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Starred Up (2013)
One of the best prison dramas I've seen in years.
David Mackenzie's "Starred Up" is a gritty prison drama that gives us a glimpse into what prison is really like and questions the prison system. The film has three powerhouse performances from Jack O'Connell, Ben Mendelsohn, and Rupert Friend. All of them deliver great performances that gives us a chance to empathize with these hard hearted characters.
What's really good about this film is that it combines many elements of prison dramas that we've seen throughout the years. It has the teenage angst, the pure rage, fathers and sons, characters with harsh pasts, and the struggle to find redemption in prison. All these things are balanced so well thanks to Jonathan Asser's well-written script. Mackenzie never over extends his hand and gives us a realistic look at the U.K. prison system.
Michael McDonough's cinematography captures each brutal second. He shows all the rage and emotion that circle the prison and presents it as it is. "Starred Up" is as tough as its characters and it takes time for us to really learn about them. The film kept me engaged enough to follow these characters and gradually care for them.
Mendelsohn captures the struggle of a father who wants to finally be there for his son, but doesn't know how. O'Connell makes us feel the rage in his character and how easy it can be to explode on someone for just a few words. Friend's character forces us to ask the question of what is the right way to handle prisoners. What happens when the people who run the prison don't really want to help the prisoners? Do some of the prisoners deserve help? How do we go about rehabilitating people? Can they be rehabilitated?
Mackenzie examines these questions while also creating a unique and emotionally engaging film. "Starred Up" a really good prison drama and just a really good film. It can be hard to watch at times, but it's worth your time. It has great performances and thought provoking themes that will keep you thinking about it once you walk away from it.
Night Moves (2013)
A slow burning thriller that makes you answer the questions.
Kelly Reichardt's "Night Moves" is a slow burning thriller that focuses more on the characters than on the action. Josh (Jesse Eisenberg), Dena (Dakota Fanning), and Harmon (Peter Sarsgard) are three environmentalists that decide to blow up a dam in Oregon. We follow these characters throughout the event and after. Josh is the anchor of the film and Eisenberg holds the screen very well. The film may be slow moving, but thanks to the actors we really get a feel for the characters. We don't learn a lot about them, but we get to understand their passions and fears that the dam brings on.
The film gives a mostly objective look of the events throughout the film. Reichardt forces us to answer the ethics of the situation. Who is right in this situation? Are the characters' action justifiable? We have to answer this. "Night Moves" is a haunting film for this reason. Although its objectiveness doesn't give us a chance to really connect with the characters, it gives us just enough to be engaged in the story and examine our own thoughts about the issues of our Industrial driven society and the price of the comforts we have.
The Double (2013)
"It's terrible to be alone too much."
Richard Ayoade's "The Double" is the second film this year to examine doubles in film (the first being Denis Veilleneuve's "Enemy"). However, both films are pretty different in how they approach this concept. Ayoade's film is a darkly witty film that becomes more about existence and the torture of loneliness.
"The Double" takes place in its own world and at the center of this film is Simon James (a very good Jesse Eisenberg). Simon is a nice, shy man, but goes unnoticed by almost all the people around him. There are many jokes involving how people don't notice him. It's sad and humorous. I think the film gets a little too caught up with this running joke. Simon is in love with Hannah (Mia Wasikowska). He rarely talks to her though and has a creepy obsession with her.
Eventually, James Simon (Jesse Eisenberg) is hired at his company and Simon is the only one that takes notice of how they look exactly alike. Although they look alike, they are very different people. James is in many ways what Simon wish he could be. He is charming, funny, and knows exactly what to say and how to say it. Eisenberg plays both parts very well and really gets to show his acting chops in this film. It's his show.
The relationship becomes volatile and Simon is pushed too far. The second half of the film looks at existence and examines how we need external recognition to feel human. It asks why mean people get recognized more among their peers and if what we want to be is actually that good. Do we need people to feel human or can we feel human and good by ourselves?
"The Double" is an artsy film that may leave you with more questions than answers. Is James Simon real? Is Simon James real? What exactly happens at the end? You can interpret it in many ways. I thought the ending was symbolic of Simon finally getting recognition. Maybe his attempted suicide was a way for people to finally notice him. Maybe the end is just a deluded fantasy of his and he actually dies. There's no clear answer.
Ayoade's "The Double" is a strange, dark, and awkward film with a strong performance from Eisenberg. It is witty and sad look at a man's struggle with loneliness and feeling alive. It may not be as thought provoking as other films about doubles, but it is a solid and interesting enough film that I think most people can relate to on some level.
Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2014)
A repeat of the first one that doesn't expand on the universe the first one set up.
This review contains spoilers about this film and "Sin City."
The Sin City universe is a film noir character's dream. It's a cynical world filled with betrayal, sex, and violence. Shadows always reach out and steal what they can from their surroundings. Johnny (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) sums it up when he says "Sin City's where you go in with your eyes open, or you don't come out at all." Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller captured the essence of this darkness in "Sin City." The sequel/prequel to this film is "Sin City: A Dame To Kill For" and it finds this darkness again, but doesn't take it much further.
"Sin City: A Dame To Kill For" continues to follow Marv (Mickey Rourke), Dwight (played by Josh Brolin instead of Clive Owen this time), Nancy (Jessica Alba), and introduces Johnny. Marv, Dwight, and Nancy's story lines are repeats of the first one. You don't really learn anything new about them. The film recaptures the essence of their character, but it's just a redo. It doesn't take them anywhere new. We've already seen these characters murder and sleep with other characters. They have cliché lines and follow cliché stories. From a story standpoint, the film gets boring. However, Johnny's story is really good. Gordon-Levitt has the charm and grit that made the first one good. His storyline deserves a better rating, but this segment doesn't get as much screen time. Gordon-Levitt uses his time well though.
What I liked about the first "Sin City" is how it was a series of vignettes with a bookend segment that was effective. Rodriquez and Miller's storytelling gets disorganized in "Sin City: A Dame To Kill For." We bounce around different story lines instead of just following them one at a time. It doesn't work well with this film. The beginning and end jump around. Dwight's story dominates the middle of the film, but I thought it was a weak segment filled with way too many clichés. Some characters from the first return throughout this film like Gail (Rosario Dawson) and Hartigan (Bruce Willis), but they serve mostly as useless cameos.
From a visual standpoint, this film looks really good. It has cool and bloody visual effects and has that same grit look the first one had. The film doesn't expand on the visuals of the first one though. Rodriguez and Miller don't use colors as consistently and effectively as they did in the first one. They get caught up in the sex and violence. There are visual motifs like eye wounds and falling and themes of betrayal in all of them, but they get buried down in exaggerated violence and sex. There are a lot of scenes of Eva Green topless and Jessica Alba dancing as stripper. Many heads fly off and many bullets are fired. The film is bigger and more over the top than the first one, but it doesn't have that same punch. It just feels ridiculous and boring.
"Sin City: A Dame To Kill For" is worth seeing because of Johnny's segment. It is the most original storyline in the film and is anchored by a strong performance from Gordon-Levitt. I wish they would have included it in the first film. It's probably my favorite storyline of both films. The rest of the film is just a repeat of the first one. It doesn't expand on the first one like a good sequel/prequel should do. You should stick with the first one for the most part.
Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)
Music as a way to the stars.
"Only Lovers Left Alive" is kind of an anti-vampire movie. It embraces aspects of the vampire genre like how vampires can't go out in sunlight, have super fast reflexes, and live forever. However, it moves away from some of the silly aspects. Jim Jarmusch does a good job of setting up how a vampire could survive in the world. He takes his time and shows us instead of tells us.
Jarmusch's "Only Lovers Left Alive" takes its characters seriously and has great performances from Tom Hiddleston as Adam and Tilda Swinton as Eve. Their names are obvious Biblical references, but the film doesn't really build on it. Hiddleston and Swinton embrace their characters and get under their skin. They know how these characters think and move. They feel old even though they look young and you feel their love for each other.
What's nice about this film is that it plays with the vampire genre. The film debunks vampire myths and focuses more on what it is like to be a vampire than all the violence, romance, and gore so many vampire films get caught up in. We see a cheesy French Dracula film and the characters laugh at humans (or what they call zombies). There are many jokes about historical figures from Shakespeare to Schubert. It's a nice blend of these humorous elements and serious characters.
Jarmusch gives the film a minimalist, vintage, and indie style. The film benefits from Carter Logan and Jozef van Wissem's Gothic score. Jarmusch knows how to blend film and music so well. You can see this within the first 15 minutes of the film as the camera spins and fades between stars, a record player, Eve, and Adam. Music unites these characters. Adam and Eve's love and their music has endured time and has withstood it. Maybe the opening is trying to show how music is a way to the stars or eternity. Maybe it is trying to show how Adam and Eve are star crossed lovers and how much they have endured. Maybe both.
The first half of the film is like a week in the life of these vampires and what they do. The second half tries to spice the story up, but it doesn't always seem necessary. Affonso Gonclaves' editing and Jarmusch's style keeps us engaged as we follow Adam and Eve. The story has plot holes and needs more explaining (like how Adam has so much money and why Adam and Eve are separated at the beginning). The film would have benefited from a closer attention to the story, but the film makes up for it with its style and strong performances from Hiddleston and Swinton.
Jim Jarmusch's "Only Lovers Left Alive" is a unique addition to the vampire genre that deserves more attention than other vampire films. It's a nice blend of Jarmusch's minimalist style with Gothic music that both embraces and plays with the vampire genre. Although it doesn't have a strong story, it has a hypnotic spell that kept me engaged and invested in the characters.
The Giver (2014)
A disappointing adaptation.
For me, Lois Lowry's "The Giver" was the book every middle schooler had to read and since there was no film version of it at the time, we would watch "The Truman Show" because it had similar themes. "The Giver" is a little nostalgic for me, which why I was intrigued to see a film adaptation of it. However, Phillip Noyce's "The Giver" is disappointing.
Lowry's "The Giver" is a thought provoking tale about freedom, history, government, and individualism. This film adaptation, though, is very one dimensional and doesn't really get its hands deep into these heavy themes. These themes are hinted at, but brushed over quickly. The film becomes more interested in the young adult aspects and focuses more on love triangles and teen angst, which I got tired of very quickly. I didn't think an interesting story like "The Giver" could be watered down so much.
The film establishes certain rules for its universe, but then flat out ignores them. One example is that nobody is suppose to have romantic feelings for each other. From the start, though, you can tell that there is something between Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) and Fiona (Odeya Rush). There's no denying it. As the story progresses, it gets more ridiculous. People survive things they should not and things happen that are unexplained. The film even changes the ending into something less thought provoking.
From an acting standpoint, Meryl Steep and Jeff Bridges save the movie. No other performances really stood out. All the young actors were disappointing. I'm not sure if it was the character they were trying to play or if their performance was just stale. Maybe a little bit of both. Streep and Bridges do the best they can with a weak script.
There is no subtlety to the film. The Giver takes the screen much sooner than he should have and the filmmakers make it very obvious. There are motifs like water and triangles that are thrown at you, but are not developed as well. The film rushes through the motifs and story. It's always driving ahead instead of stopping and looking around at the world it's in, which seems somewhat ironic in a story that is suppose to make you think about life.
Ross Emery's cinematography makes the film look good. Barry Alexander Brown's editing does a good job of using color and slowly having it bleed onto the screen. Marco Beltrami's score isn't bad, but it felt misused. Because it was misused, the score made the film seem over the top at times and hindered it from being more.
Phillip Noyce's "The Giver" is a disappointing adaptation that I thought could have been so much more. It has interesting concepts and thought provoking ideas, but this film doesn't honor them and becomes a one dimensional blockbuster. I'd suggest sticking with the book.
The Hundred-Foot Journey (2014)
"Food is memories."
Lasse Hallstrom's "The Hundred Foot Journey" looks good, feels good, but I thought it was just alright. I did not read the book so this review will be based on the film by itself. It tells the story of a young man named Hassan (Manish Dayal) and his family who move away from India to London and then France and open a restaurant across from Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren). Mallory also owns a restaurant and a feud begins between her and Hassan's family, especially Papa (Om Puri).
It's a story we've all heard before in a different shape or form. Hallstrom has already done a film like this. "The Hundred Foot Journey" is basically "Chocolat" with an Indian led cast and Indian food instead of chocolate. It's nice to see Hallstrom do something that is not Nicholas Spark related, but I just got a little bored watching "The Hundred Foot Journey", because Hallstrom has already done this kind of film before and did it better.
Luckily, Daval, Mirren, and Puri are really good and have a nice chemistry. They balance the film out to give it heart and humor. Puri always steals the scene and Mirren is good at being the uptight villain with wounds. The main character, though, is Daval who carries the film very well and is able to capture many aspects of the character.
Linus Sandgren's cinematography is very pretty and balances an array of colors throughout the film. He helps give the film its sentimental feel and makes France so picturesque. A.R. Rahman's music is subtle and delightful. It captures the magic of food. Rahman never over plays his hand and builds on more French sounding themes rather than Indian themes, even though the main characters are Indian.
However, problems arise in the story telling. The film seems to always change. Hassan and his family have a big story before they moved to France that is breezed over. I felt like that could have been its own movie. Hallstrom spends a lot of time on the David versus Goliath tale between Hassan's family and Mallroy, but that ends and the story takes another turn and after that story ends, another one begins. The film seemed never ending at times and some segments were very rushed. It doesn't feel like there is one driving storyline. The movie feels like many segments of different stories that were thrown together. I felt like it could have been a better miniseries. More time would have helped the movie.
Since the film feels rushed, its hard to establish a strong relationship with the characters. Although you like some characters, I don't feel like they had as much depth. They could have gone more into detail, but didn't. Some of the side characters made strange turns and it seemed forced. Drama for drama's sake. The themes are nice, but familiar and doesn't bring any new light on them. They are comfortable themes, but maybe the uneven storytelling stopped me from enjoying them more.
The power of the film comes from the food. The food looks delicious and all the actors did a very good job of making them look tasty and delightful. Food is the driving force of this film and is the thing that brings everyone together. The line "Food is memories" is one of the most interesting themes to come out of this film. I wish they would have built upon it a little more, but I'm glad they at least brought it to the forefront once.
Hallstrom is great at doing sentimental films, from "My Life As A Dog" to "Chocolat." "The Hundred Foot Journey" stands in an in-between area of being good and bad for me. There were things I enjoyed and other things I did not enjoy. I thought it could have been more, but it's a nice sentimental film that can be enjoyed if you play along with it.
The F Word (2013)
A smart and charming romantic comedy.
The summer of 2014 hasn't seen as many strong independent films like last year. However, in the final days of the summer movie season comes Michael Dowse's "What If", a smart and charming romantic comedy. It's a well written film about Wallace (Daniel Radcliffe) who becomes friends with Chantry (Zoe Kazan) who is with her long time boyfriend Ben (Rafe Spall). Wallace and Chantry develop feelings for each other and struggle with what to do. It sounds cheesy and boring, but don't miss this film.
Elan Mastai's script is sharp and never over extends it hand. It combines several kinds of humor, from slapstick to witty. Mastai's screenplay balances all these humors well while also getting to the heart of the situation. The film has depth and mature conversations about romance and what to do when stuck in a love triangle.
The film is also well cast. Radcliffe feels very natural in the role. It's nice to see him play an everyday man instead of some epic famous character. Radcliffe is good at both and this film proves it. He also has good chemistry with Kazan. Radcliffe and Kazan are balanced well with Adam Driver's Allan and Mackenzie Davis' Nicole. Driver is hilarious and steals the scenes. All of them fit their parts very well and give the film its charm.
The story can be predictable and maybe a bit forced at times, but its heart warming and grows on you. It uses artistic and visual motifs well and feels well rounded and complete. The film also has a nice indie rock soundtrack that fits right in. "What If" seems like a nice blend between " (500) Days of Summer" and "When Harry Met Sally...".
The romantic comedy genre seems to be criticized a lot. There are plenty of junk films in it, but "What If" is a gem. It's well written and acted and is able to balance many kinds of humors to please many people. "What If" is a romantic comedy done right. It is a nice little treat at the end of a blockbuster filled summer.
Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
A surprising treat that I"m happy to say works.
I remember watching the trailers for James Gunn's "Guardians of the Galaxy" and scratching my head in confusion. A science fiction comedy set in the comic book world of Marvel's Avengers? It didn't add up to me along with the 1960s-70s soundtrack. However, all of these different things add up to make one of the best summer blockbusters of the year.
With a script co-written by Nicole Perlman, Gunn introduces us to a new part of the Marvel's Avengers universe with Chris Pratt leading the group as Peter Quill, who likes to call himself Star Lord. Pratt is great as Quill. He's able to do everything in this role, from the action scenes to dramatic moments to dancing on a strange planet.
Pratt is joined with a green Zoe Saldana as the assassin Gamora, the very literal and muscular Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), the ferocious and hilarious raccoon Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), and the simple tree creature Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel). Although they are visual effects, Cooper and Diesel are great as the scene stealing duo. They always come in at the right moment and have the right thing thing to say or do. All these characters have some loss that defines them. Gunn does a great job of combining that pain with laughter and making these characters feel real.
Perlman and Gunn's script is quirky and action packed. They follow a comic book movie formula, but always add a little twist to complement the strange and fun characters we follow. It's nice to see a big budget movie like this play around with itself. "Guardians of the Galaxy" feels like Edgar Wright's "Shaun of the Dead." It's great for its genre, but also adds great, witty humor to it.
Tyler Bates does a good job with the score, but its the 60s and 70s songs that you'll remember. The songs work so well and help give the film its edge. It seems odd at first, but they fit right in. Ben Davis' cinematography is epic and colorful. He gets to work with many colors with the backdrop of space behind him. The visual effects are also top notch. It's a very good looking film.
You don't necessarily have to watch the other Marvel's Avengers film in order to understand this one. "Guardians of the Galaxy" is a very new part to this universe. The films that would help a little are both the Thor films and Joss Whedon's "The Avengers." There are little things that hint at these films.
Gunn's "Guardians of the Galaxy" is a fun film that delivers both laughs and blockbuster action. It can be wacky and strange at times, but it's a really good film that keeps you engaged. Everything that I thought would go wrong for this film actually worked. It's a nice surprise for the end of this summer that is worth treating yourself to.
Get on Up (2014)
James Brown gets the music biopic treatment.
James Brown was a unique musician. He was the Godfather of Soul and inspired many musicians. He had hits like "Get Up Offa That Thing" and "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag." Tate Taylor (who did a wonderful job adapting "The Help") takes on Brown's story in "Get On Up" and tries to cram almost all of Brown's life story in a little over 2 hours. Taylor tries to make the film as bold and sporadic as Brown was by jumping around in time and breaking the fourth wall, but I don't think it worked.
In the first 15 minutes, we jump around to 3 different time periods, but it doesn't feel like it has much purpose for the juxtaposition of these time lines. We have to follow all these different story lines that don't always connect. A character says he's leaving Brown in one scene and by the next scene, the character is with Brown again like nothing happened. The lack of chronological flow makes it harder to appreciate what Brown did for his time, like the concert after Martin Luther King, Jr.'s death. It can be confusing and I think it could have stronger moments if it was done chronologically. The film didn't hook me within the first half hour and all the jumping around in time made the film feel never ending.
The breaking of the fourth wall isn't used consistently and well enough to make it useful. It took a long time for the film to establish that breaking the fourth wall was going to be apart of the film. I think it's better when a film starts with breaking the fourth wall instead of waiting 20 minutes to introduce it. It seemed like Taylor was trying to be like Martin Scorsese's "The Wolf of Wall Street" or Woody Allen's "Annie Hall," but I don't think it worked as well with "Get On Up." I admire how the film was trying to break the music biopic formula. However, I don't think it did it well.
"Get On Up" does have interesting juxtapositions when it merges Brown's older life with his younger self, but Brown is the only one we get to focus on and learn anything about. There is a large cast that surrounds him with great actors like Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer. These actors do the best they can, but the film doesn't give them enough time and they feel flat and one-dimensional. It's hard to connect with any of the supporting characters and Brown is a narcissistic jerk that you don't really want to connect with. Chadwick Boseman does a really good job showing all of Brown's charms and flaws, but everything around his performance feels weak.
Taylor's "Get On Up" tries to be a lot of different things, but it doesn't juggle them well. Brown went through so much in his life that it may have been better to focus on one of these important moments than to throw them all together. What we get is a slow moving and messy film that doesn't always add up to what it could have been. The film ends strongly with a montage that sums up Brown well and a song, but the two hours we go through to get there doesn't feel worth it.
A Most Wanted Man (2014)
"Your goat is tethered."
Anton Corbijn's "A Most Wanted Man" (based on John le Carre's novel) is the last leading role in Philip Seymour Hoffman's great career and it's a good performance for him to end on. Hoffman plays Gunther Bachmann, a German spy in a post 9-11 world. Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin) is a Muslim who illegally immigrates to Hamburg and gets caught in the crossfire in the war on terror. It's a slow burning spy thriller with strong performances and a well written script.
Hoffman carries the film with a calm, but engaging performance. He can go from a charming man to cold hearted bastard in seconds. His German accent is very well done. Robin Wright is also good as Martha Sullivan, the American representative of the film. Willem Dafoe continues a good streak in movies this year (with "The Grand Budapest Hotel" and "The Fault In Our Stars").
The movie feels very cold with an emphasis on blues, grays, and blacks. The film almost feels like a film noir at times as Gunther steps in and out of shadows with his white shirt and long brown coat. It's a tough film with little sympathy. Benoit Delhomme's cinematography is dark and brooding as we follow Gunther in his complex world. Herbert Gronemeyer's music is eerie with an interesting use of the accordion. It reminded me of Carol Reed's "The Third Man." Gronemeyer never over extends his hand. His music fits right in and reels us in when it needs to.
There are hiccups in sound and editing throughout the film, but nothing too distracting. My only real complaint about the film is that it is slow moving. I didn't always feel engaged with the story and characters. Andrew Bovell's script explains everything well, but the film lingers at times, for better or for worse. It could have been edited down a little to make it more concise.
Corbijn's "A Most Wanted Man" is a smart spy thriller that is relevant today. It's a story where no one truly has control and focuses on the moment. Who are we really after and who has there finger on the trigger? How do we get the answers? Is there a right way? It's a thought provoking and cynical film that makes us think about the war on terror and who can we really trust.
The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)
Anderson At His Best
Wes Anderson's "The Grand Budapest Hotel" is a great film and one of my favorite Anderson films. He has come a long way from "Bottle Rocket" and has perfected his style. The story is about hotel concierge Gustave H (Ralph Fiennes) and lobby boy Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori) as they navigate their way through a murder mystery and a growing war in Europe in the 1930s. It's an epic tale that is fast paced, witty, and bitter sweet.
"The Grand Budapest Hotel" is simply a great story where everything is just what it needs to be. Ralph Fiennes is hilarious as Gustave H. Many of the actors in this film have been in other Anderson films, but Fiennes fits right in and dishes out laughs. Anderson has fun playing around with frames. Whatever time period the film moves to, the framing complements the time period it is in. When we are in the 1930s, the framing is thin and tall like the films of the that time. As time progress, the framing gets wider. It's clever and and meaningful, just like the rest of the film.
The film looks great thanks to all the focus on the small details of the sets. Robert D. Yeoman's cinematography is always balanced and complements the wit of the story. Alexandre Desplat's playful music adds laughs and captures Anderson's blend of humor and drama very well. It is a very colorful film (both figurative and literally) and has the dollhouse composition Anderson fans have come to know.
"The Grand Budapest Hotel" has everything you want from an Anderson film. Whether it is Billy Murray and Jason Scwartzman or characters with passions or long tracking shots or childish adults and children beyond their or funny original artwork, it's all there. Anderson has perfected his craft and this film shows it.
This is one of my favorite films of the year and I hope it isn't forgotten about when awards season comes. It's a funny and meaningful story with characters that you get attached to. Anderson takes you to other worlds and engages you with tales and characters that aren't afraid to be original. "The Grand Budapest Hotel" is a movie that I think everyone can enjoy and I'm glad it is getting recognized.
The Ten Commandments (1956)
An epic done wrong.
I understand that it can be hard to judge a film outside of its time. Visual effects, cameras, and acting have come a long way since 1956, but I do not like Cecil B. DeMille's "The Ten Commandments." This nearly 4 hour adaptation of the Exodus story has so many faults that are hard to ignore. I'm surprised it is such a classic.
I do appreciate this film for how it advanced visual effects for its time. You can tell a lot of work was put into the set and costumes. The film looks good for the most part. However, it's a very slow moving and repetitive story with actors who either show no emotion or who are over the top.
The Exodus tale is a very preachy story and this film feels very preachy. DeMille even comes out on screen before it starts and tries to make the story politically relevant. I'll admit that the Exodus tale is not one of my favorite stories and I'm not a religious person. It's a story of my god is better than your god that is unforgiving and DeMille seems to embrace it.
Over the course of almost 4 hours, none of the really characters really develop except for Moses. However, Moses changes in a single moment instead of gradually. Charlton Heston isn't necessarily bad as Moses, but I felt like he was just playing himself. Kind of like John Wayne always the same character. All the other actors seem stale and the story takes too long to unfold. I felt like it gets caught up in the visual effects and sets, which hinders the story and characters.
If you're a film buff, you should probably watch this movie just to see how innovative the visual effects were. I can't say I'd recommend it to anyone else though. I think Brenda Chapman, Steve Hickner, and Simon Wells' "The Prince of Egypt" is a better adaptation of the Exodus story that does it in less than 2 hours. DeMille's "The Ten Commandment" is hokey and not thought provoking. It could have been great, but I think it's an epic done wrong.
Muppets Most Wanted (2014)
The Muppets Do It Again
I got into the Muppets a few years ago when I watched "The Muppet Movie." Soon after that, James Bobin's 2011 film "The Muppets" came out and fueled my love of the Muppets. Now, Bobin has come out with "Muppet Most Wanted" and I think it's a wonderful addition to the Muppet films.
"Muppet Most Wanted" directly follows "The Muppets" with Kermit and the gang going on a world tour of their show. However, Constantine, a Kermit look alike with a mole, escapes from prison and frames Kermit as himself with the help of Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais). Kermit is wrongfully sent to prison as the other Muppets continue their fishy world tour.
I laughed a lot throughout this film. It has slapstick humor, witty dialogue, and film references from "The Seventh Seal" to modern heist films. It blends all these different comedy genres well and, of course, has musical numbers that are fun. You also get great cameos ranging from Tina Fey to James McAvoy to Danny Trejo to Stanley Tucci to Lady Gaga.
It's a film that you can't take too seriously. I think it's a good film for both adults and children. There's jokes for everyone. It may not be as great as some of the other Muppet films, but it's nice to see the Muppets coming back again and making films. If you're a Muppets fan, I think you'll enjoy this film. If you're not, Bobin's Muppet films are a good start.
The Railway Man (2013)
A haunting story about forgiveness.
Jonathan Teplitzky's "The Railway Man" is the true story of Eric Lomax, a British officer in World War II who was tortured by the Japanese. It tells two of his stories. The first story takes place in the 1970s when an old Lomax (Colin Firth) meets Patti (Nicole Kidman). As they get to know each other, Patti gradually understands Lomax's tortured soul. The second story takes place during World War II, where a young Lomax (Jeremy Irvine) and his company are captured by the Japanese and endure the horrors of a POW camp. Lomax is picked on by Takeshi Nagase (Tanroh Ishida) and is tortured by him.
It's a heavy story about what war does to people and questions if two men who were enemies can find peace with each other. The film will get you thinking about this question and what you would do. Teplitzky is graphic when it comes to the torture scenes. It'll get you to question the morality of torture and if it is an effective way to get answers. An important idea we continue to look at today.
Colin Firth is great as Lomax. He looks tortured and haunted throughout the whole film and gets to the heart of Lomax. Everyone else is also really good from Nicole Kidman to Stellan Skarsgard to Hiroyuki Sanada, but I was left thinking about Firth's performance the most.
"The Railway Man" feels incomplete though. I felt like there was something missing. Firth's storyline can be a little rushed at times. Things happen that come out of nowhere. I would have liked more context for those confusing moments. I haven't read the book so maybe what I think is missing is in there.
Teplitzky's "The Railway Man" can be uneven at times, but it's an interesting look at POW life in Japan in World War II and has thought provoking themes about forgiveness. Firth's performance is heartbreaking and gets at the deeper meaning of the film.
Wish I Was Here (2014)
Braff's take on fatherhood, religion, mortality, and chasing dreams.
I'm a Zach Braff fan. I think "Garden State" is a great movie and "Scrubs" is one of my favorite TV shows. I may be biased and had high expectations, but Zach Braff's film "Wish I Was Here" disappointed me. It has the themes of "Garden State" with more of a "Scrubs" humor that don't always work well together.
"Wish I Was Here" tells the story of Aidan Bloom (Braff) as he tries to fulfill his dream of becoming an actor while trying to raise his two kids Grace (Joey King) and Tucker (Pierce Gagnon) with his wife Sarah (Kate Hudson). Aidan's father Gabe (Mandy Patinkin) reveals that he has cancer and Aidan struggles with morality and trying to reconcile his father and brother Noah's (Josh Gad) complicated relationship. It's a film about fatherhood, religion, mortality, and how far can we chase our dreams.
There's a lot going on here. Maybe too much. It can be a heavy handed at times about religion. All the story lines are crossed, but they don't all feel essential, like Sarah's trouble at work or Noah's comic con trip. Braff is able to bring all the themes and motifs together by the end and make them feel complete, but the story becomes too forced in the process.
Braff means well with all these themes and motifs, but the uneven blend of humor and drama and the repetitive dialogue makes it hard to fully enjoy. Luckily, everyone in the cast gives solid performances. King and Gagnon are great as Aidan's kids. Gagnon is a scene stealer and King shows great potential as an actress. The cast is able to make most of the jokes work and capture the sentimental moments.
Of course, the soundtrack is really good. We hear artists like Bon Iver, Coldplay, Cat Power, Badly Drawn Boy, Radical Face, The Weepies, and many more. If you like indie rock, you'll enjoy this soundtrack. Although it's good, I don't think it was as memorable as the "Garden State" soundtrack.
Myron I. Kerstein's editing is great during the montages, but you can catch a lot of small errors, like a door that was just closed being open again or a person in one position switching to another in less than a second. It can be distracting. Lawrence Sher's cinematography is quite beautiful though. It's very picturesque and the colors feel very potent at times. One of my favorite moments is when Gabe talks about when Aidan and Noah used to chase after an ice cream truck at night when the fireflies are out. The editing and cinematography work very well in this scene.
Braff's "Wish I Was Here" is a nice sentimental film, but it has its faults that can't be ignored. We may have seen stories similar to this, but Braff does a good enough job that I think it's worth watching.
The Monuments Men (2014)
A unique story, but a disappointing film.
George Clooney's "The Monuments Men" is the story of a unique platoon in World War II that was assigned to save stolen artwork that the Nazis had stolen. It has a strong cast with Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, and Bob Balaban. Clooney even wrote the script with Grant Heslov. There was a lot going for this film, but I walked out disappointed.
It's a very rushed movie. You zoom through facts and what these men were doing. It captures the important moments, but doesn't string them together well. We lose character development in exchange for facts that we could easily read. I felt like Clooney went more for the jokes at times. The cast has good chemistry, but I feel like there was missing bits of information and character development.
The actors are all good in it. The performance that stood out to me was Bill Murray. He always does a good job of blending humor with deep emotions. I enjoyed Clooney's style for the film. It feels like a 1940s patriotic war film in color. Alexandre Desplat's score complements this style. It works for the story, but it doesn't strike much depth about patriotism. It's a film made for the love of classic artwork and the importance of preserving the art that has defined humans. You feel that importance at times, but it becomes muddled in a rushed story that aims for jokes more often than needed.
Clooney means well with "The Monuments Men," but it's a flawed film that probably needed more time in order for it to be completely told. It's not necessarily a bad film, but it is disappointing.
X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)
One of the best X-Men movies
If you include the Wolverine films, there have been 6 X-Men movies. Bryan Singer's "X-Men: Days of Future Past" is the seventh film of this franchise and it is one of the best. It has everything you want in an X-Men movie, from cool new mutants and actions scenes to the blending of both the original X-Men cast and the "X-Men: First Class" cast. It may be a little crowded with all these character, but Singer does a good job of balancing them.
"X-Men: Days of Future Past" focuses on Wolverine who is sent back to the 1970s after humans and mutants have almost become extinct by Sentinels. In the 1970s, Wolverine has to reunite a young Professor Xavier (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender) in order to stop the Sentinels from being created.
With a strong cast and action packed and witty script, Singer gives us a blockbuster ride that is just as fun as it is emotionally engaging. I grew up with the X-Men series so it was weird, but awesome, seeing all these characters I grew up with again and combining the great "X- Men: First Class" cast with them. There's a hilarious new mutant called Quicksilver (Evan Peters). He has a really good scene where he is running in a room to the song "Time In A Bottle" by Jim Croce.
"X-Men: Days of Future Past" is a great addition to the X-Men series. I know people will debate the time travel aspects of the story and how it stands with the comics. As a film-goer, though, I had a lot of fun watching this film and think it is one of the better sequels and comic book movies out right now. I don't think you'd be wasting your money seeing this film.
That Awkward Moment (2014)
A bromance with a romantic comedy formula.
Tom Gormican's "That Awkward Moment" tries to not be a romantic comedy, but it follows a romantic comedy formula. It tells the story of three friends (Zac Efron, Michael B. Jordan, and Miles Teller) who make a pact not to have relationships when one of them gets divorced. Of course, they all meet the right person for them and break the pact.
It's a raunchy and formulaic film that tries to blend a bromance film with a romantic comedy. It didn't really work for me though. The jokes hit and missed for me most of the time and I didn't care for any of the characters. I did enjoy Miles Teller in the film. He steals the scenes and probably has the best lines. Michael B. Jordan isn't bad, but it's weird to see him go from "Fruitvale Station" to this.
Gormican's "That Awkward Moment" is not my kind of romantic comedy. It has its moments, but I was bored for most of the time and didn't enjoy it. The three leads are talented and work well together, but I didn't like the story and the dialogue. Maybe I'm being too harsh. However, if I want to watch a film that blends bromance with romance, I'll take "I Love You, Man" over "That Awkward Moment."
The Immigrant (2013)
The tragic side of the American dream.
James Gray's "The Immigrant" is a tale about how the American Dream doesn't work out for everyone. It follows Ewa Cybulska (played wonderfully by Marion Cotillard) who gets separated from her sister on Ellis Island in the 1920s. The controlling Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix) helps Ewa and gets her off Ellis Island. He finds her a job backstage at a vaudeville stage. This backstage job gradually turns into Ewa becoming a prostitute. Ewa finds some hope in Orlando the Magician (Jeremy Renner), but Orlando and Bruno have an unfriendly relationship that leads to trouble.
The cast is great. Cotillard, Phoenix, and Renner really embody their characters and play them so well. They are able to say a lot with a simple look than a bunch of words. It feels like it could be a silent film sometimes with the costumes and mis en scene. Darius Khodji's cinematography is beautifully dark and is able to capture the hope and the dark side of the American Dream through colors and shadows. The film looks really good. It reminded me of D.W. Griffith's "Broken Blossoms."
Personally, I got a little bored with the love triangle and the film is slow moving, but it has a purpose. "The Immigrant" gives you a way to empathize with the struggles of being an immigrant. It may be set in the 1920s, but it still feels relevant. This film is a window into a world where hope becomes lost and everyone struggles to survive with whatever they have.
Godzilla looks great, but the films has its faults.
I don't know a lot about the Godzilla films. I've only watched the disappointing Roland Emmerich 1998 film and only small bits of the old ones. I watched the trailer for Gareth Edward's "Godzilla" and became very interested in this adaptation. From the trailer, it looked visually stunning and intense. I have to say, though, I was a let down by this film.
The story is mostly about Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and his encounters with Godzilla. They conveniently meet from Japan to Hawaii to California as Godzilla tries to find and destroy two new monsters who were released (the trailer made no mention of these two creatures). There is another storyline with Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) who gives us background information about the new Godzilla.
Godzilla looks great in this film. He is huge and looks very realistic. Every time he comes on the screen it's really good. However, Edwards makes this film like Steven Spielberg's "Jaws" so we don't get to see Godzilla as much. The film decides to follow the humans more and tries to be a character drama. I don't think this worked out though.
I felt like the characters were thinly scripted. We've seen these kind of characters before. The performances aren't bad, but I never felt emotionally engaged with any of them. The cast is great with Oscar winner Juliette Binoche and Oscar nominees Ken Watanabe, Sally Hawkins, and David Strathairn. It even has Bryan Cranston who seems to have won everything except an Oscar, but I just didn't feel connected to them. I didn't really care for them.
The story is forced and has a few plot holes. Many people just happen to be in the right place at the right time. It can be kind of repetitive. Seamus McGarvey's cinematography really saves this film. It looks great and really captures the grand scale of Godzilla. He makes great use of blacks and reds throughout the film.
Edward's "Godzilla" is a blockbuster reboot that looks great, but has a weak story. The film is at its best when Godzilla holds the screen. It'll wow you.
Linklater's Ode To Childhood and Family
Richard Linklater's "Boyhood" is becoming famous for being shot over 12 years using the same actors. It's a brave and unique feat where everything could have gone wrong. Actors could have died or refused to continue with the project. The lead actor Ellar Coltrane could have given up or many other problems could have risen. However, everything went right for this film.
"Boyhood" is the story of Mason (Ellar Coltrane) and his family (Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, and Lorelei Linklater) as Mason grows up from age 5 to 18. It's a pretty simple story, but so much happens and we see how all the little things shape Mason as he grow up. It's quite powerful and poetic.
Ellar Coltrane is great as Mason. He feels very natural and makes us feel everything he goes through, whether its romance or terror. Mason is the center and heart of the film and he carries it beautifully. Arquette and Hawke are fantastic as Mason's parents. Arquette is the stable, working single mother with a list of bad boyfriends and Hawke is the fun and spontaneous father who only sees the kids every couple of weeks. Lorelei Linklater is a hoot as Mason's sister. She steals the scenes with her humor.
"Boyhood" is like a photo album. Instead of focusing on some of the major things of childhood, we get to see the smaller moments. The ones that can mean much more to us, whether it's moving to a new house and school, a camping trip with a parent, or a discussion with a teacher. Richard Linklater captures the essence of childhood and shows it all. There are plenty of coming of age films, but this one truly gets at the heart of childhood and the transition to adulthood.
For me, this film captures my generation's childhood. We see some of the cultural aspects, like the Harry Potter craze and the progression of music from Coldplay and Blink-182 to Gotye and The Black Keys. We see the war in Iraq unfold and the Obama Biden campaign. We see the fashion trends and the video games that have been popular. It made me look back on my childhood and all these moments. I could relate to every chapter of this film. Anyone who has gone through childhood can find something to relate to in this film.
I'm also a fan of Richard Linklater's films. "Boyhood" has almost everything you want in a Linklater film, whether it's a long tracking shot, philosophical discussions about time and living in the moment, witty humor, and an emotional punch.
Linklater's "Boyhood" is a great film. It may be a little slow for some, but I found myself engaged throughout the whole film. It's a film that probably deserves multiple viewings to fully appreciate it. There's a lot to take it in. This film takes you back to childhood and captures what it's like to grow up, for better or for worse. Linklater is a great filmmaker and I hope this film helps more people to appreciate him and his work.
Video Games: The Movie (2014)
"Art and science working together."
I don't consider myself a gamer. Of course I've played video games. Growing up, my siblings and I would play on our Nintendo 64, Play Station 2, and Game Boy Advance. I still play video games with my friends, but not consistently. I don't have the knowledge that some of my friends do about video games. I was interested in watching this film though, because I knew little about the video game industry and was curious.
Jeremy Snead's "Video Games: The Movie" is a documentary about video games that is broken up into 4 clear sections: history, culture, creation, and future. Throughout these 4 sections, Sean Astin narrates and a collection of video gamers and creators tell us about video games, what they mean, how we use them, where they were, where they're going, and why so many people love them.
The first half an hour or so bursts with energy and gives us an overview of the history of video games. The opening credit sequence is fun and is a tribute to video games. Although it feels rushed, has missing parts, and can be a little hard to keep up with, it keeps you engaged. The rest of the film jumps around and fills in the blanks throughout the other sections. I'm not sure why Snead did this. Why not give a complete telling of the history of video games from start to finish? "Video Games: The Movie" feels kind of broken up when it could have been more of a holistic documentary. It could have been stronger in storytelling, but it still works.
Sean Astin has fun being a narrator and the people being interviewed have a deep passion for video games. Snead does a great job of capturing the love of video games and what they mean to our society. You may not always get the small details of who built what and why, but you get the essence of video games and why they have been so successful and ingrained in our culture.
Snead's "Video Games: The Movie" has its speed bumps and may not capture all the gritty details about the video game world, but it's a good overview of video game history and culture that captures the love people have for video games. Going into this knowing little about the video game world, I feel like I know much more about them now. I want to go out and play some video games now.
Under the Skin (2013)
An artistic sci-fi exploration of what it means to be human in modern society.
This is a first reaction review to this film that probably needs multiple viewings to fully understand it. Jonathan Glazer's "Under the Skin" is an artistic film about an alien in the form of a human (played by Scarlett Johansson) who travels around Scotland and lures single men into a black room where they get swallowed by the floor where they will be studied and dissected. Eventually, Johansson's character struggles with whether to do it still. I know, what? It's a strange and dark film (it feels like a Stanley Kubrick or Paul Thomas Anderson film), but I think there's more to it.
As the film progresses, we see many shots of ordinary people doing ordinary things. The aliens are cruel in the film and the humans are good more often than not. Through Johansson's character, we see modern society with all of its good and bad aspects. Johansson's character reacts to all of these small things with a coldness, but curiosity. It's a good performance for Johansson. She does a good job of showing no emotion, which makes us question what her character is feeling or if she is feeling anything at all. Mica Levi's haunting and eerie score helps us to decipher her emotions.
This film is more about ideas than it is story. It feels very inhuman. None of the characters have names or distinct personalities and many people die without reason. It's hard to understand everything being shown. I think some of the key motifs to unlocking this film are eyes/circles, insects, water, mirror, and nature.
What I took away from this film is a contemplation of modern society and what it means to be human through the eyes of an alien. Look at the way Johansson's character looks into mirrors and how she tries things her alien partners do not. Sometimes Johansson's character is curious about what she is doing and other times its terrifying. Johansson stares at everything as if it was a foreign object even though we think it is completely ordinary. This film makes you think about the ordinary things that make us human, whether it is blood, sex, or food.
There's a great sequence in the middle of the film that I think sums up the ideas the film is exploring. It's a montage where we see a lot of humans doing ordinary things. As it continues, the shots gradually are overlaid with each other and the screen has a gold tint. Scarlett Johansson's face dissolves into the center of the screen as she looks ahead. It shows us how Johansson's character is contemplating humans and why we do what we do. Paul Watt's editing in this sequence is beautiful
"Under the Skin" may seem too artsy, boring, and/or dumb to some. It has its faults. The film can be slow, hard to understand, and has no characters to truly connect with, but it's a challenging film that will keep you thinking after it's over. It's an interesting film that tackles big ideas, which is its strength and weakness. "Under the Skin" is an experience that will make you re-look at humanity and morality through the eyes of an outsider. It's a challenge that is nice to have every once in awhile.
Another exaggerated college comedy.
2 1/1 out of 4 stars.
Nicholas Stoller's "Neighbors" is a college comedy that is similar to "Animal House." It's about Mac and Kelly Radner (played by Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne, respectively) whose new neighbor is a college fraternity led by Teddy (Zac Effron) and Pete (Dave Franco). The Radners have a newborn daughter and are both excited and scared by their new neighbors. A happy beginning soon turns into a war between the Radners and the fraternity. Comedy ensues.
"Neighbors" is another exaggerated college comedy that gets caught up in the crazy fraternity parties. It can be funny at times, but it can get very raunchy and the jokes can be a little stale. There's a great scene towards the end of the film where Rogen and Effron fight. It's hilarious. I think Stoller's "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" was great, but didn't enjoy his "Get Him to the Greek' as much. His "The Five Year Engagement" and "Neighbors" fall into an in between section for me.
Rogen and Byrne have good chemistry and Effron and Franco are solid as the fraternity students. I liked how the film looked at the transition from college to the "real" world and questions if we ever truly grow up. Is there always some part of us that will be that crazy college kid? It's an interesting idea to me and I liked how the film handled those scenes.
Stoller's "Neighbors" is a decent college comedy with enough laughs to make it worth watching. I think most college students and adults can relate to the struggle of wanting to be a college kid and wanting to be an adult. It's a film for people who liked those exaggerated comedies and Appatow films. If you don't like raunchy and exaggerated humor, you probably won't enjoy this movie as much.