REVIEW: Gifted

10 04 2017

Movie dads are a dime a dozen, but we rarely get movies about the specific pressures of paternity. It’s tough to tell, then, whether the pleasures of Marc Webb’s “Gifted” are organic or simply a refreshingly different story in a crowded environment.

There’s plenty to enjoy and identify with in Chris Evans’ Frank Adler, an uncle-cum-surrogate dad who mills about working-class Florida in his dirt-stained undershirt and seemingly permanent bedhead. He’s raising his niece, the film’s titular savant Mary Adler (McKenna Grace), based on his hardscrabble and wisecracking instincts. Segregating the exceptional from the average, he jokes, only produces congressmen. His everyman parenting style gets a shock from the arrival of his ivory tower-minded mother, Lindsay Duncan’s Evelyn.

From there on out, “Gifted” plays out like the Florida Man edition of “Kramer vs. Kramer” with a little dash of “Good Will Hunting” to liven up the familiar settings of family court and therapy sessions. How much that affects each viewer probably depends on their individual tolerance for the well-executed cliché and the obvious emotional moment. When Frank and Mary spend some quality time watching new dads come out of delivery to the hospital waiting room, it’s possible to read the scene as hopelessly cloying or truly touching.

I found “Gifted” somewhere in between, affecting in fits and spurts while never truly melting my heart like a stick of butter in the sun. Evans clearly has a big heart that he pumps into the film, yet Tom Flynn’s script gives him remarkably little agency. Frank is defined primarily in relation to other characters, many of whom float in and out of the plot with whiplash-inducing speed. (And let’s not even brooch the serious ethical debate that Flynn completely sidesteps in the film’s big finale.) But don’t worry everyone, there’s a truly great movie about an uncle struggling to provide adequate guardianship for the orphaned child of his departed sibling – and it’s readily available to watch. B-





REVIEW: Hidden Figures

4 01 2017

Hidden Figures” features three black female protagonists – or, rather, the film features what feels like a single protagonist with three different facets all fighting different incarnations of the same struggle. During the heat of the space race, this trio of women little known to history played a tremendous role in boosting the fortunes and morale of a nation that still treated them like second-class citizens.

The mathematical calculations of Taraji P. Henson’s Katherine Johnson helped ensure that John Glenn could orbit the earth safely, but she had to contend with institutional racism and sexism that hampered her performance. Octavia Spencer’s Dorothy Vaughn learned how to work NASA’s first IBM computer, primarily because discriminatory hiring practices prevented her from traditional professional advancement. Janelle Monáe’s Mary Jackson became one of the agency’s most brilliant engineers, although in order to do so, she had to fight segregation in the courts to get the education she needed for the job.

While Henson might get the most screen time of the three – she’s the one whose romantic interests that writers Theodore Melfi and Allison Schroeder care to develop – the film really does feel like it possesses a set of co-leads. Their day-to-day struggles might be different, as are the people keeping them from reaching their full potential. Yet together, they provide each other with the strength to tear down the limitations holding them back: first within themselves, then in their workplace, and soon enough the world.

Even as “Hidden Figures” hews closer to the sentimentality of “The Help” than the strategizing of “Selma,” the film gives specificity and definition to each character. Though their hurdles might look the same, Melfi’s direction never allows them to become flattened out or treated as one in the same. The film could have foregone many scenes so obviously built around a vamp up to a Civil Rights-era declaration of humanity, but the cumulative effect of this inspiration and representation is tough to deny. These women were owed respect in their time, not only for their work but also for all they had to do in order to perform that work. It’s wonderful that the film brings their lives into the limelight. B+3stars





REVIEW: Get On Up

4 08 2014

In any musical biopic, the key ingredient is channeling the persona of its subject.  So in that regard, “Get On Up” succeeds behind Chadwick Boseman’s electric performance as the Godfather of Soul, James Brown. Boseman captures the firebrand in all his passionate fits of rage and spirited swaggering dance moves, and he does it with such astonishing accuracy that I had to remind myself on multiple occasions that I was in fact watching a fictional portrayal of Brown.

Beyond Boseman’s towering turn, however, there is very little else in “Get On Up” that manages to rouse. Most of the film’s issues, sadly, are deeply rooted in Jez and John-Henry Butterworth’s script. With the very blueprint of the movie so wonky, it’s tough to judge anyone involved in the film too harshly. They likely just did the best with what little they were given.

The problem has less to do with individual scenes, which were more or less fine when evaluated independently. The Butterworths’ problem is that these units drawn from various times at James Brown’s life simply do not cohere nor do they ever move in any distinct direction. Unlike “Boyhood,” the mere passage of time in “Get On Up” is not cause enough to watch a movie or maintain attention.

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REVIEW: Snowpiercer

3 07 2014

SnowpiercerDirector Bong Joon Ho, like many cinephiles, is a big fan of Tilda Swinton.  And at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, he tracked her down and professed his admiration at a brunch.  Afterwards, they mutually decided they would work together on something in the future.

Joon Ho was in the process of writing “Snowpiercer,” and he feared there would not be a part for Swinton in the script.  But then he had a stroke of genius: he would cast Swinton, no stranger to playing some rather gonzo roles, as the authoritative Minister Mason.  This part, however, was initially written for a man.

Swinton gets made-down quite amusingly by the hair and makeup department, pairing her with a drab wig and some nasty dentures.  She’s not her usually chic self, but Swinton isn’t identifiably masculine, either.  Joon Ho doesn’t change any of the personal pronouns in the script, so Mason is still referred to as a he.

Swinton’s performance, then, is not one that doesn’t choose a gender but seems to transcend our understanding of the binary altogether.  As a whole, “Snowpiercer” relishes in this spirit of breaking boundaries.  It can’t necessarily be tied down to one genre, constantly surprising us with each turn.

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Oscar Moment: 2013 Pre-Fall Festival Predictions

27 08 2013

Well, folks, the time is here to talk about Oscar season.  The Venice Film Festival kicks off tomorrow, and suddenly it won’t be taboo to talk about what might be competing for the Academy Awards.

Just to show you how much things change over the course of the fall, last year I predicted “The Master” to win Best Picture at this time – and it wound up not being nominated.  I was close for Best Director and Best Actor, though, ranking Ang Lee and Daniel Day-Lewis my #2 pick in their respective categories.  Jennifer Lawrence was not remotely on my radar, but my projected winner Quvenzhané Wallis did manage to get a nomination!  I got the movie right for Best Supporting Actor, but picked Leonardo DiCaprio instead of Christoph Waltz as the “Django Unchained” cast member to hoist the Oscar.  And I, like everyone else, saw Anne Hathaway’s win coming from the moment the first “Les Misérables” trailer hit the web.

So what will surprise us this year?  And what will disappoint?  Here’s my first draft at a year in Oscar forecasting.

Best Picture

  1. American Hustle (trailer)
  2. 12 Years a Slave (trailer)
  3. Foxcatcher
  4. August: Osage County (trailer)
  5. Gravity (trailer)
  6. The Monuments Men (trailer)
  7. Her (trailer)
  8. Inside Llewyn Davis (trailer)
  9. Labor Day
  10. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (trailer)

American HustleThere seems to be no clear frontrunner a la “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” or “War Horse” for 2013.  So I’m just going to gander it’s a dues-paying year.  It seems like David O. Russell, after two straight Best Picture-Best Director nominations for “The Fighter” and “Silver Linings Playbook,” is now on the fast track to win someday.  So why not 2013 with “American Hustle?”  A glitzy period drama that looks to provide action, comedy, and drama looks pretty good on paper to me.

Another film I could see making a charge at the prize is Steve McQueen’s “12 Years A Slave.”  Despite all the talent involved in this film, I think it might still be an underdog given that McQueen’s previous two films have not received a single Oscar nomination.  Then again, Tom Hooper was a relative novice when he directed “The King’s Speech,” and we know how that story ends.

Previous Best Director nominees Bennett Miller (“Foxcatcher”), George Clooney (“The Monuments Men”), Spike Jonze (“Her”), the Coen Brothers (“Inside Llewyn Davis”), and Jason Reitman (“Labor Day”) all look to get in the Best Picture race.  Based on their pedigree alone, I’m predicting nominations for these five films.  All are sight unseen, save “Inside Llewyn Davis,” which I have seen and can attest is the kind of well-made film that will score with the Academy.

I guess I could include Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity” in this clump, since the film’s director is an Oscar-nominated screenwriter and editor.  But that film gets a Best Picture nomination, in my mind, because it belongs in a class with “Avatar,” “Hugo,” and “Life of Pi” – technical masterpieces directed by renowned talents.

As for “August: Osage County,” that play is so well-written that it would take a first-class hack job for it not to be a Best Picture nominee.  We’re talking a play that will go next to Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams in the American dramatic literature canon, people.

And to round out the top 10, I picked Ben Stiller’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” I’m not entirely sold on it, but it could make a surprise run for Best Picture.  It could also fizzle with awards voters.  Who knows?  Clearly not I.

Best Director

  1. David O. Russell, “American Hustle”
  2. Bennett Miller, “Foxcatcher”
  3. Steve McQueen, “12 Years A Slave”
  4. Alfonso Cuarón, “Gravity”
  5. Spike Jonze, “Her”

FoxcatcherAs I said, I’m projecting Russell to go all the way in 2013.

Past nominee Bennett Miller could give him a run for his money, although he was overlooked for his work on 2011 Best Picture nominee “Moneyball.”  Steve McQueen and Alfonso Cuaron should score their first Best Director nominations (which is a shame).

And since Spike Jonze scored a lone Best Director nomination for “Being John Malkovich” back in 1999, I don’t think it’s out of the question to see him score a second nomination for his work on “Her.”  It certainly appears to be daring … and the director’s branch showed they were willing to go out on a limb last year with nominees Benh Zeitlin and Michael Haneke.

Best Actor

  1. Matthew McConaughey, “Dallas Buyers Club”
  2. Joaquin Phoenix, “Her”
  3. Chiwetel Ejiofor, “12 Years A Slave”
  4. Oscar Isaac, “Inside Llewyn Davis”
  5. Robert Redford, “All Is Lost”

McConaugheyBig, baity performances have won out here for the past decade, essentially.  So I’d say the frontrunner has to be Matthew McConaughey in “Dallas Buyers Club.”  His comeback narrative is appealing, and the fact that he lost a ton of weight helps.

That being said, I wouldn’t count out Joaquin Phoenix for “Her.”  If he could get nominated for a polarizing film like “The Master,” perhaps there’s more respect for Phoenix in the Academy than most people recognize.  He’s been nominated three times now, and I think it’s only a matter of time before he wins.

Chiwetel Ejiofor could easily supplant McConaughey as the bait performance to beat here.  A frontrunner will be cemented by the time both films debut at Toronto.

Breakout performer Oscar Isaac ought to score a nod here for “Inside Llewyn Davis.”  I don’t see how he can be overlooked if the movie is a hit with the Academy.

And keep an eye out for Robert Redford here.  He gives an incredible, virtually wordless performance in “All Is Lost” that will not be forgotten.  The Hollywood legend hasn’t been nominated for his acting in over 40 years, and the one Oscar sitting on his mantle is for directing.  Might it be his time in the sun?

Best Actress

  1. Amy Adams, “American Hustle”
  2. Cate Blanchett, “Blue Jasmine”
  3. Naomi Watts, “Diana”
  4. Kate Winslet, “Labor Day”
  5. Emma Thompson, “Saving Mr. Banks”

Amy AdamsPlease, Academy, make this Amy Adams’ year!  She’s been nominated four times already in Best Supporting Actress.  Now that she’s playing with the big girls in Best Actress, maybe it’s just time to give her the darned trophy already.

Woody Allen hasn’t directed a woman to a leading actress win since Diane Keaton in “Annie Hall” – perhaps Cate Blanchett’s turn in “Blue Jasmine” can break the dry spell?  I think she’s a sure bet for a nomination, but another win is unlikely since Blanchett has won in the past decade.

Or maybe it’s Naomi Watts’ turn after coming up short for last year’s “The Impossible.”  If the Academy loves this two-time nominee, an uncanny performance as Princess Diana would be a good time to give it to her.

Kate Winslet has been nominated for six Oscars and has won one.  So why would the love stop now?  In her first notable screen performance since winning for 2008’s “The Reader,” she could rack up nomination number 7 and be well on her way to becoming the Meryl Streep of her generation.

Speaking of Meryl Streep, I could be making a mistake by not including her here.  She would definitely crack my top 5, but I’m hearing that she’ll be campaigned in supporting.  So for now, that fifth slot goes to Emma Thompson for the breezy “Saving Mr. Banks.”

Best Supporting Actor

  1. Michael Fassbender, “12 Years A Slave”
  2. Bradley Cooper, “American Hustle”
  3. Daniel Bruhl, “Rush”
  4. Steve Carell, “Foxcatcher”
  5. Tom Hanks, “Saving Mr. Banks”

FassbenderGo big or go home.  After being snubbed for his incredible work in “Shame,” I predict the Academy will right its wrongs and reward Michael Fassbender with an Oscar for “12 Years A Slave.”  I really hope I’m right.

Bradley Cooper, given the villain role in “American Hustle,” could capitalize on a year of goodwill after a nomination from “Silver Linings Playbook.”  He’s probably a safer pick, but I’m not interested in safe at this point.

After last year’s category was dominated by previous winners, I’m going to predict two more first-time nominees in this category: Daniel Bruhl for “Rush,” whose performance has been touted since Cannes, and Steve Carell for “Foxcatcher,” a darker role for the comedic actor.

And then I’ll predict Tom Hanks as Walt Disney in “Saving Mr. Banks” because that proposition just sounds too good to pass up for Academy voters.

Best Supporting Actress

  1. Oprah Winfrey, “The Butler”
  2. Meryl Streep, “August: Osage County”
  3. Octavia Spencer, “Fruitvale Station”
  4. Cameron Diaz, “The Counselor”
  5. Jennifer Lawrence, “American Hustle”

OprahHonestly, this category is such a toss-up at this point, so I’m forced to pick the only person with buzz at the moment: Oprah Winfrey for “The Butler.”  Beyond her, my confidence ends.  If the Weinstein Company had announced what Meryl Streep will be campaigned in, I’d feel confident picking her in whatever category they chose.  Right now, I’m going with supporting.

I thought Octavia Spencer was the best part of “Fruitvale Station,” but her part may be too small or too soon after her win for “The Help.”

Cameron Diaz looks like an intriguing femme fatale in “The Counselor,” but that movie could flop so hardcore that she’s rendered a non-factor this season.  With no festival appearances slated, the film does not appear to be a serious threat for anything.  Diaz has been pretty quiet lately, but let’s not forget she had a string of acclaimed roles from 1998 to 2002 that gave her 4 Golden Globe nominations and 3 SAG Award nominations.

And as for that last slot, I figured I might as well throw in Jennifer Lawrence for “American Hustle.”  Everyone loves J.Law, and I think enough people will like “American Hustle” to give her a victory lap after last year’s win.

Best Original Screenplay

  1. American Hustle
  2. Inside Llewyn Davis
  3. Blue Jasmine
  4. Her
  5. Gravity

Inside Llewyn DavisDavid O. Russell is a two-time writing nominee?  Check for “American Hustle.”

The Coen Brothers are five-time writing nominees with two wins?  Check for “Inside Llewyn Davis.”

Woody Allen has been nominated for Best Original Screenplay a whopping 15 times, and “Blue Jasmine” does not suck.  Check.

Spike Jonze is an acclaimed original figure in Hollywood?  Check for “Her,” but with some reluctance as “The Master” was snubbed last year for the clichéd “Flight.”

Alfonso Cuaron is a two-time writing nominee, but his latest film “Gravity” might be a lot more impressive on the screen than it is on the page.  Perhaps he will wow us once again and make us regret ever doubting him … so I’ll predict “Gravity” to take the final slot here.  But “Black Swan” missed here, so originality isn’t everything in the Best Original Screenplay category.

Best Adapted Screenplay

  1. 12 Years A Slave
  2. Foxcatcher
  3. The Monuments Men
  4. August: Osage County
  5. Before Midnight

It would be foolish of me not to predict a lot of Best Picture nominees here, which traditionally dominate the Best Adapted Screenplay category.  But don’t count out “Before Midnight,” whose predecessor scored a nomination back in 2004 in this category.  The series, and this installment in particular, has gotten a lot of positive press.  I don’t think the writers will forget about this one.

What do you think?  Who is the one to beat in 2013?  Sound off!





REVIEW: Smashed

11 08 2013

Finding comedy in alcoholism and recovery, two notoriously heavy subjects that hit close to home for many audiences, is no easy task.  “Smashed” is hardly a gut-buster or a laugh riot, although a little humor does help some of its rougher and rawer moments.  It’s no “Rachel Getting Married” (nor the lesser-known “Sherrybaby“), that’s for sure, but that’s not to say the film doesn’t have its smaller triumphs.

Director James Ponsoldt, newly heralded as an emerging director (and being entrusted to helm an upcoming Hillary Clinton biopic and an adaptation of the musical “Pippin”), steers the film rather uneasily.  As a result, the film has some abrupt and rather jarring tonal swings.  I’m not quite sure if he intended “Smashed” to leave a comedic or a dramatic impression, but it really winds up leaving very little impression at all.  Similarly, Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s performance is good, yet it never goes the full mile like Anne Hathaway or Maggie Gyllenhaal in the aforementioned dramas.

If it sounds like I’m being vague on details, that’s because I remember very few of them.  “Smashed” is a film I didn’t dislike, but it failed to win me over or secure a spot in my memory.  Regardless, it’s an interesting and, at 81 minutes, brief bauble of a film that isn’t entirely a waste of your time.  At the very least, you’ll enjoy seeing a union of some of TV’s best talents: Aaron Paul of “Breaking Bad,” Nick Offerman of “Parks & Recreation,” and Megan Mullally of “Will and Grace.”

Oh, and there’s Octavia Spencer (Oscar-winner for “The Help“) as an AA sponsor.  She never disappoints.  2halfstars





REVIEW: Fruitvale Station

19 07 2013

Fruitvale StationCannes Film Festival – Un Certain Regard

Fruitvale Station” makes no attempts to hide its bleak ending; before anything else, writer/director Ryan Coogler shows us the real-life death of the protagonist, Oscar Grant, as caught by a grainy cell phone camera.  Then we rewind the clock a day, and Michael B. Jordan assumes the role of Grant, a man with nobility and flaws just like any of us.

For an hour, Coogler walks us through the last day in his life.  It’s a poignant and well observed slice-of-life punctuated by Jordan’s great moments of humanity.  Yet without the knowledge that we’re witnessing a series of last moments in Grant’s life, the drama is essentially inconsequential.

Essentially dependent on dramatic irony for propulsion, the majority of “Fruitvale Station” feels like an average movie able to get away with not aiming for much.  But then, the inevitable conclusion arrives, and we’re faced with an incident of horrifying police brutality that claims Grant’s life (it’s hardly a spoiler, so get over it).  The emotionally charged moment is gripping and tense, enough to feel twice as long as the rest of the film.

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