Friday, December 19, 2014

Gyllenhaal Gives His Best Performance Yet in "Nightcrawler"

*This is another of those short year-end reviews.


Jake Gyllenhaal has quietly become one of the most interesting actors working today. Everyone wants to praise McConaughey (myself included), but Gyllenhaal has rebranded himself as well, recently. The reason this isn't as noticeable is because he still churned out great movies here and there while dabbling with big-budget fluff. His isn't the rom-com to Oscar glory road. It's more like Gyllenhaal took the occasional pit stop (paycheck) on his way to greatness (no Oscar yet, but he will have one soon if he keeps this up). Gyllenhaal was never pigeonholed like McConaughey was in rom-com land, but he did go through an everyman/hero phase in films like The Day After Tomorrow, Prince of Persia, and Source Code (by the way, I'm a big fan of Source Code, but his character is pretty normal). Now, even when he's playing what could a plain part (like in Prisoners), he's amping it up with little quirks that make the character more watchable. With Nightcrawler, Gyllenhaal has finally found a role that is pure character study, and he truly shines in it.

Nightcrawler is about the seedy subculture of cameramen chasing after shocking footage for local news stations. Louis Bloom (Gyllenhaal) stumbles across this culture and sees an opportunity. It's set up from the beginning that Louis is off-balanced, and this profession completely fits his personality. What follows is his rise to "fame" in which he shows sociopathic disregard for fellow humans. 

I don't want to dwell on the story of Nightcrawler because I didn't find it nearly as compelling as Gyllenhaal's performance. Sure, it has something to say about our culture and all that, but I don't really see anything presented here that we don't already realize. This isn't blowing the lid off of sensational journalism. If anything, it even feels dated because the morning news is hardly something people care about anymore. It's an interesting world and all, but I don't think anyone needs to be told that people who glory in the injury and death of others are horrible. I feel like we all know that. My lack of engagement in the story isn't a fault, however, because the film is more interested in showing us the character of Louis Bloom than it is in teaching a lesson about society. Bloom is the story here, not morning news shows.

Gyllenhaal has always been able to portray slightly off-balanced characters, but he really inhabits this one. Louis Bloom is a constant opportunist, and you can see that in Gyllenhaal's crazed eyes. It's a great performance from the small moments (reprimanding an assistant) to the big ones (going full crazy in the mirror). What makes it truly great is that it is entertaining. This is a darkly hilarious film, and Gyllenhaal's deadpan delivery of some creepy dialogue is perfect. For instance, he shifts from talking business to his (coerced) relationship with Rene Russo instantly and without a change in tone. Sure, it's a disturbing portrait of a troubled man, but it's hard to deny that it isn't attempting to be funny many times. It's just refreshing to see a dark character study that has some humor to it instead of dwelling on misery. By the way, my favorite line from Louis has to be: "What if my problem wasn't that I don't understand people, but that I don't like them?"

This is possibly Gyllenhaal's best performance yet. Some think it might get him an Oscar nomination (it hasn't been mentioned all that much, so I doubt that it will unfortunately), and it truly deserves some attention. At the very least it has shown just how good Gyllenhaal can be. Something tells me we'll be seeing more and more work like this from him in the coming years.

Nightcrawler receives a:

"Under the Skin" Will Get...Well...Under Your Skin...

*This is going to be a relatively short review. These short review will be more and more common as I try to weigh in on as many films as possible at the end of the year.

Under the Skin

I remember first reading about Under the Skin a few months ago thinking that it looked like a more serious version of Species. Then I forgot about it until I received a screener. This is definitely different, and much better, than Species.

Under the Skin is probably most notable for its A-list star, Scarlett Johannson. It's notable because this by far the weirdest movie she's ever done, and she made it at the height of her Marvel popularity. This is just a cool move for Johannson, and it made me respect her as actress even more. I've always felt that her Black Widow character is kind of worthless (though she does get more attention in the Cap sequel) from an acting standpoint. It's still primarily a physical performance. Her role in Under the Skin, while still physical (her beautiful appearance is important) is much more nuanced than anything she has done lately.

Johansson's performance is different because she's playing an alien that lures men to her home/weird black void for unclear, but certainly evil purposes. While most alien-themed films would be much more straightforward, this film is told from Johannson's perspective. So she knows what she's doing and why, but there's no reason for her character to announce it. We just have to figure it out. Johannson's performance is basically a series of reactions to the world around her as she carries out her nefarious job. Her performance early on is chilly, to say the least, yet she somehow evokes sympathy in the latter half of the film when her character changes. But back to that weird black void I mentioned.

Under the Skin is like a nightmare, and I mean that as a compliment. From the dead-eyed huntress Johansson plays to the creepy plot to the unsettling music, this film creates and sustains mood like few other films. Writer/director Jonathan Glazer, adapting from the much more straightforward book by Michael Faber, definitely had a vision for this film. Visually, it's striking and memorable, but it's the score by Mica Levi that stuck with me. The music is reminiscent of theremin music from the sci-fi films of the '50s. Normally, such music would just be cheesy, but it is tweaked here enough that it sticks with you long after the film is over. 

So if you're looking for one of the most unnerving, strange movies of the year, check out Under the Skin (it's available on Amazon Prime Instant at the moment). 

Under the Skin receives a:

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Casting, Religion, and the Inevitable Director's Cut: A Tentative Review of "Exodus: Gods and Kings"

Exodus: Gods and Kings
There are three issues that need to be addressed immediately for Exodus: Gods and Kings. First, the "controversy" over the cast. Many have cried foul about white actors and actresses like Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, Sigourney Weaver, Aaron Paul, John Turturro, and Ben Kingsley (by the way, I had no clue Weaver, Paul, and Turturro were in this until they showed up onscreen) playing Middle Eastern characters. Director Ridley Scott has been generally criticized for responding to the casting saying that (and I'm paraphrasing) a film this expensive could not be made with lesser known middle eastern actors. Now I'm all for realism in movies, and yes, the casting is distracting at times (most notably Australian Joel Edgerton as an Egyptian pharaoh), but some things can't, or shouldn't, be helped. This strikes me as another pointless thing to be outraged about, and it gives moviegoers and critics alike an easy reason to bash the film. When you think about it, however, it's hypocritical to condemn a movie for unrealistic casting because the film world is based on unreality. Where do we stop? How about the fact that all the characters speak English, a language that didn't exist back then? Or what about the use of computer effects? The plagues of the Bible were not computer generated! You see my point. It's not as if someone suffered because of the casting of this movie, and if it really bothers you that much, just don't watch it. As for me, the casting definitely seemed odd at first, but by the end I had accepted each actor in their role.

The second issue that must be addressed is religion. As with Noah, the filmmakers have not created a word-for-word faithful adaptation from the Bible. This is an interpretation of the story. The screenwriters (Steven Zaillian, Adam Cooper, Bill Collage, and Jeffrey Caine) adapted the story so that it features God and is certainly religious but can also be seen from the secular viewpoint (for instance, only Moses actually sees God, to others it appears that Moses is talking to himself). This is actually something that I like because it leaves the story open to a bit of interpretation. It tends to anger the very religious and the very anti-religious, though. By presenting both sides, the more devout viewers will cry foul that it isn't religious enough or that it is too religious. Viewers who are simply wanting to watch a movie, however, should be fine.
"Son, listen closely, I only have three lines of dialogue."

The third issue is the inevitable director's cut of this film. When I reflected back on the cast of this film, it seemed strange that such high-profile actors like Weaver and Kingsley were in the film when they played such a minimal role (seriously, Weaver is barely in this movie). I then remembered Kingdom of Heaven, Scott's other religious-themed epic. That film (which I actually liked in the theater) was butchered from 190 to 144 minutes for the theaters losing the majority of the character development of that film. (You can read my complete thoughts about it here.) Exodus is 150 minutes long, and a number of characters are one-note or one-scene. I am almost certain that a director's cut closer to, if not over, 180 minutes will be released in a few months. If that is the case, I plan on reviewing this film again. For now, let's consider this my tentative review of Exodus. But seriously, Hollywood, just let Scott release what he wants at this point; what's another 30 minutes?

As for the movie itself, Exodus tells a compelling story, and it looks great. While the source material is only the inspiration for the story, most people will still be aware of all the main points of the narrative. This is Moses's story: raised as an Egyptian priest, he was destined to lead his people, the Hebrews, out of bondage. As I stated earlier, this isn't a word-for-word adaptation, but you know the story. The most important addition to the story is the relationship between the pharaoh, Ramses (Edgerton), and Moses. They are like brothers, which adds a bit more conflict to Moses's fight for freedom. It felt a little too reminiscent of the rivalry between Maximus and Commodus in another Scott epic, Gladiator. But I suppose a little extra drama doesn't hurt.

"I'm in this movie too, bitch!"
Exodus goes through the Biblical epic checklist. There are battles, spectacles, plagues, etc. As far as all that goes, there's no new ground broken here. The film in general has the look we've come to expect from Scott, which is to say it looks great. It's hard to praise the film on a purely visual level, though. It's good, but there's nothing particularly special here. I definitely felt the PG-13 rating in the battles, though. A Ridley Scott battle needs to have plenty of blood; the gore of his battles makes his films beautiful. When you take that away, his battle sequences are honestly kind of boring because he has to do all these quick cuts that shy away from bloodshed. It's all too tame. Once again, here's hoping for that director's cut.

It would appear that I'm a bit lukewarm when it comes to this film, but I honestly did enjoy it. Nothing blew me away, but Christian Bale's performance won me over. Many have complained about how the film slows down in the middle, but that is when the film becomes Moses's story. Bale is a great actor to watch struggle with things like family and faith. Others may find it boring, but that middle section is where his character gets to come to life, which is more than you can say for pretty much every other character in the film. (Something that could be fixed in a director's cut, perhaps?) 

The true journey of the film is Moses's acceptance of "his people." There is a great moment near the end of the film that addresses this (and the film should have ended there, by the way, instead of going on like Return of the King for another ten minutes), but it didn't really feel earned...not completely, anyway. Moses begins as an Egyptian and seems not to care for the Hebrews, and then he's told he is one, and he just kind of accepts it. Sure, there was the divine intervention, but I wanted to see him suffer with his people or identify with them a bit more. Instead, it seems like he just shows up and is the leader. This problem could have been used to create more conflict. More Hebrews should have questioned Moses. Moses should have stressed more about how he feels for both the Hebrews and the Egyptians who were suffering. To be fair, there are hints to this conflict, but it is never fleshed out. I know I sound like a broken record at this point, but I am willing to bet there are specific scenes that were cut that would have added exactly what I'm missing. For instance, Moses is introduced to his long-lost brother who welcomes him very cynically. And that's it. Nothing is explained. There is no more interaction between them. That is really the biggest problem with Exodus. Plenty of very interesting conflicts are hinted at but never come to fruition…director’s cut!

Perhaps I am giving Ridley Scott too much credit for what isn't here. Honestly, though, I truly enjoyed this film despite all the issues or missed opportunities throughout. I believe there is an amazing film to be edited out of this. Still, as is, Exodus is much better than anyone is giving it credit for. Hopefully I am right about a director's cut, then everyone can see what Exodus can and should be. Until then, my tentative opinion is that it's good for now, but let's see what an extra half hour can do.

Random Thoughts (SPOILERS)

So Ewen Bremner (Spud from Trainspotting) is in this as well, playing a character called, according to IMDb, "Expert." He basically has a scientific explanation for every plague that strikes Egypt. His casting shows that his part is meant to be comedic relief. Surprisingly, I was okay with this. Even his execution is played for laughs. Maybe it was because it was nice to see some comedy in such a serious film, but I honestly enjoyed it, even though it's kind of ridiculous and not in keeping with the rest of the film at all.

Also, I actually liked Edgerton's over-the-top performance. Once you get past the Australian accent the Egyptian pharaoh has, you can see Edgerton really getting into this role. I can only assume that he thought this would be nominated for awards and this was his shot at some supporting actor awards. He's not going to get any nominations (and probably shouldn't), but he certainly makes his scenes more interesting than they may have been with another, more low-key actor.

One last thing I hope for in a director's cut: a more dickish Moses. In the film he is very dismissive of the Hebrews in an early scene, and he's offended at the thought of actually being one, but his change would be even more powerful if he is a bit more awful to them. I wish he had a revelation about the Hebrews from his own actions. Instead, he takes up with them because he gets kicked out of Egypt, and God just flat out tells him to join them. He argues with God plenty later in the film, so why is he so accepting at first. Just give me one moment where Moses seems to realize they are his people.

Exodus: Gods and Kings receives a:

Monday, December 15, 2014

"Boyhood" Tops 2014 Indiana Film Journalists Association Awards

The Indiana Film Journalists Association, an organization of writers dedicated to promoting quality film criticism in the Hoosier State, is proud to announce its annual film awards for 2014.

"Boyhood" won top honors, taking the prize for Best Film and earning a total of three awards. Richard Linklater won in the Best Director category, and the film also took the Original Vision award, which recognizes a film that is especially innovative or groundbreaking.

"Whiplash," which was the runner-up for Best Film, won two awards: Damien Chazelle's script in the Best Adapted Screenplay race, and J.K. Simmons for Best Supporting Actor.

"The Grand Budapest Hotel" also won two awards: Ralph Fiennes was named Best Actor, and Wes Andersonearned the Best Original Screenplay prize.

Besides the winner and runner-up for Best Film, eight other movies were named Finalists in that category, cumulatively representing Indiana film critics' picks for the 10 best movies of 2014. (See full list below.)

Reese Witherspoon took Best Actress honors for "Wild," while Jessica Chastain took Best Supporting Actress for "A Most Violent Year."

In the inaugural vote for the newest category, Best Vocal/Motion Capture Performance, Andy Serkis won for his work on "The Dawn of the Planet of the Apes." The IFJA is the only critics group in the U.S. to give out an award for nonrepresentational acting.

"The LEGO Movie" won Best Animated Feature, "Two Days, One Night" took the prize for Best Foreign Language Film and "Life Itself" took Best Documentary.

The Hoosier Award, which recognizes a significant cinematic contribution by a person or persons with roots in Indiana, or a film that depicts Hoosier State locales and stories, went to film historian and preservationist Eric Grayson.

IFJA members issued this statement with regard to the Hoosier Award: "For more than a decade, Grayson has worked tirelessly to collect, restore and exhibit movies on celluloid film, often for little to no pay or recognition. We commend his efforts to preserve movies in their original state and show them to people who share his passion for cinema. Countless films would have been lost to the ages were it not for his efforts."

The following is a complete list of honored films:

Best Film
Winner: "Boyhood"
Runner-up: "Whiplash"
Other Finalists (listed alphabetically):
"Dawn of the Planet of the Apes"
"The Grand Budapest Hotel"
"Guardians of the Galaxy"
"The Imitation Game"
"Life Itself"
"A Most Violent Year"
"St. Vincent"

Best Animated Feature
Winner: "The LEGO Movie"
Runner-Up: "The Boxtrolls "

Best Foreign Language Film
Winner: "Two Days, One Night"
Runner-Up: "Ida"

Best Documentary
Winner: "Life Itself"
Runner-Up: "An Honest Liar"

Best Original Screenplay
Winner: Wes Anderson, "The Grand Budapest Hotel"
Runner-up: Richard Linklater, "Boyhood"

Best Adapted Screenplay
Winner: Damien Chazelle, "Whiplash"
Runner-up: Graham Moore, "The Imitation Game"

Best Director
Winner: Richard Linklater, "Boyhood"
Runner-up: Damien Chazelle, "Whiplash"

Best Actress
Winner: Reese Witherspoon, "Wild"
Runner-up: Rosamund Pike, "Gone Girl"

Best Supporting Actress
Winner: Jessica Chastain "A Most Violent Year"
Runner-up: Melissa McCarthy, "St. Vincent"

Best Actor
Winner: Ralph Fiennes, "The Grand Budapest Hotel"
Runner-up: Tom Hardy, "Locke"

Best Supporting Actor
Winner: J.K. Simmons, "Whiplash"
Runner-up: Ethan Hawke, "Boyhood"

Best Musical Score
Winner: Mica Levi, "Under the Skin"
Runner-up: Alexandre Desplat, "The Grand Budapest Hotel"

Original Vision Award
Winner: "Boyhood"
Runner-up: "Under the Skin"

The Hoosier Award
Winner: Eric Grayson, film historian and preservationist
 (As a special award, no runner-up is declared in this category.)

About IFJA: The Indiana Film Journalists Association was established in February 2009. Members must reside in the Hoosier State and produce consistent, quality film criticism or commentary in any medium.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Unreal, Dead Worlds of Wes Anderson: A Sort of Review of "The Grand Budapest Hotel"

The Grand Budapest Hotel
Wes Anderson has been one of my favorite filmmakers for years. Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums are two of my favorite films from my high school years (a.k.a. when I started seeking out "good" movies). Since those two films, Anderson has exaggerated his style to a fault. Some people were already put off by his first films for their focus on quirk instead of character (indeed, I am not a fan of Bottle Rocket or The Darjeeling Limited because I could not get invested in the characters), so it's understandable if viewers take issue with his recent work for its lack of reality.

All of Anderson's films are arguably ridiculous, but most of them stay withing the confines of reality: Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Darjeeling Limited, and Moonrise Kingdom. Of these, some might argue that Tenenbaums and Moonrise are outside of reality, but I found them to take place in fantasized, though still realistic, worlds.  No one can deny the style of any of them, however; an Anderson movie is still an Anderson movie whether it takes place in reality or not. Anderson's other three films, I would argue, take place in a completely fictional world: The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, and The Grand Budapest Hotel.

My reasoning for this is that the first five films claim to take place in a real setting, even if that real setting is given unreal qualities. To be fair, Moonrise is somewhere in between the two groups due to some of its more cartoonish elements, but I think it sticks with reality more than fantasy. On the other side of the coin, Life Aquatic is somewhere in between as well due to some realistic settings and the violence, but I think it is more in the fantasy realm because of the made-up sea creatures.

Fantastic Mr. Fox is the easiest film to distinguish since it is animated, but I think The Grand Budapest Hotel is in the same boat. Or perhaps it is simply because there are a few extremely similar aspects between the two films. First, the escape sequences are very similar. Second, Willem Defoe plays a villain. know what?, I don't want this to end up being some point by point comparison. Just watch both of these films. They simply feel like the same film, even more so than how all Anderson's films feel the same. Perhaps it has something to do with the setting.

Mr. Fox takes place on a fictional farm area, and Grand Budapest takes place in a fictional European country. But it is the population, or lack thereof, that makes them similar. In Fox, the world felt constructed (because it literally was) and unpopulated. Grand Budapest has that same feeling (most of the locales seem devoid of human life), but it's a bit more odd since the main setting is a hotel...where people stay. I'm not sure if it's a good thing or not that Anderson made a populated world feel dead. I suppose that's where the emotional disconnect most viewers feel comes from. I have enjoyed the majority of Anderson's work very much, but I must admit that only RushmoreThe Royal Tenenbaums, and Life Aquatic made me care all that much about the characters. The atmosphere created in his more fantasy-based films, however, makes up for that lack of emotion. With Grand Budapest, he nearly accomplished the feat of creating a unique world and having characters I cared about. To be fair, I did want things to work out for Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), and I very much liked his character. But he was the only one I connected with.
Not unlike the Overlook, this hotel is largely dead inside.

Still, almost accomplishing both things makes Grand Budapest among Anderson's best. The complex narrative, nostalgic style, and amazing cast culminate to make this one of the year's best. Anderson's characters lack emotional appeal at times, but no one can accuse them of being uninteresting. And while it's come to be expected at this point, Anderson's ability to create that vague feeling of nostalgia (even for eras I never experienced) is still his strongest asset. Hats off to the production designer (Adam Stockhausen), art directors (Stephan Gessler, Gerald Sullivan, Steve Summersgill), and the set decorator (Anna Pinnock) for this, as well. 

The strongest asset of Grand Budapest, however, is Ralph Fiennes. Known for his intensity, Fiennes may not be someone's first choice for quirky comedy, but Gustave is the perfect character for him. He's funny, but he is also pretentious and, at times, intensely angry...and vulgar. Anyone who's seen In Bruges knows that Fiennes is more than capable of bringing the intense comedy. Plenty of moments in Grand Budapest were reminiscent of Fiennes's best moments from Bruges. Plus, he's surprisingly likable. I'm convinced that Fiennes's performance, not necessarily his character, is the reason for the emotional connection. 

So that was a very roundabout way to say Grand Budapest is Anderson at his best, with special thanks to Ralph Fiennes. But the comparison to Mr. Fox is not completely pointless. It seems that Anderson is content with making live action cartoons now that he's made a stop motion one. I imagine dealing with actors is easier than dealing with props. There's nothing wrong with that, because that means his films will look like nothing else out there. Grand Budapest is significant in that it shows that he may one day be able to make me care about the majority of his characters (like I did with Tenenbaums) while also creating a unique, if dead, world. That didn't sound very complimentary, but it is actually high praise. I can't wait to see what's next from Anderson. 

The Grand Budapest Hotel receives a:

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

"The Babadook" Is Just as Good as All Those Other Scary Movies, but It's Better...Just Watch It.

*Note: I'll try to stay away from SPOILERS for the most part, but to really get into what I enjoyed about The Babadook, I may have to reference plot elements that could be seen as spoilers.  If you want to enjoy this movie completely, you should watch it before you read this review.  You've been warned.

The Babadook
Horror films are as popular as ever, but some people (i.e. me) might argue that there's not a lot of variety in the genre these days. It seems every film is now about ghosts or possession. I have enjoyed quite a few of these (The Conjuring and Insidious are standouts), but I have a hard time telling the difference between most of them (and it seems like Patrick Wilson is in every other one for some reason). They all feature spooky locales and things that go bump in the night. This is effective, and sometimes even scary, but it is not all that thought-provoking. Psychological horror has taken a backseat to ghosts and monsters that are without a doubt real (within the world of the film).

This is not to say that the popular films of late do not feature psychological elements. They certainly do, but only in that characters are driven crazy by ghosts and demons. At first glance, The Babadook appears to be just another scary monster featuring a boogeyman, although it is an admittedly super-creepy boogeyman. But it turns out to be much more than your standard horror film.

The Babadook has a fairly typical horror story as it is about a widow dealing with the grief of her dead husband (who died in a car accident the day their son was born) and her troubled son. You've seen this setup before: creepy kid with the stressed out mom. Then a creepy children's book featuring the titular Babadook somehow shows up on their bookcase. Then weird stuff starts happening as it seems more and more evident that the Babadook is going to make a visit.

That setup honestly left me less than enthralled with this movie at first. There was nothing too original about the scenario, and that kid (played by Noah Wiseman) was unbearably annoying. But, thankfully, The Babadook changes about halfway through.  I'll elaborate about that change in a spoiler-filled section later.

Now imagine this with the audio (*shudder*).
This movie is truly easier to review with spoilers, so I'll wrap up the spoiler-free part now. The Babadook is a deceptive horror film that plays with your expectations. Those expecting something similar to the blockbuster horror film may come away disappointed. But if you get on board with the film and get through the annoying first half, it becomes a rewarding experience. And it still features plenty of sincere, creepy-old-house-at-night scares.

Okay, SPOILERS from here on out. So it turns out that the Babadook is just the mother's personified (or should I say "monsterified") grief. The mother (an impressive Essie Davis) wrote children's books before her husband died, but she's been out of work since...except she wrote the book about the Babadook.  "Babadook," by the way, is an anagram of "a bad book."  She's been bottling up her grief to the point that she unconsciously created this boogeyman, and the film is the boiling point in which her grief tries to overcome her.

Once this became clear, other aspects of the movie made sense. All of the other characters, most notable her sister and an elderly neighbor, treat her with kid gloves. The neighbor even stops by to visit because she knows her son's birthday/husband's death day anniversary is tough for her. Knowing that she is pretty much going insane because of grief makes the movie much more interesting, and it actually excuses the problematic first half.

We're with the mother for most of the film, mainly in the beginning. This means we're seeing things through her eyes. That unbearably annoying child? Probably not as bad as it looks. His unnatural shrieking is really a projection of her grief and hatred. To be fair, the kid is still a bit annoying, but wouldn't you be if your mother was slowly becoming a grief monster? This made both Wiseman's and Davis's performances that much more impressive. For Wiseman, this meant being the sympathetic and the creepy kid; that's no small feat. For Davis, this allowed her to turn do a Jack Torrance-esque descent into madness. 

Some might not dig this attempt at psychological and traditional horror, but I loved it. It was a perfect mix because it played so well on my expectations. It's rare for a horror film to trick me like this. Don't get me wrong, most horror films are effective to me (I get pretty easily creeped out by films like this), but they rarely sincerely surprise me. First-time writer/director Jennifer Kent definitely has my attention. The Babadook is that rare film that can scare you and make you think a bit. That's a welcome change of pace in horror.

Random Thoughts (still SPOILERS)
On a personal note, I was not cool with the dog getting killed. As the owner of a beloved small, white dog, that scene was incredibly hard to watch. 

I got to watch this as part of an online screener from IFC, so I watched it on a laptop with headphones. The traditionalist in me was very much against this, but it turned out to be a surprisingly effective way to watch a horror film. The random thumps and creaks in the house messed with me much more when they happened directly in my ears instead of coming from the TV's speakers. It's a very intimate way to watch a fairly intimate movie. Who knew?

The Babadook receives a:

Monday, December 8, 2014

"The Homesman" Is Arguably Too Bleak, but It Is Still a Pretty Good "Western."

The Homesman
Americans are taught early on in school that frontier life is hard, but we rarely get evidence of this. It is a portion of history that is either forgotten or romanticized. Few westerns attempt to the deal with the reality of the frontier. There's a reason for this: watching an Old West shootout is more entertaining than seeing miserable things happen to miserable people. The Homesman tackles the miserable life of the frontier, arguably to a fault.

The Homesman takes place in the 1850s in Nebraska (not technically the West, but calling the film a midwestern instead of a western sounds kind of silly) in a small farming community on the frontier. Three local wives show signs of insanity due to the brutal living conditions; disease, isolationism, death, abusive husbands, etc. It is decided to send the women back East so they can return home, but none of the husbands are up to the task. Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) volunteers to take them. Single and recently rejected by a prospective husband, Cuddy appears to be a very resilient woman. Still, when she comes across condemned claim jumper George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones), she enlists him to help her on the journey.

It is a story filled with characters that are either miserable or evil. There is very little hope in this film, which may turn some off from it. But Tommy Lee Jones is a filmmaker that shouldn't be ignored. His previous big screen directing effort, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, was one of the year's best films and showed that Jones knows what to do when it comes to films set in desolate locales. Three Burials featured quite a bit of dark comedy, however, which made it easier to get through. There is little humor found in The Homesman.  In fact, The Homesman is possibly the bleakest film of the year.

If you can get past the depressing aspect of the film, there are plenty of positive aspects to the film. First off, the performances are all top notch, if familiar.  Swank can play the role of a tough, independent woman in her sleep at this point, but that doesn't mean it's not impressive. Likewise, Jones can play a cantankerous misanthrope with no effort, but it's still fun to watch at times.  Jones and Swank do play off each other nicely, and their back-and-forth almost makes the film appear lighthearted at times (key word: almost). The strong supporting cast, including Meryl Streep, John Lithgow, Tim Blake Nelson, James Spader, does a fine job in small roles. And Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto, and Sonja Richter portray the afflicted women with disturbing effect. 

The film also looks great. The production value is superb, and all of the location provide a beautiful landscape that is a nice contrast to the terrible events of the film. The score, reminiscent of the beginning of There Will Be Blood completes the mood of the film.  

The Homesman also stands out by featuring story elements that may surprise the audience. I know that it took me by surprise a few times.  I enjoy the western genre, but it can be predictable.  The Homesman is certainly not predictable, which is a rare treat in film today. Wondering how it was all going to end made it easier to get through. Whereas if it followed a more traditional route, I might have been tempted to stop watching.  

Any fans of westerns should check out The Homesman.  It isn't your traditional western, but it's worth seeing just to get a different view of the era. Realism in a western is something to be treasured. Unforgiven, for instance, was a great western that was largely a statement about how romanticized westerns had become.  The Homesman is nowhere near the level of Unforgiven, but it is still worth watching. It is a little hard to get through, but that's the point.

The Homesman receives a:

Friday, December 5, 2014

Check Out "John Wick" When You Get a Chance. It's Surprisingly Awesome.

John Wick
"Remember me?  I can still be awesome."
Keanu Reeves has not been on my radar for some time. In fact, I pretty much wrote him off based on his recent films (which I didn't even bother to see) like 47 Ronin and Man of Tai Chi. I just assumed he had gone off the deep end and was living out his Matrix fantasies. This isn't to say I hate him as an actor. I actually liked Constantine (even if he doesn't match up to the source character very well), and Street Kings was surprisingly good. It's just that his role choice has been lacking the last decade or so. So when John Wick showed up, I assumed it was more bland crap. I was completely wrong. (But I still doubt I ever get around to watching Man of Tai Chi or 47 Ronin...)

I caught John Wick a few weeks after its initial release which would normally mean I would not review it. But it is too awesome for me to not at least write a few paragraphs. Especially since it could end up in my top ten this year. I seriously enjoyed it that much. 

The story of John Wick is comically simple. A former hitman, recently widowed, seeks vengeance for the men who stole his car and killed his dog. That's good enough for me. It's the kind of simple plot from the great action films of the 80s and 90s. To be fair, plenty of other films try to capture to this spirit (The Expendables franchise, for instance), but they usually fail and end up coming across as sad imitations. It's usually because they are too beholden to nostalgia. I like The Expendables movies, but they should be trying to make new films on par with the past rather than bland imitations that feature the same one-liners and jokes that should make no sense within the world of the film. Arnold Schwarzenegger arguing with Bruce Willis about he gets to "be back" is just lazy. And it makes no sense unless they are literally playing themselves in the film. To be fair, they don't appear to be acting, but they are still portraying fictional characters.  

The point of my little rant about The Expendables is that John Wick doesn't try to rehash stuff from old action movies; the filmmakers instead made a movie in the same spirit as those older films. So we don't have jokes about Reeves's character being "The One" or any garbage like that. That said, I was reminded of The Matrix a few times during some of the crazier shootouts, but it wasn't because I thought it was a reference to that movie. I just thought certain sequences were just as awesome.

I am not trying to say John Wick is as good as The Matrix or anything like that. John Wick doesn't have the lofty philosophical ambition of that series (which is fine, by the way). It is an unapologetic action film that doesn't get bogged down with conflicted feelings and whatnot. Reeves is going to kill a lot of people, and he's going to look cool doing it. Simple as that.  

The majority of the credit for the film goes to stunt coordinators-turned-directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch. It just makes sense for the guys responsible for the action in dozens of other films to make their own. Hopefully this gets them more work because the action sequences in John Wick are intricate, brutal, and, most importantly, well-shot. They went with an action style for Reeves similar to the gun kata of Equilibrium. That film relied heavily on special effects to mimic fast movements. John Wick has a bit more realism to it. The gun is like an extension of Reeves as he makes his way through shoot out after shoot out. The style truly elevated each action scene which, in the hands of lesser directors, would be a series of quick cuts, squibs, and broken glass. These guys know what they're doing.

John Wick is the surprise of the year. I just wish I would have known that sooner so I could have championed the film when it was still in theaters. Hopefully, this gets a lot of play on home video. It's unfortunate that good action films go unnoticed because they are not tied to an existing property. Anyway, if you're looking for some awesome action akin to the days of Schwarzenegger and co., ignore The Expendables and check out John Wick.

John Wick receives a:

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Who Needs Batman When You Can Have "Birdman"?

"Hey, I'm in this movie too, Keaton, and I'm pretty damn good."
Movies about actors and the industry can be annoying.  There are usually a lot of in-jokes and most of the characters are egomaniacal and unlikable.  Birdman doesn’t buck the trend of in-jokes or unlikable characters, but it is certainly funny and one of the most entertaining films of the year…although some might still find it a bit annoying.

Birdman is about fading actor Riggan Thomson’s attempt to gain respect by directing and starring in a stage production of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” on Broadway.  That sounds awfully pretentious (and it kind of is, which is the point), but it’s less about the play Riggan’s putting on than it is about himself.  Riggan has some ego/fame issues.  After giving up playing a superhero (Birdman) for the big studios, he has now become something of a footnote.  Riggan hopes his play will somehow show the world how great he (still) is. 

Birdman is much more complicated than that, though.  First off, Riggan has superpowers.  Or at least he thinks he does.  The first time we see Riggan, he is levitating in his dressing room.  The film has multiple sequences of magical realism that may or not actually be happening (there’s a stronger case for them not actually happening, however).  Regardless, Riggan’s “powers” just show how egotistical he is.  As if that’s not enough, he also hears the voice of Birdman, who is constantly deriding this artistic move and urges Riggan to go back to the blockbuster scene.  As you can imagine, this allows for plenty of thoughts about the state of Hollywood, acting, fame, etc.  It’s all very existential and interesting on multiple levels.

For instance, when you read the name Michael Keaton most people will automatically think of Batman.  Keaton famously decided not to play Batman for a third time and has been less relevant ever since.  His casting adds another layer to consider.  (For the record, Keaton claims he has less in common with this character than any other he has portrayed.)  The meta casting does not stop there.  Edward Norton plays a famously difficult actor who is combative throughout (Norton has been accused of being difficult many times).  Oh, and Norton also once played the Incredible Hulk.  Emma Stone, who plays Riggan’s troubled daughter, was in The Amazing Spiderman.  And there are a few references to other actors involved with superhero movies as well.  This is perhaps Birdman’s most relevant theme: the superhero film’s destruction of actual acting.  Now more than ever, Hollywood is obsessed with superheroes.  Both Marvel and DC have movies planned out for the rest of the decade.  Birdman is very much an anti-superhero movie.  Sure, there are plenty of movies that are not superhero movies, but this one is making a point by defiantly not being a superhero movie.  Birdman isn’t likely to take away from the audience of those other films, but it proves a film can be more entertaining and certainly more interesting with a good script, great performances, and some inventive camerawork. 

Speaking of camerawork, Birdman is getting a bit of attention for being cut to appear as if it is one long take.  This is not a gimmick, even though it adds a respectable layer of difficulty to the process.  The camerawork actually fits into the free-flowing nature of the film.  This is not just about Riggan.  The camera wanders throughout the theatre stopping in on an assortment of characters.  It helped create the feeling of chaos that surrounds the production of the play Riggan is staging.  The percussion heavy score adds to that chaos, too, making Birdman one of the most frenetic films of the year.  It’s fun, though, rather than exhausting.

The film is about so many things it’s hard to pinpoint what the overall experience is about really.  It might sound pretentious, but Birdman is simply about life: love, art, ego, comedy, fame, etc.  It’s all there, and there are plenty of messages to be gleaned from the film, but one moment summed it up best for me.  During one of the more chaotic times for Riggan, he comes across a man yelling Macbeth’s famous soliloquy about life being “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”  Birdman is certainly full of “sound and fury,” and maybe it’s even about nothing.  But Macbeth was pretty crazy when he said that, so what does he know?  I, for one, found that to be a key scene.  Everything is too complicated to be boiled down to some singular point or lesson.  I could go on and on about different issues presented by the film, but I’ll just point out one that is very relevant for this review.

At one point, Riggan verbally assaults a theater critic.  He rants at the critic, telling her all she is doing is labeling things.  She’s not really saying anything.  She’s not really doing anything.  Is that a fair assessment of criticism (a criticism of criticism, if you will)?  I think so.  I’ve always held that my reviews are simply opinions.  I cast judgment, sure, but I write in the first person because I know my views are not definitive.  Who am I to tell you if something is good or bad?  All I can do is give my personal opinion of it.  This is dangerous territory for writer/director Alejandro Iñárritu, however, because no matter how good your argument is, it still comes across as a bit petty when you write a rant aimed at critics.  But then again, isn’t every review a rant (good or bad) aimed at the filmmakers?  Hmm…okay, it’s cool with me, Iñárritu, especially if you keep making awesome movies like this.  Give those critics hell!

This film took me by surprise because I was expecting an acting display first and a film second.  Keaton has been the focus of all press and previews for the film, and rightfully so, to the point that it seems like it’s a one-trick pony.  Keaton is certainly amazing.  He is funny, sad, intense, and utterly believable in this role.  Most importantly, he makes what should be a hated character likable.  I should not have wanted things to work out for him, but I did.  I credit Keaton for that.  He is absolutely entertaining and is on par with the rest of the filmmaking.  The rest of the cast is up to task as well.  They’re all great, but Emma Stone stands out mainly for one great scene she has with Keaton.  But it’s Edward Norton who nearly steals the show.  He may be playing a perceived version of himself, but it’s so good.  I loved the scenes in which he is “acting” as much as his “real” moments.  This film reminded me how great of an actor he can be (not that he’s been bad; it just seems like great roles like this have been few).  I foresee at least one Oscar for this cast, but I hope I see two. 

Birdman obviously worked for me.  It made me laugh consistently but also think about life, love, the film industry, fame, viral fame, ego, criticism, etc.  The film juggles so many ideas while also being visually impressive.  It is easily one of the year’s best films.

Birdman receives a:

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Maybe I'm Too Old, But "Dumb and Dumber To" Just Wasn't for Me.

Dumb and Dumber To
The look on Billy in 4C's face sums up my experience with this movie.
We Should Stop Reviewing Comedies.”  That is the title of an article I wrote for my website over a year and a half ago, and I’ve stuck to it (aside from This Is the End, but I made an exception for that since it was an apocalyptic comedy).  After watching Dumb and Dumber To I felt compelled to break my own rule again.  The exception this time: a comedy sequel to a beloved movie from my youth. 

My argument for not reviewing comedies was basically that comedy is too subjective, and a critic’s sense of humor shouldn’t be held any higher than anyone else’s.  I still stand by that.  That said, I barely cracked a smile while watching this film, but others (and I’ve confirmed this based on a handful of positive reviews and plenty of comments on IMDb in support of the movie) will like it…maybe even love it.  I certainly d

on’t, but I’m not going to spend an entire review hating on a comedy that just didn’t strike my funny bone.  I am, however, going to spend an entire review wondering why this sequel felt so different that the first film…and I’ll probably hate on it a little too.

I love Dumb and Dumber.  Notice I used the present tense, “love,” not “loved”?  It is not a movie I aged out of enjoying.  In fact, I watched it a day after watching the sequel and still laughed aloud a few times.  It doesn’t make sense because this sequel features all of the original filmmakers.  It is written and directed by the Farrelly brothers and stars Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels.  It’s also similar in plot: two idiots go on a road trip and unwittingly get involved in a criminal plot.  This is no prequel a la Dumb and Dumberer (which the original filmmakers had nothing to do with).  It should be something I love.  Why isn’t it?

The obvious answer is time.  I’m older, which (supposedly) means that “dumb” comedies no longer appeal to me.  I think that would be correct if this was not a sequel to a movie I liked.  If this was an original movie that made this amount of money ($60 million as I’m typing this) and had defenders online, then I would simply think, “I must be too old for this.”  I am not too old for this type of comedy, though.  When I watch the stupid comedies from my youth, I still find them funny.  Chalk that up to nostalgia if you like, but I honestly still enjoy the majority of the comedies I liked fifteen years ago. 

Time, I think, actually is the answer, though.  The problem is that, while my comedic sensibilities have not changed, the filmmakers’ have.  Some have criticized the film because the stars, now in their fifties, come across as dirty old men rather than harmless buffoons.  I can see this argument, but I think it’s more than that.  Here’s an example.  In the new film, Harry (Jeff Daniels) and Lloyd (Jim Carrey) yell out to a female scientist, “Show us your tits!”  This was seen as a misogynistic line by many (rightfully so), but it is in keeping with their behavior.  In the first film, Harry comments on a woman passing by: “Check out the funbags on that hosehound!”  Definitely misogynistic as well, but at least it’s more original that what a cliché construction worker would yell at a passerby.  Plus, the line was given after they were talking about being classy to show that they are, in fact, not classy at all.  The point is that the Farrelly brothers have gotten lazier.  Their characters have always been misogynistic, but they used to get a pass because the writing was a bit wittier and more innocent. 

That is how I felt across the board with this film.  The jokes and the people are the same, but the effort is gone.  I loved Dumb and Dumber for the quirkier moments.  The physical gags don’t crack me up any longer (Harry’s tongue stuck a ski lift just doesn’t do it for me these days), but the smaller moments of each actor’s performance still make me laugh (Lloyd laughingly saying, “Yeah ha ha!” when asked if he sold a dead bird to a blind kid.  Now all the nuance is gone.  Sure, they were always cartoonish, but they were tethered to reality at least a little bit.  They’ve gone full blown cartoon now.  Give me the literal toilet humor of the first film any day over Harry and Lloyd glowing from radiation poison after bathing near a nuclear power plant.  These guys were not immortal the first time around. 

I could go on and on like this with examples of gags that worked the first time that were duplicated to lesser effect this time around.  But that would be too exhausting, and I think you get why I don’t like it by now.  I’ll finish by repeating that the film might, and does, work for others, but I can’t appreciate it as something separate from the beloved first film.  I guess I just haven’t aged enough comedically…and I hope I never do.

Dumb and Dumber To receives a:

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

I Loved "Interstellar." Keep Reading to Find Out Why.

Interstellar is a rare film for writer/director Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight trilogy, Inception).  His films are notoriously cold and technical, though they excel when it comes to scope and visual beauty.  Emotion is usually quite lacking in his films.  This is not to say that there is no drama in a Nolan film.  There is emotional drama in everything he has done, but, at least for me, it has never been this effective.  Surprisingly, Nolan has found true emotion in a film that takes place largely in deep space, the loneliest possible environment. 

Interstellar is essentially a father-daughter story about a pilot/engineer (Matthew McConaughey) who missed his chance to go to outer space and his daughter (Mackenzie Foy), who feels abandoned by him when he does get the chance to leave.  McConaughey’s reason for leaving is pretty justifiable, though: he’s going to look for a new planet for the human race.  There are same vague comments about what has happened to Earth in this film (world wars over food, for one), but the real problems are just beginning with a blight that has wiped out most of our food supply except for corn, but corn might not be safe for long.  The film certainly makes Earth look miserable, though it’s done on a small scale.  We never get the broad view of what the world is like.  In fact, there are really only two locations for the film on Earth: a farm and a hidden NASA compound.  While a larger explanation of the status of the entire planet would be interesting on its own, it is not the point.  The film is called Interstellar after all.  You know McConaughey is going to leave; the question of the film is, how long will he be gone?

Leaving a child behind for an uncertain amount of time is emotionally charged already, but when the science of gravity and black holes is added, it becomes downright devastating.  Apparently, gravity near a black can mess with time.  An hour on, say, a planet near a black hole, could last years elsewhere.  (For the record, I have no idea why that is, but scientists claim this is true.)  This possible problem coupled with the fact that McConaughey and his fellow astronauts cannot send messages (they can only receive them) back to Earth makes his absence that much more heartbreaking.  This film, though very much science-fiction, is actually a love letter to Nolan’s daughter (the working title was Flora’s Letter), and you get the impression that going off to make these giant movies might be his version of leaving Earth while his daughter grows up.  It is quite clear that Nolan wanted to tug at the heartstrings with this one and, for me, at least, he accomplished his goal.  How else can you explain why a review of a science-fiction film written by an admitted dork has gone three paragraphs without gushing about visual effects and cool, weird robots? 

The emotional impact of the film was surprising, and it made me care about the characters in a Nolan film more than ever before.  It was truly unexpected.  The great visual effects and general cinematic excellence of the film?  That was expected.  This is what has been troubling me when it comes to reviewing Interstellar.  My first attempt ended up being a bit of a rant about why people should appreciate the movie (read it here if you want), and I explained how annoyed I was with people (critics and film buffs alike) calling the film “ambitious” in both negative and positive terms.  “Ambitious” is far too loaded of a word to use to describe any film (and I will attempt to stop using that word in my reviews from here on out).  It only implies that someone tried to do something.  Well, of course they did.  Interstellar is not an example of someone “trying.”  It is an example of Christopher Nolan and the rest of the filmmakers doing exactly what they set out to do: create an entertaining science-fiction film that adheres to reality as much as possible while also engaging the viewer on an emotional level.  And yes, it all looks great and should be seen on the biggest screen available (full disclosure: I saw it on a regular-sized screen at Tell City and still loved it).  My point is that it has become moot to discuss the technical brilliance of a Nolan film.  Let’s just assume the brilliance and move on.

Interstellar is much more interesting thematically, anyway.  The possibilities of life after Earth stayed with me, and I found, upon reflection, that the film was deeper than I initially thought.  It can be seen as a father-daughter love story, a save-the-Earth space thriller, a plea to stick with film instead of going digital, etc.  Any story that can be viewed symbolically always gets a few extra points from me.  The literal story of the film is more than enough, though.  Exploring deep space has always been more interesting to me on the human loneliness level than the visual level.  Normally, films in which characters are so far out in space are set in a distant future or world in which it is normal to be out there (like Star Wars or Guardians of the Galaxy).  This film keeps it grounded, so to speak, in reality.  Characters have to deal with being away from their loved ones.  This is rarely the focus in such films, and it is refreshing to see here. 

There's quite a bit of this.
Because of the focus on love and loneliness, the cast of Interstellar had a tough task.  They had to cry quite a bit and make the audience care about why they were crying.  To top it off, their characters were slightly one-dimensional in that everyone is simply trying to accomplish the goal of sustaining the human race.  Some would see this as a flaw, but I imagine (or hope) that people tasked with saving all of us would be singularly focused with the task at hand.  Because of this, there’s nothing terribly memorable about each character.  It’s up to the actors to bring their natural charisma to the role to make you care about them.  That said, Interstellar has an amazing cast.  McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine, and everyone involved gets the job done. 

This review has been a long time coming because I loved the film on so many levels, and I wanted to see if that wore off a few days after watching it.  It didn’t, but I have still put off writing this in fear of not mentioning everything that was great about it.  Which reminds me: there are these amazing (and hilarious) robots in the film that look like the monolith from 2001.  The main robot, TARS, is actually my favorite character, now that I think about.  I’m sure I’m forgetting some other things, and I know I’m ignoring a lot of issues others have with the film (I will concede that McConaughey’s character definitely showed favoritism to his daughter and largely ignored his son, and that was never acknowledged in a fulfilling way).  It can’t be helped, though.  Interstellar is just such an awesome science-fiction film, and I am an unabashed fan of anything sci-fi.  I’m still trying to digest all of it (obviously), but it’s certainly going to be one of my favorite films of the year, and it’s definitely going to be a film I revisit over and over again.

Interstellar receives a:

Random Thoughts (SPOILERS)

"C'mon, TARS, let's go bust up the robot mafia."
I can't wait for the sequel in which McConaughey and his robot buddy, TARS, travel through the galaxy fighting crime.

Everyone seemed very much okay with Wes Bentley dying, didn't they?

Some have complained about the exposition in this film (and all of Nolan's films), but I like it. Is it weak storytelling?  Oftentimes exposition is, but here I don't think so.  I like that the characters explained the science and their plans every now and thing because that's how the world works.  How often do you do a job in which the manager/planner/whatever simply assumes you know what's going on?  Life deserves explanation sometimes.  Sometimes, it does not.  

Which brings me to all of these 2001 comparisons.  Who said that this was supposed to be just like 2001?  I never assumed that.  And I certainly didn't assume Nolan was trying to be Kubrick here, but many people have.  I suppose that's due to their nature of picking up on implications rather than looking at objective facts.  Nolan is not Kubrick and is not trying to be.  Interstellar is not 2001 and is not trying to be.  We can enjoy both of these directors/movies, by the way.  Just don't bring the same expectations to both.  If I went in to Interstellar wanting everything left to interpretation, I would leave extremely disappointed, and vice versa.  I'll never understand why some people who love one movie in a genre take up some unwarranted fight to crap all over anything else that comes after.  I just really like movies.  I guess I'm simple that way.  This doesn't mean I don't hate some movies, by the way.  Stay tuned for my Dumb and Dumber To review for proof...