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‘Young and Beautiful’ lacks the humor of ‘Nymphomaniac’

This year’s “Nymphomaniac” tackled a seriously controversial subject, sex and lots of it, with style and perverse humor in the way only Lars von Trier can. So if you can’t make that movie full of cinematic flourish, you might consider making one much more, for lack of a better term, stripped down.

Francois Ozon’s “Young & Beautiful” removes the religious symbolism and outrageous behavior from von Trier’s film to make something much more real, but he’s also sapped it of its sexier qualities. It’s “Nymphomaniac” without any of the humor, style or strong sense of ideas. Continue reading

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‘The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1′ is an unusual, frustrating blockbuster

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 1” started the unfortunate trend of major film franchises splitting tentpole books into two separate films. Though it may be a cash grab, that seventh Harry Potter film is actually one of the most distinct in the series. Six movies of being tied down to Hogwarts and Quidditch, the seventh film took the main characters out of a familiar world, threw them in the forest against insurmountable odds and allowed them to act. They grew up into adults and the whole franchise matured overnight. It’s the most unusual Potter film, yet also David Yates’s best.

The previous “Hunger Games” movie “Catching Fire” was the blockbuster everyone needed after Potter. It was dark, inventive and upped the stakes on the previous film, not an easy task when you consider the first film was about teenagers murdering each other for sport and survival. But it also ended in such a way that “Mockingjay – Part 1” could hardly repeat the successes of the second. Katniss had been thrown into the rebellion, separated from her love and Hunger Games partner Peeta and asked to serve as a symbol she never wanted to be.

“Mockingjay” was poised to rewrite the franchise, but Francis Lawrence’s opportunity to make “Part 1” into something more than a cash grab has been squandered. It’s the most unusual “Hunger Games” yet, but hardly for the better. The fantasy, the color, the intrigue and the creativity has all been sapped from this sequel to make a frustrating half of a movie, one that’s talky, filled with exposition and set pieces that hardly resemble what made either of the first two films memorable. Continue reading

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‘Big Hero 6′ is the best superhero movie of the year

With apologies to Captain America, the Guardians of the Galaxy, Spider-man or any of the X-Men, “Big Hero 6” is the best superhero movie of the year. No film in the genre this year was as exciting or as colorful as this charming kids adaptation of yet another Marvel comic.

It’s a film that takes the genre back to its roots of training, imagination, possibility, heroics and best of all, fantasy. The space opera visuals of “Guardians of the Galaxy” or the gray doom and gloom of Zack Snyder’s Superman pale in comparison to this new Disney classic, in which the fantastical story, the diverse cast of characters and the charm really do feel ripped from a comic book. Hey, even Stan Lee gets his quick cameo. Continue reading

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Updated 2015 Oscar Nomination Predictions

A lot has changed since the last time I made Oscar predictions back in late September. So much has been discussed in these few months in fact that I could’ve been making new predictions just about every other week. But then who has the time for that? I’ve been not-so-steadily continuing my Hype Cycle column over at Sound on Sight, charting the rise and fall of these various films, but now that we’ve finally gotten some actual precursors in the bank, it stands to reason that I can make new picks and not wind up with egg on my face for declaring a movie dead when it clearly isn’t. Not so many other Oscar pundits will be so lucky, but I don’t think they’ll mind. An asterisk denotes films I’ve seen.

Best Picture

Likely

  • Boyhood*
  • Birdman*
  • The Imitation Game
  • Selma
  • Gone Girl*
  • Foxcatcher
  • Whiplash*
  • The Grand Budapest Hotel*
  • Unbroken

Possible

  • The Theory of Everything*
  • A Most Violent Year
  • Interstellar*
  • American Sniper
  • Wild
  • Big Eyes
  • Nightcrawler*
  • Inherent Vice
  • Into the Woods
  • Top Five
  • Turner
  • Still Alice
  • Citizenfour*

Long Shots

  • Vincent
  • The Homesman
  • Dawn of the Planet of the Apes*
  • Love is Strange
  • Exodus: Gods and Kings
  • Fury*
  • The Fault in Our Stars*
  • Get on Up
  • The LEGO Movie*
  • Annie

I should first point out that in just about all of these categories, it’s a safe bet to rule out almost any of the ones I’ve listed as “Long Shots”. If one of these movies show up, expect it to be a surprise to everyone.

With that said, there’s been an awful lot of movement on the charts. The first big shift you’ll notice however is that there’s been a swap between “Boyhood” and “Unbroken”. For Angelina Jolie’s movie, it was the on-paper winner until recently when people actually saw it. Funny how a movie called “Unbroken” now looks so much weaker and easily beaten. Now people are wondering if it can even get in, although it has enough pedigree and is riding its narrative and impressive display most of all. I’d say it can still find a lot of love in the Academy. “Boyhood” on the other hand looked initially like a movie that was just too modest to actually be a front runner. Now everyone can’t stop talking about it, and it’s the unusual front runner in that it seems averse to any sort of real criticism or scandal.

And yet the love has been spread pretty far this year, and the Best Picture race could belong to anyone. “Birdman” and “The Imitation Game” look like the strongest bet based on early awards performance, but I even wonder if anyone truly loves “The Imitation Game” enough to vote for it in the number one spot.

Keep in mind, this applies to all the films. Last year pundits looked pretty silly when “Saving Mr. Banks” found itself on the outs. It was a populist title, but who could honestly call it the best of the year? Can anyone say that about “The Theory of Everything”? Or “Wild”? Or “Big Eyes”?

It’s why I think “Gone Girl” and “Foxcatcher” still look strong, why “Whiplash” is packing a lot of heat and why “The Grand Budapest Hotel” could finally break Wes Anderson into the Best Picture race where he rightfully belongs. If there’s a spoiler among the bunch though, it’s “A Most Violent Year,” which a lot of people haven’t seen yet, but won the National Board of Review prize in a surprise whirl. Continue reading

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‘Locke’ is a movie made for the radio

When Roger Ebert wrote that he could watch a Fellini movie on the radio, he meant it as a compliment. Steven Knight’s “Locke” feels like it was designed for one. It’s a labored, 85-minute long experiment in audio-visual (mostly audio) storytelling in which a man gets into a car, takes incessant phone calls, and drives. What aims to be a test of minimal storytelling ends up feeling like one long trailer. The headlights along the road always dance and try to set the mood, but “Locke” ultimately never arrives anywhere.

The man driving the car is Ivan Locke, played by Tom Hardy, and he is the only person who will appear on camera throughout the film’s duration. Upon leaving his job at a construction site as a foreman for pouring concrete, he makes a last minute decision and sets off driving from Birmingham to London, never looking back.

His destination? Locke is traveling to a hospital to visit a woman having his baby. Along the way he will speak with his wife and family waiting for him at home, his boss and colleague freaking out over how he’s abandoned a major job, and his mistress going through labor pains in the hospital. Continue reading

The Best Albums of 2014

With the movies forever dying and being uncool and me unable to get into any cool TV shows beyond “The Daily Show” and ones that star Dave Grohl, music has become my second passion. From seeing multiple concerts a month to working on a piece on “Sonic Highways” to actually getting good at guitar, I’ve not only been thinking about music a lot more but also trying to write about it.

2014 was about as good a year for music as it was for movies, in that most years are pretty good when you actually stop to turn it into a list. This year I’d like to think my Top 10 actually mildly resembles a real critic’s. Enjoy!

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  1. St. Vincent – St. Vincent

“Am I the only one/in the only world”? St. Vincent may be from another planet, with polyrhythm synths, funky baritone saxophones, vicious and witty lyrics and squealing guitars that hardly resemble one peppering the entire album. And yet it’s worth begging Annie Clark’s question heard in “Rattlesnake”, as St. Vincent’s self-titled album is her most accessible while unleashing this white-haired monster to the world. “Digital Witness” bounces with a searing attack against the Internet age. The elegant “Prince Johnny” weaves a haunting tale about a vile monarch who brags who he’s “going to bed next.” The sensual “I Prefer Your Love” has a near sacrilegious chorus and an introspective set of verses. And “Bring Me Your Loves” erupts with a flurry of robotic catcalls. The bizarre, ugly energy behind St. Vincent has elevated Clark to the throne of an indie queen and made us worship an alien who really is the only one in the only world. Continue reading

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‘The Theory of Everything’ and watching a genius squirm

At its best, “The Theory of Everything” depicts the often normal, yet struggle-filled family dynamic of a man with a disability and illness and how his condition affects those who love him. At its worst, James Marsh’s biopic on Stephen Hawking is about watching a genius squirm.

“The Theory of Everything” depicts the life of Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) and his fight with Lou Gehrig’s disease through the perspective of his long-time wife Jane (Felicity Jones), starting first when they met and fell in love as college students in Cambridge and leading all the way until the publishing of his world famous book “A Brief History of Time.” Across that near 50-year time span, the film shows in sometimes agonizing detail the rapid decay of his body, from going under the knife for surgery, to crawling up a flight of stairs, to straining to speak or even move his wrists.

In exchange we get a broad sense of admiration for his brilliance and some slices of his home life, like letting his children ride on his electric wheelchair and exchanging pleasantries with his wife. But a single film that tells us all we need to know about love and life, i.e. The Theory of Everything, its not.

Like the real Hawking, Marsh’s film is not without a sense of humor or even whimsy. We see a young Hawking cradled in the arms of a giant statue as his college chum fetches his wheelchair, and the film dances in beautifully lensed, fairy tale shades of gold and blue. It’s almost all too precious, with a maudlin score making the whole film a stuffy affair, and the fact that although this is Britain in the swinging ‘60s, the movie looks like a traditional Victorian Age drama.

Redmayne’s performance thankfully keeps the film grounded. As a co-ed, Redmayne plays Hawking with a mix of smarmy, aloof charm while also being cripplingly awkward and nerdy around pretty girls like Jane. As he grows ill and Marsh piles on the melodrama, Redmayne’s work recalls the all-too physical and broad acting of Daniel Day-Lewis in “My Left Foot,” feeling completely lived in but always straining for attention. It’s only until closer to Hawking’s old age that Redmayne feels completely natural with his mannerisms.

In truth though, the movie belongs to Jane. Jones displays great growth as an innocent yet brainy girl who grows firm and nurturing as she matures. She’s the one who needs help more so than Hawking does, and watching her grapple with her devotion to her husband and her effort to never lose face is the most affecting. Jones’s work shows that the people in the lives of a disabled individual often have to work as hard as those they’re nursing.

And yet the movie still finds more occasions for us to suffer rather than enlighten us about Hawking’s ideas or his personality. “The Theory of Everything” has the airs of one of the most moving and inspirational stories about our generation’s greatest thinker. But it only finds his genius at the cost of his pain and does not appear to have put the same level of thought into what makes this man or his story so great.

3 stars

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Christopher Nolan’s ‘Interstellar’ is an ambitious mess

“2001: A Space Odyssey” is a film about grasping the unknown, recognizing there is a realm of understanding and existence we can’t possibly fathom in our present state. We strive for that understanding constantly but must be in total amazement before we reach that peak and evolve. Stanley Kubrick’s film is a polarizing masterpiece, but he conveys this incomprehensible idea through the surreal, the spiritual, the terrifying and the awe inspiring. The film’s iconic images are impenetrable and inscrutable, and yet in that moment they transport us to something beyond ourselves.

Christopher Nolan may or may not be Stanley Kubrick’s disciple and modern equivalent, but though his latest film “Interstellar” is thematically familiar to Kubrick’s classic, Nolan’s execution is that much more procedural and clinical. For his entire career he’s toiled in rules and exposition, and it’s as though now with “Interstellar” he’s tried to make something literal out of Kubrick’s reverie.

“Interstellar” is an ambitious mess of a movie, and yet the scale at which it stages these themes may make it secretly brilliant, a movie in which Nolan has cracked the secret to understanding what’s beyond the horizon. That’s the sort of power Nolan has as a filmmaker and over the general public; he gives an impression that he’s full of sage wisdom that, with enough scrutiny, we can decipher the full meaning behind his movies. Continue reading

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‘Nightcrawler’ is ‘Taxi Driver’ meets ‘Network’

Jake Gyllenhaal’s character in the pulpy, dark noir “Nightcrawler” behaves like he belongs to another world, let alone another movie. He’s like a lost puppy who might just kill you, cluelessly getting in the way and causing trouble, or an alien just looking to acclimate into the seedy underground. Watching him slowly weasel his way into this world is comically cathartic and strange, and his performance recalls Travis Bickle as one of the better oddball anti-heroes the movies have seen.

“Nightcrawler” is a film of cold people acting well beneath their own morality and facades. It’s a critique on the modern day journalism that sensationalizes crime and explicit content in light of the people at its center, and Director and Writer Dan Gilroy stakes his claim on his creepy, near parody of a lead character. Continue reading

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‘Birdman’ and ‘Whiplash’ both striving to feel important

All throughout cinema history we see protagonists who wish to be remembered, who wish to become something great. Marlon Brando said in “On the Waterfront”, “I coulda been somebody. I coulda been a contender!” Their means for greatness are always different, but their ends are never the same, and it lets us know just what kind of movie we’re watching.

Two films released this month that are both receiving Oscar buzz but are miles apart in terms of tone and style have protagonists who share these feelings of greatness in their own ways and to their own ends. “Birdman Or (the Unexpected Virtues of Ignorance” and “Whiplash” are fiery dramas that lead to realizations that some of the things in life that feel most real and make people feel most alive, are pain and death. Continue reading