Friday, January 31, 2014

Live Action Short Film Nominees (Oscars® 2014)

Tonight I saw all five of the nominated films in the Live Action Short category. I'll present my reviews in the order they were shown.

HELIUM (Denmark)

I want to know where Denmark trains their child actors because I have yet to see a weak performance from any of them. In this story, a young child named Alfred is terminally ill. He has a love for balloons—hot air, blimp, etc. so the adults fill his hospital room them to cheer him up. It's not until a hospital worker develops a special bond with Alfred, and makes up a "Helium" heaven that the child is able to accept his tragic fate. Beautifully written and wonderfully acted; a tender reminder of what's important in life.


Familiar actors and an unbelievable situation make this lighthearted entry one of the easiest of the nominees to digest. A psychiatrist is sent to a prison to evaluate an insane inmate who thinks he's a God and is forced to confront the fact that he may indeed be one. Brilliant "what if" that reminds us to be careful how we define "crazy."


The strongest entry (and my pick for the win) comes from the lengthiest of the nominees, with a 30-minute running time that flies by. A woman is desperate to escape her abusive husband and take her children with her in this race-against-the-clock situation. If this film were a book, it would be one of the best page-turners I've ever read. It conveys the fear, the pain, the shame and the hope associated with such a plot and has you wondering if she'll pull it off right to the very last frame.


The horrific dangers of the Sierra Leone are magnified in this brutal, violent look at what can (and probably has) happened in one of the most volatile patches of the world. Two humanitarian doctors are taken hostage trying to cross a sensitive border and the torture that follows is unspeakable. The humanity that emerges from the awful situations they endure is what redeems the images in the end. Still, certain parts of this story will be forever burned into my brain and I'm not sure I'm okay with that.


Women everywhere will cheer and laugh along with this sweet, hilarious take on an over-scheduled family trying to get themselves ready to attend the wedding of their friends. The husband is endearing, the kids are adorable and the mom is—well—super. Delightful romp, without question.


Sunday, January 26, 2014

Lone Survivor

Last Sunday I saw Lone Survivor, starring Mark Wahlberg and Emile Hirsch.

It can't be overstated how damaging a spoiler title can be to a film.

Based on the memoir by real-life soldier Marcus Luttrell, the movie captures all of the horrors of war and combat without an ounce of suspense or hope since we all know that only one man will emerge with his life.

It shakes down like this: an American team of Navy SEALs is sent to Afghanistan to capture and/or eliminate a known Taliban leader. They quickly locate him and then everything that can go wrong does go wrong, all because of some goats.

The violence we witness in the injured soldiers who keep fighting until their last breath is alternately inspirational and gratuitous.

We know going in that we're going to see a lot of blood—it is a war movie after all. But scene after scene, shot after shot only serves to desensitize us viewers in the same way that the repetitive nature of the nightly news does.

I'm thankful that Mr. Luttrell emerged safe, if not scarred, by his experience in Afghanistan, but dismayed by the fact this wouldn't have been a movie (or book) had his fellow troops not given their lives.

I'm sorry for the cause and disappointed in the result.


Sunday, January 12, 2014


Today I saw Frozen, starring the voices of Kristen Bell and Idina Menzel.

Elsa (Menzel) and Anna (Bell) are sisters. Elsa is older and blessed with superpowers; Anna excitedly wakes Elsa to play using those superpowers, which create magical landscapes around them.

One morning when they're having fun, Elsa loses control of her powers and Anna gets hurt. Their parents rush to their aid and are advised to lock Elsa away and hide her powers from Anna going forward.

When they're older, Elsa reveals those powers and her emotions get the better of her as her sister announces her engagement. She essentially freezes their whole village, but doesn't know it as she escapes immediately thereafter.

Anna decides to save the town by finding her sister and asking her to thaw everything out. This, of course, is harder than it seems and true to fairy tale form, we learn it is true love that must save them.

The film is a delightful romp, rich with beautiful, snowy visuals that actually make you chilly while you watch. The strength of Anna's character is refreshing in a female lead (animated or not) and the snowman, who could be obnoxious, is actually pretty cute. I also liked the men (both the dreadful ones and the nice ones).

Sitting next to an adorable 3-year-old boy for the duration, I heard him once reason with his mother, "Maybe one sister can be the cold weather queen and the other sister could be the warm weather queen?"

His innocence speaks to the vibe of the movie, which concentrates on simple justice and the pursuit of happiness. Truly delightful.


Friday, January 10, 2014

August: Osage County

Tonight I saw August: Osage County, starring Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts.

Vi (Streep) is short for "Violet," but really it should be short for "vile."

Her character, the matriarch of a severely dysfunctional Midwestern family, is the verbal equivalent of Mommie Dearest, spitting venom in every direction to her three grown daughters (and everyone else in her path).

Her sainted husband Beverly (Sam Shepherd), has just died and the crowd has descended on her home for the burial and mourning.

In the days that follow, her girls Barbara (Roberts), Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) and Karen (Juliette Lewis) alternately uncover and reveal secrets about themselves and others, which culminates in an eruption of emotion that plays out mostly during one tense, long, hilarious, draining dinner scene.

My favorite person in the whole movie? Chris Cooper, who plays Violet's sweet brother-in-law Charlie. He's the voice of reason—the calm before, during and after the storm—and is also a victim of the poisonous clan. Cooper plays it with such good-old-boy grace, I wanted to hug him at the end.

Meryl Streep is unsurprisingly fabulous in the role. It's a film based on a play and she plays it like a play, but that's not a bad thing. Also endearing is Julianne Nicholson, who I've admired since Flannel Pajamas, and really gets the chance to shine here with her character of several dimensions.

Margo Martindale owns her hilarious and tragic role as Violet's sister, Mattie Fae, and sparkles in authenticity.

I'd be lying if I said I wasn't thoroughly entertained: laughing, crying and gasping all the way through. But I do wish they hadn't talked about the heat so much (we got it after the first two fan scenes), I thought the Native American jokes got old and there are a few others who probably could've tackled the role of Barbara in a less abrasive way and made her more sympathetic.

But overall, well done. A slice of life that cuts deep.


Sunday, January 05, 2014

Inside Llewyn Davis

Today I saw Inside Llewyn Davis, starring Oscar Issac and Carey Mulligan.

Llewyn Davis (Issac) is a 'starving artist' musician in New York. The year is 1961; the mood is grim.

Jean (Mulligan) and Jim (Justin Timberlake) are fellow folk singers who run in the same circles as Llewyn, and Llewyn may or may not have impregnated Jean. This is only one of the apparent many reasons that she hates him.

Davis seems to have a case of perpetual bad luck, but it's terribly hard to sympathize with him because his demeanor is so unappealing. You've met those people—the ones who whine and whine and act as if they're the only person in the world that has to struggle? That's the type of sad sack that Davis encompasses.

So… light attracts light and dark attracts dark. When you fall into a tunnel of darkness and refuse to climb out of it (or lose the will to at least try), you'll only spiral further down. And Davis, who couch surfs his way though his miserable life, is one big ball of darkness.

Jean is so full of venom that we barely even notice when Mulligan's American accent slips or her character tries to do a nice thing for Llewyn. We're way past her by then, having coated us in such anger.

That leaves the brief (but shining) performances by Timberlake and John Goodman to keep things light, and for a few moments they do. Timberlake leading the best song in the film, "Please Mr. Kennedy," and Goodman a passenger on the road trip from hell. Both brilliant performances that gave great flavor to the film.

I can't pretend the Coen brothers haven't done better. This isn't in the same ballpark as No Country for Old Men or The Man Who Wasn't There, but it's not terrible either.

Just make sure you see it when you're in a bright mood or it might bring you down.