Shit. Just. Got. Real: 2016 Cinema in Review

It takes a long time to get a movie made: Martin Scorsese had been thinking about making Silence for over 30 years and had various false potential production starts; Fences was once slated to be made in the ‘90s with Eddie Murphy as the lead; and Damien Chazelle had wanted to make La La Land since before he made Whiplash. So, given how long it takes to make a film it’s obvious that they could not have predicted how much the world would change on November the 8th of the year they were ready to be released.

Following the events of this particular day, I went through a patch of depression that was unlike anything that I had gone through before. During this time I kept thinking why should I bother with movies, television, music, or art in general when the world was crumbling right in front of our eyes and so many people were celebrating it. Yet, I kept on watching because I had nothing else, but just about everything felt tainted.

The first film I watched in theaters since then was Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. I had to drag myself out of the house, and I had to treat my self to a large popcorn and soda (which I never do). The film is not particularly great but watching a simple good versus evil story on the big screen where the good guys win while I’m gorging on salty popcorn and a sweet Coca-Cola was cathartic. That right there is how the real world should work, and I felt like standing up and cheering at the most basic of triumphant moments.

Since then, I cannot look at movies in the same way. Moana and Hidden Figures no longer are just movies about extraordinary women of color doing extraordinary things, but rally cries for real women of color to stand up and do even more extraordinary things. Moonlight is now a call for empathy and understanding. Even Star Trek Beyond, with its world where races and species of all kinds live in harmony feels like a daring future to strive towards.

This of course cannot be said of every film in 2016, let alone my top 25 (Everybody Wants Some!! Is still just about bro-dudes doing stuff and I love it for it), but that’s okay. Even so, art will never be the same, at least through my eyes. Continue reading

Weekly Mini-reviews: “Her,” “Inside Llewyn Davis,” “American Hustle,” “Akira” & More

January 5- 18, 2014

(This time I’ve included what I’ve watched in the past two weeks)

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Her | Spike Jonze | 2013 | ★★★

For me, Her succeeds because of the way it imagines what our likely future looks and feels like. From the production design subtly influenced by Asian culture, to how it imagines technology will move forward. But the film is being sold as a love story, and that’s where the film didn’t succeed for me. I did not feel anything for the relationship between Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) and Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), and perhaps worst of all, I didn’t feel for Theodore and the fact that the only relationship he could handle was with an artificial intelligence and he kept ignoring something good that was right in front of him. The last 45 minutes or so approach greatness in this regard as it becomes more intellectual and it posses some interesting questions, but there’s a stretch of about an hour towards the middle that drags on and on. Ultimately I liked it, but I want to watch it again to see if my opinion of it changes. As of right now, however, it’s the biggest disappointment of 2013. Continue reading

Waiting for a Miracle: 2010 Cinema in Review

If you looked at this year’s output by the major studios, would you believe that these people once gave the green light to classics like Ben-Hur, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Lawrence of Arabia, Star Wars, and Amadeus? Sure, not all movies from those periods were good, but would you believe that these movies were produced under a system that allowed The Last Airbender to go into production with that script? A system that would allow the production of Little Fockers and How Do You Know to get so out of hand that the budget went over 100 million dollars for a simple comedy? A system that would allow a the latest film by a master filmmaker like Peter Weir to go unnoticed?

I know I wouldn’t.

I know that Hollywood is not the only system that makes good movies, but living in the middle of Nowhere, USA, I rely mostly on Hollywood to deliver movies that not only deliver quality entertainment, but also some sort of food for thought. But this year, with the exception of a few movies, they failed. Just look at the top 10 highest grossing movies of the year. In there, there are only two original movies, Inception and Despicable Me, and only one of them is good, and one that although based on an existing property, was not a brand name. The rest are sequels and remakes, varying in quality from a masterpiece, and a very good movie, to a bunch of above average or mediocre titles. If you extend that to the top 20, there are a few other original movies, but the only ones I liked were Tangled, TRON Legacy, and The Other Guys, The others are merely entertaining or pure crap.

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Review: The Fighter

The Fighter | David O. Russell, 2010

Tell me if you’ve heard this one before: a down-on-his-luck fighter must rise from his crappy life and not listen to the naysayers to become an underdog favorite and win the world championship. You have, haven’t you? Haven’t we all heard it? For sure, many times before. On the Waterfront, Rocky, Raging Bull, Cinderella Man, Rocky Balboa, all have the same story. Some of these are classics, but that does not mean that the story has not become stale. But every once in a while, a story that should be in moratorium becomes fresh again when a different focus is introduced, and a talented director gets involved. Many didn’t think David O. Russell’s The Fighter was going to be that movie. After being in production for so long, undergoing various script changes, being abandoned by Darren Aronofsky, Brad Pitt, and Edward Norton, and since it was a rather different kind of movie for O. Russell, things weren’t looking up. But in the end, after a quiet production, the world got to see it. And although it has its flaws, it is a breath of fresh air for the sub-genre.

The Fighter tells the story of real-life boxer “Irish” Mickey Ward (Mark Wahlberg), from his beginnings as a fighter being used as a “stepping stone” for other fighters to his first championship fight against Shea Neary. But that is not really what this movie is about, at least for the first hour. During that time, it focuses on Ward and his relationship with his family and all those that are helping him with his career. His brother and trainer, Dickey Eklund (Christian Bale), is famous in their hometown of Lowell, Massachusetts because he knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard once. Since then, he has become a crack addict, and HBO is making a documentary about him and his drug problems. His mother and manager (Melissa Leo) is overbearing, loud, obnoxious, and wants to control everything about his life. His other trainer Mickey O’Keefe (played by the real life Mickey O’Keefe) hates Dickey because he is always in trouble with the law and never shows up for training.  Oh, and he has seven sisters that share the same qualities as the mom.

But things change when Charlene (Amy Adams) walks into Mickey’s life. She is a tough and loud bar tender that falls for him. Once she sees what his situation with his family is like, she pushes him to get away from them. But he doesn’t really want to do that. He loves his them too much to leave them behind. And so, from then on, he will struggle with the decision of moving on from his life in Lowell and looking out for his career and his future with Charlene. And it all leads to the final forty minutes, which is your usual underdog story.

The one problem that the movie has, and the only thing that keeps it from being in my top 10 of the year is the script. The first half of the movie is a compelling character study of a man who must decide what is best for him: his family that may be killing his future, or a great career and spending his life with the woman he loves. That part is filled with fantastically written characters, and great dialogue. But then it turns into just another boxing movie. This part could have killed the whole thing, but the greatness of the real story and what David O. Russell brought to it, it was saved.

O. Russell brought his usual stylishness to the movie, and it works perfectly. He makes the movie feel energetic and it got me pretty involved with what was happening on the screen. I loved how he didn’t turn it into an inspirational story. There is no “Eye of the Tiger” moment, not bombastic music playing after every victory, nothing that would make the movie go into cheesy territory. Also, the way he worked with his actors and shot their scenes made for even more interesting character development. His choice of Hoyte Van Hoytema (of Let the Right One In fame) was interesting, as his images never got in the way and it only helped me get more into the movie. Now, I did not like too much how the both of them shot the fight scenes, the video look was actually kind of distracting, in the same way that the HBO PPV look of the final scene in Rocky Balboa irked many. It didn’t bother me in that movie, but here, were it not for the story, it would have killed me.

And the cast, oh my god, the cast. O. Russell did a fantastic job of getting the best out of his them. Whalberg gives his best performance, and it is one of the most underrated of the year. It might seem like he is just playing Mark Wahlberg again, but this is a very internal, very physical performance, and he knocked it out of the park. Melissa Leo is so fantastic as the very over-the-top mother. If you think she is just chewing scenery, word has it that she actually toned it down from her true-life counter part. Can you imagine meeting her? Amy Adams shows that she’s no one trick pony and she can play a tough character just as well as a Disney princess. She is my favorite of the two female leads. Mickey O’Keefe is great as well. Maybe when he got on the set his brain made him see as if he was once again doing what he did all those years ago. And finally Christian Bale. Everyone is great and all, but he acts circles around them. First off, he lost nearly as much weight as when he made The Machinist. Also, he got the charisma of the real Dickey down to a tee, as well as the body language of a person who has been addicted to crack for a long time. It’s a great performance, he steals every scene he is in, and hopefully he’ll win an Oscar for this.

Thanks to the work of David O. Russell, the performances (particularly Bale’s), and the awesomeness of the story, The Fighter is able to overcome a movie-destroying second half to become one of the most thoughtful and exciting movies of the year. It’s unlikely that it will end up in my top 10, but I still loved it.

Review: Leap Year

Leap Year | Anand Tucker, 2o1o

Now a days it doesn’t take much to make a romantic comedy that seems to be better than the rest. Yet, Hollywood doesn’t get it and keeps churning out generic romance after generic romance. With this being the case, it doesn’t take much for those to be elevated by a single thing, whether it is one performance, or if the directors work is better than the others that work in this type of film. Leap Year is the type of film that goes through all the motions of a typical Hollywood movie, but thanks to a fun performance from Amy Adams and surprisingly not-horrible direction from Anand Tucker, it is a rather enjoyable movie.

Leap Year, as you might imagine, is about a successful woman named Anna Brady (Amy Adams), who has been in a relationship for a long time with her asshole boyfriend. One day she thinks he is going to propose because her friend saw him at a jewelry store. But since there has to be at least 80 minutes in the film, he doesn’t propose. He goes on a business trip to Ireland, and it just so happens that on every February 29 a woman can propose to her boyfriend, so she decides she is going to do that. By this time there is still about an hour left of running time, so things don’t go as planned because of the weather. So she is forced to go by car, so she has to hire someone to take her to Dublin. It just so happens that the only person that has a taxi service in the little town she was in is the heartless bastard that thinks love is stupid, but also happens to be incredibly good looking (Matthew Goode). So, they set on their journey, goofy things happen, and they fall in love, but there is still that thing about her wanting to get engaged to her boyfriend, so whatever will Anna do?

Let me just say that I think that the script is bad. It has just about every cliché in the book, from stepping in cow poop and tripping in mud, to walking into a door. Plus there are all the typical character and cringe-worthy dialogue. Yet, thanks to Anand Tucker’s direction, the blow is softened. His work here is not like the kind you find in a typical romantic comedy. There is not a current popular song that plays after each scene, he worked with his DP to make Ireland one of the characters and he succeeds to a degree, and he never went over the top. His only crime here was sticking close to the script. He should have cut at least a couple of scenes with horrible slapstick.

Then there is Amy Adams. No matter what movie she is in, she always makes it better. Whether it is her breakthrough role in Junebug or her amazing turn in Enchanted she always does everything in her power to give a good performance, and the movies are only better for that. So, it is no surprise that she once again made me glad that I sat though the movie. She reads those horrible lines in a way that lines so bad don’t deserve to be read. Plus, she is charming and does what she can to have some chemistry with Matthew Goode (not very good here).

I feel like I should have hated this movie, but I really can’t. It is a nice way to spend an afternoon when you really don’t want to watch anything heavy or loud.

Review: Julie & Julia

Julie & Julia | Nora Ephron, 2009

I love Meryl Streep. I even sat through Mamma Mia because she was in it. It was painful, but her performance made it worth the watch. So, I was really looking forward to watching this despite the fact that I was not familiar with Julia Child and I had no idea who Julia Powell was. Most of the reaction I heard was mixed, so I decided to wait until it came out on DVD. Finally I got the chance to watch it and I loved it.

Julie & Julia, as all the ads say, is based on two true stories. One is about Julia Child and her life in Paris and how she went about writing her first cook book and her struggle to get it published during the 1960s. The other story is about Julie Powell, a failed writer that feels she could do more with her life so she decides to write a blog about her cooking her way through Julia Child’s cook book in one year. Both stories are interwoven to show how similar both women were and how they discovered themselves.

This is one of those movies where although it has some big flaws, I still loved it due to it’s ability to make me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. I just felt happy all the way throughout. Plus, since Waitress in 2007 no movie has made my mouth water so much. But that’s not the only reason why I love it.

First off, the script by Norah Ephron is rather good. A movie based on Powell’s “challenge” would not have been interesting enough for an entire movie. Also, a movie about Child’s life would have been way too annoying because although she had a great personality, it can get tiring after a while. The script does a nice job of highligting some of the most important parts in Child’s life in Paris and her struggle to write her book, as well as the most interesting part of Powell’s life. The fact that there was room to take on the women’s marriages and how they influenced them was a nice touch.

Also, Ephron’s work as a director is good. The movie never gets cheesy or over sentimental. There are only a few moments that feel awkward, but I blame Powell’s life. The quality of her work as a director also shows in the quality of the production. Alexandre Desplat’s score, the sets, the costumes, make-up, all great and perfectly aid in telling the story.

The thing that made me enjoy the movie the most were the performances though. Amy Adams does the best she can with the one-note character that Julie Powell is. Chris Messina is also very good as her husband. Stanley Tucci is amazing as Paul Child, Julia’s husband who loves her no matter what she does. They have amazing chemistry together. This brings me to Meryl Streep, who is simply amazing. She definitely deserves all the accolades she has been getting, and if she doesn’t win the Oscar, I’m going to break something.

Julie & Julia is one of my favorite movies of the year. It will not make it in my top 10 or anything, but I truly enjoyed it. If only there were more movies like this out there…

Short Reviews: Taking Woodstock, Night at the Museum 2, Paper Heart

Taking Woodstock | Ang Lee, 2009

This movie had a lot of potential and I was sort of looking forward to it despite Ang Lee’s knack to pick sub par scripts to work with. This did not change that pattern but his direction still could not save it.

The only member of the cast that comes out unharmed is Liev Shriver, who seemed to have a lot of fun with his role. Imelda Staunton could have given an Oscar-worthy performance but the character is horribly written and she went so over the top that I could not help but cringe every time she was on screen. A disappointment.

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For Your Consideration

Oscar Season is now upon us and studios are releasing their Oscar-friendly products every week. Because of this some of the movies that have already come out tend to be forgotten for the major categories. No AMPAS member will ever read this, but I’d still like to go over what films that I love that have already come out deserve to be in the running for Oscars in the major categories and some of the technical categories.

Best Picture: Where the Wild Things Are, Star Trek, Up

Best Director: Spike Jonze, Where the Wild Things Are; Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker; Pete Docter, Up

Best Actor: Sam Rockwell, Moon; Michael Stuhlbarg, A Serious Man; John Malkovich, The Great Buck Howard; Jeremy Renner, The Hurt Locker; Max Records, Where the Wild Things Are

Best Actress: Maya Rudolph, Away We Go; Gwyneth Paltrow, Two Lovers; Amy Adams, Sunshine Cleaning

Best Supporting Actor: Jackie Earl Hayley, Watchmen; Michel Gambon, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Best Supporting Actress: Kristen Stewart, Adeventureland; Emily Blunt, Sunshine Cleaning; Ginnifer Goodwin, He’s Just Not That Into You; Rachel McAdams, State of Play

Best Original Screenplay: Adventureland, Moon, Sin Nombre, Up

Best Adapted Screenplay: Where the Wild Things Are, Coraline, Star Trek

Original Score: Up, Star Trek, Drag Me To Hell, Coraline, Moon, Where the Wild Things Are, A Serious Man

Sound Mixing & Editing: Drag Me To Hell, Star Trek, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Make-Up: Drag Me to Hell, Star Trek, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Watchmen

Costume Design: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Confessions of a Shopaholic, Where the Wild Things Are, A Serious Man, Watchmen, Easy Virtue

Art Direction: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, A Serious Man, Coraline, Moon, Watchmen, Easy Virtue

Cinematography: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Sin Nombre, Where the Wild Things Are, The International

Visual Effects: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Moon, Star Trek, Watchmen, Where the Wild Things Are


The Decade in Review: Top 10 Live Action Family Films

What makes a good family movie? Is it wacky talking animals doing silly stuff? Is it a melodrama tackling issues that affect young people? Fun? Silliness? The answer is all of the above.

For me a family movie is not something aimed at kids that will only entertain them with childish humor, excessive pop culture references, and bright colors. For me, a family movie is something for everyone, something that will hold the attention of the kids, as well as the parents who pay to take them to the movie. This has to be accomplished with a combination of fun, comedy, well-written characters, and themes that every single person can relate, or at least feel for what the characters are going through.

Sadly, movies that fit this criteria are rare. These day, most live action family films are badly-written and too childish. Every time I watch something like The Pacifier or The Game Plan I can’t help but cringe. Yet, since they entertain their kids, parents eat them up, therefore they give Hollywood the chance to make more. But everyone that attends those movies deserve better.

Even then, there were a few of them that did fit the criteria. They weren’t a lot, but they were very good. Ten of those few are in this list.

Here are my picks for the best live action family movies of the decade:

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Review: Sunshine Cleaning

Sunshine Cleaning| Directed by Christine Jeffs, 2009

Over the last few years, there has been a wave of independent movies that not only do they want to be original, but they also want to be quirky to stand out, or “indies” as they are called. This started to get strong with the films of Wes Anderson, but didn’t reach a level of popularity until 2005 when Little Miss Sunshine was a box office hit and earned a bunch of Oscars, including Best Picture. Then Juno came out, and it added another level of quirk. Sunshine Cleaning, form the producers of Little Miss Sunshine,  doesn’t know if it want to be an “indie” or a movie that can appeal to everyone, not only the hipsters. Therein lies its biggest problem

The movie is about Rose and Laura Lorkowski (Amy Adams and Emily Blunt) who have problems in their lives, both sentimental and economical. Rose is a single mother and is the mistress of her high school sweetheart and her son has trouble at school because of his quirky personality. Laura can’t seem to keep a job and still lives with her dad (Alan Arkin). One day, due to financial necessity Rose enlists her sister and they start a crime scene clean up business, which leads them to face their troubles even more.

First, the good. The cast is at the top of their game. Both Amy Adams and Emily Blunt give some of their best performances. Alan Arkin plays pretty much the same character as in LMS, so that means he’s good. Also, I was quite impressed by the cinematography and the director does her best to make it rise above the screenplay.

Now the bad (or not so good). First, the screenplay makes every character feel cold. I could not connect with any of them. There were some touching moments, like when Rose sits with the lady who just lost her husband, but there were not enough of those moments. Then, as I said, the movie walks the line between being a mainstream movie with moments of quirkiness and an “indie” that is quirky just for the same of being quirky. There were scenes, like the one with the train or talking to the radio that wanted to give it the “indie” feel, but ultimately failed, despite the efforts of the director.

With that said, Sunshine Cleaning is not a bad movie. It tried to be many things while it should have focused on picking one to please the audience. Thanks to the performances, cinematography, and direction, it is not a total failure.