#OscarsQuiteUnpredictable

oscars-snafu

Steve Harvey reaching out to Warren Beatty after he was involved in what has got to be the most embarrassing SNAFU in Oscars history — and possibly of the actor’s career — strikes me as humorous for some reason. I know it isn’t funny, but what if there really is some support group for this sort of thing? Victims of Award Ceremony Gaffes Anonymous, does that exist?

Look, I’m not here to point fingers and perpetuate the blame game because, well, I feel as though a sufficient pall has been cast over Barry Jenkins’ legitimate victory and Jimmy Kimmel’s first Oscars hosting gig. Poor guy. It’s not like he was the greatest host ever — the highlight of his night is without a doubt his manipulating the pit orchestra in order to rush Matt Damon off stage as he was presenting, which was amusing but not good enough to make me stop missing Billy Crystal.

But Kimmel’s night was going really well and for it to end in such a bizarre and awkward way, it’s hard not to feel bad for the guy. Or just assume that M. Night Shyamalan had played a part. And we all know that while it was probably the decent thing to do to try and divert the awkwardness away from the presenters (does anyone know what country Faye Dunaway is now living in by the way?) and towards himself, we also know this was not his fault. A scheme like this would be too complex for Jimmy Kimmel to mastermind, anyway. Besides, I don’t feel bad for the talk show host in the way I feel bad for La La Land.

ryan-gosling-snubbedI suppose the good that came out of this “custody battle” — besides the fact that one of the most deserving films in recent memory actually took home top honors — was that we got to know a little bit more about La La Land producer Jordan Horowitz. It’s almost unreasonable how composed he was. How gracious in defeat he was. How sincerely his congratulations were offered to his competitors. I think there’s something we can all learn from the way he (and others) handled their situation.

I rated the two films differently but truth be told, and given everything that happened on Sunday, I think I would have been alright if the honor were shared between both films. That’s where the Academy really screwed things up. (Okay, I guess I am going to have to do a little scapegoating here.) Sure, PwC has taken the heat and rightfully so, but even if there were not enough trophies to go around on stage, I don’t know how you can allow for something like this to happen.

And it’s not like ties haven’t happened before, because they have. Six times actually. Six times a producer or director or cast member was spared the humiliation of being cut-off mid-acceptance speech because they hadn’t, in fact, any right to be making it. Of course, the way the 89th Academy Awards ended feels like a first. This wasn’t an example of indecision or voter fraud. This was an unprecedented production fiasco that unfolded in real time. To further troll the Academy and PwC, I’m really not sure if there could have been any protocol for this. And I really doubt there will be a ‘next time,’ so there probably never will be.

With the elephant in the room having been addressed, allow me to breakdown the categories that I featured in my preview post:

Best Picture (Winner: Moonlight) 

What I predicted: La La Land

If I had it my way: Moonlight

Well, the cast and crew of La La Land certainly went skipping up on stage because for a fleeting moment, as I had predicted, life for them was but a dream. But oh man, how fleeting that feeling was . . .

On the bright side, Moonlight becomes just the second LGBTQ-related film ever, behind Midnight Cowboy in 1970, to win Best Picture. And it is the first time in Oscars history a film with an all-black cast has won the award. Just let that sink in for a second.

Directing (Winner: Damien Chazelle, La La Land)

What I predicted: Damien Chazelle

If I had it my way: Jeff Nichols, Midnight Special

No real surprise here. The art that lives within the 32-year-old director is undoubtedly unique and profound. For him to go from directing a film like Whiplash to La La Land in the span of three years is, well, the guys at Consequence of Sound said it best: it’s just baffling.

Actor in a Leading Role (Winner: Casey Affleck, Manchester By the Sea)

What I predicted: Casey Affleck

If I had it my way: Casey Affleck

Amazing. To go from being the architect of your own potential destruction to Oscar-winner in the span of a few months is about as crazy as #EnvelopeGate. When a sexual harassment scandal reared its ugly head once again in the lead-up the Oscars, it seemed Ben Affleck’s younger, smaller and generally awkward brother had the odds stacked against him. Not to trivialize the troubling story that has been following the actor for some time, but his work in Manchester By the Sea deserved the win. It is almost enough to make us forget that hey, Oscar winners ain’t saints. I said ‘almost.’

Actress in a Leading Role (Winner: Emma Stone, La La Land)

What I predicted: Emma Stone

If I had it my way: Amy Adams, Arrival

Emma Stone, you need not worry if I’m doubting the legitimacy of your win. Your work in the movie speaks for itself. Your ‘Audition’ scene took my breath away, and I never quite got it back. I’m so glad Leo didn’t have any trouble with his presentation, because the Oscar absolutely went to the right person this year. Emma Stone has further cemented herself as one of the most meteoric stars of her generation. Jennifer Lawrence, watch your back.

Actor in a Supporting Role (Winner: Mahershala Ali, Moonlight)

What I predicted: Mahershala Ali

If I had it my way: Daniel Radcliffe, Swiss Army Man

I love that in an era where Muslims are feeling more and more persecuted and marginalized in this country, one has just taken home Oscar gold. It feels something close to poetic justice, even if other artists this year have indeed suffered the effects of an unprecedented travel ban. I was introduced to Mahershalalhashbaz Ali as Remy Danton in Netflix’s brilliant political drama House of Cards. I was impressed right away. In Moonlight, his turn as an empathetic drug dealer who exerts major influence on the young Chiron early in the narrative, is enough to break your heart. But in ways you might not expect. It’s a stunning supporting turn, and a big part of the reason I thought Moonlight was able to reach some other psychic level that La La Land just couldn’t.

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Actress in a Supporting Role (Winner: Viola Davis, Fences)

What I predicted: Viola Davis

If I had it my way: Viola Davis

Viola Davis was one of the only true locks for the evening, the other being the winner of Best Documentary Feature (congratulations to Ezra Edelman and O.J.: Made in America for a well-deserved but, yes, very inevitable win). So while I didn’t exactly jump for joy when Davis won, I was nonetheless psyched for the woman. The Oscar win identifies her as the first black actress to complete the Triple Crown of Acting. She has officially taken home an Oscar, an Emmy and a Tony Award for her scintillating work as beleaguered housewife Rose Maxson.

Animated Feature (Winner: Zootopia

What I predicted: Zootopia

If I had it my way: Moana

Blah. Zootopia was good I guess, but this is becoming one of those movies where, the more I hear about it, the more I’m feeling disdain for it. Studio animations have this unprecedented burden of becoming message movies these days, so I guess that’s what the Academy was looking for this year. How many heavy, controversial issues can you jam into one colorful little narrative? That’s the competition. Me, personally? I would have taken anything over the contrived kumbaya of this Disney “classic.” Even The Red Turtle, whatever the hell that is.

Cinematography (Winner: Linus Sandgren, La La Land)

What I predicted: Linus Sandgren

If I had it my way: Emmanuel Lubezki, Knight of Cups

So you could look at the Best Picture fiasco two different ways. You could feel terrible that La La Land lost in the manner that they did, or you could look at them as being a production that simply missed out on lucky #7. Yeah, they were involved in one of the most egregious mix-ups in an event of this magnitude but they also walked away with SIX OTHER TROPHIES. Inarguably one of the categories they absolutely had in the bag was this one. Linus Sandgren’s ability to capture Los Angeles in a classically romantic, old-fashioned way while reminding the viewer that they are experiencing events in the present tense is truly astonishing. La La Land is a technicolor dream sequence executed to perfection. The iconic Griffith Observatory has rarely looked so good before.

Costume Design (Winner: Colleen Atwood, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them)

What I predicted: Colleen Atwood

If I had it my way: Timothy Everest and Sammy Sheldon Differ, Assassin’s Creed

For a film that I actually never bothered to see I was really pleased with the final result. Though I really didn’t see any of the other nominees challenging the fantastic (sorry) and ornate wardrobe drummed up by the costume designer of such classics as The Silence of the Lambs and Edward Scissorhands.

Production Design (Winner: David Wasco and Sandy Reynolds-Wasco, La La Land)

What I predicted: David Wasco and Sandy Reynolds-Wasco

If I had it my way: Patrice Vermette and Paul Hotte, Arrival

I conclude my wrap-up with another fairly predictable result and La La Land‘s first Oscar win of the night. I could make the case for Arrival‘s ability to craft iconic imagery out of simpler elements being more impressive than what the Wascos (a husband-and-wife duo who worked on such films as Inglourious Basterds and Pulp Fiction) were able to achieve. After all, the latter were afforded the unique and historic architecture and landscape of metropolitan L.A., while Arrival‘s production design team were tasked with making the rural pastures of Montana seem eerie. But, call it what it is: La La Land is a gorgeously rendered production whose heart and soul is owed to more than just the infectious lead performances and a few jazz numbers.


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Arrival

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Release: Friday, November 11, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Eric Heisserer

Directed by: Denis Villeneuve

I’m just going to say it: Arrival is magnificent. It’s also: 1) another grand gesture from the visionary Québécois Denis Villeneuve that’s both sophisticated and stylish; 2) a film that really “makes you think;” 3) the antidote to the last several days in which the world has been watching and weighing in as the “United” States of America may or may not have been tearing itself apart when Donald Trump went from real estate mogul to president-elect.

Of course, the film has no interest in making a political statement but it is interested in bringing us closer together as a global society. The one thing it is really good at is reminding us of our ability to empathize and cooperate with one another in times of hardship, even when there are competing interests, values and perspectives at play; that the way we communicate is as important as what we are communicating. Arrival, based upon the novella Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang, promotes language as the ultimate tool and weapon mankind has and will ever have. It’s both our currency for clarifying all that is foreign and unfamiliar but just as easily it can create barriers if in no other way than when we use it to obscure what we really feel.

In some sense Arrival feels allegorical for a modern society wherein the furor of social media tends to bring out the worst in people. It uses an alien encounter to elucidate both the simplicity of the act of communicating and the infinitely more complex process of understanding and interpreting. The chronicle centers around an expert linguist, a Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), recruited by the U.S. military to decipher alien code they’ve received from a massive egg-shaped monolith in Montana, one of an apparent dozen that have suddenly appeared at seemingly random locations across the globe. The end game of course is to find out just what they are doing here, on this planet, but along the way we become privy to an altogether unexpected series of revelations.

Villeneuve’s latest is not merely a message film fitted into a pretty frame (although it very much is that). It offers a thrilling and profoundly personal adventure, one that more or less hits the ground running and remains comfortably paced throughout. An ambitious narrative is met with an appropriate sense of scale: Bradford Young’s panning cameras hint at the crippling notion that we may be alone in the universe, brilliantly reinforced by how deserted the college campus looks when it’s evacuated. Then there are the ships themselves — empyreal in their gently curving architecture. We call them ‘shells’ because labels are easier and they somehow feel comforting. Finally, news reports of mass riots and looting in poorer nations set the narrative against a backdrop of fear and panic. These bits serve as the most indicting evidence of what happens when we misconstrue things that are said, done or merely suggested.

Arrival feels grandiose even if the story sticks close to Dr. Banks as she is awoken from another troubled sleep by the surly Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) telling her the world needs her help. On the way to Montana, the sole American sighting, she meets theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), who will prove a calming presence in an otherwise chaotic and prejudiced environment. It is these characters, plus a few faceless soldiers, with whom Dr. Banks will enter the ship in an attempt to open a line of communication. Arrival might be at its most compelling when that first contact is established, when we are formally introduced to the Heptapods — serious out-of-towners with seven tentacle-like appendages from which they shoot a black inky substance. After a failed first trip, nerves eventually calm and Dr. Banks’ intuition proves extremely valuable as work begins in earnest.

Several weeks of sleepless nights and haunting visions of her deceased daughter begin weighing heavily on our ambassador. Making matters worse, China is demanding an ultimatum from our squid-like visitors after one particular translation (‘Use weapon’) incites worldwide panic. In a race against time, Dr. Banks must determine what connection, if any, her visions of Hannah has to what she is doing here in the present. The results prove to be both heartbreaking and galvanizing, the drama culminating in an Interstellar-esque reveal that’s altogether satisfying insofar as it is surprisingly coherent. And almost 100% convincing. Arrival risks devolving into abstraction but the genius lies within the screenplay, courtesy of Eric Heisserer [Lights Out; The Thing (2011)]. It engages intellectually while structurally providing enough of the tangibles — flashbacks become a motif — to support its lofty ambitions. And all-around terrific performances, most notably Adams and Renner, send us out of the theater on a major high.

In a way this film isn’t about an alien encounter at all — it’s certainly not an invasion, per se; rather, this is a forward-thinking, socially responsible drama that celebrates the best of humanity.

Recommendation: A movie for the thinking-man, undoubtedly, Arrival continues the ascension of one Denis Villenueve as it captures him working comfortably within the realm of psychobiological science fiction. It features stellar performances and a great alien presence. Regular collaborator Jóhann Jóhannsson is on hand to bolster the atmospheric feel of the film with a cerebral and moody score, so if you’re needing any other reason to go see this you might see it for that, too. This is one of my favorites of 2016, absolutely. A very exciting film. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 116 mins.

Quoted: “Now that’s a proper introduction.”

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Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

'Batman vs Superman - Dawn of Justice' movie poster

Release: Friday, March 25, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Chris Terrio; David S. Goyer

Directed by: Zack Snyder

I see civil war erupting between the die-hards and the casual-hards (and let me quickly interrupt myself here: casual-hards are people like me who don’t really have a firm grasp on either the mythos or even all of the character trajectories in the source material, we’re just here for the spectacle, that is, the overall product not simply the CGI spectacle). Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is no mould-breaker but it does provide in its last half hour set one of the most intense assaults on the senses that cinema has ever created.

It’s overlong, it’s melodramatic, it’s preachy and more often than not it’s a child kicking its foot in the dirt with hands in pockets because it doesn’t know how to play nice with everyone else and now is forced to spend time alone. Maybe its playing out so scornfully is a function of a super-human sense that no matter what it does, some critics are just going to tear it limb from limb. Similar to how the fanbase is likely to poke holes all through its not-so-textured skin, columnists at large — probably not Lois Lane or Perry White though — are going to have, and have been having this week, a field day trying to convince the rest of the populace why it’s not something you should go and see. Hilarious. That’s like an armor-less Batman going toe-to-toe with a Kryptonian and expecting to emerge the victor.

Despite the film suffering once again from gorging on an overabundance of material, the overarching narrative remains simple and simply compelling: this is the episode where the Batman and the man of steel get into a bit of a spat. An older, wiser and ever more embittered Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) fears the powers of the metahuman known as Kal-El/Superman (Henry Cavill) will perpetually go unchecked unless he intervenes. Meanwhile, the other guy doesn’t think much of all the vigilantism in Gotham that has only succeeded in perpetuating the “weed effect,” as a dejected Batman himself puts it — you crush one weed and pull it out only for another to grow in its place. He’s talking, of course, about criminals. The Dark Knight hasn’t done shit in the way of gardening in the last several years when we first swoop in to meet him.

Zack Snyder, putting himself in the crosshairs much like J.J. Abrams did last year, reaffirms that his gritty style challenges the senses, and that your eyes and ears in particular best come prepared in this bombastic epic that pits the stealthy deceptiveness of Batman against the brutal physicality of Superman — a being, it ought to be said, finds himself falling out of favor with much of mankind following the destructive events in Metropolis two years prior. There’s much anticipation for how a modern film could or should handle the DC Universe’s version of the Neo-Agent Smith battle (sans the whole thing about one of them being a total psycho bent on the unequivocal destruction of man), and yet, for all that’s at stake, Snyder impressively manages to contain his excitement, teasing out the relationship patiently . . . perhaps too patiently for some.

That’s why half of the film manifests as a relatively slow meditation on a number of more human concerns: things like aging, losing one’s relevance, sense of purpose and the loss of innocence are all touched, though never harped upon. Some areas could use some expansion, surely. And yes, that would mean sacrificing a bit of the pixelated action sequences later on. But it’s the steady camerawork of Larry Fong that guides us through the seedy streets of a broken Metropolis, as well as a still-despairing Gotham, an observance of how both time and people have moved on. There’s a bittersweetness to the way Affleck carries himself as a 40-ish-year-old man in a cape whom most have forgotten about by now. There’s a longing for a return to the time when Kal-El first thundered his way to earth, an aura of mystery (or is that terror?) swirling about his godly physique and impossible strength.

Dawn of Justice is most powerful when it’s sending up the deific Kal-El; there are some unforgettable shots of the man in the red cape, one in particular of him hovering above a flooded town, a mother reaching out to him from the rooftop of a submerged house recalls Regan’s possessed soul clawing for the form of Pazuzu outside her window, only in this case we’d like to think the reach is one towards heaven and not hell. Then there’s the image of Cavill’s face imploding in the vacuum of space, his body dangling in suspended animation before awakening once again. If you were asking me which figure is done the most justice (e-hem), I favor Cavill’s Superman. As an image, he’s too powerful, too ferocious, too graceful to ignore. And the Brit looks comfortable as ever in the suit.

It’s not for a lack of trying for Affleck. Unfortunately he’s in a similar position as Jared Leto, attempting to put his own spin on an icon that has been so solidified in the most recent Dark Knight trilogy that any steps taken to divorce from that image will inevitably be labeled as at best inferior and at worst unholy. Affleck doesn’t seem to mind the pressure though; he’s convincing as a surlier, lonelier billionaire with a penchant for creating lots of fancy, shiny new toys and Jeremy Irons as Alfred makes for wonderful companionship but it’s just not the same as Christian Bale and Michael Caine. It’s just not. For these most somber of circumstances though, perhaps this is the Dark Knight we deserve.

For all of its visual symbolism and the bravado with which Cavfleck (please let me be the person to coin that one) carries itself throughout, there are some questionable decisions that hold Dawn of Justice back from becoming the classic it is so close to being. I’m not referring to Jesse Eisenberg’s brilliantly unhinged performance as the evil genius Lex Luthor — his nervous, passive-aggressive and awkward countenance isn’t a natural thing to watch at first but the guy builds some serious strength as the movie plods forward and as his position in this universe becomes slightly more clear. I’m also not referring to the limited screen time afforded Gal Gadot’s ass-kicking Diana Prince/Wonder Woman (though this was an aspect that let me down considerably).

No, the concern is more of a financial nature, and how the studio seems to have mishandled the responsibility of allocating resources properly. For a film budgeted at an estimated $250 million (you can make 25 movies for that price tag), it sure doesn’t look like it. Perhaps part of the issue here is inherent in the sprawling ambition of the story. Because we are dealing with so much complexity, one of the battles Snyder and company picked was to close the physical gap between Metropolis and Gotham, such that only the Delaware River separates these two disparate worlds. When human-Krypton-Bat drama eventually reaches critical mass and the ultimate threat is revealed, so much happens in one indeterminate pile of rubble that nothing looks good.

In some ways the quasi-headache that the action set piece becomes finds us at the threshold of ridiculousness; our demand for quality superhero cinema shouldn’t rely on CGI orgies to get the job done. But that’s old news since the superhero movie fad took off (thanks Iron Man). The only way it seems possible to hit home how crazy these creations are is to go upwards, in one direction. In keeping with what Holly Hunter’s Senator Finch decrees during one of the inevitable government intervention scenes, unilateral decision making is bad for business. But that still doesn’t really answer the mystery as to why, with all of this money, the CGI renderings in particular stand-out moments look like extracts from films in the late ’90s and early 2000s. It’s bizarre.

What’s not bizarre is the critical derision Dawn of Justice is suffering. This is what happened with Man of Steel, remember? Superman stepped in and parted the red sea of fandom. Dawn of Justice is mind-blowing in some aspects and lacks restraint, thereby quality control and thereby consistency, in others. It’s huge and it’s a few trims shy of a true final cut. But it is at the basic level, entertaining and that’s all this little dude wanted out of a movie of this scale. Maybe I regret not being a fanboy?

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Recommendation: . . . do I . . . do I have to say something here? Really? Okay. Well, if you’re on the fence about this, the good news is that Ben Affleck isn’t a disaster (he’s also no Christian Bale) and that the film also makes some room for female talent and as macho as the film is, the timing of Wonder Woman is spine-tingly well-judged. She’s reason enough to go see this. So is Jeremy Irons. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 153 mins.

Quoted: “The Red Capes are coming! The Red Capes are coming!”

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Big Eyes

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Release: Christmas Day 2014

[Theater]

Written by: Scott Alexander; Larry Karaszewski 

Directed by: Tim Burton

Tim Burton’s latest feels a little on the safe side. Why does that sound like I’m complaining? Shouldn’t the one thing that I ought to be doing right now be praising the director’s efforts for attempting to reach for a new muse? I guess more than anything I’m afraid for Waltz (or Amy Adams for that matter), as I don’t want either of them to end up floating down a chocolate river sometime soon in their careers. That’s a concern that’s as metaphorical as it is literal.

Because you never know with Burton. The next muse he might find could be a tap-dancing lizard. But there is one thing that’s clear about him this time: he’s willing to tone down the weird — or dispense with it completely — if it serves the subject properly. I have time for any artist who is willing to show humility, especially those this far into careers that have thus far worked even moderately well for them. In years past, there hasn’t seemed to have been a great deal of suspense when it came to anticipating (and later experiencing) one of his projects. You know what you are going to get with him, despite not knowing precisely what you are going to be shown on screen. Fine for everyone who has bought into his peculiar brand.

It’s different with Big Eyes. This doesn’t feel like that one thing that has captured another ‘it’ actor in a bubble; mostly that’s due to Christoph Waltz’s inability to be described as such. The man’s talent knows no bounds. Plus, he probably doesn’t want to hang out in a bubble anyway. Adams, the same. And it’s not like this story is so familiar that any sort of contemporary revisitation would become an exercise in embarrassingly transparent superfluity at the corporate level (Dracula: Untold, my big eyes are on you). In a way, Burton ought to be credited for taking something as endearing as ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ and renovating it so much it’s no longer recognizable to even its most blue-faced fanatics.

Big Eyes concerns the personal and (lack of) professional life of one Margaret Keane (née Peggy Doris Hawkins), a woman who marries an artist she meets on a sun-spackled San Francisco boulevard because he is a bit of a charmer. He also can provide the financial support she and her daughter Jane both desperately need. That same husband would later claim credit for every piece she created while locked away in an attic outfitted as a dingy art studio. That’s no spoiler if you’re familiar with the Keane story. But I’ll keep my big mouth shut when it comes to revealing the manner in which this typically extravagant director goes about solving Margaret’s problems with her increasingly cartoonishly delusional husband. Suffice it to say this is Burton’s most accessible story in years, even if the subject matter might not appeal.

His film truly showcases some gorgeous artwork, and it is within these delicate frames — portraits, typically of children with gaping, vacant eyes standing against drab backgrounds — that some semblance of Burton’s infectious spirit pops out at the viewer. It’s restrained to the point of manifesting as another artist miming his style, but there’s no plagiarism going on here. On occasion Margaret’s dedication to maintaining the lie that she has helped build around herself, purely out of fear of crumbling the family’s financial empire that has gloriously arisen out of it, contributes to her hallucinations of people having actual big eyes. Once more Tim Burton reveals himself but for only brief interludes.

Big Eyes is something to admire, if not for the way it belies Burton’s fascination with the absurd, then for its distancing from it. It’s not the first time Burton has done something besides messing with skeleton-looking. . .thingies. . .for an inspiration but this is probably the furthest he’s been from actually thinking about them in sometime. There’s a profound respect he has for Margaret’s work here that shall not be denied. After all, in the 1990s he did commission the artist to paint a portrait of his then-girlfriend Lisa Marie. Hopefully that one hangs right beside an eerie oil-on-canvas of Willy Wonka grinning ear-to-ear, standing directly behind a wide-eyed Charlie Bucket.

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3-0Recommendation: While Big Eyes isn’t the most inspired piece of film you’ll see this year (whoops this was supposed to be posted last year), this is a passionate love letter to the artistic style of Margaret Keane and her ‘big eyes’ portraits. The narrative brims with a potent fascination with the times, the people, and the art itself and it gives weight to both the artist and the husband behind her in equal measure. Waltz and Adams are both spectacular and their performances make this film memorable. Ultimately, this just doesn’t feel like a Tim Burton film, despite his obvious infatuation with Keane’s unique style.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 105 mins.

Quoted: “Good God, it’s a movement. . .”

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Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com 

American Hustle

American-Hustle-Poster

Release: Friday, December 20, 2013

[Theater]

Catch Me If You Can‘s little brother decides to show its face in 2013, sporting a cool name, a slick, sexy visage and the necessary wardrobe/make-up department to cover up all the acne pimples and skin blemishes its suffering from as it starts to stumble awkwardly into adolescence.

To that end, little bro has turned out to be quite the attention whore as well (if guys can be whores). My, how the previews have hyped this one up; puffed up its chest to the point where one might think if it were pricked by a pin, the entire thing would explode. But the only thing that would rush out — don’t worry, it wouldn’t be all gory and bloody — would be a substantial amount of air. That would be the sound of an ego slowly deflating as the excessive two-hour runtime plods ever onward.

The story of American Hustle is similar to the story of Frank William Abignale, Jr., at least structurally, in that it purposely meanders, it likes to take its time developing, and (here’s some great news) it makes outstanding use of a cast that is to die for. That last quality applies more to David O. Russell’s follow-up to Silver Linings Playbook, considering it has possibly the best one of the year.

Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) is a con man with a hairline not many would be jealous of. His fashion-oriented, equally cunning partner-in-crime Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) finds the man to be a little physically out of shape but his confidence and mental tenacity far outweigh his belly. Together they con people out of thousands of dollars, posing as art appreciators or collectors. . .or, whatever they are. Getting hung up on those details is not so important. What is, though, is the fact that their good luck of making money illegally eventually will run out, and indeed they get busted by the loose cannon FBI Agent Richie DiMaso (an incredibly fun Bradley Cooper).

DiMaso strikes a deal with the pair, telling them that if they apply their skills to a sting operation in which he’s targeting some of the nation’s most crooked politicians and power brokers, both Irving and Sydney will be pardoned of their previous crimes. They need four major busts, which will include nabbing Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner). They soon embark on a wild journey through some of the most politically corrupt and criminally-linked tiers of society that inhabit the streets of 1970s New York City.

While it features a grab-bag of talent, little bro is pretty reluctant to get out of bed in the morning. The opening act drags us deeply into the slightly questionable relationship between Irving and Sydney. But O. Russell realizes we need to have an anchor point somewhere with a cast this large; he attempts to root our emotions the deepest with this only slightly more empathetic duo. But once we are through the first thirty or so minutes, the real fun and glamour commences.

American Hustle seriously benefits from O. Russell’s direction, as he cleverly infuses a substantial bit of humor with some scenes of solid tension and applies it to the entire colorful cast in nearly equal measure. Jennifer Lawrence plays up Irving’s unstable wife Rosalyn perfectly — it’s nearly impossible to think the actress is a mere 23 years old (two years older than my little brother for crying out loud), as her performances, perhaps capped off by this one, are marks of an incredibly matured, seasoned actress. The director’s hand and the talented cast blend for some truly brilliant scenes that make up for American Hustle‘s otherwise rather bland and frankly disappointing story.

After you strip down the fancy clothes, the over-the-top characterizations and lush, elegant settings, what you have left might be best described as a pissing contest between professional liars and cheaters. Who shall come out on top? Chances are, it won’t be the ones most are expecting from the outset. And chances also are that none of them are quite as adept as Frank William Abagnale, Jr., to invite yet another comparison. Unfortunately such comparisons are hard to avoid when the essence of the story is so similar. This may be a more glamorous cast to stick with, but expectation levels are so high with this film that anything less than perfect feels a little like a con in itself.

True that the art of conning is made more complicated here, since it will involve the government (whereas DiCaprio’s character was constantly outlasting and outsmarting it). Still, there’s a lot left to be desired when this one concludes.

American Hustle is nonetheless a pretty fun time at the movies. Reiterating, there are some sequences and moments that shout Oscar potential and there’s no denying each incredibly talented performer here is having a blast with the material. A lot of that can also be pinned down to what they get to wear, though. Brad Cooper’s hair in curlers is downright chuckle-worthy. The banter back and forth between Cooper and Bale is priceless. The last thing that springs to mind when seeing Lawrence here is Katniss Everdeen. Heck, even Amy Adams is decent.

Throw in a couple of silly cameos and you’ve got a little brother that flaunts his swagger so casually you don’t really mind because you know he’s putting it to good use more than you are.

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3-0Recommendation: American Hustle is a raucous comedy that is mostly successful in bringing forth the laughs. It’s story is a little confusing at times and it won’t be until the very end that things become clear (if they do at all), but as long as you go in with an open mind and expectation levels at a reasonable height, this should be the fun you might necessarily expect out of all this excess bullshot. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 129 mins.

Quoted: “I believe that you should treat people the way you want to be treated, didn’t Jesus say that? Also, always take a favor over money. Effin’ Jesus said that as well.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.moviehdwallpapers.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Man of Steel

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Release: Friday, June 14, 2013

[Theater]

You could sit and argue all day whether what’s inscribed on Superman’s chest is an ‘S’ or a symbol of hope, but it should take little to no time at all coming to the conclusion that the epic new blockbuster from Zack Snyder (who directed 300) is just that — epic.

Unfortunately the term ‘epic’ and similarly lofty descriptions are often two-sided coins, and have this tendency to invite criticism more than they do praise since these words conjure up the idea that nothing has been or will be coming close to this particular standard, at least not any time soon. Hyperbole is so easy to use when describing superhero films and in particular, the reboots thereof, and I really don’t want to go into this review using a boatload of them; however there is almost no other way. This film is just so intensely visual and action-packed it is a total manifestation of that one word.

This is both a blessing and a curse when it comes to talking Man of Steel. Grand in its scale, sprawling in its running time, and ambitious in its execution of a relatively simple plot, it seems as though Snyder has bitten off a little more than he could chew with this one. Only so much can be gained out of a bombastic vision: Michael Bay (and I’m not comparing this movie to a Michael Bay movie, just to clarify. . . ) sacrifices even halfway decent dialogue and character development for the sake of spectacle and CGI parties because that is his style. He’s become a lightning rod for criticism in that regard. Christopher Nolan (who operates in a producer capacity for this adventure) bases his characters in reality and lets the action speak for itself, thus making it more authentic and believable, as opposed to the sheer awe factor that comes with an excess of exploding shit. Other directors have their own styles that define works possessing various other strengths and/or weaknesses. But here, Snyder seems to be throwing everything including the kitchen sink at Man of Steel, hoping that whatever sticks sticks firmly. Well, some does and some does not.For all of the film’s surprising shortcomings, the more critical factors worked in its favor, leaving only details (some may say big details) to be left as questionable.

For all of the film’s surprising shortcomings, the more critical factors worked in its favor, leaving only details (some may say big details) to be left as questionable.

Snyder begins the film in spectacular fashion, focusing on a Krypton that is falling apart due to the planet’s unstable core. In the midst of all the panic, we bear witness to Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and Lara (Ayelet Zurer) giving up their only child so that he may live elsewhere in the universe, free of the destruction of his home world. It is a heartbreaking moment and a heck of a way to start things off. The journey to Earth is also compelling and this transitional scene manages to connect our two worlds as succinctly and brilliantly as I (and I’m sure scores of years-old fans of Superman) had hoped.

When we cut to a scene that’s obviously years after his crash-landing in Kansas, we see a fully grown and disheveled looking man (Henry Cavill) who at once appears displaced and lonely. He’s working as a sea fisherman, which is pretty much one of the most isolated jobs I can think of off the top of my head.

Despite the following sequence being a hodgepodge of flashbacks and flash-forwards, this hectic arrangement of scenes allows us to really get a big-picture perspective of how this incredible individual is adapting to our world. Indeed, I’ve read more than a few reviews that indicate relief that we are spared the “growing-up” First Act, which could have just as easily been used here. Where he’s been and who he has tried to be is vital to the story Snyder has gone with here. We are experiencing a more honest characterization of Superman, and it’s just the earlygoing here. (At least, I’m assuming there’ll be sequels — plural.)

These early days — that is to say, pre-General Zod invasion — build interesting drama, but not in an overt way. The scenes in which young Clark Kent (I love that adoptive name, by the way) and his “father” Jonathan (Kevin Costner) talk about his place in the world are wonderfully written, and they really help contribute to a growing list of reasons why we should love and care about Superman….er, rather, Clark’s life and what the future holds for him. “You’ll have to decide what kind of man you want to grow up to be,” he tells Clark, who’s just recently been hassled by some bullies from school. There is a poignancy in these small moments that really help carry and build momentum to the spectacular action sequences that still lay ahead — you know, the stuff that probably most of us are going to see this movie for.

Clark/Kal-El’s departure from Krypton does not go unnoticed, though. The impossibly angry and powerful General Zod (Michael Shannon) soon emerges from the cloak of deep space and delivers a chilling message to the human race. Unfortunately his message goes the cliched, blockbuster route and is only but one example of some of the glaring weaknesses of the Goyer/Nolan script. It goes a little something like this: “Hand over the suited hero, or we destroy the planet.” The foreshadowing of a gigantic scene of violence and chaos is less than subtle, to say the least.

Even with a star-studded cast, including those behind the cameras and the ones responsible for the script, there is a lot left to be desired in moments that are not filled with an incredible amount of CGI. The Lois and Clark relationship is neither as accurate nor as compelling as I was hoping for, and we still are plagued with a lot of the cheese-factor as it pertains to bystander reaction and the general mass confusion of the populace of our world, as told by the blank expressions set on only a few faces — some military leaders, the staff at the Daily Planet, for example. I thought we would be past this with a cast (again, referring to more than just those on-screen) as talented as this.

Even with a star-studded cast, including those behind the cameras and the ones responsible for the script, there is a lot left to be desired in moments that are not filled with an incredible amount of CGI. The Lois and Clark relationship is neither as accurate nor as compelling as I was hoping for, and we still are plagued with a lot of the cheese-factor as it pertains to bystander reaction and the general mass confusion of the populace of our world, as told by the blank expressions set on only a few faces — some military leaders, the staff at the Daily Planet, for example. I thought we would be past this with a cast (again, referring to more than just those on-screen) as talented as this.

There is also no holding back during the massive fight scene that comprises the climax of this film (a.k.a. the Third Act; seriously, the final showdown must be at least 45 minutes in length). The action does get a little numbing. How many skyscrapers can we count where Superman and Zod crash through at lightning speed? Though this may seem like a trivial complaint, the end of the film suffers from a bit of a bloated ego — mostly as a result of Snyder thinking this needed to have the most grandiose of grandiose send-offs when in fact there is likely going to be more installments under the guise of Man of Steel. Don’t get me wrong — seeing what Superman is fully capable of in this particular case was exhilarating. But to a point. The film could have benefitted from some editing; somehow seeing him disappear under the harsh laser of Zod’s impressive ‘World Engine’ just didn’t do much for me when everything leading up to it has been just as insane.

There is one thing that has been overlooked quite terribly, though. There’s a consensus about this film’s lack of humor or discernible “warmth” to the script, or even to the characters, that distances Man of Steel from it’s theoretical potential. Such is simply a gross oversight and misses the point of this film’s purpose: bringing Superman back full-strength and true to the character. He’s human, but not really. He’s invincible, but not really. He’s a member of planet Earth, but. . . not really. Notice how none of these are really descriptions of Tony Stark, Spider-man (at least the Tobey Maguire version), nor the Green Lantern — the likes of which Clark Kent is most definitely not.

Wit and the inescapable buddy-buddy relationships in other action films don’t have much of a place in Man of Steel. Superman walks alone; this is part of the motif not just for this 2013 version, but of any of the films made. This movie’s title alone suggests a ‘colder,’ more dispassionate atmosphere, and is evidenced by the immediate introduction of General Zod who commands as much screen time as Henry Cavill’s God-like physique. Realistically, the world is a cold place. While I thought there could have been a few more happenstance laughs (Nolan does that quite nicely in his Dark Knight saga) sprinkled throughout, the purpose here is not to be funny. It is to drop those jaws to the floor.

It’s just too bad that most of that comes from the magic of special effects, and is not the result of incredible scriptwriting in conjunction with impressive action. So. . . ultimately, is the final product successful in the sense that it lived up to the record-levels of hype building up to its release? That’s very easy to answer: no it isn’t. Is it a good film? Most definitely. It’s epic and sweeping. We go to so many places within this film, and so easily too. It may be easier to overlook some of the many flaws within the narrative for some people and harder for others. Opinions are going to vary widely, but there’s no denying the size and beautiful grandeur of Snyder’s vision.

The director may have set his sights a little high going into this project, and he’s also no superhero who can shoot lasers from his eyes (which would be badass). But his film has taken an awfully hard bashing, more so than it deserves. If there was this much anticipation going into this film and the result is a mediocre 57% on Rotten Tomatoes, then there’s no telling what the damage will be with expectations for the next installment. . .

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4-0Recommendation: While it’s not vintage Christopher Reeve, this is a film that holds nothing back with energy and visual splendor. The best way to enjoy this film — and although it’s probably impossible to avoid seeing extra spoilers or reveals by now — is to go in with an open mind. Make your own opinion on this new take on Superman. Highbrows and perfectionists, yes, are going to be in varying degrees let down. The casual moviegoer is going to be blown away. The ratio of the latter to the former is something like 10:1, so it’s important to keep that in mind as you watch this behemoth unfold.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 143 mins.

Quoted: “You will give the people of Earth an ideal to strive towards. They will race behind you, they will stumble, they will fall. But in time, they will join you in the sun, Kal. In time, you will help them accomplish wonders.” 

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com