Friday, January 31, 2014

Enjoying 20 Feet From Stardom Despite Its Consistent Flatlining

I got around to catching the fourth Oscar nominated documentary earlier today...
20 Feet from Stardom was a beautiful experience bringing back memories of excellent musical moments that I could never quite manage to put a face to. The idea of making a film focusing on the backup singers of some of the greatest songs ever written is very exciting in theory. Though about twenty minutes into the movie I found myself wondering if there would be some greater purpose to the film's existence.
Spoiler Alert: There isn't.

And that's okay.
It would seem Morgan Neville didn't really set out to convince his viewers of any particular concept. He just wanted to give us a heads up that these people existed and struggled and helped to make beautiful music that we will remember long after they are gone. Perhaps there is one comment worth mentioning... the idea that tuning is an expected expense on most recordings these days is a ridiculous thought. But this rather interesting conundrum comes and goes in the span of thirty seconds and is never mentioned again.
So I'm left wondering why this was chosen as a nominee at the Oscars this year. It's odd that there were no nature films in the category. And to be perfectly blunt, three of the other four docs are mostly about war and death... Given those odds, it's surprising that this made it at all. Perhaps it is just a representation by the Academy; an example of solidarity that they, in fact, understand those backup singers' pains.

It's cool to see a film like this nominated, but I really don't think it stands a chance against the likes of The Act of Killing and Cutie and the Boxer. Anyway, one more documentary left to go.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Cutie And The Boxer Works So Well

I didn't expect a whole lot from Cutie and the Boxer,
but in the end, it really got me. Noriko and Ushio's relationship is so interesting... to see their personalities battle on screen is a real treat. So often, in relationships people can forget the reasons why they love eachother. And all of the negatives can take control of their lives. But Noriko has learned to channel that negativity into something positive. Despite the pain a life of artistic poverty has brought her, she has never lost sight of why she is with Ushio. Indeed, it seems she always knew there would be some kind of positive she could pull from a truly frustrating relationship.
What I find most diabolically interesting about their marriage is that, no matter how much more important Ushio made his career than Noriko's, it seems that she will have the career that will stick with people long after they have gone.
Ushio's "action" style of art is just not as interesting without someone standing there to tell you what it means. But Noriko's is something else, it gives you a full view of a person's perspective... what their life was like... what can be pulled from so much struggle.
Zachary Heinzerling did an excellent job of bringing this story to life. It is truly commendable just how many meaningful moments he was able to pull from Noriko and Ushio's current living situation. And his film never felt repetitive.
At the end of the day, I consider Cutie and the Boxer equally capable of winning Best Documentary at the Oscars as The Act of Killing, though I still have two more in the category to watch. You can catch Cutie and the Boxer on Netflix now.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Equally Impressed And Depressed By The Act Of Killing

And then there's this movie: The Act of Killing.
In many ways this is the polar opposite of Dirty Wars. Joshua Oppenheimer did not set out to make a statement about a certain regime or to say the world is our enemy. He wanted to build something organic, something that could unfold before our eyes... not a past tense, but a present. So he found these men... famous "executioners"... self titled "gangsters" who have become celebrities in Indonesia. These men have never payed for killing 4.3 million people... people they claimed were communist without any real proof. In fact, these men get to live the high life.
So the idea to have them represent, on film, some of their most memorable kills in whatever way they'd like... essentially Oppenheimer gave them a medium in which to prove their own guilt to the world. And at a point, even they can't believe how terrible some of their acts appear on screen.
It's quite an amazing experience, unlike any I've seen in modern film. To say I was shocked by the way these men convince themselves they were not wrong for committing murder... mass murder... would be an understatement. But the driving force for continuing to live as they do must come from a place of forgetfulness or absurd inhumanity.
The Act of Killing walks a tightrope between the potential to condemn these men or the hope that the filmmakers can prove themselves better than them by not taking cheap shots. In the end there is one very real/vibrant conversation... the only time Oppenheimer seems to speak out on camera and the point he makes is just perfect and once again unforced... totally organic. It's a moment worth commending because it took no overexertion of force to put the reality into perspective for the main killer Anwar Congo.
I can't yet speak on the rest of the documentary category, but at present this would be my front runner for the Oscar. Watch it on Netflix.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Dirty Wars: A Sloppy Movie

When writing about a political documentary, it is difficult not to (as the films themselves tend to do) take one side of the argument or another. But that will be my intention with Dirty Wars. Instead, I will try to understand why the film turned out the way it did.
It's nominated for Best Documentary, so it must've gotten someone's attention. And Jeremy Scahill's arc is certainly interesting. Though his purpose is frequently underwhelming. He consistently returns to new tangents that have little baring on his original "mission." Yes, his investigation uncovers something frightening... a present day "Minority Report" of sorts in the form of JSOC. But getting to that ultimate realization feels intensely long and repetitive considering the film has only an 87 minute run time.
Essentially, Jeremy is a war reporter. So I must not forget that he is regularly putting his life in danger to gather information in order to keep us "civilians" informed. I appreciate his sacrifice. But the film, being a return to a thought rather than an in the moment realization, frequently left me asking "why didn't he do more?" He of course explains the difficulty of maneuvering through the media circus in perhaps one of the most interesting sequences of the film, but ultimately he still comes up short.
Rick Rowley made an interesting documentary with a near shocking realization at the end. But the extremeness of this particular situation leaves that "bitter tasting" moment deep in your digestive system rather than stuck on the tip of your tongue. I watched this film yesterday, and today I've practically forgotten its message.
Best documentary? I tend to doubt it.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Dont Forget About The Invisible Woman

Ralph Fiennes has made another good movie!
Admittedly, I enjoyed Coriolanus more, but that is likely just because Shakespeare is Shakespeare. In fact, The Invisible Woman was rather thought provoking. And the style of Ralph Fiennes as director is beginning to take on a little more of an aura.
What took me most by surprise as I left the theatre was the overall purpose... or statement of the film. Ralph really set out to make a point about the nature of people during the times of Dickens... when the world was not so open to sexuality or divorce. That fallen women were made a commonplace standard simply because people could not experience sex out of wedlock with the label "whore" being placed upon their heads. And somehow, in a film that could have easily painted Mr. Dickens as a pervert and sexual fiend, an element of purity and honesty seemed to seep into the mold. Dickens becomes the hero. In this way it doesn't matter how old Felicity Jones' character Nelly is (and she's old enough). What's more crucial here is the struggle to maintain her integrity while still allowing her to experience life.
This is a point I think frequently gets lost in everyday life. If we are free and legal to do what we want, when we want, there is no standard. Is it really better to continue on in a marriage that is no longer based on affection and attraction? Or is divorce just outright wrong? Obviously we as a society have become more open to the idea of divorce. And I think there is a legitimate reason for that. In many ways marriage is an old-fashioned pursuit. It is no longer indicative of the kinds of relationships most people are capable of maintaining. This is not to say marriage should be lost. Indeed, many people are quite capable of finding a balance that truly does work. But it's not everyone and it's not always and Dickens, at least in this film, was fighting for others' abilities to say they want what they want and that is nobody else's business but their own.
Felicity Jones did a great job here, though her part frequently seemed to take a back seat to the more bombastic and vocal character of Dickens.
Ralph Fiennes balanced a tightrope bringing Dickens into focus. He is always the center of attention, knows what he wants, but doesn't like to break things. He is both tender and raucous and still a real human being. I think he managed quite well given the scope of the character. Kristin Scott Thomas is always good and she managed to bring a life to her character I don't think many others could have grasped. Joanna Scanlan brought an incredible realism to Catherine Dickens and I found her performance worthy of note. It could have been very difficult to make this character feel believable, but watching the film I never so much as blinked. Tom Hollander as Wilkie Collins helped to solidify the film for me, giving just the right speech at just the right time to help me put the rest of the film together.
The score was very interesting and I think Ilan Eshkeri may be deserving of a little more note. And I can't forget, the costumes were Oscar nominated and I totally understand why. That category's gonna be difficult this year, but I wouldn't put it past The Invisible Woman to pull out a win.

In the end, Ralph Fiennes' The Invisible Woman became a very intriguing conversation. One I would be interested in sitting down and discussing with anyone.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Shell Shocked By Lone Survivor

I've been very explicit about my feeling on war films in the past.
But somehow it felt as though, watching Lone Survivor, Peter Berg and his crew had managed to eschew many of those key problems the genre tends to coddle. 1. Relationships are often poorly defined... The four guys clearly understand each other here (and not just them, but their team back at base seems individually well defined and in many ways well humanized). 2. Big action often feels too big and loses the viewers in sloppy construction... Lone Survivor has one of the greatest shootout sequences I've seen in film period. And even as the second half wanes, the memory of how those early sequences went down gives enough drama to propel the film to its final moments. 3. False representations of another people usually abound... This was based on a true story. And given the mistakes they allow to be shown by the US Navy, I tend to believe the Afghan sequences are riddled with truths as well. Sure one side of this thing is just pure crazy people, but there are plenty of others who believe in the value of life and will do all they can to protect it.
It's no surprise to me this film managed to get nominated for Sound Design and Sound Mixing at this years Oscars. And, honestly, I would automatically say they should win those awards if Gravity weren't involved in those respective categories. Even so, I think Lone Survivor's got a pretty damn good shot of taking home it's technical awards. That gunfight was just too technically proficient to ignore.
The actors were all pretty alright. No surprise there weren't any acting awards for this film. But that doesn't mean they didn't accomplish everything the screenplay asked of them. I did find the castings of Taylor Kitsch and Emile Hirsch to be a little strange, mostly because they seem too similar on camera to not be playing brothers. And Mark Wahlberg and Ben Foster gave exactly the kinds of performances I've come to expect from each of them... not overwhelming, not underwhelming, pretty much just there. Eric Bana had a nearly throw away part, but managed to do just enough to keep it interesting.

Overall, I still give this movie a high grade. As far as war films go, Lone Survivor is among the best of the genre.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

2014 Oscar Nominees Are Here

Much like last year, it's mostly exactly the films you would have expected... but with a few very surprising snubs in categories like director (Spike Jonze), actor (Joaquin Phoenix), foreign film (Blue is the Warmest Color), and documentary (Blackfish).

Check out the list here.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The Hunt Might Just Be The Scariest Film I've Seen All Year...

Which is odd because it's a Drama, not a Horror film.
But at the end of the day I am just thoroughly impressed with the emotional response this movie managed to pull from me. Such an incredible sense of dread. It's so compelling to witness a movie like this, where the acting is so complete and the world is so well defined you almost don't even need words to understand. Though at times the characters' choices are quite maddening, there is always an honesty there that keeps it feeling legitimate.
Mads Mikkelsen churned out a brutally repressed performance that left me feeling almost numb. It's clear the guy has skills. He harnesses a subtlety that keeps you on your toes, whether it be in a big time blockbuster like Casino Royal or in a more art house project like we get here.
That being said, Annika Wedderkopp was out for blood in her first time acting role... she's only five. Yet there was something shining through her portrayal of little Klara that just inherently dragged me through the worst emotions of the film. If you don't, at one point or another, hate every character in this film for a different reason, I'd be surprised.
At heart, it's a very simple story. But early on, the human element takes over and slowly the simplicity of who these people really are opens up to reveal the animal nature that could hide in anyone willing to be swept away by it. By the end there is a lingering question... can you trust anyone? Or will your perception ever truly be the same?
Here's the thing, I don't want to ruin the premiss for you. If you haven't seen it yet, just watch it. It's on Netflix right now (watch it with English CC subtitles) and has already been a nominee in one awards show (Golden Globes), so it is very plausible it will end up in the Best Foreign Film category at the Oscars... assuming Denmark has chosen it for consideration of course.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

My 2014 Golden Globes Wish List

Dear 2014 Golden Globes,

My name is Caleb and this year I'd really love it if you'd let all of my nominated choices win in this season's award show.

I don't know the TV side as well, so I'll breeze through these

Best Supporting Actor in a Series, Mini-Series or TV Movie - Aaron Paul (Breaking Bad)

Best Supporting Actress in a Series, Mini-Series or TV Movie - Hayden Panettiere (Nashville)

Best Actor in a Mini-Series or TV Movie - Chiwetel Ejiofor (Dancing on the Edge)
*I just think it would be cool if he took home both acting awards in the same year...

Best Actress in a Mini-Series or TV Movie - Elisabeth Moss (Top of the Lake)

Best TV Movie or Mini-Series - Top of the Lake

Best Actor in a TV Series, Musical or Comedy - Jason Bateman (Arrested Development)

Best Actress in a TV Series, Musical or Comedy - Amy Poehler (Parks and Recreation)

Best TV Series, Musical or Comedy - Parks and Recreation
*perhaps its last hurrah...

Best Actor in a TV Series, Drama - Michael Sheen (Masters of Sex)
*yes, he's so good that he keeps pace with Bryan Cranston and Kevin Spacey... though it could go to any of those three and I'd be happy...

Best Actress in a TV Series, Drama - Taylor Schilling (Orange is the New Black)
*Kind of hate the show, but she's great...

Best TV Series, Drama - Breaking Bad

Best Original Song, Motion Picture - Let It Go (Frozen)

*Yeah, it's a little too poppy for my taste, but sadly I don't think Mr. Kennedy (Inside Llewyn Davis) can compete...

Best Original Score, Motion Picture - Steven Price (Gravity)

Best Screenplay, Motion Picture - Spike Jonze (Her)

Best Director, Motion Picture - Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity)

Best Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture - Daniel Brühl (Rush)
*He gets the nod because his part is so much more important than my other front runner, Michael Fassbender's...

Best Supporting Actress in a Motion Picture - Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle)
*I'm amazed that she did so well to get my attention this year...

Best Foreign Language Film - Blue is the Warmest Color

Best Animated Feature - Frozen
*I really did like The Croods, but Frozen takes the bacon...

Best Actor in a Motion Picture, Musical or Comedy - Joaquin Phoenix (Her)
*As much as I loved Oscar Isaac, Joaquin put out a performance like I've never seen before... speaking to... nothing...

Best Actress in a Motion Picture, Musical or Comedy - Greta Gerwig (Frances Ha)
*Yup, I loved this movie, and she was a huge part of the reason why...

Best Motion Picture, Musical or Comedy - Her
*Easiest decision I've ever had to make...

Best Actor in a Motion Picture, Drama - Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave)
*Again? Yes please. Chiwy's the best. Pay the man!

Best Actress in a Motion Picture, Drama - Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine)
*Cate over Sandra... Why? Because while they both drove their respective movies, Cate's character required a great deal more range than Sandra's... and she performed with extreme gusto...

Best Motion Picture, Drama - Rush
*Not Gravity or 12 Years a Slave, not Philomena... all three of which I looooved... and certainly not Captain Phillips. Rush was just that damn good. I would still give Director to Cuaron even if Ron Howard was nominated... but then again, if I had the choice, all of these awards would go to Her anyway.

What a crazy year it has been. I've gotta admit, Rush surprised me. And Philomena came up from nowhere to capture my heart. But in the year of the totally awesome Gravity and an excellent Coen Brothers film (Inside Llewyn Davis), ultimately Her was just on a completely different level. I truly think it deserves every award this year... but then, that's why I'm not a voter.
If you want to learn more about the nominees check out the Golden Globes website. The broadcast will air tomorrow, January 12th at 8pm Eastern, 5pm Pacific.