Saturday, February 23, 2013

Close Encounters of the Bird Kind: “Dark Skies” is a Creepy If Not Particularly Original Alien Encounter Thriller

There’s a moment in “Dark Skies” when a family’s home is slammed by nearly hundreds of birds. It’s a fun and creepy nod the great Master of Suspense Alfred Hitchcock. There are plenty of other nods to be had here. It’s a movie that owes to a lot to films that came before it, but if you can see it a tribute rather than a rip-off, you might certainly find yourself enjoying what “Dark Skies” has to offer. It’s essentially a lower budgeted version of “Signs” with the haunted house fun of “Insidious” and “Paranormal Activity.” Those of you who groaned when I mentioned “Signs” would be happy to know however, the film has a much more satisfying payoff than that M. Night Shyamalan thriller. 

In most movies that involve aliens coming to earth, the aliens invade in a grand way whether it be blowing up buildings, rising from a crowded city intersection, posing as high school teachers, or nuking Congress. Here it’s suggested that aliens have invaded a long time ago and they’re slowly choosing people to abduct. And do what with them? No one really knows and neither does the film really, perhaps a sequel would let us know?

In “Dark Skies” Keri Russell plays Lacy. She’s a wife and mother of two sons and her family is having some financial troubles. Her husband Daniel (Josh Hamilton) is struggling to find a new architecture job. Her youngest son Sam has been having bad dreams of the Sandman, who his other brother Jesse has explained wants to steal Sam’s eyeballs. An older brother’s job is to scare his younger brother in any way possible. Strange happenings begin happening in their suburban home. What appears to have been animal breaks in a eats food from the fridge. Someone breaks in and sets up a beautiful display of kitchen items, creating an odd shadow pattern on the ceiling. Someone even removes all the photos from their picture frames in the living room. It doesn’t take long for Lacy to search the internet for explanations and one just might have something to do with beings from another world.

I found it odd that such strange occurrences happen so quickly and without warning in the film, but the movie doesn’t want to waste its briskly paced runtime. There’s a sense of doom pervading the atmosphere which is helped along by the fact that the family is darned likable. Their financial problems aren’t exactly helping matters and when strange marks begin appearing on the boys’ bodies the parents are quickly the ones to be blamed. The film bears some resemblance to the haunted house thriller “Insidious” mostly because it shares a producer. These films are great in that they’re created with very little money, but have the look and sheen of a bigger budgeted film. And it’s a great way to force the filmmakers to get creative. Expensive special effects can only take you so far. The film has a genuine air of suspense and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t creeped out more than a few times.

I was admittedly a little worried when I found out the film’s writer and director Scott Stewart has previously worked on “Priest” and “Legion” but I found his work here to be subtle and atmospheric. He spends his time developing characters were care enough about and works in some genuine frights with standard jump scares. It’s a wonderful mix of Paranormal Activity type chills with a strictly sci-fi flick undercurrent. Sure the film doesn’t really do or say anything particularly new or original, but it’s harmless enough to recommend to anyone who strongly wants to believe.  GRADE: B

The 8th Annual Golden Gallo Awards

In honor of tomorrow's Academy Awards, it's time to reveal my own pointless movie awards. Congratulations to all the winners!

Best Performance by a Scientologist in a Musical or Comedy: Tom Cruise, ROCK OF AGES

Best Fight with a Teddy Bear in a Musical or Comedy: TED

The “What the Heck Were They Thinking” Award: THAT’S MY BOY

Best Film with a Cast Member of TV’s ‘Lost:’ THE DARK KNIGHT RISES

Worst Film with a Cast Member of TV’s ‘Lost:’ WHAT TO EXPECT WHEN YOU’RE EXPECTING

Best Revamping of a Dying Franchise: THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN

Best Ending to a Seemingly Endless Franchise: THE DARK KNIGHT RISES

Best Opening Title Sequence: SKYFALL

Best Closing Credit Sequence: 21 JUMP STREET

Best Reason Not to Work in the Fast Food Industry: COMPLIANCE

The “Wear a Rubber” Best Makeup Award: HITCHCOCK

The “Wear a Rubber” Worst Makeup Award: PROMETHEUS

Film Least Deserving of an Award, Even a Golden Gallo: PIRANHA 3DD

Scene Stealer Award: Anne Hathaway, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES

The Jaws 3D “I Only Wanted to See It Cause it Was in 3-D” Award: BAIT 3D

The “I Was in Every Single Movie Made This Year” Overachiever Award: CHANNING TATUM

Best Chemistry: Channing Tatum & Jonah Hill, 21 JUMP STREET

Worst Chemistry: Daniel Day-Lewis & Sally Field: LINCOLN

The Trailer is Better than the Movie Award: PREMIUM RUSH

Movie Most Likely to Cause Nightmares (in a good way): SINISTER

The Slumdog Millionaire Why-Don’t-I-Like-This-Movie? Award: THE CABIN IN THE WOODS

Best Use of the MacGuffin in a Bike Messenger Thriller: PREMIUM RUSH

The Ishtar Big-Budget Stinker Award: JOHN CARTER

Most Gratuitous Use of Bathing Suits: PIRANHA 3DD

Best Film Most Likely to be Forgotten by the Academy: LOOPER

Most Insulting Tribute to the Horror Genre: THE CABIN IN THE WOODS

Least Insulting Tribute to the Horror Genre: PARANORMAN

The “Or How I Learned to Love a Bomb” Guilty Pleasure Award: ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER

The Grease 2 Unnecessary Sequel Award: MEN IN BLACK 3

The Come on People It’s Not That Bad Award: DARK SHADOWS

If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It Award: TOTAL RECALL

The Don’t You Forget About Me “This Came Out This Year??” Award: THE HUNGER GAMES

Coolest Movie Poster Award: LOOPER

Best Prop: The fried chicken drumstick, KILLER JOE

Worst Hairdo: Tommy Lee Jones, LINCOLN

Best Reason Not to Go to Thailand:  THE IMPOSSIBLE

Best Reason Not to Get Old: AMOUR

Best Attempt to Win an Oscar by Playing a Stripper: Matthew McConaughey, MAGIC MIKE

Best Comeback from a Previously Horrid Attempt at Filmmaking: Ridley Scott, PROMETHEUS

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Oscar Forecast: “Argo” with a Chance of the 16th President of the United States

UPDATED: Argo did it! It won best picture without that pesky directing nomination! It also took Best Adapted Screenplay and Editing. It was the lowest number of wins for a best picture winner since Crash won in 2006. Les Miserables also won 3 awards, but the big winner was Life of Pi which walked home with four trophies including that elusive directing award that had many pundits like me scratching their heads. The show was overall rather enjoyable and hysterically funny thanks to first time host Seth McFarlane. I did pretty good with my predictions missing in 6 categories: Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, Best Production Design, Best Original Screenplay, Best Animated Feature, and Best Director. I've never fared so poorly with the major categories, but I got all the shorts correct. And what was with that Sound Editing tie, huh?? And why the hell did Brave win Best Animated Feature?, it was one of the weakest Pixar films ever nominated.

This has been a particularly successful year for Oscar nominated films. Six of the Best Picture nominees have made over $100 million at the box office: “Argo,” “Silver Linings Playbook,” “Lincoln,” “Django Unchained,” “Les Misérables,” and “Life of Pi.” “Zero Dark Thirty” is almost there with $88 million. Then there are the two little seen but well-liked contenders “Amour” and “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” This year, there is no excuse for any movie fan to complain about the Best Picture choices, because odds are you’ve seen at least one or two of them. Before nominations day this appeared to be a race between Lincoln and Argo. But then the unthinkable happened: Ben Affleck wasn’t nominated for Best Director, which statistically reduced the chances of his film taking the big prize. In modern times, only Driving Miss Daisy was able to win Best Picture without a Directing nomination. Surely if that old lady can do it, so can Argo right? In a mix of pure love for the movie and backlash, Argo managed to win nearly every award leading up to Oscar night including the Golden Globe, Critics Choice Award, BAFTA, SAG, DGA and PGA. At this point if Argo didn’t win it would be an upset ala “Crash” or “Shakespeare in Love.” But what movie could beat it? Well we’ll just have to wait and see. Many of the categories this year are equally as dicey to predict, but I’ve attempted to do it anyways. Without further ado, here are my fearless Oscar predictions...

Best Picture

Who Will Win: “Argo.” Sure it has the director snub working against it. But if Driving Miss Daisy can win Best Picture without a director nomination Argo can do it. Who would of thought “Lincoln” would turn out to be the underdog? The biggest surprise could surely be a surprise win by “Silver Linings Playbook” it’s unlikely but not altogether impossible.

Who Should Win: “Argo.” It’s one of my favorite films of the year and I love it’s 1970s Hollywood vibe. It would be a return to the grittier work the Academy had been honoring until The King’s Speech and The Artist came along.

Should Have Been Nominated: The Impossible

Best Director

Will Win: Steven Spielberg, “Lincoln.” I’m not very confident here. Traditionally the winner of the DGA award usually wins this, but Ben Affleck won and he’s not nominated, so it could easily go to anyone. Spielberg and Ang Lee have already won, so even David O. Russell has a shot, but I’m not sure the Academy, as much as they love the film, will see it as a stunning directorial achievement – unlike Lee’s film which is a technical wonder. Haneke and Zeitlin should be happy to be nominated.

Should Win: Steven Spielberg, “Lincoln.” Since Affleck isn’t even nominated, I’d at least vote for my favorite director even if Lincoln is not nearly one of my favorites of his. But it was his passion project.

Should Have Been Nominated: Ben Affleck, “Argo”

Best Actor

Will Win: Daniel Day-Lewis, “Lincoln.” Do the others even stand a chance? Day-Lewis is set to become the only guy to win 3 Best Actor Oscars ever. (A feat that should have already happened with Tom Hanks for “Cast Away”)

Should Win: Daniel Day-Lewis. “Lincoln” I can’t help the fact that he’s already won twice deter me from reconginzing just how great he was. But my other choice would be Bradley Cooper an actor who you never thought was as capable as what he accomplished in “Silver Linings Playbook.” But how can you even compare these two performances?

Should Have Been Nominated: Tom Holland, “The Impossible”

Best Actress

Will Win: Emmanuelle Riva, “Amour.” I really hope we’re not all being duped here by her recent surprise win at the BAFTAs. I know the Academy liked Amour enough to nominated for five Oscars? But do they REALLY like it? We’ll soon find out just how much. Personally, I find it hard to believe many members have seen it or even WANT to see it. Jennifer Lawrence is the other frontrunner and likely winner, but I wonder if they think she’s too young and will have other shots at the trophy. Riva is 85 and turns 86 on Oscar night. And let me just end with a but… only ONE performer has won the Oscar without at least being nominated for a SAG award: Marcia Gay Harden for “Pollock” which was a surprise win in and of itself. Just sayin’.

Should Win: Naomi Watts, “The Impossible.” Anyone who’s seen this tsunami drama will tell you how amazing Watts is in it, but unfortunately she’s largely absence for a lot of the film’s third act, which greatly hurts her chances. And with as film’s only nomination, what are odds she has a shot? Slim to none, in my opinion, but she deserves the gold.

Should Have Been Nominated: Helen Mirren, “Hitchcock”

Best Supporting Actor

Will Win: Robert De Niro, “Silver Linings Playbook.” A case could be made for all five men nominated. They’ve all won before. De Niro has gone the longest without a win and I think he gives enough a great performance (he even cries!) that it should win the Academy over more than the curmudgeony Jones and the great Waltz. Both of whom have a great chance at winning too  

Should Win: Christoph Waltz, “Django Unchained.” I’m not a particular fan of any of the nominees (and I haven’t seen “The Master”) but I really, really enjoyed Waltz’s performance. It’s pretty similar to what he did in “Inglourious Basterds” thought which is why I’d feel kind of guilty checking his name off, but he’s probably my favorite performance in that film.

Should Have Been Nominated: Leonardo DiCaprio, “Django Unchained”

Best Supporting Actress

Will Win: Anne Hathaway, “Les Misérables.” She’s been the frontrunner for a long time, not necessarily the lock that Day-Lewis is, but my jaw would drop to the floor if she lost.

Should Win: Anne Hathaway, “Les Misérables.” As someone who didn’t particularly love this film, I’m the first to admit she was the best thing about it. I missed her when she was gone, that is a great supporting performance.

Should Have Been Nominated: Judi Dench, “Skyfall”

Best Adapted Screenplay   
Will Win: “Argo.” If you asked me a month ago what film would win this award I’d say “Lincoln” without hesitation. But now that Argo is poised to take the top prize, it’s got to take a few others with it. Here looks like its best chance to walk away with at least three Oscars on Sunday night.

Best Original Screenplay  
Will Win: “Amour.” I believe this to be a race between “Amour” and “Django Unchained.” I wonder whether the Academy will find Quentin Tarantino’s script a little too harsh for their personal tastes. If he couldn’t win for “Inglourious Basterds” it makes me wonder how he could win here… though he has an extremely good shot now that Zero Dark Thirty appears to be a has been in all the categories it’s nominated for. Yet, I’m also weary thinking whether “Amour” could actually win three Oscars…

Best Animated Feature Film  
Will Win: “Wreck It-Ralph.” This is the rare year that the Pixar film isn’t the frontrunner in this category. “Brave” could win, but there are more liked films amongst the nominees. “Wreck It-Ralph” is just as good as any Pixar film, I’m willing to bet some Academy members think it is a Pixar movie.

Best Cinematography  
Will Win: “Life of Pi.” The Academy has shown an openness to embracing 3D films and films with lots of CGI. And this one is certainly beautiful. If Avatar could win this award, Life of Pi certainly can too. My inner voice says that the long overdue Roger Deakins would win for his great work on “Skyfall,” but then I remember that the cinematographers’ names aren’t on the actual voting ballot.

Best Costume Design  
Will Win: “Anna Karenina.” I’m not sure how much the Academy loves this movie, (it did pick up four nominations) but even though it’s not a British period piece (it’s a Russian period piece), I think the costumes are lavish enough to take the prize.

Best Documentary - Feature  
Will Win: “Searching for Sugar Man.” I’ve yet to see any of the nominees, but this one has the most buzz.

Best Documentary - Short Subject  
Will Win: Inocente.”

Best Film Editing  
Will Win: “Argo.” If Argo doesn’t win this, there’s no way it’s winning Best Picture at the end of the evening.

Best Foreign Language Film  
Will Win: “Amour.” It has five nominations. I can’t imagine another film taking this.

Best Makeup & Hairstyling
Will Win:
Les Misérables.” My brain tells me that a win for “The Hobbit” makes more sense, since it contains “more” makeup, but I’m going with the only Best Picture nominee of the group. It features war wounds, aging of characters, making pretty people look ugly, and period hairstyles. We’ll see what happens…

Best Original Score  
Will Win: “Life of Pi.” I’m glad Thomas Newman was recognized, but his “Skyfall” score wasn’t a particular favorite of mine. John Williams hasn’t won since “Schindler’s List,” so it’s possible since his film is also a Best Picture nominee. “Argo” could win only if it gets caught up in a sweep.
Best Original Song  
Will Win: “Skyfall.” One of the few sure things of the evening, surprisingly this would be the first win for a Bond song.
Best Production Design  
Will Win: “Anna Karenina.” It should be noted this category was changed from “Best Art Direction.” I’m not particularly confident here, as “Les Misérables” could easily take this. I think the unique style of the film will help it prevail.

Best Short Film – Animated
Will Win:
“Paperman.” Disney hasn’t had a winner in this category since 1969, which seems odd to me, but this has easily been one of the most talked about –and widely seen - animated shorts in some time. But how could would it be if The Simpsons short won?

Best Short Film – Live Action
Will Win:

Best Sound Editing  
Will Win: “Skyfall.” I’ve been debating between “Skyfall” and “Life of Pi,” which could easily take this, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the Academy will check off more than Best Song for this movie. If a Bourne movie could win this, there’s no reason to think a Bond movie couldn’t.

Best Sound Mixing  
Will Win: “Les Misérables.” The Academy loves a big loud musical in this category and Les Misérables is no exception. The fact that the singing was done live on set, as opposed to mixed in later, has certainly helped create strong buzz surrounding the film. Of course, as many people as there are who liked that approach, there are just as many who found that to be a poor decision. “Life of Pi” or “Skyfall” could easily take both sound awards, since they are the “loudest” films. But certainly don’t count out “Argo” who could pick up either of these awards as part of a sweep ala “The Hurt Locker.”

Best Visual Effects
Will Win: “Life of Pi.” I learned the hard way last year that you don’t bet against a Best Picture nominee in this category. And it’s the only one. And most importantly, it deserves to win.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Different Strokes: “Amour” is Beautiful and Heartbreaking, But Certainly Not for Everyone

It must be said that I believe “Amour” is provocateur  Michael Haneke’s first PG-13 rated film. Why is that important? It’s because a majority of his films offer rather disturbing and shocking examples of sickening human behavior. The most sickening thing about “Amour” is that it realistically portrays an elderly couple as they move closer in time towards death. Austrian filmmaker Haneke is no stranger to controversy, but he certainly is a stranger to the Academy Awards, having received his first two nominations this year for “Amour” which is probably one of his most accessible films ever. This certainly isn’t a crowd pleaser and appropriately belongs in college film classes and on the shelves of snooty art house film fans. That isn’t to say that one can’t get something positive out of it: including Oscar-worthy and heartbreaking performances from its lead actor and actress.

While the film, like most of the director’s work, sort of moves along at a snail’s pace, I found myself strangely drawn into the lives of Anne and Georges. They’re aristocratic, retired music teachers in their eighties. One day Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) has some sort of “episode.” She stares blankly at her husband while practically in midsentence, unaware of her surroundings. Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) worried about his wife’s health is ready to get help when she seems to snap out of it. Later on after a scene we don’t get to witness, Anne has a stroke and must have surgery. She returns home, wheelchair bound with half of her body paralyzed.  Georges must take care of his ailing wife which, as we can clearly see, is extremely difficult for a man of his advanced age. But they’re a loving, married couple. After all, the film’s title translates to “love.”

Amour is basically two hours of an elderly couple dealing with one of them having had a stroke. So what’s the big deal anyways? It’s all in the direction and performances. This could have easily been a movie-of-the-week, but Haneke has a masterful cinematic eye. Just watch some of the scenes he presents us with. Take for instance in one of the film’s beginning scenes, we see an audience pack into a theater waiting to watch some kind of performance. The camera takes the point of view of the stage. The performance begins, and we hear a pianist playing. The camera never cuts to who’s playing the piano. We watch the audience and the audience in the film watches us. It’s so simple, yet masterful.  Haneke is fascinating at what he chooses to show us and not show us As the film progresses we don’t see much improvement from Anne, but nothing much worse either. But one morning she wets the bed. In the next sequence she’s bed ridden, hardly able to even speak. We assume she suffered yet another stroke, but we’re not privileged to see it. In a way Haneke spares us. Haneke’s scenes play out in real time, using extremely long takes that would certainly be cut down in any other film, but in not cutting away we get to spend so much time with this couple that when even more extreme tragedy strikes we feel it even more.

And in the end, which I won’t divulge, we remember the film’s title and what that means for the characters we’ve watched for the past two hours. We see what love drives some people to do. Riva, who received an Oscar nomination, is simply devastating. She’s gives a truly riveting performance. And at age 85, it makes it all the more amazing. Her and Betty White need to get together for a buddy comedy. With five nominations one can see why the Academy felt so passionately about film as endearing and heartbreaking as this one. It'll certainly hit close to home for people who've had to deal with the death of elderly loved ones and it'll certainly make you remember how mortal we all are. The film is altogether slow yet riveting and as amazing as the performances are I’m not sure I ever want to witness it again.  GRADE: B