Movies Opening in New Haven – Weekend of March 27th, 2015

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It Follows: This indie from director David Robert Mitchell is getting some of the best reviews in years for a horror film. Weinstein/Radius originally intended for It Follows to have a brief, under-200 screen release from March 13-27th before it hit VOD platforms.  Due to the film’s exceptional performance thus far, they’ve instead decided to delay the home release and open the picture on 1000 additional screens this weekend.

It should open in 5th place, which is pretty solid given the lack of stars and traditional marketing efforts.

Rotten Tomatoes: 95%, Metacritic: 83%

Personal interest factor: 10

Get Hard: Generic-looking Will Ferrell / Kevin Hart vehicle about a white collar criminal who hires the man who washes his car to prepare him for a stint in prison. Looks like something that Ferrell would have starred in circa 2005 when he was making stuff like Bewitched and Kicking and Screaming.  

Rotten Tomatoes: 32%, Metacritic: 34%

Personal interest factor: 2

Home: I think everyone expected this half-assed seeming effort from Dreamworks Animation to serve as yet another nail in the coffin for the ailing studio.  Instead…it’s a big hit!  What the hell?!

The picture, which stars a who’s who of insufferable celebrities voicing aliens or something, should enjoy a 55-60m opening weekend.  That would be Dreamworks’ highest opener since 2012’s Madagascar 3.  Go figure.

Rotten Tomatoes: 48% Metacritic: 55%

Personal interest factor: No.

Movies Opening in New Haven – Weekend of March 20th, 2015

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Insurgent: Quickie sequel to last year’s YA sci-fi hit.  The marketing for this entry has confused the heck out of me (they seem to be playing up some unexplained dream sequence in every single ad) to the point where I have no idea what the actual plot is, despite having seen the original only a month or two back.  It also looks much cheaper than the original, although I doubt less money was spent.

Divergent’s Director Neil Burger (Limitless, The Illusionist) has been replaced by RED’s Robert Schwentke for the remainder of the series. Schwentke started off “ok” with a Jodie Foster thriller (Flightplan) before bottoming out with 2013’s R.I.P.D., which was very nearly a crime against humanity.  It’s incredibly impressive that he was able to rebound into a cushy, long-term gig like this so quickly.

Rotten Tomatoes: 35% (slightly lower than Divergent’s 41%)
Metacritic: 42 (Divergent scored 48%)

Personal interest factor: 7

The Gunmen: Sean Penn tries to pull a Liam Neeson on his career with this silly bullshit.  I have no idea what the plot is and can’t be bothered to look.  I’m going to say he’s a cop or soldier or DEA agent (most likely retired) or something who has to rescue/protect ________ from ________.  He will shoot people. Taken’s Pierre Morel directs.

Morel hasn’t had much luck outside of the Luc Besson world and there’s little to no chance of lightning striking twice with this kind of effort. We’ll always have the underrated District B13, though.

Rotten Tomatoes: 16%, Metacritic: 39%

Personal interest factor: 0

Wild Tales: Comedic Argentine-Spanish revenge anthology.  I don’t think I’ve ever typed that before.

Rotten Tomatoes: 93% Metacritic: 77%

Personal interest factor: 8

Song of the Sea: Hand-drawn, full-length animated feature from Ireland about magical, shape-shifting seal/human hybrids.  Probably not as Cronenberg-esque as I made that sound. The trailer is very pretty and the reviews are terrific.

Rotten Tomatoes: 98% Metacritic: 85%

Personal interest factor: I don’t know what to make of it.  I certainly admire it but it’s probably not my bag.  Here is a video of a baby seal falling asleep.

For classic fare: The Criterion in New Haven is running Silence of the Lambs Darko (1991) Friday and Saturday evening and The Apartment (1960) Saturday and Sunday morning.

Review: Murder On The Orient Express (1974)

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MOTOEThe 1974 film version  ‘Murder On The Orient Express’ is arguably the most famous and successful of the plethora of films created from the works of revered crime writer Agatha Christie. It was both a critical and commercial success, with it getting several Oscar nominations and winning one for Ingrid Bergman as Best Supporting Actress.

Viewed today, MOTOE is an enjoyable watch although the context of the film and peripheral issues surrounding it are arguably more interesting than the film itself.

The plot concerns famed detective Hercule Poirot (Albert Finney) travelling on a luxurious train through Europe in the 1930s. When the train is stalled in a snow storm, a mysterious businessman (Richard Widmark) is murdered in his cabin and there are 13 potential suspects that Poirot has to examine to find out who the culprit is.

Unlike a lot of film adaptations of Christie works, MOTOE was an all-star lavish affair. There would be few films from any era that would have as impressive as a cast as this, with half-a-dozen Oscar winners and several others getting Oscar nominations.  The cast covered several generations of cinema ranging from the Golden Era of Hollywood (Ingrid Bergman, Lauren Bacall) to those at the peak of their careers (Sean Connery, Vanessa Redgrave). If nothing else, the film is worth seeing for such a high-quality cast together in one area do their thing.

As a film, MOTOE has an atypical feel for a 1970s film, and not just because of its period setting. The film has a classic, old-fashioned style with none of the trendy tricks of 1970s cinema present. And its deliberately slow, stately place makes it feel like a film from an earlier era. (As an aside, the jarring 1970s hairstyles of numerous extras is the only sign of what era the film was made)

There is much to enjoy this film, and this includes the maligned performance of Finney as Poirot. Finney was criticised for making Poirot a cruder character than how he’s portrayed in the novels but I feel Finney had a very well thought-out, specific take on the character. In the early scenes before he boards the train, he portrays Poirot as vain, cumbersome and rather difficult. When the crime takes place, Poirot is transformed as he is in total command and control and is always a step ahead of everyone. This is a person who lives for criminal deduction and little else. It is a fine character performance.

But with such a cast, there’s something to enjoy from all involved, ranging from the entertaining hamminess of Lauren Bacall to the deftness  and subtlety of John Gielguld and Vanessa Redgrave.

Is MOTOE a great film? Not quite because the features that made this work so well as a novel (in particular the famous twist ending) just doesn’t work as well in cinematic form. Christie’s resolutions were so inventive and elaborate that in film form they seem hard to replicate convincingly.

As well, the conventions that Christie employed so often in her work (each suspect interviewed individually, Poirot providing a lengthy and elaborate explanation in front of all the suspects before revealing who the guilty party was) seem a bit stodgy and unlikely as a film, even in one as lavish and classy as this one. The characters and the situation itself seem stock types, not real flesh and blood characters so while one is fascinated to know what the resolution is, there doesn’t seem to be much at stake.

And on a broader level, this is perhaps why adaptations of Christie novels and play have disappeared from cinema since the 1990s and reside on television instead (and very successfully too). Their conventions and structure seemed more suited to regular TV movies instead of one-off cinema films where their conventions were less likely to interest modern audiences.

Another interesting aspect of the making of this film is the director of it, Sidney Lumet. At first glance he seems one of the least likely directors to helm a film like this, especially as someone who became known for his tough, gritty realistic New York crime dramas.

But in fact MOTOE has a very similar structure to Lumet’s great early success ’12 Angry Men’. A group of characters confined to one place forced to interact over the issue of a major crime with many uncomfortable truths about the characters revealed to others.

Lumet is in fact in his element with this film and adds much to its quality with his subtle framing of conversation scenes, providing interest and insight where other directors would merely point and shoot. In anycase, it’s a tribute to Lumet’s skills that in the space of a couple of years he could helm films as diverse as Dog Day Afternoon, Network and this film with such aplomb.

Overall, MOTOE is an enjoyable throwback to an era when Agatha Christie mysteries were box-office gold and that it wasn’t just Irwin Allen disasters films in the 1970s that boasted such talented cast lists.

Movies Opening in New Haven – Weekend of March 13th, 2015

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Cinderella: This live-action adaptation of Disney’s Cinderella, from Director Kenneth Branagh is earning praise from critics (82% on RT and 65 on Metacritic) and should be good for an opening weekend in the 70-75m range.  It’s nice to see Branagh recovering from countless years of creative missteps.  The 90’s are back, baby! Reviewed by our own Joe Webb here.

Preceeded by the all-new Frozen short, Frozen Fever, which I paid full price admission to see with my three-year-old (only $2.50 per minute!) before leaving.

Frozen Fever is a pure check-all-the-boxes approach to filmmaking (Can Anna and Elsa sing some instantly forgettable b-side?  Check!  Do we have endless callbacks to the original film?  Check!  Have we introduced new character(s) that can be sold as plush dolls?  Check, Check, Check!) but it’s harmless enough.  Here’s hoping a little more care and effort goes into the recently announced sequel.

Personal interest factor: 7

Run All Night:  Liam Neeson takes on Ed Harris for the life of his son in this reunion with his Non-Stop and Unknown director, Jaume Collet-Serra.  The increasingly prolific Neeson is banging out two of these action pictures a quarter now (Taken 3 only opened in January) and you’ve got to wonder if that’s to blame for Run All Night‘s poor 11m opening weekend.

Still, the man has successfully completed one of the greatest reinventions in motion picture history. I’m curious which 30-40 year old actors will try to follow his model a decade or two from now.

In response to Run All Night‘s grosses, I’d expect Neeson will be signing on to both a Non-Stop sequel and Taken 4 sooner rather than later.

Rotten Tomatoes: 55%, Metacritic: 58

Personal interest factor: 6

Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem: Golden Globe nominated Israeli divorce drama. I’d never heard of it before today but those RT and Metacritic scores are pretty damned impressive.

Rotten Tomatoes: 100% Metacritic: 92

Personal interest factor: 8

For classic fare: The Criterion in New Haven is running Donnie Darko (2001) Friday and Saturday evening and True Grit (1969) Saturday and Sunday morning.

Review – Cinderella (2015)

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CinderellaThe reason I love the new Cinderella movie (opens today) may sound like damning with faint praise, but I do love the film because it is mostly unextraordinary. It does not elevate itself far above the original or Disney retelling, nor does it reinvent the heroes & villains by having them swap roles. We do not suddenly root for the evil stepmother or against the prince because of a retconned backstory. No, director Kenneth Branagh & writer Chris Weitz wisely heed the old adage “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

I understand that my opinion may be in the minority but, as I alluded to in my Maleficent review, the ‘Once-Upon-A-Timing’ of classic Disney properties has worn thin with me. With that in mind this new Cinderella was like a breath of fresh air because it was simply freshened up, not gutted, demolished, and rebuilt. The story tracks very closely with the 1950 Disney classic, but expands on certain details. It’s the nuances that are new; not so much the characters or their personalities.

In the lengthened beginning Young Ella lives an idyllic life (somewhere seemingly close to France) with her father (Ben Chaplin), mother (Hayley Atwell), mice & Mr. Goose (The young girl talks to animals but they don’t necessarily talk back…until the Fairy Godmother holds court). Tragedy befalls the mother and she is allowed a final breath to impart these words to her daughter: “Have courage and be kind.” Ella repeats this phrase at key points throughout so you’re sure not to forget it.

Time passes and it’s time for the father to remarry. He chooses the widowed Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett), who brings two bright-in-clothing-choices-only daughters – Anastasia & Drisella – and a cat to the household with her. The new stepsisters are immediately boorish & uncouth but her stepmother is cordial enough until the father suddenly takes ill while away on business. True colors are shown and the now (for all intents & purposes) orphaned Ella (Lily James) becomes the put-upon servant girl we recognize as Cinderella.

From here we know the story well – the King needs to marry off his son, a royal ball is called, the Tremaines sabotage Cinderella’s chances at attending said ball, the Fairy Godmother (Helena Bonham-Carter in subdued wacky mode, also on narration duty) arrives just in time to make a pumpkin carriage, Cinderella and the prince (Richard Madden) meet and fall in love at the ball (though she earlier unwittingly met the prince in the nearby woods – each not knowing the position of the other of course), the clock strikes 12, a slipper is left behind, etc, etc… These familiar notes make the film a very comfortable and safe fit, much like the iconic footwear. In fact, without the modern effects & techniques, I’d say this film would not be out of place were it released during the time of Disney’s first Cinderella.

So why make it? (I can hear you asking) This is certainly a valid question but I can only guess it is a way to introduce a new generation to an old tale told in classic Disney style. The film is visually gorgeous and there is some variance in the glass slipper denouement (including a reveal outside of Cinderella’s house that had many in my audience gasping in surprise) to keep things interesting. James is quite stunning as the titular character and ably & believably guides us through the journey she takes. Madden is aptly charming, young, handsome & fair as the prince. Blanchett’s Tremaine is clearly dastardly from the beginning but she is given a chance to explain her reasoning (even if it’s only valid in her own mind) at the climax.

Set design & costuming is exquisite and I imagine ladies young and old will be talking about Cinderella’s ball & wedding gowns for quite some time. CGI is thankfully minimal except when required for a rodent or magical transformation. This movie manages to be spectacular without becoming a spectacle for the wrong reasons. It does what Maleficent could not – update the story visually but leave it thematically intact.

Movies are very personal for me, with Disney ones being especially so, and this one plucked all the right heartstrings at all the right times.

My grade: B+

NOTES: Frozen 2 was announced today and while we probably won’t see that for another 2-3 years, there is a short entitled Frozen Fever that shows before Cinderella. It’s Anna’s birthday and Elsa wants to throw her a surprise party but ends up coming down with a cold. There are some cute & funny gags, but the C-level song & trite premise give this a completely rushed feel that is ultimately forgettable. And kids will eat it up! But if it gets them to drag their parents, grandparents or older siblings to go see Cinderella, then I’m all for it.

Book Review: Mad as Hell

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There are movie lines that live forever, and their creation is usually some kind of alchemy. For instance, the line “I’m as made as hell,and I’m not going to take this anymore!” came to writer Paddy Chayefsky, but he never thought it would stick in pop culture. Fortunately, for those who have seen it and loved it, as I have, there is more to his film Network than just that line.

Dave Itzkoff tells the story of Network, soup to nuts, in his book, titled of course, Mad As Hell: The Making of Network and the Fateful Vision of the Angriest Man in Movies. It is a straightforward account of how Chayefsky came up with the idea, how the film was cast and shot, and how it was received and remembered.

Network was a bundle of contradictions, the last gasp of an era of populist Hollywood filmmaking as expressed by a man who never subscribed to the movement; it used the resources of one mass medium to indict another and, beyond it, the degradation and emptiness of contemporary American life,” Itzkoff writes. He starts with a biography of Chayefsky, who began in the Golden Age of television, and then transitioned to movies when his teleplay, Marty, was made into a film and he and it won Oscars. He had various successes and failures, including another Oscar for The Hospital in 1971, when he came upon the idea of writing about television.

Itzkoff covers this area well, getting his hands on Chayefsky’s notes and early drafts so we can see the evolution of the story. Chayefsky teamed with producer Howard Gottfried and the movie was shopped. Chayefsky suffered no fools and was not about to make changes, but the film landed at MGM, Sidney Lumet was hired, and the casting process began. There were three main characters: Howard Beale, the “mad prophet of the airwaves,” Max Schumacher, the old-school TV producer who bemoans the changing world, and Diane Christensen, representing the new wave, where anything on TV can be sold like beer.

“For Beale, his mad prophet of the airwaves, he envisioned Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda, Gene Hackman, Sterling Hayden, or Robert Montgomery; Max Schumacher could be played by Fonda or Hackman, or by William Holden; and Diana Christensen seemed ideal for Candice Bergen, Faye Dunaway, Ellen Burstyn, or Natalie Wood.” Holden and Dunaway would get the parts, but Beale went to the unlikely Peter Finch, an Australian by way of England and Jamaica who had to convince all involved he could do an American accent.

Itzkoff covers the filming on almost a daily basis, and notes such struggles as Dunaway’s recalcitrance, particularly about a sex scene with Holden. How much nudity there was had to be negotiated, and when Dunaway went back on it, she was almost fired. Another actor, Roberts Blossom (who would later play the old man in Home Alone) was axed as Arthur Jensen, the head of the corporation that owns the Network. He was replaced by Ned Beatty, who would utter perhaps the film’s second-best known line: “Because you’re on television, dummy.”

Then we see the surreal events surrounding the death of Finch, who died in January of 1977, just two months after the film’s release. He left behind a Jamaican wife, and there was much discussion of who would be allowed to accept a potential Oscar. Peter Bogdonavich, who was producing the telecast, did not want a repeat of dark moments like Marlon Brando sending up a woman in Indian garb to refuse an Oscar.

The book then covers the reception of the film. It was hailed by some critics, such as Vincent Canby, and panned by others, such as Pauline Kael. The reception by the TV news industry was alarming to Chayefsky–he never intended it be an insult. He had received full cooperation of the networks before the film–he shadowed a network producer while writing–but almost the whole industry came down on him, even Walter Cronkite, whose daughter had a role in the film.

Network would be nominated for ten Oscars, including five of the film’s actors, tying a record. It also tied a record by winning three acting statuettes (the other was A Streetcar Named Desire), with Dunaway winning Best Actress; Beatrice Straight a surprise winner for Best Supporting Actress (her speech was almost as long as the length of her part), and Finch winning his posthumous award. Chayefsky accepted, but waved up Finch’s widow, to hell with everyone. Chayefksky also won for Screenplay, his third Oscar. The film lost Best Picture to Rocky, a much more feel-good enterprise.

Itzkoff devotes his last chapter to the prescience of Network. Almost everything that Chayefsky envisioned came true: television news is now completely entertainment. “Where nationally televised news had been a once-nightly ritual, it has since grown into a twenty-four-hour-a-day habit, available on channels devoted entirely and ceaselessly to its dissemination. The people who dispense these versions of the news seem to take their direction straight from the playbook of Howard Beale: they emote, they inveigh, and they instruct their audiences how to act and how to feel; some of them even cry on camera.”

What Itzkoff doesn’t touch on is that Chayefsky foresaw reality television, with the Ecumenical Liberation Army getting a weekly show in which they commit a new crime every week, cameras rolling. We haven’t gotten quite that far yet, but we’ve come close.

The film has made me want to see Network again, for the fourth or fifth time; it’s number one on my Netflix queue. It’s part of what we old-timers call the greatness of the 1970s, the best decade for American film, when good films actually were at the top of the box office: Network was one of the most profitable films of the year, while it probably couldn’t get made today.

And one fun fact to close: Finch did his “Mad as Hell” monologue in one take. They started a second, but he stopped midway and told Lumet that he didn’t have any gas left in the tank.

Opened in America on March 6 2015

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Chappie (imdb rating: 7.4) – This sci-fi film flopped badly in America over the weekend and having seen the trailer of it, not surprising to see why. It feels like there’s been a thousand robot/post-dystopian future type films in recent years (didn’t Hugh Jackman star in a robot film just a couple of years ago?). And having lines in the trailer like “People are always fearful of something they don’t understand” doesn’t exactly make it seem fresh either

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (6.9) – I saw the first film a couple of years ago at the cinema and was distinctly underwhelmed. I reckon the main reason it got good reviews is that critics (and certain audiences) are more likely to give a film a pass it has English acting royalty like Judi Dench & Maggie Smith. One thing this film and ‘Chappie’ have in common – both have Dev Patel in prominent roles

Unfinished Business (5.1) – As the IMDB rating indicates, the umpteenth critical/audience stinker for Vince Vaughan. His horrendous run of films in the past 10 years from a critical perspective have reached depths that Adam Sandler wouldn’t have imagined. He was still a box office draw for a while but those days appear to be long gone with this film getting no interest.

Road Hard (6.9) – After he falls on hard personal/economic times, a stand-up comic has to go back on the road. Written/directed/starring former ‘Man Show’ host Adam Carolla. Also good to see David Alan Grier in the cast who I remember fondly as Don ‘No Soul’ Simmons from ‘Amazon Women On the Moon’.

Merchants Of Doubt (7.1) – Doco about pundits who act as if they’re experts on topics such as climate change.

An Honest Liar (7.9) – Doco about famous debunker of the paranormal (especially Uri Geller) and magician James Randi. In Australia, Randi would be most well-known for this infamous appearance on an Australian talk show in 1980

Grey Gardens (7.7) – Re-release of famed 1975 documentary about an eccentric mother/daughter combo. The director Albert Maysles, only passed away just a few days ago.

Review: Mr. Turner

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J.M.W. Turner was an artist ahead of his time. He painted mostly landscapes and seascapes, but though he was painting in the early 1800s, he prefigured impressionism, and toward the end of his life, when he saw the advent of photography, he took a step toward what me might consider modern art.

He was also quite a character, a grunting bear of a man, eccentric and roguish. This is explore in Mike Leigh’s film Mr. Turner, with Timothy Spall playing the artist.

A film about a painter is a tricky thing. Like films about writers, you just can’t show a man doing the job, because that gets a little boring. We do see Spall using the brush occasionally (I found it interesting that he holds the brush near its end, away from the bristles–when I painted, I held it much closer to the bristles to get better control) but mostly we follow him through his life outside the studio. At least the filmmakers, due to time more than anything else, are able to use his actual works, unlike the 2000 film Pollock.

The story picks up at Turner’s height of fame. His beloved father (Paul Jesson) works for him, as does a devoted maid (Dorothy Atkinson), whom he uses for sex every now and then. He seems to have no lack of money, and he’s even recognized, necessitating him to take false names when he travels. He has two adult daughters from a previous liaison, and the mother of those girls visits him to upbraid him.

After his father dies, he starts an emotional slide. He cohabitates with a lovely widow who runs a boarding house in Margate (Marion Bailey) and deals with the various members of the Royal Academy, as well as a painter (Martin Savage) who is not in the Academy but rails against them for not spotting his genius. When his paintings become more and more abstract, he finds himself mocked, and even Queen Victoria piles on, calling one painting “vile.”

This is all very well and good, but I found something missing in Mr. Turner. It’s not the photography-Dick Pope was deservedly Oscar-nominated, as he uses his camera much as Turner used his brush. The scenes that show Turner standing in a field, making sketches, are astonishingly beautiful. Turner went to great lengths to get the right view–he even had himself lashed to a mast so he could see a storm at sea.

I think what’s missing is a general sense of purpose. The plot of Mr. Turner is very episodic, and judging by what I’ve read, very faithful to history. Spall creates a very vivid character, what with the grunts and tics of the man, and his showing charm when he is really feeling contempt, but I couldn’t quite grasp what Leigh was trying to say. The conflict doesn’t amount to much–Turner was accepted into the Academy as a teenager, and until the very end no one doubted his genius. We see a young John Ruskin, one of the great art critics of the period, but he was a Turner supporter. When Turner applies a blob of red paint to one of his paintings hanging at the Academy, it turns out to be something of a ruse.

The film also has a problem of time. No dates are given. The film, based on my research, runs from 1829 to his death in 1851, but we do not get a good sense of time passing. This means that the love that Atkinson feels for him (along with her ever expanding psoriasis) doesn’t have the full effect.

I will also admit to nodding off a few times. The film is well over two hours long as is not exactly bristling with activity.

I do give the films a thumbs up do to Spall’s performance and Pope’s photography. It’s also a wonderful education on art, which we don’t often see at the movie theater.

My grade for Mr. Turner: B-.

Opening in Las Vegas, February 27, 2015

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A very quiet weekend. Only two films opening here.

Focus (56) is Will Smith’s latest, but it might be Margot Robbie that gets all the attention. It has also gotten the attention of the lunatic fringe, who are taking to the Internet to despair about the interracial romance. Wake up, white people! Nick de Semlyen: “This is maximum-gloss entertainment with its fair share of tricksy rug-pulls. But, like one of the neon-coloured cocktails Smith drinks in it, it’s more of an immediate rush than something you’ll remember in a year.”

The Lazarus Effect (33) is about medical students who bring the dead back to life. They’ve also brought dead movies back to life. This was probably better when it was called Flatliners. Mick LaSalle: “The Lazarus Effect is not the usual mindless thriller, but it’s as flat as an open soda from last week, with dull characters and virtually every scene taking place in a single location. It looks as if it cost about 12 bucks to make — and somebody got robbed.”

I guess this weekend is a good one to watch TV or  catch up on your reading!

Review: Still Alice

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I managed to see Still Alice before Julianne Moore won the Oscar for the role. She very much deserved it. In fact, she elevated a standard disease-of-the-week film into something more special.

Written and directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, based on a novel by Lisa Genova, Moore stars as Alice Howland, a Columbia linguistics professor who, as the film begins, is starting to feel not herself. She has trouble finding words in her brain, and gets lost on familiar territory.

She seeks the help of a neurologist, who rules out a brain tumor, but instead finds she has early-onset Alzheimer’s, rare for someone her age (50). She breaks the news to her family–her husband (Alec Baldwin) is a successful doctor, her eldest daughter is a lawyer (Kate Bosworth) and a son is also a medical student (Hunter Parish).

It is her youngest daughter (Kristen Stewart) that reacts differently. This relationship is the heart of the film. Stewart plays a wayward soul, who has gone to Los Angeles to be an actress, despite her mother’s wish that she go to college. While Bosworth, notably, dances around the issue of her mother’s illness, Stewart approaches it without sentiment and head on, asking her pointedly how it feels.

Baldwin, meanwhile, while outwardly concerned, is subtly shown as putting his career ahead of Moore’s difficulties. Late in the film, in one of Moore’s crowning scenes in the film, she gives a speech to the Alzheimer’s Association, talking about living with the disease. Baldwin can’t make it because he has “business in Minnesota,” which we will later learn is an offer from the Mayo Clinic that will cause problems in the marriage.

The film is very smart about how a devastating disease can roil a family, especially one like this, which is genetic. But I was kind of annoyed by one thing–did it have to be another film about an absurdly rich family, who has a beach house and a Manhattan townhouse? Moore, even as a professor of linguistics, wouldn’t make that much money. At no time is finance or health insurance an issue.

I’d also like to comment on Kristen Stewart. This is a nice role for her as she seeks to put Twilight behind her. But she still acts like she is holding something back, with that little catch in her voice and her lower lip thrust forward. In the film she acts a scene for Chekhov’s Three Sisters and she still has that pouty approach. She needs to play a part in which nothing is held back. I suggest she’d play Puck.

But this is Moore’s show. Of course, as we see in Oscar history, playing someone with a disease or disability gets you awards. This year we had Alzheimer’s and ALS take the top prizes. But she does give the role a shading that is missing in most films of this sort. In one scene she looks at a video of her lucid self, and I’d swear it was two different women. In a sense, it was.

My grade for Still Alice: B.

Oscar 2014: Tightie-Whities

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The 87th annual Academy Awards telecast is now history, and it may be remembered for a few things: a writer thanked his dog, Lady Gaga showed old people than she has a great set of pipes, and tightie-whities got lots of mention and exposure.

What it will not be remembered for is a good show. Everyone had high hopes for Neil Patrick Harris, who had hosted just about everything and now was after the brass ring of the Oscars. He bombed almost completely. He’s a great song and dance man, and full of charm, but he was given some very bad jokes and had some exquisitely bad timing. After a woman dedicated an award to her son, who had committed suicide, he made a crass joke about her dress. Bah-dum-bum.

When a man has to resort to coming on stage in his underwear to get laughs, we know things are desperate. He did this in tribute to a scene in Birdman in which Michael Keaton did the same thing, but it’s funnier for a man out of shape to have to jog through Times Square in his underwear than a buff guy backstage at the Dolby Theater. This wasn’t the only joke made about that Birdman scene–Alejandro G. Innaritu, during one of his three Oscar acceptance speeches, made a joke about wearing Keaton’s underwear. Those Jockeys may end up in some movie costume museum.

It was a Birdman night. It won only four awards, but three of them were big: Picture, Director, and Screenplay. It did not win Best Actor for Keaton, my major disappointment of the night, instead honoring the puppyish Eddie Redmayne, another actor playing a disability to win. The other acting winners–Julianne Moore, Patricia Arquette, and J.K. Simmons, were all overwhelming favorites.

There were some surprises. That Boyhood, which was the favorite for Best Picture a month ago, walked away with only win (Arquette’s) seems kind of stunning. I knew it was doomed when it didn’t win Best Editing. I mean, taking twelve years of footage and putting it together in a film seemed a natural, but instead it went to Whiplash, which won three awards. The Grand Budapest Hotel also won four awards, and Wes Anderson got many thanks, but he didn’t win anything personally.

In an amazing bit of fair play, each one of the eight nominated Best Pictures won at least one award. The Imitation Game got Adapted Screenplay, allowing Graham Moore to give my favorite speech (“Stay weird”), Selma got Best Song, Common and John Legend were favorites if only because the Academy were desperate for some black people to win. And American Sniper got a Sound Editing Award, prompting the usual indignation from Sean Hannity.

As for the speeches, they were a mixed bag. There were some politics–Patricia Arquette came out for equal pay for women, which seems a safe platform, even if it isn’t in effect, and Common and John Legend gave a fiery speech about black incarceration. J.K. Simmons was more sedate–“Call your mother” he said. I do think that the screenwriter for Birdman–I’m sorry for not knowing which one–thanked his dog Larry. This has to be the first canine that was thanked at an Academy Awards, at least since Lassie.

But the evening overall seemed sour and ugly. Sean Penn made an inside joke about Innaritu’s immigration status that was certainly okay between them–Penn made 21 Grams for him–but sounded like a xenophobic rant. Idina Menzel and John Travolta made up, but did he have to fondle her like a bubbe fondles her grandson? And what was Terrence Howard on?

Some of the musical performances made the evening for me. I loved Tegan and Sara and Lonely Island doing “Everything Is Awesome,” including cameos by Questlove and Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo, and the performance of “Glory” was epic. It was almost outdone by Tim McGraw’s simple and heartfelt rendering of Glen Campbell’s song.

But I think I will most remember Lady Gaga paying musical tribute to The Sound of Music. On paper this sounds horrible. The Sound of Music is one of those phony classics, a movie that nobody under 50 likes except when they mock it at live sing-alongs. And Lady Gaga, a woman known most to some for wearing a dress made of meat (and appeared on the red carpet in red gloves that looked ready to perform a prostate exam) cleaned up, wearing a stunning white dress, flowing blonde hair, and a fabulous voice. Then, when Julie Andrews strode out and the two hugged, well, somebody must have been cutting onions.

I think NPH will be one and done, as ratings took a nose dive. Of course, this is always based on the movies nominated, but he will take the fall. They should probably go back to a comic, because its the approaching-vicious monologues that people remember the next day, not Jack Black singing about tentpoles (but Anna Kendrick can do anything in my book). I would lobby for one of the Jimmys–Fallon or Kimmel–or maybe Stephen Colbert will be ready by then. Let’s keep trying until they figure it out.

Oscar 2014: Best Picture, Director

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Wow, we’ve got a year, a rarity, when Best Picture is actually a nail-biter. It’s between Boyhood, which won all the critics awards, and Birdman, which won all of the guilds. We’ve also got an example of a year when you can actually sense the shift in momentum. For a few months, as Boyhood was wracking up critics awards, it seemed like the film to beat. But I think Birdman will win.

Why? Remember, there are no critics in the Academy. No film has swept the guild awards (PGA, SAG, and DGA) and not won Best Picture since Apollo 13. And Birdman, like The Artist and Argo, is about the movie business. I’ve heard people that I know who have hated the film, and it’s understandable, since there are no sympathetic characters–it’s a calvacade of narcissists. Well, that pretty much describes Hollywood.

The only catch about Birdman is that it did not get a Best Editing nomination. No film has won Best Picture without it since Ordinary People. But Birdman has a caveat–the film appears to be one long take. That it is not would suggest to me that the editing is quite brilliant, but since it appears to have no edits, maybe that’s why the Editing Branch (which should no better) left it out.

Boyhood amazed everyone with its back-story–filmed in patches over 12 years to show the natural aging of its characters. Richard Linklater has gotten many kudos for his dedication to such a project. But over time, the whispering has become, “Are we voting for the film or the gimmick?” Perhaps industry insiders are looking more at the film than the process. I think it’s a worthy winner but not as strong as many of the other nominees.

Could Linklater win director and Birdman Best Picture? A distinct possibility. It used to be that Picture and Director went to the same film, and a split was a rarity. That is no longer the case. Since the turn of the century, it has happened five times in 14 years, so it is no longer an outlier. But I think Birdman’s director, Alejandro G. Innaritu, will win, simply because he won the DGA, the most reliable predictor of this award.

If there is a dark horse, it might be The Grand Budapest Hotel, which looks to win several “below the line” awards. The Academy has never shown much attention to it’s director, Wes Anderson, before, but it sure embraced him this time. I think Anderson’s best chance is in the Best Original Screenplay category.

What of American Sniper, which has made more money than all of the other films combined? It’s political controversy, plus the fact that director Clint Eastwood was not nominated, would seem to spell doom for it.

The other nominees are along for the ride. The Imitation Game would seem to be a contender–it’s nominated for Best Director (Morten Tyldum) and Best Adapted Screenplay, as well as Best Actor–but it has gotten no love from any precursor. Perhaps whisper campaigns about historical inaccuracy hurt it. That may have also hurt Selma, which somehow got a Best Picture nomination but nothing else except Best Song. Whiplash is nominate for Best Adapted Screenplay (which I think it will win) but no Best Director, the same for The Theory of Everything.

Lastly, there’s Bennett Miller, who got a Best Director nomination despite the film, Foxcatcher, not getting a nomination. That hasn’t happened since the Academy expanded the number of Best Picture nominees to ten (and now five to ten). Needless to say, Miller doesn’t need to write a speech.

Opening in Las Vegas, February 20, 2015

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Great Godfrey Daniels! What did humanity do to deserve the pathetic opening week that is now?

The DUFF (55), which is neither a biography of Hillary Duff or the former MTV VJ, seems like something I might watch at 3 AM on HBO when I can’t sleep. I’m certainly not getting in my car and driving someplace and paying cash for it. An actress named Mae Whitman is getting high marks for it, though. Sheri Linden: “More a middle-of-the-road rom-com than a teen-spirit sendup, the pic weaves its lighthearted mix of silly and serious with increasingly heavy-handed spiels on self-esteem.”

Unnecessary pic of the week: Hot Tub Time Machine 2 (30). I loathed the first one, so will only see the second if tortured. Billy Goodykoontz: “Hot Tub Time Machine 2 is a movie that didn’t need to be made, and certainly doesn’t need to be seen — not when you can rent the original and still feel good about yourself afterward.”

McFarland, USA (60) is getting fair reviews, but I was totally turned off by the trailer, which has Kevin Costner once again trying to patch things up between the races, this time as a coach of a poor Latino cross-country team. Justin Chang: “A rare studio entertainment featuring a largely Latino ensemble, yet necessarily fronted by a big-name draw like Costner, McFarland, USA feels at once mildly progressive and unavoidably retrograde.”

The movie I hope to see is Mr. Turner (94), Mike Leigh’s take on British painter (and apparently unpleasant person) J.M.W. Turner, played by Timothy Spall. I’ve seen almost all of Leigh’s films for the past 25 years, and while I haven’t loved them all I’ve never been bored by one. Liam Lacey: “Performances are still the heart of Leigh’s work, and at the heart of this film is an extraordinary performance by Leigh’s frequent collaborator, the British actor Timothy Spall.”

The Seventh Annual Gone Elsewhere Oscar Challenge

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I’m a little late with this year’s Oscar Challenge. It’s simple–just pick the winner in each of the 24 categories.

I suggest you simply cut and paste the list of categories below in a comment and type your choice of winner next to it. If you change your mind, either edit your comment or post a new one. I will take your last predictions as official.

Best Picture:
Best Director:
Best Actor:
Best Actress:
Best Supporting Actor:
Best Supporting Actress:
Best Original Screenplay:
Best Adapted Screenplay:
Best Foreign Language Film:
Best Animated Film:
Best Cinematography:
Best Editing:
Best Production Design:
Best Costume Design:
Best Song:
Best Musical Score:
Best Documentary Feature:
Best Documentary Short Subject:
Best Makeup and Hairstyles:
Best Animated Short Subject:
Best Live Action Short Subject:
Best Sound Editing:
Best Sound Mixing:
Best Visual Effects:

The nominees can be found all over the web, including here.

Deadline will be six PM blog-time on Sunday February 22nd. The Oscar show is that night.