Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Should we split the Sci-Fi/Fantasy category?

Every so often, we poll our voters on potential Cosmo Award category changes. And one that keeps coming up is the idea to split the Best Science Fiction/Fantasy Film category into two separate categories: Best Science Fiction Film, and Best Fantasy Film.

There are pros and cons to this, of course.


  • Science fiction and fantasy films are hugely popular among Cosmo voters (most of the top-nominated films of all time have been in these genres), and are the ones voters are most likely to have seen.
  • Separating into two categories allows us to recognize the achievements of more films.
  • Many are fans of one of the genres but not both. Fans of hard-core science fiction sometime find their favorites crowded out by superheroes, and vice versa.


  • The number of categories is already pretty overwhelming.
  • It can be sometimes challenging to decide whether a film like The X-Men belongs in science fiction or in fantasy (though when lines are blurred, it's conceivable a film may get nominated in both).
So ... what to you think? Vote in our poll and feel free to explain your thoughts in the comments.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Movie Reviews: Mud (2013)

Director: Jeff Nichols

Writer: Jeff Nichols

Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Tye Sheridan, Jacob Lofland, Reese Witherspoon, Sarah Paulson, Ray McKinnon, Sam Shepard, Michael Shannon, Paul Sparks, Joe Don Baker

Matthew McConaughey first came to my attention in 1997 with Contact, a film I loved so much that I saw it in the theaters four times, and it was the first DVD I ever bought.

But that promising start didn’t seem to go anywhere. He did a series of unworthy romantic comedies, like How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, and his two Cosmo nominations were for Worst Performance (Reign of Fire at the 2002 Awards and Failure to Launch at the 2006 Awards).

In recent years, however, he’s had better opportunities to flex his acting muscles. Some critics had him on their “dark horse” lists as a potential Oscar nominee for fan-favorite Magic Mike. And he wowed me with The Paperboy and Killer Joe. This year, critics are suggesting he could get his first Oscar nomination for either Dallas Buyers Club or The Wolf of Wall Street … or for Mud. Critics (98% of whom gave Mud a positive review) are repeatedly using terms like “confirmation of a career” and “career redemption” about his performance in Mud, and it’s well deserved.

My first impression of the film was that it felt like a modern take on Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, and it turns out that wasn’t an accident. Writer/director Jeff Nichols fostered that impression deliberately, even naming one of the characters, Tom Blankenship (Sam Shepard) after the real life childhood friend that served as Mark Twain’s inspiration for Huck Finn.

Tye Sheridan shines as Ellis, the young teen who, with his friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) discovers a loose-with-facts homeless outlaw named Mud (McConaughey) while seeking the wreck of a boat and the potential for ensuing adventures. Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was much more of a kid’s adventure story, while Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – called by many critics as the first Great American Novel – was much more serious and thought-provoking. While Mud has some of the adventure and rites of passage of Tom Sawyer, it ultimately strives for and achieves to be a more impactful film like Huckleberry Finn.

This will certainly make my list for quite a number of Cosmo Awards, including Best Performance by a Young Actor or Actress (Tye Sheridan). In fact, there are so many worthy nominees in that category that I’m tempted to split it into separate male and female categories. And the entire cast – Matthew McConaughey (Mud), Tye Sheridan (Ellis), Jacob Lofland (Neckbone), Reese Witherspoon (Juniper), Sarah Paulson (Mary Lee), Ray McKinnon (Senior), Sam Shepard (Tom Blakenship), Michael Shannon (Galen), Paul Sparks (Carver) and Joe Don Baker (King) – are well deserving of a shared Best Ensemble nomination.

Mud is one of the big surprises of the year, in my opinion – a film that hadn’t made my “must see” list but should have.

Rating: 4 stars

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Movie Reviews: Pacific Rim (2013)

Director: Guillermo del Toro

Writers: Travis Beacham (screenplay), Guillermo del Toro (story and screenplay)

Stars: Charlie Hunnam, Idris Elba, Rinko Kikuch, Charlie Day, Diego Klattenhoff

Genres: Action/Adventure; Science Fiction & Fantasy

I really wanted to like Pacific Rim even though I hated the trailer. My eyes were rolling in their sockets so wildly, I thought they were going to spin out of my head.

It had a lot of good things going for it. Guillermo del Toro is a great director, though as another friend pointed out, he hasn’t done anything great since Pan’s Labyrinth. I loved Charlie Hunnam in the British version of Queer as Folk as well as the Cosmo-nominated Nicholas Nickleby, and though I’m too scared to watch “Sons of Anarchy,” friends say he’s very good in it. I do enjoy sci-fi movies, even cheesy summer popcorn flicks that don’t aspire to greatness. And 72% of critics on Rotten Tomatoes gave it a positive rating, so it couldn’t be that bad.

So though the trailer made me skeptical, I was willing to give Pacific Rim a shot and went in with suitably low expectations.

Apparently my low expectations weren’t low enough.

Charlie Hunnam was enjoyable, especially shirtless, and might make my list for Actor’s Character You Would Most Like to be Intimate With, but the script was just awful. Even ignoring the clumsy plot holes (this, unlikely Gravity, is not a film that Neil deGrasse Tyson would bother to scientifically critique since it makes no attempt to strive for scientific realism), the dialog was clunky and the dramatic twists were utterly predictable. The special effects were nice, but in an age of digital effects, they didn’t stand out as being unusually innovative. Sure, whole cities got wiped out (how many times do we have to see the Golden Gate Bridge destroyed?), but the scale of the destruction is so immense and rapid that it becomes depersonalized.

Some of the plot weaknesses come from a deliberate homage to Japanese horror films which might delight hard-core fanboys but leaves the rest of us rolling our eyes. My favorite review snippet on Rotten Tomatoes comes from Christopher Orr of The Atlantic, who observed:

"Its visual achievements notwithstanding, Pacific Rim's greatest breakthrough may be that it's the first Hollywood blockbuster to sport a title less descriptive of its plot than of its intended market."
-- Christopher Orr, The Atlantic

I’m sure Pacific Rim will make my Cosmo list for at least one category, but that’s not necessarily a good thing. (Really, Rotten Tomato critics – 72% of you liked this?)

Rating: 1 star

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Movie Reviews: Lee Daniels' The Butler (2013)

The film tells the fictionalized story of Cecil Gaines, a butler for the White House loosely inspired by the true story Eugene Allen, who served in the White House for eight presidents, from Eisenhower to Reagan.

By fictionalizing the story, Lee Daniels is able to take dramatic liberties not only for plot effect but also, ironically, to make the film more historical. Through Gaines and his family, Daniels is able to portray significant moments in American history: the Civil Rights movement, the end of segregation, the Viet Nam War, the campaign to end apartheid in South Africa, and the election of the first African American president – events that he could allow Gaines and his family to participate in directly, in a manner that perhaps Allen’s family did not.

Fictionalizing the story may have also given Daniels' some flexibility in punching up some family dynamics that may have been rather more ordinary for the real Eugene Allen. And here the film truly succeeds, carefully weaving personal stories together against the backdrop of decades of historical events.

The star cameos are occasionally distracting, but that shouldn’t detract from the stellar performances. Forest Whitaker may well win his second Best Actor Oscar and Cosmo (his first for both was for The Last King of Scotland), and Oprah Winfrey is well deserving of Supporting Actress consideration, as is David Oyelowo for Supporting Actor. It will almost certainly make my list for Best Ensemble along with a number of other categories as well.

Rating: 4 stars

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Movie Reviews: Kill Your Darlings (2013)

There is a murder in Kill Your Darlings, but this is no murder mystery. We see killer and victim in early shots of the film, even before we know their identities, but only shortly before. This is no whodunit but rather a whydunit.

And in telling the why, most of the film is told in flashback, and the murder itself ends up being the least interesting aspect of it. The story is more about the origins of the Beat poets: Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe), his muse Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan), the victim David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall), William S. Burroughs (Ben Foster), and Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston).

Radcliffe is transformative as Allen Ginsberg, and will almost certainly make my top five for Best Actor performances. His chemistry with DeHaan, a potential Supporting Actor nominee, is palpable. I have no doubt that Radcliffe has successfully transitioned to an accomplished adult actor and will enjoy a long, varied career.

Ginsberg’s first sexual experience with a man is juxtaposed with the murder in alternating shots, and ultimately is far more interesting. As a character study and a peek at a bit of history in the 1940s, Kill Your Darlings is triumphant.

Rating: 4 ½ stars

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Movie Reviews: Parkland (2013)

Peter Landesman’s take on one of the most pivotal moments of the 20th century, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, makes for a decent movie, but one that in the end seems to lack perspective and a point.

Landesman pulls together a terrific ensemble cast, including Zac Efron, Paul Giamatti, Billy Bob Thornton, Jacki Weaver, and Marcia Gay Harden, among many others. All of them give perfectly fine performances, but none of them are given much of a chance to do much with what they’re given, and their characterizations of real, historical people lack dimension. As Abraham Zapruder, who happened to capture the assassination on film, Paul Giamatti has a few shining moments, but they’re limited.

Though the film is named after the Parkland Hospital where both Kennedy (Brett Stimely) and Lee Harvey Oswald (Jeremy Strong) are taken after they're each shot, none of the staff there – Zac Efron as the internist who first operates on the President, Colin Hanks as the surgeon, and Marcia Gay Harden as the head nurse – are given much of an opportunity to flesh out their roles, nor does the hospital itself get as much screen time as one might expect.

One would expect Kat Steffens as Jacqueline Kennedy to be the emotional heart of the story, but she doesn’t do much more than weep throughout the film. It is actually James Badge Dale as Lee Harvey Oswald’s brother Robert who stands apart, conveying nuanced emotion with his stoicism.

It’s a refreshing idea to show the Kennedy assassination through the eyes of everyday people who were unexpectedly thrust into the center of a national tragedy – but one already done a bit more deftly in 2006 with Bobby, the story of JFK’s brother Robert Kennedy’s assassination in 1968.

In the end, even a terrific ensemble needs something to work with, and the best actors in the world can’t elevate a muddled script into an awards-caliber movie. This might make my list for Best Historical Film of 2013, but I’ll have to check the competition. It should have made my list for Best Ensemble, but it probably won’t. It’s not a bad film, but it should have been much, much better.

Rating: 3 stars

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Jar Jar Binks dies

At the first Cosmo Awards, voters overwhelmingly voted for Jar Jar Binks from Star Wars: Episode 1: The Phantom Menace for Movie Character You Most Wish Had Been Killed Off in the First Five Minutes of the Film.

Now in Youtube clip, fans can finally see how that would have looked.

Movie Reviews: World War Z (2013)

In general, I’m not a super big fan of zombie movies. But there are exceptions. I loved 28 Days Later for its simplicity and focus on survival. And I enjoy television’s The Walking Dead because so much is focused on the interactions of the human survivors.

And sometimes a simple shoot-em-up zombie flick can be fun. You go into those films without any reasonable expectations of it being anything more than a popcorn flick.

But World War Z tried to be something more, and for that reason it failed miserably. Brad Pitt plays an ex-United Nations operative recruited to track down the viral source – and therefore, however improbably, the cure – of a global zombie outbreak. His race around the world changes from seeking the source (which, for a viral epidemic, seemed rather useless to me from the get-go) to instead working on a sort of a cure or protection.

Normally a shoot-em-up zombie film can gloss over the details and whatever plot hole there may be are inconsequential to the film. But a film that this that focuses on finding a cure relies heavily on those details, and the plot holes themselves become overwhelming. (If, as the film awkwardly documents early on, it only takes 12 seconds for an infected person to proceed from exposure to outbreak, how was the virus spread globally through airplane travel? Even the most elite fliers couldn’t get through TSA security in under 12 seconds.)

Eventually you have to suspend your disbelief, which is hard when the film’s plot relies so heavily on so many contradictory details. As a character film, it fails. None of the characters are more than one dimensional cardboard cutouts. Not even Brad Pitt’s character, the only one who gets significant screen time. It’s hard to really care about what happens to them. And as an action flick, many of the zombie scenes were great at first, but in attempting an epic depiction of cities overrun, the action ended up being too removed and impersonal.

Still, I must admit that I was engaged. I watched the whole thing without getting distracted by my phone or by Facebook. So that’s something, I suppose. Perhaps a potential nominee for Favorite Guilty Pleasure? Not that it was that pleasurable, but I do feel guilty about even that faint praise.

Rating: 2 stars

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Movie Reviews: Gravity (2013)

It takes a talented actor to be able to hold focus when they are the only person on screen for large stretches of a film, as Tom Hanks did in Cast Away, Ryan Reynolds did in Buried, and Adrian Brody did in The Pianist.

Sandra Bullock absolutely pulls it off in one of the most riveting performances not just of 2013 but of all time.

The cinematography is breathtaking, and the special effects are beyond amazing. Gravity will absolutely make my nomination list for both awards, as well as for Best Film of 2013.

But it is Sandra Bullock who makes this film. Every movement and facial expression is so nuanced, so carefully choreographed, so brilliantly orchestrated. At the first Cosmo Awards, Bullock was nominated for Most Overrated Actress of All Time. I thought that was a bit much at the time. But I have to believe that even her harshest critics will have to change their minds now. The Cosmos were on hiatus when Bullock won an Oscar for The Blind Side. There’s no doubt in my mind that she’s well deserving of a Best Actress Cosmo nod this year.

George Clooney is perfectly affable in his role. It’s possible he might make my list for Best Supporting Actor, though it could be a competitive year. But this is no ensemble film and, pun somewhat intended, Sandra Bullock sucks up all the oxygen and there’s no room for anyone else.

I am not, in general, a big fan of the over-use of 3D effects these days. And I can find it distracting to watch a movie on an IMAX screen. So often, I feel like I have to move my eyes back and forth to take in everything. But I found with Gravity that sitting near the back row helped me see the full screen, and the filmmakers used the 3D technology wisely and carefully.

In trying to rate this film, I was leaning towards 4 ½ stars. But in trying to articulate its flaws, I honestly couldn’t think of anything germane.

Rating: 5 stars

Friday, November 1, 2013

Movie Reviews: Carrie (2013)

So many horror movies are being remade these days, and sometimes you have to sit back and wonder why. Oh, sure, the obvious answer is that it’s an easy Hollywood pitch. When you only have 30 seconds to get the appropriate executive’s attention, it’s hard to pitch an original story. That’s why so many films are adaptations of successful books, or comic books, or stage plays … or horror films from the 70s and 80s. “Let’s remake _______, but we’ll cast _____ as the [hero/villain], and we’ll [make it truer to the original source material / change the story by adding ____ / show more of the villain’s back story / etc.].

But though it may be an easier pitch for Hollywood executives, it can still be a tough sell for fans who don’t want their classics touched. And perhaps that’s why the 2013 remake of Stephen King’s Carrie has faltered at the box office, even though I would argue that it’s a great film.

The 2013 remake works because of brilliant casting – not just Chloe Grace Moretz as Carrie and Julianne Moore as her religiously-twisted mother, but the entire supporting cast as well. Unlike the 1976 film, which seemed like it should have been Carrie: The College Years, most of the high schoolers actually look like they could be in high school. Ansel Elgort brings a wide-eyed innocence to his performance as Tommy Ross. Who could say no if he asked you to the prom? And Alex Russell brings an intensity to Billy Nolan that I don’t recall John Travolta showing in the original.

Carrie will certainly make my list for Best Mystery, Suspense, Horror, or Thriller Film of 2013, and no doubt some of the other categories as well.

Rating: 3 ½ stars