Sunday, January 25, 2015

Unfortunately, Leviathan Falters When The Going Gets Tough

Looking at the impressions of the Academy, other awards organizations, and the vast number of critics who have seen Leviathan, I get the impression my opinion on this film will hold up as a very unpopular one. Still that seems just as good a reason to say it as any.
Andrey Zvyagintsev's latest film is an impressive portrait of the corrupt nature of Russian politics. The mere fact that Leviathan was so heavily chosen by the country of Russia as its representative film says a great deal, because the content of the film attempts to be, and for the most part is rather damning. Of course, a film like this could be set in many countries (the United States included) but it informs so very much that the location of this particularly film be in a communist state. Regardless, for all of that praise that I give to the country for allowing this piece to exist and be widely distributed, the final film still manages to fall quite short of its lofty expectations.
Leviathan tells the story of Nikolai Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov), his wife (Elena Lyadova) and son. When the Mayor of their small town (Roman Madyanov) goes after Kolya's land for his own personal gain, Nikolai brings in his old wartime friend and now Moscow lawyer Dmitriy (Vladimir Vdovichenkov) to help save his home. But this new visitor only creates more problems. This is a film about overwhelming corruption, injustice, and well... poetical nonsense. And for ever element that it manages to get right, the last quarter of the film manages to get just as much completely wrong.
I'll begin with the run time... two hours and twenty minutes was just outrageously too long for this flick. It easily could have made its point within an hour and a half and left me wanting more... but instead (and I usually advocate allowing a film time to breathe) Zvyagintsev and his writer Oleg Negin opted to just let scenes of little import linger and disassociate the audience from the actual subject being discussed. Similarly, the film's ultimate payoff could have been reached at least a half hour earlier without several useless plot additions... but then I suppose this is the nature of the Russian novel and will always find its way into the art of that country.
But if the concept is that corruption has become the way of things, and that a man alone is too small to take on the rising tide of his own government in a just and fair manner, the film does eventually manage to make this point. Unfortunately, for all of its concise and quality plot weaving through the first hour and a half, it manages to become just as uncertain and awkwardly metaphorical toward the end. I don't mean to hammer this idea to death... but there is a real chance I would have loved this film had the church metaphors not taken such a profound control over the ending leaving the characters, who were so well drawn and acted, ultimately in the dust. Yes there is an element of this in the concept of the title... it's all too big for individuals, but the payoff becomes almost secondary to the attempt at a much broader and poorly explained or exemplified idea.
In time I believe I'll only recall Leviathan as a profound misuse of an excellent theme. It will linger in my mind for a while yet as that film that easily could have been perfect, but came unhinged just when it could have reeled it in. It's unfortunate. But these things do happen I suppose. After all, artists and filmmakers are only human.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Two Days, One Night Is The Kind Of Film We Should Be Making In The States

One of the better surprises of the 2014 season will have to be Two Days, One Night... the latest film by the Dardenne brothers.
Two Days, One Night or Deux jours, une nuit is a Belgian flick about one woman's struggle to convince her coworkers to let her keep her job after the bosses had put her position up against a pretty big bonus. It's an incredible study on human nature and what happens when people are forced to show their true colors. And since the ultimate decision that the company is asking its employees to make for it is an incredibly unfair one, I can't help but look at it as a quality metaphor for any country's workforce... I live in the United States... so the comparisons come to mind particularly of the surrounding work expectations of my home. It's a keen look into how inhuman a corporation can be without anyone's help... though people seem liable to help the negative effects far more than one would expect. Yet, there are always little rays of hope.
Marion Cotillard shocked the world with her most recent Oscar nom. And she certainly gives an Oscar worthy performance. It was so compelling to watch her change her perspective bit by bit from hopeless to hopeful to lost to won... to finding her own dignity when most others seemed resolved to let theirs go by the wayside. I appreciate that the Oscars (in spite of many other major oversights both past and present) were willing to give one of the better performances of the season a fighting chance.
If you are lucky enough to get the chance to see Two Days, One Night I suggest you take it. This is precisely the kind of subject we need to be talking about in this country.

What Does Altman Mean To You?

In 2014, Ron Mann put out a documentary about the life of famous film director Robert Altman. And it was good.
That's as blunt as I can be without telling you to just watch the damn movie. Altman is an interesting experience. It's compelling like few documentaries can be because it has so much footage from the man himself just lying there waiting to be used. It captures a weird counter-culture nostalgia and attempts with some level of desperation to uncover the purpose behind each of Altman's films. And you can really see the trends.
It's so interesting to get this kind of perspective on one film director's life. Robert Altman was one of those strange cases... everything he did was intended to be contrary, and everything he did in one way or another managed to change the way people watched films. He was a trend setter and an artist, and this film exemplifies all of that. Altman gives us his highs and his lows and more or less allows us to understand what the man was really about at heart.

Still Alice Is Heartbreakingly Good

I know I've been pushing Reese Witherspoon for Leading Actress until now, but I always had to leave an asterisk. I hadn't seen the frontrunner... Julianne Moore. And her performance was well worth the wait.
Still Alice is the painfully sad story about Alice Howland, a linguistics professor who develops Early Onset Alzheimer's, throwing her and her family's lives into disarray. Now when you hear that summary you're probably wondering why you'd want to go see something so heart-wrenching and painful to watch. Why in the name of god would you ever even consider forcing yourself to feel this pain? Well Still Alice is so dense with quality performances, abstract and interesting camera work, and a truly compelling screenplay that I can't find a solid argument against giving it a shot. Sometimes it's worth feeling the pain in a fictional setting so you can open your eyes and start living. You know what I mean?
Julianne Moore trumps every other performance this season. Her take on the pains of living with Alzheimer's is both shocking and awe-inspiring. I've always known she was a great actress, but sometimes I need a film of quality to remind me just how great... Still Alice, fortunately, is that film. Alec Baldwin is as interesting to watch as ever, and I really enjoy it when he takes on these more serious kinds of roles. Kate Bosworth was just perfect. Her attempts at overcoming the realities of her and her mother's situation feel so genuine and intellectually motivated... And then there's Kristen Stewart. I've tended to question her celebrity in the past because her biggest movies have clearly not been made for my demographic. But she delivers as good a performance as anyone in Still Alice. If you were wondering where all the great female performances of the 2014 season went to, most of them were being saved for this flick. I'm honestly surprised it didn't get more nominations.
Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland made a hypnotically heartbreaking film. And they should be very proud of their work. Still Alice is finally in theaters now, and it was damn worth the wait. Check it out quick, cause it'll likely come home with the Best Actress Oscar.

Don't Scoff, Paddington Was Really Good

The truth is, I would have never seen Paddington had it not been for its myriad BAFTA nominations this year. The trailers looked cheesy and without purpose... and it really felt like it was just gonna be another family film massacre of a previously beloved children's book series.
So what's the deal? Paul King of The Mighty Boosh fame came along and rather masterfully crafted a film that's actually worth seeing. If you don't know the story, Paddington is a talking bear that lived with a family of other talking bears in darkest Peru. The bear family had previously learned the English language back in the 1950s when an explorer came through and made fast friends with them. But one day and earthquake comes along destroys Paddington's home... and with his aunt going to stay in a home for retired bears, he is forced to seek out a new place to live. So of course he goes to England in hopes of finding the explorer he had heard so much about. Well he ends up staying with a very kind family, the Browns, and their search for the explorer begins.
The cast feels spot on. And the CG is just swell enough. And the action of the flick moves just about right. The pacing is never off... and as the movie pushed forward I felt myself getting more and more comfortable with the world as a whole. Things just began to sink in. Paddington has a flavor all its own. It's a story about human kindness, young ingenuity, and learning to trust one another. These are lessons worth learning, and I'm very appreciative to have gotten a chance to see it. Amongst all of these serious Oscar films, Paddington becomes a very welcome change of pace.
Check it out. I was more than pleasantly surprised.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

The 2015 Oscars Will Host The Most Surprising Snubs Of The Season

Alright, this one's a shocker. Here's the list of 2015 Oscar nominees:


Best Picture:


American Sniper

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Boyhood

The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Imitation Game

Selma

The Theory of Everything

Whiplash


My Pick: Birdman deserves it... if only to show that a film with that much integrity and ingenuity can win. This year's been odd, and these nominations may be odder, so I think we could use a film like Birdman winning just for sanity's sake.


Actor in a Leading Role:


Steve Carell - Foxcatcher

Bradley Cooper - American Sniper

Benedict Cumberbatch - The Imitation Game

Michael Keaton - Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Eddie Redmayne - The Theory of Everything


My Pick: Jake Gyllen... wait... he wasn't even nominated?? Ugh. Okay, I guess my second choice is Michael Keaton. Yay, Birdman gets another one (inflection not consistently serious). Did you also notice how Selma's David Oyelowo didn't get recognized here either. This category is amongst the most disappointing evidence of the Academy's poor decision making this year.


Actress in a Leading Role:


Marion Cotillard - Two Days, One Night

Felicity Jones - The Theory of Everything

Julianne Moore - Still Alice

Rosamund Pike - Gone Girl

Reese Witherspoon - Wild


My Pick: Julianne Moore... though I'd still be down for a Reese Witherspoon win.


Actor in a Supporting Role:


Robert Duvall - The Judge

Ethan Hawke - Boyhood

Edward Norton - Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Mark Ruffalo - Foxcatcher

J.K. Simmons - Whiplash


My Pick: J.K. Simmons! At least this one hasn't changed... though the addition of any performance from The Judge is questionable at best on the Academy's part.


Actress in a Supporting Role:


Patricia Arquette - Boyhood

Laura Dern - Wild

Keira Knightley - The Imitation Game

Emma Stone - Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Meryl Streep - Into the Woods


My Pick: Patricia Arquette... because her performance still blows my mind!


Animated Feature Film:


Big Hero 6

The Boxtrolls

How to Train Your Dragon 2

Song of the Sea

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya


My Pick: The LEG... wait... this one too? Dammit Academy! Stop ruining my day... Well, How to Train Your Dragon 2... but with a very very heavy asterisk. The best movie doesn't even make the list.


Cinematography:


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


My Pick: Birdman... Though once again I've gotta say, Mr. Turner could nab this one.


Costume Design:

The Grand Budapest Hotel - Milena Canonero

Inherent Vice - Mike Bridges

Into the Woods - Colleen Atwood

Maleficent - Anna B. Sheppard and Jane Clive

Mr. Turner - Jacqueline Durran


My Pick: The Grand Budapest Hotel.


Directing:


Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) - Alejandro G. Iñárritu

Boyhood - Richard Linklater

Foxcatcher - Bennett Miller

The Grand Budapest Hotel - Wes Anderson

The Imitation Game - Morten Tyldum


My Pick: Alejandro G. Iñárritu... but isn't it funny how a film that didn't even reach the Best Picture category managed to get its director in here while several other flicks considered to be of that quality didn't... I'm okay with a separation between the two awards because there is a difference, but at some point the two do become one and that's when you pull the one from the other.


Documentary Feature:


CitizenFour

Finding Vivian Maier

Last Days in Vietnam

The Salt of the Earth

Virunga


My Pick: Virunga. It's one of the best films of the year.


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


My Pick: Whiplash. I know I've got at least one friend who'd disagree, but Whiplash captured so much emotion and gave just the right beats at just the right moments... through cutting and coloring.


Foreign Language Film:


Ida

Leviathan

Tangerines

Timbuktu

Wild Tales


My Pick: Ida. Though I can't speak for any of the other candidates. A little surprised some of the other foreign flicks I saw this year didn't make it.


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


My Pick: Foxcatcher... I expect this to be the only award Foxcatcher gets, but damn does it deserve it.


Music (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


My Pick: Since my pick was never gonna make this list I can give the Academy a little bit of a break here. At least my second choice got in... Mr. Turner.


Music (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 Glenn 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


My Pick: Oh, you guys did know The LEGO Movie existed??? Everything Is Awesome!!


Production Design:


The Grand Budapest Hotel - Adam Stockhausen (Production Design); Anna Pinnock (Set Decoration)

The Imitation Game - Maria Djurkovic (Production Design); Tatiana MacDonald (Set Decoration)

Interstellar - Nathan Crowley (Production Design); Gary Fettis (Set Decoration)

Into the Woods - Dennis Gassner (Production Design); Anna Pinnock (Set Decoration)

Mr. Turner - Suzie Davies (Production Design); Charlotte Watts (Set Decoration)


My Pick: Mr. Turner... though I would really like to see The Grand Budapest Hotel win as well.


Sound Editing:


American Sniper -  Alan Robert Murray and Bob Asman

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) - Martin 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


My Pick: Birdman... That's what I say anyway.


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


My Pick: Whiplash!! Glad it got nominated... and I don't know how anyone in their right mind could nominate Interstellar here... that flick was utterly impossible on the ears.


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


My Pick: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes!! Because it deserves it. Serious props to these guys for bringing those apes to life in such an amazing way.


Writing (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


My Pick: Inherent Vice. Paul Thomas Anderson's script is a perfect adaptation of that book... and it actually manages to enlighten some of the more confusing passages believe it or not.


Writing (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


My Pick: Birdman. Once again. Here's the thing, I would nominate Grand Budapest, but it's adapted and these awards shows keep moving it into original... which is just wrong. Not to mention Whiplash is in the wrong category. These two should be swapped.


Damnit! Every year the Academy finds a new way to piss me off. I'd yell more about Ava DuVernay not getting nominated, but I sincerely don't think she was the best director this year. Regardless, I don't understand how Selma gets nominated for Best Feature but doesn't get a director nod while Foxcatcher rightly misses out on the Best Feature category but somehow Bennett Miller gets in for directing. But as I said, that's the least of my gripes... The Lego Movie and Jake Gyllenhaal both got shanked and those were the two categories I was most looking forward to. I just hope they get it right with the stuff they did choose to nominate come award day.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

DamNation Is A Damn Cool Exploration Of Changing Perceptions

When DamNation gets started, it seems like a simple activism documentary about the harsh realities of damns, the threats they pose to our nation's fish, and the political and financial powers that would stand in our way of removing them. But as the movie progresses, something really cool becomes clear, the public perception of these damns has changed since the filmmakers began production... And they clearly went out of their way to address this change.
Ben Knight and Travis Rummel have made a very interesting film. And it's not exactly what you'd expect. Sure, it goes through the progressions of many other docs... a couple guys trying to make their point in the most ridiculous way possible, but it branches out. I can honestly say that I was caught up in the journey because the people they interviewed were so poetic and concise in their  own purposes. The cinematography only helps their cause, and ultimately it becomes more an open love letter to the fish we've been keeping away for all of this time.
It's really exciting to witness such a shift in peoples' perceptions of something that could have been stuck in neutral for a lot more time. But I think the greatest point this film makes, is the things we had to do in the past to help our community grow and thrive may ware away and lose their value once their initial purpose has been served. In that respect I think this film can serve to say something about more than just the dam infrastructure... and I think there is a welcome metaphor in this for another faulty institution in our country... public roads and the highway system. But that's just my own prerogative.
DamNation is definitely worth your time. And it's really easy to catch on Netflix, so check it out.