Tag Archive: Oscar Winners


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(As some of you may remember, I made a vow to stop reviewing all of the movies that I watched for my blog a while back. And that still holds true. I decided to only review films that I give an “A” or an “A+” too because I just don’t have time to write 1000 words about all of the other movies that I watch. And the “A” and “A+” films are films that I’m going to have plenty of substantive and, hopefully, interesting things to say about. Anyways, this is the first film to get an “A” since I made that decision, so here we go. I’m probably rusty at this.)

I’m only 25 years old, and I have already lost countless of hours of sleep thinking of what could have been and what I should have done differently. I don’t necessarily believe that my life is one charted primarily in regret, but there is much in my life that I would do different given the chance. Life is short, and it’s getting shorter every day; throw my innate impatience into the mix, and it’s easy to see why I am tortured by every day that I don’t achieve something magnificent. Plenty of films (and an occasional great one) deal with the disappointment of old age and life poorly spent. But few films deal with the emptiness of that revelation in such stark and powerful terms as 2013’s The Great Beauty, the Best Foreign Language Academy Award winning film from Italy’s Paolo Sorrentino. A visual and emotional tour-de-force, The Great Beauty is a modern Italian masterpiece in the Fellini vein.

After three years of running this blog, if there’s one thing I’ve learned about great Italian cinema, it’s that narrative is secondary to “experience.” Emotions and the evocation of a specific state of mind or place is what defines much of the great Italian cinema. The Bicycle Thief is a transcendentally melancholic experience that evokes the crushing poverty of post-World War II Rome.  Cinema Paradiso captures the wonder films can instill in us when we’re young as well as the beauty (and poverty) of Sicily. And no film has captured the mercurial charm of the creative process as well as Fellini’s 8 1/2. And, The Great Beauty is one of the great cinematic statements on regret and old-age packed with some of the most gorgeous cinematography this side of Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder.

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Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo) is a celebrated Italian journalist and novelist that has just celebrated his 65th birthday with a hedonistic extravaganza of Rome’s social elite that would rival any of Ancient Rome’s most debauched orgies. But despite his life of luxury and total ease, Jep is not a happy man. He wrote his first novel, an instant classic, when he was a young man and has written another book since. And his interviews may be among Italy’s most read and in its most respected magazines, but it also involves him interviewing “artists” who act simply involves stripping naked and running head-first into brick walls. After the woman who inspired his first novel dies, Jep suddenly realizes he hasn’t done anything meaningful with his life in thirty years, and that all of the people he associates himself with are as empty and shallow as he is.

What makes The Great Beauty different from other films that deal with an old man who gets old and realizes his life has raced him by is that there’s absolutely nothing feel-good or redemptive about this film. The Great Beauty is not a film about Jep’s attempts to regain control of his life. It’s about his slowly dawning realization that his life has become without meaning and that he doesn’t really have the energy to correct this course. The only person he finds in his life with any emotional honesty and sincerity is the 43 year old stripper daughter of a heroin-addicted old friend. And, Jep quickly discovers that he can’t find the redemption in Ramona (Sabrina Ferilli) that he needs. The Great Beauty, like Synecdoche, New York, before it is a film that forces the viewer to confront his own mortality and that when we die, none of the things we’ve done will be there to comfort us. We will only have the things we haven’t done there to cause us pain.

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Toni Servillo’s masterfully understated performance is the glue holding this whole film together. When The Great Beauty begins to meander (rarely to its detriment), Toni Servillo’s natural mercurial charm combined with his deep reservoir of melancholy makes him one of the most arresting screen figures of the 2010s. Jep is what would happen if La Dolce Vita‘s Marcello lived to be an old man and had even less to keep him happy. Servillo understands Jep so well that it doesn’t seem remotely incongruous for Jep to verbally lash a socialite at an otherwise friendly dinner party and to then suggest to that same woman later in the film that they should sleep together because it would give him something beautiful left to look forward to in life. Jep has an innate joie-de-vivre but if he stops moving for even a second, he realizes that these pleasures add up to nothing, and there is never a second in the film where Toni Servillo doesn’t remind us of this.

The Great Beauty deserved an Academy Award nomination for Best Cinematography, and the fact that it didn’t get one is a crime. It takes nearly twenty minutes before The Great Beauty begins to develop a plot (which is less of a linear narrative and more a series of thematically connected episodes), and it managed to hold my attention in a vise that entire time because The Great Beauty is stunning to look at. Luca Bigazzi’s camera becomes a testament to the eternal beauty of the city of Rome, and Cristiano Travaglioli’s frenetic editing captures the delirious disconnect these wealthy hedonists have from the real world. But, when the film calls for long takes and unbroken meditations on the action at hand, Bigazzi’s camera is there to soak it all in glorious detail and color. The Great Beauty is a must-see because of its cinematography alone.

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The Great Beauty‘s complex understanding of the way that we deal with regret and the notion that there isn’t always a magic solution to live in the moment is going to be off-putting to viewers who require happy solutions and clear-payoffs (or, even, in The Great Beauty‘s case, a cohesive narrative). The film demands that the viewer consider that we’re slaves to our behavioral destinies and that, beyond that, the suffering required for great art may be more pain than the art itself is actually worth. Much like Happiness and Amour, The Great Beauty is a film hiding a cynical and painful world view beneath an inviting title. Although The Great Beauty didn’t leave me nearly as emotionally devastated as Amour, it continues the tradition of the Best Foreign Language Academy Award winners being much better than the American films that win the same title, and it is certainly worth the time of any one who loves powerful and ambitious foreign cinema.

Final Score: A

 

 

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This blog is well over a year old now, but I’ve only reviewed three other films from the 1930s (and only The Birth of a Nation from before the 30s). I have sort of a complicated relationship with movies (specifically dramas) that came out before the mid-1960s. They have their own idealistic, nostalgic beauty, but more often than not, it’s their same idealism and simplicity that I found to be terribly boring and overdone in the face of the more mature and sophisticated narrative and cinematic devices that have come to define top-tier dramas since the 1960s. However, when I find dramas from that era that I love, I form an almost instant attachment with them because their ability to transcend time and space. If their story or message or simple style seems relevant and entertaining despite being over 60 years old, that’s a fairly massive achievement and it signifies their deserved place in the canon of film beyond the simple fact of their age. Casablanca fits in this category. The films of Elia Kazan and Billy Wilder are other notable timeless works. Well, I now have another film that despite its almost Aaron Sorkin-esque romanticism speaks across the chasms of decades (the film is over 70 years old) with a story that is as relevant today as when it first came out. While it suffers from some of the flaws inherent to the biopic genre, The Life of Emile Zola is a striking statement on our civic duty to stand up against injustice and government hypocrisy.

In the mid 1800s, French author Emile Zola (Paul Muni) and his closest friend, artist Paul Cezanne (Vladimir Sokoloff), are starving for their craft in the impoverished streets of Paris. Emile Zola writes by night and works by day as a clerk at a bookstore where his “slanderous” (i.e. true) attacks on the French government and the social injustices inherent in French life mark him as an active enemy of the state and cost him his job. When a random encounter with a French prostitute inspires him to write a novel that also works as an expose on the harsh realities of French working girls, Zola is suddenly thrust into the international literary spotlight and enjoys a truly prolific career as one of France’s most celebrated authors. He is essentially the Dickens of France in the way that he explores the less glamorous side of the exploding Industrial Revolution. However, in his success, Zola becomes content to while away his years in contented satisfaction despite the condemnations of his former best friend Cezanne who continues to pursue art above wealth. Zola finds himself back in the midst of another moral crisis when a Jewish captain in the French army, Albert Dreyfus (Joseph Schildkraut), is falsely accused of being a spy and a massive government conspiracy arises to frame him for the crime rather than face a more politically tumultuous reality of admitting they charged the wrong man. When Zola embarks on his mission to clear the name of Capt. Dreyfus, he risks not only his legacy among the French people but even his own freedom when the French government accuses him of treasonous libel and places him on trial.

Joseph Schildkraut won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for this film despite the fact that he was only in the movie for at most fifteen minutes or so of actual screen time. Despite the briefness of his presence on camera, he gave a deeply emotional performance that was certainly helped with the effective close-ups of his subtly emotive face. Emile Zola is without question the main character of the film, but the trials of Capt. Dreyfus propel the film’s second half and it’s very important that we care deeply about this unjustly accused man, and Schildkraut aptly garnered my sympathy with his characterization of heartbroken betrayal. However, Paul Muni was the real star of the film, and while I haven’t seen Spencer Tracy in Captains Courageous (who beat out Muni for the Best Actor Oscar that year), I can say that Paul Muni gave an all-star performance as the titular Emile Zola. It may have had some of the over-the-topness and emoting that characterized the big screen in the decade following the transition from silent films to “talkies,” but there was a genuine passion and intelligence in his role and Muni captured the moral outrage that any rational and ethical man in those circumstances would feel. I haven’t enjoyed watching a character give speech after speech in a movie like this since the last time I watched To Kill a Mockingbird with Gregory Peck’s iconic performance as Atticus Finch. Muni’s version of Zola might seem very old-fashioned by modern standards, but even though I knew his acting didn’t really jibe with the more naturalistic modern conventions, I still enjoyed the theatrics and fire he brought to the role.

For the reasons laid out earlier, I was actually dreading putting this in my DVD player. It sounded terribly boring and the plot description on Netflix made me fear that this was going to be a film with an era-relevant theme that wasn’t going to translate well to the modern era. I was completely wrong. Whether it was Emile Zola’s position as a 19th century Howard Zinn/Noam Chomsky/Julian Assange or the way that justice and truth were being railroaded in the vague name of the state, this film is perfectly relevant in the post-Bush era of endless government secrecy. There was a scene during one of the trials where Zola’s lawyer requested the presence of a string of high-ranking army officials to testify, and they all used some imaginary government immunity to not participate. It was like a scene right out of the investigations into torture and inethical spying against the Bush administration. I could just hear Alberto Gonzalez and the rest of the Bush administration saying “I do not recall” over and over again. Similarly, while the film didn’t outright make Dreyfus’ Jewish ancestry the reason why he was being chosen as the scapegoat, the film definitely maintained that subtext (very subtly), and in an era where our government and our nation like to blame one ethnic group or another for our nation woes rather than face harsher truths, it all rang amazingly true. Yes, the script took some liberties with history (though I don’t know how many), and there was a lot of speechifying in this film, but as a product of a day when movies were nearly synonymous with the stage, I thought it was all entertaining and illuminating.

If you’re a fan of classic dramas, The Life of Emile Zola is an obvious pick considering its place as one of the most acclaimed biopics of the early days of cinema. However, if you’re like me and think film noir was the only consistently watchable non-comedy genre from that day, The Life of Emile Zola deserves your attention because of the renewed sense of urgency and relevancy it holds in the modern political climate. The film may paint Zola in the most romantic light possible without exploring any of his potential flaws and so it paints its hero in a very favorable light, but even without getting an entire picture, it’s a fascinating look at a page of history that hasn’t been done time and time again. The acting is excellent (by the standards of theatre anyways) and it was a surprisingly well-shot and well-edited film from this era. If you’ve ever found yourself in a liberal uproar because of social inequality or the government sacrificing justice in the name of a “greater good” that only really profits them, The Life of Emile Zola is an astounding artifact of the dawning of the silver screen to show how some issues have never really gone away.

Final Score: A-

A couple of months ago, I reviewed About Schmidt, writer/director Alexander Payne’s breakthrough picture to widespread critical acclaim (Election was also well-beloved if less acclaimed). It didn’t quite strike me at the same emotional level as Payne’s satirical masterpiece (and in my mind, the best dark comedy of the 2000s) Sideways, but that may only be because I am unable at this point in my life (as a 23 year old) to completely relate to the subject matter of a man coming to terms with his wife’s death and his own finite mortality. I also just thought that Sideways was simply funnier (but it was also trying to be funnier in its own tragic way). Alexander Payne is almost like Terrence Malick in his perfectionist pursuit of the just right story to tell, and there were seven years between Sideways and Payne’s newest film, the Academy Award-winning, The Descendants. The brilliance of Sideways must be a massive burden for Payne at this point because once again, a wonderful and honest film seems somehow slight compared to the man’s opus though that shouldn’t stop anyone from checking out one of the most poignant films of 2011.

The Descendants, based off the book by Kaui Hart Hemmings, is the tragicomic tale of Matt King (George Clooney) and his attempts to come to terms with the impending death of his wife and the challenges of raising his two daughters on his own. When his wife winds up in a coma with no chance of waking up (which means she’s going to die because her will has a “Do Not Resuscitate” order), Matt, a Hawaiian lawyer, is shaken out of his humdrum existence. Matters only get more complicated when he finds out from his daughter Alex (Shailene Woodley) that his wife was having an affair. As Matt has to weigh his responsibilities as a father and a husband, he tries to find the man who was sleeping with his wife all while he also has to make a major decision about whether or not to sell a 25,000 acre plot of real estate that’s been in his family since the 1860s. Whether it’s telling his friends and family that his wife is going to die or dealing with the emotional landmine that is his 17 year old and 10 year old daughters, Matt has more on his emotional plate than any one man should have to deal with.

I’ve only seen one other performance so far from this year’s slate of Academy Award nominated male leads (Brad Pitt in Moneyball). However, out of all of the Best Picture nominees I’ve seen so far (and the other films from 2011 for that matter), George Clooney has given hands down the best performance. The Descendants is probably the best performance from one of the last remaining icons of the big screen. The man makes aging seem so graceful and elegant and he has a Gary Cooper-esque statesmen quality in this role (not to mention, a slight physical resemblance to the aging Cooper). Matt King is a complex and nuanced role that would be too easy to overplay. However, King, the character, is all about emotional restraint and subdued pain, and Clooney captures it almost effortlessly. You always think King is going to be on the verge of a major emotional breakdown, and you can see Clooney channeling all of King’s heartbreak while also maintaining the barely held strength needed for his two daughters. His Golden Globe win was well deserved. Shailene Woodley made her big-screen debut in this film (which also earned her a Golden Globe nomination), and for a young actress as talented as her, I hope this means she can now stop making terrible ABC Family programming like The Secret Life of the American Teenager.

Alexander Payne’s script/direction (as well as the source material) was as brutally honest and “real” as ever. Much like About Schmidt, The Descendants falls heavily into the drama territory of the tragicomic dramedy field. There are plenty of laughs in this film (mostly coming from Shailene Woodley and King’s other daughter, Scottie [Amara Miller]), but for the most part, The Descendants thrusts the viewer into one incredibly awkward experience after another. It wrests some genuine truths about life out of King’s suffering, and over the course of the film, you learn more about how to appreciate what you have in life instead of holding grudges or focusing on material possessions. I don’t want to call it a “small” film because it’s philosophical ambitions are much larger than that, but it’s certainly a quiet movie that doesn’t beat you over the head with pretentious moralizing and instead lets the simple beauty (and pain and awkwardness) of life wash over you. It’s strange that a movie that made me so physically uncomfortable at moments also managed to feel like the most uplifting film of the year behind The Tree of Life.

However, I do have a small gripe with the film that keeps it from being as memorable as Sideways and potentially even falling short of About Schmidt (at least in this one regard). Matthew King never develops into as complete and memorable a character as Jack Nicholson’s Warren Schmidt or Paul Giamatti’s Miles Raymond. For the most part, Matthew King is a completely sympathetic and likeable hero. Besides not being completely in touch with his own emotions, I can’t really point out any major flaws in King’s character which makes him seem like such an unlikely hero for an Alexander Payne picture. While there are some profound differences in his personal life (and business life) by the end of the film, King seems to be a virtually unchanged man by the film’s end. The character who seemed to undergo the most appreciable shift was Alex. In that regard, the ultimate character arc (in a film that can most easily be classified as a character study) was slightly disappointing. It doesn’t effect the larger themes about life and family that the film uses but the lack of a truly memorable character (even if George Clooney sold the hell out of the role) at the center of the film kept it from being a truly great picture.

This was the seventh film nominated for Best Picture that I’ve reviewed out of this year’s ten nominees which means I only need to see The Artist and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close to finally finish that project up. Since The Artist doesn’t even have a DVD release date, it’s anybody’s guess as to when I’ll finally get around to watching it. At this point though, The Tree of Life has been the clear frontrunner for not only the Best Picture of this year but the best picture since 2009’s The Road. I can’t make that final judgment until I see the last two films but I’m 99% sure that Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close isn’t going to dethrone a Terrence Malick flick since it’s unashamedly kitsch exploitation of an American tragedy. Lord knows it won’t be too long before I’m doing this whole charade over again for the best pictures of 2012.

Final Score: A-

There’s nothing more disappointing than when a film has a ton of individual pieces that seem like a recipe for success but it turns out to be a near total dud instead. 2011’s Rango, directed by Gore Verbinski (which should have been the warning sign that it wasn’t going to be very good), seemed like a surefire success. It was a big budget animated feature from Dreamworks Studios (the studio behind Shrek when they were still a subversive and cutting-edge take on the animated film and not a formulaic cash cow franchise) that won the Best Animated Feature Oscar at this year’s Academy Awards. It starred Johnny Depp (who had worked with Gore Verbinski when creating arguably his most iconic role as Captain Jack Sparrow in the original Pirates of the Caribbean). It was a children’s take on the Western genre. It has an astonishingly original art style and looks amazing despite the intentional ugliness of the characters. Yet, despite all of this, the plot and humor in Rango often falls unfortunately flat, and in the wake of the mature and deep characterization offered in Pixar films like Toy Story 3 and Up, Rangois far too shallow to be the most celebrated animated film of 2011.

Rango (Johnny Depp) lives a perfectly “ordinary life” as a lizard inside his terrarium. Along with the props in his homes, he explores his desire to be an actor by putting on low-rate theatrical productions that even he realizes are crap. His life is turned upside down though when his terrarium is accidentally jettisoned out of the car it was traveling in and he finds himself without food, water, or shelter in the middle of the Nevada desert. It’s not long before he winds up meeting Beans (The Wedding Crashers’ Isla Fisher), another lizard, who drops him off in the ironically named town of Dirt. Dirt is suffering from a water shortage though the shady Mayor (Deliverance‘s Ned Beatty) claims to have everything under control. When his manhood is questioned at the bar, Rango constructs a series of elaborate lies to embellish his image (and to practice his acting), and after he accidentally saves the town from a murderous hawk, his legend only grows and the Mayor makes Rango the sheriff. It’s not long before Rango finds himself drawn into the investigation of where the town’s water has gone and into an adventure well beyond his control.

Let’s start with the good. The art style makes for one of the best looking and most intriguing (artistically) CGI films ever made. I love the Pixar films, but everything (and everyone) in their films has to be cute. Even Monsters Inc. was full of adorable and huggable “monsters.” Rango isn’t afraid to make its characters a little more stylized and ultimately more distinct. A lot of the characters are downright ugly, but the attention to detail (and the obvious western stereotypes they were drawing on) makes the character art seem much more lively than your average homogenized children’s fare. The characters are animal versions of iconic roles from Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns and more modern fare likeDeadwood, and if I forced myself to forget about the film’s forgettable story and characters (in terms of their personalities), I could just bask in how well done the film’s visuals were. There are also several explosive action sequences, and Gore Verbinski’s experience directing live-action epics really shows in how thrilling and well-choreographed those scenes were.

The voice acting is also top-notch. Johnny Depp is great in every film of his I’ve seen (except for The Nightmare on Elm Street but that was his debut and doesn’t really count. It wasn’t really a demanding role), and while his interpretation of Rango could get a little too kiddy for me at times (his voice took on the annoying high-pitched trait that I associate with poor English dubs of anime on some occasions), he was able to infuse the film’s rare dramatic moments with considerable heft. Johnny Deppy is very much a physical actor in the vein of Dustin Hoffman, but it still impresses how much he can accomplish with his voice alone. Ned Beatty made as a particularly sinister villain (and Bill Nighy disguised his voice supremely well as one of the smaller antagonists). However, the really shocking voice-acting discovery of the film was Timothy Olyphant. He essentially played Clint Eastwood’s character from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly and I actually thought it was Clint Eastwood voicing the character for a minute before I realized I was hearing Raylen Givens. Who knew that Timothy Olyphant could do such a pitch-perfect Clint Eastwood impersonation?

Unfortunately, the film’s story and characters were utterly predictable and completely forgettable. Outside of Depp’s Rango, none of the animal’s made enough of an impact to be remembered as anything other than “the cat,” or “the dog,” or “the mouse.” Maybe, I’m expecting too much from a children’s film but the main cast of Toy Story 3 felt very well-fleshed out (and not just because there were two films preceding it to craft their backstories). By the film’s end, you were taken on a very specific (but still plot-driven) emotional journey that left me in tears. Similarly, think about how much character-based storytelling was accomplished in the first twenty minutes of Up when there were hardly any words spoken? Rango may serve as a passable children’s adventure and comedy (though most of the jokes for the kids fell flat), but in two or three years, no one will be speaking about this film again except perhaps to mention its dazzling artwork. In actuality, the only jokes in the film that really found their marks were meta-textual references to Johnny Depp’s career (and other Western in-jokes) such as Rango flying into the windshield of a car that was obviously being drive by a Raoul Duke stand-in from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

Even with my weighty complaints, Rango still has its moments, and its surrealistic art style was a revelation. I don’t think I’ve seen a children’s film loaded with more pop culture references since Shrek 2 blew my “freshman in high school” mind with its never-ending stream of meta jokes. Still, in this Pixar age, I expect more from my children’s films especially one that is deemed the best animated film of the year by the Academy Awards. I’m a Western film fanatic, and I still couldn’t invest myself in the bare-bones plot in Rango. This film has generated a very polarizing response among audiences, and at the end of the day, I have to throw my hat in with its critics. Still, it showed a remarkable amount of potential, and I hope that it’s team of animators go on to do great things in the future. They just need a better script to truly fashion a classic.

Final Score: B-

 

Before people get themselves all in a tizzy over my review of Who Are the Debolts? And Where Did They Get Nineteen Kids?, I want to clarify something about the way I look at films. The best movies are timeless. Casablanca is as powerful today as it was 70 years ago. The same thing can be said for The Wizard of Oz, The Godfather, or Rebel Without a Cause (obviously with different amounts of time involved). I’m sure there are great films being made today that will be timeless, but I am wise enough to accept that many films I love that seem so relevant now will look silly or naive in 50 years (I doubt I’ll still be writing about movies by the time I’m 73 although I can hope. It’s not that I doubt I’ll still be writing; I just doubt I’ll live that long). Who Are the Debolts? is an inspiring and heartfelt documentary from the late ’70s that seems such a product of its time that I’m afraid I’ll never be able to get the gooey schmaltz of this film out of my TV. I certainly enjoyed the film but it seems so absurdly optimistic and joyful that I can’t help but feel certain elements of it are simply too good to be true and intentionally edited to leave out some uglier truths that assuredly abounded in this film.

The Debolt family, led by Mary and Bob, isn’t your ordinary American family from the 1970’s, though they’d be angry if you told them there was anything they couldn’t do. With Mary’s five children from her first marriage (she was a widow) and one child from Bob’s initial marriage, Mary and Bob Debolt adopted 13 children over the years. Of various races (though primarily Vietnamese orphans from the war) and ages (because they’ve been adopting children for so long), Bob and Mary Debolt took in the kids that no other family wanted. Nearly all of their adopted children suffer from some severe physical handicap or another, whether it’s permanently crippled legs from polio or injuries suffered during the war, blindness, or lacking any limbs whatsoever, these were children that desperately needed love but no one else would give it to them until the Debolts came around. Showing the daily life in the Debolts house when there are still 12 kids living there (the 7 oldest had gotten older and moved out) and the struggles and triumphs of this happy and unique family.

I feel like I have to be the most cynical asshole on the planet to find reasons to criticize this movie which shows two of the most hard-working and loving parents I’ve ever seen. The amount of love in this family’s heart is astounding, and I have nothing but respect for them. It was a struggle as a child when my family opened our home to four foster siblings with no physical defects. I can only imagine how tough it must have been to take in 13 kids who were severely handicapped. And that’s the film’s problem in a nutshell. I have to imagine how tough this was because the film is all about the positive things that happened when this family took in all of these kids. It doesn’t do a very good job of showing how difficult this life must be and just what kinds of sacrifices Mary and Bob had to make in order for this to work out. It just didn’t seem especially realistic. There are moments where you see how rough it is. Watching the young African-American adopted daughter with no arms or legs strap herself into her prosthetic body was heart-breaking as was watching one of their newest children, the blind and crippled J.R., fail to make his way up the stairs, which the family calls “the mountain” because it feels like you climbed a mountain when you finally scale it on your own for the first time. However, too much of the time the movie went out of its way to be sugary-sweet and it lacked any authenticity because of it.

If you’ve ever been part of a family that adopted kids (or were adopted yourself) or you were part of a family that opened itself up to foster care, you should definitely watch Who Are the Debolts? even though the jaded cynic in me has to find flaws in it. It will remind you of just how important it is that we as a society look out for and (most importantly) truly love like our own flesh and blood those who don’t have someone to take care of them. Foster care and adoption are probably the only real ways that I can see myself ever having children because this world sucks too much to voluntarily put someone in it, especially when there are thousands and thousands of kids here in America looking for a nice home that simply can’t find it. It had been a while since I had really dwelt on all of the good that my family was able to do for the foster kids we helped raise, and this movie helped remind me that it was certainly all worth it and that it’s something I want to do when I’m older and have a wife and a secure source of income.

Final Score: B

Since the blog was originally dedicated solely to movies (before it expanded to include other fields0, it should hopefully come as no shock that movies are a fairly integral part of my life. I always loved movies as a youth, but my status as a movie aficionado didn’t really set in until my first trip to Disney World the summer after my 9th grade. While I love virtually every inch of Disney World, MGM Studios remains my undisputed favorite of all of the parks (after three separate visits over the last decade), and even though it’s essentially a glorified tour, MGM Studio’s Great Movie Ride is also my favorite ride at the whole of Disney World. Sitting through that (and to a lesser extent, the Backlot tour) opened up a love of classic and modern cinema that has only gotten stronger with each passing year. During that initial trip, I bought a trivia book about AFI’s Top 100 American movies and tried to devour as many of the films on the list as I could, and when I returned as a freshman in college, I bought not one, not two, but three books on movies, including a comprehensive Oscar history book, a massive coffee table book that is an illustrated history of cinema from the late 1800’s to the early 2000’s, and the NY Times 1000 greatest movies ever made.

When all of the other pleasures of my youth (politics, poker, and countless other hobbies) lost their flavor, movies only grew in stature. I don’t think I could ever participate in the production of the film (though I’ve started on several unfinished screenplays), but watching and writing about the movies I love gives me more pleasure than anything else out there. The first time I was bowled over the gorgeous cinematography of Ran or had my mind blown by a David Lynch film or stood amazed when I saw Daniel Day Lewis act for the first time, those are all memories as tangible and important as anything in “real life”. Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film in 1988, and for anyone with a deep and heartfelt love of cinema and whose heart has been touched by those fleeting images on screen, this is your story brought to life in as haunting and beautiful a way possible. The film drags at times and I occasionally felt lost in cultural references I didn’t fully comprehend, but for all movie lovers everywhere, this is for you.

Cinema Paradiso is the heavily autobiographical and personal tale of director Giuseppe Tornatore’s childhood in Sicily. A successful director, Salvatore “Toto” Di Vita (Jacques Perrin), has lived in Rome for the last 30 years without once returning to his childhood home of Giancardo, Sicily. One night, he comes home to find a message from his mostly estranged mother saying that his childhood mentor, Alfredo (Philippe Noiret), has passed away. The movie then flashes back to Toto’s childhood (played as a child by Salvatore Cascio) in post World War II Sicily with his impoverished mother and a father who in all likelihood died fighting the Russians. Toto befriends Alfredo, the middle-aged projectionist for the local theater, where Toto instantly falls in love with the world of movies (and it seems the town spends most of its time in the theater). As Toto grows up, he eventually takes over the projectionist duties into his teenage years (Marco Leonardi) where he falls in love, spends his time in the army, and eventually grows beyond Giancardo. Alfredo encourages Toto to leave his hometown and pursue his dreams, and Toto doesn’t come back until 30 years later to pay respect to the memory of his departed friend and witness the way his town has changed.

If that sounds like I described essentially the entire story of the film there, I did, but it’s not the plot here that matters. It’s the gorgeous, minute details (which are on rare occasions, excessive). Before I looked up to see whether this film was based on the director’s real life, I could already tell simply because of how honest and genuine this story felt. There are plenty of films out there about making movies (Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2 and Inland Empire spring immediately to mind), but I’ve never seen such a beautiful tribute to movies themselves. The film is abound with footage from classic films, and every detail of the lighting and the framing of the shots reminds you simply of how much Giuseppe Tornatore loves classic cinema. It shows the way films brought communities together before they were a million ways to entertain yourself cut off from the rest of the world (a fact that is already being bemoaned in this film made in the 80’s). It shows how a passion for art and entertainment can transform not only your own life but of everyone else around you. It does all this and manages to avoid maudlin sentimentality and cheap emotional tricks for the entire running time which is a feat in and of itself.

With the possible exception of the youngest incarnation of Toto who goes back and forth between an astonishingly natural performance for a child actor and then a more common state of more obvious child acting, the performances here are simply spectacular. Despite being an uneducated and unsuccessful man, Alfredo is turned into an eloquent and emotionally complex individual through Philippe Noiret’s rich characterization. He quickly became one of the best adopted father figures in cinema history that I have seen and I was even more impressed here than I was with Omar Sharif in a similar role for Monsieur Ibrahim. Marco Leonardi nailed the angst, ennui, and frustration that was eating away at the Toto who was becoming increasingly trapped in his small little world when he was clearly meant for so much more. Jacques Perrin however was the real scene-stealer. He had the fewest lines of all of the incarnations of Toto, but his effortlessly emotive face and marvelously subtle renderings of Toto’s grief and nostalgia upon returning to his hometown made the final thirty minutes of the movie the truly legendary scenes they’ve become.

That isn’t to say that this movie is perfect. Unfortunately, the film can occasionally be scattershot in its approach, and it’s spend a significant portion of its time developing the character of the town Giancardo and its various eccentric figures, such as the priest who bans any scenes of kissing in the theatre (which is originally in his church) or the homeless man who believes the town square to be his or the rich man who spits on the socialists in the theatre when they boo bourgeois characters; however, there doesn’t seem to be much pay-off for any of these characters expect for perhaps one whose details I won’t go into for fear of spoiling one of the few parts of the plot I haven’t explained. The film is only a little over two hours but you often feel like it’s much longer (and I hear the director’s cut adds another hour which would just ruin the film for me), and while it’s ending is perfect and turned me into a sobbing mess of emotion, the rest of the film could have used some steadier editing so that the story could have stayed focus on Toto and his relationship with the loveable curmudgeon Alfredo.

Cinema Paradiso is simply a film made by a movie fan for movie fans. It captures the lost innocence of childhood better than any film I’ve seen in ages, but it gives hope to so many of us out there who may be afraid to pursue our passions. Beautiful acting, beautiful filmmaking equate to an unforgettable cinematic experience. It is a foreign film and therefore subtitled in Italian as a warning to those who find this review compelling enough that you would wish to watch this. Though at this point, I give up on people that can’t watch foreign movies. If you’re at least in high school and can’t sit through subtitles, you are making a conscious (and poor) decision to eliminate the possibility of seeing so many classic foreign films that often make our trite American productions seem embarrassingly amateur-ish in comparison. For anyone with even the slightest interest in deeply emotional storytelling and the great selection of movies from overseas, I have no reservations in recommending Cinema Paradiso to you.

Final Score: A

How much goodwill can a film earn just through the sheer strength of its performances alone? Without Christian Bale, The Fighter would have been a terribly mediocre boxing movie that simply rehashed every sports underdog cliche known to man. Without Colin Firth’s incendiary performance, The King’s Speech would never have been a Best Picture contender, let alone won. Sometimes I question whether I adore There Will Be Blood as much as I do because of the beautiful cinematography and the haunting tale of the spiritual rot of rampant greed or simply because Daniel Day Lewis gives arguably the greatest performance in the history of cinema (it’s probably a little of both). The exception to this rule is the Rob Marshall musical Nine which despite have 6 Academy Award winning actors/actresses in it was a nearly unwatchable piece of garbage. 1999’s Girl, Interrupted (adapted from the memoirs of the same name) is a film chock full of splendid female performances but abysmal pacing and an unfortunate tendency for melodramatics made it fall short of being a truly great film.

As mentioned earlier, Girl, Interruped is the true story of Susanna Kaysen (Winona Ryder) who is sent to a mental institution in the late 1960’s after a failed suicide attempt. With little to no direction in life and a pariah in her home, Susanna is essentially forced into the hospital with little to no say in the matter. Despite her suicide attempts, Susanna is easily the most sane person in the hospital where she is placed in the same ward as Wizard of Oz obsessed Georgina (Carnivale‘s Clea Duvall), self-inflicted burn victim Polly (Mad Men‘s Elisabeth Moss), withdrawn Daisy (Brittany Murphy) who suffers from an eating disorder (among other more significant problems), anorexic Janet, and sociopathic but charismatic Lisa (Angelina Jolie). While Susanna is initially drawn to the rebellious and magnetic Lisa and joins her in many of her little revolts against the system, tragedy eventually hits the group and Susanna is forced to re-evaluate exactly why she’s in this hospital in the first place and what she needs to do in order to get well.

Since she won her only Oscar for the film, it should come as no surprise that Angelina Jolie stole the show. Way back when I reviewed her Oscar-nominated role in Changeling, I puzzled over how Jolie could have ever won an Oscar because nothing in her career had impressed me, and not even her performance in Changeling which I thought wasn’t powerful enough for such a complex part. I obviously hadn’t seen Girl, Interrupted yet. She is able to flip between seductive charm, terrifying anger, and heart-wrenching grief like the mental pinball sociopath her character is. She oscillates between so many different modes and and emotions, and she never seems less than 100% genuine in any of them. If this remains the single greatest performance of her career, she should remain happy that she could ever have a high like this because nothing else I’ve ever seen from her has come anywhere close. Winona Ryder was fantastic as well, and I’ve long been of the opinion that if you want the role of a young, neurotic adult/teenager, she was the perfect choice. Watching Susanna’s emotional development throughout the film is one of its strong points, and Winona is responsible for much of the power. Clea Duvall and Brittany Murphy were also strong in their smaller roles.

However, despite the strength of the performances (and they were truly superb), the writing itself just couldn’t keep up with the talent on display. The film ultimately tries to subvert the classic One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest rebellion against the stern psychiatric community that is in vogue for most mental hospital films, but the film doesn’t do a convincing enough job at the end to sustain that theme. It spends much of the first two acts of the film gleefully showing Susanna finding her voice after her depression by bucking authority alongside Lisa, and while Lisa is obviously unhinged from the beginning, the movie never really makes me buy anything more than that Susanna is depressed, not some borderline personality disorder. About 3/4 of the way through the film, Susanna suddenly begins to view the people at the mental hospital as sympathetic comrades rather than some vestige of a society intent on keeping women down (which is how much of it is played at the beginning). I want to buy that these people helped cure her depression but the film didn’t do a good enough job of showing how that exactly came to be. I imagine the book goes into more detail about what led to Susanna’s recovery (and the author is a vocal critic of the film) so perhaps I should consider reading it in the future.

Matters were only compounded by the film’s inability to go more than ten minutes without turning a scene into something artificially sweet and trite. The film’s truest moments are painful and almost too raw to watch (Lisa bullying Daisy, Polly suffering a break down over her own lack of an ability to be loved because of her burns, Susanna’s last night in the ward), but far too often, it seems exceedingly obvious that scenes most likely weren’t in the original book as they lack the grit and hurt that permeates the rest of the film. Perhaps, it is unfair to compare this film to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest yet again, but even Cuckoo’s Nest subverted its own rebellious message when it ends with the essential lobotomization of Nicholson’s Randal McMurtry. Girl, Interrupted tries to combat that image from the very beginning, but its attempted cynicism at first is immediately drowned out by its disappointingly naive optimism at the end that seems to go against much of the darkness that preceded it.

For all fans of powerhouse acting, this is must see, and even Angelina Jolie’s most adamant detractors will be forced to recognize just how passionate and intense she is in this film. It also serves to re-affirm my theory that Winona Ryder could have been a much bigger star had it not been for her personal problems. The movie has its share of flaws, but it remained interesting through out and though I may nit-pick at its thematic inconsistencies, I still enjoyed it quite a bit. Films with strong female casts are a discouragingly rare find, but Girl, Interrupted has great female performances coming at you from all sides. I wish it had been a little more raw and intense, but even with its problems, Girl, Interrupted is a movie guaranteed to make you think.

Final Score: B+

A quick comment before I jump into the meat of this review. I’m at my mom’s tonight and may or may not be there tomorrow. We have real internet at my mom’s, and I used that time to watch one of the movie’s on my Netflix Instant Queue. But beyond the obvious convenience of having that option for my movie watching pleasure, there’s one other thing that will make writing this particular review much easier than it’s been writing them at my dad’s with dial-up internet. At my father’s, I actually write the reviews in Open Office and then copy and paste them here on wordpress for fear that I’ll get kicked off the internet while I’m in the process of writing the review and lose half of my review, and then I spend like 40 minutes fighting with the internet to try and find the pictures that I use for all of my reviews. Fortunately, that isn’t a problem at my mom’s, and the whole scenario is just much less stressful. Anyways, back to my review of Bernardo Bertolucci’s masterpiece ,1987’s The Last Emperor.

The Last Emperor is the true story of Pu Yi, the man who was the titular last emperor of China. Crowned at the unbelievably early age of three, Pu Yi would spend most of his life locked behind the massive walls of the Forbidden City, which served as both his palace and his prison. The film, in a well-implemented non-linear fashion, tells the story of Pu Yi’s years as the Emperor of China, his time as a political refugee after the Empire is dismantled, and his time in a Red Chinese re-education camp. This biography is set against an absolutely stunning and authentic recreation of turn of the century (and eventually mid-century) China.

I’m not normally a huge fan of historical epics and I generally think that biopics are just a cheap way for producers and directors to try and win Oscars. I think Lawrence of Arabia and Gone With the Wind are two of the most over-rated films of all time. If a director wants to impress me with a film like this, he has to do something really different. He has to go that extra mile. Maybe I should have known this film was going to be special when I saw that it was directed by Bernardo Bertolucci. When I see his name, I don’t think historical epics. I think weird movies about sex and politics like The Dreamers. From top to bottom, Bertolucci gave this film the attention to detail and lavish production that it required while simultaneously delivering one of the most personal and tragic historical epics of all time. It can truly stand along side classics like Schindler’s List.

For a film that spans a man’s entire life of 60 odd years and lasts nearly three hours long, The Last Emperor never once felt like it dragged on or had become an indulgent bit of self-serving and pretentious film making. The film creates such a stark and provocative contrast between the nearly mystical sense of wonder and awe from the film’s Eastern beginnings and the later crushing Western influence that pervades every scene. The costuming and set design are practically unparalleled, although I think the film might have actually shot inside the Forbidden City itself. If you consider yourself at all lacking in your knowledge of Chinese history of politics, this film also serves as an entertaining refresher course in pages of history that are now mostly forgotten.

Ultimately though, what sets this film apart from the rest of the pack isn’t the pageantry or the production values. It is the fact that is an incredibly tender and intimate portrait of Pu Yi, a character full of surprising complexity and heart-wrenching tragedy. You see the entire span of the emperor’s life. You see him as a spoiled and abrasive child who has no right to be on the throne. You see him as a teenager starting to learn more of life and wanting to experience so much more than the walls of his palatial jail. You see him learn at the wing of his Scottish tutor played by the legendary Peter O’Toole. You see him as a grown man who has lost everything he knows but clings desperately to his imperial pride in the face of inevitable destruction. Lastly, you see him as an old man who has been forced to accept his role as a normal, average citizen in communist Russia. At every point, Bertolucci subverts your expectations of Pu Yi (unless you’re familiar with the actual history) and creates such a tragic lead that he could have came straight out of Shakespeare. Pu Yi has quickly become one of the most interesting and thought-provoking historical figures that I have studied in some time.

If you can handle that film is nearly three hours long, you need to just go ahead and watch this one. Normally, I am ambivalent at best towards films that win Best Picture at the Oscars. However, having just gone over the other movies from that year, I can definitely say that this is, if not the best, at least at the very tip top of the mountain. This was an exceptional achievement in film making, and it really sets Bernardo Bertolucci apart as a premier auteur in the realm of high-brow cinema.

Final Score: A

 Every once in a while a movie comes along that captures the current cultural zeitgeist in a way that is perhaps beyond description until history has had proper time to settle. All the President’s Men, Boyz N the Hood, Do the Right Thing, Wall Street. All these films captured some essential essence of the time that they were made in a way that makes them a living, breathing look back into our past that works just as well as any history book. There had never been a film about some great accomplishment of my generation. There had never been a film that really defined what it was like to be young, intellectual, and part of the millennial and digital generation. That all changed when The Social Network came out. Despite being the first major film to chronicle the millennial generation finding its voice, it also serves as an essential commentary on what social relations are like in the digital age and was easily one of the best films of 2010.

The Social Network is the true story (though certain parts have been dramatized and fictionalized for the screen) of the founding of social networking giant, Facebook. It also serves as a character study of its founder, Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg), who founds the company not out of any desire to be rich and famous but out of a sense of intellectual superiority and bitterness about his lack of real friends. The film also chronicles two law suits that have been brought against Mark Zuckerberg. One of the lawsuits is by his best friend, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), who put up the initial investments for Facebook but is later screwed out of his share of the company when Facebook explodes. The other lawsuit is from Cameron and Tyler Winkelvoss (Armie Hammer), twins who believe that Mark stole the idea for Facebook from them. The movie deftly juxtaposes scenes from the depositions of these two cases against the events as they happened in the past.

The Social Network was directed by David Fincher, of Fight Club and Zodiac fame. It was scripted by Aaron Sorkin, most famous for The West Wing. Between the two of them, this was probably the most sharply scripted and expertly directed film of 2010. Aaron Sorkin manages to turn so much technobabble and computer jargon into something that is digestible and followable by the audience while simultaneously not insulting the audience’s intelligence by dumbing things down. David Fincher makes a movie that is primarily nerds sitting around their computers talking about code and programming into something that is very tense and actually quite exciting. He keeps the sense of timing and pace nearly perfect throughout the whole film. The scene that cuts back and forth between drunk frat boys partying and Mark and Eduardo setting the stage for the birth of Facebook is just a brilliant bit of editing and direction.

When I first became familiar with Jesse Eisenberg, I always thought of him as a poor man’s Michael Cera. That changed a little bit when I saw The Squid and the Whale a couple years ago which is one of the best family dramas of the 2000’s, but he didn’t really do anything after that to really impress me. Having now re-watched this movie and having seen The King’s Speech just a couple weeks ago, I stand behind the assertion that I believe Jesse Eisenberg gave the best male performance of 2010. Mark was an incredibly complex character and Jesse filled his performance with the kind of nuance that you expect from an old pro not a kid in his 20’s. He’s going to be someone to watch if he continues to choose choice roles like this. Andrew Garfield was also fantastic as Eduardo Saverin, a character that is perhaps the most sympathetic in the entire film. I’m not sure how I feel about him being cast as the newest Spiderman, but at least I know that he’ll be able to give a great performance.

If you were born after the year 1980, you will watch this film and devour it. It was a movie made for our time and it is made with our voice (even if the actual people that made it are much, much older). I’m not sure if older audiences would be able to appreciate just how important of an event The Social Network is, but I hope to god they at least respect the artistry that went into creating it. This film was so much better than The King’s Speech, and while I still believe that Winter’s Bone was probably the best movie of 2010, I would have much rather seen The Social Network win Best Picture at the last Oscar’s because it would have been an incredibly symbolic event, a passing of the torch to the work of my generation.

 Final Score: A+

Well, way back when I started reviewing all of the movies that had been nominated for Best Picture at this year’s Academy Awards, I said something dumb that isn’t true. I thought that The King’s Speech, this year’s Best Picture winner, was the last Best Picture nominee to be released on DVD/Blu-Ray. Well, I’m an idiot. The last film is actually True Grit and it doesn’t even have a release date yet, so that shows how much I know about movies. So, once I finish up reviewing the first nine films that were nominated for Best Picture (I still have Inception, The Social Network, and True Grit to go), it will be a while before I actually get around to that one. My bad. So, without further ado and any more of my inane ramblings, let’s jump into my review of the good but not great The King’s Speech.

The King’s Speech is the true story of Prince Albert (Colin Firth), the Duke of York who will eventually become King George VI of England on the verge of World War II. Prince Albert has a serious problem however. He has an uncontrollable stammer that has plagued him his entire life, and even when talking with his family and loved ones, he can barely spit a sentence out. Speaking in public is as frightening to him as stepping out of a foxhole in a firefight would be to a normal person. Yet, it is his duty as a member of the royal family to be a symbol of strength for his people, so he enlists the help of an unconventional speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) to help him get over his stammer and lead his people in a time of need.

This movie absolutely reeks of award bait. Biopic. Check. Period piece. Check. Inspirational. Check. Involves a person with a disability. Check. You’ve seen this movie before. The parts might be different. The players might not be the same. And people might talk with a funny accent. But at the end of the day, you’ve seen practically the same story over and and over again. The only scenes in the film that to me have any freshness or real life are the scenes between “Bertie” and Lionel at Lionel’s office. The acting chemistry between Firth and Rush is absolutely superb and they play off of each other fantastically.

This film was carried beyond its source material by acting that can only be described as mesmerizing. Colin Firth was, simply put, spell-binding as King George VI. This performance wasn’t quite as good as his role in A Single Man, but since I consider that to be the second best performance of the ’00’s behind Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood, don’t take that as an insult. I still haven’t made up my mind about whether he did a better job in this than Jesse Eisenberg did in The Social Network, but do not doubt that Colin Firth is simply put one of the finest actors of his generation. I imagine it won’t be long at all until he is Sir Colin Firth. Geoffrey Rush is actually tied in my mind with Christian Bale for the best supporting performance of the year. He plays Lionel with just the right charm and stubborness that you would expect from a common man that helped to cure a king. He’s brilliant and every scene with the two of them is a breath of fresh air in an otherwise conventional film. Helena Bonham Carter now officially has my vote for best supporting actress however as her role as the Queen. She is such an under-appreciated talent and its a shame that she still hasn’t gotten the major recognition she deserves. She is a rare breed of female actress that can play an astonishingly wide range of roles as well as anyone else.

The movie wasn’t great. It was good, quite good, and grounded in absolutely stellar performances, but this was not the Best Picture of last year. It was in fact, far from it. However, that’s a running theme I have with films that win Best Picture at the Academy Awards. They very rarely pick the film that I actually thought was the Best Film of the year to win, and they often reward directors for some of their least stellar work when they finally decide to recognize them (Scorscese, the Coens, etc.). Should you watch this film? Absolutely. If you love fine acting and an inspirational story, this movie will not disappoint. Just don’t go in with your hopes too high.

Final Score: B+