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Sisters (III) (2015)
7/10
In a great year for female-driven comedies, 'Sisters' stands out with its hilarious party hijinks and surprisingly deep characterization.
18 December 2015
Sisters is outrageously funny, so it passes with flying colors as a raunchy comedy. But it's deeper than you might expect on a character level. Everyone's favorite duo Tina Fey and Amy Poehler are instantly believable as sisters Kate and Maura, and in addition to their witty banter and excellent chemistry, they're also well-developed female characters. This deep characterization elevates Sisters above traditional comedic fare, and the result is a funny and touching year-ender in a great year for comedy.

When Kate and Maura reunite as a result of their parents' desire to put their childhood home on the market, it sets the stage for zany hijinks to come. The premise of the film can be written in less than one line, but the party material here is very funny. It all works thematically as well, as the retirement of a family home works at bringing everyone together. Kate and Maura clean out their rooms in a brilliant scene that gets at the bond between sisters, and it also highlights the differences between the two girls.

Kate, stuck in a rut and no more mature than her daughter, had the reputation as the party animal back in the day. Maura, on the other hand, was party mom and now wants to "let her freak flag fly." It works because not only is it the opposite of what we might expect of Fey and Poehler, it allows the pair to bring out the best in each other. I'm reminded of another buddy comedy, 21 Jump Street, in which the conventional archetypes are nothing new, but the shades of the characters bring the real depth. Consistent characterization through and through allows the pair to step out of their comfort zone to great results.

When Sisters is funny, it soars. Not every joke lands, but there's a consistent stretch in the middle sixty minutes that you'll never want to end. The film gets at adulthood in hard-hitting but also hilarious ways, such as the beginning of the party when the guests sit around and discuss colonoscopies and their children. When the film goes full Project X, it also works, as the supporting characters bring the party that surrounds Kate and Maura. Bobby Moynihan is a highlight as the class clown Alex, whose groan worthy puns become something more when he snorts cocaine and hooks up with Kate's pedicurist (yes, that was a real sentence I just wrote). Maura's new crush James (Ike Barinholtz), also brings the laughs. Barinholtz hasn't had a proper role like this since The Mindy Project, and he brings out Maura's dirty side to hilarious results.

Poehler and Fey are as reliable as ever, and their commitment to these characters reminds us why we fell in love with them in their days on SNL and their respective NBC comedies. The role reversals are well done and no one sister dominates the limelight. The two are a pair through and through, and are believable as sisters but also as best friends. While no one here is going to win an acting award anytime soon for Sisters, they sell the familial bond and subsequently nail the emotional scenes. I could see this one being an underrated favorite in years to come (akin to Baby Mama). Director Jason Moore and screenwriter Paula Pell have made another great addition to the party genre, but also a female-driven comedy that never forgets to flesh out its characters.
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Room (I) (2015)
10/10
A non-traditional thriller with another brilliant turn from Brie Larson but an even better one from Jacob Tremblay.
11 October 2015
Warning: Spoilers
Room is a harrowing thriller, but not in the traditional sense of the word. It deals with a dark subject matter and the first half of the film can be quite disturbing. Yet director Lenny Abrahamson (Frank) has adapted the best-selling novel with grace and grandeur. Here is a film so artistically unique and deviant, chock full of genuine emotion thanks to two outstanding performances, that isn't afraid to take risks and surprise at every turn.

Based on the novel by Emma Donoghue, Room introduces us to Ma and Jack, a mother and son held captive in a garden shed. As we learn more about their captivity, their world becomes clearer and clearer to us. They live by a routine, have names for every object in room, and Ma must be careful as her son grows older and more curious.

The film is structured into two halves, and by now it's no spoiler that the second half deals with their readjustment into the outside world, and Jack's first time outside of room. The film is thematically complex, yet never overwhelming. At its core it's about motherhood, but Jack's unique upbringing complicates things.

Director Lenny Abrahamson is no stranger to the strange, and with Room he's made a masterpiece of filmmaking. The entire idea of 'room,' the abstract concept of space, is ever-present in the production. In their bubble of room, Ma and Jack are restricted, as evident by Abrahamson's close angles and tight shots. The small space allows for high concept filmmaking, and when they get out of room, it only gets better, with a new color palette and experimental camera angles through Jack's eyes. The entire film is seen through the eyes of this child, and it's genius. What I loved about the book was its focus on Jack and how he adjusts to seeing this new world for the first time, and the movie never loses sight of that.

I wrote about the pressure placed on child actors in my review for the incredible Beasts of No Nation, and Jacob Tremblay fits like a glove. Like Abraham Attah, he isn't a child actor, but an actor who just happens to be of a younger age. His wide eyes and expressive thoughts are very believable, and when he sees the outside world for the first time, it's a thing of beauty. Tremblay has brilliant chemistry with Brie Larson, and for one second I never doubted her devotion to him. As Ma faces frustrating upon leaving room, from her parents, doctors, and the media, she never forgets her son Jack, and always puts his wellbeing first. Larson taps into this character, one that undergoes a stunning transformation as she basically lost seven years of her life being locked up. Her performance will blow you away.

The best actors are the ones able to transport you into their characters' own universes, no matter how isolated from society they happen to be. Larson, Tremblay, and Joan Allen all have a tremendous range of emotional ability and are able to sell you on their story not just for two hours, but for an entire lifetime. With Room, Abrahamson goes the extra mile with his direction, and director of photography Danny Cohen keeps all eyes on Jack. The film asks us to examine how we view the world and how this viewpoint is shaped by our nurtured upbringing. The result is a breathtaking experience brought to life, one you won't soon forget.
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Suffragette (2015)
8/10
More than just 'essential viewing,' Suffragette manages to be both educational and entertaining.
11 October 2015
Suffragette packs a punch. It's a soldiering tribute to the women who fought for the right to vote and paved the way for the feminist movement in the UK. While the script might be a little too biopic friendly, it's still a rousing film full of outstanding performances. Director Sarah Gavron wisely frames the conflict through the eyes of Maud (Carey Mulligan), and she keeps the drama at an intimate level, all while hinting at the larger scope of the movement nationwide.

Instead of going big, Suffragette puts us in the shoes of Maud Watts, an outsider to the movement, who works as a launderer. What I really liked about the film is that you hear murmurs about this group led by the charismatic Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep) and their activities throughout the first half of the film. They are sort of portrayed as a small-scale movement that won't cause much damage, but when Maud decides to get involved and get active, we see firsthand how powerful the group is. Obviously with a film like this many know the story already, yet Gavron and writer Abi Morgan literally put you in Maud's shoes as she gets deeper into the action, with protests and bombings aplenty.

Carey Mulligan is a revelation as Maud. Her best performance since An Education, Mulligan is pitch perfect for the role. She's such a natural actor that practically everything she feels, you feel alongside her. Gavron favors close-ups of the women in these harsh work conditions, and it works at getting underneath their skin and bringing the raw emotion to life. Other suffragettes Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter), Violet (Anne-Marie Duff), and Emily (Natalie Press) make quite an impact too. It isn't exactly an ensemble cast - Mulligan carries most of the film's weight - but it's nice having supporting characters that make a lot of background noise and are actually memorable characters rather than props. Unfortunately Meryl Streep doesn't have that same luxury. Her character is portrayed as a god-like being, and while this might have been true for the suffragettes, she is only present in the film for less than five minutes and doesn't make a lasting impression on the audience.

The script is marvelous at bringing to life early 20th century London, and the production design is gorgeous. The murky city breathes deep, as the dark alleys where these women plot their attacks is paralleled with the brighter scenes of the lawmakers in Parliament. The film on the whole has a feeling of a pot on a burner, ready to boil over any minute. It's a testament to the writing and direction that can convey a sense of natural urgency driven by history. Additionally a beautiful score from Alexandre Desplat (my favorite composer) accompanies the action and keeps the lows low and the highs high.

The brilliant script works at showing how Maud and the activists practiced civil disobedience and "unladylike" tactics while facing oppression from both home and the government. It does grow a bit tiresome towards the end, however, and the finale doesn't quite have the impact that it might have expected. There are many moments that could be considered climactic, and the one chosen is brilliant, but the falling action leads to a poor final few minutes. Of course it ends with typical true story text and a list of countries when women gained the right to vote (which is genius), but the ending could've been a little more out-of-the-box than what we got. Another coat of polish could've elevated Suffragette from a striking biopic to something in a league of its own. Regardless, Suffragette falls under the category of "essential viewing," and it manages to be both entertaining and important. Nailing that balance for films like this is key, and Suffragette brings a wallop.
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7/10
'Beasts of No Nation' has the best performance by a child actor that I've ever seen.
11 October 2015
Child actors are a dime a dozen, yet Abraham Attah is something else. He transcends the category and remains such a demanding presence throughout the entire film, matching even Idris Elba's poise. His character's transformation is just one of the remarkable feats of storytelling that Beasts of No Nation graces us. A gripping account of modern day war seen through a child's eyes, Beasts of No Nation is easily one of the best of the year.

The first thing you'll notice is how beautiful the film is. The stark landscapes of West Africa draw you in, and the color palette for the film is quite something. Director and cinematographer Cary Fukunaga makes sure you remember the reality of this not-so-fictional story, paralleling Agu's family life and how his world was flipped upside down when he joined a group of mercenary fighters. Initially, Agu has no choice and uses them as an escape and a way to reunite with his mother, but the ruthless commandant (Elba) changes him.

The writing is fantastic as you see the war through Agu's eyes, and it's not pretty. This kind of situation is almost completely unfamiliar for most audiences, and Fukunaga manages to supplement fear for grace. He never lets us forget the harsh realities of war, touching on familiar themes like family but going a step further by making it personal for Agu. As the film is his story through and through, the adult details of war are kept to a minimum. The audience is just like Agu, unaware of exactly why there is fighting but rolling with it because it's his only choice. There's no strategic battle scenes, no planning on a map or signing peace treaties, as we are thrust into moments just like Agu is.

When the violence does break out, it's brutal and harrowing. Young actor Attah is ferocious yet sympathetic, and he brings these battle sequences down to earth. The creative risks that Fukunaga takes with these sequences might come across as pandering, yet they make sense cinematically and come across as action poetry. There's a certain lyricism to the war torn villages and jungles of the continent, and it's beautiful and unforgettable.

There isn't much dialogue in the film, but when there is it's brilliant. The unnamed commandant's ideology becomes clearer as the film goes on, and it reaches a disturbing peak. Fukunaga contrasts him with the initially innocent Agu and the two are at odds yet retain respect for one another. There are times when Agu could simply point a gun at the commandant and be done with it, but there's a humanity to the film that respects all lives. War isn't pretty, and Beasts of No Nation knows that. Yet this risky piece of entertainment remembers to be a film first and everything else second. The result is a rhythmic work of art with one of the best young performances I've seen.
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9/10
An inspiring, often funny account of Wallace's book tour, with a standout performance from Jason Segel.
8 May 2015
Prior to seeing this film, I had limited knowledge of David Foster Wallace and his works. After seeing the film, I wanted to learn more. The End of the Tour (dir. James Ponsoldt) is a very reflective film, highlighting author Wallace on the last stretch of his book tour for his novel Infinite Jest. Our entry point into this intriguing man is David Lipsky, a Rolling Stone reporter hired to do a piece on him in the late 1990s.

What little there is of plot is made up for in excellent characterization. The film is really all about existentialism, and thankfully it never leans towards pretentiousness. Rather there is an air of optimism about making your time on earth worthwhile. Wallace and Lipsky in a way represent two extremes of existentialism. Wallace is very relaxed, and takes his newfound celebrity with a grain of salt, while Lipsky is very Type-A, yet never brash or irritating. Lipsky has been trying to get his foot in the door as an author for a while now, while Wallace almost became famous overnight, and the film plays with the concept of "fame" in fun and unique ways. Through the film, Ponsoldt is able to explore these two extremes and find common ground between them, all while touching on the idea of fame and what it means to different people.

The script is outstanding, and hits all the right notes I touched on above. The dialogue between Lipsky and Wallace feels natural, nothing is forced. I wonder how much improvisation was done for the film, because the two seem like good friends from the moment they meet. There is a natural chemistry that draws these two characters together, and it's outstanding to watch on-screen. It's difficult to adapt a book like Lipsky's, which is mostly interviews and recording, as the book was published after Wallace's death in 2008. But screenwriter Donald Marguiles makes it work, and the result is an insightful, often hilarious film.

All this talk about chemistry would be a waste if it weren't for Jason Segel and Jesse Eisenberg as Wallace and Lipsky, respectively. Segel is a marvel as Wallace; it's a performance that doesn't demand much, yet Segel taps into all of Wallace's nuances and quirks. His delivery, cadence, and warmth almost makes it feel like you're talking to an old friend. It's a subtle performance that I hope is remembered come awards season. Eisenberg, too, is great. His reporter-type isn't very developed until the middle-end of the film, and he might come across as annoying for some. But he makes Lipsky tick as the curious interviewer wanting to learn more. He's driven by his desire to success, his want to make a successful piece for Rolling Stone, yet he ends up with a lot more.

The End of the Tour is a huge success. It isn't a very showy film, without much in the way of technical prowess, yet it's a talker. The realistic dialogue and blasé tone make the film feel like a 140 minute hang out with two good friends. Ponsoldt keeps a tight grip on the film's themes, never letting one overpower the film's true intentions. It's a wonderful ode to Wallace, and a funny one at that.
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6/10
A bit uneven, but often hilarious examination of cross-generational relationships
3 April 2015
Noah Baumbach has always been a great social theorist. His films delve into modern life in satirical and not-so-subtle ways that many of them begin to blend together to create one narrative for the way we live now. His latest, While We're Young, might be his most "on the nose" yet.

While We're Young's examination of middle age and cross-generational conflict offers witty commentary on a variety of subcultures. It begins with Josh and Cornelia, 40-somethings without much meaning in their life. Josh has been hard at work on a documentary film for eight years, while Cornelia is constantly being asked when she's going to have kids. Their life gets thrown for a loop when they meet Jamie and Darby, millennial hipsters who collect vinyl records and do yoga and visit street beaches.

This premise might seem a bit sitcom-y, and at times it is. There are a few montages too many of the differences between the couples. Baumbach isn't giving us anything new here (we all know how cell phones are changing the way we communicate, do we really need to hear it again?), but this doesn't succinctly get at the core of the film. The core is in Josh himself, played with renewed vigor by Ben Stiller, and how his ego gets the best of him in his documentary project with Jamie. The script allows us to get to know Josh before he battles his inner demons, as a bad drug trip flips things upside down halfway through the film. It's a great character study, sometimes tragic, oftentimes hilarious, but very complex and engaging.

While We're Young is bursting with great personalities though, not just Josh. The four main characters are all distinct and well-fleshed out, especially Cornelia, Josh's wife. Naomi Watts brings some comedy to the table as she is reluctant of Josh's new friends. The film paints a dichotomy between young and old, making clear the harsh realities of adulthood and "saying goodbye to your youngness." Nowhere is this more apparent than in the relationship with their other friends, Marina (Maria Dizzia) and Fletcher (Adam Horovitz), the typical sitcom adult couple with children who want the young kids to get off their lawn.

The film kind of takes an unexpected turn towards the end, however, as Josh's documentary project consumes him. It dives into a critique on filmmaking ethics in documentaries and how to work with integrity, being a strange detour in a film that was about finding renewed youngness at middle age. But the core elements are all still here. Josh's war within himself escalates quickly after learning Jamie's motives, and the film ends with a Listen Up Phillip Woody Allen-esque dramatic scene between Josh and Jamie. Baumbach's direction is on point here, going back and forth and all around the room in a dizzying sequence, a very memorable one.

While We're Young isn't Baumbach's best film by any means, but it offers up something new in the ever-expanding indie mumble core New York genre. The key here is the central couples, actors with great energy and game, and these unique caricatures of cross- generational relationships. There might be a few too many broad strokes here, but the witty writing and excellent direction will keep you hooked for the breezy 90 minute run time.
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7/10
Hits all the right notes, thanks to Hill and Tatum's excellent chemistry
14 June 2014
If there's one criticism I have about 22 Jump Street, it's that the movie feels too similar to 21 Jump Street. But is that really a complaint? With 22 Jump Street, directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller (The LEGO Movie) have created a massively entertaining ride, with more antics from the characters we love, and better performances all around.

This time around, they're going to college. Yeah, yeah, we've heard it before. As Ice Cube says at the end of the first film, in which the two went undercover at a high school, the tables have been turned and they're going to college now. Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) must once again go undercover at MC State to bust another drug operation, this time called WHYPHY (work hard? yes. play hard? yes.)

What worked with 21 Jump Street works again in 22 Jump Street. The excellent characters of Schmidt and Jenko are once again paired to make a hilarious and charismatic duo. Their personalities clash once more, but in a different way than the first film, and they get into even more crazy shenanigans than before. This includes having a shootout in the university library and busting a Spring Break beach party. 22 Jump Street always keeps you on edge, wondering what will happen next. While the plot is pretty standard and similar to the first film, you'll want to stick around because you love these characters so much. New characters such as Zook (Wyatt Russell) and Mercedes (Jillian Bell) feel right at home within the crazy cast. Captain Dickson (Ice Cube) is also in rare form, delivering some of the film's best moments.

This is a testament to Hill and Tatum, who put so much work into creating these characters. Jenko settles into the football team, and makes friends at a fraternity, while Schmidt performs slam poetry and does many walks of shame. Hill and Tatum are in top form. Their chemistry is better than ever, making 22 Jump Street a hilarious buddy comedy. Try not to laugh when Schmidt does slam poetry to impress a girl, I dare you.

What makes 22 Jump Street feel special is its self-referential attitude and countless meta jokes. Police chief Hardy (Nick Offerman) essentially explains why this movie was made within the first 10 minutes, saying "no one cared about the Jump Street reboot, but you guys got lucky." It's a funny way to be self-deprecating and hilarious at the same time. It plays to the audience's intelligence, rather than making them feel stupid. Other references are more subtle, like when Schmidt keeps asking about the film's budget. It all plays into a very interesting and unique humor style. While there are plenty of raunchy jokes (right in the crack), the film's best come from its self-referencing.

So, now for the all-important question: is 22 Jump Street better than the original? With its meta jokes and its excellent characterization, 22 Jump Street is a rousing success, and matches the original in sheer humor. But the plot feels too similar to the original. While this may be a fault in the film's format, a few more twists would have been appreciated. Still, 22 Jump Street is a hilarious ride, one definitely worth taking.
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Non-Stop (2014)
6/10
Non-Stop is about as generic as they come, but don't let that stop you from enjoying this well-crafted thriller
14 March 2014
Non-Stop brings nothing new to the action-thriller genre. It is about as standard as they come, but Liam Neeson commands the film with intensity and urgency that keeps it from ever getting boring.

Non-Stop has a simple premise, yet it keeps the audience guessing throughout. One look at the poster and you'll know what to expect. From the beginning, you're wondering who is sending air marshall Bill (Liam Neeson) these text messages threatening to kill someone every 20 minutes. This interesting premise gives the film the liberty to do what it wants with the plot. You won't guess what happens, because there are so many twists and turns. While at times very unbelievable, Non-Stop is still really enjoyable.

This is due in part to Liam Neeson, the recent king of action movies. Dubbed "Taken on a Plane," Non-Stop is better than his recent films, and he takes command of the role and keeps audiences invested. Supporting roles from Downton Abbey's Michelle Dockery, Argo's Scoot McNairy, House of Cards's Corey Stoll, and 12 Years a Slave's Lupita Nyong'o only makes you miss them in their most well-known roles. None of them are really standouts, not even Lupita. But since Neeson is the star of the show, you won't mind.

Like I said, Non-Stop is nothing new. A decent thriller with some twists and turns that keeps it from getting boring. Some laughable emotional background gives at least some dimension to Neeson's character, but by the end it just feels like a cop-out, typical of recent thrillers. But the action and suspense is first-rate. The final act in particular is especially thrilling, with plane parts flying everywhere and suspense building until the end. A smart thriller that keeps you guessing, Non-Stop shouldn't be passed over, but just don't expect anything special.
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9/10
A charming a visual masterpiece, Grand Budapest isn't just for Wes Anderson fans
14 March 2014
The Grand Budapest Hotel isn't just for Wes Anderson fans. As a big fan, I feel that sometimes it can be difficult to jump into Anderson's films without premeditation. Yet Anderson's eighth film could very well be his most accessible to date. He has once again created a whimsical world in his latest, and the film is loaded with visual gags and employs Anderson's signature flair to great effect. With his latest, Anderson doesn't enhance his style, he simply masters it, creating another charming film to add to his wall, one that both fans and non-fans can eat up.

In The Grand Budapest Hotel, we are introduced to the legendary Gustave H (Ralph Fiennes), a hotel concierge at the famous Grand Budapest Hotel. The film tells the story of his adventures with his lobby boy Zero (Tony Revolori). After the death of one of his guests and lovers, Madame D (Tilda Swinton), Gustave is suspected of murder after he is left a mysterious painting in her will.

From this point, the film springs into action, giving us the crazy set pieces and wild scenarios that only Anderson can create. This wouldn't be possible without Fiennes, who gives one of the best performances of his career as the suave yet crass Gustave H. He is one of Anderson's most memorable characters to date, and along with Zero, the two make quite a pair. Saoirse Ronan also shines as Agatha, a bakery girl who also serves as Zero's love interest.

The Grand Budapest Hotel tells a dark story, and Anderson isn't afraid to give some shocking moments, hence the film's R rating. Coming off of Moonrise Kingdom, this is surprising, but it's also a refreshing change of pace from Anderson's latest outings, including Fantastic Mr. Fox.

Supporting roles from Harvey Keitel, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Jude Law, Bill Murray, and Edward Norton help round out the delightful cast of characters, yet sometimes the hotel feels a bit too crowded. This may not matter much given that Fiennes and Revolori are the stars of the show, but it can be a bit jarring considering their limited screen time. Blink-and-you'll-miss-it appearances from the likes of Owen Wilson can break up the film's quick and zippy pace, and one wonders if his character is entirely necessary or if Wilson appeared for simply fan service given Anderson's legendary cast.

Anderson has constructed brilliant set pieces, once again employing his signature cinematography. The film is beautiful, using its visuals to its advantage to create some laugh- out-loud moments amidst the beautiful hotel. But you won't spend the entire time at the Grand Budapest. Excellent scenes within a prison are instantly memorable, as is the wonderful and exciting ski chase that will leave you in pieces.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is a mastering of Anderson's craft. Some parts hilarious, other parts thrilling, you won't want to check out of the Hotel Grand Budapest. With a cast of unforgettable characters, including the legendary Gustave H, this is one of Anderson's best films to date, and it's definitely a must-see.
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7/10
A great biopic that is never emotionally manipulative
23 August 2013
Warning: Spoilers
Lee Daniels' The Butler is a perfect example of a good historical drama that can be informative and emotional without being too emotionally draining or manipulative. A lot of viewers might pass this off as easy "Oscar bait," and they couldn't be more wrong. They'd also be missing out on one of the best films of the year, telling the story of a great man and his family and career.

The Butler tells the mostly true story of Cecil Gaines, a butler who started from the bottom and served under the tenure of eight U.S. presidents. More than just a biopic, The Butler highlights the ups and downs of the Gaines family, and this is all under the backdrop of many historical events in the 20th century. The film starts with Cecil working as a boy on a plantation with his parents. After a turn of events, he comes under the wing of a man who teaches him to be a butler. He gets noticed, and quickly he is starting work at the White House, under Eisenhower's term.

Cecil's life takes him through his life at the plantation as a young boy, all the way up to the 2008 election of Barack Obama. Under the service of eight presidents, Cecil is able to witness and is affected by many influential historical events. You'll see through his eyes many important events in the Civil Rights Movement, such as the Nashville sit-ins and the integration of public schools. You'll witness how his family is affected by these events. You'll see how presidents handle and react to these events. More than just a history lesson, The Butler is a glimpse through the eyes of a man on the inside.

On the emotional front, The Butler is loaded. Because it's a period piece, many viewers might connect the emotional impact of the film with its genre and dismiss it as "Oscar" bait. Whether or not that's the intention is irrelevant. That's not to say The Butler is never contrived, because that's not true. There are signs of planning for big emotional impacts, but these are natural and necessary for you to connect and sympathize with the Gaines family. "Inspired" by true events, I'm fairly certain that some events among Cecil and his family are fictionalized, but it's all for the sake of story. The film feels authentic, and that's a good thing for a movie like this.

The film doesn't shy away from showing you the harsh life back then, especially during the Civil Rights Movement. There are some uncomfortable and violent scenes, that can make anyone cringe. These scenes are important in depicting what the struggle was like for blacks in the 1950s and 60s. They help make the film feel more real.

The Butler has an enormous cast of very interesting characters. Cecil's wife, Gloria, battles addictions herself as she experiences these events first and secondhand. Cecil and his wife have two children, both who are also affected by society in many ways, be it the Civil Rights Movement or the Vietnam War. Their oldest son, Louis, gets involved with the Freedom Riders, and later the Black Panthers. As his relationship with his family gets strained, Louis's storyline is one of the most engrossing and relatable. At the White House, Cecil works with many other servers, who help him in his times of struggle and go with him through the presidents' terms. Cecil starts working under President Eisenhower, and later Kennedy, Nixon, all the way up to Reagan. The presidents themselves all have varying amounts of screen time, but they are well- done and historically accurate. Even at times they add a little much-needed humor to the mix.

One great scene shows Cecil's son Louis associating with the Freedom Riders. They meet in the basement of the university he attends, and they attend sit-ins and fight for their rights. Played in parallel with this scene is Cecil and his fellow butlers preparing for a meal. The contrast between the two scenes, one violent, the other calm and careful, help keep the pace of the film, and keeps the viewer intrigued.

The Butler has some of the best performances of the year. Cecil is portrayed with audacity by Forest Whitaker, who gives some of the best work of his career. His courage and ambition is seen through his eyes alone. Not nominating Whitaker would be a huge mistake on the Academy's part. Equally matching his raw performance is Oprah Winfrey as his wife Gloria. Returning to the big screen, Winfrey plays a grieving wife, who is sure to be the crowd favorite, as she is the most sympathetic. A nomination for her wouldn't be out of the picture either. Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lenny Kravitz shine as fellow White House butlers. The presidents themselves seem equally as miscast as they do well cast. Robin Williams, James Marsden, Alan Rickman, and more play the various commanders-in-chief. It's kind of distracting seeing Severus Snape play Ronald Reagan, as viewers will associate the actor with their most well-known work, not who they are portraying now. Daniels should have casted lesser-known actors to portray the presidents, because 1) Playing the president can potentially be a star-making role, and 2) It will keep viewers from getting distracted by seeing A-list celebrities portray these figures. One wonders if their casting was simply for the star power alone, as it feels very gimmicky sometimes.

Lee Daniels' The Butler is a fantastic view at a fantastic man. Contrived for the sake of story, with raw emotion and performances that keep it grounded, the film seems poised to make a splash this Oscar season. In spite of some miscasted presidents, The Butler has some of the best performances of the year, and is a perfect reason to go to the movies.
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Elysium (I) (2013)
6/10
A lot of untapped potential
23 August 2013
Warning: Spoilers
New filmmaker Neill Blomkamp had his work cut out for him in his sophomore effort, Elysium. Following up on Oscar-nominated District 9, arguably one of the best sci-fi movies of this generation, is no easy task. While Elysium doesn't come close to matching the raw originality present in District 9, it's still a very enjoyable, mostly original sci-fi film that is still streets ahead of standard fare.

Elysium's main concept is easy enough to wrap your head around. The year is 2154, and Earth has become overpopulated and overpolluted. The rich have left Earth and settled on Elysium, a synthetic planet, where they reside in luxurious mansions and live like royalty. Elysium is perfect, there is no war or poverty, and every house even has a med-bay to cure even the most infectious diseases.

Elysium's strength lies not in its concept, but in its brash execution. Elysium takes us through the life of Max (Matt Damon), an ex-convict living on Earth in the poor shambles of Los Angeles. Max is your working class hero, and he works in restoring the robots who help keep the peace on Elysium. After an accident at work, Max is left with five days to live and must travel to Elysium to save his life. Meanwhile, Elysium's president Delacourt (Jodie Foster), has developed a program that could rewire Elysium's inner workings, allowing all humans to become citizens. Her inside moles on Earth, John Carlyle (William Fichtner) and Kruger (Sharlto Copley), help keep the peace and keep foreigners away from Elysium. Max stumbles upon an old friend (Wagner Moura), who agrees to help him travel to Elysium in exchange for the sensitive information that Elysium's leaders have been working on.

It goes deeper than that, but without getting spoilery, I'll leave it there. Elysium runs into some action-clichés, but thankfully the film's resolution never feels like a cop-out. In fact, the first 1/3 of the movie is basically exposition, and from then on it only gets better, leading to a great final act. A romance is thrown in here and there, however it actually has context within the plot, as Max's old "girlfriend" Frey (Alice Braga) has a daughter who is in the final stages of leukemia, so she herself has a predisposition to get to Elysium as well.

The sharp contrast between life on Earth and life on Elysium is very obvious, but personally I would have liked to have gotten more history on Elysium, as well as more information about life on Elysium. Life on Elysium for the proletariat citizens is barely shown, for example, only in brief snippets. It's small details like these would greatly enhance the film as a whole, and make it a more enjoyable and, to an extent believable, universe.

Blomkamp has created such a rich and unique world, but he only uses it within the context of an action movie. He unfortunately never goes further than what the plot demands, never asking "what more can we show the audience about (blank)?" This leaves the viewer underwhelmed by the end, only wondering what could have been. The movie is short, and when you leave, you feel like there is more that could have been delved into. This is why movies like Inception, Looper, or even Avatar succeed, because they have expansive, well thought-out worlds that give the movie lasting value. Elysium almost feels like a festival film that is only 45 minutes long. More backstory could have made Elysium almost to the level of District 9.

Elysium explores some themes present in society today, and for the most part, everything "beneath the iceberg" is typically black-and-white. There isn't much digging to be done here. This concept of rich and poor is something that has been done before, but Elysium makes this idea unique enough thanks to its main conflict. In terms of social commentary, Elysium has all the makings for a 60 Minutes special. It explores themes such as social stratification and immigration, but en masse it's pretty shallow.

The characters created are very well done, with well thought-out motivations and interesting personalities for the most part. Damon's Max is kind of boring himself, but you would too if you were working hard on Earth while all the rich are living it up on Elysium. He is somewhat sympathetic, but on the whole he never develops, never learns anything new. His childhood friend Frey is similar, and the two have almost non-existent chemistry. Their story is told in flashbacks, which I could have used less of, but it works.

The rest of the cast and characters is great. Jodie Foster is chilling as Delacourt, Elysium's top dog, and she steals the show here. She isn't present in too many scenes, but when she is, the spotlight is on her. Foster has done a great job of playing a convincing rich leader, and even evokes traits found in today's headlining politicians. Also good was Sharlto Copley as Kruger, a ruthless warlord-esque character hired by Delacourt. Copley is brutal, and even though he never evolves from ruthless killing machine, he is still a huge force to be reckoned with.

Visually, Elysium is stunning. Earth is a horrifying depiction of the future, think Wall-E but worse. Elysium is gorgeous, a planet with its own walls carved out in the shape of a circle. There are some phenomenal shots here, and the cinematography is top-notch.

Elysium has all the workings for a sci-fi hit. All things considered, it has a good set-up and premise, but Blomkamp never explores the world to its full potential. It does just enough to keep you interested, but not enough to keep you remembering it long after the credits roll.
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