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There really are no directors like The Wachowski's, and ever since
their surprise smash hit with The Matrix, the good will towards their
names never seem to stop. It's actually surprising considering how the
two are always able to secure elaborate mega-budgets, and yet a lot of
their movies, original in concept but out of control and utterly
strange in execution, feel like wastes of those budgets. That said,
even when their movies are terrible, they don't strike out as much as
they create fascinating misfires that can be enjoyed in their own
right. Their track record is flimsy, but I'd say their only total
failure is The Matrix Revolutions.
As for Jupiter Ascending, I feel genuinely terrible for criticizing it, as I respect the vision here. This is an ode to every epic space opera the filmmakers have ever loved, and it's clear a lot of painstaking detail has gone into it. There's some admitted creativity with how the two are always trying to pull the rug out from the viewer, but it does so at the cost of coherence. The film feels like a two hour compilation of a full season TV show, dropping numerous plot threads and characters just as quickly as they're established, and serve little to no actual purpose to the main narrative. It also seems designed as an alternative to the string of Young Adult novel adaptations, but ironically ends up becoming exactly like one of those movies, simplifying the characters, skimping out on necessary exposition, and leaving this entire universe to operate on whatever logic it feels like at the time.
On top of that, it's burdened with some of the worst acting I've seen this year. As Channing Tatum is forced to play straight faced and charmless and Eddie Redmayne consistently mumbles in monotone whispers, they're both forced to pick up the slack for Mila Kunis' passive and needy damsel in distress. By the time a major action set piece between enemy ships finally takes place 25 minutes through, this film has genuinely given me no reason to care.
That said, it's a film whose craft can be admired where the story can't be. The visual effects are beautiful, the sound is creative (even if that random dog barking gun effect is annoying), and Michael Giacchino pays glorious tribute to every classic Sci-Fi score he's ever loved. Outside of those bright spots, though, this is another interesting misfire from the directing duo, but a bad movie by any other name is still a bad movie.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
One thing I love about John Le Carre adaptations is how they manage to
take such deceptively mundane situations, and manage to wring so much
suspense out of them. The movie goes through so many unexpected twists,
and creates such a wonderful slow-burn of events that will keep you
locked to the screen.
If there's any one complaint I have, it's that the acting ranges from fantastic, to Rachel McAdams. I'm sorry, but she is just awful in this film. Her accent frequently slips (German, American, German, British, American, etc.), she doesn't command much presence, and she is just miscast and out of place altogether. I could see someone like Diane Kruger in this role, but not Rachel frigging McAdams. She feels especially out of place when placed alongside a titan like Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Speaking of which, Hoffman is just as controlled and chameleon-like as he has ever been. One thing I especially love about his performance is how subtle, yet commanding it's played. He rarely raises his voice, he has no "Oscar clip" moments, he plays it quietly, and yet you still believe that this one man possess incredible authority, and never lets his composure break unless by design. In many ways, it's a classic example of an internal struggle. The very last scene of the film where you see his expression, defeated and guilt- ridden, is one of the most powerful scenes I've seen this year. It's a shame Hoffman never got to continue giving more performances of this caliber, and he surely showed no signs of slowing down up to his tragic passing. If nothing else, we can still be glad that he left us with one of his finest works.
On the one hand, I love the film's concepts fine. Video games are an
incredible medium (one that outshines even cinema) with such
fascinating history behind them, and the evolution of the gaming
business and community on screen is quite wonderful. It says something
about what a great artform it is that it brings so many people from
different walks of life together, and even goes so far as to create
lasting friendships and marriages. We may not realize, but sometimes,
those seemingly insignificant connections we have create all the
difference in the world.
However, that's the extant of the film's great qualities, and the overall film is not as interesting, or too engaging to the uninitiated. The film is built firmly on nostalgia and fond recognizability, especially during frequent and awkward montages, and something like that can't sustain an entire film. It wants to show us a comprehensive history of video gaming culture, but suffers from disjointed time jumps, and the fact that the film constantly throws interesting facts at us, yet seldom does it ever expand on them. It practically rushes through the crash of 1983 in maybe three minutes, and glosses over evolutions like the early rise of third-party developers and the indie gaming scene (Although, Indie Game: The Movie provides a much more expansive detailing of that very subject). There's so much potential in this film that it sadly never realizes. I realize there has to be a point where you have to make tough choices of what to show, but it really does just fall into an "Aren't video games great" showcase.
If you're looking for a nostalgic kickback, you should enjoy yourself fine, but if you want a much more comprehensive rundown of video gaming history, you'd be better suited reading various books, or watching Machinima's "All Your History Are Belong To Us" series of YouTube videos.
You ever wonder what it would be like if Terrence Malick vacationed in
Walt Disney World, drank moonshine and had an acid flashback while on
It's A Small World, and then immediately afterwards stared at Spaceship
Earth while a bunch of kids ran by? That's pretty much this film.
I like the idea of the film fine, and it's cool to see all the little areas in Walt Disney World that I know so well (I may have been in this film and not even known it), but the film gets lost in its own thematic context. Is it's message that our instabilities will follow us even in so-called safe havens? Is it a pandemic allegory? Is it a sexuality parable? Not that it can't be all of those, but I don't think even the movie knows what it's talking about.
Beyond that, the film is positively horrendous, with laughable attempts at psychological terror and ambiguity, unbearable dialogue and acting, groan inducing imagery (Don't make me mention the Siemens "semen"), amateurish photography and editing (which I do still understand given the film's shooting circumstances), appalling special effects, and structuring so incompetent, it can't even keep its own locations straight. If the movie is taking place in Disney World, WHY ARE YOU ALSO JUMPING TO DISNEYLAND FOOTAGE?! I could spend hours picking apart the geographical errors alone, but that's secondary at this point. Escape From Tomorrow is a classic example that it doesn't matter how original your story is if the actual execution (which should matter above all else) is awful.
At least it had a great score, though.
I admire Ridley Scott as much as the next guy. He's great with actors
and he's a great visual artist, but if there's one vice he suffers
from, it's this. Scott has a penchant for picking bad scripts to film.
He's *always* been wildly inconsistent with that, not merely in his
last ten years, and in plenty of non-negligible cases, has had to go so
far as to use his direction to mask the flaws of the writing. This was
especially the case for films like Hannibal, 1492, Legend, A Good Year,
and the notorious plot holes of Prometheus. I respect him for always
trying to stretch his versatility, but his scripts don't do his
strengths justice, and his last decade alone has been even patchier
than Tim Burton's.
The reason I say that is because The Counselor is yet another example of this. I know Cormac McCarthy is a great author (in fact, he wrote my favorite book, No Country for Old Men), but what makes him great in literature doesn't make him so in cinema. His script feels like it was originally meant for a book but trimmed for the screen, and it shows. The film expects us to immediately accept the reality of the situation, shorting us on crucial details behind the relationships of characters, something that even the awkward exposition can't fix. These characters are so middlingly established that I simply can't care about them. Another indication that it was meant for the page is that the script is incredibly busy and needlessly convoluted. It feels like several different movies are going on at once with nothing tying them together, and full of elements that go absolutely nowhere. As a book, this could be easily expanded upon and you could get away with this kind of busy structure, but in film, it's talky, dull, and loaded with redundancy (We get it, Cormac, actions have consequences). That even extends into the visuals with repeated imagery of cheetahs, no doubt to foreshadow the hungry predators about to descend upon the unwary prey of main characters... SYMBOLISM!
Ridley Scott is trying his best to wrangle it all together, but no matter how hard he tries, he just can't generate any suspense from this film, and one of the only good scenes is setting up the wire on the road, because it's one of the few moments with no unneeded dialogue. There's too few of those tense moments present in the film, and despite the best efforts of the cast members, great actors can only elevate bad material so much (none dumber and more horrendous than Cameron Diaz screwing a car), and it makes for yet another blunder for Scott.
In 2010, director David O. Russell ended his six year absence, and
returned to the big screen with his knock-out hit (No pun intended) The
Fighter, which managed a grand total of seven Oscar nominations,
including wins for actors Christian Bale and Melissa Leo. Flash forward
two years later, and his next movie is up for a whopping eight
nominations, also setting a record as one of the only movies to ever
have nominations in all four acting categories. That movie is Silver
Linings Playbook. I've been anticipating this one for months, ever
since it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. Let me
just say it didn't disappoint.
Inspired by Matthew Quick's book, Silver Linings Playbook follows Pat Solitano Jr. (Bradley Cooper), a man released from a stay in a mental institution after catching his wife cheating on him, and beating her lover to near death. He's staying with his caring and worrisome mother Dolores (Jacki Weaver), and his obsessive compulsive Eagles fan father (Robert De Niro). Pat is hopeful, despite a restraining order, that he'll be able to reconcile his marriage, and that's only one of the problems that are running around in his mind.
As bad as Pat's problems are, he's got nothing on Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a recently widowed woman with whom Pat finds a kindred spirit. Tiffany strikes up a deal. If pat will compete in a dance competition alongside Tiffany, she'll deliver a letter to his wife explaining about his current situation.
Much like our central character, the movie is understandably prone to certain mood swings, balancing out between personal drama and laces of dark humor. This is a very personal movie for Russell, known for his own history of off screen controversy. The ease with the dramatic pace of this movie, the issues of familial turmoil, our main character's quest to reconstruct his life, the well timed wit, and a whole slew of fascinating characters is only part of what's done excellently by Russell, who drew upon his own experiences and that of his own son in writing the script. The mental issues are met properly, but through Russell's eyes, we also get to witness the vices of many of the other characters here, which ensure that the movie never gets boring.
Just as strong as he is a writer, Russell's direction is as fantastic as always. If there's one thing that can be said of the man, even in his weaker entries, he's always had a knack for extracting terrific performances out of all of his actors. The lead character on paper is only as good as his actor, and Bradley Cooper expresses every believable ache out of Pat Jr. Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver are typically strong as his parents, while Chris Tucker works with a nice little comic relief role.
But I know who you all really want to ask me about: Jennifer. Lawrence. I can say absolutely nothing about her that hasn't already been said. She steals this movie, serving as that perfect match for Cooper. The best parts of this movie are when we get to see the irresistible chemistry between these two, and Lawrence sells them all convincingly. This is such a peculiar, but very warm, sincere, and charming performance. One of her strengths is how well she conveys Tiffany's emotion, but at certain times, she'll even play it up to convey several at one time. She has one specific scene in a diner that left me unsure of how to feel towards her. Pitying, tickled, intimidated, uncomfortable? It's not common when I find a performance like that that makes me feel so many different things all at once. Lawrence is far and away one of the best performances of the year!
As such, Silver Linings Playbook is one of the best movies of the year, allowing O. Russell to stretch his legs with a challenge, and unqualified success. It's a sweet and meaningful little movie that should resonate deeply with many a member of its audience. Now if only Ernest Hemingway would stop triggering such negative reactions...
***** / *****
With Bully, director Lee Hirsch gets down to the uneasy topic of
bullying in high schools. The movie follows several students, as well
as the families of these students, who go through this routine of
suffering from verbal and emotional abuse, physical contact, and even
so far as bigotry because of same sex preferences. Those kids who don't
have the strength to shake it off or stand up for themselves have
simply accepted it as an everyday occurrence, bring weapons in defense
of themselves, or have gone so far as to kill themselves, seeing no
other way out.
Bullying is an important issue that a lot of people acknowledge, but few seem to genuinely take action against. While it doesn't get down to the issue of why bullying is around, there's no denying that the footage here is powerful, and that it bears a ring of truth. The movie points fingers at teachers and officials sweeping the issue under the rug, a lack of consistent ethics and guidelines, as well as intolerance for those with differences, and it doesn't shy away from these, at least not enough to criticize it for.
All in all, Bully is a film that should be mandatory viewing for all schools. I'm not saying it isn't an unpleasant issue, but it shouldn't be ignored. It should be talked about, strongly so in fact. And it shouldn't even stop there. Take action, start support groups, help a friend in need, and talk to that friend so that friend doesn't feel alone, because no child should have to feel like there's no way out.
STAND FOR THE SILENT!
**** / *****
Denmark's recent nominee for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film
didn't really have me too eager to see it. Before watching it, I would
have mistakenly written it off as just another stuffy and
self-important costume drama, but after seeing it, that would have been
a disservice. Granted, it is a bit stuffy, and they could have picked
up the pace, but this is still quite the elegant, competently filmed
and produced period piece set within 18th century Denmark, in which the
queen is involved in a love triangle with the king and a doctor, while
the king is fighting for new laws of liberation in the country. For
these roles, there are a group of such strong performances, none more
hard hitting than that of breakout star Alicia Vikander, who is far and
away the movie's standout quality.
**** / *****
In Bruges is a fantastic movie that doesn't get nearly as much
recognition as it should. When I heard that Martin McDonagh was going
to be following that movie up with Seven Psychopaths, I knew I had to
see it. A comedy that successfully mixes together several elements, it
follows a struggling Hollywood writer and the acquaintances around him,
two of which kidnap dogs and collect the reward money for a living, not
knowing that their latest target is the prized Shih Tzu of a ruthless
In a lot of ways, Seven Psychopaths is both similar and yet completely different from that of In Bruges. The star is McDonagh's script. The comedy here is pitch black, with grim, and violently over the top humor, much of which is pure gold. At the same time, there's a surprising philosophical depth that is examined throughout. I wouldn't necessarily call this a wacky film. When you get down to analyzing it, this is a deep, incredibly idealistic movie with serious smarts that just happens to be very funny, too. The way that the script makes self references to itself through a script written by Collin Farrell's character is also clever, if taking a bit too much from Kaufman's Adaptation. Unfortunately, it also draws attention to Seven Psychopaths' most glaring flaw, its poor use of female characters amongst a mostly male cast.
These women, played by the talented likes of Abbie Cornish and Olga Kurylenko, are severely disappointing. Still, the male cast is quite entertaining. They are a bunch of attention grabbing characters that, in addition to Farrell, includes Christopher Walken, Woody Harrelson, and Sam Rockwell. Special mention goes to Rockwell's deceptive, hysterical, and unstable Billy Bickle.
****1/2 / *****
Often considered a book to be ultimately unfilmable, Ang Lee faced a
struggle in adapting Life of Pi. Was he successful? Well, anyway, the
movie follows young Pi Patel, the lone survivor of a ship sinking,
trapped for a long time on a lifeboat with a Bengal Tiger as his
companion. The film highlights some weighty and thought provoking
issues of faith and religion, taking a bold road rarely seen in family
films. It does sound like something that would work well in the
script's favor, but then I have to back up and remind myself that the
narrative is uneven, diminishing the emotional impact that should be
felt, and the narration and present day sequences overstay their
To be fair, for a movie that spends half the time on a boat with only a young boy and tiger on screen, Life of Pi is still a decent movie to watch. No one can accuse Ang Lee of not knowing what he wanted this film to be, for his direction is the movie's strongest point. Lee is the proper example of a director fully confidant and in control of his own vision, so I do respect the film more than I actually liked it. If nothing else, we can all marvel at the visual aspects, which are quite enchanting, if at times a wee bit too obvious.
*** / *****
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