Monday, December 30, 2013

Pwaters' Top Ten of 2013!

2013, 2014, 20-whatever, it's another year, another top ten list.  Again, keep in mind, I haven't seen EVERY movie that was released this year, this is a personal "favorite" list that should not be held on a sacred pedestal, and I do this for my own enjoyment, not to make you happy with my choices.  If anything, what I want most is to expose any lowlife reading this blog post to a movie or movies they may have overlooked.  Based on a five-second mental calculation I'd say I saw roughly 80 films that came out this year, so I'm hardly a true source of authority.  But if you're interested, here you go:

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Pwaters' 2013 Superlatives!

Hello readers, wherever you came from.  I did this last year and enjoyed it, so here it is again - some hand-picked superlative-winners chosen by yours truly.  Because I'm unoriginal they're the same categories as last time, but with the addition of 'guilty pleasure.'  I hope a smidgen of happiness crosses you as your eyes glaze this blog post in a lackadaisical stupor (and feel free to write in the comments any categories you'd like to see for next year).

BEST ACTOR - Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street

I've always been a fan of DiCaprio's work, and he remains an unjustified non-Oscar winner (sharing that title with Gary Oldman, Joaquin Phoenix, Tom Cruise, and countless others). I think his performance of Jordan Belfort in Scorsese's fantastic foray into the excessive lives of Wall Street stock brokers is definitely his best.  DiCaprio is a force of nature in this film: hilarious, insane, living life to its extreme highs, but always remaining the smartest guy in the room.  He's a "bad" guy that you can't help but watch and root for (evoking Ray Liotta in Goodfellas).  In a span of three hours he conveys the rise and fall of an ambitious man, whose desire for the "American Dream" catches up with him.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Nebraska, Saving Mr. Banks, American Hustle, Wolf of Wall Street

It's almost the end of 2013 and I'm basically cramming for my Top Ten of the Year right now.  I'm just going to give a paragraph per film, because I'm simultaneously working on the aforementioned top ten and my annual superlatives list, plus all the "real life" stuff I have to do.  So, here, quickly, are some reviews.  I'll probably have one more of these "quickie" grab bag posts before the end of the year, so look out!

Dir. Alexander Payne

Alexander Payne's beautiful and bleak black and white Nebraska is a fantastic look at a depressed region, where the meaning of life stops at the make and model of the car you're driving.  The 77-year-old Bruce Dern delivers a career-best performance, which deservedly earned him the Best Actor award at Cannes, as the alcoholic Woody Grant, who in his state of dementia believes a million dollars awaits him in Lincoln, Nebraska because of a scam flyer he got in the mail.  I wasn't sure who in the cast were actors or just real-life yokels taken from their corn silos to shoot a film; Nebraska is authentic, strangely heartwarming, tragic, and hilarious at the same time.  The definitive tragi-comedy of the year.

                                                            Rating: A-

Saving Mr. Banks
Dir. John Lee Hancock

Walt Disney had notoriously fought with PL Travers, the original author of Mary Poppins, for years trying to get the rights for the film.  Saving Mr. Banks is the "Disney-fied," sentimental re-telling of that struggle, complete with unnecessary flashbacks and a sickeningly sweet score.  Although Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks give great performances, the film is too light for its own good, and a subject this interesting is more deserving of a well-produced documentary than a narrative tale about father figures.

Rating: C+

American Hustle
Dir. David O. Russell

With one of the best-assembled cast lists in a film this year (Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, and two "surprise" roles I won't divulge so as not to spoil them), I was pretty excited for this film, but I have to say this was a complete disappointment to me.  Maybe it's just me, but I found it to be unnecessarily hard to follow, I never really got into this story, and the "twist" at the end was lame and broadcasted a mile away.  Besides one of the aforementioned "surprise" actors, the only actor that I felt fit the role was Christian Bale.  Jennifer Lawrence's New York accent felt really unnatural to me and Amy Adam's faux British dialect didn't connect at all (don't mistake this for "bad acting," I just think it was miscast).  I'm not really sure what the critics are seeing that I'm not, but I thought this was tough to sit through.  It's a movie about con men - an overcrowded subgenre that has seen better.

Rating: C-

Wolf of Wall Street
Dir. Martin Scorsese

Leonardo DiCaprio has never been better in Scorsese's latest, taking the structure of Goodfellas and applying it to Wall Street 1%-ers.  The film is his freshest in years, and the 3 hour run time goes by quickly.  This big and excessive film reflects the big and excessive lives led by these ecclectic stock brokers, who got their start scamming people into buying penny stocks and working their way up.  The film is simultaneously hilarious and disturbing, sexy and ugly, and it couldn't have been released in a more relevant time than now.  DiCaprio is an absolute force of nature in this film, and I believe he deserves to win the Academy Award for the role (if he's not nominated there is something seriously wrong).  Loved the film, though some of the "excess" may get in the way of your enjoyment of the movie.

Rating: A-

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Her: Love at First Byte

Dir. Spike Jonze
120 Minutes
Rated R
Watch Trailer

I don't have a grasp on the year, but I distinctly remember when I first used Cleverbot, a website that allows you to hold a "conversation" with a computer program.  The surprise and novelty of it was pretty astounding at the time, but as you continued to use it, it became clear that there were limitations to its understanding and capabilities.  In Spike Jonze's Her, that is no longer a problem.  Set in the not-too-distant future, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), still getting over the separation from his wife (Rooney Mara), is a lonely soul whose only avenue for romantic expression comes from his job writing phony sentimntal letters between lovers.  When a new product is released, the first artificially intelligent operating system, the lovelorn Theodore installs it and meets Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), the female personality created in his computer, who he soon becomes romantically involved with.  With a concept fit for either a horror or light comedy, Her is a refreshingly melancholy, honest look at the possibilities of technology and loneliness, if they advance enough.

Blue is the Warmest Color: The best possible movie to see with your parents

Dir. Abdellatif Kechiche
187 Minutes
Rated NC-17
Watch Trailer

Since its premiere at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, Blue is the Warmest Color has gathered a swarm of controversy.  The film, from French director Abdellatif Kechiche (don't ask me how to pronounce that), is basically a coming-of-age/sexual awakening story from the perspective of high schooler Adele (played by Adele Exarchopoulos, in her feature film debut), who just can't connect sexually to the boys around her.  But then enters the blue-haired Emma (Lea Seydoux), whom Adele meets at a lesbian bar and slowly they become the object of each other's affection.  The film, being the first at Cannes to ever be awarded the coveted Palme d'Or for both its director and lead actresses, has received positive and negative criticism for its depictions of no-holds-barred, hardcore lesbian sex.  Coming from a straight-male director, and one that apparently treated his actresses badly on set, some have said that the film comes off as voyeuristic and exploitative, while others have touted it as a daring, artful masterpiece.  I personally think that the sex (which is basically as graphic as pornography) shouldn't overshadow the brilliant performances from the leading actresses, which is really where the film shines.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Frozen, Philomena, Out of the Furnace Reviews

Dir. Chris Buck & Jennifer Lee

The tale of Hans Christian Andersen's The Snow Queen is one of those properties that has been kicked around the Disney animation studios for decades (since the 1940's) and finally, after some 70-odd years, they've finally cracked the code to adapting the story.  With music and lyrics coming from the same team that brought Broadway hits Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon to life, and clever writing and direction from Jennifer Lee (Wreck-It Ralph), Frozen will not leave you cold (sorry I had to).

Although there are love interests in the film, the crux of the story does not revolve around a "Prince Charming," but rather on the relationship between two sisters, Anna (Kristen Bell) and Elsa (Idina Menzel).  When they were children, Elsa, who has the power to create snow and freeze things, accidentally hurt her sister with her ability.  Since then, in Rapunzel fashion, she was shunned from any outside activity in her room, slowly waning the sisters' bond.  But as Elsa grows older and finally becomes queen, the two have a misunderstanding, resulting in a fight, leading to Elsa accidentally creating an eternal winter and running off into the mountains.  It's up to Anna to go on a quest to get her back, and along the way she meets friends and sings with them (a la Wizard of Oz), including a mountain-man named Christoff and Olaf, an animate snowman with ironic dreams of the summer.

The songs, while not being quite as instantly memorable or catchy as the top-tier Disney films of the 90's (Aladdin, Lion King), are very well constructed and feel appropriate for a Broadway presentation.  They always move the story along and/or develop the characters and range from hilarious ("In Summer") to powerful ("Let it Go," which is probably the showstopper of the film; Idina Menzel nails it).  In Disney fashion the humor works for both kids and adults, with Kristen Bell's awkward and sincere Anna feeling very relatable, and although he only appears halfway through, Josh Gad's Olaf the Snowman practically steals the film as soon as he's introduced.  It's a charming film, even if it follows the Disney formula to a T.

You'd think the decades-long stint of development hell would spell disaster out for Frozen, but it really was a fantastic film - and if the world is rotating on its right axis should be rendered a current classic in the Disney canon.  It's funny, heartfelt, has an amazing musical score and soundtrack, and although it succumbs to the traditional Disney schmaltz we expect, it still ranks among their better features as of late.

Rating: B

Dir. Stephen Frears

At the beginning Philomena, Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), a journalist without a story, is presented with an option of following Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), an aging woman whose long-lost son she has been searching for for fifty-odd years.  He responds something to the effect of 'human stories are small minded and bullshit.'  In many ways this was sort of my attitude going into this film.  I didn't necessarily think I'd care about this story, which seemed rather slight in comparison to the other year-end "Oscar-contending" films - but I, just as Martin did, was brought and sucked into this absolutely fascinating story with many layers, unraveling the truth behind Philomena's past and present.  Philomena will come at you very subtly, until you realize you're holding your breath at what will happen next.  It's undeniably a comedy (as its poster protests), but it's so much more than that.

I loved almost everything about this film.  Coogan and Dench are the best screen pairing I can think of this year, and their relationship is incredibly sincere. The culture gap between the two birthed many genuinely funny scenes, and their developing rapport gave the latter half of the picture a lot of heartstring-pulling moments.  The story goes in places you wouldn't necessarily expect (at least I didn't), and I definitely could have cried if I wanted to.  Also worth noting is the brilliant score by Alexandre Desplat, whose soft, lullaby-like music strikes this perfect balance between sweetness and sadness, perfectly encapsulating the feel of the film and Dench's brilliant performance (one of the best of the year).

Other than absolutely trivial nitpicks (such as the over-use of home movie footage of the lost boy during transitions), I loved everything about this movie.  It deals with themes of aging, religion, guilt, and self-discovery, all wrapped in a neat little bow by co-screenwriter Coogan with his fantastic script.  Also, the cinematography, especially around Ireland and Washington DC, was stunning as well (from Fish Tank's Robbie Ryan).  I would recommend this film to just about anyone.

Rating: A

Out of the Furnace
Dir. Scott Cooper

Jeff Bridges won the Academy Award in 2009 for Scott Cooper's Crazy Heart as a grizzled, down-and-out country singer - and in many ways Out of the Furnace is a logical follow-up to Cooper's first theatrical film.  Russell Baze (Christian Bale), is always looking out for his baby brother Rodney (Casey Affleck), as economic times are crumbling in the old steel town of Braddock, Pennsylvania.  Rodney eventually goes off to Iraq, and comes back a changed, angry man - and takes out his aggression in violent fights set up in the backwoods countryside by the violent DeGroat (Woody Harrelson), which obviously doesn't bode well.

Out of the Furnace does a great job establishing its atmosphere, and the actors are all top notch (just looking at the cast list is impressive: Bale, Harrelson, Shephard, Affleck, Whittaker, Dafoe - this may be one of the best "casts" in a film this year), but the film ended up too predictable and melodramatic to be much more than an acting showcase.  It's pretty much The Deer Hunter in a more modern setting, showing the devastation of coming back from war, and turns into a kind of revenge flick.  The post-war stuff in the beginning works much better in my opinion than the straightforward second portion.  It's a fine film with some great moments and great performances (Harrelson in particular sticks out), but never really comes together to make something special.

Rating: C+

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