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1999 reviews in total 
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3 out of 6 people found the following review useful:
A Movie About the Greatest Horror of All, 19 April 2015

If you can get over your initial disappointment that "The Babadook" is not the scarefest it was built up to be, you might just find yourself enjoying a well-made and even groundbreaking -- in its own modest way -- psychological thriller.

And don't get me wrong: "The Babadook" is scary, it's just not scary in the visceral horror movie kind of way. It's scary because it's about mental illness, and anyone who's dealt with illnesses of the mind in real life knows that they are far more horrifying than any monsters or serial killers horror movies can conjure. It's impossible to watch "The Babadook" and not experience it as a kind of gender-reversed version of "The Shining." But it has enough originality to stand on its own apart from Kubrick's classic. And it's that gender reversal that makes "The Babadook" so horrifying and so unlike any other horror movie I can think of. How often are mothers the monsters, and how much scarier does it get from a child's point of view than to find your chief enemy being the one person who you take for granted will protect you at all costs.

Indeed, "The Babadook" is almost too effective at times. I'm particularly bothered by films about children in peril, and especially films that dwell on the fear of a child. "The Babadook" is tough to watch at times for this reason, and it came close to crossing the border that separates for me a film that's disturbing in an enjoyable way and one that's not.

I loved the ending of this film, and the suggestion that an emotion like grief is not something to be eradicated but rather something that needs to be attended to and nurtured for the rest of a person's life. You can keep it at bay and not let it dominate you, but the only way to do that is to acknowledge that it's there every once in a while.

Grade: A-

Top Five (2014)
0 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
"Top Five" Is, Unfortunately, Terrible, 18 April 2015

I like Chris Rock a lot, couldn't wait to see this film based on the terrific reviews it received, and sat in stunned disbelief as the full measure of its awfulness gradually made itself clear to me.

Rock was inspired by his own admission by Woody Allen, and most notably "Annie Hall," when making this film. The inspiration is very clear, but Allen had much more going for him in his movie than Rock does in his. Things like a funny script, complex characters, chemistry with his leading lady. "Top Five" has none of these qualities. What does it offer instead? Gutter humor and cameos by bored-looking comedians.

The predominant theme of "Top Five" is the struggle of someone who's only known for comedy being taken seriously as an artist and filmmaker. This perhaps more than anything else accounts for Rock's homage to Woody Allen, as that's exactly where Allen was in his own career when he made "Annie Hall." But a huge difference is that Allen had been making movies, hilarious ones, for a decade before he had that artistic identity crisis. Chris Rock is someone known primarily as a stand-up comic who's expressing that angst on his very first film. It's hard to care about his problem and even harder to sit through a bad movie about it.

Grade: D

Black, White and Everything in Between, 18 April 2015

Most films about racial tensions between blacks and whites are well- intentioned white guilt movies like "The Help" and "The Blind Side," which package their message as a lesson to be learned and end up patronizing everyone involved. The small few that are actually made by black filmmakers (like Spike Lee) can sometimes be accusatory, justifiably angry but too angry to actually engage in a dialogue with its audience. How refreshing, therefore, to find a film that takes on racism and its several complexities and makes it a problem for which both blacks and whites bear responsibility.

"Dear White People" is a satire set in a preppy college and follows a bunch of black and white kids dealing with racial tension that threatens to reach a boiling point. Satire is just about one of the trickiest genres to pull off in any art form, and I don't know that "Dear White People" pulls it off flawlessly. But it does communicate its message with a good deal of barbed wit, and it's ambitious enough to admit that there aren't tidy resolutions to racism and that the best we all might be able to hope for is to agree to disagree.

I also appreciated the film pointing out that white vs. black racism dominates the conversation, but there is prejudice leveled at all kinds of people by all kinds of people and that we should be working toward a tolerance for one another based on common humanity, not skin color.

I haven't seen "Selma," the BIG racism movie of 2014, but given its respectful but muted reception by audiences and critics and the fact that the Academy thought it was safe enough to nominate for a Best Picture Oscar, I have a feeling that "Dear White People," though its pedigree is perhaps less impressive, will impress me as the better, or at least more relevant, of the two movies.

Grade: A-

Shake, Rattle and Roll, 18 April 2015

"San Francisco" is two movies. The first is a boring love story about a morally suspect nightclub owner (Clark Gable) and the singer he's hired (Jeanette McDonald) to perform there. The second is a disaster movie about the great San Francisco earthquake and its aftermath. The first half of the movie you might as well sleep through, because it's obvious that the filmmakers themselves considered it only filler until the main event. McDonald is prim and dull, the kind of heroine that makes you wonder why so many men want her. Gable is his usual charming self, but he's not charming enough to make us care about the plot, nominal as it is. But then the big bang hits and the walls start a shaking'. Special effects wizard A. Arnold Gillespie takes responsibility for tearing San Fran apart, and the results were no doubt state of the art at the time. Unfortunately, the action sequences are quick edited into incoherence for modern day viewers.

The grand finale is corny as all get out, but it manages to be pretty emotionally rousing anyway.

"San Francisco" was nominated for 6 Academy Awards in 1936, winning for Sound Recording but losing out in all other categories: Best Picture, Director (W.S. Van Dyke), Actor (Spencer Tracy, surprisingly nominated for lead in what is clearly a supporting role), Original Story, and Assistant Director, a category that only existed for a few short years in the 30s.

Grade: B

1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Interesting by Default, 18 April 2015

"The Theory of Everything" is the kind of standard-issue biopic that breezes through the life of whoever is its subject (in this case Stephen Hawking), hitting all the highlights while glossing tidily over all of the complexities that would actually exist and surely did in real life.

At least this one isn't afraid of addressing the less flattering elements of its protagonist, namely the fact that Hawking dumped his devoted wife for his nurse after his wife had spent years caring for his every need. Eddie Redmayne gives an impressive physical performance as Hawking (it's no wonder he won the Oscar -- the Academy loves performances like these), while Felicity Jones suffers nobly, as wives always do in biopics like this. She is really the more interesting character, or would be if the film allowed her to be, instead of treating her as an assemblage of personality traits it can use to move the plot forward. All of the dramatic conflicts in the film are treated equally, and none of them seem to carry much significance. Hawking's announcement that he's leaving his wife, for example, is handled by the actors as if he's told her he just spotted a mouse in the basement.

The film does a good job of recreating its time period, which is something another Oscar-bait period piece from the same year, "The Imitation Game," didn't do. Still, the film manages to look like a magazine ad, everything bathed in a glossy glow.

The story of Stephen Hawking is so interesting and the movie is competently enough made that it ends up by default as being interesting itself. But is it too much to ask that a biopic once in a while do something, anything, surprising or daring?

Grade: B+

A Nocturnal Horror Story, 25 March 2015

A creepy film that gets under your skin and stays there.

Jake Gyllenhaal gives a sensational performance as a skeezy loner who chases down crime and accident scenes in the middle of the night, films them and then sells his tapes to the rabid news media who know that the more sensational the story, the bigger the ratings. It's a depressing and depressingly relevant commentary on the obsession our culture has with news of the most depraved variety and the bottom feeders who profit by it.

The film brings to mind "Taxi Driver," though the character created by Robert De Niro is actually the more terrifying of the two. Travis Bickle thinks he's bringing justice to the world through his violent actions. He's the avenging angel on a self-imposed mission. Gyllenhaal's character, on the other hand, has no illusions about himself or his motive, which is pure greed.

I've never seen Gyllenhaal act as well as he does here, creating with his emaciated frame and raccoon eyes a nightmarish creature of the dark. Rene Russo (where's she been?) is also terrific as a news producer who becomes Gyllenhaal's primary customer.

I had some problems with the ending. It gets a little too Hollywood for a film that avoids the clichéd trappings of typical studio product. But it wasn't disappointing enough to mar my overall reaction to the film.

Grade: A

The Judge (2014)
1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Preposterous Script Sinks This Bloated Windbag of a Movie, 25 March 2015

Ugh, a simply dreadful hodge podge of courtroom thriller and family drama.

Good actors like Robert Duvall, Robert Downey, Jr. and Vera Farmiga are asked to do something with a preposterous script that no one could save. Downey, Jr. chews scenery like it's his last day on Earth and delivers a terrible albeit energetic performance. He plays a hotshot attorney who's called back to his home town when his mom dies and ends up getting involved in a murder trial with his estranged father (Duvall) as the defendant. As they spend time together butting heads over the case, they also work out their mutual demons, with their big reconciliation scene actually occurring while Duvall is on the witness stand. Somehow, I just don't think a judge or prosecuting attorney would let the courtroom be used as a venue for the kind of telenovela plot exposition it's used for in this film.

There are a hundred other subplots, including a ridiculous one involving Downey, Jr.'s ex-girlfriend and the questionable parentage of her college-age daughter. This entire plot strand could have been excised without changing the movie a whit, except that then we would have been denied the always-welcome presence of Vera Farmiga, even when she's stuck in a role she can't do a thing with. Billy Bob Thornton is on hand as the prosecuting attorney, and of course we have to have back story there too. This is the kind of courtroom film that calls for the prosecuting attorney to literally arch his eyebrows whenever it wants to remind us that he's the bad guy.

With all of this overheated hoopla, the film is not surprisingly too long (almost two and a half hours!). My wife and I did have some fun venting our exasperation at how dumb the movie was and guessing at how much dumber it could possibly get. How this film managed to score a 7.5 user rating on IMDb ranks with the Kennedy assassination as one of the world's biggest unsolved mysteries.

Grade: D

0 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
A Near Miss About a Family Falling Apart, 23 March 2015

"Force Majeure" is a film I liked a lot while I was watching it and then liked less and less after I had time to reflect and think about it. It's set in a French ski resort and follows the disintegration of a nuclear family when a relatively minor incident brings to the surface pre- existing problems that had been bubbling underneath the veneer of a perfect family. All sorts of people -- apparently the director included -- are reading it as a commentary on gender roles, but that wasn't my takeaway, so if it was supposed to be, the director didn't do a very good job. I felt that it was simply about a wife who comes to the realization that she can't depend on the person she's built a life and family with and the ensuing scariness of such a realization. I really liked the film for its first half or so, but as it wears on, the symbolism gets progressively more heavy handed, and the writer and director feel the need to keep the playing field too level. Situations arise to even the score between the husband and wife, creating a more pat resolution than any real-life equivalent to this same situation would actually have.

It's still a worthwhile movie for the debates it's bound to provoke with whoever watches it with you, but it's one of those movies that exists in my memory as a near miss.

Grade: B

0 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Sons and Mothers, 23 March 2015

Romania has become one of my favorite go-to countries for international cinema. Its movies certainly aren't laugh riots, but they're fascinating in their compelling grimness.

"Child's Pose" isn't anywhere nearly as depressing as other Romanian films I've seen ("The Death of Mr. Lazarescu" comes to mind), but it's still a very mournful and sad story about a spoiled brat rich "kid" (his age is never stated that I remember, but he's easily in his late 20s at least) who kills a child in an auto accident and then sits back while his overbearing mother tries to use his family's affluence to buy their way out of the consequences. The dynamic between the mother and son is fascinating, and Luminita Gheorghu as the mother gives one of the best female performances of the past year. She creates a wholly believable character that feels like the kind of person you might actually come across in actuality; she's not exactly a bad person, but at the same time she's a bit of a monster in her single-minded determination to make her and her family's lives as easy as possible without being able to maintain any perspective on what the world is like for others who are not as fortunate.

The climactic scene in which she visits the parents of the dead child and then prattles on about herself and her own son, hijacking the parents' grief for her own and making the situation all about her, is a quietly masterful feat of acting and writing. It felt SO authentic and so like people and situations I've dealt with directly myself. I wish the film had ended with that instead of giving us a forced redemptive ending that felt a tad false, but it packs a wallop nonetheless.

Grade: A

Whiplash (2014)
2 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
A Portrait of the Artist as a Crazy Young Man, 23 March 2015

I work with a guy who studied music in school and had friends who went the music conservatory route, and according to him "Whiplash" is authentic. To which I say...Oh my God! Because this film is a nightmare.

Miles Teller gives an under-appreciated performance as a drummer following his passion who is lucky enough (if lucky is the right word) to be chosen by a psycho jazz teacher (J.K. Simmons) to join his class. What follows is a battle of wills, as Simmons tries to grind his students to stumps of their former selves while Teller proves that he won't be so easily dominated.

"Whiplash" goes in a very dark direction and completely defies expectations, which is what I liked most about it. I was expecting a kind of "Devil Wears Prada" set in a music school, where the eager pupil first wants to give up, then rises to the challenge, earns the respect of a tough teacher but ultimately decides his worth doesn't depend on proving himself to anybody. But that is most decidedly NOT the direction this film goes, instead turning into a contest to see how much crazier and more obsessed one maestro can be over another.

Simmons shouts and blusters his way through a one-note role. He's good in context of what he's asked to do, but it's the kind of showy performance that wins Oscars, not a subtle and complex characterization. Teller is the heart and soul of the film, and he's tremendous. The film is like watching a car accident in slow motion and being unable to do anything to prevent it, and just as unable to look away.

Winner of three Academy Awards (Supporting Actor for Simmons, Film Editing and Sound Mixing) and nominated for two others, including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay.

Grade: A

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