Monday, October 28, 2013

The Counselor (*)

Directed by Ridley Scott


The plot of The Counselor is complicated in a way that leaves you with very little enthusiasm to actually figure it out. There's nothing engrossing about this film and these characters. It's story is not just bleak, it's apocalyptic - it's drama is second-rate Shakespearean, it's attempts at flourish feeling more like camp. It's a film made by a director and a screenwriter that feel that any message is incredibly important as long as they're the ones delivering it. Their clout allows them to pack the film with stars across the board; a hoard of Oscar winners, nominees, future Oscar nominees and Cameron Diaz. The trust these actors place in these veteran artists seems implicit, which is a shame. The result of their efforts is a two-hour megaphone rant scripted by two men on the wrong side of seventy-five screaming about how cruel, empty and inherently evil the world is. No country for old men, indeed. Let's hope it stays that way.

Monday, October 21, 2013

All Is Lost (****)

Written and Directed by J.C. Chandor


The theme of survival has been explicit throughout the heavy-hitting October releases. Gravity put a frail biomedical scientist against grave odds to survive being lost in space. Captain Phillips showed one man's attempt to maneuver his way out of a dangerous kidnapping scenario. And just this weekend 12 Years a Slave showed how a free man turned slave has to find ways to stay alive just long enough so that his free status will eventually be recognized. The survival theme in 12 Years is most prevalent, with several characters commenting on it throughout, but in all three of those films the hero had a very definable destination they meant to reach. They knew the process and they knew the route to the position they coveted. All is Lost follows a man without any idea of how he will escape. He's a resourceful man, fully prepared for the elements that he faces, but it's nothing in the face of mortality. His actions seem to only prolong the inevitable, each action adding only mere seconds till the grips of death reach, which makes All is Lost the most gripping portrayal of survival yet.

12 Years a Slave (***1/2)

Directed by Steve McQueen


In a post Django Unchained movie climate, a film like 12 Years a Slave might get swallowed. Both films put almost Mel Gibson-like focus on the brutality of American slavery, soaking the audience in the horrors and the blood of the darkest part of American history. Django did it with flair, a pop picture using Western homage to contrast the grotesque evil shown on the screen - that movie only felt about ten percent sincere. 12 Years a Slave is a full hundred. It sees nothing catchy or funny about the story of Solomon Northup, a free black man living in New York during antebellum America who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the dastardly South. It's bones are rooted in complete seriousness. 12 Years is unflinching, rough to the touch and stark in its emotional portrayal of such a harrowing story. With incredible performances from his main cast members, Steve McQueen crafts a story that manages to side-swipe the sentimentality of previous slave tales like Roots while still managing to capture the helpless horror of its setting.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 (**1/2)

Directed by Cody Cameron & Kris Pearn

When you consider that we live in a movie culture where Hollywood has so desperately run out of ideas that they're making movies out of 500-word children's books, you have to appreciate the effort put forth to make a farce as charming as Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. It's maniacal commitment to Looney Tunes-style insanity felt refreshing compared to both the sentimentality of Pixar and the cynical, trying-to-hard-to-be-cool-ness of Dreamworks animation. It's zaniness had little in common with the original book's modest contrast of a normal everyday town being blessed with giant food falling from the sky, but it had a unique voice. It's easily the best thing that Sony Pictures Animation produced, so I guess it would be a no-brainer that it would produce a sequel. Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 has the same formula of most children's movie sequels - take a winning recipe and add some extra, sugary toppings - but doesn't leave you feeling as bloated as it could have.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Captain Phillips (***)

Directed by Paul Greengrass


It's hard to think of a movie star like Tom Hanks - someone who has been a movie star for such a sustained, lucrative period of time - and think that he will be able to show us something new. But that's exactly what happens in Captain Phillips. It's hard to remember the last time Hanks was able to tear into a role the way he does here. Do we have to go all the way back to 2001's Cast Away? If Phillips is set to spark a new chapter in this historically popular star's career, it does so with a performance so ingrained into the Hanks reputation that it feels like something he's done a million times. But it isn't. This is a film less interested in the rights and wrongs of a dangerous situation than we might think, but its placement of Hanks, right in the middle, gives the movie an undeniable moral center. Does Hanks abuse that responsibility? No, he just uses it to give one of the best performances of his career.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Don Jon (**)

Written and Directed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Thanks to the internet, the development of wifi technology and the boom of video ripping/bootleg movies, pornography is more available to the public than it ever has been before. There is a lot consumption going on right now, with Spotify allowing its users to take in as much pop music as is possible and YouTube letting people hop from viral video to viral video until your entire day is gone, and your mind is racing with cats playing pianos or crotch punches. Porno is also a major player in this cultural development, though obviously people are a lot more mum about it. Don Jon wants to be the first movie to fully embrace this part of Modern American sociology, and its certainly different that a wide release discusses porn addiction, but this film's bite is rather soft and takes too much time to really make its point, which doesn't really have anything to do with pornography at all.

Gravity (***1/2)

Produced and Directed by Alfonso Cuaron


Should be said before we begin here, I only saw this movie in plain ol' 2D, and while I've been told that I only captured a fraction of the film's brilliant visual experience, I still found the film's effects to be staggering. Thought it best to get that off my chest before we're in too deep.

Gravity opens with text meant to reinforce how terrifying outer space is. It seemed like the kind of thing added self-consciously at the last minute because the last thing this movie needs is a list of factoids explaining why the events that are about to unfold are truly, down-to-the-marrow scary. And this is a movie that truly embraces its setting, acknowledging both its unmatched beauty and the unending threat of horrible, suffocating death. With the exception of that opening text, Alfonso Cuaron's latest movie is incredibly confident in its translation of that constant contradiction. It never fools itself that the silent grace of space is anything other than a siren's song coaxing many into an imminent death trap. This delicate balance produces what will probably be the most stress-inducing movie theater experience of the year and a visual wonder, suckering you into the majestic vastness of space all the while reminding you how frightening it can be.

Enough Said (***1/2)

Written and Directed by Nicole Holofcener


Nicole Holofcener goes out of her way to make movies about women, but she has no interest at looking at them through the Nancy Meyers, feminist-lite lens. She just has stories in her head, most of them dealing with women over thirty, and has a way of telling these stories that is both flabbergasting in its effortless portrayal of things that are simply not shown too often in Hollywood movies and terrific in its modesty, not showering itself with praise but instead shaming the audience for even considering any of these tales as "innovative". Her 2001 film, Lovely and Amazing, is one of the best of that decade that contained a spectacular performance from Emily Mortimer that still goes horrifically unseen. Her latest film pegs Julia Louis-Dreyfuss as its muse, and isn't afraid to explore the comedic landscapes that she leads the movie into, and Louis-Dreyfuss is equally unafraid to delve into the film's deeper themes of trying to start from scratch with love when it has burned you down to the foundation.