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evanston_dad

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2106 reviews in total 
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0 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Gorgeous But Preachy, 25 August 2016
7/10

A gorgeous-looking film set in the Amazon jungle.

"Embrace of the Serpent" tells two stories straddling two periods of time, linked by one character who appears as a young man in the first and an old man in the second. Both stories involve a quest for a rare and special plant, wanted for very different reasons in each. But "Embrace of the Serpent" is much more about plot than story, and it's very concerned with the impact civilization, and white men in particular, have had on indigenous communities, and the callousness with which they have raped the wilderness. The film, with its fluid black and white cinematography, looks marvelous. But there was something about its tone and its facile treatment of its subject matter that left me cold. The film has a very "white man bad, native man noble" approach that put me, as a white man, admittedly on the defensive and kept me from getting absorbed in the story. It's not that I disagree about the damage white populations have caused throughout history, but at this delicate moment in our cultural conversation, when race and tolerance have become such hot button issues and what we need more than anything is intelligent and reasoned dialogue, I resist art that wants to boil complicated issues into black and white (forgive the pun) sermons.

I would recommend this film, but do so with qualifications. It received an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film in 2015, the first nomination ever given to a film from Colombia.

Grade: B

Wasn't Expecting "Seven Samurai," But Still Expected Better Than I Got, 25 August 2016
5/10

I was mighty disappointed in this film, a pale imitation of "Seven Samurai," the Kurosawa masterpiece on which it's based.

I had no expectation that this would be as good as Kurosawa's original, because come on...few films are. But with the cast they assembled for this and such good base material, they certainly could have done better. Instead, the film is slow when it should be zipping along. The characters are interchangeable and develop no personalities; therefore, we don't feel invested in their stories and don't feel much when they all start dying. Yes, Yul Bryner and Steve McQueen have a tremendous amount of screen presence and don't need to do much to make a film watchable, but even at that, they need better than what this film gives them.

The whole thing reminded me more of "The Dirty Dozen" than "Seven Samurai," which is still a shame because that film is also much better than this one.

Elmer Bernstein was Oscar-nominated for his rousing and instantly recognizable score, the film's primary asset. One of the greatest travesties of Academy Award history is that Bernstein, who created one memorable score after another, won his Oscar for, of all things, "Thoroughly Modern Millie." Who remembers the music to that?

Grade: C+

Classic Case of Doesn't Know How (or When) to End, 22 August 2016
6/10

"10 Cloverfield Lane" is 15 minutes of big-budget Hollywood sci-fi awkwardly tacked on to 90 minutes of claustrophobic psychological thriller. The end result is a film that kept me pretty engaged for the majority of its running time, only to end by leaving me pretty disappointed and feeling like I'd been duped into sitting through nothing but an excuse to make a sequel.

John Goodman gives a fantastic performance as a survivalist who may or may not be a lunatic and who's keeping a young woman (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) sort of held captive in his bunker for motives that may or may not be admirable. As you might have guessed, there's a whole lot of ambiguity at the center of the film. We don't know exactly what's happening or why; we don't know who can be trusted and who can't. And both the fun and the tension in the film come from seeing plot points tick into place, sometimes clarifying things for us, other times confusing us even more. But this is a movie that suffers from a severe case of "we don't know how to end this," and it goes off the rails in a bad way in its last 15 minutes. Goodman's character turns into a laughably hokey monster when up to that point in the movie he's been anything but, and a series of actions carried out by our heroine stretch our credibility past its breaking point. I didn't have a problem with the big reveal at the film's climax, but the movie should have ended with it instead of continuing on long past the point when the novelty of the film's twist wears off.

Not a total loss by any means, but definitely leaves the taste of misfire in the viewer's mouth.

Grade: B

Not a Traditional Biopic (Which Is Good) But Not Completely Successful Either, 22 August 2016
6/10

"Love & Mercy" thankfully avoids the pitfalls that plague most other blah biopics, eschewing the device of taking us through the troubled childhood up through the inspirational finale of whatever famous person's life happens to be the film's subject. While Brian Wilson is the main subject of the film, the movie isn't so much about him as it about his contributions to the Beach Boys' phenomenal success as a band. We don't learn his life story; we witness instead how one of the most troubled passages of his personal life coincided with one of the most fertile period for the group. However, while I was relieved that this didn't end up being a paint by numbers biopic like every other biopic put to screen, I did feel like the filmmakers didn't quite know how to fill the gap where a different movie would have inserted all of the traditional biopic material. Paul Dano and John Cusack give fine performances as the young and older, respectively, Brian Wilson, but there isn't a lot of story to tell here, certainly not enough to warrant the film's 2+ hour running time. The film is at its best when it's depicting the jam sessions during which Wilson came up with some of the Beach Boys' most iconic tunes, but the parts of the film that chronicle the tug-of-war between Wilson's girlfriend (played likeably by Elizabeth Banks) and his doctor (played loathsomely by Paul Giammati) turn into a slog, and unfortunately these make up the bulk of the movie.

And it's odd that a movie about the Beach Boys would feature so little of their music.

Grade: B+

Sally Field in a Vehicle That Doesn't Deserve Her, 11 August 2016
6/10

Sally Field delivers a performance that deserves a better movie in this uneven dramedy about an eccentric wallflower who blossoms late in life.

The movie skirts some interesting psychological and emotional terrain having to do with Field's resentment about putting her life on hold to care for an ailing mother while her absentee brother and his brittle, horrible wife pester her about her weirdness. But the film's ultimately too gentle to do much with that other than introduce it as an easily surmountable dramatic conflict once Doris decides to just get over it. The film also flirts with the idea of trans-generational romances by having Doris's friendship with a young new hunk in her office open her eyes to a young, free-wheeling world in which she fits right in, but it doesn't really know what to do with her story once she gets there. In the end, all of these young people who so accepted Doris turn out to be douches, and Doris learns some sort of lesson, but the screenplay is too muddled to make clear what that lesson is.

Still, Sally Field is a wonderful actress, and just getting to watch her for an hour and a half made this film worth sitting through. She's given some able support by Tyne Daly as Doris's brash, acerbic best friend, a part that would have gone to Eve Arden or Joan Blondell had this movie been made in the 1940s.

Grade: B

High Tension in the Old West, 11 August 2016
9/10

This sharp, tense western has a rip-roaring premise that fascinatingly juxtaposes the claustrophobic psychology of a chamber piece with the wide-open expanses of a wild America.

James Stewart plays a man on a mission, and that mission is to drag outlaw Robert Ryan back to civilization so that he can cash in on the bounty. On his way, he is accidentally assisted by Ralph Meeker, as a morally suspect ex-soldier, and Millard Mitchell, as a crusty gold prospector. Since the two men help, they want a share of the bounty too. Robert Ryan realizes that he can play the greed of each man off the other, planting suspicions in their heads and causing them to fight among each other, thereby increasing his chances of escaping. To top it off, Janet Leigh is along for the ride as Ryan's girlfriend, so there's the added tension that one woman in a group of keyed up guys alone in the wilderness naturally adds to any scenario.

The cast is ace, and the chemistry between all of the actors is palpable. Ryan is one of my favorite actors, and his unique, giggly spin on the typical western villain gives the film some added punch. Meeker is also terrific as the macho alpha male who undresses Leigh with his eyes for the entirety of the film. And Jimmy Stewart is of course excellent in an against-type role as the would-be hero who has too many masculine insecurities plaguing him to be truly heroic.

I don't much like how the film ended and wish the filmmakers had found something better to do with Janet Leigh, but this was the early 1950s, so one can't be too surprised by the role she's given.

Sam Rolfe and Harold Jack Bloom were nominated for the Best Story and Screenplay Academy Award, which they lost to Charles Brackett, Walter Reisch, and Richard Breen for "Titanic."

Grade: A

Cake (2014/II)
Lifetime Movie Material, But Done Pretty Well, 10 August 2016
7/10

Jennifer Aniston flexes her dramatic chops in this film about a woman struggling with chronic pain and depression and does an admirable job of it.

"Cake" never completely shakes off the patina of T.V. movie that settles over it like a thin layer of dust, but it does do a good job of parceling out key plot elements over the course of its running time and constantly shifting its audience's perception of what causes the protagonist to behave the way she does. Of course no film is going to cast an actress as fundamentally lovable as Jennifer Aniston without making her character sympathetic in the end, so it's no surprise that we learn things about her that justify her horrible behavior in the earlier portion of the film. What we learn isn't exactly plot twist material, but it does provide the most dramatically satisfying portion of the film's narrative, so I won't spoil it in this review.

One thing that does bug me greatly in retrospect as I think back about this film and other films that depict people suffering with physical and emotional conditions is the film's implication that recovery is simply a matter of deciding that one wants to get better. In films like "Cake," characters are led through a series of progressively bad situations of their own making until the screenplay decides they've learned their lesson and are ready to just turn things around. This feels disingenuous and possibly utterly demoralizing to people struggling with these things in the real world who watch these stories about people who seem so much more capable than themselves of taking their own health, whether it be physical or emotional, into their hands. It's not that I resist happy or hopeful endings, but I would prefer them to be tempered a bit more by reality.

But overall I enjoyed this movie, much more than its somewhat lukewarm reception upon release led me to believe I would. Aniston generated some Oscar buzz at the time, and while I don't know that I think she was necessarily robbed by not getting a nomination, her performance is certainly as good as any number of performances by other actors who have been nominated in the past. Adriana Barazza gives a lovely performance as Aniston's housekeeper, and Sam Worthington is good as someone else coping with grief. William H. Macy appears in a blink and you'll miss him cameo.

Grade: A-

45 Years (2015)
A Delicate Character Study, 9 August 2016
9/10

Charlotte Rampling rightfully earned an Oscar nomination for her performance in this delicate film about a happily-married woman about to celebrate her 45th anniversary, whose marriage and life are potentially upended by some facts that emerge about her husband's past.

Those facts involve a former love who died tragically, which the wife has known about for years. But what she doesn't know, partially because she's never wanted to and partially because her husband hasn't told her everything, is how large a role the woman played and has continued to play in her husband's life. He tells her quite bluntly that if his former love had not died prematurely, he would probably have married her, and Rampling's character is left to wonder if the man with whom she's built her own life belongs completely, or has ever belonged, to her.

Like the best of character studies, "45 Years" doesn't answer questions for us, it merely poses them. These aren't good people or bad people, these are complex people. There are resentments and mistakes, but no villains and heroes. Tom Courtenay, as the husband, delivers as fine a performance as Rampling, and it's a shame he couldn't have also been recognized. The ending scene, set at the anniversary party itself, is a quiet tour de force for them both.

Grade: A

0 out of 4 people found the following review useful:
Lazy and Uninspired, 9 August 2016
5/10

One doesn't fully appreciate a really good animated film until one sees a mediocre one.

It's easy to fall into the trap of thinking that animated films don't need to be kept to the same standard as movies for adults, because kids will be happy with so much less. But compare "The Secret Life of Pets," a serviceable but lackluster film, to something from Pixar, say, or the "How to Train Your Dragon" series, and one is less inclined to forgive the creators of "Pets" for being so lazy.

The idea of the social life that pets carry on with each other while their owners are away is a good one and could provide plenty of material for a wonderful film, but this movie instead goes for the hard sell approach and creates an overly-complicated plot mostly lacking in wit, giving us too many characters doing too many things, none of which we care much about. The voice work is adequate and uninspired, like the rest of the film, and it's a real liability that the voices of the two main characters (Louis C.K. and Eric Stonestreet) who start off as rivals and end up as pals, sound too much alike.

Grade: C

Sweaty and Grimy, But Trailblazing, 9 August 2016
9/10

Oooph, this movie hurts.

Film buffs can find evidence of schizophrenia in any movie decade, but perhaps none more so than in the 1950s and 1960s. It is nearly inconceivable to me that "The Pawnbroker" came out in the year that "The Sound of Music" won the Best Picture Academy Award. Don't get me wrong, I very much like "The Sound of Music" too, but it almost seems like it was made in a different century compared to this film.

Rod Steiger was justly nominated for and wrongly lost the Academy Award for his performance in "The Pawnbroker," as a concentration camp survivor who has lost all faith in humanity and sees people as no more or less valuable than the possessions they come to him to pawn. The film was directed by Sidney Lumet, and it creates the same sweaty, grimy atmosphere that Lumet would occasionally revisit (like in his 1975 film "Dog Day Afternoon") and that Martin Scorsese made a career of throughout the 1970s. It's a bleak film, one that uses the horrors of the Holocaust to shape its main character's psyche without giving him or the audience any real hope for his future. It's a film that suggests that the Holocaust broke something fundamental in human nature that will never be repaired. It's a message at odds with so many films that try to find closure or hope or at the very least a lesson to be learned from such a dark chapter of history, and it makes "The Pawnbroker" feel years ahead of its time.

The film is also trailblazing in its acknowledgement of blacks and homosexuals at a time when the former were the subject of mostly preachy white guilt movies that starred Sidney Poitier and the latter were not to be found in films pretty much anywhere. In "The Pawnbroker," both exist without commentary; they're just part of the world Rod Steiger's character lives in, as disenfranchised from the rest of humanity in their own way as he is. It's rather remarkable that the film includes so many black and gay characters without the film being ABOUT black and gay characters. The casual inclusion of them is a greater statement for the time than a movie about them would have been.

This is by no means a pleasant film to watch, but it is an awfully good one, and one that may very well leave you shaken.

Grade: A


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