REVIEW: Eye in the Sky

20 04 2016

Eye in the SkyMore than a mere morality play, Gavin Hood’s “Eye in the Sky” displays an impeccable representation of how we fight now, particularly in the later years of the Obama administration. The film goes farther than the largely character-based drama of Andrew Niccol’s 2015 drone-related flick “Good Kill,” demonstrating both the individual and the collective effects of conducting warfare on a screen in a remote room.

“Eye in the Sky” mostly depicts a single mission conducted as a collaboration between the United States, United Kingdom and Kenya. Together, their militaries scope out Al-Shabaab terrorists from an unmanned aircraft flying high above the ground. From this vantage point, they scope out a large quantity of explosives getting ready to leave a safe house – attached to the chest of a suicide bomber.

The decision to strike seems like a no-brainer to British Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren). Even though they started tracking a citizen-turned-extremists for the purpose of capture, the clearly observed threat raises the stakes. Her position far from the battlefield would seem to make her, as well as her superiors, more likely to make the informed and rational decision. Yet with all the details they can observe, they also see their potential collateral damage up close and personal: a young girl, unrelated to the terrorists, sent out to sell bread in the streets.

Rather than take swift action, everyone now tries to kick the can up the road to their supervisor or boss. No one wants to be the last voice or the final finger on the trigger with a child likely to die as a result. In scenes of rapid succession that resemble a one-act play more than a film, Guy Hibbert’s script depicts a kind of bureaucratic nightmare unfolding in real time. Eventually, “Eye in the Sky” takes on the tenor of “Dr. Strangelove“-esque farce.

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REVIEW: Trumbo

30 11 2015

TrumboThe potential criminalization of thought. The stoking of Americans’ fear of immigrants. The incessant blabbering that the media is infecting the world with its supposed invective.

No, that’s not the 2016 presidential campaign, it’s the late 1940s and early 1950s as depicted by Jay Roach in his new film “Trumbo.” But certain similarities inevitably come to light, of course. Fortunately for the team behind this project (but unfortunately for the world), the aftermath of the Paris attacks that occurred just a week after its theatrical release have only made this history lesson all the more pressing to revisit.

In the immediate aftermath of World War II, Communists were merely self-respecting left-wingers just slightly more extreme than the average Democrat. But once the Cold War began and the Soviet Union was no longer an ally, Communism was the primary menace to the security of the United States. A number of activists, such as Bryan Cranston’s screenwriting whiz Dalton Trumbo, were left to answer for a militaristic ideology they never intend to espouse.

The film shows, in heartbreaking detail, just how quickly the red panic overtook the country and instituted a reign of terror headed by Congress’ HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee). Worse of all, Hollywood became complacent in imprisoning and exiling talents like Trumbo. These self-fashioned patriotic moralists, led by John Wayne (David James Elliott) and gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren), drove the industry to create its notorious “blacklist” of known communists that could never be hired again.

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LISTFUL THINKING: 10 British Actors Who Would Have CRUSHED Harry Potter

12 05 2015

With Eddie Redmayne now in official talks for “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” a spinoff of the “Harry Potter” series, I figured now was as good a time as ever to turn a long-gestating list into a published post.  (This has been a note in my iPhone for almost four years now!)

It is easy to forget that the “Harry Potter” series, among its many accomplishments, offered fine roles to a number of talented British thespians.  Pooled together, the cast has amassed 31 Oscar nominations – a number that seems mightly low when you consider the names who graced the eight films.  Kenneth Branagh.  Julie Christie.  Gary Oldman.  Ralph Fiennes.  Maggie Smith.  Emma Thompson.  (Alan Rickman is not included because he has somehow never been nominated for an Oscar.)

Recently, a number of stars have expressed remorse that they were not a part of the series.  Martin Freeman got sad about it with Jimmy Fallon…

…while Eddie Redmayne briefly lamented it before launching into a hilarious story about bombing his audition for “The Hobbit” films.

Redmayne on HP

But just because it did not happen for Redmayne does not mean I cannot imagine a few recastings that incorporates some more talented British actors.  Maybe some roles will have to make cameos in the new trilogy, after all!  And, heaven forbid, Warner Bros. might actually reboot the original books one day.

So, as the title of the list suggests, here are 10 British actors overlooked by the “Harry Potter” casting directors and the roles they could have played brilliantly.

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REVIEW: Woman in Gold

4 04 2015

Woman in GoldA few months ago, upon seeing the trailer for “Woman in Gold,” I made the snarky suggestion on Facebook that the film was “Philomena” meets “The Monuments Men.”  The calculation wound up being correct, though thankfully the hybrid resembles the Judi Dench charmer more than Clooney’s bomb.

Helen Mirren stars as plainspoken Maria Altmann, an aristocratic Austrian émigré turned Angeleno shop owner.  Back in the 1940s, she fled the Nazi incursion after her cultured family found themselves the target of pointed hostility from the Third Reich’s plunderers.  Maria left before they could take her pride – but not before they confiscated artwork that was rightfully hers, including a portrait by Gustav Klimt that was commissioned by her uncle.

Fast forward half a century, and that same portrait, widely hailed as a national treasure, hangs on the walls of Vienna’s Belvedere Museum.  Maria, meanwhile, hangs her head in despair after the loss of her dear sister.  On a whim, she reaches out to the down-and-out son of a family friend, Ryan Reynolds’ lawyer on the rebound Randol Schoenberg, to see if he can assist her in a restitution claim.

Neither, however, realizes the many personal and cultural nerves they will hit in their years-long quest to right a historical wrong.  Austria’s restitution began as a PR stunt but quickly became a Pandora’s box of past grievances coming back into the light.  “Not everything is about the Holocaust,” opines one upset citizen when spotting Maria after an intense session in court.  The line resonates not only given the recent explosion of anti-Semitic attitudes in Europe but also in a more global sense, where those who did not suffer from past discrimination still cannot fathom grappling with its present-day effects.

“Woman in Gold” provides a very satisfying watch, even though it is definitely far from perfect or groundbreaking.  Director Simon Curtis achieves a feat similar to the one he achieved on his feature film debut “My Week with Marilyn” by providing a consistently engaging, entertaining story with stakes worth the price of admission.  This film, though, does suffer from some less than ideal casting (Reynolds and his on-screen wife Katie Holmes) as well as some unmotivated cutting back to Maria’s backstory as a young woman in Vienna.  Still, I would not hesitate to recommend it for anyone looking for a drama that will not sap all their cognitive energy.  B2halfstars





REVIEW: Monsters University

7 08 2013

Monsters UMonsters University” may not scale the emotional heights of Pixar’s most recent towering achievements “Up” and “Toy Story 3,” but that doesn’t mean the film isn’t moving, charming, or sweet in other ways.  It’s a movie that will be special and touching to anyone who has ever felt like an impostor or an underdog in their own life.  And for those big kids who have been to college themselves, it’s especially meaningful to anyone who has struggled to find their place on campus.

The film opens with a sight to make your heart melt – a tiny Mike Wazowski, the most adorable little nugget with big dreams to become a scarer at Monsters, Inc.  He’s got plenty of book smarts but lacks the intimidating frame to take the Scare Floor by storm.  Mike (Billy Crystal) meets quite the foil in a cocky young James P. “Sully” Sullivan (John Goodman), a dumb party animal who slacks off because he’s blessed with natural skill.  It’s a pretty standard nerd vs. jock dichotomy, in case you hadn’t already figured it out.

But the Pixar plot machine doesn’t have them battle in conventional ways.  Rather, after a big mistake lands them in hot water with Dean Hardscrabble (the ever-intimidating Helen Mirren), Mike and Sully are forced to team up to earn their stripes in the scare program.  They have to win the prestigious Greek Scare Cup to gain reentry into the class, leading them join up with a lovable band of misfits, Oozma Kappa.

The oddballs of Oozma Kappa, a fraternity house that’s also someone’s mom’s house, bring a lot of the vitality and humor to “Monsters University” that we don’t get in spades from seeing our old friends Mike and Sully (and Randall, who’s thrown in for good measure).  The novelty of these myriad new characters, however, does tend to overpower our reliable staples.  It’s still an enjoyable romp with astutely observed characters that offer very applicable life lessons for everyone.

And I think the fact that I’m currently in college led me to feel especially endeared to the film, which so accurately captured a key aspect of my own experience.  It’s easy to come into college expecting that we’re going to be one person, yet we so often find ourselves inexorably and immutably changed by unexpected people and events.  And thanks to Pixar’s great storytelling genius, they find a way to expand this valuable nugget of wisdom beyond the campus of Monsters University and into a larger reservoir of human experience.  B+3stars





Oscar Moment: Final 2012 Predictions, Part 3 (Leading)

7 01 2013

Only three days until Oscar nominations are announced!  It’s so weird to have them this early … I feel like I barely predicted at all this year.  Nonetheless, it’s time to lock in my final picks!  Today, it’s one last glimpse at the leading acting categories.

See my predictions for Best Original Screenplay and Best Adapted Screenplay.

See my predictions for Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress.

Best Actor

  1. Daniel Day-Lewis, “Lincoln
  2. Hugh Jackman, “Les Misérables
  3. Bradley Cooper, “Silver Linings Playbook
  4. John Hawkes, “The Sessions
  5. Denzel Washington, “Flight

I was wrong, this is Daniel Day-Lewis’ race to lose.  My gosh, he is winning everything!  Look at this chart of dominance.  It turns Anne Hathaway’s dream to shame.

DDL Dominance

He’s going to come charging into the Kodak Theatre to get that record-setting third Oscar for Best Actor.  This is like Phillip Seymour Hoffman for “Capote,” Forest Whitaker for “The Last King of Scotland,” and … well, Daniel Day-Lewis for “There Will Be Blood” levels of momentum.

Les Miz

If anyone takes him down, though, it’s going to be Hugh Jackman.  He had many doubters until the film was unveiled, and he’s taken the big three nods from BFCA, SAG, and HFPA.  He will almost certainly win the Golden Globe.  Maybe, just maybe, he can stage an Adrian Brody-esque upset.

The nomination will likely be the win for Bradley Cooper, who has triumphantly exceeded expectations in “Silver Linings Playbook” and likely redefined how the industry sees him.  Well done, sir.  I’m pleased that a clear path to a nomination emerged with Critics’ Choice, SAG, and Golden Globe recognition.  I thought it might be a more uphill climb, but I have been very pleasantly surprised.

Beyond DDL, Jackman, and Cooper, my certainty stops.  I am almost positive the final two nominees will be John Hawkes for “The Sessions” and Denzel Washington in “Flight.”  They were feted by BFCA, SAG, and HFPA.  Joaquin Phoenix, on the other hand, missed with SAG and will likely be left out in the cold (much to my chagrin).

Master

I’m on the record as being nonplussed by Hawkes and Washington, though I greatly admire many other performances by the two actors.  For my money, Phoenix was the best performance of the year.  Several others have seen what I have seen, and he’s picked up a few critics’ groups notices.  He was also nominated by the Golden Globes, albeit in the segregated drama category, and the Critics’ Choice Awards, which had six nominees.

Sadly, it looks like Phoenix will follow the trajectory of Michael Fassbender’s work in “Shame,” my favorite performance of 2011.  Fassbender and Phoenix were both winners of the Volpi Cup for Best Actor at the Venice Film Festival.  Their work was widely acclaimed, and their movies were polarizing.  They won Best Actor from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association among several other prizes.  They picked up key nominations from BFCA and HFPA, but their SAG snub raised some red flags.

FlightPhoenix’s journey will likely end the same way Fassbender’s did.  Repelling the Academy, Fassbender was left on the outside looking in at the Best Actor category.  Phoenix shouldn’t mind being put in the same position, however, because he hates awards season and thinks the Oscars are BS.

So it looks like I’ll be predicting the SAG nominees to repeat five-for-five.  Boring, disappointing, I know.  But there’s nothing screaming to go against conventional wisdom here.

I don’t think Richard Gere for “Arbitrage,” Jack Black for “Bernie,” Denis Lavant for “Holy Motors,” Jean-Louis Trintignant for “Amour,” or Anthony Hopkins for “Hitchcock” really have much of a chance.  Each has a few respective laurels, but the frontrunning five are just too strong for there to be a major surprise.

Then again, last year gave us not only Demian Bichir but an out-of-nowhere nod for Gary Oldman.  So we’ll just have to see.  Maybe the Academy has a few tricks up its sleeve in 2012 that we just have no way to forecast.

Best Actress

  1. Jessica Chastain, “Zero Dark Thirty
  2. Jennifer Lawrence, “Silver Linings Playbook
  3. Naomi Watts, “The Impossible”
  4. Marion Cotillard, “Rust and Bone
  5. Quvenzhané Wallis, “Beasts of the Southern Wild

Zero Dark Thirty FYCThe dynamics at the top of the race have changed little over the past month.  It’s still a Chastain vs. Lawrence cage match, and I think we won’t really know until the envelope is opened.  They will go head-to-head at the Critics’ Choice Awards and the SAG Awards, but Viola Davis won both of those last year and lost the Oscar.  The Golden Globe will do nothing to clear up the picture as they will compete in separate categories.  I give Chastain the edge now.

But below Chastain and Lawrence, so much is fluctuating.  This is the most fluid acting category of the four in 2012, capable of many unsurprising surprises.  And if any race is suggesting that conventional wisdom and historical precedent simply won’t do, this would be it.

It would seem that Naomi Watts and Marion Cotillard would be assured nominations for “The Impossible” and “Rust and Bone,” respectively.  They’ve scored the BFCA, SAG, and HFPA hat trick of nominations, just about the best safety net you can have.  Both also look to be the only nominations for their respective movies as “The Impossible” missed the cut for visual effects and France chose “The Intouchables” over “Rust and Bone” to compete in the Best Foreign Language Film category.

WattsI’m much more bullish on Watts, a prior nominee for “21 Grams” back in 2003, perhaps because I haven’t seen the movie yet and can visualize her more as a statistic (sorry for the bluntness, but that’s the name of the game).  I’ve read that “The Impossible” has really played the guild circuit, ginning up admiration for Watts and the cast along the way.  She got a high-profile shout-out from a mere acquaintance, Reese Witherspoon, in Entertainment Weekly that a lot of people saw.

For whatever reason, she just seems very strong to me.  The movie seems like the emotional tour de force they look for in leading performances for women.

Having said that, Marion Cotillard shows the same level of emotional devastation, just on a more subtle level.  If she hadn’t won for a French language performance, I’d be hesitant to think she could be nominated for one.  But she has, and I feel a hunch that the Oscars won’t snub her brilliant performance.  Apparently, the Academy voters really responded to “Rust and Bone,” and if that’s the case, why wouldn’t they nominate its star?

So I’ll go ahead and predict that Watts and Cotillard make it, although I could see a foreseeable outcome where one gets knocked out.  I doubt they slap these precursors in the face so hard that both get turned away.

HitchcockSAG’s fifth nominee was Helen Mirren for “Hitchcock,” who also landed a Golden Globe nod.  Mirren has become a recent darling of the Academy.  I got fooled once by not predicting her in 2009 for “The Last Station,” and a part of me thinks I might be making the same mistake again.  Check out how eerily similar these two cases of Helen Mirren in Best Actress contention are:

“Common sense would say it is going to Helen Mirren for ‘The Last Station.’  She has the respect; we know because she won this award three short years ago.  She has been nominated by the SAG and the Golden Globes, two very crucial precursors.  But she has no victories and, more importantly, no passionate supporters.”

Going back and reading this is actually kind of scary because this year, she has SAG and HFPA in her corner … and basically no one else, unless you put a lot of stock in the prognosticating abilities of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association.  The movies even received the same lukewarm reception: “Hitchcock” got a 66% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, while “The Last Station” scored a 70% fresh.

I fear that the British contingent, which was a major part in making a Best Actor nomination for Gary Oldman in “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” a reality, might be muddling our ability to make a prediction here.  Will this sizable portion of the Academy come through and give Mirren a fourth nomination in seven years?  I’m not picking Mirren because a 5-for-5 match with SAG just doesn’t feel right for this field rife with contenders.  (And especially with the men looking likely to perfectly align with SAG.)

RivaPerhaps that same European bloc of voters will be split among several other contenders from across the sea.  The French Cotillard could steal some European love, as could the British-Australian Watts.  Emmanuelle Riva could also make a play for that contingent for her work in “Amour.”

The Critics’ Choice nominee has quite a case to make for her nomination.  At 85, she’s a respected figure from the French New Wave that many recognize and respect.  Sony Pictures Classics has even gotten her to do some press for the film, including an in-depth session with The New York Times that’s well worth a read.  Many critics’ groups have aligned behind her, including such notable groups from Boston, Los Angeles, New York Online, and the National Society of Film Critics.  Perhaps worth noting, she won the European Film Award for Best Actress.

But why did SAG and the Golden Globes overlook Riva?  Neither are particularly xenophobic; the Globes’ dramatic actress category has seen a number of foreign-language nominees, including a rather strange nod for Kristin Scott Thomas in 2008 for “I’ve Loved You So Long.”  And at her age, it would seem that the SAG would want to bow down at her feet, and at the very least nominate her!

Rust and Bone

I can’t predict Riva with these two high-profile misses.  Perhaps she will be the exception, but I think her nomination is a pipe dream of critics.  She’s the Sally Hawkins for “Happy-Go-Lucky” of the year, a nominee that they try to make happen but just doesn’t click with the Academy.

Even less likely is British actress Rachel Weisz, in play for “The Deep Blue Sea” thanks to the New York Film Critics Circle reminding voters that her movie exists.  A March release automatically faces an uphill climb for a nomination since it has to fight to be remembered, and the Golden Globes did reward her performance.  Perhaps she’s the big surprise, but a SAG nomination would have been the more helpful precursor notice to pick up.

Also feted by the Golden Globes was Judi Dench for “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.”  This wouldn’t really be worth mentioning if it wasn’t … well, Judi Dench.  However, the movie is more likely to see recognition in the Best Supporting Actress category for Maggie Smith.  For that matter, Dench is more likely to see recognition in that category as well for her work in “Skyfall.”

And now, we arrive at our final contender, Quvenzhané Wallis for her extraordinary performance in “Beasts of the Southern Wild.”  Now 9, the pint-sized but spunky Wallis would be the youngest Best Actress nominee ever.  Even more impressive is that she was 6 when the movie was shot.

However, at the moment, she’s going virtually unnoticed.  Could Scott MacDonald have been right in his article on The Atlantic?

“Though she’s nine now, she was a mere six when the film was shot. To put it another way, she was not quite seven, which is the year developmental psychologists like to refer to as the age of reason: when kids start making decisions based on logic and causality. I’m no psych expert, but it seems to me this might be the sensible cut-off point for acting plaudits.

Acting requires some intentionality on the part of the actor, some conscious effort to adopt a persona other than his or her own. Even adult actors who get criticized for “playing themselves” are engaged in a series of more or less conscious decisions about how best to be themselves onscreen. A young child, meanwhile, likely isn’t thinking at all about how to be herself, let alone a character. She’s a kid, and she just ‘is.'”

Beasts

So is that it?  Have most considered her too young and written off her candidacy?  MacDonald did note that 8-year-old Justin Henry was nominated for “Kramer vs. Kramer,” so a nomination wouldn’t be entirely unprecedented.  But all she’s netted is a Critics Choice nod for Best Actress and a handful of breakout performer awards.

We will never know if she had a shot with SAG because the non-union production “Beasts of the Southern Wild” was ruled ineligible to compete.  However, the novelty of her contention should have been enough to attract the Golden Globes, but they totally snubbed the entire film.  I already floated the “too American” rationale for its exclusion, citing “True Grit” as an example, but the snub is really troubling.

The Oscars do love young nominees, though.  There have been plenty of pre-pubescent nominees in Academy history, most recently Abigail Breslin for “Little Miss Sunshine.”  Saiorse Ronan and Hailee Steinfeld, though quite a bit older than Willis, nonetheless were nominees.  And in 2003, lest we forget, 13-year-old Keisha Castle-Hughes’ performance in “Whale Rider” knocked out Nicole Kidman for “Cold Mountain” and Scarlett Johansson for “Lost in Translation.”  The young are often a force to be reckoned with at the Oscars.

I’ll lay out that Wallis would be a shocking Best Actress nominee.  If I was thinking by rules and precedents, the obvious pick would be Mirren.  If I was attempting to focus on just this season, I might have to go with Riva.  Yet I’m going with Wallis on little more than a gut feeling that maybe the Academy’s hearts were taken by a precocious tyke.

Check back tomorrow, January 8, to see my final predictions for Best Director!





REVIEW: Hitchcock

30 11 2012

It’s such a magical feeling when a movie gets you intoxicated not only on itself but on the entire craft of cinema as well.  You go into a dark room and carry in whatever baggage from the day, but you emerge joyful, reinvigorated, and transformed.

That’s how I felt when I walked out of the theater after a rapturously good time with “Hitchcock.”  Sacha Gervasi’s slice-of-biopic flick, focusing on the time when the master of suspense struggled to get “Psycho” made, strikes the right chords throughout the film.  It respects the mastery of Hitchcock but does not fear him as an untouchable deity, treating him as a man and artist just like anyone else.

But Gervasi’s film is more than just about Hitchcock or even the artistic climate into which he released what is still one of the best horror films ever made.  Clear parallels are drawn to the current day world of film production.  You know, the world where an unambitious movie like “John Carter” gets greenlit and causes a $150 million write-down while a masterpiece like “Black Swan” has to scrap together a budget but reaps it back 25 times over.

We now know Alfred Hitchcock as the legendary Hitchcock, but in his time, he struggled to have studio support for a movie that did not fit neatly into convention – even when coming off the enormous success of “North by Northwest.”  Thankfully, Hitchcock had faith in his own vision and was willing to finance it himself at enormous financial risk.

And Gervasi has wielded the knife of excoriation to jab at executives who were only looking to make a profit out of movies.  There are also a number of well-placed ironic remarks about the supposed failure of “Vertigo.”  You know, that movie that recently replaced “Citizen Kane” as the best film of all time according to Sight and Sound.  The myopia of Hollywood is lade bare to be mocked and criticized.  History has repeat itself with a vengeance.

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