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Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Review: To Rome with Love (2012)

* *

Director: Woody Allen
Starring: Alec Baldwin, Penelope Cruz, Roberto Benigni, Jesse Eisenberg, Ellen Page, Woody Allen

The problem with the current phase of Woody Allen’s career is that when you sit down to watch his latest, you never know if you’re going to get a Midnight in Paris or a Whatever Works. While To Rome with Love is nowhere near as aggressively terrible as the latter of those, it has a frustratingly half-baked feeling to it that seriously detracts from whatever genuine pleasures the film can be said to contain. Basically: great cast and great scenery, but both utterly wasted.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Review: The Imposter (2012)

* * * 1/2

Director: Bart Layton

A story too crazy to believe. It’s amazing how many good documentaries can be described that way, as telling stories that could never work as a fiction feature because you would just never be able to suspend your disbelief like that. Truth, certainly, is stranger than fiction and rarely has it been stranger than in Bart Layton’s The Imposter. Detailing an improbable con that, against all reason, actually worked (albeit briefly), the film is alternately fascinating and bewildering.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Library Project: January 19 - 25

It was a pretty delightful week in terms of DVD watching. Here's what I watched from my library:

January 19: To Have and Have Not (1944) - Bogie and Bacall's first movie together. It's a little bit like Casablanca-lite, but it's so charming and well-made that you hardly even notice. Plus, the two leads have chemistry to die for.

January 22: Trigger (2010) - At just 78 minutes, this one is a bit slight, but it's a real gem nevertheless. Canadian cinema mainstays Molly Parker and Tracy Wright star as former bandmates uneasily reunited for one night after spending a decade not on speaking terms.

January 24: Two for the Road (1967) - One of my favourite Audrey Hepburn movies. Hepburn and Albert Finney star as a couple whose relationship is examined at various stages and on various road trips over the course of 12 years. It's a beautiful and highly entertaining movie.

January 25: The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988) - ... And speaking of beautiful, this adaptation of the novel by Milan Kundera stars Daniel Day-Lewis, Juliette Binoche, and Lena Olin, all at impossible heights of beauty. A great film set (mostly) in Czechoslovakia right before and right after the Soviet invasion.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Friday's Top 5... The 2013 Sundance Movies I Most Want To See

#5: Austenland

A romantic comedy about a woman who decides to pull up stakes and move to a Jane Austen-themed resort. It sounds way more commercial than most Sundance fare from the past few years, but just quirky enough to be an indie. Plus, it co-stars one half of Flight of the Concords.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Review: The Impossible (2012)

* * * 1/2

Director: J.A. Bayona
Starring: Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor, Tom Holland

It’s the great equalizer: a wall of water ruthlessly rushing forward, knocking out everything in its path and rendering all the eye can see to ruins. The only thing that can help you in a situation like that is luck, and even then it might only help you get your head above water and no further. The aptly named The Impossible is the true (as far as that goes, in a fiction narrative) story of a family of five (Spanish in real life, British here) that somehow manages to survive the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami intact. Directed by J.A. Bayona, this is an intense experience that leaves one shaken at the sheer power of nature and the human spirit.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Review: Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

* * * *

Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Starring: Jessica Chastain

In a year seemingly filled with controversial films, Zero Dark Thirty may very well go down as the most controversial (although the Django Unchained action figures may have secured the distinction for that film). The story of the CIA hunt for Osama bin Laden, as experienced through the eyes of one woman, Kathryn Bigelow’s film is brutal, fascinating, and absolutely gripping from beginning to end. Don’t let the debate scare you away: this is a film that ought to be seen, if only for the craft of its telling.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Library Project: January 12 - 18

What this week lacked in quantity, it more than made up for in quality. Here's what I watched:

January 12: There Will Be Blood (2007) - Paul Thomas Andeson's masterpiece featuring Daniel Day-Lewis' last Oscar winning role. This epic tale of greed and capitalism is easily one of the best films of the last ten years and one of those movies that reveals more of itself with each viewing.

January 15: The Third Man (1949) - Although the great Orson Welles is absent for much of the film, his presence looms large over the whole enterprise. Joseph Cotton stars as an American pulp writer whose friend is killed in post-war Vienna, and whose subsequent investigation uncovers the dark underbelly of the black market. This is first class film noir all the way.

January 18: This Is Spinal Tap (1984) - One of the all time great comedies. This mockumentary about a British heavy metal band (composed of Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer, in addition to a series of short-lived drummers) making the slow and painful descent to obscurity is full of laughs and one of the most quotable movies ever put to screen.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Top 10 Week... Films of 2012

#10: The Grey

From its film noir-tinged beginning straight through to its exhilaratingly open ending The Grey, Joe Carnahan’s man vs nature epic, is a compulsively watchable and tense film. Liam Neeson stars as a widower who lives in self-imposed exile in a barely settled part of Alaska, surrounded by “men unfit for mankind,” stranded along with several others after a plane crash. Relentlessly pursued by wolves, the men are picked off one by one and those that remain find their strength and resolve tested at every moment. The plot movements have a certain level of predictability, but the force of the film comes from the atmosphere that Carnahan is able to engender, which makes this one of the most haunting films of the last year.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Top 10 Week... Performances by Women in 2012

#10: Quvenzhane Wallis, Beasts of the Southern Wild

Judging the performance of a child actor is uniquely challenging in that it can be difficult to tell how much of the skill of the performance is attributable to the child, and how much is attributable to the director’s ability to draw the performance out. Certainly, given that Quvenzhane Wallis was only five years old when the film was made, director Benh Zeitlin deserves a fair bit of credit for shaping the performance, but even so Wallis demonstrates a lot of natural talent. She isn’t overly precocious and never mugs for the camera, and the way that she engages with co-star Dwight Henry in the film’s darkest scenes is impressive. Her experience level may be small, but she carries this film easily with a strong, charismatic performance.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Top 10 Week... Performances By Men in 2012

#10: Jude Law, Anna Karenina

Ten years ago, if you heard that Jude Law was starring in a version of Anna Karenina, would you ever guess that he was playing Karenin rather than Vronsky? Or that he could do it so believably? As the by-the-books cuckold to Keira Knightley’s unfulfilled, outcast heroine, Law hits all the right notes and brings facets to the character that have often been absent in previous screen interpretations of the character. Not only is the performance free of vanity, but Law also manages to make Karenin a sympathetic character whose own moral crisis is deeply felt and compelling. Knightley and Aaron Taylor-Johnson have the flashier roles, but Law is the standout of the cast, providing the moral backbone against which the sordid tale plays out.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Top 10 Week... Scenes of 2012

#10: The Vivisection, Looper

Looper’s time bending story doesn’t necessarily hold up to scrutiny (not that that makes it any less enjoyable as a film), but writer/director Rian Johnson certainly does a lot with the premise. In this scene in particular, in which protagonist Joe’s friend, Seth, faces the consequences of failing to close his own loop, he takes the time travel premise to what is arguably its limit. As future Seth makes a run for it, trying to escape a fate which is inevitable, his present self is captured by the mob and vivisected, which in turn results in devastating changes to future Seth’s body right before his eyes. By the time future Seth turns himself in to the mob, there’s almost nothing left of him, but the sequence itself is brutal, brilliant and memorable.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Top 10 Week... Posters of 2012

#10: The Amazing Spider-Man

Laying aside questions about the necessity of the franchise’s reboot (and ignoring the absolute lie of the poster’s tagline), this poster for The Amazing Spider-Man is just about perfect. The design is simple but also evocative, nicely teasing the story and suggesting a somewhat darker tone than the previous series.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Library Project: January 5 - 11, 2013

Uh, yeah, not a lot to report on this week. Here's what I watched from my DVD collection:

January 6: The Sound of Music (1965) - The epic musical about a family that sings its way out of World War II. It's a little longer than it truly needs to be, but it's a mostly delightful film and Julie Andrews delivers a winning performance.

January 8: The Sum of All Fears (2002) - An underrated spy thriller, if you ask me. Ben Affleck stars as Jack Ryan, who has to untangle a plot involving a group of neo-Nazis who want to restart the Cold War. So, you know, the usual.

January 10: Sunset Blvd. (1950) - It probably goes without saying but, I kinda like this movie. Gloria Swanson delivers the defining performance of "the crazy actress" and the film itself is full of self-referential goodies. If you haven't seen it yet then you should probably stop reading this and go watch it.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Friday's Top 5... Most Surprising Oscar Snubs

#5: The Intouchables - Best Foreign Language Film

The Intouchables is exactly the kind of movie that AMPAS loves to reward in the Foreign Language category. Edgier, more innovative films sometimes manage to get nominated, but more often than not the winner is a safe, feel good choice like this one. Some Oscar prognosticators had already tipped this as the one to beat, even over Amour.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Shock and Awe: Thoughts on the Oscar Nominations

So... that was kind of weird this morning, right? Could anyone have predicted that Best Director lineup? Or that not one but two presumptive front runners would effectively be kneecapped by the nominations (or lack thereof)? Or that a little Sundance hit would prove to have some real muscle?

I said yesterday that this seemed like a particularly unpredictable year, but I wasn't prepared for quite so many "left field" choices. I did manage to correctly predict 77 out of 107 nominees, going 9 for 9 on the Best Picture list and 5 for 5 on Best Actress, so that's not so bad.

Let's take a deep breath and take a look at a few of the categories:

Oscar Nominees

... And the nominees are:

Best Picture
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Django Unchained
Life of Pi
Les Miserables
Silver Linings Playbook
Zero Dark Thirty

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Oscar Nomination Predictions

AMPAS announces its nominees first thing tomorrow morning. Accordingly, here are my nominee predictions, about which I feel far less confidant than I have about pretty much any year since I started paying attention to this stuff. With the exception of Daniel Day-Lewis in the Best Actor category and, to a lesser extent, Anne Hathaway in the Best Supporting Actress category, there don't appear to be any really solid front runners in any of the categories, which makes this a particularly unpredictable - and very exciting - year.

My predictions:

Best Picture
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Django Unchained
Life of Pi
Les Miserables
Silver Linings Playbook
Zero Dark Thirty

alt: Moonrise Kingdom

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Denver Film Critics, North Texas Film Critics, Vancouver Film Critics, Online Film Critics, and Alliance of Women Film Journalists Award Winners

In less than two days the Oscar nominations will be announced, but until then there are still a slew of critics groups handing out their awards, including the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, a group which apparently hands out as many awards as it can think of. The winners, in all their glory:

Denver Film Critics

Picture: Argo

Director: Ben Affleck, Argo

Actor: Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln

Actress: Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook

Supporting Actress: Anne Hathaway, Les Miserables

Supporting Actor: Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Master

Adapted Screenplay: Silver Linings Playbook

Original Screenplay: Moonrise Kingdom

Animated Feature: ParaNorman

Foreign Language Film: Amour

Documentary Feature: Jiro Dreams of Sushi

Original Score: The Dark Knight Rises

Original Song: "Skyfall," Skyfall

Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)

* * *

Director: Peter Jackson
Starring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellan, Richard Armitage

In the immortal words of Milhouse Van Houten, "When are they gonna get to the fireworks factory?" Not that Peter Jackson's long awaited return to Middle Earth with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey isn't a perfectly entertaining film, but it does feel padded beyond necessity. Much of it is thrilling, some of it is a little boring... it's a mixed bag, basically, but worth seeing despite its flaws.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Hollywood Book Club: Pictures at a Revolution

With Oscar nominations to be announced later in the week, followed by a month or so of hardcore campaigning on the parts of the nominees for those little gold statues, there’s no better time than now to check out Mark Harris’ 2008 book “Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood.” Taking the five films nominated for 1967’s Best Picture –Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, In the Heat of the Night, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and Doctor Doolittle - as its subject matter and examining both the making of stories of each as well as the ways in which each was impacted by Hollywood’s changing of the guard, when the studio system collapsed and the auteur era began to take hold, it’s an endlessly entertaining and fascinating book.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

National Society of Film Critics & Houston Film Critics Winners

It's a new year, but there are still some critics awards left to be announced. The National Society of Film Critics went for Amour in a big way, while the Houston Film Critics went with Argo. Full list of winners:

National Society of Film Critics

Picture: Amour

Director: Michael Haneke, Amour

Actor: Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln

Actress: Emmanuelle Riva, Amour

Supporting Actress: Amy Adams, The Master

Supporting Actor: Matthew McConaughey, Magic Mike

Screenplay: Tony Kushner, Lincoln

Documentary: The Gatekeepers

Cinematography: Mihai Milaimare Jr., The Master

Experimental Film: Jafar Panahi, This Is Not A Film

Film Heritage Award: Laurence Kardish; Milestone Film & Video

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Library Project: December 29 - January 4

Okay, so it was kind of a busy week and, as a result, the number of DVDs I watched was low, but the quality was still pretty good. Here's what I watched:

January 2: Coco Before Chanel (2009) - a biopic about Coco Chanel before she started her empire, starring Audrey Tautou as the designer. Co-written and directed by Anne Fontaine, the film is very much concerned with the limited options for women at the time Chanel was getting started and about the class differences that informed those limits.

January 3: The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) - Wes Anderson's portrait of a highly disfunctional family is, to my mind, one of the funniest movies ever made. How Gene Hackman did not get an Oscar nomination for his role as the family's patriarch is beyond me.

January 4: Run Lola Run (1998) - Tom Tykwer's kinetic and thrilling "choose your own adventure" story. Starring Franka Potente as the eponymous hero, the film remains utterly charming and entertaining.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Producers Guild of America Nominations

With just a week to go before Oscar nominations are announced, the Producers Guild announces its nominees, a list which will probably bear a more than passing resemblance to the Oscar lineup:

Best Picture:

Beasts of the Suothern Wild
Django Unchained
Les Miserables
Life of Pi
Moonrise Kingdom
Silver Linings Playbook
Zero Dark Thirty

Best Animated Theatrical Motion Picture:

Rise of the Guardians

Best Documentary Feautre:

The Gatekeepres
The Island President
The other Dream Team
A People Uncounted
Searching for Sugar Man

Review: Les Miserables (2012)

* * 1/2

Director: Tom Hooper
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Eddie Redmayne, Amanda Seyfried

Les Miserables is going to make a lot of money. It's going to get nominated for a bunch of Oscars including, I'm certain, Best Picture. It's going to be loved by a lot of people. There's a lot of good news for Les Miserables. The bad news is that it's actually not a very good film. It has its moments, it is sometimes entertaining, sometimes even moving, but its flaws are so prominent and so distracting that the elements of value are almost buried beneath them.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Review: Django Unchained (2012)

* * * 1/2

Director: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Kerry Washington, Leonardo DiCaprio, Samuel L. Jackson

If there's any one thing you can say about Quentin Tarantino as a filmmaker, it's that he always seems to be having a good time making his films, and that his joy in making a film becomes the joy of the audience in watching it. I have never seen a Tarantino movie that didn't leave me thoroughly entertained and Django Unchained is no exception. Forget about the manufactured controversy surrounding its subject matter. This is a film very much worth seeing.