REVIEW: “Me and My Moulton” (2014)

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Hopefully last Thursday’s announcement of this year’s Academy Award nominees will drive people to see films in some of the smaller, lesser known categories. That’s one of the things I love about the Oscars – being introduced to new films that I otherwise would have missed. This year there are several well made gems that earned some attention on the festival circuit and now have received Academy Award nominations. The animated short film “Me and My Moulton” is a shining example.

Torill Kove writes and directs this semi-autobiographical look at childhood feelings we all can relate to. Kove, who won an Oscar in 2007 for her animated short “The Danish Poet”, draws from her personal memories and for 14 minutes places us in the head of a 7-year old girl from Norway. She has two sisters, one older and one younger. Her mother and father are unorthodox which sometimes discourages the little girl. Through this young child Kove reminds us of feelings and attitudes we surely had at her age.

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The little girl is embarrassed by her parents and their unconventional ways. At one point she laments her father’s mustache saying “10,000 men in our town. One single mustache. And it has to be on my dad. It makes my stomach hurt.” We also see this through her envy of her friend’s family. Her friend’s mother buys them pretty and fancy clothes. Her mom makes her clothes. Her friend’s dad is handsome and adventurous. Her dad is plain and humble. Her friends have bicycles. Her parents can’t afford one. She wants the cool, normal, bourgeois family, but let’s just say something happens with her friend’s family that changes her perspective.

“Me and my Moulton” is a beautiful film both narratively and visually. The animation is simple but perfectly in tune with the story. It’s bright, colorful, and vivid as if shining through a child’s perspective. There are also subtle bits of humor and more heart than many feature length films can muster. It’s such an wonderful and touching little package that comes together in a perfectly satisfying ending. Torill Kove knows how to engage an audience. She also knows how to tell a great story and she doesn’t need two hours and $100 million to do it.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

You can find “Me and My Moulton” HERE.

“ARGO” and the Oscars

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There’s a very interesting thing happening this awards season. The believed to be front-runner for Oscar’s biggest award, Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln”, finds itself in the dust of the surprising “Argo”, Ben Affleck’s Iran hostage thriller. I loved “Argo” as did many others and I have no problem with its award season success, but very few people saw this one coming. Sunday night it took home the biggest prize at the Screen Actors Guild Awards to go along with the top prize it won at The Golden Globes. So now all eyes are on The Academy Awards. But for “Argo” to pull one final rabbit out of its hat it’s going to have to buck a pretty established trend.

In what I believe are two of the most inexplicable snubs in Oscar history, the Academy failed to give director nominations to either Affleck for “Argo” or Kathryn Bigelow for “Zero Dark Thirty”. Bigelow has won several recent awards including the Best Director nod from the New York Film Critics. But it’s “Argo” that’s really running wild and it’s “Argo” that could be the fly in the Academy’s soup. You see the winner of the Best Director Oscar is almost always a sign of who will win Best Picture. It’s extremely, extremely rare for a Best Picture winner to not also take home the Best Director Oscar. So what is the Academy to do? This spotlights their blatant snubs even more and with them comes real questions of motivation.

Could it be the Academy is punishing Bigelow and Affleck for the perceived politics behind their films? Now I think anyone watching these two fantastic movies with an ounce of objectivity has to conclude that both are simply telling stories and not trying to make a huge political point. Perhaps that’s why I loved them so much. I get tired of being force-fed political perspective at the expense of good storytelling. Both of these movies are set in politically charged climates yet both Affleck and Bigelow allow the audience to process the politics. In fact, for me both pictures go beyond politics and into much deeper and more personal areas – something I can really appreciate.

So what else could the Academy’s beef be with Affleck and Bigelow? Both have created strong and challenging movies that certainly deserve to be nominated. Could it be that the Academy is unhappy with Affleck and Bigelow’s failure to use their opportunity to put a hard political slant on their films? Are they angry because they see the two films as leaning too much to the political right? Whatever the inexcusable reasoning is behind it the Academy has dropped the ball and now “Argo” is bringing it all into the light. I love it!

TOP 5 LEADING ACTOR PERFORMANCES OF 2012

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Today I wrap up my look back at the best acting from the 2012 movie year. We’ve looked at the supporting categories and the lead actress category. Now it’s time to look at the lead actors. Just like every other field this year, the lead actor category is loaded with great performances and with deserving actors who blew me away. It was crushing to leave some names off but I think this list sums up the category perfectly. There is a huge range of performances here covering everything from small budget independent films to monster sized blockbusters. But the one constant are the performances and these guys were great. So here are the Top 5 Leading Actor Performances from 2012 (according to me)…

#5 – JACK BLACK – (“Bernie”)

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I just can’t believe I’m actually putting Jack Black on my list of top lead actor performances. Let me say for the 100th time – I’m no Jack Black fan. But I’ve got to admit that his performance as the eccentric Bernie Tiede deserves to be on this list. Black’s loud, in-your-face brand of stupid comedy just doesn’t work for me but here he really dials it back a bit. A lot of it is due to writer and director Richard Linklater but I have to giver Black a lot of credit. I loved this performance in “Bernie” and it’s a big step in the right direction for Black.

#4 – DANIEL CRAIG – (“Skyfall”)

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Daniel Craig won’t make any critics lists and you won’t see his name down as a Golden Globe or Academy Award nominee. That’s a shame because he should be. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed his run as James Bond and his work in “Skyfall” is his best yet. Craig has all the characteristics of Bond – suave, hunky, and tough. But he tones down the cheese and brings a much more grounded and flawed character to the screen. But make no mistake, he still kicks a ton of butt. Craig packages all of this up with his “Skyfall” performance and he deserves to be mentioned with the best of the year.

#3 – JOAQUIN PHOENIX – (“THE MASTER”)

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Regardless of my mixed feelings on Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master“, I had no mixed feelings about Joaquin Phoenix’s performance as Freddie Quell, an alcoholic World War 2 veteran battling post-traumatic stress disorder. Anderson’s script takes Freddie down several dark holes, and even though they don’t always translate well on screen, Phoenix is riveting as this deeply damaged character. All of his past recent off screen antics can sometime cloud the fact that he is a brilliant actor. He reminds of that in “The Master“.

#2 – HUGH JACKMAN – (“Les Miserables”)

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I have to admit, I’ll never look at Wolverine the same way. Hugh Jackman starring in a musical may surprise some people but the actor has a history on stage. In Tom Hooper’s ambitious film version of the “Les Miserables” musical, Jackman takes the lead role and knocks it out of the park. Some have questioned his singing. It didn’t bother me a bit. But it wasn’t just his singing that made this performance so strong. Jackman invests everything, both physically and emotionally, into the part and that sold me more than anything else. He’s great in this film and he deserves the praise he’s getting.

#1 – DANIEL DAY-LEWIS – (“Lincoln”)

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I know it’s the popular pick and I know that Daniel Day-Lewis is the front runnuer for the Best Actor Oscar. Good! He should be! Sometimes people just get it right. How could I not go with Day-Lewis in what was the most towering and immersive performance of 2012. Nobody throws every part of themself into a role like Day-Lewis. In “Lincoln” he manages to take an incredibly well known historical figure and give us something we have never seen before. His looks, his voice, his expressions – everything is unique. Day-Lewis is the best and this is yet another brilliant performance to add to his resume. If he doesn’t get the Best Actor Oscar they shouldn’t have the award.

So that wraps up my humble opinion of the four major acting categories for the 2012 movie year. It was a year that reminded us of the wealth of talent both old and new in the movies today. Here’s hoping we have just as much to talk about at the end of 2013.

5 Phenomenal Actors Who Never Won an Oscar

A few weeks ago I looked at 5 phenomenal actresses who were never given an Academy Award despite their incredible talent and strong careers. Today we are focussing on the men. I found this to be a much tougher list to put together. The number of great actors that never won the highest acting award would surprise you. And I found it incredibly difficult to leave certain names off this list. But I think a great case can be made for the five that made the cut. Now, as with the ladies, Lifetime Achievement Oscars don’t count. I’m talking about men who never received the heralded Best Actor or Best Supporting Actor awards. With such a healthy selection, it would be silly to call this the definitive list. But it’s clear that these 5 Oscarless actors are certainly phenomenal.

#5 – FRED ASTAIRE

While I’ve never been a huge fan of musicals, I’ve always appreciated the amazing contributions Fred Astaire made to the once flourishing genre. So it came as a big surprise to see that Astaire never won an Oscar. Now he did receive an honorary Academy Award after one of his retirement stints. But he was never recognized for his acting. Astaire was an amazing talent both with his dance and with his voice. But he was also a talented and always likable actor who made many quality films. There was a lot of doubt about whether he would make it in the movie industry but he would end up putting that to rest. He will always be recognized for his collaborations with Ginger Rogers. The two made a total of ten movies together including “Top Hat”, “Swing Time”, and “The Barkleys of Broadway”. He was superb in “Holiday Inn” alongside Bing Crosby. He would also make many well-received movies with the likes of Rita Hayworth, Judy Garland, Gene Kelly, and Audrey Hepburn. Fred Astaire made many films that should have garnered some Oscar attention. And this is coming from a guy not that crazy about musicals.

#4 – LEONARDO DICAPRIO

From an early age, Leonardo DiCaprio defined himself as an exceptional actor through several incredible performances. He first caught the attention of movie fans with his portrayal of a mentally handicapped boy in “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape”. This would earn him his first Academy Award nomination. He would star in several recognizable films before making his big splash (pun intended) in James Cameron’s mega-hit “Titanic”. Following it, he began a defining collaboration with Martin Scorsese in films like “Gangs of New York”, “The Aviator” (which earned him his second Oscar nomination), and “The Departed”. Hey would then earn a third nomination in “Blood Diamond”. He would continue to do top-notch work particularly in “Shutter Island”, his fourth movie with Scorsese, and the fantastic “Inception” with director Christopher Nolan. DiCaprio has an impressive resume and several intriguing roles lined up. He’s earned his numerous nominations but cases could be made that one or more of them could have translated to wins.

#3 – ROBERT MITCHUM

It’s hard to believe that an actor who was so highly revered and with so many good movies on his resume never received an Academy Award for his work. Such is the case with Robert Mitchum. Mitchum really made a name for himself in the film noir genre with movies like “Crossfire”, “Out of the Past”, and “The Big Steal”. He also starred in “The Story of G.I. Joe”, a solid picture that would earn him his one and only Academy Award nomination. After playing in a variety of roles, Mitchum would give a mesmerizing and menacing performance in “The Night of the Hunter”. The rest of Mitchum’s career would feature numerous Oscar worthy performances in some really good films such as “The Sundowners”, the creepy “Cape Fear”, “The Longest Day”, “El Dorado”, “The Friends of Eddie Coyle”, and “Ryan’s Daughter”. Mitchum had a recognizable look and unmistakable voice. But he also had a booming screen presence that made his performances all the more memorable. It’s truly amazing that the Academy never recognized him for his work.

#2 – JOSEPH COTTEN

Joseph Cotten had a long film career that spanned over five decades. He was an actor that was always working but was never quite as popular as many of Hollywood’s big names. But personally I loved Cotten and he starred in some of my favorite classic movies. You know things are good when one of your very first feature films in the beloved “Citizen Kane”. Cotten’s performance as Leland stands out and it’s one of the film’s many strong points. After another wonderful collaboration with Orson Welles in “The Magnificent Ambersons”, he would star in one of my very favorite Alfred Hitchcock pictures “Shadow of a Doubt”. In it he delivers yet another true Oscar-calibur performance. The 1940’s were a great year for Cotten as evident by his work in “Gaslight”, “Portrait of Jennie”, and a spectacular movie that I think may offer his very best performance “The Third Man”. While not as strong as the 40’s, the rest of his career would offer several memorable roles in films like “Niagara”, “Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte”, “Soylent Green”, and “Airport ’77”. It’s stunning to me that Cotten never garnered any recognition from the Academy especially for his early work.

#1 – CARY GRANT

It almost doesn’t seem possible. Has Cary Grant really never won an Academy Award especially when considering his brilliant resume? Nope, he never won an Oscar and he was only nominated twice! In 1970 the Academy did give him a “We Feel Terrible for Always Passing You Over” honorary Academy Award, but that doesn’t make up for the shunning. Cary Grant’s career stands on its own and it goes without saying that it was a great one. Grant’s good looks and undeniable charm always translated well to the big screen. He gave so many brilliant and charismatic performances from the 1930’s until his retirement in the mid-60’s. Instead of giving a history, let me just name some of the wonderful films he’s been in and you explain to me how he never won and Oscar – “Bringing Up Baby”, “Gunga Din”, “His Girl Friday”, “The Philadelphia Story”, “Penny Serenade”, “The Talk of the Town”, “Arsenic and Old Lace”, “Notorious”, “To Catch a Thief”, “Houseboat”, “North By Northwest”, “Operation Petticoat”, “Charade”. There are several other great Cary Grant pictures but I think you get the point. He was a wonderful actor who always commanded the screen. He also gave us some of cinema’s greatest films.

There you go. Those are my five phenomenal actors who have never won an Oscar. What say you? Agree or disagree with my list? Please take some time to share your thoughts on this week’s Phenomenal 5.

REVIEW: “ALIENS” (1986)

ALIENS

Personally, I don’t consider it a stretch to call Ridley Scott’s 1979 science fiction classic “Alien” a groundbreaking and incredibly influential film for the genre. It was a near perfect combination of horror and sci-fi which resulted in an intense and profoundly innovative thriller that still holds up today. Now when you have a movie so highly regarded, tackling a sequel is a pretty daunting task. You’re taking already great and established material and building on it while also creating a film that can stand on its own merit. Such was a the job facing James Cameron, writer and director of the 1986 sequel “Aliens”.

Cameron’s approach to the sequel centered around creating a story that captured both the horror and sci-fi elements that made the first film such a success and adding a militaristic action component to it. Much like Ridley Scott before him, Cameron is deliberate in setting up his story. “Aliens” starts with Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) being discovered by a salvage crew who come across her shuttle adrift in space. It turns out that she has been in stasis for over 50 years – since the horrible events on the Nostromo in the first film. She’s questioned by a group of executives behind the Nostromo’s mission who find her story questionable and her actions extreme.

Later she is visited by Carter Burke (Paul Reiser), a company representative who informs her that they had recently lost contact with a small colony on LV-426, the same planet where Ripley’s former crew had first came across the alien eggs. Burke asks Ripley to accompany him and a group of Colonial Marines to investigate. Ripley wants no part of going back but agrees after being reassured that the mission is to destroy the aliens and not study them. She sets out with Burke, the marines, and an android named Bishop (Lance Henriksen) to check out LV-426 and hopefully extinguish any threat they come across.

One interesting and recurring obstacle for Ripley is the constant disregard for her information and input. Planted right in the middle of a predominantly male environment, she constantly encounters skepticism and mockery. The corporate heads didn’t buy her story, Burke was skeptical of the severity of the threat, and the Marines laugh it off as a simple “bug hunt”. But Ripley not only turns out to be right, but she maintains the most calm and level-head of any of the group once the inevitable threat is realized. Through this, Cameron takes the tough survivor character from the first film and builds her into what I believe is one of the strongest female roles in cinema. Not only does Ripley adapt through physical toughness but you see a leadership that proves vital to their survival. But while she’s tough, I loved how we also see the gentleness and love she shows, especially after finding a young girl named Newt (Carrie Henn) alone in the ventilation systems of one of the colony office buildings. The two connect as Ripley takes on a mother-like role for a young girl who has seen horrors and lost everything.

The marines themselves cover all of the personality angles including the cigar-chomping Sergeant Apone (Al Matthews) the smart-aleck, wise-cracking Hudson (Bill Paxton), and the dependable, by-the-books Corporal Hicks (Michael Biehn). We also get the tougher-than-all-the-guys Vazquez (Jenette Goldstein) and her heavy gunner partner Drake (Mark Rolston) and an inexperienced and sometimes incompetent Lieutenant Gorman (William Hope) who was just assigned to be the squad’s field leader. We get some clich√©d but fun military banter between the soldiers during the first half of the film and later see them in full combat mode, fighting for survival. For the audience it really becomes one of those “let’s see who survives” stories. But it works so well because even though these are tough and resilient soldiers, they are humbled by the realization that they are overmatched. There are no Rambos in this bunch, only desperate people trying to survive. And when everything does hit the proverbial fan, they have to rely on a lot more than just strength and firepower to stay alive. That’s one reason Ripley is such a force in the movie.

Cameron is very clever in the way he sets up the tension. Again, much like Ridley Scott, for most of the film the true horror isn’t in what you see but what you think you are seeing. You get fleeting glances of the aliens – only enough to project images into your mind. In a sense, Cameron has the audience paste these brief images together in their minds to create what these deadly creatures look like. It isn’t until the very end that we get an unhindered look at them. I still remember the first time I saw the film. The brief camera shots of the creatures in motion really created a sense of tension and suspense. Of course now all movie fans know what the aliens look like thanks to the internet, comic books, sequels, etc. But the way Cameron never fully unveiled them in the film until the end was very effective.

The Oscar-winning special effects of “Aliens” were another major reason the movie works. The skilled crew use an amazing assortment of miniatures, trick cameras and lighting, carefully designed costumes, and a large number of puppeteers that contribute to a visual world that still looks impressive even in today’s fancy CGI-driven age. So many cool details add pop to the film such as the marines futuristic armor, weapons, and vehicles as well as their technologies and sciences. The effects most certainly stand out but they always stay consistent with the movie’s gritty, dark tone. The action sequences throw the soldiers and crew right into the darkness and the unknown. Much like us, they don’t know for sure what they’re fighting. The brief glimpses of the aliens through gun flashes, shoulder mounted flashlights, and dim emergency lighting makes the combat intensely fierce. Ray Lovejoy’s editing of the action scenes is phenomenal as is James Horner’s score. As a result, “Aliens” delivers two of the most pulse-pounding battle/escape sequences you’ll see.

Another major accomplishment for “Aliens” is the recognition it received from the motion picture community. The movie received 7 Academy Award nominations, none bigger that Sigourney Weaver for Best Actress. Of course she didn’t win but the fact that a science fiction/ horror film would received such recognition was a major step forward for the genre. But Weaver was also surrounded by an excellent cast. I loved Henriksen as Bishop, the company android. He’s a cryptic character in the sense that we know from the first film that androids aren’t without, shall I say, glitches. But Henriksen is a believable “artificial person” and we, like Ripley, just aren’t sure we can trust him. I also really liked Michael Biehn’s performance. He’s a tough but open-minded soldier and when the situation goes bad he steps up. Biehn doesn’t play him as a testosterone-driven macho type. He’s at times unsure and he understands what it will cost to get his people out alive.

“Aliens” was an extremely ambitious sequel that took a pretty sacred first film and built upon it in the most satisfying way. It’s a fantastic sci-fi movie. It’s a fantastic action movie. It’s a fantastic horror movie. It blends all of these things together and creates what I consider to be one of best motion picture sequels of all time. With the exception of the stereotypical “we are soldiers” profanity, the dialogue is crisp. While some may describe the first half of the film as languid, I think the pacing is brilliantly deliberate. The special effects were astounding for its time and still hold up today. The acting from each character big or small is strong throughout the film. The direction, the score, the editing, and the sound design grab us and drag us into the unnerving world. It’s just a great movie. And while some may not respond to a handful of things that are connected to the decade the film was made in, “Aliens” is still one of my favorite movies of all time and while it is a sci-fi movie it’s also a great, great action picture.

VERDICT – 5 STARS

5 STARSs

5STAR K&M

“THE VERDICT” – 4 1/2 STARS

I really enjoy courtroom dramas and “The Verdict” is a good one. It’s directed by Sidney Lumet¬†and stars Paul Newman in one of his finest performances. David Mamet¬†adapted the Barry Reed novel of the same name. The film received¬†high praise from critics and Newman, Lumet, and Mamet¬†each received Oscar nominations. It’s unique compared to other courtroom pictures in that the main case isn’t a huge unfolding mystery. In fact the case at the center of the film is pretty cut and dry. It’s the¬†organizing of their defense, the fighting through the legal process, and the presentation of the case that fuels the narrative.

But “The Verdict” is also the¬†tale of redemption. Underneath the courtroom drama is the story of a man who has watched his life crumble and¬†but now sees a chance¬†to get his life in order. Paul Newman plays Frank Galvin, a boozing Boston lawyer who has found himself resorting to ambulance chasing in order to pick up clients. In fact, he’s only had four cases in three years and lost them all. Just like his practice, his personal life is in shambles¬†and he finds his only destructive solace¬†at the bottom of a¬†bottle. Newman nails this character and his Oscar nomination for the role was well deserved. It’s a nuanced performance that shows Frank as more than just a down-on-his-luck alcoholic. Newman¬†expertly conveys the inner conflict within Frank and it’s that internal, personal struggle that drives one of the picture’s most compelling components.

Frank’s luck appears to change when an old friend and former partner Mickey (Jack Warden) hooks him up with a medical malpractice case that should be a slam dunk. But what kind of movie would this be if everything was all sunshine and flowers? Frank decides to take the case to trial and turns down a substantial settlement which baffles everyone including¬†his clients. He then finds himself up against a biased judge and a prominent law firm led by Ed Concannon (played wonderfully by James Mason). It’s a legal David and Goliath story¬†with Frank running¬†into one complication after another. Add to it¬†his personal and emotional fragility and you have¬†the ingredients for¬†a¬†top-notch story.

David Mamet’s¬†screenplay is intelligent and razor-sharp. The dialogue is well written and the pacing is methodical. While Mamet’s¬†story intentionally moves deliberately, it does seem to spin its wheels¬†a little during the middle of the film. And some people may argue that the¬†movie¬†isn’t the most¬†detailed and cohesive¬†courtroom drama. But Mamet¬†doesn’t use the courtroom¬†as his main focus. It’s a vehicle that allows this tired and broken man to try for redemption by doing the right thing.¬†Lumet’s direction is fantastic and his ability to capture emotion and intensity through silence is impressive. He also gives the movie a gritty edge and authenticity that perfectly fits.

While Lumet¬†and Mamet’s¬†work is solid and there is a wonderful supporting cast, everything comes back to Paul Newman. Almost always seen on-screen¬†as the handsome and vibrant performer, here he looks old, worn-down, and defeated. He perfectly captures this character and we never doubt him for a second. There’s no hard-to-believe miracle transformation. Instead we see someone taking one step at a time trying to dig himself out of the hole¬†he made. Newman sells all of this with a down-to-earth genuineness that is easy to buy into. “The Verdict” may not be the most highly polished courtroom movie but it certainly holds its own.¬†It’s¬†an emotionally charged drama with a¬†redemptive subtext that worked for me on¬†so many¬†levels. And how can you not love watching Newman dominate the screen¬†in what is arguably his greatest performance.