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Bob Grimm

Werner Herzog (Grizzly Man) narrates and co-directs Happy People: A Year in the Taiga, a documentary about four seasons with trappers in Bakhtia, Siberia.

The film’s title had me thinking I’d be watching a movie about dudes partying it up in the snow, but it isn’t anything like that. These guys work their asses off to survive and get some animal pelts, with little to do but make skis with an ax and hang out with their dogs.

It’s actually quite fascinating to see what these guys go through to make a living, and it will make you feel like a douche for complaining about the coffee at your workplace. I always love to hear that Herzog voice telling a story (or just being scary on Adult Swim’s Metalocalypse).

While no humans get eaten by bears, somebody does tell a story about their dog getting eaten by a bear, so this is definite Herzog territory. These guys don’t have electricity at their trapping outposts, but they do have gas powered chainsaws and snowmobiles, so they do have some modern amenities. For the most part, as Herzog points out, these guys live caveman style and, while I wouldn’t call them “happy,” they seem relatively content.

Happy People: A Year in the Taiga opens Friday, March 8, at the Cinema Palme d’Or, 72840 Highway 111 in Palm Desert; 779-0730; www.thepalme.com.

Marlon Brando took home the first of his two Oscars for playing washed-up palooka and longshoreman Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront, his third pairing with director Elia Kazan after A Streetcar Named Desire and Viva Zapata!

Funny eye makeup aside, it’s easy to see why Brando got the Oscar (which was also somewhat of a consolation prize after getting nominated but not winning for Streetcar and Zapata!). He’s brilliant here, making Terry a highly sympathetic character, even if Malloy does lure fellow employees to their deaths on occasion.

The “Coulda been a contender!” speech will always be a classic, perhaps the most-iconic moment of Brando’s career. Karl Malden is dynamite as a priest who will punch you in the face if you mess with him, and Eva Marie Saint is terrific in her debut big-screen role.

The film was based on real-life situations involving extortion on New York’s waterfront, but is also seen as Kazan’s condemnation of Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible and an atonement of sorts for Kazan’s participation in the McCarthy witch hunts. (I learned this reading the trivia notes on the Internet Movie Database.)

While the movie is most notable for the Brando and Malden performances, let us not forget the contributions of Lee J. Cobb as a fierce union leader and Rod Steiger as Terry’s brother.

The new Criterion Collection transfer is breathtakingly good.

Special Features: The disc is loaded. The two-disc set includes the film presented in three different aspect ratios. There’s a documentary with Martin Scorsese discussing the film, and that’s priceless. There’s another newly produced documentary featuring film scholar interviews, interviews with Kazan and Saint, and even an interview with the actor who played Brando’s young buddy in the film. You also get a commentary, a large collectors’ booklet and more. 

I was certain that How to Survive a Plague was going to take home the big documentary Oscar prize this year. Alas, Searching for Sugar Man (a very good movie) took home the award.

There were other great documentaries last year, including West of Memphis, about the West Memphis Three, and Paul Williams Still Alive (the title says it all). However, this one packed the biggest wallop. It chronicles the struggles AIDS activists went through to get the condition into the public conversation, and push for medications to keep themselves alive.

Viewing this movie promotes a parade of emotions, from pure heartbreak, to anger, and ultimately to jubilation. It starts in the ’80s, with a band of activists including Peter Staley, Larry Kramer, Mark Harrington, Ray Navarro and Bob Rafsky. Rafsky famously challenged Bill Clinton during a campaign speech, resulting in Clinton’s “I feel your pain!” retort.

Bill … I seriously doubt you felt that man’s pain.

If you have never seen footage of Larry Kramer popping off at fellow ACT UP activists during a pivotal gathering with his “plague” speech, you will see something amazing when you watch this movie. You will also see things as horrid as Kramer’s speech is amazing—for example, when George Bush No. 1 complains that AIDS is a disease resulting from behavior during a televised debate, and every single time a word comes out of the mouth of Jesse Helms.

Many of the people you see in this movie did not survive—but a good group of them did. It’s a powerful thing to see men like Staley and Kramer sitting for modern-day interviews, celebrating their victories and mourning their losses.

You more than likely missed this one in theaters. Do yourself and your families a favor, and take the time to watch it at home.

Special Features: A director’s commentary featuring ACT UP activists and some deleted scenes.

Nicky’s Family is a documentary that plays like more of a TV film than something for the big screen, but you won’t care by the time the film ends. That’s because the story being told here is amazing, heart-wrenching and ultimately heartwarming.

Nicholas Winton was a rich Englishman in 1938, getting ready for a ski trip when he got a call from a friend dealing with troubles in Czechoslovakia. Soon thereafter, Winton found himself in that country assisting in the rescue of 669 Czech and Slovak children. He financed the passage of these children to England, where they avoided the concentration camps (although they did face Nazi wrath when Germany began bombing their new home).

Winton is 103 now, and the size of his “family” numbers in the thousands. Many decades went by with those rescued by Winton not knowing him, but that changed when Winton’s scrapbook, containing lists of the children and records of their arrival in England, was made public.

Matej Minac’s film, hosted in part by Joe Schlesinger (who was rescued by Minton), gets a little clunky when it stages re-enactments of Winton’s life, but those are a small part of the picture. It’s an amazing thing to see Winton, as a guest on a TV show, being surprised by adults who he rescued as children. The film is at its best when it is talking to him in the present day, and interviewing those he saved.

Winton has been referred to as the “British Schindler,” and that’s a suitable title.

The film itself is no work of art, but the story at its core is something you must experience.

Nicky’s Family opens Friday, March 1, at the Cinema Palme d’Or, 72840 Highway 111 in Palm Desert; 779-0730; www.thepalme.com.

Dwayne Johnson has so much ink, yet he doesn’t show off any of his tattoos in Snitch. Not one tattoo shot!

That’s because Johnson wants to be taken seriously as an actor, and his performance indeed shows he’s capable of more than making his pecs dance or firing guns while his tattoos sexily vibrate. (He’s leaving the sexy tattoo vibrations for the other 172 films he will be starring in within the upcoming year.)

Johnson plays John Matthews, a flawed but well-meaning father. He provides for the family he has living in his lush house, thanks to a semi-lucrative trucking company. He also gives his ex-wife and son from the former marriage enough so they can get by; however, he has little to do with the upbringing of that son, Jason (Rafi Gavron).

Of course, Jason has gone a little bad. He likes to smoke a pot and take Ecstasy. His love of Ecstasy leads to a bunch of it being sent to him by a drug-dealer friend, and this is where the big trouble starts. Jason gets pinched; John gets pissed; and a long jail term for the young dummy seems in order.

That is, until Matthews takes matters into his own hands, and offers to help the federal government nab drug-dealers in exchange for leniency toward his son. This leads to a lot of scenes with Johnson looking concerned, and Gavron doing a bang-up job looking freaked out. I found myself caring for their characters fairly early on, and that got me invested in the picture.

Snitch isn’t great, but it’s a serviceably good action film featuring fine lead performances and a decent supporting cast. Michael Kenneth Williams (Chalky White in Boardwalk Empire) offers a scary presence as Malik, a drug-dealer unknowingly participating in John’s scheme. Jon Bernthal (The Walking Dead) garners plenty of sympathy as an ex-con employee of John’s company who can’t resist a chance to make a lot of money for his struggling family. And Barry Pepper is his reliable self as a drug-enforcement agent with extraordinary facial hair.

Surprisingly, Susan Sarandon is the film’s weak link; she plays a typical government type with political aspirations who will do anything to get votes. She feels out of place.

The problem with watching a film like this is that it’s obvious things are all going to come out OK in the end. Therefore, there’s no real sense of tension when John is driving a big truck down the freeway and being shot at while trying to carry on a phone conversation. And you know the ending is going to involve tears.

Still, I enjoyed the film on some levels. For example, the scene in which John is being shot at while driving that truck is well-staged, even if it is predictable.

Do I think Dwayne Johnson will ever take a walk toward a podium to pick up an Oscar? Hell no. Do I think he will be able to handle future roles in thrillers that require some acting muscle beyond his HGH-enhanced, rippling tattoo muscle? Certainly. His work here shows that he is capable of taking things to the next level.

Now we can sit back and await the arrival of Johnson in Fast and Furious 6, Pain and Gain, Empire State and G.I. Joe: Retaliation, which are among his other 2013 offerings. Or check him out as The Rock in a recent visit to his old haunts at WWE Wrestling. This man apparently wants to be everything at once.

Snitch is now playing in theaters across the valley.

Bruce Willis returns in A Good Day to Die Hard as trouble magnet John McClane—and he looks lost, tired and miserable. One gets the sense that Willis realized he was in a dud, and spiritually clocked out well before the shoot was over.

Willis seems to have a lot of power over all Die Hard production proceedings, and since he’s the star, most of the blame falls on his shoulders. The fact that they gave directing chores to the hackneyed John Moore (who directed the horrifically stinky Owen Wilson yawner Behind Enemy Lines) would be the first big mistake. Allowing Skip Wood (The A-Team, Hitman, Swordfish) to write it could also be chalked up as a big gaffe. I mean, doesn’t that creative combo just cry “suckage”?

They are obviously running out of scenarios for McClane, so this one sends him to Russia, where his estranged son Jack (the dull Jai Courtney) has gotten himself into an espionage jam. McClane knows this, because one of his cop friends hands him one of those files with all of the info in it, because L.A. cops have all sorts of intelligence in Russia.

So John hops a plane, gets stuck in traffic, and immediately finds himself in an explosive car chase—during which he happens to run into his son. They have a little spat; Jack refuses to call him “Dad”; and John picks up a gun, smirks and becomes part of the mission.

There are none of the things that made previous Die Hard films so fun. There is no distinguishable bad guy going up against John; the film completely lacks a sense of humor; and it looks drab. All of the other Die Hard films had that peppy action-movie look and feel. This one looks like a poor man’s Saving Private Ryan, and Saving Private Ryan was actually funnier than this movie.

They can’t even come up with a decent catchphrase for McClane in this one. He keeps screaming, “I’m on vacation!” which reminds of Billy Crystal’s whining in City Slickers. By the way, he technically isn’t even on vacation. He’s on a mission to find his son; he would never pick Russia as a vacation spot. (I see McClane as more of a Barbados kind of guy. Perhaps that will be the next movie.)

Why pick Russia as the locale? Perhaps they were looking for some sort of throwback vibe to the ’80s. Well, Russia has lost its luster as a place for bad guys. And you just know some character in the film is going to say, “You Americans all think you are so smart!” (Someone does.) You can also guess that the action will eventually wind up in Chernobyl. (It does.) I was surprised Rocky IV’s Ivan Drago didn’t pop into frame and challenge McClane to a fistfight.

Anybody who whined about the previous chapter, Live Free or Die Hard, which came out nearly SEVEN YEARS AGO, will discover that film (which I happened to like) was a party compared to this one. It had a great villain (played Timothy Olyphant); it had comic relief (Justin Long, Kevin Smith and Willis when he was in a good mood); and it had the mighty beautiful Mary Elizabeth Winstead (who makes a drab cameo in this one). It also zipped along at a fun pace, and reveled in its ridiculousness.

Well, Die Hard 5 is grey, somber and lifeless. Willis is shot to look worn out and gaunt. I know for a fact he can still look sprightly in movies, because he looks healthy and badass in the G.I. Joe: Rataliation trailer that preceded the movie.

If you are going to saddle McClane with a sidekick, don’t make it his miserable son. Bring back Long, or Samuel L. Jackson from Die Hard 3, or even the Twinkie-eating cop from the first two movies. Just make it somebody with a pulse who can crack a joke.

It’s strange how Willis’ career is going right now. He was awesome in last year’s Looper and Moonrise Kingdom, but he’s also showed up in five direct-to-video flops in the last two years. The latest Die Hard plays like something that should’ve suffered that fate. Willis is becoming the Charles Bronson of his generation when it comes to straight-up action films (remember those last Death Wish movies?), yet he delivered two of best performances in 2012. The man is confusing me.

Willis has publicly stated that there will be a Die Hard 6. For the love of God, if there is another movie, make sure those participating in it remember that it’s supposed to be ridiculous, and that laughter is OK.

A Good Day to Die Hard is now playing at theaters across the valley.

Some actor named Dustin Hoffman makes his directorial debut with this sweet movie about aging musicians in a retirement home. (He was supposed to direct Straight Time many years ago, but he gave up the gig a couple of days into shooting.)

The film stars Maggie Smith, Billy Connolly, Tom Courtenay, Pauline Collins and Michael Gambon, all of whom are wonderful. Hoffman shows he has a deft touch with performers, which comes as no surprise.

His movie isn’t terribly original, but it is heartwarming and entertaining throughout. Smith and Courtenay are especially good as former lovers who get a chance to make up and become friends again.

This movie makes me wish Hoffman had gotten going on the director thing a long time ago. I hope he has some more films in him. 

Quartet is now playing at the Camelot Theatres (2300 E. Baristo Road, Palm Springs; 325-6565) and Cinemas Palme d'Or (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 779-0430).

Man oh man, this Best Picture nominee is a tough one to watch.

From Michael Haneke, the director of the brutal Funny Games (both the foreign and American versions), we get a film about old age that's so honest, it guts you. Many of us know a couple like Georges and Anne (Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva). Seeing a couple like this dealing with terrible illness is heartbreaking, and Haneke takes a terribly honest approach to impending death.

Riva’s Oscar-nominated performance is one of those pieces of work you will never forget. It tattoos onto your brain.

Rest assured: If you choose to see this, it’s going to knock you on your ass. Don’t watch this if the truth scares you.

Amour is now playing at the Camelot Theatres (2300 E. Baristo Road, Palm Springs; 325-6565) and Cinemas Palme d'Or (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 779-0430).

I count director Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood and Magnolia as two of my all-time-favorite films. The Daniel Day-Lewis performance in Blood currently stands as my favorite performance by anybody, in any movie, ever.

What I’m saying is that Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the greatest directors to ever set foot on the planet. I suppose as a critic, I’m supposed to avoid such grandiose remarks, but screw it: I feel confident my declaration will stand until my dying days.

That said, The Master—out Feb. 26 on DVD and Blu-ray—is my least-favorite of his movies. However, on a grading scale, I’d still give it a “B,” which is a good grade, and lord knows I’m a tough grader.

The pre-release scuttlebutt about the film declared that it was Anderson’s take on the advent of Scientology—but it isn’t. Instead, it’s about a stressed-out World War II Navy sailor (Joaquin Phoenix), a cult leader (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and their strange, almost-codependent relationship.

Watching these two square off is a delight. They both received Oscar nominations, and they both deserved them. I guess I was seeking a little more substance in the story itself, and felt Anderson was repeating himself a tad (especially with the Jonny Greenwood soundtrack; Greenwood also provided the music for Blood).

It’s a good movie featuring astonishingly great performances. I just want more from Anderson. I’m a selfish bastard, and I admit to this, so there.

Special Features: The disc takes a unique approach to deleted scenes by creating a short film of outtakes and even bloopers scored by Greenwood. It’s a great way to watch deleted footage, and I actually wish some of these cuts had made it into the movie. There’s also a behind-the-scenes short film, culminating in a rather funny fart moment. Finally, you also get John Huston’s World War II documentary Let There Be Light, a film Anderson borrowed from while making The Master. Some of Phoenix’s dialogue is directly drawn from it.

Monday, 18 February 2013 08:00

It's Oscars Week! Here Are Our Predictions!

I remember watching the Oscars back when Johnny Carson hosted. This was before I knew the whole thing was bullshit; I would get all excited when those envelopes were opened, and even when stupid Paul Williams showed up singing a song.

Even though the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences usually doesn’t get it right with the awards, I still look forward to the show, especially when that idiot Billy Crystal isn’t hosting it. This year, the host will be Seth MacFarlane. Should be interesting, and perhaps delightfully profane.

Here are the nominees, along with my predictions. Drink chocolate milk every time I get one right, and regular milk when I get one wrong. (I don’t endorse alcohol-drinking games.)

 

Best Picture

Amour

Argo

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Django Unchained

Les Misérables

Life of Pi

Lincoln

Silver Linings Playbook

Zero Dark Thirty

Let’s immediately eliminate Amour, Beasts, Django and Life of Pi. None of these films have a chance.

Zero Dark Thirty had the momentum going into awards season, but that momentum has shifted significantly, probably thanks to stupid Ed Asner and his lame comments. (Go to Hell, Lou Grant!) A few months ago, I would’ve thought Les Mis (my personal favorite of the bunch) had a good shot, but I think it’s going to get beat, because everybody hates Russell Crowe.

That leaves Lincoln, Silver Linings Playbook and Argo. Admittedly, I would’ve gone with Lincoln or Silver Linings a recently as a month ago, but with the Directors Guild, Screen Actors Guild and Golden Globes all giving awards to Argo, I’m thinking it’s Argo for the win.

Snubs: This is a pretty good crop of nominees. Since there’s room for 10, a nom for The Impossible would’ve been nice, or perhaps Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom.

Should win: Les Misérables.

Will Win: Argo.

 

Best Actor

Bradley Cooper (Silver Linings Playbook)

Daniel Day-Lewis (Lincoln)

Hugh Jackman (Les Misérables)

Joaquin Phoenix (The Master)

Denzel Washington (Flight)

Washington and Phoenix have no chance, and I ain’t talking football. This is a race between Cooper, Jackman and Day-Lewis. Cooper was brilliant, but my vote would go to Jackman’s incredibly durable, tear-jerking performance in Les Mis. However, I think Day-Lewis will nail down his third Oscar for his Honest Abe. I didn’t like Lincoln, but I must acknowledge he was wonderful in the movie.

Snubs: When I picked my five favorite actors at the end of 2012, four out of the five nominated were on my list, with the exception of Denzel Washington. I would’ve liked to see Liam Neeson in that slot for The Grey, a performance that didn’t get the accolades it deserved.

Should Win: Jackman.

Will Win: Day-Lewis.

 

Best Actress

Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty)

Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Linings Playbook)

Emmanuelle Riva (Amour)

Quvenzhané Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild)

Naomi Watts (The Impossible)

Dammit, when is Naomi Watts going to win an Oscar? It’s not going to be this year, but it damn well should be. Her performance in The Impossible, a movie many have not seen, is jaw-dropping.

Even though she is the clear winner in my eyes, all of the performances nominated are deserving. Wallis is miraculous in Beasts; Riva is devastatingly good in Amour; and Chastain is a solid anchor in Zero. Lawrence is terrific in Silver Linings—and I believe she will win the Oscar. She has the momentum now. I would’ve never picked her a couple of months ago, but after the Globes and SAG awards, it looks like it is all hers.

However, don’t underestimate the age factor. Riva, 85, could sweep in and upset.

Snubs: Once again, another well-done category, with four of the five matching my Best Actress list. I loved Wallis, but I would’ve nominated Mary Elizabeth Winstead in her place for Smashed.

Should Win: Watts.

Will Win: Lawrence.

 

Best Supporting Actor

Alan Arkin (Argo)

Robert De Niro (Silver Linings Playbook)

Philip Seymour Hoffman (The Master)

Tommy Lee Jones (Lincoln)

Christoph Waltz (Django Unchained)

Enough people dislike Django to disqualify Waltz, and the same goes for Hoffman in The Master. Arkin is fun in Argo, but his performance was not Oscar-worthy.

De Niro was back in fine form for Playbook, and I think he’s the most deserving of those nominated. But Jones keeps racking up awards for his dull turn in the dull Lincoln. Nothing he does in the film is different from what he did in The Fugitive. (It’s basically Tommy Lee Jones starring as Tommy Lee Jones in Lincoln.)

Ah, screw it, I’m predicting a De Niro upset.

Snubs: Sam Rockwell was extraordinary in Seven Psychopaths, as was Edward Norton in Moonrise Kingdom.

Should and will win: De Niro.

 

Best Supporting Actress

Amy Adams (The Master)

Sally Field (Lincoln)

Anne Hathaway (Les Misérables)

Helen Hunt (The Sessions)

Jacki Weaver (Silver Linings Playbook)

Anne Hathaway is going to win, and she deserves it. There’s no reason to discuss any further.

 

Best Director

Michael Haneke (Amour)

Ang Lee (Life of Pi)

David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook)

Steven Spielberg (Lincoln)

Benh Zeitlin (Beasts of the Southern Wild)

Well, if Argo is going to win Best Picture, and Ben Affleck didn’t get a director’s nomination, what in the heck happens here?

Steven Spielberg wins his third Best Director Oscar, that’s what. While I love Spielberg, I think Lincoln is a rare misstep for my hero. Of this group, I would have to say Ang Lee is the most deserving. But it’s Spielberg all the way.

Snubs: Affleck, Tom Hooper for Les Mis and Kathryn Bigelow for Zero Dark Thirty are all surprising omissions—especially Bigelow and Hooper; both directors outdid their previous Oscar-winning efforts. How Les Mis got snubbed here is beyond me. The cast sang live, for Christ’s sake.

Should Win: Lee.

Will Win: Spielberg.

 

Best Animated Film

Brave

Frankenweenie

ParaNorman

The Pirates! Band of Misfits

Wreck-It Ralph

This is a tough one. While I found Brave to be quite charming, a lot of folks found the whole “mom turns into a bear” thing stupid. I don’t think Pirates stands a chance, although it deserved the nomination. Wreck-It Ralph is my least-favorite in this bunch, and I suspect it will be least-favorite among voters, too.

I’m thinking Brave will continue a long legacy of Pixar victories, although my personal favorite in this bunch is ParaNorman. ParaNorman was innovative, creative and slightly demented, a true standout.

Snubs: Nothing really got snubbed here, unless you inexplicably worship Hotel Transylvania.

Should Win: ParaNorman.

Will Win: Brave.

 

Other predictions:

Best Original Screenplay: Zero Dark Thirty

Best Adapted Screenplay: Argo

Best Cinematography: Life of Pi

Best Costume Design: Lincoln

Best Production Design: Les Misérables

Best Sound Mixing: Les Misérables

Best Editing: Zero Dark Thirty

Best Sound Editing: Zero Dark Thirty

Best Visual Effects: Life of Pi

Best Makeup: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Best Original Song: “Skyfall,” Skyfall

Best Score: Argo

Best Short Film, Animated: Paperman

Best Short Film, Live Action: Asad

Best Documentary (Short): Redemption

Best Documentary (Feature): How to Survive a Plague

Best Foreign Language Film: Amour