Friday, January 30, 2015

[Review] Song One

Anne Hathaway and Johnny Flynn star in this music-driven, down-to-earth drama that is in the vein of Once and Begin Again, but closer in story to 2013's The Broken Circle Breakdown.

Franny (Hathaway), a traveling PHD student, learns that her estranged younger brother, Henry (Ben Rosenfield of Boardwalk Empire) is in a coma after getting hit by a car. One night, she ends up reading through his journal and finds a concert ticket for a singer-songwriter named James Forester (Henry's favorite artist), played by actual singer-songwriter Johnny Flynn. After the show, Franny approaches James and hesitatingly tells the story about her brother, even though she figures he probably hears this stuff all the time. Much to her surprise, James shows up at the hospital to visit the next day. Franny and James start hanging out, and what follows is a romance, a path of wish fulfillment & attempting to make amends, and a trial of the way music can connect and move us.

While the narrative starts feeling a bit thin as the film plucks along, and the love story itself is very typical, the music aspect is consistently great--from the full live performances to the intimate acoustic clips. Jenny Lewis and Jonathan Rice produced this cohesive collection of sweet and accessible folk songs that all come off as very genuine. Sharon Van Etten (!) even makes an appearance. And Anne Hathaway and Johnny Flynn are both really solid in their understated roles.

When it comes to Song One, the film is likeable, albeit forgettable. But the soundtrack is one that stays.


Thursday, January 29, 2015

[Review] Predestination

Amidst Ethan Hawke's award season success for Boyhood, comes Predestination--a brainy and slightly campy sci-fi thriller. This VOD and slim theater release is worth a watch. Or two.

After some opening flashbacks (or are they flashforwards?), we're introduced to the anchoring frame of the film which takes place, yes--at a dingy bar in New York. Bartender (Hawke) meets John (Sarah Snook), formerly known as Jane. John gives his very interesting life story--from his abandonment at an orphanage, to his early experiences with gender dysphoria, to his training with secret space programs. Then, the Bartender reveals his actual profession as a Temporal Agent--or a time-traveling police officer that prevents crimes before they take place. And what we have here is an entertaining combination of Minority Report, Looper, and Christopher Nolan's latest, Interstellar.

The twisty story is actually somewhat predictable, but that doesn't necessarily detract from its overall intrigue, and it still manages to be a bit of a mindfuck. Predestination presents an ambitiously warped tale, but the film never feels like it's in over its head. It's actually easier to follow than expected, which allows you to sit back and enjoy the ride without having to do much head-scratching. Last month, Ethan Hawke stopped by Sway in the Morning while promoting the film and said the entire crew put together an intricate web of storyboard and timelines in order to make sure the narrative was as tight as can be without any major flaws or plot holes. And they seem to have executed it well.

Even though I wasn't as hot on last year's Snowpiercer as most, I liken this film to it in that they're both freshly high-concept sci-fi with smaller platforms despite possessing the accessibility of blockbusters. Sarah Snook gives a show-stealing performance here, and I expect to see big things from her in the future. The directing duo that are booked as The Spierig Brothers are ones to keep an eye on considering such genre fare (their previous films involved zombies and vampires), as they've made leaps with this picture.

Seek out this film if you can, and don't blink.


Wednesday, January 28, 2015

[Review] Mortdecai

Mortdecai (Johnny Depp) is a swindling art dealer, a renaissance man (sort of), and a freewheeling fool. He flaunts a ravishingly curled mustache, which his clever wife (Gwyneth Paltrow) absolutely despises. He also has a badass, bend-over-backwards "manservant" who essentially keeps him alive.

There's a plot here that revolves around a stolen painting, but the filmmakers don't seem too concerned about creating an intriguing nor entertaining mystery. This thread of the film is quite unremarkable, but it's all the other antics that make this January comedy a surprisingly enjoyable, and better-than-expected excursion.

Mortdecai is actually best when viewed as an extended sitcom/farcical adventure episode. The tone is completely eccentric, similar to last year's Jude Law-starring Dom Hemingway. Early on, there are some delightfully awkward scenes between Mortdecai and the police inspector (a fitting role for Ewan McGregor). The oddball dialogue blends the posh with the toilet humor, which almost makes the film the equivalent of a feature-length Poo-Pourri ad. The script is filled with running jokes about Mortdecai's mustache, the number of times he's accidentally shot his manservant, and his sympathetic gag reflex (a meta-gag, if you will).

The character of Mortdecai comes off as more of an obnoxious scumbag in the trailer, but he's notably likable and vulnerable in the film. Depp embodies him with an endearing goofiness. He certainly carries the film--in fact, the scenes where he isn't present are nearly unbearable. This comes during a long string of post-Jack Sparrow roles that mix smoothness with quirkiness. It's an obvious Depp role, but it's to the point where it's almost too comfortable. He definitely does it well, but I'm looking forward to seeing him switch things up a bit in this year's upcoming Black Mass (where he'll play Whitey Bulger next to co-star Benedict Cumberbatch under the direction of Crazy Heart and Out of the Furnace helmer).

By no means is Mortdecai an esteemed piece of cinema, but it definitely has a pungent style.


Tuesday, January 27, 2015

[Review] Leviathan

Not to be confused with 2013's documentary of the same name, Leviathan is a Russian small-town drama loosely inspired by the book of Job from the bible. In a way, Leviathan feels like a spiritual cousin to the recent Winter Sleep, but thankfully it isn't quite as stagnant and tedious.

Set in a peninsula by the Barents Sea, the film revolves around a guy named Kolia (Alexei Serebriakov) and his hectic battle to keep his property from being bought by the city's vastly crooked mayor. The narrative thoroughly explores the general and wide-ranging problems that occur when power is corrupted on multiple levels.

It's all undeniably bleak. This is the sort of film where nothing good comes out of anything. People get screwed. Everyone cheats. Morals are twisted. Despite its gloomy tone, the film brings in the type of tragic and satirical humor that points to how relentlessly messed up everything is, and sometimes all you can do is deliriously laugh at it. These constantly stark outings are difficult to swallow in one sitting, and mileage will certainly vary. The sedate pacing, detail-heavy dialogue, and lack of connection from the cold characters makes this less than engrossing for the most part.

In Leviathan, the sun is always obscured by clouds. The imagery is striking, especially a slideshow-like sequence of the shores near the conclusion. Just like the tide, the story never fully settles. In fact, it ends even more unsettled than when it began.


Monday, January 26, 2015

[Review] Still Alice

Julianne Moore, Alec Baldwin, and Kristen Stewart are family in Still Alice (based on a novel of the same name), an indie drama about a woman coping with a very rare, extremely early onset Alzheimer's disease.

Alice (Moore) is a linguistics professor at Columbia. She's starting to forget words during speeches and getting lost during her jogs around the city. After she visits a neurologist, she finds out that the mishaps are more than just memory lapses. She struggles to break the news to her husband (Baldwin), as well as her three kids, especially because the disease has hereditary potential.

As you might've already guessed, this is a downer of a film, but it's executed with careful rigor. The story unfolds with a natural poignancy, and the script explores all of the difficult situations Alice faces as she does her best to cope with the disease. We see her mental capacity deteriorate before our eyes, and there are some absolutely crushing scenes, but even though it's often a depressing viewing, it has a number of bright moments to give it balance.

Julianne Moore's performance is superbly convincing. She gives full dimension to the character and is pitch-perfect at every turning point. It wouldn't be surprising if her name gets read during the Oscars. Alec Baldwin is solid and restrained in one of the more serious and compassionate roles he's been in. And after breaking free from Twilight, Kristen Stewart continues to prove to be a genuinely great actress with the indie streak she's been on.

Still Alice doesn't do much to differentiate itself from other films of this subject. It's very similar to Away From Her, it isn't as inventive as Robot & Frank, and it won't be the cult tearjerker that is The Notebook, but it's still a deeply moving examination of a disease that causes so much loss.


Friday, January 23, 2015

[Review] The Wedding Ringer

It seems like the previews for The Wedding Ringer have been playing for ages, but that partially could be because you didn't realize it was a different movie from The Five-Year Engagement and Best Man Holiday

Things get off to a rough start when the Black Eyed Peas' "I Gotta Feeling" rings in during the opening credits (although the musical cues are later redeemed during a montage when the underrated buddy anthem, "Fall Back Down" by Rancid plays). Anyway, Doug (Josh Gad) is getting married to Gretchen (Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting), and he can't find anyone that wants to be his Best Man, because he doesn't have one friend to his name. This is where Jimmy (Kevin Hart) comes in. He heads his own business--a "Best Man for hire" gig, and he's an expert at running through the motions and all the necessary tactics to pull off something like this. His main rule guarantees no emotional attachments with his clients, but we all know these two are going to bro it out eventually.

A glaring problem from the get-go is that there's no chemistry between Doug and Gretchen. Their relationship is just never very believable, which, ya know, is usually pretty important if people are getting married (even on the big screen... especially on the big screen). And Gretchen must be incredibly oblivious if she hasn't been able to catch onto Doug's constant lies about having friends.

Kevin Hart is a charismatic screen presence, but the script here is heavily lacking and just really isn't funny. A lot of the dialogue is the equivalent of an amateur comedian failing on stage. The asinine jokes mostly entail rudimentary stereotypes and bottom-of-the-barrel gags. Even the blatant attempts at "heartfelt" moments fall flat, for the most part. Any other amount of satisfaction will depend on how much you enjoy watching people make wedding plans. Ain't nobody got time for that.


Thursday, January 22, 2015

[Review] Winter Sleep

Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Turkish drama Winter Sleep is the latest Palme d'Or winner at Cannes. This is either good news or bad news for most audiences, but I'm fairly sure that this film could put even the most dedicated and patient of cinephiles into a coma of boredom. 

The molasses-moving narrative entails Aydin (Haluk Bilginer), a former actor who runs a small hotel in a section of Anatolia, and his complex relationships with his wife, Nihal (Melisa Sozen), and the rest of the townspeople. It's an attention-testing 196 minute endurance procedure that actually seems triple its length. I always say, with films of this nature, the length itself isn't always the problem--it's what fills that length. And this painfully dull seat-squirmer is an absolute chore to get through.

The film explores class politics in a very deliberate fashion, stretched across a plodding sprawl that contains pages and pages of excessive dialogue about taxes and community. And just when you think the folks are ready to wrap up a talky scene, they keep on going. After a while, it doesn't even feel like you're watching a film anymore. Instead, it feels like you're trapped in a perpetual office meeting with a bunch of frustrating strangers. A few of the individual conversations seem to last longer than some feature-length films. It's all so distant and emotionless. And there's an early shot when the camera zooms into Aydin's head and the screen pitches to black and fades into the title card, as if we're trying to get inside of it but can't.

There's no questioning that the director captures some vivid and beautifully stark shots, both within the unique landscapes and architecture. Nearly every frame is pretty stunning. But that isn't enough. If the cinematography didn't look so nice, I'd say this is an utter and sloggy waste. Another thing that is for sure--the film's title is fitting in more ways than one.


Wednesday, January 21, 2015

[Review] Paddington

I'll be honest--I was completely unfamiliar with the beloved children's story character, Paddington, aside from seeing the stuffed animals on toy shelves when I was younger. What I do know is--this CGI & live action cinematic telling of the cuddly bear is as charming as can be.

Paddington (voiced by Ben Wishaw) lives with his family in a forest in Peru. Early on, their home gets pulverized by an earthquake, and Paddington relocates to London. He eventually gets (temporarily) adopted into a human family, much to the dismay of Mr. Brown (Hugh Bonneville), the cautious father in the household. Pretty soon, the fish-out-of-water story ensues. But of course, bear-out-of-forest story is more fitting. The little bit of crisis arises when we learn that a villain taxidermist (played by Nicole Kidman) is tracking him down for her collection of rarities.

The previews might lead you to believe that this is a typical throwaway family-friendly film getting dumped into January, but that certainly isn't the case. I mean, it's VERY friendly, but it certainly isn't a throwaway. The story smears on plenty of sweet humor, warm cleverness, and lots of care. And surprisingly, it's also really visually creative--from its candy-coated colors to its cozy set designs. And there are actually some nifty and whimsy Wes Anderson-esque tricks tossed in.

Paddington is a fuzzy tale of belonging, and it should be a joy for all ages. It's full of heart, and it's just hard not to like. If this film doesn't tug at your heart strings, I don't know what will.


Monday, January 19, 2015

[Review] Taken 3

Another year, another Taken movie. The poster's tag line says "It Ends Here" but that's probably a lie.

With such Neesian fare, you figure it's best to cut to the chase right away, but it isn't until after 20 minutes of banal setup, when Bryan (Neeson) arrives home to find his murdered ex-wife. And not only that, but he's also been framed as a suspect. He barely has time to process things before he's getting hunted down by police and cardboard men. What follows is a run-thru of typical stock and semi-suspense. Car tires screech across the highways, explosions explode, and there's a lot of talking on the phone.

The extreme quick cuts don't lend to the action sequences, and instead--they just give the film a patchy look of incoherence that might even provoke some eye strain. Forrest Whitaker takes role as a homicide investigator, and he never appears like he gives a damn about anything. It's almost as if he was in a hurry to finish up his scenes and get out of there. Everything in here is just so forgettable and underwhelming--a big blur of "we've seen all this before... and better." You'd get much more satisfaction out of any of the multiple police drama shows on network television.

Even last year's Non-Stop provided considerably more thrills and intrigue than Taken 3. This laborious flop is a sure indicator for Neeson to finally leave this franchise in the dust. Yes, this type of thing is his niche, but that doesn't mean he can't utilize his particular set of skills to better extent in quality. Here's hoping we'll eventually see more Neeson films like The Grey and last year's A Walk Among The Tombstones. Or even better--the "how has this not happened yet?" collaboration with Denzel Washington as The Equalizer, and maybe throw in John Wick for good measure.


Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Top 25 Films of 2014

Aw, here it goes...

#25. Godzilla
Director Gareth Edwards proves to be a strong force, and his contemporary imagining of this gargantuan reptile tale is full of technical prowess and careful pacing. Although the story doesn't really expound anything new conceptually, it manages to be more than just another try at resurrecting an iconic monster. The film pays homage to the original version, and it often recalls classics like Jurassic Park and Alien. There have been some complaints about Godzilla's lack of screen time, but the best monster movies always exercise restraint, which makes the creature all the more powerful when it's finally shown in all its roaring glory. Godzilla arrives when it wants to. When Godzilla steps onto the scene, it IS the climax. This film respects the beast.

#24. Inherent Vice
Always one for divisiveness, Paul Thomas Anderson returns with Inherent Vice, a trippy neon noir (yes, neon). Despite its deliberately confusing plotting around a muddled private eye investigation, the film manages to be an enthralling cinematic hoot. It's consistently interesting in its aesthetics, from the oversaturated colors and grainy realms, to PTA's skill at curating vivid shots. There's also a bunch of great soundtrack moments. The eccentric and stylized performances are all groovy, and the amusement comes from the weird and random things the characters do, along with the off-the-wall stuff that comes out of their mouths. The understanding of the plot is less essential and more essentially head-scratching. It's something that should be maddening, but all I could do was smirk.

#23. John Wick 
He's just had his wife, his puppy dog, and his Mustang taken away from him. John Wick is out for revenge, and he hasn't even bothered to change his blood-stained t-shirt yet. We all know that Hollywood has no recent shortage of action thrillers of the assassin variety. But John Wick stands alone. It has its own distinct identity. The premise delivers as much as you'd want it to, and more. The film also lets you breathe, but at the same time, there isn't a moment wasted. And most importantly... It's personal. 

#22. The Guest
After delivering last year's entertaining You're Next, Director Adam Wingard brings on The Guest, another clever and entrancing genre hybrid piece. It's as if Drive got into a car crash with Halloween. It all begins when a mysterious guy shows up at a family's door, and the rest is best kept a secret. But I sill say this: Shit gets insane. There's a lot packed into 90 minutes, but it never feels overcrowded, and none of it overstays its welcome. Although, the family might disagree.

#21. Ernest & Celestine
An unlikely friendship between a mouse and a bear forms in this profoundly cute French/Belgian import. It's a miniature and intimate tale, but the themes of tolerance and breaking boundaries are conveyed gently and effortlessly on a universal scale. The squiggly hand-drawn style animation gives the film the delightful look of a children's book coming to life, and the watercolor hues are alluring in every frame. Quiet and poetic in its approach, the soothing piano accompaniment is a perfect musical touch. Don't let anything stop you from seeing this wonderful film.

#20. Fury
1945 in Nazi occupied Germany. Within the stark settings and drab colors, this WWII film depicts the horrors of war as hell on earth, physically and mentally. "Wait 'til you see what men can do," Grady says. The brutal graphics are shown with immense, disheartening detail. Sometimes it's so intense that it might put knots in your stomach. The camerawork, often functioning from the close viewpoints of the characters, immerses you into the action as bullets fly and bombs explode. Brad Pitt gives an expectedly great performance as a tank commander. And even though it has a tough duty in living up to WWII films of the past, Fury still really sticks with you, and the final frame is one hell of a shot.

#19. Chef
A chef packs it all up and leaves behind his stuffy restaurant to set out across the country in a food truck. Of course, the film isn't just about cooking (even though there are numerous close-ups of delicious, sizzling food). It has some father/son bonding moments, and it brings in topics of handling criticism, bucking expectations, embracing creativity and doing what you love. It's a recipe that delivers a satisfying amount of humor and spirited doses of soul. It's hard to believe that such a gem basked under the radar, especially with a cast like Jon Favreau, Sofia Vergara, John Leguizamo, Scarlett Johansson, Olver Platt, Bobby Cannavale, Dustin Hoffman, and Robert Downey Jr. This feel-good comedy of tasty proportions is generally easygoing and it's incredibly low on conflict, but sometimes that comfort is exactly what one needs.

#18. A Most Violent Year
It isn't that easy to come across a great mob film at the cinema nowadays, but A Most Violent Year is that rare well-made crime drama. Amidst the hustle of New York City during the year 1981, Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain play a couple of lovers as well as shady "business" partners. The narrative is compelling and unpredictable, and the cinematography is drenched in shadows, aligning with brutal and conflicting themes on the American dream. The film draws a lot of influence from past mafia genre staples in an effective and inspired manner. It never comes off as overly derivative, and if one is making a mafia film in this day and age, why not refer to the greats?

#17. The Skeleton Twins

Saturday Night Live alums Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader star as estranged siblings in this affecting tragicomedy. Even though humor is often present and there are ravishingly timed jokes, The Skeleton Twins navigates some dark and sensitive places, and it's done with impressive rigor. The film is masterfully toned and emotionally raw, dealing with matters of mental illness as well as life's crushing complications and disappointments. Wiig and Hader give the best performances of their careers, embodying these characters with so much more than just flesh and bone.

#16. X-Men: Days of Future Past
This installment hinges on tricky time-travel leaps, and the cast of characters overflows, yet somehow it all manages to be miraculously fluid. The adroit execution of the story on all parts makes for a stealthily paced, multidimensional experience. Everything culminates in a peak of thrilling arcs and setpieces. Amidst all the dazzle, it's the grounded levels of humanity, developed character relationships, and historical context that drive the film and deepen the experience. There's an ever-present sense of urgency, and the total balance and purpose of every piece propels X-Men: Days of Future Past above the pitfalls of overkill.

#15. How To Train Your Dragon 2
How to Train Your Dragon 2 doesn't quite reach the lofty heights of the first one, but it totally renders itself as a remarkably worthwhile sequel, expanding the world and advancing the story in a natural and compelling way--while also retaining a lot of elements that made the first one so fantastic. The visuals are astonishing, and the sky scenes of Hiccup and Toothless cruising through the clouds (accompanied by the gorgeous musical score) are major highlights. The story even journeys to some unexpectedly somber lengths, launching up some poignancy and tons of heart.

#14. 22 Jump Street
It essentially has the same setup as its predecessor, but it's just as entertaining, bigger, and even more ridiculous. The college stereotypes are played into heavily, and the script hilariously attempts to reconcile with the PC police on several different occasions. 22 Jump Street fully administers the jocular bits, as well as running gags and stocks of quadruple-liners. Schmidt and Jenko's relationship becomes deeper as their gravitational bromance intensifies, reaching beyond the brolar system.

#13. Nightcrawler 
Jake Gyllenhaal goes full-on sociopath, delivering an impressively chilling performance as a crime scene photographer in Nightcrawler, a neo-noir thriller and sleek satire on journalism ethics. The film explores the strange and thought-provoking idea of making a living off of other people's violent and deadly mishaps, while also presenting a disturbing depiction of how the news media craves a drastic story. There are things in this film that probably shouldn't be zoomed in on, and there are lights flashed where they probably shouldn't be. Or should they?

#12. Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Director Alejandro González Iñárritu's latest is a strange film that might scare a lot of people away. It's an anti-superhero movie... movie of sorts, revolving around a washed up actor attempting to resurrect his career on Broadway. It's a comedy that's blacker than black. It's metaphysical and philosophical. It's both primitive and ingenious. It's bizarre and whimsical, yet hideously honest. At times it's ambiguous, and other times it's as clear as the sky. It's also a prime showcase for Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, and Emma Stone to all give Oscar-worthy performances. There were times when I seriously couldn't decide whether I liked it or not, but in the end, it won me over.

#11. Captain America: The Winter Soldier 
In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, our hero is welcomed into the 21st century with chaos. This Marvel adventure packs on the exhilarating, well-designed action, but the story firmly hinges on real world issues, making it equal parts conspiracy thriller, relevant commentary on surveillance in the digital age, and a plight for defending freedom. It just might be the most focused entry into Marvel's Avengers movie cannon.

#10. Top Five 
It's the black Birdman. The black Before Sunrise. Chris Rock does everything in this--writing, directing, and starring in this significantly timely passion project. The film revolves around a day in the life of fading comedian, Andre Allen. The film is serio-comic and semi-meta. There's soul-searching, along with meditations on the ideas of breaking one-dimensional molds, dealing with fame, keeping integrity, and handling change. It's a nuanced triumph on all parts, and it's the perfect platform for Chris Rock to wield his sometimes misunderstood brilliance. What's your Top Five?

#9. Obvious Child 
First-time Writer/Director Gillian Robespierre brings on Obvious Child, a wonderfully fresh and subversive romantic comedy about an amateur comedian who's just gotten pregnant from a one night stand. Jenny Slate is uproarious and Robespierre's script is lively, unfiltered, and efficient--bringing laugh after laugh, and piling on squirmy conflicts in a brisk 80-minute runtime. If you're in need of a comedy that is both daring and heartfelt, Obvious Child is the obvious choice.

#8. The Babadook
Jennifer Kent's awesomely titled Australian horror tale shakes the haunted house genre. The story revolves around a mother and her son as they try to ward off a creepy phantom intruder in their home. It's one of the more visually arresting horror films in recent memory, but the primal story at the center is what really captures you. The characters are well-developed and the narrative is chilling in tone, yet warm at its heart. It taps into those childlike fears (being afraid of the dark, checking under beds, and opening closet doors), as well as parental worries. It skillfully mixes horror with poignancy and grief, and there's a concentration on what lurks just beneath the darkness. The Babadook is allegorical, representing a deeper terror that is more grounded in reality than we'd like it to be. It's a nightmare that might not ever leave, and you can only do your best to keep it at bay.

#7. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Opening up about a decade after where Rise left off, Caesar is now caught between a hostile standoff as internal conflicts on both sides render the harmony as elusive. The film spends a lot more time developing the dimensions of the apes, rather than the humans. And that's probably for the best, because the apes deserve to be the stars this time around. The battle sequences pack a punch because of the motives driving them, our investments into the characters, the intense stakes, and the stellar camerawork. Moral complexities arise and the template possesses all the makings of a Greek tragedy, but with sci-fi grandeur, gun-toting apes on horseback, and less poetic language. 

#6. Whiplash 
The conflict crashes and bangs in Whiplash, a film about the extreme lengths of dedication and competition. It focuses on a young jazz drummer (Miles Teller) and his ruthless perfectionist teacher (J.K. Simmons)--the type of instructor that makes you nervous for the other characters whenever he walks into a room. It all unfolds like a hostile sports movie, as Neman practices until his forehead sweat drips into the bloody crevices between his fingers. Simmons and Teller give two magnificent performances and engage in some of the most heated head-to-head scenes of the year--an element that this year's Foxcatcher could've benefited from. Within the lively editing and confrontational direction, the tension builds and eventually hits the fan in an energetic crescendo.

#5. Gone Girl
David Fincher's latest is cemented into the upper echelon of contemporary mystery/suspense extravaganzas. The narrative doesn't just gradually escalate with subtle nuances, and it doesn't just stack on twists, misdirections, and reversals--it packs fucking wallops. Its slyly humorous and cynical dialogue, interesting characters, and WTF story warrant immense intrigue at every turn. And aside from exploring the darkest corners of a marriage gone wrong--way wrong, it's also a strenuous exercise in multiple methods of conning and deception. Gone Girl gives a whole new meaning to the phrase, "There's two sides to every story." There's probably a lot more than that.

#4. The Grand Budapest Hotel 
The Grand Budapest Hotel is very much like a multi-layered pastry, visually and storywise. It's concocted with both sweetness and tartness--a constant swirl of melancholy and comic idiosyncrasy. It revolves around Gustave H (Ralph Fiennes), the eccentric hotel concierge, and Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori), the new deadpan Lobby Boy, whom Gustave takes under his wing. A chain of events involving a death will, a murder accusation, and a stolen painting causes all hell break loose. It's a completely unique viewing experience, and technically, it's Wes Anderson's most Wes Anderson-y film thus far. “You see? There are glimpses of decency in this slaughterhouse that we used to call humanity, and what we aim to provide in our simple, humble, dignified… oh, fuck it.”

#3. The Hobbit: The Battle of The Five Armies
The journey comes to a rousing end in Peter Jackson's final Middle Earth endeavor. This one is shorter, faster paced, and more action oriented than the previous Hobbit installments. The war breaks out in brilliantly orchestrated chaos. Jackson's flair for fantasy setpieces is unrivaled, and the sprawling scope of the compositions shouldn't be taken for granted. All of the intimate, emotional beats culminate as well. In a world of dwarves, elves, and wizards, Jackson sure knows how to bring out the human elements of friendship, love, and internal dynamics within each and every one of the forefront characters. With all of that, there's definitely a handful tear-jerking farewells. Yes, the film is the back end of a full story, but it's a very entertaining back end. Yes, at times it's a little cartoony, yet it greatly captures the essence of Tolkien's novel. And yes, this trilogy was doomed to never match the phenomenal excellence of The Lord of the Rings and its potential "greatest films of all time" discussion, but that doesn't mean that The Hobbit wasn't another story worth telling. I'm thrilled that we could go there and back again.

#2. The LEGO Movie 
The biggest surprise of 2014. When The LEGO Movie arrived in theaters in all of its vibrant and snappy glory, it proved to be one of the best animated films of the last 10 years, and it accomplished the difficult task of greatly satisfying both kids and adults. The unique and glitchy animation provides a feast of color and texture that utilizes every speck of frame, and the art design takes full advantage of the LEGO universe. No LEGO is left behind. Each detail is charmingly vivid; if you look close enough you can see fingerprints and scuff marks on the pieces. It all manages to be busy and eye-popping without being overwhelming. While the story is a fittingly fast-paced free-flow of ideas, the action sequences are packed tightly and all of the jokes connect with precise timing. The script is stacked with joyous slapstick, as well as witty and referential humor, making it a fun and high-powered comedy on all fronts. The LEGO Movie is an unlikely hero tale at the center, but it's also more substantive and intricate than expected--working as a postmodern jumble of cinematic icons, a deftly aware culmination of blockbuster tropes, and a sly critique of consumer culture. It delivers a genuinely heartfelt message that embraces imagination and deconstructs the confines of society. Emmet's journey of self-discovery is profound and resonant, and there's a twist that might leave a lump in your throat. Everything is awesome about The LEGO Movie.

#1. Guardians of the Galaxy 
The Guardians of the Galaxy (that's what they call themselves) are an odd group of misfits that embark on a mission involving a powerful orb--with hopes to save the universe. It's yet another addition to the Marvel movie cannon, and it's only fitting that it seemed to be the underdog--the lesser known story of the bunch. In a change of pace, there's an immediately zany and upbeat tone that even unleashes some B-movie antics and tongue-in-cheek camp. The soundtrack features an awesome mix of 70's classics that really pop against the interstellar, futuristic setting (and the songs even hold a bit of weight within the narrative). Guardians is a downright fun time, and it's ecstatic to be here.

The adventure displays more visual splendor than any other Marvel film, especially since the entire thing takes place in the cosmos. The spunky production design, including the creative make-up and costumes, often recall Star Wars and Star Trek, and there's an abundance of nifty gadgets on board. The film flaunts the usual big and colorful action sequences, but this particular entry stands out from other Marvel cinematic adventures because it's easily the funniest and most heartfelt. Stuffed with hilarious banter, gags ("I am Groot!"), and slapstick, the film provokes plenty of stomach-ticklers.

The welcomed sentimentality materializes from Star Lord's backstory with his mother, as well as the dynamic relationships within the group of Guardians. Part of the hype and allure of The Avengers is the fact that it's an ensemble of iconic characters all together on screen (at the same damn time), but those larger-than-life superheroes don't really possess the endearing chemistry of these rag-tags. I mean, there's a raccoon and a tree stump here, and they generate significantly more affinity and intrigue. The story also delivers some unexpected bursts of emotion and surprising scenes of beauty--an attribute that rarely occurs in past Marvel movies.

I am Groot. (Guardians of the Galaxy renders itself as a memorable standalone piece within the Marvel universe. You're not just going to rush on to the next installment--you'll want to rush back to the beginning of this one.)

2014 was a year when Boyhood and Under The Skin garnered almost unanimous praise among arthouse crowds. And I respect those films (one more than the other), but it's been movies like Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, The Hobbit: The Battle of The Five Armies, The LEGO Movie, and Guardians of the Galaxy that have proven why cinema is such a stunning medium, while also reminding us that the very reasons for its origins were based around creating versatile magic that couldn't be captured anywhere else. These films are purveyors of that magic.

- Zach

Monday, January 12, 2015

[Review] A Most Violent Year

As I mentioned in my review of 2014's solid The Drop, it isn't that easy to come across a great mob film at the cinema nowadays. A lot of the best stuff of this ilk moved to television with top-notch series like "Breaking Bad" and "Boardwalk Empire". J.C. Chandor helms as writer/director for A Most Violent Year, a rare well-made crime drama that is worth a trip to the theaters.

Amidst the hustle of New York City during the year 1981, Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) and Anna Morales (Jessica Chastain) are a couple of lovers as well as shady "business" partners. The narrative revolves around the two conducting their deals in organized crime, whether it's behind-the-scenes scheming and scamming, or out-in-the-open physical confrontations (hence, the Violence).

The story is compelling and unpredictable, as the plot stands alone as an intriguing suspense tale. The cinematography is drenched in shadows, aligning with brutal and conflicting themes on the American dream. Albert Brooks lends a solid supporting role, and David Oyelowo (currently experiencing much success for his stellar performance as Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma) makes a few appearances. Jessica Chastain continues to prove that she's a chameleon, as she's shown a diverse range in a multitude of roles just within the past couple of years.

A Most Violent Year draws a lot of influence from past mafia staples in an effective and inspired manner. The opening is reminiscent of "The Sopranos" credit sequence, displaying the grit of the city. It hearkens to The Godfather--from its prestige and pacing, to its low-key musical score of horns. Oscar Isaac undoubtedly channels Al Pacino's Michael Corleone--soft spoken and almost listless, but with a lot of ruthless authority hiding in there. It never comes off as overly derivative. And if you're making a mafia film at this day and age, why not refer to the greats?


Sunday, January 11, 2015

[Review] American Sniper

Bradley Cooper plays a sniper in Clint Eastwood's latest (and 37th) directorial effort. American Sniper is based on the late Chris Kyle's bestselling autobiography of the same name, which details his tours in Iraq as a Navy SEAL. He received the title of the most lethal sniper in U.S. military history.

The chilling, tense, and 'close-up' & personal wartime sequences interweave with Kyle's life preceding his deployment--his childhood, his marriage, his fatherhood, and his eventual experiences with PTSD after coming home. This strategy fleshes out the story and adds even more heft. Eastwood employs some no nonsense direction (save for one slow-motion bullet sequence), creating a gritty realism in the vein of The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty, and Lone Survivor.

There's been some controversy regarding the film's accuracy in its depiction of Chris Kyle, and whether or not the character in the movie is really representative of his ideals. But either way, American Sniper, when taken as a standalone piece of cinema, is a harrowing and compelling tale of a conflicted soldier battling more wars than one. Bradley Cooper adds another impressively serious performance to his resume--his eyes growing wearier with each pull of the trigger.


Saturday, January 10, 2015

[Review] Selma

It's surprising that it took this long, but here's a feature-length film depicting Martin Luther King Jr. and his tumultuous plight during the Civil Rights Movement, specifically in 1965 during the marches from Selma to Montgomery. And it's a good one.

After directing a couple of indies (I Will Follow, Middle of Nowhere), Ava DuVernay jumps to a larger stage with Selma, and she demonstrates her skillful knack in rendering the smaller, intimate moments just as powerful as the large ones--from perspectives of both King and the people. David Oyelowo is impressively stoic, as well as vulnerable behind the scenes in his portrayal of King. Oprah is quietly devastating in her few moments of screentime during a couple of heartbreaking scenes.

The film is generally well-crafted in all aspects, and it's an important re-creation piece done right. But the cinematic conundrum here, is that of many biopics and well-documented period pieces of such magnitude--you know the story so well that you're always aware of exactly what you're in for. So, the power comes less from the actual film, and more from the thought of the real-life events and King's spoken words, which makes the film a fully competent and timely reminder of the vital ideals displayed.

Historical detail controversies aside (doesn't it happen with every historical pic?), Selma is a significantly harrowing and moving film based on a time in which the echoes can still be heard today.


Friday, January 9, 2015

[Review] Inherent Vice

Paul Thomas Anderson's perplexing last film, The Master, provoked plenty of indifference outside of its superb performances. Now, PTA returns with Inherent Vice, a trippy neon noir (yes, neon). It's another divisive one, due to its incoherent plotting and deliberate confusion. However, even if you don't know exactly what's going on, it's consistently entertaining, funny, and nice to look at.

Late 70s LA. Amidst the oversaturated colors and grainy realm, we meet Doc--a hippy private eye.
He engages in a series of entangling cases involving a murder extortion plot and a bunch of other stuff. Now I'm gonna be fully honest--I got lost. And I'm probably not the only one. And it's probably supposed to be that way. The good thing is that it isn't confounding in that floaty impressionistic sort of way, it's more-so that the events collide and curve in ways that are difficult to make sense of.

That said, I was enthralled with what I could grasp onto. It's visually interesting, as PTA has always been skillful at curating vivid shots. The eccentric and stylized performances (Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Katherine Waterston, Reese Witherspoon, Benicio Del Toro) are all pretty groovy. Some of the hilarity comes from the weird and random things the characters do, along with the off-the-wall stuff that comes out of their mouths. PTA has created one of those unique cinematic experiences populated with strange situations and people, and it manages manages to be more enduring than off-putting. There's also some fun soundtrack moments throughout the duration.

Consider Inherent Vice as the odd, rejected stoner and surfy cousin of 2013's American Hustle. Instead of being twisty yet mostly cohesive, the understanding of the plot is less essential and more essentially head-scratching. It's something that should be maddening, but all I could do was smirk.


Friday, January 2, 2015

8 Cool & Fascinating Documentaries from 2014

Yo! You should check out these great 2014 documentaries...

12 O'Clock Boys
Some say they terrorize the city, others say it's a positive form of escapism. 12 O'Clock Boys is a gripping look into an expanding group of dirt bike enthusiasts who ride through the city streets of West Baltimore, often performing dangerous stunts. It offers a portrait of city and hints at the socioeconomic issues--all framed through the eyes of a young kid trying to find his way though everything. The visuals are beautifully rendered, from the slow-motion stunt sequences to the sunny day color pallet. It's briskly paced, and the frenetic editing intently captures the active neighborhoods.

Jodorowsky's Dune
This documentary is the making-of Jodorosky's Dune, a film which never actually completed, despite its lore-ish hype and game-changing ambitions. It's an ode to the madness of artistic freedom, the height of dreams and lows of disappointment. There's a breathtaking sequence that shows the influence that Jodorowsky's Dune has had on sci-fi films throughout the past few decades, as a lot of his team carried their same ideas into future endeavors. It's hard to argue with the project's "The greatest film never made" title. But then again, its spirit seems to be on screen all the time.

Mistaken For Strangers
Tom, the slacker brother of Matt Berninger - lead singer of acclaimed indie-rock band The National, sets out to make a rock-doc that doesn't actually turn out to be a rock-doc. While there's still a fair amount of live clips and behind-the-stage views of band, the core of the film is about two brothers on divergent paths. The fraternal dynamics elevate this doc to genuinely heartfelt territory, and it also functions as a doc within a doc, which adds a meta element that expounds the creative process. Mistaken For Strangers is a wonderfully layered project, and it definitely deserves some attention.

A Brony Tale
In case you aren't familiar, a 'Brony' is generally a male anywhere from age 14 to 57 who is a fanatic of the cartoon series "My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic". They religiously watch the show, they buy the toys, and they even dress up as the pony characters sometimes. Yes, this thing really exists, and it's a considerably rampant phenomenon and a perplexing subculture to us outsiders. A Brony Tale takes an affectionate and surprisingly insightful gander into this fringe craze. 

No No: A Dockumentary
You might've seen the four-minute animated clip that details the bizarre and amusing story of MLB pitcher, Dock Ellis, throwing a no-hitter... while on LSD. Well, here is the full fledged documentary about the man, the myth, the legend. With the esteem, style, and appreciative nature of an ESPN 30 for 30 feature, this dock is a fittingly funky and humorous viewing that delves further into the rebellious character and his controversial antics that shook up the league. It all results in an unexpectedly emotional conclusion.

 Rich Hill
Rich Hill is a depressing, yet hopeful portrait of poverty in rural America. The camera follows around the daily endeavors of Andrew, Harley, and Appachey--three teenagers living in a beaten-down Missouri town. Their houses are on the verge of crumbling, the appliances don't work, and the backyards look like junkyards. The ironically titled Rich Hill is painfully bittersweet. Sweet--because through all the rough times, Andrew, Harley, and Appachey all manage to find joy, clinging to the desire of a better life. Bitter--because it's not a certain thing if they'll ever get one.

Nas: Time Is Illmatic
Just in time for the 20th anniversary, this documentary takes an in-depth look into the making of Nas' classic Illmatic album and what it meant in the hip-hop world and the streets, as well as its social and political impact. Including overarching narration from Nas himself, along with interviews with his family, teachers and other peers, the film takes on a highly autobiographical tone. It demonstrates just exactly how much Nas' upbringing, worldview, and environment informed his powerful music, and just how sharply Illmatic captured the zeitgeist. This well-crafted doc is essential for hip-hop fans.

Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon
Directed by Mike Myers, this doc tells the story of Shep Gordon, the eccentric manager of some of the biggest names in Hollywood. It starts with his random hiring by Alice Cooper and details how his crazy ideas and unprofessionalism led to insane success. The film unleashes countless anecdotes and amusing insider stories from Shep and lots of diverse stars. It's all so lively and incredibly watchable. And amidst all the glamor, sex, drugs & rock 'n' roll, it also shows Shep's warm side.

Life Itself
A tribute to "The Soldier of Cinema", Life Itself  reflects all the way back from Roger Ebert's early flourishes as a high school newspaper editor - to his rise to the top of the film criticism world, and why he became who he was. It's stocked with plenty of great photos, footage, and interviews, going beyond his love of movies and his way with words. The doc provides personal details, including his bouts with alcoholism, his marriage with Chaz, and his love/hate rivalry with Sisco. The interspersed footage of Ebert's last five months during his battle with cancer adds a deeply felt poignancy. Moving, funny, and inspiring, this isn't just about movies and reviews, but also, well, life itself.

- Zach