Monday, April 13, 2015

SPECIAL REVIEW: TIMBUKTU

In my last review, I spoke of my desire to jump at the chance to go to another film opportunity at my college. I'm very happy to say that I was able to: the French Club funded a quick day trip to Charlottesville's Paramount Theater, where Abderrahmane Sissako's latest film Timbuktu was screening. For Oscar enthusiasts like myself, the name struck out as being nominated as one of the five best foreign language films at this past Academy Awards! Sissako himself was there, and while I would've loved to hear him talk about his film my group was on a strict time schedule. I can confidently say that this was my first Mauritanian film experience, but that probably goes without saying.

Timbuktu, though its narrative structure is not solely driven
on a particular set of characters, concerns the impact a group of Muslim jihadists has on the very remote titular city. Primarily it involves the affairs of Abdelkerim and his wife Satima, their two small children and their herd of cattle. The jihadists slowly and, to the misfortune of the natives, effectively begin instilling their radical beliefs and extreme policies. That means women must cover themselves entirely, including a fish saleswoman who speaks the audience's thoughts: "We've already had to cover our heads, how do you expect me to sell fish with gloves?" In the film she is taken away, and hardly seen after. This is the face of those who stood against the oppression.

One of Timbuktu's more colorful characters
Abdelkerim is a herder, until one day something happens to his cows, by the way of his sweet, task-handling son. That leads to a much more serious incident, that gets Abdelkerim imprisoned by the radical militia. Sissako is clear to show us that, through all of these muddied politics, ultimately actions will always produce consequences, and the good guys certainly do not always win. This is no fairy tale of rebellion in a time of Ukranian conflict and Syrian massacre, this is reality. Abel Jafri plays the protagonist Abdelkerim, with a nurturing, fatherly touch. Though in one scene his point is repeated ad infinitum (though that may be script issues on Sissako's side) he truly does care for his wife and children. Their home is set up in a very desolate desert land, far isolated away from any nearby communication. One of the film's best scenes is when Satima (Toulou Kiki) gives the frostiest of cold shoulders to the jihadists who simply just come to stop by (aka harass) and see how things are. She and her daughter wash her hair the entire scene, and don't respond unless asked an interrogative question. Though it's small, it's the resilience you end up rooting for, since rebellion in these sort of environments seems to get squashed fairly easily.

While at the Oscars it went home empty-handed, this was not the case at French's equivalent of the Oscars, the Cesars. It nearly had a full sweep with seven out of eight awards won, including wins for its gorgeous, sweeping cinematography and its memorable, mood-setting music. What interests me is that it picked up no acting nominations: perhaps because the film has such an authentic feel to it the actors just seem like natives being filmed, going on their day to day lives and trying not to be affected by the jihadists. I enjoyed it, and even though the ending is jarring, there's a lot of substance Sissako puts into something a little over an hour and a half. The man has a lot to say. (And I wish I could've heard him say it!)

Rating: 3/4 stars

Monday, March 30, 2015

MY EXPERIENCE AT THE RICHMOND FRENCH FILM FESTIVAL!



Here at old Randolph College, I take whatever chance I get to partake in a moviegoing experience. I'm currently enrolled in a French 102 class for my Gen Ed. requirements, and was given the opportunity to attend the 23rd Annual French Film Festival in Richmond, Virginia. I was a little reluctant at first, I'd never attended a festival of any sorts before, another tick against a guy who calls himself a so-called "movie buff"! It consisted of a full Thursday to Monday schedule of a medley of short films and feature-length films, with the directors of these movies attending the screenings and answering questions afterwards.
Embassy Sutites Hotel (very Grand Budapest)

We were able to stay in the beautiful Embassy Suites (pictured here), and I personally had to attend at least four sessions of films at the Byrd Theater, located in the tres chic Carytown of downtown Richmond. Saturday morning at 8, six short films were shown: among my favorites were Son seul, Samourai and Mr. Lune, the latter the tale about a little moon creature that I heard being described by one of the audience members as "a comment about imperialism." Only in France, oui? Samourai was the one that most caught my attention, by directors Juliette Sales and Fabien Suarez, opening dynamically with what you believe is a murder, only for it to unfold to be a very humurous comedy about a Thai woman coming to the house of her alleged husband's son to stake her claim at the home. It was bizarre and had a truly great comedic ending.

Inside the Byrd
But the feature film I saw later that day is what I truly wanted to discuss here: Patrick Ridremont's Dead Man Talking, a wonderfully cynical cocktail of political farce, gallows humor and excellent emotional attachment to our antihero, William Lamers, imprisoned on death row, and ready to be executed. When he's told to give his last words, he begins talking about why he came here, and the events that led him to this point in his life. Due to technicalities, the prison keeps delaying his death, and then suddenly the media catches on to it, along with a wicked politician bent on making Lamers a martyr for his own greedy gains.

I'm a sucker for anything related to prison movies (I wanted to be a warden after I watched The Green Mile and then I took that back after I watched The Shawshank Redemption). What I was telling my friends works so effectively in this movie is that it gives ample time to each of the characters, not just focusing on Lamers' struggle. There's the director of the prison and his daughter, who Lamers is practically giving an ulcer, a guard with a troublesome home life, the governor and his bumbling friend, the ice-cold woman working for them (she pours coffee in a fish tank) and other memorable roles that are fully fleshed out. They're not just pieces in Lamers' checkered life, but human beings affected by his decision. Throughout the film is also an abundance of Christian iconography, including the cross-like execution table, the followers Lamers picks up as his celebrity status grows, and...well, you know there's a Judas in there, but I won't say who.

In an interview included in the program, Ridremont cites an influence by the Coen brothers, especially in the exceptionally dark humor that had the audience roaring. If this Belgian film got an American release date, there's no doubt it would be up for foreign film and best original screenplay at the Oscars. It has some of the best writing I've ever seen in a foreign movie, a great cast, score and beautiful cinematography. I hope the invitation is extended again and I can return to the 24th festival!

Saturday, February 21, 2015

2015 OSCAR PREDICTIONS!


BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: (Edward Norton, Ethan Hawke, J.K. Simmons, Mark Ruffalo, Robert Duvall)
Should Win: J.K. Simmons or Edward Norton. Simmons, similar to his band teacher Fletcher, has been dominating this category since day one. It's his to lose, but I wouldn't be sad if Edward Norton pulled a huge upset. His Mike was an endlessly interesting actor with a massive ego.
Will Win: J.K. Simmons.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: (Patricia Arquette, Meryl Streep, Laura Dern, Keira Knightley, Emma Stone),
Should/Will Win: Patricia Arquette. Laura Dern was delightful in Wild, but Arquette had the strongest role out of all these ladies as a very human mother. When you can make the audiences sympathize with you after you refuse to see your kid off to college, you deserve an Academy Award.

BEST ANIMATED MOVIE: (Big Hero 6, How to Train Your Dragon 2,  The Lego MovieThe Boxtrolls, Song of the Sea, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya)
Should Win: I've only seen How to Train Your Dragon 2 out of these nominees, and we all know what really should've been up here, (I'm keeping the rants to a minimum) so I'll go with the Rotten Tomatoes score on which flick is the most worthy: The Tale of the Pricess Kaguya with a perfect 100%.
Will Win: How to Train Your Dragon 2. It won the Annie Award and the Golden Globe for this prize.

BEST DIRECTOR: (Bennet Miller, Wes Anderson, Richard Linklater, Alejandro G. Inarritu, Morten Tyldum)
Should Win: Richard Linklater. Both Linklater and Inarritu bravely experimented with cinema with phenomenal results. Linklater gets the edge just because of commitment to the craft over more than a decade, and even if the critics want to call it a gimmick, I'm calling it a revolutionary approach to film!
Will Win: Alejandro G. Inarritu.

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY: (Boyhood, Foxcatcher, Nightcrawler, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Birdman)
Should/Will Win: Birdman. Boyhood's concept is Oscar-worthy, but Birdman had A-plus, snappy show biz banter, and biting commentary on film nowadays. It should absolutely be rewarded with some gold.

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: (The Imitation Game, Whiplash, American Sniper, The Theory of Everything, Inherent Vice)
Should Win: Whiplash or Imitation Game. The latter brought the hard to understand jargon of 1940s computer to the mainstream, plus some great quotable lines from Cumberbatch's Alan Turing. But who could forget the venomous insults spewing from Fletcher's chrome dome?
Will Win: The Imitation Game. This film's going to either go home empty handed or just win this one award. Since it got the Writer's Guild Award for this category, it's a safe-ish bet.

BEST ACTRESS: (Rosamund Pike, Marion Cotillard, Reese Witherspoon, Felicity Jones, Julianne Moore)
Should Win: Rosamund Pike. In fairness, I haven't seen Still Alice, which everyone has been raving about. I'd just love to see Pike get something for her gonzo, all-out role as the world's most...fascinating wife.
Will Win: Julianne Moore. This is one of those career-award Oscars that seems well deserved, I can't wait to see her performance!

BEST ACTOR: (Benedict Cumberbatch, Eddie Redmayne, Michael Keaton, Steve Carell, Bradley Cooper)
Should Win: Michael Keaton or Eddie Redmayne. Despite my falling asleep in The Theory of Everything, I certainly caught enough where I could admire the physical endurance Mr. Redmayne put himself through to become the genius Stephen Hawking. That said, Michael Keaton gives the more emotional performance, a complex, narcissistic actor past his prime shooting for one more shot at glory. I'll be bummed if Keaton loses this, but it will be a worthy loss indeed.
Will Win: Eddie Redmayne.

BEST PICTURE: (Selma, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Whiplash, The Theory of Everything, Boyhood, American Sniper, Birdman, The Imitation Game)
Should Win: Boyhood. You already know how I feel about this movie!
Will Win: Birdman. Yes, I do believe that Inarritu's satire will trump Linklater's dozen-year piece of childhood reflection. I can't bring myself to put it on my own official Oscar ballot, but the statistics and the gut feeling I have just tell me so. If this does occur, I think it'll be safe to say that it will be the strangest film to ever win Best Picture, but perhaps one of the most technically accomplished! But yes, I do indeed believe Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) will join the ranks of West Side Story, Patton and Unforgiven as one of the select 87 chosen among the decades as the finest films of the year. I'm not saying I won't have beef with the choice though. Read more to see my choices for the other categories!

Monday, February 16, 2015

DVD REVIEW: CHEF

Here's the first thing I can tell you about Jon Favreau's sixth directorial effort: consume it on a full stomach. Maybe let this be your family's post-Thanksgiving meal, because regardless of whether or not you dig Chef, I assure you that you will want to strap on an apron and try being Paula Deen for the next few days. Favreau had food truck owner Roy Choi (the creator of Korean BBQ, which I've tried and enjoyed!) prep him on all aspects of the movie's culinary creations, and it more than pays off. Stick around for the end of the credits and you'll see Choi school Favreau on how to make the perfect grilled cheese!

Besides leaving me physically famished, Chef also left me hungry for more. Or, perhaps, a little less. Everyone knows Favreau's got the chops to make big special effect movies: Zathura and the first couple Iron Man's. What I really dug was the meta-plot of the film. Favreau's Chef Carl Casper has been working at a high-class restaurant for a while, building up a loyal crew of culinary misfits, including John Leguizamo and Bobby Canavale, who need a buddy movie of their own. After a clash with his boss (Dustin Hoffman) over making meals he actually wants to create, he teams up with Leguizamo and his young, blase son to go into the food truck business.

As I've mentioned, the chemistry in "Chef" is the glue that holds it together. Leguizamo and Favreau have undeniable rapport along with Scarlet Johannson's Molly. I'd like to bring that up as my first point: the ridiculously good looking women that Favreau has flings with. His ex-wife is played by Sofia Vergera and his...weirdly unexplained...quasi-girlfriend...hostess employee...is Black Widow herself. If Robert Downey Jr. was the titular chef instead of his cameo in the film, I could definitely see it. But Favreau? Well it requires a little stretch of imagination.

Additionally, there are a little too many pop culture jokes in here to my liking. The neat visual effects of tweets going out into the world is cute, but will that sustain for the years to come, when Twitter will be the next MySpace? I feel like the movie is dating itself a little with the references, and they're not clever enough to justify their being there like the actor digs in Birdman. I know RDJ was probably doing him a favor to have his name on the poster, but don't waste the man's talents. Save him from being in The Judge and give him a meaty role in your movie! Their scene together is actually kind of uncomfortable, and drawn out.

These are small grievances but they add up, to where it distractingly takes away from the film experience. What keeps giving it its life is the relationship between Carl and son Percy, and as many times as you've seen it before you cheer when you see the direction its going. Though I would've loved to have seen Chef as a feast of wit for the mind and stomach, I can settle with it being a tad undercooked but still having some substance.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

MY 10 MOST ANTICIPATED MOVIES OF 2015!

Now that the unforgiving season of January is over, let's movie on to 2015. Now, some forewarning before you cheat and scroll down and see two very large absences from the list. Besides the 1977 original, I haven't seen any other Star Wars movie, and I also haven't seen Mel Gibson's Mad Max trilogy. I am very much looking forward to Force Awakens and Fury Road, because I plan on binging the whole series of both before they come out. It's just I'm looking forward to them right now, I'm not sure if my interest will diminish after what I hear are rough prequels. There are a few sequels on here, and they're all to movie franchises I've seen and greatly enjoyed. Without further ado, here are some picks that might surprise but hopefully there'll be at least one you'll research and want to scope out as well.

AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON
This list is alphabetical, but this my number one. I saw the Pinocchio themed teaser in The Battle of Five Armies, and I had to restrain myself from squealing with glee. Besides the fact we get all these incredible heroes back in one spot, Spader's Ultron looks like the end of the world itself. We know it's not because there are like three more movies from this series to come, but I can't wait for the experience, and to watch the original over again to see if I like it a little better this time.
P.S. The jury's still out over Ant-Man.

THE HATEFUL EIGHT
After seeing Django Unchained and finally watching Pulp Fiction for the first time, I've become a bonafide supporter of Tarantino, and can't wait to see what he has in store for us in November with this western, even though some have already seen the leaked draft of his script. When your headliners are Samuel L. Jackson, Bruce Dern and Kurt Russell, that's a mix a film buff can't refuse.

THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY- PART 2
Suzanne Collins' threequel was actually my least favorite novel in the Hunger Games trilogy, mostly due to its ending, but I have a hunch that Hollywood will right this wrong. Plus, even though I liked it a lot more than most people,  Part 1 was still essentially a two hour cliffhanger. Let's get to the rebellion!

INSIDE OUT
Everyone talks about Pixar being the kings of animation...and they are, but it's been half a decade since I was genuinely excited for one of their releases, and that was Toy Story 3. This film looks they're going back to their highly original concepts, in this case the personification of your emotions at work. Not only does this look adorable and entertaining, it could actually provide some insight into the mind of a teenage girl!

THE MARTIAN
An original sci-fi movie with a cast of Kate Mara, Kristen Wiig, Matt Damon, Donald Glover, Jeff Daniels and Chiwetel Ejiofor?!? You had me at "original sci-fi."

Sunday, January 25, 2015

THOUGHTS ON AMERICAN SNIPER CONTROVERSY

A lot has been said over the past week about last week's number one movie and best picture nominee American Sniper. It's absolutely unprecedented total of $107 million over the weekend has everyone analyzing its formula, and while its detractors are watching it with falcon eyes I'm sure movie studios have just ordered a slew of military biopics we can expect in the years to come. I have my own reasons why, and they're pretty sound.
  1. It was up for six Oscars, which has never hurt a movie's sums.
  2. It has arguably one of the best stars working right now in the lead.
  3. It appeals to military audiences,
  4. Faith-based audiences; Kyle's Christian beliefs are prominently displayed.
  5. Red-state audiences. 
  6. Action-movie lovers.
  7. War-movie lovers.
  8. A respectable, certified fresh score of 73% on Rotten Tomatoes.
With a demographic as wide is that, how could Eastwood and co. not have hit their mark? But these are summer blockbuster numbers after all. Nobody blinked an eye when the critically reviled fourth installment of the Transformers series pulled in $100 million. But when an R-rated Iraq war movie in January with not-too-expensive $60 million budget pulls that in? There's bound to be criticisms and harsh analyzations of it, and I'm here to quell the fire and address those controversies head-on.

THE MAIN CONCERNS:

1. FAKE BABY CONTROVERSY
I'm starting out with this one because this is the most dismissible of the three. This gets a big "WHO CARES" from me, and obviously it wasn't noticeable to when I watched it, or any of my family that watched it. This got so much news coverage, all for a prop. Maybe the baby they were going to use was sick, or they couldn't get him/her to calm down? It hardly matters, and this criticism, when so many larger questions are at hand, gets classified in the "nitpicks" bin.

2. PRAISING KYLE AS A HERO
This is a very thin line to walk, and I will indeed tread carefully. There are the critics saying there shouldn't be a film about a man who killed 160 people, glorifying the murder of Iraqis. Then there are those who scoff at that, saying killing was Kyle's duty and responsibility by the American military and that he was following orders. That phrase "following orders" is controversial in itself. But I don't think the movie paints Kyle as a man who loved to kill, though in his book he did say some of his killings were "fun." With the godlike decision-making of life or death, there will be an expansion in ego, especially SEALs, who naturally will feel superior once they've completed training. In interviews, Kyle was noted as saying he didn't regret any of his killings. The truth is that's what he was assigned to do, and he did it expertly. The movie shows the way it weighed with him post-Iraq, and never depicted him shooting anyone that didn't pose a threat to his team. Why they were in Iraq is a completely different story, but seeing Kyle as a hero is in no way wrong. He served his country and saved the lives of his fellow SEALs, and that's what's depicted.

3. IS THE MOVIE PROPAGANDA?
I was sure the answer was yes in the first 15 minutes, but then became uncertain. I really, really despise it when filmmakers show clips of 9/11 for emotional string-pulling. A movie dedicated to the subject, United 93, hardly showed the Towers burning. When Kyle sees this and the earlier '98 embassy bombings, he stands up, like Uncle Sam is grabbing him from the shoulders. But I realized that, and I am giving the film the BOTD, that it truly isn't pro-war, but rather pro-soldier. Kyle says that he fights for God, family and country, but right after a fellow soldier tells him he's not sure if he can put his faith in something divine. The clear PTSD he's shown with, as he nearly puts down his dog after a misunderstanding is enough to bring that message home. Eastwood shows the SEALS process looking like sheer hell, and the sandstorm where Kyle nearly dies straight out of a nightmare. Not to mention the impact his absence has on his family, the ones he says he's fighting for. The scene right before he goes and is eventually a killed by a fellow soldier suffering mental illness, was probably dramatically licensed. Did he really tell his son to look after the women? Did he really make a full improvement as Sienna Miller's character notes? Maybe, maybe not. If Kyle was alive he'd still be suffering the blows of PTSD head-on.

I've had the displeasure of reading Twitter fights of this argument, and they made me realize why I deleted mine almost a year ago. All I know is Chris Kyle was no "American psychopath" as his detractors claim, but the man wasn't a saint, and no one is. Personally that's the message I got from Eastwood's movie. If the politics of American Sniper bother you so much, just look at the movie as squarely a fictional piece, and judge it on cinematic merits.

Monday, January 19, 2015

REVIEW: AMERICAN SNIPER

I saw this film this past Saturday, which means I had no earthly clue that Clint Eastwood's American Sniper would pull in an unheard of $90 million. That's a better weekend than Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies and 22 Jump Street, all blockbuster sequels with established franchises. What's the reason for this unheard of success? Patriotism: people love seeing films about American war heroes. Buzz: Sniper got six Oscar nominations last Thursday including best picture, actor and adapted screenplay. But most importantly: word of mouth. A movie can have great reviews and Oscar nominations, like The Hurt Locker, and nobody will see it until it sweeps the Oscars. But, if not for Bradley Cooper's performance alone, the film's mammoth box-office returns are well justified.

The film largely chronicles the time Chris Kyle spent in his oversea tours, mostly in Iraq. After seeing the '98 embassy bombings on TV, Kyle, like a good American (as the film tends to patriot-ize his as) goes to the Navy and eventually becomes a SEAL. That sentence sounds very oversimplified; the movie briefly shows the hardships and humiliation, including being hosed down and, that it took to become a coveted Navy SEAL. Kyle's shown as always being the American personification of a good guy: signing up for the military, defeating the "enemy" and having a wife and kids.

Even though this was a real man, Cooper could've abandoned Chris Kyle the person and gone with Chris Kyle "the Legend" as he was called. With a name like that you're almost bound to disappoint. If a stand-up comedian toted that he was the funniest man alive, you would begin critiquing his jokes and finding flaws in his delivery. But Kyle met all of them while on duty, accumulating over 250 kills in his four tours. What Cooper does is become the comedian's audience, and finds the flaws and insecurities of the man. While on duty, Kyle is an OOH-RAH golden boy, an eliminator of evil. While back at home his mind's over in Iraq, pondering who he has to kill. He's no Dahmer, Kyle doesn't kill for the thrill of the sport, but to protect his brethren. At least that's what he tells himself to get by, but his kills and his time start weighing on him, and when he's finally home he's far from being finally home.

Cooper, in subtle actions like looking down and passive aggressively taking compliments for his actions, becomes this man, who loves to serve his country and wants to be home, but when he's home he'd rather be serving his country. Being in the military is almost his addiction, and coming home to regular life is his withdrawal. I wish Sienna Miller had more to do as his wife Taya, because the real life Taya was heavily involved in the creation of this film. Her main motivation it seems to me was just to miss Chris. I also wish Eastwood's direction would've shown more restraint: some of the battle scenes lose their edge when they drag on and on. On the reverse, some scenes were so intense I could feel the packed house grip their chairs as tight as I was. The movie isn't hit and miss, rather hit-and-I-wish-this-could've-landed-more-on-target.

Let's just give it up to Cooper, who along with physically transforming himself with a bulky exterior and a pitch perfect Texas accent, landed an Oscar nomination for this role, voiced Rocket Raccoon and is on Broadway to rave reviews as the Elephant Man. His dedication along with Eastwood's direction makes this one of last year's best thrillers, and the audience has clearly spoken if they want to see more quality movies like this.

Rating: 2.5/4 stars