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Only 6 months and 23 days until the next Oscars are awarded on February 22, 2015.

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Snowpiercer

photo A dystopian sci-fi movie with a message is not a new concept. Even the best dystopian sci-fi movies—The Matrix, Brazil, A Clockwork Orange, Blade Runner, V for Vendetta, for example—all are far more than just entertainment, as each has, in its own way, something significant to say about something, be it society, politics, corporate greed, class, etc. Using film as a medium for socio-political commentary is not unusual for filmmakers, and the dystopian-future setting is perfect as it is just unrealistic enough to get away with it and just unsubtle enough to pour it on: change what you’re doing or the world will literally end up like this. These are strong messages delivered in powerful ways. When they are done right, that is.

However, there is another common feature in movies such as The Matrix, Brazil, A Clockwork Orange, Blade Runner and V for Vendetta that has nothing to do with their message: they are good movies. They are made to be good movies and their messages, you would have to assume, were secondary to their writing, filming and production. You feel there was no such consideration for the new movie Snowpiercer, a dystopian sci-fi action thriller from Korean director Joon-ho Bong, now in theatres and also available on video-on-demand. It feels, for every second you are watching Snowpiercer, that the message it is trying to get across is first and foremost on its mind. And this message, much like the movie, becomes numbing after a while.
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2014: Part Deux

photo Oh man. How bad has this year been for movies so far? Last Friday night—movie night—the only movie in the whole 16-theatre cineplex we came anywhere close to wanting to see was How To Train Your Dragon 2, which came out over a month ago. And the theatre was almost full, which says even more about what was opening that weekend (Sex Tape and The Purge: Anarchy…wheeee). And, to be honest, with the exception of Boyhood and A Most Wanted Man, the near future looks just as bleak.

I shouldn’t be surprised though. These late summer months have historically been slow, as Hollywood usually takes a breather before ramping up to Oscar season, which begins in September/October. But, for some reason, this year has felt especially bad. Glancing over at rottentomatoes.com, I notice that of all the movies released this year, only 28 have been certified “fresh.” That’s feels low—and sad. If you aren’t familiar with rottentomatoes.com, it’s a website that collects all the reviews for every movie and marks each one as either a positive (“fresh”) or negative (“rotten”) review. Based on cumulative totals, a movie is labeled “fresh” or “rotten” if the percentage of positive or negative reviews is over or under 60%. (FYI: It’s generally accepted that any movie that pulls in the 90-percentile “fresh” range is considered to be Oscar-worthy. Last year’s Best Picture winner, 12 Years A Slave, for example, has a 97% rating.)
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Chef

photo I was watching All the President’s Men again the other night (so good) and it struck me how rare it is to see a movie about someone just doing their job. No fluff, no time spent exploring backstory or detailing relationships or even revealing character personalities. The story is the pursuit of the story, i.e. the job. Period. And it is a nearly perfect movie.

There are a lot of movies about jobs. It should be no surprise, we spend most of our waking lives earning a living, what we do is woven into the fabric of who we are and how we see ourselves and how we define our character. But I’m also reminded of the majority of us for whom our jobs are simply a means to an end, a path to a paycheck and nothing more. We can’t all be astronauts and firemen and movie stars, after all. Office Space became a cult classic for a reason. It hit a nerve and may have been all too relatable.

So when a movie like Chef comes along, a small, wonderful film about an ordinary guy with an extraordinary talent and passion who just doesn’t know how to channel it, we can all relate. Chef may not take place in a cubicle farm, but it may as well, because the premise could translate possibly to any of our working environments: underappreciated worker bee with vast skills is pigeonholed and held back by his unimaginative boss, who fires him when he dares to be creative. What happens next could serve as a rallying cry for all of the weekend warriors out there—finding a way to follow your passions and actually loving what you do from 9 to 5.
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Maleficent

photo I got to thinking yesterday about happy endings. It was a day of endings, some exceedingly happy, like the thrilling and, for Los Angeles fans at least, awesome end of a riveting game 7 (in overtime!) of the Western Conference Final that sent the Kings to the Stanley Cup Finals for the second time in three years. Then there were the not-so-happy endings, like the latest episode of Game of Thrones, the HBO series that makes a habit of taking your heart out and stomping on it, week after week. Seriously, when will we learn.

But the day started with a visit to the movie theatre for Maleficent, Disney’s latest family fantasy blockbuster, starring Angelina Jolie, which promised a trek down memory lane as it was said to be a “reimagining” of the classic Sleeping Beauty fairy tale, this time as seen through the eyes of its villain, the evil queen–she of the famous curse and horns. I was looking forward to seeing this new spin on the story, and, most of all, I was looking forward to a potentially darker tone for a children’s movie, which would really be the trek down memory lane. Kids’ movies these days seem to be all bright colors and light. Nothing against Pixar, I love Pixar movies, they are technically brilliant, and heartfelt, but where is the depth? My favorite movies when I was a child were The Rescuers (1977) and 101 Dalmatians (1961). These are deep, dark movies, man. Correct me if I’m wrong, but the most devastating thing that’s happened in a Pixar movie so far (that got everyone weeping, including me), was the scene were toys almost—almost—go down an incinerator. When I was in a showing of Despicable Me 2 recently, I saw a parent take their kid out because there was something that made them cry. Really? What on earth could upset you in the minion movie whose theme song is “Happy?” So I ask you: do you really think kids today could handle a movie about puppies being kidnapped so they can be skinned for their fur? And don’t even get me started on Bambi or Dumbo. Kids today don’t know true sorrow. (Yes, I’m slightly bitter.)
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Days of Superheroes Past

photo I’ll be honest with you. I have absolutely zero inspiration to write anything about X-Men: Days of Future Past. Wondering how on earth this could be and totally depressed at the thought of being dried up and washed out as a movie reviewer (come on, who can’t write a few paragraphs about one of the biggest blockbusters of the summer, a franchise I love, for goodness sake?), I found myself driving the other day and saw a billboard for A Million Ways to Die in the West and it hit me. No matter how stupid and immature (and probably really bad) that movie is going to be, I was, in that moment, so unbelievably juiced to see it. Why? Because it will be a movie that won’t be the same thing I’ve seen a hundred times in the past five years. I got so excited at the thought of a comedy spoofing all the tropes of Western movies with a modern, pop culture spin—-it felt fresh, new, and EGADS….original.

And that’s when I knew what was bugging me about X-Men: Days of Future Past. This superhero thing? I think I’m over it. I don’t know when or how it happened, but I think I’m officially there. It was fun for a while, but it seems the thrill is gone. There have been too many movies, too many heroes, too much CGI, too many stories to follow, characters to keep track of, mythologies to remember, dark histories to care about. I can’t believe I’m saying this but I’m finally ready for the next big thing (Star Wars opens when?).

Seriously, this is as surprising to me as it is to anyone. I just wrote a semi-decent review of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, which I actually enjoyed. But, looking back on it, what I really loved about that movie was the relationship between Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone. And maybe that’s just it. Maybe I just really love the relationship between Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone.

But for me to check out like this during X-Men, the one superhero franchise that I’ve actually bought into and loved for so many years? The one with the best actors and the coolest superheroes? I mean, Michael Fassbender, Ian McKellen and Jennifer Lawrence are superheroes! How cool is that?! I absolutely adored X-Men: First Class, have seen it over a dozen times, and was so looking forward to this next installment, which was supposed to add even more dimensions to the beloved X-Men universe, allowing, through time travel, for all our various X-Men heroes to be in the same movie together. But, for me, it turned out to be a jumbled, convoluted, unfocused kitchen sink rather than an opportunity to showcase its talented resources.

While it was great to see everyone on screen together, there was just too much to look at, too much to try to keep straight, too much to remember (Wait, what’s their history; Who’s that? Tell me their timeline again?), just too much everything to enjoy much of anything. And that’s where these movies have just lost me. Everything’s just got to be so big and important and deep and symbolic and overloaded and action-packed and WOW! It seems strange to say this, but there is no innocence left in these movies. There is no light, there is no originality, there is only the expectation of spectacle and character and maybe a hint of story. And, for me, it’s all gotten too heavy, too bloated and too scattered for me to care anymore.

I know summer movies are supposed to be big and loud and escapist, but when did they stop being fun?

The Amazing Spider-Man 2

photo Today is free comic book day. It’s the chance to go down to your local comic book store and grab a free comic book and gain entrance to the secret world previously unknown to you but one that is slowly taking over the universe: FanBoys (and Girls). Let’s face it, nearly our entire popular culture is driven now by the comic book culture, from the most popular television shows (Big Bang Theory and Walking Dead) to the most popular social/pop culture annual gathering (ComiCon) to nearly every major Hollywood summer movie. Makes me almost embarrassed to admit the only comic books I read as a kid were Tintin and Archie. I feel so un-cool.

So when I innocently stand in line and buy my ticket for a movie in the summer, wholly aware I am out of my element, I do so with a few things in mind. One, I expect to really not have much of an idea of what’s going on—the “mythology” or the “inner life” of the superhero character I know will be lost on me because I am not especially immersed in the history of the story (unless it’s Superman—thanks, Chris Reeve). Two, I will need to check my critical eye at the door because I know nobody involved in the movie was trying to make the next Citizen Kane. [The goal, generally, of these big, Hollywood superhero movies is to collect records, not awards. This means high octane, overseas-market-friendly, family-ready, action-filled spectacle, loaded with what makes Hollywood movies soar: special effects. Which, in turn, generates the only reviews studio executives care about this time of year: $$$$.] And lastly, I aim merely to be entertained. It’s been a long, dark winter and spring with nothing at the theatre worth seeing and I am dying to be back at the movies: just make it fun and I’ll be happy. I really don’t have high standards in May. I had zero standards in February, March and April, so who am I to complain.
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The Grand Budapest Hotel

photo I’m admittedly (and shamefully) a latecomer to the genius of animator/director Hayao Miyazaki, whose recent masterpiece The Wind Rises was the first of his impressive 35-year career that I’ve actually seen, but may turn out to be the last the master makes, if Miyazaki follows through with his promise to retire. The Wind Rises was an absolute revelation, its hand-drawn artistry, lavish palettes and poetic resonance reminding me what an art form narrative cinema can still be in the hands of a true master. I kick myself that it took me so long to discover his work and I’ve made a promise to myself to go back and watch his previous films and make up for this gaping hole in my cinema education.

In an interesting twist—coincidence?—I find myself at the same time re-evaluating another director who I realize I may have written off too soon. It could be a great many things coming into play, maybe I’m older and I “get” them more, maybe he’s finding a clearer voice, or, maybe, he’s just making better movies, but I have to say that I am now, finally, coming around on Wes Anderson movies. I hated Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums when they came out 15 and 13 years ago, respectively. But now? I loved Anderson’s last movie, Moonrise Kingdom, and his current film, The Grand Budapest Hotel is, in my opinion, the best one yet.
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Academy Awards Best Picture Winners (1927 - 2014)

The Monuments Men

photo I guess it’s one thing to rescue great works of art from the grips of the Nazis, it’s another to make a great movie about it. Tina Fey’s joke about George Clooney should’ve been about him still floating in space while he was directing The Monuments Men instead of escaping Sandra Bullock—that would’ve been more believable.

So yes, I knew something was terribly wrong with this film when it was moved from the coveted December (Oscar race) slot last year to the dreaded February (death march) slot this year, but who knew a George Clooney-directed movie based on a best-selling book about retrieving stolen art from the Nazis starring Clooney himself, along with Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Cate Blanchett and Hugh Bonneville could go so devastatingly off course? The Monuments Men is not only off-course, it feels like it’s actually playing on the entirely wrong field. I have no idea what co-writers Clooney and Grant Heslov (based on the book by Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter) were even thinking when they wrote this screenplay, which comes off as a literal M*A*S*H-up of Ocean’s Eleven, Hogan’s Heroes and Saving Private Ryan, with dashes of every buddy movie ever seen thrown in for good measure.

The tone of this film is so completely all over the place, I had no idea whether to laugh, cry, be tense, nervous or anxious from any single moment to the next. And I seriously don’t think the actors or the filmmakers had any idea, either. The only actor playing with any stakes at all here was Blanchett, who quite literally seems like she’s in another movie altogether. Everyone else is playing some sort of army play-camp game and Clooney is their Scout leader.

The subject here is so rife with potential and the story is a most fascinating one: the biggest treasure hunt in history, to salvage cultural and historical artifacts and to preserve artworks that are priceless, this is a monumental story that deserves to be told. But it’s clear from the start that Clooney and Heslov are lost, they seem so concerned with keeping their audience entertained, as if talking about art for two hours will lose us, so they feel the need to pander by turning this into some sort of silly buddy movie of the lowest common denominator. Nothing works here, absolutely nothing, and the constant shifts in tone are jarring at best.

Add to it the cheesy dialogue, poor editing, and by far the worst score I have ever heard from the normally genius Alexandre Desplat, and I can easily say The Monuments Men is the first major disappointment of 2014. Of course, it is February—I have only myself to blame.

My Top 10 of 2013

1. Gravity
2. Her
3. Captain Phillips
4. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
5. Philomena
6. 12 Years a Slave
7. The Way Way Back
8. Rush
9. Blue Jasmine
10. This Is The End

MY CURRENT SMART PICKS

Top 5 List:

My Five Favorite Michael Keaton Movies:

1. Beetlejuice (1988)
2. Gung Ho (1986)
3. Mr. Mom (1983)
4. Night Shift (1982)
5. Pacific Heights (1990)

Rental Pick:

Take Shelter (2011)

Favorite Trailer of the Moment:

Awesome Movie Montages and Lists: