she has gained a family member she never knew existed, her Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) after he shows up at the funeral. Charlie decides to stick around for a while, moving in with the recently widowed Evelyn and India, but it quickly becomes clear to the latter that the man is worthy of suspicion and his motives are not exactly wholesome.

Wentworth Miller, former star of the television series Prison Break, makes his screenwriting debut here and frankly, the lack of experience shows as the film succeeds in spite of the rather mediocre and run of the mill script rather than because of it. The performances are all on point throughout, as Wasikowska, Kidman and Goode all bring exactly the right mysterious and unhinged tone to their characters, and occasionally their talents shine so brightly that they manage to elevate the dialogue written by Miller.

Despite having no complaints with the excellent casting and performances, this film wouldn't have much appeal without the two real stars of Stoker: director Park Chan-wook and composer Clint Mansell. Park is best known for his masterful 2003 Korean drama Oldboy, and he decided to make Stoker his english language debut. While I wish the extraordinary talents of Park could have been showcased in an even better film, because trust me, this ain't no Oldboy, it is arguably more impressive that his artistic vision and ability to make every frame feel important managed to make a lesser reimagining of a classic seem compelling and worthy.

Clint Mansell is a man who simply will never get enough credit, a composer so gifted that the scores he crafts would make even the most lackluster and disappointing efforts feel watchable. Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain, The Wrestler, Moon, Black Swan, and the 2014 biblical tale Noah (you may notice an Aronofsky theme here), Mansell doesn't merely add to the experience of these films, he enriches them with scores so integral to the finished product they feel more like an important character than music. His work on Stoker deserves to be mentioned in the same breath with his finest achievements, as the already eerie vibe created by Park Chan-wook becomes downright spine-tingling thanks to the perfectly unsettling melodies of Mansell.

Stoker feels like a painting you walk past in a museum, one that really doesn't speak to you in any meaningful way and won't convey any lasting message no matter how close you look, but look you will. It's just so aesthetically pleasing you may never want to look away.


Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Oscars 2015: First Predictions

One step outside on this blustery morning and I immediately wanted to head back in, throw a blanket over me and watch a film. It's that time of the year again, time for layers of clothing, hot cocoa and warming my car up ten minutes before I actually have to leave the house. This also means that award season is in full swing, with the major players either already released and firmly established as contenders or on their way soon as the holidays approach.

The difficult thing about doing Oscars predictions is having to remind myself that I must think like the Academy rather than base them on my own opinions of those films I have already seen. So while I am (unfortunately) yet to see various highly anticipated works like Birdman, The Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything, Whiplash, Foxcatcher, Unbroken, and American Sniper, I will likely include some of these titles in my predictions because, frankly, it is rather easy to know what the typical Academy voter will embrace.

This isn't to say that those films aren't worthy. I often times have issues with who eventually takes home the trophy at the end of the night, but typically I only have a few minor complaints about who was nominated in the first place. Thanks to the politics of the whole event and the power of the studios to campaign for their highest regarded films, not to mention the instant access to general reactions thanks to Facebook and Twitter and film criticism thanks to sites like Rottentomatoes and Metacritic, the nominations are far more predictable than they used to be.

On that note, here is how I feel the race will shake out as of November 11th. The films are in order of their likelihood to take home the prize, and any with an asterisk next to the title indicates that I have seen the film.


The Imitation Game
American Sniper
The Theory of Everything
Into the Woods
Gone Girl*

Despite nothing to currently base the prediction on, I have a gut feeling Unbroken is going to end up being the 12 Years a Slave of last years awards. A film that will not take home the most trophies on Oscar night, but will walk away with the biggest one of them all. Why do I feel this way? Well, Unbroken tells the very true story of Louis Zamperini, a hero of World War II who, after surviving a plane crash in the Pacific Ocean during the war, was forced to endure 47 days drifting on a raft followed by various Japanese prisoner of war camps.

Toss in the fact that the film is directed by Hollywood favorite Angelina Jolie and that the real life subject of the work, Louis Zamperini, passed away earlier this year at the age of 97 before he had a chance to see the film, and the end result is a motion picture that was practically crafted just for Academy voters. They will eat that shit up.

I would love to see Boyhood take home the award and it certainly has a chance, but my concern is based around two factors: the timing of the release, meaning it has already been out for months and may not be burning in the minds of voters any longer by the time the ballots are sent out, and also the fact that it is a low budget independent film that doesn't have the studio power to finance a strong campaign for it. Sadly, that second factor is important, because unfortunately sometimes being the best picture isn't enough to win you Best Picture.

I felt compelled to leave Interstellar out of the mix here, and I really hope I am wrong. I would love to see Nolan and company recognized for their outstanding achievement with a nomination, but the film has proved to be polarizing and I can easily see it being the odd man out in the end.


Richard Linklater, Boyhood*
Angelina Jolie, Unbroken
Alejandro G. Inarritu, Birdman
Clint Eastwood, American Sniper
David Fincher, Gone Girl*

Best Director and Best Picture used to go hand in hand, but I am predicting that for the third straight year these awards will go out to two different films. While Unbroken will be the powerful film that will resonate with voters enough to Best Picture, they simply won't be able to ignore the truly stunning, one of a kind achievement that is Boyhood. What Linklater did, crafting the film over the course of 12 years using the same cast throughout, watching not only young Mason but every single character change and adapt over that span of time is nothing short of brilliant and inspiring. Give the damn trophy to Linklater.


Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything
Jack O'Connell, Unbroken
Michael Keaton, Birdman
Bradley Cooper, American Sniper
Steve Carell, Foxcatcher

Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Hawking at a young age after receiving his ALS diagnosis. Enough said.


Julianne Moore, Still Alice
Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl*
Reese Witherspoon, Wild
Felicity Jones, The Theory of Everything
Amy Adams, Big Eyes

I have heard nothing but incredible things about Moore in the film Still Alice, and my wife read the novel it is based on and said she believes the hype, that the material lends itself to an award winning performance. Regardless, I hope Rosamund Pike gets recognition for her stunning turn in Gone Girl.


JK Simmons, Whiplash
Edward Norton, Birdman
Ethan Hawke, Boyhood*
Mark Ruffalo, Foxcatcher
Tyler Perry, Gone Girl*

I can't believe I just typed the name Tyler Perry in a post regarding Oscar nominations, but the dude killed it in Gone Girl. A perfect choice to play scumbag lawyer Tanner Bolt, his comedic timing was a thing of beauty throughout, popping up at exactly the right time to put a smile on my face after a jarring moment of depravity.

JK Simmons takes it though. Big fan of his and I can't wait to see this supposedly brilliant performance in Whiplash.


Patricia Arquette, Boyhood*
Jessica Chastain, A Most Violent Year
Keira Knightley, The Imitation Game
Meryl Streep, Into the Woods
Laura Dern, Wild

Patricia Arquette, much like the director Linklater, needs and deserves recognition for Boyhood. Despite the film centering on the life of Mason, Arquette was just as vital to the heartbeat of the entire thing, a heartbreaking and truly authentic performance as his mother as she deals with something that is both beautiful and incredibly difficult and exhausting at the same time: life.

Meryl Steep will find a way to get nominated, because she is Meryl Streep.


Richard Linklater, Boyhood*
Alejandro G. Inarritu, Birdman
Damien Chazelle, Whiplash
JC Chandor, A Most Violent Year
Wes Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel*

Perhaps I am dreaming here, but I would love to see Wes Anderson get recognized for his brilliant work on The Grand Budapest Hotel, his greatest film from an overall great filmography. Keep giving Linklater the awards though, he deserves them all.


Joel and Ethan Coen, Unbroken
Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl*
Anthony McCarten, The Theory of Everything
Graham Moore, The Imitation Game
Jason Dean Hall, American Sniper

I forgot to mention above that the Coen brothers wrote Unbroken. The damn Coen brothers wrote the thing. Yet another reason to believe it can win the biggest trophy of them all, and I think they specifically are recognized here as well.


American Sniper
Gone Girl*
The Imitation Game

I have heard all about how brilliant Birdman is on a technical level. I am willing to bet it gets recognition in the Editing department.


Gone Girl*
Mr. Turner

Interstellar may get froze out of multiple categories listed above, but its sublime cinematography will be impossible to ignore. Tempting to give the trophy to Emmanuel Lubezki for Birdman, as he is the defending champion for the truly inspired work on Gravity last year, but I believe it will be impossible for anything to rise above Interstellar in a category such as this.


Into the Woods
The Grand Budapest Hotel*


Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Transformers 4

Ironically, the only place I felt Interstellar suffered was in the sound mixing, as the booming score by Hans Zimmer occasionally overwhelmed the dialogue. Regardless, I think the Interstellar winning technical awards train keeps on rolling here.


American Sniper
Transformers 4


Into the Woods
The Grand Budapest Hotel*
The Imitation Game
Mr. Turner


Gone Girl*
A Most Violent Year

Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross with another masterpiece of a film score for a David Fincher film. Their work on Gone Girl is flawless.


Mommy (Canada)
Ida* (Poland)
Winter Sleep (Turkey)
Leviathan (Russia)
Wild Tales (Argentina)


Last Days of Vietnam
The Overnighters
Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart
Life Itself*

Fell in love with the film Life Itself, about the life and death of film critic legend Roger Ebert, but from what I have heard CitizenFour might be unstoppable in this category.


Princess Kaguya
How to Train Your Dragon 2*
The LEGO Movie*
Big Hero 6*
The Book of Life

Loved all three of the animated films listed here that I have seen, two of which (HTTYD2 and LEGO Movie) are currently in my top ten of the year, but I have heard Princess Kaguya is yet another magical effort by the iconic Studio Ghibli. Cannot wait to see it.


Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Guardians of the Galaxy*
Transformers 4

Doing this has reminded me that I still need to see Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Better get on that soon.


Into the Woods
The Grand Budapest Hotel*
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Guardians of the Galaxy*

Of the four remaining categories, Best Song, Best Animated Short, Best Live Action Short, and Best Documentary Short, I have no real opinion of knowledge of anything potentially nominated. Except for Best Animated Short actually, the Disney entry that premiered before Big Hero 6 titled Feast is a little, wonderful treasure. Once I get a better grasp of those awards, I am sure Feast will shoot to the top of that list.

As various top ten lists and other nominations are revealed prior to the Academy having their say, I will revisit with an updated list. Until then, go check out some of the brilliant films being released this Oscar season.