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Thursday, February 28, 2013

Review: The Heiress

To Love and Be Loved

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: October 6, 1949 – U.S. 
Rating: Approved
Genre: Romance, Drama
Running Time: 115 minutes
Director: William Wyler
Writers: Ruth Goetz and Augustus Goetz 
(script and play), Henry James (novel)
Cast: Olivia de Havilland, 
Montgomery Clift, Ralph Richardson, 
Miriam Hopkins

Catherine Sloper (Olivia de Havilland) is a sweet girl but painfully shy. Despite the help of her aunt, Levinia Penniman (Miriam Hopkins), she is hopelessly awkward in social situations – more comfortable knitting ornate embroideries than carrying on conversations. This naturally raises the ire of her cold, judgmental father, Dr. Austin Sloper (Ralph Richardson). He has unrealistic memories of his "perfect" late wife, which his timid wallflower of a daughter is unable to measure up to. Therefore, when she captures the interest of a man, Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift), her father is immediately suspicious.

He has every reason to be, of course.

Catherine is an heiress who has inherited a considerable fortune. Could that, not love, be the source of Mr. Townsend's interest?

Aunt Penniman encourages the union regardless. She understands a life without love – having lost her own husband, The Reverend Penniman – and she doesn't want the same for Catherine. After all, is it even possible to recognize true love when it comes, and should it matter either way if she's happy?

"The Heiress" could never work as a radio production because its elegant dialogue seems to give very little away – at least initially (multiple viewings reveal quite a bit of foreshadowing and character development). Set in the 1800s, every character in the movie speaks with the poise and charm of a true gentleman or lady of that time period. Only through facial expressions and body language do their actual feelings and motivations begin to emerge. The performances are masterful all around.

Because of that, a viewer who is attentive enough will be able to remain several steps ahead of Catherine, Morris, Dr. Sloper, and Aunt Penniman.

It comes as no surprise that de Havilland was awarded a well-deserved Oscar for Best Actress. Richardson also won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, and the film was given a slew of other nominations (including Best Picture and Best Director) and wins. It is an actors' showcase and should be required viewing for every aspiring star and starlet.

There are a couple of moments in the movie that seem overly stagey, but considering that it was originally conceived as a play (written by Ruth and Augustus Goetz, based on the novel Washington Square by Henry James), that's understandable.

The final five minutes, which I won't give away, features one of the greatest lines in cinematic history.

I've seen "The Heiress" many times – both as a film and on stage – and every time I do, I pick up new characteristics and subtleties. Like the embroideries that Catherine is so fond of knitting, the story weaves together a rich tapestry of emotions and events.  

Sunday, February 24, 2013

The 85th Annual Academy Awards: Results and Reactions

The Winners and Surprises

By Chris Sabga

A month ago, I posted the nominees and my predictions, which you can read again by clicking here.

Seth MacFarlane ("Ted," "Family Guy") was the best Oscar host in years. He was charming, funny, and just inappropriate enough give the ceremony a much-needed edge without ever going overboard. The skits involving him and William Shatner as Captain Kirk made for the most hilarious and memorable Oscar opener in a long time.

The heavy amount of music during the ceremony likely pleased some and irritated others. I personally thought there was too much of it – but to be fair, the host did let us know it was going to be a musical evening. Adele and Streisand both performed beautifully.

The tie for Sound Editing was a shocker and made me wonder if something like that could ever happen in the Actor, Actress, or Best Picture categories this year. It has actually happened fives times before, with the most famous example being for two 1968 movies: Katharine Hepburn won Best Actress for "The Lion in Winter" while Barbra Streisand also won for "Funny Girl."

In a night with no truly great speeches, Quentin Tarantino came close with his bizarre but endearing acceptance of the Best Original Screenplay award. Daniel Day-Lewis might have been even weirder, comically playing on his stiff reputation as an intense method actor. It was hard to tell when he was joking – if he was – and when he wasn't. Ben Affleck ended the night on the perfect note with his touching, sincere, and very classy speech for "Argo."

The full results, and my thoughts, are below. The winners are listed in BOLD.

And the Oscars go to...

Best Motion Picture of the Year

Amour: Margaret Ménégoz, Stefan Arndt, Veit Heiduschka, Michael Katz

Argo: Grant Heslov, Ben Affleck, George Clooney

Beasts of the Southern Wild: Dan Janvey, Josh Penn, Michael Gottwald

Django Unchained: Stacey Sher, Reginald Hudlin, Pilar Savone

Les Misérables: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Debra Hayward, Cameron Mackintosh

Life of Pi: Gil Netter, Ang Lee, David Womark

Lincoln: Steven Spielberg, Kathleen Kennedy

Silver Linings Playbook: Donna Gigliotti, Bruce Cohen, Jonathan Gordon

Zero Dark Thirty: Mark Boal, Kathryn Bigelow, Megan Ellison

Thoughts: My heart was with "Silver Linings Playbook" but there's no denying that "Argo" was an intense, effective thriller that also skillfully blended in bits of comedy. Its most impressive feat was looking like a true period piece, right down to its old-school WB logo at the beginning.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role

Bradley Cooper for Silver Linings Playbook

Daniel Day-Lewis for Lincoln

Hugh Jackman for Les Misérables

Joaquin Phoenix for The Master

Denzel Washington for Flight

Thoughts: There was never any doubt that this was Daniel Day-Lewis's award to win. His transformation as the 16th President was staggering. This victory also puts Day-Lewis in the history books as the first person ever to win three Best Actor Oscars. Still, part of me was rooting for Bradley Cooper anyway. In any other year, I think it would have been his. Regardless, Cooper has proven to any doubters he may have had (I was never among them) that he's a genuine talent with incredible range.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role

Jessica Chastain for Zero Dark Thirty

Jennifer Lawrence for Silver Linings Playbook

Emmanuelle Riva for Amour

Quvenzhané Wallis for Beasts of the Southern Wild

Naomi Watts for The Impossible

Thoughts: At the last minute, I became convinced that "Amour's" Emmanuelle Riva was a lock. Obviously, I was wrong. Lawrence was incredible in "Silver Linings Playbook" and was very much worthy of winning the statuette.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role

Alan Arkin for Argo

Robert De Niro for Silver Linings Playbook

Philip Seymour Hoffman for The Master

Tommy Lee Jones for Lincoln

Christoph Waltz for Django Unchained

Thoughts: Friends of mine and other media outlets called this one, but it was still a complete shock to me. I was convinced that the race was between De Niro and Tommy Lee Jones. Maybe they split the vote?

Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role

Amy Adams for The Master

Sally Field for Lincoln

Anne Hathaway for Les Misérables

Helen Hunt for The Sessions

Jacki Weaver for Silver Linings Playbook

Thoughts: Along with Daniel Day-Lewis, this was probably the least shocking winner. Hathaway was considered all but a given, and to no one's surprise, she won here for her role as Fantine.  

Best Achievement in Directing

Michael Haneke for Amour

Ang Lee for Life of Pi

David O. Russell for Silver Linings Playbook

Steven Spielberg for Lincoln

Benh Zeitlin for Beasts of the Southern Wild

Thoughts: Another upset, at least to me, but Lee is a director of great skill. His previous win (for "Brokeback Mountain") and nomination (for "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon") is a testament to that.

Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen

Amour: Michael Haneke

Django Unchained: Quentin Tarantino

Flight: John Gatins

Moonrise Kingdom: Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola

Zero Dark Thirty: Mark Boal

Thoughts: For some reason, this one surprised me. But maybe it shouldn't have. Tarantino has a writing "voice" that's uniquely his, and he was rewarded this year. Part of me was rooting for "Moonrise Kingdom," but with this being its only nomination, it was sadly under-represented at this year's Oscars.

Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published

Argo: Chris Terrio

Beasts of the Southern Wild: Lucy Alibar, Benh Zeitlin

Life of Pi: David Magee

Lincoln: Tony Kushner

Silver Linings Playbook: David O. Russell

Thoughts: Another surprise. "Lincoln" and "Silver Linings" were the front-runners in my mind. But there's no doubting what a thrilling ride "Argo" was. Besides, it probably has the most memorable line of any of the movies nominated: "Argo F*** Yourself."

Best Animated Feature Film of the Year

Brave: Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman

Frankenweenie: Tim Burton

ParaNorman: Sam Fell, Chris Butler

The Pirates! Band of Misfits: Peter Lord

Wreck-It Ralph: Rich Moore

Thoughts: I assumed all along that "Brave" would win, and it did. I personally loved "Wreck-It Ralph" though. It was a fantastic love letter to video games. (I was also thrilled to see "Paperman" win in the Best Animated Shorts category. It was shown before "Ralph," and truth be told, it was the better of the two.)

Best Foreign Language Film of the Year

Amour (Austria)

War Witch (Canada)

No (Chile)

A Royal Affair (Denmark)

Kon-Tiki (Norway)

Thoughts: This may have been even more obvious than Day-Lewis's victory. Of course the only foreign film also nominated for Best Picture was going to win in this category.


Here are the rest of the categories and winners:

Best Achievement in Cinematography

Anna Karenina: Seamus McGarvey

Django Unchained: Robert Richardson

Life of Pi: Claudio Miranda

Lincoln: Janusz Kaminski

Skyfall: Roger Deakins

Best Achievement in Editing

Argo: William Goldenberg

Life of Pi: Tim Squyres

Lincoln: Michael Kahn

Silver Linings Playbook: Jay Cassidy, Crispin Struthers

Zero Dark Thirty: William Goldenberg, Dylan Tichenor

Best Achievement in Production Design

Anna Karenina: Sarah Greenwood, Katie Spencer

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey: Dan Hennah, Ra Vincent, Simon Bright

Les Misérables: Eve Stewart, Anna Lynch-Robinson

Life of Pi: David Gropman, Anna Pinnock

Lincoln: Rick Carter, Jim Erickson

Best Achievement in Costume Design

Anna Karenina: Jacqueline Durran

Les Misérables: Paco Delgado

Lincoln: Joanna Johnston

Mirror Mirror: Eiko Ishioka

Snow White and the Huntsman: Colleen Atwood

Best Achievement in Makeup and Hairstyling

Hitchcock: Howard Berger, Peter Montagna, Martin Samuel

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey: Peter King, Rick Findlater, Tami Lane

Les Misérables: Lisa Westcott, Julie Dartnell

Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Score

Anna Karenina: Dario Marianelli

Argo: Alexandre Desplat

Life of Pi: Mychael Danna

Lincoln: John Williams

Skyfall: Thomas Newman

Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Song

Chasing Ice: J. Ralph ("Before My Time")

Les Misérables: Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schönberg, Herbert Kretzmer ("Suddenly")

Life of Pi: Mychael Danna, Bombay Jayshree ("Pi's Lullaby")

Skyfall: Adele, Paul Epworth ("Skyfall")

Ted: Walter Murphy, Seth MacFarlane ("Everybody Needs a Best Friend")

Best Achievement in Sound Mixing

Argo: John T. Reitz, Gregg Rudloff, José Antonio García

Les Misérables: Andy Nelson, Mark Paterson, Simon Hayes

Life of Pi: Ron Bartlett, Doug Hemphill, Drew Kunin

Lincoln: Andy Nelson, Gary Rydstrom, Ron Judkins

Skyfall: Scott Millan, Greg P. Russell, Stuart Wilson

Best Achievement in Sound Editing (TIE)

Argo: Erik Aadahl, Ethan Van der Ryn

Django Unchained: Wylie Stateman

Life of Pi: Eugene Gearty, Philip Stockton

Skyfall: Per Hallberg, Karen M. Baker

Zero Dark Thirty: Paul N.J. Ottosson

Best Achievement in Visual Effects

The Avengers: Janek Sirrs, Jeff White, Guy Williams, Daniel Sudick

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey: Joe Letteri, Eric Saindon, David Clayton, R. Christopher White

Life of Pi: Bill Westenhofer, Guillaume Rocheron, Erik De Boer, Donald Elliott

Prometheus: Richard Stammers, Trevor Wood, Charley Henley, Martin Hill

Snow White and the Huntsman: Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, Phil Brennan, Neil Corbould, Michael Dawson

Best Documentary, Features

5 Broken Cameras: Emad Burnat, Guy Davidi

The Gatekeepers: Dror Moreh, Philippa Kowarsky, Estelle Fialon

How to Survive a Plague: David France, Howard Gertler

The Invisible War: Kirby Dick, Amy Ziering

Searching for Sugar Man: Malik Bendjelloul, Simon Chinn

Best Documentary, Short Subjects

Inocente: Sean Fine, Andrea Nix

Kings Point: Sari Gilman, Jedd Wider

Mondays at Racine: Cynthia Wade, Robin Honan

Open Heart: Kief Davidson, Cori Shepherd Stern

Redemption: Jon Alpert, Matthew O'Neill

Best Short Film, Animated

Adam and Dog: Minkyu Lee

Fresh Guacamole: PES

Head Over Heels: Timothy Reckart, Fodhla Cronin O'Reilly

Paperman: John Kahrs

The Simpsons: The Longest Daycare: David Silverman

Best Short Film, Live Action

Asad: Bryan Buckley, Mino Jarjoura

Buzkashi Boys: Sam French, Ariel Nasr

Curfew: Shawn Christensen

Death of a Shadow: Tom Van Avermaet, Ellen De Waele

Henry: Yan England

Friday, February 22, 2013

Great But (Somewhat) Lesser-Known Best Picture Nominees

Seven Wonderful Oscar Contenders You May Not Have Seen (or Realized Were Nominated)

By Chris Sabga

The Academy Awards are about to enter its 85th year. With 84 previous Best Picture winners, there are a lot of classics – and a few that haven't exactly aged gracefully.

But this particular list isn’t about the movies that should have won or the ones that didn't deserve to.

In a way, the following films are the "silver screen surprises" of Oscar history. They may not be quite as well-known today, but they are all still absolutely worth watching.

Of course, by virtue of their status as Best Picture nominees, it's impossible for any of them to have truly fallen into obscurity. Their place in history, after all, is forever assured.

Boys Town (1938): Father Flanagan (Spencer Tracy) runs a camp for troubled boys. One of his toughest cases is the troubled Whitey (Mickey Rooney). The good priest believes that no boy is beyond help. This inspirational Best Picture nominee has stood the test of time after seven decades. – Winner that year: "You Can't Take It With You"

Double Indemnity (1944): One of the greatest film noirs of all time. Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) and Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) think they can commit the "perfect crime" – by killing her husband and pocketing the insurance money. But they have to fool Neff's co-worker, fellow insurance colleague Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson). – Winner that year: "Going My Way"

The Heiress (1949): Is it really possible to recognize true love? Does it matter if you can't tell the difference as long as you're happy? Catherine Sloper (Olivia de Havilland) falls head over heels in love with the charming Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift), but her domineering father, Dr. Austin Sloper (Ralph Richardson), suspects him of having ulterior motives. – Winner that year: "All the King's Men"

Hope and Glory (1987): The Blitz of London during World War II was serious business for most of the world, but for a young boy (Sebastian Rice Edwards), it is a time of adventure and wonder. John Boorman's joyous semi-autobiographical Best Picture nominee is one of the true "silver screen surprises" in Oscar history. – Winner that year: "The Last Emperor"

The Crying Game (1992): Even at the age of 13, I spotted the now-famous "twist" within seconds. That doesn't matter. What's important is the engaging story – about a British soldier (Forest Whitaker) captured by the IRA – and great performances by Whitaker, Miranda Richardson, Stephen Rea, and of course Jaye Davidson in one of that actor's few roles. – Winner that year: "Unforgiven"

The Fugitive (1993): This is a fairly well-known and well-loved movie; the surprise is that it actually received a Best Picture nomination. But why not? It's a superbly-crafted action thriller and undoubtedly one of the most exciting films released that year. Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones both play their parts to perfection. – Winner that year: "Schindler's List"

District 9 (2009): Imagine if aliens invaded Earth – and landed in Johannesburg, South Africa. Interspersed with documentary-style footage, "District 9" is an original, exciting look at what might happen in that situation. Great direction by Neill Blomkamp, a stunning performance by Sharlto Copley, and parallels drawn from Apartheid make this science fiction scenario scarily believable. – Winner that year: "The Hurt Locker"

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Review: Looper

A Man Searches For Himself

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: September 28, 2012
Rating: R
Genre: Action, Sci-Fi
Running Time: 119 minutes
Writer: Rian Johnson
Director: Rian Johnson
Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, 
Emily Blunt, Paul Dano, Noah Segan, 
Piper Perabo, Jeff Daniels, Pierce Gagnon, 
Qing Xu, Frank Brennan, Garret Dillahunt, 
Nick Gomez

If you could travel back in time and talk to your younger self, what would you say?

If you could stop a tyrant before he becomes one, would you?

There are no easy answers in "Looper" – one of the most interesting and inventive time travel movies in years.

A looper is an assassin hired to take out "the future's garbage." Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is one of many.

Writer and director Rian Johnson brings the year 2044 to life by crafting a masterful story and infusing it with all sorts of cool little details.

In addition to time travel and the concept of loopers, Joe's personable narration informs us that there are also "TKs" – people with telekinetic abilities. However, far from being the "superheroes" everyone was expecting, their "powers" amount to nothing more than being able to float a quarter in mid-air – a mere parlor trick – and that's it.

If you're fired from an ordinary job, you're sent on your way, free to live your life. If a looper is let go, he's forced to kill his future self first. It's called "closing the loop." Most loopers blindly do as they're told and live out the thirty years they have left.

Seth (Paul Dano) isn't one of them. He can't bear to murder his older self (Frank Brennan). He goes to Joe for help and warns him that someone from the future is closing all the loops.

It doesn't take a genius to figure out that Joe himself is next. Whether or not Young Joe is willing to close his own loop, Old Joe (Bruce Willis) can't let that happen.

In a way, the situation is somewhat reminiscent of an earlier Willis role – "Disney's The Kid." In that one, he met the 8-year-old version of himself. Both movies even feature a diner in the middle of nowhere. The two aren't actually related, of course, and "Looper" is much darker overall.

After Old Joe escapes from Young Joe, the chase is on. But other people are looking for them too – including Abe (Jeff Daniels) and Jesse (Garret Dillahunt).

Young Joe ends up hiding at an old farmhouse where Sara (British actress Emily Blunt, speaking with a flawless American country accent) and her young son Cid (Pierce Gagnon) live.

Much has been made of Joseph Gordon-Levitt's face being altered to resemble Bruce Willis's. Truthfully, he looks more like "SVU's" Danny Pino than Willis, but it still works overall. I expected to be constantly distracted by the makeup, but I never was. Levitt's acting talents go a long way in making this otherwise jarring effect a success. I could be wrong, but it sounds like he changed his voice and speaking style too. Whatever he did, he makes it easy for the viewer to accept his new look. The transition is almost seamless.

Rian Johnson has created a fascinating futuristic world in "Looper." It's one of the best sci-fi films to come out in a long time.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Review: Identity Thief

The Only Thing This "Identity Thief" Steals is Nearly Two Hours of Your Life

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: February 8, 2013
Rating: R
Genre: Comedy
Running Time: 112 minutes
Writers: Craig Mazin (screenplay), 
Jerry Eeten (story), Craig Mazin (story)
Director: Seth Gordon
Cast: Jason Bateman, Melissa McCarthy, 
Jon Favreau, Amanda Peet, T.I., 
Genesis Rodriguez, Morris Chestnut, 
John Cho, Robert Patrick, 
Eric Stonestreet

"Identity Thief" tries to be a combination of "Planes, Trains & Automobiles" and "Midnight Run" without ever quite capturing the success of either.

This movie is problematic from the very beginning.

If you received a phone call informing you of suspicious charges, would you blindly hand over your social security number? Only a complete imbecile would. Sandy Bigelow Patterson (Jason Bateman) recites those digits without a second thought.

If you were an identity thief, would you call from your own number, which reveals your city and state? The fake Sandy Bigelow Patterson, Diana (Melissa McCarthy), does.

If you were a loving wife with two daughters and a baby on the way, would you allow your naive husband to make a trip to Winter Park, Florida to capture his identity thief and bring her back to the state of Colorado for questioning? Trish Patterson (Amanda Peet, wasted in yet another thankless accessory role) apparently sees no issues with this.

If that wasn't ridiculous enough, Sandy's co-worker (John Cho) and the detective investigating the case (Morris Chestnut) also consider it a solid plan.

Some people have the attitude that it's "just a comedy," so it doesn't need to be logical. To me, the funniest situations are grounded in reality.

At first I wondered what would possess Melissa McCarthy to take a role like this. So confident and hilarious in "Bridesmaids," her character in "Identity Thief" is completely obnoxious and unpleasant – at least at the outset. If that wasn't bad enough, the movie constantly – and offensively – portrays Diana as the object of other people's pity because she's "fat" and "frumpy." Even worse, she pretends to have fibromyalgia to elicit even more of their sympathy. This is supposed to be funny?

Jason Bateman, meanwhile, attempts to channel his best impression of Steve Martin from "Planes, Trains & Automobiles." He never comes close to the brilliance of that performance, of course, but he deserves points for trying. Like Martin's character, Sandy is a humorless sourpuss. Then again, he does have every right to be angry – after all, his identity has been stolen.

Diana is able to pose as Sandy because "that's a girl's name," as various characters unhelpfully point out. Sandy defends himself by explaining that his grandfather was a "big ball fan" and named him after the legendary player Sandy Koufax. That garners a belly laugh from his horrible boss – is there ever any other kind? – Harold Cornish (played by Jon Favreau).

Sandy 1 eventually catches up with Sandy 2, and they run into the usual problems that befall every character in every road trip movie. For one thing, people are looking for them (Genesis Rodriguez, T.I., and "Terminator 2's" Robert Patrick at various points). There's also a car chase sequence. In most movies, regular human beings suddenly become experienced stunt drivers. Not here. The camerawork is fantastic, perfectly capturing the fear and lack of control a normal person would experience in that situation.

The most memorable supporting character is probably Big Chuck (Eric Stonestreet, "Modern Family"), a large, fun-loving "hoss" who likes to have a good time. He is the first to see beyond Diana's exterior and recognize her beauty. (Until a condescending "makeover" scene much later in the film, she strongly resembles the redheaded woman from the original "Total Recall" who kept saying "two weeks" over and over.)

"Identity Thief" becomes far more enjoyable in the second half as Sandy and Diana get to know each other and their attitudes begin to soften. We finally see glimmers of what makes Jason Bateman and Melissa McCarthy such warm, likeable, appealing comedic actors. Still, by then, it's too little, too late to salvage the movie. This is more than just a case of mistaken identity; it was a mistake, period, for Bateman and McCarthy to attach themselves to this project.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Review: Anonymous

Uneasy Lies the Head That Wears a Crown

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: October 28, 2011 – U.S. 
and UK
Rating: PG-13
Genre: Drama, Thriller, History
Running Time: 130 minutes
Writer: John Orloff
Director: Roland Emmerich
Cast: Rhys Ifans, Vanessa Redgrave, 
Sebastian Armesto, Rafe Spall, 
David Thewlis, Edward Hogg, 
Xavier Samuel, Sam Reid, 
Jamie Campbell Bower, 
Joely Richardson, Derek Jacobi

"We all know William Shakespeare. The most famous author of all time. Writer of 37 plays, 154 sonnets, several epic poems, and why we are here today. But what if I told you Shakespeare never wrote a single word."

That statement is uttered in a hushed, conspiratorial tone by a historian (Derek Jacobi, making the most of a small part) giving a lecture to a large audience.

That's how "Anonymous" begins, and it's an irresistible hook.

But if Shakespeare wasn't holding the quill, then who was?

According to the film, the actual author is Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford (Rhys Ifans). Supposedly, someone of his high station could not be known as a mere playwright. The thought of a distinguished Royal catering to the lowly groundlings might upset the entire order of the country.

After a series of shadowy deals orchestrated by de Vere, the credit ends up going to a drunken, bumbling buffoon named Will Shakespeare (Rafe Spall). The risk is high.

Despite such heavy stakes, why does de Vere keep writing? He obviously doesn't need the money or what passes for celebrity in the 1500s. He explains that his characters never stop speaking to him; their voices are stuck inside his head. He wonders if he's gone mad. It's a wonderful observation on the art of storytelling. Any writer can relate.

The lead performance by Ifans is quite commanding. He carries the film with his intense portrayal of a tortured artist who can't stop doing what he loves. The sets and costumes are also very impressive. They really bring the England of Shakespeare's time to life.

The conspiracy at the heart of the story – what if Shakespeare never really wrote a single word? – is a fascinating one and it definitely will make you think. However, the movie's clownish depiction of the famed playwright is a fatal blunder. If he was in fact such an imbecile, then how could he possibly pull off a hoax that has lasted hundreds of years? It's hard to imagine this version of Shakespeare being able to write his own name, much less hundreds of enduring works of literature.

But that's unfortunately only one of the many major problems with "Anonymous."

There are way too many characters to keep track of. (In addition to Ifans and Spall, Vanessa Redgrave, Joely Richardson, David Thewlis, and several others are also in the cast.)

The multi-flashback structure is very convoluted, which unnecessarily complicates the plot and makes it a chore to follow. Ultimately, the movie has some interesting ideas – there's wonderful potential here – but it desperately needs a few rewrites and several edits for the sake of clarity.

Because of those deficits, the film's 130 minute running time feels even longer than that.

There's also a distinct lack of action – despite what the misleading trailer indicates – but I can forgive that somewhat.

As an aside, I have to commend the movie's marketing department for coming up with such memorable taglines: "We've All Been Played" and "The Truth is the Greatest Tragedy of Them All." Brilliant! Even Shakespeare – or was it de Vere? – couldn't have done it better. It's a shame the same cannot be said for what's seen on the screen.

"Anonymous" is a pretty ambitious effort, but its flaws are far too numerous to overlook. Because of that, it's likely destined to fade into – you guessed it – anonymity. I suspect there's a great film in here somewhere, but it's still stuck in the editing room.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Review: The Wages of Fear

Will the Longest Ride of Their Lives Also Be Their Last?

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: April 22, 1953 – France
Rating: NR
Genre: Drama, Thriller
Running Time: 148 minutes (Director's Cut)
Writers: Georges Arnaud (novel), 
Henri-Georges Clouzot (adaptation and dialogue), 
Jérôme Géronimi (adaptation and dialogue)
Director: Henri-Georges Clouzot
Cast: Yves Montand, Charles Vanel, 
Folco Lulli, Peter van Eyck, Véra Clouzot, 
William Tubbs

Can you ever put a price on your own life? Is there a right or wrong way to act when fear overtakes you? Does it even make even a difference?

Those are the questions posed by "The Wages of Fear," a gripping 1953 French film that lives on today through The Criterion Collection.

In a dead-end town somewhere in South America, the desperation is as thick as the heat and as biting as the mosquitoes. Mario (Yves Montand) attracts the attention of an older drifter named Jo (Charles Vanel). Mario is young, strong, and strapping, but also somewhat scruffy; Jo is bombastic, immaculately dressed, and carries himself with a puffed-up air of authority. They're both French and forge an immediate connection because of that.

We also meet Mario's Italian roommate, Luigi (Folco Lulli), who develops an immediate dislike for Jo. Does Luigi sense something that Mario doesn't? There's also a Dutchman, Bimba (Peter van Eyck), and an American, Bill O'Brien (William Tubbs).

The first hour or so of the movie is spent just lingering around and capturing various conversations. This slow start is instrumental in building characters, establishing their personalities and motivations, and showcasing the town as the last stop on the road to nowhere. The area, so hot and impoverished, almost becomes a character in itself.

What everyone needs is money and a way out. Finally, an opportunity comes – courtesy of O'Brien – that will grant both. But there are no guarantees – it's basically a suicide mission. Four men will be chosen to drive two trucks containing extremely sensitive, highly explosive cartons of nitroglycerine. However, these vehicles don't come with the standard safety features. Going too fast or too slow – or even one bump on the road – could spell the end.

What kind of man would accept such a mission? Only one with nothing left to lose. This town is full of such people. Believe it or not, the job is so coveted that one of the men seemingly pulls off some shady shenanigans in order to secure his spot on one of those trucks.

"The Wages of Fear" is initially wide open, taking you through an entire town: its sights, its airy skies, and many of its inhabitants. But as soon as those trucks rev their engines, the scope of the film becomes much narrower and far more claustrophobic. Its focus shifts solely to the drivers and their potentially fatal job. With every tense mile comes the possibility of impending doom.

By now, we know who these people are – or at least we think we do. Fear casts an overwhelming shadow, and what makes the movie fascinating is how everyone handles it.

The acting is stunning all around. Their faces and eyes tell more of a story than dialogue ever could. 

Sixty years later, "The Wages of Fear" is still regarded as a timeless masterpiece. It's easy to see why. There may be no finer example of the physical, mental, emotional, and psychological toll that fear can take on a man. By the time it was all over, my knuckles were sore and bleeding. 

Friday, February 8, 2013

Review: Side Effects

Steven Soderbergh's Paranoid Thriller Keeps You Guessing, But Is It Good?

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: February 8, 2013 – U.S.
Rating: R
Genre: Drama, Thriller
Running Time: 106 minutes
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Writer: Scott Z. Burns
Cast: Jude Law, Rooney Mara, 
Catherine Zeta-Jones, Channing Tatum

In "Side Effects," it seems like everyone's on something; antidepressants are discussed as casually as which appetizer to order for lunch.

Martin Taylor (Channing Tatum) has just gotten out of prison after four years. My first thought was that someone as pretty as him couldn't have plausibly survived a day. Then he reveals his transgression: insider trading. Ah ha! That makes sense. His long-suffering wife, Emily (Rooney Mara), is there to greet him. That's a lot for one girl to take in, and it isn't long before she lapses back into some of her previous mental illness issues. Her new psychiatrist, Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), promises to keep a close eye on her. So devoted he is that he even contacts her old shrink, Dr. Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones), for advice. She recommends a new drug.

At first, the film appears to be a scathing – if overly exaggerated – manifesto on the dangers of mood-altering medications and the deals doctors and psychiatrists make with "Big Pharma" to peddle these pills onto their unsuspecting patients. In one amusing scene, Banks explains to a patient that he's being paid by a pharmaceutical company to promote their new treatment – it's a "study," of course – and he wonders if she'd be interested in participating. It's free for her and she doesn't have to report it to anyone. In a similar situation, I'd find it very hard to say no too.

Then the movie takes a sharp turn, and the web keeps spinning around and around after that.

Steven Soderbergh's latest film is best described as a paranoid thriller. It's very successful in keeping you guessing. You'll almost feel like you're on medication as you try to stay one step ahead of the plot. Because of that, there's rarely a dull moment – at least at first.

It's certainly an actors' showcase. Law and Mara deliver tremendous performances as the layers of their characters are peeled back. Tatum's role isn't a flashy one, but he does a credible job. Zeta-Jones's character can be a bit cartoonish, but it's still fun to watch her work.

However, the movie doesn't entirely succeed. As revelations ultimately unfold and explanations are finally given, it all becomes a bit convoluted and illogical. Then throw in a few small scenes that are almost as trashy as "Basic Instinct"  without any of the exuberance displayed by that movie. It's a bit of a mess overall.

I enjoyed the twists and tension of "Side Effects," but as I walked out of the theater, I couldn't help but feel somewhat irritated and hollow. The movie is fun at times, but what's the point of it? 

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Redbox Launches Instant Streaming Service

Silver Screen Surprises Investigates the Latest Competitor to Netflix, Hulu Plus, and Amazon Prime Instant Video

By Chris Sabga

Redbox has teamed up with Verizon to launch a new instant streaming service. Redbox Instant is currently in beta and thus isn't available to everyone just yet, but Silver Screen Surprises managed to score an invitation. You can try your luck by entering your e-mail address at If you're chosen, you should get an e-mail after a few days.

Here's the breakdown:


4 Free DVDs a Month + Unlimited Streaming ($8 a month): This is the default plan. Every membership comes with a one-month free trial, but you're locked into this option for the first month. If you change it, your free trial will end.

Add Blu-Rays + Unlimited Streaming ($9 a month): It's unclear how this works, but I'm assuming you'll get four free Blu-Rays per month and still have the option of using any of those credits on DVDs instead.

Remove DVDs: Streaming Only ($6 a month): No discs, just streaming. This plan is slightly cheaper than similar offerings from services like Netflix. The selection seems comparable, but it's hard to gauge just yet.

From the site: "Each credit is good for 1 overnight rental of 1 DVD. If you keep your DVD an extra night, it just uses another credit. You won't be charged until your credits are all used up. And the next month it refills to 4 DVD credits again."

I'm not sure yet exactly how the physical kiosks will recognize that you have free credits. Presumably, entering the e-mail address associated with your Redbox account will be the trigger. Of course, you can always reserve your rental ahead of time online, but I hope that isn't a requirement. Sometimes you just want to rent something at the spur of the moment after getting groceries, and it would be nice to be able to use your credits right away without any fuss. I will update this post when I've had a chance to rent something from the kiosk.  (Update: Redbox appears to recognize that you have free credits if you use the card associated with your account.)

Compatible Devices

Xbox 360: You need a subscription to Xbox LIVE Gold and at least 130 MB of free storage. This requires a second invitation code, specific to the Xbox, which is apparently being mailed out to registered Redbox Instant users. It seems a bit convoluted to me, to be honest.

Samsung Smart TVs: A list of supported models can be found here.

Samsung Blu-Ray Players: The following 2011 11AV-5 models are currently supported: BD-D5300/ZA, BD-D5500/ZA, and BD-D6500/ZA.

Many Apple iPhone, iPad, and iTouch models: The only detail given is that iOS 5.0 or later is required. I've tested out the Redbox Instant app but it refuses to accept my sign-in information. Glitches like this are to be expected in a beta, but it's not exactly an encouraging sign.

Android Phones and Tablets: No specific devices are listed, but you need to get the app from Google Play. If you have an Android device with its own market (such as the Amazon Kindle Fire), you're out of luck until those stores carry the app too. I tried getting it from a third-party site that has legal apps compatible with the Fire, but it wouldn't install. That is not a red mark against Redbox; outside solutions obviously have only a hit or miss chance of working.

By the way, even though Verizon is involved, the Redbox Instant site has made it clear that you don't need a Verizon phone plan to use the service.

Computers: The usual list of requirements is present here: Windows XP SP2 or higher, Windows Vista, Windows 7, Windows 8, or Mac OS X 10.4 or higher. Supported browsers: Internet Explorer 8, 9 or 10, Firefox 3.5 and later, Chrome 21 and later, and Safari 5 and 6 (Mac).

Redbox Instant is currently in beta, so its large list of compatible devices surprised me. I was expecting it to work only with computers for now. Still, I wish it worked with even more devices. PS3 and Wii support would have been nice. If there's some sort of exclusivity agreement going on with Microsoft, I really have to shake my head that companies continue to be conned into accepting deals that only benefit Bill Gates and company. Roku support is also a must, but that too is absent. I will cut Redbox some slack for now since the service is still in beta, but by the time this officially launches, it needs to work with the PS3, Wii, and Roku at the very least.

The Movies

There's no way to tell just how many movies are available for streaming, but Redbox Instant appears to have many of the same ones offered by Netflix and Amazon Prime. "Transformers: Dark of the Moon," "Thor," and "Captain America" are a few of the recent blockbusters I noticed after a cursory glance. Since there's a free trial, it's easy for you to find out if this service offers what you want. Current Redbox kiosk users will obviously get the most out of it.

I tested out "Rango" and "Swordfish" on my computer. Playback appears to be smooth and solid. I couldn't tell if they were in HD on my PC screen, but they still looked clear and crisp. The highest volume could have been a bit louder, but that may have been me, my setup, or those particular films ("Rango" did sound louder than "Swordfish"). I don't often watch movies on a computer, and I suspect I'm far from alone in that, which is why it's in Redbox's best interests to beef up its list of compatible devices as soon as possible!

TV shows don't appear to be offered by Redbox Instant (as of this write-up), but they aren't available from the physical boxes either.

The Site

It's easy to filter movies into different categories and view the streaming-only options. If you want to rent a physical disc, those are simple to search for too.

Like Netflix's queue, Redbox has a Bookmark system. Amazon took forever to add a similar feature – the Watchlist – to its Prime streaming service, so it's nice to see that Redbox has it right out of the gate. However, it remains to be seen if expired movies will automatically be removed from your bookmarks (Netflix does this, Amazon does not).

Cancelling Redbox Instant is also painless. It can be done directly from the site.

Worth it? If you're a regular Redbox kiosk user already and have a device compatible with its streaming option, it might be. It's certainly priced competitively. If Redbox can add PS3, Wii, and Roku support and fix its early beta glitches (such as the iDevice issues mentioned above), this service has the potential to become a major player very quickly. 

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Review: Stand Up Guys

Al Pacino, Christopher Walken, and Alan Arkin Relive Their Glory Days

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: February 1, 2013 – U.S.
Rating: R
Genre: Comedy, Crime
Running Time: 95 minutes
Director: Fisher Stevens
Writer: Noah Haidle
Cast: Al Pacino, Christopher Walken, 
Alan Arkin, Julianna Margulies, 
Mark Margolis, Lucy Punch 

Al Pacino and Christopher Walken are old. "Stand Up Guys" works because it realizes that. This isn't one of those movies where aging actors futilely attempt to portray much younger men.

Val and Doc (Pacino and Walken) are tired and weathered. Their best days are clearly behind them. As the movie begins, Val – short for Valentine – is being released from prison after 28 years. Doc is there to pick him up. They're best buddies and criminal cohorts from the old days. It quickly becomes apparent what Doc is up to now. Without revealing anything, let's just say that he still has ties to the criminal world. His boss, referred to only as Claphands (Mark Margolis), isn't quite done with either of them just yet.

In a job gone wrong three decades before, Val took the fall for everyone because that's the kind of guy he is – a real stand up guy. The movie doles out those sorts of clichés with regularity. They lend an intentional air of staleness to these two old codgers, whose bones seem to creak with every step they take.

Indeed, Val and Doc often show their age by using antiquated expressions such as "sonny boy" and "let's blow this pop stand." They also misquote "Rowdy" Roddy Piper's famous line from the movie "They Live" about chewing gum and kicking ass, as if it's the hippest thing in the world to say.

"Stand Up Guys" probably works best if you're 80 and on Viagra, but adults of any age should be able to find some level of humor in the material.

The entire film spans roughly one day – and Val and Doc manage to cram a lot into that 24-hour period. At first, they indulge in the types of things one would expect from a man who has just served a long prison sentence: hot food, hotter coffee, and not-so-hot women.

Most movies gloss over food, but not this one. Val and Doc eat several meals. Their restaurant of choice is an all-night diner. They're always served by Wendy (played by a cuter-than-pie Lucy Punch), who Doc sees every day and feels very close to. She's friendly to all the customers, but she wonders about Doc's life the most.

Along the way, Val and Doc decide to rescue an old associate of theirs, Hirsch (Alan Arkin), from another type of prison – a nursing home. He's on a respirator when they get there, but it doesn't take long for him to regain some lost energy and fall back into the mischievous ways of his younger self. They take a joyride in a stolen car with Hirsch behind the wheel.

Pacino and Walken inhabit their characters with an exhausted monotone. No matter what they're saying, their voices are always slow and controlled. That leads to some very funny scenes where they describe their outlandish criminal exploits with a straight face and complete lack of enthusiasm. They may as well be discussing the weather. Those moments mostly involve Hirsch's daughter, Nina (Julianna Margulies), who is a nurse. Another hilarious conversation involves Pacino's character and a priest at a confessional booth. Even career criminals sometimes feel the need to atone for their sins!

There's more than just silly hijinks going on here, though. By the time it's all said and done, you'll find yourself caring deeply about the fates of Val and Doc.

On the surface, "Stand Up Guys" is a comedy about two washed-up criminals who have a great night out on the town – and it works solidly on that level. But what it's really about is the decisions we make in life, the regrets that come with age, and the fact that it's never too late to make different choices.   

Monday, February 4, 2013

Review: My Girl (Fan Chan, 2003 Thailand)

Two Best Friends in 1980s Thailand

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: 2003
Rating: NR
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Running Time: 110 minutes
Directors and Writers: Vitcha Gojiew, 
Songyos Sugmakanan, Nithiwat Tharathorn, 
Witthaya Thongyooyong, Adisorn Trisirikasem, 
Komgrit Triwimol 
Cast: Charlie Trairat, Focus Jirakul, 
Charwin Jitsomboon, Wongsakorn Rassamitat, 
Arnudsara Jantarangsri, Nipawan Taveepornsawan, 
Aphichan Chaleumchainuwong, Preecha Chanapai, 
Anyarit Pitakkul, Yok Teeranitayatarn, 
Chaleumpol Tikumpornteerawong, 
Thana Vichayasuranan

In the early moments of "My Girl," Jeab (played briefly as an adult by Charwin Jitsomboon and as a child for the majority of the movie by Charlie Trairat) receives a phone call from his mother, who tells him that his childhood friend Noi-Nai (Focus Jirakul) is getting married. This causes him to think back to the times they shared together as kids in the small village of Petchaburi, Thailand during the 1980s.

For those of you wondering, this version of "My Girl" (known as "Fan Chan" in its native country) has no direct relation to the more famous 1991 American movie with Macaulay Culkin and Anna Chlumsky. There are some obvious similarities, though. They're both about two best friends – a boy and a girl – and their painful separation. That isn't a spoiler because the movie makes it clear from the outset that something happened when Jeab and Noo-Nai were young and they haven't seen each other in a very long time.

Flashing back to the '80s, Jeab and Noi-Nai have been best friends since birth. They generally do what she wants because she's bigger. That usually means playing house or baking imaginary cupcakes. But Jeab is torn and longs to be "one of the boys." However, a "gang" led by chubby three-time 4th grader Jack (Chaleumpol Tikumpornteerawong) wants nothing to do with him because he's a "sissy" who plays with girls.

Jack isn't the only interesting character Jeab and Noo-Nai interact with. Both of their mothers (Arnudsara Jantarangsri and Nipawan Taveepornsawan) are very close, but their fathers (Wongsakorn Rassamitat and Preecha Chanapai) are rival barbers two doors away from each other. So petty is their feud that they'll refuse a customer who's had his hair cut by the other. Small touches like that really breathe life into the world this movie inhabits.

Jeab's father indulges him, giving him a ride to the school bus every morning because he oversleeps. His mother goes too far in the other direction, physically punishing the child - whacking him with a stick - to keep him in line. Despite their different philosophies on child-rearing, Jeab is a good boy – albeit a bit confused about his place in the social order of the village.

This film isn't a tense thriller in the least, but the final childhood sequence will have you on the edge of your seat.

"My Girl" appears to depict the '80s accurately. I recognized a "Nintendo Game & Watch" toy from my own childhood.

The passing of time is also handled very well. When Jeab returns to his village as an adult and goes to the market, we see that the modest corner store from his childhood is now gone. It has been replaced by a 7-11. Even in the '80s scenes, there are subtle references to Americanization. But those moments aren't intended to be political statements; they simply illustrate the inevitable changes and evolutions that take place over the years.

In another nice touch, the cutting of hair is powerfully used as a symbol to denote changing moods, attitudes, and fortunes.

Films like "My Girl" are fascinating because they provide a window into another world. There are so many differences – and even more similarities. I cannot possibly have a personal frame of reference for what life was like in Thailand during the 1980s, but early friendship is a universal theme that transcends all countries and languages – and it's portrayed beautifully here. The closing shot of the movie perfectly captures the timelessness and wonder that can only exist in the friendships we make when we're very young.