Aug 10, 2013

Clear History (2013)

A stunningly unfunny comedy, Clear History's failure is all the more disheartening when one considers that it comes from the same minds that penned some of the finest episodes of both Curb Your Enthusiasm and Seinfeld. Nathan Flamm (Larry David, channeling his usual schtick) is an eccentric marketing executive with an upstart electric car company, but the name of their new product—“Howard,” inspired in part by the main character of Ayn Rand's "The Fountainhead"—is so off-putting to him that he sees no choice but to sell back his share of the company and disassociate himself completely, a decision that becomes the focus of public ridicule when the car proves to be a raging, billion-dollar success. Ten years later, Flamm is in hiding on Martha's Vineyard (where the populace, oblivious to his embarrassing and financially ruinous history, knows him as Rolly DaVore) when his former boss, Jon, (Will Haney), buys a local property.

This scenario might have sufficed for a half-hour episode of television, but at feature length, it's stretched past the breaking point, and it's one not helped by the script's tendency to pass over ripe comedic opportunities for those of the obvious and uninspired variety. Given the film's blatant attempts to capitalize on David's long history of playing a socially graceless narcissist (as indicated by the script's assortment of awkward personal encounters, unfortunate coincidences, and typically David-esque pet peeves), it's somewhat astonishing when, after the invocation of Ayn Rand, Flamm's anger over the name Howard is revealed as entirely apolitical, instead proving to be merely a curmudgeon's petty reaction to something new, an unsubstantiated idea necessitated by the script to justify all that follows. Such pettiness is on display throughout, from the predictably structured setups and payoffs of the plot's disparate threads to the tossed-off and callous nature of most of the jokes (a long-gestating gag concerning the weight of Eva Mendez's character, Jennifer, feels particularly cruel) to the almost complete absence of a world with rules and consequences. One of the strengths of Curb Your Enthusiasm was its creation of situations in which David's guilt or innocence was largely beside the point, and the hilarity of his existential frustration worked because of a distinct moral context that questioned the nature of justice. Clear History, by contrast, exists in an arbitrary moral void.

That David manages to score a few laughs throughout is a testament to his innate talent as a comedian, but the script's rehashing of situations, gags and personal hang-ups (some of them dating as far back as the Larry David persona's original incarnation in Seinfeld's George Costanza) to such diminishing returns suggests that a different kind of characterization was called for this time around. Ostensibly, we're supposed to be rooting for Flamm, and while many a successful dark comedy has put far more reprehensible characters in the role of protagonist, Clear History's shorthanded characterizations and ethical vacuum prove so flaccid that it fails even if one views it as a nihilistic statement. Among the largely wasted cast, only Michael Keaton, as a grizzly islander with an appetite for destruction, walks away with his dignity intact, while it's roundly embarrassing to see talent like Philip Baker Hall and J.B. Smoove spinning their tires. On top of it all, the film simply looks banal and dreary, another surprising disappointment given director Greg Mottola's usual flair for infusing life and energy into otherwise visually sparse locations. Clear History fulfills the mantra that Seinfeld cheekily embraced, i.e. it's a film about nothing. Enthusiasm, curbed.

Jun 13, 2013

Current, HRW Film Festival, "The Guillotines," "Beetlejuice," etc.

Less output than I'd have liked the past few weeks, but given that I've finally started proper full time employment for the first time in nearly two years (as opposed to multiple part time job employment in excess of 50 or 60 hours a week), I consider this much in the way of published material to be something of a triumph.

The meatiest is by far my coverage of this year's Human Rights Watch Film Festival, which starts today and runs through June 23 (details here). I covered only six of their 20 films this year, and next year hope to go even more expansive; of the six, Camera/Woman (pictured above) was by far my favorite. At Slant Magazine you'll also find reviews of the disappointing The Guillotines as well as the recent DVD release of the complete animated Beetlejuice series. Last and, to these eyes, most certainly least (in terms of the film; as far as the writing goes, I leave that to your eyes) is my Southern Berks News piece on J.J. Abrams' rank Star Trek Into Darkness. Retch.

May 23, 2013

Current: "The Great Gatsby," "The Last Stand," etc.

A few links to catch up on. Though mixed, I'm ultimately in favor of Baz Luhrmann's all-over-the-place adaptation of The Great Gatsby, my review of which can be read online at the Berks-Mont News here. Less favorable was my take on the threadbare indie comedy 3 Geezers! at Slant Magazine, but it was a film I adored compared to the patience-testing experience that was Pilgrim Song (autopsy detailed here). The cream of the crop was my coverage of the Blu-ray release of Kim Jee-woon's The Last Stand, a Schwarzenegger action vehicle I more or less love in spite of some quibbles. More goodies to come.

May 7, 2013

Current, "Iron Man Three," "The Big Wedding," etc.

Not much new over these past few weeks, but some exciting news in that I'll now be contributing to the online (and occasionally the print) edition of The Southern Berks News. My first review for them is for this summer's first mega-release, Iron Man Three, which I rather shamelessly enjoyed (twice, actually; the 3D is ultimately unnecessary, but well rendered, surprisingly so for a post-conversion job). Why did I write out three, you ask? Because that's how the title appears onscreen, and I'm stubborn like that. Less noteworthy is the documentary Free the Mind, which I wished had proven more substantial given how endearing its subjects are, but it's still leagues away from The Big Wedding, which will likely end up on many worst-of-the-year lists.

Apr 18, 2013

Current: "Naked Lunch," "MST3K XXVI," etc.

Time to catch up on my latest critical endeavors: Murph: The Protector came and went and as near as I can tell no one cared. Fists of Legend may still be playing but, despite some energetic fighting sequences and good performances, it's hardly worth a trip to the theater. On the home video front, it's always excited when I get to review a Mystery Science Theater box set, even the tepid collection of episodes in Volume XXVI (in which I manage to read something like subtext). Last and most certainly not least is The Criterion Collection's blu-ray rerelease of Naked Lunch, a sterling package of a sterling film if I've ever seen one.

Apr 8, 2013

Roger Ebert, 1942 - 2013

There isn't much I can say that hadn't already been repeated a thousandfold by this past Thursday evening. Roger was a mentor, a poet, and even though I never met or corresponded with him directly, a friend. His death comes at a crossroads in my own life and will likely be of greater influence than many live relationships I've had or will have. My first conscious awareness of Roger's presence in the world was through the Microsoft Cinemania program, and I'm grateful to have known his work and his writing as long as I have. Few others have eased the burden of existence so readily. His is a void that will never be filled; the example he gave us as a compassionate, worldly and humble man is such that it never has to be.

You will be missed.

Mar 15, 2013

Current: "Vanishing Waves," "College," etc.

Three new pieces at Slant Magazine for your reading pleasure: Vanishing Waves (pictured above), the best new film I've seen so far in 2013, is out this week in New York and other privileged locations. Greedy Lying Bastards opened last week but is still lingering and is worth a recommendation for those into the whole angry liberal diatribe thing. Finally, and most relevant (to me at least), is the newly released blu-ray of Buster Keaton's overlooked College, considered here.

Mar 2, 2013

Current: "Pavilion," "The Last Exorcism Part II," etc.

Two reviews at Slant Magazine for new releases this week: Pavilion, which was quite good, and The Last Exorcism Part II, which was not.

In other news, as of yesterday, I'm one of the new members of the Online Film Critics Society Governing Committee; over the coming months, I expect to learn more than I can imagine about the intricacies of the film industry and the criticism wing. With some luck (and blood and sweat and tears), I'll have my local renovations completed here before long. Thanks to all for your patience and support in helping this flourish.

Feb 18, 2013

Escape from Planet Earth

It's hard to exhibit anything other than pity toward Escape from Planet Earth, an energetic and well-meaning but thoroughly watered-down and creatively ossified kiddie flick unceremoniously dumped into theaters after languishing in development and production hell for nearly six years.

Feb 15, 2013

The Berlin File

...a sporadically entertaining, modestly ambitious shoot 'em up that frequently succumbs to spelling out its subtext. At least the fisticuffs and gunfights are skillfully composed and edited, none better than an apartment brawl that ends with our protagonist functioning as an impromptu wrecking ball...

Feb 10, 2013

Freebie Flicks: RMS Titanic Edition

In Nacht und Eis (In Night and Ice, 1912)

Atlantis (1913)

Atlantic (1929)

Titanic (1943); if you download the file, you can use these subtitles.

1958's A Night to Remember (embedding disabled).

And James Cameron's Ghosts of the Abyss, a film I cannot recommend but for the extraordinary footage it includes of the wreck. If this silly documentary ditched Bill Paxton and so much of its excessively imposed "narrative," it could've been tremendous, but silver linings notwithstanding, it's easily the weakest effort in Cameron's body of work.

Feb 6, 2013

Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008): A

In 2004, Guillermo Del Toro's Hellboy stood apart from the usual slew of blockbusters with the most unlikely and smart-assed of characters to yet grace the superhero-savvy screen. In returning to the character after the Oscar-lavished Pan's Labyrinth, it only makes sense that Del Toro would take things to eleven; like the take-every-chance zeal of an enthusiastic young director's first film (Re-Animator comes to mind), he makes this one as if worried he'll never be able to make another. The resulting effect is a work of unexpectedly tremendous passion on virtually all levels. The creativity on display shames almost everything in George Lucas’s Star Wars universe, and there are times when Hellboy II brings to mind the everything and the kitchen sink mania of Sam Raimi's impossibly over-exerted Evil Dead II, making this a film prone to inducing sensory overload in the best possible way.

Hypnotic, brilliantly clashing colors light up the senses like an array of electrified stimuli with what must stand as some of the finest art direction in a recent blockbuster film, while Del Toro handles his CG-heavy graphics in such a way as to make them not a storyboarded fantasy, but a similarly roughly-hewn extension of our own world. The story begins long ago with the tale of a war between mankind and the magical races of the world (elves, goblins, etc.), one so punishing it eventually saw the creation of the titular army – the work of a master blacksmith goblin, and one unstoppable to all who did not command it. The agreed-upon treaty between the humans and non-humans was disapproved by one Prince Nuada (Luke Gross), an elf who now, after long preparations, seeks justice for his people and plans to unleash the Golden Army on mankind once again. Enter Hellboy (Ron Perlman) and company, members of an officially nonexistent government organization used to combat the supernatural away from the public eye (that's the idea, at least).

If the first Hellboy was about the loss of our fathers and the mystery of where we come from, Hellboy II centers on where we are going, and what we do when the mantle passes, a universal theme Del Toro fuses with his characters’ sense of isolation (from the humans they protect, from their own non-human kind) with a genuinely artistic heft. Subverting virtually every expectation associated with this kind of film (impromptu appearances by tumors and Barry Manilow are just the tip of many savory pleasures), Del Toro successfully renders his central characters not so much as outcast freaks but as just another link in the chain of an emotionally disconnected world.

Praise be to Ron Perlman, who again proves that this is the role he was born for. Even beneath layers of makeup, he exudes raw, unfettered humanity fronted by snarky attitude. The cast entire submits to the material with just the right mixture of self-serious posturing and sly self-awareness, with special nods to Doug Jones for three separate roles (his main part being a delightful fish-man with the unfortunate moniker of Abraham Sapien), and the sublime vocal work of James Dodd in a part best left undiscussed. Such performances root the film in something identifiably human, no small feat for characters such as these. Almost profound, the film makes one instantly long for more after its pseudo-cliffhanger ending has come to pass. Truly, sometimes the best things come in threes.

Originally published on November 28, 2008 at Suite101

Feb 4, 2013

Quantum of Solace (2008): C-

So often does the bad accompany the good in life, perhaps out of necessity, so that we may truly appreciate the latter. After the ravishing James Bond reboot Casino Royale – arguably the best in the series – it would appear inevitable that the next film ratchet things down a few notches; a cynical view, yes, but one reinforced by the dearth of sequels that rise to the occasion presented before them (The Empire Strikes Back, Before Sunset, and The Godfather, Part II notwithstanding). Quantum of Solace isn't completely execrable, but any box office gold it accrues will be purely incidental. That it wastes one of the best titles the series has yet seen is among the least of its offenses.

To say that sequels are doomed to failure is naïve, but with  Marc Forster at the helm, that the follow-up to Royale turned out to be one of the worst of the series seems more like destiny manifest. Hype indicated that this might be the first Bond film with Oscar potential, yet in attempting to appeal to the "legitimate," often hollow standards of the awards brigade, it forgot what makes good James Bond films tick so furiously. Daniel Craig – the best performer the character has yet seen – was largely responsible for this in his Oscar-robbed performance, yet even he can only pull so much weight with a script as thematically skimpy and a film so clunky in its assembly as Quantum. Like air escaping a punctured balloon, his effort goes to waste. Not unlike an old man relying on his cane, Quantum leans on the dramatic/thematic weight of its predecessor as a means to justify its own existence, routinely looking back in lieu of forging its own pulse. Once a slow-burning ember of self-immolating emotion, Craig's Bond has been offensively reduced to the 007 equivalent of a sulking teenager, and it’s to the actor's enduring credit that as much emotion makes it to the screen as possible.

Squandered from the opening, borderline-incoherent car chase onward, the film screams not only of screenwriter Paul Haggis's contrived methods of exposition, but Forster's unimaginative approach to filmmaking. From his own surface-deep take on the Peter Pan mythos in Finding Neverland to the outright disastrous The Kite Runner, he’s long been a filmmaker who prefers telling over showing, forgoing poetic expression for banal seriousness seemingly made with award show compilations chiefly in mind. Forster drops the torch that was passed to him, and chief among his failures is a dearth of visual continuity: something preferable for any motion picture, and a must for action.

Clueless is the only way to effectively describe the compilations of shaky medium and close-up shots that pose as action scenes; failing to establish any sense of the spatial relationship between the hunter and hunted, they instead play out as motion sans progression, like a videogame with respawning opponents and an unlimited ammo count. Inept to the point of neutering all interest in plot, Quantum may be the lousiest entry since 1975's The Man with the Golden Gun. This time around, Bond's biggest adversaries are those behind the camera.

Originally published on November 16, 2008 at Suite101

Feb 3, 2013

Freebie Flicks: Jerry Maquire (1996)

The related portion of this video starts at the 2:45 mark.

Happy Superb Owl!

(With acknowledgement of the artwork of Takeshita Kenji.)

Feb 2, 2013

Warm Bodies (2013): B

There's plenty about Warm Bodies that can be accurately described as absurd, even stupid, but such can only prove detrimental if one accepts the central premise of a zombie film with literal seriousness in the first place. The dwindling human population amidst the apocalypse is essentially an afterthought here, with a network of survivors holed up, Escape from New York-style, while the perished shamble away in a wistful recreation of their former lives. That zombies can think, use tools, and even communicate has been an established wing of the genre at least since George Romero's Day of the Dead, and Warm Bodies capitalizes on those predecessors to subversively charming effect (impersonating a reanimated corpse, a human lurches about excessively, at which point their unlikely zombie protector groans "too much"). "R" (Nicholas Hoult) is our chief protagonist of the undead (he can't remember his entire name), Julie (Teresa Palmer) the resistance fighter he falls for after eating her dead boyfriend's brains. I suppose this kind of film was inevitable in the wake of the Twilight franchise's success, but whereas those pretentious blockbusters pay trite lip service to fears of age and death, Warm Bodies is confident enough to make fun of itself even whilst sincerely examining the nature of love and self-understanding, no surprise from director Jonathan Levine (of 50/50, a film I'm most grateful for), who also adapted the script from Isaac Marion's 2010 novel. In this regard, the film is a triumph of having its cake and eating it, too, frequently inconsistent even within its own set of zombie "rules" (slow shufflers who spring to caffeinated life when under attack) and all the better for thumbing its nose at expectations with the occasional deviant touch. The low budget look occasionally suggests an unsatisfying television aesthetic, but the creative production design (particularly the creepy skeletons) and earnest script (which is tasteful enough to never explicitly articulate the film's Shakespearean trappings) go a long way in elevating so modest a work. A small pity that John Malkovich doesn't have more to do, but like most of Warm Bodies, he's a pleasure under any circumstance.

LIST: Zombie films I've seen, ranked in order of preference.

Feb 1, 2013

Mama (2013): B

While not without a fair share of what is frequently referred to as "idiot plotting" - contrived circumstances indicative of shoehorned screenwriting - the surprisingly worthwhile Mama almost completely overcomes these flaws with vested characters, assured visuals, and performances as least twice as good as one might expect from a horror entry released in the dumping groups of January. The film begins with financial executive Jeffrey (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) snapping amidst the latest economic downturn, killing his wife and co-workers and kidnapping his two young daughters. His brother Lucas (also Coster-Waldau) leads the unlikely search and rescue, finding young Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lilly (Isabelle Nélisse) five years later, holed up in a remote forest cabin, feral and malnourished. He and his girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain) attempt to raise the brutish girls and undo the damage wrought by their isolation, a noble effort quickly undercut by the titular presence, a twisted, covetous ghost who took to protecting the girls during their disappearance. Director Andrés Muschietti (adapting the film from his own 2008 short) relies heavily on pounding decibels and negative space, not unlike any number of recent lackluster horror releases, albeit delivered here with a refreshingly tempered sleight of hand and a number of breathtaking, genuinely creepy sequences, none better than the hallway shot of Annabel doing laundry, oblivious to the supernatural happenings taking place just out of frame (although a terrifying showdown with the titular spirit, illuminated only by the flash of a camera bulb, comes close). Fairy tale overtones and a touching look at the long-term implications of abandonment go a long way in substantiating the film's weighty subject matter, the cherubic Charpentier and Nélisse almost exquisite as the emotionally/psychologically fractured siblings, the reliably excellent Chastain giving believable complexity to her character's dual feelings of personal yearning and burgeoning maternal instincts. Once the ambiguity of the ghostly scenario has been nullified and the untold stories haunting the past come to light, the creep-outs and supernatural bellowings (and occasional inconsistencies in character judgment) almost wear out their welcome; fortunately, Mama reveals itself as no mere shocker, but a thoughtful rumination on what it means to love, lose, and move on from life's cruel blows.

Jan 31, 2013

Freebie Flicks: Oscar Edition

Apologies for the sparse updates these past few weeks; while I've been busy at work on the blog, it's been less in the way of new content than on the exhaustive effort required to properly format and organize almost seven years' worth of material, plenty to bite off and slow to chew. In exchange for my absence, I offer five Best Picture winners* currently available on YouTube. (KeepVid dot com will allow you to download most of these in HD.)

*Named such in the obsolete category "Unique and Artistic Production," which I'm exploiting here because this remains arguably the greatest film to ever win either award.

Gangster Squad (2013): C-

Normally, I'm a sucker for alternate versions, extended editions, and director's cuts of films, as the differences between such versions often illustrate the role even seemingly minor editorial choices play in affecting the overall quality or nature of a film (case in point: the qualitative divide that but a few changes wrought on the unrated cut of the criminally misunderstood Miami Vice). Gangster Squad, however, is so viscerally lethargic and emotionally vacuous that I've no interest in seeing the inevitable "unaltered" cut featuring the movie theater shootout that was promptly excised and worked around after the unspeakable bloodshed at the Aurora shooting some six weeks before the film was originally slated for release. When it comes to cinematic depictions of violence, there are few examples that prompt my personal concern over the effect had on their intended audience, and while the cops 'n robbers shoot 'em up relentlessness of Gangster Squad never struck me as evil, the superficial characterizations and morose plotting that abound effectively rob the spent bullets and dead bodies of even the fleeting substance of genre thrills. Director Ruben Fleischer (of Zombieland) crafts many a beautiful surfaces and seemingly knows how to cast a film for maximum archetypal flair, but amidst the lesser-of-two-evils tale of rogue cops going out on a limb to take down gangster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn, essentially a more boring version of Robert De Niro to this film's The Untouchables), virtually everything is a surface, all style and pose devoid of soul. That the aforementioned movie theater sequence was excised is telling not so much of the film's wanting creativity, but of the culture and values it caters to, and ultimately reinforces, astutely summarized by Slant Magazine's Glenn Heath, Jr.: "Unsettling cinematic images can be notoriously excessive as long as they don't echo real-life tragedy, or even vaguely reference whatever atrocity the paying public has on their minds during the latest news cycle." Gangster Squad wouldn't necessarily be a better film for it, but it'd be a more honest one, as lip service to fallen heroes is among the lighter of this film's numerous artistic and entertainment offenses.

The Last Stand (2013): B+

With apologies to the frequently hilarious but flawed True Lies, The Last Stand might be the best genuine (as opposed to accidental) action/comedy Arnold Schwarzenegger has ever starred in, and rest assured that this excellent B-movie's quick disappearance from multiplexes stands as an indication of both the cultural taste at large as well as what I'd describe as an acute rejection of implicit criticism of American society and values (one that could easily become anti-Americanism if viewed through the warped lens of seemingly every successful conservative talking head), even though it - like the lovingly scabrous view of life on The Simpsons - ultimately embraces it in the end. "You make us immigrants look bad," quips Ahnuld, astonishingly sans irony (it was a stroke of brilliance to cast Johnny Knoxville, who allows the visibly aging star to work as both straight man and not a cybernetic infiltrator), casting into stark relief so many of the disingenuous (or simply stupid) arguments surrounding the national discussion (if we can even call it that much) on gun violence, immigration, crime, and our larger values. With a slow-burning swiftness that's worthy of Carpenter, The Last Stand moves its pieces into place, owning its genre trappings with a zeal that borders on genius (the telephone pole gag might be tops) and never commenting on the aforementioned issues so much as implicitly illuminating them. A drug kingpin (Eduardo Noriega, doing better since Vantage Point) is fleeing the feds (Forest Whitaker, not so convincing as an asshole), his minions (led by Peter Stormare, who also stars in that thing that's eating up the box office as I write this) building a makeshift bridge to Mexico just outside the town of Sommerton Junction, where retired narcotics officer Ray Owen (Schwarzenegger) is playing sheriff. Arnold's a strange guy, and I feel alternately bad for and angry at him for the mistakes he's made, but I'm forever indebted to him for his contributions to the screen (well, some of them; I haven't seen Junior, for instance), something that surely informs the joy I experience seeing him here. The cast entire is impeccable, occasionally taking things to the meta (I'd probably love this movie if only for the sight of Luis Guzman charging down a street with a drum clip-enabled automatic blazing), and if the sequences removed from Sommerton held a little more presence than their merely expositional duties require, I'd be less hesitant to call The Last Stand anything less than great.

Jan 30, 2013

Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013): D

The opening credits of Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters feel like a miniature film unto themselves, and one all too indicative of the movie proper to follow: over-the-top straight out of the gate to the point of hilarity (the action mold satirized in the opening scenes of the Aqua Teen Hunger Force movie come to ridiculous life), only to swiftly succumb to nauseating bombast and violence-fetishizing slow motion that makes Zack Snyder's 300 look subtle by comparison. A pity that the cheeky talent writer-director Tommy Wirkola brought to his slight but enjoyable Dead Snow fizzles here, that film's wry self-deprecation lost amidst Hansel & Gretel's meaningless sound and fury, the occasional successful sight gag and sardonic touch rendered moot amidst so much weightless chaos, transparent attempts at characterization (Peter Stormare in particular seems contemptuous of the material, while a sympathetic Troll named Edward feels like a gutless swing at the Twilight franchise) and cheap anti-establishment posturing. As the titular orphan who, with his sister (Gemma Arterton, still treading water with her fond memories in RocknRolla), defeated a witch as a child, Jeremy Renner brings enough charisma to sporadically cut through the nihilism and suggest the fun that might be had if the film weren't catering to so desensitized a crowd ("But, these go to eleven," you can almost hear the studio heads saying). The many roaring snake-like witches are killed en mass in dispassionately bloody fashion, and one's heart sinks at the thought that talking heads like Michael Savage might have a legitimate point amidst their frothing at the mouth about Hollywood's corruption (although their xenophobic and emotionally paralyzed viewpoints are mostly fubar; my point being that mindless bloodlust is one thing, depictions of evil are another). That this film managed to take the box office during its opening weekend while a genuinely witty genre piece like Jee-woon Kim's The Last Stand flounders says enough about the dual power of a hefty advertising budget and bad taste in our American marketplace. It would be different if Hansel & Gretel were only stupid; that it's also boring is unforgivable.

Jan 14, 2013

Freebie Flicks: College (1927)

Because it fits my mood today, particularly the final thirty seconds. And don't be a moron and just watch the final thirty seconds if you haven't seen the movie before. KeepVid dot com for the download.

Jan 13, 2013

2013 Oscar Predictions

To be updated as the weeks progress and blind spots are caught up on. Locked.

Best Picture: Amour, Argo, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Django Unchained, Les Misérables, Life of Pi, Lincoln, Silver Linings Playbook, Zero Dark Thirty

Will win: Argo
Could win: Lincoln
Should win: Lincoln

Best Director: Michael Haneke, Amour; Ang Lee, Life of Pi; David O. Russell, Silver Linings Playbook; Steven Spielberg, Lincoln; Behn Zeitlin, Beasts of the Southern Wild

Will win: Steven Spielberg, Lincoln
Could win: Michael Haneke, Amour
Should win: Steven Spielberg, Lincoln

Best Actor in a Leading Role: Bradley Cooper, Silver Linings Playbook; Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln; Hugh Jackman, Les Misérables; Joaquin Phoenix, The Master; Denzel Washington, Flight

Will win: Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln
Could win: Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln
Should win: Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln or Joaquin Phoenix, The Master

Best Actress in a Leading Role: Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty; Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook; Emmanuelle Riva, Amour; Quvenzhané Wallis, Beasts of the Southern Wild; Naomi Watts, The Impossible

Will win: Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook
Could win: Emmanuelle Riva, Amour
Should win: Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty or Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook

Best Actor in a Supporting Role: Alan Arkin, Argo; Robert De Niro, Silver Linings Playbook; Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Master; Tommy Lee Jones, Lincoln; Christoph Waltz, Django Unchained

Will win: Tommy Lee Jones, Lincoln
Could win: Robert De Niro, Silver Linings Playbook
Should win: Tommy Lee Jones, Lincoln or Christoph Waltz, Django Unchained

Best Actress in a Supporting Role: Amy Adams, The Master; Sally Field, Lincoln; Anne Hathaway, Les Misérables; Helen Hunt, The Sessions; Jacki Weaver, Silver Linings Playbook

Will win: Anne Hathaway, Les Misérables
Could win: Sally Field, Lincoln
Should win: Sally Field, Lincoln

Best Original Screenplay: Michael Haneke, Amour; Quentin Tarantino, Django Unchained; John Gatins, Flight; Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola, Moonrise Kingdom; Mark Boal, Zero Dark Thirty

Will win: Michael Haneke, Amour
Could win: Quentin Tarantino, Django Unchained
Should win: Quentin Tarantino, Django Unchained or Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola, Moonrise Kingdom

Best Adapted Screenplay: Chris Terrio, Argo; Lucy Alibar and Behn Zeitlin, Beasts of the Southern Wild; David Magee, Life of Pi; Tony Kushner, Lincoln; David O. Russell, Silver Linings Playbook

Will win: Tony Kushner, Lincoln
Could win: Tony Kushner, Lincoln
Should win: Tony Kushner, Lincoln

Best Animated Feature: Brave, Frankenweenie, ParaNorman, The Pirates! Band of Misfits, Wreck-It Ralph

Will win: Wreck-It Ralph
Could win: Frankenweenie
Should win: ParaNorman

Best Foreign Language Film: Amour, Kon-Tiki, No, A Royal Affair, War Witch

Will win: Amour
Could win: Amour
Should win: ?

Best Documentary Feature: Five Broken Cameras, The Gatekeepers, How to Survive a Plague, The Invisible War, Searching for Sugar Man

Will win: Searching for Sugar Man
Could win: The Invisible War
Should win: Five Broken Cameras

Best Documentary (Short Subject): Inocente, Kings Point, Mondays at Racine, Open Heart, Redemption

Will win: Open Heart
Could win: Something else
Should win: ?

Best Live Action Short Film: Asad, Buzkashi Boys, Curfew, Death of a Shadow, Henry

Will win: Curfew
Could win: Ditto the above
Should win: ?

Best Animated Short Film: Adam and Dog, Fresh Guacamole, Head over Heels, The Longest Daycare, Paperman

Will win: Head Over Heels
Could win: Adam and Dog
Should win: Adam and Dog

Best Original Score: Dario Marianelli, Anna Karenina; Alexandre Desplat, Argo; Mychael Danna, Life of Pi; John Williams, Lincoln; Thomas Newman, Skyfall

Will win: Alexandre Desplat, Argo
Could win: John Williams, Lincoln
Should win: Thomas Newman, Skyfall

Best Original Song: "Before My Time" from Chasing Ice, J. Ralph; "Everybody Needs a Friend" from Ted, Walter Murphy and Seth MacFarlane; "Pi' Lullaby" from Life of Pi, Mychael Danna and Bombay Jayashri; "Skyfall" from Skyfall, Adele Adkins and Paul Epworth; "Suddenly" from Les Misérables, Claude-Michel Schönberg, Herbert Kretzmer, and Alain Boublil

Will win: "Skyfall,"
Could win: "Skyfall"
Should win: "Skyfall"

Best Sound Editing: Argo, Erik Aadahl and Ethan Van der Ryn; Django Unchained, Wylie Stateman; Life of Pi, Eugene Gearty and Philip Stockton; Skyfall, Per Hallberg and Karen Baker Landers; Zero Dark Thirty, Paul N. J. Ottosso

Will win: Skyfall
Could win: Zero Dark Thirty
Should win: Skyfall

Best Sound Mixing: Argo, John Reitz, Gregg Rudloff, and Jose Antonio Garcia; Les Misérables, Andy Nelson, Mark Paterson, and Simon Hayes; Life of Pi, Ron Bartlett, D. M. Hemphill, and Drew Kunin; Lincoln, Andy Nelson, Gary Rydstrom, and Ronald Judkins; Skyfall, Scott Millan, Greg P. Russell, and Stuart Wilson

Will win: Life of Pi
Could win: Les Misérables
Should win: Life of Pi

Best Production Design (formerly Art Direction): Anna Karenina, Sarah Greenwood and Katie Spencer; The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Dan Hennah, Ra Vincent, and Simon Bright; Les Misérables, Eve Stewart and Anna Lynch-Robinson; Life of Pi, David Gropman and Anna Pinnock; Lincoln, Rick Carter and Jim Erickson

Will win: Anna Karenina
Could win: Les Misérables
Should win: Lincoln

Best Cinematography: Anna Karenina, Seamus McGarvey; Django Unchained, Robert Richardson; Life of Pi, Claudio Miranda; Lincoln, Janusz Kamiński; Skyfall, Roger Deakins

Will win: Life of Pi
Could win:  Skyfall
Should win: Lincoln or Django Unchained

Best Makeup and Hairstyling: Hitchcock, Howard Berger, Peter Montagna, and Martin Samuel; The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Peter Swords King, Rick Findlater, and Tami Lane; Les Misérables, Lisa Westcott and Julie Dartnell

Will win: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Could win: Les Misérables
Should win: Les Misérables

Best Costume Design: Anna Karenina, Jacqueline Durran; Les Misérables, Paco Delgado; Lincoln, Joanna Johnston; Mirror Mirror, Eiko Ishioka; Snow White and the Huntsman, Colleen Atwood

Will win: Anna Karenina
Could win: Mirror Mirror
Should win: Lincoln

Best Film Editing: Argo, William Goldenberg; Life of Pi, Tim Squyres; Lincoln, Michael Kahn; Silver Linings Playbook, Jay Cassidy and Crispin Struthers; Zero Dark Thirty, Dylan Tichenor and William Goldenberg

Will win: Argo
Could win: Lincoln
Should win: Lincoln or Zero Dark Thirty

Best Visual Effects: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Joe Letteri, Eric Saindon, David Clayton, and R. Christopher White; Life of Pi, Bill Westenhofer, Guillaume Rocheron, Erik-Jan De Boer, and Donald R. Elliott; The Avengers, Janek Sirrs, Jeff White, Guy Williams, and Dan Sudick; Prometheus, Richard Stammers, Trevor Wood, Charley Henley, and Martin Hill; Snow White and the Huntsman, Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, Philip Brennan, Neil Corbould, and Michael Dawson

Will win: Life of Pi
Could win: Prometheus
Should win: Prometheus

Jan 11, 2013

Welcome to the Machine

Weider doesn't explicitly articulate his own opinions on technological possibilities, and as a father clearly in love with his children every arduous step of the way, his position is most likely—and understandably—a biased one. But that doesn't prevent him from purporting something genuinely fair and balanced in his assembled dialogue of recounted experiences and stated philosophies from self-described technophiles and medical-advancement beneficiaries, as well as personal letters from and segments of the murderous Unabomber Kaczynski's manifesto.

Freebie Flicks: Cronenberg Double Feature (& Bonus)

As I type this, I've been awake for 19 hours straight with no end of the tunnel in sight. This stretch has so far included two work shifts and one opening night viewing (wide release) of Zero Dark Thirty, and as a break, I'm posting some more free movies. Here are two very different, very important (are there any other kind?) David Cronenberg films, Scanners and Spider (the latter of which I was privileged to write some words about here), as well as the YouTube rip of his commentary track for The Fly. If you love film, maybe not even that one in particular, I'd say it's absolutely worth a listen, as you'll probably learn things you never thought of. In case you don't know this valuable resource, will allow you to download these and many other online videos as any number of file types. Enjoy.

Jan 10, 2013

Catching Up: Oscar Hopefuls Edition, Part II

Joe Wright's obsessively stylized (some would say over-) direction hasn't been my cup of tea in the past, but his boldly staged Anna Karenina is drunk enough on art direction alone that I'm now convinced his past efforts are worthy of a reappraisal. Here, the stage and cinema meet in a merged dimension that suggests Sucker Punch by way of masterpiece theater; warts and all, I was about in love with it by the ten minute mark when a symmetrically dispersing floor of paper pushers finds itself accompanied by an out-of-nowhere handful of roving musicians. Kiera Knightley seems to have lost some of her audience appeal in recent period pieces (how else to explain her master class turn in A Dangerous Method going almost completely overlooked?), but she's as well-used here as in Wright's past works, and it's almost high praise to say she stands out amongst the sumptuous surroundings (as her scorned husband, Jude Law lends additional moral complexity to the proceedings). The oppressive social expectations of women are explicitly examined via Tolstoy's classic story, but here even more blatantly, cinematically so via the film's interpretation of life as performance on the public stage, and what the film potentially loses through the elevation of style is gained back in multitudes through reflexive autocritique and self-devouring meta-ness. The hit to miss ratio is about even, and the ending in particular feels less than thought out, but the end result remains quixotically affecting, and more than the sum of its many delirious parts.

If there's anything in the way of legitimate human emotion to be found in the fraudulent The Impossible (the title is supposed to refer to the human spirit, or the statistical unlikelihood of the depicted events, but as a final reveal it suggests a party host unaware that they've just soiled themselves in front of the guests), you can chalk it up to the considerable talent of the cast, most of whom are wasted in this over-glorified horror shlock that thinks of itself as a Lifetime melodrama (I never thought I'd say this, but, if only). Spoilers ahoy, folks. The most existentially disturbing natural disaster in memory becomes a mere backdrop for a white family in peril, which is not to suggest the knee-jerk liberal political correctness I used to so frequently trip over, only that the larger scope of death and destruction is effectively whisked away by this misguided survivor's tale, which offensively implies that the preservation of a single family somehow diminishes the larger tragedy at hand, to which only lip service is offered in the form of dispassionately fleeting wide shots of mass suffering. Case in point: the film opens with darkness accompanied by the deafening rumble of a mounting wave, later an absurd point-of-view shot from the ocean itself, but the closing pan over the Thai landscape devastated by the 2004 tsunami barely registers an afterthought amidst all the life-affirming, "now it makes sense" hokum. Between these distasteful bookends is a whorish concentration of shamelessly manipulative suspense tactics (separated family members just missing each other) and pornographic levels of destruction nowhere near as terrifying as they should be. Of its many odious missteps, what reeks most about The Impossible is that it mistakes adventurous titillation for humanitarian mourning.

The biggest champions of Life of Pi describe a mountainous visual achievement that makes a profound statement on life, God, existence, etc., perhaps unfairly bringing to mind 2001: A Space Odyssey as a point of comparison. In short, I think Ang Lee's film, adapted from Yann Martel's "unfilmable" novel, is a remarkable achievement, but I think such hyperbolic praise does this gentle storybook of a movie a disservice, thematically and aesthetically. Stranded on a lifeboat in the Pacific Ocean after a shipwreck drowns his family en route to America, Pi (Suraj Sharma) survives his ordeal not only for nearly two-thirds of a year, but with the companionship of a Bengal tiger (amusingly named Richard Parker) who also escaped the sinking vessel. At least, that's one version of the story, which is relayed by the adult Pi (Irrfan Khan) through a flashback device that's belabored on the page but plays out as almost natural with Lee's understated flourishes. Visually, Life of Pi is pleasing, but despite its ground-up 3D visuals (or perhaps because of them), most of its compositions struck me as flat; initially disappointing, a second viewing convinced me these could satisfactorily be interpreted as the illustrations of a children's book, one that tenderly presents the young (and young at heart) with Great Ideas that, while enunciated and telegraphed, lose little of their vibrancy or wonder. Splashes of the audacity the director exhibited in Hulk could have been tripled for my taste, and there's some glorious natural imagery (a whale ascending through an jellyfish-filled ocean comes immediately to mind) that speaks for itself. I remain convinced that Martel's novel could have yielded a greater film in different hands, but Lee's work remains one to be grateful for.

Seemingly tethered together with random scraps of litter and pulp not unlike the makeshift home of its young protagonist, Beasts of the Southern Wild yearns to find eternal truths under impossible circumstances, and succeeds with flying colors by my watch. Quvenzhané Wallis is Hushpuppy, a young girl forced to survive growing up and the elements amid the absence of her mother and infrequent presence of her alcoholic, sickly father (Dwight Henry), who refuses to leave their home - "The Bathtub," a fictional, mystical community cut off from New Orleans by the levees - even when a Katrina-like storm brings floods, disease, and the threat of starvation. Much ado has been made about the film's social and gender depictions, criticisms that strike me as missing the gist of Hushpuppy's necessarily compromised life and vantage point: her tomboy demeanor, her tolerance of her father's recklessness, her cosmic view of the natural world (frequently manifested in the form of imagined Aurochs that symbolize the beasts, internal and external, with which she must reckon), all point to the thriftiness of someone forced to find their place in the world with minimal guidance, bereft of proper civilization or technology. Benh Zeitlin's debut feature goes for broke with earthy, abstract imagery (unlike, say, Killer of Sheep, Beasts' well-worn images are deliberately so), and only fleetingly does this fantastical facade reveal itself, as the locally cast extras sometimes push their archetypes to the breaking point. Those hiccups are quickly swallowed by Beasts' profoundly affecting weirdness, the coming-of-age of a character as naïve as she is remarkable.

For all of its obvious storytelling shorthands and familiar narrative beats, I was smitten by the lived-in characters and relationships of David O. Russell's The Fighter, and his similarly unpretentious Silver Linings Playbook now occupies the same chamber of my moviegoing heart. Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence are Patrick and Tiffany, two young adults recovering from the devastating blows life has dealt them when they meet cute at a mutual friend's dinner party. No shortage of bellyaching has taken place over the film's purportedly demeaning portrayal of mental health disorders, yet as someone with more than their share of experience with depression, ADHD, OCD and PTSD (shall I continue?), such struck me as tastefully rendered within the confines of the film's chosen rom-com genre trappings, their portrayal lent genuine heft by Lawrence and Cooper's elastic sensibilities and smouldering chemistry. It also helps, I suppose, that I've learned to laugh at myself when it comes to some of my own emotional shortcomings, and perhaps even (despite being no fan of the team) being raised in the same region where the film takes place, where the Philadelphia Eagles are less of a sports team and more of a hallowed religion. Russell's work isn't exactly visually progressive (lots of visual snatches and impromptu cuts that seem more impulsive than lazy, which, despite my personal recommendation here, makes one wonder about the taste of those who deemed his work here Oscar-worthy), but Silver Lining succeeds less on the merits of aesthetics than its willingness to give in to crowd-pleasing effervescence. I wouldn't seal it in a time capsule for future civilizations like I would The Turin Horse, but I'll take it anyway.

Jan 9, 2013

Freebie Flick: Videodrome (1983)

I've found myself on a Cronenberg kick recently, what with the DVD/Blu-ray release of Cosmopolis and my long-overdue acquisition of A Dangerous Method as a Christmas present (to me, from me). In perusing YouTube for some of my blind spots within his filmography, I found a surprising wealth of his films available there, and so will be having something of an anti-Oscar Cronenberg series here for the next week or two. First up, his masterpiece Videodrome. Check out KeepVid to download the file.

Mandatory Oscar Nominations Predictions

Can you tell how excited I am? Actually, elated as I feel almost completely ignoring the awards season madness for the past few years compared to the exhaustive attempts at coverage I used to waste my time on (even more invigorating, however, was the day I stopped frequenting IMDb message boards), the truth is that there still is and probably always will be a small part of me that invests in these things: the race, the tension, the agony, the ecstasy. It's a great feeling when a film you love is up for an Oscar, but on the flipside, it's that much more difficult to ignore the other 50-75% of the time when you've allow such fleeting pleasures to creep in. Then there's the unfortunate fact that Oscars and their like play a serious, if perhaps diminishing, role in the landscape of determining what we watch, and need acknowledgement if only out of caution or paranoia.

With no further delay, here are my nomination predictions.

Best Actor in a Leading Role: Bradley Cooper, Silver Linings Playbook; Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln; John Hawkes, The Sessions; Hugh Jackman, Les Misérables; Denzel Washington, Flight

Best Actress in a Leading Role: Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty; Marion Cotillard, Rust and Bone; Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook; Quvenzhane Wallis, Beasts of the Southern Wild; Naomi Watts, The Impossible

Best Actor in a Supporting Role: Alan Arkin, Argo; Robert De Niro, Silver Linings Playbook; Leonardo DiCaprio, Django Unchained; Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Master; Tommy Lee Jones, Lincoln

Best Actress in a Supporting Role: Sally Field, Lincoln; Anne Hathaway, Les Misérables; Helen Hunt, The Sessions; Nicole Kidman, The Paperboy; Maggie Smith, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

Best Director: Ben Affleck, Argo; Kathryn Bigelow, Zero Dark Thirty; Ang Lee, Life of Pi; Steven Spielberg, Lincoln; Quentin Tarantino, Django Unchained

Best Picture: Argo, Django Unchained, The Impossible*, The Intouchables, Les Misérables, Life of Pi, Lincoln, Silver Linings Playbook, Zero Dark Thirty (if there are nine nominees, add Skyfall, and if the full ten, Moonrise Kingdom)

*UPDATE: I made a serious effort to avoid everything in the way of published Oscar commentary prior to formulating my own predictions, and didn't want to alter this choice without at least acknowledging and explaining my reasons for doing so, even if it's only a few dozen who might've possibly noticed the inconsistency. I could go into detail about how The Intouchables, my replacement choice (a film I'd happily forgotten for some time), and The Impossible  (which I only saw for the first time yesterday) share certain overlapping qualities (eerily paralleled by their similar titles) frequently adored by miserable white men in Hollywood, but you probably get the idea already.

UPDATE, Post-nominations: Depending on how you guage the sliding scale Best Picture field, my guesses were about 70% accurate. Not bad for a year with a nice batch of surprises.

Jan 7, 2013

Texas Chainsaw (2013)

The Cabin in the Woods looks exponentially more rotten in hindsight, but it's still preferable to the bottom-of-the-barrel shlock it purports to deconstruct. Case in point: in 1974, Tobe Hooper tackled the unrest of a generation while elevating the horror genre in his masterpiece The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It's hard to imagine a sharper fall from grace than Texas Chainsaw, a cartoonish 3D-equipped sequel/ripoff so infantile in characterization and cavernous in subtext that, along with its corny abbreviated title, instills a palpable fear that we're collectively regressing to the point of realizing the Oscar-winning film Ass as envisioned in Mike Judge's satire Idiocracy. John Luessenhop's film picks up shortly after the cliffhanger conclusion to the original, when a local mob torches the Sawyer household for harboring the murderous Jedidiah "Leatherface." Cut to present day, when the lone known survivor of that riot (Edith, adopted as Heather, skillfully phoned in by Alexandra Daddario) learns of her alternate family history and an inheritance that awaits her in Texas. After a reel's worth of mandatory exposition not worthy of a screensaver, it's time for the chopping block: it's unclear whether it's been the roughly twenty years Heather's apparently aged since she survived her family's murder or the nearly forty years since Hooper's landmark film (if only a continuity of events were the worst offense herein), but either way, Jed's been living in the basement of the Sawyer mansion all these years, waiting for fresh meat. Heather's friends and eye candy boyfriend serve nicely, but a brush with the local redneck cliches is all it takes for her to warm up to the maniac who diced her friends and tried the same with her, because, you know, he's family. Fourth-wall breaking visual gags and pornographic levels of meaningless violence abound as Texas Chainsaw reaches its offensively tacky, ideologically confused climax, and you'd be forgiven for expecting to see the long-separated cousins in a warm embrace before the credits roll. Perhaps the first-ever R rated film made for children; pardon me while I reassess my stance on the death penalty. If 2013 has a worse horror film to offer, I don't want to see it.

Jan 6, 2013

OFCS Ballot (& Winners)

Due by midnight tonight, I put off submitting my choices for the annual Online Film Critic Society awards in hopes that I'd somehow have been able to see Zero Dark Thirty in time for consideration (and, to a lesser extent, my other blind spot, Rust and Bone). Alas, it was not to be, but I doubt Kathryn Bigelow's film will be hurt much by my inability to abstain. Below are the nominees, with my choices in bold and notated with asterisks. (I've placed my blind spots in parenthesis for context.)

UPDATE 1/7/13: Winners are underlined.

Holy Motors
The Master
*Moonrise Kingdom 
(Zero Dark Thirty)

The Secret World of Arrietty
Wreck-It Ralph

Holy Motors
(Rust and Bone)
This Is Not a Film
*The Turin Horse

The Imposter
The Invisible War
Jiro Dreams of Sushi
The Queen of Versailles
*This Is Not a Film

Ben Affleck – Argo
Paul Thomas Anderson – The Master
*Wes Anderson – Moonrise Kingdom 
(Kathryn Bigelow – Zero Dark Thirty)
Leos Carax – Holy Motors

Daniel Day-Lewis – Lincoln
John Hawkes – The Sessions
Denis Lavant – Holy Motors
*Joaquin Phoenix – The Master 
Denzel Washington – Flight

(Jessica Chastain – Zero Dark Thirty)
Jennifer Lawrence – Silver Linings Playbook
Emmanuelle Riva – Amour
Quvenzhané Wallis – Beasts of the Southern Wild
*Rachel Weisz – The Deep Blue Sea

Alan Arkin – Argo
Dwight Henry – Beasts of the Southern Wild
Philip Seymour Hoffman – The Master
*Tommy Lee Jones – Lincoln 
Christoph Waltz – Django Unchained

Amy Adams – The Master
Ann Dowd – Compliance
*Sally Field – Lincoln 
Anne Hathaway – Les Misérables
Helen Hunt – The Sessions

The Cabin in the Woods – Joss Whedon, Drew Goddard
Looper – Rian Johnson
*The Master – Paul Thomas Anderson 
Moonrise Kingdom – Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola
(Zero Dark Thirty – Mark Boal)

Argo – Chris Terrio
Beasts of the Southern Wild – Lucy Alibar, Benh Zeitlin
Cloud Atlas – Lana Wachowski, Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski
Cosmopolis – David Cronenberg
*Lincoln – Tony Kushner 

Argo – William Goldenberg
Cloud Atlas – Alexander Berner
*The Master – Leslie Jones, Peter McNulty 
Skyfall – Stuart Baird
(Zero Dark Thirty – William Goldenberg, Dylan Tichenor)

Life of Pi – Claudio Miranda
*Lincoln – Janusz Kaminski 
The Master – Mihai Malamiare Jr.
Moonrise Kingdom – Robert D. Yeoman
Skyfall – Roger Deakins

Jan 5, 2013

Freebie Flick: Fury (1936)

Having finally put down some of my thoughts on Lincoln, I'm feeling more politically charged than usual, so today's free movie is Fritz Lang's Fury, the director's first American film and one of my favorites of the 1930s. Don't forget to visit KeepVid to download the files for your personal viewing pleasure. I also personally recommend the VLC media player for smooth playback, especially with multi-part film downloads.

Lincoln (2012)

Among the many astonishing qualities of Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, perhaps the most immediate is the apparent effortlessness with which it dispenses with all manner of expectation one might approach the film with while also grounding its ideas and narrative in a democratic exercise in populist storytelling. Bringing to mind Sidney Lumet's 12 Angry Men (another one of the all-time-great socially minded dramas frequently pigeonholed as a mere civics lesson), this almost impossibly nimble, morally palpable historical exercise begins mere months before the 16th President's assassination, as the Civil War draws to a close and with it the possibility of permanently banning slavery via constitutional amendment, as the Emancipation Proclamation, passed two years prior, is likely to be overruled by the courts in the coming peacetime. Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner (joining forces again after the brilliant, devastating Munich), never condescending to their modern audience, acknowledge the murky waters of historical interpretation up front with several choice, self-aware cinematic flourishes, but otherwise settling in for an exquisitely measured symphony of ideas, relationships and compromises that's less about the predetermined outcome (a trait that doesn't prevent an ounce of the film's tightly ratcheted suspense) than the rigors of political processes (and progresses) and the nature of power, perceived and exercised.

Interpreting historical records with sound logic and a clarity of motivation that doesn't purport hard data, Kushner's script implicitly examines its own necessary liberties by investigating the very act of interpretation within the law and one's public duty to uphold it, deftly balancing Lincoln's high-wire act of acquiring the necessary voting majority with his own personal tumult (as expressed by an alternative fiery and internalized, altogether flawless Daniel Day-Lewis) following the deaths of two of his sons and wife Mary Todd's (a tremendous Sally Field, at once charged and crumbling) ensuing mental instability. John Williams' comparatively minimalist score compliments Spielberg's images (Janusz Kamiński's restrained, poetic lighting schemes add even greater subtlety to this morally exploratory work) without telegraphing emotion, but it's the spoken words of the cast that add the most music to this affair: from Tommy Lee Jones and David Strathairn to James Spader and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, there isn't a weak link to be found, and through them Kushner's writing plays as both quotidian and poetic. A work of immense personal and political significance, as enamored with a great man's limitations and downfalls as his strengths and triumphs, the accomplishments of the past and the difficulties of the future, Lincoln bears witness to a master film artist in perfect form, as essential an entry in Spielberg's catalog as his most popular blockbusters and heralded epics.

A final note, and spoilers ahoy: there's been enough of a brouhaha about the film's concluding scenes - particularly the purported exploitation of children during such - that I feel compelled to comment. As one who recently lost a parent, the suggestion that portraying such a loss through the eyes of a child is unto itself in poor taste or can only amount to callous manipulation, is, to be blunt, utter horseshit, and probably comes mostly from the same delusional cynics who'd rather have seen the assassination itself than the personal fallout, culminating in a gently heartbreaking, wholly earned Christlike idolization and what strikes me as one of the great image fades the medium has ever seen; it wasn't until the third time I say the film that I noticed Abraham's son Robert (Gordon-Levitt) is also by his side in death, and the personal effect this had remains simply beyond words. Don't listen for a moment to Sam Yell Jackson's diatribes (I like the man, but the use of Twitter as a platform just begs to be mocked; apparently, he didn't detect the tragic irony in those final words, "I suppose it's time to go, although I would rather stay."), Steven: Lincoln is a masterpiece.

Jan 3, 2013

Freebie Flick: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

Why pay cash money to see a retread that's probably terrible* when the classic that spawned it is readily available for home viewing? In this case, for free. (And if you go to a web site called KeepVid, you can download most any online video in almost any format for easy storage and transportation elsewhere.) Stay tuned for more free stuff, some of it timely, some random, all aspiring to awesomeness.

*If, in fact, Texas Chainsaw 3D turns out to not be garbage, I'll happily announce such. I'm always glad to be wrong when it means there's a good film to be had. I'm looking forward to the reviews, but otherwise, I'm happily protective of my preciously finite legal tender.