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.

Monday, February 16, 2015

My Best Picture Ballot for the 2015 Oscars

On Sunday, the 87th Academy Awards will be held here in Los Angeles. If I was a member of the Academy, this would be how I rank my Best Picture ballot. (As a reminder, the Oscars use a preferential voting system to determine what movie walks away with the top prize.) To be clear, this isn't a prediction of how it will play out, merely how I would vote if I could....

1. Boyhood
2. The Grand Budapest Hotel
3. Birdman
4. The Theory of Everything
5. Selma
6. The Imitation Game
7. American Sniper
8. Whiplash

Actual predictions will be coming later this week.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Mos Def - "Twilite Speedball"

Mos Def hasn't put out a solo album since The Ecstatic, one of 2009's best records. Since then, he has changed his name to Yasiin Bey and hasn't done a ton of recording or acting. But last year, he resurfaced, sorta, when a snippet from the track "Twilite Speedball" popped up in an ad for the Cosmopolitan hotel in Las Vegas. if you find the music intoxicating, introduce yourself to the song.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

'Kingsman: The Secret Service' Review

While we wait for Spectre, why not give Kingsman: The Secret Service a chance? Well, because it's not very good. This spy thriller-comedy starring Colin Firth likes to pat itself on the back for how clever it is. (This is the kind of movie that has its characters mention how movie-like their situation is, only to then assert that this isn't a movie.) Sure, the action sequences are pretty superb but, honestly, who cares? It's totally soulless without being witty about it. I reviewed Kingsman for Deadspin.

The Best Movies to Lose the Best Picture Oscar

I've often said that the worst thing that can happen to a good movie is to win Best Picture. Once you've been given that Oscar, everybody complains that you're not that great of a film: The accolade simply invites people to nitpick. With that in mind, for Rolling Stone I decided to rank the 25 best movies that were nominated for Best Picture but lost. This is an enormously difficult task, by the way, which meant leaving off plenty of worthy contenders. Also, my No. 1 pick is going to annoy lots of folks. Hey, sue me, it's my list.

My Interview With Randall Park

I couldn't have had a better time hanging out with Randall Park. The star of ABC's Fresh Off the Boat, he was in the news a lot last year because he played Kim Jong-un in The Interview, which made his life surreal for a bit. We talked about all that -- plus, why he loves MF Doom, one of the best undergrounds MCs out there. My piece is now live at Backstage.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

'Fifty Shades of Grey' Review

When I told people I was going to be seeing Fifty Shades of Grey, I got a surprising amount of responses that ranged from "Oh god, why?" to "Well, good luck with that" to "Yeah, that's not my kind of thing." Putting aside for a moment the fact that I saw the film because, you know, it's my job, I was shocked how quick some folks were to assume that the movie would be bad. I then, of course, wondered how many people would be furious if a critic went into a movie with such strong preconceived notions. This is an occupational pet peeve of mine: Readers expect us to be open-minded (which I work very hard to be) but don't apply the same standard to themselves for films they assume aren't worth their time.

So, with that said, let me tell you that I found Fifty Shades of Grey to be fascinating -- and I don't mean that in a coy, condescending way. That rare Hollywood movie that deals (somewhat) seriously with its characters' sexual life, Fifty Shades stands alone among the studio blockbusters. (It's also just about the only "event movie" based around a love story in recent times.) There is much to discuss about this flawed, ultimately satisfying film, and I go into all of it in my Screen International review.

Monday, February 09, 2015

What Are the Sci-Tech Awards?

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences are the people who, among other things, put on the Oscars. But a few weeks before then, they also throw the annual Scientific and Technical Awards, or Sci-Tech. This show honors the latest in technical innovation, and it gets a cursory mention every year during the Oscar broadcast. I've always been curious to attend the Sci-Tech Awards, and for Popular Mechanics I finally got my chance. The event was this past Saturday, at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, which required me getting into a tux. What I found was an awards show, hosted this year by Miles Teller and Margot Robbie, that suggests the future of moviegoing. I had a blast covering the event, and I hope you enjoy this recap

Friday, February 06, 2015

The Best Movies of the Decade (so far): My Ballot

You may remember the other day I mentioned that The Dissolve had asked me and other critics to contribute ballots to their poll of the best films of the decade (2010-2014). (You can see the master list, with write-ups, of Nos. 50-26 here. Nos. 25-1 are right here.)

For those interested, I decided to publish my ballot below.

Doing some quick number-crunching, I see that 10 of my Top 20 films ended up in the overall Dissolve Top 50. If some of my picks surprise you, well, they surprised me, too -- but I decided to go by instinct and not overthink my choices. If nothing else, this will help give me a guide for "Best of the Decade" lists in about four years, which will be here quicker than you think.

1. Inside Llewyn Davis
2. The Turin Horse
3. The Master
4. Boyhood
5. City of Life and Death
6. Lourdes
7. Shutter Island
8. Elena (the Andrei Zvyagintsev film)
9. It's Such a Beautiful Day
10. The Social Network
11. The Clock
12. Compliance
13. Let the Fire Burn
14. Blue Is the Warmest Color
15. Shame
16. Leviathan (the Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Véréna Paravel film)
17. Upstream Color
18. Take Shelter
19. Room 237
20. Before Midnight

Pet Shop Boys - "Suburbia"

Today, Andrew Sullivan closes down The Dish, a decision he has agonized over. It's no less difficult for all of us who loved reading his site. Between the loss of The Dish and The Colbert Report, I can't imagine how I'm going to get through the 2016 presidential election.

In honor of Sullivan, I decided I'd dedicate this week's Friday Video to him by choosing a track from his all-time favorite band.

Thursday, February 05, 2015

'Seventh Son' Review

Jeff Bridges and Julianne Moore reunite for The Big Lebowski 2 ... OK, that's not what happened. Instead, they're in Seventh Son, a patience-trying fantasy-adventure featuring witches, warlocks, monsters and other creatures. Too bad it's all so darn boring. I reviewed the film for Screen International.

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

'McFarland, USA' Review

There are few pleasures quite like watching Kevin Costner in a sports movie. (I've written about this before.) But his latest, McFarland, USA, is almost a little too comfortable. It's based on a true story: In the late 1980s, a white football coach, Jim White, started a cross-country team in a small Latino community, bridging cultural divides in the process. Sure, it's inspiring, but it's also rather rote. I reviewed the film for Screen International.

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

'Jupiter Ascending' Review

You have to hand it to Lana and Andy Wachowski: Jupiter Ascending is a wholly original sci-fi film. It's not based on a comic book or a TV show or anything else. (Well, it's definitely inspired from older sci-fi films like Star Wars and Dune.) But in an era of play-it-safe blockbusters, Jupiter Ascending is undeniably bold.

Now, here comes the bad news: It's pretty terrible. Because the Wachowskis always have a sense of grandeur about their projects, Jupiter Ascending feels unabashedly epic, which can make for fascinating viewing. I flipped for the divisive Cloud Atlas, but I just sat there shaking my head with their new film. I reviewed Jupiter Ascending for Screen International.

Monday, February 02, 2015

What Are the Best Movies of This Decade (so far)?

The fine folks at The Dissolve polled me and others for our picks for the best films this decade (2010-2014). Compiling those ballots, The Dissolve has now unveiled its list of "The 50 Best Films of the Decade So Far." The first half of the results (50-26) can be found here, including my write-ups for The Turin Horse and Upstream Color. Tomorrow, The Dissolve will reveal the Top 25, and each critic's individual ballot. (Spoiler alert: Four of the movies on my personal Top 20 are included in the 50-26 roundup.)

(Update: Here's 25-1. Six of the movies on my personal Top 20 are included in this section of the countdown.)

(Second Update: Here's my ballot.)