Monday, December 30, 2013

Top 10 Films of 2013


And here we are, another year has come and gone.  For me personally, 2013 was better than 2012, but it still had more than its fair share of troubles.  Here's hoping for 2014 to be the best year ever.  As far as film goes, I've already said enough about my feelings on 2013 as a whole, but that's not what today is about, today is about honoring the best films of 2013.  Sure, 2013 was not the best year of film I've ever experienced, but I would gladly put this Top 10, in particular the Top 5, up against any year end list I've ever compiled.  While there were fewer films that I gave A+ ratings to than average, the films I did give A+ ratings to are ones that I have a feeling we'll all be remembering for years to come.

Now, with this year's list, I've decided to just take a new approach.  In previous years I often waited till three weeks into the new year before I posted my year end lists, because so many films released at the end of the year often don't start showing at a theater near me till the new year, however this year I've decided to do it literally at the end of the year.  What does this mean?  Well, it means my list will be different from the average critic's lists, because I wont have seen many of the films that critics have seen.

So what films are eligible?  Pretty much any film I reviewed here on the blog between January 2013 and December 2013, excluding any film that I reviewed that appeared on last year's list, and then next year it will be the same January to December timeframe.  While I used to always try to include every film that was Oscar eligible on my list, I just don't have the luxury of living in New York and LA, and therefore those Oscar films may not be reviewed till January, but that means they'll be eligible for next year's list.  So with that all said, on to the Top 10 Films of 2013!

****


10.  Ender's Game
(Last Year:  The Secret World of Arrietty)
I really believe the controversy surrounding author Orson Scott Card really hurt this film upon release, which is a shame, because Ender's Game was a very well done science fiction flick.  Scott Card had drawn ire from the media following his opposition against gay marriage, but Scott Card only wrote the book the movie was based on, and that should not be grounds for people to not give the film a shot.  Ender's Game is a thoughtful exploration of our potential future, where genius children are used to operate drones in our war against aliens.  Ideas such as bullying, violence in video games, and the aforementioned drone warfare, are at the forefront of this film and really make you think about your stance on these ideas, of course this is also just an entertaining film.  While there is very little levity, this film features some phenomenally imaginative action sequences and it makes you care for the characters, so much so that when they triumph you want to cheer, and when they are emotionally wrought by the horrors of war decisions, you feel it.


9.  Captain Phillips 
(Last Year:  Lincoln)
I am not always a huge fan of docudramas, where the film is shot like a documentary to give the viewer the feeling of observing real-life events, but for Captain Phillips, that style is what helped make the film (it also doesn't hurt when the film stars Tom Hanks).  In the film, Hanks portrays the titular captain whose boat has been taken over by Somali pirates off the coast of Africa, and what ensues is a tense standoff between the pirates and the US military.  What manages to elevate this material is the fact that Tom Hanks is a movie star that we already feel a connection with, and his everyman persona is what carries the film.  There is not much to his character beyond the fact that he's the captain of a shipping vessel, but our familiarity with Hanks and his ability to bring raw emotion, allows us inside this story and keeps us on that boat with him for the full two plus hours.


8.  Thor: The Dark World
(Last Year:  Silver Linings Playbook)
I said it in my review of this film, and I'll say it again, you either like what Marvel Studios is doing right now, or you don't.  If you like what Marvel is doing with The Avengers-universe with Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America, then you love each and every film they make.  While Iron Man 3 was not my favorite of their films, I still enjoy it a great deal, and Thor: The Dark World was everything I wanted it to be.  This was one of the most fun films of the year.  I never felt as if there was a lack of action or humor, and yet there was also enough drama to where I felt as if the stakes were serious.  Of course, what really won me over with this film is the way that Marvel continues to treat the comic books with respect.  Marvel never deviates too far away from what allowed these films to be made in the first place, and that is why I am loving everything they are doing right now (Mandarin subplot in Iron Man 3 excluded).


7.  Jack the Giant Slayer
(Last Year:  Zero Dark Thirty)
Sometimes it's good to see a film that doesn't try to be anything more than just a fun, simple movie, and that's what Jack the Giant Slayer is.  This was one of the biggest flops of the year, but it is one that I feel more people should have seen.  While there is nothing wildly original about director Bryan Singer's vision, this is a straight forward telling of the Jack and the beanstalk fairy tale, complete with a princess and evil giants looking to take over the world below.  There is some nice dry, witty humor throughout the film, with some great swashbuckling action that makes you feel like a kid again.  While the CGI effects weren't the best I've ever seen and were a little too cartoony when matched with the live action material shot in camera, the film's energy and its thematic ideas manage to stand out.  The film's exploration of how stories are passed down and changed through generations, is a fascinating theme that I feel Bryan Singer handles with great clarity while never losing the naive sensibility that makes this film feel so enjoyable.


6.  Star Trek Into Darkness
(Last Year:  The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey)
2009's Star Trek was my favorite film of that year, so my expectations perhaps were too high for the sequel, Star Trek Into Darkness.  While I still prefer 2009's Star Trek, I think Into Darkness is a more than worthy successor.  The greatest thing I loved about Star Trek Into Darkness, is it feels just like coming home.  From the moment we see the Paramount logo and hear Michael Giacchino's Star Trek theme play over it, I felt relaxed and comforted.  Then, director J.J. Abrams reintroduced us to the same lovable cast from the first film, while delivering massive action set pieces that created genuine awe and wonder, a rarity in this day and age where films often take their impressive visuals for granted.  While the debate will rage forever regarding the weak anti-climactic ending, as well as to whether or not it was right to pretty much remake Wrath of Khan with this sequel, there is no taking away the fun and rich emotional experience that this film offers.


5.  Rush
(Last Year:  Wreck-It Ralph)
This was a film that I was not expecting to love as much as I did, but I personally found director Ron Howard's Formula-One racing drama, Rush, one of the best cinematic experiences of the year.  Chronicling the 1976 F-1 racing season, involving the rivalry of drivers James Hunt and Niki Lauda, this was another film that did not get its fair due when out in theaters.  I think a lot of people were like me, thinking that they had no desire to see a film about racecar driving when they don't care about it as a sport, but this film is so much more than that.  This is a film about the idea of rivalry, and the importance it plays in competitive sports making the other person strive to be better because of it.  Most movies about sports typically just give us the cheesy underdog story, but Rush goes for something greater and far more important.  While the film deals with the thematic idea of rivalry, it's also just a great film about the drive within us all to get better and face our fears, and it's because of this -- not to mention the fact that it's also just entertaining -- that I think the Oscars should take notice.


4.  Monsters University
(Last Year:  Skyfall)
Monsters University was the feel good movie of the year, for me.  I laughed more at this film than any other film this past year, and it's because Pixar has made another animated masterpiece.  Here's the thing, Pixar doesn't try to compete with Monsters, Inc. with this prequel, but rather they just simply embrace the fact that this is a simpler film thematically. Pixar embraces the emotional prospects that they can reach through telling the hilarious college years of Mike and Sully by showing us a sweet, innocent tale of unlikely friendship.  However, the greatest idea of the entire film, and one that most films made for kids tend to say the opposite, is that while your heart's desire may be to do this one thing, sometimes you just aren't good enough to do that.  This may make you think this film is a downer,  but it isn't, because when Mike Wazowski learns that he just isn't scary enough to be a professional scarer, he forges himself a new path, which is the greatest lesson this film teaches to both kids and adults.


3.  The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
(Last Year:  The Amazing Spider-Man)
As I've gotten older and spent more time studying and watching films, I've realized that sequels very rarely are better than the original, and yet that's exactly the case here with The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.  I actually liked the first Hunger Games, feeling it was a more than adequate adaptation of Suzanne Collins's bestselling novel, but Catching Fire went even further, thanks by and large to new director, Francis Lawrence.  Lawrence came into the franchise with an if it ain't broke, don't fix it mentality.  The filmmakers didn't change anything in terms of look, feel, and tone, they merely refined everything and added on to the world.  All of those things are what a good sequel is supposed to do, and when you can do all that and then deliver a story that is even more clear in terms of character and plot, you have a great sequel.


2.  Saving Mr. Banks
(Last Year:  The Hunger Games)
I had been looking forward to this film for a very long time.  This has been a script that's been buzzed about in Hollywood for years, and unlike so many other films that fail to live up to the hype, this film managed to exceed my expectations.

The wrong way to think of this film is as the making of Mary Poppins, but rather it's a film about Mary Poppins' author, P.L. Travers, and her experience with Walt Disney over the course of two weeks as he tries to get her to sign over the rights.  While I was fascinated seeing a recreation of what working at a movie studio was like back in the early Sixties, the film really finds it heart when it journeys into Travers' childhood.  We slowly learn that it was her traumatic childhood that inspired her to write Mary Poppins in the first place, and that her past may hold the key to Walt convincing her to signing over the rights.

Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks are in tip-top shape as P.L. Travers and Walt Disney, but it was Colin Farrell as Travers' father that delivers the most emotionally resonant performance.  In short, it is how this film deals with the ideas of flawed fathers and the origins and importance of storytelling in our lives that makes this such a valuable emotional experience.  It will make you sing with joy, laugh till you can't laugh anymore, and yet it will also make you cry.  Hollywood doesn't make many films like this anymore, which is all the more reason to see this film.


1.  Gravity
(Last Year:  The Avengers)
This is my fifth year doing a year end top 10 list.  The previous four winners were:  Star Trek, True Grit, War Horse, and The Avengers.  As I write that, I start to think of how eclectic a group it is, balancing blockbuster thrills with drama, and yet this year's winner, Gravity, manages to combine both of those things in a nice, tidy package to join their ranks.

There really was no competition after I first saw Gravity, it was the best film I saw in 2013.  Sometimes you see a movie and you just know that it is going to be a classic, and that was the case here.  The groundbreaking special effects and sound design were legitimately revolutionary and exceeded all of the hype, but the film is going to be remembered a hundred years from now for so much more than just its technological revolutions.

Gravity is just one of those rare moviegoing experiences that has you in its grip from the very first frame, making you feel as if you are experiencing everything that Sandra Bullock's Dr. Ryan Stone is going through.  While the film is a tense thrill ride as Dr. Stone is separated from her space shuttle during a routine mission in space, it is not the action sequences involving space debris that made this film for me, it was the humanity that director Alfonso Cuaron and his son, Jonas, managed to bring to the material in the script that will have people talking about this film forever.

At this point, I really do feel like I have written a book about Gravity, but it is because it's just that good.  This is a film all about rebirth and choosing to live again after a tragedy, and that is what makes this film so much more than just a frivolous series of set pieces and thrills.  Gravity is an emotional experience first and foremost, and an entertainment second, and if you look at any film that's ever become a classic, that is how it typically pans out, which is why Gravity is already a classic of cinema.

I could go on and on, but there is no need.  This film should win every Oscar it will be nominated for, from Best Picture to Best Director to Best Actress.  It's technologically revolutionary with a singular directorial vision, featuring a bravura performance from a respected actress in a story that is emotionally deep with Hitchcock-level suspense (I hope that wasn't too much of a run-on sentence).  This is a Movie with a capital "M," and needs to be seen on the bigscreen.  No other movie in 2013 can really make that same claim, and that is why Gravity trumps all to be the best film of 2013.

Movie Review: "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty"

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty tells the tale of Walter, a lonely, unadventurous negative asset manager at LIFE magazine who daydreams constantly, but when a photo negative goes missing, Walter embarks on a real-life adventure to track it down.  The film is directed by and stars Ben Stiller, who for the most part manages to forego his traditional comedy trappings making a film that is offbeat, visually sumptuous, and different than just about anything else out there on the market, however that doesn't hold true for the entire film.  Walter Mitty often dips into over-the-top comedy in the daydreams, and it's here that Ben Stiller kind of falls back into his old schtick.  The thing is, this comedy is often humorous, but the daydreams don't always tie into the story or what is thematically going on at that point in the film.  Overall, there are many great ideas involving characters, theme, and story beats, but they often aren't fleshed out enough.  Too many things seem to happen merely by coincidence because the script said so and not because they felt organic to the story or the characters.  In summation, I think that this film was a few rewrites away from being a truly great film.  As it is, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is just an okay film, albeit one that will occasionally entertain and make you smile.

I give The Secret Life of Walter Mitty a C!

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Best in Film - 2013

For the whole year, I am always thinking about this moment, when I finally get to take stock of the entire year as a whole and award what I thought was the best work in films from the past year.  While 2013 may have not been a banner year, it still had more than enough quality work to be worthwhile, and in a few areas, the work was rather revolutionary, but more on that later.  As for now, it is time to finally take a look back at the year that was and award the best work of 2013.  We'll be kicking things off with Best Song, going all the way to Best Director today.  Then, on the 31st, I will post my list of the 10 Best Films of 2013!  Here we go!

****


Best Song - "Let's Go Fly a Kite" from Saving Mr. Banks
I have had conflicting feelings of how to award the best song of the year for the past few years.  Do you only do the original songs written specifically for a movie?  Or do you award both original and pre-existing songs?  What I'm doing now is simply awarding the best use of a song period, whether it be original or pre-existing, and with that criteria in my mind, "Let's Go Fly a Kite," was the best used song in 2013.  The way the song is used in Saving Mr. Banks is almost like an anthem of joy that helps Mary Poppins' author, P.L. Travers, cope with her own past traumas.  After seeing the song in this context, it makes the words take on a new meaning and be more than a joy-filled finale, but a song that speaks to our souls.  This song is still as affecting as it was back in 1964 when it was written by Richard and Robert Sherman for Mary Poppins.
Runners-Up
2.) "For the First Time in Forever" from Frozen
3.) "Monsters University" from Monsters University
4.) "Do You Want to Build a Snowman?" from Frozen
5.) "I See Fire" from The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug


Best Make-Up & Hair - Rush
In many ways I feel that with the advent of CGI and motion capture technology, make-up and hair are a dying artform, but thankfully there were enough old school purists in 2013 to make it a good year in the make-up world.  While Star Trek Into Darkness featured great alien creature make-up, and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire made the weird hairdos of the people in the Capitol stand out, it was the work in Ron Howard's Formula-One racing drama, Rush, that was the best make-up and hair work of 2013.  Not only did the departments recreate many late Seventies hairstyles, without ever overdoing them to comical effect (like American Hustle), but the make-up department's work on actor Daniel Bruhl, who plays the burn-scarred racer, Niki Lauda, was phenomenal and so real it was unsettling at times.
Runners-Up
2.) The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
3.) Star Trek Into Darkness
4.) Lee Daniels' The Butler
5.) The Great Gatsby


Best Costumes - Man of Steel
For me, costuming is always more sensational when done for fantasy or science fiction stories, and I think that is because the costumers are having to make costumes for worlds that do not exist.  While  Man of Steel was far from my favorite film of the year, the costumes were so spectacularly beautiful that it was almost worth it just to see those costumes on the bigscreen.  From the battle armor that General Zod and his minions wear, to the beautiful dress of the Kryptonian high council, it was all phenomenal, but the true standout costume was Superman's.  The muted colors of the traditional Superman costume really accentuated the tone of the film, with the rest of the suit still being classic enough to be noticeably Superman.  Just a great job from all involved, and easily the best part of Man of Steel.
Runners-Up
2.) The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
3.) The Great Gatsby
4.) Saving Mr. Banks
5.) Rush


Best Sound - Gravity
There is no sound in space, and that is the defining principle to the soundscape of director Alfonso Cuaron's masterpiece, Gravity.  In Gravity, there are no explosion noises when the debris hurtles into satellites and space shuttles, but rather the sound effects are all coming from music cues, the breathing and talking of the astronauts, and the sound from inside the astronaut's helmets of them hearing their suits touching other objects.  This atypical sound design helps to place you in space with Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, and really makes this experience all the more realistic, which was Alfonso's goal.  Plus, I don't think I've seen a film in recent memory that utilized surround sound in such an all-encompassing way, circling around the audience and jumping all over the theater in a chaotic, yet entirely purposeful way.
Runners-Up
2.) Rush
3.) Pacific Rim
4.) Star Trek Into Darkness
5.) Man of Steel


Best Special Effects - Gravity
Seriously?  There was no competition for this category, the special effects of Gravity are a benchmark in CGI-technology.  I don't know if I've ever seen a film with more convincing computer generated imagery than Gravity.  Without the CGI there would be no film, with majority of scenes featuring some sort of special effect, and yet it goes completely unnoticed.  Part of this ability to make the effects seem real and seamless is because cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, was working alongside the effects crew to help light the scenes and give the look that him and director, Alfonso Cuaron, were going for, and the end results speak for themselves.  However, I must give a shout out to the special effects work for Ron Howard's Rush, which might have won in another year for its clever use of mixing real archive footage with CGI and new shots to recreate many of the true-life races from that film.
Runners-Up
2.) Rush
3.) Oblivion
4.) Star Trek Into Darkness
5.) Ender's Game


Best Production Design - Oblivion
This is a category where I tend to find myself favoring fantasy and science fiction films, as well, but it's because I feel they require more imagination from the production designers working on those films, and no other film had more architectural beauty in 2013 than director Joseph Kosinski's Oblivion.  While I was not a raving fan of the film, I enjoyed it, and partly because it was so beautiful and appealing to the eye.  The post-apocalyptic landscapes of future Earth were hauntingly beautiful, but it was the glass house in the sky where Tom Cruise's character lived that won me over with this film.
Runners-Up
2.) Man of Steel
3.) Pacific Rim
4.) The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
5.) The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug


Best Editing - Rush
This was another category where there was no competition for me, Rush was simply the best edited film of 2013.  Ron Howard shot all of the dialogue scenes like a documentary, and the cutting reflects that, but it's how the racing scenes are cut together with so much energy that really impressed me.  Rush would not have nearly the style and vivacity that it has were it not for editors Daniel P. Hanley and Mike Hill editing your heartbeats in the high octane races.
Runners-Up
2.) Gravity
3.) Captain Phillips
4.) The World's End
5.) World War Z


Best Cinematography - Rush
There were many shots in 2013 that took my breath away in their sheer beauty, but Anthony Dod Mantle's cinematography for Rush was so spectacular on a technical level, I had to award it.  This was Mantle's most exciting work since he won the Oscar for Slumdog Millionaire, and it shows.  Mantle's use of cameras strapped to the cars and helmets of the drivers really bring the racing scenes to life and give you the feeling of actually being on the track and in the race yourself.  There is almost a controlled recklessness to the way Mantle shot these scenes, but it's also the way that Mantle made his cinematography match the real-life archive footage with his own shots that really just made my jaw drop upon seeing this film.  You would be hard pressed to notice the shots in Rush that were actually shot by the crew and the shots that were the real-life events from the late Seventies, and to me that is the mark of a phenomenal cinematographer.
Runners-Up
2.) Gravity
3.) Saving Mr. Banks
4.) Oblivion
5.) Jack the Giant Slayer


Best Animated Film - Monsters University
I don't think anyone would say that 2013 was a great year for animation, but as is usual for even the weakest years, there is always at least one animated film that rises to the top, and in many ways it makes things like this easier.  Monsters University was the only animated film this year that I gave an A+ rating, and for good reason.  While I was wary of Pixar making a prequel to Monsters, Inc., I think they succeeded in recapturing the magic of the original film, without trying to recreate the same experience.  They knew they could not make as heartfelt of a film without the little girl Boo, so rather than try to match the sweetness of the original, they decided to just fully embrace the comedy of seeing these characters in college.  The college hijinks in the film are humorous for anyone who went to college, but the film still manages to have that Pixar heart in showing us how the one-eyed cretin, Mike Wazowski, became best friends with the furry blue giant, Sully.  No other film in 2013 made me laugh as much and make me feel as good as Monsters University did, and sometimes there's nothing else I'd rather want from a film.
Runners-Up
2.) From Up On Poppy Hill
3.) Frozen


Best Supporting Actress - Jena Malone, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
This was a fairly weak year for female roles, but even in a weak year there are always one or two that stick with me, and Jena Malone's portrayal of Johanna Mason in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire really played well for me.  The way Malone portrayed Johanna as this fiercely defiant person, who is not really all that likable, but says and does what she thinks, was with so much charisma it was infectious.  However, it was the way Malone managed to allude to her character's past through subtext that managed to make her work more phenomenal.
Runners-Up
2.) Alexandra Maria Lara, Rush
3.) Joanna Vanderham, What Maisie Knew
4.) Andrea Riseborough, Oblivion
5.) Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle


Best Supporting Actor - Colin Farrell, Saving Mr. Banks
I have never been the biggest Colin Farrell fan, so I was genuinely surprised myself to find that his performance in Saving Mr. Banks as P.L. Travers' father, Travers Goff, was the finest supporting performance of the year.  With all of the talk about Tom Hanks as Walt Disney, I was not expecting to actually favor Farrell's performance over Hanks's, but that is just how these things go sometimes.  As Goff, Farrell is in many ways the most important character in the story, aside from Emma Thompson's P.L. Travers, with his character being the real-life inspiration for the father in Mary Poppins.  What makes Farrell's performance so remarkable is the fact that he makes Goff very charming, and yet flawed.  There is both an imaginative presence he brings to the role, as well as a world weary reality, especially in the way he portrays Goff's spiral into alcoholism.  Simply put, the finest performance of Farrell's career.
Runners-Up
2.) Donald Sutherland, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
3.) Tom Hanks, Saving Mr. Banks
4.) George Clooney, Gravity
5.) Benedict Cumberbatch, Star Trek Into Darkness


Best Actress - Sandra Bullock, Gravity
This was one of the few categories this year where there was no contest in my mind, Sandra Bullock's performance in Gravity is not only the best from an actress this year, but is the best from any actor in 2013, and easily the best of her entire career.  What makes this such a powerhouse performance is the relatable nature of Sandra Bullock as a personality.  She's like a female Jimmy Stewart, you can't help but love her, because she feels like an ordinary everyday person, not a movie star.  That simple charm is what allows us to immediately connect with her in this film, with her being the proxy that we experience all of this horror through.  Of course, what makes this a performance to remember is the way that Sandra Bullock portrays the character arc of her character, Dr. Ryan Stone, going from a first-time astronaut who feels she has nothing left to live for, to a woman who decides to re-embrace life in the wake of her daughter's death.
Runners-Up
2.) Emma Thompson, Saving Mr. Banks
3.) Jennifer Lawrence, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
4.) Judi Dench, Philomena
5.) Onata Aprile, What Maisie Knew


Best Actor - Tom Hanks, Captain Phillips
It was the final scene of Captain Phillips that made up my mind here.  When Tom Hanks's Captain Phillips is finally rescued from the Somali pirates who kidnapped him and is being looked over by the medical crew, I don't think I've ever seen a more emotionally raw performance.  Tom Hanks literally breaks down into tears, with all of the terror he'd just experienced finally hitting him.  It was in that moment that Tom Hanks wowed me, yet again.  Hanks is one of those actors that continues to do phenomenal work, just when you think you've seen everything he can do, he comes back and does something that blows your mind once more.  There is a reason why there is only one Tom Hanks, and I don't think we'll ever see another quite like him.
Runners-Up
2.) Daniel Bruhl, Rush
3.) Chris Pine, Star Trek Into Darkness
4.) Christian Bale, American Hustle
5.) Chris Hemsworth, Rush


Best Ensemble - The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Sometimes there is no individual performance that really stands out in a film, but in rare cases that's because each and every performance in the film is just so strong no one performance is clearly better than the other.  For The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, that was the case.  From Jennifer Lawrence's emotionally honest portrayal as Katniss, to Donald Sutherland's venomous President Snow, the cast of Catching Fire was all top notch, with a weak link hard to find.  Almost every character feels as if they stepped out of your imagination, and when you can pull that off, then you have a phenomenal book-to-film adaptation.
Runners-Up
2.) Star Trek Into Darkness
3.) Saving Mr. Banks
4.) Rush
5.) American Hustle


Best Screenplay - Saving Mr. Banks
This was a script I had been hearing about for years.  It's been floating around Hollywood for a long time, being deemed one of the best scripts that would never get produced because of its dealing with the behind the scenes dealings at Walt Disney Studios.  Alas, Disney decided to make the film themselves and when I was finally able to see the film, I saw what all the fuss regarding the script was about.  Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith's script is just a well written piece.  The characters are complex and three-dimensional, with clear character arcs from beginning to end, and the plot structure is strong and works to create maximum emotional connection when needed, however, the script manages to go beyond all that.  In the end it is the thematic ideas regarding fathers and daughters and the origins and importance of storytelling in our lives that gives this film heft, and it is why this was the best written script of the year.
Runners-Up
2.) Gravity
3.) Rush
4.) Monsters University
5.) Ender's Game


Best Director - Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity
This was the easiest call I had to make for this year.  If Alfonso Cuaron does not win the Best Director Oscar for Gravity in March, I'll be calling foul and asking for a recount.  You cannot tell me that any other film's director was more valuable to the end result than Alfonso Cuaron.  It is Alfonso's attention to detail, making his films feel as if they are actually happening, while still embracing the lyrical, operatic possibilities of film as metaphor, that makes his work so staggering.  Of course, I think what really makes Alfonso Cuaron such a phenomenal director, is while he is quite possibly the best technical director currently working in the film industry, it is the way that Alfonso doesn't rest on the impressive technical aspects of his work and places the human aspects of the characters first that makes his work stand out.  This is why his work on Gravity is so monumental, and it's why he was the Best Director of this past year.
Runners-Up
2.) Ron Howard, Rush
3.) J.J. Abrams, Star Trek Into Darkness
4.) John Lee Hancock, Saving Mr. Banks
5.) Francis Lawrence, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Greatest Cinematic Moments of 2013

For me, 2013 was a fairly lackluster year of film.  Granted, if we are lucky enough to get at least two or three perfect 10 out of 10 films in a given year, then it was a worthwhile year, and 2013 managed to do just that.  With that all said, there were a great many movie moments from this past year that managed to affect me on an emotional level.  While not all of these moments came from perfect films, these individual moments all were worth the price of admission themselves, so here's my list of the 10 Greatest Cinematic Moments of 2013!

****


10.  The Barrel Chase from The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
This was perhaps the most imaginative action sequence I saw all year.  The thirteen dwarves, alongside Bilbo, escape the Woodland Elves in wine barrels floating down a raging river, all the while fighting orcs running alongside the banks with sticks, swords, and bows and arrows, all from inside the barrels.  If the sequence sounds insane, it is, but it is in these types of preposterous action sequences that Peter Jackson really gets to play with his films, and the glee is infectious.


9.  The Japanese Grand Prix from Rush
Director Ron Howard's Formula-One racing film, Rush, was a powerhouse experience, highlighting the rivalry between real-life drivers, Niki Lauda and James Hunt, in the 1976 season.  No other sequence brought the emotion better than the final race of that season, the Japanese Grand Prix, where Lauda gets back in the car only mere weeks after a life-changing crash.  Every plot line and character beat that Howard had been teasing out for the entirety of the film all started to come together and coalesce in this one race.  There is an emotional power that this sequence brings that is almost operatic and lyrical.  While it is an exciting action sequence, due to the speed and tension of the race, the music from Hans Zimmer and Ron Howard's direction never lose the human characters in the midst of the raging machines, and that's why this sequence is on this list.


8.  The Finale from Captain Phillips
This was perhaps the finest acting moment of the entire year, when Tom Hanks's Captain Phillips is finally rescued, after having been kidnapped by Somali pirates earlier in the movie.  When Captain Phillips is brought aboard the rescue boat and is looked at by the doctors, he is just in shock, almost numb to anything, and then as the doctors are looking him over, he just bursts into tears, the insanity of what he just went through finally hitting him.  Hanks's performance in this moment is almost unsettling in the raw nature at which he throws himself out there.  One of the main reasons Captain Phillips worked as a film was because of the relatable nature of Tom Hanks and his Everyman persona, so when this moment occurred, it was like seeing your favorite Uncle that never cries burst into tears, and the moment is so gut wrenching you can't take your eyes off the screen.



7.  Watching "Mary Poppins" from Saving Mr. Banks
Saving Mr. Banks has a good many moments that I found worthy to be on this list, and you will see one further up on this list that I found even more powerful, but that should take nothing away from the climax of the film.  When Mary Poppins author, P.L. Travers, sits in the theater at the Hollywood premiere of Mary Poppins, she weeps openly as she watches her cherished story play out on the big screen.  Now, in real-life, Travers did not like the film and denied Disney the rights to sequels, and the film ends before it can show whether or not Travers liked the film, but that is not the point of this moment.  Travers does not weep at the sight of her creation being realized onscreen because it was a dream of hers, but because she is finally letting go of all these traumas from her past that inspired her to write Mary Poppins.  As people, we are often bogged down by our own pasts, and seeing someone who is finally letting go is cathartic.


6.  The Opening Shot from Gravity
There is an audacity to this opening shot that grants it this spot on the list.  It is a 13-minute-long shot that is entirely uncut, but the beauty of this shot is how it does not feel like one shot.  The camera is always floating around in space around Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, it focuses on who and what we need to focus on to advance the story, and only when we need it.  While this shot was created primarily in a computer, it is no less staggering for how it works in casually laying out the story and creating the feeling of actually being there as another astronaut, so that when the space debris starts coming and crashing all around us, our hearts have literally jumped up into our throats.  Masterful filmmaking from a true master of the craft, director Alfonso Cuaron.


5.  Saving Spock from Star Trek Into Darkness
While I still feel that the final ten minutes of Star Trek Into Darkness really drops the ball, the rest of the film was one of the better experiences I had all year long, and one of the sequences that helped was the first ten minutes of the film.  The opening action sequence finds Spock inside an active volcano on a Class M planet, planning to set off a cold fusion device to stop the volcano from erupting and eradicating an entire species.  Of course, Spock gets trapped inside, and the only way to save him is to reveal the USS Enterprise in the sky above the natives, who have barely just invented the wheel.  What are Captain Kirk and his crew to do?  Do they let Spock die, or violate a Starfleet mandate and save his life?  Obviously, Kirk being the rebel he is, decides to take the Enterprise and beam Spock back aboard the ship.  What makes this moment so impactful, is it perfectly illustrates the relationship between Spock and Kirk, with Spock's logic ruling his choices, and Kirk's emotions ruling his, which also foreshadows an even greater moment later in the film.  Then there is the awesomeness of when the USS Enterprise actually emerges from the ocean floor and is revealed to the native population.  I don't know the last time where I actually felt the massive scale of the USS Enterprise.



4.  Visiting District 11 from The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
One of the best moments of the first Hunger Games was the death of Rue, it was wrought with emotion and beautifully shot and acted, so it is only fitting that the most impactful moment of the sequel was when Katniss and Peeta visit District 11 to pay their respects to Rue and her family.  This moment was exceptionally acted by Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss, with you feeling her remorse at not being able to save Rue.  However, this moment is also important because it is the first moment where Katniss sees for herself the rebellion that she has inadvertently spurred through her actions, with the public execution of an old man who supports Katniss very chillingly portrayed.


3.  Presenting "Let's Go Fly a Kite" from Saving Mr. Banks
This is one of those movie moments that would not exist were it not for the perfect storm of all the elements.  This scene takes place about three-fourths of the way through the film, when P.L. Travers has all but shutdown every idea that Disney and company have had to turn Mary Poppins into a film.  This is when the songwriters and screenwriter first pitch the idea to her that Mr. Banks fixes the kids' kite and they sing, "Let's Go Fly a Kite," for her.  What makes this moment so magical, is that it shows how P.L. Travers' own experience with her father can be mended through the act of letting go.  Here, actress Emma Thompson portrays Travers finally letting go emotionally, with a rare smile on her face, joining in on the song.  Simply put, I don't think there was a scene in film this year that filled me with more joy, and it will have you singing the song for the entire next week after seeing it.


2.  Kirk's Self-Sacrifice from Star Trek Into Darkness
There has been much debate in the fan community about Star Trek Into Darkness merely being a loose remake of The Wrath of Khan, but where Into Darkness works better is in its finale featuring the self-sacrificial death of a prominent crew member.  Unlike in Wrath of Khan, in Into Darkness, Kirk is the one who climbs inside the nuclear powered reactor to stop the Enterprise from crashing into Earth, with the radiation killing him.  Movie heroes can often show us the best that we as humans have to offer.  Kirk is selfless in this moment, only thinking of his crew, when he willingly gives up his life for the lives of others.  Actor Chris Pine plays the scene with Kirk knowing that he is going to die, but he refuses to give up, he shows us the best that is inside all of us.  Then, the icing on the cake is the final farewell between Kirk and Spock.  Just brilliantly shot and acted.


1.  The Finale from Gravity
If I could just list the entirety of Gravity as the best cinematic moment of 2013, I would, but that would defeat the purpose of such a list.  Ultimately, I had to pare down the best individual moments from the film for me, and I think that the best moment of the entire film is that final scene.  The whole film was designed by director Alfonso Cuaron and his son, Jonas (who co-wrote the film with him), as a story about rebirth and deciding to live after you think there is nothing left to live for.  They intentionally use many visual metaphors throughout the film to symbolize this change in Sandra Bullock's character and perhaps the least subtle of these metaphors is the most affecting.  When Sandra Bullock's Dr. Ryan Stone finally manages to make her way back to Earth and crash land in a lake, she swims to shore and stands up in the sand, staggering away, almost like a child first learning to walk.  In essence, Dr. Stone is learning to walk again after losing her daughter a few years ago, having now found the strength within herself to carry on walking and live again.  Like the opening of Gravity, her emergence from the lake and her standing up is all one shot, and it is so beautifully choreographed by Alfonso Cuaron, that when the pulsing music from Steven Price really kicks in, you can't help but be swept away by the moment.

****

Tune in two days from now as I continue my look back at 2013!

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Top 10 Film Scores of 2013

If there is one thing that I like more than movies, it's the orchestral music written for movies.  I love film scores, I think a good film score is any film score that when you listen to it, you relive moments from your favorite films.  In order for a film score to be able to do this, there need to be themes, memorable and humworthy, so that when we hear it, we immediately feel a recognition of warmth.  This is why I am kicking off my year end lists with the 10 Best Film Scores of 2013!

2013 was a fine year for film scores, with many solid scores.  While I don't think there was a film score that will go on to be one of those all-time classics, as far as film scores that are well utilized in their irrespective films, 2013 was a good year.  As is usual with a list such as this, there were a few film scores that I did like that ultimately did not make the cut, but that's just the way these things shake out from time to time.

What you will find below are the 10 Best Scores of 2013, with samples of the best tracks from the score to further illustrate why I think the score was one of 2013's best, so let's get the 2013 celebration off to a start and countdown the Top 10 Film Scores of 2013!

****

10.  Steve Jablonsky, Ender's Game
This was a film score that never really had a memorable, easy to hum theme, and yet it was so well orchestrated, it worked at every juncture within the film.  Jablonsky's clever use of the strings section managed to create the needed emotions that Ender and his comrades go through whilst at Battle School.  From creating fear, to wonder, the strings, along with the rest of the orchestra backing them up, make you feel.



9.  Brian Tyler, Iron Man 3
Composer Brian Tyler was Marvel Studios' go-to man this year, composing not only Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World, but also their new Marvel Studios' fanfare that plays before all of their movies.  I could have gone with Tyler's work for Thor, but I feel the theme he wrote for Iron Man 3 was just more memorable and fit the over-the-top, eccentric heroism of Tony Stark so perfectly, I couldn't omit it.  Just listen to the awesome End Credits' music Tyler wrote utilizing the theme.



8.  Hans Zimmer, Man of Steel
Funny enough, I am not a fan of this film, but I must give credit where it is due, and Hans Zimmer did a very good job of making us forget John Williams' classic Superman score by pretty much going in a completely different direction.  Zimmer's score for Man of Steel was very quiet, with tons of piano echoing a tragic heroism, rather than the patriotic sounding fanfares of Christopher Reeve.  It doesn't hurt that the actual theme Zimmer concocted, utilizing heavy use of percussion and cascading strings, is simply epic.



7.  Hans Zimmer, Rush
Two Zimmer scores back-to-back, but when you're one of the busiest film composers in the industry, that's bound to happen.  Zimmer's score for Ron Howard's F-1 racing drama, Rush, was not his most original and often echoes some of his other scores, in particular The Thin Red Line and Inception, but it's the way the score always highlighted the emotions of the moment that makes it so powerful.  Then there was Zimmer's clever use of distorted guitars to often give that Seventies' rock sound to accentuate the 1970s' setting, and it distinguishes this score enough from his many others to earn this spot on this list.



6.  James Newton Howard, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
If it ain't broke, don't fix it.  That's what James Newton Howard did when he returned to the world of Panem to score the second Hunger Games film.  He utilized every single theme he wrote for the first film in the second film, while also creating a few new ones.  His score was near perfect the first time out, and now with these new themes, it is irresistible and captures the spirit of these films and their characters.



5.  Ramin Djawadi, Pacific Rim
Giant monsters vs. giant robots, that's all you need to say to anyone to get them to see this movie, but it's not the type of film that you'd expect to find a great film score, alas Ramin Djawadi proves you wrong.  By giving this film a score that can only be called orchestral rock music, the score manages to be as awesome as the action that is occurring onscreen.



4.  Steven Price, Gravity
This is another case of a film score not really having a memorable theme at its center, but what gives Steven Price such a high place on this list, is once again, how his score perfectly captures the moment.  The score for this film highlights the emotions that Sandra Bullock's Dr. Ryan Stone are feeling at every juncture in this film, from sad to even heroic.  When Price really kicks the music into high gear after Dr. Stone crawls out of the water and finds her footing on dry land, there might not have been a better music cue for a film all year long.



3.  John Ottman, Jack the Giant Slayer
Every now and again there is a film score that is better than the movie that it was written for, and that was the case for Jack the Giant Slayer.  As a straight forward interpretation of a fairy tale, Jack the Giant Slayer works and is fun and entertaining, but the score is what really made the film for me.  Ottman's use of these highly memorable, John Williams-esque themes was what earned it this spot.



2.  Randy Newman, Monsters University
In many ways, Newman is Pixar's go-to guy, and he further shows why with his work for Monsters University.  Newman's score accentuates the collegiate vibe of the entire film through the use of the Blue Devils Drum Corp, with their insanely awesome drumline providing the percussion for much of the score.  Then there is the alma mater that Newman wrote for Monsters University, and it forms the memorable theme for the entire film.



1.  Michael Giacchino, Star Trek Into Darkness
If there is a film composer currently working that could be a successor to John Williams, it is Michael Giacchino.  His score for 2009's Star Trek was quite possibly the best of his career, and so it's only natural that his score for the sequel, Star Trek Into Darkness, would also hit me in the right way.  Giacchino revisits all of the themes he wrote previously, giving you this feeling of coming home after a long way away, while also creating awesome new themes, like the one he wrote for Khan.  However, what really makes Giacchino's work with these Star Trek films so remarkable is that he does not forget the original Trek theme written for the show and still utilizes it from time-to-time in the film.  This is just the best, most remarkable film score of 2013.



****
And there you have it.  Tune in two days from now as I will be posting my 10 Favorite Cinematic Moments of 2013!

Monday, December 23, 2013

The Most Awesome Television of 2013

You know, I have never been the biggest TV show junkie.  I've never watched Breaking Bad, Modern Family, Mad Men, or any of the other shows that people always rave about.  Movies and the film industry have always been my thing, and when it comes to TV, typically I just want to watch shows that intrigue me or are entertaining, so majority of the shows I watch are action procedurals like Person of Interest or Arrow.  I feel no shame in admitting that, nor should I.

The point is, every year I do a series of lists honoring the best in film, but I have never been well versed enough in the wider array of popular television to make such a list, so I've decided, rather than doing a best in television list for 2013, I'm just going to do an informal list of the TV shows I found to be the most awesome.  Hopefully, if you haven't seen one of the shows I'm talking about, you'll be interested enough after reading about them to look them up and give them a shot, but enough talk, on with the list.

****


Sleepy Hollow
This was a show that I was very skeptical of when it first came on the air.  The concept of the show was very different from the traditional take on, "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," having Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman reawaken in modern day Sleepy Hollow, and oh yeah, the Horseman just so happens to be the first of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.  Now, Ichabod and police officer, Abbie Mills, must prevent the impending apocalypse, as the two witnesses from the book of Revelation.  It's a show that has drawn heavily from myth, history, and the bible, to create something new, and it works.  It's like a new X-Files, with Ichabod actor, Tom Mison, stealing each scene he is in by relishing in the humor of a Revolutionary man aghast by our modern day.  However, the real joy of this show is the brilliant music by Robert Lydecker and Brian Tyler.  For me, it is so hard to find a weekly TV show that has a musical score rivaling anything you might hear on the big screen, and Sleepy Hollow does just that with that brilliant theme written by Tyler.


Arrow
Very rarely do shows get better as they go along, and with the case of the CW's Arrow (their take on DC Comics' superhero archer, Green Arrow), they have done just that.  The show started off as a simple Dark Knight rip-off, drawing heavily from the last three Batman films in tone and style, but as time wore on the show found its own niche that is starting to balance the supernatural and scientific, with the grounded reality of the show.  Now, in its second season, we've already seen super soldiers and the origin of the Flash, one of DC's other major superheroes, portrayed in this show by Grant Gustin.  I loved Gustin as Barry Allen, the Flash's alter ego, and while he was only in two episodes so far this season, the last scene we saw with him was him getting struck by the lightning that will give him his super powers.  The fact that Arrow is now fully embracing the fantastical, and yet still making it feel plausible is the show's greatest feat, and for a comic book fan it has me on cloud nine, now I can't wait to see what the rest of season two has to offer, as well as The Flash spin-off that's supposed to hit airwaves next Fall.


Castle
This is probably my favorite show of the past decade, partly because it's so easy to pick up and watch at anytime.  This is one of those shows that has no real complex seasons long mythologies (unless you count Beckett's mom's murder), with all you really need to know is that it's about a charming mystery writer named Richard Castle who helps the NYPD solve crimes.  However, the fifth season was a low point for the show, with Castle and Det. Beckett finally becoming an item, and the show did not seem to know where to go with them, with the characters constantly questioning their relationship.  After a point it got old, but that's where the Season 5 finale shook things up this past May with Castle proposing to Beckett and her saying yes at the start of Season 6 in September.  Now, with them engaged, they are no longer questioning their relationship and if they argue, it is over normal, domestic problems, evidenced by the funny episode just about a month ago where they had to take care of a baby.  This was the best way for Castle to go in order to keep the characters fun and fresh, and I think so far, Season 6 has been a genuine knockout.


Person of Interest
Okay, if Castle is my favorite show of the past decade, then Person of Interest is a close second.  The story follows a reclusive billionaire named Mr. Finch, who created a machine that can predict violent crimes before they happen, and he enlists the help of ex-special forces' agent, Mr. Reese, to stop these crimes before anything can go wrong.  I have loved this show from the moment I first saw the pilot, and it's one of those shows that just continues to get better and better.  What's more, is that in this day and age, I don't see many shows that genuinely surprise me anymore, and Person of Interest has done that time and time again with clever plot twists.

This past year, Person of Interest has had some of its biggest shake-ups in terms of plot, with the machine developing a full-on personality, in essence becoming a sentient Artificial Intelligence.  As well, we finally learned why Mr. Finch has a limp and is so reclusive, but none of that can top the death of Det. Carter.  Person of Interest finally wrapped up a two-and-a-half year storyline involving the corrupt NYPD organization known as HR by capping it off with the murder of one of the main characters who has been on the show since the pilot.  I know shows kill people off all the time, but it still hits hard each time it happens, especially when it's characters on a show you care about.


Elementary
I know a lot of people who haven't watched Elementary just because they are so beholden to BBC's Sherlock, but the two shows are vastly different in their interpretations of the Sherlock Holmes character.  While yes, both are modern day interpretations of Sherlock Holmes, that's the only real similarity.  In Elementary, Johnny Lee Miller's Sherlock Holmes is still abrasive and egotistical, like Benedict Cumberbatch's Sherlock, but there is an underlying humanity to the character that I don't know if I've ever seen before, and that's what I love so much about actor Johnny Lee Miller's portrayal.  However, what really sets Elementary apart is that Watson is a girl, played by Lucy Liu.

What I've loved over the first season and a half of this show, is that they seem to have no intention of ever having Holmes and Watson become an item, and to me that is a breath of fresh air for this type of detective show.  Of course, the other main reason Elementary has won so many points with me is in how it remains true to the spirit of the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle stories, while making clever deviations from the source material at times to create surprise.  Nothing was more surprising than when we found out that Sherlock Holmes's dead love, Irene Adler, was in fact still alive and that she was actually his greatest nemesis, Moriarty, faking her own death to rattle Sherlock.  Just a brilliant twist on what we already know.


How I Met Your Mother
Say what you want about this past year of How I Met Your Mother, but if there's one thing it has done right, that is the Mother.  While season 8 was a definite low point for the series, and season 9 only being marginally better, the introduction of the Mother in the season 8 finale was what made the entire How I Met Your Mother experience of 2013, worthwhile.  Cristin Milioti is everything a How I Met Your Mother fan could have dreamed of for the Mother, and each time she has come onscreen, there is an obvious chemistry with the cast, and it feels like she should have been there the whole time.  Her character has been exceptionally well written, if a bit under utilized at this point.  Seeing as to how everything seems to brighten up and feel more fresh and original while she's around, here's hoping we'll get a few Mother-centric episodes when the show comes back in January to finish its final season.



Broadchurch
This was the best television experience of the year for me, if not the best I think I've ever had.  Broadchurch was an import from the UK that aired on BBC America this past Fall, and it was a show that lived up to the hype surrounding it and then some.  In all honesty, I can't quite put words on why I loved this show so much.  It's a simple whodunit set in a seaside village called Broadchurch in rural England.  Broadchurch is a vacation spot where murder never happens, but when the strangled body of a little boy is found on the beach, the whole town becomes a suspect to the town's new Detective Inspector, Alec Hardy, played brilliantly by David Tennant.

This show is just everything I love about a great mystery yarn, it's taut and suspenseful, filled with twists at every turn.  Who did or didn't murder Danny Latimer may not actually even be the most pressing question, but rather why?  Almost every character has a secret that they are hiding, and it's the exploration of the thematic ideas of secrecy and its affects, as well as redemption, that make Broadchurch the riveting experience it is.

If you didn't see it when it first ran, BBC America will probably rerun it in its entirety before its second season starts sometime next year, but if the idea of British accents does you in, then just wait for the American adaptation being made for FOX, called Gracepoint.  I for one am intrigued by Gracepoint, with David Tennant reprising his role in the remake, but he wont be playing a British version of the character, but an American version.  I don't know if that's ever been done before, so it will be interesting to compare and contrast.  The same writer is also writing the pilot of Gracepoint, and he promises that the killer may not even be the same, so expect some small, subtle differences to the story.  Irregardless, I think this was the best television produced this past year, and if it were released in theaters as an 8-hour movie, it would probably wind up in my top 5 films of 2013.

****

And there you have it, what I believe to have been the most awesome television shows in 2013.  Check back in the coming weeks as I'll be starting my best in film posts celebrating 2013.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Movie Review: "American Hustle"

Director David O. Russell's new film, American Hustle, may not be Russell's best film, but he has clearly hit a stride in his career.  American Hustle tells the inspired by a true story of a group of con artists in the late Seventies, coerced by the FBI to help them bring down crooked politicians.  Like most films like these, the plot is labyrinthine, often hard to keep up with, and thusly has a few plot holes for such reasons.

Here's the thing, American Hustle is a well made, well acted film with some of Russell's trademark quirkiness creating laughs here and there, but the characters never become likable.  These characters are all fairly deplorable and I'd be hard pressed to find anyone who'd honestly enjoy spending time with these people.  With that said, Russell is at the top of his game in his shot design, further expanding upon the visual ideas of The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook with this outing, then there are the performances.  While Amy Adams' constant slipping in-and-out of her faux British accent kind of grinded on me after a while, Christian Bale with his beer gut and combover is phenomenal, and Jeremy Renner shines in each scene he is in as a New Jersey Mayor.

As a fan of filmmaking and good acting, I enjoyed American Hustle, but this is not a film that I will find myself revisiting due to the lack of emotional connection with anyone in this film.  Plus, if you're going to make a film about con artists, as the filmmakers you have to be able to con the audience and deceive us with every twist and turn, and unfortunately this film did not, with most major surprises seen on the horizon at least two or three scenes before revealed.  If you really want to see a con artist film that literally cons the audience, watch The Sting.

I give American Hustle a B-!

Friday, December 20, 2013

Review Roundup - December 20, 2013

It's time for a new edition of Review Roundup.  That's right folks, I've gotten backed up on my reviews yet again, granted it's hard to review every film you see when it's the Holiday season.  Irregardless, I have four new movie reviews for you all today, the links to which you'll find below.  Cheers!

Frozen

The Great Gatsby

Philomena

The World's End

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Movie Review: "Saving Mr. Banks"

I think the wrong way to view the new film, Saving Mr. Banks, is as the making of Disney's classic, Mary Poppins.  Saving Mr. Banks is really about storytelling as both truth and escape, as well as a film about fathers.

The film tells the true story of how Mary Poppins author, P.L. Travers, came to Disney Studios for two weeks in 1961, as Walt Disney and his ace crew of creatives tried to convince the ill-tempered Travers to allow them the rights to make Mary Poppins.

I think it's safe to say that we all know how the film ultimately ends, but how we get there is such an emotional journey that it is worth embarking upon.  Emma Thompson portrays P.L. Travers with enough emotion buried within the subtext of her words that we care about this woman who is not all that immediately likable on the page, and in lesser hands the role would have been just that.  Meanwhile, Tom Hanks plays the part of Walt Disney himself, with a twinkle in his eye, and yet he also manages to bring his trademark everyman quality to old Walt himself and make Walt not seem as if he's some myth, but rather a real man.  However, the big mistake that many seem to be making with this film is that it's a movie about Walt Disney, and while Disney is a very important character in the film, this is P.L. Travers' story.

Through flashbacks we witness Travers' childhood in Australia and her relationship with her alcoholic banker father, Travers Goff, who was the inspiration for Mr. Banks in Mary Poppins, and is portrayed in this film by Colin Farrell with a charming, yet tragic likability.  We witness how much of Travers' childhood went on to inspire Mary Poppins, and it's through these flashbacks that Saving Mr. Banks finds its heart.  Without us seeing what P.L. Travers went through, it's hard for us to understand why she is so against Disney transforming, what is essentially, her own past into a film.  This allows us to relate to this hard to relate to woman, which is the brilliant stroke of director John Lee Hancock and screenwriters Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith.  As a matter of fact, if there is one word to describe Saving Mr. Banks for me, it is brilliant.

It is rare to see a film made by a major studio with this kind of thematic density, and that is why this is such a brilliant motion picture.  There is an honesty to the way the film deals with the idea of fathers and that while they may not be infallible, they can still be saved.  Then there are the thematic ideas of storytelling that ring so true to me as a storyteller myself.  Whether we realize it or not, the stories we tell are reflections of ourselves and our own lives.  Walt says it best late in the film when he points out that the true power of imagination and story is to lend hope, and I think that is why anyone deep down tells a story, and I think that idea sums up Disney's entire career.

There just aren't that many kind of films like Saving Mr. Banks in these cynical days, but if you allow yourself to feel, you will be swept away.  This is a Disney movie, through and through.  There are laughs and moments of soaring emotion throughout, and I wouldn't want anything different from a film made by Disney.  Everytime you hear, "Let's Go Fly a Kite," your spirit soars and as you watch the film, the song begins to take on a whole new meaning that makes it an even more life affirming song than you perhaps ever thought of it as before.  It's not merely a great toetapper that closes a film, it's a song of hope.

I just can't say enough about Saving Mr. Banks, I loved it and I think everyone should see this film. The funny thing about all this is, is that without the film Mary Poppins, Saving Mr. Banks would not exist, and yet Saving Mr. Banks is a film that manages to improve upon what is already a near perfect classic and perhaps even best it.  From now on, every single time you watch Mary Poppins, the many events and ideas of that film will take on a whole new meaning.  In fact, I can't wait till the next time I see Mary Poppins again to see how it may affect me more strongly on an emotional level now knowing more of the story.  Saving Mr. Banks is just a miraculous kind of movie that we need more of.  It's classic Hollywood drama, so if you want my advice, bring a hankie and just enjoy yourself.

I give Saving Mr. Banks an A+!

Meet Ant-Man, aka Paul Rudd

I have always loved Ant-Man, and have felt that many comic book writers never knew what to do with such a square, straight-laced character, so they often gave him psychological problems and other issues to try and make him more interesting.  The funny thing is, those writers always wound up returning Ant-Man's alter ego, Hank Pym, back to who he was in the beginning, because Stan Lee knew what he was doing when he first created the character.  With my rambling set aside, it has been no secret that the first Marvel film after The Avengers: Age of Ultron, would be Ant-Man, and we've just been waiting on casting, seeing as the film starts production next year for a July of 2015 release.  Well, it's pretty much official now, after a good long while of it being rumored, Paul Rudd is looking like he is for sure going to play the Marvel superhero Ant-Man.

Yes, Rudd, who is best known for his work in comedies like Anchorman and the works of Judd Apatow, will portray Hank Pym, the genius scientist who discovered a particle that enabled him to change the size of his body at will.  Personally, I find this very smart, inspired casting.  I've always liked Rudd, he has this great, charming, everyman quality about him, and he has surprising dramatic chops as well.  Sure, he is mostly seen as a comedian, but he's played the straight man most of his career, just look at his work in Knocked Up, or even in Friends, and I for one think he is a perfect fit for Pym.  He has charm, but does not look like a superhero, which is what really defines Hank Pym.  He's a scientist, who's more interested in using scientific exploration to bring about peace than he is with being a superhero.  Now, the big question is whether or not we will be seeing the second Ant-Man, Scott Lang, as well.

Ant-Man has been in development for as long as Marvel Studios has been producing their own movies.  Director Edgar Wright jumped onboard the project around the same time as Jon Favreau started the first Iron Man film, and Wright, alongside writing partner Joe Cornish, have been tweaking their Ant-Man script now for over a half of a decade, neither of whom have ever seemed to waver in their commitment to the project.  Back when they first started, Wright commented that the film would feature both Hank Pym and Scott Lang.  Lang was the second Ant-Man, but he was not a hero at first.  Scott Lang actually started out by stealing the Ant-Man tech from Pym's house when his daughter got sick, so that he could turn to a life of crime to help her.  Only after Lang wound up using the technology for good, did Lang become the new Ant-Man.  As of right now, we don't know for sure that this is the story that Wright and Cornish are still going to tell, but considering comments as recent as a few months ago with Wright saying that Ant-Man is a heist movie, this all makes me think that yes, it is, so what can we expect?

Personally, I think we can expect a variation of the story I just mentioned up above.  I think the film will start with Hank Pym as Ant-Man, and then he'll hang it up and we'll see Scott Lang steal the tech and so on and so forth.  The thing is, the initial idea was to show flashbacks of Pym as Ant-Man in the Sixties, but after the success of The Avengers, I just don't think Marvel Studios would do that, because whenever you do Hank Pym, you'll also have to do Janet Van Dyne, aka the Wasp, Pym's girlfriend and eventual wife.  The Wasp has the same abilities as Ant-Man, but she can also fire tiny little energy blasts called stings and grows wings when she shrinks down, enabling her to fly.  The reason as to why this nixes the whole idea of a Sixties setting, is because the Wasp is quite possibly the most recognizable female Avenger of all-time, and to do Hank Pym without her would be wrong, but to do it where the Wasp could never team up with the Avengers, would also be wrong.  This is why I think if we see any form of a Hank Pym who has given up on being a superhero, it would still be modern day.  Of course, all this talk about the Avengers brings up the even more intriguing notion as to if Pym or Janet will play any part in Age of Ultron, which hits theaters only two months before Ant-Man?

Right now, while Avengers writer/director Joss Whedon is saying that Ant-Man will not be a part of Age of Ultron, I still remain skeptical of those statements.  How often have folks in Hollywood lied to try and preserve a story that they aren't ready to be revealed?  Kind of like how Benedict Cumberbatch was for sure not Khan, only to wind up being Khan in Star Trek Into Darkness.  The way I see it, I think it would be an utter shame to not at least include Hank Pym before he is Ant-Man in Age of Ultron.  In the comics, Hank created the titular Ultron, a robot he designed to be the perfect peacekeeper, who only realized that the only way to true peace was to eradicate the Avengers.  To do Ultron with Hank Pym would be strange.  While they can do it, I think that with Ant-Man and Age of Ultron being so close together, it would only be natural to have Paul Rudd in both, but I don't call the shots.

As for right now, all we can do is speculate and listen to the rumors, creating more rumors as we talk and hypothesize, but the real takeaway point right now is the casting of Paul Rudd as Hank Pym.  Will the rumored Rashida Jones join him as the Wasp?  I hope so, because I think she'd be a perfect Janet, counterbalancing Rudd with the charm and charisma she brings to roles, but once again it's just a rumor.  However, I'll leave you with something real.  How about some of the Ant-Man test footage that Edgar Wright showed at Comic-Con two years ago?  The footage is merely a concept of what the action in the film would be like, with Wright jokingly calling it "size-fu."  If this footage is in any indication, no matter what happens and what doesn't, we're going to be in for a good time when Ant-Man hits theaters, however it's all very brief.  You can see more by looking up the test footage on YouTube, but all of it except for the clip below is from shaky bootleggers who filmed it at Comic-Con on their phones and stuff.