Sunday, December 30, 2012


Director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal are dynamite collaborators. Proving themselves with "The Hurt Locker," now they've taken on the daunting challenge of re-creating the decade-long hunt and elimination of Osama bin Laden. It's movie journalism in every sense of the phrase, a ripped-from-the-headlines thriller that wears controversy on its sleeve. It gives no moral compass; that's up for us to decide. The challenge with the film, even in its sweeping accomplishment of craft, is that it has to straddle the line of two territories: fact-based procedural and enthralling cinema. Entertainment is not how I would describe "Zero Dark Thirty."

It's brazen, challenging and nerve-wrenching. It's a dangerous film in its impact and obligation with the weight of history on its shoulders. Cinematic moments like this only come once in a while. "United 93" is another example. There's no doubt Bigelow and Boal deserve accolades for bringing a pivotal moment in the War on Terror to screen with such potency, but you also can't help but shake the feeling of it being still too soon. But it's the excitement of now, how current and how daring -- but also, how frightening. Imagine this film a few more years down the line; however, imagine the lessened shock of impact.

At an undisclosed CIA "black site," an enforcer named Dan (Jason Clarke) tells his interrogation subject, Ammar (Reda Kateb), "If you lie to me, I hurt you." Dan then waterboards his subject with a stoic-looking Maya (Jessica Chastain) standing watch nearby. She cringes at the torture but doesn't stop because she knows it's necessary. Necessary? That's the disturbing power of the film with its display of America's post-9/11 "enhanced interrogation tactics." Without saying it point blank, it still says it: the tactics worked. Cut to a TV where Obama in an interview says America doesn't tolerate torture. Yet they get a critical name out of it, the name of bin Laden's personal courier, Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti.

From this information, Maya gets her lead. She's steadfast in her hunt even in a work environment full of hostility and doubt against her. Chastain astounds in the role as a woman doing her job brilliantly and against all odds. She's strung-out, exhausted, aggravated and beaten-down. Yet even as her friends and co-workers are dying around her, she never gives in. Even when her boss (Kyle Chandler) tells her to stop chasing after an elusive ghost and to start going after tangible targets that will get him more immediate results for his superiors, she stands her ground. For her, finding bin Laden is a personal conquest. "I believe I was spared so I can finish the job," she says. The film is an intense character study on the real-life Maya, and it's what elevates the proceedings beyond its dense fact-based procedural.

The film is nearly three hours in length and, much like "The Hurt Locker," has a consistent building of anticipation-driven tension strung throughout its sequences. One particular moment is when Maya has located who she believes is bin Laden's courier and sends a team of agents (led by Edgar Ramirez) into the packed streets of Peshawar, Pakistan to track down his cell phone signal. The scene is a pulse-pounding exercise in suspense and really shows Bigelow's capabilities if she were to be handed mainstream action. But she and Boal are after something much grander with this picture. Their previous outing, however, was a better movie because in its fictionalization of the war in Iraq, they had something to say. Here, the action is too literal; because it's an exact re-telling, they must stick close to facts.

The big revelation of course arrives when Maya discovers that iconic three-tiered concrete complex in which she believes bin Laden resides. Next comes the harrowing convincing in D.C. that they can actually find their high priority target there. "I'm the motherfucker that found this place, sir," Chastain's Maya tells an excellent James Gandolfini. Maya is always "the girl" in the room, but everybody else in the room begins to realize she's the one calling the shots and knows exactly what she's doing with every action, every reaction.

Once the decision comes to send a team of Navy SEALs (led by Joel Edgerton and Chris Pratt) to the complex to finally kill bin Laden, the film comes to an anti-climax. Again, the action becomes wholly too literal. The infiltration is a step-by-step re-enactment, a strictly business demeanor of eliminating bin Laden through the haze of green-tinted night-vision goggles. I was expecting something more figurative, metaphorical -- a finish that would have something larger to say about the decade-long hunt. We do, however, get a close-up of Maya's reaction to the successful mission, the relief and final satisfaction on her face. What we don't read from her is the question of whether it was all worth it, what it all means for the future of the War on Terror. But maybe we simply don't know that yet. Today's America hasn't come far enough to know the answer to that question.

Friday, December 28, 2012


Eyes ablaze with pain and torment, Anne Hathaway delivers the moment of the year as the fallen ill mother-turned-prostitute Fantine in her solo musical number "I Dreamed a Dream." Her eyes puffy and red with tears streaming down her face, the camera doesn't shy away from a tight close-up during her entire song not backing away from the agony and sorrow she puts on display.

It's not just her song, though, as all of Tom Hooper's "Les Miserables" is full of musical numbers equal in emotional potency to match Hathaway's Oscar-demanding powerhouse. Samantha Barks is devastating as Eponine, the sad, lonesome girl raised on the streets with her "Own My Own." Fantine's blond princess of a daughter, Cosette (Amanda Seyfried), croons like a songbird to her lover, Marius (Eddie Redmayne), and adoptive father Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) who's gone through life running from his criminal past. There's no better show tune front man than Jackman because in such a commanding role, he nails it. He is the forward momentum holding the narrative strings of "Les Miserables" together. Every soaring note or growl of anger from him is alive with vivacity.

Russell Crowe plays the man in pursuit, Javert, who grows tiresome chasing Valjean but never falters. His "Stars" is Crowe's best display of his unconventional vocal performance, much like Amanda Seyfried's fluttering vibrato as Cosette. And one mustn't forget Eddie Redmayne's Marius who absolutely earns his star-making role with his heartbreaking "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables" as he laments for his fallen comrades. Oscar should take note. And rousing all these distinct voices together in a glorious finish to the film's first act is "One Day More," a symphony of vocal collaboration over the orchestra.

Playing in humor and mischief is the ideally cast Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter with their rendition of "Master of the House." Plastered in make-up and funny costumes, they look like they just walked over from the set of "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street," which, by the way, "Les Miserables" is the triumphant musical Hollywood has been waiting for since then.

The film is, of course, based off the 1980s musical smash hit which is based off Victor Hugo's massive 1862 novel about Paris students staging a government uprising in 1832. It's a lot of narrative, and not a very clean one at that. Too many main players, a lot of convolution. So, it's the music that must shine, and shine it does with Tom Hooper's impeccable direction. At just over 2-and-a-half hours, the movie actually moves along quite briskly cramming in an abundance of plot. The bold decision to have his actors sing live on set is also a testament to Hooper's direction with a bold decision that well pays off. In such a style, you witness as emotion overcomes the actors' faces and voices in every musical number. It's sacrificing a perfect sound for something more raw.

Interspersing between close up shots of powerful singing are shots we've come to know from Hooper and "The King's Speech" cinematographer Danny Cohen. Full of high canted angles and large backdrops against tiny figures, it's those tall shots or close-ups, nothing in between. It gives "Les Miserables" a theatricality of both intimacy and grandeur, the perfect combination for treating such a musical. The adaptation isn't perfect (how could it be?), but it's full of astounding performances with actors pouring out their souls in song. Do you hear the people sing? You should.


Disney's "Wreck-It Ralph" is the Pixar movie that Pixar didn't release this year. Rich with unbridled originality, much like what we're used to expecting from the studio who has been disappointing most recently with "Cars 2" and "Brave," the arcade video game world in which Disney's latest CGI outing takes place is a whole new universe to get lost in. The imagination behind the film's opening sequences is astounding and awe-inspiring.

We first meet Ralph (John C. Reilly) inside his game, Fix It Felix Jr., where Felix (Jack McBrayer) climbs a building fixing the spots where Ralph is destroying walls and windows. Felix saves the citizens of the apartment building earning a gold medal, and Ralph gets thrown off the roof into a mud puddle. Every single game. And Ralph is tired of being the bad guy, as he tells his video game villain support group featuring the likes of the Pac-Man ghost and Bowser. Beyond Ralph's own game, there is a whole inner network of games via wires and cords, a game central station where characters can journey between the different video games placed around the arcade. While also packed with real world game references which are fun nods to video game fans (Metal Gear Solid and Sonic are among those making an appearance), the majority of Ralph's adventure takes place in two fictional games: a Halo-style first-person shooter called Hero's Duty and a hybrid of Candy Land and Mario Kart called Sugar Rush.

The level of detail in each game world is specific and matches each game's style. The pixelated world of Fix It Felix Jr. has characters move as if they're 16-bit characters even in full-fledged CGI animation, which is compared to the more realistic, high-definition world of Hero's Duty and the bubbly colors and textures of Sugar Rush. A catchy, electronic score matches the atmosphere making this video game universe a complete package, reminiscent of the deep sea world of "Finding Nemo" or the space station of "WALL-E." Again, more comparisons to a Pixar standard of quality.

Ralph is on a quest to earn himself a medal to prove to the apartment citizens in the Fix It Felix Jr. game that bad guys can earn hero medals, too. He first sneaks into Hero's Duty, but then accidentally ejects himself into Sugar Rush where he meets an energy ball of a little girl named Vanellope (Sarah Silverman) who's dream is to be one of the racers on the roster of her game. She shares a dilemma with Ralph, however, because she's a glitch in the game and is cast as an outsider, unwanted and alone. King Candy (Alan Tudyk) is after her because he doesn't want her to be in Sugar Rush's race roster as a glitch. And while Ralph is trying to help Vanellope, Felix and a character from Hero's Duty, rough-and-tumble Calhoun (Jane Lynch), are out searching to return Ralph to his game before it's forced out of order.

Most of the adventure takes place in Sugar Rush and can start to feel repetitive, but then -- after a quick montage driven by a Rihanna song -- the story smacks us with a huge emotional wallop that really hits the movie home making it quite moving, heartfelt and, well, sweet. This was Disney's year in animation with both "Wreck-It Ralph" and "Frankenweenie," which, while less successful at the box office, was the other animated critical hit next to "Paranorman." And John Lasseter (who's otherwise been mostly a Pixar loyalist) as executive producer only further proved the studio's faith in the wonderful original piece. Your move, Pixar.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

THIS IS 40 Review

Judd Apatow needs to learn to not be afraid of the editing room. Like his "Funny People," his latest personal project is a loose, meandering, messy and bit of an amorphous blob of a comedy. But it's also searing in its honest look at married life, dealing with parents, raising kids, getting older and maintaining a companionship that lasts. And if it takes his sloppy, imperfect style -- rolling, spontaneous, free-flowing improvisational riffs and scenes that sometimes are directionless -- to present us these truths he seeks, then so be it. It's worth it, and "This Is 40" is worth it. No other tighter Hollywood comedies today could squeeze so much out of its characters and show audiences what it's really like and take the risk of swapping out laughs for realness.

I was uncomfortable at first with how much a comedy was making me squirm. There are a lot of fights, a lot of arguments, and I thought to myself, "Well, this isn't very funny." But that's what makes Apatow brave as a filmmaker. He started back with 2007's "Knocked Up" re-envisioning what a comedy could do. He created his own sub-genre of comedy that was mimicked for years; that is until "Bridesmaids" set another new standard. And with this sort-of sequel to "Knocked Up," Apatow has done it again. He's given us a comedy that makes us look at the harsher realities of married life, of hitting that over-the-hill. It's not always pretty, that's for sure, with a lot of the gross-out comedy actually coming from droll everyday moments like having Pete (Paul Rudd) thrusting his legs in the air and wanting Debbie (Leslie Mann) to check for hemorrhoids.

Pete and Debbie we supporting characters, and we saw their marriage was less than perfect. Now, at the center, their marriage is dead in the water. They attempt to explain and negotiate to each other in therapy terms as their counseling has taught them, but they still sound like they want to kill each other. Pete's form of escape is hiding away in the bathroom sitting on the toilet to play Scrabble on his tablet. Debbie becomes obsessed with trying to make changes to the family dynamic: more healthy eating, and less Internet for the kids (played by Apatow and Mann's real life daughters, Maude and Iris get plenty of fun material to play with -- best is the older daughter's obsession with finding out how "Lost" ends).

While trying to be the best parents they can, Pete and Debbie have parent troubles of their own. Pete's dad, Larry (Albert Brooks), is too present in his life always asking for money to help support his younger wife and blonde triplet boys he can't tell apart. Brooks is a comedic cannon and scene-stealer in the fatherly role. Debbie's dad, Oliver (John Lithgow), is on the other end of the spectrum -- not present at all to the point of meeting his granddaughters for the first time. All of their drama comes to a head at a birthday bash where Apatow's loose narrative really packs its punch.

Aside from that, however, the crux of Pete and Debbie's issues stem from their financial problems. But they also live in the likes of Brentwood, Calif. which means they're actually still pretty well-off. It's hard to pity them when you're listening about Debbie's thrift store not breaking even as her hot employee played by Megan Fox might be stealing, or watching as Pete's record label flounders because he's signing has-been groups like Graham Parker (who plays a version of himself in the movie). Aside from the welcomed addition of "Girls" players Lena Dunham and Chris O'Dowd as employees of Pete's, this side of the movie -- which unfortunately takes up a large portion -- just feels like the grumbling of rich people problems.

The laughs are mostly hit-or-miss from all the movie's improvising, but one moment where Pete and Debbie get tangled in the politics of their daughters' school is an absolute knock-out from Melissa McCarthy. She plays a disgruntled mother, Catherine, who has an outrageous, mean-spirited, curse-filled tirade to why Pete and Debbie are horrible people; that is, however, after Debbie just got done unnecessarily yelling at Catherine's son in a moment of parental protection and vulnerability that perfectly captures Mann's character. She's the acting stand-out as a woman, wife and mother who's aggravating, kind, brash, sexy and insecure all in one, and she makes her Debbie breathable, living and oh so true.

Friday, December 21, 2012


"Hitchcock" could be re-titled "Mrs. Hitchcock" as a lot of the movie's emphasis and intrigue comes from the famed director's loving, dedicated but ultimately frustrated and fed-up wife, Alma Reville. She helps her husband on almost every picture he makes and yet gets pushed to the side when it's time for his limelight. So, while basing its premise on the inception and creation of the high watermark of his career, "Psycho," the drama comes from the troubled side of the Hitchcock marriage and creative collaboration.

Helen Mirren stuns as Alma, especially in a bold moment of confrontation to her obsessive and unwittingly neglectful husband. She's married to a man who becomes possessed by his films, especially his blonde bombshell leading ladies he wishes to turn into stars. For "Psycho," he turns to Janet Leigh (a charming and radiant Scarlett Johansson) who, in the shooting of the pivotal shower scene, sees Hitchcock's dark recesses come to light as he jabs a knife toward her to elicit real terror in her reaction. The other lead is Vera Miles (Jessica Biel), an actress Hitchcock wanted as his muse, but she chose the life of a housewife over him reaping her with fame and fortune.

The ensemble cast comes into play when Hitchcock places the idea of "Psycho" as his next picture to his agent (Michael Stuhlbarg), personal assistant (Toni Collette), the Paramount studio head (Richard Portnow) who is hesitant to finance him and the ratings board (Kurtwood Smith) who threatens to not release the film in theaters due to its content. It's a fun, colorful cast that introduces a level of soapy drama through fellow Hitchcock collaborator and writer Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston) who is slyly trying to take not only the limelight away from the director -- but also maybe even his wife.

The movie gets a little wrongheaded when it tries a tongue-and-cheek tone to mirror a classic Hitchcock style of suspense complete with moody and tension-building music. And yet these dashes of faux horror suspense are created out of marital dispute and inadvertently flatten the level of drama created by the actors. Ultimately, Anthony Hopkins' portrayal of the director comes off as too campy, cheeky and more of a caricature than a real man -- which isn't so much the fault in his acting but the wonky screenplay. This most notably comes through when the actor breaks the third wall addressing the audience as Hitchcock. It could've been a deeper film about the heartbreak, sacrifice and ultimate triumph of manifesting "Psycho," but instead it's only entertaining, surface-level fare.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012


Let's first address the technology Peter Jackson decided to put forth with the first entry in his highly-anticipated "Lord of the Rings" sequel, "The Hobbit," originally two films but now three. The 48 frames per second, or 48 fps, or high frame rate, or HFR, or however you want to go about defining it, the fact is this: it's neither eye-gougingly awful or a feast for the eyes, which then brings up my very first question: why all the controversy surrounding it? I will say, though, in the film's first minutes, there are noticeable speed ups, and interactions between actors have a weird soap opera effect. Action sequences either look fake or like something out of a video game. But once you get settled in with the new technology, and the bizarre quirks become less glaring, it might actually begin to grow on you in its bold clarity and ultra high definition look. (It did for me.) I recommend going all the way and trying your luck with 48 fps; it is, after all, how the filmmaker intended it to be seen by audiences, and it's never been done before.

The first chapter in this new trilogy, "An Unexpected Journey" starts at a slog. We begin with Old Bilbo recounting his journey, yet again, to Frodo (Elijah Wood), and for one fleeting moment you may think you're watching "Fellowship of the Ring" again. But no, this is only exposition to set up the tale, followed by more exposition to set up the plight of the dwarves lead by Dwarf Lord Thorin (Richard Armitage). And then further down the line, there's more exposition. Recall the multiple endings of "The Return of the King," but just think of "The Hobbit" as having multiple beginnings...and about just two endings. It's long, very long, but only in the tradition of J.R.R. Tolkien adaptations; that is, only what Jackson as a filmmaker knows to bring us. It gives this return to Middle-earth a welcoming, comforting and familial feeling.

And who can shy away a smile from the return of Ian McKellen's Gandalf the Grey? He embarks a now much younger Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman, who fits the role like a glove) on this thirteen-dwarf adventure to help re-claim their lost kingdom of Erebor. The early portion of this journey feels much lighter, more frivolous than any portion of any "Lord of the Rings" film, which has a dampening effect. It makes this seemingly harrowing adventure too fun, not treacherous and dire. It isn't until Gandalf makes waves at the Elvan palace where the glimmering Hugo Weaving and Cate Blanchett reside that the importance of the quest really makes it's mark; in that this group's actions alone set in motion the whole One Ring to Rule Them All ruckus of the successors.

After this visit, the film is alight with glorious action set pieces full of trolls, orcs and goblins -- and it all pops and glistens behind your 3D glasses and at an upped frame rate. Also aiding the film to the finish line is the inspired interaction between Bilbo and fan-favorite Gollum, played once again by the remarkable physical actor Andy Serkis covered in motion-capture and CGI. While "The Hobbit" by no means holds the grandiose themes and heavy emotional power of Jackson's Oscar-loaded Middle-earth masterpiece, whoever said it had to? What's amazing enough is that with thirteen dwarves, you actually begin to feel for them, and you might even get a lump in your throat by the film's final minutes (three hours later).

This project had a whole lot going against it, and I think that's the reason critics have been so harsh in its reception. What became most unexpected for me was how good it really turned out to be and, my, how gratifying. It's a fine addition to a beloved franchise I don't mind donating another six hours to with two more likely three-hour-long installments down the road. Bring on "The Desolation of Smaug," I say.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

70th Annual Golden Globe Award Nominations

Every year the Hollywood Foreign Press Association decides to surprise us for no reason with their nominations, and this morning's announcement for the 70th installment of the Golden Globe Awards was no exception. This time it's all about that movie that everyone except the HFPA had forgotten: "Salmon Fishing in the Yemen," which snuck into the nominees for Best Comedy or Musical. With that came nominations for "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" -- which also had a great showing with SAG yesterday -- "Moonrise Kingdom" and then front-runners "Les Miserables" and "Silver Linings Playbook" who will duke it out for the top prize.

What I find most alarming is that even the Critics' Choice had a better representation of this year's comedies. "Magic Mike," "This Is 40," "Pitch Perfect," "Ted" and "21 Jump Street" all got left off completely. Especially surprising is the absence of acting nominations for Leslie Mann or Paul Rudd for "This Is 40," or Matthew McConaughey who otherwise has been part of the conversation for "Magic Mike." Instead, we get both Emily Blunt and Ewan McGregor nominated for "Salmon Fishing in the Yemen," the independent selection over more conventional and, frankly, more well-received comedies. What's the thinking there?

"Lincoln" led the pack again with a total seven nominations trailed by "Argo" and "Django Unchained" each with five. Those three nabbed Best Drama nominations alongside "Life of Pi" and "Zero Dark Thirty" leaving "The Master" in the dust. Acting categories made up for it, however, as Amy Adams, Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman were all nominated for the film, while all but Hoffman were skipped for SAG nominations yesterday.

"Beasts of the Southern Wild" was nowhere to be found, but that's not surprising considering the HFPA prefers to include bigger stars, and "Beasts" is full of unknowns.

With "Les Miserables" and "Silver Linings Playbook" both filling up Comedy and Musical slots, that left for some interesting inclusions in the Drama acting categories. With Bradley Cooper for "Silver Linings Playbook" shifted aside, Richard Gere got his due for "Arbitrage" which almost went the whole season without recognition.

Same goes for the displacement of Jennifer Lawrence for "Silver Linings," which left room for the re-emergence of Rachel Weisz for "The Deep Blue Sea" after her NYFCC win. Naomi Watts for "The Impossible" and Helen Mirren for "Hitchcock" are gaining more traction for their spots in the Best Actress field for the Oscars, as well, pushing out both Emmuanelle Riva for "Amour" and Quvenzhane Wallis for "Beasts."

And apparently no awards season is complete without Meryl Streep, so way to go HFPA for remembering "Hope Springs," and nominating the veteran actress in the category of Best Actress for Comedy or Musical. Judi Dench got a nod, as well, not for "Skyfall" but instead "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" along with Maggie Smith for not "Best Exotic" but "Quartet."

The Best Supporting categories, which don't get the benefit of a Drama and Comedy or Musical divide, were both crowded. And guess who decided to show up again for Best Supporting Actress? Nicole Kidman for her raucous performance in "The Paperboy," which after SAG yesterday and now this, might, dare I say, have some traction toward an Oscar nomination? Lord help us, hopefully not.

Best Supporting Actor held some "Django" love with both Leonardo DiCaprio and Christoph Waltz scoring nods. Sorely missing, however, was Robert De Niro for "Silver Linings Playbook."

What can we take away from this year's HFPA selections? Only that the Critics' Choice are more and more becoming the better Oscar precursor.

Check out the full list of nominations, and tune in to watch what everyone really wants to watch during the 70th Annual Golden Globe Awards: Tina Fey and Amy Poehler hosting. It all happens on Sunday, January 13 at 8 p.m. on NBC.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

19th Annual SAG Award Nominations

David O. Russell's "Silver Linings Playbook" made an impressive appearance this morning with four SAG award nominations during the announcement for the 19th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards. Both of its leads, Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper, as well as a supporting nod for Robert De Niro and a Best Ensemble nomination made up the four total. Tying at four was Spielberg's "Lincoln" with nominations in the same categories for Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones and the cast.

Along with "Silver Linings" for Best Ensemble, the nominated films were "Lincoln," "Les Miserables," "Argo" and "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" which gives the latter film a slight edge toward a possible (but still long shot) Best Picture nomination. The obvious snub here is for "Zero Dark Thirty" which has otherwise been getting plenty of accolades.

The Best Actor nominations here pretty much affirm what we'll see for the category at the Oscars. That is, the usual suspects with John Hawkes for "The Sessions" and Hugh Jackman for "Les Miserables" getting in over the likes of previous contendor Joaquin Phoenix for "The Master."

Best Actress got a bit of a shake-up with Helen Mirren for "Hitchcock" and Naomi Watts for "The Impossible" re-emerging over two major snubs for Quvenzhane Wallis for "Beasts of the Southern Wild" and Emmuanelle Riva for "Amour." Somehow I can't see this overlook happening come Oscar nomination morning.

And it looks like we may have our very first Bond villain make its way to an Oscar nomination in the Best Supporting Actor category. Then again, never before has a Bond villain been played by the entirely capable Javier Bardem. The actor received another nod for his turn in "Skyfall," extending his reach to Oscar potential. This, however, meant that Matthew McConaughey for "Magic Mike" got edged out.

Sneaking their way into Best Supporting Actress were Maggie Smith for "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel," which is a fine inclusion to the category, but then also Nicole Kidman for her raunchy, twisted turn in "The Paperboy." That's a tiny miracle for the film, and there must've been a big campaign behind her. This meant not including the possible contendor of Ann Dowd for "Compliance," but more notably a pretty big snub for Amy Adams in "The Master."

The biggest thing we can walk away with here is that "Zero Dark Thirty" suddenly just hit a wall with only one nomination for its lead, Jessica Chastain. This, however, could all get rectified come Globe nominations tomorrow morning.

Check out the full list of nominations, and be sure to tune in to the 19th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards on Sunday, January 27 at 8 p.m. on TNT and TBS.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

18th Annual Critics' Choice Movie Award Nominations

After a slew of critics groups naming their best of the year earlier last week (AFI, Boston, New York, Los Angeles), it announced the late arrival of Kathryn Bigelow's every-other-award-contendor-killer, her true life military drama "Zero Dark Thirty." It is in full steam ahead as the late front-runner for Best Picture after "Argo" seemed impossible to top earlier in the fall.

Now with the arrival of this morning's 18th Annual Critics' Choice Movie Awards from the Broadcast Film Critics Association, it's a nice reminder that a reputable comedy category is on its way with the Globes. With "Bernie," "Silver Linings Playbook," "Ted," "This Is 40" and "21 Jump Street" all nominated for Best Picture from the BFCA, it's a robust category and will make the Golden Globe nominations more interesting; however, they have the pesky inclusion of musical which "Les Miserables" can easily dominate.

Also a breath of fresh air is the association's inclusion of a separate action movie category where the likes of "The Dark Knight Rises," "Looper" and, most importantly, "Skyfall" can get some recognition.  The three all received nods for Best Action Movie next to superhero big-show "The Avengers." This also allowed Daniel Craig a nomination for Best Actor in an Action Movie next to co-star Judi Dench for a double-nomination in both Best Actress in an Action Movie and in the major category of Best Supporting Actress, which is a welcomed surprise along with Javier Bardem in the major Best Supporting Actor category. This is likely the most awards love "Skyfall" will receive this year.

Back to the main grind, "Lincoln" led the pack with a whopping 13 nominations, which beat out previous record-holder of "Black Swan" with 12 nominations. Yet the BFCA passed the love all around with several nominations for each major contendor. Joining "Lincoln" with a Best Picture nomination were "Argo," "Beasts of the Southern Wild," "Django Unchained," "Les Miserables," "Life of Pi," "The Master," "Moonrise Kingdom," "Silver Linings Playbook" and "Zero Dark Thirty." There are eight locked with "Django" and "Moonrise" slots up for grabs with the potential of "The Sessions" or "Amour" sneaking in.

Narrowing down the ten, Best Director nominations went to six: Ben Affleck for "Argo," Kathryn Bigelow for "Zero Dark Thirty," Tom Hooper for "Les Miserables," Ang Lee for "Life of Pi," David O. Russell for "Silver Linings Playbook" and Steven Spielberg for "Lincoln."

Joining front-runner Daniel Day-Lewis for "Lincoln" in the Best Actor category were Bradley Cooper for "Silver Linings Playbook," Denzel Washington for "Flight," John Hawkes for "The Sessions," Hugh Jackman for "Les Miserables" and Joaquin Phoenix for "The Master." Since this is six total, it'll likely be between Hawkes and Phoenix for the fifth spot at the Oscars.

The Best Actress category included Jessica Chastain for "Zero Dark Thirty," Marion Cotillard for "Rust and Bone," Jennifer Lawrence for "Silver Linings Playbook," Emmanuelle Riva for "Amour," Quvenzhane Wallis for "Beasts of the Southern Wild" and Naomi Watts for "The Impossible." Take out Watts, and you're looking at the Best Actress nominees at the Oscars.

Even "The Hunger Games" nabbed some love in the form of Lawrence getting another acting nomination for Best Actress in an Action Movie. Lawrence got double-nominated for "Silver Linings" in both Best Actress and Actress in a Comedy for three acting nods total.

Best Supporting Actor is a little more interesting, especially with Javier Bardem for "Skyfall" sneaking in alongside Matthew McConaughey for "Magic Mike," Tommy Lee Jones for "Lincoln," Alan Arkin for "Argo," Robert De Niro for "Silver Linings Playbook" and Philip Seymour Hoffman for "The Master." While it's still pretty fluid who might get in (Leonardo DiCaprio for "Django" is decidedly missing), Tommy Lee Jones is the front-runner here.

Judi Dench surprised with her aforementioned Best Supporting Actress nomination for her work in "Skyfall," and joining her in the category was Helen Hunt for "The Sessions," Anne Hathaway for "Les Miserables," Amy Adams for "The Master," Sally Field for "Lincoln" and Ann Dowd for "Compliance." Again, take out Dench, and you're likely looking at this field for the Oscars.

The biggest question is whether the acting categories are locked down and prepped to snub "Skyfall" or if the mentions here will translate into Oscar love later on.

Check out the full list of nominations, and tune in to find out the winners of the 18th Annual Critics' Choice Movie Awards on Thursday, Jan. 10 at 8 p.m. on the CW.

Saturday, December 8, 2012


It confounds me that "Promised Land" is widely held as an awards contendor this year. It makes sense considering this is director Gus Van Sant's first time reuniting with Matt Damon as writer since 1997's Oscar-winning "Good Will Hunting." What doesn't make sense, however, is the final result that turns out from this second-time collaboration. This time Damon is aided by co-writer John Krasinski (the two star in the film together), and it works as a gentle, well-acted drama about small town life and a big environmental decision; ultimately, however, the film undermines its own dramatic potential instead to make way for preachy political sentiment and in-your-face agenda.

Damon plays Steve Butler, a corporate salesman for a large drilling company called Global who's sent to a rural farming community to convince the locals that drilling for natural gas is the best solution to solving their economic woes. The deals struck with selling their land to drilling would give them more money than they could imagine -- but of course, there are plenty of strings attached. Called fracking (I'll spare you the Googling), the process to retrieve natural gas from beneath the ground inadvertently pollutes the land above killing all crops and livestock. It's shrugged off as a potential, but not inevitable, hazard.

Arriving in town with his amiable co-worker, Sue (Frances McDormand), she and Steve seem like nice enough people. They're certainly not villains, and they're only doing the job they're told to do. It's a compelling contradiction put into play early on that's further complicated by the arrival of a grassroots environmentalist guy named Dustin Noble (John Krasinski) who's really looking out for the citizens, and who very well might be right about the dangers of fracking, but comes across as the bad guy to both Steve and Sue's efforts. Once this character base is set up, however, the film has nowhere else to go.

The story finds side routes to go including a wobbly love interest for Steve in the form of local bar-goer, middle-aged single woman Alice (Rosemarie DeWitt). They spend one drunken night together, a little interest evolves, and that's about it. Likewise, Sue finds friendship in a shop owner (Titus Welliver). Will these two out-of-towners find enough to like in this farming town to realize what they're selling and halt their dirty business? Don't let me spoil it.

There's a bit of comedic fun between Sue and Steve's half-hearted efforts to get the town on their side while Dustin runs circles around them almost effortlessly. The real stand-out, though, is Hal Hobrook as a grisled old school teacher who serves as the first opposition against Steve and the most convincing. This is followed shortly by Scoot McNairy's (last seen in "Argo") one-man representation of middle America. When almost validating itself as an ode to humbling, homegrown mentality, "Promised Land" introduces a late morality twist that doesn't so much work as character development but rather a cheap screenplay device. Once Steve watches as everything he believed in crumbles before him, Van Sant's film affirms itself as an overly opinionated and lazy Oscar hopeful.


Mary Elizabeth Winstead is the clear standout in writer and director James Ponsoldt's "Smashed," which follows Winstead's character, Kate, as she acknowledges her alcoholism and leads a new life to sobriety. It's a very small, intimate film not even running a full 90 minutes, and in this design Ponsoldt and his co-writer Susan Burke (whose experiences inspired the story) know exactly their goal: to present a truthful portrayal of how alcohol addiction can affect a person's life in ways they may not imagine. It appears to be a very personal project and may have you wondering "what's the point?" but then looking at the actress' performance at its center, and you'll have found your answer.

Kate is married to a scruffy, loving husband Charlie, played by the "Breaking Bad" double-Emmy winner Aaron Paul in his first dramatic role outside of the AMC drama. On the surface their marriage seems healthy because they're happy together, but as the film slowly peels away the layers of their wedlock, you realize they're only happy together when they're both drunk. They drink a lot -- out with friends, at the bar and then to a dangerous level back in their home. Two incidences push Kate to think her drinking has become a problem. After drunk-driving a stranger home who offers her a hit of a crack pipe, Kate wakes up the next morning unaware of where she is or how she got there. Another morning at her elementary school job, she throws up from a hangover and after being asked by a student if she's pregnant, she instinctively responds "yes" to hide her shame and without realizing the repercussions.

A fellow teacher at the school, Dave (Nick Offerman) recognizes Kate's struggle as he was once an alcoholic himself. He offers to take her to AA where she meets a warm-hearted sponsor, Jenny (Octavia Spencer in her first serious role since her Oscar win for "The Help"). Meanwhile back at the school, Kate has to deal with her lying as the principal (Megan Mullally) is congratulating her pregnancy. The film boasts an understated ensemble cast that's actually not as utilized as maybe it could've been -- but again, this allows Winstead to shine even more.

The scenes of Winstead drinking herself to oblivion are equal parts heartbreaking and terrifying, especially when she interacts with Charlie who simply doesn't want to believe in not only her alcohol dependence but also his own. Even when they both visit Kate's estranged mother (Mary Kay Place), she receives no support because her mother, too, has a drinking problem she can't admit. The power in Ponsoldt's tale of recovery comes from the unexpected results of getting sober. The reality is that it's not just about becoming dry and putting down the bottle -- it's about realizing the other effects it will have on your job, your relationships, your marriage.

"Smashed" is worth your time if only for Winstead's performance and Aaron Paul's supporting turn, and the way they interact together as an alcohol-soaked couple. As one of the two movies out this year about alcoholism (the other being "Flight"), it's a serious movie about drinking but also one that doesn't lose hope.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012


Ang Lee's "Life of Pi" is the best use of 3D in any film since the inception of the technology's use, even superior to "Avatar." It's the prime example of how to expand the possibilities of the medium. In every meticulous detail, the film is transcendent and awash in magical realism. Adapted from the worldwide bestseller by Yann Martel, the novel was likely regarded by its readers (I am not one of them) as an impossible translation to the big screen. Yet much in the way you have to believe the extraordinary story of a boy stranded on a boat with a Bengal tiger, you have to believe in Ang Lee as a director. Every so often, the right person for the right project comes along, and the result is unbridled imagination and confidence. This is something special, a one-of-a-kind experience that sinks into your soul. It's also one of the very best films of the year.

It all begins and ends with the power of storytelling. As an adult, Piscine Patel (Irrfan Khan) recalls his life journey to an author (Rafe Spall) who wants to write about it. We first learn of the origin of Pi's full name, which is French for swimming pool, but of course his schoolmates refer to him as "pee." Pi outsmarts them, however, reinventing his name around the mathematical constant beginning with 3.14. Pi grew up surrounded by his family's zoo in Pondichery, India, and Lee -- with the help of cinematographer Claudio Miranda -- shows us Pi's childhood full of clever whimsy.

As a young boy, Pi (Ayush Tandon) learns a valuable lesson about the dangers of animals from his father. It's a crucial moment between Pi and the zoo's tiger, named Richard Parker, when the boy learns of life's harsh realities for the first time. Fast forward to his family's zoo going broke forcing them to sell and move to Canada. Now older, Pi (Suraj Sharma) experiences a tragic shipwreck during their trip abroad, and his family is never seen again. He's left stranded on a life boat with a zebra, hyena and an orangutan in a microcosm of a food chain. And then emerges Richard Parker as both a blessing and curse.

The bulk of the film takes place out on sea as we watch the evolving relationship between Pi and Richard Parker. The CGI, motion-capture technology used to bring the ferociousness of the Bengal tiger to life is astonishing. The movement, sounds, actions and most importantly feelings of Richard Parker are fully realized and make a living, breathing creature out of thin air. Pi learns to co-exist with the animal on their tiny, mobile island across a vast expanse of blue sea, which refers back to the movie's ingenius use of 3D as a storytelling element. Picture this: a tiny white speck of a boat in the open water reflecting back the sky, creating a complete sense of infinity and isolation. There's no question Lee's film is a visual masterpiece.

"Life of Pi" is very much a rumination on religion and faith as the young Pi takes on Christianity, Hinduism and Islam all at once and, later in life, wonders what God's plan for him was all along during his sea voyage. And the story seems almost mystical, especially once a meerkat-covered island comes into play, and it begs the question of how much can you believe? But in the end, it's a poignant and moving film about seeing what life deals out to you and learning that sometimes you have to be ready to let go.