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Film Critics Association, the largest film critics organization in the United States and Canada. Also is a recent member of BTJA and IPA.
Labor Day (2013)
'Labor Day' is Mature But Narratively Thin
Over the past few years, Academy Award nominee Jason Reitman has shown great promise of what is to be a fine career for the director. With films like Thank You for Smoking, Juno, and Up in the Air, he hasn't made an obvious misstep in his filmmaking...until now. His newest film Labor Day, based on the book by Joyce Maynard, has the filmmaker venturing off into TV movie territory inhabited by full-fledged melodrama that is both over the top and disengaging.
The film stars Academy Award winner Kate Winslet as Adele, a depressed single mother, who along with her son Henry (played by the young Gattlin Griffith), is held captive in their home by an escaped convict named Frank (played by Josh Brolin). While time passes in their home, Frank takes an active and surprising role in the broken family's life. Narrative mistakes aside, this is one of Reitman's most polished and beautiful looking film that he has produced. Cinematographer Eric Steelberg uses the house of Adele and Henry has a secondary character, letting the sunlight of 1987 peek into the home and shine subtlety onto our lead actors. With the shots where you can see the dust floating near the arm of the couch, Labor Day executes a stylistic filmmaking gesture that Reitman's career desperately needed. While competency is appreciated from a movie watcher, to be considered one of the greats, one must have signature technique. Martin Scorsese, Terrence Malick, Steven Spielberg, all acclaimed directors with a legion of followers who have changed the game for cinema forever. Not expecting Jason Reitman's name to be synonymous with those directors but one must strive to create a medium of their own. In the end, Reitman leaves the pot on the stove too long with everything feeling over thought and unbelievable.
As something we've come to expect, the performances displayed are all impressive. Kate Winslet continues to find new realms for herself to execute her outstanding abilities. Winslet's work as Adele is one of her finest performances yet, showcasing a new vulnerable aspect she hasn't shown before. Adele's broken demeanor, as she fears leaving her home and relying solely on her young son for comfort, is on full display ringing an authentic emotional response. Loneliness is her soul mate and though her character's reactions to certain plot points ring false, I blame the script's glaring omissions of true human behavior that wear her down.
Josh Brolin's reserved and quiet demeanor allow him to weigh down the overly dramatic tale but ultimately brings nothing of substance to sustain a successful conclusion. Frank's will and mysterious ticks are intriguing at first but that only works when you have a solid foundation in your story to warrant that type of behavior. Unfortunately the film doesn't possesses any of that.
The most impressive aspect of the film is the young and masterful Gattlin Griffith, one of the year's best young actor performances. As the curious and reclusive Henry, Griffith explores a composure that not many young performers starting out can obtain. One of the skillful features that Reitman demonstrates, both in narrative and directing, is keeping Henry on the outside looking in. When Frank and Adele speak of things that would be too much for a child to understand, Reitman chooses to keep us looking in from the child's perspective. Whispers and glances into mother's bedroom or a stealthily look into the backyard are brilliant choices he makes.
Overall Labor Day demonstrates both a step forward and a back for Jason Reitman. If anything, it shows what he can do if he infuses this new found strong directorial style with a more complex and capable script and story, if he can get his hands on one.. It's a mature endeavor that though is incredibly uneven, makes me very excited for Reitman's future works including Men, Women, & Children due out in 2014.
Read more at The Awards Circuit (http://www.awardscircuit.com)
The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
The Wolf of Wall Street is Leonardo DiCaprio's Crowning Work
Martin Scorsese has done it again. His newest and most refreshing effort he's contributed to the world of cinema in years, The Wolf of Wall Street is a roaring thrill ride that is both absolutely hilarious and meticulously constructed. It also presents Academy Award nominee Leonardo DiCaprio in possibly his finest acting performance of his career. At one-minute shy of three hours, I was both engaged and hypnotized nearly the entire duration. A comedic epic that studies the behavior and cultures of a time in America, feels like the uncovering of a time capsule that was buried and dug up to give insight into our current financial crisis. Much more than just laughs, it turns on the dramatic elements early enough in the film to warrant considerable reactions about the choices of our key characters. Expertly paced with intelligent moral questions presented, The Wolf of Wall Street is one of the best films of the year.
Telling the story of Jordan Belfort, a young Wall Street broker that gets involved in drugs, money, and even more drugs during the 80's and 90's. In his tenure trading (and stealing), Jordan marries, divorces, does drugs, marries again, does even more drugs, makes solid friendships, and believe it or not, does a lot more drugs. Watching the destruction of Jordan acted as a documentarian's insight that felt like I was watching "Intervention" without the family that cares. The Wolf of Wall Street is a black comedy, giving hints of drama. Natural comparisons will fly to Oliver Stone's Wall Street which is accurate but you can see subtle hints of films like Trading Places, Glengarry Glen Ross, and even American Psycho. That's a testament to Scorsese's outstanding direction and Terence Winter's masterful screenplay. Scorsese keeps Wolf life-size, sprinkled with characters that are both geniuses and morons, but functioning morons. They're like the frat pack group that sat in a corner on my college campus, being loud and obnoxious, and made terrible life choices that they still aren't aware of until this day. Scorsese puts together an all-star cast to inhabit these beings that includes DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Matthew McConaughey, Jon Bernathal, and Kyle Chandler. All of which seem to be having the time of their lives.
A lot of the credit of the film's overall success has to be awarded to Leonardo DiCaprio. I've never seen him truly "go for it" in a way that he exhibits as Jordan Belfort. In his breaking of the fourth wall, to his long but completely engaging monologues about life, money, and greed, it's the most assured and compelling work by the actor to date. When DiCaprio unleashed his talents in the mid-90's in What's Eating Gilbert Grape? and later stole the hearts of tween girls everywhere in Titanic, who knew this is the role he'd been gearing up to play. This is the role of his career and something that the Academy Awards should look to for his long overdue recognition. It's a charming and adventurous turn that presents a conundrum to the audience as we find ourselves both enamored and loathing the pure essence of Jordan. A sequence of DiCaprio crawling on the floor will probably be the scene of the year. This is DiCaprio's crowning achievement.
As the magnetic and cheesy-minded right-hand man, Jonah Hill's performance as Donnie Azoff is another great turn for the 30-year-old actor. He's allowed to explore some of his comedic ticks and beats that he may not have ever had the opportunity to explore in films like Superbad or 21 Jump Street. In Wolf, he relies on his own instincts, and his chemistry with DiCaprio, which has helped him before for his Oscar-nominated work in Moneyball opposite Brad Pitt. Matthew McConaughey, is one scene shy of winning the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. While his work in Dallas Buyers Club will bring him the acclaim and recognition that he deserves, The Wolf of Wall Street is a prime example of what he should be doing when he's not working or seeking out the strong, independent features that are geared for awards recognition. Stealing every frame and focus from DiCaprio in his ten minute screen time, McConaughey utilizes all his charm and spunk as Mark Hanna, the mentor to young Jordan as he started out.
Like any great Scorsese film, the women are in full-force and given the opportunity to shine like the others. Cristin Millotti, a toned down and tragic version of Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny, is sensational in her brief appearances on screen. Beautiful and sympathetic, she offers much needed serious and dramatic elements to Jordan's outrageous antics. In the end, a star is born in the gorgeous and vivacious Margot Robbie as Naomi Lapaglia, Jordan's second wife. Whoever was going to be cast as Naomi, had to be an actress of considerable talent and had the ability to really be the sexy kitten but still warrant an emotional reaction from the audience when called upon. Margot Robbie was the perfect choice and she'll need to owe Scorsese royalties for years to come with the roles she'll be offered following this. Robbie is pure magic and is everything she's required to be. She's the more elusive, compelling, and more thought out version of Scarlett Johansson's character in Don Jon.
I loved every second of The Wolf of Wall Street. Terence Winter's script is a natural and well-oiled machine that produces the words of a demigod. You couldn't make these things up. Thelma Schoonmaker is the utmost professional and continues to shine film after film. You won't find another dedicated and glossed editing work this year. The other supporting actors do sensational work especially Kyle Chandler, who has a very well-constructed exchange on a boat with DiCaprio, has us asking more and more, why is this guy not helming his own films on a consistent basis yet?
American Hustle (2013)
'Hustle' for the performances but little else...
The stars seemed aligned for David O. Russell's highly anticipated American Hustle in which assembles some of Hollywood's most sought-after talent that includes Oscar-winners Christian Bale and Jennifer Lawrence along with Oscar-nominees Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, and Jeremy Renner. He teams up with scribe Eric Singer, whose only feature writing credit is Tom Tykwer's The International, and based on the popularity of last year's Silver Linings Playbook, this was suppose to be Russell's masterpiece. Sad to report that the final product is an anti- metamorphosis of filmmaking that prohibits any consistency for the viewer to relish. What remains intact and palpable are the outstanding performances by the cast that Russell put together. All of them are dedicated to their roles, even when development and direction are lacking, and they truck through much of the narrative successfully.
One of the largest areas of opportunities is the script composed by Singer and Russell. Despite scene-chewing performances from our principal actors, an absence of insight and cohesiveness, along with an irregularity of interesting dialogue plagues this once promising Oscar hopeful. In the first twenty minutes of the film's opening, I said to myself, "this is going to be my favorite film of the year." When the film ventures off into back stories and character origins, it plays like a parody of Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights, lacking any emotional connection. The film isn't overtly dreadful or horrendous by any stretch, just mostly disappointing. All the pieces are there, they just didn't take the time to make sure they all fit. It's confusing in tone, though very funny at times, especially coming from Cooper and Lawrence, but by the end, Russell feels he's warranted an emotional reaction from the audience when he's done anything but.
Christian Bale is terrific, magnified in charisma while still keeping mostly all his ticks and mannerisms he's created for Irving in perspective. His work is also an impressive counterpoint to his other well-executed performance in Out of the Furnace. Bale proves once again that he's one of this generation's most gifted actors. Not only in the way he packs on the pounds, or rocks a comb-over better than any wannabe gangster I've encountered on the streets of Little Italy; he's the one performer that has a character that goes through an authentic evolution that's believable.
As the spunky and crude wife of Irving, Jennifer Lawrence gets the biggest laughs and commands the most attention from the viewer. Better than she was in last year's overly praised turn in Silver Linings Playbook, for which she won the Oscar for Best Actress, this is a role that suits her well, both for her range as an actress and what she excels in with her fiery demeanor. I'm still a bit unsure about how old Rosalyn was suppose to be (that may be a fault of these directors thinking she's old enough to play these older women). Lawrence owns her role and has enough naughty sex-appeal and delivery to land herself an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. I'd argue if she hadn't JUST won last year, she would be a formidable threat to win. Probably a more appropriate representation for her acting arsenal.
I have fallen hard for the abilities of Bradley Cooper following his role as Pat in Russell's Playbook. Subsequently, the 38-year-old actor has sought dynamic and challenging roles that you can tell he finds exciting and prolific in its nature and candor. His turn in The Place Beyond the Pines earlier this year proved that notion and in American Hustle, Cooper is simply dazzling. Delivering the best performance of the cast, Cooper nails moment after moment, infusing his strict and intense line delivery while having impeccable comedic timing. One sequence in which he imitates the great Louie C.K., who plays one of Richie's frazzled superiors, engulfed the movie theater in non-stop laughter.
The actor I feel the most for is the talented and beautiful Amy Adams. If the script was more developed on a writing level, this role could have been the performance of the year. Adams is given an opportunity to enrich herself in a woman, full of layers, that prevent her from losing sight of her own identity. However, being short-changed as her character builds, leaves the audience unsatisfied with where she ends. On a pure performance level, Adams is top-notch, conveying one of her strongest turns yet. I wished more for her but ultimately was let down.
David O. Russell used to be able to excite, in the way that Quentin Tarantino would when ventured off into a new realm of his imagination. His 2010 film The Fighter was his most ambitious outing and I've waited, patiently mind you, to see when he top that endeavor. I'll always award his efforts as a writer. I Heart Huckabees, Three Kings, and Silver Linings Playbook succeed mostly on the merits of his storytelling ability. American Hustle levels out a lot of the time, enabling the viewer to connect and engage the world convincingly. There are other times though, where honestly, I almost fell asleep. Even when Russell demonstrates uneven filmmaking, I've remained bound to the story. This is the first time I found myself bored, especially in scenes involving Jeremy Renner, who I adore.
Read more @ AwardsCircuit.com
Out of the Furnace (2013)
Scott Cooper's 'Out of the Furnace' Loses Steam but Affleck shines...
There are great things to admire about filmmaker Scott Cooper, who made an admirable breakthrough in 2009 when directed Jeff Bridges to an Oscar win for Crazy Heart. Adapting the film from the novel by Thomas Cobb, Cooper had a foundation to follow in bringing his story of Bad Blake to the screen. In his long-awaited follow-up Out of the Furnace, where he gathers an impressive cast that includes Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, and Woody Harrelson, the co-writer and director lays it on thick and slow, ultimately failing to sustain emotion to be carried throughout his picture.
Cooper's latest tells the story of Russell Baze (played by Bale), a hard-working man who cares for his ailing father and lives with his beautiful girlfriend Lena (played by Zoe Saldana). When his war-veteran brother Rodney (played by Affleck) gets involved with illegal street- fighting and ultimately disappears, with no strong searching from authorities, Russell takes matters into his own hands.
Out of the Furnace begins with such strong promise. Building a solid foundation in character development, Cooper and co-writer Brad Inglesby give Russell and Rodney authentic behaviors and a relationship that feels believable. When dealing with the film's villain Harlan DeGroat, played by the talented Woody Harrelson, the two scribes don't explore enough avenues to have him become a three-dimensional character, and not a blanket of evil caricatures that we've seen in movies before. The film opens with Harlan watching a drive-in movie and unleashing his fury on his date, and a bystander that tries to intervene. I tend to appreciate some motivation for a character's actions. You can't just make someone horrible just for the sake of your movie. Why is Harlan so evil, and most of all, why is everyone so scared of this guy, even when he's by himself?
Christian Bale internalizes most of his emotions, bringing them to the brim of explosion. His Russell is damaged, losing so much of himself throughout the narrative, from family members to his own dignity. It's another great performance from the Oscar-winning Bale. Casey Affleck proves to be one of the most talented actors working today, bringing such raw rage to his broken soldier. He's the film's true highlight and most deserving of any accolades the film may receive.
Regulated to one very intense and brilliantly constructed scene with Bale, Zoe Saldana proves to have the goods to go beyond any of her genre roles in "Avatar" and "Star Trek" if given the opportunity. Woody Harrelson does his best with the information he's given. He strikes fear into the viewer with just a look or a sneer, but with such little understanding about what Harlan is about, it doesn't succeed in the way it should have. Sam Shepard and Forest Whitaker are blips on the radar but have no real sense of purpose to the narrative, though they are serviceable.
Cooper also does a great job capturing this rural culture of a small Pennsylvania town. Locals that work at the mill and later gather at the bar to drink their night away feels authentic. Utilizing Cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi certainly helps as the talented DP keeps our story close and intimate. Takayanagi captures the entire rooms for the audience to gaze at. Intimate bedroom behavior is placed into perspective when aligned with a shot of the room where a closet is in sight with no doors and damp, dingy walls. The score by Dickon Hinchliffe is the film's strongest technical aspect. The composer, who's worked on Rampart and Winter's Bone, has a knack for these type of films and elevating them to their true potential.
As the film continues to build, to what we believe will be an epic finale of revenge, just becomes the most anti-climactic ending of the year. While Cooper formulates a well-constructed set piece, and composer Hinchliffe and DP Takayanagi are well-equipped for the challenge, the script offers no interesting or payoff to the two-hour investment the audience makes into the story. We are left just mildly and unenthusiastically satisfied.
Overall, the film is simply atmospheric; showing the promise of Cooper has a filmmaker if given stronger material to direct. Out of the Furnace is a mildly impressive work but worth it's time at the movie theater.
Read more reviews and awards coverage @ The Awards Circuit (http://www.awardscircuit.com)
Saving Mr. Banks (2013)
Emma Thompson radiates in John Lee Hancock's 'Saving Mr. Banks'
Beautifully ambitious and eagerly constructed, the success of Walt Disney Studios' homage to its heritage is anchored magnificently by the crowning work of Emma Thompson's career. John Lee Hancock's Saving Mr. Banks is a tenderly affectionate tale featuring one of the year's finest ensembles. Following a classic three act structure, when the film begins, it undoubtedly lifts off and hooks you almost immediately. Held back by a few poor choices in the editing room, there's no denying the glamour, chemistry, and witchery that the film sets on you. Saving Mr. Banks is feverishly delightful.
Written by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith, the film tells the story of P.L. Travers, the author of "Mary Poppins," who in the early 1960's met with Walt Disney and his creative team to decide whether to sign the rights of her beloved book to the magic studio. During the production, Travers reflects on her childhood and her relationship with her loving father, played by Colin Farrell, intertwining the magic of her beloved novel and the guilt of a troubled past.
As an unbridled, even at times downright vicious P.L. Travers, Thompson hasn't pursued and thrived in a character of such complexities since James Ivory directed her to an Oscar in Howard's End over twenty years ago. Travers' mannerisms and moral guidelines are captured charmingly by the creative team. Thompson and director Hancock clearly worked closely together to nail the nuance of the central character's focus. She buries herself in the time, and that of designer Daniel Orlandi's stunning costume work, to be the perfect entity of a fruitful tale. Playing the young Travers, Annie Rose Buckley is cute as a button and has some real juicy moments to sink her teeth into. Unfortunately, some directorial choices hinder any substantial connection between her and the audience to muster any real attention.
Marcel and Smith's script is pure gold. There is such a dynamic and balance of charming and witty comedy tied in with heart wrenching and polarizing drama. Their assembling of the movie era, capturing subtle inequities of the business, and painting a magical story, will likely stand as one of the screenplays of the year. There is a heavy yet almost invisible component of layered despondency that the two writers choose to include that make the film truly sing.
Upon hearing the casting of Tom Hanks as the iconic Walt Disney, I have to admit my reservations were at an all-time high. Hanks, who has excelled in his career playing the everyday man, and floored the bulk of America with his performance in Captain Phillips this year, absolutely nails his role as the film executive tycoon. His choices of character beats, that don't put down the material nor distract the audience from the story being told, is spot on nearly every moment. He maneuvers his way with his charisma but allows the animosity to fester in the viewer. I was thoroughly impressed.
Where the film missteps greatly is in the direction and options that John Lee Hancock chooses to execute throughout. "Banks" essentially tells two stories. One of the present time during the production of "Mary Poppins" and the other of P.L. Travers' childhood. Hancock chooses to tell these two stories simultaneously, awkwardly transitioning from one time period to the other, and ripping us away from the story we're desperately invested in. In many ways, his direction will be seen in the same reactionary split of Tom Hooper's Les Miserables. There will be some, likely many, that will have no problem with his bumbling alterations in certain scenes and there will be some, like myself, that sees that he's still has a long way to go. Not gunning him down as a complete disaster, he has about three instances where the potential and vision are clearly realized. Hancock knows how to tug at the heartstrings. When a scene works, he accomplishes it with the utmost confidence and brilliant demeanor. A tightly paced and pivotal scene involving the song "A British Bank" showcases Hancock's best varieties, and also that of co-star Colin Farrell.
For my dollar, everything connects and rises during the creation of "Let's Go and Fly a Kite." The cast comes together and unifies in such a harmonious fashion and Hancock chooses to utilize all the supporting players including that of the wonderful Bradley Whitford, the witty BJ Novak, and in his best turn yet, Jason Schwartzman. Hancock operates these three men in an ingenious method. Paul Giamatti is a compassionate force, especially in his exchanges with Thompson while Ruth Wilson makes me absolutely adore the ground in which she walks.
Besides the dynamite work of Thompson, I lived for the miraculous music of Academy Award nominated composer Thomas Newman. Brilliantly hinting at some of his other composed works, everything about the music in Saving Mr. Banks purely resonates because of Newman's continued abilities to insert his own personality into his work. You can't find another film musician this aware of his talents and continued drive to elevate his own material. It's the Oscar slam dunk we've been waiting for in Original Score.
Le passé (2013)
Iran's 'The Past' is a sensational story with a trio of terrific performances
Academy Award nominated screenwriter Asghar Farhadi has proved to be a very skillful storyteller once again with his new film distributed by Sony Pictures Classics called The Past (Le passé), Iran's official submission for Foreign Language Film for the upcoming 86th Academy Awards.
The film tells the amazing story of Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa), an Iranian man who leaves his wife Marie (Bérénice Bejo) and two children to go back his country. Her two children, which are not biologically his, look at him as a father figure despite a four-year absence. When he returns to sign his divorce papers, after Marie has started a new relationship with Samir (Tahar Rahim), he must face the harsh reality that this old life he once knew is slipping away but not before a chain of events threatens and possibly presents a new opportunity for a reconnection for the broken family.
Starring Bérénice Bejo, who appeared on our radar's just two years ago for her magnificent performance in Michel Hazanavicius' Oscar-winning The Artist, is superb. The talented actress, who won Best Actress earlier this year at the Cannes Film Festival, is just simply fantastic. Only ever seeing her in the silent film in which she was Oscar nominated, it's pleasing to be able to hear her rip into a scene the way she does in Farhadi's picture. She's engrossing in her mannerisms and artistic choices to portray her near volatile mother and girlfriend. Bejo delivers one of the year's best leading female performances.
Also stepping up, and delivering my favorite performance from the film is Ali Mosaffa as the confident and reserved Ahmad. Again, not being too familiar with Mosaffa's body of work, his turn in The Past is tenderly sensational. Something about the way he portrays Ahmad reminds me of Jude Law's work in Anthony Minghella's Cold Mountain. His performance is reactionary and depends on everything that is going on around him. He nails everything that the script requires him to achieve.
Tahar Rahim is frighteningly brilliant. Blasts through the screen similar to his work on Jacques Audiard's A Prophet (Un prophète), Rahim plays Samir like a ticking time bomb, ready to explode at any moment. He leaves the audience unsure about how to feel about him and his motivations. It's an impeccable performance.
I also have to give an immense amount of credit to Pauline Burlet, who plays Lucie, Marie's 16-year-old defiant daughter. She controls her passion, keeping everything at the edge without ever going overboard. I want to see more of this beloved actress.
One of the most impressive things about Farhadi's film is the way he reveals facts about the tale and his extraordinary timing in which he reveals them. The movie unfolds like a surprise birthday gift; packing an impetuous chain of events that feel both natural and fulfilling. I was enthralled nearly the entire time. Taking place in France, the film mainly takes place in two or three large set pieces including an apartment and a dry cleaner. Better yet, and once again, Farhadi ends his film on the most prolific note and is probably one of the most acroamatic yet satisfying and exhilarating shots of the cinematic year.
At 130 minutes, the film feels just a smidge too long. Mahmoud Kalari's cinematography is subtle yet affecting and a standout of the technical aspects of the picture.
The Past is a captivating and riveting film. One of the year's best films in any language. The Past is an Oscar contender that should find love from members of guilds and press that appreciate masterpiece storytelling. I'm in love with it.
(★★★½) - Read more reviews @ The Awards Circuit (http://www.awardscircuit.com)
Ernest et Célestine (2012)
Film Review: Ernest & Celestine (★★★½)
When we all think of animation and the journey it has walked through, naturally we all go to a big studio like Disney to offer up lots of the credit. Rightfully so, the studio paved the way for companies like Dreamworks and Sony Pictures to dip their feet into the animation arena. One of the quiet and brilliant studios that isn't on the lips of everyone yet is the impressive GKIDS. They made heads turn in the 2009- 2010 awards season when they pushed The Secret of Kells and managed a surprise nomination for Best Animated Feature. In 2011-2012, they pulled a one-two punch with Chico & Rita and A Cat in Paris, snagging nominations as well. For my money, they produced the best animated film of last year with Jean-François Laguionie's The Painting and found no wiggle room to get in over Brave and Wreck-It Ralph.
This year, the animation studio is at it again with their captivating French film Ernest & Celestine. Touching all the sweet parts of my cinematic heart, the Daniel Pennac written film tells the story of an unlikely friendship between a grumpy bear and a young mouse. Encompassing the powerful elements of honesty, truth, and acceptance, Pennac's screenplay, once again, fixates on the small details that bring our story full circle and unimaginably to life. It's one of the great surprises of the film year. Pennac is quickly becoming one of my favorite animated film writers working today.
One of the qualities that have made other animation studios so successful over the years is easy application of the child-like story that is being told, into the moment of the now and even the adult world. As life above ground includes Ernest, and a race of bears, they are the dominant power on the Earth. Down below, lives a race of mice, fending for survival, and only going to the world above to collect teeth in preparation to become dentists, which all rodents hold. Celestine lives in an orphanage, with a zeal and talent for drawing, she yearns for a world outside though stories are constantly told about the evil world of bears above. Ernest is down on his luck. When Celestine gets chased by a bear family after attempting to take one of the cubs' tooth, she hides in a trash can. When a hungry and desperate Ernest finds Celestine and tries to eat her, the two find an understanding and affection for one another that is both poetic and moving.
As we continue to live in a world that is dominated by the Pixar-3D mediums, that are only told in our native language, general audiences and industry people need to branch out their scope in the genre and discover these little diamonds that are found in the nooks and crannies of the movie world. Lambert Wilson voices the gentle bear Ernest, who you might remember from The Matrix Reloaded as The Merovingian or more recently from Of Gods and Men where he played the lead Christian. He plays particularly well off his co-star Pauline Brunner, who's innocent ticks and beats in her voice, shine brightly through the naïve and sweet Celestine.
The animation is simply stunning, reminiscing a storybook you would read to your youngest love, everything flows magically from page to screen, and inevitably into your heart. Directors Stéphane Aubier, Vincent Patar, and Benjamin Renner know, with great confidence, what kind of story they want to be told. Inserting the humor at the appropriate times before hitting the right emotional chords with the viewer by film's end. A tender yet bombastic composition by musical composer Vincent Courtois is the film's secret weapon. Capturing the moment and executing the ambiance with absolute precision. I was completely smitten with everything about Ernest & Celestine.
By any means possible, seek out this French animated film from GKIDS. A sensational welcome to the animated genre that will be cherished for years. Ernest & Celestine is proof that hand-drawn animation should and still lives well in the medium. Its clever and fresh nature is purely magnetic and is something that should be considered for the Academy Awards.
The film is scheduled for a limited release December 6.
Just about the best thing you can see in 2013...
Talk about closing with a bang. Spike Jonze's long-awaited original film about a writer that falls in love with his operating system is not only the best film to play at this year's New York Film Festival; it very well could be the very best film of the year. "Her" is the finest writing and directorial endeavor of Spike Jonze's career. And then there's the towering and crowning work of Academy Award nominee Joaquin Phoenix who proves once again, he's the finest actor working today, hands down. You can't find a more dynamic and compelling story about the human connection and where we're headed as a society.
When "Her" opens up, it snaps you immediately into the story. Phoenix plays Theodore, a writer for a website that makes letters for just about anyone. As he tries to find life during the midst of his divorce from his wife Catherine (played by a beautiful Rooney Mara), Theodore finds solace in a friendship with a new OS (operating system) named Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). The two develop a relationship in a world where OS's are becoming the norm with society.
Jonze's has never been the conventional director as we've seen in his other brilliant efforts "Being John Malkovich" and "Where the Wild Things Are." Jonze sets out to tell a story and deliver all the intricate details for us to understand each character. His focus on Theodore, giving him a real sense of loneliness without falling into cliché character ticks and beats that we've seen countless times in other romantic films, Jonze constructs a real man living in a world where technology has taken precedent over human connection.
Christopher Nolan should take notes from Jonze on the assembling of female counterparts in a story. Catherine and Theodore's friend Amy, played by the always dependable Amy Adams, both feel genuinely authentic. Mara, who's already delivered one other powerful performance in "Ain't Them Bodies Saints" earlier this year, is finely utilized. She shows once again that she's a true professional, with limited screen time (many in flashbacks); she can staple herself in your memory.
Amy Adams is always the sprinkle on top in all of her films. As "Amy," the awkward friend and neighbor who sympathizes more with Theodore more than she'd like to, Adams expertly executes. With four prior Oscar nominations to her credit, her stunning portrayal is just another fantastic pin to add to her credits. She could find traction during the awards season if the film hits in the right way. That's also part to the petty Oscar rules about rewarding voice performances because if that wasn't the case, Scarlett Johansson would be on stage holding an Oscar of her own next March. As "Samantha," Johansson has never tapped into the essence of her abilities as an actress the way she does in "Her." As an OS, full of wonder and curiosity, "Samantha" is essentially a child. Learning at a rapid rate and studying the behaviors of the human mind, she looks at the world through the eyes of Theodore. Johansson holds our hand in through the tale, even when her voice isn't on screen. This is the type of work that could convince the Board of Governors to rethink the eligibility of an acting performance. This is a masterful work that I'll remember for years to come.
And then there's Joaquin Phoenix...oh, Mr. Phoenix. Fresh off his historic performance in Paul Thomas Anderson's "The Master" just a year ago, I didn't think he could impress me so soon and yet here we are. His sensitive and perceptive take on the role is what films are all about. It's one of the best things that 2013 has offered and a performance that could land him his first Oscar. I think Phoenix himself was impressed with the work he and his colleagues have accomplished. At the press conference, he actually gave an answer to one of the questions from the audience. If anyone was in attendance at the conference for James Gray's "The Immigrant" - a prickly, disengaged Phoenix put on his sunglasses and put the microphone on the floor. This is a performance that you can identify with. He's not simply awkward for the sake of being, he has baggage and connection issues. There's sincerity in his words and mannerisms. A getaway in a cabin, alone but with "Samantha" encapsulates everything about Theodore. Phoenix achieves the impossible and is an instant Oscar contender.
But "Her" isn't just about the writing and performances; it's an all- around technical marvel. Most notably the Production Design of K.K. Barrett, who has worked on "Where the Wild Things Are." Our story takes place in a futuristic (though never said how far ahead) Los Angeles and with shooting overseas, Barrett captures the clout of the city and its inside counterparts. Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema's use of colors and smooth palettes are things of a dream. Affectionately snuggling up to Phoenix as he whispers the sweetness of words to "Samantha" or the sweetness of a new letter at work, Hoytema has quickly become one of my favorite DP's, especially following "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" and "Let the Right One In." Arcade Fire and Karen O. are simply magic in their music that accompanies our story about love. A modern yet classical composition that in key scenes could move you to tears.
"Her" is one of the best love stories I've witnessed in some time. Charlie Kaufman will always have the honor of penning my favorite love story of all-time "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" but Spike Jonze and "Her" are giving it a true run for the money at the moment. Warner Bros. must know what they have with a limited release in late November; this...
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Payne's best film ever...June Squibb steals the show!
NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL: There is a magical and profound power that is exuded from Alexander Payne's film "Nebraska." I loved just about every second of it. Written by Bob Nelson, the black-and-white dramedy takes us through the beautiful and rural Midwest showcasing opulent and lavish cinematography by Phedon Papamichael. And let's not forget the trio of stunning performances from Oscar-nominee Bruce Dern, Will Forte, and June Squibb. The film tells the story of an aging and ailing Woody (Dern) and his son David (Forte) as they venture off from Montana to Nebraska to collect a million dollar prize that Woody believes he has won.
I've long thought that Alexander Payne was one of the more overrated writer/directors working today. Winning two Oscars for screenplay, only one of them was warranted. I merely enjoyed his film "Election" over ten years ago, couldn't find the emotional connection in "About Schmidt" and found myself perplexed by the love that poured in for "The Descendants." His Oscar-winning film "Sideways" was the only film that lived up to the promise and still retains its magic on repeated viewings. The Paramount Vantage film presents an impeccable example of Payne's directorial skills and style when they're utilized with the right material. "Nebraska" is Alexander Payne's best film, bar none. He creates an intimate setting, even when driving cross-country or walking around an abandoned home, Payne keeps the story close and the responses authentic.
Bruce Dern is perfectly used and exquisitely raw presenting the actor's best outing of his career. As the co-anchor of the story, Dern is finally given a chance to show what Hollywood has been missing out on for over fifty years. Touchingly reserved through most of the narrative, Dern allows Woody to open up to the audience for the briefest of moments that works beautifully. It's an Oscar-worthy performance.
Will Forte surprisingly underplays and buries his normal comedic ticks and beats that made him so successful on "Saturday Night Live." His David searches and finds many of the mysteries that embody the enigma of his alcoholic father, giving Forte an ability to connect fully with the audience. He is equally as affecting as Bruce Dern and this will hopefully lead him into more complex and audacious roles like this in the future.
The wonderful and delightful June Squibb steals the show. Getting the film's biggest laughs and in many ways, offering herself up as the emotional pillar in many aspects of the narrative, Squibb is someone that could walk her way to an Oscar. Nelson's writing, especially in the creation of Kate, Woody's wife, is freshly executed. Say hello to one of your Supporting Actress nominees.
Other supporting players giving their all is Stacy Keach playing a sleazy old friend of Woody's and Bob Odenkirk as David's brother Ross, who bounces well off comedian Forte in some of the film's best scenes.
One aspect that I fell in love with was the score of Mark Orton is musical accompaniment lands precisely with every bar and in every scene. Editor Kevin Tent, who has worked on all of Payne's previous films, finally has found his groove and maintains a steady pace to tell our story. I have to admit that when I first heard that the film was going to be shot in black and white, I'm immediately thought it was going to used as a gimmick. Nearly five minutes into the movie, you can see exactly why he chose to use it. Papamichael captures the natural elements of light in several scenes, some involving a simple living room, others when we're in the car with the family. "Nebraska" is one of the year's best pictures. Something that will surely appeal to a certain demographic of the Academy. It runs as a light and comedic companion piece to Michael Haneke's "Amour." It's a film that will surely be in contention for several Academy Awards including Best Picture.
All Is Lost (2013)
J.C. Chandor and Robert Redford are pure magic!
NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL: Talk about making a huge leap forward in your filmmaking abilities; J.C. Chandor can rest easy knowing he demonstrated the directorial style of a pro in his survival film "All is Lost" starring Robert Redford. Debuting today at the New York Film Festival, you can tell that many critics were simply captivated by what they were witnessing on-screen. An almost 40-page script and a team of amazing technical magicians encapsulate the awe and wonder of the upcoming Lionsgate feature.
The synopsis is pretty straight forward; a man is out in sea when finds himself fighting mother nature and his own psyche to survive out in the Indian Ocean.
Writer and director J.C. Chandor assembles a man without revealing any back story that the audience can latch onto. We spend a lot of time with "Our Man" - as he's named by end credits. It's a brilliant constructed character study focusing on human behavior. There have been plenty of survival films to screen this year showing the different perspectives that human beings take when faced with their own extinction. "Captain Phillips" has Tom Hanks react when another soul threatens that life while Sandra Bullock relies on her own instinct and brains in "Gravity." Redford envelops the body of a man who is surrounded by his own thoughts. Alone in the ocean, he utilizes tools provided by his boat as well as life experience. There are no asides or soliloquies for the audience to in tune themselves with the narrative. We rely on our senses. Chandor has an admirable aesthetic for telling his stories. Unafraid to get up close and personal with our main character and to observe the angles from the boat, air, and sea, I was mesmerized nearly the entire time.
Robert Redford has never exerted this amount of skill in his acting career. At 77-years-old, Redford taps into the epitome of the human spirit with no words to assist him. With only nearly ten lines of words spoken, 90% of that in our opening shot of a shipping container with no Redford present, he relies on his own mannerisms and dexterity to bridge us comfortably and confidently into our tale. It's his best performance in the last 25 years.
Frank G. DeMarco and Peter Zuccarini, dual cinematographers, gather gorgeous imagery especially those captured from beneath the ocean's surface. In our violent moments when nature shows her true aggression, the two find the pleasant bearings of Redford's dread.
As it would be expected in a film with no dialogue, the sound design becomes the forefront and star. Rain and ocean rush across the screen and speakers to place us right in the moment. A fierce intensity boils to the brim when the sound really takes off.
The film tends to be bloated a bit. At 106 minutes, a cut down to perhaps 90 might have tightened up some of the scenes and give a more clear and fluid cinematic experience. Trust that when the movie does take off, the Visual Effects team needs to be commended. It's not as simple as sitting in a life raft and watching the rain fall; in many ways, "All is Lost" acts as an independent action thriller with a strong narrative device, something we don't see too often. The music of Alex Ebert certainly helps and acts a strong companion piece to the sound work. "All is Lost" is one of the more pleasing and emotionally satisfying dramas of the year that had me at the edge of my seat. There are many that could see it as a guy just having a really bad week, or one of the few cinematic endeavors of the year that exemplifies the vulnerable parts of soul. If you're looking for a quality Oscar contender for 2013, "All is Lost" will offer you a delectable helping with all the trimmings.