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Meru (2015)
28 out of 29 people found the following review useful:
A Rousing Answer to the Question: Why do They Climb?, 6 October 2015

The inherent drama of men and mountains has spurred in recent years a glut of TV and film that has blossomed with the technological advancements of our time and the "look at me" attitude pervading society so that everyone with a Go-Pro can film their adventures for the world to see. From Youtube channels of independent climbers filming their routes to big money TV shows that bring the adventurers' lives to our living rooms, the world of mountain climbing and adventure sports in general seems caught in contradictions. Always underlying the contradictions is the simple question of why? Do these individuals risk life and limb for their fame, for sponsors, for a TV deal or out of a unique personal desire and will that drives them into the wild.

The British climber George Mallory who died while attempting Everest back in the 1920s famously responded to the question of Why? with "because it is there". For the next 100 years, many climbers have tried to give better answers, and in Meru, we have a compelling combination of narrative and visual imagery that may result in the best answer of all.

The narrative stands apart from other films and documentaries in that it is not completely linear and veers off course to give the viewers appropriate back stories to inject meaning and under currents to the climbers' motivations. You get to know the climbers as people, and with that understanding, I think it becomes easier for anyone, including people who have never set foot on a snowy ledge, to understand why these people climb mountains.

The technical climbing is filmed by Jimmy Chin (both climber and film director) in a way that I have simply never seen before. As a climbing enthusiast, the shots of these guys on the walls of ice and rock are astounding, gut-wrenching and for me, completely inspiring. The organic relationship of the climbing team, their histories and ultimately their trials on the snow and rock of Meru expand on many common mountaineering themes - mentors, sponsors, risk analysis and contemplating death both yours and your friends.

Jon Krakauer is not my favorite voice in this world, but he is a voice that is adept at translating the mountaineering world to laymen, and his role in this film is served well. In the end, I strongly recommend this film for everyone. For those that can understand the motivation to be the first to stand atop a peak, you will not be disappointed. For those that can not understand the motivation, you might walk away finally getting it.

16 out of 32 people found the following review useful:
Excessive in style, lacking in substance, 25 December 2013

When the final cut spun in some back room, I wonder what Scorsese thought he had here, a comedy, a thriller, a drama. This movie has a little bit of everything, but the sum of its parts adds up to very little. Very little that we as movie goers have not already seen 100 times before and nothing that I necessarily needed to sit through 168 minutes to see again.

The lack of a conscience, the drive to make money at all costs, these are things we all already associate with Wall Street. So when Leo takes his messed up principles and quickly turns his smooth talking ways into millions of dollars, the audience says to itself, OK, now what? How will the story turn dark, how will the greed and booze catch up to these guys, because it always does, right.

Wrong. The plot here floats at the surface to allow the merry pranksters of Leo and Jonah Hill to basically do whatever it is they want throughout the entire movie. The parties and intoxication are normally something I love, its fun to watch people party and do drugs (at least for me). Here, the excess becomes tiresome, and that would be fine, if the film was intended to show the perils of excess. But that's not the intent, the negative effects of the drugs is touched upon, and as the plot slowly veers toward the end for our wild wall street bunch, the drugs naturally move the plot deeper down the rabbit hole, but its too much after awhile and thus the film becomes a caricature of itself. A comedic display of excess that the viewer may enjoy like an exaggerated drawing, but not something that has any staying power.

Scorsese may have realized this, so the plot meanders through FBI investigations, ship wrecks off the coast of Italy and Swiss Bank fraud. Its the classic example of throwing too much at the window and hoping something sticks. I found the plot to be unnecessarily bloated, I found the story to be largely superficial, and I found the actual direction to not be nearly as good as Scorsese's past films.

Leo and Jonah are fantastic, some of the bit actors are good, but there is no real story here. It's just a party with consequences that do not seem to bother the characters and therefore, never really create any tension in the narrative. Its an enjoyable film at best, a plodding, repetitive, shell of a movie at worst. You be the judge.

113 out of 168 people found the following review useful:
Another "Not-Easy-to-Watch" but altogether Impressive Coen Bros movie, 11 December 2013

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

I saw Inside Llewyn Davis in a sold out matinée in Union Square, NYC last weekend. The city was cold and dreary, much like the 1960s Manhattan depicted in this film. I sat with my friend after the movie and basically railed against the film for the first ten minutes before slowly admitting that my criticisms were obviously the intended result and that the Coen Brothers have once again made a great movie that is simply not easy to digest and certainly not fun to digest.

I'll lead with the greatness. The underlying takeaway of this film is that the actual creation of music - the sound, the beauty and the lyrical story - can embody some of the best attributes about humanity and yet, the creator of such music can nonetheless lack all such attributes and essentially be as ugly a person as his music is beautiful. That is the takeaway, and the Coen Bros intentionally force this upon the viewer. The folk songs song by Lleywn serve as calming beautiful interludes and as stark contrasts to the plot driven by a character who is simply put, a terrible human being stuck in an extremely frustrating, self-made vacuum of an existence.

I assume that most people, like me, gravitate toward wanting to root for the struggling artist. There is a nobility in pursuing your dreams when such dreams consist of the pursuit of an art form. Here, folk music is put on a pedestal and LLewyn's pursuit of it is from the outset, something the audience implicitly will support. In the course of 90 minutes, the Coen Bros force you to question this support, hate the lead character and eventually cheer when he gets punched in the face.

The problem is simple. I did not want any more of LLewyn Davis after 90 minutes. I did not want to hear his music anymore because the lyrics he sung were fraudulent, the beauty of his playing, a guise. And due to his self-made failings throughout the film, I no longer cared where his story went. The Coen Bros could have taken the plot line in any number of ways to give the viewer some foothold to hope that Llewyn may end up on the right track one day. They do not give you that foothold, and for that reason, I was pretty ready for this movie to end when it did. This is admittedly a criticism, but more an observation. I certainly do not need films to end with rainbows and hearts, but this script really forces you to watch a man stuck in a static world where his own actions cause him to go nowhere, and that is a frustrating world to inhabit for 90 minutes.

The best parts of the film are not the Manhattan scenes, but the drive LLewyn takes to Chicago. The Coen Bros have used the theme of "driving at night" time and time again to make some great scenes, usually emotionally charged personal voyages. This is no different. Their cinematography and over all character driven story telling shines when their lead characters hit the road. The bit characters are fun and unusual in the Coen Bro's way, but do little to ease the 90 minutes of crass, immature, self-defeating, out-of-touch and eventually just pathetic life movements from Lleywn's character

For Coen Brother fans, its worth the journey; for general movie fans, be warned, as this is an interesting film, but arguably not an enjoyable one.

4 out of 11 people found the following review useful:
Do Not Be Swayed By the Political Fallout...just go see it., 11 January 2013

Perhaps this film came out too soon. With the issues of torture and the lingering questions our country is debating on the "war on terror", this film was bound to provide a soapbox for both the left and right side of the debate. I would advise you not to worry too much about what this movie says or doesn't say about torture, and just go see if for yourself.

Why? Because the film provides an engaging, well scripted depiction of the uninteresting, boring, tedious and often unproductive nature of the CIA's tracking down of OBL. I thought this film was going to be like Black Hawk Down in terms of the time line it would follow. I was wrong. The story arc begins with 9/11 and is largely set in Pakistan where you watch a young CIA analyst (Jessica Chastain) slowly obsess over and piece together the leads that get her to OBL.

There are weaknesses in the writing and some poorly developed characters. Yet, over all I preferred the plot which stuck completely to the CIA's base in Pakistan rather than mix and match the DC politics with the ground game analysis. Of course the DC bureaucrats need their say, and the film gets you to DC during the final stages before the strike. In total, this is not a "24" type of film. Its not about the ticking bomb and torturing someone to get them to talk. Its a thoughtful depiction of a very difficult intelligence mission that does not make the mistake of intentionally trumping up any political ideologies nor does it advocate torture. It just gives an admittedly dumbed down view into the post-9/11 intelligence issues this country faced, which include as you will see some pretty brutal methods of culling information from sources.

6 out of 13 people found the following review useful:
Lisbeth Salander is the best character of the past 10 years, 25 December 2011

The real intrigue in Millennium Trilogy starts and ends with Lisbeth Salander. As with the books and the original Swedish movies, I can nit-pick the plots and the films to death like everyone else, but ultimately, the fact that we get to see another depiction of Salander should force most people from the fans right on down to the uninformed to see this film.

To that end, I think Rooney Mara holds are own against Rapace's Salander. I initially found her style a bit too over-the-top as compared to the costume design in the Swedish film, but as the film churns and we see the Salander's army/goth exterior cast alongside her feminine sexuality Fincher does justice to the curious duality of the character. And bravo, Rooney Mara, I thought she was a bit too withdrawn in the first act of the movie, but much of that is plot driven and I really enjoyed the way this film draws more on her physical desires then the Swedish version, whether those desires are for Big Macs or orgasms.

The film itself is good, not great. Apart from the opening credit fiasco that made me think of the worst modern day James Bond films and felt completely disjointed from the tone of the film, I can't find too much to criticize Fincher for. His depiction of the cold Swedish countryside, the little things like the wind in Martin's home and the rough cabin feel were all pluses. The cat's role was a nice warm up and cut down the audience moment. Reznor's score is enthralling, its one of those scores where you acknowledge its power during the movie, it doesn't blend into the background, it comes at you in waves and you feel it hitting you in the face at the right times.

Criticisms include the editing back and forth between Salander and Blomquist's story lines throughout the first 40 minutes of the film. I liked the idea of trying to keep the viewer constantly linked to both characters, but we were literally jumping back and forth in 30 second intervals, it felt too cut up for my liking. Daniel Craig is a good actor, I like him and I don't know another big name actor that I'd have preferred in this role, but I agree with others who lean with the original Swedish actor (name escapes me) for the roll. Craig masters the suave and broken characters in his Bond films and Layer Cake very well, but there is a certain aesthetic missing from his portrayal of Blomquist.

Lastly, I had such high expectations for Fincher's portrayal of the dark, murderous, violent aspects to the film that I felt the final act and the run up to the whodunnit resolution to be somewhat sanitized.

All that said, I still give it high marks and recommend it for newbies as well as fans of the Millennium Series.

4 out of 8 people found the following review useful:
Quality Cinema, Fun Movie, But A Few Things Missing., 30 May 2011

Its Woody Allen shooting a movie about the struggles of 'the artist' in Paris. It can't be bad, and it isn't bad. But just how good is the film? My answer: pretty good, but far from great.

Allen fixates upon the city as the muse of artists both past and present. His opening shots of Paris set the stage for the ongoing love affair his protagonist Gill (Owen Wilson) has with the city and the city's rich history as fertile ground for artistic endeavor. Owen as Gill, succeeds in playing a struggling writer who is trying to escape his success as a Hollywood actor in cookie-cutter movies. He waxes poetic to his fiancée, Inez (Rachel McAdams) about his desire to leave Pasadena and relocate to Paris permanently. This is where Allen creates the initial tension for our protagonist. Gill wants to walk the streets that Fitzgerald and Hemingway and Picasso walked. He wants to be a real artist, and he is confronted with this growing realization while trying to plan a life with Inez, who is the rich, soulless American caricature of Hollywood emptiness.

On his midnight walks, Wilson delves into the Paris of the 1920s and with each evening he is pushed away from the reality of a life with Inez toward a life of Parisian wistful inspiration. Allen juggles some difficult plot devices that are wholly unbelievable but nonetheless enjoyable. To say that the 20s "come to life" for Wilson would be both physically and psychologically accurate. All the while, his fiancée and her Republican parents and snooty friends question his actions, spurn his artistic flightiness and serve to establish the materialistic sadness that blinds people from the sights that Gill cherishes, the beauty and inspiration of Paris that can't be discovered in the Museum but, instead, must be sought out on its streets, preferably in the rain.

The theme of the present day artist yearning for the past glory periods of art whether it be the 1920s or 1890s is force fed to the viewer. Allen builds this theme up and slowly questions it as the movie drifts onward, but in delivering a verbal and concise conclusion on the issue, I felt he left little to the audiences imagination.

Additionally, the conflict we want from an Allen movie, the inner turmoil, the multiple plot line craziness, the sexual and sensual aspects, all of these cinematic fingerprints that identify an Allen movie are largely washed out in this film. There is a growing sense of flow to the film that allows the viewer to know which way the wind is blowing and how things will conclude, and when they finally do, it makes for a nice story of art winning the day, but it lacks the whirlwind emotions so frequently associated with a Woody Allen movie. For literature fans, for Allen fans, and for general movie fans, its worth a viewing, but its not a mind blowing film.

Brothers (2009/I)
123 out of 155 people found the following review useful:
Powerful movie, great individual performances, a few flaws, 5 December 2009

The trio of Jake Gyllenhaal, Tobey Macguire and Natalie Portman got me very excited for this film, and from an acting standpoint, they did not disappoint. The script gives Macguire the most to work with as the family man/Marine, Sam Cahill, whose latest trip to Afghanistan sees him imprisoned by the Taliban and ultimately returned to America with some serious psychological issues. While he is MIA, his wife, Grace, (Portman) and ex-con brother, Tommy, (Gyllenhaal) are told he is dead, and the two grow closer, eventually verging on emotional and physical attachment.

Ultimately, the movie is an emotional ringer. Sam returns to a family that wants to love him, but his walls are up, he's been through a lot and its his brother the fun loving Uncle Tommy who Sam's children want to play with. A quick note, Sheridan the director makes great use of the two daughters as comic breaks in otherwise terribly tense situations. Our theater was laughing at the kids and it felt to me, as though we needed that laughter to balance out the gloom. There are a few climaxes, some extremely tense family dinners and finally a final gripping scene where Sam is pushed to the brink, he distrusts his wife, assumes his brother is sleeping with her, and no longer can see the humor in his elementary aged children, can he hold on?

Its a touching film and a sad film, but it probably could have been a bit better. The script and title of the film suggest a big tension or interplay between the brothers. I found the brother relationship lacking in substance, and I thought the ingredients for some serious tension and emotional pain were in place but were never put to use. Sam Shepard does well as the Vietnam Vet father, but all he really does is establish his love for his son, the Marine, and his disdain for his son, the ex-con. There was so much more that he could have done, his role seems intentionally diminished. Portman is great as usual, but arguably miscast, as she doesn't belong cast into a film where she is not supposed to think. She's a thinking woman's actress and here she is left observing, we know she knows, but her character must play it clueless.

I cried, and wanted the story to continue, as there seems to be a bit left to this story when the film fades away. Both signs that the movie was enjoyable and touching. The growth of Gyllenhaal as the ex-con who is on the rise, adjusting to life on the outside and acting as a surrogate father in the absence of Macguire is nicely juxtaposed with Macguire's devolution into post-traumatic stress ridden torment. Watch the Oscar nods roll in, but I think, if anything, the movie may win individual awards, as the product as a whole falls quite a bit short of award winning status.

28 out of 44 people found the following review useful:
Left Me Feeling Quite Melancholy, but Satisfied, 6 July 2008

The Wackness is an extremely difficult movie to figure out. On one hand, writer/director Jon Levine paints a captivating story around the friendship of two identifiable protagonists in depressed teenage drug dealer Luke Shapiro, played by an up-to-the-task Josh Peck, and eccentric shrink, Dr. Squires, played by a barely up to the task Ben Kingsley. On the other hand, the script itself struggles to find a tone largely fumbling the 1994 NYC setting and ultimately dabbling with dark comedy, philosophy 101, and drug/party filled 90s teenage musings without really nailing down any thematic voice. The movie does succeed in escaping its hazy plot lines and sophomoric personalities with several great one-liners, some decent character development, and a conclusion that left me satisfied but nevertheless a bit sad --which is not a bad thing. Of the 80% filled NYC theater I saw it in, 10 people walked out, the rest applauded at the end. Its that kind of movie.

One of the biggest problems with the movie is its failure to use the 1994 New York City setting to its fullest. As a product of this time and place I felt cheated because Mr. Levine chooses to exploit tid-bits of the culture without ever really showing any substance. We hear references to Kurt Cobain and Phish, we see Luke playing Nintendo NES, we hear a good selection of Biggie, Wu-Tang Clan, and Tribe Called Quest and several references to the Guliani gestapo police, but Levine failed to create a teenage period piece to rival Dazed and Confused, Kids, or Mallrats to name a few more recent ones. The cinematography is good, and adds a vintage type feel to the NYC background, but as a cultural snapshot of a time in NYC history, this movie falls flat.

However, Levine was perhaps preoccupied with a greater goal than a period piece. Shapiro and Dr. Squires are not easy characters to support. Shapiro is a bulk sales weed dealer, with no friends, and a stunted sex life. I think many people will be able to relate to him either directly or indirectly and will enjoy following his teenage "coming of age" tribulations as I did. Kingsley, as Squires, has a tough role and at times plays the stoner shrink as though he has early onset Alzheimer's disease. Its not an easy role, his character is a walking contradiction who mixes decent psychological advice with occasional moments of idiocy. At times he nails it down, at others he comes across as the drunk uncle at Thanksgiving dinner that we are all a bit embarrassed for, but this was probably Levine's intention. Amidst writing that ebbed and flowed at a mediocre level, the dialog between Shapiro and Squires had some knock outs and worked its way up to a satisfying conclusion. The peripheral characters perform admirably when asked, except for Famke Jannsen who failed to show up for her role as Squires' numb to life wife.

If you have ever turned to the recreational consumption of drugs or any other vice as an escape from life or to just 'deal' with life, you will find both Shapiro and Squires much much much more sympathetic and in some ways touching characters. The story of the young Shapiro and old Squires blends the themes of 'soothing your growing pains through drugs (mostly marijuana)' versus the 'trying to go back to your youth and escape your adulthood' through drugs. People who can appreciate or relate to such plot lines will find this movie much more touching than those who cant.

0 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Starts with a Bang, but Fails to Maintain, 15 June 2008

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

I went to see The Strangers with no background information, just a quiet night, random movie going experience. I knew it was a horror/mystery...thats it. The movie starts slow, but is intriguing nonetheless. We have a small amount of character development with our protagonist couple before things get hairy. As to the suspense, I really liked some of the subtle techniques used in this movie. Hand-held camera work, and a great score that combined eeriness with some old country tunes that worked to create a great tense atmosphere in the theater. This movie starts on par with the scare factor of good Japanese/Korean movies...however.

The actual plot is what left me desiring more. The set never changes. We are in a house and on the property where the protagonists are terrorized by "the strangers" the entire movie. We know the ending as its told to us in the 1st 5 minutes. And ultimately, the scare tactics used early on -the freakishness of being home alone with home invaders who have infiltrated your house, bang and break things, and wear freaky masks -- wears off after awhile. I mean the "strangers" more or less toy with the victims for 100 minutes. After awhile, the movie needs something else to happen because the impending doom is no longer that impending, I no longer believed we'd see the strangers engage the couple until the requisite 110 minutes of airtime had expired. So the tension is lost and the audience just waited for the conclusion which we all knew.

Additionally, there is no tension/release with this movie, the director tries to keep the tension going throughout and ultimately the sails lose the wind. There is no back story, and very little dialogue. The introduction of peripheral characters is short lived, there is never any explanation about the "strangers" -their reasons/objectives/personalities, the decisions the couple make in combating the "strangers" are idiotic, and by the end when you are hoping for a final horrific conclusion, the movie gives you nothing more than the visual of the foregone conclusion.

I jumped out of my seat a few times, and I was a bit 'freaked out' walking to my car through the fog on a quiet street that evening. But this movie was only inspired by true events, meaning the script did not have to adhere to a factual event. Thus there is no excuse for the weak plot. All the atmospherics needed for good suspenseful horror -read-not-torture-porn- were in place, but the plot needed more ingenuity and ultimately failed as do so many other horror movies in assuming that because you succeed in creating a scary setting you can pass off idiotic human decisions without the audience questioning them.

6 out of 10 people found the following review useful:
Its Tradition....and I like it., 27 April 2008

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

I was lucky enough to catch the midnight showing of Dying Breed at this year's Tribeca Film Festival, and want to get my thoughts down immediately. In short, its a solid horror thriller movie that I would recommend you see, if you are fan of this genre. If I had to try to compare it to any of the more recent horror films, I'd say its 1 part Cabin Fever, 1 part Devil's Rejects, and 1 part Hostel.

The film is based on two bits of historical fact. First there is Alexander "the Pieman" Pierce, who back when Tasmania was used as a prison island for Britain's worst lot, escaped from the prison and resorted to cannibalism to survive. The Pieman's cuisine of choice has spawned a slight tradition in the backwoods of Tasmania, where hikers have historically ventured into and never returned. The film's second historical basis lies with the mystery of the Tasmanian tiger, which most scientists deem extinct. Not our protagonist, Nina (Mirrah Foulkes), who is out to find the tiger and finish the work her sister began before she mysteriously drowned out in the bush.

Enter our two couples, Nina and her boyfriend, Matt (Leigh Whannel), and Matt's old buddy (your standard obnoxious peripheral character in horror movies) and his girlfriend (your standard pretty and clueless body) who are along for the ride. I would say one of the movie's strengths is the great cinematography that takes you along with the foursome as they enter the beautiful but eventually spooky backwoods. They eventually end up in a town that hearkens you back to the West Virginians in Cabin Fever, serious backwoods nut jobs. From a strange girl, to a male only town, to a mysterious figure lurking in the woods you can tell that things are getting weird and that these 'tourists' are entering a sketchy situation.

From the town, the foursome venture via boat deeper into the bush. This movie succeeds because you have good tension building elements; 1) the woods, caves, jungles, etc; 2) messed up locals with a tradition they need to keep alive; and 3) a good bit of blood, flesh flying around, and things called "man-traps", I mean you cant go wrong there. This is not a gore fest, and special effects are minimal. The ending takes you for a good ride, but ultimately this wasn't a crazy adrenaline pumping horror movie. The bad guys are bad, weird, and a bit grotesque but are basically people who act and look pretty weird, nothing that'll make you jump out of your seat. Its cool though, and it works.

Like most movies in this genre you have the "god these people are stupid" moments, there are a bit too many "you stay here, I'll be right backs" and our audience laughed at the idiocy of some decisions, but the movie is not campy as campy horror movies go, it tries and largely succeeds at keeping to a dark, serious undertone. On top of that, the reality of their situation does not seem to ever dawn on the foursome. One brief non-spoiler example is that certain townies end up all the way out in the bush with the foursome, and the foursome never really seem to recognize just how strange it is that these bonified weirdos just happened upon them in the middle of the woods. This realization, the fear that occurs when the character is forced to contemplate how completely screwed/messed up their situation is, is what makes horror movies horrifying. The characters almost seem oblivious to the situation, and honestly I get more freaked out when I see the actors on film freaking out. There is a twist or two that doesn't jive with logic, but Im not complaining. Not a classic, but certainly worth your time if you want to see a horror movie based on cannibalism.

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