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.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Virunga - 2015 Oscar Nominee for Best Documentary

Heartbreaking, world-impacting, hopeful. It's what is happening now, as you read these words. Which way will it go?

I spent three days putting off watching Virunga, dreading what I would have to watch, what painful emotions I might experience. Congo. Virunga Park, home to 200 of the remaining mountain gorillas and other fading wildlife species—protected by the country's laws, which are enforced by its rangers who frequently die in the line of duty. Corrupt government officials, easily swayed by encroaching international oil interests. Civil war. Rebel groups, more heavily armed than the Congolese army, under the sway of Big Oil. Innocent residents, wanting to maintain clean lakes they depend on for their livelihood, their lives determined—and often torn apartby these shifting political winds.

It took me another three days to watch this movie—a little each dayjust to build emotional fortitude. Virunga richly deserves its nomination, based on its premise, cinematography, and documentary standards. It introduces a country and individuals of beauty, integrity, and heart. It also builds a very real fear of what the influence of oil, the promise of money, and sell-out corruption will wreak on all of this. The thought of what harm may occur is heartbreaking, but it's not just "them". It's us. If Virunga goes, so goes the world.

Maybe by now you get the idea—this is not an easy movie to watch. As difficult as it was, it, fortunately, was not as wrenching as I had anticipated. It ends on a hopeful note, but it clearly conveys its message.

It is worth every moment it takes to watch (or that you spend working up the courage to watch it), every uncomfortable moment it makes you squirm or cry, and every decision it elicits that you can and will make a difference for Virunga, for the Congo, and for the world we all share. 

Notes of interest:
  • Executive producer: Leonardo DiCaprio
  • At the January 31, 2015 screening of Virunga at the New York Museum of Art and Design, Bill Clinton made a surprise appearance.
  • French investigative journalist, Melanie Gouby, figures prominently in the movie, even going undercover. Her website is here. She is fearless, kick-ass, skilled, and wicked smart.

Birdman - 2015 Oscar Nominee for Best 1) Picture, 2) Actor, 3) Supporting Actor, 4) Supporting Actress, 5) Director, 6) Original Screenplay, 7) Cinematography, 8) Sound Mixing, 9) Sound Editing

Deeply textured and fiercely layered magical realism. They should definitely tip the drummer.

Opening with a tighty whitey-clad Michael Keaton levitating in the lotus position, punctuated by the cynical inner musings of an anti-hero, and accompanied by a drum score reminiscent of street musicians whose mesmerizing rhythms take willing hostagesBirdman put my brain into simultaneous states of ecstasy and confusion, reveling in the pieces and trying to put them together. 

As art imitates life imitating art, Batman-alum Keaton plays faded movie star Riggan Thomson, formerly famous for playing superhero "Birdman". Absent from everyone's celebrity radar for a couple of decadesbut still subjected to Birdman's inner taunting—Thomson is staging a comeback by writing, directing, and starring in a Broadway play based on Raymond Carver's "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love"

Thomson is haunted not only by Birdman, but also by a cluster of conflicted relationships: his estranged wife (Amy Ryan), girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough), pistol-of-a-daughter (Emma Stone), and best friend/producer (Zach Galifianakis). Then there is the star of the play, vapid method actor Mike Shiner (wonderfully played by Ed Norton), and the play itself, which is simply not going well.

It took me two days after the closing credits to decide if I even liked this flick. Ultimately I decided that it's incredible, and I can't wait to see it again. Just the presence of these actors—Michael Keaton, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts, and Edward Norton—is an amazement, and their performances individually and as an ensemble are stellar. 

Similar to even the best abstract art, this movie is not for everyone. It comes in oddly sized pieces, it's messy, and—as my brain found out—some internal assembly is required if you absolutely must make sense of it all. It is, by turns, hilarious and dark.

Keaton's performance—and by the way, not unlike his character, where the hell has he been the last two decades?—is my pick of the litter for best actor win. He does not bring the physicality and transformation of Bradley Cooper in American Sniper or Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything. But he is raw and real and surreal, delivering a visceral impression of digging to the emotional center of the planet.

If you are on the fence about this one, but have the least bit of curiosity about it and any desire to broaden your cinematic universeat least give it a whirl once it goes to video. 

"Marvel" at this trivia:

  • Three of these Birdman actors have appeared in superhero movies—Keaton (Batman), Norton (Incredible Hulk), and Stone (The Amazing Spider-Man).
  • Birdman's original music score (fabulous, IMHO) was disqualified as an Oscar contender. Read the story here*. 
  • For an inside peek at how the drummer and director created this wildly divergent music score with elite methods and dumbed-down instruments, read this.

*My favorite quote: "There is a fairly widespread sense that the [Academy's] music branch — which is comprised of 244 members, many of whom are quite elderly and some of whom haven't written a note of music in decades — is a bit narrow-minded, perhaps a tad out of touch and doesn't always adjudicate disputes in a consistent manner. "

Saturday, January 31, 2015

American Sniper - 2015 Oscar Nominee for Best 1) Picture, 2) Actor, 3) Adapted Screenplay, 4) Sound Mixing, 5) Sound Editing, 6) Film Editing

Would those of you who are using American Sniper as a launching pad for your self-serving political views please put away your big egos and little dicks so the rest of us can just watch the movie?

Let's start by addressing the political clutter around this movie. True confessions: I'm a bleeding-heart liberal who was a registered Republican for twenty years. I guess that makes me a moderate of sorts. I'm pissed off at those of all political stripes who are firing self-righteous shots across the bow of this movie and at each other, using Tweets as their pitiful ammunition. Just stop it, would you?

I'd be the first to label Director Clint Eastwood as a "right-wing tool", but the man is also a cinematic giant who—as an actor, director, and producerhas given us unforgettable theater. American Sniper falls under that banner, and considering that its setting is a war inflamed with controversy, he has not only directed a powerful and well-crafted film, but made it virtually apolitical. 

The movie, based on the autobiography of late Navy SEAL, Chris Kyle, shows his start as a boy hunting under his father's tutelage, his later time as a rodeo cowboy (during which, as a bit of foreshadowing, he was more devoted to traveling the rodeo circuit than to his girlfriend), and excerpts from his four tours of duty in Iraq while a husband and father.

Eastwood has made Chris Kyle a warmer, cuddlier guy than he probably was in real life (at least based on Kyle's own autobiographical accounts). Bradley Cooper transforms for this part, and richly deserves the best actor nomination. Cooper and Eastwood viscerally demonstrate a sense of what it is to be those military personnel in combat zones and the stresses that ultimately result in PTSD. It leaves one wondering, "How can ANYONE go through that without returning with it?"

The movie conveys the difficulties (to say the least) military families experience, and it becomes clear why there are so many divorces. To Eastwood's credit, he shows those soldiers who start out gung ho, then become completely disenchanted by the war. He also indicates an often dysfunctional chain of command that does no favors to those on the bottom of the military food chain.

Despite the masterful craftsmanship of acting and directing invested in American Sniper, it was not a movie I enjoyed watching. But it is a powerful piece of cinema I am glad that I saw.

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."