Tag Archives: Amy Adams

“ARRIVAL” Review (✫✫✫✫)

SOURCE: Paramount Pictures

Changing the things we can, and confronting the things we cannot.

There is a double meaning to the title Arrival, although you wouldn’t know it if you haven’t seen the film. On the surface, Arrival looks like another science-fiction thriller, unraveling an extraordinary world to an ordinary one, quietly observing how one reacts to the other. What the film turns into as it draws to its closing moments is a question of mortality, a search for purpose in life, and how we face the inevitable.

Confronting the life-long question of “Are we alone in the universe?”, Arrival starts on a bleak day where alien ships land on different continents all over the globe. Their landings seems to be without pattern or purpose, but whatever their motivations are, they don’t confront the human residents with hostility. Their ships just rest there, floating vertically over the horizon, awaiting brief interactions with the humans watching in awe below.

Enter Louise Banks (Amy Adams), an experienced linguist who is notable for her translation of thousands of languages. Louise is recruited alongside physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) by Colonel Webber (Forest Whitaker) to find out as much as they can about Earth’s new visitors, and if they establish communication, find out what they’re doing here. As Louise delves deeper into the aliens’ minds, she makes a discovery so shocking that will change the course of the human species forever.

One of the most unique elements of the film is how intelligently it approaches its strange premise. Director Denis Villeneuve, who directed the deeply unsettling films Prisoners and Sicario, approaches Arrival not as a typical science-fiction blockbuster, but instead as a quiet observation of the extraterrestrial, how human beings react to the unknown, and how we build bridges to learn foreign communication. I didn’t know what exactly to expect when going in to see Arrival, but after watching it I know one thing for certain: it is definitely not an action movie. A thriller, maybe. But the film doesn’t excite you as much as it educates you, and that immersion in knowledge is where the movie finds its niche.

Let me break down one of the movie’s key scenes to show you what I’m talking about. In one exchange between Webber and Louise, Webber tells her to ask the aliens one question: “What is your purpose here?” One sentence, five words. Seems simple enough. Yet when Louise breaks it down, she explains how complex the question actually is to those unfamiliar with the language, from differentiating between a question and a statement, to identifying the meaning behind “what”, to whether “your” is plural or singular, to even defining what the word “purpose” means. To us, these are simple concepts because we’ve been educated on these since we were children. But when communicating with someone or something else that has spent their entire lives learning another form of communication? How do you even begin to bridge that gap?

This film’s exploration into our interpretation of language is one that is only seldom observed in both mainstream and independent cinema alike. The fact that Villeneuve translated it into a science-fiction film is sheer brilliance on his part, as he draws comparisons between the humans and the aliens in the film to the real-life encounters we’ve shared with our own species in the past. Think, for instance, the first time the pilgrims landed in America and met Native Americans for the first time in the 1620’s. Spaceships and aliens aside, would their interactions really have been that different from what we’re seeing in the film?

This is a great film from Villeneuve: a thoughtful minimalist masterpiece that evokes the same eeriness and existentialism as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey does. If there is any weakness, it is the drudging tone and pacing that follows the film everywhere it goes. We as moviegoers are so used to movies that are quick-paced, fast-tempoed and always watching something happen on-screen. It’s not usual to find a film as slow-moving, contemplative, and uneventful as this. In that lack of excitement, viewers might have a hard time immersing themselves into such a sublime picture when they’re so used to watching flashy effects and movement light up the screen.

And yet, I don’t fault Arrival for this choice of tone. Not one bit. That’s because the pacing isn’t a mistake on its part: it’s intentional. If real-life aliens ever did come to our planet, our first instinct wouldn’t be to shoot at them like a Michael Bay movie. No, we would try to establish communication with them and find out what exactly they want from us. We would be surprised, confused, scared, maybe intimidated all at once by their presence. In embodying our emotions in such a situation, Arrival’s slow pacing is validated due to the reality the film tries to encompass, not the sensationalism that every other Hollywood blockbuster contrives to.

Arrival is much more than standard science-fiction. I would classify it as science-philosophy. It poses questions, leaves its answers open to interpretation, and watches as two different species push past their cultural boundaries so they could try and understand each other. And after watching all of these events unfold on the screen, we are forced to ask ourselves the most important question of all: if our knowledge expanded beyond that of our human capabilities, would we use it to change what we previously couldn’t? The answer will shock you.

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“BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE” Review (✫✫)

How’s does the peach tea taste, Mr. Wayne?

Let’s start with the obvious: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is the worst title for a superhero movie since Superman IV: The Quest For Peace. And yet, it’s so appropriate for a movie like this. The title is on-the-nose, hokey, ridiculous, and clearly unfocused, just like the movie itself is.

Taking place a few years after the events of Man of Steel, Batman v…. screw it, I’m not going to repeatedly spell out a bad title. BvS: DOJ picks up in the aftermath of the disaster that struck Metropolis during the battle between Superman (Henry Cavill) and the Kryptonian army. The city is dismantled. Hundreds of casualties have been named. A memorial that evokes the tragedy of 9/11 sits in the heart of the city, right next to a monument dedicated to the superhero that saved everyone. It is a tense time for Metropolis as they’re trying to rebuild, and everyone has one question on their minds: Is Superman doing more harm than good?

Enter billionaire Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck), who unequivocally sees Superman as mankind’s enemy. During the day of the attack, Superman fought inside of one of Wayne’s corporate buildings, which had many of his employees still inside when it fell. Wayne took the hit very hard. He’s too familiar with losing a family, and here he lost his second one. Now, he once again adopts his criminal-fighting personality of Batman with one focus: to kill the Superman.

Let me start with the positives. First of all, Ben Affleck was incredible as Bruce Wayne and Batman. That genuinely surprises me, because A) Christian Bale’s Batman is still fresh on my mind, and B) Ben Affleck isn’t normally a great actor, minus the movies that he’s written or directed. This movie is a game changer for him. He’s playing Batman with a more grim facade; an older, meaner, more coarse attitude that is even more distrusting of people than The Dark Knight’s Batman was. This is not the same Batman that you’re familiar with. His psychological trauma and torture tactics have intensified, and he isn’t above killing criminals. This might be maddening for some comic purists out there, but I found it to be a refreshing take on the caped crusader. After all, in a DC Universe where you’re fighting for your life against space aliens and Frankenstein monsters, I think it’s reasonable to say that the stakes have been raised on all fronts.

And the Batman/Superman dynamic was equally amazing. The thing I liked most about this movie, and what I think most fans were looking forward to, was the contrasting nature between Batman and Superman. I’m not talking about the fight itself, although the buildup and the payoff to that sequence definitely did not disappoint. I’m talking about the real conflicting ideals of Batman versus Superman. Batman is a mortal who has faced cuts, bruises, and bloodshed all his life. Superman is an indestructible alien from outer space. Batman believes torture and intimidation are effective tactics for fighting crime. Superman finds those things to be disturbing and unnecessary. Batman sees a Kyryptonian alien as mankind’s greatest threat. Superman sees it as a vigilante that answers to no one. I was expecting their ideals to clash in this movie, but I wasn’t expecting to be rooting for them both when the film built to its climactic titular fight. The fact that we’re engaged in a superhero beatdown between our two protagonists and we can understand where both are coming from is the evidence of strong, smart writing, and Affleck and Cavill alike do very well in bouncing their personalities off of each other to make a strong, rivalrous relationship between the two.

Unfortunately, as far as positives for the movie goes, it ends there. Where do I start with the mistakes of Batman v Superman? First of all, its editor David Brenner needed to be fired. Either him or director Zack Snyder, depending on which one decided this movie needed to be two hours and 30 minutes long. There were so many unecessary scenes in the movie, so many sequences that added nothing and truly took away from the larger conflict between Batman, Superman, and our mischievous third player Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg). Don’t worry, we’ll get to him in a bit.

Look at the first act as an example of the film’s poor editing. If Brenner knew what he was doing, he would open the film right on the destruction going on in Metropolis, with Bruce frantically driving and running around in a quickly collapsing city trying to save as many people as he can. That was a great scene that showed Bruce’s vulnerability, and even more rarely, his fear. We didn’t start with that though. We start with the same sequence we’ve seen in every Batman movie now, which is the death of Bruce’s parents. Why? Why do we need to see this again? Haven’t we seen it enough in Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies? What is the purpose in showing this again? And also, when a younger Bruce falls into the cavern and becomes enveloped in bats, is there any reason to show him as a levitating Bat messiah floating to the top of the cave?

I’m blaming Brenner because he didn’t cut the sequence out, but the truth is it is just as much Snyder’s fault as it is Brenner’s. Why did he choose to even film these scenes in the first place? Didn’t either of them see that these scenes weren’t necessary? That the dream and hallucination sequences added nothing to the plot, that the easter eggs to the DC Universe did nothing to develop the story, or that the epilogue of the film was sappy and dragged out? There were so many stupid scenes in this movie that made no sense and formed no coherency with the greater ideas of the film. You could have cut 30 minutes from the film, make it shorter than The Dark Knight, and have a better movie.

And then we get to Eisenberg. Ugh. Remind me again why he is Lex Luthor? I get that he’s a great actor and that he was enthusiastic for the role. That doesn’t make him right for it, and he’s definitely not right for it.

I’ll give Eisenberg this: he tried. But he tried too hard. We’re not seeing Lex Luthor here as much as we are seeing a B-grade Joker or Riddler. He’s not the smart, calculated supervillain you remember. He’s ecstatic, chaotic, and impulsive, which makes him a good villain archetype, but not a good Lex Luthor. Eisenberg throws himself into the role and succeeds in portraying it, but it’s not his portrayal that’s the problem. It’s the way him and Snyder envision the character, as a psychotic messenger of doom rather than the intelligent, well-crafted, yet connivingly evil gentlemen that he’s supposed to be. If Batman was my favorite part of the movie, Lex Luthor was my least favorite. He’s that far off of the map from what Superman’s arch-nemesis is supposed to be.

What we end up having then, is an out-of-focus movie that does a lot of things right, and then equally does a lot of things wrong. That’s the most disappointing thing about this movie, is seeing its potential and how wasted it is by stupid editing and even stupider characters. And this is the movie that’s supposed to set up the Justice League films. Pray that those movies display smarter storytelling and editing. And a better title.

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OSCAR PREDICTIONS 2013

Ah yes, its that time of the year again, ladies and gentlemen. It’s Oscar time, where forgettable movies to get gold statues, while great movies get ignored.

Calm down, calm down, I’m just kidding. Except not really. People know that I’m openly critical about the Oscars for a number of reasons, mostly because the movies that were nominated were given those nominations by bloviating pundits and not genuine movie lovers. Don’t agree with me? Look at the following movies that weren’t even nominated for best picture: Rush. Harry Potter. The Dark Knight. Pan’s Labyrinth. Black Hawk Down. Fight Club. 2001: A Space Odyssey. Rear Window. Psycho. The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly. 

Don’t get me wrong: I enjoy the majority of the motion pictures that are nominated at the Oscars, and I usually agree with their picks of who wins best picture. I absolutely love The Lord of The Rings trilogy, I love Rocky, The Godfather, Slumdog Millionaire, Titanic, and I uphold that Schindler’s List is the best academy-award winner for best picture of all time. Just because those movies deserved it, however, doesn’t mean those other movies don’t deserve mention, and I find it absolutely despicable that the academy snubs pictures that have made a large impact on society. I mean, everyone’s heard of Oliver! before, right? RIGHT?!

Okay, rant over.  This year is a very interesting awards race, with Gravity, American Hustle, and 12 Years A Slave the frontrunners for the best picture race, not to mention all of the other awards in the ceremony. I’ve already written my top ten list of the year, so I won’t bother you with the details of which I think is better. Let’s begin the predictions.

BEST PICTURE: Since Sundance of last year, 12 Years A Slave has been recieving the most steadfast buzz that lasted all throughout the year into this ceremony. While I agree that Gravity is a great frontrunner, I don’t think that consensus is going to change. Plus, look at the academy’s track record. Based off of previous data, the academy loves to give the best picture Oscar to movies based on real events and that statistically grossed less than 100 million. Not only is 12 Years based on the true story of Solomon Northrup, but it also grossed 96 million dollars. I’m sticking to my gut here. 12 Years A Slave is winning best picture. 

BEST DIRECTOR: Everyone seems convinced that Alfonso Cuaron will win the academy award for best direction with Gravity, and that especially seems the case since he won the DGA award as well. I’m not convinced, however, that he’s the most fit for this award. Gravity, of course, was science-fiction perfection, accurately capturing the physics and dangers of space so perfectly that it could have been filmed in space for all we know. Equally as difficult, however, is capturing the cruelty of the slave era in a relentless, gritty, unhinging fashion, and director Steve McQueen did that masterfully all while maintaing his decorum. I won’t be mad if Cuaron wins and McQueen loses, and to be honest, both are very deserving in this award. All I’m saying is that if Cuaron wins, it will be the equivalent of Steven Spielberg losing for Schindler’s List to Andrew Davis’ The Fugitive.

BEST ACTOR: The battle has been in between actors Matthew McConaughey and Chiwetel Ejiofor, both nominated for their roles in Dallas Buyers Club and 12 Years A Slave.I’m going with McConaughey for three reasons. 1) Since his win at the Golden Globes, he’s had a steady winning streak in many award ceremonies, including the SAG Awards. 2) His performance was stunning, sinking into this role of an aggressive party-hard cowboy turned health advocate, and 3) He’s Matthew freakin’ McConaughey. Do I really need to give a further argument?

BEST ACTRESS: Again, this battle is between Sandra Bullock for Gravity and Cate Blanchett for Blue Jasmine. There are two reasons why Bullock won’t win this year: 1) She won the academy award for best actress a few years ago for her performance in The Blind Side, and 2) I’ve never seen a best actress win for a science-fiction film in any year. So Cate Blanchett is the assumed winner. 

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: I want every single molecule and fiber of my being to give the award to Michael Fassbender as a hateful slave driver in 12 Years A Slave. His performance was cruel, relentless and teeth-grinding all at once, and was so despicable as a villain that he surpassed Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance in Django Unchained. He won’t win it. The dominant opinion has been swayed towards Jared Leto in his transformative performance as a transgender AIDS victim in Dallas Buyers Club. While I commend his bravery and his ability to slip so effectively into this role, it doesn’t change the fact that his performance didn’t shake me as much as Fassbender’s did. Fassbender played the more striking character: he’s the one that’s more deserving in the award.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: This is the only acting category where a consensus is generally already made. Besides Ejiofor, Lupita Nyongo stood out both as a character, as an actress, and as a spiritually broken slave who lost all hope at life and at happiness in 12 Years A Slave. Her performance truly broke my heart, and she deserves no less than the academy award for best supporting actress. 

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY: This battle is between writer-director David O’Russell and Spike Jonze, both responsible for their respective films American Hustle and HerBecause it takes a lot more ambition to write about a middle-aged man falling in love with a computer than it does to write a historically based crime-comedy-drama, my best is on Spike Jonze’s Her. Just because its a smarter story, however, doesn’t necessarily mean that it is a better one.

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: If 12 Years A Slave is going to have any chance in the best picture race, it needs more of a push than best supporting actress. It’s going to get that extra push in this category. Not only is it among the year’s best, but it is one of the most spellbinding stories of the year, only barely straying from the original text that Solomon Northup wrote all those years ago. Not only will John Ridley win for 12 Years A Slave: he deserves it. 

BEST ANIMATED FILM: I’m one of the relative few that did not enjoy Disney’s newest feature Frozen, a story based on the “Snow Queen” fairy tale about two sisters trying to save each other in a crumbling kingdom. While the characters were fun and energetic, they were equally annoying and ditzy, especially whenever the stupid trolls were on the screen. While I’m less enthusiastic about it, however, it obviously hasn’t disappointed its mainstream audience, garnering a 90% on rotten tomatoes and a rare A+ on cinema score. There’s no question on who’s winning this: Frozen will win the best animated feature award.

BEST ORIGINAL SONG: I’ll give Frozen this: it had wonderful music. It deserves no less, then, to win the academy award for best song for their brilliant track titled “Let it go.”

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE: A few years ago, The Social Network won best original score for its energetic beats and its fluid synthesized sounds. For these reasons will Steven Price not only win the Oscar for Gravity, but deserve it because his music added tension, edginess and paranoia to Gravity’s already heart-pounding premise. 

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY: Emmanuel Lubewski lost years ago with The Tree Of Life against Robert Richardson for Hugo. The Academy will make that up to him this year for giving him the academy award for best cinematography for Gravity, although I’m still sad that Roger Deakins is getting left behind for Prisoners. 

BEST FILM EDITING: Let me say something here: great visual effects doesn’t make for great editing. Likewise, a masterful editor knows not only when to cut away from a shot, but also on how long to stay on one as well. Although Joe Walker is more that deserving to win for capturing the tragic essence of 12 Years A Slave, I believe it will go to Alfonso Cuaron and Mark Sanger for Gravity due to its technical achievements. 

BEST SOUND EDITING: “In space, no one can hear you scream?” Yeah right. I heard a mother in mourning screaming in space for 120 minutes and I was absolutely petrified.There’s no question on which movie this award deserves to go to: Gravity. 

BEST SOUND MIXING: Gravity for the same reasons as above. 

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS: Gravity. End of discussion.

BEST MAKEUP: Dallas Buyers Club is going to win. If the academy dares to give the award to either Jackass: Bad Grandpa or The Lone Ranger, I’m going to invite them inside my personal port-a-potty and wait for them to realize that its the poo cocktail from Jackass 3.

BEST COSTUME DESIGN: I’ve flipped sides on this one a few times now. First I thought The Great Gatsby’s flashy and colorful costumes were going to take home the award. Then I considered American Hustle for its stylish, contemporary costumes. Now, after giving it a second look, my mind is made up: 12 Years A Slave is going to win for best costume design.
BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN: I was hesitant to name this at first, because honestly anyone can take this one home. The set pieces and designs for all of the film were spectacular in the least, ranging from the financially corrupt society that American Hustle portrayed, to the bleak, barren landscapes of 12 Years A Slave, all the way to the surreal, futuristic Stanley Kubrick-style buildings in Her. I’m ultimately going to guess that The Great Gatsby wins best production design only because it is excellent at displaying the roaring twenties as well as being the most diverse out of any other nominee. 

BEST DOCUMENTARY: This category started off controversial, leaving off one of the most critically-acclaimed documentaries Blackfish off of its list of nominees. Disregarding that, however, look at the other nominees. Out of any of the other selections, which one was talked about the most? Which one is the most controversial? Which one gave a clear, unbiased perspective of a serious issue and let the film show reality as it is?

Filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer was praised all around for his film The Act Of Killing, a story about a former soldier revisiting his dark past and facing the truth about the lives he took long ago. It ended up taking many number one spots on many top ten lists, including Sight and Sound’s poll for best of the year. It’s no contest for me. The Act Of Killing is taking this Oscar home. 

BEST FOREIGN LANGAUGE FILM: The more I look into this category, the more I notice that The Hunt has been getting more and more buzz with moviegoers about the Oscars, and is the only nominee to be on IMDB’s top 250 films of all time (although, oddly enough, its listed for 2012 instead of 2013). Despite how praising the word of mouth has is, however, I’m convinced that it won’t win. The Great Beauty has been getting the most buzz out of any other nominee, and that buzz usually isn’t wrong. Plus, my ex-film professor loves it. That’s when you know two things: that it’s a bad movie, and that it’s going to be an Oscar-winner.

And here it is, at last, my three (least) favorite awards categories: the short films. Why do I say that? With the exception of one, I haven’t seen any of them. Nobody has seen them. Point me to one normal moviegoer who has seen any of these shorts, and I will pay him $100 to smuggle in DVD-ripped copies of them to my home theater.

Blehhhhhhh. Let’s finish this.

BEST ANIMATED SHORT FILM: The only one I’ve seen out of any of the films in any of these categories is Disney’s Get A Horse, a buoyant and clever combination of classic 1930’s Disney animation with that of today’s three-dimensional standard. I got this category right last year, but that doesn’t mean I will do it again this year.

BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT FILM: Cavedigger, because it has the coolest title. 

BEST LIVE-ACTION SHORT FILM: Helium, because I can’t breathe. 

What are your predictions? Do you think Gravity is going to take the big picture home, or am I shortchanging 12 Years too much? Comment below, let me know.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go write the president of AMPAS an angry letter about why Rush wasn’t nominated for anything.

-David Dunn

Correction 2/25: On the “best production design” category, ‘American Hustle’ was inaccurately identified as being “the roaring twenties that American Hustle portrayed”. The description was intended to go towards ‘The Great Gatsby’ and has since been corrected. 

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“HER” Review (✫✫1/2)

What on earth did I just watch?

How do you fall in love with a computer program? Throughout the entire runtime of Her, that’s the only thought that was peaking through my mind. I wasn’t thinking about Joaquin Phoenix’s deliberate performance. I wasn’t thinking about how sweet and serene Scarlett Johansson’s voice sounded. I didn’t think about how clever the story was or how passionate Spike Jonze’s direction was. The only thing I was thinking about was how hard it must be to maintain a relationship with a piece of machinery. Can you imagine how awkward those morning encounters must be?

Taking place in the not-too-distant future, Her follows the story of Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), an introvert and manic depressive who writes love letters for a living and has recently gone through a divorce with his wife Catherine (Rooney Mara). Theodore is not in the most stable mindset as the movie begins, and as an effort to feel less lonely, he purchases an artificial intelligence who names herself “Samantha” (Scarlett Johanson) to help him with his everyday needs. What goes from there is a grand journey of self-discovery, identity and romance as these two gradually come closer with each other and eventually fall in love.

For those of you who have seen the movie, does that paragraph just about do it justice? I could go deeper into the plot synopsis, but why would I? From just those three sentences, half of you have already decided whether you would like the movie or not. There are, no doubt, some introspective and provocative thinkers out there who will find joy and enchantment with this story, while other viewers will watch it and ask themselves what on earth they just watched.

For me, I went in an open book. I knew that the movie had an opportunity to woo me, that it was a strange and outlandish idea to begin with, but that the idea doesn’t matter as long as it was handled and carried out well. How did the movie do with that?

Eh. I’d rather watch 1 Night In Paris. 

Like its central idea, Her is a strange movie, a surreal and against-the-grain picture that challenges a lot of misconceptions about love and relationships. While I like that and think it has a lot of great ideas to offer its viewers, I find them so hard to focus on while we’re watching Joaquin Phoenix having sex with a machine.

Yes, there are sex scenes in the movie, although I hesitate to even call them that. There are two that we actually see, but from their conversations we actually infer that there were plenty more.

The first one isn’t really a sex scene, but more or less a copycat of phone sex with Scarlett Johansson’s voice (which I’ll admit, didn’t bother me that much at all). The second one, however, was out of this world weird, with Samantha hiring a surrogate (prostitute) for Theodore to have pretend sex with. They’re trying to justify it by saying that she isn’t a prostitute and that she’s just trying to be a part of their experience, but that argument is null and void. She’s provided sexual services in exchange for something else. She’s a prostitute.

Don’t get me wrong: there are many emotional moments that the movie handled surprisingly well, and there’s an undeniable sweetness and sentiment to the story that can’t help but be noticed. Despite her being a machine, Samantha has a surprising amount of layers to her, being an in-depth and interesting character and love interest in her own right, while the human characters contribute the more grounded relationships that make more sense than that of Samantha’s (Including a recently-divorced Rooney Mara and Amy Adams, who offer very interesting parallels to Twombly’s exotic love story).

Joaquin Phoenix, however, is the flesh and blood of the film. His performance is nothing less than exemplary, playing this shy introvert so convincingly that its hard to imagine that he at one point portrayed Johnny Cash. His character reminds me of many of cinema’s most memorable introverts, ranging from the autistic-yet-brilliant Raymond Babbit in Rain Man to the hyper-obsessive and socially distant Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network, or the paranoid John Forbes Nash Jr. in A Beautiful Mind. All of those movies focused on characters that struggled romantically and socially, and how much they struggled with their identity and being themselves. I love it when movies reach into characters that deep and personally, and if the film focused more on Twobly’s personality rather than that of his love and attraction to his operating system, the movie could have ended up being way more successful.

I can’t help but keep thinking about how small Her’s audience will be. In this day and age, art films are getting harder and harder to advertise and appeal to mainstream moviegoing audiences, and this movie is definitely no exception. I know the film’s premise doesn’t matter as much as how well that premise is handled, but there are some movies that just can’t get away from their bizarre ideas. Case in point: did anyone really expect Quentin Dupieux’s Rubber to be a good movie?

I stress this again: the main character is in love with a computer program. If you can buy that and get over that to enjoy the movie, good for you. But there are no doubt others who will not enjoy this picture, and I can’t help but think that they will be a more sane person because of it.

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Where Did These Nominations Come From, Kemosabe?

Today is the day. I was looking forward to this all of yesterday, and its finally here. I can hardly contain my excitement: the nominations for the 86th Academy Awards have been announced.

What, you didn’t think I was talking about Librean President Ellen Sirleaf’s anniversary, did you? Of course not, I only focus on things that are important. And what could be more vital, necessary, and inaccessive than handing out a slew of golden statues to over 24 nominees?

All sardonicism aside, I am excited about the nominations this year. I always am. While I am constantly critical about the Academy Awards and the films they snub and spoil consistently, I always look forward to predicting the winners with my family and always beating them out 18 to one. I get even more excited when a movie that wins best picture actually deserves the win. For example: Schindler’s List or Argo.

The nominees are in, and just like last year, there are nine films up for the award for best motion picture, among other awards. The first film that’s up for grabs is David O’Russell’s comedy-crime-drama American Hustle, a smart, surprisingly witty exercise that looks at the financial situations of characters and how it affects their morality. Besides best picture, American Hustle has also been nominated for awards including best film editing, best costume design, best production design, best original screenplay and direction for David O’Russell and all of the nominations for his cast. Seriously, check the list. Just like last year, all of his leads got nominations in every single acting category, with Christian Bale for best actor, Amy Adams for actress, Bradley Cooper for supporting actor, and Jennifer Lawrence for supporting actress. Geesh. Conceited much, O’Russell?

Just kidding. The film is good, and O’Russell is deserving in most of the nominations, although I think ten in total is a bit of a stretch. Tied with Hustle’s nominations is a film that deserves every single one of them is Gravity, a moving, enthralling picture that plays out as a heart-pounding race of survival in outer space. Gravity’s total nominations besides best picture includes best direction for Alfonso Cuaron, best sound editing and mixing, best production design, best cinematography, best film editing, best visual effects, and best actress for Sandra Bullock. Gravity and American Hustle have ten nominations each, making them the films with the most nominations out of any other picture.

Coming up with nine nominations is my favorite picture of the year, 12 Years A Slave, a motion picture that is devastating, cruel, heartbreaking, and thought-provoking all at once. This drama-driven biopic is directed by filmmaker Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame), and its easily his best one yet. 12 Years is nominated for best picture, best director, best adapted screenplay, best production design, best costume design, best film editing, and best acting nominations for Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbenber, and newcomer Lupita Nyongo, who is the most deserving out of any other nominee in the supporting actress category. Out of any of the other best picture nominees, 12 Years has been getting the most buzz and talk about the Oscars the entire year. I would pay attention to this one if I were you.

Tied with six nominations each is Captain Phillips, Dallas Buyers Club, and Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, a story about a dismal father who wants to go to Nebraska to collect a sweepstakes prize that he supposedly won. Nebraska was also nominated for best cinematography, best acting nominations for Bruce Dern and Kate Grant, and best directing and writing nominations for Alexander Payne. He won his second academy award a few years ago for The Descendants with his first being Sideways, so for his sake I hope he doesn’t win again so his head doesn’t get too big.

Dallas Buyers Club is also nominated for best makeup and hairstyling, best film editing, best original screenplay, and best acting awards for Matthew Mconaughey and Jared Leto, who are currently the frontrunners in both categories. Captain Phillips is nominated for best picture, best film editing, best sound editing and mixing, best adapted screenplay, and best supporting actor for newcomer Barkhad Abdi. Surprisingly, Tom Hanks wasn’t nominated for a best actor nomination, and I can’t help but feel really frustrated by this. If you saw the film, you would understand why.

Her and Wolf Of Wall Street both have five nominations, including best picture. For those of you who haven’t heard about it, Her is a light science-fiction romantic dramedy about a lonely older man who falls in love with a computer program. Yes, I know it sounds weird. I still encourage you to seek it out. While it isn’t as straightforward as other movies, Her is an experimental film in every right trying to say something about love and the reliance on technology. Her is nominated for best original score, best original song, best production design, and best writing and picture awards for director Spike Jonze. Even though it has lesser nominations, I’m definitely going to pay close attention to this film.

Wolf Of Wall Street is easily the most controversial out of any other best picture nominee. The opening shot is Jordan Belfort snorting cocaine out of a hooker’s arse, for crying out loud. Regardless, that obviously didn’t slow the picture down. Wolf is nominated for best adapted screenplay, best acting awards for Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill, and best picture and direction for filmmaking legend Martin Scorcese.

And lastly, the final best picture nominee is a humble little picture called Philomena, a true story about a struggling writer chronicling the story of an older mother trying to reconnect with her long-lost son. Out of all of the best picture nominees for the Oscars, this one was the least expected and one of the few that I have not seen. Besides best picture, Philomena is nominated for best original score by Alejandre Desplat, best actress for Judi Dench, and best adapted screenplay by Jeff Pope and Steve Coogan, who also starred in the movie.

Also nominated for the evening is films including Blue Jasmine, The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug, Frozen, Inside Llelyn Davis, The Great Gatsby, and… The Lone Ranger? 

Yes, dear reader, Lone Ranger is nominated for not one, but two academy awards, although I have no idea why. I haven’t seen the film, but reception has been polarizing from both critics and moviegoers, so I can’t imagine anyone being happy about this. It’s nominated for best makeup and hairstyling and best visual effects, which the second one irreverently ticks me off because neither Pacific Rim or Man Of Steel is nominated. Did I also mention that The Lone Ranger was also nominated for five raspberry awards, including Worst Picture?

Other surprises includes Blackfish and… Bad Grandpa? Yes, Jackass: Bad Grandpa is nominated for best makeup, but why the heck is it nominated for an academy award? That makeup looks about as realistic as a halloween mask. I certainly didn’t expect it, and I don’t think many others did either. The seaworld documentary Blackfish, which has been talked about all year, also did not get nominated for best documentary, even though it grossed more than any of the other nominees, save for 20 Feet From Stardom. Why the snub? I have no idea, but it certainly deserves a nomination over Bad Grandpa and The Lone Ranger.

Overall, I’m satisfied with the nominees. There’s a few weird inserts here and there, but generally, most of the nominees are very deserving. My only complaint is that the Ron Howard-directed Rush, a true story about two racers and the rivalries that they shared with each other, was nominated for nothing, not even best makeup, which certainly deserved it more than Bad Grandpa did. The heck man?

On the bright side though, Ellen Degeneres is hosting. Tune in on March 2nd, and you might see Dory make a cameo appearance.

-David Dunn

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“AMERICAN HUSTLE” Review (✫✫✫)

FBI trying to hustle politicians by hustling con artists.

“We’re always conning other people,” says a slurred, yet sure voice in the background. “It’s in our nature. We even con ourselves.” These words are coming from the mouth that belongs to Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), a con artist who quickly learned what it meant to grow up and survive in a harsh economy. Irving is the sort of guy you wouldn’t want to interact with out in public. He is grossly out of shape, he smells of old hairspray and cologne, his crafty eyes hide behind a dark pair of shades, and his diet consists of nothing but beer, fast food and cigars. From an outward appearance, Irving doesn’t really make a good impression. But man, can that guy talk a good game.

After rushing through Irving’s very brief childhood, we are quickly introduced to Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), a woman in her mid-thirties whose beauty is both ageless and captivating. Despite his nauseating physical appearance, Sydney almost instantly falls in love with Irving, and Irving falls in love with her too. So much so that he discloses his illegal business with her, asking her to become a part of him scamming other people out of their hard-earned cash and checks.

That’s all I’m going to get into as far as the plot synopsis goes. Believe me, I haven’t even gotten to the surface of it. There’s an FBI agent trying to catch them named Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), there’s a New Jersey mayor played by Jeremy Renner somewhere in the mix, Irving has a son and a wife he’s committed to named Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence). There’s even a mobster somewhere in this movie where an actor makes a cameo appearance, but I won’t spoil the surprise by revealing who it is (hint hint: He’s got some bad ideas in his head).

Point being: this is a smart movie. It’s funny, original, intelligent, and thoughtful, an observant portrait that looks at the moral and financial struggles of these characters and what impact their actions have on the people in their lives. Part of this, no doubt, is because of the cast’s mastery at delivery. Part of it is also because its writer-director is equally as funny, original, intelligent, and thoughtful as the story is. David O’Russell, who was nominated for best directing and writing Oscars for the past few years now (For Silver Linings Playbook last year and The Fighter in 2010), returns yet again with the same wit, charm, and complexion that made his previous films both unique and entertaining.

The dialogue is authentic, almost like it pops off of the pages of the screenplay just as much as it does in the movie. How though? This is, after all, a work of fiction, right? Wrong. The plot is just is like Irving’s deceptions: they’re only half fake. The movie is based on the real-life ASCAM sting operations of the late 1970’s, in which the FBI arrested over 31 individuals of congress and 7 were convicted of bribery and conspiracy. That sort of realism translates brilliantly to the screen, and makes the conversations characters share feel so personal. Make no mistake, fellow reader: this is, in every definition, a heist picture, because everyone is all after something and are willing to manipulate everyone in order to get to it first.

The cast is unforgettable. So much so that I can’t even pick a favorite among them. Bale is as talented as ever in this movie, a brilliant and dedicated method actor who has immersed himself so much into a role that its hard to imagine that at one point he was Patrick Bateman or Bruce Wayne. Lawrence and Adams are excellent female leads, and are great at expressing how conflicted Irving feels towards the both of them as lovers. Renner is great as the New Jersey mayor, a loving and kind-hearted man, father, and husband who just wants the best for everybody, but ends up making the wrong decisions in trying to do so. If I had to pick a favorite, it would probably be Bradley Cooper, only because he is so passionate and wacky that he could have been redone as a cartoon character. Like I said though, I can’t pick one. This cast is so talented and skilled in their roles that to pick one performance over another would be considered a sin. They are just as responsible for bringing this story to life as David O’Russell is.

This movie has all of the elements of being Oscar-worthy material: a great story, dialogue, characters, direction, and a great cast that fills these figures with vibrant energy and personality. The only real problem with this movie is the setup, and that’s unfortunate because that’s one of the most important parts of any movie.

Let me provide an example: when I first watched Goodfellas, what absorbed me into that picture was the first 15 minutes, a little italian boy learning about the mafia as a child, and the first narration we hear being “Ever since I can remember, I’ve always wanted to be a gangster.” Another one? In the opening scene of There Will Be Blood, we see a touching yet tragic portrait of a man seeing one of his workers die in an oil deposit, leaving behind an infant who can’t even speak, and Daniel Plainview deciding, against his better judgement, to adopt him as his own. Do I even need to mention Up?

All of those pictures started off with a bang because they gave us a perspective into the character’s history before getting into the meat of the story. Not that there needs to be a “How-to” guide for making opening sequences, but American Hustle literally flashes Irving’s childhood for about a minute before throwing us into the plot. I’m all for “show-don’t-tell” stories where they’re all situational, strictly limited to being set in their own present (Such as The King’s Speech or Black Hawk Down), but this one felt too much like being thrown into cold water when you can’t even swim.

Despite my views, I know critics already have their opinions established on this movie. They’re going to say its a masterpiece. That it is masterfully written and acted (which it is) and that it is going going to be nominated for multiple Academy Awards (which it will be as well). What critics won’t realize is the movie itself might be a con, making people believe that it is better than it actually is.

Well, if it is a scam, and David O’Russell is the con artist, then all I’m going to say is that he did a damn good job at it.

Post-script: For you irresponsible parents that are considering taking your teenagers to see this movie, don’t. The MPAA rated this movie R for “pervasive language, some sexual content and brief violence.” The violence is very brief and honestly not a large problem. The sexual content, however, is profuse because of Irving’s two sexual partners, and the movie has no shame for showing us any of it. I noticed over 100 F-words.

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“MAN OF STEEL” Review (✫✫✫✫)

Look!  Up in the sky!  Its a bird!  It’s a plane!  It’s the man of steel!

Now this is what I’m talking about.  Man Of Steel is in a special place as a reboot, a carefully calculated yet ambitious and affectionate movie giving a new energy and enthusiasm to a cherished American icon.  The last thing I wanted Man Of Steel to become was a remake of the original Superman movies, or even worse, a PG-13 version of Watchmen.  We have none of that here.  It isn’t coy, formulaic, or insincere: it’s a rare rebooted superhero remake that affectionately, genuinely works.

In case you haven’t picked up on it by now, Man Of Steel is a retelling of the story of Superman.  Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) is a young inhabitant of Smallville, Kansas who deals with a specific problem that other teengers his age doesn’t deal with: he has metahuman powers the likes of which cannot be from planet earth.  And young Clark isn’t from planet Earth either: but he doesn’t know that.  Not yet.

You see, Clark’s real name is Kal-El, and he comes from the planet Krypton, a planet that died due to its own selfishness and greed.  Scientist Jor-el (Russel Crowe), who is the father of Kal-El, knew of Krypton’s future demise, and planned ahead for it.  He embedded the code of Krypton’s DNA within his newborn son, Kal-El, and sent him to a faraway planet where he not be harmed from Krypton’s destruction: Planet Earth.

Unfortunately, his former ally and friend General Zod (Michael Shannon) is hellbent on preserving his species and building a new Krypton on planet Earth.  For this he needs Clark and his DNA to fuel his machine so that they can form a rebirthed Krypton upon the ashes of Earth’s surface.  Clark, fully knowing where he came from and the extent of his abilities, decides to defend the earth from Zod’s evil scheme and to become the symbol of hope for all of mankind to follow.

Fully aware of the dangers that came with a reboot for Superman, one of my initial worries for the film was that there would be too much action and not enough character investment to go with it.  That is the typical danger with superhero movies, after all: filmmakers are typically more interested in the action and visual effects than they are in emotion or in investment for their characters.

That is not what we have here.  Director Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen) and screenwriter David S. Goyer (Dark City, The Dark Knight Trilogy) make here a wonderful marriage of something rare: great scripting with great action, and great directing.  What makes this movie so appealing is not the fact that it is an action movie: we’ve seen hundreds of movies before where action is just stacked on top of action, with no real cause or motivation to be concerned with any of it.

Man Of Steel is not that.  It is a rare thing: a movie in which the action is just as fleshed out as the character’s emotions are.  Whenever Clark isn’t flying, breaking the sound barrier, or punching some guy’s light’s out, the movie interjects a flashback of Clark’s childhood: we get a glimpse to a more personal portrait of Clark as a child and what it was like growing up struggling with these superhuman powers.  Perhaps in another movie it would be all fun and jokey, but here it is taken as seriously as the death of Bruce’s parents from the Batman series.  I was reminded of the last line Peter spoke during his ending monologue of the original Spider-man: “This power is my gift: my curse”.

The action, however, is utterly spectacular.  In the original Superman movies, Clark was resorted to lifting up school buses and stopping nuclear missiles as his highest challenges.  Not here.  Here the stakes are much higher, and we can tell that because of the level of destruction in this movie.  When Superman trades blows with another Kryptonian, destruction is sure to follow.  Crushed cars and overturned trains are a constant during these fight scenes.  Crumbling buildings and falling debris is to be expected.  There was even one terrifying moment where the Kryptonians used a gravity machine to tear apart the Earth’s infrastructure.  Did I mention the crumbling buildings?  Watching this level of destruction made me feel sorry for the mayor of Metropolis.  I’d hate to see the repair bill.

And lastly, I must pay respect to Henry Cavill and Michael Shannon.  Here, they are the perfect embodiment of themselves: good, or evil, human or Kryptonian. They don’t fight in an area of black-and-white: they fight in many shades of gray, because while we don’t want Clark to lose his home on planet Earth, we also understand and sympathize with Zod’s reasonings because he too lost his home.  There’s a very human reason why these men are fighting, and there’s no simplicity in their conflict: only complexion and brutal reality.

Before you ask me, no this does not replace the original “Superman” movies, and no, Cavill is not an adequate replacement for Christopher Reeve himself.  That is besides the point.  Man Of Steel did to the Superman franchise what The Amazing Spider-man did for Spider-man: it breathed a new life and conception to it, ensuring that when its all said and done, the Superman legacy will live on, and it will not die away because the actor of the former icon has passed through time.  Snyder has accomplished quite a feat here: he has paid tribute and honor to Reeve and the filmmakers of the original Superman by offering this exciting, emotional, and action-packed thrill ride that gives a new birth to the flying caped crusader.

PS: Admittedly, I saw this film in IMAX 3-D.  See it in IMAX, but don’t waste your money on the 3-D.  A fantastic movie doesn’t deserve a dim picture anyway.

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