OSCAR COUNTDOWN

Only 3 months and 21 days until the next Oscars are awarded on February 22, 2015.

RECENT POSTS

MISCELLANEOUS

Birdman

photo Last year at this time, we were talking about Gravity, Alfonso Cuaron’s virtuoso cinematic achievement which went on to win seven Oscars, including Best Director and Best Visual Effects. Hard to believe, but Cuaron’s countryman Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (Babel, 21 Grams) has now upped the ante. Inarritu’s newest feature, Birdman, is itself an exercise in cinematic wizardry, but of a completely different nature and with vastly different effect. What made you hold your breath in Gravity makes you breathe faster in Birdman.

Birdman will make headlines for being the “comeback” of Michael Keaton, but it should be talked about for so much more. Keaton plays a washed-up actor who was famous for playing a superhero in the movies, but is now trying to revive his career by writing, directing and starring in a play on Broadway. The movie takes place almost entirely backstage at a Broadway theatre and is so incredibly meta your head will spin. Between Michael Keaton actually being a semi-washed up actor who really did play a superhero in his career, to us watching a movie about a play, and then all the actors doing nothing except talking about acting—this movie gets so inside itself so fast it turns itself inside out before you figure out which way is up.

And then you realize that’s exactly the point.
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Whiplash

photo What are true motivations for success? Money? Career? Fame? Self-respect? Pride? Fear? What motivates an athlete to push him or herself through the pain? What motivates an actor to keep going if they continue to get rejected, time and time again? We all remember the opening of the TV show Fame, right? Debbie Allen’s famously motivational words to her students at the School of the Arts, as they are grinding through her tough dance class: “You got big dreams? You want fame? Well, fame costs. And right here’s where you start paying….in SWEAT!” (See it here.)

When it comes to pop culture, we have seen this time and time again. From Rudy doing everything he has to to make it onto the Notre Dame football field, to Nina Sayers getting her chance to play the Swan Queen in Swan Lake to, well, everyone doing everything to get the part in A Chorus Line. Following your passion can be brutal, especially in the arts, when it’s not just your body that takes the pounding, but your soul as well. The latest movie to explore the theme of “how much will you give for your art?” is Whiplash, from writer/director Damien Chazelle, and stars Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons.
click here to keep reading Whiplash »

Fury

photo I’ll make this short and sweet. Brad Pitt’s new movie Fury: pretty good for a war movie, despite the neverending array of war movie clichés that run rampant throughout. Brief synopsis: Brad Pitt plays a U.S. Army tank sergeant in Germany during World War II and the movie follows his tank, its crew and its missions during one very busy day towards the end of the war. The best parts of the movie are when we see the interactions between the tank’s (nicknamed Fury) crew members and the edge-of-your-seat action sequences, which made me realize that, in all the many war movies I’ve seen, I’ve never really seen great tank battle scenes. This movie changes all that. Sadly, though, Fury is held together only by the audience’s desire to see more of these scenes, because the clichés do get tiring after a while and you learn to give up much hope for interesting dialogue or character development. But still the movie held my interest for the 2-plus hour running time, thanks to the fast pace and the nearly universal appeal of the actors. Pitt is serviceable as the lead, no surprises there. The real shock comes in how watchable Shia LaBeouf is, even powerful at times. Logan Lerman and Michael Pena are great as well. But the huge, glaring weak spot is Jon Bernthal, who mumbles and overacts his way through every single scene, to the detriment of the film. Thankfully, however, the action scenes and the fast-paced directing by writer/director David Ayer (End of Watch) makes Fury a worthwhile experience, if this is your kind of thing. Just don’t expect anything more than a well-made war movie which treads extremely familiar territory.

Gone Girl

photo So here we go. The official kickoff to Oscar season, the first big movie that gets everyone buzzing, with big names, big pedigrees and even bigger expectations. Gone Girl is the latest from acclaimed and beloved director David Fincher, who brought us the dark favorites Se7en, Fight Club, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and the near Oscar-misses The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and The Social Network, (not to mention television’s House of Cards) so, naturally, it will be looked on with keen interest. Add to it the fact that it is based on the world-wide smash-hit novel of the same name by author/screenwriter Gillian Flynn, and you have a doubly built-in audience and fervor for this movie, which seemingly stars Ben Affleck as an afterthought.

I not only read the book “Gone Girl,” but I devoured it. I loved it and was so excited when I heard it was being made into a movie. I was even more excited when I heard it was going to be Fincher to adapt it, since he was the one who adapted another novel I adored, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” which I loved. The simple plot of Gone Girl is it’s about a seemingly perfect couple, Nick and Amy Dunne, (played by Affleck and Rosamund Pike), until one day (on their 5-year anniversary) when Amy goes missing and Nick is placed under suspicion in her disappearance. From there, events reveal that their perfect marriage wasn’t so perfect after all and we maybe find out what really happened to Amy and how it may or may not have involved Nick.

“Gone Girl,” the book, was smart, riveting, wicked, and topsy-turvy all the way through. Now I say this with every understanding that my appreciation of the movie could be colored by the fact that I had read the book first so I have no idea how to see the movie without that knowledge, but the movie adaptation of Gone Girl? It not only disappointed me, it angered me. The disappointment came from the fact that I honestly have no idea what kind of movie David Fincher thought he was directing. I’ve heard some people describe it as a thriller, some describe it as a mystery, and some even describe it as a commentary on modern marriage. I would describe it as a mess. If I didn’t know better and I didn’t know the filmmakers better, I honestly would have thought this movie was made by a first-timer, it felt that lost. I felt zero tension, zero stakes and I honestly didn’t care about anyone or anything. And empathy? Well, I think that’s the point—we are supposed to hate everybody in this movie. If you really want to spend 2 ½ hours with horrible people who do horrible things to each other for no clear point whatsoever, knock yourself out. And when the two people we are forced to spend those 2 ½ hours with are played with such numbing blandness as Ben Affleck and such over-the-top melodrama as Rosamund Pike, it is just awful. Even the score by usually-brilliant (and Oscar-winning) Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross was intrusive and overbearing, which is something I never thought I’d hear myself say.

I realize that there is a big part of Gone Girl that is intended to be satire or black comedy but look, even the blackest of humor has to start somewhere relatable. And if Gone Girl honestly thinks it is satirizing modern marriage and contemporary society with this trashy, melodramatic, TMZ-induced nightmare of a movie, then we are all a lot worse off than we think.

Bottom line here is this: I can understand and appreciate metaphor movies. If Fincher and Flynn are really trying to say something about our culture and society here, more power to them. But, for me, they failed miserably. They didn’t create a viable thriller, they didn’t create a workable mystery, and they certainly didn’t create a satire worth recommending. Instead, for me, Gone Girl is nothing more than melodramatic, semi-boring, sexist pulp. I have been shocked and wrong before, but if this makes it all the way to Oscar night, I’ll be the girl gone.

The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby

photo I feel like I could write a treatise on grief as portrayed in pop culture. First, I survived (suffered?) through the entire season of HBO’s much-talked-about show The Leftovers, a series that posits the question: what would happen if 2 percent of the world’s population vanished all at once, with no explanation? It is about those left behind, specifically those in one small town in upstate New York. The Leftovers has been setup to be a little bit of a sci/fi/mystery/thriller/psychological drama in the spirit of Lost, especially considering it shares the same creator, Damon Lindelof. But I’ve found the most fascinating parts of The Leftovers not to be the mystery elements, but the straightforward humanistic elements of grief the show puts forward based on the main plot point that drives the show. The essence? Everybody deals with grief differently. The Leftovers shows just how differently. It’s an intense, depressing, dark, heavy and sometimes maddening show, but that thread that runs through it is so rich, it makes for a visceral viewing experience—at least for me.

And now, here comes The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby. Following on the heels of The Skeleton Twins, a movie about the bonds of two people through depression, and right after a summer watching The Leftovers, this movie felt like the grand finale of the Bummer Trilogy. The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby is about a married couple who are torn apart by tragedy and are trying to figure out, individually and together, if they can ever get whole again.
click here to keep reading The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby »

The Skeleton Twins

photo As an only child, I am aware that I have the tendency to overly idealize and romanticize the sibling bond. No matter how many friends-with-brothers-and/or-sisters try to set me straight, I just can’t help but dream longingly about the one connection in the world I know I will never have, wondering how totally awesome it must be to have a lifelong bond like that. Of course, everyone with a sibling out there just read that and probably wants to call me up right now and tell me all their brother/sister horror stories and how they would have given ANYTHING to have been an only child.

The grass is always greener.

And that’s the great thing about the new movie The Skeleton Twins. It’s a movie about that sibling bond and it shows both the horrors and what I always imagined to be the ideals of that relationship in a little movie that packs a big emotional wallop but offers enough laughs to make the heartaches worthwhile.
click here to keep reading The Skeleton Twins »

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).
click here to keep reading Boyhood »

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.
click here to keep reading Guardians of the Galaxy »

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 »

Academy Awards Best Picture Winners (1927 - 2014)

MY CURRENT SMART PICKS

Top 5 List:

My Five Favorite Movies About Actors:

1. Tootsie (1982)
2. Funny Girl (1968)
3. Boogie Nights (1997)
4. Tropic Thunder (2008)
5. Nine (2009)

Rental Pick:

Frida (2002)

Favorite Trailer of the Moment:

The Gambler (red band trailer)

Awesome Movie Montages and Lists: