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Sunday, March 30, 2014

Leftovers: Winter 2014

Leftover Movies:
The Lego Movie
          Make sure you get a good night's sleep before checking out The Lego Movie, or at least a sizable cup of coffee; this flick is almost as exhausting as it is exhilarating, relaying the tale of every(lego)man Emmet, and his quest that is far too convoluted and zany to be described in a mere paragraph. Co-writers and directors Phil Lord and Chistopher Miller imbue the film with the very same all-fun-all-the-time energy they brought to Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, throwing every last joke they can come up with right at the wall, and watching a good many stick. The cast is fun as well, Parks and Recreation's Chris Pratt again giving voice to endearing befuddlement, Morgan Freeman and Will Arnett chipping in one-liners from the side. This all goes without mentioning the film's visual world, undoubtably the movie's greatest accomplishment, a whirligig of rapid-fire colors, motion, and creativity.

Leftover Music:
After the Disco---Broken Bells
        Nearly three months having already passed since its release, I think it's safe to assume that After the Disco will never reach the popularity or profitability of the band's self-titled debut, and it's not all that hard to see why. The latest from James Mercer and Dangermouse is far less radio-ready, nearly void of obvious singles, and wears its affections for forgotten musical eras with pride... and is all the better for it. My favorite Mercer output in at least five years, AtD flows ridiculously well, 45 minutes passing without a single glance at the 'track forward' button. Goofy falsetto-powered lead single Holding on for Life is just the tip of the ice berg, the band's twin senses of confidence and abandon leading us through surging opener Perfect World, woozy sing-a-longs Leave it Alone and Lazy Wonderland, and the rousing No Matter What You're Told and The Remains of Rock & Roll. If you're good with a little pitched-up silliness, this is essentially all-killer no-filler.

G I R L---Pharrell
        Pharrell Williams cannot be stopped. After a 2013 that included starring turns on the two biggest songs of the summer, as well as an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song, the world's youngest-looking 40-year-old is right back at it with his first solo album in eight years. As if radio-ruling single Happy hadn't already made it clear, Williams is in full-on keep-it-simple-stupid mode, each of G I R L's ten tracks settling into a repetitive groove, riding warm and inviting rhythms and sounds off into the sunset. Pharrell's voice won't exact bowl you over, but his charm and swagger probably will, an outed seducer one moment (Hunter, Gush), and a romancer of 20/20-era Timberlake devotion at another (Lost Queen, JT-featuring Brand New). Through a listen or two, the album can come off as uneventful, no single song ever rocking the easy-going track list, but each has its own distinct charm, and a soon-revealed knack for getting stuck in your head for days at a time. The reign of Pharrell continues.

St. Vincent---St. Vincent
        Annie Clark might be a little crazy, but that's just why we love her. The songstress' self-titled latest is my personal favorite of her career, an ideal encapsulation of her many strengths that's never ashamed to let its freak flag fly. Clark's songs always have a patchwork feel to them, as if a mad-cap guitar solo or space-case slow-down could breakthrough at any moment, though the artist herself maintains an unnerving sense of calm and control amidst the chaos. Birth in Reverse is a perfect early single, catchy and crunchy and aggressive, but the album is stocked with many treasures, the bare-bones attack of Regret, sonic mind-games of Rattlesnake, and punchy, physical sound of Digital Witness providing other highlights. With dense instrumentation and unapologetically unhinged lyrics, St. Vincent is a disc that only gets better every time you hear it.

        For Eric Berglund, lush sounds are the only ones worth hearing. A veteran of The Tough Alliance, Berglund's first outing as a solo artist occurred on 2010's ceo, a glittering, expansive set of eight tracks that deserved worlds more attention than it received. He's back with WONDERLAND, another 8-song set filled to the brim with the man's particular brand of warped, neon gorgeousness. The album is largely occupied by delightfully loopy interludes, In a Bubble on a Stream lofting around weightlessly while Ultrakaos rushes jubilantly forward. Mirage is also the real deal, a swirling, enveloping pop track with more than a touch of nighttime atmospherics fashioned atop its keyboard spine, but the irrepressibly jaunty Whorehouse is the record's lead single for a reason, a pure dose of bouncy pop euphoria. A half-hour tour through a disparate land that you'll want to revisit the moment its over.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel (Limited Release Date: 3-7-2014)

        2012's Moonrise Kingdom was more than just a good movie; it was a statement of intent by writer/director/hipster-diety Wes Anderson, planting his flag firmly in a plot of land that we never doubted was his. His first live-action feature since 2007's divisive The Darjeeling Limited, it seemed like the perfect time for the auteur to take a detour, his candy-coated aesthetic and dryly-delivered life lessons quickly becoming overly familiar in the eyes of many. He, of course, did nothing of the sort; Kingdom is perhaps the most Wes Anderson-y film of the guy's entire career, its breezy comedy and big heart quashing nearly all arguments in favor of change. No American filmmaker creates movies quite like Anderson, an artist who seems content to paint with the very same colors every time out, exploring new notions within familiar territory. As is we needed further confirmation, The Grand Budapest Hotel is yet more proof that in Wes' world, variety takes a backseat to constancy.

        The film's namesake is a towering, gaudy palace, first witnessed in a state of near-ruination in the late 1960's, then observed in its 1930's heyday. Though the initial set-up involves a bit of narrative trickery, the meat of the story follows Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), the establishment's first-class concierge, an exacting and earnest control freak who's none too shy about his appetite for older women. We view his escapades through the eyes of Zero (Tony Revolori), the recently-hired lobby boy whom Gustave takes under his wing. When one of the concierge's recently deceased flames bequeaths him an invaluable painting, it sets in motion a plot involving war, deceit, love, mystery, and zany hi-jinx.

        The film's opening frames are an absolute delight, introducing notions and characters with a deftly assured hand, even establishing a rich sense of nostalgia-tinged melancholy, a new look for the auteur. But what first reads like Anderson's most narratively complex vision to date has a nasty habit of continuously devolving, its writerly worldview eventually being crowded out by a surplus of action sequences and wacky character ticks. Some have suggested that Budapest represents a more mature Anderson, war and death ever drifting right around its edges, but the film never truly focuses in on these lofty themes, allotting its time instead to innumerable chuckle-worthy cameos and a chase scene straight out of Fantastic Mr. Fox. The film also bares a strange affinity for violence; these scenes are too gruesome and mean-spirited to coax much laughter, and too clumsy to properly comment on the war-time anxieties of the region. Simply put, the flick struggles to balance heart with farce, especially during its harried, frantic final act.

        While I'm not completely over-the-moon about The Grand Budapest Hotel, the film has at least two things in common with literally every other Anderson picture: A dazzling and exacting visual design, and at least one wonderfully memorable character. The sets here, a mixture of miniatures, models, and real locations, teem with life and vibrancy, each bright, ecstatic color chosen for a distinct purpose. Production designer Adam Stockhausen and costumer Milena Canonero should be headed for Oscar nominations come next February, but that's not to ignore what cinematographer Robert D. Yeoman does for the picture, employing depth-of-frame and aspect ratio trickery with liberal abandon. Then there's Fiennes, having an absolute ball with a film worlds removed from his normative serious-minded fare. His body language and various nuances bring to life a character who might easily have become cloying and obnoxious in the hands of a less gifted thespian. Jeff Goldblum, Saoirse Ronan, Tom Wilkinson, and (especially) F. Murray Abraham all turn in ace performances in pocket-sized supporting roles, but this is really Fiennes movie. In the end, The Grand Budapest Hotel is kind of a mixed bag, neither outstanding enough to sway Anderson hold-outs, nor poor enough to dissuade anyone who's already on his side.

Grade: B

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Oscar Predictions 2014: Round One

        The Oscars happened two weeks ago today, did you hear? To commemorate the 336 hours or so that have transpired since the ceremony, I'm looking 8,424 hours into the future, and posting my annual ridiculously early Oscar predictions. Don't laugh too hard; two years running, I've gotten lucky enough to peg five of the nine eventual nominees a whole year out. But this isn't rocket science: I'm looking first for directors in whom I have faith, then big, buzzy stars in big, buzzy movies, and, finally, important/interesting subject matter. Without further ado, my disgustingly early Oscar picks for 2014:

1. Inherent Vice
        Picking a film for the pole position this year is much more difficult than the last two, which each featured a legendary director (Spielberg, Scorsese) working on a near-perfect project for their talents (LincolnThe Wolf of Wall Street). Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will Be BloodBoogie NightsThe Master) is among the biggest names releasing a film this year, and his overdue status has me slotting his film #1... for now.

2. Trash
        Stephen Daldry has directed just four films, scooping up three Best Director and three Best Picture nominations in the process. Love him or hate him, there's no reason to start betting against Oscar's golden child just yet.

3. Big Eyes
        Tim Burton has yet to really make a splash at the Oscars, but something about a 'mature Burton feature' sounds just to their liking. Early word has Amy Adams delivering a powerhouse lead performance, which would keep the film on voters' minds.

4. Into the Woods
        Rob Marshall has already directed one musical to a Best Picture win (Chicago), and with a cast featuring the likes of Meryl Streep, Johnny Depp, Anna Kendrick, Emily Blunt, and more, there's a lot to like here. Simply put, 2014 will feature an abnormal amount of musicals, and if none of them get in, I'll eat my hat.

5. Boyhood
        An ambitious undertaking that's already been seen and lauded by many, writer/director Richard Linklater, despite immense support, has yet to make a real splash on Oscar night. This could be his meal ticket.

5. Foxcatcher
        Much like Daldry, director Bennett Miller (CapoteMoneyball) has yet to receive anything but love from Oscar. Steve Carrell in a juicy villainous role doesn't hurt either.

6. Gone Girl
        Yes, David Fincher (Fight ClubThe Social Network) is an overdue American treasure, but given that his The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo didn't crack the line-up, it's tough to have too much faith in the similar-sounding adaptation of a popular mystery novel.

7. Unbroken
        Angelina Jolie directing a WWII flick written by the Coen brothers? So many story lines! Now all it needs to do is be good, and I feel wholly unqualified to say whether or not Jolie can pull that off.

8. Intimidation Game
        The story of Alan Turing is yet another WWII picture gunning for Oscar glory, and Benedict Cumberbatch in a meaty lead performance sounds enticing. It's off-the-radar director Morten Tyldum who gives me pause.

9. Untitled Cameron Crowe Project
         A war-tinged love story with an absolutely stacked cast (Emma Stone, Rachel McAdams, Bradley Cooper, Bill Murray, and a boat-load of others). It's been a while since Crowe (Almost FamousJerry McGuire) has sat at the big-kids table, but this could be his comeback.

10. Birdman
        Alejandro González Iñárritu (Babel21 Grams) has yet to helm a flick that didn't receive at least some love from Oscar, and this showbiz tale starring Michael Keaton, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts, Edward Norton, and a slew of others shouldn't break the trend. Will it be too light?

11. Whiplash
        The music pic was a huge hit at Sundance, folks raving about both the film and the performances of Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons. Last year's Sundancers fell off by the end, but Beasts of the Southern Wild made the cut just the year before, so the longevity of Whiplash is anyone's guess.

12. Interstellar
        I can't say the trailer did much for me, and after snubbing Christopher Nolan for MementoThe Dark Knight, and Inception, one wonders if Oscar will ever warm up to the fan-favorite director. That said, the last several years have all reserved a slot in the Best Picture line-up for a big spectacle (AvatarInceptionHugoLife of Pi, and Gravity), and Interstellar feels like the most likely candidate at this point.

13. A Most Wanted Man
        The duel facts that this is a John le Carré adaptation and the work of the talented Anton Corbijn (ControlThe American) take a backseat to the film's star. As the last serious work of Philip Seymour Hoffman, this one could be in it for the long-haul.

14. A Most Violent Year
        J.C. Chandor (Margin CallAll is Lost) is a serious talent who already has one writing nomination under his belt. With under-rewarded pair Oscar Issac and Jessica Chastain in tow, this one's right in the thick of things.

15. Mr. Turner
        Oscar loves Mike Leigh (Another YearVera Drake), and this biopic about a famed artist might be too much to resist.

16. Suite Francaise
        Yet another WWII romance, this lavish-looking project will likely receive attention for the performances of Michelle Williams and Kristen Scott Thomas. Oh, and it's got Oscar-whisperer Harvey Weinstein backing it.

17. Fury
        David Ayer (Training DayEnd of Watch) is a sometimes-favorite of the Academy, and this war-torn tale sounds closer to their wheelhouse. I wouldn't be surprised is a 'Brad Pitt needs an acting Oscar' narrative pulled this one all the way into the big race.

18. Jersey Boys
        No, a Clint Eastwood musical doesn't make much sense to me either, but if Into the Woods flops and the Academy goes fishing for musicals, watch out!

19. Love & Mercy
        So, so, SO much to like here, from the Brian Wilson subject matter, to a stacked cast featuring Elizabeth Banks, John Cusack, Paul Dano, and Paul Giamatti, not to mention screenwriting wiz Oren Moverman. Problem is, director Bill Pohlad hasn't guided a picture since... wait for it... 1990!!! And that's his only other flick! Keep your fingers crossed.

20. The Homesman
        Another gritty-sounding directorial outing for Tommy Lee Jones, this one with a slew of Oscar winners/nominees (Hilary Swank, Hailee Steinfeld, Meryl Streep) also aboard.

21. Wild
        Dallas Buyers Club director Jean-Marc Vallée is right back at it with this Reese Witherspoon-starring road trip (see: hike) of self-discovery.

22. Maps to the Stars
        No one doubts David Cronenberg's talent (A History of ViolenceEastern Promises), and a mega-cast flick about Hollywood itself would seem right down Oscar's alley. The question, as it always is with Cronenberg, is wether it will be palatable for more sensitive voters.

23. Carol
        Portland's own Todd Haynes (Far From HeavenI'm Not There) returns with his first feature since 2007, another period romance headlined by Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara.

24. Suffragette
         This tale of foot soldiers of the early feminist movement, starring Carey Mulligan and Meryl Streep, has all the makings of a real contender... accept that main one; a proven director.

25. Knight of Cups
        It's Terrence Malick (The Thin Red LineThe Tree of Life). That could mean Oscar glory... or it could mean mocking laughter. We'll have to wait and see.

26. Magic in the Moonlight
        Woody Allen. Sometimes they work. Sometimes they don't.

27. MacBeth
        I know I usually bet on directors, but Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard in a Shakespeare tragedy CANNOT be ranked lower than this.

28. Theory Of Everything
        A Stephen Hawking biopic would seem ripe for Oscar consideration, but is Eddie Redmayne really the guy to play him?

29. Exodus
        Oscar cannot wait for Ridley Scott (GladiatorAmerican Gangster) to make a film worthy of handing him a career achievement Best Director award, and an enormous biblical adaptation sounds perfect. That said, his recent track record (The CouncilorPrometheusBody of Lies) makes you wonder if he can ever recapture his muse.

30. Get On Up
        A James Brown life-and-times picture sounds like a solid bet. It's Tate Taylor's direction (The Help) that has the flick ranked this low.

31. Kill The Messenger
        I'd have a lot more faith in this Jeremy Renner-headlined political thriller if, you know, I'd seen literally anything director Michael Cuesta has done before.

32. Midnight Special
         Writer/director Jeff Nichols (MudTake Shelter) will be making a splash on Oscar night sometime soon, but is this story of newly-discovered superpowers really the one to do it?

33. The Grand Budapest Hotel
        Mark my words, Wes Anderson will be deeply involved in the Oscar race sometime soon. This one's supposed to be great, but it's coming out way, way, WAY too early to stay on voters' minds come February 2015.
34. Pawn Sacrifice
        Tobey Maguire as Bobby Fischer facing legendary rival Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber). Sounds enticing enough, but helmer Edward Zwick (DefianceThe Last Samurai) has been on a cold-streak of late, and this non-action tale might not fit his skill set.

35. The Search
        Michel Hazanavicius' follow-up to his Best Picture winner The Artist is a HUGE stretch for the comedy veteran, a love story set in war-torn Chechnya. We'll see if he's up to it.

36. Jupiter Ascending
        As with Interstellar, the Wachowski's (The Matrix Trilogy, Cloud Atlas) latest remains on this list because, with the field expanded past five, Oscar likes to invite a big, splashy effects picture. 

37. The Gambler
        Oscar loves scribe William Monaghan (The Departed), and I dig director Rupert Wyatt (Rise of the Planet of the Apes), and this supporting cast ROCKS (Brie Larson, Jessica Lange, and John Goodman, to name a few). Despite losing over 60 pounds for the role, I still have trepidations about Mark Wahlberg really carrying a BP nominee, and this story of mobsters and gambling might not be a winner anyway. 

38. Beasts of No Nation
        Cary Fukunaga (Sin NombreJane Eyre) has really made a name for himself lately with his work on HBO's True Detective, and the Important Film status of a flick about child soldiers in Africa ought to turn heads. The question is whether it will be ready by the end of 2014.

39. Men Women & Children
        I'm a big fan of Jason Reitman (JunoUp in the Air), but following up (the egregiously under-rated) Young Adult and last year's Labor Day with a flick starring Adam Sandler doesn't exactly sound like the safest bet.

40. Rosewater
        Wait, wait, wait... that Jon Stewart is directing a flick about a journalist is detained in Iran, starring Gael García Bernal? Who knows if the guy can make a flick, but if he can, Oscar would LOVE to invite a former host.

41. Child 44
        Tom Hardy is one juicy role away from being a real movie star, and this tale of corruption might just do the trick if director Daniel Espinosa (Safe HouseEasy Money) can pull his weight.

42. The Judge
        Robert Downey Jr. is essentially an American treasure at this point, and this stacked cast and alluring plot seem like a perfect comeback vehicle for his serious side. Too bad he's got a funny man (Wedding Crashers and Shanghai Knights' David Dobkin) in the director's chair.

43. McFarland
        The synopsis makes this one sound like Hoosiers starring Kevin Costner. Director Niki Caro (Whale RiderNorth Country) might just be due for some major attention.

44. The Hundred-Foot Journey
        If Oscar is feeling gushy, Lasse Hallström (ChocolatThe Cider House Rules) should fit their sweet tooth. It's been a while, but having Helen Mirren on board should help.

45. While We're Young
        Noah Baumbach (Frances HaThe Squid and the Whale) has captured a writing mention from the golden man in the past, and has continued with strong work ever since. Is it his time?

46. Far From The Madding Crowd
        Thomas Vinterberg (The HuntThe Celebration) could also be seen as overdue, and this tale of starry romance is sure to earn some attention.

47. The Cobbler
        We know just about zilch about Thomas McCarthy's (Win WinThe Visitor) latest venture, but the indie darling simply has to be on Oscar's radar by now.

48. Warren Beatty's untitled Howard Hughes picture
        I LOVE the prospect of this movie, even if the above title is all we really know. That said, who knows if it will come out this year... or next... or the one after that?

49. Jane Got a Gun
        Name recognition is the name of the game at the box office; why not at the Oscars as well? Folks have been jumping ship since this project was announced, but having Oscar-winner Natalie Portman as your headliner should alleviate some of that negative press.

50. True Story
        The Academy has embraced funny-men James Franco and Jonah Hill already, but this still seems like awfully deep water, an FBI yarn directed by a feature rookie (Rupert Goold).

Hype Starts Here's Top 40 Movies of 2013:

Other End-of-2013 Movie Articles:
The Fourth Annual Elwyns (If Hype Starts Here was in charge of the Oscars)