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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.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Looper (Release Date: 9-28-2012)

        All right everybody, you can breathe; we've made it to October. Sure, the season is souring, and the weather is finally growing cold (here in Oregon, anyways), but at least we don't have to shift through that sordid trash heap of flicks that always invades theaters from the end of August through the start of October. There's only one similarly stingy stretch on Hollywood's calendar (January through mid-February), but the onslaught of garbage does allow Tinseltown to throw in an occasional diamond in the rough. These are films that have some box office potential, but are probably a bit too weird/edgy to really become breakaway hits... or so the big-wigs think. Among your Conan the Barbarians or your Disaster Movies, the last several late summer/early fall's have seen some winners, District 9, Inglourious Basterds, The Town, and Drive among them. It's been a rough season over all, but at least, when we recall the dry spell of late 2012, we can look back with a big, goofy, geeky smile at the thrill ride that is Looper.

        Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as Joe, a, 'Looper,' in a futuristic Kansas of 2044. A, 'Looper,' as Joe explains via voice-over within the film's opening frames, is a hit-man of a very specific designation. Though time travel does not exist at the present moment, it does some 30-odd years in the future, at which time the mob uses it to chuck those whom they find unsavory back to Joe, and those of his ilk. The loopers then finish the job, are rewarded handsomely, and spend their evenings living the highlife in the desecrated remains of the nearest metropolis (because, really, why wouldn't every city go to scuzzy, filthy hell in the future?). It's a good gig, one that Joe performs without many reservations until he's faced with his most unique target to date: himself, 30 years down the road (Bruce Willis). Let the mind games and blow-outs begin!

        What I've just offered is only a sliver of what writer/director Rian Johnson has cooked up here, and much of the fun in watching Looper derives from a constant state of discovery. His future never seems forced, nifty gadgets and societal shifts both played with a deft balance of portioning and showmanship. Unlike many cinematic vision of the future, Looper's depiction feels like an entire reality, capable of containing many individuals and occurrences instead of just one protagonist's story. Hats off to production designer Ed Verreaux and art director James A. Gelarden, who's tactile, logically ill-logical world is one of the very best aspects of the film. Same goes for cinematographer Steve Yedlin, who juggles sleek surfaces with grime, gore, and foreboding like he was born for it. But the graces don't stop there...

        Gordon-Levitt, stripped of his most deadly weapon as an actor (that genuine-as-hell smile), does a plainly magnificent impersonation of old Bruce, changing his voice and body language and over-all energy to marvelous effect (though the excellent work of the make-up department ought not be overlooked). The scenes that he shares with Willis play like two thespians seeing who can do a better impression, which proves fun, humorous, tense, and exciting all at the same time. There are a variety of other performers whom I could highlight, but I've sworn myself to silence. The less you know going into Looper, the better.

        Those who really want to dig in and find something wrong with the flick will be fully capable. The time-travel logic is often shaky at best, and too much of the film's final act is dedicated to letting bullets fly. Even those detractors, however, would be hard-pressed to deny that Johnson has stewed up something pretty damn delicious here, throwing all manner of film history, from Blade Runner to The Maltese Falcon, into a crock-pot, and serving up something as rich as it is tasty. His screenplay is chuck-full of details and grace-notes, storing secrets for later as often as he floats out tantalizing red herrings. Looper is that rarest of things: A high-concept, star-driven, Sci-Fi action flick that feels at once more novelistic than cinematic, not because its philosophies are particularly engrossing, but because its world and its scene feel so developed and dense. Looper is one of the best movies of 2012 thus far, a puzzle that keeps you guessing until the last minute, a two-hour adventure that finds you firmly planted on the edge of your seat, and perhaps the strongest evidence yet that Johnson is a young filmmaker with a serious voice, and some serious talent.

Grade: A-