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February 2013 Review Roundup

Not much this month as I tried to catch up on Oscar-nominated flicks.

Feb. 8 - Side By Side (8/10)
Feb. 9 - Searching For Sugar Man (7/10)
Feb. 10 - Alex Cross (6/10)
Feb. 19 - Lincoln (DNF)
Feb 20 - Les Misérables (6/10)
Feb 21 - Life of Pi (8/10)

Most Enjoyed: Life of Pi
Least Enjoyed: Lincoln

Month's Movies Watched: 6
Previously Unseen: 6
Theatrical: 0
Home: 6
Year-To-Date: 14
YTD First-Timers: 14
YTD Theatrical: 0
YTD Home: 14

Oscars 2013 Livesnark

* Seth MacFarlane hits with his first joke about Tommy Lee Jones.

* Great opening segment. VERY funny. Charlize Theron can dance?

* WHOA! Christophe Waltz wins Best Supporting Actor, a HUGE upset over the expected Robert De Niro or TLJ. He seemed as surprised as anyone.

*And then the show crashes to a halt with terrible crap for Paul Rudd and Melissa McCarthy. OMGWTFBBQ?

* Paperman wins for Best Animated Short. It was cute, so that's cool.

* Another upset as Brave wins Animated Feature over the expected Frankenweenie or Wreck-It Ralph. I see a lot of people already throwing out their Oscar pool bet slips.

* What's with the trio of Best Picture clips?

* Life of Pi wins for Best Cinematography, another reminder that film is dead. It is a beautiful film.

* Life of Pi justifiably wins for Best Visual Effects. It's a sad irony that Rhythm & Hues, the main FX house just went into Chapter 11. They mentioned it in their speech, but got cut off.

* As tight as MacFarlane's bits have been, the banter for those presenting awards has been gawdawful so far.

* Another sorta upset as Colleen Atwood doesn't win for Snow White and the Huntsman. Haven't seen Anna Karenina, but the samples looked typical for this stuff.

* How come the winners for costuming, hair and makeup had both terrible clothes and hair?

* Shirley Bassey kills "Goldfinger" at age 76. I was wondering if they had a plan for the inevitable standing O. (They did.)

* Nikki Finke is bashing the show hard here in her livesnark. There's snark and then there's unhinged rage-hating and this is the latter. Lady's got more issues than a newstand.

* It appears they're moving the nominees for the lesser awards from their usual seats in the back to the boxes beside the stage to shorten the run up to the stage. Good tactic.

* The banter still sucks. The people who typed this should be unemployed.

* With four other miserable political choices to choose from, Searching For Sugar Man wins probably because you didn't want to kill yourself after watching it.

* They're playing the Jaws theme to signal it's time to go to the long-talkers.

*Wow. The orchestra isn't in the house, but down at Capitol Records studio.

* I love, LURV, Chicago, but why are they using it here for a tribute to recent musicals?

* They should've put footage of how Jennifer Hudson looked in Deamgirls behind her.

* The Les Misérables medley shows how similar most of the score's songs sounded because they were able to mash them together so easily.

* The Marky Mark and Ted bit worked because it had to be pre-written to do the CGI.

* In case anyone still had a shot in the Oscar pool, the tie for Sound Editing either doubled or halved their results as Zero Dark Thirty and Skyfall won. Who says a single vote can't make a difference?

* Anne Hathaway wins to the shock and horror of no one.

* Did they get Kristen Stewart out of rehab for this? She looks a mess and jittery.

* Barbra Streisand comes out Botoxed to near toxic levels (she's 70) and looking like Stevie Nicks to sing "The Way We Were" because Marvin Hamlisch died. She sounds good, but the show is dragging now.

* What's wrong with Renee Zellwegger's face? She looks crazy drunk, too.

UPDATE: George Takei had this on FaceSpace:

* Life of Pi wins Best Score. Could it go all the way?

* "Skyfall" wins Best Song to the surprised of absolutely no one.

* Argo wins Best Adapted Screenplay, which I think tilts the odds back to it for Best Picture.

* Tarantino looks sweaty and methed-up collecting his Best Original Screenplay award for Django Unchained. Still need to see this.

*Ang Lee wins his 2nd Best Director Oscar though he's likely to go home empty-handed for Best Picture again, if Argo wins as expected. (He won for Brokeback Mountain when it lost to the toxic and despicable Crash because Hollyweird decided to celebrate its racist self-loathing over its homophobia.)

* J.Law trips and falls going up the steps; Wolverine rushes up to assist Mystique. She seemed dazed even though it was pretty much a lock.

* DDL wins for Lincoln to the surprise of absolutely no one. I'm sure he's glad he decided to not be be a cobbler. Funny acceptance speech.

* Jack (No Last Name Necessary) comes out looking blitzed. Why the heck is Michelle Obama beaming in to give the Best Picture nominees? Would they have done this for Anne Romney if she was First Lady? (Duh.)

* Why the heck does Grant Heslov get to give the acceptance speech for Argo? Oh, in order to tee up Ben Affleck.

* Nicely nasty closing number paying tribute to the losers.

* It'll be interesting to see how the reviews for the show go and how hard they bash on on MacFarlane because I thought he killed. I laughed a lot at his stuff, especially the opener with Flight with sock puppets.

* Overall show grade: B+. Host grade: A

* Unlike most years, I don't have much annoyance over an undeserved win or loss. I wasn't particularly passionate over any of the contenders and of the 7 films I saw, I would've picked Life of Pi right ahead of Argo, but it's OK.

* The uptight twits on the E! After Party coverage hosts are hating on MacFarlane. Meow, babies.

* OMG, J.Law is killing it in the backstage interviews. Real, fresh, no BS answers to the dumb questions. I'm really liking her.

"Life of Pi" Review

Ang Lee has had a semi-cursed career despite his great success. First he was robbed over Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (losing to Gladiator); then he face-planted with the disastrous Gumby, I mean Hulk (two words: hulk dogs); then he wins Best Director for Brokeback Mountain while the Best Picture Oscar went to the toxic and despicable Crash (the liberal guilt trip one, not the David Cronenberg car fetish freak show). Now he's being bruited as a likely winner again for Best Director since Argo is the heavy favorite to win the top prize, but since Ben Affleck wasn't nominated, they may pity price Lee again for Life of Pi, the movie I'd vote for out of the this year's batch I've seen. (At this time I have seen Django Unchained yet and I'm skipping Amour.)

If you've seen the trailers or heard anything about it, you know that Life of Pi is about a young man who is left lost at sea with a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker (the back story on that is cute) after the ship carrying his family and the animals from their zoo as they emigrated from India to Canada sinks in a violent storm. What the trailers and PR haven't really mentioned is the deeply spiritual tale being told. The first act of the movie covers with a light touch Pi's sampling of the Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam, while his father encourages him to focus on reason (i.e. science) instead of unknowable god(s). People get the heebie-jeebies about religion in their entertainment, but it's not bludgeoning and it's really, REALLY important about what happens at the end.

Since the story is told to a writer by an older Pi, the matter of if he's going to survive his ordeal is never in doubt. Where some controversy has erupted is in what happens in the last 15 minutes which calls into question everything we've been shown for the past hour-plus. I'd heard many people were turned-off or felt betrayed by the ending, but it worked for me in a way the howlingly overrated Beasts of the Southern Wild didn't because its question about how people believe (or not) in God (capital G) neatly dovetail with my views on the subject. (See below if you're interested.) The way everything we've been shown gets flipped and reconsidered - and how we react - doesn't pull the rug out from under the viewer as much as tests whether they were paying attention to the setup and the implicit themes it was laying out.

Even if you don't buy into the religious aspect of Life of Pi, it's a sumptuous visual feast of surreal beauty and beautiful menace as an army of special effects wizards spent over 18 months in post-production taking the footage of Suraj Sharma on an empty boat in a wave tank and turning it into an ocean that's alternately raging and placid and creating a digital tiger so realistic that the only real giveaway that it's not real is that there's no way a real tiger could've been trained to do so many things it's required to do like be seasick or emaciated from starvation. (If you've already seen it or don't care about spoilers, look below the trailer.) It's remarkable and should earn Rhythm and Hues a Best Visual Effects Oscar in two days, which will be bittersweet because they entered Chapter 11 bankruptcy recently and will likely be dissolved, a victim of doing business in California with its punishing taxes. Pity.

Life of Pi has been somewhat of a sleeper hit around the world and it was a big risk for the studio to back because putting down $125 million to make a movie with no stars and isn't obviously about special effects and whose subject is the nature of belief in God; it takes a leap know. While it'd be a stunning upset to actually win Best Picture, if I had a vote, it probably would've earned it.

Score: 8/10. Rent the Blu-ray.

And now it's time for Theology With Dirk...

I believe in God and that He created the Universe and all the stuff on Earth. (No, He didn't do it 6000 years ago, like the stereotypical "Sky Man believer" gets painted by the atheist media as believing; this ball has been rolling a looooooong time.) The arrogant a-hole atheists (alliteration!) prefer the Big Bang Theory despite the big problem that their all-holy 2nd Law of Thermodynamics doesn't explain where the seed matter for the Universe came from. Steven Hawking jumped his wheelchair over the shark when he torched his credibility claiming that the original matter simply came into being. WTF?!? It just happened? Oh, yes, that is certainly more plausible than an omnipotent Creator who made everything and then vacated the premises much like Dr. Manhattan at the end of Watchmen.

The point is that WE ARE HERE DESPITE THE EVIDENCE. Neither the Coke (Big Bang) or Pepsi (God) theories of creation/Creation work if you're honest about it, so I've long thought that people just pick the story that allows them to sleep better at night. Atheists claim to be about reason over faith, but when you examine the dogmas and rituals they follow, it becomes clear that they're just as religious, if not more so, than the "Sky Man believers" they sneer at; all they've done is kick out God from their secular church. I think most religious people understand that there's a proof deficit in their belief structure, but if there was 110% solid evidence for God, then it wouldn't be called a "faith" would it? The spin at the end of the movie requires you to make a choice of your own and that's a bold, but rewarding risk taken.

"Les Misérables" Review

While I'm a big fan of musicals - more than most heterosexual men should be according to my mean girlfriend (who doesn't live in Canada) -I've never gotten on board with the whole "Lay Miz" thing. The bits of the score I've heard seemed overblown in the orchestrations compared to the classics or even contemporaries like Andrew Lloyd Webber. (For reference, I've seen The Phantom of the Opera on stage four times, twice in Detroit and twice at the gloriously-restored Pantages Theater in Toronto, once with Paul Stanley - yes, the singer of KISS! - as the Phantom. I thought the Joel Schumacher film was a mixed bag.)

Over a quarter-century after its stage debut, the film version of Les Misérables hit the silver screen with Oscar-winning director of The King's Speech, Tom Hooper, calling the shots with a top-shelf cast led by Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway, Russell Crowe, Amanda Seyfried, Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen. It was lush and loaded for Oscar bear and it just doesn't work very well.

Since the story of Jean Valjean (French for John Valjohn, I think) and his miserable life after serving 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread is pretty much common knowledge, I'm going to discuss what doesn't work with this musical: There's too much music. No, not in a "too many notes" sense a la Amadeus - a reference that Phantom slyly referenced in the "Notes" number - but in the bad decision to maintain the "sung-thru" structure of the show in that all the dialog is sung instead of the songs standing separate of the dialog of the book. Having Gladiator and Wolverine bellowing in song what would've been more effective if acted is silly. If you're going to open a show up beyond what could portrayed on stage, what's preventing the crafting of dramatic scenes? Nothing but poor choices.

Compounding the damage is Hooper's insistence on shooting way too many scenes with a fisheye lens which exaggerates faces and makes things seem surreal when they should seem, well, miserable. His use of visual metaphors is also ham-handed as we watch Crowe's Inspector Javert perform two numbers while literally walking on the edge of precipices. (GET IT?!?!? NUDGE! NUDGE!) Adding another layer of mistakes is the editing which appears to have been done by kitchen blender with no regard to how to cut on the beat, frequently flipping at random from one shot to another. For editing to be noticeable, which it shouldn't be in general, it either has to be very good (e.g. The Social Network, Moneyball, or Star Wars) or very bad (e.g. Les Misérables) - this is the latter. The sequence depicting Fantine's decent into desperation and prostitution, selling her lovely hair and teeth, is supposed to take place over a period of time, but in Hooper's and his editors' hands, it looks like one really bad night.

While nominated for a bunch of Oscars, it's unlikely to take home any top prizes other than the sure-thing, slam dunk that is Anne "Yummy Girl" Hathaway's turn as the doomed Fantine. While she doesn't get naked (a surefire Oscar-bait tactic she joked when she hosted the Oscars after getting nada for Love and Other Drugs), she chopped her hair off and absolutely kills it on "I Dreamed A Dream" - aka that song that made Susan Boyle a household name. Instead of jamming a wide angle lens in her face and editing like a meth addict on a pogo stick, they simply let her sing the number in an unbroken 3:40-long shot and it's devastating. I'm sure the other nominees in Best Supporting Actress thought, "Well, at least I get to wear a pretty dress and have 'Academy Award Nominee' ahead of my name from now on," when they saw her shed a perfectly-timed tear in the middle of her plaint.

The much-hyped technique of recording the vocals live during filming instead of lip-synching to a pre-recorded track does help in making the performances more immediate, but it's dependent on the talent level of the performer; Jackman is good, Hathaway and Samantha Barks are great, Seyfried is surprisingly good, Crowe should stick to gladiatoring. The production design and costumes are your usual prestige period movie quality, but who cares about the frame with the portrait is substandard. Film musicals are tricky beasts to tame and there aren't many who can seem capable of doing it, not that Hooper deserves a participant ribbon for trying.

A final note: To tell you how unenthused I was about writing this review, while it appears on Dirkflix on the date/time I watched it, it's actually May 29th as I'm finally clearing this off my spindle in order to keep my pledge to review everything in some form. You're welcome.

Score: 6/10. Rent it if you're a fan; otherwise catch it on cable.

UPDATE: I saw this the night after posting the review despite it being around for a couple of months and I'm a fan of these guys. Really funny though he's too hard on Amanda Seyfried's singing.

"Lincoln" Review

This will be short: Daniel Day-Lewis will win his third Best Actor Oscar and Lincoln is an insufferably boring movie that I couldn't force myself to watch in two attempts. Sorry, kids, but I'm not being paid enough to spend the time on this tedious drivel.

The first attempt lasted about 30 minutes before my girlfriend asked if we could stop because she was bored and I wasn't enjoying myself much either. With the Oscars coming up this Sunday and having seen only four of the Best Picture nominees, I figured I should make the effort and that's the problem with Lincoln - it requires more effort than entertainment should require. (If PBS made history shows this droning and dull, Big Bird would be arguing for funding to be cut!) After another 25 minutes of yammering, I gave up because I wasn't even done with the first hour of this 2-1/2 hour slog.

In between my viewing attempts, I listened into a conference call with screenwriting teacher John Truby as he ran down his thoughts on this year's screenplay nominees and he was particularly harsh on Lincoln because it wasn't a screenplay as much as a play that's been filmed. Written by playwright Tony Kushner, it is talky, wordy and verbose so speech after speech unfurled. Truby feared it would win because, "It's directed by the first god of directors, Steven Spielberg; written by one of the top three playwriting gods of the American theater, Tony Kushner; and it's about the first god of Presidents, Lincoln." Yep, pretty much.

I made it as far as when Sally Field (as Mary Todd Lincoln) held up a reception line while blathering at Tommy Lee Jones (as Agent K sent back in time by the MIB to ensure that his future partner would be a free man - what, too soon?) for what felt like forever. Toggling the time counter, I saw it was 55 minutes in and that was enough for me.

DDL's performance looked terrific, humanizing what has been a remote image cultivated by $5 bills and the Hall of Presidents at Disney World, but by setting the story in the five-week period when the 13th Amendment (abolishing slavery) was debated and passed in January 1865 it means we get lots of political speechifying which should be interesting, but it isn't. Spielberg trades in his usual golden look for a monochromatic chiaroscuro style of cinematography, but it just makes the Really Important Movie pretensions more unbearable.

This was what I call a "broccoli movie" - something we're supposed to eat because it's good  for you - but for all the clearly committed and talented people involved (though it gets distracting when another familiar face shows up in period drag), it simply can't make what should be riveting and compelling even passingly interesting. Ken Burns did a 57-part series about the Civil War with nothing but still photos and people reading letters and it was a smash. Why couldn't Steven Spielberg with a towering Daniel Day-Lewis come anywhere remotely near? Blame the writer and the hubris of those who thought importance trumped brevity and focus.

Score: DNF. Skip it.

"Alex Cross" Review

Alex Cross is like Big Momma's House in reverse in that instead of Martin Lawrence as a cop who dresses up like a lady, Tyler Perry ditches his Madea drag to play ace Detroit police detective Alex Cross, a role previously assayed by Morgan Freeman in Along Came A Spider and March of the Peng...oh wait, no, that should be Kiss The Girls.

When Madea Cross and partner Ed Burns are called to a murder scene where four people were killed (including a beautiful woman tortured to death), they find themselves on the trial of psychopathic hitman Matthew Fox. When they interfere with one of his hits, he turns his sights on the cops and their loved ones. Brutal hijinks ensue.

Alex Cross is a taut and efficient thriller which moves so quickly to its conclusion that it feels like it's half its length. In fact, if it wasn't for a ridiculous and in one aspect confusing subplot involving a woman who took a fall for a crime boss's murders, it'd be even shorter. (Though it could've been entirely lopped out without breaking the plot in the least.) It's also fairly predictable to the point that when characters are introduced, my girlfriend would remark, "They're gonna die, aren't they?" (Yes, dear, they are.)

Shot for the most part in Detroit, they get most of the local geography correct except that the crime scene on tony Lakeshore Drive is about five miles outside of their jurisdiction in the Grosse Pointes and a couple of skyline shots reveal the unfamiliar downtown locations are actually Cleveland, but this is stuff only natives would catch.

Perry is fairly believable as Cross though he could've stood for some more grit in the more dramatic moments. Ed Burns is the same as always but the shocker is Fox as the psycho killer Picasso; he is prison-ripped, pumped up and cut down into little more than muscles and sinews, absolutely unhinged and deadly. We never really get an explanation as to what his deal is beyond he's a Very Bad Man (no backstory about how he was a bottle baby or anything), but he makes his mark.

Score: 6/10. Catch it on cable.

"Searching For Sugar Man" Review

History is full of musical artists who never made it. Maybe they never got signed or never broke through when they did, ending up getting dropped and fading into history; it's an old story oft told. But what if an artist's record became a massive hit on the other side of the world, influencing a nation, and yet he never knew of or profited from it? That's the bizarre hook of Searching For Sugar Man, the story of Detroit-based singer-songwriter Rodriquez music and belated (re)discovery.

Discovered by Motown legend Dennis Coffey playing in a waterfront bar called The Sewer, Sixto Rodriguez was signed and released a pair of albums which sold almost nothing and he was dropped in the early-Seventies. However, a copy of his first album, Cold Fact, made it to apartheid-oppressed South Africa and his Bob Dylan-ish lyrics and warm vocals a la Cat Stevens or Harry Chapin caught on with the people there, leading to bootlegs and then legitimate releases of his albums, selling an estimated half-million copies and influencing many upcoming Afrikaner musicians.

Almost nothing was known about the enigmatic mono-named musician, but legends of grisly onstage suicides that would cause envy in GG Allin (if that loser hadn't ODed like a bitch after threatening to kill himself onstage forever) cropped up. Eventually in the early days of the Internet (i.e. the mid-1990s) a couple of fans and music writers in South Africa attempted to locate him with little success until close examination of a lyrical reference cracked the code and led to the discovery of Rodriguez, alive and kicking, back in Detroit. You'll have to see what happens next and what he'd been doing for yourself.

While the first 2/3rds of Searching For Sugar Man are an interesting mystery even if you know how it turned out (fun fact: he used to come into a bar my girlfriend booked around 1990 and though he was known as a musician, no one had the slightest idea of his backstory), the last section seems to go somewhat flat when it should've climaxed. Swedish filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul lightly explores, but underplays, the vital question of "Where did all the royalty money go?" He interviews Clarence Savant, the former Motown CEO and owner of the long-defunct label Rodriguez was signed to, and while the inference is clear that he ripped him off, how getting paid would've impacted Rod's life isn't asked. Rod's three daughters are interviewed, but there's no mention of who their mother is. (I've read that she was interviewed, but then declined to participate in the final cut.) Most maddeningly, when Rodriquez is interviewed, he's left almost as much as an enigma as he was before he was found. You've got the guy sitting there; ASK HIM EVERYTHING!!!

As interesting a tale as Searching For Sugar Man tells, it would've benefited from a little less reverence and style and a little more hard-edged investigation.

Score: 7/10. Catch it on cable.

"Side By Side" Review

Everyone divides up on everything all the time: Coke vs. Pepsi; Fender vs. Gibson; Star Wars vs. Star Trek; so it's no different that there is a divide amongst filmmakers over film vs. digital. It's this technological advance and the benefits and deficiencies of both formats that are explored by the documentary Side By Side.

Keanu Reeves(!) conducts interviews with a parade of directors including George Lucas, James Cameron, Christopher Nolan, Steven Soderbergh, David Fincher, Martin Scorsese, Robert Rodriguez, the Wachowski Starship, as well as numerous cinematographers about their preferences for one over the other and how some have changed with the times while others will have to have celluloid pried out of their cold dead hands.

Combining a good primer of how movies are "filmed" with interviewees expressing themselves about what it all means, Side By Side takes a refreshingly unbiased approach toward the subject rather than trying to skew the audience toward a preferred conclusion. If there is a bias, it's that the flexibility of digital tools to execute the filmmaker's vision makes for a bigger box of crayons to color with. When you see the differences in color timing and correction between the old photochemical process and something like Da Vinci Resolve (see reel below), it's hard to defend to archaic ways. (No one with Blu-ray is pining for VHS, you know?) I think holdouts like Nolan are like people who insist vinyl is better.

Score: 8/10. Rent it. If you've got Amazon Prime, it's streaming for free; see link below.

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