Final Oscar Predictions

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Hey — it’s the day of the night of 1,000 stars as The Academy Awards are given out for another year of strong work.  Though I’m still bummed a bit by some omissions to the nominees (Ben Affleck, I feel your pain), this has shaped up to be a year with the potential to reward some richly deserving folk.

My full list of final thoughts can be found here — I hope you enjoy the show.  Check back tomorrow for my deconstructing of the big night with my reactions to the highs and lows of the ceremony!

Movie Review ~ Amour (Love)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Georges and Anne are in their eighties. They are cultivated, retired music teachers. One day, Anne has an attack that will test the couple’s bond of love.

Stars: Jean-Louis Trintignant, Emmanuelle Riva, Isabelle Huppert

Director: Michael Haneke

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 127 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review:  I’m familiar enough with the films of director Haneke to know what kind of experience the director likes to give his audience…that experience being one of cautious discovery and exploration that goes against the typical rhythms of the majority of films released on US soil.  You can attribute that to Haneke hailing from a country (Germany) with its own storied film history that for a time was focused on serious expressionism and detachment. 

In Haneke films like Funny Games (both the original and Haneke’s own scene for scene US remake), The Piano Teacher, Cache, and previous Oscar nominee The White Ribbon the director takes his time and lets his characters unfold before us much like people do in real life.  In long, uninterrupted takes he lets the camera capture true moments of quiet, danger, pain, and love…all which are on display in his latest film Amour.

Though Haneke has explored relationships from numerous angles before, Amour is perhaps his most gentle examination of the bond two people share and the lengths we’ll go to shield someone we love from grief.  Winner of the prestigious Palme D’Or at the Cannes film festival, the movie has been working a slow burn through smaller theaters as more people are discovering its fierce power.

It’s not an easy film to get through, only because it’s a strikingly intense portrait of the downward health spiral of one half of a long-married couple.  Georges (Trintignant) and Anne (Oscar nominee Riva) are enjoying the golden years of their lives, attending concerts, having dinner and still enjoying each other’s company throughout.  Then Anne suffers the first of several strokes and that’s where the relationship changes.  As Anne’s condition deteriorates, Georges can only watch as the woman he’s loved fades away. 

Though the film is peppered with secondary characters (including longtime Haneke favorite Huppert as the needy daughter of Georges and Anne), Amour is squarely a two-hander between Trintignant and Riva.  Though Riva is the one that has been called out for most of the award season accolades, it’s a shame Trintignant isn’t on the list with her. The success of Riva’s performance isn’t entirely dependent on Trintignant but there is a symbiosis that has occurred here in which both feed off of each other marvelously.

At 85, Riva is the oldest Best Actress Academy Award nominee in history and it’s well earned.  It’s a genius performance both physically and emotionally…and entirely agonizing to watch.  Trintignant does have to watch most of it as his character tries with all his might to make things easier for everyone, only to be faced with a decision no one wants to make. 

Haneke’s script is filled with intimate scenes, many of them without dialogue and filmed in very long and wide angles.  What I always enjoy about his films is how they linger longer than they have to just to offset our expectations as to what’s going to happen next.  It’s a slight form of manipulation that he finesses to bring about more honesty in the characters and story.

Though I loved Jennifer Lawrence’s performance in Silver Linings Playbook, work like the kind Riva does in Amour comes along once in a lifetime.  It’s a tough call between the two but ideally the Oscar will go to Riva for a monumental achievement.  Though the film is very bleak and dark, Riva and Trintignant are lights of dignity in Haneke’s superior work.

Movie Review ~ 5 Broken Cameras

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A documentary on a Palestinian farmer’s chronicle of his nonviolent resistance to the actions of the Israeli army.

Stars: Emad Burnat, Soraya Burnat, Mohammed Burnat, Gibreel Burnat

Director: Emad Burnat, Guy Davidi

Rated: NR

Running Length: 94 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  This Oscar nominated documentary is a powerful look at the conflict between Palestine and Israel through the eyes of a filmmaker/olive farmer in the small town of Bil’in.  Pieced together from almost five years of material as captured by the titular broken cameras, the audience is given a front row seat as Emad Burnat, his family, and fellow villagers battle with Israeli settlers infringing on their land.

Going in I was initially a bit weary for another documentary about the perils of war.  I know that as a white man living in Middle America I have little to complain about, freedom being the least of my worries.  However as shown by Burnat in striking and graphic imagery, life is quite different for the people of Bil’in who are simply trying to protect their land and livelihood.  Through non-violent protest, the villagers use various methods to keep the Israeli settlers and army away but with every step forward they take, the opposition pushes them back further with violence and illegal occupation.

Each camera tells its own story as it documents important stages of the conflict.  People we meet early on change as the years pass as they grow hardened to the turmoil surrounding them.  It’s a near daily battle and Burnat captures it all without flinching even as Burnat himself is arrested, shot at, gassed, and further injured over the years.  Though lives are lost and hardships are never-ending, he never loses sight of what he’s documenting for the good of his village and his family.

We also watch Burnat’s young son as he grows up under the shadow of violence.  When the film begins the son is barely a year old, then he’s saying his first words, then he’s three, and finally he’s five.  There are nice parallels drawn between the boy as he matures and the continuing crisis facing his future.  Burnat’s wife, too, is shown as her resolve is tested with each new roadblock and threat of danger.

The footage shot by Burnat and co-director Davidi is fairly incredible, an all-access pass to terrible acts and graphic depictions of violence that we aren’t used to seeing in film.  It’s a hard-hitting, eye-opening film that more than earns it’s nomination for Best Documentary.

This week, as Burnat traveled to California to attend The Academy Awards, he was detained and questioned in the airport along with his family.  After they were cleared through customs, Burnat told reporters that this type of scrutiny was nothing new to him considering where he lives and works.  The film he’s made is dangerous, impactful, and important…a staggering chronicle of a battle that continues even today.

Note: Spirit Awards

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No question that Sunday, February 24 is Hollywood’s big night with The Academy Awards being presented but in the last few years I’ve enjoyed tuning in to the Spirit Awards.  A much less showy affair (it’s held in a tent and guests/presenters always poke fun at how freezing it is), it fits well with the indie film vibe.  While Oscar night is a time for Tinsel Town to crown new royalty, the ISA’s feel very much in line with the Screen Actors Guild Awards in that they recognize films/actors that the bottom line obsessed Hollywood seems to have ignored.  Chances are you haven’t heard of many of the films nominated but I’ve always come away from the ceremony with a few films to add to my “To See” list.

Check out the nominees here and tune in tonight to watch!

Down From the Shelf ~ Searching for Sugar Man

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Two South Africans set out to discover what happened to their unlikely musical hero, the mysterious 1970s rock ‘n’ roller, Rodriguez.

Stars: Rodriguez, Steve Segerman, Dennis Coffey

Director: Malik Bendjelloul

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 86 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  For me, I’m a fan of the documentaries that play fair.  I’m totally fine with seeing films that take a stance I don’t agree with or that feature a subject I wouldn’t normally be interested in.  They need to play fair though and that’s a message I think the makers of Searching for Sugar Man should be called out on the carpet for.  Though it’s favored to win the Oscar for Best Documentary, I was left a little cold by this film which deliberately manipulates its audience with some fancy footwork about its title subject. 

What’s so bothersome is that the subject of the film is interesting enough as is without director Malik Bendjelloul trying to make something appear that isn’t really there.  I’m doing my best to steer clear of any spoilers that may detract from your experience seeing the film but let’s just say that there are more than a few embellishments of the facts and there are details purposely kept from us that would severely change the first half of the movie.

If you can get over that bit of trickery (and for the most part, I could), you’ll be able to enjoy the documentary as it offers up interviews from many music industry insiders who sketch the early days of the short-lived career of musician Rodriguez.  With his haunting melodies and unique voice, the man carried himself with a mystery that fascinated fans…though they didn’t even live on the same continent. 

I kept being reminded of how popular David Hasselhoff was in Germany as various musicians detailed how Rodriguez struck out with US audiences but became wildly popular in South Africa in the heat of apartheid.  Now, I wouldn’t dream of comparing Rodriguez and The Hoff but it shows how tastes in music can differ once you cross an ocean. 

The tales of the demise of Rodriguez were legendary, becoming a semi Urban Legend to music geeks.  When all the information is gathered up, just what became of the musician…and where are all his royalty checks going to?

That question and more are eventually answered, but it’s not without some unnecessary subterfuge first.  Had Bendjelloul just been honest from the start he may have had an even better movie on his hands.  As far as Best Documentary of the year, I’m not sold that it’s this film though you may want to put some money on it if you are entering your office Oscar pool.

Down From the Shelf ~ How to Survive a Plague

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The Facts:

Synopsis: The story of two coalitions — ACT UP and TAG (Treatment Action Group) — whose activism and innovation turned AIDS from a death sentence into a manageable condition.

Stars: Peter Staley, Larry Kramer, Iris Long

Director: David France

Rated: Not Rated

Running Length: 120 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  This passionate documentary about how the AIDS crisis gave birth to a new form of activism isn’t the first film about the impact that HIV has had on our world to garner Oscar attention but it’s a strong addition to the historical record of how a disease labeled ‘Gay Cancer’ became a global issue that hit close to home for nearly everyone.

Using invaluable video records, documentarian David France brings the audience into the world of the early responders who demanded more information from a government that didn’t respond as fast or as well as they should.  From local politicians all the way up through the highest level of government, the call to action wasn’t heard until many people had died.

Two activist groups were front and center during these years and where the film really fires on all cylinders is charting the coming together of like-minded individuals and the eventual fracture that happened amongst them thanks to in-fighting and differences of approach taken to get the message out.  Both sides are impassioned in seeking answers and neither are wrong…the strength of the film lies in its middle of the road approach that lets the audience decide for themselves where they would figure into the mix.

As is typical of documentaries that deal with illness, many of the faces that we meet during the course of the film are no longer with us but they live on in the archive footage of their speeches at memorials, rallies, and backyard parties.  These men and women were ready to shout and scream until someone heard our cries for help.

Activism about the AIDS crisis continues even today and the film feels very current in its information – a new generation has grown up knowing what AIDS is and its effects on families and loved ones.  While the dark days of no information may be behind us, there’s still more work to do until a cure is found…and it’s inspiring to know that so many people fought so hard to educate the public.

A film with many moving moments, How to Survive a Plague gets to the heart of the matter early on and is perhaps just a little longer than it has to be.  Length is of little concern though since the subjects are so frustrating yet watchable.

Down From the Shelf ~ The Invisible War

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The Facts:

Synopsis: An investigative documentary about the epidemic of rape of soldiers within the US military.

Stars: Kori Cioca, Jessica Hinves, Ariana Klay, Trina McDonald, Elle Helmer, Hannah Sewell, Myla Haider, Paula Coughlin, Claudia Kennedy, Wilma L. Vaught, Loree Sutton, Dennis Laich, Susan Burke, Amy Herdy, Helen Benedict

Director: Kirby Dick

Rated: Not Rated

Running Length: 93 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  Director Kirby Dick isn’t afraid to tackle a hot-button topic and his filmography proves it.  From exposing the movie ratings board in This Film is Not Yet Rated to digging into hypocrisy of closeted politicians lobbying for anti-gay legislation in Outrage, he consistently turns his lens on subjects that may not have a direct impact on the day-to-day lives of everyday Americans.  After being nominated back in 2005 for his child-abuse documentary Twist of Faith, he’s received another nomination for The Invisible War which looks at the growing number of rape cases reported within the US military.

Uncovering any military dirty laundry is always risky for any filmmaker but Dick was the right person to tell the stories of the women and men who were violated while serving their country.  Some of the stories are brief, all are horrific because you can see the weight these victims carry…victims that believed in the military service that ultimately failed to protect them.

It’s frustrating to listen to stories where the victim was called into question while the accused continued to rise up the ranks in their division.  Even with hard evidence very few of these attackers had any serious disciplinary action against them, often being allowed to continue working alongside the individual they raped.  While male victims are thrown into the mix the majority of interviewees are female – strong women who signed up for service to protect us that often found themselves put on trial for speaking up against their attackers. 

The courage of those willing to tell their stories makes this a worthy nominee and will hopefully bring about change in how these cases are handled in the future.

Movie Review ~ Quartet

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The Facts:

Synopsis: At a home for retired musicians, the annual concert to celebrate Verdi’s birthday is disrupted by the arrival of Jean, an eternal diva and the former wife of one of the residents.

Stars: Maggie Smith, Billy Connolly, Michael Gambon, Pauline Collins, Tom Courtenay, Sheridan Smith

Director: Dustin Hoffman

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 98 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again…the best kind of movies are the ones that sneak up on you and take you in a different direction than you originally thought.  Like Silver Linings Playbook, Quartet is a film that on the surface (and certainly in its preview) looks like it’s rather conventional but in reality it provides a wealth of entertainment for those that like to color outside of the lines.  It takes a slower pace than one might expect and occasionally wanders off topic but it all somehow works to end up a quite satisfying experience.

I tried to resist describing Quartet as a mash-up of Downton Abbey and Fame but fans of both should see where I’m coming from once Quartet has begun.  Though it takes place in the present, it sets its action at a stately retirement home for musicians in the English countryside.  The large estate looks like a scaled down version of the famous Downton Abbey location – the various rooms and grounds provide a great setting for the story to unfold in.

The previews for Quartet are a bit misleading – it’s not an outright comedy about the antics of seniors living out their days in a community of their previous peers and rivals.  It’s also not a pained examination of what the aging process is like and how it takes its toll on all of us.  Rather, it’s a film that shows respect to its actors, characters, and subject matter by portraying these people as realistically as possible.  Even the more outsized characters (like Gambon’s puffy blowhard) seem familiar and relatable.

It’s hard to believe that Hoffman has never taken a turn behind the camera before.  The Oscar winning actor has been a lauded member of the Hollywood community for years so it’s even more interesting that he would choose such a stately British piece (by Sir Ronald Harwood, adapting his own play) to start out with.  Hoffman lets the actors play their scenes without doing anything fancy…he just lets the camera roll and some nice magic occurs.

Smith, recently self-described in an interview as ‘spikey’, has been the go-to actress for British resiliency. In 2012 she turned in a typically acerbic performance in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and her reign as queen of Downton Abbey is undisputed.  She plays a similar character here but with a grace that proves once again why she’s one of the best actresses out there.  It’s a vulnerable and intimate performance that should have been recognized by the Academy Awards.

The other three members of the quartet are played equally as strong, especially Courtenay as Smith’s ex-husband.  Her arrival stirs emotions he had long since pushed aside and forces him to confront them all over again.  Connolly plays another rascal and Collins is appropriately dotty in her comedic relief role.  Other inhabitants of the home include real life retired performers that once graced the stages all over the world.  Stick around for the credits to see pictures of the large cast throughout the years – it’s a striking montage.

Add in some nice zingers that get lobbed and Smith’s utterance of a word she’s never said in film before and you have a real winner.  While it may be slower than most will have the patience for, I was immensely satiated by Quartet thanks to Hoffman’s gentle direction, Smith’s incredible performance, and superb supporting work from a talented cast.

Movie Review ~ Chasing Ice

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Follow National Geographic photographer James Balog across the Arctic as he deploys time-lapse cameras designed for one purpose: to capture a multi-year record of the world’s changing glaciers

Stars: James Balog, Svavar Jonatansson, Adam LeWinter

Director: Jeff Orlowski

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 80 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review:  With a hot button issue like global warming sometimes the old adage seeing is believing is the most apropos statement to use.  There are many who dispute some significant scientific facts that our climate has changed massively over the last several hundred years – these are the people that should be lining up to see Chasing Ice which aside from being a stunning documentary is yet another cautionary tale about how the world population is contributing to the greenhouse effect.

Though these discussions are decades old, global warming was brought to the attention of the worldwide media with the release of 2006’s An Inconvenient Truth, an Oscar winning documentary featuring former presidential candidate Al Gore walking us through a spruced up lecture on the looming crisis facing our environment.  That was a movie filled with lots of facts and numbers, all convincing evidence but when I watched that film I felt like I was doing homework all over again.

Chasing Ice is in a similar vein but it strips away heavy political overtones in favor of photographic evidence to support scientists’ theories that the large glaciers in places like Canada, Greenland, Antarctica were shrinking at an alarming rate.  Following three years of study by respected nature photographer James Balog, the film takes you along as Balog identifies a concern and figures out a way to elevate that concern to a national level.

Instead of the film being just another “wake up!” documentary, the angle taken here is to follow the man looking for answers rather than simply following the question itself.  It’s clear that Balog invests himself fully in the project (we seem him undergoing painful knee surgery and weeping when one of his cameras fails to work like he hoped it would) and it’s his determination that keeps the film moving along. 

Working closely with Balog helps director Orlowski fashion a rhythm to the film, though even at 75 minutes it does strain to make it past the finish line…resulting in an overall experience that felt akin to seeing a film at the OmniTheater. 

It’s hard to argue though that the evidence Balog and his team gather isn’t both breathtaking and heartbreaking at the same time.  What the future holds for the next generation is anyone’s guess but it’s clear that the problem is real and isn’t going away without some serious changes in how we treat our world. 

It’s interesting to note that this was one of the first films I’ve seen in a long time where every single audience member remained in their seat until the final frame.  Though the credits are short (and set to the Oscar nominated original song “Before My Time” performed by Scarlett Johansson), it’s seemed that the audience was riveted enough to stay until the very end.

The Silver Bullet ~ Come Out and Play

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Synopsis:  A young married couple are on a holiday together when they venture to a beautiful, but highly remote, island. When they arrive, they notice that while there are plenty of children present, the adults all seem to be missing.

Release Date:  March 22, 2013

Thoughts: Though it looks like a straight-up remake of the messy 80’s creep-fest Children of the Corn, Come Out and Play is actually an update on a 1976 Spanish film.  This sinister looking film has a trailer that gave me the willies…children are scary enough but make them emotion-less psychos and you’ve got a nightmare waiting to happen.  I like that most of this seems to take place in the daylight…it’s so easy to play off of our fears of the dark to scare us so keeping it brightly lit always tells me you are working with a confident production.  Even with so-so actress Vinessa Shaw (Hocus Pocus, Side Effects), this could end up being an effective horror film if done right so here’s hoping that everything falls into place for a nicely done spook out experience.