Movie #120: Once (2006)

Director: John Carney

Starring: Glen Hansard, Marketa Irglovia

Academy Awards (2007):

Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Song: Glen Hansard, Marketa Irglova for the song ‘Falling Slowly’

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Guy (Hansard), a street musician who also works in his father’s vacuum repair shop, meets Girl (Irglova), a pianist who works odd jobs to support her mother and daughter.  They collaborate to create a demo tape for Guy.

Once is a unique musical in that it doesn’t have the flash of your typical musical.  This low-budget film shot in a more primitive fashion adds a layer of authenticity and realism that doesn’t exist in the traditional musical.  No over-the-top performances, just people making music.

I was especially impressed with Hansard and Irglova’s performances.  They are musicians first, not actors.  Their performances are very natural, and play well for the films rough and authentic feel.

The soundtrack for this movie is excellent.  I still listen to a number of the songs regularly even now.  I know it’s probably not for everyone, but I enjoy it thoroughly, even now.  I also like how the songs are integrated in the film almost seamlessly.

I heard part of an interview they did for NPR a few years back.  It was interesting to hear their side of making the film.  The dinner party they attend was shot in Hansard’s flat, and his mother was one of the ladies who sang at that party.  Little things like that intrigue me.

I hadn’t watched Once in a number of years.  One thing that I noticed this time around was a bit of a diminishing return.  I’m not sure how this one will hold up in say, 10 or 20 more years.  Still enjoyable though. The diminishing return may have more to do with me though.  Once was released when I was in college, and perhaps it doesn’t have the same effect on me now that I’m a little older.

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Once has seemed like a movie that you either love or can’t stand.  There is no middle ground.  I think the characters are enjoyable, the music is entertaining, and it’s a nice modern twist on a musical.  I’d recommend seeing this one, even if it’s only once.

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars.

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Movie #118: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)

Director: Andrew Dominik

Starring: Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck, Sam Shepard, Jeremy Renner, Sam Rockwell, Mary-Louise Parker

Academy Award Nominations (2008):

Best Achievement in Cinematography: Roger Deakins

Best Actor in a Supporting Role: Casey Affleck

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During the winter of 1882 Jesse James (Pitt) is increasingly paranoid and depressed after the retirement of his older brother and collapse of his gang.  Bob Ford (Affleck), a young outlaw who idolizes James, talks his way into his hero’s inner circle only to turn against him. (501 Must-See Movies, 2010).

For a movie that spells out what happens in the title, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford takes a really long time to get to that ending.  For all the good qualities of this film, I have a difficult time getting over how slow this movie progresses.  There is a certain element of suspense as each event builds to the ultimate finale, however, I feel like it could have been an hour shorter with the same effect.

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The exchanges between Pitt and Affleck help in building the tension throughout this film.  I was somewhat skeptical of Brad Pitt playing Jesse James.  It just doesn’t come across as the type of role he would take.  Fortunately he does a decent job in portraying the paranoid, aging outlaw.

Casey Affleck’s performance as Robert Ford walks a very fine line.  He does a good job of depicting the younger brother type who is always picked on.  He does a decent job idolizing Jesse, but it comes across in both a creepy, naive, arrogant way that’s outputting for me.  He received an Oscar nomination for his performance, which I understand, but for me his performance just didn’t quite click.

It’s also interesting to see people like Jeremy Renner, Sam Rockwell, Mary-Louise Parker, and Zooey Deschanel to a lesser degree given the other bigger roles each has done since this film.  They blend well into a Western-era film even though it’s not the type of movie any of them would typically do.

I go back and forth with modern western films.  There are some films that I enjoy, however, I feel like the western genre in general is something that was done a lot better in the past.  The charm of older westerns for me is in the primitive film making techniques.  The sometimes over-the-top shootouts and inaccurate special effects are some of the most charming parts of the older films, and modern films just miss that “it” factor.

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Having now seen The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford twice, my initial observations of the film were only reaffirmed.  The film has its charm and the actors did a surprisingly good job.  However, it could have been an hour shorter and told the same story.  It isn’t on my “to watch again” list, and I think it’s one that can be skipped.

My Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

Best Picture Winners: A Beautiful Mind (2001)

Director: Ron Howard

Starring: Russell Crowe, Ed Harris, Jennifer Connelly, Christopher Plummer, Paul Bettany, Josh Lucas, and Judd Hirsch

Academy Awards (2002):

Best Picture: Brian Grazer, Ron Howard

Best Actress in a Supporting Role: Jennifer Connelly

Best Director: Ron Howard

Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published: Akiva Goldsman

Academy Award Nominations:

Best Actor in a Leading Role: Russell Crowe

Best Film Editing: Mike Hill, Daniel P. Hanley

Best Makeup: Greg Cannom, Colleen Callaghan

Best Original Score: James Horner

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“Imagine if you suddenly learned that the people, the places, the moments most important to you were not gone, not dead, but worse, had never been.”

A Beautiful Mind explores the life of John Nash (Crowe), Nobel Prize winning mathematician.  Beginning with his graduate studies at Princeton, Nash discovers a new concept of governing dynamics, the Nash Equilibrium.  Following Princeton, Nash works at a research lab at MIT doing work for the Pentagon and teaching on the side.  He meets Alicia (Connelly), one of his students, and the two fall in love.  He is also approached by William Parcher (Harris) to do classified work in decoding a Soviet attack on America.

However, not everything is as it appears.

Based on the book of the same name by Sylvia Nasar, A Beautiful Mind is a film that balances a number of movie genres.  It’s got drama,mystery, romance, a little bit of comedy.  The various elements of the film make it insightful, suspenseful, and entertaining on a number of levels.

From a visual perspective, a lot goes on in A Beautiful Mind.  Some of the film’s early scenes, specifically at Princeton, have an older look to them.  I like when a director can add little elements like that.  It helps in contrasting the different time periods throughout the film.  They also do good with showing Nash’s perspective as he sees the various connections and patterns in the math.

abeautifulmind2Though some of the character’s mannerisms were annoying to me, Russell Crowe does a great job of bringing John Nash to life.  I’m probably nitpicking more than anything else.  He does well with portraying the paranoid genius who was given “two helping of brain but only a half a helping of heart.”  The real life John Nash visited the set, and Crowe notices some of his tendencies, hand movements, and things of the sort, and incorporated them into his performance.

A Beautiful Mind was filmed almost entirely chronologically, and I think that helped Crowe’s performance as he became Nash and progressed naturally through the various stages of life portrayed in the film.

Jennifer Connelly, wow, what a performance is all I can say.  Even though she doesn’t command every scene she’s in, she gives a strong performance and more than holds her own.  From the beginning of their love story through the pain and anguish later on, her portrayal of Alicia Nash is believable and genuine.  As I’ve looked at some of the other people considered for her role and Crowe’s, I know Ron Howard made the right call with those two.

abeautifulmind3Paul Bettany is an interesting character to say the least.  Having portrayed Geoffrey Chaucer in A Knight’s Tale, an entertaining role, Bettany demonstrated his ability to be a sort of classical funnyman in A Beautiful Mind.  Though a lot of his performance has the comedic undertone, he has nuggets of truth and deep insight throughout the film.  Ed Harris also gives a decent performance.  He excels in the serious no-nonsense roles like Parcher.  I don’t know if I would call him a typecast character, but his most memorable performances are ones like this one.

This is a film I’d recommend seeing twice before forming an opinion about it.  I saw this one twice in the theaters: the first time I hated it, the second time I loved it.  Knowing the major plot twist gives perspective and a different understanding to the first half of the film.   Akiva Goldsman, Ron Howard, and Brian Grazer created the world through Nash’s perspective, so the audience experiences the major twist at the same time Nash does.  I remember being very confused the first time I saw it, hence not liking it.

"I need to believe, that something extraordinary is possible."

“I need to believe, that something extraordinary is possible.”

It’s been probably about a decade since I’ve watched A Beautiful Mind.  Having a chance to re-visit it for me was enjoyable and a reminder of how great A Beautiful Mind is.  Russell Crowe brings John Nash’s story to life, has great on-screen chemistry with Ed Harris, Paul Bettany, and most importantly Jennifer Connelly.  Ron Howard has created a great film, one certainly deserving of the Best Picture Oscar.  See this one twice if you haven’t seen it yet.

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars.

Best Picture Winners. Movie #113: Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

From now until Oscar Sunday I will be reviewing Best Picture winners. Enjoy!

Director: Danny Boyle

Starring: Dev Patel, Frieda Pinto, Rubina Ali, Ayush Mahesh Khedekar, Madhur Mittal, Anil Kapoor

Academy Awards (2009):

Best Motion Picture of the Year: Christian Colson

Best Achievement in Cinematography: Anthony Dod Mantle

Best Achievement in Directing: Danny Boyle

Best Achievement in Editing: Chris Dickens

Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Score: A.R. Rahman

Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Song: A.R. Rahman (music), Gulzar (lyrics) for the song ‘Jai Ho’

Best Achievement in Sound: Ian Tapp, Richard Pryke, Resul Pookutty

Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published: Simon Beaufoy

Academy Award Nominations:

Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Song: A.R. Rahman, Maya Arulpragasam for the song ‘O Saya’

Best Achievement in Sound Editing: Tom Sayers, Glenn Freemantle

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Jamal Malik (Patel), an 18-year-old orphan from the streets of Mumbai, finds himself competing on the TV game show Who Wants to be a Millionaire.  His unexpected success leads police to become suspicious and he is arrested for cheating.  During his police interview Malik recounts the story of his life, explaining how he came to know the answer to each question in the quiz. (from 501 Must-See Movies, Revised and Updated Edition)

Slumdog Millionaire has a lot that works.  For having virtual unknowns, at least to American audiences, the acting is decent.  The story, cliché at times, is complex enough and the Indian setting make it unique and enjoyable.

The visuals in this movie are great.  The integration of color throughout the film works well.  From what little knowledge I have of the Indian film industry, it seems like bright colors are intricately used.  The balance  of colors created a number of aesthetically pleasing sets.

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Even though it still grosses me out thinking about it, the toilet scene was well done.  Sometimes I feel like the dream-esque parts were a little drawn out, like how Jamal has the same flashback of Latika (Pinto) at the train station the first time they tried to be together.

The pacing is slow at times, however, I feel like the payoff in the end makes the build up worth it.  In the end, you kind of have to figure he’d get the girl.   However, there’s that underlying tension throughout as Jamal and Latika cross paths and could be together except for this or that circumstance.

There were quite a few times where I thought, “Hmm, that’s convenient” as far as Jamal knowing the answer to a question.  To have that random assortment of life experiences, apparently happening in the order the questions were given, just seems a little too far-fetched.  The cops were right to be suspicious, though some of the torture they put Jamal through was probably unnecessary.

The biggest issue I have with this film has to do with the hype.  Personally, I think it’s an interesting, drawn out love story set in the slums of Mumbai.  I don’t think it’s as great as people made it out to be when it was released.  The first time I watched this, I was just kind of like “eh” at the end.  At the risk of sounding insensitive, I feel like this film is one of those that gets a Best Picture Oscar because the Academy basically says, “Awww, let’s feel sorry for/about (fill in the blank).”  That year it won against The Curious Case of Benjamin ButtonFrost/NixonThe Reader, and Milk, all films I think would be deserving of the Oscar, but that’s just my own opinion.

This is the only Danny Boyle film I’ve seen, so I can’t compare this to any of his other work.

Is the film good? Yes.

Is it amazing beyond your wildest dreams and there will never be another like it? No.

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Slumdog Millionaire came out of nowhere in 2008 to win 8 Oscars and gained almost instant international acclaim.  I think it’s a decent film, though personally I don’t understand the hype that came with it.  I think it should be seen once, though time will tell whether this film has long-lasting staying power.

My Rating: 3.5/5 stars.

 

Movie #109: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

Director: Peter Jackson

Starring: Elijah Wood, Orlando Bloom, Ian McKellen, Liv Tyler, Christopher Lee, Cate Blanchett, Sala Baker, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Bean, Sean Astin, Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan, Hugo Weaving, John Rhys-Davies Ian Holm, Andy Serkis

Academy Awards (2002):

Best Cinematography: Andrew Lesnie

Best Makeup: Peter Owen, Richard Taylor

Best Music, Original Score: Howard Shore

Best Visual Effects: Jim Rygiel, Randall William Cook, Richard Taylor, Mark Stetson

Academy Award Nominations:

Best Actor in a Supporting Role: Ian McKellen

Best Art Direction: Grant Major, Dan Hennah

Best Costume Design: Ngila Dickson, Richard Taylor

Best Director: Peter Jackson

Best Film Editing: John Gilbert

Best Music, Original Song: Enya, Nicky Ryan, Roma Ryan

Best Picture: Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, Barrie M. Osborne

Best Sound: Christopher Boyes, Michael Semanick, Gethin Creagh, Hammond Peek

Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson

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An ancient ring thought lost for centuries has been found, given to a Hobbit named Frodo (Wood).  When Gandalf (McKellen) discovers that this is the One Ring of the Dark Lord Sauron (Baker), Frodo must make an epic quest to the Cracks of Doom to destroy it. (via 501 Must-See Movies: Revised and Updated Edition, 2010)

This movie and trilogy is enjoyable, if you can handle Peter Jackson’s thorough storytelling.

One of the nice things about long films like this is the ability to develop a wide range of characters.  Jackson takes time weaving together the humans, elves, dwarves, and hobbits as they unite in this epic quest.  Even though this film is 3 hours long, the pacing is very well done.  An unfortunate shortfall for a film like The Fellowship of the Ring, though, comes from the fact that it is the first in a series.  Much more time has to be devoted to introducing the massive ensemble cast.  It is necessary, but I felt like the first hour or so dragged on.  Once Frodo and company left the Shire, this wasn’t a problem.

"I am sorry I brought this upon you, my boy. I'm sorry that... you must carry this burden. I'm sorry for everything."

“I am sorry I brought this upon you, my boy. I’m sorry that… you must carry this burden. I’m sorry for everything.”

I especially like the battle and struggle between good and evil.  Even the nicest or best intentioned person could become a monster once the Ring enters the picture.  That tension and suspense was engaging, and the candid nature of many of the characters helped define how a person could be corrupted or redeemed, among others.  The exchange between Frodo and Galadriel (Blanchett) was especially powerful in demonstrating the Ring’s power to corrupt.

I found it was appropriate to cast Sean Bean as Boromir (the guy that dies).  I especially found his exchange with Aragon (Mortensen) at the end of the film.  Though he had fallen, he found redemption and humility in the end.

It doesn’t surprise me that Ian McKellen was nominated for an Academy Award.  This and the X-Men series are the only films I’ve seen him in, so at the time this movie came out I was still largely unfamiliar with him.  He does the wise old man part very well.  He balances a character of sound judgement, conviction, and a compassionate nature.

The visuals for this movie are absolutely stunning.  I watched it this time on a much bigger TV than I have in the past, which helped to enhance the movie experience.  The CGI was used well, and a number of the natural shorts were breathtaking.  Watching this trilogy makes me want to visit New Zealand.

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The Lord of the Rings trilogy has become the standard for modern epic films.  I never read nor plan on reading J. R. R. Tolkien’s series, but from what I have read Peter Jackson did the source material justice.  He weaves together a variety of characters in a massive adventure that takes over 9 hours (theatrical version) to tell.  The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring introduces this massive ensemble and lays the groundwork for two more films that explore the struggle between good and evil and once humble hobbit who will determine the fate of Middle Earth.

My Rating: 4.5 of 5 stars.

Movie #106: Children of Men (2006)

Director: Alfonso Cuaron

Starring: Clive Owen, Julianne Moore, Charlie Hunnam, Michael Caine, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Danny Huston, Clare-Hope Ashitey

Academy Award Nominations (2007):

Best Achievement in Cinematography: Emmanuel Lubezki

Best Achievement in Editing: Alfonso Cuaron, Alex Rodriguez

Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay: Alfonso Cuaron, Timothy J. Sexton, David Arata, Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby

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It’s 2027, there have been no births worldwide in over 18 years.  The UK is the only country with a functioning government.  It is more of a police state, however, due to the overflow of immigrants fleeing their chaotic home countries.  Theo Faran (Owen), is hired by his estranged ex-wife Julian Taylor (Moore) to help Kee (Ashitey), a young woman who also happens to be pregnant, out of the country.

I thought this film was interesting, and depressing.  Creating this kind of film will win over the critics, but can be off-putting to audiences.  I don’t think this film out-grossed its budget, but it’s an interesting cautionary tale.  Though this movie came out eight years ago, I still get the sense that this world, however unlikely and however bleak, is one possibility.  The film updates the source material, a book of the same name published in 1992, and touches on issues that are still relevant now.

Though I haven’t seen a tremendous sampling of his work, I’ve always been a little put off by Clive Owen as an actor.  I think it’s because he always comes across as the cold, distant, indifferent type of character.  From what I’ve seen, he’s more or less a type-cast with a limited range and appeal.

His temperament as an actor, though, is a strength in this type of film.  He becomes the hero, but still comes across as having a bleak outlook on the world around him.

I enjoyed Chiwetel Ejiofor’s performance as Luke, a leader of the Fishes, an activist group that Julian also belonged to.  He does a good job coming across as an ally but also having ulterior motives.  The only other film I’ve seen him in is Serenity, and he impresses me as an actor.  I need to see some of his more recent stuff.  I’m a bit surprised that Clare-Hope Ashitey hasn’t been in much other than Children of Men.  Her performance was interesting and engaging despite the film’s grim outlook.

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I’m not that big of a fan having Julianne Moore and Michael Caine as the second and third billing.  Their characters, though essential to the story, are much smaller than say, Clare-Hope Ashity or Chiwetel Ejiofor.  I know the bigger names give the film a more legitimate perception, but I’d expect them to have more screen time than they did.

I suppose that’s just me nitpicking.

childrenofmen1The pacing, story, and cinematography all work well for me.  One of the final scenes where everyone sees Kee’s baby, and though they’re in the middle of a major gunfight, they stop fighting long enough for Kee, the baby, and Theo to pass.  I was a bit surprised, though, with what happened after they were through the majority of the fighting.  It was both sad and a little comical all at once.

Children of Men was both sad and enjoyable to watch.  The story isn’t overly drawn out, but still produces some major themes about humanity a complete story.  Any more and it would have started becoming overkill, any less and it would have been incomplete.  Clive Owen excels and has interesting performances from his supporting cast.  It’s not one I’m interested in watching again, but I think it’s one of those you only need to watch once or twice.

My Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars.

TMNT (2007)

In anticipation for the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie set to release August 7, 2014, I am reviewing the four previous Ninja Turtles movies.

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Some time after defeating the Shredder and their trip back in time to feudal Japan, the turtles have gone their separate ways: Leonardo is training in Central America to be a better leader, Michelangelo runs his own kids party company, Donatello works as an IT specialist, and Raphael fights crime as the vigilante Nightwatcher.

tmntturtlesaprilcaseyApril O’Neil and Casey Jones are dating, and April has left her job as a news reporter to run her own consulting company.  She’s been hired by Max Winters to track down four statues.  As Leonardo returns, the turtles discover a cosmic event that happens every 3000 years, and Winters, the fifth general cursed to live forever, is trying to set things right.

After the disaster that was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III, it would be fourteen years before another film was released.  In that time, there were a few television programs with the turtles, but for the most part the franchise had faded from its heyday in the late 80s and early 90s.  When I originally heard that they were making this movie back in 2007, I was highly skeptical.

However, I was pleasantly surprised by this film when it came out.  Though it’s certainly not the greatest film of the franchise, it was a small step up from Turtles III.  The switch to full CGI for this film works given the cost and return of using live action animatronics like the original films.  However, the complete CGI use made this film feel more like a glorified TV episode, maybe a 3 or 4 episode mini series.

One of the things that made the original films great was the character interaction and snarky wit.  This film missed that by a wide margin.  If there was one thing Turtles III did better than TMNT, this was it.  Some of the character interactions such as Casey and April in the Turtle Van seemed more fit for TV rather than a movie.  I don’t want to call it too juvenile since that age and under are the target audience, but that balance of being juvenile and witty to older audiences just wasn’t there.

Plus most of the funny dialogue was given to Michelangelo and Donatello, a pair of comedians, but it could have been spread out with the rest of the cast.  Splinter has a couple of funny lines, but overall it just didn’t stack up.

tmntsplinterleo Mako voiced Splinter in this movie, which ended up being his last as he died before the film was completed.  While it was nice to see him back in a more fatherly mentoring form instead of the useless semi-comedian he was in Turtles III, he seemed both dark and cold for most of the film.  Perhaps this was another problem with the movie in general as a lot of superhero type films have gone the route of the darker, gritty tone (thank you Christopher Nolan).  The turtles are competent ninjas, but they are fun at their core.

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The turtles are moving forward with their lives.  Having defeated the Shredder and keeping the city pretty safe, it makes sense for the turtles to be in a rut at this point.  Unfortunately for the replacement villains, Winters and the four generals, run into the same problem Walker had in Turtles III: they’re not the Shredder.

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Though I was initially impressed with this film, TMNT has lost some of its appeal for me in the sense that it seems more suited for TV than the big screen.  The jokes are semi-funny at times, but nowhere near the original trilogy.  I’d recommend this for Turtles diehards, and suggest going in with very low expectations.

My Rating: 2 out of 5 stars.