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.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Silver Linings Playbook - 2013 Oscar Nominee for Best 1) Picture, 2) Actor, 3) Actress, 4) Supporting Actor, 5) Supporting Actress, 6) Directing, 7) Adapted Screenplay, and 8) Film Editing

"You let me lie to you for a week?"
"I was trying to be romantic."

The odd juxtapositions of mental illness, ballroom dancing, and football all come together in a dazzling melange in Silver Linings Playbook. Bradley Cooper (as Pat Solitano, Jr.) finally brandishes real acting chops—in addition to his dependably charming good looks—and the on-screen chemistry between him and Jennifer Lawrence (playing Tiffany Maxwell) has a believable reticence crossed with a sizzling undercurrent of irresistibility.

Released from a psychiatric unit, Pat Jr. is living with his parents (played by Jacki Weaver and Robert De Niro) and trying to get his life together. His greatest focus is reconciling with his estranged wife, Nikki. Never mind that restraining order. Then he meets Tiffany, recently widowed and fired from her job for sleeping off her depression with everyone in the office.

Director David O. Russell was first attracted to this story (based on a novel by Matthew Quick) because of the family relationships and the connection to his own 18-year-old son Matt, who is bipolar and has OCDand makes a cameo appearance in the movie.

Despite a story line riddled with clichés and a predictable rom-com trajectory (could that be why we keep watching them?), the unique quirks and stellar ensemble performance make Silver Linings glitter.

Beasts of the Southern Wild - 2013 Oscar Nominee for Best 1) Picture, 2) Actress, 3) Directing, and 4) Original Screenplay

The little movie that could...

Benh Zeitlin (Best Directing nominee) didn't mean to stay in Lousiana. After he made his 2008 25-minute short, Glory at Sea, his parents kept expecting him back in New York for the next holiday, and the next. He didn't make the next one either. Finally, he had to admit that he was a New Orleans resident with an East Coast accent.

Zeitlin had visited New Olreans with his parents as a young boy; and even then he was captured by the dark mystery, the generosity, and the constant sense of temporal existence of Louisiana. These are the qualities he has captured in his first feature film, Beasts of the Southern Wild.

Six-year-old Hushpuppy (played by the indominatable Quvenzhané Wallis, the youngest-ever Oscar nominee for Best Actress) lives with her loving, alcoholic, sometimes-negligent father Wink (Dwight Henry, real-life owner of a New Orleans donut shop) in the backwater area of Louisiana known as the Bathtub. As Wink's terminal illness advances, he prepares Hushpuppy to survive not only his departure, but a future in which their community could become as extinct as the ancient aurochs she sees.

Made for a mere (in feature-film terms) $1.5 million dollars with almost all non-professional actors from the local community, Beasts' four Oscar nominations make it the miracle underdog movie of the year. But the greatest miracle can be viewed in the movie itself. Despite such mortality at its heart, Beasts of the Southern Wild paradoxically rises like a phoenix of triumph, transcendence, and celebration.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Mirror, Mirror - 2013 Oscar Nominee for Best Costume Design

"Who's the fairest of them all?" 

Of the two Snow White remakes delivered in 2012, Snow White and the Hunstman wins hands-down for best overall movie, but Mirror, Mirror has it for campy humor and Costume Design (for which both films are nominated). Mirror, Mirror, a light confection spun with a touch of spice, is also less intense and more suitable for younger kids.

Julia Roberts vamps nicely as the evil queen, and Lily Collins (who auditioned for the part of Snow White in Huntstman but lost to Kristen Stewart) is a suitably spunky Snow. Nathan Lane plays Nathan Lane as the queen's assistant. The dwarves—real dwarves, not the controversy-stirring CGI-enhanced regular-height actors of Huntsmanare the touchstone of the film with beguiling "attachments", stunts, and personalities.

This was the last film on which costume designer Eiko Ishioka worked prior to her death in January 2012. (She won the Best Costume Design Oscar in 1993 for Dracula.) Her costumes, while beautiful and elaborate, have had a reputation for discomfort. During the making of The Cell, Jennifer Lopez asked if her costume could be less restrictive, to which Ishioka replied, "No, you're supposed to be tortured."

According to Julia Roberts, her costumes for Mirror, Mirror were heavy and made moving a challenge. During one take, while wearing a costume estimated to weigh 60 pounds, she turned too quickly toward co-star Nathan Lane and pulled a thigh muscle.

Other than that, at least according to the American Humane Association, no animals were harmed in the making of this picture.

Snow White and the Huntsman - 2013 Oscar Nominee for Best 1) Costume Design and 2) Visual Effects

"Magic comes at a lofty price." 
-Finn, brother of evil Queen Ravenna

Akin to "more cowbell", was there some public outcry for  "more Snow White"? It wasn't on my top 500 list of most wanted. Yet the 2012 release of two cinematic versions of this classic fairy tale—Mirror, Mirror and Snow White & the Huntsman—have offered an unexpectedly lovely synchronisity of "contrast and compare". They are both delightful to watch and beautiful to behold, yet vastly different. 

In this darkly textured version of the tale, Charlize Theron is mesmerizing and fierce as the wicked Queen Ravenna, and Kristen Stewart brings an equal ferocity to the innocence of Snow White. Ravenna charms the king, Snow White's father, into a one-day courtship and slays him on their wedding night—then wreaks havoc on the kingdom as she remakes it in her own image. Snow White, after being held hostage for years, manages her escape into the dark forest. The queen sends the huntsman (hunky Chris Hemsworth, best known for his recurring role as Thor) to retrieve Snow White, but he ultimately defies Ravenna and becomes an ally in reclaiming the kingdom.

As Snow White rallies an army, she takes on the mantle of Joan of Arc and delivers a speech worthy of Band of Brothers. Thousand-watt action zings throughout the movie (both Stewart and Theron sustained injuries during filming), and the romantic subplots are also electric. Stunning special effects are worthy of the nomination. While costuming is exquisite in a forboding kind of way, it pales next to the dazzling threads of Mirror, Mirror (also nominated for Best Costume Design).

Monday, January 28, 2013

Brave - 2013 Oscar Nominee for Best Animated Feature Film

"A lady does not place her weapon on the table." 
-Queen Elinor

With Pixar's signature truer-than-life animation, Brave combines legend, family, fairy tale, and coming of age to offer a beautifully rendered and thought-provoking adventure.

When the fiery Princess Merida's parents invite the first-born sons of neighboring clans to vie for her hand, she is outraged. A spell to change her mother backfires, and the relationship they forge as they work together to un-do the potentially fatal misfortune is the heart of the movie.

Even with a message, Brave doesn't resort to pomp and is highlighted with sparkling humor.

The Invisible War - 2013 Oscar Nominee for Best Documentary Feature

Today, a female soldier in a combat zone is more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy fire.

Filmmakers Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering investigate the epidemic of rape in the United States military and how the system often punishes the victim who dares to report, while continuing to promote the perpetrator. Interviews with victims are searing, yet matter of fact.  Dick and Ziering do not indulge in cinematic "frothing at the mouth" or inflammatory treatment of the subject. The evidence creates its own recriminating fire.

Although most of the victims interviewed are women, the film addresses male victims as well. Due to the preponderance of men in the US Armed Forces, statistics reflect the even greater number of males suffering rape while in military service.

Hearing the statistics, we wring our hands in sympathy and agree that this is a terrible thing. Seeing individual faces and hearing their stories make it an unforgettable reality. This is a well-made movie that may be hard to watch, but it is too critical to ignore.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Ted - 2013 Oscar Nominee for Best Original Song

"No matter how big a splash you make in this world—whether you're Corey Feldman, Frankie Muniz, Justin Bieber, or a talking teddy bear—eventually no one gives a shit.
-Narrator from Ted

Maybe there are worse movies than Ted, but I'm not willing to do the dumpster diving it would require to find rivals for the title. I wasn't offended by the rude humor. I wasn't offended by the rough language. I was offended that it was a terrible movie with only two good lines—and they were used up in the first 10 minutes.

Story line: As a young boy, Johnny gets a teddy bear for Christmas, and his wish is granted when it comes to life to be his best friend. Flash forward twenty years, and John (Mark Wahlberg) is still living with his foul-mouthed bear and getting stoned with it every day. Imagine the unreasonable expectations of John's girlfriend Lori (Mila Kunis)—hot chick with a great job and what does she see in this guy anyway?—that he ditch the plush, x-rated toy and make a life.

The Academy of Arts looking to Ted for Best Original Song is like panning for gold at a sewage treatment plant. Is there any connection that Seth MacFarlane—the writer, director, producer, and voice of Ted for this flick—is the new host of this year's Oscars, and they had to throw him some kind of bone? May it stick in his throat.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Hobbit - 2013 Oscar Nominee for 1) Production Design, 2) Makeup and Hairstyling, and 3) Visual Effects

"I do believe the worst is behind us now." 
-Bilbo Baggins

Whether enduring a hangover or viewing The Hobbit, my experience is pretty much the same:  ponderous, slow moving, and disjointed. The benefit of the hangover is that it probably doesn't last three hours.

Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman, whom I utterly adore despite his being in this movie), a staid and peace-loving Hobbit, leaves his home in Middle Earth to join Gandalf the sorcerer (Ian McKellen) and a band of dwarves in reclaiming their mountain home and fighting the dragon that stole it.

This first of Peter Jackson's three bloated installments of the slim J. R. R. Tolkien book proceeds as follows:  March, fight evil beings. March, sense evil. March, fight evil beings. Deal with the immense chip on Thorin's dwarvish shoulders. Offer clumsy CGI and stilted dialogue that must have Tolkien spinning in his grave. Wash, rinse, repeat. One brief respite takes place at Rivendale, and we meet the only featured female character in the entire movie (Cate Blanchette as Galadriel).  The adventurers never even get close to the mountain or dragon.

Under the banner of "even a blind squirrel finds an occasional acorn", the movie has its moments—some parts are charming, absorbing, and/or exciting. The best part for me was when the credits rolled, and I could escape to the bathroom.

Argo - 2013 Oscar Nominee for Best 1) Picture, 2) Supporting Actor, 3) Adapted Screenplay, 4) Sound Effects, 5) Sound Editing, 6) Original Score, and 7) Film Editing

Argo makes me want to slap Ben Affleck and yell, "Why the hell did you waste such talent on crap like Gigli and JLo?"

"Based on" a true story always offers more hope for a film than the 98% crap fabrication of "inspired by". Argo is based on the rescue of six American diplomatsin hiding after they evaded capture in the November 1979 seizure of the US embassy in Tehran by Islamist militants

Known as the "Canadian Caper", this joint covert operation between the Canadian Government and US CIA involved two CIA agents joining the six diplomats to pose as a fake film crew scouting to shoot a scene for a sci-fi film. (Yes, totally crazy idea
—but the second best involved the six diplomats traversing mountainous terrain on a 300-mile bicycle trip to Turkey.) The charade and escape succeeded as they boarded a Swissair flight to Zurich in January 1980.

The screenplay, the entire cast, and Ben Affleck as director and actor offer the truth of documentary and the drama of an action thriller. Even though you may know the true story—you will be in physical suspension with white knuckles and the inability to exhale as you wait for the outcome to unfold.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Pirates! Band of Misfits - 2013 Oscar Nominee for Best Animated Feature Film

"It's only impossible if you think about it." 
-Captain Pirate

Clay animation, or "claymation", usually leaves me cold—except when it's by Aardman Animation, the creators of Wallace and Gromit and Chicken Run. They enchant with characters simultaneously goofy and winsome, sly humor that entertains adults while sailing over the heads of the kiddies, and animation that is fluid and complementary to the story line. The Pirates! Band of Misfits may not soar to the heights of Wallace and Gromit, but it is nevertheless worthy of its nomination and provides a delightful romp.

Hugh Grant voices Captain Pirate, who longs to win Pirate of the Year against his arch nemeses Black Bellamy and Cutlass Liz. As he seeks to prove his worth, he and his crew attack ship after ship for booty, only to discover them populated with lepers, ghosts, and schoolchildren on field trips—and no gold. His "parrot" Polly ultimately connects him with Charles Darwin, and later, Queen Victoria. (Who knew she could transform to a pirate-hating, somersaulting, sword-wielding ninja?)

Martin Freeman (The Hobbit) is the voice of "Number 2", Pirate Captain's sidekick, and brings such memorable lines as "Don't think that ending every sentence with 'Arrrr' makes everything all right."

After the intensity of 3-hour bladder-busters such as Les Misérables, Django, and Lincoln, The Pirates! Band of Misfits offers the charming relief of grand adventure steeped in Brit humour—all in less than 90 minutes

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Django Unchained - 2013 Oscar Nominee for Best 1) Picture, 2) Supporting Actor, 3) Original Screenplay, 4) Production Design, 5) Sound Editing

It's a Tarantino film, for heavens' sake—can we drop the political hand-wringing?

The fact that the n-word has been reported to occur 110 times in Django Unchained makes me sad for those who are not only offended by the movie but have the masochistic need to determine the exact dimensions of that offense.

The setting is 1858 when slave Django (Jamie Foxx) is purchased then freed by bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) in exchange for helping him track and collect on the wanted Brittle brothers. When Django shows aptitude for the trade ("Kill white folks, and they pay you for it? What's not to like?"), Schultz takes him  on as a partner. But Django's focus is always on finding his wife who was taken by slavers.

Any movie with Jamie Foxx, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Samuel L. Jackson plus cameos by Jonas Hill, Don Johnson, and Quentin Tarantino (two words, Quentin:  Weight Watchers)—with the bonus endorsement of Spike Lee's condemnation—make it a must-see in my book. What about you—is it a "can't miss" or "must avoid"? The guarantee of Tarantino's usual fare of quirky humor, dark irony, and cartoonish violence catapulted from the screen with utter irreverence and non-stop homage to trashy B-movies should make it an easy decision.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Les Misérables - 2013 Oscar Nominee for Best 1) Picture, 2) Leading Actor, 3) Supporting Actress, 4) Production Design, 5) Sound Effects, 6) Original Song, 7) Costume Design, 8) Make-up & Hairstyling,

Yes it's big—but is it beautiful?

Let's get this out of the way immediately:   if you loathe opera or cannot stand musicals in which all dialogue is sung, don't waste your time and money. You'll hate it. Otherwise, proceed.

When I lived in New York, I went to the Broadway production of Les Miz and endured 40 minutes of vicarious misery as the dirty and starvingbut vocally talented masses sang their ravaged hearts out. Flipping through the playbill, it gave no promise of this sad lot's future improving. I was an emotional coward. I left.

In the intervening years, I have gained emotional strength (and the fore-knowledge of an uplifting last act) and saw the film through to the end. True to the complaints of some, it is larger than life and over the top. Well, duh. Of course it is! It's about romance, revolution, and redemption. Are those subjects you want covered in tiny, subdued subtext? I think not. 

It is gorgeous. (Hugh Jackmanalthough marvelous in the role of Jean Valjeanalas for the first time ever, is not.) It is stirring. It is even hilarious when Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter bring their sleazy characters to life. The music will send you scurrying to iTunes, and the musical finale will thunder through your head for days to come. (Could be worse—e.g., "It's a Small World".) Go big or go home. Go Les Miz!

Thursday, January 10, 2013

No One Knows

Spring-loaded intensity

Twelve-year-old Jason is curious about the family that recently moved in next door. When he peers through their window, he learns that he is not alone in his abusive home life—even as it leaves him more alone than ever.

This live action short uses every second of its nine-minute run time to pack a powerful punch. The film has received an endorsement from actress Mariel Hemingway along with sponsorship from ChildHelp and other social agencies. Even as it brings much-needed focus to childhood abuse, the message never dilutes the drama.

No One Knows is gaining recognition at numerous film festivals and is currently nominated for best cinematography at Hollywood's Sierra Canyon Film Fest. Director Bunee Tomlinson and producer Daniel Hoyos—19 and 24, respectively, at the time of filming—demonstrate keen talent with a promise of great future potential.