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.

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