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Superb film. Across the board, the writing, acting, and directing are top notch in Fences. Of course, it's hard to go wrong when it's based on an August Wilson play--he was among our finest American playwrights-- but it could've been slow and lumbering in the wrong hands. Washington does an excellent job of directing the piece and keeping the story moving. It is often said that film is about visuals and the the theater is about ideas, and there's certainly a number of issues explored here.
The play takes place in 1957 Pittsburgh. Washington plays a larger than life character who is former Negro league baseball star, who never made it to the big leagues, in large part due to racial prejudice of the day. 30 years later, he now works for the Pittsburgh Dept of Sanitation. He has strong opinions on, well, just about everything, but mostly on what a man's duty to his family is, the importance of a strong work ethic and a marketable skill, and how racial oppression damages the soul.
There's a raw, untamed quality to Denzel's character, and though he laughs and jokes and flirts with his wife, you can always see that the rage of not having fulfilled his potential is always simmering underneath the surface. Viola Davis is amazing playing opposite him, as a woman who's whole identity seems to the success of her family and subordinating her own needs to those of her husband.
What happens when a dream is deferred? How do you deal with that disappointment and anger? How does it affect those around you. These are all themes covered in the film. A powerful story that stays with you. For me, if a film can both entertain me and make me think, that's about as good as it gets.
A Most Violent Year (2014)
Really Well-Made Film. Not for the Fast n' Furious Crowd
Once again, Chandor gives us a well-written, well-acted, beautifully photographed film, on a relatively small budget, that winds up being incredibly watchable. I would say he's done this with all 3 of his films. None of them were action-packed film, but that all had a truth and reality to them, that really pulled me in.
I've read some reviews on here that complain that the film was too slow for them or that it was "boring." Look, despite it's title (which may have mislead a lot of viewers going in), this film is not for the Fast and Furious or Transformers crowd. It's not even for people who loved the blood-soaked Scarface.
It portrays violence and the fear of running a business in NYC in the early 80s, in a very real way. And it captures the early 80s look flawlessly.
This film may, however, be be for people who loved films like The Godfather or DePalma's Dressed to Kill. Not only does Oscar Issac seem to channel bits of Michael Corleone, but the film is lit and photographed in a very similar manner to the way that Gordon Willis shot The Godfather. Also, for those who think there was a ton of action and killing in the Godfather, outside of the final few minutes, there really isn't. Though very different films, what pulls you into the Godfather and Dressed to Kill is similar to what pulls you in here. Tension, honesty, a simple story, well told. No BS. No shooting up a whole town, with dead bodies falling everywhere, and then cutting to the next scene at dinner.
In real life, violence is frightening, finding a gun is frightening, shooting a gun at someone is frightening, having your life savings at stake, and the fear of losing everything you've worked for is frightening. Chandor pulls this all together to build tension, and it results in a very satisfying film.
Love Is Strange (2014)
Honest, Affecting Movie...That Seems Half Done
I was really looking forward to this film, as I have always deeply admired the work of both of these lead actors, as well as Ms Tomei, and I had heard positive reviews. Also, I tend to like movies that use NYC as its backdrop.
On the plus side, it's a very, honest, affecting, slice of life story, about two men who love each other dearly, and have been together 39 years. They are forced to separate, temporarily, when one of them loses their job, and they wind up losing their home.
And yet, there was so much about this film that simply felt incomplete. It was as if the screenwriter and filmmaker knew the basic premise of his story, and then...simply didn't know where to take it, or what to emphasize. A few things happen, but none of them are really followed up on. Overall, the story never really takes off.
And the ending, to me, just felt incredibly forced, and a bit dishonest. And really, a bit baffling, due to an apparent connection between the boy and his uncle that we're supposed to accept, but never seemed to have existed. I can't give away any spoilers, but the last 5 minutes of the film felt as if it belonged to another movie entirely.
But in the end, the film is worth watching for Molina, Lithgow, and Tomei, and the wonderfully naturalistic performances they give.
Could Have Been Interesting
A lot of people loved this film, and I think that's fantastic. I think it's great that people were able to find something in this film that they connected with. Unfortunately, I was not one of them.
The good: The film is beautifully photographed in black and white. The landscapes, the composition, all excellent. It was almost worth watching the film for that alone. Almost.
The not-so-good: It's elliptical filmmaking at its most frustrating. The plot (and dialogue) are minimal, most of which is known within the first 15 minutes of the film. That's fine. No problem there. However, there's got to be something else for the viewer to latch onto.
The story, which moves at a glacial pace, centers on a young woman in a Catholic convent who is having doubts about taking her full vows, and is encouraged to connect with her only living relative before she makes the full commitment. She leaves the convent, connects with her aunt, finds out her background is different than she thought, and the two go on a journey to find out where her parents are.
The film focuses on these 2 women. One is a joyless, depressed middle-aged alcoholic judge with the embittered personality and poor judgement that often accompanies someone who has suffered incredible loss in their life. The other is a young nun-in-training who has had almost no contact with the real world. Therefore, she wanders through most of the film with an almost robotic blank stare on her face. She has been incredibly sheltered in the convent, and therefore adheres closely to the values she's been taught. Now, I'm not in any way criticizing either actress, both of whom gave very honest performances, but let's say that watching these two characters for 90 minutes, was not exactly something that glued me to the screen.
It is a Holocaust story, which are still very important to tell, and yet, unfortunately, I didn't find that it had anything new to add to the long list of heartbreaking Holocaust stories we've seen on film for decades.
But others felt differently, and I'm glad they got something out of it.
Outstanding Film. Not for the Transformers Crowd.
Outstanding film. I thought Birdman was a complete breath of fresh air, and not what I was expecting at all...in a good way.
I will say this: If you saw the trailer, and are somehow expecting this film to be a version of Transformers, it won't be.
But if you're looking for a film with some of the best writing of the year, amazing camera work that totally absorbs you (20-minute non- stop takes following the actors through the scenes), a film with an almost perfect blend of humor and drama, and one in which, within 5 minutes of it's opening, proves itself so charmingly odd and unpredictable, that you're not quite sure what will happen next...than this film may be for you.
Birdman skewers everything that's wrong with celebrity culture and Hollywood, while in many ways, embracing what can be great about it.
Michael Keaton (who has been off the Hollywood radar for quite some time) is perfectly cast as a former movie star, who is well known for the "Birdman" movie franchise that was a series of hugely popular comic books films 25 years earlier. (Not all that dissimilar from the Batman franchise the real-life Keaton starred in 25 years ago).
Keaton's character, Riggan, is trying to resurrect his career, but as a serious actor, by directing and starring in a Broadway play. Pulling of this feat, will have numerous barriers, including him taking on a difficult role that many may not accept him in, a co-star lover, and, most hilariously, a narcissistic, unpredictable co-star (played Ed Norton), that seems to be trying to sabotage the production at every turn, if it means staying true to himself.
Riggan is an actor who is desperate not to be forgotten. He needs to feel important again. His character taps into the self-loathing attitude and the need to believe that he is special, that we all feel, all while he is haunted by the voice of his alter-ego, the Birdman, who taunts him that he is a fraud who is making a huge mistake.
Is Birdman light on plot? To an extent. Although I would say the plot revolves around an aging Hollywood movie star trying to pull off a hugely expensive Broadway show, without losing millions of dollars of investors money, all to see if he can salvage his career, and hence his reason for living.
But even if some do feel it's light on plot, who cares? It's a completely engrossing film that follows interesting characters, played by actors who are compelling to watch. That's about you can ask for in a film.
The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Scorcese Still Showing His Master Filmmaking Powers
Wolf of Wall St. is a fascinating film by a master filmmaker, bringing 40 years of skill to the table; from casting, to shot selection, to how he pulls you into that world. And a guy who just plain having fun. The 3-hour film, traces the rise and fall of Wall St con man Jordan Belfort. A tightly constructed film, I wasn't bored for a minute.
There were some people who kicked up a fuss about the film and its glorification of these slimy characters, their materialistic lifestyle, and their treatment of women as nothing but sex objects. Some have said that the film glorifies that lifestyle, but to me, Winter (screenwriter) and Scorcese went out of their way to show the reality of it. The film focuses on how animalistic and primal people can become when greed takes them over. The obsession with money and power becomes a pathology. This, of course, is what many Wall St people will loathe about the film.
As for accuracy, I'm sure Jordan Belfort (who the film is based on and worked as a consultant on the film), embellished a few things, but according to one of the FBI agents who worked on the case, many of the more outrageous aspects depicted in the book and film were accurate.
The sad part is that even though there will will many Wall St workers and finance people who will watch the film and think, "That's a bunch of crap. They're painting with a broad brush. It's not fair," there will be far too many young (and not-so-young) Wall St up-and-comers who will ignore the whole last hour of Wolf of Wall St., and simply look at the first 2 hours as an inspirational tale of the American dream.
Sharp Performances Dulled By a Script That Slips Into the Absurd
The first 20 minutes of Flight are fantastic and riveting. Denzel Washington gives an amazing performance of an alcoholic airline pilot with incomparable flying skills, who gets caught in a sticky situation. The rest of the cast, including Don Cheadle and Bruce Greenwood, are rock solid.
Unfortunately, after the first half hour or so, it begins sliding into a color-by-numbers, overly formulaic script that contains more coincidences, improbabilities, and absurd events than any script should be expected to withstand. Then adds quite a bit of schmaltz on top of it.
I won't give away any details, but will only say that those improbabilities grow so extreme that by the last 20 minutes of the film, it's absolutely groan worthy. And it's a shame, because Mr. Washington gives such a strong performance, and Mr. Zemeckis is a top-notch director. However, it seems that no matter how much the screenwriter or director wanted to do an edgy movie, they both find a way of cleaning it up and sanding down any rough corners.
Competent Storytelling, But Safe, Cliché, and Predictable
I suppose this film would be somewhat interesting to view for anyone who is completely unaware of the Jackie Robinson story. Aside from maybe 1 or 2 scenes, this safe and predictable film could easily be shown to grade-school kids.
Antiseptic and color-by-numbers, in just about every way (again, except for 1 or 2 scenes). The writing is sometimes groan-worthy, and no cliché is left unturned, including slow-motion running of the bases after home runs and a saccharine, syrupy-sweet shots of Mr. Robinson and his wife. Every scene is played and shot almost exactly how you would expect (but hoped not), and most of it seems to take place on a carefully constructed movie set. Basically it's pretty much a Disney version of The Jackie Robinson story. But it gets the story across.
Mr. Helgeland Oscar-Award winning screenwriter and obviously very talented, but screen writing and directing are different skills. I must admit that I kept wondering what a more skilled and inventive director like Spike Lee would've done with a story like this.
Don Jon (2013)
Would Have Worked Better As A 30-minute Film
Don Jon is not a terrible film, it's just not a particularly good one. Similar to an SNL sketch that goes on too long, the story and the characters are far too thin and uninteresting to warrant a 90-minute treatment.
Joseph Gordon Levitt (who wrote and directed) does a fine acting job and gives a solid impersonation of a shallow, ignorant, aggressive, sex-obsessed, porn-addicted 20-something Jersey boy. But he is sorely miscast. Anyone having spent any time with real-life Jersey boys of this type (or even watched them on TV), will have a very hard time accepting the cuddly and slight JGL in this role.
Straining credibility even further, we're forced to accept that JGL's slick character can pull any gorgeous girl from the local dance club, in minutes, and bring her home for sex (this apparently happens every weekend.) But real sex is not nearly as fulfilling to him as watching porn. He can't "lose himself." The premise of the film (and where it will go) is recognized about 15 minutes into the story, but there is nothing deep or interesting enough about any of the characters or plot to merit us wanting to invest in the journey any further.
Scarlett Johansson and Julianne Moore also give great performances, but again, they can't overcome the script's lack of depth.
In terms of tone and style, it's a bit like watching a well-done, if very unfocused, student film. It's not quite funny enough to work as a pure comedy, and not nearly weighty enough to work as a drama. Visually, it's not particularly attractive or consistent. Unmotivated camera movements occur during the few scenes that actually warrant it being still, giving us no help in connecting to the characters in those moments.
I respect JGL greatly for getting this film done, an it will be interesting to see how he develops, but for now, he is clearly a much more talented actor than a writer or director.
My advice. If you want to see a great film about a young, ignorant Italian-American's journey to evolve into a more substantive human being, put Saturday Night Fever in your queue. Not only is a great film, based on a superb script, shot during one of the best eras of American filmmaking, but you'll get to see some amazing dance sequences.
A Solid Final 20 Minutes, if You Can Get Through The First Hour and 20
I feel a bit guilty being a dissenting voice on 50/50, as it tackles such a serious subject matter, and a has a very likable lead character. But in the end, there just wasn't much substance to this piece, until the final few minutes, for me to really invest in it.
Most of the material in the script is dealt with the slack, off-handed "Dude, remember the time you got cancer? Yeah, sucked, huh?" type of way.
The film works so hard to not be serious or over-dramatic, that it winds up with almost no drama at all. When a serious moment does arise for the character, a pop tune is inserted into the soundtrack, to make sure we as the audience don't have to sit with the pain and confusion that the character is feeling. We can simply zone out for a bit, while we sway to the music.
Now, I certainly wasn't expecting "Terms of Endearment", or a super-serious drama, but I also wasn't expecting the topic to be handled in such an incredibly frivolous, predictable, and frankly, sometimes boring manner.
The film doesn't quite work as a drama, and even though there is a few genuinely funny moments, they are certainly not enough to sustain it as a comedy. The plot itself is fairly cliché and predictable. You'd have to have never watched a film before not to know just about every development that will come to pass; other than the eventual health outcome of the Levitt's character. But frankly, even that was tipped off to anyone who saw the weeks of promotion in the run-up to the film where Seth Rogan speaks about the film being based on a true story.
What basically saves the film in the end is Joseph Gordon Levitt's likability factor, and a very strong performance by his mother, Angelica Houston, who unfortunately, didn't get more screen time. Had the film focused on that, it may have been stronger. Seth Rogan's character seems only to serve as a device for comic relief, to make sure we don't get too down.
The last part of the film ends strong and hits all the emotional buttons (it would've made a great short), but the majority of the film is basically another arrested development story, with Rogan's character acting like the affable, 12-year old boy, providing his fair share of penis and weed jokes, that we've grown to love...or at least tolerate. This was surprising, after I'd heard so much talk about how different this character was from all his others.
I'm sure it was very difficult, especially in today's filmmaking environment, to get a film about cancer made. This is likely why the director and writers tried to lighten it up whenever possible. But one can only dilute a potent cocktail so much before it simply gets too watered down to drink.
Unfortunately, I will likely remember very little about this film, except for the end, which was handled quite well. For me, it just wasn't enough to make up for the insignificance of the first hour and twenty minutes.