Sunday, February 02, 2014

Top 10 Movies of 2013

Before I get started, just wanted to say how sad I was to hear about Philip Seymour Hoffman passing away today.  A great actor.  Probably my faves of his would be Magnolia, The Master and Capote.

Finally, here they are ... my top 10 movies of 2013:




(10) The Hunger Games: Catching Fire - Though this is ranked lower in my list than the first Hunger Games was in last year's list, this is the better movie.  Darker, and with a more tangible sense of the loss of life, it's a worthy sequel.  I particularly liked Jena Malone and, sadly, Philip Seymour Hoffman.


(9) Now You See Me - This one surprised me a bit.  The commercials for the movie were interesting enough, but the movie was a bit deeper than they let on and the storyline more clever.  About a group of magicians recruited for a project by a mystery benefactor for a goal that is not as obvious as it may seem.  A great cast which includes Mark Ruffalo, Woody Harrelson, Morgan Freeman and Isla Fisher.


(8) Star Trek: Into Darkness - I think fans and critics are torn on this one.  Either giving director JJ Abrams credit for putting a twist on what is generally considered the best Star Trek movie (Wrath of Khan), or criticizing them for unoriginality for the same reason.  I believe it works because of who they chose in the role in question ... Benedict Cumberbatch.  Both charming and threatening, he is the heart of the movie.  I also liked how the relationship between Kirk and Spock was advanced.


(7) Ender's Game - I didn't want to like this.  I wasn't even sure I was going to go because of my deep disagreement with Orson Scott Card's personal politics.  But ultimately, the book and the movie stand on their own.  And Card had no involvement in the movie.  The filmmakers do a great job of distilling the main points of the book into a more manageable time frame.  And the young leads:  Asa Butterfield, Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit) and Abigail Breslin are well-cast.  The  training battle scenes are how I envisioned them when reading the book.


(6) The World's End - Brought to you by the makers and cast of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, this movie is funny, irreverent, yet poignant.  Pub crawl, end of the world sci-fi, social commentary, and nostalgia trip all rolled up in one. Simon Pegg and Martin Freeman are both great.


(5) Sound City - Former Nirvana drummer and current Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl made this documentary about the famous LA studio that produced many of the classic rock albums of the 70's, 80's, and 90's including Nirvana's Nevermind and Fleetwood Mac's Rumours.  I wrote a bit more about it here.


(4) American Hustle - I just saw the movie this last weekend.  Very funny and evocative of many Scorcese movies, to whom director David O. Russell is often compared.  The acting is universally outstanding ... probably the best ensemble acting of any of the movies in this list.  I especially liked Christian Bale and Jennifer Lawrence.  She is a fireplug and hilarious.


(3) 12 Years a Slave - A hard watch.  Much like Schindler's List, this movie is not intended as a comfortable watch.  There are going to be moments that have you squirming.  Moments that have you convinced that the human race is not worth salvaging.  But also with moments of unlikely beauty.  Director Steve McQueen, and actors Chiwetel Ejiofor (Children of Men, Serenity), Michael Fassbender  and Lupita Nyong'o are all deservedly Oscar worthy.


(2) Rush - I wrote fairly extensively about this here.  A movie about racing, but not really.  Rush is more about the things that motivate us in our lives.  Sometimes they are external, but often they are internal.


(1) The Wolf of Wall Street - 5 minutes into The Wolf of Wall Street and several older couples exited the theater.  Perhaps it was the frequent f-bombs.  Maybe it was the snorting of cocaine off of naked breasts.  But they apparently had enough.  Me and the 85 year old lady sitting next to me who howled with laughter throughout the movie couldn't get enough.  Like the best of Scorcese movies, you revel in the debauchery and almost root for the bad guys, yet you never lose sight of the fact that these are morality plays.  The movie is a metaphor for the financial gluttony of the 80's (and now) and the belief that there will be no negative consequences for wantonly fucking people over and elevating the accumulation of money above all else.  DiCaprio and Jonah Hill have never been better, and Australian newcomer Margot Robbie is fantastic.

Honorable Mention: A few indies:  Upstream Color, Prince Avalanche, Drinking Buddies, Side Effects and The Europa Report.  Some big budget films that were good ... just not quite good enough:  The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug, Gravity and Pacific Rim.





Monday, January 27, 2014

Top 10 movies of 2012 ... yes, I said 2012

I just wouldn't feel right presenting my top 10 of 2013 if I didn't put a tidy bow on 2012, which because of laziness, I never got around to.


(10) The Hunger Games - I thought this was faithful enough to the book, while understanding that you can't put everything on the page on the screen.  The best thing about the movie is the main character, wonderfully played by Jennifer Lawrence.  Woody Harrelson is also very good.


(9)  The Hobbit:  An Unexpected Journey- Not as good a movie as any of the LOTR movies, but it is of admittedly lighter material. Martin Freeman is well-cast as Bilbo and I think Peter Jackson does a good job of capturing the humor and roughness of the dwarves.  We saw this in the high-frame-rate 3D and it was an interesting experience ... almost hyper-real.



(8) The Dark Knight Rises - The previous film, with Heath Ledger, is probably better.  But this one, has plenty of acting talent, most notably Marion Cotillard and Tom Hardy.  I think it wraps up the trilogy well.  The plot twist is well-done.




(7) Looper - I'm a sucker for time-travel movies because of the way they twist your noodle.  Causality, timelines, the nature of existence ... all good stuff.  This stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt (also of Dark Knight) and Bruce Willis and the always stunning Emily Blunt.



(6) Prometheus - A flawed movie.  But also beautifully shot.  It succeeds when director Ridley Scott lets the scenes breathe and show off the vastness and loneliness of space.  A good cast highlighted by Noomi Rapace (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) and Michael Fassbender as a truly creepy robot.  I will forgive more in sci-fi movies because they frequently delve into bigger themes.  In this case - where do we come from and why are we here.


(5) The Avengers - Director Joss Whedon makes a movie that works because of his trademark dialogue and humor and a plot that allows each of the characters to develop.  Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner/The Hulk is an improvement over the previous actors who have been in that role but the true standout is Tom Hiddleston as Loki.  Because of his wonderful British charm, you can't help but root for the villain.


(4) Skyfall - This is the best of the new Bond films.  An origins movie of sorts, delving into a bit of 007's past.  The cinematography by my all-time fave Roger Deakins is incredible.  Director Sam Mendes (American Beauty) deftly weaves nods to the past Bond films into a new narrative that sets up well for future films.


(3) Argo - A deserving Best Picture Oscar for a an entertaining movie.  Ben Affleck continues to show that he will be a director worth following in the future.


(2) Lincoln - If there is a better actor working today than Daniel Day-Lewis, I'd be amazed.  He so completely immerses himself in every role that you can't imagine another person playing that role.  I was most impressed with the script of this movie and how it made the minutiae of political wheeling and dealing into suspenseful (and funny) theater.


(1) Life of Pi -Well, you can color me surprised that my favorite movie of the year ended up being one that is largely about the nature of faith.  Why that works for me is because it was visually stunning and ultimately it is about any kind of faith ... not necessarily religious.

Honorable Mention: Wreck-It Ralph,  Bobby Fischer Against the World, Frankenweenie, The Muppets, The Master, Room 237, Lorax

My 2013 list will be up by Wednesday.



Monday, January 20, 2014




Film is incredibly democratic and accessible, it’s probably the best option if you actually want to change the world, not just re-decorate it.

Banksy

 Just finishing up my watching of some of '13's best flicks.  I'll be posting my top 10 in the next few days.  Since I've been lazy for awhile now, I might even give a best of '12 list since I skipped right over it before.


Saturday, January 18, 2014

Political Song of the Day ... Come Join Us by Bad Religion

Come Join Us by Bad Religion


so you say you gotta know why the world goes 'round
and you can't find the truth in the things you've found
and you're scared shitless 'cuz evil abounds
come and join us

well I heard you were looking for a place to fit in
full of adherent people with the same objective
a family to cling to and call brethren
come and join us

all we want to do is change your mind
all you need to do is close your eyes


so come and join us
come and join us
come and join us

don't you see the trouble that most people are in
and that they just want you for their own advantage
but I swear to you we're different from all of them
come and join us
I can tell you are lookin' for a way to live
where truth is determined by consensus
full of codified arbitrary directives

come and join us
all we want to have is your small mind
turn it into one of our own kind
you can go through life adrift and alone
desperate, desolate, on your own
but we're lookin' for a few more stalwart clones

so come and join us
come and join us
come and join us

we've got spite and dedication as a vehement brew
the world hates us, well we hate them too
but you're exempted of course if you
come and join us
independent, self-contented, revolutionary
intellectual, brave, strong and scholarly
if you're not one of them, you're us already so

come and join us



I like almost all Bad Religion songs, but especially those that touch on religion.

Sunday, October 20, 2013




Wednesday, October 09, 2013

At the end of one's tether ...


"Life's an awfully lonesome affair.... You come into the world alone and you go out of the world alone yet it seems to me you are more alone while living than even going and coming." -- artist Emily Carr


You've lost your young child through a freak accident.  Hurt and without bearing, you are adrift from your own life.  Everyday living gives you little meaning or hope.  There is no solace in the words of others and you are, figuratively, at the end of one's tether.

What are you choices?  Give up, give in to grief, or to trust in yourself and move on.  Stop letting the past and the way you have done things limit what you can do in your future.

Gravity is a metaphor.  It turns that figurative isolation into literal isolation. This story of astronauts struggling in the hostile vastness of space is rife with symbolism.  George Clooney's character, Matt Kowalski,  represents the past that Sandra Bullock's character, Ryan Stone, must release in order to move forward.  Entangled in cords, dodging the debris of a space station damaged by falling satellites, the both of them are doomed to die unless one or the other releases himself and allows the other to fight on and hopefully live.  Clooney's choice allows Bullock's character to go on, to not be limited by his literal weight and the figurative weight of her past. When she finally gets out of her capsule back on Earth, she struggles to stand and finally gets back on her own two feet, reveling in the moment that is much more than a physical release.  It is an emotional one.

I could be way off on my take of Gravity.  Maybe I've listened to one too many reviews of artsy French new wave films or stayed up too late trying to find meaning and subtlety where it was never intended.  But I don't think so.  Alfonso Cuarón is one of my favorite directors and he is not a plodding Hollywood hack.  With his fellow Mexican directors and friends, Guillermo Del Toro and Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu, they have carved out a niche as original, visual and artistic talents not constrained by conventional American/Anglo narratives. Their movies are full of symbolism and allegory (Babel and Pan's Labyrinth most notably).  And it is my belief that Gravity continues that trend.

I have purposely not read, watched or listened to any reviews of Gravity (except my bud Wil) because I didn't want to be influenced by what someone else may think the movie means.  I didn't even want to see a confirmation of what I saw.

Sandra Bullock and George Clooney are stars and very good actors and do nothing in this film to change that opinion.  Clooney is funny and charming, as always.  Bullock is subdued, for her, but this serves the role for the most part.

I will not get into the technical aspects of Gravity.  They have been extensively described elsewhere.  Suffice to say, Cuarón has infused Gravity with a realism that gets about as close to what I imagine space would actually feel like.  I saw it on a normal screen but will be revisiting it with IMAX 3D in the near future.

So, why didn't it completely work for me?  Too much detachment.  For all its visual beauty, I believe it lacks a heart.  Something just kept me from altogether buying in.  I can't even quite put my reservations into words.  Secondly, with the movie being very short for an Oscar-worthy film (90 minutes), more time could have been spent explaining exactly why a doctor is installing something on Hubble.  How did she even end up at NASA?  I'm not expecting awkward exposition or anything, but it seems like a little more could have been revealed through her conversations with Clooney's character.  Lastly, Bullock's role seems just a bit too much like a trick role, à la Tom Hanks in Cast Away ... a role set up to present well to Oscar voters.  Maybe just a bit too much earnestness and not enough reality.

I'm definitely curious how a second watching may temper my opinion.  Like similar space movies, Moon and 2001, Gravity has a way of making real the quiet, yet ominous isolation of space.  And similarly, I didn't appreciate those movies fully the 1st few times.  Grade:  B

As usual, Mr Stachour at Journal Wunelle has done a bang-up job of a review of Gravity here.  Much smarter than I, a superior writer and possessing much more knowledge of life in thin air, I think you'll like his take.


Saturday, October 05, 2013

Driven



I'm not a racing fan per se. I don't dislike it. As a general sports nut, I will watch a bit of everything. A NASCAR race , maybe some motorcycling racing ... and occasionally a Formula One race. But it's been awhile since I followed it with any kind of regularity. About 10 years ago, one of my best friends was a big Formula One fan and this almost forced me to become aware of racers like Michael Schumaker. But I was sadly (and blissfully) unaware of the rivalry in the 70's between British driver James Hunt and Austrian driver Niki Lauda.

An interest in racing is not necessary to appreciate Rush. The race scenes are great but ultimately it is the interplay between the Hunt and Lauda characters that is the strength of this movie. Since watching Rush, I've done a bit more research into both Hunt and Lauda and see how well each of their characters were cast in both looks and demeanor. Thor's Chris Hemsworth has always had that natural charisma and rakish good looks that Hunt had. And Daniel Bruhl, now also being seen in The Fifth Estate, does a fine job in the role of Lauda. Olivia Wilde, while being in a smaller role as Hunt's wife (for a time), is gorgeous. Her acting is fine, but she just doesn't get a lot of screen time. I did find it fascinating that she left Hunt to go out with Richard Burton, revealing how big Formula One was at the time and the level of celebrity that it had attained.

The rivalry between the drivers is at the heart of the story. Though they were drastically different: Hunt, an unredeemable playboy and lover of life and Lauda, a prickly and calculating tactician, it was their relationship to each other that drove both of them. While not getting too in-depth into the events of the movie, it is the drive to race and beat each other that gives them strength in crisis situations off-the-track.

Racing is just the vehicle, pardon the pun, for the point of the story.  As the poster says, "Everyone's driven by something."  Both of the racers are driven by a need to rise above the expectations of their families.  Hunt has a maniacal need to experience everything to the fullest, something that makes him seemingly careless in real life and hard to beat on the track.  Lauda, from a family of high achievers in business and government, feels that driving is the only thing he can do well and he is going to prove that he is the best.  Good movies make a person think about your own life in a more immediate way than books do.  The best movies will even motivate us to action or to changing something in our own lives.  While I'm not intimating that Rush caused me to reevaluate my life in any substantive way, it was successful in getting me to at least think about the reasons that I do things in work and in my personal life.

It's one of the best movies I have seen this year.  You root for each of the drivers despite (and sometimes because of) their obvious shortcomings.  They are are so focused on their driving that relationships outside of racing are strained.  Their differences in style cause conflict between the racers early on but grow into a grudging respect.  While I believe this is done primarily for dramatics in the movie, as the drivers were actually quite close in real life and even shared an apartment early in their careers, there's no point in letting the truth get in the way of a good story.

Director Ron Howard knows how to tell a good story and I've always been a fan of his work (Frost/Nixon, A Beautiful Mind and Apollo 13 being my favorites).  The movie clocks in at about 2 hours but does not seem long.  The characters are established well and organically without slowing down the narrative.  I recommend Rush.  Grade:  A

(Expect a fairly rapid-fire barrage of movie reviews over the next few weeks.  I've finally gotten into a writing mood and will hammer out reviews of most of the decent movies I've seen this year.  No particular order ... I'm just going to let the subject matter or emotions of each lead me to the next in line.)