Thursday, February 27, 2014

Finally!!! Feeling tons and tons better! Took long enough, jeebus! I'll tell you, I haven't had a cold or flu that bad in years. Thankfully it's all over and I can actually get back to enjoying some normal life. Now that I'm feeling good I can actually enjoy some of these movies I've been watching and not have it feel like a chore. Don't get me wrong, this Best Picture goal has been a blast, but when you're sick, it's hard to have fun with it.

Ok, here we are today with Philomena and Dallas Buyer's Club.

First up, Philomena.

Okay, well, that trailer, yeah... it kinda lies. The trailer makes it look like a touching, heart warming comedy with a smattering of real life drama tossed in for a bit of flavor. Nope. This is a pretty serious and heavy drama with some cute, albeit quiet jokes tossed in. This is the story of real life Philomena Lee, played by the always wonderful Judi Dench, whom as a young girl got got pregnant outside of marriage. The problem is Philomena is Irish Catholic and it was in the 1940's and there was a custom of shaming young girls that dared to commit this terrible "sin." Their course of penance was to be confined to an abby for a period of 4 years where they would work hard labor 7 days a week as they watched their children be adopted whether they wanted to keep the child or not. If the mother's didn't die giving birth, they were given minimal care, as was the case for Philomena who had to endure a breach birth without any proper medical attention as part of her penance. See, told you it wasn't funny.

Flash forward 50 years and we meet Martin Sixsmith, played by a dry Steve Coogan, who also cowrote the feature. Martin is a former BBC reporter and political spin doctor - who just lost his job and is searching for a project to focus on. During a chance meeting at a party, Martin learns of Philomena's story and her struggle to find her son and he decides to make it his next project. Together the two set about visiting the abby where Philomena stayed and ultimately fly to America to learn the truth.

This is another one of those movies where I feel compelled to be extremely vague about the details. If you don't already know the story, or have read the book that it was based on, it helps to not know too much going in. Next thing that I can't help but mention is that it has a very anti-Catholic sentiment running through it. While Philomena is a strong Catholic herself and manages to forgive and find goodness in everyone, she seems to be the one good Catholic in the entire show. And given what was done to her, I can't say that I blame the filmmakers for taking this rout with the movie.

In spite of the dark subject matter, this is a very fine movie. Well made and competently told. Judi Dench is always amazing so heaping more praise onto her for doing what she's always done best is kinda silly. With that, I have to give a huge shout out to Steve Coogan for turning in a fantastic performance. Usually I see him in more madcap comedy roles or if he's playing it straight and serious, it's in much smaller roles than this. And as a co-writer I have to give him a lot of credit for tackling the material as they did while still finding small places for happiness to sneak in here and there. My only "gripe" if there is one, is that this is not the movie advertised. But that's the fault of the marketing team, not the filmmakers.

I can see why it's a Best Picture contender - it has a lot of Oscar friendly elements working for it, but it too, doesn't have a chance to win the gold dude. If it does, it would only be because votes are going to be so split by other contenders. Even then, it still shouldn't win. I don't mean to be down on the movie or negative, it's just not the best movie of the year. It is very good, and if people are looking for a good drama to take in, I'd recommend it, but that's as far as I'm willing to go in my praise of this movie.

Up next, Dallas Buyers Club

In the words of the brilliant thespian, Keanu Reeves - "Whoa!" This is a hell of a movie. Heavy and serious yet wonderful and heart warming. Matthew McConaughey stars as Ron Woodroof, a self described "Rodeo Man" who openly and frequently uses any number of homosexual slurs to describe "those people" and anyone with HIV and AIDS. That is of course until he is diagnosed with the disease himself.

This true story hits when the AIDS epidemic was just getting going, and coincidentally, exactly when the most could have been done to steam the tide of infection and treat the disease, only due to politics - it wasn't. I was born in 1982, and growing up through the 80's I still have clear memories of hearing about people doing anything and everything they could to get the medications that worked, but weren't approved for usage in this country. I still remember Ryan White, the teen who contracted the virus from a tainted blood transfusion and the incredible amount of advocacy work he did before he died. With that, seeing Ron's story played out by some of Hollywood's finest, delivering their best performances, makes knowing and remembering the history of how people with this awful disease were treated all the more serious. This isn't a subject people should make light of or forget. Wisely rather than pointing fingers at a specific politician or political party, the film focuses on Ron's fight with various bureaucratic agencies to get the medications he and many others needed.

Ron was a fast living guy who drank like a fish, put what ever he could up his nose, and frequently had unprotected sex with numerous partners. So how he contracted the virus is pretty obvious and straightforward, and thankfully, the movie doesn't shy away from. Because it's his personal journey from being a misogynist and a homophobe into someone that fights for people to get the medications they need by traveling overseas and illegally importing these medications is what's important. Helping him along the way is his doctor, Eve, played by a wonderfully sympathetic Jennifer Garner, and a transvestite named Rayon played by an unrecognizable Jared Leto. Was Ron right to break the law and do what he did? Hard to say. But when you consider the FDA and other agencies were dragging their feet and roadblocking research efforts, it gets pretty easy to paint Ron in a heroic light.

The film is quite simply, incredible. There just isn't another word to describe it. The performances are amazing, and if I have to call the Best Actor race, I have to say McConaughey is pretty much a shoe-in. And it isn't because he lost all that weight either. Sure, his physical transformation is incredible, but his commitment to the role and the emotional weight he gives every scene makes his performance one of the best in the history of the medium. It isn't enough to "play" someone in a biopic movie like this. You have to become that person, and McConaughey did that in spades. Also, I gotta tip my hat to Jared Leto who held nothing back for this film and is equally deserving of his Best Actor In A Supporting Role nomination, if not the little golden dude himself. I just can't praise this movie enough.

So what do I have to say when it comes down to the movie's Best Picture chances? Well, this is where things get really tough. Now between this movie and 12 Years A Slave - we have two of the best movies put to film and released to an audience. Not only are they great, they're both important representations of eras in our nation's history that shouldn't be forgotten. Is one inherently better movie material than the other, AIDS vs Slavery? No. Both movies take on their respective subjects with an honesty and frankness that should be praised to no end, if only to encourage this kind of attention to detail from future films. I simply can't pick one movie over the other. If there is justice to this whole Best Picture system - both movies will win top honors because both deserve it equally.

Could my mind change tomorrow since I still have to review Her, and The Wolf Of Wall Street? Possibly. But then after what I've seen so far, the competition is pretty thick. See you then! Be good, and hot damn am I glad I'm feeling better!   

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

When My Eye Stops Watering I'll Be Happy

FYI I'm Watching The Incredible Hulk Right Now

Well I'm slowly starting to feel better. Meanwhile my loved one that had taken ill, well, there have been complications so to speak. I'm being vague because they wouldn't want me airing family health details in a public forum. But, that said, all signs are positive, but just the same, the chances of me having to go back home again to help in any way I can are very high. I would be there now, except I'm sick as a dog, which makes me unable to fly. So I'm basically sitting on my couch these days with tissues up my nose unable to do anything and trying not to make myself go mad with wondering. That turned kinda dark, but it's true. I hate feeling powerless like this, and it's made even worse because I'm sick as hell. Probably best to focus on movies for now, because it's what I can do.

Pushing forward with my little Oscars Best Picture run, I'll be picking things up with the Alexander Payne directed film Nebraska.

If you're at all familiar with Payne's work, you know that he tells stories about ordinary families in slightly less than extraordinary situations, but are no less than extraordinary for them. Nebraska follows the elderly and slightly senile Woody played by the always awesome Bruce Dern, as he sets his sights on heading to Lincoln Nebraska from Billings Montana to claim his million dollar winnings that he was sent in the mail. Along for the ride is his amiable son David, played by an understated Will Forte who works in an electronics shop. David's brother Ross, a fantastic Bob Odenkirk, and his mother Kate played by Alexander Payne regular June Squibb all know that Woody's winning are nothing more than a mail in scam to get people to sign up for magazine subscriptions. But knowing this isn't going to stop Woody from reaching Nebraska.

David, in order to help Woody get over the obsession agrees to take him to Lincoln in the hopes that he'll forget about the whole thing and he can take him right back home. Only Woody doesn't forget. He's tenacious and driven, and no one can understand why. When pressed about what he would do with the money, very simply he tells them all he wants is a new truck and a new air compressor. That's it. Hardly anything one would need a million dollars for. As a man with a history of drinking and screwing people over, everyone wonders what Woody's motives really are, but he's not saying much.

During their journey south, David and Woody get waylaid in Woody's home town where once word gets out of Woody's "winnings" the vultures start swarming all looking for their cut. Did I forget to mention this movie is a comedy? That's probably because it's such deadpan humor that the joke can easily get lost in the translation. In addition to being incredibly funny, it's also wonderfully charming. The performances from Bruce Dern and Will Forte as his son are fantastic, there is a genuine father/son chemistry that gives this film the emotional weight it needs. Truly wonderful. Also out now on DVD/Blu-ray it's an easy recommend. I'll be watching it again I'm sure.

Is it a Best Picture contender? You bet? Will it win? Sadly, given this year's competition, not a snow ball's chance in hell. Thems the breaks. This movie, as fantastic as it is, just doesn't hold up to the rest of the competition. And then when you factor in that the Academy genuinely doesn't award comedies the highest honor all that often, the chances of this one winning Best Picture becomes less and less likely. Would I be happy if it snuck out a surprise upset and actually won? You bet!

Next on the list - 12 Years A Slave. Alright, before I get going on this one, I have to admit to being a little reluctant to taking this one on. Not because of the subject manner of slavery, nor it's frank depiction, but because of it's director - Steve McQueen (no relation to the actor). After Shame and Hunger, this guy has built a reputation for directing some pretty soul retching material. Thankfully, if these things can actually be measured,  12 Years A Slave, wasn't as horrifying as I expected. To be perfectly blunt, I honestly expected Passion of the Christ 2: Slavery Boogaloo. Alright I know that title is a little tasteless but it's no less apt. I was expecting to be immersed in the horrors, but instead, the film finds every way it can to be brutally frank and still rise above being only about the torture. That isn't to say it pulls its punches either, because it doesn't. It shows the horrible, it just doesn't revel in the horrible. The film works really hard to maintain a soul by finding the individual moments of goodness in the tiny gestures of kindness in an extraordinary few people.

Based on the real life memoirs of Solomon Northup played incredibly by Chiwetel Ejiofor. Solomon was a born free black man from New York who was kidnapped and sold into slavery illegally. Believe me, it's difficult to write "illegally" about something so atrocious but in the context of the era and when the story takes place in the 1840's through the 1850's - it was against the law - but apparently still a common practice.

What ensues is Solomon being stripped of his identity and humanity. Renamed Platt, he must hide his true nature, education, and abilities lest he be beaten for insolence. It is hard to write about the sights of the film in a clinical, critic manner when this is a movie that shouldn't be simply seen, but be experienced. If I were to detail what happens to what characters when, it simply diminishes the impact and importance of the moment, and ultimately the act itself. The imagery is amazing, lensed by Sean Bobbitt, the film's beauty is breath taking as it revels in the natural wonder of the scenery while not shying away from the horrors that fill it. Also incredible is the score by Hans Zimmer delivering pieces that are equally haunting and frightening at the same time.

I would be doing this movie a serious wrong if I didn't speak of the performances. The commitment of the actors and actresses is astounding. This is truly a "whose who" featuring appearances from many of the great up and coming and established actors of this generation.  Ejiofor is well deserving and a strong contender of his Best Actor nomination as is Michael Fassbender as the slave owner Edwin Epps. Nominated for Best Actor In A Supporting Role, Fassbender's portrayal of a man in conflict with his own soul is equally impressive. If there is any Oscars justice, Ejiofor will win Actor while Fassbender will win Supporting. It's that cut and dry. Their performances are so intertwined that there can't be success for one without equal success for the other. Also no less incredible is Lupia Nyong'o as Patsey in her first movie role; she is a talent I look forward to seeing more from and she deserves all the accolades she has coming her way for years to come.

So, is this a real Best Picture contender? Uh, yeah. I know I tipped my hat to Gravity already, but that's based entirely on the fact that movie was extremely entertaining. 12 Years A Slave is important. As of now in the rankings of the Best Picture movies, this is the clear winner so far for me. But that could change tomorrow.

Next up on the list, I'll be taking a look at Dallas Buyer's Club and Philomena. Be good until then and remember to give your loved ones a hug whenever you can. It's when you're not going to be able to that you're going to want to the most.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Cold Goes On, But So Must The Show!

The cold lingers, now I'm in this wonderful place of having a runny nose, while hacking out my lungs, while my head feels like it's caught in between Rocky and Clubber Lang - so yeah, not much better. But I'm not going to let that stop me!

The Oscar Best Picture viewing continues and today I bring you the next two selections, Gravity and Captain Phillips. Keeping to alphabetic order, I'm going to kick off today's show with Captain Phillips.

Captain Phillips is the based on real events story of a cargo tanker and her crew being hijacked by Somali pirates and then in order to save the crew, the ship's captain agrees to go with the pirates. If this starts to sound familiar at all it's because it pretty much made every news headline around the country back in 2009. Staring in one of his best roles in a good long while, Tom Hanks is our titular captain who is frequently threatened and beaten at gun point by the leader of the pirates, Muse, played incredibly by Barkhad Abdi in his(to date) only film credit. Directed by Paul Greengrass(there's a "grass is greener on the other side" joke in there somewhere) this is an incredibly well directed, impeccably well acted film, that for me, sadly, doesn't really amount to much - and I'l explain why.

Okay so this is a pretty impressive production. The film opens with a terrific juxtaposition between Captain Phillips' life in America and Muse's life in Somalia; both men are ready to do what it takes to survive and care for their families. Captain Phillips gets his crew ready for their journey around the tip of Africa, and Muse gathers the men he needs for a mission to capture a shipping vessel to hold for ransom.

From there it becomes a cat and mouse game as Captain Phillips and his crew try to outwit the pirates who, with every passing moment, are getting closer and closer until they're finally able to take the ship. Having to settle for only $30,000 in the ship's safe, the pirates capture Phillips and force him to go with them in the ship's life boat as they are determined to make millions of dollars from his ransom. The only problem with their plan, the United States Navy has other designs.

Now don't get me wrong with this, everything is here to create a terrific thriller, the cast is there, the director is in peak form, the only problem is - we know how this ends. This is a similar problem I had with Argo last year. I knew the outcome. I read all about what happened after President Clinton declassified that operation, and the subsequent Wired Magazine article. I knew what was going to happen from the moment the show started, and I wanted to see that end sooner rather than later. The same problem plagues Captain Phillips - only far worse in my estimation since it's a much more recent event. I knew about the standoff with the Navy. I knew the SEALS show up and do what they do best. So the whole time Captain Phillips and his crew are doing their thing and trying survive - I just wanted the SEALS to show up(maybe not Charlie Sheen and Michael Biehn though).

When you're ready for the end of the movie at the beginning of the movie - that's not a good thing! This is why I don't read the ends of books, and why I don't read comment threads when movies are released - I hate spoilers. This move was spoiled by the fact that it was big news for a really long time. At least for me. Maybe there were some that weren't paying attention at the time that can still get caught up in it, but I'm just not one of them. I know many people love it, and I can totally see why, and I get why it has a 93% score on Rotten Tomatoes, it just doesn't do it for me. I really wanted it to, but it doesn't. I loved Tom Hanks' performance, he's incredible, so one thing I have to admit to, is that if  you're going to watch it, it's for him. And I truly hope Barkhad Abdi is someone we see more from in the future. That dude has talent! As it stands now in the rankings, it's the least likely to win Best Picture, especially since it's lead actor, Tom Hanks isn't even nominated - as he rightly should be!


Gravity! Okay all I can say about this movie really is "Oh My God What A Ride!" This is movie making splendor at it's absolute best! From frame one you're drawn into this "world" of outer space and the characters that inhabit it. Staring Sandra Bullock, in justifiably her best performance, the audience is taken on a thrill ride as a catastrophic event destroys her shuttle sending her adrift with minimal oxygen left. Along for the ride is George Clooney, whom is also great in his part, but make no mistake, this is Sandra's show through and through. Directed by Alfonso Cuaron, this is one of the most suspenseful, well crafted films of the year, if not several years.

Taking four years to film and complete, this movie is a technical marvel to behold, and the 3D imagery is nothing short of breathtaking. Seriously, if you're not watching this movie in 3D, you're not fully experiencing the film. And as a side note, it's also the best post conversion 3D films ever released. Yes, that's right. This movie was not initially shot in 3D due to the fact that the actors had to be filmed in multiple ways utilizing a variety of techniques to created the perfect weightless effects. So any 3D naysayers out there can go take a powder because this conversion effort is incredible and does exactly what good 3D is supposed to do and suck you into the film.

If I'm not describing the plot much, well, even I'll concede this, there isn't much plot to discus. Ship blows up, astronauts have to get back to Earth any way they possibly can. That's about it. While the plot is basic, it's the way this show is presented that makes it so compelling and rewarding. This is where having a simple plot helps. There is just no need to over think this and muddle the proceedings in the process. And like I said before, Sandra's performance was incredible, especially since she's the emotional anchor for the entire picture. Nominated for Best ActressDirector, as well as Best Original Score - which I fully endorse as well - this movie is the one to beat. I loved it, and I know I'll be watching it many more times to come.

Is it a strong Best Picture contender in my book? You bet! All the way to the top of the list in fact(so far). Like any movie there is a fair level of criticisms to be leveled at this one. Are their technical inaccuracies? Sure, but then I'm not an astrophysicist so I'm not going to gripe. I have also heard some gripes from people about the performances, and to be flat honest, if you're not moved by Sandra's emotional roller coaster in any way, you've got to be one cynical dick. And I know cynics, I am one, but even I won't shoot this movie down like that.

Best of all for this film, It is available to purchase on Blu-ray today! Why you'd watch this on DVD I have no idea. At over 80% HD market penetration, if you're not onto Blu-ray yet, this is the movie to start the collection with! ALSO if you have a 3DTV set, yeah you're wasting your money if you don't have this one in there. So far this is hands down the favorite of the Best Picture race in my opinion.

Come back tomorrow where I'll take on 12 Years A Slave, and Nebraska. Until then, be good out there and do what ever you can to not get this cold! If I have managed to give it to you by coughing on my screen - I apologize!

Monday, February 24, 2014

Bad Colds Suck

This is what I look like when I'm sick

Okay so I've had this cold/flue since about Tuesday of last week and it hasn't let up at all. I go from having a sore throat to feeling feverish and achy, to having a splitting headache, to feeling like I might be on the mend and then the experience repeats itself. Needless to say if you have to get one cold this year, try not to get this one!

What's new you may be asking? Well considering it's been forever in a day since I posted anything on here, a whole lot has happened actually. A close loved one had to have a pretty serious surgery so that necessitated my traveling back to my home state of Michigan twice. Which was great in a way because I got to reconnect and bond with family. On top of all that, I no longer have my contract job! Which actually is a blessing in disguise believe it or not. Now I can focus on my personal creative pursuits while I search for full time employment. I dug the work I was doing before, but it was far too sporadic at the end, and then I found out I'd been let go when my work email got changed(while I was working!) and wasn't even told my services were no longer required until the following day after I sent 2 emails requesting information! So yeah, freedom!!! Through all this - I gotta tip my hat to my incredible wife who also started a new job at an incredible ad agency. I have to admit to being pretty damn jealous of her since it's an awesome place with great people. But, I know I'll find where I belong, just gotta push forward!

All this leads me to today where I feel like my head has been filled up with 1040 weight motor oil and shook up. I'm kinda dizzy. I'm kinda loopy. But that should make for an interesting post! What is today's post about? Well given that I'm a movie nut, and the Oscars are right around the corner, I thought it would be a good idea to review the Best Picture contenders. See, the Oscars always have a controversial time when it comes to picking the Best Picture of said year. Some are right on the money(The Hurt Locker), others play it too safe and choose something lame(Shakespeare In Love), and then you get years where given what the other films nominated were, the Best Picture winner is just bat shit insane (Crash).

This year the 2014 Oscar nominees for best picture are Her, American Hustle, Gravity, 12 Years A Slave, Dallas Buyers Club, Philomena, Captain Phillips, Nebraska, and The Wolf of Wall Street. That's right, nine movies all in the running for the top spot to be called "The Best Picture Of The Year!" Are they really the best picture of the year? Whose to say. It's subjective. Personally, the best movie I saw this year that has provided me tons of replay value and hours of entertainment was Pacific Rim, but that one isn't exactly a Best Picture caliber movie, even I have to admit that!

My reviews for these are going to be brief since A: there are so many of them, and B: I only have 5 days to recap 9 movies! That means I'll be recapping an average of two movies a day, which for me is pretty ambitious. First up and the only one for today, American Hustle.

American Hustle follows the true story of of a group of con artists who are roped in by the FBI to help them put the finger on crooked congressmen who were taking bribes during the 70's. Featuring top tier performances from Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence and a fantastic turn from Jeremy Renner and directed by David O. Russell, this movie is a heck of a great ride! The story starts out following Christian Bale as Irving, an overweight con artist that has been scamming people for years while perfecting his comb over. In the process he trains his lady on the side, Amy Adams as Sydney. She is sexy, ambitious, and can nail a British accent in order to dupe people into believing she has London banking connections that can secure them loans. Only, they don't get them the loans and collect their fees in the process. At the same time, Irving is married to Jennifer Lawrence's character Rosalyn who can simply be described as a hot mess. Enter Bradley Cooper as FBI Agent Richie DiMaso, who catches Irving and Sydney in the act and fingers them into going to work for him and the FBI snagging corrupt politicians that are looking to skim a little off the top. This is where Jeremy Renner's Carmine Polito shows up as an ambitious local New Jersey Meyer who is willing to do anything to save and revitalize Atlantic City.

The movie is quite simply extremely entertaining and the performances from this incredible cast are outstanding; so it's no wonder that it's up for Best Picture. Christian Bale in particular nails his role as does Amy Adams whom both are up for Best Actor and Best Actress respectively - whether or not they'll earn those awards is anyone's guess, but their participation is what helps propel this movie upwards to great heights of movie making. That's not to take anything from Jennifer Lawrence who delivers another Oscar nominated outstanding performance, as does Bradley Cooper whose recent work has really turned my perception of him. He got his start basically playing the "handsome asshole" in a variety of movies and because of that, he was just that to me, a "handsome asshole." However, after Silver Linings Playbook, as well as The Place Beyond The Pines and an entertaining run in The A-Team, this guy is an actor that's delivering performances worth watching. But for me the standout performer here is Jeremy Renner as Meyer Carmine Polito. In every scene he's in, you see and feel his character's desperation to do the right thing not only for himself and his family, but for everyone that he meets on the street, and he's willing to do anything and everything to achieve that goal. What I've read about the real life Carmine Polito - Angelo Errichetti, this is extremely accurate to the man.

While based in part on true events, you have to realize this is a con movie at heart. Like The Sting, Matchstick Men, or any numerous other great con artist film, what you're seeing on screen, isn't necessarily everything you're seeing. There is a lot in the small details; a slight turn of phrase, a sideways glance that speaks volumes. Director David O. Russel does an incredible job keeping the audience engaged in every aspect of what's happening while keeping them at arms length so when the real con hits, you don't see it coming! I love movies like this where it keeps you guessing about what happens while also making you feel like you're in on it. Do I think this is the best of the best of the bunch? Hard to say since I haven't yet seen all of the Best Picture nominees! But if I can say one thing about this one that bodes well for it, it is that I will be watching it many more times to come.