Wednesday, July 9, 2014


Richard Linklater's "Boyhood" is an extraordinary filmmaking achievement in its ambition, scope and as an experiment in time and longevity through the telling of a family story filmed over the course of 12 years with all the same actors. But even more than that, it's a film of remarkable power and humility. The director who helmed the "Before" trilogy creates a lived-in feeling with these characters in their decade-long journey, and it permeates into a sensation for the audience that is indescribable and inescapable; it's the aura of watching something so true and real that you'll find yourself reflecting back on your own childhood and experiences growing up. It's by and far the best film so far this year and likely the best film of the year, period. And personally, it's the best I've seen in years and had me moved to tears of awe unlike anything in recent memory.

Newcomer Ellar Coltrane plays Mason, who begins the film at age six and ends at 17, and we watch him grow up right before our eyes. The moments through childhood into adolescence and young adulthood for Mason are both small and large, from playing mindless video games with friends to a camping trip with his dad to witnessing domestic abuse and graduating high school. Arguments could be made about individual scene inclusions full of seemingly arbitrary and insignificant moments, but that would be missing the point. Having watched everything in these lives unfold before us for two hours and 45 minutes, it becomes astounding, enthralling and overwhelming in its bigger picture breadth of emotion and resonance.

Cultural cues take us through the passing of time, and it clicks along seamlessly without any timestamp. The soundtrack, most notably, is keyed into each era perfectly and includes a fantastic use of Arcade Fire's "Deep Blue." As we go along, sometimes our only indicator is Mason's changing hair shifting back and forth between short and long as he goes from precocious kid to introspective teen. Spending too much time on his Nintendo 3DS, wondering why his girlfriend doesn't agree that "Tropic Thunder," "The Dark Knight" and "Pineapple Express" are the best three movies of the summer, attending a book launch party for the sixth "Harry Potter" and the bittersweet sibling relationship with sister Samantha (played by Linklater's daughter Lorelei) who admires Lady Gaga's "Telephone" video -- it's all part of the larger tapestry that gets weaved through a series of nearly non-events, about nothing more than watching this boy grow older, watching a life. And in that simplicity lies the film's greatest strength.

As much as "Boyhood" is about boyhood, it's also largely about motherhood and fatherhood. Ethan Hawke is the divorced dad whose eventual maturity was too little, too late to save his marriage. Later in life we see him with a second wife and a newborn; he's finally grown into the man Mason's mom expected him to be years ago. But that's not to say he's uncaring. He loves his kids and connects with him the best he can and bestows whatever knowledge he has onto a teenaged Mason about life, love and women. Patricia Arquette as Mason's mom is the film's rock and guiding light. She goes through two more divorces -- a parade of drunk assholes, as Mason recalls -- and seems to be just as in flux as her son, a smart and talented woman who happens to be still figuring things out nearly halfway through her lifetime. In a final moment as she watches Mason head off to school, the weight of everything that has come before crashes down on her in a devastating flash of midlife crisis.

Early Oscar buzz should be in the air and will hopefully carry into the season and not only for the film and its writer/director but for its actors, too. Ellar Coltrane, Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette all deliver nomination-worthy performances that are soulfully nuanced for over a decade. While Coltrane's older Mason stays relatively quiet around family, he opens up into philosophical musings with his girlfriend that cut into themes about connecting with others, the passage of time and wondering what it's all for. The final scene has Mason off at college, and a girl contemplates with him the meaning of the phrase "seize the moment." She asks, "Isn't it the other way around?" The moments are what seize you. And so they do. No other film captures an entire stretch of life's moments quite like Richard Linklater's "Boyhood" does. It's a masterpiece.


At the start of the uplifting and momentous documentary "Life Itself," the voice of Roger Ebert gives a speech: "For me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us." This journey, for our generation's most famous and beloved film critic, is a life lived through cinema. And even though in 2006 his voice was taken from him, it did not silence him from doing what he loved: delivering cinematic and cultural commentary with great passion and honesty. And he did it for years to come. From director Steve James (known for 1994's "Hoop Dreams," which Ebert loved), the film recounts Ebert's journey and, most fittingly, it's largely told in the critic's own words.

The film traces back to December 2012, documenting the final months of Ebert's life, when James visited him and wife Chaz in the Chicago hospital where he was staying after multiple surgeries. He was at the tail-end of a battle against thyroid cancer that had taken his lower jaw, leaving a limp flap of skin where his chin used to be. There is no shying away from close-ups of Ebert's rather grisly physical state, including an unflinching moment where he's fed through suction; he cringes in pain at the procedure before giving the nurse a thumbs up. Ebert was deeply involved with this film's creation, aiding to the desire for full transparency and wanting to tell his life story with the utmost truth. This involves revealing the return of his cancer against Chaz's wishes and the not-revealed-until-now fact that he met Chaz in AA after battling depression and alcoholism.

Taken from excerpts of his memoir of the same name, the film takes a look back at his career as a steadfast newspaperman for the Chicago Sun-Times, his Pulitzer Prize-winning work, his writing of the screenplay "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls," the impact his words had on filmmakers' lives such as a young Martin Scorsese and, of course, his show "At the Movies" with longtime partner Gene Siskel which created the infamous two thumbs up review system.

Especially here in this relationship, Ebert is painted as stubborn, egotistical and sometimes downright harsh. And yet that's who he was, and this surprisingly unsentimental portrayal does the famed film critic justice by showing exactly the man he was; and not to say he wasn't heartwarming and generous. He was that, too, just not maybe toward Siskel -- until an appreciation for each other grew late in the game. And how devastated Ebert was when Siskel's death came as a shock after he had decided not to share the news of his illness.

"Life Itself" is a lovely film and critical viewing not only for admirers of Roger Ebert but for anyone who considers themselves a lover of cinema. It's an absorbing and life-affirming documentary that touches on everything from the power of writing, the necessity of film criticism, the pain of illness and death and, finally, the nature of love and living life to the fullest down to the very last moment.

Monday, June 30, 2014


As we continue into the summer movie season with superheroes, sequels and money-grubbing tentpoles, here arrives "Snowpiercer," a thrilling piece of international filmmaking that carries the gusto of any great blockbuster and the brains of the most sophisticated sci-fi dystopian fare. From visionary director Joon-ho Bong, who took the creature feature (2006's "The Host") and murder mystery (2009's "Mother") genres and turned them on their heads, he has created a wildly original and inventive take on a sociopolitical parable. Simply put: it's the action film everyone should be (and probably isn't) seeing and talking about right now.

It's the year 2031, and an attempt to counteract global warming has sent the world into an Ice Age with the only survivors boarding a guargantuan locomotive that circumvents the earth at a rate of one revolution per year. It is humanity's brave new world, a place severely divided into a harsh class system. The deprived, soot-covered 99 percent are forced to live in miserable conditions in the back of the train while the one percent enjoy decadent luxuries in the front of the train. Curtis (Chris Evans) is the reluctant hero of his fed-up cohorts in the back who've long been planning a prison break-styled revolt to charge their way to the front. The premise may sound like something you've seen before -- most notably the class system found in "The Hunger Games" franchise -- but that's where the familiarities begin and end.

What follows is a headlong rush into complete lunacy, a wild ride that could only work as well as it does because it comes from such a visually audacious filmmaker. The action sequences are propulsive and spectacular, each uniquely stylized as the revolters hack and slash their way through swarms of thugs; one of the scenes in particular is a heart-pounding stand-out. Beyond visually, what's most impressive is the crazy balancing act the film strikes in its tone; it's profoundly serious with brutal violence and then throws in spurts of pitch black hilarity.

Delivering the most laughs is Tilda Swinton who beams in her performance from what feels like a different planet entirely. The chameleon actress is batshit brilliant and knocks out every scene she's in. A close runner-up is Alison Pill as a delusional school teacher in a sequence that stands as the film's downright most bizarre. Chris Evans sheds his "Captain America" exterior to deliver a grounded, rugged performance while John Hurt is great as the peg-legged old man of wisdom. Octavia Spencer shines with ferocity and warmth while Jamie Bell plays a go-getting sidekick, and Kang-ho Song is superb as a drug-addicted securities expert.

Here's a film that pulls you into its strange, scary and wonderfully weird world and recaptures the feeling of truly transporting cinema. Think "The Matrix" -- it's that good. Joon-ho Bong doesn't shy away from reaching for greatness and comes out the other end with something to say, too. The film is not subtle about its powerful ideas and using the train as an allegory for the world we live in today. How far are we willing to go in order to exist comfortably in our society at the expense of so many suffering? "Snowpiercer" suggests a bleak reality.


The romantic leads in David Wain's "They Came Together" are Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler, and it's inspired casting, both for the sake of comedy and that they actually look like romantic leads. Rudd is handsome but nonthreatening while Poehler is adorable and impossible not to like. This very thing is explained in the opening scene when their characters, Joel and Molly, are telling the story of how they met to friends, Kyle (Bill Hader) and Karen (Ellie Kemper), at dinner. Their story is like a cheesy romantic comedy, and the friends act as an audience stand-in. But it's not a movie; it's their real lives! And a millisecond before the scene cuts away, Poehler gives a knowing look right to the camera. It's perfect.

Don't forget that New York plays such a pivotal role in their story, that the city really is like a third character, something that's brought up over and over. "So if your life was a movie," the friend asks, "we'd probably open with overhead shots of New York?" Cue overhead shots of New York, and the movie begins. Written by Michael Showalter and David Wain -- the guys behind the cult favorite "Wet Hot American Summer," and Wain who more recently made "Role Models" and "Wanderlust" -- the guys have a whole hell of a lot of fun jabbing, poking and skewering cliches of the rom-com genre left and right. It's really a one-joke movie, but that one joke really works thanks to smart writing and a whole cast of funny people from Max Greenfield and Michael Ian Black to Christopher Meloni and Jason Mantzoukas. (Not to mention a late cameo that I will not spoil here.)

Beyond Joel and Molly, all of the folks who populate this movie are less characters and more walking, talking rom-com tropes. Characters will call each other big brother, best buddy and friend stereotypes without batting an eye. The whole thing plays out like a series of strung-together sketches wherein some of the gags are a little too out there and don't exactly work. But when the comedy is on-point with its satire of the genre, especially early on, it's firing on all cylinders with always welcomed splashes of vulgarity. And it's not just broad brushstroke satire; they get down to even the smallest details to take aim at from musical montages to characters always having one more thing to say before a scene's end ("shit"). While the third-act catapult into absurdity is a bit of a letdown, what comes before it makes that easy to forgive. It will probably be hard to watch any straight-laced romantic comedy through the same lens again. Bravo.

Sunday, June 15, 2014


Phil Lord and Christopher Miller know their "22 Jump Street" is another studio-demanded blockbuster sequel with the exact same premise and double the budget. And they want you to know that they know it. The movie is an entire running joke on unnecessary sequels and Hollywood excess, a self-referential gag reel of meta jokes and knowing winks to the audience to the point of nearly busting through the fourth wall.

The police department has doubled the budget (wink) and moved their headquarters across the street to a new address (wink) where everything is bigger and better, just like a sequel should be. After a case that had nothing to do with going undercover in an educational setting goes horribly wrong, Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) are summoned to the deputy chief's office, who's once again played by Nick Offerman, and explains why everything must be exactly the way it was last time (wink). The way he delivers these lines so deadpan, saying how pointless this whole thing is, you can't help but smirk and appreciate these guys -- including returning screenwriter Michael Bacall -- for knowing exactly what they're doing.

The problem, however, comes in relying too much on these jokes to blatantly mask the repetition and lack of originality. This time the bromantical duo are headed to college instead of high school. This time Jenko gets in with the cool crowd and lands himself a spot on the football team while Schmidt feels left out. See? It's like the same...but different. But hey, they know that!

The action gets revved up to the next level of explosive set pieces and shoot-outs but the zany, off-the-wall outrageous nature of the first outing either is missing or feels too been there, done that. When the jokes work, they really work, but there are too many moments that fall curiously flat. Hill and Tatum, however, not only keep up their bromance momentum but manage to take it to new heights, proving still to be a solid comedic duo. Noteworthy newcomers The Lucas Brothers and Jillian Bell are fresh, funny talent involved in the chaos, too.

And then come the credits, the laugh-out-loud funniest and most wildly clever part of the entire movie. It also serves as the final nail in the coffin that sequel-itis certainly was the joke all along and unfortunately "22 Jump Street" -- try as hard as it does to remain aware and keep above it -- ultimately falls victim to itself.

My review of "21 Jump Street"


"How to Train Your Dragon 2" is the best thing DreamWorks Animation has done since the first "How to Train Your Dragon" four years ago. The sequel carries all the same qualities of its magnificent predecessor with astounding and gorgeous visuals (arguably one of the most beautifully animated films ever released), soaring cinematography following these dragons soar through the skies, a glorious score from John Powell that brings back familiar themes and, finally, a hefty amount of emotional depth.

All the characters and original voice acting have returned, starting with Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), now looking older and more seasoned, his girlfriend Astrid (America Ferrera) and their goofball cohorts voiced by comedic talent Kristen Wiig, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Jonah Hill and "Silicon Valley"'s T.J. Miller. The village of Berk has been transformed into a land of dragon trainers thanks to Hiccup's bravery in taming his very own Night Fury. In one of the film's first moments, Hiccup soars with Toothless in a breathtaking flight sequence, which for once puts 3-D technology to good use and is probably the only film franchise using it properly these days. The dragon interactions are adorable and endearing, whether it's among humans and their beasts or dragon to dragon (just wait until an entire flock of colorful dragons gets introduced); the filmmakers here are animal lovers, and it shows.

The story takes a moment to get focused and doesn't benefit from the streamlined simplicity of the first outing's narrative. Even so, it's admirable to see how writer and director Dean DeBlois has decidedly expanded his universe and relishes in spending time there. In between the high-flying and fire-breathing, the film is at its most interesting when it dares to be quieter in intimate moments. The storyline grows into something quite adult with a hint of darkness. It's certainly a better "Brave" and is exactly whatever that film wished to be, with themes of family honor, loyalty, forgiveness and carving your own path. And if anyone is worried about the state of female heroism in film, just look to Cate Blanchett's fearless Valka.

This is smart and thrilling filmmaking from an animated studio, what Pixar used to do so well. "How to Train Your Dragon" is the crown jewel franchise in DreamWorks' canon, and if they keep going with it in this same sophisticated fashion, building out a world and advancing character development, finding nuance for both heartbreak and charm in a single swoop, then I'll be on board to see what comes next.

My review of "How to Train Your Dragon"

Thursday, June 12, 2014


The first thing to notice about first-time writer/director Gillian Robespierre's "Obvious Child" is how unassumingly brave and refreshing it is. In the same vein as Lake Bell's "In A World..." last year, it's a feminist tale from a new female voice in filmmaking. That word has been getting tossed around a lot lately -- feminist -- and what it means to be a feminist and how many in the public sphere are shying away from identifying themselves as such at the expense of making themselves sound ignorant. Take a look at the premise of Robespierre's very smart feature, which she adapted from her 2009 short of the same name. This is what we're talking about when it comes to feminism.

Here's a woman, Donna (Jenny Slate), making an important decision without letting anyone, notably any man, manipulate her choices. The film is not about following the suspense of whether or not she's going to get the abortion. She gets it because she knows it's what she has to do. The trajectory of the storyline is actually discovering whether or not she'll even involve the guy, Max (Jack Lacy), and watching her deal with a difficult choice in her own unique way.

All of this serious subject matter gets wrapped into a romantic comedy that is crowd-pleasing and sweet but also raunchy with its fair share of toilet humor and vagina jokes. It's like an inverse "Knocked Up" from the woman's perspective -- and way more real. You may have seen Jenny Slate on TV in "Kroll Show" or "Parks and Recreation" but never in a big-screen role like this. She nails it, sticking the landing and proving herself a promising leading lady.

The rest of the cast is nicely rounded out with quirky, lived-in characters. Richard Kind and Polly Draper play Donna's polar-opposite parents; Gabe Liedman plays her snarky gay BFF; and the now ever-present Gaby Hoffmann (of "Girls" and "Transparent") plays that friend who's the guiding light, the steady hand in any moment of crisis. Jack Lacy as Donna's love interest is arguably the cast's weakest link but only a minor quibble. They share an instance of great chemistry in one of the most joyous scenes, a playful strip tease set to Paul Simon's "Obvious Child," where the film gets its title.

Here's a humble comedy that is both funny and poignant without trying too hard to be either. This facade of effortlessness comes from Robespierre's dedication to being completely honest. Slate's scenes of performing stand-up convey the desire for full disclosure on all things personal and intimate. She is the heart and center of "Obvious Child," which manages to say a whole lot while never stepping on a soapbox and always being truthful to life.

Saturday, June 7, 2014


"The Fault in Our Stars" the movie owes a lot -- almost everything -- to "The Fault in Our Stars" the best-selling YA book. That's because the words of John Green are so good, refusing to become a schmaltzy, cliched romance about two cancer kids. Yes, it's a romance about two cancer kids, but it is the furthest thing from both schmaltzy and cliched. And the film version -- directed by Josh Boone and wisely adapted from Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, the writers behind the coming-of-age indie "The Spectacular Now" -- follows suit. There is a bit of noticeable dumbing down, but that can easily be forgiven as you watch the way the screenplay still tackles heavy themes of death, illness and the sometimes inconsolable weight of loss.

Hazel Grace (Shailene Woodley) is a 16-year-old girl whose thyroid cancer has forced her to perpetually wear tubes in her nose and drag around an oxygen tank. She hates her cancer. She's snide about it and scolds her lungs for sucking. But what she hates even more than her illness is the way she's forced to deal with it. Her well-meaning mother (Laura Dern) makes her go to a support group held in the "literal heart of Jesus." It's eye roll-inducing for her -- that is, until the charming Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort) shows up and immediately, unrelentingly locks eyes with Hazel. And the rest, they say, is history.

It's no spoiler to say these two start falling for each other. What worries Hazel, however, is that she's a grenade ready to go off and will inevitably hurt all those around her. She doesn't want to do that to Augustus whose osteosarcoma, while it took one of his legs, is in remission. A literary obsession of Hazel's, a novel called "An Imperial Infliction," whisks the two off to Amsterdam to meet the book's author Peter Van Houten (Willem Dafoe) where even harder lessons are learned.

This is a film focused for teens, and it rightfully focuses on its teen actors. Boone's direction is subtle and unobtrusive, allowing the young cast to flourish and linger in scenes. Shailene Woodley has already proven herself both wonderfully nuanced and versatile and plays Hazel with no ounce of obvious acting with a capital A. The chemistry between her and newcomer Ansel Elgort (they play siblings in the "Divergent" franchise) is equal parts heart-warming and electric, and together they make Hazel and Augustus screen characters to remember. And then there is Augustus' buddy Isaac, played by Nat Wolff of "Palo Alto," who stands out all his own.

Like the book, Boone's "The Fault in Our Stars" doesn't shy away from sentimentality but counterbalances it with acerbic wit and biting dialogue. The undercurrent of tragedy is laced with a keen comic spirit throughout. None of it is suspicious manipulation and emerges organically, the laughs and the tears. And my, how you'll cry. But just be happy knowing it's all so earned.

Saturday, May 17, 2014


The most frustrating thing about the new "Godzilla" isn't that it's a disappointment because, really, it's not -- as long as you keep your expectations at bay. What's frustrating is how closely it touches upon greatness. The film is sophisticated, intelligent, brooding and extraordinarily crafted, almost as if Christopher Nolan directed a monster flick. It's leagues above and beyond better than the last time we got a film treatment of the god of monsters, that cartoonish garbage from 1998. Gareth Edwards, the British director behind the small budget creature feature "Monsters," has a keen eye, so the crux of the trouble comes from the screenplay by Max Borenstein which never strikes the right balance between Godzilla, human characters and two pesky things eating up a whole lot of screen time.

The premise is actually pretty sound and does a nice job of setting up the tension. A hair-pieced Bryan Cranston plays Joe Brody, a scientist working in Japan who goes nearly mad trying to track a massive radioactive cover-up after the loss of his wife (Juliette Binoche who gets sorely underused) in a lab accident. Cranston delivers what he can, giving cautionary warnings to fellow scientists played by Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins, who switch between looking very serious and very concerned. Cue Brody's son, Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who journeys to help his father, leaving his wife (Elizabeth Olsen) and son back in San Francisco. These are our human characters with whom to sympathize, and it's a shame they're not better drawn and feel like they were plucked out of any other catastrophe movie. It's wasted talent, plain and simple, who are forced to spout off trite dialogue.

The slow, exposition-filled build-up to the big reveal (it takes about an hour before there's a full visual) is a very specific strategy that pays off. Edwards cleverly cuts away when you may not expect him to, and it ramps up the anticipation even more. It's moments like this, in the second act, that are the film's very best. With brilliant restraint, there are several scenes that go silent as we pan up the beast's tail or spiky back and just relish in a moment of pure awe. And, of course, the moment of finally revealing his face for the first time, and he unleashes that trademark belly, screeching roar -- I dare you not to get chills.

But then there are the spider-like M.U.T.O.s, short for Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms. These things hang around a whole lot, and while the final showdown is worth the wait, there is far too much emphasis placed on them. Let's cut to our human sympathizers a little more; give them something more substantial to say other than stuff you might hear in a "Transformers" movie. Amid this sea of complaints and probably nitpicking, though, the 2014 version of "Godzilla" we have been granted is solid and good.

There's a scene late in the film that is most striking and admirable in the way Godzilla, the god of monsters, the beast among men, the towering dinosaur-whale emerged from the ocean, is painted to mirror the human drama. It's beautiful. With just a little more nuance, this could've been on par with Peter Jackson's "King Kong."

Monday, May 12, 2014


When their new neighbor moves in, the head of a rowdy fraternity played by Zac Efron, Seth Rogen's character says he looks like someone a gay man created in a lab. That's probably the most spot-on way Efron's sexual appeal has ever been described. Saying the young actor is the least funny thing on the screen is definitely no knock on him, due to the fact alone of him being surrounded by such comedic talent. He (and his body) get the job done just fine and actually adds a layer of curious energy to Nicholas Stoller's uproarious and raunchy "Neighbors."

Efron's best moments are with fraternity cohort played by Dave Franco, whose scenes together take the homoerotic undertones of fraternities to hilarious new heights. Seth Rogen finds his comedic match in Rose Byrne, who busts loose with her natural Aussie accent and delivers perfect deadpan timing. The cast of comedians that flow in and out of frame is dizzying, especially Ike Barinholtz of "The Mindy Project" and the welcome return of Lisa Kudrow, who basically reprises her guidance counselor from "Easy A."

When the fraternity moves in next door, Mac (Rogen) and Kelly (Byrne) at first try to make nice with the guys, offering them weed but also trying to squeak in the phrase "keep it down." It doesn't work, and they're left being kept up until 4 a.m. tending to their adorable newborn who they can't get to sleep. When they make the mistake of calling the cops on the frat, Teddy (Efron) calls for an all-out war. The movie is loosely structured, freewheeling in its design and takes great creative liberties for a standard studio comedy. The rest of the script is us sitting back to watch as the attacks back and forth from family to frat ramp up in extravagance and absurdity. The party set pieces do every other college party movie proud and rave and flow with visual and aural excitement.

Among the gross-out sight gags, astonishing physical humor and plethora of jokes dedicated to one very specific body part, "Neighbors" packs in its biggest surprise in coming out as nonchalantly insightful about its characters. Efron, most notably, brings a dark soul to his fraternity leader, so that when the final takedown between him and Rogen happens, it becomes funnier because the stakes feel real. As Mac and Kelly see their lives turn a corner, the script rings true about what it means to earn responsibility, grow older and how aging doesn't always come exclusively with acting your age. The film is a big win for newcomer screenwriters Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O'Brien, and even with "Forgetting Sarah Marshall," "Get Him to the Greek" and "The Five-Year Engagement" under his belt, this is probably Stoller's funniest film to date.

Saturday, May 3, 2014


I don't really understand critics' distaste toward "The Amazing Spider-Man 2." Not only is it a great superhero flick, it's even better than Marc Webb's first entry. No, I haven't seen last month's "Captain America: The Winter Soldier," so just spare me there. But even on its own terms, not compared to other superhero movies out there, this second Spider-Man outing strikes a keen balance of light and frothy fun, genuine humor and high-flying action with ample amounts of romance, depth of emotion and real pathos. Take, for example, the film's first two sequences. The opening in-flight scene is harrowing and heartbreaking, while the opening re-introduction to Spidey swings briskly with grace. The control of tone is impeccable and more than makes up for any pratfalls in juggling plot lines.

Andrew Garfield cements himself further into the role of Peter Parker with great panache. Donning the suit, he slaps crooks across the face with charm and snappy one-liners. They're goofball and cheesy but also loyal to the source material. Spider-Man is a jokester. Here, even his ringtone is his own theme song. There's certainly not a lack of talent involved, with Emma Stone reprising her role as the glowing and independent Gwen Stacy. Not to mention the talented Sally Field as Aunt May who can carry a scene all her own.

It's graduation day while Spider-Man is busy dealing with an escaped convict (Paul Giamatti) trying to hijack precious Oscorp materials. Already wrestling this double-life, Peter is also haunted by the memory of Gwen's dad (Denis Leary) warning him to stay away from his daughter, in order to keep her safe. Must he let her go because he loves her too much to lose her? Meanwhile, the mysterious Oscorp has a new king, and it's Peter's old school friend Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan). What starts off as a friendly reunion soon turns sinister once Harry's life is at stake.

The major threat is the seemingly harmless Oscorp employee with a strange Spider-Man fetish, Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx) -- that is, until he gets in a catastrophic accident rendering him into the frighteningly powerful and ready-for-revenge Electro. He's a daunting villain who's certainly more threatening and whose motives are more structured than the Lizard, who basically just wanted to turn the city's citizens into a bunch of self-healing green lizards for some reason. Foxx isn't given too much to do, but he works with what he can, while the more personable foe for Peter Parker is rightfully played by Dane DeHaan. They share an uneasy chemistry that is far superior to anything Tobey Maguire and James Franco churned out a decade ago.

For those complaining about the film getting weighed down by too many villain threads, it's safe to say it doesn't feel overstuffed. It's definitely no "Spider-Man 3." A third onscreen villain hardly gets any screen time. Sure, it's all universe-building, and while I was certainly aware of it here, it hasn't become too distracting. Yet. The movie is also visually gorgeous, from the choreography of Spidey's web-slinging through the city to the fine orchestration of the action set pieces. I didn't see it in 3-D because I made that mistake last time -- it darkens everything far too much.

The new "Amazing Spider-Man" franchise still comes back to the chemistry between real-life couple Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone, whom Marc Webb directs so eloquently. Remember, folks, this is the guy who did "(500) Days of Summer" before signing on to a Marvel franchise. The scene of Peter crossing the street toward Gwen with that song playing, it's enchanting. There's a clear emphasis on interpersonal relationships, which is something to appreciate within a superhero flick. But, yes, there's a whole lot being set up here for the future films, most notably the villain-focused "Sinister Six" film. In that regard, I'm glad Webb decided to step down when he did because after this, it would be no surprise to see the Spider-Man world take a drastically steep nose dive.

Friday, April 18, 2014


Jim Jarmusch's "Only Lovers Left Alive" exudes cool and sinks its teeth into a genre that has otherwise been tarnished into trash by pop culture. The writer-director brings it back to rare life and escalates it to art, diving into territory those others wouldn't dare to. The biggest question: what motivates these creations (vampires) to keep loving, living and moving forward for untold centuries at a time? They have no wonder grown tired of this earth and the people that inhabit it -- problem is, there's nowhere else for them to go.

Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton -- with long hair, swaying limbs and ever-present shades to block out the light -- are absolutely magnetic as the arty, existential vampire couple at the film's center, Adam and Eve.  They refer to humans as zombies, those who have ruined the world in which they live, watching as it wastes away before them. The two have been married forever (almost literally) but begin the film apart. Eve rests in Tangier using the precious blood supply from ancient vampire Marlowe (John Hurt) to sustain herself, while in Detroit, Adam sneaks into a hospital to get blood from Dr. Watson (Jeffrey Wright) who asks no questions and accepts a wad of cash. Adam and Eve have to be cautious because blood, their life supply, has become increasingly contaminated.

Adam is also a musician, fascinated by the age of analogue rock, but he's also in complete recluse and doesn't want his music out in the world. He relies on errand boy Ian (Anton Yelchin) to help keep him hidden from the scene. Eve comes to join her love in his hideaway, but her presence also draws her mischievous sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska) to them, as well. Music plays a large part in the film's aesthetic, the camera swirling like a record player along with repeated variations of a theme. With cinematographer Yorick Le Saux ("I Am Love") shooting Jarmusch's first foray into digital, it marks the filmmaker's most visually exciting film to date. It's very much a Jarmusch film ("Broken Flowers," "Coffee and Cigarettes"), and as long as you can groove with his unhurried pace, it's an alluring two-hour treasure.

"Only Lovers Left Alive" is both dead-serious in its meditation on pressing onward even amid a feeling of having nothing left to live for, while also lightly funny in moments of perfectly executed, bone-dry humor. It's also more than a little hopeful in its strange way, a lamenting love letter to the city of Detroit, a microcosmic wasteland of civilization that has a glimmer of potential for rejuvenation.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014


The voluptuous alien seductress leads unsuspecting men into her otherworldly lair. Naked, they stroll across a reflective black surface in a pitch black room toward her. They begin to sink into a velvety darkness beneath them to be forever trapped and eventually killed, their bodies mined for resources. Images such as these, which are so striking, are at the center of Jonathan Glazer's "Under the Skin," which represents powerful and visionary storytelling from a singular artist (who helmed "Birth" and "Sexy Beast"), that is endlessly confounding but never frustrating. The film is sublime, an intoxicating mix of sci-fi elements wrapped in a horror atmosphere where nothing is clear; it's a narrative puzzle that unravels in mystery and beauty.

This is the other Scarlett Johansson fare that came out last weekend, the one that's not "Captain America: The Winter Soldier." Her casting is inspired, she astonishes and is extraordinarily brave in the sometimes wordless role, and I don't say brave just because of her full frontal nudity. It's easily her best (onscreen) performance in a decade, save for "Her." She plays a creature not of this earth but cloaked in the skin of a beautiful woman, silently cruising the streets of Scotland in a big white van, looking for prey. What's most fascinating here is the way the film was shot: guerilla style, with many of the Scottish men not realizing they were speaking to a well-known American actress.

Things take a turn in the second act when Johansson's creation becomes aware of herself, the form she has taken and most notably her body, which has a power over men she doesn't even quite grasp. How is it possible these men so willingly join her to an unknown location? There's a great moment where, becoming fully conscious of what the men really want, she scrambles to the edge of the bed, grabs hold of a lamp and bends over to examine up herself.

"Under the Skin," fueled by a brain-searing score from Mica Levi, transforms into a meditation on sexuality, gender norms, the fine line between lust and danger and, finally, the nature of humanity, what it means to be non-alien, of this world and of our skin. Don't be shied away from evocative experimental cinema. This one is brilliant.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

NOAH Review

Forget Paramount's horrible marketing strategy. Forget Glenn Beck. Forget everything that's been and said and done surrounding the film prior to its release, relating to Christian audiences, blasphemy, whatever else. This is a Darren Aronofsky film first and foremost. Let's start there. A clean slate, just like the earth after the flood.

The darkest biblical tale from the Book of Genesis, the story of Noah and the ark, is the premise of the writer and director's sixth feature. God, unsatisfied with his creation and what man has done to ruin it, decides to wash away the earth with a catastrophic flood, leaving Noah the task to start anew with his family and a boatload of animals. Aronofsky, who penned the script with frequent collaborator Ari Handel, takes liberties with the original story, adding in fantasy elements wherever the bible left holes. God is only referred to as the Creator and there are Watchers, towering rock monsters who help Noah build the ark. Aronofsky takes this age-old epic and applies it to the way we live today, with a ferocious message on anti-war and environmentalism, demanding the question of an almighty power doing this all over again to a world we seem so hellbent on destroying.

The acting is solid across the board, led by Russell Crowe who commands the screen as the chosen Noah, shouting his aggravation to the skies, and brooding, steadfast with his determination to the task. His wife, Naameh (Jennifer Connelly), presents a symbol of humanity and the fragility of life, who questions her husband's unwavering fate to God when faced with the most shameful of deeds -- that is, killing one's own in order to keep in God's vision of a world free from man. There are also Noah's three sons, Shem (Douglas Booth), Ham (Logan Lerman) and Japeth (Leo Carroll), along with an orphaned girl who the family takes in, Ila (Emma Watson, further proving her post-"Harry Potter" acting chops). She is to be Shem's wife and becomes the most crucial of all.

The visual effects ramp up as the stakes heighten, and a presentation of the dawn of time recalls Aronofsky's experimental side. And the score from composer mainstay Clint Mansell is robust and gorgeous. Technically speaking, the film is a marvel. Yet while there's a whole lot of howling and shockingly blunt violence in spurts, the whole ordeal surprisingly lacks a level of dramatic tension. And if Aronofsky wanted to deviate from the bible, he could've gone a whole lot weirder -- and it probably would've worked better if he had. 

"Noah" shares the mad obsessive nature of the protagonists from "Pi" and "Black Swan" and the clunky, overreaching ambition of the director's lesser work, "The Fountain." While a fine display of grandiose filmmaking, the spectacle doesn't work as much else. It's been a lot of hubbub over a movie that isn't actually all that interesting. Aronofsky should do himself a favor and get back to the art house.

Monday, March 24, 2014


"The Muppets" was one of the best films of 2011, brimming with life, inspiration and a magical feel-good air that was infectious and impossible not to love. "Muppets Most Wanted" isn't that movie, but it seems to know that, too. The clever, tongue-in-cheek opening number about sequels never being as good as the original makes the movie still very hard not to like, but by the end you also can't hide the feeling they were absolutely right. The first one was lightning in a bottle, the reinvention of a franchise and this teeters on the brink of merely holding up and paling in comparison.

And it starts with the premise. The opening number teases the idea of stories to pursue, with Ricky Gervais' character jumping in to suggest a world tour for the newly reunited Muppets gang. Of course, Gervais plays a guy named Dominic Badguy who insists he's a good guy, wanting only the best for the Muppets' success. Not the case. He teams up with a Kermit look-a-like, Constantine, to use the Muppets as a cover-up for their mastermind burglary scheme. Constantine switches places with Kermit, who gets locked up in a Russian gulag run by Tina Fey. Oh no!

I guess without Jason Segel co-writing the script with Nicholas Stoller (James Bobin returns to write and direct, too), this international crime caper plot is what they landed on, and it runs out of steam -- and most notably, jokes -- rather quickly. It also feels a little dated and not to mention odd. Ty Burrell plays an Interpol investigator, who resembles Inspector Clouseau from "The Pink Panther." He's a hilarious hoot, donning a French accent, while Fey is downright adorable as the gulag guard who secretly pines for Kermit. It's Gervais who phones it in, and unfortunately, it's Gervais and Constantine who get the majority of the screen time during the film's first and second acts.

The ill-conceived idea to place the emphasis on the villains leaves the poor Muppets hanging on a limb with Kermit separated far, far away. Bringing the gang back together again (again!) feels great by the film's end, but it's a bit tiring getting there. The songs, from Bret McKenzie, are still fun but are more forgettable than anything the first "Muppets" churned out, especially one Oscar-nominated tune in particular.

The cameos are fast and frequent -- blink, and you'll miss one -- but they feel flung at the screen, as if testing to see if any of them stick, as opposed to the original's team of cameos, which felt more special and sincere, a collective team effort to revive something cherished and great. For example, Usher shows up as, you guessed it, an usher, but the minute he walks off-screen, I can imagine the hefty check just waiting for him on a silver platter.

But even amid all the complaints, it's still light and entertaining kids' fare that only disappoints if you read too much into it (like I just did). Besides, if you look at the entire Muppets canon, this sure isn't bad for a seventh sequel.

Saturday, March 8, 2014


Wes Anderson's "The Grand Budapest Hotel" is a delightful farce, a wonderful romp and a screwball caper. It's fanciful and funny, but it's also perhaps Wes Anderson out-Wes Anderson-ing himself. I haven't seen everything out of the writer/director's canon, but I think I've seen enough, from his very best ("The Royal Tenenbaums," "Fantastic Mr. Fox," "Moonrise Kingdom") to his lesser efforts ("The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou"). It's certainly safe to say since 2009's animated entry, he has solidified, even more than before, a stylistic signature. With "Grand Budapest," the film comes standard with all the tropes we recognize with characters and cameras only moving at right angles, framed in pretty little boxes, with swiveling, pivoting cameras and swooping zooms, tiny miniatures and a cast of familiar faces (Owen Wilson, Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman). The filmmaker is who he is, and with this latest outing his style has been refined to pinpoint precision.

Set in a fictional European town in between the world wars, the story is told through the visit of a young writer (Jude Law) to the now rather decrepit Grand Budapest, long past its glory days in the 1930s. He meets a man named Zero (F. Murray Abraham) who recalls his extraordinary tale of when he was a young lobby boy (played by newcomer Tony Revolori) under the wing of head concierge Monsieur Gustave H (Ralph Fiennes). Fiennes excels in the role with rapid-fire poetics and dialogue, an operatic man who acts as if all the wrongs in the world can be righted with proper manners. Etiquette, above all, defines his charmed era, which he refuses to believe is soon coming to an end, with darker times on the horizon.

When we switch from the older Zero recalling his tale to back in the day, the film switches from widescreen to a 4:3 aspect ratio, and cinematographer Robert Yeoman uses both to great effect; most recognizably the latter as every shot is squared off and perfectly symmetrical. And it's all set to a bouncy, delectable score from mainstay Alexandre Desplat. The winding tale springboards from the death of the 84-year-old Madame D (a hilariously elderly Tilda Swinton), one of the many female residents of the hotel Gustave had relations with. At the reading of her last will and testament by Deputy Kovacs (Jeff Goldblum), it's discovered that the Madame left her most prized possession, a Renaissance painting called "Boy with Apple," to not her ruthless son Dmitri (Adrian Brody), but instead Gustave. This puts Dmitri in a fit of rage, along with his dastardly henchman Jopling (Willem Dafoe), a man so cruel he'd even throw a cat out the window.

Gustave and Zero steal the painting, which launches an extravagant manhunt led by an Inspector played by Edward Norton, not dissimilar to the Scout Master he played in "Moonrise Kingdom." Zero at the same time is falling for his true love, the sweet bakery girl Agatha (Saoirse Ronan) whose Mendl pastries come into smart play. It all gets a bit nuts and slapstick, but the production design pops, and the characters lay into the humor and fluffiness of it all. The absurdity reaches its peak during a prisonbreak that looks straight out of an old cartoon, led by a bald, tattooed Harvey Keitel. While for a second you might think there's no real depth of feeling, the darkness lurking beneath the candy-colored confection, like a sweet pastry from Mendl's, rears its head.

"The Grand Budapest Hotel" is like a wind-up dollhouse with so many trinkets and moving parts, it's a marvelous contraption. But with spurts of coarse language, shocking violence and the impending gloom of war, there's an important line from older Zero recalling his hero, Gustave: "He was a glimmer of civilization in the barbaric slaughterhouse we know as humanity."

Monday, March 3, 2014

86th Annual Academy Awards Recap

Ellen DeGeneres returning to host for the 86th Annual Academy Awards hands-down showed how to effortlessly wrangle a younger, wider audience, something the academy has been desperately trying to do since their ill-fated host selection of James Franco and Anne Hathaway. Well, this year without even meaning to, it's happened. (Or at least I'm assuming that is what the result will be.) And it all starts with that A-list selfie, featuring the glowing faces of Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Meryl Streep, Kevin Spacey, Lupita Nyong'o, Jennifer Lawrence, Jared Leto and more with Bradley Cooper holding out the phone in a moment of pure unadulterated fun. As was the goal, it has garnered the most retweets on Twitter of all time and, as Ellen later confirmed in the telecast, even momentarily crashed the social media site.

Ellen channeled the feel-good spirit of her daytime talk show, interacting with the audience, relating to celebrities -- who actually seem to really like her -- and strolling the seats with casual banter, even walking around with Pharrell's now-famous hat collecting money from the likes of Harvey Weinstein for the pizza she ordered. Yes, the pizza she ordered. The pizza that actually came, and which was eaten up by the likes of Harrison Ford and Martin Scorsese.

These two moments made her hosting gig actually memorable, and also proves that, really, no awards show nowadays is complete without the incorporation of social media. Cate Blanchett's acceptance speech even included the word "hashtag." Never in a million years, right? Ellen's opening monologue actually wasn't that strong but was totally compensated by her throughout-the-show bits. Most hosts do their monologue and then bow out for the rest of the telecast. Not Ellen.

Now to the awards. "Gravity" bordered on a sweep, nabbing all the awards it was nominated for except two, totaling in at seven. They were sound mixing and editing, cinematography, visual effects, score, editing (over "Captain Phillips") and then Alfonso Cuaron for best director, who delivered a heartfelt speech and a spout of Spanish. The only technical category it couldn't dominate was production design because Catherine Martin is an unstoppable force and flamboyancy never loses.

"The Great Gatsby" took home two awards for costume and production design. Also coming in at two was Disney's "Frozen" for best animated film and best original song, "Let It Go."

"12 Years a Slave" and "Dallas Buyers Club" tied for three wins each. "12 Years" topped the night with a best picture win; Brad Pitt introduced an exuberant Steve McQueen who ended his speech with a literal jump for joy in the air. Lupita Nyong'o beat out Jennifer Lawrence for "American Hustle," but even though she lost, J-Law still managed to steal the show. The girl tripped, yes, again, to the point where Ellen even made a crack about it in her opening. "I think we should bring you the Oscar" if she were to win.

John Ridley won best adapted screenplay for "12 Years," and then I was particularly elated when Spike Jonze won the sole award for "Her" in best original screenplay over "American Hustle."

"Dallas" took home two of the other acting awards for Jared Leto and Matthew McConaughey, the former thanking his mom and calling out support to anyone who's ever felt segregated against while McConaughey went full McConaughey with a (lovable) rambling about goals and show business. Both speeches were great in their own ways, and Cate Blanchett also shined with her best actress speech for "Blue Jasmine," noting women empowerment in films. Nyong'o had the most gorgeous, tearful speech of them all. "No matter where you're from, your dreams are valid," she said.

The four nominated-song performances were all stand-outs and didn't slow down the show. The internet went into a frenzy when John Travolta absolutely butchered Idina Menzel's name. Adele Dazeem? Pharrell got Lupita Nyong'o, Amy Adams and Meryl Streep all to dance, an instantly GIF-able moment.

Eyeroll-inducing moments, though, were not absent. Instead of fading away to black and going to a commercial following the In Memorium segment, Bette Midler emerged and sang the bizarre and jarring song selection of "Wind Beneath My Wings." Also bizarre was the show's entire theme of heroes, a broad, sweeping theme that only existed to give us pointless, brainless montages. And while Pink's rendition of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" was well-done in honor of the 75th anniversary of "The Wizard of Oz," it felt like its sole purpose was to bloat the show. Yet, amazingly enough, the show clocked in right at time at exactly three hours and 30 minutes.

It's interesting we have a year where the film that won best picture didn't win either editing or directing, which are otherwise precursors to what takes the top honor. Yet "12 Years" coming out on top was more than fitting, and "Gravity" reaped what it needed to. And this left "American Hustle" perfectly left out and empty-handed. Isn't that justice, after all, for a movie that seduced critics for seemingly no reason? Sweet justice indeed.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

86th Annual Academy Awards Winner Predictions

It's been a fun and interesting race for sure, which has come to a head with three major movies in contention. All three acting categories are set and have been for months, save for supporting actress which is now in flux with Jennifer Lawrence gaining ground on Lupita Nyong'o. It's unlikely best picture will go to anything other than "12 Years a Slave," but the possibility certainly exists. With virtually no buzz about the actual awards ceremony since the announcement of Ellen DeGeneres hosting, we're probably looking at a snoozefest of a telecast unless there are some real surprises in store.

Best Picture: It's a tight three-way race between "American Hustle," "Gravity" and "12 Years a Slave" but historical importance (yes, that's a factor) says "12 Years."

Director: All signs point to Alfonso Cuaron for "Gravity."

Actor: Matthew McConaughey for "Dallas Buyers Club" - locked.

Actress: Cate Blanchett for "Blue Jasmine" - locked.

Supporting Actor: Jared Leto for "Dallas Buyers Club" - locked.

Supporting Actress: Jennifer Lawrence for "American Hustle" currently has the edge, but for my own sanity I am literally forced to still go with Lupita Nyong'o for "12 Years a Slave."

Animated Feature: Disney's smash hit "Frozen"

Original Screenplay: It's likely 100% going to be "American Hustle," but I'm putting my heart on my sleeve for this one (and considering its WGA win): Spike Jonze for "Her."

Adapted Screenplay: John Ridley for "12 Years a Slave"

Sound Editing: "Gravity" - it's a technical marvel.

Sound Mixing: "Gravity"

Film Editing: Could be "Gravity," but Paul Greengrass behind the camera suggests "Captain Phillips" for this one.

Documentary Feature: "20 Feet from Stardom"

Foreign Language Film: "The Great Beauty"

Cinematography: Emmanuel Lubezki for "Gravity"

Makeup & Hairstyling: "Dallas Buyers Club"

Costume Design: "American Hustle"

Visual Effects: "Gravity"

Original Song: "Let It Go" from "Frozen"

Original Score: Steven Price for "Gravity"

Production Design: "Gravity"

Documentary Short: "The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life"

Live Action Short: "Helium"

Animated Short: "Get a Horse!"

So this has "Gravity" going home with a whopping six wins, and the winner of the night "12 Years a Slave" heading home with three while "American Hustle" comes in at one measly win for costume design. (In my dreams.)

Tune in to watch the telecast of the 86th Annual Academy Awards on Sunday, March 2 at 4 p.m. PST on ABC.

Sunday, February 9, 2014


Alain Guiraudie's "Stranger by the Lake" is a strange and unique creation, one that is at once quietly humorous and observant and then dark, disturbing and menacing. In the world of this summertime cruising spot for men in France, an isolated shore of lakeside beach surrounded by woods, there are only three locations: the parking lot, the beach, the woods. The film is both numbing and fascinating in its repetition of these locales, never leaving this spot for its full 100 minutes; but such a decision works to mirror the daily, ritualistic world of cruising it portrays. And as the film's climax comes into focus, it takes the location's calm and tranquil surface and unearths a sinister air. The rustle of the trees and roll of the waves turn ominous.

Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) visits the spot every day, thwarting off most of the occupants' carnal glances and passes. He spends most of his time sitting on the shore with a larger man, Henri (Patrick d'Assumçao), with whom he strikes up a friendship. The man is outwardly lonely but has no intentions of cruising when he visits this beach, instead addressing the act's frivolity but also not believing any man is completely gay. Franck soon becomes transfixed on a Burt Reynolds-looking man, Michel (Christophe Paou), who appears to have a boyfriend. Late one night, however, Franck witnesses Michel drown the supposed boyfriend.

Viewing the act from afar in a drawn out sequence, it echoes the voyeuristic styles of Alfred Hitchcock's "Rear Window" and Michael Haneke's "Caché." After seeing the man commit murder, instead of staying away, Franck becomes more attached, and they begin an affair together, meeting up to have sex every day. In such, Guiraudie builds dread with the precision of a horror movie, linking sexual desire and death in intriguing ways. It marks the film as an art house exotic thriller. Yet the explicit sex and unrelenting frontal male nudity of "Stranger by the Lake" goes beyond mere provocation.

There are conversations on intimacy and relationships vs. pure sex that happen, which resonate beyond the wooded secrecy of a hidden cruising spot. While physical cruising may be less prevalent and inching its way into an obsolete gay culture, there's the ever-present digital cruising: Grindr. After a mousy, slinky inspector (Jérôme Chappatte) starts poking his nose around the crime scene, things take a turn. Guiraudie ends his film on a sinister note of solidarity, perhaps encapsulating the loneliness that's behind the act of cruising all along.


Christopher Miller and Phil Lord, the guys behind "21 Jump Street" and "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs," prove a perfect fit for taking the Lego toy property to the big screen. Instead of just a cash grab and launching point for another lucrative franchise (there's no doubt it's also that, but keep reading), its big heart and sense of creativity and imagination make "The Lego Movie" way more than just that. By completely embracing the spirit of the Lego toy brand itself -- something irreverent, goofy and colorful which both children and adults can enjoy -- it becomes an exhilarating piece of work both timeless and ageless. High praise for a movie about a bunch of building blocks, right? Let me keep going. "The Lego Movie" recalls the awe-inspiring originality that became the Pixar standard, and is the freshest, funniest, most audaciously weird and wacky, surprisingly emotional animated film to come along in years.

To quote the song that all the citizens of Bricksburg joyously sing in unison: "Everything Is Awesome." Indeed it is, vibrantly animated by Animal Logic, a visual effects team who has created such lush and tactile animation to the point of almost appearing to be stop-motion. It's both retro and cutting-edge. All the textures of each piece and all the blocks, the way they move and shatter and explode and build and interlock and interact within this world, it's all eye-popping.

The story follows ordinary construction worker Emmett (Chris Pratt, heading the exuberant cast of voice actors) who stumbles across a relic of extraordinary power, which labels him the one to save the universe against the evil Lord Business (Will Ferrell). It's all bombastic and heroic-sounding, but the writing satirically skewers such a hero story premise. The old, grey-bearded wizard named Vitruvius (spot-on casting of Morgan Freeman) spews the prophecy with pointed self-mockery, deeming what he says must be true because it rhymes.

Emmett is used to his hometown of Bricksburg where everything follows an instruction manual, there are no original creations, everyone watches the mindless sitcom "Where's My Pants?" and drinks $37 coffee drinks because that's the way Lord Business has deemed it to be. No alternatives. So, once Emmett gets thrust into his hero tale and meets the rebellious Wildstyle (Elizabeth Banks) and the world of Master Builders, he gets thrown for a loop. There are realms outside his own -- humorously referencing other Lego themed construction sets -- including The Old West, Middle Zealand and Cloud Cuckooland which is just one big free-for-all, much like "The Lego Movie" itself.

In their freewheeling and highly energetic style, Lord and Miller have made the movie way smarter and more clever than it has any right to be -- and it's all the better for it. The jokes come flying freaky and fast, zany and whip-smart, eliciting the need for a repeat viewing to catch everything. You'll also be too busy laughing to probably hear it all. I'm not kidding: it's that funny. Sly references and fun character cameos abound, the storyline incorporates all of the Lego properties like "Star Wars," "Harry Potter" and "Lord of the Rings." Batman (Will Arnett) is a hilarious parody of the low-growling superhero while Bad Cop (Liam Neeson) is basically a parody of Neeson's now full-blown status of go-to action hero.

"The Lego Movie" is very obviously Lord and Miller's brainchild, and it's no wonder it's so good. They even tackle issues of corporate branding and the threat of conglomerate (a la "WALL-E") erasing voice and individuality, which is a hefty message to deliver, but hey, they do it with panache and no preachy undertones. And how fitting, too, for a franchise whose entire premise is based on limitless possibility and a world where anything goes and everything is, in a word, awesome.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

20th Annual SAG Award Winners

Tonight's 20th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards confirmed the four acting category winners we'll see repeat March 2nd for the Oscars. They are:

Cate Blanchett, best actress for "Blue Jasmine," Matthew McConaughey, best actor for "Dallas Buyers Club," Lupita Nyong'o, best supporting actress for "12 Years a Slave" and Jared Leto, best supporting actor for "Dallas Buyers Club."

And while David O. Russell's "American Hustle" took home best ensemble, the Oscar best picture equivalent, that doesn't really come as a surprise considering it's such an actors film, and this award show is actors awarding actors. It would appear "12 Years a Slave" is still the one to beat come Oscar night.

Check here for a full list of tonight's winners. It's just a short 43 days away until the big night. Until then! We also have the PGA and DGA winners to look forward, which could steer things one way or the other.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

86th Annual Academy Award Nominations

This morning's announcement of the 86th Annual Academy Award nominations continued to confirm the three-way frontrunners in this year's race: "American Hustle," "Gravity" and "12 Years a Slave." "Hustle" and "Gravity" led the pack with ten nominations each, while "12 Years" came in a close second with nine. While all three films landed the best picture precursor nomination for best editing, "Gravity" notably got left off the best original screenplay category.

The best picture nominations came in, for a third year now, at nine total. Among the nominees were "American Hustle," "12 Years a Slave," "Captain Phillips," "Dallas Buyers Club," "Her," "Gravity," "Nebraska," "The Wolf of Wall Street" and "Philomena." This last entry comes as bit of a surprise over the likes of "Saving Mr. Banks" or "Inside Llewyn Davis."

And speaking of "Banks" and "Davis," both films were shut out in the major categories when it was widely expected Emma Thompson would get a best actress nomination for the former while perhaps the latter would at least get a nod for best original screenplay. Neither film went home empty-handed, though. "Banks" nabbed a nod for best score while "Davis" received cinematography and sound mixing.

The film that's completely absent? "Lee Daniels' The Butler," reflecting the HFPA's snub of the film. Not even Oprah Winfrey secured her nomination for best supporting actress.

Best director nominations went to frontrunner Alfonso Cuaron for "Gravity," Steve McQueen for "12 Years a Slave," David O. Russell for "American Hustle," Martin Scorsese for "The Wolf of Wall Street" and, a surprise, Alexander Payne for "Nebraska" over the likes of Paul Greengrass for "Captain Phillips" or Joel and Ethan Cohen for "Inside Llewyn Davis."

As Russell's "Silver Linings Playbook" did last year, all four acting categories represent a nomination from "American Hustle."

The biggest surprise is by far the inclusion of Christian Bale in lead actor, who made it in over both Robert Redford for "All Is Lost" and Tom Hanks for "Captain Phillips." Joining him were Matthew McConaughey for "Dallas Buyers Club," Leonardo DiCaprio for "The Wolf of Wall Street," Chiwetel Ejiofor for "12 Years a Slave" and Bruce Dern for "Nebraska."

With Emma Thompson out for the best actress category, Amy Adams made it in for "American Hustle" along with locked nominees Cate Blanchett for "Blue Jasmine," Sandra Bullock for "Gravity" and Judi Dench for "Philomena." And yes, there's no denying the Academy's love for Meryl Streep, who got nominated in the category for "August: Osage County."

Now two-time Academy Award-nominated Jonah Hill for "The Wolf of Wall Street" made the best supporting actor category with Bradley Cooper for "American Hustle," Barkhad Abdi for "Captain Phillips," Michael Fassbender for "12 Years a Slave" and frontrunner Jared Leto for "Dallas Buyers Club."

Jennifer Lawrence is now the youngest actor, at 23 years old, to have three Academy Award nominations, this year in best supporting actress for "American Hustle." She joins Lupita Nyong'o for "12 Years a Slave," Julia Roberts for "August: Osage County," June Squibb for "Nebraska" and the surprise of Sally Hawkins for "Blue Jasmine" over Oprah Winfrey for "The Butler."

Another notable snub: Pixar went without a nomination for best animated picture. The studio's "Monsters University" was bested by "Despicable Me 2," "The Croods," "The Wind Rises," "Ernest & Celestine" and of course "Frozen."

And while Hans Zimmer for "12 Years a Slave" got left off for best score, a noteworthy inclusion in the category was "Her," which also received a nomination for best song. The film came in at a total five nominations.

"Nebraska" also came out as quite the juggernaut with six nominations total, with each of its lead actors and director nabbing nods along with best picture.

The 86th Annual Academy Awards air live at the Dolby Theatre on Sunday, March 2 at 8 p.m. on ABC hosted by Ellen DeGeneres. Check here for a full list of nominations.

Monday, January 13, 2014

71st Annual Golden Globe Award Winners

Tina Fey and Amy Poehler are, once again, undoubtedly the best hosts around and nailed their second annual gig with an opening monologue that, while not quite as on-point as last year, was nevertheless smart, funny, and every joke landed with perfect panache. Hats off to them. The 71st Annual Golden Globes telecast clipped along at a fine pace with even Diane Keaton's Cecil B. DeMille tribute to Woody Allen -- the biggest potential for a slowed-down slog -- staying upbeat and fast. The entire thing clocked it at one minute under three hours.

As for the winners, the love was spread around with "American Hustle" topping the night with three wins for best comedy/musical and wins for both Amy Adams in best actress comedy/musical and, surprise, Jennifer Lawrence once again for best supporting actress. David O. Russell is just directing that J-Law to awards gold, and she remains never not charmingly flustered and real. The girl on fire, folks.

"12 Years a Slave" and "Gravity" saw a split with Alfonso Cuaron taking best director while Steve McQueen's slavery picture topped off the night with a best drama win. It's likely we could see this same split happen Oscar night, unless "American Hustle" sneaks in.

Following "Hustle" for most awards was "Dallas Buyers Club" with two wins, each for its leading men. Matthew McConaughey took best actor drama while Jared Leto won best supporting actor. While Leto is full steam ahead for his Oscar win, it's more and more looking like McConaughey could be, as well, provided we see what happens at the SAG awards.

While it was widely assumed Lupita Nyong'o would take home best supporting for her turn in "12 Years," Jennifer Lawrence swooped out from below and snatched it, putting Oscar chances for Nyong'o in jeopardy.

Amy Adams rounded out the "Hustle" wins, a triumph allowed through the categorical split putting her out of contention with front-runner Cate Blanchett for "Blue Jasmine" who took home best actress drama and will repeat Oscar night.

Also reaping the benefits of the categorical split was Leonardo DiCaprio who won best actor comedy/musical for "The Wolf of Wall Street." While he's likely looking at a nomination come Thursday morning's announcement, he'll probably be bested by his competition for the win.

"Her" won itself a best screenplay award for Spike Jonze against the likes of "12 Years" and "Hustle," a welcomed surprise win for the film. "Hustle" and "Her" will have to battle it out for the best original screenplay award at the Oscars.

In the world of television, a few notes: big congratulations to Amy Poehler on finally winning for "Parks and Recreation," and who saw "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" winning best TV comedy? HFPA sure does like to award shiny, new things. And thank goodness "Breaking Bad" took best drama. No riots necessary.

Plenty of GIFable moments from the night, as well, from double-nominated Julia Louis-Dreyfus smoking an e-cigarette and eating a hotdog to Emma Thompson carrying her Louboutins in one hand and a martini in the other. What a party! Check here for a full list of winners.

Stay tuned for the next step in awards season, the nominations announcement for the 86th Annual Academy Awards on Thursday, Jan. 16.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

The Best Films of 2013

10. Spring Breakers (tie) The Bling Ring

Harmony Korine and Sofia Coppola's dark meditations on girls gone wild are kindred spirits. In each of their own uniquely stylistic ways -- Korine's hyper-fantasy spring break turned nightmare and Coppola's deceptively vapid fact-based retelling -- these auteur writer/directors hold a microscope up to a youth culture gone mad. And there's no denying the performances from James Franco as the dread-locked, gun-toting rapper Alien ("Look at my shit!") in the former and "Harry Potter" alum Emma Watson's scalding queen bitch in the latter.

9. This Is the End

The flat-out funniest movie of the year. Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg's raunchy mix of comedy and horror is delirious, outrageous and smart about its obvious stupidity. Chock full of actors playing themselves and more uproarious cameos than you can shake a stick at, these guys even squeeze in something to say about the status of celebrity and the nature of faith.

8. Short Term 12

Brie Larson is an absolute break-out in this heartrending powerhouse, among the most emotionally raw films of the year. Dustin Cretton's debut surprises with unexpected moments of poignancy and, even in the darkest moments, bursts of humor in an unflinching look inside the staff of a youth-at-risk center.

7. Enough Said

The most commercial effort from writer/director Nicole Holofcener also happens to be her best. The romantic comedy starring the delightful combination of Julia Louis-Dreyfus and the late James Gandolfini is witty and compassionate, diving into truths about adult relationships, trusting one's instincts and having faith in love. Holofcener's biggest concern with the film was making sure the plot twist didn't come across as "stupid." Rest assured, it plays out smart as can be.

6. Gravity

Alfonso Cuaron's masterful space odyssey is a film that commands audiences back to the movie theater. It simply cannot be seen any other way, in full glorious 3D, easiest the most groundbreaking visual landmark since James Cameron's "Avatar." The stunning cinematography from Emmanuel Lubezki transports viewers into space with the characters (namely Sandra Bullock in a career-best performance), floating adrift in the inky black expanse filled with existential dread.

5. Nebraska

Alexander Payne delivers another masterwork with his funniest film to date. "Nebraska" is a fable of middle America that finds absurdity and poignancy in the mundane of the everyday, in large part thanks to a first-time screenplay from Bob Nelson. June Squibb is an absolute hoot playing the wife of bitter, drunk and possibly senile Woody Grant. Both she and Bruce Dern give career-topping performances in a film that puts on grand display Payne's trademark commitment to both drama and comedy.

4. Blue Is the Warmest Color

Adele Exarchopoulos gives the performance of the year in Abdellatif Kechiche's intimate three-hour saga. She plays Adele, a young lesbian who blossoms into her sexuality and sense of self through a passionate but tumultuous relationship with the blue-haired Emma, played by Lea Seydoux. It's enthralling stuff and plays out like reading a rich novel, dense with themes on female sexuality and gender norms. Lingering in the mind long after the credits roll, you don't just watch these characters; you live and breathe them.

3. Her

In his fourth feature, writer/director Spike Jonze has taken a surrealist dystopian gimmick and finessed it into a deeply romantic and sad film. Through a seemingly impossible relationship, Jonze makes us believe and turns it into a meditation on how we look to find connections with each other, what keeps us from it and how we live today. Joaquin Phoenix gives a grand performance of pure isolation while an entirely off-screen Scarlett Johansson is inspired and soulful.

2. Frances Ha

Writer/actress Greta Gerwig and real-life boyfriend writer/director Noah Baumbach have proved a dynamic dream team in the independent film realm. Their "Frances Ha" is honest and telling, funny and smart, wry and sad, effervescent and fulfilling. The story of Gerwig's bumbling heroine Frances paints themes of post-college anxiety and the complexity of female friendship, which combine to draw even deeper meaning about coming-of-age at a time when someone's supposed to have already come of age.

1. 12 Years a Slave

Steve McQueen's harrowing and wrenching slave drama is the very best film of the year, an instant American classic. Against the backdrop of our nation's darkest chapter in its history, McQueen and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt -- coupled with an equal parts blistering and moving score from Hans Zimmer -- find absolute beauty and poetry within the ugly, brutal horrors. Not to mention extraordinary performances across the board from Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Sarah Paulson and first-time actress Lupita Nyong'o (on her way to an Oscar) in the year's best ensemble.