Skyfall (2012)

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Directed by: Sam Mendes
Written by:  Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, John Logan
Starring: Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Javier Bardem, Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris, Bérénice Marlohe, Albert Finney and Ben Whishaw

The latest Bond flick is the type of well-executed entertainment that will likely be played and replayed on Saturday afternoon programming for years to come, and I’m okay with that.  The 23rd installment of the Bond franchise is sleek, cinematic, action-packed, touching and updated in fun ways that didn’t seem to offend Bond purists.

What I liked: Mendes does a superb job developing a visual sense of character rather than relying on the trite Bond-speak.  For those who still haven’t seen it, suffice it to say, there is a sense of meaning in each visually charged landscape that offers us a glimpse into the character for who it is designed or meaningful, and which explains the Oscar nod for cinematography.  The performances are strong across the board with Judi Dench and Javier Bardem edging out the rest.  The story rushes forward loaded with energy and grace despite the daunting 143min running time. Finally, as one who loves origination stories, I have appreciated that the latest Bond films continue to reinvent and rediscover well-known characters and characteristics that might have all been jammed into Craig’s first film.

What I didn’t like: You can’t exactly fault an action flick for being…well, an action flick, so despite the fact that the story and characters are slotted in to fit the visual highlights I think Mendes did a credible job of mining the details.  Though an interesting story might have been rushed and some more character development would have interested me, there really isn’t much room for improving a movie jam-packed with so many qualities, only to say that there are so many.

My rating:  Looking forward to watching it again.

IMDB: 7.9

Rotten Tomatoes:  92%

Note on the trailer:  I prefer the subtler trailers that don’t offer an abridged version of the entire film but I think it’s safe to assume that I was one of the last people to see this movie so enjoy the highlights.

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Lincoln (2012)

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Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Written by: Tony Kushner (screenplay), Doris Kearns Goodwin (book)
Starring: Daniel Day Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn, James Spader, Hal Holbrook, Tommy Lee Jones,  Joseph Gordon-Levitt, John Hawkes, Jackie Earle Haley, Jared Harris, Joseph Cross, Tim Blake Nelson, Lee Pace and a host of others

Oscar Nominations:  Cinematography, Costume Design, Production Design, Original Score, Sound Mixing, Editing, Screenplay, Actor (Daniel Day-Lewis), Supporting Actor (Tommy Lee Jones), Supporting Actress (Sally Field), Directing and Picture.

The second movie I watched in the last 24hours is Lincoln, Steven Spielberg’s historical drama about the final months of Lincoln’s Presidency as the civil war rages and he attempts to unite the country and abolish slavery.   I would love to argue that the Academy went with the safe choice here, nominating it for twelve Oscars, more than any other film (Life of Pi is a close second with eleven), but I can’t.  I have yet to meet someone who hasn’t seen and enjoyed Lincoln.  It is a movie where the seasoned director and actor are at their best.

What I liked: Daniel Day-Lewis, from his voice to his walk to his gestures to his charm, is transformed.  No one in the actor category comes close to this performance and proves, yet again, that Day-Lewis may be the best actor of the last 15 years.  Like Zero Dark Thirty, the cast is teeming with recognizable faces but here, Spielberg’s (admittedly) first character drama offers each role a distinct personality and connection to the audience whether they are on screen for 2minutes or 2hours.  James Spader delivers as the only comic relief in the film.  The screenplay is excellent in presenting the complexity of both the politics and the characters, as are both the staging and tone of the movie.   The emotional weight of the story is felt throughout but Spielberg does well to play a light hand and add only subtle touches through editing and camerawork that remind of us of this moment’s historical impact.

What I didn’t like: Tommy Lee Jones is excellent, as always, but I have to wonder if he warrants a Best Supporting Actor nomination.  My feeling while watching the film was that this nod is more a sympathetic gesture towards what his character represents rather than his actual performance.  Sally Field is also commendable in her complexity but both, standing next to Daniel Day-Lewis, felt like performances.

My rating:  Likely Best Picture

IMDB: 7.7

Rotten Tomatoes: 89%

Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

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Directed by: Kathryn Bigelow
Written by: Mark Boal
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Joel Edgerton, Chris Pratt, Jason Clarke, Reda Kateb, Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Ehle, Harold Perrineau, Jeremy Strong, Mark Strong and a host of others

Oscar Nominations:  Editing, Sound Editing, Original screenplay, Actress (Jessica Chastain), Picture

It’s been a bit of a scramble to get all of the Oscar nominated movies under my belt before the big day.  In the last 24 hours I’ve watched two Oscar nominated films deeply seeded in American history.  Here, Kathryn Bigelow’s drama about one woman’s dedication to the hunt for Osama bin Laden is focused on the tactical steps leading up to his death.  The movie is riddled with familiar faces but the focus here is on the story, which is deftly told.

What I liked:  Jessica Chastain is excellent as the CIA agent obsessed with a seemingly insignificant lead to bin Laden.  Bigelow does little here to develop her character and all the nuance in Chastain’s performance comes from her reaction to harrowing events which slowly and seamlessly evolve.  It is made clear in the final scene that this was Bigelow’s intention and it is expertly executed.  She also does well to hire well-known actors who bring some recognition to characters who are only on screen for a short while but with whom we nevertheless feel connected.  My hat is also off to Jason Clarke who has received little recognition for this role but who managed to engage our attention through some very difficult scenes.  I was disappointed to see his role diminish during the course of the film.  The writing and editing are also commendable as they incorporate a decade of complex details through smooth transitions that move forward to a strong climax.  My heart was pounding as we embarked on the final crusade.

What I didn’t like:  I like character development so the distance the audience is kept from the characters left me a little cold, although it may be a testament to Bigelow’s skills that she intentionally tried to uphold some form of objectivity here.   There were also so many details that I was often lost during the first half of the film.

My rating: I’m surprised by how little I found to critique.

IMDB: 7.6

Rotten Tomatoes: 94%

Flight (2012)

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Directed by: Robert Zemeckis
Written by: John Gatins
Starring: Denzel Washington, Nadine Velazquez, Don Cheadle, Brian Geraghty, Kelly Reilly, Bruce Greenwood and John Goodman

Oscar Nominations: Original Screenplay and Best Actor (Denzel Washington)

Unlike some of the Oscar nominated movies I’ve raved about, there is nothing particularly new in Flight, the story of a troubled airline pilot who prevents a devastating plane crash and the ensuing investigation into his competence.   The narrative, editing and directing are all straight-forward and yet there is something unsettling but engaging about the movie that is, I believe, entirely thanks to Denzel Washington.

What I liked:  Washington is transcendent.  His character is so well-developed (hence the screenplay nod?), so complex, so arrogant, so charming and so frightened that each scene elicits an emotional response.   He is at his best when his character, Whip Whitaker, is at his worst.  The story itself is interesting and moves smoothly forward to its finale.  The supporting cast provides some wit, some centering and helps to ask some tough questions.

What I didn’t like: The story itself felt nuanced enough that the lyric-heavy score annoyed me with its blatant reminder of what we were seeing.  The frequent reference to God as explanation for personal tragedy or salvation was probably meant to invoke discussion  but felt heavy-handed to me.

My rating: My favourite Denzel performance.

IMDB: 7.7

Rotten Tomatoes: 78%

The Master (2012)

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Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson
Written by: Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Jesse Plemons and a host of others.

Oscar Nominations:  Best Actor (Joaquin Phoenix), Best Supporting Actor (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Best Actress (Amy Adams)

The Master is excellent filmmaking; every shot and every moment is poetry and what I think makes it special is that the characters, an alcoholic war vet suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, an enigmatic yet charismatic cult leader and his believing wife, come together in a way that makes us understand them despite their foreignness.  As with most Paul Thomas Anderson films, the story is tough to pinpoint.  Rather, The Master is a confounding psychological journey of discovery, acceptance and manipulation.

What I liked: It’s redundant at this point to mention Philip Seymour Hofmann and Joaquin Phoenix.  The movie succeeds because of their performances.  Amy Adams is understated and convincing but I wouldn’t put her on par with the other two who carry the film; although, in some ways, she’s eerier in her tranquil judgement and faith which is a testament to her performance.  The images are transfixing and there are a number of shots that I would frame and put on my wall.  Finally,  Anderson, brought back Jonny Greenwood  to delivery a score that is as entrancing as the movie.

What I didn’t like: I enjoy an Anderson film but I’m not an avid follower.  While I appreciate his filmmaking skills, often his artistry distances his audience from his characters just enough to prevent me from empathizing with them in the way I do other films.  I always walk away more disturbed and ponderous than entertained.

My rating: Two of the most challenging and successful performances of 2012.  If it weren’t for Daniel Day Lewis and Christoph Walz, these two would have my vote for the Oscars.

IMDB: 7.5

Rotten Tomatoes: 86%

The Impossible (2012)

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Directed by: Juan Antonio Bayona
Written by: Sergio G. Sánchez (screenplay), María Belón (story)
Starring: Naomi Watts, Ewen McGregor, Tom Holland, Samuel Joslin and Oaklee Pendergast

Oscar Nominations: Best Actress (Naomi Watts)

I have included this in my Oscar list because a) Naomi Watts is one of my favourite actresses and her performance in this movie puts her at the top of my list of hopeful winners and b) how this movie was overlooked for editing or cinematography for the tsunami scene alone is beyond me.  The story, based on the real events of a family ravaged by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami (one of the worst on record) while on vacation in Thailand is horrifying in its gritty camerawork and devastating in its performances.

What I liked: Naomi Watts is sensational as the mother desperately trying to stay alive for her family. Though I tried, I couldn’t help but feel her pain both physically and emotionally.  The performances overall are convincing enough to hold the movie together as, aside from the exceptional and harrowing tsunami scene and the core emotion and sense of loss, there isn’t much in the way of plot to move it forward.

What I didn’t like:  Critiquing this movie almost feels like criticizing actual victims of this horror which is awkward but, no matter how true, I did feel that Bayona pushed a little too hard to deliver the blood and gore reality that goes along with a natural disaster, excessively so.  On the other hand, this could also be a testament to the movie’s realism.  I can see why critics didn’t gush over it but I’m also a little surprised by their reserve.  Granted the movie may rely on the fact that it is based on a true story but this family’s nightmare stays with you even after it’s over.

My rating:  Enjoy it for its triumphant truth.

IMDB: 7.6

Rotten Tomatoes: 80%

Something I try to avoid but couldn’t resist:  For those of you who have no interest in seeing a disaster drama, I highly recommend this incredible scene which is worth the price of admission alone.

Video courtesy of Pantherapardus2012

Life of Pi (2012)

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Directed by: Ang Lee
Written by:  David Magee (screenplay), Yann Martel (novel)
Starring:   Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Adil Hussain, Rafe Spall, Tabu and Gérard Depardieu

Oscar Nominations: Cinematography, Editing, Original Score, Original Song, Production Design, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Visual Effects, Screenplay (Adapted), Directing, Best Motion Picture

This movie is a visual feast and (as a few critics have mentioned) uniquely demonstrates the power of 3D and CGI.  Even if you don’t like 3D I would say this movie is a must-see in the awkward glasses.  The story, about a man reminiscing about his youth and his search for truth and religion, depends entirely on its effects and a celebration of the magic of filmmaking.  It is interesting to see it nominated against Beasts of the Southern Wild as both use film to relay their stories in such unexpected and exceptionally unique ways (unleashed imagination vs.  heartbreaking realism) that neither should be missed.

What I liked:  I am not one for special effects, but what Ang Lee has accomplished here is worthy of praise.  This film moves forward with visual mastery and my hat is off to the director for using the effects to their fullest potential rather than relying on it to tell an amazing (and some said un-filmable) tale.  Finally, once we’re pulled out of the adventure and listen quietly to the protagonist as he looks back on the adventures of his youth, there is a moment of truth and honesty that is truly touching.

What I didn’t like:  Thoughts on religion throughout the story didn’t add much to the movie and hindered the flow.  The acting is not as strong as the effects and I was certainly aware of Suraj Sharma’s ‘performance’ as opposed to the smooth conversationalist tone of Irrfan Khan.  The insertion of the author didn’t work for me either until the very end and it feels like he’s only there to propel the story, whereby his character isn’t given much depth or understanding.

My rating:  Avatar was just the beginning.

IMDB: 8.2

Rotten Tomatoes: 88%

Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)

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Directed by: Benh Zeitlin
Written by: Lucy Alibar & Benh Zeitlin (screenplay), Lucy Alibar (stage play “Juicy and Delicious”)
Starring: Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry and Levy Easterly

Nominations: Screenplay (previously produced material), Actress (Quvenzhané Wallis), Directing & Picture of the Year.

Quite simply, I loved this movie.  Benh Zeitlin’s directorial debut about a young girl who describes her understanding of the universe is gritty and magical, grassroots, poetic, heartbreaking and beautiful; it drags us in, wrenches the heart and considers all the wonder and decay of the Deep South. Don’t get me wrong, despite my gushing review this film is far from perfection but the emotion of it is enough to carry the whole.

What I liked:  Quvenzhané Wallis is a revelation as Hushpuppy and Zeitlin does a brilliant job telling the story through her eyes; especially with voice-over narration that eases the film forward with delicate quips about her views on the world.    Dwight Henry, who plays her retreating father, is also commendable in his first ever performance and the relationship between the two is poetry – in all its anger, love and honesty.   The creative camera work and editing yanks us into the Bathtub, so much so that we are transported, not only into their world but also into their understanding of it.

What I didn’t like:  If we’re going to compare stories then most of the other nominees in the Oscar screenplay category are probably better told tales.  The story here feels like an idea moving forward.  There is no real plot and at times the jump cuts took me out of the film and I had to reorient myself.  That said, the heart of this film and the creativity in which it unfolds is the driving force behind it.  The narrative is crafted beautifully by Zeitlin and carried out heart and soul by Wallis.  When I think about it, I still feel the emotion of it, and that is no small feat.

My rating:  My favourite film of 2012 so far.

IMDB: 7.5

Rotten Tomatoes: 86%

Argo (2012)

ImageDirected by: Ben Affleck
Written by: Chris Terrio
Starring: Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, John Goodman, Alan Arkin, Victor Garber, Tate Donovan, Clea DuVall, Scoot McNairy, Rory Cochrane, Christopher Denham, Kerry Bishé, Kyle Chandler, Chris Messina, Zeljko Ivanek.

Nominations: Editing, Original Score, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Supporting Actor (Alan Arkin), Best Screenplay (based on previously produced material) and Best Picture.

Ben Affleck’s third feature is a solid political drama based on the 1980 CIA-Canadian mission to free six diplomatic escapees out of Revolutionary Iran by staging a fake film production.  The movie moves forward well and tells a good story with the help of strong performances, a little laughter and a suspense-driven final act.  I enjoyed it but would I rank it #201 on IMDB’s, now skewed, top #250 list? No.  That said, most people I know loved it.

What I liked:  The writing is excellent and Affleck does well to rely heavily on the plot as the story itself is the most interesting part of the movie.  Alan Arkin and John Goodman provide the comic relief and are a cut above the other performances.  The casting is near perfect and the 1980s feel of the movie works.  Finally, the movie moves smoothly forward because of the story and it gains momentum and crescendos into an excellent final act.  Had I left the movie early, I would be writing a different (and half-assed) review.

What I didn’t like:   Ben Affleck is commendable as the CIA Operative who takes responsibility for the lives of the six escapees but his performance felt too much like Affleck playing the hero and while I appreciated the sense of deep emotion beneath his impassive expression, perhaps there just wasn’t enough urgency until the final act to engage my attention completely.  That said, I tip my hat at his turn from Hollywood bad boy to serious filmmaker by letting the work speak for itself.  What I noticed most was the lack of true emotion or filmmaking creativity in the storytelling to make this film stand above the pack.

My rating:  I would give it my vote for best screenplay.

IMDB: 8.1

Rotten Tomatoes: 96%

Rebelle (2012)

War Witch (In English)

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Directed by: Kim Nguyen
Written by: Kim Nguyen
Starring: Rachel Mwanza, Alain Lino Mic Eli Bastien, Serge Kanyinda and Mizinga Mwinga

Nominated for: Best Foreign Language Film

It’s Oscar Season!  I will try my best to preview most of the films that are up for notable Oscars despite the fact that I am among those who believe the ceremony is directed towards commercially appealing talent rather than actual artistic talent but I digress… Anyway, I thought I’d begin my Oscar posts by promoting some homegrown talent.  Montreal filmmaker Kim Nguyen has garnered much press and accolades for his French war drama, Rebelle (aka War Witch), about a teenage African girl who tells the story of her war-ravaged youth to her unborn child.  The movie has already been nominated, and won, a number of awards for Nguyen and his leading actress Rachel Mwanza, including an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film for Nguyen at the upcoming Academy Awards.  The trailer looks both beautiful and disturbing, which makes me eager to see it.

In Montreal, it can be seen in theaters starting January 18th at Cinema du Parc.  Hopefully it will gain a larger distribution with this nomination as it has already finished screening in theatres, but if not, keep your eyes out for it!

IMDB: 7.0

Rotten Tomatoes: 89%