February 22, 2015

2015 Oscar predictions

Even with only 8 Best Picture nominees this year, it was still a stretch to try and see them all (I failed anyway). And though there's been a lot of controversy over the lack of diversity in this year's acting nominees, I do applaud their effort to spread the nominations among movies that weren't also nominated for the Best Picture. It gets tiring to see only a handful of movies get all the recognition. I mean, is any movie really so dominant in a single year to deserve 11 Oscars?

Either way, this year's Oscars has already been more successful than last year. For one thing, I managed to see more of the nominees than last year. And with few exceptions, I liked this group better as a whole. While I may have thought Boyhood was overhyped, for example, it wasn't the disaster of last year's front-runner, Gravity.

But before I go down the path of bashing last year's picks again, here are my predictions for this year's major categories:

Best Picture predicted winner: Birdman

This was a tough one. Not because there were so many great movies, but because it's hard to decide what a bunch of old white men consider to be great. Regardless, all signs point to it being a two-way race between Birdman and Boyhood.
  • American Sniper: A hit in the theaters, but depends heavily on the viewer's patriotism and hand wringing over the perils of war instead of solid writing.
  • Boyhood: The closer the awards draw, the more negative reviews I'm reading. I think the early darling of the year has lost its momentum and its way, kind of like the movie itself.
  • The Grand Budapest Hotel: By far Wes Anderson's most widely liked film, but not widely liked enough to actually win anything outside of the design categories.
  • The Imitation Game: The Academy loves a historical drama, especially about WWII. Throw in a blighted genius and some social issues and it's hard to bet against. Except in a year with darlings Boyhood and Birdman.
  • Selma: Sorry, thanks for playing, but a movie about African Americans won last year. The Oscars can't just suddenly seem to reward diversity! 
  • Whiplash: Everything I hear about this movie is positive, but it just didn't get the exposure it probably needed to win.

Best Director predicted winner: Richard Linklater, Boyhood

I don't normally predict this category out of protest that there are always more Best Picture nominees than Best Director nominees, but with the constant talk about Linklater's "feat" in filmmaking, I felt I had to. Besides, I love Richard Linklater. Celine and Jesse forever!
  • Alejandro G. Inarritu, Birdman: It feels weird to pick a Best Director that doesn't match up with my pick for Best Picture, but the Academy always has at least one surprise per year. I'm betting this is the one.
  • Richard Linklater, Boyhood: Even if you didn't like the movie, you had to respect Linklater's vision for it. I think he'll be rewarded for his 12 years of patience.
  • Bennett Miller, Foxcatcher: No comment.
  • Wes Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel: This is the first Wes Anderson movie I've liked. But I'm not an Academy voter. Yet.
  • Mortem Tildum, The Imitation Game: If you're going to just throw a director a nomination he has no chance of winning, why not save yourself the controversy and just nominate Ava DuVernay of Selma?

Best Actor predicted winner: Michael Keaton

  • Steve Carell, Foxcatcher: It's still weird to see him as a serious actor. And now, an Oscar nominated serious actor. Who is he, Bradley Cooper?
  • Bradley Cooper, American Sniper: He helps carry an otherwise mixed movie, but I'm guessing the Academy gets emotional with Keaton's comeback.
  • Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game: Excellent performance, but not a standout in this group.
  • Michael Keaton, Birdman: Like his character, this performance is a re-imagining of Keaton's career and his legacy. A win will forever get him out of Batman's shadow.
  • Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything: He's pretty spectacular, especially considering he's portraying someone everyone knows. I think he deserves the statue, but as we all know, the most deserving person doesn't always win.

Best Actress predicted winner: Julianne Moore

My viewings in this category were noticeably thin this year when I went to write my predictions, which makes it rather difficult to comment intelligently about anyone's performance. Still, everything I've read tells me it's a rather easy choice for the statue this time around.
  • Marion Cotillard, Two Days, One Night: She's already won one. Time to spread the love.
  • Felicity Jones, The Theory of Everything: She pulls off the long-suffering housewife well, but can't escape the fact that she never looks old enough to have birthed 3 kids.
  • Julianne Moore, Still Alice: Alzheimer's? Come on, how can anyone compete with that?
  • Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl: Solid performance, but you know, Alzheimer's!
  • Reese Witherspoon, Wild: I didn't see the movie, so I can't comment. And she's already won one too.

Best Supporting Actor predicted winner: J.K. Simmons

  • Robert Duvall, The Judge: Is he good? Sure. Has the mean old man thing already been played out? See: anything by Clint Eastwood in the last 15 years.
  • Ethan Hawke, Boyhood: Hawke did what he does best--talk a lot and play the overgrown adolescent philosopher. Personally, I liked him better as Jesse in Before Sunrise.
  • Edward Norton, Birdman: Is there anything this man can't do? But somehow, it doesn't feel like it's quite his time yet to be recognized by the Academy. Let's give it a few more nominations.
  • Mark Ruffalo, Foxcatcher: I heard Channing Tatum was more deserving on this nomination. I'll take that as a ding against Mark Ruffalo. Not just as an actor, but also as a person.
  • J.K. Simmons, Whiplash: I'm deferring to the experts on this one, and everything I hear is this one should be a shoo-in. To me, he'll always be Dr. Emil Skoda from Law & Order.

Best Supporting Actress predicted winner: Patricia Arquette

  • Patricia Arquette, Boyhood: She was so good, I thought the movie was actually about her.
  • Laura Dern, Wild: I have no comment, other to say she has virtually no shot at winning this category.
  • Keira Knightly, The Imitation Game: I love Keira, but I can't say hers was one of the top 5 female performances of the year, let alone the best.
  • Emma Stone, Birdman: This is the first time she hasn't bugged me in a movie. I don't know if that's Oscar worthy, but it's something.
  • Meryl Streep, Into the Woods: I think the Academy just likes to nominate her.

Best Visual Effects predicted winner: Interstellar

I wanted to weigh in on this category this year simply for the fact that I randomly happen to have watched almost every movie in the category. Also, now that I can finally state the difference between visual effects and special effects, that basically makes me an expert in the category.
  • Captain America: The Winter Soldier: The visual effects enhance what was actually a good movie on its own, which should be the baseline for the category, but I think that somehow works against this movie because they are not as memorable as effects that stand out against a sub-par movie.
  • Guardians of the Galaxy: Groot was amazing, of course, but he can't carry this nomination for them. They lost it on Ronan's lair.
  • Interstellar: Because Academy voters want to see what kind of commercials another win for a Matthew McConaughey movie will propel him to do next?
  • X-Men: Days of Future Past: To be honest, I watched this movie so long ago and I was so bored by it that I forgot about it. Including its visual effects.

Best Original Screenplay predicted winner: Boyhood

I have a feeling whichever picture between Birdman or Boyhood wins Best Picture, the other will win Best Original Screenplay. So I'll go either 2/2 or 0/2. The Academy wants everyone to walk away with something. Except Selma. JK
  • Boyhood: I don't know if it's actually the most original screenplay of the bunch, but since when does the Oscars reflect what is most true?
  • Foxcatcher: I think this movie will be the big loser of the night, walking away with nothing to show for its multiple nominations.
  • The Grand Budapest Hotel: Wes Anderson is finally breaking through to the big leagues. That means he'll have another decade before the Academy lets him win anything.
  • Nightcrawler: To be honest, I'm too big of a scared-y cat to watch this. I've heard nothing but great things about it, but it's probably too dark and scary to actually win.

Best Adapted Screenplay predicted winner: The Imitation Game

This is a tough category. With Boyhood and Birdman dominating the pre-Oscars discussion, there are a lot of movies that are going to walk away with nothing. Winning this category would be a big score for all of these movies that are unlikely to capture much anything else.
  • American Sniper: Considering the controversial liberties taken in adapting Kyle's book to the screen, I'm not sure how this could win.
  • The Imitation Game: I think this has all the qualities of perennial Oscar favorites--historical, biographical, and discriminated class.
  • Inherent Vice: I don't think it got enough publicity to pull off the win.
  • The Theory of Everything: It's as if the voters were confused by the talk of black holes and just voted for the movie for being smarter than they are.
  • Whiplash: To me, this is the only other plausible choice. I just think voters are going to go for the WWII story.

Best Animated Feature predicted winner: How to Train Your Dragon 2

I honestly can't expend a lot of energy talking about this category because the mere thought that HTTYD2 will walk away with the statute exhausts me. Also, I'm still emotionally drained from watching The Tale of Princess Kaguya, which is not only the best animated movie of the year, but should have been up for Best Picture. It's that good.
  • Big Hero 6: A massive box office hit for Disney and a good movie in my opinion, but doesn't seem to be getting even a fraction of the press that HTTYD2 has gotten. Otherwise I'd never bet against Disney.
  • The Boxtrolls: While a good movie, it's difficult to compete with powerhouses Disney and Dreamworks come awards season. I have a hunch voters don't get around to watching all the nominees in this category and just go for the big names.
  • Song of the Sea: See my explanation for why The Boxtrolls won't win.
  • The Tale of Princess Kaguya: See above. This movie only grossed $600K. I suppose it's a miracle it was even seen enough to get nominated.
As usual, I only predicted the categories I care about/feel like I can reasonably predict. So make sure to check out the Oscars Page to find my reviews on other Oscar nominated movies like Ida, The LEGO Movie, and Begin Again. And FYI, I'm going for guacamole for my the fish tacos I won last year!

The Theory of Everything (2014)

Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones

Oh, the irony. This movie, which centers around this theme of "time," based on Stephen Hawking's work, is an absolute mess with timing. The beginning half reads like an accelerated biography of Hawking and his relationship with Jane, his future wife, is like one giant speed date. The the movie suddenly slows and down and you would never know how many years had passed if not for an occasional glimpse of their growing children. Sure, they try and vary the hairstyles of Felicity Jones to show the passage of time, but the fact is, she looks like she is about 12 years old throughout the movie so you really can't tell how long it's been from scene to scene.

Additionally, they keeping saying the word "time" like a silly mantra, in case you forgot that Hawking was a scientist who dealt in abstract concepts. It was highly reminiscent of the catchphrase "sometimes it is the people who no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine" that was repeated again and again ad nauseam by seemingly every character in The Imitation Game.

The biggest crime, however, was in that there was not enough time (get it? get it?) to adequately cover everything this movie tried to tackle. There was Hawking's relationship with his wife, his ALS, and his work. Never mind that the course of a marriage is weighty enough to tackle within a 2 hour movie, but they're going to try and explain Hawking's theory of quantum mechanics and black holes to the average viewer? Like I said, a mess.

So instead of focusing on the evolution of his work and the challenges of continuing to prove his theories in spite of his disease (which would have been infinitely more interesting), we are instead left with a rather pedestrian film about sacrifice and overcoming obstacles. Or something like that. It's all a bit muddled, actually, what the message was supposed to be. Love conquers all, perhaps? Yawn.

But though the movie is nothing noteworthy, some aspects of the movie are. Eddie Redmayne, who was previously known to me only as the unattractive boyfriend of Amanda Seyfried in Les Mis, really does embody Stephen Hawking. Granted, he loses the ability of speech at some point, so it's just body language, but the way he scrunches himself up in the wheelchair is so convincing you have to remind yourself that he's acting and doesn't actually have ALS. And while his ever-present impish grin is so large you sort of want to smack it off his face, it does manage to convey the playful spirit Hawking has.

(BTW, did anyone else wonder if they could have gotten Hawking a more comfortable wheelchair at some point? Redmayne looks like he doesn't even fit in it.)

The movie is also very pretty. I know I previously mocked artsy people for talking about a movie's design, but it was one of the only highlights I was able to pick out. The picturesque settings only reminded me of how much we Americans love the Brits and the movies they make. How else to explain why this movie was nominated for so many categories?

Final word: Having a movie made of your life while you're still alive is badass, but considerably less so when the movie is this lame. I actually like Stephen Hawking less for approving this.

Ida (2013)

Oh, Poland. It's such a forgotten country. Besides while eating Polish sausage, I don't think the average person gives a lot of thought to Poland. Fairly or not, it tends to get lumped it with the culture and history of Russia. (Much like I'm sure plenty of people assume Central American culture is the same as Mexico's and southeastern Asia's is the same as China's.)

Unfortunately, this movie doesn't really help with that notion, as it focuses on probably the only point of Polish history most non-Polish people can name: WWII. Sigh. Another WWII movie. It's hard to be snarky about movies that involve the Holocaust and Nazis because, you know, but I'll try.

  • The use of black and white almost seemed like overkill. It was a depressing subject in a depressing setting with depressing people. The black and white just sent it over the edge into a movie you almost don't want to watch, which is too bad because the movie is actually pretty good. I'm not sure it would have worked in color, but man, it's just so depressing!
  • The main girl, despite repeated references to her "good looks," is not attractive. She's not horrible, but if you're going to make a big deal about someone being a beauty, please make sure they actually are. She was more like a less cute version of Claire Danes. And Claire Danes is no beauty.
  • Her character also bothered me. For one thing, she did that whole "meaningful silent" thing where I suppose we're supposed to admire her resilience or something, but whenever characters are mostly silent, I wonder if they're actually just bad actors. Her character was even more uninteresting when compared to the aunt, which was brilliantly acted by a woman who bore more than a passing resemblance to Sigourney Weaver.
  • The plot leaves some questions. Questions you could probably infer the answers to, but in a movie that revolves around a quest to find the truth, I'd like to actually hear that truth. All of it. If it were me, searching for the truth about my heritage and such, you'd better believe I wouldn't let anyone walk away from me without a detailed explanation of exactly what happened and why. Maybe that makes for a less delicate movie, but certainly would have made me feel better about it.
  • There were some more superficial questions related to the aunt's past and the sudden reappearance of certain characters, but if the movie wasn't going to directly address the big stuff, it certainly wasn't going to explain how the saxophone guy tracked down a funeral of someone whose name he didn't know.

Final word: It managed to come up with a new spin on WWII tragedy, which in and of itself is a triumph. 

February 21, 2015

The Tale of Princess Kaguya (2013)

James Caan, Chloe Grace Moretz

Did I try and say American Sniper was emotional? I take it back. After watching this movie, American Sniper is a distant memory. The Imitation Game was a depressing commentary on human behavior? Pshhhh. You thought The Grand Budapest Hotel was stylistically leaps and bounds ahead of the other nominees? Only because it didn't have to go head to head with The Tale of Princess Kaguya. I could go on, but I think it's clear how I feel.

The Tale of Princess Kaguya is easily the best movie of the year. Easily. It's visually stunning beyond your average animated feature. The classic Japanese painting style evoke memories of a time before all animated movies looked so similar that no one can tell which studio made what. The animation also varies throughout the movie, moving seamlessly between crisper, cleaner images and rougher, more sketchy drawings that help draw parallels to a character's state of mind. This, combined with the score, allows the movie to more completely convey unspoken changes and feelings than regular movies.

It is also a deceptively simple tale. It is quiet and slow and relies on it's building of the story and its characters to carry the story from a fairy tale to a complex narrative on the human experience. If you look beyond the surface of it, it will make you question everything from your relationship with your parents, the role of money in the world, and what it means to be happy in life. One might construe the story as too slow and possibly a little boring in the beginning, but as with all thought-provoking films, you need to watch it all the way through before passing judgment.

I almost hate to point out the minor flaws because I so thoroughly loved this movie. I also hate how pretentious this will sound, but the Japanese animated movies are just not the same in English. I grew up watching My Neighbor Totoro and other Studio Ghibli films in their original Japanese with English subtitles, so this lost a touch of the magic the other possess with their full foreign experience. The Japanese language is so beautiful and it would help mask some of the dialogue that sounds a bit stilted when spoken in English. Also, we wouldn't be subjected to the voices of James Caan and Chloe Grace Moretz for two hours. But again, all these things can be forgiven when presented in a movie as complete and beautiful as this.

Final word: With the risk of sounding as though I have written an acceptance speech for a movie I did not create, I am grateful to the Academy for introducing me to this movie with its nomination. 

P.S. If you still feel like you can't take my word for it, this movie has a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. 100%!

February 20, 2015

American Sniper (2014)

Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller

It's taken me quite a few days to even begin to piece together a review for this movie because walking out of the theater, I wasn't quite sure what to think of it. The fact is, no matter how apolitical Clint Eastwood probably thought he was in making this movie, how you feel about it likely reflects your opinion on our involvement in Iraq/Afghanistan. The politics of war are impossible to escape.

From a pure movie standpoint, it's not great. It's incomplete, a little too Hollywood, and really chops up the pacing of the story. I'm sure its popularity at the box office helped propel it to a Best Picture nomination, but I have little doubt it will walk away empty-handed. It's certainly not The Hurt Locker.

What this movie is, however, is emotional. By focusing the war on one man's journey--a man many people can feel like they relate to--Clint Eastwood shrank the topic from "The Iraq War" to "what we believe soldiers experience in the Iraq War." But the thing is, there is no "typical" experience in war. There aren't even "typical" soldiers. Because for every soldier who is happy to fight for the country and has a heart of gold--as Kyle (Cooper) is portrayed here--there are others who are way too excited at the prospect of just killing people, those who simply don't want to be there, and everything in between. I do appreciate the attempt (albeit, briefly) to show these other personality types, but it's hard not to become slightly cynical at Hollywood's insistence on making a lead character as heroic as possible while glossing over any unpleasantness.

What do I mean by this? Kyle's scenes at home between tours are brief and only allude to his having PTSD--an issue that, if properly developed, could have brought a new dimension to this movie. While I am grateful that they mentioned it at all, having a mega-hit like this highlight a pressing problem in our military could have pushed the issue into our national discussion.

Speaking of those home stays... Kyle spends roughly three years abroad over the course of four tours. So why does his son age about 8 years in that time? I understand it's supposed to be a war movie, but with Kyle spending more time at home than in Iraq, and the passing references to his PTSD, more of his difficulty transitioning back to civilian life could have been shown. A random scene here or there of him staring at a black TV screen or flipping out over something benign is not really a complete picture of what PTSD looks like.

What did work, however, were the combat scenes. However you feel about this war--and our involvement in it--the fact is our soldiers deal with some very scary sh*t and I cannot imagine the feeling of not knowing if every person coming toward you is trying to kill you or not. Having known a great number of people who have served in both Afghanistan and Iraq, I acutely felt these scenes as if the person behind the sniper rifle were a friend of mine. It may have felt manufactured to some, but I thought the majority of the interactions between soldiers, locals, and the situations they faced seemed very realistic.

The casting, in general, also works well. Bradley Cooper, in trying to bulk up to match his character, completely loses any semblance of a jawline or general attractiveness, but he manages a consistent Texan accent throughout, which--these days--is something to applaud. He plays a rather understated character and it's nice to see him recognized for a performance in which he's not an over-the-top crazy person. Sienna Miller is totally unrecognizable as a brunette, but perhaps her appearance is only a surprise because no one has seen her in a hit movie in so long. There are few notable characters beyond these two, so the highlight is that no one stuck out as not believable as a soldier.

Many of the criticisms of this movie stem from its omission of any sort of political statement about our involvement in Iraq, the non-existent WMD, or even the direction of military strategy in the area.* To which I say, it's a movie, people. Sure, I criticized the minimal attention paid to PTSD, but that affected the character directly. The politics of this war is another movie completely. Would I like to see a movie about that? Hell yes.

In the end, my biggest qualm about the movie actually had nothing to do with the simplification of Kyle's story to make him America's golden boy or a lack of a deeper political discussion on key issues, or even the choppiness between scenes. It's that a full 30 minutes at the beginning of the film that served little purpose. I know a back story needed to be built, but it was boring and after watching G.I. Jane, I'm convinced no man will ever seem tough for going through Navy SEAL training. I also could have used more of an explanation of exactly how he got into the sniper school. A single memory of deer hunting with his dad does not a sniper make.

Final word: If you can keep a level head about the fact that Kyle's life story has been Hollywood-ized, it's an emotional ride.

*I have also read quite a bit about the notable differences between Kyle's autobiography and this movie and understand why people are upset about some of the ahem, character changes. To which I say, read this article. It'll give you something to think about.

February 18, 2015

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

Jason Clark, Gary Oldman, Keri Russell

What do you want first: the good news or the bad? Personally, I always choose to hear the bad news first. That way I can end on a good note.

The bad news is this movie has a lot of lame moments. Most of those happen when you realize the budget was obviously cut from the scriptwriters and handed over to the visual effects team. The entire premise rests on the humans' need to get access to a dam near where the chimps have nested. A nest which from the chimps can actually see the humans' city. Yet the chimps assume there are no humans because they haven't come into contact with any in two years, despite the fact that they live probably 5-10 miles apart? (No, I'm not spoiling the plot. I promise.)

I know that chimpanzees share 97% of their DNA with humans and are therefore intelligent enough to learn languages and adapt to situations, but the fact that the chimps here can speak so much English--with proper grammar at that!--is questionable considering their lack of contact with humans for the past 10 years. And if they can all sign, why would they suddenly begin speaking aloud to each other? That's like going into a foreign community in which people can speak a bit of English and hear them speaking it to each other in their discussions when it makes absolutely no sense to do so. Unless, of course, you have an audience watching and you're trying to impress upon them that chimps are like, so similar to humans. Oh, and it's totally believable they ride horses! And fire guns! Because you know, if your entire stance as an ape is to resist the human way of life, naturally you'd do basically everything they do.

There is, as I said at the beginning, good news as well. The reason I watched this movie at all--an Oscar nomination for Best Visual Effects--is well deserved. Not only have the artists created realistic looking chimps, the gorillas are amazing and Maurice, the orangutan, is my absolute favorite. As a matter of fact, the facial expressions on the apes are so good they actually overshadow the actors (though really, that's not that hard. Jason Clarke? Really?) The action is also pretty good. Fights between chimps are way better than people because apparently the way chimps kill things is just to bang down on their chests with their fists. And the whole "simian flu" epidemic plot point felt current because of our recent Ebola obsession and now the Measles outbreak. Plagues decimating a population will never get old. That's why Outbreak was an awesome movie.

Final word: If Pocahontas and The Lion King were action films. But with really awesome apes.

February 17, 2015

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014)

Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Emma Stone

For my high school senior English project, we each had to write an ethnography. I chose to study theater people. (Anyone who argues that theater folks don't have their own culture has clearly never met a thespian.) So over the course of a couple months, I conducted interviews and attended innumerable rehearsals of the play Hurlyburly. In a lot of ways, it was interesting to see the same show performed over and over and watch the growth of the actors and characters and how they evolved throughout, leading up to the actual debut.

This movie--centered around a premise of a play being performed again and again--unfortunately chose the wrong subject. Granted, I've never read Raymond Carver's What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, but from what I can tell, it's horribly boring in play form. Much like my disastrous experience with Nixon in China the opera, some things are not meant to be adapted for the stage.

Interestingly, the entire movie read a bit like a play--nearly every scene took place in the theater house and it all felt like one long take. With the running musical score and the shadowing of characters through the dark hallways, it reminded me of Anna Karenina, except that I actually liked this movie. And while I think the score here complimented the movie well, the drums were sometimes so loud it was hard to hear the dialogue over them.

Emma Stone in this movie reminded me of the girlfriend in That Awkward Moment. I know she was supposed to be a recovering addict, but was part of her recovery the avoidance of hairbrushes and make-up remover? I've seen girls crawl out of the gutter at running of the bulls that look more put together than her. Her acting is pretty good here--the first time I've ever thought that--(she should seriously consider remaining a blonde), but frequent close-ups on her massive raccoon eyes distract from the performance.

Edward Norton, on the other hand, is fucking phenomenal. To me, this is what the Best Supporting Actor Oscar should be about--a performance that is so good it is not only memorable, but outright scene-stealing. Edward Norton has played a wide variety of roles before, but I've never seen him quite like this. He's neither the sweet, innocent priest of Keeping the Faith nor the raging psychopath of American History X. His character is both straight-forward yet complex and you both like and dislike him. This latest performance only further convinces me that there is no role Edward Norton can't play.

This is not to say Norton completely overshadowed Michael Keaton. The casting of Keaton was brilliant, if for no other reason than the *wink, wink, nod, nod* toward Keaton's own career as being almost entirely known for the Batman movies. He does a brilliant job of playing a tortured soul who is so wrapped in his own history and narcissism that he cannot even see how desperate he is. And the interactions between the two are both hilarious and infuriating.

BUT, this movie becomes a bit too self-pitying and tortured about the difficulties of acting and celebrity. (And coincidentally, the difference between the two.) I don't pretend to comprehend the struggle of actors: trying to keep a semblance of yourself when all you do is pretend to be someone else; simultaneously pursing both fame and prestige--I'm guessing it's similar to being a professional athlete. While I can certainly appreciate a dark inner monologue and a fading sense of self, I think dwelling on the struggle of people who are paid millions of dollars to do a job most of us can only dream of causes the story lose a bit of its relatability to the masses. Not to say millionaires can't have problems (they probably have more than the average person, truthfully)--it's just seems a bit proselytizing to make an entire movie about it.

It definitely lacks subtlety in targeting large action franchises and sets this undertone of "little guy" vs. "big Hollywood" which I'm sure is a metaphor for this movie being released in our current times of guaranteed money from sequels. (Once you start thinking about it, everything in this movie feels like a frickin' metaphor.) Don't get me wrong--I've done my fair share of complaining about the number of sequels and mindless Hollywood movies streaming into theaters this day. But I do think that large action franchises (like Fast and Furious, for example, which I happen to enjoy) have their place in the movie-watching world. I don't really care that something like Transformers 4 was made (ok, I kind of do). I do care that when it was released, the other major movie options for viewers were Think Like a Man Too, 22 Jump Street, and A Million Ways to Die in the West

Final word: I liked it, but it's wayyyyy too artsy for the average viewer. Even the title is out there.

P.S. If you're wondering why I failed to mention Naomi Watts' performance, well, let's just say it wasn't an oversight. She added exactly as much to the film as she did to my review of it.

February 15, 2015

The Boxtrolls (2014)

Ben Kingsley, Elle Fanning

I read a fascinating article awhile back about Facebook's algorithm and how quickly your feed can change based on what you "like." Well, I made the mistake of "liking" Focus Features page, which subsequently fed me about 8,000 posts about The Boxtrolls -- the making of it, the trailers for it, and how it was doing at the box office each week. I actually un-liked the page it became so spammy. By extension, I sort of also already hated this movie. Just on principle.

So imagine my surprise when the movie turned out to be *gasp* good! It might sound naive, but I really didn't expect it. I mean, this is a cast headlined by Dakota Fanning's younger sister and a man people can't even differentiate from the actor who plays Professor X. The animation is done in claymation, giving it a bit of a crude, student project-y feeling at times--worlds away from the slick, computer animation seen in both Big Hero 6 and How to Train Your Dragon 2. Yes, yes, I know they're supposedly on the cutting edge of stop motion animation. Maybe I just don't like stop motion animation. It didn't help that all the characters were ugly. Not just the trolls and the villains--all of them.

But much like awkward high school students, a movie can get by on ugly characters if they are funny and/or have great personalities. The trolls, with their names reflected on the dirty little boxes they wear, are lovable enough even to overlook the fact that they don't really speak English, yet somehow the boy grows up learning to speak it. In a lesser movie, I'd spend at least an entire paragraph ranting about the stupidity of that. (No, but seriously, that really bothers me. More so than the chafing nature and voice of Winifred.)

What I did enjoy, beyond the charm of the trolls and their propensity to hide in their boxes like turtles, was the detail in the clothing of the characters. They may have all been ugly people living in a dirty time, but the textures and fabrication shown here perhaps should have snagged the animators a nomination for Best Costume Design and Make-up. I know the Academy doesn't break down separate portions of an animated film for different category nominations, but it should. If Merida's hair in Brave could carry that movie, people should be talking a lot more about the costumes in this movie.

The plot breaks down like a cross between Tarzan and Dances with Wolves, right down to the white man as savior. Just kidding. At least you don't have to watch Kevin Costner awkwardly say "tatanka" while dancing around making bull horns.

Final word: My faith is partially restored in the Oscar nomination process.

February 11, 2015

The Judge (2014)

Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall, Vera Farmiga, Billy Bob Thornton, and the annoying guy from Law & Order: Criminal Intent

Boot cut jeans or not, Robert Downey Jr. is an attractive guy. He's got that whole "I'm an asshole but I have a soft side" charm that causes women to make poor decisions. Or maybe it's just that he looks that good in a suit. Whatever it is, he does it almost every movie these days. But I loved him back when he actually showed some range in his acting abilities. You know, before Ironman.

Alas, he is still doing it here. It fits with the plot, of course, but makes it a bit less interesting because characters that are that big shot smooth talkers are always quite predictable. Robert Duvall, on the other hand, really is a son-of-a-bitch here. He really removes any softness he might have inside to play a character you can't help but hate. He reminded me so much of Meryl Streep in August: Osage County, right down to the stringy hair and questionable health. In fact, the whole movie is a bit of a mash-up of August: Osage County and Sweet Home Alabama with a criminal twist thrown in.

The movie relies heavily on the dynamic between the Downey and Duvall, which is both its shining quality and also its downfall. While their bickering and unspoken tension holds the audience captive for the majority of the movie, there are a few scenes which seem highly implausible, given their relationship and the setting.

It has been criticized as being too schmaltzy, and it is. But I think anyone who has had a strained relationship with a parent can relate to this movie enough to look past the odd circumstance that brings the two together. What I cannot look past, however, is the casting of the guy from Law & Order: Criminal Intent. He is just the worst. It's unfortunate because I think his character could use a healthy dose of empathy from the audience, but his limited screen time and stilted acting make it close to impossible.

During a book club discussion of All The Light We Cannot See, one woman likened the plot to "when you look in the mirror and you're like, Am I wearing too many accessories?' " This movie is a bit like that. Did we really need the cute, young bartender and the younger brother with disabilities and the high school girlfriend and a tornado, on top of the existing court case and dysfunctional family dynamic? It all just felt like too much: too many plot twists, too many characters, and too much extra unnecessary drama.

Final word: It's the movie equivalent of a hot mess friend that has too much going on, but you still find her endearing.

February 9, 2015

The Imitation Game (2014)

Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightly, Matthew Goode

It's interesting how a single role can change a person's mind about an actor. Fairly or not, we judge actors based on the characters they play, as if the personality traits of the character mirror the traits of the actor. If you don't think this applies to you, ask yourself this: have you ever been able to watch David Schwimmer in anything that's not Friends without thinking of him as an awkward dork?

This movie was a turning point for me on Benedict Cumberbatch. I've made no secret of my dislike of him. Mostly because he reminds me of Voldemort. But somehow, this character made me break through his exterior and appreciate him for being a good actor. The fact that he's British and he voiced over much of the movie certainly didn't hurt. Somehow here, his voice had that confident, reassuring and pleasing quality that was missing when he voiced the wolf in The Penguins of Madagascar. Maybe he's just not meant to be a cartoon character.

But while I appreciated the smooth, clear voice explaining things like an omniscient narrator, it was an awkward and unlikely choice to have him telling state secrets to an anonymous police officer. Maybe by that point, his character didn't care anymore and just wanted to tell someone? I'm really grasping as straws as to why the writers chose that framing device for the plot.

The rest of the cast left me less conflicted. Keira Knightly, of course, I have an unbridled love for and it is always great to see her in a period piece not set in the 19th century. Matthew Goode. Sigh. I need to update my Top 5 list. Again. Even Allen Leech managed to change my opinion of him after despising him as Branson on Downton Abbey (which is completely rational, of course). And though I spent the whole movie trying to figure out why Mark Strong looks so much like a mean Andy Garcia, it was refreshing to watch a movie that had full cast of famous people without it being a real distraction.

It seems like I just can't escape WWII. In addition to watching two recent movies set in the time period, I also just read All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr which was, by the way, phenomenal. Reading that at the same time as watching this movie gave me some serious pause for reflection on the state of our history curriculum. I find it funny that we're consistently taught in the US that of course, we were the ones who "won" the war for the Allies, while of course, the British put out a movie about how they won it due to their intelligence. Do you think the French just don't care enough to stake some claim in this? And why doesn't anyone ever acknowledge that the Australians were there?

Ok, I'm off topic. But this movie was so fascinating in that it put some serious historical truth that made the viewers delve deeper into the ethical implications of how to fight a war while still keeping the plot entertaining. Maybe it's a British thing, but they seem to have a knack for making a potentially yawn-inducing subject--code breaking--interesting (See: The King's Speech). Though I will say this movie definitely focused on the "behind the scenes" and really only kept referencing the war with shouted lines like, "We're at war! People are dying!" You know, in case we forgot the purpose of all the code breaking.

However, the movie was beautifully layered in that it is, if only sparingly, a war movie. But it is also a bit of a spy movie, a biopic, and a thriller. It does a brilliant job of inserting a few light-hearted moments to lift what is overall, a very sad movie. And by sad, I mean utterly depressing if you spend more than a couple minutes really thinking about it. The war, the tactics, the decisions, and Turing's life. All of it.

Final word: Depressingly good.

P.S. Did this movie poster remind anyone else of the poster for The Social Network?

February 5, 2015

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

Ralph Feines, a random, ethnically ambiguous kid, and a bunch of other famous people who are only in the movie for 5 seconds

I find it to be interesting that certain directors have such a distinct style and voice that they seem to overshadow the actors themselves. Rabid fans line up to watch (and praise) any movie made by the director, seemingly regardless of the topic or how good it actually is. Quentin Tarantino is one that comes to mind. Wes Anderson is certainly another.

This movie is, undeniably, a "Wes Anderson film." It has the quirky characters, many played by the familiar faces of Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, and other Anderson regulars, the choppy scene changes, a color palette that is somehow neither bold nor pastel, and of course, is set in the past. There are so many similarities in every one of his films that I had begun to think I never needed to sit through another one. I think of Wes Anderson films as "interesting," which is the Minnesota nice way of saying I don't like them without being confrontational about it.

But much like I continue to try butternut squash and other gourds that I'm positive are not fit for human consumption, I keep watching Wes Anderson movies with the hope that one say I will "get" what all the hype is about. This is the one I've been waiting for.

I  don't know if it's a changing of the taste buds or the minimal appearance of said personalities listed above, but I suddenly found this movie to be a refreshing change from the usual Hollywood fare and not just an experiment in pushing the boundaries of movie form and style. Maybe it was the utterly fabulous (but not gay! wink, wink) acting by Ralph Feines, who I am convinced should on everyone's favorite actors list if he's not already. Regardless, this movie offered a quirky humor that wasn't too dark or weird, balanced with an original story that was both fun and interesting. (Not to be confused with "interesting." I know, the passive aggressiveness of the Minnesota nice can be confusing.)

Perhaps what I really liked about this, in contrast to many other Wes Anderson films, was the focus on really only two central characters. Sure, the cast was littered with appearances by big names, but most had only a fleeting appearance and were often not central to the plot. Which brings me to one of my only gripes about the movie: why bother casting these small characters with such famous people? It may not seem to matter, but I find the presence of recognizable actors in minor roles to be distracting. For example, the only part of the movie in which I wasn't totally engrossed was when Willem Dafoe made a sudden appearance because all I could think was Willem Dafoe's face looks like it was sculpted out of clay, but not in a good way and having flashbacks to watching Platoon for the first time.

Also in the Willem Dafoe portions... the oddly long sequence of him skiing down the mountain was both bizarre and far too long. I get that Anderson has this feel where nothing looks quite real, but that part really made no sense and could have easily been edited out. But again, just a minor complaint against a movie that was surprisingly good.

Final word: A Wes Anderson movie for people who don't even like Wes Anderson.

February 2, 2015

Boyhood (2014)

Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke

It would be too obvious to mention that this movie really has no point. I mean, it has a point, but really only in a larger, existential sort of way. But really, anyone going into watching a Richard Linklater movie should know better than to expect a typical plot sequence.

This ambling, action-free, but realistic nature is part of its appeal. This movie moves beautifully between time without any need for verbal reminders and the continuity of the cast helps it feel even more realistic as we watch all the characters age. When the movie started, I was almost shocked at how young Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette looked, considering I have seen them since that early footage was shot. (I almost said "I've seen them a bunch of times since," but realized that would be lying because I've never watched Medium and seriously, has Ethan Hawke done much of anything worth watching in the last 10 years other than this?)

The movie also served as a sort of cultural time capsule for viewers--I was able to re-live everything from teaching Britney Spears' dance moves in Oops... I Did It Again to my sisters in a hotel room before getting security called on us for being too loud, to the painful Soulja Boy movement when everyone suddenly thought they were cool if they could mimic the dance. The soundtrack adds so much value to the movie because of the memories that music can evoke. Who, upon hearing certain songs, isn't hit with a flood of memories of their first kiss, a road trip with friends, or even just a particular point in time like "the summer after 10th grade"?

While other movies that span a significant amount of time show a scene or two of common childhood experiences to showcase the passage of time, this movie centers on those moments, and instead, cobbles together enough of them to assemble a movie. This, sprinkled with moments of reflection by the characters on the meaning of the journey, brings an extremely relatable quality to what is actually a rather deep movie without trying too hard.

But the wave of nostalgia and good feelings really ends there. Because while the movie is filled with real-life scenarios and feelings that are easy to relate to (oh, those emo teenage years!), there is one, incurable problem with the movie:

The kid.

I can't stand him. I know it might seem too snarky, even for me, to pick on a child's acting, but the kid did not change facial expressions for the first 6 years of filming. He barely even talked. It was literally an hour and ten minutes into the movie before he showed even a semblance of a personality. And even then, it was sporadic and mostly unconvincing.

I've looked at it from every angle: Maybe Richard Linklater wanted the kid to be mostly silent in the early years to contrast with him coming out of his shell and into his own as he grew. Maybe he was silent to indicate the abuse he was internalizing from his environment. Maybe he was shy.

The fact is, it doesn't matter. You can be silent and still act. You can convey emotions and thoughts and feelings through facial expressions. It's a scientific fact. That is, unless you're just a bad actor.

So perhaps that prejudiced me because by the time he did develop a personality, I already hated him. I found him to be a whiny, entitled, lazy teenager who thinks he is somehow special, either due to his difficult upbringing or his "talent." (Just once, I'd like to see an indie-type movie that doesn't have the lead character as and artist/photographer/dancer/musician.) And I cannot imagine how difficult it would be to expose your awkward teenage years in front of a camera (just ask Chelsea Clinton), but honestly, the kid is just so unattractive, especially as a teenager, that it's difficult to watch. I know it sounds petty to be nitpicking his looks, but his No Country for Old Men haircut makes it impossible for me to ever like him. It's just a fact.

It's unfortunate that the kid really spoiled the movie for me because Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke are wonderful in this. Ethan Hawke does his 'I talk too much and walk the line between charming and loser' thing and Patricia Aquette is convincing as a single mom who makes some poor decisions, but is sympathetic enough that you don't judge her too harshly. Even the daughter (who was a beneficiary of some obvious nepotism, which often goes so wrong) does a decent job throughout the years, though her role fades significantly as the characters grow up. In fact, everyone else shone so brightly in comparison to the kid that it made me think of The Fighter, where basically everyone but Mark Wahlberg was nominated for an Oscar, despite him being the main character.

I'm starting to question whether the boy is really the main character at all, despite the name of the movie. Maybe it's my perspective as a parent, but to me, the real star was Patricia Arquette. Her story arc really resonated with me, as opposed to the boy's, whose life I could relate to, but didn't necessarily stay with me after the movie ended. And that is why, perhaps, in spite of a number of wonderful moments, I didn't walk away with a sense that this would really be the best movie of the year.

Final word: Oscar bait.

Related: The Tree of Life (2011)