Month: November 2014

30 Years, 30 Oscars: Ranking the Best Picture Winners, 1984-2013

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shakespearedepartedreturn of the kingsilence lambsunforgivenbraveheartdancesno country
Film critic Sean Patrick just recently wrote a small piece for I Hate Critics ranking the past 29 Oscar winners after being inspired by 1984’s Best Picture winner Amadeus.  I figured I should do the same, as my list is going to be more fan-based than critic-based, and I’ve even seen 26 of them.  (Those with asterisks I have not seen)  What do you think?  What’s your favorite off this list, and what do you think should win this year’s Best Picture?  This year, I’d say my #1 contender is definitely Gone Girl, followed closely by Enemy and Wish I Was Here.  *Updated to include A Beautiful Mind.
*30: Out of Africa
*29: The Last Emperor
*28: The Artist
27: Forrest Gump
26: Crash
25: Chicago
24: The English Patient
23: Gladiator
22: American Beauty
21: Titanic
20: Million Dollar Baby
19: Driving Miss Daisy
18: A Beautiful Mind
17: The King’s Speech
16: 12 Years a Slave
15: Platoon
14: Rain Man
13: Slumdog Millionaire
12: The Hurt Locker
11: Schindler’s List
10: Amadeus
9: Argo
8: No Country For Old Men
7: Braveheart
6: Dances With Wolves
5: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
4: The Silence of the Lambs
3: The Departed
2: Unforgiven
1: Shakespeare In Love

 

Film Review- ‘The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1’ (*1/2)

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I know all there is to know about the Crying Game...
Now I know all there is to know about the Crying Game too.

“The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1”  *1/2 (out of 5)

Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Sam Claflin, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Julianne Moore, Elizabeth Banks, Mahershala Ali, Natalie Dormer, Jeffrey Wright, Stanley Tucci

Written by: Peter Craig & Danny Strong (screenplay), based on the novel Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

Directed by: Francis Lawrence

**POSSIBLE SPOILERS**

Film criticism, I think, must take into account a film’s intent, whether or not it aligns with your personal wants and needs.  I also recognize the legions of ‘Hunger Games’ book fans, and acknowledge that I have not laid a hand on any of them.  Your passion for the material is noted.  Understanding that, I find that reviewing films like The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 to be an absolute chore.  I am clearly not the audience, and I’m required by fans to show reverence for the source material, yet I still ask that the film achieve something greater than its’ source material.  This is film, cinema, movies; this is the stuff of our dreams, and should leap off the screen and be remembered.  It shouldn’t simply be the narration of a book that aims to please (at its core) a younger audience that at times can barely comprehend what they are feeling.  For me, this latest sequel is just that- a meaningless narration, a non-challenging exercise of pre-packaged capitalism, simply collecting the money we have been pre-programmed to hand out.  It doesn’t need or aspire to work for a greater creative purpose, and thus exists as an empty enterprise.

So, like a lamb to the slaughter, I sat down to the film with zero optimism, waiting for the inevitable uninspiring yawn to spew forth.  As with Catching Fire before it, Mockingjay bores its’ audience, simply presenting a long series of rote, expected scenes and set pieces rife with artificial feelings, standard speeches, and meaningless treacle about absolutely nothing.  Nothing happens in this film, or at least nothing of importance.  I am responsible for my own misery here, as I fully understood what I was getting into, but ultimately, we’re all responsible for this type of drivel.

Collectively, we seem to yearn for the simple, uncomplicated storytelling and easy narratives brought forth by young adult material, but therein lies the problem with it.  At best, it is unnecessary, easy to digest, always establishing the next film, promising to pay off in the end.   At worst, it is irresponsible.  Here’s what I mean- the basis of the “Hunger Games” story centers around the idea of children murdering each other for the enjoyment of the elite.  Not only is that awful from a moral standpoint, it automatically brings to mind a dark, bloody sensibility, and in order to take it seriously, I’m requiring that the films at least be brave about the very subject the story is based on.  The closest thing to that level of responsibility any of the “Hunger Games” films have presented is a slightly macabre scene in which Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) stands over what amounts to a mass grave of still smoldering District 12 residents.  Everything else is “teen-sheened” for that nice, PG-13 gloss.  That these films need to be rated PG-13 speaks to their inherent ridiculousness.

So what happens in Mockingjay?  I already said ‘nothing’, but I suppose there are technically ‘things’ that ‘happen’.  If you’ve seen Catching Fire, you know that Katniss went and shot for the stars (literally), bringing down the whole arena and ending the games.  She is rescued by the rebellion of ‘District 13’, and in the process is separated from Peeta (Hutcherson).  I literally have no idea if Katniss has romantic feelings for he or Gale (Hemsworth), brotherly feelings, or if they both just represent something that she loves.  I’m sure a fan can tell me.  Peeta is alive and sending mixed messages through broadcasts from the capital, appearing to work for President Snow (Sutherland).  Is that the case?  Has he been brainwashed?  Should the rebellion rescue him?  Does this inspire other questions about the film’s lack of sensibility?  Is Katniss so darned important to this ‘rebellion’ that it’s ok for her to enter war zones? What’s a ‘Plutarch Heavensbee’?  Can bees and dogs really smell fear?

That is the unfortunate, ridiculous place that my mind wanders to after watching Mockingjay (or any of these films, to be honest).  I get lost trying to keep track of the silly rules and foundations that this type of film lazily constructs because they don’t have the capacity to provide the entire book’s narrative setup.  Perhaps the filmmakers assume most of their viewers will fill in the film’s gaps, but I cannot do that.  I wonder- how did the Harry Potter films (the argument against my distaste for YA fiction) accomplish what they did?  Did the whimsical nature of magic allow us to forget the occasional awkward stalls and poor pacing, or was the source material just that rich?  I’ll just leave that question out there.  I know the answer.

Unfortunately for her, Lawrence appears even more lost than I am, and certainly out-of-place.  Her involvement in Mockingjay is summed up in an odd series of scenes where she observes something, then shudders in fear, then bawls.  I wondered where the strong young woman from the first film was- the leader, the reason I bothered watching any of these in the first place?  The idea that her character may or may not suffer from a form of PTSD is highly plausible, but then I contrast that with the world these people are living in.  Isn’t she already familiar with devastation, loss, and subordination?  These seem like new concepts for a population that supposedly has endured 75 years of abuse.  I’m confused, aren’t you?  Lawrence does her best to bring some emotion to the role, but she’s better than this film.  Most of these actors are.

No one is more aware that I’m not the audience for this film than I, and I’m honestly reticent to be so harsh to what others love so much.  Mockingjay, however, is the among the worst kind of movies in my eyes, simply there to perpetuate itself without the responsibility of being wort its’ cinematic weight.  As opposed to good film, which would elevate the source material, this plays like a bored narrator, content to feed the audience exactly what it wants.  Lionsgate, never content with their library of mediocre franchises ready to excrete on the public, has what they wanted- a large pile of money to bathe in.  Congratulations.

Film Review- ‘St. Vincent’ (***1/2)

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Nothing like a little gambling to really open  a boy's eyes.
Nothing like a little gambling to really open a boy’s eyes.

“St. Vincent”  ***1/2 (out of 5)

Starring: Bill Murray, Melissa McCarthy, Naomi Watts, Chris O’Dowd, Terrence Howard, and Jaeden Lieberher

Written and directed by: Theodore Melfi

I occasionally get all bent out of shape when a movie is too easy, or if it feels like the filmmakers are reaching into our eye sockets and milking our tear ducts.  St. Vincent dares to walk that line between schmaltz and smooth, but manages to play it cool in the right moments.  It’s a film that even repeats a story we’ve seen before- a grumpy older man takes a kid under his wing and teaches him all of the life lessons.  However, excellent performances by each of the leads elevate what is normally a milquetoast story, resulting in a fine “dramedy” that confirms Bill Murray is still, well, Bill Murray.

Murray stars as Vincent McKenna, and we’re introduced to him in a most peculiar way- as a lazy, drunken buffoon with a filthy house, a cat, and a nasty disposition.  Well he’s nasty, but not entirely “dangerous”, per se, and thus not a complete miscreant.  It comes as no surprise, however, that he threatens all sorts of lawsuits when new neighbors move in and damage his car and tree in the process.  This brings about a meeting with said neighbors Maggie (McCarthy) and her polite, well-behaved son Oliver (Lieberher, in an outstanding performance).  Maggie has moved to start a new job, in which she will work a ton of hours and not necessarily be available.  That works, since the plot requires an excuse for Oliver and Vincent to begin hanging out.  That they do- Vincent reluctantly agrees to let the boy in one night that he’s locked out, and their odd dalliance begins.  Oliver, so straightforward, respectful, and easygoing, is the perfect foil for Vincent’s tomfoolery.  Vincent takes him everywhere from the horse racing track to his local watering hole, teaching him how to break someone’s nose and familiarizing himself with a wealth of new terminology.

This isn’t simply a film about a miscreant and his protegé, however.  Director Theodore Melfi has crafted a film, and Murray a performance, that progressively leads the audience from a place of dark humor to feel-good conclusion.  Like a cinematic onion, St. Vincent peels away the harder outer layers of the titular character to reveal a softer, resilient core.  The film intends to sell us on his faults for a greater reveal of his strengths.  Mind you, where we arrive at the end is in typical fashion, but it’s the matter in which we arrive that I do not mind.  Vincent has been hardened by a series of unfortunate events, but he keeps going, seemingly brightened by the arrival of his kid neighbor.  Oliver, noticing the potential for greatness in his new-found friend and in himself, changes right along with him.

The film is most impressive in a scene where our two leads visit a nursing home.  Our initial exposure to Vincent’s general disposition reminds us that we’re not sure if he’s there to con some poor resident, hustle supplies, or something else nefarious.  Imagine our surprise when he’s actually there for a positive reason.  Without revealing everything, Vincent dresses as a doctor, as it is the only way a particular patient will allow him access.  This is a revelatory scene, for we start to understand why Vincent does what he does, and why the film as led us to this point.  Subsequently, we begin to understand why Vincent attempts to raise money in the various ways that he does, from gambling to prescription drug theft.  We’re left wondering why anyone would need to resort to crime just to accomplish the simple goal of taking care of someone.

It is possible that Melfi may have had something to say about the state of our health care system, and the extreme sacrifices one must make in the name of Big Medicine, for Vincent’s life is far from what it could or should be (especially as a veteran).  The pains one has to endure simply to care for loved ones and themselves is well, not in tune with our abilities as a species.  Also, by placing a Jewish boy (Oliver) in a Catholic school, and casting funnyman Chris O’Dowd as a priest/teacher, Melfi dabbles in the possibility of a clash of religions, and seems to poke a little fun, but the feeling doesn’t linger.  It’s a wise choice to dabble, for the film would have felt different otherwise.

Instead of laying on the thick, sentimental cheese as it could have, St. Vincent allows the titular character’s actual accomplishments to shine through, and thus the film’s conclusion works.  The film quotes scripture by saying “a person shall not need attention for good deeds”, and Vincent abides by that, for he’s certainly not happy, certainly doesn’t want attention, even though enough has been taken from him.  This is all handled with just the right amount of subtlety and humor- the choice to take down a notch plays up Murray’s strengths and keeps the film from being over-maudlin.  It won’t win any awards, but fans of Murray, Melissa McCarthy, smarter-than-their-age young actors, or fast-talking Russian strippers (Watts) will be satisfied.

*note- make sure to stay through the end credits for a clear homage to Murray’s earlier film Caddyshack.  Those of you that are fans of that film will appreciate this coda.

Film Review- ‘Interstellar’ (*****)

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Alright, alright, alright.  Lots of ice here.
Alright, alright, alright. Lots of ice here.

“Interstellar”  ***** (out of 5)

Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine, David Gyasi, Wes Bentley, John Lithgow, Casey Affleck, Topher Grace, Ellen Burstyn, Mackenzie Foy, and Matt Damon

Written by: Christopher Nolan & Jonathan Nolan

Directed by: Christopher Nolan

 

**POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD**

Admittedly, I fawned over the concept of Interstellar long before actually viewing the film, as I hold a deep passion for the subject of space exploration, and all the dangerous beauty therein.  The thought that master filmmaker Christopher Nolan would create a space exploration epic whipped me into a frenzy.  Trailers confirmed what I already suspected, that Nolan was making a film which spoke to humans’ long-lost love affair with the heavens, and begged us to recall our true nature as explorers.  The truth is, we really have forgotten who we are.  What once was an optimistic and romantic venture has taken huge steps backwards, to the point where the general consensus is to shun space exploration altogether.  Fear, technological limitations, money, and even religious beliefs have kept us, for the most part, Earth-bound.

Nolan, the man with the tactical skill of a blockbuster director and the heart of an independent, will have none of that.  Interstellar is a film, an experience, with remarkably bold ideas, proudly embodying the explorer spirit of the human race in all our ugliness and beauty.  Even more triumphantly, it is a film keenly aware that our collective strengths far outnumber our weaknesses, and always will- even up to the point of extinction.  After all our trials and tribulations, this film knows as I do that we should always dare to experience the awe of our universe beyond our home.  This is a film that dares to stand up and proclaim that our spirit of discovery should be celebrated, never withheld.   I adored Interstellar, but mostly for reasons that extend beyond the actual quality of the film, and instead what it roused in me.  I love that Nolan has attempted to re-ignite our passion for exploration through a movie.  I love that he cared to explain the actual science of interstellar travel without bogging our minds down in technical babble.  I love the ‘tactfulness’, the attention to detail, and the understanding of who we really are. Every plot point, every piece of action, every struggle a character endures seems to point to the human condition, then pushes forward with a positive nudge.  I love that the film still pays respects to the dangers of space and nature, yet doesn’t buy in to the dogma of our time that says space travel isn’t ‘worth’ the cost.  I love how truthful this film is to the human condition; that honesty, paired with the film’s scope and beauty, make it one of the year’s best films, and an experience I will not soon forget.

McConaughey stars as Cooper, a former pilot whose expertise with machines helps him farm amidst a global-wide famine.  Massive dust storms constantly ravage the land, crops die out, and humans can see their extinction in the rear-view mirror.  An “anomaly” leads Cooper and his daughter Murph (Foy) to discover a hidden bunker, where, you guessed it, secret plans are being made by secret scientists to help take care of the Earth’s problem.  Their solution?  Find another suitable location for humans.  We know nothing of that sort exists in our solar system; in theory, we should be out of luck.  However, these scientists have found a ‘wormhole’ (or  an Einstein-Rosen bridge for you science nuts) located outside of Saturn’s orbit.  That ‘hole’ allows for the literal possibility of travelling to a galaxy far, far away.  In perhaps the film’s weakest moment, the scientists choose the one man (Cooper) who found their secret location (but weren’t looking for him before) and ask him to pilot their craft.  After all, he has all of the skills, knows the man leading the project (Caine), and mostly, the plot requires it.

Nolan crafts characters here with real depth though, considering their situations and all of the grand things going on about them.  Case in point- Cooper is a pilot, but also the father of two children.  His situation presents the main problem for anyone considering interstellar travel: time.  To begin with, he must consider the fact that he’s leaving his children (who’ve already lost their mother), possibly for good.  Then, once he makes that decision, there is a possibility that if he returns, enough time will have passed on Earth that his children may be dead.  Every hour he spends in an alternate galaxy, seven years pass on Earth.  Imagine the difficulty that decision brings, compared with the gargantuan task of saving the human race from extinction.  His mission team for project ‘Lazarus’ have their own responsibilities that they wrestle with, and I love that the script acknowledges both the brilliance and vulnerability of the individuals.  After all, they are still human, and have to endure completely new experiences in the harshest of environments.  Even Nolan’s robot creations have personalities.  TARS and CASE (Interstellar’s amazing droids) are both stunning to look at and carry unique personalities.  They represent, quite possibly, the nearest thing to mission-assisting AI in film history- clunky, yet useful, and wholly believable.

The ‘Lazarus’ mission presents the crew with two possibilities- first, that the astronauts might find a habitable world to transport Earth’s survivors to; second, they find a world to begin a new colony, but only if the first plan fails.  By the time Cooper comes upon this project, teams have already been through the wormhole, and have scouted potential homes in advance of the following team.  Nolan gives us ground-breaking, astounding visuals as the crew traverses time and space, from the unbelievable slingshot that is the wormhole to the various alien surfaces and through a giant black hole.  At the same time, there is something familiar about what we see; Nolan knows that the audience expects a degree of reality from him, and something fantastical, a la the psychedelic colors of 2001: A Space Odyssey, wouldn’t seem right in his film.  The alien planets should look like Earth; after all, that is their goal.  That’s party why the film works so well; being grounded in reality and the familiar allows you to accept what happens as plausible.

I must admit that I admired Christopher Nolan long before the arrival of Interstellar.  I now feel a different, and perhaps greater, admiration for his work. His film bothers to challenge us and ask difficult questions.  If we damaged our planet beyond repair, should we not seek out a different home, even if it runs contrary to logic or religious beliefs?  Should we be willing to sacrifice our ‘greatest gift’, life, to achieve that goal?  Should we not examine every possibility, up to and including the illogical, to save our species?  Should we shun our true natures because of difficulty, or fear of difficulty?  This is a film interested in confronting the grand dangers of human and Mother Nature, and respectfully picking ourselves up and pushing forward when She knocks us down.  As the film states, she is “formidable, but not evil”.

The great 2013 film Gravity represents our primal, logical, conservative “right” brain, asking us to take Ms. Nature as a literal force to be reckoned with.  We feel the intense connection Sandra Bullock’s character has for her Mother Earth at the end as she emerges from the water, gripping the ground with intense gratitude.  We feel her character understanding her place in the universe, content with fearing the unknown once more.  On the other hand, Interstellar mirrors our cinematic left brain, examining all creative and scientific avenues.  We feel Cooper almost stretching his hand out into the void of space and fearlessly admiring the beauty of what it may hold, yearning for a greater understanding.  Interstellar challenges us to think bigger, as it should.  If you want to be simply entertained by loud noises, overly maudlin storytelling, and vague explanations not based in real science, this won’t be for you.  You’ll need to don a thinking cap, and that’s refreshing.  It is representative of the very reason we go to the theater, and why we always have.  It entertains, but asks you to participate; it stays with you, asking you to consider that the human race is better than what we’ve done or where we came from, and that we should always move forward.

It is possible that the experience of this film will never again be replicated for me.  I sat front and center to an IMAX screen, my body shaken by the deep bass of space engines and rockets, my mind enveloped by the journey.  Like most cinematic ‘experiences’, however, it may not translate well to the home screen.  At that point the grand ideas of Interstellar should take center stage, and if you’re willing, it can take you places.  At a time when there seems to be so much pessimism towards the notion of space exploration, this film offers the view that we should never give up searching. That sense of discovery, that thirst for knowledge, brings forth the most positive of feelings, and stirs our primal souls.  Nolan is right to frequently quote Dylan Thomas in this film- we should never go gently into that good night.  We should always rage, rage, against the dying of the light.  This is a film that truly knows what that means.