Monday, December 8, 2014

The Imitation Game Review

Whenever a biopic is made about an important figure, it should be understood from the outset that liberties will be taken with the source material. Of course. This is pretty standard. That doesn't stop all the countless internet articles from pointing out all the factual inaccuracies from such a film, but I guess it's all part of the process. Any story based on fact warrants fact-checking, we can't avoid that. What ultimately matters is how much you let those inaccuracies affect your overall viewpoint of the movie you just saw. Does the movie work on its own? Even if it's not completely accurate regarding its subject, is it at least emotionally truthful?

"The Imitation Game" attempts to be emotionally truthful towards its subject, mathematician Alan Turing. Turing developed a machine that cracked Germany's Enigma code during World War II, which helped the Allies win the war. He, in fact, played a very detrimental part in the victory, an essential part, but he received no official credit for his achievement until long after his death.

Turing's story is ultimately a tragic one. He was gay during a time when it was illegal. He subsequently was prosecuted because of his homosexuality and was given a choice between spending time in jail or chemically castrating himself. He choose the latter because he wanted to keep working, but the effects of the drugs he was given ultimately lead him to a brutal suicide.

That brutal suicide was something I had to read up on after I saw the movie. "The Imitation Game" wants to delve into Alan Turing, the mathematician, but it doesn't really want to dive in. It wants to shed light on Turing's homosexuality, but the light they shine is rather dim. This is to say, the filmmakers tried their very best to make both the math and his sexuality easy to swallow and this was ultimately very problematic for me. We never see Turing commit suicide nor do we even watch how he descended into such a fate. We are only given glimpses of the last years of his life, as the movie's primarily told in flashback. Of course the film's primarily interested in how Turing cracked the enigma code, but even then, the filmmakers take so long to get to the heart of that story.

Instead, so much time is wasted on portraying Turing as this socially-awkward, arrogant jerk who doesn't want to be friends with anybody. He doesn't want anyone's help with the machine. But, thanks to a bright young woman (Keira Knightley), he realizes he actually does need to work with these other brilliant people in order to successfully build this machine.

So much unnecessary drama is added in the first half of the movie. Clearly, screenwriter Graham Moore wanted to focus on all these different aspects of Turing's life, breaking the movie down to three time periods. Moore insists on giving Turing an arc that's riddled with so many cliches on how the movies portray scientists and mathematicians. While Benedict Cumberbatch is certainly game to play such a cold, calculating character, I can't help but wish that the writer gave Alan Turing (and Cumberbatch) more layers to work with. As it is, Cumberbatch's performance largely comes off as one-note. When the film finally gets going and Turing cracks the code, it's pretty exhilarating stuff. There's an oft-talked about scene where Turing and his team have to deal with the moral consequences of the work they're doing and it's the most gripping part of the movie.

Unfortunately, for a movie that intends to be a World War II thriller, "Imitation Game" largely comes up short. Too often, the movie goes the cliched, inspirational drama route, playing all the familiar notes one would get from a typical biopic and it's hard not to feel as if so much of this stuff was tacked on to appeal to a certain Academy. The most audience-insulting example is this line of dialogue, which is repeated three times: “Sometimes it is the people who no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine."

It's repeated so often that it's as if Graham Moore started the script with that line in mind then worked his way backwards. "The Imitation Game" just lays it on way too thick too often to be really effective. For a movie that intends to celebrate this unique hero, this biopic simply feels standard. Instead of portraying Turing as a tragic hero whose fate in life would surely anger even the most cold-hearted, the movie puts all its emphasis on Turing being a hero while making his tragic downfall feel like such an afterthought.

I give all the credit to Benedict Cumberbatch for keeping this movie watchable and somewhat enjoyable, but simply put, "The Imitation Game" is merely average. It's an insultingly average film.

Grade: C

Sunday, December 7, 2014

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 Review

"The Hunger Games" franchise has been a weird one, I must say. I was not a fan of the first film at all, as evidenced by my C- review over two years ago. My criticisms largely stemmed from the directing. The movie just didn't feel like a blockbuster, the actual hunger games came across as rather bland, and it was unsettling for me to see the filmmakers gloss over the gruesome nature of kids killing each other.

Thankfully, the producers righted the ship for "Catching Fire" by replacing director Gary Ross with Francis Lawrence. There wasn't as much emphasis on shaky camera movement, the hunger games actually had an interesting look, the characters weren't one-dimensional. Suddenly, it felt as if the world of Panem was finally coming to life. My only issue with the second film was the abrupt ending.

I ended my review of "Catching Fire" by saying the series was "on thin ice" and I really meant it. "Mockingjay - Part 1" was a tough sell for me from the beginning. I hate splitting up one movie into two. I reviewed the first "Hobbit" movie and have never bothered to watch the second one, probably won't see the third. I never reviewed the second "Deathly Hallows" film. I don't like movies that are just one large act 1, that are just a giant setup for the sequel. Movies should work by themselves. Period. This is simply something I won't budge on.

BUT, I will say, "Mockingjay - Part 1" actually satisfied me when it came to its ending. There were just as many instances where the film was confirming my fears concerning the pitfalls of "Part I" movies, but when the credits rolled - I felt relief. This movie has an ending. I want to see Part 2. As it turns out, I am actually quite enjoying this franchise as a whole. It's just a shame the first film was not very good, the second one has no ending, and the third one doesn't really know what it's trying to be until the final 15 minutes.

Katniss was rescued in the previous movie by rebels and in "MJ - Part 1," she's taken to an underground rebel facility - lead by President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) with Plutarch Heavensbee (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) as her right hand man. It's pretty clear what President Coin wants from Katniss. She's to be the "Mockingjay," the leader of the rebellion. Katniss is hesitant to accept this role and a good part of the movie goes into her initial hesitance, but once she sees what they're doing to Peeta in the Capitol, she ultimately decides to take on the challenge.

Katniss's initial hesitance is palpable, but the movie takes a little too long to get the obvious next step. Of course she'll be the mockingjay otherwise, we have no movie. Since this is part 1 and the book itself is actually a page shorter than Catching Fire (which wasn't broken into two parts) that means much more lingering, much less plot propulsion. It's interesting to see Katniss visit other districts, as the Mockingjay, but it's difficult to get a visual sense of just how effective she is as the symbol other than what we're told.

The Capitol has Peeta. The majority of the rebels think Peeta is a traitor. Katniss wants to save Peeta. It's weird to see just how focused Katniss is on the safe return of Peeta. I have never really bought that Katniss has any emotional connection to Peeta at all, I don't think we were supposed to in the first two films, so her overwhelming emotion and loyalty towards Peeta kinda falls flat for me.

As it is, and I hate to say this, but Jennifer Lawrence is asked to go big on the emotions in this film and the results are a bit mixed. The first two films, she's tough, stoic, angry---these are things that suit Lawrence well. And maybe it's because the overall tone of the film makes the emotional moments feel hollow, but something felt off about Jennifer Lawrence's performance here.

Part of that could also be because of how her character takes a backseat to much of the action. Towards the end, the movie starts to kick into gear when they make it their mission to capture Peeta, but... Katniss is not among those who help capture him. She stays at the facility while the men take care of business and we only see snippets of their plot to take Peeta to District 13. We only know how they captured Peeta because of how they explain it to us. There's just a little too much telling and not showing in this film.

This is basically a movie with no climax. There is one, but we don't see it. You could get away with not showing the capturing of Peeta if this was the first half of the movie, but if his escape from the Capitol is to be the centerpiece of the film, then you better show it!

I kept starting and stopping when it came to writing this review. I don't get excited about writing reviews to "Part 1" films, I just don't. Because, despite the film ultimately satisfying me on a basic level, this is still just half of a movie and I don't like writing about half a movie. I'll give the filmmakers credit for making this feel big and having "Part 1" come to a conclusion we can all be happy with, but they better deliver with "Part 2" or this whole franchise just might turn out to have been one gigantic waste of time.

Grade: B-

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Long Take Episode 3 - Interstellar Review

Forgot to post this last week. Here's the 3rd episode of The Long Take where Justyn and I talk all about Interstellar for 90 minutes. It's our best episode yet and my audio doesn't sound like complete dogshit! We're moving on up, baby!

We hope to record ep.4 early next week.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Foxcatcher Review

There is a brooding sense of doom all throughout the 130-minute runtime in "Foxcatcher." The film is based on a true story and the facts are easily available if you want them, but "Foxcatcher" is best experienced without knowing too much about the actual events that occurred. No matter how much, or how little, you know about the people involved in this film, director Bennett Miller instills a tone throughout the movie that makes it abundantly clear that this will not end well. And yet, when the climax unravels, it really seems to come out of nowhere. A senseless, heinous act occurs late in the film that immediately makes you question everything that came before it. There's no doubt "Foxcatcher" will send a chill down your spine once the credits roll, but how long will it linger in your mind afterwards? Is this movie as deep as it thinks it is?

That's the question I asked myself upon further inspection. I dug the tone of the film, I dug the pace. The acting from Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo is phenomenal. Steve Carell anchors the film, I can guarantee you've never seen him like this before. Was he as good as Tatum and Ruffalo? Eh... we'll get back to that.

But "Foxcatcher" did not really hit as hard as I expected it to. It's a creepy film, but not exactly haunting. It'll make you feel uneasy, but you'll be able to sleep at night. Bennett Miller insists on underplaying the drama in this film, instead wanting to let the events of the film play out as naturally and realistically as possible. In doing this, I wonder if Miller underplayed his hand a little too much. Again, Tatum and Ruffalo are fantastic in their roles, but are they really given a chance to get to the core of their characters? Together, they play the Schultz brothers, each of whom have won an Olympic gold medal, as well as countless other accolades in the sport of wrestling. Their lives are forever changed when a wealthy man by the name of John duPont takes a serious interest in their sport and offers both brothers the chance to train with him (only the younger brother, Mark, takes him up on the offer... initially).

What do we know about these brothers? Mark (Channing Tatum) is the younger of the two and the movie makes it clear that there is a part of Mark who feels he's merely in his older brother's shadow. DuPont's offer allows him to make a name for himself without the help of his brother, but there is a weirdness to duPont that makes the whole situation feel uneasy and uncomfortable. DuPont appears to have a deep interest in wrestling, but we don't really understand why. Is it to impress his mother? His mother thinks the sport is "low." Or maybe he, similar to Mark, would also like to get out from under his mother's shadow. There's something a bit childish about duPont's behavior throughout the movie, but he also carries with him a dangerous hubris. You want to feel bad for him because he ultimately seems lonely and strange. All his life he's had the silver spoon in his mouth, but perhaps he never really got enough attention when he was a kid.

DuPont has created a gym for Mark to practice in and has allowed him to invite other elite wrestlers to train with him. DuPont lets Mark stay in a guest house and gives him plenty of amenities. He claims he wants to make him great. He claims he's a patriot. But who is John duPont really? As the older brother, David, says at one point... what exactly does he get out of all of this?

The movie leaves you asking a lot of questions, but it doesn't really shake you the way it should. Channing Tatum is at his very best here as Mark. Tatum has the unique ability, with the right director, to find depth within his characters while also bringing a physicality to his role. There's no doubt his performance in "Foxcatcher" is largely a physical one, but with each wrestling match, Tatum always brings something slightly different to the table. No match feels the same in this movie. They all feel equally important and you can always feel the weight of that importance.

But there are many other times when his character feels a little too boxed-in. All these characters feel a little boxed-in, thanks to the brooding, yet delicate tone. Favoring natural-ness over melodrama works for director Miller in a lot of ways, but it also doesn't make the movie's climax feel as intense or as gripping as it should be. You can say the "matter-of-fact" approach is exactly the point, that violence can come from anywhere or anytime. Yet, I feel that there is so much more to this story that Miller's streamlined approach just doesn't give us and when you do look up the true story after the movie's over and you figure out the ways Miller and his screenwriters played with the facts, you wonder if those changes were really all that effective in the end.

I hate to sound too vague and I don't want to take the movie down too much. Ultimately, this is a very good, very solid film. Some critics have had the nerve to call this movie slow and I resent that term for a movie like this. "Foxcatcher" always hints that the events that are taking place in this movie, no matter how small or seemingly innocuous, you always get the sense that the movie is heading somewhere. It's just a question of how much the movie's payoff really get to you. For me, I just feel like Miller only really scratched the surface to a case that suggests some really fascinating complexities. And I wonder if the movie's climax is only shocking to me simply because it feels sudden or if it's because of what I know about these characters. You can decide for yourself when the movie eventually hits a theater near you.

But to close, about Steve Carell. Much has been made about his performance. He's never stretched out his acting abilities the way he does here and he deserves to be commended. He was asked to do a lot here, he's really sort-of the anchor of this film. But beyond the makeup, the hook nose, and the overall creepiness to his character, while I think Carell was very good in his role, I wasn't completely sold on the performance. I feel like Carell gets the mannerisms and some of the behavior ticks down pat, but I don't think he really goes beyond that. And that might be another factor as to why I didn't fully embrace this movie, with a movie like this, it's the great performances that matter in the end. Like I said though, I feel like each of these characters are a little boxed-in  so I don't put the blame entirely on Carell. I just don't think the screenwriters or Bennett Miller go nearly as deep with these characters as they could have.

And that's a shame, especially if you know just how long it took Bennett Miller to get this movie off the ground. I don't doubt that he and his writer Dan Futterman went through great lengths to make the movie the way they wanted to make it. Perhaps some fine details were lost in trying to make a movie so meticulously, so preciously. Perhaps, this movie is simply too controlled, too calibrated, when it really just needed to let loose.

Grade: B

Sunday, November 9, 2014

VOD: "Snowpiercer" review

They have been doing this for two decades now and so it's a wonder how they manage to run a successful business. The Weinstein brothers, especially Harvey, is nearly always at the center of attention whenever the Oscars come around. A number of their films has achieved great financial and critical success as well as a fair share of accolades. Most recently, Quentin Tarantino's last two films have both grossed over $300 million worldwide and the brothers have won the Oscar for Best Picture twice in the last four years (though it's been two years since their last win). They even look to be in position to win their third BP in five years, thanks to the strong buzz surrounding "The Imitation Game."

But it seems like Harvey, and his brother Bob, are straight-up gamblers. They bet on all the horses to find that one winner, then toss the rest aside before the others even get a chance to shine. It's a wonder why any filmmaker, who isn't Tarantino or a director of an Oscar-bait film, would want to work these guys. Time and time again, if Harvey Weinstein personally isn't crazy about your film, it gets shelved and then dumped into VOD. There was a fight to get "The Immigrant" on the big screen earlier this year and despite the high per-theater average, the Weinsteins still dumped the film on VOD weeks later.

But "The Immigrant" is a rather deliberately-paced drama (which I loved, mind you) so one could kinda understand where Harvey was coming from. But "Snowpiercer"? This crazily fast-paced action film starring Chris Evans aka Captain America? The dude who's starred in one of the highest grossing films of all-time? And is the head of his own franchise? You have that dude in this crazy action movie, directed by a highly-acclaimed South Korean director and what does Harvey do? He shelves the movie and dumps it on VOD. This is a movie that has otherwise grossed over $80 million worldwide. That's how little Harvey thinks of you, American audience.

OK, so I may have gotten sorta off-track here, but I had to get that off my chest. Because I recently caught "Snowpiercer" on Netflix and, given that it was released earlier this year, I felt obligated to review it. I didn't expect much from it because of the way it was handled, but considering the movie's been universally praised and, more importantly, considering how goddamn badass this movie is at times, it's a real head scratcher how this movie was handled.

There are movies nowadays that try to come off badass and fail, but "Snowpiercer" is not one of those films. This is a deftly-handled, action-packed brawl of a film that captures its general mayhem with the same amount of fury and control as "The Raid: Redemption," but with a much better story, better acting, and less emphasis on ultra-violence.

The movie is heavily symbolic and tackles themes such as individuality, class, and the fragility of humanity. It uses global warming as a backdrop. Really, within the first five minutes of the movie, you pretty much know what's going on and what will happen for the rest of the movie: an experiment to counteract global warming has nearly killed every human on Earth, the ones that have survived now live on this train that's equipped with a perpetual-motion engine and its tracks go all around the world. In the back of the train are the heavily-oppressed lower-class people who eat disgusting protein bars while the rich live in the front of the train and get to enjoy all the excesses of life.

The man at the very front of the train is who Curtis (Chris Evans) is after. Curtis lives in the back and ultimately winds up becoming the leader of his own revolution for "his people" to take the front of the train. But each car presents an entirely new, different, and dangerous challenge to he and his fellow lower-class passengers. But Curtis insists on making it to the front, no matter how many lives are lost.

What's fascinating about Bong Joon-ho's film is how Curtis, at first seems to be the hero of the film, but as time goes on, Curtis reveals a rather ugly side. He becomes so insistent on making it to the front of the train and killing the captain that he actually becomes less human and just as blood-thirsty as the people who've oppressed him. In that respect, "Snowpiercer" is a very thought-provoking film in spite of its non-stop action.

Yet I could not overlook just how exciting and intense the action is in this film. Bong Joon-ho handles these scenes brilliantly, always finding a new way to make them interesting so as to not make the film feel repetitive.

And the film is anchored by a strong performance from Chris Evans who reminds you that he's got some pretty impressive chops when he's not donning the tights in those Marvel films. He perfectly captures the darkness in his character, but also lets some light shine in, giving Curtis many layers as a result.

This movie is simply bonkers. It's an insane premise in the first place so the fact that it, ultimately, works is an accomplishment in itself. Things do get a bit heavy-handed towards the end and perhaps a little too clever for its own good. The abruptness of the film's ending does kind of feel a bit of a letdown even if it makes sense from a thematic standpoint. Nevertheless, this is a very good and solid action film with great performances not just from Evans, but also Octavia Spencer, John Hurt, Tilda Swinton, Ed Harris, and Song Kang-ho. I really enjoyed this movie, and you can catch the flick on Instant Netflix right now. It's unfortunate, however, that I wasn't able to enjoy this on the big screen. This is not some direct-to-DVD kinda movie, this is a top-notch production that happened to have been shelved by a person who has no idea how to market movies if they're not obvious Oscar contenders. Ah well.

Grade: B

AFI Film Festival: "Two Days, One Night" Review

I'd never attended a screening at a film festival before Friday night so I did not know what to expect, but man, it was quite the experience. If you're a movie-lover and you have a chance to watch a movie at a film festival, any film festival, take that chance whenever possible. The experience is heightened when the director(s) and the star of the film happen to be there too. I've been to screenings where there were Q&A's afterwards, but Friday night's screening of the Dardennes brothers' "Two Days, One Night" was just a very classy affair. Almost too classy. I had to ask myself at one point, "do I belong here?"

It was surreal. And it was also surreal to get to see Marion Cotillard in person, as well as the Dardennes brothers. While, sure, it's indeed exciting to see the beautiful and talented actress in the flesh, getting a chance to sit through a Q&A with the Dardennes brothers was a trip in itself. American audiences, unfortunately, may not be too aware of these guys, but since 1996 these Belgium brothers have made a movie every three years and each time, they achieve great acclaim. Just look at it this way: their LOWEST rated film on rottentomatoes is "L'Enfant" which is at 86%... and "L'Enfant" won the top prize at Cannes back in 2005. Not too shabby, eh?

Their work is now more visible thanks to The Criterion Collection putting out "La Promesse" and "Rosetta" on Blu-Ray which were the first two films of theirs that really put them on the map. They've also released The Dardennes's most recent film "The Kid With a Bike" on Blu-Ray, a film you can currently catch on Instant Netflix. Even so, with two P'alme D'ors under their belt, three films in the Criterion Collection, and the consistent critical acclaim, these guys still seem to come up under the radar.

And that might be because of the general understatedness of their films. The Dardennes's films aren't overtly cinematic or showy. They are about low-middle class/working class Belgian people and their day-to-day struggles. I've read one critic describe their films as being "poetic neo-realism" and I think that's an apt description. Their best work reminds me of Vittorio De Sica's neo-realist films, although they've cultivated a style all on their own.

And while I have only seen a handful of their films (really, because the others are so hard to find), the movies of theirs that I have seen have always left a considerable mark on me. And "Two Days, One Night" is no different in that regard.

The aforementioned Marion Cotillard is the star of "Two Days." Her character, Sandra, is a wife and a mother of two. She's been suffering through a serious bout of depression, something she claims to have gotten over when the movie starts. Her depression lead to her missing work for a period of time, but now she's back and ready to get going again. Unfortunately, her boss has decided that they don't really need her anymore and has given his employees (and her co-workers) this damning ultimatum: either you each get a 1,000 Euro bonus or Sandra keeps her job.

Sandra's co-workers hold a meeting regarding this issue, without Sandra knowing about it, and they ultimately vote 14-2 in favor of getting a bonus. Naturally, when Sandra finds out about this, she's devastated. She's just been through a serious episode of depression, decided she's ready to go back, and now she's getting fired? And worst yet, her co-workers agree to her being let go? What's a person to do in that situation?

Luckily, she's been given a second chance by her other boss, who's agree to make the co-workers vote again that following Monday. There's talk of the co-workers being co-erced into voting against Sandra and so another round of voting will occur, to make things more fair. But now Sandra's about to embark on a rather uncomfortable journey: trying to convince each of her 16 co-workers to vote for her, despite the fact that they'd be losing 1,000 Euros.

"Two Days, One Night," starts off as a rather rough journey. We are literally following Sandra as she visits each and every one of her co-workers. Either she phones them, visits their home, or tracks them down elsewhere. Watching someone go through this would normally be a laborious process, but that's where the Dardennes differ from your average filmmaker.

Through the course of its 95 minute time, you soon become deeply engrossed into Sandra's life. There's her ever-supporting husband and oblivious, but sweet kids. But, really, this is all about her. Marion Cotillard appears in every scene and she manages to find an incredible balance in showcasing her character's depression without ever delving into melodrama. As a result, it's easy to get captivated in this world.

Even better is the way this film explores empathy and how each of these 16 co-workers handle Sandra's ultimatum. Another brilliant stroke from the Dardennes is that none of co-workers react in a similar way. When we meet these people, they each have differences in opinion and behavior that is striking. Some feel uncomfortable but are firm in refusing to let go of their bonuses, some break down in tears at the thought of letting Sandra go----the Dardennes don't judge or favor any character over the other, we just see these characters for who they really are: as flawed human beings.

There are many points throughout the film where Sandra tries desperately to stop fighting for her job. Visiting each of her co-workers embarrasses her. It makes her feel like a beggar. But in embarking on this little journey, the wonderful thing is how Sandra slowly and quietly begins uniting her co-workers, establishing a stronger bond among them that they may not have had before. There's something very heart-warming, yet real about how the Dardennes let the events unfold. Sandra forces her co-workers to look her in the eyes, empathize with her situation, and then tell her that she must be fired. And what's even more brilliant is how the Dardennes turn the tables on her and put her in a similar situation. How will she react when she has to decide the fate of one of her co-workers?

There were a handful of occasions where the movie dips a little too much into the melodramatic, and the film is almost too light in its overall approach. It definitely does not have the same gut-punch that their 1999 film "Rosetta" had. "Rosetta" follows a rather similar plot but in much rougher circumstances. "Rosetta" is not a film I'd like to revisit, but it's one of the more powerful dramas I've ever seen. "Two Days, One Night" isn't quite as powerful or as wholly gripping, but it will find a way to stick in your head ever so subtly.

The Dardennes continue their incredible winning streak with this sweet little gem of a film and while Cotillard's work in "The Immigrant" from earlier this year may have been more showy, her performance in "Two Days, One Night" might be her best yet. She fit into the Dardennes world rather easily and makes me hope the Belgium brothers work with her again sometime in the future.  She's at the top of her game, the directors are the top of their game, and the end result is pretty magical.

Grade: A-

Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Long Take Episode 2 - All About Christopher Nolan plus Nightcrawler review

2nd episode of The Long Take featuring me and my good friend Justyn Moore. We talk Nolan (before we saw INTERSTELLAR) and review Nightcrawler.

Ep 1 is off Soundcloud because it costs money to host more than 3hrs of audio content. The first ep is now on youtube in three parts:

Interstellar review


WARNING: potentially major spoilers ahead

There are moments in "Interstellar" that are so breathtaking, I was legitimately in awe. My mouth was agape; I could not believe what I was seeing. Christopher Nolan and his crew not only captured beautiful images, they blew the doors off my imagination. For a good hour or so, really, "Interstellar" is deeply inspiring, blissful, wondrous, intense, gorgeous. There came a point where I actually felt that I might just be watching Christoper Nolan's masterpiece.

And then it came. The black hole. The moment Matthew McConaughey's character decides to make a brave decision to enter a place where no man has gone before. Once we find out what this place really is, that's when everything falls apart. Is this "black hole" going to bend our minds beyond comprehension? No, instead "Interstellar" decides to enter cheap, hokey, overly-sentimental territory which completely takes the wind out of the movie's sails. Nolan's incessant need to have everything "fit" undoes the movie and it made me realize that, through it all, no matter how great the visuals are, no matter how ambitious the movie is, everything begins and ends with the story. Ultimately, "Interstellar" is a marvelous visual spectacle with an incredibly weak story. 


It starts out promising enough. The movie does not open in space like "Gravity." Set in the future, the movie begins on planet earth, a world that is severely lacking in food. Cooper (McCounaghey) is a former-astronaut who's forced to become a farmer due to these dire circumstances. He lives in a town that it's in the middle of a nasty dust storm and is the father of two children. His son will most likely become a farmer as well, but his daughter Murphy is destined for something much more.

In the first act, while we're waiting for the inevitable: Cooper to put his astronaut suit back on and explore the world, we are left with all these puzzle pieces and hints about a ghost in Murphy's room that's trying to tell her something. This is Nolan's first real dive into the supernatural, and for me, I sensed that there was something strange and off about this whole ghost thing. Nevertheless, I was still willing to go along for the ride.

Cooper and Murphy, by accident, wind up finding NASA's secret headquarters. This is where we meet professor Brand (Michael Caine) and his daughter (Anne Hathaway). Brand tells us of NASA's mission to discover new planets, thanks to a mysterious wormhole that's been located in one of Saturn's rings. A mysterious wormhole? What? 

Before I can question the movie's logic at this point, we are off in space. Pretty soon, any questions I had simply dissipated. Believe me when I tell you, once again, that the scenes in space are breathtaking. "Interstellar" goes way beyond what "Gravity" merely hinted at. "Interstellar" is a must-see film, especially at an IMAX theater, because of the second act of this movie. I won't get too much into details here, but watching Cooper's crew explore the universe and these new planets was really a sight to behold. 

A common criticism with Nolan's other films is their lack of emotion. With "Interstellar," Nolan goes all-in on the emotions and, for the first 2/3s of the movie, it mostly works. When Cooper's crew enters these strange new planets, it's said that each hour spent on these planets equal 7 years in space. After their mission inside the first planet goes awry, more than 20 years have passed on planet Earth. This leads to some very heart-wrenching and emotional moments.

But when the movie tries to go for the big, deep, emotional climax, that's when it all comes crashing down. Because Nolan is such a literalist, as exemplified by the sheer amount of exposition that's in nearly all his films, he forces all the "supernatural" aspects of the first act to fit with the third act in such a literal, heavy-handed way that it makes the emotional ending feel incredibly superficial.

"Interstellar" has the ambitions to enter "2001: A Space Odyssey" territory, but its forced emotional beats takes it down to below "Contact" territory. I've been a huge fan of Nolan's for over a decade. I love "Memento", I greatly enjoy "The Dark Knight" trilogy, and "Inception" is one of the best blockbusters of the 2010s in my opinion. "Interstellar" did not do it for me, but it's not because of Nolan's critics who constantly put the director on blast for not being emotional enough. Maybe we should just accept the fact that Nolan just isn't an emotional guy. Just like Tarantino will always love violence and creating cinematic pastiches, just like Wes Anderson likes to construct his films with a very dollhouse, "make believe" look... there's no sense in trying to fit a square inside a round hole. Nolan's insistence in trying to make "Interstellar" an emotional experience completely undermines everything that made the first 2/3s of the movie feel so spellbinding.

With his ninth film, and with his Batman trilogy out of the way, Christopher Nolan really tries to shoot for the stars and I admire the hell out of him for that. But he completely misses the mark here. You would think the first 2/3's greatness would be enough for me, but it's really not. The final act of the film is so literal and obvious that all the expositionary dialogue that came before is just completely cheapened.

Don't let my words deter you from seeing the film, however. "Interstellar" is an absolute must-see in theaters, I cannot deny that. Just proceed with caution and hopefully you'll have a much better overall experience than I did.

Grade: C

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Nightcrawler review

The way in which "Nightcrawler" works is pretty interesting. It has the look and feel of a genre film, but the specificity of its subject matter and its darkly comic tone suggests an entirely different and fresh experience than what you may be used to. Dan Gilroy's debut film follows Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) who lives alone, but is not your typical loner type. He's not really a people-person, and as one person points out, he has a weird, robotic way of talking to people.

Lou wants to make a name for himself and is willing to do whatever it takes in order to succeed. In the beginning, we watch him making a dishonest living by stealing from construction sites. But he makes a pretty sudden career change once he finds out he can make money by videotaping crime scenes and selling the footage to a TV news station. Lou soon buys himself a videocamera and dives into the world of video journalism head on. He even manages to get some footage sold pretty quickly and finds himself making a decent living, but is it really an honest one?

Well? Legally, yes. Morally and ethically? Probably not. But this world is very real and Gilroy's film is fascinating in the way it makes us peak behind this ugly curtain. Everyday after we watch our shows, the local news comes on and they show us footage of "the scene of the crime." Well, who's filming that? And how soon after the crash did they get there? How are they getting all these images? As a TV viewer, you don't think about the actual construction of TV journalism, but as "Nightcrawler" shows, the ethics behind it are shaky at best.

What makes "Nightcrawler" work unequivocally, and the reason why it's one of the best movies of the year, is because it's not preachy nor does it try to manipulate the audience into feeling a certain way. Lou Bloom is not a very nice man and has absolutely no qualms about the work that he does. There's a point where Lou gets to the scene of an accident before the police, and moves a presumably dead body just so he can get the perfect shot. That may sound horrible on paper, but you can't help but laugh when you actually watch it unravel. "Nightcrawler," as creepy and unsettling as it is, is a black comedy through and through. There are many moments throughout the film that are just flat out hilarious simply because of how ridiculous this world is. And Gilroy manages to find the perfect balance between proving a point while never losing his cheekiness or his sense of humor.

This isn't a movie to be taken 100% seriously. It's a morality tale, it's not supposed to be wholly realistic. I've seen the movie get compared to "Network" in the way it skewers the media and I agree with that comparison, but "Network" is also broadly satirical and has many humorous moments. If you disliked "Network" and thought it was preachy, you probably won't love "Nightcrawler" either, but if you recognize the darkly humorous quality that "Network" brings, you will get a kick out of this movie. I never thought of "Network" as being a docudrama, the way things play out are pretty clearly melodramatic. "Nightcrawler" isn't as heavy on the melodrama, but it never attempts to suggest that this what the media really is like.

Really, I think what "Nightcrawler" and Dan Gilroy are trying to say is that this is what things could be like or what they could turn into, if we're not careful enough. Lou Bloom is a megalomaniac. He makes it explicit, at one point during the movie, that he doesn't like people. Think of the implications of that. He actually gets a certain amount of joy in the work that he does, when the images he's capturing are horrific. He actually says towards the end of the movie, with a smile on his face: "When people see me, it's usually on the worst day of their life."

What kind of person gets joy out of a job like that? Probably not very many, but what "Nightcrawler" suggests is that this is a road we could go down. Guys like Lou Bloom should not be able to succeed, but they do because we allow him to.

Rene Russo plays Nina, the morning news director that Lou always sells his footage to, the network she works for is always last in the ratings. So, she's desperate for a "hit." Lou's got a unique eye. The footage he brings to the table is shocking and it very much crosses an unspoken line, but Nina knows that, deep down, it's what the people want to see. People love watching TLC or Investigation Discovery, the latter of which is often aptly described as "murder-porn." We love our true crime stories. Why flip it to Investigation Discovery when the local news has a story that's just a juicy and whose footage is just as violent?

As said before, this is Dan Gilroy's debut feature film. Now, this guy's been in the business for quite some time. He's made his living as a screenwriter previously, most famously, he worked with his brother Tony Gilroy on the screenplay for "The Bourne Legacy," which Tony directred. "Nightcrawler," in many ways, is a family affair. Tony Gilroy helped produce, and Dan's other brother John Gilroy edited the film. And last, but not least of all, Rene Russo happens to Dan Gilroy's wife and she plays a prominent part in the movie.

Yes, Dan Gilroy is married to Rene Russo and they have been together for over twenty years. So, when you think about it, Dan was with her all throughout her heyday when she was an A-list actress back in the '90s. What happens to A-list actresses when they're at the top of the game? Paparazzi follows them everywhere. Magazines like Us and People make a living off snapping photos of celebrities. You wonder why Dan Gilroy decided to make his debut feature as a satire of the news media, and being married to Rene Russo gives you a pretty clear answer.

But instead of the writer/director going on the defensive, he crafts this intelligent, genre-y black comedy. Dan Gilroy isn't saying "shame on you, media," in many ways, he's just taking the piss. He's shining a light on some serious issues here and the way he does it is smart. Because the tone of "Nightcrawler" is darkly humorous, it allows the director to really go for it. And this gives Jake Gyllenhaal free reign to take his character to some pretty exciting places.

This is, without a doubt, Jake Gyllenhaal's best performance of his career. He's never been this demented before. Most of Gyllenhaal's previous characters had the aura of being innocent while suggesting that something dark lies beneath. In "Nightcrawler," the innocence is gone. His character is just a full-on asshole, and you know what? He's deliciously fun to watch.

The main cast is capped off by the aforementioned Rene Russo who really gets to show off some serious chops here. I also got a real kick out of Bill Paxton's performance, despite its relative brevity. Paxton plays another freelance cameraman who's been working the game for over a decade. What's brilliant about "Nightcrawler" is that, instead of making Paxton's character become Lou Bloom's mentor, Bloom insists on there being competition between the two of them. Because, why not? We live in a capitalistic society, baby. It's every man for himself.

There are just so many layers in this movie, despite the length of this review, I actually haven't revealed much of anything. "Nightcrawler" is an immensely entertaining film on the most basic level, but it doesn't take much to understand that there's a lot going on in this film than initially meets the eye. This is a movie you revisit time and time again because it's got a lot to say, but it also has the intent on giving the audience a real thrill ride. Seriously, there's a car chase sequence near the end of the film that really kinda comes out of nowhere and it's one of the most electrifying action scenes that I've seen this year.

And above it all, I couldn't possibly end this review without mentioning the exquisite cinematography. Robert Elswit has been behind the lens of several other movies that take place in Los Angeles, but never has he made Los Angeles look as creepy as he does here. Elswit shot the day scenes on 35mm film and the night scenes via digital and the effect is quite fascinating. LA just illuminates in a way that's similar to a Michael Mann film and he really makes the location become a whole other character in itself.

As far as debut features go, this is almost unfair. Dan Gilroy has been a working screenwriter for several decades. He's got two brothers on his side, his talented wife is the co-lead, and he's able to attract a big name like Jake Gyllenhaal whose career is on the rise and cinematographer Robert Elswit, who was practically born to shoot Los Angeles. Gilroy would've really had to try to screw this one up, instead he goes above and beyond what's required of him and makes a hugely entertaining movie that works on every level. This is a tight 120-minute movie that doesn't drag and ends right when it should. "Nightcrawler" simply hits all the right spots.

Grade: A

Friday, October 31, 2014

FURY review

It's hard to make a World War II movie nowadays and really have it stand out. There are so many WWII movies out there that if you watched all of them, you would probably understand the war from just about every angle imaginable. The era of WWII was a fascinating time. There were clear villains and clear heroes. It's a war that impacted the lives of millions of people all around the world and it exposed just how horrific and ugly humanity could be, in a lot of ways.

But WWII also symbolizes victory for the good guys. When it comes to war stories, documentaries, movies----we always come back to World War II and it's easy to understand why. After all, we won. It's always fascinating to hear stories regarding World War II, but it's telling just how much we dwell on the era. Sure, there have been plenty of movies made about Vietnam and several movies and documentaries have been made about the Iraq War and ongoing war in Afghanistan. But it's curious to see filmmakers continuing to mine stories out of the WWII era, considering the fact that we're well into the second decade of the war in Afghanistan. Is another movie about WWII really necessary?

Earlier this year, George Clooney made a movie about WWII from a much different perspective, the perspective of a group of men who are sent to Europe to preserve historical pieces of art. "The Monuments Men" was unfortunately botched in the execution, but at least the story was different enough to justify its existence. This month, writer/director David Ayer, primarily known for his films about the LAPD, has also decided to take a stab at making a WWII movie, this time from the perspective of a tank crew. We may not see as many movies made about tank crews in World War II, but is "Fury" good enough to justify its existence?

In terms of technology, Nazi Germany had America beat when it came to tanks. The Germans' tanks were much more advanced and more difficult to topple and that is shown here in "Fury," particularly in a scene where four American tanks go against a giant German tank and only one manages to make it out alive.

"Fury" takes place during the last few days of World War II, but you wouldn't know America was coming close to a victory by the attitudes of these men. Understandably. If you've been battling for over four years, constantly fearing for your life on a daily basis, you wouldn't hold much optimism for your future either. But these men, lead by Brad Pitt's character Sgt. Collier, stick together through thick and thin and it's through their camaraderie and experience that they're able to survive.

But not everyone in Collier's crew survives. When we first meet Collier, his assistant driver/bow gunner is already dead, and the Army scrambles to find him a new one. Pvt. Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman) has only been in the Army for eight weeks and has zero tank experience to speak of. But he's thrown in with the Fury crew anyway and he soon finds that his naivete and innocence has no place with this crew. Things get especially hairy when the Private refuses to shoot a teenage Nazi soldier and several lives are lost as a result.

In "Fury," it's either kill or be killed. And you feel that tension from beginning to end, especially when Pvt. Ellison shows up. The only thing that relieves the movie of that tension is the chemistry among these men. That's why it's too bad these main characters are all so one-dimensional. You have the deeply religious Boyd Swan (Shia LaBeouf), whose nickname is literally "Bible." There's Cpl. "Gordo" Garcia (Michael Cena), who is the token minority. There's the overly-macho meathead, Pfc. Grady "Coon-Ass" Travis (Jon Bernthal) who always seems eager to bust shit up. And rounding out the main cast are the aforementioned Sgt. Collier and Pvt. Ellison.

Brad Pitt's character, Sgt. Collier is the closest to having a real personality, but when I watch this stoic yet barely-keeping-it-together character on screen, I can't help but think of Tom Hanks in "Saving Private Ryan." Logan Lerman is also not given much chance to shine, despite the praise that's been given to his performance. Private Ellison's character arc from scared newbie to trained professional just comes off completely flat and it's been done so many fucking times. And Ayer demonstrates no effort in making Ellison's character feel new and original.

Even in a 134-minute movie, Ellison's character doesn't appear to have much time to grow the way he does here. "Fury" is supposed to be set over the course of one month and it just seems highly unlikely that Ellison would, on one day, be so unwilling to kill a soldier that his superior officer literally has to pull the trigger for him... to, all of a sudden, being ready and eager to kill, all the while shouting "Fuck you Nazis!" in the midst of battle.

It's not that David Ayer doesn't give Ellison a reason for this shift in character, it's just that the reason he gives is so lame, so rote, so overdone that it just doesn't work. In one of the movie's quieter moments, Sgt. Collier takes the private to a frightened German woman's apartment. He and his men had just finished an excruciating battle and now it's time to relax. When the Sergeant discovers that there's a second woman hiding in the apartment, instead of losing his cool, he decides this is now the perfect moment for Private Ellison to "pop his cherry" so to speak. And, over the course of a couple of hours, we're supposed to believe that the private connects with the woman so profoundly that he actually, seriously, falls in love with her.

Perhaps a director with more touch and grace could have pulled this scene off, but David Ayer is not exactly a romantic-type. I'm withholding some key information about this scene so as to not spoil it, but needless to say, the sequence is supposed to be the turning point in which Collier is no longer a boy, but "a man." It's cliche, it's rushed, it's by-the-numbers. It just doesn't work.

There are some amazingly intense and extremely well-done battle sequences here and it's given the added touch of taking place largely inside a tank. The claustrophobic effect is palpable, but by the time we get to the film's rousing and bloody conclusion, we have been given nothing from these characters to elicit a true emotional response.

We're supposed to choke on our tears and have our hearts go out to these guys when they decide to take on an entire squad of German soldiers by themselves. They don't have to go out in a blaze of glory, but it wouldn't make for much of a movie if they didn't. So, they give everything they got until they run out of all their ammo and it's a thrill to watch, but those thrills ultimately feel hollow.

In the year 2014, at a time when America's war-weariness is perhaps at an all-time high, it's just impossible to watch a movie like this and not think about the fact that we are in our 13th year of war. It's understandable, surely, in the year 1945 to hear these soldiers proclaim that their job is "the best job" they've ever had, but it's weird hearing it in the year 2014 when, really, all we want is for our beloved soldiers to come home. You have to wonder what the motivations are for David Ayer to want to write a WWII movie like this. "Fury" has absolutely nothing new to say about World War II, or about war in general. Ultimately, it just feels generic.

Grade: C

Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Long Take episode 1 - "Previous Channel"

My good friend Justyn Moore and I have started up a movie podcast called The Long Take. Every two weeks we will dive deep into movies that will be coming out soon and we'll talk about the directors who make them. Neither of us take ourselves that seriously though and we'll always spice things up to make our podcasts fun and enjoyable to listen to even if you don't always agree with what we're saying.

In this episode, we talk about Gone Girl as well as what are favorite movies were at ages 5, 10, 15, 20 and 25. Enjoy.

My audio isn't the best quality. That will be remedied by episode 2. And we'll keep adding and fixing things to the show and testing out the format and playing with the layout... needless to say, we really wanna have fun with this thing  and make it fun to listen. It should be interesting to see how it evolves; hopefully it'll get better with each episode.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

BIRDMAN review

Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu is not exactly known for his sense of humor. So, in many ways, "Birdman" feels like a necessary breath of fresh air. It's an attempt to inject some new life into his career, into his filmography... which started to falter over the last 8 years. If you've been following this site for any length of time, you'd know I'm a huge fan of Inarritu's debut film "Amores Perros" and I very much enjoyed his follow-up film "21 Grams" as well.

But after "Babel" and "Biutiful," two films that seem to wallow a little too much in its misery and seem more concerned with its "message" than the characters that appear on screen, it seemed Inarritu had hit a bit of a crossroads. From the announcement of "Birdman," however, and to the unveiling of the first trailer of his latest movie, it soon become quite clear that this was going to be a very different beast. Is it a good kind of beast? Is it up there with his debut film? Does it show a lot of promise, a hint at a new and promising direction? Personally, my answer is both yes... and... no.

Yeah... unfortunately, a week after seeing it, I still have not been able to fully embrace "Birdman" in spite of my overall admiration of the film. It stars Michael Keaton as Riggan Thomson, an aging actor who's trying to get his career back on track by writing, directing, and starring in a Broadway play, adapted from the work of Raymond Carver. "Birdman" is unique is that it was made to feel as if the entire movie was captured in one take. For long stretches, we are right up in Riggan's face. We are forced to be sucked into his world for nearly two hours (or, well, the movie spans over the course of 3-4 days). In that time, we're introduced to his stoner daughter (Emma Stone), his ex-wife (Amy Ryan), and his agent/lawyer/assistant (Zack Galifianakis).

And then there are his fellow players on the stage, including Lesley (Naomi Watts) and Mike Shiner. Lesley catches a big break by starring in this play as it's her very first time on Broadway. Meanwhile, Mike Shiner (played by Edward Norton in easily one of his best roles of the last decade) is her boyfriend, a method actor who is a natural on stage but a complete asshole in real life.

"Birdman" features an array of colorful characters, but they're largely filtered through the eyes of Riggan Thomson. Everything's filtered through his eyes, as a matter of fact. And there are some fascinating sequences that show just how unstable Riggan Thomson's mind is.

The long takes are impressively made, exquisitely shot. There's no doubting that, but I can't help but feel that this method of filmmaking has some limitations. While the characters around Riggan are rather colorful, they are not as interesting when they are left by themselves. There is a subplot between Sam (Riggan's daughter) and Mike Shiner that didn't really fit, for me, with the overall scope of the film. Sure, you know Mike Shiner for a minute and you immediately understand that he should not be anywhere near Riggan's daughter and while the time Shiner spends with Sam does give the character some sense of humanity, he doesn't really reveal anything that we don't already know about him.

In other words, with a movie shot like this, it's very important that this story unfolds in a largely visual way. This is why long takes are so effective when they are used in certain films. But when the film is only a series of long takes, the dialogue doesn't really feel as cinematic or as vital as it should be. The characters, aside from Riggan Thomson, do not seem to matter as much.

So while I loved the way the film uses these different sets and locations inside this Broadway building that the movie takes place in, I am not quite sure the long takes services the story and these characters that well. It services Riggan pretty well and we certainly get to learn much about him, but even with him, when he reminisces about his marriage with his ex-wife, the emotional beats do not really have the same effect as they would have, if the dialogue was shot differently.

Long takes can be an immersive cinematic experience, but what I realized with "Birdman" is that it can also push you away from having a real emotional connection with the story. And while I certainly enjoyed most of this film and it has plenty of great, funny moments (including a fight scene between Norton and Keaton), I just did not connect with it. I say this knowing that many people will connect with this film and I know it's been getting mostly critical raves from many different sources, but "Birdman" is a case where I admired the makings of the film much more than the film itself.

As for Inarritu, this movie may show a lighter side of him, but there is a suffocating effect to this movie that is similar to "Babel" and "Biutiful." While the film mostly pokes fun at Riggan's self-seriousness and self-examinations, it's hard not to feel a little suffocated when you are strapped to such a self-absorbed character for nearly two hours. For some, this movie will be an incredible cinematic ride; personally, while I enjoyed the ride, it didn't exactly sit right in my stomach afterwards... and I'm not sure I'd get back on that ride anytime soon.

Grade: C+

Thursday, October 16, 2014

"Whiplash" review

There's a moment near the very end of "Whiplash" that confirmed to me that this wasn't just a good movie, but a great movie. JK Simmons's character Terrence Fletcher is conducting his band and Miles Teller's Andrew is on the drums. At this point of the movie, and this is not a spoiler, it's safe to say these two characters hate each other. But when Miles Teller wails away at the drums with perfect precision,  both characters realize something: they need each other. Finally, they've come to an understanding with each other and if they were to continue this relationship, there's no telling what they could accomplish.

"Whiplash" is not just about music, it's not just about the will to be great, it's about encouragement/discouragement. What's constantly recited in "Whiplash" is how famed jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker had a cymbal thrown at his head by his teacher and it never phased him. Terrence Fletcher comes off like a mad genius, but in some instances he just seems mad (as in "crazy"). Andrew wants to be one of the greatest jazz drummers that ever lived and Fletcher challenges him at every turn. He slaps him, he promises him a spot in the band and then takes it away, and he makes him play for hours on end until his hands start to bleed.

Are Fletcher's methods outdated? Some would say yes, I would certainly agree that he crosses a few lines. But I certainly believe his sincerity when he says "The worst two words you could ever tell a person is 'good job.'" I believe that Fletcher believes that his methods are the only way you can turn a good musician into a great one. And perhaps he's right, maybe the world's lacking in truly great talent because nobody's willing to throw a cymbal at someone's head anymore.

Andrew is a completely driven individual and while Fletcher's methods aren't for everyone, they just might be suitable for Andrew. Andrew might cower at first when Fletcher first scolds him, but then he responds by practicing on his kit all night. He does everything he can to get better: he isolates himself for long periods of time, he breaks up with his girlfriend, he doesn't make any friends. Trying to become one of the greats is a very lonely proposition, but that's what Andrew wants. And thanks to Fletcher's volatile style of teaching, that's what he'll get.

"Whiplash" explodes with energy and intensity, particularly when Miles Teller and JK Simmons are acting opposite each other. This movie is very much a two-hander. Terrence Fletcher is the character JK Simmons has been waiting to play for his entire career and he completely nails it. A lesser actor could've made Fletcher go completely over-the-top and turn into self-parody, but JK Simmons instead plays the character with all the right notes.

And while he gets plenty of deserved praise, his co-star deserves just as much attention. Miles Teller has been on the rise the last few years, particularly thanks to his turn in last year's "The Spectacular Now," but he brings forth his best work here in "Whiplash" and reminds me a little bit of young, mid-'80s Tom Cruise (circa "Color of Money"), though he doesn't quite have Cruise's perfect blend of douchiness and charisma. Instead, Teller's character comes off as completely likable and sympathetic even when he coldly shuts down his girlfriend. While writer/director Damien Chazelle doesn't exactly give Andrew much to work with when it comes to character details, Miles Teller brings something to the character, non-verbally that tells you everything you need to know about him.

This was a very impressive movie indeed and just as much praise belongs to editor Tom Cross, whose handling of the big concert sequences are so exhilarating to watch. And while the film kinda loses a little bit of spark in the scenes where Teller is away from his drumkit and the characters who aren't Andrew or Terrence Fletcher are barely given much to do, because Teller and Simmons are so excellent, nothing else hardly matters. This is a remarkable debut film and the movie's final scene will rock your socks off (or should I say jazz your socks off?).

There's something to be said about the specificity of this movie. I've said it before, I love movies that show us a specific world in a specific place and time. For the rest of the world, nothing Andrew and Terrence Fletcher does particularly matters. But in their world, nothing could be more important. For 100 minutes, for me, nothing was more important than watching Andrew try to become one of the all-time great jazz drummers. And the fact that this movie actually made me want to go out and listen to a few jazz records, that's an amazing accomplishment in itself.

Grade: A-

Friday, October 10, 2014

Gone Girl review (spoiler-free)

Note: I tried really hard to make this review spoiler-free, but there may a few little phrases here and there that give a little away. So, proceed with caution. And, for those who've seen the movie already, I'll be doing another, separate review filled with spoilers when I watch "Gone Girl" a 2nd time later this month. Carry on...

David Fincher's done a pretty good job of establishing his films right from the opening credits. Take a look at two of his most recent films for example: you had the black liquid oozing through keyboards (among other things) in "Dragon Tattoo" and who can forget "The Social Network" where we watch Mark Zuckerberg shuffle through Harvard University after getting dumped by his girlfriend. Both opening credits set the tone for what will follow and "Gone Girl" is no different. "Gone Girl" features quick cuts of a suburban neighborhood with the credits appearing and subsequently disappearing in a flash. Already, you know that something's not quite right. While it may seem like an ordinary view of a suburban town in midwestern America, the quick cuts suggest something quite unsettling is about to happen in this movie.

And it doesn't take us long to figure out what's wrong. Nick Dunne's wife, Amy, has gone missing. When he calls the police and they come over and see the house in near-perfect condition, they immediately have suspicions of their own. What's Nick hiding? Could he have killed his wife? Soon, Amy's parents are called into town and the media catches wind of the story. It's all over headline news. Nick can't escape the intense media scrutiny. The only solace he has is with his twin sister Go, but not even she can help him if the police put the handcuffs on him.

By now, you've probably heard a bunch of hubbub over this movie. If you have not read the novel, written by Gillian Flynn, I would suggest you keep it that way. Read the novel second, watch the movie first. How this story unfolds is so shocking to the uninitiated, I would need to write a completely separate essay in order to cover it all. Needless to say, the further we get into the belly of the beast, the more twists and turns we find. "Gone Girl," at one point, drastically switches from a police procedural to a pulpy, twisty, violent thriller. And you never really know what's about to happen next.

The believability of the first half is pretty much cast aside for the craziness of the second half. The reason why I was hooked from beginning to end is because of how masterfully crafted this film is. Like Fincher's last two films, it's incredibly slick, a well-oiled machine and its pacing is so on point, you'll hardly notice its 150-minute running time.

Much like "Dragon Tattoo," Fincher elevates the material. This whole thing could've easily fallen apart if it wasn't so brilliantly directed nor if it didn't have such a great cast. Ben Affleck as Nick Dunne is genius casting, flat out. He's so perfect for the role and while he doesn't get as many juicy scenes as Rosamund Pike, who plays Amy, he still manages to play Nick as enough of an asshole that keeps you from fully embracing and sympathizing with his character. And it becomes clear at a certain point, no matter how fractured their marriage became, Nick and Amy are most definitely perfect for each other.

Pike is a revelation. She plays Amy with a certain amount of iciness and unpredictability and showcases a remarkable amount of range for a role that requires so many different layers. This cast is filled to the brim with great actors aside from Affleck and Pike. You'll never look at Neil Patrick Harris the same way again, and Tyler Perry shows us just how great of an actor he can be when he's outside his comfort zone. You have Kim Dickens and Patrick Fugit who play the detectives, and while they aren't given as much characterization, they certainly hold their own pretty well in their scenes with Affleck. Carrie Coon is also wonderful as Margo Dunne, Nick's twin sister.

But I gotta tell you, once the shit hits the fan in this movie, it's like a jolt through the system. I think that's why there've been such varying reactions to the movie as a whole. It's gotten mostly positive critical notices, but there are some very loud detractors as well. Ultimately, I don't think "Gone Girl" is quite good enough to be lauded as among Fincher's best. The craziness of the latter half of the film is entertaining as hell and it's a pure blast to watch, but it kind of takes the film down just a notch. As much as I tried to sit back and enjoy the ride, the tonal shift that occurs in the middle of the film was hard for me to swallow. As a result, I feel "Gone Girl" has two great halves of a movie, but as a whole? It's essentially a well-made B-movie. An extraordinarily well-made B-movie, granted, and I would love to fully embrace a B-movie that works on all cylinders, but it really feels like a tale of two movies instead of being one cohesive whole.

Consider this my spoiler-free review. There's so much more to talk about when it comes to this movie and hopefully I can find the time to really dissect the film. And who knows? Maybe a 2nd viewing would make me feel better about the whole tone shift thing. Nevertheless, ten films in, David Fincher is slowly becoming the Alfred Hitchcock of this generation. He has a style completely of his own and he explores themes that are much different than Hitchcock, but they both have the same twisted sense of humor. They both love to take on seemingly B-movie material and elevate it to something that's special. They both have an affinity for genre. Fincher will never have as extensive a filmography as Hitchcock does, but he's one of the few directors working today that even comes close to being on Hitchcock's level. Even though I would not rank this among Fincher's very best, I would not complain if he made movies like "Gone Girl" for the rest of his career.

Grade: B+

Monday, October 6, 2014

Obvious Child review

Believe it or not, I've been waiting for a movie like "Obvious Child" to come around for quite some time. We've had so many movies deal with unwanted pregnancies where only one outcome is considered: keep the baby. Juno and Knocked Up are two movies that come to mind and I enjoy those movies just fine, but it's kind of refreshing to see a romantic-comedy go the alternative route. Donna Stern (Jenny Slate) has two choices when she finds out she's pregnant and she chooses to have an abortion. That's it. That's what going to happen. I love how "Obvious Child" deals with the subject straight on while still finding a way to mine comedy out of these characters and even allow time for some romance.

And of course, the romantic stakes in this film is much different than in your typical rom-com. Donna's a stand-up comedian who finds out her boyfriend's been cheating on her and Donna does not take this well. She takes out her frustration on the stage, through angry voicemails, some slight stalking, and yes, through alcohol. Of course.

During one of her drunken stupors, she meets a seemingly nice and charming man named Max (Jake Lacy). What I love about this character, Max, is that despite how kind, shy, and rather soft-spoken he is, you learn just enough about him to find him interesting, but not too much that you aren't privvy to what his next move will be. Max meets Donna at the bar where she does stand-up. Luckily for Donna, he hadn't seen her completely bomb while on stage. In fact, she's managing to kill it with Max despite her drunken ramblings.

Max and Donna eventually leave the bar and things get pretty hot and heavy when they head over to Max's apartment. As you might expect, this leads to a one night stand which leads to the unwanted pregnancy. And once Donna makes the very painful decision to have an abortion, she spends the rest of the movie trying to find a way to tell Max.

I don't know, I loved this movie. I loved Donna so much. I know people like Donna. And I know people like Nellie (Gaby Hoffman), who plays Donna's super supportive friend who helps guide Donna through this extremely difficult process. Donna's a comedian. She deflects everything through comedy. The movie makes a point not to let the heaviness of this abortion affect the tone too much. The conversations with Max, with Donna's mother, the stand-up set she does the night before Valentine's Day (day of the abortion)---all of these scenes have a degree of weightiness to them, to the point where there's no need to make it weightier. The comedy that's mined from these situations is both funny and poignant. If the movie played up the dramatic aspects of this situation, it could've easily become unbearable to watch. It would've just turned into a Lifetime movie of the week. I applaud writer/director Gillian Robespierre for the amount of control she shows in both her script and in her directorial choices. This is a movie that both plays it as straight as possible, and with a lightness to it that, honestly, is pretty realistic.

So the movie kinda has a rom-com formula going on, but it works for me because there isn't another romantic comedy out there that deals with an issue as real as this. When Donna is having a nice date with Max but can't seem to find a way to tell him what's really going on - I felt that. I understood that innately. Despite the fact that the movie has a clear formula, a clear arc, at no point did I feel that any of this was contrived. And when the movie turns sweet at the end, considering the events that had preceded this final moment, a sweet ending just felt right. In "Juno," Michael Cera and Ellen Page are fucking singing to each other via acoustic guitars. Why can't the same scenario play out here?

What really moved me about this film was just how alone Donna feels throughout the film, but slowly she realizes she's not alone. There are several women out there who've been in situations just like her. She has nothing to be ashamed with. And yes, it's an event that she'll remember the rest of her life, but it doesn't define her. Just like it doesn't define any other woman who've gone ahead with this decision.

Agh. It was hard to write this review because, obviously, abortion is such a hot-button issue and I didn't want this review to veer off too much into politics. But I'm just so glad this movie exists, I really am. I think this is what movies are made for, in a way. I've said it before in my "Boyhood" review: people have no empathy these days. Through facebook, twitter---it's very easy to cast judgments on people because you don't have to meet said people in real life. Movies force us to at least try to empathize. Even if you don't agree with Donna's decision, can't you just take 85 minutes of your time and at least try to have some empathy? This movie forces you to understand the perspective of the other side of this decision-making process. Because the truth is, either decision is the right decision for that particular person in that particular time. And for the young women who are going through this very situation now, or in the future, they now have a movie that tells them that, whatever your decision is, you're not alone.

"Obvious Child" is not perfect. Who would expect it to be? After all, it's the directorial debut for Robespierre. The movie does fit a little too neatly within its rom-com constraints and I think it would've been nice to see Max and Donna have a real conversation about what's going to happen. I think there were a few too many cases where real drama could've been played out between these characters, but the writer/director eschewed that, perhaps consciously because of the seriousness of the subject matter.

Still, this is a remarkably confident and assured film that's capped off by beautiful performance from Jenny Slate. I hope this is a star-making performance because Slate is enormously talented and after seeing her play such wacky characters on "Kroll Show" and "Parks and Recreation," it's nice to see that she can dial it down and still be interesting to watch on screen.

But, again, Gillian Robespierre deserves the bulk of the credit for the relative ease in which she constructed the movie. "Obvious Child" has a very low key, unassuming feel that's digitally shot, but there's not much hand-held. Save for one painful, yet funny scene where Donna awaits the results of her pregnancy test (the only scene where we get an exclusive look inside Donna's thoughts), Robespierre pretty much lets the actors do their thing and the results are top-notch. I never thought I'd say this about a movie that deals with abortion but... I would happily revisit this movie. It's only 85 minutes long, yet these characters are so lovable and well-written that I feel like I really got to know them in spite of the brisk running time. And while it took me a few months to finally catch "Obvious Child" on Itunes, I will be sure to be there opening weekend whenever Robespierre gets around to making a second feature. I can't wait to see what she does next.

Grade: A-

Monday, September 29, 2014

Under the Skin review

"Under the Skin" takes its time. Its pacing is deliberate. It's an unforgiving film. If you watched the trailers, you should have an idea of what you're in for, but really, there's really no other movie like this. The best way to describe it is "Eraserhead meets 2001." So, if you like both those movies, you may be able to stomach "Under the Skin," but for many others, it won't be their cup of tea.

This is a movie that doesn't belabor its point. It doesn't spell everything out for you. Scarlett Johansson plays an alien that seduces strange, lonely men and, quite literally, leads them into oblivion. That's the only way I can describe what happens to them. That doesn't really spoil anything for you, so don't worry.

As I describe the film, it must be noted that none of that is really spelled out or explained. There really isn't a wholly logical, reasonable explanation for what she's doing. The only thing we have is what we see. This is a strictly visual movie. There's dialogue, sure, but most of the dialogue (if not all) is inconsequential to what's happening from a visual standpoint. So, if you can follow a movie visually, you should be able to get along with the film just fine... unfortunately, that doesn't really describe the majority of the general audience.

Even some refine cineastes may balk at this movie because so many people have forgotten what movies were really supposed to do, originally. A movie is really only supposed to tell its story visually. When we get close-ups of Scarlett's eyes and face. When we see her naked body lit up and surrounding by darkness, these visuals mean something. There's a man who drives a motorcycle who apparently runs the operation Scarlett Johansson's character is involved in, but they never talk. I can only infer that she follows his orders based on their behavior. For me, this is all very fascinating. I love a movie, and a director, that trusts its audiences implicitly and very clearly constructs his film from a visual standpoint. The most recent example of this is last year's "Upstream Color" by Shane Carruth.

"Upstream Color" was one of last year's great films. "Under the Skin" is one of the best films of this year. Yet the former has a 6.8 on IMDB and the latter has a 6.3. Very underwhelming ratings. And I consider IMDB's ratings to speak for the general moviegoing public. Maybe IMDB leans more towards fanboys and teenagers, but whoever saw Under the Skin collectively gave it a 6.3 rating. Now I don't expect everyone to like the film as much as I do, but it's telling to me that so many people just have no patience for a movie like this. Of the 35,000 votes on IMDB, over 3,000 viewers gave the movie a 1. I normally don't talk about or obsess over these details, but there's a reason why I'm doing it this time

Because I know the reason why most people (ok, most males) saw this movie. It's because Scarlett Johansson gets naked in it. That's it. I can guarantee you that's the sole reason. Now I have nothing against those who enjoy that kind of titillation, but it's actually fascinating in this case because "Under the Skin," to me, is a study on that type of titillation.

"Under the Skin" asks why. Why do men find Scarlett Johansson so attractive? Why is that so many of these lonely Scottish men are so willing to get into the van of a stranger? Why is it that they are so hooked on her face and her body and can't look away until they're submerged in a liquid they can't remove themselves from? Again, "Under the Skin" is not an outwardly feminist movie or anything like that, this is really just my interpretation. But for me, the context clues are most definitely there.

This film, in many ways, feels like a condemnation of the way men treat women. The males who populate this movie are horny, violent, desperate, lonely, angry. There's only one man who treats Scarlett's character fairly and he's one of the only ones who resists an ill-fated demise. It may seem cruel or unfair or mean to treat men this way, if it weren't so goddamn accurate and true. Again, most men saw this movie because they knew Scarlett Johansson would get naked. They are the strange, lonely men who get in the car! But as a result of watching this movie, they don't quite get what they want. Sure, she's naked a few times in the movie, but the audience has to wade through long takes with close-ups on Johansson's face. There are no sex scenes. There's lots of build up but no pay off. So, of course, the movie is repellent to them. And this is exemplified perfectly by a scene at the very end of the movie where the alien nearly gets raped by a man in the forest. A man who originally was helpful to her. But because she didn't give him what he wanted, the man reacted violently and tried to take what he wanted from her. When she didn't have the tools necessary for him to take what he wanted, he then... well, you'll have to see for yourself.

"Under the Skin" is a very bleak, yet very accurate look at today's society. It sheds men in a very unflattering light and you know what? We deserve it. Look at the way we treat beautiful young celebrity females who are constantly the object of our affection, whether it'd be on TV, the movies, magazines, music videos, whatever it is. We hack into their cell phones and post their photos all over the internet. Women are not safe. You could easily imagine a woman like Scarlett Johansson being constantly gawked at. This is an actress who had naked photos of herself plastered on the internet just a few years ago. We took something away from her that she spent her entire career trying to prevent us from seeing. And this movie is the perfect fucking response to that entire controversy. You want to see me naked? You want this? Well, go ahead and see it. But I'm not going to make it easy for you. And in this movie, I am the hunter, not you. There's something very empowering and quietly confident about Johansson's performance here. She doesn't have much dialogue, but there's a way about her, a natural on-screen charisma that is explored and turned on its head in this movie.

Of course, my interpretation of "Under the Skin" may not be shared with others. I haven't really read any other reviews of the film. But Jonathan Glazer, in my view, really made a work of art here. This is a movie that's worth examining. It's worth exploring in further viewings. And it contains one of the most disturbing and inexplicable scenes that I have seen in quite some time. I don't even think I scratched the surface with this review, but it's best you go into this movie as cold as possible. Don't worry about seeing ScarJo naked. Just watch the film. Let it unfold. Don't force it to make sense to you. I watched the movie over a week ago and many of these thoughts have come to me days after I saw it. I'm sure if I saw it again, I'd get even more out of it. We have to treasure movies like these. Movies that dare to explore, dare to examine the depths and ugliness of humanity without giving us any clear answers. Because, really, there is no clear answer as to why anything happens in this movie, but it doesn't matter. This isn't merely a movie you watch, it's a movie you feel. And when you can find yourself truly getting sucked into "Under the Skin," it's an experience unlike anything else.

Grade: A

Sunday, September 21, 2014

They Came Together review

They Came Together

They came together. The best thing a movie title can do is, at the very least, give you a sense of what kind of movie you're about to watch. "12 Years a Slave" is probably not going to be a romantic comedy. You would never read the words "Dawn of the Dead" and think it's a Disney movie. There are certain movie titles where you just know exactly what you're going to get and "They Came Together" is one of those titles. You know where the movie's heart is with a title like that and, thankfully, this a movie that 100% lives up to its goofy, pervy title. It's an obvious joke, and yet it's so boldly obvious that it's something I can't help but be tickled with. They went there. And throughout the 83-minute running time, screenwriters David Wain and Michael Showalter keep the silliness and the absurdness at a high level up until the very last shot which has Paul Rudd smirking at the camera. In many ways, this is just a pitch perfect rom-com spoof.

So, tell me then, why does this have a paltry 5.4 rating on IMDB and a 41% audience approval rating on rottentomatoes? Have moviegoers lost their funny bone? Have they lost their marbles? Can they not tell the difference between a great spoof and a terrible spoof? I've even seen a critic compare this movie to "Date Movie" and "Disaster Movie." This is not one of those movies! Not by a long shot! And if you can't recognize that, then you are just not a very perceptive person. "They Came Together" is everything a romantic-comedy spoof SHOULD be. It sticks to its storyline, almost obsessively, and yet it finds time to find humor in every scene. 

Everything in this movie is slightly off-kilter. From a jar of tiny condoms to Christopher Meloni shitting himself in a superhero costume and then having the nerve to blame it on someone else... "They Came Together" manages to go into all these little directions while never getting too sidetracked to tell this incredibly trite, cliched story.

The main storyline is pretty much ripped from the pages of Nora Ephron's "You've Got Mail" screenplay. Molly (Amy Poehler) is your short, sweet Meg Ryan-type who owns an indie candy shop. Joel (Paul Rudd) is your requisite Tom Hanks, who works for a major candy corporation. Of course, the corporation seems destined to take down Molly's little shop, and yet, she falls in love with Joel anyway. 

That's pretty much all you need to know story-wise, as the rest of the movie is best left being a surprise. But what's wonderful about "They Came Together," compared to the disgustingly cynical Friedberg/Seltzer movies is that Wain and Showalter come at this material really knowing the ins and outs of a typical romantic comedy. They both love and hate the genre, that's what makes this such a pointed parody. If they just flat out hated rom-coms, then they wouldn't have been able to get all the little details right. But they got the mandatory montage which, for no reason, turns into a Norah Jones music video. They got the perfect leads to really take the material into hilarious directions. The movie really just feels like a labor of love, with a cast that's filled to the brim with talent and a director (David Wain) who knows how to make a good comedy.

Perhaps the film's only real flaw is just how cheaply shot it is. It would've been even better if it captured the ridiculous glossiness that you always see in a rom-com like this. Wain's last two movies, "Wanderlust" and "Role Models," were legit studio comedies and, I don't know, there's something about the cheapness of "They Came Together" that keeps it from being an out-an-out classic. It's absolutely insane to me that a movie with a cast like this couldn't get a budget higher than $3 million. 

Ah well. It still works beautifully. Seriously, this is one of the best all-out spoofs that I've seen since the glory days of Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker. It seems destined to become a cult classic. And perhaps the best thing about "They Came Together" is the way it captures New York City. Like, seriously, it's like a whole other character in the movie! 

Grade: B+

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Magic in the Moonlight review

Magic in the Moonlight

My apologies if this review seems a little rushed. It kind of was...

It's been well-documented; the fact that Woody Allen makes a movie every year. Some people marvel at this feat, others wish some of his recent films would bake a little longer in the oven. Personally, I think Woody Allen is going through a sort of renaissance as a filmmaker. Some of his work in the 21st century, particularly in the early/mid-2000s were just bad. But movies like "Match Point" and "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" showed that the man still had a spark in him. He still had interesting stories to tell.

Since "Midnight in Paris," however, Woody Allen's movies seem to be connected in a way. "Paris", "To Rome With Love", "Blue Jasmine" and now "Magic in the Moonlight" are both obsessed with the inevitability of death and the necessity of finding a connection with someone to share your life with. "Magic," especially, seems keen on exploring the after-life and whether or not anything happens to us when we die. And it's when the movie explores these themes is when it's at its most interesting.

Unfortunately, an undercooked script, a few phoned-in performances (particularly by Colin Firth), and a completely ridiculous "almost ruins the movie"-type ending keeps "Magic" from reaching the heights of "Jasmine" and "Paris." Firth is just unconvincing as the mean, smug magician who spends most of the movie convinced Emma Stone's character is a fraud. When he suddenly has a change of heart, he's even less convincing! I usually like Colin Firth and it's been said that Woody Allen kinda lets actors do whatever they want. So, you can have someone like Cate Blanchett who came to "Blue Jasmine" bringing her A-game, but if an actor's not willing to put their all into a performance, then you get Colin Firth in "Magic in the Moonlight."

Emma Stone was not spectacular either, but she was still entertaining as the young woman who's convinced herself that she's really a clairvoyant. Firth manages to get through the film by his natural charisma and charm, but I just didn't buy his nastiness and I didn't buy his romance with Stone's character. This makes the all-too-predictable romantic ending feel especially shallow and forced.

But the film is wonderfully shot by Darius Khondji, who makes the South of France look like magic. There was one particular scene where Firth and Stone are walking through a flower garden and I could help but marvel at how green the greens were and how the colorful flowers just popped out on the screen. It once again demonstrated to me just how seductive a movie experience can be when it's shot in 35mm.

And I also liked where Woody Allen was going with the idea of this film. There was quite a bit of humor to be found here, thanks to Emma Stone's character, who once again proves that she's one the brightest young comic actresses working today. She's tried out sultry, seductive roles in "Gangster Squad" and has played the love interest in the "Amazing Spider-Man" movies, but she's at her best when she gets to show off her comedic chops. Hamish Linklater is also pretty entertaining as the man who's completely smitten by Stone, but his attempts to court her are so ridiculous and chessy. It's no wonder he can't hold onto her.

Is "Magic in the Moonlight" watchable? Oh yes. It just does not rank anywhere near Woody Allen's recent best. Some people called out the film for being too "light," but I think that's what keeps the film from being an outright misfire. There are bits and pieces of "Magic" that still makes me think that Allen is working at a high level, hopefully his next film with Joaquin Phoenix will be more fully-realized than this.

Grade: C+