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Only 5 months and 20 days until the next Oscars are awarded on February 22, 2015.

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Boyhood

photo I honestly haven’t decided yet if Richard Linklater is a secret genius or just a guy still stuck in film school trying desperately to complete that last assignment that he never got right. But, either way, I’ve got to give the guy credit. While other directors in Hollywood seem to be chasing fame, status, awards or money, Linklater seems to be legitimately interested in his craft.

Last year saw the completion of Linklater’s 17-year, 3-film odyssey with the release of Before Midnight, the final act of a love story that began in 1995, starring Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke. That trilogy, Before Sunrise (1995), Before Sunset (2004) and the finale in 2013, gained masses of fans around the world and earned director/co-writer Linklater cult status as a critics darling—they loved the fact that he broke the rules, did something different, expanded his thinking and gave the audience a fuller, more complete story, one that was rich and full and about the human condition—about love, about life.

Granted, I wasn’t as bowled over by these movies as most of the critics were, but I was taken by them. I loved getting to know the characters intimately, seeing their relationship blossom, take hold, grow and eventually fizzle, as most relationships do. It was relatable, it was real. The writing was powerful, the acting was nuanced and memorable, particularly Delpy’s. There’s nothing to speak of cinematically, but that’s not the point. The point is in the essence, the heart and the soul. I didn’t start with these movies in 1995, unfortunately, so I can’t say what it was like to wait 17 years for the conclusion of the story, but I know there were a lot of people who did and all I can say is, wow, that’s impressive. That’s something for a filmmaker to connect with his audience that way. And good for him—to have that vision, that commitment and dedication to his project, while also being a sought-after Hollywood director—he directed several other movies during the span, including the hits School of Rock (2003) and Bad News Bears (2005).
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Guardians of the Galaxy

photo Just when I was beginning to lose hope for movies and accept the fact that television is far more entertaining these days, they pull me back in.

Guardians of the Galaxy—who knew?!

Seriously, I had almost forgotten how much fun movies could be. Remember when I was lamenting the lack of fun in the last X-Men movie? And decrying the over-sentimentality of Maleficent? Well, hallelujah, we finally have a Hollywood big-budget blockbuster that is not only fun but is smart, snarky and a hundred types of awesome.

I knew nothing about Guardians of the Galaxy. Apparently, they are Marvel comic book characters. (How many are they?) Well, either way, I was clueless going in. Was I going to get another cookie-cutter superhero movie? Was it going to be another mindless smash-and-grab-our-money job, with confusing plot, brooding characters, overly serious themes and loud and ever-present destroy-everything-in-sight scenes distracting us from the fact that the movie is just a giant CGI-fest with nothing of substance and even less of entertainment value to speak of?

Yup, I knew nothing about Guardians of the Galaxy.

So here’s the only non-depressing thing about the fact that Raiders of the Lost Ark and the original Star Wars came out 37 and 41 years ago, respectively: the kids whose minds were blown by those movies are now the adults who are making movies and writer/director James Gunn is one of them. Nowhere will you see the childhood influence of Raiders and Star Wars more vividly than in Guardians of the Galaxy, a sci-fi romp through the galaxy that will satisfy anyone with a yearning for a good, old-fashioned adventure tale, laced with wit, heart and a damn rogueish good time.
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A Most Wanted Man

photo A Most Wanted Man: based on a John le Carre novel, it’s about spies who are tracking bad guys under gloomy German skies using listening devices, hidden cameras, informers and good old-fashioned follow-that-guy techniques. It’s as if the Cold War never ended. Yippee!

I will admit, when it comes to movies, I do miss the Cold War. It’s just not the same, going into a movie and not knowing who the villain will be this time: the Chinese? The Russians? Internet hackers? Multimedia moguls? Oh, Islamic radicals are so last decade—and so politically incorrect. Which is why A Most Wanted Man feels so refreshing. It’s a modern movie that feels so old-fashioned. It takes place today but you’d swear up and down, as you’re watching, that you were watching a Cold War classic. And all the credit goes to director Anton Corbijn and novelist John le Carre for that. With a little help from star Philip Seymour Hoffman, in his final starring role before his untimely death earlier this year. Between the three of them, A Most Wanted Man unspools to become a pretty good time in the theatre—if those gloomy spy movies were ever your thing.

And here’s the other thing about A Most Wanted Man: I don’t want to talk too much about it. Part of why my experience of the film was so rich was because my knowledge of the movie going in was so limited, so I refuse to ruin anyone else’s chance at experiencing this movie for themselves by saying too much. However, I will say, for those of you looking to find out whether this movie is something worth seeking out in what is becoming a more and more crowded space at the movie theatre, I will hit on a few points that may help you decide whether to run out and catch it in the theatre or not.

-If you are a fan of Philip Seymour Hoffman, he carries this film and delivers a shatteringly great performance in his last starring role. It will break your heart, in more ways than one.

-I am an unabashed fan of director Anton Corbijn and am not ashamed to state my bias. This is only his third feature film, his previous two efforts, Control and The American, continued to show the style and visual sensibility that he has honed over the years that he made his name as a music video director (he’s worked extensively with U2 and Depeche Mode, among others). His naturalistic, low-key visual style really lends itself to the story here and this is the best pairing of story with director that he’s had yet.

-The supporting cast, mostly European, is strong, with perhaps the one mis-step of Rachel McAdams in a significant supporting role. While she does fine, I can imagine any number of other actresses who would have been better suited for the part. I’m wondering if her casting was required to get the movie made? We’ll never know.

Finally, I just have to say, without wanting to give too much away about A Most Wanted Man, I do want to say that besides feeling like I was wrapped up in a brilliant Cold War movie (which I wasn’t), what I loved most about A Most Wanted Man was getting caught up in comparisons in my own mind with Zero Dark Thirty. A Most Wanted Man has a very similar vibe, feeling and thematic philosophy—for lack of a better term—as the brilliant Kathryn Bigelow film from two years ago. Both films are rich, textured, slightly controversial and feature a lead character who is obsessed, enigmatic and goal-oriented. As films, I certainly can find fault in both, but as reflections of our society and what is going on in our world and what it perhaps takes to battle the evil-doers that walk among us, each of these films offer a gripping and searing look at passion, compassion, betrayal, politics and obsession that will keep your interest and will most likely keep you thinking long after the credits roll.

A Most Wanted Man is slow and gloomy and probably the definition of an adult drama (it will put anyone under the age of 15 to sleep, I promise you), but if you love layered political intrigue, spies and/or Philip Seymour Hoffman and would like to say goodbye to one of the true talents of our generation, go to the movie theatre and do it in style.

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.)
click here to keep reading 2014: Part Deux »

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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Academy Awards Best Picture Winners (1927 - 2014)

MY CURRENT SMART PICKS

Top 5 List:

My Five Favorite Robin Williams Movies:

1. The World According to Garp (1982)
2. Dead Poets Society (1989)
3. Mrs. Doubtfire (1993)
4. The Birdcage (1996)
5. The Fisher King (1991)

Rental Pick:

Take Shelter (2011)

Favorite Trailer of the Moment:

Awesome Movie Montages and Lists: