Friday, February 27, 2015

Will Smith: The Man Who Isn't There

As a longtime Will Smith fan, I struggled with Focus, an ostensibly just-for-fun caper movie, for reasons I couldn't pin down. The problem, I finally realized, was that I simply found Smith so opaque in the film that I couldn't sense a human being up there on the screen. That made me think about his first major film role, in Six Degrees of Separation, where he played another charlatan. And that made me think about this essay on Smith's career, which is now live on Deadspin.

Led Zeppelin - "Ten Years Gone"

This week, Led Zeppelin celebrated the 40th anniversary of the release of Physical Graffiti with a spiffy new deluxe edition. Never a slobbering fan of the hard rock titans, I'd nonetheless like to play a deep cut off the double album, the endlessly beautiful and mysterious "Ten Years Gone."

Thursday, February 26, 2015

'The Lazarus Effect' Review

You've got a movie that stars Mark Duplass, Olivia Wilde and Donald Glover. So it's a comedy, right? Sadly, no: The Lazarus Effect is a horror movie about some scientists who discover they can bring back the dead. Of course, this turns out to be a bad idea -- for them and for the audience. I reviewed the film for Screen International.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

'Focus' Review

Will Smith fans like me have been hoping he'll right the ship with Focus, his conman movie in which he stars alongside Margot Robbie. This is a genre I really enjoy -- we know we're being tricked, but we're not sure how, and so we try to figure it out, like watching a magic trick. But you have to pull it off just right, and Focus (for as much fun as it can be) sadly doesn't. I reviewed the film for Screen International.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

''71' Review

'71 was one of the big hits from last year's Berlin Film Festival. This weekend, it finally opens in the U.S. The movie, a war drama, stars Jack O'Connell, who was the lead in Unbroken. (His best role so far remains his turn in Starred Up.) In '71, he plays a British soldier on the run in Belfast in 1971. Taut, tense, a little dry, '71 impresses without necessarily blowing you away. I reviewed the film for Paste.

Monday, February 23, 2015

My LAFCA Awards Presentation for 'The Grand Budapest Hotel'

Considering that Boyhood was my pick for 2014's best film, you can imagine that I was disappointed that it didn't win Best Picture last night at the Oscars. My other great sadness, however, came from the fact that Wes Anderson didn't walk away with Best Original Screenplay for The Grand Budapest Hotel, although that film did win four other prizes. (And, yes, Boyhood was also nominated in that category.)

I decided to reprint my speech I wrote for Anderson when I gave out the Los Angeles Film Critics Association's Best Screenplay prize to him back in early January. This encapsulates what I love about the film....

The Grand Budapest Hotel is about the stories we tell. Filled with characters who are authors or poets or simply old men reflecting on their lives over dinner, Wes Anderson’s film is consumed with the passage of time and how we chronicle it -- how we make sense of it through narratives, or personas that we invent for ourselves. Divided into novelistic chapters and spread out over different decades, The Grand Budapest Hotel may be Anderson’s most ambitious work yet. It is certainly his most poignant.  

But that’s not what you think of first. What you remember about The Grand Budapest Hotel is how funny it is. Working from a story he co-wrote with Hugo Guinness, Anderson has given us one of his richest creations in Gustave, a concierge so impeccably elegant he never suspects how ridiculous he is. Played to comedic perfection by Ralph Fiennes, Gustave embodies many of the traits we have come to love in Anderson’s films: that proud sense of individualism; that defiantly optimistic view of the world that no amount of cruel reality can squash.   

This is Anderson’s eighth feature, and one of his very best. If this film were a book, it would be a page-turner: part thriller, part war drama, part comedy, part romantic fable. The Grand Budapest Hotel is a splendid confection, an exquisite fantasy -- and to quote one of the character’s assessment of Gustave, Wes Anderson sustains the illusion with a marvelous grace.  

Ladies and gentlemen, please join me in congratulating our Best Screenplay winner, Mr. Wes Anderson.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Oscars 2015: Predicting the Major Categories

Will it be Boyhood or Birdman? One of the closest Oscar seasons in years winds down Sunday. Making my picks for Best Picture, Director and Actor was incredibly tough, and there's no guarantee I'm not wrong in a couple other categories. (Three of the eight major categories, though, seem like locks.) So, here we go.

Beyoncé - "Blow"

It's been almost two weeks since Beck's Morning Phase beat (among others) Beyoncé's self-titled disc for the Album of the Year Grammy. I've been meaning to write about Morning Phase since it topped my 2014 Pazz & Jop ballot, an outcome that surprised me as much as anyone. (I never liked Beck's previous sad-songs acoustic album Sea Change all that much.) But rather than spend the time arguing why Morning Phase is one of Beck's deepest, richest and (most importantly) least mannered albums, I decided instead to dive back into Beyoncé, which the loudest people online think should have won.

I might as well say this from the start: I don't get Beyoncé. I should also say that I don't like not "getting" people, and I try my best to at least understand what an artist is trying to do, even if that particular thing does nothing for me. As far as Bey goes, "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)" is one of the best singles of the last 10 years, but her other (many) hits leave me mostly cold. "Crazy in Love" bites "Are You My Woman? (Tell Me So)" without adding much new, and tracks like "Halo" are so demonstratively dramatic that I feel like I'm being trampled by an invading army.

That feeling extends to her persona, which in pop music matters almost as much as the songs. The lustful fantasy of many men (and perhaps some women, too) and an icon of self-empowerment and resourcefulness for many women (and perhaps some men, too), Beyoncé has always come across as more businesswoman than artist. Listening to her songs, I don't connect on an emotional level: It's like getting really jazzed about your Coca-Cola stocks. In this way, she and her husband Jay Z are well-matched. Especially in his recent albums, Jay has been more about brand management than artistic discovery. (And it should be said that he has utilized her incredibly well in his music: duets on "'03 Bonnie & Clyde" and "Part II [On the Run]," nailing the hook on his and Kanye West's Watch the Thrones cut "Lift Off.")

But because it's more fun to love music than to shake your head at it, I've been re-exploring Beyoncé in the hopes that it'll finally click with me. Her most acclaimed record -- it's the only one to land in the Top 10 in Pazz & Jop -- Beyoncé is, if nothing else, a model of state-of-the-art production. Featuring world-class sonics, the record gives Beyoncé a chance to exert her carnal, ferocious essence, which she can do with aplomb. I can't say I get a lot of insight into the person behind the persona, but if Beyoncé is a sleek, pricey Vegas hotel, she fills every room with fantasy, decoration, escapism.

So now let's listen to the Beyoncé song I absolutely love, "Blow." I still don't understand why this wasn't a single. Well, actually, considering its coda, maybe I do understand: I'm not sure if the radio would be ready for this filthy of a Beyoncé. Never mind that it's about a healthy married sex life.   

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Oscars 2015: Predicting the Technical Categories

For the third straight year, I'm predicting the smaller Oscar categories over at Deadspin. (Tomorrow, Will and I will tackle the eight big prizes, including Best Picture.) So far, I have an 84% success rate, which I will no doubt jeopardize by even mentioning it. Oh well: Here are my picks for everything from Best Documentary to Best Production Design to Best Sound Editing to Best Live Action Short.

It's an Honor Never to Be Nominated: The Oscar Overlooked

For Playboy, I made a list of 10 great actors, filmmakers or composers who have never been nominated for an Oscar. This is an embarrassing collection of talent that's never gotten its due from the Academy. You can read my appreciation of folks like Jim Carrey right here.