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:

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Thursday Movie Picks: Movies About Making Movies

Lights, camera, action!

That was my very lame, and cliched way of starting this week's entry for the Thursday Movie Picks meme hosted by Wanderer of Wandering Through the Shelves. The reason I started that way is because this week's theme is "Movies About Making Movies." There have been lots of great films on the subject. These include one of the best musicals ever made, Singin' in the Rain. Another considered a classic by many is Sunset Boulevard. Of more recent vintage, there are such acclaimed films as Ed Wood, Boogie Nights, The Aviator, The Artist, Tropic Thunder, My Week with Marilyn, Hugo, and even horror flick The Cabin in the Woods. We've even had not so acclaimed fare such as Hitchcock.

But, you should know me by now. I'm not going down those paths. I've dug through the bargain bin that is my movie watching experience and come up with some hidden gems. Chronologically, they are...

Hollywood Shuffle
Produced, directed, starring, and co-written by Robert Townsend (Keenen Ivory Wayans and Dom Irrera also helped write), this is a smart satire dealing with the relationship between Hollywood and actors of color. Our main character is one such actor trying to get his big break. He has to deal with the ethical dilemma posed by the roles he, and most African-American actors are offered, or not offered. It is very funny, has a lot to say, and unfortunately, is not as dated as a nearly thirty year old satire should be. By the way, the story of how Hollywood Shuffle came to be made is also fascinating. For starters, Townsend financed much of it himself using his personal credit cards when he wasn't exactly rolling in the dough.

Of my three picks, this is probably the least "hidden." However, it is definitely on topic. Steve Martin plays Bobby Bowfinger, a super-low budget movie director who wants to film his next project using superstar Kit Ramsey played by Eddie Murphy. Of course, he can't afford Ramsey so Bowfinger does what any enterprising director would, films Ramsey on the streets of Hollywood without the star's knowledge. When this backfires, Bowfinger then hires a clueless guy named Jiff, who happens to look just like the movie star. Why wouldn't he? Jiff is also played by Murphy. A very fun, underrated movie ensues.

If you've been hanging around here for a while, or have browsed around the place, you may have figured out that I have an affinity for Blaxploitation. What a lot of people don't realize is that the reason it's considered exploitation is that even though the movies were made with black audiences in mind, they were often created by and benefitted white filmmakers. However, the entire genre is really birthed from a little movie called Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song by black director Melvin Van Peebles who wrote, produced, directed, and starred in it. Remember what I said about Townsend financing Hollywood Shuffle? Van Peebles did that and more, including securing a loan from none other than Bill Cosby, to get his movie into theaters way back in 1971. This movie is all about that process. Since the apple doesn't fall far from the tree, Baadasssss! was written, produced, directed by, and stars Melvin's son Mario.

Other topics covered on Thursday Movie Picks:

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Worst Movies of 2013

The other day, I rolled out the 2013 Dellies. If you checked them out, you might recall me mentioning that I've seen approximately 130 of the movies that were released during last year. Of those, let me tell you, there were a number of duds. I've managed to miss some that have been deemed terrible by everyone else, such as:

The Big Wedding, The Canyons, Getaway, A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, The Last Exorcism Part 2, The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, Movie 43, Paranoia, Safe Haven, Scary Movie 5

Now, on to the crap that I did see. Most of them I've already reviewed. Click on the titles for my full two cents. Now, here's about one cent on each of

The Worst Movies of 2013

It's better than another Wayans Brothers horror spoof, the Scary Movie franchise.

Unfortunately, the breadth and scope of the damage being done is all there is. Sure, there’s the bit about who is betraying who, but it’s nothing that couldn't have been written out, in full, on the back of a napkin.

With the formula pretty much set in stone, The Heat dutifully goes down the checklist of buddy flick tropes.

Unfortunately, the positives aren't nearly as weighty as the negatives. The good things amount to a few empty thrills.

Similarly to the blandness of most of the characters, the plot unfolds in not-so-thrilling fashion.

Pretty pictures do not a movie make. In this case, it's lipstick on a pig. That might make it a great looking pig, but I still don't want to kiss it.

Since what it tries to be and what it is don’t line up it all becomes laughable. It’s also heavy-handed with an over-simplified conclusion.

The best way for me to describe what happens without spoiling it is to say "oops." It's the type of finale a movie can get away with if it passes itself off as a slice of life story, or maybe if it's a Coen Brothers flick. Here, it just makes me want to grab a wooden stake and hunt down the director.

After a funny sex scene, and the inclusion of some gangsters that never fully makes sense, we arrive at the point where we've heard all the jokes and seen all the gags this movie has to offer...Identity Thief just keeps repeating itself until it mercifully decides to end.

For me, it didn't quite come together like it did the first time. Almost all of the focus has been removed in the name of making the sequel a "bigger" movie than its predecessor.

It is ambitious, pretty to look at, but overly derivative and utterly contrived.

Unfortunately, the bad far outweighs the good. You may not agree if you delight in seeing just how strange things can get. If that's your deal then you should have already watched this.

What tears it for me is how aggressively bizarre the whole thing is. And not in a good way, either. It's an off putting kind of strange that gets worse as it goes along.

I'm guessing Channing Tatum, or Columbus Short were both busy...or got a look at the script and chose wisely. I wish I had.

To blame for this atrocity we have writer/director David E. Talbert, or Tyler Perry 2.0, as I like to call him.

5. Black Nativity
Put bluntly, Black Nativity is a frustrating watch. The cast isn't nearly as good as one would expect while the story vacillates between spouting cliches and flying completely off the rails.

The end result of all this is that the movie just drones on and on and on for its entire run time. In other words, its 107 minutes feel like they are multiplying as they slowly pass.

Fish out of water tales can be wonderful. They usually focus on one fish trying to gain his/her footing in a new environment. In this case, all of the fish are out of water and we just watch them flop around for an hour and a half.

Everything feels bland and rehashed. It's like they've just been slipped into a ready-made plot.

It’s all just a misogynistic and nihilistic fantasy that makes a dated referendum on people with tattoos.