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Gone Girl (2014)
You Don't Know What You've Got Till It's...
A lot of people might describe Gone Girl as a roller coaster ride. One of those movies that is in constant flux causing your stomach to tie up in knots. But it's really more of a maze. It's dark and brooding and sometimes it changes suddenly and unexpectedly, and sometimes we get lost, but the more lost we get the better. In the movie Amazing Amy Elliot Dunne has gone missing from her small town suburban Missouri home and the search to find her alive or dead begins a thrilling odyssey, where lives are ruined and each clue births a new mystery to be solved.
But despite it's entertaining, ever shifting, half mystery half thriller angle, this is all just a cover for what the film is really about. The truth is, the only person we'll ever really know in our lives is ourselves. When we look into someone else's eyes there is no way of knowing what calculating clockwork might lay beyond. Even someone we love, someone we've grown up or grown old with, can become a total stranger. This is what the real heart of the movie is about: the ever changing masks we choose to wear. Because in truth we're all actors and we're always tailoring our performances to the audiences present. In the movie, Nick plays the part of the gallant boyfriend turned perfect husband, while Amy plays the part of the cool girlfriend turned wife.
And after Amy disappears the focus becomes Nick's performance. How is he acting? Is he smiling at a time like this? Why doesn't he seem more concerned? His sister reminds him that he should look a little disheveled so that it appears he's had a long sleepless night while worrying for his lost wife. He's coached by lawyer Tanner Bolt to play the part of the f*ck up husband begging for forgiveness. All the while Amy plays the part of the abused housewife, the quintessential missing upper middle class white lady. And by the movie's end the characters will shed their old masks and don new ones, even more gruesome and terrifying than before. No one is really interested in the truth (except perhaps Nick, to a certain extent) and there is no justice. But how can there be justice in a world that is stained by the mainstream media and the Nancy Graces of the world, who act as judges of abstract character traits rather than anything concrete.
Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike are quite honestly astounding in their performances. As the movie starts both actors seem to be wooden, robotic and inauthentic. But as the movie progresses we start to see the humans behind the facade, the true characters of Amy and Nick, if only for small fractions at a time before they sink back into their roles be it the witty writer, the poor woman from New Orleans, or the loving couple with a fresh start. And David Fincher is able to adeptly guide us along this labyrinth, keeping us on the edge of our seats and never challenging us to sit back and turn our brains off as the gears click. Aided by meticulous editing, beautiful silver coated cinematography and an often mellow, entrancing score, we're pulled into this dark saga that's less about finding the girl that's gone missing, but rather discovering the souls of these melancholy people trapped in some kind of awful twilight. But as Fincher takes us deeper into this mystery, as he uncovers mask after mask trying to reach something real we become resigned to the fact that we all have something to hide. It's not just Nick. There's a little bit of villain inside all of us, and we just have to keep covering it up, because god forbid anyone see us for what we truly are.
The Rover (2014)
By definition a rover wanders without a fixed destination. Likewise, this movie just meandered about for an hour and a half and abruptly ended.
The whole thing starts when three people steal Guy Pearce's car and he goes mad crazy and starts hunting the guys that did it. Early on he comes across one of the culprits' brother, Robert Pattinson, who had been wounded and left behind in a robbery gone wrong. So Pearce uses him to find his car. Along the way they kill several people. They get to where they're going and they kill some more people, Pattinson dies, and then we find out why Pearce went murder crazy to get his car back: because his dead dog was in the trunk and he wanted to bury it.
Now this whole story takes place 10 years after "the collapse." We never really find out what the collapse is, but its clear from watching the movie that the biggest change is that people don't bathe anymore, because everyone in this movie had a perpetual layer of grime on them. No doubt this was to make things "gritty" but honestly if a society is still using paper money to buy and sell things then mankind can't be that far down the tube, right?
Anyways, the movie is very well put together, with some good cinematography and a decent performance from Guy Pearce. But there's really nothing at the center of the movie. There is absolutely NO character development for Pearce. We get no insight into his actions throughout the film because we don't know where he's been and we don't know where he's going. All we really know is that he really wants his car back. I think the ending with his dog is supposed to signal that he lost the last thing on Earth that mattered to him and he now has nothing left to lose. But if you're really willing to risk your own life and kill a half a dozen people just to bury your dog then there's some deeper problems there. Lastly I have to say Robert Pattinson's performance nearly killed me. He way overplayed his character, which I think was just supposed to be a little slow, but Pattinson played him like he was missing a chromosome. And if he was supposed to be a mentally challenged character then I wonder why he was given a gun in the first place. Long story short, Pattinson's character was just plain annoying and he somehow made a deep connection with Pearce's character. I really couldn't tell you how or why that happened, It just kinda happened and I suppose the audience is just supposed to accept it.
Overall I rather hated this movie. Still, it's probably better than half of the other movies playing at your local cinema. But I would recommend you just stay home and watch (or re- watch) Animal Kingdom, which is a much better film.
12 Years a Slave (2013)
How can I express how much I loved this movie? I could talk about the great performances from the entire cast, especially Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong'o and Michael Fassbender. Or I could talk about the amazing direction and storytelling on behalf of the great Steve McQueen. I could also mention the moving score, the breathtaking cinematography or the script by John Ridley. But this is a movie that goes beyond all of that. It honestly changed me.
I have lived my entire life in the South. It has it's perks, of course, such as good cooking, friendly people and warmer weather than most places in America. We have sweet tea and beautiful sprawling pastures, but we have a shared horrific history, and this is a history that no one really likes to talk about down here. Slavery existed in the South for 250 years and (legal) institutional racism lasted another 100 years. It's really quite unfathomable to think of the generations of people who were mistreated, dehumanized, tortured, raped and murdered as a normal, everyday routine for the vast majority of our history. Watching this movie, I couldn't help but dwell on this shared past.
This is a brutal movie to watch and there will be many who just aren't up for it. But even more brutal than the beatings Patsy is forced to endure, or the noose around Solomon's neck is the reminder that these events are not fictional. They happened just down the street from where I live now. It takes about 20 minutes to drive from my house to the old building downtown where slaves used to be auctioned off. My own ancestors surely owned slaves, and if I could hear them speak I'm sure they would echo the words of Edwin Epps when they speak of lashings as biblical providence or human beings with darker skin than their own as no more than property, as any other livestock they might have owned. This is the power of 12 Years a Slave. It forces us to confront a past that we are often too scared or too ashamed to face.
Some have already attacked this movie as an "indictment of white America," a movie that is meant to do nothing else but cause racial tension and ignite white guilt, but this is far from the truth. First, This is a movie that transcends nationality. Though it is set in America, slavery has existed thousands of year the world over. Race based slavery existed throughout the Americas and in Europe and was arguably even more horrifying in countries like Brazil, where many slave owners found it more profitable to work a slave to death after two or three years and buy a new one. Second, this movie is, if anything, a celebration of the countless men and women who endured, the men and women who lived through these unspeakable horrors but found the courage to go on living and even to fight for their freedom as Solomon did. It is not meant to demonize white people or to stir up race riots as some hopelessly small minded people believe. This is not a movie that seeks to divide. It celebrates the humanity in all people and shows us that life is worth fighting for.
The Counselor (2013)
How can I explain a movie like The Counselor. It is one of those movies that tears me down the middle. I love it and I hate it at the same time.
There are two very distinct sides of this movie. One is the film as a story and the other the film as art. By art I mean meaning behind the story. Most movies these days are all story, with little art behind that story. Think of the big blockbusters or even the big Oscar movies like Argo. There is only the plot, behind it there is either nothing or very little. The Counselor is the exact reverse. The story is there, but it's so thin that at times it almost feels like it's missing all together. At the same time, this movie perhaps more than any other this year makes you think. It is a philosophical piece, with weighty dialogue and big questions. I always enjoy a movie that makes you think, especially because there're so rare. But that is not enough for a movie to stand on its own. There has to be a compelling story. There has to be something to keep the viewer involved in the film, and in this regard The Counselor somewhat fails. The plot is slow moving, it doesn't keep focus and it is generally confusing and convoluted.
The cast does an admirable job with the material they are given, but in general I don't think they were given enough license for us to truly understand their characters (except Diaz's Malkina). For example, the audience is supposed to believe that Fassbender's The Counselor and Cruz's Laura are madly in love with each other, but it would appear from their scenes together in the film that their relationship is purely sexual and there are really no hints of a deeper relationship. But as I said the cast does a good job for what they are given. Except for Cameron Diaz. Her character is the most realized in the film, but Diaz looks like she's just reading her lines from cue cards off screen, with little intensity or passion that a part like this requires.
Other things to be said for the film include it's amazing cinematography as well as it's fantastic score by Daniel Pemberton. I will also give props to the legendary Cormac McCarthy for the many lyrical monologues sprinkled throughout the film that really do stir the soul when listened to. But perhaps his prose would have been better served in novel form rather than as a screenplay.
Captain Phillips (2013)
A Very Good Movie!
We live in a very polarized world today. Everything has to be painted black or white, good or bad. But in reality there is no such thing as purity. Our "one or the other" mentality is wrong. There is always a shade of gray, and Captain Phillips reminds us of this in a way that few movies every do.
The story is that of a freighter ship captain who is sailing around the horn of Africa when his ship is attacked by four Somali Pirates. Captain Phillips is quick to think and he ends up possibly saving the lives of his crew by convincing the Somalis to leave the ship on one of the escape boats, however in the process they take him captive. Paul Greengrass directs and he does a marvelous job of engaging the audience. This is not a passive film, but one that must be watched in Earnest. Editor Christopher Rouse deserves just as much credit as Greengrass for this. His masterful editing makes the near 2 and a half hour movie fly by and it allows the film to sustain tension until its thrilling end. Henry Jackman composed a wonderful score for the film, even if it can be a little generic at times. My one and only complaint about the film is its cinematography (by Barry Ackroyd) which relies too heavily on shaky-cam. While it gives it a sense of realness at times, it's extensive use was slightly nauseating.
But the heart of the movie is Tom Hanks who gives his best performance in over a decade (and maybe his best performance ever!) as the titular character. This is one of those rare films where I don't feel like I'm watching Tom Hanks at all, it genuinely feels like I'm watching another person entirely. Throughout the movie Hanks' Phillips remains surprisingly calm and level headed as he deals with these Somali pirates all the while with a gun pointed at his head, but when the action is over and Phillips is finally safe, he breaks down in one of the best acted scenes of the last few years. He does this without hardly even speaking, but by only lying on a medical table. He sits there confused, disoriented and shaking madly. He can't even hear or comprehend the questions the medical team is asking him. It's terrifying, heart breaking and even beautiful to watch, and it speaks to the amazing feat pulled off by the real Captain Richard Phillips.
The movie feels very similar in style to Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty, even if it isn't quite as well crafted, because it offers us a very subjective viewpoint. This isn't a "f*ck yeah America!" kind of movie. And Greengrass along with writer Billy Ray were very brave in portraying the Somali pirates, not necessarily as villains, but as real people with real problems. They are not presented as bad people. They are just poor fishermen who made bad decisions. Barkhad Abdi plays the leader of the Somali pirates, named Muse, and he does a fantastic job. This is Abdi's first role in a movie, as it is for all those playing Somali pirates. Once again I have to give props to Greengrass for taking the bold risk of choosing unknown and untested Somali-American actors to play the pirates, and it is a risk that payed off spectacularly. Through their performances we get to see these characters fully realized. They are not all bad people, in yet they did terrible things. Like all of us, their true character lies in a shade of gray. And that is something we need to remember from time to time. We need to know that there is no such thing as the good guys and the bad guys, despite what the super hero movies tell us. We all lie somewhere in between.
"I Don't Want to Survive. I Want to Live!"
Gravity is Alfonso Cuaron's first movie in seven years and it's well worth the wait. Once again he proves that he is one of the most visionary directors working today and he delivers a film on par with his masterpiece Children of Men. The movie stars Sandra Bullock as Ryan Stone, a first time astronaut who is the sole surviver of a devastating wreckage that leaves her drifting in space. She must fight against all odds to get back to earth. Needless to say the visual effects are amazing, perhaps the best ever seen on film. It is beautiful to behold. The view of earth from space is stunning and the scenes of chaotic debris flying every which way is equally beautiful even as it is terrifying. The 3D only helps to enhance the experience, making the audience feel as through their floating along right next to Ryan Stone. The cinematography is equally amazing. It's fluid motions are like brush strokes on a canvas, and it should finally get Emmanuel Lubezki a well deserved Oscar for his work. Perhaps most surprising though was the great score by Steven Price. The fact that this is only Price's third film score makes it all the more impressive.
But it is not a movie that relies entirely on it's groundbreaking effects. At the heart of the movie is Sandra Bullock's performance. By far her best turn yet, Bullock takes this science fiction thriller and turns it into a very human story. A conflict between the fight to survive and the fight to go on living. Throughout the film it is clear that Stone is distant, almost detached from the other characters. She seems almost indifferent at times to the horror that surrounds her. It becomes clear that she had never come to terms with life after the death of her young daughter. The audience need only look into her eyes to see the cold indifference behind the fear. It is an emotion that is all the stronger when one is in space, and able to see just how inconsequential they are to the grand scale of the world and the universe. The audience, along with Stone, is left to wonder, does it really matter? If you die, the world will continue to spin as if nothing ever happened.
Gravity is more than just a movie, it's an experience. One of the few films that can take you out of your seat and completely immerse you in the thrills, the tension and even the feeling of weightlessness. It is a movie about survival. Pure and simple. Today we often take survival for granted. We have adapted our environment so thoroughly that we no longer have to fight to survive. We live comfortably in heated and air conditioned homes and we rarely think of what it means to survive versus what it means to live. We forget that it's not all about survival. After all, life is not worth living if all you do is survive.
Zero Dark Thirty (2012)
Trust the Hype
For over eleven years now the War on Terror has dominated global foreign policy and has transformed America as we know it. One can hardly remember what life was like before 9/11 anymore. Since then we have been in a constant state of war and, in many ways, a constant state of fear. We have given up many of our own liberties, abandoned many of our stated principles and have sacrificed thousands of our own in an attempt to "make us safe." Where do we go from here?
If you are looking for a film to validate your own political position on America's recent international exploits, Zero Dark Thirty is not for you. If you want a film to take a moral stand on perhaps the most significant event(s) of your lifetime, you may want to look to a different source. Zero Dark Thirty transcends politics. It isn't a film that tells us we were right or we were wrong. It's a film that shows us what lengths we went through to kill the man responsible. Kathryn Bigelow's masterful follow up to the much lauded "The Hurt Locker" is no doubt the best film of the year, and I think it is an important movie in the history of American cinema.
The film is led by Jessica Chastain's astounding performance as Maya, a CIA operative who dedicates more then 10 years to finding Osama Bin Laden. The film begins with Dan (played by Jason Clarke) who is interrogating a detainee named Ammar (played by Reda Kateb) while Maya observes from the corner. Amid the torture, which is often hard to watch, Dan steps out of the room for a quick minute at which point Ammar begs Maya for help, for compassion. For a second it appears as though Maya may succumb and help the poor man, but instead she replies with stony passion, "You can help yourself by being truthful." Jessica Chastain's Maya goes against the conventional "female" role often given to women in Hollywood. These roles are generally broken down into two categories: sluts and mothers/wives, and usually involves plenty of tears and emotions. Very rarely do we see a bad-ass female character like Maya surface. At the same time Maya is neither the bad girl or the good girl of this story. She's not the evil stepmother, nor is she the fairy godmother. She is a shade of gray.
Perhaps the same can be said for the movie as a whole. It isn't really a heroic tale, nor one of failure and defeat. It is somewhere in between. The film takes us on a decade long journey in America's effort to bring justice to the worlds most hated and notorious terrorist. Throughout the struggles and hardships, we finally reach our goal. We find out where Osama Bin Laden is hiding, and after months of surveillance and planning, we go in for the kill. The last 30 minutes of the film are breathtaking, as the SEAL team boards helicopters and make the journey to the compound in Abatobad. Controversy has, of course, surrounded this film as many decry it's use of torture. These people believe that just because it doesn't take a firm stand against torture means that it must be pro-torture. Nothing could be further from the truth. First of all, we shouldn't need a movie to tell us that torture is wrong, we have a conscience for that. Secondly, the film is a story about the War on Terror, and to omit torture completely would not tell the full story. Whether torture directly led to finding Osama Bin Laden or not, torture was used in the hunt and it was important that we saw this in the film.
The real brilliance of Zero Dark Thirty comes with the allegory of Maya, however. In many ways Maya represents the country as a whole. Like Maya we invested a decade in this hunt for Bin Laden. Like Maya we sacrificed a lot for this war. For the last ten years we have put all of ourselves (as a nation) into this single goal. Now that Osama Bin Laden is dead, and the War in Afghanistan is coming to an end, where do we go from here? Maya is asked this same question at the end of Zero Dark Thirty. It is a question she cannot answer. Perhaps in her zealousness, and in our own zealousness to find and punish terrorists, we lost ourselves along the way. Now as this difficult time comes to a close, we should perhaps sit down and take a moment, as Maya does in the film, to think about what we have done over the last decade and reflect on what we lost, and more importantly reflect on where we go from here.
Lincoln Can Show Us The Way
The United States is in a state of suffering. Close to a month after we reelected our first black President the nation is still bitterly divided along ideological lines. Many say that we are now more divided then we have been since the Civil War, and despite what President Obama says it is hard to believe that we are not just a collection red states and blue states rather then the United States. Especially now that hundreds of thousands of Americans have signed petitions of secession, I am beginning to believe that we are as divided as our politics suggest. It is under this backdrop that we look to Lincoln. And Lincoln delivers.
This is a film about our greatest President in the last months of his life as he and the Republicans in the House hastily try to pass the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery before the end of the Civil War. At the same time the old Conservative Francis Preston Blair convinces Lincoln to seek a peaceful end to the War. It's all about politics. Some may find the focus on procedure in the House of Representatives to be tedious and uninteresting, but to me it was quite fascinating(however I am a history major so that may be the reason). This is a film unlike any other Spielberg film in that it relies almost entirely on the cast. And the cast is brilliant. Daniel Day-Lewis proves again that he is one of the greatest living actors with the most realistic Lincoln portrayal that I have ever seen. Some have complained that his voice was too high pitched and didn't sound like Lincoln. To these people I must remind you that the only people who have ever heard Lincoln's real voice have been dead for a hundred years, however according to written accounts of his speeches Lincoln's voice was at a fairly high frequency. Day-Lewis is able to show us the many ranges of Lincoln, as a jokester and story teller, as a master politician who's skills at persuasion were extremely fine tuned, and as a man haunted by a lifetime of hardship including the death of many family members and his destructive marriage to Mary Todd.
Despite the brilliance of Day-Lewis, my personal favorite member of the cast was Tommy Lee Jones as radical Thaddeus Stevens, who's sharp wit and fiery tongue make the movie much more fun to watch. Sally Field is also quite amazing, and it is she who probably had the hardest job. Many people these days tend to exaggerate her mental illness, but Field was able to refine herself and accurately capture the severe melancholy that faced the first lady during her time in the White House. Other great performances include David Strathairn as Secretary of State William Seward, James Spader as W.N. Bilbo and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Robert Lincoln.
On top of the the amazing cast Lincoln boasts a compelling screenplay written by the great Tony Kushner, wonderful production and costume design, and beautiful cinematography that brings the 1860s alive before our eyes. But above all else Lincoln serves as a lesson for our own times. We can see in Lincoln the very destructive nature of division. Pure, unrestrained ideology will never amount to real progress or change. Lincoln shows us, through the character of Thaddeus Stevens as well as Lincoln, that we have to be willing to compromise, and it can't always be about our own interests or our own beliefs, but the greater good of the society as a whole. Passage of the 13th Amendment ending the evil that was slavery was more important than political grandstanding. If only our lawmakers today could heed this message. More importantly, I think the American people should take a good hard look at ourselves and remember just what these bitter divisions we create can birth. Perhaps the time has come for us to ignore the forces of hatred and division that scream at us from the television, the radio or the pulpit and realize that politics can be messy and divisive, but it does not define us and it should not divide us. I doubt many will learn these lessons from Lincoln, but I can always hope.
Pitch Perfect (2012)
I would rather perfectly pitch myself off a building than watch this again.
I was never planning on seeing this particular movie after seeing the unfortunate trailer. However, I had heard good things about it from people who's opinions I used to trust. I won't make that mistake again. Pitch Perfect was awesomely terrible. It began innocently enough, but then it quickly devolved into a mash-up of just about every single cliché one can fathom. It has the loner girl who doesn't want to try new things but then she gets involved with a group and she has friends, yay! The girl falls for the guy, but she screws it all up, but don't worry they get back together in the end. The group starts out terrible, but then because of the new girl with fresh ideas they step up and win it all! So many eye rolls in one film!
Even after this, the worst part of the movie has to be the awful sound mixing. The songs are so doctored that one is painfully aware of the actors' lip syncing and it takes you right out of the movie. They could have at least tried to make it sound like the songs were being recorded live, rather then using so much auto tune and other forms of voice manipulation.
Then there were the plethora of jokes throughout that fell so flat it hurts. Some of those jokes were even repeated multiple times, because once wasn't bad enough. At least Rebel Wilson provides a few brief moments of relief from the onslaught of worn out and unfunny jokes.
But, like, that's just my opinion. If you like terrible things like Glee, then you will probably love this movie.
Life of Pi (2012)
A Journey into the Soul
This is one of those movie that you go see and afterwords it stays in your head for a good long while. Not because it makes you think, not because it is revelatory or life changing in anyway, but because it has a strange cerebral effect. It is a movie you feel, and those types of movies are the hardest to shake, whether you want to or not, whether they are good or bad.
Life of Pi lives and breaths in the spiritual world. It challenges us to face certain questions that have always been at the forefront of humanity: questions about our existence and what governs that existence. Through the long journey of shipwreck and days upon days of hunger, heat and fear aboard a small life boat, the audience, along with Pi, goes through a long period of soul searching. However all the time we have a deadly and ferocious companion staring us in the eye. For Pi this is an adult Bengal Tiger named Richard Parker, for the audience it is doubt. Doubt in the existence of a higher power, doubt in the existence of a world that is more then billions upon billions of years of accidents and improbabilities that randomly resulted in the world and the universe around us. Life of Pi reminds us that the beauty of this world is no mere accident. It is all apart of a greater piece. A piece that was intricately woven by a force beyond human comprehension. This is where the power of the movie lives and where it should have spent a little more time.
The story is told by a much older Pi to a writer, and through this amazing story, Pi seeks to prove the existence of God. This is the weak part of the film, that almost ruined the whole of it. After Pi finishes his amazing story, he offers the audience a different, but more plausible story and he asks the writer as, well as the audience, "which is the better story?" The writer of course answers, "the one with the tiger," to which Pi responds, "So it is with God!" This revelation of sorts compromises everything the film worked so hard to set up. You cannot spend a whole film defending religion and a higher power, and end it by saying we should believe in God because it's the better story. We should believe in religion because it makes us feel better. We should believe in God, because it sounds nicer then no God. This significantly dampened the experience for me and jolted me out of the spiritual world, forcing me back into the logical one, where answers like that don't fly. This is not a movie that challenges us to believe in the better of two stories. It is a film that asks us to look around us, and see the world for what it is. It is an irrational world, a world of astounding beauty, a world of improbability. This film does not (or at least shouldn't) ask us to believe in God necessarily, but to believe in something. It asks us to tap into our spiritual side, because it is only through the soul that we can see the world clearly, and begin to understand it more fully.
Despite this one flaw, the film is worth a watch, if only for the beauty of the film which presents us with a dazzling array or bright colors and astounding feats of visual effects, particularly the life like CGI tiger. But most importantly, this film is a journey into the soul worth taking. Maybe you can even walk out of the movie early and miss the small part at the end that almost killed the film.