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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.
What If (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.