Thursday, December 25, 2014

Movies I Grew Up With: A Christmas Story

First, I must say Merry Christmas to each and all of you...or Merry Xmas...or Happy Hanukkah...or Happy Kwaanza...or Happy whatever it is you celebrate this time of year. Glad you took a minute or two to stop by here and see what I've got going on today. Now let's get down to stretching that two minutes into three or four.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Son of God

This isn't technically a Christmas movie, but it is about the guy they named the holiday after, so here we go...

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Last Ounce of Courage

I guess it's 'bout time I start reviewing some Christmas flicks around here. Let's do this...

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

August: Osage County

Directed by John Wells.
2013. Rated R, 121 minutes.
Meryl Streep
Julia Roberts
Ewan McGregor
Benedict Cumberbatch
Chris Cooper
Abigail Breslin
Juliette Lewis
Margo Martindale
Dermot Mulroney
Julianne Nicholson
Sam Shepard
Misty Upham

Beverly (Shepard) is a man at the end of his wits. He's been married to Violet (Streep) forever and ever. She's a mean old biddy who has been stricken with mouth cancer, but keeps sucking down cigarettes. She medicates herself with as many pain killers as she can get her hands on. He prefers to drink away his pain. One day, Beverly goes out and doesn't come home. After a few days, Violet calls everyone in the family she can get a hold of to help her solve the mystery and the whole dysfunctional clan shows up. Her daughter Ivy (Nicholson) appears first, since she lives in the area. Then, in some order I can't exactly recall, the house fills up with up with people. There's daughter Barbara (Roberts), along with her husband Bill (McGregor), and their daughter Jean (Breslin). Daughter Karen (Lewis) arrives with "this year's man," Steve (Mulroney). Violet's loud sister Mattie Fae (Martindale) rumbles in, dragging her hubby Charles (Casper) with her. At some point, later on, Mattie Fae's and Charles' son Little Charles (Cumberbatch) joins the fray. Every one of these people has serious issues with themselves and each other. You know what that means. Oscar baiting ensues.

In seemingly trying to garner accolades for its cast, August: Osage County comes off more as a collection of clips worthy of awards ceremonies than the gripping drama it impersonates. The actors take turns showcasing their chops. More accurately, headliners Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts take lots of turns while the others get a scene or two apiece. Luckily, it's an amazing cast. Just about everyone is at their fiery best. Every line is delivered with passion and conviction.

Playing our main protagonist, Streep inhabits her role so fully, it's scary. She makes the cigarette between her fingers and the cloud of smoke swirling around her head while puffs of it punctuate her speech integral parts of Violet's persona. She's clearly a fire-breathing dragon once she gets riled up. While Streep is constantly on the attack, Roberts is busy counter-punching. A strong presence in her own right, she never withers beneath her co-star's massive light. Instead, she fires back in verbally violent fashion, commanding the screen as she does.

As stated, the rest of the players all knock it out the park when they step up to the plate. Margo Martindale provides the thunder to Streep's lightning. she is appropriately loud and angry. The difference is where Streep is sinking her fangs into everyone in sight, Martindale is usually trying to make someone do something. As her husband, Cooper fares best amongst the men in the cast. It's not that anyone is bad. Even the weakest links in the cast, either Nicholson or Breslin, are both very good. Ladies and gentlemen, when the masters decide to chew scenery, this is how they do it.

That I've spent most of my review to this point gushing over the acting begs the question 'why don't I love this movie?' The answer lies in something I snuck in a little earlier. It plays like a collection of clips. Due to the talent on display, they are immensely watchable. However, what links them just feels like a writer purposely throwing fuel on various fires to create melodrama. Between every rant, another problem is added to the mix until it all becomes too much for the movie to bear. Eventually, I just rolled my eyes as the next thing always and inevitably happens. In that way, it's very Tyler Perry-esque. We get one earth-shattering revelation after another until the film collapses beneath its own weight. What we're left with is a movie that is much less than the sum of its parts.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Blog Announcement: No More Numbers

Posting my best and worst movies of 2013 made me re-think a certain aspect of my reviewing process. More accurately, those were the straws that broke the bull's back. From this point forward, I will no longer include "MY SCORE" as part of my reviews.

Over the last few months, I've become disenchanted with finishing off my reviews by trying to sum it all up in one number, or a score. The score serves as a hindrance to lists like the two mentioned above which I do enjoy making. The problem is I start to beat myself up over ranking one movie over another even though the scores I've assigned to them suggests that it should be the other way around. After all, what if someone actually went back to those reviews and called me on it?

The fact of the matter is that the score is actually the least reliable part of my review. Instead of being a true representation of how I feel about a movie, it becomes how I think I feel about it at a particular moment in time in comparison to other movies I've recently seen. For instance, I rated Blue is the Warmest Color as my third best movie of '13. My initial score for it was 8.5/10. A number of movies I ranked behind it had better scores, including 12 Years a Slave which I initially gave a perfect ten. For Blue I saw it at a time when I knew I would still see many more movies from that year and had already seen a number of its better movies. Most of them I had given an 8.5/10. I loved Blue, but wasn't sure it was head and shoulders above any of the others, so that score felt justified. By the time I watched 12 Years, the tide had changed a little. My initial viewing of The Place Beyond the Pines blew me away, so I immediately gave that one a 9/10. I thought 12 Years was clearly better, so 10 it was. As the weeks and months passed, my opinion of Pines started to wane a bit while that of Blue elevated. See how complicated this became?

It's an unnecessary and silly stress, too.

My true opinion of a movie is much better summed up in the actual reviews themselves. That's why I write them. The reasons I like or dislike a movie are far more stable than a number I slap on after the last paragraph. Those things are hard-wired into my feelings on what I've just watched. They're less likely to change since each review is a self-contained examination of an individual film. Of course, exceptions are made for sequels, prequels, and remakes when I often refer to their predecessors. Still, they aren't comparisons to other movies released within a given time period.

Not including scores is beneficial to you, the reader, too. It's too easy to forget what's been written about a movie because whatever score it's given carries its own connotations which overwhelms everything else. I might give a movie a glowing review, but give it a score higher or lower than someone thinks it should be and that's where the focus is. I've done it myself on a number of sites, perhaps even yours. It's a pretty natural thing to do, really. We've been doing it ever since that very first time a paper we turned in didn't get the 'A' we think it deserved. Without having that tidy little summation, the reader is forced to deal with the reasoning laid out and then decide whether they agree, or not. That's really all I want for my blog. Well, that, and to not fret over my own grading system when trying to decide if one movie is better than another.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Best Movies of 2013

A few days ago, I shared with you what I think the worst movies of 2013 were. Now, it's time to turn that frown upside down and give you my opinion on last year's best. Just to get this out of the way, there are some critically acclaimed movies that I haven't had the pleasure of viewing just yet. Some of these include:

All is Lost, Before Midnight, Filth, Frances Ha, The Hunt, Kill Your Darlings, The Kings of Summer, Much Ado About Nothing, Philomena, Upstream Color.

With that all taken care of, let's move on. When we did the worst, we listed 20 movies. Since I like being positive more than negative, we're listing out 25 movies that I think are well worth your time. Click on the titles below to read my full reviews. One other thing, I never rank documentaries on these lists. Just doesn't feel right lumping them in with the rest. Silly quirk, I know, but it is what it is. Okay, I lied, there is one other thing. The order I rank these movies now does not necessarily reflect the scores I gave them in my initial reviews. Oh, well. Things change. And with no further adieu, here are...

The Best Movies of 2013

Kudos to Joseph Gordon-Levitt for not only starring in such a flick, but writing it, and using it to make his directorial debut. In front of the camera, the man is a marvel. Behind it, he did some very good work.

Basically, we're put on a roller-coaster which is what Grace seems to be experiencing every single day. Brie Larson handles the role with aplomb. It takes a good deal of self-assuredness to present us with someone who has none and make it believable. She does this with ease.

This is the End becomes an amalgamation of bromances held together by outlandish humor. Therefore, if you just want something fun that’s not afraid to offend or appear stupid, yet still woks as a story, this will suit you quite nicely.

All told, The Europa Report is a solid entry into the found footage canon. Its plot and setting helps it remain unencumbered by many of the genre's normal contrivances. Therefore, the movie is free to concentrate on building tension and suspense the same way as more traditionally narrative films.

World War Z is a popcorn flick through and through. And a damn good one. It quickly draws us to the edge of our seats and keeps us there. Visually, it's often stunning in its depiction of the zombies climbing over and interlocking with one another to climb things and/or launch themselves just to get at the nearest human.

20. Stoker
Famed Korean director Park Chan-wook's American debut is a visually arresting and psychologically twisted tale. Much meaning and emotion is conveyed in every shot. All of them would make fantastic still photos.

In the ever-expanding ocean of Romeo and Juliet inspired romances, this has to be among the most unique. Our Romeo is a pale, dead-eyed thing with real issues expressing his feelings, yet we understand him just the same. However, a well done love story is not the only thing propelling this movie. It’s also a tasty slice of dark humor.

Coen Brothers films often have this effect on me. I see them and like them okay, but don't quite appreciate them until I spend some time putting some serious thought into what I just saw. Unlike most movies, theirs get better under scrutiny. This is no exception.

Though this is an underdog story, Monsters University is to be commended for not being satisfied with the easy finish. When it actually does end, whether the kiddies watching realize this or not, the movie is better for going the extra mile.

Just by being and feeling earnest, it provides us a welcome alternative to the type of urban movies of which we’ve become accustomed.

The black and white photography, the various people we meet, and the stubbornness of the old man are all just part of the journey we take with Woody. For some, the knock may be that it's a journey with a pre-ordained conclusion. In most movies, that would be a serious detriment. Here, we realize early on that the real point is seeing how everyone involved deals with what any rational person knows is coming.

The movie does a very nice job keeping us guessing as it plays out. Combined with the visceral nature of our hero's actions, this draws us to the edge of our seats. Director Dennis Villanueve delivers a movie that we are simply into. Best of all, in my opinion, he doesn't leave us with a simple solution. There is still a mystery as the final credits roll.

How these people interact and feel, or don't feel, for each other keeps us engaged. Whether or not any of them is someone we like is debatable. What is not open for discussion is that these are magnetic personas. We struggle to peel our eyes away from any of them.

Instead of being your typical underdog story, Rush gives us two such characters and pits them against one another. That these two are championship material is never really in question. Our doubt, what keeps us on the edge of our seats, is whether or not they will destroy each other in the process.

Allen has crafted a wonderful film. The dialogue is sharp and the camera is very purposely placed throughout. Both of these things add the finishing touches on an already sizzling story.

The brilliance of Her is that it develops this romance so naturally, you have little choice but to buy it. It helps that our stars sell it extremely well, also. Joaquin Phoenix gives an amazing performance. Like Sandra Bullock in Gravity, he spends lots of time acting alone. Where she did her work with a green screen, Phoenix was given the silly sounding task of making googly eyes at his cell phone. Somehow, he makes it feel genuine.

The Place Beyond the Pines works marvelously as a multiple character study and does not let any of them off the hook. When it ends, we have much to try and wrap our heads around. Not least of these things is trying to figure out what will happen next to these people.

By the time we get to the end, all the various strands are swirling about but pulled together in a hail of bullets. My first thought was that this is taking the easy way out of a story that spends lots of effort to complicate itself. It even sets up what at first glance is your run of the mill happy ending. Studying it a bit more in depth makes me think the movie ends on an incredibly dark note.

Narratively, this is a sharply focused piece of cinema that almost never veers from trying to jangle our nerves. It is highly successful doing just that. The genius part of it all is that it starts long before our bad guys board the captain's ship. Since it persists from wire to wire, we're stuck trying to roll with the punches, but having a hard time getting out of the way. In this case, that's a good thing.

Most similarly themed movies would have tacked on another twenty-plus minutes by cutting away often to people working feverishly to save the protagonist. That doesn't happen here and the movie is better for it. It's tight and concise, keeping the viewer on the edge of his/her seat without ever letting us off the hook.

Director Harmony Korine and his editor, Douglas Crise, are the real stars of Spring Breakers. They have put together a story that is twisted, manic, and disturbing with a current of very dark humor running through it. Its sights and sounds bombard our senses, but doesn’t dull them. It is part odd and Shakespearean romance, part skin flick, and part sociological satire; all with art-house aspirations.

Enabling these actors to disappear into the roles, and more than believably reconstructing the world as it was in the mid-nineteenth century, is director Steve McQueen. I've already mentioned how he doesn't let his camera flinch. More impressively, he places it in very intimate positions. The viewer is not just seeing the atrocities take place but feeling them. Making us feel them, no matter how uncomfortable we might get is clearly the goal.

We've ridden the roller coaster of a relationship and come to a satisfactory finish. On the other hand, we can see there is possibly lots more to tell. What closes the movie could be interpreted as the chance for a new beginning, or at least a restart. We enjoy the ride we've had up until now and hope there is more to come.

When the end comes, we're not sure how to take it. Are we glad that the villain has been stopped? Or, are we sad the party is over? After all, as portrayed by DiCaprio, Belfort is ridiculously charismatic and just mesmerizes us from the jump. It's like watching one of our friends get punished for something we know they did. We understand they had it coming, but we're still disappointed we won't get to hang out with them anymore.

The most unfortunate aspect of Fruitvale Station, aside from Oscar's death, is that it tackles a still relevant topic. At the very least, what happens to Oscar is an abuse of power and a gross over-reaction to a situation that could have been handled a lot better. At worse, and certainly not out of the question it's an outright act of racism.

If you want to take a trip to the dark side, check out: