Saturday, February 22, 2014

Dallas Buyers Club - 10 stars out of 10

Dallas Buyers Club - 10 stars out of 10

“Dallas Buyers Club” is one of those movies that is just special.  It explores a part of our history that people don’t like to talk about, and it does so in such a realistic way that it is as if history is unfolding before our very eyes.  This is the most telling tale of AIDS since “Philadelphia,” and from an entirely new perspective.  The realism comes directly from Matthew McConaughey who gives the greatest performance of his life.  I often dislike McConaughey (see “Failure to Launch” and “Fool’s Gold”… actually, don’t see either of those) but he has been proving himself as a “real” actor lately with big boy roles in movies like “The Lincoln Lawyer.”  But this time, he has exceeded far beyond what I believed to be his capabilities.  In fact, if not for Chiwetel Ejiofor’s earth-shattering performance in “12 Years A Slave,” McConaughey would be my choice for the Oscar for Best Actor.  These words seem blasphemous but he is literally that good, putting himself into the realm of Tom Hanks in “Philadelphia” and Jamie Foxx in “Ray.”  While the film rests on his shoulders, there is a lot more than makes this film great.  The screenplay and production design transport us back to the mid-80’s while blending the history of Ron Woodruff’s buyers club with composite roles to represent the stories and experiences of AIDs victims who are still living today.  Jared Leto is a shoe-in for Best Supporting Actor in the most convincing transgender role that I have ever seen.  Both McConaughey and Leto dropped a ton of weight for their roles (47 lbs and 30 lbs respectively) and their dedication to these roles plays out to perfection on the screen.  The film is nominated for Best Make-Up but I don’t understand why, since the sickly looks of these two men were accomplished with reality instead of movie magic.  Perhaps the most amazing fact about this movie is that it was filmed over the course of a mere 25 days, relying on raw acting skill to tell the story.  “Dallas Buyers Club” is a special movie that, in less competitive years, could easily win the Oscar for Best Picture.  Even though it will not win, this film will find its way onto many critics’ Top 50 lists of all time, and deservedly so.

20 Feet From Stardom - 8 stars out of 10

20 Feet From Stardom - 8 stars out of 10

“20 Feet From Stardom” is an eye-opening look into the voices that you’ve always heard but never realized were there.  The back-up singer seems to have faded into the background, but throughout the 1950’s, -60’s, and -70’s, these voices determined the sound of a band or singer.  While many of the stories in this documentary are sad, they define the rock and roll generation.  The transition from clean-cut white singers to soulful black singers changed the sound of rock through the likes of Darlene Love and Merry Clayton.  As you listen to songs like It’s In His Kiss, Feelin’ Alright, and Gimme Shelter, it is hard not to avoid the realization that the back-up singers are the reason that we love these songs.  This documentary chronicles the stories of how these singing back-up led to success but hindered the solo careers amidst these singers.  While singers like T├íta Vega have enhanced singers like Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles, it has also put them into a box.  The unfortunate stories of these singers are mixed with the success of singers like Lisa Fischer, who still tours with The Rolling Stones as a background singer who enhances the band by sometimes taking the spotlight.  This documentary shines a spotlight on a side of rock and roll that is undervalued but entirely fascinating.  There is even some Disney trivia tossed in there as we learn that the “The Waters” have sung back-up on just about everything that you have ever heard, notably the African singing in “The Lion King.”  It is no surprise that this film is nominated for an Oscar and, while it will inevitably lose to something focused on politics, I am glad to see it earning some extra attention.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Lone Ranger (2013) - 3 stars out of 10

The Lone Ranger (2013) - 3 stars out of 10

There is a reason that “The Lone Ranger” was nominated for Best Visual Effects and Best Make-Up… but nothing else.  While it isn’t as big of a flop as everybody says, it was still a major disappointment.  As the first theatrical interpretation of the Lone Ranger and Tonto in 32 years (complete with “Disney” stamped all over it), there was a high expectation for this to be the start of Disney’s next blockbuster franchise.  Instead, its story flatlines after about an hour and there is little to keep you awake aside from some cool special effects.  I am dumbfounded at how Gore Verbinski could get this so wrong.  He has one of the most famous characters ever written, stunning Monument Valley visuals, an enormous budget, and Johnny Depp.  Still, this manages to be one of the most boring action movies I have ever seen.  While the Lone Ranger is completely motivated by bringing justice to the West, the script failed to make that exciting.  Most action film characters are motivated by love and perhaps it is our modern perception of what is worth fighting for that makes his quest for justice seem boring (even with a small love interest tossed in on the side).  Or maybe it is the fact that, just like the unpopularity of pirate films like “Cutthroad Island” in the 90’s, cowboy movies are out of style (a la “Wild Wild West” and “Cowboys and Aliens”).  Or even the fact that it is an origin story and they over explained everything.  Regardless, this film’s failure began with a poor script, continued with major budget issues, and ended with Armie Hammer who managed to make the Lone Ranger seem dull and boring.  The film has its moments.  It is hard not to get chills when you see the Lone Ranger riding Silver to the tune of the William Tell Overture, and Hans Zimmer’s musical score gives you something enjoyable to listen to as the story slowly plods along.  The train scene is everything that we could have hoped for from a big-budget Western - maybe the greatest train scene in the history of cinema - and the cinematography is great.  Honestly, I recommend reading the Wikipedia article on the film to figure out what happens in the first two hours and then just watching the final twenty minutes of the film.  It is highly entertaining and will leave you smiling.  It’s just the other 75% of the film that makes me shake my head and wonder how they could have not seen the inevitable failure from the start.  I’m sure that there is a group of people out there somewhere that loved this film but I don’t think that we will be seeing a “Lone Ranger” ride coming to Disney World anytime soon.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Croods - 6 stars out of 10

The Croods - 6 stars out of 10

I thought that I would hate “The Croods.”  Something about the character design rubbed me the wrong way, but I actually found this to be an enjoyable film.  Let me be clear, this is not a sophisticated animation that caters to adults (like “Beauty and the Beast” or “Brave”), but it provides good family laughs and a cuddly saber-tooth tiger.  I was put off by Nicholas Cage’s voicing of Grug simply because it often lacked emotion.  Other than that, the voices acting was good (particularly Chloris Leachman as the grandmother.  The real draw of this film is the imaginative portrayal of the prehistoric world, full of vibrant color and creative creatures.  While cavemen seemed to be an odd choice to star in a film, they provided a great excuse to explore the possibilities of this world.  I actually found Alan Silvestri’s score to be the highlight of the film, creating a few emotional notes that would have eluded us without his cues.  At the end of the day, this isn’t the blockbuster that you have to see in theaters (like “Frozen”) as its slapstick humor makes this film more appealing to children than adults; however, if you are looking for something simple to put on the tv as you unwind at the end of the day, this story will do the trick while still providing an awesome visual experience.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Cutie and the Boxer - 8 stars out of 10

Cutie and the Boxer - 8 stars out of 10

There is more to "Cutie and the Boxer" than meets the eye.  This Oscar-nominated look into the world of modern art is a classic story about the woman behind the man and, even more importantly, it is a story of love and devotion.  The turbulent 40-year marriage of Ushio Shinohara and his wife, Noriko, has been as unpredictable as Ushio’s avant-garde artwork.  The film chronicles the artwork of Ushio, from his famous “boxing painting” to his cardboard motorcycle sculptures.  However, this is actually the story of his wife who sacrificed her own artistic dreams to support and take care of Ushio.  The story is told through Noriko’s “Cutie and the Bullie” drawings, an autobiographical series of drawings that depict Noriko’s frustrating life and her desire to break free from her husband’s shadow.  Consequently, these drawings lead to the exhibition that will help Ushio to establish a new artistic identity and allow Noriko to finally be her own artist.  It is fascinating to see the poverty that some artists must endure for the sake of their artwork and the emotional toll that it can take.  It is interesting to see the meaning that scholars can put into a piece of modern art that actually does not have any meaning at all.  I know that this is not the intent of the film but it was surprising to see the artist complete a work, ask “What is it,” and then have another person in the room assign the piece’s meaning to it.  Whether this type of artwork is your thing or not, this film is relatable to artists of any discipline.  It chronicles the sacrifices and suffering that artists sometimes endure to bring their art to fruition, but most importantly paints a picture of love that endures through the hardship of marriage.  Once you hear Noriko’s analogy to two flowers growing in one plot, you will surely love this movie.

Dirty Wars - 3 stars out of 10

Dirty Wars - 3 stars out of 10

“Dirty Wars” is that yearly documentary that examines some alleged injustices practiced by the Unites States Armed Forces in the wars overseas.  While Jeremy Scahill’s findings are interesting, I could not help but feel that he was holding back information to keep his arguments strong.  I suppose it is the difference between an informative documentary and a persuasive documentary, the former providing all of the facts to allow you to draw a conclusion and the latter limiting its facts to the ones that will support its argument.  I am okay with a documentarian presenting their argument but in this case, it seems irresponsible to paint our forces in such a malicious manner.  The film has been nominated for the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature but, when compared to a film like “The Act of Killing,” it really has no business in the Oscars; in fact, I believe that this documentary has been nominated for its political message instead of its quality.