Friday, February 20, 2015

BOLD predictions...

This year, Neil Patrick Harris takes the stage at the Academy Awards Ceremony to honor the best films and filmmaking of 2014. Here's a quick rundown of the categories close to my heart as well as my five bold predictions for the ceremony:

Best Picture: Birdman

Best Director: Alejandro Inarritu, Birdman

Best Actor: Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything

Best Actress: Julianne Moore, Still Alice

Best Supporting Actor: J.K. Simmons, Whiplash

Best Supporting Actress: Patricia Arquette, Boyhood

Best Original Screenplay: Wes Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel

Best Adapted Screenplay: Damien Chazelle, Whiplash

Best Cinematography: Emmanuel Lubezki, Birdman

Best Animated Feature: How to Train Your Dragon 2

Best Visual Effects: Interstellar

Best Original Song: "Glory," Selma

Best Makeup & Hair: Frances Hannon and Mark Coulier,  The Grand Budapest Hotel

Best Costume Design: Colleen Atwood, Into the Woods

Best Production Design: Adam Stockhausen (Production Design); Anna Pinnock (Set Decoration), The Grand Budapest Hotel

Best Film Editing: Sandra Adair, Boyhood

Best Sound Mixing: John Reitz, Gregg Rudloff and Walt Martin, American Sniper

Best Sound Editing: Alan Robert Murray and Bub Asman, American Sniper

BOLD predictions:

1.) The Grand Budapest Hotel will walk away with the most awards.

2.) Boyhood will only win two awards (Supporting Actress & Editing).

3.) This year, the Academy Awards ceremony will bring in the highest ratings in five years and NPH will be back to host at least three more times.

4.) A Christopher Nolan movie WILL NOT win either of the sound design categories.

5.) Birdman will win Best Picture and Director, but its leading star will get shut out.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

'Fifty Shades of Grey' review

Let's us, you and I, arrange our own contract of honesty. E.L. James' book is glossy porn guised by the veil of a romance. You can touch it up with socially acceptable words like "erotica" or even the "mommy porn," but it is porn nonetheless. It's about as well written as one too. The good news is that Sam Taylor-Johnson's movie is more than that, even if that isn't say a whole lot.

There isn't much of a plot and if you're reading this or have seen the trailer, you already know as much as you'll ever need to know in order to understand what's going on. Anastasia Steele is about to graduate college when she, in the stead of her roommate, is sent to interview Christian Grey, the young founder of a multi-million (or billion? It didn't clarify) dollar empire. A wildly dubious romance ensues.

I know 'Fifty Shades' amounts to a mere erotic fantasy, but that does not excuse the outrageous character decisions in this film. Early on, Christian becomes obsessed with Anastasia to the point where she should be calling the cops rather than begging for "enlightenment." He shows up to Anastasia's work, later to a club she's at, and even takes her to his place and changes her into pajamas after she passes out. Creepy.

I must admit, after Christian and Anastasia spend more time together, the film opens up a bit and explores the chemistry between its two leads. Though Jamie Dornan does a fine job portraying the meditative masochist, it is Dakota Johnson's committed performance as the shy, devoted Anastasia that shines. It's truly a genuine performance that gives you someone to root for when things get drab. And boy do things get drab.

The poorer writing of the film is exposed through the character of Christian. A lot of the things he does don't always make sense and are never explained beyond "This is who I am." One moment he's infatuated with Anastasia and the next he's begging her not to fall in love with him. It feels more like a scapegoat for lazy writing than a believable character trait. Towards the end, Christian's biggest mood swing is perhaps the most puzzling and ultimately leads one to ponder: "Is that really it?"

More on the technical side of things, there are a handful of obvious editing errors and many shots throughout the film are unfocused for no real reason. Though they don't distract completely, it is something that should be taken into account when criticizing this film. It's filmmaking 101.

Perhaps you're wondering why I have not addressed the elephant in the red room? Well, simply put: The film doesn't make much of it. The first half of the film lingers on too slowly and by the point the kinky, unconventional behavior rolled around, my energy and interest were gone. Not to mention the film wimps out on the sexy stuff. Where it could have and should have challenged its audience with explicit insight into this taboo sexual lifestyle, 'Fifty Shades' settles for a basic R-rating. Sure, there's more nudity here than in any number of typical Hollywood sex scenes, but masochism is about more than being naked and this movie sure isn't going to change anyone's mind about it.

Leaving the theater, I wasn't haunted by Fifty Shades of Grey like I should have been. It doesn't linger with me, save for this review. What could have been a tool for expanding the public mind turns out to be a mostly dissatisfying romance with a lovely performance by Johnson and lot of spanking.

Grade: C

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Jupiter Ascending review: What goes up, must come down

Jupiter Ascending is one big exposition dump that somehow still manages to confuse. From the very first shot we get a mildly long voice over narration in which Mila Kunis' Jupiter Jones divulges her back story involving being born on a freight ship to her poverty-stricken family, the astrological signs which foretell of great things for Jupiter, her parents' back story, and even Jupiter's personal feelings about astrology. All before the title slide. Yeah.

Things don't improve much from there. Even as Channing Tatum's Caine Wise is introduced and the story picks up, some form of explanation is always being crammed in, in between the cheesy dialogue and admittedly entertaining action sequences. The material here isn't awful, it's just a lot to swallow at once. The Wachowskis would have fared better adapting their idea into an HBO television series as opposed to a two hour-plus film.

As I alluded to earlier, the writing in this film tends to feel a bit awkward and hammy. Typically, some level of ham is expected when you bill Channing Tatum as your star, but Jupiter Ascending struggles tonally, sometimes opting to take the darker, more serious route. One scene Jupiter's flirting with Caine, obviously trying to get him in her pants by dropping such gems as "My inner compass always seems to point towards Mr. Wrong," and the next she's using a crowbar to bash in the skull of one of the many bad guys.

Jupiter Ascending also suffers from what some like to call Too Many Villains Syndrome. Over the course of the film, Jupiter meets each living member of the Brasax family. The Brasaxes are the family who owns the rights to all the planets in the universe, having been the ones who planted life on all of them with their magic life-sprouting ooze. Each sibling in the Brasax family is somewhat of a jerk, as you'd expect, and in what feels like chapter-styled confrontations, Jupiter takes each one down. Why this is such a problem for this film is because each confrontation ends the same way: with Tatum's Caine blasting through the wall and saving the day. I thought the film was going to end about three different times.

It isn't all bad, though. The Wachowskis' latest has its highlights. One of which is its many action sequences. This directing duo is known for their well-choreographed, stylized action and there is no shortage of them here. The film is also impressive from a technical standpoint. The special effects are first-rate and the makeup, costumes, and set design all help the film to pop visually. It's definitely going to earn a few Oscar nods for its work in these areas.

After seeing the film, it's easy to see why Warner Bros. pushed it back so far. It definitely could have benefited from some fine editing and a more consistent script. As it is, Jupiter Ascending is an overly-long exposition dump with some entertaining action and gorgeous visuals.

Grade: C

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Top 10 Voice Acting Performances

Voice-over performances never amass as much praise their on-screen counterparts, yet they're equally important. And every day the line between the two styles of acting grows thinner, thanks to constant advances in motion capture and 3D modeling. One can only ponder the day when the likes of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences acknowledges the importance of voice acting with its own Best Off-Screen Performance category. Until then, it's important to celebrate the under appreciated art of voice acting. Here are my picks for the top ten voice acting performances to date:

10. ) Peter Cullen: Optimus Prime, Transformers 
Many actors have played the Leader of the Autobots since Peter Cullen originally did it back in the 1980's. However, none of them provided the booming presence of Cullen's thunderous chords. In fact, casting Peter Cullen as Optimus is about the only thing Michael Bay got right with his 2007 adaptation. Cullen's Optimus is instantly recognizable among the long-time fans of the series and even more so with there having been four Hollywood blockbusters about the stupid toys. Whatever your thoughts on the action figures or Bay's films may be, Peter Cullen's stands as the definitive voice behind the entire Transformers franchise... And it's just a lot of fun to listen to.

9. ) Jim Henson: Kermit the Frog, The Muppet Movie
It's amazing to think that Jim Henson built a dynasty out of nothing more than a few pieces of felt and a couple of cotton balls. Today, that dynasty is embodied by a talking frog who goes by the name
Kermit. Over the past few decades, Kermit has grown into a pop culture icon whose voice is just as recognizable as the frog himself. In fact, Jim Henson's voice is so crucial to the identity of Kermit that, since Henson's passing in 1990, only select few have had the distinct honor of voicing the head Muppet. It's a tough job though, because if the voice waivers too far from Henson's original, nasally tone, nobody buys it as Kermit anymore.

8. ) Tom Hanks, Toy Story
If Pixar Studios was going to convincingly pull off the world's first animated feature film, they needed to hit a home-run in the voice-over department. Thankfully, they did just that with a stellar cast, lead by a young Tom Hanks. What makes Hanks' performance as Woody so special is the way he captures the glaring imperfections of this cowboy kook. They are, after all, what make the character so relatable. Woody takes it upon himself to make sure he and the rest of the toys will always be there for their god, Andy, even if that means having to forcefully impose his self-importance unto everyone. At the same time, we get more mellow glimpses into Woody's insecurity as it's revealed that Woody, like the rest of us, is just trying to maintain some sort of relevance in the world.

7. ) Frank Oz & James Earl Jones: Yoda & Darth Vader, Star Wars
This pick is a bit of a cheat, I'll admit. Having two performances locked in as one selection seems a bit unfair. However, in my defense, how are you going to really pick between Frank Oz and Earl Jones? Both men give outstanding, iconic performances as two household characters from either side of The Force. On one end, you have Frank Oz, who truly works his larynx to achieve the instantly recognizable squeal of Jedi Master Yoda. What's also unique and often understated about Oz's performance as Yoda is raspy breaths in his speech, which make him sound exhausted. It's one of those details that solidify the illusion that this tiny, green elf has years of life experience.

Representing The Dark Side of The Force is Darth Vader, voiced by James Earl Jones. Earl Jones' performance helps rank the dark lord atop the discussion as cinema's all-time baddie. Who among us didn't feel the rush of goosebumps down their arm after Vader threatened his own son with "Don't make me destroy you?" I mean, really, can you imagine anybody else playing that role? It wouldn't be the same. And after all, isn't that what a truly great performance is all about?

6. ) James Earl Jones: Mufasa, The Lion King
So why then, if James Earl Jones' performance as Darth Vader is so iconic, do I rank it lower on my list? Simple. There's simply more to the character of Mufasa.We get the rumble of Vader's hatred when Mufasa gets mad, but the pleasant chemistry with his loved ones when he's being a happy father and husband. There are more colors in the timbre of Jones' performance here as opposed to the monotone overlord. It's the best of both worlds!

5. ) Eddie Murphy: Donkey, Shrek
Sure Eddie Murphy may be known to our parents' generation for his abrupt, filthy monologues, but we know him for being an ass... I guess nothing's changed much. .His character Donkey from Shrek is easily one of the most recognizable animated characters to date and everybody who grew up watching these films, as I did, know every line and could repeat them verbatim on a moment's notice (you know you could).

4. ) Troy Baker & Ashley Johnson: Joel & Ellie, The Last of Us
Quite frankly, Naughty Dog's masterpiece The Last of Us is better than most
movies and like most movies, its performances are at the center, holding everything together. This is important because the game is so story-driven that had the performances fallen short of outstanding, the emotional investment and payoff just wouldn't be worth it. We can thank Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson for their amazing chemistry and endearing performances. They really bring a sense of identity to the two lead characters, Joel and Ellie, and alone make the game worth multiple play-through.

3. ) Brad Dourif: Chucky, Child's Play
Watching the Chucky movies, there's a sense of pure joy from Brad Dourif's performance as the titular psycho doll. "This is a man who loves what he does" is always my thought whenever Chucky maniacally chuckles. It's infectious and perfect for a character who gets a kick out of stalking little kids and murdering innocent people. And after 20 years of voicing the same character, Dourif's enthusiasm in front of the mic has never wavered and it's impossible to even imagine anyone else ever playing the role. A terrific, iconic performance from an underrated talent.

2. ) Mark Hamill: The Joker, Batman: The Animated Series & Batman: Arkham series 
Voice acting is every bit as much about emotionally becoming the character as any on screen performance. In the case of Mark Hamill, he almost physically becomes The Joker as he's voicing Batman's nemesis; in the booth, the way he shrivels himself up and throws his head back in his goosebumps-inducing crackle. While at times the version of The Joker in 'The Animated Series' is a bit of a kid-friendly cop-out, Hamill's performance nails the theatricality, flamboyance and pure insanity of one of comic books' best villains. Thankfully, Hamill was allowed to dive a bit deeper into the dark waters of the character's insanity later with Rocksteady's 'Arkham' games.
1. ) Robin Williams: Genie, Aladdin
I kept going back and forth between Williams and Hamill for the number one spot. To their credit, both performances capture the flamboyant personas of their respective characters and both really got into their character whilst recording in the studio. However, after much deliberation, I realized that Robin Williams  was allowed to do more with his character. While Hamill's Joker is perpetually manic, Williams' Genie expresses those same highs, but also the low depressions as he's inevitably captured and enslaved by Jafar. On top of that, Williams gets to sing a couple of now-popular Disney songs, including Never Had a Friend Like Me. Sure, The Joker sang occasionally, but never any featured musical tunes.

What do you think of my list? Who are some of your favorite voice over performances? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.