Saturday, January 31, 2015

Live Action Short Film Nominees (Oscars® 2015)

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.

PARVANEH (Switzerland)

When Afghan refugee Pari (Nissa Kashani) attempts to send money home to her ailing father from Zurich, she realizes she can't because she's not of legal age for the wire transfer. A chance meeting with a local shows her that not everything in life is awful; sometimes you just need a friend. I found this story (and its actors) sweet, but I didn't feel it carried the emotional heft of the usual nominees.

BUTTER LAMP (France and China)

A photographer in a remote Tibetan Village makes lasting memories for townspeople and tourists with his inventive backdrops. Yep, that's basically it, and it's as exciting as it sounds. Short of a few charming instances, I was pretty bored throughout.

THE PHONE CALL (United Kingdom)

Most likely the one that the Academy will crown the winner, this is the most traditional of the nominees. A linear story of a sad man (Jim Broadbent) calling a crisis clinic to reach a sympathetic soul (Sally Hawkins). It's a tender conversation filled with expected tension that perhaps goes on too long (although in real life those moments admittedly feel like forever). Hawkins shines, but there's nothing new here to see.

AYA (Israel and France)

The film I'd vote for if I had a ballot, Aya, combines kidnapping and a case of mistaken identity with a happenstance road trip. Did I mention this is also a rom com? I fell for this film from the opening frame and it had me through to the very end. Well-drawn characters, unpredictable dialogue and enough action to make it feel like it was speeding by (though it was the lengthiest of the entries). I couldn't find fault with anything here, except that I wish it had been a full-length feature so I could spend more time with the characters.

BOOGALOO AND GRAHAM (Northern Ireland)

Two adorable children get baby chicks from their Dad as a gift and refuse to part with them when they grow into full chickens. Their pregnant mother is not amused, so they go to great lengths to protect their pets. This sweet scenario happens amidst the contrast of terrorism and violence that plagued Belfast in the late '70s. A tender look at the layer beneath the historic geographical unrest.



Today I saw Cake, starring Jennifer Aniston and Adriana Barraza.

Claire Bennett (Aniston) suffers from chronic pain. After a debilitating car accident, she becomes a different woman: bitter, angry, stiff and mean.

Silvana (Barraza) is the sympathetic housekeeper/caregiver who worked for her prior to the event. She does what she can to ease the suffering, and seems to be the only one around who hasn't given up on her (Claire's kind husband has since moved out).

Mrs. Bennett, as Silvana calls her, goes through all the motions of coping with her ailment: she attends a therapy group; shows up for swimming therapy and takes her medicine. Actually, she takes too much medicine, as evidenced by hiding pills behind paintings and forcing Silvana to take her to Mexico for additional prescriptions. Quite frankly, she's a mess. But she knows it and doesn't seem to care.

Her situation takes a different shape when her friend Nina (Anna Kendrick), commits suicide. Claire suddenly has something else to focus on, and that focus manifests into visits to the death site and time spent with Nina's surviving family. The question is: does she want to learn about it so she can build the courage to go through with it herself, or attempt to get better in spite of it?

The journey Claire takes isn't easy, and Aniston is so phenomenal in the role, you'll start to feel your muscles ache as you shift in your theater seat. Her communication of the pain—both physical and mental—is nearly tangible it's so real.

In fact, after seeing this, and remembering Aniston years ago in Friends With Money and The Good Girl, I wish she'd pursue more dramatic roles, preferably with scripts as great as this one.

So let's talk about the writing by Patrick Tobin: the dialogue is authentic, the scenarios believable and the plot's not even close to formulaic. The pace mirrors real life in that it speeds up sometimes and goes frustratingly slow at others. We're never sure where Claire is going, because she isn't either.

At heart, we're asked to examine how we react when confronted with the unthinkable and how that reaction determines how or if we'll recover from it.

Go see the film for Aniston's performance, and be reminded that most of us have it very easy.


Thursday, January 29, 2015


Tonight I saw the documentary Citizenfour, created by Laura Poitras.

The film documents Edward Snowden's journey in leaking information about the National Security Agency (NSA) to the media, thus igniting a firestorm of controversy that rippled across the world.

I'll admit—when I first heard about Snowden's leaks, I had mixed emotions. Part of me thought he seemed like a brat who probably just wanted attention (and could have taken a more appropriate path to reveal what he knew); the other part of me silently hoped he was just an attention-seeker, because if he was revealing the truth, our country was in real trouble.

Over time, after reading up on the case against him and hearing about how extensive the surveillance was (is) on all of our American communications, I couldn't help but think he's a hero with a noble cause. After seeing this movie, which is admittedly biased in his favor, I still think his actions took courage.

What was most frightening was how quickly the authorities moved in on his girlfriend, the journalists investigating his claims, etc. Being a whistleblower is dangerous; loving a whistleblower or helping them blow said whistle is undeniably risky.

I appreciated the candor of Snowden in this film, and the way that Poitras virtually took herself out of the narrative unless she was reading their correspondence aloud.

Whatever side you're on as an American (or as a foreigner who may also be affected by such intrusions of privacy), this film is powerful enough to give you pause.


Sunday, January 25, 2015


Tonight I saw Birdman, starring Michael Keaton and Edward Norton.

Riggan Thomson (Keaton) is a washed-up actor who played a famous superhero in decades past. People in his life (his daughter, his ex-wife) seem to care about him, though his narcissism makes his persona difficult for the audience to embrace.

When we meet him, he's thrown everything that he has into creating a Broadway play in hopes of staging a comeback/feeling important/remaining relevant. In this play are a sparring couple, Lesley (Naomi Watts) and Mike (Norton); both of whom have their issues too. Thomson's daughter, Sam (Emma Stone), fresh from rehab, acts as his reluctant assistant.

As they spiral toward opening night, the theater is in chaos, mostly due to its stars. Thomson and the voice he hears inside his head (strangely sounding just like an early '90s Batman) mixed with the nuttiness of method-actor-Mike, makes the shaky camera work here seem almost necessary.

But it really isn't. In fact, that technique only made the film seem as if it were desperate to remain as relevant as its star. As if the distraction of dizziness would make up for the substance that the story so sorely lacks.

I'm astounded by the praise this film is receiving. I don't take any issue with the performances (though I'd put Norton's ahead of Keaton's in any race), but a screenplay so all over the place shouldn't be mistaken for genius. The special effects and the pretentious speeches take any heart that could have been evident and throw it out the window ... onto a safe ledge, where everyone in this film seems to land.

The saving grace that kept me from throwing in the towel and just walking out was the chemistry between Stone and Norton. Although Stone is distractingly styled to look like an Edward Gorey character, eyes bugging for effect, there is an actual connection between her and Norton in the few scenes they share. Never mind the age difference, these two could be believed as a mismatched, dysfunctional pair that for some reason work.

Unfortunately that wasn't enough for me to jump on the bandwagon and hold this up to other Oscar nominees in the Best Picture category. It's just not that profound.


Saturday, January 24, 2015


Tonight I saw Whiplash, starring Miles Teller and J. K. Simmons.

Based loosely on writer/director Damien Chazelle's own experiences, the film chronicles the study of Andrew (Teller) under the direction of Fletcher (Simmons) at the country's most prestigious school of music.

Andrew is just 19, the youngest one in the studio program, when he begins his jazz drills under the tough instructor. And when I say 'tough', I don't mean 'difficult' or 'challenging,' I mean downright menacing with a touch of evil.

Fletcher's character is the kind of guy who will pretend as if he's interested in you to learn personal things about you, solely for the purpose of someday using them against you. He's also (apparently) homophobic judging from the theme of his many slurs—used to make the students 'better' musicians, of course.

Although he's stronger than many of his classmates, Andrew does have moments of weakness, which Fletcher preys upon every chance he gets. It's really 107 minutes of watching excruciating pain and discomfort. But that doesn't mean it's bad.

Perhaps I had a visceral reaction to it because I had a family member and a dance coach who behaved in very similar fashions, but the fact I did recoil tells me there was something there to feel.

The performances are first rate, and the Oscar nomination Simmons received may even be unfairly shadowing the brilliance of Teller, who wears every moment of his journey on his face. We always know what he's thinking, even when he's not vocalizing.

I also appreciated the camera angles on the instruments, and the director's gift of perspective. I always felt like I was in that band room or on that stage.

Forgiving the painfully formulaic aspects of the movie, and going in to appreciate it vs. enjoy it makes it a fully worthwhile watch.


Thursday, January 22, 2015


Tonight I screened Mortdecai, starring Johnny Depp and Ewan McGregor.

Art dealer Charlie Mortdecai (Depp) is going broke and in danger of losing his luxurious estate. To keep wifey Johanna (Gwyneth Paltrow) happy, he agrees to work with rival Martland (McGregor) to try to help recover a prized painting.

Along the way, he's confronted by many others who are hungry for the artwork and faces grave danger each step of the way. Luckily, he has backup in his "man servant" (Paul Bettany) along with his endless wit.

Sound ridiculous? Well, it is ... but it's supposed to be. And if you can embrace the absurd and hang on for the ride (which takes you from London to Russia to America and back again), the charms of the leading men and the fast pace of the caper will delight you.


Monday, January 12, 2015


Tonight I saw Selma, starring David Oyelowo and Carmen Ejogo.

The year is 1965 and a team of activists, led my Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., are planning a march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama to fight for their right to vote. The Civil Rights movement is brimming with electricity and the South is having none of it.

In this film, we see Dr. King (Oyelowo) like we never have before: vulnerable, hesitant, guilty—even remorseful. He's still the hero we all recognize, but here, Director Ava DuVernay shows him for the human he was. Imperfect, troubled, brilliant and thoughtful. Oyelowo resembles him so much that each frame of the movie feels like one more step into a time machine. One that reminds us even the greatest of men have their flaws.

His wife Coretta (Ejogo) is also refreshingly real, taking her husband to task for his alleged infidelity, and expressing her (prophetic) fears about his certain death. She's quiet and stoic, but definitely no pushover.

And the film isn't just about the Kings; it's about so much more. It's about everyday people who fought for justice in a time of horrible racial tension. It's about overcoming ignorance. It's about coming to the end of one's collective tether. It's about righting decades of wrongs. It's about growing an America we can all be proud of, someday.

The film filled me with such rage, I only wish I'd been alive at the time to march alongside the group (I would be born 10 years later, unfortunately). Today's demonstrations, which are sadly still necessary, just don't seem to possess the same conviction these noble Americans had.

Our present day protesters don't have the organization, the discipline, the strength of spirit that those in the 60s worked so hard to perfect. Instead, the core good people that mobilize for change now are overshadowed by the directionless, needy idiots who only want to be sure their mug makes it to social media.

Everyone should see Selma. If not for the history lesson, than for the reminder that justice is worth the fight at any cost.

And we still have so far to go.


Friday, January 09, 2015

Into the Woods

Tonight I saw Into the Woods, starring Emily Blunt and James Corden.

The famous Sondheim musical is translated to the big screen here under the direction of Chicago's Rob Marshall.

Along this journey of fractured fairy tales we meet Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) and [The Big Bad] Wolf (Johnny Depp), Jack and the Beanstalk (Daniel Huttlestone) and his mother (Tracey Ullman), Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy), a baker (Corden) and his wife (Blunt), as well as an evil witch (Meryl Streep) along with a whole host of familiar supporting characters.

When we arrive, the witch has promised to remove the spell of infertility she cast upon the baker and his wife if they bring her four specific items: Little Red Riding Hood's cape; hair like a cornstalk; Cinderella's shoe and a white cow.

The couple desperately seeks to gather the items and while they search, we see the characters play out the narratives we all know from childhood.

At heart, this is a comedic slant on all of the most famous stories, brought to life by some of the most recognizable faces in show business.

Though Meryl Streep is getting all of the press, I was actually most taken with Emily Blunt's performance. Who knew she had such a gorgeous singing voice? When did she become just as great at comedy as she's always been at drama? Here, she absolutely shines.

James Corden makes a lovely complement to Blunt's sincere performance as well. You can't help but sympathize with his ridden-with-guilt face and root for him, despite his weaknesses.

The children are more precocious than cute, but perhaps that was intentional, and Tracey Ullman and Johnny Depp were sorely underused. Depp's howl at the moon was a nice touch, though.

Kids may squirm through the singing, and adults like me will be ready for it to end long before its finale, but there are worse ways you could spend your time.


Thursday, January 08, 2015

The Imitation Game

Tonight I saw The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Matthew Goode.

Alan Turing (Cumberbatch) was a mathematician seeking a challenge during World War II. He found it when he scored a job with the British government and joined a team tasked with cracking a difficult German code.

Always perceived to be 'difficult', Turing had trouble getting along with his peers and preferred to work alone. When that wasn't an option for the top-secret, highly time-sensitive project he was assigned to, he became rivals with Hugh (Goode), a more attractive, sociable genius that really couldn't stand the sight of him.

As the months go on and the solution the government is looking for isn't found, they threaten to pull the plug on the whole operation, which is devastating to all who have worked so hard. To avoid any spoilers, I'll leave it at that.

Because this is based on a true story, much of the film is also about the personal life of Turing, which is just as tragic as his professional reign. He was conflicted in every way, and one may assume the finality of solving math problems was the only true coping mechanism that brought him comfort.

The film does a beautiful job of celebrating his genius and drawing sympathy for his inability to fit in during that era. The cast is fantastic and the actual WWII footage gives the setting a frighteningly authentic touch.

Cumberbatch is a lock for an Oscar nomination, and the film may be as well.

I'd be okay with both.