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Film Review – The Grand Budapest Hotel
03/15/14 at 11:13 PM by Jonathan Bautts

IMDb Summary: The adventures of Gustave H, a legendary concierge at a famous European hotel between the wars, and Zero Moustafa, the lobby boy who becomes his most trusted friend.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is unabashedly a Wes Anderson concoction that only he could create, as viewers of his previous seven films will quickly attest, and yet it’s a little bit different as well. The symmetrical compositions, color palette, detailed production design, meticulous camera shots, quirky antics and ginormous ensemble are all there, but this time Anderson has the biggest canvas he’s ever had to play with, shooting largely in 4:3 to match the time period, and thematically there’s a darker tinge.

To start things off, Anderson employs a story-within a story-within a story framework. It’s not exactly necessary, but it turns the great F. Murray Abraham into the film’s narrator, so he gets away with it. The two main protagonists are newcomer Tony Revolori as Abraham’s younger self and Ralph Fiennes, and for the majority we follow their exploits of working at the Grand Budapest, in a fictional European country right before the outbreak of WWII, and some of Fiennes extracurricular activities, which revolve around an elderly lady’s will and stealing a priceless painting named Boy With Apple.

Revolori is a revelation and a natural for Anderson’s eccentricities, which as we’ve seen in past films are not always easy for newbies to pick up on, and it’s amazing this is just his first big screen outing. Meanwhile, Fiennes, another Anderson first-timer, turns in one of the top five performances of his storied career, being both charmingly captivating and ruggedly profane, often simultaneously, and is a delight to witness in action. The camaraderie between the two is impeccable.

The biggest detriment to Grand Budapest might be in its own ambitions. With the time jumps and endless stream of characters, the story is so jam-packed things fly by at breakneck speed and rarely slow down. It’s never particularly confusing, but repeat viewings will be a must to soak everything in. From top to bottom, Anderson has assembled his most impressive cast yet, which is saying something, but it also means no one outside of the two leads is fully fleshed out. Anderson regulars like Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman pop by for only one or two minutes, and then they’re gone. Too little of a good thing is hardly the worst criticism you can lob at a film, but the world and characters Anderson created are so rich, it would have been nice to spend additional time with them.

As mentioned previously, there’s a shadowy tint to Grand Budapest Hotel that makes it stand out amongst Anderson’s filmography. While all of his work has an underlining element of sadness to it, Grand Budapest embraces that to a fuller extent. Characters die, one even in gruesome fashion, making it probably the first of Anderson’s films you could actually classify as violent, and the story’s large passage of time paints events in a more remorseful light. There’s still plenty of laughs and fun capers to go around, but the real life heaviness leaves as big an impression. In the end, Anderson uses it all as a springboard to address the very nature of storytelling itself, and purposefully or not serves an example of a modern storyteller at the top of his game.

Grade: B+
Tags: the grand budapest hotel, wes anderson, review
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Film Review – The Act Of Killing
03/08/14 at 10:09 PM by Jonathan Bautts

IMDb Plot Summary: A documentary which challenges former Indonesian death-squad leaders to reenact their mass-killings in whichever cinematic genres they wish, including classic Hollywood crime scenarios and lavish musical numbers.

If you’re like me, and I would assume most Americans, you have little to no knowledge of the Indonesian genocide that happened in 1965-66 where the government hired death squads to butcher half a million people it accused of being “communists.” To make matters even scarier, that same government remains in charge to this day, right down to some of the same people who carried out the task, and there’s never been any sort of public apology or remorse for their actions, much less anyone being punished or brought to justice.

The Act of Killing follows one of the survivors in particular, Anwar Congo, as he and his buddies recreate what they did in mini film scenes, only fitting, you see, since some of their gangster influences where from watching American cinema growing up. Congo at first sees nothing wrong with his past deeds, in fact often rejoicing and celebrating in them, but gradually begins to open up about having nightmares about the hundreds of people he killed, until in the end getting physically sick and seeming to understand just what he actually did for the first time in his life. Whether it’s sincere or merely acting for the camera, only Congo knows for certain, but it makes for one of the most chilling looks into human nature you’re likely to encounter, and hopefully will raise more awareness about this horrible atrocity, in Indonesia itself and worldwide, so that it can finally be reconciled with and never happen again.

Grade: B+

Post script: I would not recommend watching the 167-minute director’s cut, because it is really looong and has a habit to drag.
Tags: the act of killing, film review
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Film Review – The Lego Movie
03/08/14 at 08:44 PM by Jonathan Bautts

IMDb Plot Summary: An ordinary LEGO minifigure, mistakenly thought to be the extraordinary MasterBuilder, is recruited to join a quest to stop an evil LEGO tyrant from gluing the universe together.

The Lego Movie went from having zero expectations to giant ones in the span of the week before it opened, thanks to some ridiculously raving reviews and strong word of mouth. It makes for somewhat of an awkward viewing, then, because it’s clearly better than it has any right to be, easily superseding a quick cash-grab nature most people assumed when the project was first announced, but never reaches the plateau of greatness people hastily began bestowing upon it, which I doubt was ever its intent, either.

It’s a lot of fun either way, with some spot-on casting, loads of jokes and impressive animation, along with a surprising dramatic twist late in the game I didn’t see coming but one it pulls off well. On the other hand, it’s also the most ADD kid’s movie I’ve ever seen, never dwelling on much for very long and tossing everything but the kitchen sink at viewers. It’s pure overload, plain and simple, and though it does make some thematic sense in the end, additional focus would have done wonders. It also starts off quite slowly, leaning a little too heavily on Matrix/1984 underpinnings, and really doesn’t take off until Will Arnett’s Batman shows up, who steals every scene he’s in and is the obvious standout.

As someone who actually grew up playing with Legos, as a great many kids did in the 90s, The Lego Movie was a welcome trip down memory lane, and despite its flaws the best animated film I’ve seen since 2011’s Tintin.

Grade: B
Tags: the lego movie, film review
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Film Review – Short Term 12
01/28/14 at 01:03 PM by Jonathan Bautts

IMDb Plot Summary: A 20-something supervising staff member of a residential treatment facility navigates the troubled waters of that world alongside her co-worker and longtime boyfriend.

The stories behind the at-risk youth in Short Term 12 may be fictional, but there is an element of truth to them that unnervingly reverberates in an all too realistic fashion. Writer-director Destin Cretton spent two years working at a similar facility as seen in the film, helping him to craft an environment that almost feels like it could be culled from a documentary at times. The understated brilliance of Short Term 12 is seen through the eyes of those given charge of temporarily watching over these kids, and how perhaps they’re not much better off themselves. They may have life slightly more together in the present, but deep down are just as broken and in need of the same things.

Brie Larson is magnificent as our “heroine,” the main person in charge of the center who comes with her own set of childhood baggage. Larson excels in the scenes interacting with the kids, and then turns around and is completely heartbreaking when she doesn’t take her own advice and plunges her personal life into chaos. It’s my first time seeing Larson in a lead role, and it will not be the last because she is destined for greatness.

The rest of the cast is a proverbial who’s who from recent TV shows, and while it’s a bit distracting at first, they settle into their roles nicely. John Gallagher Jr. (The Newsroom) especially makes an impact as Larson’s boyfriend and shows what he’s capable of when actually given strong material. Kaitlyn Dever is terrific in a role similar to her troubled turn on Justified, while Rami Malek (The Pacific) and Stephanie Beatriz (Brooklyn Nine-Nine) make brief appearances as the other staff members.

Short Term 12 might be a little overhyped by critics (it was 2013’s highest-rated limited release on Rotten Tomatoes after all), as admittedly some of the melodrama feels a little manufactured (bad things tend to happen in rapid succession). However, to its credit it really nails the group-home dynamics and is a worthwhile film demanding of a wide audience, especially by those who work or have worked with teens. At its core, it speaks to how every person has the same profound aching for love, and it is love that in the end keeps us together. It might sound sappy, but Short Term 12 proves it’s for real.

Grade: B+

Postscript: Nathan Rabin recently wrote a piece for The Dissolve comparing his own experience growing up in a group home with Short Term 12. Well worth a read.
Tags: short term 12, film review
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Film Review – The Square
01/25/14 at 04:31 PM by Jonathan Bautts

IMDb Plot Summary: A group of Egyptian revolutionaries battle leaders and regimes, risking their lives to build a new society of conscience.

Revolution as change is never easy. It does not happen overnight. The societal foundation needs to be ripped apart so a new cornerstone can be set, which is an arduous and oftentimes extremely violent process. The most well known is America’s own Revolution, which lasted roughly 20 years and culminated in a bloody five-year war. But America’s lasting liberation is a historical outlier. Most are not nearly so successful.

Egypt is currently three years into its own revolution, with mixed results, and The Square strikingly captures the growing crusade from the ground floor. Things kick off in earnest in January 2011, when protestors take to Cairo’s Tahrir Square that leads to Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak’s resignation following a brutal 30-year reign. People weep in the streets. Cheers and smiles are everywhere. Yet few realize their struggle is only beginning.

The Muslim Brotherhood quickly steps in and fills the power vacuum, but little actually changes. They abuse power in much the same manner as before. Real democracy and freedom from oppression remain elusive, while people continue to be arrested and protestors shot at in the streets. This leads to another massive showing in Tahrir Square in the summer of 2013, bigger than before and one of the largest demonstrations in human history. President Mohamed Morsi is replaced by military rule, conditions remain dire, and the cycle continues.

Despite all the political upheaval and a constant state of chaos, The Square to its benefit remains relatively focused on three main characters amidst the Tahrir-related activities. The main voice is Ahmed Hassan, a twentysomething working-class man who is very passionate and optimistic about Egypt’s quest for social change. We also follow British-Egyptian actor Khalid Abdalla (The Kite Runner, United 93), an outspoken activist who gives interviews to U.S. news stations and posts YouTube videos chronicling what is happening. The final person is Magdy Ashour, a close friend of Hassan and member of the Muslim Brotherhood who is conflicted between supporting the cause and the questionable methods the Brotherhood employs.

Documentarian Jehane Noujaim, who was raised in Egypt but has lived in Boston since the ‘90s, masterfully constructs all this footage into a most harrowing and unforgettable experience. Immediately you are dropped right into what is happening on the street level, and it never lets go. I’ve never seen anything quite like it before. Many people put in years of hard work and risked their very livelihoods to get Egypt’s story more widely known on a global scale, and are to be commended for their efforts. The Square received the prestigious audience awards at both Sundance and Toronto, as well as an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary, and is one of those rare films that needs to be seen by as many people as possible.

Certainly, Egyptian politics remains a very convoluted maze right now, with no clear end point in sight, and there’s no way for it to be effectively communicated or solved in a single two-hour film. It will probably be decades from now until the revolution itself can even be judged a success or failure. What The Square is invaluable at is providing a slice of insight into Egypt’s current state by matching human faces with what we’ve seen on the news. Tahrir comes to symbolize the very soul of Egypt and those fighting for it, and the film posits genuine hope the revolution’s initial dreams will one day be fulfilled. As Hassan beautifully closes, “We’re not looking for a leader as much as we’re looking for a conscience. What is a leader anyway? Are they going to offer solutions from the heavens? They won’t do that. The thing is, if we are able to create this conscience within the society, we’ll be able to find a good president. We are not looking for a leader to rule us. Because everyone who went to Tahrir is a leader. We are looking for a conscience.”

Grade: A-
Tags: the square, film review
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Film Review – Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit
01/23/14 at 12:04 AM by Jonathan Bautts

IMDb Plot Summary: Jack Ryan, as a young covert CIA analyst, uncovers a Russian plot to crash the U.S. economy with a terrorist attack.

This latest Jack Ryan entry is Hollywood’s fifth installment of the character in the last 24 years and third reboot of the franchise, with Chris Pine the fourth actor to take on the title role. The last entry, 2002’s The Sum of All Fears with Ben Affleck, was moderately successful if creatively indistinctive, and indeed 12 years later the only thing I remember from it was it had a cool explosion scene. None of these things make for good omens, and the very fact it’s taken 12 years for Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit to make it to the big screen proves the latest example of Hollywood’s unwillingness to let things die without milking every last dime first.

Admittedly, Shadow Recruit was not very high on my radar until the first trailer hit, which piqued my interest and showed the character still had potential to succeed. Chris Pine is a fine choice to build a franchise around. It worked gangbusters in Star Trek, and though he has never proven to be a box office draw on his own yet, he’s done solid work over the years in fare such as Unstoppable and People Like Us. He’s a charming actor easy to like and root for, and whatever success Shadow Recruit has is largely due to him.Pine’s trend is unfortunately likely to continue, however, as Shadow Recruit drew lackluster business at the box office and fails to distinguish itself afresh.

The main problem is it remains stuck in the past and is forced to play a difficult game of catch-up. In the years since Hunt for Red October and the two Harrison Ford outings in the early 90s, and especially in the wake of Sum of All Fears, the Bourne, Mission: Impossible and James Bond franchises have redefined and to a certain extent perfected the modern spy thriller. Shadow Recruit tries to have its cake and eat it too without going through the efforts of a complete overhaul, a la Casino Royale, and suffers for it.

It stubbornly clings to the original character’s outdated Cold War tropes, which stopped being exciting plots for movies years ago, while director Kenneth Branagh shoots through a Bourne lite lens that impresses little. Branagh always seemed like an odd choice for spy reinvention, being how shooting action has never been his forte. He doesn’t have the slick chops to pull off the thrills or inventiveness someone like a Paul Greengrass or Brad Bird brings to the table, but he also regretfully doesn’t incorporate the fun antics that made Thor work, the film which probably landed him this one, and plays things safe down the middle.

Safe is perhaps the best word that encapsulates the current state of Jack Ryan. It mainly sticks with what has worked in the past and doesn’t mess with that tried and true formula. To a certain degree, I suppose there’s some comfort to be found in that, especially for fans of ‘80-90s action, and despite its many faults I never found myself ever actively disliking Shadow Recruit.

The plot is as ridiculous as expected, involving an act of financial terrorism that kind of makes sense but not really. There’s an over-the-top Russian villain with a ridiculous accent (really, is there any other kind?), played by Branagh doing double duty. Kevin Costner provides a nice supporting turn as Ryan’s mentor. These are all more or less things that you can roll with, but what cannot be fully overcome is how low the emotional stakes are.

The story suffers whenever it comes to dealing with Ryan’s personal life. It starts off with an interesting take of him as a wounded vet, but then jumps to present day and does little else outside of the obligatory patriotic flutters. Meanwhile, Keira Knightley is wasted as his fiancé in a relationship that leaves most of the romance and reason to care on the floor. Not exactly the strongest place to be starting from if you’re planning on launching a blockbuster franchise.

Like it’s 2002 predecessor, Shadow Recruit adds nothing new to the genre, but on the other hand it doesn’t embarrass itself, either. Jack Ryan spins a competent enough yarn to keep oneself occupied on a lazy afternoon, and once it’s over likely will be forgotten just as quickly. Whether or not Hollywood finally decides to forget about Ryan, too, remains to be seen.

Grade: C+
Tags: jack ryan, shadow recruit, film review
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Film Review – The Past
01/21/14 at 10:05 PM by Jonathan Bautts

IMDb Plot Summary: An Iranian man deserts his French wife and two children to return to his homeland. Meanwhile, his wife starts up a new relationship, a reality her husband confronts upon his wife's request for a divorce.

The opening scene of The Past features a pair of characters in a busy airport attempting to communicate through a glass partition. They're not very successful, no surprise, and it serves as a perfect thematic symbol for what The Past represents - the things in life that get in the way and make communicating with loved ones a difficult, and at times seemingly impossible, task.

The Past is Iranian director Asghar Farhadi's follow-up to 2011's A Separation, one of the very best foreign films of the past decade that holds a coveted 99% on Rotten Tomatoes. While it doesn't quite achieve that film's masterpiece status, it is more than a worthy effort that firmly establishes Farhadi as one of the most exciting and dramatically adept directors in the world working today. How it didn't even make the shortlist for Best Foreign Film is beyond comprehension.

The two films also make for absorbing companions. Both use a messy divorce as a springboard into examining an intimate domestic setting more closely, gradually peeling back layer upon layer to reveal no person or situation is as cut and cry as it first appears. Relationships turn out to be incredibly complicated and cluttered. Characters rush to judgment without knowing the whole story and suffer devastating consequences. The past continually reverberates its ugly head in the present, hence the title. Emotional collateral damage is everywhere. And yet, startlingly and to its credit, The Past never settles for a simple defeatist attitude despite all the distress.

It wallops like a gut-punch, no question. There are scenes likely to make you wince. There's no music of any kind until the end credits, no easy relief or insinuation about how you're supposed to feel. The words and the silence in between those words are loud enough, exquisitely conveyed by the superb cast. The Past knows we all make mistakes and have faults, but it also knows healing is possible when we admit and take ownership of them. As the film's potently ambiguous final single-shot reveals, the choice on when and if it is irreparably late is up to you.

Grade: A-
Tags: the past, film review
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Film Review – Her
01/19/14 at 12:10 AM by Jonathan Bautts

IMDb Plot Summary: A lonely writer develops an unlikely relationship with his newly purchased operating system that's designed to meet his every need.

On paper there’s absolutely no way Her should work as a dramatic film. A man falling in love with his operating system is a ludicrous, Pluto Nash-sized disaster-in-waiting at worst, a mildly entertaining, end-of-the-night SNL sketch at best. Yet, against all odds, the sheer creative genius of Spike Jonze pulls the concept together and makes it work, and boy does it work.

From the world building, to the slightly futuristic meets retro production design, to the dazzling Los Angeles crossed with Shanghai locales, Jonze concocts a time and place where entering into a relationship with a computer is a socially acceptable and normal thing to do, and we the audience don’t question it for a second. That’s a remarkable sleight of hand to achieve, but all would be for naught, however, if the actors didn’t make it believable and real on an emotional level.

Joaquin Phoenix was faced with the daunting task of pulling this off by appearing in nearly every scene, often by himself and playing against an unseen voice, which as we know on set was an actress (Samantha Morton) who didn’t even make the final cut. But as Phoenix has proved throughout his career, most recently in 2012’s The Master, there’s this deep reserve he is able to tap into to make any role utterly convincing. The result is one of the most resonant performances of 2013.

It certainly helps when the imaginary voice turns out to be Scarlett Johansson’s, who is as magnetic as the critics have made her out to be. It’s one of the most impressive voice-only performances I’ve ever heard, and it’s the natural chemistry between her and Phoenix that makes Her come to life and give it real world weight, no matter what preconceptions you might have had based on the trailers.

Now Jonze has been criticized for trying to cram a little bit of everything into Her, and it’s true the film is stuffed to the brim with tantalizing thematic possibilities and doesn’t have time to sufficiently address all of them. The nature of love, what constitutes being in a real relationship, the role of technology in our lives and how it reflects our deeper selves, is all heady stuff not easily explained away by a single montage. People’s reactions to the film’s conclusion have been somewhat split as well, but I thought it was earned and a worthy end to what Jonze was trying to say.

Above all, what Jonze does is zero it in on one particular man’s loneliness and struggle to overcome his recent divorce. We experience his alienation and longing for connection firsthand, we ache during his flashbacks to his ex-wife, we revel in his bubbling infatuation with Johansson, and we emphasize when (shocker) all his relationships turn out to be hard work, even one with an OS. In much the same way as in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, there are bits and pieces we all joyfully and painfully see in ourselves over the course of Phoenix’s journey, in addition to being wowed by the inventive flourishes. Years from now Her seems destined to join it as a modern classic, a rumination of love, loss and ultimately rebirth for the 21st century.

Grade: A
Tags: film review, her
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Film Review – Lone Survivor
01/18/14 at 07:31 PM by Jonathan Bautts

IMDb Plot Summary: Marcus Luttrell and his team set out on a mission to capture or kill notorious al Qaeda leader Ahmad Shahd, in late June 2005. Marcus and his team are left to fight for their lives in one of the most valiant efforts of modern warfare.

Something didn’t sit well with me while watching Lone Survivor, and it’s exemplified in The Atlantic’s thought-provoking article, “Every War Movie is a Pro-War Movie.” What it boils down to is the line between depicting war as a terrible, gruesome nightmare no human should have to endure and romanticizing the fighting, explosions and brotherhood to such a degree it ends up glorifying war instead. For most of its runtime, Lone Survivor unfortunately falls in the latter camp, a bit uncomfortably as well.

There’s no question writer-director Peter Berg did an exhaustive amount of research and has all the respect in the world for the men and women who fight for our country, as evidenced by the insightful Q&A he did with Jeff Goldsmith. However, the manner by which he depicts them in action, relying on numerous slow motion shots and fixating on how many times these soldiers take bullet hits and sustain bloody injuries without slowing down, seems to paint them in almost a comic book light. Comparisons to a less stylized 300 are not too far off. By turning these soldiers into nothing more than larger than life action heroes, it contradicts the hyper-reality Berg was going after, putting them on such a pedestal it dissociates from the actual stand they took and the fact they lost their lives for it.

I’ve been a fan of the four leads for a long time, and they provide adequate work, but they are clearly hamstrung by how a large chunk of the movie is essentially reduced to one big action sequence with them spouting off uncreative dialogue. There are hints of a deeper meditation on the morality of war and the tough decisions people caught in the middle of one face, on both sides, but it never ventures very far down that path, either. Ultimately, Lone Survivor is more concerned with trying hard to be a small scale Black Hawk Down, yet it lacks the sheer power and balls-out intensity that film sinks you into to make up for its dramatic faults. Regretfully, Lone Survivor is more of a hollow, Hollywood-action memorial instead.

Grade: C+
Tags: film review, lone survivor
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Quick Reaction To Oscar Nominations
01/16/14 at 08:16 AM by Jonathan Bautts
– First off, Nebraska was far and away the most overrated film from last year, and this is coming from a longtime Alexander Payne fan. I would have given all of its nominations away to more deserving choices, especially in a year as jam-packed as 2013 was, but for some reason critics (not audiences, however) ate it up.
– Tom Hanks turned out to be the biggest victim of one of the most competitive Best Actor lineups in history. The last scene alone in Captain Philips was the most powerfully acted scene in recent memory and one of his career highlights. Paul Greengrass also got snubbed for Best Director.
– As did Spike Jonze for Her. Her was my favorite film from last year and it was a bummer it didn’t pick up any acting love. It did get a Best Picture nom, which was awesome. Hoping Jonze wins for Original Screenplay at least.
– American Hustle has to be considered the current Best Picture frontrunner. Has a lot of support from the all-important SAG, with noms in all four acting categories, and most of the momentum. Made my top 10 from last year but think there are more important choices out there like 12 Years A Slave, which seems to have peaked too soon. Would be welcome to see David O. Russell finally win, so hard to argue too vehemently against.
– Emma Thompson got snubbed for Best Actress for Saving Mr. Banks, but alas the Academy’s love affair for all things Meryl Streep continues, even when she’s in films that aren’t great.
– Really perplexing Documentary and Foreign Film choices. Left off almost all of the most critically acclaimed and publicized options, including Blackfish, Stories We Tell, The Past, The Grandmaster, etc. Interesting note: Netflix picked up its first Oscar nomination for the Egyptian documentary The Square, yet another sign of the changing media landscape. Haven't seen it yet but hear it's pretty incredible.
– Blue Jasmine, Before Midnight and/or Inside Llewyn Davis should have got Best Picture noms, especially since they went with Philomena instead. Heck, Saving Mr. Banks should have been picked over Philomena.
– Hardly any love for All Is Lost or Llewyn Davis and nothing for Fruitvale Station, which is disappointing. Same with Before Midnight, which I’d argue is one of the most effective threequels of all time, but only garnered an Adapted Screenplay nod.
– Pharrell got an Original Song nom. Thought that was pretty cool, but as usual they left off a lot of good choices as well, including Coldplay, Florence + The Machine and Please Mr. Kennedy!
– No love for Pacific Rim in any of the technical categories! C’mon, really? It was the second best visually and sonically impressive film of the year, behind only Gravity, but apparently they’d rather honor Lone Ranger instead. For shame!
– Bradley Cooper and Jonah Hill are now two-time Academy Award nominees, and they both actually deserve it. Let that sink in for a moment.
– I predict a lot of repeat winners from the Golden Globes, a huge rarity these days. Most of the potential winners are hard to argue against at this stage and actually quite worthy, though.
Tags: oscars, film, academy awards
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Film Review – Gravity
10/13/13 at 08:16 PM by Jonathan Bautts
It’s been a long seven-year wait since Alfonso Cuarón’s last film, the masterful Children of Men, so needless to say there was a lot of excitement for Gravity among the film community, especially considering Curaón has spent the last four plus years working tirelessly on it. However, I found the marketing of Gravity to be a letdown, with the CG standing out as quite corny in places, so was prepared to be a little disappointed going in. Thankfully, within the first few minutes those fears were quickly put to rest because, when taken in context on the big screen, the effects are nothing short of spellbinding.

With Gravity, Curaón has created a visual feast the likes of which have not been seen before. From the opening 17-minute shot, you immediately get the sense you’re watching something special unfold. I have no idea how they made it (I can’t wait to watch the extras!), but he renders space as realistic as anyone could possibly expect in a Hollywood production. I have little doubt it’s the closest most people will ever come to actually being there or experiencing a zero-g environment. It’s the closest I personally ever want to get, that’s for sure.

All is for naught, however, if there aren’t good characters or a good story. Sure, the story is as simple as it gets, and it only consists of two characters, but it’s always compelling and resonates on an emotional level. In a role several other A-list actresses passed on, looking foolish for them now, Sandra Bullock turns in the strongest work of her career, one in which will position her in the center of Oscar talk once again.

I’ve never been a huge Bullock fan, but here she’s stripped of all charm or awkward attempts at humor and is simply fighting for survival, and she is magnificent. Even when the back story involving her son is brought into focus, which, let’s face it, was fairly manipulative and made the film’s themes blatantly obvious, she still makes it play and have it feel real.

George Clooney, as the other character, doesn’t have as much heavy lifting to do, but does exactly what is called for. He makes a few wisecracks to alleviate some of the tension, gets Bullock to where she needs to be (in more ways than one), and then brings it home with one of my favorite scenes towards the end.

Gravity has a few minor faults, but none I would call serious or major. The dialogue, which has been called out by many, I didn’t have much of a problem with. I can understand why it has gotten under fire, and can’t deny the film likely would have improved if it had been even more silent than it was, but two other things stood out to me more.

Gravity does a stellar job at avoiding clichés, but there’s one whopper of a scene where it fully embraces one of the oldest in the book midway through. You’ll know it when you see it. It could easily have been switched out for something less predictable, and it became all the more bothersome when I found out afterwards it wasn’t even scientifically accurate in the slightest. Oh, well.

The other quibble I have with is the ending, which I thought would have greatly benefited from some ambiguity, in much the same way Children of Men would have. It was a little too Hollywoodized for my tastes, which I’m sure a lot of people appreciated as a release after going through such an unconventionally rendered experience, but imagine the gut-punch it would have packed if it ended two minutes earlier.

Still, those complaints are essentially nitpicks when taken with the grand scale of things. Gravity is one of 2013’s finest achievements and will likely be looked back as one of the special effects pioneers of our day. It’s also on pace to becoming the most financially successful avant garde film ever made and a global phenomenon, which is equally as impressive. Curaón is one of the great visionaries of our time, and it’s a joy to watch the rest of the world finally catch on.
Tags: film review, gravity
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Interview – The Joy Formidable
04/12/13 at 01:27 AM by Jonathan Bautts
Frontwoman Ritzy Bryan talks about the scientific concept behind the band’s sophomore album Wolf’s Law, recording in Maine during the dead of winter, and the balancing act between their live show and studio recordings.

"[Wolf's Law] is this scientific term and theory, like you described, of bones being able to adapt to different types of stresses. We’re always interested by language and imagery in language. Like many things do, it seemed to have a relevance to the tracks we were starting to write, the album we were starting to make."
Tags: the joy formidable, interivew
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Interview – Anberlin
03/05/13 at 11:08 AM by Jonathan Bautts
Guitarist Christian McAlhaney discusses Anberlin’s latest album Vital, major label troubles, the past and future of Acceptance, and reuniting with producer Aaron Sprinkle.

"I can probably say that this will be our last record on Universal. It was great, but major labels are always struggling. They’re polishing the brass on the Titanic. We had a good run, for sure, but there was always the risk of getting the major label rigmarole. It’s always about the profit. It’s always about the top dollar and what’s happening now, which is why every label is signing a bunch of bands that sound like Mumford & Sons. We released a super heavy rock record, but whatever. They’ve been good to us and breathed some good life into our career."
Tags: anberlin, interview, Christian McAlhaney
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Interview – fun.
02/20/13 at 01:10 AM by Jonathan Bautts
Guitarist Jack Antonoff talks about the band’s big Grammy night, playing larger venues, the status of Steel Train and what’s next for fun.

"There’s a lot of stuff we’ve done this year and we’ve gotten really good at just shutting off. There’s some things that are too big to even think about, and you get to the point in your head where all you can think about while you’re up there is when you used to do really small shows. Now it’s the Grammys, but it’s still the same thing. The environment is the same. It’s the same emotions. I play guitar the same way, Nate sings the same way, so it’s really important in those moments to treat it no different than like playing a club show."
Tags: fun., interview
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Film Review – Side Effects
02/13/13 at 10:24 PM by Jonathan Bautts
Stephen Soderbergh has been contemplating early retirement for a few years and now, according to him, Side Effects will be his final theatrical release, at least for the time being. He has a film that will air on HBO later this year, and then after that, he’s moving on to the next phase of his life. If Side Effects does indeed go down as his swan song, he goes out on a high and striking note.

Tapping into his inner Hitchcock and Polanski, Side Effects is Soderbergh’s version of a creepy psychological thriller. It starts out as a vicious, almost PSA-esque attack on the dangers of pharmaceuticals before morphing into something completely different 45 minutes in. Our society has become far too overly dependent on trying to prescribe its way out of problems, and Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns take that concept to its extreme conclusion in unexpected ways.

Needless to say, there are plot twists aplenty, which are quite effective at keeping you on your heels, so go in as cold as possible. At some point a certain level of disbelief becomes required by necessity, as is often the case with stories of this nature, but the groundwork laid is strong enough to fall back onto without much of a hiccup. A good deal of that is due to the brilliant casting of Rooney Mara, who previously was the opening scene-stealer in Social Network and underwent the impressive transformation as the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. She does another 180 here, suffering under an intense depression cloud with deeper demons bubbling beneath the surface. Mara has established herself as one of the most talented young actresses of her generation, and it’s obvious to anyone paying attention she’s going to have a very long and prosperous career.

Jude Law is the other main piece of the puzzle and responds with some of the best work he’s done in a while. He’s able to play both sides of the aisle, as his character seems to be a good guy at times and a bad one at others, and that gray becomes key when his life and career quickly unravel and he starts to lose it. The supporting cast of Channing Tatum and Catherine Zeta Jones, among others, all contribute important, and memorable, aspects to the story.

Side Effects is a definite step up from Soderbergh’s last two efforts, Haywire and Magic Mike, both of which left plenty to be desired, and joins Contagion as his best work since the early 2000s. It’s masterfully shot and put together, clearly demonstrating he’s still at the top of his game with a lot left in the tank. There stands a good chance he will get the itch to direct again and be back at it in a few years, but you never know. This could very well be it. Anything is possible, as Side Effects makes abundantly clear, and if he is done, his 25-year, one-of-a-kind career won’t soon be forgotten.
Tags: film review, side effects
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