Sunday, January 27, 2013

Inside Man

Inside Man (2006)
Crime, Drama, Thriller, 129 minutes
Directed by Spike Lee
Starring Denzel Washington, Clive Owen, Christopher Plummer and Jodie Foster

Good heist movies can be a lot of fun, and Inside Man is one of my favorites. Why is the genre interesting? I think it's because it's fascinating to see a robbery unfold, and the particular method used. In order to keep us interested in what could be a stale topic, modern heist movies have tried to invent new ways to pull off such a crime. Inside Man is one of the most inventive that I have seen.

There are countless examples of strong entries in the genre. I'm particularly fond of The Killing, from Stanley Kubrick, which showed us how a robbery might be planned and executed. His use of a narrator was especially effective. Another favorite is Dog Day Afternoon, which is even mentioned in Inside Man. The original version of The Italian Job (1969) focuses on the getaway; Jackie Brown and Heat are more concerned with characters and the method; while more recent efforts, such as Reservoir Dogs and The Town, focus on events after the robbery has taken place.

Inside Man falls into the same category as The Killing and Jackie Brown, and it works because the method is so unusual.

The story opens with a shot of the gang's leader, Dalton Russell (Owen), advising us to listen closely to what he says. He hints at what is to come, but you might not appreciate the full meaning of his comments until you see the movie a second time. His team dresses as painters and seizes control of a bank, taking around 20 or 30 hostages in the process.

The movie doesn't stick to a completely linear structure. Instead, we see some of the former hostages being interviewed by the police after the robbery is over. This choice works well, and we gradually come to understand why Russell's gang made the hostages wear painter's outfits.

Detective Keith Frazier (Washington) is called in to negotiate with Russell in order to resolve the situation. Frazier has his own ideas about how things should be handled, and some of his decisions seem risky and unconventional. He's also an intelligent man, and quickly realizes that Russell doesn't expect his demands to be met. So why is he committing the crime?

The two other key characters are Arthur Case (Plummer), who owns the bank, and Madeleine White (Foster), who is hired by Case for a specific purpose.

I'm not going to reveal any more about the plot because it's best to see it unfold for yourself. Washington and Owen are both excellent choices for their respective roles, and each gives a memorable performance.

The movie contains a few twists, and the ultimate resolution is pleasing. I find myself returning to it often, and it always feels fresh. I'm surprised that it hasn't received more critical acclaim. If you are a fan of Washington or Owen, it's worth checking out.

Overall score 4/5

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Sunday, January 20, 2013

(500) Days of Summer

(500) Days of Summer (2009)
Comedy, Drama, Romance, 95 minutes
Directed by Marc Webb
Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Zooey Deschanel, and Chloë Grace Moretz

I sometimes wonder whether Fox Searchlight is a term meaning indie stuff that Steve is quite likely to enjoy. It's amazing how often that's true. My favorites from Fox Searchlight include The Descendants, Juno, Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Darjeeling Limited, Slumdog Millionaire, Thank You for Smoking, Once, 127 Hours, Black Swan, Little Miss Sunshine, and Martha Marcy May Marlene.

The movie immediately grabbed my attention during the opening credits which contain the following message:

AUTHOR'S NOTE: The following is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to any persons living or dead is purely coincidental.

Especially you Jenny Beckman.


Yes, (500) Days of Summer is deliberately quirky. It tells the story of the relationship between Tom Hansen (Gordon-Levitt) and Summer Finn (Deschanel). Because the majority of the events have already happened, the story is told in a series of flashbacks from Tom's viewpoint. To muddle things further, it jumps around at random, using title cards to show which of the 500 days of the relationship is being remembered. This has the effect of keeping us off balance; one moment we are sharing Tom's hope that he will end up with Summer, and then we see the relationship already established and about to fall apart. If it had been told in a strictly linear fashion, it wouldn't have worked so well.

Other storytelling devices involve the use of a sarcastic narrator, a split screen showing Tom's expectations and the reality, and his discussions with his sister, Rachel (Moretz), who is about 11 years old. I particularly liked Rachel's character. Although she's just 11, she makes a lot more sense than her older brother. She's deliberately portrayed as being wise and intelligent, and her simple advice seems so obvious that we wonder why Tom has made his relationship with Summer as complicated as it is.

Why is it complicated?

Summer doesn't like to label things, so she doesn't want to be thought of as Tom's girlfriend, insisting that they are friends. Tom feels insecure without that defined structure, and wants to know where the relationship is heading. He thinks that two people who regularly have sex must be more than friends. Summer insists that she doesn't believe in true love, and just wants to have fun.

Many of the scenes are genuinely funny. Tom works as a greeting card writer, and his failing relationship starts to bleed into his work. I can't reveal exactly how, but you'll laugh when you see the scene. Another strong element is music. Tom is portrayed as someone who grew up listening to sad British punk bands, and I smiled when he's shown wearing Joy Division T-shirts. He first attracts Summer's attention by listening to The Smiths when she bumps into him in an elevator. There's also a good scene which takes place at a karaoke bar, which showcases Deschanel's singing ability and has Tom performing a passable version of The Pixies' Here Comes Your Man.

Apart from wanting to be in a serious relationship with Summer, Tom also dreams of being an architect. One of his favorite spots to view buildings sets the scene for several of his memories from the 500 days. Summer is an administrative assistant at Tom's company and apparently doesn't dream about doing anything else with her life.

Relationships are unpredictable, and I think that the movie is using the unconventional narrative to stress that point. It's not something to be taken seriously, but there are a few truths revealed along its meandering journey. I've watched it several times, but I have to be in the right mood. It's the sort of movie that might be annoying if you are looking for something with a definite message.

The $7.5 million budget seems tiny in comparison to director Marc Webb's next feature, The Amazing Spider-Man (estimated at $230 million), but it's a good first effort.

Zooey Deschanel seems ideal for these kind of roles, whereas Joseph Gordon-Levitt has shown that he can mix comedy with serious drama. If you want an example, look no further than the excellent 50/50.

If you're in the mood for quirky comedy, or like the actors involved, (500) Days of Summer is worth checking out.

Overall score 3.75/5

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Saturday, January 19, 2013

Julie & Julia

Julie & Julia (2009)
Biography, Drama, Romance, 123 minutes
Directed by Nora Ephron
Starring Meryl Streep, Amy Adams, Stanley Tucci and Chris Messina

In the wrong hands, Julie & Julia could have been a pointless waste of time, but director Nora Ephron makes it work. The main reason is the casting, and the presence of Meryl Streep.

If you have paid attention to Streep over the course of her career, you'll know that she is effective in serious dramas, comedy, and anything else she tries. Unlike many good actresses, she's different in every film. She becomes the character. That's true again in Julie & Julia as she transforms herself into Julia Child. You might find her character's voice a bit annoying, but it's incredibly close to the voice of the real Julia Child. The film works because she will make you care whether she achieves her ambition to get her book published.

Amy Adams teamed up with Streep in Doubt, and the contrast between the two characters worked wonderfully. The two don't appear in any scenes together this time because the film is split into two stories. The first tells Julia's story, showing how she lived in Paris, took a cooking class, and ultimately wrote a book on the subject. The other story begins in New York in 2002, and shows how Julie Powell (Adams) seeks something to add meaning to her life. Her job is boring, and she lives in a small apartment in Queens, located above a Pizzeria.

Julie's life changes when husband Eric (Messina) encourages her to begin a blog. She eventually comes up with the idea of writing about cooking, and vows to make 524 recipes from Julia's cookbook over the course of a year. If any of you have a blog of your own, you'll identify with Julie in this segment. It shows her writing every day, wondering if anyone is actually reading. She's desperate for comments and feedback of any kind, and wonders if the effort is worth it. Although her main goal is to give her something to do, she's hoping for recognition, and possibly more. She's already written a novel, but nobody wants to publish it. Can she turn her project into a commercial success?

One thing the film does well is establish its characters. They are complex human beings, and we feel as if we know them after two hours. Both women have supportive partners, and I particularly love the relationship between Julia and her husband, Paul (Tucci). It looks like the two actors have been married to each other for years. It's clear that Paul played a significant role in Julia's success, inspiring her to try new things and stick with her plan to write a book. Julie and Eric are also in a believable relationship. You can see how society has changed over the past few decades; Julie and Eric both work, while Paul supports Julia financially, allowing her time to explore other things.

There's a fair amount of situational humor in the film, and it works well without seeming forced. My favorite Julia scene involves onions, and Paul's reaction to her competitive nature. As for Julie, the placement of Talking Heads' Psycho Killer when she's cooking lobsters is just about perfect.

Julie & Julia turned out to be Nora Ephron's last film, and it's a good one. Streep's Oscar nomination was deserved, and the other main characters all play their parts well. This is the kind of film that will keep you smiling, and it has plenty of replay value. Maybe it will help you discover your own purpose in life, or at least explain why you keep working on your blog?

Overall score 4/5

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Sunday, January 13, 2013

Summer with Monika

Summer with Monika (1953)
Drama, Romance, 98 minutes, Swedish Language
Directed by Ingmar Bergman
Starring Harriet Andersson, Lars Ekborg and Dagmar Ebbesen

One of the things I love most about Blu-ray is that films from the 50s and earlier can be brought back to life. Summer with Monika is a Criterion release, so you know that it looks as good as it can. For a 60-year-old film, the results are most pleasing.

The story is about human relationships, and how our perspectives alter as we mature. Harry is 19 when he's approached by Monika in a cafe. She's very forward and asks him if he'll take her to the cinema. After he agrees, the two decide that they need to be together. The title suggests that the relationship might not last forever, but stop reading now if you want to avoid further spoilers.

Both have boring jobs, and Harry soon follows Monika's lead after she quits. She seeks refuge with him, claiming that her drunken father is abusive, and Harry does his best to provide for her. In order to have privacy, he takes her to his father's boat and they sleep there. This is the start of an adventure in the style of a road movie, but this one involves a boat. The two sail to secluded areas and live with a certain amount of freedom. The main problem is their lack of money, but they are not above stealing in order to survive. It's like an ancient cross between Something Wild, Pierrot le fou, and Grave of the Fireflies, but nobody's life is in danger.

Things follow their natural course, with Monika eventually revealing that she is pregnant. It's here that Harry realizes that his idyllic life will soon have to end, and that the couple will need to be more responsible if they are to raise a child, but Monika hates the thought of returning to her old life. When she accepts the inevitable, their lives change. Harry's life starts to feel like Henry Spencer's existence in Eraserhead, as he is forced to find time to study, work, support his family, and take care of his baby. Monika doesn't seem ready to be a mother at all and wants her life to go back to the way it was.

One interesting sequence shows the differing outlooks of teenagers and middle-aged people. The younger couple feel that they have to rebel and escape a traditional life in order to be happy, but one of the older characters embraces the feel of the city after being away for a few days.

Bergman uses the industrial smoke and natural mist to enhance the dreamlike quality of their romance, and reinforces it by having his two characters smoke cigarettes throughout the film. This is a fairly straightforward look at young romance, and shows how society viewed people who had children before they were married. If you want to see how Stockholm looked in the 50s, this is like an historical document.

Summer with Monika won't drastically alter your perspective on life, but it's a well-told romance with plenty of realism. Fans of the film, or Bergman, should definitely invest in the Criterion Blu-ray.

Overall score 3.5/5

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Saturday, January 12, 2013

2013 Oscar Nominations

Here is a summary of the notable films nominated, from most nominations to least: 

Les Misérables 8
Argo 7
Amour 5
Zero Dark Thirty 5
Beasts of the Southern Wild 4
Anna Karenina 4

The first thing to remember about the Oscars is that the voting is not entirely objective. Consider the people who are voting, and what kind of things they are likely to find interesting or entertaining. 

If you are a fan of the most popular genres at the box office, you already know that there's almost no chance that your favorite comedy or action movie will be recognized, unless it's for a song or some kind of technical wizardry. 

The Oscars tend to go to dramas about serious subjects. Those subjects often contain issues that are important to Americans, or older people. That's fine, and natural, considering who is casting most of the votes, but don't be shocked if a superb foreign film is almost totally ignored. That's why other countries have their own awards.

There's also a tendency to reward people who have had several worthy nominations without ever being recognized, whereas if you give the best acting performance and you recently won, you're probably not going to scoop up another statue until a few years have passed.

The awards are fun, and it's nice to see films you enjoyed achieve recognition, but don't be surprised if worthy nominees are overlooked for some reason. I know that I am not going to change my mind if my personal favorites from 2012 don't take home the prize.

I am stunned that Kathryn Bigelow wasn't nominated in the director category, and disappointed (but not surprised) to see Tarantino omitted. Ben Affleck's exclusion casts doubts about the chances of Argo in the other major categories. Leonardo DiCaprio did a great job in Django Unchained, but I suppose the subject matter was too controversial, and his performance was more comedic than voters usually go for.

I also think it's a great shame to see The Perks of Being a Wallflower completely snubbed. I shouldn't be surprised, as many will consider it a teen comedy, but I think it improves upon all the 80s movies that dealt with a similar subject. When something makes my top three films of the year, it's usually good enough to get some kind of mention at the Oscars. As I said at the outset, it won't change my mind about the film. If there's a 2012 film with a better soundtrack, I didn't see it. It's also a little surprising that Cloud Atlas failed to get a single nomination in the technical categories.

With all that in mind, here are the nominees, along with a few of my thoughts.

Best Picture

Beasts of the Southern Wild
Django Unchained
Les Misérables
Life of Pi
Silver Linings Playbook
Zero Dark Thirty

Unlike last year, none of the best picture nominees are undeserving. I was particularly impressed with Life of Pi and Silver Linings Playbook, but I'm not sure that Life of Pi will stand up well to repeat viewings. Although Tarantino's Django Unchained is one of the weakest things he has ever produced, it still contains a lot of elements that I love. When I look back in a year or so, it might well top my 2012 list. I haven't seen Amour, and it has no chance of winning because voters won't like the subtitles, but I suspect it's a wonderful film and I'll check it out as soon as I can. Lincoln is the probable winner because of the subject matter and the likelihood it will resonate with the voters. It isn't bad by any means, but I probably won't bother buying it on Blu-ray. If I could vote, I would opt for Silver Linings Playbook, but there's probably too much comedy present for it to prevail.

Actor in a Leading Role

Bradley Cooper - Silver Linings Playbook
Daniel Day-Lewis - Lincoln
Hugh Jackman - Les Misérables
Joaquin Phoenix - The Master
Denzel Washington - Flight

I enjoyed Washington's performance and consider it one of his best, but Daniel Day-Lewis deserves the win for his portrayal of Lincoln. The biggest problem with that is that he has won twice, and as recently as 2008. Phoenix gave a strong performance, but I did not like anything about The Master and will never see it again.

Actress in a Leading Role

Jessica Chastain - Zero Dark Thirty
Jennifer Lawrence - Silver Linings Playbook
Emmanuelle Riva - Amour
Quvenzhané Wallis - Beasts of the Southern Wild
Naomi Watts - The Impossible

Sentiment aside, it would be ridiculous for Wallis to win. The remaining actresses are all excellent, but I think the award will go to Chastain or Lawrence as both are perceived as being overdue for an Oscar. Watts should have already won for Mulholland Dr., but it was not to be. I will be rooting for Lawrence, so Chastain will probably win.

Actor in a Supporting Role

Alan Arkin - Argo
Robert DeNiro - Silver Linings Playbook
Philip Seymour Hoffman - The Master
Tommy Lee Jones - Lincoln
Christoph Waltz - Django Unchained

Waltz won recently and his character was too similar to that of Hans Landa to win a second time. It was a superb effort nonetheless. Hoffman was great, but his character unlikable. DeNiro has good comic timing and I loved his character in Silver Linings Playbook, but I see the Oscar going to Tommy Lee Jones.

Actress in a Supporting Role

Amy Adams - The Master
Sally Field - Lincoln
Anne Hathaway - Les Misérables
Helen Hunt - The Sessions
Jacki Weaver - Silver Linings Playbook

There is almost no chance that Hathaway will lose this category if popular opinion is anything to go by. I'm an Amy Adams fan, but she shouldn't win for this performance. She did a better job in Trouble with the Curve, and I've already watched it three times. I could see Field providing a shock, but I'm not betting against Hathaway.


Michael Haneke - Amour
Ang Lee - Life of Pi
David O. Russell - Silver Linings Playbook
Steven Spielberg - Lincoln
Benh Zeitlin - Beasts of the Southern Wild  

This award is one of the most important in my mind. Spielberg has to be the favorite, but I would love to see Haneke win. The biggest danger to Spielberg is Ang Lee.

Animated Feature Film

Brave - Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman
Frankenweenie - Tim Burton
ParaNorman - Sam Fell, Chris Butler
The Pirates! Band of Misfits - Peter Lord
Wreck-It Ralph - Rich Moore

I usually look forward to this category, but Brave is a weak effort considering the standard of film that Pixar usually releases. With The Secret Life of Arrietty (I should be sponsored by Studio Ghibli) either not eligible for 2013, or ignored, I really don't care which of these comes out on top.


Anna Karenina - Seamus McGarvey
Django Unchained - Robert Richardson
Life of Pi - Claudio Miranda
Lincoln - Janusz Kaminski
Skyfall - Roger Deakins

Life of Pi has a good chance in this category, but I would love to see Deakins win after being nominated 10 times.

Film Editing

Argo - William Goldenberg
Life of Pi - Tim Squyres
Lincoln - Michael Kahn
Silver Linings Playbook - Jay Cassidy, Crispin Struthers
Zero Dark Thirty - William Goldenberg, Dylan Tichenor

I don't think Lincoln flowed particularly well, so I hope it doesn't win.

Writing (Adapted Screenplay)

Argo - Chris Terrio
Beasts of the Southern Wild - Lucy Alibar, Benh Zeitlin
Life of Pi - David Magee
Lincoln -Tony Kushner
Silver Linings Playbook - David O. Russell

The writing awards are something that I care about, and I often consider the two winners among the very best films of the year. Life of Pi will probably take this one, but I'll be rooting for Silver Linings Playbook.

Writing (Original Screenplay)

Amour - Michael Haneke
Django Unchained - Quentin Tarantino
Flight - John Gatins
Moonrise Kingdom - Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola
Zero Dark Thirty - Mark Boal

Tarantino has written better screenplays without winning, so I don't expect him to triumph with this somewhat uneven effort. It would be great to see Moonrise Kingdom get the win, as it was probably the best piece of writing all year. I suspect Zero Dark Thirty will be the victor though. Incidentally, where is the nomination for Seven Psychopaths?

Foreign Language Film

Amour (Austria)
Kon-Tiki (Norway)
No (Chile)
A Royal Affair (Denmark)
War Witch (Canada)

If Amour doesn't win, the five nominations don't make any sense.

Production Design

Anna Karenina - Sarah Greenwood, Katie Spencer
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey - Dan Hennah, Ra Vincent, Simon Bright
Les Misérables - Eve Stewart, Anna Lynch-Robinson
Life of Pi - David Gropman, Anna Pinnock
Lincoln - Rick Carter, Jim Erickson

The Hobbit looked fantastic, but the movie isn't worthy of an Oscar. This should be between Lincoln and Life of Pi.

Costume Design

Anna Karenina - Jacqueline Durran
Les Misérables - Paco Delgado
Lincoln - Joanna Johnston
Mirror Mirror - Eiko Ishioka
Snow White and the Huntsman - Colleen Atwood

I really don't care.


Hitchcock - Howard Berger, Peter Montagna, Martin Samuel
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey - Peter King, Rick Findlater, Tami Lane
Les Misérables - Lisa Westcott, Julie Dartnell

I don't care about this category either.

Original Score

Anna Karenina - Dario Marianelli
Argo - Alexandre Desplat
Life of Pi - Mychael Danna
Lincoln - John Williams
Skyfall - Thomas Newman

None of these scores stood out for me.

Original Song

Chasing Ice - J. Ralph ("Before My Time")
Les Misérables - Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schönberg, Herbert Kretzmer ("Suddenly")
Life of Pi - Mychael Danna, Bombay Jayshree ("Pi's Lullaby")
Skyfall - Adele, Paul Epworth ("Skyfall")
Ted - Walter Murphy, Seth MacFarlane ("Everybody Needs a Best Friend")

It would be nice if Skyfall won something after 50 years of Bond. Along with Casino Royale, it's the best we have seen from the franchise.

Sound Mixing

Argo - John T. Reitz, Gregg Rudloff, José Antonio García
Les Misérables - Andy Nelson, Mark Paterson, Simon Hayes
Life of Pi - Ron Bartlett, Doug Hemphill, Drew Kunin
Lincoln - Andy Nelson, Gary Rydstrom, Ron Judkins
Skyfall - Scott Millan, Greg P. Russell, Stuart Wilson

I don't care.

Sound Editing

Argo - Erik Aadahl, Ethan Van der Ryn
Django Unchained - Wylie Stateman
Life of Pi - Eugene Gearty, Philip Stockton
Skyfall - Per Hallberg, Karen M. Baker
Zero Dark Thirty - Paul N.J. Ottosson

I don't care.

Visual Effects

The Avengers - Janek Sirrs, Jeff White, Guy Williams, Daniel Sudick
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey - Joe Letteri, Eric Saindon, David Clayton, R. Christopher White
Life of Pi - Bill Westenhofer, Guillaume Rocheron, Erik De Boer, Donald Elliott
Prometheus - Richard Stammers, Trevor Wood, Charley Henley, Martin Hill
Snow White and the Huntsman - Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, Phil Brennan, Neil Corbould, Michael Dawson

Fans of The Avengers or Prometheus will be pinning their hopes on this category. Both looked great, but I would pick Prometheus. However, I suspect Life of Pi will pick up this one.

Documentary Feature

5 Broken Cameras
The Gatekeepers
How to Survive a Plague
The Invisible War
Searching for Sugar Man

Documentary Short

Kings Point
Mondays at Racine
Open Heart

Animated Short

Adam and Dog
Fresh Guacamole
Head Over Heels
The Simpsons: The Longest Daycare 

Live Action Short

Buzkashi Boys
Death of a Shadow


Sunday, January 6, 2013

Silver Linings Playbook (Theatrical Review)

Silver Linings Playbook (2012)
Comedy, Drama, Romance, 122 minutes
Directed by David O. Russell
Starring Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, and Chris Tucker

What kind of romantic comedy do you prefer? Classics, such as It Happened One Night, Pretty Woman and Roman Holiday, or something quirky, like Annie Hall or Harold and Maude? Silver Linings Playbook has more drama present than most romantic comedies, but it still belongs in that category. It would also be classified as somewhat quirky.

Mental illness isn't funny, but I don't think that any subject should be off limits when it comes to comedy. The key is doing it with respect and a degree of realism. For example, cancer is one of the most unpleasant things in existence, but 50/50 was a comedy that worked, because the screenplay allowed us to see some of the seriousness of the situation. Silver Linings Playbook follows the same path.

If you have ever seen As Good as It Gets, you might have some idea what to expect from Silver Linings Playbook. Both films feature incredibly good actors, who are capable of mixing drama with comedy. Both include serious scenes that an average actor might struggle with. The two stories revolve around unlikely romances, that shouldn't work, but it feels right when they do.

Jennifer Lawrence has to be one of Hollywood's hottest properties. She received an Oscar nomination for Winter's Bone, and has reached huge audiences by appearing in X-Men: First Class, and The Hunger Games. I'm sure a lot of people saw Silver Linings Playbook just because Lawrence was involved. She's certainly attractive, but she can really act too. This role requires more than just a pretty face, and she pulls it off with apparent ease.

The setting reminds me of Russell's last film, The Fighter; it's gritty and realistic, and full of dramatic scenes. Families often become involved in shouting matches rather than sitting down to have rational conversations. Two actors won Oscars in that film, and I wouldn't be surprised to see another nomination go to Lawrence for her work here.

The story focuses on Pat Solitano (Cooper), who we see being released from a mental institution. He is married, and has plans to reconnect with his wife. He is friendly and calm most of the time, but can sometimes snap. One trigger is a song, and sometimes he hears it in his head when it's not even playing. Pat moves in with his mother (Jacki Weaver) and father (De Niro), and walks into their bedroom at 3am for insignificant reasons. His judgment is not exactly reliable.

Pat's life begins to change when he meets Tiffany (Lawrence), who is the sister-in-law of one of his friends. She's direct and irrational at times, and it soon becomes clear that she has problems of her own. The two enter into a sort of alliance and become friends. Tiffany agrees to give a letter to Pat's wife if he'll train with her and enter a dance contest that she wants to be a part of.

De Niro is funny in almost every scene in which he appears. He plays a Philadelphia Eagles fan, and he's convinced that his actions, and the actions of those around him, have an effect on the team's results. One of the best scenes in the film occurs when Tiffany confronts him about his superstitions.

Chris Tucker is also funny in all of his scenes. He was a fellow patient at the mental institution and seems to care about what happens to Pat.

Another huge plus is the soundtrack. Led Zeppelin finally allowed songs to be used in movies and ads, and the placing of What Is and What Should Never Be is particularly effective. You'll also hear The White Stripes, Alabama Shakes, Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash, Stevie Wonder, and the Eagles of Death Metal. It's one of the best soundtracks of 2012.

I won't ruin the outcome, but it's fun to see Pat and Tiffany work through their problems. It's good to see a film avoid the usual romantic comedy formula and come up with some original ideas. Comedy works best when it surprises you, rather than something which tries to make you laugh with every action or line of dialogue. It's well-written and well-acted, with a number of memorable scenes. Catch it while it's still in theaters if you can.

Overall score 4.5/5 (After several viewings, I have upgraded my rating to 5/5).

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Saturday, January 5, 2013

Life of Pi (Theatrical Review)

Life of Pi (2012)
Adventure, Drama, 127 minutes
Directed by Ang Lee
Starring Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, and Ayush Tandon

It's been four years since Slumdog Millionaire took home eight Oscars. I found myself thinking of that movie because Life of Pi opens in India and the cast is predominantly comprised of Indian actors. Like Slumdog Millionaire, the movie uses several actors to portray the main character at different ages. In fact, the older Pi is played by Irrfan Khan, who appears in both movies.

The story is framed with the older Pi relating his story to a writer. We learn that Pi's father owned a zoo, and his mother worked there as a botanist. His father is fond of giving Pi advice, and one memorable lesson involves a demonstration of how dangerous tigers can be, and that they should not be treated like a pet or a friend.

Pi is shown at four different ages, but the bulk of the story shows Pi as a young man, so Suraj Sharma receives the most screen time. Like Cast Away and 127 Hours, the movie relies on one actor holding our attention, and Sharma does a wonderful job of doing just that. It's his first role and he had to show a vast range of emotions in order for everything to work.

The first part of the movie shows Pi's life as a young boy. We see him go to school, and ultimately fall in love. But his life (and the story) is shaken up when his mother and father inform him that they have decided to move the family to Canada. Along with some of the animals, they set sail for their new home. If you have seen the trailer, or even the poster for this movie, it's not a spoiler to reveal that Pi ends up in a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger. I imagine that's quite a selling point, as a lot of people would wonder how such a relationship could possibly work.

Director Ang Lee overcomes the limitations of such an enclosed setting in several spectacular ways. It's fascinating to see how Pi tries to survive, as well as co-existing with a dangerous carnivore. The visual aspects of the movie are of the highest quality, and I would be shocked if the movie wasn't nominated in several technical categories. The tiger is convincing, but the visual effects also shine when we are shown some of the things that can happen at sea.

I think Life of Pi is a movie that should be experienced without knowing too much of the story beforehand, so I am not going to reveal anything more about the plot. Although I will mention that the ending is open-ended and leaves you guessing about what really happened out on the ocean.

Religion is an ever-present theme. The movie will ask you to think about why the events in our lives happen, and whether they are random or part of God's plan. But more than one religion is mentioned, and it's not done in an overbearing way.

The script is well-written, and is a big reason why the story works. There is quite a bit of humor, but it's smart and feels natural.

I'm not sure how many movies I have seen this year, but this is one of the best. The story feels fresh and unusual, and some of it is profound and moving. I should also say that a few of the animals are hurt or even killed, so be warned if you are sensitive to such things. That said, you would see more brutality on a nature documentary like Planet Earth.

Life of Pi grabbed my attention early and held it for two hours. It's more than special effects, with the screenplay and acting both standing out. I highly recommend it.

Overall score 4.5/5

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Thursday, January 3, 2013

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Theatrical Review)

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)
Adventure, Fantasy, 169 minutes
Directed by Peter Jackson
Starring Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Cate Blanchett and Hugo Weaving

After the success of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, I hoped and expected that director Peter Jackson would stick to the same format for The Hobbit. In some ways he does, but the feel isn't exactly the same.

What I like about this first installment of Tolkien's first trip to Middle Earth is that the same sets are used for Hobbiton, and many of the actors return. It was also a good idea to reprise some of the music used in the previous trilogy. When I saw the familiar setting and heard the music, I was already partly won over by the movie. Unfortunately, my opinion had changed long before it finally ended.

So why do I have mixed feelings?

The first major problem was the decision to make this much shorter story into a trilogy. Many of the scenes felt overly long, and did not serve much purpose. I didn't have a watch or a phone with me, but it seemed as if we spent around an hour in Bilbo's house before the quest even began.

The Hobbit is the tale of Bilbo's first adventure. After a visit from Gandalf (McKellen), dwarves start showing up at his house unannounced. This unwelcome interruption of his routine is disturbing to Bilbo (Freeman), as he learns that Gandalf has persuaded the dwarves that Bilbo should join their quest to retrieve their stolen gold from the dragon, Smaug. This part of the story shows the initial stages of that journey.

I'm not really sure what The Hobbit wanted to be, or what the intended audience was. Like the books, some of the scenes involve characters breaking into song on a few occasions. I found this to be annoying rather than charming, but I am sure that some will be happy that songs were included. One of the flaws with the generally excellent previous trilogy was the use of humor. Well, The Hobbit turns that element up several notches, and most of it is incredibly stupid. The first clue was a belching scene at dinner in Bilbo's house, but the humor was relentless. The most out of place example was when one of the major villains died and had to deliver a one-liner as he expired. For me, this had the effect of completely removing any tension or drama. It was like watching a Roger Moore Bond movie set in Middle Earth.

The choice of Freeman as Bilbo seemed odd to me, but I must admit that he did a decent job. A few of his lines were actually funny.

I'm sorry to belabor the point, but the use of humor seemed to contradict the overall feel of the movie. Half of the speeches were too epic in tone to be taken seriously. I didn't know whether I was watching a Shakespearean production, a spoof, or an action movie. One of the people sitting behind me felt compelled to laugh at almost every line of dialogue, so the jokes obviously worked for somebody. My idea of humor would be to have Hugo Weaving saying "Mister Oakenshield" in his best Agent Smith voice, so it's probably a good thing that I didn't write the screenplay.

It's a shame that The Hobbit doesn't seem to be up to the same standard set by Lord of the Rings. The movie's opening has been incredibly successful, and my theater was still sold out two weeks after it was released. I have to wonder how many patrons will return for the remainder of the trilogy.

The setting is beautiful, and some of the actors return, but there are too many inconsistencies for me to give The Hobbit a passing grade. If you want to hang out in Middle Earth, watch some great special effects, and admire some enormously detailed sets, you might enjoy the movie. If you care about the books, or the characters, you may be sorely disappointed. I saw the film four hours ago and can only put faces to the names of four of the dwarves. They were thinly-drawn at best.

This release might just persuade me to skip the other two installments in theaters. I'll borrow the Blu-rays and see if the story improves.

Overall score 3/5

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Tuesday, January 1, 2013

An Introduction to Foreign Language Film

Last month, I wrote an article about my ten favorite directors. I also promised to write a companion piece, revealing the ten foreign language directors that I admire the most. However, after giving that topic much thought, I realize that I am simply not qualified to write such an article. I love a lot of foreign language films, but my knowledge is too limited to make the claim that my list is some kind of definitive Top 10. Consider it more of a beginner's guide.

If you were to make a list the Top 50 foreign language directors, I would probably have seen films by 20 of them. So, instead of making a list of that nature, I'm going to mention directors who have made films that I enjoy. I can only comment on what I have seen. This list will probably be of use to anyone who is just starting to explore foreign film. Many films will be recent, rather than delving too far into the past. In fact, more than half the names on the list are still working today. I find that I tend to identify with modern styles better than older ones, but that might not be true for you.

The following directors have all made films that had an impact on me for one reason or another. As before, I will list them alphabetically:

Vittorio De Sica

I've barely scratched the surface with De Sica's films, but find them to be extremely moving and realistic. The Bicycle Thief is my favorite, and features the simple story of a father trying to earn enough money to support his wife and son. Arrow has released a Blu-ray version in the UK, but I am holding out for the inevitable Criterion release. One title that Criterion has released on Blu-ray is Umberto D, which was the last film I watched in 2012. The presentation was unbelievably good for something made more than 60 years ago. De Sica was responsible for around 30 full-length films, so I am looking forward to exploring them. If you enjoy realistic drama, the two I have mentioned are a good starting point.

Here's a trailer for The Bicycle Thief with praise from actors, directors and critics:

Michael Haneke

I'm looking forward to seeing Amour when it is released here in a couple of weeks, and I'm excited to see that veteran actor Jean-Louis Trintignant is involved. Haneke's previous three films are in my collection. Funny Games and The White Ribbon are both good, but it's Caché which prompted me to include Haneke on my list. It's a wonderful film, with a strong story, genuine suspense, and some of the strongest acting you will ever see. Juliette Binoche and Daniel Auteuil both shine in their roles and it's some of the best work they have produced. You'll have to watch closely for any kind of resolution, but it's there. This is the kind of film which captures my imagination and reveals something new each time I see it.

Here's a trailer for Caché:

Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck

The best foreign language film I have seen from the past 10 years is probably The Lives of Others. It tells the story of how a few artistic people coped with the regime in East Germany during the 1980s. It's an important film as well as a great one. The transformation of the principle character is nothing short of stunning. If you have never seen a foreign language film, this might be the one I would suggest as the best starting point, but that depends on your taste. It certainly encouraged me to explore European cinema. Unlike typical Hollywood releases, here's a film that focuses on story and characterization. You'll care deeply about the characters if you give it a fair chance.

Here's the trailer:

Jean-Pierre Jeunet

Here's a director with a unique vision. Unlike many of the names on this list, I've seen every feature he has ever produced. His films range from good to great (with the exception of Alien: Resurrection). The three that would fall into the great category are Delicatessen, A Very Long Engagement, and Amélie. He likes to work with the same actors, so you'll see familiar faces if you explore all of his films. His sense of humor is what separates him from the pack; it's clever, original, and genuinely funny. I think it's clear that Jeunet's brain is wired differently. If you like Wes Anderson, you'll probably appreciate Jeunet's humor. Amélie is as good a place as any to begin. If you don't like that, you probably won't appreciate any of his films.

Here's the trailer:

Krzysztof Kieslowski

The most beautiful live action films I have seen have been directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski. That said, I have yet to see The Decalogue, which is often mentioned as being his best work. I'm holding out for a Criterion Blu-ray release. He makes this list on the strength of the four films I own. Three Colors is my favorite trilogy of any kind, not just foreign language. The Double Life of Veronique is also a film of extraordinary beauty. One reason for that is the presence of Irene Jacob in both works, who may be the most beautiful actress I have ever seen. But her acting ability is the reason I love the films so much. Three Colors can be seen in a single viewing if you have five hours to spare, and it's worth your time. Juliette Binoche gives an outstanding performance in Blue, but Red is the highlight, and stars the aforementioned Jean-Louis Trintignant alongside Irene Jacob. Kieslowski's films should be treasured.

Here's a trailer for Three Colors Red:

Louis Malle

Malle would make the Top 10 regularly if you were to conduct a poll of professional film critics. With 19 feature films to his credit, I have a long way to go before I can appreciate his career as a whole. He makes this list because Au revoir les enfants had a huge impact on me. The story is powerful, but when you realize that Malle is portraying an event which happened in his early life, it's strength is increased.

Here's Criterion's trailer:

Hayao Miyazaki

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you'll know that I continually rant about Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli. I could probably write a book about my love for his films. Unlike the other titles recommended in this list, you have the choice to watch Miyazaki's films in English, as they are all animation. I'm a big fan of Pixar, but Studio Ghibli produces better films. The main reason is that they have more heart. Miyazaki's characters work because you care about them, rather than any special abilities they have been given. His stories appeal to all ages, so don't make the mistake of dismissing them as solely for children. I would start with Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, and My Neighbor Totoro, but I genuinely think that every film is too good to miss. Titles directed or written Miyazaki make up more than half of my Top 20 animated favorites. His understanding of human nature is a big reason for his ability to reach people emotionally, but his drawings are superb in their own right. The messages in these stories are a great example for children. Miyazaki is creative and inventive, and you won't see ideas that have been done to death over the years. I mentioned that Kieslowski made the most beautiful live action films; Miyazaki has that title when it comes to animation. You need to see these films.

Here's a trailer for the Oscar-winning Spirited Away:

Götz Spielmann

I have only seen one film by Austrian Götz Spielmann, but it was more than enough reason to recommend him. I'm anxious to see his other work. Revanche was nominated for an Oscar, and contains refreshing ideas. Most thrillers follow a similar path, so it's nice to experience something original. It's the kind of film that makes you question what you might do if you were in the same position as one of the characters. It's unusual, clever, and masterfully done. The Criterion Blu-ray is exceptional, and is the best way to watch the film unless it's somehow being shown at your nearest art house cinema.

Here's the Criterion trailer:

François Truffaut

I have seen a few François Truffaut films, but my favorite remains his first full-length feature, The 400 Blows. It's easily one of the best stories about childhood that I've seen to date, and I enjoy visiting that world. The film is said to resemble Truffaut's own childhood and the character of Antoine (played by Jean-Pierre Léaud) is always interesting. I'm glad that I have other Truffaut works to explore, because I like everything I have seen from him so far.

Here's the trailer from the British Film Institute:

Wong Kar-Wai

My final suggestion is also the first mention of Asian cinema, which is responsible for some of the most original films being made today. Wong Kar-Wai's films have a very distinctive look. He loves to use blurred motion and all manner of colors and light. Some scenes remind me of dream sequences. He's another director with an offbeat sense of humor, and I love the feel of his stories. If you want to check out his work, you don't have to watch a foreign language film: My Blueberry Nights is in English, and will demonstrate his unique style and approach. But this is an article highlighting foreign language films, so my first choice would be Chungking Express. It tells the story of two characters and is a delicious mix of romance, humor, and weirdness. If that doesn't work for you, In the Mood for Love might do the trick, but Chungking Express has always been my favorite.

Here's a trailer for Chungking Express:

If I have failed to convince you to watch Chungking Express, maybe Quentin Tarantino can do a better job?

That's it. Thanks for reading. If I have omitted one of your favorite foreign language directors, such as Bergman, Kurosawa, Godard, Bunuel, or someone else, it is for the reasons I stated at the beginning of this article. As my experience increases and I see more films, I'm sure that my list will change dramatically. It will be interesting to see how it has evolved five years from now.

I hope that you will check out at least one of my suggestions. The trailers should give you some idea of what to expect.

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