Friday, January 31, 2014

A ROTTEN TOMATO: Fresh


The modern struggle of urban African-Americans has been ripe for cinematic adaptation, particularly after Spike Lee's emergence in the 1980s. Other black filmmakers followed his lead, notably John Singleton with his Oscar-nominated film "Boyz n the Hood". On rare occasions, non-black filmmakers have also become interested in this sub-genre. This is the case with the 1994 film "Fresh", penned and directed by Israeli-descendant Boaz Yakin, who grew up in the inner city himself.

The film tells the story of a 12-year-old boy nicknamed Fresh (Sean Nelson) who lives in the projects, with a slew of cousins and his aunt. Hustling to survive, he becomes a street smart drug dealer making connections with all the major players in the game. Constantly reminded of his deadbeat father (Samuel L. Jackson) and junkie older sister, he slowly decides to seek a way out of his circumstance before it's too late. Of course, his youth limits his freedom and independence, so he needs a catalyst to achieve his desire.

This premise is perfectly fine (though no longer fresh, excuse the pun) but it's the way it's constructed that has resulted in the "A Rotten Tomato" label rather than a "Movie of the Week". In order to arrive at the film's conclusion, the plot needs some catastrophic events. As you can expect from the drug and poverty elements, that means that people need to be killed. This is understandable, but it seems to put the film in a conundrum. The violence is inevitable, but I found that all the human sacrifice seemed harshly preordained to achieve the story's endgame. The plot is filled with random acts of malicious gun violence towards children (and helpless animals too) that just left a sour taste. As the plot trudges along I understood that it reflected reality but I also wondered, to what end? Yakin's filmmaking sensibilities aren't sophisticated enough to convey a docudrama feel (his intrusive score prevents that) and the dialogue is too on the nose to have enough potency for a "message" film.

The only persons who really brought their A-games are the actors, mainly Sean Nelson, Giancarlo Esposito and Samuel L. Jackson. Even though his character (an aimless chess wiz) feels like an afterthought, Jackson brings his natural charisma to the role. Likewise, Esposito showcases his now famous ability (thanks to "Breaking Bad") to make his villains thoroughly magnetic (perhaps even more so in this instance, given the character's sexual edge). The real find however, is debut actor Sean Nelson in the title role. He projects a remarkable confidence that goes a long way in making the character seem plausible.

Despite this breakout central performance and a few strong moments, I still find it hard to really warm to this film. There's just something icky about the determined nihilism, especially as it comes from the perspective of a 12-year-old. In one scene after a particularly damaging incident, Fresh's mother tells him he should have known better. In much the same way, I found myself questioning the the motives of the film's writer-director. He has a good basic premise, but his execution pales in comparison to the works of Spike Lee, John Singleton et al. I'd recommend watching "Boyz n the Hood" instead.

This film is part of my Black Cinema marathon.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

OLDIE GOLDIES: All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)

The first Oldie Goldies post for 2014 is the classic war film "All Quiet on the Western Front". This impressive production follows a group of young German soldiers as they experience the horrors of World War I. With its astonishing direction and writing, it remains one of the most convincing anti-war statements ever put on film. It perfectly captures the madness and dread that accompanies the front line. The Academy was certainly impressed, awarding the film for Best Picture and Best Director, in addition to other deserved nods for Best Screenplay and Best Cinematography.

Monday, January 27, 2014

MOVIE OF THE WEEK: Mansfield Park


My top pick for this week is the 1999 Jane Austen adaptation "Mansfield Park". Directed by Patricia Rozema, this is a typical romance story as can be expected from its source material. However, there was something uniquely fascinating about this film that made me take notice.

The film centers around protagonist Fanny Brice (Frances O'Connor), a poor young woman who is sent to live with her wealthy relatives in their estate called Mansfield Park. As can be expected by the early 1800s setting, she is seen as inferior. However, she quickly adapts to her situation, becoming highly literate and forming a close bond with Edmund, one of the family's young men. Soon, an additional pair of residents arrive in the form of Henry and Mary Crawford, both appealing in appearance and demeanor. Thus begins a complex web of romantic longings between Fanny, Henry, Mary, Edmund (and his 2 sisters).

You may be rolling your eyes at the "soap opera" quality of it all and in many ways, you'd be justified in this assumption. However, there's much more to take away from this film than just the surface-level melodrama. As is often the case with Jane Austen's heroines, the main character serves to challenge the attitude towards women's place in society. In addition, it's an interesting commentary on the social hierarchy imposed by the landed gentry of the time. There's always the sense that Fanny is the smartest person in the room, yet she is often repressed due to her gender and social standing.

To add to those traditional themes of 19th century period dramas, it also brings up the question of slavery. Even though we never actually see a slave, the script is always acutely aware of its importance. We often think of the evil plantation class as the main culprits in this horrific practice, but the seemingly pleasant Old World bourgeoisie were just as liable, maybe even more so. As someone living in a region where the desire for reparations is becoming a hot topic, this was a particularly interesting reminder of the far-reaching benefits derived from slavery.

Indeed the social commentary adds a lot of depth, but the romance is the main focus of the plot. Brimming with wit and energy, the screenplay gives the cast some great material to work with. The film has a rare authenticity in the way it portrays the complicated nature of love and relationships. Even though the outcome seemed preordained, the plot detours were surprisingly unpredictable (I'm familiar with the novel). So even when Rozema's directing fell into its placid tendencies, I was still wrapped up in this beautiful story.

Thankfully, the actors did the screenplay justice, instilling each character with due intrigue and specific appeal. From Frances O'Connor to Lindsay Duncan (on double duty playing Fannie's mother and aunt), it's a fine parade of wonderful character acting. I was legitimately surprised to find out that there was hardly any awards attention for any of the actors. Perhaps, the film was dismissed for its admittedly conservative artistry. However, I still maintain that there's a lot to appreciate in the film's strong sense of time and place. "Mansfield Park" tugged at my heart strings while simultaneously giving me food for thought. That's more than I can say for the majority of today's romance films. I'd gladly recommend it to fans of the genre.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Top 20 Acting Performances of 2013

2013 was a phenomenal year for actors. From established veterans showing new sides to their abilities to first-timers giving breakthrough performances, each month brought with it a new bunch of impressive turns. As a result, making this list was not easy. I started with a longlist of about 50 legitimate contenders before whittling it down to 20. It was truly agonizing to cut some of them. I had to be firm though and in the end, I'm satisfied with my selections.

In reviewing this list, the main thing that stood out was the strength of the foreign actresses (i.e. non-American). These ladies really blew me away with their complex work, whether they were acting in English or their native languages. Some of their films haven't been given an official international release yet, so I'd encourage you to seek them out when you can.

Of my 20 Most Anticipated Performances of 2013, 8 of them made this list. Find out who they are as I present my Top 20 Performances of 2013:

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Best of 2013

It's time to close the book on another film year and 2013 was a fascinating one indeed. The year got off to an underwhelming start, particularly with a slew of disappointing summer blockbusters. However, everything changed for me during an October trip to New York. While attending the New York Film Festival (as well as catching some regular screenings), I found a pair of masterpieces. Those two films eventually remained as my top 2 of the year, but many others came along after them that I also cherished.

Most notably, it became clear that it was an outstanding year for documentary films. Perhaps this perception was due to a more active engagement with the genre, but it's hard to remember such a strong slate. In fact, 2 of them landed in my top 10 and a few others were close behind too. Outside the docs, the list was more or less my usual mix of indies, foreign films and mainstream fare. As always, I've included all the films that received a 4.5 or 5-star rating. So without further ado, here are my favourite films of 2013. They are listed in ranking order, starting with my #1:



Gravity
12 Years A Slave
Short Term 12
Blue is the Warmest Color
The Place Beyond The Pines
Gloria
Life According To Sam
The Way Way Back
The Great Beauty
20 Feet from Stardom

Friday, January 24, 2014

Why the Oscars are still relevant


I was recently asked to contribute an article to the site Only Oscar. It was concieved in response to a dissenting opinion that the Oscars are now useless. Head on over there to read what I had to say and check out some of the site's other interesting posts.

Click here for the article

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Has Sundance lost its Oscar mojo?

Should we expect Oscar traction for Sundance hit 'Boyhood'?

As we all know, January is a wasteland for quality movies, only salvaged for the lucky few who are able to attend the Sundance Film Festival. As an Oscar blogger, I can't help but approach the buzz out of that festival's premieres in the context of Oscar potential. As you can tell from the title of the article however, this is starting to become an increasingly futile wish.

Monday, January 20, 2014

MOVIE OF THE WEEK: Inside Llewyn Davis


The Coen brothers have one of the most unique directing styles and they've proven that yet again with their latest film "Inside Llewyn Davis". With this film, they've perhaps made their most Coen-y film to date. It has the bleak atmosphere of "Fargo", the dry humour of "A Serious Man" and the zany characters that can be found in any Coen brothers film. In gathering all these elements, they've made a film that is both beguiling and befuddling.

"Inside Llewyn Davis" is the story of a struggling musician (the title character) living in 1960s New York. He plays folk music and is fairly good at it, but he can't seem to catch a break. As he wanders around the city and eventually to Chicago, we follow his aimless quest for a fresh start.

Now, I've read many claims that the film's brilliance reveals itself on repeat viewings and I now understand why. The film is not bound by plot in the traditional sense, as the character doesn't have a defined arc and there are no pivotal plot climaxes. What we have here is a portrait of a man who is despondent about his life and is unable to change it. It's a sad notion and the Coens have mined this melancholy for all its worth. Apart from the misfortunes that fall upon the protagonist, there's also the suitably dreary cinematography that captures the frigid winter conditions of the setting (made worse by his lack of a winter coat). It really makes for a rather gloomy affair.

This isn't to say that it's a torturous viewing experience though. Even though the tone is bleak, it looks and feels compellingly authentic. In addition, the mood is frequently lightened by some vibrant supporting characters (played by Carey Mulligan, John Goodman and others) who all make his life miserable in that amusingly peculiar Coen brothers way. They add needed weight to the film, as the accumulation of their oppressive vibes allow you to sympathize with Llewyn and understand his attitude.

Of course, I must also mention the music, which is easily the best aspect of the film. The casting of Oscar Isaac was genius, as he delivers some stirring musical renditions that nicely compliment his remarkable embodiment of the character. Llewyn Davis' life may be dull, but his music is full of passion. It's obvious that he has talent and yet, he finds no success. Understanding this dilemma is the most puzzling aspect of the movie and the character's general apathy doesn't help matters.

Unfortunately, the Coens are not interested in holding your hand and providing comfort. This is no "rags to riches" fairy tale. It's the cold hard truth of life's unfairness and it hangs over the film like a dark cloud. The extent to which this appeals to you is therefore entirely up to personal taste and may even be dependent on your own success and failures.

For me, if left me cautiously enthusiastic about the film's quality. On the one hand, there's no denying that much care was put into the making of the film from a "technical" standpoint (cinematography, sound etc.). However, I am reluctant to praise the script for essentially introducing the character and his predicament and then simply coasting through the narrative without anything significant happening. It's so resolute in conveying its eternal stasis that there are hardly any scenes that stand out in my memory (apart from the musical moments).

The Coens have perhaps achieved their intended effect (evoking the despair of the struggling artist) but it feels lacking. Simply put, I have the utmost respect for the filmmaking but the storytelling left me unsatisfied. There's still so much to appreciate though, so I'd confidently recommend it to most.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

OSCAR WATCH: SAG Awards


Sigh, just when I thought 12 Years A Slave was making strides, it loses a crucial award. American Hustle took home the SAG award for Best Ensemble, which gives it a big boost in the race for Best Picture. That category is still up for grabs, but the acting races are clearing up, with McConaughey, Cate Blanchett, Jared Leto and Lupita Nyong'o all looking very solid in their categories. We'll see what BAFTA has in store next month. For now, have a look at the list of tonight's winners:

Best Ensemble
American Hustle (pictured above)

Best Actor
Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club

Best Actress
Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine

Best Supporting Actor
Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club

Best Supporting Actress
Lupita Nyong'o, 12 Years A Slave

Friday, January 17, 2014

OSCAR WATCH: SAG Predictions


The awards machine keeps chugging along with the SAG Awards tomorrow night. I think 12 Years A Slave will strengthen its position in the Best Picture race here by winning Best Ensemble. Here are my predictions for the 20th annual Screen Actors Guild Awards:

Best Ensemble
12 Years A Slave

Best Actor
Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club

Best Actress
Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine

Best Supporting Actor
Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club

Best Supporting Actress
Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle

Thursday, January 16, 2014

OSCAR WATCH: Critics Choice Awards


It may not have dominated the Oscar noms as expected but 12 Years A Slave is still very much in this Oscar race! The film picked up the Best Picture award from the BFCA tonight, along with Best Supporting Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay. However, Gravity dominated the tech categories to lead all films with 7 wins. This was actually one of my best nights for predictions, as I got 23 out of 28 right! Here's the full list of winners:

Best Picture
12 Years a Slave (pictured above)

Best Actor
Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club

Best Actress
Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine

Best Supporting Actor
Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club

Best Supporting Actress
Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years a Slave

Best Director
Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity

OSCAR WATCH: Oscar Nominations


Well, what a morning it was! The Oscar nominations were announced and though they weren't as shocking as last year, they did spring a few unexpected curveballs. Surprisingly, American Hustle lead the field with 10 nominations (along with Gravity), a title that I expected to go to 12 Years A Slave (it only ended up with 9 nods). David O. Russell is clearly on a roll, picking up Best Director and getting 4 acting nominations once again! The campaign for that film has been flawless so far and I think we may be looking at our next Best Picture winner. In terms of surprising nominations, I think the whole world was most befuddled by the nod for "Alone Yet Not Alone" in Best Original Song. Dallas Buyers Club, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug and The Grandmaster also seemed to overperform. The stage is now set for the final phase of the Oscar season. It's gonna be a fight to the finish. Here are all the Oscar nominees:

Best Picture
12 Years A Slave
American Hustle
Gravity
Captain Phillips
Nebraska
Her
The Wolf of Wall Street
Philomena
Dallas Buyers Club

Best Director
Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity
Steve McQueen, 12 Years A Slave
David O. Russell, American Hustle
Martin Scorsese, The Wolf of Wall Street
Alexander Payne, Nebraska

Best Actor
Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street
Bruce Dern, Nebraska
Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years A Slave
Christian Bale, American Hustle

Best Actress
Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
Amy Adams, American Hustle
Sandra Bullock, Gravity
Judi Dench, Philomena
Meryl Streep, August: Osage County

Best Supporting Actor
Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club
Barkhad Abdi, Captain Phillips
Michael Fassbender, 12 Years A Slave
Bradley Cooper, American Hustle
Jonah Hill, The Wolf of Wall Street

Best Supporting Actress
Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle
Lupita Nyong'o, 12 Years A Slave
Julia Roberts, August: Osage County
June Squibb, Nebraska
Sally Hawkins, Blue Jasmine

CONTEST: The Results!

The nominations are in and we have a winner! Once again it was a clear victory, with the top scorer earning 3 more points than joint 2nd place finishers Amir and Donovan.


AND THE WINNER IS...


He won with a very impressive score of 84 points. He was solid throughout all the categories, most notably in Best Production Design where he predicted the full lineup. He will receive a $40 Amazon gift card.

There are also some extra prizes this year for those who were the only one to predict a particular nomination. Those prizes went to:

Jason for predicting Dirty Wars in Best Documentary Feature.
Tom for predicting Christian Bale in Best Actor.

You can head on over to the full spreadsheet to see how everyone else fared.

The nominations weren't as shocking as last year's but there were still 4 nominations that stumped us all:
- "Alone Yet Not Alone" for Best Original Song.
- The Grandmaster for Best Costume Design.
- Dallas Buyers Club for Best Film Editing.
- The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug for Best Sound Editing.

I'd like to say one final thank you to all those who participated. Hope to see you competing again next year! It has been a lot of fun. :)

OSCAR WATCH: The Book Thief


You may not have remembered, but there was yet another World War II movie seeking Oscar attention this year. Said film is titled "The Book Thief" and it has managed to fall completely under the radar among the other fall releases. Well, after finally seeing it this week, I now understand why.
Based on the novel of the same name by Markus Zusak, the story begins in 1938 in Germany. Liesel (Sophie Nelisse) has been adopted by foster parents Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and Rosa (Emily Watson). The early days are rough for her, having to deal with Rosa's grumpiness and the embarrassment of not being able to read. With the war escalating, she eventually finds comfort in her new home and along with Hans, she becomes an avid reader. One day a young Jewish man named Max (Ben Schnetzer) arrives at their home seeking shelter and Liesel forges a lifelong relationship with him.
Of course, the plot is a bit more complicated than that but the film always seems to come back to the theme of friendship. In a way, it illustrates one of the film's main problems. Its forced sentimentality is often at odds with the atmosphere of the setting. Narrated by "Death" itself, I can't recall ever being so turned off by a film's narration. It's absolutely tone deaf, coming across like a morbid bedtime story. In general, the events of the plot also seem so random at times. There are various scenes to show the growing relationships between the characters but they don't add much to the story. They're cute scenes, but the characters feel too hollow for them to be of any significance. In the end, you're bound to wonder what was the point of it all. There's not much insight into how Naziism psychologically affected the protagonist and there's not enough character depth for its "coming of age" pleasantries to leave much impact on the viewer. Hence, the film is unlikely to captivate either adult or young audiences.
The film is not without its merits though. It's handsomely made, with lovely cinematography, costume design and production design. In addition, the performances are all quite good, delivering the sincerity that the film requires. Of the cast, Geoffrey Rush is certainly the standout and it's also a good showcase for young Sophie Nelisse. If there's anything good to come out of it, it's the development of her career. She obviously has the talent. Hopefully she'll be featured in some stronger films in the future, because this one is too simplistic and underwhelming.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

OSCAR WATCH: Critics Choice Predictions


I'm not confident in these predictions at all, but it's worth a shot. Here are my predictions for the 19th annual Critics Choice Movie Awards. Tune in to The CW at 8 PM on January 16th to find out who won.

Best Picture
12 Years a Slave

Best Actor
Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club

Best Actress
Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine

Best Supporting Actor
Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club

Best Supporting Actress
Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years a Slave

Best Director
Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity

CONTEST: The Predictions!


It's almost time! The Oscar nominations will be announced tomorrow and all the predictions are in for the 2014 Film Actually Oscar Contest. Thank you to all those participated and best of luck! Last year's winner managed to predict Jacki Weaver and the exact Best Picture lineup, so I hope you brought your A-game!

Click this link to see all the predictions:


N.B. - A "1" indicates your prediction. If you predict correctly, you keep the point. If not, then you get 0. In Best Picture, you get -1 for every wrong prediction.

Once the nominations have been announced, I'll start working on the spreadsheet and the official results should be posted by 2 PM US Eastern time.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

OSCAR WATCH: The Documentary Features

In an effort to bring you more comprehensive coverage of the Oscar race, I made the decision to seek out all 15 Doc Feature finalists and write mini-reviews. Thanks to HBO, iTunes and Netflix I was able to watch 10 of the contenders. I'm really glad I did, as they turned out to be a very interesting and diverse bunch of films. Read on for further thoughts on all these shortlisted titles.

Monday, January 13, 2014

MOVIE OF THE WEEK: Short Term 12


My top pick this week is the wonderful indie film "Short Term 12". Made on a small budget, this is a shining example of the minimalist poignancy that can come from independent filmmaking. Directed by Destin Cretton, the film serves as a platform for a breakthrough performance by the seemingly ubiquitous Brie Larson.
The protagonist of our story is a young woman named Grace (Larson), who is a supervisor in a foster care facility. Overseeing a diverse group of kids until their 18th birthday, she faces a plethora of challenges on a daily basis. Thankfully, she's great at her job. She's acutely aware of the type of intervention needed in times of crisis, whether it be a simple fight or suicidal thoughts. Even though the center has a trained therapist, she lacks the instincts that Grace has.
As we follow her daily activities, the script quietly asserts its brilliance. It's one of the most sympathetic scripts I've ever come across, giving dramatic weight to all its characters. It's rare for a script to give you the sense that a full back-story exists for each character, without even explicitly detailing it. They all feel like they have a past, present and future that is tangible and real. By the end of the film, you're bound to have so much affection for all these people.
My own enthusiasm for the characters can largely be attributed to the film's excellent tonal balance. It conveys a pleasant feeling without being overly cheerful. Even though its optimistic, it never shies away from the melancholy that results from a child being parentless. Orphan stories are a dime a dozen though, so this wasn't anything revelatory. What does make the film stand out however, is its examination of the nature of charity. Many times in inspirational stories, the heroes dedicate their lives to other people simply based on the notion that humans are inherently good. While I'm not disputing that, there's usually something a bit false about how its portrayed in film. In reality, people don't naturally gravitate towards charity (unless you have large sums of money to throw at people), no matter how kind and caring they are. I know I've personally seen many advocacy documentaries and "Feed The Children" infomercials, but I hardly ever give a dime. What I loved about this film then, is how it hones in on Grace's motivations. She isn't just magically skilled at working with kids, she's coming from her own troubled life experiences. It takes dedication and purpose to be the best in your chosen career and the film shows this perfectly.
While the screenplay is doing everything right, it's possible to underestimate the tremendous skill that went into Brie Larson's performance. She's so calm and subtle, often to the point of whispering. Still, I can't help but consider it a "tour de force". She's thoroughly engaging and believable in every scene. It's such a wonderful celebration of the fine work that people like Grace do every day.
"Short Term 12" is hopefully the first of many strong feature films to come for Destin Cretton. His screenwriting skill and ability to get strong performances from his cast (especially Brie Larson, Keith Stanfield and Kaitlyn Dever) bodes well for his future in the industry. I'll certainly be on the lookout for whatever he does next.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

OSCAR WATCH: Golden Globe Awards


Wow, what a night! There were many surprises and we got the rare Picture-Director split. Despite winning Best Picture (Drama), 12 Years A Slave was overshadowed by American Hustle, the big winner with 3 awards on the Comedy/Musical side - Best Picture , Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress. This is a great boost for those 2 films ahead of a major awards week ahead. Check out the full list of winners below. I only predicted 7 out of the 14 (only 50%!), but I'm mostly happy with how it all went down.

Best Picture (Drama)
12 Years A Slave (pictured above)

Best Picture (Musical/Comedy)
American Hustle

Best Actor (Drama)
Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club

Best Actor (Musical/Comedy)
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street

Best Actress (Drama)
Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine

Best Actress (Musical/Comedy)
Amy Adams, American Hustle

Best Supporting Actor
Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club

Best Supporting Actress
Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle

Best Director
Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity

OSCAR WATCH: Her


Cinema has always been fascinated with predicting the future. Hovercrafts and time travel are just a few of the frequent images we see in sci-fi films. In Spike Jonze's latest film "Her", futuristic technology is also at the forefront but it addresses conventional concerns that have been around since the dawn of man. As technology advances, the biggest societal change will be how we interact with each other. This theme is the thrust behind the plot of this uniquely original film.
If you're familiar with the Bible, you know that according to its teachings the first woman came into being due to the loneliness of the original man, Adam. Despite having everything he could possibly want, he longed for a companion. Such is the case with our protagonist Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix), a lonely man of the future who's life feels unfulfilled after a divorce. He has a reliable friend in the form of longtime fling Amy (a terrific Amy Adams) but it's not enough. In need of someone to endure the lonely nights and uneventful days, he signs up for a new product that can communicate like a human being. This operating system is called Samantha and she turns out to be every bit the engaging conversationalist he could have hoped for.
You can probably guess where the plot goes from there, i.e. they fall in love. Over the course of the film, Theodore is reinvigorated, finding happiness once more. It's fascinating to watch, as his joy seems so genuine despite its "artificial" source. Admittedly, I found some of the serious relationship drama to be unintentionally funny. Yet Spike Jonze's script is always sincere. As you get to know the ever-evolving personality of Samantha, she becomes every bit as real as your traditional cinematic love interest. The only thing missing is a physical human form, a factor that is beautifully addressed in the film.
Much of the suspension of disbelief in this relationship is due to the expressive voice work by Scarlett Johansson. She's an essential component of the film, giving a textured, nuanced performance that compliments the thoughtful screenplay. Joaquin Phoenix is surprisingly charming in his role but Johansson is the film's MVP in the acting department.
Overall though, the best aspects of the film are undoubtedly Spike Jonze's directorial vision and astute script. He's able to purvey a mood that feels so delicate and pensive it makes you sit back and ponder the many themes and ideas explored in the film. Furthermore, the film benefits from Arcade Fire's soothing soundtrack and warmly lit cinematography.
This all amounts to a film that is constantly sweet and lovely. It often felt a bit too "soft" in the way it presents its characters (there's a certain lack of palpable pain) but to disregard it on that basis would be to miss out on one of the smartest screenplays of the year. Even when the idea of a relationship with a computer seems strange, the world that gives rise to this technology feels so much like our own. Heck, people engage in "Catfish" romances every day with persons who effectively aren't real. Even outside of romance, our current technology can be so individualized that the technology depicted here seems entirely plausible.
As I said in the introduction however, the film's sci-fi concept only lays the foundation for a story that is universal and timeless. The development of Theodore and Sam's relationship is no different from the experiences that most couples go through. Their journey is one of tremendous insight and I look forward to experiencing it again. Spike Jonze has created one of the most graceful and thought-provoking romance films I have ever seen.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

CONTEST: See Who's Playing!


One of the greatest Oscar traditions is the "office pool" and Film Actually has put its own spin on it. Most people wait to predict the final winners (when everyone already knows who's gonna win) but we're taking on the greater challenge of the nominations stage! Myself and 33 other LAMB (Large Association of Movie Blogs) member bloggers will be testing our predicting skills in the hope of winning the main prize of a $40 Amazon gift card. For this 2nd annual Film Actually Oscar Contest, defending champion Lindsay is back, as well as 10 newbies! Be sure to visit all the awesome blogs below.

Me! - Film Actually
Nika - The Running Reel
Liam - Only Oscar
John - John Likes Movies
Ryan - Lord of the Films
Tony - Coogs Film Blog
Alex - Time for a film
Josh - The Cinematic Spectacle
Gautam - Confessions of a Cinemaholic
Matt O. - Silver Screen Riot
Stevee - Cinematic Paradox
Jason - The Entertainment Junkie
Shawna - SNG Movie Thoughts
Clayton - Such Moving Pictures
Lindsay - French Toast Sunday
Amir - Amiresque
Andrew E. - A Fistful of Films
Daniel - Chicago Cinema Circuit
James - The Gold Knight
Sam - Sam Watches Movies
Joshua G. - The Film Minion
Tom - At The Back
Andrew K. - Encore's World of Film & TV
Colin - Never Mind Pop Film
Matt F. - MattAwards
Vern - The Vern's Videovanguard
Paul - Paul's Trip to the Movies
Donovan - Screen Invasion
Katy - Drama Llama
Jessica - French Toast Sunday
Mark - Awards Circuit
Joe - The MN Movie Man
Todd - ToddMThacher.com/All My Life I Wanted To Be A Blogster
Denizcan - MrFilmKritik.com/One Man, One Blog

- Your predictions are due by 6PM EST on Jan 15th. They will then be posted here on a spreadsheet for everyone to see(including mine).
- Remember: once you have sent me the link, those will be entered as your FINAL predictions. No further changes will be accepted.

Click here for a reminder of all the rules/instructions.

OSCAR WATCH: Blue Jasmine


What would you do if you were transported to an alternate reality? Imagine you woke up one day in a world that seems like your own but with people who speak a weird language, eat unusual food and have alien rituals. It may sound like I'm describing a sci-fi/fantasy movie, but this is actually the sort of impression I got from the protagonist in Woody Allen's "Blue Jasmine". In a strange way, this film reminded me of Disney's "Enchanted" in its design.
Much like that film, "Blue Jasmine" begins with a princess who becomes exiled from her world by no fault of her own. In this case, the protagonist isn't an actual princess, but her trophy wife lifestyle had all the glamour of royalty. Manhattanite Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) is on her way to San Francisco, after she finds herself poor and homeless when her husband is busted for fraudulent business dealings. She plans to stay with adopted sister (Sally Hawkins) and start over. When she finally arrives, she realizes that this new society is completely unlike her own.
Jasmine refuses to assimilate however, still wearing her designer outfits and drinking her stoli martinis. She's like Giselle from "Enchanted", singing her happy working song and oblivious to the world around her. On the other hand, Ginger and her friends are content in casual wear, drinking a beer. Despite her outward appearance though, Jasmine is a mess. After a troubled marriage (her husband cheated in both his professional and romantic life) which came to a tramautic end (her husband committed suicide in jail), she has lost all since of herself. Hooked on anti-anxiety pills, she's in complete mental disarray. At times, she can even be found talking to herself.
It's certainly a depressing state of mind, but it's not reflective of the general tone of the movie. What we have here is essentially a comedy of manners, focusing on her amusing struggle to adjust to the life of the common man. It's a perfect showcase of the talents of Cate Blanchett, who seems like she was born to play this role. In real life she projects a natural air of sophistication and she uses that brilliantly. She has a deep understanding of her character, delivering self-centered monologues and engaging in aloof discussions with a farcical upper-class cadence. Even funnier are her disdainful non-verbal reactions to people who show interest in her. She's condescending without realizing it and it's downright hilarious. This is one of the best fusions of actor and character that I've ever seen.
Another standout casting decision is Sally Hawkins as Ginger. Reprising some of the cheeriness from her role in "Happy-Go-Lucky", she makes for a great screen partner with Blanchett. Her "plain Jane" demeanour makes for an amusing contrast with Blanchett's regal poise. She's just as complex a character too, having her own troubles stemming from a paralyzing lack of ambition (in terms of men and her career). You can't help but love her though, as she and her friends are more likely to resemble your own life. Woody Allen's wonderful script gives these actresses and their fine supporting players (Bobby Cannavale, Alec Baldwin, Andrew Dice Clay et al.) plenty to work with and they rise to the occasion. The characters may not know it, but they are effortlessly entertaining.
Overall, "Blue Jasmine is a delightful, breezy watch. Despite this, it brings up the problem with placing expectations on a film. Considering the dark, delusional psychology of the lead character, I expected something more along the lines of "Crimes and Misdemeanors". So as much as I thoroughly enjoyed this film, I felt it lacked the deep intellectual wit that I've associated with Woody Allen. That's more of a personal problem than one of the film itself though. If you go into this expecting a comedy (rather than a probing Woody Allen drama) then I'm sure you won't be disappointed.

OSCAR WATCH: Golden Globe Predictions


The Golden Globes are tomorrow, the first major televised awards of the season. By the end of it, we'll know who'll be winning Oscars this year as the consensus starts to kick in. The first show is always hard to predict, so you can take these predictions with a grain of salt if you want. Here's who I think will win tomorrow night:

Best Picture (Drama)
12 Years A Slave

Best Picture (Musical/Comedy)
American Hustle

Best Actor (Drama)
Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years A Slave

Best Actor (Musical/Comedy)
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street

Best Actress (Drama)
Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine

Best Actress (Musical/Comedy)
Meryl Streep, August: Osage County

Best Supporting Actor
Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club

Best Supporting Actress
Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle

Best Director
Steve McQueen, 12 Years A Slave

Friday, January 10, 2014

#FF August: Osage County, Walter Mitty and more...


"August: Osage County" expands to more theaters this weekend and various critics have already offered up their opinion on the film. Check out Mike Scott's review below, as well as some other great reads from the past week:

Mike reviewed August: Osage County.

Andrew joins the few bloggers/critics (myself included) in praise of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.

Robert chose a great scene from The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring for his "Favorite Scene Friday" series.

Simon wrote an interesting article titled "Critics Must Stand Firm on Standards".

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OSCAR WATCH: The Wolf of Wall Street


One of the best director-actor teams is back in the riotous comedy-drama "The Wolf of Wall Street". Directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, this film tells the raucous life story of Jordan Bellfort, a stockbroker who found success in the 1990s. Charting his career from beginning to end, we get an inside look into the life of those working in the business of Wall Street. As they become corrupted by greed, their lives spiral out of control as they indulge in every vice imaginable.

We've seen many films tackle the subject of greed and capitalism. Films like "Wall Street" and Scorsese's own "Casino" have already enlightened us to the depraved lifestyles of the rich and famous. With the "The Wolf of Wall Street" however, Scorsese goes one step further, showing the undermining factor behind their actions - addiction. Surely, that may sound too generalized as there are many forms of addiction - drugs, sex, shopping, alcohol. Well, this film incorporates all of them! Belfort and his pals are drug-addicted, sex-crazed, alcoholic materialists. There are no boundaries for these men, as money gives them the power do what ever they want.

Under the direction of Martin Scorsese, these excesses are given the pizazz they deserve. There are many scenes in the workplace, but don't expect the monotony of the setting in "Office Space". In this world, no single day is like the last. Heightened energy fuels lucrative financial negotiations and impulsive celebrations are the norm. Activities that most people would see as private (wild sex orgies, cocaine and crack usage) are celebrated and encouraged. These people are morally bankrupt in every way. Much like our titular antihero, these people would be better described as animals.

You're likely to be apalled by their actions all the way through, so why is the film so entertaining? Much of it is due to Scorsese's bravura direction (shot compositions, use of music and general audacity) but more specifically, it's a hilarious ride. This film includes some of the funniest scenes and characters of 2013. DiCaprio is sensational as he completely disappears into the role. It's as if he's been working towards this for his whole career. He has the madness of Howard Hughes and Calvin Candie, the charm of Jay Gatsby, Frank Abagnale and Jack Dawson and the emotional complexity of Frank Wheeler. He's played these parts to perfection and he effortlessly calls on them to bring forth this new one. I would even go as far as to say it's his most naturalistic (a scary thought if you think about it). As his right-hand man, Jonah Hill also gives one of his best performances, bringing a wild personality that pops off the screen. The biggest revelation however is Margot Robbie as Belfort's 2nd wife. Her "Helen of Troy" allure is as intoxicating as the crack cocaine these men smoke and Robbie delivers it with dynamite Brooklyn sass. In addition to a slew of superb bit parts (Matthew McConaughey, Rob Reiner, Cristin Milioti and more), this trio takes you swinging through the extravagant jungle of this 3-hour odyssey. It's an endless streme of top-notch visual humour from drug-induced mishaps to foolhardy escapades.

As much as I enjoyed seeing the cast and director at work though, I have a nagging problem with the narrative. It's well-written with amazing dialogue and scenarios and also flawlessly edited, but it takes a long time to get to the point. There's a subplot involving an FBI investigation which actally forms the crux of the story, but it doesn't quite deliver a satisfying payoff. It seems as if the film got carried away with portraying the excesses of this life without paying enough attention to setting up the endgame.

Yet even though I have issues with the film's seemingly superficial overindulgence, I can't help but respect the achievement. This is maverick filmmaking of the highest order. Every scene oozes the finesse of a highly skilled director and the "go for broke" performances are magnetic. There are many moments in this film that will just knock your socks off. You have to see it to believe it.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

OSCAR WATCH: The Animated Films

Let's be honest. This wasn't the best year for animated films. Especially coming off the strong year that was 2012, the past year definitely paled in comparison. Still, I remained diligent and managed to catch a total of 12 out of the 19 eligible contenders. Read on for my thoughts on all the films, as well as my predictions for the Oscar nominations:

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

FYC: 12 Years A Slave, Steve McQueen and Michael Fassbender

This "For Your Consideration" series is my wishlist of sorts for the upcoming Oscar nominations. In anticipation of the final day of voting (January 8th), I will be posting daily FYC articles until that day. Each will focus on 3 separate Oscar categories, highlighting one film/film element per category that deserves consideration. Please note that these are not necessarily my favourites for each category. They are instead an assortment of memorable films/elements that were breakthroughs or surpassed my expectations. You'll notice that some of them are already in the awards conversation, while others are fringe contenders without much of a chance. Regardless, I believe they are all deserving of Oscar nominations based on the quality of their work.

OSCAR WATCH: BAFTA Nominations


Well, the BAFTA nominations dropped this morning and for the first time for one of the televised shows, Gravity leads the nominations! It managed 11 nominations, edging out fellow Oscar frontrunners 12 Years A Slave (10 nods) and American Hustle (9 nods). Check out the full list below to see the unique choices that BAFTA made this year:

Best Picture
12 Years A Slave
American Hustle
Captain Phillips
Gravity
Philomena

Best British Film
Gravity
Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom
Philomena
Rush
Saving Mr. Banks
The Selfish Giant

Best Actor
Bruce Dern, Nebraska
Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave
Christian Bale, American Hustle
Leondardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street
Tom Hanks, Captain Phillips

Best Actress
Amy Adams, American Hustle
Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
Emma Thompson, Saving Mr. Banks
Judi Dench, Philomena
Sandra Bullock, Gravity

Best Supporting Actor
Barkhad Abdi, Captain Phillips
Bradley Cooper, American Hustle
Daniel Brühl, Rush
Matt Damon, Behind the Candelabra
Michael Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave

Best Supporting Actress
Sally Hawkins, Blue Jasmine
Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle
Lupita Nyong'o, 12 Years A Slave
Julia Roberts, August Osage County
Oprah Winfrey, The Butler

Director
David O Russell, American Hustle
Paul Greengrass, Captain Phillips
Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity
Steve McQueen, 12 Years A Slave
Martin Scorsese, The Wolf Of Wall Street

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

FYC: Sean Bobbitt, Paulina García and Tye Sheridan

This "For Your Consideration" series is my wishlist of sorts for the upcoming Oscar nominations. In anticipation of the final day of voting (January 8th), I will be posting daily FYC articles until that day. Each will focus on 3 separate Oscar categories, highlighting one film/film element per category that deserves consideration. Please note that these are not necessarily my favourites for each category. They are instead an assortment of memorable films/elements that were breakthroughs or surpassed my expectations. You'll notice that some of them are already in the awards conversation, while others are fringe contenders without much of a chance. Regardless, I believe they are all deserving of Oscar nominations based on the quality of their work.

OSCAR WATCH: August: Osage County


Another acclaimed play received the Hollywood treatment last year in the form of "August: Osage County". Adapted by the playwright himself (Tracy Letts), this is a darkly humourous account of a dysfunctional family in the Plains of Oklahoma. Directed by John Wells, he assembles an all-star cast of actors and lets them rip. What results is a prickly chamber piece as the family returns to their collective home in the wake of a tragedy.

At the forefront of the action is Meryl Streep as Violet, the matriach of the Weston clan. After her husband dies (the aforementioned tragedy), she calls on her estranged family for some much needed comfort and joy. Well, that's what you'd expect but did I mention that they are dysfunctional? You see, Violet is going through a hard time outside of the tragic loss. She's suffering with mouth cancer and has resorted to an addiction to prescription pills to cope. As you can expect then, she's a bit unstable. Hence, with the family all gathered around the dinner table and plagued with anger/depression she proceeds to aggressively air everyone's dirty laundry.

Now, if you know Meryl Streep you know she doesn't do anything half-heartedly. So believe me when I say that she literally attacks the role with everything she's got. She SHOUTS, she GLARES, she LAUGHS, she CRIES. Basically what I'm saying is, it's the Meryl Streep show. That being said, I don't think she's bad in the movie like others have claimed. Yes, she unfairly grabs the attention from the other fantastic performer but one thing's for sure, her comic timing is pitch-perfect.

Streep's importance to the plot is critical, but there's also a terrific ensemble that supports her. The casting is impeccable with nary a weak link in the bunch. They truly felt like a real family, due to both physical resemblances and believable familial synergy. In particular, Margot Martindale and Meryl Streep have instant chemistry as sisters. Also notable is Julia Roberts, who is essentially the co-lead as Violet's daughter's Barbara. She's like a sponge in the role, absorbing everyone's energy and then feeding it right back to them. Really, all of the supporting players are uniformly outstanding, including Chris Cooper, Ewan McGregor, Sam Shepard, Dermot Mulroney, Julianne Nicholson, Juliette Lewis, Abigail Breslin, Benedict Cumberbatch and Misty Upham.

Apart from the superb acting, this is also a showcase for Tracy Letts' screenplay. His script is sharp and potent, gifting the actors some great material to work it. Together with Wells' simple but effective direction, they manage the tricky balance between comedy and drama very well. Unfortunately, I can't honestly say that it's a fully successful adaptation. It's a film of many great scenes but the narrative throughline is lacking. In the end, it doesn't quite come together as a fully satisfying whole. Furthermore, the mean-spirited tone is sometimes a little too acrid to bear. As a result, it's the kind of film you'd quickly want to forget.

For all its flaws, there's still a lot to admire in "August: Osage County". The brilliance of the source material is clearly evident, as it tells a powerful story about life's many challenges. A line by Barbara Weston in the film sums it up perfectly - "Thank God we can't tell the future. We'd never get out of bed." It's a cynical, sobering thought but it really hits home. Your own home may not be as troubled as this one but everyone can empathize with the sentiment. Life will inevitably bring its ups and downs, so you need to relish the good days.

Monday, January 6, 2014

FYC: Naomie Harris, Tobias Lindholm & Thomas Vinterberg and the Production Design of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

This "For Your Consideration" series is my wishlist of sorts for the upcoming Oscar nominations. In anticipation of the final day of voting (January 8th), I will be posting daily FYC articles until that day. Each will focus on 3 separate Oscar categories, highlighting one film/film element per category that deserves consideration. Please note that these are not necessarily my favourites for each category. They are instead an assortment of memorable films/elements that were breakthroughs or surpassed my expectations. You'll notice that some of them are already in the awards conversation, while others are fringe contenders without much of a chance. Regardless, I believe they are all deserving of Oscar nominations based on the quality of their work.

MOVIE OF THE WEEK: Blue Is The Warmest Color


My top pick this week is the infamous 2013 Palme d'Or winner "Blue is the Warmest Color". With its provocative sexual content, the film received the rare NC-17 rating and has been the talk of the town since its illustrious Cannes premiere. However, once you get around to watching it you'll find it's so much more than just raunchy sex scenes.

On the surface, "Blue is the Warmest Color" seems like your typical romance drama, albeit with a lesbian relationship. This is no ordinary love story however, as it sidesteps the easy sentimental tricks for a more raw, profound experience. Our protagonist is a teenaged girl named Emma who is dissatisfied with her relationships with boys at her high school. She spots the older Emma (a Fine Arts college student) one day and feels an instant connection. By chance, they meet up in a bar one day and lust soon turns to love. As we chart their fiery relationship, we see all the highs and lows of love.

Apart from this key romance, this is also a fascinating take on "coming of age". When we first meet Adele, she's jaded, anxious and essentially unhappy. Over the course of the following 3 hours, we see an awakening of the passion within her. By the end of it she's more mature and confident. Evidently, it's not just an erotic passion (though that's a huge part of it), but a renewed enthusiasm for life in general. That's what draws Adele to Emma, this enticing representation of a better life.

Indeed, the script perfectly sells the allure of Emma. From our very first introduction to her, we can immediately sense the intelligence and radiant joy that matches her physical beauty. Lea Seydoux's portrayal of Emma leaves you utterly mesmerized, making it easy to understand Adele's feelings. Even more than Emma though, the screenplay digs deep into the heart and soul of Adele. The lengthy running time is a major asset, as it allows the film to take its time to develop the characters. Whereas a similar romance film would use a "10 years later" title card to skip to the latter stages of the relationship, this one takes you through the full journey with these lovers. The writing is so rich and thoughtful that every little detail matters. For example, an off-hand comment about Adele's voraciousness informs every ill-advised decision she makes. Every action is completely believable and true to character.

Yes, the screenplay deserves high praise but you only notice its strength because of the stunning performance of its star Adele Exarchopoulos. It's a role with a high degree of difficulty as the director demands a lot. It's shot almost entirely in tight closeups (and I'm not just referring to her face), practically redefining the term "character study". She therefore deserves a lot of credit (especially as a young actress) for being able to command the screen in such an infinitely compelling way. Hers is truly a generous performance. She's constantly projecting to the audience, the cinematographer and the director. By the end of it, we feel like we know everything about Adele. Furthermore, she has sizzling chemistry with the brilliant Lea Seydoux. Kechiche clearly agrees, as he orchestrates some of the most vivid sex scenes ever put on screen (outside of pornography of course). Yes, they're a bit gratuitous and voyeuristic, but I think they effectively demonstrate the contrast between their relationship and Adele's dispassionate heterosexual flings. Some may find the film a bit too long and the length of these sex scenes are a frequent complaint. However, Kechiche is crafting such a rich story that I find these complaints futile. It's no wonder that the film's French title is "La Vie d'Adèle – Chapitres 1 & 2" (The Life of Adèle - Chapters 1 and 2).

In summary, "Blue is the Warmest Color" is an unflinching examination of that once in a lifetime love, warts and all. It's the kind of love that consumes you so fully that the bad days can set your mental state totally off balance. The film illustrates this beautifully with a palpable passion in its richly-defined characters that is only matched by its amazing cast, writers and director. It's simply outstanding.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

FYC: The Great Beauty, Abdellatif Kechiche & Ghalia Lacroix and the Makeup & Hairstyling of The Lone Ranger & American Hustle

This "For Your Consideration" series is my wishlist of sorts for the upcoming Oscar nominations. In anticipation of the final day of voting (January 8th), I will be posting daily FYC articles until that day. Each will focus on 3 separate Oscar categories, highlighting one film/film element per category that deserves consideration. Please note that these are not necessarily my favourites for each category. They are instead an assortment of memorable films/elements that were breakthroughs or surpassed my expectations. You'll notice that some of them are already in the awards conversation, while others are fringe contenders without much of a chance. Regardless, I believe they are all deserving of Oscar nominations based on the quality of their work.

OSCAR WATCH: Dallas Buyers Club


Matthew McConaughey is the real deal, y'all (said in my best Texan accent). If you weren't on board with the McConassaince yet, then it's about time to join in. I preface this review with this because the biggest takeaway from "Dallas Buyers Club" is that damn, this guy has really become a fine actor.

"Dallas Buyers Club" is the true story of Ron Woodruff, an electrician who is diagnosed with AIDS during the height of the 1980s epidemic. A cocky bigot, his infection with a presumed "gays only" disease gives him the shock of his life. His doctors inform him that he only has 30 days left to live, which springs him into action to find treatment. He eventually founded the Dallas Buyers Club, which sold subscriptions to AIDS patients so they could receive the effective medication that weren't approved by the FDA.

As I watched this film, I couldn't help but be reminded of the previous year's stirring documentary "How To Survive A Plague". They're both set in the same time period and they share a similarly angry stance against FDA's bureaucratic process, which failed in allowing persons to get the medicine they urgently needed. Both films also have a nifty sense of the "ticking clock", frequently reminding us of the days since the virus has hit, which keeps us aware that time is running out.

The comparison between the two films is unfortunate however. "How To Survive A Plague" is a powerful blitz of passion and fury, which makes "Dallas Buyers Club" feel underwhelming. Its script just goes where you expect it to go (albeit with good directing) and never throws you any "curve balls".

Well, that's where McConaughey comes in. He is the full embodiment of Ron Woodruff, getting right down to the truth of the character. It's a full transformation, which is more than just the scary weight loss. He is living, breathing, feeling every moment on screen and it's amazing to watch. You've probably also heard of Jared Leto's superlative performance as Rayon, Woodruff's transgender business partner. While his transformation is indeed impressive, I must admit that it's not as revelatory as expected. These two actors make for a very compelling duo, so I just wished they would have given Leto a little more to do.

Overall, "Dallas Buyers Club" is a competent film that is elevated by the work of its lead actor. The main reason I would reccommend this film, is to see his performance. Luckily, he's on screen almost all the time, making this a captivating film indeed.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

FYC: Christopher Rouse, Catherine Martin and "Over The Love"

This "For Your Consideration" series is my wishlist of sorts for the upcoming Oscar nominations. In anticipation of the final day of voting (January 8th), I will be posting daily FYC articles until that day. Each will focus on 3 separate Oscar categories, highlighting one film/film element per category that deserves consideration. Please note that these are not necessarily my favourites for each category. They are instead an assortment of memorable films/elements that were breakthroughs or surpassed my expectations. You'll notice that some of them are already in the awards conversation, while others are fringe contenders without much of a chance. Regardless, I believe they are all deserving of Oscar nominations based on the quality of their work.

Friday, January 3, 2014

FYC: Turbo, The Crash Reel and the Visual Effects of Pacific Rim

This "For Your Consideration" series is my wishlist of sorts for the upcoming Oscar nominations. In anticipation of the final day of voting (January 8th), I will be posting daily FYC articles until that day. Each will focus on 3 separate Oscar categories, highlighting one film/film element per category that deserves consideration. Please note that these are not necessarily my favourites for each category. They are instead an assortment of memorable films/elements that were breakthroughs or surpassed my expectations. You'll notice that some of them are already in the awards conversation, while others are fringe contenders without much of a chance. Regardless, I believe they are all deserving of Oscar nominations based on the quality of their work.

#FF Best of 2013, Lone Survivor and more...


A new year has started and as expected it's the time when we usually reflect on the past year. In the blogosphere, that means one thing in particular - Best Films of the Year lists! It will be a few more weeks before I'm ready with my list, but many bloggers have already chimed in on which films made 2013 so special. Check out some of those lists from my blogging buddies below, as well as some other cool posts.

Alex featured some of my own personal favourites in his Top 10 Films of 2013.

John also offered up his Best Movies of 2013, deeming it an outstanding year.

Mark's Top 10 Movies for 2013 includes a few indie gems like The Place Beyond the Pines and The Way Way Back.

Shala listed her top picks of 2013 for various genres.

Stevee listed her Unofficial Top 15 Films of 2013.

Steven also named his list the "unofficial" Best Films of 2013.

Dan was a fan of Lone Survivor, giving at a positive review.

JD reviewed Lone Survivor and was impressed by the story.

Liam highlights a few underdogs we may be underestimating on the road to Oscar.

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OSCAR WATCH: American Hustle


David O. Russell has been on a roll lately and with that track record comes high expectations. With his latest film "American Hustle", he's working from intriguing material and a superb cast. It obviously has the elements to make a great film, but does it live up to his high standard?
"American Hustle" is loosely based on the ABSCAM scandal of the late 70s/early 80s, which was an elaborate con used to indict corrupt politicians in New Jersey. The operation was carried out by a network of hustlers, including a master con artist (Christian Bale), his beautiful faux-British partner (Amy Adams) and an undercover FBI agent (Bradley Cooper). As with his previous films, these are all larger-than-life characters played by a cast of frequent collaborators.
The film has been labelled "Scorsese-esque", due to similarities to his 90s output of semi-biographical gangster flicks. The narrative style and mafia elements are indeed reminiscent of "Goodfellas" and "Casino". However, this film is so tame in comparison that it's hard for me to agree with those who claim that this is a mere "copy and paste". What we see in this film is still very much in line with the rest of Russell's filmography. Namely, it's an off-kilter character-driven dramedy.
Much like his detours into Boston ("The Fighter") and Philadelphia ("Silver Linings Playbook"), Russell excels at capturing a sense of time and place. The fashion and music are equally as important as the human characters. Whether it be Bradley Cooper's perm or groovy disco dancing, it's all a purposeful part of Russell's vision.
The great thing about working with familiar actors is that they easily understand this vision. That's definitely the case here, as the ensemble all deliver fine performances. From the trio of main characters, Cooper and Bale are the standouts. Cooper perhaps had a better role in "Silver Linings Playbook" last year, but this is his most skilled performance. He's never been so completely so assured with his technique, a far cry from his early career. Slightly more impressive is the always reliable Christian Bale. He is the realist anchor of the film, which is no easy task considering his character's slightly goofy appearance (that combover!). Unfortunately, Amy Adams doesn't fare as well. She gives a strong performance but she's hindered by a laughably imperfect British accent. Of course, the nature of the role requires this bad accent, but I got the impression that it caused her to struggle to fully inhabit the character. Her female co-star Jennifer Lawrence had no such trouble however, delivering a scene-stealing, vivacious performance as Bale's neglected wife. Also notable is Jeremy Renner, who plays one of the politicians being tricked into a false investment. It's truly outstanding work by all, with Cooper, Bale and Lawrence all having a viable claim for "best in show".
Yet despite the ace directing work and dazzling ensemble, there's something missing in the script department. From a macro-level, the film has a great story, but the plot specifics lack a certain "je ne sais quoi". Maybe it could have used more emotion or the stakes could have been higher. It's hard to tell. One thing's for sure though, I was never bored, even when I wasn't entirely sure of what was going on. When all is said and done, that's almost enough for me. I was entertained from start to finish and I was always invested in the characters. "American Hustle" doesn't quite match up to David O. Russell's own high standards, but it's still a compelling piece of filmmaking.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

FYC: Steven Price, Glenn Freemantle and the Sound Mixing of Gravity

This "For Your Consideration" series is my wishlist of sorts for the upcoming Oscar nominations. In anticipation of the final day of voting (January 8th), I will be posting daily FYC articles until that day. Each will focus on 3 separate Oscar categories, highlighting one film/film element per category that deserves consideration. Please note that these are not necessarily my favourites for each category. They are instead an assortment of memorable films/elements that were breakthroughs or surpassed my expectations. You'll notice that some of them are already in the awards conversation, while others are fringe contenders without much of a chance. Regardless, I believe they are all deserving of Oscar nominations based on the quality of their work.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

OSCAR WATCH: Lone Survivor


No year is complete without a major war movie and 2013 was no different. Arriving at the end of the year, "Lone Survivor" seemed to have gotten lost in the blitz of holiday releases. The critics didn't come to its rescue and audiences are perhaps feeling fatigue over contemporary war dramas. However, I still believe it's a film worth considering.

The film is directed by Peter Berg, who many of you may know from last year's reviled flop "Battleship". Of course, that's not an encouraging sign but make no mistake, this guy has talent. Despite his uneven filmography, Berg has a lifetime pass from me for creating "Friday Night Lights", one of the best TV series of all time. With that in mind, I was happy to see that this film is much more in line with his work on that under-seen, but highly acclaimed show.

"Lone Survivor" tells the harrowing true story of a team of Navy SEALs sent on a dangerous mission to capture a Taliban leader in Afghanistan. As you can probably imagine from the film's title, it doesn't have the happiest of outcomes. Don't tell that to Berg however, as he seems intent on having us believe that everything will turn out fine. He employs his unique humanist style of directing here, which makes him both an inspired and unusual fit for this story. Specifically, he's an expert at handling tender emotional moments but he struggles with creating the tension required for an action film. You quickly get the sense that he loves his characters dearly, not wanting to make their imminent danger feel to be too palpable. This is perfectly exposed in the way he opens the film - reverent real-life footage, sentimental correspondence with loved ones, male bonding. He puts all his heart and soul into scenes like these, much more than when he's required to stage the big action sequences.

As much as Berg would like to ignore it however, this is first and foremost a war movie and this particular story requires some big action scenes. To his credit, he does direct the shootouts pretty well. Still, that lack of tension is a problem when the men aren't engaged in combat. Berg loves his wide shot vistas (especially with a sunrise or sunset in the background) but it ends up feeling too glossy and pretty for this material. The film definitely needed some more grit considering the bleakness being depicted.

Even with all of these issues, Berg's elegant direction keeps this film at a fairly high quality. Kudos to Mark Wahlberg as well, who admirably carries the tail end of this film and delivers its powerful conclusion. The film may not satisfy those hoping for a landmark war epic, but this is a remarkable true story that deserves to be seen.

New Year's Movie Resolutions

2013 has come and gone and I will remember it fondly. This was an outstanding year for the blog, as I achieved various milestones. In April, I was nominated for a LAMMY award for Best Awards Coverage. I finally got a proper domain for the site at the end of July. Finally, I attended my first festival (with press credentials!) in October. This also had the unexpected effect of nearly doubling my usual readership! It was a fine year indeed and I'm grateful for all the support.

This post is mainly about my blogging goals for 2014 though. After the success of my 2013 resolutions, I'm excited to continue with this new tradition. Here are my New Year's Movie Resolutions for 2014:

- Watch more black cinema.

- Score at least 80 points in the Film Actually Oscar Contest.

- Write more editorials.

- Watch more movies!