Wednesday, April 8, 2015

It Follows

IT FOLLOWS: Maika Monroe, Keir Gilchrist, Olivia Luccardi, Lili Sepe, Daniel Zovatto, Jake Weary, directed by David Robert Mitchell (100 min.)

It Follows begins with a chilling and disorienting scene, and it builds upon that mystery and initial shock to deliver one of the more inventive and refreshing horror movies in years. A young woman runs out of her home, stands frightened in the middle of the street, then takes a strange circular run back into her house, past her father, retrieves her keys, and drives away to the beach. Nothing is explained to us, and we don’t need it explained; the music, the wonderfully synthetic, prickly score, lets us know things are going poorly for this tragic figure.

From that virtuoso opening sequence, we move into the characters and the central story. In a faceless city (filmed in Detroit), in a timeless existence, there is Jay (Maika Monroe), a beautiful young girl who lives with her sister and alcoholic mother, who is a mere background prop. Seen from behind, slightly off camera, or out of focus, Jay’s mother is necessarily absent for the film to take shape. Jay has her sister, her friend Yara, and her childhood crush Paul, played with a desperate longing by Keir Gilchrist. She also has an older boyfriend, Hugh (Jake Weary), who would like to sleep with her. Jay doesn’t object.

Eventually Jay and Hugh have sex in his car in the middle of nowhere, but Hugh is hiding a secret. He forcibly takes Jay to an abandoned paking garage and warns her that something, or someone, is going to follow her now, and it wants to kill her. This thing could take the shape of a complete stranger or someone familiar to Jay, Hugh doesn’t really know. What he does know is that sex passes this threat along to the next person, and he is hoping to rid himself of the apparition by sending it Jay’s way.

Immediately, Jay begins seeing this… thing… this person. Be it an old woman, a young nude woman, a large man, it doesn’t matter, this apparition walks blankly towards Jay no matter where she might be. These scenes are handled perfectly, save for a scene near the middle which takes on a beach that seems to change the rules of the apparition for the worse. Director David Robert Mitchell, who also wrote the screenplay, has supreme confidence in his ability to build suspense and keep the horrific at a minimum. Because suspense, we all know, is better.

Consider one scene at a high school, as the camera rotates 360 degrees the entire time. As Jay and Paul are inside the building, the camera spins, showing the doors to the building, then the exterior, then back to Jay and Paul. We catch sight of someone walking towards the building outside, then we spin around, and when we get back to that shot, they have gotten closer and are still mindlessly walking. Then, we are gone again, filled with building dread; I could feel the tension in my muscles.

Mitchell manages to weave a tapestry full of familiar horror films and still manages to make this story feel entirely original. The neighborhood resembles those found in Halloween and Nightmare on Elm St. There are echoes of the madness in Suspiria, of the early horrors of Roman Polanski, and the mood and synthetic score make everything feel like a spare European film. One scene in particular hearkens to Let The Right One In. The texture of the cinematography is true, and Mitchell’s characters are fully realized. These teenage girls and young men are not brainless, sex-crazed idiots stamped out of the disdainful clichés of so many horror films. Despite the fact that the entire film revolves around sex and is a clear allegory for STDs, the coitus is not as important as the desperation of these tightly knit friends.

I already mentioned the scene at the beach that doesn’t quite fit in with what we get before or after this moment, and I’ll leave it at that. It’s one scene and it doesn’t pack the punch of the rest of the film. But the end, well, the end seems to stumble. It works on a frenetic level of horror and action, but the subtle and disturbing thrills that came before it are not as present here. We are treated to action, albeit well crafted action. And the reveal after this scene adds some weight to what happened. Mitchell isn’t quite sure how to wrap up the film, so he leaves it open ended, and leaves us with a handful of different shots we must decipher on our own. On one hand I appreciate the trust in the audience to make their own conclusions, on the other hand, the tapestry that was so tightly woven up to this point feels like it frays ever so slightly.

Regardless, It Follows is something anyone who appreciates new visionaries in horror should definitely see.


Tuesday, April 7, 2015

BLU REVIEW: A Most Violent Year

J.C. Chandor's A Most Violent Year, his follow up to the phenomenally minimalist Robert Redford lost-at-sea drama All Is Lost, suffers from a serious identity crisis. The film has no idea if it wants to be a gangster picture, a labor-related drama, a story of redemption, or a family thriller. It tries to balance all of these plates in the air, and the result is an aimless, lifeless story, suffocated by its lack of focus.

The cast is stellar, and Chandor certainly knows how to patiently stage scenes and effectively frame his story. But there is almost nothing to latch on to here. Oscar Isaac is Abel Morales, the hero of the story, a businessman who is constantly fighting an uphill battle. His trade: a heating oil business with a fleet of delivery trucks, trucks that are consistently under the threat of being hijacked. Despite the pleas of his father in law and his more aggressive wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain), to arm the truck drivers, Abel wants nothing to do with anything illegal. He has morals which drive his business acumen and may keep him from truly getting in with the right crowds in a poisonous, corrupt New York governmental system.

Abel has another motivation to stay on the straight and narrow, and that is District Attorney Lawrence (Selma's David Oyelowo). Lawrence is tasked with cleaning up the corruption in the business industry of NYC, and despite Abel's claims that his nose is clean, Lawrence is absolutely convinced he is operating dirty somewhere. Not because he has been involved in criminal activity before, but because he must be in order to stay alive as a business in this climate. The forces are weighing heavy on Abel's shoulders, and he remains strong despite the fact that illegality may be the easier way to success.

And yet, with so much set in place, with the stakes as high as they are, and with so many compelling actors on the screen, A Most Violent Year moves at a glacial pace. There is no forward momentum, and the tension is stifled by scenes where very little happens. I'm not asking for shootouts and car chases, but the performances from the likes of Isaac and Chastain feel nothing like what these actors are capable of doing. They both seem tired, disinterested. Even though Chastain has some powerful moments, they feel forced, and Isaac seems to be distracted throughout. Chandor's camera is slick and there are some beautiful scenes, but the story is claustrophobic.

Also, the entire basis of the film involves New York in 1981, which is known for being the most violent year on record for the city. Hence the name of the film. But there is hardly a mention of that outside of this narrow tale. The violent history of the year is never a focus of the film, despite it being the title. That was a lost opportunity, as was the majority of the film.


Friday, March 20, 2015

The Gunman

THE GUNMAN: Sean Penn, Jasmine Trinca, Javier Bardem, Ray Winstone, Idris Elba, directed by Pierre Morel (115 min.)

Maybe it's the lowered expectations I had going in, or maybe I have become so starved in these early months of 2015 for a halfway decent film, but I found myself gradually buying into The Gunman. While the film has nothing new to offer in really any way, something about it works. Some of the time. It's a fight to praise the film, yes, but the performances seem to keep the film above water, a film that has a painfully predictable screenplay and hits all the proper notes of action formula. But it is March, and for March you can do much worse.

Sean Penn bulks up and goes shirtless an awkward amount of time to play Jim Terrier, a mercenary for hire in the opening scenes of The Gunman. Jim is working to protect humanitarian workers in the Congo, including his girlfriend Annie (Jasmine Trinca), but he is also working a parallel contract that involves the assassination of a government official. When Jim pulls off the assassination he must flee the continent, leaving his girlfriend in the care of Felix (Javier Bardem), a jealous civilian worker who obviously played a hand in Jim's departure. The assassination also happens to send the Congo into a tailspin.

Fast forward eight years and Jim, still haunted by his actions, has returned to the Congo to do some humanitarian work. Almost immediately an attempt is made on his life, and he returns to London to try and figure out who is responsible and why. This is where the film falls into its painfully recycled formula, with double crosses and globetrotting to luxurious locales including London and Barcelona, among others. There is also the trusted "guy who knows everything about the seedy underground" who gives Penn all the information he (and the audience) needs, played by Ray Winstone. There are a few things the story tries desperately to do to freshen up the static storyline, including Jim suffering from brain trauma that cripples him and may even kill him, and a love triangle between Jim, Jasmine, and Felix.

Felix is married to Jasmine in the present, in a marriage of convenience, and Bardem lights up the screen in his small role. Felix had some profit to gain from the assassination, and has since become a drunk living in the Spanish countryside. Bardem shines like a beacon in the background of formula, but once he exits the proceeding the film struggles to stay afloat.

The action scenes in The Gunman are creative enough to hold interest, and a shootout near the midway point involving a fire in a bathroom feels decidedly fresh. There is also a showdown near the end of the film that I found myself quite involved in, because Penn's character doesn't feel like a superhero. He is vulnerable just enough to make him interesting. Some complain the film doesn't have enough action, but it sure felt like there was plenty to me. The relationship between Jim and Jasmine, however, is a mighty struggle. The film grinds to a halt when these two exchange platitudes seemingly pulled from every other movie ever written. "I thought about you every second," Jim tells Jasmine in his apology. Yawn.

Which leads me to the screenplay, the real problem here. While there were a few good ideas scattered throughout, and director Pierre Morel made the best of his beautiful locations (the climax at a bullfight in Barcelona is especially nice looking), the screenplay absolutely crushes any hopes the film had of being memorable. From the outset, and I mean the very first few seconds, everything that was to come could be easily figured out by anyone whose seen more than a dozen or so action films.

Without Sean Penn's devotion and physical dedication to the role, and the wily turn from Javier Bardem, The Gunman would be absolutely dead in the water. It is a real effort to praise the film, but something about it worked on a simplistic level, enough to where I can't absolutely deny the film's existence. I recommend it for anyone who wants to get away for two hours, but just barely.


Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Why It's Time To Recognize Michael Mann's Miami Vice As The Great Film It Is.

Preconception can doom a film, regardless of the film's ultimate merits. Occasionally, critics and audiences go into a picture with ideas and notions about what they should see, so when they see something that doesn't match up with what they had already imprinted in their memory, negativity creeps into their opinions. Backlash builds, and a film can be crippled no matter how good it may be in the face of what was expected.

Michael Mann's 2006 film, Miami Vice, exists in the realm of his 80s police drama in name - and names - alone. Prior to the film's release, in the months leading up, the very mention of Mann returning to his wildly successful hyper-colored cop show filled audiences and critics with images of alligators and pastels. Colin Farrell and Jaime Foxx were set to take over the roles of Sonny Crockett and Ricardo Tubbs, and with the brilliant crime-drama mind of Mann at the helm, anticipation built in the summer of '06. And then, when the film hit theaters, fans of the show left scratching their heads, wondering what they had just seen.

There were no alligators, no pastel colors, no bright colors at all really. The Miami Vice film didn't resemble the successful show in just about any way, outside of the fact that Crockett and Tubbs were involved, and they were cops. Critical and audience response was lukewarm at best. While some critics praised the film, many left the theater feeling hollow, and some missed the point entirely. Claudia Puig of USA Today said "All this movie has in common with its ancestor are speedboats, shotguns, and drug-dealing Colombians." Puig, along with the majority of critics and audiences, were so consumed with what they expected, that they forgot to acknowledge what they were seeing. What they were seeing was one of Michael Mann's very best films, and one of the most direct and visually stunning crime dramas of all time.

Farrell and Foxx are Crockett and Tubbs, and much of the criticism towards this film over the years has been their lack of chemistry on screen. They barely seem to talk to each other when they go undercover in some of the most threatening situations on the planet. This is the very point. These are two undercover officers who have lived and breathed almost every second with each other in some compromising situations, seemingly for years. They are more than partners, more than brothers, they must function as one mind sometimes to stay ahead of the criminals they are infiltrating. Their lack of dialogue with each other is the most realistic aspect of the story, and it fits where these characters are in their lives. The absence of exposition doesn't keep Crockett and Tubbs from being fleshed out, in my mind it only enhances their history with each other.

Consider the way they're filmed when they're involved in the same scenes: almost always in the same shot, rarely are they separated unless the scene calls for it. If it is Crockett thinking about or interacting with Isabella (Gong Li), or Tubbs worrying about the fate of his girlfriend and coworker, Trudy (Naomi Harris), they are shot separately. But in the moments where the job is top of mind, they are exclusively framed together:

Another knock on the film is that the plot is convoluted and left too blurry. Not the case. And on top of that, the criticism that a film is not explained enough is a lazy critique. If everything is laid out on the table in a paint-by-numbers screenplay, everything becomes watered down, lacking any tension. While the audience is trying to keep up with loyalties and the dealings of Crockett and Tubbs, the tension of the scenes and situations stays palpable because of the lack of absolute clarity. 

And, much like the intended silence between the two cops, the scarcity of plot description is purely intentional in my eyes. Mann's idea with Miami Vice is to drop the audience right in the middle of the lives of these officers, as evidenced by the superior theatrical cut (not the director's cut, which loses some steam in the opening boat race) that opens abruptly, with Crockett, Tubbs, and their undercover team working to nab some sex traders in a club. The jarring entry immediately puts the audience on their toes, and forces them to work through what is happening as it is happening. 

Working from that, Mann's intention to drop the viewer right into the action is his way of making the viewer feel like a participant, not simply an observer. In the secret conversations and back room dealings, what is left unsaid would most certainly be the case in the real world, so any lack of that member of the cast who is put there just to bring us in (a la Ellen Page in Inception) creates an immediacy, and an intimacy with these characters and their current situations. The audience is sitting in the room with Crocket and Tubbs as they work their deals, not observing from a safe, well-informed distance.

Not enough action. Another poor criticism. Saying Miami Vice is dull or lacking of any real action is a personal opinion I suppose, but I found plenty of action here. There was not action for the sake of action, sure, and there were really no explosions aside from the trailer park in the film's third act. If you need more action and car chases, fine, but don't ignore the action that is here. Speaking of that trailer park scene, the assault on the trailer is rife with tension. Even in the action scenes, the moves of characters are quick, concise, and lean. The final shootout is procedural in nature, and the leanness of the action keeps this picture firmly in reality. 

Aside from the internal structure of Miami Vice, the look of the film is stunning. Mann uses deep-focus composition and his digital mastery to create a rich world of deep, dark colors. The majority of the film takes place at night, but the day scenes are rich with detail, especially the scenes in Cuba. The scene pictured above, with Crockett and Tubbs standing in front of a purple night sky, is one of the most captivating and beautiful shots in any of his films. 

Michael Mann is most comfortable in crime drama, and his best films outside of The Insider (Thief and Heat), deal with both sides of the criminal element. But Miami Vice is easily his most overlooked picture, and maybe his last great film. It never got the love it deserved on its initial release, and is too often ignored these days. It's time for everyone who cares to take another look at this film with a new perspective. Don't go into this film with Don Johnson in your mind, go into this film expecting a lean, brilliant thriller. You won't be disappointed. 

Monday, March 9, 2015


CHAPPIE: Dev Patel, Ninja, Yo-Landi Visser, Hugh Jackman, Sigourney Weaver, directed by Neill Blomkamp (120 min.)

Chappie is a mixture of just about every other "robot" movie around, existing somewhere between Robocop and Short Circuit. It exists between those films in theory, but resides below both of them in quality. Come to think of it, I'd put Robocop 2 and Short Circuit 2 above Chappie, a mean-spirited, cynical mess of tone that is so aggressively hateful it created anxiety in me at times. Maybe Neill Bomkamp had a good movie somewhere in the early stages of development, but somewhere along the way things fell apart in just about every conceivable way.

Taking place in Blomkamp's native South Africa, the film revolves around a crime-addled Johannesburg in need of stronger police presence. A young tech nerd named Deon creates a robotic police force that is successful, but Deon wants the robots to do more. He wants them to have their own intelligence, to be self aware, because Deon has never seen any movies about artificial intelligence so he has no idea what could ever go wrong. Deon is a technical wizard, but as a character, he is an idiot. Just like everyone in this film.

When Deon's request to use an out-of-commission robot to experiment with his self-aware program is shot down by the corporations' boss, played by Sigourney Weaver (as she continues her string of thankless, spare roles), Deon steals the robot. But he is then kidnapped by Ninja and Yolandi, despicable criminals who are also pure idiots. Ninja and Deon are looking for... wait for it... one last score to settle their debts with another deplorable South African character. Their plan is to steal Deon's "remote control" to the robot police force which will help them... I'm getting winded.

Anyway, the robot is implanted with the new program at Ninja and Yolandi's hideout and has the mind of a child, though he learns, adapts, and understands at a breakneck pace. Oh, and his battery is fused, so he has five days to learn everything and help these criminals with their heist. But Deon wants him to be a nice robot. He gets named Chappie, and then Ninja's ingenious plan to toughen up Chappie is to dump him off on his own where he is beaten and tortured in a cynical scene. He could easily be destroyed and the plan would fail, right? That would be my thought before abandoning the robot, but what do I know.

Then, after he is beaten with rocks and set on fire (after it is established he is basically a child, so, put those images together and see how you feel) Chappie is picked up and tortured in a follow up scene of senseless brutality by Vincent Moore.

Oh, wait! There's Vincent Moore, idiot number forty in this film, played by Hugh Jackman with a mullet and a Steve Irwin costume (because he's Australian, get it?). Vincent has his own version of a police robot, a giant machine that operates by reading human minds. But his program has failed over and over, despite his devious attempts to succeed and his endless peering at Deon over cubicle walls while he holds his rugby ball (he's Australian, get it?). I bet his program didn't work because the machine is the size of an office building and it takes an airplane hangar to house and operate a single unit. Also, you would think when all the robots are shut down and chaos ensues in the streets that he might be the prime suspect, but that would require a character with a brain.

Chappie is an absolute mess in every way imaginable. I hated this movie. As evidenced by this manic plot description, villains and bad guys and characters fly at us with reckless abandon, and the only one that isn't just a deplorable human in one way or another is the robot. All of these characters do things that are purely inexplicable, careless, and seemingly filled with vile human indecency. And they act in unbelievably idiotic ways.

Consider this scene: Vincent desperately needs a usb key from Deon, so in order to try and get it he smashes Deon's head into his desk and threatens him with a gun. In the office. Full of coworkers. But, hey he was just kidding, no hard feelings, right? Seriously, the entire robot police force is sabotaged and nobody even thinks to look at the guy who threatened the creator of the robots with a firearm in front of an office full of people.

The final showdown has all of these characters interacting in an assault on the senses that is such an overwhelming barrage of noise and nonsense that it's hard to focus on any one thing, and impossible to care. The screenplay bounces from one tone to the next, and lacks any of the satirical notes that might make it actually work. A sharp satirical angle say, like, Robocop, would have been a smart play. Instead, it's paint-by-numbers dialogue and nauseating predictability.

Now, Chappie himself was a cool robot, with some funny moments, but in a movie that is sometimes needlessly violent, aggressively cynical, and lacking any real identity, the humor is easily forgotten. Just as this film should be, immediately.


Thursday, February 26, 2015

THURSDAY THROWBACK: Once Upon a Time in America

Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in America is the best gangster film that never was, at least for a while. Upon its release in 1984, American studios were scared to death of the four hour running time, so they butchered Leone's vision. While the original debuted in Cannes to wide praise, the American version was chopped down to two-and-a-half hours, and was utterly baffling to audiences. Large chunks of the story which were crucial to the film - as literally every moment is crucial in the end - were cut, causing confusion and poor character development.

Eventually, the original version was released on home video, clocking in at 224 minutes. It clarified many things for American audiences and it was finally recognized as a great film. Now, a bluray version of the film, Leone's director's cut that he originally intended, clocks in at 251 minutes, and is the complete masterpiece.

The film is an odyssey of young boys who become young men, and eventually some make it to old age. All the while this crew of men seem hard-wired for violence, to run the streets of a prohibition New York, and to stomp out their competition. Robert De Niro plays Noodles, are entry into the story, whom we see near the beginning in an opium den while other men are employing violence to hunt him down. The opening sequence is virtuoso, with moments of shocking violence, and a phone which rings 24 times, brilliantly creating a thread between timelines.

James Woods is Max, the hotheaded hood of the group who, over the course of several decades, struggles with Noodles for power. All of the tropes of gangster cinema are here, including double crosses, speakeasies, and fast women of the twenties and thirties. But the film also has deeply complex characters, and it manages to create wholly despicable humans who keep the momentum of a four hour film going. Despite it's run time, Once Upon a Time in America never drags, it never feels that long.

Friday, February 20, 2015

2015 Oscar Thoughts, Predictions

Two days away from one of my favorite nights of the year, despite the annual negativity surrounding the Academy Awards. Now, I understand everything at the Oscars is politically charged, and there are films and performances every year that may be arguably better than those nominated. I don't care, though. Part of the Academy Awards process is the bitching, the shock at snubs, the triumph of your favorite film getting noticed. 

Stanley Kubrick never won an Oscar, neither did Cary Grant, or Alfred Hitchcock, the list goes on. But that doesn't take away from Oscar Night, not for me anyway. I take the Oscars as a celebration of the year of films, and I enjoy seeing who wins and what they say. It will always be important to me, no matter how little the snarky modern media dismisses the entire process.

This year, I feel especially excited, because personal favorites of mine are all over these lists. Let's take a look at who I think SHOULD win, and who WILL win Sunday night.


Nominees: Emma Stone (Birdman), Patricia Arquette (Boyhood), Meryl Streep (Into The Woods), Laura Dern (Wild), Keira Knightley (The Imitation Game)

I am convinced the Academy is now trolling the public with their Meryl Streep nominations. Streep has been nominated 17 times in her career, and I feel like the last half dozen, aside from her win for The Iron Lady, haven't been necessary. I was glad to see Laura Dern recognized for her heartfelt supporting performance alongside Reese Witherspoon, and Emma Stone is much deserved. Knightley feels like filler to me, and the frontrunner is, deservedly, Arquette. She delivers a performance that is untouchable, mature, and rich in depth and emotion. And, if the awards season to this point is any indication, Arquette will run away with this statue.

SHOULD WIN: Arquette     WILL WIN: Arquette


Nominees: Mark Ruffalo (Foxcatcher), Edward Norton (Birdman), J.K. Simmons (Whiplash), Robert Duvall (The Judge), Ethan Hawke (Boyhood)

I don't see an undeserving nominee on this list, except maybe Duvall, although his performance does elevate the otherwise standard The Judge. If J.K. Simmons weren't nominated, I could see any of the other actors winning the Oscar. But Simmons is there, and his electric performance in Whiplash is deserving of frontrunner status. Much like Arquette, Simmons has this thing locked up.

SHOULD WIN: Simmons     WILL WIN: Simmons 


Nominees: Marion Cotillard (Two Days, One Night), Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything), Reese Witherspoon (Wild), Julianne Moore (Still Alice), Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl)

There is a wealth of wonderful performances this year in the Best Actress category, but it is already apparent that Julianne Moore is taking this home. I never saw Cotillard's performance, and many haven't, but both Witherspoon and Rosamund Pike are spot on in their roles. Of those two, Pike absolutely deserves to win Best Actress for her multi-layered, brilliant performance in Gone Girl. The film is nothing without her. Alas, this is Moore's year, and she deserves the award perhaps for her fantastic career and four previous nominations, which the Academy is want to do. 

SHOULD WIN: Pike     WILL WIN: Moore


Nominees: Michael Keaton (Birdman), Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything), Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game), Bradley Cooper (American Sniper), Steve Carell (Foxcatcher)

I have been a cult fan of Michael Keaton for twenty years, and I'm not the only one in this fan club. Keaton absolutely deserves this award for an emotional and challenging performance in Birdman. It would make my night, because it would finally validate Keaton to the world as the great actor I always knew he was. But now, during awards season, there is a creepy, crawly outlier who seems to be stealing the spotlight from Keaton. His name is Eddie Redmayne, who took home the SAG Award over Keaton. Here's to hoping that is an anomaly. I believe it is, and I believe the likeability of Keaton the man will push him across the finish line. 

SHOULD WIN: Keaton     WILL WIN: Keaton


Nominees: Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game), Bennett Miller (Foxcatcher), Alejandro González Iñárritu (Birdman), Richard Linklater (Boyhood), Wes Anderson (The Grand Budapest Hotel)

I wonder what a director like Bennett Miller thinks, having gotten a nomination for his stolid direction of Foxcatcher, only to see the film he directed shut out of the Best Picture category. Weird. The race really comes down to two director, Iñárritu, whose camera works magic with Birdman, and Linklater, whose patience and will drove him to finish Boyhood after twelve years. I am torn on this, but I think Linklater and his film, despite the predictable negative publicity that always follows frontrunners this time of year, will take home the big prizes.

SHOULD WIN: Linklater     WILL WIN: Linklater


Nominees: Boyhood, The Grand Budapest Hotel, American Sniper, Birdman, The Imitation Game, Selma, The Theory of Everything, Whiplash

I love that Whiplash got a nomination, it's a great film. But it doesn't stand a chance. This race comes down to the same directors with the best chance to win Best Director. I absolutely love Birdman, and it is a great film. However, Boyhood is a timeless instant classic, something which transcends filmmaking, and touches the core of every person on the planet. If they allow it. Boyhood should win, and it most certainly will.


Animated Feature
“Big Hero 6” Don Hall, Chris Williams and Roy Conli
“The Boxtrolls” Anthony Stacchi, Graham Annable and Travis Knight
“How to Train Your Dragon 2” Dean DeBlois and Bonnie Arnold
“Song of the Sea” Tomm Moore and Paul Young
“The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” Isao Takahata and Yoshiaki Nishimura
Adapted Screenplay
“American Sniper” Written by Jason Hall
“The Imitation Game” Written by Graham Moore
“Inherent Vice” Written for the screen by Paul Thomas Anderson
“The Theory of Everything” Screenplay by Anthony McCarten
“Whiplash” Written by Damien Chazelle
Original Screenplay
“Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” Written by Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr. & Armando Bo
“Boyhood” Written by Richard Linklater
“Foxcatcher” Written by E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman
“The Grand Budapest Hotel” Screenplay by Wes Anderson; Story by Wes Anderson & Hugo Guinness
“Nightcrawler” Written by Dan Gilroy
“Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” Emmanuel Lubezki
“The Grand Budapest Hotel” Robert Yeoman
“Ida” Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski
“Mr. Turner” Dick Pope
“Unbroken” Roger Deakins
Costume Design
“The Grand Budapest Hotel” Milena Canonero
“Inherent Vice” Mark Bridges
“Into the Woods” Colleen Atwood
“Maleficent” Anna B. Sheppard and Jane Clive
“Mr. Turner” Jacqueline Durran
Documentary Feature
“CitizenFour” Laura Poitras, Mathilde Bonnefoy and Dirk Wilutzky
“Finding Vivian Maier” John Maloof and Charlie Siskel
“Last Days in Vietnam” Rory Kennedy and Keven McAlester
“The Salt of the Earth” Wim Wenders, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado and David Rosier
“Virunga” Orlando von Einsiedel and Joanna Natasegara
Documentary Short Subject
“Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1” Ellen Goosenberg Kent and Dana Perry
“Joanna” Aneta Kopacz
“Our Curse” Tomasz Sliwinski and Maciej Slesicki
“The Reaper (La Parka)” Gabriel Serra Arguello
“White Earth” J. Christian Jensen
Film Editing
“American Sniper” Joel Cox and Gary D. Roach
“Boyhood” Sandra Adair
“The Grand Budapest Hotel” Barney Pilling
“The Imitation Game” William Goldenberg
“Whiplash” Tom Cross
Foreign Language Film
“Ida” Poland
“Leviathan” Russia
“Tangerines” Estonia
“Timbuktu” Mauritania
“Wild Tales” Argentina
Makeup and Hairstyling
“Foxcatcher” Bill Corso and Dennis Liddiard
“The Grand Budapest Hotel” Frances Hannon and Mark Coulier
“Guardians of the Galaxy” Elizabeth Yianni-Georgiou and David White
Original Score
“The Grand Budapest Hotel” Alexandre Desplat
“The Imitation Game” Alexandre Desplat
“Interstellar” Hans Zimmer
“Mr. Turner” Gary Yershon
“The Theory of Everything” Jóhann Jóhannsson
Original Song
“Everything Is Awesome” from “The Lego Movie”
Music and Lyric by Shawn Patterson
“Glory” from “Selma”
Music and Lyric by John Stephens and Lonnie Lynn

“Grateful” from “Beyond the Lights”
Music and Lyric by Diane Warren
“I’m Not Gonna Miss You” from “Glen Campbell…I’ll Be Me”
Music and Lyric by Glen Campbell and Julian Raymond
“Lost Stars” from “Begin Again”
Music and Lyric by Gregg Alexander and Danielle Brisebois
Production Design
“The Grand Budapest Hotel” Production Design: Adam Stockhausen; Set Decoration: Anna Pinnock
“The Imitation Game” Production Design: Maria Djurkovic; Set Decoration: Tatiana Macdonald
“Interstellar” Production Design: Nathan Crowley; Set Decoration: Gary Fettis
“Into the Woods” Production Design: Dennis Gassner; Set Decoration: Anna Pinnock
“Mr. Turner” Production Design: Suzie Davies; Set Decoration: Charlotte Watts
Animated Short Film
“The Bigger Picture” Daisy Jacobs and Christopher Hees
“The Dam Keeper” Robert Kondo and Dice Tsutsumi
“Feast” Patrick Osborne and Kristina Reed
“Me and My Moulton” Torill Kove
“A Single Life” Joris Oprins
Live Action Short Film
“Aya” Oded Binnun and Mihal Brezis
“Boogaloo and Graham” Michael Lennox and Ronan Blaney
“Butter Lamp (La Lampe Au Beurre De Yak)” Hu Wei and Julien Féret
“Parvaneh” Talkhon Hamzavi and Stefan Eichenberger
“The Phone Call” Mat Kirkby and James Lucas
Sound Editing
“American Sniper” Alan Robert Murray and Bub Asman
“Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” Martín Hernández and Aaron Glascock
“The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” Brent Burge and Jason Canovas
“Interstellar” Richard King
“Unbroken” Becky Sullivan and Andrew DeCristofaro
Sound Mixing
“American Sniper” John Reitz, Gregg Rudloff and Walt Martin
“Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” Jon Taylor, Frank A. Montaño and Thomas Varga
“Interstellar” Gary A. Rizzo, Gregg Landaker and Mark Weingarten
“Unbroken” Jon Taylor, Frank A. Montaño and David Lee
“Whiplash” Craig Mann, Ben Wilkins and Thomas Curley
Visual Effects
“Captain America: The Winter Soldier” Dan DeLeeuw, Russell Earl, Bryan Grill and Dan Sudick
“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” Joe Letteri, Dan Lemmon, Daniel Barrett and Erik Winquist
“Guardians of the Galaxy” Stephane Ceretti, Nicolas Aithadi, Jonathan Fawkner and Paul Corbould
“Interstellar” Paul Franklin, Andrew Lockley, Ian Hunter and Scott Fisher
“X-Men: Days of Future Past” Richard Stammers, Lou Pecora, Tim Crosbie and Cameron Waldbauer

Friday, February 6, 2015

Jupiter Ascending

JUPITER ASCENDING: Channing Tatum, Mila Kunis, Eddie Redmayne, Sean Bean, directed by The Wachowskis. (125 min.)

There are stages one must go through when they are dealing with a terrible movie that magically becomes greatness in its own whacked out way. The first stage is apprehension, which arrives when the lights dim and you are afraid of how bad the movie might actually be. Next comes realization, usually not long after apprehension; this is the point where you realize that the film is, in fact, garbage. The third stage is disbelief, as dialogue and actions fly at your face with such incomprehensible ineptitude that you simply cannot fathom what you are seeing. Stage three is often accompanied with "mouth agape" syndrome.

The final stage of the process is delirium, brought on by the film's unnecessary length and absurdity overwhelming you to a point where you laugh at times not indented to be funny. Eventually, the laughter comes fast and furious, and it gets audible in the theater by the end until you finally stumble back into the light of day, squint your eyes in the welcoming sun, and realize it is all over, and that it might have actually been worth it to see something so bad.

These four stages of the "so-bad-it's-good" affliction may not be more prevalent in any other time in my life than they were in Jupiter Ascending. The Wachowski's must have had a good time storyboarding the film and creating all of the elaborate visual sci-fi elements. Fun does translate to the screen, though not in the way I imagine the Wachowski's intended. There are some earnest attempts at a space opera here, but the absurdity overwhelms throughout, and one very special performance sends everything over the top.

Mila Kunis is the title character, Jupiter, your typical daughter of a Michael Bay-esque stereotyped Russian immigrant family who lives in a rundown Brownstone and cleans toilets for a living. Her and her mother and her aunt, or some other woman, have a cleaning business, but Jupiter seems to just clean toilets. This peasant of the planet is, of course, the reincarnation of a queen that rules the most prolific and wealthy family in the universe, the Abrasax clan, a family of three heirs who own planets and harvest them in order to keep their youth and live for centuries. The two male heirs, Titus (Douglas Booth) and Balem (Eddie Redmayne) are trying to get their hands on Jupiter for their own reasons, none of which are very clear because the exposition of the film is seemingly pieced together by a schizophrenic.

Enter Caine Wise, a bounty hunter (I think) who saves Jupiter from certain death and fights the entire film to keep her out of the hands of the Abrasax brothers. Wise comes with some pointy ears, tribal tattoos, and a pair of gravity-manipulating roller skates. I promise. Caine Wise is somewhat of an outcast, as the hero will often be, and he is a "splice" who was bred with a dog. "I am more like a dog than I am like you," he tells Jupiter, even though he looks like Channing Tatum with pointy ears and a blonde beard and nothing at all like a dog. He was cast out of wherever for biting a guy. Again, I promise this is the movie.

So here are Jupiter and Caine fighting against all these creatures and alien figures trying to get her, but with no real motivation clear enough to care about. They seek the help of an old friend of Caine, played by Sean Bean. He turns out to be deceptive, then not deceptive, because he is Sean Bean so why else would he be here?

When filmmakers iron out a sic-fi universe, they often times overload the screen with critters and characters to a point of saturation, to create a viable other world. This worked in Star Wars, when the idea was fresh, but now all of these extemporaneous characters are nothing more than a distraction. There are CGI lizards (why are they lizards? Don't lizards need heat and sun? They are in space), aliens who resemble the alien sightings we all know from this planet's history, and humans in makeup with no practical application to the environment. I kept wondering, why do these people look this way? What is the reason for their appearance? It doesn't matter though.

The film reeks of an over-edited studio production that was delayed, as this one was. There are large gaps in the story where exposition was undoubtedly cut out along with action scenes to shorten the picture. There is an early scene where the top of the Sears Tower in Chicago is destroyed, but Caine assures Jupiter it will be repaired in minutes. Cut to a scene of the building being repaired, seen through the back of a car window about 100 miles away. It's impossible to even see what's happening, surely there was a scene close up that was edited out. Later in the film, Jupiter arrives at one of the many set pieces and threatens the heir, Titus, with legal ramifications and tax laws he has broken. Only, there is no scene explanation as to how or when Jupiter learned these laws so precisely. Those are merely one of a handful of confusing transitions.

Then, right in the middle of the film, this queen of the most powerful planet in the universe has to have her identification verified, so she has to go through a DMV/State employee bureaucracy system that resembles an annoying journey you might have going through a county courthouse to pay property taxes or something. The sequence is so out of place, so satirical, and so entrenched in American-esque problems (remember, this is another PLANET in an entirely different SOLAR SYSTEM, not Brooklyn), I felt for a moment I was in the middle of The Fifth Element.  

And I have made it far enough before talking about the real star of the show, Mr. Eddie Redmayne. Redmayne plays Balem Abrasax, the most wicked heir to the Abrasax family. This is some kind of amazingly awful performance, an acting job so astoundingly absurd it might have Nicolas Cage shaking his head. Redmayne speaks with some sort of raspy whisper, and his voice shakes as if his character is always fighting off the flu. But then, out of nowhere, he will shout, his voice will crack, and he will flutter his hands. There are also those moments in the film when he is trying to be tough, but a swift knee to the groin or a gunshot will send him crumbling to the ground, screaming like a petulant 10-year old. It is an amazing, hilarious performance from Redmayne, one that deserves audible laughter who must be praying that Academy members don't stumble into a theater and check out this thing before making their final Best Actor vote for the Oscars this month. There are big gaps in the film where Redmayne is absent, and I think the Wachowski's realized the turd that was floating in the middle of their Jupiter Ascending toilet bowl and edited out larger chunks of his performance. Too bad.

I feel strange giving Jupiter Ascending any sort of letter grade, because it deserves all of them. So let's just say if gets an F for being truly awful, but an A+ for being awful enough to be amazing...

Monday, January 12, 2015

Top 10 Films of 2014

2014 was an uneven year. There were some great films out there, but they came at unusual times. Even though the summer movie season had its typical run of duds, there were some surprising gems in the hot months as well. 2014 also restored a little bit of faith in the power of creativity, as original films outshines remakes and sequels more prominently than in recent years. From big to small, fun to furious, here are the ten best of 2014, in my humble opinion...

10) Interstellar - Christopher Nolan's space epic has plenty of warts. But where it loses points in its faults, it gains just as many with ambition and awe. A film about the end of the earth and a search for a new one must be big, and Insterstellar carries breadth in spades. Matthew McConaughey continues to dedicate himself fully to his roles, and the moments of breathtaking action and suspense shine brightly.

9) Guardians of The Galaxy - This seemed like a risky proposition for Marvel, throwing a lot of money at a relatively unknown property like Guardians. But everything worked, from top to bottom, and the result was the biggest box-office hit of the year and a rousingly funny and exciting action flick. A perfect end to the summer.

8) Blue Ruin - The smallest and most intimate film on this list is simple at its core, a man seeking revenge. But Blue Ruin is executed with such minimalist focus and tension, it burns itself into your consciousness. Director Jeremy Saulnier and star Macon Blair take familiarity and tighten the screws on the suspense to create a seamless story, full of quiet rage.

7) Wild - Ever since her Oscar win in 2005, Reese Witherspoon has floundered through roles she has admittedly not been that enthused about. But with Wild, Witherspoon delivers her career best. As Cheryl Strayed, a woman who hikes the Pacific Crest Trail in order to regain control of her life, Witherspoon keeps the story grounded and emotional. Laura Dern also delivers a heartfelt performance as Cheryl's eternally optimistic mother, seen in flashbacks.

6) Gone Girl - The sensational story at the heart of David Fincher's film adaptation of Gillian Flynn's sensational novel feels ripped from the TV tabloids. I expected this story to pop up on 20/20 or 48 Hours. Rosamund Pike deserves an Oscar nomination for her role, and the film remains true to the source material while adding a whole new level of energy. Part media satire, part murder mystery, part gender role reconfiguring, Gone Girl is a salacious sensation.

5) Snowpiercer - Joon-ho Bong's visceral sci-fi action film takes the post-apocalypse and traps it on a speeding train where a caste system keeps the train society separated. The psychological unraveling of the people aboard this train is the most overlooked aspect of the film, an action film with plenty to say about society, and plenty to do in the realm of sensationalism. Action scenes are inventive and fresh, and Chris Evans gives the best performance of his career.

4) Whiplash - I didn't expect much from this film when I walked in, aside from a few memorable performances. What I got was a gut punch. Whiplash is a simple story about a talented young jazz drummer and the sadistic, borderline psychotic band leader at a prestigious New York music school (J.K. Simmons, Supporting Actor frontrunner) who pushed him to the brink. Whiplash is an intense experience, and Miles Teller, who plays the lead, is about to become a star.

3) Birdman - This is a film that grows on you as you watch it. the closeups and claustrophobia of the cinematography takes time, but a few minutes in you are used to it and the film blossoms. Michael Keaton delivers the performance of his career as Riggan Thomson, a washed up actor trying to revive his career and find credibility on broadway. Sharp, funny, and heartfelt, Birdman is an unforgettable experience, a wonderful bit of magic realism in the end.

2) Nightcrawler - Slinking about like a sick coyote, Jake Gyllenhaal channels Travis Bickle in this LA thriller. Nightcrawler is a hypnotizing and unsettling look at the state of media these days, and Gyllenhaal's performance is singular. But what mustn't go overlooked here is the job Rene Russo does, revitalizing her career as Gyllenhaal's has-been boss. This is a quiet masterpiece.

1) Boyhood - What is so magical about Richard Linklater's Boyhood is the way it is so unassuming. The story itself does not force anything upon the viewer, it is observant, it simply watches as Mason (Ellar Coltraine) grows up throughout the 12 years the film was shot. There are no swelling melodramatic moments, no hard moments, just life unfolding. I recently watched it again, and was blown away by its omniscient genius. Boyhood deserves all the awards.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Inherent Vice

INHERENT VICE: Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Reese Witherspoon, Owen Wilson, Benicio Del Toro, Martin Short, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson (148 min.)

I knew this was going to be a tall task, even for a director as gifted and, up to this point, as flawless as Paul Thomas Anderson.

I read Thomas Pynchon's novel Inherent Vice in 2013. At least I think I did. The book was open, my eyes fixated on the page, reading the words in front of me, but to try and remember anything I read would require a feat of recollection of which I am incapable. The book is a muddled stoner masterpiece to some, but to me it was simply incoherent, impossible to follow, not nearly as funny as everyone said. And yet, when I heard Anderson was directing a film adaptation, I figured if anyone could iron out the kinks of the novel and make an entertaining picture it would be Anderson. Unfortunately, I was mistaken.

Inherent Vice is true to the roots of Pynchon's novel, which is its ultimate downfall. It captures the essence of the story, a pot-fueled post hippie California crime story that lives on the flip side of the film noir coin. The story's vessel, Larry "Doc" Sportello, a stoner private investigator played to perfection by Joaquin Phoenix, is put upon by an avalanche of shady and increasingly grating characters in this southern California, a land reeling from the Manson murders and adrift in the years after the hippie movement began to unravel. Doc's ex flame, Shasta (Katherine Waterston) shows up at his house one night, delivering an ominous tale of her lover, her lover's wife, the wife's lover, and murder. None of it is very clear, and that is merely a harbinger of things to come.

Doc gets into, or falls into, the investigation surrounding Shasta's lover, Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), a real-estate magnate who is nothing more than a human MacGuffin for the film. Wolfmann disappears, everyone wants to find him or one of his associates, a mysterious ship on the coast is brought in, women come and go... Along the way, Doc runs into characters on every corner of the hippie lunatic fringe. The oversexed, overmedicated, smoke filled crooks and miscreants drop their own little bits of information into Doc's clouded brain, thickening the investigation and confusing things even more.

There is Christian "Bigfoot" Bjornsen, the flat-topped detective played by Josh Brolin, who takes joy in harassing the dirty hippie Doc. Reese Witherspoon shows up as an FBI informant, I think, who also enjoys slumming it with Doc to get a little high and watch political coverage on TV. There is Owen Wilson, who plays a heroin-addicted musician drawn into this convoluted plot of missing persons and shady real estate deals. Benicio Del Toro plays Doc's counselor of sorts, a casting choice I feel was deliberately made to harken back to Del Toro's turn as a whacked out lawyer to Hunter S. Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Martin Short plays a shipping magnate who enjoys cocaine and women, and none of them really even matter in the end.

Inherent Vice is meant to be seen as an episodic tale, a series of little vignettes that don't even make an effort to pay off in the end. Segments work individually, sometimes, and sometimes they go on much too long and the dialogue drowns into noise. Meant to be comedic most of the time, the laughs become increasingly sparse as the film drones on and on, well past two hours. Everyone does their best job with the characters they are given, a testament to Anderson as a director. But the film becomes an endurance test, losing steam rather than gaining.

I never knew what was going on in Inherent Vice, but I don't think the intention of anything in the film was to be clear. Anderson takes an un-filmable work, films it, and the result is about what one would expect.