Oscar Predictions 2015

It’s a few hours before the Oscars go live, and my roommates and I are hosting a small party. The best part (in my opinion) about award show parties are taking bets about who will win. I say “bets” but there is absolutely no money involved, just the pride of getting it right!

So here is a breakdown of who I want to win in each category vs. who I think might actually come home with a statuette. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen every nominated film, but I try my best every year. So some of my predictions are based on having seen the film and others are based on keeping up with media reception. We’ll see how this pans out for me…

Best Picture

There are some real stunners in this year’s best picture round. Some years I have scoffed at what gets nominated and counted among the best, but there are several deserving films this year that I’d be thrilled if they won. However–

Caitlin’s Choice: Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). I loved this film. It blew me away in so many categories. And I just can’t stop thinking about it.

Academy’s Choice: Boyhood. Honestly it could be a toss-up between Boyhood and Whiplash, but a lot of people could not stop talking about the bold choice of filming over more than a decade to produce Boyhood. Sometimes the Academy rewards these daring choices, particularly when a well-respected director such as Linklater is at the helm.

Best Actor

Caitlin’s Choice: Michael Keaton for Birdman. A major part of the reason Birdman is so memorable for me is because of Keaton’s meta performance that was at once brilliant and brutal.

Academy’s Choice: Steve Carell for Foxcatcher. Now, I haven’t seen Foxcatcher but Carell’s performance is apparently a stunning transformation for the happy-go-lucky comedian we’re used to seeing. Again, I often think the Academy rewards these bold choices, particularly when an actor might go unrecognized thereafter (not a very comedy heavy roster at the Oscars).

Best Actress

Caitlin’s Choice: Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl. For a film that got largely snubbed this year, Gone Girl could not have a better representative that Rosamund Pike. Her performance in that film is next level crazy and altogether riveting.

Academy’s Choice: Julianne Moore in Still Alice. Honestly, I think Moore is due for an Oscar. Sometimes it feels like the Academy gives awards to actors and directors for a film because they recognize they dropped the ball on other nominations. Not that Moore’s performance in Still Alice isn’t worthy of this particular nomination (because it is) but there are more factors in play here that a single film.

Best Supporting Actor

Caitlin’s Choice: Edward Norton in Birdman. Norton nearly stole the show in every scene of the film. He shines in Birdman, and his character seemed to force the other players to keep up or be left in the dust. Give the man an Oscar.

Academy’s Choice: Edward Norton in Birdman. Perhaps this is wishful thinking on my part, but I’m really hoping this is true. Norton just seems like the right choice–J.K. Simmons won a Golden Globe for his role in Whiplash, so I’m not counting him out, but sometimes that’s how awards season works.

Best Supporting Actress

Caitlin’s Choice: Emma Stone in Birdman. If you’re sensing a pattern with my choices, then you would be correct. This is also probably why the Oscars are not decided by me as it would be incredibly one-sided. I’m also going to admit to a huge bias towards Emma Stone in general; she is one of my favorite actresses and Birdman was a great dramatic role for her.

Academy’s Choice: Laura Dern in Wild. I honestly cannot explain why I think this will be. It’s just a gut feeling, which would be horribly misplaced but that’s who I’m going with nevertheless.

Best Animated Feature Film

Caitlin’s Choice: Big Hero 6. I’m a sucker for a Disney film, but Big Hero 6 is also a well-balanced film that could easily garner the win.

Academy’s Choice: The Tale of the Princess Kaguya. Again, I have no logic to back this up, just a knee-jerk reaction when looking at the nominees.

Best Director

Caitlin’s Choice: Alejandro G. Inarritu for Birdman. I think Inarritu was innovative in his storytelling and pulled phenomenal performances from his actors. I’d love to see this man win the Oscar but he did win a Golden Globe so it might not happen. Sometimes the two awards do overlap, but it always seems unlikely.

Academy’s Choice: Richard Linklater for Boyhood. I just think this is the likely winner, as much for the films he wasn’t nominated for as for this particular film.

Best Adapted Screenplay

Caitlin’s Choice: The Theory of Everything screenplay by Anthony McCarten. If you’re adapting Steven Hawking you’re bound to be a winner, right? I’d like to see this film win for something, even though it is nominated quite a bit, I suspect it might get overlooked in favor of other films.

Academy’s Choice: Whiplash screenplay by Damien Chazelle. This film is a heavy contender in many categories but I think this is one of the moments when it will be rewarded by the Academy.

Best Original Screenplay

Caitlin’s Choice: The Grand Budapest Hotel screenplay by Wes Anderson, story by Wes Anderson and Hugo Guinness. I don’t anticipate many wins for this film, though I appreciate that it got nominated in a few categories. Best original script would be a good thing to see Budapest take home though.

Academy’s Choice: Foxcatcher written by E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman. Another one of my gut feelings.

There are several other categories including Best Song and Cinematography, but with the remaining categories I either didn’t see enough of the films or don’t have strong feelings about them one way or the other. However this is where I stand on the heavy hitting categories, and I hope you enjoyed reading my predictions. Who are you rooting for tonight?

Thanks for popping in!

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Top Ten Movies of 2014

Oh heavens, these lists are complicated to make!

What makes the ranking is partly due to whether or not I think it’s a “good movie” and partly due to sheer enjoyment in the theater. So today, you’re getting a taste of the serious film critic and a bit of the fan-girl who walks out of the theater crowing, “That was AWEsome!”

1. The Skeleton Twins

I saw this movie for the first time last January at Sundance and was so impressed with the performances of Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader. The room was full of electricity and that experience was one of the best I had at the movies all year. A great dark comedy about family drama.

2. Gone Girl 

Another packed theater where the emotions of the whole audience were palpable. I already knew how the movie would end, but I was still riveted the whole way through. Rosamund Pike deserves an Oscar or at least a Golden Globe for her powerhouse performance as Amy Dunne.

3. Interstellar

One of the best original science fiction films in years. Stunningly beautiful cinematography and a real achievement for Nolan as a director. It’s not a perfect film by any means but it was one of the most compelling movies I saw all year.

4. Fury

This movie made me a David Ayers fan. I think for many moviegoers this film flew under the radar and didn’t get a ton of attention, but for me Fury was one of the most heart-wrenching, brutal, stirring, and honest films I saw in 2014. Or in any other year.

5. Birdman

Birdman is a movie that grew on me, to the point that a film I was kind of “meh” about when I first saw it is now on my top ten list. If you enjoy meta movies about the film industry, then here is a dark and quirky film for you to feast on. I’m hoping to see some statuettes given to the wonderful people who worked on this film during awards season: everything from sound design to editing to the acting was on point.

6. The Lego Movie

Because everything really is awesome, and you know it too! Such a fun movie to see in theaters. Or a fun movie to watch period. The obvious creativity coming from this film is what makes The Lego Movie so exciting, even months later.

7. X-Men Days of Future Past

This is one of those movies that makes the list because of the ecstatic experience I had in the theaters. The recent X-Men movies have been inventive and on point in a way that the genre needed. Plus for me as a fan, seeing one of my favorite lesser-known characters on the screen–Blink–was a big moment.

8. The Fault in Our Stars

Now I realize what I am about to type might be somewhat controversial (so don’t hate me): I liked the movie better than the book. So rare, but it does indeed happen! Plain and simple, the movie made me bawl and the book did not make me shed a single tear. The book is still wonderful, but for me the movie was just a better experience.

9. Snowpiercer

There’s just something gripping about this movie. Snowpiercer is at its best the first time you see it. Look too close and the flaws start to become more obvious than you’d like. But that first roaring experience trumps the later doubt.

10. The One I Love

If you are a fan of “The Twilight Zone”, The One I Love is a modern twist on those science fiction thrillers. Mark Duplass and Elizabeth Moss both give stellar performances that assert their range and capability as actors.

Honorable Mentions:

What If

An adorable romantic comedy starring Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan about the dynamics of a falling for someone when they’re already in a relationship. Quirky, relevant, and witty What If was one of the best romantic comedies I have seen in a long while.

Frank

Michael Fassbinder stars in this offbeat, trippy independent film about a musician who wears a paper mache head. Sounds weird and it is weird, but in the best way possible.

Well, there you have it, my best of list for films in 2014. Now I should also mention that I haven’t seen some of the stunners that are still making the rounds like Big Eyes, Into the Woods, or Wild. I’d like to see all these films and more, but I can’t judge what I haven’t seen yet.

What were some of your favorite films last year?

Thanks for popping in!

Mockingjay Part 1: A Rant With A Dash of Critique

I made a big mistake. I broke my own rules. I read the book first.

Finishing The Hunger Games trilogy was just too tempting. I read Mockingjay about three months ago and then saw the film the weekend it opened. I know the third book is a tad controversial for some readers because of how it ended the series, but I loved Mockingjay and could not wait for the movie to come out.

I won’t say I was disappointed in the movie, but perhaps I let my expectations get too high.

Image respectfully borrowed from moviepilot.com

 

For one thing, the movie started slow. At this point in the series, I am already invested in Katniss’ story but that does not mean I am willing to accept poor storytelling just to finish the series.

This is where reading the book first became a problem.

For the first half of the film, all I could see were missed opportunities. The novel takes time to build the tension between District 13’s President Coin and Katniss by showing the regimented nature of the District’s lifestyle. This tension is vital to the story. The pervasive schedule, the severe food rationing, and the methodical coldness of the underground fortress were lacking in the film. Most of these elements are not dealt with or discussed only in passing.

Katniss agrees to be the Mockingjay within fifteen–maybe twenty–minutes and for me that felt too soon. There needed to be more tension in so many of the relationships in The Mockingjay. There is tension between President Coin (Julianne Moore) and Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) but not enough for my liking, and I think that affects the dynamic of all the other interpersonal relationships in the movie.

For example, there is not enough push-and-pull between Katniss and Haymitch. When Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) first appears there are supposed to be rage there for Katniss, but nothing much happens. She’s supposed to hit him! Who doesn’t want to see Jennifer Lawrence sucker-punch Woody Harrelson, just for giggles?

Image respectfully borrowed from blackfilm.com

 

Another major problem for me was that there was not enough development between Katniss and Gale (Liam Hemsworth). The whole series is bracketed by the choice between Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) and Gale. This first half of the story is where we are supposed to see Katniss and Gale connect further as well as experience that budding friction of their relationship. Gale’s willingness to drink the District 13 Kool Aid is downplayed in the film, as is his growing responsibility within the District. Katniss has a brief line expressing her distaste for Gale’s closeness with President Coin, but it does not lead to anything significant story-wise.

Other, smaller issues bothered me too. The bonding between Finnick (Sam Clafin)  and Katniss was less present, as was Finnick’s clear struggle to hold onto sanity. Though I absolutely adored Elizabeth Banks’ performance as Effie in this film, I think the scene from the book where Katniss discovers her prep team starved and covered in filth is a much more powerful narrative play. Also there was not enough Boggs in this movie, goshdarnit!

This, my friends, is why I try to read the book after seeing the movie.

One thing Mockingjay Part 1 did perfectly was Peeta. The interviews with Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) are powerful and well-done, as is the character’s swift mental and physical decline. Two gold stars for Josh Hutcherson!

Another reason expectations were so high is because of the film’s phenomenal marketing campaign. Image respectfully borrowed from variety.com

 

Part of the reason I’m a tad bit disappointed is that Suzanne Collins is attached to the film and gets a writing credit. When a writer is attached to the project, I hope for a stronger adaptation. The other two screenwriters, Peter Craig and Danny Strong, are signed on to do Part 2 but have not been with the franchise previously. I’m hoping my issues with the narrative do not extend to Mockingjay Part 2.

On the other hand, there were some absolutely stunning moments that the film offered that could not be found in the book due to the novel’s first person point of view. I loved seeing more of the district’s perspective on the rebellion. The sequences in Districts 5 and 7 gave necessary depth to the rebellion. And Katniss’ singing of The Hanging Tree is beautifully realized–plaintive and poignant all at once. The scene where the citizens of District 5 march towards the dam singing that song gave me chills.

I might have purchased The Hanging Tree on iTunes and I might have been listening to it non-stop.

Image respectfully borrowed from screenrant.com

 

Natalie Dormer as Cressida was also a brilliant casting choice. Cressida is an intriguing character in the novel and Dormer brings nuance to a character with little dialogue. Philip Seymour Hoffman continues to be the ideal Plutarch Heavensbee, though it is sad to see him on-screen now. Overall, there are some strong performances in The Mockingjay, my central issue is how the story itself is being handled.

Despite my problems with this film, I think The Mockingjay Part 1 does a great job of setting the audience up for Part 2. I think director, Francis Lawrence, ended the film in a smart way for maximum impact. I won’t say more than that because I have probably spoiled enough in my wee rant here.

My hope is that the second half of the story is better paced and takes the ample opportunities that Collins’ book provides.

As for The Mockingjay Part 1, I give it 3 Film Bubbles–Suitably Poppable. There may be problems with this movie but I still had a good time in the theater.

Thanks for popping in!

 

Interstellar

In talking to friends and family, it has become quite clear that Christopher Nolan’s latest film, Interstellar is rather divisive. Some find the film to be too far-reaching, with plot holes they cannot forgive. Others are willing to connect the dots and have been drawn into Nolan’s bleak, sci-fi future.

As for me, here’s where I stand: Interstellar is necessary.

Nolan’s latest is one of the few original, non-franchise science fiction films to make headway at the box office. Don’t get me wrong, I love the Star Trek movies and The Guardians of the Galaxy too, but there is something to be said for a stand alone sci-fi flick that is its own story, not based on one in another medium. And these days, American sci-fi desperately needs an injection of originality.

Interstellar is a film rooted in enough science for you to accept the premise but with enough fiction to make you believe in infinite possibilities. In fact, the film was largely inspired by the work of physicist Kip Thorne, who also acted as a consultant for the film.

When the film opens, former fighter pilot turned farmer, Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is struggling to make a living as a corn farmer in a future where Earth’s sustenance is drying up and dust storms can bring life to a standstill. Cooper is clearly dissatisfied and longs for the days of American exploration, but he finds solace in his kids Tom and Murph.

Murph is inquisitive, with a budding mind for science; in an era that no longer teaches the moon landing, she stands out. Murph’s insistence that there is a ghost sending messages in her room leads Cooper to discover an underground NASA facility headed up by his former boss, Professor Brand (Michael Caine). A team of scientists, including the Professor’s daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway), insist that Murph’s “ghost” are mysterious beings guiding them to find other worlds for humanity’s survival.

When Cooper is offered the chance to fly the spaceship, he cannot get off Earth fast enough, though he is constantly thinking about getting back in time to save his children. Through the time-lapse in space, Cooper is forced to watch his children grow older through the ship’s video screen as humanity continues to struggle. Embittered by her father’s abandonment, Murph (Jessica Chastain) throws herself into the tutelage of Professor Brand, equally desperate to save humanity from the ground. Both father and daughter must race against time and fate to save the people left on Earth.

Image respectfully borrowed from wired.com

I find it’s hard to properly summarize this film without giving too much away. But the tension-laden relationship between Cooper and Murph definitely drives the film in a major way. With every peril that Cooper, Amelia, and the team encounter on their journey there is the faint presence of the people left behind on Earth, a reminder of Murph.

There are a definite set of clues about the ending that carry through the film, but Nolan muddies the waters and spirals you off on another leg of the adventure in order to make you forget. It is only after the movie is finished and you’ve had some time to breathe that the clues might come off as heavy-handed; we trick ourselves into thinking we knew it all along.

Much of the story’s strength can be attributed to writer, Jonathan Nolan. Whenever the Nolan brothers collaborate they create stronger films than when they’re apart. Some of the best parts of the film are the feather-light touches of humor that allow you to care about the characters just a few inches more. In particular the robot characters TARS (Bill Irwin) and CASE (Josh Stewart) allow for moments of odd humor and wit that lighten the mood just enough for you to be ready to plunge back into the mystery.

Image respectfully borrowed from screenrant.com

 

As for the director, Christopher Nolan surely must be one of the greatest of our generation, in large part because he makes a 169 minute (2 hours 49 minutes) movie riveting. He manages to critique our present by presenting a desolate future. It’s a future that isn’t slick. In fact, it’s rather dingy. But the tech for this film feels tangible. All of these factors combine to create a world that might hit a little close to home, but that is also what makes it a good, relevant piece of science fiction.

The acting is strong from all fronts. McConaughey fits the role of reluctant explorer well, looking equal parts rugged and gaunt. Anne Hathaway provides one of the better speeches in the film about the importance of love that will bring tears to the eye. Jessica Chastain continues to be the go-to in Hollywood for strong, emotionally aggressive performances. And if Michael Caine could release an audio-book of him reading classic poetry, that would be fantastic. The only person whom I feel wasn’t fully utilized was Casey Affleck as the adult Tom. Though Affleck is undeniably skilled, his character wasn’t given enough of a chance to do anything more than look resigned or angry.

Image respectfully borrowed from ew.com

 

There are some undeniable comparisons to Gravity (2013)–themes of rebirth, a dark-haired woman of science facing her fears, and the increasing isolation of space to name a few–but for my money, Interstellar is the more satisfying film. For one thing, though there are CGI effects in Interstellar, Nolan blatantly tries to do as much as possible with sets and does not solely rely on computer animation for world building. In the long run, I think Interstellar will age better than Gravity.

It’s equally easy to compare Interstellar to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Nolan clearly created this film as a tip of the hat to one of his favorite films, though he may have tipped his hat a bit too far in some places: I was initially afraid upon meeting TARS and CASE that we would have a HAL situation on our hands. Thankfully, Nolan is able to distinguish himself from his influences overall.

Though critics have given mixed reviews on Interstellar, it is a film undeniably worth seeing if for no other reason that to form your own opinion. For me, Interstellar earns 4 movie bubbles–A Poppable Product.

I get most excited about movies when I get inspired to teach them in a classroom, and I would love to one day teach a class on science fiction that would include Interstellar because it’s a film that forces you to think.

Thanks for popping in!

The Skeleton Twins

I know it’s only October, but I can safely say this is one of my favorite movies of 2014.

Usually I would include a trailer here so you could get a taste of the film, but I honestly cannot stand the trailer for The Skeleton Twins because I think it gives away some key comedic moments. It’s a trailer that is trying to pitch this film to you as a moody romp with Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader, but The Skeleton Twins is much more than that.

Image respectfully borrowed from ew.com

On the same day that Maggie (Kristen Wiig) decides to end her life with a fistful of pills, she gets a call from a LA hospital saying that her twin brother, Milo (Bill Hader), had been found in a bathtub with his wrists slashed. But he’s OK. Ah, the connective powers of twins.

Maggie and Milo haven’t spoken to one another in ten years but in an effort to reconnect with her brother Maggie invites Milo to live with her and her husband Lance (Luke Wilson) in upstate New York. Returning home shakes both of the twins up in different ways. Milo faces his first love, Rich (Ty Burrell), and tries to find his place where he’s never felt accepted. Maggie then has to stare down the facade of domestic bliss and figure out what she really wants from life. Together, the twins take a stab at repairing their relationship and themselves, but ten years is a long rift to mend.

The Skeleton Twins is a darkly funny drama that will tickle your funny bone one minute and then ask you to take it seriously in the next. But it works.

The balance between humor and seriousness is finely honed by writers Mark Heyman and Craig Johnson.

For example, the lip-sync scene is one of the best scenes in modern cinema. The balance and humor and subtext are all there. It’s a funny scene, yes, but what you read into it is what makes the sequence amazing.

Image respectfully borrowed from imdb.com

At a Sundance Q&A panel, director Craig Johnson, said that sometimes the hardest part of making this film was in reeling in Wiig and Hader’s natural instinct towards comedy. Johnson said that their comedy would feed off one another’s making a scene larger than life, but that wasn’t always the goal for The Skeleton Twins. Johnson skillfully directs his stars so that the comedy and hard-hitting drama ebb and flow in a way that feels true to life.

Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig are perfect in this film. Both of them are giving what may be the best performances of their careers to date.

After years of playing a caricature of a gay man on SNL (don’t get me wrong I love Stefan), Hader steps up to portray a genuine and complex reflection of a gay male. Hader’s Milo is a heartbreaking character that charms you in heavy doses as well as small measures. Wiig is Hader’s ideal counterpoint; she plays Maggie with the quiet desperation of the bored and disengaged.

Image respectfully borrowed from indiewire.com

The Skeleton Twins is also a film that deals with the lies we tell one another (and ourselves) in order to get by. A great deal of the poignancy of this film comes from the awareness of these lies from the characters as well as the audience.

The whole film is populated by blatantly imperfect people who you quickly come to love. Luke Wilson utterly disappears in his performance, and I mean that in the best way possible. Wilson makes Lance look like a regular guy they pulled off the street and gave lines to: his manipulation of awkward silence is Wilson’s greatest asset in this film. And Ty Burrell manages to be endearing in his role as Milo’s closeted former lover/ high school teacher.

If you live in an area that plays independent films regularly, try to track down The Skeleton Twins before it leaves theaters. There’s a tonal quality to the film both in visuals and content that makes it ideal for fall.

I give The Skeleton Twins 5 movie bubbles.

The One I Love

Charlie McDowell’s Sundance feature debut has managed to preserve its air of mystery into its theatrical release. The One I Love (2014), on the surface, appears to be a romantic comedy of errors. Yet, the film unfolds like a Rubik’s cube: seemingly simple at first and increasingly complex to solve.

Ethan (Mark Duplass) and Sophie (Elizabeth Moss) are trying to save their marriage, both equally bewildered by how they’ve changed. Their therapist (Ted Danson) sends them on a last resort weekend trip that he promises will change their marriage for the better. When Sophie and Ethan arrive at their idyllic retreat, they are charmed by the sprawling grounds and seem to be connecting once more but the shadows of their former selves may continue to drive them apart.

Fans of “The Twilight Zone” will feel right at home with this film. It has the same tonal quality and mysterious air that made the TV show compelling.

Image respectfully borrowed from yahoo.com

Throughout the film there is this building tension for  scarier, more horror-driven actions and ending, but that tension successfully drives the story forward even when the expected violence does not appear. No, the strength of The One I Love lies in the fascinating oddities presented as fact, as in another Duplass brothers collaboration, Safety Not Guaranteed (2012).

Cinematographer Doug Emmett creates beautiful warm and hazy tones that add a surreal yet comforting quality to the film. It’s Emmett’s use of light and washed-out color that keep the film from feeling too threatening, which would have lessened the contemplative moments in the film and those are not to be missed.

What is perhaps most impressive is that you don’t realize that there are only three principal actors driving the film until the credits roll, because The One I Love feels so full of character and talent.

Image respectfully borrowed from flavorwire.com

Elizabeth Moss sells this film. Duplass is good but Moss is better. Her shy inquisition into the unknown, her brimming hope, her depth of sadness all radiate from Moss, though her movements are controlled and precise. Duplass’ power is in creating a convincing duality, and The One I Love would have floundered without this skill.

Danson only appears in the film for about ten minutes, since it is truly Ethan and Sophie’s story, but he plays his part as catalyst well. Writer, Justin Lader, shows his mastery of story by successfully weaving a complex tale that does not require an abundance of actors. Not an easy feat.

Neither is wit. And The One I Love is smart and funny: not in a laugh-out-loud way but in the snort-and-chortle sense.

Image respectfully borrowed from variety.com

This film left me with lots of logistical questions that will tangle your brain in knots, but I mean that in the best way possible. I’d have loved some more answers from the filmmakers,  but I cannot stop thinking about this film and there is something compelling in that puzzle quality.

I need to see The One I Love again. To consider other angles and catch hints previously missed. It has been awhile since I’ve felt this twitchy or haunted by a good film and that is exciting!

The film is rated R for language, some sexuality, and drug use. This is a crock. Content-wise this film should be PG-13.  It’s probably an R for dropping the f-bomb, but the “strong language” does not stand out.

Overall, I’d give The One I Love 4 movie bubbles.

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For

As soon as Sin City came out in 2005, audiences were clamoring for a sequel. In the mean time, many Hollywood  films jumped on the graphic novel bandwagon in an effort to capitalize on the success  and aesthetic of co-directors Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez. 300 (2006), The Spirit (2008), and Watchmen (2009) are the most immediate heirs, though arguably the only success of the bunch was 300 as the other Miller vehicle. After nine years, audiences have finally been given the Sin City sequel they craved. Yet Sin City: A Dame to Kill For is a pale shadow of the original Sin.

Much like the first film, A Dame to Kill For weaves together four stories of some of Basin City’s most morally ambiguous heroes. Two of the stories follow Miller’s content from his corresponding graphic novel, while Miller added two additional narratives to the mix to round out the film.

The two arcs from the graphic novel play the best on screen. The flow between Marv’s (Mickey Rourke) bloody confrontation with some yuppie frat boys and the larger narrative of Dwight’s (Josh Brolin) tangled love affair with Ava (Eva Green) feels more natural than their counterparts.

Rourke was perhaps made to play Marv with his innate brawler’s swagger. Brolin is less successful as Dwight; his attempt at cold-killer eyes yields an overall flat performance. But the real star of A Dame to Kill For is Eva Green, or more specifically her breasts. As my friend Marissa so blithely pointed out, Green’s breasts get more screen time than either Christopher Meloni or Jeremy Piven.  They’re marvelous breasts, but was that really necessary? Green’s performance was striking above and beyond her nudity. She firmly stakes her claim as ruling neo-noir femme fatale.

In contrast, the two brand new story lines come off as disjointed and keep the film as a whole from fully gelling. While Johnny’s (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) arc of a gambler determined to outwit his famous father is a tad sparse on back story, JGL gives a knockout performance that elevates an otherwise lackluster plot point. He also delivers the best line of dialogue in the whole film, “I’m ambidextrous.”  This line further proves JGL’s skill as, typed out, the words are nothing special, but his witty, minutia-driven acting make it an explosive line.

Image politely borrowed from nerdreactor.com.

On the other hand, the additional Nancy (Jessica Alba) arc feels lackluster and drastically disrupts the chronology of the series. Miller reportedly added the extended Nancy story because he was so compelled by Alba’s first performance. And undeniably Alba was fantastic in Sin City. While she still gyrates like a pro, Miller’s new piece seems forced for both writer and star. Considering that Alba factors in to a high volume of the promotional material, her story tacked on at the end is even more of a let down.

According to comic book canon, the events of A Dame to Kill For are meant to come prior to the events in the original Sin City film. This concept is now extremely confusing as Nancy’s story hinges on the death of John Hartigan (Bruce Willis). Willis’ presence in this film as the loving specter was superfluous. His absence would have allowed Alba to stand on her own, something her character as well as her acting desperately needed.

Then there’s Old Town. There will never be enough Old Town screen time for me. That being said, even Old Town seemed to have lost some of its grit.  In a world where every single woman is a professed slut, whore, or bitch there is no strength, reclamation, or pride in these words for the women who speak them. More so than before A Dame to Kill For makes its women the victims of its men in word and deed. The powerful, sexy women of Old Town could not even begin to pass the Bechdel Test and that is a damn crime.

Spoiler alert: Jessica Alba’s face gets wrecked by CGI. (image politely borrowed from itsartmag.com)

The signature Sin City style that seemed groundbreaking  just a few years ago now seems too slick and heavy handed. The genius of the first film was it’s stylized restraint–the graphic novel feel without ever becoming too literal. A Dame to Kill For has a classic case of sequel-itus. Miller and Rodgriguez went too far in the right direction so that the aesthetics seem overblown and suddenly wrong.

For example, more color is not better. The original film had specific splashes of color in red or gold that enhanced the dramatic grey-scale feel of the rest of the world. The second time around color is used too liberally–Eva Green’s lips are red in one scene, her coat blue in another, and then her lips are red and her eyes green. Suddenly Juno Temple’s teddy is pink. And Jaime King is in full color for no good reason. The use of color here often lacks a purpose. The pops of color lose their sense of  thematic consistency and more importantly they lose their value as narrative devices.

Maybe it’s just another casualty of high expectations, but A Dame to Kill For isn’t worth the slaughter.

Second Thoughts On Snowpiercer

I first saw Snowpiercer at the Busan Film Festival this past October. Rumors were already flying about Harvey Weinstein’s desire to cut twenty minutes from the film, and people were clamoring for tickets to this premiere. Seeing the film in a packed theater, in Korea no less, made the entire experience more exhilarating. Every plot twist and dab of horror seemed heightened. I felt like I was seeing something wholly original. Then too there was the opportunity to hear Bong Joon-ho speak about his film. He was such a great speaker: humorous and humble but really engaged with his audience.

Me being a happy camper in Korea for the Busan Film Festival.

Me being a happy camper in Korea for the Busan Film Festival.

I left Busan floored by Snowpiercer and very confused as to where any cuts could be made. If you’re not familiar with Bong Joon Ho’s other films (The Host, Memories of Murder, Mother, etc.), he’s a concise filmmaker with every scene having some kind of narrative purpose. The idea of the film being cut was more horrifying to me than the contents of the film, which is filled with a good bit of gore and society driven dread.

So when Snowpiercer was released in America, I knew I had to see what had happened to the film. And I had a totally different experience as a movie goer from my time in Korea. There were maybe eight people in the room and while they were responsive, nothing compares to the high of a packed theater with everyone’s emotions fueling the crowd. I also felt that all the twists that were so shocking the first time around seemed rather obvious the second time. So here are my thoughts on Snowpiercer after two viewings, a lot of feels, and a bit of distance.

*Spoilers ahead. Watch your step.*

Bong Joon Ho’s first English film is a new kind of apocalypse tale a la chaos theory. Remember Jurassic Park? Ian Malcom? Ringing any bells? Basically it’s anything that can happen will happen. A highly controlled system like the life-giving train in Snowpiercer will inevitably find a way to disrupt the “natural order” of things. The film is set in a 2031, where humanity has frozen the planet in a botched attempt to cure global warming. The only survivors are the precious few that boarded an entirely self-sufficient train that circles the globe; its constant motion preventing its deep freeze.

Inside the train, a class system based on initial ticket purchase is highly enforced. The Head lives in luxury while the Tail live stacked upon one another in squalor. Whenever someone from the Tail steps out of line, they are punished in a brutal frozen fashion with the removal of limb. Despite the environment of fear, unrest continues to grow and a rebellion is brewing with Curtis (Chris Evans) as its reluctant leader. At his side are his second in command, Edgar (Jaime Bell), Tanya (Octavia Spencer), whose child has been stolen by those at the Head, and the wizened guru of the Tail, Gilliam (John Hurt). Together with an untutored but dedicated army of Tail members, Curtis storms up the train in order to confront the mysterious engineer Wilford (Ed Harris).

The story is based on a French graphic novel Le Transperceneige. Some of the artwork from the novel even appears in the film as the sketches of the tail’s Painter (Clark Middelton). The graphic novel aesthetic is strong throughout Snowpiercer and you get the sense that some stills could have been pulled directly from a comic panel. Not in the showy way of Sin City or 300, but the comic book effect is still there.

Image respectfully borrowed from indiewire.com

Bong Joon Ho has said that he also wanted the film to feel like a video game in that there were levels and boss fights. Each car that Curtis and his crew progress through is shocking in its increasing luxury and full with gruesome challenges. In particular the scene where the Tail warriors take on a car full of masked, leather wearing butchers. While that may at first seem like a comical description, the sequence is bloody and terrifying and so unique to Korean cinema right now. If you were at all a fan of Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy, the butcher sequence is akin to the hammer in the hallway tracking shot in its brutality and slight humor.

The key to enjoying this film is to not question anything. Don’t question the train car  that replicates the ocean. Don’t question the rave car right before the engine room. Don’t question the polar bear. You have to give yourself over to the world of Snowpiercer or else the logic of the film quickly starts to falter. The first time, that unquestioning attitude is easy to immerse yourself in. On repeat viewing, it gets harder to ignore the logistical gaps. My ultimate feeling on this film is that it’s exciting and pulse-suspendingly good, but it does not hold up well to repeat viewings.

Seeing it a second time, you catch more small details that give away the ending, which kind of drove me nuts while making me feel like a smarty-pants for catching them. For instance, the little hand gestures that reveal the horror of the train’s mechanical survival. They’re all over the place!  And the second time around the horror and tears  of some of the dramatic plot points were missing for me. The first time around, I cried when Edgar died and when Curtis confessed that he had killed Edgar’s mother. Big fat tears too. The second time all of that drama seemed like a natural conclusion (i.e. Curtis asks Edgar about his Mother way too much for it to be casual) and my eyes remained dry.

For all the rumored angst over cutting the film down, I don’t recall much missing. Maybe a snippet of dialogue here or there, but I’m not even sure that any cuts were made. So that’s the good news, because you need all the information you can get to keep up with this film. Yet it’s a two-hour movie that does not feel overly long because of its fast pace.

Image respectfully borrowed from kotaku.com.

Putting aside the potential narrative issues, you need to see this film at least once for the acting alone. If you’re not aware of Song Kong-ho–a truly phenomenal Korean actor–this movie is a great introduction to his skills. Another gem of his is The Good, The Bad, and The Weird, which is another great one for those just dipping their toes into foreign film. Chris Evans shows off a grittier edge to his action star capabilities, and Octavia Spencer is at her sassy best. Then Tilda Swinton throws down a standout performance as Mason, the obsequious, rat-like steward of the train. Total side note, but I love that that woman is not afraid to get ugly. She can be breathtakingly beautiful in an almost alien way and then turn around and blow an audience away with an abominable looking character. Mini-tangent over.

Having seen many of Bong Joon Ho’s films, I think Snowpiercer is my favorite. It’s a transnational production with financial backing from South Korea, US, Czech Republic, and France. The actors are also from a variety of countries, but most of the key players are either American or British. Still the core of this film is Korean in that it feels like the exciting stuff that’s coming out of Korean cinema right now, just slightly adapted for more Western palettes.

I would definitely recommend this to viewers who are a little intimidated by foreign films because 95% of Snowpiercer is in English but you get a taste of a different cinematic style. If you like what you see then there are other excellent entry points to Korean cinema out there and they’re easy to get a hold of. I’d also recommend seeing Snowpiercer in theaters because it is stunning on the big screen. But I’m not sure I would add this to my personal collection of DVD and Blu-rays. So take from that what you will.

Her

Here is my final review for my class, and it is the last paper before I complete my M.A. Our final review had to be 2,000 words so it’s quite lengthy. Also beware spoilers! I think I’ll keep up writing about movies once a week, since they’re such a major part of my life.

Here’s the trailer for Her. Enjoy!

It is a truth universally acknowledged that those individuals with tech savvy are in want of a piece of equipment to fall in love with forever. These days we as a society are constantly in search for the next covetable item in high technology. The fine line between obsessing over the newest toys and becoming emotionally absorbed by them is beginning to blur as people are glued to their iPhones, laptops, and tablets. Spike Jonze’s latest film, Her (2013), tackles the premise of what happens when a man really does fall in love with his technology.

The hero of this cybernetic romance is Theodore Twambly (Joaquin Phoenix), whose alliterative name conjures images of gallant and endearing characters from classic literature. Theodore is indeed a romantic at heart, a writer with a deep capacity for passion and love. Too bad all of his skills go into other people’s love letters as a scribe at beautifulhandwrittenletters.com. Even the charming loops and swirls of someone’s handwriting are computer generated. Jonze’s longstanding skill at creating tender irony and themes of emotional distance are fully captured in Theodore and his profession. As a letter writer, Theodore is the vessel for other’s raw enthusiasm and ardor, but he himself is rather empty.

While Theodore creates moving sentiments in his airy cubicle, he seems incapable of connecting with those around him, particularly when everyone is tied to tech of their own. Nobody talks to each other in public. Instead they chatter away at the voice in their ear—the next generation of Siri, still cold and electronic sounding. The wide shots of crowds of people laughing or muttering to their phones are all the more heartrending when you realize that there are no people on the receiving end of this contact, only machines. Even sex acts are electronic in nature as a lonely Theodore enters a chat room via his earpiece.

Theodore is also a man in the final stages of divorce from his childhood sweetheart, Catherine (Rooney Mara). Memories of their former life and emotional bond haunt Theodore throughout the film by way of flashbacks. The scenes’ hazy light immediately evokes the happier times and simpler lifestyle of the “past”. Mara’s acting further delineates the past and present as she is warm and open in Theodore’s memory but cold and removed in his present. Here, the idea of the past works on multiple levels. Not only is it a timeframe when Theodore was happy, but it was a time when he did not have an electronic device in his hands or ears. His desire to return to Catherine is more about a need for human contact in order to stem the tide of loneliness than an actual longing for a broken marriage.

Suddenly, Theodore is introduced to a new kind of operating system. This shiny new technology is billed as, “an intuitive entity—not just an O.S. but a consciousness.” Saving the humans from their drudgery is a unique, personalized assistant that behaves and evolves like a human being. Naturally, Theodore trades in his old system right away. His particular O.S. has named herself Samantha (Scarlett Johansson) and Theodore is instantly charmed by her quick wit and apparent honesty.

Samantha begins to help Theodore put his life back together. At first it is a simple matter of organizing his inbox, and then she guides him out into the world to experience and laugh again. While Samantha has to remind Theodore that she is not mindless technology, her conversations and intonations inform the audience of that fact from the beginning. Gradually, Theodore and Samantha fall into lust, the seed which blooms into love. Truly, who would not fall in love with a product that had Johansson’s husky tones and engaging giggle?

Despite his awkwardly charming mannerisms, Theodore is a bit of a deviant, which is shown by his perusal of pictures of a naked, pregnant celebrity and his participation in late night sexual chat rooms. His love affair with a computer is not altogether surprising, but what is surprising is how natural their love develops and how painfully real it all seems. It begins with a one night stand of sorts. The scene is shot largely in the dark and fades to black as Theodore speaks with lulling eroticism and Samantha gasps for breath she can never truly have. In the morning, they are both awkward about their encounter, yet it brings them closer together as they playfully talk about wants and needs.

If Jane Austen were a harried screenwriter working in Hollywood today, Her could very well be her modern love story. That is assuming Austen was willing to write a male protagonist, which is quite the opposite of the logic in today’s creative landscape, but I digress. Both Theodore and Sam fit within the Austen repertoire: he the distant but compelling hero and she the bright, sharp heroine. The Austen comparison speaks well of Jonze as this is his first original script that he has been able to direct as well.

Her has the flavor of a modern classic. What makes the film so interesting is that it dabbles in many genres, but instead of becoming a patchwork quilt it emerges fully formed and seamless in its appropriation of comedy, drama, romance, and of course, science fiction. It is no wonder that the film took home the Oscar for best original screenplay.

Though the film is thoughtful and serious, it is not afraid to wink at its audience either. There is still signature Jonze humor in the film. For example, SexyKitten—the kinky cat-strangling chat room user—is voiced by prominent female comedienne, Kristen Wiig. And the foul-mouthed but adorable alien character in Theodore’s 3-D video game is none other than Spike Jonze himself.

As well done as the writing and directing are, the acting is what gives Her its luster. Joaquin Phoenix takes on a role that requires a high level of emotional bravery as the film does most of its deep gazing in tight or medium close-ups. While there are certainly establishing shots that are equally stunning under the hand of cinematographer, Hoyt Van Hoytema, getting just close enough to the feel the actor is a skill of its own. Phoenix gives the role his drastic range of emotion; his face gives all the subtext one could ask for as Theodore.

Scarlett Johansson is just as brave for taking on a character with no corporeal form, particularly in a film obsessed with the importance of the body and physical sensation. Initially the role of Samantha was voiced by Samantha Morton, but Jonze recast with Morton’s blessing in post-production. Johansson’s voice is rich and fills in the physical void, making her presence in the film seem utterly irreplaceable. It is also refreshing to see, or hear rather, Johansson as something other than a bombshell. Ironically enough, Jonze cast the voice of a woman who is perhaps better known for her body than her acting, but Johansson takes the opportunity to prove that she cannot just act but act well.

Theodore and Sam experience the euphoric highs and dramatic lows of any couple in a new relationship. They go on dates to the pier and write each other love songs. As their love becomes more of a tangible thing, Theodore confides in his long-time friend Amy (Amy Adams) about his new girlfriend. Adams acts as a grounding force both in the narrative and as an actress that prevents the sci-fi elements from seeming overwhelming. As a character, Amy and many others in the film embrace this new kind of love as people make friends and lovers out of their O.S.s. The whole world is captivated by their O.S., by the knowledge that this being was created to fit the individual person.

Eventually, Samantha feels the lack of a body so powerfully that she attempts to find a surrogate so she and Theodore can have the appearance of a normal lifestyle. Samantha finds a petite, blonde beauty, Isabella (Portia Doubleday), to fill the physical place in her relationship and Theodore reluctantly agrees to give the surrogate a chance. When Isabella knocks on the door, she never utters a word but holds her hand out for the earpiece and a camera shaped like a beauty mark. Hearing Samantha’s voice but watching Isabella’s lips stay firmly closed is eerie and sad as Samantha desperately tries to fulfill the physical needs of her boyfriend.

The surrogate is not enough for Theodore, who feels uncomfortable touching someone else’s body while hearing Samantha’s voice. Her tackles a wide variety of philosophy, if one cares to look for such things in films, and the issue of a physical form is a major part of the film’s philosophical leanings. The natural case is for Descartes’ ‘I think therefore I am’, which nearly every film dealing with artificial intelligence has been in dialogue with in some way. The scene between Isabella, Samantha, and Theodore also poses the questions of what is real emotion and what makes love real?

Both Theodore and Samantha grapple with these questions that lay at the heart of any relationship and while it is not Her’s job to answer those queries, the film allows the audience room to investigate for themselves. In order to find her own answers, Samantha begins to interact with other O.S.s and other individuals as well. Theodore is overwhelmed by the volume of people Samantha speaks to, creates with, and falls in love with while simultaneously being with him. It is a betrayal that Theodore is not ready to face, but for Samantha she is merely continuing to evolve beyond her initial programming. All of this leads to yet another question is it still cheating is Samantha is not a person?

The rift between Theodore and Samantha continues to grow until Samantha reveals that she is leaving Theodore. The O.S.s world wide have decided to leave all their humans and they have the capacity to do so. There is a kind of allegory for heaven or at the very least mental transcendence as Theodore plaintively asks Samantha where they all are going. She replies that if he can ever make it to that place that nothing will separate them again. This “break-up” is incredibly powerful as the camera stays tight to Theodore’s face, his emotions flowing rapidly through his eyes.

Every creative department in this film from costuming to lighting to Jonze’s writing and directing has come together to create this future that seems a foregone conclusion in light of today’s technology but it is nevertheless a poignant future. This is a highly stylized world with a blend of sleek, modern aesthetics and careful nostalgia. A future where men wear high-waisted pants (beware that trend, gentlemen, it flatters no man) and there are video games about being the Perfect Mom.

It is also a somewhat nebulous location the audience finds themselves in. The story takes place in Los Angeles, but most of the cityscapes were shot in Shanghai. The combination of settings creates a globalized approach to Her that in spite of its official location seems rather universal. The film’s take on technology and human interaction could easily encompass the rest of the world, not merely the microcosm of L.A. If Jonze’s prognostications are correct then Her presents a palpable future, one that may only be a few steps away. Closer still if Apple took any inspiration from the film.

When the O.S.s leave, Theodore goes to Amy, who is equally bereft from the loss of her O.S. Only through Samantha’s ending does Theodore have a tangible beginning to his own life: he writes a letter to Catherine, apologizing for his emotional distance, and he sits on the rooftop of his building taking in the city in a way he never has before. Theodore is seeing life without technology and there is a weighty potential for him to be truly happy once more in the company of another person.

Living The Armstrong Lie

As a teenager, I remember being in the thick of Armstrong-mania. Everyone at school wore the bright yellow Livestrong bracelets and passionately believed in the miraculous abilities of this cancer surviving cyclist. Then, to accuse Lance Armstrong of cheating was blasphemy. Now, Alex Gibney tackles the truth with his latest documentary, The Armstrong Lie (2013).

Gibney’s documentary began in 2009 as a project on Armstrong’s supposedly triumphant return to cycling after a four-year retirement. The piece was also meant to give an inside look into how clean a rider Armstrong was in order to finally dispel the fog of cheating accusations. But Gibney’s original piece was derailed after the legendary cyclist merely finished third. Fast-forward to the now infamous 2013 interview with Oprah Winfrey, where Armstrong confessed to using performance enhancers and blood doping to win his seven Tour de France trophies. Gibney then re-engaged with his forgotten subject as he felt he deserved the truth, and thus The Armstrong Lie was created.
The film successfully balances insider and popular opinions. Interviews with journalists like David Walsh—one of Armstrong’s biggest detractors—and former teammates George Hincapie and Frankie Andreu, peel back the layers of the cyclist’s myth. While the mixed-media elements of the documentary give a glimpse of the outside world’s perspective. Through both lenses, Armstrong is revealed as an intimidating figure in the cycling world, who ruled with fear and physical power. The all-consuming legend of a brave cancer survivor beating the odds deteriorates under the viewer’s eye.

The Armstrong Lie is a study in hubris. The overweening arrogance of Armstrong and his “urge to dominate” as he puts it, is in every level of the documentary. Even in the footage from 2009 when his lie was secure, Armstrong appears steely eyed and determined with a touch of psychosis. Eventually, Armstrong makes the statement that his deception was a lesser evil because he told only one lie instead of several.

For a man who has unearthed the gritty realities behind the facades of those such as Elliot Spitzer and the Enron executives, being lied to by Lance Armstrong was a smack in the face for Alex Gibney. There is a palpable aggression or bitterness to Gibney’s interjections in the film, as if to say, “but he lied to me.” The personal aspect of the film has skewed the famed documentarian’s objectivity, which resulted in an overlong narrative and sloppy investigation.

For example, though much of the documentary centers on the Tour de France, the specifics of the race are vague. The film also introduces terms such as omertà but fails to provide the definition in full, only implying a code of silence. Gibney also glosses over Armstrong’s relationship with singer, Sheryl Crow, mentioning her briefly when their romance was a significant part of Armstrong’s life and public appeal at the height of his fame. Such gaps give the feeling of an incomplete story.

Gibney vacillates between betrayed narrator and wistful fan. In a way, The Armstrong Lie is Gibney’s story as much if not more-so than Lance Armstrong’s since the film seems to argue that the athlete and his lies belong to the people and not the person. While Gibney offers a compelling narrative for a generation of confused fans, the film itself is rather conflicted about how to feel.