Saturday, January 31, 2015

Top 20 Films of 2014


Well, it's almost February of 2015 and, now that I have finally caught up on all the movies I wanted to see, it's time for me to do my year-end list. 2014 was a crazy year for me and looks like 2015 could be just as crazy, but I'm happy to tell you that KenonCinema is celebrating its five year anniversary this year. It's been a wild ride and while my blogging has been more sporadic in the past year, I don't plan on slowing down anytime soon. I hope I'm still doing this in 2020!

So, back to the list. This was incredibly difficult to put together. Seriously. Perhaps the hardest year-end list I had to do on this blog. What I decided to do this year is to expand this to 20 films instead of 15 or 10. It was way too hard to just do 10. Even when I expanded to 15, I was still not happy. It just had to be 20 this year. No other way around it. But, I've seen everything I wanted to see so I'm ready. I'm ready to dive into the incredible year that was 2014 and share my list with you.

So let's get on with it!

Honorable Mentions (in a lesser year, these would definitely get in the top 20) :
They Came Together, Mr. Turner, Blue Ruin, The Theory of Everything, Edge of Tomorrow, Frank, Snowpiercer, and Foxcatcher.

Most unfairly maligned movies of the year that I wish to give shout-outs to:
Godzilla (Didn't make my list, but I greatly enjoyed it.)
Noah (a wonderfully weird film, may have made the list if I saw it a 2nd time)

And now the list... for real!

20. Guardians of the Galaxy
Director: James Gunn

If not for the weak villains and a rote third act, "Guardians of the Galaxy" could have been the superhero classic we've all been waiting for. But hey, it's still an incredibly entertaining ride with a terrific cast and there are several moments within the film that genuinely thrilled me. James Gunn deserves a ton of credit for finding a way to embed his vision inside the massive machine that is the Marvel Universe. It's a superhero film with its own funky personality. I dig it.

 19. A Most Wanted Man
Director: Anton Corbijn

Knowing that this was Phillip Seymour Hoffman's final starring role definitely makes "A Most Wanted Man" a much different viewing experience than normal. But it's even harder to process Hoffman's death, while watching this film, because you can clearly tell that he was still at the top of his game. His character, Gunther, carries a sadness and world-weariness to him. He's been in the espionage game for a long time now and you can feel his frustration with constantly being undermined at every turn. It all builds up to an unforgettable finale that will leave you frustrated---and that's exactly the point. "A Most Wanted Man" is a smart, well-crafted spy thriller that's not easy to swallow... for multiple reasons.

18. The LEGO Movie
Director: Phil Lord and Chris Miller

It's still amazing how directors Lord and Miller were able to make "The LEGO Movie" this good. A movie based on toys should never reach this level of excellence and yet, here we are. They didn't just create a movie that's hilarious and incredibly appealing to both kids and adults, they also made it look easy. "The LEGO Movie" has a balls-to-the-wall zaniness to it that doesn't let up throughout its entire running time, but what's even better is that this movie actually has something meaningful to say about childhood and growing up. It's hilarious, it's fun, it's silly, it's... oddly inspiring? Absolutely.

17. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Director: Matt Reeves

You don't start to realize how basic of a film "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" is until you start watching "Dawn." How many times do we see sequels attempt to outdo their predecessor by going "bigger" and failing miserably? Well, "Dawn" goes bigger, effortlessly succeeding the previous film by miles. "Dawn" is so wonderfully complex and richly thematic for a Hollywood blockbuster, often blurring the lines between which species is more violent and barbaric. By the time Koba charges towards the humans while riding a horse and firing a machine gun, I was in cinematic heaven. It sounds silly, and it should be silly, but goddamnit, it worked. It all worked.

16. A Most Violent Year
Director: JC Chandor

I cringe whenever I see "A Most Violent Year" get described as a gangster film. Not even close. There are gangsters in the film, sure, but they're not the focal point here. Instead, JC Chandor has crafted an engrossing story about a man in charge of an oil company, trying his best to remain clean and legit in spite of the violence and corruption that surrounds New York City circa 1981. It's both a morality tale and a critique of the American dream. What does it take to get to the top, beating out your competitors in the process? In this world, it's almost impossible unless you get your hands dirty. Or bloody. "A Most Wanted Man" is about a cautious man who tries so hard to do everything right, but he lives in a city where that's just not possible. Watching that struggle unfold is incredibly compelling to watch.

15. 22 Jump Street
Director: Phil Lord and Chris Miller

2014 really was a breakout year for Lord and Miller. With both "The LEGO Movie" and "22 Jump Street," they were given incredibly difficult tasks and still knocked each one out of the park. I'd argue "22 Jump Street" is an even tougher task given how many comedy sequels have failed in the past. But the brilliance of "22 Jump Street" is that it's actually a parody of "bad comedy sequels" and the film gets every detail right while still managing to work on its own merits. Plus, the chemistry between Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum is just undeniable. The spark they created in the first film carries over perfectly to the sequel and the film just made me laugh from beginning to end. Here's to many more Jump Street movies!... just kidding.

14. Whiplash
Director: Damien Chazelle 

Generally speaking, when a movie premieres at Sundance and a bunch of buzz surrounds it, you don't expect it to have brass balls. "Whiplash" has brass balls. It features two fiery performances: one from Miles Teller, and the other is from JK Simmons. JK Simmons has been getting most the credit for the success of this film, deservedly so, but Miles Teller definitely holds his own. His character, Andrew, will stop at nothing to become the best jazz drummer he can be. Not even a car crash can stop him. Terence Fletcher (Simmons) pushes Andrew to his very limits. Together, the two establish a very, very unhealthy relationship. One that benefits and fuels Terence's ego, but could very well be ruining Andrew's life. "Whiplash" asks, what does it take to be truly great? Then turns that question onto its head. 

13. Calvary
Director: John Michael McDonagh

It's downright shameful how little attention Brendan Gleeson has received for his wonderful performance as Father James in "Calvary." Gleeson has been such a great character actor for so long; he's proved his comedic chops in "In Bruges" and "The Guard," but "Calvary" shows that when it comes to drama, he can hang with the best of him. There's a sadness and a darkness to Father James that's heightened even further when his life is threatened in the beginning of the film. "Calvary" is a film about a man who tries to find a way to make amends with a world that seems to have no use for him. This is some really powerful, moving stuff.

12. Two Days, One Night
Director: Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne

For each of its 90 minutes, you can feel Sandra's (Marion Cotillard) struggle in "Two Days, One Night". Here is a woman who's just been through an intense bout with depression. She's healthy now, she's ready to go back to work. But her bosses have given their employers a very difficult, unfair ultimatum: get a bonus and fire Sandra, or keep Sandra and get no bonus. It's incredible how the Dardennes brothers are able to take these simple plots and make them into something so layered and profound. Sandra has to find each of her co-workers and ask them to keep her job. It's a laborious process that just gets more and more difficult as the film goes along. By the end, while Sandra doesn't get the triumph you'd expect her to get, she still manages to walk away with her dignity in tact, and you can't help but feel proud for her.

11. Locke
Director: Steven Knight

Holy shit, this film. It still blows me away just thinking about it. Eighty-four minutes of Tom Hardy driving in a car and we get a movie that's this compelling and tense. Writer/director Steven Knight sets up the situation as simply as possible, then slowly adds more and more details to this character and his situation until you realize that this is a man that's on the verge of a complete mental breakdown. He makes a choice in the beginning of the film to turn left or turn right, and it's a decision that forever changes his life. I was following the movie along pretty nicely, but it's when Ivan Locke starts looking in his rearview mirror, having imaginary conversations with his dead father, that's when I was sold on the film forever. "Locke" truly is a demented film, in all the best ways.

10. Obvious Child
Director: Gillian Robespierre

There is a warmth to "Obvious Child" that radiates even if it's shot in NYC in the middle of winter. Jenny Slate gives a breakthrough performance as Donna Stern. She showcases both comedic and dramatic ability with equal grace and it's through her performance that the film is able to come across as naturalistic even if it does have familiar romantic-comedy tropes. Donna Stern is faced with a decision that millions of women have had to face before, a decision that thousands of women are faced with everyday. So often, in movies, only one side of this story gets depicted, but "Obvious Child" boldly goes the other way. Donna will have an abortion and her life will go on. Will there be regrets? Will she always be asking "what if"? Perhaps. But this is not a decision that defines her and it's not a decision that defines this movie. The movie keeps its lo-fi romantic-comedy tone in spite of this dark subject matter, and that's why it works so wonderfully. An excellent debut from Robespierre and, as for Jenny Slate, I'm completely sold. I will see anything that she does next, she's that good in this movie.

9. The Immigrant
Director: James Gray

Marion Cotillard has one of the most cinematic faces in movies today. There's just something so striking about her face that I can't look away. I'm captivated. And she gives a captivating performance here as Ewa, who's fresh off the boat from Poland, and hopes to have a happy life with her sister in the United States. That all changes once she catches the eye of Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix). While she waits in line with her sister on Ellis Island, her sister has been diagnosed with a lung disease and Ewa's nearly deported. Bruno saves her from deportation, but it comes at a cost. Throughout the entire film, Ewa has one goal: find her sister, save her sister. She goes through a whirlwind of emotions as she's forced into prostitution, but she never loses sight of that goal. Cotillard gives one of my favorite performances of the year and she's filmed beautifully in this film, which has that same brownish hue that's reminiscent of the flashback scenes in "The Godfather Part II." That's quite the comparison, I know, but "The Immigrant" is very much its own beast altogether. 

James Gray has made a little name for himself with his films. They each have a very formal, classic structure with plots that are very much straight-forward but rich in theme, character, and atmosphere. "The Immigrant" feels like a culmination of all his previous efforts. He has topped himself, without a doubt. I can't wait to see where he goes from here.

8. Gone Girl
Director: David Fincher

We get so many terrible third-rate thrillers, year after year, that when a movie like "Gone Girl" comes out, it's a real treasure. Fincher's been making top notch thrillers and dramas for over two decades now, but he's never been so devilishly funny and playful as he is with this film. My first viewing of "Gone Girl," my heart was in my throat when the twist came. Second time around was when I was really able to appreciate the thrill of it all. From the meticulously detailed police procedural of the first half to the batshit craziness of the second half, there's just so much to love and cherish about this film. At first, I was put off by the shift in tone halfway through, but I really came around when I saw it again. "Gone Girl" is really the best of both Fincher worlds. These days, no one crafts a procedural or a violent pulpy thriller the way he does, and we get both sides of him in this film. It's a marvel of craft and filmmaking and I enjoy every minute of it.

And yes, this is a funny movie. Perhaps Fincher's funniest. I've read so many people's complaints about how this film ends, but when I watched those scenes again, those are funniest scenes of the film. Darkly funny, but funny nonetheless. Rosamund Pike delivers a performance that should be getting her all the major awards, but that's not happening for some reason. Ben Affleck finally finds a role that we can all say that he's perfect for. Who knew that "smug douche who's hated by the media" would be the type of role Ben Affleck would be able to nail? Well, I guess we all did, but would you figure he'd be this entertaining to watch? Tyler Perry, Neil Patrick Harris, Carrie Coon, Kim Dickens, Patrick Fugit... it astounds me how perfectly cast this movie is.

7. Ida
Director: Pawel Pawlikowski

No film that came out in 2014 was as perfectly shot as "Ida." That's a fact. There's a reason why this little Polish film managed to steal a Best Cinematography nomination at the Oscars. The shot compositions are works of art. Everything is framed just right. "Ida" is just this little 80-minute black-and-white, quiet, unassuming little film about an aspiring nun that uncovers some dark truths about the family she comes from. Similar to "Calvary," this film deeply explores its main character's devotion to God, but in "Ida," despite how dark this movie gets at times, Ida's devotion feels comforting and life-affirming. Despite all she's learned about her background and the new experiences she has outside the nunnery, her decision to go back and become a nun somehow feels like the right one. In many ways, "Ida" is a masterwork.

6. Inherent Vice
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

In the midst of the film's goofiness and overall drugged out haziness, it's easy to miss how "Inherent Vice" is really a mournful lamentation for the times that have passed. Doc Sportello clings onto those times desperately because that's better than facing the reality of the times. In 1970, the promise of peace, free love, fun drugs, and happiness quickly transformed into fantasy, and the transformation was swift and brutal. "Inherent Vice" attempts to uncover why this transformation took place, and it's also a hilariously confusing detective noir, featuring great scene after great scene. I can easily see myself watching this one over and over when it comes out on home video.

5. The Grand Budapest Hotel
Director: Wes Anderson

Wes Anderson has been building towards "The Grand Budapest Hotel" throughout his entire career. With each film he's made, his characters have become more specific and his worlds have become more detailed. He's gotten to the point where he has no qualms about inventing an entire country, then inventing that country's history. What makes "Grand Budapest Hotel" such a resounding success is that it marries Wes Anderson's quirky, dollhouse style with real, legitimate poignancy. Gustave H.'s gracious hospitality is something that no longer exists anywhere else, according to the film. He represents a civilized society that's long eluded this country, and the world that surrounds the Republic of Zubrowka just continues to get worse with no end in sight. Decades later, the Budapest Hotel still stands, it's a shell of its former self. Gustave's former lobby boy, Zero, has remained the owner of the hotel for all these years, clinging on to memories that are now far in the past. The movie opens and begins on present day, where the hotel has been torn down. At that point, it's just a ghost and the only remaining proof of its existence is inside a book. Wes Anderson has created another "Wes Anderson film," sure, but it's one that is so laced with meaning and has such an incredible lightness in its style, it's like a tasty confection. And oh yeah, it's pretty goddamn hilarious as well.

4. Selma
Director: Ava DuVernay

Ava DuVernay was put in an unenviable position. Her last three films were these very small, low-budget indie dramas. The buzz she received surrounding her previous film, "Middle of Nowhere," was what landed her in the director's chair of "Selma." She went from a $200,000 budget to $20 million and she was making the first theatrical film that depicted Martin Luther King, Jr. That's a tall order in of itself. Then, you consider how tired the "biopic" genre has become in the past decade, and you realize the success of this film is even more impressive. 

What makes "Selma" so great? What does it do right where other biopics go wrong? Because it sticks with a specific time period in MLK's life. Instead of the film spanning 20 years, it spans a few months. The march from Selma to Montgomery was such a crucial period of King's life and, together with screenwriter Paul Webb, DuVernay nails the complexities that surrounds the racial climate of the time. Nobody was perfect. The march succeeded but not without a few casualties along the way, and in the end, there was still so much that had to be done. Much has been made about the patriotism that's present in "American Sniper," but no movie that's come out in 2014, or in the past few years, has made me more proud to be American than "Selma." This country is not perfect, far from it. But change can happen. We can get better. We can make a difference. MLK did not embark on this Selma march alone, nor was it only African-Americans that marched with him. Thousands of Americans from various different backgrounds all came down to Alabama to march with Martin Luther King, Jr. Now that's patriotic.

3. Nightcrawler
Director: Dan Gilroy

What's great about my top 3 movies of 2014, and really my top 6, is that there's really nothing like these movies. They each bring something new to the table. In the case of "Nightcrawler," comparisons have been made to "Network," but really this film is very much its own entity. Jake Gyllenhaal plays a freelance videographer that tapes crime scenes and submits the footage to news networks. Thanks to the cutthroat approach to his job, and his morally questionable ethics, Lou Bloom (Gyllenhaal) continues to rise to the top of his profession. And in turn, "Nightcrawler" becomes a searing indictment of the news media. Instead of coming off as overly didactic, however, the film takes a darkly comic approach to the subject matter and the results are thrilling. It all leads to a chaotic car chase scene that's one of the best action sequences that I've seen all year. "Nightcrawler" really delivers on every possible front imaginable, and it's exciting to watch an actor like Jake Gyllenhaal fully realize his talents and show us all a side of himself that we've never seen before. Kudos to Jake, and an extra kudos to Dan Gilroy, who penned one hell of a screenplay and has crafted one of the strongest directorial debuts since... well since his brother Tony Gilroy made "Michael Clayton" seven years ago. Man, those Gilroys are talented.

2. Under the Skin
Director: Johnathan Glaser

"Under the Skin" is a film that gives absolutely nothing away through dialogue. If you want to follow and understand this movie, you have to treat it as truly a visual medium. That's what I love about "Under the Skin." It's a purely cinematic film that's also disturbing, gripping, maddening, and sexy. Scarlett Johansson plays an alien who preys on random men, who are captivated by her beauty, and she collects their bodies for... meat? That part is left to the imagination, really. Like the film's title though, it's not about the surface of the film, it's about what lies underneath. "Under the Skin" is an examination and critique of the male gaze; it's about how it feels to be preyed as a woman, and it's about taking that power back. "Under the Skin" is an art film that excels on all fronts, but not just because of its themes, it's also very compelling to watch and I'm sure it'll only become more compelling on subsequent viewings.

1. Boyhood
Director: Richard Linklater

So here we are. Yes, isn't this predictable? How many times has Boyhood been #1 on lists like these? So much so that it's actually received quite a bit of backlash over the past few weeks. Look, it's not Boyhood's fault that it's received this much attention. Linklater filmed the movie over the course of 12 years. That was shocking to people when the movie premiered at Sundance last year, but now people recite that fact in a sarcastic manner.

Nobody has done this before. Have people thought about doing it before? Sure, but they didn't and Linklater did. "Boyhood" has so much more going on than its gimmick. It has a story. The word "boyhood" has thrown some people off, but this film is just as much about Mason as it is about his mother, sister, and father. It's about family. It's about how a single mother managed to complete her education while simultaneously raising two children. It's about a father who was not mature enough to raise kids when he had Mason and Samantha, but over the course of time, he eventually does grow up and becomes the father that Mason's mother always wanted him to be. It's just unfortunate that his transformation happened too late.

And screw it, I identified with this film, I really did. It spoke to me in ways no other film ever has. It's not a direct mirror of my life and I am quite different than Mason, but there's an emotional truth to "Boyhood" that I very much identified with, and there are moments in the film that feel as if Richard Linklater was peaking into my life.

But "Boyhood" doesn't only work if you identify with the film, it's not a film that's saying "this is what everyone's childhood was like." That's not the case at all. Obviously, not every child grew up with divorced parents, or had just one sister, or grew up in Texas. To latch onto those surface details is to completely miss the point. "Boyhood" is about how time eludes all of us. It's about all the events that occur while we grow up, big or little, and how those events wind up defining us and make us who we are. It's a film that marvels at the passage of time and attempts to figure out the purpose behind all of it. And what's scary is the possibility that there's absolutely no purpose to this at all. That we grow up from children to adults, but we're really always children, deep down inside. Why do we become "adults"? What's the point of this crazy life anyway? Boyhood has these questions, but it makes no attempts to answer them because they are unanswerable questions. Still, they are worth asking, they're worth pondering about. And I will be thinking about "Boyhood" for a long, long time.


Monday, January 26, 2015

I rented, I watched, I review: CHEF; MEN, WOMEN & CHILDREN; WE ARE THE BEST!


You don't have to be a serious film fan to know Jon Favreau's filmography. The man directed "Iron Man" and "Iron Man 2." He wrote and acted in "Swingers." He's also behind films such as "Elf" and "Cowboys & Angels." His background is indie film, but throughout the past half-decade, he's mostly been immersed in the big-budget blockbuster. If you notice, though, he was not the man behind "Iron Man 3." Why is that? Why did he step down from making that movie? Why would he follow-up a big blockbuster like "Cowboys & Angels" with a movie like "Chef"? Did he completely lose his mojo after "Cowboys & Angels" and now "Chef" is his way of getting that mojo back?

If you're interested in having any of these questions answered, then guess what? This is the movie for you! "Chef" is a very, very thinly-veiled metaphor for Jon Favreau's struggles with the studio system and his critics. How thinly-veiled? Well, Favreau actually stars in the film as Chef Carl Casper. Chef Carl is tired of serving the same old stuff and wants to put some art into his food, but the owner of the restaurant only cares about money and forces Carl to do things his way instead. Does that sound familiar?

Fed up with his job, Carl quits his job at the restaurant. With the urging of his ex-wife (Sofia Vergara), they both take a flight to Miami with their son Percy, basically so that Carl can get his groove back. In Miami, he reintroduces himself to the local food there that originally inspired him to become a chef. While there, he decides to open up a food truck that serves Cuban-influenced cuisine and enlists the help of Percy as well as his former sous chef (John Leguizamo) to tour the southern half of the United States, serving food along the way, until they finally make it back to LA.

There are so many things about "Chef" that are so damn improbable, it's hard to keep track. Apparently, a heated exchange between Chef Carl and a top food critic in Los Angeles becomes so popular on the internet that it goes viral and Carl gets a lot of followers on Twitter as a result. Thanks to the followers, people are lining up in droves to eat his Cuban sandwiches because apparently this heated exchange has made Carl popular in far-away cities such as New Orleans and Austin, Texas.

Many movies nowadays treat social networking and the internet pretty awkwardly, and luckily "Chef" doesn't get too bogged down in that. Still, the idea that this random chef in Los Angeles would become this popular is just silly. You have to suspend your disbelief for the second half of the movie because it is just pure fantasy.

And yet, Leguizamo is fun. Emjay Anthony, who plays Percy, actually has great chemistry with Jon Favreau. Sofia Vergara isn't annoying as usual. Robert Downey Jr, Scarlett Johansson, and Oliver Platt are all fun to watch. Despite the second half being totally implausible, it's actually where the movie saves itself from being a complete disaster. The first half of the movie is just way too self-referential and embarrassingly meta, once they finally break out the food truck half-way through, it's like a breath of fresh air. Seriously, everything before the food truck scenes should have lasted maybe 15 minutes.

It's weird though, right? Because, the second half of the movie is basically about Jon Favreau deciding to write and direct an independent movie so he could go back to his roots. The second half of "Chef" is about Jon Favreau making "Chef." Luckily, that last hour of the film is light and enjoyable, or else this whole movie could've turned out to be the most self-indulgent bullshit ever made. But yes, this is a nice little movie and I had a good time watching most of it. And hey, maybe Favreau will now stick to independent films since he has much more fun making them... no wait, he's currently directing "The Jungle Book," a big-budget Walt Disney film... nevermind.

Grade: C+

We Are the Best!

Bobo, Klara, Hedvig are three adolescent girls growing up in Stockholm, Sweden in 1982. All three have their various issues with their parents, school, classmates, and even themselves. Bobo and Klara get made fun of in school because they have short hair. Nobody even talks to Hedvig at lunch. Yet, these three girls manage to bond together through their love of music. The punk scene in Sweden might be in decline, but Klara and Bobo are so insistent that it's not dead, that they have decided to form a punk rock band of their own, despite not knowing how to play instruments. Watching lonely, sad Hedvig play guitar on stage during a talent show, they realize her talents would make the band complete.

But once they get together, it's not really about becoming a successful band or anything. Their punk rock band is really a means for Bobo, Klara, and Hedvig to channel their feelings and pent-up frustration. Klara is very conscious and weary about what's happening in the world around her, Bobo looks at herself in the mirror and doesn't think she's pretty, Hedvig's mother is a devout Christian and seems to have her daughter on a leash.

I love how three-dimensional these young girls are. I love how it sorta digs into the gender politics that goes into rock music. The trio thinks of themselves as a just a band, not a "girl band." They just want to rock out, but nobody seems to want to listen.

Director Lukas Moodysson crafts the film in a way that feels personal and intimate, as if we're eavesdropping into their conversations. It's almost as if we're not supposed to be in the room with them when they're hanging out together, but we're there anyway. When it's just the three of them, they show a side of themselves that they don't show to their classmates or parents. "We Are the Best!" is about how difficult it is to grow up as a teenager, especially for a girl. Especially if that girl isn't deemed pretty by society's standards. It manages to deal with all these issues while being a really enjoyable, often funny, little romp. While it may be a bit slight overall, I really did get a kick out of this movie.

Grade: B

Here's the good news about "Men, Women & Children": director Jason Reitman has officially bottomed out. So, he can only go up from here, right?

I hope so. For the most part, I'm a big fan of Reitman's first four films ("Thank You For Smoking", "Juno", "Up in the Air", "Young Adult"), but he has fallen off in a huge way with his last two efforts with "MW&C" being the biggest offender of them all.

"Men, Women & Children" is a hyperlink story about high school students and their parents, all of whom are addicted to the internet. Reitman takes the odd approach of letting this film play out as a 100% dead serious drama and it's a shockingly misguided and wrongheaded move on his part. The characters are lifeless, the drama itself is laughably melodramatic, and the film's linked by shots of the Voyager from outer space, coupled with the oh-so-unnecessary narration of Emma Thompson that's supposed to tell how insignificant we're all are in the grand scheme of things and how we lose real, human connections by getting so sucked into these laptops and handheld devices.

This movie is just a series of bad notes. These characters make so many idiotic leaps of logic that you'll want to punch the screen several times. Jason Reitman takes this overall approach of "the concerned parent" and the whole thing just feels like a giant pandering mess.

With his first four films, it was his lead characters who were the sardonic know-it-alls. With "Men, Women & Children," it's Reitman who's the know-it-all and he treats the audience as if we're a bunch of assholes. The movie's adapted from a novel by the same name so maybe it's not his fault, but he injects very little personality into each member of this ensemble cast. These characters, especially the teenagers, barely talk or act like normal human beings. They all make series of bad decisions because... the internet is bad. The movie's so simplistic in its approach and the plotting is so terrible that you'd think you were watching a lousy Lifetime movie.

Such a shame considering this wonderful, eclectic cast. Jennifer Garner, Rosemarie DeWitt, Judy Greer, Dean Norris, Adam Sandler, Ansel Elgort, JK Simmons, Dennis Haysbert, Kaitlyn Dever. It's really a great cast that does their best given the material, unfortunately they've all been wasted.  I was very much in shock by how bad this turned to be, I didn't know Jason Reitman had this in him. I worry about what the future holds for this once-promising filmmaker. I'm not even mad about this movie, I'm just bummed.

Grade: F

Sunday, January 25, 2015


You look at the title "A Most Violent Year" and you get images in your head. It's understandable. But, no, "A Most Violent Year" is not just some graphically violent crime film where blood splatters everywhere. It's more ponderous, more suggestive. Wall-to-wall violence is not needed to justify the movie's title. The film's about the constant, almost never-ending threat of violence. It's about a man who's simply trying to get ahead in his business, a business that's so competitive that his trucks are under constant threat of being hijacked everyday.

Oscar Isaac plays Abel Morales, a man who owns a private oil company in New York City, 1981. At the time, 1981 was the most violent year in the city's history (a statistic, I'm sure, NYC topped during the latter part of the '80s) and the violence has seeped into the oil industry. His company, along with other rival companies, are constantly at each other's throats. And while Abel tries to seal a new real estate deal, which would mean higher profits for his company, the constant hijackings as well as the company's sketchy history threatens to jeopardize the man's business.

Abel's not running it alone. His wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain), whose father used to own the company before Abel bought it from him, is very much involved in the mix and is responsible for crunching the numbers. There is an interesting dynamic at play between these two characters. Apparently, when Anna's father used to run the company, he was much more willing to bend the rules. Despite the fact that Abel's been running things for five years now, the District Attorney (David Oyelowo) has been tasked with finding corruption within the local oil industry and he's constantly breathing down Abel's neck.

So, despite Abel's insistence that he's running things as clean as possible, given the nature of the industry, the audience is naturally waiting for the other shoe to drop. But, the more we learn about Abel, the more we realize how timid and cautious he really is, and that it's his wife who is really the one that threatens to get dirty. That's where the interesting dynamic comes into play. Writer/director JC Chandor makes it a point to revisit the couple again and again throughout the film. Abel might be out running errands, trying to make sure he has enough money for his real estate deal, but at the end of the day, he has to come home and tell his wife what's going on.

Anna's not exactly the 100% supportive type either. Abel knows that if he doesn't get results, then Anna may very well attempt to do things her way. I love the way the film portrays this struggle and the way Oscar Isaac always manage to keep his composure and his control, at least for most of the running time.

Abel wants to do things the "right" way, but he eventually comes to realize that he can only really succeed by doing things the "most right" way. Whether or not he actually does come out on top in the film, he won't be able to avoid getting blood on his hands along the way.

Isaac is excellent in the film; Chastain, of course, is a pleasure to watch like always. The film's rounded out by strong supporting performances from Albert Brooks and David Oyelowo (what a year he's having!). As for JC Chandor, this is his third film and it really seems he's taken a serious creative leap once again. "A Most Violent Year" doesn't end without hitting a few bumps along the way, but this is a mature adult drama that knows how to build tension and mostly delivers when that tension is finally released.

I was complementary, earlier, about the scenes between Abel and Anna and while those scenes are interesting watch by themselves, there were times when it felt like these scenes sometimes took away from the central action that's taking place. In other words, the movie just felt a little too constructed and, after awhile, you could sense a pattern forming which took away from the overall suspense in the film.

And while you know Anna and Abel are eventually going to go to verbal fisticuffs at some point, I wish there was a little more show and less tell along the way. After you see the movie, or if you've seen the movie, you'll probably know what I'm talking about. There's a moment where Anna finally reveals her true colors to Abel, but instead of it being shocking or revelatory, it came off a little too frivolous.

Yes, "A Most Violent Year" just might be one or two spoonfuls away from being a truly great film, but you can't complain too much about the overall result. Again, we just don't see good adult dramas these days with two actors that are very much at their peak right now. Perhaps it could've use a little more bite, but I still found "A Most Violent Year" to be a richly rewarding experience.

Grade: B+

Friday, January 23, 2015

SELMA review

Towards the end of every year, it's always the same thing: audiences are inundated with movie after movie that are begging for awards attention. You can always see it coming, whether the film is fronted by an up-and-coming actor or an old veteran who has long deserved his/her recognition, there's almost no shame anymore when it comes to Oscar season. This makes it easy to be cynical about all these historical/costume dramas or serious biopics that come out at the end of each year: often times, these films are so vanilla, so eager not to offend, that they really do not appear to have much to say about the periods, or people, they depict.

So it's refreshing when we get a biopic that absolutely has something to say, whether it's about the time period and location it's set during, or about the times we live in today. It's been almost 50 years since his assassination, yet it wasn't until late last year that audiences were able to see a movie about Martin Luther King, Jr. Luckily for us, this isn't just your run-of-the-mill biopic drama that depicts the rise of America's most famous civil rights activist. There's much more going on here.

Director Ava DuVernay and screenwriter Paul Webb have decided to tell the story of just one crucial period of MLK's life: the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery that protested in favor of fairer voting rights for African-Americans in the South. And within this specific time frame, we are given genuine insight into the mind of Martin Luther King. In 125 minutes, we get a deep understanding of what made the man tick. Why non-violent protests? Why Selma? Why demand freer voting rights now? Why did he, along with thousands of other protestors, decide to march one day, but not the next?

What about his marriage to Coretta Scott King? Was it all peaches and cream? Did he share a friendly relationship with President Lyndon B. Johnson? When he decided to embark on his march from Selma to Montgomery, was everyone on his side initially? Did he have a favorable relationship with Malcolm X? This film addresses all of these questions head on and delves into all the complexities and harsh truths that surrounded Martin Luther King at the time. This was not a man who was universally revered, obviously, when he lead all these non-violent protests. If you were to tell him back in 1965 that his birthday would become a national holiday several years later, he'd probably think you were crazy.

Most importantly, there is a tendency among biopics to make its subjects seem larger than life. But DuVernay and Webb make it clear that this is a man who had some flaws. Maybe he was a little arrogant in places, maybe he could've had a better relationship with his wife. Because he was so dedicated to all these civil rights causes, that meant being away from his wife and kids for great amounts of time. Everytime he went out on the streets, he was risking his life. Coretta Scott King, beautifully portrayed by Carmen Ejogo, forces us to realize that MLK was not exactly Mr. Charisma when he was at home. MLK was a man who did some extraordinary things, but "Selma" emphasizes that, yes, he was a man. A man with flaws. A man who was a lot more grounded in the real world than you might have imagined. A man who, at times, worried that his actions would bring on severe consequences. By having all these flaws revealed to us, we're able to gain an even deeper respect for the man. "Selma" deserves all the credit in the world for grounding this beloved historical figure in ways that even tops how Abraham Lincoln was depicted in Spielberg's "Lincoln."

This is a firecracker of a film and it's lead by David Oyelowo's rousing performance. He was tasked with the near-impossible. We all know MLK's voice. We've all heard his "I have a dream..." speech. We all have a fairly elaborate impression of the man. Oyelowo really allowed himself to sink into this character and embody him without ever feeling like a caricature. And while Tom Wilkinson's performance as Lyndon B. Johnson is certainly solid, both he and Tim Roth's George Wallace do occasionally feel a bit cartoonish. Luckily, the script is so tight that the occasional shakiness of those performances never fully waver.

And even so, while there have been various reports regarding the film's depiction of President Johnson, I personally found those reports to be quite unnecessary. After all, nobody in this film is depicted as a saint so why should LBJ be any different? He doesn't need to be defended. His reluctance to follow through on MLK's plans is actually not all that hard to understand. You can say it was just a sign of the times, but look how carefully Obama has publicly reacted to the events in Ferguson and Staten Island.

Therein lies the brilliance of "Selma." It brings up MLK's march from Selma to Montgomery while also raising questions about race relations in this country today. The wounds still have not fully healed 50 years later. There is still anger. There is still hatred. And yes, there is still racism. MLK Jr. was a man who knew he could not build Rome in a day, but understood that he had to act drastically if he really wanted to get things done. He accomplished plenty during his brief lifetime, but as the movie cautiously reminds at the very end, there's still a lot of work to do.

Grade: A


"Inherent Vice" has an unfair advantage when compared to other films that I review. I have seen "Inherent Vice" two times in the past few weeks. Why? Because I had to. I have never felt so utterly compelled to see a movie again after finishing it, but "IV" is a different story. This is the first ever movie adapted from a Thomas Pynchon novel, and by all accounts, writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson was as faithful to the source material as possible. So what does that mean? Given just how dense your typical Pynchon novel is, and how maddening it can be to attempt to finish one of his books, I knew I had to dive back in to "Inherent Vice" as soon as it was over.

And look, I wouldn't watch a film for a second time simply because I felt like I had to. I actually found a lot to enjoy the first time I watched the film, so going back to the well was not a difficult thing for me to do. I love this world. What Paul Thomas Anderson has proven, time and time again, is that he's very meticulous and detailed when he makes a period film. And the setting of "Inherent Vice" is a very fun one: Southern California in the year 1970. How can you resist the temptation of going back?

Sure, many people can. In fact, many people have decided to avoid seeing "Inherent Vice" altogether. Some have seen it and reacted unfavorably to it. Hey, I get it. I'm a huge PT Anderson fan, but there were definitely times where I was scratching my head the first time watching this movie. But you know what? The humor is there. The craft is very much apparent. The performances are outstanding. I recognized that from the get-go. What I came to find out upon a second viewing is that the movie actually flows very well. You thought "IV" was slow the first time you watched it? See it again. It's really not. It just doesn't move the way you want it to on that initial viewing.

"Inherent Vice" is, at least on the surface, a detective film. It centers on Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), a private dick whose former flame needs his help finding real estate mogul Micky Wolfmann. This sends Doc on a whirlwind of mystery, intrigue, conspiracies... add drugs to the mix, secret societies, and a straight-laced, humorless police officer by the name of "Bigfoot" Bjorensen (Josh Brolin) and you have got yourself a movie with a lot on its plate.

There's just a lot going on in this movie. And the problem for most people, like me at first, is that I spent so much time during the initial viewing trying to piece together what was going on. Naturally, the first time you watch a movie, you want to follow everything that's happening as it's happening. It's hard to just watch a movie scene-by-scene and allow the film to unfold in front of you.

No, Paul Thomas Anderson does not make it easy that first time, but he's adapting Pynchon. Nothing's ever easy with Pynchon. Second time around, however, once I was more aware of the pacing of the movie, more familiar with the characters... once I became more in tune with the film, suddenly I wasn't so concerned with plot details. After all, there's so much "plot" going on here. There's so much to this entire story. How could you ever expect yourself to get everything in one sitting?

And guess what? When I stopped concerning myself so much with the plot of this film, I actually began to understand what was going on much more easily. This is a movie that's best enjoyed on a scene-by-scene basis. And then, by the end, it all just kind of... adds up. And for me, it all added up beautifully.

Ok, I'm going on the uber-defensive because I really enjoyed the film. I came around to it big time on the second viewing and it sucks because that's really the only way you can come around to a movie as weird as this one. "Inherent Vice" is simply a weird movie. At first, you could argue that it's trying to do too much at once, but a second glance will make you realize that you were the one trying to do too much at once. "IV" is simply a movie where you have to trust that it's all going to work out at the end. Trust Paul Thomas Anderson. Trust Pynchon. Trust these actors. Don't worry so much. It'll be ok.

See, you have Doc Sportello. And you have Shasta Fey-Hepworth. You have Mickey Wolfmann. Wolfmann's rich, he's building a new real estate development called Channel View Estates. But Wolfmann has recently gone missing and Shasta, Mickey's latest mistress, has sent Doc to go find him. Now what happens to Doc after this? He learns of Mickey's affiliation with a gang called The Aryan Brotherhood. Then he learns about "The Golden Fang," where we soon realize that this "Golden Fang" organization is behind Wolfmann's kidnapping. Reportedly, they've been pumping heroin into the streets, allowing hippies to get hooked on the smack. And they run a very elaborate operation where everything's connected for their financial benefit. They're behind a team of dentists who've banded together on a tax dodge. Heroin is notorious for ruining teeth so the hippies get hooked on heroin, their teeth are ruined due to a loss of calcium, and they visit the Golden Fang Dentists to get their teeth fixed. Furthermore, they're also behind an insane asylum, which also benefits from bringing in patients formerly hooked on smack.

I'll stop right there. Now that's a lot to take in all at once, right? I barely scratched the surface too. Again, this is very dense material, but when you dive in a second time with an idea of what to expect, and when you let the density unfold in front of you, the film becomes a very rich and rewarding experience. There's so, so much to this movie. It's littered with all these wonderful, juicy conspiracies. Is Nixon behind The Golden Fang? Did the government introduce heroin into the streets to get rid of the hippie movement? There's even a brief spiel about an actor named Burke Stodger and how he fits into the entire operation. An actor who was formerly associated with communism, kidnapped by The Golden Fang, and then became a staunch capitalist. Crazy shit.

"Inherent Vice" is about the things we can't control. Like time, for instance. It's 1970. Times, in the world of "IV," are very much changing. The malevolence of the Manson family created a fear towards hippies and they were promptly eliminated, according to Pynchon. For a brief time in the late '60s, peace and love were being celebrated and promoted throughout the country and that was all shut down by the early '70s. Hendrix, Joplin, and Jim Morrison were all dead by 1971, all from heroin overdoses by the way. Those of us who weren't alive during this era may have thought of the hippie movement as being some sort of fad. Pynchon proposes this question: what if it wasn't? What if there was someone behind the dissipation of the movement? For the sake of drama and a juicy novel, this all makes for some pretty fascinating stuff even if it may seem a little crazy.

But the underlying thing, I think Pynchon and PT Anderson have showed a real affinity for this era and "Inherent Vice" is kind of a love note to the era and a lamentation of the times that slipped by that we cannot bring back. It's all in the character of Shasta. Doc and Shasta are probably toxic together, but Doc is in love with the idea of her and wants her back. But the Shasta of 1970 isn't the Shasta of 1967, and for Doc, that is very hard to reconcile. The times have changed. He's different, Shasta's different. The world they live in is different and there's no going back. Hell, the hippie movement is dying by the time we enter Doc's world, yet he still clings to the fashion as if it's the only thing he has left. As if it's the only thing he can control.

This is some pretty beautiful and haunting stuff. And I cannot express enough just how blown away I am that Paul Thomas Anderson was able to pull this adaptation off. Pynchon hadn't been adapted before because no other filmmaker had the brass balls to tackle him. PTA did. And while it may wear itself out a little thin over the course of its 148 minutes and it may not always be 100% tonally consistent at times, this is an extraordinary effort from one of America's very best filmmakers. And why do I call him that? Because he repeatedly finds himself stepping outside his comfort zone and coming out looking completely new and fresh. Nobody makes the types of movies he's making. There's nothing like "The Master" or "Inherent Vice" right now. Many have commented on the similarities between "IV" and "The Big Lebowski," and while they're definitely comparable, they're entirely separate beasts.

I haven't even talked about the unique look of the film, which is largely thanks to Robert Elswit, the DP. Between he and PTA, they have given the film a real graininess. A real haziness. No example could be better than Doc's meeting with Coy Harligen (Owen Wilson) in the fog. There's just a very immediate feel to "Inherent Vice" as if it's been cut from the cloth that is 1970. Add a little more graininess, shoot via technicolor, and this could've very well have been made in 1970. It's that close to the era, it's incredible.

I really can't say enough about this film. It may not be my very favorite from PT Anderson at this point, but this is a movie that I will revisit again and again. I hope you do too. See it twice. See it several times!

Grade: A-

Thursday, January 22, 2015

I rented, I watched, I review: "Short" reviews of SKELETON TWINS, CALVARY, LOCKE

Skeleton Twins

The thought of Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader starring in a movie together just feels right for some reason, doesn't it? They built up such a great rapport with each other through SNL so it's not much of a stretch seeing them play brother and sister. It's too bad "The Skeleton Twins" is a little too generic and goes through tropes that are a little too familiar to make this film really stand out despite the presence of such talented performers.

Yes, Wiig and Hader, two fantastic comedians, have found themselves trapped in an overly-gloomy, and dour indie drama which tries to wedge in fun, "spontaneous" moments between the two leads that just feel unearned. As if to remind the audience that, indeed, these actors also happen to be comedians. I am always curious to see how comedians handle doing more serious material. In "The Skeleton Twins," Wiig and Hader definitely show flashes of brilliance, but too often their performances are bogged down by a bland script. This is supposed to be a dramedy, but the drama isn't as hard-hitting as it should be (considering the two lead characters are contemplating suicide), meanwhile the film's more comedic scenes just don't land.

The movie opens with Maggie and Milo (Wiig, Hader) who live on opposite sides of the country and are both attempting suicide. The only reason Maggie puts away the pills is because she gets a phone call, notifying her of Milo's attempted suicide.

These characters have issues, no doubt about it. Maggie's married to a loving husband, but for some reason, she can't love him back. She's been cheating on him, in fact. Milo's depressed as he thinks his best days are when he was in high school and he recently got dumped by his boyfriend. These twins haven't talked to each other for over 10 years by the time Maggie sees Milo in the hospital. They've each lead pretty miserable lives for the last decade and what they begin to realize is that the thing they needed the most... was each other.

Sounds sweet, right? It kind of is. The sweetness comes from the natural charisma between Wiig and Hader, but their characters get so hung up in their own misery, rarely giving a chance to let the audience in and feel their pain. I don't know. This isn't a bad film, but it constantly threatens to enter Zach Braff territory when it comes to its sappiness. Not fun enough to be enjoyable, not emotional enough to feel cathartic... in the end, "Skeleton Twins" just felt flat. And I found its overall ho-hum treatment of suicide to be fairly problematic.

Grade: C


John Michael McDonagh's young career as a filmmaker is pretty interesting. He's the older brother of fellow filmmaker Martin McDonagh and, two movies in, it's safe to say he's the darker one of the duo. John Michael was previously responsible for "The Guard," a film which also stars Brendan Gleeson. His older brother wrote and directed "In Bruges" and "Seven Psychopaths." Watching their careers unfold, it makes me wonder just how many movies we'd get if the Coen Brothers worked separately.... ok, that's a terrible thought.

Interestingly enough, of the two brothers, it's John Michael McDonagh who takes the bigger creative and artistic leap with his follow-up film "Calvary" and what we wind up getting is a deeply ponderous film that delves into religion, hypocrisy, and the way all the residents of this small Irish town deal with the various disappointments in their lives.

The film centers on Father James (Brendan Gleeson). In the opening shot, Father James is listening to a man's heartbreaking confession about the horrific sexual abuse that he dealt with when he was a child growing up in the Catholic church. He ends his confession on a chilling note, telling the Father that he has decided, in seven days, that he will murder him. It doesn't matter that Father James is innocent. Father James has been given a death sentence that hardly seems fair, but as the confessor argues, having to live with memories of being sexually abused as a child is pretty unfair as well.

I consider "Calvary" to be the Anti-Philomena. That's probably why it wasn't nominated for any Oscars this year, despite Gleeson's masterful performance. Calvary has several moments of lightness and levity, but for a McDonagh film, it's quite dark. I call this the anti-Philomena because while Sister Philomena had to deal with the hardship of never meeting her son before he died, she still manages to find it in her heart to forgive the nunnery who took her baby away. The confessor in "Calvary," on the other hand, is past the point of forgiving anyone. "Calvary" leaves us with difficult questions about the nature of forgiveness, morality, and faith. This makes for quite the powerful viewing experience.

Despite John Michael McDonagh's more dramatic approach to his second film, he still manages to fill the film with a great amount of wit. The film occasionally threatens to get too dark at certain points, but McDonagh's able to give the film enough humor and sharp dialogue to keep you going.

Oddly enough, despite not being religious, I actually quite like films like this. Some of my favorite filmmakers have made interesting films centering around a priest. Hitchcock's "I Confess" comes to mind, as well as Jean-Pierre Melville's "Leon Morin, Priest" and Ingmar Bergman's "Winter Light." Sometimes a film can be powerful and resonant just by asking questions the audience was previously too afraid to ask. Did the confessor deserve to have all those terrible things happen to him? Absolutely not, but Father James doesn't deserve to die either. But "Calvary" deals with these issues head-on and never pulls any punches, and the results are quite stunning.

Grade: A-


For 84 minutes, Tom Hardy's character Ivan Locke is driving his car to London. The only characters he talks to are via his car phone. Let me repeat this. Tom Hardy is the only actor that physically appears in this film. The only one. And it's just him sitting in his car for 80 minutes! Yet, in that brief timespan, we watch Ivan Locke's world slowly crumble down before him and it's thrilling as hell to watch.

How the hell did they pull this off? It's simply the right combination of a script that unravels at a perfect pace with an actor that's absolutely at the top of his game right now. There's really not much more to say about this film, or if there is, I'll save it when it inevitably ends up on my year-end list, but I honestly could not be more impressed with this film. It was absolutely a thrill ride and because the film is made in a way that I never experience before, it made the experience even more thrilling.

Writer/director Steven Knight does a superb job here and while I've already given Hardy deserved props, the secret star of this movie is the cinematographer, who manages to capture the England highways in a way that feels poetic and colorful. This is a richly layered film, like a nice little cake. Everyone, I demand you, take a bite out of this cake. It's fucking delicious.

Grade: A

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Now on Instant Netflix: "Short" reviews of IDA & FRANK

I took quite the hiatus during the holidays, but I did see quite a few movies that came out in 2014. Four 2014 movies that I saw either via Redbox or Netflix. Here are my brief reviews of two of those films.


They say an image is worth a thousand words, but what about an image of a face? There's so much to take away from a person just by studying their face and there have been some strikingly beautiful films made in the past, like "The Passion of Joan of Arc," which uses close-ups of the title character's face to evoke several different feelings at once.

That's what Pawel Pawlikowski's "Ida" immediately made me think of... and for good reason. "Ida" is about a young woman who grew up in an orphanage, now poised to enter nunnery, but first she's encouraged by an elder nun to visit her aunt first. When she visits her Aunt Wanda for the first time, secrets are uncovered about herself and about her parents which could completely change her whole outlook on life.

"Ida" is a story that's largely told on the visual front. If you are studying film, "Ida" is worth checking out just for its exquisite shot compositions alone. Shot in black and white and in an old school 1.33 : 1 aspect ratio, often, Pawlikowski chooses to leave a considerate amount of headspace when he shoots close-ups of Anna, strongly suggesting that she's not alone in these shots. Throughout the film's 80 minute running time, there's that nagging feeling that there's some sort of force, spirit, or God that is guiding Anna on her journey.

This is a very strong and, sometimes, remarkable film about a young woman who, in a way, loses her innocence but never seems to lose her faith. But, a month after seeing it, my overall takeaway of the film is just how gorgeous it looks. There is not a single frame wasted here. Each shot in "Ida" looks like a painting. Just remarkable.

Grade: A

"Ida" is available currently on Netflix Instant.


If you don't take to "Frank" immediately after seeing it, don't worry. I was in the same boat for much of the film's running time. But I've thought about it quite a bit since and I think I realized why it makes for a rather disappointing first viewing: "Frank" is the anti-feel-good music film. We've seen stories like this before. Guy joins a rock band full of misfits and leads them to great success. Well, "Frank" is a complete reversal of that trope. In "Frank," a young, enthusiastic keyboardist joins an experimental, avant-garde rock band lead by a musical genius who insists on hiding his real face inside a giant fake head.

It's a concept that dares to wear out its welcome with its quirky premise and yet the movie has an overall sadness to it and the aura of unrealized talent to it, that the end result may leave you feeling disappointed, but only because this is a movie that insists on zagging instead of zigging. You think you didn't want a feel-good movie until "Frank" deliberately makes you feel bad. But, looking back, it's really kind of hilarious the way the film plays out.

Frank is played by Michael Fassbender, but the only way you know it's Michael Fassbender is from his voice and his body. This is a role that would be difficult to pull off by an ordinary actor, but Fassbender is no ordinary actor. He absolutely shines here. But, the main character is Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), the aforementioned keyboardist who is presented as if he'll be the catalyst that gets this band on the right track.

Here's the joke: he's not. The cast is rounded out by Scoot McNairy, who plays the band's manager, and Maggie Gyllenhaal, who plays the theremin. Gyllenhaal is brutally mean to Jon, obsessed with Frank, and is largely thought to be the one who's holding Frank back. But, upon further review, that's not what is really happening here. Jon, despite the rest of the band not really taking his musical talents seriously, insists on remaining the band's keyboardist as he hopes that Frank's musical genius will rub off on him. But, at every turn, Jon fails to see that he's merely meant to be a piece of the puzzle, not the main attraction. He thinks the key to band's potential is getting rid of the theremin player, but the truth is that he's pinning all his hopes and dreams on a promise that just isn't there.

The film's interesting reversal, coupled with its study of a man (Frank, that is) who turns out to be dealing with a mental illness, makes "Frank" a much deeper and engrossing film that you would expect. It may not be quite the joyous romp that you hope it would be, but I found a lot to love about this movie and I hope you do too.

"Frank" is available currently on Netflix Instant.

Grade: B+

Monday, January 12, 2015

TOP FIVE review

While I remember there being word of Chris Rock doing a movie with producer Scott Rudin a little over a year ago, I must say I was fairly surprised to see "Top Five" pop up out of nowhere towards the end of 2014. And while the film hasn't exactly taken the world by storm and has had a modest box office intake, it's still exciting and refreshing to see such a great comedian like Chris Rock finally realize his talents as a writer and director.

Rock has been in the comedy biz for over 25 years, but he's often left a lot to be desired when it came to his acting career. His previous attempts as a writer/director lead to 2003's "Head of State" and 2007's "I Think I Love My Wife." The failure of those two movies left people wondering why it was so hard for Rock to translate his comedic worldview into film.

But perhaps it was all simply a matter of the third time being the charm. "Top Five" is not perfect. It doesn't really do anything particularly new. And yet, it does feel like a breath of fresh air. There's an underlying charm to it that's been lacking in other Rock movies and it has sort of a thrown-together feel, as if Chris Rock called up his comedian buddies, told him he wanted them in his movie, and they just kinda showed up. Then, from there, he formulated a plot and a story centering around a actor/comedian character as an excuse to bring in all his favorite comedian buds without needing a reason for them to be there.

From that perspective, "Top Five" works just fine. This is a breezy, laid back film that goes by in a brisk 102 minutes. Chris Rock plays Andre Allen, a comedian who's decided to try his hand in more serious dramas. Rosario Dawson is journalist Chelsea Brown, who has been assigned to interview Andre for the day. Through this simple construct, we get to delve into Allen's life. We see the neighborhood where he was brought up, we get a glimpse of his lavish life with fiancee Erica (Gabrielle Union), who is a reality TV star. And we get to know Andre's entourage, including his right-hand man Silk, who's played by JB Smoove. JB Smoove, most definitely a highlight in the last few seasons of Curb Your Enthusiasm, finally gets a chance to shine on the big screen.

The cast doesn't end there though. Kevin Hart, Sherri Shepherd, Romany Malco, Leslie Jones, Jerry Seinfeld, Adam Sandler, Tracy Morgan, Anders Holm of Workaholics, Cedric the Entertainer, Michael Che, Whoopi Goldberg, Brian Regan,  and Jay Pharoah... they're all in this movie! I wasn't lying when I said Chris Rock called all of his friends.

"Top Five" is really just a fun, light comedy in many ways, but what makes it stand out is that it actually has something to say. It has something to say about the nature of celebrity. It's about someone who has a natural talent of making people laugh but worries that he's only actually funny when he's on some sort of substance.

There's a refreshing amount of honesty in this film, which helps smooth out some of the movie's more glaring flaws. Rock's depiction of some of the women in this film feels a bit glib and out of place in what's otherwise a sweet movie. There's also a couple of scenes that deal with a closeted gay man with a viewpoint that feels embarrassingly dated. No one should expect a Chris Rock movie to be politically correct, but my complaints here have more to do with how these depictions impact the movie itself. Rock can be as un-PC as he wants, but "Top Five" is at its best when the humor feels honest and true-to-life. So, that makes the cheap jokes against women and gays stand out in a negative manner.

I've never been 100% enamored with Chris Rock as an actor. He's a brilliant comedian, but he mugs for the camera a little too much in his movies. His comedic cadence often doesn't blend well on celluloid. That said, "Top Five" is probably the closest Rock has ever come to creating a character that actually feels like a real character in a movie, as opposed to just mouthpiece for Rock to do his stand-up comedy.

He doesn't completely turn a corner with this film, but if he keeps going down the Woody Allen-inspired path that he started with "Top Five," we might be in for quite a wonderful surprise. In a movie climate where the majority of black actors and actresses can only get work playing historical characters, we just might need writer/director Chris Rock now more than ever. I didn't love "Top Five," but I admire what Rock was trying to accomplish, and I can't wait to see him build off this film's success.

Grade: B-

Saturday, January 10, 2015


At this point, nearly a month after the height of the hacking controversy, anything that could be said about "The Interview" almost goes without saying. The movie has been think-pieced to death. By now, everyone's simply sick of talking about it. However, having seen the movie over a week ago, and giving myself time to let it all sink in, now is actually the best time to talk about the quality of the movie itself. You already know the behind-the-scenes insanity that surrounds this film, I'm just here to talk about the movie. Is that cool?


James Franco is his own worst enemy. Correct that. The overexposure of James Franco is his own worst enemy. But, then again, Franco is pretty much solely responsible for that overexposure. He writes and directs nearly a half-dozen movies a year. They are usually poor adaptation of famous novels that everyone wishes he'd leave alone. They limp into theaters, nobody watches them, and then they wind up on Netflix. So it goes.

He's been in a cult-hit TV show, he co-starred in a blockbuster trilogy, and he has an Oscar nomination under his belt. It's almost passe to talk about Franco's accomplishments because it's frequently what people talk about when they talk about the actor. He just loves being prolific. The problem for him is that most of the product he puts out there is subpar.

"The Interview" is his third major film collaboration with Seth Rogen. For some reason, even though Franco could've probably capitalized on his Oscar-nom success that was "127 Hours," it actually feels like he needs Rogen more, at this point, then Rogen needs him. Seth Rogen already had a pretty huge hit this year with "Neighbors," where he co-starred with Zac Efron. His directorial debut "This Is The End" was also a huge critical and financial success.

Thing is, regardless of where they're both at in their careers, we should all be giddy at another collaboration between these two actors. Franco and Rogen has the potential to become a classic comedy duo. They were extremely fun to watch together in "Pineapple Express" and "This Is The End," and from the outset, "The Interview" looked like it could be another riot too.

The overexposure of James Franco has made that not the case, however. And despite, all the hype, the buzz, and the craziness that surrounded this movie, in order to really capitalize on all the controversy, it needed to be great. The actual movie needed to be the icing of this clusterfuck cake. Unfortunately, "The Interview" isn't a great movie, it's merely good. It had the undeniable hook: Rogen and Franco, playing TV producer and an "entertainment news" journalist (respectively) are given the task of assassinating North Korea leader Kim Jong-Un under the guise of an interview.

I always loved the ballsiness of the premise and, actually, I love the ballsiness of this movie in a lot of ways. It's just a shame that script does not necessarily sustain a level of satire that is needed in order for the film to really work. Each pointed joke regarding either American foreign policy or North Korea's complete disregard for its citizens is countered with a tired dick joke.

The slack mentality of the Pineapple Express and This Is The End characters made it ok for Rogen and co-writer Evan Goldberg to slather the film with an abundance of dick jokes. But, in The Interview, those types of jokes tend to get in the way of what is otherwise some pretty good satire.

The movie definitely has its fair share of highs, don't get me wrong. A surprise cameo at the beginning of the film was good for a nice, hearty laugh. The initial interactions between Franco/Rogen and North Korea was also pretty great. "The Interview" had some hilarious moments, especially when it incorporated elements of the spy movie into the comedy. It was even better when it took a surprise turn in the second act, where Franco's character Dave Skylark actually finds himself indentifying with North Korea's supreme leader. I thought the movie really entered into some interesting territory there.

Unlike "Pineapple Express" though, the movie really loses steam when the action starts. I'm usually not put off by violence in movies, but the extreme violence in some of the action sequences here just did not seem to fit within the movie's overall tone. Of course, I've always been a proponent of showcasing violence for what it really is, but in a movie like this? I just want to laugh at the end of the day.

And you know what? I laughed a great deal. Rogen delivered a solid performance, James Franco laid it on thick here and there but he still had his moments. Randall Park, portraying Kim Jong-Un was the movie's MVP, however, he portrayed the dictator with just the right inflection. You despise him, but a part of you really wants to like him. And in that respect, I felt Rogen and Goldberg did a great job in their portrayal of Jong-Un.

The bottom line, though, is that the movie needed to have more clarity in its satire. Much like "Pineapple Express" was Rogen/Goldberg's riff on the buddy-action film and "This Is The End" was their stoner take on the apocalypse, "The Interview" should have been their riff on the spy movie, but they didn't go all the way. "The Interview" wanted to be too many things at once. "Team America: World Police" was able to balance the right amount of dick and poop jokes with good satire. But "Team America" was pure goofiness all the way through. "The Interview" just doesn't have a goofy, "anything goes" feel to it. It's shot pretty conventionally, especially in its action scenes. And it doesn't have enough manic energy to fully sustain itself for 110 minutes.

Having said all that though, this is far from being a bad movie. It's above average, for sure. It does not deserve to be in the conversation for Razzie awards, and while I understand some people were let down by the movie, thanks to all the hype, it's really a lot better than people are giving it credit for. So, yes, I quite liked "The Interview," I just think Rogen, Goldberg, and Franco could all do better than this.

Grade: C+

ANNIE review

Great musicals play out like pure fantasies; reality is usually thrown out the window. The musical sequences tend to have dazzling dance moves, coordinated color and decor, an elaborate production design. Even if a musical is set in "the real world," like "Once," at least something is done to make the musical scenes seem special as opposed to feeling like an after-thought.

"Annie" is an interesting case study of what not to do when you're making a musical. Look-wise, this is as bland as it gets. The original musical took place during the Great Depression; this Annie is set in modern day New York City. OK, so perhaps the filmmakers feel this material is ample grounds for an update. I agree. We've been through a rough recession and casting Annie as a young black girl instead of a curly redhead is an inspired choice. It doesn't hurt when you cast the endlessly charming Quvenzhane Wallis. She already has a well-deserved Oscar nomination under her belt, following that up by playing Annie in a brand new, updated version of the musical seems like a no-brainer, honestly.

Wallis is perfectly fine as the title character, it's just too bad the actors around her seem to have no idea what to do with the material. To make things worse, the co-writer/director Will Gluck has placed her in the aforementioned setting of modern day NYC, but makes zero attempts to make the city look special. That's where the blandness comes in.

There's no attempt to make New York City seem magical, or conversely, nothing is done to emphasize any harsh, ghetto conditions. Annie is supposed to be living in an orphanage, but here it seems she lives in a safe, gentrified version of Harlem (I haven't been up there in quite some time, perhaps it really looks like that nowadays). There's just no semblance of taste when it comes to the look and cinematography of the film. There's nothing special about the film's use of lighting. It all just looks so... bleh. There's no pizzazz here. None.

The only thing that makes "Annie" watchable is because of how hilariously awkward this whole thing is. Because the movie looks so plain and boring, the actors that surround Quvenzhane Wallis act as if they're in an entirely different movie. They seem to think they're in this big, wacky, weird fantasy world so they act wacky. As a result, the "comedy" in this film feels embarrassingly over-the-top. Director Will Gluck made three comedies before "Annie," but that's hard to believe because of how off the comic-timing is in this film. Too often, there are little jokes in the film that are spoken and then just go nowhere. You know when you think you've said something funny but nobody seems to have heard you so nobody noticed? That's "Annie" in a nutshell.

The acting in the film ranges from uncomfortable to horrid. Bobby Cannavale and Cameron Diaz both give equally  cringe-inducing performances. The 1982 version of "Annie" featured Carol Burnett as Miss Hannigan, Cameron Diaz couldn't shine Burnett's shoe. Her performance is an insult to all that is funny. Maybe it's not completely her fault, but I'm reminded of her performance from last year's misfire "The Counselor." Two years in a row, two bad performances. Was she always this bad? Or is she simply trying to stretch herself, failing miserably in the process? I don't hate Cameron Diaz, but if I could erase her performance in "Annie" from my memory, I would be a much happier man.

Cannavale is just as bad, but his problem is more of a symptom of poor directing (and, to be fair, that sentiment could be applied to Diaz in many ways). Jamie Foxx, Rose Byrne, and Quvenzhane Wallis each approach their performances with at least an ounce of realism, so Cannvale's cartoonish-ness stands out like a sore thumb. It's just awkward. And because this movie was seemingly written by people who have no real sense of humor, each joke that comes out Cannavale's mouth is the equivalent to a stand-up comedian bombing on stage.

"Annie" is almost like a car accident that you can't look away from. It had potential. It was the right idea. But the overall execution is just so lazy and dull, it ultimately winds up feeling like a giant waste of time. No memorable musical sequences to speak of and the original songs in the film are as exciting to watch as a Yanni music video. Yanni. What a terrible reference. This movie is so bad, it's making me say dumb jokes. I think it's time to end this review before I say something even dumber.

Grade: F*

*Though Quvenzhane Wallis gets an A-