Tag Archives: Oscars

Road to Oscars – Up & Up in the Air

Directed by: Pete Doctor
Cast: Ed Asner, Christopher Plummer, Delroy Lindo, John Ratzenberger
Genre: Animated
Rated PG for Some peril and action

Oh Pixar.  Can you do no wrong?  I’m not sure what is going on up there in Pixar-ville, but most other studios need to take note.  Pixar does it right.  They are most assuredly in a class all on their own.  For those still unsure, I’ll come right out and say it.  I loved this film.  In fact, there hasn’t been a Pixar film that I haven’t enjoyed.  It appears that the folks at Pixar put a great deal of importance on the story, something most other studios seem to have forgotten about.  This is evident in the way a studio markets their animated pictures.  Most of the time, an animated film’s poster will feature the names of every A-list actor lending a voice to the film.  Not Pixar.  They put such stock in story and animation, that the voice actors only add to the films eminence.

In a first for a Pixar film, the viewer is instantly introduced to reality in the death of one of its characters.  After his wife of many years dies, 78-year-old Carl Fredricksen sets out to fulfill his lifelong dream to see the wilds of South America.  He ties bunches of balloons to his house, and sets off on an adventure of a lifetime.  However, unbeknownst to him, he has inadvertently picked up a stowaway in Russell, an 8 year old Wilderness Explorer.  Together, they embark on a journey full of talking animals and an other unexpected surprises.

The film originally was released theatrically in 3D.  However, the film needn’t be seen in 3D in order to appreciate the fine talents of the folks at 1200 Park Avenue.  One can simply sit back and enjoy the film for what it is;  An excellent piece of work from screenwriters Pete Doctor & Bob Peterson.  You’d be best to give this DVD/Blu-ray a spin today.  You’ll certainly be glad that you did.

Rating = ***** / 5

Directed by: Jason Reitman
Cast: George Clooney, Anna Kendrick, Vera Farmiga, Jason Bateman
Genre: Comedy / Drama
Rated R For some language and sexual content

I am a fan of Jason Reitman’s work.  I enjoyed his freshman take on Big Tobacco in “Thank You for Smoking”.  His sophomoric follow-up, “Juno” was only strengthened by the excellent script from Diablo Cody.  For his third time at the plate, he hits one out of the ballpark with “Up in the Air”, a script he’d been working on for over 7 years.  In a strange twist of fate, the film about a corporate downsizing expert (Clooney) tasked with traveling around the country to notify people that they’ve been fired from their jobs couldn’t have been timed any better.  Couple that with the second story of Clooney’s character, Ryan Bingham, suffering from a phobia of committing to a monogamous relationship (ahem, another twist of irony?) and you have yourself a true winner that resonates with audiences both young and old.

The coupling of Clooney with Anna Kendrick is spectacular, bringing tension and camaraderie reminiscent of the screwball comedies of yesteryear.  At moments I felt as though I were watching the reincarnation of Grant/Russell or Grant/Hepburn.  The witty banter Reitman writes for Clooney/Kendrick, and the success at which they pull it off, is something I hope other filmmakers take note off.  Add to that mix the wonderful performance by Vera Farmiga as Clooney’s love interest, and an always welcome appearance by the talented Jason Bateman, and this home run is a grand slam.

The fact that Reitman chose to film actual people from middle America who recently found themselves standing in the local unemployment line only served to add an air of credibility to this film.  SPOILER ALERT:  At one point, even Bingham finds himself on the receiving end of the pink slip due to technology, a point that also no doubt resonates close to home for some in the viewing audience.  And to be honest, I didn’t see the end coming until it was upon me, which was very welcome indeed.  Seeing Bingham’s realization and transformation unfold was easy to embrace and atypical of other Hollywood fare.  I certainly would recommend this film to others.  I don’t think you will be disappointed in the least.

Rating = **** / 5

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Posted by on March 5, 2010 in Movies


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Road to Oscars – The Blind Side & Precious

Directed by: John Lee Hancock
Cast: Sandra Bullock, Quinton Aaron, Tim McGraw, Jae Head, Kathy Bates
Genre: Drama
Rated PG-13 For one scene involving brief violence, drug and sexual references.

I generally am not a fan of modern day football movies.  The last good film that I saw was likely 1993’s Sean Astin vehicle “Rudy” (which also featured a very cool guy and actor Charles S. “Rock” Dutton).  Sure there have been many films since then: “We Are Marshall”, “Remember the Titans”, “Friday Night Lights”, “Facing the Giants”, “Leatherheads”, and “Hometown Legend”(sorry Jimmy!).  But they all are very clichéd films.  Very formulaic.  Played out plot-lines, with forgettable performances.  Each time, I feel I am watching a reboot of “Rudy”, or ‘“Hoosiers” with football’.  None of them are as original or memorable as films such as 1925’s “The Freshman”, “Brian’s Song”, “The Longest Yard” (The original 1974 version, natch), “All the Right Moves”, “North Dallas Forty”, or “Lucas”.  Which is why I went into “The Blind Side” with extreme hesitation.

I am happy to report back that I found “The Blind Side” thoroughly enjoyable.  The story is that of Michael Oher, who went from a troubled and parentless childhood to professional offensive tackle for the Baltimore Ravens after being taken in by the wealthy Tuohy family.  One night, Leigh Anne Tuohy, played by Sandra Bullock, meets Oher, and for some reason decides to help him.  The whole family takes an immediate liking to Michael, and Leigh and husband Sean decide to let him stay with them, pay for his education, help him find tutoring, and raise him as their own alongside their two children.  While most of the acting is simply OK, it’s the performance by Sandra Bullock that elevates this film above the aforementioned films.  For the first time in many years, audiences got a glimpse of a woman who CAN ACT!  The perfect southern accent, the soccer mom portrayal, the genuine care for Oher, all are played with perfection.  It became very apparent to me why Bullock had been receiving the accolades and awards.  And secondly, newcomer Quinton Aaron gives a perfect performance as Michael, a man devastated by his harsh past and unable to relate to those around him.  The fact that this film tackles racism, although subtly, certainly adds to the films ability to stand apart from the other more clichéd fare.  The focus of the film isn’t the sport.  It isn’t the team.  It’s the character.  And it’s the love for human beings less fortunate than ourselves that certainly is resonating with audiences in the current financial climate.

Rating = **** / 5

Directed by: Lee Daniels
Cast: Gabourey Sidibe, Mo’Nique, Paula Patton, Mariah Carey, Lenny Kravitz
Genre: Drama
Rated R for Child abuse including sexual assault, and pervasive language

Disturbing?  Check.  Uncomfortable?  Check.  Dark?  Check.  Vulgar?  Check.  Excellently made movie with stellar acting to boot?  Check.  I was enthralled by the story of Precious Jones, a viciously abused and pregnant overweight teen from Harlem, as it was a film like no other this year.  The young girl, who suffers from verbal and physical harrassment by her mother (excellently portrayed by a Golden Globe-winning Mo’Nique) and incestuous rape by her father,  enrolls in an alternative school, where she must battle unimaginable barriers to succeed in life.   I was astounded at the performances by Mo’Nique and Gaboruey Sidibe in this film.  I was repulsed at the things I witnessed on the screen, which doesn’t happen often for me.  I was taken in by the performances in a way that left me feeling like I just witnessed one of the most disturbing documentaries of the year.  I was equally caught off guard by surprisingly top notch performances by Mariah Carey and Lenny Kravitz as well.

As anyone who knows my taste in films, I like a film that portrays its characters in a believable way.  That goes from everything from actions the character takes (their behaviors must be befitting their lifestyle/career choice) to language (hearing Michael Corleone constantly use the “F” word is consistent with his lifestyle)  With Precious, I had no complaints in such regard.  I was taken in and left feeling sorrow for the young woman on the screen.  In fact, it came as little surprise for me to learn of the recognition this film garnered upon its release.  Disturbing though it may have been, it was a film that surely will get director Lee Daniels another film or two to add to his stable.  Let’s just hope the next one is a little more uplifting!

Rating = **** / 5


Posted by on March 5, 2010 in Movies


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Road to Oscars – The Hurt Locker & Inglorious Basterds

Directed by: Kathryn Bigelow
Cast: Jeremy Renner, Ralph Fiennes, David Morse, Guy Pearce
Genre: War
Rated R For war violence and language

I always enjoy a good war movie.  I rarely need to hear reviews before I’ve already pre-ordered my ticket in my favorite seat at the Arclight Cinema, used my member points to get a concession stand certificate, and invited a few of my closest friends for a guys night out.  I can easily point out a great war movie from each decade that Hollywood has been pumping them out.  Any learned film student will tell you that the films they are asked to watch to learn the craft of filmmaking will undoubtedly contain “The Birth of a Nation”, “Battleship Potemkin”, “The General”, and “Gone with the Wind”.  Moving up through the years, I would include “All Quiet on the Western Front”, “Sergeant York”, “They Were Expendable”, “The Bridge on the River Kwai”, and “The Longest Day”.  And bringing us up to the modern era, I would add “Patton”, “Apocalypse Now”, “Ran”, and “Full Metal Jacket”.  In each of these films, and many more too numerous to name, the intense feeling of being in war is wonderfully conveyed.  So it was with great expectation that I headed into the local cineplex to see Kathryn Bigelow’s magnum opus, “The Hurt Locker”.

This is the tale of the U.S. Army’s elite bomb disposal unit, the EOD, operating in Iraq for the last 39 days of their tour.  SFC William James (Jeremy Renner) is a bomb disposal expert and he is replacing Sgt Matt Thompson, a long-standing member of the team who was recently killed disposing of an improvised explosive device.  He comes in overseeing the squad, consisting of Sergeant JT Sanborn and Specialist Owen Eldridge.

It’s the way that Bigelow portrays him that pulls me out of the enjoyment of this film on the level I was expecting.  For the first half of the film, SFC James comes across as a Rambo-type character.  He has little to no regard for he or his squads safety.  He bursts into each bomb situation in a reckless manner, despite the consternation of the others.  He rips off protective armor, deliberately rushes into a situation with a supposed live and active bomb, without taking precautionary measures, and disobeys the advice of those around him in order to experience the thrill and rush of the job.  Now, the problem I had was, this wasn’t very believable to me.  Why wasn’t he reprimanded?  Why, if he is suffering from such reckless behavior due to PTSD, wasn’t he removed from his position?  Would this really be allowed to go on, when so many other soldiers lives are at stake?  I was happy to see that the 2nd half of the film redeemed, to sorts, the qualms I had regarding the first half.  The intrigue and suspense seemed to rise, and the access into the mind of the character was a welcome respite from his actions.  However, for me, I felt the characters didn’t particularly have much of an arc, nor did I find there to be a substantial display of resolve.  That being said, I did enjoy the atmosphere of the film.  And the sets and situations, aside from the aforementioned, were splendidly directed.  Unfortunately, I don’t think this film by the very talented Kathryn Bigelow will see a spot on my list of top war films in the future.

Rating = *** / 5

Directed by: Quentin Tarantino
Cast: Brad Pitt, Christoph Waltz, B.J. Novak
Genre: Drama / Thriller
Rated R For strong graphic violence, language and brief sexuality

Apart from “Kill Bill”, I have thoroughly enjoyed the films of Quentin Tarantino.  My two favorite works of his are “Jackie Brown” and “True Romance” (granted he didn’t direct “True Romance”, but he wrote it, and that is part of his works, natch).  When any person sits to watch a film from this talented filmmaker, they are without a doubt going to witness a true work of passion.  Tarantino is no slouch, rather he is a tenured scholar of the filmmaking lexicon.  The homages to other films, stars, and musical numbers are consistently peppered throughout his bodies of work.  For that sheer fact alone, viewing his films are akin to attending the most engrossing of film schools.

All that being said, I have to be honest.  For some unknown reason, I had zero desire to see the latest contribution to the oeuvre of Mr. Tarantino.  Perhaps it had to do with my dislike of the “Kill Bill” films?  Perhaps it’s because I’ve had my fill of overly grisly films as of late, and I’d heard that “Basterds” fit that bill?  Perhaps it’s simply because I have a busy schedule and find little time to see films I’m not entirely enthralled about?  Nonetheless, when the film garnered an Academy Award nomination, I decided to view the film.  Let me say, I am certainly glad that I did.

The story is that of a Jewish cinema owner (played excellently by Mélanie Laurent) in occupied Paris is forced to host a Nazi movie premiere where the führer himself is slated to attend.  Meanwhile, a rag tag group of American soldiers, brutal in their own conquering way, are called the Basterds, and they hatch a plan to overtake the Nazis in this small little theater.  The only thing standing in their way is the Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz in a simply mezmerizing role).  Many have noted that this is Tarantino’s homage to the classic Spaghetti Western, set during WWII instead of the old west.  I couldn’t agree more.

I found this film quite entertaining and suspenseful.  Being from Tarantino, it should come as no surprise that the film relies heavily on clever dialogue rather than grandiose action sequences.  What little action there is is brutally gruesome and gory.  For those who do not like foreign films, be aware that most of the film is subtitled, as the movie takes place in Nazi occupied France.  If you can get past that, however, you will find that the story is very clever, full of twists, and intrigue.  It kept me from figuring out the end, which is saying a lot if you knew how many films I’ve seen.  When the ending did appear, however, it was depressing and downright hopeless.  Acting in the film is stellar, and the lack of action plays exceptionally well, no doubt a testament to the writing prowess of Tarantino.  While I could have taken a little less of the actual displays of graphic violence (after all, I am a huge fan of the Hitchcockian way of leaving a little to the imagination) sprinkled here and there, I can happily say that the film is deserving of any and all praise it has received.

Rating = **** / 5

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Posted by on March 3, 2010 in Movies


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Road to Oscars – An Education & A Serious Man

Directed by: Lone Scherfig
Cast: Carey Mulligan, Alfred Molina, Emma Thompson, Peter Sarsgaard
Genre: Drama
Rated PG-13 For mature thematic material involving sexual content, and for smoking

I deliberately went into this film having avoided any and all reviews, trailers, or blog posts.  I usually am a sucker for romantic dramas.  My wife has no problem getting me into  the local cineplex to see wonderfully crafted films such as “Once”, “Pride and Prejudice”, “Before Sunrise”, or “Remains of the Day”.  I’m even a fan of excellently produced May-December romance pics such as “An Affair to Remember”, “The Graduate”, “Crazy Heart”, and “Love in the Afternoon”.  I appreciate a story that begins with the appearance that the characters are destined for failure, but eventually overcome any hurdles by films end, proving the old adage that “Love Conquers All”.  “An Education” fits only part of that bill.

Newcomer Carey Mulligan is a fine actress, and is amazingly believable in her portrayal of a smitten young teen.  If nothing else, I wouldn’t be surprised if she wins the Best Actress Oscar, and goes on to a very fulfilling career in film.  Mulligan plays a credulous 16 year old who meets the guile older man, played by Peter Sarsgaard with perfection, and begins to fall head-over-heels for him and his sophisticated/avant-garde lifestyle.  All those around her seem to support her relationship with her new suitor, despite the fact that he is twice her age, and she is a minor.  The only exception being that of her instructor, played by Emma Thompson.  This was the only fault I had with this film.  I simply had a hard time believing that at least one of her parents wouldn’t have at least questioned the relationship, considering how “conservative” the father initially was portrayed.  The music and set designs of the film are excellently crafted together to further prove that Lone Scherfig is a very talented film-maker.  As entertaining as though the film may be, I found it a little predictable towards the end.  Thankfully, the film is rescued by the acting all around, and is worth a viewing for the performances alone.

= *** / 5

Directed by: Joel and Ethan Coen
Cast: Michael Stuhlbarg, Aaron Wolff, Richard Kind
Genre: Drama
Rated R For language, some sexuality/nudity and brief violence

Let me preface this review by stating that I generally am a fan of the Coen brothers’ films.  “Raising Arizona” and “The Big Lebowski” are easily in my top 100 list.  The wry, often dark, humor that peppers the brothers’ films sets their body of work above the rest.  Which is why a film like “A Serious Man” disappoints.  I can’t quite place my finger on the reason this film didn’t resonate with me the way films like “Fargo”, “Hudsucker Proxy”, or “Barton Fink” had.  Perhaps it’s my lack of knowledge in the subject matter.  This is a work of love; a very passionate film deeply entwined with the customs and language of a Jewish family.

I can appreciate the film for it’s portrayal of a 1967 Jewish neighborhood that bears a strong resemblance to the neighborhood familiar to the Coen’s.  What I can’t get past is that there fails to be a character in the film to stand behind and root for.  There isn’t a character that is portrayed in an overall positive light.  Larry Gopnik, played by Michael Stuhlbarg, is a miserable man who doesn’t know what he wants in life.  Larry’s wife, Judith, is having an affair, and thus leaves him, for “friendly” neighbor Sy Ableman. Larry’s children are equally as contemptible.  His daughter is a materialistic thief, stealing money from her own father for her selfish ambitions.   His son is a loaf who gives more energy into watching TV and listening to the latest album than prepare for something as important as his bar mitzvah.  Larry’s lazy brother does nothing but lounge on his couch all day.  Even the somber “Fargo” had a positive, likable character in Marge Gunderson.  It’s hard to get behind a film, when you can’t get behind any of the characters.

= ** / 5

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Posted by on March 2, 2010 in Movies


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Road to Oscars – Avatar & District 9

Directed by: James Cameron
Cast: Sam Worthington, Sigourney Weaver, Zoe Saldana, Giovani Ribisi, CCH Pounder
Genre: Science Fiction
Rated PG-13 For intense epic battle sequences and warfare, sensuality, language and some smoking

Let me start by saying that I love science fiction/fantasy.  There is nothing like an engrossing story that pulls the reader/viewer into the fictional world created by an author/filmmaker intent on proving this other world may exist.  Over the years, such excellent works have graced both the printed page and the small screen that there is no shortage of sci-fi (not SyFy, as a certain network would have you believe) for one to escape into for months on end.  Some of my favorite novels in this escapist genre are Joe Haldeman’s “The Forever War”, George R.R. Martin’s “Song of Fire and Ice” series, Jack Finney’s “Body Snatchers”, Larry Niven’s “Ringworld”, Orson Scott Card’s “Ender’s Game”, and Isaac Asimov’s “Robot” series.  On the motion picture side, my favorites have been Robert Wise’s “The Day the Earth Stood Still”, Franklin J. Shaffner’s “Planet of the Apes”, Duncan Jones’ “Moon”, Stanley Kubrick’s “2001”, Ridley Scott’s “Alien”, and John Carpenter’s “The Thing”.  I’d even go so far as to say video games like “Doom 3” or “Bioshock” would be amongst the top in that prospective category.  Unfortunately, Avatar will never make it into that list.  Nor would it break the top 100, if I were to create such a list.

Don’t get me wrong.  This film is beautifully shot.  The 3D is spectacular, so much so that 10 minutes into the film the viewer is likely to forget they are watching a 3D film, and focus instead on the story.  This, I’m sad to say, is where the film falls short.  The script is a very bland “vanilla-plain” story about a disabled Marine who heads to another planet on a mission to mine the rare minerals needed to continue to power Earth.  Eventually, he longs to escape into the peaceful world of the “virtual reality-hybrid” planet Pandora, where he is without the constraints of crippled legs, and able to witness the majestic creatures called Navi in their natural habitat.  He eventually falls in love with a female Navi, and wrestles with the decision to press on with his objectives, or betray his race and live and love amongst the Navi.  While sci-fi has nearly always been a morality tale disguised as fictional other-worldly tales, the message of evil Americans killing off the peace loving new-age aliens is a bit heavy-handed.  There isn’t much disguising here.

Now, anyone who has seen Werner Herzog’s “Grizzly Man”, or heard the recent news about Sea World and it’s “Killer” whales incident, knows that even though creatures may be beautiful and majestic, we are best designed to avoid residing with them.  The fact that the human falls in love with the alien is no more romantic to me than the guy working with gorillas in their natural habitat would be.  For me, the special effects, as breathtaking as they may be, no more make this a great film than the special effects in the “Transformers” films, or “Armageddon”, make them great films.  Not even the engrossing 3D could save this one.  For me, it’s the first James Cameron film that falls far short of perfection.

Rating = ** / 5

Directed by: Neill Blomkamp
Cast: Sharlto Copley, Nathalie Boltt, William Allen Young
Genre: Science Fiction
Rated R For bloody violence and pervasive language

As a fan of science fiction, I appreciate when a film attempts to break ground.  I especially appreciate when a film takes a possibly tired story and gives it new life, with clever characterizations, twists, and plot points.  The story of “District 9”  takes place in a fictional place in South Africa.  When aliens land on Earth, global business conglomerate Multi-National United forces them into rigid this place, “containment zones “, where they are compelled to labor, even as MNU commandeers their otherworldly technology for profit.  What differentiates Blomkamp’s film from similarly themed tales is when he introduces the lead character as a common worker, as opposed to a military big shot.  His initial “real-world” characterization, and believable transformation from man with a mission to man-on-the-run is further grounded in reality by the impressions that you are watching a documentary.  The fact that the lead becomes a wanted man not by choice, but by circumstance further sets this film apart from more recent films with a similar theme.

I appreciated the fact that Blomkamp never treated his aliens as a grandiose spectacle.  There never was the moment in the film where the creature slowly rises from the water, camera set to a low angle, as the lights flicker and the music crescendos, allowing the character to realize he’s in over his head.  The aliens in the is film were simply another character.  They were grounded in the grittiness of the real world, and each of the characters had multiple sides to their persona.  And each of the actors in the film were relatively unknown, which only led to the escape into this “faux-documentary.”  I sense that Blomkamp is on track to have a very lengthy career in films.  I look forward to see what this talented young filmmaker will next bring to the cineplex.

Rating = **** / 5


Posted by on March 1, 2010 in Movies


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