Tuesday, April 3, 2012

REVIEW: Titanic 3D

titanic-3d"It's been 84 years and I can still smell the fresh paint," recalled old Rose as she began her epic tale of love and tragedy at sea. Well, it has now been nearly 15 years since I first saw James Cameron's masterpiece, TITANIC, on the big screen, and I can still remember being fully captivated by one of the greatest spectacles ever to grace the silver screen. The much-heralded 3D re-release officially opens tomorrow, but I was fortunate to see an advance screening in February, and I can honestly say that it is not only the best 3D conversion we've seen so far, but it remains one of the most awe-inspiring cinematic experiences of all time.

I'm not ashamed to admit that I totally got caught up in TITANIC-mania in late 1997 and well into '98.  I loved the movie then and I love it now.  As a 20-year-old, I had only just begun to tap into what would soon evolve into an full-fledged passion for movies, and my obsession with all things TITANIC played an indelible role in that process.  Despite what naysayers may say now, this movie was a phenomenon. It's one of the few movies that really does have something for everyone... and everyone saw it.  It made over $600 million in North America alone (still #2 all-time behind Cameron's AVATAR), and was #1 at the box office for fifteen consecutive weeks (a astounding streak that will likely never be broken, now that the movie-release process is much different and more front-loaded). It was nominated for 14 Oscars and won 11 of them, including Best Picture. Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet were already well-established actors, but still fresh-faced, and they suddenly became mega-stars.  For better or worse, you couldn't turn on a radio without hearing Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On," and James Horner's beautiful score is one of film's most recognizable.  It was crazy. Now, nearly 15 years later (and almost exactly 100 years after the event itself), TITANIC remains a landmark cultural event and a monumental achievement that deserves to be ranked alongside GONE WITH THE WIND, titanic1THE TEN COMMANDMENTS and other huge, sprawling, groundbreaking and beloved epics. But even aside from all that, it is just a damn good, wildly entertaining motion picture.

The biggest knock against TITANIC has always been that the script sucks (indeed, Best Screenplay was NOT one of those 14 Oscar nods). But you know what? While it may be cheesy as times, it is also rife with quotable dialogue. James Cameron may not be Shakespeare, but he knows what he's doing.  At its core, the story is simple -- poor boy meets rich girl aboard ill-fated ocean liner -- and loaded with broad characters and archetypes.  But the star-crossed love story is timeless, and even if Leo & Kate may be a little embarrassed by it nowadays, their combined talents and extreme likeability helped take Cameron's material to a much higher level. The supporting cast is equally memorable, from Billy Zane's scene-chewing turn as the dastardly Caledon Hockley, to Bernard "King Theoden" Hill’s unfortunate Captain Smith, to Victor Garber as the steadfast Mr. Andrews, to Gloria Stuart’s powerful foundation as old Rose. Over the course of 3 1/2 hours, we become so familiar with such a vast array of characters that when the time comes, we are fully, emotionally invested in their fates.

titanic3Of course, the real star of TITANIC is the ship and its tragic end.  No matter how you feel about the more basic elements of the movie, there can be no denying Cameron's genius here.  His attention to detail is nothing short of astonishing, allowing us to explore all of the ship's nooks and crannies and yes, even learn a thing or two.  And once the seemingly-unsinkable ship hits the iceberg and that hour-long climactic action set piece begins... my God, it is just as harrowing and eye-popping today as it was 15 years ago.  Knowing what we know about Cameron's obsession with the source material and devotion to his craft, it's hard to imagine any other filmmaker pulling it off quite so masterfully.  Simply put, the final hour of TITANIC is one of the most impressive achievements -- visually, emotionally, technically, you name it -- in the history of movie-making.

But hey, enough gushing about a movie we've all seen and, at this point, either love or hate regardless of anything I've written here.  The real question is: How does it look in 3D?  In a word: FANTASTIC. Post-converted 3D has been a slippery slope over the past couple of years -- more often than not, it looks like crap, especially compared to films that were specifically filmed with 3D cameras.  High-profile re-releases like BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, THE LION KING and STAR WARS: EPISODE I looked... okay... but nothing special beyond the pleasure of seeing them on the big screen.  Fortunately, aside from being the King of World, James Cameron is also the King of the Third Dimension, and he spared no expense. What's interesting is that the titanic2movie already had an immersive feel, loaded with so much detail that it practically touched upon all the senses.  But the 3D effects definitely serve to enhance the experience, adding new levels of visual depth, as well as working in more subtle ways when appropriate. It's incredibly well done.

There were three moments that I was really curious to see in 3D, as I felt they might serve as shining examples of its effectiveness (or not).  First was the sequence where Rose is making her way through the flooded lower-deck corridors looking for an imprisoned Jack. Next, an overhead shot of Jack & Rose fleeing down a staircase while Hockley is shooting at them from above, and a bullet hits the water and sends a splash back up towards the camera. Lastly, the climactic, first-person shot of the ship's final plunge into the ocean. If (when?) you see the movie, keep an eye out for these scenes in particular -- they all worked perfectly and made me very happy. (Also, Kate Winslet's curves in 3D? Spectacular.)

titanic4James Cameron didn't need to convert TITANIC into 3D. It's not like Scorsese's HUGO or Wenders' PINA where the technology is integral to the intended movie-watching experience. But if his intention was to prove that, when done right, post-converted 3D can be just as good as the real thing... well, he has succeeded. Of course, if you're a TITANIC fan, you owe it to yourself to see one of the grandest movies ever made on the big screen once again, regardless of the number of dimensions.  And if you've never seen it on the big screen because you were too young 15 years ago or something... you, young whippersnapper, are in for a treat.  Personally, I saw TITANIC four times during its original theatrical run... once at a special screening in 2002... once at the 3D advance screening in February... and yes, I'll be seeing it again tomorrow. Is my heart still going on after all these years? Yes, yes it is... and I'll never let go.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

REVIEW: 21 Jump Street

21jumpstreetThere’s a moment early in 21 JUMP STREET in which the police deputy explains to officers Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) that the department’s new undercover program, wherein young-looking cops are sent back to high school to root out crime, is actually a rehash of an old program from the ‘80s because they’re out of original ideas. This is clearly meant to give the impression that we're about to embark on a smart, hip journey with an R-rated action-comedy that is cleverly aware of its roots, as well as its own silliness.

The truth is, that obvious meta joke is about as clever as it gets.

My guess is that co-writer/producer/star Jonah Hill and directors Phil Lord & Chris Miller were fans of the eponymous TV show that launched Johnny Depp’s career and decided that it'd be cool to remake it with a raunchy comedy twist. This may have sounded great on paper, but in practice, there's not much there. As an action film, it's not terribly exciting and as a comedy, it's not particularly funny. It doesn't even hold any nostalgic value for me, as I'm not sure I've ever seen a single episode of the show, though I'm sure the kitsch factor will appeal to some. Frankly, this movie struggles to achieve even the inoffensively-mediocre standards set by previous unnecessary ‘80s remakes such as THE KARATE KID and FOOTLOOSE.

In this version, Schmidt and Jenko are high school rivals (Schmidt was a fat loser; Jenko a jock bully) who later become friends when they help each other make it through the police academy. After graduating, they botch their first arrest attempt and find themselves reassigned to the undercover Jump Street division. They are sent back to high school to locate the source of a new synthetic drug and are meant to reprise their roles as geek and jock, but due to a case of mistaken identity and the fact that the school is weirdly post-modern, they suddenly find their roles reversed: Schmidt is now considered cool and Jenko is the outcast. Naturally, hijinks ensue. There's a lot of high school humor, action scenes and explosions, loud parties, even an over-stylized acid-21jumpstreet2trip. The film earns its R-rating with pervasive language and such, but save for a few of mild chuckles and here and there, just about every joke, gag and one-liner fall flat. (Admittedly, business does pick up a bit in the last half-hour with some solid climactic action and one particularly mind-blowing revelatory moment. If only we didn’t have to sit through 90 minutes of unfunny crap to get there.)

As a buddy-action-comedy duo, Hill & Tatum are... okay, I guess. The role-reversal / high school dynamic could have been interesting, but everything is so yawn-inducingly contrived. Of course former geek Schmidt will finally find out what it's like to be popular and let it go to his head. Of course former jock Jenko will eventually come to embrace his new geek brethren. Practically every plot point is predictable and uninspired -- which might not have been a big deal if it had some genuine laughs to fall back on.

I like Jonah Hill a lot, but I’m not sure what to make of him at this stage of his career. We know that he is capable of hilarity both extreme (SUPERBAD) and subtle (CYRUS) and has it in him to be a fine actor beyond our wildest expectations (MONEYBALL). But I’m not convinced that he is quite good enough to rise above crappy material. His worst movie, last year’s THE SITTER, was a trainwreck, and Hill’s shtick brought very little to the table. Unfortunately, the same holds true here. As for Channing Tatum, it’s clear that his talents do not extend much further than his past world of male 21 JUMP STREETmodeling. On the scale of acting ability among current popular young stars, he ranks somewhere alongside Taylor Lautner and Sam Worthington. He has zero charisma and comic timing -- at times, it feels like they thawed out a Neanderthal, nudged him onto the set and let him mumble and lumber around in front of the camera. This might be sufficient in the sleepy romantic dramas for which he is primarily known, but in a fast-paced comedy like this, his shortcomings are all too evident.

On the supporting side, you’ve got, um, Ice Cube as the angry police captain who curses a lot and Rob Riggle as a creepy gym teacher... not exactly ground-breaking work for either of them. All of the high school kids are completely forgettable -- though one of them is James Franco’s younger brother, which is a mild curiosity. One bright spot in the cast is Ellie Kemper, who is quickly becoming the best part of everything she’s in. She manages to generate some laughs as a kooky science teacher with the hots for Jenko; unfortunately, she only has a handful of scenes.

21 JUMP STREET is currently 94% fresh on RottenTomatoes. The Twitterverse is abuzz with people who loved it and thought it was hilarious. It looks primed to be huge hit when it opens this weekend. All of this is just baffling to me. Not sure I've ever disagreed with my fellow critics and the general public more (last time was probably my anti-Natalie Portman / BLACK SWAN tirades, but at least that movie has some camp value). I mean, listen... I didn't need this to be some gritty reimagining of the source material (which would have meant nothing to me, anyway). I get the kind of vibe they're going for. The problem is that it’s just not funny. Am I being a little too harsh on what is essentially a silly popcorn flick? Perhaps. But if this is what passes for quality, universally-praised comedy these days, society is in bigger trouble than we thought. My only hope is that someone, somewhere, will read this and choose not to see it, and then maybe catch a few minutes on HBO in a few months and silently thank me for saving him or her $13. To that person, I say: You’re welcome!

Sunday, February 26, 2012



Hello, friends, and welcome to my 7th annual LIVE moment-by-moment Oscar commentary! Depending upon who you talk to, tonight will either be a fun, frustrating or downright infuriating affair -- but personally, I’m psyched. Yeah, I’m also disappointed in the Academy for snubbing a number of the most Oscar-worthy performances (Shannon, Fassbender, Gosling, Dunst, Olsen, etc.)... but the fact is, I don’t outwardly dislike ANY of the major nominees. Three of my Top 10 films of 2011 are nominated for Best Picture, including my #1, HUGO, for which I will be rooting with great fervor. (Fun fact: My #1 movie of the year has not actually won Best Picture since THE RETURN OF THE KING in 2004, so it would be particularly exciting if HUGO pulls it out.) However, it looks like the night is poised to have a silent, black-and-white flair: THE ARTIST is the odds-on favorite to sweep, but seeing as how it was my #9 movie of the year, this is fine with me (frankly, I’m baffled by the anti-ARTIST backlash that has already permeated the interwebs). On the acting side, I’m rooting for Clooney over Dujardin, but I like ‘em both (though I’m REALLY rooting for a Gary Oldman upset!), and while I’d love to see Michelle Williams steal Best Actress from frontrunner Viola Davis, I’d have no problem with either of them (not to mention always-deserving Meryl Streep). Point being... unlike recent years when certain unfortunate developments (CRASH, THE KING’S SPEECH, Natalie Portman) have made me very angry, it seems there’s little chance of any unpleasant surprises this year. What will this mean for my commentary if I don’t start seething with drunken rage halfway through the show? Will drunken pleasantness be as entertaining? We shall see!

My LIVE running commentary will begin with Red Carpet Madness (starting with the telecast on E!, if you want to watch with me, though I might switch over to ABC at some point) at 6 p.m. EST sharp, followed by the 84th Academy Awards at 8:30. I’ll be updating this blog every few minutes with my play-by-play, observations, predictions, reactions, rants and random musings -- if it pops into my head, I will write it! Absolutely no censoring or filtering allowed. Be sure to bookmark this page and check back often... or keep your browser right here and click “refresh” constantly & obsessively. See ya in a few hours!


6:00 – Aaaaaand here we go! I’m watching the E! red carpet show, starring Giuliana Rancic, who is looking more fish-like than ever. And now here’s Mila Jovovich, who I have loved for a long time. She looks great. And lest we forget, she kicks ass!

6:02 – They’re doing prediction polls on E! 70% for Octavia Spencer for supporting actress. No argument from me, though part of me is rooting for Janet McTeer....

6:06 – Seacrest was interviewing Wolfgang Puck and they’re talking about the food spread. Yeah, it’s still pretty early here on the red carpet. Now here’s Rose Byrne, star of the year’s most overrated film, BRIDESMAIDS. I like her in general, but meh. Melissa McCarthy is there... and now Wendi McLendon-Covey, who was the real scene-stealer in the film. BRIDESMAIDS chicks are showing up early!

6:11 – Hey, it’s Lea Thompson! And Ellie Kemper, who is funnier on THE OFFICE than everyone in BRIDESMAIDS combined! I promise I won’t rip on BRIDESMAIDS too much in this blog – I actually enjoyed the film – it’s just not Oscar-worthy, dammit! But man, Ellie Kemper is adorable. She’s my early red carpet favorite.

6:13 – Berenice Bejo, arguably the best part of THE ARTIST, is pretty. Also she’s got an accent and therefore I enjoy her.

6:19 – Clooney and Stacy Keibler have arrived! Still can’t believe they’re dating. That’s a big win for WWE Divas everywhere – normally they just pose for Playboy and then fade into obscurity.

6:20 – Okay, well, if they’re going to keep interviewing BRIDESMAIDS people, then I guess I have to keep badmouthing it: MELISSA McCARTHY DOES NOT DESERVE HER NOMINATION! If she does, then Carell should’ve won Best Actor for the far-superior 40-YEAR-OLD VIRGIN. Bah. Meanwhile... there was a Jessica Chastain sighting, and now Shailene Woodley, who should have gotten the supporting actress nod over you-know-who!

6:23 – Ooh, Judy Greer looks all slinky! That’s an unexpected pleasantry. Closer look at Jessica Chastain with the black & gold dress... stunning indeed... any year in which she shows up in 7 movies is a good year!

6:25 – Seacrest and Chastain just met for the first time... amusing stuff. Chastain looks luminous. And she is funny & personable. She has just leapfrogged Ellie Kemper to be my red carpet fav so far. And she brought her grandma, aww!

6:32 – I guess Clooney doesn’t really NEED another Oscar because he is George Clooney and he is dating Stacy Kiebler and her 60-something-inch legs. But I still hope he beats the French dude. (Though I really hope Gary Oldman beats ‘em both!)

6:35 – Clooney dominates the fan prediction poll for Best Actor. And now here’s fellow nominee Demian Bichir, who I just can’t get behind, since his nomination means that Michael Shannon, Michael Fassbender and Ryan Gosling got left out. Sorry, Demian... not your fault, but still.

6:42 – Whoa, Viola Davis looks bad-ass! She’s a great actress, no doubt, and would be a worthy winner even though I’m rooting against her. Rooney Mara... something weird going on there... and oh hey Maya Rudolph is cool. Glenn Close should have come in full Albert Nobbs attire. Clooney hugging Bichir is a tender moment between Best Actor noms, but I’m guessing Bichir would have preferred a hug from Keibler. The action is heating up on the red carpet now!

6:45 – Took me a minute to figure out who is on screen right now, but duh, it’s Judd Apatow and Leslie Mann! They are funny. But someone needs to let Apatow know that his movies – even the good ones – are always like 20 minutes too long.

6:47 – Giuliana just said that Stacy Keibler looks like Clooney’s “statue” in her gold dress. In my head I’m seeing Ralphie caressing the leg lamp in A CHRISTMAS STORY... “Yeahhh, a statue...”

6:51 – Lots of commercials during the E! red carpet show, no? Annoying. But it does give me many opportunities to stop tying and drink my beer.

6:53 – Michelle Williams is always a vision on the red carpet and tonight is no exception. I hope she wins! “I feel like [Kate Winslet] made a path and the rest of us get to follow it,” Williams says. I agree!

6:55 – Oh, here’s Rooney Mara. I guess it’s a big deal that she’s wearing white because she a;ways wears black? I dunno. She looks really, really ridiculously skinny. And with the bright red lipstick, alabaster skin and that hairdo, she looks like a geisha samurai. I can dig it.

6:56 – WOW, THE HELP wins the E! fan prediction poll? See, this is why you don’t let Joe Q. Moviegoer vote for the Oscars. It’s a good movie, but jeez, people.

6:58 – Cool, the coach from the documentary UNDEFEATED is there. I wonder if the guys who were wrongly jailed for killing children only to later be vindicated & freed thanks to the PARADISE LOST trilogy will be there, too?

7:02 – Ladies and gentlemen, Oscar nominee Jonah Hill! So weird to say that. Wait, is he getting fat again? God I hope so!

7:06 – Jean Dujardin is a charming French person. But I think he should’ve kept that mustache that he was rocking in THE ARTIST. Also I think Seacrest just slipped his phone number to the translator, Tanya. Smooth!

7:10 – Ohhhhhh shit, The Dictator has arrived on the red carpet! Though since the whole thing has been sanctioned by the Academy, it’s probably not going to be as funny as it would have been if Cohen had flat-out crashed.

7:11 – All of my BRIDESMAIDS bashing aside, I’m happy that Kristen Wiig has finally hit the big time. She has been the best thing on SNL for a long, long time! Plus she looks pretty good all gussied up!

7:14 – A closer look at Michelle Williams’ dress. They should just keep that on in the corner of the screen the whole time. And now here’s the cast of THE DESCENDANTS... my God, Matthew Lillard is on the damn red carpet. The Mayans were right about 2012....

7:17 – OH SHIT, Sacha Baron Cohen, as The Dictator, carrying an urn supposedly containing the remains of Kim Jong Il, just spilled the ashes all over Ryan Seacrest’s tux! HAHAHA! This was unscripted! They’re taking Cohen away! Seacrest is pissed! This is outstanding!

7:19 – Hehehe, the best part of this whole thing is how legitimately pissed Seacrest was. Dude is all covered with ashes and he had to consciously restrain himself from throwing a hissy-fit – you could see it in his face. I thought the whole Dictator thing was going to be tempered down but clearly Sacha Baron Cohen remains one of the great unpredictable comedy geniuses of the moment. All hail the Dictator!

7:24 – Heh, I just wondered aloud if Tina Fey was getting chunky and Rachel reminded me that she was pregnant. Oh yeah. And now here’s J-Lo for some reason? I mean, I guess I can see the reason(s). Oh God, now Seacrest is telling J-Lo what happened with the Dictator – he is going to talk about this to everybody he encounters. Dude has just been scarred for life. Hilarious!

7:26 – Whoa, ol’ Fish Face Rancic with the line of the night so far: “Who are YOU wearing, Ryan, that’s the question!” Kudos!

7:28 – Emma Stone’s dress is wacky but I like the way she describes her accessories. “Louis Vuitton... jewels?” She rules. Hey, where’s her boyfriend, Spider-Man?

7:32 – Wait, I just figured it out: Rooney Mara looks like a geisha samurai as portrayed by Jennifer Connelly. Except she’s not as bodacious.

7:37 – This red carpet recap segment is taking a really long time, so I guess I should recap my favorites so far, too. Ellie Kemper. Jessica Chastain. Michelle Williams. Stacy Keibler. And of course, Ryan Seacrest covered in ash. Hehe.

7:40: Bah, E! has apparently given up on the red carpet – perhaps Seacrest finally went off the deep end? I’m switching over to the ABC telecast to see what’s happenin’ over there!

7:43 – Umm, first of all, why are the ABC cameras shooting with what appears to be some kind of red filter over the lens? This aura is weird. Colin Firth is so damn charming. And now there’s a montage of a kid from a TV show trying to see all 9 Best Picture nominees in one day. Okie doke.

7:45 – Dujardin is back and may be the happiest guy on the red carpet. Monsieur is always smiling! More raving over Michelle Williams and her coral dress – I’m right there with ya, Tim Gunn.

7:47 – By the way, wanna know what I’M wearing? A TITANIC t-shirt that I got at an advance screening a couple of weeks ago + STAR WARS PJ pants. Clooney and Dujardin ain’t got nothin’ on me!

7:51 – Has Jennifer Lopez ever NOT worn a dress with a big gap down the front? Not that I’m complaining. And now here’s Nick Nolte, a completely baffling nomination in my opinion. Hehe, Nolte can’t understand a word this woman is saying. And he’s apparently going to rock the sunglasses a la Jack Nicholson tonight, so that’s cool.

7:55 – Good point by Zack Galifianakis – if comics were accepted by the Academy and other such entities, they wouldn’t be comics! Looks crazy without his full beard, though – didn’t even realize it was him at first. And now Penelope Cruz... muy bonita! Add her to the top 5 (again)!

8:00 – Okay, gang, Indian food has arrived so it’s time for me to take a quick break. Can’t believe these two hours of red carpet madness have come & gone already! See you in a half-hour for the big show!


8:30 – It’s showtime! And, um, it looks like Billy Crystal is doing an awesome Morgan Freeman impression! No, it’s really Morgan Freeman... Crystal couldn’t replicate that voice. He’s talking about the magic & glory of cinema. “This is the 84th Annual Academy Awards!” And there’s Billy in a silent film parody! Clooney visits comatose Billy in the hospital – and a kiss, ew! Billy and the MONEYBALL team try to write some Oscar jokes. MIDNIGHT IN PARIS with Justin Bieber to get the younger demographic! The Beebs and Sammy Davis Jr. are gonna go kill Hitler! “Have fun storming the Fuhrer!” Uh-oh, Billy is eating Octavia Spencer’s pie... which segues into the first BRIDESMAIDS / poop joke of the night. Billy wearing 3D glasses as Tom Cruise busts in... and now it’s a TINTIN shout-out! Excellent! A world of film reels with POTTER and Puss-in-Boots and stuff. And Billy is ready for the big show! Ladies and gentlemen, Billy Crystal, yaaaaaay!

8:36 – Heh, oh yeah, it’s not called the Kodak theatre anymore. That’s weird. A shout-out to James Earl Jones’ baseball speech in FIELD OF DREAMS, and now Billy sings about Best Picture nominees! Classic! Missed ya, Billy!

8:42 – Oh yeah, awards and stuff. Here’s Tom Hanks... or perhaps this is Evil Tom Hanks, since he has a goatee? That’s frightening. Cinematography is up first. Yikes, reading the nominees too fast... and the winner is HUGO!?! WOW! Could this be a harbinger of awesomeness to come?! Amazing! And now Art Direction... tough category here... would love to see HUGO win again but POTTER needs some love. And HUGO WINS AGAIN! Two for two! What’s happening?! I’m ecstatic! Keep it going! “This is for Marty and for Italy!” YEAH BABY!

8:50 – Hey, Billy, I’ll have you know that I’ve seen nearly 300 movies in theatres since the bedbug epidemic began in NYC and I haven’t gotten ‘em yet! And heeeeeeere’s a montage, about movie magic, I guess, starting with FORRREST GUMP! TITANIC, which is still awesome. LEGENDS OF THE FALL, ha, I just made a joke about Brad Pitt’s hair on Twitter. AVATAR, ok… AMELIE, yay! APOLLO 13, INDY, HANGOVER, nice! “Those aren’t pillows!” Austin Powers, CAPE FEAR, THE GODFATHER! “You can’t handle the truth!” FRENCH CONNECTION, EXORCIST... STAR WARS all over the place! “I’ll be right heeeeere,” I’m crying! ROCKY, “I’ll have what she’s having!” Nice one!

8:54 – J-Lo and Cameron Diaz are blinding in both their bright shiny dresses AND their combined hotness (yes, still). Nominees for Costume Design. ANONYMOUS, can’t count out a Shakespearean era flick. THE ARTIST and HUGO both captured the same era in different countries. JANE EYRE and W.E., more period pieces. And the Oscar goes to... THE ARTIST! So it’s war you want, is it? Well, okay! HUGO vs. THE ARTIST... FIGHT!

8:56 – J-Lo is dangerously close to a wardrobe malfunction (to quote Dave Chappelle, “Come onnnnn, titty!”) and it’s Best Makeup time. ALBERT NOBBS, meh, Glenn Close already kinda looks like a man. I’m rooting for POTTER here – for God’s sake, one of the great cinematic acheivements of the past decade needs at least ONE damn Oscar! THE IRON LADY, meh, it was good, but mostly a testament to Streep’s acting. WHOA, J-Lo and Diaz just turned around & showed their butts! Who the hell won? Oh, shit, THE IRON LADY. Well that’s a shame.

8:59 – Ben Stiller talks about going to the movies. Now Morgan Freeman, and Adam Sandler, and cutie Reese Witherspoon, and Brad Pitt, and Steve Carell. Hilary Swank. Tom Cruise. Helen Mirren. Barbra is like buttah. They all love going to the movies just like you and me!

9:05 – Sandra Bullock has apparently had a close encounter with the alien race that did a number of Nicole Kidman and Renee Zellweger. Scary. Best Foreign Film time... I’ve seen two of these, A SEPARATION, the odds-on favorite, and BULLHEAD, which was decent. And the Oscar goes to A SEPARATION! Outstanding film (and in my top 10 of the year)! For those keeping score, I am not 3-for-5. Not bad.

9:09 – Nice quip by Billy about the Republican presidential candidates being a bunch of wackos. And now last year’s Supporting Actor winner, Christian Bale, is here to present Supporting Actress. Berenice Bejo may be the heart of THE ARTIST. Jessica Chastain was all over the place in 2011 and THE HELP was her best work. Forget Melissa McCarthy... what a joke. Janet McTeer could maybe pull an upset for breathing life into ALBERT NOBBS, and she should DEFINITELY win for Best Revelatory Breast-Baring in a Gender-Bending Motion Picture. Octavia Spencer was fantastic in THE HELP and is my choice and will probably win. And the Oscar goes to... OCTAVIA SPENCER! Well deserved! Standing O! Emotional speech! Don’t you dare cut her off! Aww, yay!

9:18 – Hehehe, after Billy Crystal saw THE HELP, he wanted to hug the first black woman he saw, which from Beverly Hills was about a 45-minute drive. And now... rare footage from a focus group for THE WIZARD OF OZ? Hehe, oh my god, it’s the Christophe Guest troupe! This is amazing! "Fred Willard likes the flying monkeys! “Lots of elevator faces in this movie,” says Stiffler’s mom. “I didn’t particularly care for the rainbow song.” Guest & Co. just won the Oscars!

9:22 – WOW, nice porno mustache, Bradley Cooper! That is awesome! He and Tina Fey are presenting Best Editing, which is often a harbinger of things to come later in the evening. Naturally I’m rooting for HUGO, but I actually think MONEYBALL and DRAGON TATTOO were exceptionally well-constructed. And the Oscar goes to... DRAGON TATTOO! That is outstanding! Fincher films have a very particular feel to them and the editing is a big part of that. Nifty choice, and totally throws the usual Best Picture predictor out the window.

9:25 – Sound Editing is next. I’m actually going against HUGO for this one and picking TRANSFORMERS or WAR HORSE and WHOA, HUGO wins! That’ll teach me! Yay, HUGO, even though it F’s up my ballot! Man, I can’t stop looking at Bradley Cooper’s mustache. I guess HUGO will probably win Sound Mixing now, too, but again, I’m going for TRANSFORMERS or WAR HORSE. I mean, say what you want about TRANSFORMERS but the sound is insane. And the Oscar goes to HUGO again! Yay! Keep ‘em coming, Academy!

9:34 – KERMIT AND PIGGY IN THE HOUSE! Whoa whoa whoa... they’re introduced the Cirque du Soleil performance, which is being including at the expense of letting the Muppets sing their Oscar-nominated song?? That is adding insult to injury! I’m so annoyed I can’t even be bothered to pay attention to this movie-themed Cirque act. And I’m sure as hell not writing about it! LET THE MUPPETS SING, DAMMIT!!! WE WANT MORE MUPPETS!!!

9:39 – Billy compares this year’s Oscars to a bar mitzvah, and now he’s talking about oldsters Christopher Plummer and Max von Sydow. “Next year this will be called the Flomax Theatre!” And now here come Gwyneth Paltrow and Robert Downey Jr., who is filming a documentary called THE PRESENTER, hehe. God, Gwyneth’s suckitude is directly proportional to Downey’s awesomeness. And the Best Doc nominees are here. I’m rooting for the amazing PINA, but pretty sure PARADISE LOST 3 will win because, for God’s sake, it was responsible for releasing innocent men from prison. And the winner is UNDEFEATED??!  Holy crap. Just saw that on Friday and didn’t think there was much to it. WOW, harsh speech cut-off with the music and then turning off the mics. They’re not fucking around this year!

9:45 – Chris Rock is apparently trying to bring back the Nat X afro. Nice! Rachel just looked it up and apparently this is the first time Rock has been back to the Oscars since he hosted in 2005. Wonder why? He’s good! Let him host again, maybe. best Animated Feature is next! Weird nominees here. I think I’m officially rooting for CHICO & RITA, which reminded me of a mix between ONCE and LOVE IN THE TIME OF CHOLERA. And the Oscar goes to RANGO! No surprises there... it’s easily the best mainstream animated film this year (since Pixar took the year off). For the record, my kitten, Shea, was rooting for A CAT IN PARIS....

9:51 – Uh-oh, Melissa McCarthy putting the moves on Billy. And Billy succumbs! That was funny, but she’s still not Oscar-worthy, sorry. And here’s Ben Stiller and Emma Stone, who is all wrapped up in a tidy little package with a big red bow. Aww, it’s Emma’s first time presented an award! She’s adorbs and basking in the moment. This is amusing. “We should have some banter!” Holy crap, Emma Stone is awesome and very easy to love. And now, Visual Effects. This is POTTER’s last chance to win an Oscar... unfortunately it’s up against RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, which will surely win for the incredible mo-cap work. And the Oscar goes to... HUGO! Wow! How about that!

9:57 – Billy with a little tip of the cap to the POTTER franchise, which is shockingly Oscar-less after all these years. And here’s Melissa Leo to present Best Supporting Actor. Branagh was great as Sir Lawrence Olivier in a film about great actors that was filled with great acting. Oscar nominee Jonah Hill with a loud ovation from the Oscar crowd! Nick Nolte, meh... he looks like a drunk Kenny Rogers all of a sudden. Aww, the score from BEGINNERS fills me with emotion. No way Plummer doesn’t win. Max von Sydow with the gimmick nod. And 82-year-old Christopher Plummer, wearing a velvet tux, wins his first-ever Oscar! Oldest actor ever to win an Oscar! Outstanding! And so deserved – if you haven’t seen BEGINNERS yet, please rent it immediately!  “When I first emerged from my mother’s womb, I was rehearsing my Oscar speech.” And a shout-out to the man, Ewan McGregor! Awesome speech. Best winner moment of the night so far (with due respect to Octavia).

10:05 – Commercial for TITANIC 3D. I saw an advance screening a couple of weeks ago and loved it all over again. The movie is still awesome and the 3D is astonishingly well-done. See it in April!

10:08 – Hehe, Billy is now going to tell us what the stars are thinking. Brad Pitt has six parent-teacher conferences to attend in the morning! Morgan Freeman voices over himself! Marty is manic! Nolte is Frankenstein! Hey, it’s the dog from THE ARTIST! I still prefer the dog from BEGINNERS. (And Shea prefers the cat from A CAT IN PARIS – seriously, when I watched it the other day, Shea would glance at the TV screen whenever the movie cat meowed. It ruled.)

10:10 – President of the Academy, blah blah words. Cue the orchestra and turn off the mic! Oh, and LET THE MUPPETS SING!!!! “Thank you Tom, and thank you for whipping the crowd into a frenzy,” says Billy. Hahaha!

10:12 – Stars of two great recent Woody Allen films, Owen Wilson and Penelope Cruz, who looks phenomenal as always. Best Original Score is a meh category tonight because some of the best are nowhere to be found (BEGINNERS, hello!). But we DO have a double-dose of John Williams, and I would be very happy if he were to win. THE ARTIST probably wins, even though it stole from VERTIGO. HUGO is sweepingly epic. Whoa, almost forgot TINKER TAILOR existed. If HUGO wins this, then a true sweep may be in store... and the winner is... THE ARTIST! Well, okay, that’s cool. Was getting my hopes up too much! But I do love THE ARTIST!

10:16 – Hahahaah, Will Ferrell and Zack Galifiankis come out wearing white tuxes and crashing cymbals! This is going to be awesome. “I’m Zag Gagifagiabakkis.” They’re presenting Best Original Song, which will follow in the footsteps of such former winners as “When YOu Wish Upon a Star,” “The Way We Were” and “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp”... hehe. Obviously the Muppets are winning this one... cymbals dropping all over the place... and the Oscar goes to... “MAN OR MUPPET” from THE MUPPETS!!! YAY!!! NOW LET THE MUPPETS SING!!! Bret McKenzie with the nod to the legend of Jim Henson. Jason Segel beaming in the audience (should have maybe been allowed up on stage, too?). Good stuff!

10:24 – Billy suggests that he & Clooney buy the Dodgers and then flubs his intro for the original Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Angelina Jolie. Holy leg, Angelina! I think she’s presenting Adapted Screenplay, but I am entranced by the leg. Gotta admit, haven’t been so enraptured by Angie since that topless scene in GIA. I’m rooting for HUGO here, but I’m guessing THE DESCENDANTS will get the win. Or maybe MONEYBALL? And the Oscar goes... Alexander Payne & Co. for THE DESCENDANTS! This probably means HUGO’s run is over. But guess what? I loved THE DESCENDANTS, too – it just missed my Top 10. Funny when the guy did the Angelina leg pose. Hehe.

10:28 – Oh, Angie is still here to present Original Screenplay. THE ARTIST is the favorite here, but how awesome would it be if MIDNIGHT IN PARIS won?? Ah, to hell with BRIDESMAIDS, as much as I love Kristen Wiig. MARGIN CALL was honored big-time at the Spirit Awards yesterday. A SEPARATION is an intriguing choice. But god, I love love love MIDNIGHT IN PARIS! Come onnnn, Woody! And the Oscar goes to WOODY ALLEN FOR MIDNIGHT IN PARIS!!! YES YES YES!!! SO AWESOME! Arguably the Woodster’s best film in decades... maybe ever... I love it so much.

10:31 – Oh, more movie memories & musings from movie stars. I missed the first bunch of these because I was busy exulting over Woody Allen’s win. Tremendous. Hehe, surprised they didn’t quickly edit Sacha Baron Cohen’s clip out of this. Adam Sandler, stop being serious... you’re done. Ooh short films are up next!

10:36 – Hey Mila Jovovich, how’s it goin’? Whatcha doin’ after the show? Um, I mean, oh hey, she was the annual hottie to present the tech awards to the geeks! As a geek myself, that may be my favorite Oscar tradition.

10:38 – And now here come all the BRIDESMAIDS, including Ellie Kemper, who remains one of my favorites of the night as far as lookin’ good. Did that make sense? I dunno, I’m tipsy. Wiig & Rudolph are talking and now they’re presenting Live Action Short. Very strong category this year. Come on TIME FREAK!!! Though THE SHORE was the very good, too. And the winner is... THE SHORE! That’s cool... it did, after all, star one of my fav actors, CIARAN HINDS!

10:41 – Rose Byrne and Melissa McCarthy are playing the Oscar drinking game and took a shot when someone said Scorsese! Best Doc Short is up next. I’m rooting for the TSUNAMI AND THE CHERRY BLOSSOM, but I bet GOD IS THE BIGGER ELVIS wins because it was not screened for some reason. And the Oscar goes to... SAVING FACE! Well, all right, no problem there... it was my second-fav. See, I’m happy about everything tonight!

10:44 – Now Wendy McLendon-Covey and my girl Ellie Kemper are presented Animated Short. I think Pixar is going to win this one with the lovely LA LUNA, but don’t count out MR. MORRIS LESSMORE. Aaaaaaaand... LESSMORE wins! Bah! Okay, this is the first time I’m pissed tonight. LA LUNA was by far the best. Lousy anti-Pixar short film bias! By the way, I’ve stopped keeping track of my prediction record because it ain’t good (but that’s only because I stupidly voted against HUGO and lost three times!).

10:50 – Michael Douglas, the original Occupier of Wall Street (good one, Billy) is here and is cool as ever. Wow, we’re up to Best Director already? Holy shit, as Rachel just pointed out, this is a key moment. COME ONNNNN, MARTY! Michel H. (forgot to program a macro for his last name, oops) is probably the favorite, but who knows after HUGO’s strong showing early? Alexander Payne is always good (he’s literally never made a film). Woody Allen... imagine if he won again?? Maybe we could see a MIDNIGHT IN PARIS upset in the end! Nah (but it’d be awesome). Oh yeah, almost forgot about Malick and TREE OF LIFE. COME ON MARTY!!! Do the right thing, AcademY! And the Oscar goes to... Michel Havabndhdhmnnciicius. Damn. I mean, yay? I do love THE ARTIST. But I really thought HUGO had a shot! Damn! Also, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Arthur from BEGINNERS would kick Uggie from THE ARTIST’s doggy ass!

10:51 – Hey, remember the last time Meryl Streep won an oscar? I don’t, because I was like 5 years old. Streep introduced the governor’s awards, I think? I don’t know. But James Earl Jones was given a lifetime achievement award and they showed clips from EMPIRE STRIKES BACK and THE LION KING and that was awesome! And Oprah got something, too. Cue David Letterman: Oprah… Vader… Vader… Oprah. Hehe, I’m cracking myself up. OH SHIT IN MEMORIAM IS NEXT!

11:03 – Sad music has kicked in, Billy Crystal is talking about fallen Oscar producers. And now In Memoriam begins as some Afro Lady sing “What a Wonderful World.” Jane Russell, shit. Whoa, Whitney Houston made it in already (sometimes they wait till the following year). Aw man, Peter Falk, one of my late grandfather’s favs... maybe they’re solving crimes together in Heaven. Sidney Lumet, damn... what a titan. Steve Jobs counts because of Pixar. Ben Gazzara! And of course, Elizabeth Taylor... goddamn. Yep, I’m sad now. Did they miss anybody?

11:11 – Make a wish! Shit, wait, I didn’t wish for another “actors sharing their movie musings” segment. But Phillip Seymour Hoffman rules, as does Edward Norton, as does Robert Downey Jr. I honestly have not listened to a word any of these guys have said in any of these segments. NEXT!

11:12 – “Last year’s winner for Best Actress, Natalie Portman”... still rankles my chain. (Is that a saying? It is now.) Oh, they’re going back to the thing where the presenter speaks directly to each nominee. Demian Bichir, eh, I dunno, I just didn’t think he was that great. Maybe I’m wrong (believe it or not, it’s happened before). Clooney WAS great in THE DESCENDANTS, even though it’s hard to believe that his wife would have cheated on him with Matthew Lillard. (Natalie DOES look mighty fine, by the way. I’m still allowed to lust after her even though she’s a shitty actress.) Jean Dujardin is the odds-on favorite here, even though his ARTIST mustache has now been outshined by Bradley Cooper’s. GARY OLDMAN needs to win because he was awesome in TINKER TAILOR and he’s awesome ALL THE TIME and deserves some recognition (also, remember when he & Natalie were THE PROFESSIONAL together?). Brad Pitt was great in MONEYBALL, the best baseball movie in many years. And the Oscar goes to… MICHAEL SHANNON FOR TAKE SHELTER! Oh wait, sorry, that’s what it SHOULD have been. The actual Oscar goes to... Jean Dujardin for THE ARTIST! .................................... <— that was me being silent. Because it’s a silent film, ya see. I’ve got a book coming out!

11:24 – Colin Firth is here to present Best Actress. Whoa whoa whoa... Glenn Close is an acTRESS?! (Imagine me saying that in Danny DeVito’s LORAX voice and it’s mildly funnier.) ALBERT NOBBS was a weird movie. Viola Davis looks awesome with the natural hairdo and she was awesome in THE HELP and will probably win here (it would be the first time two African-American women won in the same year... just throwing that out there). Rooney Mara was not even the best Lisbeth Salander we’ve seen recently, so she should not win. Meryl Streep has been nominated 17 times and has only won twice and not since 1982... crazy. THE IRON LADY sucked but through no fault of hers. Yay Michelle Williams – she fully embodied Marilyn and it was something to see. I was rooting for her last year for BLUE VALENTINE and I’m rooting for her again now! And the Oscar goes to MERYL FUCKING STREEP! WOWOW! I am seriously shocked! Hahaha, she is awesome. Ladies and gentlemen, we’re looking at the greatest actress of our lifetime. Maybe of all time. She could probably have 17 Oscars right now on some level. An awesome awesome awesome moment!

11:32 – Tom Cruise comes out the Mission Impossible theme to present Best Picture! Well, it’s all come down to this and I’m guessing THE ARTIST will be the winner. But hey, maybe HUGO still has some life left in it! MONEYBALL would be the first baseball movie ever to win. THE DESCENDANTS is fantastic. THE HELP is powerful. MIDNIGHT IN PARIS is joyous. WAR HORSE was a pure Spielbergian old-school epic. TREE OF LIFE is, um, complex and stuff. EXTREMELY LOUD isn’t nearly as bad as everyone seems to think (but it shouldn’t be here). What’s it gonna be folks? What’s... it... gonna... be? And the Oscar goes to... THE ARTIST! The first silent film to win Best Picture since the very first Best Picture! I guess I’m a little bummed because for a brief, shining moment, I really thought HUGO had a shot – but THE ARTIST is a fantastic film and a a worthy win (we’ll just have to keep waiting for my #1 movie to win best Picture). Aaaaaaand that’s a wrap!

Well, hey, not a bad show this year! Got excited early when HUGO picked up a flurry of technical awards, but it couldn’t withstand THE ARTIST juggernaut in the end. That’s okay – I loved both movies, and in fact, I’m pretty pleased with most of the winners. The only one I’m kind of pissed about is Best Animated Short, because I thought Pixar’s LA LUNA was by far the best... but the winner, MR. MORRIS LESSMORE, was probably my second favorite, so even that wasn’t too bad. Definitely no rage-inducing debacles like in past years! Super surprising awesome Best Actress win for Meryl Streep, but otherwise the acting awards went to their expected recipients (Spencer, Plummer and Dujardin). I also REALLY loved that Woody Allen and MIDNIGHT IN PARIS won Best Original Screenplay. A pleasant evening all in all! Billy Crystal was great, as always, despite the lack of Jack Palance references (could’ve said something about the late Palance spotting God in the weight room or something, I dunno) – though I’d love to see Christopher Guest & Co. or the Muppets host next year! Or bring back Chris Rock and turn him loose! Or just let Billy do it until he dies, that’s fine. I think I only actually predicted 7 winners of however-many categories, which is pitiful and would not have won me any Oscar pools... but that’s what I get for voting with my heart. Hottest actresses of the night: Let’s go with Jessica Chastain, Ellie Kemper, Michelle Williams, Natalie Portman (yeah, what of it?), Penelope Cruz, J-Lo’s areola and Angelina Jolie’s leg! If you made it all the way through this epic commentary (close to 6,000 words!), I salute you and thank you from the bottom of my heart! Goodnight everybody... and Hail the Dictator!

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Are You Ready for the Oscars? I Am!

oscarsHey gang, just a friendly reminder that tomorrow, Sunday, Feb. 26th will bring us the 84th Annual Academy Awards and I will be right here conducting my LIVE moment-by-moment Oscar commentary for the 7th straight year! That means I’ve been doing this kind of thing before Facebook... before Twitter... before Tumblr... I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I am a goddamn pioneer! Of course, these days, everyone in the world will be live-tweeting the show and your feeds will be inundated with information. But if you’re watching the big show, please do consider swinging by and following my in-depth, stream-of-consciousness musings, observations, predictions, rants and raves. And if you’re not watching, this will be the ultimate resource!

If you’re new ‘round these parts and want to know what kind of madness to expect, or if you want to relive the magic of previous Oscar nights, here are links to the past six years’ worth of commentaries (along with their respective Best Picture winners as a point of reference). Honestly, if I can manage to amuse you with even half as much as I amuse myself with these things, it will be worth your while. :)

2006 (Crash)
2007 (The Departed)
2008 (No Country For Old Men)
2009 (Slumdog Millionaire)
2010 (The Hurt Locker)
2011 (The King's Speech)

To refresh your memory about this year’s nominees, be sure to revisit my epic Oscar Picks & Predictions post from a few weeks ago, in which I offer my educated opinions about which movies I am rooting for and which I think will probably take home the gold in every category. Note that I DO have a couple of addendums to that post, as I’ve seen a few more of the nominees since then: I have now seen all of the Best Documentary Feature contenders, and while I will still be rooting for PINA, I believe PARADISE LOST 3: PURGATORY will probably win. Furthermore, I may be rooting for CHICO & RITA for Best Animated Feature. Haven’t quite decided that yet, but it is fantastic... as is A CAT IN PARIS... and as is RANGO, which will I still think will win.

I also continued my tradition of seeing the Oscar-nominated Short Films at the IFC Center, including the Documentary Shorts for the first time ever! You can find those reviews here:


Be sure to adjust your Oscar pools accordingly. Actually, I am particularly proud of myself this year because I have seen more Oscar nominees than ever before. There are only FIVE nominated films that I have NOT seen: Foreign Films IN DARKNESS, FOOTNOTE and MONSIEUR LAZHAR; Costume Design contender W.E.; and Documentary Short nominee GOD IS THE BIGGER ELVIS (which was not screened for some reason). Not too shabby!

Lastly, while we’re at it, in case you haven’t seen them all and need some extra guidance, here are the links to where you can find my reviews of the nine nominees for Best Picture:




My Oscar commentary will begin tomorrow promptly at 6 p.m. EST with the red carpet show on E!, after which I’ll switch over to ABC and continue ‘til the final award is handed out at the end of the night. Will THE ARTIST pull off the expected sweep, or is there a chance that my #1 movie of the year, HUGO, could pull off an upset? Will Frenchie Dujardin defeat America’s golden boy, George Clooney? Can Michelle Williams steal one from frontrunner Viola Davis, or will the great Streep snag her first statue in 30 years? Could old favorites like Scorsese and Woody Allen leave their mark? Will the Muppets thumb their noses at the Academy and sing anyway? And how about the return of Billy Crystal? So many questions! It’s gonna be good... so bookmark BenLikesMovies.com and get ready to click “refresh” over and over again and enjoy!

Thursday, February 23, 2012

REVIEW: Act of Valor

Even the most jaded American has to admit that the Navy SEALs are the biggest bad-ass action heroes that our nation has to offer in real life. Aside from the fact that they represent our most elite fighting force, part of the mystique is that we, the general public, know very little about their inner workings. Ever since SEAL Team Six found and killed Osama bin Laden last year, it seemed inevitable that a flurry of SEAL-centric movies would soon follow. What was unexpected, however, was that the first of these would be a film that had already been in production for years, and that answers the question, “Okay, so Navy SEALs kick ass -- but can they act??”

Act-of-ValorACT OF VALOR stars active-duty SEALs and depicts fictional scenarios that are based on real-life missions. The techniques, procedures, technology and terminology that appear on screen are all said to be 100% legit. Directors Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh spent years working with these men to get the details as accurate as possible. At times, the soldiers had to leave the set to go off on their own real-life missions, which is an unthinkable proposition. Imagine filming FORREST GUMP and suddenly Tom Hanks gets called away on a mission in which he could conceivably be killed? As an idea, this film is intriguing to say the least.

Unfortunately, as a major motion picture that requires things like “plot” and “dialogue” and “acting,” it fails pretty severely. These guys (most of whom remain nameless for the sake of national security) are true heroes who deserve our respect and admiration, but man... they can’t act for shite. When even the slightest bit of acting talent is required, the film grinds to an uncomfortable halt. There are many melodramatic moments amidst the action -- farewells with family members, bonding moments with brothers-at-arms, feeble attempts at character development -- and it gets to be downright cringe-worthy. Not that these guys were given Oscar-caliber material to work with: It’s one thing when dialogue is rife with military-jargon, since that’s sort of the point. But those melodramatic moments are often preachy and sentimental and dripping with every patriotic cliché in the book. At times it almost feels like a recruitment video in disguise -- I half expected to hear that subliminal song from that one Simpsons episode in the background: “Yvan eht nioj!”

Of course, the combat scenes are the real selling point, and they are definitely intense, loaded with brutal, bloody, unrelenting firefights. But even these are occasionally cheapened by a distinct video game feel, from the use of first-person perspective to the very way the plot is constructed. There’s a mission description (“Rescue kidnapped CIA agent!” GO!), then the mission, then you beat the mission and there’s a cut scene telling some semblance of a story along with an explanation of the next mission. Level 2 is next with higher stakes (“Uncover and prevent potential terrorist attack on U.S. soil!” GO!), and so on, until you finally beat the game. If it wasn’t for the whole “real-life Navy SEALs” thing, they could Act-of-Valor1have called this CALL OF DUTY: THE MOVIE without changing very much.

I actually enjoyed the build-up to some of the action more than anything else. There’s a particularly tense sequence in which the SEALs are slowly, quietly converging on their target. They begin to snipe down various armed guards, including one standing on the edge of a pier. But before the body can splash into the water, potentially alerting other guards, a SEAL who was hiding underwater catches the body and lowers it in without a sound. If only the rest of the movie could have been as effective.

If nothing else, ACT OF VALOR is a big, flag-waving crowd-pleaser that gives our nation’s ultimate warriors a moment in the cinematic spotlight. It is in no way a good movie, but if you can allow yourself to overlook, well, pretty much everything except the combat scenes, and if you are intrigued by the idea of peeking behind the Navy SEAL curtain, there may be an enjoyable movie-watching experience in there somewhere. Let’s just hope these guys haven’t been bitten by the acting bug and quit their day jobs, or we’re in big trouble in more ways than one.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

REVIEW: 2012 Oscar-Nominated Live Action Shorts

Very strong collection of Live Action shorts this year. They follow similar themes that past shorts have explored: There's one about a kid, an ethnic one, an emotional drama, a American quirk-fest and a weird foreign comedy. That being said, these formulas work and I liked them all... and even loved a couple of them. And the nominees are....

PentecostPENTECOST (Ireland) -- A funny Irish tale from Peter McDonald that pits the two greatest religions of the world against each other: Sports and... well, actual religion. Damien is an altar boy who has been suspended from duty after accidentally hitting the priest with an incense burner. As punishment for embarrassing the family, Damien’s father has grounded him, which means no watching his beloved Liverpool football matches on TV! However, when it is announced that the bishop will be visiting for Sunday mass, Damien -- still the best damn incense carrier in town -- is called back into action. If the mass goes off without a hitch, Dad promises that Damien will get back his football-watching privileges just in time for the European Cup finals. But at what personal cost? Featuring a solid performance from the lead kid, this 11-minute short is highlighted by the priest’s pre-mass motivational speech that could have been lifted from any inspirational sports movie playbook.

rajuRAJU (Germany/India) -- This mystery/drama is about a German couple visiting Calcutta to pick up a boy they’ve adopted from a local orphanage. Four-year-old Raju is very cute with his big cartoon eyes and the mother, desperate for a child, falls in love immediately. Seems like they’ll all live happily after after... until the father takes Raju to a market and subsequently loses him. A harrowing search through the crowded city ensues, but the police offer little help; in a particularly disturbing moment, they post Raju’s photo on a wall filled with hundreds of “missing children” notices, a striking commentary on what is clearly a big problem. The search eventually leads the father to an investigator who specializes in tracking down missing children -- and that is when a horrible truth comes to light. Director Max Zähle paints a gritty, often tense and unsettling picture, but the whole thing feels overlong at 24 minutes.

theshoreTHE SHORE (Northern Ireland) -- A wonderful 31-minute epic (by short film standards, at least) from director and past Oscar nominee Terry George (he co-wrote IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER and HOTEL RWANDA). It stars one of my favorite actors, Ciarán Hinds, as Joe, a man who returns home to Belfast for the first time in 25 years to show his daughter, Patricia, their roots. Meanwhile, we’re also introduced to Paddy, a local fisherman, and his wife Mary, who are living a happy life by the shore -- and who, we soon discover, share a connection with Joe that goes back many years. As the layers of Joe’s life are peeled back, we learn about these relationships and the events that split them apart, building to an emotional and revelatory reconciliation. Aside from being a touching story of the power of love and friendship, the film is a celebration of Irish life & culture, filled with beautiful scenery, traditions and history. The story is somewhat predictable but nonetheless moving, thanks in no small part to some tremendous performances. If there were acting awards for short films, Hinds (who you may also remember from such diverse films as THERE WILL BE BLOOD, MUNICH, HARRY POTTER 7.2 and the HBO series ROME) would have an Oscar in the bag -- hopefully someday his talents will be given their due notice on the big stage.

Stillman at the board TIME FREAK (USA) -- I really liked this little slice of sci-fi while I was watching it (and immediately after), but I find myself loving it more and more as the days go by. It’s a simple, ingenious twist on the time-travel genre: An obsessive-compulsive geek named Stillman invents a time machine with aspirations of travelling back to ancient Rome, only to get caught up in trying to correct the little things that occurred yesterday. Director Andrew Bowler puts a fresh spin on the repetition of GROUNDHOG DAY, fuses it with a Woody Allen-esque neurosis and the result is 11 minutes of zany, hilarious, expertly-crafted brilliance, complete with rapid-fire editing and cheesy lightning bolt effects for the time machine that made me cackle. Hugely satisfying, even though it gave me pause because I’m sure that if I ever got my hands on a time machine, I’d be tempted to use it in the same way -- space-time continuum be damned!

tuba-atlanticTUBA ATLANTIC (Norway) -- Like THE SHORE, this one touches upon themes of reconciliation, but does so in a much more bizarre way. Oskar is a 70-year-old curmudgeon who learns that he has only six days to live. He is then visited by Inger, a peppy young “death angel” who is tasked with making sure Oskar dies peacefully. Inger soon learns, however, that Oskar is not a pleasant man to be around -- he’d much rather massacre seagulls with a machine gun than worry about his own demise. (He sort of reminds me of a weird Scandinavian mix of Carl Fredricksen from UP and Clint Eastwood’s character from GRAN TORINO.) But deep down, what he really wants is to reconnect with his estranged brother living in America. The key to this may be the mysterious gigantic tuba sitting outside his house -- but can he get the thing to work before time runs out? The 25-minute film, directed by Hallvar Witzø, is wonderfully acted, touching, gleefully macabre, and, like the Live Action shorts program as a whole, ultimately satisfying.

I’M ROOTING FOR: Time Freak -- though The Shore would make me happy, too.
WILL PROBABLY WIN: Time Freak -- it is the clear standout, and this is the one category where Oscar seems to prefer laughter to tears!

The Oscar-nominated shorts are now playing at NYC’s finest gem of an indie theatre, the IFC Center. Yes, three separate programs means three separate admissions, but it's totally worth the time and money. Check them out before the big show and come back here to discuss!

Monday, February 13, 2012

REVIEW: 2012 Oscar-Nominated Animated Shorts

I gotta say, this year’s Animated shorts are probably the weakest bunch of nominees in the four years I’ve been attending these IFC Center screenings. That said, they’re not all bad -- and there may even be a gem or two to be found. Let’s take a look....

dimanche_sundaySUNDAY/DIMANCHE (Canada) -- I think this ten-minute mess by Patrick Doyan is supposed to show a Sunday in the life of a boy from his perspective. As the day goes on, the boy experiences many things: He puts coins on railroad tracks so they get flattened by passing trains. He goes to church. He visits Grandma’s house and must endure a dinner party with nattering adults. He witnesses a dog get hit by a car and devoured by crows. There’s a bear head mounted to Grandma’s wall that appears to still be alive. It is unclear whether some of these things are figments of the boy’s imagination, or if it is simply how he perceives the mundane world around him... or if there is any connection at all. Even more egregious is that the perspective is constantly shifting, which spoils that effect and seems to defeat the purpose. Doesn’t help that the animation style, hand-drawn in drab browns & greys, wears thin quickly.

a-morning-strollA MORNING STROLL (UK) -- This short by Grant Orchard is based on a supposedly-true story in which someone spied a chicken walking down a city street and watched as it knocked on a door with its beak and was let inside. The film uses three radically different animation styles to show this event occur in three radically different time periods: There’s old-timey black-and-white in 1959, two-dimensional color in 2009 and crazy whacked-out CGI in 2059. Of course, there’s a message about the state of society (particularly NYC, which is where the short is set; the chicken even displays some New York attitude -- or at least, New York attitude as perceived by someone from England) in each time period, but mostly it seems like the animators just wanted to say, “Hey, look at all the different kinds of animation we can cram into seven minutes!” Amusing but insignificant.

wild-lifeWILD LIFE (Canada) -- I very much enjoyed the impressionistic animation style of this 13-minute western (of sorts) from Amanda Forbis and Wendy Tilby, but the story wears thin fairly quickly. It’s about a Brit who emigrates to the Canadian wilderness in the early 1900’s. He lives alone on a small ranch in the middle of nowhere, at first overconfident about his future success (note that his adventure is financed by mum & dad), but eventually realizes he’s gotten in over his head, is overcome by loneliness, starts drinking and ultimately meets a tragic end. Through the use of intertitles, his experience is compared to the life cycle of a comet, so while it is a slow-moving, introspective tale, it is not particularly subtle.

Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris LessmoreTHE FANTASTIC FLYING BOOKS OF MR. MORRIS LESSMORE (USA) -- This little ditty is a lovely mix of old silent comedies, THE WIZARD OF OZ, ALICE IN WONDERLAND and PLEASANTVILLE, with added inspiration from post-Katrina New Orleans and a general affection for books. One day, a man (a clear homage to Buster Keaton) is reading on his balcony in the French Quarter when a huge storm hits, literally blowing the letters off the pages, sending him flying through the air and dumping him into a strange wasteland where he finds that he has been rendered black and white. But when he happens upon a house filled with fluttering, personable, piano-playing books (they’re alive, you see), his life is given a new purpose. The 15-minute film combines several animation styles, including one of the most clever uses of a flip-book in recent memory, and is beautiful to look at. While it doesn’t contain much in the way of character development, William Joyce and Brandon Oldenburg’s ode to the power of the written word is whimsical, poignant, and important these days -- I’ll take a printed book over an eBook any day!

la-lunaLA LUNA (USA) -- At this point, saying that the Pixar entry is my favorite makes me feel a bit like the boy who cried wolf. I know, I root for them every year -- but this time, their film really IS the best (actually, it was really the best last year, too, but never mind). This seven-minute short from writer/director Enrico Casaroasa is an absolute joy. It’s about a little boy on a nighttime boat ride with his squabbling father and grandfather. The moon rises, and they ascend a ladder to the lunar surface, where they find millions of shiny gold stars. From there, we learn that the older men are indoctrinating the youngster into the family business of moon-sweeping -- though what exactly that entails, I will not say, because the film’s punchline is both funny and wondrous. With an animation style that invokes a child’s bedtime story book, this is a film that, in true Pixar fashion, works on multiple levels and may be one of their most timeless shorts ever. After the perceived failure of CARS 2 (which failed to earn them an Best Animated Feature nod for the first time ever), it’s a relief to see that they weren’t completely asleep at the wheel last year!

I’M ROOTING FOR: La Luna, by a landslide.
WILL PROBABLY WIN: La Luna (Pixar hasn’t actually won in this category since 2001, so aside from being the best choice, they’re due).

But wait, there’s more! Since the nominated shorts were so... short... we were also treated to FOUR additional, highly commended shorts:

skylightSKYLIGHT (Canada) -- A very funny faux-documentary and cautionary tale by David Baas about the hole in the ozone layer and its effect on the poor little penguins in the Antarctic. Pretty much five minutes of non-stop visual hilarity -- turns out penguins can still be funny after all these years! Would have actually preferred to see this one get a nod over pretty much any of the actual nominees other than LA LUNA or MORRIS LESSMORE.

nullarborNULLARBOR (Australia) -- The Nullarbor Plain is apparently the longest stretch of flat, treeless desert in Australia. And there’s a road that goes through it. And this CG short by Alister Lockhart is sort of a Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote adventure pitting a douchebag in a sports car against an old guy in a jalopy. The result is ten moderately entertaining and amusing minutes.

AMAZONIAAMAZONIA (USA) -- A cute, five-minute adventure set in the Amazon rainforest, starring a little green tree frog named Bounce who can’t catch a meal to save his life. But he soon meets Biggy, a big blue bullfrog who helps show him the ropes. Featuring super-vibrant colors, hyper-realistic characters & backgrounds and classical score, Sam Chen’s film is fast-paced & fun, with a chuckle-inducing ending.

hybridUnionHYBRID UNION (USA/Ukraine) -- A four-minute tortoise vs. hare story from Serguei Kouchnerov, featuring two entities known as Plus and Minus who must join forces and become the Hybrid Union in order to renew their energy supply and defeat a new rival in a race across a futuristic Cyberdesert. There’s a message in there about energy efficiency and such, but I mostly like the nifty-looking characters, based on the filmmaker’s own oil paintings.


Sunday, February 12, 2012

REVIEW: 2012 Oscar-Nominated Documentary Shorts

On Saturday night, I spent 7+ hours at the IFC Center overdosing on OSCAR-NOMINATED SHORT FILMS, an event that has become one of my favorite movie-watching traditions of the year! This year, aside from the Animated and Live Action nominees, I also saw the Documentary Shorts -- first time I have EVER seen any of these nominees in all the years I’ve been watching the Oscars. They cover some particularly heavy subject matter, which made for an exhausting 2½ hour program, but I’m excited to finally be able to make an educated guess in this category! Here are my reviews so you can, too:

Incident-in-New-BaghdadINCIDENT IN NEW BAGHDAD (USA) -- Not a bad film, but the problem is that director James Spione tries to cram what could have been at least two interesting full-length documentaries into 25 minutes. On one hand it tells the story of Ethan McCord, a U.S. soldier who fought in Iraq and now experiences post-traumatic stress syndrome as a result of the atrocities he witnessed there. One of those atrocities was the infamous incident in which a U.S. Apache helicopter opened fire and killed eleven civilians in Baghdad, including two journalists, a video of which was later released by WikiLeaks (thus putting that organization on the map). It’s also interesting to note that McCord eventually denounced the military’s practices and now gives talks on behalf of PTSD sufferers. There just isn’t enough time to give due respect to any of these threads and the result is a provocative but disjointed rush job.

Saving-FaceSAVING FACE (Pakistan/
USA) -- In Pakistan, hundreds of women per year are attacked with acid, usually by their husbands, leaving their faces horribly scarred and disfigured. These attacks often go unreported, and even when the victims do try to seek justice, punishments are few and far between. But this doc from Daniel Junge and Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy follows several survivors as they attempt to rebuild their lives, including one whose infuriating case gains worldwide attention and, it is hoped, could help change the system. That story is fascinating and all the victims’ plights are treated with respect and dignity. But the film loses steam when it focuses on a renowned Pakistani-born plastic surgeon who returns home to help these women repair their faces -- an extremely noble cause, to be sure, but the guy is so pompous and self-aggrandizing that you kinda want to smack him upside the head before you thank him.

tsunamicherryblossomTHE TSUNAMI AND THE CHERRY BLOSSOM (Japan/USA) -- This film opens with incredibly harrowing depiction of the Japanese tsunami of 2011, using actual footage of a massive tidal wave hitting the Eastern coast. The camera holds steady as the water sweeps through a village, obliterating everything in its path and sending people running for higher ground. It is terrifying and I found myself filled with anxiety as the water, along with cars and entire houses, barreled closer & closer to the camera. From there, the film focuses on the recovery effort, using the cherry blossoms, which came into bloom about a month after the devastation, as a metaphor for human resiliency. Seems like an obvious parallel, but it is never manipulative, relying instead on the natural power of the imagery and events. Director Lucy Walker recites what is essentially a cinematic poem with beautiful cinematography, music and candid interviews with survivors. Well-crafted, potent and effective.

barberofbirminghamTHE BARBER OF BIRMINGHAM: FOOT SOLDIER OF THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT (USA) -- A touching portrait of James Armstrong, an 85-year-old African-American barber in Birmingham, Alabama who had been active in the Civil Rights movement since the ‘50s and lived to see Barack Obama elected President of the United States. His barbershop was a hub of sorts back in the day (Martin Luther King, Jr., himself would come in for a trim whenever he was in town) where the charismatic Armstrong would educate customers about the importance of the right to vote. Later, it continued to stand as a time capsule with newspaper clippings and photos covering the walls as Armstrong shared stories of his experiences as a “foot soldier” -- among other things, he served as flag bearer during the infamous Bloody Sunday march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. The film’s strength occasionally wavers as co-directors Robin Fryday and Gail Dolgin (who, sadly, died shortly before the film made its debut at Sundance) shift focus away from Armstrong, but it is nonetheless a nice tribute to a man who deserves recognition for his efforts.

WILL PROBABLY WIN: GOD IS THE BIGGER ELVIS, the one nominee that they couldn’t screen because of licensing reasons... so I’m sure it will win just to piss me off.


Wednesday, February 1, 2012

REVIEW: The Woman in Black

womaninblackAfter having done battle with vicious dragons and evil basilisks and giant spiders and the Dark Lord himself, you’d think that a simple haunted house would be a walk in the park for Daniel Radcliffe. In THE WOMAN IN BLACK, the former boy wizard plays Arthur Kipps, a young lawyer who travels to the middle of nowhere, England, to finalize some paperwork relating to the death of a local woman who owned a creepy old mansion known as the Eel Marsh House. Upon arrival, Kipps encounters wary and foreboding townsfolk who let him know that he is not welcome and should leave immediately. But why? Turns out the mansion is haunted by the ghost of a woman whose own child was once taken away from her -- and who, legend has it, seeks vengeance by killing a local child any time someone catches a glimpse of her. For this reason, superstitious locals keep as far away from the mansion as possible; Kipps, of course, unwittingly starts the cycle anew.

The film’s biggest strength lies in the way it sets an eerie stage. The Victorian-era setting and cinematography are used nicely, and the Eel Marsh House itself is a work of art: Gothic, dilapidated, shrouded by marshlands and mist and located on a secluded island that can only be reached by navigating a long & winding road during low tide; when the tide rises, the house -- and anyone inside -- is cut off from the rest of the world. The interior of the house is even better, filled with some legitimately unsettling mise-en-scene, ranging from mysterious handprints to gruesome porcelain dolls and the scariest cymbal-crashing monkey since the cover of the Stephen King book, “Skeleton Crew.” Tension is heightened by spectral images that you may not even always see in the background (it may take several viewings to notice them all), but whose presence adds an aura of dread.

Unfortunately, the film falters when it comes time to actually follow through with the big scares. They are almost always horribly telegraphed, and not in an anticipatory, PARANORMAL ACTIVITY sort of way -- more like an eye-rolling, “All right, already” sort of way. Even worse, the filmmakers seem to be of the belief that loud noises = big scares, which is not necessarily true. (Sometimes loud noises are just loud noises, which is annoying.) There is also a surprising reliance on Japanese-horror-style imagery, which became an overused cliché about five years ago -- the effectiveness of the Woman in Black herself is weakened for this very reason. Off the top of my head, I can think of exactly two moments that sent the slightest shivers down my spine (one involving the aforementioned monkey), which is simply not good enough. A disappointing waste of some very good build-up.

womaninblack2It’s also worth noting that the ending is a huge groaner. Even if the events leading up to it had been top-notch, the ending would have undermined the whole damn thing. I’ll say no more.

As for Radcliffe, the biggest knock against him has always been that his acting can be a bit wooden, and there is some of that here -- but he is generally solid and game for whatever ridiculousness the filmmakers throw at him. Ciaran Hinds (one of the great character actors working today) as a wealthy landowner and Kipps’ only friend in town, and recent Oscar nominee Janet McTeer as his deranged wife, provide some excellent support.

Daniel Radcliffe is a pretty good bet to have a solid career in the aftermath of the most successful movie franchise of all time. He’s a fine actor and is a damn nice guy. THE WOMAN IN BLACK may be a hit based on his pedigree alone (the teenyboppers will surely come out in droves), but as a scary movie, it could have used a little more magic.