Saturday, February 6, 2016

Oscar Quickies 2016

Bridge of Spies (2015) ✭✭✭½

5 Nominations

  • Best Motion Picture of the Year
  • Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role: Mark Rylance
  • Best Writing, Original Screenplay
  • Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Score
  • Best Achievement in Sound Mixing

This film chronicles the complex negotiations among the United States, East Germany and the Soviet Union leading to the release of spy plane pilot Gary Powers in 1962. Tom Hanks plays James Donovan, a small time lawyer who went on to become one of America's top diplomatic trouble-shooters. The film has some wonderful CGI of of cold, snowy, bombed out Berlin and a number of excellent performances, especially Mark Rylance who basically steals the picture with bravura minimalism. The movie in entertaining, but really it's the kind of thing the BBC has been doing better for decades.

Carol (2015) ✭✭✭½

6 Nominations

  • Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role - Cate Blanchett
  • Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role - Rooney Mara
  • Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay
  • Best Achievement in Cinematography
  • Best Achievement in Costume Design
  • Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Score

This moody, atmospheric ballad is all about a slowly evolving lesbian romance in the ultra-conformist 1950s. The acting, production and photography are all first rate and worth the watch, yet there's something about the film that feels sleepy and unsatisfying.

The Big Short (2015) ✭✭✭✭

5 Nominations

  • Best Motion Picture of the Year
  • Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role - Christian Bale
  • Best Achievement in Directing - Adam McKay
  • Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay
  • Best Achievement in Film Editing

Adam McKay and writer Charles Randolph deserve credit for taking a big, complex issue like the housing collapse and condensing it into understandable and entertaining tranches, but ultimately the film feels too dumbed down for it's own good. The breezy tone is wrong for a tragedy that ruined the lives of so many innocent people. I wish the film had focused on those victims instead of the crooks and greedy assholes who made money off it and got away scot-free. As a piece of filmmaking it gets high marks; as a presentation of history it sucks.

Star Wars Episode VII - The Force Awakens (2015) ✭✭✭✭½

5 Nominations

  • Best Achievement in Film Editing
  • Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Score
  • Best Achievement in Sound Mixing
  • Best Achievement in Sound Editing
  • Best Achievement in Visual Effects

You'll notice there is no nomination for best picture, even though this was the best American film of 2015 by far. The Force Awakens is a brilliant reboot, paying beautiful homage the story's origins while taking it in exciting new directions. I'm not that big a fan of director J.J. Abrams' Star Trek movies. but he knocks this one out of the galactic park. Best Star Wars themed film since The Empire Strikes Back (1980).

Thursday, February 4, 2016

New on TV: February 2016

War & Peace (2016) ✭✭✭✭

Produced-to-the-nines adaptation of Tolstoy's unwieldy classic, complete with a sprawling cast searching for happiness while keeping one step ahead of Napoleon's massive army. Paul Dano and Lily James ably lead a group of veteran British character actors and somehow relatively unknown director Tom Harper keeps it all clear and coherent. I usually don't pay much attention to costumes, but those Russian Army unis are really sharp.

Mercy Street (2016) ✭✭✭✭½

The gripping, at times grisly, story of the inner workings at a makeshift hospital during the early days of the Civil War. Filmed in many of the same locations as Spielberg's Lincoln, Mercy Street has a similar dark, smoky look. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is terrific as a protege of Florence Nightingale charged with keeping the place running smoothly while madness reigns just outside the door. The War Between the States depicted here is not the noble, romantic struggle we were taught in Virginia History class, but a brutal enterprise of unthinkable barbarism and human slaughter. The fact that Americans did this to each other over the issue of slavery is mind boggling. The series is about halfway in so there's still plenty of time to get on board.

Downton Abbey (2015) ✭✭✭✭½

On a much lighter note, Lord Grantham and his snooty clan are back for their final season, and so far it's a doozy. Weddings, explosive illnesses, tearful reunions and budding romances are all on offer, as producer Julian Fellowes labors to tie up loose ends. I'll miss this show when it's over, but fortunately Amazon Prime will have all 6 seasons to revisit and savor.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Quickies: February 2016

Avis de Mistral (2014) ✭✭✭½

One of those family comedy/dramas where spoiled city kids go live with tough country grandpa and everybody hates it at first but it all works out eventually. Formulaic, but Jean Reno smooths out the tired edges and makes it fun. Nice shots of the new Avignon train station.

And So It Goes (2014) ✭✭✭½

Rob Reiner has a nice touch for lightweight rom-coms, and I ended up liking this much more than I thought I would. It's good to see actors you grew up with still trying to have romance. I'm old so they must be ancient.

La Balade de Lucie (2013)✭✭½ 

A Sandrine Bonnaire vehicle that's watchable, but a fairly pedestrian made-for-TV flic.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Mediterraneo Turns 25

Make Love, Not War becomes the mission statement for a group of marooned Italian soldiers in Mediterraneo, Gabriele Salvatores’ Foreign Film Oscar winner from 1991. Set during the early days of WWII, Mediterraneo is the story Lt. Montini (Claudio Bigagli) and his band of misfits who are dispatched to a remote island in the Aegean Sea to set up an observation post. But instead of Allied aircraft, the distracted soldiers only have eyes for the island’s fetching populace of lonely young women; their young men having been kidnapped and pressed into service by the Germans. Further complications arise when the soldiers encounter a Turkish con man (Alessandro Vivarelli) who, after getting our heroes massively stoned on hashish, makes off with their guns, radios and even their patrol boat.

Without their military equipment, and with no way to contact their commander, the Italians make the entirely logical decision to relax and enjoy the sunshine while they wait to be rescued. As the time stretches into weeks and months, their days become filled with impromptu soccer matches, clambakes and frequent visits to Vassilissa (Vana Barba), a local prostitute with the proverbial heart of gold. But for naive farm boy Pvt. Farina (Giuseppe Cederna), Vassilisa’s charms are more than physical, and he soon finds himself falling in love with the dark haired beauty. Farina makes a fateful decision that will alter the rest of his young life, giving him both great joy and deep sadness in the years to come.

Watching Mediterraneo is a bit like going on a vacation. Its relaxed tempos and earthy pleasures instill the viewer with a renewed joy of life, and may have you seriously considering a trip to the sunny islands of Greece. Unfortunately, this sexy and amusing pastoral is in dire need of a modern makeover. The DVD edition from Netflix looks every bit its age and appears to have been made from a print that was less than pristine. The film’s white sand beaches and crystal blue waters make it a natural for a hi-def restoration. If you’re out there Criterion, I’ve got a job for you.

Monday, January 25, 2016

New on Netflix Streaming: February 2016

February 1

A Picture of You (2014): Estranged siblings travel to rural Pennsylvania to close the home of their recently deceased college professor mother and discover a shocking secret.

Armageddon (1998): As a massive asteroid hurtles toward Earth, NASA's head honcho hatches a plan to split the deadly rock in two before it annihilates the entire planet, calling on the world's finest oil driller to head up the mission.

Better Call Saul Season 1: The prequel spinoff to "Breaking Bad" follows the fateful career of small-time criminal attorney Jimmy McGill, whose questionable choice of clientele eventually leads him to become meth mogul Walter White's morally bankrupt lawyer, Saul Goodman.

Charlie's Angels (2000): Three beautiful women who take on top-secret assignments for a never-seen boss use their looks, charm and martial-arts training to kick butt on the trail of stolen software in this flashy reboot of the classic 1970s television series.

Collateral Damage (2002): Firefighter Gordon Brewer's family is the "collateral damage" of a terrorist bombing in Los Angeles. When the U.S. government turns to peace talks with the perpetrators instead of justice for his family, Brewer heads to Colombia intent on payback.

Cruel Intentions (1999): Quenching a thirst for dangerous games, promiscuous Kathryn Merteuil challenges her stepbrother to deflower their headmaster's daughter before summer ends. If he succeeds, he gets to bed Kathryn. If he fails, she'll win his most prized possession.

A Faster Horse (2015): To celebrate the Ford Mustang’s 5th anniversary, an automotive engineer takes the beloved muscle car into the future while preserving its legacy.

Full Metal Jacket (1987): Vietnam-era Marine recruits endure the grueling ordeal of basic training and later face the unrelenting Viet Cong during the 1968 Tet Offensive in this grim Stanley Kubrick drama based on a novel by Gustav Hasford.

Game Face (2015): This documentary follows the struggle of transgender MMA fighter Fallon Fox and gay basketball player Terrence Clemens for acceptance by their sports.

Jennifer 8 (1992): A serial killer is targeting blind women, and a detective works to uncover the mystery with the help of a blind woman who’s the next possible victim.

Johnny English (2003): There's a Frenchman after the crown jewels and the throne itself -- but not to worry, Johnny English (Rowan Atkinson) is on the case. Well, actually ... maybe a little worrying isn't out of order, considering how clumsy Johnny can be! Luckily, his zeal more than makes up for his bumbling manner. Let's hope that can help solve the crime of the century; if not, love in the form of double agent Lorna Campbell (Natalie Imbruglia) might.

The Little Engine That Could (2011): A timeless children's classic comes roaring to life in this star-studded animated tale of a train who overcomes every obstacle by repeating the words "I think I can, I think I can." Along the way, he climbs new heights and finds new friends.

The Lizzie Borden Chronicles Season 1: Expanding on the bloody and still-fascinating saga of Lizzie Borden, this fictionalized miniseries depicts the accused ax-murderer's life in the years after her exoneration in the killings of her father and stepmother.

Losing Isaiah (1995): After leaving her baby outside a crack house, a drug-addicted woman presumes him to be dead. Devastated, she enters rehab and cleans up her act. When three years later she learns he's alive and has been adopted, she sets out to get him back.

Masha’s Tales Season 1: Fairy tales get a funny twist when Masha retells them, because she tends to get the details just a little jumbled up in this animated kid’s series.

My Side of the Mountain (1969): Embracing the spirit of 19th-century poet and philosopher Henry David Thoreau, 13-year-old Sam strikes out into a forested wilderness on his own. After finding the right sanctuary and building a shelter, Sam learns to embrace nature on its own terms.

Para Elisa (2012): A recent graduate tries to earn money babysitting, but gets hired by a strange old lady to care for a deranged woman who sees her as a toy.

Pokemon the Movie: Diancie and the Cocoon of Destruction (2014): When Diancie a Pokémon said to create diamond travels to find Xerneas to help her make a heart diamond to save her home, Ash, Serena, Clemont and Bonnie help her to be safe on the way from thieves.

Pokemon: XY Season 1: Join Ash Ketchum, Pikachu, and all his Pokemon pals travel to Kalos to expand the local league to make new friends and evade the clutches of the Gym Leaders.

Scooby-Doo (2002): In this live-action feature, Scooby, Shaggy, Daphne, Fred and Velma journey to Spooky Island, where a magical force is awakened that could spell doom for the human race. But the Mystery Inc. gang remains skeptical that there are any ghosts at work.

Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed (2004): In this live-action adventure, friends Fred, Daphne, Velma, Shaggy and their canine buddy Scooby vow to put an end to a menacing scoundrel who plans to turn their town of Coolsville into the complete opposite.

Sin City (2005): In these intertwined tales, an ex-con avenges a hooker’s death, a gumshoe gets mixed up with dangerous vixens, and a cop saves a dancer from a rapist.

Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989): Captain Kirk (William Shatner) leads his crew on a mission to free kidnapped diplomats. Arriving at the planet Nimbus III, Kirk and crew come face-to-face with the captor: a smiling Vulcan named Sybok (Laurence Luckinbill) who's Mr. Spock's half-brother. Obsessively searching for God, Sybok hijacks the Enterprise and sets a course for the center of the galaxy. The film marks Shatner's directorial debut.

Stardust (2007): To win his true love's heart, wide-eyed Tristan Thorn journeys to a forbidden realm to retrieve a fallen star that has taken human form. But the star is being pursued by an evil witch and others looking to possess her celestial powers.

Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006): Lifelong friends Ricky and Cal have earned their NASCAR stripes with their uncanny knack of finishing races in the first and second slots, respectively. But when a rival challenges their records, they'll have to floor it to retain their status.

Teen Witch (1989): Awkward teen Louise Miller dreams of a date with the school football hero but is too shy to do anything about it -- until she learns she's descended from witches and uses her powers to become the most desirable girl at school.

Tin Man: “Search for the Emerald” (2007): In this dark adaptation of L. Frank Baum's classic, Midwestern waitress Dorothy is catapulted into the dangerous territory of O.Z., where she joins a band of misfits seeking to overthrow an evil sorceress and reinstate the land's rightful ruler.

The Year Dolly Parton Was My Mom (2011): Convinced that her birth mother is none other than country singing sensation Dolly Parton, spirited 11-year-old adoptee Elizabeth Gray rides away from home on her bike, hoping to get the truth from the Nashville superstar herself.

February 2

Land Before Time: XIV: Journey of the Brave (2016): When Littlefoot’s father doesn’t return from a trip, the brave dinosaur and his pals set off on a rescue mission through strange new lands.

February 3

I Love You Phillip Morris (2009): When Texas cop Steven Russell realizes he's gay, he changes his life and pulls con jobs that land him jail, where he meets his one true love. When the man is transferred to another prison, lovesick Steven mounts a series of jailbreaks.

February 4

Love (2015): A man in an unsatisfying marriage recalls the details of an intense past relationship with an ex-girlfriend when he gets word that she may be missing.

February 5

Care Bears & Cousins Season 2: The whole huggable gang is back, bringing tales of caring and sharing to a new generation. And now the Care Bear Cousins are here to join the fun!

Hannibal Buress: Comedy Camisado: Amiable comic Hannibal Buress offers his self-assured opinion on subjects from hip-hop to steroid scandals and rock music to yoga pants.

Mad Men Season 7, Part 2: Set in 1960s New York City, this award-winning series takes a peek inside an ad agency during an era when the cutthroat business had a glamorous lure.

Turbo: F.A.S.T. Season 3: Join Turbo and his posse, the Fast Action Stunt Team. Filled with comedy, action and fun, this series amps it up to the extreme.

February 6

Lila & Eve (2015): Two mothers each lost a child to a murderer on the same day. After meeting at a support group, the women join forces to conduct their own investigation of the crimes when law enforcement authorities fail to vigorously pursue either case.

February 10

Dope (2015): In the tough neighborhood of the Bottoms, high school senior Malcolm sports his own funky style while working hard to gain admission to a top college. But his clean-cut perspective take an unexpected turn when a local drug dealer befriends him.

The Girl in the Book (2015): As 29-year-old Alice Harvey is working hard to find herself as a writer, a secret she's kept buried in the past resurfaces in the form of aging novelist Milan Daneker -- who seduced Alice 15 years earlier.

February 13

The Face of Love (2013): Years after the death of her husband, Garrett, Nikki begins a romance with Tom, a great guy who looks almost exactly like Garrett. As their relationship unfolds, fate seems to be delivering Nikki both a new start and a second chance.

February 15

Open Season (2006): After saving a mule deer from a hunter's clutches, a domesticated grizzly finds himself relocated to the wild -- and unprepared for the real world. Can the furry pals make it to safety before open season starts?

XXY (2007): Inés Efron plays Alex, an intersexed 15-year-old, in this compelling tale. Though she's living as a girl, Alex and her family begin to wonder whether she's emotionally a boy when another teenager's sexual advances bring the issue to a head. As Alex faces a final decision regarding her gender, she meets both hostility and compassion. Director Lucía Puenzo's sensitive drama co-stars Valeria Bertuccelli, Martín Piroyansky and Ricardo Darín.

February 16

Asthma (2015): Trying to find meaning in his life, a despondent young drug addict steals a car and takes his tattoo artist love interest on a roadtrip.

Atonement (2007): When 13-year-old Briony discovers a lustful letter and witnesses a sexual encounter between her older sister and a servant's son, her confusion prompts her to finger the young man for a violent crime. Her half-truth changes their lives forever.

February 17

The Returned Season 2: On returning home and finding they're believed to be dead, a collection of near-strangers from the same village try to find a reason for their plight.

February 19

Cooked Season 1: As he tries his hand at baking, brewing and braising, acclaimed food writer Michael Pollan explores how cooking transforms food and shapes our world.

Love Season 1: They've had plenty of romantic misses. But when a jaded Angeleno meets a nerdy guy, they may figure out this "love" thing. Co-created by Judd Apatow.

February 22

3rd World Cops 2 (2015): The lives of Freire and Salinas police are again wrapped problems. This time, they will be accused of a crime they did not comment and will become the most wanted men in the country.

February 23

Bare (2015): A free-spirited female drifter leads melancholy Sarah away from small-town boredom toward an enticing world of drugs and danger.

February 24

Marvel Super Hero Adventures: Frost Fight! (2015): The Marvel Heroes unite to try and stop Loki and the frost giant Ymir from conquering the world as the duo try to steal Santa's powers to do so.

February 26

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny (2016): In this sequel to "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," four Martial World heroes must keep the legendary Green Destiny sword from villainous Hades Dai.

Fuller House Season 1: The Full House adventures continue as D.J. Tanner-Fuller calls upon her sister Stephanie and friend Kimmy to move in and help raise her three boys.

Theo Von (2016): Known for always saying the unexpected and telling it like it is, even at the expense of offending, Louisiana comedian Theo Von returns home to film his first stand-up comedy special for Netflix at the Civic Theater in New Orleans.

February 27

Finding Vivian Maier (2013): When longtime nanny Vivian Maier died in 2009, she left behind thousands of photo negatives that she'd produced over the years. But the now-famous shutterbug's unique body of work lay in storage until an amateur historian uncovered the trove.

February 29

Ashes and Embers (1982): A disillusioned, African-American Vietnam vet (Anderson) travels from Washington to Los Angeles to his grandmother’s farm in search of a better life—but is there a place for him? Ethiopian-American filmmaker (and LA Rebellion movement instigator) Haile Gerima’s Afrocentric survey of the American sociopolitical landscape is a potent mix of documentary realism, dreamlike narrative, and Godardian agit-prop.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

New on Amazon Prime: February 2016

Poldark - 2/2
Girls - 2/11
The Newsroom - 2/15
The Americans - TBA
The New Yorker Presents - 2/16
The Fashion Fund - 2/25
A Better Life - 2/1
Amy - 2/1
Batman - 2/1
Deliver Us From Evil - 2/1
How To Steal A Million - 2/1
The Kings of Summer - 2/1
Like Sunday, Like Rain - 2/1
Lost In Translation - 2/1
Men In Black - 2/1
Night Watch - 2/1
Nintendo Quest - 2/1
The Fifth Element - 2/1
The Fury - 2/1
The Karate Kid - 2/1
The Truth About Emanuel - 2/1
To Be Or Not To Be - 2/1
Twelve O'Clock High - 2/1
Waking Ned Devine - 2/1
Adaline - 2/2
Myanmar: Bridges to Change - 2/2
The Identity Theft of Mitch Mustain - 2/2
Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby - 2/4
Chi-Raq - 2/5
Fire City: End of Days - 2/5
Ouija Exorcism - 2/5
Solomon Kane - 2/15
The End of the Tour - TBA 
Digging for Fire - 2/24
Inequality for All - 2/29

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Recently Viewed: January 2016

The French Minister (2013) ✭✭✭½

Entertaining comedy about French politics. But I'm being redundant. The great Bertrand Tavernier just keeps going. He's a tough old thing. So is Niels Arestrup.

When Day Breaks (2012) ✭✭✭✭

Melancholy Serbian import about a retired music teacher (the superb Mustafa Nadarevic) who learns the tragic fate of his parents in WWII. Many special moments, but marred by a schmaltzy ending. Still well worth your time.

Nice and Easy (2014)✭✭✭½ 

Charming rom-com written from the male perspective. About a committed slacker who finds that love is worth getting off the couch.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Brooklyn (2015) ✭✭✭✭

Nominated for three Oscars, John Crowley’s Brooklyn is the gentle story of a young Irish woman named Eilis (Saoirse Ronan) who leaves her quaint stone cottage village for a strange new life in America circa 1950. With the help of a kindly priest (Jim Broadbent) Eilis soon acquires lodging in a boarding house and a job selling cosmetics in an upscale department store. She even gains the romantic attentions of an earnest young plumber (Emory Cohen) who is all too happy to include Eilis in his ambitious American Dream of a better future. But when unexpected events back in Ireland beckon Eilis to return, she finds herself torn between family responsibility and the new life she has made for herself.

In a cinema landscape filled with apocalyptic visions and intergalactic wars, the soft, sweet angles of Brooklyn are a soothing tonic to the raging sound and fury. Ronan’s Eilis is neither a pitiful victim nor a fiery champion, but a good hearted soul slowly overcoming her provincial naiveté. Upon her return to Ireland, she seems much like a different person; her American experience lending her strength, confidence and a street-savvy wariness. Eilis grappled mightily with homesickness during her early days in America, but now her return home has induced another type of illness, and the only cure is to put aside the past and bravely venture on.

The growing maturity within Ronan’s innocent blue eyes find a perfect foil in Julie Walters’ turn as Mrs. Keogh, the aging boarding house owner charged with keeping her collection of newly arrived lasses on something that resembles the straight and narrow. Walters knows all about the perils of randy young men and guileless country girls - and seems to remember those days fondly - but is even more put off by too much girly giddiness, proclaiming that it should be considered a deadly sin. A generation younger than grand dames like Maggie Smith and Judi Dench, Julie Walters is in a career sweet spot these days. As her work here and in the BBC series Indian Summers attest, she is the heiress apparent to the classic acid-tongued, world weary British matron. The archetype is in very good hands.

Viewed from the perspective of today’s angry, insular America, Brooklyn seems like an artifact of a lost civilization. The idea that immigrants have value and seek only to better themselves by contributing to society has been so thoroughly trounced by our politicians it feels odd to see penniless newcomers portrayed in a positive light. Of course, Brooklyn deals with wretched refuse that’s a whiter shade of pale, so even today they would be spared the brunt of America’s xenophobic wrath. Still, the optimistic, welcoming nation depicted here, complete with smiling and hospitable immigration agents, has likely been lost forever, blown into oblivion by the screeching winds of cowards and bigots.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

The Danish Girl (2015) ✭✭✭

The Danish Girl is the story of the first surgically transgendered human: Danish artist Einar Wegener who in 1926 underwent the procedure to complete his transition to Lili Elbe. While based on actual events, historians say that the film takes quite a few liberties with characters' backgrounds and is not true to the recorded timeline. Regardless, The Danish Girl has received a plethora of award nominations for its leading talents: Eddie Redmayne as Einar/Lili and Alicia Vikander as his long suffering yet highly supportive wife Gerda.

As a movie, The Danish Girl doesn't quite deliver the emotional wallop it strives for. While Redmayne's performance is technically convincing at a granular level, his approach is oddly kind of sexist. As he becomes bolder in adopting Lili's persona, he also strangely becomes less interesting as a person. His performance is - for lack of a better term - too precious and wears a bit thin. As he dons more silky lingerie, the shallower and more vain he becomes, and eventually his line readings are reduced to flirty giggles and vacant grins.

As they did in The King's Speech and John Adams, director Tom Hooper and DP Danny Cohen manage to make the past beautiful through a grungy patina; as if we're looking at history through a dusty retroscope. The Danish Girl has been nominated for an Oscar in Production Design, and Eve Stewart's grey/blue palette evokes the distant mist of memory filtered through soft northern light. It is a beautiful film to look at, with dogged and meticulous attention to the most minor details of time and place. While The Danish Girl has been shut out of the Best Picture category - and one could argue deservedly so - its production value is absolutely first rate and clearly ranks among the year's best.

The real powerhouse here is Vikander, who keeps the script firmly rooted in its thorny humanist questions. Her willingness to sacrifice her own happiness to help her beloved husband's tortured soul find peace is an extraordinary portrait in courage. The dark circles under her eyes bear the crushing weight of the unique burden life has given her, which she carries without self-pity or complaint. Over the years, cinema has given us countless depictions of love, in an incalculable range of situations and circumstances. But I can't think of one more pure and selfless than Vikander's Gerda. I'll be rooting for her this awards season.