July 22, 2013
The Conjuring

   James Wan has been around the horror film block for awhile now, delivering films that scare but leave little lasting impression.  With The Conjuring, he finds his groove, and it registers high in the genre, something so ominous and visceral that it can only be compared to classics like The Exorcist and The Shining.  And while it’s immediately the scariest movie in recent memory, it’s also the best film of the year so far, likely an instant classic.

   But what makes a truly classic horror film?  What has James Wan concocted here that works so universally? 

   Well, first-off, the scares feel real.  This isn’t the CGI madness of World War Z; it’s the primal horror of the unseen, then the noises, the doors, the sudden movements, and finally the reveal, but still keeping the evil in the shadows, so a great deal is left to our spinning imaginations.  These are practical effects; nothing here is lost in the gloss of computer-generation. 

   Secondly, it’s the staging, the build-up, the gives, the takes, and the ultimate surprises.  It’s about the use of dialogue, or non-use.  It’s about the brassy, jarring score, that eventually gives way to all-out Shining homage.  It’s about the camera, the Kubrickian way it moves through the house, the timely POV’s, and the way, again, that what we fear is largely not shown.  We are left scared, with the characters, mouths open, on the verge of tears, waiting for what happens next.  And what happens next is literally as unpredictable as the horrifying final act of The Shining.

   Of course, for a film to be great, it needs a universe to live in.  And that’s why the excellent production design here is so pivotal.  We’re transported to the 1970s, to Rhode Island, to this house (oh, how vulnerable we feel to be away from civilization and apart from our modern technology).  The film is greatly nostalgic in two ways: one, the visual references to House on Haunted Hill, The Shining, The Exorcist, The Amityville Horror, and Poltergeist are part of what makes the film so enjoyable; it’s a literal Super 8 of classic horror; and two, the eerie spaces and “artifacts of possession” breathe untold histories; it feels like we are only experiencing a small, sinister part of the spirits that must haunt the world around these characters.

   The acting is also top-notch, so good that we hardly detect they’re acting.  The film feels like reality, just with the Hollywood-style icing on the cake.  Golden Globe and Oscar nominations are certainly a possibility for many production aspects of The Conjuring, and it certainly deserves the attention.  This is what horror needs.  This is really what Hollywood in general needs: heart to match the horror, story to match the action, and method to match the madness.  You don’t need sexist torture porn to deliver chills, you need style, and damn does James Wan have style.

A+ 

June 2, 2013
Review: After Earth

Synopsis - A crash landing leaves Kitai Raige and his father Cypher stranded on Earth, 1,000 years after events forced humanity’s escape. With Cypher injured, Kitai must embark on a perilous journey to signal for help (via imdb.com).

The Review

   While many film critics have been blasting After Earth with a merciless passion, I will not be doing that in this review.  I have long stood up for the films of M. Night Shyamalan, and I will continue to do that here.  After Earth is by no means a perfect film, or even a great one.  It fails to develop the characters beyond a 2D angle.  It fails to breathe life into this future world 1,000 years after the abandonment of Earth.  It fails even to deliver an awe-inspiring ending like those that graced the overall misfires of The Last Airbender and Lady in the Water.  But it does succeed in what all Shyamalan films succeed in doing: building a sense of destiny, and fulfilling that destiny, making an impossible stand against impossible odds, and with courage overcoming.  I love that theme; I love that feel.

   Cinematically, I can’t defend this film.  But emotionally and spiritually, it presents something remarkable, and a few rewrites later, this could have been a great film (James Newton Howard deserves a shout-out for his amazing score).  That being said, I don’t think critics are being fair to M. Night.  The film simply doesn’t deserve the names it’s being called.  It’s melodramatic, yes.  It’s way too self-serious, yes.  But again, there are moments here, moments in the bad that shine the good we know M. Night is capable of.  He needs a return to his roots.  He needs to stop being a director-for-hire and make something entirely his own.  I believe in the root power behind After Earth, in the message it brings.  I hope people will view it from a philosophical perspective, because there really is wisdom here.  And if you really do want to call someone out for this project, remember this: THIS FILM WAS WILL SMITH’S BRAINCHILD.  He put Jaden Smith in the lead.  Quality names did the lackluster production design and editing.  And a number of great Hollywood writers helped with the story.  This isn’t just M. Night here.  In fact, he may be the least guilty of the bunch.

The Grade

C

The Stats

Directed by M. Night Shyamalan

Written by Gary Whitta & M. Night Shyamalan

Story by Will Smith

100 Minutes/ PG13 for sci-fi action violence and some disturbing images

Columbia/ Overbrook/ Blinding Edge

May 10, 2013
Review: 42

Synopsis - The life story of Jackie Robinson and his history-making signing with the Brooklyn Dodgers under the guidance of team executive Branch Rickey (via imdb.com).

The Review

   42 is a solid baseball drama from writer/director Brian Helgeland.  The cast is great, and so is the always-compelling story of Jackie Robinson, played here by rising star Chadwick Boseman.  Contrary to what I thought going in, the film only covers the first year or so of Robinson’s major league baseball career.  This can be a good thing, allowing the script to focus down and tell a coherent tale.  But here, I feel it underserves the material, and doesn’t really give a full picture of Jackie Robinson’s legacy.  The film isn’t bad, it just doesn’t reach the legendary heights of the man himself.  We only get a glimpse of him, not a full image.  And the way it’s filmed is fairly quiet, fairly subdued, much like one of Robert Redford’s less interesting directorial outings.  I’m not sure how you make Jackie Robinson’s life almost boring, but the film almost succeeds in doing so. 

   The real highlight for me was Harrison Ford as the gnarled old man of baseball, Branch Rickey.  It’s his best role in a long time, and I feel he may have a shot at a supporting actor nomination.  But it’s so early in the year, that kind of thing is hard to predict.  I enjoyed the history lesson and the honest performances; I just wish the film had dared to cover more and given Mr. Robinson a film that truly captures the essence of his legacy.

The Grade

B-

The Stats

128 Minutes/ PG13 for thematic elements including language

Written & Directed by Brian Helgeland

Warner/ Legendary

May 10, 2013
Review: Iron Man 3

Synopsis - When Tony Stark’s world is torn apart by a formidable terrorist called the Mandarin, he starts an odyssey of rebuilding and retribution (via imdb.com).

The Review

This summer superhero extravaganza was a bit of a journey for me as a reviewer and ponderer of all things film.  Robert Downey Jr is Tony Stark/Iron Man, and here he makes it all too clear that nobody could replace him.  Shane Black’s script gives him ample material to play with: Tony is more meditative than ever before, more honest, more humble, but also even quicker with his wit, and maintains awesome chemistry with (the often dull) Gwyneth Paltrow and Ty Simpkins, a country boy who helps Tony back on his feet after a terrorist attack brings down the Malibu mansion.  The first two acts are really quite excellent, but when the ending fails to tie things up, quality of story sort of falls out the window. 

The film is at first gutsy, menacing, and unpredictable, and then quickly recedes to commonality, probably at the request of corporate Disney no less.  In the Mandarin, an Osama Bin Laden figurehead is created, and for the first hour and a half, he’s absolutely terrifying thanks to a well-spoken Sir Ben Kingsley.  But when a game-changing twist exposes the “real villain,” things become uninteresting aside from Tony’s own antics.  The true villain’s motives are vague and silly at best, and Tony’s decision to end Iron Man at the end of the film seems a little out of place, a plot landmark only present because of Robert Downey Jr’s potential exit from Marvel altogether (which probably won’t happen). 

Bottom line is, I liked the movie, but third act missteps prevented me from loving it, like I love the first Iron Man film by Jon Favreau (who is hilarious as Happy Hogan here).  I’d do a rundown of the cast, but honestly no one stands out aside from RDJ, Sir Ben, the kid, and Gwyneth, just because of how dull she really is.  Guy Pearce is a terrific actor, but his role in Iron Man 3 feels half-hearted, unmotivated, and simply strange.  Marvel, you can do better.  I expect more out of “Phase Two.”  Certainly, Iron Man 3 is better than The Avengers: it’s smarter, it’s funnier, and the action is less pornographic.  But again, I expect more.

The Grade

B-

The Stats

130 Minutes/ Rated PG13 for intense sci-fi action/violence

Written by Drew Pearce & Shane Black

Directed by Shane Black

Marvel/ Paramount

May 10, 2013
Review: Mud

Synopsis - Two teenage boys encounter a fugitive and form a pact to help him evade the bounty hunters on his trail and to reunite him with his true love (via imdb.com).

The Review

   Jeff Nichol’s third feature film is something of a masterpiece.  Steeped in river wisdom and southern superstition, Mud has a profound sense of place, and the eccentric people who live in it.  There is a raw honesty from start to finish, a rugged beauty that keeps us hooked and keeps us believing.  If Mark Twain had written screenplays (with a touch of Winter’s Bone), this would be unmistakably his.  Mud isn’t just a cinematic achievement, it feels like a literary one.  And Matthew McConaughey rises to the occasion like never before, delivering a gritty, tough-yet-vulnerable performance that only greats like Paul Newman and Robert Mitchum could’ve pulled off. 

   Here, he’s supported by an outstanding ensemble: the two boys, Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland, the long lost love, Reese Witherspoon, and the likes of Sam Shepard, Michael Shannon, Paul Sparks, Joe Don Baker, Sarah Paulson, and Ray McKinnon.  And when you factor in the smooth editing, the mood-enhancing score, and the excellent cinematography by Adam Stone, Mud proves to be the first truly “Best Picture” quality film of 2013, and it would be a worthy win. 

   Of course, bigger films will come out later in the year and probably bury this little gem.  It’s a fate that many great films share when they arrive too early in the year.  But perhaps it’s our gain; we get to enjoy Mud uninhibited by the craze and chaos of Oscar season. 

   See Matthew McConaughey in his best role yet, continuing his Oscar-direction rise off last year’s Magic Mike and Killer Joe.  And with Dallas Buyers Club and The Wolf of Wall Street ahead for him this year, I sense gold is in his future.  Truly, there’s nothing more riveting, more elegant, or more raw than Mud in theaters right now, and it should top your list.

The Grade

A

The Stats

130 Minutes/ PG13 for violence, sexual references, language, and thematic elements involving children

Written & Directed by Jeff Nichols

Lionsgate/ Roadside Attractions 

April 4, 2013
The Place Beyond the Pines

The Place Beyond the Pines

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Filed under: Ryan Gosling 
April 4, 2013

Snow Angel - Mike Patton (from The Place Beyond the Pines)

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April 4, 2013
Review: The Place Beyond the Pines

Synopsis - A motorcycle stunt rider turns to robbing banks as a way to provide for his lover and their newborn child, a decision that puts him on a collision course with an ambitious rookie cop navigating a department ruled by a corrupt detective (via imdb.com).

The Review

   Mercilessly heavy and bold in its delivery, Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine follow-up is a soaring picture, an ambitious epic of fathers, sons, and the cost of our actions.  In three acts, violence, passion, revenge, and love sear the silver screen, and through scenes, both intimate and grand, a towering morality tale is brought to life.

   While much of the film’s visual power can be attributed to the visceral & visionary writing/directing of Mr. Cianfrance and the brilliant cinematography of Sean Bobbitt (highlighted from the very beginning with a breathtaking tracking shot that introduces Gosling’s character), The Place Beyond the Pines simply wouldn’t have worked without the inspired performances of Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Dane DeHaan, Eva Mendes, and Ben Mendelsohn.  Gosling gives everything, as per usual, and is caught somewhere in limbo between hero and villain, rebel with a cause and rebel without one.  He may be quiet, contained, but his brutally effective silence often says more than when most actors scream out their character’s feelings.  There is a distinct, raw humanity about his characters, most particularly his “men of violence.”  Yes, they do wrong.  But hell, have they got motivation.  You can’t help but cheer for Gosling here.  But it’s not Gosling; it’s Luke Glanton.  And flawlessly, the two disappear into each other. 

   And speaking of disappearing acts and transformations, let’s talk about Bradley Cooper.  What a turn-around.  What a rumble this guy is making.  Cheap comedy to Oscar gold, I love it, I love it, I love it.  Here in The Place Beyond the Pines, Cooper is electrifying, fierce, and hugely invested.  He feels so unscripted, so honest in his characters’ trials and revelations.  In Avery, he gives another Oscar-worthy performance.  It’s emotional, it’s thoughtful, it’s real.  Amen to that. 

   Also great is the rising young thespian Dane DeHaan (Chronicle).  If he plays his cards right, this kid’s abilities are somewhere between DiCaprio and Brando.  He just needs the right movies and directors.  I hope his agent is up to the task.  And last but not least, I have to mention the graceful Eva Mendes, and the perhaps overlooked power of Ben Mendelsohn’s performance.  He gives some of the film’s best lines, and really proves to be a core voice between generations in the film’s first and third acts.  In a way, he ties the film together with his character, and it’s a memorable one.  For some reason, he reminded me a bit of John Hawkes here.  I think his turn in Place Beyond the Pines is also Oscar-worthy.

   Another standout element in the film is the score by Mike Patton.  It does so much to add that extra emotionality and ambient/meditative feel.  It wouldn’t have been the same film without those striking chords.

   Some will leave The Place Beyond the Pines thinking it was too long, that bits were choppy, and that certain situations may have been too melodramatic.  I can see where they’re coming from.  But in the opinion of this reviewer, I can’t imagine a more intimate epic, a more solemn morality tale, nor a more beautiful examination of fathers, sons, and all the emotions that seize us when images of others are broken down and life-courses fractured.  Is it long-winded?  Yes.  But so are many great films.  And this is a great film, a powerhouse drama for the ready and willing.

The Grade

A-

The Stats

140 Minutes/ Rated R for language throughout, violence, and teen drug & alcohol use

Written by Derek Cianfrance, Ben Coccio, and Darius Marder

Directed by Derek Cianfrance

Focus Features 

March 9, 2013
Review: Beautiful Creatures & Oz the Great and Powerful

Synopsis - Ethan longs to escape his small Southern town. He meets a mysterious new girl, Lena. Together, they uncover dark secrets about their respective families, their history and their town (via imdb.com).

The Review - While moments soar and Viola Davis shines, Beautiful Creatures feels incomplete.  The build-up is big, but the third act payoff is something far less than it could have been. 

   The southern charm is warmer than the cold gloom of Twilight, though I’d say that the tale is less compelling and less appealing.  Alden Ehrenreich was a poor choice for Ethan: at times, he is likeable.  At others, his smug grin shouts insincerity.  Mr. Ehrenreich made me long for Edward and Jacob. 

   All in all, however, the performances are good.  You really can’t go wrong with folks like Emma Thompson, Jeremy Irons, Eileen Atkins, and Margo Martindale.  Beautiful Creatures is great entertainment, just not what it could have been in its final act.

Synopsis - A small-time magician arrives in an enchanted land and is forced to decide if he will be a good man or a great one (via imdb.com).

The Review - Looking beyond a singularly poor casting choice and a script in need of another draft, this entry in the cinema of Oz would have been a truly great one. 

   The film is a visual marvel, a spectacle of black & white nostalgia and explosive technicolor.  Even the opening and closing title sequences pop with imagination and 3D wonder.  The story isn’t that bad, and the performances mostly work.  I, for one, really enjoyed James Franco as the wizard.  His characterization quite fittingly aligns with the wizard of the 1939 classic, who is indeed a bit slimy in comparison to Glinda the good witch.  There is also some great voice acting on the part of Zach Braff and Joey King. 

   Where the film really hits a wall is everything concerning the wicked witch of the west.  Mila Kunis doesn’t pull it off, at all.  It’s almost embarrassing watching her stumble through the character.  Her laugh is awful, her makeup is funny, and she isn’t scary.  The casting department really blew it here.  Not that Mila had much to work with in regards to her transformation, but there’s no excuse for something executed this badly.  It’s amateur hour in a film that is by no means amateur.  Aside from the flashy CGI work, there are moments here that indeed feel like a high school play.

   I desperately wanted to like this movie, because it is so pretty, but the casting flaws and lack of great dialogue really hinder the experience.  It’s probably the best movie of the year so far, but that doesn’t say much.

Beautiful Creatures: C-

Directed by Richard LaGravenese - Starring Alden Ehrenreich, Alice Englert, Jeremy Irons, Viola Davis, Emma Thompson, Emmy Rossum, Eileen Atkins & Margo Martindale - 124 Minutes/ Rated PG13

Oz the Great and Powerful: C

Directed by Sam Raimi - Starring James Franco, Michelle Williams, Zach Braff, Joey King, Tony Cox, Bill Cobbs, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz & Abigail Spencer - 130 Minutes/ Rated PG

January 15, 2013
THE 1927 AWARDS: 2012

A 1927 Critic’s Choice Review of this Year in Film

BEST ACHIEVEMENT IN SOUND EDITING

Skyfall – Per Hallberg, Karen M. Baker

Zero Dark Thirty – Paul N.J. Ottosson

Cloud Atlas – Alexander Buck

Looper – Jeremy Peirson

Prometheus – Charlie Campagna, Harry Cohen, Karen Vassar, Tim Walston


BEST ACHIEVEMENT IN SOUND MIXING

Skyfall – Scott Millan, Greg P. Russell, Stuart Wilson

Les Miserables – Andy Nelson, Mark Paterson, Simon Hayes

Life of Pi – Ron Bartlett, Doug Hemphill, Drew Kunin

Argo – John T. Reitz, Gregg Rudloff, Jose Antonio Garcia

Lincoln – Andy Nelson, Gary Rydstrom, Ron Judkins


BEST ACHIEVEMENT IN VISUAL EFFECTS

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey – Joe Letteri, Eric Saindon, David Clayton, R. Christopher White

Life of Pi – Bill Westenhofer, Erik De Boer, Donald Elliot, Guillaume Rocheron

Prometheus – Richard Stammers, Trevor Wood, Charley Henley, Martin Hill

ParaNorman – Brian Van’t Hul

Snow White and the Huntsman – Phil Brennan, Neil Corbould, Michael Dawson, Cedric Nicholas-Troyan


BEST ACHIEVEMENT IN MUSIC WRITTEN FOR MOTION PICTURES, ORIGINAL SONG

Skyfall (Skyfall) – Adele, Paul Epworth

Suddenly (Les Miserables) – Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schonberg, Herbert Kretzmer

Gone (Snow White and the Huntsman) – James Newton Howard, Ioanna Gika

Song of the Lonely Mountain (The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey) – Howard Shore, Neil Finn

Who Are We? (Holy Motors) – Leos Carax, Neil Hannon, Andrew Skeet, Kylie Minogue


BEST ACHIEVEMENT IN MUSIC WRITTEN FOR MOTION PICTURES, ORIGINAL SCORE

Life of Pi – Mychael Danna

Zero Dark Thirty – Alexandre Desplat

Anna Karenina – Dario Marianelli

John Carter – Michael Giacchino

Cloud Atlas – Reinhold Heil, Johnny Klimek, Tom Tykwer


BEST ACHIEVEMENT IN MAKEUP DESIGN

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Cloud Atlas

Lincoln

Holy Motors

Hitchcock


BEST ACHIEVEMENT IN COSTUME DESIGN

Mirror Mirror – Eiko Ishioka

Anna Karenina – Jacqueline Durran

Cloud Atlas – Kym Barrett, Pierre-Yves Gayraud

Great Expectations – Beatrix Aruna Pasztor

Lincoln – Joanna Johnston


BEST ACHIEVEMENT IN PRODUCTION DESIGN

Anna Karenina – Sarah Greenwood, Katie Spencer

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey – Dan Hennah, Ra Vincent, Simon Bright

Life of Pi – David Gropman, Anna Pinnock

Moonrise Kingdom – Adam Stockhausen

The Master – David Crank, Jack Fisk


BEST ACHIEVEMENT IN EDITING

Zero Dark Thirty – William Goldenberg, Dylan Tichenor

Silver Linings Playbook – Jay Cassidy, Crispin Struthers

Cloud Atlas – Alexander Berner

Lincoln – Michael Kahn

Life of Pi – Tim Squyres


BEST ACHIEVEMENT IN CINEMATOGRAPHY

The Master – Mihai Malaimare Jr.

Anna Karenina – Seamus McGarvey

Life of Pi – Claudio Miranda

Skyfall – Roger Deakins

Moonrise Kingdom – Robert D. Yeoman


BEST MOTION PICTURE NOT IN THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE

Amour – Michael Haneke (Austria)

War Witch – Kim Nguyen (Canada)

Lore – Cate Shortland (Australia)

The Intouchables – Olivier Nakache, Eric Toledano (France)

No – Pablo Larrain (Chile)


BEST MOTION PICTURE, ANIMATED

Frankenweenie – Tim Burton

ParaNorman – Chris Butler, Sam Fell

Wreck-It-Ralph – Rich Moore


BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

Lincoln – Tony Kushner

Silver Linings Playbook – David O. Russell

Life of Pi – David Magee

Beasts of the Southern Wild – Lucy Alibar, Benh Zeitlin

Argo – Chris Terrio


BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

Looper – Rian Johnson

The Master – Paul Thomas Anderson

Moonrise Kingdom – Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola

Zero Dark Thirty – Mark Boal

Ruby Sparks – Zoe Kazan


BEST ACHIEVEMENT IN DIRECTING

Zero Dark Thirty – Kathryn Bigelow

Beasts of the Southern Wild – Benh Zeitlin

Silver Linings Playbook – David O. Russell

The Master – Paul Thomas Anderson

Cloud Atlas – Lana Wachowski, Andy Wachowski, Tom Tykwer


BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE

Amy Adams – The Master

Sally Field – Lincoln

Doona Bae – Cloud Atlas

Jacki Weaver – Silver Linings Playbook

Helen Hunt – The Sessions


BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE

Dwight Henry – Beasts of the Southern Wild

Michael Fassbender – Prometheus

Tommy Lee Jones – Lincoln

Robert De Niro – Silver Linings Playbook

Philip Seymour Hoffman – The Master


BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE

Bradley Cooper – Silver Linings Playbook

Daniel Day-Lewis – Lincoln

Joaquin Phoenix – The Master

Denis Lavant – Holy Motors

Denzel Washington – Flight


BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE

Jessica Chastain – Zero Dark Thirty

Jennifer Lawrence – Silver Linings Playbook

Emmanuelle Riva – Amour

Quvenzhane Wallis – Beasts of the Southern Wild

Naomi Watts – The Impossible


SPECIAL ACHIEVEMENT AWARD IN PERFORMANCE, MOTION CAPTURE

Andy Serkis as Gollum in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey


1927 IMAGE AWARD

Lana Wachowski, for her moving motion picture Cloud Atlas and her remarkable impact on LGBTQ presence in cinema


LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD

John Goodman, whose unforgettable presence in Argo and Flight reminds us of his long and successful career


BEST MOTION PICTURE

Silver Linings Playbook – Donna Gigliotti, Bruce Cohen, Jonathan Gordon

Lincoln – Steven Spielberg, Kathleen Kennedy

Zero Dark Thirty – Mark Boal, Kathryn Bigelow, Megan Ellison

Life of Pi – Gil Netter, Ang Lee, David Womark

Beasts of the Southern Wild – Dan Janvey, Josh Penn, Michael Gottwald

Argo – Grant Heslov, Ben Affleck, George Clooney

Skyfall – Michael G. Wilson, Barbara Broccoli

The Master – Paul Thomas Anderson, Megan Ellison, Daniel Lupi, JoAnne Sellar

Moonrise Kingdom – Wes Anderson, Jeremy Dawson, Steven Rales, Scott Rudin

Chronicle – John Davis, Adam Schroeder

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