Just us, the cameras, and those wonderful people out there in the dark...

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Review: Quartet (2012)

* * *

Director: Dustin Hoffman
Starring: Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay, Pauline Collins, Billy Connolly

Quartet, the directorial debut of Dustin Hoffman, is the sort of gentle, inoffensive movie that manages to be as charming and entertaining as it is conventional. The narrative follows familiar beats and offers no surprises, but if the film is predictable, it’s at least well put together – the cinematic equivalent of comfort food. Coming from the same mold, it will probably remind many viewers of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, another recent film about British retirees that was somewhat slight, but no less entertaining for it.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Review: The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012)

* * * 1/2

Director: Stephen Chbosky
Starring: Logan Lerman, Emma Watson, Ezra Miller

“I didn’t think anyone noticed me.” It’s a statement that could apply to the premise of virtually every film about alienated teenagers, but which applies particularly well to The Perks of Being a Wallflower. The film, directed and adapted by Stephen Chbosky from his novel of the same name, has a degree of sincerity and gentleness that few films about teenagers can boast, achieving it without dipping too far into sentimentality. It’s a beautifully made movie that gets to the heart of the matter without condescension, and which features a trio of fine performances at its centre.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Monday's Top 5... Best of the 2013 Oscars

#5: The von Trapps Are Gone!

Overall, I thought Seth MacFarlane's hosting was a dud, but I did enjoy the gag that played on the climax of The Sound of Music before Christopher Plummer came out to present Best Supporting Actress. Hey, at least it fit in with the evening's theme of celebrating musicals from past Oscars (at least, I think that was the theme; the whole thing was a bit of a mess).

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Oscar Winners

And here they are, this year's Oscar winners:

Picture: Argo

Director: Ang Lee, Life of Pi

Actor: Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln

Actress: Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook

Supporting Actress: Anne Hathaway, Les Miserables

Supporting Actor: Christoph Waltz, Django Unchained

Original Screenplay: Django Unchained

Adapted Screenplay: Argo

Editing: Argo

Cinematography: Life of Pi

Production Design: Lincoln

Costume Design: Anna Karenina

Makeup and Hairstyling: Les Miserables

Visual Effects: Life of Pi

Sound Editing: Zero Dark Thirty and Skyfall

Sound Mixing: Les Miserables

Original Score: Life of Pi

Original Song: Skyfall, Skyfall

Animated Feature: Brave

Documentary Feature: Searching for Sugar Man

Foreign Language Film: Amour

Oscar Predictions

We're only hours away from the big show now, in what has been one of the oddest Oscar seasons in recent memory. This is a year where the presumed front runner for Best Picture is a film which, statistically speaking, shouldn't really have a shot, in which an inordinate number of actors are pursuing their third Oscar (Daniel Day-Lewis, Denzel Washington, Sally Field, and Robert De Niro), and in which the most celebrated director of the year isn't even nominated. This has been a weird year and as a result I feel far less confident in my predictions than I have in any year past. Nevertheless...

Best Picture: Argo

My head says Lincoln but my heart says Argo. Although the latter has been picking up Best Picture awards left, right and centre, that pesky lack of a Best Director Oscar nomination remains a pretty big hurdle. Still, I've got to go with Argo.

Best Director: Ang Lee, Life of Pi

I've been going back and forth in my mind over whether to go with Lee or with Steven Spielbergh for this one. I've decided to go with the former, but it wouldn't surprise me in the least to see the latter take the prize.

Best Actor: Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln

Best Actress: Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook

When nominations were first announced, it looked like it was going to be a battle between Lawrence and Jessica Chastain, but as the controversy surrounding Zero Dark Thirty has continued, Chastain seems to have faded from the race, while Amour's Emmanuelle Riva has experienced a definite surge. Riva could take it, but AMPAS' obvious affection for Silver Lining's Playbook makes me think Lawrence has the edge - even if only ever so slightly.

Best Supporting Actress: Anne Hathaway, Les Miserables

Best Supporting Actor: Tommy Lee Jones, Lincoln

Of the big categories, this one seems to be the one that's most up in the air. Honestly, the only nominee I would actually be surprised to see take the prize is Alan Arkin, so my pick here is based on nothing save my own preference.

Best Original Screenplay: Amour

Best Adapted Screenplay: Argo

Best Film Editing: Argo

Best Cinematography: Life of Pi

Best Production Design: Anna Karenina

Best Costume Design: Anna Karenina

Best Makeup and Hairstyling: Les Miserables

Best Visual Effects: Life of Pi

Best Sound Editing: Life of Pi

Best Sound Mixing: Les Miserables

Best Original Score: Argo

Best Original Song: Skyfall, Skyfall

Best Animated Feature: Wreck-It-Ralph

Best Documentary Feature: The Gatekeepers

Best Foreign Language Film: Amour

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Library Project: February 9 - 22

...And now we're at the end, as I watched the final films in my DVD library. This is what I watched over the last two weeks:

I finished off the film noir anthology:

February 10: Kansas City Confidential (1952) - A hard edged noir about a man wrongfully accused of having been involved in a bank robbery who tracks down the men who let him take the fall and take them out one by one. Of course, what he doesn't know is that the mysterious mastermind is an ex-cop who isn't going to go down easily.

February 12: Port of New York (1949) - A film perhaps most notable for being the debut of Yul Brynner (and he has hair!), this one is shot in documentary style and tells the story of a Customs Agent and a Narcotics Agent out to stop a drug shipment from coming into New York.

February 15: The Scar (1948) - This one has a strong cast which includes Paul Henreid and Joan Bennett, but it has a rather perfunctory story. Henreid stars as a con who's on the run and discovers that there's a psychiatrist who looks just like him save for a scar on his cheek. Giving himself a similar scar (but accidentally putting it on the wrong side of his face), he tries to impersonate the psychiatrist - only to discover that the psychiatrist himself has some pretty shady people after him.

February 16: The Stranger (1946) - A film starring and directed by Orson Welles, about a Nazi hiding out in the US. Edward G. Robinson co-stars as the agent trying to track him down, and Loretta Young plays the woman he marries in an attempt to create a cover for himself. It's a tight thriller and Welles gets a fantastic death scene.

I also watched a trio of Bollywood films given to me by my friends over at Culturazzi:

February 19: Iqbal (2005) - The title character is a deaf mute who dreams of becoming a professional cricket player, but has to contend with a disapproving father, a mentor with a drinking problem, and various other familiar hurdles of the sports genre.

February 20: Swades (2004) - A film grounded in realism, following a scientist who has been working for NASA and returns to the village of his birth, discovering the disparity between the developed and developing worlds. A really great movie which I've since learned was voted one of the Top 10 Bollywood films of the last decade.

Febraury 22: Dev D (2009) - A visually arresting film about a self-destructive young man who gets involved in the underworld of drugs and prostitution. The film is sort of like Bollywood meets Tarantino meets Danny Boyle.

And that's it!

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Review: Amour (2012)

* * * *

Director: Michal Haneke
Starring: Emmanuelle Riva, Jean-Louis Trintignant

If you have even a passing familiarity with Michael Haneke’s body of work, then you’ll know that when I say that Amour is his most devastating film to date, that’s really saying something. While his films always have an air of the sinister about them, his latest is so effective because it isn’t about the invasion of a sinister outer force into an ordinary life. It’s about an ordinary life falling victim to something equally ordinary and entirely inescapable: growing old. It’s a film that is brutal in its stark simplicity, beautiful in the fearless precision of its performances, and altogether completely compelling.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Review: Compliance (2012)

* * *

Director: Craig Zobel
Starring: Dreama Walker, Ann Dowd

Craig Zobel’s Compliance is one of those curious films that is nearly unbearable to watch precisely because it is so well-made and effective. Based on true events, the film cuts so close to the bone because it explores one of the darkest aspects of society, namely, our often unquestioning acquiescence to authority. You watch this film wanting to believe that something like this could never really happen while knowing that, in fact, it could happen quite easily. Compliance leaves you with a sick feeling, and I can understand why its premiere at last year’s Sundance festival resulted in walkouts and anger among the audience; but, at the same time, inducing that sick feeling is exactly the point. If Compliance didn’t make you feel sick, it would just be another run of the mill exploitation movie.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Thoughts on Soderbergh (and other masters)

At what point should an artist call it a day on their career? Unless he has second thoughts, director Steven Soderbergh will go into retirement with the just released Side Effects and the Liberace biopic Behind the Candelabra, which will air on HBO later this year. Quentin Tarantino, meanwhile, has stated his intention to retire at 60 (which is just 10 short years from now, Tarantino fans). While the cessation of output from either filmmaker will be a loss to the cinematic landscape, there is definitely something to be said for getting out of the game before you fall out of step with the culture. Although many great filmmakers kept working right up to the end, few historically have been able to maintain the brilliance of their prime and end up bringing their careers to a close with work that, while maybe not bad, is subpar in comparison to their most vital work. On the other hand, some masters produce some of their best work towards the end. So how do you know when it’s time to call it quits?

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Review: Side Effects (2013)

* * * 1/2

Director: Steven Soderbergh
Starring: Rooney Mara, Jude Law, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Channing Tatum

“It’s the culture,” one character insists. He’s referring to the financial corporate culture which resulted in what he hopes is his temporary exile, but the line just as easily applies to other aspects of the world Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects explores. It’s a world where there is a magic pill for every ailment, a first resort pushed by medical professionals who have a vested financial interest in ensuring that the pills become a part of the fabric of everyday life. It’s a world where everyone is out for him or herself and will find a way to justify the most extreme actions in the name of self-interest and preservation. Soderbergh’s final film – a genre bender which at various times takes the shape of a thriller, a medical drama, and a courtroom drama – is a good one, which is not only well-crafted but contains hidden depths.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Review: Identity Thief (2013)

* 1/2

Director: Seth Gordon
Starring: Jason Bateman, Melissa McCarthy

When in doubt, just throw in a throat punch. At least I assume that that was the strategy behind Identity Thief, an occasionally funny film that has the curious misfortune of being both over and underplotted. This is not a good film, nor is it a particularly good use of the talents of either Melissa McCarthy or Jason Bateman. What it is, is the very definition of a first quarter movie, the sort of thin, diversionary effort that will be forgotten before the next season even begins.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Library Project: February 2 - 8

We're down to the bone as I watch the last few movies in my DVD collection. This week I've been watching films from a film noir anthology. Here's what I watched:

February 4: The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946) - Kirk Douglas made his film debut here, immediately announcing himself as a star and a force to be reckoned with. Barbara Stanwyck takes the role of the eponymous Martha Ivers, an heiress who goes to great lengths to get what she wants. What she wants is Van Heflin, but what she wants even more is to ensure that he doesn't reveal what she thinks he knows about the true circumstances of her aunt's death.

February 5: He Walked By Night (1948) - A police procedural about the search for a cop killer. The film is, unfortunately, aggressively uncinematic, favoring the minutiae of police detective work over things like characterization and narrative tension.

February 7: Quicksand (1950) - Mickey Rooney stars as a garage mechanic who quickly descends into crime as a result of trying to impress the new femme fatale in town. The film isn't without its strengths, but it also features a shocking degree of narrative laziness, most notably when, for the sake of plot convenience, it has the femme fatale give up everything to the police as if she's been interrogated, even though the police have barely asked her any questions at all.

February 8: The Big Bluff (1955) - An inelegantly directed film about a conman who marries a dying heiress and then decides to speed up her demise so that he can ride off into the sunset with his mistress and his wife's money. The conman's final act comeuppance almost makes the film worth seeing, but not quite.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Friday's Top 5... Steven Soderbergh Films

#5: The Informant!

A ridiculously underrated movie, in my opinion. Matt Damon delivers a brilliant performance as real life whistleblower/conman Mark Whitacre and the film itself is a perfectly executed comedy – which might be the problem. The film is so absurdly entertaining that it’s easy to miss just how well-crafted and good it really is.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Review: Rust and Bone (2012)

* * * *

Director: Jacques Audiard
Starring: Marion Cotillard, Matthias Schoenaerts

A broad description of Rust and Bone’s plot would make it sound like an over-written melodrama that throws as much at the wall as possible: an unemployed single father who gets involved in underground fighting to support himself, and a trainer at a marine park who loses her legs in an accident, develop a relationship that is part friendship, part sex, and part business. A lesser film would be sunk under the weight of that kind of plotting, but Jacques Audiard’s follow-up to his Oscar nominated A Prophet is so nuanced and sensitively wrought that it makes all of it work, creating a film that is intelligent and moving.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Hollywood Book Club: Easy Riders, Raging Bulls

Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock ‘n’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood is where the serious study of cinema and the less serious (but no less fun) gossipy memoir meet. Focusing on the brief period of time from the end of the 1960s through the mid-1970s when Hollywood was unlike anything it had been before or anything it has been since – a haven for intelligent, artistically driven pictures – Biskind examines the impact of the men and women (mostly men) whose passion for film breathed new life into the industry, while peppering his narrative with tidbits of gossip (this is usually where the women come in) that help make it so compulsively readable.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Library Project: January 26 - February 1

Getting close to the end, with just a few more films to go. Here's what I watched this week:

January 29: A Very Long Engagement (2004) - Jean-Pierre Jeunet's gorgeously rendered World War I romance is one of my favourite films of the last ten years. Audrey Tautou delivers a magnificent performance as a woman determined to find out what happened to her presumed dead finance, and Marion Cotillard delivers a great supporting performance as a woman who finds some creative ways to kill the men she holds responsible for the death of her own lover.

January 31: Wild Strawberries (1957) - One of Ingmar Bergman's many meditations on the nature of existence, this one exploring the theme through an old man whose life's work is about to be rewarded with a prize, but who comes to realize how much he sacrificed in his personal life in order to achieve his professional goals. While not my favourite Bergman film, it's definitely one of his best.

February 1: Jigsaw (1949) - This one is part of an anthology collection of film noir and is one of the weaker selections in the collection. It's a clumsily directed crime story starring Franchot Tone as an Assistant District Attourney out to expose an underground neo-fascist organized crime gang.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Friday's Top 5... "Undead" Romances

#5: Bride of Frankenstein

Okay, not a “romance” per say – in fact, after all the work Dr. Frankenstein goes through to bring her to life, the would-be Bride ultimately rejects the Monster – but James Whale’s follow-up to his original Frankenstein is definitely a great movie.