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Her- Spike Jonze's Prophetic Reflection on Social Isolation and the Dependency on Evolving Technologies is as Sweet as it is Disconcerting
At the heart of every truly great science-fiction film there is an emphasis on character that aims to reflect on some element of the human condition usually intended to open our minds to thought provoking predictions or eerily warn of an impending reality. We've seen numerous examples of these contemplative films throughout the very existence of cinema stemming all the way back to Fritz Lang's haunting futuristic piece Metropolis and has inspired countless others in its thoughtful wake as seen in memorable cinematic creations such as Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker, and even Duncan Jones' Moon. Never to be a director to back away from experimental presentation or psychological study, Spike Jonze's Her fully embraces this reflective science-fiction quality by peering into the deep sociable aspects of the human psyche giving us more of a prophetical reality than a fictional reflection. In his latest film Jonze creates a disconcerting yet equally endearing romance between a secluded depressive and his female operating system with an evolving consciousness, basically a HAL-9000 homage from Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, that brings to light a commentary on our dependency of programmed living and our need to maintain sociability when direct communication avenues have been stricken from life's normality. Rarely do ambitious films meet idyllically with their inquisitive potential, but Jonze has fashioned a delicately profound science-fiction contemplation that is depicted through the thoughtfulness of character alone that brims with wry humor, authentic pain, and charming revelation. Through the use of beautiful cinematography, impeccable production design, and subtle yet evocative performances, Her becomes a multilayered film experience where its character study of an isolated man afraid to become vulnerable again blends harmoniously with a truly unconventional yet naturally heartfelt romance. Jonze's affinity and ambition for presenting psychological challenges, as he has done before with Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, and especially in Where the Wild Things Are, finally collides with emotionally piercing conveyance within Her making it as thought provoking and as it is undeniably sweet. If the sole purpose of the science-fiction genre is to expound on societal, moral, and deeply psychological aspects of our human condition than Her fits soundly within that genre's capabilities by capturing our condition's essential need for sociability and love uncomfortably linking it with our antisocial dependency on technology.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty- This Admirably Creative Attempt from Ben Stiller Results in Overstated Metaphor and Shallow Misunderstanding
"Go confidently in the direction of your dreams, and live the life you have imagined," stated author Henry David Thoreau expressing a naturalist sentiment that bemoans the vicarious escapism of pure imagination and pleads with us to discover life through direct experience. This is the central theme that surrounds the emotionless title protagonist in the newest film adaptation of the infamous James Thurber short story The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and though it's sound advice to be sure it seems oddly displaced to be a driving refrain for the dreaming power of cinema. Within the latest remake of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty we unfortunately see director, producer, and star Ben Stiller in rather weak form despite his admirable decision to branch out creatively messily guiding Steve Conrad's overstated script to never fully articulate the true meaning of intended self-discovery. The film reeks of overt desperation attempting to fully separate itself from the original Norman Z. McLeod adaptation in utilizing state of the art pristine visuals and engulfing panoramic surrounding but inevitably loses touch with the heart of the message by embodying in the end an all too generic presentation. It might be too gracious to even suggest that Stiller knows of the influences he's admirably trying to invoke, but his The Secret Life of Walter Mitty tries to bridge the life affirming discovery of Akira Kurosawa's Ikiru with the comedic thoughtfulness of John Schlesinger's Billy Liar without ever approaching the depth of either. Stiller's fifth film as a director sees him trying to lift himself out of the conventions of his overbearing low-brow comedic past and though his impressive visuals are skillfully conceived the film's message gets lost in inflated clichés and naively mistakes living for reckless endangerment. As it is with most adaptations it's clear that this version of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty leaves behind the intention of Thurber's original story about dreaming beyond the confines of the mundane by replacing that contemplation with a theme of actual life affirming self-discovery that unfortunately falls flat due to the indiscernibility of consistent impeccable imagery, the blunt underlining of obvious metaphor, and an inability to humanly connect with our more adventurous sensibilities. If there's anything to take away from this rather uninvolving film about making the implausibility of dreams a felt reality it's that Ben Stiller in his admirable attempt to grow as a filmmaker has given us a demonstration that perhaps imagining something is actually better than seeing it become a reality.
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Lone Survivor (2013)
Lone Survivor- A Brutally Authentic and Nonpartisan Portrayal of the War Time Experience Told Through Peter Berg's Respectful Direction and Honest Screenplay
An undeniable aspect of war, whether or not you make rationalizations on its regrettable purpose or demonize its existence entirely, is that it's an utter hell that tries the mentality and physicality of the courageous men and women who fight in the conflict. Most war films have captured the hellish and nonsensical brutality of war through challenging cinematic portraits, either through the allegorical heart of darkness showcased in Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now, the apathetic political influences in Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory, and even in cinema's first triumphant reflections with the adaptation of All Quiet on the Western Front. But while all wars impact people there aren't enough films that showcase true examples of wartime heroism which neglects a chance to embrace the humanity in the soldiers who are put into these tumultuous and life threatening circumstances. This is where Peter Berg's ominously titled latest film Lone Survivor differs from the a vast majority of the war film experience because rather than postulating on the reasons or criticisms for war it only seeks to depict the strong links of brotherhood involved in our armed forces ranks through an effective nonpartisan slant. Returning to his attention to detail roots showcased in The Kingdom and leaving behind an unfortunate deviation into the ridiculous with Battleship, Berg has concocted a relatively solid film in Lone Survivor that follows the real life events that happened in 2005 to Navy SEAL Mark Luttrell and his team in the Afghanistan Mountains when a secret operation is compromised. Though the film could have had deeper character development and interaction in the first quarter of the film, an aspect that slightly detriments the overall impact of the picture, its solid and intimate middle core of brutally authentic wartime conflict captured in real time is a technically astounding, emotionally engaging, and definite pulse pounding experience. To the film's creative credit in staying true to the events that transpired it demonstrates that the relentless pummeling of war doesn't always come with the Hollywood convention that is graceful relief giving the film a true experience of modern warfare. Lone Survivor might have its storytelling flaws, mainly due to a conventional structure and some fairly assumed character involvement, but when it erupts into the focused intimacy of soldier bonding amidst the chaotic brutality of battle in the middle of the film it becomes a relatively involving homage to the relentless dedication of spirit within our soldiers.
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Nebraska- The Latest Whimsical Tale from Alexander Payne is a Subtle and Poetic Reflection on the Loss of Time and the Affirmation of Hope
Time is a peculiar yet universally felt concept whose effects can be seen in its numerous consequences either through the obvious traits of aging or the far more subtle and subjectively felt intangibles such as regret. In the heart of the Midwest there are depressingly poetic examples of this thoroughly felt concept of time how the vast stretches of what appears to be infinite plains of nothing are filled with monuments of ruin either in the ghost town cities or the deserted farmland all of which are consequences of economic hardship and familial anchors. This is the melancholic setting of Alexander Payne's new film Nebraska, a sad yet endearing road trip film that becomes a sort of modern Don Quixote influenced story where a regret filled, dementia gaining father resembling the infamous dreamer Quixote resiliently chases the remnants of a thin dream accompanied by his affably neutered son serving as the loyal Sancho Panza. Nebraska clearly resembles previous films that have captured the distinct American spirit and eccentric characters of the parched Midwest, including Peter Bogdonovich's The Last Picture Show and David Lynch's oddly accessible The Straight Story, but remains uniquely an Alexander Payne film containing his penchant for mixing whimsically dry humor with poignant humanity. At the center of Payne's film is an astonishingly subtle performance from experienced acting veteran Bruce Dern whose stern blankness and aging dementia makes for an intriguing parallel to the derelict environments throughout the Midwest setting which is captured brilliantly through cinematographer Phedon Papamichael's poetic black & white imagery. This whimsical yet mournful ode to Midwestern life, values, and legacy is aided through the lost art of subtle acting and the usually non-existent talent for subtle direction allowing the intended humor to land directly and the emotional heart to enter gracefully. While Nebraska might be an engaging, humorous, and sweet amalgamation of Payne's previous works where the road trip element of Sideways meets the intimate family dynamic of The Descendants it's definitely a transition film for the quirky storyteller as it embraces a far more poetic and humanist side to the director's incredibly heartfelt style of filmmaking. It's difficult to say where exactly Nebraska will fall in Payne's established film canon but as it stands on its own it's a deeply lyrical reflection on the loss of time and a credible affirmation on the long enduring existence of hope.
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Out of the Furnace (2013)
Out of the Furnace- Scott Cooper's Ambitious Second Feature Results in a Relentlessly Bleak and Unintentionally Flat Portrait of Modern America
Film's that seek to contemplate ideas on injustice or venture the blackest hidden fissures of society that influence the health of the human psyche certainly take on the risky but potentially rewarding task of making the purely bleak into something poetically involving. This seems to be the driving force behind the intention of director Scott Cooper's sophomore directorial effort, co-written by Brad Inglesby and Cooper himself, who is just coming off the high of obtaining Jeff Bridges an Oscar from his first feature Crazy Heart, the alcoholic slanted country singing film closely related to Tender Mercies. It's clear that Cooper is a student of cinema and his clear intention with Out of the Furnace was to capture the turbulent bleakness that was evident in the tone of reflective cinema in the 70s, such as the war, post-war, and employment struggles of say Michael Cimino's Deer Hunter, Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver, and Hal Ashby's Coming Home, and applying their societal criticism through amplified drama in a film that tackles symptoms of the modern American nightmare. This film is also a frigidly bleak combination of a neo-war and neo-western that intended to contemplate the American tendency of descending into violence through desperate claims for retribution in the face of injustice. However, intention doesn't often find a link to effective drama and poetic engagement because the debilitating aspect to Cooper's latest film is the fact that it begins in uncomfortable morbidity and never leaves it lingering on a downward spiral of depressing occurrences keeping the film flat lining until a semi-rewarding final half hour. The assumption held within the incessantly bleak Out of the Furnace is that unfortunate circumstances themselves equal audience sympathy for oddly subtle semi- developed characters hoping that the utilization of weighty melodrama and overt depictions of modern societal ills pummels you into histrionic submission. There's something to be admired in Scott Cooper's ambition to tackle dark themes that attempt to depict a portrait of damaged humanity amidst what he sees as societal degradation but it seems his promising talent and the definite promise of powerful performances from a cast of exceptional actors just goes to waste as his eerily silent yet questionably confused ending comes to a steady halt. Out of the Furnace has the cinematic qualities of a reflective film of the 70s, including grainy cinematography and an uneasy yet powerful complimentary score, and while it attempts to be thematically high concept it lands flat through its unrelenting cynicism that possibly could have succeeded in a more matured director's hands.
August: Osage County (2013)
August: Osage County- John Wells' Sophomoric Direction Makes for a Durable and Fairly Poetic Adaptation of Tracy Letts' Play
The concepts of legacy and family tend to go hand in hand but that assumed positive link usually fails to recognize the potentially negative outcomes that can be handed down from generation to generation where dysfunction, bitterness, and judgment prevails over harmony, love, and understanding. This negative focus on the pure dysfunction that festers and spreads throughout the family roots much like a disease that damages the potential of fruitful growth is the deep focus in playwright Tracy Letts' play August: Osage County, which comes to the big screen through the literal and figurative sophomoric direction of John Wells (The Company Men). Being Wells' sophomore cinematic effort there are some deeply admirable qualities contained in his presentation of Letts' darkly humorous and dramatically impactful script but tends to often times drift away from perfectly balancing the two highly emotive extremes by also opening up the intentionally claustrophobic play. Adapting the written word of a play into the visual medium of cinema is an exceptionally hard endeavor and August: Osage County, while dramatically impressive in performance and not too much else, could be offered as a study on how plays often times are a preferable experience on the stage. However, John Wells' take on the family dysfunction revealed through unforgiving honesty, family secret twists, and melodramatic flair on equal scale as Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf is definitely an exhausting yet entertaining experience focused on deep character reflection, authentic performances, and acrobatic dialogue clashes. Compared to other Letts adaptations, the other two being Bug and Killer Joe both directed by William Friedkin and only the latter being superb, August: Osage County stands as a fairly strong cinematic addition to those attempts that relinquishes some of the play's more haunting claustrophobia for a visual openness and a relatively positive changed ending that doesn't necessarily work as intended. Letts' play brings to mind the haunting and poetic words of another writer Mitch Albom in his book "The Five People You Meet in Heaven" where he wrote, "All parents damage their children. It cannot be helped. Youth, like pristine glass, absorbs the prints of its handlers. Some parents smudge, others crack, a few shatter childhoods completely into jagged little pieces, beyond repair." August: Osage County demonstrates just how dark yet humorously familiar the raw and heartbreaking effects that damage the possible growth the family limbs encounter as they grow away from the equally damaged family tree and while Wells' film isn't pristine it certainly delivers a dramatically engaging experience.
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Only God Forgives (2013)
Only God Forgives- Nicholas Winding Refn's Surrealist Exercise Possesses Impressively Strong Visuals but Lacks a Relevant Narrative Focus
Through the progression of Scandinavian filmmaker Nicholas Winding Refn's cinematic career it seems as though narrative has slowly slipped into the backseat of his highly stylized, horrifically violent, and visually entrancing presentations. Beginning with his narratively contingent Pusher trilogy and the subjective narration heavy Bronson Refn then moved to an art-house focused delivery of mood and visuals with the likes of his Werner Herzog inspired Valhalla Rising and his American cinema debut of Drive. Unfortunately any filmmaker who sets aside narrative for visual experimentation will eventually exhaust his creative dependence and lose his audience's sympathetic interest which is what occurs in his latest film the deeply haunting yet incredibly callous Only God Forgives. This purely stylistic exercise includes Refn's signature taste for ultra-violence and monosyllabic protagonists that is at times horrifically entrancing but inevitably loses itself in the filmmaker's technical coldness and refusal to include any semblance of character development or coherent narrative. There's nothing likable about the surroundings, characters, or events that take place in Refn's hellish depiction of a corrupt Bangkok underworld and though it probably isn't meant to be it certainly makes the violent seizures, the morally empty characters, and the extremely slow paced surrealism hard to swallow. While Refn has confidently tapped into his most artistic based influences, including the surrealist violence of Alejandro Jodorowsky, the dreamlike horrors of David Lynch, and the Asian underground styles of Seijun Suzuki, Only God Forgives can't get by on technical achievement alone leaving behind a visually impressive but undeniably empty film experience that has suffocating atmosphere in an overall pointless narrative. Cinematic artists such as Refn should always be given some benefit of the doubt towards their work because the artistic process alone is a profound statement on vicarious consumption and violent context but it's just rather unfortunate that he has chosen to abandon relevant narrative in order to enhance his visual mastery and moody execution. Devotees of Refn will find it difficult to defend Only God Forgives as a fully formed cohesive picture because it's his weakest film to date but paradoxically also showcases his strongest visual attributes suggesting that this is a callous, hellish resting stop on the way to developing better cinematic greatness.
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Pacific Rim (2013)
Pacific Rim- Although Conceptually Intriguing and Entertainingly Absurd Guillermo Del Toro's Latest Film Lacks Both Lasting Science-Fiction Braininess and Creative Soul
Two words come to mind that are generally synonymous with Mexican director/writer Guillermo Del Toro, an undeniably creative auteur who has a familiarity with various pop-culture mediums, multiple mythologies, and a keen sense of original storytelling, and those words are passionate and imaginative. Whether it's the brooding vampiric mythos of his debut film Cronos, the dark escapism of his fantasy tale Pan's Labyrinth, or even the colorful superhero interpretation of the Dark Horse Comics character Hellboy there is a distinct feel, tone, and beauty that links all of his varying yet inventive pieces together. His latest passion project Pacific Rim, a blend of Japanese pop-culture influenced monster films with a live action anime intention, undoubtedly shares a great deal of characteristics a majority of his other films possess, including his odd humor deviations, impeccable detail, and a particular visual tone, and yet doesn't possess enough to distinguish itself from the rest of the summer blockbuster parade of mediocrity. Pacific Rim opens with the potential of a truly original and intriguingly conceptual work for the science-fiction genre but the film not only leaves behind the braininess early on for too much loud, abrasive brawn it also doesn't possess enough heart in the lumbering beast of a film machine to make a true link between the director's passionate fun and the audience's potential sympathetic investment. Del Toro's intentions with Pacific Rim are clearly about making pleasurable absurdity with self-consciousness towards the ridiculousness of his own premise but it is unfortunately anchored down by its stilted dialogue, inappropriate uses of humor amidst often times boring drama, and incredibly limited performances interpreting apathetically developed characters. Instead of getting a usual dose of Del Toro creativity through makeup artistry, distinct set designs, and beautifully imagined characters we've been given a rather hollow and undoubtedly dumb CGI-fest of giant monsters, giant robots, and giant destruction which for the most part is amusing though highly disappointing. Though Pacific Rim contains a myriad of blockbuster clichés they are presented in a humorously self-referential fashion through Del Toro's signature imagination but the final product feels limited by the expansive use of freewheeling special effects instead of enhanced which is the usual outcome for a majority of typical, loud, and expensive blockbuster films.
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The Lone Ranger (2013)
The Lone Ranger- A Schizoprenically Toned Continuation of the Pirates Franchise Template that Results in Messy Chaos and an Overall Charmless Experience
Not many characters are as recognizable in designated look, familiar western setting, and even theme music as the "Lone Ranger" who started out his adventures on a campy yet endearing radio serial in 1933, with 2,956 episodes spanning over 21 years, and even continued on to an equally charming television run of eight years that can also be described as entertaining camp. Unfortunately one of those chosen words, specifically entertaining, can't be used to describe Gore Verbinski's latest interpretation of the iconic character that ends up being a tonally schizophrenic and exhaustingly unexceptional trek through the terrain of mediocrity. In the attempt to modernize the story there just feels to be an odd sense of denial as to what the character was and what it needs to be for any screen interpretation leading to an often times disrespectful and entirely mixed presentation from the very beginning to the tiresome end. The trouble with The Lone Ranger is that it has the stench of hubris coupled with blatant historic revisionism packed into a disastrously bland story that inevitably never embodies any of its desired influences, including the western and the brainless action summer blockbuster. No amount of eccentric jokiness, passionless homage to previous westerns, or Johnny Depp were able to save this lazy continuation of the Pirates of the Caribbean formula which has brought everything along including the overly lighthearted tone, the strange characters, and the bloated stunts and yet has refused to keep that initial sense of fun that made the first Pirates so guiltily entertaining. The claim from producer Jerry Bruckheimer that he would introduce the character in "a fresh and exciting way" becomes the best delivered joke of the existing film because there is absolutely nothing exciting or even fresh about Gore Verbinski's insanely expensive ($250 million), inconsistently toned, uncomfortably long, and implausibly messy Lone Ranger. When the best possible comparison to your lighthearted western can only be Barry Sonenfeld's Wild Wild West then you know the Lone Ranger has taken the more-is-better philosophy on action and inevitably becomes too loud, too tedious, and too pointless. The crux of the issue with Verbinski's chaotic tiptoeing around what is deemed a sacred cow, an interpretation that doesn't enter parody nor does it accept the subtlety of homage, is that he has delivered a neutered protagonist in a story where the stakes are never felt which gives us exactly what the "Lone Ranger" was not, charmless and unadventurous.
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World War Z (2013)
World War Z- A Bewildering Failure in Successful Adaptation That Results in a Mediocre Zombie Apocalypse Actioner
It almost seems insulting to name the new apocalyptic zombie film World War Z after the highly acclaimed novel of the same name by author Max Brooks because there is not one ounce of accuracy in the film to the geo-political insight, thought provoking societal adaptation, or intelligent post-apocalyptic scenarios that Brooks' book contained in every riveting chapter. Mel Brooks' notably talented son crafted an incredibly intriguing novel that was a retrospect on how the world changed during the ten years battling an unknown zombie outbreak and yet Marc Forster's film, plagued by notorious rewrites, reshoots, and a relentless production hell, has only borrowed minor details in order to make a rather generic zombie feature. Critiquing World War Z on the merits of adaptation would result in an absolute failure of concept, execution, and character so the only other way of objectively reviewing the film would be an assessment in how well it fits in the post-apocalyptic and zombie genres on its own where it barely passes the minimum of critical standards. With a television show like "The Walking Dead" and films such as 28 Days Later offering superior options for the zombie genre of entertainment, where complex characters and human nature insight give us a fully conceptual and emotional experience, it's difficult to see desperate, minor efforts as anything but average. Unfortunately World War Z ends up being a drastically uneven affair with some occasionally solid action sequences featuring one dimensional characters we care almost nothing about and semi-intelligent concepts that are inevitably lost in the chaotic, physics defying fray that is practically relentless. The third act of the film has some uneasy atmospheric merit but the beginnings ambivalence to setting up complex characters and the middle's illogical and excessive middle make it a laborious trek to get through that has too much brawn and very little braininess for a post-apocalyptic film. Though the opening twenty minutes are hectically confusing enough to be engaging the remainder of the film feels incredibly fragmented in its tonal inconsistency and empty due to its lack of connection to a protagonist that never seems human, vulnerable, or complex. Considering the unevenness of Marc Forster's direction, the blandness in Brad Pitt's performance, the abandonment of adaptation accuracy from the original novel, and the crippling production problems the film encountered, World War Z can confidently claim the appropriate description of being mediocre.
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