Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (2009)

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men is a film written and directed by actor John Krasinski and based on a book of short stories by the late David Foster Wallace. I admire Krasinski's ambition with this project because I've read some of Wallace's work, and I can't imagine that any of it would be easily adapted to film. Wallace often seemed to be show-offy in his work, as if to say "see what great literary heights I can hit". He would then go off on literary tangents or get cute with footnotes; I always felt that Wallace thought himself too clever for mere mortal readers. In my eyes, his work was gimmicky. And that is what Krasinski has created -- a gimmicky, meandering film that wants to be taken seriously but is too sophomoric and mean-spirited to elicit goodwill from the viewer.

The story is about Sara, a graduate students played by Julianne Nicholson. Sara is working on a thesis project to interview men to find out why they mistreat women. In between many monologues of her subjects -- some of whom are in her academic and social circles -- we learn that Sara has been unceremoniously dumped by her boyfriend for no apparent reason. Krasinski plays her ex-boyfriend who, in a scene late in the film, comes to tell Sara exactly why he cheated on her. Timothy Hutton plays Sara's professor. Other actors who play Sara's interviewees include Will Forte, Will Arnett, Josh Charles, Joey Slotnick, Ben Shenkman, Max Minghella, Frankie Faison, Clarke Peters, Christopher Meloni, Bobby Cannavale, Dominic Cooper, and Denis O'Hare. The actors are all adequate playing self-absorbed insufferable, unlikable bores.   Most of them give performances like they are on stage.

Then there is a central problem with Nicholson. Her character Sara acts vapid and is completely devoid of personality. I could certainly understand why her boyfriend dumped her and it had nothing to do with the reasons he stated -- she would have just been too annoying to be around.

If Krasinski's intent was to create a film version that mimics the writing of David Foster Wallace, then he succeeded. In addition to Wallace's aforementioned writerly tricks, Wallace's stories are full of annoying people caught up in uninteresting situations. The film seemed interminable at only 80 minutes. I have to wonder who the intended audience is. The best thing about the movie is its title. Grade: D-.

I watched Brief Interviews with Hideous Men on Netflix Streaming on January 24, 2013.

Monday, January 28, 2013

My Sister Maria (2002)

I expect documentaries to take a position on some issue, and then to support that premise with filmed footage. Of course, I'm aware that the filmmaker is in no way obligated to present both sides of a story. Take Michael Moore, for example. His Bowling for Columbine is an entertaining film that starts with the tragic Columbine high school shooting and becomes a diatribe promoting gun control. It's a position that I don't agree with, and in the film I think Moore does a lot of sly staging and comparing apples to oranges. Yet it is still one of my favorite documentaries. He took a position and presented it in a compelling, albeit one-sided, way.

I wish actor Maximilian Schell had done the same thing in this documentary about his sister, actress Maria Schell. Maria Schell had a brilliant career in European films, finally winning a Best Actress award at the Cannes film festival. Hollywood came calling soon after, and she made several Hollywood movies. I've seen a handful of those -- The Brothers Karamazov with Yul Brynner, Cimarron with Glenn Ford, Voyage of the Damned, and Superman. Maria was a beautiful and gifted actress.

But this film My Sister Maria that her brother Maximilian has written and directed is a wreck. It purports to be a loving look at the life of his gifted sister. Yet it paints a picture of an addled old woman who had a stroke and sits around her home in Austria watching her old movies and spending money that she doesn't have. Very Sunset Boulevard, in fact. Many aspects of this later period of Maria's life are elaborately "re-staged" -- if they are true to begin with.

And therein lies most of my frustration with My Sister Maria. I don't believe it for a minute. I think it is some kind of elaborate ruse by Maximilian Schell to offer this unflattering look at an aging actress well past her prime. If it isn't, then Maximilian is cruel and exploitative towards his sister.

Here is why I think this movie is a put-on: First, Maria doesn't seen all that demented to me, nor does she seem to be showing much physical effect from a bad stroke. Secondly, there are plenty of "re-created" moments in the film, such as a double for Maria falling down in the snow while walking and then a cut to the real Maria's face. Thirdly, I don't buy that the cameras just happened to capture Maximilian finding out about his sister's dire financial straits so he then jets off to sell an expensive investment painting to cover her debts. That makes Maximilian seem heroic in Maria's story, and certainly appears self-serving. And lastly,  Maria burns down the family house in the movie's climax? Please -- that's pretty unbelievable. And re-staged, of course.

I don't have a reason for Maximilian creating this cinematic deception, unless it is his revenge for him having to take care of his sister. I was hoping to see a realistic portrait of the life and career of a talented actress. Instead, I got this drivel which seems to be a fictionalized account of the end of a talented actress's life. I can't understand why Maria, if she isn't demented, would have agreed to go along with this hogwash. (And how demented could she be when she was able to attend the premiere of this film three years before her death?)  Film clips of Maria's movies are haphazardly interspersed throughout the film. She is luminous in those clips, but the rest of the film is neither flattering or factual.

A fictional documentary is nothing more than a routine movie, and My Sister Maria is a bad movie. It's so bad that my esteem for Maximilian Schell has deteriorated. This portrait of his sister is unkind and unnecessary. Grade: D+ (credit given for the clips of Maria's movies). Note: The film is in German with subtitles.

I watched My Sister Maria via Netflix Streaming on January 21, 2013

Life of Pi (2012)

Every once in awhile, you simply have to eat crow.

From the time Life of Pi first became a best selling book by Yann Martel, nothing I read about the story made me the least bit interested in it. The title even turned me off. Then it was announced that it was going to be a movie and that it would be directed by Ang Lee, one of my favorite directors.

I still had no interest in seeing a movie about a young man who spends weeks adrift on a raft in the Pacific Ocean with a Bengal tiger.

The movie opened to rapturous critical acclaim and good box office. Nope, I still was not interested. In fact, when I had the opportunity to take two young friends to the movies who had already seen Wreck-It Ralph, I opted for the very mediocre Rise of the Guardians over Life of Pi. (Admittedly, at that point I did figure that I wouldn't have disliked Life of Pi any less than I cared for Rise of the Guardians). But I still held firm in my refusal to see the movie Life of Pi. And in my (meager) defense, I hadn't talked to anyone else who had seen Life of Pi or wanted to see it.

And then Life of Pi garnered 11 Oscar nominations.

What a quandary for a dedicated Oscar-phile! I try to see every film nominated for an Oscar in a major category, and now one that I actively didn't want to see piled up a slew of nominations -- including Best Picture and Best Director for Lee. I knew then that I was going to have to see Life of Pi. But I wasn't happy about the prospect.

Maybe it's better to have poor expectations for a movie. In today's climate, it's hard to go into a film and have no expectations because the publicity machine always starts with a film's pre-production and my awareness about many movies is often high. At any rate, I was captivated by Life of Pi from the moment the movie started. Ang Lee certainly has an eye for how to fill a screen; so many of his shots are gorgeous. All of the production values were first rate -- the score, the cinematography, the editing, the special effects. Lee's Best Director nomination was well-deserved.

One word about the special effects. The move was filmed in 3-D, and it is one film that I wish I had seen in 3-D. I didn't, but it looked to me like some of the effects would have been spectacular in 3-D.

I found that I was interested in the story, too. I think it it difficult to maintain interest in a story with only one or two characters, and the last time that I remember enjoying a film that had large sections of it devoted to one human was in 2000's Cast Away. The acting in the movie was fine, though no performance was exceptional. The only person in the cast who I recognized was French superstar Gerard Depardieu, I liked the earnestness of Suraj Sharma, who played young Pi, and the screen presence of Rafe Spall, who played the writer interviewing the older Pi.

There is a flaw in the film that frustrated me to no end near the end of this otherwise remarkable film. There is a long monologue by Irrfan Khan, who plays the older Pi. In this monologue, which is a constant close-up shot to begin with, the adult Pi describes some events that may or may not be important. My point is that this was all told in verbal narrative, and a flashback type of device that could have showed as well as told would have been a much less dull method of storytelling. This scene as is brought the film to a deadly stop at a crucial point in the movie. Accordingly, I have to award Life of Pi an A-, even if it did exceed my expectations in a big way.

Crow like this tastes pretty good!

I watched this film at the Pullman Square Marquee Cinemas with my buddy Bruce.

Cheech & Chong's Up in Smoke (1978)

I can't remember ever watching a stoner flick prior to watching this movie. I've seen plenty of movies that had some classic stoner comedy in it, like National Lampoon's Animal House or Fast Times at Ridgemont High. These movies, however, were concerned with a lot more than getting high. While I certainly knew that Cheech & Chong had a lot of drug humor in their comedy act, I was a lot more familiar with their shtick like "Basketball Jones" or "Sister Mary Elephant". These days, Cheech Marin has morphed into a supporting actor in films like Tin Cup or From Dusk till Dawn, or TV's Nash Bridges. As for Tommy Chong, well, he's the father of 80s actress Rae Dawn Chong, right?

Since I was looking for a mindless movie to watch, I decided to clear Cheech & Chong's Up in Smoke off my Netflix queue where it had been taking up space for a long time. The film was pretty much as I expected. The characters played by Cheech and Chong meet, discover that they have a passion in common for getting high as often as possible, find themselves in crazy situations as a result of pursuing this passion, and somehow stay a step ahead of law enforcement officials. Sometimes I laughed, sometimes I cringed. Quality-wise, I thought it was on par with Adam Sandler movies of the last decade or so -- but funnier. Lou Adler's direction is actually pretty good, and the cinematography is surprisingly lush and colorful.

The set piece of the movie has the potheads driving a van made of marijuana across the border from Mexico to the United States. Stacy Keach has a one-note role as a cop pursuing this van. Strother Martin and Edie Adams have small roles as the parents of Chong's character. Tom Skerritt plays a friend of Cheech's character, a Vietnam vet with a marijuana habit. Ellen Barkin and David Nelson (of TV's Ozzie & Harriet fame) make very minor appearances. All the performances are fine for what they are, but nobody is going to win any acting awards in a film like this. Marin is particularly funny, though. In a lot of ways, Cheech & Chongs Up in Smoke is a late 1970s rendition of the Bob Hope/Bing Crosby "Road" movies of the 1940s and 1950s.

Drug humor must not be politically correct these days, as it has been a long time since I've seen much drug humor in the movies or on TV. In my college days, TV's Saturday Night Live had drug humor almost on a weekly basis. Nowadays when drugs are portrayed, they are almost always in a dramatic, if not tragic, light. I'm not sure why the entertainment media no longer acknowledges the counterculture. It's hard to imagine that watching inane behavior in a silly Cheech & Chong movie would entice anyone to turn to marijuana use if they already were not partaking of it.

Ultimately, Cheech & Chong's Up In Smoke is a movie of its time and is as lightweight and mainstream as generic slapstick comedies of any movie era. As a comedy team, Cheech & Chong exhibited surprising screen presence and were successful in tapping into the mood of moviegoers of a particular generation. And given a choice between a Cheech & Chong or an Adam Sandler vehicle, well, I'd probably prefer Cheech & Chong. Grade: B-

I watched Cheech & Chong's Up in Smoke via Netflix Streaming on January 14, 2013.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Batman: Year One (2011)

Batman: Year One is an animated film based on the classic graphic novel by Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli. The story has Bruce Wayne returning to Gotham City after being educated abroad following the murders of his parents. Wayne is searching for a way that he can make a difference in the rising crime rate in the city. Concurrently, upright police lieutenant Jim Gordon has returned to his hometown of Gotham City. Iin addition to the crime element on the streets, Gordon must also deal with a corrupt police department and a rift with his pregnant wife.

Wayne soon takes to the streets at night as the crimefighter Batman. Initially Gordon views Batman as a vigilante detrimental to society and vows to bring him to justice. Over time, the two become allies and clean up the corrupt police department and its ties to the mob. Batman: Year One does not include any of the traditional Batman Rogue's Gallery (Joker, Penguin, Riddler, etc.), but it does feature a small role for Selina Kyle, a streetwise burglar who becomes aware of Batman's presence in her area. Kyle will eventually become Catwoman, a quasi-villain with a complicated history of interacting with both Bruce Wayne and Batman.

I liked the animation of this film. It seems simple, but it captures the look of the source graphic novel. Its style reminded me of anime. The voice casting was mostly good. Bryan Cranston voiced Jim Gordon, and he was excellent. Ben McKenzie was merely adequate as Bruce Wayne/Batman. Faring better were other voice actors such as Eliza Dushku (as Selena Kyle), Jon Polito, Alex Rocco, and Katee Sackhoff. Other characters from the traditional Batman canon included butler Alfred Pennyworth, news reporter Vicki Vale, and district attorney Harvey Dent.

Clocking in at barely over an hour, Batman: Year One is compelling for Batman aficionados. The film, directed by Sam Liu and Lauren Montgomery, is a faithful adaptation of the Miller/Mazzucchelli graphic novel. With its emphasis rooted in a more realistic crime drama, the movie might even hold the interest of non-comic readers. Grade: B+.

One, Two, Three (1961)

I always love it when I discover really good films that I previously knew little about. Such is the case with Billy Wilder's black-and-white comedy One, Two, Three. The only thing about the film that I knew going into this movie was that James Cagney went into retirement after doing this picture and didn't act again until he was coaxed out of retirement for 1981's Ragtime.

Wilder was coming off a phenomenal decade that saw him direct such masterpieces as Sunset Boulevard, Witness for the Prosecution, Some Like It Hot, and The Apartment. While One, Two, Three isn't quite the classic film that those are, it is still an admirable piece of comedic filmmaking. Wilder's direction is sharp, fast, and stylish, the screenplay is rapid-fire repartee and funny, and the editing is smooth. The black-and-white cinematography was Oscar-nominated.

The success of One, Two. Three rests solely on the capable shoulders of James Cagney. Cagney plays C. R. MacNamara, a Coca-Cola executive in Berlin just before the Berlin Wall was erected. His family wants to return to the States, and MacNamara is hoping for at least a transfer to London. Things look promising when MacNamara's boss Wendell P. Hazeltine, requests that MacNamara look after Hazeltine's daughter Scarlett for a few weeks while she is in Europe. However, just when the Hazeltines are ready to reunite with Scarlett, MacNamara discovers that Scarlett has been slipping away at night to see Otto Ludwig Piffl, a Communist revolutionary. Furthermore, Scarlett and Otto have married and now Scarlett is pregnant. MacNamara concocts a scheme to explain away all these events in a broadly funny farcical manner.

I loved Cagney's performance in this film. His staccato diction was perfect for the fast-talking, wisecracking character. It's a perfect marriage of the right actor for thr right role. Broadway and TV's stalwart What's My Line? panelist Arlene Francis plays MacNamara's icy wife Phyllis. Howard St. John is fun as Coke executive Wendell P. Hazeltine. Pamela Tiffin seemed a bit weak as Scarlett. Horst Buchholz is too strident and angry to garner much sympathy as Otto.

One, Two, Three also offers great insight to the East vs. West debate and well as capitalism vs communism. The script is intelligent without sacrificing humor. Wilder's decision to film the movie at a furious pace pays off handsomely. I wish movie comedies today were this smart. Grade: B+

I watched One, Two, Three via Netflix Streaming on January 15, 2013.

Monday, January 21, 2013

From Dusk till Dawn (1996)

I have absolutely no idea why I watched From Dusk till Dawn. It's not the kind of movie that I normally like, it's not been on my radar to watch, and I haven't heard very many good things about it. But there it was in my Netflix queue for the longest time. I don't remember why or when I put it there. I wanted to watch something mindless and next thing I knew, I was watching the film. Maybe it was because I'm currently singing Quentin Tarantino's praises due to Django Unchained. While Tarantino didn't direct From Dusk till Dawn, he did co-write it and he plays the second lead in it.

From Dusk till Dawn is just about the most schizophrenic movie that I have ever seen. For the first third of it, it is a dark crime drama. George Clooney, making the move from TV actor to leading movie star, and Tarantino play criminal brothers Seth and Richard Gecko. When the movie opens, the Gecko brothers are on the lam. Seth has broken out of prison and sexual deviant Richard has left a trail of bodies due to his hot-headedness. The brothers are racing to Mexico to divide the proceeds from a bank robbery and then they want to find freedom. Along the way, they encounter widower Jacob Fuller, a disillusioned pastor who is traveling in a recreational vehicle with his children Kate and Scott following the death of his wife. The Gecko brothers kidnap the Fuller family and use the RV as cover to get across the border into Mexico.

Seth is supposed to divide up the bank robbery money at an exotic dance club. He forces the Fullers to go along with him by promising them their freedom afterwards. So the Geckos and the Fullers settle in at the nightclub for the evening, and the main attraction is a demonic-looking stripper played by Salma Hayek. That's when this pulpy crime saga morphs into a vampire movie, as the strippers and workers at the club are all vampires who feed on travelers passing through. The rest of the film plays like one long set piece as the vampires go for the kill and the humans go about slaying vampires, often in gruesomely entertaining ways.

The entire cast seems to be having fun in this movie. Clooney has always excelled at playing morally ambiguous characters, but in From Dusk till Dawn, his Seth Gecko is extremely dark and ruthless. It's a fine performance and it is nearly matched by Tarantino's near-gleeful turn as the mercurial Richard Gecko.  Harvey Keitel portrays the preacher who has lost his faith, Jacob Fuller.  In a career of playing unusual characters in unusual films, Keitel's turn here is one of his most unusual. Juliette Lewis and Ernest Liu play the Fuller teenagers.  Character actors such as Michael Parks, Cheech Marin and John Hawkes also have meaty supporting roles in the movie. Only Hayek and Liu deliver performances that are subpar.

From Dusk till Dawn is vividly directed by Robert Rodriguez. The movie is filled with bright colors and the action scenes are entertainingly staged. The screenplay probably plays a lot better than it reads. While From Dusk till Dawn boasts a schizophrenic personality, Rodriguez and Tarantino would more brilliantly realize their concept of a schizophrenic film a decade later with Grindhouse.

It is surely a character flaw in me, but I enjoyed this movie. The film is crude, gory, and without any redeeming values that I can see other than as a tongue-in-cheek entertainment. But every minute of From Dusk till Dawn has something of interest in it, and the special effects are quite good  In the world of bad cheesy movies, I can assure you there are far worse things than stripper vampires.  Grade: B

I watched From Dusk till Dawn via Netflix Streaming on January 14, 2013.

The Brother from Another Planet (1984)

John Sayles is a director whose work exemplifies the nature of independent film. In his career, he only directed one film on which he didn't have final cut authority (Baby, It's You). Most of his film budgets have been on shoestrings, but the films generally look good and focus on some sort of political or cultural perspective that interests him. From the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, he racked up a string of great movies as good as any 5 or 6 consecutive films that any director has made. I can't speak highly enough of Matewan, Eight Men Out, or Lone Star, which garnered Sayles an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. Another film during this period, Passion Fish, received two Oscar nominations -- an Original Screenplay nomination for Sayles and a Best Actress nomination for Mary McDonnell. I haven't seen Passion Fish or the other highly acclaimed Sayles movies in this rich period -- The Secret of Roan Inish and City of Hope. And if Sayles's output from the last 15 years or so hasn't hit the heights of his most fertile period, there are still a lot of good aspects to films like Sunshine State, Casa de los Babys, or Limbo.

The Brother from Another Planet was Sayles's last film before his acclaimed streak that started with Matewan. It isn't as polished as Sayles's films that came afterwards, but it takes some chances too. Unlike most of Sayles's work that I've seen, The Brother from Another Planet is a comedy. And like most of the best comedies, there is an underlying social message. In this instance, it seems to be an allegory for the plight of immigrants in America.

In the movie, an alien lands in New York City. Because he resembles an African-American man (albeit with three toes on each foot), he finds himself in Harlem. The alien is mute but he has the ability to heal and to fix mechanical items. He finds acceptance and assistance with the bartender and patrons of a neighborhood bar. However, two Men in Black arrive looking for the mute alien, but they are thwarted in their attempts to find him by the friends that the alien has made. Apparently these Men in Black are some type of alien bounty hunters.

Joe Morton plays the mute alien with sweetness and a mix of both confusion and intelligence. It's a wonderful performance and gives the film tremendous emotional heft. I particularly liked the scenes that were set in the neighborhood bar because of the camaraderie of the patrons. It reminded me of TVs Cheers, where everybody knows your name. The Men in Black were played mostly for laughs by Sayles himself and David Strathairn. The first times that I had ever seen Strathairn's work were in Matewan and Eight Men Out He was excellent in both, and clearly his association with Sayles goes back even further. Sayles's longtime significant other and producing partner, Maggie Renzi, turns in a nice supporting performance as a clerk in a welfare office.

Sayles's script for The Brother from Another Planet is uneven. The special effects are amateurish due to the low budget. Despite the films premise, there isn't much sci-fi to it. The films humor is understated rather than being broad-stroked and bold like Mork & Mindy. The gentleness of the film's tone is its great strength. In the final analysis, there are lots of things to admire about the movie despite its imperfections. Grade: B.

I watched this movie on Netflix Streaming on January 14, 2013.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

Zero Dark Thirty is about the ten-year hunt and eventual capture of terrorist Osama bin Laden. It is sharply directed by the Oscar-winning director of The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow. The story centers around a CIA agent named Maya, who is played by Jessica Chastain. Chastain is perfect in the role. She is initially green but steely, and matures to being a determined and insightful agent responsible for finding bin Laden's hideout.

The movie's screenplay is mostly intelligent, lean, and incisive. I personally thought the beginning of the movie was a little choppy and that writer Mark Boles needed to add a bit more exposition, but soon the movie settled into a smooth-flowing and well-edited film. There were many speaking parts in the film, and Bigelow cast all the roles well. Some of the more prominent supporting players include James Gandolfini, Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Ehle, Jason Clarke, and Joel Edgerton. However, the heart and soul of the film is the luminous and tenacious presence of Chastain.

Bigelow wisely presents some of the issues faced by the CIA agents such as job burnout or the administration of torture tactics in a straightforward manner without taking sides on controversial issues. She trusts her audience to be able to formulate their own views about whether or not the ultimate outcome of the proceedings is worth the problems incurred.

The last part of Zero Dark Thirty is mostly a re-creation of the successful mission of the Navy Seals who entered the bin Laden compound in Pakistan and killed the terrorist leader. It is exciting and thought-provoking even though the outcome is history.  The film is timely in its release and to be commended for being so compelling when the public has become so weary with war in the Middle East. Grade: A

I watched this film with my friend Brian at the Pullman Plaza Marquee Cinema on January 13, 2013.

Monday, January 14, 2013

I Wanna Hold Your Hand (1978)

The year is 1964 and Beatlemania has hit America. I Wanna Hold Your Hand reflects the excitement of avid Beatles fans in New York City during the weekend that the Beatles first appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Nancy Allen, Theresa Saldana, and Wendie Jo Sperber play three teenage friends who concoct a plan to see the Beatles in their hotel prior to the Ed Sullivan telecast. They enlist a fellow classmate, played by Mark McClure, to drive them in his father's limousine to the Beatles' hotel. Along the way, other teens join the group,. These include Bobby DiCicco, Susan Kendall Newman, and Eddie Deezen. Of course, when the group arrives at the hotel, there are hordes of screaming teens outside who are being held back by police barricades.  Naturally, these determined kids find a way to get inside the hotel and begin their quest to find John, Paul, George, and Ringo.

I Wanna Hold Your Hand was the first feature film directed by Robert Zemeckis. Zemeckis shows early talent; he has a great eye for entertaining visuals. The movie is a farce, and I find it is rare for farce to be successfully sustained throughout a film. My theory for this is that farce usually necessitates that the actors give broad, scenery-chewing performances. These can be funny for a while but in the duration of the film, they usually become flat or tiresome. It's a good thing that I Wanna Hold Your Hand has so many characters because a little screen time for most of them goes a long way. The most successful performance is by Sperber as a hyper Paul-obsessed fan. The movie winds up at The Ed Sullivan Show where most of the teens finally get to see the Beatles perform. 

I Wanna Hold Your Hand is a fun comedy, though it is too shrill at times. However the tone that Zemeckis achieves fits with the craze that followed the Beatles when they first arrived in America. One of my earliest childhood memories of television was seeing one of the Beatles' performances on the Sullivan show.  I remember the teenage girls acting pretty much like they were portrayed in this film.  Grade: B.

Fun Fact: Will Jordan plays Ed Sullivan, and Jordan practically built a career out of being an Ed Sullivan impersonator.

I watched I Wanna Hold Your Hand on DVD with my aunt on January 12, 2013.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Results of My Oscar Nominee Predictions

Here's how I did in predicting the 2012 Oscar nominees, with a few comments about each category:

Best Picture: The Academy went with nine nominees, and all nine were in the ten I selected. The film that didn't squeak in was Moonrise Kingdom, which I felt was a long shot anyway.

Best Director: Holy cow! I only went 1 for 5 here, correctly predicting Steven Spielberg for Lincoln. Sure things Ben Affleck (for Argo) and Kathryn Bigelow (for Zero Dark Thirty) were omitted from the list and both had received DGA nominations. Tom Hooper (also a DGA nominee for Les Miserables) was also missing from the Final Five.  And while the Academy had some affection for Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino was not recognized for his direction (though he was nominated for his screenplay.)

So who  else made it. Well, the Academy showed a lot of love to both Life of Pi and Silver Linings Playbook, and the directors of those movies, Ang Lee and David O. Russell, were nominated.  So was Michael Haneke for the French film Amour.  Benh Zeitlin was also nominated for Beasts of the Southern Wild. Both of the latter two films received broad support from the Academy and both directors were surprise nominations.

Spielberg, with Best Director Oscar wins for Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan, received his 7th Best Director nomination. His other nominated turns behind the camera were for Close Encounters of the Third Kind,  Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T.: The Extraterrestrial, and Munich. Additionally, he directed three films that were nominated for Best Picture but not for his direction -- Jaws, The Color Purple, and War Horse.

Ang Lee, an Oscar-winning director for Brokeback Mountain, was also previously nominated for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.  Life of Pi is his 3rd directorial nomination. He also directed former Best Picture nominee Sense and Sensibility without earning a directing nod.

This is David O. Russell's 2nd directing nomination.  He was a prior nominee for The Fighter.

These are the first nominations for Haneke and Zeitlin.

Best Actor:  I went 5 for 5!

These are the first Oscar nominations for Bradley Cooper and Hugh Jackman.

Joaquin Phoenix received his 3rd acting nomination. He was previously nominated for his supporting performance in Gladiator and his lead performance in Walk the Line.

Two-time Best Actor Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis (for My Left Foot and There Will Be Blood) was also previously nominated for In the Name of the Father and Gangs of New York. This is his fifth nomination.

And Denzel Washington picked up his 6th acting nomination. He previously received a supporting nomination for Cry Freedom and Best Actor nominations for Malcolm X and The Hurricane.  He has won a Supporting Actor Oscar for Glory and a Best Actor Oscar for Training Day.

Best Actress: I went 4 for 5.  Quvenzhane Wallis of Beasts of the Southern Wild was nominated instead of Marion Cotillard for Rust and Bone.  Emmanuelle Riva (for Amour) and Wallis, the oldest and youngest Oscar nominees ever, received their first nominations.

The other three ladies each scored their second nominations.  Jennifer Lawrence previously was nominated for Winter's Bone and Naomi Watts was a former nominee for 21 Grams.  Jessica Chastain previously received a supporting nomination for The Help.

Supporting Actor: i went 4 for 5.  Christoph Waltz was nominated for Django Unchained instead of Javier Bardem in Skyfall.  I loved Waltz's performance, but I think it is really a lead role.

All of the nominees in this category are previous Oscar winners.

It is Waltz's 2nd nomination.  He previously won Best Supporting Actor for Inglourious Basterds.

It is Philip Seymour Hoffman's 3rd nomination. He won Best Actor for Capote, and was nominated as Supporting Actor for Doubt.

It is Tommy Lee Jones's 4th nomination in the supporting actor category. He won for The Fugitive and was nominated for JFK and In the Valley of Elah.

Alan Arkin also received his 4th nomination.  He was Best Supporting Actor for Little Miss Sunshine, and has two Best Actor nods for The Russians Are Coming, The Russians are Coming and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.

And Robert De Niro received  nomination # 7.  He previously won Best Supporting Actor for The Godfather Part II and Best Actor for Raging Bull.  He was nominated as Best Actor for Taxi Driver, The Deer Hunter, Awakenings, and Cape Fear.

Supporting Actress: I went 3 for 5. Amy Adams (The Master) and Jacki Weaver (Silver Linings Playbook) took the places where I predicted Nicole Kidman and Maggie Smith.  All of the actresses in this category are previous nominees.

Jacki Weaver received her 2nd supporting nomination. She was previously nominated for Animal Kingdom.

Anne Hathaway also received a 2nd nomination. She was previously nominated as Best Actress for Rachel Getting Married.

Helen Hunt received nomination number 2. She's a prior Best Actress winner for As Good As It Gets.

Sally Field received her third nomination. She has two Best Actress wins, for Norma Rae and Places in the Heart.

And Amy Adams picked up her 4th supporting actress nomination. She was previously nominated for Junebug, Doubt, and The Fighter.

It's been a great year for movies.  I hope 2013 fares as well.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Oscar Nominee Predictions for 2012 Movie Year

One of the geekier things that hard-core movie lovers try to do each year is predict the annual Oscar nominees. Here are my predictions in the six major categories.

Best Picture:

The MPAAS has a convoluted system in selecting best picture nominees.  No one knows how many nominees there will be. There could be as few as five nominees or as many as ten. Last year, which was the first year that this system was used, there were 9 nominees. I am going to select ten potential nominees. At the very least, that gives me a greater chance to predict correctly if there are fewer than 10. In all honesty, though, I only think seven are sure things. I denoted the other three long shots with an asterisk.

Beasts of the Southern Wild*
Django Unchained
Les Miserables
Life of Pi
Moonrise Kingdom*
Silver Linings Playbook
Zero Dark Thirty

Best Director:

Ben Affleck, Argo
Kathryn Bigelow, Zero Dark Thirty.
Tom Hooper, Les Miserables
Steven Spielberg, Lincoln
Quentin Tarantino, Django Unchained

Tarantino was not included in the five the Directors Guild nominees for 2012. Ang Lee was nominated instead for Life of Pi. I am not sensing great affection for Life of Pi, but Tarantino may be too edgy for an Oscar nomination this year. Another possibility is David O Russell for Silver Linings Playbook.

Best Actor:

Bradley Cooper, Silver Linings Playbook,
Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln
Hugh Jackman, Les Miserables
Joaquin Phoenix, The Master
Denzel Washington, Flight

A nomination for John Hawkes for The Sessions in place of Phoenix would not surprise me.

Best Actress:

Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty
Marion Cotillard, Rust and Bone
Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook
Emmanuelle Riva, Amour
Naomi Watts, The Impossible

A nomination of either Helen Mirren for Hitchcock for Quvenzhane Wallis for Beasts of the Southern Wild is possible in place of Riva.

Best Supporting Actor:

Alan Arkin, Argo
Javier Bardem, Skyfall
Robert De Niro, Silver Linings Playbook
Phillip Seymour Hoffman, The Master
Tommy Lee Jones, Lincoln

A nomination for either Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, or Samuel L Jackson for Django Unchained is possible in place of either Bardem or De Niro.

Best Supporting Actress:

Sally Field, Lincoln
Anne Hathaway, Les Miserables
Helen Hunt, The Sessions
Nicole Kidman, The Paperboy
Maggie Smith, Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

Amy Adams in The Master could be a spoiler for either Nicole Kidman or, more likely, Maggie Smith.

And there you have it. We will see how I did in about 8 hours.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Killer's Kiss (1955)

Killer's Kiss is a film noir made by acclaimed director Stanley Kubrick early in his career. It was produced on a shoestring budget. Legend has it that Kubrick was on welfare while he was filming Killer's Kiss.  Apparently, he did not have all the required permits to film in the city of New York. Accordingly, he shot the film surreptitiously from inside parked cars or wherever else he could be discreet. 

Kubrick found good locations for his movie. Cinematically, he has some amazing camera shots in the film -- an indication of the magnitude of his talent which would be more fully manifested in later films. Kubrick has an innate feel for the use of shadow and light in a black-and-white film.  The movie is only 67 minutes long, but it is a fully realized piece of work. Yes, some aspects of it show a novice's immaturity, but a lot of movies made today don't hold my interest nearly as well as Killer's Kiss does. 

The plot: After a year in New York, boxer Davey Gordon's career is stalled.  Gloria Price is a private dancer who is mistreated by her boss, Vincent Rapallo. After losing a fight, Davey returns home to his apartment and, through his window, sees Gloria being manhandled by Rapallo. Davey goes to her rescue, which angers Rapallo. Over the next couple of days, Davey and Gloria fall in love. Davey decides to return to Seattle to work on his uncle's farm. Gloria agrees to go with him. When Rapallo hears about Gloria's plans, he orders his thugs to kill Davey. However, the thugs inadvertently kill Davey's boxing manager instead, which forces Davey to go on the run and to somehow rescue Gloria. 

The cast was surprisingly good, considering the fact that none of them are well-known names. Jamie Smith plays Davey, and he acquits himself well in the role. Irene Kane is effective as Gloria. The biggest name in the movie was Frank Silvera, who portrayed Rapallo. Silvera was a light-skinned African-American actor who worked throughout the 1950s and 1960s. He often played ethnic rolls of all nationalities. In Killer's Kiss, he is clearly a black boss -- which had to have been highly unusual in films of the 1950s.  Kudos to Kubrick for breaking the color barrier -- he even provided a couple of interracial kisses.

I have never been Stanley Kubrick's biggest fan. Some of his films are excellect, such as Paths of Glory, Spartacus, Lolita, and Full Metal Jacket. Clearly Kubrick would mature into a more  accomplished director, but I love his direction of Killer's Kiss. The atmosphere,  the story,  the characters all come together to make a fascinating little movie. My biggest criticism of the film is the fact that the character of Davey narrates a lot of the backstory. There is also a scene where Gloria is telling Davy about her childhood, and all we viewers see is a ballerina dancing, which is supposed to represent Gloria's sister. Kubrick made wise decisions with the film for the budget that he had.

Killer's Kiss is good, solid film noir.  Its importance to most cinemaphiles is its position in Kubrick's canon.  Killer's Kiss is an important film of Kubrick's because it so clearly shows his directorial talent at a time when he had no money or much filmmaking training. Grade B+.

I watched this film on Netflix Streaming on January 7, 2013.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

My Ten Favorite Tom Cruise Movies

Incredibly enough, Tom Cruise has been making movies for over 30 years.  Seeing Jack Reacher made me reflect on Cruise, the movie star.  Since I've seen virtually all of his movies, I decided to rank my favorites. His career has been impressive.

Of course, he's made his share of duds.  I loathe Legend, and Days of Thunder is nearly as bad.   Knight and Day felt like it would never end.  Lions for Lambs is horrible, and the less said about Losin' It, the better.

First, a few words about some Cruise movies that didn't make my list: If I considered The Outsiders a Tom Cruise movie, it would rank number 5 on my list. I love that film, but Tom had nothing to do with why I liked it. In fact, he hardly registers at all and any pretty boy could have played his tiny part back then. Far and Away came close to cracking the Top Ten, and if I re-watched it, it might yet get there. But in my memory, it has become a bit bloated despite a really great last act. All of the Mission: Impossible films are good action movies.  Cruise was so good that I didn't recognize him in Tropic Thunder, but that movie didn't hold up well to a second viewing.  I liked both The Firm and War of the Worlds when I first saw them, but their luster has dimmed in my mind.  I remember Cruise first making an impression on me in Taps, and I remember liking All the Right Moves. I wish I had room for Collateral on the list, but I don't. That's no reason not to watch it, though.

And then there are Cruise's iconic movies Risky Business (dancing in his tighty whities), Top Gun ("I feel the need..the need for speed!") and Cocktail (juggling the bottles behind the bar.) They all have memorable moments. While Top Gun is a little better than the other two, all three of these films are really only mediocre movies at best.

So here are the Ten Greatest Tom Cruise movies, in descending order:

10.  Magnolia - Cruise's role as a motivational speaker is a supporting role in this unusual film written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. It's a showy part, though, and Cruise steps out of his comfort zone in bringing this smarmy, unlikeable character to the screen. He was rewarded with a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination.

9.  Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol - The Mission: Impossible franchise is a great one for Cruise to be an action hero.  While the first one has the best set piece (Cruise's Ethan Hunt entering the computer room from the ceiling) and the third one has the best villain (deliciously played by Philip Seymour Hoffman), this fourth incarnation is the most satisfying one throughout the entire film.  It is directed by Brad Bird.

8.  Valkyrie - I would have bet that this was going to flop. Cruise plays real-life German Claus von Steffenberg, a leader in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler in World War II. This is a historical thriller that apparently has a lot of truth in it, and I was riveted.  Bryan Singer directs.

7.  Eyes Wide Shut - Cruise spent two years making this film for legendary director Stanley Kubrick. It's about a doctor who undertakes a dark sexual and moral journey when his wife admits that she has considered adultery. He is really out of his comfort zone here, and he succeeds brilliantly.  And in spite of the material, this is one of my favorite Kubrick films.  I also thought this movie would flop, but was pleasantly surprised.

6.  A Few Good Men - Cruise holds his own against Jack Nicholson as a green military lawyer who defends some Marines on murder charges.  Rob Reiner directs this tense adaptation of Aaron Sorkin's play.

5.  Rain Man - It's tempting to see this as Dustin Hoffman's movie, but the film really doesn't work without Cruise's performance as the selfish Charlie Babbitt who learns to appreciated his autistic older brother.  This is Cruise's only movie to have won a Best Picture Oscar, and it was directed by Barry Levinson.

4.  The Color of Money - Martin Scorsese directed this sequel to 1961's The Hustler.  Paul Newman reprises his role of Fast Eddie Felson, and Cruise is his snotty upstart protege who can really handle a pool stick.

3.  Born on the Fourth of July -  This is actually my favorite Cruise performance. He plays real-life paraplegic Vietnam War vet Ron Kovic in this Oscar nominee for Best Picture. Cruise received a Best Actor Oscar nomination at age 27 for his work here, and Oliver Stone won his second one as Best Director.

2.  Minority Report - This is a great sci-fi action thriller directed by Steven Spielberg. Based on a short story by Philip K. Dick, the movie is about a future where police can arrest murderers before the murders actually happen. And Cruise is a cop who goes on the run when the police try to arrest him for a future murder. Exciting stuff!

1. Jerry Maguire - Cruise scores as the title sports agent who loses his job when he has a moral epiphany, and then tries to to live his life under his new philosophy. Along the way he falls for a young mother and her six year old son.  This is a near-perfect comedy-drama from writer-director Cameron Crowe.  The film was an Oscar nominee for Best Picture, and Cruise received his second Best Actor Oscar nomination.

Jack Reacher (2012)

Jack Reacher is a mystery thriller starring Tom Cruise. It is based on the book "One Shot" by Lee Child. The convoluted plot opens with five people being killed in a sniper shooting in Pittsburgh. An  ex-military sniper is accused of the shooting spree, and when questioned by the authorities, asks for "Jack Reacher".  While the local authorities are wondering who Reacher is, he shows up. Originally Reacher intended to help convict the sniper, but he comes to believe that sniper has been set up. He helps the sniper's attorney Helen Rodin, played by Rosamund Pike. Reacher uncovers a conspiracy by the Russian mob, who attempt to set Reacher himself up for the murder of a young girl.

I happen to read the original novel "One Shot". The movie Jack Reacher follows the plot line of the book fairly well. A few minor characters have been excised. All the cuts from the book were made in an attempt to keep the movie at a reasonable length. The essential aspects of the book's plot and the natures of the characters are maintained in the movie.

Lee Child's novels all feature the character of Jack Reacher, where he is repeatedly described as being 6' 5" and 250 pounds. Clearly Tom Cruise does not have that physique. However, Cruise is able to capture the character's personality, cynicism, intelligence, and dry sense of humor quite well.

Among the supporting players, Rosamund Pike is a delight as the smart attorney who really doesn't want her client's case. Richard Jenkins is solid as Helen Rodin's district attorney father. David Oyelowo scores as the police detective who is investigates the sniper's shootings. Robert Duvall plays an ex-marine who winds up assisting Reacher. Famed director Werner Herzog makes a rare acting appearance as the Zec, the head of the Russian mob. Jai Courtney is memorable as one of the Zec's thugs.

Jack Reacher is capably directed by Christopher McQuarrie, an Oscar winner for writing The Usual Suspects. The movie holds the viewer's interest throughout, but doesn't linger afterwards. Consequently, it remains little more than a good crowdpleaser. Grade: B

I watched this movie at Pullman Plaza Marquee Cinemas with my friend Mark on January 5, 2013.

The Artist (2011)

I re-watched The Artist last night. This time I watched it on Netflix Streaming. Originally I saw it first-run in the theater. Overall the movie is pretty much as I remembered it. I admired director Michel Hazanavicius's look of the silent film and the ode to old Hollywood. I also admired the performances of Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo.

Story-wise, The Artist seems to be a rip-off of the many incarnations of A Star is Born. The film opens with the successful silent film star George Valentine, played by Dujardin, feeding his adoring public by strutting his stuff following the opening of another successful film of his. Aspiring actress Peppy Miller, played by Bejo, bumps into Valentine at the movie opening and manages to get into a photograph with him. With the resulting publicity and a little help from Valentine, Miller lands a small role in Valentine's next movie. After that, her career takes off.

In the meantime, Valentine's movie studio stops making silent films and channels its resources into talking motion pictures. Valentine believes that talkies are only a fad and refuses to try to change. Miller is signed by the studio and become a raging success in talking movies. Valentine finances one more silent film which flops. His marriage also fails and his wife leaves him. Valentine finds himself broke and has to sell his personal assets. He is also unable to pay his faithful chauffeur and assistant.
Valentine spirals downward,  eventually nearly dying in a fire. Miller tries to assist him, but he rejects her help and contemplate suicide. However, Miller manages to intervene and convinces Valentine that she only wants to help him.  She succeeds in getting the movie studio to agree to put Valentine in a dance film with her. The movie ends with a terrific tap dance number and the optimistic feeling that Valentine will be a success once more.

Dujardin and Bejo deliver wonderful performances. Dujardin invests Valentine with charm, charisma (complete with a high-wattage smile), and depth, making him a believable movie star. Dujardin won a Best Actor Oscar for his incandescent portrayal of George Valentine. While I haven't seen all of Dujardin's fellow nominees' performances, his win was probably deserved -- even over Brad Pitt's terrific turn as baseball manager Billy Beane in Moneyball. Bejo was Oscar-nominated as Best Supporting Actress for her delightful performance as Peppy Miller, and I think she captures elusive star quality magnificently. She lost the Oscar to The Help's Octavia Spencer; my preference would have been Bejo. Other cast members include John Goodman as the movie studio head, James Cromwell as Valentine's chauffeur, Malcolm McDowell as a butler, and Penelope Ann Miller as Valentine's wife.

The Artist won Best Picture of 2011, though I thought a few of the other nominees were better movies overall. (I was rooting for Hugo.). The story was too pedestrian and would have been absolutely painful had it not been for the novelty of The Artist being a black-and-white silent film. Michel Hazanavicius also won for his direction. I think he succeeded admirably in recreating silent movies and the look of old Hollywood and I also liked the way he played with sound in the film. Kudos also go to Hazanavicius for the minimal use of title cards. The ever-present dog in the film was a nice touch. While Hazanavicius was undoubtedly a very strong nominee, I probably would have given the edge to the also-nominated Martin Scorsese for Hugo. The Artist is definitely a worthwhile film, and I'll probably watch it again over the years because of some of the amazing scenes between Dujardin and Bejo. Especially that last dance number! Grade: B+.

Fun fact: Berenice Bejo is the real-life wife of Michel Hazanavicius.

I re-watched The Artist on Netflix streaming on January 5, 2013.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Witness for the Prosecution (1982)

This 1982 version of Witness for the Prosecution is a Hallmark Hall of Fame made-for-television film that is often a scene-for-scene remake of the classic 1957 Billy Wilder film. I am not necessarily opposed to remaking movies, especially movies that are adapted from stage plays. However, I believe there should be a good reason to remake the movie.  In the case of Witness for the Prosecution, the original film was so perfect that a remake seems superfluous and bound to be inferior to the original.

Based on a play by Agatha Christie, Witness for the Prosecution tells he story of sickly barrister Sir Wilfrid Robarts who takes the case of defending Leonard Vole, an American accused of the murder of a wealthy British widow. Sir Wilfrid's case is seemingly derailed when Vole's German wife Christine testifies against him. This gripping and salacious plot would make virtually any straightforward remake watchable.

The best part of this remake is the all-star cast. Ralph Richardson steps into Charles Laughton's shoes to play Sir Wilfred and does as fine a job as anyone could who is not Laughton. Other cast members include Beau Bridges as the defendant Vole, Diana Rigg as Vole's German-born wife, Deborah Kerr as Sir Wilfrid's overbearing nurse, Donald Pleasance as the trial's lead prosecutor, and Wendy Hiller as one of the prosecution's witnesses. I enjoyed the performances of Rigg, Pleasance, and Hiller. Rigg does not have the screen charisma that Marlene Dietrich had in the 1957 original, but her acting is strong. Pleasance was never a favorite actor of mine, but he does a good job as the prosecutor. Hiller is always an excellent character actress.

Deborah Kerr on the other hand, seems somehow miscast. Technically, she does well in her performance but there seems something intangible about Kerr as an actress that makes her ill-suited for the role. Maybe it is because the character she plays here is somewhat flighty and Kerr has always seemed to me to be too glamorous to be flighty. I was also disappointed with Beau Bridges's performance as Leonard Vole. I like Bridges as an actor, but he seemed weak in some of his scenes and he also came across as too modern for a story set in the mid-1950s.

I have never seen a stage version of Witness for the Prosecution, so I don't know how closely the 1957 movie followed the original story. This 1982 version of the story very closely follows the 1957 movie, so much so that it seems almost like a carbon copy. Also, this incarnation which is filmed in color lacks the atmosphere of the black-and-white original.

All in all, this is a solid remake of a good story. The best reason to watch this 1982 version would be because the viewer wants to see the performance of one or more of the cast members. Otherwise there is really no reason to forgo watching the superior 1957 film. Grade: B.

I watched this movie on Netflix streaming on January 4, 2013.

Witness for the Prosecution (1957)

Witness for the Prosecution is one of the greatest courtroom dramas ever committed to film. It is one of the masterpieces produced by director Billy Wilder in the decade where he gave us Sunset Boulevard, Some Like It Hot, and The Apartment. The film has a great cast, beautiful black-and- white cinematography, and a sharp script co-written by Wilder that is based on an Agatha Christie play.

In the movie, Charles Laughton plays aging barrister Sir Wilfrid Robarts. Recovering from a heart attack, Sir Wilfred accepts the case of American Leonard Vole, who has been accused of the murder of a wealthy widow. Sir Wilfred believes in Vole's innocence, but is surprised at trial when Vole's wife, the German Christine Helm, testifies against Vole. Movie star Tyrone Power is effective as Vole. Marlene Dietrich is riveting as Helm, the witness for the prosecution.

Laughton infuses the character of Sir Wilfred with dry humor, cynicism, and an engaging crustiness. It is a wonderful performance for the ages, and Laughton was rewarded with an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. Witness for the Prosecution also deservedly received Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Supporting Actress. The supporting actress nod went to Elsa Lanchester, Laughton's real-life wife, who portrayed Sir Wilfred's fussy, no-nonsense nurse.

The story of Witness for the Prosecution would have made a compelling mystery film in the capable hands of any competent movie director. I think there are three major components that elevate this film into greatness -- Laughton's masterful performance, Dietrich's screen presence, and most importantly, Wilder's taut, self-assured, and witty direction. Every aspect of the film's production values is top-notch.

1957 appears to be a good year for quality movies. Competitors with Witness for the Prosecution in the Oscar's Best Picture category included Sayonara, Peyton Place, 12 Angry Men, and the winner The Bridge on the River Kwai. While the best movie seems to have won that year, all five of the nominees are exceptional films. Laughton lost his Oscar bid to fellow Brit Alec Guinness. I had always believed Guinness's win was deserved until I saw Witness for the Prosecution. I need to re-watch The Bridge on the River Kwai, but I would probably still pick Guinness over Laughton -- though it's a shame that Laughton's work had to go unrewarded. Also -- as great as Wilder's direction is -- he lost to The Bridge on the River Kwai's David Lean, and I can't quibble with that outcome either

Witness for the Prosecution surpassed my expectations. It is a movie of its time, but it has also aged very well. Grade: A.

I watched this movie on Netflix Streaming on August 13, 2012.

Les Miserables (2012)

Les Miserables is the film version of the wildly successful stage musical. The musical in turn is based on the classic novel by Victor Hugo. The story is about the redemption of Jean Valjean, a man who spends years doing hard labor for stealing a loaf of bread in the time of the French Revolution. Valjean escapes from prison and makes a new life for himself under an alias, but he is doggedly pursued by Inspector Javert. Javert vows to see Valjean returned to prison. While Valjean is hiding under his assumed name, he makes a promise to a dying woman named Fantine that he will care for her daughter Cosette. Cosette grows into a beautiful, loving young woman. When Valjean tries to help Cosette and Marius, the revolutionary she loves,  escape from harm during the Revolution, Valjean and Javert have a final confrontation.

All this makes for a complicated and dark story for a musical. I have never seen a stage production of Les Miserables, but I was familiar with the general plot . The music deserves all of the acclaim that is has received all these years. Virtually all dialogue in the movie is in song, which makes Les Miserables an opera, as I see it. That's not a bad thing; it just is what it is.

Fortunately, the musical has been adapted into a fine feature film. The movie has the look of an epic, which it should. All production values are of the highest quality. Director Tom Hooper -- an Oscar winner for The King's Speech -- really did an excellent job in bringing this mammoth production to the big screen. I applaud Hooper's gutsy decision to have the actors sing their roles as they performed. There is minimal post-production voice dubbing. It was an effective method of filming this musical, and it has almost never been done in this manner for movie musicals.

Hooper also cast his film wisely. Movie stars Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe respectively portray Valjean and Javert. Jackman is a gifted singer, and his performance as Valjean is strong and heartfelt. Crowe's vocal abilities are not as accomplished -- he is an ordinary singer -- but he delivers a strong performance without embarrassing himself musically. Anne Hathaway as Fantine is the movie's glorious highlight.  Most of her performance is singing the song "I Dreamed a Dream",  but she is phenomenal. Amanda Seyfried is a fine Cosette, and Eddie Redmayne scores as Marius, the sensitive revolutionary who falls in love with Cosette. I need to rethink my active dislike for actor Sacha Baron Cohen after his funny performance here as con artist/innkeeper Thenardier and his appearance in Hugo, my favorite film of 2011 -- well, the guy can't be all bad! Helena Bonham Carter delightfully plays Mme. Thenardier; her role here reminded me of her work in Sweeney Todd. Samantha Barks made a wonderful film debut with her role of the goodhearted Eponine, as did Isabelle Allen in her brief role as Young Cosette. All of the young men who played Marius's fellow revolutionaries were excellent as well -- and I liked their songs the most, after "I Dreamed a Dream".

The film's flaw which distracted me to the point of having to knock this movie down a notch was Hooper's incessant use of close-ups. That's a trap that a lot of musicals fall into, especially when dancing is not needed. The close-ups here worked OK for the solos, but so many of the songs involved duets or chorus singing that the moving from one actor's face to the next to the next and back again was annoying. I almost hated to bring it up since every other aspect of this gargantuan production was so magnificent, but there you have it

Les Miserables was every bit as good as I hoped it would be. It is a richly rewarding movie experience and a one-of-a-kind film. Its closest predecessor seems to be the movie version of the stage musical production of The Phantom of the Opera a few years ago. You know it's a good movie when you emerge from the theater wanting to read the book. Grade: A-.

I watched this film at the Pullman Square Marquee Cinemas on December 26, 2012.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Saving Grace (TV series 2007-2010)

Saving Grace is one of the several fascinating television series of recent years.The show stars Holly Hunter as Oklahona City police detective Grace Hanadarko.  Grace is brave, fearless, and feisty in her job -- but she also lives a life full of drinking and promiscuous sex. Yet Grace is kind and loving to her friends, people she encounters, and most of her family. Her fellow detectives also provide a type of extended family for her.

At the outset of the series, Grace encounters Earl, a disheveled angel played by Leon Rippy. Earl is warm and loving.  He brings Grace messages from God that are sometimes cryptic. Earl is a "last chance angel" and his job is to try to help Grace find redemption before it's too late for her.  Throughout the series, Grace slowly becomes more of a believer though she often has personal and spiritual setbacks. Some of the psychological issues that plague Grace stem from her being raped in her church by a priest when she was a young girl, and feelings of guilt that she has because she thinks it is her fault that her sister was at the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City where she died in the 1997 bombing.

The supporting cast of Saving Grace is a rich one. Kenneth Johnson is wonderful as Grace's detective partner Ham Dewey. Early in the series, Ham has an extramarital affair with Grace. Eventually he leaves his wife and remains in love with Grace throughout the series. Grace doesn't necessarily return the same degree of affection to Ham. Grace has several siblings who appear on the show from time to time.  One is a fireman; another is a Catholic priest played by Tom Irwin. She has a nephew Clay whois winsomely played that Dylan Minette. (Clay's mother was the sister who died in the Oklahoma City bombing when Clay was a baby). Bailey Chase and Gregory Cruz portray fellow detectives, Lorraine Toussaint is the warm police captain, and Laura San Giacomo plays Rhetta Rodriguez, Grace' best friend since girlhood.  Rhetta is also the police department's forensic specialist. All the actors are well cast and strongly define their roles.

Most of the episodes of Saving Grace have Grace dealing with a spiritual aspect of her life that often stems from whatever case that the detectives are currently investigating.  Accordingly, this series becomes more than a police procedural. The spiritual issues that are raised are generally thought-provoking and sometimes profound.

Holly Hunter is simply magnificent in the title role as she brilliantly captures the mercurial nature of Grace's personality. The importance of Leon Rippy's presence presence cannot be underestimated as his Earl keeps Grace grounded and seeking for answers -- despite her will. The stories are usually interesting and even compelling. Though the series has a somewhat dark nature to it, it is always an insightful lookat the human condition and it illustrates many human truths.

One aspect of this series that needs to be discussed is the show's spirituality.  As a practicing Christian. I felt that Saving Grace presented a lot of Biblical truth, even though it never endorsed or explained the concept of Jesus Christ (or any other spiritual leader or religion, for that matter.) In essence, the show seemed to have a solid spiritual doctrine as far as it went, but it did not delve deeply into Christian dogma.

All in all, Saving Grace is a television show to cherish. I looked forward to each episode, and most of them rewarded me with good drama, good storytelling, fine acting, and ideas to chew on. Each season after the first one improved on the season that preceeded it.  The third season especially was top-notch television. The series was adequately wrapped up at the end of the third season, and left me feeling disappointed that the beloved characters in the show would have no new stories for me to watch.  They certainly will dwell in my memory though.  I applaud this unusual drama.  Grade: A

I watched Seasons 1 and 2 of Saving Grace on the cable channel TNT when it originally aired. I watched Season 3 on Netflix Streaming  in the last few weeks of 2012.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

The Lincoln Lawyer (2011)

The Lincoln Lawyer is a good, plot-heavy thriller based on a novel of the same name by Michael Connelly. Matthew McConaughey plays the title character Mick Haller, a criminal defense attorney who largely operates out of his Lincoln automobile. He is hired by a spoiled real estate agent (Ryan Phillippe) who has been accused of the rape and beating of a prostitute. At first. Haller is convinced of his client's innocence, but then he finds out information which lead him to suspect that he let a former client (Michael Pena) go to jail innocently. Other characters involved in the  pulpy story include Marisa Tomei as Haller's ex-wife and a prosecuting attorney, William H. Macy as Haller"s investigator, Josh Lucas as a prosecuting attorney, Bryan Cranston as a surly police detective, Frances Fisher as Phillippe's mother, John Leguizamo as a home confinement monitor, and country singer Trace Adkins as a biker client of Haller's.

The script is always interesting, and the cast does a fine job in their roles. McConaughey is well cast as a sleazy lawyer who develops a conscience; his onscreen charisma serves him and the movie well. Brad Furman, a director new to feature films, does well with his first major job. McConaughey could probably have a franchise with this character if he wanted it. Grade: B+.

I watched this film on Netflix Streaming on January 1. 2013.

Black Narcissus (1947)

Black Narcissus is a movie that now seems way ahead of its time considering that it was made in 1947. The story is about five nuns who are sent to a dilapidated Himalayan palace to convert it into a school and hospital. While they are isolated on the mountain in a constant wind, they struggle in keeping to the faithful tasks at hand because they are distracted by their secular thoughts and desires.

Deborah Kerr portrays Sister Clodagh, the Sister Superior who is in charge of the mission project. She constantly clashes with the local General's agent, Mr. Dean. The virile Mr. Dean challenges Sister Clodagh in her faith while providing a strong dose of testosterone around the new convent. He unwittingly attracts the romantic attentions of Sister Ruth, a nun who was problematical at the beginning and who spirals toward madness as the film unfolds. Kathleen Byron portrays Sister Ruth and does a good job with a difficult role. Kerr is appropriately aloof as Sister Clodagh. Kerr always seems to specialize in playing reserved women, and she is very good here. Character actress Flora Robson also is successful as Sister Philippa, the botanical nun who chooses flowers over the necessary vegetables in the garden. The film's acting honors go to David Farrar as Mr. Dean. Farrar nails all his character.s nuances and manages to make Mr. Dean well-rounded and sympathetic, despite being the nuns' antagonist.

A few weak performances mar the film somewhat. Esmond Knight is way too flamboyant as the village's old General. Sabu is more successful as the young General who wants to learn what the nuns can teach him, but his character is both arrogant and naive. May Hallatt plays a half-crazed and shrieking caretaker of the old palace and quickly wears out her onscreen welcome.  None of these actors are as bad as Jean Simmons, who plays a sensual teenager who is taken into the convent. Hers is a painful performance to watch..

Black Narcissus was co-directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. They do an admirable job with the film's pacing and look. Although the film was entirely shot in a studio, gorgeous mattes make the film seem as though it was filmed outdoors. The use of Technicolor is brilliant - I can't think of any other color film made before 1950 that looks this good with the exception of Gone With the Wind. In fact, both the film's cinematography and art direction won Oscars -- and I would imagine deservedly so.

Kudos also go to the adapted screenplay. The psychological deterioration of the nuns and the clear reasons behind it seem more in keeping with a film of the 1970s instead of 1947. The movie is thoughtful and unsentimental, and would be more powerful if all the acting was of high quality. As it is, I'm forced to give it a B+.

I watched Black Narcissus on Netflix Streaming with my aunt on December 31, 2012.

The Top Ten Movies of 2012

Due to circumstances beyond my control, I wasn't able to get to the movie theater as often as I wanted in 2012. I thought about not doing a Top Ten list this year.  Then I reviewed my notes on the films I did see and decided to run with it.I'm not sure that the list would be much different if I had seen twice as many 2012 films.   However, I think I'll wait a while before attempting to list my favorite performances of 2012 so I can catch some more films on DVD.

As usual, to qualify for my Top Ten list, I had to see the film in a theater in 2012 during its original run. Due to movie release schedules, there are a few carryover films from the previous year that I saw early in 2012 that made my list.

The worst movie that I saw in 2012 was The Cabin in the Woods. Critical hype sucked me in on that one.  The runner up is The Iron Lady, a truly awful film that happens to have a great performance in it by Meryl Streep.

The best film that I saw in 2012 not in a theater happened to be the BEST film that I saw in 2012 period: 1924's Sherlock, Jr. It is amazing.  The runner-up in this category was 1957's Witness for the Prosecution. I watched both of these on Netflix streaming and would consider them essential viewing for the cinemaphile. Do yourself a favor and watch them.

There are also several films that I quite admired which didn't make the Top Ten list. In alphabetical order, these are The Artist, The Avengers, The Descendants, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, The Hunger Games, and Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol.

Without further ado, here are the ten best films that I saw in a theater in 2012, in descending order:

10. Flight. Extraordinary performance by Denzel Washington.

9.  Looper.  Definitely an original time-travel movie.  Adding to the fun is Joseph Gordon-Levitt mimicking Bruce Willis.

8. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. This sentimental drama somehow grabbed my heart and wouldn't let go.

7.  The Adventures of Tintin. Reminded me of a good Indiana Jones movie, despite being animated.

6.  Les Miserables. Powerful story. Powerful music. Powerful cast.

5.  Argo. Perfectly constructed real-life thriller.

4.  The Dark Knight Rises. Great conclusion to the Batman trilogy.

3.  Skyfall. The best James Bond movie ever. Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Javier Bardem, and Albert Finney are perfect.

2.  Django Unchained. Quentin Tarantino annihilates racism in his own inimitable way.

1.  Lincoln. Brilliant cast brilliantly directed in a brilliant script becomes a great timeless movie about ideas and ideals in politics.