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.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Wreck-It Ralph - 2013 Oscar Nominee for Best Animated Feature Film

"They invited Pac Man? That cherry-chasing dot muncher?" 
-Wreck-It Ralph

A la the 1988 feature Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Wreck-It Ralph parallels the Jessica Rabbit refrain:  "I'm not bad. I'm just drawn that way." Ralph is the video game villain who wreaks destruction, setting the scene for the hero, Fix-It Felix, Jr., to make everything right. When Ralph finally reaches his limit of being the bad guy and living alone in the dump, he sees his redemption in covertly inserting himself into a militaristic shooter game, snagging a medal, and being welcomed back into his own game as a hero. That plan, of course, brings about its own tribulations.

Wreck-It Ralph is cute. The animation is nice. The story line is sweet and has an uplifting moral. Have I adequately damned it with faint praise?  If I were a parent with small children, I would be grateful for a film appropriate for all ages that does not drive me to seek desperate escape by gnawing my foot off at the ankle. A bonus is that it opens with the delightful Paperman, an Oscar-nominated animated short. But at 108 minutes (too long for the very young) with portions that drag, the editing should have been far sharper.

Calhoun, voiced by Jane Lynchwho can make the phone book sound funnyis the best part of the movie. Clever lines abound, but not enough to overcome the diabetic coma induced by the endless "Sugar Rush" video game sequences.

I recommend Wreck-It Ralph to anyone seeking a movie to enjoy with kids. For everyone else, once it comes to cable, if you've clicked through all the other channels twice and nothing is appealing to you, it will offer a benign couple of  hours. Sample the trailer below.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Paperman - 2013 Oscar Nominee for Best Short Film—Animated

Blends the setting for Mad Men with the romance of Sleepless in Seattle for a charming seven-minute frolic

When fly-away papers on a transit platform create a "boy meets girl" moment for two office workers, the woman boards her train before the smitten young man can introduce himself. Once at work, his productivity is limited to gazing at her lipstick imprint on one of the errant papers—until he transforms it to a paper airplane and personal emissary.

Paperman transports the viewer to the mid-20th Century with a black and white format portraying period scenery and clothing, rendered with the best of old-fashioned and cutting-edge animation techniques. Connoisseurs of those methods will appreciate Disney's achievement with this perfect marriage of 2D drawing and CGI enhancement.

Despite the absence of dialogue, the romance—both of the era and interaction of the charactersspeaks volumes. Enjoy all seven minutes of the standout animation, retro nostalgia, and sweet romance of Paperman in the video below.

Maggie Simpson in "The Longest Daycare" - 2013 Oscar Nominee for Best Short Film—Animated

Just stop with the eye rolling....

My reaction was not favorable when I saw that a Simpsons short was among the Oscar nominees. "A quarter century and 500 episodes aren't enough? Shouldn't the Academy be looking for something a little fresher?" Then I saw Maggie Simpson in "The Longest Daycare", and they had me at "The Ayn Rand School for Tots".

It is classic Simpsons animation and humor throughout—except maybe funnier. And fresher. And with a chase scene. As much as I enjoyed the film (dammit, it's a cartoonI don't care if it is Oscar material), the most impressive moment occurred when the entire theater, apparently enthralled with the story, made a collective exhale and simultaneous "Ahhhhhh". That's a first in my experience with a... cartoon.

Directly below is the 12-second trailer. Below that is the... cartoon... in its entirety if you can endure the obnoxious 20-second ad they insist you watch first. (My apologies—it was the best I could do.) Once you get past the crass commercialism, you're in for a delightful five minutes.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Head Over Heels - 2013 Oscar Nominee for Best Short Film—Animated

"How do you rise above your differences, when you can't agree which way is up?" 
-Head Over Heels

An older couple, emotionally and physically distanced from each other, lead parallel lives—he on the ground and she on the ceiling. 

For those fans of stop-motion animation, I can understand why this would be a favorite. It is clever and beautifully rendered.

For me, stop-motion animation is a detraction, not a plus. Unlike Aardman Animation's Pirates! Band of Misfits and Tim Burton's Frankenweenie (both 2013 Oscar-nominated animated features), Head Over Heels, does not adequately compensate to overcome my bias. Did I mention that I loathe puppets?

I must recuse myself—I cannot objectively judge this one other than to say (God help me), it's better than Adam and Dog. If you're into stop-motion animated puppets, please enjoy Head Over Heels in its entirety below.

Adam and Dog - 2013 Oscar Nominee for Best Short Film—Animated

So depressing, it aspires to be a documentary

Just what I wanted—a hazy, Monet-like animated presentation of "Worst of the Old Testament". Okay, it didn't have all those "begets", so perhaps the superlative is unmerited.

In a nutshell: Happy Dog meets Adam (nude and slightly stylized), and they become BFFs. Then Adam meets naked girl, and Dog is abandoned. Dog sinks into depression. Adam and Eve next seen leaving wrapped in animal pelts, and they welcome Dog back to their sad little posse.

At just over fifteen minutes, Adam and Dog is a quarter hour too long.

Buzkashi Boys - 2013 Oscar Nominee for Best Short Film—Live Action

Akin to Asad: Too bad the film isn't as fascinating as the behind-the-scenes story

Director Sam French moved to Afghanistan five years ago to help revive the country's film industry—thriving at one time but now devastated by years of civil war and destruction of film and theaters by the Taliban. Using the making of Buzkashi Boys as a teaching device in his Afghan Film Project, Oscar hopes were not in the same universe as French's modest goals for the film.

A teen-aged odd couple were chosen for the lead roles: Fawad Mohammadi, a Kabul street peddler, and Jawanmard Paiz, a film actor since age five and son of a well-known Afghan actor. The two were complementary as Paiz coached Mohammadi in the ways of acting and interviews, while Mohammadi shared his street smarts. Perhaps this would have made for the better screenplay.

In the movie, the boys (Mohammadi as a blacksmith's son resisting that generations-long career path and Paiz, an orphaned street urchin) are friends fascinated with Buzkashi—the Afghan national sport, which is similar to polo but far rougher and played with a dead goat rather than mallets and a ball. Obsessed with their dreams of becoming Buzkashi riders, the boys risk all to follow that passion. (See trailer below.)

The film is well made—good on the acting, cinematography, and editing fronts. But the story line lacks traction. In homage to another Ocar nominee, "Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?"

Coda to the behind-the-scenes story: French has raised over $10,000 to bring Mohammadi and Paiz to Los Angeles for the Oscars, plus additional funds to support Mohammadi's future education. Now that is a story.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Curfew - 2013 Oscar Nominee for Best Short Film—Live Action

-Curfewbest-timed line ever

This 19-minute gem has it all. Hope, despair, black comedy, a bowling alley dance sequence... Sure, the opening with a blood-drenched hand reaching out of the bathtub to answer the phone is a little macabre, but the conversation that follows between suicidal Richie (Shawn Christensen—also writer and director) and his estranged sister is mostly normal and bizarrely comic. Ultimately he agrees to watch his nine-year-old niece, Sophia (Fatima Ptacek), whom he hasn't seen since infancy.

Usually I would rather down a couple bottles of syrup of ipecac than watch the antics of a precocious child actor. But in this film—along with the great script, setting (Manhattan), and other actorsit's Fatima Ptacek that makes Curfew spark.

As 2013 Oscar-nominated live action shorts go, Death of a Shadow has my vote for artistry, but Curfew wins my heart. (As for the other three, here's my curtest of reviews: don't bother.)

If you check out the trailer below, you'll discover that Curfew is worth staying up late for, or spending the $1.99 to purchase it in its entirety from iTunes.  

(P.S. Unfortunately, I don't get any residuals from iTunes sales, but would be happy to accept your undying thanks in the form of bearer bonds or Tiffany jewelry.)

Death of a Shadow (Dood van een Schaduw) - 2013 Oscar Nominee for Best Short Film—Live Action

"...I walk through the valley of the shadow of death..."
-Psalm 23:4

Of the five 2013 Oscar-nominated live-action shorts, three are forgettable at best. The other two, Curfew and Death of a Shadow (Dood van een Schaduw), are outstanding.

A World War I soldier (Matthias Schoenaerts, Bullhead and Rust and Bone) uses his camera to capture shadowy images of individuals in their death throes. When he delivers these death shadows, the "collector" mounts them in a gallery-like setting. The film gradually reveals that the soldier is one of the mounted shadows, and must deliver two more shadows to fulfill the 10,000 required for his release back to life. His entire focus is on returning to Sarah, a woman he met just before his death.

Death of a Shadow is beautifully complex and mysterious, both in its story line and production values. The visual textures and colors are layered and deep, despite having a dark and almost monochromatic palette; and the golden array of mechanical gadgetry would be at home in Scorcese's Hugo. Tight editing ensures that every moment of the 20-minute run time is well used.

This is a dimensional marvel, and would have been breath-taking in 3D. Sample this film in the clip below.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Mondays at Racine - 2013 Oscar Nominee for Best Documentary Short

When your life is at stake, why is losing your hair so hard? 

Without exception, each of this year's Oscar-nominated documentary shorts is excellent. But Mondays at Racine, despite costing me wads of tissues and embarrassing rivulets of mascara, is my hands-down favorite.

Racine Salon de Beaute & Spa is not in Wisconsin, as my Cheesehead husband and I had hoped, but an Islip, New York emporium dedicated to "tranquility, wellness, and beauty". On the third Monday of every month, owners and sisters Rachel Demolfetto and Cynthia Sansone open the doors to cancer patients, offering compassion, community, and free cosmetology services.

The salon serves more as a launching pad than vehicle to the film, which ultimately focuses on Racine's patrons. Two in particular are featured: Cambria Russell, a young mother just starting treatment as the film commences; and Linda Hart, whose breast cancer was diagnosed in 1994, eroding her body as well as her marriage over the years.

In the words of filmmaker Cynthia Wade, "These women have a lot of courage." That courage is transformative, not only within the group, but translated from the screen. Mondays at Racine was, for me, the supreme documentary experience—making me a slightly different person leaving the theater than the one who had come in.

Caveat: To watch even the three-minute trailer below, tissues are not optional.

Open Heart - 2013 Oscar Nominee for Best Documentary Short

"My right to health care as a European cannot include a CT scan and sophisticated diagnosis, while the right to be cured for an African stops at the level of a couple vaccinations and a few antibiotics".  -Dr. Gino Strada

Rheumatic heart disease is a potential complication of untreated strep throat and, quite simply, proceeds to kill its victims. Previously the leading cause of death of children in the United States, it has been all but eliminated here with the advent of antibiotics. In resource-challenged sub-Saharan Africa, children have not been so fortunate; and many suffer from damaged hearts that, without surgery, will result in death.

Open Heart follows eight Rwandan children as they  pursue their only hope for survivaltraveling 2500 miles to Africa's only free-of-charge, state-of-the-art cardiac hospital for the necessary high-risk surgery.

The children are not the only subjects reaching for survival. The Sudanese cardiac center, run by an Italian NGO and providing the free treatment, is financially endangered. Its leader, Dr. Gino Strada, an Italian war surgeon and medical marvel, fights for the future of the children and the ongoing viability of the center.

This is a documentary that not only shares a heart-rending (in every sense of the word) situation across a spectrum of individuals and nations, but also inspires hope as it demonstrates the possibilities for solutions and the goodness of those who work for them. See the movie trailer in the clip below.

Kings Point - 2013 Oscar Nominee for Best Documentary Short

Not so much a community, as survivors clinging to a common life raft

New York can be a tough place to live for the youthful, let alone for the aging who have had their fill of winter. In the 1970s and '80s, the lure of warm weather, a ready-made community, and low down payments brought droves of seniors from the Empire State to Kings Point, a Florida retirement complex. Most arrived with their spouses, and many have since been widowed. The documentary short, Kings Point, focuses on five of those residents.

The greatest pathos in the interviews is the longing for and lack of community and connectedness. Some of the widows and one widower would like to find love again, but it's apparent that's a long shot. The clusters of acquaintances help each other pass the time and facilitate such activities as card games and dances, but the associations seem to be more of need than friendship and often exhibit the cattiness of junior high cliques.

Three of this year's Oscar-nominated films—Amour, Henry, and Kings Point—focus on aging in ways that avoid horror film genre only due to the genteel and artistic manner in which they are presented. All three could be neatly summed up with words that became my father's favorite mantra until his death at age 96: "This gettin' old stuff ain't fer sissies." 

Henry - 2013 Oscar Nominee for Best Short Film—Live Action

The lesser Amour. 

Initially veiled in the cloak of a whodunit—an elderly man lunching at a cafe is warned that his wife is in danger, then spirited away to a sterile institution—the live action short, Henry, quickly gives way to what is clearly the title character's internal displacement. He fruitlessly searches for his wife, kaleidoscoping memories of their meeting decades before and his current situation in a nursing home.

In the latest entry to the new "Getting Old Sucks" movie genre, the theme, age, and occupation are parallel to the feature-length film Amour, and not nearly as well done. The colors are drab (purposefully, I assume) and the editing loose. The good news is that you only have to endure it for 21 minutes, but it wouldn't hurt to have your anti-depressants close at hand.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Inocente - 2013 Oscar Nominee for Best Documentary Short

"I'm waiting for that one day that will change my life." 

Inocente is a San Diego teen-ager with a warm grin, sparkling eyes, big talent—and no home. For the past nine years, along with her undocumented mother and two brothers, she has moved from shelter to park to friend's house, never staying in one place longer than three months. Indications are that her mother is abusive.

Inocente's dreams of becoming an artist have managed to live, undiminished. Becoming a participant at A Reason To Survive (ARTS)—a non-profit organization offering visual, literary, and performance arts programs for kids with life challenges—has been a turning point for her. And even though as she narrates the film, she says she is "waiting for that one day" that will change her life, she has actively and prodigiously worked every day at her craft to make her dreams manifest.

Heart-breaking, uplifting, inspiring, and beautiful. The documentary short, Inocente, is all that and more. The three-minute clip below offers a delightful appetizer to entice you to enjoy the full documentary.

Redemption - 2013 Oscar Nominee for Best Documentary Short

"Five cents isn't much, but it's honorable work. We hold our heads high." 
-Nuve, mother of three, Sunnyside, Queens, NY

Meet Susan. She has a college degree and was a 1990 member of the IBM Winner's Circle, making her one of the top sales and marketing executives in the country. She's retired now. She's also a "canner"—one who collects bottles and cans and redeems them for income—because her social security is insufficient.

The HBO documentary short, Redemption, interviews and observes canners in New York City. A few meet the stereotypical expectations of substance abusers or the perennially homeless, but most of those interviewed formerly worked jobs in factories, restaurants, or similar situations where the jobs no long exist. Some are families trying to make a better life for their children.

Pointing out the parallel to  President Obama's statement, "Before we were 'us', we were 'them'", filmmaker Matthew O'Neill said in an interview, "I think that's something we have to pay attention to..., recognizing that the men and women collecting bottles and cans are just like you and me. And they slip through the cracks." With skillful photography, insightful interviews, and careful editing, this documentary makes a forceful statement to that effect.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Asad - 2013 Oscar Nominee for Best Short Film—Live Action

The story behind the film is more interesting than the film. 

A Somali boy is torn between the pull of piracy and the mundane subsistence of fishing.

The production values of Asad are strong and the characters interesting—maintaining an upbeat attitude and hint of humor even with the constant threats to survival. However, the story line lacks drive, and the funny but dissonant end offers no answer to the premise of this live action short.

Most of the actors in Asad are Somalian refugees director Bryan Buckley (known for his Super Bowl ads) met in a Kenyan refugee camp after they were forced from their country. The leads, 12- and 14-year-old brothers Ali and Harun Mohammed, were illiterate; and Buckley is now paying for their schooling in Cape Town, South Africa, where the film was shot.

He is also working with the governments of South Africa and the United States, trying to get the boys the necessary visas (complicated by their refugee status), so they can attend the Academy Awards ceremony. 

Asad may not be award worthy, but it seems that there should be a special gold statue—or perhaps a halo—somewhere for Bryan Buckley.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Amour - 2013 Oscar Nominee for Best 1) Picture, 2) Actress, 3) Directing, 4) Foreign Film (France), and 5) Original Screenplay

Agonizing and very French. But I repeat myself.

Contrary to the implication of the above statements, everything about this movie is good, if not great. Phenomenal acting. (Emmanuelle Riva, the oldest ever Oscar nominee for Best Actress, is riveting and, in my opinion, should win for that category.) The script is powerful. But Amour is a hard movie to watch. And, even if it were not subtitled, it has a  distinctly European feel that gives no candy coating of even the briefest comic relief.*

Georges and Anne Laurent are intelligent, highly cultured octogenarians, both enjoying their retirement from teaching music. When Anne suffers a stroke, her partial paralysis and deterioration cause their lives to spiral downward.

Part of the power and challenge of this movie is in the inevitability of aging and its effects. Amour takes off the gloves and makes us live paralysis, loss of independent function, diapers, dementia, and the demands of care-taking a beloved life partner with those disabilities. ("Vicarious" would be too detached a term.) It is also a treatise to devotion.

Amour is the first film since Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in 2000 to receive Oscar nominations in the categories of both Best Foreign Language Picture and Best Picture. Although the movie is in French and set in Paris, director Michael Haneke is Austrian; and it is submitted as an Austrian film.
*That is not to criticize—French film-makers specifically and Europeans in general seem to expect us viewers to be grown ups. I often go to the movies to be a kid again, and I think American movies in general cater to that mindset even in most dramas.

Friday, February 8, 2013

The Avengers - 2013 Oscar Nominee for Best Visual Effects

"These people shouldn't be in the same room let alone on the same team—and that is the definition of family."
-Joss Whedon, Director 

The Avengers may not rank in the realms of cinematic greatness, but it offers high-voltage entertainment packaged in visual delight. That includes the amazingly fit bodies of both genders.

As comic book movies go, the plot line is predictable:  The threat of an evil genius and his army must be stopped. Enter the alliance S.H.I.E.L.D. with super heroes Nick Fury, Iron Man, Captain America, Black Widow, Thor, The Hulk, and Hawkeye to save the world.

The old joke about the phone book, "Not much of a plot, but what a cast!", applies here. Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Jeremy Renner, Mark Ruffalo, Joss Whedon (director), and Seamus McGarvey (cinematographer)—just to name previous Oscar nominees—bring major star power. And Scarlett Johnansson (see her opening scene below) is the perfect addition to the mix.

The pace is quick, the dialogue clever, the humor keen, and even the conflict of the less-than-incredible plot line absorbing. This flick moves! The visual effects
—as its nomination correctly implies—are awesome. For a good time, see The Avengers.

Prometheus - 2013 Oscar Nominee for Best Visual Effects

"Cut it off! Cut it off!" 

Hard-core fans of Ridley Scott (director of Blade Runner and Alien) will love this indirect-but-not-exactly Alien prequel. I am a mere light-weight fan and found Prometheus slow-moving and incapable of suspending disbelief.

When explorers find evidence in European caves of humankind's origins, a scientific expedition travels light years from earth to explore the hierglyphs left behind by ancient engineers. What they find upon arrival on this alien planet has bearing not only on earth's creation—but its potential destruction.

For an expedition that cost "trillions" and traveled two light-years to execute research on the very existence of humanity, wouldn't you expect it to boast highly trained and disciplined stalwarts of science? Wrong, grasshoppah. Hormonal teen-agers at band camp would be appalled by the chaotic behavior of this supposed crack team of specialists. And small matters like Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) asking for a carbon dating—which only works on earth—are laughable. I don't expect spot-on accuracy for any work of fiction, but enough to make me believe the story would be helpful.

Strong pacing could have helped overcome some of the film's shortcomings, but it's more glacial than the Icelandic vistas in the opening scenes. To give credit where it's due: the visual effects are resplendent, and the Oscar nomination is deserved. But it isn't enough to make me glad I saw this movie.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

The Impossible - 2013 Oscar Nominee for Best Actress

"Am I dead?"

The joy of the Bennett family's 2004 Christmas vacation at a Thailand beach-side resort abruptly ends with the deadly onslaught of a tsunami. Among the thousands of dead and injured, every moment becomes a struggle to survive and a quest to find the fate of other family members.

The opening of this flick is just flat-out annoying. Parents and kids on the plane. Inane conversation. Close-in shots to show Henry's and Maria's wedding rings. Okay, I get it. They're married—not just shacked up with three kids. The rakish shots of Christmas morning celebrations made to look like home videos are almost dizzying. Got it. Puh-leeeeze. Can we get to the real movie? When they finally do, it is compelling.

On the flip side of my disbelief that John Hawkes did not get a Best Actor nod for The Sessions, I'm surprised that Naomi Watts did receive a Best Actress nomination for her role as Maria. Her performance is fine, but—other than holding her breath, treading water, and appearing to be in pain—nothing extraordinary.

Contrast that to the make-up artists for this film who were totally screwed. The catastrophic injuries they have realistically and artfully created here should put them at the top of the heap with, not just a nomination for Best Make-up and Hairstyling, but a win. No. Nothin'. Instead, the folks who barely concealed the seams on Anthony Hopkins's fake fat face in Hitchcock are on the roster. Sheesh.

The Impossible is based on the true story of the Belon-Alvarez family, who served as consultants during filming. Director Juan Antonio Bayona also recruited other survivors of the December 2004 tsunami as extras. Considering the disaster's ultimate death toll of over 230,000, this small minority of those who survived the main impact area are a reflection of the conflicting emotions elicited by the movie: great jubilation for those who survived and reunited with loved ones, and the recognition that they were the lucky few.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Lincoln - 2013 Oscar Nominee for Best 1) Motion Picture, 2) Actor, 3) Supporting Actor, 4) Supporting Actress, 5) Director, 6) Adapted Screenplay, 7) Production Design, 8) Cinematography, 9) Sound Effects, 10) Original Score, 11) Costume Design, and 12) Film Editing

"The most liberating constitutional amendment in history, passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America." 
-Thaddeus Stephens

The part of me that pulls for underdogs wants to dislike the movie Lincoln and those perennial winners Steven Spielberg and Daniel Day Lewis. I want to. But can't do it. I love everything about this film, which maintains a sense of intimacy and human proportion infused with the historical essence of our country and its most beloved president. As I left the theater, I felt like I had personally touched that time in our history and spent time with those who lived it.

It is 1865, and the Civil War continues to ravage both the Union and Confederacy, but the end seems near. Lincoln is caught in a dilemma:  The Emancipation Proclamation freeing slaves is only in effect under the rules of war. If the conflict ends before the passage of the 13th amendment, the returning Southern states will block it. But if a negotiated peace is delayed, bloodshed will continue. This crisis of conscience and the machinations employed in procuring congressional votes create the axle around which Lincoln turns.

Regarding his leading role, Daniel Day-Lewis reflected, "I never, ever felt that depth of love for another human being that I never met. And that's, I think, probably the effect that Lincoln has on most people that take the time to discover him... I wish he had stayed with me forever." That love for the character is apparent as Day-Lewis portrays Lincoln's humor and vulerability, and even our sixteenth president's ability to be a bad-ass.

Tommy Lee Jones is laugh-out-loud funny as Thaddeus Stevens, and provides regular comic relief. Sally Field—10 years older than Daniel Day Lewis and 20 years older than Mary Todd Lincoln was in 1865—had to beg Spielberg for the screen test with Day-Lewis. Her Best Supporting Actress nod would validate her adamance that she was right for the character.

Lincoln informs and entertains, while plucking at deep chords of emotion. But for Best Picture, my vote still goes to the underdog, Beasts of the Southern Wild.

Searching for Sugar Man - 2013 Oscar Nominee for Best Feature Documentary

"He took all that torment, all that agony, all that confusion and pain, and he transformed it into something beautiful. He's like the silkworm, you know?"

Rodriguez aka "Sugar Man" was a bar musician whose soulful sound and textured lyrics caught the attention of Detroit record producers. They expected great things when his album Cold Fact was released; but sales were virtually nil, and Rodriguez disappeared into obscurity.

A copy of the album made its way to South Africa, where it became iconic—and even served as inspiration in the anti-apartheid movement. "If you took a family from South Africa, a normal, middle-class family, and looked through their record collection, you'd find Abbey Road, Neil Young's Harvest, and Cold Fact. It was a word-of-mouth success."

Reports of Rodriguez's suicide were only consistent in that all were grotesque and all on-stage—self-inflicted gun shot, self immolation, drug overdose. Two of his South African fans set out to discover the truth.

I love documentaries, but they're often about difficult subjects and emotionally painful to watch—resulting in the need for aprés-cinema Xanax or heavy drinking. Searching for Sugar Man offers a stranger-than-fiction story with an upbeat payoff and the bonus of fine music. This documentary is ultimately as sweet as its title.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Fresh Guacamole - 2013 Oscar Nominee for Best Short Film—Animated

It's only missing the margaritas.

Hand-grenade avocados. Diced dice. A pincushion tomato (also "diced"). As all manner of unusual yet somehow appropriate items are combined to make a bowl of fresh guacamole, the visual puns are as much fun to catch as the colorful display. It is ultimately and beautifully served with chips—of the poker variety.

This is undoubtedly the priciest appetizer you'll find on all but the most exotic menus. Despite its minuscule run time of 1-3/4 minutes, this feast for the eyes took over four months and close to $50,000 to create. Press the > play button below and savor every byte.

Bon appetit!

The Sessions - 2013 Oscar Nominee for Best Supporting Actress

"I believe in a God with a sense of humor. I would find it intolerable not to be able to blame someone for all this." -Mark O'Brien

Viewing every 2013 Oscar-nominated film means sitting through some clinkers ("There's two and ahalf hours and eight dollars I'll never get back."), as well as some unanticipated gifts. The Sessions is a gem that falls into the latter category.

The story line—man in iron lung seeks sexual surrogate to help him achieve normalcy—initially struck me as the lowest common demoninator in attempting to legitimize sexual sensationalism and emotionally manipulate with the plight of the disabled. I was so wrong.

The movie is based on Mike O'Brien's 1990 article, Seeing a Sexual Surrogate. O'Brien, a poet and journalist, was born in 1950 and felled by polio in 1956. After living most of his life in an iron lung, he died at age 49—but not before getting a graduate degree from UC-Berkeley and gracing the world with his keen wit and honed writing.

Helen Hunt (Best Supporting Actress nom) is sensitive and nuanced as the surrogate; and when she is nude, it is neither gratuitous nor air-brushed. A minor nit to pick: consistency in her Boston accent would have been a plus. Unless you are the Pope, you will love William H. Macy's Father Brendan—a priest with such compassion and humor, he could motivate an atheist to seek conversion.

The real amazement is John Hawkes as O'Brien. He should have received a Best Actor nomination/win for delivering a performance—entirely from a supine* position—that opens up your chest cavity and rips your heart out while making you laugh. And he somehow does it without manipulation. If you want to be touched by the longing for normalcy, courage, and our human commonalities—see The Sessions.

*Thank you, Karen Darcy!

5 Broken Cameras - 2013 Oscar Nominee for Best Feature Documentary

It takes strength to turn anger into something positive.

Emad Burnat, a Palestinian olive farmer living in the West Bank village of Bil'in, got his first camera in 2005 to film his newborn son Gibreel. Over the next six years,  he filmed not only the maturing of his son but the loss of the farmland on which Bil'in and its residents had subsisted as it was seized, bulldozed, burned, and developed by Israeli settlers. As the Bil'in villagers persisted in nonviolent resistance, Burnat also captured the real-time images of Israeli soldiers firing at them with gas cannisters and live rounds of ammunition—sometimes with fatal results. Each of his first four cameras lasted from a few months to a year before being irreparably smashed or shot. (At last report, the fifth one is still going strong.)

"I feel like the camera protects me," he says, "but it's an illusion." Similar to its fellow feature documentary nominee The Invisible War, 5 Broken Cameras sears us with the unforgettable faces and stories that were previously our daily digest of nameless statistics—while relating them in an oddly matter-of-fact tone. It documents those suffering injustice and a different kind of rape and loss of innocence, while showing first-hand the intrusions and injustices as they occur. Both movies awaken painful but necessary awareness.

Even as one's fury at Israel as the oppressor grows, it is noteworthy that the film was co-directed by Israeli Guy Davidi and that much of the backing for the film came from Israeli sources. "The Ugly Israeli" cannot be painted with the same brush any more than "The Ugly American".

Monday, February 4, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty - 2013 Oscar Nominee for Best 1) Picture, 2) Actress, 3) Original Screenplay, 4) Sound Editing, and 5) Film Editing

"How do you like Pakistan so far?" 
"It's kinda fucked up."

The combination of Oscar-winning director Katherine Bigelow at the helm, Mark Boal behind the screenplay, and Jessica Chastain in front of the camera, is the closest thing you'll get to a guarantee of a profoundly intense and rewarding experience at the theater.

Chastain plays the CIA operative who, like a terrier with a rat, will not let go of pursuing the decade-long trail of clues to find and kill Osama bin Laden. The controversy over the torture in this movie is well known. I'm squeamish about such things, but the film's emotional distance in its portrayal allowed me to view without flinching. (Perhaps that is what should be controversial—that waterboarding and pain infliction can be offered with such cold dispassion. Another day at the office.)

The 25-minute climactic scene of the Navy SEALS' raid is only a few minutes shy of the actual time the real-life assault required. You will leave the theater with the sense that you personally experienced every foot of hard earth, every floorboard, and every stair of the Osama compound under your own feet.

Zero Dark Thirty is yet another 2-1/2+ hour Best Picture nominee. Either dehydrate properly beforehand or wear your Stadium Pal.

Frankenweenie - 2013 Oscar Nominee for Best Animated Feature Film

"Science is not good or bad, Victor, but it can be used both ways. That is why you must always be careful." 
-Mr. Rzykruski

No one does creepy like Tim Burton, and Frankenweenie—a feature-length animation based on a 29-minute short Burton created in 1984—is all that in a sweet, animated kind of way. Filmed in black and white, it offers clever puns in homage to a vast array of horror films, particularly Frankenstein.

Victor is mourning the loss of his dog, Sparky, when in science class he sees how electrical charges stimulate the muscles of a dead frog. He excavates Sparky, and applies the same principles with great success. Although Victor tries to keep Sparky's reinvigoration a secret, he's soon having to deal with classmates unkindly insistent on using the secret for their science projects and neighbors upset by this abomination in their midst.

Noticeably absent from this flick are Burton's usual sidekickslife partner Helena Bonham Carter and their children's godfather, Johnny Depp. However, Catherine O'Hara, Martin Short, Martin Landau, Charlie Tahan, and Winona Ryder present an ensemble vocal cast that is almost... ummm... electrifying.

This may not be appropriate for younger children—early in the film, Sparky is hit by a car; but it does occur off screen.