The Curt Critic featured in the Wisconsin State Journal

The Curt Critic in the news: This recent Wisconsin State Journal article is validation that Liz Zélandais' quest to see all 53 Oscar-nominated films for 2013 is a fascinating enterprise worthy of public interest, rather than merely nuts.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Master - 2013 Oscar Nominee for Best 1) Actor, 2) Supporting Actor, and 3) Supporting Actress

"The Master made me feel the greatest relief I've ever experienced at the end of a movie to read  that all characters were fictitious."
-Scott Z, anonymous movie patron

Mental illness and the outer limits of alcoholism are recurring themes among this year's Oscar contenders. The Master slams them home with a double whammy that lets you reside for two and ahalf unsettling hours in Crazy Town, with Joaquin Phoenix as your mayor.

At the conclusion of World War II, Navy veteran Freddie Quell (Phoenix) leaves the Armed Forces, diagnosed with "a nervous condition". He is briefly treated at the VA and released onto the world. Drifting through a series of job disasters—from department store photographer fighting with a patron to field worker killing off a fellow cabbage picker with lethal homemade hooch—the two common threads are alcohol and assault. Then Freddie meets Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), self-described "writer, doctor, nuclear physicist, theoretical philosopher... but above all, a man" and leader of the cult known as "The Cause".

Phoenix is undeniably gifted in his performance—with twitchy, vexatious instability and a constant percolation of violence just below the surface. If Freddie Quell were sitting next to me on the bus, I would get off at the next stop. (Hard to describe how challenging it was to sit with him for an uneasy 144 minutes in the theater.) As for Oscar-nominated Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams (Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress), they are certainly competent in their rolesbut roles that are less than demanding. It's nice to see Amy Adams a little on the nasty side; but nevertheless, Enchanted offered a meatier character than this one.

The movie is complex and deep, yet ultimately a collage of disjointed pieces with no arc of true character development—concluding with the implication that the characters will continue looping through their dysfunctional refrains.

Chasing Ice - 2013 Oscar Nominee for Best Original Song

Time-lapse devastation, beautifully captured

National Geographic photographer James Balog was a skeptic about global warming—until he was as captured by ice as it was captured in his images. He formed the Extreme Ice Survey project and gathered a team to place time-lapse cameras in Greenland, Iceland, Nepal, Alaska, and Montana. This entailed locating the most delicate technology in some of the world's harshest climates to take frame-by-frame images of glaciers over a period of years. The results are beautiful art and devastating evidence. Glaciers are receding at an unprecedented rate, with implications for the global environment.

This documentary—ironically nominated for Best Original Song—hits on many cylinders. Watching James Balog ice-pick his way up forbidding terrain on knees crumbling faster than his glacial subjects is to be inspired by passion. Viewing the skill of his photography is as breath-taking as any art gallery. And assessing the evidence presented removes any doubt about the need for change in our current environmental path.

Oh, and that song, which is performed as the credits roll: Sung by Scarlett Johansson and accompanied by Joshua Bell, it encapsulates every frame of husky beauty and pathos evoked by the film. You may listen to it in the video below. (For the official movie trailer, keep scrolling.)  

A Royal Affair - 2013 Oscar Nominee for Best Foreign Film (Denmark)

Danish Game of Thrones slowed to a sodden pace

A late 17th-century historical drama with beautiful costumes, hot adultery, and a mad king offer all the makings of a can't-go-wrong film. But taking it to the plodding pace of a Clydesdale and dragging it twenty minutes past its expiration date leave the experience a bit sour.

A royal marriage is arranged between fifteen-year-old Caroline Mathilde, George III's sister, and the young Danish king, Christian VII. When the girl arrives in Denmark, her romantic visions are quickly shattered by a betrothed who is buffoonish, brutal, and child-like. When a progressive German doctor finds favor with the mad king, he is brought to court and eventually becomes allied with the queen—both in and out of bed. In true "end justifies the means" style, they manipulate the king to enact reforms (e.g., starting smallpox vaccines, ending torture, banning corporal punishment). Uproar results as those unhappy with these measures—and the king's allegiances—plot overthrow.

Mikkel Boe Følsgaard delivers a stellar performance as the barking-mad Christian, and manages to even make him at times sympathetic. Direction by Nicolaj Arcel, screenwriter for the original The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, begs the question if Mr. Arcel has left his core competency. He does have a minor screenwriting credit, but it and his presence as director are inadequate to fulfill the potential of A Royal Affair.

Friday, February 22, 2013

The Gatekeepers - 2013 Oscar Nominee for Best Documentary Feature

"One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter."
-Yuval Diskin, former head of Shin Bet

The premise of The Gatekeepers:  The director individually interviews six old, white guys to comment on the history of Israel's secret service, Shin Bet. Hardly sounds gripping, does it? It is. This documentary by Israeli director, Dror Moreh, is simply yet brilliantly conceived and executed, leaving the viewer with not only appreciation for Shin Bet's historical impact, but personal investment in the future it may predict.

Interviews with previous heads of Shin Bet are interleaved with archival footage and some computer animation to methodically build the story of Arab-Israeli relations from the 1967 Six Day War to the present.

As the film opened, my impression was that these Shin Bet alums would have a narrow view of Israel's honor versus the terrorism of Palestine. It could have been the yang to the yin of 5 Broken Cameras, another Oscar-nominated documentary, which follows the plight of Palestinian villagers losing their land to the incursion of Jewish settlers. As expected, the interviewees all addressed the many conflicts with Palestinian terrorists; but they also revealed compounding problems of terrorism perpetrated by extremists of their own country, as well as the illegal and unrestrained activities of the settlers.

The Gatekeepers offers a fascinating visit with history and the decision-makers who continue to impact the direction of the Middle East's future.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

No - 2013 Oscar Nominee for Best Foreign Film (Chile)

Just say...

I expected to like this movie, maybe even to be be wildly enthusiastic about it. Instead I watched what could have been an excellent production turn into barely-okay as it succumbed to death by a thousand cuts of quality.

The Chilean dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet was launched with the 1973 coup that deposed Salvador Allende, and was marked by 15 years of economic improvement coupled with violent oppression. Due to international pressures in 1988, a plebescite was scheduled, allowing a public vote to grant or revoke the right for Pinochet to rule another eight years. Yes or No. The highest aspirations of those on the "No" side were to expose Pinochet's corruption, but there was never any doubt as to outcome—until they inducted a young ad man to spearhead an unorthodox and creative campaign.

No was filmed with rebuilt U-Matic 3:4 video cameras to achieve realism for the era of the movie's setting and to blend with archival footage. Good idea, badly executed.  The cinematography has all the allure of watching Starsky & Hutch reruns on aging VHS cassettes. Shots are repeatedly aimed directly into glare almost painful to view and distracting from continuity of the film. No comprendo.

This period in Chile's history and the story line are engrossing and manage to make the film watchable and even suspenseful. Unfortuately, the characters, who should have been richly delineated, are at best two-dimensional; and the degraded photographic quality paves the road to cinematic hell with good intentions. 

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Hitchcock - 2013 Oscar Nominee for Best Make-up & Hairstyling

"But they can't stop looking. Can they?" 
-Alfred Hitchcock

On both the large and small screens, Alfred Hitchcock's legacy was suspense—riveting, and often insightful. The biopic, Hitchcock, although a reasonably entertaining way to pass 98 minutes, is none of that.

The movie takes place in 1959 when "Hitch" (Anthony Hopkins) determines against all advice to make the movie adaptation of the novel Psycho—even though he must finance it himself and risk losing everything. His wife and partner, Alma Reville (Helen Mirren), ardently supports him; but even she tires of his womanizing, crankiness, and addictive eating. Hitchcock, capturing the intersection of conflicted relationship and the filming of Psycho, offers the sense of "you were there" insider status.

What the hell was happening on Planet Oscar when this movie received a nomination for Best Make-up and Hairstyling? Although Anthony Hopkins' prosthetic profile does bear some resemblance to that of The Master of Suspense, how exactly did they achieve it—with a badly fitting fat suit or spackle? Ugly, ugly job. Yet the make-up artists for The Impossible, who accomplished all that title implies by creating realistic tsumani injury effects, got bupkus. The period hairstyles of Hitchcock were nicely done; but 80-year-old ladies are accomplishing that without the benefit of Hollywood. 

Rants aside, the movie is well acted and renders an engaging story. Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren execute their usual superb performances. Scarlett Johannson is a believable and graceful Janet Leigh (although as characters go, her role as Black Widow in The Avengers has far more kick), showing the delicate balance Leigh achieved in getting along with Hitchcock as her director, while avoiding his advances. The movie and its actors effectively convey that where Hitchcock was concerned, it was possible to be simultaneously a genius... and a pig.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Moonrise Kingdom - 2013 Oscar Nominee for Best Original Screenplay

"Remember, this isn't just a search party. It's a chance to do some first-class scouting." 
-Scoutmaster Ward

Director Wes Anderson is to movies what Andy Warhol was to art: charming, whimsical, quirky. Heavy on the quirky. Moonrise Kingdom is classic Wes Anderson. Depending on your perspective, that is either a warning or warm invitation. I basked in it.

Set in mid-60s coastal New England, two twelve-year-olds—Sam, a geeky Boy Scout, and Suzy, a blooming actressfall in love and run away into the wilderness. The search party that mobilizes includes a vigilante Boy Scout troop led by their chain-smoking Scoutmaster (Edward Norton); Suzy's parents, Walt (Bill Murray) and Laura (Frances McDormand); and the local constable, Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis). Tilda Swenton provides a disapproving presence as Social Services.

Moonrise Kingdom creates all-new archetypes—every character is memorable, unique, and hilarious, yet offering glimpses of touching vulnerability. Bruce Willis acts and brings forth an actual role that is not just Bruce Willis being Bruce Willis. Even with the zaniness, this film is like a lovely little Fabergé egg: a pretty set piece with surprises of even greater charm to be found inside.

Kon-Tiki - 2013 Oscar Nominee for Best Foreign Film (Norway)

Life of Pi with no tiger and something to prove

The 2013 Oscar-nominated film, Kon-Tiki (Norway), will not be released to U.S. theaters prior to the February 24, 2013 Academy Awards, and I have been unable to obtain a screener.

For Curt Critic readers to have a complete reference guide to the Oscars, I offer this synopsis from good ole Wikipedia. (It was better than IMDB or the official website translated from Norwegian.) I will write a full review once I have had seen the movie first-hand.

"Kon-Tiki is a 2012 Norwegian historical drama film about Thor Heyerdahl and his Kon-Tiki expedition of 1947. An experimental ethnographer and adventurer, Heyerdahl sets out to prove his theory that people from South America could have settled in Polynesia in pre-Columbian times. To do this he builds a balsa raft using original techniques, and sails across the Pacific from Peru to Polynesia with his five crew, a distance of 4,300 nautical miles. 

It is directed by Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg. The role of Thor Heyerdahl is played by Pål Sverre Valheim Hagen. It is the highest-grossing film of 2012 in Norway and the country's most expensive film."

War Witch - 2013 Oscar Nominee for Best Foreign Film (Canada)

For the second consecutive year, Canada's Oscar-nominated foreign language film will not be released in US theaters before the Academy Awards. What happened to that "good neighbor" thing?

The 2013 Oscar-nominated film, War Witch (Canada), will not be released to U.S. theaters prior to the February 24, 2013 Academy Awards, and I have been unable to obtain a screener.

For Curt Critic readers to have a complete reference guide to the Oscars, I offer this synopsis from the official War Witch website. I will write a full review once I have seen the movie first-hand.

"Komona, a 14 year old girl, tells her unborn child the story of how she became a rebel. It all began when she was 12; kidnapped by the rebel army, she was forced to carry a AK 47 and kill. Her only escape and friend is Magician, a 15 year old boy who wants to marry her. Despite the horrors and daily grind of war, Komona and Magician fall in love. They thought they had escaped the war, but fate decided otherwise. To survive, Komona will need to return to where she came from and make amends with her past. Around them, war rages on.

"A tale set in Sub-Saharan Africa, WAR WITCH is a love story between two young souls caught in a violent world yet filled with beauty and magic. WAR WITCH is a life lesson, a story of human resilience."

Monday, February 18, 2013

How to Survive a Plague - 2013 Oscar Nominee for Best Feature Documentary

Passionate and instructive, if not well made

In the 1980s and '90s, AIDS victims were dying at epidemically increasing rates, while research and clinical trials for effective drugs languished.

How to Survive a Plague uses interviews and archival footage of activists, scientists, politicians, and AIDS patients to recreate that time—and bears witness to the grass-roots activism of ACT UP and TAG (Treatment Action Group). With their own research, these change agents identified drugs with potential, pointed out the flaws in what few clinical trials were running, and agitated until politicians, scientists, and pharmaceutical companies examined, engaged with, and acted on the incontrovertible evidence. The efforts of ACT UP and TAG ultimately catalyzed international transformation of AIDS treatment.

The film 
employs a compelling story and strong interviews with diverse and credible participants. Like all effective documentaries, it puts faces and personalities to the statistics and makes the viewer care deeply about them as individualsand as a population struggling for a fair chance at survival. (Many of the activists knew that even if successful, they would not live to see the results.) What this documentary has achieved is particularly remarkable in light of its poor construction and editing. Much of the archival footage is of questionable quality, and the vignettes do not flow smoothly. Ironically, that perhaps makes a fitting metaphor for the obstacles and upheavals this movement overcame.

Congratulations are in order to David France for making this film on a subject momentous to both the history and future of not only the gay community, but to humanity.

Flight - 2013 Oscar Nominee for Best 1) Actor and 2) Original Screenplay

"Hey, don't tell me how to lie about my drinking, okay? I know how to lie about my drinking. I've been lying about my drinking my whole life."
-Whip Whitaker

Flight's opening scene in the dawning light of a hotel room clearly defines Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) as a sleazebag. While swilling beer and snorting coke with a paramour, he answers his cell phone; and his side of the conversation reveals that he's preparing to board a passenger plane as the pilot. When mechanical problems occur on that flight, he executes a daring and near-miraculous landing that makes him a hero. But the subsequent investigation begs the question: Hero or criminal?

Denzel Washington nails every nuance of the addicted and shifty, yet somehow brilliant, Whip Whitaker—from the hooded eyes and slack-jawed lies to the puffy physique (according to Washington, easily achieved with late-night meals, lots of milkshakes, and no exercise). Due to the frenzied focus on Best-Picture-nominated films, Washington will probably not get the gold statue. But he should. (In my perfect Oscar world, John Hawkes would have received a Best Actor nod for The Sessions, and a coin toss or arm wrestling would determine which of these two get the win.) The supporting cast members—John Goodman, Don Cheadle, and Kelly Reilly—are also spot on. Goodman's off-color comic relief offers well-placed interludes from the intensity.

John Gatins's Oscar-nominated screenplay is the true marvel on which everything else turns, including Washington's spectacular performance. Even without the story (which is riveting), the characters he has developed would make this a movie that consumes the viewer. Gatins, now clean and sober for almost two decades, poured 12 years into the script's creation, writing from his personal knowledge of drug and alcohol abuse—and fear of flying. When the Paramount studios would only allow a $30-million budget, Washington and director Robert Zemeckis accepted a reported tenth of their usual salaries to see this movie airborne.

I was originally lukewarm about seeing Flight, but it became one of the gifts of Oscar Quest. Amazing. Breath taking. Not to be missed.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Anna Karenina - 2013 Oscar Nominee for Best 1) Production Design, 2) Cinematography, 3) Original Score, and 4) Costume Design

"You may, by indiscretion, give the world occasion to talk about you."
-Alexei Karenin

Based on the Tolstoy novel of the same name, Anna Karenina, is visually rich and emotionally cold. Set in late-19th-Century imperial Russia, the well-situated young matron, Anna Karenina (Keira Knightley), begins a dalliance with the handsome and wealthy Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). The all-consuming affair eventually threatens her marriage, position, children, and life.

I am unskilled in appreciating stories about people who make stupid, self-destructive, and irredeemable decisions. Thank you, Leo Tolstoy. But like the slow-motion implosion of some beautiful and complex structure, the story is nevertheless compelling.  With the exception of Domhnall Gleeson, who gives much-welcome life to Konstantine Levin, most of the characters left me with a sense of chilly detachment. Perhaps that was more due to the nature of the characters than any lack on the part of the actors who inhabited them. Nevertheless, Knightley does not seem to act so much as pose, and Taylor-Johnson doesn't deliver the substance of one for whom a woman would sacrifice all. As the kind and cuckolded Karenin, Jude Law turns in a solid performance of contained rage and humiliation.

The luxurious colors and textures, along with the theatrically inventive set design (throughout the movie, characters move from a theater stage to splendorous true-to-life settings), the film is an art piece in motion. The costumes are lush and very French—true to history, as the Russian aristocrats of the time sought out all things français.

Although this is a film that doesn't hit on all cylinders, its depth, complexity, and beauty merit at least one viewing andif you appreciate dynamic artperhaps even a second.