Thursday, February 20, 2014

Oscar catch-up and others

The following is a breakdown of films, provided to give you a guide in what to catch up with in terms of Oscar nominees and non-nominated films that deserve some acknowledgement. I break it down in the categories of Major nominees in theaters, Major nominees on DVD/ Streaming/ Cable, Minor nominees in theaters, Minor nominees on DVD/ Streaming/ Cable, and Others. For the record, I consider major nominees to be Picture, Director, the 4 Acting categories, the 2 Screenplay categories, Feature Length Documentary and Animated Film (Feature Length).  
Major nominees in theaters:
AMERICAN HUSTLE- Good acting and a nice feel for grimy late 1970s. But the caper story inside the film doesn't excite or hold as much water compared to say, The Sting or Nine Queens. And some scenes where the improve seems to be going on forever, they could be tightened. I'm speaking mostly of Jennifer Lawrence scenes which take place in the home. Plus, there are better films out there than this entertaining though somewhat overrated film,
DALLAS BUYERS CLUB- out on DVD, yet are still playing in theaters here and there. A good story with great performances from Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto. Yeah I wrote great, a term I generally don't use with current films but with older ones. These gentlemen's probable Oscar wins will be well deserved. The film itself seemed to go down the path of a generic Road to Redemption film that I thought ranged from ok to interesting. Then we're introduced to Leto's character and things pickup. By the time the actual Club itself is formed, that thought left my mind and I just went with the flow. But there were better films this year than this, and a Best Picture nomination? Not so sure about that,
GRAVITY- also out on DVD. But far more effective in a theater. Especially in IMAX 3-D, though regular 3-D will do just fine,
THE WIND RISES- played in at least one theater in New York back in November for a week, so it qualifies for both Oscar and a Best of 2013 list. Will be released in Manhattan again on Feb 21, and expand to the likes of Kew Gardens and Cinema Arts Centre on Feb 28. Unsure if I'll be able to see this before March 2nd,
ERNEST AND CELESTINE- had it's one week qualifying run just like The Wind Rises. However it isn't scheduled to receive a full release before mid March, at least two weeks after the Oscars,
THE ACT OF KILLING- good documentary that covers the surviving military and hired gangsters who participated in the Indonesian coup of 1965. And by participated I mean committing genocide, killing about a million people who were either alleged Communists, or just had the audacity not to go with the flow of a military dictatorship. Now making a typical documentary about the history of this period in country, would probably led to harm coming to the filmmakers and/or potential interview subjects. What the filmmakers did was have most members of a death squad (calling themselves gangsters like they're performing a public service), reenact how they achieved their killings by any cinematic means within their budget. Whether they do film noir, or a war film, or in one surreal instance, a lavish yet small scale musical number. Now we're talking about thieves and killers who modeled themselves after their favorite movie gangsters, killer film buffs if you will. Killers who have been either protected by and/or still serve the military dictatorship. Amazing that the filmmakers didn't get killed for doing this. What's more amazing is the older gangster whose bravado slowly goes away over the course of shooting, and whose conscience is slowly taking over and leaving him almost physically ill. Frankly I would be stunned if this didn't win. 
Major nominees on DVD/ streaming/ cable:
CAPTAIN PHILLIPS, CUTIE AND THE BOXER, 20 FEET FROM STARDOM, DIRTY WARS, THE BROKEN CIRCLE BREAKDOWN- might still find all of these films in a theater, but more readily available on DVD,
THE SQUARE- you might still find it playing in Manhattan, but it'll be easier to view on Netflix,
BLUE JASMINE- Cate Blanchett's incredible performance as basically a cross between Bernie Madoff's wife and Blanche DuBois redux, elevates the film to a thumbs-up. But in this variation of Streetcar Named Desire, I bought the upper class world flashbacks far more often than the present-day working class scenes, notwithstanding Andrew Dice Clay's performance,
THE HUNT, NO, A ROYAL AFFAIR, THE CROODS, DESPICABLE ME 2- Three nominees for last year's Oscar Foreign Language film and the other nominees for Best Animated Film this year. Yep, they count toward a best of 2013 list as well.

Minor nominees in theaters:
THE BOOK THIEF- I have no interest whatsoever,
SAVING MR BANKS- ditto because I feel like I'm getting a false bill of goods with the depiction of the personalities involved. This probably won't be an issue if I caught this film came up for me on Cable or on DVD. But in this situation, where it costs me money and I need to catch up with other films, no go, 
THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG- Good ripping yarn, unburdened by the need to delve as heavily into setup like the previous Hobbit film. Neither one matches the quality of any of the Lord of the Rings films, but they don't have to be. Except for an extreme lack of suspense regarding all characters from the LOTR films here, these are already better prequels than of the Star Wars prequels,
Minor nominees on DVD/ streaming/ cable:
IRON MAN 3- While I wasn't thrilled to go through the Tony Stark loses confidence storyline yet again, the film buff in me was thrilled that we got an action-oriented remake of Sullivan's Travels. And as far as Marvel movies are concerned it was a little better than the decent Thor sequel, and a major improvement over Iron Man 2.),
STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS- Again, not thrilled with the initial idea, that we got a prequel/ remake of Wrath of Khan. That said, the film is fun. and Benedict Cumberbatch makes an effective Khan.
THE PAST- From the writer/director of A Separation, the film made the shortlist for the Foreign Language film nomination yet didn't get nominated, and I haven't a clue why.

BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR- But at least The Past made it to the shortlist. How this film didn't even get that far, I have no idea. Except for maybe the content that got this a NC-17 rating. That is disappointing.
MUD, MUSEUM PIECES, COMPUTER CHESS- As you can see, I've been on a bit of an Indie film kick.
MAN OF STEEL- The best of the blockbuster franchises/reboots of 2013. I kinda feel alone in terms of how much I liked, not too many others seem to share my enjoyment. Nice to have a vital Krypton. Good to see struggle in young Kal-El's life in Smallville, and even better to have valid motivations for villainy in Michael Shannon's General Zod (simplistic terms I admit, but that's my bad, not Zack Snyder's). In Henry Cavill, we have the most appealing Superman since Christopher Reeves (or the animated version voiced by Tim Daly if you're going to get technical on me). Admittedly I was getting a little fatigued with the demolition of Metropolis, and didn't care to have my attention taken away by seeing Perry White saving a day player. But I wasn't that fatigued with the second Superman/ Zod fight, and I was completely ok with the killing sequence. Violence with consequences, ok by me, even in a Superman film. Maybe the excess on display was more acceptable in an earlier time, maybe around the time Superman The Movie came out. Oh well.   
PUSSY RIOT: A PUNK PRAYER- Interesting documentary that works well in giving us an idea of the world these three women, on trial in what feels like a legalized kangaroo court, came from. The vitality of the various activist backdrops the three women came from, including part of the actual protest inside the Moscow cathedral that got them arrested in the first place, is important for context. Especially when we cut back to the actual trial itself. Yes, I think you can accuse these members and the group in general of poor taste, but to arrest whoever they could catch and try and convict for up to seven years in Siberia? Wow, whose the bigger offender here? Made in a time where frankly, any early release seemed unlikely. And even after their release, watching the film makes one think it's when, not if another show trial takes place. That this didn't make the final 5 for a Best Documentary nomination is a bit disappointing.
STORIES WE TELL- Interesting documentary of director Sarah Polley's attempt to learn who her biological father is, since she can't learn it from her mother, who died when she was very young. With the points of view from her siblings, fathers, other relatives and her mother's friends, most of whom conflict with one another. At a certain point I felt "Sheesh girl, hasn't someone as smart as yourself ever heard of Rashomon? Why are you surprised by the different interpretations?" Yet this film maintains interest and continues to show development in Polley as a Director, as displayed in her earlier Away From Her and Take This Waltz. 

KON-TIKI- One of last year's Oscar nominees for Foreign film. Good albeit short (we received a shorter edit than other parts of the world) telling the story of Thor Heyerdahl's attempt to prove South Americans settled the Polynesian Islands. You would have to look up the historical inaccuracies on your own, but they appear to be on the day to day interaction of the crew, not the difficulties of the journey itself. Good capturing of the period and reenactment of the journey, where the crew used only materials that would have been available back in the day. A solid adventure film, but no way it's in the same breath as Amour,

A HIJACKING- And speaking of Norwegian films, here's a better one. A fictional variation of the story told in Captain Phillips, that has a dramatic take on the story. Yes, Somali pirates hijack a cargo ship, though we never see the actual hijacking itself. We have pirates who were far better organized in their hijacking operation, and since this a Norwegian ship, don't hold your breath for Navy Seals. Part of the story is on the ship, with emphasis on the ship's cook, desperate to stay alive. The other part surrounds the CEO of the company that owns the ship; with a deeply felt responsibility to bring his employees home safe, and just enough arrogance as a Master of the Universe to ignore some of his American hostage adviser's words, and cause more muddying of the waters than needed. Especially when we go past Day 90, and nerves on both sides are strained to the breaking point. Tense, well done drama.

HANNAH AREDNT- With this film, you will be forced to think. There is talk and some philosophy, where words and thoughts have meaning and can hurt. The audience is expected to follow along and keep up, even though they don't need to know the history to get an idea of what's depicted. Covering the period of Hannah Arednt's life, just before, during, and just after she covered the Eichmann trial. It covers when she coined the term "the banality of evil" and reported how some Jews were collaborators, and the film covers the brutal fallout for writing such things. The fallout was both personal and professional, and both were painful. Rainer Werner Fassbinder's former acolytes, director Margarethe von Trotta and actress Barbara Sukowa in the title role, have learned well from him. Complex material made accessible and interesting. 

THE GATEKEEPERS- The 2013 Oscar nominated documentary from last year, so it qualifies for a Best of 2013 list. The 6 former heads of Israel's secret service, the Shin Bet. All looking back on their job, their times there, the need to do the job despite any criticism, and any guilt they might have (not about the tasks, but maybe about collateral damage). Once they left the job, all of them wished the cycle of violence would end, all of them felt exhausted and drained, but they're not delusional to think their successors' lot will improve. Only the six former chiefs speak, with news footage, footage from those hit on the ground. 

THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE- An improvement over the previous film. Tighter script even if it feels a little too rushed, and having newer characters like the ones played by Jena Malone and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman gives us a fuller, more interesting universe. A more complicated Hunger Game, along with improved visual effects also helps.

THE CONJURING- Good low-ish tech horror film. More like The Haunting yet more effective with today's audiences I feel. With enough of a understated yet solid feel for the early 1970s period and a realistic obstacle of a family with little in the way of resources to just get up and leave the creepy house. A pleasant surprise from this past summer. 
SPRING BREAKERS- I felt there was promise with Harmony Korine, back when I saw Kids. But I didn't embrace Gummo when it came out and that admittedly has clouded me from embracing anything else he's done. I've loosened up a bit when it comes to Ken Park, and now that I've caught Spring Breakers, I think I'm willing to try Gummo again sometime. As for Spring Breakers, it's an uncomfortable antidote to Girls Gone Wild/ Spring Break. Uncomfortable in a good way. Oh you get lots of young jiggling flesh, but you get desensitized over the course of the film to it. Desensitized to the point of us viewing all the girls like the boys do, as blurry images that just happen to grind, get wet and seemed poised to drop trow. Which is I believe the point. We get to know four young women, and they strut around in their bikinis, but the whole Spring Break process makes them into pieces of meat like every other woman in the film. That is until they meet Mack Daddy James Franco whose performance, like Blue Jasmine's Cate Blanchett, is what makes the film a thumbs-up. Bit an unrealistic ending, yet dreamlike enough to make acceptable.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Revivals: late February edition

Hey all. Mike here with a list of revivals for the later half of February. A small list; only three films, all have been posted on at least one prior list, though I've only caught one of them on the big screen. Not for lack of trying mind you, but I digress. Sorry it's not a larger list. But I haven't had a lot of free time this month, and when I have had a chance to see a movie, it's been all Oscar nominees for this year. Okay, I saw The Lego Movie as well, boy that was fun, but again, I digress. Here we go with the list:

CABARET- Fri Feb 21 at 7- Museum of the Moving Image- A new DCP restoration, as part of the Museum's See It Big series: Musicals edition. He spent decades working on the stage, but Bob Fosse only lived long enough to direct 5 films. To some of you who read this, Fosse might be just the guy involved in Chicago; that mediocre film (not in my opinion) or that musical that casts hacks, soap opera types, singers who can't act, and actors from The Sopranos who can't sing. Fosse was/is much much more. Consider Cabaret as proof, just as I previously stated All That Jazz as proof last month.

Cabaret, along with Fiddler on the Roof, Grease and All That Jazz, were the only successful musicals of the 1970s, both critically and commercially. Sorry but I don't consider Saturday Night Fever, Woodstock or The Last Waltz as musicals, someone with a better sense of history can tell me how well Jesus Christ Superstar did, and Willy Wonka, Tommy, Phantom of the Paradise and Rocky Horror I consider to be cult films, not bonafide hits. 8 Oscars, in the year of the Godfather. Among the winners were Liza for Actress, Grey in his signature role for Supporting Actor (over Caan, Duvall and Pacino for Godfather!), Geoffrey Unsworth (2001, Superman) for Cinematography, and Fosse for Director. This was the year Bob won the Oscar, Tony and Emmy for Best Director, a feat never pulled off before or since.Number 5 on AFI's recent Top Musical list. I've never seen all of it in one sitting from beginning to end, but would like to: 

NORTH BY NORTHWEST- Sat Feb 22 at 8:45- Film Forum- The start of the Film Forum's Complete Hitchcock retrospective. Everyone of Hitch's films, including the silent ones, will be screened for at least one day and/or night. I'm sorry I won't be able to post more than a few of them. Partially out of lack of time on some days/nights on my end. Partially because I'm indifferent about posting the likes of say, Spellbound, Family Plot and Stage Fright. And partially because I may have already exhausted the possible people I know coming into the city for the likes of say, Psycho, The Birds or The Wrong Man. Anyway, the film that launches this retrospective is North By Northwest, in a brand new DCP retro. 

The best of all the lightweight Alfred Hitchcock films. No big morals here. Just sit back and relax, as 'everyman' Cary Grant gets confused as a secret agent by sinister forces led by James Mason. He runs from them and runs from the law, for a murder at the United Nations he didn't commit. Of course all this running around doesn't stop Grant from taking time to flirt with mysterious Eva Marie Saint, in some of the most fun innuendo that the remnants of the Production Code would allow. And watch out for not only a crop duster, but Martin Landau and his "woman's intuition".

I use the term everyman loosely when describing Grant as an Everyman. But according to Gene Wilder on his episode of Inside The Actors Studio, that's how Grant described himself during a chance meeting on a cruise ship, where the Northwest homage Silver Streak, was playing. Wilder was pleasantly stunned to here this description, as well as how Grant was nice enough to include Wilder as being on the same level, but I digress.Fun film, with good performances, a snappy though unsubtle Bernard Herrmann score, and featuring one of Saul Bass's best opening credit sequences. Oscar nominations for the great Editing, Art Direction (check out say, the U.N. and Mount Rushmore), and Ernest Lehman's script.

I tried to see this on the big screen multiple times over the past 10 years. I missed my chance about 9 or so years back, when it was screened for several weekends at midnight at the Paris theater. I'm sorry I missed catching it on the Paris's large screen, but I blame a girl named Amanda for that. Then I finally saw a digital projection at the Museum of the Moving Image almost two years ago. A near sell-out, that looked and sounded great. The jokes landed great, and the audience was in hushed, rapt attention thru out the Mount Rushmore finale (except for the bits of humor sprinkled in). The Forum's screen will be more than adequate for this occasion, and the picture and sound should come off well with this new restoration. Their sound system should rock the hell out of Herrmann's score so to speak, one of the few scores I've hummed after a screening days and weeks afterwards.

The film will play for three days two nights on the weekend of February 21st. I can only make the 22nd at 8:45, but click the link this paragraph for other times. And come and/or but earlier because this thing will sell out, or at least be crowded. Especially on the weekend evening screenings and the Sunday morning one as well: 

NEW YORK, NEW YORK- Fri Feb 28 at 7- Museum of the Moving Image- Also from the Museum's See It Big series: Musicals edition. A Martin Scorsese musical that failed with some of the same critics that praised Taxi Driver to the hilt. From 1977, it was up against Star Wars, Smokey and the Bandit, The Deep, to a lesser degree A Bridge Too Far, and Herbie Goes To Monte Carlo, it was DOA at the box office. It has since gained respect in the intervening years, though the amount of respect is arguable.

A mix of MGM-style musicals, with a drama delivered with almost Actors Studio/Method messiness and almost blunt force trauma to the leads. Jimmy Doyle (Robert De Niro), an aspiring saxophonist meets and is at first rejected by singer Francine Evans (Liza Minnelli). They continue to bump into each other, a friendship blossoms, followed by romance, and then marriage. All the while, both struggle to succeed at their craft, which begins to put an unbearable strain on their relationship. Eventually, this weight becomes too heavy to handle, especially when one is more successful than the other.

Scorsese's love for this era (post World War 2 into the 1950s) of music - as well as cinema - is overflowing throughout the picture. Most striking is the brutally realistic depiction of a disintegrating marriage, filmed in a series of long, tense takes. De Niro's studied nuanced take and Minnelli's openly emotional take on their characters do mix well, even though this wasn't a shared opinion at the time. And boy does one have to wait a long while for musical numbers to occur. But when they do, especially with Liza's performance of the title song, look out! (in a good way).

Critics were literally split, between Wow, Ugh, or a noble failure with some great moments and some crap moments. And when I mean Ugh, I mean that this was Scorsese's follow-up to the great Taxi Driver, which was met by some critics with "Oh Hell No. How dare you trap me with such obnoxious people". With no legion of great reviews, the musical being no longer a popular genre, and going up against Star Wars as it began to expand widely, New York New York didn't do well at all. Whether you deem this as an underrated gem or as a noble failure or as an actual good film, you can decide without the heavy expectations of the day. Screened in 35mm and its original 2 hr 35min cut, as opposed to its 1981 re-release with 8 additional minutes or its radically recut 2 hr 15 min version. Decide for yourself:

Let me know if there's interest, later all.

Monday, February 03, 2014

February revivals: first half

Hey all, Mike here with a revival list for the first half of February. A very short list of one. Partially because of my personal schedule and need to catch up with Oscar films, and partially because there isn't much else in this half of the month that excites me. I would have been ok skipping this part of the month and post a list of 2 or 3 films in two weeks. But the following film I will make an exception for:


LAWRENCE OF ARABIA- Sun Feb 9 at 3- Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria- A new DCP restoration. Part of the Museum's See It Big series. They were only scheduled to show movie musicals for this particular retrospective. But after Peter O'Toole's death, the Museum quickly scheduled his best and most famous film.

This is one of top 5 all time favorite films. That is TOP 5 all time. Whenever one of my top 5 or so is available to see, I must post it, no matter if I own it, or how many times I've seen it on screen. Arguably the best of the David Lean epics with some political relevancy even today, as officer T.E. Lawrence takes a routine mission into leading his own guerrilla army against the Turks, becoming more obsessed with every success. Yet the intimate moments are treated with as much care and respect as the epic scenes, the script deserves just as much respect as the visuals, and has there been a better leading debut for a star than O'Toole in the title role? Ok, Chaplin and Brando, but I can't think of any better lead debuts in color films. 

On both AFI Top 100 lists. 10 Nominations, including Actor for O'Toole, the Screenplay, and Supporting Actor for Omar Sharif (don't get me started on his entrance!). 7 Oscars, including Picture, Score (maybe the best film score ever; not sure, but if you have better choices, let me know), and Director for Lean. If you haven't seen it, the big screen is THE way, there isn't a TV screen big enough to pull this entirely off. And the Museum's screen is certainly good enough to do the job. The Museum's website says there will be an intermission. That last time I went there for a film with a scheduled intermission, was The Right Stuff. There ended up being no intermission there, but I hope there's one for Lawrence. The film is too long without one:

Let me know if there's interest. Please let there be interest. Later all.