‘BEN IS BACK’ A Troubling Two-Hander You Should Never Trust 

Ben is Back, the father-son collaboration between writer-director Peter Hedges and actor son Lucas Hedges, plays out like a paperback page-turner with an inevitable conclusion. That the elder Hedges mostly succeeds in obscuring the histories of these characters and therefore where their paths will ultimately lead is a proverbial feather in his cap, the strongly-acted drama slinking suspiciously in narrative shadows in its earlier parts, leaving a trail of breadcrumbs that we intrinsically know lead nowhere good. As Hedge’s script unspools the mystery behind Ben and his being back, the thriller-tinged drama loses a touch of its suspect pull, relying strictly on emboldened performances to see the journey through. The experience is far from pleasant.  Read More


Out in Theaters: ‘MONEY MONSTER’

From breaking out as a teenage prostitute in Martin Scorsese’s seminal Taxi Driver to becoming a household name to snatching a pair of Academy Awards to her semi-retirement from acting to focus on directing, Jodie Foster’s career has seen many evolutions. As a director, The Silence of the Lambs actress has sharpened her craft exponentially over the years, veering from such trite family-friendly material as Little Man Tate and Home for the Holidays to more adult-oriented material such as Mel Gibson-starring drama The Beaver, itself a horrendous victim of terrible timing. Her latest feature is another confident step forward, its incisive themes and hard-R sensibilities informed by her tenure as a guest director for Netflix’s two biggest and most mature hits: House of Cards and Orange is the New Black. With Money Monster, Foster finally sheds the skin of an actress experimenting with the format and actualizes as an genuine director of note. Read More


2013 Silver Screen Riot Awards

With the majority of 2013 awards winding down and the Oscars gearing up for next month, it’s time for me to reflect on the best parts about last year’s films. I’ve already published my top ten list alongside the absolute worst movies of the year but with these awards, I focus on the performances, direction, music, scene work and artistry of 2013.

At first, I tried to pigeonhole five nominees into each category but found that didn’t give me enough leeway to recognize all the talent I wanted to. When I then expanded to ten, it felt like there were times where I would be putting names down to fill up spots and didn’t really work for me either. So, instead of making an arbitrary number of nominees for each category, I opted to just recognize as many people as I saw fit in each category. So while the best actor category has 11 names of note, best foreign film only had 6 nominees and so forth. I know a lot of these may see overlap with other award nominations but I tried to recognize talent from all walks,  the old to the new, and award what stood out as my personal favorites.

Look out for a short breakdown in the actors and directors sections but the other categories speak for themselves.

Best Actor:


WINNER: Leonardo DiCaprio ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’
Runner Up: Christian Bale ‘Out of the Furance’ & ‘American Hustle’
Honorable Mention: Ethan Hawke ‘Before Midnight’

Matthew McConaughey ‘Dallas Buyers Club’ & ‘Mud’
Joaquin Phoenix ‘Her’
Mads Mikkelsen ‘The Hunt’
Chiwetel Elijofor ’12 Years a Slave’
Bruce Dern ‘Nebraska’
Tom Hanks ‘Captain Phillips’
Michael B. Jordan ‘Fruitvale Station’

It’s no secret that I’m a big Leonardo DiCaprio fan and it’s performances like his in The Wolf of Wall Street that earns him such a high ranking amongst my favorite working actors. With manic physicality, hypnotizing stage presence and wonderfully potent comedic timing, his take on amoral but lovin’ it Jordan Belfort is a role to remember. Christian Bale did wonders in Out of the Furnace and, even though I wasn’t head over heels for American Hustle, his performance there was nothing to balk at and one of the strongest features of the film. The most underrated performance of the year is Ethan Hawke who embodied humanity and boyish charm in my favorite film of the year Before Midnight. The film rests squarely on his and Julie Delpy‘s compotent shoulders and had their performances been any less, the impact wouldn’t have been nearly what it was. 

Best Supporting Actor:


WINNER: Jared Leto ‘Dallas Buyers Club’
Runner Up: Jonah Hill ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’

Honorable Mention:  Geoffrey Rush ‘The Book Thief’

Woody Harrelson ‘Out of the Furnace’
Michael Fassbender ’12 Years a Slave’
Barkhad Abdi ‘Captain Phillips’
Ben Foster ‘Lone Survivor’
Daniel Bruhl ‘Rush’
Matthew McConaughey ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’
Alexander Skaarsgard ‘What Maisie Knew’

Another crowded category, I had to go with a somewhat calculated choice, a man more than likely to win at the Academy Awards this year, Jared Leto. His performance, almost moreso than Matthew McConaughey‘s, grounds the heartbreaking tale of Dallas Buyers Club and brings humanity to those that are too often dehumanized. On the other side of the coin, Jonah Hill was a riot in The Wolf of Wall Street and between his introductory scene and subsequent cousin soliloquy and the unhinged energy he brings to the Lemmons scene, his is one of the most unforgettable performances of the year. Another under-appreciated role takes my honorable mention slot with Geoffrey Rush‘s lovely performance in the otherwise forgettable The Book Thief. Rush is an acting giant and watching him effortlessly capture our sympathy just goes to show his monumental range.

Best Actress:


WINNER: Meryl Streep ‘August: Osage County’
Runner Up: Julie Delpy ‘Before Midnight’
Honorable Mention: Scarlett Johansson ‘Her’

Cate Blanchett ‘Blue Jasmine’
Brie Larson ‘Short Term 12’
Judi Dench ‘Philomena’
Adele Exarchopoulos ‘Blue is the Warmest Color’
Shailene Woodley ‘The Spectacular Now’
Greta Gerwig ‘Frances Ha’
Emma Thompson ‘Saving Mr. Banks’

I know Cate Blanchett is the name on everyone’s lips right now and there’s no denying that her performance is a showstopper but, for me, was not quite the most impressive of the year. Speaking of cinematic giants, I just couldn’t help but give my top award to Meryl Streep for her poisonous performance in the ensemble drama August: Osage County. Streep is a chameleon and we’re used to seeing her, for the most part, play loveable roles so seeing her transform into an utterly despicable train wreck of a pill popper showcases why she is the monolithic actress she is. Watching Julie Delpy embody the role of Celine for the third (or fourth if you consider Waking Life) time, you can see how much she has sank into this role and it’s simply a beauty to behold. Although deemed ineligible for the Oscars, Scarlett Johansson is able to achieve wonders with just her voice and deserves a pile of praise for that.

Best Supporting Actress:


WINNER: Julia Roberts “August: Osage County”
Runner Up: Margot Robbie “The Wolf of Wall Street”
Honorable Mention: Kristen Scott Thomas ‘Only God Forgives’

Octavia Spenser ‘Fruitvale Station’
Jennifer Lawrence ‘American Hustle’
June Squibb ‘Nebraska’
Lupita Nyong’o ’12 Years a Slave’
Emily Watson ‘The Book Thief’
Melissa Leo ‘Prisoners’

Easily the least impressive of the four acting categories, the best supporting actress category just didn’t have quite as much to offer as the rest did this year. Going through my nominees, it was hard to choose a top spot because all were commendable but none were absolutely unforgettable. I would hardly consider Julia Roberts as someone whose films I anticipate so was caught offguard by her fantastic work in August: Osage County. She holds her own against Streep and at times even shows her up. Color me impressed. I gave the second slot to Margot Robbie of The Wolf of Wall Street because of an unforgettable scene she shares with DiCaprio that’s sexy, tortuous and hysterical all at once and would have been nothing without the presence she brings to the scene. And for all the flak Only God Forgives caught for lacking dialogue, Kristen Scott Thomas stood out as the only character with true personality and she absolutely chewed through her deluded sanctimony. She’s menacing, repulsive and commanding and totally owns every scene she’s in. And just to preempt those offended by my lack of pedastalizing Academy darling Jennifer Lawrence, I enjoyed what she did in American Hustle but could never really take her character seriously. It was fun but not near worthy the level of praise being heaped on. And Lupita Nyong’o was certainly stunning in her 12 Years a Slave scenes but remember, this is my favorites and her performance is nothing less than a chore to watch.

Best Director


WINNER: Spike Jonze ‘Her’
Runner Up: Richard Linklater ‘Before Midnight’
Honorable Mention: Steve McQueen ’12 Years a Slave’

Martin Scorsese ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’
Jean-Marc Valee ‘Dallas Buyers Club’
Alexander Payne ‘Nebraska’
Denis Villeneuve ‘Prisoners’
Alfonso Cuaron ‘Gravity’
Destin Cretton ’12 Years a Slave’
Coen Bros ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’

I have to give a leg up to the director/writer combos so it’s no surprise that Spike Jonze has secured the top position. The humanity he brings to this technological world and the insight he’s able to provide is simply stunning, aided by his sharp visual style and realistic futurism. Richard Linklater may not be the world’ most hands on director but the palpably freedom he affords his actors gives them the capacity to create the caliber of tender moments we see in Before Midnight. He’s no bleeding heart but he’s not quite a cynic either and I love watching the way he sees the world. On the more difficult side of things, I’ve seen all three of Steve McQueen‘s films and, though this comment may be hotly debated, think 12 Years a Slave is actually his least tortuous. At least to watch. It’s an amazing effort that drags us through hell and yet there is a string of hope that runs throughout the story. I guess that only someone from outside of the states could bring such honesty and power to a distinctly American story.

Best Ensemble:


WINNER: American Hustle
Runner Up: The Wolf of Wall Street
Honorable Mention: August: Osage County

12 Years a Slave
This is the End
The Counselor

Best Cinematography


WINNER: Sean Bobbitt ’12 Years A Slave’
Runner Up: Emmanuel Lubezki ‘Gravity’
Honorable Mention: Roger Deakins ‘Prisoners’

Phedon Papamichael ‘Nebraska’
Hoyte Van Hoytema ‘Her’
Bruno Delbonnel ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’
John R. Leonetti ‘The Conjuring’
Yves Bélanger ‘Lawrence Anyways’

Best Foreign Film


WINNER: The Hunt
Runner Up: Laurence Anyways
Honorable Mention: Populaire

Blue is the Warmest Color
Crystal Fairy and the Magical Cactus

Best Documentary:


WINNER: The Act of Killing
Runner Up: Cutie and the Boxer
Honorable Mention: Dirty Wars

The Crash Reel
The Square

Best Song


WINNER: “Fare Thee Well” – Inside Llewyn Davis
Runner Up: “Young and Beautiful” – Great Gatsby
Honorable Mention: “Doby” – Anchorman 2: The Journey Continues

“Please Mr. Kennedy – Inside Llewy6n Davis
“The Moon Song – Inside Llewyn Davis
“In Summer – Frozen
“Oblivion” – Oblivion

Best Scene:


WINNER: Her ‘When it All Goes Dark’
Runner Up: The Wolf of Wall Street “Lemmons 714”
Honorable Mention: Before Midnight ‘Letter from the Future’

Captain Phillips “Check Up”
August: Osage “Family Dinner”
Nebraska “Mt. Rushmore”
This is the End “Backstreets Back”
Gravity ‘Opening Sequence’
Out of the Furnace ‘Hot Dog’
Inside Llewyn Davis ‘Please Mr. Kennedy’
The Conjuring “Basement Exorcism”
Lawrence Anyways “It’s Raining Clothes”

I’d love to hear where you guys agree and disagree and would encourage you to share your own lists in the comments section below.

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“August: Osage County”
Directed by John Wells
Starring Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper, Abigail Breslin, Benedict Cumberbatch, Juliette Lewis, Margo Martindale, Sam Shepard
Comedy, Drama
121 Mins

If you had told me going into August: Osage County that I was in store for two of the finest performances of the year I probably would have scoffed. But after having gone through the dirty laundry with the Weston family, I can assure you that it certainly does. The ever-dependable Meryl Streep is on top of her game here and, surprisingly enough, Julia Roberts does more than just hold her own against the queen of Hollywood. In fact, she’s nearly just as great.

As acidic matriarch Violet (ironically one letter away from violent) Weston, Streep puts in the kind of work that put her on the map. Although she’s as despicable as the worst of the year, there’s just as much going on behind Violet’s pill-faded facade that she doesn’t reveal. Too bad her automated knee-jerk reaction is to lash out at her family because, with a performance like Streep’s, you can see the suffering in this cantankerous crustacean. She just can’t help but fight.

At times reminiscent of Ellen Burstyn‘s monumental performance in Requiem for a Dream, seeing Streep’s crumbling mental barricades is no fun task but it is still no less a marvel. Playing opposite her, Roberts is a wonder as well. It’s been a long time since Roberts has had anything legitimate to offer so it’s a welcome change that she taps us on the collective shoulder, reminding us that she can indeed act with the best of them.

Filling out the terrific supporting cast is a perpetually clueless and never amiss Juliette Lewis, a self-righteous and awkwardly tweened-out Abigail Breslin, a powerful beyond the pages performance via Chris Cooper, Margo Martindale doing Margo Martindale, Ewan McGregor in a complicated but not completely fulfilling role, the always delightful Sam Shepard in a small but important role, and a bumbling, insecure and totally unexpected Benedict Cumberbatch as none other than the aptly named Little Charles. Calling it a stacked cast is an understatement, especially with so much prominence placed on the performances. These people aren’t here to sell you on name recognition. They’re here to act.

The events that gets the whole gang together begin when Violet’s husband (Shepard), and father to the three girls (Roberts, Lewis, and Julianne Nicholson) suddenly disappears. He’s a drinker, she’s a pill popper and their relationship is hovering somewhere in the red zone of the domestic-abuse-o-meter. So no one is surprised that he’s up and left without so much as a note. But as the events of his disappearance start to become clear, rather than coming together as a family as one might in the midst of loss, the emotional explosions just get more volatile.

Each time the family gets together, it’s like setting a ticking time bomb and waiting to watch it explode. Whenever they sit down at dinner, each comment is a turn in hot potato as we wait to see which of the family will explode in an emotional meltdown first. Their sanctimonious battles are at once hysterical and revolting, making you thankful that you’re not a part of the Weston clan but also reminding you of your own family battlegrounds.

Much like real life, throughout the film, the closer we are to the dinner table, the more tension seeps in. Accordingly, the more people at the table, the more riveting and on edge the film is. Without a place to run, you stew like a sack of potatoes, until blam! You never quite know who or what is going to pop out when they’re stacked around that unchivalrous table of food. Word for the wise: around the Weston household, tread lightly. But as we fade away from that central table – that catalyst of action – things do tend to get a little flabby.

But aside from a few minor complaints revolving around a splattering of moments of unnecessary melodrama, August: Osage County is a surprisingly good film that I can find little to criticize. However, if you’re the sensitive type who like things wrapped up in a neat package or are uncomfortable with watching a family bicker for two hours and not really resolve anything, this probably isn’t the film for you. So I guess this really isn’t a film for most people.

Although the icky subject matter will be enough to turn general audiences away, those looking for a bonafide acting showcase need look no further than this Southern familial upset. Although director John Wells has done a great job of adapting the energy of Tracy Letts‘ source material, it still feels very much like a theater performance. Between the explosive and deeply personal acting, tightly confined spaces, and webs of dangling intermittent issues, in August, we feel like we’re in the midst of a really great play.


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