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Foxcatcher (2014)
10 out of 15 people found the following review useful:
The Battle of Ego, Power, and Wealth, 18 January 2015

After the gripping character studies and intelligent social commentaries that Bennett Miller has become such a master of, there's no better filmmaker to tackle this shocking true story—a tragedy about people who ambitiously chased the American Dream and actually fell for its seduction. Coming off of a championship win, Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) is near the top of Olympic wrestling but lacks the proper wit, ambition, and strategy to further himself until he is fatefully invited to meet John du Pont (Steve Carell), a member of the most famous and wealthy dynasty in the country, who instills him with athletic fury, drive, and infectious motivational philosophy. Mark truly wants to be the best in the world, but his lacking astuteness has now led him away from his fatherly and encouraging brother, Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo)—a respected coach and wrestler who Mark enviously realizes is a whole level above him—and into the psychologically unpredictable hands of a creepily uncanny, eccentric stranger who he admittedly hasn't even heard of.

With the help of absolutely convincing make-up that shapes the noticeably wicked/large nose and eerie teeth, Carell delivers a powerfully haunting performance as a socially isolated and awkward man, raised in an out-of-touch environment all his life, who is struggling with numerous egoistic and trust issues that endlessly vex him from within. However, this is also Tatum's show as we follow the rise of this naïve meathead (how can I more politely describe him?) who is clearly vulnerable to being essentially puppeteered by exploitive, power-hungry men. It's worth to point out just how Tatum's childlike, innocent personality here infuses us with total pity for his character while Ruffalo's usual warmth makes us sympathize as well. In fact, Ruffalo's performance is most subtle of all; he's obviously not as flamboyant as the other two and is instead relied on to reflect a certain human quality in an otherwise utterly cold picture. Dave Schultz is a big brother who's undoubtedly talented in the sport, but unlike the other two, his pride doesn't get the better of him since he continually seeks to improve his brother on that path to fame and success as well.

Here is where it gets worryingly complicated though because these three personalities develop a paranoid, unreliable dynamic that sees each other vie for that ultimate glory. Foxcatcher thoroughly utilizes the sport of wrestling as not only a point of critique but also as a stark metaphor for this dangerous power struggle between complex individuals behind the scenes. There's no better feeling than being called a winner—being recognized as a man who achieved tremendous victory and success. The fierce competitiveness and the frequent sense of disappointing failure that is so inherent in the very essence of sports has produced an abundance of psychologically and ideologically conflicted, twisted men that are battling with intolerable arrogance and blindness. In the case of John du Pont, the feeling of invalidation and complete disrespect beleaguers him through his days, including the sharp disapproval from his own mother (Vanessa Redgrave) who only views wrestling—her son's sole passion—as a lowly sport. As he witnesses the admiration people express towards the actually capable coaches like Dave and the brawny athletes like Mark, he's sort of put in between—in a position where people recognize him as that one lucky, wealthy son of a gun but nothing more.

Through the use of deliberately-timed editing, the constant grapple of jealousy—the lingering sense of betrayal; the sense of unrelenting determination to shine above the others and escape each other's shadows —between these three is realized. The film also paces itself so slowly with countless scenes of dead silence and the absence of a score that would've just easily manipulated our impressions of the people on- screen. It's almost as if Foxcatcher intends to remain as cold and distant from its subjects as possible. Perhaps—gasp—it means to take a more objective perspective of its protagonists (unlike most biopics in recent memory) and allow the final consequences to make its ultimate point.

From scene to scene, we witness the amusing awkwardness of du Pont in the wildly slow intonations and recurrent pauses of his speech. In fact, seeing du Pont's erratic behavior and the uncomfortable homoerotic undertones throughout, there's a hilarious black comedy lingering beneath the surface, to the most deceptive extent where laughter seems wholly out of place once you recognize the sheer bleakness of this material. The history of his childhood—of his fortunate birth into and the inheritance from an insanely rich family, is incredibly fascinating. He was born into money without a single clue how to best use it or what to really do with himself.

Most of all, what I most admire about Foxcatcher is the perfectly uncompromising, dark direction that Miller takes with this tale. The exceptional cinematography makes sure to emphasize the arrant somberness of the fog that encompasses its characters as the chilliness of a colder winter closes in. There's no tenderness to please mass audiences with here; there's only brutal honesty. Using the frustration with the typical cop-out approaches most biopics take nowadays by becoming a little too close to their subjects and portraying them as completely perfect specimens (hello, The Theory of Everything), Foxcatcher never gets scared away from showing just how flawed and disturbed its characters really are—how frightening and enigmatic the mind of a real human being can eventually become. The film takes the advice of du Pont in absolutely exhibiting its confidence and never backing down from depicting tragedy and human nature at its worst. Now, excuse me: I'm going to go read up some more on these peculiar people and the system that brought them together.

9 out of 26 people found the following review useful:
A Dubious Portrait of American Patriotism, 16 January 2015

The heavily disturbing image of the Twin Towers falling to their burning end and of people leaping off from its heights lit an unstoppable fire in many Americans on that day. Since then, many patriotic Americans have enlisted in the army, hoping to find some form of fulfilling resolution to all this terror. Some of them even agree with the war's never-ending duration in that it will protect the homeland from any other terrorists as long as they "protect and serve." American Sniper follows the true story of one of these soldiers: Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper)—a tall, sturdy All-American who continually chooses to leave his beautiful wife, Taya (Sienna Miller), and later on his two sweet kids for the sake of protecting this ultimate American ideal. He's a man who truly believes in the war, and thus, he also turned out to be the deadliest sniper in US history with a confirmed kill rate of 160 people throughout his tours of duty. How could a human even tolerate the responsibility and sight of so many corpses and gore without a particular psychological toll? Well, unsurprisingly, the answer is that one can't, and Kyle only displays the kind of issue here that many individuals choose to irresponsibly gloss over when they're on a support campaign for war: PTSD (posttraumatic stress disorder). Following yet another visit to Iraq, he comes home to the pain of looming anxiety and lengthy sessions of completely zoning out from reality.

With American Sniper, Clint Eastwood manages to create a thoroughly intense war film. As the deafening gunshots ring around the IMAX audience, the film's meticulous sense of gritty realism ensures to keep the viewers in pervasive suspense. Even when Kyle isn't focusing on deadly shots at a suspicious man's or kid's head, the brilliantly tense score sounds off with a foreboding build-up of what sounds like a sniper rifle reloading, followed by its haunting discharge, so as to never ease the tension in the room and keep us on the edge of our seats. There's no way I can emphasize the excellence of the sound use enough (the sound mixing and editing) in this epic, installing you into an observational post right there on the battlefield as many get blown to bits left and right. It's rough; it's graphically violent; it's unsettling.

Bradley Cooper once again makes a smart choice for his latest role; this one though might not be as showy as his performance in Silver Linings Playbook, but his distressed eyes and failing psychological condition tell us everything we need to know through his journey. In which case, it's also supported by an impressive actress in Sienna Miller who works with fairly little material but adds so much more of her own emotional meat into the role than expected. The look of worry never leaves her face; even for those small intimate moments of family time and reunions with her husband in which excitement and merriment briefly spring out, she eventually returns to her emotional default—to a sort of declining hope for the future of a soldier's life. It's a shame Miller isn't receiving more attention in the awards circuit. In sum, from a technical level, American Sniper is one of the more memorable experiences in the modern war genre, but when we regard what's supposed to be an enthralling narrative, we start to witness questionable elements.

Like with Angelina Jolie's Unbroken, the major problem here is the sheer closeness to its subject. As the narrative flows along, it becomes more transparent just how much of a tribute American Sniper intends to be to Chris Kyle's legacy, followed in the end by the standard biopic footage that shows us the outcomes of his life and history. Eastwood's obvious jingoistic attitude here unfortunately adds a lot of bias when an objective and more intelligent perspective would've made for a far more fascinating study of a man who has sniped and brutally killed more people (whether innocent or genuinely criminal) than a normal human being can possibly endure in a state of sanity. There is no absolute morality in this tale as right as (simplistically) cheering on your nation, no matter what, sounds.

Every time American Sniper hints at hesitation from its protagonist, it refutes any possible anti-war arguments by reverting to blind patriotism again and again through heroic dialogue, the numerous American flags sighted across the movie's mise en scène, and the obvious tributary segments. "This war was just destiny, and it's up to us to enthusiastically back America up in its undoubtable bravery and (supposed) righteousness," says American Sniper. Then again, considering something as heavy-handedly named as the film's very own title, you know exactly what position in the debate it will take.

Continue the review at: a-dubious-portrait-of-American-patriotism/

Selma (2014)
6 out of 15 people found the following review useful:
Sentimentality Might Either Sway Or Throw You Off, 10 January 2015

Every year, there has to be a civil rights/slavery film, right? Well, in case you hadn't understood the inhumanity of slavery and/or segregation yet, here's another history lesson to remind and make you cry. Selma focuses on a very, very brief portion of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s life in his valiant march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama so as to protest and pressure Lyndon B. Johnson into finally passing the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Although African-Americans technically had the right to vote during this time, there was nothing stopping the white authorities from intimidating black people far away from voting booths. Martin Luther King, Jr. will not have any of it though, and David Oyelowo, in his remarkable depiction of King, certainly conveys this through his partially melancholic and partially fierce "enough-of- this!" eyes. Aside from the striking resemblance to the esteemed civil rights leader, Oyelowo absolutely brings everything he emotionally has within him to the platform during every one of his profound and furious speeches.

And given the perfect timing of the film's release, relevant more than ever in the midst of relentless police brutality and continuing African-American injustice, the ferocity of the movement here is undoubtedly inspiring and rousing. The wonderful ensemble—including the likes of Carmen Ejogo, Oprah Winfrey, and Common—all know what's at stake in the past and present, but Tom Wilkinson (as President Johnson) and Tim Roth (as the repugnant George Wallace) also add contemplation and determined vehemence, respectively, to the opposing side. The lachrymose 60's soundtrack plays to ferociously shot and edited sequences of the marches and the consequential police brutality that strikes back.

If you can't tell by now, my writing seems to be largely formed by sentimentality and closeness to the horrific predicament at hand in 2014 America. Frankly, Selma is a film that affects more through sentimental bias than anything else. Once everything is said and done— once a colder and more objective perspective that strips the relevance of the subject matter has been established—Selma really is a standard biopic that actually doesn't develop King into that much of a compelling character. The picture does make sure to highlight the usual family drama that occurs behind closed doors in every biopic from Malcolm X to Lincoln, but I just couldn't see enough of the man besides the obviously glorious, saintly portrait in which he's painted.

Moreover, with the exception of the few marches/protests that rivetingly transpire throughout the film's duration, the pacing is unexpectedly plodding, and that's in large part because of how little material the film has to work with. Conversations that drag on for far too long essentially focus on one element of conversation: the planned march and of its hopeful results. Imagine that continuing on for a 2+- hour movie. Add in the fact that Selma suffers from quite a bit of historical inaccuracies, including the more negative representation of Lyndon B. Johnson, solely to implement further dramatic weight and conflict as overly-dramatized Hollywood films typically love to indulge themselves in.

Of course, it'll still be an overwhelmingly celebrated film in its year of release much like 12 Years a Slave was last year (even though The Wolf of Wall Street and Her come up in more discussions a year later). It happens every time with the critics and awards industry players. Ask yourself: will Selma—a finely-crafted film that means well but is narratively and creatively forgettable/safe—honestly be remembered more than fascinatingly daring content this year like Inherent Vice and Interstellar?

Big Eyes (2014/I)
0 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Tim Burton Can Make Insane Biopics Too, 8 January 2015

In the forefront of gorgeously-decorated, painting-like scenery, Margaret Keane (Amy Adams) is an exceptional painter who's struggling to financially get back on her feet after leaving her intemperate husband for San Francisco with her young daughter by her side. Luckily, she quickly receives some assistance from another painter/realtor named Walter (Christoph Waltz). Eventually, they agree on how to develop potential success out of all this beautiful artwork of hers. It just so turns out that people love the art and style of her paintings while ignoring Walter's rather dull constructions. However, you have to remember that these are the fifties, and female artists aren't overly respected. Thus, due to Walter's more charismatic presence and salesman experience, they decide to advertise him as the owner of these exquisite works of art. Sooner than later, they're lying in heaps of money, and the praise is simply prodigious. The very obvious question endlessly lingers though: is the sacrifice of artistic integrity and identity worth the amount of money/success earned as a result?

Adams' classical beauty and quintessential appearance of naïve sweetness fits her nicely into this role of a gullible, delicate woman on the brink of emotional disaster. Playing opposite her, the usually eccentric Waltz depicts ultimate villainy as a strongly egotistical man who's hungry for wealth and recognition. There is never a moment you question the mysterious man's probity as soon as you sight that frightening grin of his. The other star of the film, of course, is its famous director, Tim Burton, who helms a departure from his typical Gothic productions and unexpectedly follows through a sizable portion of Big Eyes with restraint. Frequent collaborator, Danny Elfman, also returns to compose an occasionally mellow and innocent score that's yet interjected with Reznor-like sinister notes throughout.

The fact of the matter is that there's a lot of technical wonder and imaginative vision to this work, which is wholly refreshing coming from someone (Burton) whose stylistically monotonous filmography has already been staling and dulling. However, Burton's well-known quirky touches can definitely still be identified as they grow ever more transparent. By the time the finale approaches, Big Eyes appears to be a tonal mess. While we have Amy Adams patiently, subtly glooming and sticking around with her character's pain, Waltz begins to considerably increase the volume on his performance to the point of eventual comedy. One side of the screen is earnestly dramatic and the other shockingly silly. The sober themes/issues surrounding an artist's integrity and the sheer number of barriers on their path to triumph, particularly that of a woman's, are impeded by troublingly strange scenes that awkwardly/unfittingly play out with an abundance of humor.

Big Eyes had plenty of potential in its first hour, slowly charming and enwrapping the audience with its picturesque presentation and fascinating true story, but the film essentially couldn't keep its self-indulgence in long enough because it basically loses its patience halfway through and suddenly turns its characters into truly over-the- top caricatures. The narrative's results also don't do a very fine job in explaining their sense, but revealing the actual uneven consequence that befalls the story's characters would clearly spoil the film. So, long story short: Big Eyes is insane, which is unsurprising because Burton always finds a way.

The Interview (2014/II)
4 out of 8 people found the following review useful:
American Humor vs. North Korean Dictatorship, 31 December 2014

Never has a Hollywood comedy garnered so much controversy—the kind of controversy that's built out of potential international conflicts. Based on credible reports, North Korea (Kim Jong-un) itself was so bothered by the film's premise and content that a devastating cyber- attack rained down on The Interview's distributor, Sony. However, was the quality of this movie actually worth all the hoopla? Well, first of all, no film would ever be worth this much commercial mayhem; The Interview, especially, hardly pretends to be some profound satirical piece that really says anything new about the creepily cultish country that is North Korea. No, it's about a celebrity tabloid talk show host, Dean Skylark (James Franco), and his producer, Aaron Rapoport (Seth Rogen), who've landed the perfect opportunity to interview one of the world's most notorious figures, Jong-un. As soon as the CIA catches word of this, they well know that they can't miss this once-in- a-lifetime shot at terminating this unequivocal threat to humanity and global politics, and thus arrange for these obnoxious newsmen (the unlikeliest of capable assassins) to be the ones to do it.

The end result of this product turns out to be yet another Seth Rogen comedy (with the usual low-brow, vulgar humor) under the guise of this political semi-thriller. On one side, it truly frustrates me that probably the last Hollywood picture we could ever witness about North Korea is just a 2-hour vacuous (mean-spirited) roast on Kim Jong-un. Then again, the degrading material is the callous leader's worst nightmare as it continually humiliates him, exposing the ruthless dictator as an obsessive fan of America's pop culture and an overly tearful baby when it comes to sentimental subjects like the life-long disappointment from his father. None of these demeaning jokes are particularly hard-hitting or original, essentially only basic and filled with the raunchy type of humor expected from Rogen.

Now, although Rogen plays himself (or, more accurately, the same character) in every single one of his films, including this one, James Franco invariably brings his acting chops along. His intrinsic charisma, flamboyant personality, and sundry amusing facial expressions help him in absolutely stealing the show here with most of the laughs coming as a result of his comedic, as well as thespian, repertoire. Randall Park, who indelibly portrays Kim Jung-un, is a total comic riot as well—though his exact resemblance to the real ruler is slightly questionable, he undoubtedly wins you over with how he depicts this hysterically solemn (and very likely, more human) fantasy of Jong-un.

Although I've never been anywhere close to an enthusiast of Rogen's work, his directorial career alongside Evan Goldberg has certainly been proceeding in a more creative route than I imagined, considering 2013's distinct post-apocalyptic ensemble in This is the End and now a comedy that centers on the assassination of a nation's leader. Vapid humor aside, admittedly, it's still an exceptionally fun ride with the addition of some singularly hilarious, inspired cameo appearances; the film varies from straightforward comedy to espionage thriller to pure action in a consistently entertaining manner. At the same time, the plot of the film is terribly predictable, and the pay-off in the end—after such a unique, dare I say "ballsy," journey—is wholly anti-climactic and blandly conventional. Obviously, Rogen has to give himself a romantic interest in between there, and the typical ingredients for a buddy comedy can all be discovered throughout. From a more personal and informal perspective though, I honestly don't see how one can be bothered by the lack of wit in The Interview and then go on to say that they loved Neighbors, a film with less heart, intelligence, and even more repulsive characters/behavior.

6 out of 16 people found the following review useful:
Into the Never-ending Muddiness of the Woods, 29 December 2014

When a Broadway musical meets incredible success, it's bound to hit the silver screen sooner or later, and in 2014, Into the Woods makes that highly anticipated transition. 'Tis a story that places all of our favorite fairy tales (Rapunzel, Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, and Little Red Riding Hood) into the same universe and in close proximity of one another, for that matter. As a result, many of these characters end up bumping into each other as they selfishly focus on their own separate goals, consequently causing disastrous conflicts in the meantime—quite an original concept for a genre that's frankly been growing stale in the world of modern storytelling.

However, what frightened me most about this particular cinematic adaptation was the fact that it was being produced by none other than Disney who has put it upon themselves to brighten every story nowadays and turn every slightly mature tale into a kid-friendly blockbuster (recently completely ruining the essence of one of their most diabolical villains for the sake of appealing to little kids in this year's Maleficent). Being that the stage play of Into the Woods is such a refreshingly dark and twisted take on the fairy tale, chances were that Disney would find some way to substantially tone down the material in the end, and—what do you know—it's exactly what happened. In fact, a certain major character is revised to avoid her gruesome death, which makes for an awkward result in the story.

The majority of the film takes place in the sheer darkness of the woods and the menacing fogginess of the swamps. It's with this persisting bluish hue and the vastly darkened multitudinous colors that Rob Marshall is able to create an utterly gorgeous and unique fantastical production. In my mind, there's no doubt that the film's strongest elements lie in its art/set design and overall visual presentation. Of course, the music is its central showcase as well, and it's totally satisfying, riddled with plenty of (dark) humor and clever rhythm. If you're not into musicals however, there's very little here to convince and draw you in unlike something to Les Miserables' effect, given the prolonged music numbers and their recurrent frequency throughout the narrative's duration.

With such an impressive ensemble from the likes of Emily Blunt to Meryl Streep to Chris Pine and Anna Kendrick, there's enough personality here to entertain until its elongation becomes ever more transparent towards its last half-hour. Meryl Streep, in what I expected to be a fully hammy performance, once again manages to showcase her stunning talent and rein the silliness of the role in. After being defied and transformed into ugliness, she entrusts a baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) with a task. In order for the wife to become fertile (after a curse the Witch placed on the baker's family tree due to a misbehaved father) and finally birth a baby for the married couple, they have to retrieve four objects for an ultimate magical spell that will also restore the Witch's beauty: "a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn, and a slipper as pure as gold."

The premise of the picture, itself, promises a sharply satirical and considerably grimmer version of the fairy tale world but its themes, messages, and intentions become so heavily muddled by the end and are delivered with such a weakened impact that Into the Woods largely concludes without its initial charm. Not to mention, the musical drags on for far too long (despite only running for a little over 2 hours), especially in its last act which seemed very out-of- place and unnecessary. The issue with this entire production is that it goes on from making one obscure point about the unrealistic nature that fairy tales traditionally possess and starts chasing another one as yet another predicament falls into the characters' laps. By its last act, the narrative—more than ever—just appears sloppy and ill- conceived/executed, not knowing exactly when to end and when to move on from its loquacious characters and long-winded songs. Hopefully, the Broadway musical is more competent.

5 out of 9 people found the following review useful:
A Worthy Celebration of Geniuses, 28 December 2014

The secrets behind the true victors of World War II were only divulged not too long ago (interestingly enough, it's hard to come by the exact date of the reveal). This tale is about Alan Turing, a brilliant mathematician who went on to break the Nazis' enigma code and help win the war. Now, there's always that one Oscar-bait film every year that I like much more than I expected. Unlike the rubbish biopics like The Theory of Everything, The Imitation Game actually celebrates the genius. It doesn't try to sentimentally conclude that there's a genius in everyone (because there's frankly not)—not another inspiring story about how everyone can achieve monumental achievements just like Stephen Hawking and Alan Turing. It was very clear from the beginning that Turing wasn't "normal"—that he deviated from other people for a reason. Normality usually never ends with a tremendous legacy; it's the people who were ignored or unappreciated during their lifetime—the people who were condemned; the people who really didn't care about expectations and general rules—that eventually reach glory. In this case, it takes fifty years for Turing's vast accomplishments to finally be disclosed to the public—let the countless biographic novels and films about him now come.

Benedict Cumberbatch's sheer charisma never appears to end as he, once again, encapsulates another sort of personality—the socially inept loner whose solely logical mind and utter arrogance centers on one goal, one total passion of his: the sizable computing machine he's building to crack the impossibly indecipherable German messages. (Keep in mind I've never seen the Sherlock series; so, I'm totally new to this refreshing side of Cumberbatch after seeing him portray a frighteningly menacing villain in last year's Star Trek sequel.) This might sound like typical Oscar-bait material, but it sometimes also largely depends on the particular film's execution. Take 2010's The King's Speech, for instance; what could've easily been another Oscar- checklisting inspirational narrative ended up transcending its material with absolutely believable and natural characters and performances that suck you in beyond any failures in the story's quality and lack of inventiveness.

Again, unlike The Theory of Everything (which I have a feeling I'll be knocking down more and more as this review proceeds), we don't hear a lot of that soapy, Lifetime music that shadows the emotional moments. Alexandre Desplat's score here is incredibly emotional without the help of some manipulative, weeping piano notes. The music takes more of the tone of a grand, majestic story, or occasionally perhaps something that makes it feel more like a spy thriller rather than a standard soap opera. Another admirable trait of the film that further defied my expectations was the integrity that stayed with Turing's character to the bitter end; he never loses his conceit or eccentric personality. That clichéd Hollywood arc of character development (the distant bigot suddenly becomes a compassionate benefactor a la Dallas Buyer's Club) thankfully can't be found here. Right from the get-go, Graham Moore's impeccably sharp screenplay wastes no time in shaping these characters, especially Turing, himself, who's given a few humorous scenes to profoundly introduce himself to the audience. Kiera Knightley plays opposite Cumberbatch as an intelligent, dignified woman in the midst of a male- concentrated environment in a male-dominated time period. The dynamic between Cumberbatch and Knightley's Joan Clarke is sweet and amusing; there's no need for a traditional romantic interest/shallow plot line since this relationship is strictly platonic (and Turing, of course, is homosexual anyway).

The complexity and intricateness of the heavily mathematical, scientific code-breaking concept of The Imitation Game is satisfyingly condensed so that the plot doesn't continue with frustrating convolution that of which frequently hinders many spy thrillers. Personally, a great screenplay can always simplify complicated ideas to the extent that it still feels natural and realistic. With all that being said, the script does tend to deliver some of the film's themes quite heavy-handedly in moments to the point of that sappiness that's become a staple of Oscar-bait biopics. Reciting the same line several times throughout the picture as to persist that thematic idea ("Sometimes, it is the people who no one imagines anything of, who do the things that no one can imagine") usually doesn't work, impacting with a mawkish taste rather than with sincerity.

On another note, while I appreciated the inclusion of the disarmingly tragic conclusion to Turing's story, it seemingly glossed over it all as if in a rush to avoid a lingering gloomy mood to close on. The Imitation Game, regardless, is fully effective in its shuffling of undoubtedly significant subjects, including topical mentions of homosexual ostracism (and worse, punishment) and the important technological advancements of mankind—the capability of the human mind and the lengths of its imagination—and how much that has all reshaped our world…from then to now. Most of all, as the credits roll and the beautiful score surfaces, your eyes water for the men and women that lived in stress and died without recognition or appreciation.

Unbroken (2014/I)
3 out of 10 people found the following review useful:
Exactly What You'd Expect From Angelina Jolie, 26 December 2014

There are some filmmakers/storytellers that carry a very cynical and cold vision when depicting people and their stories—filmmakers that are reluctant to get too close to their subjects so that a cornucopia of biased tenderness doesn't consume them and birth a fully reverential (blandly extoling) tale about this particular subject. Angelina Jolie happens to have a different agenda, on the opposite end of this spectrum, and considering we know quite a bit about her after all these years already, the most accurate adjective I can give to her second directorial entry: "unsurprising." Jolie has a very warm, sentimental, and hopeful attitude about her. In this case, I can't confidently criticize her for overreaching on the sentimentality scale; the fact of the matter is that it gets tricky when one readies himself to review a true story. I, myself, can't take that away from the film or Louis Zamperini who is an incredible human being that survived an unbelievably incredible life—from an impeccable runner representing the US in the Olympics to a soldier who's stranded out in the middle of the ocean to a helpless prisoner in a ruthless Japanese internment camp.

This all sounds very well like an "Oscar-bait" kind of Hollywood motion picture, but again, it actually happens to be an insane true story. However, just because it's true and oh-so-inspiring, it doesn't mean that I can be easily swayed into absolutely admiring it. You can call me cold-hearted or you can just call me objective and hesitant. Admittedly, I don't have the ability to question the exact accuracy of all the miniscule heroic, unrelenting details of Zamperini's journey presented here, but I definitely can scrutinize the quality and appropriateness of its translation to the big screen. After this year's earlier blockbuster, Maleficent, which shamelessly transformed one of Disney's most horrifying villains into a sympathetic, compassionate caretaker, and now this total motivator, I have doubts that Jolie can commit to something that's (much) morally grayer in her artistic pursuits. This film tonally deceives you; while it presents us with truly disturbing scenes of torture and endless suffering (that almost becomes tedious in its uneventful repetition), Unbroken nonetheless sweeps you up from under your feet and tries to fill your heart with that final, last-minute dose of forceful effusiveness.

What compelled me to keep my eyes on the screen throughout honestly wasn't the grandeur of the story but Jack O'Connell's magnificently transformative performance as Louis—a performance that exhibits despair, satisfying confidence, mania, optimism, and sometimes even near-defeat. Obviously not on equal ground with the sheer courageous strength of the man he's portraying, O'Connell still possesses his own strong-rooted (thespian) commitment that sees him losing a frightening amount of weight to bare bones less than mid-way into the narrative. The primary villain, Mutsuhiro Watanabe (aka "The Bird"), is played very eccentrically by Japanese musician Miyavi. Watanabe is the central prison guard with an interestingly feminine appearance along with that deceptive soft voice of his.

Of course, you can't deny the utterly monumental nature of this story and its structure as you're taken from one tremendously perilous and insurmountable predicament to another, from famished sharks to the desperate-to-win Japanese. The haplessness never ceases and only worsens. But "a moment of pain is worth a lifetime of glory," so it seems and only proves to be true once everything is said and done and a legacy has been made out of Zamperini's adventurous lifetime. Some of the scenes here are almost too excessive in their long-winded suffering, seeming to drag on for too long, but it seems to be in the strength of the director to keep the pace and interest afloat. For instance, a scene that shows a group of people filing in a line to punch Louis real hard in the face for his misbehavior might seem like it'd eventually reach monotony, but the scene is edited and shot with impressive diversity (one shot focuses on Louis' failing posture and another on The Bird's fascinating expressions, and so on) to effectively maintain that drama. Another sequence, probably the best of the overall movie, sees an aerial battle as American soldiers, along with Louis, fend off fierce Japanese planes; it's all executed with a staying sense of tension and intrigue despite the occasional slowing of the pace.

Now, on the other hand, the weakest link of the movie is surely its screenplay, which is unexpectedly disappointing considering that it was written by the Coen Brothers who, by the way, aren't really known for their affectionate writing—so, a very odd and unrecognizable choice there. Unbroken is littered with saccharine, fortune-cookie inspirational lines ("if you can take it, you can make it," guys!) and unrealistic dialogue. If you can make an inspiring movie that feels more natural and convincing than simply emotionally manipulative, or frankly emotionally/psychologically simplistic, then you have some undeniable talent. This film, however, plays it very safe and formulaically; this tale is about forgiveness, religion, idealism— hardly something that sounds like it could be a little more subtle and restrained.

Top Five (2014)
3 out of 7 people found the following review useful:
In The Top Five of 2014 Comedies?, 23 December 2014

One of the greatest things to come out of Top Five for me is the realization that Chris Rock is actually a very smart individual. His sheer knowledge of politics and social affairs, as well as the witty and honest rants/commentary he provides on pop culture, is particularly refreshing to see from a comedian. Ironically, his newest film—which he directed, wrote, and stars in—shows us just how our culture treats and underestimates the celebrity, or more specifically the comedian. Andre Allen (Rock) has risen from his stand-up days to a bonafide (comedic) star who's now a part of $600 million-grossing franchises (albeit of questionable artistic merit). Unfortunately, the money and fame come with an ultimate price: no one really takes him seriously. The public is always expecting something hilarious to come out of his mouth—no room for an earnest conversation to ensue instead. "Show me Hammy the Bear, Allen! Let's hear that terrific (ridiculously silly) one-liner." Allen is frankly tired of his image and hopes to branch out and show the people a more dramatic side of himself when he takes a role in a serious film about a slave rebellion: "Uprize." Still, everything from the interviews to the fan meetings continue with certain expectations, incessantly touching on his comedy and wild private life.

It's with this satire that Top Five most impresses, offering the audience an authentic insight into the mind of a mega celebrity on the run from the paparazzi and reality-show coverage. Chris Rock gives a nicely charming performance, endlessly supplied with clever banter and mean-spirited truth-telling. In fact, the movie's screenplay oftentimes resembles a (overtly naughty) Woody Allen film, largely following a woman and man (in this case, Rock and Rosario Dawson) who try to find out more about each other through fast-paced, revealing dialogue as they navigate the busy streets of New York City.

While this surprising comedy at times reflects the intelligence of its director, there's also plenty of the usual raunchy and sexual humor throughout to bring it back to immature levels. Disappointingly, I wasn't allowed to witness enough of the quick-witted, thoughtful Chris Rock from interviews and personal essays. Additionally, I would feel more comfortable labeling Top Five a "drama with comedic moments" rather than a downright comedy. There are about four or five truly laugh-out-loud scenes that're lengthily separated by utterly solemn moments or, otherwise, humorous segments that aren't as effective as they hope—perhaps, more witty than outright funny.On the other hand, the fully complementary soundtrack (Jay Z and Kanye West's "Ni**as in Paris" playing as the theme song throughout) still allows for a profusion of fun to be had along the way. If the music isn't your cup of tea, some of the cameo appearances from well-beloved comedians within will surely satisfy you in the meantime.

Now, in regards to the story—in my eyes, if a comedy fails to consistently force you into hysterical laughter, it better have a creative, memorable narrative to cover up its faults. Well, after learning more about Allen's interesting career and seeing multiple flashbacks into the unbelievably insane times of his life in the first thirty minutes, the bulk of the film after that centers on a three-way romantic plot line, involving Gabrielle Union as his reality-star fiancé and Dawson as a journalist who's eager to cover a day in Allen's shoes, that takes highly predictable rom-com routes and certainly doesn't provide the overall story with that extra touch of inventiveness that it needs to truly soar higher than the current climate of the comedy genre. At the end of the day, there definitely are hints of Rock's utter potential in directing clever, ingenious comedy; he just has to notice that there's no pressure to implement cheaper, populist humor to entertain his crowds.

4 out of 9 people found the following review useful:
All Hope Is Not Lost, 21 December 2014

Once upon a time, Peter Jackson was overwhelmingly lauded for translating a literary masterpiece into a cinematic masterpiece: the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Despite their immense runtimes, there was never a wasted moment—in fact, the fans begged for an even longer cut of these films (these cuts turned out to be 20-40 minutes longer, still without any hint of overstretching). There was so much to explore in that classically grim and grand tale, adapted from three separate sizable novels (the original LOTR—although once compiled into one enormous book by J.R.R. Tolkien—was split into three books by the publisher later on).

However, Tolkien's prequel, The Hobbit, doesn't have that much material in one single novel to warrant three 2 ½ hour movies, which is why this recent trilogy has honestly overstayed its welcome and presented us with a seriously disposable middle point—The Desolation of Smaug—that barely contributed to the overall narrative. Jackson, like George Lucas, has simply become so fanatically passionate about this world that he'd be willing to showcase every acre of Middle Earth if it was his choice; in a way, that's sweet (or there could be a more cynical aspect to it), but few people are asking for this much. The Battle of Five Armies immediately begins with the ultimate clash against Smaug (that last segment of Desolation of Smaug could've just been inserted here and everything else therein scrapped), which ends fairly quickly only for the situation to now center on Thorin's gradually corrupting mind—his obstinate, greedy hold over the treasure he has finally reached in the vast caves of the Lonely Mountains. A colossal war soon ensues, involving the dwarfs, the humans, the elves, the eagles, and the orcs, over this gold—lust for wealth and power has always been a motif in the tales of Middle Earth.

Entering the theater with lowered expectations following disappointment from the last entry, I actually walked out surprised with how wildly entertaining the film was throughout most of its duration. At this point, some of the more central characters and relationships were fully developed, allowing for more audience investment in their arcs and endgames. The riveting dynamic between Thorin (Richard Armitage) and Bilbo (Martin Freeman), in particular, remained the highlight, as well as the fuel to carry the film from a slower build-up to a climactic finale with satisfying pace. Aside from its ending, which was dragged out with a totally relaxed and plodding speed almost to the excruciating extent of Return of the King, there was never a dull moment that even remotely compared to the boringly prolonged sequence with Smaug towards the end of its predecessor. When there wasn't interestingly-choreographed and colossally-scoped action on-screen, the intriguing evolution of certain characters' paths was placed at the forefront. Moreover, while the orcs were as effortless to kill as ever, the primary villains (Azog, Bolg) took arduous, calculating confrontations with powered warriors like Legolas, Tauriel, Thorin, Gandalf, and more to overcome.

On the other hand, instead of putting effort into utilizing impeccable practical effects to meticulously assemble a believable Middle Earth like Jackson accomplished with the LOTR trilogy, the use of CGI this time around really makes everything appear so cartoony and cheap for such a big-budget epic. The first twenty minutes of the picture specifically exhibit The Hobbit at its visual worst with the sight of an animated-like village being ravaged by unconvincing fire effects. Perhaps, the creatures seem fascinatingly-envisioned, especially Smaug, but the whole production occasionally looks like one giant cartoon— totally unlike LOTR.

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