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Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Release Date: 12-14-2012)

        The subtitle attached to the opening salvo of Director Peter Jackson's new J.R.R. Tolkien trilogy can be understood in a variety of ways. On the surface, it pertains to the epic trek of a young Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), but the tag also fits the film's lengthy voyage into existence quite nicely. As many Rings devotees already know, it wasn't always supposed to be Jackson returning to the reigns; when the dust settled over a financial throw-down between the world-class film-maker and New Line Studios, it was Guillermo del Toro sitting in the director's chair, with Jackson on board as producer. Years of legal finagling and creative differences led del Toro to eventually drop out altogether, opening the door for the Master of Middle Earth to have his way once more, and did he ever! The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey somehow stays on screen for a gargantuan 169 minutes, despite only representing the initial passages of a relatively modest book, 300 pages or so in most publications. Many (this writer included) have wondered as to the motives behind such an expansion. Simple box office? Legitimate story concerns? Nerds who just can't help themselves? Turns out, it's a little bit of everything.

        In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit, a surly fellow previously played by Ian Holm, who sets the events of this film in motion with a welcome cameo. After elder Bilbo details the fall of Erebor, the former home of the Dwarves, since conquered by Smaug the Dragon, his younger, more reluctant incarnation takes over protagonist duties, but not before an old friend gives him a solid nudge in the adventuring direction. Gandalf the Grey, played with even more relish than before by Sir Ian McKellen, invites a troop of those aforementioned bearded cave dwellers to Bilbo's home with a dangerous enticement: come with us to slay the dragon, and riches will be yours. After initial trepidations, the Baggins of Bag End joins the team, setting out on an odyssey beyond his wildest imaginings.

        Before any further examination is leveled, let us quickly get this out of the way: An Unexpected Journey is both far from a failure, and equally removed from reclaiming the glory of its forbearers. This shouldn't be a surprise to anyone who's read the books; The Hobbit is essentially a kids' novel, and here we only have a portion of it, as opposed to witnessing (on three separate occasions, no less) the entirety of a narrative primarily aimed at adults. Jackson, however, neglects to view the material this way; his Hobbit is primarily subsistent of the same epic, straight-faced vibe as his original trilogy, only occasionally undermined by the tone that the source novel actually carries. On one hand, this approach is ill-fitting, and ignorant of the nostalgic bliss that it's parent novel offered in spades. On the other, it's a welcome reintroduction to a beloved universe, now retrofitted with superior technology, and featuring a fair share of crackling set-pieces (the escape from the goblins near the end of the film is one of the most kinetic action sequences in recent memory).

        The allusions to prior glories don't stop there. The Hobbit revisits a surprising number of places, people, and events from the Lord of the Rings saga, especially Fellowship of the Ring, recycling previous triumphs, and behaving as though we've never seen them before. It's all in the name of much-ness, of course: the elongated runtime, the panoramic shots, the state-of-the-art special effects. But why must we have such much-ness? I'm as shocked as anyone at how close An Unexpected Journey comes to validating it's runtime, even taking into account it's two impending sequels, but wouldn't a two-hour frame-work (or six-hour, if you want to look at it upon expansion) give this thing a whole hell of a lot more zip? Jackson's latest feels like Thanksgiving dinner without a refrigerator: Everything on the table is delicious, but you have to take it all down at once, even if you're feeling full. But Jackson does have a fridge (340 more minutes worth of fridge-space to be exact), and one wonders why he wouldn't wrap up some of his more savory concoctions for later, instead of force-feeding his audience into a sort of cinematic food coma. Nearly everything is winsome; Freeman is a terrific centerpiece, Gollum's return is an absolute blast, and the rolling hills of New Zealand are still too lush and beautiful to be believed. It's a good flick, to be sure, but it's a whole lot of less-is-more away from greatness.

Grade: B

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Oscar Predictions 2012: Round 3

Best Picture:
1. Les Miserables (Previous Ranking: 2)
         Early word has finally arrived, and it's been rapturous. Breakthrough technique, epic scale and scope, a horde of much-loved actors, and a genre that hasn't played with the big kids since Chicago. Toss in director Tom Hooper's BFF status with the Academy, as well as a perfectly-timed Christmas Day release, and you've got the movie to beat.
2. Zero Dark Thirty (Previous Ranking: 6)
         Precursor season began this last Monday with the New York Critics Circle Awards, and continued yesterday with the National Board of Review. What did the two have in common? They both loved Zero Dark Thirty, each naming it their movie of the year among other accolades. Director Kathryn Bigelow's recent win for similar subject matter makes me question its actual chances at the win. Everything else does not.
3. Lincoln (Previous Ranking: 1)
        Given its even-more bombastic, more enthusiastically received competition, Lincoln isn't really looking like the movie to beat anymore, but its nomination is just as assured as the day Day-Lewis signed on to the project. Tough to know just where to slot a movie with little chance of winning, but even less chance of missing the nomination. Number 3 will do.
4. Argo (Previous Ranking: 3)
         Almost everything said about Lincoln applies here, the lesser pedigree costing it exactly one spot in the rankings. Critics and audiences agree; Argo is one of the best movies of the year, which will be more than enough for the nod, but can it really win?
5. Silver-Linings Playbook (Previous Ranking: 4)
        The last seemingly-assured Best Picture nominee, SLP may have peaked too early, racking up film festival acknowledgements through-out the last several months only to open in tepid fashion the weekend before last. Still, the actors and the heart-warming subject matter are esteemed enough to pencil this one in for the big race.
6. Life of Pi (Previous Ranking: 7)
         The, 'Avatar,' slot, so to speak. The expansion of the Best Picture field over the last several years has seen a far greater number of films recognized in the big category on the strength of technical accomplishment. While Pi's emotional resonance varies depending on who you ask, its visuals and effects are entirely irrefutable.
7. Django Unchained (Previous Ranking: 13)
        Fresh off turning a historically irreverent crowd-pleaser into a major awards player, Quentin Tarantino returns with another film that looks counter-intuitive by Oscar standards. Are you willing to bet against one of the world's greatest living film-makers, especially after the NBR gave the movie some major ups?
8. Beasts of the Southern Wild (Previous Ranking: 8)
        Despite feeling fairly confident in this ranking, I go back-and-forth over whether I think Beasts actually has what it takes to secure a nomination (Keep in mind, current Academy rules dictate that anywhere from 5-10 nominees get invited every year). It's summer release date already feels ages ago, and its lack of star-power makes it easy to forget, but Oscar does tend to love a little-movie-that-could.  

As of now, I am predicting that these will be the Eight that get nominated (I don't have some crazy math problem that helped me determine the number, these just seem like the ones). The following is where I rank the next movies in line.

9. The Master (Previous Ranking: 5)
        A major player up to this point, The Master still has both the pedigree and the performances to crash the big dance, but its early release date, and unregulated eccentricity stand as clear obstacles.
10. The Impossible (Previous Ranking: 9)
        It's already a big hit overseas, it's got a pair of respected actors at its center (Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts), and it fits the bill as both a spectacle and a heart-wrencher. Now let's see how it's received state-side...
11. Promised Land (Previous Ranking: 11)
        I've said it once, and I'll say it again; Promised Land has every reason to be a major player in this year's race, from creative talent, to thespians, to subject matter. So why is the NBR (who loved it) still the only body of voters who've seen it?
12. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Previous Ranking: 12)
        There's every reason to bet against this one, but the fact that director Peter Jackson has yet to visit Middle Earth and not come back with a Best Picture nomination (or less than 6 nominations, for that matter) should be worth something.
13. Flight (Previous Ranking: Unranked)
        A famed director, one of the most celebrated actors in modern history, and solid box office numbers; it's a top-heavy year in many of the major categories, and even if I don't really think that Denzel's latest stands a chance against heavier competition, it certainly deserves a spot on this list.
14. Amour (Previous Ranking: 18)
         I don't care how good you are; being a film in the foreign language category almost assures that you won't be in the big race come Oscar night. That being said, this is an extremely thin year, and Amour is doubtlessly one of the best reviewed films of 2012.
15. Moonrise Kingdom (Previous Ranking: 17)
         Will Anderson ever be invited to the dance? This seems to be the perfect year, given that he offered one of his best efforts to date in a particularly weak season, but that comedy/hipster stigma will be tough to shake.
16. Hitchcock (Previous Ranking: 15)
         Theoretically, Hitchcock has every reason to ascend to the top of this year's Oscar race, but that very fact is why I have it ranked this low: A plethora of people have seen this Oscar-baitty flick, and it's still not near the top of the race. If it was going to make the jump, me thinks it would have already.
17. The Sessions (Previous Ranking: 16)
         An actors' showcase of the highest accord, The Sessions has a clear path to at least 2 acting nominations, if not 3. That ensures a lot of viewership, which will keep this indie in the hunt, but will that be enough?
18. This is 40 (Previous Ranking: Unranked)
         Obviously I'm grasping for straws at this point, but doesn't it stand to reason that Judd Apatow might make an Oscar impact after all of these years? 40 is receiving some best-of-career citations, and this would be a perfect year to capitalize.
19. Looper (Previous Ranking: 20)
         Mind-bending sci-fi isn't usually Oscar's cup of tea, but Looper already has a sterling reputation in some circles, and if the golden man wanted to prove that he's still hip and preceptive, this would be a solid choice.
20. Cloud Atlas (Previous Ranking: 10)
        Tremendously flawed, blush-inducingly earnest, and awe-inspiringly ambitious: There are many reasons to count Cloud Atlas out, but aren't they the very same reasons why The Tree of Life managed to make the final cut? Passion matters.

Best Actor:
1. Daniel Day-Lewis (Lincoln) (Previous Ranking: 1)
        Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln requires no explanation. At this point, it's up to someone to take the Oscar from him. Entirely possible, but somewhat unlikely.
2. Joaquin Phoenix (The Master) (Previous Ranking: 2)
         Most serious film fans agree that this is the male performance of the year, but the thorniness of both the actor and the film keep The Master's stand-out in second place.
3. John Hawkes (The Sessions) (Previous Ranking: 3)
         A performance that's had buzz behind it for the majority of 2012, Hawkes is just about assured a nomination at this point, but the size of his film will make taking the golden man home a difficult task.
4. Bradley Cooper (Silver-Lingings Playbook) (Previous Ranking: 4)
         A breakthrough performance from a well-loved, previously-unrecognized actor, Cooper seemed nothing more than a likely aspirant before claiming Best Actor honors at the NBR yesterday. As of today, all bets are off.
5. Hugh Jackman (Les Miserables) (Previous Ranking: 6)
         The avalanche of praise that has followed Les Mis of late has been notably slim on Jackman citations. Still, being the primary screen occupant of the year's biggest movie is likely to have its benefits.
6. Denzel Washington (Flight) (Previous Ranking: 8)
         As a former winner, and multi-nominee, Washington needs no introduction to the Academy's voters, but is his Flight performance worth yet another statue.
7. Brad Pitt (Killing Them Softly) (Previous Ranking: 5)
        Even a decent Brad Pitt performance is usually worth a nomination, but as juicy as the mega-star's Softly turn is, the film's abysmal opening weekend performance will make any and all trophy hunting rather difficult.
8. Anthony Hopkins (Hitchcock) (Previous Ranking: 7)
         Copy/Paste everything listed in the Hitchcock Best Picture section: If this is truly a performance to be reckoned with, it would have made its impact on the race by now. Still, counting out any thespian playing Alfred Hitchcock is just plain goofy.
9. Matt Damon (Promised Land) (Previous Ranking: 9)
        A previous nominee, starring in one of the major upset specials of the season (check immediately below for the other), Damon has the cache to serve as a spoiler, but how will his film be received?
10. Tom Holland (The Impossible) (Previous Ranking: Unranked)
        The other big sleeper of 2012, Holland is said to be tremendously effective in The Impossible, but in a year full of known commodities, it'll be particularly difficult for an unknown to breakthrough.

Best Actress:
1. Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty) (Previous Ranking: Unranked)
        Despite my previous citation of Chastain in the Supporting Actress race, her NBR win sets the record straight: Jessica is gunning for that lead Actress Oscar, and the size of her movie, paired with her light competition and leftover goodwill from 2011, make her the frontrunner.
2. Jennifer Lawrence (Silver-Linings Playbook) (Previous Ranking: 1)
         As of now, Lawrence is in a dead-heat with Chastain, each head-lining probable Best Picture nominees after year-plus long winning streaks. Truth be told, it's a toss-up at this point, I just like Chastain's track record a tiny bit more.
3. Quvenzhane Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild(Previous Ranking: 2)
         The line for the last 3 slots starts here. Wallis' status as both a youngster, and an exciting unknown make her an interesting prospect here. Oh yeah, and she actually deserves it...
4. Marion Cotillard (Rust & Bone) (Previous Ranking: 6)
         An Oscar-baitty role, performed by a semi-recent Academy Award winner; English or not, this feels fairly likely.
5. Emmanuelle Riva (Amour) (Previous Ranking: 8)
         Oscar will likely be looking for a way to congratulate Amour, widely considered to be one of 2012's best. Voters prefer English-language films to win the top-most awards, but a nomination here would show respect for a much-praised flick.
6. Naomi Watts (The Impossible(Previous Ranking: 4)
         Who knows? As with all things The Impossible, no one knows what to expect from this inspirational disaster flick, but Watts' known status keeps her firmly in the hunt.
7. Keira Knightly (Anna Karenina) (Previous Ranking: 3)
         A period piece, and a previously nominated actress, working for the very director who led her to that first nod. Her campaign should have kicked in by now, but that doesn't mean she's out of it.
8. Helen Mirren (Hitchcock) (Previous Ranking: Unranked)
         Another whom I'd considered in the supporting category, Mirren is a world-class actress, performing in a movie with, 'awards season,' written all over it.
9. Meryl Streep (Hope Springs) (Previous Ranking: 7)
          I honestly feel next to no need to explain this one: Streep has received nominations in 4 of the last 6 years, and though HS seems like an unlikely pick, you'd be an idiot to count it out.
10. Michelle Williams (Take This Waltz) (Previous Ranking: 10)
         Similar to Streep, only on a much, much lesser level, Williams' film doesn't really feel like a major Oscar player, but her rare status as a to-be-reckoned-with actress ought to be observed.

Best Supporting Actor:
1. Leonardo DiCaprio (Django Unchained) (Previous Ranking: 2)
          On the strength of the NBR and absolutely nothing else, I'm bumping this guy to the top. Literally everyone in sight is either a previous winner, or an up-and-comer. DiCaprio's status as an, 'overdue,' actor makes him the one to beat.
2. Tommy Lee Jones (Lincoln) (Previous Ranking: 3)
         A role practically tailor-made for Oscar recognition, Jones' Thaddeus Stevens is both the humor and the heart of Lincoln. Had he not won in the past, he'd be a shoe-in; as is, he's the next in line.
3. Philip Seymour Hoffman (The Master) (Previous Ranking: 1)
        Everything said about Jones applies again here, only that Hoffman's respective movie lacks the support that Lincoln has. Still, this is the most up-for-grabs acting nomination of all, and PSH is still all kinds of in this.
4. Robert DeNiro (Silver-Linings Playbook(Previous Ranking: 4)
         A nod here would represent DeNiro's first such citation in two decades. He's tough, he cries, he's an American icon; introducing your 4th BSA nominee with an actual shot at it.
5. Alan Arkin (Argo) (Previous Ranking: 5)
        The hammiest, funniest, Hollywood-iest performance in a movie full of them, Arkin stands as yet another solid candidate for the win in 2012.
6. Eddie Redmayne (Les Miserables(Previous Ranking: Unranked)
        The biggest beneficiary of the recent wave of Les Mis love, Redmayne is just as likely as any of the 5 I've listed above, only much less recognizable.
7. Ewan McGregor (The Impossible(Previous Ranking: 8)
         As with all things The Impossible, it's a game of wait-and-see at this point. If the movie makes a big splash, McGregor becomes yet another challenger for the prize.
8. John Goodman (Argo(Previous Ranking: 5)
        There's a big drop off in probability between spots 6 and 7, and vote split has a lot to do with it. Love Goodman's 2012 body of work as much as you like, but are you really going to nominate him over Arkin for the same movie.
9. William H. Macy (The Sessions) (Previous Ranking: 6)
        Poor guy. Any other year, and Macy would be right in the thick of things. In 2012's assisting male race, he's just another in a long line of strong performances.
10. Matthew McConaughey (Magic Mike(Previous Ranking: Unranked)
        Notices from some lofty sources have him ranked higher than I do. A punch-line actor in a male stripper movie in an absurdly crowded year? Worth keeping on the radar, but that's about it.
Best Supporting Actress:
1. Anne Hathaway (Les Miserables) (Previous Ranking: 1)
        Perhaps the biggest favorite in any category as of now (major or otherwise). Hathaway makes this a Anne-and-four-other-women category.
2. Sally Field (Lincoln) (Previous Ranking: 3)
        A previous winner in one of the night's biggest heavyweights, not to mention the supportive wife role Oscar loves so much.
3. Helen Hunt (The Sessions) (Previous Ranking: 2)
        Much respected actress, in a highly-touted flick. Never mind that she's great (and often nude, which Oscar respects).
4. Amy Adams (The Master) (Previous Ranking: 4)
        A perennial nominee of late, Adams does rock-solid work in a film that will be viewed by nearly every voter.
5. Kerry Washington (Django Unchained) (Previous Ranking: 9)
        A total shot-in-the-dark at this point, but Django's plot seems to revolve around her character, and this category is wide open.
6. Samantha Barks (Les Miserables) (Previous Ranking: 10)
        2012 is a throw-it-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks kind of year in the Supporting Actress category. Barks has been buzzing lightly of late, and being in Les Mis is a great way to get attention.
7. Amanda Seyfried (Les Miserables) (Previous Ranking: Unranked)
         Rinse and repeat everything listed above, only with an actress who was in Jennifer's Body. Need I say more.
8. Jacki Weaver (Silver-Linings Playbook) (Previous Ranking: 6)
        Silver-Linings is a shoe-in for the SAG Best Ensemble award, and Weaver is a major player in the cast. In this year, why not?
9. Francis McDormand (Promised Land) (Previous Ranking: 8)
        List of things Oscar loves: McDormand, Van Sant, and timely subject matter. Who knows?
10. Maggie Smith (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) (Previous Ranking: Unranked)
        A veteran in a movie that might resonate with older voters. Sure, why not?

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Killing Them Softly (Release Date: 11-30-2012)

        Brad Pitt doesn't really do 'em just for fun anymore. The world's biggest movie star used to be a mainstay of summer blockbusters and the like, but after a mid-2000's streak of tent-poles (Troy, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Ocean's Thirteen), the thespian must have gotten tired of them. As a matter of fact, since 2007, Pitt has starred in only one live-action film that didn't go on to receive major Oscar consideration (Burn After Reading, which was the Coen Brothers' follow-up to their Best Picture winner No Country for Old Men, so I think Brad gets a pass). Those who expect Killing Them Softly to turn out as yet another run-of-the-mill gangster flick should know better; you don't get Brad Pitt to headline your movie unless you've got a little something special up your sleeve.

        Nothing gets a narrative rolling like the miscalculated and self-aggrandizing actions of fools. Amid the financial crisis and presidential election of 2008, mid-level mobster Johnny Amato (Vincent Curatola) believes he's found a way into some easy money, knocking over a local card game, and assigning the blame to tailor-made fall-guy Mark Trattman (Ray Liotta). He brings in a couple of young gunslingers (Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn) to do the deed, but just when it appears they've gotten away scott-free, Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) rolls into town. Tasked with locating and executing the culprits, Cogan's efforts are subsequently entangled in a myriad of corporate-style rules and regulations, and associates made desperate and sloppy by the troubled times.

         Writer/Director Andrew Dominik, Pitt's previous associate on the woefully underrated The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, has a knack for locating small, contemplative moments within seemingly rudimentary story-structures. Where James addressed fame, legend, and idolatry over a languid two-and-a-half hours, Softly squirms and shivers through a brisk hour and a half, awash with modern-times anxiety and dread. Cinematographer Greig Fraser's images prove stunningly evocative, leading eyes and attentions to dark places and notions, writing novels without saying a word.

        It's all a pip; gritty, itchy, funny, and relevant... and then it's over. Dominik's decision to pull the plug where he does is no accident: he's way too intelligent and detail-oriented to let something like that escape his watch, and the sense of deflation that accompanies the end credits feels poignant. And while some of the ideas being conveyed by this sharp drop-off are worth addressing, doing so renders the entire enterprise a bit off-balance, like a Thanksgiving dinner with load and loads of side dishes, but precious little turkey. Don't get me wrong, it's still delicious. Extremely delicious, as a matter of fact. Delicious enough to leave you wanting more, which is both this film's highest honor, and its most jarring demerit. Ignoring Killing Them Softly's accomplishments would be disingenuous; wanting just a tiny, tiny bit more would be human.

Grade: B+

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Sessions (Limited Release Date: 11-16-2012)

        One doesn't exactly have to be an anthropologist to tell you that Americans are more than a little squeamish when it comes to sex. This phobia of sorts manifests itself in many facets of society, film being one of several pronounced examples. Somebody being shot to death in front of loved ones (with no blood shown)? Slap a PG on that flick! (Maybe PG-13... maybe). So much as talk about an act that the average human will take part in on countless occasions, and only the very most mature may view your product. Addressing the wrong-headedness of this ideology is far less interesting than observing its effect: American films, year after year after year, are far more adapt at observing and dissecting both the event and the meaning of violence, but are hopelessly outmatched when it comes to elaborating on that most basic of human experiences. Perhaps this fundamental tenant is what takes The Sessions from good to the cusp of greatness. Not only is the film in question populated with great craft from top-to-bottom; it discusses a dicey subject with enough warmth and charm to show why it shouldn't be quite so risque in the first place.

        Writer/Director Ben Lewins' first feature film in nearly 20 years tells the story of poet Mark O'Brien (John Hawkes). A 36-year-old often confined to an iron lung, the O'Brien of the film describes his state of pseudo-paralysis by simply claiming, 'my muscles don't work too good.' This self-affacing wit is one of many reasons why people are drawn to the writer, though his bodily ailments have denied him admittance to mankind's most intimate physical expression. After receiving a go-ahead of sorts from his priest-and-confidant Father Brendan (William H. Macy), Mark contacts Cheryl Cohen Greene (Helen Hunt), a sexual surrogate tasked with both deflowering and teaching the incapacitated charmer the ways of love-making.

         There's an easy-going appeal to nearly every moment of The Sessions, an accomplishment that owes thanks to many contributors. Lewin, brushing off the cobwebs to return to the director's chair, displays a breezy grace in how he chooses to unfurl his film. Without his acute awareness of when to go for the gut, and when to pull back a bit, this could have easily been a Hallmark Channel original. The project's class is bolstered by Geoffrey Simpson's subtle and lovely work behind the camera, as well as Marco Beltrami's marvelous score, minute in size, but resplendent in emotional impact. Then there are Hawkes and Hunt, both so brave, inviting, and human at every turn, each registering the numerous emotions that complicated real-life situations often present, and directors often lack the confidence to capture and display. The Sessions is not a perfect movie: it's use of religion feels forced, and there are occasional moments when the sensationalism of the story begins to overwhelm. But The Sessions is still a treasured rarity: a American movie willing and able to delve into human sexuality with courage, humor, and empathy. It may be a bit raw for some, and perhaps a touch slow-moving for others. I think it's just about perfect.

Grade: A- 

Monday, December 3, 2012

Lincoln (Limited Release Date: 11-9-2012)

        A fierce war rages, as men lay down their lives into mud-bath graves for the sake of country. Their commander, a Mr. Abraham Lincoln, sits alone on a stage-like structure, canopy protecting him from relentless rain, as backlit as an angel. Several approach him, seeking words of wisdom and guidance, and are enthralled by his soft-spoken parables. They walk away, inspired, as Lincoln remains seated and still, his face a mixture of warmth and rippling inner-conflict. If you think you know the rap on Steven Spielberg's Lincoln before even seeing it... well, you're exactly right. Many things can, have, and will be said about Spielberg's Academy Award aspirant, but no one in their right mind would call the film unpredictable. Those who want the rousing story of the 16th president, complete with courage under fire, swelling music, and a veritable parade of lauded thespians gunning for their Oscar clips: come right it, the water's fine! Those who need to taste the food before they call the meal delicious will have a much wider array of reactions.

        The North might be right at the cusp of winning the Civil War, but President Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) isn't done yet. Observing the unfavorable position of the South at the end of the scuffle, honest Abe deems this the perfect moment to get their begrudged blessing, and abolish slavery once and for all. This stance arrives much to the chagrin of many surrounding political minds, including advisor William Seward (David Strathairn), who would prefer to make stopping the violence the main priority. Needing all the help he can get, Abraham enlists the help of salty-but-determined Congressman Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), as well as a couple of con artists (James Spader among them) to help pass one of the most heavily-contested amendments ever conceived.

        The name Spielberg brings many thoughts and images to mind, from futuristic chase scenes, to roaming dinosaurs, to grand-scale spectacle. What doesn't come to mind, however, are intimate scenes of actors delivering dialogue, of which Lincoln is almost entirely comprised. The autuer's patented sense of spectacle has no where to go within Tony Kushner's screenplay, which seems content to sit six or more bearded chatter-boxes in a darkened room for the majority of its existence. There are moments when vocal sparks actually do fly, but for the most part, Lincoln stands as proof that having lots of dialogue is no substitute for being dialogue driven. The characters in the film mostly maintain their positions from the start to finish, and as we are of course intended to side with the Commander-in-Chief's view point, this head-butting bears desperately little weight. The good guys will remain good and right, and the bad guys will remain bad and wrong, and, in the end, the good guys will win. There is precious-little grey in Lincoln, and tidal waves of black and white.

        Making a movie with pedigree like this is bound to put a target on your back, and if we're being fair, I'm probably not this movie's target audience in the first place. But shouldn't the winners on Oscar night be decided when we actually see the finished product, not when all of the players sign on in the first place? Shouldn't great movies strive to accomplish and surprise, rather than simply deftly avoid the pot-holes that derail their more ambitious competition? Yeah, Day-Lewis is saintly and magnetic, Jones is funny and rips through the humorous moments of Kushner's screenplay, and the good guys win, and they all throw their hats into the air in celebration. No, Lincoln is not a bad movie, taking great care to never trip over its own coat-tails, the tremendous weight of expectations clearly digging into its eager-to-please shoulders. I'd essentially already seen the film when I saw the director's name, the cast, and the premise, and could have done well by my wallet to just stay home, and recreate the very same flick in my mind, scene for scene. Flavorless but filling: the recipe for Oscars, circa 2012.

Grade: C+

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Life of Pi (Release Date: 11-21-2012)

         Narrative filmmaking is a very, very unique art. Music attacks the eardrums. Literature stokes one's cognitive powers. Fine arts appeal primarily to the eyes. Movies, as an amalgamation of all of these forms of expression, takes on all of their responsibilities, and becomes a robust beast all its own. This is not to belittle other mediums, or aggrandize cinema: having more on your plate does not necessitate true complexity, and filmmakers often allow the expressive surplus of their medium to get in the way of crafting a good product. It's no coincidence that I bring this to light right in front of my Life of Pi film review; this is a challenging piece to evaluate, as some of its elements soar up to heaven, and others sink down to the ocean's floor.

         A boy, a boat, and a tiger named Richard Parker; readers the world over already know what the adventures of young Piscine Patel come to involve, but for the uninitiated, here's a quick brush-up. Life of Pi takes place on two separate tracks, one where in an older Piscine (Irrfan Khan) relays his life story to a writer in desperate need of a good yarn (Rafe Spall), the other bringing said tales to life with one of three younger actors (Gautam Belur, Ayush Tandon, and Suraj Sharma). Patel's tales range in subject, from childhood bullying, to his thorny relationship with his zoo-keeper father, to a truly inventive take on theological acceptance, all warm-up acts for the sea-faring adventure that serves as the crux of the story. I'm avoiding spoilers as best I can here, but suffice to say, Pi (the knick-name Piscine adopts early in the film) will be spending quite a bit of time with one of earths most expansive bodies of water, as well as one of her deadliest predators.

      As honesty is always the best policy, I suppose I have something to get off of my chest: I have read Yann Martel's bestseller Life of Pi, and I was not a fan. Where others see wisdom and perseverance, this reader only saw painful degrees of over-earnestness, repetitive (albeit pertinent) storytelling, and theological over-simplification of the most egregious sort. Elements of the tale really sing, but I could never help the feeling that Martel was pulling a fast one on me. Ang Lee's film adaptation, built from the hyper-loyal screenplay penned by David Magee, recreates the ideas and moods presented on page with surgical accuracy; those committed to the prose, and worried that a film adaptation would, 'ruin,' Martel's original offering can take a deep breath. Those turned off by the overwrought paradigm of the saga the first time around would be advised to inhale sharply.

        No, I do not like the plot of Life of Pi, I object to the mind-numbingly corny opening 40 minutes, and the awe-and-wonder deflating twist that occurs in its final moments leaves me cold. I essentially have every reason to dislike both Pi and his frienemy tiger, but I don't... hardly at all. As a matter of fact, I throughly enjoyed the movie, because despite all of its short-comings, its sense of spectacle is entirely undeniable, its visual effects truly among the very most accomplished in the history of celluloid. The storms that the Sharma Pi faces are down right ferocious, the calm moments of wonder sincerely miraculous, and oh-my-god is that tiger A-M-A-Z-I-N-G!!! Never mind that Sharma lays it on reeeal thick at certain points, or that using endless computers to celebrate the beauty of the natural world is kind of missing the whole point: This is amazing we're talking about here, not cool, or neat, or rad. Amazing. Yes, Life of Pi frustrates in more ways that it titulates, but that could be said of any number of movies. Amazement is entirely more rare, and worth celebrating, even if it comes with a boat-load of baggage.

Grade: B

Monday, November 26, 2012

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2 (Release Date: 11-16-2012)

        This is the end.

        My glittering friend, the end.

        It's hard to believe that teams Edward and Jacob, Bella Swan, and the mystical land of Forks, Washington have only been a part of the cinematic universe since 2008. After all, Stephanie Meyers' brood-a-thon love-triangle has already become so embedded in the fabric of popular culture that folks feel the need to declare themselves as either staunchly for or against it, as though Twilight was a political party. But those who stand firmly with their arms crossed and their brows furrowed are missing a key facet in the ongoing debate over the legitimacy of the saga: the fans know it's dumb, too. Not all of them, mind you, as the tear-streaked faces of tween America will ready attest, but a lot, lot more than any recent mega-franchise that comes to mind. Each installment I've seen in theaters has enjoyed a more-than-occasional soundtrack of irrepressible laughter, which, truth be told, is more than I can say about most comedies that I've watched over a similar period. Whatever the charm of Twilight really is, it obviously has loads of it for certain people, and the final chapter, Breaking Dawn Part 2, is yet another lip-biting, smolder-staring example of just that.

        There once was a girl named Bella Swan, who fell in love with... oh, screw it: either you know the backstory already, or you couldn't care less. If you somehow still want to avoid spoilers (who are you?), skip down to the next paragraph, because I'm diving right in. So, that Bella girl (Kristen Stewart); she's a vampire now, which means that she slouches less, and wears a lot cuter, more flatteringly-fitted clothing (she can also do that really cheesy thing where they zoom around the screen, sometimes with flowers and fireflies and other pretty things in her wake). She also has a beautiful baby girl with a name caught somewhere between a tongue-twister and a demonic moniker (Renesmee, pronounced Ren-Ez-May, and not to be chanted whilst in front of a mirror), and, of course, that pale stick-figure of hunkiness known as Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson). But because the movie needs a plot, the even-whiter-and-decidedly-more-powerful/evil group of vamps known as the Volturi decides that they're kind of creeped out by little Renesmee, allegedly because of some immortality tripe, but probably because of that damn name. The Cullens are forced to flip through their globe-spanning rolodex to find and recruit other blood-suckers for a climactic throw-down, while the warm-blooded hunk of man meat (Taylor Lautner) scours the woods for some furry, four-legged help. Why would the scorned Jacob help them, you ask? Well, because he's toootally got the hots for Renesmee. Yeah... yeah.

        Talking about the technical elements of a Twilight movie is kind of like discussing the nutritional value of the fruit in an apple or cherry pie; that's not why you're really here, is it? Ever since laying eyes on the series starter, I've looked forward to each year's dollop of gooey super-natural romance as an annual comedy mainstay, and the closer doesn't even think about disappointing. Robotic dialogue is delivered, amorous eyes are made, a truly surprising amount of blood is spilt, and Lautner still just hates those damn shirts! Director Bill Condon, who seemed content to be buried underneath a torrent of uneventful silliness in Breaking Dawn's first half, shows an obvious relish for pushing the PG-13 line. He places an impressively steamy sex scene near the film's opening frames, and slaps moderation right in the face with seemingly endless reiterations of his favorite kill move (who knew that super-humans had such flimsy necks?). Knee slappers positively abound, from the early sequences of girl-you-need-to-eat-something Stewart taking down body-builders and big cats, to some jaw-droppingly, gut-bustingly racially insensitive portrayals of coffin-dwellers 'round the world. I don't really know how good to say Breaking Dawn Part 2 is, but I can tell you that I had a lot, lot more fun watching it than I do most movies, and if you don't want to see Dakota Fanning's head get yanked right off, I'm not sure that we can be friends.

Grade: B+

Friday, November 16, 2012

Crystal Castles: (III) (Release Date: 11-13-2012)

        Celestica, the premiere single off Crystal Castles' 2010 sophomore effort (II), must have prompted quite the outcry from the group's devotees when it first dropped. Alice Glass' vocals, manipulated and indecipherable throughout almost the entirety of their 2008 debut, was suddenly up front-and-center, cooing longingly in a lush whisper. The instrumentals made the shift even more evident, scatter-shot electro-mania replaced by full-bodied waves of pulsating House. The track had all the tell-tale signs of a band selling-out, save one key ingredient; it didn't suck. As a matter of fact, it totally rocked, and where (II) swerved back and forth between these cleaner, more dance-friendly sonics and the break-neck insanity of the disc that came before it, (III) boldly moves forth with the smoothing out of the duo's sound.

        This is not to say that old Crystal Castles has gone soft on us, of course. Glass still screams nearly as often as she swoons, snarling ferociously over the choppy-water beat of Insulin, her aggression provocatively veiled under a distancing veneer on early single Plague. Her bandmate Ethan Kath isn't exactly sleeping through this one either, pulling the strings on the muscly wobble that is Kerosene, standing proudly on his own during club-ready solo outing Telepath. Yes, this is still very much within Crystal Castles' wheelhouse, blaring, staggered synths set to blazing neon, Glass ever channelling all of the animal magnetism the world has to offer. And while the maintaining of sensibilities and sounds is certainly worth celebrating, (III) is most interesting for what sets it apart from the band's previous two LPs.

        While both (I) and (II) were almost dance records in spite of themselves, (III)'s rug-cutting ambitions are far more pronounced. The enormous, no-prisoner-taking Sad Eyes is probably already playing at raves the country over, surely sending many a glow-stick flying into the air. There's also a far greater precedent on songwriting: The varied, evolving beats of Transgender and Violent Youth prove far more varied than anything we've previously heard. The band even dabbles in some almost bubble-gummy pop, both Affection and Child I Will Hurt You proving highlights without ever having to raise their voices. (III) is undoubtably less immediate than its forbearers, who each made most of their bones on crackling energy and explosive excitement. It's a disc that realizes how subtle changes can almost reinvent the wheel, hosing off some of their more fiery impulses, and replacing them with a more contemplative, denser sense of craft. Call it selling out all you want; I call it growing up.

Grade: B+

Monday, November 12, 2012

Skyfall (Release Date: 11-9-2012)

        The man who every man wants to be, and every woman wants to be with. A globe-trotting super-spy with elite physical skills, and seemingly unlimited technological resources. M, Q, a tux, a martini, a piercing stare, and countless close-calls with his life in the balance. Yes, we all know who James Bond is, and we have for the last 50 years. At this point, we need no further introduction to the Bond-verse, only a briefing on who the soon-to-be-dispatched baddie is, and a brush-up on the new gadgets. This rigid rhetoric can treat directors in a myriad of different ways, from hand-cuffing their creative talents and vision, to liberating them to focus on items other than character introduction... within the parameters, of course.

        The man behind Skyfall, American Beauty's Sam Mendes, finds himself somewhere in between these two polarities. While the helmer has his own unique fun with the proceedings, there remain a number of specific, rote hoops he's forced to jump through. Even James Bond (Daniel Craig) must be feeling a bit of déjà vu, once more haggling with iron-jawed M (Judi Dench), taking a few ladies to bed who then unceremoniously find their ways out of the plot (Naomie Harris and Bérénice Marlohe), and matching wits, fists, and bullet shells with a diabolical foreigner (Javier Bardem). These are not cliches; they are the immovable ingredients of the oldest, most prolific series in the history of film. While adhering to them nearly ensures that brilliance will not be attained, it also serves as a safe-guard against complete disaster, and ensures that Ian Fleming's pseudo fanboys stay happy.

        And to be sure, there's a lot to be ecstatic about. Mastermind cinematographer Roger Deakins, the Coen brothers' best-kept secret, isn't about to let all of this continent-hopping go to waste, capturing a sun-soaked Turkey, a Machu exploding with light and color, and an Irish countryside as ripe with beauty as it is mystery. He's no slouch when the action starts either, shooting many a duel with long, uncut takes, permitting eyeballs to soak in the whole battle, rather than editing them into fuzzy oblivion (*cough* Michael Bay movies *cough*). The actors on hand have an absolute ball as well, from Craig's suave, knowing calm, to Marlohe's unhinged tight-wire act between sensuality and insanity. But the cake goes to Bardem, who was apparently told to be as much of a ham as possible, and relishes every minute of it. Bleached blonde, tic-addled, and suffering from a truly massive, unmissable oedipal complex, his Silva might not haunt your dreams the way the best baddies do, but my god, will he slap a smile across your face.

        What's more, he hardly even has a damn script to work with! Penned by Neal Purvis and Robert Wade (and subsequently re-written by John Logan, who will take over solo scribe duties with the series' next installment), Skyfall's story-structure is the definition of herky-jerky, misplacing formerly important characters for extended stretches, and lacking any real narrative drive beyond that-guy's-bad-LET'S-GET-HIM! There are also some REAL eye-rollers coming from the dialogue department, but maybe I'm just being too hard on an unapologetic popcorn flick. Truth be told, I'm not the saga devotee that some are, and my opinion ought to be taken as such. Those who enter Skyfall looking for a James Bond movie will likely get more than their money's worth, knee-slapping in-jokes, and pulse-pounding action abounding. Taken as a movie like any other, however, Skyfall is notably above average, but I'm not exactly rushing to hand it Oscars.

Grade: B

Friday, November 9, 2012

Fall 2012 Playlist

1. Our Swords---Band of Horses***
        We open our Falling Leaves playlist with this beauteous rumble, rolling along gracefully on top of a forthright baseline, and subdued, evening-time magic.
2. Earthforms---Matthew Dear
        From subtle earnestness to the seediest guy on the dance floor, Earthforms is the standout track off of Dear's 2012 effort, Beams, building and swirling around a filthy, irrepressable groove.
3. Feels Like We Only Go Backwards---Tame Impala***
        Bass lines again take president in this 60's-pop-riffing gem, woozy guitar fiddling and plain-spoken vocal yearning giving way to a sublime background jam session right around the two-minute mark.
4. & It Was U---How to Dress Well
        Tom Krell's HtDW project isn't often upbeat in nature, which makes this 3+ minute blast of Jacko-infused R&B that much more elating, its rippling beat and piercing falsetto difficult to deny.
5. Blue Bloods---Foals
        The opening few notes of BB seem to echo in a vast, limitless space, a chasm that the Oxford boys then fill all the way past the brim with funky undercurrents, sky-scaping vocals, and gorgeous mayhem.
6. Poetic Justice---Kendrick Lamar feat. Drake
        Lamar has one of the most varied, singular flows of anybody on the scene, and PJ perfectly frames his ability to instantaneously change cadences and offer true-to-life sentiments with equal aplomb.
7. Yes, I Know---Daphni***
         We may never know what the endlessly looping line, "Yes, I know; she told me so," refers to, but given the ecstatic, enormous, brass-sampling track it floats around, I'm guess it's good news.
8. Out Getting Ribs---Zoo Kid
       OGR is a bare-bones production, nothing more than Archie Marshall's slacker mumblings, and one of the most evocative guitar lines imaginable, noodling along into glowing oblivion.
9. Ego---Burial+Four Tet+Thom Yorke
         An all-star assemblage of some of the most accomplished trance-inducers in all the land, Ego is a dancy, dark, and psychedelic all at once, Yorke's ghostly croon stretching out over the tune's brooding pulse.
10. Jerome---Lykke Li***
        A powerhouse track of the, 'doomed romance,' variety, Jerome's thunderous percussion lines fire off like cannons beneath Li's tormented harmonizing.
11. Radio Ballet---Eluvium
        From a couple tracks wrought with tension to a shimmering beauty of unfettered loveliness, RB consists of nothing more than a piano, ascending to enveloping, luminescent heights.
12. Running---Gil Scott-Heron & Jamie xx
         Who would have thought that neon beats and Scott-Heron's father-time ramblings would make for such a pairing? Running's current runs bone-deep, all while its philosophies tickle the mind.
13. White Magic---ceo
        WM is a multi-faceted journey of a track all in 4-and-a-half minutes, churning furiously through its blustery opening half before busting open into technicolor relief.
14. Marked---EMA***
        A gritty, poignantly unpolished lament, Erika M. Anderson's voice aches with loss and desperation, smokily swaying before turning into a growling rasp, and scaling back down into a gentle hush.
15. Henrietta---Yeasayer
        Henrietta is a story of two halves, opening to a boisterous, skittering electro beat before spending act two on billowing clouds of synth, all powered by one monster of a bass line.
16. When I'm Small---Phantogram
        A nightclub bounce lent mysterious allure by vocalist Sarah Barthel's breathy, dynamic turn, all wrapped tightly in a record player's fuzzy hiss.
17. Pink Matter---Frank Ocean feat. Andre 3000
        One of Ocean's most dynamic, explosive vocal performances to date (and that's already saying something), PM lets the troubadour's voice soar, then gets out of the way for one hell of a guest verse by Andre himself.
18. So Long You Pretty Thing---Spiritualized***
        The go-for-broke finale on an album built almost entirely on the very same principle, Jason Pierce's small, personal plea unravels into an enormous, cathartic climax.


Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Leftovers: October 2012

Leftover Movies:
        No filmmaker can be located across such a wide spectrum of popular opinion as Tim Burton. The, 'Hot Topic,' kids (as well as those who vividly remember the early 90's) revere the guy as a demi-god, while many film-buff circles ridicule the autuer as a cash-grabbing, one-trick pony. Here's something both sides can finally agree on: Frankenweenie rocks. Adapted from a short film that helped Burton make his name, the back-and-white, stop motion affair revolves around the experiments of a brilliant, socially ill-equip boy named Victor Frankenstien (evocatively voiced by Charlie Tahan). Young Victor enjoys making his own short movies, and conducting scientific research with the aid of his trusty canine, Sparky... that is, until the pooch reaches his untimely demise. Unable to let go of his best friend, Victor, in mad-scientist mode, brings his little buddy back to life, but playing god has unique ramifications. Frankenweenie is a heartfelt affair, one wherein the protagonist clearly stands as an avatar for the storyteller, and one brimming with visual and thematic clarity, and inspiration. A fun, bubbly trip to the flicks, and a sure tear-jerker for anyone whose ever loved a pet, Frankenweenie stands as a twisted, joyous reminder of what Burton is capable of concocting when he puts his back into it. Adorably dark, and oddly cozy at nearly every turn.

Leftover Music:
Good Kid M.A.A.D. City by Kendrick Lamar:
         Has more ink been spilt in the name of any single musician over the last month then Kendrick Lamar? The youthful hip-hopper, who broke out onto the scene with last year's Section.80 mixtape, finally released his much-anticiapted proper debut, and while I can't quite get as rapturous as some, there's no denying that the disc is a winner. Lamar's flow has always been positively electric, and here he gets to play with studio production and gadgets that are worthy of his immense talent. Kendrick suffers from a few known vices, like over-doing simple-minded hooks, and occasionally blunt phraseology, but none of that comes close to derailing this LPs heavy-hitters. The Hit-Boy produced Backseat Freestyle is simply undeniable, as are the seedy grind of early single Swimming Pools (Drank), and the silky swagger of Drake-featuring Poetic Justice. A potent blend of the scholarly with the badass, GKMC is doubtlessly one of 2012's finest hip-hop releases, and will have you considering gangster lyricism almost as often as it sends you bouncing down the dance floor... almost.

Jiaolong by Daphni, and Luxury Problems by Andy Stott
         Never have two trippy, dance-music-for-people-who-don't-like-dance-music albums had less in common. Jiaolong, the rug-cutting child of Caribou mastermind Dan Snaith, is all about repetition, and brightly-tinged simplicity. Many of the winners here are founded on little more than a constant, unchanging rhythm, like the über-direct Cos-Ber-Zam Ne Noya, while the celebratory Yes, I Know, builds and builds upon warm, identifiable ingredients. Luxury Problems, on the other hand, desires no such blissful satisfaction. Andy Stott's disc is built out of chilly rhythms, and evolving backdrops, opener Numb growing from misty origins to swirling dread, while the title track rumbles along in a hypnotically foreboding fashion. Neither LP is a champion through-and-through: each has its own noticeable weaknesses, and pronounced strengths. But as a couple of discs bent on creating their own worlds, in a genre that too-often plays it safe, both are efforts worth celebrating.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Cloud Atlas (Release Date: 10-26-2012)

        Perhaps above all else, Cloud Atlas is a movie for those with patience. With an exhaustive 172 minute runtime, six disparate story lines, and more prosthetics than you ever thought could be crammed into a single movie, the massive film is defiantly, proudly esoteric. Directors Tom Tykwer and Lana and Andy Wachowski are clearly swinging for the fences here, and your enjoyment of their work will ultimately boil down to how much you appreciate their throw-everything-at-the-screen-and-see-what-sticks attitude. What is this unwieldy beast of an epic even about, you ask? Well... I'll try my best.

        A ship sails the pacific ocean in the year 1849, carrying among its passengers a young lawyer (Jim Sturgess) who documents their various adventures in a journal. This journal is in turn read by Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw) in the year 1936, when he serves as a amanuensis for an elderly composer while working on his own piece, The Cloud Atlas Sextet. Said sextet has an almost etherial ring to it in the ears of Luisa Rey (Halle Berry), a 1975 journalist bent on uncovering some devious acts committed by a powerful energy corporation. Follow me so far? Good, because the final three stories, one set in the present, another some 130 years from now, where a Korean metropolis does its best to ape Blade Runner, and the last in a distant, unspecified, post-apocolyptic future, have little-to-no literal connectivity to speak of. Suffice to say, there's a lot going on here, and nifty narrative lines from point A to point B are at a minimum. Oh yeah, and most everyone in the cast plays multiple characters across the various, interwoven stories, some thespians filling as many as seven different rolls.

        If you're the type to enjoy ambition for ambition's sake, my god, do I have a movie for you! In terms both technical and thematic, Cloud Atlas is a mammoth under-taking, one that might have crushed lesser artists under its weight, and almost does the same to Tykwer and the Wachowskis. As one might expect, the quality of the various stories is ranges wildly, from the gentle, melancholy romance of the 1936 section, to the blazing neon action of 2144 Korea, to the utter nonsense of watching a face-tattoo-covered Tom Hanks speak gibberish in the desolated future. Some work better than others, but the film is so determined to madly cross-cut through time and space that it almost nullifies their unevenness. The audience has neither the time to become truly annoyed by the lesser chapters, nor the exposure to the better ones that might have permitted real emotional investment.

        Tom Hanks and Halle Berry should not be in this movie, period. Their faces are recognizable to just about any movie-goer out there, and watching them pop up in one stupid costume or fake nose after another is just plain distracting. Other thespians, whose voices and mannerisms aren't so emblazoned into America's pop culture psyche, fair much better, often justifying the artistic indulgence by furthering the film's sense of connectivity. Yeah, seeing each swap genders and races is a bit jarring, and I'm positive that someone out there is extremely offended by all of the culturally ambiguous dress-up on display here, but it's nothing if not unique. And I guess that's where I landed with my thoughts on Cloud Atlas: It's a messy film, far from the masterpiece that it so clearly wants to be, but it's also some of the most enormous, bombastic pageantry that you'll ever see on a big screen. Clumsy and occasionally wrong-headed, yes, but lazy and satisfied it ain't, and it's big-budget audacity alone was worth the price of admission for this guy. Those who like things neat and tidy will be beating their heads against the wall, but if big is your thing, it's a can't-miss.

Grade: B-

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Paranormal Activity 4 (Release Date: 10-19-2012)

        Something goes bump in the night in the land of the upper-middle class. A nuclear family, varying degrees of concerned, decides to conduct their own investigation, planting hidden cameras throughout their luxurious homes. These devises catch some negligible results at first, but escalate in oddity until ALL HELL BREAKS LOOSE!!! Heard that one before? The Paranormal Activity series has become a Halloween mainstay, rinsing and repeating the same basic product, save a few minor tweaks. That being said, any review of a PA flick should only really be judged within the series's set parameters, and against one another. Those who like the franchise won't need my review to be down for another spin, whereas those immune to its chills will already stay at home. The only Paranormal Activity 4 review worth writing is one addressed at those open to the premise, and are mostly curious about the execution.     

      So, is the most recent found-footage entry as hair-raising as the ones that came before it? In a word, no, but that doesn't make PA4 a lame duck altogether. Yes, many of the jump-inducing moments play like watered-down rehashes of ones that took place in the first three, and the only scares with any sense of originality feel slight compared to the best of the series. But what the latest entry has going for it is humor, always an odd and invigorating pillar for the horror genre to lean on, interacting with its viewers at many turns. None of the others have felt quite so aware of their massive audience, and their specific expectations, tossing out red herrings left and right, and even nodding to a few iconic moments in the history of horror. Suffice to say, Paranormal Activity 4 won't stay with you after the credits roll like its forbearers, but the way that it mixes occasional scares with full scoops of self-awareness is pretty fun while it lasts, especially in a packed theater.

        Horror movies are almost always an art of repetition. As lampooned earlier this year in Cabin in the Woods (and before by Scream and others), fright flicks tend to follow a certain rhetoric, mimicking moves and beats from their forbearers. The trend is then compounded by the fact that no genre is more in love with sequels, churning out endless revisitations to Jason, Freddy, Michael, and Jigsaw. In other words, you generally know exactly what your ten bucks will get you with the purchase of a ticket. That being said, those who just like the, 'Paranormal Activity thing,' are likely to dig another trip on the same ride. That's how it worked for me, and even if the literal scares are starting to diminish, the PA experience is still a fun one, built on a foundation of clever cinematic gamesmanship, and best enjoyed in big, loud audiences. A bit more originality would be appreciated, but as a goofy yearly tradition, I'm primarily on the team of both this franchise, and this movie.

Grade: B-

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Argo (Release Date: 10-12-2012)

      Can we all just take a second and give Ben Affleck a hand? A Hollywood punchline as recently as a few years ago, the Daredevil has reinvented himself and his image from the ground up in a way that few tinseltown folks could possibly imagine. Did he give into drugs, or pursue some other absurd career path? No, he just starred in a few particularly stinky bombs right in a row (Gigli, Surviving Christmas), and was banished to acting purgatory. But unlike other down-on-their-luckers who've managed to scramble their way back to the top, Affleck didn't need constant press, or a singular, break-through performance to reclaim his mantle. He did it by switching sides of the camera, almost instantly becoming one of Americas most enticing filmmakers in the process.

        Argo is worlds removed from anything Affleck's ever touched in the past. Liberated from the moods and vibes of his hometown Boston (wherein all three movies over which Affleck has had considerable creative control have taken place), the film tells the story of six Americans hiding out in the Canadian embassy during the Iranian revolution. Without getting too into the politics of it (the movie hardly does, anyways), 1980 was a not-so-awesome time to be a U.S. citizen living in Iran, the lives of the stowaways libel to be taken any given day, and in graphic, public manners. Enter Tony Mendez (Affleck), an exfiltration specialist working for the CIA who hatches a madcap scheme to set the entrapped half-dozen free: pretend to be a seven-man film crew scouting locations for a newly green-lit Sci-Fi pic named Argo.

        Yes, these based-on-a-true-story trappings are pretty incredible, ranging from almost too good to be true, to... well, too good to be true. Argo occasionally slips into unsettling pageantry, wherein the previously tall tale relies a bit heavily on standard thriller beats and becomes altogether unbelievable. But maybe that was the point. Besides telling its pot-boiler yarn outright, Argo is also a movie about movies, about the movie industry, and about the expectations and machinations of storytelling itself. There are rich layers of film history hidden not too far beneath the surface, many harkening back to the grainy, political paranoia films of the 1970's, but more still detailing the manner in which movies infiltrate and shape aspects of our realities. The film could be viewed as an essay of sorts on what exactly makes audiences tick, but if you want to simply take Argo at face value, you've still got one hell of a film.

        There is that itty bitty, teeny tiny problem in character development department, though. With the exception of a single particularly one-note performance, all of the hostages come off as a bit faceless, and while John Goodman and Alan Arkin have great fun skewering Hollywood in their supporting roles, they both serve as little more than accomplished comic relief. Most damning of all, Affleck is a touch bland in the lead, and while calling him, 'bad,' would be a gross overstatement, one could see a number of different leading men finding something more within the part. What none of those thespians could have done, however, is direct the living hell out of a flick like Affleck has done here.

        While Gone Baby Gone and The Town openly displayed that the guy was no chump when handed the reigns, Argo represents a sizable step forward. It's gorgeously shot, paced with absolute expertise, told in a way that deftly balances its many disparate elements, edited with zip and punch, and is able to turn the screws and make hands sweat whenever it damn-well pleases. The cracker-jack climactic sequence is so dynamically, brilliantly strung together that you stop faulting it from defying logic, and just give in. That's what movies are supposed to do; tell a story that makes us forget the world around us for a couple of hours, sucks us in, and holds us tightly with a white-knuckle grasp. Argo might not be perfect, but the parts that work positively sing. Consider this Affleck's graduation: From now on, everything that the actor-turned-director comes out with must be viewed as an event, not just a novelty. When Oscar comes calling, as he surely will, his golden approval for the man behind the camera on this one will be very well deserved.

Grade: B+

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Oscar Predictions 2012: Round 2

Best Picture:
1. Lincoln (Previous Ranking: 1)
        I have exactly $0.00 wagered on this one so far, but Spielberg + Day-Lewis + Presidential Biopic kind of has to = Frontrunner, doesn't it? If America's most famed director can guide a trash heap like War Horse to a Best Picture nomination, this one's already a lock.
2. Les Miserables (Previous Ranking: 3)
        The Oscars seem ripe to fall in love with a new movie musical (none have been nominated for the big prize since Chicago absolutely cleaned up a decade ago), and Les Mis, with its familiar subject matter, winning cast, and recently-minted director (The King's Speech's Tom Hooper) seems just the movie to break the ice. Bonus points for, 'live singing.'

3. Argo (Previous Ranking: 8)
        Early word calls this true story a pulse-pounding crowd pleaser. A stacked cast, wild subject matter, and the movie business' favorite subject (itself) don't hurt its odds either. Is the academy ready to embrace Ben Affleck?

4. Silver Linings Playbook (Previous Ranking: 11)
        Another flick that got recent film festivals a-buzzing (taking home the People's Choice Award in Toronto), Silver Linings is said to boast a pair of stellar turns from Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, and is the kind of feel-good story for which the Academy often saves at least one slot.
5. The Master (Previous Ranking: 5)

        The highest-ranked movie here that's actually been seen by audiences already, The Master will likely prove too odd and dangerous to take home the top prize, but the film's staunch advocates, as well as the mammoth turns from Joaquin Phoenix and Phillip Seymour Hoffman that make up the movie's core, more or less ensure an invitation.
6. Zero Dark Thirty (Previous Ranking: 2)
        Still a total crap-shoot, as little is known thus far about the Osama bin Laden tale, but the re-teaming of The Hurt Locker cohorts Katheryn Bigalow and Marc Boal, and a subject closely hewn to their last sterling effort, betting against it remains difficult.
7. Life of Pi (Previous Ranking: 16)
        Again, no real word on the finished product, but festival audiences have been raving about stunning teaser footage. Oh yeah, and it's based on a beloved book, with an Oscar favorite (Ang Lee) behind the camera.
8. Beasts of the Southern Wild (Previous Ranking: Unranked)
        If the Academy Awards were tomorrow, this mid-summer indie darling would be a lock. As is, one wonders if Oscar will have a good enough memory to invite it to the party. Also, it's not the only tsunami-centric film vying for the big one. It shares that mantle with...
9. The Impossible (Previous Ranking: Unranked)
        Like Beasts with a budget, stars, and way less melanin, The Impossible is remaining quite for now, which is often a good bet, lest your campaign succumb to fatigue. Early reviews have been whole-sale positive, and anyone who saw The Orphanage knows that director Juan Antonio Bayona is a real talent.

As of now, I am predicting that these will be the Eight that get nominated (I don't have some crazy math problem that helped me determine the number, these just seem like the ones). The following is where I rank the next movies in line.
10. Cloud Atlas (Previous Ranking: 23)

        Reviews have been wildly divergent on this one, some calling it a mess while others praise it as a cinematic accomplishment of a very high order. Anyone who saw The Tree of Life sneak in last year knows how much more valuable a few enthusiastic viewers are than a handful of luke-warm ones.
11. Promised Land (Previous Ranking: Unranked)
        Timely subject matter with a big-name star front-and-center (Matt Damon), and Gus Van Sant at the wheel. The director's experimental fair hasn't done so well with voters thus far (Gerry, Elephant), but his more by-the-numbers stuff (Good Will Hunting, Milk) is right up their alley.
12. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Previous Ranking: 13)
        While the news that The Hobbit will be stretched-out into three feature films is more than a little disheartening, director Peter Jackson has yet to visit Middle Earth and come back without a Best Picture nomination. Count him out at your own risk.
13. Django Unchained (Previous Ranking: 6)
        Simply put, Django doesn't really seem like Oscar material, but this wouldn't be the first time that Quentin Tarantino tricked us with that logic. Plus, having Oscar-winners Christoph Waltz and Jamie Foxx on hand, as well as an over-due Leonardo DiCaprio, doesn't really hurt.
14. Killing Them Softly (Previous Ranking: 12)
        Anyone who's seen director Andrew Dominik's last effort, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, knows that the guy's got some chops. Pair his skill behind the camera with positive early reviews, and the attention-grabbing inclusion of Brad Pitt, and you've got a flick that you'd be wise not to sleep on.
15. Hitchcock (Previous Ranking: Unranked)
        No one's seen it yet, and details are scarce, but if this late entry into the 2012 Oscar race makes good on the promise of its premise, you can count on nominations a-plenty.
16. The Sessions (Previous Ranking: 18)
        With stellar reviews for Helen Hunt, William H. Macy, and (especially) John Hawkes, this one looks to be more of an actors' showcase than anything else, but it's not inconceivable that the thespians could guide it to a nod for the big prize.
17. Moonrise Kingdom (Previous Ranking: 28)
         Let there be no doubt: Moonrise Kingdom will be near the top of many a year-end list, and will likely be adored by Andersonites for years to come, but as wonderful as his film is, a summer release date, paired with the Academy's take-it-or-leave-it attitude towards old Wes in the past, make this one unlikely.
18. Amour (Previous Ranking: Unranked)
        Yes, Michael Haneke's latest has been rapturously reviewed in some circles, but crashing the big party with subtitles is a nearly impossible thing to do. Pan's Labyrinth, anyone?
19. Anna Karenina (Previous Ranking: 15)
        Joe Wright+Kiera Knightly+Period Drama=Plenty of nominations. AK will doubtlessly be on voters' minds, but I'm not sure it can parley that into a Best Picture shout-out.
20. Looper (Previous Ranking: 24)
        Not really old Oscar's cup of tea, but the action-packed sci-fi flick is widely regarded as one of the year's best thus far, and might crash the party on the strength of its many fans.

Best Actor:
1. Daniel Day-Lewis (Lincoln)
        Sure, it's no where near a sure thing, but until we see all the contestants, are you really going to rank anyone above Daniel Day-Lewis playing Abraham Lincoln? Really?
2. Joaquin Phoenix (The Master)
        Even those who don't care for the film can't deny that Phoenix's comeback performance is absolutely amazing. A lock for a nomination, but his character might be a bit off-putting for a win.
3. John Hawkes (The Sessions)
        A festival darling who recently received his first-ever nomination for Winter's Bone, Hawkes is said to be both impressive and heartwarming in a film that will likely see nods for multiple actors.
4. Bradley Cooper (Silver-Linings Playbook)
        I know, I wouldn't think so either, but as more time passes, SLP sounds increasingly like a movie to be reckoned with, reviews repeatedly citing the film as an actor's showcase.
5. Brad Pitt (Killing Them Softly)
        If Brad Pitt does well, Brad Pitt gets an Oscar nomination. It's been as simple as that for the past several years, and with some early reviews calling his KTS performance his best in ages, I like his odds.
6. Hugh Jackman (Les Miserables)
        It seems strange to see Hugh Jackman out of my predicted five, with the Aussie staring in a likely heavyweight, and getting the chance to sing his lungs out. Really, 1-7 feel almost equally likely.
7. Anthony Hopkins (Hitchcock)
         Hitchcock lept into this year's Oscar race from out of nowhere, suddenly moving its release date up into 2012. Given how heavily this film must lean on Hopkins, that's got to be seen as a vote of extreme confidence.
8. Denzel Washington (Flight)
        Yeah, sure, it's a big, buzzy, star-like performance from someone we know can knock it out of the park, but when's the last time Robert Zemeckis made a good movie? In a year this competitive, Flight will have to be a winner for him to contend.
9. Matt Damon (Promised Land)
        A big-name star in a current-everts film made by a celebrated director? The fact that no one's seen it gives one pause, but the pedigree certainly doesn't.
10. Bill Murray (Hyde Park on Hudson)
         The film festivals have not been kind to Hyde Park on Hudson, which once seemed like a contender, and now sounds more like a novelty. Even still, Murray as FDR ought to gain some attention, which is half of the race right there.

Best Actress:
1. Jennifer Lawrence (Silver-Linings Playbook)
         The biggest favorite in any major category, Lawrence has a million things going for her: She's in a sure-fire Best Picture nominee, she's a recent nominee (Winter's Bone), she's in a category that often skews young, she's a ratings lightning rod as the recently-minted Hunger Games star, and she's only got light competition. Oh, and word is she's the highlight of her much-lauded movie.
2. Quvenzhane Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild)
         Her age (all of 5 at the time of filming), and her status as an unknown almost ensure two things: She'll be invited to the show (because she's genuinely great), and she won't take home the prize. Still, almost a lock for a nod.
3. Keira Knightly (Anna Karenina)
        Re-teaming with Joe Wright, the director who the actress to her previous and only Oscar nomination (Pride & Prejudice), Knightly has received high praise for her work in the film, and yet again, it's a weak year for ladies.
4. Naomi Watts (The Impossible)
        The fact that we know next to nothing about the film's level of distribution (or widespread acceptance, for that matter) gets Watts stuck all the way down here. If it's a hit, she shoots straight to second place.
5. Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Smashed)
        Maybe a longshot, but early word is that Winstead is incredible in the powerful picture. She might not be the biggest name, but this is a category where an unknown face with a shining performance can sneak in.

6. Marion Cotillard (Rust & Bone)
         No, the movie is not supposed to be all that good, but Cotillard is always one to watch out for, especially in such a showy performance.
7. Meryl Streep (Love Springs)
        Sure, a mid-summer middling commercial and critical hit doesn't really spell Oscar gold, but if there's one thing we should all know by now, it's to never, ever count out Streep.
8. Emmanuelle Riva (Amour)
        I'll be the first to admit that I might have this festival stand-out ranked a little too low, but I just see the language barrier, along with the Academy's semi-aversion to Michael Haneke, as being too large of obstacles to overcome.
9. Laura Linney (Hyde Park on Hudson)
         Even in negative reviews, word on Linney has been positive. Her clout might just be enough to sneak her in.
10. Michelle Williams (Take This Waltz)

        A seldom-seen indie from earlier this year, the name Williams alone keeps this one on the list. Is it obvious that I'm scraping the bottom of the barrel in this category yet?

Best Supporting Actor:
1. Philip Seymour Hoffman (The Master)
        The Master is such an actor's showcase, and if the Academy doesn't reward Phoenix, it's not hard to imagine them looking towards Hoffman's nearly-as-lauded turn.
2. Leonardo DiCaprio (Django Unchained)
        Kind of crazy to have someone ranked so highly from a completely unseen film, but if Django works, I think Leo shoots right up to the frontrunner spot.
3. Half the cast of Lincoln (Lincoln)
        Tommy Lee Jones, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, David Strathairn, Jared Harris, and a handful of others. Take your pick. At least one is making the cut for sure (smart money on Jones).
4. Robert DeNiro (Silver-Linings Playbook)
        Yet again, top-teir competitor for the evening, widely praised for its acting, and in the case of Mr. DeNiro, work that might be seen as a welcome return to form.

5. Half the cast of Argo (Argo)
        Just as with Lincoln, it's a grab bag of likely nominees, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, John Goodman, and more in attendance. Early whispers say Arkin.

6. William H. Macy (The Sessions)
        A celebrated performance from a film with some real advocates, Macy would be a shoe-in during most years, but with Lincoln and Argo likely to hoard a few to themselves, this category looks pretty crowded.
7. Russell Crowe (Les Miserables)
        Well-respected thespian in a movie that will have more than its fair share of viewers, Crowe is a good performance away from being right in the thick of things.
8. Ewan McGregor (The Impossible)
        The movie is one of the biggest mysteries of the whole Oscar season. If it hits, it could carry Ewan and many others in along with it.
9. Dwight Henry (Beasts of the Southern Wild)
        Man, do I want it for the guy, but Beasts, best-case scenario, will be 2012's, 'little movie that could.' Those don't tend to bring along unknown males in the acting categories, even ones as staggering as Henry.
10. Hal Holbrook (Promised Land)
         Oscar wanted to award Holbrook so bad that the golden man invited the wily vet for his 20 seconds of screen time in Into the Wild. If Promised Land is a success story, the Academy might very well come calling once again.

Best Supporting Actress:
1. Anne Hathaway (Les Miserables)
        A past nominee and last year's Oscar host, Hathaway obviously has something that the Academy likes, and she's in one of the buzziest flicks of the year. Singing AND de-glamming? How's that for awards bait?
2. Helen Hunt (The Sessions)
        Again, The Sessions will be in the running for a handful of nods, and Oscar loves to invite back a veteran winner (As Good as it Gets). Plus, her movie is a critical success already, which makes this a safer better than many of its still-unseen competition.
3. Sally Field (Lincoln)
        Copy and paste almost everything from the Helen Hunt section, only hold the, 'known quantity,' factor, and add in the, 'Spielberg,' factor.
4. Amy Adams (The Master)
         A three-time nominee in this category, Adams' role in The Master might be relatively small, but the names of both the movie and the actress make this a likely invitee.
5. Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty)
        No one could tell you a thing about the film just yet, not even about Chastain's level of inclusion (Maybe she's a lead? A minor character, perhaps?), but in a year this weak, it's best to side with recent nominees (The Help).

6. Jacki Weaver (Silver-Linings Playbook)
        Once more, a recent nominee (Animal Kingdom) playing a mother in a film destined for some Oscar love.
7. Helen Mirren (Hitchcock)
        Rinse and repeat: Semi-rectent winner (The Queen) in a film that's sure to gain lots of attention... only no one's seen it yet.
8. Francis McDormand (Promised Land)
        This is getting tiresome. Yeah, she's won before (Fargo), and no, no one's seen her damn movie.
9. Kerry Washington (Django Unchained)
        Hey, at least she's never won before! Tarantino has worked wonders for his actors before, so it's not too far-fetched to see Washington joining the race. But who knows? No one's seen it.
10. Samantha Banks (Les Miserables)
        Because it's a total crap-shoot at this point, and if Oscar really loves Les Mis (which, you know, he's not sure about... because he hasn't seen it yet), nominations aplenty might flood its direction.